AN: Many huge thanks go to Project Team Beta! They have become my new saviors. If you haven't heard of them, check for their link on my profile.
Disclaimer: I don't own Edward or Bella or anything from Twilight. Stephenie Meyer owns everything.
School today had been awful – and wonderful.
It was awful because I had somehow found myself the center of attention again. Everyone was either bombarding me with questions or glaring at me. The latter was mostly taken care of by Lauren, Jessica, and Mike – though Mike had looked more forlorn than anything else. Everyone wanted to know where I had been and why the Cullens were back. I felt like I needed to beat them off with a stick. Too bad I'd be more likely to hurt myself than them in that scenario.
However, it was wonderful because the answer to their questions was by my side all day long, holding me tightly. Edward only let go of me for the one class we had apart, math. That hour dragged on and on. I could even feel a bit of a panic attack coming on when the bell finally rang and I rushed out the door, eager to prove to myself that the last seventy-two hours had not been a dream. Edward was waiting by the door for me, a smile lighting up his face when I appeared.
The afternoon was also wonderful, even if I was doing homework. Edward sat patiently with me while I did some calculus make up work, and when I was done we snuggled on the couch to read Othello, our latest English assignment.
Around 5:30, though, Edward turned to look at the door.
"Charlie's coming home," he said, "and he's not in a good mood."
I cringed. "I'm still in big trouble, huh?" Charlie had left before I was ready for school that morning, so we still hadn't discussed the terms of my punishment.
"I think so." Edward looked sympathetic. "I'm sorry you're in so much trouble because of me."
"It's not your fault. I'm the one who jumped, remember?" I hadn't meant that to come out so abruptly and I instantly regretted it when he winced. Before he could dwell on it too much, I said, "Let's not worry about it right now. Come help me get his dinner ready."
Edward and I trooped into the kitchen, where I set the table while he insisted on handling the hot casserole and chopping the vegetables. I had just put the salad on the table when the door opened. I heard Charlie fumble with his jacket and belt, and then he came around the corner into the kitchen. He scowled at us.
With no preamble, he said, "Bella, I'd like to talk to you alone."
I was going to argue, but Edward was still set on being complacent. "I'm sorry, sir. Bella and I were just finishing in here. Besides, my family is having dinner together tonight."
I resisted a snort. Dinner with his family. Then again, he hadn't left my side since we'd gotten back from Italy, so his eyes were still pitch black. Ignoring my father's glare, I took Edward's hand and walked him to the door.
"Going hunting?" I whispered.
"Yes. I won't be going far, and I promise to be back before you're asleep. That is, if..."
He seemed to struggle. "If you want me to." The last word was choked out. How could he not realize yet how much I wanted him?
"Yes, I do, very much."
His lips turned up into a wide smile, but then his eyes flicked behind me and back to mine. "Charlie's getting impatient. Good luck. I love you."
My heart inflated as he gave me a brief peck on my lips and ducked out the door. Charlie's humph couldn't even puncture my good mood.
He was waiting for me sternly at the table. I sat down and spoke quickly. "Hold up, Dad. I'll talk, just let me have a last meal, 'kay?"
It wasn't really for my sake. I was buttering him up. I had made one of his favorites: turkey tetrazzini. I hoped it would make him happier with me.
We ate silently, Charlie clucking at the paper while I perused my copy of Othello. It just wasn't the same without Edward's voice reading the lines to me. My breathing got shallow as his absence began to feel heavy in the air, and I had to talk to myself quietly before I calmed down.
It's fine. He's here. He'll be back before you know it. He loves you. I chanted over and over in my head.
I had just managed to get my breathing back to normal when Charlie started on me.
"Alright, Bella, it's time to lay down some rules," he said. I sighed and nodded for him to continue. "The only places you are allowed to go are school and work. I want you to come straight home after each." That was expected. "Curfew is 9:30. That means you are in and everyone else is out," he went on. So far so good. Edward would be back in my room at 9:45. Probably. No! Of course he will be. Don't doubt that. Charlie wasn't done yet, calling me on my earlier promise. "I also expect you to do all the cooking, cleaning, and laundry until I say so."
