The Sting of Deception
At seven forty eight pm on Tuesday July 28th, Edward's eyes opened for the first time in three weeks. At seven fifty one and sixteen seconds, they closed again. Of those three glorious minutes, Bella had spent thirty nine seconds locked in his focused gaze.
Shamrocks...green Ireland pastures...flecks of golden coins...bewilderment...pain.
As Edward's family wept and held each other, a mix of profound relief, hope, and an inkling of joy radiating from their huddled bodies, Bella slowly backed away from the bed. When her back collided with the wall, the air that had gotten trapped in her chest when his eyes locked on hers left her lungs, leaving her gasping shallowly. Her eyes were still locked on his closed ones as her heart shattered into a million pieces for him.
Tears gathered in her eyes, blurring her vision. They closed slowly, pushing the moisture between her lids and sending the droplets cascading down her cheeks. She wanted so badly to share in the relief his family was feeling, but they hadn't seen in his eyes what she had. They hadn't seen the sheer agony or desperate scream for help swimming in those tortured eyes.
She tried to listen to the tearful words of his family, but all she could hear was the finally slowing beeps of his heart monitor. Had no one else heard the frantic pace of that beeping? Had no one other than her heard how the chirps had been so close together they almost sounded as if he were flat lining?
Bella's mind raced as her eyes remained closed, Edward's anguished gaze flashing violently in her mind's eye. Was he still in pain? Was he still aware of everything and everyone around him? Was he trapped inside his motionless form, screaming and crying out for help but no one could hear him?
As her eyes began to open, words, almost inaudible words began to fall from her lips as her tears continued their trek towards her jaw and down to the floor. A gasp from her left had her eyes guiltily turning toward the sound as a fresh round tears welled up and spilled down her face.
"Isabella, don't you ever think that way," Esme chastised, her heart breaking at what she'd heard come from such a beautiful and caring young woman.
"It's true," Bella shook her head as her eyes closed once again. "It should have been me...not him. He shouldn't have been in there...he shouldn't have gone in there at all."
A pair of warm, soft arms wrapped around her trembling frame, but they did nothing to protect her from the cold voice that perfectly matched the glacial blue eyes she'd encountered frequently over the passing days.
"You're right...it should be you in that bed."
"Rosalie," a chorus of voices erupted, ranging from shocked and appalled to infuriated. Esme's arms tightened around Bella's frame as a silent sob broke free from her chest. Bella felt herself being turned, held tightly to Esme's chest as she covered one of Bella's ears with her hand.
"Don't Rosalie me. It's true! What kind of idiot doesn't even try to escape a burning building?" she spat, her tone saturated with disdain.
Esme tried her best to shield her from the hurtful words, but her efforts were made in vain. Bella could hear every word being spoken with crystal clarity.
"You're a piece of crap, you know that?" Alice's disgusted voice cut in. "She couldn't have helped having a panic attack in that situation any more than you or I could have. That's not her fault."
"Girls, enough. This is not the time nor the place..."
"No, Carlisle," Alice cut him off. "She has no damn right to blame a victim for what happened to Edward. It was his decision to go in there and regardless of what happened to him, I can guarantee you he wouldn't take that decision back. Ever. Because that'swho he is and she's a miserable self centered shit for trying to make someone feel bad about surviving."
As heated words jumbled together and continued to be thrown back and forth across the room, Bella tried to extract herself from Esme's firm embrace. His family should have still been embracing one another and experiencing an ounce of relief after an eternity of heartache and worry.
"Please stop..." Bella croaked, turning away from Esme and facing Rosalie straight on. Tears continued to blur her vision, but she tried her damnedest to swallow her own hurt and fix the mistake she'd made by letting her thought slip past her lips.
"It's okay," she nodded once, looking only at Rose. "You can be angry at me. I don't blame you, but please...don't fight with your family." Her gaze shifted from Rose to flicker between everyone else in the room. "None of you should be fighting right now, and I'm sorry to have been the reason you are...excuse me."
