Today (the 28th of November) is the one year anniversary of me posting chapter one of The Courtyard - at the time, a one shot inspired by a viewing of New Moon the week before. I'd hoped to have the last chapter up in celebration, but it is at this point in time with my betas and will require further editing when they return it to me. Instead, I'm offering you this, the first chapter from Edward's point of view, something that has been requested many times. I originally offered it for auction in the Fandom Gives Back auctions in July and the winners have had several months to enjoy it by themselves. It's time it got a public airing.
The response to the story has been beyond my expectations (especially considering chapter two - or beyond - was never supposed to exist), so thank you to everyone who reviewed or PM'd me asking for more in the first place, and has stuck with me over the past year, or picked up the story in the interim.
Thanks to Octoberland and evieeden for betaing and finding me when I was pretty much a lurker in the fandom. Love you girls!
The last few moments of my life stretched away, taut and pulsing, taunting me with an endless replay of every precious second I'd spent with Bella. I didn't need to count the seconds as they passed - I could feel them in my bones, the slow pendulum beat of eternity coming to a close.
My shirt was already discarded on the paving stones and I stood in the penumbra of the bell tower, waiting for midday to come. I kept my eyes closed. The sounds of the people in the Piazza interrupted the memories, their simple enjoyment of the festival intruding on my grief. I willed the moments to pass, with only the knowledge that I had to get this right, that I to attract as much attention as possible, keeping me in place until the stroke of the hour. I had no idea if I would be reunited with her on the other side – would I enter Heaven, Hell, or just turn to dust? - but anything, whatever was waiting for me, was better than another minute of knowing that she was gone and I was the cause.
I heard the gears in the tower grinding together before the first toll, the first stroke of noon, and then I felt it echoing through my body.
I waited longer still, for that last toll, the space between each low chime time enough to dwell on a different memory of Bella.
The meadow, our first kiss, surrounded by the blooms of spring. The way she'd felt, so fragile against me, so trusting even after I'd shown her everything I was.
The way her blood sang to me, the persistent burn an irritant even when I reveled in her scent. My memory excelled itself, calling it up perfectly. It was almost like she was near me right now,
the fire bursting to life in my throat as it always did. It didn't matter – I would take it. I would have always withstood that discomfort if it meant she was alive and happy. Now memories were all I had.
It was worse than living with those memories knowing she was only a continent away, everyday fighting the urge to return to her.
I couldn't even conjure up a fragment of the intoxication that was the frantic thud of her heartbeat whenever I kissed her, and yes, now I could hear her heartbeat too, the distinctive hummingbird beat, the most precious sound in the universe. I thought I even heard her voice, calling my name.
It was too much; I couldn't wait for the last knell. I thanked whatever higher power had blessed me with this last delirium and took a step towards fate.
She was there around me instantly. Against every expectation, against every sliver of hope I'd tried quell, I had made it to Heaven. The warmth of her body next to mine, the soft texture of her hair under my fingertips and the rich, heady beat of her pulse told me as much. The brief thought occurred that we could both have ended up in Hell,
but there was nothing my sweet Bella could have done to have led her to damnation - and if she was here with me now, I couldn't possibly be in Hell. I'd already spent too many months separated from her - that had been its own kind of living Hell. If I was to be punished, an eternity without her was the only way to achieve it. I chanced to open my eyes, taking in the wonder before me - flushed skin, warm eyes, my Bella as I'd never thought to see her again.
"Amazing. Carlisle was right." I couldn't keep the wonder from my voice. The words weren't enough; I should be pledging my devotion, thanking the stars that we'd made it here together.
"Edward," she whispered urgently. "You've got to get back into the shadows. You have to move!"
Her words made no sense, but it didn't matter. My fingers traced the flush she wore on her cheeks, desperate to feel the heat of her blood against my skin.
"I can't believe how quick it was," I told her. "I didn't feel a thing – they're very good." Her body was hot against mine, her heartbeat still frantic, the blessed burning in my throat igniting with vigor.
The sensory input was too much – sight, scent, hearing, feeling – and I shut my eyes before I kissed her temple, the texture of her hair under my lips devastatingly soft. I wanted to kiss every inch of her to find out if it was all this soft. The heat of the sun on my skin was nothing to the unbridled warmth spreading through me, joy at the chance to hold her in my arms again. Bella was here.
