Long overdue, I know...

If it helps to assuage the agony, please know...I will never abandon this story. It haunts and consumes me. I just refuse to do it a hurried injustice and, well...life is busy. But here it is.

Love me,

xox


EPOV

She was going to give me a chance. I could tell by the way her eyes deflected to the ground and a hint of her former self shone through–the bashful sort of way she once had when her thoughts made her cheeks colour with blush–and I truly, genuinely believed it was a look only I could draw from her. Only now, her cheeks would never colour no matter how affected she was. It was one less sign I was going to have in my arsenal to help me win the eternal battle of understandingBella Swan.

One less souvenir of her humanity. It was an idea I was going to have to grow accustomed to, a life I was going to have to silently mourn, but more importantly, it was a rebirth I was desperate to become a part of.

She stood before me in the doorway of the club as Viktor loomed above, his thoughts a dangerous mixture of heartbreak and malevolence. He had already begun grieving his loss. A very small part of me sympathized. Losing Bella was the single worst event of my existence. I knew the agony. The desperation. The helplessness. I knew how it toyed with your mind and tore at your heart. I knew the dangers of sinking that low. However, that male had no claim to her. She was never his to have or to lose. His superficial attachment to her paled in comparison to the potential Bella and I could have if only we could get our act together.

"May I?" I whispered for no other reason than the gravity of the situation seemed to constrict my otherwise perfect vocal chords. My eyes remained glued to Bella's, her face inches from mine. So close, and yet, never close enough.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw my own movement. My hand slowly floating from my side to hers, palm open, praying she accepted my invitation, not knowing if I could keep a rein on my devastation if she didn't. Knowing I didn't have a choice.

I knew she would notice the subtle movement and recognise it for what it was. Her mind was fast now. She could stare into my eyes, ponder my intentions, debate her own, take vigilant survey of her surroundings, chase her own splintering thoughts, and still have the capacity to notice my movement, assess it, and weigh the pros and cons implied in accepting my proffered hand. It would all happen in a fraction of a second, yet it would be plenty of time for Bella to arrive at a conscious decision as to whether or not she wanted to join me or reject me. If I had a functioning heart it would have been trying to pound its way from my chest; with so much riding on the outcome, that second seemed like an entire human lifetime. My eyes silently petitioned my cause as my hand moved closer. I was acutely aware of how much I had hurt her over the years, but if she could just grant me one last grace…

The Earth paused on its axis. I wasn't sure whose thoughts I was more conscious of, my own or Viktor's, as his screamed appeals for Bella to dismiss me and return to him, knowing she wouldn't. He had always known she wasn't his.

Between my own awareness and Viktor's vantage point, I easily detected the moment of hesitation in Bella's rigid body. Her fingers twitched and a deep breath rose and fell in her chest. Her thoughts were guarded behind lock and key, I was uneasy until I felt the silken pressure of her fingers sliding over the heel of my palm and slipping between my own. It was a salve on an open wound–a promise of more relief that may come if we worked hard enough for it. If I worked hard enough.

While her hand resting inside mine was encouraging, she made no other move to step forth into the night and into our freedom, hopefully our future. Rather, she pulled back on my hand as my feet began to carry me forward on impulse, desperate to leave the stifling club and all of its horrors behind us.

"You realise you've given me no reason to trust you," she whispered between her clenched teeth, eyes fierce. Her words were a whisper, as if she were trying to keep the interaction between the two of us, an absolute impossibility with another vampire twenty feet above our heads.

"I know," I admitted quickly. Any hesitation on my part and her comforting little hand would slip backward through my fingers forever. "And yet, I pray that you will." My lower lip trembled. The emotion was hard to restrain–harder than anything I had ever fought against in the past. Harder than resisting her blood. Her body. Her soul. Because she was wrong and every piece of me longed to explain as much, to begin the fight that was inevitable, then and there. But it wasn't the right time, and I understood that.

Still, I couldn't help the natural way my thoughts traveled. After all, as far as I was concerned I had given her every reason to trust me. The fact that she lived beyond the first day I met her was one reason. Every sunrise she saw after spending the night unconscious and vulnerable in my arms was a testament to my love and her worthy trust. That I fought against every fibre of my being to honour the promise I made to her in the woods outside her house and stay away. That I valued the agony of loss and treasured her memory more than the ease of allowing the little jungle witch to erase it from my mind was a pretty goddamn good reason to trust me. Hunting her, fearing for her safety, consumed with finding her, praying for her to a God I otherwise avoided at all costs... She knew very little of the details regarding any of that. As far as Bellawas concerned, I was a betrayer, a liar, and a fraud. I had a plan to prove to her otherwise, but first, she had to follow me out into the open world.

I tried my hardest to keep these thoughts concealed, but immortal eyes miss nothing, and flashes of my conflicting beliefs travelled across my face. Bella's eyes narrowed on me, and I recognized the challenge they held.

My head shook faintly to indicate I was smart enough to keep my mouth shut. She huffed but let it go, knowing everything would see the light of day soon enough. Silently, I rearranged a few of the pieces of my plan accordingly. I wasn't sure if she was going to allow me the opportunity, but if and when she did, I was going to have to strike hard and fast with the truth. She wasn't going to tolerate anything less.

Bella pushed passed me and onto the small concrete landing at the base of the stairwell leading to the sidewalk. I followed with relief as the door banged with finality behind us. Viktor's thoughts revealed he was shattered–broken and in agony–but resigned. He would not be following us…not tonight. He was a business man and recognized a failed venture when met with one. He longed to keep Bella for himself, an idea that made my gut wrench, but he was not prepared to detain her against her will. In the back of his mind, however, swirled a dark strand of hope that she would return to him after entertaining me. He would be willing to wait a very long time. I did my best to disregard the unsettling idea.

"So…?" Bella muttered and raised one shoulder in a shrug as we stood at the base of the concrete stairwell. She kicked at a stone near her feet and refused to make eye contact with me. Vampires rarely fidgeted, yet in the very limited experience I had with Bella as an immortal, I found that she did, likely out of habit. It was comforting somehow.

We climbed the stairs slowly, though my mind raced. I wished I knew what to do next. I wished I could let my guard down and be myself again, the way I had only ever been with Bella, but more because I would no longer be consumed by fears. I wanted to wrap my arms around her for a few moments before we embarked on the journey that was sure to be painful for us both no matter which angle we approached it from. Maybe hold her for a few days instead of a few moments… What difference would it make in the end, whether we persevered or not, if we took some time first to remember why we were worth fighting for, why we had anything in the first place, before we inevitably devastated each other with the stupid words of truth? Wouldn't the pain be that much easier to bear if we paved the way with reminders of our love first? Surely, it couldn't do any harm. But seeing the steel look in her eyes, I knew that was an impossible request. She was all business and wouldn't entertain any other notion until our business was settled…if ever, after that.

"We can't stay here," she said flatly without looking back at me. We both understood why. It was too risky. There were too many immortals on both sides lurking around, charged and waiting for any reason to intervene or launch into a fight. The hunt for Bella had been agonizing, and by this point in time many individuals felt highly invested. We had to move. To be alone.

