Author's Note: Wow. I can't believe I finished. Thanks to everyone who stuck with me. I'm especially appreciative of the kind words from the last chapter, when I took this in a direction I figured people would completely hate. I know that not everyone will be happy with this story ends, but I hope it at least makes sense to you. I'd like to take a moment to thank Mandi1, Penelope_Rose, and JeesieChreesie for being my constant sounding board about this and for holding my hand through the writing process. I love all of y'all.
Disclaimer: I don't own Twilight or any of its characters etc, and I wish SM didn't own them either.
Bella sat on the rattling L-train, struggling to juggle her box of materials, her presentation notes, and the coffee she'd purchased from a stand back at the station. Her lips moved silently as she repeated her introduction over and over again. The nerves of giving her first presentation since defending her thesis had made her a nervous wreck. When she'd specialized in early Victorian manuscripts on her path to becoming a special collections librarian, she'd done so thinking no one else would be interested enough to care.
Fortunately – or unfortunately, depending on her mood – The Newberry Library was featuring a collection of Elizabeth Gaskell's private writings. Her boss and mentor, chair of the special collections section at the Seattle public library, was a longtime friend of the head of the library's organizing committee and had recommended Bella.
The idea of a trip to Chicago had been terrifying. She hadn't gone beyond Portland since she was five years old, but from the moment she touched down the city had spoken to her. The buildings, the cool wind that sent her hair and scarf flying, the crunch of falling foliage under her shoes, it all made her feel comfortable and homey.
Halfway through her umpteenth read-through, a chirp came from deep within her bag.
"Oh hell," she grumbled, sliding the box to the floor by her feet and shooting an apologetic glance to the man next to her. She gripped her coffee between her knees while she rooted through her bag for her phone. "Hello?" she said, answering before she could check the caller ID.
"Breathe," the voice on the other end instructed her.
"Easy for you to say," she huffed.
"Imagine the audience naked."
"I do it with juries all the time."
"Because you're a total perv."
"Leah says that you'll be fine and to not wig out."
Bella couldn't help but smile as she heard Jasper's wife chuckling in the background. "You and Leah get paid to talk. I get paid to hide in the stacks and daydream about Colin Firth."
"Who's gross now, B?"
The train began to slow and Bella jerked her head to look out the window, spotting the station approaching. She dropped her presentation folder into the box at her feet and slammed its lid back on. "Thanks for calling, J, really, but I gotta go. My train's stopping and if I don't pay attention to where I'm going when I get off of here, I'll end up in Wisconsin."
"You're going to be amazing. It's easier than you think."
"All right," Bella laughed. "See you tomorrow?"
"Of course. Good luck."
Bella hung up the phone as she stood, putting it back in her bag and reaching down to heft her box up, balancing it on her hip as she moved with the crowd toward the exit. Her boots at least kept her gait somewhat steady, and she made a mental note to thank Rosalie for advising that she carry her heels until she got to her destination – navigating the bustling crowds in her tweed pencil skirt was proving enough of a challenge on its own.
As she walked, she went through her outline in her mind. The more she thought about standing up and talking, the more she wanted to hurl. Trying to remember Jasper's advice, she realized she was thinking about having to face an audience and still feeling sick. Trying to cast her mind away from her impending doom, she let it land on Jasper and smiled.
Their senior year had been rough. He wasn't as openly hostile as he'd been for so many years, but he wasn't exactly friendly either. Not that she'd felt all that friendly toward him.
She paused mid-step and sighed, remembering the cause for her reinstated displeasure with him. Two days before they were supposed to start classes, Edward had shown up on her porch. Emmett and Rosalie had left for college and she was already missing them. She'd been so happy to see him – had needed to mentally restrain herself from jumping him as soon as she opened the door – until he'd told her why he came.
Even ten years later, remembering those words sent a cold chill down her spine. She could recall with perfect clarity the frustration and anger and general helplessness as she'd stared at him open mouthed. She'd done everything right – she'd acted like a mature adult – and yet there he'd stood, explaining that Carlisle had gotten additional grant money for the study he'd been conducting, necessitating a move to Alaska.
