Friday, September 3, 2010

Chapter 19

The Merging of Lives

On a Sunday morning, Bella awoke to her cell phone ringing on her nightstand. She groaned as she rolled over to grab it, wondering who had the audacity to wake her at such an early hour on the Lord's day of rest. When her eyes blearily read the time on her phone, she gasped and shot up in bed. It was already after eleven. She couldn't even begin to imagine how she'd slept through the ruckus of her mother making her ritual Sunday morning spread in the kitchen. Flipping the phone open quickly, she answered.

"...'Lo?" she croaked, and then paused to cough and clear her throat. "Sorry, Hello?"

"Hey Bella, it's Alice. Did I wake you?"

"No...well, yes, but I should have been up hours ago," Bella chuckled as she stretched. "What's up?"

"Oh nothing, I was just getting ready to head to the mall and I wanted to know if you'd like to join me. I know you said something the other day about having to do some major clothes shopping and I figured since I was heading there, maybe you'd like some company?"

"Actually," Bella paused as she scratched her head and swung her legs over the side of the bed. "I was supposed to meet up with two of my friends around one. I'm sure they wouldn't mind extra company though, if that's okay with you."

Bella had been looking forward to her lunch date with Tanya and Irina for over a week, but she felt it would be rude to decline Alice's invitation. Plus, she genuinely enjoyed Alice's company, and she was sure that Tanya and Irina would as well, so she didn't see the harm in inviting her along. After all, Tanya's motto had always been 'the more the merrier'.

"That'd be great!" Alice chirped excitedly. "I don't really have many friends outside of work, so it'd be nice to meet some new people. Plus, if you keep company with them, they're probably great. Do you want to meet there...or?"

"Just come here, Alice. It'll take me a bit to get up and going," Bella smiled. Renee would be more than happy to entertain her while Bella showered and got ready to leave.

"Okay. I'll see you soon."

Bella stood and stretched after ending the call and shuffled to her bedroom door, petting Bullwinkle's head as she passed by him in the rocker. She still couldn't help but smile each time she saw it sitting in the chair. Stepping out into the hall and leaning against the railing, she yelled down the stairs.

"Mom! Alice is coming over, but I'm getting in the shower! Just let her in when she gets here!"

"Okay, sweetie. I cleared breakfast already, are you hungry?" Renee called back, her voice getting louder as she approached the stairwell.

"No, I'm good. I'll be having lunch with the girls in a little bit anyway," Bella shook her head, pulling her hair tie out of her hair and running her fingers through it. "Where's Dad?"

"He's over at Edward's house with Carlisle. They're mowing the lawn and taking care of some things over there," Renee responded. "He should be home this afternoon sometime."

"That was nice of him to help them," Bella smiled, grateful for her father's generosity.

After a few more words with her mother, Bella headed back into her room to gather some clean clothes. With having not replaced her wardrobe as of yet, she'd become familiar with the sight of her nearly empty closet and the lack of clothing choices it provided. However, after having not done laundry for a few days, slim pickings was a severe understatement.

Not wanting to wear sweatpants out to lunch, she pursed her lips and grabbed the single sundress hanging in the closet. It wasn't even a sundress; it was actually a bathing suit cover up that she'd stored in her closet for visits when her mother would sporadically want to go to the community pool, but she told herself no one would know the difference. It looked like a dress and fit like a dress, so by all means, it was a dress.

She showered and shaved quickly, a skill she'd mastered after many mornings of hitting the snooze button a few too many times, and hopped out to dry off and dress. As she stood at the bathroom sink brushing her teeth, she could hear Alice and her mother talking downstairs. Not wanting to keep her waiting for long, she brushed her hair out and threw on just a little eye liner and mascara before exiting the bathroom.

"What are you two so chatty about? I could hear you all the way upstairs," Bella laughed as she turned the corner into the kitchen.

"That dress is adorable," Alice gushed, standing from her chair and looking down at her tank top and capri pants. "I feel underdressed."

"Don''s all I had left that was clean," Bella chuckled as she reached for a glass in the cabinet. Seeing that her mother had already gotten Alice a drink, she filled her own glass and joined them at the table. "Hey, Mom? Can I borrow your white flip flops?"

