A/N: So! Today is August 12. Tomorrow is my birthday, August 13. It's my fortieth birthday! Wow, how did that happen? My gift to myself was this short, angsty fic for which I hope to hear from you-good, bad, or indifferent.
I will post one chapter a day for the next five days (coz dammit, I like to celebrate all MONTH).
There was something strange about the quality of light in the room when Edward opened his eyes. At first, he hardly noticed. A dark pall had settled over his heart and soul; it took him minutes to realize the sun wasn't regulated by his black mood.
Edward was in no hurry to move from his bed. He hadn't set his alarm, but his body kept time whether he wanted it to or not. He'd always been prompt. There was order, and therefore comfort, in arriving on time.
But not today. Time ticked inexorably forward, each second a reckoning—the timer he'd set off three years prior finally about to hit zero.
With a sigh, he sat up, his eyes already trained on the window. Clouds, he realized. The room was darker than it should have been because the vibrant blue sky was coated in a thick layer of clouds—black and livid. It was a sky that could have set the scene for the apocalypse; as though the Four Horsemen would come riding out any second.
Some mercy, Edward thought. Blue skies and sunshine would only have mocked him.
Even with some semblance of relief the bleak day registered, irritation overwrote it. As though he deserved mercy. Was Bella even now looking up at the same sky, searching for a break in the clouds? A rainbow arcing down, promising renewal and good things to come?
He hoped she was. The rain had fallen on her life long enough. He was truly happy for her that this dark chapter would be over. His own book, he expected, would be painted in dark hues—angry crimson like blood from a gash, tumultuous blue sadness to drown in, deep purples, like a bruise—but Bella deserved her happily ever after.
Sick of his own melodrama, Edward tossed off the blankets and set his feet on the floor.
He showered, shaved, and stood in front of the closet, wondering vaguely what one wore to an event like this. Memories flitted in and out of his consciousness—Bella's fingers running over the lines of his muscles when he wore that shirt; she had a thing for arms. She liked the way his back looked when he stretched in that shirt. Those pants made his butt look good. He could still feel her hands slipping into the back pockets of his jeans, squeezing his butt, a vixen's grin playing at her lips.
If he wore any of it, would she remember? It hadn't all been so dark; he hadn't just imagined that part, right? That together they were more than sunshine; they were the brilliant, unfathomable nebulas of deep space.
Edward chose a pair of black jeans—new—and a simple black shirt that hugged nothing.
Some hours later, he was reconsidering the mercy of a day like this being so bleak. He wanted to walk toward the skyscraper where this nasty business would be conducted like a man going to his death. But the cold, as he exited his car, was bitter enough he noticed it despite his frozen, dead heart. He retrieved the sweater he kept in his backseat and wrapped it tightly around himself. He hurried for the shelter of the building, too quick for the solemnity of the occasion.
"Mr. Cullen." Eleazar Vela, the family's longtime friend and attorney, opened the door for him to rush through.
Edward arched an eyebrow at him as he loosened his stooped stance. "Eleazar," he said with a curt nod. "Pick up divorce law, have you?"
The elder man gave him a sympathetic look and squeezed his shoulder. "Officially, I'm representing the interests of Cullen Co."
Given his recent conversations with his siblings, Edward wasn't surprised. Annoyed, he turned on his heel and simply walked away from Eleazar.
It was childish and, when Eleazar got in the same elevator as he did, it was awkward. Edward wanted to ask him if Bella was already there, but kept his silence.
It didn't matter. In seconds, the elevator doors opened, he rounded a corner, and he had his answer.
The room just outside the elevator bank was one of those windowed numbers, so he could see her as they approached. She sat beside her lawyer, shoulders stooped with her elbows on the table and her hair falling forward into her eyes.
It was the first time he'd seen her in almost three years.
For some reason, the sight of her looking so defeated and sad brought his memories to the exact opposite place. Bella had never been anything approaching athletic. She'd balked at the idea of short hikes through level woods, but she'd put hiking to the top of Upper Yosemite Falls on her bucket list.
They'd planned a vacation for Yosemite in the summer between their third and fourth years of college. He remembered perfectly what she'd looked like when she reached the top—cheeks flushed, long hair up in a high ponytail, face etched with triumph, and her fists pumping the air. She'd thrown her arms around him and kissed him there at the top of the world. The sun was shining, the sky a deep blue.
As they sat on a rock, hydrating and taking in the breathtaking beauty of the Yosemite Valley, he had to ask the question that had been on the tip of his tongue for over a year.
"Bella, have you ever thought about marrying me?"
The question sounded so casual to his ears, the opposite of what he felt for this woman.
Her breath caught, but her eyes remained on the horizon. She breathed out in a slow gust and finally spoke.
"Is it marriage you want or commitment?" she asked.
"Is there a difference?"
She scoffed, though there was a hint of humor to the sound. She turned to face him, eyes shining and full of love. "There's a big difference. Marriage is just a piece of paper. You have my heart and soul, my love and commitment right now, Edward Cullen. If I have to marry you to have yours, if what you feel for me is different the day before you're married than the day after, then we're already doomed."
