A/N… This is the last regular chapter of Masen Manor. This is all Bella, and the epilogue is all Edward. I'll let you get to it, but see me at the bottom for a few things…

~oooOOOooo~

Chapter 35

January 2003

BELLA

The train pulled out of Penn Station, and my eyes drifted to the window to watch the city fade away. My fingers toyed with my charm bracelet, specifically Leah's charm. I'd doubted Leah's claim when she first gave it to me, but after everything, I was glad to have it on my wrist.

Christmas break had been mostly calm, normal, almost too quiet, but I liked it. It had been fun and full of snowy enough days that not only could Edward spend a lot of time at my house, but Carlisle and Esme had visited, as well. There had been duels between Edward and me on the piano using Christmas carols, snuggles in front of his fireplace, and a tall, lean form pulling himself through my window every night.

My mother had shown vast improvement. She was still seeing Dr. Buchanan, and she'd reconnected with some of my father's old friends, people who hadn't been fully aware of what had happened five years ago. What had put Edward and me in a state of hidden smiles and fits of silent laughter was Harry Clearwater. He was crushing on Chelsea with an adorable awkwardness that had to have been hilarious with Edward's mind reading.

There had only been one incident, and the thought of it made me glance down at Leah's charm. Once again, the small round silver coin had almost burned me, though this time not so badly as to leave a mark like before.

It had been New Year's Eve, a celebration for everyone, but for Edward and me, it meant a small anniversary of sorts of our first real date. We'd wanted the night to ourselves, so we'd declined Carlisle's invitation to another party like the year prior. Instead, we'd spent the night in Boston. Edward had dropped me off in front of the theater in order to avoid walking through the snow, but as he'd parked the car, Leah's charm had practically glowed with heat. She'd explained to us that the charm could sense evil intentions, that it would warn, repel, and even discard anything thrown my way. A surreptitious glance around me had given me my answer. There had been a man watching me almost from the moment Edward had helped me out of the car.

He'd looked drunk or high, but before he could make his way to me, Edward had been climbing the steps to join me. It had been the tight, pinched look on his face that had me taking his hand and tugging him inside. I wasn't quite sure what he'd do. However, he'd felt the heat from the charm, spinning his head to glare at the man one more time. It was that look, that silent threat that had sent the guy on his way. My beautiful Edward was usually sweet and calm, but when he wanted to be, he could be scary as hell.

"Ah, there you are," I hear in the aisle of the train, and I smiled up at Angela. "I wasn't sure you'd take the train, or if Edward would drive you back."

I shook my head. "No, he's back in class," I lied smoothly, patting the tabletop for her to join me. "How was your break?"

"Pfft, boring." She rolled her eyes. "Though, I did meet someone," she said softly, her cheeks blushing a bright pink.

Grinning, I sat forward. "Oh? Spill, woman."

She giggled, and it was funny to see. Angela was a kind person, but extremely reserved. To see her blushing cheeks, her animated gestures, and her stammered speech about the new boy she'd met was just about the cutest thing. Ben Cheney. She rambled on and on about the shy, slightly nerdy son of her parents' new next-door neighbor. Apparently, he was a touch shorter than Angela, but she didn't care. He was sweet and a little awkward, but had light brown hair and big dark blue eyes. Angela was completely smitten.

"So…you went out?" I asked, grinning when she nodded, her eyes wide behind her thick lenses.

"Yes, and we're sort of…"

"Together," I finished for her, laughing when she nodded fervently.

"You're doing the long-distance thing?" I asked.

"Yeah, but he's already called me like three times since I left home."

It was nice to see her happy. She'd always been very sweet to me, and Edward had told me more than once that Angela's mind was kind and calm and easy.

"How 'bout you? How's Edward?"

It was my turn to blush, simply because the sound of his name made me shift a little in my seat, which in turn made my body hum with the deliciously achy feeling all over me. Edward was most likely back at Masen and hidden in his east wing, but the night before had been filled with touches and kisses and whispered words that still echoed in my ear. Sometimes, my Edward could say the most amazing things, but his determination to leave me feeling him the entire train ride had just about caused me to shatter into a million pieces. And he was completely successful.

