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Matriculating

Summary:
Bella’s first week back in high school. Nothing is as simple as it used to be.


Notes:
I wrote this after being inspired by the September Challenge over at Novel Novice Twilight. Now, I run the fan fic challenges at NNT, so obviously, I couldn't submit this story. But I really wanted to explore Bella's first time back in school as a vampire -- and this is what happened!


1. Matriculating

Rating 5/5   Word Count 4100   Review this Chapter



* * *

The combination spins deftly under the light touch of her perfectly slender fingers and the locker snaps open with a soft clang. The musty, slightly moldy smell hits her immediately and a wave of nostalgia comes over her.

It’s been nine years since Bella Cullen last walked the hallways of a high school. She’d been human at the time – when she was still single and her name was Swan, not Cullen – and the memories were fuzzy – like looking through a haze. But they were still there – some cloudier than others. This was familiar, though. This smell, from the locker. And this feeling – the jitters of a first day in a new school in a new town.

Her anxieties are not entirely the same, however, as the last time she’d matriculated to a new school in a new town. This time, she is not so much worried about what the other kids will think of her (though a small part still wonders). Now, mostly, she worries about massacring the student body.

A cool breath whispers past her cheek and a voice murmurs into her ear, “You’ll be fine.” Edward’s fingertips brush her throat, a soothing gesture. He does not share her anxieties. He knows she will be fine.

She’s always been fine.

She never struggled with the bloodlust like the rest of them did.

Maybe that’s because she always had an aversion to blood as a human. Maybe because she knew what to expect.

They’ve never been sure, but either way, Edward is not worried. Otherwise, he would not have agreed to start out at a new high school, in a new town with his young wife.

Of course, the other students do not know she is his wife.

They think they are all adopted siblings.

Incredibly beautiful, graceful, mysterious foster children.

Who all happen to be in love with one another. What a scandal.

Bella places her books for the afternoon classes in the locker and shuts it, spinning the lock out of combination like the other students do. She could carry all her books (and Edward’s) all day long without any difficulty, but it would appear strange to the humans. So she doesn’t. This is part of the masquerade. So she stashes some, and hoists the others into her shoulder bag and threads her fingers through Edward’s.

Hand-in-hand, they float down the hallway to biology, sharing a secret smile. They first met in a biology class. Miles away, more than a decade ago.

It’s almost like an anniversary.

* * *

It comes back to her quickly.

Bella spends most of her time in class focusing on her human behavior. Most of it is second-nature by now, but she’s worried someone will catch on. She’s afraid someone will notice that she only blinked twice a minute, instead of three times. Or that she forgot to shift her weight. Or that she stopped breathing because some smells are just too tempting.

But no one notices.

And the rest is easy. Schoolwork is easy.

Bella wishes it had been this easy the first time around. She remembers struggling in her classes. Puzzling over the assignments.

And it’s not just easy because she’s done it before; because technically, she already has her high school diploma. Those memories are too fuzzy to be of any real use to her in these new classrooms.

No, it’s easy because her mind is so adept. It works so much quicker than her sluggish, human mind. The same way she is able to keep up with Edward’s lightning-quick mind is the same reason schoolwork is suddenly a snap.

For the first time in her entire existence, she finally understands Calculus.

The thought makes her laugh and Edward throws her a sly crooked smile before warning her under his breath to settle down because the teacher is glaring at her suspiciously.

She’s never enjoyed math until this day.

* * *

Many sets of eyes stare at her, unaware that she is so aware of them. The many sets of eyes follow her (and her husband and their family) as they glide across the cafeteria, sparsely filled trays of food that will go uneaten in their hands.

The many sets of eyes are followed by a hum of whisper – frantic gossip and rumors swapped over congealed pizza and cartons of milk.

Edward groans and rubs his temple, trying to block out the drone of thoughts accompanying the eyes and whispers.

It’s worse for him.

Bella brushes her lips across his forehead, but only makes things worse because the many sets of eyes see this and it stirs a new round of whispers and thoughts that make Edward’s head ache – almost as if he were a human suffering from a migraine.

