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A Different Path

Summary:
How would the story have progressed if Bella, instead of Jacob, had answered the phone on the day of Harry's funeral?


Notes:


3. Chapter 3

Rating 5/5   Word Count 4635   Review this Chapter

Bella kept her eyes firmly averted from her closed window as she dressed for school. She’d been up late the previous night staring at it, wondering what would happen if she opened it, and then being annoyed with herself for wondering. It was extremely unfair to Jacob for her to even consider it. And she didn’t want to think about what state she would be in if she’d opened it and been disappointed.

As soon as she heard the cruiser pull out, she went to her truck. She couldn’t help but grin at the sight of Jacob’s sneakers shoved underneath the passenger seat. She was expecting a rough day, and a little reminder of her personal sun was helpful. The drive to school took half as long as she would have liked, and she parked quickly, hoping to catch Angela before their first class.

Luck was with her, for once. Angela and Ben were waiting in the parking lot, and by the time she’d cut the engine, they were headed toward her, both looking worried. She hefted her school bag up over her shoulder and went to meet them. “Sorry I didn’t call,” she mumbled, looking contrite.

Angela smiled sadly. “That’s alright, I understand,” she replied. And Bella knew she really meant it. The three of them set out for the first class of the day; Calculus for Ben and Bella, English for Angela. They walked together for as long as they could. Bella waited patiently while Ben kissed Angela goodbye, and waved to her when she started towards her class.

“Here goes nothing,” she muttered as she and Ben continued on.

She was surprised when he spoke up, just outside the classroom door. “Look, do you want to trade seats?” he asked quickly.

“That’s really nice of you, Ben, but you know Mr. Varner won’t let us get away with it. I’d rather not have him comment and make us trade back.” She grimaced at the thought, and Ben nodded.

“Guess you’re right.”

Ben followed her into the classroom, so Bella didn’t allow herself to hesitate. She walked quickly to her desk and sat, trying to keep her eyes off Edward, who appeared to be concentrating very hard on his book. She failed, but he didn’t look up, so she hoped he hadn’t noticed.

Class dragged, as Calculus usually did. Fortunately, she’d worked so hard on it all year that she understood the lesson as well as she figured she ever would. She paid marginal attention to the lecture, and did a few of the practice problems in the meantime, keeping her hair carefully between Edward and herself. She never noticed him looking at her, though she glanced at him often. She knew, though, that it didn’t mean a thing. He could be sneaking glances at her all the time, and she’d never catch him at it. He was just too fast.

She told herself it didn’t matter; that she would prefer that he ignore her anyway. But she knew the thought for a lie every time she repeated it in her head. It DID matter. But she also knew that even if he was willing to speak to her, there was nothing more to say between them. He didn’t want her. What else was there to discuss?

She pressed her lips together in consternation when she felt tears creeping into her eyes, and stared up at Mr. Varner to distract herself. This wasn’t the best idea. He was now talking about the upcoming test, a mindless subject, and looking up brought her face out from behind the curtain of her hair. She knew at once that Edward had turned to look at her, and she tried to relax her expression. Failing, she ducked her head again and wrote something in her notebook. It was with a profound sense of despair that she realized that, however bad it had been to have him leave her, it was equally horrible to have him close enough to touch and still to know that he didn’t want her.

She was unprepared for the end of class. Everyone was standing by the time she processed that they’d been dismissed. Taking a deep breath, she closed her book and notebook and put them in her bag carefully, taking a little extra time and hoping the room would clear out so she could make her get-away. By the time she stood up, Edward was long gone.

Each class was much the same. Edward sat through the lectures in stony silence, careful to let no expression cross his face. Occasionally, when she shifted in her chair, or looked up, he would glance at her. However, he said nothing – disappearing after each class and hurrying to the next. He could hear the thoughts of the other students clearly, and was surprised by the fact that he was even MORE universally disliked than before. With the exception of Angela, and to a lesser extent, Ben, almost everyone was angry with him. Mike Newton was the worst. He’d apparently been at Bella’s house after they found her in the woods, and the scene kept replaying in the boy’s mind. Edward gritted his teeth and tried to ignore it. But tuning it out was almost impossible. Some part of him wanted to see it. Some part of him thought he deserved to see it. He looked forward to lunch with no small amount of relief.