Her words lodged in her throat as she tried to make her way past Edward's family. She could feel all their gazes on her as she tried to squeeze by Rosalie's unmoving form, the chill coming off of her terribly unnerving. She couldn't be sure if the others had remained silent because they felt the same as Rose did or if they were just too appalled to say anything, but the silence beneath the machinery within the room was near deafening as she tried to make her escape.
As she made it into the overly bright hallway, she heard Carlisle's stern voice emanate from behind her.
"Rosalie, that was extremely uncalled for. She and her parents have been nothing but supportive to our family."
"Maybe...but it wasn't long ago that you blamed her too, Carlisle."
Bella's watery gaze remained fixed to the floor as she hugged the hallway wall on her way out of the ICU. Her heart throbbed in her chest for all the pain that she, and what should have been her misfortune, had caused Edward and his family. As she turned the corner, she collided with someone's solid form and apologized instinctively while maneuvering around them without raising her eyes.
She had no desire to look anyone in the face at the moment, no desire for anyone to see her own heartache that she almost felt she had no right to feel. Even though she held herself responsible in her own mind, Rosalie's words had cut her deeply. She'd known since that first glacial gaze that Rose had blamed her, but she hadn't known the others had felt the same way as well.
A hand reached out to wrap around her upper arm, and with it, came a softly spoken deep voice, "Hey...you okay?"
She immediately recognized the voice as Alec's and she nodded silently, her face still cast down toward the floor.
"You need some help getting back to your room?" he asked, his tone disclosing his sincere concern.
"No, I'll be fine...thank you though," she responded with a trembling voice as she stepped away. Her eyes flickered up to his for a single moment and she tried to smile appreciatively but it fell flat. Severely flat.
Alec sighed as he watched her slowly walk away, not believing her for a second but not wanting to impose where his help or company wasn't wanted. He hated seeing her so visibly upset and not being able to do anything about it. Not many people would have stood by the bedside of a fallen firefighter as she'd been doing. Not with the consistency she and her family had been. His heart hurt for her as she turned the corner and out of his line of view, but as he turned his own and saw the entire Cullen family inside Edward's room, anger began to course through his veins. She'd just left his room, obviously upset, and not a single person in that room had followed her. They were too damn involved with bickering amongst themselves as usual to bother worrying about anyone else.
Alec stood in place for a moment, contemplating if he was really up to enduring a few minutes of the Cullen's customary rivalry after such a long and tiring day. In truth, he'd wanted nothing more than to just head back to the station house and get a few solid hours of sleep, but he wouldn't have been able to rest peacefully without at least checking in to see how his best friend was doing. As his footsteps slowly began to move forward, bits and pieces of the family's hushed argument began to drift into his hearing, further slowing his steps as confusion and anger swirled within him.
"Dammit, Rose. Will you stop?" Carlisle's voice raised above the others. "I understand why you feel the way you do, but it isn't her fault. When I said what I did...I was angry and hurt and scared. It wasn't right for me to feel that way then and it's not right for you to feel that way now."
"But it's true! If she hadn't been in that damn building, he wouldn't have gotten hurt!"
Alec's fists clenched at his sides as, one by one, members of the Cullen family noticed his presence just outside the doorway.
"Tell me I didn't just hear what I did, because for a minute there, I'd swear I just lost what little bit of respect for this family I had left," Alec muttered once all eyes were on him, his anger and confusion having given way to incredulous disgust.
"Alec..." Carlisle started as Alec shook his head and held up a hand to stop him.
"Did she hear this? Did Bella hear this bullshit? Is that why she was so distraught a minute ago?" His question was answered with a solemn nod and pairs upon pairs of guilt ridden eyes. "Un-fucking-believable."
"Alec...where are you going?" Carlisle called after him, trying to make his way through his family members and out the door.
