See, I'm not dead after all!

*crickets*

Yeah, um, my jaw dropped when I noticed the last chap posted in February. The next sound you hear would be me throwing my beta under the bus, but really, I'm the one both jumping the gun and dragging ass. Turns out most of what I'd written really belongs in chapter nine, so I had some backtracking to do. Hope it's worth it, and thanks for sticking with me.

Era Cheat Sheet for this chapter over on the Twilighted thread - .?f=44&t=7644 and feel free to give me a poke and a prod over on Twitter.

Thanks to BananaPancakes for the pre-read, AmethystJackson for calling me on my crap, and KayCannon for letting me continually suck her time.


What I am is what I am.

Are you what you are?

Or what?

Don't let me get too deep

What I Am - Edie Brickell & The New Bohemians

Chapter 7 - What I Am

The rest of my week had gone considerably better than the previous two. After Edward's apology on Monday, we'd easily fallen back into the comfortable dynamic of our friendship, and I was fine with that...

Mostly.

I couldn't say for certain if it was the addition of Jake in my life, but it did feel a bit easier, dealing with what could and couldn't be where Edward was concerned. In some ways, it reminded me of chess strategy and the idea of downboard thinking—looking several moves ahead made acceptable losses now for a better future more bearable. Sure, things were a bit uncomfortable but, in the long run, I'd be happier that we'd managed to keep our friendship.

Leave it to me to come up with the nerdy solution to my love life.

I talked with Jake on Wednesday, when he called and asked if he could come pick me up the next day. It felt weird to tell him no, especially considering why I had to tell him no.

Hey, sorry but 'no.' My Mom thinks you're gonna knock me up.

Not the most comfortable conversation, but I managed. He sounded somewhat disappointed, but I did point out we'd be seeing each other soon enough, on Saturday. After that, we had one of our nice, long talks about nothing in particular.

After I hung up, I wondered what it would be like if Jake and I went to the same school. Would it be that much easier to see Edward in a different perspective? Let go of my rampant hormones that couldn't stop thinking about his wet and half-naked body? If I'd thought letting go of those urges was difficult before, now it seemed next to impossible with that visual burned into the back of my eyelids.

Early Saturday morning, I was bundled up in a Suburban with the rest of the Chess Team as we headed off to a meet. Everyone was still a little sleepy, but anxious. Some were discussing their rankings, asking our coach if he had the list of our current state player points so we'd know if we had a chance at finals. We were good, but I didn't think we were that good. Chess was a notoriously competitive sport, no matter what the average jock thought.

"Hey, did anyone remember Herman?" Half-a-Bee was crawling over the back bench seat, looking through our boxes of equipment. Herman was our team mascot—a stuffed and mounted lizard on a board. Whichever player we thought might need the most help in a tournament was the one that got Herman. Eric was having an off week, especially after losing his challenge to me for my board position. There was nothing quite as inspiring as having your opponent unnerved by a taxidermy gila monster.

God, we were a strange bunch.

"Check the box with the clocks. I think I saw Andy put him in there."

"Oh yeah, there he is! Thanks Bella!"

"No problem."

The guys had given me Herman for my first tournament, but we figured out quickly that it was completely unnecessary. Sure, I was a decent player, but apparently, the sheer fact that I was a girl—the only girl, in a tournament full of 150 guys—was unnerving enough.

I sat back, and ruminated some more. I had a date tonight, and thankfully I wasn't nearly as nervous this time. Alice had come over the night before and helped me pick out another outfit—something with jeans this time, as Jake had promised to bring the motorcycle again. She also helped me master the whole eye makeup thing, so I no longer stabbed myself with the eyeliner.

I liked Jake. I really did. Despite what I'd read in romance novels, maybe it didn't always work that way—the instant physical connection. Some things had to be worked at, and allowed to grow over time. If we weren't dating, I could see us making great friends. He was smart and funny, and we had a good time whenever we were together. For that reason alone, I was willing to give this thing between us a chance. We clicked, if not sparked.

I doodled in the corner of my notation pad, not really paying attention to the game I was playing. My opponent was taking an inordinate amount of time between moves. Finally, he pushed a pawn, not realizing it gave me the perfect opening to force his king further back with my bishop.

"Check."

He moved his king towards the corner of the board, behind the line of pawns, effectively trapping it. I went to slide my rook down along the last rank.

"Check."

He blocked, which was his only option. I went to capture the piece, but as I reached for my rook, I saw him smile.

Crap, what did I miss?

I looked at the board, careful not to touch my pieces. One touch, and you were required to move it. I studied the positions, playing the next few sequences in my head twice before I saw it. Capturing his knight would make me vulnerable. He would take my rook, possibly both rooks. I was up, but I didn't know if I could win if I followed through on my original plan.

Our next few moves danced back and forth. Each of us was careful not to repeat the same series three times, which would lead to an immediate draw. It went on for much longer than I thought, prolonging the agony. Eventually we were the only game left in the round, and our teammates and other players gathered to watch. Each time I hesitated and made a safe move, there was an audible groan from the audience.

This was always my weakest point in play—the endgame. I was terrified to lose any pieces, but knew I'd have to sacrifice something in order to win. My face reddened with each passing move, as the noises from the crowd grew louder with each mistake I made. Obviously they could see what I couldn't—the way to win.

I nearly considered forfeiting, just to end my humiliation. I took a deep breath, studying the board once again. There was no way to end this without sacrifice, but at this point, I just wanted the game over and done. I mapped out my next three moves, hoping they'd go as planned. If not, I'd have to readjust, but my current course of action was just painful.