It seemed Edward loved to find ways to make my body sing for him. He played me better than the piano, all the while reading every thought skating through my head. He'd held true to his word about never bruising me again since our first time, and he hadn't. He had, however, discovered that he could leave his mark on me in other ways. I was quite sure there were at least two on my body at that moment…and probably a couple I couldn't see.

"That good, huh?" Angela teased.

I laughed, but nodded. "Yeah, it was a good Christmas and New Year's. Mrs. C and Dr. Cullen stayed in Boston with him, so we were able to spend lots of time together. He's coming to Masen for his spring break."

Angela's phone rang, and her blush gave away the caller, so I giggled, forcing my attention back to the bright red journal in front of me. How Edward managed to sneak an entry in there was not only too sweet, but incredibly funny. I loved that he wrote in there when I was sleeping.

My beautiful Bella,

There's nothing like watching you sleep in my arms. Nothing. You once asked me why I don't shove you off, how boring it must be. But it's not boring. And an entire army couldn't pry you out of my arms. You haven't had a bad dream in months, but I love that you still cling to me, that my cool skin doesn't bother you, and that it's my name you whisper in the darkest part of the night. Even more, I love the scent of us combined. Every inch of your skin smells like me, and vice versa.

The next few months, this last semester of school, will be busy for you. My promise to you is to give you enough time to get your work done. I know I tend to distract you – not that you complain, sweet girl, but it's important that you focus on graduating. I'm so proud of you, love. You've already received several acceptance letters from a few colleges, and you just have to pick one. It doesn't matter to me where we go, Bella, so please don't base your decision on anything surrounding me. I want you happy with your choice.

I also don't want you to base your decision on your mother, either. I know you want to watch over her, and we will, but it can be done no matter where we go. She's doing amazingly well, Bella. Her mind is calm, her thoughts more focused, and she's learning to simply be. She's still working on her guilt. I see it. She feels a heavy amount of it on certain occasions: times when she thinks Charlie's missing out on something with you, times when she can tell you miss your father or you're struggling with something, and times where she remembers how she fell for lies and deception.

All that being said, take your time with your choice, my love. I just want you happy with your decision. You told me that music is important, but it doesn't seem to be your priority. If that's the case, then narrow down your choices to make it simpler. However, anywhere you pick, I'll be right there beside you, so it doesn't matter to me.

I've lived a very long time, doing a long list of things just to keep myself busy. The road ahead of me always looked dull and never-ending, no matter who showed it to me. Giselle talked of my beautiful, silent swan, Leah showed me comfort and a partnership I couldn't believe, but the reality beats anything they ever tried to tell me. Even Alice with all her vivid visions could not pinpoint the perfection that your presence brings to my life. This will be the first time since I was human that I'm looking forward to my future. Everything is new through your eyes, Bella, so trust me when I tell you that as long as I get to be by your side, I don't need to cast a vote.

You'll be on the train back home soon, a thought that makes me smile, makes me steal kisses while you sleep beside me just to hear you whisper my name. Home, Bella. I know that eventually, we'll be the same – something I'm more than willing to wait patiently for – and that there will be plenty of places where we'll settle down temporarily. I know that we'll travel and learn and grow; one lifetime will never be enough with you, but one place will always be home, and that's Masen Manor.

When I was new to this life, I thought I'd leave and never come back, but I always did. It didn't matter if I hid in the east wing, tried to teach, or even played the devoted son or nephew of Esme and Carlisle. It didn't matter the history pertaining to my parents or my change or anything. Masen Manor will always be home. I see it's the same for you. I've heard it in your smart, beautiful mind that you consider it our home. You have no idea how much that means to me. None. But I also know that you – like me – are happy just knowing your other half is near.

It's almost time to wake you, but I just wanted you to have this for the ride back to school. I love you, my sweet, beautiful girl. You've become my best friend, my reason for living, and my sole purpose in this life. I'll see you back at home.

