Chapter 25: Even Playing Ground


Bella stayed home for Christmas. I asked her to come with me to my parent's, but she said she didn't want to. I practically begged her, but she wouldn't budge. I don't want her all alone. Shit, even I don't do that. But, what am I going to do? Drag her here?

It's been the same old same old. Dinner. Memory lane. Presents. I'd rather be home. I try not to be grouchy. I put on a smile and fake it. I'm sure they know, but they play along. The girls are cleaning up in the kitchen. My father is showing a family friend a new piece of art they've added to their collection, downstairs.

Jasper and I are in the living room. There's something on television, but I'm not paying attention. He seems bored. Alice is the only reason he's here. He'll never admit the real reason, but it's obvious. They are definitely more than friends.

My leg bounces and I'm not sure how to ask this. It should be easy. Jasper knows most of my thoughts. He's dealt with me since….for a while. Plus, he's a professional. He might be here as a friend, but ultimately, Jasper is a professional. Anxiety makes my words blurt out from my mouth.

"Can I ask you a hypothetical question, Jasper? From a professional's point of view?"

He nods. "I'm all ears."

My hands rub together. "If someone were having feelings for another person and the two worked together…and maybe they both had some unresolved…issues….would….would that be okay?" Jesus, did I really just say that?

"Only one person is having these feelings?"

"I'm not sure. I think it's both. I'm not sure."

"Hmm. Well, I suppose it would depend what the issues were. On the other hand; maintaining a professional and personal relationship at the same time is difficult, not to mention, many employers wouldn't approve."

I wave my hand. "That part isn't the issue. Not in that way."

"Then what is the issue?"

"The boss doesn't want to seem like he's taking advantage of his employee. She's sort of…delicate."

He thinks this over. "The best advice is communication, Edward. Both parties need to be clear of where they stand."

"But…feeling something for this person…the boss feeling something for this person isn't wrong?"

"What does he feel, exactly?"

"I'm not sure." I sit back in my seat. "He cares about her, but it feels wrong."

"Caring about someone isn't wrong. There couldn't be anything more right, Edward."

I'm frustrated. I sit forward again. "Jesus Christ, Jasper. My wife died only a year ago. This isn't right. There's nothing right about it." I put my face in my hands. "Fuck."

He's quiet for a moment as I sit and stew. "Edward, are we having a real discussion, now?"

I fold my hands under my chin. "It's just Bella." I sigh. "I can't help this….whatever this is…I can't make it go away."

"Do you want it to go away?"

"Yes. No. I don't know." I rub my face.

"How does Bella feel?"

I sigh. "I don't know that, either."

"Alright, well, let's go back to the first part. You're not sure if it is okay to feel – whatever you are feeling – for Bella. Right?"

I nod.

"Okay. And this is because you feel…perhaps guilty? Because this is someone other than Tanya?"

I just keep nodding. It makes more sense than my mouth.

"Let's do an exercise, Edward. I want you to put yourself in Tanya's shoes, so to speak. Picture yourself in her position and then place her in your own. What would you do if you were her? What would you, as her, want for your life? Your life that no longer involves her?"

It's a no brainer. "I'd want her to be happy." It's all I ever wanted.

"Alright, now let's switch back. What would make you happy?" Shit. "Does Bella make you happy?"

I let a moment pass. My finger rubs at my chin. "I think so. Sometimes. Most of the time. When she's not drinking."

"Would this be the issue you were referring to?"

"Among others. I don't really want to talk about that though. It's not my place."

"I believe I remember a few details, from the phone conversation we had."

Oh, right. When Bella was in the hospital. Shit. "I still don't want to talk about it."

Jasper sighs. "Edward, the only thing I can tell you is that you need to be honest with both yourself and Bella. Pretending you don't feel what you do is only going to cause you more stress. There's no point in lying to yourself or denying it.

"As far as Bella is concerned, perhaps her…experiences…in life could be beneficial to you. I'm sure she can sympathize to how you feel on a certain level; maybe that is why you feel connected to her.

"But, Edward, you need to be honest with her, because for someone who has had the experiences she has, there could be nothing worse than lying or hiding things from her. The simple fact that Bella allows you to help her out, even on just a financial level, is a big step for her. It's not easy to trust when you have lived on your guard, alone, for so long."

