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In The Mirror

Chapter Text

Prologue: Wait

"You know if I leave you now
It doesn't mean that I love you any less
It's just the state I'm in
I can't be good to anyone else like this,"
-Wait, Sarah McLachlan

Have you ever been on a secluded beach just as the sun has set and the world has almost succumbed to darkness? Have you stared out at the ocean, listening to the waves until they've crashed upon the beach and pulled your soul away from your body, out, out into the infinite expanse of water? There are no thoughts there, just the gentle, lapping water, the warm ocean air and the sense that all time has suspended.

This is where your mind goes when it's been injured, like a dog limping away to lick its wounds. It's like sleeping, but instead of hours that feel like minutes, you feel every moment of time, every tick of the clock, without being fully aware of your surroundings. Without a soul the body is useless: an empty vessel that cannot be filled for it is full of holes, and yet, cataclysmic events notwithstanding, it will not sink. With a live body, the soul cannot be fully separated like our dead family and friends ascending to heaven. Instead, it seems to sit on that beach, its physical strife suspended but itself unprotected without the body's shield. As night digs deeper, a fog begins to creep across the coast like long fingers reaching out and grabbing up everything it can see. At first, it's just tendrils, like steam rising from a cup of hot coffee. It curls and moves, dances and drifts, but then begins to thicken.

And then you wake up.

Talking in third person is an unconscious effort to distance yourself from painful subjects. At least, I have it on good authority.

I did wake up, suddenly, in the middle of history class. The world, previously blurred, came into stunning focus like someone had adjusted a camera lens, or more accurately, slapped me in the face from a deep sleep. The previously muffled voices and sounds of life became crystal clear, like going from a 10 year old, copied VHS tape to a high definition Blu-Ray.

I want to make clear from the beginning that I don't know if this has a happy ending. If you're expecting a happily ever after story, I suggest you look under fairy tales in the children's section. This isn't going to leave you feeling good and warm inside.

I am not a hero. I'm not made of goodness, light and morals. I'm not even an upstanding citizen. I litter. All the time. And I never put any money in the pot for the bell ringing Santas at Christmastime. Heroes triumph against all foes, themselves included, and I can't promise you that's what's going to happen. This is the bittersweet taste of real life, and sometimes the bad guys do win. What you'll find in me is a vague protagonist, a ghost of a human being. Maybe something more, but more than likely, something less. So if you're looking to forget real life, I'm not going to do it for you.

Or hell, maybe I will. Maybe your life is so horrible my life is a fairytale in comparison. I'm not so self-centered or self-pitying that I think mine is the saddest story out there. I know for a fact that it isn't; far from it. But it's a two way street and you could be going the other way. One look at my life and you'll say, "You know what, I don't have it so bad. Life is cake. Peachy. A bowl full of cherries." Maybe, after this, you'll forgive your mother for all her minor imperfections. Maybe you'll appreciate the little things. Maybe.

But I doubt it.

What I can promise you is that this journey will delve into darkness. Any day has its ray of sunshine, but this is not pure, conventional, good, clean fun for all. Show me a pure soul and I'll know what God looks like. It just doesn't exist in humans, no matter what the politicians and bible-belters are preaching.

Then again, look at all the shit that God's done.

No one can convince me that killing an entire planet by drowning its citizens isn't dark and more than a little twisted. Drowning is a horrible way to go. Your lungs burning for a breath they can't take. Your only salvation is a bloated body full of water. Tell me that isn't sick.

One more time, Harry Potter and his hero-saves-the-day tales are located in the children's section. Not a bad piece of literature, if you ask me. All those boarding the real life train, please present your tickets and prepare for departure. Who knows, maybe the good guy - that would be me for the purposes of this story - does win. And the Pope might win People's Bachelor of the Year.

You just never know.

In any event, enough with the babbling.

"It's one thing when you hurt yourself, Isabella but this time other people were depending on you."

My history teacher was looking at me with sad eyes, a frown evident on her face. She was disappointed in me, but then again, I was used to disappointing people. I had failed to complete yet another assignment in her class. This wasn't an unheard of phenomenon for me, but this was a group assignment.

Hurting has always been such a physical word, or if there was ever any acknowledgment on its other dimensions it was reserved for lovers and their frequently broken hearts. I wasn't consciously aware that I'd been hurting myself, how could I have hurt others?

To say I was confused would be like calling a tornado a wind tunnel. For the past few years I had only existed because I had no other choice. I existed like a wild animal might, doing the things that kept me alive only because they were instinctive, or, like putting on clothes everyday, ingrained into me since birth. My memories of the past three years were cloudy at best. For the most part, I just couldn't remember. I knew I was in a world history class, but I couldn't tell you if we were studying the War of the Roses or the French Revolution.

When you finally emerge from the fog, you find that time has not stopped, the world has carried on and you are utterly lost. I found myself back in my body in the middle of a fog so thick, I could see nothing through the dense, consuming, confusing gray.

Like age or weight, the change in me was so gradual I don't think I could have seen it coming. In retrospect, it started when I was 10 - a distant cloud on the horizon, an ominous clap of thunder - until I was 19. It takes that long to warp a mind, to bend a soul into thinking it's dead. I wasn't suicidal, not really. I just lived as if I had no future. I lived like I expected to fall asleep and disappear.

On most days I couldn't get out of bed. I was just so overwhelmingly tired. And weak. The blankets were so hard to lift every morning they may as well have been two ton boulders. But for all their heavy weight they were so comforting, warm, and the rest of the world was so cold. I was always cold. Why would I want to leave the last source of warmth in a frozen world?

When I could find the will to get out of bed, I wasn't a very functional person. Those little things, everyday things that should be automatic, I didn't always remember to do. It wasn't that I didn't care for my cleanliness and well-being. The simple act of brushing my teeth or washing my hair took so much of my energy, for that one task I may as well have run a 40-mile marathon.

I went from a straight A and B student to failing and I couldn't find the strength in me to care.

Given the gradual way it all snuck up on me, it seemed unfair that I should be dumped back into consciousness so suddenly, but I was. Try throwing a person in deep sleep into a tub filled with ice-cold water and you might begin to know how I felt. I'd had to repeat most of my junior classes, and I was about to become a second year senior.

I didn't have time to recover from the shock. I had two semesters and the summer to save my high school career. I did, somehow. Just barely. The bare minimum got me a high school diploma and admission into a local college with low expectations.

So, late that August, I stood on the edge of the campus, looking at the milling students, and I realized I had no idea what the hell I was doing there. I was completely lost. At that point, the truth hit me like the final strip of fog blown away by the wind.

I might have saved my life, but I had lost myself in the process.

I'd lost bits and pieces of the last nine years, the crucial years that I should have spent building my personality, my tastes. My teen years when I was supposed to be making unconscious decisions that would effect my adult self, I'd been, for all intents and purposes, simply unconscious. And now I'd been spit out the other end of some wormhole, one year and 11.5 months into adulthood. I was almost twenty on the first day of the rest of my life.

I hadn't thought about college since I was in fourth grade with Harvard and Yale at the top of my list. The girls in the movies had made it seem easy and it made my mother smile. This wasn't Harvard or Yale. This wasn't even what my ten year old self wanted.

Slowly, I reached behind me, my hands gliding along the cool surface of my car, searching for the door handle. I backed away, step by step, finally opening the door and sealing myself inside, my heart pounding. I must have stayed there for a good ten minutes, my hands gripped tightly around the steering wheel, watching people walk by.

This must be what amnesia victims felt like. I'd been placed in a foreign life and told, "these people are your friends, this is your family, and this school is your future. This is where you're supposed to be." It felt wrong, but then again I couldn't remember what right was supposed to be like. Last week my mother had served a dinner of pork chops, sautéed mushrooms and rice pudding for desert. "All your favorites," she said, and while the meal had been delicious, I wondered if they really were my favorite dishes.

And my friends. I did have friends. People who'd hugged me during graduation, screaming and crying, "I can't believe we made it!" These people were supposed to like me for who I was. These were the people whom I was supposed to have the most in common with.

I had been placed in a life that for its window dressing seemed to be fine. Slightly skewed perhaps…a bit shaky on it's feet, but I should be okay.

Except I didn't know me. From the large, important aspects of my life to the incredibly mundane details, I didn't know a damned thing about myself. If I didn't know who I was, how could my friends know? If I couldn't remember the taste, the experience of any meal in the past few years, how could I know if I loved pork chops the best? Did I even want to go to college? Was I even cut out for it? And if so, for what? What was I working toward?

I gripped the steering wheel impossibly tighter.

The people in my life were confusing me. Not too long ago my friends and I sat around a table in the library writing our college admission letters. I'd stared at the question, what part of yourself do you like the most, for almost half an hour before I turned to them and asked what they thought. They told me I was sweet, a good listener, very practical. Nice words, but everything felt wrong. If I stayed, would they warp me into this mental image they had of me? I wasn't so sure I could stay and play a role that I knew nothing about.

I placed a shaking hand on the key and started the ignition. I backed out of the space, and then drove out of the parking lot, and finally out of sight of the university all-together. When I got to the nearest freeway, I got on it and went forward without stopping until I ran out of gas. At that town, I paid for a hotel room, purchased five postcards and mailed them with the same generic message to my mother and four friends.

I told them not to look for me. I told them I would be back.

For a week after that I drove aimlessly from town to town, state to state. I got to the Atlantic and turned around. I felt like Forrest Gump. But he ran for the sake of running. Me, I was chasing someone. I was looking for a place to find her.

A week later I was driving through Texas on one of its endlessly long stretches of highway.

I didn't know what it was at first. I glimpsed in the rearview mirror and thought I saw a face. It was like seeing something out of the corner of my eye, but right in front of me, and only for a split second. The scene was straight out of a horror flick. There I was, the girl on a deserted highway in the dead of night, Texas flatlands stretched as far as the eye can see. The music would build as I looked into the presumably empty back-seat of my car and…

In my case, nothing happened. No chain saws or ax murderers, just an empty back seat and an overactive imagination.

I shrugged off the irrational fear and turned the music up high.

There wasn't anything about Texas that I liked. It was flat, boring, obscenely hot and produced very dim politicians. It was also far too big to find any one person, let alone myself, and so I moved on.

A/N: Thank you to jadedandboring and barburella for holding my hand. Just so we're clear up front, this story will deal with the aftermath of various kinds of abuse. It will not always be pretty. Sometimes it will be very ugly. For any of you that read We Don't Break, We Bend, this is kind of the opposite of that story. The kids in We Don't Break were eventually rescued from their abuser, and they had a great support system to recover. That's not always the way it happens. In fact, it's not often the way it happens. So, this is  that  story.

Check out the two wonderful banners this story has from HeatherDawn and Barburella. They're so pretty.

I will start updating this regularly once Parenthetical Love is marked complete. Until then your initial thoughts are, as always, appreciated.

Chapter Text

"Now I'm older and I feel like
I could let some of this anger fade
But it seems the surface I am scratching
Is the bed that I have made
I never meant to fade away"
-Fade, Staind

"California," a teacher had once told me, "is a place where everyone is going nowhere, fast."

The whole atmosphere of the state just suited me. In Los Angeles, it was sunny enough that I felt comfortable - a small reminder of the heat of Phoenix. There were millions of people all around me who had no idea where the hell they were going, but they sure as fuck were going to get there as quickly and noisily as possible. Just driving down the street, I felt like I'd lived all my life in slow motion.

It was ideal for my purposes. With so many people around constantly, I couldn't ever really be alone, and yet they were all moving around so fast, I doubted any one of them would take the time to notice me. Imagine that. I wound up in Los Angeles because I craved solitude in a crowd.

I found a hotel that seemed to be in the center of things, yet not in a bad part of town. From my room I could see the music store next door and the employment agency across the street. Next to the agency was a bar. It was a good place for a bar. Employees could pick up their checks every Friday and run in to soothe the ache of a tiny check or celebrate a nice big one. Good marketing, that.

Maybe I picked the place because some of those people had even less then I did, needed even more. I didn't really think about it that hard. I probably just picked it because I was tired, and I wanted to get out of the car. My mother would have spun some bullshit about fate guiding my choices, but I didn't really know if I believed in fate just yet.

So there I stood in the middle of a random hotel room in California. My bags were unpacked too quickly and with my hands stilled, I didn't know what to do first.

I had stopped running.

It didn't mean I wasn't still lost.

I ran my hand along the plain wood dresser walking it's length until I stood in front of the mirror that it hosted. Strange that this dresser would have a mirror. Most motel rooms had one mirror in the bathroom area and no more.

It seemed strange that I would notice something so inconsequential, but I was grasping at straws so I didn't have to think about anything else.

Standing in the center of the mirror was a sad looking girl with sunken, tired eyes. I tried a smile on for size and sighed. Hideous. I remembered the girl who used to look back at me. She had awkwardly large ears and a smile full of white teeth. I stared at myself, transfixed, and wondered where that pretty little girl went and when she had been replaced by this zombie-like almost-woman with limp brown hair and a crooked, broken smile.

"In Greek mythology, Narcissus was a young man who chanced to anger a Goddess, Hera I think, with his inflamed ego," my father's voice rang in my ears, a distant memory from when I had been a little girl and in love with Greek myths. "She bewitched him-"

"What's 'bewitched' daddy?"

"She put a spell on him. She tricked him into falling in love with his own reflection. She doomed him to an empty life, staring at his reflection in the water, waiting for an answer that would never come."

"Did he spend the whole rest of his life there by the lake?"

I could still feel the rumble of his laugh beneath my ear as I lay on his chest. "Another Goddess took pity on him, and turned him into that yellow flower you see by the lakeside. The one that droops, always looking for itself in the water…."

His voice faded and I was left alone in an empty hotel room.

The first ten years of my life had been so blissful. Then it had all gone to hell. How everything got so unbearably twisted so suddenly wasn't something I could easily wrap my head around. All I knew is that I fell from Heaven and hit the Earth with such force I shattered into a million pieces. Of course, I didn't realize that until much later - that I was so fractured.

For the way my life started, you'd have thought I would be fucked up right off the assembly line, but that's not the way it was. My mother left my father not that long after I was born. At first, she wanted to take me with her, but somehow, he managed to convince her to leave me. It was better; Renee was still a child when she'd had a child. She was flighty where Charlie was steadfast.

Charlie was the best dad I could imagine having. He didn't always know what he was doing, but what he messed up in practice he more than made up for in how much he loved me. He'd played with me all the time, and talked to me, not just in the babbling, gibberish-speak most adults aimed at children but like I was another human being capable of logic and even discussion. He told me about everything, filling my head with stories and knowledge and everything there was beyond the city, state, even country we lived in. When he wasn't working, I had his undivided attention. It was like being the sun of you're own little universe.

He did work. A lot. Even in a sleepy town like Forks, Washington, the small police force kept busy. When I was around eight, I discovered the fine art of manipulation. Charlie so very rarely said no to me, and when he did, I usually understood. But... every once in a while, I really wanted something. One day, I was sick and needy for attention, I pitched an epic fit when he left me at his friends, the Clearwaters, so he could go to work. I poured the guilt on so thick it was amazing the poor man could actually walk out the door. Walk out he did, but not before he promised me the expensive art kit he'd previously vetoed.

I didn't use it often. I swear I didn't. I wasn't a bratty kid. But... I was a kid. Over the next two years, I used his guilt at leaving me with friends and neighbors so often to get what I wanted a handful of times.

Then, when I was ten, it happened.

Charlie had taken me up to Seattle. I was a clumsy little kid. Fuck, I'm still clumsy now, but I try to be careful. But that day, I tripped and stumbled, falling right into the path of oncoming traffic. I remember my knees hitting the pavement. There was a cacophony of noise: cars with brakes squealing and horns honking, the screams of people from the sidewalk, and my dad screaming my name. Then I was flying backward - toward the sidewalk.

The strangers on the street tried to keep me from seeing my dad's broken body. They weren't successful.

Time was a blur for a little while after that. My mother came from Phoenix to get me. She told me it wasn't my fault, and I believed her. Even then I might have been okay except...

After spending several years roaming when she left my father, my mother had wandered back to Phoenix and her mother, my Grandma Marie. Around when I was seven she married a man named James Damon. Before I came to live with them, I hadn't thought about my stepfather much. When I was visiting my mother in Phoenix, he was fun. We did all the fun things: mini golf, arcades, basketball games that bored me almost as much as my dad's fishing trips. But after I was living in the house everything changed.

I should have known I was in trouble the day after I got there. James had a sixteen year old daughter, Victoria. We had to share a room. Victoria was not pleased. She threw a world class hissy fit, yelling at her father and my mother until James looked like he was going to spontaneously combust. He stood so fast that his chair tipped over, and he grabbed Victoria's hair, twisting it so she screamed. He dragged her that way, screaming and pleading, "No, Daddy, no," all the way upstairs to our room. I didn't understand the sounds I heard then, but I would come to know it really well - the sound of a leather belt hitting bare skin, and Victoria's shrieking cries. I was flabbergasted. I didn't know how to react. The only thing I could do was take my cues from my mother who didn't even flinch. She just kept talking to me like nothing at all was going on upstairs.

When James came back down, his mouth set in a hard line, he took my hand. I wanted to shrink away from him - that I remember - but I was still naive enough to think that my mother would never let him hurt me. He took me upstairs to our room where Victoria had her nose pressed into a corner, her pants around her ankles, and angry red stripes painting her backside. She was still sobbing. James stood behind me, making me look though I didn't want to, while he taunted her. "See how the baby cries, Isabella? Isn't she a fucking crybaby? This is what happens to whining little brats."

I was ten years old, and I didn't understand what I was seeing, what I was hearing. I wanted to forget. For a time, I was able to. I settled into the house, and things were okay. Victoria hated me, but I did as my mother said and paid no attention when she tried to instigate.

Of course, as it turned out, Victoria was the master of manipulation. I'd been living there for less than two months when she found a way to set James's target on me. She knew exactly what she was doing. She chose an evening when James had clients over for dinner, and we had been told to keep ourselves busy and not to make an appearance unless someone called for us.

If I was being honest, I don't even remember how she did it. She triggered that instinct in me – that need for fatherly attention. I made a scene in front of his guests. I was at the top of the stairs. He didn't look guilty, like my father had, when he came up after me. His face was livid - red and angry.

Something in me told me to run, but it was too late. He grabbed me by my hair, pulling me back towards him even as I started screaming. There was a horrible ripping sound and then I was dizzy. Like in movies, the world slowed down, voices became thick and sluggish. The room seemed to be spinning and I felt only two things: confusion and pain.

He was yelling at me, though I don't remember what. I don't think I ever heard any of it. I was scared. Despite that I had seen what he was capable of, I wasn't prepared when it happened to me. My father had never spanked me, and neither did James. He hit me. Hard and repeatedly. Even through the tremendous pain - unlike anything I'd ever felt - I didn't understand what was happening. I still didn't really believe it.

Then he stopped. He stood there for many long moments, his chest heaving. He towered over me, making me feel much smaller than I was. When he squatted down so he could get in my face I remember only a stark terror. The sound of his low, threatening voice I remember plenty clearly though. He warned me that if he heard so much as a peep from me the rest of the night, he was going to make me very, very sorry. I believed that. I was already sorry, though for what I didn't really know. He left then, and I just stayed where I was on the floor, not moving. I think I must have been in shock.

I don't really remember what happened right after that, but eventually my mother came in. I was sobbing those heaving sobs, hyperventilating, and holding a fistful of my own hair. She hugged me briefly and led me to the bathroom where she began putting soothing Honeybutter cream on my new bald spot.

"You know how your father gets when he has his clients over," my mother said calmly. "You've embarrassed him," she said simply.

"He's. Not. My. Daddy," I hissed through my sobs, and my mother only sighed.

I opened my aching fist and watched my hair fall from my hand, some hairs sticking to my fingers like the remainders of an accident scene, the shattered glass and pieces of plastic headlight that someone was going to have to sweep up after the ambulance, the cops and the tow truck left. My shoulder hurt, my head throbbed and my mother was talking as if we were discussing what I wanted for dinner that night. I was shaking and my world was falling apart and my mother was as calm as a lake on a windless day. I was still hiccupping, my sobs beginning to ebb away slowly, my mind numbing as the cream soothed my burning scalp.

My shoulder was so badly bruised that I couldn't lift my arm for days. I stayed home from school.

What hurt worst was that, from that point on, it was blindingly apparent that my loving, gentle father figure had been replaced by a monster of a man. Even after that day, I wanted so badly to glean some fraction of Charlie's affection from James. Every time I tried, I was rebuffed or shut down.

James wasn't Charlie. James didn't deserve to be a father.

The more I realized that, the worse things got. My father had raised me to understand that respect was something to be earned. While I was taught to be respectful to my elders, I was also taught that not all adults were worthy of my respect. On the other hand, James believed I owed him respect and absolute obedience for no other reason than that I lived in his house and followed his rules.

Even if we hadn't butted heads, there was always Victoria to consider. My darling, red-headed stepsister did everything she could to throw me under the bus. The worse I looked, the better she looked, and while she didn't escape every beating, I took more than my fair share because of her lying mouth.

And my mother did nothing to stop it.

Almost worst than James's fists and his belt were his words. His words became more abusive than any blow. That whole child's rhyme about sticks and stones wasn't true. Broken bones could mend, but wounded souls were trickier to heal.

There are only so many times you can be told how worthless you are before you begin to believe it, no matter how much you tell yourself that they're just words. It was that damn unconscious part of myself that let the words in. Each time, each insult, each bad word he directed at me, left a mark that no one could see, carving me away like a badly whittled piece of wood.

My stepfather thought I was worthless.

And that was what I heard every day for nearly eight years before James finally left my mother.

Back in my hotel room in Los Angeles, I looked at my reflection in the mirror.

"You worthless piece of good-for-nothing shit!"

I gripped the edge of the dresser, struggling to remain upright as my knees began to give away from beneath me.

"You're a bitch."

I had argued with him at first, screamed and yelled back at him. It had hurt so badly each time.

Then one day, years later, I hadn't shouted back. I'd let him yell. I'd let his words fly at me and I did nothing. I said nothing. Most mercifully of all, I felt nothing.

Now I looked at this shadow of a person in the mirror and questioned my worth. It suddenly occurred to me that James might have been right all this time. What good was I, what use to anyone, even myself? Why on earth had I stopped myself from slipping away?

All at once pain washed over me. It was like falling through the ice of a frozen lake. First, a cold like none I'd ever felt engulfed my skin like ice fire, cutting straight down to the bone and leaving me breathless. A tightness surrounded my heart and seized my lungs. I couldn't breathe. I was drowning, my heart racing even as my chest seemed to close in around it. I couldn't think. My mind was seared in the same white hot agony as the rest of me. My chest was full of razors that cut into me with each attempted breath I took.

Ice and fire and someone was squeezing every last bit of air out of my lungs, slowly, like a balloon forgotten by a child days ago, drooping bit by bit to the floor.

My knees hit the floor with an audible thunk, and the spell was suddenly broken.

Full awareness came back to me in pieces. First I felt my rapidly beating heart hammering its frantic rhythm against my ribs, working triple time to return life giving oxygen to my starved lungs. My body was wound tight, my knees on the floor, one fist held knuckle first against my lips while my other hand gripped the edge of the room's dresser as if clinging for dear life. I was shaking, sweaty, lightheaded and dizzy.

It was like waking from a horrible nightmare, confused and terrified. Every emotion that was hurled at me came with intensity like none I'd ever felt. It was like I was feeling for the first time. With a final shudder I pushed myself back on my haunches and then leaned against the dresser, pulling my knees up to my chin, rocking slowly back and forth.

So this is what reality was. This is what it was like to actually feel things from day to day. This was the definition of existence. To exist is to suffer, I remembered hearing somewhere. Something a jolly looking fat man said. It was like Santa telling you, "Ho, ho, ho, just when you think life's a bitch it has puppies, ho, ho, ho," in his most boisterous, cheery voice. Life was a horrible smile.

I was cold, but I did not wish for my blankets and my comfortable bed. I wished for something a little more nourishing. I wished for my mother's arms. Proverbially, of course. Renee had never actually been very comforting.

It was probably a product of being raised away from her that I was never close to my mother. Then again, maybe there was something more to it than just that. I remember having a vague feeling that she was less than pleased about my close relationship with Charlie - how I preferred him over her even in the brief time I saw her - but like any child's thoughts it was an incognizant musing, a diluted idea of what was actually going on. I was never quite sure what to do about that. What could I do? I was so young. A child only knows what she wants; they have no idea how to play the games that adults will often play with each other. I had no concept of public relations, and certainly not the faintest hint that I should have been playing a game with my own mother.

By the time I came to live with her, I was a reminder of her old life - a stupid mistake she'd made when she was nothing more than an 18 year old child herself. It wasn't that my mother didn't love me. She simply did not like me. I was like the cute but smelly puppy that you adored but could not stand to be around. The only problem was there are laws against leaving your child in a cardboard box by the lumberyard.

Some part of me wondered if she'd been secretly pleased when my stepfather started abusing me. She never did stop it. I asked her once, after he was gone, why she let it happen to Victoria. Really I was asking why she let it happen to me, but I wasn't ready to hear that answer. She said it wasn't her place to dictate how he raised his child. She was never good at doling out discipline anyway.

Here I was, curled on the floor of a motel room, proving the point of a stepfather who hated me and without a mother to pick me up and comfort me. Of the six billion people in this world, none of them knew I was suffering, or how completely alone I felt. And there was nothing to alleviate the overwhelming pain in my chest. There on the floor, I understood why people did drugs, why they couldn't stop. Any altered state would be better than the reality I was living. I wished fervently for the numbness to hit me as it always had in the past. I craved it like a druggie craved his next hit. I wished I was here, trembling on the floor because I was a drug addict instead of whatever I was.

I knew overcoming a drug addiction was horrible and painful; I'd seen all prime time news specials. But people understood addiction. It was easy to identify and the only thing you had to go through by yourself was admitting you had a problem in the first place. Once you'd leapt that difficult hurdle there was always someone or something there to help you. There were clinics and meetings. There were a thousand guides. Following the steps back to normality was a long and bumpy path, but at least, if you were an addict, there were maps available. Twelve steps wasn't an overwhelming prospect.

Mental problems were harder for people to understand. Yes, they had clinics and institutions, but you had to be drowning in the deep end to catch the attention of a lifeguard. People only helped if you attempted suicide or one of the voices in your head started telling you that guns were a good way of getting rid of the more unpleasant things in life.

I'd read about a guy who hated dirt. One day he took his gun and used it to clean a spot. The kicker was the spot was on his son's head.

I had nothing on that guy.

Mental illness was not a physical barrier. Once that proverbial switch had been flipped and I admitted that I had a problem, I should have been able to return to the land of the fully functional. If you knew what you were doing wrong, just stop doing it. It should be so simple.

But if normality was a switch then the wiring was faulty if it worked at all.

I glanced down at my hands to see they were still shaking. I realized I was shivering like a naked child. I laughed bitterly. The shakes, mood swings and anxiety attacks. All symptoms of drug withdrawal.

I'd heard somewhere that drug abuse was a symptom not a sickness. It was what troubled people turned to for their escape, to ease their pain. I entertained the thought of finding some drugs to escape to. Possibly the kind you cooked on a spoon because I didn't like smoke…but then again, I hated needles. Either way, I figured it couldn't possibly be that hard to find some sort of illegal substance. I was in Los Angeles after all, and I'd heard all my life how big of a problem drug use was across the nation. If I believed the news, I wouldn't have to go farther than the nearest elementary school to find something. There were probably stores of weed, possibly bags of cocaine stashed in my mattress. It would certainly explain why the mattress felt so lumpy. The hotel manager was probably some minor drug lord with the hotel serving as the front for his actual business.

With all the money he was raking in, it was rather insulting that he couldn't even spare enough to put mints on the pillow.

Perhaps, I thought, I would go see him in the morning. He could teach me how to roll a joint or do a hit. Anything to calm my nerves and stop the shaking; anything that could turn the light on in my dark, upside down world. Any light. I would kill for psychedelic colors. I would take a hippopotamus in a tutu or better yet, a Speedo. Or what about Dumbo's little pink elephants? Man, that was a trip. And he was a cartoon character! Get me in on a little of whatever Alice was doing. I wanted to see Wonderland too. Let me float above the city like that dog in Half Baked. I'd take anything except this.

I sobbed quietly with my knees pulled up to my chest, riding this latest wave in my sea of depression into a calmer harbor. No, there was no point in starting a drug addiction. Right now I was a slave in the sea, forced to roll and tumble with the waves because I could not swim to shore. Drugs would only render me unconscious in the water, and when I woke up, I still wouldn't know how to swim. I wouldn't even be able to stand on solid ground.

"Just one more hit of the numbness and I swear I'll go clean," I muttered to myself. I started laughing somewhat hysterically. Little titters and maniacal giggles that made me sound a lot crazier than I actually was. I looked into the mirror and a fresh set of giggles overtook me. I pointed at the stringy haired, mess of a girl as she giggled at me. "I'm sure they miss you in the room with the padded walls. You'd better be careful, Isabella, or the men in the white have a pretty huggy coat with your name written aaaaallllll over it."

I cracked myself up.

Finally, my mirthless laughter subsided into an occasional, hiccupping titter. I might have laughed longer but I was too busy shivering to keep it up. My chattering teeth distracted me from how damn funny I was.

I wrung my hands together fitfully, trying to instill some warmth into my cold fingers. Slowly, I pulled myself up onto the dresser, pressing one hand against the mirror, nose to nose with it. The saying was that eyes were the window to your soul - your inner self. I just needed a glimpse. Show me something that was worth saving, I thought silently at the sad-eyed reflection.

Of course, no one answered. I saw the same stupid girl that James had repeatedly called out as worthless.

I began to feel my lungs tighten, my breathing becoming erratic. Not again. But even as my skin began to get cold and clammy, something flashed in the mirror. Like the week before, in Texas, it was just a glimpse. I gasped and nearly fell off the dresser, but managed to catch myself just in time. This time, I recognized her.

When I was young there was this girl. She was my age and we did everything together. She was so confident - very sure of herself. This was a little girl who was loved and protected. She had the world at her feet and a whole life of limitless possibilities in front of her.

In that fraction of a second that I stared into the mirror, I saw her face. She must have been lurking in the corners of my mind all this time. I remembered her clearly now. Her chubby, child's face. Her laughter. The spark of life in her eyes. This girl shared my childhood, but not my fate. Where was she now? What was she doing? What was she worth? If I hadn't tripped and fallen, forcing my father to give his life in return for mine, would her fate have been mine? Was she off living a life that could have belonged to me?

By the time I pressed my foot to the floor of the hotel room, my legs were asleep, and they tingled in protest. I kept my eyes on the mirror in hopes of catching a glimpse of that girl again but saw nothing except my bedraggled image. I sighed and swept a trembling hand through my hair, twirling the thick, limp strands through my fingers and chewing the inside of my cheek nervously.

It occurred to me only later that I had reached a fork in the road - one of those all important moments that change your life forever. In retrospect, it was probably good I didn't realize the gravity of my decision at that point. I could have just climbed into bed and let tomorrow come without making any effort to control who I was or what happened to me. I saw later how easy it would have been to fall back asleep at that point. Some strangely omniscient part of me knew I would not have woken up after that.

But I didn't shut down. Staring at my trembling reflection, I made an unconscious decision to start moving forward.

I tilted my head back and forth, my eyelids drooping in exhaustion when I thought of the bigger picture. There was so much I needed to do, needed to know. It was too much. I grasped for something easy.

My hair hung long and wavy down the middle of my back. In the summer, the brown was streaked with auburn, sun kissed highlights. If I had ever stopped to consider it, and at that point I hadn't, my hair was probably my one great physical beauty. Not at that particular moment, of course. At that moment it looked as limp, useless and ugly as I felt.

It was something I could handle - something within my capability of changing fairly quickly.

I slipped under the covers that night with a feeling that I had accomplished more with that one thought that I had in years. In my heart, where there had existed a tremendous weight for as long as I could remember, I felt a small spot of warmth - a lightness beginning to emerge as small as a zygote developing in the womb.

Though small and virtually undetectable, something akin to hope had started to grow. My one wish that night was that it would not vanish when I woke the next morning.

Chapter Text

"I will never know myself until I do this on my own
And I will never feel, anything until my wounds are healed
I will never make anything until I break away from me
I will break away, and find myself today,"

Somewhere I Belong, Linkin Park

The next morning I drove until I found a salon that didn't look like scissors would be rusty and the counters covered in grime. It wasn't shady, but it wasn't one of the posh, bright salons you'd find a celebrity coming out of. It seemed like such an odd place to begin my search. People got haircuts everyday. The man in line before me walked right over. "Three on the side, finger length in the back," he said without a second thought.

The way he said it, you'd have thought this was easy - one of those things you'd do any day.

But therein was another inconceivable notion about mental instability. Getting a hair cut was not hard. It should not have had me so scared and confused. The correct answer to this one question should not have held my life in the balance. It was a decision that should have been the Rice-A-Roni of life changing choices. A new haircut was the one thing that everyone could go home happy with whether or not they'd picked the right door or answered the right question or whatever. For crying out loud, if I didn't like the haircut, I could always cut it differently or grow it out.

That was the point when I realized I was being slightly melodramatic in the same way Snooki was slightly annoying. Telling myself to get a grip, I sat in the little waiting area, flipping through magazines that were months out of date. When the stylist finally called my name, I had decided to start of relatively tame. Chop it all off to just past my shoulders and layer it. I told the stylist my decision, and he smiled, nodding his approval. I half expected him to ask if that was my final answer.

Just before he began to cut my hair away I looked into the mirror, staring into my tired reflection. Briefly, I entertained the notion of waving goodbye to my mousy image and had a fun few moments imagining the look on the stylist's face when he realized he was cutting a crazy person's hair. How do you hide all the scissors in a salon? Instead, I settled for a moment of silence between myself and my reflection before my eyes slid shut. I didn't want to see that worn down girl again.

My thoughts wandered, vacillating from a vague panic to an even vaguer curiosity. The tinge of panic was because I wondered if there was an etiquette I was ignoring by not speaking to my stylist. He carried on a conversation over my head, gossiping about whatever celebrity was making headlines that day. Was I expected to join in? Was I being rude? Were hairstylists like waiters: if I didn't do the expected thing, the polite thing, he might 'accidentally' snip off more hair than he should?

I thought of the girl again and wondered what she was doing. Was this just a part of my childhood I'd missed, that perhaps she knew? The 'how to get a haircut' part? Was it something my parents should have taught me? I imagined that girl walking into a salon like she did everything else. She always knew what to do.

"Are you falling asleep on me?" an amused voice snapped me back to the present.

"No, I-" I what? I thought if I closed my eyes long enough, my past would slip away like the hair falling with each snip of his scissors? Like all that would remain at the end of this session would be a slight tickle of person I was, like the tiny hairs left on your neck and down your back. Then it would be simple. One shower and I would be rid of the tremendous weight of my own lost confusion.

"I just don't want to part with it just yet. I don't want to see it go," I said out loud. This seemed a much more acceptable reason for the hairdresser. This was an excuse he was used to, one that might not make him excuse himself before I got a hold on a sharp or very hot item to wield.

Britney Spears went crazy in a salon, didn't she?

But again, I was being over-dramatic.

I let myself drift away again as he jabbered on about the girls that came into his shop with a full head of hair, cried all the way through their cut and styles, but ended up jumping with joy at their new 'do. I "mmhmmed" at the correct spots, but I was miles away. The plastic tarp was a blessing, hiding the way I wrung my hands as I tried to feel like I belonged here, just doing the things that normal people did.

As I took my first step towards this not-so-new person I was eager to discover, my life flashed before my eyes, or a version of it anyway. I was trying to remember when the girl fell out of my life. I remembered her in my youth in Forks, at my father's funeral - looking, for once, as lost and heartbroken as I'd felt - and even thought I could glimpse her in barren landscape of Phoenix. But she disappeared from my memories completely shortly after my stepfather's temper was fully revealed to me.

How odd. Looking back through my life, I realized I'd had a lot of friends when I was a little girl in Forks. When I remembered the girl, I remembered a group of other girls and boys who played with me. Jessica Stanley. Lauren Mallory. Angela Weber. Mike Newton. Tyler Crowley. I even remembered Dad's best friend's son, though he was younger than me, was one of my favorite people. Jacob Black.

I hadn't thought of those names in so many years. What had become of them?

It was a stunning revelation. I had been alone so long, I didn't even remember that I'd once been part of a collective. One of the them. Sure, I'd had friends in Phoenix, but I'd never felt like part of the group. Honestly, in all the weeks I'd been gone, I hadn't thought of them once. Surely, if they were important to me or I to them, I would have missed them, would I have?

I learned very quickly that my stepfather's temper scared away even the bravest kids who tried to befriend me. In elementary school I had no one. As I picked up a token friend here or there, they stayed away from my house more often than not, their voices growing wary when I asked them to come over to study or whatever.

Given the choice, I wouldn't have dealt with James's uncomfortable prescence either.

Still, out of all the names and child's faces I was suddenly remembering, the girl stood out. Why her? How could she be so significant to me when I couldn't even remember her name?

"There now, you can open your eyes," the stylist's voice was smug, pleased with himself. I took a deep breath.

Opening my eyes was actually less painful than I'd imagined. You'd be surprised how painless it is to open your eyes. There was one odd side effect.

When I finally opened my eyes and focused on the reflection in the huge wall sized mirror, it wasn't me I saw. It was the girl, finally staring out at me.

She was elusive, that girl. She only appeared for milliseconds at a time and always with an air of mystery. She'd grin at me slyly like a Cheshire cat; just enough to raise my curiosity. Then, just as I took a cautious step closer to her, she flitted away, leaving me alone with my own reflection.

But now she stared out at me from the mirror offering a half smile, a raised eyebrow. She tossed her hair, letting it dance against her neck. I could almost hear her pleased chuckle.

"You like it?"

The stylist's voice broke whatever brief moment the girl and I had shared. Like pulling off a mask she was suddenly gone, leaving me looking at … well, me: the palest person in California with dark bags under her eyes and a copycat haircut. I'd come as far as this step only to learn that I was that little girl that tagged along copying what the cool girls did.

On the bright side, I reminded myself as my chest gave its beginning pangs, I did look at least remotely cute with that hairstyle.

"I like it," I said to the stylist. I even managed to smile at him. He'd done his job well after all.

I paid quickly and hurried outside into my car. I was about to act weird. The last thing I needed at that point were the men with the human sized butterfly nets.

On the way back to the hotel I stared into any reflection I could, searching for the girl. By the time I'd gotten back to the motel, I still had seen neither hide nor hair, pardon the pun, of her. Like she had better things to do than hang around with a slightly crazy, depressed girl. I was actually kind of miffed.

Folding my knees up to my chest I engaged in a staring contest with my own reflection, daring the girl to show herself again like she did in the salon. When I was left with just myself for an hour or more, my mind started to find other things to think about.

My reflection didn't look like an Isabella. Four fucking syllables demanded some kind of respect. Isabella was a graceful girl with straight shoulders and an impeccable sense of fashion. Not me. I needed to chop off some syllables.

Isa? Sounded way too close to piss.

Izzy? Just... hell no.

Bells? My father called me Bells.

Bella.

It was still too pretty for the girl I saw, but at least it was simpler.

With another decision made and my mind free to think of everything I didn't want to, loneliness encroached. I sighed and moved only enough to snatch up my iPod by my bedside and slip under the thin hotel covers. Curled up in a fetal ball on a summer night with one bedspread, one blanket and one sheet wrapped as tight as saran wrap around me, my fingers still felt like ice against my legs.

With a shuddering sigh I closed my eyes, fighting tears that had suddenly sprung there. Despite the ridiculous and brief sense of accomplishment I'd felt after cutting my hair and choosing a name, I wasn't a single step closer to any sort of valuable existence.

That night, when I dreamed, I saw the girl in the mirror sitting beside me in front of a pile of Legos. We looked to be around five. As I stared, wondering what to make, she began to build a tower. I liked her tower, so I tried to copy her. Though they started out the same, our block towers ended up far different. Mine was tilted and leaning while hers was perfectly formed.

Renee was a firm believer that dreams were where the mind worked out problems that couldn't be solved in waking life. As long as I remembered, she'd kept a dream journal at her nightstand so she could write down her dreams and decipher the meaning behind them.

Since I had nothing better to do and nowhere else to be, I took my time analyzing the dream. I supposed it was simple analogy. We had both started out the same - the same childhood, the same foundation and the same tools to use. Of course, through circumstances outside of either of our control and nothing to do with our personal skill, her life ended up steadier than mine. It was a fact I was envious of, to say the least.

Some tiny part of me supposed that I should be proud. Somehow, all these years later, my tower was still standing. Teetering, yes, but upright.

~0~

On my 18th birthday my mother had handed me a check for $100,000. This, she said, was the sum of my father's estate. He'd made sure it would be given to me and me alone. I suppose it was good he was a police officer and prepared for the worst, just in case."This is your money, and I can't tell you what to with it," she told me. "You can use it for college, whatever you want. You're an adult now."

Under most circumstances putting that much money in the hands of a teenage girl doesn't seem like the wisest option. We lived in a big city and had I been a different girl the malls would have been screaming my name and the money would have been gone faster than a virgin boy's control over premature ejaculation. But at that time, between several night school courses, almost constant studying and regular school, I barely had time to choke down 1.5 meals a day. Shopping was definitely out of the question, even if I had been a fan - which I most certainly was not.

The only allowance I made for myself at the time was to buy a car. I didn't want to ask my mother for anything at that point, and in all honesty, I hated the bus with a passion - too many people in too cramped in too small a space.

Now, all these months later, I was in California, living in a hotel with a new haircut and a new wardrobe. $100,000 was a hefty nest egg, but it wouldn't be for long if I kept going. I had no idea what my future held, but I was smart enough to know when that amount of cash is given to you, you just don't throw it away. Just how much does it take to build a life from scratch?

The employment agency across the street proved to be helpful in that matter. As most kids, I'd grown up knowing about computers. I was proficient at them, and that made me an asset to a number of businesses and call centers. I walked into the agency on a Wednesday and three hours later walked out knowing I'd start work the next week, and a week after that, I'd have my very first paycheck.

New hair, new clothes I bought before I went in for the interview, and a job; it really wasn't bad for the week I'd been in Los Angeles. I suppose I should have been satisfied with my progress. But like any child of the instant gratification generation, a week was already too long wait for the results I wanted. I tried without much success to push my frustrations aside.

When I got out of the agency, the sun was high and shining down pleasantly, even through the polluted air. It was a beautiful day. I felt oddly out of place in such a warm, comforting atmosphere, yet I was in no mood to go back to the hotel. Glancing around for some sort of inspiration, I spotted the music store next to my hotel. Now was as good a time as any to check it out.

Music seemed to be a very important theme in life. It was one of the questions that people asked each other first in the getting-to-know-you conversation. What's your favorite band? Who's your favorite singer? These questions graced almost every one of those useless e-mail surveys that had appeared in my e-mail on almost a weekly basis - and I was no where near popular. I'd never given much thought to the answers, typing in whatever song had gotten stuck in my head that week. My definition of good music, up to that point, was whatever didn't drive me crazy when I heard it a billion times.

It was slightly less than blindingly obvious that I was out of my league in the music store though, what else was new? I scanned the shelves recognizing every 12th name I saw, and even then I couldn't remember anything they did. I was so relieved when I found an Eminem CD that you'd have thought I'd been rescued from Gilligan's Island and was seeing my home for the first time in years. Eminem I knew because he'd confused the hell out of me rapping that he was Slim Shady and occasionally said his name was Marshal Mathers. And I thought I had identity problems. Naturally, that kind of brain strain sticks with a person, and I knew not only who he was but also the songs he'd had on the radio. Catchy tunes. And the videos were funny, if I remembered correctly.

Just as I'd wandered, a little reluctantly, away from the rap and hip hop section, the store's wide-speakers started playing something that was distinctly non-musical. It was the melancholy sound of water circling the drain: a hollow, bottomless echo that stopped me in my tracks.

If I could have put sound to my state of being, that noise would have personified me perfectly. Because I was struck so dumb by the eerie feeling that something outside of myself could so accurately reflect my current mood, the sound seemed louder than it actually was, like a heartbroken person might hear a giggling couple playing the games that lovers do on the grass in the park, or a deliriously happy person might hear the birds chirping in the trees with stunning clarity. I heard the circling water and the simple, distant clink of the keyboard, and it was suddenly not on the store speakers but loud as if the sound was filtering directly into my ears.

I followed the keyboard's melodic, solemn tune as the rhythm of the song quickened. It was much like the Space Mountain roller coaster at Disneyland. I was strapped in as the ride started, and it was drawing me up a steep incline. I knew something was coming but I couldn't see what it was, or how many circles it would take me through.

The guitars started, and I was over the incline, plummeting forward at a terrifying speed. The singer started screaming just as I would have. Crawling in my skin, these wounds they will not heal. Fear is how I fall, confusing what is real.

I suddenly understood how children could follow the Pied Piper straight out of town with just a tune from his pipe. I couldn't help but follow the song, completely strapped into it just as I couldn't have gotten off a roller coaster in the middle of the ride. The words reverberated in my head like screaming on the inside. Before I'd heard this song, I would have told anyone who asked that there was no way to adequately recreate what it felt like in my head. You can't make someone who hasn't experienced it understand how loud silence is when you're suffering, crying out silently for someone, anyone, to notice and help you.

Because of this, I was drawn into a deeper, altered state of being. My feelings, the things I could never put words to, suddenly had a voice. They existed somewhere else besides my own mind, and for the few minutes the song lasted, I existed only as the song did. There was no body that betrayed a calm side; I consisted of nothing but my feelings, fears and frustrations - bared, and on display where anyone could see them. My screams were no longer silent, echoing painfully inside of my mind but loose to bounce off walls, get up in people's faces, and make all the noise they hadn't been allowed to before.

I came back to myself, draining back into my body as the song faded out with the same, circling sound. I was shaking, kneeling on the floor with a small group of people gathered around me. They looked concerned. I was too busy being disoriented to feel any embarrassment.

A man, a boy really, parted the crowd. "I'm a nurse," he explained as he knelt by me.

I blinked at him, not comprehending for a moment as I pushed the pinpricks of tears back. On one hand I wanted to revel in this song. I wanted to grab the boy and tell him, "Listen, listen!" in some foolish hope that he would then understand me. I couldn't be so invisible anymore. The song had found me, now someone else had to be able to see me as well. But on the other hand, it did start to occur to me that I looked either insane or ill, kneeling here on the floor crying for no apparent reason.

Gasping for breath, I grasped for pieces of reality to clear my mind. The boy was obviously real. His eyes, now that I could really see them, were a stunning green and full of worry.

Jesus, lord he was hot.

It was a disconcerting thought because it was so foreign to me. Objectively, I could see other human beings - male and female - as attractive, but never before had those words struck me like a tuning fork against a table. My body was humming strangely, and my embarrassment was tripled.

"Are you okay?" the boy asked, looking into my eyes like I'd seen doctors do on television.

My tongue felt thick in my mouth, twisted and tied in knots. I found that I had to remember how the words felt before I could speak. "The song," I said eloquently.

The boy blinked, confused. Like any medical person I could see him flipping through his diagnosis book. Epilepsy, amnesia, perhaps disorientation due to malnutrition? "What?" he asked gently.

I closed my eyes briefly and took his proffered hand, allowing him to help me to my feet. I looked around at the staring people shaking my head. Hadn't they heard the song? Didn't they feel its power? Or was I the only one weak minded enough to be floored by a sound? "The song," I repeated, "who sings that song that was on the loudspeaker just now?"

Multiple personalities, schizophrenia - now he was beginning to get it. "Um, Linkin Park," he said, furrowing his bushy yet somehow not unattractive eyebrows.

Nodding, I let go of his arm distractedly. I started to walk in the direction of the L's. I needed to hear that song again. I desperately wanted the liner notes so I could see every lyric. Was it possible that this band, the songwriter, knew more about what I felt than I did? But he, the boy, stopped me, a hand on my arm. "Miss, are you all right? What just happened back there? Does that happen to you often?"

Often? Well, just what did he mean by that? In the past couple of weeks I had ended up on the floor crying and keening to myself more then once, but I'd never done it in a store full of people, and it had never been rock music induced. Perhaps it was some sort of episode, some disease that I hadn't heard of yet where I heard a song and was brought to an excessive reaction. If that was the case, I thought it better to get out of the music store before a violent song started playing. Then again, how far could I get without some sort of weapon? I doubted my fists would hurt anyone.

"No," I told the boy. "It's never happened before. And I feel fine now." I tried for an assuring smile, careful not to look him in the eye because, fuck me, he was still pretty, and I was still pretty embarrassed.

My smile must have been less than convincing because he seemed reluctant to let me go. "Please, if you start feeling lightheaded again, go into the emergency room. Let them check you out. Okay?"

"Okay," I agreed, if only to make him let me go.

He did and I left without purchasing anything. I walked away feeling his eyes on me.

Why did I walk away? Wasn't he giving me exactly what I wanted? Maybe he would have listened to my problems, understood them or at least he would have tried to understand. He looked like he just wanted to help.

But he probably didn't. He'd probably heaved a relieved sigh internally when I'd muttered my "I'm fine." His conscience and his training had forced him to stop. His actions were not out of the good will of his heart, and if I had carried on to him, unburdened myself on his shoulder, he wouldn't have known what to do with me.

How do you know, an accusatory voice asked me. He could have been a genuinely nice guy, but there I was back in my hotel room still alone, and very confused. I closed the door and leaned against it, then caught a reflection in the mirror.

The girl. And she looked disparaging. Is this what you wanted? She seemed to ask me.

What I really wanted was for him to have followed me. Though in actuality I probably would have been mortified, part of me wanted him to knock on the door right now. Someone had to have heard my screams. Someone had to have seen past this facade. If this were a movie, he'd have been at my door saying, "I bought that 'I'm fine' routine for all of 3 seconds," and I would break down in his arms just grateful that I didn't have to pretend anymore. But I didn't want to ask for it.

I shook my head, casting a scathing look at my reflection. Even if he'd wanted to, normal people just don't do things like that because it was more commonly referred to as stalking, or something else frightening.

He wouldn't have cared anyway.

The girl shook her head slightly, admonishing. You don't know that. You could be sharing a cup of coffee with him right now, spilling your guts. And then he'd see you.

How would I have explained myself anyway? I was a sniffling mess of a human being because my step-dad called me a worthless bitch and my mom didn't stop him from beating me. To my own ears it sounded beyond weak. Overdramatic. He'd hit me, so what? He'd never broken my bones or beaten me within an inch of my life. Perhaps that was why I didn't tell the pretty boy the truth. I really was fine. Just fine.

So fine that I ran to my hotel room and burst into tears. And also, I did not collapse to my knees frequently; I'd only done it twice that day.

Chapter Text

"Something takes a part of me
Something lost and never seen
Every time I start to believe
Something's raped and taken from me...from me
Life's gotta always be messing with me
Can't they chill and let me be free,"

~Freak on a Leash, Korn

The street was fairly dark. That should have been the first indicator, the first sign that I shouldn't have been where I was. The city was never quiet, but it was long past the hour where cars were whizzing past in a steady, noisy stream. Like anyone, I'd been warned repeatedly about wandering the streets at night, especially as a woman. That girl in the television movies that you feel sorry for but secretly shake your head, just knowing you wouldn't ever be that stupid? That was me. Later I would call myself an idiot, but I wasn't thinking about the dangers. I just didn't want to go back to my hotel room.

I was leaning against the wall, just staring into space when he came up.

The first thing I noticed was the smell of alcohol on stinking breath. He leaned heavily against the wall beside me. "How much for a blow job baby?" he asked, his hand already snaking down my side. In his drunken haze he didn't seem to notice that what I was wearing wasn't even remotely revealing. My encounters with alcohol were limited, but I'd heard of beer goggles. Obviously, this guy was seeing what he wanted to see.

I reeled away from him. "I'm not what you think I am," I said, trying to keep my voice steady despite my racing heart.

Before I could take more than two steps forward, his rough hand grasped my arm.

"I know what you are," the man snarled, propelling me backwards toward an ally way. "You're just a bitch like the rest of them."

Things began to happen too quickly, and time became a surreal blur. My heart beat a jackhammer tempo that echoed between my ears, distorting the sounds of me scuffling and him pushing. I heard a pleading voice begin to scream, "Let go of me. What are you doing? Please!" and then felt the alley wall against my back.

The voices sounded so distant I couldn't really comprehend what was being said. Some part of me recognized that I was the panicked screamer, but my thoughts were too scattered to grab hold of that. Physical feeling was the only thing that registered. I could feel the edges of the brick wall against my back and his fingers pressing hard against my shoulders. Spasms of pain radiated from where his fingers dug into my flesh, undeterred by the thin fabric of my shirt.

"Shut up," I heard him say a split second before his hand lifted and came down on my left cheek. The slap was familiar, instantly confusing me because time warped. The stranger was stocky with dark hair, but in his place I saw James's sneering face. Instantly, I reverted back to an old tactic. When James slapped me, I let my knees buckle, sliding down to the ground and throwing my arms over my head because I would rather he hit my arms or my body than batter my face. But the stranger wasn't James, and instead of letting me fall he pressed me harder against the wall. Either way, between dizziness from how hard he'd hit me and disorientation because I didn't know what time I was in, I stopped fighting.

He kissed me then.

The last person who had kissed me was Mike Newton. We were in first grade. I had knocked down the sandcastle he was building in the sandbox at school. He chased me, and when he caught me, he kissed me.

"Ha, ha," he'd laughed as I spit and pawed at my tongue though he'd only kissed my cheek. "Isabella has cooties."

Back then the worst thing that could result from kissing was chi-chis. To our first grade logic, Daddies were always kissing Mommies and she had big ones. I spent the rest of the day worrying that I would tip over and not be able to move from the weight of my impending gigantic breasts.

Mike tasted like cookies from lunch and sand from the playground, and my breasts never really grew in, but that didn't stop the man from pawing at them. He tasted like cigarettes, bile and bitter alcohol. He was rough, forcing his tongue inside my mouth as his hands groped me. His chin was covered in stubble, each individual hair rubbing raw against me like an SOS pad. I heard myself whimper.

Do something.

I heard it clear as day. It wasn't muffled by distance as my screams and his yelling had been. It was like someone whispering urgently in my ear. My eyes flew open as if searching. My hands came up to his chest. I did the only thing that came to mind.

I bit down.

Hard.

The metallic taste of blood filled my mouth, overwhelming the acidic alcohol and cigarettes. I wanted to throw up; the taste made my stomach churn uncomfortably. Before I could do anything though, the stranger was pushing away from me, crying out in pain.

Run.

I didn't question her - that voice - I just pivoted. But I had gone mere steps when his hand was around my arm again, pulling me backward against his chest.

He spat over his shoulder, a smattering of blood and spittle landing right near my foot. "Fucking cunt," he said, the words low and dangerous near my ear. The ripping sound that filled the air were my frantic gasps as I tried to breathe. My skin was superheated except for the rivulets of cold wetness where tears had left trails down my cheek. I stopped struggling again when he started to shake me.

With one hand gripping my hair as he shook my head, rattling my brain in my skull, again brought on flashes of my past, and James's voice screaming, Why are you so fucking stupid? The fact that the stranger was screaming a long string of profanities wasn't helping my helping the coherency of my thoughts.

Before I could comprehend what was happening I was pressed up against the brick wall again, face first, with his body against mine. I could feel his heart beating against my back, fast with rage as mine was with fear. He ground his hips against me, and I shuddered, disgusted and terrified. But at the very least the movement put me firmly in the present. James had never touched me like that. This man was not James.

