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Hello again :-) Happy Easter! After an indecent amount of time - for which I heartily apologize to all of you - I've finally managed to finish the next chapter. I'm sorry I took so long! This chapter is also, I have to inform you, the last chapter of this story. I've spent a long time thinking about it, but this is everything I can come up with, and I hope you like it even without proper warning. Please let me know whether or not you do :-D
I have one last chance to say it, so here goes: HUGE THANKS TO ALL OF YOU FOR READING AND/OR REVIEWING - IT'S BEEN ABSOLUTELY WONDERFUL TO HEAR YOUR THOUGHTS ON THIS! I've been flummoxed by your lovely reviews and interpretations, and writing this has been an experience I never wanted to miss out on. Thank you.
Also, enormous amounts of gratitude go to Arabella's, who's helped me finish a rather difficult last chapter. It's been wonderful to have been in contact with you, and I hope we can keep it up :-)
Finally, here's a short recap:
Our lovely couple went to Italy to resuscitate their relationship. Thing were going well until a member of the Volturi showed up and threatened them. Edward called his family, and they all showed up the following day. Edward is not willing to change Bella and respond to the Volturi's threat, but his family does not immediately agree. They take Bella to Rome, where she blacks out in a restaurant after having been poisoned. She survives, but barely, and Edward asks Bella if he can change her now. She says yes.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way
"A Tale of Two Cities" – Charles Dickens
The world righted itself when she said yes. I'd envisioned different circumstances, longer speeches, smiling faces, happy families, but all it took was a 'yes', and tears, a plethora of machines, a beating heart.
That was all. It was enough, far more than I deserved, less than was her due.
There was nothing left to say, no apology was owed, no further explanations to be given. Life and death merged in that moment, and depravity, regrets, guilt, and castigations were left out of the equation. This was all. No more, and we would go, could go, no further.
I kissed her eyelids, and she smiled while she slept.
Plans. Schemes and inconsistencies that had to be taken care of. Regulated. Grief for the past and joy for the future instantaneously put building pressure on my spine, but I managed not to bend under the weight of regret and happiness. That should, and would, come later, when she was safe, and dead, and could be with me forever.
Identities proved fluid, streaming away that very day, and washing back with the persistent tide the next. Names were thought of, passports produced, and Bella was to die in a few days, killed on impact somewhere in the outskirts of Rome. Edward was to die with her.
Bella slept soundly, her heart beating steadily. Edward watched, and waited.
On the third day, she woke up at dawn. Her smile dispelled the images of her dead face from my mind.
"Today?" she inquired softly, roughly, apprehension dancing at the corners of her eyes.
"Yes," I said from my customary place in the white plastic chair at her side. "If you're sure."
"I am." She licked her lips and blinked sluggishly, taking longer than usual, the drugs clouding her eyes. "Are you?"
"Yes. Of course." The clock ticked obtrusively from where it hung above the door, and I glanced at it swiftly. "Your heart's stronger, now."
She nodded. "Strong enough?"
Our eyes met.
"Carlisle believes so. Enough to make the journey."
"And the rest?"
"That, too. The venom works wonders," I added sardonically.
She nodded again, exhaustion clouding her features. I thought of Carlisle, and the centuries of experience that had allowed him to keep her with me.
"Would you do something for me?" she murmured softly, her eyes closed.
"Naturally." I sat up straighter, trying not to become distracted by the way paper skin, bluish hollows, protruding bones, the imagined smell of ammonia seemed to become more pronounced whenever she lay still and quiet.
"Would you get my phone, and text Charlie for me?"
I inclined my head. There was nothing left to feel.
"What do you want it to say?"
She was silent for so long, and breathed so slowly, that she appeared asleep if not for her insistent heartbeat.
"Dear Dad," she finally whispered. "Off to Naples. Amazing time in Rome, feeling better now."
She paused. I couldn't breathe when she looked at me.
"Very happy. Love you. Bella."
Alice and Jasper left two hours later, taking the keys from the black Mercedes that Bella and I had driven around in during the past few weeks. She was asleep at the time, and they didn't have the heart to wake her and say goodbye. They would come back while she changed, before she woke up one final time.
An unexpected bend in the road, a sturdy tree trunk, and a full tank of gasoline to provoke the spark and ensure the obliteration of any incriminating evidence. A blaze that took in less than a second, a bribe, and some lies, and Edward and Bella were no more.
I almost wished it could have been harder, that it might have taken longer, more of an effort, to erase the brilliancy of Bella Swan's fragile existence. But this was all there was to it. Two lives cut tragically short, and aggrieved father, a flustered mother, and two empty coffins to harbour the delusion.
Its simplicity was horrifying.
When the doctors had left for the night, and the nurses weren't scheduled to reappear for another two hours, I kissed her cheek. Her eyelids fluttered, greyish veins trickling just beneath her skin, and clouded eyes peeked up at me.
"Is it dark yet?" she asked groggily, smelling of painkillers and alcohol, lying perfectly still underneath the covers, her gaze drifting to the window on the far side of the room.
"Nearly," I answered, studying her pale, thin face. "Are you scared?"
She regarded me silently for a moment. Licked her lips.
"Yes," she admitted finally. Her voice was even.
I took her hand.
"Would it still mean anything if I promised you that I'll keep you safe?"
She gave me a small smile.
I silently thanked whatever deity still listened to me, and rubbed my face with my free hand.
"You should hunt."