I took his knight, he took my rook. I put him in check, he took my other rook. I checked with my queen and finally he backed up his stupid king, just where I needed it. I looked at the board, scrutinizing every single piece to make sure, before I captured his pawn with my queen.

"Checkmate." I sighed, and it earned a round of applause from around us. My cheeks burned in humiliation, but at least I'd finally won. We shook hands over the board, and I sagged back into my chair, glad it was finally over.

"Bella?" I looked at my coach. "End game studies next week, and over spring break, yes?"

"Yes sir." I smiled at him and he laughed.

#~#~#

My date went better than expected. I wasn't nearly as nervous as I had been last week, and my familiarity with Jake made it more fun than nerve-wracking. I was excited to climb onto the back of his motorcycle again, loving the feeling of the world whipping by us at forty miles an hour. Every once in awhile I'd clasp him tighter with my left arm, flinging my right arm out into the wind and letting it rush around and envelop me. My heart was racing when we finally came to a stop.

Mill Avenue on a Saturday night was usually a nightmare—loud, crowded, and extremely difficult to find a parking space. But, with Jake's motorcycle, parking was a breeze. I climbed off the back, handing him my helmet and wearing an immense smile.

"Really dig the bike, huh?"

I nodded. "Is it that obvious?"

"Yeah, not that I mind."

"It just feels so...intense. I don't know. Almost like we're flying or something." I hadn't told him about my long-standing crush on Christopher Reeve and all things Superman. He thought I was enough of a nerd as it was.

"I can't say my dad is too thrilled about it, but he had a bike when he was my age. It's definitely part of the thrill; the freedom."

He took my hand and we walked into Slices, a cheap hole-in-wall with even cheaper pizza. We were in that rare time of the year when the weather was perfect, so we sat outside and enjoyed ourselves. I learned that Jake had two sisters, both currently attending ASU, as well. He planned on studying psychology because he could never understand women.

"Seriously? That's your reasoning?"

"You don't know my sisters. Not a single thing they did has ever made sense to me."

We talked some more before cleaning up and walking down to the Valley Art. Before Jake had a chance to buy our tickets, I rushed ahead to the counter.

"No, it's my turn. You treated last time, and for dinner." I smiled at him, pulling out my wallet for the cashier.

"Yeah, but I invited you out." He scowled, and I wondered if I'd offended him.

"Maybe, but I'm the one making you sit through a foreign film."

His eyes widened a bit, taking in my point. "Okay, you're right. You win."

#~#~#

Two and half hours later we were walking back towards his bike, having just watched Cinema Paradiso. I was still sniffling into my small wad of Kleenex as he walked beside me with his hands in his pocket.

"See what I mean? I just don't get women."

"Wh-what do you mean?" I dabbed at my eyes, stopping once more to blow my nose.

"Okay, I get that it was sad that the old guy died and all, but what was the point of leaving all those kisses and stuff for the kid? Like, the dude was a big time moviemaker at that point. Didn't he think he'd ever seen kissing before? At his age?"

I could only stare at him, my mouth agape.

"That wasn't the point. It was...it was Alfredo showing him that all that passion and beauty survived. It's like he saved it just for him, to show him he loved the art and movies, just as much as he did, no matter what they made him edit out."

"Nah, the old guy was a perv. He just saved it for his own jollies." I couldn't decide if he was being serious or just pulling my chain. "That's why I didn't get it. I figured once he went blind, he would have thrown all that stuff away."

Ohmigod! He was serious.

"That...how could you think that?"

"What?" He laughed, taking in my expression. "He was a perv."

"He was his mentor!"

"He was an old guy spending way too much time with a little boy."

"You're joking."

"What? No way. All these foreign films are like that. Pervy things pretending to be all deep and meaningful and arty."

I just shook my head and continued to walk ahead of him.

#~#~#

We strolled along Mill for another hour, taking in the various musicians and artists selling pieces of work from sections of the sidewalk. Then we finally got on the bike and headed back to my apartment. I tried not to let our disagreeing points of view on the movie bother me. Instead, I just flung my arm out at random intervals, flattening my hand like a little wing soaring through the air.

"If I didn't think my parents would kill me, I'd get a bike of my own," I told him, once we'd gotten to my front door.

"I'm sure your dad wouldn't take that too well. My dad was all over me about motorcycle fatalities. With yours being a cop and all, he's probably seen his fair share."

"I suppose." I wrinkled my nose, remembering nights when Dad would come home, distraught and desperate to hug the both of us. It didn't take much to figure out those were the nights when he'd seen the worst.

"You know, if you wanted to, I could teach you to ride mine."

I'm sure my answering smile was practically blinding. "Really?"

"Hey, nothing too fancy. I'm talking the basics here. Something simple in a parking lot. You know, to get your feet wet."

"Oh Jake, I'd love to!"

"I'm really busy this week, with spring break coming up and all. Next Saturday?" I nodded fervently. "We could catch a movie afterwards. Something in English!" he amended. "With lots of guns."

I laughed. "Okay, I think I can handle that."

"Alright, then it's a date. Six o'clock?"

"Sure."

"Cool."

He leaned in, and didn't bother asking permission this time. Once more, I found myself searching for that feeling, even a glimmer of that feeling. His kiss was soft and slow, as if he were trying to draw out the emotion from me. I matched his motions as best I could until, unbidden, an image of Edward half-naked flitted through my memory. Just the thought caused my stomach to clench, my actions becoming more animated and I hummed.

