Chapter 57

Saturday, June 22, 2013 – Day 246

I awaken slowly—the glow from behind the bedroom blinds lightening my eyelids and letting me know it's later in the morning than is usual for me to be waking up. Opening my eyes, I get up immediately, eager to get the worst part of my day over with. I wince as the familiar soreness ripples through my muscles and joints. I usually wake before Bella since I still get more sleep than she does, and I get up, visit the bathroom, take my meds, and then crawl back in bed with her. And today will be no different, especially since it's Saturday.

Once I'm in the kitchen, I grab a granola bar, since two of my morning meds cause nausea, and wash it and the pills down with some orange juice. I shuffle slowly back down the hall and it sucks, but I know the pain meds will kick in in about twenty minutes. Morning used to be my favorite time of day because it was the only time I felt normal; now, it's the only time of day I don't feel normal. It's not as bad as it was a few months ago, though. But I still look forward to the day when I wake up feeling like I'm thirty and not sixty.

Oh, shit, I am thirty today. I honestly never thought this day would come. At this time last year, I was already sick with the infection that would land me in the hospital, but I had other plans for myself than how things ended up. At this time last year, I was planning out how I was going to keep everyone away so I could die alone, a bother to no one. I had given up on life and I was convinced there was no hope for me, no way to beat the disease that was taking me apart piece by piece, and no one who wouldn't be better off without me. I've never been more wrong, or happier to be so.

As I round the corner into the bedroom, I draw in a sharp breath as my eyes fall on absolute perfection. Waves of mahogany spill over the crisp white comforter and pool on the mattress beside her, baring the smooth, tender skin of her shoulder. My angel is sleeping on her stomach, arms tucked up under the pillow, her beautiful face turned away from me now, but toward the place where she last knew I was.

I return to that place, lying down beside her as carefully as I can and trying not to grunt from the pain the movement causes me—I still have a good ten minutes left until I'll get my relief. But as soon as I'm settled, there's nothing in the world but her—dark, sculpted eyebrows arching over the delicate smudges of her eyelashes as they rest against her porcelain skin. I don't think I have a brush fine enough, nor the skill to paint such detail, such beauty. She's stunning, and that's with her eyes closed and some of her best features hidden from view. And her very best features are not even seen but felt—her amazingly giving heart, her stubborn courage, and her unbelievable kindness.

My chest tightens as I gaze down on her, the love I feel filling every millimeter of space so it's hard to breathe. She saved me. In every way, shape, and form, in every sense of the words—she took me from the brink of my own personal disaster and convinced me there were things worth living for, things worth fighting for, and she did all that just by being my friend. Just by standing by and being there when I needed her, even when I didn't know I did. She's the most amazing woman in the world, and I thank God every day that she came into my life. And today, even though it's my birthday, today I'm going to show her just what she means to me.

I must have fallen back to sleep because the next thing I know, a soft hand is caressing my stubbly cheek. I plummet into a sea of deepest umber, and my smile is uncontainable, causing her to grin impishly back.

"Good morning, birthday boy. How ya feelin'?"

"Fantastic." Because even if I'm hurting, you're here with me.

She smiles sweetly. "No pain today, then?"

"I've already been up," I confess, and her smile fades.

"Dammit, I'd hoped—"

"I'm fine," I tell her, and it's my turn to cup her cheek. "The codeine always does the trick." And it's the truth—I really am feeling better. In fact, I'm feeling rather ready to go, I think to myself as I shift my hips to give my rather prominent erection some more room and a little friction.

Bella's eyes shoot downward, and a wicked grin dimples her cheeks. "Well, let me be the first to wish you a happy birthday then," she purrs, wrapping a hand around the back of my neck and crushing her lips to mine.

Heat floods my cheeks and groin as I thrust my tongue into her eager mouth, a moan escaping me as I pull her close and grind upward.

"Good morning to you, too," she murmurs against my lips as she slides a hand between us, stroking her fingers down either side of my length in the way she knows drives me wild.

I thrust against her—I honestly can't help it when she does that—and lose myself in the rhythm of our tangled tongues and rolling hips. My hand plunges under her tank top and squeezes the softest skin I've ever felt, and Bella moans deliciously against my mouth, her nipple hardening and causing a shiver to roll down my spine. My balls are already starting to tighten. Jesus Christ, I'm going to come before we even get started.

"Stop," I pant, pulling back a little, although my body is screaming at me to go harder and faster.

She stops immediately, her brow furrowing in concern. "Are you all right?"

"Yeah, I—" I have to pant out a few breaths before I can continue, and I gasp a little at the end. "I didn't want to come like that."

She narrows her eyes and an evil gleam appears there. "You're absolutely right. It's your birthday, and I know exactly how you should come."

And before I can even blink, she's ripped down the covers, rolled me onto my back, and is hovering over me. I throw my head back and close my eyes because just the thought of her warm lips around me makes my dick twitch. I want to make love to her, but I can wait a little longer, right? We're about to find out because while I've been contemplating my stamina, she's pulled down my sleep pants.

I gasp and arch my back as her scorching lips close over the head of my cock—oh, God, I can already feel my balls tightening again, but I want to enjoy this. I want to come so badly, but I'm going to hold my orgasm back as long as I can.

Her lips slide downward, and I groan loudly, fisting the sheets to try to maintain some control, but it's so hard when she—"Aww, fuck, Bella! Do that again." She pulls back up to the tip, suctioning all the way, then she swirls her tongue around the head until I'm biting my bottom lip to keep from crying out.

A soft chuckle sounds from between my legs. "I think you might be enjoying this."

I smile, but I'm immediately lost again as she repeats her plunge and suck routine, and I'm trying not to thrust into her mouth or grasp her cheeks to move her faster. I clench my fists, and I know she's seen it because she does increase her speed, plunging faster and sucking a little harder on each pass.

Waves of pleasure are rolling over my groin and into my stomach, the pressure slowly building as I pant and grunt every few breaths, riding the fine line between wanton pleasure and control. She suddenly takes me in as deeply as she can, and I gasp as my tip hits the back of her throat. Oh fuck, I'm gonna come.

