A/N: A big hello to all my wonderful readers, and a great big thank you as well. Thank you all so much for reading, and for following me along on this crazy ride. Thanks for your reviews and your kind words, and also for your patience, particularly on this final chapter. I started and stopped it so many times, but I just couldn't find the right rhythm. I think maybe I just wasn't ready for this journey to end. *sigh* But end it must, and I really hope you all enjoy the final chapter of Edward's Eclipse.
If you haven't already, please add me to your author alert so we can all stay in touch. I've had many requests to take on an EPOV of Breaking Dawn, and while that seems like a very daunting task right now, I anticipate writing (at the very least) some one-shots from it. I did promise y'all an EPOV Isle Esme, after all. ;) I don't have any guesses as to a time frame, and I am still hard at work on editing my own novel, but as you all know, I'm a sucker for diving into Edward's mind, and I doubt I'll be able to stay away for long.
Finally, thanks to shasta53 for catching my sleep deprivation induced grammatical errors and random plot hole issues, and just generally helping me make this story the best it can be for my wonderful fans. I appreciate you so much!
I wasn't waiting long before Jacob woke up, and when his eyes opened, it was clear I was the absolute last person he'd been expecting to see. We didn't bother exchanging pleasantries, and he was still far too medicated to try to ask why I hadn't left. I'd barely started for the door when Carlisle entered and looked at me meaningfully. He could see how ready I was to leave, though still determined to be respectful of my promise to Bella.
She only asked that you stay until he woke up, isn't that correct? I nodded reluctantly. I'll check him over once more before I leave. You've more than fulfilled your duty.
I left the room silently, but even as I walked away, I found myself debating whether or not I should stay until Bella arrived. Fortunately, even though Alice couldn't see my decisions since I was among the wolves, she still had a knack for impeccable timing. The phone rang, and I stepped outside to answer it.
"Bella just disappeared, so she must be on her way. Are you coming home soon?"
"You don't think I should wait for her?"
"I don't know why you should put yourself through any more than you already have. Besides, Bella probably wants to talk to Jacob alone. After all, this might be her last chance to tell him goodbye."
I didn't know exactly what Alice had seen, but there was an urgency in her voice I recognized – she knew something, and it was important.
"I'll be home in a few minutes," I told her as I took off running. The trees flew by me in a blur, and I had barely stepped onto the porch when I heard Alice's excited thoughts. She was racing around, designing and coordinating, and it took me a moment to realize what all her frantic energy was about.
She was planning Bella's and my wedding.
I flew inside the door, eyes wide and staring at her as she raced around the house. "What's going on?" I asked, too confused to feel hopeful or excited yet.
Don't get all worked up, okay? The time frame is still unclear.
But even as she said it, I could see it all. Alice had seen Bella marrying me, and it was going to happen very soon. Not only was it soon, but Bella was apparently planning on relinquishing all planning to Alice, who was all too happy to oblige.
"I don't understand, Alice. She's been so worried about Jacob, where is this all coming from?"
I have no idea where the decision came from, but right in the middle of our afternoon together, after we'd gotten back from La Push, I would have sworn she was thinking about Jacob, but then the image of her marrying you became crystal clear. I've never seen her future with such absolute clarity. I can only assume it means she's finally come around to the whole idea. She genuinely wants this, so she's seeing it more clearly. She was even wearing the dress I helped design for her. That's how I knew she'd decided to let me take over the planning.
"But it doesn't make any sense. You didn't see her there with Jacob like I did. You didn't see the way she was looking at him. How could that have made her certain of her future with me?"
I don't know. And I don't know why you're so worried about the details. I thought you would be excited.
"Of course I'm excited. I just wish I understood the decision. I want to make sure she's not rushing into it because she's afraid she'll change her mind. Afraid she'll wish she'd chosen differently."
Alice stopped in her tracks, and walked quietly over to me. She took my hand and looked into my eyes, speaking out loud to make sure I knew how serious she was.
"Bella wants you, Edward. She's made up her mind. She wants to marry you; she wants to spend eternity with you. It's time you stopped trying to understand her decisions, and started simply accepting them. The only one standing in the way of your future together, the future you've wanted desperately for so long, is you." Then, a sly little smirk tugged at the corner of her mouth. "Now stop being such a downer, and let me get back to planning your wedding."
She disappeared in a blur and left me to my confusion. Slowly, though, doubt started to turn to hope, and hope turned to elation. Of course, Bella had already agreed to marry me, but I think part of me had still been expecting her to suggest a secret trip to Vegas and a marriage she wouldn't tell a soul about. The thought of her actually wanting a ceremony – one that Alice had planned, no less – filled me with joy. Maybe all we'd been through over the last few days had finally made her realize how important it was to tie our lives together in every way possible, and that it would be nice to share such a special occasion with friends and family.
Or maybe she was just trying to please everyone again.
Asking Alice wouldn't do a bit of good, because she could only see the outcome of Bella's decisions, not the motives behind them. Sadly, even asking Bella herself would offer me very little insight. When trying to make others happy, she could put on a wonderful smile and have even those who knew her best convinced.
"Um, Edward . . . ?"