Love always,

Edward

I turned the page, smiling at the drawings that he'd left in there. They were small snapshots of things: my hand clinging to a fistful of his T-shirt, my mom and me laughing in front of the Christmas tree, Chelsea's sweet face as she teased Harry with cookies, and my sleeping form. The latter was breathtaking, if that was truly how he saw me. I was tangled in the sheets, with a bare leg that had escaped. My face was calm, serene, and my hair was splashed across the pillow. I snorted at the dark spot just above my shoulder blade that I'd have been willing to bet he took great joy in not only giving me, but drawing, as well. He drew me beautifully, but mainly, he made me feel beautiful.

I turned the page again to a blank one, starting my note back to him as Angela continued to chatter away to Ben on her phone. A sense of anxiousness came over me – not really nerves, but excitement. This was the last semester of my senior year. Things would be hectic, busy, and full of big decisions, but it was also a reminder that in a few months, all pretenses would change. It was scary and looming, but also exciting. As the city gave way to the trees, I wondered if I should talk to Leah or Alice soon…maybe both.

~oOo~

February 2003

I took a deep breath and let it out, twirling my hair up into a knot just to keep it out of my face. Spread out on the bed before me was all my college acceptance letters. They were divided up into stacks of location – east or west coasts – and then they were marked with either full scholarships or partial.

My piano had gotten me in, but I wanted to look into avenues other than music, so with a heavy heart, Julliard was out. I tossed it aside. New York was still close to my mother, but I wasn't sure I wanted to live there for the next few years. Despite Edward's insistence that my decision shouldn't be about him, New York would be a lot for him to deal with – though any big city would be, really – with too many minds, too many humans, and not close enough to anywhere for him to hunt without being away for days.

Smirking that keeping Edward close was a selfish enough reason to remove them from the list, I moved on to the rest of the stacks. He'd been adamant about the decision-making process. It had to be me – my reasons, my choice.

I glanced Edward's way. He was sitting at his desk, laptop open, and his jaw clenched over and over as he rubbed his chin. He'd been working on the school's accounting most of that Sunday morning, though I was sure it was an excuse to give me space to do this.

He was so distracting, even just sitting there truly behaving. Some days, I couldn't get a damn thing done. Edward always felt so badly about it, too, that he was too needy, but it was who we were. We were mated and had been since my birthday. There were simply days that were all about us, nothing outside of the two of us mattered. We'd learned to deal with it as best we could. And I'd also learned to do a ton of homework in the library.

Tearing my gaze away from the beautiful, shirtless sight in front of me, I weeded out a few more schools and narrowed it down to a handful of choices. I shook my head, glancing up at him again.

"I can't make this decision by myself, Edward," I mumbled, rubbing my face.

His soft laugh made me smirk his way, but he got up from the desk. Crawling up the bed, he situated himself behind me, pulling me close and kissing my cheek.

"These are your final choices?" he asked, setting his chin on my shoulder.

"Yeah," I sighed wearily, leaning back against his chest.

"Tell me why…for each one, love," he instructed, pointing to the first envelope on the far left. "Start with this one."

Wrinkling my nose, I shrugged, but took it from him. "University of Washington. It's a full ride. They have a good music program, and it's in Seattle, so…you know, big music city."

It was also a rainy city and very close to forest preserves and mountains, not to mention it was closer to Alaska should we be inclined to go visit. The only draw that UW had for me was the ease of things that it would bring to Edward.

"It's also clear across the country, sweetheart," Edward pointed out. "And money isn't exactly—"

"I know," I groaned, nodding a little. "On both accounts, I know."

Edward grinned against my cheek, but said nothing as he picked up the next envelope. "This one?"

"Harvard." I snorted, looking to him. "That's a no-brainer, really. It's my hometown, your old school, and an amazing choice. It's a partial scholarship, but I wouldn't need housing, and even if we used your place, I'd be close to Mom." I held my hand up to stop him from speaking. "I know you said not to count that, but it's Harvard. As Alice would say…Duh!"

His laugh was sexy and sweet, and he patted my leg. "Yeah, that's pretty true." He picked up another envelope.