Bella molds her lips around me and deep-throats me again and again, and any thought of control is gone. All I can feel is the pressure building toward eruption in my groin; all I can hear is my urgent moans as I rocket toward ecstasy. "Bella, fuck, fu—" My words are overrun by a deep groan as my existence coalesces to a point and explodes, pulses of pleasure almost too intense to bear as she swallows around me.

When I'm empty and spent, I collapse against the mattress, all twitches and quivers as the adrenaline gives its last hurrah. "God, Bella. Happy birthday to me."

"That's right, sweetheart. All day long."

I open my eyes, and she's lying beside me, so I pull her close, my arm around her back and her head resting on my shoulder. "Well, we might as well just call it a day because I can't see how you're going to top that one."

Bella laughs and brings a hand to my cheek, and I press into it as I always do. "Oh, your special day has just begun, and I have several things to top that, or at least come pretty close."

"Can you tell me what we're doing yet?"

"No," she says, trying to play it cool, but I can feel the excitement radiating from her.

"But you want to."

"Yes, of course, I want to! But I want it to be a surprise, and I've made it this long, so you're just going to have to wait."

I really hate surprises, but she's so excited, and she's never done anything for me that I haven't loved, so I just give her an indulgent smile.

"I love you," she says as she rests on her elbow and leans in to place sweet, chaste kisses on my lips that turn long and hot and deep. We kiss until I can feel myself hardening again, but I know we need to get up and get moving. I'm pretty sure we're going somewhere, or else someone is coming here, and there's … something I need to do first.

My stomach does an anxious flip. I've been planning this for weeks now. Everything is ready; I'm ready; I think she's ready, but I'm still a bundle of nerves when I think about it. I mean, after all we've been through together and all she's done for me, how could she possibly say no? Do all guys just feel this way before they propose, no matter the situation? She's pledged her love to me so many times, but a ring somehow makes it official. She's mine, and she always will be. I want that so much, but damn, I hope I can get the words out. I hope I can manage to convey even a fraction of what she means to me.

"Hey," Bella says, stroking my cheek with the backs of her fingers. "Where'd you go? From the look on your face, it wasn't exactly a happy place."

Shit. I need to work on my poker face, seriously. I run a nervous hand through my hair. "I guess I just have a lot on my mind today. So much has changed since this time last year."

"For the better?" she asks, suddenly finding my right shoulder fascinating.

"Of course, for the better! Last year, I was dying and trying to decide how best to end my life, and today, I'm spending my birthday with a beautiful woman and looking forward to a long future together. I was just thinking over everything I've been through—everything we've been through. It's been one hell of a year."

"It has," she agrees, her brown eyes now gazing into mine. "I'm so proud of you, Edward. You've come so unbelievably far this year and accomplished so much. I just can't even wrap my mind around the fact that you were dying at this time last year. That in a few short weeks, I'd be falling in love with you, and trying to stop myself because I thought you wouldn't be here anymore."


"Well, I guess not show you I was in love with you would be more accurate. I think you had me from day one when you dazzled me with that morphine-laden smile and asked me to stay with you."

A blush heats my cheeks, and she grins at me in a way that forces me to breathe in sharply, just to be able to stand the sight of her. God, when she does that thing with her eyes …

I glance down at the comforter but then force my eyes back up. "I really did think you were an angel that day. You were so fucking beautiful, and I was so lonely. I really thought God had sent you to comfort me."

Tears well in her eyes, but I don't think they're really sad tears. "Maybe He did."

"Him and your mom," I add softly, and her smile widens just a little bit. Even though I only found out about what happened with Renee two months ago, I can see Bella's feelings about it have changed even from that day to now. She felt so much guilt and anger when she confessed the story to me, but it's slowly been replaced by a gentle sadness and peace. She's even brought her mother up in conversation a few times and told me stories about her. I think she's finally grieving, and pulling together what good times there were in her mind.

"Speaking of angels, I intend to be your angel all day today, so let's get moving. Will you … take a shower with me?"

Her eyes turn smoky as she says this, and she slides her hand suggestively over my hip and side. I close my eyes, enjoying the tingling warmth on my skin, the feel of myself hardening for her. "Of course, I will."

She grins and pulls me from the bed, and I come with her easily. Other than the tiredness, the only transplant-related symptom I still have is morning soreness, and once I get that under control, I'm pretty much good to go. It's so amazing to feel like a human being again, to know that I can do what I want when I want. And there's so much I want to do with Bella! But right now, all I want to do is rip off her tank top and those skimpy little sleep shorts, and watch the water cascade over her fucking glorious body.

As soon as my feet hit the tile floor, I slide my hands up her sides, pulling her tank top with me as I go. Bella glances over her shoulder demurely and winks at me, and I can't help but laugh. She can be so playful and so fucking sexy when she wants to be. And I just love it when she's in the mood to play.

She stops suddenly, and I groan as my erection slides against her ass, my hands drawn to her waist and then upward to the perfect breasts I've bared. Oh, yes, we're definitely going to play.

As I palm and knead the soft flesh in my hands, I ghost my lips along her shoulder and up the side of her neck, stopping just below her ear. "We're not going to get clean during this shower, are we?"

Her head falls back against me, and I take full advantage of the angle, covering every inch of pale skin with eager kisses.

"We are …" And my eyebrow goes up a la Mr. Spock. "Eventually," she finishes, stretching her arms upward so they're grasping the backs of mine.

I smile against her skin, continuing to lave my tongue over her collarbone and shifting from foot to foot so my dick will rub against her backside.

"But first I want to take care of you."

"Didn't you already do that this morning?" I ask, turning her in my arms so her fantastic breasts can be a feast for my eyes as well as my hands.

"Yes, I did, but I'm not done yet," she explains, laughing as she pulls my hands away from nipple nirvana and holds them together between us.

I can't help the growl that rumbles from my chest, and it turns feral as she sashays over to the shower stall, sliding her shorts down as she goes.

"Patience, sweetheart. I want to give you a massage first. Is that okay?"

Bella and I still shower together frequently, but if I take my medication as soon as I wake up, I'm usually pain-free by the time we get in, and I don't need a massage like I used to. And some days I have no pain at all, so massages are reserved for the really bad days. They don't happen too often anymore, but they haven't disappeared entirely. I love having her hands all over me, but she did it for so many months when I really needed it that I can't really bring myself to ask.