"To visit the only conscious person in this place worth being around," he scoffed and spun around as Carlisle gripped his shoulder. His bluish gray eyes hardened and flashed as he came face to face with the man he'd come to know as a second father as well as respect as a superior officer. "Don't. I don't really care what you or anyone else in there has to say. Weeks, Carlisle. Weeks she's been coming here to see him, spending hours in a plastic chair when she should have been in her bed recovering. How many victims and their families would do that, huh? How many would sit here day in and day out, bending over backwards to do anything they can for all of you instead of heading back to their own lives after a few simple words of thank you or I'm sorry for your loss?"
He didn't bother to wait for Carlisle to answer, because they both knew the answer. They'd experienced it and witnessed it too many times to be unaware of the glaring truth of their hard pressed reality.
"None," he answered for him, his steely eyes shifting back and forth between Carlisle's. "She's different, Carlisle. She's kind and compassionate, warm, funny, and caring. He'd be goddamn lucky to know someone like her after all the shit he's been put through in his life, and I'll be damned if I let all of you take that opportunity away from him."
Carlisle's eyes sank to the floor as his hands fell to his sides. He hadn't needed to be told what a wonderful young woman Bella was to feel guilty. He already did, incredibly so, and even more so now that she'd heard those venomous words borne from festering heartache and grief.
"Please tell her..."
"No," Alec cut him off. For years they all had grown too accustomed to Edward taking care of their needs, whatever they may be, and Bella deserved more than a secondhand apology. "You have something to say to her, you say it to her yourself."
As the nightly overhead announcement began droning on, alerting the hospital's occupants of the arrival of eight thirty pm and the end of visiting hours, Alec let his final words hang in the air and turned to make his way out of the unit. At that same moment, Bella sat in a chair in the corner of her darkened room, a stone statue with cloudy eyes raining teardrops down her smooth skin.
Somewhere, beyond the reach of the bright city lights, stars began to twinkle as the moon climbed to its peak in the clear summer night sky—but much like how the artificial lights surrounding her on Earth dimmed the brilliance of the stars, hurtful words dimmed the brilliance of Bella's spirit. She'd returned to her room phone ringing, and after a very short call in which she'd said little to nearly nothing at all, her parents bid her goodnight and promised to pick her up first thing in the morning.
Alone she sat in her sterile room, veiled by the steadily darkening night, and while the solitude allowed her to purge her sadness in private, she longed for the soothing comfort of her mother's arms. She missed her old room, the one that afforded her the up close view of the very tip of a tree. Where her new one gave her a view of Mt. Rainier off in the far distance during the day, in her old one she felt as though she could almost touch the leaves of the tree if she pressed her hand right up against the glass. She'd spent hours in that room with her hand against that chilled window, willing the breeze to bring the leaves closer to her fingers. Now, her fingers touched nothing but cold glass with a distant view of life held so far out of her reach it might as well exist in an entirely different world.
Another wave of sadness crashed over her as the streetlamp closest to her room flickered out and cast her further into the shadows of her inner and surrounding darkness. Her heart throbbed for the distress she'd caused Edward's family, and she wished with everything in her that she could take it away; that she could alter the past and give them back their loved one—but she couldn't.
A light rapping at her door drew her from her pensive state and she wiped at her face with her hands as she called out permission to enter with a voice strained by her tears.
"What are you...doing here?" she asked, swallowing down the lump that had risen in her throat at seeing Alec's towering form enter her room, bathed in light from the hall that hurt her eyes. "You should be with the Cullens."
Alec paused as the door shut behind him, nearly blinded momentarily by the darkness within her room. Once his eyes adjusted, however, the lack of light did nothing to hide the puffiness of her eyes. "Edward's got enough idiots crowding his room...one less won't hurt him."
"Mind if I sit?" he asked, gesturing to the chair across from her as he traversed the room. He wanted to laugh at the bewildered look on her face as she shook her head slowly, but the lingering visual evidence of her tears and knowing what had been said to her forbid him from being able to do so.
He lowered himself into the chair and leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees as he appraised her closely in the faint moonlight. "You okay?"
