I know it's been way too long, but I promised I'd write an outtake in EPOV and here it is – very, very late as usual. Thanks so much for your patience while I got things in real life figured out.

Fun fact: In The Blue Castle my inspiration for Ladder to the Sun – the Edward character is named Barney… yep, as a child of the 90's I mostly have to ignore that part ;-)


Shine: A Ladder to the Sun Outtake

—|—

Love that will not betray you, dismay or enslave you

It will set you free

Be more like the man you were made to be

There is a design

An alignment to cry

Of my heart to see

The beauty of love as it was made to be

-Sigh No More, Mumford and Sons

—|—

"Well, here it is!"

For a split second, all I could do was blink and ask myself numbly if this was really happening. Had I really gotten on a flight from London to Seattle, rented a car, and driven three hours to a miniscule town I'd visited once when I was ten years old? Was I really standing in a dilapidated hunting shack with a so-called psychic woman I'd only just met?

It's too early in the morning for this shit. I rubbed my forehead, feeling exhausted. This stranger was too… bouncy, too excited, and the cabin that she'd assured me was exactly what I was looking for looked like no one had been inside it, or much less cleaned it for at least twenty-five years.

"I know it seems bad," she said, "but the bones are good, all it really needs is a good cleaning out. And just wait until you see the lake."

Alice.

I shook my head again in amazement that someone like her even existed. She'd seen me standing on a sidewalk in Port Angeles, probably looking as lost and miserable as I felt because she'd taken pity on me. I didn't think I'd ever forget the sight of this tiny woman smiling at me, laying her fingers lightly on my arm and asking what was wrong. I didn't tell her the whole story, not even close, but she'd seemed to sense enough of it, enough to know what I needed. Fast-forward seventeen hours and here we stood.

"There are no near neighbors, at least none you can see from the cabin. You can't get much more private than this Edward."

I nodded and let Alice show me the rest of the small cottage, trying to pay attention to the cluttered rooms and the old relic of a kitchen, but I was distracted by the teasing little glints of blue I saw through the dirty windows. The lake. It was the only reason why I'd come, why I was even considering this... insanity.

Finally, we headed outside by way of an old screened-in porch and bushwhacked through the wildness that had overtaken most of the yard. But Alice was right the view was amazing. On all three sides were mountains, lightly shrouded in fog, blue green water so clear I could see all the way down to the bottom, huge trees sloping out over the water's edge.

It was so quiet. No incessant hum of cars, no people, no polluted air, none of that cigarette smoke and stale beer smell that seemed to permanently cloud the air around me in London.

This was a place where I could hide for awhile. Maybe even heal.

What the hell did I really have to lose? I needed a break, even if it was only for a couple weeks, and Alice had said the cottage was available for short-term rental with an option to buy. If I didn't like it, fine. If I did… well, I'd think about that when the time came. I turned towards Alice, whose bright eyes were glinting like she already knew what I was about to say. Fuck, she probably did.

"How soon can I move in?"

—|—

He thinks he's so good Kate! And I mean, he's an okay musician but you know hard it is to break into that industry. He'll never get rich doing it that's for sure, at least not as long as he doesn't use his connection to Carlisle. He won't you know, he says he wants to make it on his own.

Laughing. She was laughing. They were laughing.

Still, I guess I don't need to worry about it. All I have to do is pat him on the head and tell him I'm proud of him; it's kind of pathetic how little it takes to make him happy actually. But his dad has more money than God, and he'll take care of Edward no matter what, so I'll be rich one way or another.

And he is beautiful… there's that at least…

I woke up sweating, breathing hard as the residual emotion from the dream swamped me, the sound of high feminine laughter still ringing in my ears. It had been so real, so familiar. Tanya's words echoed, making my stomach twist, bringing me straight back to that night.

Three weeks of scrubbing and washing, of clearing brush from the yard, of exhausting myself every day, pushing myself to the limit just so I could fall asleep quickly and stay asleep. And it still didn't stop the damn dreams from coming. I sighed and rubbed my hands across my forehead, wiping away sweat.

My fingers itched for a drink, something strong that would leave me too trashed to think straight. So what if it didn't help for long? So what if I woke up feeling sick and achy and worse than I had before? I craved the numbness, those brief hours when I didn't have to feel.

But there wasn't any alcohol in the cottage and I wasn't dumb enough to go find any. That was a slippery slope, one I'd walked the edge of too many times; if I wasn't careful it wouldn't be long before I really was fucked. Tanya wasn't worth that. No one was.

Besides, nothing stopped me from remembering her. Not for long. The few good times when it had seemed, at least for a little while, like we'd be okay. The bad times, much more common, when she'd sulked or yelled or simply left, and I had to think to myself maybe it's now, maybe this time she won't come back. But she always did, all apologetic and sugary, and the cycle repeated itself. Over and over again.

Every time but the last. As soon as I heard the words, I knew it was over. She made me feel dirty, used. The one person I thought I could trust and all she wanted was my father's money.

And the sick part, the hardest part to swallow was that I didn't even miss her. Eleven years of on and off, eleven years of believing she was my soulmate, and now that it was over I just felt… relieved. I should have been angrier, sadder, should have hated her. But I didn't, and that lack of reaction forced me to consider the possibility that maybe I hadn't loved her as much as I thought I had.

Which only made me feel guilty.

Circles. I was driving myself crazy with them when there was only one thing that really mattered: for the first time since I was seventeen years old the door was firmly closed on Tanya. Maybe that was why this goodbye hurt so much, why I dreamed. My future, everything I'd planned for me, for her, for us, was suddenly gone, cracked wide open. I'd believed I was going to spend the rest of my life with her. Whether or not I loved her as much as I should have – whether or not she loved me… that was the reality I'd built my life around. And now it was over and I didn't know what to do with myself.

I tried to fill the void so many ways: with my music, with alcohol, with resentment. And when none of that helped, I ran away. To Washington state of all places.

But what if this didn't help – what if my plan to surround myself with quiet and space didn't change anything and coming here was just a waste of time? What was there to try next?

Because it wasn't working. Whatever I'd hoped to find hadn't appeared yet. I didn't feel any better, any cleaner, any freer than I had lying on the pavement outside that bar in London, breathing in smog and cigarette smoke. Instead, I was more confused than ever.

