Well ladies and gents, this is the fifth and final chapter of this ministory. I hope you have enjoyed it thusfar and will enjoy this last chapter as well. all of you who review are lovely, and I thank you many times over.
your humble author,
Edward spent almost every waking moment at Bella's bed side besides those he spent arguing with James that first day, or when he needed to take a break and sleep for a while, in which case he would just go to the other side of the tent and collapse on the cot there. But considering how terrified he was that he might fall asleep and not be able to take care of Bella if she needed him, he hardly ever slept. Only when he was sure she was sleeping deepest and wouldn't wake up for a few hours did he allow himself to close his eyes.
She had a constant fever now. It was burning through her whole body. She would shiver and shake and then the next minute claim to be hotter than hell. Her skin was flushed with unnatural rosiness. The tendrils of red infection had begun to spread further on her stomach. Edward had watched the progression every day when he changed her bandages, which he was no longer too embarrassed to do or needed instruction for. But she was so tired most of the time that he needed to get Jasper or Emmett's assistance to get her to sit up so he could help her. He was watching this woman, the strongest most dignified person he had ever come in contact with, slowly lose her ability to even sit up.
"There has to be something, some medicine, some doctor somewhere, that can help her," Edward argued for the hundredth time. Emmett and Jasper had assured him that no, there was nothing, and no one that could save her if she could not save herself. And had he not seen the way her eyes seemed to flutter closed after even just speaking to him for a few minutes, watched the spread of her infection as it seemed to grab hold of her, finding footholds wherever it could, he would have had no doubt in his mind that Bella would be able to use whatever it was that she possessed inside her that made her so strong and fight it off.
"Edward, I think the time has come for you to come to terms with the idea that Bella might not be getting better," Jasper said quietly. Edward's eyes snapped to his quickly to Jasper's.
"I will not do that," he hissed. Jasper didn't look taken aback by the harshness in his voice, only looked at him with more pity in his eyes.
"Do you really think this is something I want, either? That I want to think about Bella, one of my oldest friends, one of the people I trust most in the world, dying? Of course I don't. The idea of losing her hurts me, just the way it hurts you. But you have to be honest with yourself, now, Edward. You can offer her all the love in the world to try and make her better, I'm sure you would, hell, I'm sure you have, but that won't change a thing. Maybe she will pull through, and God I hope that is the case, but there is a chance, getting stronger every day, that she won't. And if she doesn't, I know it will hurt, but it will only be worse if you cannot accept it now. You love her, Edward, and she loves you too, in the way that Bella does, but you might lose her."
"No," Edward said quietly. He felt himself become suddenly heavy, tired. Those ideas Jasper was spouting, so ugly and horrifying and real despite what Edward wanted to think made him sick. And so even if Jasper was right, even if Bella was dying and not just sick, he pushed the idea away.
And so in denial he sat by her bedside and watched her. But it was only a few days after he and Jasper had spoken, a few days after Jasper had told him to prepare himself for the coming hardships and pain when it really began to sink in.
The fever was making her delirious. She started talking nonsense, mumbling through chapped lips and a light voice about daisies and then about past battles she had fought, and things no one understood eventually. She was moving around more than she usually did, trying to fight some terror that in her delirium she believed to be real, even as Edward pressed a cool cloth to her skin, and talked to her, trying to coax her out of the hallucination. But she would not be coaxed.
Her breath became short, ragged gasps as she used her air to mutter about invisible monsters and enemies unseen to all but her in her terrible dreams. Edward felt sick with helplessness. There was nothing he could do. He was exhausted, not having slept for almost a full day by midnight that night as he comforted her. He hadn't eaten in more than a day, not that he could find the energy; the idea of food made him feel ill. Emmett and Jasper had tried to pull him away from her bedside and let him rest, but as soon as he was gone he could hear her shouting, not words because by then her speech had degraded into nothing but nonsense, but she shouted nonetheless. Her eyes would be closed and so she couldn't see if he was there or gone, but she could feel it. And Edward felt it too, the empty feeling in the very core of him, like someone had cut a piece from his middle and was holding it hostage.