Alice tells him to relax; that it will get better. But he doesn’t see it getting better in her thoughts – in her visions – and so he cannot relax. He remains anxious.

They do not touch the food on their trays.

When the bell rings signaling the end of lunch, they each lift their untouched trays and dump the contents into the trash, before departing down the hallway for the rest of their classes.

Edward’s head still hurts and it makes Bella uneasy.

* * *

It’s not much easier in the afternoon.

Bella is trying to adjust to the scents of her classmates, but it’s harder than she imagined. She still resists breathing more than absolutely necessary and sticks close to Edward’s side. She is grateful they arranged their schedules together – they are apart for only one period before lunch. It is the hardest part of her day.

She is delighted when their English teacher asks them to read WutheringHeights and resists squealing happily. She senses Edward’s amusement and turns slightly in her chair to meet his gaze. He is smirking, that famous lop-sided grin that she has loved since the first time it ever graced his lips.

Bella watches him relax as they move into their final class period – gym. The thoughts of their classmates must be calming down. She asks and he confirms her theory.

“It’s leveling out,” he murmurs to her as they take their seats in the gymnasium bleachers; the coach said they could sit out as it was their first day. “They’re not very creative. They can’t think of anything new to say, so now it’s just more of the same and they’re already getting bored of us.”

“Bored of us already?” she asks, teasing. “I’m sure we could come up with something to amuse them.”

Her hand strokes his thigh surreptitiously and he hisses, sucking in a sudden breath. She delights as she watches his body stiffen under her touch. Deftly, he plucks her hand up and places it back in her own lap. His self control is stellar, as always, but it is not as perfect as it used to be where she is concerned. Having given himself into the temptation of his wife long ago, he is no longer used to resisting her advances. They’ve had too many nights together; too much time alone.

He resists now only because of their location; because of their audience.

“I like it when they’re bored,” he whispers again, his voice low so only she can hear. That is how they always speak now, at least in public. Murmuring to each other secrets of their true lives as they present a lie to the world. “It’s quieter when they’re bored.”

“Later, then,” she says, shrugging. Bella drops her mental shield – it’s easier now, after years of practice – and a flash of flesh and torn clothing fills Edward’s head, drowning out the mindless prattling thoughts of their classmates.

He groans again and shifts away from her.

There are 43 minutes left in the school day.

* * *

The second day is easier, but only at first.

Bella and Edward have only one class apart, just before lunch. She has art; he’s got French. They part in the hallway, a chaste kiss stolen in the alcove between two banks of lockers.

Bella walks slowly – for her – to class, trying to blend in with her classmates. Edward watches her go reluctantly. It is easier than yesterday, but part of him still feels anxious for the separation, no matter how brief.

Bella is the first of her classmates to arrive in the art room. Yesterday she sat alone, sketching quietly at her desk. It was easier for her to maintain her composure that way – the human mask. Alone and unbreathing. Today is not so simple. As the classroom fills, a very brave classmate sidles up to her and peers at the drawing on Bella’s notepad.

“You’re very good,” the girl murmurs. Her heart is pounding like a hummingbird. The girl swallows and flushes.

Bella stops breathing as the swell of blood colors the girls’ face. Is this how Edward felt all that time, when she used to blush? He said he loved the way she blushed; the coloring of her face. But was it like this, too? Torture?

“Thanks,” Bella says, her voice ringing out like quiet bells. She gasps a quick breath, struggling against the burn in her throat.

The girl – still brave; still unaware of the danger – continues. “You’re one of the new kids, right? One of the adopted kids … the Cullens?” The name, itself, is a question – as if she’s not sure she’s gotten it right.

“Yes,” Bella replies, struggling to maintain her manners without completely going insane. “We just moved here.”

“I’m Lindsey,” the girl says, tucking her cropped blonde hair behind her ears. The movement sends a waft of her scent in Bella’s direction.