I didn't know why I was so surprised. I'd spent the past six months trying to drown everything out, and even though none of it had fixed me, at least I'd been numb for a while. But here, in the middle of godforsaken nowhere, with no people, no alcohol, no distractions, I had nothing to hide behind. It was just me and my thoughts and a cottage that was all but falling down around me.

The cottage… well, at least it wasn't quite the dump it had been when I'd first toured it with Alice. I poured all my excess energy into making the place habitable again, and I found that I liked the uncertainty of it, of not knowing what I'd find until I took the time to wash away all the dust and dirt and made it look good again.

Messy spaces made me uncomfortable, a holdover from my chaotic childhood. I'd never forget being eight years old, terrified out of my mind, walking into my new adoptive parent's home for the first time. It was like nothing I had ever seen before: no trash, no junk, no piles, no dirty dishes in the sink, a refrigerator full of food. My new room was full of more toys than I even knew existed. I was so young, so lost, and I didn't know how to handle it, how to fit in. But then, after dinner, Esme stood up and asked if I'd like to help her with the dishes. It became our nightly ritual, the first tentative bond we'd made, something we still did together whenever I was home. It was at that sink that I called her mom for the first time.

I felt a pang as I thought of that time in my life. My parents didn't know where I was, just that I was back in the U.S. Sometimes, I thought about calling them, but whenever my finger hovered over their number in my phone, I couldn't quite get the guts to go through with it.

Part of it had to do with what Tanya said, but honestly those feelings of resentment and anger I felt for Carlisle – horrible as they were – had been simmering inside me for a long time. My father's celebrity caused a lot of stress between us, mostly because it had happened at the worst possible time in my life, when I was sixteen, just getting a feel for my own identity. I never wanted to be known just for my father's accomplishments, but more than that, I hated having to question every friendship, to hold myself back for fear of being used. But I'd learned to live with it, made peace with the notoriety that came with being Carlisle Cullen's son.

Until Tanya's betrayal. That left me reeling, made me question everything.

It wasn't Carlisle's fault, not really, but I still couldn't look at him, couldn't talk to him. I was too afraid of what I would say. The only thing I knew for sure was that I didn't have room in my life for any more regrets.

Once my breathing returned to normal I pulled myself out of bed, needing to get out of my head before I drove myself crazy. Drawing on a pair of sweatpants, I glanced out the window to see the sun just beginning to rise over the lake.

The outside air felt good, just cold enough to clear my head without being uncomfortable even though it was technically winter. The path down to the small beach wasn't nearly as treacherous since I'd torn out all the overgrown brush, but it still needed work. A gravel path, some landscaping, definitely a dock… but all that would wait until I decided if I was staying until spring.

Before I could talk myself out of it, I waded into the water, hissing a little from the sensation. I stood for a while accustoming myself to the temperature, moving deeper every few minutes until the water hit my knees. Looking around me, I took in the quiet atmosphere, the gentle sounds. Fuck, it really was beautiful, this place. I wished more than anything that it could heal me, that it could take away all the anger and hurt that I felt inside and make it better, make me better. If any place could have…

Unthinkingly I went deeper, submerging myself in the cold, crystal clear water, ignoring the chill. I swam for a long time, practicing all the different strokes I remembered from the swimming lessons I'd taken when I was nine, my mom cheering me on from the side of the pool. As I swam, I felt lighter than I had in months, maybe years. It felt so fucking good I wanted to yell.

My mind swarmed – but not with memories – with fragments of words, phrases, chords, melodies, music. Nothing substantial, but still more than I'd had in longer than I could remember.

I felt exhilarated when I climbed out. Not healed, but looser, more like myself. As I walked back up to the cottage I let myself really look at it, at all the flaws and chipped paint… and I just knew it was mine. Whether this place was capable of healing me or not, I needed it, needed to be here. I needed time to myself, space to myself. I needed the lake.

As soon as it was a decent hour I'd call Alice and have her get the papers ready. The money I needed was in my bank account, all earned from the music career Tanya scorned. I wouldn't use a cent of Carlisle's money.

I wondered if Alice would be surprised to hear from me, but then snorted and rolled my eyes at the thought; she'd probably had everything prepared for me to sign the first day I'd moved in. Psychic and all that.

—|—

Sometimes the staring doesn't bother me. I tell myself that I've gotten used to it, that my skin is thick enough for it not to matter anymore.

And then other times I feel sixteen again, insecure and self-conscious, wishing that my father had never gone on that talk show as a consultant so that he never would have been offered his own chance at fame, one that thrust our whole family into the spotlight right alongside him. It had been a horrible time in my life. Everyone staring, classmates, teachers – all whispering behind my back, then joking and snickering to my face. I hated every minute of it, wanting the whole time to go back to being plain old Edward Cullen.

When I was playing music it was different. On stage, two or three songs into the set, falling into the rhythm that I craved, people yelling and singing and clapping in front of me, I felt like another person. Their staring was fuel; it made me want more and more and more.

But they didn't see, not really. They thought they knew me, but despite the honesty of the lyrics, I never let anyone get that close. Onstage I wore a different skin, and I had complete control of how much of me it showed.

Everything about Forks was different. I'd expected anonymity but that was the last thing I got in the tiny logging town. Alice said it was because I was new and different and intriguing, but mostly because I wouldn't tell anyone why I'd come. You're a mystery Edward, and you know how people love those – especially in a small town where there's nothing else to do. The gossip tickled her, and she made sure to call her mother every couple days to hear the latest, passing on every new tidbit to me.

Gossip. It seemed to follow me everywhere. The rumor mill in Forks was especially vicious and never ending; alcohol, drugs, dealing, fucking a new girl every week, hiding from the law – it was all ridiculous. Never mind that I hadn't had a sip of anything alcoholic since that last night in London, or that aside from a joint when I was seventeen, I'd never done drugs. Or that there'd only been two women in my life.

Musicians were supposed to have a certain reputation, I knew that, but I just couldn't let myself go there. Not that there hadn't been times when I'd been tempted, caught up in the rush of it all, but fuck. I'd always felt this close to turning into Elizabeth, my birth mother, hooked on drugs and sex with no way back, and I'd be damned before I let that happen. Besides, with Tanya there hadn't been a need to look elsewhere. Apart from a ten-month break right after college when I'd reluctantly begun dating another woman, she'd been the only one I ever wanted. I wasn't stupid enough or desperate enough to risk what I had with her for a temporary release.

