I apologize for the delay and thank you for your kind and respectful patience. Both JulieToo and Beachcomber took their valuable free time to look this over for me, however there may still be errors due to my rushing to post. I think a vast number of you would forgive a mistake or two if it meant not having to wait longer. I hope to have the next chapter out in less time than this one took, so within 4 to 6 weeks.

Chapter 24

To: ims at madhatter

Subject: Checking in

Happy St. Patrick's Day. I wanted to write to you last month, but I thought it was far too soon in this fledgling friendship to wish you a happy Valentine's Day. Maybe next year. Maybe, one day I might get to ask you to be my valentine. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The album was a great success. We raised over $500,000 for various charities so far. It was great to be able to work with so many incredible artists last December. Some of them have gone on to begin creating fundraisers for their own causes.

I've decided to take an extended vacation. I haven't really had any time off in the last few years so I'm heading down to South America for a bit. I guess I'll see where the wind takes me from there.

Thinking of you,

Edward


To: e_cullen gmail

Subject: WTF

I can't believe I'm doing this, but where the hell are you? I haven't heard from you in four months. Neither has anyone else. Disappearing like this is not the way to work yourself back into my life, Edward. Call someone; Emmett, Jasper, anyone. Please. Before I start to panic.

Bella


To: ims at madhatter

Subject: Sorry

I'm so sorry. I really am. I've called Mom, Dad and everyone else to let them know I'm fine. I swear this wasn't a ploy to get you to worry about me. Communication services were really poor and I was off the grid for a long time. I only just got the email you sent last month this morning. I'm at the airport in Houston waiting for my next flight.

I have so many stories to tell you but really, they'd be better in person. I have props (feel free to imagine me smirking and raising my eyebrows in a come-hither style). I learned so much down there. About music, people and mostly about myself. I fully acknowledge the pampered, entitled asshole I was before. And I'm going to do everything I can to never be that man again.

I have a job. A real job, albeit a temporary one. Someone I met in Belize, I think. Carmen, a retired teacher from Anchorage, helped me get a position teaching music in Northern Alaska. I'm more of an assistant because I don't have a teaching degree, but it involves going from community to community up North with various instruments and introducing the kids to some instruments they might not have played before.

I'm spending a month at home with my parents, hopefully watching the rest of Unsung and grovelling to my mother for my absence. I caught the first couple of episodes when they aired live but I was away for the last few and the finale. The guys are going to introduce me to Riley in person, not just on Skype. Man, what a great kid Riley is. So talented and nice. He's just a nice kid. I was such a dick at his age I'm surprised anyone still talks to me. I don't know if you've had a chance to meet him. The band won't talk about you and I know better than to beg for answers.

Do you think there could be any way for us to meet up before I head north? I'd love to see you and I promise to be on my best behaviour. I could come to you, wherever you are right now.

Think about it, please, and let me know.

Yours,

Edward


July Msg returned Undeliverable


August Msg returned Undeliverable


Edward stared at his laptop with horror. He had lost his connection to her and wanted to panic. He unplugged the machine and carried it downstairs. He found his mother in her office and showed her the message. Much to his shock, she wasn't surprised.

"Well, it's been awhile since she left her business, I guess she stopped using their email now that she's no longer working there. Just use one of her other emails to get a hold of her."

"I don't have any other email for her, just this one. I've been sending her messages there since I saw her last but it never occurred to me she'd stop using it. She only wrote me back twice." Edward let his mind wander for a moment.

Esme poured herself a cup of coffee and waited for her son to continue.

"I didn't know she had more that one."

"Why wouldn't she? Almost everyone else in the world does. I have several, even your father has at least two, one personal and one for work. You know him and technology, he doesn't understand it but he has to have the latest toys."

"Where is she, do you know?"

"I do, but my question is why don't you know? Did you ever ask her what she was doing?"

"No." Edward petulantly replied.

"I didn't think so. You never do with me or your father. It's as if you are afraid to ask questions. You're content to answer them but you don't get involved. It's rather superficial but it comes with your kind of arrogance, I guess. I'm not sure where you get it from, not my side of the family, I know that for sure."

Edward stared at his mother. She stood there, coffee cup in hand and blithely dissected his personality.

"It's very clinical and detached, so possibly from your father. All those doctors and scientists. Although your dad is very compassionate, so perhaps it skipped a generation."

Edward was taken aback. His mother had never been so blunt with him before. She would suggest, she would coddle but she wouldn't outright expose his shortcomings. As much as he was disturbed to be taken down a peg by his mom, he was kind of glad for the change in their relationship. She was treating him like an adult, a friend even, not like her darling boy. It also served to show him that he was behaving like a petulant little boy, again. He didn't get what he wanted, so he sought out his mother for help. He had fallen back into his old habits of talking to but never listening to Bella.

He went back up to the room where he was staying at his parent's place and put in a call to his therapist, Irina Nyquist. Irina was strict and firm with him. She wouldn't let him get away with his negative behaviour. She sometimes reminded him of an old-fashioned teacher but she never wheeled a yardstick or ruler. Instead, her tongue lashings made him really consider what he was doing and his effect on others. Irina smiled knowingly at him when he made the realization that he had sent Bella messages crowing about what he was doing to earn her respect and friendship all the while never concerning himself about what she was doing, thinking, or feeling.