"That sounds fantastic," I tell her as I pull my t-shirt over my head.

Even though I'm expecting it, I still tense and hiss when her tongue swirls around my nipple while my arms are still tangled in my shirt. Mmm … we need to do the paintbrush thing again, and soon.

Her hands are at my waistband as I toss my shirt away, but they release me gently because she knows well enough that if she starts to stroke me now I'm going to take her on the bathroom counter. I think we might be wearing a groove between the sinks.

She starts the water, and I remember so many days she did this for me while I sat on the toilet seat, trying to muster the energy to sit up long enough to let her take care of me. I'm so intensely glad those days are behind us, hopefully forever.

As soon as she turns, I lean down and suck a pert nipple into my mouth, and she arches her back and lets out a glorious moan. But her hands find their way to my shoulders and apply gentle pressure until I abandon my conquest and raise my head to look at her.

"Mmm … not yet! It's your birthday, and I'm not done doing things for you, sweetheart!"

"But this is for me," I point out as I move my head down again, but her palm comes to rest on the bridge of my nose, stopping me in my tracks.

"Yes, and you can have it. Later. Right now I want to make you feel really good. Then you can give me my turn."

I smile and shake my head. When my girl makes her mind up about something, there's no stopping her. And a massage really would feel amazing right now.

We settle into a routine that we have memorized, and I sit on the shower bench while she massages from my fingers to my shoulders, slowly, gently, and with so much love I can feel it radiating through her touch. I moan softly, lost in the feel of her hands, the depth of her love.

She moves to my feet, and while I'm still enjoying the hell out of it, I begin to harden again as she rubs up my body, her fingers roving ever closer to my dick. She stops midway up my thigh and moves to my other foot, but by now, I'm completely hard and thinking of ten different ways to make love to her and wondering which way she's going to let me.

The tension mounts as she moves up my leg, and I shift positions more than once to try to keep myself still and allow her to finish. But I can't keep my breathing steady, and I pant unevenly as she inches ever closer to where I now desperately need her.

My eyes are closed, but they snap open when I hear her chuckle. "You look like you're holding back Niagara Falls, sweetheart. Is it that hard to keep still?"

"Yes," I whine, "when you've got me so horny I can barely stand not to touch myself!"

"Do it, then," she challenges, her eyes daring me as she continues to rub slow circles on my thigh.

My own eyes widen because she's never asked to watch me masturbate before, but fuck, just the thought of pleasuring myself with her watching … I melt into the wall as I grasp myself firmly at the base and pull upward, my own fingers finding the most sensitive spots and pulling moans and thrusts of my hips from me.

"Oh, damn, is that hot!" Bella exclaims, and I nearly jump from the bench as my balls tighten almost painfully, her talented fingers cupping and kneading them as I stroke.

We continue on like that until I'm moaning with each thrust, the tension built to where if we don't stop soon— "Oh fuck, Bella, I'm getting so close!" —and instantly her hand disappears from my sack as she straddles me. Both hands now plunge into my hair, her lips hot and demanding on mine.

I pull her as close to me as I can, her warm, wet pussy sliding over my shaft and doing nothing to slow things down. "Ohh … God," I moan, breaking the kiss to try to get a little control.

"That was … one of the hottest things … I've ever seen," Bella pants from above me, her eyes almost wild as her hands caress every bit of my skin they can reach. Jesus Christ, is she excited! "I want you to fuck me, Edward. Right now."

My dick gives an almighty twitch as her words penetrate every fiber of my being and set me ablaze. I want to just lower her down on top of me, but I need to thrust so badly there's no way I can handle her being in control. I stand up with her wrapped around me, and press her back against the opposite wall. Her legs are still gripping my waist, so it's easy to line myself up as she braces her arms on my shoulders.

I brush my tip against her clit, the tips of my fingers sliding between her folds, and she moans and throws her head back against the wall. Her neck is bared to me, her nipples taut and just begging for my lips, but more than anything, I need to be inside her right now. I need to feel the heat and delicious pressure as she takes in every inch of me. This woman drives me absolutely fucking crazy.

I inch forward, biting into my lip as her scorching heat surrounds me, molds to me, becomes part of me. My eyes want to close but I keep them on her, watching as her brow furrows, her mouth falls open, and she arches upward, pressing into me even as I bury myself to the hilt.

"Oh, Edward," she pants, and, God, I hope she doesn't need me to wait because I just don't think I can.

"Bella, I need—"

"Fuck me. Edward, please—"

With a deep groan, I pull out and push forward, faster this time, and she writhes above me, arching again, encouraging me. And I let loose, driving into her, grunting as the pressure builds each time I'm flush against her skin. The sound of the water is drowned out by harsh breaths and sounds of passion—deep, guttural moans and urgent pants, the sound of our skin as it slaps together. And all of it, all of it is driving me toward one hell of an orgasm.

My thrusts become erratic as my balls tighten, and I close my eyes, awash in pleasure and unable to focus on anything but my urgent need to explode. I roll my pelvis forward, trying to get even deeper, and I dimly register that Bella gasps, her fingernails suddenly digging into my back.

"Yes, right there. Please, Edward!"

I nod my head, trying to hold on for just a few more thrusts, wanting her to come with me, around me. "Oh, Jesus—" Her walls clamp down on me and I moan in ecstasy. Just a few … more …

"Bella, I can't—" As I grind upward, she shatters, her thighs clamping tightly as she cries out. She pulses around me and something deep inside lets go, my head flying backward as my whole body seems to surge forward and out, each spurt a blinding wave of pleasure that ends in a moan I can't even begin to hold back.

When I'm finally spent, my knees feel weak and I'm dizzy, and the weight of Bella's thighs leaves my hips as her arms encircle me. I'm still trying to catch my breath as she nudges me until I sit, but I pull her down sideways onto my lap, laying my head against her heaving breasts.

Her chin comes to rest on the top of my head and we sit like that until the spots fade from behind my closed lids and I can draw a full breath.

"That was fucking spectacular," I say into her chest, squeezing her tightly.