And I still wasn't ready for another relationship. Certainly, I wasn't going to find a substitute for what I'd had with her in Forks of all places.

Alice didn't know any of that though. It was one of the reasons why we got along so well so quickly; she didn't push, just accepted the "mystery" no questions asked. I wished everyone could regard me with the same nonchalance.

But no. They stared and whispered and I had to turn my back and pretend that I didn't see it. To keep from going crazy I turned it into a game, testing how long I could stay invisible during my sporadic visits into town for groceries or supplies, what I could see when they didn't know they were being watched. It was a trick I'd picked up as a kid when Elizabeth would yell at me to keep quiet and out of the way. Of course, I'd been too young and too innocent to guess what was going on behind those red-rimmed eyes at the time, but as I grew up I got better at reading people.

It was how I maintained distance, how I kept myself detached and apart. After the childhood I'd had I was reluctant to let anyone in; after my father's sudden rise to fame I closed myself off even more. I'd been burned before – by people who looked at me and only saw dollar signs, who just wanted Carlisle's money or influence, who wanted to use me. By Tanya most of all. So instead of blind trust, I took a step back, read emotions, motivations, thoughts. I had to.

So sometimes when I was bored I'd park the Volvo at the edge of the center of town, wear one of my knit caps, keep my head down and see how long I could get away with it. I'd watch Mrs. Stanley, who never missed a chance to smile and simper at me even though she was at least thirty years older than me – and the biggest instigator behind the gossip according to Alice – talking and swearing to herself. Her daughter, who was almost as annoying, sneaking cigarettes behind the drugstore. There were others that I'd come to recognize even if I didn't know their names.

But as I walked along the sidewalk that led to my car, I was almost a hundred percent sure that I'd never seen the brown haired woman sitting in front of the police department before. She was huddled on a bench, a book open on her lap, my age, or maybe a year or two older. Her hair was the first thing that caught my attention, even though it was tied back into a ruthlessly tight ponytail. The watery sunlight caught the strands, turning what could have been mousy and drab into a rich, shimmery reddish-chocolate.

The rest of her wasn't nearly as interesting. She looked pale and tired, hunched over like she didn't have the energy to sit up straight. Her tan jacket made her skin seem sallow and washed out. From the distance, I could just make out the little white Apple earbud wires dangling from her ears.

I kept watching her as I continued down the sidewalk, though I wasn't really sure why. She wasn't pretty or even that interesting. Still, she pricked at my curiosity, made me wonder why she'd chosen to hang out at a police station.

When I reached my car, I glanced back at her one last time, immediately shocked into stillness as I took in how the scene had changed. She'd lifted her face into a shaft of sunlight, closed her eyes and smiled wide enough so that all her little white teeth showed. She looked younger, warmer, softer. Her body began to sway slightly, moving to some inaudible music… My gut twisted. I wanted to know what could make a person look like that, if only for a few minutes. Free and happy and alive.

With one glance back as I opened my car door, I wondered why it mattered so much.

—|—

"You're not joking are you?" I asked, my voice barely above a whisper.

My insides felt shredded, torn up. Some distant part of me wondered how I could feel so much for a virtual stranger – but Jesus, Bella wasn't a stranger anymore. Not to me.

I couldn't believe this was happening. When I'd asked her to go for a walk in the woods with me I thought it would be a good way to take her mind of Alice's leaving. But instead it had led to a brokenhearted confession.

If I was honest, none of the things that happened with Bella over the past few months made sense – that I'd feel a spark of attraction, that I'd become friends with her, that I'd come to care for her. That simply knowing she was okay made me feel better too.

But she wasn't okay. She was dying.

You, I wanted to say the first time I saw her in Alice's apartment. It's you. The girl from the bench with that unexpected smile that made me want to yank out those stupid earbuds and… and what? Who ended up being so much sweeter and kinder and a thousand times more interesting than I could have imagined that day. And she was dying.

She'd always seemed so fragile, which was funny because Alice was four inches shorter and twenty pounds lighter and it should have been the other way around. But where Alice was solid, Bella was translucent, see through. Intangible.

And she wanted to marry me.

A wave of helplessness washed over me. What the fuck did I say to that? I hardly even knew her – but more importantly, she hardly knew me. One electric kiss and some conversation wasn't a basis for what she was proposing. Christ, proposing.

A million years ago I'd wanted to ask Tanya to marry me. I wanted to give her a ring, give her the rest of my life, give her anything and everything she wanted. I'd never contemplated the idea with anyone else, and I couldn't quite wrap my head around it.

Bella was nothing like Tanya, who'd been brash and sensual and determined. She was shy and quiet, oftentimes uncertain. And I was so fucking confused because those traits didn't turn me off like they should have, if anything they only made me more intrigued.

I forced my scattered thoughts to focus. "Marriage? You want to marry me? But Bella… why?" Why me?

A flush tinged Bella's cheeks, staining her skin a delicious pink and I found myself responding to that blush as I had all the others. Shit, it was… endearing how she couldn't keep her emotions hidden around me.

As Bella stuttered and stammered through an explanation, looking miserable yet determined, I realized how brave she was to do this – insane – but brave. "Because I, I want you. When I was seventeen I thought marriage was the stupidest thing in the world… I didn't understand." Something flashed in her eyes that told me she knew exactly how she sounded. Her voice was almost apologetic. Almost, but not quite.

"But you do now?"

"Since I've met you, yes, I can understand wanting to… belong to someone. Wanting to belong to you. To have something permanent in that way."

Marriage permanent. Forever permanent. My name next to hers, no matter what.

Belonging to someone who could never love her back.

I frowned. "Don't you know how unfair what you're asking for is?"

The look on her face stabbed through me with all the force of a knife, making me feel like the biggest jackass in the world. "Of course I know how unfair this is! I'm fully aware that you get nothing out of this – God Edward, do you think I don't know how terrible I'm being to you? I tell you stuff even my own family doesn't know, and I ask you to marry me – and you don't, you don't even…" Her laugh was defeated, tired. "I know that this is the most selfish thing I've ever done, and I'm so sorry for burdening you with this."