Jake took that as a sign of approval, and moaned back before drawing me closer. I pulled back suddenly, wracked with guilt over my traitorous heart. My face flamed with regret. I wanted to build something unique with Jake, not use him as a physical stand-in for someone else.

"G-goodnight Jake."

"Bella...wow! That was..."

The awe in his voice made me feel that much worse. I gave him the best smile I could. "I'll see you next Saturday."

He ducked in for another quick kiss, catching me off-guard. "Longest week of my life. See you next Saturday, Bella."

He stood there, smiling as he waited for me to get in the door. I turned and waved, once more, before closing it behind me.

I felt sick.

#~#~#

"So, rainy ol' Washington, huh? You going to get rehydrated or something?"

I plucked at the grass while playing with one of the fallen leaves from the big orange tree in the quad. When the weather was nice like this, it was our preferred spot for lunch. Well, when we didn't have the time or money to indulge in off-campus privileges. The cafeteria pizza had nothing on Burger King, but it was impossible to get in and out of there and not have to inhale your food to make it back in time.

"Yeah, Em. I'm starting to wither. I need to see a little green before the summer hits and I become a weathered husk like the rest of you."

"Hey Bell, nothing says summer like the bright sun, 115 degrees, and tubing down the Salt!"

I cringed, remembering last year when the guys had talked me into riding an inner-tube down the Salt River for four hours. It wasn't like thousands of people didn't do it every year, but I wasn't as lucky as them. Despite the vast amounts of sunblock, a t-shirt and floppy hat, I still managed to get sunburned to the point of blisters, not to mention a nasty case of tube rash under my arms. It was just icing on the cake that I also had a front row seat to Edward ogling Kate what's-her-name and her barely-there bikini.

"Yeah, I think I'll pass. I'm more of a bowling alley, movie theatre, large air-conditioning unit kind of summer gal."

"Ah, don't speak so soon. I'm thinking of getting a job at Sunsplash this summer. That means free admission for all my friends!" He grinned at me and nudged my shoulder.

"The Sunsplash? Like, Bill & Ted's Sunsplash?"

"Waterloop, baby!"

Edward sat down next to us, leaning against the trunk as he cracked open a Hawaiian Punch. "Ah, you telling her about Sunsplash?"

"The one and only."

"Well, just make sure you don't mention it in student council. If I have to hear Tyler's story one more time, about being in that film, I might throttle him."

I laughed. Tyler had been pretty insufferable once Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure had come out. They'd filmed it all over the Valley, and he kept telling us about how he'd gotten to be an extra in some movie. When it finally came out, you would have thought that Tyler single-handedly made the film a success. If you watched the left-hand side of the screen for three seconds during one scene, you could see him as one of the futuristic people in a silver jumpsuit. Certainly his air guitar spelled Oscar nomination. That guy was holding on to his fifteen minutes of fame as long as possible.

"Bell here seems to think that summers should be spent indoors."

"Pardon me for being a fan of temperatures that don't turn metal into vapor."

"Oh c'mon, Bella, it's not that bad. I used to skateboard everywhere in the summer before I got to drive. I survived."

"Uh-huh. And you're telling me you miss that? Racing your skateboard along asphalt that's all gooey from the heat?"

"Eh, maybe a little bit. At least when the tar was all melted it didn't let the gravel dig too much into my skin." I winced, imagining all sorts of injuries he must have sustained in his years of skateboarding. He caught my expression and grinned. "Oh yeah, this one time, I was wearing shorts, and Em told me he didn't think I could grind the curb for more than five feet..."

"Oh no!" I waved my Twinkie at him, trying to ward off the impending horror story. "I don't wanna know!"

"Oh dude, I remember that."

"Emmett! Don't encourage him!"

"So I jumped on my board, and caught the curb just right. But then the edge of my board hooked this bit where a tree trunk made the sidewalk buckle, and I went flying. Check this out." He rolled up his pant leg, and showed off the strawberry, comet-shaped scar on his knee. I'd always wondered how he got that. "Oozed blood like crazy. Really deep scrape."

"Ew, I'm trying to eat!"

"Oh Bell, it gets better. He tells me to go get his dad, because he thinks he sprained his ankle. I turn around to run, and my foot gets caught on the same damned chunk of concrete."

"He went down like a ton of bricks."

"Yeah, see this?" He pushed his hair back, showing me a half-inch scar along his hairline. "Cracked my head open on the fucking sidewalk."

"So now there's blood everywhere..."

"I'm gonna be sick!"

"...and Emmett can barely stand from being so dizzy."

"And Edward can barely walk from screwing up his ankle."

"So the two of us have to hobble down the three houses it takes to get back home."

"All broken and bleeding and carrying your deck and shit."

"And my Mom freaked out when she saw the trail of blood we left from the front door to Dad's den."

"Oh yeah, dude, your poor mom! But what about Alice?"

"Talk about a freak out."

"Ugh, you win!" I groaned. With my appetite completely gone, I thrust my Twinkie out at Emmett, who happily gobbled it down. "You guys suck, by the way." They laughed, and Emmett threw an arm around me, pulling me into his side. I rolled my eyes at the both of them, but a smile still pulled at my lips. They both saw it and laughed again.

Edward offered me an apology in the form of a cupcake from his two-pack. "So, what brought up all the talk of summers in the Valley of the Sun Stroke, anyway?"

"Bell's going back to Washington."

Edward's eyes grew wide. "F-for the whole summer?"