Alice had spoken aloud again, her voice soft behind me. I was surprised I hadn't heard her approach. She was looking at me as if I'd missed something, so I quickly listened to her mind, and was horrified to find her watching Bella, alone in her truck and sobbing uncontrollably.
"What happened?" I shouted.
I don't know. This is the first I've seen of her, so she must have just left La Push.
"If he hurt her –"
From what I've heard, Jacob isn't exactly in any shape to be hurting anyone.
Hearing Alice come to Jacob's defense startled me out of my rage, and I forced my thoughts to clear. "It probably wouldn't do any good to show up at Bella's truck screaming threats about Jacob."
Probably not. Honestly, I think she just needs to get this out of her system. She's closed a chapter of her life, it's right that she mourn it. I raised an eyebrow in question. Briefly, she added with a smirk.
I hurried toward the door, pausing just long enough for Alice to answer my silent question. This doesn't change anything. She's still just as certain about your future together, wedding and all.
With that, I was out the door and flying down the highway. I couldn't tell from Alice's vision how far Bella had driven before succumbing to her grief, but I hoped she'd made it over the boundary line. Not that I hadn't spent a great deal of time in wolf territory recently, but still, it was a very different thing to cross the line without being given permission. I breathed a sigh of relief when I spotted Bella's truck on the side of the road, more than a mile past the line. The moment I saw her red eyes and tear-stained face, though, I knew I would have taken my chances even if she hadn't made it across.
I opened her door as silently as the rusted truck would allow, and scooped her into my arms. She cried even harder as I held her, and my concern grew with every passing second. Time seemed to stand still as I waited for her tears to subside, and I tried to stop my mind from speculating what had caused her this pain. I still wasn't sure exactly what Bella had said to Jacob, but Alice, blind as she was to the goings on of the wolves, had seemed very confident it was something of a goodbye. Had Jacob said something hurtful to Bella when she was trying to give him nothing but honesty? Or was she merely feeling the repercussions of the decision she'd made to let herself be turned into an enemy of her dearest friend?
I stroked Bella's hair and muttered words of comfort in her ear, but truthfully, I knew there was nothing I could do for her. She was so distraught, shaking and sobbing, and I was completely helpless. The first and only word I recognized amid the sobs was, "Charlie." I knew Bella well enough to know she wasn't asking for him as a source of comfort. Her only concern was that he would worry if she was gone too long.
"Are you ready to go home?" I asked, wondering how she planned on pulling herself together enough to fool Charlie. It was a short car ride home.
"Charlie . . . worried. Can't see me like –" She started to explain, but then broke into another fit of sobs. "Sorry," she choked out as I held her closer.
"It's okay. We don't have to go anywhere yet."
"No.. . Charlie. Have to go. . ."
She was by no means coherent yet, but I understood how much she wanted to fulfill her obligations. This whole day had been about keeping up a ruse for Charlie's sake, and she knew it was every bit as important now as it was when Alice had invented an alibi so she could stand alongside us while we fought. Now, there was a different battle raging inside Bella, and it was absolute torture watching her put herself through it.
Through her misery, I heard her mutter Charlie's name a few more times. "Are you really ready to go home?" I asked. I was certain Bella had no intention of letting Charlie see her this upset, but I wasn't entirely convinced she could put herself together in the brief time it would take us to get back to Forks.
"Sooner than later . . . won't be . . . just have to . . . but he . . ." Whatever thought was trying to break through caused another flood of tears. Several minutes later, when she regained a moment of control over her emotions, she added, "not gonna stop. Have to get home." Silently, my grip tightened around her shoulder and I tentatively pressed my foot against the gas.
The air was heavy in the car, the weight of Bella's agony and my complete and total inability to fix her pressing down on both of us. There was nothing I could say or do that would make what she'd just been through any easier, and even though she knew it was excruciating for me to watch, there didn't seem to be any way for her to control her surge of emotion.
As the minutes passed, I listened to her breathing steady and her sobs grow softer. I would have liked to believe the worst was over, but I knew she was only putting up a front for Charlie.
When we pulled up in front of her house, I let go just long enough to hurry around the truck and open her door. She didn't give me her usual smile at the gesture, or even squeeze my hand when I reached down to help her out. Her brow was knit together in fierce concentration, struggling to hang onto some measure of control so she could get past Charlie.
"Wait for me upstairs," she said softly. Of course there was nowhere else I would be but by her side. I knew how hard the next few minutes would be for her, so I gave her one more reassuring hug before disappearing around the house. As I climbed in through her window, I heard Charlie's voice. He was asking about Jacob, and his thoughts were twisted with concern when he took in her expression.
"He's fine, he's fine," Bella promised. I wondered if Charlie noticed the way her voice broke on the word.
"But what happened? What happened to you?"
Now no longer certain that Jacob was the cause of Bella's grief, Charlie's mind jumped between several different scenarios. Most of them involved me and a wide array of things I would never say or do, and I tried not to feel offended. Clearly, I was making no forward progress in his book of approval.
"Nothing, Dad," Bella said, her voice still shaky. "I . . . just had to talk to Jacob about some things that were hard. I'm fine."