Edward was fairly certain that with Bella intent on making it through the school day, Angela and Ben would leave him alone, and he expected Alice’s thoughts would be more pleasant company that Mike Newton’s. He was, therefore, more than a little disgruntled to walk into the cafeteria and see Bella already sitting with Alice. Angela and Ben were in the line ahead of him, and he could see plainly that they intended to join Bella’s table. He grimaced briefly, but got in the lunch line and purchased the food he would not eat.

Bella watched Edward surreptitiously from the moment he entered the cafeteria. She’d known when she sat with Alice that she was presenting him with a quandary, but hadn’t been able to refrain. Alice was talking animatedly about L.A. now, as if she really had spent the last few months there. Bella tried to look interested, for the sake of the charade.

She should have been shocked when Edward seated himself next to Ben, but she had suspected he might. Something about the set of his jaw when he’d turned from the lunch line had given away his decision. She kept her eyes on Alice, however, as he approached the table.

Alice frowned, suddenly, and paused mid-story to look at the expression on Bella’s face, then she shot an annoyed glance in Edward’s direction. He sighed quietly and began picking apart the sandwich in front of him. The silence seemed deafening for all of four seconds before Bella looked up, forced a smile onto her face, and turned toward him. He could feel the shock of the others before he had time to feel his own surprise.

“Hello, Edward. Did you enjoy L.A. also?” Bella asked, trying to keep her voice steady without it falling to a whisper. She almost succeeded. There was some pain in her tone, but she resigned herself to that.

“I didn’t, particularly, but thank you for asking. Like Esme, I prefer Forks.” He kept his tone formal and distant. It was easier for him to sound indifferent. He’d had more practice. And yet, he hadn’t been able to make himself tell her that he’d enjoyed being away. He kept a frown from his face with difficulty. His intention had been to stay out of her way until the mess with Victoria was taken care of and then remove himself from Forks for the rest of her life. Admitting that he’d been miserable away from her was not an action that would keep him on that path.

Bella’s frown was immediate and it pained him to see it. She seemed either confused or annoyed by his response, and he wished he could tell which it was. He turned his attention back to his unappetizing food with only a little effort. He heard Angela’s thoughts as she nudged Ben, who promptly asked him if he was ready for the upcoming Calculus test, and he responded. Conversation flowed a bit more normally after that, though Bella never spoke directly to him again. If he had thought school was penance for his sins before meeting Bella, now he knew it to be so.

A careful pattern developed over the course of the next few weeks. Bella continued trying not to look at Edward during class, while Edward tried not to listen to the accusing thoughts of half the school throughout the day. They greeted each other politely at the beginning of lunch, but otherwise strictly remained silent. Bella went straight to La Push after school every day, miserable until she could see Jacob. Edward went straight to Bella’s house after school and kept a lookout for Victoria’s return through the night, miserable until she arrived home. Jacob drove her home each evening, sometimes coming inside to sit and work on homework, but more often taking to the woods immediately, also keeping watch for Victoria.

It was inevitable, really, that Edward and Jacob should cross paths.

Bella was looking over her nearly-complete essay on Animal House while Charlie focused on a ball game in the other room when the growling erupted from the nearby woods. It had been quite a while since there’d been any sightings of the monstrous wolves that had frightened the whole town, but Charlie was out of his chair almost at once, game forgotten, when the ruckus began. He called the station quickly to report the noise. It was hideously loud. Then he strapped his gun belt around his waist and opened the door.

Bella was frozen at the kitchen table, her essay still held up in front of her eyes. She lowered it slowly when she heard the deadbolt slide. She recognized the snarling voices only too easily.

Charlie turned toward her, and she was out of her chair in a heartbeat. “Stay inside, Bells, I’ve got to see what’s out there.”

“Shouldn’t you wait for the rangers to come?” she asked worriedly. The last thing she needed was for Charlie to shoot Jacob or Edward, or both!

“They’re on their way. Wait inside, Bella. Lock the door.” He closed the door behind him and waited on the other side until she’d thrown the deadbolt. She watched him draw his gun, then ran upstairs to her room, throwing the window open with a crash, and ignoring the rain that dripped on her head as she leaned out to look. Charlie hadn’t come around the side of the house yet.

She whispered desperately in the darkness, trusting that Jacob and Edward would hear her over their own growls and her father would not.

“You’ve got to stop!” she hissed, “Charlie’s coming!” Then, feeling desperate as the fight clearly continued, “Please! Jake? Edward?” Charlie came around the corner, then, and the noise cut off abruptly.

