Thanks to antiaol for making my words pretty and to bmango for keeping me sane. And again, huge thanks to Durameter for a great prompt and even greater generosity.

As always, Stephanie Meyer owns.


Part 2: Descent

It ends with a rattle, a spiral sinking slowly down as the city below seems to swing up to meet me. Inertia. The steady descent of the plane and the resistance of a body still intent on moving forward. Trying desperately to still be airborne.

With my tray table and my heart both locked and stowed, I am surrounded by nothing but the buzzing hum and the haze of anticipation. Gravity is a crushing force as everything gives in to it, the engines working only to keep the fall controlled.

But there is nothing controlled about it.

Not for me.

I stare out at the runway as it opens out onto a distant horizon, but the end of it, like the ends of so many things, lies well beyond my sight.

For a moment, we linger, hovering softly in a sky that is ringed in painful numb before the long, sharp drop.

Impact.

I bite my tongue as the wheels touch ground, my stomach roiling and the ache descending. It seems like nothing can be worse than the strange feeling of being simultaneously thrown forward and pulled back, the seat harsh against my spine.

But then the secondary effect of the brakes kicks in. A harsh jerk.

And then interminable, intolerable taxiing.

Mindless circling.

And I know, without a doubt, that it is over.

The first few weeks back at Northwestern are surreal. In some ways, it feels like I'm still floating, the world insubstantial beneath my feet. In others, it is as if the crash I kept imagining actually happened, my ribs cracked and my body shattered the way my heart has been.

My mind still floats on that loud, roaring hum of the engines as silence invades my days. There are yet more hushed conversations with Alice and with bill collectors, scattered pleas with professors, begging that they grant me just another week.

But the one voice that I want – the one I have depended upon to the exclusion of all others – remains mercilessly mute.

Piteous and lonely, I try to carry on with my days, but as night falls, it is clear that there is just no use. Bathed only in the glow of the computer screen, I write her email after email, not even stopping to read them before I hit delete. With a pen and paper, I write her letters, too, smudging the words with the side of my fist.

I break fire codes.

I break my heart.

Because every letter I write, I burn.

There are only a few weeks left in the semester when I finally walk the last few steps to the registrar's office and apply for a leave of absence. It's easy enough to document a family emergency.

It's harder to turn in the form.

I receive the approval after passing my last exam, and I hold it with shaking hands.

Knowing that absence is something I am acquainted with so well.

Alice tells me over and over that she wants to come and help me move, but we can't afford the airfare and I won't let her take the week away from school.

And it's not as if our mother could drive her anyhow.

Alone, I pack my things away into boxes and ship the things I need. Everything else I try to sell or give away. The few people I have told all wish me well and offer promises of what we'll do when I return.

But when I close the door, it is with a heavy heart.

And a growing understanding that I will never see this place again.

Alice's hug is like an attack, the collision occurring before I can brace myself.

It's also the first human contact I've had in months.

For a long moment, there in the terminal, I hold her to me tightly, needing something to ground myself. I pull back long enough to try to say hello, but I am stopped short by the black rings around her eyes and by the sudden realization that it is her friend Rose standing beside her instead of my mother.

"Is it really that bad?" I am sucked immediately into the drama as Alice bites her lip and tries not to give in, but everything is clear.

We ride back to the house in silence and I thank Rose a half dozen times. She just smiles and tells us to let her know if there is anything she can do.

"Mom? Mom, please open the door."

Silence.

All I ever hear is silence.

I leave her dinner on the tray and walk away, thankful that Alice has learned how to cook at some point along the way. It's only after I make it back to the living room that I hear a door open and close, a ghost reaching out into the hall.

I know the empty tray will reappear in an hour or so.

I know that this can't go on. That I need help.

But I have no idea where to go.

I kick the curb in anger, sinking down and dropping my head into my hands. No one is hiring, and having been the golden boy of my high school two years ago isn't any help at all.

"Hey, you OK?"

I look up, squinting against the rare appearance of the sun to take in a face I know, if not terribly well.

Burying my gaze back down at the sidewalk, I nod. "I'm fine."