"Alaska?" she'd demanded.
"Mom doesn't want to be away from dad, so we're going with him."
She'd been completely lost then, and she was just as lost in the horrible memory when she realized she'd walked a block too far and was on the other side of Washington Square. Tripping a little as she did an abrupt about face, she hurried back down the street. She chugged her coffee and pitched her empty cup into a trashcan. Trying not to spill its contents, she pulled the lid off the box and grabbed her presentation folder.
She was practically running when she hit the library foyer. The familiar smell of books and binding and ink swept around her with the draft from the door, and she could have cried in relief. No matter where she went or what city she was in, a library would always feel the same. Suddenly she felt centered and confident again. Marcus Tilby, head of Newberry's special collection, stood waiting for her.
"Dr. Swan. I'm delighted to see you" he greeted her, reaching to relieve her of the load she carried.
"Thank you so much, Dr. Tilby," she smiled as she removed her coat and scarf and straightened her cardigan. "I'm delighted as well."
"Everyone is mingling. Free alcohol," he confided with a wink as he held out an arm so that she could support herself as she slipped on her heels. "It's the only way to guarantee attendance."
"Excellent," she laughed. "Please, keep them drinking."
"I have complete faith in you, my dear. As does Carmen."
"I brought handouts," she said, gesturing to her box. "So people wouldn't look at me."
"I'll have a graduate student pass them out," he laughed.
"Thank you so much."
He gave the box to a trim, blonde girl who smiled at Bella before lugging her materials toward the lecture room. "Are you ready?"
"As I'll ever be."
Bella followed Marcus to the front of a lecture room, watching as a large – larger than she'd expected – crowd took their seats. As Marcus began his introduction, she blushed without being able to stop herself. Taking the deep breaths Jasper had advised on the phone, she stepped to the podium to address the crowd.
Overall, the presentation went much better than she'd expected. Most of the crowd actually knew who Elizabeth Gaskell was, a huge help, and all of them were Victorian literature fans. The questions she received at her conclusion were surprisingly specific and she was pleased that she could answer almost all of them. The few that she couldn't, she was able to point them in the direction of where their answers could probably be found. When the questions finally ended and she received another round of applause, she stepped gratefully away from the podium.
"Truly excellent, Dr. Swan," Marcus told her. "I've rarely seen them so interested before."
"I can't imagine why," she laughed. "When I presented my thesis I thought I was going to put everyone to sleep."
"You are very passionate about your subject matter. It showed."
"How is the research for your book going?"
"Not at all," she sighed. "I've had a lot of things going on and…well…"
"Can I invite you to stay for the reception?"
"Unfortunately not. I have an early flight in the morning and I barely got any sleep last night."
"Well, I hope you have a very pleasant trip home. Please tell Carmen I said hello."
"Of course. And thank you so much for this opportunity. I'm very grateful."
She smiled at the older man as she finished her handshake and gave a little wave before heading toward the outer lobby. She paused by a bench to replace her heels with her boots and put her coat and scarf on. Secure against the elements, she walked outside, repressing the urge to do a fist pump of joy. Practically skipping down the steps, she hurried up the street back toward her L stop. Her phone rang from her pocket, and giddy with the need to gloat she dove into her bag to find it. Just as she'd snatched the cold metal from the recesses of her message bag and flipped it open, she slammed into something hard.
"Excuse me. I'm so…oh holy shit," she breathed, her mind suddenly whirring with possibilities. She could hear shouting from the phone dangling from her fingers so she snatched it to her ear. "I'm fine, J. I'll call you back."
The man in front of her stiffened. "And how is dear J?"
He looked so much better than she remembered. The white sleeves of his button up were rolled and pushed to his elbows. He carried a suit jacket slung over one shoulder, though he still wore the vest that went with it. His hair was windblown and his cheeks were pink from the cold. And his eyes, greener than she remembered, were narrowed at her in achingly familiar way.
