A/N: This is it. The last chapter. I'll save my thank yous for the bottom, so see me there!
Chapter Thirty-Four: Epilogue
It was amazing how fast time flew when you were living a nearly perfect life, Bella thought as she gazed out the apartment window overlooking La Seine. It had been almost three years since Edward had changed her. As Bella waited for Esme and Alice to tell her it was time, she thought over the years since that day in September in 2005.
They'd spent just over the first two years living in Alaska, making sure her thirst was under control. It hadn't taken long for that to happen—truly a short amount of time, according to Edward and the others—but Bella hadn't felt comfortable venturing out for more than short trips within Alaska and Canada until the beginning of the year.
From there, Edward had taken her traveling. She was truly blessed… They'd been to visit vampire friends from all around the globe, starting in the Amazon rainforest in South America, to visit Kachiri, Senna, and Zafrina. Bella had found them fascinating—almost too tall and thin, with long faces and long noses, restless eyes, almost jerky movements… They truly fit Bella's idea of wild jungle women.
After spending a few weeks there, they'd traveled to Egypt, which had been interesting, given how sunny the country was. The leader, Amun, had been a little stuffy, in Bella's opinion, but she'd really liked Benjamin—or Ben, as he'd told them to call him—who was friendly and open, and they'd had a lot of fun watching him manipulate the elements. Unfortunately, because Amun and his very quiet mate Kebi hadn't been as receptive to their visit as Ben and Tia, the fourth member of the coven, Bella and Edward had only stayed a week before leaving for Romania.
Meeting Stefan and Vladimir had proven to be the most interesting visit by far. They'd been born before 1000 BC, making them the oldest vampires Bella had met by far. The stories they'd shared with Bella had both stunned and frightened her. Before their visit, Bella had known she didn't want to go to Italy to meet Aro and the Volturi, whom Edward and Carlisle had told her many stories about already, but after talking with Stefan and Vladimir, the idea frightened her even more. Yet, for all their creep factor, the two vampires had been kind to her, strangely gallant, and the two-week visit had been almost…pleasant.
The last friends they'd visited had been fun, as well. Siobhan was the largest female vampire Bella had ever seen—a curvy, robust woman whose body moved with a grace and beauty that belied her size. Her mate, Liam, was definitely imposing at nearly six-and-a-half-feet tall and broad-shouldered. He'd been a soldier before his change, and in some ways, he reminded Bella of her father—very stoic, solid, and a mustache, to boot. The third member of their coven, Maggie, had shocked Bella when she admitted that she'd been changed at fifteen, although Siobhan had turned her when she was nearly starved to death. Maggie had the very interesting talent of being a human/vampire lie detector, which meant that when they took Bella and Edward into the bars in Dublin, she'd been able to tell them when the people around them lied to the person they were trying to pick up. Bella hadn't laughed that much in a while. They'd spent as long there as they had in the Amazon before promising Maggie they would keep in touch and leaving to make the short trip to London, England.
Bella had always dreamed of visiting England, where she could see the castles, Shakespeare's home and since hearing his story, Carlisle's birthplace. That was where they'd spent the largest amount of time during their travels. She'd gotten to do everything she'd always wanted to do, and it had been with an almost heavy heart after three months that they moved on to their current home in Paris.
After their abbreviated time of study at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Bella wanted to go back to school. Since SAIC hadn't been an option, Edward had suggested going whole hog and studying in Paris, which was virtually the art capital of the world. Once in France, they'd found an apartment and were now set to attend École des Beaux-Arts in a few weeks. Bella still felt like she was dreaming. She couldn't believe she'd be attending the same school as artists such as Edgar Degas. Since Edward had suggested Paris only six months into her new life as a vampire, Bella had begun learning French, so she was now fluent and able to get around the city easily.
But before school started, she and Edward had one more milestone they wanted to hit, and that was their wedding. She'd been truly surprised when Edward had gotten down on one knee in the middle of the snow just over two years after her change, asking her to be his wife. Before that moment, Bella hadn't given marriage much thought, although she knew that at some point, she wanted to be Bella Cullen. She knew she would never forget that morning.
As Bella gazed over the crisp, clean white snow, the sun not quite peeking over the horizon, she tightened her hold on Edward's arms as he stood behind her so they could watch the sunrise together. When the sun finally came into view, bathing the entire area in a soft pink, orange, and yellow light, Bella felt Edward move away, and when she turned, he was down on one knee.