"Edward, right?" A guy about my sister's age sits down on the curb beside me and offers me his hand. "Emmett McCarty. Rose's boyfriend. You're Alice's brother, right?"

I gaze at the hand warily but finally accept it and confirm everything he's said. We sit in silence for a few minutes before he turns to look at me.

"Seriously, man. I'm afraid to say anything, but you looked like you were about to lose it there. I know you don't know me from Jesus, but if you need to talk or something..."

When he says the words 'lose it,' I feel as if a coil inside my abdomen is about to snap, a numb and broken laugh escaping my lungs.

"It's so far past lost …"

By and by, he coaxes everything from me, patting my back and eventually all but bodily lifting me up off the street.

"C'mon."

I follow but balk two blocks down the road when we arrive at the door to a bar.

"Emmett, I'm not … I can't." It doesn't occur to me until he has pushed me through the door that, as Rose's boyfriend, he's probably younger than I am, but I still tell him, "I'm not twenty-one."

"Doesn't matter," he insists, his hand coming down on the surface of the bar. "Pops?" he bellows, and a man in an apron turns around. "Good news, Pops. I found you your brand new bartender."

The first few weeks at the McCartys' bar are strange and torturous and good. Being busy and useful is a welcome relief, as is the paycheck that begins to soothe some of the more persistent voices demanding payment. It's also a distraction.

I welcome the chance not to think.

I have to sometimes, though, as familiar faces wander in and I am forced to speak of things I would much rather not remember. There are awkward encounters with people I knew in high school, and each time, they seem to carry a certain weight of failure to them. There are surprised glances and then recognition. Recollection.

Pity.

The first time someone asks about Bella, I drop the glass that I am filling and cut my hand on one of the shards. Subsequent reminders lead to less violent ends, but each time, it is as if I am reliving our separation all over again.

And I wish that the pain was only in my skin.

In general, her presence is thin in this town where she only spent a year. I avoid the places we went together.

But the only place I can't avoid is inside.

In my heart and in my room, she is always there. Staring at me. Crying. Resigned.

A full three months go by before I happen to run into her father. He and a few other men are having drinks at McCarty's when I get there for my shift, and with everything I am, I try to hide. Tying on my apron, I hear him mention something about Costa Rica, his whole countenance reflecting happiness and pride.

I slip into the back office before he can spot me.

Sliding my spine down the surface of the door, I crouch there for a long, long time.

I tell myself that I am happy for her.

Until I am.

"Mom?" My forehead is pressed against the wood of her door, my voice speaking to a ghost.

All I do is speak to ghosts these days.

I bang my head a dozen times and whisper, "Please."

And then I do what I do best.

I walk away.

"The usual?" I force a smile as I regard the man in front of me. He is middle aged. Disappointed.

And I wonder if he looks like me.

Summer has come and gone, the weather cold now, and I am still here. Alice is back in school, learning and laughing and coming home to a house that is all the more silent for the sparkle of her presence. Sometimes, evenings when I am not working, I simply watch her doing her homework or watching TV. I need it, that grounding to life and to reality.

I need it to remind me.

But it is as I am pulling the draft that I am drawn back into a different sort of a reality.

Laughter.

Life.

Instead of dropping the glass, I manage to place it on the bar, my shaking hands drawing up into fists as I make a record on the tab.

"Two Blue Moons and a …"

I lift my head and the entire bar floats away, my heart breaking all over again.

Bella looks good. I am aware enough to register this, and to recognize too all the little things. Her hair is shorter, no longer drifting down in the soft curls I always loved to run my fingers through. She's thinner now, too.

And there's something deeper about her eyes.

"What … Edward …" She sounds just as shocked as I am, and as I drink her in, I am suddenly glad for the bar's solidity, my body yearning to clear it and to pull her to me. For six long months now, I have known no touch and no comfort. No love and no release.

I have not heard her voice.

My eyes drift down, my feet shifting uncomfortably, and I am glad that she cannot see.

"Hello, Bella."

I still feel her gaze even though I cannot look at her. The silence between us grows with every moment, my attention focused on not focusing, and I am ignoring the hands waving to the right of me, waiting for a bartender to serve up a drink.

