Author's Note:

I've debated all month over posting this, and now as May is drawing to a close – and with the support of my ever-wonderful baby sister and beta Jezunya – I decided to bite the bullet and just do it. By this point I'm sure most of you have noticed that this fic has been on hiatus since October 2011, and before that there were many-months-long breaks between chapters. Those of you who have checked my bio here on ffnet or chatted with me over on Twitter know the reason: I am ill. Really quite ill. Life-alteringly ill.

For nearly a decade now, I have lived with daily excruciating pain, crippling exhaustion, and a whole host of other symptoms I won't bore you with. Diagnosing a chronic illness is always difficult, and many patients share my story of waiting three, five, ten years or even longer for an accurate diagnosis. My team of doctors have finally narrowed down on my likely diagnosis: Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, hypermobility type.

May is Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome Awareness Month, and since this disease has come to define my life and me as a person, I thought I would use the opportunity to explain my prolonged absence from this fic.

EDS is a genetic degenerative disease caused by a defect in collagen, primarily experienced in every joint in the body, but as collagen is used throughout the body in every major system, every single aspect of my health can be and has been affected. The defect in the collagen causes it to be extra stretchy, meaning that every tendon and ligament (in addition to veins, organs, and other soft tissue) in my body stretch further than they should. Because of this, I dislocate and subluxate joints repeatedly, usually a dozen or more times a day.

While I've been typing this, for instance, I've had to put my left shoulder back into its socket multiple times. It slides out, I put it back in manually; rinse and repeat. It hurts every time, and every dislocation and subluxation can cause tears in the tendon, ligament, and surrounding muscle, swelling in the soft tissues around the joint, and pinched nerves, etc, when the joint returns to its socket. This can happen to any joint in my body at any time – shoulders, hips, knees, elbows, wrists, fingers, ankles, toes, ribs, vertebrae, I've subluxed them all.

In the decade since my illness transitioned from mostly-benign hypermobility to degenerative chronic daily pain, nearly every aspect of my life has been impacted. I stopped working full time in 2004, and stopped working completely at the end of 2010, costing me my career. I've lost most of my friends and professional relationships to this disease. What clothes I am able to wear without pain, what food I eat, how often I'm able to leave the house, what hobbies I can engage in, even how and how often I bathe are all now dictated by my illness, and the chronic, unrelenting pain that goes with it.

Since my last update to No Choice in 2011, I've been working away at chapter 23 as I am able – which is to say, very rarely, but not from lack of trying. Sitting in a desk chair to type hurts my hips and knees, even after the modifications I made to my desk area. Shoulders, elbows, and hands can all prevent me from typing or even using the computer. And the fatigue that goes with this constant dislocating of joints and tearing of soft tissues – along with the POTS, IBS, heart issues, and thyroid issues that are co-morbidities – often leaves me too worn out to form a coherent sentence, much less formulate an entire chapter or conclude a story arc.

So below I present to you the first half of Chapter 23, the scenes that I have been able to finish in the last nineteen months. I hope to finish this chapter and post it eventually. I hope to finish No Choice and give it the happy ending I've had sketched out from the beginning. But the reality that I have to face every day is that with this illness, that might not be possible. I won't stop trying, but please realize that there's only so much you can do when a vital part of your DNA is irreparably broken.

For more information on Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, visit , or Google the disease for links to other sites, as I'm sure ffnet will mangle any links I try to post here. If you would like to get in touch with me, I am still on Twitter as glasscannon_ and would love to talk with you guys; I lurk there most days, so even if I haven't tweeted recently, don't hesitate to say hi. I'm also on Tumblr as sheliesshattered. As I've become more and more house-bound, more of my socializing is taking place online, so I really would love to hear from any of you.

I hope you enjoy this first part of Chapter 23, and as soon as I can get the next part written, I'll post it as a new chapter. Many thanks to those of you who have stuck it out this long, and to those of you who have taken the time to read about my illness. And endless, eternal thanks to Jezunya, my beta and my sister and my co-sufferer of this ridiculous disease. I would never have made it this far without her.

Chapter 23 – Love Will Tear Us Apart

Alice was waiting for me on the porch when I got back to the house, miserable and sopping wet, barely ten minutes after leaving Edward. From somewhere inside the house, I could feel Jasper's calm support reaching out to me, and I clung to it gratefully.

"You saw?" I asked Alice, stopping at the foot of the porch stairs, despite the rain that was coming down in torrents.

"I wasn't looking for it," she said, calmly opening a large umbrella and descending two of the three steps, until we were at eye level, standing beside each other, the umbrella blocking the worst of the rain. "But it would have been hard not to see that."

