SO FAR FROM HOME
Summary: "A shag can be a goodbye," he blurts, and it isn't until he says the word aloud that she understands her own reaction to it. But he keeps talking. "It's…like breakup sex. It's fine. That's a thing people do, right? One last hurrah?"
A/N: Here it is. The end of this one. Thank you, as always, for reading and for the wonderful words of feedback. Stay safe, stay happy, stay kind. xo
She finds herself surprised the next morning when she wakes to find him gone, and she admonishes herself for it. This is exactly how she's woken up every morning since they've been here save yesterday, and exactly how she's been waking up for months, and she tamps down on the wave of insecurity and shame and uncertainty that is swelling and instead swings her feet out of bed and slips into the first items of clothing she finds before quietly creeping down the stairs into the still-quiet, empty downstairs.
There's nothing on the counters to suggest anyone has even so much as made a cup of tea yet, and she glances around, searching for any evidence of him.
Then, through the kitchen window, she spies him in the distance: a dark head of hair poking out of a tangle of tartan blanket in a wooden chair, face turned toward the cliff's edge and, beyond it, the sea. Wrapping last night's sweater tighter around her, she steps into a pair of Esme's boots and slips out of the house, picking her way across the uneven, dewy lawn towards the property's edge. The damp chill rolling off the water makes her shiver, and she realizes how long it's been since she was here—long enough to forget the bite of the air above the North Atlantic, even in late summer. Her thin pants and thermal top are no match for the early morning temperature.
Drawing nearer, it occurs to her to wonder what she's going to say. Really, she just wants to see his face.
"Hi," she says as she draws even with his elbow, and she watches his profile as his eyes flutter open.
"Hi," he replies, not moving a muscle. When she doesn't say anything more, he lifts his head from where it was resting against the back of the chair and turns to face her. "Everything all right?"
"Yeah, fine. Just…woke up." She shifts her weight. "You were gone."
He lets his head fall back again. "I thought you might regret it, in the harsh light of morning. Wanted to…give you space."
"I don't want space from you," she murmurs, stepping closer to where he sits facing the surging sea in the distance. He gazes up at her, eyes dark even in the weak morning sun, and she tries to school her expression into something resembling neutral. When his look doesn't waver, a disheartening thought occurs to her. "But I can go, if you want space."
"I never wanted space," he replies, something unidentifiable in his voice.
Taking it as an acquiescence, she lowers herself to the edge of the chair beside him, shivering slightly as the chill of the wood seeps through her thin cotton pants. A hint of amusement pulls at the corner of his mouth, chasing away the detachment that had been making her feel unmoored. "You've forgotten."
"The English weather."
He considers her for a moment before opening the tartan blanket, arms spread wide, the blanket like wings. "C'mon then," he says, and she doesn't know if she's imagining it, but there's something like a challenge in his eyes.
She glances toward the house. "What if—"
"What? My parents see me sitting with my wife in my lap?" The word is a dare, one she doesn't quite know what to do with. Still, it takes her less than a handful of seconds to step into the space between his knees and lower herself into the cocoon he's made. She lets her head fall back against his collarbone and watches the mist evaporate off the horizon.
It's amazing, on these rocky English beaches, how you can be right on top of something and still feel so far away from it. The ocean is almost right beneath them, and looking outward it's all she can see, but the path it would take her to actually reach out and dip a toe in it is astoundingly long and winding.
"Was it a mistake?" she asks finally, grateful not to be looking at his face when she utters the word. When he replies, it's with a touch of amusement.
"Didn't feel like one."
"As am I."
"Telling the kids would be a mistake," he agrees, that intimate, teasing lilt to his voice that she's missed terribly.
"Not as big a mistake as being caught by one of them doing it on the stairs," she replies, snuggling farther down into the warm nest of his blanket. He groans, whether at the memory or the feel of her shifting in his lap she can't be sure.
"Thank God she was half asleep," he says, one hand finding her hip. "Thought we'd scarred her for life."
Silence descends, the sea a steady roar beneath them, beyond them, and she's lost in memory for a moment: her, at the top of the staircase, hands pressed into the carpet of the upstairs landing and knees planted on the top stair as Edward's body curled around hers and he pushed into her from behind. Her own gasps and pleas and then, making them both freeze in horror, Ava's voice cutting through the darkness. "Mommy? I need to go potty."