"Edward." Her voice is a hushed rasp this time, and in it I can hear the same pain that pierced to the heart of me. "Edward, what the fuck are you doing here?"

There's something tearing, a broken shredding.

Fighting to keep my voice as numb and detached as I can, I settle both hands on the surface of the bar, still looking down. "Is there something I can get you?"

"You're bartending?"

"Two Blue Moons, right? And?"

"You asshole. You total fucking asshole."

When she whips around, it throws a drowning rush of her scent all around me, and I am glad that I am clutching at the bar, because otherwise I would be reeling. I look up just in time to catch her stalking away, the line of her legs so long in the sorts of heels she never used to wear.

She looks taller.

Better.

And hurt.

She gathers two other girls and throws on her coat. Her companions cast two hateful looks at me, but there is nothing I can do.

As the door slams closed behind them, I raise my hand. And again, I whisper, "Goodbye."

After seeing Bella, something in me that had already been dormant seems to finally give up the ghost. I wake up alone and cold, make breakfast for Alice and my mom. Sleep some more. Make dinner and go to the bar.

When my phone finally rings almost three weeks later, it wakes me from a dream of Bella's body hovering, tipsy and flushed on top of mine with sand in our skin and the sound of the ocean lapping deep within. The sound of the ringtone, harsh and artificial, is strange to my ears.

No one ever calls.

I fumble with the buttons with one arm draped over my face to guard it from the light, mumbling hello and praying that it isn't another issue with a bill.

So it's with relief and dread mixing together that I realize the voice is one I know. And that it is also one that I will always be paying for.

"Edward?"

"Bella."

Rolling to my side, I spend a luxurious moment simply listening to her breath.

Until, so quietly, she whispers, "Why didn't you tell me?"

I am mute and stricken, panicking at all my plans and all my deceptions unraveling with the air that is vacating my lungs.

"I don't know," I finally sigh, and sadly it is the truth. All the hours I have spent in numb contemplation of this very question have always ended at the same inescapable conclusion.

That I have no explanation.

"How did you find out?"

In hesitant sentences, she explains coming back to visit her father for her birthday and taking advantage of the opportunity to spend some time with the few people she met in high school besides me.

And to get incredibly drunk.

She doesn't tell me that it was in an effort to forget me. But I have spent too many nights myself with exactly the same ambition, and I can hear it in her voice.

Shakily, she hints at what her father was able to recount of my family's little tragedy.

I sigh hard, and then, with a similar level of uncertainty, I tell her what she already knows. About my father's betrayal and my mother's silence. Our sudden poverty and my sister's need.

"I guess..." I think as I am speaking, wanting to offer her something. "I guess I was embarrassed. Ashamed."

There's the sound of sniffling on the other end of the line.

So quietly, she breathes, "I thought it was me."

"No, Bella." There's moisture in the corners of my eyes, some so long-dead emotion now trying to claw its way out and making my throat feel set to ache and bleed. "It was always me. I had – I had responsibilities, and I didn't want to drag you down with me. I had to take care of my family."

"Oh, Edward," she sighs. "I know you did. But why couldn't you have let me take care of you?"

And I realize, sitting there alone, that I have nothing like the faintest idea.

"Mom? Mom, you have to come out."

I can almost feel the wood grain in my forehead now, the imprint of it burned right into the skin.

A touch settles on my shoulder, and it, too, is somehow burning.

"Edward, please."

"No, Alice." I shove her away and go back to thudding my brow against the door.

"Yes." She is insistent as she tries to pull me away, but it's no use. I won't budge. I can't.

Whipping around, I take in my sister's frightened eyes, and as I do, I feel a pang in the deepest parts of me. Remembering that I came home to save her, I realize that I've done exactly what everyone else has.

I've abandoned her.

But I wasn't the first.

Shoving her back just far enough that I can breathe, I sit with my spine to my mother's door and close my eyes, my elbows resting on my knees as I curl up compulsively.

"She can't keep doing this," I say, despair giving slowly to anger. "Doesn't she know what it's doing to her? What it's doing to us all? She can't just stay locked up there forever feeling sorry for herself."