"Married. It's nice to see that you're still the same Edward I remember."
His pale green eyes darted immediately to her hand. "Married?"
"Not to me," she said, rolling her eyes.
"What are you doing here?" he demanded.
"Stalking you, clearly. Jesus, Edward. I was giving a presentation at The Newberry."
"I'm a special collections librarian."
"No. Seattle. I'm just visiting."
He just stared at her for a long moment, moving his jacket from one shoulder to the other. He chewed on one corner of his lip, breathing deeply before speaking. "I just can't believe you're here."
"I know. Why are you even in Chicago?"
"My dad got offered a position at Northwestern's medical school right after we moved to Alaska. He finished up his study and we moved here that Christmas."
"So you went to school here?"
"New York. I love Chicago, but…shit, this is a long story. Come on."
Without asking if she was up for it, he took hold of her hand and started pulling her along behind him. As soon as his long fingers had intertwined with hers she felt her whole body light up. There was the fire and the want and the…she shook her head as she hurried to catch up with him. For all she knew he had a girlfriend. Or a fiancée.
"Where are we going?"
"To get my car."
"And then I'd like to make you some coffee."
"You mean buy me some coffee?"
"But – "
"I've been working all day. My apartment has my coffee. I want my coffee."
"I just – "
"God, you are just as fucking stubborn as you were ten years ago. Work with me here, all right?"
"All right," she said, feeling suddenly subdued. It was insane, to have found him again after so long. It was even more insane that she reacted to him like they'd never been apart. The feel of his fingers in hers felt strangely right. She'd dated since they'd been together. She'd gone to prom with one of Jacob's friends, Paul, and seen him off and on through the summer before school. She'd gone out with a few guys in undergrad. In graduate school, she'd even had a semi-serious relationship with one of Jasper and Leah's law school friends.
She almost ran into Edward again as he stopped next to a black Audi. "What happened to the Volvo?"
He rolled his eyes. "That was ten years ago. My parents sold it when I went to Columbia, since I couldn't use it in the city. I got this when I came back here."
"Don't make fun of me. It was a perfectly legitimate question," she huffed as she slid onto the black leather seat. She waited for him to make his way around the car before speaking again. "I still have my truck."
"You're not serious."
"I'm perfectly serious. It still runs great too."
"You mean it still runs, which is pretty much a miracle when we're talking about that bucket of rust."
"Don't be mean."
He smiled at her apologetically before pulling away from the curb. "So, a special collections librarian. Let me guess. Bullshit Victorian literature."
"Well, no one thinks Ayn Rand is special enough to give her a special collection so…"
"I'll take that as a 'Yes, Edward, you're absolutely right. Your genius astounds me' if you don't mind."
"Yes, you're right. I specialize in early Victorian manuscripts. Well, my PhD is focused on them, but you don't exactly get a lot of that sort of thing in Seattle. The Newberry had a collection of one of my favorite author's private writings and asked me to come and speak about her."
"My mother had mentioned that lecture. I'm guessing she didn't go, or you'd have been ambushed as soon as you stepped into view."
"How is your mother? Mrs. Weber was so sad to lose her."
"We've…well, never mind."
"No, come on. Tell me."
"I haven't seen you in ten years, Bella. I'm sorry but – "
"You're right. I'm sorry," she said quickly. "I didn't mean to pry."
Edward groaned, lifting the hand that had rested on the gearshift to run it through his hair. "I suck at talking to you as much now as I did in high school."
"It 's not your fault."
"But it's not yours either. My parents were the ones who moved me to the middle of nowhere."
Bella didn't know what to say to that, so she sat staring at her hands until the car came to a stop outside of a tall residential building. Immediately her door was opened by a valet, startling her.
"I'm sorry, miss."
"No…it's all right. I just didn't expect you."
Edward nodded at the man, handing over his keys as he took Bella by the elbow. "Come on."
"If you brought me to your parents then so help me – "
"That would have been a brilliant idea on so many levels, but no. I live here."