I eyed the papers in his hand. "Northwestern in Chicago. Partial scholarship, but housing is included in that one, should I need it. They have an enormous music program, and they also have several options should I decide to go into education."

Edward nodded, but said, "You wouldn't need housing."

"Oh?"

I turned a little so I could look up at him.

"No," he said softly, kissing my lips. "Carlisle and Esme have a place in Chicago. Hell, they have one in Seattle, too. They'd let us use them for however long we wanted. Or we'd get a place of our own."

"Fair enough," I said with a shrug of my shoulder and then reached for the last two letters. "So…let me ask you something."

"Anything."

I smiled at his handsome, open face. "No matter where I pick, you'd be okay. You'd… What? You'd take classes? Still work for Masen from home?"

His smile was sweet. "Yes, maybe…probably both. I'll always watch over this school, no matter what. Classes would only interest me if I either furthered my education or took classes with you. I'd need Jenks to falsify my paperwork, but I could essentially go to school with you, Bella."

"Okay." I held up the three we'd discussed. "Which would you choose?"

"What about those two?"

I shook my head. "They weren't all that high on my list," I told him, tossing them to the floor with the rest. One was in Alaska, and the other was the University of Oregon. Neither had great offers, nor were their music programs what I was looking for.

Edward smirked, but he snatched up the final three envelopes. He shoved all the others away. However, the look on his face was teasing, with narrowed eyes and a long, slow drag of his tongue along his bottom lip.

"East coast, west coast, mid-west." He chuckled, holding up the UW letter first. "Lots of woods and rain in Washington, Isabella."

I opened my mouth to say something, only to snap it closed. Finally, I blurted out. "Which selfishly gives me access to you more."

"But?"

I wrinkled my nose. "But…I don't know about moving that far away."

"Then it's out, love," he stated firmly, tossing it onto the discarded pile that had grown pretty high on the floor. "Next…" He held up Harvard. "Smart choice, and it's close to home, but…"

"Maybe it's too close?" I asked tentatively, taking the letter from him.

Edward tilted his head a little at me, his eyes a warm melted honey. "You want Northwestern. It's been your choice all along."

Laughing nervously, I nodded. "I just didn't know…" I sighed deeply. "Edward, I know you said it was my decision, but we both have to live with it. So…can you help your girl out, please?"

His laugh was deep and practically shook the whole bed, but he leaned in to kiss my lips. "That's right. My girl." He purred, his eyes darkening a little as he looked at me heatedly.

"Oh, damn… Edward, please focus for this last thing…"

Grinning, he nodded, handing me the envelope. "Northwestern, it is, love. And before you ask me why… Because you want it, and it's a fantastic school, but also because I had extended family in Chicago a long time ago, Bella, so it'll be good to go back and see it again. Esme's from right near there, you know."

Biting my lip, I met his gaze. "Really?"

He set all the letters aside, pulling me to his lap. "Really. I couldn't have picked better myself, my sweet girl."

Wrapping my arms around his neck, I hummed when his lips met the skin of my throat, specifically my scar. "So…Ch-Chicago?" I stuttered when his tongue did that swirly thing just below my ear.

He smiled against my skin. "Chicago," he purred low and sexy.

"That's a big city," I said, my eyes rolling back as every cell in my body lit on fire, but I needed to know if this was okay with him. Cupping either side of his face, I pulled him back so I could look him in the eyes…and think straight. "Are you okay with that?" I asked, tapping his temple so that he understood what I meant.

"Yes," he whispered, licking his lips, but his eyes were already black fire. I wanted to laugh at how he lost himself sometimes, but I couldn't. I loved that he loved me that much, always, every minute of the day. "I've lived in big cities before, Bella. I can handle it. I promise to talk to Carlisle about using their house, okay?" he rasped. "What I'm not okay with is being interrupted when you taste so good…"

My giggle turned into a low moan when he went right back to where he'd left off. I wanted to warn him that it was Sunday, which meant Alice could call any minute, that interruptions were bound to happen, but I couldn't. I barely knew my own name as Edward pleaded in sexy whispers to let him taste me everywhere.