"Nah, just for spring break. Although, if we can afford it, maybe a couple of weeks in the summer? Hell, maybe the month of July?" I grinned at the thought of escaping the worst of the heat, and then sighed. "But... that's a long shot. Airfare isn't cheap." I looked down, gripped by a sudden feel of melancholy for home and my Dad. I went back to plucking at the grass.

"Washington sucks anyway, Bell...OW!" I looked up, having heard both Emmett's cry and the clear 'thwack' of Edward hitting him in the back of the head. "What the fuck was that for?"

"She misses her dad, dumbass." Edward gave me an apologetic look.

"Oh, sorry Bell."

"It's okay." I shrugged, giving them a small smile. "I get to see him next week, right?"

"Yeah, we'll miss you."

"Thanks." I blushed, smiling at Edward. It was nice knowing that sometimes, he just 'got' me.

#~#~#

Jake surprised me on Tuesday, showing up in the parking lot after school to offer me a ride. Today, instead of the leather, he wore his letterman jacket. The arms were covered in all sorts of patches—the true mark of wanting to impress on your college applications.

"Don't worry, I know the rules. I'm not looking to get in trouble with your mom, I just wanted to see you." His grin was infectious. I couldn't help but smile back.

"Rules?" Emmett teased, nearly nudging me off of the sidewalk. "What rules are those, sunshine?"

"None of your business, Em." I shoved him back. "Tell Edward I said bye. I'll see you guys tomorrow."

"Be careful, Bell. See you later." He looked over at Jake, and I almost felt the air chill with his tone. "Later." He walked off towards Edward's car, and my mouth dropped open as I watched him. I couldn't imagine why he still seemed to dislike Jake so much.

"Well gee, that was refreshing."

"Sorry about that, Jake."

"Like I expect anything less from the Incredible Hulk, there."

"Yeah, God forbid you make him angry," I joked, then paled a bit when I thought about what might happen if Jake ever did make Emmett angry. They were both big guys, but my money would always be on Emmett. My weak laugh made the moment that much more uncomfortable.

"C'mon. I thought we could grab some milkshakes and hang out for a bit."

"And how, exactly, do we carry milkshakes on this thing?"

He handed me a helmet before fastening his. "Oh no, it's how, exactly, do you carry milkshakes on this thing."

"You're gonna trust me—me—with that?"

"Easy as pie, Bella. Just don't spill them on me."

"Ugh, okay. But, just so you know, I'm not really in a position to afford a dry cleaning bill."

"I'll take the risk. C'mon." He smiled and waved me over with is arm. I laughed, shaking my head before I finally climbed on behind him. I turned to wave goodbye at the guys, and saw them both standing by the car, arms crossed, wearing twin frowns.

Oookay... So telling them about my little riding lesson on Saturday is definitely out.

We hit the drive-thru at Burger King, and thankfully I didn't have to carry anything. Both shakes and a bag of fries fit just fine in the saddlebag. Then, Jake brought me back to the apartment complex. I felt silly making him wait outside, but I did promise my Mom. Once I put my things away, we walked to one of the picnic tables in the courtyard.

"So, this is a nice surprise." I smiled and tried not to make gross slurping sounds with my shake.

"Admit it, you missed me."

"Eh," I shrugged, and then laughed at his exaggerated pout. "Okay, maybe a little."

"I didn't want to have to wait a whole week before seeing you again. I managed to get off the hook for dance committee planning this afternoon, so I figured I'd use my time wisely."

"Oh, you too? Prom?"

"No, a fundraiser for senior class. We're a couple thousand shy of breaking last year's record. If we hit our goal, we can donate a new marquee to the school."

"Nice."

"The dance is still a month off. A little too close to prom, but I figure we can get in a good crowd."

"That's good."

"So, maybe you'll want to go with me?"

Oh...

"Um, I, uh..." His face fell as I stammered. "Oh no, it's not anything bad. It's just... Well, you saw me at mini-golf. Turns out I'm just as deadly with my two left feet. I don't dance. Like, not ever."

He laughed. "C'mon Bella, you can't be that bad."

I raised an eyebrow. "How's your knee cap?"

He winced. "Okay, point taken."

We finished eating our fries, comparing our busy schedules with student council, and his with sports. I considered telling him about my miserable tournament on Saturday, but thought better of it. He mentioned how he'd be getting another letter for basketball, but his jacket was already full.

"Yeah, the only way I'm getting a varsity letter is in chess or something. At least you get the honorary one for student council. You can only imagine what a disaster I'd be at other sports."

"Yeah. That's kind of bullshit, don't you think?"

I looked at the smirk on his face, confused. "What, my utterly lethal display of non-agility?"

"No, that they give a varsity letter for chess."

"Excuse me?" I thought he was teasing. I hoped he was teasing.

"Well, it's not like it's a real sport. I mean, not like something hard like basketball or football."

"You're right." I glared at him, feeling my ears burn in indignation. "It's a lot harder."

"Riiight," he drawled. "It's really hard to sit there and just push pieces around on a board."

"You do realize there's strategy involved. Not to mention the infinite number of possible moves, the skill of your opponent, the time constraints..."

"Yeah, for a board game. Geez, next thing you know they'll be giving out letters for checkers too." He laughed. I continued glaring at him and the laughter died in his throat. "Why are you getting so worked up? Oh shit, are your friends chess players? I never would have guessed—they hardly look the type."

"The type?" I sat back, crossing my arms over my chest.

Oh, this should be good. Yeah, keep digging that grave, buddy!

"Yeah, you know—pocket protectors, skinny, glasses with the tape on the bridge—the type."

