Summary: Edward is in need of a fiancée for Christmas. OOC, AH
Genre: Snugglefic (totally a real thing that I definitely didn't make up)
A/N: This is my (second) favourite trope and the knowledge that it's the cheesiest, most predictable story in the universe will not stop me from writing it. If you like a nice cup of cocoa with the comfort-food of pretend-dating, this is the story for you.
Maybe a Dance
by Anton M.
Chapter 1: Meet Mr. Cullen
"Miss Swan, could I have a word?"
Bella's agreement was lost in the shuffling of the other students. A week ago, she would've feared that she'd done something wrong, but her viva on Friday had been such a relief it defied words. She felt invincible. Technically, she wasn't enrolled in Mr. Cullen's course – not this one – but his course on the History of Scientific Methods in Medicine had caught her eye and she was glad for it. She did not hand in any assignments, nor did she prepare for the exam, but she participated in the discussions.
Nobody paid attention to them as Mr. Cullen waited for the students to empty the lecture room. Bella lifted her bag on the table. She felt calm and content, and she was unable to look away from the lecturer whose eyes met hers.
He appeared neither happy nor upset, and Bella could not determine his purpose.
Mr. Cullen had joined the Banting-Carr University as a postdoctoral researcher and lecturer in the previous January, and she'd taken his courses – History of Medicine, Part I to III – last winter. It was surreal, having him as a lecturer. When he had first moved to Vancouver and joined the university, Bella had been so wrapped up in her (third) attempt to edit and submit her second article to a journal that she sat through his entire first lecture without realising that she was, in fact, looking at the older brother of her childhood best friend. The realisation, after the lecture, hit her so suddenly that she stood, frozen, gaping at him as the room emptied and Mr. Cullen was putting his laptop in his bag.
"Can I help you?"
He showed no signs of recognition, or if he had, she'd missed them during the lecture. She quickly came up with a fake question about the exam at the end of the course, and his answer was concise and professional. He always wore an N95 or N98 mask, and it wasn't until they'd (once again) switched to online classes in the spring that Bella actually saw his face.
He'd matured, obviously. His features were sharper and his cheeks had the grey shadow of shaving. He looked fairly average overall, but there was something about his gaze and demeanour that made Bella feel unguarded.
Once Bella got over the fact that Mr. Cullen was Alice's older brother Edward, and that he did not resemble the broody teenager she remembered from her childhood, she enjoyed his lectures. He did not move the Earth for the students who had differing interests from him, but Mr. Cullen was a good, solid lecturer. He started discussions and remained calm during controversial topics, and his students quickly learned that no questions, no matter how contentious, resulted in his sharing anything about his personal views or life.
Mr. Cullen had never treated Bella differently, almost to the point where Bella started doubting if maybe she had lost her mind and woken up in an alternate universe in which she'd mixed him up with someone else.
Now, three weeks before Christmas, Mr. Cullen watched as the last students exited the room before he walked closer to Bella and leaned against the table in front of her. He wore jeans and a beige sweater over a button down. He was taller than she remembered.
"Congratulations on your defence."
"Thank you." Bella beamed, not that he could see it through her mask. "And thank you for your questions – they gave me the opportunity to discuss exactly the things I wanted to."
"I'm glad." Mr. Cullen crossed his arms. "I was worried your external examiner was too focused on the details. I admit I didn't read your entire thesis but I enjoyed the summary. Did you pick the topic yourself?"
Bella had started off studying Public Health for her Bachelor's before she switched to Sociology for her Master's and ended up doing an interdisciplinary PhD that combined methods from epidemiology to study the impact of the quality and length of doctor's visits on patients' willingness to choose alternative medicine. It tapped into a necessary if controversial area in which she could correlate and explain some of the behaviour that might help protect those who were most vulnerable in the pandemic.
"I did. I struggled to find a supervisor but Miss Tremblay-Watts ended up being pretty perfect."
"You were lucky to find each other."
Mr. Cullen paused, picking at some of the pilling by his elbows, and Bella waited. She didn't doubt that Mr. Cullen found the topic of her thesis interesting, but somehow she didn't believe it to be his purpose in keeping her.
"Mr. Cullen, are you okay?"
"I'm fine." He cleared his throat. "Perfectly fine."
Bella released her pony-tail and retied her hair, waiting.
"Have you spoken to Alice recently?"
It was the first time for him to acknowledge that they knew each other beyond school, and it was more than a little surreal to realize that this deep-voiced post-doc was the same man who'd slammed his door in their faces more than once.
"I haven't spoken to her since high school."
"You didn't notice my absence for a decade?"
She was teasing him, and hoped that he could tell that she was grinning behind her mask, but his eyes stayed on his arms.