Bella swallows, blinks twice and fidgets with her shirt – not sure if she has grown too motionless in her discomfort. “Bella.” Her jaw is tight.

“Hi,” the girl says. “I wanted to introduce myself yesterday, but you’re always with that guy … your brother?” The girl is trying to be polite, even though she’s already seen the way Bella and Edward interact. It’s not brotherly.

“No,” Bella insists. “Not siblings. Just adopted by the same people.”

“So you and he …” The girl leans in conspiratorially – anxious to learn the truth about all the rumors she’s heard first-hand – and picks at a scab on her hand.

“Yeah, sort of,” Bella says, uncomfortable now with the conversation as well as the human’s close proximity. The girl picks her scab clean, peeling away the dried, crusty skin. Blood blossoms to the surface, trailing down her wrist. It is too much. “Um, excuse me, please.”

Bella gathers her books and walks (glides) to the front of the classroom and asks the teacher for a hall pass. She feels ill, she says. Queasy.

The teacher obliges.

The hallway is too soaked in the scent of humans. Bella runs outside and sucks in gulping, deep breaths of fresh, human-free air.

Then she goes to see the nurse.

* * *

Edward finds her there during lunch.

“They said you got sick?” he asks incredulously.

In low whispers, she tells him what happened in art. He is sympathetic; empathetic. He can, after all, relate.

“This was a mistake,” she says, regret coloring her tone and her features. She feels shameful.

Edward brushes his fingers over her face. “No, this is just part of the transition.”

“I thought school would be easier the second time around,” she confesses.

Edward’s eyes crinkle with a laugh, but he does not chuckle aloud. He would not want to push her temper. Even now, after all these years, she still has a temper. She’ll always have a temper. “The schoolwork should be easier,” he says. “The rest of it … well, that’s the challenge. The children don’t understand what we go through to be here.”

Bella nods. “I want to go home.”

“I’ll get a pass.”

“I miss Nessie.”

“I’ll book a flight.”

She contemplates this offer. It only takes two seconds – nothing to the humans watching, but a long pause for her waiting husband. “No. We have a paper due tomorrow in English.”

She is resolved.

He is proud.

* * *

Lindsey does not sit next to Bella in art again. The other classmates leave her alone and she likes it that way.

Edward tells her that they think she is weird; a freak. She doesn’t mind. It makes their blood – fresh and pulsing just beneath the surface – easier to tolerate. Easier to resist.

But “easy” is not the word she would use.

It is insurmountably difficult.

Edward asks her about this challenge. He wonders about her struggle. “Why now?” he asks. After all, she’s never struggled like this before.

He remembers her first hunt – the way she’d turned from those humans and run the other way. Resisting, in the face of her very first temptation. And she could have taken them so easily. He was the only thing standing in her way, and at the time, he was no match for her.

She tells him that it’s different now.

“Why?”

“Because I can’t run away. I have to stay here and stand it.”

And then he understands. Because he’s been there before; too often.

“You can change your mind,” he tells her. “We don’t have to stay here.”

Her face is resolved. “I want to do this. I need to do this.”

He doesn’t need to ask her why. “Okay.”

But he drops French and switches to art. She doesn’t argue and he knows it was the right choice.

* * *

On Wednesday, Bella calls Nessie during lunch.

Her daughter is taking college classes at the University of Washington, with Jacob. Edward grumbles about paying both of their tuition, but Bella knows he doesn’t really mind. He’d rather have Jacob keeping an eye on her then leaving Nessie to her own devices in Seattle.

Nessie asks why her mother is calling. “I’ve got a paper due,” she says.

“I just needed to hear your voice.” Bella’s own voice is strained. She is outside, where it is damp and raining lightly. The moisture helps wash away the stink of her classmates, but she can still feel the burn in the back of her throat. She remembers what their blood smells like. She can’t stop thinking about. (Part of her doesn’t want to.) “It’s hard.”