"You live here?" she said slowly, looking around slack jawed as they entered the lobby.
"Um, yeah," he said, rubbing the back of his neck. "Mom picked it."
She stopped and looked up at him with raised brows. "You mean it was a graduation present."
"I didn't say that," he hedged.
"It so was," she laughed, clapping her hands together.
"Fine. It was."
"Thanks," he said, pulling her into the elevator and pressing a button.
"Not the penthouse?" she teased.
"Dad talked her out of it."
"How's your dad doing?"
"Great. Teaching agrees with him, and his hours are so much better. Mom loves it. How's the Chief."
Bella's breath hitched. She knew she should have been prepared for it – she had been the one to ask about both of his parents first – but it still hit her like a punch to the gut.
"I…Charlie passed away last year."
"Oh shit. I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry," he murmured, pulling her into his chest just as the elevator doors slid open.
"It's ok," she said, trying to suppress a sniffle as she pushed away from his chest and gave him a watery smile. "He was sick, so we had time to say goodbye."
"How did I not hear about this?"
"How would you have?"
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be a downer."
"No, I asked."
They were outside of his door, and Bella stood quietly while he unlocked the door and swung it open. She walked into a small entryway and slipped off her boots and coat, noticing at one the ebony hardwood floors that drew her into a large living room. Seeing it, she almost laughed.
"Is that the same rug you had in high school?"
"Yeah," he shrugged.
"And that's the same couch."
"I might have pitched a little bit of a fit when Mom tried to hire a designer."
"I love it."
"Yes?" she asked, tearing her eyes away from the huge windows with views of the skyline to face him.
"I'm really glad I ran into you."
"Me too," she whispered.
"I still think about you a lot."
"I missed you so much when you moved. You never answered my emails."
"I was angry. And it was hard."
"But…I mean, I know we hadn't been together very long and – "
"I expected you to come around sooner."
"I kind of did. I just, I wanted to be sure. I over thought everything and then there you were telling me you were moving and you just walked away and…I was miserable for weeks. I mean, I deserved it, I did, but – "
"I read all your emails. I did. I just couldn't respond. I wanted to. I'd sit down to type and then…I should have written."
"What have you been doing? You said it was a long story, but now here we are," she said, gesturing around the room before collapsing on the familiar leather sofa.
He came and sat next to her, stretching his arm around her shoulder. "I went to Columbia. I wanted to go to school in the city, but they didn't have an architecture program worth a damn."
"You're an architect?" she asked surprised. "Well, that explains the disappointing lack of flannel in your current attire."
"I am," he nodded, ignoring her jibe about his clothes. "When we were in Alaska, we stayed near one of my father's family friends. He'd retired there after designing buildings in Seattle. I fell in love with it."
"Don't lie. You totally just wanted to be Howard Roark."
"That might have been a factor. Either way, I went to Columbia for undergrad and came home to intern at a firm here in the summers. I did my graduate study at Columbia as well, and I moved back here when I finished. I wanted to be close to my parents, and I love the city."
"It's pretty great."
"What about you?"
"Oh, I went to UW for undergrad and finished in three years thanks to summer school. I did my PhD there, too."
"No idea." She shook her head. "I know she got married not too long ago. I ran into her mother in Seattle last month."
Bella smiled. "Emmett is great. He's the youngest defensive coordinator in the history of the University of Tennessee."
"I heard he'd killed a chance at a pro career with a knee injury."
"Yeah, but he's much happier coaching anyway. Rosalie had been a civil engineer, but she stays at home with their twins now. They're both really happy."
"I can't believe they actually got married."
"I couldn't believe he got her to agree to it."
"Angela Weber and Ben Cheney moved to Bellingham. He teaches Eastern History at Western, and she's a nurse."
"You know who I'm asking about, Bella."
"Jasper moved to Seattle to go to UW. He majored in history, then went to law school. His wife's name is Leah and she's a year older than him. She's from Forks too. She was engaged to one of the guys back on the reservation, but when she said she wanted to go to law school he ended it. She was my roommate when I was in graduate school, and met Jasper when he came over to hang out sometimes. They're both attorneys now."