"You smell like Heaven," I murmured. There it was again – that concept of Heaven. We were together again. For whatever reason we were still in our corporeal states, as different to each other as we'd been in life, but now the possibilities opened up before me. We'd already died. No matter how luscious she smelled to me, how delicate she felt in my arms, I couldn't hurt her anymore.
I pulled her along the alleyway, held tightly to me, and used all my speed to rush through the empty streets until I found exactly what I needed – a secluded courtyard, our own tiny corner of paradise, the gate a barrier between us and the rest of time. The journey took only seconds. The world was silent, no whispering minds close enough to interrupt my peace. "I must be in Heaven, if you're here with me," I mused aloud.
I couldn't keep my body from moving, my hands instinctively tracing their way over her skin, mapping the planes I knew so well, bones and flesh and veins. She'd changed since I left – her hair was longer, her hips a fraction wider, she had new freckles. She'd grown in ways I was unhappy to have missed. And that maddening scent hadn't diluted. I didn't care if I had to suffer the burn forever; if that was to be my only penance, then I would gladly bear it.
"Edward, I'm not - " she began, but my body acted of its own accord again, my lips moving to cover hers.
This. If I was to suffer at all in the afterlife, this would make it worthwhile - the soft capitulation of her lips beneath mine, her hot breath as she parted them, the press of her body against mine. The joy that swelled through my body, molten sunshine, suddenly had competition in the form of desire. It had always been there, but now it was commanding my attention, heat sweeping through me. I had things to say first though, amends to make.
"I'm sorry I left you." I kissed her again, gently, attempting to pour all my regret into that motion. These could be the last kisses she permitted and I needed to make them count.
"I'm sorry I lied to you." It had been for her own good, but how was I to know that it would lead to this?
"It was only to protect you." I'd failed in the end, but I couldn't mourn that failure because I was in this moment. I traced her lower lip with my tongue, savoring the pureness of her taste; no lip gloss for Bella, it was all her – human, salty and sweet.
"I never stopped loving you." Her lips had parted with a gasp and when I covered her mouth again, I let my tongue move further, wanting more of that flavor, more of her softness against me. The way we kissed was new to me and the dizzying reality of the situation sparked a new coil of desire in my abdomen. I never wanted this to end, but my body was insisting on more.
"I can do so much now that I can't hurt you anymore," I said when I pulled away, hoping she understood what I meant, hoping she wanted as much. I felt giddy, drunk on the possibilities.
"Edward," she began, and I felt a flicker of fear. She'd accepted the kisses, but I'd done so much to hurt her. There was too much to forgive. Still, I had to try. "This isn't - "
"Please, please tell me you forgive me." I couldn't let her get the words out. I rested my forehead against hers, our eyes close enough that our eyelashes could brush against each other, the deep brown of her irises the only thing I could see.
"Of course I do."
Joy burst anew, a supernova inside me, my smile stretched as far as it could and she smiled back, mirroring my elation. I would do whatever I could to ensure I saw that smile as often as possible. I stepped forward with her still in arms, taking us to the nearest wall. I surrendered to the desire.
I wanted to worship her and it was a constant battle between my heart and my body, not to move too quickly. This wasn't about me, although every taste of her skin as I kissed down her neck, following the path of her veins, was a reward. Her skin was salty, as if she'd been exerting herself before she found me, but it was like licking the sunlight straight from her body. My fingers sought the heat of her flesh, slipping under the fabric of her shirt – so rough in comparison to her skin – to caress her back, mapping each inch of new territory. I wanted to learn all of it, every plane and every valley, and the shirt was in the way. I grasped the hem, ready to pull it from her.
"Do you want this?" I would give her every chance to acquiesce or decline. She pressed herself closer to me and whimpered. I forced my eyes open, catching her nod, and pulled the shirt from her without further hesitation. My hands continued on their quest, tracing her arms and back, pulling her to me as we kissed, our entire torsos pressed together, mine alighting at her touch. It was like fire against my skin, the way she burned with her blood pounding so fiercely.