I heard letters slap to the floor, and I barely registered that his T-shirt that I'd been wearing was gone. I loved when he moved so fast that he couldn't control some aspects of his immortality. He'd move with lightning speed to remove shoes or clothes, but when he came back to me, he was always slow, gentle, sweet.

As he pressed me down into the bed, I raked my fingers through his hair. It always seemed to give him focus. He was still in his jeans, but I could feel he was hard and heavy through the rough fabric.

"Everywhere, Bella," he pleaded, bending down to swirl his tongue around my nipple, only to switch to the other one. His eyes never left mine when he added, "I can taste you in the air, love. It's so… I… I want it…"

I was lost. Completely gone. His always raw, blatant honesty combined with his sweet voice, his gentle, urging touch, and the pull that was always there... I was his to do with as he pleased. And he did.

My skin seemed like it was going to burst into flames with every kiss, every swirl of his tongue as he worked his way down my body. He slowed down even more when he slid his hands down the inside of my thighs in order to open me up for him. A wicked smile quirked up the side of his mouth as I practically writhed beneath him, pulling at his shoulders with my feet, and cried out his name.

As he leaned in, I could feel his cool skin, but the second his mouth connected to where I was aching for him, a surge of need and want hit me like a tidal wave. It wasn't the first time he'd done this, but it never lasted long, simply because it quickly became too much, too sensitive for both of us.

He kissed my sex like he kissed my mouth: deep, with swirling tongues and hums of approval. When he added his fingers, I shattered so hard that I saw stars behind my eyelids. My whole body shook with the force of it, almost jerking when he pulled away.

When I opened my eyes again, he was looking down at me with that look, the look that told me he was questioning whether or not I was real.

"C'mere," I whispered, my heart still pounding, but I pulled him to me.

He slipped slowly into me at the same time I wrapped my legs around him, but there was always a pause, a moment he took just to read my mind, so I let him have everything: my love for him, my hope for the future, even the worries that I shoved away. I wasn't sure if he read the deeper stuff or just the things on the surface, but I gave him all of me.

"Everything. I can see everything you show me, love," he whispered, pressing his forehead to mine, but his eyes didn't leave my face when he started to move.

Somewhere in the haze of our lovemaking, I thought I heard my phone ring, but it went unanswered.

~oOo~

April 2003

Playing for my final wasn't half as nerve-racking as it had been the previous year. My last recital had come wrapped up in missing Edward, in playing the song that meant too much, with long, sleepless nights filled with scary dreams, and with facing my fears of being in front of the school. However, this year was easy.

The song was light, fun, sexy. It was Edward and me in a melody that told our story. It was easier because he wasn't hiding in the shadows this time, but sitting in the front row right next to Esme. I could feel his presence like a warm, cozy blanket. Silly thing also led the standing ovation.

That thought made me lean in and kiss his neck as he carried me through the hidden passageway toward Leah's. Edward's family and Alice wanted to celebrate my recital, which had given me a perfect grade, so they were all waiting for us at the little cottage at the far back corner of Masen's grounds.

We came up out of the tunnel, and Edward set me down, but he pulled me to him. "What was the kiss for, Bella?"

Giggling, I stood up on my toes to do it again, only this time to his lips. "'Cause I can."

He chuckled, looking down for a split second, but nodded. "Before we go inside, I just… You did an amazing job, sweetheart. I'm so proud of you."

"It was your song."

"Our song," he corrected softly. "But you still played it perfectly."

I felt my cheeks heat with my blush, because his praise when it came to the piano still meant everything. And I wondered if that would always be true. If somewhere deep down, he'd always be that sweet, crooked-smiling, gentle guy who I met that first piano lesson, the one who saw beyond the scars, through my silence, and into my soul. He made me feel strong, smart, and his equal on most things, but when it came to playing music, I wanted so badly to impress him.

I felt his kiss to my forehead, and he linked our fingers together.

"C'mon, sweet girl," he said with a chuckle. "Alice's patience is…waning." He glanced toward Leah's adorable cottage and laughed again. "Maybe that's putting it mildly."