He couldn't leave her even if he wanted to, and he certainly did not. All he wanted was to watch over her and see a miracle performed as she healed herself. There was nothing else he could do, he had come to terms with that fact, and so he had to resolve to sit with her, bedside, as nature took its course and pray that Bella would find her strength. If not for herself, than for him. He could not bear her death. It hurt him enough to see her unwell, lying in bed and not even being able to get up. But he knew that the way Bella cried out in her hallucinations and sleep when he left her side would be nothing compared to what would happen to him if he lost her. He had never been a religious man, but he prayed every night for whatever God there might have been to help her, to save her, to make her well again.
And this delirium distressed him most of all, her muttering, never really asleep, never quite awake, fever burning out of control, almost painfully hot to the touch. And when there was no one else watching her steadily spiral into oblivion as the infection and illness took hold of her glorious body, Edward wept. He shed more tears in that tent by her side than he had in the entirety of his live prior. He was a man so of course he was not supposed to cry as it was, but he could not check the impulse. It seemed tears would swallow him up and he would be taken over by the urge to cry over her poor, prone, sick form. He cried for her while she was mumbling unstable, strange words at him in the middle of the night, and he stopped the tears as the morning broke and she settled down, by some miracle. He left for a while of five minutes to choke down bread and water before returning to her side as she breathed and did nothing else. And pathetically, after Emmett and Jasper came to check on her, looker her over and spoke to Edward quietly, he collapsed into quiet, shaking sobs.
"What are you crying about?"
Edward nearly injured himself turning his body around to look at the voice that had spoken to him. He hadn't heard it in so many days he wasn't sure if it could possibly be real. Bella's eyes were open just the barest bit but she must have been able to see well enough. She smiled weakly at him. He went to her without a single word and touched his hand to her forehead, which was hot, but cooler than it had been.
"I love you. I love you so much, since the moment I laid eyes upon you God only knows how many weeks ago and I have loved you every minute in between now and then. I have never known a more beautiful, wonderful, strong, outrageously stubborn, frustrating, glorious woman than you are, and I love you," he said, not being able to keep the words from coming out of his mouth. They poured forth from his mouth in a veritable damn burst, all the things he wanted to tell her but couldn't because she wouldn't have heard or understood him anyway. It was the last thing he wanted for her to have heard, if she was going to die, to know at least in some subconscious way that he loved her more than any man had ever loved any woman in the entire world in all of time.
"I know that, Edward," Bella whispered.
"I don't think you understand though, Bella. I have been so afraid, so terrified this past week. You were so sick, and the infection got so bad, and I can only hope that you being coherent and awake now means that you are safely out of harm's way, but every moment I listened to you babble nonsense in your fever all I wanted was for you to snap out of it, if not for good, than at least for long enough to hear me tell you that you mean more to me than anything has ever meant to any man on earth. I don't care how much a man has ever said they loved anyone, in fact I dot care how much any man has ever claimed to love you, it is nothing compared to this. I can feel you, always. You are there and I," he said, reaching his hand to first touch her beautiful face and then over her heart, "am here. You must feel that."
"Always," she agreed tiredly. She yawned. She shifted under the blankets. She took a deep breath and sighed it out slowly. Edward told her to wait a moment and went to fetch water. He made her drink, to get some sort of fluid into her body. She drank greedily, pulling the water into her mouth and swallowing generous amounts of it, until Edward told her to stop and pace herself. He knew she was never really one to do things in moderation, but getting well was going to take time and patience, things of which Edward was aware Bella wasn't particularly fond.
"Have you been here with me, all this time? I remember your face and your voice, I dreamt you helped me change my bandages…" she trailed off and looked as though she was thinking. Edward smiled softly.
"That wasn't a dream, love."
She laughed quietly, with the strength she could muster for the moment.
"You saw me naked and didn't have a heart attack?" she asked, incredulously. Edward nodded.
"A few times, in fact. I have been taking care of you, and that means changing bandages."
"However did you manage it with that innocence and propriety in your poor, young soul?" she asked with a lilt of amusement in her voice. Edward raised his eyebrows at her.
"I can overlook propriety when it is the choice between that or your life," he explained. She smiled wanly. She was tired. He could see it in the miniscule movements of her face when she made a simple expression.
