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moves in mysterious ways

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moves in mysterious ways

This is not the way a love story might go someday.

The boy is ordinary and unremarkable, all short dark hair and red lacrosse jersey and fingers drum-drumming on his desk in a case of something he'll never admit might be nerves. He notices the girl because he has to - because she draws attention to herself like someone dropped a classical sculpture in the middle of a not-terribly-noteworthy high school - but he makes a very careful point not to stare at her, not when something about her makes his skin crawl.

His parents travel with his mother's job. He moves around all the time - even here, where he's convinced he'll go stark raving mad if he doesn't see a proper summer sometime soon. There is nothing unlikely or unusual about his situation, and most of his new classmates pay him hardly any mind at all.

Except the girl is looking at him now, her head tilted ever-so-slightly, like a curious cat's. She doesn't bother to hide this, even when he darts quick glances in her direction.

So the boy vows then and there, during his very first class, to never pay any special attention to this particular girl. There is something about her that reminds him unpleasantly of danger and dark corners. (And anyway, he doesn't know this is a promise he can't keep.)

It's embarrassing to be seventeen and still shudder at the idea of imaginary monsters.

In love stories the boy doesn't call the girl a stalker.

But this is not a love story. This is the story of a boy trying to fit in and make friends and get through basketball tryouts - who doesn't understand why his new classmates consider this girl stunningly impossibly beautiful, witty and perfect and amazing and ten thousand other virtues, because his first instinct (ruthlessly suppressed, of course, on the grounds that it's ridiculous) is to grab them by their collars and drag them bodily away from her. The fact that she seems to find him fascinating - that she's everywhere he is from first period to tenth, materializing just out of arm's reach regardless of where he sits or how badly he gets lost between classes - just makes the entire situation all the worse.

He progresses from ignoring her to making stiff shooing motions without really looking at her to finally snapping and calling her weird freaky psycho-girl stop following me right in the middle of math, which adds some hilarity to the high school rumor mill and earns him a detention, but utterly fails to deter her.

(For some inexplicable reason he expects her to lash out at him when he yells at her - like that he spends a split second thinking his life is in danger while his heart hammers painfully against his ribs - but he gets nothing worse than an expression of polite bafflement for his troubles.)

The first words she ever says to him are "You don't like me at all, do you?"

The fact that she sounds mildly approving - as if he's passed some sort of test - makes him twitch at sudden movements for the rest of the day.

She is waiting for him after his detention, slouched against the wall with casual artistry, like a picture ripped from his sister's more pretentious photography magazines.

He folds his arms across his chest - not protectively at all, he tells himself; he doesn't believe in monsters - and mutters about getting a restraining order.

"Why?" the girl asks. She lifts her chin as she speaks; her long dark hair falls in (what else?) perfect waves around her face.

"Because you're creepy," the boy says. He leans away from her as he talks - an instinctive action, one he's utterly unaware of and would deny if anyone ever told him about it - but that doesn't stop him from looking her in the eye.

She steps back and sighs and says, "No one's ever said that to me before. Did you know that?" The sense that she approves of this somehow is still there, faint and ever-present, and he doesn't know what to do about it.

He doesn't actually hear her leave, because she's completely silent when she walks - because maybe he's too busy sagging in silent shaky relief, or possibly just banging his head against the wall and wondering what he did to deserve this.

His mom always tells him that he has an unusual amount of simple common sense for someone his age - that he is not prone to sweeping ideas or grand adventures, that he balances between any two extremes in a way that most people are never able to no matter how old they.

He is not the type to believe in happily-ever-after or even 'til-death-do-us-part or the transcendent and all-encompassing power of love, at least not as they apply to his own life. They are well and good, he thinks, for the people who have the time for that sort of thing, but not for him. Never for him.

There are no realists in love stories.

The girl's name is Isabella Cullen - "Bella," she says, so of course he calls her Izzy on general principles - and the rumor mill says she lives alone, although it doesn't bother to give the circumstances behind this situation or how she gets away with it without someone calling the cops.

"You have a ring on your finger," the boy says one day. (He is far from awed by her; he has time to see little details.) "Maybe you shouldn't be stalking me if you're married."

She is sitting across from him at lunch, him with his tray of inedible cafeteria food and her with nothing at all. They are alone together because the rest of his new basketball team has suddenly decided to give them space (he wonders why he is the only one who sees how abnormal this sort of behavior is) and when he speaks her eyes go wide and she darts her hands lightning-fast under the table as if she means to hide them. Her expression is clouded over - but there is something very tired about it, and for the first time he looks at her without the urge to back the hell away from her.