"Edward, stop hoarding her!" I heard behind him, and I couldn't help but laugh, especially when Edward muttered something about truly hoarding me as he led me to the house, where Alice was waiting in the front yard.

"I heard that," she snarked, narrowing her eyes at him, but at the same time, she pulled me into a hug.

Whatever she was showing him merely made him laugh and shrug, but he suddenly stopped, narrowing his eyes.

"Stop torturing my vampire, Alice," I whispered to her, grinning at them both when they laughed.

The house was full. Esme and Carlisle joined us shortly after Edward and I arrived. Jasper and Alice sat cozily on the sofa together, and Leah was happily humming to herself in the kitchen. Jake, however, was sitting with someone I didn't know. She was young, with tanned skin and dark hair. Her focus seemed to be solely about Jacob, until he introduced us.

"Bella, Edward, this is Nessie," he said, and I shook her hand. Edward, however, kept his touch to himself, opting to smile and wave politely from behind me, and I wondered what she knew, if anything.

One glance at Leah, though, told me a few things. There was a deep sadness in the crease of her eyes, but there was also a touch of relief.

"She saw this, saw him find her," I whispered to myself.

"Yes," Edward breathed against my ear before pulling out a chair. "Back in Boston."

Nodding once, I took a seat. When I locked eyes with him, he shook his head, but I knew he'd tell me later.

Nessie was sweet, adorable, and fun. She seemed laid-back and calm, but comfortable around everyone, and I could see by the way Edward and his family were acting that she didn't know what they were. Apparently, she'd just moved to Hunter's Lake with her mother from a small town a few hours outside Seattle, and she was working at the diner in town. I knew enough about Jacob to know that he wasn't a saint when it came to girls. But he was much older than he looked, so watching him fawn all over Nessie was just about the sweetest thing. It took all Edward and Jasper had not to tease him relentlessly; I could see it in their silent laughter, their occasional eye contact, and the sharp glares Jacob would shoot their way.

Leah stayed quiet, but her face seemed to be happily soaking up the laughter and fun inside her home. She offered tea and cake, but only those of us who ate human food took her up on it. I don't think Nessie noticed. When it came time for her to leave, Jacob offered to drive her home.

"Spill, mind reader." I looked to Edward the minute the door closed, and he grinned.

"Oh, I want to give him so much trouble, but I can't," he chortled, giving Jasper a fist bump. "He's completely terrified of her knowing everything."

"Oh," Esme and I groaned together.

"She's good for him," Leah stated as she toyed with her teacup. "She'll be there for him well after I'm gone. I've already seen it. And she'll accept the truth without even batting an eye."

The whole room grew quiet, and Jasper's face pained at the emotions I could well imagine we were all emitting. I glanced between her calm acceptance to Edward's dark gaze, and finally, Alice's heartbreaking frown. Her eyes darted everywhere, giving away the fact that she was searching for something, anything to tell her what was coming, but she looked to Edward, who looked so serious. However, it was Carlisle who spoke up.

"Leah, you have my word that we'll all watch over him. It's a promise I made when he was born, and it's one I intend to keep," he vowed without breaking his gaze from hers. "He's a part of my family, and he always will be. If he chooses Nessie, then…she's most welcome, too."

"I've been researching your curse, Leah," Edward started, but she held up her hand.

"Oh, pooh, Edward. I don't want to know," she stated, leaning in to kiss his cheek. "Without that so-called curse, my grandmother wouldn't have met you, so…I'm grateful for it."

"I know, I just…" Edward stammered, glancing down at his hands. "I wanted to help."

She grabbed his face, making him look at her. "Never think you didn't, Edward. Without you and Carlisle…all of you, Jacob may not have even been born, we would've never known true family, and we would've never had this place we've called home for over a hundred years. You helped raise my son, sweet boy. You taught him right from wrong, how to drive a car, how to survive his long life without going mad. I couldn't love any of you more for it," she told him, kissing his wrinkled forehead. "But I'm ninety-three, son. I'm no spring chicken anymore. My heart is weak, but it's full. My time is coming, but I don't want any of you to be sad. I've lived a very full, happy, safe life in this place, something most gypsy women can't claim." She got up from the table to busy herself in the kitchen for a moment.