He immediately understood what Bella was saying; she'd chosen me, and had made that choice very clear to Jacob. I could almost feel the final drop as I officially became Charlie's least favorite person.
"Was this really the best time?" he asked.
"Probably not, Dad, but I didn't have any alternatives – " Bella caught herself as she almost said something Charlie wasn't allowed to hear. He couldn't know that Bella's moments with Jacob were numbered, and she'd finally counted this one as her last. "It just got to the point where I had to choose. Sometimes, there isn't any way to compromise."
I'd never been able to hear Charlie's jumbled thoughts clearly, so I was utterly dumbfounded when I heard his mind as if he'd spoken the words aloud.
It's really over, then. She's gonna run off with Edward, I just know it. I'm gonna lose her.
I wondered what his face was showing in that moment, and if Bella had any idea what he was thinking. Obviously, we both knew I wasn't the one whom Charlie wanted for Bella, but it hadn't occurred to me he was expecting us to simply disappear together. I wished I could go down there right then and do everything right. I should be asking for Charlie's blessing, and formally requesting his daughter's hand in marriage. He shouldn't have to worry about us running off into the night together. No father should. Then, I felt like the most despicable creature, as I realized that even if I were able to go about this in the right way – if I got Charlie's permission, if he was there to walk her down the aisle and give her away – the fact would still remain that Bella and I would inevitably disappear. Because of me and my deplorable life, Charlie was never going to see his daughter after she was changed. He would lose her, just as he feared.
In my moment of self-loathing, I'd missed whatever goodnight Bella had offered Charlie, and she was already on her way up the stairs. I could hear that she was stumbling, and I opened the door just as another sob shook her body. The tears were streaking down her cheeks as her tired eyes tried to focus on the bracelet Jacob had given her. She was frantically fumbling with the clasp, and I reached out to take her hand in mine.
"No, Bella. It's part of who you are."
She collapsed into my arms and I held her tightly as she let her sorrow take her again. I didn't even think she noticed when I moved us to the rocking chair I'd sat in many ages ago. I thought back to that first morning, when I couldn't believe she had truly wanted me to stay with her all night. That she had trusted me enough to fall asleep beside me. The way she'd looking at me that morning had been one of the greatest moments of my life. Her easy acceptance of my unwavering attention, when she'd wanted the attention of no one else, and delight in her eyes when she realized I was here to stay, forever watching her and loving her.
There I sat in the same rocking chair, watching Bella cry for her best friend – the wolf who had saved her, the boy who loved her – and I wondered, just as I had before, how Bella could truly want me. I'd done this. I'd caused her this pain. Being with the one you love should never mean having to give up everything else in your life that has meaning, but because she loved me, it did. After an hour or so, I heard Charlie's footsteps outside Bella's door. I quickly moved us to the bed, and I prepared myself to hide should he decide to check on her. After hearing that Bella was still crying, however, he decided to stay away, and retreated to his own room. I'd never heard Charlie turn the radio on in his bedroom, but tonight, he simply couldn't stand to listen to his daughter weep.
There was a point in the night when I thought Bella was starting to drift toward sleep. I breathed a deep sigh of relief and gently stroked her hair, but a moment later, she inexplicably started shaking. I was afraid she was crying again, but I quickly realized the sound was much closer to laughter. It was humorless, though, and nearly hysterical. I panicked, wondering if something inside of her had finally snapped from the exertion of her emotional outpouring.
"Bella? Bella, love, are you all right?"
Her eyes were glazed over, and I doubted she could even hear me. She reached one hand up to run through her hair, but it caught in her matted mess of locks, and that only seemed to make her more frantic. I wished for the first time in a long time that I could read her mind, and find out what had brought on such an odd change of emotion. A moment later, I felt the buzzing of my phone and saw a message from Alice.
"I can see what a rough night this is, and I'm sorry. Remember, though, it will pass. And also try to remember that she's not just emotionally drained, but sleep deprived, too. She hasn't rested since the fight. Give her time. She'll be fine soon, I promise."
As I clicked my phone shut, I felt Bella relax slightly. Her hysteria seemed to have subsided, and I gladly welcomed back the quiet tears. At least I understood those. As she pressed her cheek into my chest, my mind started to wander, and I began thinking of what she had been like after I'd left. I felt guilty for even having the thought in the middle of her suffering, but it was impossible not to compare that reaction to the one she was having now. Of course, I hadn't been there to witness it first hand, but Jacob had a very good, very vivid memory, and he'd shared so much of it with me. Bella had been devastated by my leaving, there was no denying that, but after watching her fall apart tonight, I couldn't help but notice the difference. When I left, she had appeared empty and hollow, but the scene I was watching unfold now was almost violent. When I'd said goodbye, Bella had become a vacant shell, but now that she'd said goodbye to Jacob, she was convulsing from the pain of it. I could only speculate as to which reaction was worse, and I found myself asking the only question that could possibly matter – had she made the right choice?