When I look up, I see that Alice hasn't flinched. If anything, she has only moved closer.

A minute later, I am in her arms, her cheek damp against my own and her voice so warm.

"Edward. Neither can you."

A week to the day after the first call, my phone rings again. We begin tentatively, but it's natural to speak to each other this way, and before long I have curled myself around the illuminated plastic, laughing in a way that I haven't in so, so long.

Bella's voice quiets across the wire, and collectively we sigh.

"How are you really?" I ask, finally giving voice to the question I have been holding onto since the very moment I gave her away.

"I'm … I'm fine. Now."

Her exhale is another low rush of pain, but in it's own way it's a good pain.

Continuing, she says, "It destroyed me, though. You walking away. I'd been feeling you drifting off for so long, but I was always hoping..."

"Hoping?"

"Hoping we'd find a way to work through it somehow. That I had a chance."

"Bella, I told you, it wasn't – "

"I know. I know. But at the time, I …"

I close my eyes, the words I have been imagining saying to her every night wanting desperately to be set free. Meaningfully, I begin, "I still l– "

"Don't say it, Edward. If you ever cared about me at all. Please."

The words hang unspoken on the air, until finally I agree in a long, lonely rush of air and regret. "OK."

"OK."

After a long moment, I breathe again. "But that was all then, Bella. How are you now?"

"Now? … Now I'm … I'm good. School's good. Life's good. Costa Rica was … amazing."

On the other end of the line, I smile, asking questions and relearning the girl I was too foolish to let know me.

"So … I think I'm going to go stay with my dad for Christmas this year."

I nearly drop the phone, choking slightly as I stall. "Really?"

"Yeah. My mom's going on some cruise or something, so I don't exactly have a lot of options."

"Oh."

"Yeah."

Clearing my throat, I manage, "Do you want many?"

"Many what?"

"Options."

She considers for a moment before answering quietly, "No. Not really."

My voice is lower than I expect as I murmur, "When you're here, do you think … Do you think maybe I could see you? I mean, if you want. You could stop by the bar or … "

She rescues me from myself as I begin to trail off, devolving into the same self doubt from which my silence was born so many months ago.

"I think I'd like that, Edward."

"You would?"

"Yeah. I would."

Alice is sitting in front of our mother's door when I get off the phone. The promise of seeing Bella again reminds me of everything I gave away.

And why.

It reminds me that I chose my family over my life.

And that half of my family refuses to even look at me.

I feel my temper rising as Alice speaks in quiet, consoling murmurs , and I find myself saying, "Mom?" myself, but in a totally different tone.

A tone I've never really used before.

"Mom?"

The resounding silence is finally too much, and in the flash of time it takes for my hand to wrap itself around the handle of the doorknob, I think of everything I've lost. Everything I still want and everything I need.

I speak her name just one more time before I am slamming my body against the door, my sister recoiling. There's a snap and the sound of popping, and then the whole thing gives way.

Grasping at the doorframe, I manage to keep myself from falling over in my surprise, my eyes darting all around the room before landing on a bed covered in tissues.

Before taking in my mother's gaunt and terrified face.

And when I collapse onto that bed, pulling her into my arms, I am not sure if it is to console her lonely crying.

Or mine.

Alice helps me get our mother cleaned up, but the first few steps outside of her room are painful. And loud. Mom screams about how she is waiting for our father, and eventually, I am forced to kneel in front of her and remind that it will be years before he will be home.

When Mom lashes out, I pull Alice away, and we retreat to the safety of the hallway where, once, we were exiled, and where now we seek some sort of refuge.

A single nod between the two of us resolves things.

And when the doctors take my mother away, it is to the sound of her telling me, over and over, that she hates me.

It is still just Alice and me in the house when Christmas comes around. On Christmas day we go to visit Mom and Dad each in turn, and both the hospital and the prison feel like jails.

Across a table, I sit in silence, staring at my mother and screaming in my head that she should have protected us both from this all.

Across another table, through plexiglass, I see my father for the first time since his fall.