He reached out and took her hand, and she began trembling even before he spoke.
"My sweet Bella… Our journey has been full of ups and downs. We had the rockiest, most unconventional start, but our life together has been more than I ever believed possible. From the moment I saw you, you became the light to my darkness, showing me that the existence I'd hated for so long could be something truly magical."
Bella felt her eyes sting at his admission. It was no secret that Edward had grown increasingly despondent and bitter about his life before her and until their reunion in Forks. To know that she had helped him begin to love his life again was a wondrous feeling.
"You are an amazing woman, with a sweet, loving personality, brilliant wit, and a mind that will forever keep me on my toes. In the beginning, I thought I couldn't love you more, but every day with you shows me I was wrong, because my love for you grows every moment we spend together."
"Oh, Edward," Bella couldn't help but murmur, as she knew exactly what he meant. Her love for him seemed to deepen every day.
The smile he gave her made her made her realize her shield was down, allowing her every thought to be heard. She left it down, hoping he would be able to tell just how much his words meant.
"I don't want to spend another moment without knowing you'll be by my side for eternity. Isabella Swan, I promise to love you every moment of forever. Would you do me the extraordinary honor of marrying me?"
Bella's ring finger felt empty, since Edward had insisted on taking the combination engagement/wedding ring back so he could put it on her finger during the ceremony. When she'd told him yes, of course she would marry him, Edward had slid the yellow gold and diamond ring onto the third finger of her left hand, explaining that it had been his mother's, so he knew it was old-fashioned, but if she wanted something newer, he would understand. She'd quickly silenced him with a kiss before saying that the fact that he wanted her to wear his mother's ring meant the world to her and he would have to fight her to get it back. She laughed softly as she remembered the smile he'd graced her with before he'd promptly taken her right there, in the middle of the snow.
"Bella?" Esme called as she knocked softly at the door. "It's time, sweetheart."
"I'll be right out," Bella called, taking one last look in the mirror.
She wasn't sure why she was nervous. Because of the laws in Paris, she and Edward had been legally wed on a quick trip back to the States the week before, choosing to invite Alice and Jake—Jake because he was human and could help ease any interactions with others, and Alice because she was Bella's best friend and could charm almost anyone—to Las Vegas, where they were able to apply for a license one night after dark and get married in a civil ceremony the next night. But both had chosen to celebrate and acknowledge their wedding date as the day—this day—that Emmett would perform the ceremony on the balcony of their apartment in Paris, with a beautiful view of the Eiffel Tower over his shoulder.
Maybe it wasn't nerves, but excitement. They flown Jake and her father over a few days before, along with Charlie's fiancée, Karen, who'd moved to La Push to take care of her elderly father almost two years before. Being a member of the Quileute Tribe, Karen had known all about the legends of the tribe, so after they'd been dating a year, Charlie had gotten permission from both Jake and Carlisle to tell about the wolves and vampires—including Bella herself. Karen had taken it well, and now they were in the midst of planning their own wedding. Since it was going to take place in La Push, Edward and Bella had already been told that they could attend the ceremony, although they knew that they would have to stay far enough away that any of Charlie's friends from the force didn't spot her, since she was supposed to be dead. It meant a lot to Bella that Charlie had found happiness again, and she'd enjoyed listening to him talk about Karen as their relationship developed.
"Bells?" As if he'd known he was the center of her thoughts, her father knocked softly on the door and then stepped into the room, looking dashing in his black tuxedo. "Are you ready?"
She took a deep breath, ignoring the burn at the back of her throat, and smiled. "I am," she said, slipping her arm through his. "Thanks for being here, Dad," she told him softly before they stepped into the hallway.
He patted her hand and smiled. "Thank you for letting me be."
When he opened the bedroom door, Bella felt nothing but peace, and she lowered her shield so Edward could see exactly how eager she was to get married…again.
Bella sat alone out on the hill overlooking Pittsburgh. It was a clear night, so the stars were out full-force, and the cityscape below shone bright with all the lights from the buildings and bridges. The sight of the skyscrapers didn't bother her as much anymore, not after ten years of being a vampire and more than fourteen years since the terrorist attack that had nearly taken her life. She could look out over the city and appreciate the beauty of the tall buildings, rather than fear for those inside or hyperventilate at the thought of going inside them herself.