"Never mind," he says. He casts about for something else to look at and winds up frowning down at his plate of mystery meat. "Not my business."

"No," she agrees. "It isn't." Her voice is so soft that he almost can't hear it over the noise of the crowded cafeteria. "I didn't think anyone would notice."

He looks up at her. "People don't notice a lot of things about you, do they?" It's not really a question.

"You do," she says.

It takes him the rest of the day to realize she means this as a compliment.

In love stories there are only the right kinds of sudden revelations - not the ones that make the boy really listen to the rumor mill and learn that no one knows anything about the beautiful wonderful impossible girl who lives by herself, the sort of gossip that makes him suspicious and sympathetic all at once.

When he glances at her, some part of him knows he ought to be running for his life. But when he really looks - when he thinks about her expressions and her words and what they might mean - he sees someone who is desperately terribly sad.

(His mom says he has common sense, but his dad says he has a heart big enough for the whole world.)

"I'm afraid of the dark," he tells once, because he's in a classroom trying to finish up an English paper and he knows - he is absolutely certain - that if anyone else walked into the room at that moment, they would think he's alone.

The girl he calls Izzy-Bella is leaning against the wall by the door, invisible because she wants to be.

He sees her plain as day. He always does.

"Are you really?" she asks quietly, rhetorically. "You don't seem like to type."

He skims his outline without seeing it and shrugs. "I'm afraid of people too," he says. "The people everybody likes." And he darts a glance at her, glad his back isn't to her even as he tells her exactly how ridiculous he is.

"Maybe you're just sensible," she says after a moment. "Maybe you're good at seeing monsters."

"Or maybe I need to grow up," he mutters - but she doesn't reach over and flip the lights off like any of his (other) friends would, and for that he's more grateful than he ought to be.

Instead she laces her fingers together, the ring no one else bothers to see a silver band set against her too-pale skin. "Are you scared of me?"

"Yes," he says without any hesitation. (He sees her go much too still out of the corner of his eye.) "But if you wanted to hurt me, I figure you would've already, so right now I'm just afraid of failing this class." He taps his outline with his pen, dotting a would-be analysis of Helen of Troy with blue ballpoint ink.

She says nothing, just leans more heavily against the wall than before and makes a show of peering down at her hands.

He recognizes relief when he sees it and pretends not to notice.

When a hiker goes missing three towns over she disappears for a week and a half - out on family business, her teachers say. He doesn't spend the whole time she's gone wondering about her or waiting for her - he can't; he has practice, he has friends, he has his family, he has life - but all the same he keeps an ear out for her, listening to the rumor mill in case it gives him any useful piece of information.

The hiker's body is found after a week.

That afternoon he ditches math and finds her sitting by the high school's side entrance, her arms wrapped around her legs and forehead pressed against her knees. He stands a few feet away with his thumbs hooked in his pockets and waits for her to look up.

When she does, it's all he can do not to stumble backwards into the dubious safety of the high school - that's how sudden and overwhelming the feeling of wrongness is.

"You missed a test," he says because he knows he can't run away from her now, no matter how dangerous every instinct tells him she is; his voice trembles ever-so-slightly, with terror and the sheer physical effort not to flee and other things he's not sure he can put a name to.

She hides her face again. For a long time she doesn't answer at all, but then he hears her, quiet and muffled and lost. "I didn't think it would be like this," she chokes out. "I didn't think."

He doesn't realize he's moving until he's sitting cross-legged beside her, one hand carefully resting on her shoulder. It sends cold unpleasant shivers of fear through him, being this close to her. She shudders and presses a hand over her mouth the second he touches her, even as she leans closer to him, and he wonders if maybe he repulses her as much as she scares him - if that's why she's always stayed out of arm's reach before, safe at the opposite end of a classroom or the other side of a table.

"Did you kill the hiker?" he asks, because he has to.

"I killed the person who killed him," she says. "I make enemies that way, I do it all the time - but I have to." She speaks as if she is begging him to understand.

He can't - he thinks maybe he'll never understand, that he doesn't want to, because he's sitting next to a girl who just admitted to murdering someone. All the same, he shifts his arm so it's around both her shoulders and rests his other hand over hers, and he rocks her back and forth for the rest of tenth period, making mindless soothing noises because he can't do anything else.

A heart the size of the world is hammering in his chest.

"I haven't had a friend in a long time," she says.