He shook me again. Sound came back to me like an unmuted TV. "Did you hear me bitch? You're going to do exactly as I say, or I'm going to kill you." He yanked my head back hard until it was resting on his shoulder. He had produced a knife from somewhere, a typical Swiss army type knife that anyone might carry around, small but just as capable of puncturing the fragile skin where it was pressed against my neck.

Do something.

My eyes caught the reflection in the backdoor window of a darkened, long closed store. I saw the man's face clearly for the first time, his eyes wide and crazy, a thin blot of blood staining his lower lip. I saw the terror in my own face, the tears running down my checks, my hands wrapped around his arm as if I might try to wrest it away from me.

And I saw her. She was staring at me with almost contempt. How I must have looked to her: so stupid. I wasn't even fighting back. Served me right for staying out until all hours, walking alone down dark streets.

He's going to kill me. He's stronger, I thought to her.

She narrowed her eyes at me.

I don't want to die. I don't. How can he take this away from me? It's not fair.

Shamed, I dropped my gaze, suddenly unable to look at her anymore. I tried to ignore that his hand had wandered down to the button of my pants. Some ignored part of me was livid because all I had in the world was that I was no one's victim anymore. The monster was supposed to be gone, and I was trying to deal with the wreck of a person he'd left behind. Fuck this random asshole who thought he could take that all away from me.

But that part of me - indignant and strong - was like an ill used muscle; I hadn't exercised that side in so long it was easily overwhelmed by fear. Instead of fighting back, I was staring at the ground.

Since everything else was so hazy, I was surprised when I heard a fierce, angry voice cry out. "Fuck you!" Because I was looking down, I could see someone's feet kicking hard at his ankles. He grunted, his legs buckling as he stumbled. An elbow to his stomach released me. Pivoting, I saw two hands clawing at his eyes, nails digging into skin in a way that made my skin crawl. The man screamed, his hands coming up but her hands were too fast. A knee to his groin finished him off, and as he started to fall, I stared for a moment in dumb shock.

Run!

I ran. I ran without hearing my footfalls against the hard pavement though I felt the ground against my feet. I ran without seeing, and when a pair of arms attempted to restrain me, I fought just as blindly. My fist landed again and again against solid flesh, trying to break free of the hold.

"Hey, it's okay."

The words were so distant that I didn't even realize they were there at first. The sounds melded against the noise of the city.

"I'm not going to hurt you. You're okay."

Slowly, belatedly, my mind began to wrap around the words. My blows fell with less frequency.

"You're okay."

I stopped all together, my hands resting on someone's arms, my eyes screwed tightly shut. I was beginning to feel tiny pin pricks on my lungs from lack of breath because I was gasping wildly.

"You're okay."

The world came back to me with dizzying speed. I screamed once and fell to the ground on my knees, shaking uncontrollably. Someone's hands began to rub up and down my arms, no doubt trying to comfort me. I flinched away from his touch.

When I opened my eyes, the boy from the music shop, the nurse, knelt in front of me. Here I was, dropping to my knees again. But there was no I told you so, and he didn't look at me like I was crazy. His eyes held nothing but concern, just like before except with a wide-eyed element of fear - not for himself, but for me.

Wrapping my arms around myself, I shook my head, trying to get a handle on my tears. I saw the boy take off his jacket out of the corner of my eye. He was moving slowly, as if afraid quick movements would startle me. He wrapped the jacket around my trembling shoulders. Somewhere in the close distance sirens screamed. It wasn't rare to hear sirens, but I realized belatedly that it was possible they were heading for me.

"Everything's going to be all right," the nurse soothed.

Maybe if he said it often enough I would begin to believe it.

~0~

My attacker's name was Alonzo Wallace. I would learn later that his wife had taken him for just about everything he owned early that morning at their divorce hearing. Alonzo had been wallowing in shot after shot of hard liquor since late that afternoon - something I thought unwise anyway considering his alimony payments. An ounce of amber liquid wasn't exactly cheap.

Mix burning anger for the opposite sex - his wife was about my build and had relatively the same color hair as I did, lucky me. With as many drinks as he had, I ended up with a multitude of bruises in assorted colors. Black, purple, blue and yellow around the edges. It was a regular fiesta. The police, like tourists at Mardi Gras, had insisted on taking pictures. I just wanted to leave. I wanted to be someplace with warm blankets and no people.

My back was literally sprinkled with little red dots, like a sheet of Morse code, from where Alonzo had pushed me against the brick. Those dots didn't really hurt, but they itched like I couldn't believe. Around my arm was the faint shape of a hand. I remembered elementary school and drawing an outline of my hand on paper, coloring it in. A splotch that resembled a palm was that ugly half green, half yellow color while the finger shaped bruises from where he gripped my arm were a purple-blue hue. My kindergarten teacher would have complimented his use of vivid colors. My shoulders had similar marks, and crescents from his fingernails that had drawn blood in a few places.

Then of course there was the nasty bruise on my face. I hadn't seen it yet but it hurt. It really stung. Whenever I moved my mouth, the stretching skin screamed in protest. Answering questions for the police had been a real blast. Eating was going to be just as much fun for a while.

I sighed to myself for what had to be the hundredth time in the hour I had been at the hospital. The doctors and police had finally left me in peace so I could collect myself. The doctor said something about taking my time and handed me a prescription for some sleeping pills, "to help you relax. Calm your nerves."

The world kept handing me ways to become a drug addict. They could handle a drug addict.

My back, shoulders and arm were easy to accept. I was not looking forward to seeing the bruise on my face. It had never been easy to see bruises on my face. They were impossible to hide, and even worse to ignore when it felt like everyone who looked at you was really staring at the bruise and they could see...

They could see that James had beat me because I was a worthless piece of shit. They could see that Alonzo beat me because I was an easy substitute for some other worthless woman. It was a crack in the calm, collected, self-assured mask I put on after I wiped all the tears away.

I exited the small office and shuffled into the bathroom down the hall, closing the door quickly. For a moment I stood in the darkness of the room, hating that sterile hospital scent that even permeated that bathroom of all places. Why couldn't it smell like piss and filth like a normal toilet? Everything here was too clean, too stark, too fucking unreal for what went on behind hospital walls. Lives began and ended here. Someone in this same hospital was screaming in the worst pain they would ever feel, and I was standing in a vaguely sweet smelling, clean bathroom. Somewhere else in the world, someone was shopping for clothes at Ross and having to stop to take a leak amidst yellowish clumps of toilet paper and a dirty diaper that didn't quite make it into the garbage can. There was a kind of injustice there that, for whatever reason, bothered me. I supposed the fact that my back itched like crazy might have had something to do with it. I was quite irritated.

Finally, I flipped on the light.

It took me a moment to realize that the reflection in the mirror wasn't me, it was the girl. She stared at me with her chin pointing slightly upwards, as if in victory. A vivid, horrible bruise colored her cheek, but she seemed to wear it as a badge of honor. I felt ashamed of my own discoloration. I bowed my head, but kept my eyes up, almost in awe of her. She must have been the one. It must have been her arm I'd seen slam into Alonzo's stomach, her feet kicking at his ankles and her knee at his groin.

Her bruise was a mark of courage. Mine was just a scarlet letter, a testimony to the fact that I could be conquered and bowed; that, if not for her, I could have been lying in that ally, beaten and raped - possibly even dead.

Just then the door opened, and I jumped back in surprise. In my haste I had forgotten to lock the bathroom door, and now the boy from the music shop stood in front of me, looking about as shocked and confused as I felt.

"I'm sorry," he said in that rich, soft voice. "I didn't know you were in here." He moved to close the door again.

"No. It's okay. I was done anyway," I replied, though I made no move to leave. It was probably ridiculous, given the night I'd had, that looking at him still made me swoon just a little.

For a moment we stared at each other. Then I caught a glimpse of the scratches running up and down his arms. They weren't very deep, but they were there.

"I'm sorry," I said quietly.

He appeared even more confused for a moment before he realized what I was talking about. In my desperate attempts to escape him, I'd clawed his arms pretty badly.

"It's really not a problem," he said quickly. "I'm just glad you're okay."

"I'm okay," I repeated in a monotone under my breath. I scoffed lightly, and my hand unconsciously touched my cheek.

"Well, you should see the other guy. When I left the scene he was still…incapacitated, crying like a little girl. Pathetic son of a bitch." His voice was tight with a fierce anger that made me briefly anxious. Seeing my face he took a breath and calmed, smiling at me. "You really did a number on him," he said with a great deal of admiration.

I almost told him that it hadn't been me, that it was her. Thinking better of it, I just shook my head slightly. "Thank you for stopping me by the way. I probably would have run straight into the street. How did you even know that I was there?"

He ran his hand through the thick, not quite brown, not really red hair on his head. "It was luck, really," he admitted. "I'd just got done with my shift - I work here - and I was driving home. I stopped behind a car, and when I looked to the side, I saw you struggling. I called the police and went to help you, but you already had him on the ground." He shrugged. Tentative, he raised a hand, brushing my tender cheek with just the tip of his fingers. "I wish I'd seen you sooner."

There was a painless burn where he touched my cheek, and I could feel my face get hot. "Well," I said, increasingly aware that we were having an awkward conversation in a hospital bathroom, "Thank you."

He nodded. "My name's Edward, by the way. What's your name?" he asked, sticking out his hand.

I paused as I took and shook his hand. It was his look that bothered me. It was a look of total admiration, a look I didn't deserve. He wouldn't like me. I was too weak for the picture he was painting, an amateur to the Monet he was expecting. He was looking for the girl. He'd like the girl.

"Bella," I said finally, my tone apologetic because he couldn't have the girl. I was the only one here. I felt guilty about letting him believe I was her. Where so many others would have turned away this boy had risked himself on my behalf. I wanted to give him honesty.

Or did I? Edward was the first person judging my new self and first appearances are everything. I wanted to be as strong as she was. I wanted to be able to say I could best an attacker the way she had.

Then again, this really wasn't his first impression. He'd seen me twice now and both times I'd been in the midst of non-lucid episode.

As I contemplated this last thought my feet suddenly began moving again. Edward walked in silence right beside me. I wondered, vaguely, why he had not gone to the bathroom as he'd intended but decided we'd already engaged in enough awkward conversation for the time being.

There were still a couple of policemen in the lobby of the Emergency Room, talking to one of the doctors. One looked over, saw me and excused himself from the conversation to walk over.

"We thought you had gone home," he said apologetically. I must have looked confused.
"We could give you a ride back to your car or wherever, but my partner and I still have some questions to ask…. Well, it might take a while," the policeman finished, looking sheepish that he'd let on I was in the same hospital as my attacker.

"That's all right. I can take her," Edward said before I could speak. He looked at me. "Is that okay?"

For one second my breath caught in my throat, an answer I couldn't quite form in my head lingered on my tongue. Of course, that second was filled with a thousand thoughts, not the least of which was the worry that Edward wanted to pick up where Alonzo left off, and I'd end up back at the hospital as a rape victim or dead in a ditch somewhere. But while I wasn't naïve enough to think that this was completely out of the question, I just didn't see Edward as the rape or murder type. I was still shaken. I still felt stripped raw and naked by my own fragility and vulnerability. I was alone in this huge city, in this huge country, in this huge world with no one to cling to. I didn't even have a teddy bear to hug.

And there was this nagging voice that told me I should have talked to him in the first place - after the music shop.

Edward at least shared part of the experience with me. He might be better company for at least the ride home than two cops. Maybe he was shaken too. Sure he lived in LA, but in spite of what the sensationalized media wants you to think, really how many times do you see a rape in progress in a seedy back ally? The cops had probably seen enough shit that an attempted rape and battery case would seem like afternoon tea: calm and boring. But to me, it was a major life event. Edward was the one person on the planet at that time that could understand given the obvious fact that I didn't wish to discuss it with Mr. Wallace.

"Yes," I said quietly after a moment's hesitation. "That's fine."

There was a five minute time period between signing out of the hospital and buckling my seat belt in the passenger seat of Edward's car that we spent in what could be considered companionable silence. We were looking at each other out of our peripheral vision. I have to admit to ogling, but really, who could blame me? My night had been more than a little surreal with being attacked and now being driven off by a guy who could have been a movie star, he was that handsome. Those were two highly improbable events. I could only imagine what he was thinking when he looked at me. He was probably just being wary - wondering when my next breakdown was coming on. But despite all that, and despite the fact I probably should have been edgy and self conscious I was strangely comfortable.

I felt safe, I realized.

Then Edward opened his mouth and the whole situation turned awkward, leaving me to wonder if I wouldn't have been better off with the cops who would not have asked as many questions as he did. Honestly, I couldn't blame him. His questions were quite legitimate, even necessary, but I was a little bummed. Staring at his beautiful face was the highlight of my week so far.

"Where do you live? Or, should I drop you off at your car?" he asked as he pulled into the street.

His voice, in the quiet of the car, startled me, and I stumbled over my words. "I, um. I'm- You can take me right back where you found me."

He glanced over quickly before returning his eyes to the road. "You mean your car's parked around where the bar was?"

More legitimate questions and I still stumbled as if I had something to hide. My situation suddenly seemed very odd to me. "No. I mean, it is, but I'm also staying at the hotel across the street."

This earned another glance and a moment of silence as Edward tried to process this information. His next words came out slowly, as if he were considering each one before he let them slip passed his tongue, carefully inspecting each sentence that came off the assembly line for flaws so they would not have to be recalled later. "It's been nearly a month since that day we first met. I don't know if you remember, you had a little fainting spell in the music store?" I nodded, flushing a deep red. I was kind of hoping he'd forgotten that bit. "That seems like an awfully long vacation."

I chuffed softly, considering another lie. But lies were complicated and I was too tired and jumpy for complications at that point. "I'm living in the hotel right now."

Again there was silence as Edward considered his words. Finally he said, "I really don't feel comfortable with you being alone tonight. Is there a friend I can take you to? Even if it's in Orange County, anywhere?"

I stared out the window at the darkened shops and the scattered people under the dim street lamps, counting down the streets until we'd be at our destination and I would be alone again. "I have no one here," I said simply.

More silence before Edward said, "I know I'm just a stranger to you, and for all you know I could be a murderer or something. I have no way to prove otherwise of course, not at this time of night. But I meant what I said; I wouldn't feel comfortable leaving you alone tonight. I have a small house that I live in by myself. There's an extra bedroom. It only makes sense for you to come and stay."

"It makes sense?" I echoed.

"You've been trough a traumatic event-"

"Nothing happened."

He spared a glance at me, his face somewhat stern. "Bella, you were attacked. That's traumatic. Whether or not it could have been worse is well beside the point. If you went into shock - because it could happen even after the fact - at least I'd be there to help you. If nothing else, you'd have a good breakfast in the morning."

I was silent, considering his proposal. After all, it went both ways. As I could not be sure of his intentions, for all he knew I could be a pyromaniac, a kleptomaniac - any number of things that you don't want roaming your house while you slept. But in the light of that night's events, surrealistic moments such as this one suddenly became possible. I only debated with myself for a handful of moments before I agreed.

Edward was a very gracious host. After all the necessary steps - getting a fresh change of clothes from the hotel, Edward giving me the tour of his house and offering anything I needed - there was a silence neither of us knew how to fill. It was obvious that he was as tired, if not more so, than I was, but he looked reluctant to leave, and I was reluctant to let him go - the night held shadows I wasn't ready to deal with just yet. I'm sure, given that at the very least he thought I was prone to little fits, he didn't want to leave me without adult supervision. But because we had no history together there was no idle chatter we could lapse comfortably into. I was too tired for a getting-to-know-you conversation. Eventually, for lack of anything better to do but stare at each other - which I suspected was better for me than it was for him anyway- we retreated to separate rooms.

The night was so quiet, it was loud. Things had been moving so quickly since the attack. Quick
and with a lot of noise. Police sirens, bustling doctors, Edward running around his house in a flustered state at my unexpected company. Now, with the door to my room closed and the light off, the world had come to a sudden stop, leaving me alone, curled in a fetal position on a strange bed with nothing to distract me from my thoughts.

I remembered something I'd heard in a child development course. Newborn babies could be comforted by swaddling them in a warm blanket, forcing their arms and legs against their body. While I understood that this stimulated the womb, the familiar environment that these babies had been so suddenly ripped away from, I couldn't, at that time, understand how restricted movement could be a comfort. Now, when I felt confused and broken, the thought of confinement was attractive. The less space I occupied, the better I could contain this helpless feeling right?

Exhaustion made my brain cloudy, and I wrapped the blankets over and then under me, pulling them tight. There was a chill that hadn't left me since the attack, and I wanted the warmth of the blankets to chase it away. I wondered if ice was like fire - if I could take away the available space, could I smother it like a flame? I imagined being a fetus in my warm amniotic sac, my mind new and not cognizant, unable to form a thought or image. Fetuses had no memories and I didn't want any.

But I did have memories and concrete thoughts.

From as far back as I remember, I took care of myself. Charlie was a loving father, but he didn't always know what he was doing with me. Even from a young age, I couldn't stand to see the helpless look on his face, so I tried not to cry when I fell down, and I got used to saying 'I'm fine' when I was sick. My mother, if it was possible, was worse. She never could stand the sight of blood - something I inherited from her. Not long after I went to live with her, my mother cut her finger on a piece of broken glass and had fainted at the sight of blood squirting from the small wound. I ran to find James, screaming that my mother was dead. Having just lost my father, it was my biggest fear. James called me an idiot. Needless to say, I never begged her to help me with any of my scrapes and cuts.

While she was still alive, my mother would leave me with my Grandma Marie when I got sick. Grandma would nurse me back to health, cooling my fevers with aspirin and a moist cloth, rubbing my back; whatever remedy she could give, I got. I wished for my grandmother now. She'd had aloe vera plants that would soothe the itch from the scrapes on my back. She would scratch my head, patting my hair until I could sleep.

But one thing she could not give me, what she had never been able to give me, was comfort for the phantom pains in my heart. My insides felt sore and heavy, like they used to years ago when my loving father was replaced by a man who could and would hurt me. Once, I tried at to talk to my grandmother, but she was so old fashioned. She came from a time where you minded your own business and didn't air the family's dirty laundry.

Just like then, there was no home remedy that would take away what I was feeling. When I was young, she would help heal my wounds. If she was here today she would have some remedy for bringing the swelling of my bruised face down so she could pretend that everything was all right again. As long as she couldn't see it, it wasn't there.

Somewhere, as I drowned in this sea of inescapable thoughts, I fell asleep. The blankets, once a tiny measure of comfort, had become Wallace's iron grip on my arms. I was trapped again, but this time I couldn't move my arms, I couldn't move my legs, and there was no one to help me. Not the girl, not Edward, just me and a man-turned-monster.

I flailed desperately on the bed, falling with a startled cry to the floor as I struggled. I wrestled with the blankets firm, tangled hold on me, trying to kick them away from me. Finally freeing myself, I stumbled forward onto my feet, my eyes open but not really seeing my surroundings. I was still in Edward's spare bedroom, but all I could see was the darkened ally in an endless stretch. There was no street to run to, no doors that I could see.

James and Wallace's voice superimposed over each other, echoing off the endless walls of the ally. "Bitch." I reached forward, desperately bumping into furniture and the wall, except my mind wouldn't let me see what they were. Everything felt like it was trying to hurt me or keep me in a place where the monsters could find me.

My lungs were burning, reminding me that I should breathe. When had I stopped breathing? I opened my mouth but nothing happened. All this air around me and I couldn't take it in; I couldn't force myself to breathe. With my hand along the wall, I moved forward, backward - anywhere that was away from where I had been. I needed to run away; I needed to breathe.

Without warning the wall gave away, and I pitched forward, landing on my hands and knees. Pain broke its way through my consciousness, and in that one moment I gasped, my lungs filling with precious air. The burning grip that pressed down like dead weight on my chest eased for a handful of seconds.

I knelt, gaping like a fish out of water, but my lungs had closed again. Again I reached out blindly, finding a surface so I could pull myself upright. I stood on fawn's legs, my hands darting along a cool counter top, knocking things over. I heard the cling and clatter of various cans, bottles and toiletries as if from a great distance. There were choked wheezes and awful gurgling noises that caught in my throat. Air tried to escape my lungs. Air begged to be let in. I couldn't make my body work right.

My hand closed around a small object.

With a whoosh, air was pulled into my lungs as sharp, severe pain spread through my palm. I waited for my lungs to close again, to leave me heaving, struggling for gasps of air I could not take, but they didn't. I kept breathing. With this thing in my fisted hand, I could finally breathe again. My chest was rising and falling rapidly, shaking my body in powerful spasms.

Another hand closed around mine, prying at my fingers, and I panicked. Someone was trying to get the thing away from me. I pulled my arm away violently, scrambling until my back hit the corner of the room. The hand followed me, still trying to get under my fingers, to get to the thing. There was another voice in the room. It sounded frantic, but my mind had forgotten how to process those sounds into words. Everything was instinctual. Automatically, I shied away from the voice, turning into the corner as I tried to hide my hand beneath my body. It hurt so much, but I was breathing. I didn't want to stop breathing again, no matter what the cost.

"Bella!" I heard the voice clearly for the first time. It was a man's voice - a man who was towering over me. Positive that he was trying to hurt me, or kill me, I squeezed my eyes shut, sliding down the wall and curling into a protective ball. He was pulling my arm, trying to get to my hand, and I couldn't let him. I squeezed the thing tighter, a fresh wave of agony coursing up my arm as I gulped air like water.

"Bella!" called the man again, sounding desperate. My addled brain couldn't understand why he was calling me.

"Isabella Swan! Stop!"

At this I opened my eyes, the fog around my brain seeming to dissipate as I became fully awake for the first time since I'd fallen asleep. I was panting hard, my throat dry and raw like a balloon's skin being run over a hard surface. Blinking rapidly, I found myself staring at Edward's terrified face. His hand was gripped around my wrist, and my fist, oh my god, my fist was leaking blood. Thick streams of it poked around from the crevices between my fingers, a stark contrast to my skin, white with tension, which peaked out like islands in a river of crimson.

My vision swam at the sight. With a startled, frightened cry, I opened my hand, watching in horror as a blood stained razor blade fell out of it. My eyes found spots of blood everywhere, on my clothes, in pools of red on white linoleum and tiny puddles falling like rain from my shaking hand.

For long seconds Edward and I stood close together, both too shocked to move. Then he guided me to my feet and over to the sink with an eerie sort of calmness to his manner. He turned on the faucet, holding my hand under it carefully. I sucked in a sharp breath at the pain of water running through the wound; my hand throbbed as the water warmed. The swirl in the sink was pink with strings of red. Naseua clawed at my stomach, making me clench my teeth to keep from fainting or vomiting. Still, I couldn't keep my eyes off the bloody water, remembering that song from the music store a month ago - how haunting and hollow the sound of water circling the drain could be.

Edward had produced a handful of cotton balls and a bottle of peroxide from beneath the sink. He was soaking the cotton without looking directly at me. When he spoke, his voice was calm and smooth. I remembered my mother putting cream on my bald spot. "I don't think the wound is deep enough to require stitches, but I do need to clean it. I'm sorry. This will sting."

The sting of the peroxide in my raw wound drew a hiss of pain from my lips. My hand throbbed double time in protest, and I closed my eyes, fighting not to faint at the smell of blood and alcohol. Edward was efficient, and it was over soon. Before I knew it, he was bandaging my hand in stark white gauze. What was it about medical products and white anyway? There was something morbid about a deep red splotch against a pure white surface.

"How did you know?" I asked, my voice shaking and thin.

"Know what?" he asked.

"My name…my whole name." Apparently it had occurred to me that I never told him my full name. I'd introduced myself only as Bella.

Edward looked sheepish. I was just surprised that he looked at me. "The cops said your name several times when we were talking. I don't know why I asked you. I was nervous, I suppose."

I nodded at this, not replying. Out of distractions, I was lost again in thought, the song from the music store returned to me; a line spoken like a verdict.

Without a sense of confidence, I'm convinced that there's just too much pressure to take.

I was sobbing before I realized I was crying. Edward pulled me to him, murmuring comforting "Shhs," against my hair. My legs gave out, and he held me tighter against his chest as he sunk to the floor. His arms were secure around me, and his legs along mine. Inexplicably, I felt safe. I was crying because I was overwhelmed, like a small child that cried because she was just so tired. Edward rocked me for a long time, until I fell into a dreamless sleep out of pure exhaustion.

Chapter Text

"I'm not crazy, I'm just a little unwell
I know, right now you can't tell
But stay awhile and maybe then you'll see
A different side of me
I'm not crazy, I'm just a little impaired
I know, right now you don't care
But soon enough you're gonna think of me
And how I used to be,"

~Unwell, Matchbox 20

I woke up the next morning surrounded by warmth and contentment. I was always so freakishly cold. My blankets, tucked loosely around me, felt like a car did when you first got into it after it's been left out in the sun. Most people find that kind of thick heat stifling and uncomfortable, but I reveled in it like a kitten rolling in a spot of sunshine through the window. The whole world was reduced to the cozy ball of warmth, and I felt safe there. If it were possible, I would have purred. But it only took one open window to pop the bubble, and let the rest of the lukewarm world flood the car.

Slowly, things started coming back to me. My right hand felt oddly heavy, weighted down, and as I came fully awake it itched like crazy. My back itched in places I couldn't even begin to think of reaching. Each spot, like a bug bite - annoying and mildly painful, called for my immediate attention. I opened my eyes, panicked for a moment when I saw the unfamiliar settings, and then settled back on the bed when I remembered, with awful clarity, all that had happened the night before. I closed my eyes again.

After a few minutes I knew the world wasn't going to fade away, and even if it did, where would I be? What was more of a nightmare, waking up in a kind, horribly attractive stranger's spare bedroom, a little worse for the wear but intact for the most part, or waking alone in a too quiet hotel room?

Regardless, I wasn't quite ready to face Edward again. Shame weighed me down like anchors on my limbs. After he'd gone through all the trouble of taking me in, I'd probably kept him up the majority of the night wondering if I was going to slice myself to pieces. What would Emily Post say?

I looked down at my bandaged hand apprehensively, imagining what the wound must look like: a puckered, angry red, jagged scar in the middle of my hand. Vaguely, I wondered if this cut would somehow affect my life. Renee believed in palm-reading. Would she tell me that the thick scar I'd doubtlessly be left with obscured something good about me? What if I'd dissected my life-line or my love-line?

If you knew what you were doing, could you carve yourself a new path?

Some part of me was glad. This wound would feed a sick curiosity I had about blood, cuts, bruises and scars. Despite the fact that free flowing blood made me woozy, I was still endlessly fascinated by the after effects. Obviously, I didn't like the fact that James hit me. Still, I'd spent many class periods in junior high and high school marveling at the hues of blue, black, purple and red that were painted on my skin. Often, when James shoved me into the wall or pushed me down on the gravely ground behind our house, I would get scrapes and scratches. Tracing my fingers over the raised, rough ridges the dried, clotted blood left on my skin was a little mesmerizing to me.

As macabre as it sounded, I spent a lot of time thinking about my blood. It was a visual manifestation of what was going on inside of me. I carried the pain in my blood.

Though I couldn't remember the names of the chemicals we worked with, I did remember an experiment I watched my science teacher conduct one day. Take a beaker full of one clear chemical and add a few drops of another chemical. Watch a blood red cloud spread and taint every inch of the clear substance; watch it consume and replace molecule after molecule until what you originally had was totally obscured by red. Poison obscuring purity.

My stepfather's verbal abuse was the poison in the beaker of my body. With every beat of my aching heart, I could feel poison spread through my blood until I could feel it tingling in my scalp, searing through my toes, consuming me completely from the inside out. Unlike biological waste, a physical impurity, this unnamed thing had no orifice to leak from. I was forced to hold it inside of me.

Sometimes, I would just stare at my wrists and imagine what it would be like.

I could imagine perfectly the feel of a razor's edge, cold, teasing the sensitive skin of my wrists with the promise of sweet relief. I could practically feel the slight weight it would take to pierce the skin and the long, sharp sting as I dragged the razor downwards, tracing the path of my veins, my skin coming open - torn instead of simply cut. I could see the blood flowing, like water over the edge of a waterfall, crawling down my arm into a pool of poison spreading slowly over the table. I wouldn't get sick - not then. Not when there was so much blood that it was emptying the poison. In the dark reflection of the blood-pool, I could see everything, everyone that had ever hurt me: a rewind of my life, spilling out of me, playing on a crimson screen. I watched the life seeping out of me like air being let out of a balloon until my body was left drained and shriveled - still at last.

There my twisted daydreams ended, and I was left staring at the scrapes and bruises on my skin. It was maddening and fascinating because I could see all the things I felt. My normally ivory, unblemished skin turned chaotic and ugly by James's abuse the way my pink insides felt blackened by his wretched words. I could feel the poison still running, tingling through my veins, coursing through every part of my body. People spoke of true beauty being more than skin deep, I knew it was the truth because my insides were ugly. There was something just beneath the surface, dark and twisted, consuming me from the inside where no one else could see it.

In contrast with my bruises and scrapes, my wrists always seemed to escape punishment. I knew I could end it all - all the pain and all the ugliness I felt. It would take so little, and then all the bad would be out of me. The thought could be so intensely tempting that the unmarred ivory at my wrists taunted me.

Unable to stand the sight, I'd take a pen - black, blue, whatever was available - and I'd draw a line down my wrist, right where the vein was thinly veiled, tracing the path that the razor would take if I ever had the courage to pick it up. Then a pen slash or two across for good measure. Finally I would draw long lines down from these faux-slits, lots of them painted as darkly as I could get the pen to go without breaking the skin. Blood falling in 2D. In some cases, still blue.

Sometimes I resorted to Hollywood tactics, trying to find what kind of liquid could simulate blood, smearing all kinds of things on the inside of my wrists: paint, syrup, wax. Once I took all the Kool-Aid mix we had and added various amounts of water to see which flavor most looked like blood and at what density.

Raspberry, in case you're wondering. As an added benefit, the goop stained my skin for hours after I'd washed it away, leaving a faded, bleached red hue on my arms that was very satisfying.

Now I stared at my palm as I carefully stripped the last bit of gauze away. The first layer was a clean white, but as I began to peel the gauze off, the white was soaked with pink blood, browning around the edges like a bitten apple left out in the open air. The last layer was still red and wet. I had to stop for a moment, breathing through my mouth until the light-headed feeling ebbed.

The gash itself was smaller than I'd thought it would be, but thicker. It looked like a fat caterpillar seeping a trail of blood instead of slime. The skin around it was the color of a blushing, red-haired, Irish girl, and tender. Even as I'd unwound the bandage, the little bit of friction sent waves of hot agony through my entire arm.

I showered, my useless right hand making a clumsy chore out of the simple task.

I tried to reapply my bandage but had a terrible time of it. The bandages were hung off me sloppily like a mummy in a bad horror flick, or maybe like the Scooby-Doo cartoons. If Edward had been there, old Mr. Merton and his secret would have been safe from the "meddling kids." Edward had bound the wound tightly, as I imagined a professional would. I wondered where he had picked up that trick.

When I glanced in the mirror, the girl looked back at me with a raised eyebrow and a bemused expression. Nursing school I should think, remember?

Give me a break. I remembered being slightly spastic in the same way Charlie Sheen was slightly insane when Edward mentioned his occupation - way back a month before in the music store. At that point, it was a miracle I'd been able to speak. Personally, I blamed Linkin Park.

Finally clean and dressed, I gave up on bandaging my own hand and, gathering my courage, went in search of Edward. I paused in the hallway outside my room hearing voices, and no, not in the classic Beautiful Mind way, but voices of real, live people. Ridiculously, I thought, for a second, that Edward really was insane and he was talking to himself about his plan to hack me into itty-bitty pieces. The second thought, and the correct one as it came on the heels of another, female, voice, was that Edward had company. I should have stayed in my room.

There were two new voices, emanating from the living room. One was male. Barring Edward's multiple personalities were extremely talented, all remaining thoughts of insanity, on his part anyway, promptly went out the window. Needless to say, I didn't feel up to seeing people, and I almost retreated. Twenty-four hours before I'd awoken alone in a hotel room, taken a shower, back when I could take showers for granted, and gone to work . Since then I had been attacked and beaten both by myself and a man I'd never met before. Given my track record of meetings with complete strangers, I didn't really want to face potentially having to explain these things to Edward's guests.

I rested my head against the wall feeling dizzy and overwhelmed. My hand throbbed, pleading for pressure to close the wound once and for all. Reluctantly, I opted to face the bitter music and get my hand fixed. My being a coward wasn't going to solve any problems, after all. Taking a deep breath, I wandered out into the living room.

Silence descended on the room like a crowded auditorium when the orchestra began, and I was an out of tune cello.

"Hey, I hope we didn't wake you," Edward said. I shook my head dismissively. "This is my sister Alice and my friend Jasper," he said, indicating the two strangers. His point was vague, so I had to assume the girl was Alice. You never knew; parents named their children the strangest things.

I smiled wanly, raising a hand - the undamaged one - in greeting. I had a brief visual of me in a sleek hairstyle and scant robe, smoking a long, slim cigarette, asking, "How much did he tell you?" in an icy, yet unconcerned tone. It was the question at the foremost of my mind.

"Hello!" Alice said before I could ask. "You poor dear. Edward told us about what happened last night. You know, you hear about the crime in this city but…" she trailed off, waving a hand as if to say, 'You know what I mean?'

I did know what she meant, but I didn't answer. There was something about Alice that made me want to stop and stare and smile delightedly, but that might look more rude then anything. First impressions are a bitch.

There weren't a lot of people that could carry off a boyishly short hair cut, but her hair fell long in just the right places so she looked very feminine and not at all easily mistakable for a man. Alice was one of the few people that could pull of completely female without being girlish, or stereotypically woman-like. She looked on me with a friendly, warm smile and that combined with the sound of her voice, like the tinkle of the ice cream truck's song, made me feel like smiling back.

My amusement was broken by Jasper's question. "You pressed charges, right?" His voice was quiet and unassuming. There was no infliction in his tone as to his opinion on the matter.

Edward, on the other hand, obviously had many opinions. "She should have. She didn't though," he said, his voice rough with disapproval.

I shrank backward, getting smaller and withered like the wicked witch melting under Dorothy's bucket of water. I was used to disappointing people, but it was different with Edward. For whatever reason, I wanted his approval with a desperation I didn't have a precedence for.

Jasper narrowed his eyes at Edward. "It's her decision. Let her be," he said gently. He turned to me, offering a small smile. So many people claimed indifference when talking about your choices but I actually believed that Jasper was indifferent.

Alice, on the other hand, looked aghast. "Why the hell not?" she demanded, though managing to do so in a not unkind manor. I fidgeted.

There were several good reasons why I should have pressed charges, all of which were on the tip of Alice's tongue and not the least of which was preventing attacks on other girls. After all, who knew how many girls Wallace had successfully assaulted before me? But, while my brain logically understood that such evil existed and that I could fall victim to it, my instinct was to give the benefit of the doubt. When I was little, I truly believed that I could not be kidnapped because it was against the law so no one would do it. Despite all I'd been through with James - ore maybe because of it - I was not yet ready to give up my naiveté. I still wanted to believe that people were basically kind and good.

While Alonzo being a serial rapist was defiantly a possibility, there were also millions of other possibilities that I couldn't fathom. As it stood, the laws in California meant that he was going to jail one way or another and would be charged by the state. The police asked me if I wanted to press charges myself, and I couldn't help but remember the day at the music store. The other patrons, watching as I collapsed to my knees, mumbling and disoriented, must have thought I belonged in an insane asylum. I thought about my life since I was ten and how many people thought I was just fine when I was really anything but. I remembered the disappointed and disgusted faces of my teachers - most of them thinking I was simply lazy when I failed their classes.

Things were so rarely what they seemed.

I was fairly certain that whatever repercussions would stem from his arrest would be all Alonzo needed to be sorry for what he did and not repeat the process. We all made mistakes. Hopefully, this would be the worst mistake of his life. Either way I couldn't cope with being the one to make things worse on him when I was only too aware how little it would have taken for my life to veer down a similar road - destructive for more than just my self.

How easy would it have been for me to end up like Victoria?

In the two years I lived with her, Victoria had often lashed out at me verbally. Beyond manipulating me or James so I would get in trouble, she had attacked me physically a handful of times. Unlike James, when that happened she was always repentant - completely horrified at what she'd done. Those were the only times she was nice to me. She would hug me and pet my hair, crying that she was sorry.

Hindsight made my vision clear; she didn't want to be the monster that her father made her. It wouldn't have taken much for my stepsister's fate to be my own. It hadn't taken anything for her to completely and utterly destroy her own life.

I knew about the boys in Victoria's bedroom. Of course I did. Even James did. How many times had he beat her, calling her a slut and a whore? It didn't take though. She was starved for love and got it where she could. She ended up pregnant at 18. I couldn't tell you if she'd just been careless or if she hadn't cared at all about protection. I just know that if boys had been an option for me, I probably wouldn't have had the presence of mind for paltry things like condoms.

Shortly after her son, Riley, was born, Victoria tried to make a fresh start for his sake. She really tried. But the boy she was forced to live with - because James, of course, kicked her to the curb the minute the words 'I'm pregnant' tumbled out of her mouth - was that vicious type of person with a talent to strip you bare with words. The boy, Felix, was the type that could identify every weak spot, every explosive point you had like terrorists might know structural weaknesses. He was also the volatile type who, when angered or wronged in the slightest, wouldn't hesitate to stab an ice pick through those exposed wounds of the psyche and twist.

There wasn't any love lost between my wicked stepsister and me, but even I would admit that Victoria's first arrest was complete and utter bullshit. Backed into a corner, literally holding her baby boy while Felix railed at her, repeatedly battering her with his cruel words, she lashed out, pushing him backward.

Sometimes it's self defense even when a single blow hasn't been thrown.

But that wasn't the problem. Felix threw a punch that Victoria dodged. He ended up with a nasty bruise because he tripped and hit his face on an open door - how ironic. Even then it would have been okay - maybe - except that I'd gotten scared and called the cops. They showed up right about then and Felix started spinning lies. Victoria had attacked him and damn fucking straight he was pressing charges.

I wish I could have been more help, but I was a flustered, painfully soft spoken, twelve-year-old kid.

Well, yeah she hit him but...

But he was yelling!

He was being REALLY mean.

Really.

Felix was well connected. Victoria wasn't. It was that simple. Victoria's life spiraled completely out of control. After that she couldn't seem to stay out of jail, and the last I'd heard she was about to lose custody of Riley permanently.

At that point, I had no idea what had driven Alonzo to do what he did. All I had was a short lifetime full of experience that taught me the value of a second chance. Right or wrong, I couldn't be the one who fought to get him behind bars for huge chunks of his remaining youthful years.

But how could I explain that to Alice without sounding naïve and just plain stupid? As it turned out, I was right but I didn't know that then. "I just…," I tried. "I…didn't," I stumbled and finally sighed, turning to Edward. "I just need some help with this bandage. Please."

Edward nodded and led me back to the bathroom. Away from Alice and Jasper, I felt the anxiety that had begun to well in me subside. It was strange how comfortable I felt around Edward, especially given what had happened the night before. I leaned against the wall while he fished through his drawers for the necessary supplies. He didn't seem annoyed or put out by any of this, and I felt another wave of guilt and shame wash over me.

"I'm sorry about last night. I don't know what I was thinking. I was dreaming, I think, and I didn't know what I was doing," I was babbling at a hundred words per minutes.

"Hey," Edward said, getting my attention with a wave of his hands. "It's okay." He didn't try to absolve me or tell me that my reaction was not abnormal, and this bothered me slightly. But there was nothing I could say to make my actions seem sane, so I stayed quiet as he wrapped my hand.

He worked methodically, not looking at me. Though his hands never wavered in their task, his demeanor seemed agitated. I had almost dismissed it as my own discomfort when he spoke. "Look, I've been thinking. I live in this house all by myself, and I have a second room to spare. It's ridiculous to stay in a hotel. You should stay here." His voice was almost demanding as he spoke.

At first the idea seemed crazy. How could I live with someone I barely knew? How could he even think that it was a possibility? But then I considered that many people found board by looking for roommates in the paper, and how was his offer any different? If anything, Edward had proven to be more than kind and helpful under the circumstances.

Even on my knees as I was, figuratively this time, I did still have some pride. "I'm not a charity case, Edward, though I appreciate the gesture."

"It doesn't have to be charity. You could pay me rent - right down the middle if that's what you wanted," he said quickly. "At least say you'll think about it."

I nodded and, looking vaguely dissatisfied, Edward left me to return to his sister and friend.

This decision was quite a bit larger than deciding how to cut my hair. My heart pounded, my head swimming at the possible repercussions of what could happen.

I fought my initial impulse to say no and really considered my options. He was right that I couldn't stay in a hotel for the rest of my life, or I could, but surely living in a house with a refrigerator, among other amenities, was a lot less pathetic than living in a hotel room. The pros to accepting Edward's offer were great and the cons very few.

The mirror reflected only myself when I looked up for answers and I sighed. Where was that girl when I needed a second opinion anyway? More than likely she had better things to do then stay put while I hemmed and hawed over what would be a no-brainer to her.

With a frustrated sigh I left the safety of the bathroom. My first instinct was to retreat to my room. This was another complication. If I lived with Edward, I would be forced to interact with other human beings. It could be exhausting - something I'd learned from month on the job.

But over the past month a strange concept had started to occur to me. I'd spent so long languishing in the present that my future was a blank page in a book I'd never even heard of. As of late though, like focusing very hard with squinted eyes, there seemed to be some writing on the page that I'd missed before. Blurry - written with a light hand with a barely off-white colored pen - but it was there. Some semblance of the future, the life, I wanted.

Even though it was hard to face the the strangers in the living room - these potential acquaintances, so different from my coworkers - I knew I didn't want to be a hermit. I would have to face people in a more social setting eventually?

Suck it up.

Pushing away the constant tiredness and the worry that I was intruding, I padded back into the living room cautiously.

"I hate interviews," Alice was lamenting as I entered, "I mean, honestly. What is the point? You can either do the job or you can't."

Jasper's smile quirked slightly. "A lot of people can do any given job. The point of interviews is to, you know, get your face out there, your personality."

"You lie your way through interviews; there's no way around it. Like the 'have you ever been late' question is crap. Everyone's been late at one time or another. That doesn't make you a bad employee, so you lie!" Alice sounded exasperated.

"You're against job interviews because of the dishonesty involved?" Edward sounded amused.

Alice sighed. "Not just. I mean it's so easy to say the wrong thing. Interviews last an hour, right? Give or take. In that amount of time, how easy is to let the facade slip? Just once is all it takes. It's damn frustrating. Like how do you answer the tell-me-about-yourself question? What do they want to know?"

Jasper and Edward laughed as if amused by some joke I was not privy to. I was surprised at their levity. It seemed to me Alice was on the edge of spontaneous combustion. She was frustrated and scowling. Scowls made me nervous. What was I supposed to say or think? But Jasper and Edward just smiled, and looking at them, Alice broke into a smile as well.

The unspoken communication between people was suddenly very apparent to me. I didn't know Alice, so I couldn't feel the mood instantly lighten, or how Jasper and Edward helped her by being there to hear her. There was this whole separate world that consisted of just the three of them, and as a stranger looking in, I didn't understand this secret language they spoke. I felt a ridiculous pang of jealousy watching them. Jasper and Edward had a history with Alice that I would never have. They knew her aches, her pains. They had shared her sorrows just as they shared her high points. They were all close because of the things they'd been through together.

The idea of a shared history was beautiful to me, and I wanted one. I carried weights on my heart that only I could bear that were mine to shoulder because no one had shared those experiences with me, and therefore no one could see them.

The concept of friends brought with it the healing notion that I would never have to add to my pile without having someone there to understand. Already, with Wallace's attack, the three of them understood why my words were jerky and why I seemed so jumpy. They didn't wonder where the bruises on my face came from. They didn't make up elaborate stories in their heads, judging me, because they knew the truth. And that thought was liberating somehow.

That was when I knew I'd be staying here. I'd found something that half resembled a home, at least for now.

It was better than going back to nothing.

"Just once," Alice said, her voice now much lighter then it had been, "just once, I want to answer that question truthfully. Just once!"

The boys looked amused. The subject was ripe with possibilities.

Alice did not disappoint. "Well, Mr. Important HR Man from some nondescript company there to take people's hard earned money in return for a lousy product and deplorable customer service," she breathed here, much to my relief. "My name is Alice Cullen, I am 21, pursuing some sort of higher education so that I can get on to my "real" life. However, they do expect me to pay them for said higher education, making it a rather fucking expensive nap time. This is where you come in."

Edward interrupted, "Boring! How is this different from the norm? If you're going to tell the truth, you might as well make it interesting."

"Shut up," Alice said, hands on her hips, "I was just getting to that." She straightened up primly. "I am a natural born liar so I'll be good at pretending that I give a flying fuck about the customers pissing and moaning about the stupidest things and demanding attention like they're the bright little center of my universe. Yes, Mr. Man, I can sit at my desk for endless hours while my ass goes completely numb. I haven't got a problem with that, at least not one I'll voice to you. While I enjoy saying fuck, I will refrain from doing so with the customers." She rolled her eyes. "Lord knows it would offend their delicate sensibilities even as they curse copiously and berate me constantly."

"Sure, that's a great summary of your job," Jasper input, "but you still haven't gotten to the meat and potatoes. They want to know about you."

For a moment Alice's lip twitched as if she was trying to come up with a smart ass remark, but then she rolled her eyes, her shoulders slumping. "What do they want to know?" she said, tiredly. "My birth parents abandoned me. I was adopted by a wonderful Mom and Dad who gave me two pretty awesome brothers before they died when I was fourteen, leaving me and my stupid brother," she elbowed Edward good naturedly, "with our godfather."

I gasped at that, my eyes immediately going to Edward. The humor had faded from his features, and his body shuddered. He tucked Alice under his arm, his stance somehow protective as she continued. "Our older brother mostly abandoned us to build his own family and pretend that ours isn't broken." She smiled without humor. "Does that make me a better potential employee?"

"Even then, one could argue it's still not your ability to do the job but how much of a sob story you can tell. You figure we're all just human beings and we've all got our sad stories," Edward said thoughtfully, his eyes landing briefly on me. "If they're going to base decisions on something, it might as well be ability to bullshit." Edward chuckled lightly, hugging his sister close. "It'd be interesting if jobs were given on the best tear jerking story though. If it came down to that, Jasper would be fucked."

Jasper quirked an eyebrow. "You don't think I have my own sad story to tell?"

"What was wrong with your life?" Alice chuffed. "Middle class living, two parents who didn't even divorce. A sister to keep you company and a dog. Who are you kidding?"

Jasper's smile faltered but only barely. I saw it because I was focusing intently on each of the three friends as they spoke in turn, like a three way tennis tournament. Alice and Edward didn't seem to notice Jasper fade from the conversation.

How easy it was to hurt people without trying. Alice was Jasper's friend. Obviously, she hadn't meant to hurt him and had no idea that she had. I wondered if I should go sit by him, put my hand on his arm. Was that normal – to offer a little bit of comfort?

I felt tired again because there were so many unspoken rules and social cues that I just didn't know.

But as the conversation wore on Jasper was drawn in bit by bit. His smile started to quirk every so often as if he couldn't help himself. He bit back a comment several times, then without realizing it, he started talking again as if he hadn't stopped.

I watched them and wanted in more than I'd wanted anything up to that point. I wanted to know what had happened to Alice and Edward's parents. I wanted to know why Alice was looking for a new job and what she wanted to do with her life. I wanted to know things that Alice and Edward didn't know, like why Jasper's life looked a little bleaker than the other two had pictured it. I wanted the right to ask these questions. I could have asked at any time, but that would have been intrusion. Only friends had the right to know this information. When you're a friend, this is called sharing. Opening up.

They didn't know me yet, and so I stayed quiet. Maybe I wasn't the type of person that they'd want to have that information. Just because I was invited to stay, for the moment, didn't make me their friend, and I was aware of that.

Maybe they wouldn't want to know me.

What I found was that I wanted them to know. I hoped they would ask, someday. I wanted Edward and Alice to understand why I wouldn't press charges without looking down on me. I wanted – and I was aware how ridiculous this was – to be ranked with who had the best sob story.

Part of me was consumed with the possibility that I could lose that particular contest.

Chapter Text

" It's all right to make mistakes
you're only human
Inside everybody's hiding something
Take time to catch your breath and choose your moment
Don't slide"

~Slide, Dido

Life became a smooth road, a steady tempo I could dance to easily and still feel somewhat productive even as I circled in a rut.

Monday through Friday I worked, as I had been for a month and a couple of weeks now. The work I did was mindless: entry level faxing and stapling and filing. It took up 45 hours of my week though, lunchtimes included, and brought me to the realization that I could cross the vast majority of office jobs off my list of things I might want to do when I grew up. That decision was a long time off and I didn't have the faintest clue where to start thinking about it anyway, but the thought of spending years of my life in a cubed-in, office environment with so many rules and meetings was a frightening thought indeed.

I think a call center atmosphere was the perfect place to work for my particular needs. I wasn't one of the poor people on the phone – though lord knew they got paid more than me and that wasn't saying much. It gave me access to a wide variety of people, and the work was menial enough that I could soak in the range of personalities.

Being quiet had its advantages. If you didn't say much, people assumed you weren't paying attention and they'd say anything around me. I fantasized briefly about going to the CIA with my new device. Human bugs; if you'd put a microphone and a wire on me I would have recorded enough secrets to make any secret agent cream his shorts.

It was heartening in a way. Most days it felt like I was the only one stumbling through life with two left feet and a blindfold on. Over the weeks I'd worked at the call center, I'd learned that not a lot of people had their life on straight.

Then again, if I had to look at things scientifically, I would have to consider my data pool. All things considered, not a lot of people thought a customer support position was a valid career choice. There was that interview question – another favorite of Alice's – 'Where do you see yourself in five years?' No one answered that they enjoyed letting people yell in their ear for 40 hours a week.

Either way, I got into a placid state, observing and soaking in as much as I could.

Working in a customer service center teaches you a lot about the mindset of the average human being. If everything wasn't nicely packaged or exactly as the individual had hoped, it was called poor customer service and defective product. If you're not selling the product the customer wanted, they expected you to custom fit their order – at least that's what I got from listening to the complaints of the minions on the phone. It was both amusing and frustrating when I came across those same people berating other customer support people as they took care of their outside business in the break room.

I began to hate Burger King and Subway and every company whose commercials advertise life 'your way.'

People were, for the most part, the same. I began to understand parents' reactions to their imperfect children - at least, James and my mother anyway. But children are trickier than consumer products. You can't yell and scream, demanding a refund that one of the upper management will eventually give just to get you off their phone. You can't send them back from whence they came. Rather, you can, but the whole life in prison or death sentence thing defeats the purpose of wiping the slate of your progeny clean.

The customer was not always right. Sometimes you just had to deal with what you got, no substitutions, exchanges or refunds. People wanted to take no responsibility for signing up for a service when they hadn't read all the terms and conditions. My mother had sex, got knocked up and when my father died, responsibility of me went to her. She didn't read the fine print, thinking he had permanently relieved her of the responsibility of raising me when she left me with him.

Work at least gave me a sense of progress and purpose. The pitiful wage I made was enough to cover the pittance Edward charged me in rent. I wasn't entirely oblivious to the cost of living in Los Angeles, and I knew I was getting off easy. When I told him to charge me more, Edward only rolled his eyes. The house was paid off, he pointed out. I took to keeping the refrigerator well stocked in lieu of a bigger rent. It made me feel less worthless.

For as many times as I reflected that I wanted to change, I wanted to be well and cured, there were more times the question, 'what then?' terrified me. So I took life as it was dealt: one card at a time.

It's not that I gave up or forgot my ultimate goal. Trying to figure yourself out is not like dieting or any other physical improvement where inactivity means you've broken your resolution. There are no helpful videos with the likes of Richard Simmons for anything I needed help with. No meal plan could reinforce my image of mental health.

So much of my journey was interior, unwinding the twisted bird's nest of knots that had taken up residence where my personality should have been. A lot of that meant watching other people. Not to imitate them - I wanted to find myself, not someone else - but to see how I fit in with them, how I was supposed to interact with people. Once, I might have known these things but, like anything, if you don't use it for years you will forget. Social interaction was an ability nowhere near riding a bicycle.

Living with Edward was easier than I'd expected though. He worked odd hours at the hospital, so I had a lot of free time on my hands. All in all, it was a somewhat ideal situation. I was alone without being lonely. It left a lot of room to think in peace. But there was only so much time I could spend untangling the threads in my mind. All the silence and peace in the world wasn't going to fix me any quicker. This left a lot of time in the "well, now what?" category.

There was a TV in the living room and several shelves of books but TV and books had been destroyed by my stepfather. Early on some primitive defense mechanism had driven me to find an escape for my mind. I'd read a lot, but most of my books were ripped into several pieces when James was angry at me. Any attempt to watch television was usually thwarted by some excuse about a messy room or forgotten chore. Besides that, there were two TVs in the household: one in the living room and the other in my mother's bedroom. With James, out of sight out of mind was the best platitude to practice. I tried not to be out in the open where it was easier for him to find some excuse, some imperfection to pick at. Even years later, being in Edward's living room, watching TV alone, made me nervous.

Still, as easy and kind as Edward was, there were uncomfortable moments. One of the issues that came up first was whether or not I owed Edward my life story. In some ways it seemed only fair. He'd opened his house to me. Did that mean he deserved to know things I wasn't ready to tell?

We both danced around the issue of our pasts. I knew the story of his parents' death, but not the inevitable after effect of them. Alice and Edward were close, but when they mentioned their older brother, Emmett, there was an underlying anger there that I didn't fully understand.

I didn't ask so I would have to tell, but I knew eventually I would have to say something. Edward wasn't just my landlord, he was becoming my friend. There was a give and take that went with any relationship, friendship included.

In those early days, though, I played my cards close to my chest, saying only what I had to.

"You never call your mother," Edward said suddenly. I was in the kitchen, listlessly reconsidering the idea that as long as I was giving myself a personality makeover, I just might be a vegetarian. The tofu and tempeh weren't bad but I was craving red meat like a motherfucker.

I looked away from my lunch, looking up at Edward with surprise. "Call my mother?" I echoed because the thought honestly hadn't occurred to me.

Edward busied himself, preparing his own lunch. "You don't have a cell phone."

My eyebrows furrowed. The tone of his voice implied that I should be drawing some conclusion but none was forthcoming. "Don't really see a point to a cell phone," I answered slowly. "You, Alice and Jasper are the only people I know." And we weren't exactly great friends. Even if I had Alice's number or Jasper's, what would I call them for?

"You don't know your mother?" Edward asked, meeting my eyes as his hands continued cutting up a tomato for his sandwich needs.

I put down my forkful of sprouts, suddenly not hungry. Anxiety twisted in my stomach. It hadn't occurred to me that I should want to call my mother. If I'd taken the route I was supposed to – gone off to college and lived in a dorm like a normal girl – would I have wanted to call my mother? Didn't every commercial, book, television show have some running theme about calling your mother being a pain in the ass chore?

I wondered if Renee missed me. She had her new husband to entertain her. Phil. She wasn't alone for long after James left. Maybe she couldn't be.

After it sunk in that Phil wasn't going to hit me – he didn't even yell at me – I decided I liked him. In any event, he took care of her which was one less thing for me to worry about. Renee was a bit of a mess on her own, but what the hell would I have done with that in the state I was in?