Clearly, she wished she could keep us both in her life. It's what she'd been foolishly trying to do for a very long time. Some things were impossible, though, and as soon she had accepted that, she made her choice. I didn't delude myself into thinking the decision was only about me. I knew she was choosing my family, and our way of life as well, though if I lived a thousand years, I didn't think I would ever understand how she could chose to live as we do. Especially since there was another life, not quite normal, but far closer to it, that was hers for the taking. She could be with Jacob, a witness to his supernatural existence without having to join it. She could keep her humanity, and all the human ties that went with it. Perhaps the violence of her reaction, the absolute hysteria of it all, was a product of her realizing exactly what she was giving up to be with me.
I knew she loved Jacob, and I certainly expected her to grieve the loss of him in her life, but it was quite possible she was also grieving the life she could have had with him. It was the life she would have had if I'd left her alone from the very start, as I should have. It was the life Charlie wanted her to have, and one that he could have remained a part of. There were so many reasons Bella belonged with Jacob far more than she belonged with me, and maybe telling him goodbye had been all she needed to finally see that.
Lost in my own worried mind, I couldn't recall the exact moment when Bella finally fell asleep. All night long, my fingers traced her skin and ran through her hair, and I felt doubt assault me like it hadn't since the early days of our relationship. Maybe it had taken her actually saying the words, saying goodbye to Jacob in no uncertain terms, to change her mind as I'd so often feared she would. Maybe she would wake up, and the future Alice had seen so clearly would have disappeared. After all, she only saw as far as Bella's choices, and it was never too late for her to change her mind. What if she woke up and realized what she was giving up? Would her night of sorrow bring a morning of clarity? Would the sunrise mean the end for us? So consumed with doubt and fear, I almost retreated to the rocking chair, to await my fate as I once had. But if this was to be a turning point – if Alice, and myself, and everyone had been wrong – if this was to be my final night with Bella, then there was nothing in the universe that was going to tear me away from her.
When the beginnings of daylight crept through the window, I instinctively pulled Bella closer, trying to hang on for as long as I could. I wanted to keep her in the darkness of the night, where she was still mine, where she still wanted me. Despite my frantic efforts, it wasn't long before she began to stir. Her eyes met mine, dry but glassy, and I could tell her exhaustion hadn't dissipated in her few hours of sleep. I hardly knew where to begin, but when she breathed a strained, "hey," I felt my chest tighten. I was half expecting her to burst back into tears, and break my heart all over again.
When I didn't say anything, she attempted a smile, but it was as strained as her words. "No, I'm fine," she said. "That won't happen again."
My mouth nearly opened to argue with her. She's had no control over her swell of emotions the night before, I didn't see how she could promise to be in control of them now. I stopped myself, though, because I was not going to allow myself to make her feel guilty. If she'd changed her mind, if she wanted a life with Jacob, I wouldn't put her through the same thing he had.
"I'm sorry you had to see that," she said timidly. "That wasn't fair to you."
I should have known that she wouldn't need me to make herself feel guilty. Bella had always been too quick to place the blame on herself. I reached out to cradle her face in my hands, and as I looked deeply into her eyes, I could see our entire future there. I saw her standing beside me as we exchanged our vows. I felt her arms wrap around me as we joined ourselves together in every way. I imagined her eyes, crimson and then gold, joining my family in our endless existence. In that moment, I knew to my core – to the soul Bella believed I still had – that we were meant to share this life. If she still wanted me, after all we'd been through, then I wasn't wasting one more second. I'd marry her today, or run away with her, or make love to her. Whatever she wanted, if she just said the word.
"Bella . . . are you sure? Did you make the right choice? I've never seen you in so much pain –"
The weight of what I was asking crushed me, strangled me. I felt her fingertips brush my lips, silencing me if I'd had any more words.
"Yes," she said simply. I wanted that to be it. I wanted to banish all my doubt with that one word, but I needed more. Our whole future was in her hands, whether she knew it or not, and I needed to know she was as certain as I was. I'd already learned long ago that I couldn't exist without her, and I had to know she felt the same about me.
"I don't know . . . If it hurts you so much, how can it possibly be the right thing for you?"
"Edward, I know who I can't live without."
"But . . ."
She shook her head, her expression pulled together in concentration. "You don't understand. You may be brave enough or strong enough to live without me, if that's what's best. But I could never be that self-sacrificing. I have to be with you. It's the only way I can live."
Her words were everything I wanted to hear, everything I needed, but the fears that had surfaced over the previous night had taken on a life of their own, and they were difficult to destroy.
"Hand me that book, will you?" she said, pointing to her nightstand.
"This again?" I asked, handing her the tattered copy of Wuthering Heights.
"I just wanted to find this one part I remembered . . . to see how she said it . . ." I watched Bella's eyes as they glossed over the words she'd read so many times. I tried to fathom why she would need someone else's words to tell me something I so desperately needed to hear from her. Then again, how many times had I recited Shakespeare or Byron when my own words had failed me. Sometimes explaining ourselves, or the world, was beyond our reach, and we had to look to the great writers and poets to say it right.
When Bella found the words she was looking for, she took a deep breath. "Cathy's a monster, but there were a few things she got right. 'If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a might stranger.'"