"Sleep, Bella. You should rest, and then you will be strong enough to hold actual conversations. Right now what you need is to sleep and let your body heal," he told her. She glanced at him and the same stubbornness that he had come to know and love was back in her eyes. She tried to glare at him, but failed. He leaned over and kissed her forehead, and then on impulse, a stupid thing to do really, but something he could not help from doing, he pressed his lips to hers just once. For a moment he was sure that no matter how sick and tired she might have been she was going to slap him clear across the face, but instead he felt her smile. She couldn't kiss him back, and so he had to be happy with the knowledge that with that smile she was telling him she would have if only she had the strength to do so. And when he pulled away she smiled at him again, smaller now, more tired, but still there. She was happy; tired, weak, yet ill, yes, but happy.
"Did you mean it, the things you said?" she asked as he stood back up. He wanted to go tell Jasper and Emmett that she had woken up so they could see about getting a doctor to take a look at her and asses how her care should be from then on.
"Every word, every syllable, from the first to the very last. You are my life, Isabella," he said, using her full name, "whether you like it or not. Now sleep. I love you. I will be back to check on you soon."
"I love you, too, you know," she said. Her eyes were drifting closed and he could hear the sleep in her voice. But he rejoiced in her words. He had known it, but it was something altogether different to hear someone say they loved you as opposed to just feeling it.
"I know," he told her. But she was already asleep.
Edward sought out Emmett and Jasper, who were taking counsel together not too far from the tent Bella was sleeping in at that very moment. They were talking in low whispers until they looked up and saw Edward. They were surprised, each of them, to see him away from Bella, even for a moment, so dedicated had he been to watching over her in the past week and a half.
"Is everything all right, Edward?" Jasper asked. Edward nodded.
"She woke up. Her fever has lessened. She spoke to me, in a lucid manner, she knew my face and my voice, knew where she was and that she was sick. I think she is through the worst of it," he explained. And their faces brightened considerably.
"I didn't think she was going to get better," Emmett confessed.
"I don't think anyone did," Jasper replied. "But we can only be thankful that she is. Perhaps I should fetch the doctor so he can have a look at her."
Both Emmett and Edward agreed and Jasper, without a moment's hesitation, sprang to his feet and walked lightly but quickly in the direction of where he knew a doctor to be.
"Take a seat, Edward. He will be back in a few minutes and when he is we will all go over to see Bella together so we can fawn over her the way you know she loves," he said. There was mirth in his voice in a way Edward hadn't heard in what seemed to be eternity.
"So what now then, lover boy, what will you do now?" Emmett inquired. Edward thought for a moment and came up with an obvious answer.
"I will go home, I suppose, when she is well enough. And when she is done with whatever she feels like it is her duty to do here, she will come back I hope, like she promised she would before she left. And then I'm going to marry her," he proclaimed. He felt his stomach bottom out, and knew it must have been from saying the words out loud that he felt like his entire body was just thrown into utter turmoil. He had just spoken of marriage!
"Marry her?" Emmett asked. Edward nodded emphatically.
"I have to, in the same way as you have to breathe. It feels right. Like she belongs to me and I to her. I am not sure I can explain it in any terms other than those."
"You love her that much?"
"More, but there aren't any other words than those to try and make you understand it. I need her in my life, Emmett, every day for the rest of my life, even if she isn't right next to me, I need to know that she is somewhere, doing something, and that she knows I love her more than anything and that she is mine, just like I will be hers no matter where I go for the rest of my life. I have to ask her first of course. Somehow, though, I don't think she will say no. I don't have a ring for her, but I can get one. That isn't a problem, just the asking."
"You know, Edward, if there was ever a man truly worthy of Bella, you were the last person on earth I would have thought would be that man. But you proved yourself to be the only man, I think, who understood her enough to ever really deserve her. I watched the way you spoke to her when we were in your town, like she was your better and not just a woman; even though you didn't know her enough to really understand how true that is. And I saw how scared you have been for her and how you cared for her, tirelessly, without fail, because you know how precious she really is. You appreciate her more than anyone else I know has ever even tried to. I know you don't need my approval or blessing, but I am giving it to you anyway."
