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Wednesdays in December at Newton's Outfitters

Summary:
The beautiful, distant Bella Swan was far more distant than usual. She might as well have been walking on the moon, she was so far away.


Notes:
This story includes two versions of Chapter 4, one which is entirely AU, and one which is canon-compliant.


2. The 2nd Wednesday in December

Rating 5/5   Word Count 1236   Review this Chapter

Usually Bella stocked anything that wasn’t too heavy for her, but Mike didn’t want her climbing the ladder. As far as he was concerned she was barely conscious. Barely conscious people didn’t belong on ladders.

He was on the third rung and she stood beside, handing him can after can of Map Proof, which he placed on a shelf. She hadn’t said anything yet this afternoon, and school had been as agonizing as always. He couldn’t seem to make himself be nice to Jessica when he had to hear the rotten things she and Lauren were saying about Bella.

He wondered if any of it was true. These days the rumor mill was saying Bella’d got pregnant and had an abortion because Edward hadn’t wanted a baby. Then he’d left anyway, and THAT was why Bella was so despondent. Mike had trouble believing that. Bella seemed like a fairly sensible girl who wouldn’t get herself into that sort of trouble. Or at least she had seemed that way, when there’d been any personality to her at all.

“You missed a good party at Austin’s place,” he ventured as she handed him the last can and knelt to open another box. She didn’t look up, but he thought he heard her mumble an apology. “Ben thinks they even let us drink the real egg nog, instead of that stupid non-alcoholic stuff.”

For the first time all day, Bella looked up at him as she handed him the first two cans. He tried to smile at her, but her expression was off. She clearly wasn’t interested in anything he had to say, but she was trying to be. He wondered if there was anything he could talk about that would be interesting to her, and doubted it. It certainly seemed to him that there was only one voice she might be interested in hearing, and it wasn’t his.

Still, it bothered him to see her this way. He tried to think of something she might find interesting, but mostly came up blank. “Angela asked how you were doing,” he said finally, when all the cans were put away. He climbed down, moved the ladder three feet to his left and set it up again. Bella opened a box of bug spray. He knew she was still in there. She functioned too well to have totally shut down. She knew exactly what she was doing – she just wasn’t doing anything with any enthusiasm.

He noticed she seemed to be hanging her head. “She’s worried about you, ya know?” he pressed, after a moment, thinking maybe she was finally responding to something. He heard her sigh as she stood, preparing to hand him the first two cans. She only looked at him mildly for an instant when she realized he hadn’t climbed back up the ladder yet. He took the cans from her anyway, holding both in one hand so that he could prevent her from kneeling down to retrieve more with the other. “I’m worried, too.”

“I’m alright, Mike,” she said quietly, but he wasn’t convinced. For one thing, her voice sounded hoarse, as if she hadn’t spoken for days. For another, she was looking away from him as usual.

“Look me in the eye and say that again,” he replied, stuffing the bug spray into the nearest shelf and holding onto both her hands. He felt tense as she slowly raised her eyes. Like they had the week before, her eyes seemed open in a way that they never usually did. Her face was blank of any expression, but her eyes gave her away. She blinked, but it didn’t fade. It was clear that she was still hurting.

“I’m – “ she tried to say it. He could see the struggle. And then she hung her head, and he knew that when she looked back up, she would be utterly shut off from him again. He didn’t give her the opportunity.

Carefully, he stepped closer to her and put his arms around her. “That’s what I thought,” he whispered. He felt a catch in her breathing, and for an instant, he was worried that she was going to cry. But she didn’t. She didn’t raise her arms to hold him back, either, but he tried not to let it bother him. He didn’t dare move, or try to comfort her any further than he already was, IF he was at all. He couldn’t see the clock from where they stood, so he had no idea how much time passed.

Eventually, Bella moved. She opened her eyes, and stepped back. He let her go, but as his fingers dragged across her sides (he hadn’t meant to do that), her hands came up to grasp his arms unexpectedly. He froze. “Thanks, Mike,” she whispered, still looking away from him.

“Any time.” He smiled a little, in spite of himself. She released him and quickly knelt down again to the box of spray cans. He picked up the two he’d left on the nearest shelf and climbed the ladder, and they resumed the dull pattern they’d begun right after school.

“Some of the guys are going to the movies on Friday,” he said after a while. “Lauren and Jess have plans and can’t go. Do you want to come with us?” He kept the hope out of his voice.

“Movies are hard to watch, sometimes,” Bella admitted, pausing. Mike made a mental note. No movies. Still, this was an improvement. She was at least answering. He decided not to press his luck, though, and kept quiet for the remainder of her shift.

When his mother showed up, a short time later, he walked Bella to her truck. He’d been doing that pretty much ever since she’d gone comatose on him, but he was fairly certain this was the first time she’d noticed it.

Bella opened the door to her truck, and then turned back toward him. It was raining, as usual, but not hard enough to worry about. She didn’t even seem to notice, though of course, she had her coat and he was just wearing a long sleeved shirt. All these months walking her to the car hadn’t taken more than a few seconds. He hadn’t seen the need to bring a jacket.

“Mike, about earlier – “ she began, and then stopped talking and closed her eyes. He wondered if she was going to scold him, or tell him not to get his hopes up. But all she said was, “Thanks.” Her tone was as expressionless as ever, but it was enough for him that she was bothering to talk at all. She was as silent as a ghost most of the time.

He wanted to repeat what he’d said before – assure her that whatever comfort she needed, he would give it. But he didn’t think that would be very welcome. And anyway, it seemed too much like a tactic. He wasn’t just trying to get her to go out with him anymore. It was almost alarming to him to realize he’d been on a ladder half the afternoon and hadn’t even thought to get a glimpse down her shirt. Something about her pain seemed to quell the usual teenage male hormones in him. He tried to smile at her. “You’re welcome.” He watched her drive away, and stood in the rain until it picked up to the point where he’d be soaked if he stayed in the parking lot a moment longer.