Nessie sighs, sounding equally annoyed and sympathetic. It’s always been easier for her, the bloodlust – being half-human has always helped. “You don’t have to stay,” she says. “Charlie misses you.”

“I can’t see Charlie right now,” Bella says in response. She picks at the hem of her sweatshirt. She feels awkward in her high school clothes. Like a costume, she must dress the part of a teenager. She’s been dressing like an adult for too long; she’d grown accustomed to the wardrobe Alice had spent so much time crafting for her. “Not in Forks, anyway. And he hates flying.”

“Is it really so bad there?” Bella can hear Nessie fidgeting on the other line. She is trying to be patient, but it’s a struggle. Faintly, Bella detects a heavy sort of breathing.

“Are you with Jake?”

“Uh, mom?”

Bella shakes her head, clearing away the mental image. “Nothing. Never mind. It’s okay. Michigan’s fine. It’s just different. It’s not home.”

“I’ll come visit during midterms,” Nessie interjects, hoping to break the melancholy. “Maybe dad would buy me a ticket?”

“Yes,” Bella says, sighing. “Say hi to Jake for me. You two be careful.”

She hangs up without a proper goodbye. They rarely say goodbye; it’s too hard sometimes.

The bell rings and when Bella looks up, Edward is waiting for her – the misty rain swirling around him like a halo. He holds out his hand to her and pulls her to his chest. His arms encircle her. In her ear, he murmurs, “How do you feel about ditching?”

“It sounds very healthy,” she says and follows him silently to the parking lot, where they escape unseen in his sleek silver Volvo. Their siblings won’t miss them.

* * *

There is a pop quiz Thursday morning in Calculus and Bella aces it without even thinking. This brings a small smile to her face and the sight of it gives Edward a thrill, but it is not enough. He is worried about her, despite her reassurances.

In the hallway after class, she tells him she is fine.

He says he hates the word fine.

She insists, “Really, I’m okay.”

“Okay isn’t much better than fine,” he says bitterly. “They’re negating words. You tell me you’re fine, but I can see that you’re not and when you say you’re ‘fine’ or ‘okay,’ it just negates the truth.”

“You want me to lie to you?” She is confused by his anger.

His jaw tightens. “I want you to let me help you.”

“I don’t need help.”

“Stop lying to me,” he says. His words are soft – almost silent – but it’s like he’s shouting at her. Like a slap to the face. It stings.

He grips her arms, his fingers tightening around her muscles. If she were still human, it would bruise. Purple and black, like their honeymoon. “Bella, you have to tell me what is wrong.”

Her voice is small when she replies. She keeps her eyes focused on the ground. “If I tell you what’s wrong, then I have to admit that something’s wrong and if I do that, I don’t think I can keep coming back here.”

Edward softens instantly. He releases her arms and enfolds her in his embrace. “Oh, Bella,” he breathes. “It’s okay … you don’t have to stay.”

“I do,” she insists, speaking into his chest. “I have to. I want to.”

He could hear the determination in her voice. “Then let me help you; let me make it easier.”

“I don’t know how you can.”

Edward pulls away and takes her hand in his – the gesture subtler, but no less intimate. Not with the way his thumb caresses her knuckles. It seems innocent enough, but the sensation ignites sparks. It conjures memories that are not innocent. “Why don’t you start by letting me walk you to class. English is next – did you read your chapters of WutheringHeights?”

The small smile tugs at her lips again. “Yes,” she says, fighting a smug grin. “I don’t quite have them memorized yet.”

The sadness isn’t gone yet from her eyes. But the smile gives Edward hope.

* * *

In gym that afternoon, Bella surreptitiously scores the most points for her volleyball team. She whoops with delight with her classmates when they win. From across the net, Edward smirks at her. Normally, his team wins because he cheats, reading the thoughts of the opposing players before each move. Normally, Bella doesn’t care – she’s usually not that competitive. But today she wanted a fair match. Because the game isn’t really one team against the other; it’s her against Edward. So she put her teammates under her shield – blocking Edward from knowing their strategy.

And her team won.

