April 20, 2009
2:07 am
Port Angeles, Washington

Seconds bled into minutes, which in turn, bled into hours. In the early morning, the streets were dark and wet, shining in the low lamplight. Shadows crept by, weaving between buildings and sliding up and down walls. Blue and red flashing lights danced across the pavement, illuminating shapes and outlines.

Despite the dampness of the night, it was almost warm; the blazing building had taken hours to douse, and the heat from the fire had radiated out blocks from the source. They had watched, silent and immobile, as red-hot flames licked upward into the night and dark, almost purple smoke twisted and curled. The distant shouts of men and the blare of sirens cut through the silence, echoing and bouncing against concrete and asphalt.

Bella inhaled deeply, taking comfort in the clean smell that she knew only as Edward. More than anything in that moment, his scent granted her peace and serenity, despite the stench of greasy smoke tainting the air. For as her lungs greedily sucked him in, Bella felt whole and well; she felt strong and content.

The adrenaline had long since been spent, and she was left exhausted. Her shoulder ached and her arm throbbed; every time she moved it, her skin snagged and tore. Yet none of that registered as more than nuisance. And when Edward tried to convince her to let him take her away, she refused. Because nothing felt better than his arms wrapped tightly around her body, holding her as close as physically possible. Hidden amidst the chaos and clamor, they sat there in the dark for an indeterminable amount of time, neither willing to end their moment of reunion. They simply sat, holding each other, just breathing and touching, just being. No words were said for none were needed.

Beneath her, Edward was still but for the rise and fall of his chest and the gentle stroking of his hand through her hair. Tucked between his shoulder and chin, she couldn't see his expression, but she knew that his eyes were closed, just like hers.

"What are you thinking about?" she whispered, knowing he would hear.

"You," he murmured, the hand resting on her hip gripping more tightly. "Always, you."

"I was so scared, Edward," she admitted, her voice cracking as his name passed her lips.

"Shh, Bella. I know. But he can't hurt you now," he said softly, soothingly. The hand in her hair tenderly cupped her head, and she felt his lips press against her forehead.

Her intact arm snaked around his neck. "Not for me. I was scared for you. I couldn't bear the thought of you suffering. It hurt too much."

"Is that why you cut yourself? To provoke him?"

"He was planning terrible things. But then, I suppose you know all that, don't you? I'm sure you saw it. I couldn't allow that. I couldn't stand the thought of him torturing you," she whispered against his cool flesh, as she winced in remembrance.

She felt him take a sharp, deep breath, and his chest shuddered slightly. He said nothing other than, "It's over."

"Is it? What will we do?"

She couldn't bring herself to say Carlisle's name. When he had told her what had happened in the field, a thick, salty lump had formed in her throat and her sorrow ballooned. Bella knew, with too-vivid awareness, what it felt like to lose a parent, to lose two, really. She'd felt the ripping agony, the endless despair, the sense of utter hopelessness. She had felt the earth shift and tilt; she knew what it was to experience loss. While Edward was a century old and while Carlisle was not his biological father, there was no doubt in her mind that Edward's grief would be just as stabbing and just as vast.

Probably more so, she thought, recognizing that in addition to his own, he would take in all of their anguish, including Esme's. He would hear every word, every cry, and every curse.

"I don't know. I don't know what they will say. They may tell me to leave. I-, I just don't know. Being alone serves me right. I deserve it, Bella," he rasped, his voice nearly choked with building pain.

"No, Edward," she corrected, placing two fingers across his lips. "You won't be alone. No matter what."

"How can you say that? How can you still want to be with me? How can you love me? It's my fault, Bella. All of it. All of those women. Jacob. Carlisle. Your mother and father," he cried, throwing his head back against the wall. Yet his arms only tightened, as if he feared she would leap up and sprint away. She knew that were she to do so, he would let her.

His words sent shards of fresh anguish through her chest and deep down into the pit of her stomach. The wounds were still so fresh; the memory of her father was bright and burning. Stinging, hot tears threatened to spill over anew.