"That's not what I mean at all," I sighed. I should've known she'd take it that way.

"Then what do you mean?"

I meant unfair because even though I hadn't known Bella very long, it was enough time to see how special she was. Maybe in another world where I wasn't so messed up… But Jesus Christ even if I could she was dying. How the hell was that fair?

I raked my fingers through my hair. "You say you want to belong to me – I get wanting to give yourself to someone you love, fuck, I've been there too. But I also know that if it's not equal, if it's not mutual give and take, just how easy it is to get your heart broken. Bella I don't want you breaking your heart over me. I'm not worth it."

It hadn't been equal with Tanya. I wanted more, she couldn't – didn't – whatever – have it to give. I wanted solid commitment and every time she turned away a little part of me went cold. I didn't want that for Bella. I didn't want her to look at me and resent me for what I wasn't giving her. Maybe right now she thought it didn't matter… but it would. It always did.

"It's my heart," she argued. "It's my decision to make."

Because she didn't know any better. Shit, she'd probably never even been in love before. All it took was once, one wrong word, one wrong gesture and the crack would grow, grow and fester until it turned us both sick. "Don't you want someone who feels the same way about you?"

Her shoulders slumped in a small, defeated gesture. "In a perfect world, of course I would want that. But the fact is that I have ten months Edward, that's never going to happen for me."

It stung that she thought that way. It stung even more that she was right. She was being realistic, more realistic than I'd be in her situation; that more than anything made me angry. "It should happen to you! You deserve that!" I burst out, my own vehemence surprising me. "Jesus Bella, you've only seen one doctor, what about specialists? Someone has to be able to do something…"

"Yeah, that's what Dr Thompson said. He gave me a list of all these hospitals and doctors I should visit; he told me that if I was very lucky maybe I'd get an extra six months… Chemotherapy, experimental treatments… I don't even know what else, but I'm pretty sure it would mean six months of being too sick to move. I don't want to live that way – but I really don't want to die that way."

The thought of Bella in pain made my stomach clench. She was so delicate. Not just on the outside, but inside too. I didn't know what to say to her. Esme's father – the man I thought of as my grandfather had died of cancer. It had been long, drawn out, horrifyingly painful. Who was I to say that Bella should choose a different way? Hell, if I were in her position I'd probably do the same thing.

"I'm so fucking sorry. I knew there was something… off with you, but I never imagined it was anything so bad."

Bella's head shot up. "You could tell I was sick?" She looked horrified at the idea of being so transparent.

My lips quirked upwards, but there was no warmth in the smile. "Don't worry, I don't think most people would pick up on it; it was just little things."

Little things. Like how tired she always seemed. How thin. How sometimes after dinner she'd get a look in her eyes, excuse herself from the table and disappear into her room for a few hours. A memory flashed of Bella's skin going white, her lips tightening into a thin line… "The night of the concert, you were having an attack weren't you? Are they always like that?"

I watched as she nodded, her normally open expression turning shuttered and aloof, as if distancing herself from the memories. "Before I started taking medicine they were usually worse; some hurt so much that I couldn't even move. But I don't have nearly as many as I used to, and when I do they don't last long. You wouldn't have to worry about taking care of me or anything. Dr. Thompson said that when I…" she swallowed thickly, "die, it'll happen really suddenly; he said that I'll most likely be fine until it happens. It won't impact your life at all, I promise."

She spoke so calmly, so coolly, like she was reading from a piece of paper; that more than anything revealed how much thought she'd put into this. Did that make it better or worse I wondered.

"I know that what I'm asking for is huge," she went on. "You can say no. You don't have to be afraid of… hurting my feelings or anything."

"What would you do if I did?" I asked, honestly curious.

The blush she'd worn all afternoon deepened. "Hope you wouldn't push me away completely. I'm pathetic enough to want whatever I can have with you, however… casual." She looked overwhelmed, helpless. "I don't have any shame when it comes to you."

I wanted to grab her by the shoulders and shake her. Didn't she know how much she was worth? That she should place so little value on herself – it made me furious. That the situation made her desperate enough to even contemplate this, to pick me of all people... Christ she didn't even know my last name. "How can you possibly feel that way about me – how can you love me? You don't even know me. What if all those things people say about me are true?"

Sudden fire danced behind Bella's soft brown eyes. "I know you're sweet. I know you're a good person and you make me laugh. I know that you're the kind of guy who would never miss his friend's wedding, and who would find a way to be there for her without causing any drama. I know that you don't mind being around me and I'm pretty sure you like kissing me."

I'd burn in hell for how much I liked kissing her.

"I know that when you're holding me I feel like I'm home, and Edward, in twenty-six years I've never felt that way before… Whatever else there is, whatever you have or haven't done… it doesn't matter to me."

"You love me that much?"

She looked so fierce, like she wanted to say more, though she settled for a basic "Yes, I do."

"I can't help but think you deserve better," I ground out. She was being so honest, and it hurt that I couldn't give her the same in return. There was so much inside of me that I couldn't share, deep, dark, scarred; Bella didn't need to know any of that. My past didn't need to touch her.

"I don't want anyone else. I want you."

"But why? Why do you want me to marry you? And don't just say it's because you love me; it takes more than love to want to marry someone."

"But I – I've already told you why."

"No you haven't, not really. Please Bella, you have to explain it to me. Tell me what you want."

She didn't say anything right away, but chose her words carefully, thoughtfully. At last she spoke. "I feel comfortable with you. I'm positive that we could be happy together. And… the way you live appeals to me; I want to go kayaking with you in the middle of the night and watch the stars with you. I have dreams about that… I think a small part of me wants to do something that will shock my mom; I want to see the look on her face when I do something completely unpredictable. I really don't want to go back to Charlie's. I need to feel like something's changed, like I haven't ended up right back where I started…. Mostly, I don't want to be lonely anymore."

And in that moment I knew what my answer would be. The rest of it was simple technicality – hammering out expectations, my need for privacy, her wants and wishes.

She had been honest. More honest than anyone had ever been with me since that long ago conversation when Carlisle asked me if I'd like to become part of his family. Just as I had then, I felt confused, on the verge of something too big and incomprehensible. Little twinges of anxiety shot through my gut but I squashed them as best I could.