“I can’t see anything, Dad,” she called down to him loudly, for good measure. Charlie glanced up at her, a worried expression on his face. She watched as he took the trail into the trees and disappeared quickly, his black raincoat blending with the shadows. Her eyes darted worriedly in every direction before it occurred to her that she wasn’t ever going to be able to see what was going on. She sat heavily on her bed, trying to force back the tears she felt stinging her eyes. She didn’t know whether she should worry more for Edward, Charlie or Jacob. She let her head drop into her hands, resting her elbows on her knees as she waited for some further sound over the patter of the rain.

She didn’t have long to wait. As soon as Charlie was out of sight of the house, there was an unnatural wind ruffling her hair. She looked up to see Edward already pacing her room, and her eyes widened in astonishment. That answered the question as to what would happen if she left her window open, she thought wryly to herself. He didn’t look at her, though.

“Where’s Jake?” she asked in a choked voice, after several moments of tense silence.

“Right here,” came the answer from her door. Edward and Bella both turned their heads to see Jacob closing the door quietly behind him. “Charlie’s going to be a while. I left some tracks for him to follow.”

Bella wanted to ask if they were both alright, but something about the way they glared at one another made her hold her tongue. Instead she asked, “Honestly, what were the two of you thinking?”

Both men cringed and looked away from each other, then. Jacob strode across the room and sat down beside her, putting an arm around her shoulders, and looking smug about it. Edward eyed him with a momentary expression of annoyance that he quickly hid. Bella caught it, though, and squinted at him questioningly. He ignored her.

“You’ve delivered your message, if that was your only intention,” he said coldly to Jacob.

“What message?” Bella asked at once.

“Sam wanted me to remind the bloodsuckers of a few key points to the treaty. He’s almost as nervous as I am about them running around your house every night.”

Edward cringed again. He hadn’t intended for Bella to know he’d been here quite so often. “We remember the treaty as well as you do,” he growled angrily.

“What key points?”

Jacob looked at Bella cautiously, his smug grin fading. “If they bite anyone, the treaty is broken,” he said quietly.

She stared at him incredulously before snorting in disgust. “And you think THAT’S why Edward’s been running around outside my house at night?” she asked. She didn’t wait for a response before declaring, “Don’t worry, Jake. That’s never been his intention at all.” She felt the tears stinging her eyes at this admission. It was difficult enough seeing Edward every day, knowing he didn’t love her, but another thing entirely to discuss her own undesirability with the both of them here in her room. Rather than cry in front of them, she stood abruptly and went to the window, wondering how much longer Charlie would be, her arms wrapped around herself protectively.

Edward was holding his breath. The pain in her voice tore through him, but he kept his eyes on Jacob, glaring. Jacob had scooted back on the bed to lounge against the wall on the other side, his hands behind his head. The familiarity that implied bothered him. He reminded himself that he wasn’t supposed to be interfering with Bella’s future, and forced his eyes towards where she stood at the window. He ignored the accusing thoughts Jacob was flinging at him.

“Charlie’s met up with the rangers, and they’re starting a search pattern. They’ll be a while, and there’s nothing to find,” he reassured her in a quiet voice. Then he turned back to Jacob, his voice abruptly cold. “If that’s all you had to tell me, dog, I think I’ll be going.”

“That’s it. Unless you’d like to hammer out some sort of schedule so this doesn’t happen again,” Jake offered casually. They both noticed Bella turning sharply from the window to glance between them.

Edward thought about that briefly. “It could work. You might as well leave the nights for me. I’ve nothing better to do.” Then he paused and grimaced. “No,” he responded unwillingly to some errant thought in Jacob’s head. Jake grinned in response.

“Alright, then. I’ll watch until midnight and you pick up the rest.”

Bella looked between them again, and allowed herself a sigh. She never seemed to get any say in who babysat her. Still, she could admit that she felt a lot safer with someone keeping an eye out for Victoria. There was no telling when she might try again.

At first, Bella found school less tense after the late night altercation, but that soon changed. Edward seemed to have decided that, now that he’d been in her room again, he was obligated to greet her between classes, in addition to just at lunch. Each time he spoke, her heart gave a funny lurch. She wondered whether she would have been able to forgo her delusions if he hadn’t come back. She’d never know. And she felt very guilty for reacting to his voice at all.

That was part of the reason why she sat quietly in Physics, glaring at the launcher the teacher had set on their shared desk in preparation for a projectile motion lab. Lab days were the worst, because you were expected to talk with your partner. So Edward was talking, but not about Physics.

