Bella moves to Florida in March.
She and Charlie scream and cry, argue loud enough to wake the neighbors. She breaks mugs and tells him he hasn't been Dad since she was thirteen. He grips the back of the kitchen chair and whispers that he only wanted the best for her.
It's for the best, he tells her. Everyone knows the Cullen's aren't coming back.
It rains on the way to the airport and Bella wonders if she loves or hates Forks. She can't feel anything but the pinprick of the rain and the cold seeping into her toes.
Phil's sister's best friend is a psychiatrist. Bella calls her Dr. Rodriguez in and out of the office. The first session is stilted and awkward and Bella doesn't want to come back but she does, if only for the burst of hope on Renee's face when she comes to pick her up.
The second time is a little better. Dr. Rodriguez asks questions, Bella evades or outright lies. She can't tell from her smell or heartbeats or by seeing the fucking future that she's lying, and it's a wild realization. Dr. Rodriguez knows that she's lying and for the most part she knows what she lies about, but not all of it. Her only condition is that Bella uses their names. Edward Alice Esme Edward Emmet Carlisle Alice Edward Edward Edward.
The truth of it -my vampire boyfriend left me to protect me, he never loved me he said he never loved me he lied - is that for Bella, having the upper hand has become therapeutic.
By the tenth session, Dr. Rodriguez knows about the midnight visits, about the biology classes and Edward's piano, the treasures they gave her and the ones he stole. The first time she uses the words emotional abuse and manipulation and controlling boyfriend, Bella freezes. The second time she runs away.
The third time she stays, and breathes, and listens.
She's been coming to the group meetings for months, viciously quiet with moments of halted despair. The first time someone calls her out on her martyrized princess bullshit, a girl with tattoos down her arms and peeking from her shoulder blades, she answers back with a 'you don't know what happened to me'. The girl laughs in her face, and Bella sees others doing the same from the corner of her eyes as she leaves, huffing, an angry crier even after everything.
She tells herself that they were wrong, they didn't know about vampires and having someone who loved you (who you thought loved you) drink the poison out of your blood and then discard you, lifeless in the forest ground. She misses the next meeting and the next, first furious and then furiously thoughtful.
She asks Renee is she's selfish and she tells her of course you aren't honey, did Edward tell you that? Bella returns the hug and thinks, begins to understand. this is selfish. grief is selfish. this isn't grief.
She comes back on the third week and apologizes, spills her lies and glossed over truths on the linenium floor with a half moon of strangers looking at her. But they aren't strangers, they're listening and sniffling and nodding along like they know her story, like they understand. She's not a vampire's special sweetheart here, just someone who was hurt in a room full of hurt people. It tastes bitter and jostles her from inside out, but she supposed coming out of a hight horse is supposed to feel like that.
She gets a job in a bakery two blocks away from home, a small cozy place whose business is bring sucked away to Starbucks lookalikes. The owner, an old vet, is fairly understanding that some days are better than others, knows when to send her to knead the dough away from noisy costumers and shimmering reflections on the front glass. The pay is awful regardless but at least it eases the guilt of depending on her mother and Phil's goodwill.
As repayment she tries to go to Phil's practices and cheer on mediocre players in a mediocre league played in mediocre school gyms. Some of the kids aren't too bad, from the looks of it. She counts it as a victory when she can think of baseball without an adrenaline rush. Victoria and Laurent have been silent, but the fear never really goes away.
On weekends they go to markets and she haggles over third hand books and fresh strawberries. There's a bookclub of old ladies that meets in the bakery every Saturday morning for the last twelve years. They welcome her in with smiles and book recommendations, most of them more modern than her tastes, and to her surprise Isabella Swan finds herself visiting libraries in search of the book of the week.
The tattooed girl is named Melissa. They volunteer together at animal shelters. Bella has a favorite guinea pig, Mops, which she takes home along with her litter of four. On bad nights, she holds them all in her arms, feeling the little tap tap tap of their heartbeats. She doesn't want to think about wanting to sink fangs on the white fur and drink their life away.
That's when Bella starts to forgive herself for being human.
She hears him in strange moments, in the bath, in the groceries. Crossing the road, knowing if a she moved just a bit a car would run her over. On hot evenings she hides away in seedy bars, eyes searching for beauty and pallor. She makes a sport out of it. That's how she loses her virginity and gets her first hangover on the same night. If Victoria had walked in, she'd have offered her a joint just for the look on her face.
That's when she's feeling feisty. Not often, that is. On rainy days she doesn't leave the house, drowning in memories, in his goddamned voice. It makes her miss the numbness from before, but not really. At least now she's broken in the fear of feeling. She takes a sick pleasure in that. He can take away her love, her life and her dignity, but she can still feel.
It gets worse when Charlie finally tells her they sold the Cullen house. His voice had waned over time, become scarcer, but now it returns in full force. She replays their best moments again, memories so worn they fray at the seams; the worst moments she tries not to think awake.
Renee hovers scared on the other side of the door, Phil with an arm around her shoulder. She doesn't need to look to know this. She doesn't want to. She want to sink into the bed and close her eyes and never wake him, never dream again.
Melissa drags her from the bed. Literally drags her, lifts her up like a rag doll, yells her to woman up and stop letting that bastard consume her life. Bullies her to take a shower and dress, then takes her downtown. Bella hunches listlessly while Melissa drives with her chin jutted out. The tattoo parlor is busy with summer frenzy, machines like drills whirring on skin. Melissa's silhouette fizzles in the neon lights when she slides a paper and pencil in front of her.