"So you were – "
"We are friends," she corrected. "A lot of water's gone under that bridge."
"But he's married."
"And not to me, though I thought you'd have known that."
"I was gone a long time."
"Yeah, you were. What about you?"
"What about me?"
"Are you single?" she asked after the tiniest of hesitations, feeling her cheeks flame as the question left her mouth.
"Would I have invited you up to my apartment if I wasn't?"
"I don't know."
"Yes, I'm single. I've dated a few people, but nothing serious."
"And that's why Esme's mad at you!"
"I never said she was mad at me!"
"You didn't want to talk about her, which meant you two were arguing. And you were arguing about your lack of a girlfriend."
"We were," he conceded. "What about you?"
"What about me?" she asked surprised.
"You never told me if you were single."
"Oh. Yeah. I am."
"Excellent?" she squeaked.
"I told you. I've thought about you a lot."
"I've thought about you, too."
"Can I take you to dinner?"
"My flight leaves at six tomorrow morning."
"Tomorrow?" he frowned and she nodded. "So don't go."
"So don't go. Stay here. I have an extra bedroom. Don't go home yet."
"But…I have a job. And someone has to make sure my cat has food."
"So ask douchebag to feed it."
"Can we not go back to that, please?"
"I'm asking you to just stay a few more days. Please. My mother would never forgive me if she didn't get a chance to pester you for every tiny detail of your life since you last saw her."
"What are we doing?" she asked, burying her face in her hands. "I live in Seattle. You live here."
"What do you mean so?"
"We can email and – "
"Seriously, Edward? I mean – "
"Fine," he interrupted, his voice dead and all his previous animation melting away. "You're right. It's impractical. I'd still like to treat you to dinner, though."
"I…" She trailed off as she looked up at him. He was pointedly refusing to meet her gaze and so she stood. "Excuse me a moment."
"Sure," he said, looking back down to stare at his hands. "The bathroom's that way," he said pointing.
Without looking at him again, she walked briskly into the small powder room, pulling her phone immediately from her bag and dialing. She called the airline first, and after a mercifully quick conversation she was dialing again. Jasper answered on the first ring.
"I'm going to fucking kill you. I hope you know that. I'm going to fly out there and fucking murder you. If you aren't already dead."
"I'm fine. I told you I was fine."
"What the hell have you been doing? Why didn't you call me back? Leah and I have been worried sick."
"I told you she was probably just fine," Leah said indignantly in the background.
"You'll never believe who I just ran into."
"Probably not. Just tell me."
"Edward Cullen." There was a long silence on the phone. "J?"
"Fucking Cullen? You're shitting me."
"Nope. I literally ran into him."
"What's he doing in Chicago?"
"They moved here after Alaska. He's an architect."
"Yeah. Anyway, I'm in his apartment and – "
"You're in his fucking apartment?"
"We aren't seriously having this conversation right now, are we?" she hissed into the phone. "You have a freaking wife, you ass."
Jasper sucked in his breath then barked out a laugh. "You're right. I'm sorry. Old habits die hard. I fucking hated that kid."
"Yes, the feeling was mutual. Irrelevant."
"So why are you calling me?"
"I need you to go to my house and check on Petunia for me."
"Why?" he asked suspiciously.
"Because I'm staying here a little while longer."
"I don't want to hear it."
"Well, how much longer?"
"I have no idea."
"Well, when did you reschedule your flight for?"
"Well, you see…"
"Pretty much. I'm emailing Carmen in a bit. She's been encouraging me to take some time off, and I can work on my dissertation just as easily from here."
"Like you're going to get anything productive done."
"Love you too."
"Fine, fine," he chuckled. "We'll just pick up the damn cat and bring it over here."
"Thanks. Thank you so much. Give Leah my love."
"Will do. Be safe."