My scalp was prickling now. I hadn't been this pissed off since...well, since I'd decked Edward. I opened my mouth, ready to give him a good piece of my mind (and keeping my clenched fists safely tucked against my chest), until it suddenly occurred to me—what if he didn't like 'geeks.' I mean, he certainly seemed to like me, but I'd never told him just how nerdy I was. And, from the looks of it, it didn't seem like something he'd appreciate.

All this time I was worried about not liking him enough. It never occurred to me that maybe he wouldn't like me enough, either. Especially given the chance to know more about me. I felt myself deflate just a bit, going from righteously indignant to scared and secretive in about a nanosecond.

Double-edged swords—ain't they a bitch?

"No, Edward and Emmett don't play chess, but I have plenty of friends who do."

"Crap, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to piss you off."

"It's not as easy as you'd think. Really."

"Yeah, but it's not as hard as pushing yourself physically, or depending on your teammates to get the job done."

"No, you don't have to worry too much about team play," I conceded.

"And, it's not like you can suffer a chess injury, right?" he joked.

"Yeah, right." I couldn't look at him. "Um, I should get back inside. I have a bunch of homework I need to get done before Mom gets home, and I'm on dinner duty."

"Oh, yeah, sure." He grabbed our things and threw them in the closest garbage can. We walked towards my door in uncomfortable silence.

"Um, thanks for picking me up."

"No problem. And hey, sorry for offending you like that. I mean, it's a good thing, right?"

"What is?"

"That your friends are chess players. It gives me less to worry about." He smiled at me and leaned in for a kiss. I turned my head just enough that he got my cheek and not my lips. He seemed surprised, but didn't say anything.

"Sure, good thing. I'll, um, see you Saturday. Thanks again." I waved.

"No problem. Bye, Bella."

#~#~#

I didn't have much of an appetite by the time dinner rolled around. I kept telling myself it was because of the fries and milkshakes, but even I couldn't lie to myself that effectively. I wasn't sure who I was more upset with—Jake for thinking the way he did, or myself for not speaking my mind. It wasn't like me, generally, to back down like that. But the thought of driving away the guy—the only guy—who'd ever been interested in me, seemed like enough of a deterrent.

It also made me aware of the dangerously slippery slope I was perched along. I vowed if I ever started batting my eyelashes, twirling my hair, or playing dumb to impress him, I'd gladly shoot myself.

"I'd blame the chef, but since that's you, I take it there's another reason you're not eating?"

"Huh? Oh, sorry Mom. At least I have lunch for tomorrow."

"What's bothering you?"

"Oh, um, it's Jake."

I told her about how our non-fight had me so worked up. It was more difficult to explain why I'd kept my mouth shut.

"Hmm. I can understand why you might be uncomfortable telling him, but he'll probably find out eventually, right?"

"I suppose. I dunno. It just didn't seem like the time. I didn't want to unleash Bella Ball Ripper on him." She snorted. It was a rare response, and I gave a small laugh. "It's a nickname Em gave me. I'm hoping it doesn't stick, but it certainly felt like I was ready to live up to it this afternoon."

"Well, I could certainly understand you reining it in. I just hate that you feel like you have to hide who you are."

I hated it too. A lot. "Yeah..."

Before I could elaborate, the phone rang. "Go on, I'll clean up here."

"Thanks, Mom."

Sure enough, it was Alice, wanting a breakdown of my day.

"So I hear Mr. Motorcycle came to pick you up, today."

"Oh yeah?"

"Listening to the guys, you'd have thought he clubbed you over the head and dragged you back to his cave."

I laughed. Trust Alice to immediately lift my mood. "You know, I don't get what they have against him. I've never heard Emmett sound so menacing with one word."

"Yeah, I have my theories. Welcome to the wonderful world of being a little sister."

"Are they this bad with you?"

"Remind me to tell you about the time Edward caught me playing Spin the Bottle. He scared the ever-loving crap out of this boy I had a crush on."

"Oh geez!"

"Yeah, but it's okay. Turns out the guy was a real creep."

"Fantastic. Are they still that bad?"

"Not that I've noticed, but I haven't really been interested in anyone." She paused. "Why? What aren't you telling me?"

How did she do that?

"Well, don't say anything, but Saturday Jake offered to teach me how to drive his motorcycle."

"No! Way!"

"I know! I'm really excited. But you should have seen the looks on the guys' faces, today, when we left school. That's why I don't want to say anything."

"Well, count on me to keep a secret. I don't suppose your mom knows."

"Um, you know that saying? Better to ask forgiveness..."

"...than beg permission. Yep, I've used that one more than once."

"It's not exactly that I'm afraid she'll say no, but we're just practicing in a parking lot. I'm not gonna do anything reckless."

"Uh huh. So, if anything happens, can I have your collection of 45s?"

"So concerned for my welfare!"

"What are best friends for?"

#~#~#

For the most part, I'd had a good night's rest. For once I tried not to think about any of my romantic issues, and decided to focus on the growing mountain of homework I had. If I didn't want to spend my entire time with Dad at my old dining room table surrounded by books, I'd best get to work.

However, when it came to the physicality of my situation, I was still suffering. It was an ongoing nightly occurrence to wake up frustrated, sweating and with a dull throb between my legs. I hated that I was still in full blown lust with my best friend, when my head had been doing such a good job of consoling my heart. Apparently logic just didn't hold in my subconscious.

I didn't want to broach the subject with my Mom, though I was certain that she'd probably have the most thorough and concise answers on the subject. Sure, talking about sex was one thing, because, truly, it was so beyond the realm of possibility. However, masturbation was another matter, entirely. Once that cat was out of the bag, we'd both know what would be going on behind closed doors, and I just couldn't handle that.