"You can say that again. I thought I killed you with shower sex."

"I thought you had too, for a moment there. That was the most intense orgasm I've had in a long time. Thanks for sitting us down before I dropped you."

Bella chuckles. "You really would've dropped me?"

"Considering I couldn't really feel my legs, and I didn't know which way was up, I'd say it was pretty likely."

I feel her lips against my forehead as her hand ruffles through my hair.

"Still having a good birthday?"

"The best."

"Did what just happened beat out this morning's blowjob?"

"Hands down."

"Are you ready to get clean before the hot water runs out?"

"Yeah, I guess we should," I reply, giving the nipple just below my chin a soft peck before I let her go. We wash each other, but our focus is now cleaning instead of playing, and taking my cue from Bella, I put on a pair of comfy cotton shorts and my "superpower" shirt that she got me for Christmas. She laughs when she sees me, but her kisses tell me she's happy I'm wearing it.

We have some breakfast and just hang out for a while, but Bella seems nervous. She keeps glancing back toward the hallway, and she's twisting her fingers in that way she does when she's anxious about something. I don't see it that often, but it's always a sure sign something's afoot, and even if it's only because she has some surprise for me, her nervousness is feeding my nervousness.

"Bella, are you okay?" I ask after her fifteenth look down the hallway.

"What? Why?" she asks, as if I've caught her red-handed at something.

"Because I keep wondering when the zombies are going to come down that hallway to eat our brains. You're looking down there every two minutes or so."

She blushes and smiles at me shyly. "I'm sorry, I … Would you mind if I gave you your birthday presents now?"

"Of course not! But if there's someone hiding back there, I hope they're not my present."

Bella laughs, but it's a nervous sound as she goes not down the hallway but over to the table near the front door. She turns with an envelope in her hand, her eyes intent as she crosses the room and sits facing me on the couch.

"This should help cross a few things off our 'When the cancer's gone' list," she says as she hands me the envelope and rests her hand on my knee.

I grin at her and open it eagerly. Inside are two slips of paper, and I stare at them for a moment before I realize what they are. Airline tickets to Paris?

My eyes widen as I raise them to her, my mind equal parts exhilaration and fear. I'm so excited to show her the places I've been, and to paint new skylines in Europe, but I'm not ready. At least, not now.

"This is a promise. I know you're not ready yet, but I thought if we had the tickets we could start planning, and you'd know how much I want to go with you. I didn't think we'd use them before next spring at the earliest—"

My heart melts in my chest. How does she always know just what I need? Just what will make me happy and inspire me to keep fighting to be well again, totally and completely. I've come a long way, but a trip to Europe would be the ultimate proof that I really can do anything.

"It's perfect! I want to take you to so many places I've been, and I really want to go to Rotterdam and paint the Erasmus Bridge at night, and—"

Her beautiful laughter drowns out the rest of my thought as she crawls onto my lap. "I'm so happy you're excited! You haven't talked much about going since February, and I was hoping you hadn't changed your mind."

February. When I got really sick and it scared the shit out of me. I managed to stay out of the hospital, but I teetered on the edge of going to the ER for about five days when my fever just wouldn't break and my cough sounded like it did when I had pneumonia. I was utterly miserable for weeks, and the whole affair put me off planning the future for a while—I was content to just be at home and try to keep myself healthy.

"No, I haven't changed my mind. I just got sidetracked for a while. I really want to plan this trip with you, and I'm excited to go when we can."

"Well, you just keep on getting stronger and healthier, and we'll be ready to go in no time," Bella declares, molding her lips to mine. We kiss slowly and deeply, and I try to channel the love and gratitude I'm feeling into every stroke of my tongue, every caress of my fingers down her back. I think she feels it because she cuddles into my shoulder when we finally break apart.

"I have something else for you, too," she says softly. "I didn't plan it, I just meant to look, but … hopefully, when you see, you'll understand."

She stands up, uncertainty written all over her face, and turns for the hallway. She stops at the laundry room and goes in, and I think I hear Sebastian meow, but—

I'm on my feet instantly as Bella reappears, cradling a kitten. It's half-white and half-calico—white on its paws, belly, chest, and around its nose and between its eyes, with a large black and tan calico patch on its back and masking its face. It's so tiny and feminine, somehow. A girl to balance out our little family.

My mouth falls open as she flicks her ears toward me, meowing in greeting. I'm drawn to her just as I was to Sebastian, and I'm across the room and stroking gently under her chin before I even register that I've moved.

"Hey, girl," I coo, continuing to scratch as my smile threatens to split my face.

"This is Lily," Bella offers, and my eyes are drawn to her. "I thought you and Sebastian might like a little more company during the day, so I went to the shelter just to see if they even had any kittens, and … she was there. They said the litter had been dumped in the street, and she was the last one left who wasn't adopted, and she was scheduled for euthanasia today if she didn't find a home –"

"She's absolutely gorgeous, and I'm so happy you didn't leave her there," I say, putting my arm around Bella.

"Really?" Those soulful eyes gaze up at me, and for a moment, I forget the kitten as Bella takes my breath away. She's just so beautiful and sweet, and, God, when she looks at me that way …

Lily meows again and I smile down on both of them. "Yes, really. Can I—" I hold my hands out and suddenly they're filled with cozy warm fluff. I immediately cradle her to my chest, laying her along my right arm while I stroke over her ear with my left hand.

"Hello, Lily. What a beautiful girl you are, just like my Bella." And the universe consists of only Lily and me until Bella's soft laughter brings me back to the real world. I shake my head as I realize I'm sitting on the couch with Lily still cuddled into my chest, and Bella is sitting next to me with a peculiar look on her face.


"I love watching you get caught up in things. The book you're reading, whatever you're painting or drawing, playtime with Sebastian—you have this singular focus that just amazes me."

I can feel my cheeks heat as I look down at Lily, but Bella grasps my chin so my gaze returns to hers. "It's a good thing. I think it's how you manage to do all the amazing things you do. It's incredible to watch."

"I can think of a few other things I do with singular focus," I say, waggling my eyebrows at her, and now it's her turn to blush as she squeezes my arm.

"Yes, you certainly do. You may even have as much skill in the bedroom as you do in the studio."