"My mother's fine without me," I muttered noncommittally, pushing the remnants of my lunch around.

"She doesn't worry about you?" he pressed.

I cleared my throat. Did she worry about me? I didn't know the answer to that question. She hadn't worried much when her husband pushed me to the ground. She hadn't noticed my spiral into the depths of depression and hadn't tried to help me when I started failing in school. Did she worry now that I was out of her sight? "As you pointed out, I haven't called her. I don't know the answer to that question," I deflected.

He sat down across from me, shrugging slightly as he picked up his sandwich. "I would call my mother if I could," he remarked, seemingly innocently.

And suddenly I was annoyed. The implication in his voice was that I was neglecting my mother. Imagine that. He felt I should be appreciative of her because he'd lost his mother. Well, I'd lost my father too. That didn't make Renee some prize just because she was alive when Charlie wasn't. "What about your godfather? I never hear you call him," I said, just to steer the subject away from me.

Edward's sandwich dropped right out of his hands as his whole body went rigid. His eyes flashed to mine, and I was instantly terrified by the utterly malevolent glare I saw. But in the next instant he'd pushed back his chair and stormed out of the kitchen without a word, his lunch forgotten. A second later the door to his room slammed.

I sat at the table frozen under the onslaught of another memory.

Most of the time I was a quiet kid. Even with Charlie I'd never been all that unruly, but with Renee and James, I was a facsimile of a child. Except…

After Victoria left, there were periods of relative peace in the house. I didn't get in James's face now that she wasn't around to push me there.

It would come out of no where. I would be sitting in my room when a fire would spark in the pit of my belly. It was low like a pilot light in a heater: ever present but steady and harmless. But beneath my dead-eyed exterior, a terrible rage was brewing. Think of the Incredible Hulk except it was my blood that was poisoned green instead of my skin, and the violent strength boiling in my veins instead of my muscles.

When that happened, I picked fights with James. It started small – just the irritable backchat that most teenagers were prone to – and then I would push, and push, and push, and push until he snapped.

The worst beatings I received were no one's fault but my own. When I pushed James to a dangerous ledge there would be a flurry of pain and chaotic noise: my screaming, his hollering, hair and clothes ripping because he gripped me and shook me and tossed me by whatever he could grab, the muted thud of fists against flesh, the clap of his belt across skin.

Those were the times when Renee would intervene. "Enough! Enough!" she would scream, tugging at James's shirt as if to pull him backward. Then all the confusing clamor and continuous pain would stop – a movie being paused in the middle of a tense action scene. James would be breathing raggedly. I would be cowering on the floor, my arms wrapped around my head and my legs drawn up as I tried not to cry and failed miserably.

Then, inevitably, James would grab my arm, yanking me up until I was kneeling. Throwing my arm back down, he would grip my hair in his fist, yanking my head back until I had to listen to him. "You fucking crazy bitch. You make everyone around you crazy," he sneered before finally releasing me.

Then I would scramble to my feet, stumbling up the stairs to my room as my anger unraveled behind me like string from a tumbling ball of yarn. By the time I closed my door there wasn't enough fury in me left to even slam it. Instead it clicked shut quietly, snuffing out the little pilot light at my center and replacing it with a despair that made me want to writhe because it consumed me whole. It was a feeling so entirely nameless – leaving me reeling and confused. Burying my face in my pillow, I would sob until my body was limp with exhaustion – until I had nothing left inside of me but the cold, desolate emptiness at my core and the ever-present weight around my heart.

By the time my mother came to check on me, bringing a cold compress for the worst bruises and aloe vera for the scrapes, my eyes were dead again – completely bloodshot from crying, but as blank and lifeless as I felt inside.

Back in my room, in Edward's house, I sat on the bed with my legs drawn up and my chin resting on my knees. I wasn't sobbing, but I was shaking hard.

What had I done? How had I done it?

There was only a twinge of annoyance at my core and I'd managed to make Edward – a stranger who'd been nothing but kind in the short period I'd known him – look at me with a monster's eyes. The hate in his eyes when he looked at me before he stormed off was unmistakable.

I tried to calm down, reasoning that it must have been some social faux pax. Maybe I shouldn't have been mentioning his godfather, reminding him that his parents were dead. I'd learned just a few days ago that Carlisle and Esme Cullen had died the summer Edward was 15 and Alice was 14. The two younger kids had been shipped off to a music camp for a week while Emmett, had been road-tripping with a friend before he started at USC that fall.

The last day of camp Carlisle and Esme hadn't appeared at the little concert the kids put on. When the rest of the parents had come and gone, taking the other kids at the camp with them, Edward and Alice were still alone.

Calls to their home line and cell phone went unanswered. The hospital where Carlisle worked informed them he'd taken the week off. Esme's partner at her restoration business answered similarly. The police were called to knock on their door.

Alice said she found solace in the fact they'd died together, their arms wrapped around each other as they succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning peacefully in their sleep.

Still, while my logical mind thought that Edward's extreme reaction must have been related to his parents' deaths, I couldn't shake the guilt and anxiety that crept under my skin. I found myself unable to concentrate. Concrete thoughts wouldn't settle in my head, instead scattering like dust in the wind. It was frustrating and somewhat nerve-wracking.

So when there was a soft knock on the door, I jumped a mile high.

My bones popped as I unwound myself – who knew how long I'd been sitting stark still on my bed. Staring warily at the door, as if it might burst into the flames, I approached cautiously, opening it slowly.

Edward stood in the hallway, his hands behind his back and a sheepish look on his face. "Do you want to watch a movie with me in the living room?"

I blinked at him brilliantly because that was about the last thing I'd expected to come out of his mouth. Sure we sat at the same table when we happened to be having a meal at the same time, and I'd been lured out of my little hole when Alice visited a few days before, but he'd never initiated any sort of activity between us.

Right on the heels of shock was a rush of pleasure. My face felt too warm. The only explanation I had for my sudden blush was that I'd skipped that awkward stage during my teen years where the least bit of attention from cute boys or girls made me want to giggle and twirl my hair around my finger. The late-blooming schoolgirl in me was jumping up and down because ohmygosh a really cute boy wanted me to hang out.

Technically. Sort of. Maybe as a way of apologizing for glaring at me like he wanted to murder me, but still!

"Depends," I blurted, simultaneously soothing my frazzled nerves and gagging the ridiculous schoolgirl. "Will there be popcorn?"

A slow, admittedly knee-weakening, smile spread across his face. He didn't speak, instead bringing his hands out from behind his back. He was gripping two packages: popcorn – kettle corn and cheddar flavored.

"Easy," I said, smiling timidly back. I tapped the kettle corn, licking my lips before I could help it. The sweet-salty treat was, to the best of my knowledge, one of my favorite snacks.

It took me a moment to realize Edward was staring at my mouth. That fact had barely registered before his eyes snapped back up to mine, and he swallowed hard. Still, his smile didn't falter. "Go pick one out. Whatever you want. I'll make the popcorn."

I followed him out into the hallway and downstairs. The DVD cabinet was a little intimidating. Edward had a huge collection, and I found I couldn't really remember much about movies in the last decade. My dad and I used to watch Star Wars together, but I wasn't up for that trip down memory lane when I felt out of sorts as it was.

"You look a little lost," Edward's voice startled me. He seemed amused.

"Most of the titles I recognize are movies I haven't seen," I explained, tapping randomly on one of the movies I'd been looking at.

Edward's eyes bugged out. "You haven't seen Jaws?"

"Uh, no? I mean, it seemed kind of… stupid," I admitted, wondering too late if it was the wrong thing to say. What if he took insult?

"Blasphemy," he replied, teasing. "Everyone has to see Jaws at least once. It's prerequisite."

"To what?"

He blinked. "Life," he said decisively.

"Oh, well, with logic like that, who am I to argue?" I joked back with him before I even realized what I was doing. The words felt slightly awkward as they tumbled out of my mouth – like shoes that fit but weren't worn in yet. It wasn't entirely uncomfortable, but I wasn't sure of my footing either.

Edward grinned again and strode forward. He proffered me one of the bowls of popcorn he carried, taking the movie from me once one of his hands was free. His nearness made my eyelids flutter, and I was glad that I was staring at the ground.

A few minutes later the movie began. I was lying on couch with the popcorn balanced on my stomach. Edward was in the arm chair, his feet propped up on an ottoman and the bowl in his hands. He kept sneaking glances at me as the opening scene played out while I pretended not to notice.

"Really?" he said, exasperated and incredulous after Jaws claimed his first victim.

"What?" I asked, confused and wary.

"How did that not scare you? It scared the crap out of me when I first saw it." He shook his head.

"What? Why?" I scoffed. "You don't even see the damn thing."

"That's the brilliance of it! They didn't need make-up and special effects. It was all the suggestion, the unknown. Brilliant." He was gesturing with his arms now, and I couldn't help but be amused.

"That's not brilliance. It's accident. The shark didn't work."

Now it was his turn to gape. "What?"

"Come on. Everyone knows this. Spielberg had an animatronic shark, but it wouldn't work, thus forcing them to film around it."

"You're lying," Edward accused lightheartedly. "Eyes on the screen, Swan."

Smiling, I went back to watching the movie until he let out a disgruntled humph a few minutes later. Looking up, I found him glaring at his cell phone. "You're right," he conceded.

I couldn't help but tease him again. "I know. The shark's name is Bruce. Hence the name of the shark in Finding Nemo." I didn't know how I knew these things. They were random factoids that I didn't even know were wandering around my brain until that very moment.

Edward rolled his eyes. "Now you're just showing off." He pointed to his eyes with two fingers and then back to the television. "Anyway, this is a masterful piece of cinema. Eyes on the screen."

I saluted him with mock seriousness and looked back at the screen obediently. Some time had past before I felt the need to snort. "This movie is cheesy."

"When it was released it was the height of special effects."

"When it was released," I repeated, highlighting the important words. "Kudos and all for moving the field of special effects – withoutJaws surely the world would have been without Avatar –"

"An argument against Jaws," Edward shuddered.

"- but this movie is cheesy. And boring. Really, how old were you when this scared you?"

Edward's lips quirked up and down before he mumbled something unintelligible.

"What?"

"Eighteen," he admitted.

I giggled. I couldn't help it. "Really? I can't imagine being scared of this at 12 let alone eight-"

I was cut off as the shark leapt at Richard Dryfus, the sudden movement startling me to the point that I screamed, tumbling off the couch in my surprise. The bowl of popcorn tilted with me, making a mess.

Edward stood quickly to help me, but the moment he was standing over me, my mind went stark white. An intense wave of terror went straight down my spine like a cat raising its hackles. There was no rational thought in my head, only fear. I didn't even realize what I was doing before my body reacted. I skittered backward, crab-like, as fast as possible until my back encountered the solidness of the arm chair. "I'll clean it up. I'm sorry." The words were automatic. Ingrained.

We both froze, Edward's eyes going wide while my brain clicked back on. I blinked, trying to clear the fog from my thoughts. My body was tensed and cringing away, as if preparing for a blow.

Taking a deep breath, I made a conscious effort to relax. Shame and embarrassment made me look at the floor as I got to my knees, scooping up sticky puffs of popcorn. "Sorry," I mumbled.

He knelt across from me without saying a word and began helping me clean up the mess. I was grateful that he didn't speak, though I wished he would go away entirely. As it was it was difficult to keep a lid on the frustrated tears that had sprung to my eyes.

"Maybe you should see some one. It's perfectly normal to feel scared after an attack like that," Edward began softly as he sat back when we'd picked up every stray kernel.

"See someone," I repeated, turning these words over. It's not like I hadn't considered the likelihood that I needed therapy. I just couldn't imagine what good it would do me when my words tangled in my own head. If I couldn't communicate what I was feeling how could anyone stand a chance of helping me? "I'm fine," I lied.

He reached out, his hand cupping my chin as he tried to bring my face up to look at him. I was stubborn though and only looked at the ground. If I looked at him now I'd cry and he'd seen me break down too many times as it was. He sighed. "There's no shame in getting a little help when you need it."

Ha. A little help. "I said I'm fine. I just got startled, that's all." I chuffed, wishing I could make my voice sound light. "The stupid movie scared me after all."

"Bella," he said slowly, his tone not unlike someone talking to a child who didn't understand what she'd done wrong, "that wasn't because of the movie."

"Can we drop it? Please?" I hated the edge of desperation in my voice.

"After the other night with the razor and now this? I'm worried for you."

"Nothing happened!" I shouted, not knowing I was angry until I was suddenly in his face. "That first night I had a bad dream because some fucking asshole put his hands on me and tried to rip my clothes off! I was mostly asleep and I hurt myself accidentally. This is nothing! Nothing. I just jumped because of a stupid movie that you specifically said was going to scare me. Drop it!"

His eyes were so concerned when I finally looked up at them that I felt ill. Still, I couldn't seem to taper down the fury. As it was I'd wrapped my arms around my torso as if physically restraining myself. I wanted to push him. I wanted to get him away from me because he wouldn't shut up. "I don't-" he started again, but I cut him off.

"So, what? You can have a little hissy fit and we get to pretend to forget it ever happened, but I have to explain every time I jump? I don't like double standards."

Edward looked stricken and when his eyes narrowed I could see the same malice I'd glimpsed earlier that afternoon. I could hear his teeth gnashing behind his tightly closed lips.

As quickly as the anger came it was washed away by a wave of fear like a sandcastle crumpled and muddied by the tide. "You regret helping me. I know you do."

"You don't know anything," he snapped. Then he was stalking away from me again.

"You make everyone crazy," James's voice invaded my thoughts as the door to Edward's room slammed shut so hard it echoed.

Chapter Text

"It's like I dressed up in my mama's clothing
It's like I'm talking to a voice that doesn't exist
It's like I got a wire crossed upstairs
But all I want is just a little truth, and that's it
They say I'm mental but I'm just confused
They say I'm mental but I've been abused
They say I'm mental 'cause I'm not amused by it all"

~Mental, The Eels

It had been six weeks and the monster I'd glimpsed only briefly in Edward's eyes hadn't reared its ugly head. Then again, I was careful not to tempt it out.

Mostly, we were okay. Comfortable even. After our little spat, Edward actually started hanging out with me more. I think he felt guilty that he'd snapped at me. I wanted to tell him it was my fault, but how do you segue into that conversation? Hey, so, remember when I made you crazy? Totally my bad.

Because I was spending so much time with Edward, I ended up spending a lot of time with Jasper and Alice as well.

It happened almost accidentally. One day I was sitting on the fringe, watching like Jane Goodall and her monkeys, the next minute I was talking like I'd lived among the beasts forever. It only happened a handful of minutes at a time, but I treasured it. When every minute of your life felt like you were playing with the wrong set of rules, a stolen minute of contentment meant everything.

I fit more with than then I did anywhere else. There was an unspoken understanding there that I craved. When I was at work and not smiling, people asked me what was wrong. When I said nothing, they pushed. I didn't know what people wanted from me. Was I not fulfilling some social obligation to put on a happy face? Were they all just pretending their lives were good, and my not-perky face was like the one bad bulb in a long string of cheerful Christmas lights? But when I was with Edward, Alice and Jasper, they never questioned me. They seemed to know when to leave me alone and when they could draw me into the conversation.

Learning the give and take of relationships was a hands-on experience. I learned so much about them, but I came to understand that the price of a piece of them was a piece of me. It probably wasn't a fair trade, what little I gave them of my past. But I was building a new future. What was the point of a life restart if I had to dwell on where I came from?

But the price was worth what I got in return. In this new life of mine, there was at least a common ground. We were all no one's children, really. Like me, Jasper had left his family behind in Texas. He rarely spoke of his parents and his sister. Whether it was by distance or choice, his family wasn't a big part of his life.

We were all in our early twenties, working jobs that were stepping stones to what we really wanted to do when we 'grew up'. In my case, my job was a means to an end until I figured out the big question mark of what I wanted. Edward had wanted to be a doctor since he was young. It was an idea he hadn't quite given up, though I didn't know why he hadn't gone for it. Alice was interested in psychology. She worked in a call center not unlike mine while she worked her way through grad school. This was Edward's endless frustration. Their parents had left them enough money that she probably could have paid for college. Instead, she'd taken her share and put a significant portion of it away in savings for a rainy day, so to speak. The rest she'd invested.

I got home from work one day to find Jasper and Alice sprawled on the couch. Alice's slight body was draped over his chest. Though they claimed to be no more than friends, they cuddled more than anyone I'd ever seen. What did I know of adult relationships? Maybe it was normal. I was willing to wager that Jasper wouldn't look quite so content if it was me who sat on his lap.

Part of me wished it was normal friend behavior. If it was then I'd have an excuse to cuddle up to Edward.

Shaking away that errant thought, I threw myself into the armchair, letting out a somewhat dramatic sigh. "I don't think I could take it if I knew that I would be doing this all my life," I said before I knew I was going to speak.

"What's that?" Jasper asked. If he was surprised at me jumping into the middle of the conversation instead of the start, he didn't show it.

"Spending forty hours, or more, a week at a meaningless job, pushing paperwork while the drones around me answer the phone, saying the same thing, the same tired speech 200 times a day," I replied, not looking at them but still staring up at the ceiling instead.

Alice snorted. "Story of my life. Try being the one that has to make that same tired speech every day."

Jasper chuckled. "Everyone's story. It's just work. It's paying the bills. It doesn't mean you're going to be stuck there for life," he pointed out. He ruffled Alice's hair, comforting I'm sure.

I sighed quietly. "Some people do. Some people spend their whole lives working meaningless job to meaningless job. I don't want to do that." I was certain about that much.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw Jasper shrug. "Then don't."

I finally turned my head to glare at him. "Snap of your fingers, it's that easy, huh?" I scoffed under my breath. "I can't even begin to think about what I'd do."

For a moment there was silence. "I guess I've always been lucky that way," he said quietly. "I've always known I want to play music, I want to write it."

"But you work in a dead end customer service job too," I pointed out. Jasper actually worked in the music store I'd first met Edward in. He hadn't been at work that day, which I could only consider lucky. As far as I knew, Edward hadn't told Alice or Jasper about my little episodes. They didn't know I was crazy.

"No, I work in a dead end customer service in an area that's my passion job. It's a variation, but an acceptable one," he said with an air of good humor. "In my spare time, I write music and I have a little band I practice with. As long as I'm doing that, I could work at that music store for the rest of my life and be happy."

Alice sighed, her head on his chest as she looked up at him. "I wish I could find something like that."

He ruffled her hair again and kissed her forehead. "You will," he said, quietly. "You're going to do amazing things, Alice."

My heart panged, aching in two different veins. Like Alice, I wanted the happiness that Jasper had found, working with something he was passionate about. And then, looking at the absolute certainty on Jasper's face, I wanted someone who believed in me. To that point I'd thought it was a parent's job, but looking at the way the three of them – Alice, Jasper and Edward – supported each other, I longed for that kind faith.

Of course, some voice within me, reminding me of that girl I sometimes caught a reflection of spoke in my ear, that's the kind of thing you have to deserve to earn.

~0~

"You shouldn't stay out so late," Edward said as I came in past midnight one night. I'd just been out driving around. Experience had taught me what the news was always trying to convince me of: the streets really could be unsafe. That didn't mean I didn't have the restless urges still. Part of me knew I should find a hobby, but what? Anything I thought of had zero interest for me, so I drove around because it was something to do. I was in one of the largest cities in the world, and I'd seen relatively little of it, after all.

"There are drunk drivers out. It's dangerous," Edward lectured. His eyes were tight with worry.

There could have been a lot of things. There could have been a wild herd of elephants that trampled me in my car as I waited at the too-long stoplight. You just never knew. It was sweet of Edward to think of these things, nice of him to count out all the variables so I had one less thing to think about.

To Edward I said, "Thank you." And I meant it.

He was always full of advice. Edward Cullen's helpful hints for living, I took to calling them in my head. I shouldn't go out at night on my own, wandering through parts of the city I wasn't familiar with. I should call my mother. I should go out for that new position at work. I should say yes to the new girl at work, Zafrina, who'd invited me to a museum.

I was undecided at whether I should be annoyed or relieved at the interest he took in my life. Rebuilding a human life was much more complicated and overwhelming than one would think. From the mundane choices to the really big things like what I wanted to do for a living, I had so much to consider. It was probably the same reason there were so many rule books, from etiquette to dealing with the opposite sex. Sometimes it was nice to have a choice made for me. And Edward's advice wasn't exactly off the mark. Consider Zafrina, for instance. There was nothing wrong with cultivating friendships. She was an interesting person to say the least, and didn't seem to mind my near silence.

But sometimes… it was annoying. Who did he think he was, anyway? It reminded me of one of the few things I shared with my mother when I was younger – a love of musicals. In The Sound of Music there was a song that, when we saw the movie, she used to let me sing while jumping from the couch to the loveseat. But as I grew older, the lyrics to Sixteen Going on Seventeen had been perplexing to me. Rolfe was only a year older than Liesl and yet considered himself so much more mature while she was just a silly little girl. Admittedly, Edward had his life more together than mine, but what made him more right?

Sometimes it took everything in me not to tell him to shut the fuck up. I had to remind myself that his heart was in the right place. Whether I liked it or not, I knew I needed help somewhere. He'd helped me. He wanted to continue helping me, and that was nothing but nice of him. It was my own fault that I was so annoyed, and I really didn't want to push him to that dark place again.

You drive everyone crazy.

The least I could do was listen to some well-meaning advice. So I did.

~0~

I didn't realize how much I'd come to look forward to weekends with Edward until he didn't emerge from his room one day. By then it was late November. I'd been living with Edward for around two months. Most weekends he didn't work or had the late shift. He would amble out of his room, half asleep and with a way too attractive for my own good case of bed head. Usually we figured out something for breakfast and then we would veg on the couch, watching movies until we had a little more energy or Jasper or Alice came over.

I sat on the couch, not really watching whatever was on television. My mind was rife with disturbing images, conjuring one ridiculous theory after another. The part of me that was terrified he would one day realize that helping me was the worst decision of his life was nothing to the melodramatic side of me that thought he might be dead on the other side of his door. From what I didn't know. Weren't there a million and one strange diseases out there? Surely one of them could have killed him as we slept.

It was more likely that he was hungover. Edward didn't drink often, but when he did, he did it to excess. There had been a couple of times when he'd come home from work gnashing his teeth and pacing the floor like a caged tiger. With each drink he took he calmed, but he was so worked up it usually took a lot of drinks to squelch his anger.

I tried to stay out of his way. Add alcohol to the long list of things that made me jumpy. Invariably though, he sought me out. It was with Edward that I learned about drinking and my limits on tequila, vodka and whiskey. After a few drinks, my nerves went away, and when Edward pulled me into his arms, falling asleep with his head resting on my shoulder, I thought I might actually like alcohol. Once in a while.

But not enough to make a habit of it. I wasn't so far gone that I wasn't well aware how susceptible I was to addiction. The warm, easy feelings were especially tempting given the painful uncertainty every other moment of the day brought. It was a battle, but it was one I won.

Everyone needed a win every now and again.

But that Saturday, I sat for hours on the couch just waiting. If he had drunk last night he hadn't pulled me with him. But really, how could I count that as unusual when our routine was so new? For all I knew, Edward was just trying to be nice still, even in his drunkenness. Or maybe he'd just needed to be alone.

I had to convince myself that it was rude to bother him. Obviously he knew I where I was. If he wanted to hang out with me, he would have come out in the living room like he always did.

Then again, whenever I stayed in my room too long he always knocked – soft and unassuming – just to make sure I was doing okay. Was the etiquette in this situation to make sure he was all right?

Right, but of the two of you, you're the one who nearly sliced clear through your hand.

So lost in my thoughts and worry, I almost screamed when the doorbell rang. Once I'd gathered my wits about me, I dashed to the door. It was stupid because I wanted to see Edward desperately – just to know he was in one piece – but at the same time, if he wanted not to be bothered, I didn't want anything to disturb him.

I opened the door to find a large, vaguely familiar man on the stoop. He was huge, reminding me so much of how I remembered Felix. He was tall and broad at the shoulders with a head of curly brown hair. He seemed shocked to see me at the door, but then his lips turned up in a lopsided grin, showing off a bewilderingly adorable set of dimples. His eyes sparkled with humor.

Green eyes.

Edward's eyes.

Belatedly, I realized this must be his brother Emmett. I felt automatically wary. This was the man who had all but abandoned his brother and sister after their parents died. They saw him infrequently. Both Edward and Alice were annoyed when they spoke of Emmett. They said he'd rather joke than deal with anything serious. He liked to pretend the world was made of sunshine and rainbows.

Honestly, while they talked about him so derisively I'd been envious. If you could convince yourself that there was nothing but happiness in the world, why wouldn't you? I'd kill to be able to forget the darkness of my past, to let the sun melt away the weight that was a constant burden on my shoulders and around my heart.

"Hi," the man said in a booming voice that startled me. "I'm um… I'm looking for my brother." He stuck his hand out. "I'm Emmett Cullen."

Hesitantly, I put my hand in his, feeling dwarfed. "Bella Swan. He's uh…"

Before I could find a brilliant excuse, Edward was suddenly standing behind me. I felt better with the warmth of his body close to my back – safer somehow. "What do you want Emmett?"

Emmett's grin wavered but only for a moment. "Aren't you going to invite me in?"

Edward scoffed. "Why bother? You're just going to run off in a few minutes. If you've come to spend your obligatory fifteen minutes with me, don't worry. You're off the hook."

"Geez," Emmett groaned. "Can you cut the shit, just today? Let me in, will you?"

I felt Edward tense behind me and automatically reached back, touching my hand to his side. I felt him exhale – a warm blast of air against my head. "Fine," he said shortly, moving inside.

As soon as I wasn't caught between them I scampered away, sequestering myself to the kitchen. I tried not to listen to the brothers' conversation, but I couldn't help but hear them.

An outsider might have assumed Edward was being a brat. Maybe he was, but I was biased, having only heard Edward and Alice's side of the story. His relentless sarcasm, no matter what Emmett was saying, seemed warranted. Even though I felt sorry for what had happened to her, I imagined that I wouldn't be nice if Victoria came back around, all chipper and cheerful and wanting to be my best friend. It was different, of course, because Victoria hadn't been my sister in any real sense. What Emmett had done was worse than even the abuse I'd suffered at Victoria's hand. Sticks and stones, and all that. Family members who were supposed to love you and protect you could hurt you worse than any blow.

Of course I recognized the behavior. He was doing what I'd done so many times with James – pushing him until he snapped. Automatically I was nervous, wrapping my arms around myself and shrinking back a little. Fear gripped me because Emmett was much bigger than his little brother. I didn't want Edward to be hurt, but some sane part of me knew that I couldn't just rush between them. I didn't know their family dynamic. So I stood back and watched Emmett's smile fall in slow motion, like a time lapse photo study of the range of human emotions. By the time his lips curled back in an approximation of a snarl my entire body was tense.

"Oh, would you come off it!" Emmett exploded, his voice booming. I jumped in spite of myself, relieved when the older man stood his ground, not going at Edward. "You're not 15 years old anymore, Edward. You are a grown fucking man, and you need to build a fucking bridge. You want to come at me for abandoning you and Alice, fine. Maybe I did. I was 19, you think I knew how to handle what happened to Mom and Dad? But you're doing the same fucking thing you hypocrite."

"What?" Edward demanded, furious. "What are you talking about? How many years before you even tried to see Alice and me?"

"And how many years has it been since you've seen Anthony and Evan?" Emmett challenged. "They're your nephews, Edward. Your family. You're ignoring them as much as you're accusing me of ignoring you."

Edward looked stricken. "It's not the same," he finally mumbled, but the fury had left his voice. I started to relax, curious about this turn of events.

Emmett sighed, rubbing the back of his neck. "Of course not," he muttered, a little bitterly. "Look, I fucked up. I know I fucked up. There's nothing I can do about all that. Right now, I want to go see Mom and Dad. I want to leave some fucking flowers, and I want my brother and sister there with me."

"One big, happy family," Edward grumbled.

"We'll just bring some flowers and then you know Aro lives around there. Rose, the boys and I were going to have dinner with him. You could come. You haven't seen him in years either. He was asking for you," Emmett continued.

I watched, horrified, as all the blood drained from Edward's face. His fists clenched at his side and he looked down. Emmett was oblivious to Edward's distress, and I suppose if I hadn't been watching him so closely, I would have misread it as more grimacing. But I knew what Edward looked like when he was annoyed. This wasn't annoyance.

It was fear.

"You're bringing the boys to Aro's?" he asked, his voice sounding, to me, choked and horrified.

"Yeah, they'll be there. I don't want them at the cemetery – I don't want them thinking about their grandparents like that – but you can see them at Aro's," Emmett said, totally misreading the thought behind Edward's question.

Edward looked away, and I could see him take shallow breaths through his mouth. He closed his eyes tight, and I thought I saw his body sway. But when he opened them again he looked resolute. "Fine. I'll go. Let me just get my jacket."

He turned and walked away, his gait too quick to be casual. Emmett stared after him, letting out a long breath. Irrationally, I felt defensive on Edward's behalf. I was annoyed that it seemed to take so much out of Emmett to even speak to his brother. I wanted to say it wasn't Edward's fault, but I didn't know. I avoided his eye, bumping the wall farthest away from him because no matter that nothing had happened, his presence was intimidating.

I found Edward in his room, leaning on his dresser. His hands were gripped so tight on the edge that his knuckles were white. I'd been right… he was distressed. Slowly and quietly, feeling completely out of my depth, I approached him like he might bolt or explode at any second. My stomach was twisting with a nameless anxiety – he'd been so angry before that I was still nervous – but I owed this to him, to try to comfort him. I owed him a lot.

He didn't even notice I was there until I put my hand over his. Feeling a little awkward, I rubbed my hands over his tense knuckles, as if I could massage his fear away. "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine." The words he bit out were harsh, making me flinch, but his actions were completely opposite of his tone. He flipped his hand, threading our fingers together and squeezed as if I was a lifeline and he was dangling over a deep canyon. He didn't look fine. Even from the side profile he looked sallow.

"You look like you're going to be sick," I prodded, not wanting him to go if it meant that he would be this upset.

Edward breathed in through his nose and out slowly. "It's nothing. Just… residual anger at my brother, I guess. He's right. I shouldn't be holding on to it." He took another deep breath, and his grip on my hand loosened. "Especially not if it hurts the boys." His voice was strange then… distant in some way, and when I ducked to try to look in Edward's eyes they seemed unfocused. "They didn't do anything. They don't deserve bad things to happen to them. They should be protected."

My heartbeat quickened. "From what?" He didn't respond, didn't appear to even hear me. I tugged his hand slightly to get his attention. "Edward, from what?"

He blinked sporadically, as if coming out of a trance. His expression was confused. "What?"

I stared, wondering if he was playing some type of joke. "You said your nephews should be protected. From what?"

His eyes were so lost then, like the little boy I imagined he must have been years ago – parents dead, older brother gone, little sister clinging to him as if he wasn't just as in need as she was. But then he looked down, his hand dropping from mine as he concentrated on buttoning his jacket. "Nothing. Ignore me. It's just … it's my dad's birthday, and Emmett…" he gestured vaguely.

I nodded, understanding because I'd spent most of my dad's birthdays in a near catatonic state. "It's a hard day." I surprised myself by putting my arms around him. He stiffened for a moment, but then melted against me, hugging me back, accepting what little comfort I could give him.

When he was gone, following his brother with his hands shoved deep in his pockets, his hoodie pulled up around his head, sunglasses hiding his eyes and shoulders drooping under a weight I wasn't sure I understood, I couldn't help but worry. Edward was confident and sure – cocky and arrogant at times. I wasn't used to …

In those minutes, he looked like me.

I was pretending not to worry, doing laundry just to keep my hands busy, when a key turned in the lock. "Oh, it's you," I said, not meaning to sound as disappointed as I was that it was Jasper who walked in instead of Edward.

He laughed wryly. "Don't sound so enthusiastic," he muttered, throwing himself on the couch.

The tone of his voice was enough to get my mind off Edward, at least for the moment. Jasper was almost always even tempered, his voice light and unassuming no matter what the topic was. This particular tone – where his voice was pulled tight like the sheets in a military base – typically meant that Alice was on a date.

What I'd learned about Alice was that she sought approval everywhere. It made sense to me. She'd been abandoned by her birthparents at a young age, abandoned by her adopted parents through death, and abandoned by her older brother. I could see how unconscious it was – the need to have people like her. With me, it manifested in a hyperactive older sister syndrome. She played with my hair, talked about helping me find a wardrobe that flattered my shape, and tried to talk me into girls' nights out until I reminded her that I was under the legal drinking age. For the men that flitted in and out of her life, well…

A man loved anything he was buried that deep inside, if only for those few minutes.

I'd often wondered how Jasper had ended up in the friend zone.

"Is Edward not here?" Jasper asked, furrowing his eyebrows and looking around, realizing his friend was, indeed, missing.

"Emmett came over. They went to the cemetery, I think," I answered.

Jasper's head snapped up. "Emmett was here? Today?" I nodded and Jasper smiled humorously. "That must have been a pretty sight."

I shrugged. "They said they were going to find Alice," I said, keeping my voice steady so he wouldn't think I was prying. Which, I was.

A grimace crossed his face. "Good luck with that," he scoffed. "She's got a date today. Of course, she would want the distraction." He grumbled to himself for another few seconds before he looked at me. "Are Emmett and Edward going anywhere else besides the cemetery? Honestly, dealing with his brother is the last thing Edward needs today."

"Um, they said something about an Aro…"

Jasper's eyes went wide. "Aro? Like their godfather, Aro?"

I looked at him helplessly because I hadn't followed along that well. "I think? Emmett said he was taking his boys and that Edward should go since he never sees them."

Wiping a hand over his eyes, Jasper groaned. "Fuck."

"What is it? What's wrong?" I asked, confused and alarmed. Jasper was as cool as a cucumber in the freezer, typically speaking. The fact that he was freaked out definitely freaked me out.

"Nothing. It's nothing," Jasper said quickly, but the way he was holding his head in both hands wasn't very convincing. "Have you had lunch?" I shook my head, belatedly realizing that my stomach was completely empty. "Sit tight, sugar. I'll be back and then we'll do something."

Jasper left and came back half an hour later with Indian food and more than enough alcohol. He opened a beer for himself, handing me a wine cooler because he knew I hated the taste of beer.

We spent the rest of the day just hanging out. Anyone who didn't look close enough would have thought we were just two friends spending a lazy Saturday together. They would have missed that I gnawed my nails down to the quick, feeling something coming like a tempest looming. They would have thought nothing of the way Jasper checked his phone every ten minutes or so. They would have been oblivious to the elephant in the room.

When a car pulled up front we both jumped up. Out the window, I watched, a profound relief making it easier to breathe as Edward emerged from the back of his brother's SUV. He reached back inside, briefly clasping the hands of two blond-haired children I barely glimpsed before he shut the door, turning away.

The SUV drove off and Edward's shoulders slumped. I hadn't even realized my body turned to the door, aching to go to him, when Jasper put his hand on my arm. "Let me," he murmured.

He went outside, and I was helpless to do anything but watch from the window. Edward stood, his shoulder's stooped and his head staring downward at his shoes. He nodded or shook his head to whatever Jasper was saying to him.

When they got inside I placed a plate of food in front of him – the only thing I could think to do to help whatever was going on. I wanted to ask, but something in the way Jasper looked at me shut my mouth.

Edward didn't look at anyone. He answered questions with yes and no answers. He strung no more than six words together at once. Jasper kept his distance but kept handing him tumblers of whiskey. It wasn't having the desired effect though. Edward wasn't relaxing.

Eventually, he got sleepy, and mumbled something about just wanting to go to bed. Jasper tried to help him, but when he touched his shoulder Edward recoiled, yelling "Get off!" in a voice louder than I'd heard him use all night.

"I'm sorry, Edward," Jasper said quickly, both of his hands up in a placating motion.

Edward blinked at him, and then if it was possible his shoulder's slumped even more. He shook his head, mumbling under his breath as he turned away again. Both Jasper and I just watched as he shuffled off.

"Fuck," Jasper said for the second time that day. He looked at me. "Look, I'm staying here tonight. Edward… he's probably going to have bad dreams."

"Why won't you tell me what's wrong?" I asked softly. Maybe it wasn't my business but I wanted to help.

Jasper's eyes were both angry and sad when he looked at me. "It just happens sometimes. When he has to see his godfather it just… reminds him. Of his parents." The uncharacteristic way he stuttered made me think there was more to it, but again I had to tell myself that I wasn't owed everyone's life story. Jasper was Edward's best friend. He knew him better, had a right to know him better.

I couldn't sleep that night, just waiting and listening. It was after three in the morning when Jasper's prophecy came true. Edward screamed in his sleep – a noise so raw and filled with pain that I promptly burst into tears. I wanted to go to him, so bad, but I didn't want to make it worse.

How could I help him? I didn't even know how to help myself.

But I could hear Jasper's quick footfalls going from the living room to Edward's room. I crept out into the hallway a minute later, listening.

"Get away from me. Get away from me!" Edward's voice sounded at once furious and frightened, slurred with sleep and alcohol.

I couldn't hear what Jasper said to him, but his tone was soothing. Eventually, the occasional shouts quieted, and I swear I heard sobbing. I couldn't be sure though – it could have been my dramatic imagination.

My head was full of too heavy thoughts, trying to put together the pieces. I was missing something. Something important.

It was over an hour before Jasper emerged from Edward's room looking haggard and sad. He stopped short when he saw me, huddled on the floor with my arms wrapped around my knees and dried tear tracks on my cheeks. He sighed, extending a hand to me. I let him pull me up and into his arms.

"I know you want to understand, but it's not my story to tell," he said, his voice gentle and apologetic.

I wondered then if demons were inevitable, and if Edward's demons in any way resembled mine.

Chapter Text

"Your faith like the pain
Draws me in again
She washes all my wounds for me
The darkness in my veins
I never could explain
And I wonder if you ever see
Will you still believe?
"

~Falls on Me, Fuel

That night, after spending time with his family, was the worst for Edward. Even after that night, though, there was something off.

I wasn't the only one who noticed the changes in Edward. Jasper began dropping by more, and when he watched his friend, his eyes were always wary. Alice was extra clingy, offering up more hugs than usual, trying to get him to talk.

It wasn't that Edward was silent. No, he tried to interact. But when he spoke his words would trail off, lost like paper being swept away by a strong gust of wind. He had the attention span of a goldfish, and was rarely able to follow a conversation for longer than a handful of minutes.

Edward was trying his damndest to make it seem like everything was normal. It must have taken all of his energy to get through work because, when he came home, he was entirely drained and exhausted. He was functioning but not very well.

There was such an impotence in watching him suffer when there was nothing I could do about it. Edward himself wasn't helping. He brushed off Jasper's concern with angry glares, growling at him when he lingered too long at the house. For Alice he would smile, but even that small a gesture seemed, to me, an enormous effort. If I asked how he was he would invariably answer with an, 'I'm fine.' I didn't believe him, but how could I press him?

It took me too long to realize what was going on with Edward. While I didn't understand the cause, I understood the symptoms and the disease.

Before I'd awoken from my stupor - when I was still a high school girl in Phoenix - I'd been lost in the fog of my own mind. But while time had unquestionably disappeared into the thick mist, I still had some memory of what it was like to be in the midst of it.

The few times Edward spoke, his words often trailed off, fading away as his eyes glazed over. Or he would sit there, his eyebrows furrowed in frustration as he tried to concentrate long enough to remember what he was saying.

Of course I understood, because I knew what the fog was like. It wasn't as ephemeral as the misty wisps on the beach at night. The fog of the mind was what happened when the brain was overloaded with too many memories and emotions to process all at once. Those little sheets with the faces on them where you could circle how you were feeling that day - I'm feeling embarrassed, harried, angry, frustrated - I'd have had to circle the whole sheet, and that was just the beginning.

There were so many emotions I never could find a name for. What was it called when your skin crawled, not because you were creeped out but because what was in your veins was too foul to hold in your body? Was there a face that could adequately cover anger strong enough that it felt like I could punch straight through walls while simultaneously feeling so tired that the blankets of my bed were as heavy as lead around me?

It was all too much to deal with. How could anyone concentrate on conversations going on around them with that much turmoil building like a hurricane inside of them? How could they be expected to form sentences to answer mundane questions like 'how was your day' or'what movie do you want to see this weekend'?

I remembered all too well what it was like when each thought in your head screamed with the volume of a crowd at a rock concert in a packed full stadium. It was all wordless, just a cacophony of emotion poured into a deafening roar, except where concerts typically held a positive vibe, the noise inside your head was full of venom and negativity.

At times it would get to be more than I could handle. One weekend, when I was 16, I grabbed my mother's keys, and I took the car. I drove and drove and I thought that maybe I was not going to come back. I had a fresh set of bruises decorating my ribs and James's voice in my head ranting about just how worthless I was.

As I drove, images flashed through my chaotic mind - impulses that it took everything inside of me not to act on. I saw the warning lights where the train tracks intersected the street and I screeched to a stop at the last second, the smell of burnt rubber thick in my nostrils.

The train moved on and I hit the gas, driving until the streets and buildings gave way to the open desert. Vaguely remembering Thelma and Louise and the freedom they found soaring into the abyss of the Grand Canyon, I formed a vague plan. If I could get there, I could find the same relief. The problem was the canyon was four hours away and, in my state of mind at the time, four hours was a lifetime of suffering I simply couldn't take anymore.

When I thought of swerving my car into oncoming traffic, I knew I had to get off the road. The pull was intense - almost too great to ignore. I needed destruction and crunching steel and the promise that it would all be over soon. But as much as I had no sense of self-preservation left, I could still see the value in other people. They were husbands and fathers and brothers and wives and daughters and mothers and other people needed them. I knew I needed to stop.

I hadn't even realized I was sobbing when I ran the car off the road, into the dust and dirt of the desert. I got out and stumbled away from the road, running into the wide open spaces until the pain of my lungs burning for air broke through the torment at the center of my being. I stopped, leaning on an outcropping of rocks as I breathed raggedly, still crying and desperate.

It was hard to say how long it was before I took in my surroundings. The lack of noise outside of my own mind was deafening. I was used to the hustle and bustle of Phoenix - cars, people... noise pollution. With the highway to my back, I could only see an endless expanse of desert in front of me. There was nothing but the barren land, and the occasional rustle of the creatures that shared that space. I'd run far enough away that I couldn't even hear the rush of cars on the road.

Somehow, in the stillness, the discord and tumult in my mind began to ebb. Like those blood pressure machines you could find in drug stores, the too tight, pinching hold around my heart began to loosen, and for full minutes I found I could breathe deeply again.

It didn't last. It couldn't. When I turned back around I could see, in the distance, two more cars had joined mine by the side of the road. I couldn't tell from that distance but they turned out to be police cars. Looking between the vast desert and the highway that would take me back to James and my mother, I had to go back. Maybe I was too much of a coward, but heading off into the desert would have been a death sentence. With my mind temporarily calmed, and the loud, violent voices quieted, I wasn't so desperate for the relief of death.

Back in California, a plan began to formulate in my head. Maybe I could help Edward. If nothing else, maybe I could distract him for a short time. My co-worker McKenna had showed me the colorful tattoo she had at the small of her back. It was a sun - or at least, an orange and yellow circle - tucked between the sparse branches of a Joshua tree. In the middle of Los Angeles, it was hard to remember both the mountains and the desert lay just a short drive away. McKenna, it turned out, had a fondness of camping in Joshua Tree National Park - a beautiful spot in the high desert.

Now, I wasn't one for camping, let alone being outdoors in the frigid temperatures of the high desert in the winter. But McKenna had also told me of a little inn in the middle of nowhere. There was a bar, she said, but beyond that there was only open space. The town where you could buy breakfast and other provisions was a ten minute drive away.

I had all the information, and I booked the rooms, foolishly and uncharacteristically optimistic that I could actually get Edward to come with me. What was I going to say? Hey, I noticed you've been sad. The desert pulled me back from the brink of a psychotic break, you wanna try it?

"You have the early shift on Friday, don't you?" I asked after I'd coaxed him out of his room with dinner.

The barest hint of a smile tugged at his lips as he looked up at me. "What are you, stalking me now?"

"No!" I said, too quickly. And I really wasn't but it hadn't occurred to me to that point that it might have been strange to pay attention to a man so much that you knew his schedule. "I just… I mean, for the last few weeks."

He reached out, putting his hand lightly on my arm. "I was joking, Bella."

My cheeks flamed, and I pushed my food around my plate. "Right."

"Why do you ask?"

"Well," I began, taking a deep breath to calm my nerves… it wasn't like I was asking him on a date for fucks sake. "McKenna keeps talking about Joshua Tree. I was thinking of heading out there this weekend."

He looked up at me from under his lashes, and I felt that now familiar pool of warmth spread across my chest. "You're going with McKenna for the weekend?" Edward clarified, and I thought I heard a hint of disappointment in his tone. It was probably my overactive imagination though.

"No. Actually, I was going to go alone, but-"

"You shouldn't!" Edward protested. Then he rubbed the back of his head, looking abashed. "I mean, being alone in the middle of the desert in winter – it's just not a good idea."

"I know," I agreed. "That's why I was going to ask you to come." I was staring at my plate as I spoke, so I didn't see his reaction. He was quiet for a few seconds though – long enough for me to start to think I'd done the wrong thing.

"Are you camping?" he asked softly.

I chuffed. "Yeah, right. Umm, dealing without good cell phone reception is as much 'roughing it' as I can handle. There's a place called Pioneertown. I reserved a couple of rooms, so you wouldn't have to pay for that."

When I finally looked up, Edward wasn't looking at me. He was staring off into the distance, his brows furrowed in thought. He sighed lightly. "I don't think… I don't know that I'd be good company," he said finally, his voice so quiet it was hard to hear.

This time it was me who reached across the table to touch him. "You should know by now that I'm easy to please. You don't have to talk. Just come."

He looked down at our hands, and when I went to yank mine back, he caught my fingers with his. "Okay," he agreed, squeezing my hand briefly before returning to his dinner.

When I smiled at him, I blushed.

~0~

The drive to Joshua Tree was a little more than two hours. Edward insisted on taking his Volvo, claiming it got better mileage, but he did let me drive. That in and of itself spoke volumes. Edward didn't typically take well to being a passenger.

So Edward provided the music while I drove. At first, he tried to keep up with the conversation, but as it had for the last two weeks, his thoughts would drift away. He lapsed into silence for longer and longer until there was nothing but the tires on the pavement and the music from the speakers.

At first, I tried not to hear the music. I was driving, and the last thing I needed was to have another episode like in the music store. Wouldn't that be perfect? It would be the cherry topper of my useless life that I took a person like Edward Cullen down with me. Edward who had a job that affected people's lives every day. He had a sister who obviously still leaned on him, and a best friend who cared so much he helped shoulder Edward's secrets.

But in the silence, as I glanced over at Edward who only stared out at the passing landscape, I began to hear bits and pieces of the music. The more I heard, the more I realized there was a theme to the songs he played. The tone of the music was often soft, melancholy – putting melodic noise to an ache that went so deep it couldn't be soothed away. The lyrics spoke of desperation and secret darkness, of a struggle waged in the silence of your own mind.

He was talking, I realized. He was trying to tell me what was wrong with him in the only language he knew how to speak of such things.

Toward the end of the trip, the songs he played began to pick up in tempo. The tone became more discordant and the lyrics angrier. Not at me, I knew that wasn't the point. Still, the lyrics were violent and desperate, because when you lived with that kind of pain for long enough you craved destruction.

I felt nervous. I wasn't scared of him at all, but rather where his thoughts were at the moment. I understood the anger too. What else had driven me to rail against James, pushing him until he lashed out?

Listening to Edward's turmoil was like hearing a not-too-distant echo of my own. Trying to be a good roommate and friend, I thought I'd done a good job of keeping my spastic, potentially crazy emotions under control. He didn't need to deal with the weepy girl who collapsed in tears from simply staring in the mirror. He didn't need to fear the lunatic who would slice open her own hand just because she couldn't take a deep breath. But as the lyrics to the songs Edward played began to seep through my skin, I could feel the tempest looming. Like the Tasmanian devil, pissed as hell that he'd been restrained, the noises in my head sounded like irrational gibberish and spitting.

But before I could break, the land around us became sparser and craggy. A road sign informed me we were close.

"It's beautiful out here," Edward murmured, and I almost jumped. It was the first thing he'd said in over an hour. He sighed, the breath coming out long and slow.

"It's so different from Phoenix," I offered. I'd known, of course, that there had to be a difference between the Sonora Desert and the high desert at Joshua Tree National Park. I didn't expect the difference to be so vast.

One thing was for certain – Joshua Trees were funny looking things. They were as sparse as you would expect a desert tree to be and yet hinted at fullness, like they were trying to be the softer, greener trees of the forests.

In Pioneertown, we checked in, finding the small rooms I'd rented bedecked in a western theme. Edward smirked at the pictures of old silver screen cowboys, and the quaint yellow curtains that decorated the windows.

After eating at the Inn's restaurant and bar, thankfully quiet seeing as it was only lunchtime, we started exploring on foot. I babbled. A lot. I told him about the things McKenna had done here. She'd told me how the bar got so full you could hardly dance. The inn would get so packed by nightfall that the more adventurous hikers would sleep by the corral.

"It almost seems surreal," Edward mused. "I mean, logically I know that people still camp and depend on campfires for warmth. But it all seems like science fiction to city-folk like us." He smiled at me, bumping my side.

I scoffed. "Forks could barely be called a city. My dad's best friend lived on the Quileute reservation in La Push. We would go down there for bonfires in the summer."

He tilted his head. "I thought you lived in Phoenix."

Staring down at the sandy ground as we walked, I clenched and unclenched my fists. "Not always. I lived in Forks, Washington for ten years with my dad before moving to Phoenix with my mom."

I waited for him to ask, but there was only the sound of our shoes on the dirt. "My mom and dad took us camping a lot. I mean, not sleep in tents camping, but in a motorhome like civilized people," he joked softly instead. "I remember thinking that there couldn't be anything more pretty than the mountains and rivers they took us to." He paused a moment, looking out at the land. "I'm beginning to think I was wrong."

I didn't respond, but I smiled. In the months I'd lived with him, Edward hadn't ever said a word about his parents. Everything I knew of Esme and Carlisle Cullen I knew because Alice spoke of them.

A piece of me for a piece of him. I didn't know how to tell him I appreciated the gesture, but he didn't seem to need the thanks.

We walked on, occasionally talking. I told him about how McKenna had a profound experience one trip, doing shrooms somewhere out here. Edward chuffed and admitted that drugs made him curious – especially the psychedelic kind. The problem, he said, was that while the idea of hallucinating was intriguing – as one-time experiences went – the concept scared the hell out of him. He didn't think he could take the loss of control.

By mid-afternoon we'd walked quite a distance and stopped to sit on one of the huge rocks that had been flattened and smoothed by centuries of wind. I closed my eyes, acknowledging my senses one by one. I smelled the freshness of the earth and the purity of the air – relatively unblemished by the pollution we humans were so good at. You couldn't breathe deeply in any major city.

The air, as it blew softly across my skin, was icy, but I welcomed it. My cheeks felt raw with the cold, but at least it was a feeling outside of me.

I listened to the hum of life around me – so different from the clamor on the streets. I heard birds calling to each other, and the rustle of the wind on sparse leaves.

And when I opened my eyes, I found it again: that peace with the world that calmed the turmoil inside of me. I knew it would come again. It was like the weightlessness that came with stepping in the pool – temporary, and when I got out I would feel cold without the warmth of the water I'd gotten used to.

Edward tried to speak – something inane to fill the silence – but I shushed him. He seemed to welcome the permission to be quiet, and he drew his legs up, hugging his arms around them as he looked out over the land.

Too soon, we had to head back. We couldn't be caught out in the middle of the desert at night. Not only did temperatures get close to freezing, if not below, but we didn't have anything resembling supplies.

Edward braved a trip to the rowdy restaurant to get us dinner, and afterward we sat out on the porch swing in front of our rooms, just looking up at the stars. There were so many. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I could vaguely remember seeing them exposed like this in the rare times the clouds rolled away during the evening.

Set against the enormity of the sky and the endlessness of the unpopulated land, my own problems could get lost in the mix. For full minutes, they vanished.

I was so lost in the blankness of my thoughts that I started when I felt a warm hand on mine. Looking over, I found Edward looking at me. "You shivered," he said. "Are you cold?"

Now that he mentioned it, I couldn't help but feel the bitter chill of the air. I was in my winter coat but I had forgotten my gloves. My hands were freezing. "A little," I admitted.

He pursed his lips, and I was relieved when I saw the contemplative expression on his face. That part of him had been missing for two weeks now. Apparently coming to a conclusion, he tugged on my hand. "Come here. For warmth," he clarified.

Feeling foolish and uncertain, I scooted close to him. Slightly. He rolled his eyes and put his arm around me, pulling me close to him. After a moment I relaxed, wrapping my arms around him and simply enjoying the moment, looking up at the stars with a beautiful boy wrapped around me.

~0~

When I woke up the next morning I found an envelope had been slipped under the door. In it was a note and the key to the car. Edward said he'd gone for a walk and not to worry if he didn't come back right away - it was a long walk.

Of course, the first thing I did was worry.

I worried as I showered and dressed. I worried as I brushed my teeth and combed my hair. The girl flashed briefly in the mirror, rolling her eyes at my paranoia.

This was what I wanted, wasn't it? Hadn't I brought him out here hoping he would find a place to quiet the loud voices that were doubtless waging war in his head? They were his demons. Had I expected him to fight them with me at his side?

Still, it didn't help calm me. If he was wandering the desert - and doubtless he was, given that he'd left me the car - any number of things could have happened to him. Thank God the rattlesnakes were resting for the winter, or I don't think I would have been able to sit still at all.

I took some comfort from the fact the car was moved from where I'd parked it the day before. I hoped this meant that he'd wandered out into the desert prepared. In the middle of the winter, it was unlikely he'd die of a heat stroke, but he should have something in the way of supplies. Water at least.

After I was dressed and had gotten a little breakfast in me, I was at a loss for what to do. I'd come out here for Edward and hadn't thought of how I could entertain myself if he wandered off.

How funny was that? It took nothing at all for me to forget how to be alone.

So instead of venturing out into the desert myself - somehow I didn't want to encroach on Edward's space - I simply sat.

It wasn't as dull as one might have thought. In fact, it was totally opposite. In the last few months of my life, I'd wandered around in a self-absorbed bubble, lost in my own head. Maybe it was because I was finally doing something for someone else for a change, but I was suddenly hyper aware of all the people around me.

If the last two weeks had taught me anything, it was that everyone had a story. I wondered if Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Getswas right. Was there anyone out there who had nothing but tales of good times and noodle salad?

But try as I might, it didn't take long for my thoughts to meander back to me.

It was just the kind of people that were out here. There were the obvious lovers - hanging on each other, nuzzling noses and full on making out. At the restaurant I saw a woman with her laptop taking a business call as she stared out the window. There were packs of guys with backpacks and hats, likely living out their childhood cowboy fantasies. There was even one artist who sat on the porch with his pad in his hand, sketching the secrets of the desert.

This was probably why I tried not to notice people. Watching everyone else only served to throw into sharp contrast everything I was missing. At least the guffawing, obnoxious frat boys were living up some dream of their youth. The woman at the restaurant was gainfully employed and likely to a moderate degree of success. The artist had a hobby if not a passion. And the lovers...