She was comfortably full, well-fed after hunting with Edward in the Allegheny National Forest for white-tailed deer. He'd wanted to stay with her, but she'd asked for some time alone. She liked to sit and watch the city at night, to get away from it all without going anywhere, every so often, and he understood, so he'd kissed her and said he'd meet her at home.
From her vantage point, she could see the building housing the art program they'd started in 2013 for the children of Pittsburgh. Color Your World featured classes for kids from ages three to sixteen. For the younger kids, it was finger painting, drawing basic shapes, colors, and holding their pencil and markers correctly. As the ages grew, the mediums changed, giving way to pencils—both colored and regular—and paint, as well pottery classes and, for the oldest group, digital design.
After getting their art degrees in Paris and taking courses online to hone their digital design skills, Bella and Edward had begun working from home via the Internet and phone. They did book covers for authors, graphics for web sites, and more. They'd also both continued to draw, and Bella had begun to paint a few years before. Whenever they put their work up for sale, the proceeds went directly to Color Your World. They didn't make a lot of money doing what they did, but they enjoyed their work and they were able to devote a lot of time to the art program, so they were happy.
Bella pulled out her phone, suddenly wanting to speak to her father. It was time for their weekly update anyway. He loved hearing stories of the kids at CYW, and in exchange, he'd tell her all about the kids in La Push. Jake and his wife—his imprint, Shadow, whom he'd met when the tribe had a visit from a tribe that lived in Oregon—had had their third child just the week before, so Bella was looking forward to an update on little Sarah Tatyana, who was their first little girl after Nathaniel Jacob and William Zachariah. All told, there were currently nineteen children between the eight members of the pack, none of whom were shifting anymore since Edward's family had left Forks.
"Hey, Dad," Bella said, feeling life settle even more just at the sound of his voice.
"Bells! How are ya, kiddo?"
A few minutes later, Bella hung up the phone, slid it into her pocket, and stood, brushing herself off. Talking to her dad always put a smile on her face, but now, she was ready to go home and see Edward. She took off at a fast run, keeping to the trees until she had to slow down to a human speed when she got closer to the house.
When Bella reached their street, she couldn't help but shake her head. It was the same every time: amusement when she thought of Alice searching until she found three houses for sale next to each other. She and Jasper lived in one, Bella and Edward in another, with Carlisle and Esme in between. Rose and Emmett were currently traveling, taking some time away for themselves, but when they came back to visit or stay for a while, they lived with the "parents."
Bella dropped her shield and called out to Edward in her mind that she was home as she crossed in front of Carlisle and Esme's house. It was that notice that would allow him to be waiting for her with a warm bath by the time she made it upstairs and showered off. It was the same every time, a routine that made her feel special and loved. She couldn't help but smile as she opened their front door. Their house was alive with color—paintings they themselves had done, as well as a few from some of their more artistic kids at CYW. No matter what was going on in her life, the sight of all the color made her smile.
"Hi," she said, smiling when Edward jogged down the stairs to greet her.
He pulled her in for a light kiss before looking her over. "You look relaxed…"
Nodding, she said, "I talked to my dad, and now I'm here with you. I'm very relaxed."
"I guess you don't need the bath, then?" he asked with a raised eyebrow and crooked smile. "That's too bad… I guess I'll have to take it alone."
Bella grinned. "I think I could be persuaded into joining you," she teased, squeaking when he suddenly scooped her up and raced her upstairs, where he proceeded to remind her without words why taking a bath together was always a good thing.
Edward held Bella's hand as they stood far above the large group gathered under the tent in the cemetery where Bella's stepfather was being laid to rest. Phil Dwyer had left home four days before, gotten to the stadium where the baseball team he coached would be playing that night, and had been dead of a heart attack before he walked into the locker room. His death had made headlines because of his age and the fact that he had been a Major League baseball player before he started coaching.
By the time Charlie Swan learned of his death and notified Edward, Emmett had already seen the headlines. They'd debated whether or not to tell Bella, knowing it would upset her, but in the end, Edward had decided she needed to know and it would be up to her to decide what she wanted to do with the information. It hadn't been an easy decision for her, but she'd decided she wanted to go to New York to check in on her mom, even if it was from a distance.
They had flown in yesterday, watching from across the street as Renee came and went from the apartment, meeting with the funeral home several times in preparation for the funeral. Now they were hidden in the shadows as they listened to one of Phil's old teammates and friends give the eulogy. When the man mentioned the death of Phil's stepdaughter, Bella broke down into tearless sobs, turning and pressing her face to Edward's chest.
