A/N: In line of my job in the world of subtitles production, I come across the most random TV programs. One of them, an MTV production called Moving In, has inspired this short story. My version is obviously much more toned down (and hopefully less stupid), but it consists on a similar premise – both Edward and Jacob compete for Bella's heart, and Charlie decides to put them through a series of challenges to see which one is more worthy for his daughter. Timeline wise, it picks up about a month after the end of New Moon, but it stands apart from the plot at the beginning of Eclipse. Reviews are most welcome, as always:)
Disclaimer: The characters and any recognizable plotline is Stephenie Meyer's. The title is MTV's. I'm just playing.
Part One: The Challenge
"So what do you want to do this weekend?" Edward asked me as the Volvo took another curve effortlessly. He didn't even look at the road ahead; his eyes were all for me. It would have been unnerving if I wasn't so distracted by the intensity of his gaze. I had to swallow to force my scattered thoughts on the right track before I even considered my reply.
"Umm, I'm not sure," I answered eventually. "I meant to drive to Port Angeles to find some new books. But seeing as I'm not supposed to go anywhere with you besides school and back, I'm not sure it's doable, unless you want Charlie to join us."
Edward's chuckle was dark, humorless. "No, I think I'd rather have you for myself, even during such short a drive."
"Well, considering Charlie's new terms and regulations, you can rule that drive out," I pointed out bitterly. "Maybe we should just start studying for some of the finals. He would sure love that," I grimaced.
I couldn't blame my dad for the way he was acting, but at the same time, I resented his behavior. It had been two months since we'd come back from Italy, nearly a month since the whole motorcycle debacle, and he was still as mad as he had at the time it all happened. I wasn't sure which part had infuriated him more – my three days' disappearance or the bikes. I wasn't even sure I wanted to know. But it had been weeks – months – since then, and I had been nothing but docile and obedient ever since. I wished he would cut me some slack.
"I wonder," Edward started thoughtfully, but his voice trailed as soon as he said it.
I was momentarily sidetracked by the velvet of his voice, that it took me a moment to realize that was all he said. "Yes?"
"If we conducted a race in which we left Forks at the exact same moment, how long do you reckon it would take your truck to catch up with my car to Port Angeles?"
There was the tiniest hint of laughter beyond that pretended businesslike tone. "Ha ha," I frowned. "My truck doesn't have much time left on the road, so you could show some respect to it on its final days."
He didn't laugh or come up with a witty backfire. We had just parked in front of my house, and he was staring straight ahead with narrow eyes, his forehead creasing in the slightest frown. My eyes followed his and found a point of focus in the darkening sky. It wasn't raining, but the sky looked grey and daunting.
"I wonder if a storm is due tonight."
"You could definitely say that."
His voice was strange, distant. His gaze didn't stray from the darkness. I could only guess what, or whom, he'd meant. "What is he thinking?" I asked kind of dreadfully.
A smile stretched lazily on his lips. It was a smug sort of smile, one which implied he'd known more than he let show. "Nothing that should bother you," he replied, still looking ahead.
He sounded calm, almost too calm. I narrowed my eyes suspiciously and was about to question it, when a familiar sight made the words freeze halfway up my throat. On the curb right in front of the house, blocking Charlie's police cruiser, was Jacob's car. My head whipped from the car to Edward, who still appeared surprisingly serene. There wasn't a change in the way he gripped the steering wheel. His expression remained peaceful. "What the hell…?"
Edward parked his Volvo right behind Jacob's car. The tiniest hint of scorn had overshadowed the gold in his eyes before he answered my question. "Apparently, Charlie has some plans for us this evening."
I couldn't see how that answered my question in any way. "Jake is here," I stated the obvious.
"Indeed, he is."
"How did Charlie let him in after what happened?"
"Charlie is the one who's invited him over," said Edward, and almost at the same time was by my side, opening the car door for me.
His reply didn't make much sense, either. Ever since Edward and I had got back together, Charlie made very little effort to hide his discontent. It was obvious he was still holding a grudge against Edward for everything that had happened in his absence. I would assume he'd hold a similar grudge against Jacob since he was the one building a death machine for his only child, but apparently, Jake was off the hook. It seemed unfair. He was disappointed in me, his loathing for Edward had never been stronger, and yet he invited Jacob over as if nothing happened?
