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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.


3. The 3rd Wednesday in December

Rating 5/5   Word Count 1245   Review this Chapter

When Bella arrived for work, Mike had already relieved his mother and was with a customer. This time of year, so close to the holidays, it was fairly rare for anyone to actually come into the store, especially during the week. But this customer was one of those die-hards that came to Newton’s for everything, even, sometimes, if he’d already been told they didn’t carry it. He was way too old to actually go backpacking anymore, but he’d once bought all his gear from Mike’s grandfather, so by golly, he was going to buy his lighter fluid from Mike.

Mike was a friendly sort, though, and he enjoyed talking with the guy, right up until Bella appeared. Then he started wondering how to get rid of him politely. There was, of course, no way to do so. But he glanced at her often as she donned the ugly vest and set about stocking shelves. They generally got new inventory on Tuesdays, which is why she worked Wednesdays to begin with. This week’s order had been small, since business was slow. She finished all the restocking before Mike waved his customer out the door. When he turned around, he was surprised to see that she was looking at him. Really looking at him, for once, without any effort on his part.

“Are you alright?” he asked cautiously.

Bella side-stepped the question, and focused her eyes somewhere over his shoulder. “I just wanted to say thanks for standing up for me at lunch.” As usual, her voice sounded dull, as if she didn’t really care about what she was saying, but felt obligated to say it anyway.

“I didn’t realize you’d heard all that,” he said awkwardly. Bella hadn’t looked up from her lunch during the argument at their table today, and he’d hoped it was because she just wasn’t paying attention. She ignored his comment, and continued doggedly, as if she’d made up her mind to say this, and she was going to, even if it hurt to stay attentive long enough to manage it. The look on her face seemed to bear out that theory as well.

“I’m sorry about you and Jess.”

“Don’t be. I’m not,” he answered, grinning suddenly. “What do I want to go out with her for anyway? She’s mean. She shouldn’t have said those things about you.” Mike had finally reached a breaking point at lunch that day. Jessica and Lauren had continued to come up with cruel rumors to spread, but when they’d decided that Bella must have cheated on Edward with one of his brothers, and THAT’S why the whole family had to leave, he’d lost it and told them both to just shut up. Naturally he and Jessica weren’t dating anymore, but that didn’t bother him. He’d been looking for a reason to break up with her almost since he’d first asked her out. And he’d only asked her because Bella had suggested he should.

Bella didn’t acknowledge his opinion of Jessica at all. He watched her eyes close off again, as though she was sealing herself away behind them. She’d said what she intended to say. He panicked. She’d been doing so well. “I shouldn’t have let them go on as long as they did. I’m sorry I didn’t make them stop a long time ago.” She’d just begun to turn away from him, but she bit her lip and turned back.

“It doesn’t matter what they think.”

“No, and no one really believes them, anyway,” he agreed quickly. For just a moment, Bella really looked at him again and he recognized the expression. Exasperation. She’d often looked at him that way when she’d first arrived in Forks. When he’d been desperately trying to get her to like him. He winced, realizing his last comment had probably sounded more than a little ingratiating. “Sorry,” he said, his shoulders sagging. “Old habits die hard.” He hadn’t even meant to do it. And really, it wasn’t like he’d asked her out again, but it felt that way. And it felt like she’d said, “No,” with only an expression. The girl had a gift.

Bella stared at him for another moment, and then turned away. As she did, though, he thought he saw the corners of her lips turn up just slightly. He darted into the next aisle to confirm it. Sure enough, a tiny, sad smile was on her face as she shook her head at the ground. “Caught you,” he crowed, grinning. “So you CAN still smile.”

She looked up at him, startled back into full awareness. “Don’t, Mike,” she warned quietly.

“You’re allowed to smile once in a while, you know?” He walked the length of the aisle quickly, but she’d looked away again. “Here. Maybe this will help.”

Mike had long since decided not to give her the stupid little book he’d bought for her the last time he was in Seattle. He hadn’t thought she’d be likely to welcome a gift from him, but maybe the joke of it would make her smile again, at least. He retrieved it from behind the counter, and handed it to her. “Merry Christmas.”

She took it from his hands gently with a whispered, “Thank you.” If he’d known her better, it might have struck him as odd that she made no fuss over being given a present when she had nothing to offer in return. He did feel a little relieved that she’d accepted it, though, and shifted his worry to whether or not she’d be offended by the crooked wrapping paper. He’d wrapped it himself, and he wasn’t especially good at it.

He looked at the top of her head as she tore the paper off slowly. He was starting to think she was afraid to look him in the eye these days. When the little book was revealed, Bella bit her lip, but couldn’t prevent herself from smiling. “Shakespeare and the Nature of Women.” She read the title out loud, and then laughed just a little, shaking her head again.

“I saw it and had to get it. I even tried to read it, thinking maybe we’d have something to talk about – this was a while ago, you know? – but it was completely over my head.” Mike admitted all of this in a rush, and regretted it before he even finished speaking. But she didn’t give him that horrible exasperated look again. And when she finally met his eyes, her smile hadn’t faded.

“Thanks, Mike.” Bella looked back down at the book, and Mike felt another moment of panic. When she looked up again, she’d be gone.

He was right. When she looked up at him again, her eyes didn’t focus on him, though she gave him the slight smile he’d managed to earn. He resisted the urge to take her by the shoulders and shake her. There wasn’t much that was more frustrating than falling in love with a girl who wasn’t even there half the time.

“I’m going to put it in my truck, so I don’t forget to take it home,” she said quietly. He noticed her voice wasn’t quite as lifeless as it had been earlier, and nodded, watching her go wearily. He knew the drill. The remainder of her shift she probably wouldn’t say a word. Mike resigned himself to this and wasn’t disappointed. He was glad, though, that he’d got up the courage to give her the present. At least she had smiled once, for Christmas. That was worth something to him.