"Sure, I'll go get them for you," Renee smiled, lifting herself from her chair and heading toward the stairs.

"So, I was just telling your mom about the fundraiser the station's having for Edward next weekend," Alice said casually as Bella took a few sips of her juice. "Some of the wives, girlfriends and such came together with the idea of running a bake and crafts sale next Saturday. Would you want to join us?"

"I'd love to...but I can't bake. I can cook, but baking is a mystery to me," Bella snickered.

"Yeah, your mom was telling me that," Alice smiled. "She had some ideas for crafts that she wanted to make and sell, but if you don't want to do that, you can just give us a hand with bagging goodies and running the stand."

"Count me in. I'll do what I can, just don't let me near the oven," Bella agreed, joking but partially serious as well.

Less than an hour later, Bella and Alice pulled into the parking lot of the restaurant where she'd planned on meeting Tanya and Irina. She grumbled as she grabbed her emergency air pack out of the backseat, no longer seeing the need to tote it everywhere she went. She hadn't used it in well over a week - not since the morning Edward had regained feeling in his legs - and it had just become a burden to carry. She still continued to do so, however, fearing not only the possibility of unexpectedly needing it, but not wanting to be lectured again over leaving it behind. Her mother had scolded her something fierce the day she left it at home, even though she was just running to the bank ten minutes down the road.

"Bella!" Tanya's voice squealed just a moment before she was nearly tackled to the ground. Tanya's small frame practically wrapped around her in a vice-like embrace. She laughed, even though it was hard to breathe, as she hugged her back.

When she was released from Tanya's exuberant embrace, she quickly hugged Irina and made introductions. Even though she hadn't doubted for a minute that her friends would get along fabulously with Alice, it made her smile to see them linking arms with Alice and leading her toward the restaurant's entrance.

Halfway through their meal, Tanya and Irina excused themselves from the table and Alice rounded on Bella.

"Are they...?" she trailed off, unsure how to finish the question without being rude. Bella choked on her iced tea, sputtering it outward in a very unladylike fashion as she coughed and dove for her napkin.

"Yeah," she croaked, tears filling her eyes as she both laughed and coughed at the same time. "They've been together for like seven or eight years now. Ever since their sophomore year of high school."

"That's...awesome," Alice beamed, her face a mix of awe and delight. "How many people can say they stayed with their high school sweetheart after graduation?"

Bella wasn't sure why, but she breathed a sigh of relief. It wouldn't have been the first time she'd introduced her best friends to someone she knew and an issue arose. She'd really hoped Alice wouldn't have been judgmental of their sexual orientation because, in truth, she was loyal to her girls and anyone who had an issue with them, had an issue with her.

"It is," Bella nodded, a feeling of wistfulness creeping up on her. "Anyone would be lucky to find the kind of love they share."

Alice watched as Bella drifted further and further away from her, lost in her thoughts as she stared off into the distance. It wasn't hard to notice the longing etched across her features and swimming in her eyes, not when she'd seen that same expression countless times on Edward's face.

"Bella? Do you like my brother in-law?" Just moments after asking the question, Alice felt as though she was right back in high school. It sounded like such a juvenile thing to ask at their age, but a lot was riding on her answer. Everything could be riding on her answer.

"Of course I do," Bella blanched, wondering why Alice would ever assume she didn't. "He's nice and funny...well sometimes he's funny anyway, and he hasn't kicked me out for annoying the ever living fluff out of him yet, so what's not to like, right?"

"Bella," Alice sighed, trying not to laugh. "I know you like him as a person."

"Then why did you ask me if I do?" Bella asked, feeling as though she must have somehow zoned out long enough to miss an entire conversation.

"I meant do you like him, like him—as in more than friends," Alice laughed, unable to subdue her amusement at Bella's confounded expression.

"What? I...Alice..." Bella wasn't sure what to say to her in response to that. It was too soon for her to even fathom seeing him as more than a friend. She barely knew him, even though they'd spent quite a bit of time together since he'd awoken with her having not missed a day of going to visit him for at least a few hours.