"Oh," he says, and "Is that what we are?" he asks - and because he can't help himself, "How long is a long time?"

She smiles and doesn't answer.

He's not sure he wants her to.

This is not a love story, so the boy tells the girl he's asking someone in his applied arts class to prom just as soon as he gets up his nerve and please don't stalk him, seriously, and maybe she should think about going? Half the school would go with her if she asked, boys and girls. She could probably start a harem or something.

She holds up her hand and points to the ring on her finger, but a smile tugs at the corners of her mouth - a real one, not something that scares him witless, and before he remembers who she is it's the prettiest thing he's ever seen. "I've been to too many dances anyway," she says. "Hundreds."

"You're seventeen," he says. "My dad says seventeen-year-olds aren't allowed to be jaded."

She folds her arms and frowns at him ever so slightly. "You don't really think I'm that young."

He hesitates with one hand on his bookbag and the other on the door to the school gym, still wearing his sweats from basketball practice. "Maybe a creepy seventeen."

"You're a bad liar," she says.

He drops his hand from the door and grips his bookbag with both hands until his fingers hurt, and only then does he really look at her. "How much older are you, then?"

She holds up both hands, eight fingers spread wide.

"You don't look twenty-five."

"I'm counting in decades," she says softly, like an apology.

In love stories the appropriate response to revelations of the supernatural variety is not a quiet, put-upon "Oh, you have got to be shitting me."

But this is not a love story, so the girl rolls her eyes and grips the boy by the wrist - gingerly, like she's afraid he'll break or it's unpleasant to touch him - and steers him to the parking lot, where she pokes the school bus over with one finger.

That pretty much shuts him up.

His world doesn't turn upside-down - even if it does go a little tilty - because he's sensible and a realist and believes what he sees with his own eyes. All the same, he doesn't argue when the girl follows him home, expression twisted with worry and fingers knotting up the fringe of her scarf; she put the bus back, she points out, until he tells her that's not what's bothering him.

His parents' liquor cabinet is in the basement. He heads right for it, because he's not entirely sure what a stiff drink is, but he thinks he might need one.

The two of them sit in silence, listening to the furnace and the sound of the neighbors' kids dragging a sled up and down the street. She frowns at him, all anxious disapproval, while he tries and fails to drink his mom's bourbon straight from the bottle. (He gives up and digs out his sister's stash of cheap beer, which isn't stiff but doesn't make his throat burn either.)

It's a long time (or two beers, anyway) before he starts guessing, starting with superpowers and gets progressively weirder from there. Robots make her laugh - a nice laugh, the kind he thinks he'd like to hear more of before he realizes that's probably the alcohol talking - and she looks mildly insulted at aliens and gets sad and quiet and gently corrects him about werewolves; they live a long time, but not this long.

When he hits vampire she looks away quickly, which makes him choke on his beer.

"You'd better not eat me," he says - not as serious or dangerous or frightened as he knows he should be, because really, hasn't he spent the past few months telling himself he's not all that scared of her?

She looks annoyed. "I don't eat people. Especially not you."

"Do I want to know why?" he asks, although right now he's pretty sure he doesn't.

"You wouldn't taste very good," she says, failing to reassure him at all, and then her lips twitch like she's trying not to smile. "And because you're my friend."

"Oh," he says weakly, and then, "Am I?"

She twists her wedding ring like it's a talisman. "I'd like to think so. I'm a bit out of practice making friends."

The boy leans forward in his chair with his elbows on his knees, half-empty bottle held loosely between his fingers. He's terrified of her, he wants to say so very badly, and he has been from the moment he saw her, and some instinct tells him that perhaps that's why she wants to be his friend. How many people, he wonders, (how many humans) have looked at her and, on some level, seen her for what she is?

"You want to be friends because I know enough to be afraid of you," he almost says.

He hands her a beer instead.

In love stories the star-crossed lovers don't repulse each other.

The boy is immune to the girl's charm and beauty and all the traits that make her such a perfect predator - and it's only natural, he thinks in a strange detached sort of way, it only makes sense that after however many hundreds of years someone somewhere would evolve a defense. (He just wonders why it's him.)

He's repellent to her - his scent ("you're smelling me?" he splutters) and the way he instinctively pulls away and his blood most of all, which is bound to be disgusting, or so the girl says with absolute authority.

Of course, she also tells him he's a bit like a skunk that way, smiling (teasing, being human) as she says it.

He mutters under his breath and really ought to stop speaking to her, but of course he doesn't.