I glanced away, regret washing through me. "Is he alright?"

"He's fine, Bella," Alice said, ducking her head to try to catch my gaze. "He's only a few minutes behind you. Jasper, Emmett, and Carlisle are going to go get him."

"You told the others?"

"I didn't give them any specifics, just told them you fought. I think some of our family members may wish that was more literal than figurative."

I shook my head as she spoke. "It was my fault," I said softly. "I completely over-reacted. I never should have said those things to him."

"Which was worse, what he did or what you said?" Alice quipped back, evidently prepared for my self-pity.

Looking up at her finally, I considered the question. I would give almost anything to take back what I had said, and yet… And yet I couldn't quite seem to absolve Edward of his part in this, either. That same dark corner of my mind held me back.

But Alice just rolled her eyes at me. "It was a rhetorical question, Bella. I started getting snippets of the fight before you two even came downstairs. Trust me, this had to happen, and I for one am glad it happened sooner rather than later."

"If I hadn't been so melodramatic, it wouldn't have happened at all."

She shrugged, unaffected. "Then something else would have set you off, tomorrow or a month from now. He doesn't understand what he did to you," she said, touching my cheek gently with her free hand, "and until he does, neither of you can heal."

Wrapping my arms around me protectively, I sighed. "Wasn't bringing Edward home supposed to fix everything?" I asked, petulantly.

Alice snorted. "Hardly. That was just the first in a long list of things that have to happen. But you're getting there." She paused, her gaze losing focus for a fraction of a second. "The others are almost ready," she said, her eyes finding my face again. "You'll want to dry off, I'm sure, but after that… Well, Rosalie wants to talk to you. Listen to what she says, okay?"

"Why is that you can tell me to listen to Rose, but not warn me about things like that fight?" I grumbled, narrowing my eyes at her.

She huffed daintily. "Because you needed to have that fight, Bella. And now you need to listen to Rosalie. And Emmett, you need to grab that shirt off the end table and take it with you," she added, just as the front door opened to reveal our brother's hulking frame, backlit by the warm glow from inside.

"Uh, shirt? What?" he asked, clearly surprised at having been included in the conversation so suddenly.

"Edward's shirt, on the end table behind you," Alice said, finally turning to look at him. "Take it with you, he'll need it."

Emmett looked at her in confusion a half second longer, then a huge grin spread across his face. "Way to go, Bella, made it to second base!"

I dropped my face into my hands, still half expecting to blush. "Since when does second base involve destroying a shirt?" I groaned.

"Since you became a vamp, of course!" I heard him laugh, and looked up to see him retreating into the house to get the shirt Alice had indicated, just as Jasper and Carlisle came down the large central staircase. The three of them joined us on the porch, Carlisle offering me a small, sad smile, and Jasper's silent support swelling to a crescendo, though his face was grim.

"Any thoughts on which where we should look for him, Alice?" Carlisle asked.

"Just follow Bella's trail, you'll find him within a few minutes. And yes, he should probably feed before he comes home."

I cringed, guilt flooding through me again. The whole point of our outing had been for Edward to hunt again, but I had screwed it all up.

"Is that best for everyone?" Jasper asked, his disapproval clear on his face, if not in the emotions he was sending me.

Alice leveled a steady look at her husband. "Yes. He needs to feed, and she needs time. Can you just trust me on this one?" she asked with a little smile, and Jasper's expression softened slightly.

Don't be hard on him, Jazz, I flickered my shield rapidly, catching his eye. It was my fault, not his.

Jasper raised an eyebrow but didn't reply, his mouth still tight.

Carlisle took a deep breath and sighed it out. "Well, wish us luck. We'll try to be back before dawn." He turned and walked out into the heavy downpour, Jasper and Emmett right behind him, and within seconds they had disappeared into the forest to the north of the house.

"Come on," Alice said, taking my arm and leading me back into the house. "There's a big pile of towels for you in the bathroom, and Rosalie is in the garage."

"Where's Esme?" I asked, her absence hard to miss.

Alice smiled a little sadly. "Repainting the kitchen," she said softly.

I opened my mouth to ask why the kitchen needed to be repainted, but Alice shook her head – and then I remembered Esme's preoccupation with replacing the window yesterday, and my previous musings about the motivation behind her never-ending home renovations.

"I'll be in there helping her if you need me," she added, pausing inside the front door to put her umbrella away. "Listen to what Rose has to say, she knows what she's talking about."