Her bra was another irritation, quickly removed, and I relished the way her hair cascaded over my forearms like silk when I reached up her back. I swept my hands over her shoulders and down, cupping her breasts, the skin here even softer than the rest of her. I'd felt them pressed up against me so often, fantasized about touching them like any other seventeen year old boy, and now she was writhing against me as I moved my fingers, stroking as gently as I could bear. I broke away from our kiss, impatience forcing a moan from me, and kissed my way down her throat again, the other side this time, still following the trail of veins and capillaries until I was level with my hand. I wanted her in my mouth. I wanted to know if the pink flesh was as sweet as everywhere else, if the flavor would be different, but with the thought came a deluge of venom. The fantasy played in my brain in seconds and it ended with me biting down, as the fantasies always did. Even if it couldn't kill her now, or cause permanent damage, my teeth were still as sharp as they'd always been and I shied away from causing her any pain. Not now. Maybe, if there was time for experimentation, later.
I moved on instead, to free her from her jeans. A new scent emerged, one sweeter than the rest of her, richer. I'd encountered it before, when our kisses had become too frantic and I'd had to pull away to regain my control. I pulled my pants off too, throwing them to join the tangle of clothes on the paving. I lifted her, wrapping her legs around me and pressing her against the wall, only one thin layer of cloth between us, and her marvelous heat against me everywhere.
She wriggled her hips and I caught them, holding her still and leaning in to suck delicately at her neck, just above her pulse. Its frenetic rhythm wasn't so much a temptation to me anymore as it was a signal for other temptations – Bella's desperate body against mine fuelling the lust that clawed inside me, impatient to be unleashed entirely.
"More," she whispered, her breath coming in heavy pants, the fragrance deepening around us. I wanted to move slowly, as slowly as my body would permit, but she was not making this easy. I kissed her, hoping to silence the wild sounds she was making, forcing my hands to move gently over her skin. I wanted her to feel a tenth of the desire I did. Every inch of my skin was desperate for stimulation, but none more so than where we were almost connected, our hips nearly perfectly aligned.
I trailed one hand down to cover her panties, the cloth wet beneath my fingertips, then underneath the fabric, over curls and to wet skin. I touched slowly, finding what I sought and ghosting circles over it while hushed moans fell from Bella's throat. The whole world had narrowed to that one fingertip, the texture of her slick and soft beneath it. I slid the finger lower, memorizing all of her, until she yielded, my finger sinking into her body.
If I'd thought her skin was hot, inside she was an inferno, and the monster snapped at the bars of his cage, wanting release. He wanted more of this, the exquisite sensation of her body tight around me, and I slid another finger inside her, reveling in the way her muscles moved, rippling and clenching with every stroke.
Only when I felt the ruined shreds of her underwear in my hand and tasted her most intimate flavor against my tongue did I realize I'd gone too far, almost relinquishing control to the monster. I was moments away from pushing into her and taking her against the wall, rough and animalistic. I couldn't allow it. That wasn't how I wanted our first time to be.
I wanted to kiss her again, but that might be my undoing. Instead I pulled her away from the wall, keeping eye contact the entire time to check that she didn't flinch away from this, that she was as ready as I was. I sank to my knees, our hips still so close together, letting her decide what the next move would be. I was pressed right against her – all it would take was one shift of her hips and I would be inside her.
I took a moment to drink in the feel of her against me like this and the way she looked: tangled hair, flushed cheeks, pupils dilated and lashes drifting low, her skin covered in a thin sheen of perspiration. She was perfect.
She moved above me and the world narrowed to her skin on mine. There was heat and there was sensation. Almost too much. I wanted to move, to thrust harshly up into her and claim her. She leaned forward, bringing a rush of her sweet scent with her, and pressed her forehead to mine. "I love you," I told her, holding onto that truth through the overwhelming sensation.
"I love you, too," she murmured and that undiluted happiness sparked again, bright and wonderful. She still loved me. I moved, just to relieve the unbearable ache, and the tightness increased, her body reacting to mine. I couldn't control the sounds ripping from my throat as she moved over me, each shift of her hips causing me to lose touch with reality, slipping further and further into a haze of sensation. Nothing in the world had ever felt this good. Nothing could ever feel this good. The pace was torturously slow, every movement dragging the pleasure out, building to a point where I couldn't bear it anymore. I needed more.
I rolled us over so she was beneath me, her body laid out so I could admire all of it – every perfect expanse of skin that I wanted to explore. For now, I pushed back inside her, the change in angle knocking the breath from my throat at the way it felt, our bodies completely connected from chest to hip. I wanted to become one with her; not just this fragile, temporary connection, but sink into her, so deep that we were one being, hearts and minds as close together as our skin was right now. If I had to settle for an eternity of this, then I would. She writhed below me as I gave myself over to the need to thrust, letting speed win where strength would have to be tempered. Her nails scraped over my back, delicious bites that overwhelmed me. I had to channel it somehow.