"It's all right, Little Bird," he murmured, closing his eyes for a moment against the pain he knew she had to be feeling. Her shield was locked up tight, so he couldn't read her mind, but the grief she was feeling was obvious in the way she cried and clung to him.
"I feel so guilty," she admitted after a moment, once she'd calmed enough to speak.
Edward turned to look at her in surprise. "Guilty? What in the world do you have to feel guilty about?"
"My mom…she's all alone now. First she lost me, and now Phil… Even though I'm still here—I'm right here, Edward, not a hundred yards from her—I can't do anything about it."
He nodded slowly, frowning. "I know, love. I'm so sorry."
"What's she thinking?" she whispered when her mother got up to place a single red rose on top of the beautiful wood and brass box.
Edward was quiet for a moment, and then he sighed, pressing a kiss to the top of Bella's head as she leaned against him. "She's thinking that she already misses him terribly, but she knows he's with you in heaven, and that's giving her a lot of comfort."
Bella took a deep, shuddering breath and nodded. "Do you think she'll be okay?"
"I do," he answered. "You see those women surrounding her?" When Bella nodded again, he continued. "Those are all friends of hers—it seems like some she's known since…college, I believe, and others she met once Phil retired and began to coach. But every one of them is determined to help her through it. Some are already planning to stay with her tonight and as long as she needs them. Others are thinking of what else they can do to help."
"They'll take care of her," Bella murmured.
He nodded, kissing her head again. "They will."
"Good. At least she isn't alone."
They were quiet then as the funeral concluded, watching as the pastor moved to Renee and offered his final condolences, saying to contact him if she needed anything. Renee thanked him and said she would.
Renee stood, giving the coffin one last look before turning to make her way to the waiting limousine from the funeral home, her friends gathered around her. Just before stepping into the car, Renee looked up. Her thoughts were a mess, flitting from Phil, to Bella, and back again, but she had the feeling she was being watched. Edward stepped back, pulling Bella back farther into the shadows, and after a moment, Renee shook her head and stooped to enter the car.
"Do you want to follow them back to the apartment?" Edward asked quietly as they watched the procession drive away through the cemetery.
Bella shook her head with a sigh. "No. I don't think she'll be going anywhere, so it isn't like I'll be able to see her. Let's go back to the hotel."
Edward nodded, slipping his hand in hers as they made their way to the car they'd rented and left parked on the other side of the hill.
They were lying quietly on the bed a few hours later when Bella's shield suddenly dropped. I want to go to the memorial.
Edward shifted them so he could look at her as they talked. "We can do that," he said slowly. "The sun's come out, so it'll have to wait till after dark."
His phone beeped, signaling a new text message.
Bella snorted. Alice, she thought.
He chuckled. "You're probably right," he agreed, reaching over to the nightstand to grab the phone.
The memorial closes at 8:30. The sun will set tonight at around 7:10. I see you leaving the hotel at 7:15.
Holding the phone for Bella to see, Edward shook his head. Sometimes Alice's gift still made him laugh.
Bella snorted again. See? Told you.
They fell into a comfortable silence again, and Bella's thoughts disappeared. Edward couldn't help but think of the last time they'd been to the site of the Twin Towers, their first Christmas together in 2004. That time, Bella had gone to say goodbye to her friends. She'd worked hard to put it behind her, and she'd come so far. He worried what going back would do to her now, especially after the emotional few days she'd had. But he knew it would be different this time. This time, it wouldn't be a construction site. This time, she would be able to see beauty where there once had been destruction. He only hoped that going would be the right choice, beauty or not.
At 7:10 on the dot, the sun slipped behind the horizon. Edward slid the room key into his pocket and opened the door for Bella. They walked quickly to the 86th St. subway station and hopped on the C Train headed south. The whole twenty-minute ride, Bella clutched his hand, tight almost to the point of pain. At the Chambers St. stop, they moved with the small crowd onto the platform and then out to the street. From there, it was only half a mile to the memorial.
"Bella, love," Edward said in a low voice as they approached the entrance. When she looked at him, he continued. "Promise me you'll tell me if it's too much. I know you don't want to lower your shield right now, and that's okay, but…"
She nodded immediately, and he squeezed her hand.
"I'm okay, Edward," she whispered, glancing around. "It all looks so…different. It's easy to distance myself a little bit."
He let out a breath and nodded. "All right, then in we go."