I could make her happy. What she was asking for wasn't really so monumental. Yes, marriage… but I didn't have to think of it that way. And at the very least we were friends – people got married with less than that all the time. It was just a year, a year to give Bella a little peace, her own place in the world. From what little I knew about her, I was sure that no one had ever taken care of her before. I could do that, I could give her everything she was missing out on. The truth was I missed having someone to take care of, having someone who needed me.

And maybe she could make me happy too. I was lonely, even if I didn't like admitting it, and Bella was so easy to get along with. It felt different with her, flowed differently. Maybe we could both make each other happy.

I wouldn't think about what happened when the year was over. I couldn't.

—|—

Bella curled against me in that sweet way of hers, her skin slick against mine. I could feel her heart beating – almost racing but not quite as we came down from the rush.

I nipped at her shoulder, enjoying the intimacy of the moment. She was so delicate, so soft. It made me want to go slow, to take my time; I wasn't claiming anything, had nothing to prove other than the fact that I wanted her. And I did. Her soft noises, how her fingernails bit lightly into the skin of my shoulders, urging me… I liked laying with her afterwards, our damp bodies pressed tight together.

I laid my palm against her cheek, softly caressing. Her small warm fingers slid down my other arm, before twining her fingers with mine. "This is nice," she whispered, burrowing closer against me. She reminded me so much of a tabby cat, curling into me, demanding my attention.

I gave it to her, wrapping my arms around her, pulling her so that she lay half-sprawled across my chest. I couldn't remember the last time I'd just cuddled like this after sex – Tanya hadn't been into that. Everything about her had been quick – quick to grab, to kiss, to get what she wanted. It had been insanely hot when I was seventeen years old, but now… well, this was nice too. Nicer even.

So much had changed. Bella was different from the worn down woman I'd first seen outside the police station. The transformation began when she'd moved in with Alice and I watched, fascinated as every day since brought color to her cheeks, curves to her bones, peace to her eyes.

Not for the first time I wondered if I would have made a move if Bella hadn't done so first. That first kiss… I hadn't been expecting her to do that, to take charge like that; in the past I had always been the initiator. But despite her boldness and all the attraction I felt towards her, it was obvious that Bella didn't have much experience and I was wary of starting something that might lead to serious expectations on her part.

Nothing about Bella was casual, but given time I thought we might have fallen into some kind of relationship, whether I pretended or she changed her standards, because whatever else, those sparks were damned hard to ignore. And the truth was, I hadn't wanted to.

I tightened my arms around Bella's small waist and she obligingly moved closer to me. God, it felt good. Her warmth, her scent; I could hardly remember how the cottage had felt before her – how I'd existed without her. It had only been a few short weeks and already everything was so different.

It was lighter, brighter; there were actual meals now instead of those disgusting microwavable dinners, and conversations instead the low buzz of the TV. My cat walked around fucking purring because she wasn't alone in the house during the day anymore.

How had it happened?

I couldn't figure it out; one day I'd been minding my own business, going over to Alice's like usual, and there Bella was. Quiet and sweet and trying not to stare at me for too long but not quite succeeding. I was just glad that Alice had a friend since I was worried about her being alone while her fiancé was away in Texas.

And Bella had been… everything that she'd first seemed. Genuine and kind and good, with only Alice's best interest at heart. It was fucking refreshing to meet someone who was exactly what they appeared to be, like a breath of fresh air.

And it had continued to be easy – right up until the moment that she confessed to me that she was dying. Then it had become really, really fucking hard. But I'd never regret saying yes, even now that I truly understood the magnitude of the decision I'd made that day.

I scrubbed a hand over my eyes and let out a soft sigh of frustration; I wasn't good at coming up with words to describe her, to describe what she was to me. Every time I tried, my mind shut down, twisted, got completely fucking overwhelmed. So I just stopped. Stopped trying to put a label on something that simply felt good.

It felt good to see Bella every day. To come in from the studio and watch as she raised her eyes from her laptop and looked at me, a huge smile on her face. It felt good not disappointing someone at every turn. Her small hands brushing along the back of my neck, that maddening way she looked back over her shoulder at me, a mischievous spark in her eyes. To have someone to lie beside in bed. God, in that bed...

If I had known.

If I had known.

If I had known.

In that bed, Bella made me feel like the greatest thing in the world. She was amazing – not the way Tanya had been, with all her tricks and that instinctive, seductive way she moved her body that could get a man's heart racing – who did things Bella hadn't even dreamed of yet. But Tanya never blushed or giggled, never gave me that hooded eyed look that made me feel like I was the only man she wanted, the only man who would ever see that flushed skin and hear her soft sounds.

Bella made me feel that way. Made me feel like I was the only one she could be so intimate, so vulnerable with. After being one of Tanya's many, I was bowled over at how powerful it felt at knowing I was the only.

Bella's only.

Because she wanted me. Only me.

The trust that Bella placed in me was completely staggering, it made me feel just as vulnerable, just as exposed. I wanted to be worthy of it. I wanted to deserve her.

I stared at Bella's sleeping form, barely visible in the light, and the knot in my chest softened. Very carefully, I reached up to brush back a strand of hair, and she made a soft sound and snuggled closer to me.

I stayed awake a long time that night, just watching her.

—|—

I'd never known anything like the fog that covered the lake early in the morning. How it muffled sounds, cocooned you in. It used to feel claustrophobic, but I'd slowly gotten used to it. And it was beautiful in a way, how the wispy strands hugged the tops of mountains, how it settled down into the lake until you could barely see five feet in front of you. How it made the water appear even more strangely blue green.

Bella lay in front of me in the canoe, facing me, her foot wrapped around my ankle, a thick blanket around her shoulders to keep her warm. Her eyes were hooded and sleepy, but she hadn't protested when I'd lifted her out of bed, comforter and all, and carried her down to the dock even though it really was a god-awful early hour.

But I wanted her to see. Not just look out the window at it but be in it, to know what it felt like to see nothing but white all around, to see how beautiful it could be, could feel.

Bella's translucent skin took on an even more ghostly quality in the light. Her hair hung down her back in a long, dark braid, and she looked old fashioned, like a china doll… or would have if not for the flicker of heat in her deep brown eyes.