Edward thanked him. Before they could talk more, Japer returned with the doctor, a stout, severe looking man. But Edward was not troubled by his appearance. A man would have to be severe to do what he did on a daily basis. And when Emmett and Edward saw the pair of them approaching they rose to their feet and together they walked the short distance to Bella's tent, and one after the other they ducked under the open flap and stood in the space provided. The doctor crossed the space to Bella's bedside and put his hand on her forehead. A look crossed his face but Edward barely registered it as he stared at the face of the woman he was more in love with than he had ever suspected a man could be in love with another person. The doctor's brow furrowed as he reached for Bella's hand and felt upon her wrist. He pressed his fingers into her flesh and stood for a moment, before bending slowly and letting her hand come back to rest where it had been. He turned to them. There was graveness in his features, and Edward's body seemed to know what was happening before his mind did, because hot tears pricked his eyes and his stomach roiled dangerously before anyone spoke a word.
"I…I don't know what to tell you, boys," the doctor said quietly.
"I don't understand," Emmett said quietly, but it felt like a deafening boom to Edward, who was standing so near to him. He stared at Bella, and knew at once that when he had felt his whole body quiver from the inside out, and had a strange sickish feeling, it was not excitement and trepidation of marriage. That was when Bella died. His body had known it, like hers had known when he had gone from her side even in the midst of hallucinations.
"It seems she has…passed on," the doctor explained and the words hit Edward like a knife in the stomach, plunging very real pain into his body and twisting until he couldn't breathe. He doubled over and managed to barely hold back the vomit his body was trying to expel at this newfound literal heartbreak. His entire being was being torn apart from the inside out. He knew he was crying, he could feel the tears spilling down his cheeks but it was like he was a thousand miles away while he listened to the doctor explain that sometimes, in rare cases, people as sick as Bella have moments of clarity before their deaths. She was always, as he said, a rare case, in everything she did, it did not surprise him she would be so even in death.
The next days went by in a blur that Edward could not, even in his later years, accurately remember. The entire encampment heard about Bella's death within a few hours, and what seemed to be endless streams of soldiers, most solemn, some like Emmett and Jasper, openly weeping as they passed her and paid their respects. The next thing Edward remembered was the funeral. Some priest spoke in Latin over her body as Edward, Emmet, Jasper and James stood by the side of the funeral pyre. They couldn't bear to bury her. The only way that seemed fitting in her case was to give her the glory of past soldiers, the honor that would have been given a Greek hero. So they burned her beautiful body, dressed in her full combat gear, her weapons by her side. Edward watched through the haze of smoke and veil of tears he was barely able to restrain as the fire devoured her.
He lost track of the days for a long time after that. He wandered as his mind plummeted into nothingness. He wished for nothing more than oblivion, to forget. He didn't think he could live a world where she did not exist. When he finally came back to the world of the sane and lucid, he was home again, in his bed, Alice asleep in a chair beside his bed, as though she had been watching over him. She woke barely a moment after Edward did, and when she looked at him her eyes filled with tears. She sprang from her seat and embraced him, telling him to never, ever disappear on her in such a way ever again.
"I'm sorry, Alice. I didn't mean to worry you," he admitted. But his voice was flat and his affect was dull. He was sorry, but he couldn't put the appropriate emotion into that statement. And as the minutes passed and they spoke, he realized he could not put appropriate emotion into anything. Alice said he had been missing for almost a month, and then suddenly, two nights before, he had shown up on the doorstep. He had slept for days. Before that, in between the times when he was at Bella's funeral and the moment he woke up in his bed, he did not remember a thing. And even the memories of when she died were hazy. It was too hard for him to bear them to keep those memories fresh.
So days passed once more in an easy, slow way. His sisters were relieved to have him back and safe. But Edward felt nothing at all. There was a tidal wave of pain on the other side of the damn he had managed to build, so great it had swallowed him entirely for a month. He was not ready, nor was he willing, to face that kind of torment again so soon. It was anguish, bitter and selfish in the way it claimed his whole body and made him ache for her that was waiting for him, and Edward, for his part, just wasn't ready to face that again. In fact, he had the distinct notion that he would never be ready to face it. He would only hold back the emotions he usually experienced in his everyday life, and he could keep it at bay.
And he did keep it at bay, for a long time. For months. For almost a year. He watched as Rose and Alice grew into older women, as their lives changed, as they became different and he knew he was living in stagnancy. He saw the letters from Emmett and Jasper get delivered to his respective sisters, and observed their joys as the men they loved sent them words of love from wherever they were. Because he could see, no matter what either of the said, that they were both very much in love with Emmett and Jasper. He found it strange, in one of the very few moments when he allowed himself to think about Bella, that he and his sisters had fallen in love at the same time.