She gave me a gentle shove in the direction of the garage, then turned and made her way slowly into the kitchen, her voice bouncing brightly off the tiles moments later. Sighing and trying not to think about where Edward must be right now, I stopped by the bathroom where I had showered – had it really only been a few hours ago? – and picked up one of the fluffy white towels Alice had set out for me. Using it to wring as much of the rain from my hair as I could, I continued through the bathroom and out the door that connected it to the garage.

I found Rosalie leaning over the open hood of my truck, barefooted and wearing coveralls, reminding me of the days we had spent preparing to kidnap Edward. The garage was dark except for a single florescent light above the truck – unneeded, of course, but homey somehow.

"Hi Rose," I said, pausing in the bathroom doorway, still toweling off my hair. "Alice said you wanted to talk to me?"

"She would know," Rosalie replied dryly, not looking up from whatever part of the truck's internal workings she was fiddling with. "Did you clock him, at least?"


"Alice said you and Edward fought," she said, putting down her wrench and turning around to face me. "Did you get a couple of good punches in?"

I stared at her for a second, then shook my head, water droplets flying from the ends of my hair. "No. No, I just yelled at him."

She rolled her eyes and pulled a rag from her pocket, wiping the grease off her hands. "That's the least he deserved, I'm sure." She paused, glancing back at the exposed engine. "Are you alright?" she asked, not looking at me.

I sighed and descended the few stairs into the garage, grabbing a wide bench from a nearby work table and sitting down, more out of habit than necessity. "I'm fine," I said, then shook my head. "I mean, I'm upset with him, but mostly I'm worried about him, and mad at myself for overreacting."

"What did he do, exactly?" she asked, meeting my gaze again. "Maybe it wasn't an overreaction."

It was my turn to look away now, shrugging as guilt coursed through me again. "It was just a misunderstanding," I said, a grumbling note working its way into my voice. "He left me alone while we were hunting. It was only for a couple of minutes, but when I turned around and he wasn't there, I kind of… freaked out, I guess." I wrung more moisture from my hair with the towel, my hands anxious for movement.

Rose was silent for a beat. "And you're surprised that Edward leaving you alone in the woods is a hot button issue for you?" she asked flatly.

I glanced up to find her leaning against the truck's bumper, her arms folded across her chest, the rag still clutched loosely in one hand. "Not surprised, no, but…" I paused, gnawing lightly on my lower lip, trying to figure out how to explain how I felt to her. "I knew logically he hadn't really left," I said slowly. "I knew I could track him down and catch up with him this time, if I had to. But it didn't matter. He was gone, and I was right back to that night six months ago."

"And if he came in here right now and asked you to go hunting with him again?"

I hesitated, afraid to say what I was feeling out loud, even to Rosalie. "I would want to, but…"

"But you can't trust him not to do something stupid again," she finished for me.

"Yeah," I said in a small voice.

"Well, if he keeps leaving you alone in the woods, how can you?" she asked dryly.

"It's not just that," I said, shaking my head again. "I felt like this before we went hunting, too. It's like, at a mental level, I can accept his apology, and even almost understand why he thought leaving was the best thing to do. But if I try to really accept it, in my heart… I can't, somehow. It's not that I don't want to forgive him, I do. I just feel like…"

"Like you're stuck?" Rosalie asked, meeting my gaze with a piercing look.

"Yeah," I agreed quietly. Stuck. The word felt exactly right. "I don't understand," I sighed, my tone becoming slightly petulant. "Why is this so difficult for me? Why can't I just take him at his word?"

She looked away again, rubbing the grease rag between her hands idly. "I've been debating bringing this up with you since you showed up in Denali. But at the time, I thought you were just angry with Edward, and I thought it might be best to hang onto that emotion. Then you told us what he did to you, and we were all so caught up in bringing him home, and I thought, if it really matters, Carlisle will tell her. And then when you two came downstairs tonight, you seemed to have forgiven him, and so I figured maybe I didn't need to bring it up after all. But I really should have told you days ago, especially with your eyes…"

"Told me what?" I asked, the seed of anxiety beginning to grow in my chest.

Rose turned the rag over in her hands, seeming to consider her words. "You know that as vampires, we are very set in our ways, right?" she said, looking up at me again. "Change is rare, and when it does come, it's permanent. But we don't spring into this life fully formed, Bella. Our personalities, our attitudes, our beliefs, they all… solidify, over the first several years. Carlisle told me once that it has something to do with our own blood lingering our systems. Once the blood is gone, change becomes much more difficult."

"So you went through this, too?" I asked, my voice small.