We didn't say a word, just listened to the sound of the paddle cutting through the water. I didn't stray too far from shore, mostly because I didn't want to be stuck on the lake for hours until we found our own dock. Every now and then we'd hear a bird call, the sound distorted and distant as it traveled over the water.

Bella watched the water move, ripple and splash around us. And I watched her.

Musical notes, soft and delicate hovered the air around me, teasing me as they'd done years ago. I stopped paddling for a second, just to listen.

I'd always loved music, ever since I was a kid and Elizabeth would leave the radio on so I couldn't hear what she and the latest boyfriend were getting up to in her bedroom. That love stayed with me, growing as I did until I couldn't think of myself without it, couldn't see any other path for my life. But lately, I'd grown used to wrestling with each note, each word as I tried to write a song – it was exhausting, time consuming; usually I gave up halfway through, leaving the rest for the next day.

But this, this was different. It wasn't just random notes or words… it was everything. Fierce exultation shot through me, beginning deep in my belly and working its way up. Whatever mental block that kept me from writing was slowly untangling itself. I hoped it lasted past this canoe ride, I hoped it stayed.

I wanted to hum along with the melody, but I held myself back, not wanting to raise Bella's suspicions; it was already bad enough that Foster was her favorite band. I'd meant for us to stay out in the canoe longer but I didn't want to risk losing the thread. Wordlessly, I started guiding the canoe back towards the cottage, and once there carefully lifted Bella out, carrying her back up to the porch so her bare feet wouldn't get cold or dirty. I put her down on her favorite chair, kissed the tip of her noise, and went out to my studio.

It was a small space. I'd built it a few weeks after I'd decided to stay in Forks for the long-term, making sure it had everything I needed: my keyboard, my guitar. I'd covered the long wall with everything that inspired me, pictures, lyrics, words, colors. I barely glanced around me as I sat down in front of the keyboard and began testing the notes that had sounded so good in my head.

It needed the richness of a piano, I knew that right away, but this would work for the moment. Notes spilled out, sweet, evocative, a little naïve. No vocals – it didn't need them. I smiled, amazed that it was coming so easily.

Bella's lullaby.

—|—

A faint sound pulled me out of a deep sleep. I slowly opened my eyes, instinctively reaching across the bed for Bella as was my habit, but the sheets beneath my hand were cool. I heard the sound again, a soft cry coming from somewhere downstairs, and instantly recognized it as Bella. Still muddy with sleep, I pulled back the covers and hastily threw on a sweatshirt.

It was freezing and eerily quiet downstairs; the only sign of Bella's presence was the light spilling from beneath the bathroom door. I was just about to call for her when I heard the sound again, a half stifled moan that instantly sent chills up my spine.

I wrenched the door open and the sight before me made my heart stop.

Bella. Lying curled in a fetal position on the floor, arms wrapped tightly around her thin shoulders. Her back was to me but I could still see the wet marks of tears across her cheeks, shining in the bright overhead lights. On the counter was an empty prescription bottle

She trembled, her frail body looking more fragile than I'd ever seen her. Breakable. Shit, it was too easy to pretend that everything was fine, that there wasn't a tumor in heart, choking off her blood supply. She didn't look sick, didn't act sick…

Had I done this to her? I'd always tried to be careful with her, to be gentle, for a hundred reasons but mostly because I was afraid of pushing her heart too far. And it was good going slow, being thorough, but not if it was putting stress on her heart, not if it was making her feel this pain.

Bella drew in a sharp, stuttered breath and the sound sent guilt wracking through me. She was shaking all over, crying softly, biting her lips to keep from crying out. Stepping closer I could tell the second she realized that I was in the bathroom with her. She stiffened, twisting further away from me even as a faint blush stained her bone white cheeks. It almost made me smile, it was so typical that my Bella would be embarrassed by this.

I got down on my knees beside her and tentatively reached out to touch her shoulder, afraid of inadvertently hurting her. But when Bella didn't flinch away I began to rub lightly up and down her back. She didn't speak – couldn't – but she slowly began to relax, so I let my touch become a little bolder, firmer. Eventually she stopped shaking altogether though I could tell that she was still in pain. Unconsciously, I started to hum her lullaby, and the sound seemed to soothe her.

I curled up behind her, breathing in time with her shaky, stuttered breaths until I could tell when each new wave of pain was about to hit. We stayed wrapped up together for a long time. I did anything I could think of to ease her pain and when I finally felt it leave her body, I leaned forward and kissed the back of her neck in relief that she was still with me.

After a time, I lifted Bella into my arms and brought her back upstairs into bed. She pressed herself around me and all the feelings I'd pushed away in the bathroom came rushing at me. I knew that Bella had attacks; a handful of times I had seen her face go white and watch as she reached for her prescription bottle and go upstairs. But that had been two, maybe three times. Had Bella been hiding them from me? Were they all as bad as what I'd just witnessed or had that only been because she'd run out of her medication? I prayed to God it was just the medication – the thought of Bella suffering that on a weekly basis, daily basis…

Before I could stop myself I leaned down and murmured into her ear, half hoping that she had fallen asleep. "Bella?" She didn't respond so I whispered her name again, a little louder. She didn't open her eyes but one of those soft sweet smiles spread across her lips as she turned towards me. "Mmm?"

She was exhausted, worn to the bone, but I knew that if I didn't ask now I'd never get another chance. In the morning she'd pretend that nothing had happened, but I couldn't go back.

Since that day in the meadow I'd been content knowing only what she'd told me. Bella was going to die – but I'd made it seem as far off and abstract as I could because I couldn't handle the cold reality of it. The finality of it. But how could I just ignore what I'd just seen? Her illness felt real now in a way that it hadn't before. And I had to know.

"Edward?" Bella asked when I still didn't say anything. Her voice was thick with sleep, warm like honey.

I pulled myself together, though worry still seeped into my voice. "What can I do Bella?" I whispered, feeling the softness of her hair beneath my fingers, wanting to hold onto her, though I was slowly realizing that I couldn't. "Please tell me what to do."

I didn't know how to do this. I didn't know how to be with Bella, how to take care of her, how to make it all better. Bella's cool fingers touched my cheek, caressing gently. "You're perfect."

I opened my mouth to protest. I was far from perfect. I'd left her to suffer this alone. I gave her nothing of myself. I'd let her love me when I didn't feel it in return. I couldn't even help by being a sympathetic ear because she wouldn't talk about it, and I didn't try to make her because subconsciously I didn't want to know.