I was twenty years old. Logically I knew that I had my whole life ahead of me. The trouble was that I still didn't have a clue what I wanted to do with it. I should have been finishing my first semester of college - one semester down toward some semblance of a plan. At least it would have opened other doors. But no, that time was wasted now.

Baby steps.

Right. But it had been a while since I'd made a decision, made any progress whatsoever. I wasn't sure if the key to not falling back into the fog was to think like a shark: stop swimming and die.

A career was too big to think about. The very idea of trying to whittle down all the world's professions to one that was perfectly suited to me seemed like too large a task. It made me tired just thinking of it.

I wondered how difficult it would be to find a hobby. How do people decide on hobbies? Drawing seemed obvious. I could understand how that worked - how you could need an outlet to show exactly how you saw the world. Lord knew, though, that there was a world full of hobbies out there.

How did one get into ham radio?

What the fuck wasa ham radio?

And then love.

I wasn't asexual. Like anyone else I had thoughts of an impure nature, if you wanted to be fancy about it. No one stuck out, but my body knew that it could be touched, stroked, brought to some kind of peak.

Maybe it was because I was a cop's kid, but the playground shenanigans had been limited to Mike Newton's experimental kiss. Then, when I was with my mother and James, I just changed.

Needless to say, I missed all the firsts that my classmates had. First (real) kisses. First hands over shirt. First hands undershirt. Hands...lower.

I wondered how many of my classmates were still virginal.

Hours passed as I watched the other temporary residents of Pioneertown. Still no word from Edward. I'd finally reached the point where my paranoia couldn't be ignored.

I must have imagined his death in hundreds of ways.

Finally, sometime in the middle of the afternoon, a human-shaped blur appeared on the horizon. I couldn't be sure until he got closer, but when I finally could make out Edward's features, I felt the sweetness of relief.

Now that I knew he was alive and walking toward me, I could afford to think rationally. Somehow I managed to taper down the girl in me who wanted to rush through the space between us and throw my arms around his neck. Of course, I wasn't sure if I wanted to do that more because I was glad he was alive or because...

Well, anyway.

When I could finally see the fine features of his face, I couldn't help but smile. There was a brightness there that had been missing for those long two weeks. His lips no longer hinted at a smile, but, when he looked up at me, he broke into a full on grin that made my pulse thready. The set of his brow, his jaw, no longer reflected the burden he'd borne in silence. He looked almost serene.

"Hey," I called when I was sure he could hear me.

He jogged the remaining steps to me. "Hi," he answered, sitting beside me on the porch swing. "Sorry I ditched you."

I shook my head. "Don't worry about it. I've been people watching."

He chuckled, the sound full and nothing like the weak sound of his laughter before. "Sounds fascinating."

"It was... interesting," I allowed.

"Hmmmm," he murmured. Then, as he looked down on me, the strangest expression crossed his face. There was so much warmth in his eyes that I no longer felt the chilly air, but more than that there was an odd semblance of fear that darted across the emerald depths. It wasn't terror, but closer to a curious uncertainty.

Caught in his stare, I found myself unable to move. I had absolutely no idea what was happening between us, only that it was intoxicating and just a little bit scary. I didn't know whether I wanted to bolt or pull myself closer to him, so my body was stuck standing still as his hand raised. His breath stuttered slightly as he brushed my hair back, pushing my hoodie back away from my face.

I couldn't breathe. No one had touched me as tenderly as he did then. Of course, my father had hugged me, but he was not so demonstrative of his affections.

Was this affection? Was this normal? Was this just the way good friends expressed their appreciation of one another?

Then again - I hadn't ever seen him look at Jasper or touch him like this.

When he ducked his head, I still didn't understand what was going on. My body seemed to have an innate knowledge though because my hands went up, ignoring my frozen thoughts, and slid past his jacket to either side of his neck. My head tilted up, and my lips parted slightly.

And for once, there wasn't any narration in my head. I didn't question whether I was doing things wrong or whether I should be doing this at all. I was caught in the intensity of emotion, but this time it was an elation I'd never felt before. Blood pumped through my veins, suddenly warm and pulsing with energy. There was no thought except the pure happiness of his lips to mine.

For those blissful seconds, I didn't feel so damaged and wrong. I felt whole and perfect.

We kissed once, twice, three times. Small, sweet kisses as delicate as an artist's gentle brush across a canvas. When he stopped, Edward laughed lightly, his forehead against mine. I bit my lip, trying to contain this happiness. This was a sweet nectar I wanted to keep inside of me forever if I could swing it.

"Thank you," he said quietly, his thumbs brushing my cheek again.

I didn't have to ask him what he meant.

Chapter Text

"Are you ugly?

A liar like me?

A user, a lost soul?

Someone you don't know

Money it's no cure

A Sickness so pure

Are you like me?

Are you ugly?"

~Ugly, The Exies

I had to know the bliss wouldn't last. As it was, I had more than I ever could have asked for.

Even if it had just been that one weekend, it would have been more than I had ever expected. There was Edward holding my hand over the shifter as he drove us home on Sunday afternoon - the way he would look at me out of the corner of his eye and his lips would curl up like he was pleased. It took me a while to identify the feeling that welled in me as giddiness. It was so entirely childlike - innocent and pure, warming me from the inside out.

And the kisses. Holy crow, the kisses.

It was like watching the sky and waiting for a shooting star. You knew one could streak across the night at any given moment, but it was impossible to know when. I was too shy and completely out of my depth to seek them out myself. But I could always tell when he wanted to kiss me. There would be that gleam in his eye - like he was hungry, but soft around the edges, not quite as needy. And when he did kiss me he was always so gentle, as if the slight pressure of his lips to mine and his hands holding me could break me.

Part of me worried that he was right.

I didn't have a clue what these little kisses and occasional cuddles meant, or even what I wanted them to mean.

Love - in any of its permutations - wasn't something I had actively considered. The word scared the hell out of me, to be completely honest. If Edward had told me he wanted to kiss me before he actually did, I would have gone spastic. Luckily, or perhaps unluckily, he never asked before he kissed me or touched me tenderly.

It's not that I didn't know there consequences to my actions, I simply didn't want to think about them. His kisses were like the drugs I was trying hard to avoid. They made me unnaturally happy. I didn't have anything to base it off of, but if being high felt better than this, I wasn't quite sure I could deal with that much happiness.

Once, Edward caught me before I left for work. His eyes were hooded and still half asleep. He was playful, his grin almost goofy as he ambled over to me, biting the other end of the piece of toast I was holding between my teeth. He chewed slowly, his eyes on my lips as I swallowed the bit in my mouth and put the remaining bread down. When he kissed me then, his lips were rough from the crumbs, and I reflected that strawberry jam tasted sweeter off his tongue.

At work McKenna and Zafrina teased me endlessly, noting that I looked 'freshly plucked' and tried to trick me into admitting I'd had sex.

"He must have been amazing, doll," McKenna crowed, chuckling. "Your pretty face could light up the whole office right now."

He never deepened the kiss further than to run his tongue over my lip. I was only ever brave enough to let my tongue dart out lightly against his.

And we didn't talk about it.

And he never tried to kiss me or so much as hold my hand when Alice and Jasper were around.

Which was fine by me. I willfully stopped myself from dwelling. If I stopped and let myself think I wouldn't be able to stop. Then I would have to acknowledge how reckless it was to let this go on.

I wasn't an idiot. I knew that kissing the way we were was an indication of something other than friendship. I didn't know what it was, but any way you sliced it, it was more complication that I should want in my life at this point. My life was a mess; I was a mess. I was vaguely beginning to resemble something human and trying to deal with the shadowy realm that was my own mind. I had no business getting mixed up in the insanity that was love ... or whatever you wanted to call it.

Like and lust was all it took for my mother to fuck my father, and to subsequently be knocked up with me.

Love was what my mother called what she had with James. Did I really want something that would make me believe it was okay to watch as the man I loved beat first his daughter and then my daughter from room to room?

There was a reason why the vast majority of songs, movies and literature centered around making up, breaking up, devastation, infatuation... the list went on with increasingly frightening words. It was utterly idiotic of me to start something with anyone, let alone the man whose home I was living in.

So every time he kissed me, I resolved it would be the last time. Just one more hit. One more high. Then I would really stop and think about what I was doing. Or... at the very least I should talk to him. Maybe I should find out what all the point of this lip locking was. He should know what he was up against if he wanted to pursue something.

Cravings and negotiating with myself...

I guess fate had found a way to turn me into a drug addict after all.

A month passed, then two. With the exception of the occasional sweet pecks and a little hand holding, everything between us was back to what it had been before Joshua Tree. Edward still doled out his helpful suggestions, and I still considered them carefully. Our movie nights had branched out to include music. We spent hours pouring over lyrics and the meaning behind the words. Sometimes he knew verbatim where a song came from, and I listened, fascinated, as he told me about Maynard Keenan's mother, and how my favorite Sarah McLachlan song was actually borne of a night she spent tripping on cold medicine.

Christmas passed. Then New Years. And one not so special day, I stepped out into the hallway, stopping abruptly when I heard my name.

"-or what Bella could do to you? You just don't jump into something with a girl like that, Edward," Jasper was saying. I stopped cold, frozen and unable to escape his words. I was covered in the bitter iciness of reality, helpless to do anything but shiver under the onslaught as Jasper continued speaking. "Do you really think it's fair to either of you? The last thing you need is a first relationship that complicated."

I was finally able to convince my limbs to move. Tip toeing quietly, I made it to my room with the men in the living room being none the wiser. I pushed my door shut and curled up on the bed, quietly devastated.

I was so stupid. It hadn't even occurred to me to think about how my actions affected Edward. It hadn't occurred to me that he could be as inexperienced as I was in anything resembling intimacy. But now that I thought about it, it was obvious. It certainly explained why he never pushed.

After all - when Alice and Jasper gabbed about exes and flings, Edward was quiet. Hadn't I lived with him for months? Had I ever seen him so much as get ready for a date?

In fact, I remembered sex coming up in the past. Always, it was Alice who instigated the conversation. Edward would get strangely withdrawn, and Jasper would steer the subject in a different direction. I took Edward's quietness to be prudishness. It wouldn't be the first time he disapproved of something that seemed - to me - innocuous. But what if it was instead embarrassment at his lack of experience? Sexual conquests were supposed to be a big thing for men; it seemed reasonable that he wouldn't want to discuss his inexperience with his perhaps overly experienced little sister.

I felt guilty then because Jasper was right: I wasn't the sort of girl you should jump into a first relationship with. It would be like buying a brand new video game and starting it on hard. There weren't cheat sheets or walkthroughs you could find online for someone like me.

Wouldn't you know it - I discovered a whole new way to ache.

Really, I should have been grateful that Jasper did the thinking for us. Since we'd never spoken about our kisses before, why would we talk about when - or why - they stopped? I pretended to be oblivious to the fact that they'd ever been there at all.

Sometimes - just sometimes - I thought I saw him look at me in that way: like he wanted to kiss me. I wanted to let him.

I didn't even notice when it crept up on me, but one day, the fog was there again. My alarm clock woke me up on a Monday morning, and I couldn't string three words together in my head. My blankets were heavy, and surely it would take far too much effort to toss them off.

So I called in sick.

And the next day, I did it again.

I called in sick three days in a row to be specific - the maximum I could take before I had to bring in a doctor's note. At the end of that time, when I realized I had to go to work or be fired, I felt a sudden and intense fear run down my spine.

I couldn't remember much of the last three days.

Call it scared straight - call it scared shitless, whatever happened, I was deathly afraid. Inherently, I sensed that there was only so many times I could let the fog consume me before it took me away forever. What little I had, what little I had built, was precious to me. I couldn't stand the thought of it all melting away like so many years of my life already had.

What then?

After that I couldn't sleep.

Or rather, I wouldn't. I was scared to. I was scared that I would fall asleep and everything I'd worked toward would be back to zero. The covers would get heavier and I would get smaller. Even when I did sleep, nightmares of suffocating beneath steel blankets jarred me awake. I'd find myself in my bed feeling anything but safe as my breath came in wheezes and the air chilled my clammy skin.

I took to wandering the house. I tore through all of Edward's books on the one bookshelf he owned. They were mostly lyric books, biographies of all the best bands and the best singers. It became my nightly ritual. I'd read a lyric from a song that reached me on some sort of personal level, run for Edward's CD collection, and listen to that song over and over while I read either more lyrics or that group's biography.

One night, while I was feeling particularly close to Alanis Morrissite, I spotted a movement out of the corner of my eye that sent me tumbling from the recliner I was curled up in.

"Jesus Christ, Edward! You want to scare me half to death?" I whispered. It wasn't as if I was going to wake anyone up but it just seemed the polite thing to do in the middle of the night.

Edward just sighed in response, fixing me with a reproaching look.

I frowned, and clicked the CD off with the remote control in my hand, cutting off Alanis's bitter voice singing a haunting tune about not being good enough. I crossed my arms over my chest, pulling my legs up closer as wariness descended over my body. At the back of my mind images flickered, and I couldn't help but remember James standing over me, his folded belt in his hand, as he accused me of doing something wrong. Whether it was some new rule he'd neglected to tell me or some honest troublemaking on my part, I would start babbling apologies immediately. "I know I should have asked before I used your CDs, but I didn't want to wake you."

"I don't care about that," Edward said, his voice that of a disproving parent. He sat down on the couch next to me, and I flinched.

I reached up to turn the light on, wondering if his expression matched his tone. I was more than a little surprised to find a slight scowl painted there. "What, then? Why are you looking at me like that?" I tried to keep the anxiety out of my voice. This was Edward, after all. Didn't I know by now I didn't have to be afraid of him? But while my logical brain knew, my body had long ago been programmed.

"Why are you doing this to yourself?" he asked as if I had never spoken.

"Doing what?" I asked defensively.

He pointed to the clock. "It's three o'clock in the morning."

"So?"

"So, every night, at three o'clock, for the past two weeks I've woken up and you're out here," he continued.

"So?" I challenged again. Vague fear was giving way to annoyance and my voice reeked of it.

He got up, becoming more agitated by the second. On the bookshelf was a mirror that Alice must have left behind. He shoved it in front of my face as I shrunk backwards in surprise. "Have you looked at yourself lately?"

The reflection in the mirror shocked me. The creature there frightened me. She had a pale face with dark, sunken eyes. She looked frail and sickly, like a vampire, except without the evil glint in her eyes. I'd always heard that expression about someone looking like a gust of wind could knock him or her over, but I'd never before seen an example.

I wanted to believe that it as someone else who stared back at me – some other girl that had joined the one I sometimes saw in the mirror – but I knew it was me.

How long had I looked that way? I knew I looked in the mirror to brush my teeth and comb my hair. Why hadn't I seen this?

Then I realized that I'd always been searching the mirror for her. The girl. All the while, as I'd primped and prepared myself for the day, I'd look out of the corner of my eye, hoping to spot her. But I hadn't seen her in weeks.

And I hadn't seen myself. I'd been looking at nothing.

"You look like a zombie," Edward said, his voice rising as he shook the mirror in my face. Apparently he'd been looking a lot closer than I had.

In the mirror, I saw my cheeks burn red, the color standing out against the sickly white. Angered by my own embarrassment and the way he was ranting at me, I knocked the mirror out of his hand and stood, forcing him to take several steps backwards to avoid a collision with me. I didn't stop there. I pushed passed him, heading for the hallway.

I didn't make it very far before I felt a firm grip around my wrist. "No. You're not going to run away from this. I won't let you." His voice was that of a friend angry because I wouldn't help myself, but I didn't hear it.

A curious thing happened then. My body wanted to conform to what it was used to. Edward's fingers wrapped around my wrist and his angry voice were triggering a barrage of memories I'd give anything to forget, but instead of shutting down – giving in to the desperate want to beg him not to hurt me – my mind railed.

And I was angry. It started like a low rumble – the distant roar of the space shuttle gearing up for launch – and it grew quickly.

"Let go of me," I said in a low, dangerous voice I'd never heard myself speak with.

For a moment he looks surprised, but then some kind of misguided determination set in. "I'm not going to let you do this to your life."

One solid pull and my wrist was my own again, but I didn't try to retreat – not this time. "What are you talking about? Do what?"

"For weeks you've been wandering around here in a stupor. You get up, you go to work, sometimes you eat. Always with this stare, like you're not even here. Like you're somewhere else. Somewhere far away from all of this. Are you going to waste your life away in this little rut? You let that bastard take your soul away and he wins. There is more you can do with your life!"

As Edward gave his little lecture, my hands became fists at my side. What I planned to do with them I had no idea. I wanted to punch something. I wanted to hit him even though I didn't know how. The roar of anger was making logical thought difficult. I'd never felt this much animosity; I'd never felt the urge to destroy.

I wanted him to shut the fuck up, and I suddenly felt like I would do anything to make that happen.

"What do you know about my life? You've known me for what? A few months? You don't know anything," I sneered.

So many things I'd kept from him, and all of a sudden I was using all of it as ammunition. It was an odd reaction to the desperation I felt – that he would see that it didn't take one single man and his attack on me to cut me into so many pieces. Whether it was more or less pathetic, my shape had been battered and whittled down over years of abuse and neglect. That had to count for something, didn't it?

But I was so sick of second guessing myself. I was sick of feeling wrong and stupid. Maybe everyone else knew something I didn't, but I was trying. Didn't anyone see I was trying so hard? I was livid that he was telling me to buck up when it was his words that were helping push me down.

"You want to know what it's like to be me? Not that many months ago, it took all my energy to remind myself that I had to shower. I had to rest between bites to finish a meal. Not that long ago there wasn't a guarantee that I'd get out of bed every day for more than a trip to the bathroom." I raised my hands, palms to Edward's chest and pushed him away from me. He stumbled backwards a few steps but kept his balance. "This wasn't out of laziness, or personal choice. It was because I couldn't.

"No matter how much I slept, it wasn't enough. I was always exhausted. And you dare to tell me that going from that, to being a functioning, working person is not enough? What is it you want from me, Edward?" My voice had been steadily rising as I spoke and now I was screaming. "Fuck. You. I wasn't good enough for them. I'm not good enough for you. Fuck you. What do you want from me?"

Step by step I came closer to him, thinking with each footfall that I was going to hit him. I wanted to. I wanted to wipe that surprised look off his pretty face. I guess he wasn't expecting my fury when he was used to my tears. I remembered James, nose to nose to me while I desperately tried to stop my lip from quivering. "Are you gonna cry? Like a little baby. Look at the little baby cry." James's voice taunted me, haunting me from my past.

But I wasn't going to cry.

Not this time.

"You don't know!" I screamed. My voice was scratched sore and my fingers ached from being held in such a tight first. And maybe, maybe then I could have backed down. Rational thought was returning to me, and my anger was beginning to frighten me.

But then he stepped forward, closing the distance between us and towering over me as if to show me that he was bigger, stronger. "Then tell me. Tell me what's so wrong with you. Tell me why you're so god damned broken. Getting up everyday, working…you think that's an accomplishment?" His voice was a dare as he leaned over me.

If he thought I'd back down, he only succeeded in making me angrier. "I'm not asking you to congratulate me or even to understand. I'm just telling you not to belittle something you know nothing about.

"Who the hell are you? What fucking right do you have to be pissed? Because you couldn't fix me the way you fixed my hand? You're angry because you couldn't heal me. Who are you to tell me what's fixed? Who are you to tell me how 'god damned broken' I am? Who the fuck do you think you're kidding?"

It was like being locked inside my own body. I knew where I was going with my little fit. I knew exactly what I was about to do. Looking back, I could have ticked off on the fingers of both hands how many times he'd made me feel exposed and raw – vulnerable and small. I wanted to say it was self-defense that made me do what I did.

"Look at you," I sneered. "You think your life is so much fuller than mine? You think you got it all figured out? You think that out of the six billion people on earth, you've got it down pat, and now it's your duty to pass along the wisdom to the lesser people like me who need someone to look to in their lives?" He looked painfully uncertain and my anger fed off of his dwindling confidence like dry newspaper in a fire.

"Anyone can see the overconfident 'heal the world' thing is a shield. If you can help poor, little Bella, you must not be as fucked up as you know you are."

He shrank backwards, inch by inch, and I felt powerful.

What I didn't notice was his fists balling at his sides, his knuckles turning white with the effort of keeping them clenched there. I didn't notice that the tips of his ears were burning bright red, like if we'd been cartoon characters, smoke would be coming out of his ears and the top of his head would be a smokestack, billowing and whistling. I didn't notice that instead of getting smaller, Edward was merely powering up. My anger flowed out of me in a tumble of words that I couldn't seem to stop, a constant attack, while Edward's anger stewed and boiled, getting stronger and more volatile. The sane part of my brain had scampered off and locked itself in a closet waiting for the loud, arguing voice to quiet. Maybe that was why I failed to notice that rather than merely shutting him up, I was pushing Edward to a dangerous edge.

As his friend, he'd given me the power to hurt him. He'd exposed the kind of weak point you could trust a friend with.

And I drove a knife into it.

"What was it for you, Edward? What happened with your godfather that fucked you up so badly? Don't think I didn't see it, because I did. Did he know one of your dirty secrets? That you watched and did nothing as your dad beat your mother? Or was it that he had something to do with their deaths? Tell me, was it you he hurt? Did your parents look the other way late nights when he was staying over? Something fucked you over. What was it?" I demanded.

Over my yelling, I didn't hear his breaths becoming more labored. I didn't see or hear anything until it was too late. I had crossed the proverbial line, hit some tender spot he'd kept hidden from the world. He felt exposed and raw as I'd felt staring at myself mere minutes earlier. And how could I not understand, under the circumstances, that he only had so many ways he could strike back?

"Shut up. Shut up," he screamed over and over again. His hands came up to my shoulders and suddenly I flew backwards. I crashed into the wall with such force that all the breath went shooting out of me, pushing any words I might have had left from me in one startled gasp. But I didn't slide to the ground. He was there, his hands on my arms, pinning me back.

Edward's eyes were wide and wilder than I'd ever known them to be. He shook me violently, still screaming a litany of curses that would have had Tipper Gore fainting on the Congress floor. Eminem had nothing on Edward at that moment.

Somewhere, the scared little girl I always had been cowered, frightened, but the rest of me was still angrier than I could ever remember being. I had felt powerless for most of my life and here was yet another person that thought he could exploit this. I didn't cry. I didn't let myself because I would be damned before I let him bow me like that. Fuck him.

Finally Edward's curses came to a crescendo, his hand rising in what promised to be a painful slap.

But suddenly he stopped. The room became devastatingly silent except for our heavy breathing. I felt his breath, still minty from his toothpaste, hot against the skin of my nose. His hands still gripped my shoulders painfully like Alonzo Wallace had months ago. I had whimpered and cried with Wallace, but I stared at Edward defiantly, daring him to hit me. My hands were palm up against his chest and yet I didn't push him away. Something palpable and real raged between us like tornadoes and thunderstorms… or possibly dual volcanoes erupting in tandem. One way or another, destruction was imminent.

The next thing I knew, his lips were crushed against mine. This was nothing like our previous kisses – slow and sweet and innocent as they were. This kiss was hard. Rough. Possessive. Like he wanted me to know that I was the weak one. He was the one who owned me.

But again, that night, I was having none of it. I was not going to be conquered. Without my telling them to, my lips responded. I arched up against him, showing him that my body couldn't be controlled and pinned down.

His hands snaked down the length of my body to the elastic band of the old sweat pants I was wearing, the ones he'd let me use after I'd stained my nightshirt with my blood. Somehow, I knew what he was going to do, and I didn't stop him. I wasn't considering whether that made me a slut or a whore. I already knew this wasn't ladylike behavior. Maybe later I would care.

Edward had the sweatpants off in one jerk. I wasn't wearing any underwear to offer further resistance. It was a warped perversion of something I'd fantasized about for almost as long as I'd known him. But then, in those moments, warped was an apt description of what I was…what he was… what I'd made him.

Our lips finally parted as our vindictive rage, like fire, consumed all the oxygen; we needed to breathe. I finally felt the cold wall against my bare backside. For one moment conscious, logical thought came screaming back to me at full force. I was at that crossroad that poets talked about. I could see two paths extending from a fork in the road, and I knew that once I stepped foot on one, there would be no turning back. I had a choice in this. I had control of the situation because one thing I still believed was that if I said no, Edward would stop. Even this monster I'd dredged out of him wouldn't make him an animal that would hurt me that way.

All I got was the one moment of lucidity. Edward got his own pants down in that moment and then his teeth were at my neck. My head rolled back against the wall, and I whimpered as he sucked at a spot just above my collarbone. Like any alpha male, he marked his territory well, so that no one could mistake the neon sign that screamed Edward Has Been Here. Again he was asserting his power. My choice, his choice. My nails dug into his shoulders, leaving crescent shaped marks as my signature on his flesh. We were vying for control over a situation that had gotten way out of hand. I felt the lower half of Edward's body pressed against mine. He hadn't worn a shirt in the first place, but he left my shirt on.

I could feel his hot manhood, hard and erect, brushing against my thigh. I knew I should be fearful or nervous, but I wasn't. My fury, like a school yard bully, had pushed aside any other feeling I might have had. It left room for little but the strange thoughts that occurred at the most inappropriate times. For instance, I couldn't seem to stop thinking about how much I hated the word 'manhood', but then I couldn't find a suitable replacement. Penis was too clinical, thingy to childish, dick too much of an insult.

Peter and johnson, reminded me of a kid who went to my school. Peter Anthony Johnson. Of course, he went by Anthony.

Pecker brought up an image of Woody Woodpecker, which in turn ruined woody.

Whatever.

In the meantime, Edward had finished his work at my neck and somehow, we were on the floor. I was on top of him and his hands were threaded in my hair, pulling my head down to meet his mouth. My lips felt swollen and bruised. I didn't care. I ground my hips against him, and he immediately rolled over, pinning my arms above my head.

It was still about power for him. He didn't want me to have any of it.

This was not the stuff I'd read about in books. This wasn't making love. It wasn't even having sex. It was old fashioned anger fucking, and I had forgotten I was a virgin. The logical part of me wanted to be frightened, but she was off curled in a ball on the closet floor, so screw her anyway. Besides, I had lost my cherry while experimenting a few years back.

Give me a break, teenagers are horny. It's a natural law that even depression can't suppress.

I gasped when Edward entered me. It was painful. It was hard. Edward was relentless as he drove into me, but I thrust up against him with just as much force, ignoring that it felt like my insides were being stretched.

How did it feel like his cock was made of razors?

But I actually welcomed the pain. It fed my anger. At least it was warm where I was usually cold and bright where I was typically dull.

Not sex.

Pure, unadulterated, animal fucking, complete with the inhuman grunts and groans.

We were using each other. We were hurting each other.

Our anger was spent the moment he was, dissipating almost the instant he came inside of me. It hadn't really lasted long, and under the circumstances I didn't know if that should upset me. We were left, sticky body pressed against sticky body, on the floor, breathing like we'd never be able to catch our breath again.

My senses started to come back to me one by one. First was the throbbing pain below my waist. I was pretty sure I'd torn something but reasoned it was nothing that couldn't be fixed, so it didn't upset me in the slightest. Edward was still inside me, and it felt awkward. My mouth tasted like copper and sweat. I realized belatedly that I must have been biting my lip. Or maybe he'd bitten it. It was hard to tell. I really couldn't remember.

Edward, still sprawled on top of me, let out a low groan. I could still feel his eyelashes blinking against my neck, fluttering like a butterfly. In one movement he rolled off of and out of me, and stood. He stumbled into the hall bathroom without shutting the door. A moment later I heard him retching into the commode.

"Was it good for you?" I muttered, too low for him to hear. My voice was lifeless.

For many long minutes I didn't move. I don't think I could have. My body trembled and my legs feel like Jell-o Jigglers. I was afraid if I stood up I'd slosh back down the ground again. I began to shiver slightly as the cold air permeated my moist skin. In the background, Edward was still heaving his guts into the toilet. Thus far, sex had proven itself not to be the romantic thing it was on television.

I slowly began to move my fingers, flexing them one at a time to make sure they still worked. My arms were still stretched above my head. My hand brushed against something, and I wrapped my fingers around it to test their dexterity. Everything ached. Slowly, I brought my hand to eye level to see what I had picked up.

It was the mirror. The reflection had changed a little. If it was possible, my skin seemed even paler from my exertions, my eyes even more sunken and dead. Edward's words from before echoed back at me. I did look like a zombie.

But more than that, I felt like one. I felt hollow and empty, a chill that originated from the very core of my being. I felt soulless, like the humanity was ripped from me. I was the Grinch with my heart three sizes too small, its minute beat echoing in the barren expanse of my chest: It could have been Christmas and still my world would have been devoid of joy – robbed of any emotion at all, really. Something churned in my stomach and I felt bile rise to my throat. Edward's continued retching wasn't helping.

Slowly, I sat up, wrapping my arms around my shoulders to ward off the chill.

Just as suddenly as the noise began there was silence again. I could hear my own breathing, and Edward's from the bathroom. Then the toilet flushed and the water ran. A minute later, I felt Edward's presence a distance behind me. Whether he was looking at me or not, I didn't know. I found that I couldn't look at him. Silence stretched on for one, two, three moments. I heard a step, coming toward me I thought, but then only more silence. He must have changed his mind as the next noise I heard was his footsteps padding to his room.

After another minute, my heart rate finally coming down to normal, I stumbled to my feet on wobbly, fawn legs. I managed to find the sweatpants I'd been wearing and pulled them on as I walked to the bathroom, rubbing my hands fitfully over my arms.

It stung when I peed.

I cleaned myself up, random thoughts in my head about how no one really told you that sex was so messy. It was never like this in the movies. Everyone looked just as pretty after the fact as they were going in. I hadn't been pretty to begin with, but when I caught another glimpse in the mirror, I was startled.

My lips were swollen and bloodied from the bite. My hair was an absolute wreck, and set against my sallow skin I looked less like a girl who'd just lost her virginity to the gorgeous boy she had a crush on and more like the victim of a violent crime.

If I had had anything left on the inside, I would have thrown up too. As it was I stumbled blearily into my bedroom and fell, stomach down, on top of the covers. I lay there shivering with a cold that had nothing to do with the temperature until I finally fell asleep.

Chapter Text

"Looking at my own reflection

When suddenly it changes

Violently it changes

There is no turning back now

You've woken up the demon in me"

~Down With The Sickness, Disturbed

"Miss Swan, are you sure you don't want to talk to someone about domestic violence?"

I stared at the clinic doctor blankly for a moment, then quickly dropped my head. If it hadn't been so completely mortifying, it would have been funny.

Obviously, I could see why he'd jumped to those conclusions.

When I went into the clinic, I'd blushed and stammered my way through half-truths. My boyfriend and I had had sex for the first time. We didn't use protection. In order to get the birth control pills I was after, I had to sit through my first internal exam. By the time the doctor finished up, I was so eager to get my prescription and be out of there that my body was vibrating. It probably looked like nerves.

Then there was the smattering of bruises at my shoulders and wrists. My split lip could have just as easily come from a slap as a bite.

"I'm fine. There's no violence," I answered, addressing my shoes instead of the doctor.

"Just remember that you have a right to say no – even to your boyfriend," the doctor said softly.

I left the clinic with a handful of courtesy condoms, a prescription for a year of birth control and a single, blue pill surrounded by instructions and information on cardboard. The morning after pill. Just looking at it made me feel stupid and irresponsible.

I'd been trying pretty valiantly not to think about what I'd done the night before. I got up early and dressed quietly as I could so I wouldn't run into Edward. I couldn't face him yet. My mind was too muddled, confused as to what I should be feeling or thinking.

I'd heard the first time was bad, but I was pretty sure it was supposed to be more along the lines of premature ejaculation bad or 'where is your vagina, again?' bad. This was a whole other level of not right.

Under normal circumstances, if I'd had time to think about it, I would have wanted to lose my virginity to Edward. But I didn't know how to feel about the way it happened. Edward was a kind, gentle person, and my feelings for him, generally speaking, were of the warm, fuzzy variety. What had happened between us was the antithesis of all that.

In retrospect, I couldn't understand why I'd been so angry at Edward. He called me out for my pathetic behavior. So what? Was that any reason to lash out in anger the way I had? Why him? When I'd never lashed out at James or my mother - two people who had actually hurt me - why did I flare up at the one person in my life who seemed to care about me? And I'd gone for his throat - I knew that. I was swinging wildly but I was swinging with a sharp blade in my hand.

And I'd struck my target. The rage and agony in his eyes was a sight I wouldn't ever forget.

I drove around, trying to focus, trying to tame the roiling emotions inside of me. I wondered wildly if this is what it felt like the moment before broken minds shattered into multiple personalities. It certainly felt like there was too much going on in my head for one person.

The guilt alone was powerful enough that I wanted to fall to my knees under the weight of it. Anger with all the molten intensity of a lava flow - at myself, at Edward, at my father for dying, and my mother for not caring enough ... and James. Fucking, James. I hated that I had all this ugliness inside of me because it meant I could never have normal.

I wanted to weep because the things I craved seemed so simple, so easy for other people and yet so completely out of my reach. Most of my life, I'd watched people connect easily. Friends on the playground, play girlfriends and boyfriends, real girlfriends and boyfriends. I listened to my co-workers tell saucy tales of sex as they giggled and waggled their eyebrows. As I watched them sigh, I feigned teasing eye rolls at their dreamy, adoring looks. Secretly, I was jealous.

Sometimes, I thought Edward looked at me that way, but always there was some doubt behind it. He didn't act on those emotions. Neither did I. Because none of it came easy. Not for me.

And not for him...

A thought occurred to me and my stomach twisted. Whatever Edward's story was, I knew from his conversation with Jasper that he'd never been in a relationship before. To me, that didn't translate to his never having sex before... but what if...

What if it hadn't been just my virginity lost last night?

I felt sick, because whatever had happened last night, I knew it was me who started it. Edward was angry, but I was the one who pushed all of his buttons. It shouldn't have happened the way it did, and while it was only fitting that my first time was ugly and bordering on violence, Edward didn't deserve that.

I had to know. I couldn't ask Edward. I ended up in front of the music store. Rushing inside, my eyes darted over the low rows full of CDs until I spotted who I was looking for. "Jasper!"

My voice was too-loud and ragged. He turned, his eyes narrowing with concern, and I tried to breathe deeply. I needed to make a rule. I was only allowed to break down once in any given area. Trying not to feel as shaky as I was, I went to him.

"I need to ask you a question, and I need you to answer me," I said, my voice considerably lower than it had been a moment before.

The look on my face was obviously scaring him. He glanced over his shoulder. "Peter! Cover for me a minute?"

A man arranging an endcap nodded his assent and Jasper put an arm around my shoulders, leading me toward the front door of the building. I wanted to twist out of his grip, feeling too dirty and full of something vile to be touched tenderly like that. Luckily, he didn't take me far - just outside and around the corner where no one could hear us.

"What happened to you?" he asked, touching the wound on my lip. "Bella, are you okay?"

"I'm fine," I lied. "Jasper..." I began, full of nervous energy and wanting to bounce right out of my skin. "Wa... Is Edward a virgin?"

He looked up at me, and I could see the skin around his eyes tighten. He dropped his eyes quickly, and I wondered what he was hiding from me. "It's not my place to talk about that."

"Jasper!" I cried, exasperated and desperate for an answer. "Please tell me."

He didn't look up again, instead watching his hands as if they held the answer to the question I'd asked. "No," he said finally, though his tone of voice wasn't convincing. It was like he wasn't sure himself.

Relief made it easier to breathe but not by much. The way Jasper looked up, his eyes curious, put weight back on my shoulders. Maybe I hadn't stolen Edward's innocence, but that didn't make what happened any better.

"Bella... I'm not going to ask what's going on between you two," Jasper said slowly. Quickly, I looked down at my feet, feeling exposed and afraid he could see right through me. "Just let me say this because I care about you both. If you're going to start something with him, please tread carefully. He's not as tough as he makes himself out to be." His fingers, gentle on my cheek as he tried to get me to look up, made me flinch. "And neither are you. You're both adults and you deserve a little happiness. So please... if you decide to do anything, for the love of God, talk about it first."

I didn't answer. How could I? I wanted to tell him he shouldn't care about me because Edward had cared and look what I'd done to him. Hadn't he seen every movie in existence? The villain wasn't the one who got the happily ever after.

But... maybe it wasn't too late for the talking thing. As difficult as it was going to be to face him, I knew Edward deserved my words. An apology... maybe a magic spell that could make him forget what I'd done.

I made some vague noise of agreement to Jasper and headed back for my car. Pulling into the driveway, I was surprised to find Edward's car already there. It was good that I hadn't eaten, because the way my stomach twisted then, I would have thrown up. It was one thing to know I had to talk to him, a whole other thing to actually face him.

I was going to take responsibility. That was simply all there was to it.

Resolved, I walked into the house feeling like I was walking to my own execution. Would he kick me out? Where would I go? Would I even want to stay here if he looked at me like he hated me? It was what I deserved, but I didn't think I could handle that.

Why did it feel like I was teetering on the cusp of losing everything?

Shoulders hunched, I walked into the house. I thought about calling for him, but I couldn't find my voice. Instead, I peered around, listening to figure out where he was.

I didn't have to look for long. Edward was asleep, belly down, on the couch. His face was turned toward me, a picture of peace and innocence as slept, his lips lightly pouted. A rush of warmth spread through my chest, cutting through the iciness that was like a lead block around my heart. He was shirtless, which would have concerned me except the heater was turned on high.

What did concern me were the deep scratch marks on his back.

Fuck. I'd hurt him. I'd marked him. I didn't even remember doing it, but the evidence was there in front of me.

I knelt at his side by the couch, my hand lingering above the angry lines without touching. I wanted to comfort him, but what right did I have?

"Bella?"

Looking up, startled, I found his eyes open and on me. My breath caught in my throat, but he seemed merely curious. Not angry.

Edward shifted, stretching his arms toward the ceiling as he sat up. On his front I saw the faint outline of my teeth on his neck. "I'm glad you're home. I was starting to worry," Edward mumbled, ruffling his hair as he yawned. "Do you want something to eat? I was just about to make dinner."

I stared at him, my mouth dropping open in complete shock. "What?" I asked. Not a brilliant response, I'll admit, but I was dumbstruck.

"I haven't eaten all day," Edward continued, standing and walking to the kitchen as he slid his shirt back on. I saw him wince as the fabric hit his irritated flesh, but his voice was still pleasant as he spoke. "I think there's a frozen pizza in the freezer."

Completely confused, I stumbled after him. "Edward..."

"Then again," he said, ignoring me or just not hearing me, "we probably should have something a little more substantial. You'd swear I didn't work for doctors." He shook his head, as if amused by himself, and opened the refrigerator, peering at its content.

"Edward!"

He looked up, his eyes almost hesitant as they found mine.

"Don't you... I mean... we should talk," I stumbled.

He turned away, shutting the refrigerator door and stepping over to the pantry. "There's nothing to talk about," he said flatly, his back to me. "Just go relax. I'll call you when dinner is ready."

I stared at his back for long seconds, unable to move or even think. Then I turned, my feet leading me away while my brain still grappled with what to do.

Lacking a better option, I stood in my room with the door closed, trying to deal with this latest twist. Energy thrummed through my veins like adrenaline. I'd worked myself up to a place where I had to talk to him. I was as prepared and resolved as I could possibly be. All the momentum was there, but now it had no where to go. I began to pace.

Wasn't this the better option? He didn't look or sound like he hated me. If there was nothing to talk about, then there was no reason for my guilt, right?

Well, since when had my emotions listened to logic? I was still guilty. Tremendously so. There was more guilt wracking my body than I felt capable of handling. If there was nothing to talk about, then I couldn't apologize. And I needed to. I needed to tell him I was sorry, and I was desperate for his forgiveness. I didn't want to carry this around with me. It was too much. With everything else, all the confusion and turmoil in my mind, I didn't want this too.

Fuck.

I'd thought his hatred was what I should fear, but this was unquestionably worse. I sat heavily on the edge of my bed, gripping my hair in my fist just to distract from the suffocating pain that built at the center of my chest. Guilt crackled like dry wood popping in flames, and I burned. But as the flames grew higher - bigger - the guilt mutated. First it became resentment. I felt sure he was doing this to spite me, and maybe I deserved it, but fuck. It pissed me off.

Fury.

Rage.

I clenched my fists at my side trying to breathe, trying to make myself remember what happened when anger got the best of me. Isn't that what got me here in the first place?

There's nothing to talk about. Stupid fucking prick. Right. We shouldn't talk about the fact that my insides still ached and there was a pill in my pocket that would ensure the mistake we'd made last night wouldn't affect more than just the two of us. I knew he felt pain from the wounds I'd left on his back, but apparently we shouldn't acknowledge where they came from.

I needed to get out of here before I did something stupid.

"Don't worry about me," I called as I stepped out of my room. "I'm going out."

Edward appeared in the kitchen doorway, his eyes narrowed slightly. "You just got in."

"And?"

"I made enough for two," he tried, gesturing behind him.

"Thank you," I said, but my tone was acerbic. "Take the leftovers for lunch tomorrow. I'll get something when I'm out."

Annoyance flashed across his face. "You could have told me before I made the effort," he snapped.

My voice was raising, and I was having trouble not thinking about getting up in his face. "You did that yourself. I didn't ask you to cook for me." My feet were already moving, so whatever his response was, I didn't hear it. I was out the door and in my car, speeding away before he could follow.

~0~

I got a hold of myself for minutes or hours at a time. No matter how I tried, I couldn't shake the rage completely.

Edward wasn't helping. When we spoke at all our words were coated with sarcasm and bitterness, like every interaction we had was marinated in lemon juice gone bad after being left out on the countertop too long. Every interaction left me with a foul taste in my mouth and a cringe in my stomach.

That Wednesday, Alice and Jasper came over. They watched us volley, forced words and thinly veiled insults coming out of the corner of our mouths. Jasper made some excuse, dragging Edward with him to the store to grab some cookies that he suddenly, desperately needed. Alice turned on me.

"Okay, what is happening with you and Edward?" she demanded.

I chuffed, not looking at her. "Nothing worth talking about," I muttered, hoping she wouldn't press.

She looked at me and then sighed, putting her arm around me. "It's okay, you know. If you need to talk about it. I've known my brother almost all my life. Edward can be pushy and when he gets in his moods..." she trailed off, shaking her head fondly. "Don't take it personally when he gets grouchy. Edward has always been a little...challenging."

Challenging.

I remembered the way Emmett let out a long breath a few weeks back, after an argument with Edward. Like Edward was a chore that had to be dealt with. I bristled.

Nothing and everything had changed about the way I felt toward Edward. There was still that knot of confusing feelings - warmth, tenderness, giddiness and protection - that I felt. During that whole week, there were so many times when I still wanted to follow the softness of my thoughts and kiss him like he'd kissed me after Joshua Tree.

And on occasion Edward was still the same man he'd been before I pushed him to the proverbial edge. He helped me reach a glass I was straining for when he came across me in the kitchen one day and even helped me rub out a cramp in my hand when he saw I was in pain.

Those moments made it worse in so many ways. One of us would snap at the other, effectively destroying the brief peace between us, and the bitterness that was left afterward was harder to deal with. I considered briefly that perhaps our pasts had left us unable to correctly translate the connection we felt. What if anger was the way we loved - if that's what this was?

As the week went on, the fury and resentment between us grew. Eventually, it got to a point where it couldn't be contained by one of us storming out the door or to our room. One of us was going to snap and the other was going to follow. As much as I wanted to stop it, I couldn't.

I don't even know which one of us started it. I just know, Friday evening, a week and a day after our first disastrous coupling, it happened again. Edward had me caged with his hands on either side of me as my back was pressed against the wall. I don't remember what for. We'd been arguing, again. It had gotten out of control and his face was in mine, contorted with rage. I was so angry I couldn't see straight. Then we were kissing and my hand was down his pants and his hands were squeezing my breasts and...

When it was over, there was the relief of emptiness for minutes. I felt nothing.

~0~

I didn't know how to deal with the tempest that had been unleashed inside of me. It was like the first time between Edward and I had opened Pandora's Box, except all the wickedness in the world was released and caged inside my flesh.

All these years - after losing my father, being neglected by my mother and abused by my stepfather - I'd never been this furious. And I couldn't stop it. I tried, but it burned too fast and too out of control.

If a fire burned long enough, could it destroy the whole world?

At 100 percent, anger is by far the most terrifying emotion in the human spectrum. Anger was the loss of control over your actions. Anger could cause an otherwise sane, possibly even weak person to do unfathomable things. Imagine Mr. Rogers with an Uzi in full blown rage, all that pent up anger spent pumping round after round into Priscilla Cow.

Anger can make it happen.

And I was angry.

This was not the teenage, the-world-hates-me, awkward angst. It would have taken little more than my own act of rebellion, running away from everything I'd ever known, to cure that. This was the stuff that I was sure was running around in the minds of criminals on death row.

I saw lovers on the street and felt the strong desire to rip them apart, shoot one so they could die slowly and painfully in the arms of the other, and then keep watching as one half of what was once a perfect whole died of a broken heart.

I passed a playground full of laughing children and wanted to burst into the park with a machine gun. I wanted their giggles to turn into screams; their visions of ice cream and spiral slides ripped apart by gunshots.

A shy girl from work smiled at me over the lunch table and I had the sudden urge to drag her to the edge of the ocean and hold her head under water until she stopped breathing. In my mind's eye I could see her smiling face turn to one of terror and struggle, I could see her thrashing, desperately fighting for breath, and finally losing the battle.

Instead of doing these things, I did Edward. Literally.

It became frighteningly routine. On Friday nights I walked in the door and it was only a matter of time before one of us picked a fight. Minutes later I was pressed up against the wall with my legs wrapped around Edward's body, screaming, "Can't. You. Fuck. Any. Fucking. Faster. Asshole?" between my gasps as Edward impaled me. The angrier he was, the better. It had to equal up to mine.

Harder, faster, harder, faster until all the anger, all the pain, was seared white. Burning white like acid through paper: everything evaporated. Then there was nothing. I knew I was breathing. I could hear myself panting. I knew Edward was still there, he was just as worn out as I was.

Other than those two simple facts. Nothing. Just stark, white, numbness. My thoughts wiped clean of my brain and I just didn't think.

Call it avoidance. Call it displacement.

I called it relief.

When we were done I stayed completely still staring at the ceiling. The anger was gone but it had taken with it every other feeling. I felt devoid of life, empty again. Like water on a burned blue flame, I hissed, smoked and finally sputtered into a pool of ash, lifeless on the floor. Ash was dead and gray, a total contradiction to the streaked, livid flame it had been just moments before.

And that's how it went, week after week. I would fill myself a pitcher of rage all week long, a jug full of piss and vinegar. Then I would empty myself on Edward, and he on me until we both had nothing left. We called this our weekend.

On Monday morning he would offer me, "Toast?" as if nothing had happened, and I could feel the gas click on. By that night I would already be fuming.

During that whole three-week period I only saw the girl in the mirror once. I was staring at my pale, gaunt reflection with loathing as I brushed my teeth when I caught a glimpse of her out of the corner of my eye. Then she was there in front of me, blocking the vision of myself. Her face was fuller with a rose colored tint at the cheeks. Her eyes weren't so dead and soulless. She put her hands to the mirror, palm up. I copied her movements.

My hands were fists.

My temper rose and with one swing, I had put my hand through the mirror. The girl disappeared. My hand was bleeding, throbbing red rivulets of blood with every beat of my heart. As calm as I'd ever been, I washed the blood away, cleaned and dressed my wounds and picked up the broken shards of glass, making a mental note to get the mirror replaced by the next day. The thought came easily - blase, almost.

I wondered, for the first time, how James felt after he beat me. There was always that moment right after he stopped - when he was breathing hard and his hands were still fists or the belt hung limply from his fingers. What had he thought in the moments right after the chaos - looking down at the battered girl curled at his feet, cowering?

I wondered if there was ever a time he wanted to stop...if he told himself it would be the last time. Maybe not with me, but with Victoria at least. Had he regretted it the first time he hit her? The last time?

I regretted what I was doing every time, but the sickness I felt in between got strangled out. How much guilt could I feel when Edward picked as many fights as I did? If there was any innocence left in Edward, it was long gone by that time. And if so, wasn't it just sex? Angry fucking, sure. But he got off more often than I did. Wasn't I doing him a favor?

I wanted to stop.

I just didn't know how.

Chapter Text

"The angry boy,
a bit too insane,
Icing over a secret pain,
You know you don't belong,
You're the first to fight,
You're way too loud,
You're the flash of light,
on a burial shroud,
I know something's wrong
"

~Jumper, Third Eye Blind

Weeks progressed in this cycle of anger and emptiness. We got to the point where we didn't need to use fighting as an excuse. This look would pass between us - all feral and wild and full of the need to tear something apart - and we wouldn't resist the urge to come together. In a way, it was an ugly sort of beautiful. We were giving each other what we needed, and wasn't that the point of sex?

I got the feeling that I was missing something important.

For a moment, I became passive, my hands resting up by my head as Edward groped my breast and nipped sharply at my shoulders. With his free hand, he found the controller for his CD player on the nightstand and thumbed it on. Soft music filled the air.

He always did things like that; like he was setting the mood, like we weren't as fucked up as we both knew we were. Maybe, if what we were doing was set to gentle music, the meaning would be different.

Yeah sure, we were destined. A regular Romeo and Juliet with our pure, innocent love.

More like Beauty and the Beast.

All right, the Beast and the Beast.

Try and sell that to Walt Disney. It's the fucked up animated film of the year. Fun for the whole, dysfunctional family.

Edward's tongue circled my nipple, and while I felt the thrill of stimulation rush down my spine, it didn't bring pleasure with it. My blood seemed too super-heated for all of that. Anger was threatening to consume me, and I needed the outlet I'd grown used to. I wrapped my legs around his waist, bucking my hips up to grind against his. This was usually the time I started to goad him, feeding kindling to the burning flames of fury between us so he would get on with it.

Foreplay, when the act we were committing wasn't about love or even lust, was more of an irritant than anything else. For one thing, since I was so detached from Edward's movements over my body, it left me too open to thought, and thinking was the last thing I wanted to do.

Because then I would have to consider the random thoughts that skittered across my mind. Like... why was I so detached when Edward was touching me in this intimate way? It wasn't that long ago that his simple kisses and light caresses thrilled me to the point of giddiness. This was the next step, wasn't it? Shouldn't I be enraptured by his body moving on mine, in mine? Shouldn't I want the gentleness of a lover's touch as much, if not more, as I wanted the raw, animal fucking?

And it wasn't that those tender feelings had disappeared. Days before, Edward had come home from a late shift looking exhausted. I'd been watching TV on the couch in the living room. Neither of us spoke. Something - some natural instinct that played to the simpatico between us - made me extend a hand. I pulled him toward me, and when he sat on the couch beside me, I wrapped my arm around him. His head rested on my shoulder, and my hand went to his hair, stroking through the soft strands adoringly. He took my free hand in his, resting them both on my lap as he played with my fingers. He sighed, sounding as soothed and content as I felt.

I thought he'd fallen asleep when he suddenly turned his head, pressing a soft kiss to my throat. My hand on his hair faltered. He kissed me again, his lips marking a spot slightly above the first. Tentatively, my finger went to his ear, tracing the shell as his breath shuddered against my neck.

He raised his head, and he was the uncertain boy from Joshua Tree again - scared, but with a light in his eyes that gleamed with something peaceful and profound. I cupped his cheek, my heart beginning to pound so hard I was surprised it didn't shake me.

And though we'd been kissing for weeks - hard, demanding kisses that fought, as we did, for domination of one another - this kiss felt infinitely more important. It was like our first kiss all over again - seared into my list of sweetest memories that I wouldn't ever forget.

We were shy again, lips teasing and cheeks flushing with a happy bashfulness.

We shifted together, me sinking down so my head was resting on the arm of the couch and Edward leaning over me until he was on top of me. We stopped suddenly, eyes darting and a little scared of the intensity of the emotion between us. We were both breathing hard, breathless from the kisses and the sudden position we found ourselves in.

It was a little ridiculous, because even though we didn't speak out loud, I knew we were on the same page: we weren't ready for this. We could follow our violent anger through, taking our aggression out on each other, but we couldn't express the the other feelings we had for each other physically.

Despite the fact it was only Edward I fucked, I knew what we were doing was not about communicating the things we felt for one another. He could have been anybody.

That thought was vile to me, sinking into my consciousness slowly like bricks sink through water, trailing bubbles as the oxygen was forced out of all their nooks and crannies.

A few days ago, when we'd untangled ourselves and shuffled off to our own rooms, I'd been bitter - so angry that I couldn't keep the soft, gentle emotions when all the putrid hate and livid fury plagued me constantly. I couldn't quell the anger - I never could - and here we were again, nipping and clawing at each other.

All this time, I'd been deathly frightened that the fog that had stunted my growth, stealing time and covering everything, would consume me again. But hadn't the unfathomable rage done that just as surely? It was dictating my life just as the fog had, dragging me under and tainting the one beautiful thing I had.

It was like waking up in history class all over again, realizing I was almost completely gone. This time, though, I had a little better handle of who I was, what I wanted, and what I was doing.

I wasn't a child anymore. The fog snuck up on me over years of abuse. The anger was my own responsibility. I was far from the helpless princess in need of a valiant knight. I was more like the wicked witch with the wart on her nose. I was the one who instigated everything. It was me whose one command in bed was "harder." There was no white horse to ride off into the sunset on. My fate was to end up like all the wicked witches: defeated and torn, falling off the edge of the cliff like any good Disney villain. No one would stay to watch my broken body die. Everyone's attention would be on the hero and his true princess, riding to their white castle in the clouds.

I was surprised to find that my cheeks were wet, my nose suddenly runny and my fingers behind me, pressed against the wall as if I were trying to push through it. I felt like I was breaking water after behind held under for long minutes, my lungs suddenly breathing in huge gulps of air. I pushed back, struggling for purchase on the bed, my mouth opening and closing as I tried to remember how to speak.

"Edward." The sound came out weaker then I'd intended, and Edward didn't appear to notice that I was struggling. "Edward," I repeated, this time more urgent. My heart was beginning to quicken, and I felt panic close in around me. How ridiculous. This was Edward. He wasn't doing anything we hadn't done before, but I suddenly felt vulnerable and frightened.

Placing both hands on Edward's shoulders I shoved him backward. This finally got his attention and he looked up, surprised. "What?"

Relief flooded through me, quenching the panic. Fear and disgust had completely squelched the anger, and I didn't want to do this anymore. That ingrained part of me, desperate never to disappoint a person who was physically more powerful than me, squirmed with anxiety. I took a deep breath, telling myself that this was Edward, and I didn't need to fear him. He would understand. "I don't want to do this."

Confusion flashed over his face and then he chuffed as if he had decided I was joking. "Don't be a tease," he admonished harshly as he picked up where he left off, pressing me back into the bed.

Of course. This was the classic tale of the boy who called wolf. I'd done this before: told him to get the fuck off me if he wasn't going to get on with it. I'd done it to make him angrier. It was part of the game. Of course he didn't understand that I was changing the rules in the middle of a play.

"I mean it, Edward," I said, pushing against him. Fear was making my body tremble hard. I wanted this to stop. I needed this to stop. Right now. To my own ears, my voice became desperate, barely controlled. "I said no. Listen to me. I'm saying no."

Those words seemed to sink into him, and he backed off me, startled as if I had struck him. He looked at me, still pinned below him, for a long moment before his eyes narrowed. "What?" he asked, his voice dangerously low.