She smiled as she slid the phone back into her bag and turned to move back down the hallway. It was amazing to think that she was actually going to do this – that she was finally doing it right. She walked straight to the refrigerator, happy to see that it was well stocked. As efficiently she could in the unfamiliar kitchen, she started pulling ingredients out and piling them upon the counter and digging for pots.
"What are you doing?" Edward asked, leaning against the wall.
"Making you dinner."
"I said I'd take you out."
"And I'm not in the mood to put my heels back on. I want to stay in."
"Ok. What were you doing for so long?"
"Asking the douche to take care of my cat."
Edward froze. "You rescheduled your flight?"
"But," he said, his forehead wrinkling as he cocked his head to one side, "you said that – "
"I didn't reschedule my flight. I canceled it."
"You…you canceled it?"
"So…how long are you staying?"
"As long as you'll have me."
In a second he was across the room and she was backed up against the countertop. His fingers ran up and down her sides as his chest heaved and his head ducked down so he could look her in the eye. "You mean it?"
She didn't answer him. Instead, she pressed herself up onto her tiptoes, wrapping her arms around his neck and puling his lips to hers. Kissing him when they were teenagers had always been amazing and comforting…but this…this was perfect. All the spark and flame was magnified times a thousand and she gasped into his mouth as he lifted her up onto the countertop.
His fingers buried themselves in her hair as her legs wrapped around him. She could feel her skirt sliding up, but she couldn't make herself care – especially when his hands moved to run up and down her leg. She couldn't get close enough to him, even if the buttons of his vest were digging into her chest. Her whole body was trembling as his hands inched further and further up her exposed thigh. With a moan, he pulled away and rested his forehead on hers, and as hard as it was to separate herself from him, she was glad he'd had the control to slow them down.
"You're serious. You're really staying?"
"For a while," she said, trying to control her breathing. He helped her down from the counter, averting his eyes as she smoothed her skirt down. "I mean, I'll have to email my boss. And I'll obviously need to figure out something to do about the clothing situation. But I'd…I didn't rush into anything, did I? I mean – "
He brushed a kiss on the corner of her mouth. "We'll fly back next weekend. You can get your cat and some clothes."
"But – "
"I know this is fucking crazy. We only dated for like a month, but Bella…I never forgot you. And I always wanted to track you down. Now that I've found you again, I don't intend to let you go."
"Ok," she whispered.
"If it means being rash and impulsive and moving you into my apartment, that's what I'm going to do."
"Edward," she chuckled. "I do had a career and – "
"Get a job at the Newberry."
"You can't just walk in and – "
"Yes you can. My mother is on their philanthropic committee."
"I don't want a handout and – "
"It's not a handout. You said you had a PhD and – "
"I just defended my thesis, Edward! And I'm starting a book and – "
"Fine. I'll move to Seattle."
"What?" she asked, her eyebrows flying up in shock. "But – "
"I have a degree from Columbia and work experience at the best firm in Chicago. I'm very marketable."
"Your ego certainly hasn't shrunk at all."
"I'm not kidding around, Bella."
"I'll…I can't separate you from your parents. Family is important and…fuck it. Fuck it. Yes. Yes, let's fly back next weekend and get my shit."
"Really?" he asked, his eyes lighting up and a huge grin breaking out.
"Really. This is crazy but…I've felt at home here since I got off the plane. There has to be a reason for that. And what are the odds of you being exactly where I was in the freaking third largest city in the country. This was supposed to happen."
"About damn time, too," he said, picking her up and swinging her around in a circle. "Just a sec."
"Who are you calling?"
"My mother. Now she'll quit leaving me sad voicemails about having to be an old grandmother."
Bella choked a little as he lifted the phone to her ear, but she couldn't stop herself from grinning as well. It was crazy and impulsive and totally unlike her…but it was also totally right. She knew, as Edward teased his mother – as she heard Esme's delighted squeal from the phone – that this was what she was supposed to do. Leaning back against the cabinets, she watched him move animatedly around the room, the setting sun reflecting through the glass with the Chicago skyline glowing pink in the background, and everything felt complete. She'd come full circle, and now she was home.