Bella nodded, unsure of what to say or even why he was visiting her when visiting hours had just ended. Truth be told, his presence in her room was unsettling because, from what she'd come to know of Alec thus far, he had a penchant for speaking bluntly. She wasn't sure if she could handle finding out that he of all people had been veiling his true thoughts of her as all the Cullens had. It wasn't entirely that they blamed her that tore her to shreds, but the fact that they'd deceived her with false kindness toward her.
When she'd told Rose that it was okay for her to feel the way she did, she'd been sincere. Rose had never disguised her contempt, but the others had and that's what pained her more than any words ever could. Bella couldn't even been sure if Alice's defense in her honor had been sincere or out of sheer politeness because of her presence in the room.
"You know...when you first came to visit Edward, I didn't know what to make of you," Alec started speaking softly. "I'll be the first to admit I figured you'd visit once or twice, maybe send a get well soon card or something at some point before you got discharged and then be on your way like most people do...but then you came back a third time."
He leaned back in his chair as he thought about the first few days he spent trying to get to know her, how he tried leveling Edward's family's grand tales of his perfection with sobering tales of his fallible humanity just to see if casting him in tarnished light would quell her desire to continuously support the Cullen family. He'd worried that Edward's brothers had begun to instill a hero worship complex in her with their stories of his shining moments, but they hadn't. In fact, she'd once turned to him after a sordid tale of how Edward had taken his mother's car for a midnight joyride when he was fourteen and told him it was refreshing to hear that he was indeed human and made mistakes occasionally.
That was the day he put down the act and really started getting to know her, because that was the moment he knew she was different. She wasn't like other women in Edward's past, friends and otherwise, that would become starry eyed with greed after a period of time and run him into the ground with their expectations of him. She wasn't like other people in Edward's life who would throw their garbage at his feet because he would help them clean it up.
Bella wasn't like nearly everyone in his life who would hurt him with their disappointment every time he fell from that damn pedestal they placed him upon. He needed more people in his life like her; people who accepted his flaws along with his strengths. People who understood he was just a man; not a hero, not a God, and not infallible or indestructible by any means.
"What I'm trying to say is that things aren't always what they seem to be. Just like how you turned out to be completely different from the person I'd assumed you'd be, the Cullens might not be what you're thinking them to be right now. You want the chance to save Edward's life the way he saved yours? Give him the chance to get to know you and the opportunity to be your friend."
Bella's head tilted to the side slightly as she looked at Alec questioningly and the question she was mulling over in her head spilled from her lips, "How would being his friend save his life? That doesn't make any sense, especially when it's my fault he's hurt to start with. I'd just cause him more stress the way I did his family."
"First of all, fuck what his family said, thinks, or feels," he bristled, hating the guilt saturating her words. "He's not in that bed because of something you did wrong. It wasn't your fault, Bella. If they want someone to blame, they can set that pedestal they all hold him upon on fire and blame him because he was the one that disobeyed direct orders that night. He chose to go in there for you and he chose not to come back out without you. That's not your fault," he stressed adamantly.
"Second of all, Edward needs people like you and me in his life. If that fall through the floor didn't put him six feet under, his family eventually will because their heads are shoved too far up their asses to see straight enough to realize they put way too much pressure on him. Not one of them puts his needs before their own, yet, for the last few weeks, you've put his welfare ahead of your own...a complete stranger can do what his own family can't. So tell me, Bella...can you see how being his friend would save his life?"
She felt fresh tears well up in her eyes as her fears of why his family always looked down upon him with sorrowful eyes were confirmed. She tried not to let them fall, but one escaped as she nodded weakly to him.
"I'll try," she sighed as she swiped away at her tears. "But I think it's probably best if I stay away until he wakes up for longer than a few minutes and they take him off the vent. I don't want to burden his family or him with my presence if it's not wanted."
"Longer than a few minutes? He woke up today?" Alec asked with confused hope.
"Yeah, about an hour ago or so," she nodded, her brow furrowing in confusion. "Didn't anyone tell you when you were in there?"
"Uh, no," he mumbled as he shook his head slightly, avoiding her moonlit gaze as he picked at the arm of the chair. "I didn't actually make it into the room after catching the tail end of an argument they were having with each other."