He laughed with her. "You're right. You're stuck with me regardless."
Of course, she must have heard the wistful note to his voice, because she bumped his side. "Don't tell me you're the kind of kid who planned their wedding. Doodled flower arrangements in your notebook, huh?"
A blush tinted his cheeks, and he sighed, wistful. "Some kids fell asleep to bedtime stories about Snow White or Rumpelstiltskin. I used to like to hear the story of them—my parents. They told it like a fairytale."
"I've heard that story," Bella said. "Eyes meeting across a crowded room. The obstacles they had to overcome. The drama. The angst. And then…"
"Triumph and a wedding in the trees," Edward finished. "It rained. Just a mist. And that made it ethereal."
Bella put a hand on his knee, squeezing. "And the benevolent king and queen lived happily ever after, with their two handsome princes and their fairy child, Alice."
Edward chuckled, putting his hand over hers. "You seriously never thought about a wedding? Not planned it or anything. Just a ridiculous thought. An eccentric want?"
She was quiet for a long moment, her eyes fixed on the waterfall beside them. Finally, she rolled her eyes and looked at him. "I like…" Her cheeks flushed deep red and she shook her head.
He put an arm around her, pulling her closer. "Tell me."
She made a disgruntled sound, but then spoke. "It's just an aesthetic. Speaking of fairies." She rolled her eyes again. "There's a meadow of flowers. And I'm in one of those dresses, off white, kind of wrinkled and ragged at the ends but not in a messy way. In a…skirting the edge of the fairy realm kind of way. Oh, god. This is so cheesy."
"No. I can see it. Elven almost, right? Mystical. Nature magic." He pushed a strand of hair that had come loose from her ponytail, tucking it back. "With a flower crown?" he guessed.
She grinned. "Obviously."
He hummed, imagining her, lovely and magical, coming to take his hand in a meadow. "Okay," he said.
"Okay, we can make that happen."
He had. They had. And it had been a beautiful, blissful day he'd dreamed of spinning into a magical fairytale for their children.
But instead, there they were.
Happily never after.
Eleazar opened the door, and Edward took a deep breath. His feet stayed rooted to the floor. A loud voice in his head screamed no, no, no, like a freight train rapidly chugging its way toward a hole in the tracks, a gap right over a chasm.
This had to be what dying felt like.
Woodenly, he stepped forward once, twice. His gaze focused on her, on the rigidity of her shoulders as she refused to look up. His steps quickened.
For her. This was the least he could do for her. The only thing he would ever get to do for her again.
"Cullen," her lawyer greeted him with a sneer.
Jessica Stanley had gone to high school with both of them. She'd turned a cold shoulder when, after rebuffing her advances, Edward and her good friend, Bella, started to date toward the end of senior year. He'd known she'd become a divorce lawyer. She and Bella seemed to have mended ties.
Reacting to her informal and blatantly rude greeting, Eleazar cleared his throat as he sat in the chair beside Edward.
Jessica's scowl eased into a tight smile. "Mr. Cullen," she greeted with a curt nod. Then she looked at Eleazar. "And here I thought I'd met everyone in our line of work."
Eleazar offered her a warm smile and his hand to shake. "Eleazar Vela. I'm a friend of the family, but officially here representing the company." His eyes went to Bella.
She'd straightened up, but was staring not at them but out the window and at the ever-blackening sky.
Eleazar had met her before, of course, and his tone was familiar and gentle as he spoke. "Ms. Cullen. Bella. Emmett and Alice wrote you a letter." He pushed an envelope toward her, and continued speaking though she kept her head turned. "They wish to convey they love you, miss you, and wish you would speak to them—though they understand your distance. My presence here isn't meant to take anything away from you. Mr. Cullen hasn't been acting in his own best interests of late, and they merely wish to assure he doesn't work against what his parents wanted for him."
Bella sighed. "I don't want anything regarding the business," she said. Her soft, scratchy voice was still so familiar to him.
"Bella—" Edward started, but Jessica held up a hand.
"Don't speak to my client, Mr. Cullen. Don't look at her. Don't breathe in her general direction. Look me in the eyes and tell me you understand."
Edward stared at the side of Bella's face, his mangled heart bleeding from freshly reopened wounds. She had every right to hate him; he knew that.
Jessica snapped her fingers in front of his face. "Hey. Eyes here. Tell me you understand."
"I understand," he said, his voice gone gruff.
And so it began. Piece by piece, they dismantled the life they shared. Edward would have given her everything, but Bella wasn't having it.
"My client only wishes to get out of this what she put in. Though why she isn't considering the worth of her part in a partnership is well beyond me."
Edward knew exactly why Bella refused to take anything besides what she perceived to bring into the marriage, asset-wise. Still, as the negotiations went on, he couldn't help but be frustrated.
"Now the house," Jessica said.
"I don't want the house," Edward said.
"We estimate a lot of the work Ms. Swan put in added quite a value to the house," Jessica said, ignoring him. "So, what we're asking—"
"I don't want the house. I haven't lived there since she left."
Bella's head jerked up. "You haven't lived there?"