"Bella –" she covered my lips, not letting me continue.

"You're perfect," she repeated, the strength in her voice not allowing any room for disagreement.

She tried to sit up but couldn't quite manage it on her own, so I slid my arm around her and eased her onto my lap. She curled into me, burying her face against my chest. "You are everything, you do everything."

"It doesn't feel like enough."

"No one has ever done as much for me. I – I know I don't make it easy for you, but honestly Edward, aside from… times like this, I'm fine. It may seem really bad right now, but most of the time it isn't, most of the time I don't hurt at all."

Thank God for that at least. The thought of Bella in pain was unbearable. Almost as much as the idea that she could be keeping the worst of it from me.

"I want to take care of you Bella. I don't want you to feel like you have to hide anything from me."

A flash of something dark passed across her expression but it was gone before I could study it too closely. "It's… hard to let someone else take of me. I'm not used to it. And I'm afraid that it's – that it's not fair to you. You didn't ask for any of this."

And she had? She'd asked to suffer, to be so fucking helpless? I said the only thing I could think of to ease her worry. "Bella, don't ever forget that I said yes. I knew what I was getting myself into."

I could tell from the small sigh she made that she didn't believe me, not completely. She spoke quickly, her words tripping over themselves. "You'll be okay… right? After –" she paused, "after it happens. You'll be okay?"

I honestly didn't know. If I had found Bella cold on the bathroom floor tonight, not breathing instead of in the middle of an attack… My stomach dropped out from under me at the idea of it. When that day came, Jesus, when that day came, I didn't know what I'd do.

"Like I said, I knew what I was getting myself into." It wasn't true, not nearly. I hadn't had a clue what Bella would come to mean to me, how much the thought of losing her hurt. The only thing I was sure of was that I didn't regret saying yes.

I never would.

—|—

Bella on the ground.

Bella crying, hyperventilating. Hurting.

And me. Helpless. Fucking helpless. It all happened so fast – the truck swerving into my lane, the near collision, losing control of the bike. We'd both been thrown clear and my body ached everywhere from hitting the pavement so hard, but I pushed aside the pain and quickly scanned Bella for broken bones or cuts. Her face-shield was cracked and scuffed, but aside from a thin trickle of blood on her wrist she looked okay. I was so relieved I wanted to yank her into my lap but I didn't dare until I knew for sure that she wasn't hurt.

"Careful Bella. Don't move yet," I said as she twisted, trying to sit up. "Are you okay?"

"I – I can't b-r-reathe!" she gasped, tearing at the straps of her helmet, her breath coming in great gasping sobs. I covered her arms with my own, trying to still the frenzied movement, but she continued to thrash beneath me. I carefully maneuvered so that my body hovered above hers, immobilizing her. "Shhh, Bella. Stop. You'll hurt yourself," I whispered, my heart drumming a hundred miles an hour.

I was numb. God, it had been so close, too close. I stared at Bella, reassuring myself that she was alive – panic-stricken – but at least she was still breathing. Cautiously, I laid my palm over her heart, feeling it race and pound, making her whole chest pulsate crazily beneath my fingers.

Shit. Shit. Shit. Calm down love, please calm down. That's my girl, breathe, just like that, in and out, in and out.

Vaguely, I was aware of the chatter of voices nearby but I didn't take my attention off of Bella. I kept up a stream of soft murmured nonsense, relaxing slightly as she subsided, her breathing becoming easier. She seemed to shrink into herself, could hardly meet my gaze but I didn't care. I just wanted her whole, safe.

When she was finally calm enough, I carefully helped her take off her helmet and jacket, and just moments later I heard the blessedly welcoming sound of sirens.

The paramedic was efficient and careful as he checked Bella for injuries, talking quietly. I knew I should go talk to the police officer that had finally shown up at the scene, but I couldn't tear myself away from her. She was still shaking, her voice hoarse. And I kept waiting for a sign that she wasn't okay, that her heart…

I followed the EMT back to the ambulance, and as he dug through his medical bag for bandages I asked if she was okay.

"It could have been a lot worse. Your…"

"Wife. She's my wife." The words caught in my throat and I realized with a shock that it was the first time I'd ever called her that – to myself or anyone else.

"Well, she's a very lucky woman to have come away from the accident with just a scratch. For that matter, so are you." I nodded, barely hearing him.

My wife.

I looked over at Bella, who was still sitting on the ground, trembling and far too pale, traces of tears still on her cheeks. She looked frightened, tiny, unbelievably vulnerable. Fragile. Like she would break apart any second. And I was filled with a sudden desire to hold her, to keep her from shattering… because if she shattered I would shatter. The certainty of it made my gut clench.

If she broke, then so would I. If she hurt, I would feel that same pain.

Because I was hers. Because she was mine.

Mine?

I had never wanted it, never asked for it, but she had loved me in spite of that – had still wanted me. I remembered her, pale and stiff, asking me to marry her, asking me to make her mine. And I had done it because I liked her… and because I'd honestly felt sorry for her.

But I hadn't loved her. Even when I came home and the house was dark and quiet and she was in my bed, warm and welcoming and I fell into her arms needing her, I hadn't loved her. Or, at least I hadn't realized it…

Had I loved her? Had I loved her this whole time and just been too stupid and too blind to see it?

I walked away suddenly, only half noticing that the paramedic had begun to clean and bandage Bella's scratches.

I knew I was good at living in denial but this was just… unbelievable. And at the same time, it made complete sense. How could I not have fallen in love with Bella? She was the best thing that had ever happened to me

A sudden determination took hold of me. Screw this, screw the rules, screw pretending that Bella only mattered as a friend. As soon as this mess was over I'd pack her bags and take her to L.A; I'd drag her there if I had to. Carlisle knew everyone in the medical community, the best of the best; there had to be something or someone there who could help her.

Because if this accident had shown me anything it was that I couldn't do it anymore, I couldn't continue passively accepting that nothing could be done.

And God, maybe her condition wasn't as bad as Bella thought. If the shock from the accident hadn't hurt her… if there was even the smallest chance I'd do anything it took – I'd use every cent of the inheritance I hadn't touched in years.

Because I couldn't – could not fucking live without her.