The only difference was that they got to keep theirs.
Edward tried very hard as they both spoke of their respective loves, not to be jealous or resentful, but it was difficult, most especially when he was informed that Emmett and Jasper were finally being released from duty, the war being officially over, and were making their way back to the little town and to his very house as it would have it. He felt a stab jealousy run him straight through. How was he supposed to see them all together, happy and in love, when the only woman he had ever cared for was dead, and had been dead for a long time?
And surprisingly, is wasn't Alice that found Edward and spoke to him about it.
"Edward, can we talk for a moment?" Rosalie asked him gently while he was in the kitchen one morning, making breakfast. Alice was still asleep, and admittedly he was not surprised because it was still early, but Rosalie had come down the stairs and sat at the kitchen table. She had sat in silence for a good few minutes while Edward made himself eggs. He was about to offer to make her something when she interrupted him.
"What about?" he asked. He was sure it was going to be something about Emmett and Jasper's stay. The two of them had been able to talk of little else of late. But when Rosalie sighed slowly and looked at him with her big eyes shining with careful anxiety he knew he had been wrong. He felt the blow at his heart as Rosalie said Bella's name.
"No, Edward, you need to listen to me. You can't keep doing this to yourself. Emmett said you were upset when she died, but as soon as the funeral service was over, you completely shut down. And then you just disappeared. You won't talk about her, you flinch if any of us mention her name, and I understand you lost her, I understand that it hurts―
"Don't you dare," he practically hissed. "Do not patronize me by saying you understand, like you could possibly ever know, without the same experience, what it feels like to have the person you love more than anything in the world die. Do not tell me you understand. You could not possibly understand."
"Then explain it to me, if I don't understand. Talk to me. Tell me everything."
He shook his head, vehemence in his movements. But he felt his heart re-cracking along the fault lines it had endured for so long, the ones he had patched back up and managed to keep together over months and lonely nights uncountable.
"I don't even know how I go on every day when I don't talk about it, Rose; you cannot ask me to open those wounds again."
"You have to. She is gone, Edward. She died and she left you here and it must be agony to know that every day while you are here she is not. And you are right; I don't think I could ever really say I understand. Even if Emmett died, the love you feel for her is different than love I could ever feel for anyone else. And that is the worst part of it isn't it, you haven't stopped loving her just because she is gone, have you? It is still there, making you miserable every single day when you wake up alone, am I right?"
"Yes," Edward whispered. There passed no other words between them. Edward put his head down on the table for a moment and when he raised it; his eyes were filled with shining tears. She nodded and went round the table and put her hands on his face with affection and pity and then held him to her as he wept.
He had been so naïve. He had really thought that he could have her forever. He had believed that love like theirs, fresh and real and honest was something that defied even death. He thought for sure they would have made it, he would have married her and they would have lived in a happily ever after, no matter how unorthodox it might have been. But he was wrong. And his naiveté had cost him. Because she had died, but it had surprised him, which was a hundred times worse. Jasper had tried to explain to him about accepting the worst before it happened so you would only be surprised by the positive outcome if one came, but he had not listened.
Now she was gone.
And Rosalie was right. The pain that made him ache more than her death, more than losing her, more than any of the multitudinous reasons he had to despair was the fact that he loved her still. The passion and ardor he had felt for her in her days of life had not left him. He felt it in his heart, in every single fiber of his being and because it would not leave him, nor would the pain of her loss.
He would be grieving forever, if he could not stop loving her. and since he saw no end to the love he felt still boil inside of him when he was careless enough to think about how beautiful or intelligent or witty or compassionate she was, he honestly feared he would go on lamenting for his love the rest of his life.
Was this what it had felt like to his father after his mother had died? Was this the pain he had gone through, the one that had sapped him of his strength. No one had really ever seen a man die of a broken heart, but there was no other explanation of what killed Carlisle. Edward understood now, what it was like to want nothing more than to give in to that kind of hurt and just let it end you and take you under so you would never have to feel it ever again. He was sorely tempted by that idea almost every day.