Bella's eyes fell to her lap at his words. He hadn't made it in to see Edward or hear of his progress because of her even though she'd left the room. It seemed no matter what she did she affected someone somehow and it was disheartening.
"I'm sorry you didn't get to see him. I'd hoped they would have stopped arguing once I left, but apparently not," she said quietly, sighing afterwards and rubbing her hands over her face.
"Hey, it's no biggie and it's not your fault. They all fight all the time anyway so it's nothing out of the norm for them. At any rate...I should head back to the station and let you get some rest," Alec said as he began to rise from his chair.
"You're working right now?" Bella asked, confused because he wasn't wearing his typical uniform.
"Nah, I'm not on again until Friday but I've been crashing there since the soon to be ex-wife served me the big "D" papers," he chuckled as he stretched his six foot three frame.
"I'm sorry to hear that," Bella smirked up at him, having already been told of his celebratory stance on his impending divorce. "I'd offer you my couch...but I don't have one anymore."
"Yeah, well..." he sniggered. "Gimme a shout when ya get set up with a new one because I might need a roomie until I can get out of my mortgage. Rent around here on anyplace decent is insane."
"Will do," she chuckled lightly as he bent down to give her a hug.
She watched him walk through the dark room with a faint smile that his kindness had created. If anything good at all had come out of the tragic ordeal, it was meeting him. She appreciated his candid demeanor more than she could ever express. He never acted or spoke with false sincerity for the sake of civility or courtesy, but it was his ability to look past his heartache and befriend her that truly endeared him to her.
"And Bella?" Alec asked as he paused in the opened doorway, turning back toward her.
"Yeah?" she answered, lifting her previously unfocused gaze to his eyes.
"I just want you to know that, even though it doesn't seem like it right now, the Cullens adore you. It's your choice whether or not you want to give them a chance to show you that, but for future reference, keep in mind what I told you about them having their heads shoved up their asses too far to see straight. Sometimes you just have to take what some of them say or do with a grain of salt."
He hadn't wanted to make it easy for them to smooth things over with her after their inconsiderate treatment of her, but he also didn't want her to believe something that was entirely untrue either. He'd caught bits and pieces of too many conversations regarding her over recent days to believe she hadn't endeared herself to them just as she had to him. What they'd said and allowed her to believe was wrong, but just like the many wrongs they'd inflicted upon one of their own over the years, their actions and words belied their true feelings.
If she planned on sticking around, and he truly hoped she did, it was something she'd have to unfortunately accustom herself to because it was unlikely that they'd change overnight, if ever at all.
"Get some rest, hon'. I'll see ya tomorrow," he said, waving just once before closing the door behind him and leaving Bella in a befuddled stupor.
It could have been minutes or even hours that she sat there trying to make sense of his parting words. She tried to process it logically, Alice had defended her and the others had attempted to admonish Rosalie—but the question she couldn't answer was were their attempts just another show of polite hospitality, or because they truly didn't feel the same as Rosalie did. Emmett, Esme, and Alice had always treated her with nothing but kindness. Even Carlisle and Jasper, though in the beginning had been slightly stony, had warmed up to her recently and treated her with casual friendliness.
Rose on the other hand, Bella had no question as to where she stood in the matter. While it was disheartening that she obviously held nothing but disdain for her, Bella was slightly relieved that at least she didn't have to discern whether or not her kindness was delusive. There hadn't been any kindness to even call into question when it came to Rosalie.
Bella eventually lifted herself from her chair when her head began pounding and climbed into her bed, not bothering to change out of the t-shirt and sweatpants her mother had brought for her that morning. It didn't matter because her entire wardrobe consisted only of t-shirts, pajama pants, and sweats anymore - all of which Renee had purchased so she could have something more comfortable than the hospital gowns to wear. Everything else she'd owned had been destroyed.
She'd nearly dozed off when another light knock at her door resounded through the room. She grumbled under her breath before sitting up and looking toward the doorway.
"Come in," she called out, wondering when her room had all of a sudden become a local hotspot.