She nodded softly, almost to herself. "I know exactly what she means," she whispered. "And I know who I can't live without."
I understood, and I felt foolish for not taking her at her words from the start. She'd told me she couldn't live without me, and she'd truly meant it. Everything suddenly made sense. I'd spent the night wondering which was worse – the fits and sobs of pain over losing Jacob, or the empty shell she'd become when I left – but now I knew. It wasn't a question of which was better or worse, but rather, what her life was without us. Without Jacob, she felt pain and sorrow, but she was still alive. She was still living, breathing, feeling. Without me, though, she had faded away. Her life wasn't a life anymore, and her world had dissolved as completely as mine had when I thought I'd lost her forever.
I grabbed the book from her hand and tossed it onto her desk. Scooping Bella up into my arms with a grin, I had to remember my strength so as not to crush her in my elation. All I wanted was to hold her tightly and never let go. My life, my love, my everything. I would never doubt her again.
"Heathcliff had his moments, too," I said, pulling her firmly to me. If it was too tight, she didn't protest. "'I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!'"
"Yes. That's my point." I could feel her smiling against my chest. Even through my joy, my brain wouldn't stop racing, trying to think of a way for her to have everything; her life with me, but her friends and family as well. There had to be something I was missing.
"Bella, I can't stand for you to be miserable. Maybe . . ." I was glad she stopped me, because I really didn't know what maybe I could have come up with. I already felt I had exhausted all our possibilities.
"No, Edward. I've made a real mess of things, and I'm going to have to live with that. But I know what I want and what I need . . . and what I'm going to do now."
"What are we going to do now?"
She smiled, and I was happy to see she accepted that everything either of us did from here until forever, we would do together. With a slight sigh that took nothing away from her smile, she told me, "We are going to go see Alice."
I almost laughed. I supposed if I'd been thinking clearly the night before, Alice's message would have comforted me. Even though she hadn't been able to see what happened between Bella and Jacob, I knew she had seen the aftermath, and still she'd assured me Bella would get over whatever pain she was feeling. I'd just been far too distressed by Bella's misery to understand.
When we arrived at my house, Alice sprang up from the porch steps, positively beaming at Bella. It occurred to me that she'd never once had a moment of doubt about Bella and my future.
When are you going to start listening to me? she thought, rolling her eyes slightly before running up to Bella.
"Thank you, Bella!"
"Hold it, Alice. I've got a few limitations for you."
"I know, I know, I know." Of course she did. And she didn't care one bit. "I only have until August thirteenth at the latest, you have veto power on the guest list, and if I go overboard on anything, you'll never speak to me again."
Bella looked baffled for a split second, then sighed. I guess it did take a few decades to really get used to having a sister who knew you as well as you knew yourself.
"Oh, okay. Well, yeah. You know the rules, then."
"Don't worry, Bella, it will be perfect. Do you want to see you dress?"
Bella's heart sounded like it was going to beat out of her chest, and the color started to drain out of her cheeks. I glared at Alice, but nothing was going to derail her at this point.
"Sure," Bella managed to choke out, and Alice smiled defiantly.
See, she's fine.
"Um, Alice. When did you get me a dress?"
I squeezed Bella's hand tightly. She was trying so hard to remain calm.
"These things take time, Bella. I mean, I wasn't sure things were going to turn out this way, but there was a distinct possibility . . . ."
She didn't miss a beat. "When?"
"Perrine Bruyere has a waiting list, you know. Fabric masterpieces don't happen overnight. If I hadn't thought ahead, you'd be wearing something off the rack!"
Alice was now officially digging her own grave. To be fair, though, she probably knew better than anyone that Bella didn't really want to hear how long Alice had been planning it all. In fact, even I didn't know exactly when her plans had begun, but I was fairly certain it was before I'd even proposed.
"Per – who?" Bella asked.
"He's not a major designer, Bella, so there's no need to throw a hissy fit. He's got promise, though, and he specialized in what I needed."
"I'm not throwing a fit."
"No, you're not." Alice paused for a moment, and I listened as she focused on Bella's immediate future. No, no plans to sneak off with him and not tell me. Hmmm . . . Once she was satisfied that Bella was still set on a big white wedding, she turned to me.
"You – out."
"Why?" Bella asked, sounding nervous for the first time since we'd arrived home.
"Bella," she said disapprovingly. "You know the rules. He's not supposed to see the dress till the day of."
I shot Alice another glare which she completely ignored. I doubted Bella would want to be alone with Alice when she was in full wedding planning mode, and I really didn't want to be apart from Bella.
"It doesn't matter to me," Bella protested. "And you know he's already seen it in your head. But if that's how you want it . . ."
My heart sank when I realized Bella really was willing to put all her feelings aside to make Alice happy. And here I was, standing by and letting it happen. My eyes were fixed on Bella, but before I could say anything, Alice had pushed me backward. I barely caught Bella's assuring nod before the door slammed in my face.
And don't you dare peek, she nearly sang. She was thoroughly enjoying her victory, because despite what Bella had assumed, I hadn't actually seen the dress. I had a vague idea of what Alice had been looking for, and a few of her own design details had come through, but she'd been very careful never to think about the finished product. I would see it for the first time when Bella walked down the aisle.