And when he whispers his apologies, over and over and over again, I wish that he was dead.

The day after Christmas, I go to work to find three presents from the McCartys.

A bonus check big enough to cover my books for the next year.

The night off.

And seat at the bar next to a brown-haired beauty.

"Edward!"

Bella is off her seat and right in front of me in the time it takes to cross the room, and it is all I can do to keep my itching, empty hands held tightly at my side. She stops just short of putting her arms around me, too, the sharp if short-lived twisting of her features indicating that she is equally uncertain about how to proceed.

Resisting, for the moment, the temptation to take her into my arms, I cannot help but lift an unsteady hand to her face, brushing away a soft fall of hair as I tell her how well she looks, and how glad I am to see her.

She smiles sadly. "It's good to see you, too."

...

"I can't … believe … " Bella trails off, each of us doubled over with laughter to the point where neither of us can breathe. She is falling off her bar stool, her hand burning as it rests so casually on my knee, and she is so close. So warm.

My elbow comes down on the surface of the bar as I twist to look at her, my eyes watery and blurred, but for once the tears are born of laughter and not of emptiness or pain.

"Can't … can't believe you took Mike seriously!"

Our shoulders bump as I give in just a little more, roaring and crying now, and uncertain why something that hurt so much can seem so funny now.

"God, he was so ridiculous, too," I all but howl. "All, Cullen this and … and all 'Bella, she's going places'."

She shakes her head and wipes her eyes, slamming back the rest of her beer before setting it back down on the bar unsteadily, nearly tipping it as she collapses into me with giggles that rock her entire body. "Not with him," she insists. "God, what an idiot."

"Yeah, I was," I respond, not thinking.

And suddenly the moment is serious, her face so close to mine.

And she's so warm.

Her gaze flickers from my lips back up to my eyes, and then she is righting herself, however unsteadily. "I meant him."

I catch myself before I can lean back in, swaying a little as I take another drink, trying to think of just how many times the glass has been refilled and failing. The world swims when I shake my head, and then there is just brown and eyes and soft, pale skin.

"I know," I murmur, feeling her breath and staring intently at her mouth.

"Do you?"

I suddenly can't remember what we are talking about, my stomach flipping and my hands gripping at a bar stool that is too insubstantial to support me now.

"Do I what?"

Falling slightly forward, I catch myself just in time.

But also too late.

"Do you know I wouldn't have gone anywhere without you?"

I know what she means, but I hear it all wrong. The surface of the bar is cool beneath my brow, and I'm too warm.

Too warm.

I can't breathe.

"I'm not going anywhere," I mumble.

"Sure you are." I can almost taste her breath now, it's so near, her hand on my back, and it's a gesture I know so well.

I shake my head. "'m stuck."

Turning my head and opening my eyes, her face is right there again.

"Edward, I would have gone anywhere with you."

Bella's hand leaves a print against the surface of the glass on the jukebox as she tries to steady herself, and I end up catching her. I've slowed down enough to know I've had too many, and in the intervening time she has thoroughly joined me in the land of the drunk.

And the handsy.

She falls into my chest and points lazily at another song.

"Remember that one?" she slurs, and I lean my cheek against the top of her head.

"Of course."

My arm wraps around her as I let my mind play over the first time we ever danced, images of her in a dress and of her glassy eyes staring up at me.

"It was the first time you kissed me," she whispers.

I nod and gulp, using all my restraint to keep from doing it again. To keep from kissing her endlessly.

Longing to lose myself in memory and in her body.

To lose myself completely.

Barely breathing, I rasp out the words, "I know," before pressing my lips so softly to the skin beside her hair.

"I never thought you would."

"I never thought you wanted me to."

We stare forward at the faded album cover as her nail scratches wistfully at the glass.

Slowly, she says, "I did." Her voice is even quieter when she breathes, "Sometimes, I still do."

I close my eyes and press my nose against her hair. "Me, too."

"You broke my heart, Edward."

Again, I breathe, "Me, too."

"I can walk!" she squeals, but she is lying, swaying erratically with every step, and there is something around the edges of her face that is positively green.