Angela was my closest girlfriend at school but, again, I just didn't see myself raising the topic with her. It didn't seem like something you could casually bring up in everyday conversation, and I wasn't really the type to fabricate a situation where I could not-so-casually bring it up, either. Harrowing parallels to Summer's Eve commercials ran though my head. There were no beaches in Phoenix, so I guess I'd never have the opportunity to ask anyone about a not-so-fresh feeling.

Hey Mom, do you ever get that not-quite-satisfied feeling?

I groaned, hiding my face in my palms at the thought.

After the third night of waking up a sweaty mess, I'd realized that I would, quite literally, have to start taking matters into my own hands. After weighing my options—embarrassment vs. frank discussion—I decided to fall back on my one, constant companion; books.

That's how I found myself lurking the Phoenix Central Public Library, like a brazen hussy, on a Thursday evening. The Dewey Decimal system had answered a lot of questions in my years, including how to deal with divorce, how to make a - decent pot roast, and how to alter a pair of faded jeans into a decent denim skirt. I was hoping it would come to my rescue, once again, no matter how risqué the subject matter.

I wasn't a complete novice. I had overheard various conversations about how other girls got the deed done, whether it was by hands or pillow humping, but I wanted definitive answers. I didn't want to spend hours blindly groping myself in frustration. Surely I wasn't the first girl to go through this, and someone, somewhere, had to have the answers I was looking for—bound, printed, and easily hidden under a mattress. Face-to-face discussions with parents or medical professionals I could do without.

I found a dog-eared copy of The Joy of Sex and hoped that it might be a good place to start. Many of the other titles related specifically to women's health and sexuality had mysteriously disappeared or were otherwise lost within the vast library. This, and a handful of graphic and racy romance novels, would have to suffice.

I also gathered a few other books—some for show and others that I actually needed. I had a paper due in honors History within the next week, so I figured I might as well get some work done while I was at it. Besides, I didn't want to be the conspicuous pervert at the table, looking at nothing but sexual diagrams.

The library basement may have had fewer people, but that's where all the periodicals and copy machines were housed, and that was simply too much traffic. I, instead, opted for the second floor, near the back, where I usually found various comic compendiums and the like. There were only a handful of people on this floor, and it was easy enough to find a large reference book to tuck my illicit material in.

I could already feel myself flushing red as I hastily flipped through the pages of drawings. I wished I could think of a more discreet way to get the information I needed, rather than feeling like some kind of criminal. Thankfully, it didn't take long to find what I needed. A rather detailed diagram of the female anatomy showed me exactly what I should concentrate on, and how I should concentrate on it. I wasn't sure about some of the practices listed, but I was certainly curious enough to keep them in mind, should the basics prove unfulfilling. I was so fascinated and enthralled at the descriptions, that the fear slowly faded and I became enraptured with all of the possibilities detailed in the text.

I really would need to find a way to get a removable shower head.

"Hey, Bella!"

I nearly fell off my chair as I heard Alice's chipper voice carry across the silent library. I righted myself as quickly as I could, making sure to hide the sex guide underneath several reference books and my sweater. Sure enough, I could see Emmett and Edward not too far behind her.

She slid into the chair next to me, slapping down several books on the Revolutionary War. "Fancy meeting your here, Pink Cheeks!"

"Hey Alice. What are you doing here?"

"Need info on the wonders of Paul Revere. I have to finish up an oral presentation for tomorrow. I actually tried calling you before we came. Told your mom we'd bring you home if we found you."

"Oh, um, thanks!" I hoped she didn't notice how flustered I was. She cocked her head to the side, narrowing her eyes a bit. I knew I was busted, but at least she didn't question me as the guys sat down.

"Hiya Bell. Lemme guess, World War II?"

"The one and only, Em."

"Hey Bella, did you happen to pick up that one Mussolini book Mr. Robinson was talking about? We couldn't find it out there."

"Oh yeah, actually, I did." I picked my way through my stack of books, careful not to disturb my hidden stash of porn. Emmett would never let me hear the end of it—not that it would matter. I'd surely die of mortification first.

"Hey, did you want a ride home? We were gonna stay 'til closing anyway."

"Oh, um, sure Edward. Alice already offered. That would be great. Saves my Mom from having to come and get me."

The four of us continued working on our papers. There was never a moment for me to discard the hidden book, as someone was always present at the table. I figured I'd just wait 'til the guys got up, sure that I wouldn't melt into a puddle of embarrassment if Alice saw what I had, but that moment never came. Alice was usually the one who had to get up and find new books, as she was the only one working on something different.

Just my rotten luck. I spent the rest of the evening in my own version of the Telltale Heart, certain that everyone had x-ray vision and could see through the books and my sweater to The Joy of Sex hidden below. My heart continued to beat out 'per-vert, per-vert' with every double-thump.

Not nearly soon enough, it was 8:45, and we'd finally decided to call it a night. Now I had to find a way to not draw suspicion to myself as we gathered our things and made our way to the checkout line. Everyone was standing up but me.

"Um, I'll meet you down there. I just want to write one more thing down before I forget." I jotted some nonsense into my notebook, trying to catch a glimpse of everyone to see if they'd go on ahead. Alice and Emmett started walking towards the front desks, but Edward lingered, waiting for me.

Of all the times...seriously?!