My eyebrows go up, and she laughs again. "Did I really say that? Let's quit before your ego explodes. So … can Lily stay?"

"Of course, she can!" I exclaim, my fingers still running through her soft fur. "What a fantastic birthday present! Has she met Sebastian yet?"

"Yes, I had to steal her away from him to show her to you. They were sleeping together on Sebastian's bed in the laundry room."

"Always the ladies' man," I say, shaking my head. "Thank you, Bella, really. She's wonderful."

Bella smiles brilliantly and leans in, her kisses soft and sweet. "Happy birthday, Edward."

The smile that spreads across my face is deep and genuine. It really is a happy birthday.

Bella's nervousness evaporates once Lily is "out of the bag," but my own continues to grow as afternoon approaches. Bella orders in from Il Terrazzo Carmine, and I do my best to enjoy my Rigatoni Bolognese, but my stomach feels like it's in knots.

I'm so nervous about what I'm planning to do this afternoon that I realize I've fucked up my own birthday a bit. First world problem, Edward. You're not dying, and neither is anyone else. You're going to ask your girlfriend to marry you today? You poor thing. I chuckle and shake my head at my own ridiculousness. Unfortunately, that doesn't do anything to calm my nerves.

I'm quiet through lunch, and Bella watches me with a crease in her brow, but she doesn't say anything. She never pushes—she knows I'll tell her whatever it is when I can, and I'm so grateful for that, especially today.

She convinces me to lie down after lunch by telling me we're going out later, but as I lie there, my stomach churning and my pulse racing, I know there's not a chance in hell I'm going to be able to sleep.

I turn to face her, and I can tell she's been watching me.

"I know it's my birthday, but … I have something for you too."

Bella smiles, but that little crease forms between her eyebrows again. "You love giving me presents so much that you couldn't even have one day where you get them and I don't?"

My eyes shoot to the floor as heat flairs on my cheeks. "Well … I'm kind of thinking of this birthday as a new leaf."

"I can tell," she says, stroking my cheek with her hand. "You've been doing entirely too much thinking today."

Oh, fuck, Bella, if you only knew. Well, you will know in about five minutes, if I can just get through this. "Will you come back to the studio with me?"

She slips her hand into mine and squeezes. "Of course, I will."

If she can feel the sweat on my palm, she doesn't say anything. I don't think I've ever been this nervous in my entire life! The butterflies in my stomach threaten to make an escape, but I keep them down with a hard swallow. Keep it together, Edward!

I lead her into the studio, where my two large easels stand covered with heavy cloths just as I set them up while Bella was drying her hair this morning. Releasing her hand, I move to the side of the left one. "Today, I want to show you what I did with the two canvases you gave me for Christmas."

The smile that lights up Bella's face is brilliant. "Oh! You've finished them both?"

Nodding, I pull the cloth off the easel deftly. "This is the painting I did for me."

I'm facing her and not the painting, so I get to see her eyes widen and her mouth fall open in a look of pure awe. She covers her mouth with her hand as tears well in her eyes. "It's … stunning. Oh, my God, Edward, it looks so real! I can't believe it's a painting and not a photograph. How on earth do you do that?"

I lower my eyes and shrug, but she's in my arms before I can find a focus point on the floor. "It's just what I do. Do you like it, really?"

"Sweetheart, it's positively breathtaking. There's no way I look that good."

I chuckle, and it helps to relieve some of my tension. "You're more beautiful than anything I could ever paint. I'm certain of that."

Her lips crash into mine, and I groan deeply, throwing myself into the kiss—another release for my nervous energy. I run my tongue along her lower lip, and she plunges hers into my mouth, her hands cupping my cheeks. As our tongues tangle and I press my throbbing erection against her, I forget everything—everything but the feel of her hands as they slide down my back, the taste of her lips as she devours me. I know I'm going to get lightheaded if I don't get some oxygen soon, so I pull back slightly then rest my cheek against her forehead.

"Will you let me display it at the gallery show?" Again, her eyes widen, but this time I think it's happiness and excitement.

"Of course! It's fantastic and I want everyone to see it. I want everyone to know how incredibly talented you are!"

Happiness and pride surge through me as yet again the warmth floods my chest and cheeks. Fuck, the way she makes me feel! No one has ever believed in me the way Bella does, and her enthusiasm is positively contagious. Like Emmett said all those months ago, I'm going to succeed if she has anything to say about it!

"Thanks, Bella," I say, kissing her chastely.

"So, do I get to see the other painting?"

I suck in a deep breath as my nerves flair. This is it; this is the moment. I swallow hard and slide my fingers over the outline of the ring in my front pocket. Breathe. You've got this.

"Yeah," I answer, taking her by the shoulders and positioning her in front of the easel. "Can you … close your eyes?"

She frowns at me; she suspects something is up, but she does as I asked anyway.

With a shaking hand, I lift the cloth, drop it to the side, then move to stand behind her. "Okay, you can look now."

I'm nearly hyperventilating as she stares at the picture. I hear her breath catch, but I have no idea what she's thinking because I can't see her face.

"Is this … for the gallery show?" she asks, her voice trembling a little.

"No, this is for you—for us. I hope it'll be our future." I look again at the canvas, but I've seen it so many times in my mind that I swear I could draw it again with my eyes closed. The scene is similar to the one in my sketchbook; Bella and I are standing close together, our eyes closed as our lips inch ever closer for an inevitable kiss. But this one is different—Bella's hair is pinned up into an intricate knot at the nape of her neck underneath a veil held by a pearl and silver comb, her shoulder covered in a fine white gown, and I'm wearing a tux with a white bow tie and a boutonniere.

She begins to turn, and as she does, I grasp her hands and slowly lower myself to one knee. She pulls in a gasping breath and holds it, and her eyes—God, her eyes! I fall headlong into an ocean of shock and love and joy and panic and amazement and—I look down and take a shaky breath, willing myself to go through with it, to say the words that I've rehearsed so many times. You survived high dose chemotherapy and beat cancer. You can tell the love of your life what she means to you.

