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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.


5. The 4th Wednesday in December ~ Canon Compliant

Rating 5/5   Word Count 1476   Review this Chapter

Mike’s mother eyed him speculatively when he came through the back door to the store, wet from unloading the truck in the rain. The driver had managed to break his arm the day before, making their usual Tuesday delivery late. So he was already annoyed by the time she spoke. "Charlie Swan dropped by to say Bella's sick tonight and can't work. He left this for you." She handed him a small, gift wrapped package with an envelope on top. "She's a good employee, even if she is a little odd. Don't chase her away if she isn't interested, Michael," she said sternly.

Mike just shot her a disparaging look and picked up the package. He'd long since stopped being intimidated by the use of his formal name. Then he looked up at her again. "I can handle it here. You should go get ready for the party, or you'll be late." This time of year his parents went to more social functions than you'd think a town like Forks could even HAVE.

"Thanks, Mike," she said gratefully, already moving out of mom mode and back into social butterfly. It suited her better anyway.

It pained him to do it, but Mike stocked the shelves from the list she'd left while the little package, neatly wrapped in plaid paper, sat unopened on the counter. There wasn't any chance anyone would be in to disturb him, but he wanted to get his work done first. He had a feeling that once he opened that envelope, he wasn't going to feel like doing much of anything.

He'd thought she was doing so well last week. She had actually spoken without him cajoling her into it, and she'd smiled. But maybe that's where he'd gone wrong? Maybe she just didn't want to put forth the effort to be happy.

Stocking the shelves seemed to take longer than usual, but he suspected that was because he was doing it alone. Or, maybe it was because he was doing it without Bella.

When he'd accomplished everything that could possibly need done in the store for the night, he locked the door early and took the package into the back with him, shutting off the front lights. Then he sat on a box full of raincoats and opened the package, putting the envelope beside him. It was a book. The Spell by Charlotte Bronte. He squinted at it before recalling that Bronte was the first author they were expected to write a paper on when they got back to school after the new year. This particular book wasn't on the reading list, but he supposed Bella had thought this might help him with the paper. She was probably right. He was great at math, but English was not his best subject. Maybe reading something extra would help him figure out what to write about for once. He thought about all the ways it was sweet of her to give him the book before he admitted to himself that he didn't give a damn about the book, and picked up the envelope.

Mike,
I'm sorry.
-Bella


He laughed at himself for thinking the envelope was going to contain some profound life-changing message. Then he fell silent abruptly, realizing it did. It said leave me alone and stop trying, and go away, but mostly, it just said, "No." Bella was good at saying, "No," in the subtlest possible way.

His mother had been right. If he wasn't careful, he was going to chase away a perfectly good employee, who would never have been more than an employee anyway. Almost a year she'd been living in Forks, and he couldn't claim she was his friend, even, much less anything more. Much less what he wanted her to be. He sighed, tucked the little note into the book he'd probably never read, and chucked the envelope into the trash. Then he set the alarm and let himself out, wondering what he could say to make this better - to put things back the way they'd been before he'd started trying to wake her up.

He drove to Bella's house before he could think better of it. She didn't live far away, and he spent the short drive deciding what to say, instead of considering what a stupid thing he was doing. He knocked instead of ringing the bell. Chief Swan opened the door. "Hello, Mike," he said, after squinting at him for a moment. Mike wondered whether he ought to be uneasy to discover that the Chief knew him on sight, then decided maybe Bella had warned him that Mike might show up.

"Hello, Chief Swan. Is Bella around?" He wished he'd brought a get well card or something, so he could pretend he'd bought the story, but from the resigned expression on her father's face, he figured it wasn't necessary.

"Come on in. I'll see if she feels up to coming downstairs."

Mike got the impression that she hadn't been out of her room all day. He stared disinterestedly at the basketball game Charlie had been watching. Normally, he liked the Knicks. Tonight he found it difficult to care. He checked the score more out of habit than interest.

Charlie didn't come back downstairs, and Mike rolled his eyes at the obvious attempt to give them some privacy. Like it mattered. Like there was anything left to say between them except goodbye. He heard her trip on the stairs and had to resist the urge to try and catch her. She'd been near the bottom anyway. When he turned around to face her, she was wincing, and bending over to hold her ankle. He shook his head and offered her a hand over to the couch. She took it, but didn't look at him.

He stood beside her for a few long, awkward moments while she massaged her ankle, but it was clear she was keeping her eyes averted on purpose. Finally, he put the book, with her note still inside, down on the arm of the couch between them. "I'm sorry, too. I couldn't help but try, but I didn't mean to make things worse for you. I'll stop."

She glanced quickly in his direction and away, her eyes as full of pain as ever, and for an instant he let himself believe it was because she didn't really want him to give up on her. But he knew that was ridiculous, and the moment of hope cost him dearly. "Thanks," she whispered, looking at the floor again.

Neither said anything, and the announcer from the televised game seemed loud in the profound silence. "Goodnight, Bella."

"Goodnight."

Mike let himself out and climbed into his Suburban feeling like his joints didn't want to bend. He sat in the dark outside her house for a long time. Then the lights went off downstairs, and he was jarred from his daze. He realized with a bit of alarm that he'd been clutching himself around the middle in much the same way Bella often did at school. He wondered if it was just as unconscious for her as it had been for him, and then realized that everything she did was done unconsciously these days.

He started the car and headed home with his knuckles white on the steering wheel. He wasn't going to be that way. He wasn't going to be that broken. She didn't like him that way and never had. There were other girls. Maybe not here in Forks, but there WERE other girls, and only a few months left before he was going away to college. He didn't need Bella Swan.

The house was empty when he got home and he turned on the news to get the final score on that Knicks game. But as he lay in bed that night, he regretted giving her back the book. It was the only thing she'd ever given him. The only thing she would ever give him. And maybe - maybe it had been the only thing she'd had to give him.

Epilogue

It fell out of his locker when he opened it first thing Thursday morning. He was already late, since he hadn’t fallen asleep until nearly three in the morning, and, consequently, had slept through his alarm.

He bent to pick it up. “The Spell,” he whispered. He quickly flipped through it, looking for the note. It was there, and he smiled briefly before shoving book and note back into his locker hastily. He ran for his first class, and the bell rang just as he darted through the door.

At lunchtime, it fell out again. He couldn’t help but grin.