"I haven't been the best son... or brother," he replied, glancing at the doorway. More quietly, he said, "My PhD was a bit of a shit show. I haven't been home for… four years, I think."
As alien as it was to hear the ever-proper, ever-professional man curse in reference to his PhD, Bella didn't laugh. She knew that he did his PhD at Yale – everyone did – as it felt like a big deal that their university snatched up someone who, presumably, had better offers from better universities in the U.S.
"How long has it been since you were home in Chilliwack?" he asked.
"Since my dad passed."
"I heard." Mr. Cullen stared at his feet, shuffling them. "I know there's nothing anyone can say, but I'm sorry. The whole town loved him."
Bella's dad was everyone's favourite barber in town, and even in her university in Vancouver, Bella sometimes met people from Chilliwack who expressed their condolences to her.
He pushed himself off the table, glancing at the doorway, taking a breath. "I have a bit of a problem, but before I continue, I want to say that you can refuse to answer and leave. I do not wish to make you uncomfortable."
Bella, saying nothing, motioned for him to continue, and he cleared his throat.
"I believe you are vaccinated?"
"Pfizer-BioNTech, yes. You?"
"Moderna, before they stopped recommending it for young men. Would you be up for being vaccinated against the flu?"
"I already am. My new roommate's dad has heart problems and some rare genetic condition that makes her extra cautious. We're pretty rigorous. We get tested twice a week."
His smiled, and he didn't take his eyes off of hers.
"Are you single?"
The intensity in his eyes made her shift.
In January, when she came home from her first lecture with Mr. Cullen, her roommate Jessica was lying on the couch with an arched eyebrow.
"This new guy – hot, right?"
It's not that Bella disagreed with her statement, but her memory was full of the sulky, lanky teenager he'd been, and it felt weird (not) to try and put those two versions of him together. Some of the students tried to learn more about Mr. Cullen, but he did not reveal a thing, and Bella told nobody of their somewhat shared past.
When he first joined the university, he was on the thin side, and there was something detached, almost apathetic about the way he taught. Then, another local lockdown came and went, and during summer, he filled out. He became engaged and even passionate as a lecturer, and he seemed lighter. It was a distinct enough difference that gossip spread about the possible reasons – some argued that he'd divorced, he'd gotten engaged, he'd hit the gym, he'd gotten laid, but he revealed nothing. If he did notice or know about the rumours about him, he did not show it.
Bella smiled. "I'm single."
"That big guy you walk around with, he's not with you?"
Here she had thought that he didn't even remember her, and yet he'd noticed her in the hallways.
"What, Emmett? No. He's getting ready to propose to my best friend and he's useless with ideas. At this point, Rosalie should marry me for how much I'm organising her engagement."
He smiled, and his visible relief puzzled her.
"And do you have any plans for the holidays?"
Technically, Bella had had 15 working days worth of holidays per year since she became a graduate student, but there was always an article to write (or review or edit or submit), grants to apply for, undergraduates to teach, a thousand things to do, and she had hoped to finally, finally, take a break now, after defending her thesis.
"If I tell you that my plan is to Netflix and chill, does that reveal too much of my real character?"
Mr. Cullen laughed.
"You are almost too good to be true."
Bella felt something warm and precious tug at her heart. She smiled and crossed her arms, leaning back on her chair. "That is quite a compliment."
A faint blush crept on his cheeks. "I meant… your answers are perfect."
He glanced at the doorway. He took a few steps, arms folded as he stared at his feet, and his smile disappeared.
"Do you mind if I close the door?"
He shut the door before walking back to her, and she did not need to see his mouth to understand his heavy-hearted expression. "My mother has pancreatic cancer."
"Yeah, it's… I don't know how much you know about the statistics, but it's – grim. I don't know what they've decided to do or if they're considering palliative care, but my father is – beside himself. One in five survives for a year after the diagnosis."
"Jesus. I'm so sorry."
Ever since Bella's parents divorced when she was ten and her mother moved to Toronto, Esme had been the closest to a mother she'd had. She felt worse for not having kept in contact with Esme than she did with Alice, and as she observed Mr. Cullen, or Edward, arms crossed and avoiding her eyes, she understood what he was going to ask of her.
Esme always wanted her kids to find the kind of love she'd found (which was a high bar to cross). If Edward had had a tough enough time during his PhD in the U.S. not to have visited much or kept in contact, and Esme didn't have much time left, he might've wanted to give her the one thing she'd never seen him get.
Bella never had the chance to say goodbye to her father the way she wished she could have, and – as little as she knew Edward – she wanted to give him the opportunity to make his mother happy.
"You want me to pretend to be your girlfriend for the holidays."
She did not ask why he'd chosen her. It was obvious. He had predicted her stance on vaccines and masks based on their discussions in the class and her behaviour, she was from Chilliwack and no longer his student, they (kind of) knew each other – truly, there was no reason for her to refuse him.