"I love you," I whispered into her neck, repeating the words in as many languages as I knew. I'd sought the words out when I first realized they were true, determined she would know them in every form possible. Now I held onto them, keeping me anchored to my gentle side.
I was lost in every second of my body within hers, the slick slide of skin on skin. Suddenly she gasped, holding her breath as she rocked beneath me, my name whispered as she writhed. Her heart beat so fast against her ribs, blood pounding so hard I could feel it everywhere we touched, a heady cloud of her scent forming around us. The whole world constricted to the place where we were connected, pleasure spilling up and out, washing across my skin and sending me spiraling into a place where only feeling existed.
Time lost its meaning and the world came back to me in languorous waves. I had enough sense left to not collapse and crush Bella beneath me, but beyond that it was all I could do to roll my upper body to the side, unwilling to break that connection with her, burying my face in the curtain of her hair. She lay still, her body relaxed against the stone paving, eyes unfocussed and her hair pooled around her. She'd never been more beautiful.
"I love you," I whispered, again and again, unable for a moment to remember the words in any other language. My thoughts were hazy, shrouded in the after effects of pleasure.
We'd made love. Finally, we'd been able to come together and I hadn't hurt her. If there was anything to convince me that we were in Heaven, it was this precise moment, with the sun beating down and her warm body still connected to mine.
"Bella," I asked, unable to keep my hands still, "why do you still smell so good?"
"Because we're not dead," she murmured.
"What?" I stilled, but my thoughts exploded into chaos. That couldn't be right. I'd died at noon – there was no way Bella could have been there. She'd died. Hadn't she?
"This isn't Heaven Edward. At least, not in the angels-and-harps sense. We're still in Volterra. I came to stop you from killing yourself."
Could it…was it possible this was true?
"But you said you forgave me! If this is real - " I'd been so cruel when I left, lies spilling from my mouth so easily. She should never have been able to forgive me after what I'd said, after the way I'd left. "I hurt you so badly – how could you - "
"I love you," she said, eyes warm and determined. "I forgive you."
"And we just – how could we have made love without me hurting you?" It had been a struggle in parts, true, but for it to have been so easy compared to how I'd always imagined it was incomprehensible.
"I think because you thought you couldn't hurt me, you didn't. You've always had less faith in yourself than I do."
In the distance I could hear the sounds of the festival still going on throughout the town, something I'd ignored until now, assuming it was part of the illusion of the space we were in. Those last moments, counting the tolls of the bell, I hadn't been imagining the scent of Bella close to me – she had been there.
It was true. We were alive. Now that I engaged all my senses, I knew it had to be true.
"You could have told me," I said, thinking about how close I'd been to taking her in the very alley beside the main Piazza. It didn't matter…she was alive.
She giggled, a sound I'd rarely heard from her. If I'd had a pulse it would have reacted to that lovely rush of sound. "I was distracted. I did try!"
She had tried to speak several times since she'd thrown herself into my arms, but I'd never considered for a second the option that we might both be alive. I'd been too wrapped up in holding her…and everything that came after.
"Yes, I suppose you did, and you were." The thought made me smile and her pulse reacted, her heart beating a familiar, furious tattoo. It brought with it a fresh wave of her scent.
She was alive. She was whole. And she was here with me.
"Yes, you still make my throat burn," I said, inhaling. The burn was worth it though – a mere side-effect of our proximity now, not a deterrent to being close to her. I lifted her hand, kissing over her fingers and down to her wrist, sucking on the delicate skin above her thundering pulse. "Although, it's not such a problem anymore. Now I know we can be together, and I won't hurt you." I smiled again at the thought and she gasped, her body reacting. I wanted to give into that reaction and spend the rest of the afternoon enjoying our discovery, but I needed to think about her. She was still fragile, still human, and she still needed taking care of.
Rather than give in to my body, I slid out of her, hushing her protests and carrying her to the fountain I'd barely noticed before now. The water was warm from the afternoon sunlight. I sat her on the edge and used it to wash her, wiping away the evidence of my pleasure and, I hoped, any discomfort she might be feeling, trying to control the rising tide of fresh desire. I took the chance to wash myself too and she glanced away when my hands dipped low, the familiar blush creeping onto her cheeks. I tried to stifle my laugh and kissed the blush, amazed she would get embarrassed after everything we'd done.