"Well, I don't know much of the area besides that back alley over there," I nodded in the direction of my damp little prison. That I knew well. The pattern of every cobweb wrapped around every light fixture and what time of evening each merchant threw their black bags of trash out the back door. Anything outside of that didn't make much of an impression before I came across Bella. I had literally been sprinting aimlessly with Emmett through the city as a means to an end, working off one of Dimitri's leads, when Bella's scent and her image in Viktor's thoughts stopped me dead in my tracks. From that moment on, I knew nothing but Bella inside those four walls and the alley I was willingly relegated to.

"I don't know much except for the buildings under Viktor's control, which I suppose we should avoid." She still refused to look at me.

I wracked my brain, combing in reverse through the run I had with Emmett as we entered the city. While I hadn't consciously stored any information on our area, anything my eyes had seen first-hand would be held with precision somewhere within my mind. I just had to access the information.

We ran by a gravel road turnoff toward a national park. There was a stone sign with the name Sumava painted on it, and the distance markers for the trails indicated the park was expansive. It was to our immediate southeast.

I felt Bella's eyes on me in the brief moment it took for me to rake over my own thoughts. I appreciated that she was allowing me the privacy I never afforded anyone but her, even though I knew from experience how aggravating it was not to be privy to someone's thoughts when it mattered the most. If I could have, I would have taken up permanent residence inside Bella's mind; it was purely out of a twisted stroke of misfortune that I was locked out.

"Will you follow me?" I asked, still unsure that she would.

"Well…I don't have any intention of running in the opposite direction at this point in time, if that's what you're asking." I wasn't sure if she was serious or trying to lighten the mood with a little humour. Either way, I couldn't force my mouth into a polite smile, so I turned and began running toward the park.

Bella followed me, clinging to the shadows of the city. The dark water that collected in the gutters splashed up our legs without much notice. While navigating the busy nightlife of the city, we slipped with caution in and out of speed. Bella was seamless. As we ran, I wondered if Bella's immortality and how naturally it seemed to come by her would ever stop catching me off guard, fascinating me–forcing me to contemplate things I wasn't sure I found comforting or terrifying. To admit it had all been a mistake, that Bella undoubtedly belonged in my world, would be to admit to so much unnecessary pain.

The buildings and noise began to fade behind us. Bella stayed close. I didn't run at my full capacity despite knowing she had it in her to out–pace me if properly motivated. I wasn't sure if it was her rage that propelled her that day as she fled from my house or a natural ability. Either way, I sensed she was not operating at one hundred percent, and I didn't want to push her too far.

Asphalt turned into rubble which dissolved into the land, and in no time at all we were scaling the rough forest terrain on the southeastern border of Czech Republic and Austria as far as I could tell. The park was a scattering of pined forests and waterways, cross-sectioned by soaring slate-grey sandstone canyon walls and roaring waterfalls. The sky overhead was black where it peeked through the dense canopy. Our feet flew without hesitation or error across moss-covered floors and over slippery rocks. A river snaked around trees to our right, and on our left the woods closed in on us the farther we ran, offering us peace and distance from any human interference.

The forest was teeming with wildlife, and the idea of it scorched the back of my dry throat. I slowed down first when we reached what I approximated to be the centre of the park. I came to a complete stop, but Bella travelled a bit further, her feet skating across the boulders lining the riverbed beside us. I had to remind myself not to caution her for safety's sake or to race closer in case of an accident. She was unbreakable now. Despite everything I had put us through, despite nearly breaking her myself, she proved stronger than any of that.

That was perhaps the best place to start inside my own mind–reminding myself of my own ignorance. I used to remark that Bella was the most stubborn creature I had ever encountered, but perhaps that title was better suited for me. My stubbornness cost us both greatly. Not only us, but every member of my immediate and extended family had been hurt by my poor, impetuous decisions. There was no use trying to enter this conversation without first admitting to that. I needed to face my mistakes with the appropriate amount of humility and repentance. Lord knew I was brimming with it.

Time stretched out between us as if it were tangible. I could nearly see it swirling around with the mist and fog, subtly driving us farther apart the longer she stayed hundreds of meters in front of me, perched as still as marble on the edge of the rocks, head bowed, with her back to me. I wanted to allow her time and space without pressure, but I had no way of knowing if that was what she wanted or if she was hoping I would take the leap and make the first move. It was such a frantic impasse wanting everything all at once…things I had no right to desire.

When my patience finally got the better of me, I approached. Slowly. My feet crunched on the dried leaves and twigs as they stayed long enough to sink into the sodden earth under my weight before I moved on. It wasn't quite a human pace but nor was it the pace of an impatient immortal. It was the pace of a man with a heavy heart and a desperate soul. A soul that Bella once tried to convince me I had in my possession and which, after feeling it shattered and frayed so many times since, I had come to at least entertain the idea that she may have been right all along…about everything.

I knew she heard my approach but she didn't show it. I watched as her back expanded and retracted slowly with each unnecessary breath, and I wondered why she did it. I didn't think she cared as much as my family and I about human pretences. From what I could tell, both before she ran into me and after, she had lived a closer to natural existence for our kind than I ever had with any regularity. Even in my darkest days I retained my practiced human façade to get closer to my human prey. I came to the conclusion that immortality did not alter Bella in many of the significant ways it touched the rest of us. She was every bit the human girl I knew from the rainy little town in Washington State. But she was also so much more–more indestructible, more emotional, more easily distracted, overwhelmed, and confused. The onslaught of immortality bound all that she was and wrapped it in a thick layer of more but every so often her former self shone through. I was tempted to refer to her as "similar yet stronger" in my thoughts, but that didn't feel right. The Bella I knew may have been physically fragile, but she bore an inner fortitude that far surpassed my own pitiful weaknesses. She had always been strong.

Her hair blew around her shoulders and back, mesmerizing me. I remembered the exact softness of it and craved its feel on my fingertips, between my fingers, against my cheek. I had no idea if she would ever again allow me to touch her, but in that moment the desperation that had been building for the last several years peaked and my entire body ached with the need to feel her, real and close and safe. I had to find a way to make her listen. I was anxious to get there.

"Do you want me to…?" I hedged drawing out the words, unsure where to start and how to convince her I was worth it. My ultimate fear was that she would decide it was pointless to listen to me, to forgive me, to try for anything. That she would walk away. Not run. Slow and calculated. It would truly be the end of me. There would be no reason to exist beyond that.

"No," she quickly spat back, whipping around. Her eyes were such an angry fire that if I had any less resolve to fix this, I would have been staggered by them. As it was, I didn't flinch. I knew I couldn't. She had every right to be furious. And scared, which I could easily tell she was. I was going to have to exercise complete control over reactions in order to not ward her off again. It was the ultimate test for me.

"Okay." I mashed my lips together, knit my brows, and tried another approach. "Do you want me to say anything at all, Bella?" Her name felt at home on my lips. It had been whispered a hundred thousand times in my mind since the day I met her. "Or would you prefer I wait?" I was prepared to give her anything she wanted.

There was nothing but a very charged silence between us. She lowered herself to sit cross-legged on the edge of rock, staring at her lap, watching her fingers twist and knot against each other. The river behind her glistened and blinked as it flowed by. Her face was sombre, and the moonlight shone on her in a very peaceful way. If my mind wasn't such a riot of emotion and panic, the moment would have been beautiful. Unfortunately, for all my immortal stealth, my body was heavy and cumbersome, wooden, but the wood was afire. My lips twitched and my eyes were unsettled. My nerve-endings burned more than they ever did through the agony of transformation. Nervous didn't even begin to touch on how I felt. Petrified would be a more apt description.