We walked to the front door in silence. I assumed Edward had known more than he let show, but I figured he'd reveal anything if I asked him to, so there was really no point to question him further. I fished for the keys in my bag and unlocked the door. He waited for me to walk in before he followed me inside. The familiar voice of a sports announcer welcomed us, accompanied by what sounded like commentary by both Charlie and Jacob. It narrowed down to only Jacob, though, as soon as I shut the door.
"Bella?" Charlie asked, and the announcer's voice lowered as well.
"Yeah, we're here," I said, grabbing Edward's hand at the same time I used the word we. If Charlie was up to something, I wanted us to present a united front, even if he wasn't going to like it much. Edward snorted, but didn't try to pull his hand away.
I was somewhat nervous about walking into the living room. I hadn't seen Jacob since that unfortunate incident on our front lawn nearly a month ago. I had tried to contact him several times since then, but he'd never returned my calls, and as much as it saddened me, at some point I just gave up on him. I thought it served him right, considering he had given up on our friendship. It pained me to see him now lounging on our sofa as if he had belonged there, clearly feeling at home.
"Hey, Bells," he said, grinning. The familiarity of the act was supposed to soften me; instead, it infuriated me. His eyes narrowed ever so slightly when he took in the sight of Edward and our joined hands. "You."
"Hello, Jacob," Edward replied, all politeness, but I could sense the way he was suddenly twice as tense, standing there beside me.
"Come in and have a seat," said Charlie to neither of us in particular. He'd been pretty much ignoring Edward since we got back from Italy, and he was keeping his conversations to the very minimum with me. Like me, Charlie wasn't great with confrontations, and he seemed to be making great efforts to avoid one at the moment.
"Actually, I'm just dropping Bella off, Chief Swan."
I squeezed Edward's hand hard, wordlessly questioning this statement. Normally he'd drive me home from school and stay until dinnertime. Running off so early was very unlike him. And I thought I recognized a hint of something in his voice… panic? No. Not Edward. No way.
Jacob's grin widened ever so slightly as if he'd noticed it too. Whatever had crossed his mind, it made Edward growl lowly under his breath. The room became very chilly all of a sudden as the guys glowered at each other.
"There's something I need to say," Charlie told Edward, unaware of the tension, fast building between the guys. It was one of those rare times he was looking him in the eye while addressing him. Yes, something was definitely going on. This was not normal. "And I'd appreciate it if you could give me a moment to say it."
I caught sight of Edward from the corner of my eye. There was no other way to put it; he looked tortured. His eyes were slightly wider, his skin impossibly paler than usual. Clearly he had some idea as for what Charlie had been up to, and judging by his expression, it was something neither of us had wanted to hear. He hesitated for another second before he nodded and let me lead the way to the sofa. I sat as far away from Jacob as I could manage, leaving just enough space for Edward in the corner. It seemed safer to be in the middle, blocking their access to one another.
"Alright. Here's the thing," Charlie said, leaning towards me with his hands folded in his lap. "I've been doing a lot of thinking lately and I've come to the conclusion that things are really messed up right now, and I don't want to go on living like that."
"O… kay?" Really, where he was going with that?
"I have every reason to be angry with each and every one of you," he said, looking from Jacob to me to Edward in this cold, penetrating glare he'd probably saved for the most dangerous criminals at the station. "Mad angry, actually. But I want to give you a chance to redeem yourselves."
"I'm getting there," he told me, and his lips curled a little at the edges in what resembled a smile. "Bella, you've demonstrated quite a few cases of seriously bad judgment recently and I'm not just referring to your running away from home or messing around with motorcycles." His head whipped to Edward for a split second, and so his intention couldn't have been clearer. "Clearly, you stay oblivious to your, umm, variety of choices, so I decided to take things to my own hands."
"I'm not sure I want to hear the rest of it," I murmured, unconsciously scooting closer to Edward's side. I only realized that I had when I felt the chill from his body sipping through my jacket.