She squeezes my hands, and I choke out a strangled sob as my emotions overwhelm me. I came so perilously close to dying last year, so many times, and if I had, I would have missed out on … this. I almost chose to die instead of fighting for the woman I love—the thought paralyzes me. I was so close. But you didn't. You chose life, and you chose her.

I raise my stinging eyes back to hers, blinking so the tears roll down and I can see again. "Bella." My voice breaks, but I keep going. She deserves for this to be perfect.

"Bella, from the first moment I saw you, you changed my life. I was broken and had given up, but you breathed life into me again and made me see I had so much to live for, so much to fight for. I can't even begin to explain how you changed my life, how you changed me. How you make me want to be the best person I can be, for me, and for you.

"You saved me. You gave me everything you had, and now I want to give you everything I have in return. I've already given you my life and my heart—now I want to give you my soul and everything that I am. I want to bind myself to you in every way possible because you are my whole world.

"Bella Swan, will you marry me?"

She takes a rapid breath and blinks, her own tears spilling down her cheeks, but I can't look anywhere but her eyes, waiting, hoping, praying. She falls to her knees, still gripping my hands, and she makes this laughing-sobbing sound as she bows her head and closes her eyes. My breathing picks up, and I feel like I'm falling—she's hasn't answered me yet. What if— And, suddenly, her eyes pierce me, and her smile is the most beautiful thing I've ever seen.

"Yes! God, Edward, yes! I'll marry you. I'll marry you!"

She flings herself into my arms, and I start to shake, unable to contain all the feelings inside me. It's like a tidal wave—relief and euphoric, incredible joy just obliterating the uncertainty and doubt of the last few days, the fear and pain and sorrow of the whole last year. This is my life now. She's mine forever, and all the heartache and suffering is over. I can really have this, with her. I am who and what she needs, just as she's always been for me.

I realize we're both sobbing when she finds my cheek with the back of her hand, pressing the wetness against my skin.

"Are you all right?"

Chuckling, I pull back and swipe a hand over each eye, watching as she does the same. "I'm … perfect. You just made me the happiest man alive. I love you so much, Bella."

"I love you so much, too," she says as she leans forward, eyes on my lips.

I wipe my wet fingers on my jeans and feel something hard in my pocket. "Oh, jeez," I stammer, pulling out the ring. "I was so nervous I completely forgot this part."

"Oh, Edward," she breathes as I slide it onto her finger, the diamonds glittering and sparkling in the sunlight. "It's gorgeous."

"The setting was actually my grandmother's—my dad's mom."

Bella's eyes flick upward from the ring and narrow a bit. "I've … never told you about her. Not because of her, but I think because I just haven't wanted to think about my dad since Christmas. She was a wonderful woman. She loved me very much, and … she may have been the one person who knew or suspected what my dad was doing to me. She was always inviting me over to her house to spend weekends when I was in high school—she'd drive me wherever I needed to go to see my friends. She got sick when I was in Europe, and by the time I came back, she was close to death. When she said goodbye to me, she told me she'd taken care of me, and that she was sorry."

Bella puts her hand on my arm and squeezes, but I keep going, afraid I won't be able to start again if I stop.

"That didn't make any sense until a few months later when her will was read. She'd left me her ring, a few other family heirlooms, and a sizable trust fund. My dad was furious, but after he read the letter she left him, he was absolutely livid. He never got his hands on me after that, but I know he wanted to. There was nothing he could do about what she'd done, so the trust supported me when I was starting out in Seattle and when I had to stop working after I got sick. There won't be much left of it after we pay all my medical bills, but she certainly did take care of me. So I … thought it seemed fitting I give this particular ring to you, the one person who's done even more than she did to take care of me."

Bella glances down at the ring again, but this time, her gaze is thoughtful. "Sweetheart, it's perfect. I'm honored to wear this, and I'm so happy she took care of you."

"I wish you could have known her. She was amazing."

"Me too," Bella says, turning her hand to admire the ring. She laughs, and for a second, I'm confused until I realize it's at nothing in particular—just the kind of sound you make when you're happy and you can't contain it. I wrap an arm around her back and pull her close, my lips finding hers for the first time as her intended, and it feels more right than anything ever has.

We kiss hungrily, and she pulls me down so we're lying on the floor on our sides, stroking and pawing at each other in just about the same place where we created our paint masterpiece. Damn, if we ever leave this apartment we'll need to take this piece of floor with us—so much has happened here.

Bella strokes the side of my face, both of us grinning like kids with a fabulous new toy. "I think I have some ideas for what we can do with those airline vouchers I got you."


After we got, erm … finished on the floor, Bella pulled me into the bedroom and convinced me to lie down again and try to take a nap because she said we'd probably be out late tonight. My curiosity about what she had planned was at an all-time high, but I was so relieved after I proposed and she accepted that I was able to sleep for a couple hours spooned around her.

When I awoke, she had shorts and a button-down shirt laid out for me, and she finally admitted we were going to Alice's house. She wouldn't say why or what was happening after that, but at least, now, I knew something.

We got ready together, all smiles and stolen kisses, barely able to keep our hands off each other. And both our eyes kept straying to the ring on her finger, which would start the kissing all over again.

My eyes stray there now as Bella's hand grips the steering wheel, and I can see the diamond peeking over the top. I reach over and grasp her knee, and she giggles and puts her hand on top of mine. I've never seen her so happy.

"So, are we going to tell Alice and Jasper? Because I'm thinking we look a little 'happiness overkill' for just my birthday."

Bella chuckles. "I think you're right. Is it okay with you if we tell them?"

"Bella, I want the world to know how much I love you. Alice and Jasper are only the beginning."

"I think you're right about that," she says. What exactly does that mean? Bella's smiling, so whatever it means, I'm probably going to like it.

I'm relieved we're just going to Alice's house, though. I was more than a little worried that Bella was planning something bigger, and I didn't know if I could handle it. Between being isolated for so long and the natural fear of getting sick that comes with willingly obliterating your own immune system, I've developed a bit of a fear of crowded places. I'm pretty good with restaurants, but we've only been out to one movie so far, and I was on edge the whole time. Just the thought of a bar or a concert is almost enough to give me a panic attack. We tried to meet my artist friends at a bar last month so I could introduce them all to Bella, but I got so worked up in the car on the way there that we ended up just going back home. Both Alice and Ang have reassured me this is not uncommon, given what I've been through. I need to try to overcome it though, and soon. I have a gallery show scheduled in just over a month, and there will be a room full of people who I'll need to interact with. Just the thought of it makes my heart start to pound, but I swallow and take a few deep breaths. I have time. It's not today.