Her breaths were irregular. Her features were hesitant. As I sat there, tormented and unsure where to begin, looking at her in the moonlight, I had never felt such a contradictory combination of lost and found in all my life. She was all I wanted…ever. Before I knew she walked the Earth and before she entered my life…it had always been her.

The first time I met Bella Swan she was alluring. Her blood beckoned to me and her mind intrigued me, while her character and wit kept my happy attention. I fell in love, for the first and only time in either of my lives, with her tenderness and compassion. But she was a human, and I knew somewhere deep inside myself that I couldn't have her the way I longed to. She was made for my consumption, not for my companionship. Every moment spent with her was a bittersweet torture. I cherished our time, yet always felt our days were numbered, even if I tried desperately to convince myself otherwise. It had to be.

It had to be?

Bella was placed in mortal danger several times before I found the strength to separate us. Even then, I longed for her. I wanted to go back. I wanted to see her, smell her, hide from her in the shadows, and watch her be human and happy. Smile when she smiled. Ache when she laughed. Know that it was for the best. I fantasized about it during our separation–lurking in the dark, silently shadowing her as she went about her day. I envisioned college, a job, homework and grocery shopping, mundane errands that had her driving about the city. I tried to picture her with a family of her own. Birthday parties she would have never had with me while I looked on in appreciation and longing, forcing myself to be content with my decision. My decision. Only recently, since the immortal hunt for her, had I come to realise the error in acting so unilaterally.

And now, there she was. Unblinking, barely breathing, and immortal. She was the embodiment of perfection to me, for me. She was everything I was always too afraid to want combined with everything she always was. And the silence was overwhelming. All I wanted to do was rush through the crap and get to the end where we were happy and everything was forgotten, although I knew that wasn't fair. I was going to have to put in the hard work that it took to get to that point if our botched happily ever after had any hope of coming true. So, I lowered myself to a relaxed crouch in front of her, leaning my back against a tree and my elbows on the tops of my knees, waiting, demonstrating the patience she knew was impossibly hard to come by. Truthfully, I would sit against that tree for an eternity content to just look upon her if that was all she had in her to offer me. And I would consider myself fortunate.

"I have a lot to say, Edward, but...I'm just not ready yet. I don't know where to begin, and when I look at you it makes it worse. And better…" Her voice tapered off as if she were ashamed of that.

"Maybe we should consider…" I began but paused as her eyes whipped to mine so fast it startled me. Watching Bella act as an immortal was still an adjustment. She looked critical of what I was going to suggest, as if I had failed already because she was expecting me to. "I was just thinking, before we go any further, we both seem to be slowly starving ourselves. Can we, maybe just…we need to eat."

The last word made me shudder despite my best intentions. Her dull red eyes worried me. I did not have any desire to see my Bella taking the life of a human. While the thought singed my throat deeper than my plaguing thirst, the reality sickened me. It would be more than I could bear given that the Bella I encountered years ago in the hospital had been proud of her vegetarian lifestyle. Not for the first time since I found her rotting away, captive in that night club, I wondered what the hell had happened since I last saw her. My all-consuming guilt was closely linked to my sense of accountability.

"You want to go hunting? Together? Before we have even said more than two dozen words to one another? Do you really think that's wise, Edward?"

Hunting together was a rather intimate activity for my kind. It also required a lot of trust.

"We need to." The red ring around her pupils was but a mere thread. Her eyes were predominantly blackened, and there were thick purple smears across the tops of her porcelain cheeks, spider-webbing against her skin in the tell tale sign of my kind's absolute starvation.

"You need to," she countered stubbornly, crossing her arms against her chest and looking away. Despite her scowl, the memory of how obstinate she could be made me smile.

I closed my eyes briefly, enjoying the recollection, until a fire skittering across my cheekbones startled me. I was lost in thought. I didn't register the sound of movement until after the fact. Two of Bella's fingers were tracing the purple welts I knew to be beneath my own eyes. It had been a very long time since I fed as well.

Her features remained impassive as her fingertips slid over my skin, and I longed more than ever to know what was inside her mind. No matter how brief and chaste the contact, it was powerful. Everything inside me reached out and silently begged her to reach back. Her eyes stayed trained on the movements of her own fingers, but a ghost of a smile played at her lips. Hope swelled inside my cold chest, whether I had the right to hope for anything or not.

"What would we be hunting?" I tried my best to keep my tone level, but the twitch in her brow told me that I failed, and she detected the disapproval underneath. I felt remorseful for that, but honesty wasn't always going to be pretty. In fact, it was sure to get a whole lot messier before everything was over. So I choked back the apology that reflexively tried to claw its way from my mouth and instead waited for her reply.

She snapped her fingers back to her side and her entire expression hardened. "Oh, I don't know…maybe that cat about four hundred yards west of here? Or is that not your favourite anymore?"

Her tone left little room for interpretation. She was offended and patronizing. But yes, truth be told, that was what I was chasing once we had broken the tree line and began running down the green belt. I smelled it immediately and figured it was likely to be the largest animal I could catch that close to the city and longed to sink my famished teeth into it. But then I remembered Bella's blood-red irises and the mountain of pain we had yet to scale and froze. And there we were.

"I told you we should talk first," she purred in a mature and graceful way that conflicted with the Bella in my memories. Her arms crossed over her chest and her lips pursed.

I ran the tip of my tongue across the underside of my top teeth, tasting the venom that began dripping from them as I chased my meal through the trees before stopping short. I swallowed and the sound was thick and obvious.

"Go get it. You need it more than I do. Besides, I have a lot of practice at being nutrient-deficient." She offered me a weak smile.

I began to protest, but she held her palm up and told me to go. So I went. It felt unnatural to run away from Bella after years scouring the Earth for her, but she was right, I hadn't fed since entering the city and that was weeks ago. I was toeing the line of functionality, and I was going to need my strength to fight for her, and for us, once we began that conversation. I pushed everything from my mind, every question, every doubt, all the fear, and pursued my meal.

My limbs moved like lead, and I felt unsettlingly uncoordinated as half of myself was left behind me, but I followed through with the necessary motions so that we could move on.

It wasn't enough to sate me, but it was enough to ease the burn so that I could refocus on more important matters. I wiped the back of my hand across my lips as the animal fell from my fingertips, neck snapped, claws still extended. It created a dull thud as it hit the soggy forest floor, and I became aware of an audience I hadn't paid any mind to while I was drinking from the lynx. I whirled around, hand still pressed against my lips, in an unintentionally protective crouch. I knew it was Bella, but my body reacted faster than my mind, and once the two found a balance I straightened my posture and pulled my hand from my mouth.

"Sorry," I mumbled, looking down at my hand. I licked the remnant blood from it and looked back up at her. Her legs swung from the tree branch she sat on, but the look on her face did not match the innocence in her body language.

"That's all you want?" she asked from her position on the tree branch. Her stockings were snagged, and ripped in places and her skin was a perfect alabaster where it peeked through. Her question was the most difficult things anyone had ever asked me. My heart was dead, but it broke a little in that moment contemplating all that it truly wanted.

"It will suffice," I forced myself to say.

"Suit yourself." She hopped down, landing inches from me. Her eyes were guarded, yet they softened a little once they met mine. They inspired. For, if they could soften upon seeing me, there had to be something more inside of her than she was letting on. She was hurt and protecting herself. She had every right and warrant, but I was determined to make my way into her heart once again.