"Despite their constant tendency to get you in serious trouble, it's clear that Jacob and… Edward," he uttered the name with difficulty, "both care for you very much."
I groaned inwardly. On some unconscious level I sort of knew that was where he was going with this. "I've made my choice, Dad, I don't need – "
"Here's the deal, Bella," he cut me off. "You're not grounded anymore – "
"What? Seriously? I'm free?"
"Let me finish. You're not grounded anymore if in return you let me… try a little experiment."
Edward was tense again. Clearly, he was way ahead of me with this bizarre plan of my dad's.
"What… what experiment?"
"I want to see which of these boys here is better for you."
"Jacob and Edward will spend the weekend with us. Throughout the weekend I'll give them a few tasks. The one who excels, well… wins the prize," he concluded, beaming at me. Despite the tough front he'd attempted to keep up, he was clearly enjoying himself.
"Me, being the prize?" I asked dryly. "Dad, this is ridiculous!"
"Is it? I think it's quite reasonable, actually. This is how they did it in the old times, anyway. Children, daughters especially, never had a say about the people they ended up marrying." A spark of horror crossed his otherwise confident façade, and I knew it was the word marrying that did it. The timing was miserable, but I felt like grinning. If he only knew Edward had already proposed to me two months ago under his roof, without his consent, he would have got a heart attack right there and then.
From the corner of my eye I saw Edward nod, a tiny, almost invisible motion, as if he agreed with what Charlie was saying. Of course, he would know exactly how things were in the old times. It didn't make it any less twisted in my eyes. "This isn't old times, dad, we're in the twenty first century! People get a chance to choose on their own!"
"But think of the fairness of what I'm offering here. This way, you get to examine all your options." He threw a significant look at Jacob, who nodded, still grinning.
"So you think I'm not wise enough to choose my boyfriend and you want to do it for me?"
"No, not in an offensive way, but..."
"No! No way! I'm not going along with this!"
"Why not, Bella?" Jacob interjected. "I mean, if you're convinced Eddie here is the right one, surely there's no reason for him to fail in Charlie's tasks, which means you've got no reason to be afraid of… unless you are worried he won't make it through the weekend."
"I'll make it through better than you will," Edward muttered, dismissing Jacob with a side glance.
"Bring it," replied Jacob, unaffected. "Really, Charlie. I'm in."
"Of course you are," I snapped. "Is he in on this plan, Dad?"
"I got here about twenty minutes before you guys did!"
"You can say enough in twenty minutes. Are you in on this plan or aren't you?"
"Jacob didn't know anything about this before you did, Bella, give him some credit." I didn't like the reproach in my dad's tone. You'd think Jacob was his child rather than me. "Well, what do you say?"
"I rather stay grounded," I sulked.
"Don't worry, Love," he leaned closer to murmur in my ear. "He doesn't stand a chance."
"Please, I think I'm gonna puke."
"Alright, then!" Charlie announced, clapping his hands together once. "I'm looking forward to seeing both of you here bright and early tomorrow."
"Just how early are we talking about here, Charlie?" Jacob asked fretfully. I held back a smirk, already sensing troubles ahead. Jacob was not a morning person.
"If you're not here early enough for me, you'll know, boy." Charlie was his no-nonsense self again. "Dismissed, all three of you."
I gave him the coldest glare I could muster. "Do the new rules apply starting now?"
"Since the boys have agreed to spend the weekend with us, then yes, they do."
I stood up and pulled Edward up with me. "Come on. We're going to your house."
"You still have curfew!" Charlie called after me as we passed through the front door. I heard Jacob's guffaw from somewhere behind me, but didn't turn to acknowledge it.
"Have you lost your mind?" I snapped at Edward as soon as we were at the safety of his car, out of hearing range. "How could you subject yourself to this stupid plan?"
"What other choice I had? I can't lose you to the mongrel."
"You'll never have to."
"Didn't you hear your father? He was going to choose the best one for you based on our accomplishments this weekend."
"This has nothing to do with your accomplishments and you know it! I know you read his mind, I know he intends to choose Jacob either way, whether you're better than him or not!"