Don't I know it.

I walk in and Bella is in the living room. She looks over her shoulder and smiles, slightly. That damn feeling. I sit down beside her and toss my keys on the table. The room is dark, except for the Christmas tree. She should have the fireplace on. It's cold in here. I look at the tree and see the remaining present. I stand and pick it up. I sit back down and stare at it before I hand it over. She looks at me.

"It's no big deal, trust me."

She pushes the blanket away and I sigh as she gets up. It's just a silly gift. I toss it aside and listen to her feet on the steps. I'm about to look for the remote when I hear her feet coming back down. She re-enters the room and sits next to me, again. There is something in her hands. A present. I look at her as she shoves it at me.

"I saw your stupid gift under the tree and didn't want to be a twat." She rests it on my lap. "Alice said you liked golf, but I don't know shit about golf."

The corner of my mouth lifts. "Thank you, Bella."

She shrugs. I put her gift in her lap. "I didn't know what you liked, but I thought it made sense."

Slowly, she reaches down and starts tearing at the paper. My insides are Jello. I don't know why. The paper is gone and she lifts the lid. Her hands pause. She is still and I don't know what that means.

"You didn't have one. I wasn't sure if you'd stay. I guess I was hoping you would."

Her finger pokes inside the box and she plucks the keychain from it. She holds it in her hand. Her thumb runs over the engraved B, for her name, in the silver. The key to the house dangles from it. The lights of the tree catch the metal and glimmer.

She looks at me. She doesn't look hurt. She looks like she understands. "Thanks."

I nod. "You're welcome."

Her eyes glance down and I assume she would like me to open mine. I pick it up and start peeling the paper. I go slow, but in truth, I am anxious to know what it is. I never dreamed she would have bought something for me. The paper falls away and there is a leather-bound book in my hands. It's a little worn out. I flip the pages and it is bare. I don't really understand, but I'm grateful none the less.

"Your other one is full."

I look at her. "What one?"

Her voice is small. "The one on the piano."

My eyes travel there and I get it. It's a book for writing music in. I should be pissed that she went through my things, but I'm not. I look down to the book again and can't help but to feel overwhelmed. Not only did she buy something, but she actually bought something personal. Thoughtful.

I am so fucked. Jasper is right and I am so fucked.

"Or, you know, you could always use it to right down your dirty thoughts. Those demented fantasies you have about cracking the whip on pregnant chicks." She is back paddling. My silence makes her assume I don't like it. The only thing I don't like is the mask shit she pulls.

"It's perfect, Bella. Thank you."

I set the book on the coffee table. I need to explain this shit to her, but she is already freaking out, just giving me a gift, thinking I don't like it. My brain fumbles for a way to make her understand. Perhaps an even playing ground is needed. I'll take one, so she'll know I'm serious. It worked that day in my room, on Thanksgiving.

I look forward. It takes me a moment, but I say it. "There used to be a wall there. Tanya would sit by the window," I nod towards the smaller window in the left corner of the room. "She'd read there for hours; study sometimes. She used to pull up a chair and just get lost in a book. I loved watching her." I look back over to the window bench.

My mind can see her there. It's spring and the sunlight is bright. Her finger twirls a long strand of hair as she lays back and reads. Her legs are long and creamy and perfect. Her smile when she catches me staring is my whole world. We made love there. I told her I loved her there. I watched her from that bench when she danced in the snow and made snow angels. I should board the fucking spot back up.

"I had the wall cut out and the window and the bench installed where the wall used to be. She was with her sister out of town, visiting and when she came home it was finished. She was so happy."

It takes all my will, but I stand and reach out for Bella's hand. She's tentative. "Please?" Slowly her hand reaches out and rests into mine. I walk to the bench and take a seat. She does not.

Her head shakes. "I shouldn't…."

I reassure her. "It's okay."

She gingerly sits down. Her hand slides from mine. It rests in her lap. I try to hold her gaze. Jasper said to be honest. When you are speaking truthfully, you look someone in the eye. Esme taught me that when I was seven.

"I don't like sitting here, Bella. It makes me uncomfortable. Telling you the story makes me uncomfortable, but I figured it is only fair, since I want to ask something that is going to make you uncomfortable."