Clenching her eyes tightly shut, her hand drifted and palmed his jaw. "Stop, please. For me, Edward. I can't hear this. I can't hear you take it all on yourself again. It hurts; I'll never deny that. So much. But I'm not angry with you. I won't blame you. I told you that I forgave you your past mistakes, and I have. My father's death and my mother's death were at James's hand. Not yours. You paid for your mistakes. So many times, you've paid.

"When I said that I wanted you always, I meant it. With everything in me, I meant it and I mean it now. Though everything else has changed, that has not. Always, Edward. Always, you," she said, repeating his words.

For a moment, Edward didn't respond in any way. His body was rigid, frozen; even the hand in her hair had paused. His stillness frightened her. Just as she was getting ready to speak, to ask him to respond in some way, Bella heard his breathing pick up in pace and become shallow and erratic. Minutely, she felt his shoulders begin to shake until they were both quaking. When the dry, heaving sobs took over, her heart broke for him as she acknowledged the grief suddenly pouring out from him through the only outlet his stone body allowed. Just as he had done for her before, all she could do was cling to him and whisper words of solace she prayed he would hear.

April 20, 2009
6:36 am
Somewhere near Forks, Washington

She awoke to a soft crunching sound, something that reminded her of gravel. There was movement, too, a gentle forward motion coupled with a slight side to side sway. Before risking a glance, she listened intently, and in the background, she heard the dull hum of a quiet engine. Beneath her, she felt slick, cool leather, and her head was resting on something, a small pillow, or perhaps a bunched up shirt or piece of fabric.

When she didn't feel the icy hardness she expected, she started, wrenching her eyes open and moving to sit up. Pale, tangerine light streamed across her vision, momentarily stunning and blinding her.

"Wha-, Edward?"

"It's alright, Bella. We're almost home," she heard Edward whisper in her ear. Cold fingers ghosted across her skin and lightly traced her lips. At his reassuring contact, her body relaxed.

Taking in her surroundings, she realized that they were in a car, most likely Edward's Volvo. Turning her head, she noticed that Alice and Jasper were in the front seats, silently looking forward, and that Edward was with her in the back.

"How long have I been asleep?" she asked quietly. The last thing she recalled was holding Edward's shaking body as tightly as she could and then, finally, after what had to have been hours, him slowly stilling in her arms. Then, there was nothing. For all she knew, she could have been asleep for minutes or for days. And she really wasn't sure where home would be. Were they returning to their home in Forks or somewhere else?

"Less than an hour. Alice and Jasper picked us up in Port Angeles after I called."

She nodded as she cautiously lifted herself. Through the windows, Bella could see the same trees and forest lining their drive, the same trees she'd raced by only hours prior in their flight. Then, it had been so dark, the blackest of night. Yet now, in the faint glow of the morning sun, everything looked different. The landscape was dull and washed out, but there was life and there was color. And with the sun's rising there was the promise of more.

When the car came to a halt, she gingerly threaded her fingers through his and followed him to the door. While Edward's face was outwardly serene, his posture and his rigidity belied his calm. Were he to have one, his pulse would be racing. He was fearful and anxious. Bella wasn't sure she wanted to know the thoughts he was hearing.

When they reached the door, he hesitated and his expression transformed into one of outright despair. His eyes snapped shut, and his hand paused on the handle. Gently, she tugged on his arm and pulled him through the door, instinctively understanding that he needed her strength.

Inside the house, everything was just as it had been left. Soft light filtered through the tall front windows, bathing the cream and ivory furnishings. The air was cooler inside and it smelled fresh and clean.

But one thing was different. In the center of the living room, on the long pale couch, lay Esme. Her shoulders were hunched forward and her body was curled up tightly into a protective ball. She looked weak and frail, as though all the life in her had been drained. The unnecessary blanket covering her shook with the same tearless cries Edward had shed. Bella understood immediately why Esme was there and not upstairs. Being alone in their room with his smell and his presence would be unbearable.