"Thought she'd scarred me for life," Bella replies, and Edward's chuckle rumbles against her back.
"We never did reclaim quite that level of spontaneity, did we?"
"Wasn't too long thereafter that we 'reclaimed' another pregnancy."
"Ah. Quite right." After a few minutes of quiet, she feels tension seep into his body beneath her in degrees, and just as she's about to ask if she's too heavy, he speaks again, voice pitched low. "Do you think…was that what did it?"
"I'd never for a second regret any of our children," he says, voice fierce. "But…Lola. I know we didn't…we weren't really planning on another one. You wanted to go back to work, and I…you…we got pregnant again, instead. I've just…I wondered if that was where it started. You, being angry with me."
She tries to turn, but he holds her still, hands like steel on her hips. "No," she says firmly. "No, Edward. I…I was surprised, obviously. We both were. But…I'd never regret that, either." This time, when she tries to turn, he lets her. "Never."
He lets his head fall back against the chair once more, considering her with his fathomless eyes before nodding slightly. "Good."
Resettling against his chest, she attempts to reclaim the levity from just a few moments earlier as she looks out over the water once again. "And honestly, with that level of spontaneity, it was bound to happen again sooner or later."
"Well, I quite dragged my feet with short-circuiting the mechanism, didn't I?" It strikes her, listening to him, how much blame he's been shouldering for quite a few more things than she'd considered, and guilt creeps up her spine.
"Well, and thank goodness you did. What would the world be, without Lola?"
"Quite right," he says, and she can hear the smile in his voice. Silence settles between them, punctuated by the quiet roar of the surf, until he clears his throat with a low hum. "Are we going to talk about it in any more detail?"
She can't quite parse whether he means last night or the eighteen months that came before it. "Which bit?"
"Last night," he replies, following her own train of thought.
"Do we need to?"
"Aye, I reckon so." She smiles at the sea.
"Aye, yer probably right, laddie."
He groans. "Blimey, twelve years with me and your accent is still shite."
"Yeah, well, so's your ability to throw a baseball."
His laugh jostles her. "Rubbish game, at any rate."
"And what's cricket?"
"Also rubbish," he allows. Then, voice pitched low, "It was brilliant. Last night."
Heat curls low in her belly. "It was."
"Hadn't…been like that. In awhile."
He falls silent, then she feels the prickle of his beard against the side of her neck, followed by a warm puff of his breath. She feels her own breaths grow shallower as she waits, perched on the precipice of something unknowable just as she's perched on his lap, essentially at his mercy. Then, so softly she could have ignored it had she even the slightest desire to, his lips press gently to the side of her neck. She exhales, and feels herself melt into him a little bit, muscles relaxing in tacit permission.
The hand on her hip tightens for a brief moment before sliding around and pressing against the space between her belly button and the top of her pajama pants. She can feel its warmth through the thermal shirt she'd pulled on, and she relishes its heat for a moment before the tug of his teeth at her earlobe makes her gasp. She tilts her hips slightly, pressing into where she can feel him behind the thin flannel of his pajama pants.
Then, bold as brass, he slips his hand beneath the waistband of both pants and underwear and hums in surprised delight when he finds her already slightly wet. She sucks in a breath in something that isn't quite surprise as he traces gentle fingertips around her, deliberately avoiding her clit, and she whimpers as the teasing flirts with being too much. "More?" he murmurs into her hair, and she can feel the rumble of the word against her back as his hands leave her to slide her pants and underwear to mid-thigh before he slips gentle fingertips back up to the soft flesh between her legs.
"Edward," she gasps.
"Let me," he pleads, a low rumble against the skin of her neck, and her legs fall open, calves hooking around his knees. Without hesitation, he slides two fingers all the way into her, and she whimpers and bucks against his palm, which he flattens against her clit, rubbing deliciously against her and teasing her from the outside as his fingertips do the same from the inside.