We park in front of Alice's house, and I hold Bella's hand, my fingers brushing over her new accessory, as we approach the door. Jasper whips it open before we can even knock and pulls me into a one-armed hug.

"Happy birthday, Edward!"

"Thanks, Jazz!" I reply, gripping his shoulder tightly. Jasper was the only person who saw me on my last birthday, and only for a couple of hours. I was sick and didn't want to be bothered, but he insisted on coming over and cooking for me, then keeping me company for a while. I had intended for it to be the last time I ever saw him.

I squeeze my eyes shut tight as the painful memory lances through me, but that's not the way things ended. They didn't end at all, and we're both here to truly celebrate this year. He pulls back and looks at me carefully, but I've already tucked the past away. He grins and rubs my shoulder as Alice pops up under my arm.

"Hello, birthday boy. I hope you're ready to party!" And she jumps up and plants a kiss on my cheek.

Bella chuckles as my cheeks burn, and I'm sure I'm six shades of red. Alice's ability to make me blush is second only to Bella's. Bella thinks it's cute, though, so I guess it has its benefits.

They pull us into the house, and right away, Jasper leads us through the living room and into the kitchen. "Before we go, I wanted to show you what Alice had me plant for her."

As Jasper opens the patio door, Bella grabs my hand, and hers is trembling. What the hell is going—

"Surprise! Happy birthday, Edward!"

I startle badly and pull in a deep breath, my eyes widening as the panic takes rapid hold. I squeeze Bella's hand tighter, but she squeezes right back and reaches up to stroke my cheek as she whispers in my ear.

"Breathe, Edward. You're okay. No one here is sick, everyone has washed their hands, and they know how hard this is for you. You'll need to do this with a roomful of strangers next month, but these are your friends. Focus on their faces, Edward. Focus and breathe, okay?"

I look around frantically, but I can't focus on anything. There are so many people! I take a ragged breath, already feeling light-headed. I'm trapped and I feel disjointed, numb.

Bella's touch on my cheek shocks me back to the present, but her voice is muffled and distant. "Come on, Edward, you can do this! We're outside, and we can leave if you need to. Look for your mom, sweetheart. She's standing over by the big tree with my dad."

Bella turns my head to the left, and my gaze settles on my mom, standing close to Charlie and holding a wine glass. She smiles brilliantly as I meet her eyes, and I take another breath. Bella strokes my cheek again, and I notice we're in Alice's yard, and it's not fully enclosed. There's plenty of air and space out here, and I can escape if I need to.

I take another breath, and a bird chirps, shattering the unnatural silence I didn't even know I was cocooned in. I close my eyes and focus on breathing, letting the sounds of my friends and family wash over me. Jasper is swearing behind us, and Kate is asking someone if I'm all right … and I realize I am all right. I'm standing here, and I'm breathing almost normally. Nothing bad has happened … and maybe nothing will.

Bella caresses my cheek again, and I open my eyes—still wide, but I'm breathing. "That's it. I knew you could do it!" Bella enthuses.

And, suddenly, I can focus on what's around me again. We're in Alice's backyard, and … wow, look at all these people! There's Kate and Tanya, and Angela and Emmett are here! No one seems to know how to react when I look at them, but Garrett tips his beer bottle in my direction and it catches my eye, and I can't help the smile that spreads across my face. I can do this! A laugh bubbles up from nowhere, and everyone claps as I smile and look around eagerly.

"Are you all right?" Bella asks. I rub my entwined fingers over hers and brush against the diamond I put on her finger this afternoon, and, suddenly, all I'm feeling is warmth and love.

"Yes, I'm fine."

Jasper's hand drops onto my shoulder. "Thank God. You scared the hell out of me just now."

"You just brought yourself out of a panic attack. Good work, Edward," Angela adds as she walks up to us.

"Hi, Ang, thanks for coming!" I say, giving her a hug. "So … you knew they were going to do that to me?"

"Well, after I was invited to the party, I actually suggested they do that to you. Your claustrophobia and social anxiety are new and not ingrained in your psyche yet. New fears can often be overcome by exposure, and you needed to experience something like this before you walked into your gallery show next month, to have an idea how you'd fare."

"And you did fantastic, sweetheart!" Bella intones, grinning at me.

"You could've warned me," I complain, thinking that a little prep time might have done me some good.

"And what would you have done if I had? Say, on the car ride over here, for instance?"

"Well, I … I would have driven myself crazy over it and probably had a panic attack in the car," I admit, realizing how right she is. Dammit.

"Exactly. You think so much, and sometimes, you psyche yourself out. This way, you only had to deal with it for a moment, and you handled it beautifully."

I blush from Bella's compliment and the fact that my psychological problems are the topic of party conversation, and the women around me chuckle.

"I'm thrilled to see you so happy and healthy, though, Edward," Ang tells me, and before I can answer, I'm pulled into a headlock as my hair is ruffled.

"Yeah, it's great to be able to squeeze more than your toes," Emmett booms, and everyone laughs.

"Fuck you, Emmett," I respond automatically, and he laughs as he lets me loose.

"I missed you too," he says, shaking my hand. "Congratulations on your recovery and on turning into an old man."

"Dude, I'm thirty!"

"Yup, like I said, ancient," Emmett sighs, shaking his head.

I shake my head too, and the group dissolves into laughter again. I certainly don't miss the hospital or being sick, but I do miss Emmett. Maybe I can challenge him to some Halo 4. I bet I could kick his gigantic, arrogant ass.

Bella and I chat our way around the yard, and we finally make it over to where all my closer Seattle friends are congregated. The minute I turn to the group, Garrett gives me a tight bro hug. "It's nice to see you up close and personal this time. I don't even feel like throwing peanuts."

"Ha, ha, ha, fucker," I taunt, hugging him back and smirking. "Just be glad you don't have to spend your time in a cage."