My need to keep her upright is only part of the reason I pull her more tightly against my side. "You're drunk, Bella."

"Whatever." She laughs. "So are you."

"Touche."

An uneven patch of sidewalk quiets us for a few minutes as we each try not to fall down. Ahead I can see her father's door, and it makes the already-sickly feeling in my stomach bloom.

I'm out of time.

She chooses just that moment to plummet forward, her feet falling out from underneath her and I am reaching wildly, intent on catching her. As my arms close around her waist, I let out a rush of air. Her body is so close to mine, our eyes searching, noses almost touching, and I can feel her breath. Her warmth.

The need she brings to life in my aching body.

"Bella..."

"Edward."

Time freezes, and I can feel the heaviness of a moment I have been both dreaming of and dreading. One part of my mind tells me that she knows everything and that she loves me all the same.

The other reminds me that nothing is the same.

Her hand is burning against my heart, slipping, and then fingers curl like claws at the collar my shirt. Pulled ever closer, I let my forehead rest against hers, our lips so close that they brush as we breathe.

She closes her eyes.

And then, instead of pulling, that hand is gently but firmly pushing me away.

"You love me," Bella breathes.

"You told me not to say –"

"But you do."

I stare into her eyes. "I do."

It's not an accusation when she says, shakily, "But you're not ready."

I want to be.

God, how I want to be.

Her lips are warm against my cheek as she whispers, "When you are, you know where to find me."

And then it's my turn to watch her walk away.

"I'm sorry."

The words almost blind me as I check over Alice's backpack, making sure that she has everything.

My mother has been home from the hospital for a month and the warmth of spring is creeping over the cold and lonely house. It's also creeping over me.

When I turn up to look at her, I meet watery eyes that remind me of my own, slender hands twisting at knuckles.

"I'm so sorry, Edward." They are the words I have been longing for, coming from the mouth I never dreamed would speak them, and for a minute it seems like all I can do is stare. Mom keeps talking as I gape at her, her voice growing shakier and yet more convincing with every word. "For not being here. For making you shoulder all of this on your own. For setting you back a year."

I have to look down, unable to face the full tally of everything I set aside.

"I know – I know what happened with you and Bella probably has to do with all of this, too. And I'm just … I know I can never make it up to you. But starting now, I want you to know … I'm trying."

I nod and rub a hand across my eyes, standing without looking at my mother as Alice comes into view. My sister's gaze is penetrating, and in it I can read her question. Evading it, I pat her shoulder and pull her in for a quick, tight hug, watching my mother all the while as I slip Alice's backpack over her shoulder.

"Have a good day," I mumble.

Alice raises and eyebrow. "You, too."

As the door swings closed, the house echoes, and it is just my mother and me. And it occurs to me, gazing at her as levelly as I can, that I never thought I would ever see her so frightened.

Much less, that I would see her frightened of me.

With wet eyes, Mom turns away, looking as if she is going to retreat.

"Thank you," I say quietly. She stops, twisting to look back over her shoulder at me. "For the apology," I clarify. And then I shrug. "I'd do anything for my family."

"I know," Mom replies weakly. "But that doesn't mean you ever should have had to."

Bella and I talk almost every day, and except for our strained silence at the end of every conversation, it is almost as if we are together again. She tells me with equal parts excitement and resignation that she'll be staying in Hanover for the summer, working with a professor to analyze the findings from the last year's dig, and with no real resentment, I tell her I am happy for her.

As spring approaches, the anniversary of our separation looms large, too, and something in our conversations shifts. Our words grow more open, our separate hurts more real.

On the day itself, we do not mention it specifically, but for the very first time she asks me, "Was there ever anyone else?"

I almost laugh, just barely stopping myself before I do. "No. Never. Not in all my life, Bella, has there ever been anyone but you."

She hums. "I – I tried. I dated a couple of guys, mostly as revenge because I thought you had to be cheating on me. But I never … I didn't …"

"It's OK," I murmur, even though it isn't. Not really. The low ache grows fiery and hot, and I put my hand on my chest to try to contain it.

"No. No, it's not. Because I did try."

"I – "

I don't want to hear. I don't want to know.