"What about you?" I had to ask.

She averted her eyes. She knew what I was asking. She was ashamed.

She scoffed and took a few steps to the side, kicking at rocks and moss. I didn't push her. I didn't even move.

It happened slowly. With each kick of her foot and shuffle of her body she grew closer to me. I watched as her eyes studied me.

Her fingertip briefly touched my jaw before she pulled it back. For the first time in over a century, I would have sworn I could feel the coldness of my own skin as her touch retreated, leaving me wanting.

"You need more."

Of course, she was right, but more than that, I recognised her need to find a common ground, something easy she could comment on. A reason to touch me.

Before I could contemplate it further she tore off across the stone, scaling the river ahead of us in a single leap. It took only a moment before I reacted, hurdling across the water and following her trail with speed and precision. Bella ran like the wind, only faster and more gracefully than anything God ever created, in my blasphemous and spellbound opinion.

We weren't hunting just yet, only running. Our feet made no sound as they briefly touched down and then retreated before any impression, audible or otherwise, could be left. The only sounds as we ran through the forest were that of the nature milling about and the occasional swallowing sound as we rid our mouths of the venom pooling in anticipation of our hunt. We bypassed a small grouping of Red Deer as they lapped from a creek, oblivious to our presence. The forest was relatively sparse, and I wasn't confident there would be anything larger inside it after I had already taken down the cat. As the distance between us and the deer grew, so did my worry.

"It just feels good, Edward. It's been a long time since I just ran." She didn't look at me as she answered my unspoken question and I didn't wonder if she was in my head or not. Whether she was or wasn't it was of no concern to me, she was welcome to anything she may find in there…it would all be hers in time anyway.

I intentionally ran several feet behind her, eyes bouncing between watching where I was going and losing myself staring at her. Admittedly, I had no idea what she had been through over the last several years…or even decades if I was being fully honest with myself.

We ran in that manner for hours, lapping the park, weaving through the forest, and bounding off rock walls. The wind in our face was liberating. Once Bella ran without letup in front of me, and I watched with a mix of wonder and horror as the land fell away from her feet and she catapulted into the air. Although I was too far behind to see what was ahead beyond the cliff's edge, I trusted her and had the frantic need to follow after her no matter what. I quickened my steps and launched blindly into the air, landing in a crouch directly behind her. She was waiting for me. She looked over her shoulder with a sly smirk, and my thoughts sputtered to a halt. Everything inside and around me stilled. It was similar to the very first time I laid eyes on her only so much better. She was all there was, and she was remarkable.

Both her hands were firmly planted into the mud waiting to spring back into her run. The wind whipped her hair around her head and over her shoulder before settling it against her arm. I watched for a moment, remembering the first time I dared to twist a piece of it around my finger, the way it felt, the way I fought the natural urge to use it as a tether to yank her closer to me, bringing her delicious blood nearer to my lips. I was always fighting. And as long as I was fighting and never truly honest with myself, my nature, and with her, then we never stood a chance. This life had to be different.

I tore my eyes from the auburn prisms glittering off her hair where the sun stroked it and met her questioning eyes. I landed in a similar stance to hers, both palms pushing against the dirt ten feet behind her, knees bent, toes ready to spring–and in that moment everything inside me wanted to pounce on her for so many different reasons. I wanted to drive her into the ground with the weight of my body and hold her there, beneath me for an eternity, just knowing she was close. She was so beautiful, so complicated, so damaged. She was everything that every immortal always was, yet underneath it all, she was just Bella, and I wanted her. Not despite everything but because of it. She was my mate. And that would always be forever.

"You're incredible." I was sure my lips moved but I wasn't sure if I actually vocalised anything, I was so lost in her. My fingers curled beneath my palms and dug deeper into the sodden earth. Whether it was in an attempt to stay put or to gain a more solid purchase for launching myself at her, I wasn't sure. In that moment nothing and everything was clear all at the same time.

My enraptured face was an open doorway into everything inside me. I was bared before her as she held my one-hundred percent rapt attention. I knew Isabella Swan was an immortal. I had a brief encounter with her in the past. I hunted her. I envisioned her in my mind's eye every moment of my existence. There is a difference between knowing something and experiencing it. In that brief moment I was experiencing the splendour of understanding that the woman I fell in love with a lifetime ago, the human girl who haunted and tortured me, the one who restored and then broke me, was no longer a danger to me, to herself, to my family. She was a blessing, a gift, a miracle.

Thoughts flew between us without sound for what felt like a very long time as we did nothing but absorb the other. And then she darted off. A quiet litany of profanity left my lips as I stood and ran as fast as I could after her, refusing to remain behind her any longer.

She only had a moment's head start, and I caught her easily. The scent of the herd of deer we passed earlier caught my attention. I decided to forgo asking her about her diet and sustain myself further, praying she would follow suit.

I was seamless as my arms wrapped around the body of the deer, rolling with it to the ground, snapping its neck and sinking my teeth in at the same time. I was faster than Bella. The rest of my meal's herd scampered away noisily after I took down their friend. I watched over the animal's neck as I emptied it. Bella was almost a blur in front of me as she passed, not far behind the other animals as they fled. I closed my eyes and listened to the sounds of an animal being taken down, its bones crunching and its flesh tearing. The warm fluid slid over my tongue and down my throat, spreading inside me. Relief flooded through me with an equal sense of warmth as I listened to Bella drink.

After finishing, I stood, tidied my pants and shirt, and left to find Bella. I walked at a human pace, wanting to give her some space. Her dress was torn and there was blood on her cheek and neck. She stood cleaning herself up before looking at me while I watched, captivated by every detail of her movements.

"I'm a little out of practice," she whispered looking down at her marred clothing.

A snarl rolled in my chest at her words while I concentrated on her eyes, willing the animal blood to wash away the slender ring of crimson immediately even though I knew it wouldn't.

"I haven't hunted for myself in a while, Edward. That's all I meant."

And that was it. We were standing at the gate to everything important, all of the darkness we had been side-stepping by running and hunting and delaying. Thirst abated, there was nothing left to do but talk. Much had to be said. An overwhelming amount of pain was going to be unleashed in both directions. It was enough to exhaust me at the thought even if technically I was incapable of tiring. I was afraid, but Bella crossed under the gate's threshold without further hesitation. I had no choice but to follow.

"I know what you're thinking. Of course I do… But, for what it's worth, I didn't kill anybody. I could never. I have never. I would expect you of all people to know that."

I never thought she had despite the contradictory tale her eyes told. Somehow, I couldn't reconcile the idea of Bella murdering innocents to satisfy her thirst when, by her own admission, she hadn't even done that in her neophyte days.

"Viktor, he…he would hunt and then come to me. He…" Her eyes fell even further to the floor and if she were human I knew her skin would be glowing with a fiery blush–I knew that body language so very well. Her embarrassment hurt me. I could only guess what it meant. I didn't have any right to feel the sting of betrayal, but that didn't stop me. I looked away from her, glad she wasn't paying attention to me in my moment of weakness against her words, or lack thereof, while my mind spiralled down a dark, abandoned staircase.

He fed her. He kept her alive.