She's surprised by how quickly she comes, the deft familiarity of his fingers combining with the thrill of the illicit to push her to her peak far quicker than she could have imagined. He hums in pleasure as she shatters around his fingers, but the hum is eclipsed by a groan as she rocks back against his erection. Despite the awkward angle, she reaches behind her and between them and slips her hand beneath his waistband, wrapping fingers around his shaft. There's already a hint of moisture at its tip, and she knows it's the same for him: enhanced by the excitement that comes with the very public nature of what they're doing. She strokes him with the firm grip and twist at the end that she knows makes him shudder, and she's gratified by how quickly he, too, reaches the point of no return.
"I'm going to—I'll make a mess," he gasps, hips hitching as he thrusts helplessly into the circle of her fist. She half-turns, peering into his desperate face, and flicks a quick glance toward the still-quiet house before sinking to the ground between his knees, the chill of it seeping through the thin fabric of her leggings, the tartan blanket shielding her from view as he lets it drape over the arms of the chair. "Bella," he gasps, disbelieving and mindlessly turned on, and she gives him a small smile as she tugs the elastic waistband of his pajama pants over his straining erection.
Without hesitation, she sucks the length of him into her mouth, pleased by the hiss that falls from his lips. His hands find the windswept strands of her hair and sweep them back, gathering them into a ponytail he grips at the back of her head. It's such a tenderly intimate—and familiar—gesture that her heart stutters in her chest. It's a few quick strokes of her mouth before he trembles and comes, and she swallows around him, reveling in his groan at the feel of her throat muscles working around his tip. His hand loosens in her hair and falls to the back of her neck, cupping it gently in his warm palm.
"Blimey," he gasps, head tipped back against the seat, blinking out at the churning sea.
"Quite," she whispers, pulling his pants back up and settling herself sideways in his lap, legs over one armrest and head pressed against his chest. In one ear she can hear the gallop of his heart and in the other the soft roar of the surf, and in this moment, she doesn't ever want to move.
. . .
Bella is refolding and repacking the girls' three suitcases on the bed in the room she's sharing with Edward, idly considering just throwing everything haphazardly into the bags to be dealt with when they get home. But she knows herself, and knows how much she hates unpacking, and tries to stay on task in an attempt to do her future self this one small favor.
Edward's half-packed suitcase is on the other side of the bed, a stack of neatly folded shirts beside it. The door behind her creaks as it opens, and she turns to see Edward crossing the threshold, a steaming cup of tea in hand.
"Tea break?" he asks, setting the porcelain cup gently on the nightstand, and taking the small shirt she was folding gently from her hands.
He finishes folding the shirt and sets it into Josie's bag as she sits on the edge of the armchair and sips the tea, wincing at the sting but relishing the taste. She can't remember the last time he made her a cup of tea that wasn't an attempt at a wordless apology, or a metaphorical white flag. Tea without subtext, it turns out, is the most comforting thing she can imagine, here, in this moment. They're quiet for a few beats, and as soothing as it is, this once-familiar peace, she knows that the opportunities they have for time without any little ears listening in is drawing to a close, and there are things to be said.
"A shag can be a goodbye," he blurts, and it isn't until he says the word aloud that she understands her own reaction to it. But he keeps talking. "It's…like breakup sex. It's fine. That's a thing people do, right? One last hurrah?"
"No. It's okay. Really. I thought…if you'd told me before this trip that we'd wind up here, I'd have thought I'd feel differently, but…it's really okay, Bella. I think we're going to be okay. Maybe this was a good way for us to realize that we can still…stomach each other. We can just…take it for what it was."
She watches him ball a pair of Lola's tiny socks and tuck them into a corner of the small flamingo-printed suitcase, and the sudden cascade of memory—all the minute things that added up to sharing a life with this man—makes her head spin. Those hands folding burp cloths, then tiny little baby clothes, and then toddler underpants, and then school dresses. Those hands making cups of tea and stirring things in saucepans and flicking aimlessly through channels with the television remote. This man, standing on the opposite side of a bed just like this one, helping her put clean sheets on it.
Taking a deep breath, she roots around in her chest for the swell of courage she needs. "What if I don't want it to be a goodbye?"
It's not until it doesn't come that she realizes she was expecting a positive reaction from him—hope, or joy, or at least optimism. Instead, he just looks guarded, and more than a touch dubious. "What?"