I shook my head as much to clear it as to register a negative response. "I don't want to do this anymore. Please get off of me." I couldn't help the way I struggled, needing his weight off me with a desperation I couldn't seem to get a handle on. My breath was coming in short gasps, and I couldn't fill my lungs.

Edward was off me so fast, I didn't even register the movement. All I knew was that one moment he was on top of me, the next he was across the room, his back pressed against his closet door in only his boxers. He was breathing like I was - with too-quick, heaving breaths like he was about the hyperventilate.

I sat up, wrapping my arms around myself and looking for something to cover my nude body. I grasped the edge of the comforter, quickly wrapping myself in it.

"I didn't hurt you." His voice is frantic and staccato panic that bordered on hysteria. Or maybe that was me. My body was still shaking like a leaf in a tornado, and I was trying to find my footing so I could run from the room. I wasn't afraid of him. I really wasn't... but I was afraid. It was the old fight or flight complex except I had nothing left in me to fight with. The fight, or the urge for it, was what had brought on this complete terror.

I tried to race past Edward, out into the hallway, but he grabbed my arm, pulling me back toward him. "I didn't hurt you!" he insisted. His voice was defensive and pleading and terrified and furious all at once. "I would never hurt you!"

Except, in his fervor to convince me, his hands squeezed too hard. I cried out, trying to coil out of his grip. "Let me go! Let go!" I screamed at him. I knew he didn't realize his own strength, but I was operating on impulse alone with very little logical thought involved. The instant he did as I asked, I was already running, the comforter falling away from me as I abandoned it to run faster. I made it to my room and slammed the door behind me, locking it with trembling fingers.

Too much... it was too much.

I'd been having this dream where I killed someone. The person was a variable, and it was never someone I knew. Sometimes it was a grown man. Sometimes it was a baby. I never understood the circumstances behind it - just that I'd robbed someone's life. Strangely, or perhaps tellingly, it wasn't the fact that I'd killed someone that bothered me. No. What had my chest aching, my throat constricting and despair overwhelming me was that it was an irrevocable act. I knew I couldn't cover it up. My life was over. There were no second chances, and the consequences of my actions would destroy me just as surely as I'd destroyed the other person.

I didn't need one of Renee's dream interpretation books to figure out the message. I had a second chance, but there were only so many chances a person got to set their life straight once it had veered off track.

I'd built myself something of a life here in California. It wouldn't take much to destroy that life as thoroughly as my original life had faded away. And then what? Could I really start again? There would be a point where it was just too much, and my life would be over.

I had barely enough presence of mind to yank the sheet off my unmade bed, wrapping it around myself as I slid down, my back against the door. My legs were simply too weak to hold me up anymore. I curled my legs up close to my chest, rocking myself as I began to sob.

I was gasping in that way little kids did when they'd worked themselves into an absolute tizzy, crying until they didn't know what to do with themselves anymore. Dragging in breath after breath, I was able to get enough air into my lungs that my soundless sobs turned into a long, keening noise that was unrecognizable as human.

It hurt. It hurt too bad to deal with. All the anxiety, terror and sorrow... With my arms wrapped around my head, I struggled to ball myself tighter, tuck my head deeper into the space where my legs met my chest. I needed... something. Anything. Drugs in my veins to obliterate all this anguish. Or a knife dragged over my skin, spilling it all out of me. I was too scared of too many things, too panicked to calm myself down.

That was when Edward began banging on my door, twisting the doorknob, trying desperately to get in. "Bella! Bella! Open the door! Open this door!" The door shook behind my back and I shrieked shrilly.

It was the absolute worst thing he could have done, though he couldn't have known that. As I gasped, trying to hold on to what tiny shred of sanity I had left, the room around me faded away, and another memory I'd pushed into the dark dredges of my consciousness surfaced in stunning clarity.

Thud. Thud. Thud.

James, pounding on the door, trying to get to me. Trying to hurt me again. I just couldn't take it. I couldn't. I'd been trying so hard. So hard. And it wasn't enough. My face ached from where he'd backhanded me, and backside hurt because he'd taken the belt to me right there in the kitchen.

But I hadn't stayed still as he commanded. No, I pushed myself away from the counter he'd pushed me over and darted up the steps, ignoring his shouts. I closed the door, locked it, and no matter how much he screamed that I was going to get it worse, I just didn't let him in. Instead, I pressed my hands over my ears so hard I was surprised I didn't hurt myself. My whole body vibrated as his fist came down again and again on the door.

Then my mother's voice, frantic and questioning. I couldn't hear what she was saying. She hadn't been home when James started in on me.

I could hear James though. "I don't know what the hell is wrong with her. She's been locked up in that room making these god-awful moaning noises. She's crazy."

Again came the loud crash of his fist against the door. "You hear me bitch, you're a fucking lunatic," he shouted just to make sure I was listening to their conversation. I think he wanted me to start making those moaning noises again so he could prove to my mother how insane I was.

There was some whispering and then my mother's gentle knock on the door. "Bella? Baby? Please let me in. No one is mad at you."

Idiot that I was - desperate to find some tiny slice of maternal comfort - I believed her. The second I unlocked the door, it flew open, sending me sprawling to the ground, and James was there.

There was no way I was opening that fucking door. Already, I was in too much pain. I couldn't handle more, and he wanted to hurt me. My head was pounding so hard that I didn't even realize no one was pounding on the door anymore.

I don't know how long I was curled there, rocking and shaking with my hands pressed over my ears and my eyes squeezed tightly shut against the onslaught of sheer terror. But a voice who wasn't James or my mother or Edward caught my attention. Maybe it was because he was so far removed from anything that was fucked up in my life, but I could hear him when most everything else real had faded away.

"Bella?" Jasper's voice was clear and steady, lacking any inflection except concern.

I stopped breathing altogether, confused as to whether or not the voice was real and what he was doing here. But his voice had the intended effect. I was able to hang on to the tiniest bit of calm. It was enough that I could realize the horrible ache in my side was because of the way I was breathing - hitched and wheezing. My throat and mouth were dry... parched. I made an effort to breathe deeper.

"Bella?" he asked again.

I didn't move, aside from my rocking and the rapid rise and fall of my chest. I was waiting for the inevitable. I was waiting for that last string to snap and my sanity to fall away from me, scattering over the ground like dropped marbles.

Get it?

I giggled maniacally at myself, envisioning a future of huggy-coats, padded rooms, and beautiful, mind numbing drugs. I could see myself drifting into a merciful sleep to the tune of a high dosage pharmaceutical, traveling down the medicated highway in blur. I saw myself much like the criminals in Batman's Arkham Asylum, locked away and watching a world now safe from my insanity through a tiny, barred window. This wasn't some inane fantasy from a girl too tired to exist anymore; as far as I was concerned this was rapidly imminent reality. This was going to happen, and unlike most those locked away in Arkham, there was no twisted cohort that was going to get me out of this mess. There was nothing I could do but surrender and wait.

The persistent, gentle rap at my door made it abundantly clear that I had not tumbled down that steep ledge. Not this time. I'd narrowly avoided total insanity once again.

"Sugar?" came Jasper's soothing voice. "Can you open the door for me?"

"I just want to make sure you're okay," Jasper continued. "We don't have to talk. Just let me sit with you."

My thoughts a little more concrete, I was able to actually consider his words. I didn't have the strength to stand so I reached up, shaking away enough of my sheet to get my arms loose. As soon as I unlocked the door, I scooted away from it so he could come in.

The door opened and Jasper's calm, non-judgmental eyes landed first on my face. Then, as he got a better look at me, distinct horror painted his features. Quickly but gently, he took my hand, stretching my arm out and away from my body. His fingers brushed the skin there, and I was confused as to what he was doing before a livid growl erupted from his lips.

"You son of a bitch!" he snarled as he stood.

I hadn't noticed that Edward was hovering right behind him until Jasper had spun, shoving Edward backward with a force that completely surprised me. "What were you thinking?" Jasper shouted, enraged as he grabbed Edward by his shirt and shook him hard. "How could you do this? You, of all people? How could you put someone else through that?"

Edward looked stricken, his eyes wide - guilty and completely horrified. "Jasper... I swear-"

"Shut up!" Jasper demanded, pushing Edward away from him, up against the wall.

That finally knocked me out of my stupor. I had no idea what was going on. Part of me wanted to shrink back and cower into a corner until all the angry screaming went away. But I couldn't let Jasper hurt Edward. I didn't understand why he was shoving him around like that in the first place. "Jasper!" I called, my voice raspy. "Stop!"

Jasper looked over his shoulder to where I was trying to get to my feet and failing. He turned back to Edward and pushed him away again. "Get the fuck out of my sight. I don't want to see your face, and don't you dare think about running."

Edward didn't have to be told twice. He turned and I could hear his footsteps retreating quickly to his room. The door slammed a second later and I jumped, easily startled.

"Bella?" Jasper's voice was soothing again, and he was approaching me like I was a frightened animal that would bolt if he wasn't careful. I suppose that wasn't far from the truth. "It's going to be okay. I'm going to get you some clothes, okay?"

Clothes. Right, of course, because I was naked underneath this sheet, and that had to be obvious. With everything else, I had been oblivious to any sense of propriety. I'd actually forgotten my nudity. Thank God I was still holding the sheet tight enough around me that he hadn't seen anything.

I shook my head, trying desperately to clear it. I was still stuck in a surreal atmosphere inside my my own mind. Fear was a persistent companion; I was terrified that I wouldn't be able to combat the anger like I fought off the fog, that Edward would hate me for playing stupid games, that when Jasper and Alice found out, they would abandon me too.

That I was well and truly on my way to insanity.

"You don't... have to deal with me," I managed. Stringing words together was difficult. "No one should have to deal with me."

He paused, his hands still halfway in my closet as he looked through shirts. "What do you mean deal with you?"

Bile rose from the pit of my stomach. "He called you, right? Because he couldn't deal with me on his own." My laugh was incredulous and bitter. "I should be able to dress myself. Children can do that." Words flew out of my mouth without any kind of filter. I was still too skittish to think about things like what I was saying.

Jasper didn't answer at first, instead finding a shirt for me. I took it, ashamed at the state I was in. "Edward did call me," he allowed. "He was scared." Jasper took a deep breath, looking up at me. "I don't think he knew how to deal with what he'd done. Not that it's an excuse..."

"What he's done?" I scoffed. He just didn't understand yet. I turned away, and because I was already worse than naked in front of him, I dropped the sheet I was wearing to my waist, quickly pulling on the t-shirt he'd handed me. What was a little impropriety compared to the things I'd have to confess to soon. "Everything was my fault."

I ducked behind the closet door, finding a pair of sweats from the day before and tugging them on.

"Did he tell you that?" Jasper's voice was hard and I flinched.

"Why would he have to?" Moving out from behind the door, I found Jasper startlingly near. I moved away, wrapping my arms around myself. "You warned me, didn't you?" I reminded, not looking at him as I sat on the bed. "Not to m-mess with him?" My voice started to tremble again, guilt pulling and tugging at my words.

Because I wasn't looking at him, I heard rather than saw Jasper move slowly toward me. Each step was deliberate, and I held my breath. I wanted him to come and sit beside me with an ache that made my body shake. I couldn't ask because I should be sending him to be with Edward. Shame bowed my head, and I stared down at my shoes. "You shouldn't have to deal with me," I whispered again.

The bed dipped as he sat, still a distance away from me. "Is this okay?"

No, I wanted to say. Don't you understand I fucked everything up?

Instead, I nodded, not quite understanding why he needed to ask permission to sit on my bed.

"Bella, you're not a chore, okay?" He began softly. "You're my friend. That means when you hurt, I hurt."

"You're Edward's friend. You were his friend first," I countered. Jasper really should be with him. I needed to tell him that Edward hadn't upset me. He didn't need to be mad at Edward because I was hurting. I'd done that to myself.

Before I could speak though, Jasper was off the bed and on his knees in front of me, looking up at me with passionately earnest eyes. "No matter how I feel about Edward, I can't condone what he's done. You are my priority here." His eyes searched mine as I blinked, trying to understand what he was talking about. "I don't care what you said or did, he had no right to take advantage of you."

I stared at him. "Take advantage of me?" I echoed.

"He had no right to hurt you like that, no matter what," Jasper continued, and his eyes went to my arms.

I looked where Jasper looked, not understanding the significance of what I was seeing at first. My arm was bruised, the distinct shape of fingers evident on my skin. For long seconds I scrambled, trying to match his words to the situation. Something was off. Something was missing.

"Oh!" I cried, startled when I realized the conclusion he'd reached. Suddenly, his outburst in the hallway made sense. "Oh, no. Jasper... no, no, no," I babbled, trying to find the right words.

I was an idiot for not seeing it sooner. Of course. He'd come to find me locked in my room, crying and carrying on like a wounded animal. When he finally convinced me to open my door, I'd been naked and cowering in a sheet. And then he'd seen the bruises on my arm. Finger-shaped marks that ranged from old - ringed brown and ugly green around the edges - to new. If he didn't know any better - and how could he - I could understand how Jasper would think they were all from tonight. If that was the case, my skin told the story that Edward must have pinned me down, readjusting his grip repeatedly as I struggled.

"You can't be mad at him. He didn't do anything." I stood, running my hands through my hair and tugging. I was disturbed because I could take Jasper thinking bad things about me - but not about Edward. And not that. "I don't even understand, how you could think he would..."

The rush of fury I felt toward Jasper surprised me, and under the circumstances, scared me. Maybe a little irritation was normal, but I didn't really know how to define normal and it made me nervous about everything. I forced myself to look at Jasper. "Don't you get it? It's me. It's all me. He was fine before I came here! He was sweet to me when I had no one else, and I... I... I... I fucked it up. I fucked him up."

Carefully, Jasper came and stood in front of me, stilling my jittery movements with his hands on my shoulders. "I don't know what it is you think you did, but that doesn't give him permission to hurt you."

I laughed without humor, sitting back on the bed. "It's what I wanted." I couldn't look at him again because it all sounded too fucked up in my own head. "It was all consensual. All of it."

Sitting beside me slowly, Jasper ran his fingers over the bruises on my arm. "This was consensual?" he asked.

I grabbed my sweater from where it sat on the other side of the bed, quickly pulling it on, feeling more naked now than I had been just a few minutes before. "Most of those bruises aren't new," I finally managed. "I... we... I know, okay? I know I fucked up. I shouldn't have done that to him. It shouldn't have happened the way it did."

"Bella." His voice was firm, instantly making me go quiet. "I'm just trying to understand, okay? Whatever has been going on between you and Edward has been happening for a while?"

I nodded.

"And he didn't force you. You wanted him to... be rough with you?"

I closed my eyes and nodded again.

"And tonight? "

"It's a long story," I said, my voice barely a whisper. Suddenly, I was horrendously tired. "A really long story. But he never forced me, Jasper. You can't think that of him."

Jasper took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. "Fuck," he muttered. Out of my peripheral vision, I saw him wipe a hand over his eyes. "Jesus... Okay. Here's what we're going to do. You go into the bathroom, and splash some cold water on your face, and then we'll go talk to Edward together. Hash this all out. Okay?"

Nerves fluttered in the pit of my stomach but I knew he was right. I needed to talk to Edward. I needed to come clean...about everything.

I entered the bathroom feeling both tired and renewed. Outside the evening twilight had completely dissolved into dark night. As dark as Los Angeles got anyway, which was to say I could easily see my surroundings without turning on the light. The streetlamp outside the bathroom window cast a thin veil of light, just enough to make shadows and darkened profile images of the sink and my various toiletries. I flipped on the light switch anyway.

The mirror, freshly repaired, was a stark contrast to its older surroundings, but it wasn't the mirror itself that seemed out of place to me now. Rather, the reflection staring back at me was one not unfamiliar but someone I was no longer used to seeing. I thought I'd lost her for good after I'd destroyed the glass where she slept.

"Hey," I said out loud, my fingers automatically reaching for her.

She looked like a castaway, all chalk white skin, her bones apparent in all the wrong places, like time had warn her down. But it had not defeated her. Of course not. She wasn't destroyed as I thought she had been as I watched her shatter into a thousand perfect pieces several weeks before. She smiled at me briefly before a piercing scream interrupted our reunion.

And I knew. Somehow. I just knew something was horribly, irrevocably wrong.

I raced out of the bathroom so fast, I passed Jasper. I ran down the hallway, toward Edward's room, and found that the continuous line of panicked shrieks was originating from Alice -when the hell had she gotten here - who stood, trembling, outside of Edward's bathroom, her eyes glued to something on the bathroom floor. My heart dropped into my stomach at the same time my stomach jumped into my throat. It wasn't a pleasant feeling. Jasper stopped at Alice, as if the problem lay with her, trying to find out what was wrong and why she would not stop shrieking. Like Alice before me, I stumbled on the problem.

Edward was lying in a fetal ball on the bathroom floor, his arms up by his slackened, pasty white face. His cell phone was near his fingers, and I imagined calling Alice was one of the last things he'd done before he passed out.

His wrists were leaking blood.

Movie special effects. It had to be. Maybe Edward's sick idea of a joke. There was a practical joke store down the street. They probably sold fake blood. This could not be real. But even as the world seemed to slow down around me, just like the movies, my first actual, concrete thought was that the air did not smell like powdered raspberry Kool-Aid, it smelled like rust in the rain. It smelled metallic.

If I had to imagine what death smelled like, it would be the stench of blood.

And blood was pouring from Edward now in a rapidly widening pool of deep red on stark white tile.

My voice, sounding thick and slow, screamed Edward's name as I fell to my knees beside him. I grabbed his wrist, my only thought that I had to stop the flow somehow. I had to keep Edward's blood in him. Instantly, my hands were stained with his life. I was calling his name as if he'd sit up and talk to me.

I felt a presence beside me. Jasper. He was talking, but his words were heavy and I couldn't understand them over Alice's shrieking and the rush of my pulse in my ears. I shook my head hard, making myself concentrate on what Jasper was saying.

"Call 911. Can you do that for me? Please?" he asked, simultaneously pulling his belt off. I watched dumbly for a second as Jasper tied his belt tightly around Edward's arm, above the cut. "Bella, now!"

I scrambled forward, picking up Edward's phone. Instantly, it slipped out of my hands. My fingers were slick with blood. I pressed myself into the corner, wedged between the tub and the wall, and tried again. This time I was able to hold it.

I don't even know what I said to the 911 operator. Sound kind of faded away. I saw Alice slumped against the door jamb, tears rolling down her face and her fists pressed, knuckles-first, against her mouth. I watched Jasper, his hands as stained as mine with Edward's blood, trying to staunch the steady flow with makeshift tourniquets.

But mostly, I watched Edward's impassive face.

Sitting there, as everything went on around me, I remembered someone saying that suicide was the most selfish act you could commit. But Edward looked so peaceful. Around him there was chaos, but his face was a picture of calm - like he looked when he was sleeping, so innocent.

I had a terrible thought then. What if it wasn't Edward who was being selfish? What if it was the rest of us? I knew he lived with demons the same as I did. Who was I to tell him that his struggle was worthwhile? Yet here we were, trying to bring Edward back to a life he didn't want to live. We wanted to bring him to a life where he'd obviously been suffering. And why? It would be so much simpler on us if he would just stick around. We needed him, our friend. Alice's brother. How dare he put us through all of this?

Wasn't that the more selfish thought?

Depression is such a confusing paradox when compared to actuality. For everyone else in the world, life is too short, but for people like me, life becomes too long. You wouldn't ever catch a person in the midst of a depressive episode saying, "where did the time go?" We can account for every increment of time. Each second, minute, hour creeps by at a crawl, the ticks from the clock echoing in surround sound. Time doesn't fly; it sits stranded on the runway waiting for the foul weather to clear so that it can take off.

Not every moment was a burning-in-hell spike of torturous pain, that much was true. Still, even in moments of levity there was always this deep ache that lingered stubbornly. My heart felt heavy, a constant strain in my chest to keep it beating. I had contracted this disease and would never be completely free of it. Like a fruit punch stain on a white shirt; no matter how many times you washed it the stain would never disappear completely.

People who didn't know, didn't understand, could say it would get better. Maybe they were right, but I couldn't offer any proof. As long as I'd lived under the cloud of this... wrongness, it had lessened, but it hadn't ever gone away. How often had I desperately sworn I would do anything if only I could make the pain stop.

I didn't blame him.

As sick as I was with worry and an overwhelming fear that he would never open his eyes again, how could I not understand? I'd thought about it often enough myself, and maybe Edward just had more backbone than I ever had.

And really, who was more selfish? We all sat in the hospital waiting room together: Jasper beside me with his head in his hands and guilt coloring every movement he made; Alice curled under Emmett's arm, alternately scared and furious. She and Emmett were angry that he was putting us through this. But why did he have to look out for us?

Obviously, someone should have been looking out for him.

I wrapped my arms around myself, feeling colder than I could ever remember being.

And when the doctor stepped out to talk to Alice and Emmett, I swear I could hear the clock tick on the wall like a reckoning. Jasper's hand found mine and he squeezed so tightly I could have cried out if I didn't think I deserved a little pain.

Edward had survived. He was sedated and unconscious, and probably would be until at least morning, but he was alive.

I closed my eyes tightly, finally letting myself sob out my residual terror and profound relief against Jasper's shoulder.

~0~

"Everyone's got to face down the demons"

~0~


Chapter Text

"You've got such a pretty smile
It's a shame the things you hide behind it
Let 'em go
Give it up for a while
Let 'em free and we will both go find it
I know there's nowhere you can hide it
I know the feeling of alone
I know that you do not feel invited
But, come back, come back in from the cold,"

~I Know, Jude

"I can't see him right now."

I think we were all shocked by Alice's vehemence. Her eyes were bloodshot from her tears, but the scowl on her face was also reflected in her angry stare.

"Ali..." Emmett began, but Alice shook her head.

"No. I can't, okay?" She stood, pacing away from her brother. "You didn't find him. You didn't see him like that. I'm going to have his death burned into my brain for the rest of my life. And where were you? Out with the family you replaced us with."

"Alice," Emmett said, bowing his head, and hunkering down like he was a small boy instead of a grown man. "Please don't do this right now."

Alice glared at her brother. "Tell me he didn't call you, too." Emmett was silent, staring down at his feet. "Why weren't you there, Emmett? You know why? Because you never are. Edward was the one who held me after Mom and Dad died. He's the one who's been there for me every time I've had a broken heart, telling me that there was someone out there who would love me exactly the way I needed them to, and until then, I had him." Her features crumpled, the mask of anger falling away from what she was desperately trying to hide - her fear and sadness. "He promised he wouldn't leave. He promised."

Jasper stood, running the few steps to where Alice stood. She fell willingly into his arms, crying against his chest while Emmett looked on, helpless.

My heart twisted for this little, broken family. Under other circumstances, I might have pointed out what they were missing. Alice, abandoned by her birth parents, her adoptive parents and both of her brothers in different ways, wanted a love that could steady her. She didn't see that Jasper's strong arms offered more than just friendship. He could be everything she needed but she was standing in the middle of the storm where it was hard to see. I had better vision from the outskirts. And Emmett... It wasn't hard to tell that he was completely heartbroken. He loved his brother and sister. He just didn't know how to show it.

But this was far from a normal circumstance. I stayed silent, merely an observer to the pain all around me - the pain I'd had no small part in causing.

"Alice," Emmett pleaded. "I was playing with the boys. I didn't hear the phone. I swear-"

"Oh, just shut up," Alice growled, letting go of Jasper. "Fuck the both of you and your promises. I can't be here right now."

"You shouldn't be alone," Jasper hedged, looking torn.

She offered him a watery smile. "I won't be. Don't worry about me. I have plenty of company." She turned then, missing Jasper's pained wince as she walked away, wiping at her eyes.

Maybe it was hypocritical – I wasn't even remotely angry at Edward for putting us through all this – but I was a little irritated at Alice. Her anger was completely comprehensible to me; even though I understood Edward was in pain and just wanted it to stop, it was impossible not to feel the affect his death would have had on my life. She was his sister. Her loss would have been so much more profound than mine. But even though I understood her reaction, Edward was my priority. He needed his family's support now, not their judgment.

But it was not my place to say anything. How could I?

"Excuse me, Mr. Cullen?" a nurse caught Emmett's attention before he could run after Alice. "There's a man asking about Edward downstairs at the security check in. He says he's a close friend of the family."

Surprisingly, it wasn't Emmett who jumped up. Instead, Jasper headed down the hall and around the corner, a determined look on his face. Emmett and I exchanged a confused glance before we were both up, following him.

"What are you doing?" Emmett asked, falling into step beside him.

"If he has the fucking gall to show his face here, I'm going to kill him," Jasper rumbled, adding to my confusion. Then he stopped short, pointing to a kindly looking older man with long black hair that was streaked with white. He looked fatherly – wise and calm – but Jasper was looking at him with an expression you would expect to find on a movie hero facing down an evil tyrant. "Is that Aro?" he asked Emmett, his voice clipped.

"Yeah. What…"

Before Emmett could ask anything, Jasper was rushing forward. "Hey," he said, his voice commanding as he got up in the man's face. "You'd better get the hell out of here." Anger I couldn't even fathom radiated from his stance, his fists at his sides. This was worse than his fury when he thought Edward had raped me. He looked like he could tear the other man apart.

Aro furrowed his eyebrows, looking genuinely confused and concerned. "I beg your pardon? Have we met?"

"I said," Jasper growled, taking a step forward, "Get. The hell. Out." With each word he stepped closer until Aro must have been able to feel his breath as he spoke.

"Jasper," Emmett said, putting a restraining hand on the other man's arm, "Aro is our godfather. He was Edward's guardian."

"I know who he is," Jasper snarled, yanking his arm out of Emmett's grasp. "And if your parents knew what he did to Edward, they never would have let him anywhere near any of you."

Jasper moved quickly then, fast enough that I jumped as he rushed at Aro, grabbing him by the front of his shirt and yanking him forward. "I'm only going to say this once. You try to get anywhere near him, and I will kill you. I'm not going to let you hurt him."

Emmett, who'd been about to grab Jasper again, froze. He blinked, obviously at a loss as he processed Jasper's words.

Aro's face was a mask of what seemed like genuine concern. "I don't understand why you think I would hurt my godson," he said in his smooth, even voice. "I love that boy as I would my own son."

Jasper's grip tightened, and his scoff was raw. "Yeah, I know how you love your son, you fucking pig-"

Whatever else Jasper was going to say was cut off as a burly looking orderly shouted, "Hey! This is a hospital. You can't be fighting in here."

Jasper's eyes flicked over to the orderly for a second before he began hauling Aro toward the exit. Emmett seemed to snap out of his stupor at the same time my feet started moving me forward. We followed Jasper and Aro outside.

"What are you saying?" Emmett asked the minute we were outdoors. His voice was pinched, and a little panicky, as he looked at Jasper. "What are you accusing him of?"

Jasper had pushed Aro away from him, and looked at Emmett furtively. "Just keep him away from your brother."

Aro turned to Emmett. "I honestly have no idea what I've done to this young man to make him act this way. I'm only concerned for Edward's well being."

"Yeah," Jasper chuffed. His face was almost purple, he was livid. "You think it was in his best interest to sneak into his room when you were staying over? You sick fuck. He was a little boy! Do you think he wanted your filthy fucking hands all over him?"

My stomach lurched, threatening to spill whatever was in it.

So many of the pieces I'd been missing, so many things I didn't understand – didn't want to understand – suddenly made sense. My body pulled in too many places at once. I wanted to throw myself at Aro, kicking and punching and clawing, because I would hurt anyone who tried to hurt Edward. My legs felt weak, threatening to spill me to the floor because my God – oh my God, I couldn't imagine the weight of this kind of secret. It was worse… so much worse than anything James ever did to me. And I wanted to sink to my knees, begging whoever would listen to me, to forgive me. I didn't know. I really didn't know. Maybe I should have known, but I didn't. I never would have…

Oh, God.

"I didn't-" Aro began, but couldn't finish because the minute he opened his mouth, Jasper reared back, preparing to punch the older man. Emmett grabbed Jasper's arms, wrestling his way in between the two.

At first I thought Emmett was going to side with Aro, and I wanted to curse him as blind. I hadn't known Edward nearly as long, and Jasper's accusation fit the quirks in Edward's personality. But instead of turning on Jasper, Emmett whirled on Aro, punching the man square on the mouth. Aro fell back, landing on his ass. His mouth was bleeding as he looked up at Emmett, incredulous.

"Get out of here," Emmett growled through clenched teeth, his fists clenched.

"Emmett-"

"GET. OUT!" he bellowed.

Pushing himself to his feet, Aro quickly scrambled away. When he was out of sight, I gasped, not realizing that I had been holding my breath.

Emmett turned to Jasper, jerking his head in the direction of the parking garage. Looking tired now that all the anger had drained from his face, Jasper fell into step behind the other man, and I darted after them.

"I need you to tell me everything," Emmett said once we were a good distance away from the hospital. Emmett had led us to an outdoor break area between the hospital and the parking garage. At this time of night, it was abandoned.

Jasper sat down heavily on a stone bench. "I can't…" he started.

"Jasper," Emmett cut him off, his voice harsh enough that I wrapped my arms protectively around myself. Still, there was an edge of desperation there. "Look where we are, okay? I know you probably think I'm the world's shittiest big brother, but you have to know, I want to help him. I can't help him if I don't know how. Please," his voice was pleading now, "tell me. Let me help him."

I bit my lip, watching Jasper, and wondering if I was strong enough to handle whatever secrets he'd helped Edward shoulder all these years. Already I felt sick. I wanted to fold my arms over my head and stick my head in the sand, pretending I hadn't heard the words Jasper had shouted only minutes ago. How could I stand to know what had happened to Edward?

And how could I stand to know that after he'd been hurt so badly, I'd hurt him further?

Breathing deeply, Jasper ran his hands through his hair nervously. Then he began to speak.

He told a story about how, some months into their friendship, Edward had taken Jasper for a job interview downtown. Since it would be a bit of a wait, Edward had agreed to accompany him and chill in the waiting room until the interview was over. He'd been fine… joking and laughing, but when they got in the elevator to go up to the 50th floor of the skyscraper, a young businessman had gotten on with them.

Instantly, Edward had gone completely quiet. Jasper had watched, perplexed, as he pressed himself further and further into the very corner of the elevator, like he was trying to disappear completely.

Then the man had turned, noticing Edward there, and smiled. The man called him Little Brother, and said it had been years since they'd seen each other.

Edward hadn't said a word, until the businessman tried to clap him on the shoulder. Then he recoiled violently, seething, "Get away from me!" between clenched teeth.

The other man had laughed it off, saying that Edward always had been high strung. He'd gotten off the elevator a good ten floors below Edward and Jasper's final destination.

Edward was jumpy after that. When Jasper asked what had happened, Edward couldn't explain. He could hardly concentrate on what Jasper was saying. Jasper was alarmed at how much more pale he looked than usual, and how he was nervous and edgy enough that any noise seemed to startle him.

So Jasper had skipped the interview, opting instead to take Edward back home. They drank. A lot. Jasper fell asleep in the spare room that was now mine. He woke when he heard Edward screaming in his sleep.

Slowly, between that night and a small handful of others, Jasper had learned the truth. When he woke from his nightmares, Edward would sometimes answer yes and no questions. Jasper had put the clues together to form a semblance of the whole story.

Aro – Edward's parents' dear friend, and godfather to all three of their children – had touched Edward inappropriately, whenever he would spend the night during Edward's childhood.

By the time Carlisle and Esme died, Aro seemed to have lost whatever carnal interest he had in Edward. But, at some point, his older son, Demetri, who attended University in Italy near his mother most of the time, came to visit Aro.

His voice drained and sad, Jasper spoke mostly to the tabletop. "I've read a lot about… this kind of thing. Many times, children who have been… abused repeated the cycle." His eyes flitted up briefly to me, guilt running deep. I knew that had to be why he assumed that Edward was capable of hurting me that way. "Except that … Aro must have gone a step further with Demetri than he did with Edward."

"Demetri… r-raped Edward?" I made myself say the words, making sure I understood. I needed to hear them out loud to truly realize what I'd done.

Jasper nodded. "I think so, yes," he said in a whisper.

"And he was the one in the elevator?" I asked.

Another nod.

Emmett stood abruptly, pacing away with staggering steps. He braced himself against the wall, looking like he was about to spontaneously combust. His face was contorted - rage, and grief evident on his features. He let out a low, wordless growl, looking and sounding for all the world the way I felt inside.

With a yell of fury, he began savagely kicking the ever loving shit out of the trashcan that sat near the wall. Its metallic clangs were oddly sedate, accompanying the sounds Emmett was making.

Jasper went to him, pulling him away from the wall before he could hurt himself. Emmett calmed almost as soon as he exploded, and he sat back down at the bench, his hands over his eyes. His voice was raw. "When he was little and Aro -" he said the name like it was rot in his mouth, like he wanted to spit it out quickly "-spent the night, Edward always tried to sleep in my room. I called him a baby."

"Emmett…"

"He begged me… when Mom and Dad died, he begged me to take care of him and Alice." He looked up, his eyes pleading with no one in particular – maybe with the heavens. "I was 19. How was I supposed to support them? I didn't … I couldn't…"

"Emmett…" Jasper tried again, but I didn't think Emmett was even aware we were there, listening to him.

There was something so sad and disturbing watching a man as big and outwardly strong as Emmett break down completely. "I always thought he was so melodramatic. He tried to tell me. Do you know how many times he called me… making sure I didn't take the boys to that fucking monster's house unless I told him I was going? Jesus. It must have… He went to protect them. That's my job. I'm their father. I'm his big brother. I should have known…It's my job to know."

"Come on," Jasper said, his voice soothing. "Your parents didn't know. And Edward is very good at hiding."

"You knew," Emmett pointed out. He rubbed his eyes hard. "You know what. It doesn't matter." He blew out a long breath, his expression resolute. "I'm sure the hell not doing him any good out here. I'm going to go inside… wait for him to wake up. I don't want him to wake up and think he's alone." He paused, his tone changing again when he spoke. "You know… Aro always creeped me the fuck out. I thought I owed it to him…to be nice… because he took care of them when I couldn't."

He didn't expect a response – which was good because not even Jasper had any words for him.

I admired Jasper. He had to be just as devastated, if not more so, than the rest of us. Though he shouldn't be, I had no doubt that he blamed himself for Edward's actions. He'd muttered as much on the drive over to the hospital. Now, his muttering made more sense. His words had been the exact wrong thing for Edward to hear. Jasper's hasty words must have made Edward feel like the monster that had haunted him since childhood.

If it hadn't been for me, Edward would never have been in a position to question whether or not his actions made him like his godfather, or Demetri.

But where I was mute with guilt and grief, Jasper was a rock. He had comforted all of us tonight, and had yet to be comforted himself.

Emmett returned to the hospital alone. Since Jasper and I were not related to Edward, we had to wait for visitor's hours. It was nearly dawn anyway, and as I climbed into the passenger seat of Jasper's car, it suddenly struck me that I was exhausted.

"Do you want to stay at your place tonight?" Jasper asked quietly.

"No," I said, almost as soon as he started speaking. "Shit. I hadn't even thought of that. But no. I don't want to go back there. Not without Edward." I wondered if I would even be welcome back. Would he even want to see me again? Why would you want to see the girl who drove you to suicide?

Jasper was silent for a moment, oblivious to my silent fears. "You could stay with me. I mean, I have roommates, but you could… I mean, we're adults. I have a big bed. We could … just take a nap."

He didn't want to be alone any more than I did. "I'd like that," I said softly.

Neither of us spoke again for a long time. Jasper drove straight to his place – a warmly disorganized little niche that was a musician's haven. The living room lacked the usual television. Instead, there were a drum set and two guitars stuck haphazardly up against the wall.

Taking my hand, Jasper led me to his room. Neater than the rest of the house, there was a big bed, and shelf after shelf of music. "You have almost as much music as Edward," I observed.

Jasper smiled sadly. "How do you think we got to be friends? He speaks that language you know. Edward communicates best through lyrics and sound."

Remembering his silence on the way to Joshua Tree, and the way the music he played seemed to narrate his mood, I just nodded. I tried to think back, wondering if there was some sign I missed. What kind of music had he been playing since we first…

I'd known he had demons. I had no idea he was suicidal.

"Here," Jasper interrupted my thoughts again. He handed me a plain black shirt – his, I assumed – and a pair of silk pajama pants. "They're clean and comfortable."

He let me change in his bathroom while he took the bedroom. Then he laid in bed, holding the covers open for me. Maybe it should have been awkward, but I had nothing left in me to feel shy. Between worry and shame, I was empty of any other emotion.

As soon as I got under the covers, I turned toward him because, I needed him to hear this. Edward had already put too much responsibility on his own shoulders for my despicable actions. I wasn't about to let the same thing happen to Jasper.

"It wasn't your fault, you know," I said quickly, before I could lose my nerve.

Even in the gray light of the dawn, I could see the uncertainty and guilt in his eyes.

"How do you figure? I knew better than to say something like that to him. You heard what Emmett said. No one else knew. Not his brother. Not Alice. I did. And I used those words knowing they would hurt him because I was…" His eyes closed and he breathed deeply. "I was just so angry. After all I've seen him suffer, the thought that he would turn around and do the same thing..."

"It's not your fault," I insisted. "You don't understand. I do this to people. I make them... I swear I don't mean to do it. I don't know that I'm doing it." I was babbling like an idiot again, tears making my eyes sting. "I'm just... it should have been me."

He shifted in bed, turning so he was on his side completely. "What do you mean?" he asked steadily.

Realizing that he thought I was admitting to being suicidal myself, I hurried to explain. "No. No. I'm not ... I'm not going to ... do what Edward tried to do." I couldn't make myself say suicide. It would make everything more real. I didn't want to accept how close Edward had come to dying because of me. "If I lost my grip on sanity couldn't you consider that death?"

When he didn't answer, and really I hadn't wanted him to, I continued. "I would be a non-functioning, unidentifiable waste of skin. I'll look at you, but I won't see you. My body is strong, Jasper," I added with a sardonic air. "But my mind…"

"You think you're crazy," Jasper realized. "You're not crazy." His voice was gentle but firm, not lacking for conviction.

Now it was my turn to pause, turn his words over in my head to be sure I'd heard them right.

"What?" I asked, incredulous. How could he look at me - knowing that I had fallen apart earlier that evening, that I had involved Edward in some sort of sick game of rough sex - and tell me that I had both my oars in the water?

"I am crazy." It was the only thing that made sense. "That's what my stepfather used to tell me, banging on my door when I cried like I did earlier - when Edward called you. He called me a crazy maker, he said I was driving myself crazy and I wanted to take everyone with me."

He studied me for a minute. I realized belatedly that I'd opened a window. Feeling vulnerable, I rolled away so my back was to him.

"Tell me about your stepfather."

"You're tired. I'm tired. You don't need to listen to me…"

"Bella." His voice was a comfort and a command. And I was just tired. So tired of keeping every secret locked inside of my skin.

So I told him.

Chapter Text

" Well this place is old

It feels just like a beat up truck

I turn the engine, but the engine doesn't turn

Well it smells of cheap wine & cigarettes

This place is always such a mess

Sometimes I think I'd like to watch it burn

I'm so alone, and I feel just like somebody else

Man, I ain't changed, but I know I ain't the same,"

~One Headlight, The Wallflowers

Once I started talking, it was almost impossible to stop.

When I was in school, I was always half terrified, half hopeful that someone would figure out what James was doing to me. That hopeful part of me was buried deep in my subconscious, but occasionally, I would become aware of its existence. I was ashamed and embarrassed, always worried that my shirt would ride up, exposing my bruises. I didn't want to have to explain what I'd done. I didn't want anyone to know. But…

But I did want it to stop.

A few incidents stuck out in my mind. Once, my English teacher stopped short at my desk, frowning at a dark, ugly bruise that peeked out from under the sleeve of my shirt. I told her I tripped and hit a rock. She hissed with sympathy and moved on. I remember the way my heart beat a frantic tattoo against my chest, fear overtaken by an odd sense of disappointment as she turned away.

And then another day, another excuse, and the girl who asked about my bruise looked at me in a way that said she saw right through me.

"Did your dad do that?" she guessed.

"No," I said, looking down, away. I could feel her eyes on me. I didn't want her to see me the way I knew she as seeing me. A voice niggled at the back of my mind, telling me what a piss poor liar I was. But that voice, when I really had time to think about it, was hopeful, not derisive.

I waited for her to say something. I waited for her to do something. She never did. No one ever did, and how could I blame them? I couldn't pretend that I didn't know something was going on with Edward. Just like it'd been easier for them to pretend to believe I fell so often, or that I preferred to wear long sleeve shirts in the summer, it was easier for me to just accept Edward's bullshit, 'There's nothing to talk about.'

But I wasn't scared now. There was no thrill of hope that someone could make it all stop.

I read somewhere that real drowning is not like we've all seen in countless movies and television shows. There's no violent, desperate splashing, alerting anyone who's paying attention that someone is in dire need. In reality, drowning was often still and quiet. A person, locked and frozen by nature without the ability to call for help.

That was what I felt like in those early dawn hours: I was sinking quietly, without fuss. My exhaustion was on a plane I'd never experienced before. It was a tired ache that went down to the core of my bones and made my heart so heavy in my chest that I swore I could trace its outline. I had no strength to maintain any sort of filter; all the things I knew innately I shouldn't tell anyone - what would they think of me - eked out one after another.

It was like they always said - before you died, your life flashed before your eyes. I was just narrating the tale. And when I was done, I closed my eyes and waited to fade away. Not to death necessarily, but to insanity. It all sounded crazy to me: the way I provoked James and then Edward; how entirely fucked up I was though I hadn't seen James in years. How worthwhile could I be if my own mother didn't want to take care of me?

"You're not crazy," Jasper said, his voice firm.

I chuffed. "Not yet," I countered, but it couldn't be normal to feel the sinewy strings of sanity pulled taut. Eventually, they were going to break.

"You're not going crazy." His hands were on my face, his touch so soft that it hurt. I flinched away from his touch with a hiss like a demon backing away from the hands of the pure. He sighed, and moved his hand instead to my arm. His touch was firm but gentle, and he ran his fingers down my skin. "You're in a lot of pain - more than anyone should ever have to experience - but you're not going to go out of your mind."

I didn't argue this time. What could I do if he didn't believe me?

"Your stepfather had no right to do this to you. You know that right?" Jasper continued.

I laughed. I couldn't help it. "This - the way I am - isn't something anybody else could have done to me. They were my choices, my inability to deal with life. It's me who's fucked up."

I rubbed my hand unconsciously, feeling the deep scar there. It was probably true that James shouldn't have taken his punishments to the lengths he did, but whatever marks he'd left on my body had faded long ago. The only scar I had was one I'd inflicted on myself. "And even if I'm not crazy, he was right, wasn't he? What has my life has amounted to? I'm 20 years old, and what do I have to show for it? I have nothing. No talent, no future. At least if I'd stayed in college, maybe I could say I was accomplishing something. But even then I'd just be stumbling though that like I stumble through everything else." My self loathing and self pity were physical things, resting like weights that covered my whole body. I couldn't have even gotten out of bed at that point, my blood was like lead in my veins.

"Fuck," I cursed because I couldn't seem to shut up. "I don't know why I'm doing this to you. I shouldn't... This isn't about me."

"Bella." Jasper's hand came up to my cheek again but this time when I flinched away, he didn't move. "I asked you to tell me, remember? Edward isn't here right now. We can't help him right now. And just because he's hurt, doesn't mean you aren't."

Again, I laughed, and the sound was somewhat hysterical. "I'm so tired. I don't even know what I'm saying anymore."

Jasper was silent, his hand warm on my cheek and his very presence the only thing that was keeping my head above water. He sighed and pulled me closer. My body fit against his, seeking shelter from the storm in my head. I laid my head on his shoulder and let him hold me.

By the time I realized the light tremors weren't my own body shaking, exhaustion had an irreversible hold on me. He was crying... telltale sniffles punctuating the ambient noise of the city outside. I wanted to comfort him, but my mind was too lethargic to hold on to that thought.

"Bella," I heard him whisper as the world faded away into the merciful peace of deep sleep. "Just promise me you won't shut me out."

"I promise."

I had no idea if I actually said the words, or if they were lost as I drifted away.

~0~

It could not be overstated how much I hated hospitals.

When James would hit me, one of the greatest fears that ran through my mind was that he would hurt me bad enough that I'd have to go to a hospital. How irrational was that - like I was more afraid of needles than of him beating me half to death.

I'd put off seeing Edward for over 24 hours now. It wasn't all avoidance. Emmett had explained what the doctor told him - that it took weeks to recover from the kind of blood loss Edward had experienced. He would probably be strong enough to be released from the hospital in a couple of days, but he wouldn't be at his full strength for a while. That first day, he was barely awake for more than a few minutes. Jasper said he was as weak as a newborn kitten.

That was another reason I'd stayed away that first day. Until I knew my presence wasn't going to upset him, I couldn't risk causing him more pain. Jasper could philosophize all he wanted, Edward had been fine - living his life and not perpetuating a cycle of destruction - before I came around. He shouldn't have to muster enough strength to throw me out of his room, if that's what he wanted.

But Emmett and Jasper had very little luck getting Edward to say anything at all. I also couldn't take the risk that he still thought he'd hurt me.

I took the elevator up to the floor he was on and stopped by the nurses' station. "Is there anyone with Edward Cullen right now?"

A nurse - a short, young looking woman with her blond hair up in a severe looking bun - turned to me, her lips turning down at the mention of his name. "More visitors? His brother left just ten minutes ago."

My eyes automatically narrowed at her tone, my trepidation over being in a hospital at all and going to see Edward in particular fading when I detected the scathing disapproval in her voice. Maybe it was ridiculous - I'd already failed so badly - but I wanted to protect Edward from anything that would cause him more pain than he'd already been through. Standing up tall, I looked the nurse square in the eye. "I'm sorry. Is there something wrong with patients receiving guests?"

Her stare was as icy as the blue of her eyes. She didn't even bother to hide her contempt. "No, there's nothing wrong with visiting sick people. They could use a little company. But attention whores being utter idiots wasting time the doctors and nurses of this hospital should be spending helping people who actually need help, don't deserve supportive family or friends. The least he could have done was get the job done right."

"Jane!" a furious, commanding voice interrupted the nurse's venomous diatribe before I could react. That was probably a good thing as I was a split second away from starting my very first cat fight.

We both turned to see a tall, good looking woman with strawberry blond hair scowling at the nurse. Jane. The name was familiar. I looked down at her arm, noticing the skin there was snarled and scarred.

Nurse Jane Valentina. Edward had told me about her. When she was very young, she and her twin brother had been caught in a house fire. They were holding hands, and so her entire left side, below her neck, had been burned along with her twin's right side. She had little to no empathy or tolerance for anyone who landed in the hospital because of their own stupidity.

"If you are unable to do your job just because you know Edward personally, that's something you need to let your charge nurse know," the strawberry blond said shortly.

If looks could kill, Jane's livid glare would have had the other woman writhing on the floor in pain. She breathed in through her nose and nodded sharply before she pivoted on her heel and walked in the other direction.

"I am so incredibly sorry for that," the blond said, turning toward me. "She and Edward used to work the same shift before she got transferred up here," she explained. "I'll make sure that she gets reassigned. She shouldn't be tending to him."

I took a deep breath, blowing it out slowly and releasing my anger. I'd never felt more like being the irate customer than I did right then. I wanted to demand she not be allowed to work on this floor, but I knew I didn't have the right. It made me paranoid. This hospital had to be full of people Edward knew and worked closely with. And they all had to know what he was here for.

"Are you Bella?"

I eyed the blond nurse warily. "How did you know that?"

"Good guess," she said, smiling sadly. "I've met his sister, so that means you had to be Bella." She offered a hand. "My name is Tanya Ivanov. I'm Edward's charge nurse."

"You're his boss," I realized, shaking her hand and feeling totally out of place.

She nodded. "I was wondering if you could help me," she began, leaning toward me. "I'm trying to save Edward's job. You see, since nurses handle so many sensitive materials..." She seemed to think better of whatever she'd been about to say. Her eyes were sympathetic as they looked at me. "Long story short, in order for him to come back to work, he has to complete a rather extensive treatment. We're talking voluntary admittance to an on site therapy program. I have a list of several facilities that he could-"

"Why are you telling me this?" I blurted, overwhelmed. "This isn't any of my business..."

Tanya looked confused, her lips quirking down at the corners. "You're his girlfriend, aren't you?"

The word struck me hard, and I stiffened in surprise. "Girlfriend..."

"Oh. I am so sorry. I just assumed... Well, I knew you lived with him, and the way he talked about you..."

This whole exchange was surreal. When had I stepped into an alternate reality where I was the one who could influence Edward's decisions... where I was his girlfriend and not the woman who fucked him? "How... how did he talk about me?"

Again, her expression was sympathetic. I must have looked the way Alice did - unsure of how much Edward could actually care about me if he would do this to himself. "He always looked forward to going home to you." She grimaced slightly, looking away. "That's why this all came as such a shock to so many of us. I've known Edward for years, and I don't think I've ever seen him as happy as he's been lately."

My hand came up to my mouth, and I pressed hard, trying not to cry and failing miserably. An absurd happiness twinged at the center of my chest - a small light amidst the blackness of everything else I was feeling. But that light also brought several thoughts and emotions I'd hidden away to the surface.

I didn't want to acknowledge just how much I'd have lost if Alice hadn't found Edward when she did. What I felt for him - though our relationship had gotten so twisted and ugly - was a complicated emotion I just didn't have the ability to think about. Not yet.

"I'm sorry," I stumbled, wiping at my eyes and trying to stem the tears that were suddenly streaming down my cheeks. It wouldn't help anyone if I fell apart now, especially in front of Edward's boss.

"Don't apologize," Tanya said, putting a comforting hand on my shoulder. "I'm sorry. I can't even imagine what you're going through. I wouldn't bother you at all except that I know Edward's job is important to him. His father was a doctor, you know."

I nodded.

"Please believe me. Jane is in the minority here. Edward is good at what he does, and I want him to come back to work, but more than that, we're all hoping he gets the help he needs. The facilities on this list - I've researched them thoroughly. They all have good programs and excellent-"

"Shouldn't this be something you talk about with Emmett?" I interrupted.

Tanya paused and tilted her head. "Since Edward is awake and alert, his case worker will discuss his options with him... but the three days or so it will take him to recover enough to go home will also constitute as the three day observation period mandatory for patients who... well, patients like him," she explained.

She paused again, looking like she was constructing her words carefully. "Now, I'm not going to pretend I know what brought Edward to this point. And I don't have the first clue how to help him. But these people do," she said, offering me a neatly stapled bundle of papers she'd been carrying in her left hand. Her look was sad but sincere. "Bella, so many people in his position just end up back here again...or worse. If he'll listen to anyone, it won't be his boss, or his absentee brother."

I wanted to tell her she had the wrong person. Why didn't anyone understand that I couldn't be trusted? There was no guarantee that Edward would ever want to see me again - what made her think he would trust me to tell him it was a good idea to check himself into a g'damn funny farm?

Instead of saying any of that, I took the papers. I would give them to Jasper like Tanya probably should have. Jasper was the person Tanya was looking for - not estranged like Emmett, not angry like Alice.

But hadn't Jasper been trying to help Edward for years without success?

The closer I got to Edward's room, the more all other thoughts faded away. The anxiety and nerves were back with a vengeance, making it difficult to put one foot in front of another. It was a testament to how selfish I was that each step I took brought me closer to a reckoning. Here Edward was recovering from trying to take his own life - because the pain he was in was so great that it overrode his survival instinct - and I was thinking that if he hated me now, what little life I'd carved out for myself would be destroyed. I would lose my home, Jasper and Alice - because if he didn't want to see me again, I wouldn't put him through the pain of having to hear about me through them - and...

I would lose him.

Maybe I already had.

I stopped short outside his room, seeing Edward for the first time since I'd watched him get loaded into the ambulance.

It was amazing how not like themselves people looked like when they were in the hospital. I couldn't see his face - he was lying on his back, his face turned away from the door - but even the back of his head looked different. His hair was dull and falling flat in a way I would have thought was impossible. His body was so still, I would have panicked if I couldn't see his chest rise in fall in a slow rhythm.

Wondering if he was asleep, I called his name from the doorway in a quiet voice so I wouldn't wake him.

At the sound of my voice, his breath faltered. He didn't turn toward me. He didn't speak. I could see he was fighting to keep his breathing even.

A lump rose, painful in my throat. I swallowed hard, trying to find my voice. "I just... I can go."

"Don't." His voice was so faint I wondered at first if I was imagining it.

It was amazing how one simple word could cause such a varied reaction in me. My heart fluttered because even though I knew he was on the road to recovery, the last time I'd seen him with my own eyes he was covered in blood and dying. I was glad he was alive and ecstatic that he didn't want me to leave. But at the same time, the complete lack of life in his voice was as frightening as his drawn appearance. And, most stunning of all, was the rush of anger I felt when I heard him speak.

Just because I understood didn't mean I wasn't pissed that he'd tried to leave everyone behind - his sister and brother, Jasper, his nephews...

Me.

Mostly though, I was unsure of what I was supposed to be doing. Was there some etiquette I should be following here? Did I try to touch him? A hand through his hair. My hand on his. I remembered some story I read where the woman rubbed the patch of skin below where the man's IV was inserted because she knew it itched and she wanted to comfort him.

I opted to sit in the chair by his bedside. He still hadn't turned to face me.

As I searched for an opening line, Edward spoke before I could. "Emmett said Jasper told you."

Still there was no emotion in his tone. If I wasn't looking right at him, noting how his usually slightly sun-kissed skin was pale and watching with a slight twinge in my stomach as blood dripped into him from a bag on the IV pole above his head, I would have thought he was a machine.

Of course his sudden candor startled me. There was no way in hell I was going to broach this particular subject. That he would get right to it when he'd held this secret for so long stunned me. But then, it was a testament to how tired he was. I remembered just two nights ago, spilling my guts to Jasper because I was simply too exhausted not to.

"Yes," I said, my voice light as a feather as my throat constricted. It still killed me that he'd suffered that way. That he was still suffering because of it.

"You don't have to feel..." I didn't know what I was going to say. He didn't have to feel ashamed? Was it one of those things, like when people told me not to feel sad, that would only annoy the shit out of him?

"Feel what?" he deadpanned. "I don't feel anything."

I felt like I was navigating a mine field at night, like one small move on my part would blow away whatever was left of both of us. Him for obvious reasons. He looked so terrifyingly fragile right now that I believed he was still teetering on the edge. What was the phrase you always heard on the television shows? He's not out of the woods yet. He looked like any second the machines would start blaring. Code blue.

And if my words destroyed him again, permanently, I didn't think I would survive.

"I'm so sorry," I blurted suddenly. If there was anything that needed to be said it was that. "I shouldn't have... If I'd have known, I-"

"Don't! Please don't."

For the first time since I'd stepped foot in this room, there was inflection in his tone. Those simple three words held everything I'd been expecting since I got here. They were angry but fearful of that fury. They were commanding, even confident, but with the desperation of begging around the edges.

His breath shuddered and he finally turned his head toward me. I bit my lip hard, wanting to cry because his cheeks were too gaunt, his skin too sickly gray. He breathed deep, closing his eyes briefly. When he opened them again, I was almost too scared to look. I forced myself not to turn away.