He looked straight ahead but I could see the shadow that crossed his face for a second. I knew I was right. "He intends to try and be fair about it, but this is indeed his intention," he agreed quietly. "That doesn't mean I'm going to go without a fight."
Defeat sneaked into his voice. My heart made an involuntary twitch in response. It went beyond hating to see him like this. Seeing him so overpowered made me feel helpless. If he couldn't count on getting his way, who was I to be assured of getting mine? But I knew I couldn't afford helplessness just now. The weekend was fast approaching. I needed some reassurance as for what we were in for.
"Come on," I said, and gently lay a hand on his. "Let's go speak to Alice."
"He doesn't want Edward to win, obviously," Alice revealed to me when we arrived at the Cullens' house. She was sitting at my feet on the hairy carpet in the living room, looking up at me as she spoke. "He intends to keep a fair game, so Edward does stand some chance."
"Please," I sulked, unconvinced. "He'll just give them tasks he's sure Edward fails in, although it would probably be tough to come up with those." I looked up at him thoughtfully. "Is there anything you can't do?"
Edward just shrugged, but from the smirk across his perfect lips I could tell he wasn't bothered by Charlie's challenge or the tasks he'd planned for him and Jacob. Alice just beamed at me, equally composed. It infuriated me rather than comforted me.
"Why am I the only one who's freaking out over this?" I demanded.
"Because there's no reason to freak out, Love. That is, unless you doubt my ability to take the mutt down."
"There's a fight?" Emmett was suddenly in the living room. He slumped on the armchair across from the love seat we'd occupied and shot us an offended glare. "Why has no one invited me?"
"It's not the kind of fight you'll be interested in," Alice chirped. "Charlie has challenged Edward and Jacob into a duel."
Emmett burst into roars of laughter at that. "A duel? Over Bella?"
"I'm glad it amuses someone," I said dryly, refusing to let the atmosphere soften me.
"It highly amuses me, actually. What are the odds?" He asked Alice. "Actually don't tell me. I'd like to be surprised, for a change."
"I don't need Alice to tell you how this duel is going to end," I interjected, uttering the word in scorn. "With my dad, Edward doesn't stand a chance."
That brought on a new roll of laughter. "I'll pay good money to see that. Wait until I tell Jasper." Before I could blink, he shot upstairs, more like a bat than a vampire.
I huffed, wishing one of them would take the matter seriously. There was too much at stake as far as I was concerned. I didn't know how serious Charlie had been about choosing my boyfriend for me. What if he chose Jake? Did that mean Edward wouldn't be allowed in our house anymore? And where did that leave me? What about our agreement? I was supposed to become like him after graduation, only a few weeks from now. The very concept of Edward's absence was too hard to stomach. If there was one thing I was certain of, it was my inability to live without him. It was one thing I never wanted to experience ever again. And now, if Charlie was going to intervene…
"Bella, stop it." Alice's soft voice brought me back to the warm room. I blinked, realizing just then I'd been daydreaming. "You're thinking far too much ahead. The future you've just come up with just can't exist. I won't allow it."
In my haze, it took me a moment to realize she'd seen what I'd just pictured, a bleak future without Edward in my life. And as he'd no doubt pulled it out of his sister's mind, Edward's hand pressed gently against mine in similar defiance of the vision.
"Charlie isn't that dense. It's just his way of having fun. I'm sure he doesn't mean any of it."
Edward's hand squeezed mine again. Any other human would recoil from the chilly sensation. I found it strangely comforting. "You told me once I'd never catch you betting against Alice. Has that changed?"
I couldn't help the tiny smile I could feel curling on my lips. "No," I said, looking up at him. There was confidence in his stare. At the same time I envied his poise, it also cheered me up somewhat. I allowed a wider smile, and he grinned in response. His eyes were leering at me, as if with encouragement. Being held captive under his probing gaze, it was difficult to remember Alice was still there, and probably watching us with amusement.
Outside, a distant thunder roared. I blinked, startled, and my eyes met Edward's again. He was no longer smiling; I was sure his expression was perfectly reflecting my own. He nodded as if for once, he could read my mind as clearly as anyone's. A storm was due. In more ways than one.