Victory is sweet.

After, when they are walking back to the parking lot hand-in-hand, Edward asks her how she is.

“I’m great, actually,” she says, and the smile reaches her eyes and Edward knows, this time, she isn’t lying.

* * *

It’s raining thickly when they drive to school Friday morning. Edward worries that it will make Bella homesick.



But the subtle smile on her lips does not falter, even as they step out of the car and walk through the sprinkling into the brick building. In fact, the rain is comforting. It does remind Bella of home – of Forks – but it does not make her sad. Not today.



The rain is like a security blanket.



The familiarity makes her day at school seem easier. Simpler.



In art, she can smell Lindsey picking at her scab from across the room. Bella tenses only momentarily before finding solace in glancing out the window. Through the fine pane of glass, she can smell the rain saturating the earth and the trees and the red brick of the school buildings. Everything smells stronger in the downpour. She focuses on these scents, blocking out the more tempting, dangerous aromas inside the classroom.



It’s true, she cannot run away from the scent of human blood here at school – not like she did that day on her first hunt. Not like she always has when it’s been too much before. But she can escape the scent by focusing on others.



Bella closes her eyes and breathes in the aromatics from the rain. She sighs and smiles and opens her eyes, feeling content.



Vaguely, from the corner of her eye, she senses Edward watching her with a wary fascination.



She smiles at him brightly.



He is startled by the purity of her expression. He returns the gesture with his own lopsided grin, but continues staring at her in confused wonderment. The question is plain in his expression.



Bella continues smiling at him and focuses on dropping the barrier from her mind. When she hears his surprised – “Oh!” – she knows the barrier is down.



That’s when she tells him – shows him – everything. The pain and struggle of the last week. The constant, aching burn in the back of her throat despite daily hunting trips. The agony of returning to class each day, yet the urgent desire to continue. And then the sweet scent of relief from the other side of the art room window.



“The rain?” he whispers, so low only she can hear.



She nods, still smiling. It lights up her amber eyes.



He reaches across their table and kisses her knuckles. “I knew you could do it,” he says.



“Of course you were right,” she says, rolling her eyes. “But I didn’t believe you until now. I suppose I needed to prove it to myself first. “



He wants to kiss her again, but is vaguely aware of the students around them. Focusing is much more difficult for him when she is so close, so tempting, so dazzling. Though their conversation is silent – to human ears – the intimacy of their simple gestures is enough to draw the attention of at least some of their fellow students. He and Bella are, after all, still the “new kids.” Still a scandal.



He leans into her ear. “I’m proud of you,” he says, brushing her cheek with a feather-light kiss. A promise for later. He’s certain she would be blushing and her heart racing if she were still human. He can tell from the way her eyelashes flutter.



Reluctantly, he pulls away and turns his face back towards their lecturing teacher. Pretending to pay attention, while stealing sidelong glances at his wife, who is far more enthusiastic in her class work now that she is not ceaselessly distracted by the pumping blood of her classmates.



Edward resists the urge to sigh. He will never tell Bella this, but he has no desire to repeat yet another year of high school. He is doing this solely for her – because she wanted to try – and though he is glad she has begun to overcome the bloodlust, part of him still wishes she had given up. So they could go back to being husband and wife – instead of oddly affectionate adopted siblings.



Because now that Edward has spent time alone with his wife – had the last few years as “empty nesters,” so to speak, he doesn’t want it to end. Their time as newlyweds had been interrupted by the unexpected yet miraculous birth of their daughter. Edward cherishes every moment they spent raising her together. But he’s also taken a devout liking to complete aloneness with his wife. He wants to catch up on all that alone time they missed out on as parents. He wants her all to himself – all the time.



Edward has to remind himself that they have all the time in the world. That he can afford to be patient for Bella to see and do everything that she wishes for – like repeating high school and attending college. If satisfying Bella’s extracurricular desires means continued education, then Edward will oblige.



But someday he’ll have to tell her that he is getting tired of matriculating.



*** The End ***