I tried my hardest to feel grateful that she was before me because he had seen to her needs in the only way an ordinary vampire knew how. Still, flashes of what such a situation might look like flickered like an old eight millimetre in front of my eyes–of what more likely occurred. In my kind, bloodlust and passionate lust are intrinsically connected.

If Viktor hunted, and then came directly to Bella…to feed her, to aide her, he wanted her, she needed him…

I had to close my eyes against the onslaught of pain, hoping the blackness would blot out the images I had already seen in Viktor's mind but which hadn't made sense until Bella's admission. Things I stubbornly refused to believe.

I inhaled through my nose deeply. It provided my body with a semi-convincing illusion of calm. I opened my eyes and lifted them cautiously to Bella's, knowing before I did so that she was now looking at me, waiting for a reaction. Her eyes were cold and piercing, and any ground we gained earlier felt lost. She was challenging me to comment, to castigate her.

I restrained every gut reaction I was battling. The hurt. The disbelief. I swallowed thickly and nodded once. She relaxed noticeably but lifted a single eyebrow in question. I shrugged. I had no right to be judgemental. I had no right to be anything. Not yet.

"Okay." I felt I should say something to relieve her of the pressure but that was all I could muster. I refused to allow myself to say any more for fear I would not be able to stop the wrong things from tumbling out, things that would hamper my attempt at repair. So, I closed my eyes again to erase the images and the pain and the words. And Bella moved. Somehow, after the shared moment at the base of the cliff, I was no longer afraid of her running away from me, or us. I felt that no matter how many steps forward and then backward we moved through during this process, we were both committed to seeing it through until the end at the very least. My eyes remained closed as I listened to her very slowly come toward me.

"I'm not going to make excuses for it. I was weak." She drew closer. "My head was clouded." I was afraid to open my eyes. I didn't want to interrupt her advance. "Everything inside me hurt more than it ever had. I could barely remember who I was, and yet I couldn't make myself forget you no matter how hard I tried. It is what it is and I can't change it, okay?"

The idea that she thought she owed me an apology was too much to ignore. It was absurd. I opened my eyes to find her an arm's reach in front of me. My fingers twitched noticeably at my sides in longing. "I don't want you to make excuses, Bella. I'm not asking for any nor do I deserve them. Besides, my slate is a little less than clean if you recall."

She made a noise that said she remembered but didn't elaborate.

I felt so lost and afraid in that moment. So sure I wanted her but confused on how exactly to make that happen. How to air everything and still forge onward after it was all said and done and in the open. We seemed so far apart, changed, older. We barely resembled the two people who first met in a high school biology room what felt like several lifetimes ago.

Bella hadn't looked away from me. She was very close. Layers of her conviction and confidence peeled away slowly and landed at her feet. Underneath them all, she was just as hurt and confused as I was and I knew…this was it. The beginning. The end? The place where all the truth and hurt lay.

She was looking up at me with her lower lip just slightly trapped between her teeth, and I found a quiet comfort in how similar she was to her former self. My hand finally lost the battle against my control and lifted slowly, giving her ample opportunity to step back. When she didn't, and her eyes remained on mine, I took that as implied permission, and my palm gently cupped her cheek, just barely making contact with her skin. A heat spread through me that pricked at the backs of my eyes and tugged at the strings that dangled, ancient and frayed, from my heart.

"You do so many little things," I began in a coarse whisper, "that you used to do." My thumb ran along her lower lip. Involuntarily, I licked my own, wetting them.

I felt her stiffen underneath my hand, and the tips of my fingers curled tightly under her jaw, my nails digging in to hold her in place. "Please don't pull away," I begged. "I know you're hurt. I know you want answers. I know you're uncomfortable being touched right now. But don't be. It's just me." My words settled gently around us as we both granted them time to sink in. She didn't try to pull away again. "I've never known anyone before they became immortal. It's overwhelming to know both sides of the story so well. To be so connected. To feel so much."

"I don't know where to start," she admitted. "There's just a lot pain…and anger."

"I know."

"You have a lot of explaining to do."

"I know."

"I believe you when you say you lied to me that day in the woods. But why didn't you ever check on me?"

My mind was fast, but she threw me for a moment with the abruptness of her question. I pulled my hand back to my side and thought carefully. I wasn't sure what to say and was momentarily thrown. It wasn't the question I expected her to ask, yet relief washed through me. While it wasn't exactly easy to answer, it was easier than some of the others.

"Stubborn resolve to keep my promise." It was a start, though it was far from the whole truth. "Weakness…?" The words came out sounding like a question when clearly it was not. And it was still lacking substance which she was well aware of. "Fear," I whispered when her eyes narrowed in exasperation. That was the precise truth.

Her eyes wanted clarification.

"I was afraid you would be happy. I know how horrible that makes me sound. I left you claiming to be doing it for your own sake, for your own shot at happiness, and I swear to God I wanted that more than anything, Bella. But I spent decades flip-flopping between praying you actually found that happiness and wanting you to be every bit as miserable without me as I was without you. I don't know what I would have done if I ever checked on you and found you to be either. Staying away was the second hardest thing I had ever done. Second only to walking away from you in the first place. But I had to. If I had any chance at not ruining your life…I had to."

She nodded her head a little as if she appreciated my words but had nothing to contribute as she worked to process them.

"Alice did once," I continued. My words were slow considering the speed I was capable of, but that was the only way I could force them out. Each one was a thistle in my throat. Each one made me bleed a little. Bella looked up at me. "Checked on you, I mean. She saw you with your friend Jacob Black. And then…she tried again later, despite my asking her not to, and…she couldn't see you any longer. Admittedly, I was disappointed. I begged her not to try and watch you but at the end of the day, I secretly hoped she would disobey me. I was desperate for any detail no matter how trivial regarding you. We knew Jacob was a wolf. Alice's vision is limited as far as his kind, she can't see around them. We wrongfully assumed what at the time seemed obvious."

She knew what I meant. And I could tell by her sigh that my original assumption had crossed her mind more than once while she was still human. However, fate dealt her another hand before she could act one way or the other with the wolf. I couldn't help myself from feeling a little grateful. The guilt rode in closely behind the gratitude, because of course, it meant I was grateful for Bella's death and suffering. I was a monster for that. And still…

"Just because you wanted out, why did your family have go with you? I may have had a fighting chance if Alice had been there for me. To lose both of you at the same time destroyed me. It was so unfair."

She was working chronologically through her questions. The pattern, I couldn't help but note, worked in my favour no matter how difficult it was to hear. It meant she would take quite some time to work up to my more serious transgressions. I happily submitted to the format and answered her as quickly and honestly as possible.

"Because I asked them to come. It wasn't without great argument, believe me. Especially, Alice. But in the end, they all followed me because that's what family does. No one ever claimed to be happy with the decision and no one held back from reminding me how wrong they thought I was…for decades. But family sticks together."

Being immortal grants a severely distorted outlook on time. Decades are a blink of an eye. A single moment rarely even registers on the barometer. However, time seemed to run slower when I was in the middle of moments like this with Bella. Both in the past and presently. The wind blew exaggerated movements through hair and leaves. Whistling. Breaths halted. We both stared unblinkingly at one another while my words chased themselves around our minds, and we both knew what wasn't being said. My family. Not hers. None of us considered her a part of it.