"Like who? Bella's crushin' on someone?" Irina asked as she and Tanya returned to the table. "Ooooh, this oughta be good."

"No one," Bella answered at the same time as Alice answered, "Edward."

"Edward, as in her firefighter hero, Edward? Same guy?" Tanya asked, sounding all too interested in details that didn't exist.

"Yeah, he's my brother in-law," Alice nodded, smiling softly.

"Oh!" Tanya gasped. "You're Alice! Like the Alice! And here I sat thinking you were like, one of Bella's co-workers or something."

"Honey, your hair's too tight if you didn't put two and two together the moment Bella introduced her to us," Irina snickered, and laughed even harder when Tanya smacked her shoulder. Their interaction made Alice cover her mouth with her napkin as she shook with laughter.

"I'm sorry, really," Tanya apologized sincerely for her oversight. "But, wow..." she trailed off breathily, shaking her head. A moment later her eyes narrowed and locked on Bella. "I knew there was something going on between you two! I mean, who in their right mind spends as much time at a hospital visiting someone as you do?"

"Ugh," Bella grunted, slumping down in her chair. "There's nothing going on between us. We're friends...if that even!"

"Oh sweetie...I do believe they call that river you're swimming in De-Nile," Irina chortled, sparking an uproar of comments to fly around the table, all aimed in Bella's direction.

Bella sighed to herself. This was just getting way too out of hand, and for no reason at all. Even if by chance she did like Edward in a more than platonic fashion, she wasn't foolish enough to believe anything could ever come of it.

"Guys...guys!" Bella slapped her hand down on the table. "Even if I did like him, and I'm not by any means confessing to anything of the like here," she eyed them seriously so they'd know she wasn't joking or being evasive in the slightest. On the contrary, her voice was unwavering and her gaze was level, leaving no signs of an attempt at dishonesty to question. "Even if I wouldn't make a difference. A new relationship is the last thing he needs right now, and even if he wanted one, I'd be the last person on Earth he'd want it with."

Silence ensued around the table after Bella's declaration. Looks of sadness and concern passed between the three of her friends, each of them understanding the reason she'd said what she did. But after moments of silence, it was Alice, not either of Bella's best friends, who spoke up.

"Why not? Why wouldn't he want you?"

Bella groaned and ran her hand through her hair, gripping the roots of her hair tightly as she tried to swallow down the heartache she harbored but didn't wish for anyone else to bear witness to. "Because, Alice, I'm someone he saved from a fire, not someone he met in a bar! Can we drop this, please? Please?" Bella begged, desperate to get away from this topic because not only did it make her uncomfortable, but it hurt to talk about, too.

"No one wants to bed the reason they're stuck in one, so can we just move on now?"

"So you do like him...or at least want to bed him," Tanya teased.

"I'm done," Bella sighed, digging into her purse and throwing thirty dollars onto the tabletop. It'd be more than enough to cover her meal and her part of the tip. "I'll wait for you guys inside the mall."

Not responding to her friends calling after her, Bella quickly made her way out of the restaurant and into the mall. She was tired, and frankly, didn't feel much like shopping any longer. She wished they could have all just let it go because over the last few days, she'd questioned what it was she was feeling when she was in his company with greater frequency than she wished to. She sometimes found herself wondering if it could be possible for him to ever see her as anything more than a friend at best, only to be snapped back into reality by his casual interactions with her.

He never stared at her when she wasn't looking, the way she did him.

He never reached out to touch her for no other reason than to just touch her, the way she'd caught herself doing time and time again.

If there was something building between them, it was entirely one-sided, and she wouldn't allow herself to become deluded enough to believe otherwise.

What she didn't realize, however, was that Edward would frequently watch her when she wasn't paying attention. He'd watch her catch her pen between her teeth and tap it against her lips as she tried to solve one of their numerous daily puzzles. He'd watch her zone out into a book when she thought he was sleeping. And he'd even watch her sleep on the occasions when he'd wake to find her slumped in a chair, her book having tumbled out of her hands and to the floor at some point. He'd watched her frequently and had to suppress the urge to reach out to her just as often.