It was no worse than I deserved. I nodded obediently and picked up our plates to get started on my punishment. It wasn't until the leftovers were put in the fridge and the sink was steadily filling with water that Charlie decided he wasn't done.
"Bella, I don't like that he was over here."
"I told you, Dad," I said without looking at him. "Package deal."
"But he left! He didn't care what you were going through. He left once and he'll do it again."
Next time Jasper takes a snap at me... No! No no no, he won't leave me.
I shook my head, still not looking at him. "Look, I know it's hard to deal with. But Edward is staying."
"He's no good for you."
How little my dad understood. Edward was the best thing in my life. As long as he's actually in your life.
"I'm not going to argue with you about it, okay? If you want me here, you're going to have to let him in the house."
Charlie's lips were in a tight line. "During your visiting hours only."
I rolled my eyes. "Fine." I looked at the clock. It was only 7:45, but my homework was done, and Charlie was being a pain. "I've got some reading still to do for English," I lied. This was my third time through this play. "I'm going upstairs."
Knowing that Charlie's attention would be fixed on ESPN for the next couple of hours, I trudged up the stairs to my room.
The difference from the last time I had been there was almost palpable. I didn't know why I felt it so strongly now, since it was the same room it had been for months, but suddenly, my bedroom seemed very empty.
I was alone.
I shut my eyes tightly as I tried to put off the pressing weight, feeling my lungs disappear, my heart stop beating. I forced myself not to fall to the floor. Breathing deeply, I leaned back against the door and tried to conjure the image of Edward in the rocking chair. It was a dim vision, his crooked smile not quite shaping in my mind the way I wanted it to. Maybe if I didn't actually look at the empty room, it wouldn't be so bad.
My gaze stayed firmly on the floor as I walked slowly toward my desk to grab my bag of toiletries. The lines on the floorboards created a nice path to follow.
The floorboards. Your things were never gone. The voice in my head faded quickly, but I clung to it as best I could. I crouched down as soon as the thought registered, starting at my door, pulling and pressing as I sought a loose floorboard. The tiny hope that I would be able to find his gifts became an obsession. I would actually have in my hands tangible proof that he loved me. The epiphany was still with me, but it was just so much harder to keep a grip on it without his cold hand to hold.
Finally, the board right next to the rocking chair shifted. Edward's favorite seat. I let out a deep breath as I lifted the wood to reveal the small space beneath.
It was empty. Just like my room.
Several minutes passed as I stared at the black hole that seemed to be growing larger with each second.
There's nothing here. Nothing but nothing. Visions of my nightmares in the forest flashed through my mind. I was running, searching, but I knew that there was nothing to find. I kept trying to wake myself back up, but all I could think about was the hole in my chest as I felt the pain tearing through me. My heart and lungs were swiftly disappearing into oblivion.
I squeezed my eyes shut and brought to memory his words before he left. Standing by the door, his lips on mine, his good luck whisper. He loves me. I know he does. But my mantra seemed like a hollow echo, and it actually made my chest hurt worse in comparison to that feeling of completeness. I was sinking fast, but didn't know how to stop it.
You can't just sit here, I told myself, so I stood, determined to get my mind on something else. Jake. I could call Jake. He would keep me from drowning. He always did.
I turned quickly toward the door, when something red caught my eye. Sitting on my pillow, right where I should have seen it when I first walked in, was a red rose. I had been too preoccupied with the emptiness and my fruitless search to notice. Next to the rose, which I noticed had no thorns, were two tickets, a stack of pictures, and a CD.
Such a tiny thing should not have hit me like it did, but the evidence that the last few days really had happened, that I would not have to sleep alone tonight, had me crying in relief. I collapsed onto the bed, cradling the plastic square to my chest like it was a lifesaver. It was. Edward, my Edward, loved me. The tears continued to gush from my eyes as I breathed through completely intact lungs.
I couldn't let him see me like this. He felt guilty enough about all my craziness and didn't need even more tears to worry about. Desperate to cover all traces before he got back - he's coming back! - I grabbed my toiletry bag and sped to take a shower.
I couldn't stay away from my room for long. If he got back, I wanted to be waiting for him. Sadly, my room was still empty when I padded back in, still dripping wet. But the emptiness was not heavy like before, just quiet.