But how could we have back then? More specifically, what right did I have? She was a human–pristine in her innocence and glorious in her fragility. Her body was already broken and marred irrevocably with wounds from my kind by the time I found the courage to walk away from her. I was ruining her purity, dragging her down to the lows of my kind with every day I spent near her. As she stood there, feeling hurt over the idea that I had not considered her a part of my family, the moonlight glistened off the crescent-shaped bite mark on her wrist and a scar from the night of her birthday party dissected her right bicep, lines in her flesh that weren't entirely erased by immortality, though I doubted any human eyes would detect them.

It wasn't that I didn't consider her my family, it was more that I considered her a different sect of my family, the kind I was going to have to walk away from and never come back. To save her. To do what was best for her. The very same reason that ultimately, my other family members walked away with me. I had no way of knowing what fate had in store for her at the time. All I knew was that I was sure to be her slow demise.

Words were flying out of my mouth faster than they had in weeks as I tried to justify it all to her. As I spoke, she nodded but refused to look at me. I was afraid I wasn't getting through to her, that nothing I said was going to abate the hurt. That it ran too deep.

"I don't know…" I was scrambling already and we had only just begun. "You had your own coven, Bella. Why did you leave them when you found out about me and Tanya? That had to have hurt them."

The air seemed to be literally squeezed from her lungs as it all left in a loud gust while she bore daggers into the fallen tree branch near our feet. "Because…they didn't deserve to be weighed down by the foolishness of my mistakes," she eventually mumbled without meeting my gaze.

"Exactly."

"I was a mistake?" she practically screamed at me, catching me off guard after the quiet intensity that had been slowly building in the moments before. Now she was looking at me.

"No. Yes. I don't know… That's not what I mean. I made a great many mistakes as far as you were concerned, Bella. You know what I'm talking about. You were a human. I mishandled everything. I regret nothing more than all the things I ever did wrong as far as you were concerned, which was pretty much everything. But I was so lost in all of it, I had no perspective, no distance to think clearly, nothing to act off of except the way I felt about you and everything that drew me to you, and it was too much, too intense, and all wrong for who you were and what you should have been. I ruined everything and still…still…I don't know which step exactly was the misstep that sank everything, all I know is that so much should have been handled differently."

She nodded. I felt like I was losing her, grasping at straws, and we hadn't even gotten to the really hard stuff yet. She didn't seem to understand. Except that she should now. Perspective was everything.

Perhaps, begrudgingly, she did, because she seemed to take a moment to calm herself, and then her questions followed in a similar fashion as before–simple, straight-forward, chronological. I did my best to answer with honesty because I was just so goddamned happy she was still talking to me. Occasionally, there was nothing but silence. There were no tricks or ploys. We spoke slowly. Every word and non-word was important. The gravity boxed us in and the air seemed to grow more charged and stagnant the longer we went on. We stood in the centre of the forest and unburdened decades of pain, questions, and answers. We even shared a few stories when they applied and the mood felt right.

The forest noises crescendoed and recessed as the sun rose and ultimately set again somewhere above the treetops. The conversations danced between painful and light, difficult and simple…but the closer we moved toward the recent past the longer our collective pauses drew out. Neither one of us was eager to enter willingly into such pain. Slowly–very, very slowly–her questions grew more complex and agonizing to both answer and hear. Truths were uncovered and regrets were aired. We were growing precariously close to the epicentre. I knew what lay there. She knew what lay there. A long silence hung around us while our minds raced because they didn't know how not to.

I watched her closely during one such bout of silence. Her eyes were downcast as she stripped pieces of bark mulch from a nearby tree trunk and shredded them, watching as each piece fell to her feet. Dirt and bark built up underneath her fingernails. When it irritated her enough, she would clean each fingernail with another until they were pristine again and then begin picking at the mulch one more time.

I studied her face, her lips, the way they were slightly open as she thought, the curl of her lower one, and the beautiful rose colour as it contrasted so clearly against her white skin. Her teeth when they were visible through softly parted lips as she pulled air into her lungs out of habit. They were perfect, and I could see the razor's edge to them from where I stood. Everything about her was soft and supple and screamed to me to cherish and protect…and yet was hard and strong and capable at the same time. The now very familiar mixture that had always been Bella. Stubborn. Desperate. Strong. Vulnerable. Loving with her whole heart and soul. Hurting with her whole heart and soul.

I wanted to avoid it, the one thing in each of our unaccounted for pasts that would sting the other the most. So much had already been discussed. I wanted to move on, say forget it, and call it a truce and a non-issue. We could move on together, the way it always should have been if I hadn't messed everything up so thoroughly. Nothing but pain lay out in the open field. We could bypass it…together.

Her lungs filled deeply. Both the noise and the movement of her chest rising abruptly caught my attention. After a long time spent in silence doing nothing but studying her physical features–allowing my mind to wander, to hope, to imagine the way it would feel to touch her again, to be close to her again–her words were like a quiet fog floating poignantly through the air and cracking me open by the seams.

"I want to sit here right now and yell at you about how horrible you are and how much I don't need you. I would like nothing more than to pretend I haven't been hurt so badly by the past, but that just isn't the truth. I am hurt. And everything that needs to be said from here on out is going to be painful. I have decades of anger to unburden, and I refuse to swallow it back again just because you're here in front of me, and you want me, and you don't want to talk about it, and I've always had this uncontrollable need to please you and prove to you that nothing about this life…our life…bothers me. We can't build anything on false pretences, so..."

Despite her dismal words, the spark of hope I'd been nursing inside my chest flared as she spoke about "building something" with me. A slow, cautious smile hinted at the left side of my lips. I tried to stifle it, not wanting her to misinterpret it, but a scrap of my delight forced its way through.

Her eyes met my lips and then slowly lifted to my gaze. Any trace of a smile dropped immediately, and I held my breath for a moment, not because I could but because I was worried about her reaction. And then she smiled back. It was guarded and wounded but it was a start.

"There are thoughts running through my mind," she continued in a slightly softer tone. "Questions, things…I want to say them but they make me sound weak, which…ideally I would love to not be right now, but… How can I claim to be strong when I nearly allowed myself to disintegrate into nothing? We both know I'm not. And that wasn't the first time. After you left Forks I nearly died all of my own doing. I gave up completely, drowning in the pain. I terrified poor Charlie. I saw it on his face every time he looked at me. My mom nearly came to stay with us because I refused to leave Forks and she was consumed with worry. I was toxic to everyone and everything around me. Tolerating me was a battle that everyone but my parents and Jake gave up on.

"And then, after I was turned…" She bit her lip and looked to the ground, twisted her lips around until she found the words she wanted to use. "I wanted to go looking for you so badly. I fought it every day. I dug through some of the thickest murk in my memory so I could remember the words you said to me in the woods, to remind myself every day not to run after you. That you didn't want me. That I wasn't good enough. That immortality would likely not change anything, and even if it did my wounded pride should be enough to keep me away. The more I reminded myself of your words the easier it became. I recited them daily to keep my feet planted as much as I could, and before I knew it the memory of you leaving me was closer to an immortal memory than a human one. I began remembering it more clearly, analyzing the words more intricately. It took no effort to recall it and was impossible to forget. I lived by it. It defined me.