"Everyone goes through it," she replied with a little shrug. "But I was in a very dark place during my early years as a vampire. I killed Royce and his friends that first year, but that didn't keep me from dwelling on what had happened to me, on the horrible path my life had taken.

"Carlisle finally sat me down and told me his concerns," she continued. "He worried that if I couldn't find some peace, couldn't try to find some hope that things would get better, I would be stuck like that, forever – stuck in the anger, the loss, the pain that was my fiancé's parting gift to me." She paused, calmly wadding up the grease rag and putting it back in her pocket, as though the topic wasn't upsetting her. "The first two years were very difficult," she said softly, staring at a bright point of light on the garage floor, her hands deep in the coverall pockets. "Carlisle and Esme did what they could to help, but it wasn't until I found Emmett that things finally started to get better. And by then my eyes had started to change."

"What does eye color have to do with it?" I asked.

Rosalie looked at me sidelong. "It's an indication of how much of your own blood is left in your body. Vampires who feed on humans have red eyes, those of us who feed on animals have gold, and when we're hungry we all have black eyes – but newborns always have red eyes, since you're technically feeding on the remains of your own blood. Your eyes will slowly turn gold, assuming you stick with our diet. And once they do, all your own blood will be gone from your body, and any change will be much harder."

"But I had so much less to start out with…" I said, trailing off as I began to grasp what she was saying.

"That's why I thought I should bring this up with you sooner rather than later. For all the terrible things Royce and his friends did to me, I actually lost very little blood, and of course Carlisle didn't take any when he changed me. So I had as much time as any vampire can hope for, a little more than three years. But for you? A year, eighteen months? I don't know. Carlisle might have a more accurate guess. But if you're feeling stuck, unable to change, then it's starting to affect you already."

I stared at her silently for a moment, the full implications slowly dawning on me. "I could get stuck feeling like this? Forever?"

Rosalie pursed her lips, then crossed the small space to sit beside me on the wide bench.

"You could," she said softly. "Things are so much better for me now than they were those first two years, but I know I still carry it with me. I'm still stuck, in my own way. I can't help thinking that if I had tried harder, or if Carlisle had told me earlier, or if I hadn't taken so long to kill Royce, or if I hadn't focused so much on not forgetting my human life, then maybe I could have healed more in those early years, and be in an even better place now. But you still have time. You want to forgive Edward, while I can never forgive Royce. There's still a chance for you to heal like I never could."

I groped blindly for her hand, wrapping my stone fingers around hers and squeezing. My mind was a dull buzz of white noise as I tried to comprehend what she had been through – and all the long decades since then, living with it always fresh in her memory. I tried to imagine myself in seventy-five years, and even the possibility that three quarters of a century could pass with me unable to forgive Edward made my chest ache heavily.

"What should I do?" I whispered, barely a breath in the silent garage.

Rose squeezed my hand in return. "We'll talk to Carlisle when he returns," she said. "Maybe Jasper, too. I can say from my experience that you have to push against it, any time you feel stuck. You need to actively try to heal, try to forgive him, or this will always haunt you. And Edward needs to stop being an idiot and leaving you in the woods," she added sarcastically.

I huffed out a bit of air, not quite a laugh. "You said it got easier when you found Emmett," I said after a moment. "Is that because you two… mated?" I asked, stumbling over the word.

She looked at me quizzically. "Because I found my mate, yes. Vampires aren't meant to be solidary creatures. We're meant to have a partner, and when we find them, life gets easier. And then there's just Emmett," she said, smiling softly. "He makes everything better."

I returned her smile somewhat sadly, my chest still aching. "Maybe when that happens for Edward and me, it will make all of this easier?"

Rosalie raised an eyebrow. "I think the ship's already sailed on that one, Bella."

"But we haven't—you know…" I waved my free hand vaguely in the air, unable to quite say the words.

She shook her head. "It isn't just about sex. 'Mated' is the term the nomads use, but for any vampire who's more settled, sex is only one part of it. In fact, it was years before I was ready to have a sexual relationship with Emmett, but the day I found him in the forest, I was pretty sure. And by the time he woke up, I knew. It felt irrevocable, somehow."

And third, I was unconditionally and irrevocably in love with him…

My breath caught in my throat as the memory of that long-ago night raced through my mind.

"When Edward had that moment, we all noticed the change. He was so certain that it couldn't possibly happen for a human," Rosalie continued, unaware of my epiphany, "but deep down I knew he was wrong. You should ask Emmett about what it was like for him sometime, but he's always said that it was love at first sight – and he was still human, and being actively mauled by a bear. It didn't matter. Something in us recognizes our perfect match, the one person we'll always be able to depend on. Of course," she sighed ruefully, "I didn't want to believe it applied to you, either. How could I keep you out of my family and away from this life if Edward was your mate? I didn't want to believe that you would have to choose between your mate and a chance at a real life, but I guess that's all moot now. And given that you haven't been able to smell the reek of illness Edward's been putting off, you two must have become mates sometime before he left last fall."