But after the morning he spoke with Rosalie, Edward found that he was no longer able to shut things out. When the pang of grief filled him or dull throb of guilt for not being there when she died entered his mind, or the sharp metallic taste of lost love came into his mouth he was no longer able to push it away and keep from feeling as he had once been able to. He was subject to every whim of his emotions, every drastic turn his heart might take during the course of his day, and some days he hardly moved at all but to turn over in bed and refuse the food Rosalie or Alice brought for him. Other days he was able to run as though it were business as usual and be in the world of people without feeling his whole world closing in on him. It was those days that were becoming more and more frequent when Emmett and Jasper finally arrived.
He heard the screaming of his sisters in the parlor and knew immediately what it was that had happened. He gave them a moment each to greet their counterpart before descending the stairs. He hadn't seen either man since he departed after the funeral, so long ago and on what terms he honestly could not recall.
When he made his way into the parlor, there was a moment of audible tension, and a pregnant pause in all the action. But what Edward was at first terrified was anger he realized to be a mutual understanding of loss of a woman they had all known. Emmett and Jasper exchanged a look and when he went to each man to shake their hand he was given an identical look. They knew. They could see in him the grief that he had been unable to shake, and as her best friends in the world, Edward could see that no one else had truly understood that burden of pain, to miss someone so terribly. He felt in good company suddenly, and the fear that he had done something terrible to them so soon after they had lost Bella was lifted.
"We have something for you," Emmett told Edward without even having ever said hello to him. Edward raised an eyebrow and stayed in the sense of curiosity until Emmett was able to locate the thing he had in his bag and hand it over. It was a small leather-bound book, held closed by a string that was tied in a neat bow. He looked up at Emmett, who only glanced at the book.
"She wrote you letters in that book. We found it when we…cleaned out her tent. And we knew you would want it. Obviously, we didn't read them or anything we just…wanted to give it to you."
Edward nodded in genuine, albeit shocked, thanks. Alice coughed awkwardly and Edward glanced at her, tearing his eyes from the tiny book in his hands.
"I think, Edward, we would understand if you sat dinner out tonight," she said quietly. He said nothing and didn't move, but there was nothing in reality that he could possibly do to make her understand how thankful he was that they all understood that he only wanted to read these letters in lieu of trying to maintain proper conversation or cook a meal all while thinking only of what she could possibly have to say.
He made some cursory attempt at being polite and then bounded up the stairs to devour the letters in the tiny book. He shut himself in his father's study and when he was properly seated in a chair, he untied the little string and opened the book.
Page after page began "Dear Edward" and followed with a mundane detail about her life, something she had accomplished that day, and then even as time went on, about the tiny skirmish they were in, how she was injured, about not wanting to trouble the troops and doctors with such an insignificant cut that she could treat all on her own, and then finally, as the end of the book neared, about wanting nothing more than to have him by her side. She felt weak, ill, tired all the time. All she wanted, she wrote over and over, was to hear him speak to her to tell her some story like he used to, to comfort her. She missed him.
"How ridiculous," she remarked, "does it seem to miss you so much. But then again, I should not be surprised; my reactions to you were always so strange."
He read the entire book, and then went back and read it again, all the way to the very last letter, where she told him, finally, that she just loved him. It was in those words—"I just love you." She admitted it in the last line in her last letter to him, written two days before he had finally gotten to her, almost two weeks before she had died.
When he was done reading he tied the bow once more and put the book on the desk before which he found himself seated, and took in a long, slow breath. He bent and pressed his lips to the leather cover, a place she must have touched a hundred times in writing the letters. And then for a reason unbeknownst to him, he picked up a pen and found a sheet of paper in the desk, and began to write a letter back to her, responding to the last one she had written.
He wrote her a letter every day until the day he died.
And in the last one he talked about his life, his nieces and nephews and how they had grown so much, enough to have their own children. He remarked on how near Alice and Jasper's wedding anniversary was. He told her he was never sorry for the time he spent in love with her, while she was living and after she had died. He did not regret never falling in love again with a woman. He told her she had filled his life with a joy and radiance he had no right to have expected from it, and even though it was for a short time only, it was more than enough for one person. He was grateful, he told her, for what she had given him. He was thankful to have had those few moments when he could tell her how he really felt about her, even if she hadn't lived much longer, he was glad to know that she had died knowing that he loved her beyond all words and possible communication.
He ended the letter with the usual affixed ending, forever yours, Edward. And as an afterthought at the bottom he scrawled four words.
Ps. I just love you.