I swiped at my tears, looking to Alice along with everyone else.

She softly said, "She can't read her own future. It would've never shown in any reading. And I don't need tarot cards. However, it's not anytime soon, because there's snow on the ground, and I don't see you two living here at the castle."

"She gave Jacob a reading," Edward murmured, wrapping an arm around my shoulder and kissing the top of my head. "She saw fertility and prosperity. She saw him aging."

"She meant every word," Jasper piped up softly, smiling a little. "She's happy, content."

"She can go now that someone will take care of her son," Edward concluded, looking to Carlisle.

"Yes, and we'll care for her as we always have," he promised. "What have you found out?"

Edward smiled, eying Leah for a split second. "That it may not be a curse, but a long line of shape shifters. I've got to keep looking, but I think it may have started with Native Americans. People who could shift into an animal, specifically the wolf. And they're designed that way to kill us," he stated with a grin, pointing to his chest.

"Aw, hell," Jasper chortled, shaking his head. "Don't tell Jake; he'll never shut up about that."

~oOo~

May 2003

Gazing out the window, I stared unseeingly at the back courtyard of Masen's grounds. My hands were shaking, and my stomach was filled with armored butterflies that were intent on carving their way out with swords and arrows. I wasn't sure I'd ever been as nervous as I was at that moment.

I turned to my right to stare at the blood red graduation gown and cap. Alice's prediction had come true. I was valedictorian. Tyler Crowley had come in just under me as salutatorian. I should've let him give the damn speech. I didn't know what I was thinking.

Swallowing nervously, I glanced around Edward's room. He wasn't there, but he was on his way back from picking up my mother and Chelsea at the train station. I'd encouraged it, but now I was regretting these few minutes away from him. I should've kept him here with me.

A light knock on his door made me spin around, but I found myself wrapped in strong arms.

"Alice…" I sighed in relief of seeing her. "What are you… How'd you get in here?"

She giggled, leading me to the sofa. "I have my ways, but really, I just had to make the decision to ask Jasper, and that showed me the secret passage. Did you really use all those back ways?"

Grinning, I nodded and hugged her again. "I can't do this, Alice."

"You can, and you will," she soothed, reaching up to play with a loose curl of my hair. "You wanna know how?" When I nodded again, she took my hands. "Because you're not giving this speech for the other eleven people graduating, or for Edward, or even for me – though I wish I was graduating with you – but for you. It's not for your mom or Chelsea. You're gonna do it to get back at all those who tried to stop you. We could slap a fucking label on it and call it retribution, or you can just finally realize that you're stronger than all of us."

She paused for a second, and her amber eyes saddened. "I'm going to tell you a secret Bella. I've successfully kept it from Edward, but that shit isn't easy."

I grinned at her. "You two crack me up."

"It's fun as hell messing with him," she said, shooting me a wink. "But you were right… He was an amazing teacher. He made me feel like my talent wasn't something to hate or fear, but something to control. And ohmigod, Bella…he's crazy about you."

Blushing, I huffed a light laugh. "So what's this secret? 'Cause I know how good of a teacher he is and how much he loves me."

She laughed, but it didn't last long. "I've seen your future…with us, as one of us, and it's clear and perfect and colorful. But there was a moment there…when Phil was in your house, when Alec poured the drugs into your glass, where you left us. Bella…you're what will keep this family together. Without you, Edward's lost, just…gone. Jasper and I go away; we don't stay around. And without her 'kids,' Esme's heart shatters. She begs Carlisle to take her away from the castle. Jacob leaves, too, after his mother passes, starting a new life somewhere else. Not only that, but without Edward, the school closes, the castle crumbles. So many things rest upon you."

"And my future as one of you?"

She smiled, squeezing my hands a little. "I've seen it, and it's good. So good, Bella. You'll know when you're ready to be one of us; it simply hits you one day. And trust me, all you have to do is say the word, and Edward would hand you the world. And we'll all be there."