When the door opened, she squinted against the light, trying to see who was entering and her eyes widened when she realized it was Alice—and Esme. Words escaped her as she stared at the woman who had rarely left Edward's room for the last three weeks straight, and had never come to her room.
"Oh, I'm sorry, sweetie. Did we wake you?" Esme asked, sounding sincerely apologetic.
"No, I hadn't fallen asleep yet," Bella answered, shaking her head and dropping her gaze as she leaned over and pulled the cord to turn on the fluorescent light behind her bed.
"Bella, I...there aren't even words for how incredibly sorry we are for how Rosalie treated you earlier," Esme stammered as she and Alice moved towards her bed. "Please believe me when I say that none of us hold you accountable for what happened."
"Why not? You should," Bella responded as she fidgeted, picking at a loose string on her blanket as Esme sat down on the edge of her bed. "If I hadn't been inside he never would have gotten hurt."
"Honey, no," she sighed, sounding on the verge of tears as she reached out to take a hold of Bella's hand. "Something like this could have happened to him at any time while on duty. It's a risk they take every time they enter a burning building for any reason, and please understand that he wouldn't have gone in if he hadn't felt the risk was worth it."
Bella's gaze finally raised and were met with what she wanted to believe were honest eyes, but she still found herself skeptical. However, she lacked the energy any longer to war with herself over whether Esme's words were sincere or not, so she settled for taking a page out of Alec's book and spoke candidly.
"I wish I could take back everything that happened that night and change the course of fate, but I can't. I understand how hard it must be for all of you to be around me given the circumstances, and I'd completely understand if you wish for me to stay away, but if that's the case, I need you to say so. I don't want anyone acting nicely toward me only because they feel it's the polite thing to do. It hurts me to think that all of you have feigned your kindness more than Rose's honesty does."
"Exactly how much smoke did you inhale that night?" Alice asked suddenly.
"What?" Bella asked, baffled at her odd question.
"I'm beginning to think you may have suffered more brain damage than any lung damage they've diagnosed you with if you think for a single second that we don't sincerely like you," she answered with a quirked brow. "Personally if it were up to me, I'd trade Rosalie for you in a heartbeat any day of the week."
"Alice," Esme sighed, wondering if her two daughter in-laws would ever put aside their differences.
"What? It's true. Rose is rude, self absorbed, and ignorant. Bella is sweet, caring, and thoughtful. She wins hands down," Alice laughed, plopping down on the foot of the bed.
Esme sighed again and shook her head at the ceiling before settling her gaze on Bella and smiling softly. "I don't know why you would ever think we wouldn't welcome your company, but I can definitely understand why you wouldn't wish to be in ours."
"So you don't want me to stay away?" Bella asked, feeling as though she'd gotten lost in some alternate universe at some point within the last ten minutes.
"No, sweetie," Esme shook her head as she gently squeezed Bella's hand. "We don't wish for you or your parents to ever stay away or to ever feel as though you should."
Bella's eyes flickered between Esme's and Alice's for a moment before she nodded and accepted their words as truthful. "Okay...and thank you."
"Don't thank us, dear. It's we who should be thanking you and your family. You've all shown us more support than we could ever repay you for," Esme smiled sadly as she leaned forward to wrap Bella in her warm embrace.
The following morning Bella didn't begin to rise until well after nine am after having stayed awake until the wee hours of the morning with Esme and Alice. She still felt exhausted, but the sun was shining brightly on her face and a wonderful floral scent was luring her from slumber. Her room somehow smelled how she imagined an early morning meadow filled with spring blossoming flowers would, and the dream of standing in the center of it brought a smile to her lips as her eyes began to flutter open.
Only when they did, she gasped and shot up in bed, her eyes wandering around her room in awe. It was positively filled with vase upon vase of tulips, daisies, and lilies, bundles of balloons, and even a rather large stuffed moose sitting in the chair she'd occupied for hours the night before. And as her eyes focused on the piece of paper taped to the front of the moose that read "Bullwinkle", she couldn't help but laugh.
"Oh my God."