Edward stuffed several hundred dollar bills into the donation box on their way in, and then they were free to roam around the trees and look at the pools until the memorial closed.
"It's so…big," Bella said, her eyes wide as she took it all in. "I mean, I knew it was, since it fits the footprint of the Towers, but still…"
They moved to an open spot along one side of the North Pool, and Bella clutched at his hand. "That's about where you found me, right?" she asked so low that no one around them could hear.
Edward nodded, stepping up behind her much like he had their first trip to the site. Pointing, he said, "Yes, right about there."
She nodded. "It's so pretty here now. It was still so…destroyed the last time we were here."
He agreed, saying, "I like the waterfalls. It makes it feel alive, rather than just having a building or a statue that is solid, without life and movement."
"I'd…I'd like to find my friends' names," she said after a moment, looking down at the brass plate around the pool.
"I thought you might," he said. "I checked on the app they have and found that information for you while we were on the subway. This way, love."
All three names they were looking for were in the same spot, on the east side of the North Pool. Edward quickly found what he was looking for, tugging Bella's hand so she stepped up beside him. Her quick intake of breath and the way her hand tightened on his were the only indications that she was looking directly into the past.
With one hand, Bella gently reached out and touched the letters, tracing them lightly with a finger. "They died too early," she whispered.
He hummed his agreement, pulling her into his arms again when she stepped back.
"You saved me that day, Edward. You were my angel." She turned in his arms, cupping his face. "One thing you said to me when you proposed was that I was the light to your darkness…but I don't know if you realize just how true that is for me, as well. I was stuck in darkness, literally, and if you hadn't found me, the darkness would've been permanent."
Edward had to swallow back the emotion that threatened to choke him at that thought. He fought his memories, which threatened to pull him under. Grounding himself in her touch, the way her thumbs were stroking his cheeks, the way her hands cradled his face protectively, reverently, he chanted over and over in his head that she wasn't the fragile young girl that she'd been when he found her in the wreckage. She was now a strong, beautiful, confident, amazing woman—not to mention a vampire built to withstand even time itself.
"You gave me light…life… You gave me a future. Most importantly, you gave me you. Without you, I would've faded away with the dark. So yes, you're the light to my darkness, Edward Cullen, and I love you."
"God, Bella," Edward groaned, unable to keep from kissing her as hard as he dared for the place they were standing, with others looking on. "I love you, too, Little Bird. You've flown, Bella, whether you realize it or not. I'm just glad I get to be the one to fly beside you."
She kissed him lightly and then turned to gaze one more time over the names and lighted water in the pool. Turning back to him, she smiled. "Let's go home, Edward. I want to surround myself with you and our family."
She didn't have to ask him twice. Tucking her close to his side, he led her from the memorial and into their future.
A/N: What a truly amazing journey this has been. I'd had the idea in my head for a long time before putting pen to paper. I'd been truly worried I wouldn't be able to write it with the reverence the subject deserved. When I finally told Deb of my idea, she encouraged me to write it, but it still took a long time before I finally decided to give it a shot. The worst that could happen would be to show her and have her say that yeah, it was too touchy a subject and then I'd drop it. But she didn't. She, along with all my fabulous prereaders throughout the story—Cara, Bethy, Pamela, Jodi, Amanda, and SueBee—continually let me know that I'd written it as respectfully as possible, which made me so proud.
Big thank yous to all those ladies for their honest feedback and for keeping me sane as I tried to write the hardest subject I've ever written about. And to Deb, who smacked the back of my head via Facebook and Gmail often to get me out of a funk or to motivate me when I had no motivation left. I love all of you so much. :)
There was no greater compliment through the entire story than hearing from my prereaders and you guys, my fantastic readers. So many of you shared your thoughts and personal stories about that day in 2001 and how you liked the way I was writing this. I thank you for every review. They truly meant the world.
This is the end for this story. There will be no sequels, which many of you have asked about. Honestly, from the beginning, this story was about Bella learning to live again after nearly losing her life on 9/11, about Edward and Bella facing the light, together, after all the darkness in both their lives. I think this was an appropriate place to leave them: whole, happy, and facing a long future together.
Be sure to check out pics from not only this chapter, but many of the others throughout the story. They're on Facebook and my site. Links to both are on my profile. :)
Once again, thank you for every word of love you shared throughout this entire story. One last time on this one, please, give me some love and let me know what you thought. Mwah! – Jen