Smiling down at my hands, I took a deep breath and let it out.

"I've seen your speech, Bella," she said, tapping her temple. "You need to say it. You need to make it, simply to let it out. I'll hide in the closet, but focus on Edward. He'll be right up front with the rest of your family."

Family.

The word resonated with me. I knew I'd always love my mother and Chelsea, but I was now surrounded by people who would be by my side for eternity. They'd fought, protected, and cared for me – and they'd do it forever. Not only did I owe it to them to finally stand up straight, but I owed it to my dad and myself.

"There it is," she whispered, smiling when I glanced up at her. "You'll be fine. We're all cheering you on." She stood up, pulling me with her. "C'mon. I'll help you into your robe. It's almost time."

Once I was covered in the red fabric, my cap on straight, I hugged her, telling her how to get to the auditorium the back way. I emerged out of my dorm room to join the rest of my graduating class. It seemed like every seat was taken when we marched down the aisle, and I barely heard Esme's introductions or speech, but I could feel my favorite gaze on me when I stepped up onto the stage to stand at the podium.

I glanced around, missing the presence of the piano, but the blackboard caught my eye, which made me smirk. Memories flooded me, of paper ball fights, sweet crooked smiles, and endless patience. I saw each moment Edward spent with me that first year, pulling, tugging, pushing me to be me, to do better, to play. To trust.

I faced forward again, setting my notes down. My charm bracelet caught my eye, each charm representing a piece of me. From happy memories of my dad, to the love from Edward, it was all there. Each piece clicked into place, and I looked out into the audience to see the face I needed to see most.

Clearing my throat, I spoke into the mic. I wanted to laugh at the shock on some faces, simply because there were people in the audience who had never heard me speak.

"My name's Isabella Swan," I started, breathing deeply to settle my shaking hands. "Some of you don't know me, or if you do, you've probably heard rumors about me. Some are true, but some aren't.

"When I first came to this school, I didn't speak. It was a habit leftover from when I was incapable of speaking, but with the help of several people I won't name, I'm now able to stand here and give this speech."

I glanced down to Edward, who was sitting forward in his chair, his elbows resting on his knees. Poor thing looked like he was about to dart onstage should I merely say the word. His fingers shot to his hair, but when he met my gaze, he chuckled and then shrugged.

Looking back to my notes in order not to laugh at his overprotective nature, I went on.

"My dad gave me some sound advice once, and I think it would apply to my fellow classmates. He told me to always remember that there are only so many people in this world you can trust and to surround myself with those people. Whether it's in business or personal relationships, you need people you can rely on.

"I've tried to follow that," I stated, meeting the gaze of each and every one of my family members – both human and immortal. "And it's worked. In so many ways, I can't even begin to explain it.

"He also made me promise him some things, and it's that promise I'm going to challenge the class of 2003. Be happy. He told me to play the piano until my fingers fell off, so find that thing you love and do it. Finish school. Go to college. Marry someone who truly worships the ground you walk on."

I met Edward's gaze, which had darkened just a little, but his warm, endless love, his amazing, beautiful soul practically stepped up onto the stage like another entity. I couldn't see the future like Leah and Alice, but I could see it in his eyes. It would be an amazing life, and it was spread out before me with long, love-filled years. My throat closed up at the emotions running through me.

When Edward mouthed, "I love you," I knew I could finish my speech.

"Live life to its fullest. And never let anyone tell you different, that you can't do something. Prove them all wrong."

~oooOOOooo~

A/N… It was very important to me for Bella to get here, to this point. She came in silent, scared, and damaged, but was leaving pretty damn strong, with an amazing future spread out in front of her. Everything above and beyond that is just icing on the cake. :)That being said, I also saw the epi a specific way; it's long (almost two chapters combined), all in Edward's POV, and will touch on the things that all of you are asking about, including Jake's new girlfriend. ;)

I'll save all my thank yous and tears for Thursday's chapter, so I'll see you guys for the last chapter on Thursday…with a pic tease somewhere in between. Until then… Mooches, Deb ;)