He'd never met anyone like her, and quite truthfully, she bewildered him. Everything about her made his thoughts spin dizzily. Edward had long since become accustomed to living his life within the constraints of others' expectations. How he acted, what he did, even many of his choices were dictated by the people around him.

But with her—with her he was able to just be himself.

Bella didn't expect anything out of him, didn't ask for anything to be handed to her, and didn't intrude where she felt she didn't belong—even if he wished she wouldn't leave. Therein lay the bulk of his confusing feelings when it came to her, because he almost never wished for her to leave. He'd never craved someone's company so much in his entire life, having nearly always been the loner both within his family and within the stationhouse.

Even now, as he sat in his new room with Emmett and Rosalie sitting beside his bed, he had to resist the temptation to reach out for the phone and dial Bella's number just to see where she was and ask if she was stopping by. Emmett had decided to make use of the game console Alec had brought over and connected to the 1990 Zenith television Alice had brought him. She'd said it had been sitting in a storage room ever since some of the nurses and doctors in the ER all pitched in to buy a flat-screen for their break room. He wasn't sure if she was telling the truth, but he didn't really care either because it was better than the little eight inch TV he'd been using. As for the gaming console, he only ever used it when Bella was around because at least she wasn't a sore loser. He even occasionally let her win a round in whatever game they were playing just to be a good sport.

As Rosalie prattled on about the baby nursery and possible names, Edward's eyes flicked to the clock on the wall just above the dry erase board with his nurse's name and the date. It was already six o'clock at night and Bella hadn't yet stopped by or even called. He couldn't even deny it to himself, he missed her and wished she'd come and rescue him from having to listen to Rosalie drone on and on and on.

"Wasn't Peanut supposed to be off today?" he asked, needing to distract Rose before he ripped his hair out. Was there really a difference between Sun Shower and Pale Daffodil? He couldn't tell the difference, but after twenty color swatch cards, he was absolutely positive he'd never even think about painting anything in his house any shade of yellow. Sunshine, daffodils, bumble bees, butter-whatever-s be damned.

"Is she helping Jasper move back in to Mom and Pop's?"

"Nope, she's shopping with Bella," Rosalie responded, sneering her name as she rolled her eyes.

"Let it alone, babe," Emmett mumbled distractedly. He didn't need another fight breaking out between his wife and brother. Once was enough for him.

It had been bad enough for him being stuck between Rose and Bella, but in that situation there had been a clear definition between right and wrong. When it came down to him being stuck between all three of them - Edward, Rosalie, and Bella - the lines had become obscured and more difficult to navigate. He still felt that Rosalie had acted, and somewhat continued to act, out of line and undeservingly cruelly, but Edward's harshness when he'd bluntly told her to either get over it or get out and stay out, had hurt him as well as Rose. They were family and had every right to be there with him, not that Bella didn't because she'd more than earned her right to be there as well—but still, it had been rather heartless for him to say to Rosalie.

The only person who hadn't been in the wrong that day was Bella because she'd done nothing at all to instigate the argument to start with aside from show up at the wrong time. And it was only the wrong time because Rosalie had just arrived a half an hour before.

Emmett had eventually managed to get things smoothed over, but being placed in a position where he felt the need to defend three people in complete opposition of each other wasn't something he desired to experience again.

"Whatever," Rosalie huffed, crossing her arms over her chest and kicking her crossed leg agitatedly. "I promised I wouldn't be rude to her face anymore, but that doesn't mean I have to like her or the fact that Alice would rather spend a day with her than visit her brother in-law."

Edward was a mere millisecond away from snapping at her when a knock resounded within the small entry hall of his room, followed by the voice he'd been missing all day.

"Hello, hello? I come bearing gifts." He could hear the smile in her voice and, even though he'd been scowling just a moment before, an answering grin overtook his lips.

"Speak of the Devil and she shall appear," Rosalie muttered under her breath just as Bella stopped short at the end of the hall.

"Hey Bella," Emmett greeted her. "What's shakin' bacon?"

"Um...not much," she stumbled, her comfort level dropping into the sub-zero range upon sight of Rosalie in the room. One epic fight had been enough for her as well, and she'd vowed that day that she'd never be the cause of another.

"What's that?" Edward asked, pointing to whatever she was holding behind her back.