The girl he calls Izzy-Bella never tells him when and how and to whom she was married, but she explains plenty of other things in roundabout ways - that she had a family once upon a time, human and otherwise; that the people she loves and cherishes wind up in terrible danger (wind up dead) because of her, because whatever power makes her a vampire also makes her so very easy to notice unless she concentrates; that she loses people just because of who and what she is and she never ever meant for her long long life to be like this, not once.

"I survive," she says, like that explains everything. "I always survive."

He thinks that maybe that explains a lot about her - that it explains everything he wasn't sure he'd ever understand - but what he says is, "So why'd you decide to be friends with me, then?"

She touches his cheek with ice-cold fingertips, hardly shuddering at whatever-it-is that repels her, and reminds him that even regular vampires - the kind that eat people because they're hungry or because they can, the kind who took her family from her and hate her and perhaps she hates them right back - maybe, just maybe, they'll find him as unappealing as her instincts do.

"That's why," she says. "Because you're a human being, and you didn't like me at all."

"Because maybe you're safe," she doesn't have to say.

"So what do you like?" he asks all out of the blue, because if they're going to be friends he decides they're going to do it properly; he's a sensible methodical sort of boy, disinclined to leaps of logic and sudden attachments and heartfelt confessions.

The girl looks at him like he's grown extra arms.

"I like Spanish class and PE," he says. "And I like making free throws and I like video games and - " He stops mid-sentence, suddenly and acutely embarrassed, and hides behind his textbook; he ought to be taking notes, but he hates English homework and hates Shakespeare too and anyway biting your thumb is a stupid insult and the Montagues and Capulets need to grow the hell up and learn conflict management skills. "Stuff like that," he finishes.

She considers. "I like helping you with your homework."

"And?" he prompts. "The stuff that isn't stalking me?" (She's eighty years out of practice being human, he figures.)

There's a very long silence - one he spends doodling on the cover of his book - before she finally answers. "Cars," she says. "And motorcycles, and classical music. And I like baseball."

He looks up from giving Juliet a goatee. "Vampires play team sports?"

"You have no idea," she says loftily.

In love stories the boy doesn't challenge the girl to a snow-baseball pitchers' duel - or if he does, he doesn't end up flat on his back with a snowball stuck to his coat (or announce that there's no ballistic missiles in baseball and she's never pitching again) - and the girl doesn't laugh and laugh like she's almost forgotten how and pull him to his feet like he weighs nothing at all.

He wants to ask her if she remembers having ordinary friends, if she ever had ordinary friends at all; he decides it doesn't matter.

But this is not a love story - even if it's connected to one from a long long time ago, joined together by a ring and vendettas and once-upon-a-time - and so the girl looks up suddenly, her eyes wide and her expression frightened and her gaze locked somewhere over his shoulder, her hand tightening on the boy's sleeve until he feels his coat rip under her fingers, and she whispers "no no no" and "not him too" like it's a prayer she only half-believes in.

(Like she hasn't had too much practice losing the people she loves.)

And then they're kind of surrounded. The boy remembers the dead hiker (she killed whatever killed him) and thinks that he ought to have seen this coming, but of course he didn't.

He reaches ever-so-slowly for his baseball bat and holds it tight in both hands - better to have a weapon ready, he thinks, even one he found in the basement and used to carry around when he was in Little League. His stomach twists up and flip-flops and he grips the bat harder so his hands don't shake; the girl standing protectively in front of him, it turns out, has nothing at all on the wrongness other vampires give off.

Maybe he can heroically puke on someone's shoes, he thinks, which is about when he realizes the fear and adrenaline aren't doing him any favors.

"There's five of them," the girl is saying ever-so-calmly, with almost no quaver in her voice. "I'm pretty sure I can give you time to get back to town, and they shouldn't bother you there."

He steps forward just enough to look at her, to see her fingers slowly curling into fists and her jaw set and her eyes half-closed like she's fighting with more than just the other vampires and all the enemies she's made - like she's arguing with herself - and that's when he has a very belated epiphany.

On some instinctive level - the part of him that recoils from certain beautiful, charming strangers - he's always understood what a vampire is, all the unpleasant undercurrents lurking just beneath a lovely enchanting surface.

But she never did. Maybe she still doesn't.

"Hey," he says. (His voice comes out in a kind of stuttering squeak; he makes a mental note to deny this later.) "Izzy. Bella. Who are these guys?" Aside from snarling vaguely feral-looking vampires who want to eat him, anyway. He's pretty much figured that part out.