"Jasper mentioned the smell in Rio," I said, my voice sounding far away in my own ears, "but I didn't think to ask at the time. What is it?"

She shrugged. "That's another thing Carlisle would be more qualified to answer, but… The vampire virus – parasite, gene, whatever it is – wants us to consume human blood, but it'll make do on animal blood. Without either, eventually it starts to feed on our own tissues. Vampires who go without feeding for as long as Edward did start to emit a smell, like something burning. It's a giant red flag to any vampire within several miles that this is an unstable, sick vampire. But mates can't smell it. Whatever biological imperative that drives beings who can't sexually reproduce to mate for life trumps the warning scent. He'll always smell like Edward to you, no matter how long he goes without feeding. You could follow his trail through a crowd of vampires or through lakes of fresh blood and never lose his scent."

And I would, I knew with absolute certainty in that moment. If he ever left again, I would track him to the ends of the earth. But somehow that knowledge only made my chest ache more. "Then why did he leave?" I asked, my voice breaking on the last word.

"Because he's an idiot," Rose replied immediately, but there was a sadness in her tone that surprised me. "Because he didn't think there was any way he could be your mate, that you could possibly feel what he felt. He probably still thinks that. Because, again: he's an idiot."

"How can he—" I made a frustrated noise and stood up abruptly, pacing in the small space between the bench and my truck. "How can he still think that, after everything that's happened? After everything we've been through? I went half way around the world to find him, I came back here even after he outright denied my existence, and he still thinks this is, what, some passing phase for me?"

"Have I mentioned that he's an idiot?" Rosalie asked dryly.

"I mean it, Rose."

"So do I," she said blandly. "Have you noticed that he's not very good at reading facial expressions? Or body language? He's been a mind-reader for almost a century, Bella. At some point along the way, he lost the ability to pick up on the little cues the rest of us depend on. But with you, he can't rely on mind-reading. He can hear what you say and see what you do, but he misses all the subtext, even when it's blatantly obvious to everyone else."

I sighed and sat down beside her again, my anger evaporating as quickly as it had arrived. "Do you think I'm being too hard on him?" I asked.

She snorted and rolled her eyes. "I don't think you can ever be too hard on him. But at the risk of giving him too much credit, try to think about what this looks like to him. When he left, he stopped talking to his family, stopped eating, eventually stopped even moving. And you, what? Continued on with your life, befriended a werewolf, walked from Forks to Denali without anyone's help, and found him in Rio like it was the easiest thing in the world? You know that you forgave him – or want to forgive him – because you love him, but can you see how he might think that you forgave him because none of this means as much to you as it does to him?"

We were both silent for a long moment. "So what do I do?" I asked in a small voice.

Rose shrugged slightly. "Try to convince him. Find a million different ways to let him know every day. Tell him out loud until he believes you. Try to remember that his natural inclination is to be an idiot, and don't give up on him. We have mates for a reason, and our history is littered with examples of how badly things go when a vampire loses their mate."

The scar where the hole in my chest had once been twinged painfully. "What happens?" I whispered before I could stop myself.

She started to reply, then paused. "You saw a hint of it in Brazil, I think," she said finally, her voice soft and her eyes far away. "It hurts to even think about it, doesn't it?" she asked after a moment, flashing a melancholy smile in my direction.

Nodding, I braced my arms beside me on the bench to keep from wrapping them around my chest.

"That's because he's yours," she added, with another sad smile. "And he always will be. You just have to convince him of it."

I nodded again, absently. "Thank you, Rose," I murmured, my mind already puzzling out how I would go about convincing Edward.

She shrugged and stood, crossing the small space to pick up her wrench from where she had left it on the truck's frame. "Of course," she said. "What are sisters for?"

I stood to leave, my damp towel hanging limp in my hand, but paused in the doorway to glance back at Rosalie, who was already leaning over the truck's engine again. "For what it's worth," I said quietly, looking down at my towel instead of at Rose, "I'm glad it happened this way. It hasn't been easy, but I'm glad we got to have this," I continued, waving my free hand between us. "I'm glad you're my sister."

Looking up finally, I found Rose smiling at me, a bit more genuinely than before. "Me too," she said. "Now go convinced Idiot Boy he's being an idiot."