She shakes her head. "I don't want to talk about family stuff. Not today."

"I'm not talking about your dad or your mother. I just need to know something. It bothers me, and I want to know."

Her face doesn't understand. I settle my nerves and lift my hand to her cheek. She pulls back, as I expected she would. I lower my hand towards her breast. No reaction. I stop before I make contact.

"Why is the first thing not okay and the second is, Bella?"

She says nothing. I sit a little closer. "If I ask a question about your family, about you, it makes you uncomfortable; you don't like it. If I ask a question about your former profession, you never hesitate. In fact, you almost look happy to talk about it. Why is that?"

She shifts; shying away from me. "Bella, you told me that I don't know much about women, but perhaps, you don't know much about men."

I'm given a dubious expression. I keep going. "Have you ever had a boyfriend? Someone you were with, dated, just because you wanted to, not because someone was paying you to be with them?"

"I told you I was seventeen when I started stripping. When in the hell would I have had a boyfriend, Cullen?"

I nod. "That's my point. You only know one way of being with a man. No one has ever treated you any differently."

Her walls are coming back up. "And you think you're gonna be the one to fix that?"

"No, but I want you to know I don't think of you, or about you, like they do."

Her brow lifts. "You're a man and that's a lie. Don't play innocent or the White Knight shit, Edward. You get hard for me just like anyone else."

"And you provoke it," I counter.

She goes to protest, but I hold up my hand. "Let me finish. You provoke it and what happens is natural. I'm not saying you aren't beautiful, Bella. You are, incredibly so. What I'm saying is, when my hand wants to touch your cheek, it just wants to touch your cheek. When I offer you my hand, it is only to help you. And if I do something to care for you, anything at all, it is only because I care for you. I don't expect sexual favors in return. I don't want sexual favors in return.

"I don't enjoy hearing about what those other men have done to you or the fact that they probably never would have been able to if someone simply explained to you that it's not alright. What I did to you, was not alright."

She huffs. "Just because you have hang ups about sex doesn't mean everyone else has to have one also, Edward. You don't write the goddamn rule book."

"I didn't say I did. And I'm not talking about a girl who simply goes out and has fun with men she enjoys. I'm talking about a girl was just a girl when her father died – her father, whom I'd assume would have never allowed such a girl to be treated the way you have been…"

She goes to stand, but I grab her and make her stay. My one hand is around her wrist, my other on her arm. "Bella, I don't want to see you hurt. I don't want you thinking this is all you are, because you aren't."

She starts to tremble. "Please let me go."

I ignore her. "Do you understand what I'm saying?"

She twists and wiggles, but she can't go anywhere. She starts to cry, but it's fear, not pain. She's not scared of me. She's scared of herself. "Edward, please let me go."

"Bella you were a little girl. He never got a chance to explain these things to you."

She's shaking her head. She's closing her eyes. "Just stop. Please stop it." She's sobbing and begging me over and over, but I hold on to her. I envelop her in my arms and just hold her. She's still shaking. Her fists are balled and tight against my chest. She gives resistance, but I ignore it. I hug my arms tighter around her and rock gently back and forth, as though she were that little girl.

Time passes, it feels like forever. Her fists go slack and lay flat on my chest. Her sobs quiet down, into hiccups and sniffles. I keep rocking. It's working. I say nothing. I let my fingers gently slide through her hair. I smooth my hand along her head. She presses her cheek into my chest. She's letting go. She's letting me in and letting go.

The feeling inside of me is surging. Drinking down the euphoria of how it feels to simply comfort what feels so uncomfortable. For both of us. On Tanya's bench. Even playing ground and honesty. Who knew. I lean my head to hers. I close my eyes and allow myself to think of Bella. Her needs, her vulnerability and how to drive my point home. I don't want to let go, but I do. I lean away. She looks down. I move my hands slowly to her face and cradle them under her chin. Her eyes are watery looking up at me.

I sweep away the tears on her cheeks with my thumbs. I let go of her face with one hand. My fingers curl towards my palm and I slide them along the side of her face. I look at her. In the eye. Honesty. Trust. I release my other hand and mimic my movements. She relaxes with every passing. I allow the tips of my fingers to touch her hairline. I still look at her. My fingers slide through her chestnut waves; I push her long locks over her shoulder, away from her face. Bare. Pale. Bella. In the glow of the moon from the window, that's all I see. Bare. Pale. Bella.