I hastily scribbled some more stuff, hoping he'd follow along, but, ever the gentlemen, he waited for me. I couldn't stall anymore and finally stood up, throwing him a quick smile as I collected my books. It was a completely and utterly cliché thing to do, but I didn't really have a choice.

With genuine , Bella Swan grace, I grabbed my sweater and knocked my safe, strategic, not-so-carefully stacked books off the table.

"Oh crap," I muttered, sounding like the world's worst actress. Edward, true to form, knelt to collect them off the floor. "Oh, thanks Edward." While he was beneath the table, I quickly splayed and arranged the remaining books to hide the one on the bottom. I threw my sweater on, and gave another glance at my handiwork before he handed me my things.

Oh yes, I am a diabolical genius!

We walked to join the others. I was arranging my stack from smallest to largest, hoping to make it a bit easier for the librarian.

"Some pretty racy stuff there, Bella."

I froze, feeling the blood drain from my face. Edward clipped my shoulder as I had come to a sudden stop. "Wh-what?"

"Harlequin Romances? Really?" He picked up a bodice ripper from my stack of history books and Dean Koontz.

"Oh, that?" I felt the blood rush back to face, both in relief and embarrassment. "Well, a girl's gotta diversify. Besides, you'd be surprised how well-written they are."

"Uh huh." He sounded skeptical, flipping through the pages and finding the dog-eared good parts. "Oh yeah, really well crafted." He stopped, reading a couple of paragraphs. "You know, I'd never think to describe a chest as 'heaving' and have it mean a good thing."

"Give me that!" I snatched the book from his hands, giving him a scowl. He laughed, no doubt amused at my irritation. We continued down the stairs, and found our way to Alice and Emmett in line.

"Aw man!" Alice rifled through her stack of books, picking through each title carefully before doing it again. "I think I left Paul Revere's Midnight Run upstairs."

"Here, take these." Edward handed her his books for checkout. "What's it look like?"

"Blue cover. Black and white line art."

"Be right back." He ran and took the stairs, two by two.

"Hey Bell, doing some Barbara Taylor Bradford I see!"

"Ugh, yes, Emmett. I do read more than just Stephen King. Don't worry, Edward already gave me grief over it."

"You know, with a little olive oil on my chest and some longer hair, I could totally look like this guy. What do you think, Alice?" He set down his books, grabbed me by the waist, and tilted me back. He handed the romance novel to Alice, and then used his hand to shield his eyes, as he looked out over an imaginary horizon.

"Oh yes, I can totally see it!" Alice held the book out to show me the cover and we both laughed.

"Geez, Emmett, now I'm gonna have to get another one. I can't possibly read about..." I flipped through the pages searching for the name. "…Roberto, and not think of you!"

"Oh Bell, feel free to fantasize all you like, but I'm a one-woman kinda guy."

"Em, you're breaking my heart!"

"Yeah, I know, but what are you gonna do when you look like this?"

"Were you always this shy?"

"I think Rosie has brought me out of my shell."

Alice gasped. "Emmett, you should totally be a pirate for Halloween!"

"Ooh, I wonder if Rosie would be my wench?"

"Lucky for you, October is a long way off. It'll give you time to phrase that question to her more appropriately. She doesn't strike me as the wench type."

"Ha! That's some advice, coming from Bella Ball Ripper!"

Alice laughed. "Bella Ball Ripper?"

"I was having a bad day. And Emmett, feel free to forget that little incident."

"Oh no, Bell. That will forever remain legend! How little you appreciate the way you made grown teenage boys pale in fear!"

"I can't wait 'til I go to school with you guys next year."

"Oh yeah, Little Bit, it's nothing but wonder and excitement in high school!"

"Don't call me that, Em!"

"Ah, see Alice, it's all fun and games until he starts calling you names."

Edward worked his way through the line back to us with Paul Revere in hand. "Here you go, Alice."

"Thanks."

"No problem."

I looked at Edward, and I could have sworn he was avoiding my gaze. An odd silence settled over us until we made our way through the check out process. Books in hand, we walked out to his car where I sat in the back with Alice.

"Hey, Em? Speaking of your pirate wench, are you bringing her tomorrow?"

"Yeah, actually. Is Mr. Motorcycle gonna be there?"

"What, did you guys collectively decide on that name?" Alice just shrugged at me and I continued. "Anyway, it wouldn't be much fun for him. I'm gonna be working the whole night."

"What's going on?" Alice asked.

"Oh, the Chess Team is hosting a school dance, tomorrow. Pretty funny considering that none of us are the types to go to dances, in general, but it beats selling candy as a fundraiser."

"But Jake's not coming? I'm surprised."

"Yeah, well, I didn't really invite him." As if it wasn't already an issue, I didn't want to spring it on him like that. "Like I said, what would be the point of him driving all the way out here, just to sit with me while I decorate, take money, and clean up?"

Alice gave me a smirk. "Oh, I'm sure he wouldn't mind."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Edward? Emmett?" she asked. "If your girlfriend was going to a school dance, even if she was running the dance, would you want her to go alone?"

"Hell no," Emmett spoke up. "That's not cool, Bell. You should have told him."

"But, I don't want him to be bored." I also didn't want to freak him out with my nerdiness. It didn't help that I happened to be the vice-president of the Chess Club. Usually it was something I was pretty proud of. Now, it just compounded the problem.

"That's not the point. I wouldn't want Rose out there, all dolled up, with a bunch of guys sniffing around."

I laughed. "Em, really? Huge difference between me and Rosalie."

"What? 'Cause she's blonde?"

"No, stupid, because she's Rosalie! Gorgeous, curvy, brilliant Rosalie. I could see why you wouldn't let her out of your sight. She must have to beat them off with a stick."