", I figured you might be getting tired of hospital chow by now, so I, uh, I stopped and picked you up some dinner from that burger joint you said you liked," she stammered, moving into the room and setting the bag on the portable tray table beside his bed. Her eyes flickered between Edward and Rosalie, who was glaring at the wall across from her.

"Are you serious? You got me some Mary's?" Edward asked, shooting upright in his bed. "Tell me you got me that bacon onion burger I was telling you about."

"Um...yeah," Bella replied, trying to force a smile on her face as he reached out for the bag. She dropped her voice and moved a step closer, helping him to position the tray over his bed, "Listen, I just wanted to drop this by. I didn't know you already had company so I'm gonna go."

"Wha'? Nah uh," he said through a mouthful of greasy fries. He moaned as his eyes rolled back, his smile growing as he held up a finger telling her to wait a minute. He could have died and gone to Heaven with just that first bite, but he wasn't euphoric enough to allow her to just leave after only being there for a minute and a half.

When he opened his eyes, he tried to give Bella his full attention, but his hand had a mind of its own as it reached back into the bag for more fries, making her laugh. "Don't leave. You just got here and you still owe me a rematch after whooping my ass in that wrestling game last night."

"Edward," she whispered, looking at him apologetically. "I don't want to intrude...I'll come back in the morning. I promise."

"Oh for shit's sake!" Rosalie exclaimed, throwing her hands in the air and standing to face her. "It's fine. Sit, stay, hell, move the fuck on in if you want to."

"Damnit Rose," Edward groaned, falling back against his bed and gripping his hair.

"Emmett, let's go," she muttered, gathering her few belongings. "Emmett, I said let's go."

He shook his head and sighed to himself as he pulled himself up from his slumped position wordlessly. His body language was screaming his disappointment in her, but Rose couldn't find it in herself to care at the moment.

"I'll see you guys later," Emmett mumbled, feeling embarrassed enough for the both of them as he trailed after his wife.

Bella stood in place, shuffling her feet just as quickly as her emotions flipped between anger at Rosalie and guilt for having abruptly ended Edward's visit with his family, but when Edward growled and pushed his tray table away, her anger peaked. She turned on her heel and ran out of the room, determined to catch up to them.

"Hey!" Bella spat, grabbing a hold of Rosalie's shoulder. Rose spun with fury in her eyes, but was caught off guard by the mirrored image of her own rage shining back at her through Bella's eyes.

"I was fully prepared to leave the moment I saw you in the room, even though I'd been looking forward to visiting him all day, because I'm not willing to put additional stress on him just because you're incapable of acting anything even remotely civilly toward me. I don't care if you don't like me or don't want to be around me, but acting like that," Bella seethed, throwing her hand back and pointing towards Edward's room, "Hurts him more than it hurts me and I'll be damned if I stand by and let you do that to him. He doesn't need it and he most certainly doesn't deserve it after all he's done for you."

As Bella spun away from her tirade, Rosalie could do nothing but stand there slack jawed and staring at her retreating form while Emmett ducked his head to hide his inappropriate grin. Back in Edward's room, Edward had overheard every one of Bella's words, and as he heard her step back into the room and pause to release a calming breath, he was in complete awe of her.

"Sorry about that," Bella breathed, hesitantly stepping out of her hidden concealment within the small corridor and into his room. She felt horrible for just running out on him, but seeing him so visibly upset had been unbearable for her and she couldn't allow it to continue.

Edward just smiled at her and pointed to the chair next to his bed. When she sat, he pulled his burger out of the bag and halfway unwrapped it before holding it out toward her. "Wanna try a bite?"

She quirked a brow at him, unable to keep the smile from forming across her lips as she leaned forward and took a bite out of it. She'd thought about getting herself one of the burgers he'd raved about a few days back, but hadn't had the appetite after her day of shopping with three women who had caused her brain to become overwhelmed with things she'd been refusing to allow herself to think about.

"Mm," she hummed, covering her mouth. "That is good."

"I know," Edward laughed around a mouthful of burger. After he swallowed, he turned his head to smile at her.

"Thank you—for the burger...and for what you said out there."

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