When we were clean I dressed her, kissing as I went, starting on that promise to learn every inch of her. It seemed a shame to cover her up like this when she seemed made for this place, this hidden courtyard in the Italian sunshine, but I'd picked up on a familiar mental voice not so far away and knew our time here was about to be encroached upon.
She glanced at me from beneath her eyelashes, her eyes taking on the unfocussed look she'd worn when she first accused me of 'dazzling' her, and this time it was accompanied by a rush of that new scent, marking her desire for me.
"We have no time now," I told her, my fingers drawn to the skin that was still exposed to me. "Alice is coming and I don't think you're ready to become an exhibitionist. But I promise you, soon." If we'd had more than a few minutes I'd have chanced it, my body aching to be connected to hers again, but Alice's arrival would be too soon. I stepped away to find my pants and shoes, the only clothes I had, and brought her immediately back into my arms when the task was done. She molded herself to me and I knew my skin was almost as warm as a human's at this point, absorbing and holding the heat from the sun. Joy thrummed in me, vibrating along my skin at the simple act of just holding her. For months I'd thought I'd never be able to do this again and now I might be able to do this for years. This was right and I was ashamed that I'd ever run from it, no matter what my reasons.
I knew what I had to do.
"Bella, there's one thing I need to ask you before Alice gets here. I haven't had chance to prepare, but - " I dropped to my knee, wishing for a ring but settling for holding my hand out for hers instead.
"Will you marry me?"
Her mouth dropped open, her expression inscrutable, and for the millionth time since we'd met I wished to be able to hear what was going on in her head. The thoughts were flickering over her face, but I had no way of accessing them and no way of knowing the outcome of her decision. Surely though, she knew how right this was? Before I left Forks she'd been determined to spend eternity with me and she must have known that eternity would involve marriage. It was the lesser commitment anyway.
I wanted the chance to explain more, to press my suit and convince her why saying yes was the only answer, how it was the only thing left in the world I wanted now I had her again, but too soon I saw a jumble of futures and heard the shrill, overexcited thoughts of my sister. Before I could tell her to give us five more minutes, she was in the courtyard and hugging Bella.
"Oh, Bella, you're going to be such a beautiful bride!"
Bella glanced at me, bemused, but I was no longer annoyed by Alice's intrusion. I'd seen exactly what I wanted in her head – one brief flash of Bella in white before Alice cut me off.
If I'd thought I was happy before, it was nothing to the elation sweeping through my body now, swelling so large I didn't think I could contain it. Only once since I'd become a vampire had I changed, and that had been the moment I realized I loved Bella. Now I could feel a change just as profound settling inside me, love without the fear and self-doubt I'd carried before.
I stood up, brushing Alice aside to take Bella in my arms. "She's right, you will be a beautiful bride," I whispered, before kissing her swiftly, not wanting to try more because the temptation was too great. I couldn't start anything I couldn't finish right now.
"But I haven't decided anything yet!" she said, flustered.
"But you will, so let's just assume it's a done deed." Alice smiled, and for now I pushed Bella's resistance to the back of my mind. It was something we could talk about in private if we needed to. She was smiling back at me, every inch of the joy I felt reflected in her smile, and I pulled her close, enjoying the warmth of her again.
"I come bearing gifts," Alice said, holding out one of the red festival cloaks, a pair of tan gloves and a ridiculous fedora. "Sorry, I couldn't get replacement underwear at such short notice." Bella blushed again and I was more successful at stifling my laughter this time. I'd have to tell her later that she'd be better off foregoing underwear for some time if she didn't want it to be destroyed. I frowned at Alice, trying to reprimand her for teasing Bella, but she ignored me.
"We have twenty minutes to get out of Volterra," she babbled, "but we do have time to stop off in Florence while we're in Italy – Edward is going to find you the perfect engagement ring on the Ponte Vecchio, Bella..." We walked along, leaving the courtyard behind, and I pulled Bella into my side, relishing the warmth once again. I didn't want to leave this sanctuary, the place I'd felt happiest in my entire life, but I was picking visions from Alice's head that told me there was more to come. For now, I was content.
After all, I had the reason for my existence back.