"Yeah, but would I get to spend it with her?" he asks, and I pull back and put my arm around Bella.

"Nope, she's all mine. Garrett, this is my Bella."

Garrett raises an eyebrow and gives Bella his best "smolder" as he lifts her hand to kiss the back and freezes when he comes nose to nose with the glittering diamond on Bella's finger. Kate gasps, but Bella just giggles at the sudden attention surrounding us.

Here we go …

"Jasper!" Garrett bellows, still holding Bella's hand, and Jasper makes his way through the crowd to us.

"What's up?" he asks, but his own eyes widen as Garrett raises Bella's hand toward him.

"Do you know about this?"

"Umm … I do now," Jasper stammers, his eyes shifting rapidly from Bella to me, both of us grinning like idiots now.

"Ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygod!" Alice exclaims as she skitters to a halt beside Jasper.

"When did this happen?" Jasper asks, beaming.

"Earlier today," Bella replies, nearly bouncing.

"Woohoo!" Garrett lets out a whoop, then raises his voice, "Hey, everyone, this isn't just a birthday party, it's an engagement party! Edward proposed to Bella today!"

The cheers and applause are loud and enthusiastic, and as Bella takes my hand again, I realize there are things I need to say.

"Garrett, would you?" I don't even have to finish my sentence—Garrett knows he's the mouth of the group.

"Hey, now, Edward has something he wants to say! Pipe down!"

The group laughs, and Garrett bows deeply, yielding the floor to me.

"Um, well, thank you all for coming to celebrate with me today," I say, stumbling over my words a bit. But Bella squeezes my hand, and as I look into her eyes, I find the strength to continue.

"This is a very special birthday for me. I'm turning thirty, and that's a big thing, but the bigger thing is, I never expected to see this birthday. At this time last year, I'd given up on life. My lymphoma had come back for the third time, I was sick and getting sicker, and I was only looking for the fastest way to end things for myself.

"But, then, I met this woman." The guys start ribbing each other, and a few of them whistle, but Garrett shushes them with an exaggerated scowl. I smile at him, but my eyes go right back to Bella, and I keep going, letting the story pour out of me.

"She was beautiful and kind. She came to me like an angel, and just by being there when I needed her, she slowly convinced me to talk to her. She taught me that death isn't about sparing your friends and family at your own expense, it's about coming to terms with your past, righting wrongs, and mending relationships, but most of all, it's about taking what you need, and allowing others to give it to you."

Bella's eyes shine bright, and as she blinks, a tear rolls down each cheek, and I have to swallow past the lump in my throat.

"But then she taught me something else. She taught me that some things are worth fighting for, worth dying for. That sometimes it's worth trying as hard as you can because, even if you don't succeed, the fact that you tried makes a difference. I chose to fight my cancer because I fell in love with this amazing woman, and I wanted to spend the rest of my days—a lifetime of days—with her.

"Bella, I love you … more than I ever thought it was possible to love another person. You're my first thought in the morning, my last whisper before sleep, and then you wander through my dreams—you're all I see, and all I'll ever need. I'm here because you walked into my hospital room and changed me forever, and because you believed in me even when I didn't, and when I couldn't. You saved me, and now, I'm going to spend the rest of my life doing everything in my power to give you even a fraction of the happiness and joy you bring to me. Thank you for doing me the tremendous honor of becoming my wife."

She stares at me for a moment, her eyes alight with so much love I swear I can feel the force of it, then the dam breaks, and she throws her arms around me, sobbing into my shoulder and squeezing me as hard as she can. Then she lifts her head, her lips find mine, and everything falls away.

And in my mind, all I see is her, telling me stories of her childhood as she sits beside me; holding my hand, her eyes a reflection of the terror I'm feeling as I gasp for breath; watching me slyly while we're supposed to be watching a movie, sitting side by side on my hospital bed; kissing me as my heart threatens to explode in my chest; comforting me as I cry, lost in despair; telling me she loves me through a haze of fever; holding my very soul together as I beg her to let me die. I see her under my shoulder, supporting me as I take painful steps; arguing with me to eat just a little more; sitting for me, a sparkle in her eyes as I paint her; writhing under me, a fire in her eyes as I paint her; smiling that absolutely perfect smile as I slip a ring on her finger.

When we finally pull back amid the applause, neither of our eyes are dry. Holy shit, when did I turn into such a girl? I know it's because I've gone through more trauma in a year than most people go through in a lifetime, but I've also been luckier than few ever hope to be. And as I look around at the smiling faces of my family and friends, I realize I'm happy—happier than I ever believed I could be.

What's happening today, and as I get better, isn't a happy ending, though, it's a happy beginning.

I was meant to be with Bella. And I hope fate will give us all the tomorrows we deserve.

A/N: Pictures of Lily, Bella's ring, and Edward's paintings in Shadow Fics this morning.

I can't believe it's over. What a journey it's been—a year and ten months and angst and tears and amazement and gratitude—I can't thank each and every one of you enough for reading, reviewing, PMing, joining teaser teams, suggesting music, and hanging out in my group. It's been a life-changing experience for me in many ways, and I hope those of you who really needed it have found peace in Edward and Bella's happy ending, even though your loved one may not have gotten the happy ending they deserved. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.

It takes a village to write a good story, and I have quite a few people to thank for helping to shape the success of this one: Pates GreenEyes and Domie Alvarado, for their support and prereading when this story was in its infancy; Shell Taylor, for her honest critiques and invaluable suggestions for cleaner writing; Beffers87, for the gorgeous banner for this story and manips along the way; Sally Hopkinson, my fabulous beta who took me on without a second thought despite my "that" addiction and misplaced commas; Edward's Eternal, for your last minute preread and the boost it gave me, for comparing notes on reviews, and for your unerring support of this story and of me; bornonhalloween, for talking me into posting, listening to my incessant whining, and kicking my ass as needed along the way, and Belynda Smith, for always being my cheerleader and most dedicated supporter, and for sharing this with me from day one. I love you all, and I can't thank you enough for the gift of your precious time and your friendship.

I have another story in the works, so if you enjoyed this one, put me on author alert so you don't miss it. I hope to take many more journeys with you all. Until next time …