“Bella?” he’d asked, as soon as the teacher passed their desk. She pushed her hair over her shoulder and turned slightly toward him. “I wanted to apologize for what happened at your place last week,” he said quietly, his eyes dark and intense. She tried to look over his shoulder instead of straight at him, as he spoke. She still tended to forget how to exhale when he looked at her that way, and sometimes it was difficult to remind herself that he didn’t mean anything by it.

“Nevermind, Edward,” she replied, trying to keep her voice down as the rest of the class grew quieter. It also helped to say his name in a whisper. It didn’t sound so pathetic, then, when her voice tried to break.

“I didn’t lose my temper with him, you know,” he added, in spite of her somewhat annoyed tone of voice.

“I heard all about it. It’s fine. Forget it.”

Edward set up the experiment, hardly paying any attention, while Bella looked at the teacher and tried to pretend she was listening to his explanation of how the experiment should be set up.

“Did he tell you he lost it?” Edward asked in a whisper. “Completely lost control and couldn’t retain his shape.” He finally let some of the worry he’d been feeling creep into his tone. Because, in truth, he was terrified. Werewolves were dangerous creatures under the best circumstances. Seeing Jacob Black morph when he clearly hadn’t intended to had been troubling. The only thing that had bothered him more about the situation was discovering that the mongrel kept an extra pair of shorts in Bella’s truck, presumably for just such an occasion.

He didn’t ever want Bella to discover it, but his state of mind each time she went to La Push was even worse than the misery he’d endured during the months he’d been gone. Not that he could ever tell her, now, how awful those months had been. He glanced at her out of the corner of his eye to catch her glaring at him, and looked back at what he was doing.

“He mentioned that you provoked him to the point of rage, yes,” she said evenly, handing him the small rubber ball that was to serve as their projectile. He reached for it and, without thinking about it, dragged his fingers across her palm as he took it from her. She shuddered, staring at him with wide eyes. He heard her breathing hitch.

An angry thought across the room caught his attention. Leave her alone, Cullen, you’ve done enough damage, Mike Newton was thinking, as he glared in their direction. Edward didn’t bother to look up and meet his eyes. He kept his head slightly bowed, and his eyes on his work, which he’d completed several minutes before. He fussed with it some more anyway. No one else appeared to be ready.

“I can afford to provoke him, I’m perfectly capable of defending myself. But that isn’t the point, Bella,” he said, turning the full persuasive power of his eyes on her again. “The point is that he’s not in control. It’s very dangerous to spend your time with a young werewolf.”

Bella looked away the moment he turned his head, knowing how easily he could sway her.

“Jake can control himself fine when no one is purposely trying to make him angry,” she mumbled, sorting through her folder for the lab sheet they were expected to complete. It shocked her that Edward had even started this discussion. Of course, she understood it would defeat the purpose of his return if, while he was protecting her from Victoria, she went and got herself mauled to death by a werewolf. But as that wouldn’t be in any way his fault, she couldn’t see how he could feel guilty over it, the way he might if Victoria got to her.

She located the paper and thumped it down a bit harder than necessary on the desk in front of her. Edward narrowed his eyes and inhaled sharply. “Can he? Can the rest of them?” he asked. “I want you to be safe, and I don’t think there’s any way to guarantee that when you’re spending all your time in La Push,” he continued earnestly, covering her hand with his own.

Bella jerked her hand away as if he’d burned her, her chair scraping noisily across the floor just a few inches. She was about to retort when the teacher cleared his throat beside her. She felt the angry tears burning in her eyes.

“Is Mr. Cullen bothering you, Bella?” he asked awkwardly.

“Yes,” she whispered, instinctively telling the truth in her distress. Then she quickly bit her lip as if she regretted saying it. She threw him a horrified look, but Edward’s face was perfectly blank. When she looked back at the teacher, he was blinking rapidly, as if that was not the answer he’d expected, and he wasn’t quite sure what to do about it. There was a moment of silence.

“Can’t someone trade seats with me?” she asked quickly, trying to find a simple solution. The entire class was staring at her now.

“I will assign you new seats when you come in tomorrow. In the meantime, Edward, report to the Principal’s office.” His voice was stern, now.

Edward stared at him for a fraction of a second, jaw set. Mike Newton snorted in amusement, and a few other people chuckled, too, as Edward gathered his things and stalked out of the room. Bella hung her head, ashamed, but relieved to be spared the remainder of that troubling conversation.

By the time she got to Spanish, the news was all over the school. Even Jessica, who normally ignored Bella completely, threw her a congratulatory smile when she entered the room. Bella sat through the whole of that class in silence, desperately wondering if anyone in the history of high school had ever skipped because they couldn’t face going to lunch.