"Go," Bella whispered, motioning to Edward.

His ancient, sad eyes looked down at her and his thumb grazed her lower lip. There was so much agony in his eyes; at that moment, she would have done anything to take it away.

From behind her, Bella felt a smaller hand, one just as chilled as Edward's, tentatively reach out to grip her palm, and she allowed Alice to pull her toward the staircase. As she ascended the steps, Bella looked back and watched as Edward walked over to his mother's trembling form. The last thing she saw was him crumpling to his knees and tipping forward to lay his head on the cushion beside her. Once more, her heart shattered for him. And for Esme.

Upstairs, she allowed Alice to help her undress and cleanse her body. She was numb, tired, and spent emotionally, as well as physically. When she looked at Alice's angular features, she saw the same pain she had seen in Edward. All of them had lost so much. Will we heal? Can we? she wondered sadly.

"Rosalie?" Bella asked in a voice barely above a whisper.

Alice smiled a small reassuring smile and answered, "She's in pain but she'll be okay. As you've seen, we heal quickly. In a day or so, you'll never know anything happened."

She frowned slightly. "Emmett's with her now down the hall in their room. Since we found them, he hasn't left her side for a second. I think he is worse off than she is. Rose is a tough woman. Emmett is… vulnerable. He's lost without her."

Bella understood him. For hadn't she responded the same? When Edward was unconscious and broken, the mere mention of leaving him was too painful to even consider. Their lives were so intricately woven together; when one hurt, both hurt.

"Esme?" she timidly breathed, her voice hesitant and shaky.

The small smile was replaced by a tightening jaw and creased brows. Alice nodded her head, but Bella could see the hard swallow that accompanied the gesture. For Esme, the physical damage was nothing in comparison to the pain of Carlisle's absence. Her breath caught in her chest; she could only imagine if their situations were reversed. If she were in Esme's place, could she survive? Would I want to? Could I bear that level of agony? She didn't think so.

"What happened in the field, Alice? Edward told me so little, only about Carlisle. Are they all… dead?"

"All but one," Alice answered, her expression suddenly seething. Bella could see her fists clenching and releasing, trying to rein in her emotion.

"The young ones had little chance, and Jasper took care of Laurent. The woman, Victoria, she escaped. I almost had her," she continued, her voice hard and filled with fury. Alice's gaze unfocused and she stared at the wall.

"But I hurt her. Yes, I hurt her. It will take her weeks to recover, if ever."

"Will she come back? Will she follow us?" Bella choked, her heart suddenly thundering in her ears.

Alice's expression softened, but her voice was still hard and cold. "I hope so."

April 20, 2009
8:58 pm
The Cullen family home, eight miles north of Forks, Washington State

Wearily, he climbed the stairs. His steps were sluggish, heavy with fatigue. While his body felt nothing more than the faint hint of soreness, that stinging pang that told him that his body's wounds were almost healed, his mind was cloudy and thick with exhaustion and pain. Mentally, he was near his breaking point.

Despite Jasper's emotional intervention, the sheer anguish that had flooded him from the moment they walked through the door was staggering and immeasurable in its depth. All of them, Rosalie, Emmett, Alice, and Jasper, all of them were still reeling with the knowledge that their leader, their father for all intents and purposes, was… gone. Their thoughts were jumbled and disjointed, filled with longing and sorrow.

Stepping across the threshold, where he could smell his creator's scent so clearly, the drowning pain he'd felt in Bella's arms returned. It stabbed and twisted in his gut. It felt like the world had stopped spinning on its axis, like life could not go on. His maker, his father, his friend no longer breathed. No more were their philosophical discussions; no more were their hunting trips. No more was the completeness and wholeness of their family. Their family had been broken.

But his family's and his grief paled in comparison to Esme's. The love between vampire mates was profound, bone deep, and limitless. To sever that tie was no less than the pain of physical amputation. It was permanent, something that would never completely heal no matter how many millennia passed.