She lets her eyes drift to the window, to Olive playing freeze tag with her cousins and Alice and Rose and Esme sitting on a blanket with Willa lying on her back in the middle of it, kicking her tiny feet in the air. "I don't want to lose this."
Edward sighs. "Bella, you'll always have this. They'll always be yours, too."
"I know, but—"
"That's not a reason," he cuts her off. "You don't stay married to someone you don't love just because you like their family."
"I get it. I do. But I promise. I won't say anything to make them think this was your fault, or that they can't still be close to you. It won't be like that."
"I don't want you to stay with me for any reason except that you want me." His voice is firm, and his eyes are sharp, and it takes this to make her see that along the way she's wounded his pride as well as his heart.
"I do want you," she whispers, just as she's overtaken with the sickening realization that perhaps it's too late. Perhaps she's pushed him just far enough away that he won't want to come back, despite the cloud of hormones they've allowed themselves to get swept up in over the past twenty-four hours.
"You didn't a week ago," he counters.
"I don't think I knew what I wanted a week ago," she admits, placing the still-full teacup on the small accent table beside the chair.
"And in the five months before that?" When she doesn't say anything, he sighs, lowering himself to sit on the bed, the stack of carefully folded t-shirts beside him tipping to one side as the mattress sinks. "Bella. This isn't our life. We're…out of our normal environment. What happens when we go home and we get back to business as usual and whatever it was that made you decide you don't want to be with me anymore is still there? Then what?"
"I don't know."
He sighs again, dropping his gaze and ruffling his hair, and the familiar gesture makes her chest tighten. "I can't go through it again." When he looks back up at her, his eyes are glistening. "Watching you fall out of love with me—" His voice falters, and he looks away, throat bobbing as he swallows. "Watching you fall out of love with me once was hard enough," he says to the picture on the wall. "I can't—I couldn't survive going through that all over again. I've only just got to the point where I'm almost okay. It took me a long time to get here, and I just can't…go back."
"I understand," she whispers, fighting off her own tears. And she grasps, abruptly, how much she needs him to understand something she's only just begun to realize herself. She rises from the chair but doesn't step any closer to him, folding her hands into a knot in front of her. "For what it's worth…I didn't fall out of love with you."
"I didn't fall out of love with you. I know I said it, but…that's not true. I think…I fell out of love with me. I didn't…like myself very much, for a while there. I didn't know who I was. I went from the heady romance of being in love with you, and marrying you, to the whirlwind of having babies, and then…they started to grow up. And I realized I didn't really know who I was anymore, besides their mom and your wife. And I couldn't be angry with them, and…that just left you. And I know that isn't fair. I'm not trying to make excuses for it. I just…I'm trying to explain it."
He nods slowly. "I wish you could have just told me that. Talked to me about it. Maybe I could have helped."
"Maybe. Or maybe it was just…something I had to work through. But I'm so sorry that working through it made me forget how much I loved you."
"Loved," he repeats, and the truth rises in front of her, like the sun's first morning light spilling over the horizon.
"Love," she amends. "I can't believe I forgot how much I love you." He closes his eyes, and she doesn't recognize the expression on his face. "I do, Edward. I love you. Still. So much. I always will. And if I've hurt you too much for you to forgive me, I understand. But I still want you to know. What you've given me, what we've had together…I'll always love you for all of that. But I also love you. Just for you. Who you are."
"I love you, too," he whispers, and when he opens his eyes, they look even greener for the red rimming them. "I have loved you every second of the life we've had together."
"Still?" It occurs to her how deeply she doubts it; how much she was doubting it before, when she was struggling to find anything she liked about herself. When she felt so very unlikable for her anger. So very angry at something she couldn't even identify. So much resentment, with nowhere for it to go. So much insecurity that she couldn't even put to words.
"Yes. Still." He seems to be considering her for a moment before he rises, suddenly and swiftly, and rounds the bed, drawing to a halt in front of her, the light from the half-open window bathing both of them. After a moment's hesitation he takes her hands gently in his, unknotting them and running his thumbs gently over her knuckles. "Did I…forget, sometimes? To tell you?"
"Sometimes. But…I never really forgot. I just…got in my own way. And…I felt like I'd pushed you away to the point that I forced you to stop loving me."