But when he looked up from underneath his eyelashes, Edward's eyes were alive. Completely lost, vulnerable, angry and scared - but alive. Present. "What happened between us... it was my choice," he said, his voice not much more than a whisper. His eyes flicked nervously about the room. "Maybe it was the wrong choice. But it was mine. I didn't want it to happen that way..." He looked at me again, tentatively, like a child reaching out to pet a toothy dog for the first time - prepared to look away at the first sign of a bite. "But I did want it to happen."

Almost as quickly as the fervor rose in his voice, it was gone again. His eyes got glassy and he looked away. "That's probably awful to say."

Trying to process the rapidly changing conversation, my hand automatically sought his. I didn't realize what I'd done until I saw him wince when my fingers brushed his wrist. His wound were covered by thick, gauzy bandages, but that didn't stop me from remembering what they looked like. He knew exactly where to draw the razor to spill his blood the quickest.

It hadn't been a cry for help. He'd meant it.

I tried to retract my hand, afraid that I was causing him pain, but he grabbed my fingers with his. He didn't look at me, and his grasp was only tenuous, but it lessened the strangling grip on my heart infinitesimally. "Why is that awful to say?" I asked, rubbing my thumb over his skin.

"I hurt you," he murmured, and his tone was almost that of a little boy asking if his mother still loved him after he'd been naughty.

"Edward... you didn't hurt me."

He chuffed. "I did. I've been hurting you. I've saw the same bruises Jasper saw-"

"Edward!" I interrupted him, needing him to stop before he started blaming himself for needless things. "Come on. We were both there. I know I scratched the hell out of your back."

He didn't answer at first, just continued to stare out the window. "You know...sometimes, we would get a ... a rapist in the ER. He'd have scratches like that because his uh..." he was obviously struggling, "his victim fought back."

"I wasn't fighting you."

Again, I was met with just silence. Feeling an urge that was half fury and half ache, I stood. I walked quickly around his bed and stooped so he had to look me in the eye. His eyes met mine reluctantly, full of trepidation and an amount of suffering I could only imagine. My fingers were shaking as I stroked them down the length of his stubbled jaw.

"You were scared. I scared you," he murmured.

"Not because of you," I asserted firmly. "There's so much... so much about me that I haven't told you. There's a lot we should have talked about if we were going to..."

What the hell was I saying? This wasn't important.

I closed my eyes and shook my head. "Please believe me. When I freaked out that night, it was because of my own issues, not anything you did."

He searched my eyes, looking like he wanted to believe me but not quite knowing how. "I wouldn't ever hurt you like that. I never wanted to hurt you at all."

"I know." There was something important that I was missing - something that he needed to hear, because this needed to never happen again. "Edward," I said softly and waited until he looked at me. "I'm not worth this, you know that, right? There are... so many people who love you and care for you. You can't let me be the reason you would do this."

His eyes narrowed slightly, his lips twitching. "You think I did this because I felt guilty," he said, not asking, and it didn't escape me that there was more volume in his tone than there had been before.

I didn't answer. I didn't know how to answer.

"I did feel guilty... so much..." His head rolled and he looked toward the ceiling, his voice suddenly strangling into nothingness. I saw his throat move like he was swallowing - trying not to cry. Carefully this time, I put my hand in his and when he squeezed my fingers there was a modicum of strength there. "I just..." he was struggling so much that my heart ached for him. I wanted to tell him he didn't have to say anything, but I knew that not saying what he needed to say was what brought him to this point in the first place. "I ... I thought..." He swallowed hard, and a tear escaped the corner of his eye despite his best effort. "I don't want to be a monster."

With my free hand, I wiped away his tears, trying to hold back my own. "You're not." They were the only words I could manage to get past my closed off throat.

I walked back around his bed, sliding into the chair and taking his hand again while he thought this over. Minutes passed while I simply held his hand. His eyelids were fluttering, drooping. "I'm tired," he mumbled.

"You can sleep," I said quickly, soothingly I hoped. "I'll still be here when you wake up...if you want me to be."

His eyes found mine and they were a single shade closer to how I remembered them. "You'll stay?" I could hardly understand his words, they were so garbled by his weariness.

"I'm here," I assured him, not understanding how that could comfort him but somehow, it did. If the least I could do was hold his hand while he slept, I was damn sure going to do that.

"Okay," he said, stopping the fight to keep his eyes open.

He was asleep not even a second later.

Chapter Text

"Am I loud and clear, or am I breaking up?
Am I still your charm, or am I just bad luck?
Are we getting closer, or are we just getting more lost?
I'll show you mine if you show me yours first
Let's compare scars, I'll tell you whose is worse
Let's unwrite these pages and replace them with our own words"

~Swing Life Away, Rise Against

"Hey, Bella."

I winced as I woke. "Fuck," I whispered. I tried to move my hand to rub the ache out of my neck but it was weighed down by something.

Edward's fingers were still wrapped around mine in a death grip even as he slept. It made a smile play at the corners of mouth. It shouldn't have made me so happy - he was lying in a hospital bed still feeble from blood loss - but his hand wrapped around mine meant that he wasn't angry at me. Or at least, he didn't want me to stay away.

Carefully, I rolled my head in the direction of the voice, finding Jasper in the doorway. He crept closer, his steps soft on the hospital floor, and lowered himself into the seat next to mine. "Hey," I greeted, keeping my voice quiet.

"He talked to you," Jasper said after a moment.

I nodded, not taking my eyes off of Edward's face. As drawn and pale as he was, he was still beautiful. After all the ugly things that had happened between us, I didn't know if I should be allowed to see things like that. It was a confusing state of mind. His words - that he'd wanted to have sex with me - had opened a door I'd been ignoring since... well, since I'd met him, to be honest.

"He hasn't really talked to anyone, you know," Jasper said softly. "When Emmett or I are in here when he's awake, he mostly just stares out the window."

I didn't answer at first. There were too many things I wanted to ask him. It was just my luck that the one thing that did stumble out of my mouth was probably wildly inappropriate given the circumstances. "Jasper... when you told me that Edward wasn't a virgin... did you mean because of Demetri?" It was surprising how much I could absolutely loathe a person I'd never met. The man's name was the foulest thing I'd ever held in my mouth.

Jasper looked at his friend, his eyes pinched and sad. "To the best of my knowledge, Edward hasn't ever been... intimate with anyone."

My free hand went to my mouth and I pressed down hard, closing my eyes and trying to suppress the urge to cry. This was some type of twisted reality where beautiful, even potentially romantic notions got dark and ugly like a gorgeous bouquet of vibrant flowers left to wither, their once wonderfully fragrant petals overwhelmed by the stench of rotting, mildewy stems.

The idea that he would willingly choose to share his body with me was beautiful, but the reason it was so significant was terrible. Sex could be wonderful - as close to divine as we could get on this earth - but what had happened between us was the antithesis of that. All Edward knew of sex, all he'd experienced, was repugnant and awful. I cared about him so much, it was maddening that part of that ugliness was my fault.

"Bella..." Jasper's tone was so gentle it made me ache. His fingers pried at the hand I held to my mouth, and he brought my hand down slowly, squeezing it tightly. "I've been thinking about you and Edward..."

My eyes shot open. I didn't want Edward to wake up to use talking about him. We were speaking in such low voices that I doubted he would be able to understand us, but I didn't want to take that chance.

"He's out, Bella," Jasper assured, obviously noticing my distress. "He hardly has any energy at all."

I took a few breaths and squeezed Edward's hand, slipping my fingers out of his so I could scoot a little further back. "What about us?" I asked, feeling defensive.

Jasper tapped his chin, a serious expression on his face and his eyes on Edward's sleeping form. "Children who have been molested often have fewer boundaries when it comes to sex. And I don't mean that in the, uh... kinky way. I mean that they can get themselves into dangerous or unhealthy situations because," he paused to consider his words, "for lack of a better way to say it, they don't understand sex, innately I mean. It's less about pleasure or communication between people and more about control... and they'll push their limits because it proves they have the power."

He paused and my head spun, my heart aching and my blood seeming to boil with anger. It was so unfair that someone else's actions could have such long lasting affects.

"Rape is a different story," Jasper continued, his voice tight with the same rage I felt in my bones. "That's much more living in fear about sex, among other things. It's one of the reasons that when we drink, Edward and I drink at home because being at the bars makes him extremely uncomfortable. If someone tries to flirt with him - man or woman - he gets panicky."

"I'm not sure what you're trying to say," I said through clenched teeth. I was struggling not to cry and fighting the urge to punch things.

"I'm saying that I think, for the first time, Edward wanted something. No," Jasper amended. "I know he wanted to pursue something with you. He wanted it badly enough that he asked my advice, and that's huge because Edward never asks for help."

My heart gave a hallow pang. "You told him it wasn't a good idea."

Jasper looked taken aback. "You heard that?"

"Not all of it," I admitted.

Running his hand through his hair, Jasper looked up at me with guilty eyes. "I don't know what you heard, but I can imagine it came off wrong. I was worried...not just for him, but for you too. I didn't know what your past was before, but I could tell that you'd been hurt."

"It's not the same thing," I protested. "It's not nearly the same thing."

"No. But have you ever been in any kind of relationship?" Jasper challenged gently.

I looked away, not sure if I should feel ashamed. "No."

He reached out, squeezing my shoulder consolingly. "I hope you understand that I'm not trying to belittle you. It's just that I can understand how things got so out of control between the two of you. I don't think either of you knew how to deal with what you were feeling. You both have issues with control."

Feeling far too exposed and defensive, I twisted my body out of reach of his hand. My heart was beating in a panicked rhythm and though I couldn't for the life of me understand why I should be so afraid, I was. And I was furious on top of that. "I'm not a fucking baby," I hissed under my breath. "There's no excuse for what I did to him."

"Are you telling me you wanted to hurt him like that?" he asked bluntly. "Or you wanted him to hurt you?"

Every cell in my body seemed to scream at once. "No," I said in a whisper. "Everything between us got so out of control so quickly." I covered my eyes with my hands, not wanting him to see. It was a pathetic notion. Kids in grade school could manage a halfway decent relationship with their playground crushes. Mike Newton, after he'd failed to woo me when we were little, had moved on to Jessica Stanley. To this day I remembered watching them across the playground. He would bring her dandelion chains and would hold her hand when the bell rang, drawing us all back to class. Affection wasn't that hard, was it?

But affection had turned into a power struggle between the two of us. "I really should leave him alone..."

Tentatively, Jasper took my hand again, and I didn't pull away. "That's not what I'm saying. I mean... if that's what's best for you, that's one thing, but don't leave out of guilt. You both need help... and I really think, of all of us, you can help Edward the most."

My head snapped up. "What?"

My tone was a little too loud, and we both looked to see if Edward stirred. He didn't. Lowering my voice considerably, I turned to Jasper...who had obviously gone insane. "What are you talking about?"

Amazingly, his eyes were nothing but earnest. He really meant what he was saying. "I really think that you can help each other under the right circumstances. Bella, you understand things about Edward that I can only begin to grasp. He needs that... I think you both do. "

"Nothing like what happened to Edward happened to me," I reiterated. I couldn't even begin to imagine what it would feel like - carrying that beneath your skin.

"No," Jasper agreed, "but a lot of the side effects are the same. I don't think you realize... before he found you, Edward was really struggling. He was hiding it, and he was fighting it, but I saw it. He would go through periods of depression where he got to the point that he could barely function. And then the panic attacks would hit him hard. Sometimes he couldn't even get out of bed." He caught my eyes. "Does that sound familiar?"

The lump in my throat was painful to swallow around, so I didn't try to talk. Jasper took that as a sign I didn't disagree, and he continued. "Intellectually, I understand depression, and the whole panicking thing. But I don't get it."

"I never saw him like that," I hedged.

"Like I said, that was before he found you." Jasper looked thoughtful again. "I think that's why he fought so hard to help you. After the day he first met you, in the music store, he didn't stop thinking about you. I think he knew that he could help you even then because he understood what was happening to you. And he thought if he could save you, he could save himself."

Wasn't that a variation of the words I'd thrown in his face, trying to hurt him? "How do you know all of this?" I blurted, needing to steer the subject slightly away because the responsibility of helping Edward was too heavy and overwhelming for me to grasp at the moment. I was a wreck of a woman, a girl, and Edward was teetering on the brink. How could I help him? I was the one who pushed him to this point.

Jasper's eyes narrowed slightly as he looked at me, like he knew exactly what I was doing. His look softened as he decided not to push me. "When I found out what happened to Edward, I didn't know what to do. He was my only friend in a huge city... I wanted to know how to help him, and if I couldn't, I wanted to try to understand. I read every book I could get my hands on... and more too, because..." He shrugged, shaking his head. "We all have our pasts. The mind is a terrible, beautiful, fragile, tough thing."

"You're a good friend," I murmured, squeezing his hand. If I wasn't so mentally exhausted, I would have asked more about his past. Maybe that would have been the right thing to do as a friend - help him carry his burdens for a while. I knew what he was doing. He'd been shouldering my troubles and Edward's ever since Edward had called him a few days before.

Friends were supposed to lean on each other.

He scooted close to me, lifting his arm and putting it around my shoulders. I laid my head on his chest, not realizing how utterly spent I was until that very second.

"Bella, it's not up to you to save him. That's not what I'm saying," he said, resting his head against mine. "I guess what I'm trying to say is that you can't beat yourself up for making a mistake. He didn't do this because of you, and he isn't completely innocent in what happened between the two of you either. I know you care about him... and caring about people can be really scary even under the best of circumstances."

He sighed, and turned his head to kiss my forehead briefly. "I think sometimes to understand how we can help others, we have to learn to help ourselves too."

~0~

Jasper had been gone for only fifteen minutes or so when a nurse walked in. I was pleased that it wasn't Jane. Tanya appeared to be a woman of her word.

"That seems to defy logic," I muttered, watching with a nauseated twinge in my stomach as the nurse drew blood from Edward's arm. "You're trying to put more blood in his body... why take any away?"

Before the nurse could say anything, Edward answered in a raspy voice. "Bloodwork is used to check the patient's..." and he rattled off a long list of words that meant little to nothing to me. I was more interested in the way he referred to himself as the patient. Clinical much?

At the end of his recitation Edward rolled his head toward me and opened his eyes slowly. He seemed just slightly more present than he had the last time he was conscious. "You stayed," he said quietly.

"I said I would," I answered. The tiniest of smiles picked at the edge of Edward's lips, and I felt like beaming at him. "You just missed Jasper. He had a shift."

"Oh," he answered plainly. His eyes had strayed down to where our hands were clasped, and I realized belatedly that I was stroking his knuckles with my thumb. Self conscious, I stopped. His eyes flicked up to mine, uncertain, and then back down. "Did... Was Alice here?"

He was trying to keep his voice steady, disinterested, but I could hear the light note of hope in his tone. My thoughts were momentarily bitter because I was going to have to extinguish that tiny light. Couldn't she call, at least?

"You don't have to say anything," he said after a moment. "Alice has her reasons for staying away. I understand."

Clearing her throat, the nurse interrupted our conversation to ask Edward a few questions about how he was feeling and to inform him that his case worker would be by to see him. Edward answered her dutifully and nodded his understanding. He exhaled in a long, slow breath. "I'm not sure how being at work for 72 hours straight is supposed to convince me I want to live," he muttered darkly as he banged his head back against the pillow.

Suddenly it felt like I couldn't breathe. All this time I'd been trying not to think about the reason Edward was in here.

The room was so fucking full of white elephants, it was amazing there was any room for the two of us.

My face must have looked quite stricken because when he looked at me, his features were painted with guilty exasperation. "I'm sorry," he said quickly, but his tone didn't match his words. I wondered what he thought he was apologizing for.

Taking a deep breath, I decided to be blunt with him. I needed answers, if I was supposed to help him. I needed no blinders to what was happening right in front of me. "Edward... do you still want to die?"

I saw his eyes widen before he looked away. His breath quickened and the set of his mouth became a lot harder. Instead of feeling bad, I was relieved. It was more emotion than he'd shown in days, if Jasper and Emmett's observations had been correct. I expected him to yank his hand out of mine, but he didn't. "Not right this moment," he finally answered, his voice considerably more controlled than I expected.

He closed his eyes, looking like he was trying to control himself, though from what I really wasn't sure. I couldn't imagine how confusing this all was for him. "I'm sorry," he said finally, and this time his apology was more sincere. "I'm just frustrated. That nurse, Irina... she and I used to have lunch together sometimes. I know she's trying to be professional, but she doesn't look me in the eye at all, she acts like we don't know each other." He rubbed his free hand over his eyes tiredly. "I suppose that's understandable. Like I understand Jane coming in here and telling me what an idiot I am, too. I can almost deal with all of their looks, all their fucking pity, and their irritation. They're just my co-workers.

"But on top of that, on top of the ... indiginity of having to call people you've worked with for help because you're too weak to walk to the bathroom without fainting, I have to deal with Emmett coming in here looking like his best dog died," he practically growled the last bit. He swallowed hard, his features becoming more troubled than angry. "And then Jasper... I let him down. I let him and Alice down. If there's anyone who deserves to be angry at me, it's him, but he isn't."

If I could have, I would have put my arms around him and promised that nothing else would hurt him ever again. It was odd, how I could feel the strength of my body, but only when it came to protecting Edward. I wondered if this was how Jasper felt, trying to take care of all of us.

And some small part of me wondered where he put me on that list. Was I just another pressure? Another thing he had to deal with?

"Maybe it would be a good idea to... get away for a little while. Or at least, be with people who've gone through what you're going through," I tried carefully, edging each word out like a child putting one toe out before inching deeper into the water.

He turned to look at me, confusion mixed with exhaustion in his tired eyes. "What do you mean?"

I huffed, knowing it was now or never. "I've been reading about these mental health places," I started, talking quickly. "They actually sound... really relaxing." I wasn't lying. Most of the facilities Tanya showed me were set in the mountains. Surrounded by skyscrapers and loud, rushing traffic, it was often difficult to remember that Los Angeles was actually surrounded by hills.

Edward's lips quirked downward, and he gave a little chuff of raw laughter. "That's what you do when a dog gets too sick, right?" You send him off to spend their last days on the farm. The funny farm in my case." The last words were mumbled, and my heart twisted.

"Edward," I began, but he cut me off, shaking his head.

"I know you didn't mean it like that," he muttered. He sighed, reaching up and pinching the bridge of his nose. "I don't know what I really want," he admitted. "Right now... I just want to get out of here."

Tentatively, I reached forward and ran my hands through his hair. "When does that happen?"

His eyes flicked to mine, and I thought he looked grateful for some inexplicable reason. "Tomorrow, maybe," he answered quietly. "As soon as I'm strong enough to not fall on my ass when I stand." His tone was frustrated again.

Wanting to distract him, I picked up the controller for his TV. "Did you know they play movies in this place."

He eyed me, but I thought he looked amused. "No, I had no idea. It's not like I've been here before."

I rolled my eyes. "Fine. Stupid question. Just for that, we're watching..." I looked at the choices on the few movie channels the hospital offered. "Oh, Sorcerer's Apprentice."

Edward grimaced. "That movie looked like ass."

"Well, maybe next time you'll think twice before you sass me then," I said, flipping the channel.

"You and your horrible taste in movies," he grumbled, but he still sounded more amused than actually irritated.

"Says the guy who thinks the animatronic shark is scary."

"Hey!" he protested. "You were the one who screamed, remember?"

I did remember, and I suddenly remembered how that day we watched Jaws, we were both skirting the line between our separate issues. Normal, easy conversation just didn't come easy to us typically.

Jasper was right. We didn't know how to have a relationship - not even one as simple as being friends.

But when I looked over at him, Edward had a small smile on his face, and I knew without him having to say that the reason he could talk to me, spend time with me, when his best friend and his brother only set him on edge, was that we had seen each other at our worst. We both understood what rock bottom looked like, and that common ground made all the difference.

So I tried not to think about what I might be doing wrong. I tried not to worry about where we would go from here and what I was supposed to do. I did my best not to think of anything beside whatever smarmy comment passed between us as we watched the truly horrible movie on the screen.

When I realized that he hadn't let go of my hand since he'd awaken, it was actually ridiculously easy to just enjoy a small chunk of time with a man I cared very deeply for.

~0~

When I left the hospital, instead of going to Jasper's, where'd I'd spent the last couple of nights, I made a detour toward the house.

Jasper had arranged to have the house cleaned - which, more specifically, meant he'd paid so someone else would clean Edward's blood off the floors of the bathroom and anywhere else it might have dripped when he was taken out of the house.

Wasn't that a surreal thought. I'd never considered it before. On TV, you only see the bloody crime scenes. You never know who gets to clean up all the carnage, though someone must.

Even now it was hard to think of that gruesome scene as real life. I was glad I didn't have to see it again.

I had taken several steps inside before I realized I wasn't alone in the house. I froze, a few hundred assault scenarios running through my head. I was so caught up in these horrible fantasies that it took me several long moments to realize that my would-be attacker was making noises no hardened criminal would. She was crying. Still not ready to lose the potential drama of the situation, a few more over-elaborate plots came to mind before I finally went to investigate the source of the tears.

Tissues littered the room like dollops of whipped cream on the pumpkin pie colored carpet. Alice was sitting on my bed, eyes blood red and puffed up. She was at that hiccupping stage of crying where she could barely keep the snot at bay.

I went to her quickly, putting my arms around her instinctively even though I already felt out of my depth. "What's wrong, honey?" I asked, though I wasn't sure I was ready for the answer. Wasn't it usually me in her place, bawling into someone's arms? At what point, in this line of endless drama, had I become a source of comfort that Alice felt she could go to? But she deserved a break down under the circumstances and I was going to be there for her if I could.

Through many gasping breaths. Alice managed to tell me that some weeks ago, trying to forget another man who'd walked away as soon as he'd gotten what he wanted, she'd gone bar hopping by herself. She'd met a super hot pilot from Who-knows-where, USA. Anyone could fill in the blanks. She wanted to do anything but think about how her wishes for something steady and long term kept disappearing and ended up not thinking at all. Not exchanging more than bodily fluids and first names had seemed like a good idea at the time – they both knew they weren't in it for more than a night and it made the whole situation more mysterious. Who didn't escape to the realm of fantasy during hard times?

Naturally, Alice was fearfully certain that she was pregnant.

"I'm so stupid. There are like fifty billion kinds of birth control. Why couldn't I have used one?" she lamented.

I rubbed her back soothingly. "Even the most meticulous people mess up sometimes. You shouldn't think any less of yourself."

This started a fresh batch of tears. "But this, this is a serious error in judgment. I mean, I remember thinking once during the night, before…before…. Well, I thought we should get a condom but then I just didn't and oh, God. I can't have a baby."

"Oh, Alice," I said, which I realize was just super helpful. I wracked my brain, trying to think of what I could do. She was right… if she was pregnant, she was fucked. There was no easy way to make that better. If she was pregnant… "Well, let's take this one step at a time, alright? Are you 100% certain that you're pregnant? Have you gone to the doctor, or taken one of those home tests?"

Alice sniffled, calming down slightly. "No. But my period's late, and it never has been. Clockwork and all that."

Something to work with. "That could be anything. Your cycle could be thrown off for a million different reasons not the least of which is stress. Everything that's going on with Edward definitely falls under the stress category." I hugged her again. "Come on; let's not panic until we know there's something to panic about." I helped her up, walking with her out into the hallway. "Why don't you relax, calm down a bit and I'll run down to the drug store, okay?"

Alice just nodded, slumping down onto the couch when we reached the living room. It was progress. At least she wasn't crying. I got her a glass of water, feeling foolish. If TV was right, water is what you got anyone who had collapsed or was hysterical. Whose idea was that? Whenever I was on the runny nose, aching eyes side of this situation I was never, ever thirsty. And even if I was, water would not be my drink of choice. I would have preferred something a lot, well, more alcoholic. Who made water a comfort food? There was a time and place… like if Alice had been suffering from dehydration. But a possible pregnancy was not a time for water.

I gave her water anyway and drove to nearest store, purchased three different pregnancy tests and drove back. Alice hadn't moved. The water lay, untouched, on the coffee table. Effective.

I handed Alice the boxes. She just stared at it and then looked up at me, her eyes wide and frightened like a child when you're about to turn off the light and she's afraid of the dark. "I can't do this. I'm scared."

Considering this, I picked up one of the tests. I'd seen this on Will and Grace. Jack took a pregnancy test when Karen thought she might be pregnant. That was one television how-to-be-a-friend lesson I could get behind. It was solidarity or some such thing. "I'll do it too. Come on. It's just a little pee," I encouraged.

For a moment, I thought it wasn't going to go over well, but then Alice smiled and hugged me. "Thank you," she said.

Back at the coffee table a minute or so later, we laid our tests out – my one next to both of hers on a paper towel. I put my arms around her, and Alice buried her head at my neck. The poor girl was trembling. "You look. I can't," she begged.

Obligingly, I picked up the first of her tests, my heart beating fast. "Oh! Negative. It's negative."

Alice lifted her head, looking at the test in my hand. She grabbed at the second test, reading it with her tongue sticking out in nervous anticipation. She exhaled loudly, a huge smile spreading across her face. "This one is negative too!"

Crisis averted. "You see? It all worked out."

But Alice's eyes had strayed elsewhere, to the table, where my stick still sat, two lines bright and boldly displayed. I stopped breathing.

Just like that, my world was back to its normal pattern of spinning wildly off its axis.

Chapter Text

"Honey, help me out of this mess
I'm a stranger to myself
But don't reach for me, I'm too far away
I don't wanna talk 'cause there's nothing left to say"

~The Child is Gone, Fiona Apple

All things considered, it wasn't the worst weekend of my life. Then again, having spent a good number of years under James's roof, I supposed that wasn't saying much.

The moment my brain caught up to my eyes and I comprehended what was right in front of me, my mind went blank. Who'd have thought? All that time I spent trying to turn my mind off and all it took was a positive pregnancy test. The first, last and only pregnancy related thought that traipsed through my mind was how hard it would suck for a baby to have an unstable mother and a maybe-suicidal father.

Retrospect made me wince at how cold and distant that thought was. Shouldn't I have cared about my baby enough to spare a warm, hopeful thought toward it? But the baby never became real to me. There was no time for me to get over my shock and start accepting the reality of the situation. I lost the pregnancy before I thought of myself as pregnant.

I took a test and found out I was pregnant much in the same way you might use a thermometer to find out if you have a fever. The next day, the day Edward was set to be released from the hospital, I went to a walk-in clinic who took my temperature with a much more complicated thermometer and confirmed indeed, I'd caught a virus. I received reading information about how to take care of myself for the duration of this virus and instructions on how to let it run its nine-month course. That night I started bleeding. I didn't tell anyone. It didn't feel much worse than regular cramps. The next morning, the doctor verified that the virus was gone, the bleeding being an indicator just as a cold sweat means your fever has broken.

Ironically, my fervent desire to have people notice there was something wrong with me and comfort me even when my exterior was calm and collected was fulfilled two fold. Alice was all over me with hugs and encouraging words. The doctor squeezed my shoulder sympathetically, and a nurse pulled me aside before I left saying if there was anything I needed to talk about, she could help me, and it was okay for me not to be okay. But I was fine. For once in my life I was not on the verge of a breakdown. At least not over this particular incident.

This is what I'd always wanted. Under these circumstances no one would blame me if I didn't get out of bed. No one would look at me incredulously and say "get your ass up and start functioning like the rest of the human race, there's nothing wrong with you." For once I had the get out of jail free excuse and I didn't want anything to do with it.

Some good came of the whole debacle, though. It gave Alice the kick in the ass she needed to be at her brother's side. Apparently she could deal with being supportive when she thought I was about to drop a 'you're about to be a daddy' bombshell on his fragile shoulders.

"I don't think you should tell anyone. Not yet," Alice said thoughtfully the day that Edward was released from the hospital.

"Tell them what?" I asked, deep in denial.

Throughout all of that day, Alice was looking at me with concern, for me or for her brother I had no idea. I didn't ask. Mostly, I stayed out of the way, biting my lip because I could see Edward was tired and a little overwhelmed by the fact he was suddenly surrounded by his brother, his sister, his sister-in-law, his nephews and his best friend. I caught his eye across the room once, smiling with sympathy because he looked like he just wanted to sleep. The last thing he probably wanted was this much company, or at least, this much company he had to pretend for.

It was exhausting just watching him plaster on a smile. He pretended everything was okay, tugging at the sleeves of his long sleeved shirt to make sure his bandaged wrists were out of sight. I'm sure he didn't want Anthony and Evan to question. As it was, they were relentlessly curious about their uncle.

Finally, Emmett's family left. It was a little easier with just Alice and Jasper. I got the feeling they were both watching, not wanting to leave because they didn't trust me to keep Edward alive now that the doctors and nurses at the hospital weren't around to check on him.

Edward's energy lasted long enough for him to have the tiniest bit of his dinner before he finally excused himself to go to bed. Needing the distraction - lest I think too hard about the clump of cells replicating in my uterus - I stayed up with them, talking about nothing important, until Alice fell asleep with her head cradled on Jasper's lap.

I watched his fingers as he stroked her hair. "You should tell her, you know," I said absently, half asleep myself.

Jasper looked up at me. "What?"

"All she wants is someone she knows she can depend on. It can't be Edward anymore." I had no idea who I thought I was, handing out sage advice just because I spent the majority of time figuring out how everyone else lived their lives. Just because I knew I had it all wrong didn't mean that everyone else had it right. I knew Alice was traveling a dangerous path, looking for love and some semblance of stability in all the wrong places. And I knew that Jasper wasn't so unlike Edward: he looked out for all of us, tried to help all of us, because there was something in his past that was out of his control.

And he was in love with Alice.

They both had their problems, but not like Edward and me. If this whole baby thing had happened to them...

My brain shut down around that thought.

"You love her. You should tell her," I murmured, standing and kissing Jasper's forehead.

Mercifully, I fell asleep almost instantly. I woke up in the small hours of the morning with blood on my thighs. I felt nothing. Not as I cleaned myself up and took a long bath. Not as I dressed and crept past a still sleeping Alice and Jasper on the couch. Not as I drove to the clinic and let them tell me all about what they called spontaneous abortion.

When I returned, only Alice was there. Jasper had gone out to get breakfast, she said. Because I could tell by the look on her face that she was about to bug me about the baby, I told her what had happened. And she was so, so sorry. And I couldn't take that. There was nothing to be sorry about.

I retreated to my room in a huff, frustrated over the fact that Alice believed my irritation was lost baby induced when it wasn't. I hadn't been lying there for long before there was a soft knock on the door.

"Go away, Alice," I called.

"It's me," Jasper's voice answered.

I sighed. "Come in." The door opened and shut. Jasper sat down on the edge of my bed. He started to rub my back, the movement more comforting than massaging. It felt good, and I began to let my frustration ebb.

Then Jasper ruined it. "Alice told me about... the baby," he said. My entire body stiffened under his fingers. "And I just want you to know that I'm here for you, whatever you decide to do. It's your choice. I know you know that. And I know this is not the best time, but I want you to know I'd help you... if you didn't want to get an abortion..." he was talking so fast he was almost babbling.

It took my shocked brain a minute to catch up. Jasper didn't know... which meant Alice would have told him early this morning or late last night. "Jasper," I interrupted him, rolling over so I could look him in the eyes. "There is no baby. I'm not pregnant. I wa-was." Those words were surprisingly difficult to spit out. "But I'm not anymore."

He blinked at me, processing my words. "You had an abortion already?"

"No. Nothing like that. It's just gone. I lost it this morning, or last night. It's hard to tell." My voice was flat - emotionless. It took so little for my world to spin out of control, but this I could be calm about.

Jasper looked about as devastated as I maybe should have felt. He began to rub his temples, closing his eyes tightly. "I'm so sorry," he murmured, his tone heavy. My heart gave a pang as I looked at him. He was genuinely sad. Alice had been sad for me, but Jasper was a little heartbroken. I realized that in the little time he'd known about the pregnancy, he'd not only accepted it, but begun to imagine our lives with a baby around. Maybe it was a touch of brightness in a world that had been too heavy with dark lately.

Yet, here I was, sitting on the bed with my empty uterus, talking matter-of-factly about it. But I was only human, and at the end of my always too short, too thin rope. Everyone seemed to want me to grieve. "You know what, I'm fine. Really, and I don't think there's anything not to be fine about.

Jasper opened his eyes, confused. "You can't tell me you feel nothing about this..."

"What do you want me to feel?" I was tired and exasperated. Tact wasn't very high on my list of priorities under the circumstances. "It wasn't alive, not in any real sense. I mean technically your sperm is alive, but do you mourn its death every time you masturbate or have sex? Do you bury your dirty Kleenex in the cemetery?"

"That's a little cold."

"Is it?" There was enough tragedy in my life. I was abruptly furious that he wanted to add more. "It was a clump of cells, blood and tissue; never anything more. If I had taken a pregnancy test two days later, there would have been nothing there at all. I never would have known. It was a fluke." Childishly, I turned away from him, rolling back onto my side.

I listened as he took several deep breaths, thought his reply over carefully and finally spoke in a calmed tone. "You know, it's okay to feel bad. Even if, in the end, it was for the best."

At this I exploded. "I don't feel anything! There is no sadness. No feeling of loss. Not even relief."

If anything, I just felt like an idiot... again. Hadn't I learned my lesson when I left the clinic the first time with the Plan B pill? I guess I hadn't taken my birth control as religiously as I believed, but then again I'd spent every week convincing myself that sex wouldn't happen again... not the way Edward and I were doing it anyway.

"Many pregnancies spontaneously abort before the woman even knows she's pregnant," I echoed what the doctor had told me earlier. Maybe it would help him come to grips and get the hell off my back. "It happens all the time. This was really nothing."

"It's not nothing," Jasper began, but I cut him off.

"It is nothing!" I got up, walking quickly across the room because I didn't think I could stand to be near him right then. I couldn't stand to be near anyone. I felt ugly, like I was less than human because apparently it was wrong to not feel anything for what never was, never would be a baby. "There is nothing wrong here," I insisted, and I could hear the whine in my voice, like I was pleading with him to believe me. "Don't you understand? It would have been born, and I wouldn't have known what to do with it!"

I wondered if that's what happened with my mother. Was this how she saw me? As something that happened to her? Was that why it was so easy to stand by doing nothing when James hurt me?

I began to understand things I thought I never could like how a woman could look at a newborn baby, squalling and helpless, and deposit it in a trashcan. It wasn't real to them. It wasn't alive. It wasn't theirs. Visit any foster family agency, or turn on a g'damned talk show and you'd know that for some mothers, these creatures never became real at all.

This one was lucky.

"Bella-" Jasper stood, beginning to take a step toward me.

"Shut up. Just shut up," I yelled, putting my hands over my ears. Everything was so out of control, I felt dizzy. Where I'd felt nothing just moments before, now I felt too much. Vaguely I remembered the song from the music shop so many months ago. Like water circling a drain, and the hollow feeling it left behind. My blood full of something foul. Everything about me felt wrong. "Don't you see? It would have been... poisoned. It would have been corroded, being inside of me. I'm too stupid, and ugly, and worthless. No one deserves that. No one." I wrapped my arms around my middle, all too aware of what wasn't there. I felt so empty.

The door came open again, but I didn't look up this time. I was drowning again, my breaths coming too fast like the barrage of nasty thoughts and memories assaulting me. James's voice rang in my mind, calling me good for nothing...good for no one.

"Get out!" I heard an angry voice yell. Edward. I flinched because I felt like he knew. If he did... well, how could I blame him for wanting me far away? After everything I'd done to him - and somewhere, he had to blame me for a lot of what had happened between us - to making him deal with a pregnancy scare five days after he'd tried to commit suicide was too much for anything. Or maybe he blamed me for losing the baby... maybe he would have wanted it, if only because it was his too. I could get behind that thought. If I was him, I'd have blamed me too because maybe the baby had jumped ship when it figured out I was its vessel.

Strong arms encircled me and I gasped, shocked and ready to bolt. But the arms were familiar and comforting. "Jasper, I mean it. Get out," Edward 's voice was still harsh but calmer than it had been a moment before. I grappled with confusion. Why was he pulling me close and pushing Jasper away?

Selfishly, I clung to him.

Edward's hands ran up and down my back as he held me. "We'll be fine alone. I promise." His voice was almost steady now. "Thank you for everything. But just leave us alone for now."

I heard Jasper sigh, but then I heard his footsteps as he walked out the door. Somewhere in the corner of my mind, I wondered what it took for him to leave us alone... Edward who, for all Jasper knew, might still be suicidal, and me having some sort of break down.

I realized belatedly that I was crying and I couldn't seem to stop. I didn't even understand what I was crying about. Somehow, the fact that it was Edward who sat with me on the edge of my bed and rocked me back and forth, running his fingers through my hair as he did, made me cry even harder. Shouldn't I be doing this for him?

Jesus, I hated being such a sniveling mess.

As my tears began to slow and the ability to form a coherent thought returned, I realized that Edward probably had no idea what was going on. "Edward... I don't know..." I stuttered, trying to pull back to look at him.

"Shhh," he murmured. He cupped my face in his hands, looking me over with sad eyes. "I um... you left the pamphlets in the kitchen... and then I heard you yelling at Jasper," he said slowly.

I closed my eyes. "Oh," I said brilliantly.

"There was a baby," he stated. I nodded, entirely unable to look him in the eye. "There isn't now." It was another statement. I sniffled, my heart aching. I nodded again.

When there was nothing but silence for too many seconds, I opened my eyes again. He was still holding my face in his hands, but he was looking down. "I'm sorry," I said in a whisper.

His eyes finally met mine, and while they were sad they weren't angry. "I'm not," he said, his voice gentle but firm. Then he pulled me against him again, laying back with me in his arms.

Chapter Text

"I can't see
To find myself again
My walls are closing in
(without a sense of confidence
I'm convinced that there's just too much pressure to take)
I've felt this way before, so insecure"

~Crawling, Linkin Park

After the whole debacle about the baby, I don't think we really spoke to each other for three days straight. Nothing beyond murmured thank you's over dinner. We fell asleep on opposite ends of the couch, our feet touching in the middle, because neither of us wanted to say out loud that we needed each other to sleep; I needed to know that he was okay and Edward, I suspected, just needed to know he wasn't alone.

It's not that I didn't feel the tempest brewing. He'd been entirely too sedate since the hospital. It was going to hit him sooner rather than later because there was nothing to distract him from it. He was riding out his sick days, not wanting to make a decision about going to a mental health facility. I just wasn't going to be the one to put him in the middle of that kind of whirlwind of pain and confusion. I didn't know if I was strong enough to help him, especially since I didn't know what his pain would manifest as.

I wasn't scared of him. I was scared for him.

But the fourth day, when I came home from work, I knew the storm had come. It was that song... that same damn song from the music store that seemed to put words and tone to emotions I couldn't even begin to explain. It was playing loudly from Edward's room. My stomach twisted, and the minute I had the front door open, I ran.

I found Edward in his bathroom. For a split second my head swam, remembering seeing him curled up in the corner with two pools of blood leaking from either wrist. But that wasn't what was happening now. No, Edward wasn't as he was then - drained of life but entirely peaceful. He was alive and aware, too aware. His features were painted in various shades of agony.

He was sitting in the middle of the bathroom floor, his legs drawn up as close as the could possibly get and his hands yanking at his his hair. His knuckles were so tense they were bone white. His face was scrunched from his forehead to his chin, and he was shaking with hard, grating sobs. I watched for a second, my heart breaking as he writhed, trying to pull his body into a tighter, smaller package.

I knew that feeling - like everything you were was going to go flying apart at any moment, your wretched body too weak to keep it all together. Sanity wasn't a vague concept, it was the edge of a razor sharp sword that cut you deep, cleaving you in half even as you teetered on the edge.

I took a step forward, startled when a loud, almost metallic crunching sound filled the air. That was when I realized that the bathroom floor was littered with glass, large and tiny pieces shimmering with beauty and danger as I became more aware of my surroundings.

Edward must have shattered the mirror. Of course. That's what the song said, wasn't it? Against my will I stand beside my own reflection.

And, of course, I understood that too.

Despite the noise I'd made, Edward had yet to acknowledge my presence. He was too far gone - lost in his anguish. And God, I needed to bring him back. All those nights I spent alone, wishing desperately for an anchor to cling to - something to put walls on the incredible pain I felt - I could be that for him. Or I could try.

Quickly, I raced into his room, my shaking hands hitting buttons until I figured out how to turn his computer's music program off. Then I went back to him, using my foot to clear away enough glass that I could sit with my back against the wall.

I didn't hesitate to put my arms around him, resting my head against his trembling back and pressing as much of myself against him as I could. If he was falling apart then I could be strong enough to hold him together if he would let me.

At first, Edward gasped, his body jerking as my arms encircled him. I thought for a second that I'd scared him, but he was still after that... or at least he wasn't trying to get away.

Slowly, so slowly, the tension in his body began to decrease, eking out like a flower wilts over time, the change all but imperceptible. He loosened his grip on his hair, letting it fall out of his fingers before he lowered his hands to his knees, and then finally to rest over mine. His raw, tormented sobs slowly became quieter, and his back and shoulders stopped heaving the way they had been minutes before. It was more the soft weeping of a lost, wounded little boy than a man whose world was about to end. The difference was terrible, but preferable under the circumstances.

I knew he was more coherent when his fingers wound with mine, squeezing in a tight death grip. It was good he still hadn't regained his normal strength because he might have accidentally hurt me, he was hanging on so tight, and we didn't need to go down that road.

I had no concept of how long we sat like that. I know that when he began to stutter what sounded like an apology I shushed him. After a while, he shifted, and then shifted again until he was sitting beside me, his head on my shoulder, his arms around my waist and my hands rubbing his back.

Finally, finally, he raised his head. His eyes were closed, and his cheeks completely streaked with tears, but his breath was steady and strong. I hoped against hope that these had been cleansing tears for him - like when he'd held me a few days before and I cried out the guilt I felt over not feeling more about our baby. I'd sobbed against his chest while he held me in my bed, and when I lifted my head that one thing - one out of a million things wrong with me - was absolved.

But when Edward opened his eyes, I could see whatever was tormenting him was still locked deep inside. It was under control now, pushed to a place where he could live and breathe and think around it, but it was still there, waiting to be dealt with.

He lifted his hand, stroking my cheek. Apparently, I'd been crying too. His eyes searched mine, and I wondered if there was anything I could say in this situation. But before I could open my mouth, he beat me to the punch. "You're not stupid...or ugly," he said in a raspy whisper.

Caught off guard, I blinked at him stupidly.

"I meant to tell you before. I mean... I heard... when Jasper," he stumbled, and I remembered that I'd screamed those words at Jasper a few days before, speaking of myself. Edward sighed as if trying to collect his thoughts. He looked at me again, cupping one cheek. His eyes were shy but earnest when he spoke again. "And you're not worthless. You're worth... so much to me. I can't explain."

His thought process was unquestionably erratic, but when he told me these things, for the first time, I believed them. I had no idea why he chose this moment to bring it up, but it was, for me, a twinge of happiness on my overburdened heart.

Still, I didn't let myself dwell on the giddy rush I felt. I wasn't sure I could process what he was really trying to say. Edward looked like he was going to pass out he was so tired, and I needed to take care of him.

"Come on," I said quietly, my hands winding around his waist. "Come lay down for a little while, and I'll get us something to eat."

A mixture of emotions crossed his features in the space of a few heartbeats. He looked relieved, and I imagined it was because I wasn't going to bug him about what had brought on his attack in the first place. He looked like he wanted to argue - maybe he wanted to say he would help me rather than have me cater to him. But in the end, tiredness overwhelmed everything else. He nodded and let me help him to his feet. He kept his arm around me, letting me help support him as we navigated the mine field of glass.

Edward conked out almost instantly and didn't wake up for about an hour and a half. I took that time to think.

It was easy to understand why he'd turned the tables, suddenly wanting to concentrate on me when he was the one collapsed on the floor for once. Both Jasper and I had said it before - he felt more in control of his own life when he could help people through theirs.

Tapping my foot nervously against the floor as I boiled water for spaghetti, I thought about something else Jasper had told me. How Edward communicated through music. I wondered if that's what had happened. Had he tried to work out the confusion in his own head only to be overwhelmed by the lyrics, or the tone of the song? It would be like absently scratching skin you didn't realize was sunburned - intense pain that came as if from no where.

He was trying to let go of all the demons inside of him, but he didn't know how. How do you speak about unspeakable things?

I toyed with trying Jasper's route, but plying Edward full of booze seemed to be tempting out just one more disease to contend with. I'd done everything I could - hung on by my nails - to stop myself from trading the fog for alcohol or drugs. I wasn't going to enable Edward just to loosen his tongue.

When Edward woke, we ate in an awkward silence. He cast glances at me from underneath his long, beautiful eyelashes, looking so much younger than he was. I put down my glass of water and laid my hand, palm up, on the table. It wasn't like he was eating much anyway. He looked uncertain but not unwilling as he took my hand.

Silently, my heart pounding because the vague plan in my head wasn't going to be easy - and it could backfire tremendously - I led Edward back to his room. He looked confused, but he followed my silent directions, letting me pull him down with me on his bed. Wrapping my arms around him, I laid my head on his chest, taking deep breaths. It seemed like instinct on his part to cradle me.

Even with his own problems, he always wanted to keep me safe.

It was amazing how difficult it was to find the words when my defenses were up. I was irrationally scared out of my mind, for Edward and because some part of me was sure he would reject me if he knew... or at least think of me as some breakable, pathetic soul.

But I had decided that the only way to teach Edward how to speak, was to learn how myself. This must have been what the beginning of language was - two cave people blindly feeling out common grunts that put sounds and names to the world around them.

"My... my stepfather used to hit me. A lot. Too much."

Edward's body tensed and his grip around me tightened. I pushed through, forcing the next words out.

After that night, we had a ritual. After dinner, I would take his hand and we would walk together to his bedroom. He would hold me while I confessed my past. It took several days and it was among the hardest things I'd ever done. It was difficult - talking about weakness to one of the few people in the world for whom I wanted to appear strong. More than once I questioned the logic behind what I was doing. How could he expect me to help him shoulder his burdens when I was crumpling under the weight of my unquestionably lighter past.

And why was I dumping this on him when he had so much to deal with?

But it seemed to anchor him, if only for those minutes that we were curled together. He said very little except on certain nights. When I told him it was all my fault, he told me it wasn't. He vehemently refuted all of James's claims - all the vile accusations he spat at me that had taken root at the core of my psyche.

I told him things I hadn't thought of in years, things I'd pushed to the very deepest, hidden part of me. Like how James being in control of his anger was worse than when he was flying off the handle. Sure, when I pushed him to the edge the beatings were worse, but when he had time to plot and scheme... those were the nights that had nearly broken me. It wasn't just about the physical pain he could inflict. It was like he was looking for a way to tear me to pieces from the inside out.

Like he did with Victoria that first night I went to live with them, sometimes the marks and reducing me to a sniveling mess of tears wasn't enough for him. There were those instances where he would push me into the corner, my jeans and underwear still puddled around my ankles, so he could humiliate me in front of whoever was readily available - my mother, Victoria... his snickering friends a couple of times.

See the baby cry. Pathetic idiot.

"You are not pathetic," Edward said fervently. "Son of a bitch was picking on little girls to make himself feel like a big man...that'sfucking pathetic."

Then, one night, I was done. There was nothing left to tell. Edward knew everything about James, my mother and my father. He knew everything I was ashamed of. I was laid bare at his feet, all of me on display, and somehow it wasn't as uncomfortable as I would have thought - not when he still cuddled me close and kissed the top of my forehead tenderly.

"You're stronger than you give yourself credit for," he whispered in my ear that night.

It took Edward five nights after I was done to work up his courage to speak at all.

I knew he was trying. Those nights, when dinnertime came around, he would get so pale, his skin clammy to the touch. When he took my hand, I could feel his body shiver, and when we lay in bed, his breath became labored.

The fifth night, he rolled over, away from me. I almost got out of bed, giving him the space he seemed to need, but then he reached his hand back for mine. He pulled my arm around him like you might a blanket on a cold, cold night. Following his lead, I carefully wrapped my body around his, curving myself to the hunch of his shoulders and tangling our legs together. He wrapped his arms around his chest.

Together, we could keep him from falling apart.

I listened while he swallowed hard. His heart was pounding so fast and erratically I could feel the vibrations with my hand against his chest. I pressed my lips to the skin of his neck, thinking assurances at him and holding him tight.

"My... my..." He swallowed again, his voice so light it was barely more than a breath. "My parents... they told me that... a godfather was a person they trusted above everyone... That if something happened to them, they trusted him with their most valuable possessions... their children."

Little by little, night by night, he told me everything.

"He told me I was special. Special...and precious."

"He said it was our secret."

"I was confused. It felt wrong... but he wasn't hurting me... and my parents liked him. Emmett and Alice liked him."

"I tried to ask Emmett...if he was... But Emmett didn't know what I was talking about."

"Part of me felt proud that I was the ... special one."

"I felt different. From everyone."

"That summer at music camp, my roommate said that he didn't see his mother. When I asked why, he said that her husband had touched him, and when he told, she didn't believe him. And I thought... my mother would believe me. She wouldn't do that to me... tell me I was wrong and a liar."

"I was going to tell them."

"When... When they said Alice and I were going to go live with him...they said I could go into foster care instead, if there was a problem."

"I couldn't let Alice be alone."

"Every night I was scared. Every noise made me want to scream. But he didn't come."

"When he didn't... when he wasn't ... interested... part of me felt ugly. I wasn't special anymore."

The night he told me about Demetri, I'd never seen his body shake the way it did then. But not out of fear or trepidation. Every other confession he'd made in a painfully quiet voice, his tone lacking any sort of confidence. But now he was ... furious. His whole form radiated rage. I no longer felt like I was helping him keep himself together but rather barely containing his combustion.

"I didn't like the way he looked at me. It made me... feel wrong."

"I didn't hear him, didn't wake up until..."

"He held me down. He was older. He was stronger. He kept saying, shhh, shhhh, we're just playing. It will feel good. I want you to feel good."

"It didn't."

He didn't cry. I did. I sobbed. I wanted to scream with fury. I felt terribly strong then - strong enough that I could have run across the city, ripped Aro from his bed and torn him to pieces with my bare hands. And if I ever saw Demetri...

"But A... Aro gave me what I wanted after that," Edward continued in a curiously, heartrendingly dead voice. "He let me test out of school."

The fury faded from his form leaving him ... well, saggy. He rolled onto his back, staring at the ceiling, his features totally slack.

"They had no right. None," I said in a whisper, trying to control my tears but failing. It wasn't fair. It wasn't fair at all that he had to suffer this way, that he was still suffering long after the monsters had been banished from his life.

Edward didn't answer. He just stared straight up, not even acknowledging I'd spoken.

Desperate to show him that he deserved gentle touches, from someone who cared about him - not from assholes trying to feed their own fucked up desires - I rolled onto my side facing him. I didn't speak - there were no words. I put faith in that old adage that actions were louder.

I kissed his temple and stroked his hair. He was completely still, the rise and fall of his chest the only indication he was still breathing. I ran the backs of my knuckles along his cheek line.

When I ran my thumb over his lower lip I felt the light quiver there. When I looked, his eyes were glassy, filled with tears. One spilled over, then another. He inhaled sharply.

"I'm sorry," he whispered raggedly. "I'm so sorry."

I had no idea what he thought he had to be sorry about. My impulse was to tell him he wasn't the one that should be apologizing, but I knew from experience that knowing something wasn't your fault didn't absolve the guilt you carried in your heart.

Instead I told him. "It's okay. You're okay."

He pulled me close, burying his face in my hair and crying quietly, softly.

~0~

During those first few weeks after Edward returned home, we didn't need words outside what we told each other in the safety of his bedroom. The others found our silence eerie. They didn't know what to do for Edward if he wouldn't talk, and I'd always been quiet.

Edward existed in a limbo space where he couldn't quite get a handle on the denial that had gotten him through every day before. He couldn't forget the things that had happened to him - not when the effect was carved into his flesh. His scars were still red and angry. I'd walked in on him running his fingers over and around the raised, stitched skin more than once.

I understood his needs. Sometimes, many times, Edward simply couldn't deal with his siblings. Alice was doing her best to pretend everything was fine, but she wouldn't look him in the eye either. She didn't disbelieve Jasper's claims about what happened to Edward during their childhood, she was just struggling to replace the image she had of Aro in her head. It was like losing a man who'd been a surrogate uncle to her, and I did my best to understand how difficult that was after everything else she'd lost. Still, it wasn't easy on Edward. I knew what it was like - thinking that everyone could see how pathetic you were, that someone could conquer you so completely.

As bad as it was for me - being all too aware the shame and degradation of the things that had happened to me - I imagined it was a million times worse for Edward. Even knowing I'd briefly been in the same room as Aro made my skin crawl with vile ugliness. For Edward, he must have felt that ugliness in the marrow of his bones.

I didn't know if Alice's avoidance was worse for him than Emmett's sudden intrusion in his life. Emmett was trying so hard to mend bridges between the two brothers. Under different circumstances, I could see that Edward and Emmett would get along. Emmett was very accepting of the situation all around. He seemed to be a roll with the punches kind of guy. It had happened, and now he was ready to move forward. He never blamed Edward for his ill temper any more than he held on to his guilt over what had happened.

"Done is done, and I can't change the past," he'd told me once, shrugging. "I can't change who Edward is, and I can't make him better by snapping my fingers. I just take one day at a time."

And maybe it should have been good for Edward to be around his brother with an attitude like that. The trouble was that Emmett was loud and rowdy, often adding to the chaos in Edward's head, making him flinch and get nervous. Under other circumstances, Emmett might have been able to draw Edward out, as he tried many times, to play basketball or baseball or football. The problem was Edward's naturally competitive nature, like most of his true personality, was muted... covered like clouds blocked out the pure, blue sky. Or, since we were in Los Angeles, maybe it was better to think of it as smog. Certainly the confusion mixed with shame and the horror of the things he'd been through was like smoky pollution covering everything that should have been bright. Normal things just held no interest for him, and he got exhausted quickly when he tried to fake it.

So when I felt that he wasn't up to handling his siblings' presence, I shooed them away. Alice got annoyed at me more than once, but for Edward, I was brave enough to stand up to her bickering. It helped that she always forgave me. I guess she understood that I was trying to help her brother.

It helped that Jasper was able to distract her. If I had to guess, I thought that maybe he'd taken my advice. There seemed to be an aura about them - like invisible strings had formed that kept them tethered to each other, moving in tandem. I didn't have much time to dwell on it. When I wasn't working, my every focus was Edward.

I think Jasper knew. He could feel the tension in the house, read it like he had some type of seismograph or something. Those weeks, when Edward was slowly opening up to me, I struggled to comprehend what he'd gone through. I cried when I was alone so that Edward wouldn't have to see me cry for him.

He needed me to be strong.

More than once, Jasper told me to remember he was there. He'd always be there.

But Edward and I needed to figure this part out on our own. Maybe it was a stupid thing to think. Maybe it's just what I held on to because everyone needed some sort of purpose in life. Still, it felt like the fates had aligned our paths, and I was just walking down it the best way I knew how – with a blindfold on and my hands held out in front of me.

Edward was almost out of sick and vacation hours when I came home from work one day to find him in the bathroom. That day, when I knew Emmett was taking him out for lunch and a movie with the kids, I'd had the bathroom mirror replaced.

He was staring at his reflection, his eyes red rimmed as if he'd been crying.

Taking his hand, I went to stand beside him, and I waited.

"A few weeks ago when I... found those pamphlets about... pregnancy," he began.

I gasped. I couldn't help it. This was the last thing I thought he'd say.