"Not hunting you down, Edward, was the hardest thing I've ever done. Harder than changing, harder than walking away from Charlie and my mom, from Jake and my own humanity where, to be honest, I never felt comfortable anyway. It was a constant battle to remind myself to stay with my own coven, to stop thinking of you. I lost the battle all the time and my mind betrayed me. The day I found you at the hospital was the climax of my weakness. Everything was so fuzzy. Every sense I had was somehow both heightened and mottled the moment I set foot through those hospital doors. And all along, something whispered to me, hinting in the back parts of my brain at familiarity. Looking back, I swear I knew you were there and I didn't fight it. Even after I saw you…I could have fled. You had an image to uphold, a life established there. I could have run and there would have been nothing you could have done to stop me without giving yourself up to the humans, which you wouldn't do. But I was too weak. I didn't want to. And in your office, I pretended to be this strong creature. This piece of marble that matched my immortality when the reality of how much pain I have been carrying around since the day you left is the complete opposite."

I couldn't take any more. She had already admitted that immortality granted her enough perspective that she appreciated my decision to leave for what it truly was, an attempt at saving her. She knew I loved her. That I loved her when I walked away, and that I have loved her every single day between then and now. How many times was I going to have to try to explain it to her. It was a mistake. I couldn't change it, and even if I could, the truth was, I doubt I would have. I just wished that when I walked away from her that day I knew then what the future had in store for both of us. I would have done many things differently. But leaving her in Forks as a human…that likely wouldn't have been one of them.

"Bella, leaving Forks did nothing but hurt everybody involved. I will never be able to apologise enough to everyone, especially to you." I took the time to make eye contact. If we had any hope of repairing everything that was broken, it would have to begin there. "My biggest regret in leaving you is that I have somehow caused you to define yourself by weakness when all I ever saw about you was selfless strength and bravery. I'm ashamed to have done that to you, among everything else I've done."

"How could I not, Edward? Do you have any idea what it's like to lose everything all at once?"

It was a question, but it wasn't really. I knew I needed to keep my mouth shut, but inside I was screaming, "Yes, Bella, I do! I know precisely how it feels to hold the warm, vibrant universe in my arms one night and have absolutely nothing but agony and blackness and ghosts behind my eyelids haunting me before the sun sets the following day. I know!"

I didn't say anything. She wasn't reading my thoughts as far as I could tell. I waited.

"Do you know how lonely being abandoned is? The things is… you couldn't know because no matter what you claim of your own personal loss in all of this heaping mess, Edward, you were the lucky one, you were the one who did the walking away. That's your M.O. You have walked away from your family, your responsibilities, and your own stupid fears more times than I care to think about. Quite honestly, it makes me sick. You convince yourself that you are being the bigger person, acting selflessly, bearing your own burden of pain to alleviate others of its weight as if you are some hero in all of this, but that's crap. And at night, when you're alone and you have no one to spin the lies to, you know how cruel and cowardly your actions have been. You feel it in your bones. It's a cold and steady pressure that clenches to the inside walls of your skin and weighs you down. You know you did this, you walked away, and you brought on everyone's suffering. You. No one else. Certainly not me."

Maybe she was inside my thoughts. Or, maybe the last time she read my mind enough pain seeped through the cracks of my own mental barriers that she understood my suffering more than I realized. Either way, I had witnessed Bella angry plenty of times in the past. She had fought as a human with me and her father out of sheer stubbornness. I had seen her raise her indignant voice, yell even. She had stomped her feet and beat her fists, slammed doors and given me the silent treatment. And as much as I wished I could purge the memory from my mind, I had seen her beg, cry, and give up. None of that compared to what was in front of me in that moment. Her voice was steady and she had complete control of her body. There were no tears or hands on hips. Her were words deliberate, and they intentionally cut me deep.

Bella was still seated out of habit, not fatigue, as we neared the third day in our exchange. Her back pressed against a fallen tree, legs bent with her knees together in front of her. She held onto her calves and made direct eye contact while speaking.

As she spoke, I paced along a path in the overgrown moss about fifty yards in front of her, because while she found remaining still the most comforting when organising and confronting her thoughts, my demons, our past and future…the anxiety inside me bubbled at every turn, and if I had any hope of retaining my weak hold on my patience, pacing was a must. However, after she began to speak of her true feelings, her pain and her anger, pacing felt like a further slight towards her when all I wanted to do was swallow all of her pain, support her, and move on in a more positive light.

I forced myself to slow and came to sit, cross-legged directly in front of her. I kept my hands to myself though my knees brushed her toes unintentionally. I didn't move them. Our contact over the last seventy-two hours had been severely limited. As in, non-existent after the last time my hand graced her cheek. It was an unspoken agreement. It felt necessary. Neither one of us tried to physically reach for the other. At times, I thought maybe I could see her desire to breech the accord even if just a little, or perhaps it was wishful thinking because she never did. The skin under my eyes still felt alive with the memory of her fingertips.

I sat there, knowing she had more to say and that it was only going to get harder to both say and to hear, wishing she would say it closer to me, preferably much closer. The words would sting less, the pain would be diluted, and the old, familiar warmth would blanket and protect us. My arms literally ached at how shockingly empty they felt in her absence. I swore I could almost feel the weight of her body against mine, the sensitive skin on the insides of my arms crawled with phantom sensation. Still, I respected the silent boundaries we were working within. I placed my hands on my knees respectfully, patiently, and hoped my eyes conveyed everything my body was not as she continued.

"Being betrayed and abandoned, Edward, its weird…it's dark…and warm, not cold like you would think. My blood just seemed to work on overdrive, pushing through my veins and drumming in my ears. My heart broke and sputtered and shattered, splintering into a thousand jagged pieces of who I once was, who I once dreamed of becoming–all destroyed in a single moment–and the pieces would shoot through me and into the tips of my fingers and scratch their way down my spine, and I swear I felt every wound acutely. My limbs failed me and my eyes would prick from pains unimaginable. That's why it's warm and not cold. My body fought even when I couldn't, but it was a silent war for the most part, waged inside while outside remained a hollow shell that seemed incapable of sustaining anything let alone a human life. There was nothing I could do. All that was left to do was give up and drown. To sink to the bottom of the black hole that was forever beckoning. To give in to it and let it pull me down deep and pray for a quick end.

"But that's not what I got. Instead, I got to lie there submissively and allow the abandonment to trample me with its sharp, painful hooves repeatedly. Back and forth, crushing me, bruising and scarring me. Marks of my failure, my desertion, my neglect that I would have to wear from that moment on because I would never be able to escape them. I couldn't shed my own memories, or heart and soul, despite what you may believe. They went everywhere with me along with my shame and my pain.

"And with every breath I breathed and every slow, vacant blink of my eyelids, I was alone. And I always remembered. I pushed in vain at the glass ceiling above my head that was always trying to hold me under the murky waters, numbing and amplifying the pain in ways that made no logical sense but still...I felt it. I put my hands against the glass and pushed and shoved and fought every single day, but that only made me exhausted. I was so weak. I was in so much pain. Everything hurt and yet, everything was numb. There was always this loud ringing in my ears as the water kept everything in the outside world at bay–all of the sights and sounds that carried on around me as I drowned right before everyone's eyes. And while many noticed, no one could help. Everything was just a dull thud, a throbbing in my veins and a pulsing in my ears. The shadows closed in the most at night. I had nightmares that felt so real I must have died a thousand fiery deaths before I every truly died. I convulsed, swelling and kicking, screaming for something, anything. Charlie would run to me in the middle of the night, and the look of horror on his face only made me feel worse. I was dragged to the brink, but I hovered there, never fully tipping over the edge. I thought I was going to stay in that hellish split-second before death forever. Alone.