Too quiet. I quickly put the CD into my player and turned it on. Well, there went the results of the shower; I was crying all over again. My lullaby brought me to tears more than it ever had – I hadn't heard it in eight months.
I put the song on repeat and made my way to the closet. Deep in the back was a box I hadn't touched in months. During my zombie period, I hadn't been able to destroy my books like I had my CDs, but couldn't bear to look at them either. I picked one at random and settled into bed, trying unsuccessfully to stop the flow of tears while reading Jane Eyre.
I was still in that position when Edward returned to my side. He was kneeling beside the bed instantly, reaching for my face.
"Bella? What's wrong?" His now golden eyes were so anxious it made me feel silly for my doubt earlier this evening. See? Do you see how much he loves you? He will never leave you again.
"Nothing. I'm fine," I sniffed. He was unconvinced, so I gestured toward the player. "It's just your music."
He smiled, his eyes lighting up as they stared into mine. My breathing became shallow again, but I welcomed it. This time my heart accelerated with my short breaths. I leaned forward and he obligingly caught my lips in a sweet kiss.
"Thank you for my things," I said when he released me.
"I thought you might want them."
"I did. When did you get them?"
He looked sheepish. "Right after I left downstairs. I stayed for a few minutes in case Charlie decided to lock you in your room."
I laughed. "That wouldn't have been so bad, as long as you could still come in through the window."
"Bella, he could lock you inside a steel box and I would still find a way to you."
My heart inflated again and I could only reward him with my glowing smile. He rearranged us, moving my book to restart the pile that was always next to my bed, so that we were lounging side by side against the headboard, his arms wrapped around me with my head resting on his shoulder.
"How was your evening?" he asked, stroking my mostly dry hair.
Aside from getting grounded, doing the dishes, and having a nervous breakdown? "Pretty boring actually. How was your hunting trip?"
"Uneventful. Unless you count Emmett knocking down enough trees to make a house eventful."
"What was he knocking down trees for?"
"He was trying to let the bear think it had a fighting chance."
I could tell I wasn't getting much more explanation than that, but I didn't mind so much. This was so easy, so right. Sitting in Edward's arms, discussing his hunting trips while laughing at his brother's antics. It felt like the last few months hadn't even happened. I'd rather pretend that they hadn't.
"Will Emmett and Rosalie be staying?"
"Yes, I think so. They want to be around for graduation, at least." Graduation. A very big date in my book. "And maybe prom, too."
Prom? "But they're both graduated. They can't go to the prom."
"Emmett wants to crash."
"It would make Rosalie happy to show off again."
He was hiding something. "Emmett is hoping I make a fool of myself, isn't he?"
Edward grinned apologetically. "I promise I won't let you fall."
"You'll have to do better than that. You'll promise you won't make me go."
At first his eyes blinked open wide in surprise and then he let out a suppressed laugh. "You haven't changed one bit, do you know that, Bella?"
"What? Did you expect my coordination to suddenly make an appearance after eighteen years?"
"I suppose not. Are you sure you don't want to go? You said yourself last time wasn't so bad."
I imagined the decorated gym, the frilly dress, and the curious stares from everyone in the room. Then I compared it to my current arrangement in Edward's arms. The choice was obvious. "I can have much more fun eating ice cream and snuggling with you than I can being forced to wear a dress more expensive than my car and shoes that I can't even stand in. Tell Alice to return the dress."
A flicker of a smile crossed his lips when I said "dress," and then he sighed, touching his forehead to mine. "There is no way to tell you how much I missed you, Bella Swan."
"I think I can imagine," I said, breathing in his sweet scent, "but I don't want to." It was still early, but since I had been awake since one o'clock in the morning, my huge yawn suddenly interrupted all conversation.
"You're tired, love. Sleep now." Edward tucked me in and then curled himself around behind me so that his lips were at my ear. He kissed it and then whispered to me.
"Charlie is planning to check on you later, at which point I will be hiding in your closet. Besides those few minutes, I promise not to leave your side. I'm here now and I will be here when you wake up. Sleep, my love. Dream sweet dreams." He reached over and turned off the CD, picking up where it left off with his velvet voice.
Knowing I had no chance of fighting it, I relaxed in his arms, drifting into what I hoped were more pleasant dreams than any I'd had in a long while.