"Not now," I muttered, feeling inexplicably tired. "I'll wait for you. We'll go together in three days."
Another small smile came my way, tinged with anxiety. I carefully squeezed her hand as I asked the next question.
"Would it still mean anything if I told you that... if you'll have me... whatever I am, whatever is left of me, I'll be yours forever?"
Her smile grew bigger than any of the others, and the answer she gave me was the same.
She was even lighter than before. Her head rested against my chest, a small bud of warmth where my heart would have been beating, if I could have remembered how it felt. Her face was pale against the blurry streetlights of Rome. I'd expected her to look away, to bury her face in my chest, but as soon as we'd landed she peeked out from under the layers of fabric she was swaddled in, her eyes bright and glistening in the night, taking in everything that she could as I ran.
She was saying goodbye.
I decided to let her do so in silence, and turned my attention to the task of remaining unseen as we headed for the countryside. Her heartbeat drummed soft but steady in my ears.
It took no time at all to leave Rome behind, and in just under an hour, populated areas began growing sparse, and the air started smelling of air again. Cypresses watched our silent flight without dismay, and the dark sky gradually began to lighten, though it was probably too early for her to notice. When the ground started strongly sloping upwards, she turned her head and looked up at me.
"Yes. Less than an hour to go. How do you feel?"
She shrugged slightly.
"Good enough, I guess."
"You're not cold?"
"No." Her breath was hot against my shirt, warming the cold skin beneath. "The weather's mild."
"Yes, I suppose so."
She closed her eyes, burrowed her face against my shirt.
"You know, I figured it out. I think."
I glanced at the top of her head, her hair wonderfully mussed.
"Figured what out?"
"Why you could hear my dreams."
I faltered slightly, and scrambled for something to say.
"I thought of the times it happened. How I felt. What had happened before," she continued hesitantly, then fell silent.
"And?" I prompted, anxiously.
She shifted in my arms, and looked at me.
"I think it's to do with hope," she said quietly. "I think I'd given up hope at those times. When you could hear me."
My mind ran through those instances like they'd been collected in a catalogue, each one an example of how right she might be, would be, was.
"Oh God," I heard myself say. "Bella - "
"Wait," she interrupted. "Just wait. You didn't hear the last of my dreams, did you? After I'd woken up in the hospital?"
"No," I agreed. "No."
She again pressed her face against my shirt, and closed her eyes, letting the silence elongate for a while before continuing.
"After everything that's happened, perhaps we should look at what's still to come, and realize that, after all, maybe there is still hope."
Warmth filled me, but it had nothing to do with her breathing. "Yes," I whispered, listening to her slowing heartbeat as she gradually drifted off.
"Maybe there is still hope," I repeated, softly, knowing there was nothing else to say.
The shed was small, sparsely furnished, and smelled strongly of smoked meat, even though it was obvious no one had been here in at least two years.
"How did Alice and Jasper find this?" Her voice was growing rougher by the minute, and I carefully laid her down on the bare mattress in the far corner of the room.
"They didn't. Rosalie and Emmet told me about this place. They came across it a few years ago, while passing through."
Her skin looked grey against the grimy greasiness of the mattress.
"I'm sorry," I muttered. Her eyes followed me as I shut the door and turned back to face her.
"The place is horrible. I'm sorry we couldn't have gone somewhere slightly more decent."
"It's all right."
"This was the only secluded spot we could find within walking distance," I continued, feeling as if I should account for my actions.
"Running distance, you mean."
I grinned, too, though nothing about our conversation was all that funny.
"Yes. Fair enough." I sat down next to her. Her eyes held mine, questioning me.
A gust of wind drifted through the cracked windows, twirling dirt and dust around the room. She was thin, and pale, and dying, and she was lovelier than ever.
"We shouldn't wait too long," I finally brought out. She simply nodded, and shifted laboriously to lie on her side, folding her hands underneath her head as if preparing for sleep. I brushed a few strands of hair from her face, and kept my hand moulded around cheek.
"You remember everything we discussed?"
She turned her head and kissed the inside of my palm, closed her eyes.
"You're not in any pain?"
"No. They doped me up just before you came." Her voice was filled with languid peace.
I leaned forward.
"Remember when you left?"
"I'm sorry I believed you."
Another gust of wind through broken glass.
"So am I."
"I know better now, though."
"So do I. I'll never leave you again."
"I know that. I do."
I kissed her hair, smelling its unchanged fragrance for the last time.
She turned her head towards me, and her lips touched mine, soft and dry as moths' wings.
"Keep your heart beating, please," I whispered against her skin. "Keep breathing. For me."
"Yes," she promised without opening her eyes.
"I love you."
"I love you, too."
I kissed her forehead, her temple, cheekbones, pale veins stroking her eyelids, the sharp angle of her jaw.
Teeth tore through skin, wind tore through cracks, and we had everything before us, and we had nothing before us.
There was nothing left to say. There was no romance, no candlelight, no bathtubs filled with foaming bubbles, no nights filled with acts of passion. That would come later. This wasn't the time – there was no time. Time lay behind us, and directly in front of us, but in these moments, in these endless days of squirming pain and last regrets and deep, swelling moments of unbounded joy, there was no time.
We'd had an age of foolishness, an epoch of incredulity, a season of darkness. But I silently promised that when Bella woke, when her heart stopped beating and she would be whole again, we would have an age of wisdom, an epoch of belief, a season of light before us.