She speaks over me anyway. "But I couldn't. Not when I was still in love with you."

Even though I said I didn't want to know, I ask anyway. "And now...?"

After a long exhale, Bella sighs, "And even now, nothing about that has changed."

Alice's school has been out for a week when my birthday rolls around, and I wake long after I would have if I had set an alarm.

Downstairs, everything is quiet, as if it has been waiting for me – a fact that is proven moments later when I show my face. Both Alice and my mother are already dressed, and I am quickly pushed down into a chair at the head of the table, the two of them erupting into a whirl of activity. It's seems strange that it should be so natural. So warm here, after so much cold.

We laugh and talk like a normal family as we eat a breakfast my mother prepared, and I begin to grow suspicious when the two of them begin trading furtive looks.

Finally, Alice gives, and I am almost relieved when she all but pops in front of me, placing two envelopes on the table with a smile she cannot contain.

After so much careful scrimping, I give them disapproving looks, but my hands move automatically toward the envelopes anyway.

"Go on," Mom urges, and I waver between the two, uncertain of which to choose. Watching Alice's eyes, I finally opt for the larger, tearing into it with trepidation and excitement.

But nothing could have prepared me for what I see.

"Mom, these are … these are loan papers."

She nods, tears forming in her eyes. "Your father and I filed for financial aid for you. Between a grant and loan, you're all set to go back next year."

"But – "

"No buts, Edward. Did you really think you were going to give everything away to take care of us forever?"

My hands shake. "Kind of."

"Oh, baby," Mom murmurs, shifting in her seat until she can put her arms around me. "Never. I won't let you. Never."

"But how – "

"I start my new job tomorrow, and your sister's picking up extra hours for the summer, too. We'll be fine, Edward."

"But Alice. Next year, when she graduates – "

"We'll apply for financial aid for her, too. And somehow, it will all be OK."

I shake my head and hug her back, looking at Alice, who is misty-eyed herself as she pushes the other envelope across the table.

"Go on," Alice urges.

Mom lets me go long enough to get my hands through the seal.

I stare at the paper until I can hardly see anymore.

It begins with a high whine. An engine.

It begins with air.

And one more time, I am flying.

"Hold on! Just a minute!"

The voice is muffled through the door, and I smile as I hear something fall somewhere within. There is too much excitement in my limbs, an itching in my hands and running up and down my spine. As footfalls approach, I let my nerves take over, my heart racing and a smile flirting precipitously with a frown as I try to imagine every possible outcome.

There's not much time to contemplate them all. Before I can even lift my bag up off the ground, a lock is turning, a door opening.

And my future is reopening, too.

As the wood gives way, I let my eyes feast on soft curves and warm brown hair, faint smudges of flour across a shirt, and then the eyes I have been waiting for. They widen as they take me in as well, a fist curling more tightly around a dish towel as her other hand releases the doorknob to run fingers self-consciously through her hair. My heart swells as she blushes and smiles and pulls a bit of dough out of the mess of gentle waves.

She's a mess.

And she's so, so beautiful.

My bag falls from my hands as I step up to the threshold, hovering there before finally crossing through and doing exactly what I have been longing to since the night we stumbled drunkenly down a sidewalk toward her house.

Since the night, more than a year ago, when I lied to her and broke our hearts.

With an intensity that frightens even me, I place one hand on each side of her face, reveling at the warmth that flows up through my palms and leaning down to rest my forehead against her brow.

"I love you," I breathe. "I love you and I'm a mess and I'm ready."

Bella stands there, absolutely still, and my chest feels like it is cracking in the wake of her silence, my whole being bent to the work of waiting. As I do, I search her eyes and face and stare at the soft line of her lips as they part to breathe. And I know that they have the power to either complete or ruin me.

All the hopes I hadn't dared to let bloom begin to choke me as I whisper, "Are you, Bella? Are you ready? Will you still have me?"

Tears form in her eyes as she shakes her head, everything turning to ash inside my lungs. "Never again," she finally says, her voice rough and harsh, but instead of pulling away, she is clinging to me, her hands tugging at the back of my shirt as she pulls me in. "You will never, ever leave me out of the loop again. Do you understand me?"