"Fiancée," he corrected. "It's more final. In a different world, I could go back in time and be the son she deserved, but for now… I can pay you. I don't have much, but I have some –"
"Yeah that's never going to happen."
He cleared his throat, letting out a slow breath. "I understand."
Bella stood up and leaned against her own table so that their knees almost brushed against each other.
"No, I'll do it. Obviously, God. I'd have to be a psychopath to say no. I'm just saying – I can't accept money for it. She was such a loving influence on me when I was a teenager and I'm pretty sure you're more broke than I am. Of course I'll do it."
She was crushed against his chest with her arms wrapped awkwardly in front of her, but she enjoyed his show of relief. Even after lockdowns were over, she was starved for physical touch. There were foot hellos and fist bumps and even handshakes (sometimes), but she could not remember the last time she was hugged. It might've been years.
"Thank you," he whispered. His scent and warmth filled her with longing for something safe and intangible.
He held on to her shoulders after he'd pulled back. "That was not very covid-compliant of me. I'm sorry."
"I won't tell if you won't." She smiled. "I tested negative yesterday. You'll survive."
"Me, too, but Saturday." His hands dropped and he crossed them. "I probably shouldn't admit this but it took me nearly a month to realize that you are the same girl from Chilliwack who used to hang out at our place all the time. I never knew your full name and you look… different."
"Don't feel too bad. Masks make it difficult. It took me an entire lecture and I listened to you through the whole thing. Knew your name and everything. Absolutely didn't put it together up until you dismissed us and did that thing with your knuckles you used to do –"
"What, crack them?"
He cracked them, one by one, and Bella laughed. He used to love making Alice feel disgusted by the sound but it never bothered Bella.
Someone peeked in the lecture room, having booked it, and they gathered their bags and left the room before pausing by the windows. A group of students entered the lecture room, and they waited until the hallway was empty again.
"Call me Edward."
"Fair warning, I've called you Mr. Cullen for almost a year now. It might take me a few attempts to get used to Edward again."
"That's okay. Should I call you Isabella?"
"Well, honey munchkin is a more appropriate name in front of your mom but Bella is good for now."
He smiled. "Honey munchkin?"
"Cuddlebear works just as well. Or, Snugglemuffin. Love potato. The possibilities are endless."
Edward laughed and squeezed her upper arm, almost unconsciously. Bella felt like a kitten desperate to be caressed.
"Mom will love you," he said.
"That's the goal."
Edward leaned against the window sill. "If you're serious about helping me, I'm afraid I'll have to ask you to isolate before we go. I'll do the same. We'll get tested here and in Chilliwack, and we can join my family once we've tested negative twice. PCR, just to be sure. We'd have to spend at least one night in a hotel back home. Are you still up for it?"
"You truly couldn't have picked a more well-equipped person for this. I go through this once a month with my roommate's father… not the hotel part, but all the rest."
Edward's grip on the strap of his bag tightened. "You helping me with this – is invaluable. I'll never be able to repay you."
Bella, not knowing how to respond, asked, "You won't get in trouble for this?"
"You haven't been my student since the 7th of March."
"Damn, that is specific."
He squeezed his neck. "Yeah, I – I really don't want to put my career in jeopardy, but I checked over every bylaw of the university and as long as your grades or career are not actively under my influence, there's no problem. I even went so far as to ask two different faculty members to independently grade each of your exams yesterday. I didn't tell them who you were or when the exams were taken, but they agreed with my assessment. Even if this were real, there should be no problem."
"You are – thorough."
"If you'd seen what I saw during my PhD you'd argue I wasn't thorough enough, but as important as my career is for me, my mom is more important. If I forgot something and suffer the consequences, at least I will have given her this. But if you feel that it might have a negative impact on your life or career –"
"Calm down, Mr. Cullen. I'm okay, I'm not your student and it sounds like you've thought of it all. There's no reason to worry."
She smiled, correcting herself. "Edward."
She wished there was a better reason for her return to her home town than this grim one, but at least she could help him make his mother happy.
They exchanged phone numbers to sort out the details. They did not hug again. Instead, he squeezed her upper arm in gratitude, and as they walked their separate ways, Bella pondered on how much her view of Mr. Cullen, or Edward, had changed in the past half an hour.
It would certainly be strange to pretend to be together with a man she'd seen as her superior for the entire year, the same one who'd chased after them with spiders as kids, but she realized that for the first time in three years, she was about to spend Christmas with a family, even if it was not her own, and she filled with warmth at the thought.
Viva - A viva voce (from Latin, meaning 'with living voice') is essentially an oral PhD defence. It's a focused discussion during which the student presents their PhD thesis and defends it in front of a panel of academic experts.