I lean forward. Her body tenses. I rub my fingers over her cheeks, again. She's warm from being flushed. Her eyes close. I press my lips under her eye and in the crease between her eye and her nose. It's light. It's sweet. I just want her to know what its like. But it's also been a long time for me and she isn't the only one having a lesson here. I do the same on the other side of her face and lean away. I keep my fingers moving. She looks at me, again.

My voice is soft. "This is the only way anyone should ever touch you, Bella. The only way you should ever want someone to touch you. The only way I want to touch you."

She keeps our connection for a moment, but then looks towards the window. "It's still snowing." Deflection.

I let her go. My hands fall into my lap. "It's supposed to all night."

Her voice is flat. "Do you ever play in it, anymore?"

My lips smile. "No, not really."

"I want to."

"Bella, it's like twenty-below out there."

She shrugs. "I have a coat."

I stare out the window. Ending tonight with Bella crying would be awful. It's Christmas. It's fucking Christmas. I turn back to her.

"I'm not going to build a snowman, Bella, but I'll take you out there if you'd like. I'll show you something."


"You'll see. Put on your boots."

She stares at me for a moment and I nod in encouragement. She gets off the bench and heads for the stairs. I walk to the hallway closet and put on a heavy coat. She comes down as I am putting on gloves. I look her over and reach in the closet. I grab a knitted hat and pull it over her head as I pass. I'm being juvenile and it covers her eyes. She adjusts it as she follows me. I lead us out the back door. It's is fucking cold. Like colder than cold. Fucking Eskimo cold.

I shiver as I walk towards the side of the house. Bella waits. I plug the cord into the outlet and the path comes to life. I turn around and Bella is looking that way. Her eyes are a little amazed. I reach out my hand to her and she looks at it, then to me. She takes a step forward and places her hand into mine, gently. My inner being is smiling.

"I was lucky when I bought this house. It was only one of two, at the time, built in this area. They just started developing. I have neighbors in the front, but not the back." We start walking through the yard and towards the path. The branches of the tall trees are lit with small white lights. They show the way and glow warm against the cold.

"All of this is yours?" She asks.

I nod. "Yeah, it goes back about two acres or so."

Her little finger points. "And you light it like this every year?"

"All year long. I never take them down. I haven't turned them on in along time though."

We walk along the path in silence for a while. Only our feet crunching through the snow can be heard against the dead of night. Bella stumbles a few times and I hold tighter to her hand. Her little fingers grip mine the same way and I can't help that feeling from coming to life.

"What was your favorite Christmas present when you were little?" She asks, quietly.

"Um…hmmm, it's been a long time," I laugh. "Probably…this little robot I was given."

She smiles and looks at me. "Why?"

"You had to use diesel fuel to power him and his head would smoke when he stopped and moved his arms. Alice hated the smell."

She laughs a little.

"What about you?"

She thinks for a moment. "I used to like those little cardboard things with the faces and like, they had magnet dust or something in them and you used the wand thing to move it around?"

She looks at me and I nod in understanding. "Wooly Willy."

Her face lights up. "Yeah, those things." She laughs harder. "Holy shit that name that name is so wrong. No wonder I liked it."

I roll my eyes and keep walking.

"What's that?" She points to the gazebo.

"Just the gazebo. There's a fire-pit and sometimes – when it isn't twenty below zero out – it's nice to hang out there and relax." She stares at it as we pass. It's lit up, just like the trees. "You can look if you want."

I pause. She walks towards it. I wait on the steps as she looks around. She turns towards me. Her finger points to the speakers. "What are those for?"

"Music or game scores, depending on who is here," I smile.

"You can play music out here?"

I tap my foot to the wood. "There's a box built below here. Don't ask me how it works beyond that, 'cause I couldn't tell you."

"What kind of music?"

I try to think of what was here last. It's been too long. "Good question." I kneel down and lift the latch that seals this portion of the floor. I turn the system on and press play. It's something soft and…oh, now I remember. I lower the door and stand.

"You like this stuff? Jazz? You play it in the car sometimes."