His arms would forever recall the feel of her wrenching sobs. His eyes would forever see her face mangled and distorted with pain. And his flawless memory would recall the tenor and misery of his mother's voice for all time. For the rest of his existence, into perpetuity, some part of him would relive her ache. And some part of her would forever mourn her loss.

When he had crossed the room and fallen to his knees by her side, he had been prepared for anything she might give him. He was prepared to be sent away, he was prepared for her blows; he was prepared for words of hatred, of anger, and of derision. He had expected loathing, abhorrence, and guilt. He wanted it.

What he had not been prepared for was her slender fingers winding through his hair, stroking his scalp. What he had not been prepared for was her clinging to him, borrowing what little strength he retained, and then, returning some of her own. He had been prepared for blame, but instead was granted forgiveness. That had been what had crushed him: her pardoning, the absolution for which he would have never asked. He didn't deserve her forgiveness. But she had granted it to him freely and without reservation. There was nothing but love and sorrow in her thoughts.

How he did not understand, but in her mind, he remained her son, Carlisle's progeny. And together, mother and son, they had grieved for what had occurred, for what was, and for what would never be again. This was Carlisle's footprint on the world: compassion and love and the capacity to forgive no matter the greatness of the sin.

For the second time in so short a period of time, Edward felt his being, his soul, shift and alter. What he had spurned and half-believed before became truth. For the first time in his century of half-life, he truly believed, understood, and accepted the words he'd heard so many times before.

We are who we choose to be, Edward. I choose to live above base physical wants. I refuse to see myself as a simple animal, a creature that feeds and lives only to survive. I strive for goodness, to ease the pain of those around me. I have the power to help, not condemn. You can see our nature as a curse or as something with which to do great things. Or at least beneficial things.

We all have burdens to bear. How you bear that burden is the sum of who you are and is the basis by which you are judged.

When he reached the entry to his bedroom, Edward paused and gazed upon the form that touched him beyond all else, the one thing, the one person, who could reach through his ache.

She was sleeping still, lying on her side facing the door. The loud, resounding thuds of her heart echoed in his ears, singing through his veins. Staring at the rich gold bedspread draped across her, he watched her body rise and fall with her even breaths, the same breaths that saturated the small space and coated everything in the room. Involuntarily, he filled his lungs with perfumed air. Again and again, he gulped, taking comfort in the familiar burn.

So beautiful, he exhaled, as his eyes trained to her face.

Across the pillow, her dark hair was wild and splayed out. Her skin was smooth and clear, lightly dusted with a pale pink. Her lips were slightly parted, formed into a peaceful smile. He envied her in sleep. He longed to join her in her dreams. He longed to kiss her and hold her as a human, as something other than what he was. But that was unattainable, so he settled for what he could have, what he could not live without.

Edward quietly padded across the room, walking around to the other side of the bed. He paused but for moment before climbing onto the mattress beside her. Careful not to wake her, he slid across the bedspread, keeping the fabric between them, protecting her from his chill.

While sleep was out of his reach, an impossibility, in that moment, he needed to be with her, to feel her. He needed her as much as she had ever needed him. He needed to feel her body aligned with his, to feel her warmth and softness. He needed to feel the hum, that tangible thrum of their lives touching. Overcome with emotion and simple longing, he gently wrapped his arm around her waist and curled around her. His eyes slid shut as he buried his nose in her hair.

A moment later, he felt her fingers sliding across his bare arm, following the lines of his veins. She breathed deeply, and he felt her stir against him.

"Don't turn over. Your shoulder," he murmured, holding her in place.

But she would have none of it, and he relented when she moved to turn to her back. As their eyes met, she reached up and traced the dark shadows beneath his eyes.

"I'm so sorry, Edward," Bella whispered. "What can I do to ease your pain?"

"You do already," he said softly before touching his lips to hers.