My eyes found Bella again and I drank in the sight of her. I wanted to tell her all the things roiling around inside of me, that I was scared and desperate and overwhelmed, but I ruthlessly tamped down the impulse. I knew that inside I was falling apart, but I steeled myself to hold on for just a little while longer, just until I was alone and could think through this in peace. But despite all the uncertainty, I was sure of one thing.

I loved Bella. And I was sick of the silences, of the little lies. Sick of pretending that she wasn't sick, that I could lose her any day now. I wanted honesty. I wanted the chance of a real marriage with her. Just the chance to have her, to love her.

I'd do whatever it took.

—|—

I could hardly believe where I was, that I was sitting in my parents living room, calmly drinking lemonade. Stranger yet, I was surprised by what I didn't feel. I thought that when I finally forced myself to come back I'd be caught between feeling resentment and guilt for pushing away the only two people who'd always been there for me unconditionally. But with Bella sitting beside me and my parents smiling at me, the only thing I felt was peaceful.

I missed this more than I'd realized, or maybe I had realized but I'd just been too stubborn to admit it. I was slowly beginning to realize how much I shut down during the almost two years I had been gone.

I got so good at pushing unwanted feelings away – anger, loneliness, bitterness… even love. I closed myself off from anything that hurt, that even had the potential to hurt, but luckily I hadn't irreparably damaged my relationship with my parents. I didn't know why they continued to stick with me through all my shit, but I was glad they had.

The first phone call with Esme had been the hardest. I'd checked up with my parents intermittently since disappearing to Forks, mostly through email since it was easiest, but the sound of her voice brought it all back. We'd ended up talking for two hours that night, about everything, what I'd been up to, where I'd been living, even touching on why I'd left in the first place. I smiled as I remembered telling her about Bella – not the whole story, but enough of it so she'd know how important Bella was to me.

My conversation with Carlisle was just as difficult, though not for the same reasons.

He was angry with me for leaving, for making Esme worry. I'd tried to explain how I'd felt then, that I had to get away from him or lose myself. Maybe twenty-seven was a strange age for an identity crisis, but… I'd tried for as long as I could to live under his shadow. What happened with Tanya was the last straw.

It hadn't been easy growing up as the son of someone so perfect, who never seemed to struggle with the things that drove me crazy. He'd brushed aside the inconveniences that came with fame: the long hours, the attention, the complete loss of privacy. Maybe because it was his, because he'd earned it.

I tried to explain how I'd struggled with that anger and guilt, how I hated that I couldn't just be grateful for all he'd given me. Especially since ultimately all he wanted was for me and Esme to be happy. How could you hate someone who loves you so much?

But I'd had all the distance and anger I could stand, and for the first time in years I felt confident enough in myself, in the people around me, in my own skin, to face my parents. I wanted to go home, I wanted to show Bella everything that made me who I was, and that started with them.

"Come on Bella," I said sometime later after my parents left to finish cooking dinner in the kitchen. We'd been chatting for almost an hour and the conversation had come easier than I could have hoped for even if was just the light, superficial getting-to-know-you kind. The deeper shit would come later.

I grabbed Bella's hand and led her over to an old, scuffed upright piano on the other side of the room. It looked a little out of place in the fancy magazine ready room, but I knew that Esme would never swap it out for something sleeker.

It was the piano I'd learned to play on, the scene of hundreds of good memories for me. There'd been many nights after dinner when I'd shyly shown my new parents the songs I'd learned to play during my lessons, or when mom had brought me cookies while I practiced. I still thought it had the sweetest sound of any of the pianos I'd played on since.

I sat down on the bench and gestured for Bella to join me.

"Do you think your parents like me?" she asked, nudging into my side, looking adorably shy.

"They love you," I replied confidently, testing out the keys to see if the piano was still in tune, but of course Esme would keep it perfect.

Bella made a face and smiled wryly. "There's no way you could know that for sure."

"Yes I can. Just before mom left she winked at me." Even though I'd told myself it didn't matter, I was glad that everyone was getting along. It wasn't a secret that my mother hadn't liked Tanya. While Carlisle was more ambivalent – whatever made me happy made him happy, Esme was never fooled by our pretense that everything was fine.

Something inside me warmed at the thought that with Bella there wouldn't be a need to pretend. We argued sometimes, though it was rare, and we both still needed space and privacy – but we needed each other just as much.

I glanced down at Bella's hands, to the sparkling diamond solitaire I'd put there to join her wedding band. At the end of summer we'd be going back to Forks to renew our vows, this time with our family and friends in attendance. It felt right, like the next step in this strange, backwards path we'd taken.

"Just wait until we tell them how we got together." She rolled her eyes, skin flushing. "We'll see if she's still winking at you then."

That would definitely be a little trickier, but I was confident that my mother's inner romantic would be charmed. Eventually anyway. I shrugged and leaned down to kiss Bella's temple, as I started to play the familiar notes.

A sweet smiled curved across her full lips. "My lullaby." We sat in silence for a few moments, listening, as bright sunlight filled the large room. It was all so different from our life in Forks. Brighter, busier, but we'd talked about it and decided that we were ready for an adventure… and when it all became too much, we'd always have the cottage to escape to.

"I can't believe you wrote me a song." Bella murmured, laying her head against my shoulder. "Foster wrote me a song." She hadn't believed me when I first told her, had been shocked speechless in fact. I laughed a little at the memory; she'd accepted that I was Foster without blinking, but the thought that I could have written her a song… God, she was perfect.

"It's beautiful Edward," she whispered when I was finished.

"So are you." She rolled her eyes at me again, but the grin on her face told me she liked hearing it all the same. I was just about to kiss her when my mother called out that dinner was done.

Ready?" I asked, offering her my hand to help her off the bench.

Bella smiled up at me, looking radiant and alive. I didn't know why I deserved the miracle of her – sometimes I still felt overwhelmed, nervous that the bubble would burst and I'd be left with less than I had before. But when that happened all I had to do was look at her and know that it was right. That it was perfect.

She took my hand and squeezed it lightly. I knew right then that she felt exactly the same.


And there it is…

I've made an album of the various banners and pics I've collected for this story. Link is on my profile.

Lastly, thanks again to everyone who's stuck with this. I couldn't have written it without you.

~Rosybud