Wednesdays in December at Newton's Outfitters
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.
This story includes two versions of Chapter 4, one which is entirely AU, and one which is canon-compliant.
4. The 4th Wednesday in December ~ AU version
Rating 5/5 Word Count 2245 Review this Chapter
When Bella arrived for work, Mike was already unloading the week's supplies from the back of a huge truck, and carrying them into the back, one box at a time. The truck driver, his cast-covered arm in a sling, watched sheepishly. Bella sorted through the boxes and took the ones on Mrs. Newton's list up to the front to begin stocking. Mike threw an annoyed glance at the out of commission truck driver, but didn't say anything. Bruce had broken his arm yesterday. He couldn't really be blamed for making the delivery a day late, even if it DID cut into Mike's time with Bella.
The order was bigger than usual, since last week it had been so small, and it took Mike twice as long to unload it alone. Usually he and Bruce could get it done in fairly short order. By the time he finished, the rain had started again. He was glad. He'd swept all the dirt out onto the front sidewalk again. Maybe his mother wouldn't notice it before it washed away.
He came inside with the last box and shut the door behind him, shaking the water out of his hair before he noticed Bella looking at him. But she wasn't really looking. Her eyes might as well have been closed for all the depth he could see in them. He didn't bother trying to explain about Bruce's broken arm. If she cared, she'd probably already figured it out.
His mother, having stayed in the front until the unloading was finished, put her head through the door. "If you're all done, Mike, I'm going to head home to start getting ready."
"Yeah, Bruce is gone," he returned. "We can handle it from here." He smiled over at Bella, but she was looking through a pile for the last box on the list.
His parents were going out to another party. It was sad that they went to more parties than he did, but that's the way it worked sometimes. Also, he was aware that he'd skipped more than a few social events this year. He wasn't sure whether that was because he wanted to be 'available,' or if Bella's depression was just rubbing off on him and he didn't feel like going. He had no desire to do the kind of soul searching it would require to truly understand his own motivations.
As soon as his mom was out of sight, he leaned over and picked up the box Bella was probably searching for. "Here," he said, showing it to her, but not letting her take it from him. She looked up and the same small smile he'd earned last week was the only expression on her face. Her eyes were as blank as ever. He wondered how she did it. It was like her personality had an ON-OFF switch.
He suppressed a sigh and turned toward the front of the shop. He should have shuffled - one step forward, two steps back - but knowing Bella, she'd just run into him, and when she figured out what he was doing, she'd frown. He didn't like to make her frown. It was almost as bad as the exasperation.
They stocked for a while in silence, but Mike wasn't fond of silence. Particularly not this one, which felt even more awkward than usual. He suspected that might be because of the present. Finally, he had to say something. "Did you have a good Christmas, Bella?"
"I mostly slept," she answered, with no inflection to her voice whatsoever.
"You slept through Christmas?" he couldn't help but ask. She didn't look up at first, but when she handed him two more solar lanterns, her eyes looked dead again.
"Why do you make it so hard to be around you?" Bella asked quietly. Mike wasn't sure he was supposed to have heard.
"What do you mean?"
"Everyone else is content to leave me alone, but you're always making me talk or making me listen. It makes it difficult to be around you," she explained. He couldn't see the look on her face as she knelt down to open another box, but he could hear the exasperation. He decided that was better than no tone of voice at all.
"I don't like seeing you hurt, that's all. I'm just trying to make you smile."
"Smiling hurts," she whispered.
"Would you really rather I didn't try?"
"I used to like coming to work here. I'd never come here with him so it was easier than being at school or at home. But lately, all you do is poke and prod at me, and I just -" She shook her head, standing, and he noticed that her arms were clenched tightly around herself. He'd seen her do that more times than he could count at school. He climbed down the ladder to stand in front of her, noticing the tears on her cheeks. That's great. He'd made her cry. Brilliant, Mike.
Carefully, he grasped her wrists and pulled her arms away from her. She resisted him, but he didn't give her the opportunity to really pull away, stepping closer quickly and guiding her arms around him before squeezing her tightly to his chest. He could feel her heartbeat. It was only an instant before she was squeezing him back, and a lot harder than he expected. He closed his eyes and listened to her crying, hardly noticing when his own breathing became uneven as well. He wondered when he'd got so attached to her that her pain felt like it was his own.
She calmed down again eventually. "I'm sorry," she whispered, her face still pressed hard against his shoulder. "I'm usually alright while I'm here, but then I go home and it's harder each time to go back to not thinking or feeling anything. And if I'm feeling anything at all it's - it's bad."
Mike's first reaction to that was not something he could say out loud but he tested it out in his head anyway. So, don't go home, then. No, he couldn't say that. "Is there anything I can do?" he asked helplessly. He thought it amazing when her arms actually tightened around him, but he held her tighter in return. It often looked like she was trying to hold herself together, so maybe she just needed someone to help with that. If it felt this good to hold her every time, he was happy to volunteer.