Turning his body, Edward gave my hand a tug, slipping his free arm around my waist. "For a minute... just a minute... I saw this glimpse of the future. I saw... us. Happy. In a big house with a big lawn, and two little kids running around.

"But it was strange... it was like... I saw these things, but this future only belonged to a guy who looked like me. It wasn't mine." He released my hand so he could put both his arms around me, and he pulled me close, resting his forehead against mine.

"I don't know what I want to be there, when I look at the future. I don't know if I want that picture I saw," he admitted softly. "But the thing is... no matter what I see, I want to figure out how to see... me."

As I thought over his words, I turned us toward the mirror. As we stared at our reflection, I caught sight of that girl in the mirror, and I suddenly understood exactly what he was talking about.

On some level I knew - had always known - that she was me. She was just the parts of me that I couldn't accept yet. She was strong enough to fight back when a stranger attacked her. She had answers where I was always uncertain. She knew that James was full of shit and she had never been crazy, ugly or worthless.

"I know what you mean," I admitted to him softly.

He breathed deeply, searching his own eyes as if he was looking for the courage to say what he had to say. "If I go to one of those... clinics or whatever. Will you come with me... to check them out, I mean. For me," he hurried to clarify.

I smiled before I could stop myself, so unbearably proud of his strength. "Of course," I promised.

Chapter Text

"Even if I say, "It'll be all right,"

Still I hear you say you want to end your life.

Now and again we try to just stay alive.

Maybe we'll turn it all around

Cuz it's not too late, it's never too late"

~Never Too Late, Three Days Grace


Everyone was supportive of Edward's decision. Jasper was downright relieved.

Alice was the one exception to the rule.

"I'm so sick of how dreary this fucking house is," she exclaimed one night, bringing her hand down sharply on the table. She stood, leaning across the table from Edward, glaring at him. "You're making yourself this miserable."

Edward didn't answer. He'd dropped his fork - he'd only really been pushing his food around his plate anyway - and his hands became fists on his lap.

"I mean, for fuck's sakes. I know you're capable of being happy, Edward. You remember bitching about work and movies... just being normal?" She ignored Jasper tugging at her arm, trying to get her to calm down. "I don't see the point in dwelling on the past when it's the future that's important. Why do you have to shut yourself away like you're some crazy person? Just... get up. Go to work like everyone else."

"I can't go back to work unless I shut myself away like a crazy person," Edward said flatly.

When she said it, he seemed more angry than anything else. But when she and Jasper left a few minutes later, the irritation drained, leaving him looking empty as he sat on the couch, not really looking at anything. I wanted to hate Alice for making it harder on him than it already was.

"Do I even have to tell you how wrong she is?" I asked as I sat next to him on the couch.

He chuffed and didn't look at me. "Isn't that what you say about yourself? That you should just be able to cast everything off and be normal?" He spat the last word out like it was something foul. His tone was bitter. "Either it's true or it's not."

I didn't have an answer for that. It was something I'd been thinking of a lot - the idea that I wasn't ever going to dig myself out of this black hole without help. I thought of the pride I felt for Edward because he was brave enough to ask for help...to admit he needed it. But if I thought he was brave, wouldn't that make me a coward?

It felt selfish thinking about myself. Right then, I was at a point where I could get up every day. It wasn't always easy but it was better than where Edward was. Jasper and Emmett could make me giggle when they didn't have any such luck with Edward. I could work.

But I knew it was only a matter of time before the weight on my shoulders and the constant pressure around my heart demanded my attention again. I was trying to help Edward find his way to his future when I didn't know how to see mine. How much had I figured out in the nine months it had been since I left home?

Then again, there was some truth to Alice's accusations. Both Edward and I had been living under a shadow. We had the ability to move into the sunlight, even if it wasn't a cure. It would be good to get out of the house and dwell on something else for a few hours. I had the respite of work, for whatever that was worth. Edward hadn't been out at all since returning home from the hospital.

Leaning back on the couch, I propped my feet up on his lap, turning on the TV as I thought about about life outside this house.

"Hey," I said, poking Edward's chest with my toe. He looked down, capturing my foot in his hand before looking over at me questioningly. "You know what's weird? I've lived in Los Angeles and I've never seen the stuff."

His lips quirked. "The stuff?" he said, his voice teasing.

"Yeah. They have stuff here, don't they? Tourists come here for something."

"There's some stuff here," Edward conceded, still amused. "What'd you have in mind? Hollywood? Historic... stuff?"

I nodded out the window to a building that sat on the distant hills. "What's that? Can we get to that?"

A strange expression crossed his face and for a horrible moment, I thought I'd said the wrong thing. But then he just nodded. "That's Griffith Observatory. We can get there. It's free to the public." He drew his finger down the bottom of my foot and I squirmed. "I'll take you tomorrow if you want."

I could see there was a part of him that hesitated. He didn't want to do this. But he would do it for me - hadn't he always told me I should get out more? - like I was really doing this for him.

~0~

He took me all around Griffith Park, explaining the history and the man behind the name as we walked and drove its sprawling grounds. We rested in a little meadow in the middle of a golf course, watching the golfers go by. He smiled for the first time in weeks as he told me about D.W. Griffith's films and about old Hollywood.

Later in the afternoon, he finally drove us up the winding hills to the observatory.

"Why is there a bust of James Dean up here?" I asked, perplexed at the seemingly very random statue.

With a soft smile, Edward gestured around the grounds. "They filmed part of Rebel Without A Cause up here," he explained. "See, you can see the Hollywood sign from here."

"That's a nice touch," I murmured, staring at the bust. A thought occurred to me and I rummaged quickly through my purse, producing a comb.

"What are you doing?" Edward asked, amused when I came at him with it.

"Just stay still." I found myself biting my lip as I teased his hair up in the front so he had a little bouffant similar to James Dean. Then I took his hand and tugged him until he was standing by the bust.

Edward laughed when he figured out what I'd done. Quickly, I snatched his cell phone from his hands, using it to snap a picture. "Look brooding."

"That shouldn't be too hard," he muttered, the light expression on his face becoming darker in an instant.

I could feel my own smile fall. It had been such a nice day. When Edward got absorbed in what he was talking about, it was like he forgot about the weight of the world on his shoulders. More than that, I'd forgotten I was out here trying to distract him.

Look at that. For a few short hours, we were just two people out in the world having a relaxing day of fun.

I snapped the picture quickly, feeling terrible that the little bubble we'd been in that afternoon had popped.

As we walked the rest of the way into the observatory, I was startled to realize that the usual separation I felt around people, like I was never truly part of the group, had not reared its head. Every moment I'd spent with Edward today I'd been in the present, not locked in my head as usual.

Without thinking, I let my hand drift close to his, brushing the tips of his fingers. I saw his head tilt slightly in my direction, but then his fingers wrapped around mine. It was hard to feel separated from everyone and every thing when I was physically connected to him. And, as always, my body seemed very aware of his.

The lighthearted atmosphere hadn't completely faded. It just seemed like we had to fight for it a little more for the rest of the afternoon. We went through the exhibits, Edward occasionally spouting a random factoid about the universe. He knew tiny bits of trivia about the stars, the planets and the sun. It was chillier than I'd expected up in the hills, and when Edward noticed I was cold, he darted into the gift shop to buy me a sweater.

We stood at the railing, looking out over Los Angeles as twilight fell.

"It's immense, isn't it?" Edward murmured.

I nodded my agreement, looking down on the city... the houses and business lying low to the ground, interrupted by taller buildings like the staccato of a heartbeat on a heart monitor. The occasional outcropping of skyscrapers dotted the horizon. I knew which one was downtown Los Angeles, but I wondered what the others were.

"My dad used to take me up here," Edward said suddenly.

I looked over at him, a little dismayed to hear the heaviness in his voice. He was staring out at the city, his face more contemplative than pained. He smiled sadly. "Sometimes I have an ego, you know," he continued softly.

"No, really?" I teased lightly, putting my hand back in his and squeezing. He squeezed back.

"So Dad would take me up here to see the universe... and when we stood right here and he would wax philosophical about how amazing it all was. It wasn't so many years ago that there was nothing here," he said sweeping his hand out to indicate the sprawling city in front of us. "Imagine all the people it took to build and run this city from the people who originally settled the area, to the people who planed, built and use every building. Imagine them all coming up, one by one." He gave a light huff of laughter. "He wasn't as subtle as he thought he was."

"It puts things in perspective, I guess," I mused. "We're so small compared to all the world and all the stories out there."

Edward nodded, and then he sighed. It was as if I could feel the heaviness return; he physically stooped forward, bent under the crushing weight. "There are people out there right now living in poverty...living on the streets. There are so many people with all these problems. And look at me? I've always lived in comfort. I've always had people around me who love me, and I can't..."

"Edward..."

He shook his head to silence me. "You met my RN didn't you?"

I blinked, trying to keep up with the rapid change in conversation. "Tanya? Yes, I did."

"She's a genuinely good person," he said softly. "Her mother has Huntingtons Disease."

My heart twisted. I knew of the disease. It was lingering and horrible... and fatal. "That's terrible."

Edward nodded. "She's been dying for a decade almost. Tanya has two sisters. One of them tested positive for the disease."

"Oh my god…" What a horrible thing to live with - knowing you would die that way.

"Yeah," Edward nodded in agreement with my horror. "And I think… what a fucking waste, you know? They would give anything to be healthy and I…" He looked down, ashamed, and I filled in the blanks. I'd give anything to die. He swallowed thickly before he could continue. "These two women… Her mother, Sasha, has three daughters who need her. Irina has a husband..." His hand dropped from mine and he looked down. "If people have to die, why does it have to be people like them? People who are worth something?"

If he could have, he would have traded places with either one of those women. Slipping my arm around his waist, I curled myself close to him. "You're worth something. You know that, right? Alice and Emmett need you. And Jasper. And... me."

I don't know if he believed me, but at least he didn't argue.

~0~

Edward checked himself into a facility about an hour out of the city, where it was quieter and the hills more open to the forest. The facility was nice, almost as if they were trying to make it look like it was a forest retreat instead of what it really was. It was one of the reasons Edward chose it. He needed a respite from his reality, if only for enough time to get his head on straight.

The other reason he chose this facility was because Tanya's sister, Katrina, worked there.

While an orderly took Edward to get settled, Katrina shepherded the rest of us - myself, Jasper, Emmett and his wife, Rosalie - into a large office.

"It's wonderful to see how much you all want to help Edward," Katrina said, smiling gently at all of us after we'd all introduced ourselves. "I understand Edward also has a sister?" she consulted her folder. "Alice."

We all grimaced, casting glances at each other. Rosalie looked pissed, pursing her lips together. Finally, it was Jasper who spoke, and I didn't miss the slightly defensive tone. "She found him. It's hard for her to deal with," he began, but Katrina cut him off.

"Please," she said, holding a hand up and smiling kindly. "Suicide is a very difficult concept to process. Like anything else, we all have our coping mechanisms. Anger is a common and very valid reaction. Alice will come around on her own time."

Katrina leaned forward, her hands on her knees as she looked around at all of us. "Now, let's talk about Edward.

"I know I don't have to tell you that this is a big step for Edward. In therapy, Edward will have to face many issues that he's hidden deep. It's going to hurt. A lot. It's not going to be pretty."

My heart twisted and I felt a little dizzy at the prospect. What was I doing here? I wasn't strong enough for this.

How was it possible for it to get any uglier than it had been when it was just the two of us? And if that had led to him trying to kill himself, what would this do?

"The most important thing you can do for Edward is to keep an open mind. Don't push him to tell you things before he's ready. Don't assume he can't make his own decisions, or that he doesn't know what's best for himself." She looked first at Emmett. "Be his brother." At Jasper. "Be his friend." At me. "His girlfriend."

That word again. People kept trying to define us. I didn't know what I wanted to be to Edward. All I knew was that I wanted him to be okay.

"If Edward does want to open up, it's imperative that the people in his life - his support structure - are there to listen without judgment," Katrina continued. "It's what he'll be looking for. But the things he has to say will not be easy for you to hear. You may even think he's lying or exaggerating. It's okay to think these things. Just remember that regardless of whether Edward's perception of the truth is skewed, what he's speaking of is his reality. Do your best to understand that.

"We encourage family and friends to attend the counseling sessions we offer right before visiting hours. There you can feel free to express your concerns."

~0~

Leaving Edward there was harder than I expected. I wanted him home. I wanted to wake up and know he was right down the hallway.

For long minutes, as I drove home alone, I grappled with a host of emotions that surprised me. What shocked me most was the bitter anger that rose, leaving a distinct taste in my mouth. The familiar heaviness in my chest seemed to get slightly heavier. I closed my eyes against the phantom pain, reflecting on why I had come all the way across the country in the first place. I had come to untie myself from the people and places that seemed to mold me. My bitterness stemmed from the fact I'd lost these complications only to exchange them for new ones. Where was a good no exchange policy when you needed one?

But if not for Edward and his family, where would I be?

Before I could dwell on that subject too long, I realized again that I wasn't alone in the house. This time I knew exactly who to expect.

Sure enough, Alice was sitting on the couch, turning what looked like a thick, leather bracelet over and over in her hands. Because I didn't think I could speak to her without yelling, I sat down in the arm chair and waited for her.

"Is Edward okay? I mean... when you left was he... okay?" she asked after a few awkward minutes of silence.

"If you really cared, you'd have been there," I snapped.

She looked up and instead of defensive, her eyes were sorrowful. "I know you must think I'm horrible for not being there."

I didn't answer. I didn't think she was horrible but I don't know if I could have told her that. My anger was roiling in my bloodstream, making me want to hurt her.

"I don't expect you to understand. I know what it looks like to you, but you don't know," Alice continued.

She told me a story then about when they were younger and they went to live with Aro. Edward always told her that it was okay... okay to laugh again even though their parents were dead. Okay to have fun with her friends and enjoy life.

But he didn't, and it took her forever to notice that. He had no friends. He didn't go out. His good, happy moods didn't last very long.

After Demetri's visit, it all got so much worse. Every one of his moods was extreme - from his anger to his sadness. Happy didn't exist in him for a long time. It was suffocating just watching him.

"I didn't know what it was about then. I thought maybe it was about Mom and Dad. I guess now I know," Alice said in a small voice.

"And I got scared," she continued. "I don't know if it was just a feeling I had or if I heard him say it... but it got into my head that one day he was going to ... disappear. Like Mom and Dad. I used to get up in the middle of the night and go to his room. I'd listen outside the door until I could hear him breathing."

She looked up, her eyes guilty as she spoke. "He caught me once."

I closed my eyes, imagining how that had gone. Edward feared the noises in the night. He would have been terrified.

Alice nodded. "He was scared. I was scared. We yelled, and I told him it felt like he was going to disappear. I made him promise not to do anything. I thought he would never break a promise to me. I know what promises mean to him."

Then I really understood how utterly terrified she was. Despite everything, he'd broken his promise to her. Perhaps childishly, she'd depended on the strength of a pinky swear to pretend that everything was going to be fine. That one promise had kept her world together.

"He's going to get better, Alice," I said, sliding off the chair and going to sit beside her.

"How can you be sure?" she asked in a whisper.

I couldn't and we both knew it. "You can help him."

She handed me the item she'd been passing back and forth between her hands. I took it, finding that it was a leather cuff with a crest on it. "That's our family crest," Alice explained. "It was my father's. I tried to make Edward wear it so I wouldn't have to see his scar." I winced, a rush of anger going through my veins. She saw it. "You really think I can help him?"

"It's not too late for him," I said firmly. I needed to believe this was true. "And it's not too late for you to help him. It's never too late for that."

~0~

Jasper and I were the ones who went more often than anyone else. Emmett had a family, of course, and Alice... well, it took her a while to work up the courage to face Edward's problems. She and Emmett were very similar. They both struggled with the idea of working through their pasts. Both of them would rather move forward.

Edward was mostly doing well. He had bad days where the circles beneath his eyes were nearly black, and he hardly spoke except to growl at people. He had his days where he was so lost in his thoughts that he struggled to keep up with conversation. But then, he also had days where he would greet us with grins. Once, Emmett and I visited together to find Edward outside, playing basketball.

"You're right. He is competitive," I said, laughing as he razzed one of the other players.

"Told you," Emmett muttered.

Edward saw us then and ran over, surprising Emmett by giving him a hug after he hugged me. "Come on, Em," he said, passing the ball to his brother.

"You guys don't want to play with me. I'll kick your asses," Emmett grinned, joining the game.

Edward scoffed. "You play with children, Emmett."

More than anyone though, I took advantage of Katrina's offer to talk about things that worried us regarding Edward.

"Bella," she said during one of our conversations, "I don't think we're talking about Edward right now, are we?"

I furrowed my eyebrows. "What?"

"You were wondering if Edward could forgive his sister and his parents? Edward's parents are dead."

"That doesn't mean he can't resent them," I said, feeling irritated.

"You're right. Forgiving his parents is something that Edward is learning to face here. Ultimately, it will help him find peace about his past so he can move on with his future." She smiled, her face and voice betraying nothing but kindness. "Maybe it's time for you to think about doing the same. And if you need help, that's okay. I can refer you to a number of people in the city who can work with you."

~0~

"Is it such a bad idea?"

I stared at Jasper like he'd grown another head. "No," I said defensively. "It's just... she's Edward's doctor. She should be concentrating on him, not analyzing me."

Jasper tugged my hand. "Can I ask you something? You were taking steps for a long time... steps to figure out your life. That's what you told me right?"

I yanked my hand back so I could wrap my arms around myself. "What are you getting at?"

"What's the last step you made, Bella?" Jasped asked softly.

I didn't have an answer. His question sparked a sense of déjà vue. I'd been here before, when a teacher asked if I was ready to give a presentation or if my homework was done and I was unprepared.

"Put Edward aside. If you weren't so focused on him, what would you be doing for yourself?" Jasper continued, rubbing my arm in a comforting motion.

"You know, who the hell are you?" I asked, standing because I suddenly couldn't stand his gentle touch. "You said yourself that you don't understand what either of us are going through. Why do you always think you know what's best? Lucky you... it must be nice not having anything in your past that you wish you could just forget."

His laugh was wry. "Bella, I'm not telling you what to do. I don't know what your next step is." He ran his hands over his eyes. "And yeah, maybe no one ever touched me like they touched Edward, and no one beat me the way your stepfather beat you." I flinched and he sighed. "But everyone has something in their past they'd rather forget. I'm no different."

Not knowing what else to do, I sat heavily in the armchair, drawing my legs up to my chest and waiting. I hoped he would continue. Somehow, I needed the comfort of knowing that even someone as together as Jasper had his bad days.

"I'm sorry, Bella," he said finally. "It's not even remotely fair comparing everything you've been through, everything he's been through, with the things I've seen." He smiled. "I write songs, sugar. You know I dwell on the past."

"What past?"

He looked at me carefully. "Are you sure you want to know this?"

I chuffed. "Just because your parents didn't beat you doesn't mean I'm not capable of sympathizing," I pointed out. "Try me."

He ran his hands through his hair. "Fine then. It's..." He rolled his eyes. "You know, my Mom was a stay at home mother. I didn't see my father a lot because he worked so much. But Mom... she was good at raising us - my sister and I - essentially on her own. She taught us to be strong, and she taught Lucy in particular that she should never be dependent on a guy. She should always have the ability to support herself, that kind of thing.

"But as we got older, it became more and more obvious that she wasn't taking her own advice. My father cheated on her... constantly. My mother was... is... miserable with her life. But she doesn't leave. She has no skills outside of keeping a home, no way to support herself." He shook his head, obviously frustrated. "It would be hard, but I kept telling her... she should do it. Leave him. Of course, she never did."

He looked at me sadly. "It's true what they say, that actions speak loudly. My mother succeeded in teaching my sister that she didn't deserve a relationship built on respect. Believe me, none of the men Lucy is attracted to have any respect for her. I tried to get my mother to help me talk to her. She wouldn't. She said that it was Lucy's choice." He laughed without humor. "It makes my head spin, how quickly she changed her tune."

Later that night I lay in my bed, too restless to sleep because my mind was too busy. I was so tired, but it felt too much like I was on the brink of something big for me to sleep. It was that feeling I remembered from school when I couldn't quite grasp a lesson. All the pieces swirled, and I could see they made sense to someone. It was like looking at those hidden 3D images for the first time, knowing that somewhere in the nonsensical shapes and colors there was a hidden message just waiting to jump out.

What I knew, what I'd known for as long as I could remember, was that my life was not where it should have been. I was vacillating between living and merely surviving.

But while people like Jasper, Alice... even Emmett, had a few more ducks in a row, they were all in various stages of off kilter. The things they'd seen and experienced in their lives, while they might not have been as traumatic as what Edward or I had been through, had shaped them. Emmett might have turned a blind eye to his brother's suffering, but in distracting himself from his parents' death, he'd found a family and new meaning to his life. Jasper's mother had taught her children to follow their dreams while ignoring her own, but as a result Jasper was one of the most perceptive people I'd ever met.

There was something to the idea of accepting that the things James had done to me - that my mother had allowed to happen - had shaped part of who I was.

And maybe, just maybe, the person I'd become had her share of positive points too.

But before I could accept that, there was something I needed to do.

Chapter Text

"Life is a b movie
It's stupid and it's strange
A directionless story
And the dialogue is lame
But in the he said she said
Sometimes there's some poetry
If you turn your back long enough
And let it happen naturally
"

~Hell Yea, Ani Di Franco


Telling Edward was the hardest part.

In the last few weeks, whenever I visited Edward I'd categorized each day as good or bad. I wasn't sure what to hope for when I went to visit him that day. Adding to his heartache if it was a bad day seemed so unfair. Then again, I'd hate to bring him down if it was a good day.

Of course, it was pretty presumptuous of me to think I could have that kind of effect on anyone, let alone Edward. He was dealing with a lifetime of demons that had, to that point, mostly gone ignored. Like it should matter to him what I did with my pathetic life.

And despite Jasper's repeated reassurances that Edward had been suffering for a long, long time, I couldn't shake the idea that it was my presence in his life that had been the catalyst that pushed him over the edge of suicide. Part of me thought that Edward would be - or at the very least, should be - relieved at my news.

Still, part of me knew better.

I signed in and the orderly let me know that Edward was in the common room. I found him right away, curled up against the corner of one of the couches. His knees were drawn up close to his face because he was using them as a desk, balancing a journal as he wrote furiously, his brows furrowed. His hair, having grown longer than I'd ever known it to be, was standing up and sticking out haphazardly like brambles in a brier patch. He'd obviously been running his hands through it - a nervous tick that had become more pronounced in recent weeks

A bad day then?

But when he looked up and saw me, the tension drained from his features, brightening considerably. He put his journal down on the arm of the couch and extended a hand toward me. "Hey, you're here," he said, smiling.

Already feeling guilty, I threaded my fingers with his, squeezing tightly. "Am I interrupting?"

He rolled his eyes. "Believe me, I get to talk about all this," he gestured at the journal, "in glorious HD later. I wouldn't mind forgetting about it for a little while."

Dropping my hand back to my side, I nodded toward the door with my head, suddenly unable to look at him. "Take a walk with me?"

There was a pause and I knew without looking that his smile had faded. Edward could usually pick up on my moods, and I knew I wasn't fooling him. "Okay," he agreed, and I could hear the sudden trepidation in his voice. He stood, offering me his hand as we walked out the door. "It's a nice day today. Let's go down by the lake."

We were silent as we walked. I wanted to ask him how he was. Sometimes he had stories because some of the exercises they did seemed silly to him. But my throat felt too tight to speak without wavering, and I didn't want to ruin this relative peace. Not yet. I was clinging to his hand but, I noticed, his grip was just as tight.

We sat side by side on a bench that had been installed by the lake. I looked out over the water, enjoying the tranquility away from the noise of the city. I sighed, knowing it was now or never. "I have to leave Los Angeles," I said finally.

He paused before he spoke. "Why?"

There was the $10,000 question. I wasn't really sure how to explain it. The compulsion inside me was all instinct, like I knew I had to stop when I got to Los Angeles after weeks of just driving. I looked over at him. "I ran away from home," I said sardonically. "What is it you were saying last week... about how if you run away from your problems, eventually, they'll follow you."

When he released my hand, I instantly felt the ache of loss, almost like I wasn't complete anymore. The idea of losing him was one I struggled with. I didn't know how to put words to it, or even if I had a right to make him such an important person in my life. Regardless, the idea that increments of time could pass - days, months...years - where I wouldn't talk to Edward was painful.

"There's also a lot I've learned about weeding out the negative influences in your life, even if they're people," Edward said quietly, drawing his legs up on the bench and resting his chin on his knees. He stared out over the water. "What is it you're looking for in going back? What problems do you think you ran from?"

"When I first moved in with my mother and James, I was so... confused. My dad had always called me a good girl. He even said that I was a fairly easy kid." My voice wavered and instantly, Edward unwound his body. He shifted, taking my hand again without hesitation. "So when James told me that I was bad... that I deserved it, I didn't understand."

Edward said nothing, but he slipped an arm around my waist, holding me close to him.

"My first instinct was to think that he was wrong. He had to be wrong. But then there was my mother. My Dad would have... flipped out if he saw anyone treat me the way James did. But my mother was always, 'You shouldn't have done this,' and 'you shouldn't have done that.' 'Your broken thumb is your own fault because you shouldn't have put your hand back to block his belt" I chuffed. "What was I supposed to think except that maybe it was my dad who was wrong?"

"That's not-" Edward began but I cut him off.

"I know it's not true." The words still fell a little flat. There was so much I still questioned. James was unquestionably wrong for abusing me the way he had, but was he wrong for punishing me at all? Had I been a spoiled child that ran all over my dad in his flustered attempt at parenting?

I shook those idle thoughts away. "I need to know why, Edward. I need to know if my mother is damaged herself or if she just ... hated me." Part of me was desperate to show her exactly what she'd done, show her how badly she'd hurt me. There was a part of me that just couldn't quite comprehend how she could have let it all happen to me. Edward and Jasper had spent so much time trying to make me see that everything James told me wasn't true. But a mother is the one person that was supposed to love you unconditionally. My mother had never disagreed with James's cruel words.

"Confronting your mother might only make things more frustrating. Do you know how unlikely it is that she'll even acknowledge you experienced anything traumatic?" Edward said quietly. "Abusers have layer upon layer of excuses and justification for what they've done. It's likely your mother repressed the worst of the abuse."

Irrational fear crawled my skin like a rogue spider. Abuse was a word I was only barely beginning to allow into my vocabulary. It seemed melodramatic, reminding me too much of those times when I couldn't hold all the hurt and injustice inside of me.

I remembered being maybe eleven, crying and confused because I didn't understand what I'd done wrong. I remembered screaming,"You're not supposed to do this. I'm going to tell-"

James flew at me, picking me up by my hair and shoving me hard against the wall. I couldn't think beyond the pain in my scalp. "You're going to tell what? You think I abuse you? You think you don't deserve this? You sniveling little brat."

He let me go and I crumpled at his feet, frightened out of my mind. As he towered over me, he pulled up his shirt, revealing a cluster of scars. "You know what my father used to do when I was bad? He'd put a poker in the fire and make me hold still while he burned me. And that was after he beat the shit out of me." He stooped low so his breath was hot on the top of my head. "If you're going to accuse me of abusing you, I'm going to show you what it feels like."

"No, no, no. I'm sorry. I'm sorry."

Shaking the memory away, I struggled to keep hold of the present. My body trembled, my breaths beginning to spike. "It's not like I'm talking about tracking James down. My mother didn't abuse me," I mumbled.

Edward stroked my cheek and I flinched away. I felt scared and wrong, like someone was about to hit me.

Like maybe I deserved to be hit.

"Neglect is abuse, Bella," Edward said firmly, gently.

Closing my eyes, I resisted the urge to reject his words outright. It was amazing how difficult it was to connect logical thought to the things that had happened to me. If Edward's parents had known what his godfather was doing to him, I would have held them in just as much contempt, if not more so. Still, I found it difficult to apply the same line of thought to me.

It felt like my fault that my life was such a mess. Wasn't I on the verge of a panic attack at the mere mention of the word 'abuse'? That was just one more example of me overreacting, wasn't it?

But I'd learned vicariously through Edward that just as James had programmed me to think of myself as the bad one, it was now my responsibility to rewire my brain. I didn't have to be the person he'd molded me into, but it took effort - as hard and tiring as it was - to be who I wanted to be.

"Maybe that's why I need to see her," I said finally. "She's my mother, Edward. I need to know what role, if any, she'll have in my life. Is it worth it to forgive her?" I trembled, an unbearable sadness coming over me. "Does she even want me?"

Edward looked out at the lake for a long minute while I attempted to chew a hole through my bottom lip. "I don't think you should..."

He closed his eyes, bowing his head and breathing deeply for another moment. This was something he'd been trying very hard to learn - the difference between honest concern for someone and when he actually needed something for himself.

"I don't want you to leave," he admitted. "I'm afraid for you - that you'll only get hurt again - but I also don't want to think about my life without you in it." He looked at me, and I could see he was struggling. His eyes were sad and uncertain, but utterly earnest. "I know I don't have a right to ask you this, especially after everything I put you through. It's probably so much better for you to move on... away from your mother, but also away from me."

"Edward," I began but he interrupted.

"No. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have..." He blew out a huff of air, and turned in his seat so he was facing me. "Look, Bella... I know I've been a really shitty friend, but I really think you shouldn't face your mother on your own. Please at least consider this. If you wait for me to complete treatment here, if you want me to, I'll go with you."

I blinked, repeating the words in my head until I was sure I'd heard them right. "But, I have no idea how long I'll be gone, or if I'd even come back."

He gave a shaky laugh. "I realize that. And I don't know where I'd end up either, but at least you'd have a little support until you figure your mother out." He chuffed, shrugging slightly. "Such as it is anyway."

I stood, desperately wanting to tell him yes at the same time I wanted to call him out as being a crazy son of a bitch. "Edward, I can't ask you to come with me. What about your family? Jasper? Your work? Don't you want to go back to work?"

"Come on, Bella," he said, staying still on the bench. He stared at his hands. "You know I can't go back there. Do you have any idea what it's like dealing with just Emmett and Alice right now? If I so much as frown they're worried. They don't think I see it, but I do. I can hardly take their pity, their worry... do you think I want to put up with it from my co-workers? They all know what I was in the hospital for...where I've been all these weeks. I can't go back."

Remembering their reactions - Jane's anger, Tanya's pity... the way that other nurse couldn't even look at him - I couldn't argue that point. "Your family?" I reminded.

"Emmett has always done fine without me. And Alice..." He sighed. We both knew that Alice would be quietly devastated. "I can't live my life for Alice. She has support with Emmett and Jasper. I need to do what's best for me right now."

"You think it's best for you to follow me to Phoenix? You can't live your life for me any more than you can live for Alice," I pointed out.

"Being supportive isn't the same thing as putting someone else's needs above your own. I've never been there for you at a detriment to myself. With Alice, I put aside my own needs so she wouldn't see I was ... affected. I ignored my problems and concentrated on hers." His words were almost rote - a mantra he repeated to convince himself. He didn't quite believe the wisdom behind what he was saying yet, but he was working on it.

"I don't think you'd let me ignore myself," Edward continued quietly. "Just like I won't let you take responsibility for your mother's neglect. And honestly, I think I could use a little time away from my family. Even sticking myself out here, away from my normal life, I can tell I'm different when they're visiting. I'm not sure that's what I'm supposed to be doing, you know?"

Pacing the few steps back to the bench, I sat beside him again, deep in thought. I could see the benefit of what he was saying. Certainly, the idea of being completely alone again wasn't appealing. Edward, Alice, and Jasper had come to mean a lot to me. I could tell myself that it wasn't goodbye forever - we'd keep in touch and maybe I'd find my way back to Los Angeles - but I had no idea where my life was heading. Even after all these months, I still hadn't figured that all out.

Swinging my leg over the bench so I could straddle it and face him properly, I took both of my hands in his. He mimicked my posture, straddling the bench and waiting. Trepidation was thick in the air.

"Please understand that I'm asking this in the interest of self preservation. You are... so important to me. I do want you to come with me, but there's something I need to know first." I turned our hands wrist up and let go of his fingers to run mine over the thick scars at his wrists. Edward pulled back, self consciously crossing his arms and hiding his wrists away. I looked up, finding his expression guarded and more than a little displeased. "Do you still think about it?"

His eyes flicked to mine. Something about the way I was looking at him must have told him not to lie. Not about this. "Sometimes," he said lowly. "Not as often."

I was quiet for another minute, forming the right words. "Do you understand that I'm not strong enough to survive... that again? Especially if we were alone."

It killed me because I knew I was hurting him, but it was a reality we had to face. We were both learning to look out for ourselves and communicate.

Edward took a ragged breath and reached out for my hands again. Squeezing them tightly, he looked up at me. "I promise that's not going to happen."

"You promised Alice."

"I'm promising you."

He held my gaze, and I could see that he believed what he was saying. I wasn't an idiot. I knew from my own experience that strength could crumble in the space of a heartbeat. But I had to give him credit and take him at his word. He was getting stronger, dealing with the demons that had plagued him for so long the same as I was.

"Okay," I whispered finally. "I'll wait for you."

~0~

It was clear right away that waiting for Edward was the right decision. For one thing, it allowed me to put in two weeks' notice with my job. Maybe it was a crappy, penny ante job, but there was no reason for me to burn bridges when I'd actually managed to make a good impression. McKenna and Zafrina surprised me by looking genuinely stricken that I was wandering off.

How odd. How often had I thought that if I faded away, no one would notice. Maybe I was wrong about that too.

It was difficult to explain to the others what were doing because we had no solid plans. Maybe I was going away forever, maybe I would be back. Maybe Edward was going on a small vacation and he'd come back in a week - with or without me. They all wanted answers and we had none to give them. People didn't just wander off for unspecified amounts of time.

Emmett was surprisingly down about the whole situation. "I know I wasn't always around, but our family was always here, you know?" he said, rubbing the back of his neck. "We were together even when we weren't."

Alice was surprisingly sedate. Her eyes watered but she only nodded when we told her. "I actually figured this was coming," she said with a sigh. "I know you have to do what you have to do. And I'm sorry I haven't been more of a help."

Jasper, unsurprisingly, was worried. Who could blame him? If this wasn't a case of the blind leading the blind, I didn't know what was. Of course, we weren't trying for stability. We were just searching for a little peace of mind, hoping we'd know it when we saw it.

As worried as he was, Jasper didn't try to talk us out of it. Instead he promised he would look after Alice and the house. The day we left, he put a box in my hands. A cell phone box.

"You have unlimited data and text. Not that many minutes but enough if you need to call," he babbled.

"Jasper. I can't accept this," I said, flabbergasted.

Jasper just laughed. "Sure you can. It's just until you have an address and you can get your own plan." He pulled me toward him, hugging me fiercely. "Just remember that you can call me, text me...whatever... whenever you need. Anytime, Bella. Absolutely any time." He let me go and offered me a grin, his eyes distinctly mischievous. "You'll see, anyway. Once you go smart phone, you'll never remember how you survived without it. I have three words for you. Words. With. Friends."

And just as suddenly as I'd wandered into LA, I was wandering back out.

Of course, it was different. For one thing, I'd sold my car. Edward and I had argued over which of our cars to take, eventually opting for his as it had better mileage and was roomy enough to sleep in should the need arise. I rolled my eyes at him when he made that particular argument. Right, we were the most sensible people on the planet...

In reality, I knew that Edward was still struggling with control issues. He loved his car and loved to drive. It was one of the few things he had absolute control over at this particular point in his life. In the end, it was much more important for him to have that much than for me to hang onto my car just because it was the first thing I'd owned that had ever really been mine. It was an easy compromise.

I was fiddling with my new phone, off in my own little world because I was trying not to acknowledge how nervous I was. What was that line I'd heard in a song once? Standing on the edge of something much too deep. It felt like I was starting a journey into a great abyss that could hold more darkness... or the light at the end of the tunnel.

"Bella?" Edward's voice was soft but I jumped anyway. He gave me an apologetic look. "How eager are you to get to Phoenix?"

"Why?"

He squirmed. "Maybe it's stupid but... I've never seen the Grand Canyon. I know it's not exactly on our way but..."

I barked out a laugh without meaning to and Edward looked amused. Perplexed, but amused. "What?" he asked.

"Nothing," I said dismissively. I didn't know how to explain how perfectly timed his unintentional metaphor was. Instead, I thought about his request.

Despite living in Arizona for so many years, I'd only been to the Grand Canyon once. My heart ached, remembering. It was one of the few good memories I had with James and Victoria. He'd bought us both Grand Canyon sweatshirts because we Phoenix girls weren't used to the coolness of the mountains. There was a picture somewhere of James with his arm around Victoria's waist, holding her close because he seemed to be scared that she would fall. I even remembered perusing the gift shop - a tower like building on the edge of the Canyon. Victoria had found a book of all the recorded deaths at the Canyon, and she wanted it desperately.

"Please, Daddy, please," she begged, putting on her best pout like she was six instead of sixteen.

James shook his head, looking at the book with a raised eyebrow. "This is macabre, Vick."

"Pleeeeeeeeease."

He laughed and kissed her forehead with a rare tenderness. "Well, it's better than one of those stupid snow globes anyway..."

"It's not a big deal if you don't want to go," Edward said, reacting to my prolonged silence.

"No, I do. Actually..." I tapped my finger against my lips. "If you're not in a hurry, maybe we could go to the North Rim. I've never been there."

Edward furrowed his eyebrows. "You can't see it all in one day?"

I blinked at him and giggled before I could help it. "It's a grand canyon, dummy," I teased. "It's ... immense. No, you won't be able to see all of it in one trip. And going to the North Rim means we'd have to drive all the way around the Canyon to get to Phoenix."

"Oh." He seemed still perplexed. I could understand. The enormity of the canyon wasn't comparable to anything I could think of. Maybe the vastness of the ocean, but even then there was something different about the way the Grand Canyon was carved out of the land. He shrugged then and smiled, glancing at me for a moment before he returned his eyes to the road. "I'm not in a hurry if you're not."

~0~

We stopped overnight on the Nevada/Arizona border and entered Grand Canyon National Park a little before eleven the next morning. Edward was already mystified by all the pine trees.

"I thought Arizona was dessert."

I snorted at him. "We're in the middle of a forest. Actually, most of Northern Arizona is covered in forest."

"What the heck are the random patches of white?" he asked, gesturing out his window.

"Jesus, City Slicker," I teased him. "Think about it. Forest. We're over 4,000 feet above sea level right now."

He turned his head to gape at me for long enough that I got nervous and told him to watch the road. "Snow? That's really snow?"

"The last little bit is always stubborn," I said. Honestly, the only reason I knew was that I'd had about the same reaction when I was 10. I still remembered my mother's answers.

But Edward forgot all about the snow when he started to glimpse the Canyon through the pines.

Standing at the edge of this abyss, Edward's eloquence served him well. "Whoa."

Sometimes, the pollution from California was blown by the wind into the air above the Canyon, graying the view somewhat. Today, though, the air was crystal clean and pure, all the rich colors of the earth on display in stunning clarity. Looking out over the edge was a space vastly untouched by the modern world. It was a work in progress of unmatched, timeless beauty.

I didn't remember when it happened, but somehow I found myself holding Edward's hand, our fingers threaded together tightly as we stood side by side. There weren't a lot of guardrails at the Canyon. At most there were some low rock walls separating us from oblivion, but with his hand in mine I felt absolutely safe.

When he looked at me, his awed expression didn't change, didn't falter. Instead he took me in as if I was part of the landscape. The walls and the crags of the Canyon told a story of it's history. The churning river below had carved every inch of this canyon out with time - some of it violent, some of it crumbling away softly and naturally. The stripes of the canyon walls spoke of the passage of time and the history the land had seen. The way Edward was looking at me now made me feel as if he could read my skin the same way he could see the story of the Canyon. As his eyes swept over my face, I felt entirely exposed, but it wasn't a bad feeling.

He looked at me and I looked back at him, understanding the innate beauty carved out of violent, ugly pasts. The way he looked at me, I felt beautiful and despite the chilly day I felt infused with warmth.

Out there, it was easy to forget the complications of the real world. In the silence of the air, surrounded by a kind of beauty that man wasn't capable of creating on his own, it was easy to give in to instinct. My body was always drawn to Edward's, and I didn't fight the pull that day. I let him pull me close, tracing the lines of my face before he cupped my cheek. I caught only the barest hint of uncertainty in his eyes before he closed them, his head tilting toward mine. My hands were at his waist, my eyes closed when our lips met.

Again, like in Joshua Tree, there was a feeling of rightness as we kissed, like this was something we were made to do. The intimacy of our bodies pressed against each other and the sweetness of our little, innocent kisses seemed only natural, like we were part of world around us.

When our kiss broke, I would have to question what it all meant, and what I wanted. I'd always known I would have to define my relationship with Edward at some point, either give in to the label people always affixed to us or establish the lines of our friendship. It was more than I was ready to think about; there always seemed to be something more important on the horizon.

But for those few moments, with his lips moving with mine, his hands reverently stroking my cheeks and my arms wrapped around him, I was all perfect feeling with no thought whatsoever.

Chapter Text

"The sun came out, and I walked on my feet, and heard with my ears.

I ate the bits. The bits did stay down.

And I work. I function like I'm a girl.

I hate it because I know it'll go away!

The sun grows dark, and chaos is come again.

Bits… fluids!

What am I?"

~River Tam, War Stories (Firefly)

"I'm hungry," I whined, butting up against Edward's shoulder with my forehead.

"Shhh," Edward admonished, whispering even though we were alone. He pointed to the small TV in front of us with one hand, twining our fingers together with the other. "This is fascinating."

I laughed at him. "This is mostly pictures of guys who died a long time ago talking about exploring the Canyon that is, by the way, right outside this huge picture window." I tugged at his sleeve. "You don't have to watch every educational video they have, you know."

He poked at my ribcage in a move I didn't recognize as a tickle until I was writhing and giggling. How sad was that?

But today, it was the morose thoughts that slid away like the surface of my mind was coated in wax. I was happy. I didn't know what combination of factors had aligned to buoy my mood so much, but I was completely at peace.

"See what you've done, Bella?" Edward teased, trapping me under his arm so I couldn't get away from his fingers. "Now I have to watch the video all over again."

"Stop, stop!" I cried, breathless from laughing.

"Are you going to keep being a pest?" he asked, his fingers finding another ticklish spot under my chin.

"Yes! Yes! Stop!" I tried to bat his hands away until we were both laughing. He caught my hands in his and the laughter between us faded to little titters. He was smiling at me, the look so serene it was almost surreal.

"Fine, you watch the video," I said finally, absently. Really I was staring at his lips, entranced and a little dizzy at the strange thought of how attractive one small body part could be. "I'll get us lunch, and you can meet me outside. You know... where the nature is."

He grinned lazily at me and leaned forward, kissing only the tip of my nose. It was a gesture so ridiculously tender that I felt it at the very center of my heart. I wandered away on wobbly legs, my thoughts lost for the moment.

Finding the cafeteria, I paid for two ridiculously overpriced lunches and carried them outside to the picnic tables set up. The air outside was refreshingly cool, chilling the heat that seemed to vibrate through my body.

As hard I was trying not to look a gift horse in the mouth, when I was alone for a few minutes it was difficult not to think about the giddiness that had replaced my heavier feelings. Though I was trying to ignore it, there was a distinct ache in my chest that wouldn't be forgotten.

Edward and I didn't exist in this light place. We could capture it for moments, maybe even hours at a time, but soon enough, it would be gone.

That was what made the prospect of exploring my deeper feelings for Edward frightening. I couldn't promise him this happiness – the happiness he deserved. Today we looked like any other couple: holding hands, sharing kisses and enjoying finding an intimate connection in a world that was too big to hold.

I don't know when it happened, but somewhere along the line, as I struggled with defining myself and what I wanted my life to be, Edward had become essential to me. Though I didn't assume, it felt natural that whatever future I found for myself, he would play a part.

I didn't know how to align that feeling with my concept of love and relationships. Most of me screamed that I shouldn't – surely I didn't deserve this kind of happiness long term.

Edward reappeared then and I couldn't help but smile. He was now completely bedecked in Grand Canyon gear. "Did the gift shop throw up on you?"

"Ha, ha," he snarked, sitting down and putting a hat on my head that matched the one he wore. When he tucked my hair behind my ear I felt the last vestiges of tension fade away. The happiness today was as hard to ignore as my foul moods most days.

Edward reached into the bag he'd brought, producing a tube of sunscreen. "Your nose is already a little red," he explained. Rather than handing me the tube, he squeezed a bit of the sunscreen onto his fingers and began carefully applying it to my face, his touch feeling more like a caress than anything else.

I sighed contentedly, enjoying the attention while it lasted. Part of me wanted to protest, I could put on my own sunscreen after all, but I was beginning to understand that Edward liked taking care of me. I knew I needed to stand on my own two feet for most things, but I could give up control over something so small without feeling pathetic.

Letting people show their affection demonstrably and accepting help was part of being a healthy person. Edward had learned that very early on in his stay at the clinic. It was a lesson I was trying to take to heart myself.

"I want to go white water rafting," Edward said suddenly when we were eating a few minutes later.

"Right now?" I raised an eyebrow at him.

He smirked. "No." His expression was far off, thoughtful. "But some day."

I made a vague noise of agreement, an odd sort of pride filling me. I knew better than to voice it to Edward – I would get annoyed if someone made a big deal out of what was, really, an innocuous comment – but I privately acknowledged that it was a big deal. In the time that I had known him, I'd never known Edward to express a wish for the future. It was a sign, however small, that he was beginning to plan for his life again.

~0~

That evening found us heading away from the park. We stopped at a hotel in one of the tiny towns that dotted the otherwise empty stretches of forest and grassland. They didn't have any rooms left with two beds, so we took a one bed room rather than be separated.

While Edward took a shower, I went out and sat on the steps, staring at the sky. There were so many stars here.

I breathed deep, feeling the normal heaviness that surrounded my heart begin to settle down on me again. The high of the day had long since faded.

Taking out my new phone, I flipped through the handful of pictures I'd taken with it. The one I was looking for instantly brought a wistful smile to my face.

Edward and I stared at the camera, cheek to cheek and grinning like idiots. I'd tried to take the picture but Edward had insisted that his arms were longer.

My heart twisted, a desperation growing in me. If I had any choice, I would have stayed locked in that moment forever. I felt warm inside and wanted, like maybe my future held good things instead of a world of hurt.

If only to distract myself, I tried to figure out how to send a photo. It took a minute, but I managed to send the thing to Jasper. My phone vibrated just a few seconds later with a reply.

Well, look at that. You two are off sight-seeing while the rest of us are working. I see how it is.

I chuckled. It took me quite a bit longer to reply – I wasn't used texting at all.

Side trip. We'll be in Phoenix tomorrow.

Is everything okay?

For now.

A door opened a ways away from the stairway, drawing my attention. Edward was peering out of our room, his expression concerned. He calmed as soon as he saw me.

Ambling back to our room, Edward and I climbed into bed right away, moving together before we remembered this maybe should have been awkward. Edward pulled me tight against him, and I rested my head on his chest rather than the stiff hotel pillow.

"Are you nervous about tomorrow?" he asked, stroking my hair idly.

I took a deep breath and blew it out slowly. "I'm-" numb "fine."

"Hmmm."

I don't think he believed me, but he didn't press either.

~0~

Being back in Phoenix was … odd.

At the same time that it felt that my life here belonged to someone else or that it happened in some other lifetime, it also felt like I never left.

For an early summer day, the heat in Phoenix was particularly oppressive. Or maybe it was just the foreboding feeling that had taken root like a brick in my gut. A putrid, ugly brick.

Aside from the feeling of discomfort, I felt nothing at all. It was like a flip had been switched, making me feel cold as steel inside, like I was more machine than flesh and blood. Even the movements of my feet, as Edward and I got off the car at my house, were mechanical.

Edward took my hand, giving it a squeeze before letting go. I briefly considered taking his hand – let my mother think he was my boyfriend, whatever – but before I could make that decision, he'd rung the doorbell for me.

It was Phil who opened the door. When he saw me, his eyes lit up a little. "Bella!" He stepped forward, looking like he wanted to engulf me in a big hug but he thought better of it. I grimaced. Who could blame him? I was so edgy around him at first that I often freaked out when he went to hug me.

Saving him the trouble, I slipped my arm easily around his waist, giving him a squeeze. "Hey, Phil." I moved back to Edward's side. "This is um… Edward Cullen," I introduced. I looked at Edward, gesturing at Phil. "This is Phil Dwyer, my mother's husband."

The men shook hands and Phil stepped inside, opening the door wide. "Come in. Hey, hon!" He called into the house. "Look who's here!"

My mother appeared in the living room, her hands full of what looked like a bundle of newspapers. Her eyes went wide, but then she seemed to calm. "Oh, hey sweetie," she said easily, sounding more like I'd been gone for an overnight trip than for months and months. "Give me two shakes," she said, turning toward the stairs. "I'll be right down."

I watched her go, expelling a breath I didn't know I'd been holding. It didn't escape my notice that Edward was glaring at her retreating form and Phil looked perplexed. I still felt nothing.

But the brick in my gut seemed to grow twice as large, and infinitely heavier.

~0~

Through two days of my mother's aloof attitude, I felt nothing. I knew Edward was watching me, his expression always wary, but he did his best to be as unobtrusive as possible. And when we returned to the hotel in the evenings, though he looked like he wanted to say something, he always bit his tongue, letting me lead.

It was good because I don't know that I thought at all in those two days.

Renee was, as I remembered her, distracted. It seemed that in recent months she'd started to take up couponing as a hobby. I supposed it was more useful than the things she usually did. She carried on inane conversation about the money she'd managed to save. She spoke of the various classes and past times she'd been engaging in while I was gone.

I noticed that it wasn't her who brought up my sudden disappearance. It was Phil.

"It was just unexpected," he said over dinner that first evening. "You worked so hard to finish high school."

I pushed the colorful mixture of foods my mother called dinner around my plate listlessly. "There were just things I had to figure out first, or it would have been a big waste of money."

Phil smiled, and I thought I saw understanding in his eyes, but my mother just gave a light snort.

"You mean you wanted to joyride around the country for a while," she said, her voice more teasing than not. "I know how you feel, honey, but just remember. I got my degree first and then did whatever the hell I wanted."

"You had me first," I mumbled to my plate.

"What?"

"I said, after high school, you had me first. Before your degree...and everything else."

"Oh," Renee said as if she'd just remembered. "Right. Of course."

Maybe I should have felt something - was I not even a blip on the timeline of her life? I was relieved when I didn't.

Always, at the back of my mind, was the question I had come here to ask. But really? How do you segue into that conversation?Hey, Ma. You know the asshole who up and left you randomly after 10 years of marriage? Yeah, why did you let him do the things he did to me again?

My mother never spoke of James. Of course, why would she? Just like it was, apparently, easy to move on when I left, she'd flitted on to the next thing.

I toyed with the idea of letting it go... of not getting my answers. If she could forget, shouldn't I be able to?

On the morning of the third day, it all hit me at once.

"Have you considered showing Edward around the city?" Renee asked pleasantly. She looked at Edward. "Have you ever been to Phoenix before?"

Something inside me began to stir, like a long forgotten animal kept caged in the darkened basement of my mind. "Am I bothering you?" I asked, my voice remarkably steady though I felt like growling.

Renee looked up from her coupons. "Bothering me?"

"If I'm imposing somehow, you should tell me."

Looking back at the paper in her hands, Renee just chuffed. "Don't be dramatic, Bella. I just thought it would be a shame for Edward to come to a city he's never been to and see nothing but the inside of our little house. You should take him out."

"And what would you be doing?" I asked, my voice not betraying the way my blood felt full of something molten hot. I should have been scared. I hadn't felt this way since I used to 'fight' with Edward. Since this obviously wasn't going to end in sex, I should have been apprehensive.

But rage was all I knew.

And it was rapidly surfacing, the ignored animal finding its cage unlocked.

"What?" Renee said, obviously distracted.

I slammed my hand on the table, feeling a smidgen of satisfaction when my mother dropped her paper in surprise. "Mom, I disappeared months ago. I missed my birthday, Christmas. Any other mother would be…" I shook my head, realizing belatedly I had no idea what another mother would do.

Renee narrowed her eyes. "Another mother would what? What is that you want, Bella? You're an adult. You come and go as you please. Do you want me to be one of those clingy mothers?"

"Do you love me?" I asked suddenly, not in control of my word at all at that point.

"Isabella," Renee said, exasperation dripping from the single word.

"Did you ever love me?" I pressed. "Just answer the question. Yes or no. It's not that hard."

Rolling her eyes, Renee picked up her paper again. "I don't know what this is about-"

I stood abruptly, making my mother jump as a yanked the paper out of her hands and ripped it to shreds. "Answer me!"

I stared at my mother and she stared back, fear and irritation warring in her eyes. She finally settled for scowling at me. "Of course I do."

"Then why?" My voice now was so raw and desperate, I barely recognized that I was the one speaking. I felt like I was outside myself, watching a tiny girl trapped in a barely adult body beg for her mother's affection in so many words. "Why did you let him hurt me like that?"

Renee looked confused. "Bella, what are you talking about?"

"James!" I hollered. I was gripping my hand in a fist so tight that my nails were digging into my skin. I didn't care. It was all I could do not to explode. Spontaneous human combustion felt like a very distinct possibility. "Why did you let James hurt me?"

A shadow fell over her eyes, and it was like I could see her drain visibly. She looked down at her hands and cleared her throat. "I know that James's method of discipline was not what you were used to, but aren't you being a little melodramatic? Many children are spanked when they misbehave."

"Spanked?" I spat the word like it was filth in my mouth. "Spanked? He didn't spank me, mother. He beat me. He belittled me. He told me I was a worthless piece of shit so often I actually believed him. He abused me, Mother."

There was only silence in the room and I couldn't take it. My mind was filled with too much chaos and I wanted all of it out of me. "Look at me," I demanded. When she didn't, I slammed my hand on the table again. "Look at me!" She didn't, and instead of flying at her like I thought I was going to, I slumped, falling to my knees on the floor. "Do you hate me so much that you think I deserved any of if?" My voice cracked and tears pricked in my eyes. "Don't you understand? He hurt me. He hurt me so much." I gasped, so near tears. "And it still hurts. Every day. Every fucking day."

She looked up at me then, her face furious. "Grow up, Isabella. You're not the only one with problems."

For a split second, I didn't know what to do. Part of me was still that weak girl who would crumple under those dismissive words. But most of me was still livid. It was a fury that made me so strong, I felt I could have ripped apart the house…brought her world crashing down around her physically as mine was crashing down around me mentally. Maybe I would have except that before I could move, Edward was out of his chair and over to me.

"Bella," he said softly, wrapping an arm around my shoulders. "Sweetheart, let's go." I trembled with a rage so terrible I couldn't even speak. He put his lips against my ear, whispering. "It's not worth it…she's not worth it."

I didn't even register when I got up, but I realized I was standing as he started to tug me toward the door. Completely out of control of logical thought, I let him guide me.

Looking over his shoulder as we exited the kitchen, the glare he sent at my mother was enough to make her flinch. "You don't deserve her," he snarled lowly. And then he half led, half dragged me out of there.

~0~

The whole car ride back to the hotel, Edward kept up a one-sided monologue. Part of me knew what he was trying to tell me, but I don't think I really heard a word. I couldn't really hear anything through the rush of blood pumping hard in my ears. I wasn't just falling apart; I was flying to pieces with a violence that left me mute. I didn't know how to communicate it because I didn't think I could scream loud enough or long enough.