I nod. She takes a seat and just listens. I lean against the beam and watch her. There is this image in my mind, of Bella being a young girl, sitting on the gym bleachers and waiting for someone to come along and ask her to dance. I wonder if she even made it that far. I wonder if she did, was there someone who asked? Did a boy ever just take her hand and lead her to the dance floor and make her feel special, even just for one song? No, probably not. This isn't what they would play at a school dance. This isn't what a young girl would want to dance to, but it's all I have and all I can do.

"Do you dance?"

She looks up at me. She nods. "I can."

I take a few steps. I put out my hand. "Would you like to?"

And she smiles like a shy girl. Her cheeks flush and she is not the same Bella. I reach down and take her hand from her lap. She looks scared and it's too funny, but I don't laugh. She stands up as I pull her. One hand around hers. One hand on her hip. The thick coat is awkward. Her hand in mind. Her other hand on my shoulder. I move slow. I lead her and I'm sure she hates it. She likes being in control of men and she has none. She knows I won't back down and she hates it. She looks scared. She looks vulnerable. She looks like the girl she should have been.

I pause. My eyes watch the movement in the woods, over her shoulder. I twirl her and hold her in place, by the hips. I lean down and whisper against her hair. "Don't move."

I let go of her and kneel down. I shut off the music and stand again. I'm behind her. "Do you see that?"

She shakes her head. I put my hands on her shoulders and move her to the side a little. I point. "Right there. Two moose."

It takes a minute, but she looks over her shoulder when she sees them and smiles. I lean down and whisper. "Be really quiet." I take her hand and we tip-toe towards the stairs. I help her down and we crouch, watching them. I've seen them every year, it's really nothing new to me, but watching them from Bella's eyes is. She looks completely amazed and I can't look away.

Until one of them makes a noise. And moves closer to us.

I put my finger over my mouth. She looks between me and the moose. I'll admit, it's a little intimidating. They are huge and we…are not. Plus, this is their playground, not ours. My heart races as they get closer. They just seem curious, but it's still unsettling. They sniff the ground. They turn and they retreat. When they are a few yards down the path, I take Bella's hand and we run like hell.

The porch door closes behind me and I don't stop until we reach the living room. I collapse on the couch. Bella next. All you can hear is our labored breaths. Once the reality that we are safe hits, I start to laugh and cannot stop. Bella laughs with me. I pull at my coat and undo the buttons, needing air.

"I'm so glad I thought the cold would be the worst part," I quip.

Bella is still laughing. "Holy shit. Your Face, Cullen. Fuck, I can't run like that."

I sit up and shrug my jacket off. "Are you okay?"

She nods. "Yeah, better to have a cramp then have my face eaten off by wild animals."

I stare at her stomach. "Are you sure? In truth, you really shouldn't run like that."

She sits up. "I'm fine." She takes her jacket off. The hat stays on her head. I pull it off.

"Alright, so you've had your fun outdoors, Bella. Happy now? Can we just turn on the fireplace and enjoy Christmas inside, you know, where it's warm and face-eating-moose free, please?"

She gives me the finger.

"I'll take that as a yes." I flip on the fireplace and lean back. "Want to watch a movie?"

She shrugs. "Sure."

"Pick something." I hand her the remote and she chooses one of the only non-Christmas movies playing. I sink down into the couch and rest my head on a pillow. She is on the other side, mimicking my position. My eyes watch the movie for a few minutes and then drift to the book on the coffee table. The feeling bubbles up inside of me. There is no ignoring it anymore. It is there. It has become a part of me, or maybe it was always a part of me and I simply forgot. I'm not sure. I look at Bella and she has her arms tucked against her chest. Her body is balled and she looks cold. I could get the blanket. Sure. But I don't.


She looks over. I scoot back, flat against the couch cushions. My hand pats the space in front of me. Her body moves slowly. She lays down facing the television. I rub her arm to warm her. She doesn't shy away.

I whisper. "Better?"

She nods and I keep rubbing. Her body relaxes into mine. It's not dirty. She isn't playing a game. She isn't grinding against me. She's just laying and falling asleep and warm and soft. I let my arm cover her, protectively. From what; I don't know. My eyes feel heavy and the warmer she is, the sleepier I am and the sleepier I am, the more she relaxes. I close my eyes and rest my head to hers.

"Merry Christmas, Bella."

And it is.