With Irina's guidance, he started to work on his relationship with his immediate family first. He reconnected with his parents and found commonalities with them he hadn't realized before. He had never realized his mother could sing and that she'd been a soloist in her school's choir. Esme had toyed with the idea of studying music in college but her parents talked her out of it in favour of a more stable career choice, their words not hers. Carlisle, while tone deaf and rhythmically challenged, came from a long line of musicians, scientists and doctors. He sheepishly admitted, while very drunk, to years of accordion lessons before being pulled aside by his music teacher and being given a tambourine to play instead. Carlisle, on another slightly less drunk occasion, admitted to writing exceedingly bad poetry as a teen.

Edward headed to his new job and worked harder than he ever had before. While he really enjoyed working with the students, he quickly realized teaching was not something he could do. Edward felt he wasn't smart enough or patient enough to do any type of service to those young minds. He was good at playing with them and maintaining the instruments, but found he learned much, much more than he taught.

He spent as much time as he could on Skype or the phone with his sister and Jasper. The band had been working hard on a fourth album, doing some small venue tours and doing really well. Riley fit in with them and Edward was happy, rather than feeling left out. Many times he tried to put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard to write something, but he never got past a line or two. His thoughts were still so jumbled and incoherent when it came to producing music of his own. He found playing and singing old favourites helpful. When alone, he played songs that reminded him of Bella, not just the songs she wrote but ones written by others that seemed to speak of her.

She sent him an email about a month after he arrived in Alaska. She apologized for not giving him her address sooner. He felt like such an asshole when she did. As if she would ever need to apologize to him for anything. He tried his best to use Irina's techniques and start a real dialogue with her, to learn about her and to listen. However, now she was the one travelling and having spotty wifi. She answered when she could, sending short notes letting him know she was safe and alive.

The pen pal relationship continued for months. While it was comfortable and pleasant, it wasn't totally satisfying. It was superficial, perhaps because of time constraints and lack of depth of conversation. Edward couldn't say all he wanted to say to her in an email. Bella's backpacking through Southeast Asia didn't leave her with either the time or the inclination to spend lots of time chatting online. She was too busy learning about ancient cultures and civilizations, seeing the sights and sampling the local foods. This was a trip of a lifetime for her and Edward was finally unselfish enough to let her enjoy it without his interference.

Edward joined the band in the studio after his term in Alaska was over, but this time as a performer only. One-by-one he met with his bandmates, at first to apologize and then to learn and listen to them. New friendships were developed, although Emmett was the hardest to reconnect with. Edward made an effort to get to know the recording engineers and their staff as well as members of the label they were working with. He spent a lot of time with Riley as he worked on some new songs. He also spent time with Riley's sister, Maggie. It wasn't a romance, but it was developing into a good friendship.

Edward found his life in a different perspective when, during fireworks at his parents' annual summer party, Alice and Jasper announced her pregnancy. He was thrilled, of course, but also a bit sad. He had no one and the one person he wanted, wanted only friendship from him. But he set aside his feelings to celebrate his sister and his best friend. He also noticed Rosalie and Emmett seemed to be much closer than he had ever known them to be. They were holding hands when they thought no one was looking; he saw them look around at the crowd first. He also thought he saw Rosalie lean in for a quick kiss during the firework show when everyone else was looking up. Edward wondered how long that relationship had been going on.

Soon after that, Bella announced her return to all her friends in an email. She had sold her condo before travelling and was temporarily homeless until she decided where she wanted to live. Edward wanted to offer her his place, but Rose beat him to it and it made more sense for her to stay with Rose. They arranged a huge welcome home party for her once she was settled.

Bella greeted Edward with a big hug when he arrived at Rose's. He followed her to the back deck where everyone had gathered. She look wonderful; she was wearing the same style wire-rimmed glasses she'd worn when he first met her. She looked relaxed and happy, more content than the last time he'd seen her, but it had been over two years and under better circumstances. Her long brown hair had been chopped off and she now had a tousled, messy look that really suited her. There were shades to her hair he hadn't noticed before, brought out by months in the sun. Edward watched as Bella smiled and laughed with her friends. More people arrived, Angela and Ben, as well as a few Edward didn't know. The person who really caught his eye was a man who was wearing dark sunglasses, even though the sun was starting to set and wasn't that bright. He also had half of his hair in a stupid little bun at the back of his head. The way the front part was pulled back so tightly showed off the beginnings of a receding hairline and looked painful; it made Edward want to run his fingers through his own hair and massage his scalp in apology. There was something about the guy that set his teeth on edge. Even more so when Bella introduced them.

"This is my...friend, Seth. Seth, this is Edward."

AN: As always I thank Beachcomberlc, JulieToo, and IpsitaC77 for being so very kind to me. I thank you as well for reading. I mean no offence to any professional tambourine-ists who might be reading; I hold percussionists in high regard. My favourite is Animal from The Muppets.