"Even now, I'll never forget the way my fingers would constantly twitch by my sides, begging for warmth, to feel someone's hand holding them. Someone to be there, to lace their fingers through mine or to guide my weary head to their shoulder. To ease the suffering just a little. But there were no hands and no shoulders. No arms embraced me, no fingers stroked my hair, no lips reassured at my temple. There was no one around offering that kind of support that I would accept from them. Everyone I would ever want anything from had already left me without warning. And after a while, after the pain buried itself so deep inside me that I didn't know who I was without it and it defined me, after that...I became incapable of forgiveness. There was no more making excuses for intentions or defending actions. There was just pain and loneliness and twitching fingers. Every muscle in my body ached and my bones felt shattered from the smallest efforts. My throat was raw from choking back my own salty tears and my lungs bled from all of the screams I stifled.

"But that was nothing compared to the betrayal that enslaved my heart, clenched it and held it prisoner. Abandonment and betrayal runs so deep, hurts so bad, and its mark is so permanent. And I realised…everything had to have been a sham. Nothing was real. It couldn't have been. I was destroying myself over lies. To abandon is to destroy. You can't destroy something you love. End of story. Nothing, no excuse, no haphazard promise or weak justification should be able to allow someone to decimate something they truly cherished. So I knew. As I looked through the thick glass at my own miserable and sallow reflection, my own eyes, empty and alone: I was never loved by any of you. I was never a part of your family. How could I have been? Every affection must have been a ruse. Every touch a deceit. Every word spoken out of a twisted sense of obligation or maybe even a sickening curiosity. But it couldn't have been love, Edward. Love doesn't break you. It doesn't know how. Only the lack of love could do something so awful. The loneliness fed off me until there was nothing left and I drifted until I couldn't hold on any longer. So I let it all go. It didn't matter, I barely had anything left anyway and what little I did have I was pushing away further and further every day. And then, for a second time, before Viktor found me, I cycled through the entire spectrum of nauseating, drowning pain all over again…because of you... It's somehow always because you.

"So, where in any of this did I go wrong? By trusting you? By feeling as if we were above it all, infallible? By having hope and giving my love openly, because I gave you everything I had, Edward, everything, and I wanted very little in return. Honesty, loyalty, love…forever…which I suppose sounds like a lot to ask for, but it didn't feel that way at the time. Because I thoughtyou loved me. I thought you claimed to love me more because of your immortality. Not only did you love me less…I'm struggling right now to believe that you ever loved me at all."

I tried to jump in, to defend everything I had ever felt for her after such a gut-wrenching, one-sided slaughtering of the past, but the snarl that ripped through her chest and the coldness that suddenly appeared in her eyes silenced me immediately. I stood, mouth agape, terrified with everything I had and hurting more than I had ever hurt before. Nothing I had ever felt in the past compared to this. I had experienced a fair share of horrible moments in my time. Moments of bloodlust and murder, lies, heartache, and betrayal. Devastation. Every ounce of agony paled in comparison to what I was feeling as Bella sat there and calmly explained the depths of her misery, a misery I single-handedly inflicted upon her. I was shattered. If I thought I wanted to wrap my arms around her and hold her to me before, that feeling was now the only thing I could focus any of my energy on. Her words and the quiet resolution that lingered behind them felt like she was walking away, slowly explaining to me all of the reasons why she would never forgive me no matter what else I had to say. That I could dedicate centuries to trying to make it up to her and it would not be enough. I would be operating at a deficit, one which she could not overcome, and we hadn't even began to air our darkest truths. Already, she didn't want me. She wasn't going to forgive me. She was going to leave me…alone in the middle of a forest in Czech Republic and that was going to be the end of our story. The cruel irony was crushing, and it was the only thing keeping me from screaming, from disagreeing, from frantically grabbing her and refusing to allow her to do this. My head spun and my heart was desperate. I was unable to do anything but stare at her and slowly shake my head as if that small, horrified act could change her mind.

"Don't argue with me. You don't destroy the things you love regardless of the reason. I could have never walked away from you. Not even if it was for your own good. At the end of the day the urge to be selfish and stay near you would have won out a hundred times over. I spent a long time thinking that maybe your ability to do what was 'best' for me made you a more selfless and better person, but really, it just makes you a dishonest coward. I was so bound to you that when you set me free, it set off a tailspin and I had no fucking clue how to steady myself again. I never recovered because I didn't have the chance. I was burned with immortality at the apex of my pain. So, now I have no hope of forgetting, of moving on, of recovering completely. It simply isn't an option for either of us."

BPOV

The saying goes, "you can forgive but you will never forget." Either that adage lies or I am simply constructed differently, which to be honest, I have always suspected.

I would never be able to forgive Edward.

He bestowed a lifetime of heartache on me. Sitting there listening to me, I could see the war he fought inside himself–the desire to contradict me, to defend himself, to fight back and profess his love. To jump up from where he sat and erupt, physically, verbally…to pull me back to him in any way he could.

His face fell further with every word I spoke. His spirits that had slowly and carefully been built up over the previous seventy-two hours were being crushed with my detailed account of what it felt like to drown in my own pain.

No.

I will live forever and for every single moment of that time I will always begrudge him so many my wounds that are beyond repair. Just as surely as I could not forgive, I would have no chance at forgetting.

His fingers were twisted predictably into his hair as he bowed over his bent knees. He stared at the forest floor through what I imagined–and knew from experience–to be glazed over eyes. Eyes that were both in awe and in denial. Wanting to believe this isn't happening. Eyes that were trying desperately to play catch-up with the brain as my words were absorbed but not fully grasped as a last-ditch effort at self-preservation kicked in and a frantic need to take control of a downward spiral consumed his every thought. It buzzed through him and made him dizzy and lost and frozen. I knew the feeling well. There was a slight upturn at the corners of my mouth. Smug. Cruel, even. Hypocritical, but warranted.

Edward was clearly operating under the assumption that I was explaining the reasoning behind my imminent departure. My refusal to go any further, to dig any deeper, to uncover the real pain. My rejection of any and all apologies he was sure to offer. My justification for moving on without him.

He was wrong.

As usual, his impatient tendency to spring to conclusions and worst case scenarios was working against him. But I allowed the pain of his erroneous assumptions to wash over and damage him as we sat in silence. He could use a little taste of fear, of betrayal and abandonment. The dull ache of your own helplessness as reality slowly sets in that you cannot control others' decisions no matter how badly you wished you could.

Truthfully, I had no idea what I was telling him aside from the face-value of my words. I just needed him to know how I felt in the past as well as presently. He needed to know that he has the ability to damage, that his invincibility did not apply our relationship.

Unfortunately for both of us, Edward felt like my fate. If nothing else could be discerned from the sum of my life's events it was that; I was meant to find Edward, or, given he had roamed the Earth for nearly a century before me, maybe it was more accurate to say that he was meant to find me.

I didn't doubt the truth in that, but what were we fated for? Could we rebuild out of the ashes? Would we be too fragile to stand up or could we uncover a deeper strength after fighting together? I didn't have those answers. No one did.

For the moment, it was important for Edward to feel as if he had lost everything.


Still with me?

The, uh, incident is revealed in all of its ~glory next so...

xox