Carlisle pulled into the school parking lot and stopped the car, grinning in a way that simply wouldn’t do, considering the occasion. He knew that he would not only have to keep his amusement off his face, but also out of his mind. He took a moment to compose himself before making the trip into the office.

Edward sat in a worn-looking wooden chair outside the office, staring at the red-haired secretary and trying to keep his anger over the situation from registering on his face. He managed it. It occurred to him that he ought to try and look contrite, but he settled for setting his jaw and staring blankly at the wall. When Carlisle came through the door, he met his gaze evenly, then narrowed his eyes when a smile began to twist Carlisle’s lips. Both of them quickly blanked their faces, and prepared for the charade.

“Edward?” Carlisle said, trying for ‘stern,’ but only managing ‘interested.’

Edward hung his head a little. “Sorry, dad,” he said quietly.

“Dr. Cullen?” the secretary said quickly, “Principal Greene will see you now.” Carlisle looked at Edward for a moment more, then walked briskly down the hall.

Edward continued to fume in the outer office. Of all the ridiculous, childish, humiliating things to have happen. His mentor, his teacher, his father had to come here and speak to the Principal. Why? Because he’d been trying to talk a stubborn danger magnet into doing something sensible and safe for once! He’d been trying to protect her!

He glanced often toward the door through which Carlisle had disappeared, not realizing what a human tendency that was. Even with his hundred years of acquired patience, it seemed to take forever. Finally Carlisle reappeared. He looked aggravated, but Edward could hear him practically LAUGHING in his head. He glared for a second before forcing his features into a more suitable expression. Carlisle sobered up quickly enough, catching a glimpse of Edward’s anger.

“Come along, then Edward, and we’ll discuss it on the way home.”

“But I still have two more classes today,” he argued in what he hoped was a confused voice.

“You don’t have any classes all week. You can start back on Monday,” Carlisle responded. His shoulders shook slightly as his mirth returned. Thankfully he was silent, and his suddenly grinning face was turned away from the secretary.

Edward repressed the urge to growl at him, and let himself be herded out the door and into Carlisle’s car. Alice appeared a moment later, her eyes also filled with laughter, holding her hand out for the keys to his Volvo. He passed them out the window of the passenger side without comment. He could hear them both telling themselves not to look at one another or they were going to burst out laughing, and this time he did growl, low in his chest. Alice immediately looked guilty, but Carlisle only grinned wider.

“She really feels bad about this,” Alice said after a moment, then she laughed just a little. “She didn’t intend for you to get in trouble.”

“I don’t really care that I’m in trouble, Alice,” Edward retorted. “The real worry is that she wouldn’t listen to anything I said. She still has every intention of spending all her time with a pack of rabid dogs.

At this, both Alice and Carlisle frowned with worry. “That is troubling, Edward, but I’m afraid it’s her choice to make.”

“The only way you’re going to get any say in where she spends her time,” Alice began, “is if you give her a reason to spend it with you.”

“No,” Edward growled angrily. “I said I was going to leave her alone. She’s far better off without me.”

Two sets of eyebrows shot up. “Edward, she’s in far more danger with a brand new pack of werewolves than she’s ever been at our home,” Carlisle offered reasonably.

“Yes,” Alice agreed, “and also, you’re both absolutely miserable.”

Edward leaned his head back and looked at the ceiling of the car. “Go eat your lunch, Alice,” he said sourly. Alice only laughed and danced off back to the cafeteria, pocketing his keys. Carlisle began the drive home, trying to give Edward some peace and quiet. He thought about his work schedule, and a book he’d been reading.

Finally, as they were nearing the driveway, Edward broke the silence. “I’m miserable, but I don’t think she is. It’s almost worse,” he admitted. “I don’t know,” he answered Carlisle’s unspoken question. “I don’t know if she really loves him. He certainly loves her.” His voice sounded raw – the way Carlisle had heard it from the other end of the phone line and only infrequently during the months of Edward’s self-imposed exile. “What should I do?” he asked brokenly, his eyes still tilted toward the fabric above his head.

“She would be safer with us than in La Push. You should let that determine your course,” Carlisle advised solemnly. “Even if it injures your pride,” he added.

Edward turned toward him abruptly, a bitter laugh escaping his throat. “You think I care about my pride?” They pulled into the garage and parted ways in silence. There followed a very quiet afternoon at the Cullen residence.