I choke on my own breath and nod. "Never," I murmur.

Her faces cracks open in a wide and watery smile. "OK."

"OK?"

She nods. "OK."

One hand drifts up to cup my jaw, and then I am falling into her lips, kissing wet and hard, sloppy, needy motions of mouth over mouth.

"I love you, too," she manages between kisses. "Always have. Always will."

"Me, too. Always."

I am just self-possessed enough to pull my bag inside before I kick the door closed, and then I am wrapping myself around Bella's body again. We scarcely manage to come up for air as our mouths reacquaint themselves and as our hands explore and feel. She is the first to cross the line when she steps in close enough to me to press her abdomen against my obvious arousal, aching in the wake of a year of solitude.

"Fuck, Bella," I murmur, instinctively pressing against her and moaning slightly at how good it feels to be so close. "We … we should talk – "

"Later." She silences me with a kiss and leads me farther back into her apartment. I try to half pay attention to our surroundings, taking in the new walls that are so much better of a fit for her than the dorm ever was, and which she described in detail over the phone when she was moving. But it's impossible to focus on anything but the heaven of her mouth and hands as they move over me.

I do manage to notice when we arrive in her bedroom. Fluidly, she backs herself up onto the bed, pulling at me until I lie on top of her, nestled between her legs and with my mouth attached desperately to her neck.

"I missed you," she breathes as she tears at my clothes and I at hers. There is a lingering worry at the back of my mind, telling me we should be slow and deliberate instead of rushed and urgent. From beneath me, Bella places a hand against my cheek and whispers, "I'll take care of you."

I groan and shed the rest of our clothes, my body sliding along hers and pressing against her hip. "I can't," I mumble. "I want."

"I'm yours."

Kissing her deeply, I finally let her calm me and pull me closer, positioning me until I slide home inside her body, nearly staggered by the pleasure that threatens to consume everything. Our eyes lock as we move against each other, both naked. Both revealed. As I let a year's worth of wanting begin to crescendo, I promise her over and over that I will never lie to her or shut her out again.

And as she comes, she whispers, "I believe you."

For the longest time, we lie there together, naked and entwined, listening to the rhythm of each others' hearts. Instead of grasping at her, I run steady fingers over all the subtle lines of her face and body, our eyes drifting over skin.

By turns, she begins to ask me all sorts of questions, beginning with how I came to be there at her doorstep on a random Saturday afternoon. I tell her in quiet tones about the gifts I received. The loan papers my parents signed. The tickets.

With wet eyes, I describe my mother's recovery. And then I show Bella the piece of paper that was wrapped around the tickets, written in my father's hand. A note telling me he is proud of me. And thanking me for doing what he could not.

She sits up then, gathering her legs in close to her chest.

Touching my face, she says quietly, "I am, too, you know. Proud of you." She shakes her head. "Not of how you treated me. But in general. What you did for your family was … "

"Duty, Bella. It was my duty to them." I bring myself to a sit before her, our knees touching and the sheets draped loosely around our waists. "Being with you was a dream. And I didn't know how to do it with a reality that was … crumbling."

"It's not a dream, baby. This is real. You and me. It's as real as anything."

"I know," I breathe, meeting her gaze. "Reality though … it isn't easy."

"No. No, it's not."

"And I'm not going to lie, or try to shield you. I'm … I really am a mess. And I'll still be in Chicago for another two years at best. I won't be able to come here often or take care of you the way I want or … "

"Hey." Bella catches my face between her hands, just as I am beginning to bury my gaze in my lap. "It's OK, Edward. Didn't I tell you that you need to let me take care of you?"

"Yes, but – "

"No buts. Let me, Edward. Let me ground you."

As she leans forward to kiss me, I find myself smiling, feeling free at last. Unfettered. Soaring.

And it's frightening to be so free, with my dreams and desires taking flight. Only, as I pull her more deeply into my arms, it feels safe to let the ground go.

Suddenly, it doesn't matter if I fall.

Suddenly, I have somewhere to land.

... FIN ...