When we pulled up to the hotel, I stumbled out of the car, opening the door to our room with shaking hands. Inside, I had to catch myself on the dresser.

The dresser with the mirror.

The voices in my head were so loud, assaulting me one after another. James and all his venom. My mother's calm, accepting voice telling me all the things I could have done to avoid being beaten. Her just minutes ago, telling me, essentially, that I had deserved it.

The girl in the mirror was the woman I'd become. I was too skinny, too ugly, my eyes too tormented, and in that moment I was too furious.

Why? Why was that all I could see? Why, after years and time, did I still believe the lessons James and my mother had taught me? I hated the girl I was staring at, but I wanted to love her.

I wanted to love me.

And as much as I hated my own reflection, cursing her for being so stupid and so pathetic, I hated even more that she was too… pure. Whatever this venom was that boiled inside me, it infuriated me that I couldn't see it.

I don't know what I was thinking. I wasn't thinking. My wild eyes landed on Edward's pocketknife, resting where he'd left it a couple days ago on the dresser. I picked it up and pulled the blade out, bringing it up as I held a long stand of stringy, limp hair out away from my head.

"Bella!"

Edward's hand wrapped around my wrist before I could rip into my hair. He shook my hand, forcing me to let go of the knife.

I screamed wordlessly, sounding more like an animal than anything human. I fought him, though I had no idea what I wanted to do. He wrestled me to the floor, sitting back against the bed with his arms locked like a cage around me.

"It's okay, Bella. It's okay."

I don't know how long he said it before I heard it.

Going limp in his arms, I gasped for breath, unable to fill my lungs for a long minute. Edward adjusted his grip, holding me to his chest and rocking me. My gasps turned to sobs, and my sobs to a long, low keening sound.

"Why?" I asked, not knowing who the hell I was talking to.

"You didn't deserve it," he said fiercely. "Not one word."

Muddled thoughts pieced themselves together one by one, and every time I thought I could calm down, I would only break into hysterics again. I began to recognize the emotions that assaulted me, one after the other, as the stages of grief.

I think I'd been in denial for years, some part of me believing that the child I'd begun life as – the one who was adored by her father – would eventually return. I'd just lost her, put her away between the pages of a book that got tossed to the back of a closet and buried under a mountain of other things.

But as I gripped Edward, desperately clinging because I honestly felt like my heart would collapse under the weight of this anguish, I began to understand that the girl was gone forever. She had been through too much… I had been through too much. Whatever my future would have been, the path my life had taken was veered too far off track.

And I was angry… so bitter that my insides felt corroded. Whatever I had become was a part of me now. Forever. Maybe they would get better, more manageable, but it was like finding out you had a life long disease. You can't just get over these things, be cured. When you have an injury there's a scar, and sometimes it itches, like when you break a bone it aches when it rains.

Acknowledging the lingering presence of all my weakness, the battles that I fought every day and would likely continue to fight, I felt overbearingly tired. Take me, some worn part of my consciousness begged. I knew it was possible to die of a broken heart. Internally, I begged for the chance to slip away into oblivion. I would give in. I would stop fighting. Just let it be over.

But I remained trapped in my body with my heart beating, spreading the agony at my core throughout my bloodstream. The fog came again, offering the relief of numbness. I didn't fight. Still cradled in Edward's arms, I let sleep drag me under.

Chapter Text

"Cause I'm looking at you through the glass...
Don't know how much time has passed
All I know is that it feels like forever
When no one ever tells you that forever
Feels like home, sitting all alone inside your head"

~Through the Glass, Stone Sour


I must have fallen asleep because the next thing I knew, I was opening my eyes in a darkened, quiet room.

It took a few moments for my thoughts to solidify again. They were as like wisps of smoke, blowing away into nothingness with a wind as gentle as a breath. Part of me knew I should get a grip, ground myself firmly on the earth so that I could think clearly again. But I was so weary. Bone weary. Already my eyelids felt weighted, desperate to close.

Edward had put me in bed. That was my assumption because I sure don't remember anything after the floor. I should have been embarrassed that he had to carry me like a child who'd worn herself out after a tantrum, but I was entirely apathetic.

It took me another minute to realize he was wrapped around me. I was lying on my side, spooned up with my back against his chest. I could feel his body rise and fall with his even breaths. His arm was slung around my waist.

When I woke again it was because I heard a persistent low murmur. Something about the tone of it left me on edge, my body tense. I rolled over finding the source of the noise easily.

Edward was leaning against the door jamb. The door was open but he was blocking the entrance, his stance reminding me of a sentinel. He was protecting me, I couldn't see from whom.

"-not going to let you hurt her," I heard Edward say.

"I promise you, that's not what I'm here to do." I recognized Phil's voice and slunk deeper under the covers, pulling them over my head.

The murmuring went on for a few minutes longer, becoming quite heated, at least from Edward's side. I continued to play possum, trying to sort out if I felt any dread. I didn't really. I didn't want to face Phil but I didn't really want to do anything.

The door closed, and I felt Edward sit on the edge of the bed. Carefully, he pulled the blankets down until he could see my face. I didn't look at him, but when his hand touched mine I did twist our fingers together.

"Phil wants to talk to us. Well, to you. But you know I won't leave your side. Not unless you want me to," he said softly. When I didn't answer, he stroked the hair out of my face gently with his free hand. "You don't have to go."

I thought about it, but honestly, in the grand scheme of things, Phil was almost no one. He wasn't my mother or father. He wasn't James – because though I knew my stepfather wasn't worth the dirt on the bottom of my shoes, it didn't change the fact that what he thought of me had an impact. Phil hadn't known me until I was already lost in the fog.

"I'll go," I said, my voice toneless.

I felt Edward's worried eyes on me, but couldn't summon the will to look at him. He didn't say anything though, just told me that we were going to meet Phil at the Denny's attached to the hotel.

~0~

"I want you to know that I'm not trying to excuse her behavior," Phil started right away. "When I heard what happened… Well, look Bella. I have no idea what happened between you and that piece of shit, but it didn't take a genius to see you needed… something when I met you and your mother. I love your mother to pieces, but I know she dropped the ball somewhere."

I said nothing though my hands were systematically tearing a napkin into increasingly tinier strips. Edward's hand on my knee seemed to be the only thing keeping this sudden nervous energy contained. It was a strange sensation. I knew I'd been through something traumatic with James, but knowing that Phil had seen it was unnerving. It was like some part of me wanted to believe my mother's words… that I was just overreacting.

"So, like I said," Phil continued. "I'm not saying that this excuses what your mother did, or rather, didn't do for you. I just think that maybe…if at least you understood, it would make things easier." He sighed.

"Renee… she's real fucked up. A lot more than you realize. Maybe she hides it well, but…" He shifted uncomfortably in his seat, chuffing. "There really isn't an easy way to say this, so I'm going to come out with it. When your mother was very little, her uncle molested and raped her."

Edward's hand on my knee tightened, and I dropped the napkin immediately, dropping a hand beneath the table to hold his. He clung to me tightly.

"It happened more than once, and then your grandparents found out. But..." He trailed off, his face hardening with anger. "They told her to keep quiet and not embarrass the family."

My heart was beating fast and I wanted to scream at him to shut up. I'd loved my Gran Marie. I was named for her. I couldn't imagine her letting someone hurt her daughter like that. It had to be a story…

But how hypocritical I was being.

"I'm no shrink," Phil said. "But it's not hard to see how it happens. She thought her silence made her loveable, that if she turned a blind eye to things like whatever it was James did to you, she'd earn his love. She tries to do it with me. I just … you know, I call her on it."

I put my free hand over my eyes, unaware that my lower lip was trembling until a little whimper escaped.

"She knows," Phil said quietly. "She knows she's wrong, Bella. I've seen her cry about it. I just don't think she knows what to do. It doesn't make it right – what she's said and done to you. But … I hope it will give you some measure of peace. And I hope, for you, that one day, you're able to forgive her."

~0~

It was a day and a half before I could process my thoughts at all. Mostly I slept. Edward was an angel. He didn't push me, didn't try to make me talk much more than to answer him. He asked if I was hungry – I really wasn't. He asked if I wanted a hamburger or a taco – I wanted neither. He coaxed me to eat despite my negative answers. But mostly, he was just there. He said nothing when I climbed into his bed those two evenings. He just held me when I needed it.

Finally, I said, "Let's go. Let's get out of here." I didn't know how desperate I was to get the heat of Phoenix off my skin until the words tumbled out of my mouth.

Edward didn't question. He helped me pack everything up – by which I meant he gathered almost everything while I struggled to find even a modicum of energy – and settled the hotel bill.

"Where are we going?" he asked when we were in the car.

"I don't care," I mumbled. "Just drive."

~0~

Edward drove us the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. When I realized where we were, hope began to stir in me. I longed for that tiny semblance of peace I'd had, the pure happiness I'd experienced for the hours we spent on the North Rim.

I knew Edward was shooting for the same thing. I could see the light in his eyes as he watched me, hoping to bring some lightness into the oppressive cloud that followed me since I stepped into my mother's house. I knew I was worrying him. I knew he was hopeful he could help me break out of the fog, find my way back up the isolated he even wanted the small slice of intimacy we'd found there. I felt so far away.

It didn't work. Even as I looked out on the beauty that should have awed me, I felt nothing.

Nothing but dysfunctional, incomplete… wrong somehow.

He tried to hide it from me, but I felt Edward's disappointment like a second layer of my own - the grip around my heart tightening to an almost unbearable level.

I found a strip of forest that was a short distance away from where the other tourists lingered and sat on a fallen log there with my back to the Canyon. "I'm sorry," I said, hanging my head as I heard Edward approach. "I know I'm ruining this for you."

Edward didn't try to absolve me, and I was grateful for that. It only would have made me feel worse. Instead, he sat beside me, wrapping me tightly in his arms. "You know what I was thinking?"

I chuffed. I hardly knew what I was thinking. It was like forgetting how to feel all over again.

"Will you take me to Forks, Bella?"

My heart actually stuttered in my chest. "What?" I asked, unsure if I'd heard correctly.

"Take me to Forks. Show me where you spent your childhood."

Forks. My God. I'd been gone for over a decade. The tiny town covered in green was so far away in my memory, it could have just as easily been fictional.

"You really want to go to Forks?" I mumbled, still not quite grasping the idea.

Edward smiled at me, his fingers playing with mine. "Yeah. I mean, how many people could say they've visited cutlery?"

Maybe it was a symptom of my shock, but I actually smiled.

"Okay," I agreed. "Let's go to Forks."

~0~

We didn't go to Forks directly. In the end, what could have been a two or three day drive took us a week. It wasn't because Edward wasn't a fast driver. Quite the contrary. If I wasn't paying attention, he would get dangerously close to triple digits on the long, semi-empty stretches of highway. We just meandered there.

I think Edward was trying to distract me out of my funk.

He took me to Vegas because he said he was curious. He hadn't been there since he was a little boy. As we drove into town, he hesitantly told me stories about how they stayed at Circus, Circus. There was a midway at Circus, Circus and the three Cullen kids spent a whole afternoon playing games and winning prizes. When they ran out of quarters, they would run down to the slot machines where Carlisle and Esme would hand over their winnings.

"You know, I'm not 21 for another four months," I said, not really comprehending what could be of interest in Vegas if I couldn't drink or gamble. It was probably better that I couldn't. God only knew it would be just our luck to wake up married.

What happens in Vegas, right?

"That won't be a problem," Edward said, a small, secretive smile on his face. That smile was enough to jar me into the present. I realized belatedly he was up to something. I fought the urge to frown, already feeling too tired.

Sure enough, when we got to Vegas, Edward had the entire day planned out. He kept me busy. I think part of the idea was that if we were running all over the place, I simply wouldn't have time to retreat back into the numb haze. It worked to an extent, though I had trouble piecing together conversations that lasted more than a minute, and sometimes I lost my energy entirely.

Edward was so patient. He repeated himself when I spaced out, and when I dragged my feet, he would slip his arm around my waist. It couldn't have all been easy for him. I noticed he was tenser on the sidewalks, and he would tuck me protectively against his side when the crowds got too big for his comfort.

He took me on the Gondolas in the Venetian and the unique elevators at the Luxor and to see the white tigers and dolphins at The Mirage. When we went to see the lions at the MGM Grand, he told me stories about how Vegas, for a time, attempted to go more family. The MGM Grand used to have an Adventuredome with rides.

We watched the pirate battle outside of Treasure Island, sat cross legged amidst a whole gaggle of kids to watch magicians, comedians and puppeteers in Excalibur. Edward bought me a circlet for my hair – the kind with beads, flowers and ribbons hanging down the back. I felt a blush heat my cheeks, the warmth chasing away the cold from my blood for the first time in days when the vendor asked Edward if he wanted to buy a rose for his princess.

I actually ducked my head when Edward smiled and said yes.

Evening found us watching the water dance outside the Bellagio, and I felt… better. I didn't feel good or really happy, but I felt better than I'd been.

On impulse, I tugged Edward's hands until he turned away from the water, looking toward me instead. Wrapping my arms around his neck, I stood on my tiptoes to kiss him. He made a surprised noise, but his arms wrapped around me, his hands at the small of my back pushing me closer to him as he kissed me back.

When we parted the look in his eyes was so tender, and my answering smile, though small, was genuine. He stroked my cheek. "Tired?" he asked quietly, tracing the circles beneath my eyes. I nodded and he wrapped he took my hand, pulling me tight against him while he found us a cab.

On the short drive back to Circus, Circus, where we were staying, he kept his arm around me, idly twisting a lock of my hair around his finger as I laid my head on his shoulder. We were both lost in our own thoughts.

The first time the fog had settled over me, it had been stripped from me suddenly – an epiphany in the middle of a high school history class. Now it came and went as I actively struggled to fight it even possible to fight the weather of my mind?

Was it a sign I was stronger that the fog hadn't dragged me under so completely? Yes, the happiness I knew I was capable of was muted, but it was coming back. Two days previous, when Edward had taken me back to the Grand Canyon, I couldn't feel anything. That day in Vegas... well, I felt more than nothing.

As Edward held the door open when we got out of the taxi, a fleeting moment of doubt permeated my tired thoughts. Some of the things I felt, most of them if I was being honest, were for Edward, or at least because of him.

I knew what Edward was doing for me. It was a gift in threefold. He was trying so hard to make me happy, sharing pieces of childhood I'd missed and actually opening up to me. He'd talked more about his parents today than I'd ever heard him.

I wished I could muster up the energy to cast off the weight on my shoulders, like an invisible stone blanket that made the simple task of putting one foot in front of the other beyond difficult. I wanted to be happy with him - for him. I wanted to ask more about his parents and help him dwell on his happy memories.

Because I couldn't do those things - not yet - I climbed in bed with him. I laid quietly with my head on his chest and one arm around him, just glad that he was waiting out the storm with me.

"We should come back here," he said right before I drifted off.

"Hmmm?"

"When you're 21. We should come here and do Vegas properly," he repeated. "You know... the other side of Vegas."

"I liked this side of Vegas," I mumbled sincerely.

He laughed lightly, his chest rumbling beneath my ear. "I did, too," he said quietly.

It didn't occur to me until much later that he obviously planned to be around four months from now. When neither of us were planning further than a day ahead, it was a thought that deserved attention. It was a bridge we were going to have to cross sooner or later - talking about defining us. Preferably before we drove off the edge.

Again.

~0~

We headed out the next day, taking a meandering path through Nevada and California before we hit Pacific Coast Highway heading toward Washington. We stopped occasionally, taking in a few sights. We even snapped a few more photos which I sent to Jasper, missing him occasionally. I didn't know what made me send them - I knew damn well that my smile looked forced, like it wasn't entirely comfortable hanging around on my face.

Are you really okay?

I thought about that. I wasn't. Not really. My mind was still muddled and I cried, for nothing and everything, every day. Sometimes Edward caught me, most times I didn't let him.

When I was young and trying to make sense of all the things that were happening to me, I remember my then vivid imagination likening the confusing turmoil of emotions inside of me to a dragon attack. Sometimes my insides felt hollow - like a great fire had burned out everything, leaving me only only the bones that made up a vaguely human shape. Sometimes I imagined the devastating ache in my chest was the result of a dragon clawing my heart, leaving deep gashes with jagged pieces of flesh rimming the edges.

In the days after the visit with my mother, as the numbness wore away, those wounds - though never healed - felt raw again, like they were pumping agony and life-force out with every beat of my broken heart.

But each day, that pain felt slightly lesser. I was able to take a slightly deeper breath.

Finally, I texted him back.

I will be.

And seeing those words, I felt a little more sure that they would be true. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but it was something I was capable of.

Chapter Text

"I'm so afraid to love you

But more afraid to lose

Clinging to a past that doesn't let me choose
Once there was a darkness, deep and endless night
You gave me everything you had, oh, you gave me life,
"

~I Will Remember You, Sarah McLachlan


The closer we got to Forks, the more I realized the creeping feeling that made me tense and jumpy all at once was nervousness. It took me even longer to figure out why.

In my already fragile state, was being somewhere that could only remind me of what I'd lost really going to help? Wasn't it more likely that it would force me deeper?

Or, perhaps even worse, would Forks hold no memory of my father at all?

But the closer we got, the more I realized that wouldn't be a problem.

At first, it was just a sense of déjà vue. The encroaching field of green felt familiar, like I'd driven down this road, staring out the passenger side window before. The view was slightly different, of course. The last I'd traveled this road, I would have been a lot shorter and probably pressing my face against the glass. I remember my father's exasperated sigh.

"Fine. Smudge up the windows. It's you who's got a date with the Windex when we get home."

On road trips, Charlie would tell me stories he'd heard from his friends on the reservation. For me, these forests would always be full of magical, powerful creatures.

Of course, I refused to go into the woods for fear of being eaten by giant wolves.

The town, in my memory, seemed much bigger, but I'd been a little girl when I lived here. After living over a decade in Phoenix and Los Angeles, the smallness of the town was a shock to my system.

"It's ... nice," Edward said as we drove down the main street.

"You don't have to be polite on my account," I murmured, staring out the window.

"No, it's really nice. Tranquil, even."

"There's a lumberjack right there on the corner," I said, pointing rudely. "That's an actual lumberjack, Edward."

He chuckled ligtly. "Are you hungry?"

I wasn't, but then I hadn't really been hungry since Phoenix. Because I hated seeing the worried look on Edward's face, I ate when he suggested it.

At stop at the gas station told us that Forks didn't have many places with sit down service. That's how we found ourselves at the Forks Diner. And I did remember the Forks Diner.

As we were seated, I remembered the scores of times Dad ruined one meal or another. The waitress used to know us - though that probably wasn't hard in this town - and would make me chocolate chip and blueberry pancakes in a Mickey Mouse shape even though it wasn't on the menu.

"What are you smiling about?" Edward's soft voice interrupted my memory. His thumb came up, smoothing away a tear I didn't realize had gathered in the corner of my eye.

Before I could answer, the waitress came by.

"Hey, folks. How are you doing? My name is Jessica-"

"Jessica Stanley?"I interrupted.

She paused, her eyes looking more closely at me. "I'm sorry, do I know you?"

I chuffed a little. "Not really," I said honestly. "Um... the last thing I remember was a sleep over. It was at your house. You, me and-"

"Angela," Jessica finished. "Oh my gosh. You're Bella Swan." She surprised me by throwing her arms around me. Shocked, I kind of patted her back. "I missed you for so long."

~0~

The town hadn't forgotten my father, not by a long shot. During the course of lunch, Jessica told us how once, the bank her mother worked at was held up by an incompetent, high on everything teenager. Charlie had talked him down without any backup. She talked about my father like he was a super hero.

Jessica pointed us in the direction of Mike Newton. He was also in town, working for the summer at his father's store. I remembered Newton's Outfitters. More specifically, I remembered being bored and grumpy while Dad checked out new fishing poles. Everyone who knew who I was had a story. Everyone.

If Edward hadn't been there to coax my stories out of me, I'm sure I would have been mute by the end of the day. It was only too easy to get lost in the tangle of thoughts. There were so many things I'd pushed to the edge of my mind without realizing it.

Just wandering around the town, we ducked into an antique store. For a while, I was distracted. Edward's face took on a whole new light as we perused the store. I watched his hands caress the edges of old books and other items. His lips were pursed, and I was enraptured by the far away look on his face.

When he caught me looking he started talking. His father loved to collect books. Their house was once lined with books. Esme Cullen had once made a living revamping old homes. Suffice to say the Cullen children had spent their fair share of time in antique stores.

We rounded a corner and I stopped short, catching a flash of something in a tarnished old mirror. It took a minute to figure out what I was looking at.

It was her - that girl I sometimes saw in the mirror. Me - I tried to make myself see it, but the reflections wouldn't quite line up. It had been so long since I'd seen her.

I could understand why she popped up again here. I saw her because this is what the others saw when they looked at me. The Chief's young daughter. How they must have wondered about me over the years, wondered if I'd been able to overcome the death of my father.

Standing in front of them, I suppose it looked like a happy ending. More than one person we ran into had raked their eyes over Edward's form and grinned at me. Handsome, smart boyfriend... and I was obviously in one piece. It gave the impression that I was doing well...that I hadn't fallen apart.

It was an inevitable domino effect. Earlier that day, Mike had re-introduced me to Tyler Crowley, who was about to inducted onto the police force. He idolized my father and told me that he would be proud. I'd initially dismissed it. Staring at my reflection, his words suddenly came back to me.

For the first time, I began to wonder if that saying was true - that my father could look down on me from heaven. It was meant to be comforting but in reality, the prospect was horrifying. I hadn't really stopped to ponder my viewpoints on heaven and hell.

"Talk to me," Edward whispered the minute we were behind closed doors at the hotel, and I realized suddenly that I hadn't said more than a word or two since the antique store. He sat on the bed and opened his arms.

I think I surprised us both when I climbed over him, settling onto his lap instead of cuddling up beside him. In his arms, with my nose breathing in the scent of his skin, the world didn't seem as big. In fact, the world dwindled down to just the two of us, and I could find my words again.

"I was thinking that my dad would be ashamed of me."

His entire body went stiff for a moment before he relaxed, letting out a long breath. "Bella," he said quietly, "you are so absurd. What on earth would your father have to be ashamed of?"

I chuffed. "I think the shorter list would be what does he have to be proud of?" He stayed quiet, letting me gather my thoughts. "When I left Phoenix, I left because I didn't know what the rest of my life was supposed to look like. I still don't. I worked at a dead end job and now I don't work at all. And yeah, I know I went through... a lot. But that's not an excuse. I mean, look at you. After everything, you still became something."

Edward shifted me, cupping my face in his hands so he could tilt my face up. His eyes were sad as they searched mine. "Do you understand how much braver you are than I am? Do you know how I got into nursing?"

I shook my head and he sighed, pulling me back against him again. "My father was a doctor," he murmured. Of course, I knew that but I didn't interrupt him. "I idolized him from a very young age. It was all I ever wanted to do - be a doctor. But I don't know, Bella. Kids say those kinds of things all the time. I don't know if I ever really would have wanted that." He shrugged, jostling me slightly. "And everything happened..."

I put my hand in his, squeezing because I knew it was so hard for him to talk about. I could feel the light tremor of his body with even those simple words, and the way his heart began to pound erratically in his chest.

"It was easier to just keep answering that I wanted to be a doctor when people asked me about my plans. If I ever really thought about it, I couldn't see my future... so I didn't think. I just kept moving forward." His voice was so far off. "But I knew right away that I couldn't do it... all the school. Concentrating enough to pass a class was... daunting. Exhausting. Maybe I could fight my way through a couple of years of school - but enough to be a doctor? No."

"I don't understand how that makes me brave," I said, confused.

"I wasn't living, Bella. Not at all. I was going through the motions, doing just enough so Alice wouldn't need to worry." His free hand came up, and he ran the backs of his knuckles against my cheek. "You ran away from that, when you left the campus of the college. Maybe you hadn't figured it out yet, but that was your goal, wasn't it? To figure out who you are and what you want?"

He shifted then, moving carefully so he was laying down and I was still cradled on top of him. "You should have seen some of the other people in that clinic," he murmured. "What you went through... it could have destroyed you. Or you could have been like your mother who is honestly too weak to break the cycle. You... that's what you're struggling for, and it takes so much more strength than anyone should need to have."

I listened to the steady beat of his heart, turning those words over and over in my head. I didn't really believe them.

But I wanted to.

"Your father would be so proud of you," Edward finished. He kissed my forehead lightly. "I'm proud of you."

~0~

The next morning, Edward asked carefully if I wanted to go to the cemetery where my dad was buried. The thought sent an instant chill through my body. I simply wasn't ready.

Instead, we got on the road to First Beach where I remembered visiting my father's friends. I told Edward stories about falling in the tide pools and though he tried valiantly not to, he laughed at the mental image.

As we wound down the highway, Edward pointed out the dash. "There are people...jumping off those cliffs."

I looked where he pointed, jumping slightly in surprise as a vaguely human-shaped blur hurtled itself off one of the too high cliffs. "Holy crap," I muttered.

"Idiots," he said, shaking his head.

We continued down to the beach, parking. Like everything else, First Beach felt all at once familiar and strange to me.

"Hard to believe this is the same ocean down in LA," Edward observed.

I scoffed, thinking about how the beaches back in California were doubtlessly crammed with women in bikinis, men in shorts and little kids digging in the sand. Meanwhile, Edward and I were wearing sweaters.

The scenery was unmatched though. The pebbly beach and the cliffs set against the gray sky were just gorgeous. We hiked a little, finding the tide pools from my memories. True to form, I almost fell in as I leaned over them, distracted as I was by the the sea life that had been caught. Edward kept his arm around my waist whenever I peered into one of the pools. It made my heart warm because I remembered my father doing much the same.

We made our way back, and I was about to suggest it was time to tuck into the Subway sandwiches we'd brought with us when a voice interrupted the little bubble we were in.

"Bella Swan?"

I spun around so fast, I nearly fell. Edward, as always, was there, steadying me easily. This time, though, he kept hold of my hand, his body automatically tensing as we watched three boys make their way over to us. I understood his caution. Obviously, these were the maniacs we'd seen diving off the cliffs. They were all three shirtless, and seemingly oblivious to the sharp pebbles beneath their bare feet as they jogged toward us. The one in the middle was grinning so widely it was unnatural. He was the one who'd called my name.

He looked familiar, somehow.

"It is you!" he crowed excitedly. For one terrifying moment, I thought he was going to hug me and I cringed closer to Edward. The boy stopped just short of us, tilting his head. Then he laughed. "You don't know who I am, do you?"

"Uh?" I said helpfully, grasping at pieces of memory. If he lived on the reservation, it was doubtful he'd gone to school in Forks. I only remembered some of my playground buddies and even those memories were vague.

"It's okay," he said easily. He stuck his hand out. "I'm Jacob Black. Your dad and my dad were friends. You and I used to play together a lot. Well - you, me and my sisters, Rachel and Rebecca."

"Jacob Black... as in Billy Black?" I blurted, surprised I could pull that name out of my brain.

"He's my dad," Jacob said, nodding. He gestured to the two other boys. "This is Quil and Embry by the way."

Still a little stunned, I only barely remembered my manners when Edward squeezed my hand. "Oh. This is Edward Cullen."

Jacob's eyes darted thoughtfully between Edward and I before he offered his hand to Edward with a cocksure grin. "Nice to meet you, bud."

"Likewise, I'm sure," Edward muttered, though it sounded like he meant the exact opposite. I worried, for a moment, that Edward was intimidated by the boys. They were only a few years younger than us, and almost as broad as Emmett. But no, the way Edward shook Jacob's hand didn't seem nervous. It seemed...

Challenging? Somehow.

"Why don't you two come home with us?" Jacob suggested. "We were just about to get some grub, and I know my dad would get a kick out of seeing you," he said to me. "Plus, you know, if you need proof about who I am, we have pictures of us rolling around in the mud in our underthings." His eyes darted mischievously to Edward and back to me.

Edward's jaw seemed to be set in a tight line. He turned slightly to me, a curiously wicked grin on his face. "You know I never miss a chance to see Bella in her underthings."

I raised an eyebrow, completely shocked at those playful words. Despite the cool weather, my face suddenly felt hot.

Was he flirting with me?

I tried to put the thought aside, especially since I found myself in a tiny house, surrounded by people. Billy remembered me, and his eyes shone as he talked about my father. He called another man - Harry Clearwater - and his wife.

I felt a little like a fancy car everyone stopped to look at. I'd have thought it would make me feel self-conscious, and it did to a certain extent. But it also felt like maybe, if I stretched myself just enough, I could fit in with my father's friends. Like maybe I would have belonged there.

But even as I listened to the stories - and all of them had stories - my mind kept wandering back to Edward's little comment. It wasn't hard to do given that he was acting strange. Possessive. Not in a scary way, but his body language was practically screaming at the younger boys: Back off! in neon.

It didn't feel wrong.

More than that, it awakened parts of me I'd been ignoring. Sure, we'd kissed - played the outward part of boyfriend and girlfriend enough that most people spoke about us like we were. We rarely corrected them, though the title didn't necessarily feel comfortable. But this was the first time Edward had ever referred to whatever this was directly.

Did he want to see me in my underthings?

In some ways, especially given all the things that had happened to him, it felt wrong to have those thoughts about Edward. To that point, I'd dismissed them outright, feeling guilty every time I wanted to touch him or imagined our kisses leading to... more. He deserved someone who could make him happy. He deserved someone who was more... complete.

But we were both learning how to communicate. I knew that I owed it to him - and to me - to have this conversation out loud. It was time. We really couldn't escape it any longer - not when I continued to hold his hand and let him kiss me. For fuck's sake, I climbed into his bed without asking now.

"Edward?"

Flipping through a few brochures he'd found in the hotel's front office, Edward's, "Hmm?" was highly distracted.

I took the brochure from his hands, and his eyes met mine, confused and concerned. "What was that about today? The way you were acting with Jake and the other boys?"

His eyes went wide, nervous, and he looked down at his hands. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"Edward," I said, my voice warning. I tried to keep my tone gentle because I didn't know if I was hitting a hard issue for him. I couldn't know unless he told me.

Edward shifted so he was sitting on the edge of the bed instead of propped up against the headboard. I sat beside him, giving him enough space to be comfortable. So much time went by that I started to say something, just to reassure him I wasn't mad, I just needed to know, but he held his hand up.

"Just let me talk a second, okay?" He waited until I nodded. "I was kind of hoping to put off this discussion for a while, but..." He blew out a huff of breath as if steeling himself. "Bella, I don't want you to feel any pressure. But you're right to want h-honesty from me." He smiled wryly. "Eventually, you're not going to want to live in this limbo space."

He shifted on the bed so he could face me, taking my hands in his and playing with my fingers so he wouldn't have to look up at me. I could feel the slight vibration in his hands, and I wished I could soothe away his fears. Didn't he know by then that he could tell me anything?

"You know I have no idea how to do this." His voice trembled slightly. "I didn't know... I didn't know I was even capable of feeling this way until I found you. I thought this part of me was ... broken." He chuffed, the sound defeated and sad. "Given what I did to you-"

Knowing he was talking about our previous sexual relationship, I interrupted him quickly. "What we did to each other."

He looked up, his eyes searching mine for a moment. "What we did... I guess that part of me is broken. Bella... God, I can't even tell you what..." He swallowed hard, searching for his words. "I never wanted to hurt anyone. But you... I wanted... I thought of..." He closed his eyes. "I wanted to be able to touch you like my father touched my mother. It wasn't... I mean, it didn't matter if he was just tugging her hand to get her attention or kissing her. It was all so... I don't know. Pretty? I guess?

"And when we kissed, I thought maybe... maybe I could do it. Maybe I wasn't ... irreparably damaged like that." He exhaled shakily, cursing under his breath. I knew he must have hated feeling so vulnerable, let alone rehashing an event that had pushed him to suicide.

"Edward," I whispered, wanting to get closer to him but not knowing if I should. "I didn't know either. I didn't know how to ... feel for you." I took a chance, scooting closer. He didn't flinch away from me. "I didn't want it to be that way either."

"It was ugly," he said, his voice barely a breath. "I never wanted to hurt you."

"What do you want?" I asked softly, scooting another inch toward him. "What do you want now?"

He didn't answer immediately, instead closing the last inch or so between us. He still hadn't opened his eyes. "I know what I want." His voice wasn't even remotely confident. He opened his eyes and the look there reflected his fear but also... "Bella... I know it isn't fair, and probably I shouldn't even be thinking about this when I... I'm so fucked up."

"We're both fucked up," I murmured. "But we can get better. We're getting better now. Both of us. Right?" I was babbling. I knew I was babbling. It didn't seem to stop me, but I knew.

He caught my hands with his. "I... I love you," he blurted the words. "I don't know if it's fair, but I do." He laughed, the sound nervous. "And you deserve so much more than someone like me. I know that."

"Well... fuck that. Fuck what you think I deserve. And what you think you deserve for that matter because I am not a fucking jewel." I had no idea where the vehemence in my voice was coming from. If I were being honest, my heart was beating out of my chest. But I knew how much it took for him to tell me those things, and fuck... we could both use a little bravado. "I want you." I said the words like a revelation because they were to me. "I love... I love you."

Once the words were out of my mouth, this feeling of complete serenity settled over me. It was like finding a piece of the puzzle that was my life that fit perfectly, snugly - there could be no question that it belonged there. I'd gone back and forth for ages as to whether I made the right choice when I cut my hair, but telling this ridiculous boy that I loved him was simplest thing in the world.

I watched his eyelashes flutter as he blinked sporadically. His lips quirked - up down, up down, up down - in rapid succession. Finally, he settled on happy. Better than happy. His entire face lit up, his smile so wide it must have hurt. "Bella," he whispered, the sound so reverent it made me shiver.

Then we were kissing... voraciously. Deep, passionate kisses that were still sweet because holy hell... this boy, this beautiful, fucked up man loved me. Me. And I could feel it in the air between us and the way his lips moved with mine and his hands brought me closer.

We made out for hours. We made out until we fell asleep.

~0~

"I have no business doing this, do I? Trying to be in a relationship when I can just barely be me?"

I'd woken up a little after dawn, wrapped in Edward's arms. He was still fast asleep, his face so peaceful. The urge to just lay my head on his shoulder and go right back to sleep was strong.

Unfortunately, my brain was awake. Way awake.

And holy shit what were trying to do?

So I called Jasper in a little bit of a panic, but he wasn't answering my question. "Jasper!"

"Baby doll, you have to give me a second to turn my awake on," he mumbled into the phone. There was a rustle and a yawn. I tapped my foot impatiently, trying not to go out of my skin. Finally, he answered. "Okay. Try that again. And please fill in all the blanks this time."

Calming down slightly, I told Jasper about the kisses... and Edward's possessive behavior around the La Push boys... and then...

"Oh," Jasper said.

"It's stupid, right? We're being stupid. I mean... neither of us knows how to do this." Where were we supposed to learn? Love to me had always carried with it the promise of pain. I'd loved my father and lost him. My mother and James were supposed to love me, but look how that had turned out. And Edward...

I remembered what Jasper had told me - about how children who'd been molested often grew up to have unhealthy sexual relationships. Sex was about power, not the beautiful give and take that could exist between two people.

"Bella, I don't think anyone knows how to do this," Jasper said. "And admittedly, I think you and Edward have a lot of uh... road bumps. But you know, the flip side to that is that you understand him and he understands you in ways that a lot of other people couldn't. That's a definite plus in a relationship."

I calmed down another iota, leaning against the Volvo and trying not to let the hope that had begun to, once again, blossom, in my chest overshadow rational thought. "But the timing. I mean... he just... we just..."

"The timing could be a lot better," Jasper said honestly, and my shoulders began to sag. "But that's the thing about life, sugar. It's not going to wait until the situation is perfect. Not ever. You and Edward... you're very smart. You make mistakes, but I think if you learn from them and help each other, you could be a good thing. A very, very good thing."

~0~

We'd been in town about two weeks. I still hadn't plucked up the courage to go see my dad in the cemetery, but I'd spent time with just about everyone in town who used to know us. You'd think that a town as tiny as Forks wouldn't be so interesting, but the forests, beaches and rivers kept Edward and me entertained when we weren't visiting.

And the nights...

For two weeks, we were like giddy teenagers, tentatively exploring each other like we were virgins all over again. In all honesty, we were, because we'd never done this. Slowly, we were replacing preconceived notions that equated sex with pain and ugliness, with sweetness and...

Oh, my God, the pleasure.

With my back against his chest and both our legs spread wide, I discovered a whole new reason to love his gracefully long fingers. He loved hearing me, watching me, knowing he could make me beg. "God, yes. Please, Edward. Please. Please. Edward, please." He loved it, and as inhibited and shy as I felt at first, I loved that it pleased him. I loved the way his lips kissed the side of my head as he rubbed and stroked me to orgasm.

Reciprocation was not, at that point, an option. Once, because I longed to bring him the pleasure he brought me, I wrapped my hand around his length without thinking, without asking. Believe me, I only did that once.

It wasn't that he freaked out. He didn't really. I just watched the pleasure and love in his eyes get mixed with anger and the ugliness. He fought it, but our time that night was tainted.

Taking Jasper's advice, I made sure that I learned from my mistakes. When I was kissing him, straddling his legs as he sat propped against the headboard, I asked him what he wanted, how he wanted me. He pointed to his ear. "Kiss me here," he said in a whisper.

I kissed the shell of his ear and then sucked it gently into my mouth. I had no more idea what I was doing than he had idea what he liked, but it felt right. I loved finding new ways to touch him, and to make his breath shudder as it did then.

So I cupped his face and kissed his stubbly jaw. His lips. The tip of his nose, and then the shell of his other ear as I repeated the motions. His hands were at my waist, his fingers occasionally drumming against my bare skin because I had taken my jeans off though I was still wearing panties and a button down shirt.

When my lips reached his again, he groaned into my mouth, his movements becoming slightly more aggressive. I backed down, letting him lead. With his hands at the small of my back he pushed forward, still kissing me as he laid me down. My hands threaded in his hair, pulling his head down so I could keep kissing him as he braced himself on his arms over me.

After a few minutes of that, our bodies writhing together, he broke the kiss. We were both breathing heavily. I stroked his cheeks with my hands, seeing that look in his eyes that meant he was thinking about something. As much as I wanted to continue – his body moving over mine was nothing short of fantastic – a prerequisite of us being together was knowing we had to talk any time we needed to.

Any time.

"Do you know what today is?" he murmured.

I blinked dumbly at him, trying to clear the lusty cobwebs away from my brain. "Um? Like the date? It's the twentieth. June 20," I supplied.

He smiled at me, that tender smile that gave me goosepimples because I couldn't believe it was for me. "It's my birthday."

That one sentence left me breathless and scrambling. "What?" I felt like a tool. Of course. He'd gotten a call from both Alice and Emmett. Both calls he'd stepped away to take. I'd assumed it was because I was talking with Angela Cheney nee Weber. How could I not have known. Wait… "Why didn't you tell me?"

His eyes searched mine, and I could see he was nervous about something. I ran my fingers along the back of his neck as soothingly as I could. "Because there's only one thing I want…"

The way he said those words, the meaning wasn't lost on me. My breath caught in my throat because the way he was looking at me then… the intensity in his eyes… "What do you want?" I whispered, though I already knew.

He leaned in, his lips brushing my forehead and then the tip of my nose. "You. Always you."

My heart beat like horses hooves against my chest, the feeling almost painful because it also felt full to the point of bursting. "You can have me. You know that," I said, my voice shaking. It was a forgone conclusion that I was his, like it had been written before I even knew he existed. And since I'd had an IUD put in after that whole debacle - I already had a laundry list of shit to deal with, not having to think about birth control for five years seemed like a no brainer - there was nothing else to think about.

He kissed me again, his breath stuttering out over his lips as he did. "Bella… I don't know…" He swallowed hard.

Like I knew.

I turned my head to the side, tapping the side of my neck with two fingers. "Kiss me here."

He did, his lips moving slowly as I tilted my head back. I loved the feel of his mouth against my throat. I don't know why. The skin there was so sensitive and his touch was always gentle. And Edward loved the way his little kisses made me sigh. With my hands on his shoulders, I could feel the tension ease from his body. He settled onto one side, propping himself up on one arm as he kissed me.

When he was relaxed, I took his hand, guiding it up my body to press between my breasts. I squeezed his fingers briefly before I moved my hands to the back of his neck.

Edward's breath was hot and uneven against my neck as he paused for a moment, then his shaky fingers began to unbutton my shirt. I pulled his face up, needing to see his eyes, needing to see he wasn't pushing himself.

He wasn't. The look in his eyes was one of awe, not of discomfort.

If we were anyone else, it could have been embarrassing. We were the antithesis of smooth, our hands and fingers bumbling and fumbling along as we undressed each other. And the look in Edward's eyes when he got all my clothes off for the first time was just like a kid on Christmas morning – all wide eyes with a goofy grin. I giggled at him and felt beautiful instead of ridiculous.

When it came down to it, we were both so tentative. I could see he was shaking, and I was too. Of course I was. My body still remembered that sex was painful. It was what I wanted at the time, but I didn't want it now. All of that night and the last two weeks had been so wonderful, I didn't want that ugliness to pervert the beautiful thing we'd created and worked so hard for.

"Are you okay?" I whispered, stroking the hair away from his eyes. As nervous as I was, I still wanted this. I yearned for him.

He nodded and closed his eyes as he leaned down to kiss me again. Resting his forehead against mine, he sighed. "I love you."

"I love you, too," I murmured back, spreading my legs as I felt him at my entrance.

He moved inside of me with hesitant strokes at first, his eyes on me like he was sure I was going to scream in pain. But when I whimpered, biting my lip to hold on the full on groan that threatened when we were fully connected, he relaxed against me, letting go and letting the pleasure take him.

It was clumsy. We were clumsy. But it was perfect because it was him. Us. In the insanity of this ugly world, we'd found something beautiful. Maybe we'd fucked it up at first, but this was right, and it could only get better.

Watching Edward come as he hoarsely called my name was the highlight of my life to that point.

~0~

Another week went by, and I sighed as I thought about the passage of time.

Edward, sitting across from me at the diner, ran the pad of his fingers over my arm. "What's wrong?"

"It's nothing really," I said, looking out the window at the sleepy town of Forks. "I was just thinking that we're going to have to remember the real world sooner rather than later."

When he didn't answer right away, I looked back to find Edward looking studiously at his plate. He pushed the food there around, his expression thoughtful. "You know... this is the real world. Forks exists."

I tilted my head. His tone was too serious for me to think he was teasing.

"You know, my dad used to tell me that Mom wanted to move to a small town. He said as soon as we kids were off to college, he was going to move her away from the big city." He smiled wanly. "She would have loved it here. Maybe it's stupid, but sometimes I think... if he'd picked up and moved us here when he wanted instead of waiting, and if your dad hadn't died, what then?"

I had to smile at the image. "You mean, maybe we would have met that way? Without all the bullshit?"

"Maybe," Edward murmured.

"So, what does it mean?" I asked, still a little confused.

He looked at me, his eyes contemplative. "We could make a life here, couldn't we?"

For two seconds, I forgot to breathe.

Live in Forks? My first instinct was to say it was impossible, but as my thoughts became unfrozen, I couldn't figure why.

Why couldn't we live in Forks. Or, what was doubtlessly a better question, why shouldn't we live in Forks?

It was the only place that had ever felt like home. Away from the big cities, which could be loud and nerve wracking, among the green forest and gray sky, I could imagine finding peace. And the people here - they saw me as I wanted to see myself. Maybe I could never be the girl in the mirror, but I could remember what parts of her I wanted to keep, and which parts I should let go.

It was time to move on from who I should have been and who I was to become who I wanted to be.

I reached out, taking Edward's hands in mine, somehow not scared about the journey because I knew I wasn't alone. I never had to be alone again. I could never be so lost again if there was someone there to anchor me.

"Yeah. We could be good here."

Chapter Text

"Made a wrong turn, once or twice,
Dug my way out, blood and fire,
Bad decisions, that's alright,
Welcome to my silly life.
Mistreated, misplaced, misunderstood,
Miss no it is all good,
It didn't slow me down.
Mistaken, always second guessing,
Under-estimated, look I'm still around"

Fuckin' Perfect, Pink


~September 13 - 10 Years Later~

I was up with the dawn, but that wasn't atypical for me. Dressed warmly, I padded out to the porch that ran around the entire house. There, I settled on one of the many couches so I could take in the view.

Our house - our brand new house in Forks - was obnoxiously big. Ostentatious even, though it was tucked back along a three mile long, winding road, far away from the central part of the city. I didn't hate it. In fact, I loved the house almost as much as Edward did, but it was far too big for us.

It took a lot of talking, but Edward finally managed to convince me that it was right for us. One of his major selling points was the view of the Sol Duc River that stretched out behind the house. Every morning that I could, I sat out on the porch just enjoying the beauty of the world.

I was only out there alone for minutes, as I expected today of all days. The back door opened, and Edward sat beside me, instantly wrapping me in his arms. "Happy birthday," he murmured, his lips warm against my skin though the air around us was cold.

Closing my eyes, I let myself rest backward against his chest, tilting my head because I loved the way he kissed my neck. Edward didn't disappoint. He swept my hair off my shoulders, kissing me slowly, warming me from the inside out. "What are you thinking?" he asked when his lips finally reached my ear.

"I was thinking about ... decades," I answered, playing with his fingers that were locked around my waist.

"Decades?"

"Mmm," I assented. "One with my father. One with my mother. One with you."

And what a remarkable decade it had been.

Edward and I hadn't settled in Forks immediately. Sitting in Forks's little diner 10 years before, we'd had a serious discussion about what we wanted and what we needed. Ultimately, we knew we needed the anonymity of a town a little larger than Forks.

Just a ways down the highway, we moved to Port Angeles. Edward took a private nursing job, working for an elderly couple who needed home care while I found a job as an assistant - read secretary - to one of the the lawyers that worked out of an office that used to be a house.

Knowing we had a lot to work on, we both began therapy. Oh, my, there was a lot of therapy.

We both started off going every other week to separate therapists. Edward had a support group the third Saturday of every month. We also went to couples therapy once a month - not because there were any problems but because we didn't want there to be.

Slowly, we began to pull ourselves together, discovering pieces of the people we wanted to be along the way.

Edward learned to channel the excess emotion he had into music and that eventually evolved into a job. He tuned pianos and fixed broken guitars, throwing in the odd music lesson here and there.

Meanwhile, I went back to school to get my paralegal certificate, earning myself a raise, a career and the ability to turn the excess energy that made me want to explode out of my skin when I got angry or frustrated into thorough research. Some people cleaned when they were stressed, or punched the hell out of a boxing bag. I tore apart law books for whatever case was being worked on. And since the lawyer I worked for practiced family law, it happened often that I was ticked off at the situation. It made me good at my job.

It was only six months ago that we finally made it to Forks.

Our journey wasn't easy. In fact, it was almost never easy. Edward and I had more issues than a Korn CD. We made mistakes... some of them bigger than others.

"Mommy? Daddy?"

Our biggest and best mistake padded out onto the porch in her footie pajamas, her brow furrowed. "Were you being all kissy?"

A little over five years ago I maybe, kind of, sort of forgot that the IUD I'd had put in had an expiration date.

The day I figured out I was pregnant was a very, very bad day. I felt like I'd made no progress at all. After all the hard work I'd put in - and I worked so, so hard to get better - I was the same idiotic, irresponsible girl at 25 I had been at 20. Except unlike the other one, this one didn't have the sense to abandon ship on its own.

Edward was just as terrified as I was, but he was slightly calmer. He reminded me that we were both human, working on breaking a thousand different bad or unhealthy habits and mentalities. Our therapists had all warned that we were going to slip, and that part of healing was learning to forgive ourselves for being imperfect.

But we were talking about someone else's life. All of our issues stemmed from parental figures fucking up. Obviously, I couldn't be trusted with something as simple as birth control.

He reasoned that we'd come so far. We had the money - both of us being gainfully employed all these years with a very hefty nest egg still put away in the bank from our parents. Despite all of our faults and the tumultuous ups and downs we'd managed a successful, very loving relationship.

Through hiccuping sobs, I managed to remind him of my worst fear. What if I was like my mother? What if it was just inherent in me?

He told me it was impossible. My mother was weak. She'd never been strong enough to break the cycle of abuse. I was strong enough, he told me. I'd been proving that every day since I ran from that college campus, knowing that there were things about me that needed to be fixed. I was the one who'd worked to get better.

I wasn't my mother.

My whole pregnancy was bittersweet. I had hope, but I was terrified to acknowledge it. I spent most of the pregnancy crying, just so, so scared I was doing the wrong thing. The doctors warned me that the IUD increased the chance of miscarriage. God help me... sometimes I wished it would happen.

Carlie Mae Cullen arrived in this world with that damn IUD gripped in her tiny hand as if she was saying 'fuck you, I'm here anyway.' I took one look at her and realized that most of my fears were unfounded. I could never be my mother. From the second I laid eyes on her, I loved her so much that the very idea of being away from her for more than a day was painful.

"Of course we were being kissy," Edward answered Carlie's question. "How else would Mommy know how much I love her?"

Carlie appeared to consider this. "I think she just knows. Kissing is gross."

Edward I both chuckled. "It's gross, is it?" he asked. When she nodded, he scooped her up quickly into his arms. "Sucks to be you, then," he said, promptly peppering her little face with big, daddy-sized smooches.

"Dadddddeeeeeee," Carlie protested, giggling those high pitched little girl giggles that ranked among my favorite sounds in the entire world.

Edward told me once that if he could write a list of reasons why not to commit suicide, his little girl giggling and waking up to his wife's pretty smile would be at the top of that list.

I guessed it was a good thing I was a morning person.

I wasn't a perfect mother, not by a long shot. But I liked to think that for all my tripping, stumbling and feeling my way through parenting, my daughters knew they were loved. It took me a long time to realize - as scared as I was that I would see my mother or worse, James, in my parenting style - but I'd also been well loved by my father. I hadn't forgotten the lessons he taught me.

And unlike my father who'd had to go it alone, I had Edward. He was my system of checks and balances.

I learned very early on that my patience was a lit fuse that could easily explode. When Carlie hit her terrible twos and became more obstinate it was especially obvious that James had left another mark in the deep recesses of my psyche. I couldn't imagine raising a hand to my babies, but sometimes anger would tick on like a raging inferno.

That was when Edward stepped in. He kept me balanced, helping me level out the frustration so I didn't do anything I regretted. I loathed that it was a part of me - this idea that my daughters would or should obey my every waking command. More than every other battle I fought, the battle to keep from repeating the cycle of abuse in any way - verbal or physical - left me drained and bitter.

But, like everything else, Edward and I worked through it together.

And yes, I did say daughters.

Because we knew that, as hard as we tried, we were going to mess up along the line, Edward and I decided to give Carlie the gift of someone who would share her experience. Since we'd brought her into the world, it felt like the least we could do to pair her up with another human being who could understand the ordeal of having us as parents.

Sophie Louise was two years old and hopefully would sleep at least another hour before we would be chasing both of them around the house.

Edward had finished kissing Carlie to death and had settled her instead on his lap. "Do you want to help me make breakfast for Mommy?"

Carlie, of course, was amenable, and we moved our little party inside. Carlie sat with Edward, carefully plopping blueberries and the slices of banana Edward cut at her direction into the pancake batter one by one. When that was done, she sat back against Edward's chest, running her hands over the scars at the inside of his wrists. For whatever reason, she liked to feel the scars on his wrists and the one at the center of my hand.

I remembered the first time she did it. She'd been sitting beside Edward on the couch, her head against his side as they watched Sesame Street. She was bending and folding his fingers as if she were playing the 'Where Is Thumbkin' game silently. Then her fingers ran over and over the scar on his left wrist.

His eyes met mine across the room, wide and a little scared. Edward and I... it's not that we were proud of our scars, but at that point we weren't ashamed of them either. How we were going to explain to our children about the journey of our lives though, we hadn't discussed. Carlie was two at that point. How on earth did you tell a two year old about depression and suicide?

When she asked, and we knew that was inevitable, we told her as close to the truth as we could. Edward and I didn't hold with the idea of sheltering our girls from all of life's ugliness. We figured life was hard enough, and we were going to equip them with some armor where we could.

So we told her that Daddy and Mommy had once been very, very sick and those scars were the remnants of that disease. As she grew older, Carlie understood that the sickness was the reason why sometimes Mommy cried for no apparent reason or Daddy had nightmares that made him yell in his sleep.

"Aunt Ali said if she had scars like yours, she would wear bracelets to cover them," Carlie announced, apropos of nothing. "She said they would make her sad to see them every day."

Edward rolled his eyes without letting our daughter see him. We were both used to Alice's discomfort with the proof of our struggles. It didn't make us angry anymore. We all had our scars. Edward and I carried some of ours on the outside. Alice, like everyone else on the planet, had her own issues.

"Can I tell you a secret?" Edward whispered against Carlie's ear. She nodded eagerly. "If I didn't have these scars, I wouldn't have my beautiful girls. So I don't mind that I have them."

He stood then, setting Carlie on her feet so he could cook the pancakes. She scampered over to me, climbing onto my lap and continuing her conversation. "Is Aunt Ali coming to see us today?"

Finding that she missed her brother too much, Alice had followed us to Washington three years after we left California. And because he was tied around her finger, Jasper followed her. They lived in Seattle where Alice found her calling as a wedding planner and Jasper ran an indie music shop.

"Of course she is. Alice and Jasper and practically the whole town of Forks," I said dryly, exaggerating just a tad because Edward had only invited a handful of our closest friends and their kids.

Edward winked at me over his shoulder.

"Mom-ma. Mom-ma. Mom-ma," Sophie's voice chanted from the baby monitor on the counter.

Carlie hopped up automatically, following me up the stairs to the nursery. I picked up my grinning baby girl and kissed the tip of her nose.

"Sophie, it's Mommy's birthday, 'emember?" Carlie chattered as we made our way downstairs. "You gots to tell her happy birthday."

"Birthday!" Sophie said joyfully, bouncing in my arms. I snickered. Sophie's birthday had been just a week before so all she knew was that birthday meant cake and ice cream weren't far off.

When we got back to the kitchen Edward had a mouthwatering spread on the table. He served us all, refusing to let me help. "Happy birthday," he said again, kissing my forehead as he set down my plate in front of me.

My pancake was cut into the shape of a big heart...because somewhere along the line, Edward had discovered he liked being a cheesy, romantic bastard from time to time - when I would let him get away with it.

Sometimes I still felt like I didn't deserve him - like I didn't deserve any of what I had.

What life had taught me was that happiness was not a state of being, but an emotion that occurred in increments of time. I was truly happy for minutes, hours, maybe a day or so here and there. What life should be was a state of contentment - a state everyone had to work achieve because there was always something better out there - interrupted by peaks and valleys.

That day - my 31st birthday - was a definite peak.

Experience taught me that it could all change in a heartbeat, but I quickly quashed that pointless worry down. Life was going to happen whether we liked it or not. Whatever challenges I faced, I knew I wasn't alone in the world.

Looking around at my family, I remembered standing at the edge of that college right before I ran for my life. Then I had been a broken shell of a girl who didn't know what she wanted or who she was. The girl I had been would never have believed I could be the person I was now - a mother, a wife, a successful, well liked person.

The abuse that I was subjected to shouldn't have happened, but I couldn't regret the person I'd become because of what I'd been through. No one appreciated life as much as a person who'd had to fight so hard for it.