It's your skin, kid. You want pain? Have at it. But make sure it mean something to you. It's your body, your life. Are you going to let a pretty boy who left you control it?
Bella was never a great artist. Luckily Melissa understood her description well enough.
Renee gives birth to a little girl. Madison is a scrunched up wailing thing clad in onesies from Phil's team, and Bella doesn't love her right away. One morning she tiptoes to the nursery before she wakes up her parents and realizes between changing diapers that there was nothing she has never loved anyone as much as she loves this baby.
It shatters something inside her, but it doesn't matter because it makes space for Maddy who is cooing at her, the precious weight of her breathing in her arms.
She curses a lot, like a sailor, under her breath and in her mind, at everything and everyone. Not so much with Madison around, but she's careful. The Cullen's never did, ever in control of themselves and everyone else. She pictures Edward's perfect face twisted into a perfect scowl of perfect disapproval. It feels fucking great.
Frances is studying art, with a focus on sculpture. She comes to the bakery every other day with a bag overflowing with schematics, braids swinging behind her. She always asks for the raspberry cheesecake and always uses the tissues from her sandwich to clean the charcoal from her hands. She and Bella nod, smile, chat. She starts to stay longer and longer to speak with her, catches the beginning of the bookclub meetings and never really goes away.
Bella has friends now, so she knows more about how to go about befriending Frances. She's one year younger than Bella but one feet taller, funny, honest without being insensitive, respectful without being condescending. She quotes Jane Austen and Tamora Pierce in the same breath and Bella leans over, grinning, a quip on the tip of her tongue. When she has free time from her apprenticeship in the tattoo parlor, Melissa likes to tease her for her crush in between flirting with the other baristas. Bella blushes and sneaks a look from under her fringe at Frances debating with Mrs. Lewinsky over Fifty Shades of Grey.
When their hands meet over a mug of hot chocolate, it's not an accident. There's no electric shock, no supernatural attraction. Her nails are short and painted purple, clay stuck underneath, dark skin smudged with charcoal-grey.
There was a swell of murder victims in the weeks before, long enough for her to make something like a plan. Her heart beats like Mops' when she's scared for her children. But this is her home turf from her wild desperate years, she knows these abandoned warehouses, when they're occupied and by whom.
The last time she walked into the trap wide eyed, thinking she knew what was going to happen, thinking she might be saved anyway. This time she is under no illusion. Hood over her face, blue-tipped bangs tickling her face, she comes up to Victoria. Time had been unkind even for someone who does not change; she is beautiful as ever, but wild and lost in the bloodrage.
It's almost easy.
Frances notices the flamethrower missing, but doesn't ask, only levels her a long look and tells her to make sure to only not take it when she needed it to sculpt metal, and to warn her dammit. The next time lies unsaid. Bella had been searching for a big enough thrill for so long, and vampire hunting is the greatest rush she has ever felt. Frances lifts an eyebrow and reminds her pointedly of her parents, dead in mysterious circumstances. Bella smiles sheepishly and kisses her cheek.
It was like Dr. Rodriguez said. Healthy relationship must be based on mutual trust and respect, with a strong foundation of mutual understanding.
She calls Dr. Rodriguez for the first time in an year the day before Charlie's wedding. Huddled in a airport bathroom stall Bella, the scared girl-woman who used to --love a monster, want to live forever, never wake up again--who used to be a lamb, struggles to breathe in through the nose out through the mouth, heartbeatsteadyheartbeatsteady.
I'm alive, she rasps to the toilet. I'm human. A murderous one, but it's better to keep that quiet. You never know whose sharp ears might be around. I did it for the ones I love, she thinks, and then: what's so fucking bad about revenge anyway?
She's never met Sue Swan née Clearwater or her two children. No one makes plans for that. They skype every week, though. Sue is kind and no nonsense, Leah curt but interested in her tattoos and Seth stares hugely at Melissa whenever she shows up on screen. Bella thinks Charlie is terrified of how comfortable she is with Frances. I am too, she admits one night when it's just the two of them and the screen, but I'm not going to let that stop me. Edward Cullen is not the sun anymore.
He says he's never been prouder of her. She's never been prouder of herself either.
Sometimes, most of the times, Bella has Frances over when Phil and Renee are away. Recently they've talked about getting a place of their own, a studio close to the bakery for France to commission her own pieces. A safe for flame throwers, maybe. For now they play with Maddy until bedtime. Frances makes the best voices and Bella howls like a wolf in a new and improved version of Red Riding Hood. It never fails to make Maddy giggle.
Later, tangled in the blankets, Frances traces the pale scars under the tattoos.
What does it mean? she asks sometimes. It's always the same answer, but this too is a bedtime story. Bella isn't the only one on this mattress with night terrors.
The lamb is eating the lion. It's a reminder that you don't need to be a hunter to be powerful. A grin in the dark. That meek prey can grow teeth and claws and balls.
Frances laughs, kisses her neck and Bella kisses hers. Counts the pulse beneath, steady and sated.
She still dreams. The best ones are of her aging. She stands, sagging and wrinkled like her grandmother had been, in front of a mirror. In her dreams old Bella has a worn face, and when she turns her arm the lamb is sinking it's maws into the lion and it bleeds down her wrist, dripping red ink into the ferns and setting the forest ablaze.