I waited in the hallway from a respectable distance, and concentrated on not hearing anything I wasn't meant to hear. I focused instead on Carlisle and Esme, who were both in Carlisle's study. They were still reveling in the relief of our family having made it safely through the battle, and the fact that there were no other dangers in our foreseeable future. It was the first time in a long time that our family was actually able to relax, and they were more than ready to do so. Esme was also very excited about the wedding, and the chance to officially welcome Bella to the family. She had some rather extravagant ideas for wedding gifts for Bella and I, though it really didn't surprise me, coming from someone whose husband had given her an island.
It was sweet to hear them both speaking so fondly of Bella. They'd both considered her their daughter for quite some time, and it only helped me feel more certain that Bella belonged with us. It was true she would be giving up family and friends, but she was also getting a family in return; and not just any family, but one that had shown her time and again that they would protect her, and fight for her, no matter the cost. Perhaps this had been part of Bella's decision from the beginning, and I was the one who was two steps behind.
"Esme!" I heard Alice's voice calling excitedly. She appeared and disappeared in a flash without giving me a glance. She had wedding plans on the brain, and clearly, I had nothing to do with them. After all, I was just the groom, right? I might have been offended, but the moment I saw Bella's smiling face, nothing else mattered.
"That was very, very nice of you," I said.
"She seems happy."
It was a simple enough sentence, but I heard the unspoken words behind it. Alice was happy, and Esme, and Carlisle, and I was certainly ecstatic. But Bella wasn't. I reached out and held her face gently in my hands, seeing her expression for what it truly was. She wasn't throwing a fit, or protesting anything Alice had suggested. She was smiling and taking it all in stride, but she wasn't happy. She was tolerant, at best, and that just wasn't the right way to start a life together.
An idea was starting to form, an idea that might possibly change everything, and I knew if it became any clearer, Alice would see.
"Let's get out of here," I said, acting on instinct in a way a rarely allowed myself. "Let's go to our meadow."
Bella didn't argue, though I registered a flash of confusion in her eyes. Then, she smiled the first real smile I'd seen all day, and I knew I'd made the right choice. "I guess I don't have to hide out anymore, do I?"
"No. The danger is behind us." That alone was reason enough to celebrate, and I was more than happy to share that celebration with my future wife.
I scooped Bella up into my arms and took off running. I didn't let myself think any longer on my fleeting idea for fear that Alice would try to stop me. My every thought was focused on simply getting us to our meadow. It was the only place I wanted us to be, the one place I knew we'd be completely alone. This was the most important thing, because the one thing I knew for certain was that no one – not Alice, or Jacob, or even myself – was going to influence Bella's decisions anymore.
When we reached the meadow, Bella and I laid down in the grass beside each other, hand in hand, staring up at the peaceful sky. Her fingers were idly tracing the back of my hand, and as the clouds drifted above us, I thought of a way to start the conversation that would tell me everything I needed to know.
"August thirteenth?" I asked. I waited for the cringe that usually came when I mentioned anything having to do with the wedding, but she just shrugged.
"That gives me a month till my birthday. I didn't want to cut it too close."
I sighed. Always so caught up on the age detail. There probably wasn't anything I could say to make her understand, but I was sure after a few decades, she would realize what little difference a few human years made in our endless lives.
"Esme is three years older than Carlisle – technically," I offered. "Did you know that?" She shook her head. "It hasn't made any difference to them."
She thought for a minute, and I assumed she was coming up with some new argument why nineteen was so much worse than eighteen. When she spoke again, though, her words took me by surprise.
"My age is not really that important. Edward, I'm ready. I've chosen my life – now I want to start living it."
I was thrilled to hear that her rushing into things wasn't just because she was afraid of getting older, and it was almost enough to throw me completely off track. As I ran my fingers through her hair, though, I quickly reminded myself that wasn't what I needed to know. What I needed to find out was whether there was any part of her that actually wanted to get married, or if she was still only trying to please everyone else. The clarity of Alice's vision had made me think Bella was coming around to my way of thinking, but watching them together today had made me realize I'd been wrong again.
"The guest list veto?" I asked, trying to steer the conversation back toward the wedding.
"I don't care really, but I . . . I'm not sure if Alice would feel the need to invite . . . a few werewolves. I don't know if . . . Jake would feel like . . . like he should come. Like that's the right thing to do, or that I'd get my feelings hurt if he didn't. He shouldn't have to go through that."
It was that moment, listening to her struggle to explain something that should have been so simple, that I realized to what extent she was pushing her own wants and needs aside. She didn't want Alice to have to worry about who to invite, she didn't want Jacob to have to make the choice of whether or not to come. Most distressing of all was the fact that she didn't even know how to talk to me about her concerns, because she was afraid I'd be offended.
I pulled Bella onto me in one swift motion, pressing her chest against mine. I needed to look into her eyes. I had to understand this preoccupation of hers with looking out for everyone but herself.
"Tell me why you're doing this, Bella. Why did you decide, now, to give Alice free reign?"