"People who don't like me," she says; she's too polite to say why, for all that they're circling her and throwing random taunts and honestly, he kind of doesn't want to get into creature-of-the-night politics right now. "Trouble," she adds.

He's the only one with his breath hanging in the air. He'll remember that much clearer than anything else. "So what happens now?"

"So now you run," she says, and she plants her hand in the middle of his back and shoves with a force that he normally associates with being body-checked.

Five against one is probably pretty shitty odds, he thinks.

This is not a love story, not when the boy has an unusual amount of common sense and the girl has lived for such a very long time.

But this is something else, a friendship or a sort of unstated crush or all the other awkward normal things that come with being ordinary teenagers - and he likes it, the boy realizes with a sudden unpleasant jolt, once he gets past the accusations of stalking and the social ineptness and the fact that she's old enough to be his grandmother. She's his friend, and bad odds suck no matter what kind of creepy undead creature you are, and whatever else happens he doesn't want her to die.

Which is probably why he catches himself on his hands and knees - being body-checked hurts - and he climbs to his feet and faces a whirlwind of noise and blood and strength that's going to kill him if he stands around doing nothing. (He's not surprised to see her like this; he knows exactly what she is.)

"Screw this," he mutters, not that anyone's listening.

And then he takes a page out of a famous Shakespearean tragedy.

The biting-his-thumb page, anyway. The dying-for-your-love page will just have to happen to someone else.

(She wasn't kidding about his blood being repellent, it turns out.)

"That was stupid," the girl says as she bandages the boy's hand with quick, jerky movements. Her features twist into an disgusted sort of grimace as she dabs at his blood with a damp towel; he wonders if vampires can throw up. "When I tell you to run, you're supposed to run. That was dangerous."

The boy feels that this is a lot of fuss over nothing. "I just bit my thumb," he says. It sounds stupider every time he repeats it - definitely not the sort of thing one bothers to put in iambic pentameter. "You said I would taste gross."

She leans back on her heels. "I could've been wrong," she says. "Maybe other vampires wouldn't have thought of you like that, or - or it doesn't matter, does it? You could've died."

"Yeah. Well." He's only now realizing that this isn't the smartest thing he's ever done. "I didn't."

"But - " She stops mid-sentence and takes one more swipe at him with the towel - gently for her, no doubt, but hard enough to make him wince. "I don't like seeing my friends in danger," she says.

The boy looks away, embarrassed. "Maybe I didn't either," he mutters.

She looks up, startled, and smiles in that way that makes her the prettiest person he's ever seen - nothing calculatingly beautiful about her, nothing he has to hide from.

But he is much too sensible to wish he had known her eighty years ago.

He manages not to squawk about "you're leaving?" too loudly in the middle of the cafeteria, although he does stand up too quickly and upend his soda all over the table. (In love stories tearful goodbyes aren't postponed while someone finds napkins and tries to clean cherry Coke off the chemistry notes.)

"Of course I am," she says, wadding up her share of the napkins in a little ball and absently dropping them on his tray. "You didn't kill anyone, just scared them off for a while. If I leave, they should stay away."

"Oh, great," he says - and he really ought to grumble too, about how he's going to fail chemistry without her and who's going to drive him up the wall after he gets detentions, he'd like to know - but then she leans over the table and rests her hands very carefully over his, like she's afraid he'll shatter, and barely kisses him at all, her cold lips hardly touching his.

"Have a good life," she says, and she turns and leaves before he can so much as raise his hand to his mouth.

He's the only one who notices she's gone.

A few classes later, he realizes he's the only one who remembers her as more than a faint impression, something strange and odd and intangible ghosting through the high school.

"Vampires," he says under his breath, and he lets the people sitting beside him wonder why he's laughing to himself.

The next day the boy stuffs his homework in his bookbag and fights his sister for the last waffle and promises his mom to help her fix the snowblower and tells his dad he's got a ride home after practice. He mostly fails a math test and very nearly aces a Spanish pop quiz and makes half his free throws. He talks to the tall, chatty girl in applied arts and asks if maybe she wants to go to prom with him; she asks for the night to think about it and says yes the next day in math.

(They date for four months and get caught making out in her living room and break up three weeks before college.)

This is not the way a love story goes:

The boy is very nearly eighteen and will live for a long long time - as long as a human being ought to, no more or less. Sometimes he thinks about the girl he never sees again and sometimes he doesn't.

He grows up.

Life goes on.