When their eyes met, the jolt that surged through Edward was strong enough to shake his body. Her beauty stunned him; the power of everything he felt for her overwhelmed his senses. He couldn't find his voice or words to speak.
A pregnant moment passed between them before Bella, inhaling sharply, glanced first at Jessica and then back out the window.
Edward swallowed hard. "I haven't—" he began, only to be cut off again by Jessica's glare.
"Did you misunderstand the part about you not speaking to my client?" she snapped.
Edward stared at the side of Bella's head, desperation clawing at his insides. That one glance, those few words, had been a single drop of rain to a man dying of thirst in the desert. He needed more. Any scrap she would give him.
But, she didn't look at him; didn't tell Jessica to let him speak. His shoulders slumped, and he nodded.
So, the division of the marital assets continued—Edward trying to give her everything, Bella refusing, through Jessica, almost everything. Eleazar contributed very little. As promised, he was only there to represent the interests of the business, offering Bella a generous severance package if she didn't wish to freelance for them. To Edward's relief, she accepted the severance.
"We appreciate your acknowledgement of how valuable my client's work was," Jessica said.
"I've been asked to make it clear your client is welcome to reach out, professionally or personally, at any time. The door is always open." He glanced at Bella. "You're not only appreciated but loved."
Edward watched, his heart breaking just that little bit more when he saw her shoulders shake gently. A tear slid down her cheek, and she brushed it away with a quick gesture, not acknowledging either of them.
Then, it was over.
He'd hated every minute of the meeting. He'd hated seeing how hurt Bella still was, the pain he could read even in the tightness of her posture. He hated her repeated insistence that she only wanted out of their marriage what she thought she was worth. He knew why she made those demands, and it shattered him, knowing what he had done to her.
He'd hated the cold business of dismantling a marriage, breaking the essence of their life to a list of assets and monetary worth. It was all maddeningly shallow, given the depth of his feelings, the totality of his heartbreak.
Yet, he'd have given anything for the meeting never to end.
He'd have given anything not to have to do this part. First to have to watch her sign their marriage away, her hair falling into her face while he willed her to look at him one last time. Then to have to sign himself.
Marriage is just a piece of paper, her voice whispered in his memory.
Strangely, there was some comfort in that. This piece of paper couldn't change what he felt for her. And he had already destroyed whatever she might have felt for him. This piece of paper couldn't hurt either of them any more than he already had.
The sounds in the room faded to a strange, distant hum. He could hear his heartbeat between his ears. Suddenly, it was too hot, too claustrophobic in the oversized space. He murmured a quick "thank you," to Eleazar and excused himself. He retreated to the elevator bay, relieved when one of the six doors opened quickly, and he stepped inside. He leaned his back against the wall, eyes closed, head bowed, pinching the bridge of his nose as he tried to catch his breath. His throat closed. His eyes stung, but he refused to cry.
"Nothing happened," he muttered to himself. He'd lost everything years ago. This was just the last aftershock.
He'd lived with this wound for three years, and had done his best to cope with the constant agony.
Today was the first day of the rest of his life.
The elevator dinged, and the doors opened with a whoosh. Edward's head snapped up. For a second, he thought he must have been hallucinating. He'd been so sure, with this business done, he would never see Bella again, yet there she was, looking just as shocked to find him there.
The air was thick and alive. He rubbed the back of his neck. "I guess I didn't press the button."
She looked to the side, hiding her red-rimmed eyes from him. She looked over her shoulder, but clearly, no one else was coming. Edward took a step to the side, pressing himself as far as he could into one corner of the elevator.
She hesitated another moment, wrapping her arms around herself, but stepped onto the elevator.
It was awkward.
And he was just so aware of her. He shoved his hands deep in his jeans, curling his fingers, trying to ignore the ache of wanting to reach for her.
This was as much of a reprieve as he was going to get.
The elevator started to descend.
He wanted to speak. It felt wrong not to. She looked so sad. It went against everything in his nature to sit still, not to try to comfort her, to say nothing at all.
She'd made it clear she didn't want to hear the sound of his voice. After everything he'd done, all he'd put her through, the least he could do was respect the one boundary she'd ever demanded.
His skin crawled, restless to do something.
Two things happened almost simultaneously. First, two shrill, long, loud beeps started to chime simultaneously. His ass vibrated. He jumped. She jumped.
And then, the elevator stopped. It was no gentle thing, but a jerk that had his stomach going in the opposite direction of his body. He put a hand out instinctively to brace himself against the wall, the other reaching for Bella though she was beyond his grasp. The lights in the elevator went out, replaced by the lower wattage emergency lights.
For seconds, there was only the sound of their rapid breaths as they both looked around the small space. Edward groped for his phone, pulling it out of his back pocket. "Oh," he said with a huff.
The screen was bright in the low light, flashing a severe weather alert. Thunderstorms. Flash flood warnings.
And rolling blackouts.
A/N: Many thanks to the lovely ladies who make my writing better. May, Di, Adelaide, Betsy, and AushaPasha. Many thanks to the talented Marie for yet another gorgeous banner.
Buckle up. This is going to be a bumpy ride. But… if I can get this last chapter (which isn't done yet) finished in time, I think you'll be satisfied.