"But that's my point. You don't let your girl go out there with a stick when you should be out there fighting them off for her."

"Well there you go."

"Huh?"

"It means I don't get sniffed, Em, geez! It's just me!" Already I could feel my face heating up, and I was more than a little irritated. I was glad I was in the back seat and not easily observable by anyone other than Alice.

Two years at this school and anyone has yet to sniff in my general direction!

"Still, you should give him a call." Emmett sounded a bit chastised. I guess I let my annoyance show more than I thought.

"Sure thing. I'll bet he's dying to babysit me." I leaned my forehead against the window, staring out at the passing night. Alice quickly changed the subject to something trivial, and I didn't speak again until we'd reached my apartment complex.

"It's late. C'mon, I'll walk you in." Edward left Emmett and Alice in the car, and then walked around to open my door.

"Oh, hey, have fun on Saturday. And be careful!" Alice hugged me before I got out of the car.

"Thanks." I smiled at her. "Um, goodnight you guys. Em, I'll see you tomorrow."

"Later Bell!"

Edward, polite as ever, led the way to my door. "Hey, sorry about that. He didn't mean to upset you."

I sighed. "I know. I'm just a bit touchy, is all."

"Not to piss you off, but they do have a point. You really should call him."

"He'd be bored to tears. I really don't want to inconvenience him." I felt stupid telling him the real reason I didn't want to bother Jake. Nothing like pointing out my failings in the romance department. Edward laughed, and I threw him a puzzled look.

"Bella, trust me, it wouldn't be an inconvenience." We stopped in front of my door, and he took my books while I rummaged for my key. "If you were my girlfriend," I stilled, feeling my heart clench just a bit at his words, "I wouldn't want you out at a dance, or a party, or any social situation by yourself if I could help it. It's simply a question of opportunity. I mean, it's obvious the guy is really into you, and he wouldn't want you to be alone if he could help it."

"Opportunity?"

"Well, yeah. I mean, not that you're not trustworthy or anything, but you don't ever, ever, make a girl feel lonely or not important. Especially if she's gonna be in a situation where any other interested guy can pick up on that."

"Geez, you make it sound like Wild Kingdom."

He gave a weak chuckle. "Yeah, in a way it is. He wouldn't want you out there limping along in front of the other predators."

"If Marlin Perkins shows up as our DJ, maybe I'll start to worry." I laughed. "And let's be serious, you and I both know I could be bleeding from the head and the predators wouldn't care less." He stared at me like I was crazy. As much as I didn't really want to, I explained. "Edward, I've been going to this school for two years. No one's so much as looked at me twice. Geeky chess players are just not in this season, or any season for that matter. The only reason Jake asked me out is because he didn't seem to know any better. I'm like that stupid cat that gets the white stripe painted on its back. Wait 'til Pepe Le Pew finds out I'm just a cat."

I meant it as a joke, but I could feel my chest ache, again, realizing the truth in my words. It took the anonymity of the state convention to catch anyone's attention. I wondered how long it would take for Jake to be exposed to me on a more regular basis, before he realized how unappealing I was. I felt the flurry of emotions cross my face—both despair and relief—before I could stop them.

"Bella, that's not true. You're as much a skunk as the rest of us." He smiled, trying to joke with me. When I didn't respond he touched my upper arm to emphasize his point. I shrugged him off, fighting down more unpleasant thoughts as I wrestled my books from his other arm.

"Yeah, but skunks wouldn't need favors," I mumbled.

Shit!

Shit shit shit!

I don't know where that came from, or even if he heard me clearly. The last thing I wanted to do was bring all this up, again. Especially now, after everything we'd been through to get back on common ground.

"Forget it, okay. I'll call him." I couldn't meet his eyes. I didn't dare glance for fear of seeing pity for poor, stupid, inexperienced Bella on his face, yet again. Or, worse yet, that wounded puppy dog expression. I spun and banged on the door. "Mom, it's me!" I turned my head back, still not quite looking at him, "Um, thanks again for the ride. I'll see you tomorrow, 'k?"

"Bella?" I could feel him move closer behind me, his hand brushing along my shoulder.

What was taking her so long?

"MOM!" I yelled, banging on the door, once more. His breath was hot against my ear. I tensed—in fear, anticipation, and hope? I didn't even know anymore.

"Are you okay?" He was concerned, like any friend would be, but I could only hear the pity. A swell of ugly emotion was threatening to break. I didn't want another scene

.

Please, please, please...

"Bella?"

I kept banging on the door. "I'm fine. I just...just need to get inside."

"What's wro–?"

"MOM!" The door clicked open, and I practically fell, books and all, into the apartment.

"God, I thought you were getting murdered out here! Are you okay?" She knelt to help me pick up my books.

"Couldn't find my key," I mumbled, gathering my paperbacks.

"Oh, Edward, thanks for bringing her home."

"Um, sure. No problem, Ms. Swan."

"Here, let me take those." She grabbed the rest of my things and left me alone in the doorway with Edward.

"Are you sure you're okay?" I finally looked at him and gave a small shrug.

"Mostly." He looked like he was going to say more, but I'd hit my limit for the night, the week, the year. "Thanks again, and I'll see you tomorrow, alright?" I hoped my ghost of a smile was enough to placate him.

He drew a deep breath, and finally, thankfully, acquiesced. "Sure." He nodded. "G'night Bella."

"'Night."

I watched him, reluctantly, turn and walk away. I closed the door behind me, sighed, and sank against it.