"You couldn't," he says simply, and there, that is what she'd forgotten. How simply, steadfastly, unwaveringly solid his love always was. She'd always felt like a windsock floating beside a concrete post, so fickle in comparison to his steady, resolute sturdiness.
"I'm so sorry, Edward."
His eyes close for a brief moment before opening again to look pleadingly into hers. "Please. If you start feeling like that again…please talk to me. Please don't shut me out."
"I won't. I promise." She cradles his face in her hands, reveling in the old-new feel of the beard on his jaw, the familiar newness of his eyes boring into hers. "I love you. And I'm so, so sorry."
His long arms band around her waist, and he buries his face in her neck. She giggles through a mist of tears as his beard tickles her neck. "God, I've missed you," he murmurs into her collarbone, and she threads her fingers through his hair.
"I've missed you, too." Then, softer, "I've missed us."
"Me, too." He pulls back, gazing down into her face. "I'm still…a little mad at you."
A hot sweep of shame heats her chest, neck, cheeks. "I'm still a little mad at me, too."
He gazes down at her for a long moment. "I'm mad at us."
She thinks of the past year-plus, the arguments and the silences and the avoidances and their daughters' faces, watching them with a wariness that broke her heart. The cell phone pictures with a strange apartment in the background, and the new comforter on her bed. Their bed. His beard, her yellow walls, his running, her unwillingness to buy a goddamn tea kettle. All of the little changes they could just as easily have made together. "Yeah."
He nods, and she can see the shadows of similar thoughts behind the green of his eyes. Then, he leans in. As he presses his mouth to hers, they're startled apart by a chorus of cheers from the direction of the open window.
"Whey! Brilliant!" (Alice.)
"About bloody time." (Rosalie.)
Esme is simply beaming up at the window, and Carlisle has an arm around her shoulders, a small, serene smile on his face. Olive is peering up at them with a look of mild disgust on her face, but Ava is grinning while Lola and Josie chase a butterfly, utterly oblivious to the family drama resolving itself somewhere above their heads.
Edward rolls his eyes as he shifts his focus back to her face. "Sure you still want to put up with that lot? This is probably your last chance to get away."
"I'm sure," she says, unable to joke about it, the sudden fear of having irreparably damaged this beautiful thing still so fresh in her mind. She feels like a woman who got too close to the edge of a cliff, and was only yanked back from plummeting over its lip at the very last second. Only in this case, the cliff was one nearly entirely of their own making.
. . .
The van's engine is rumbling behind them, and Olive is doing the secret handshake she's taught the girls with each of them before they clamber into the vehicle's open door.
Bella turns to face Carlisle, who regards her solemnly. "Take care of my boy, won't you?"
"Oh, Carlisle. Of course I will."
The solemnity vanishes, replaced by a wistful smile. "I once tried to talk Esme into another baby," he says, mischief in his clear blue eyes. "I told her Edward needed a brother, but I'd have quite liked another daughter. When Edward first brought you home, I knew I had my third Cullen girl." His hands squeeze hers. "You were meant to be with us all along, m'girl. Don't forget."
"I won't forget," she promises, and as much as it's a promise to Carlisle, it's a promise to Edward, too. And, perhaps most importantly, it's a promise to herself.
He grins, the grin she so adores seeing in her husband's face and in her daughters'. "I love you, dear daughter."
"I love you too, Dad."
She hugs him, trying to commit to memory every little thing about the feel of it, then steps away to let Edward say his goodbye.
She fastens the belts on Josie and Lola's car seats before settling into the far back seat and scooting over so that Edward has space to sit beside her. Rosalie and Esme are murmuring in the front seat, and she doesn't miss the way Esme's misty eyes are watching Edward and Carlisle in the rearview mirror. She buckles her seat belt as Edward climbs in and settles next to her, and doesn't say anything as her husband twists himself into a pretzel in the seat as the van pulls out of the driveway and turns up the street, trying to watch Carlisle's shrinking figure where he stands on the sidewalk, waving. Edward waves frantically, blinking futilely, jaw clenched, until the road bends and his father disappears from view.
When he turns to face forward again, tears are slipping silently down his face. Bella simply laces their fingers together and squeezes as tightly as she dares, relieved when he grips her back just as tightly.
. . .