"You weren't there, Edward! You didn't hear the way Charlie was talking. It was almost like . . . almost like he knew what we were planning. He told me he had this feeling he was going to lose me. He made me promise I'd talk to him before I did anything major, before I ran away with you. He was practically shaking. I can't just leave without a trace. Without any explanation. Maybe he'd figure that we ran off to Vegas and got married, but he wouldn't know for sure. You may not be his favorite person, but even so, I think it's only fair he know that I've made my choice. That I'm going to spend my life with you. He is the father of the bride, after all. It wouldn't be fair to keep Charlie out of this."
She paused, before adding with a sigh, "And that means Renee and Phil. I might as well let Alice have her fun, too. Maybe it will make the whole thing easier for Charlie if he gets his proper goodbye. Even if he thinks it's much too early, I wouldn't want to cheat him out of the chance to walk me down the aisle."
Finally, I saw the telltale cringe; the look on her face that told me absolutely none of this was for her. She took a deep breath, and continued justifying her decision. "At least my mom and dad and my friends will know the best part of my choice, the most I'm allowed to tell them. They'll know I chose you, and they'll know we're together. They'll know I'm happy, wherever I am. I think that's the best I can do for them."
There was more, too, and I knew it without her saying it. She knew how much it meant to me, to start our lives together properly. Or rather, my idea of properly. I touched her face and gazed into her eyes, thinking about all the things she wanted for those she loved. She wanted her parents to know she was happy with the life she'd chosen, and she wanted Alice to have fun playing decorator and party planner. She wanted me to have the wedding I thought we both deserved, and only after all that was said and done would she get what she wanted. That wasn't how our life together should begin.
I realized then, that was what all this came down to – how should our life together begin? Suddenly, it was all clear. Our life together shouldn't start with Bella putting on a show for her family and friends, and it shouldn't start with her trying to fulfill one more of my selfish requests. She was already sacrificing so much for me, what right did I have to ask anything else of her? I knew the words I wanted to say, but there were so many other factors involved now – Charlie, Renee, Alice – and I wasn't sure if taking my desires out of the equation would change her mind. Still, I knew I had to try. She had to know that my only priority was her happiness.
The lines had been blurred between what she wanted and what she only wanted for everyone else's sake, but there were two things I knew with utter certainty. Bella wanted me to change her myself, and she didn't want to wait, putting it off when she'd already made her choice. The only thing she did want to wait for was for us to be together in every way possible. This, of course, was the one thing I'd been stubbornly refusing. So, maybe that was the key. If I gave in, gave her what she'd been asking of me since the night we'd gotten engaged, everything else would fall into place, and Bella could join me in our forever the way she wanted to. For so long, I'd tried to make her decisions for her, or convince her to see the world my way, yet every time, I'd made things worse. It was time I stopped thinking and reasoning, and tried seeing the world through Bella's eyes.
"Deal's off," I said firmly.
"What? You're backing out? No!"
"I'm not backing out, Bella. I'll still keep my side of the bargain. But you're off the hook. Whatever you want, no strings attached."
"Bella, I see what you're doing. You're trying to make everyone else happy. And I don't care about anyone else's feelings. I only need you to be happy. Don't worry about breaking the news to Alice. I'll take care of it. I promise she won't make you feel guilty."
Alice would never let me live it down for the rest of eternity, but I would make sure none of the blame fell on Bella.
"But I – "
"No. We're doing this your way. Because my way doesn't work. I call you stubborn, but look at what I've done. I've clung with such idiotic obstinacy to my idea of what's best for you, though it's only hurt you. Hurt you so deeply, time and time again. I don't trust myself anymore. You can have happiness your way. My way is always wrong. So." I took a deep breath, because my next words would seal her fate. Even though it was a fate she'd chosen, I still felt like a monster for saying it aloud. "We're doing it your way, Bella. Tonight. Today. The sooner the better. I'll speak to Carlisle. I was thinking that maybe if we gave you enough morphine, it wouldn't be so bad. It's worth a try." I tried to hide my agony, but the thought of Bella going through that, even with the help of morphine, was almost too much to bear.
"Edward, no – "
She started to protest, but there was no turning back. I knew what I had to do. Bella was giving her life to me, and so I could deny her nothing. I touched my finger to her lips, and silently reminded myself that we'd been through many things I didn't believe I had the strength for. The first had happened in this very meadow, when it seemed a great feat simply to lay beside her and calm my thirst. Now, with my love, my life beside me, I knew I would find a way to give her everything without losing myself.
"Don't worry, Bella, love. I haven't forgotten the rest of your demands."
My only thought was of not hurting her as I threaded my fingers through her hair and kissed her with all the love and promise I needed to convey. It didn't take Bella long to respond, though I knew I'd caught her off guard. When she sank into me and started kissing me back in earnest, I felt my eyes roll into the back of my head. We so rarely got to be alone – truly alone – and I was quickly forgetting why I'd said no for so long. Bella was pressed against me, and pulling herself more tightly to me with every breath, like she couldn't get close enough. All I could think was, this is where I belong.