And then another thought occurred to him, and he almost threw it out without any consideration at all. But the part of him that had wanted her for almost a solid year now wouldn't let it go so quickly. Maybe....maybe she just needed to feel something other than pain. He loosened his hold on her, and she reacted immediately, pulling away. He kept her within the circle of his arms, though. She didn't look up at him to notice the nervous way he wet his lips.
Mike ducked his head quickly and pressed his lips against hers for just a moment, eyes closed. He should have been praying that she didn't slap him for it, but he couldn't seem to focus on anything but the feel of her against him. It was a long moment, and her arms were still draped loosely around his waist.
Bella didn't push him away, and he was exultant when he pulled away on his own, not wanting to press his luck. She looked up at him with wide, deep eyes that were full of surprise instead of pain. The pain came back an instant later, and she let go of him, but he figured it was a start. "I wish you wouldn't do that," she said, squeezing her eyes shut.
He wasn't sure he could stand to see them open to the dead eyes of the last three months, so he ducked his head again and pressed his cheek against hers, pulling her closer once more. She didn't resist, but she didn't reach for him again either. "Give me one good reason why not," he demanded in a whisper. She shivered and he smiled.
"Because there isn't enough left of my heart to be worth having, anyway."
He straightened up again, frowning. "You're wrong. Haven't you noticed? Almost since I met you any attention I could get was worth having."
The pain in her gaze morphed into sadness, and he realized abruptly that she was sad for him, not because of him. His expression softened and he ran a hand through the hair at her temple, letting it come to rest at the nape of her neck. This time, he leaned down to kiss her slowly, giving her the chance to pull away. She didn't.
Her lips were so soft, but not exactly yielding. He pulled her lower lip between his to coax her to part them, and she did. She froze when he first tried to deepen the kiss. He was about to give up when she finally, hesitantly responded. And then he was kissing her, and it was wonderful. His face felt hot, along with the rest of him, though he tried to ignore that. The taste of her was enough to distract him right up until she finally put her arms around him and pulled him even closer, and then he couldn't ignore it anymore. He tried to stifle a groan. She was way too desirable for her own good.
Predictably, Bella pulled away when he started to get carried away. He tried to release her, feeling happier than he had any right to, when he knew she was still hurting. But his hand caught in her hair, and she winced. "Sorry!" he exclaimed. A slight smile told him she wasn't angry, and she helped him free himself.
"My fault," she said sheepishly. "I haven't been taking care of it to get the tangles out."
"My fault," he insisted, grinning. "I'm just an idiot."
"No, you're just human," she corrected, still holding onto his hand, and pulling off a wayward brown hair. Her smile seemed to change then, turning mysterious. He felt like maybe there was a joke he wasn't getting. "But that's alright. I've had enough of boys who are too good to be true." She frowned again.
"Don't. Think about something else," Mike said quickly. "Think about Tyler's New Year's party, and what a good time we're going to have." This was optimistic in the extreme, of course. One kiss, well, one kiss and a half, didn't necessarily mean that she was going to go out with him. He looked at her hopefully anyway, and she smiled again, just a little.
"I won't be expected to dance, right?" she asked after a moment. "I'm about as hopeless at that as I am at badminton."
"I got you through badminton, didn't I?" he asked, quietly.
"Yeah, you did." Bella looked at him for another long moment, and he reveled in the depth in her eyes, and the fact that they weren't filled with pain for once. But she looked so serious. The intensity was a little frightening for him after the shallow relationship he'd just ended with Jessica. He swallowed, realizing that if this went any further, her heart and her happiness were his responsibility. And then he blinked and grinned, deciding that was alright with him. He would never disappear on her the way Cullen had anyway. He looked at his hand, which she was still holding, and tightened his grip on her.
They closed up shop on the last Wednesday of the year in a comfortable silence, and Mike held her hand as he walked her to her truck. Only then did things get awkward again. "If you need anything - if it gets - bad - you can call me whenever you want," he stuttered.
She smiled at him, sad again, and squeezed his hand. "Thanks. I'll be alright." She didn't sound convinced, which made her patently unconvincing. He made her write down his cell number in spite of her protests.
"So you can call in the middle of the night if you need to without waking the house," he explained. This time when she smiled it seemed to reach her eyes. He kissed her cheek for goodnight, telling himself not to push his luck, and watched her drive away. He kept standing there, several minutes after her taillights disappeared until finally he couldn't contain it anymore. He jumped as high as he could in the air, throwing up his fist. "YES!"
He returned one fine spring day and peered in through the Swans’ kitchen window, but he didn’t knock at the door. She looked content. Late that night she woke to find him sitting in her rocking chair as though he’d never been away. He didn’t smile at her. She only blinked in the face of his stillness.
“You told me once that you’d rather die than date Mike Newton.” He kept the anger out of his voice, but couldn’t hide the pain. And in spite of herself, she pitied him.
“I did die, Edward. You just weren’t here to notice.”
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