I hadn't consciously made the decision, but a moment later, as Bella hugged herself to me with all her might, I rolled over until I was hovering above her. I opened my eyes just long enough to take in her exquisite face, then my lips were on hers again. Her fingers were gripping me so hard, it was impossible not to feel how much she wanted me, and I'd never wanted her so much. I didn't understand when I felt her start to shake her head back and forth, but I trailed my lips from her mouth to her neck so she could speak.
"Stop, Edward. Wait."
It was the last thing I'd expected to hear, and all I could manage in my confusion was a whispered, "Why?"
"I don't want to do this now."
I nearly laughed. "Don't you?" Then, to show her how unconvinced I was, I pressed my lips to hers again. There was a desperation to her kiss that only proved my point, but soon, she exhaled, and I could feel a change in her touch. Her fingers loosened from my hair, and then they were pressing against my chest. Baffled, I pulled away from her, and after our bodies were no longer pressed together, I realized exactly how deeply I desired her. Every inch of my body was on fire, and every thought in my mind was shouting, more.
As I stared into her eyes, I asked her again. "Why? I love you. I want you. Right now."
Bella's eyes widened and she looked like she wanted to say something, but couldn't find the words. That was fine. We didn't need words anymore. Desperate to get close to her again, I closed the small space between us and pressed my mouth to hers once more. It was growing increasingly difficult to remember my strength, and how easily I could crush her, but I was determined to keep control. I could handle this. There was no instinct stronger than the instinct to keep her safe. In the end, I knew that would win out over even the most passionate of desires.
"Wait, wait," she muttered.
Thinking she was worried about me and whether or not I was in control, I shook my head, mumbling, "Not for me."
With a great deal of difficulty, I pushed myself off of her until I was lying on my back. Neither of us said a word as we both tried uselessly to calm our breathing. I focused on counting the beats of her heart, but of course, it was racing, which only reminded me of why it was racing. I shut my eyes and tried to form a coherent thought. Eventually, I remembered what had brought us to this moment in the first place; Bella's unwavering need to please everyone else.
"Tell me why not, Bella. This had better not be about me."
She seemed to chuckle under her breath, and I hoped she knew I was serious. I wasn't worried any longer about our previous arrangements, or the time frame that had once seemed so important. All I wanted was to give Bella everything she wanted – and now, I realized, everything I wanted – so we could start our lives together the right way.
"Edward, this is very important to me," she finally said. "I am going to do this right."
"Who's definition of right?"
I turned on my side until I was facing her. I knew I needed to look at her, to know where all of this was coming from. I didn't see how she could have changed her mind so completely in the last ten minutes.
"How are you going to do this right?" I asked.
She took what looked like a breath for courage, and when she spoke, there was nothing but utter resolve in her voice.
"Responsibly. Everything in the right order. I will not leave Charlie and Renee without the best resolution I can give them. I won't deny Alice her fun, if I'm having a wedding anyway. And I will tie myself to you in every human way, before I ask you to make me immortal. I'm following all the rules, Edward. Your soul is far, far too important for me to take chances with. You're not going to budge me on this."
She was speaking entirely too logically, considering my heart doesn't even beat and I thought my chest was going to explode. The more responsible side of me knew there was no arguing with her, however there was still a small part that could only think about how wonderful it had felt to finally let go and just be together. And that part of me just didn't seem to be able to stay quiet.
"I'll bet I could."
"But you wouldn't. Not knowing that this is what I really need."
"You don't fight fair."
"Never said I did." Her grin somehow managed to silence that small, but very vocal, side of my consciousness, and I managed a sincere smile in return.
"If you change your mind . . ."
"You'll be the first to know."
As if the universe was confirming that we had, in fact, made the right decision, the sky opened up and began to shower drops of rain on us. Having effectively ended our interlude, Bella glared up at the sky.
"I'll get you home," I said reluctantly as I reached out to brush a raindrop from her cheek. Someday very soon, we would never have to part ways again. I wouldn't have to return her to Charlie, to her house, to her own room. My home would be her home, and the end of a day in our meadow would only mean the start of our night together.
"Rain's not the problem. It just means that it's time to go do something that will be very unpleasant and possible even highly dangerous."
My expression stiffened as I tried to imagine what danger we could possibly have left to face. She let out a sigh, though there was a hint of amusement behind it. "It's a good thing you're bulletproof. I'm going to need that ring. It's time to tell Charlie."
I laughed in relief, though perhaps I should have been a tad worried. Charlie's thoughts – or at least his thoughts about how much he disliked me – had gotten much clearer as of late. It seemed likely I would soon be hearing some very clear, very unpleasant things, and they would all be directed toward me. All in all, it was a small price to pay for eternity with the woman I loved.
"Highly dangerous," I agreed with a grin.
Then, my heart soared as I realized what this meant. Finally, I could place Bella's ring on her finger, knowing she would never need to take it off again. There was no more need to hide, no one that would ever be able to question again that Bella was mine and I was hers. I reached into my pocket to retrieve the ring, and felt another surge of emotion when I saw that Bella's eyes had started to fill with tears. The smile never left her face as I slid it into place on her finger, and together we left our meadow – hand in hand, perfectly content, and ready to begin the rest of our lives.