Well, hello there! Long time no update, I know, I know. But c'est la vie, mes amis. 2012 was generally not kind to me in many ways. In other ways it was a blessed year beyond measure. In any event, it's a new year and, not only am I writing again, but I have finally managed to wrap this story up for you. Yes, that's right, this is the last chapter of Arms. There is an epilogue in the works, and I estimate that it's about halfway done as of today. So . . . enjoy this, and with any luck, I'll see you all in a week or two. Thank you for sticking with me, and many blessings to you all in 2013!

~Ginnie

~o~

*To recap: Bella and Edward were separated eight long weeks after Bella's tragic past caught up with her and a rogue FBI agent tried to use her as a bargaining chip to get himself out of some hot water with the same crime family that murdered Bella's parents. Finally reunited, Edward refuses to consider letting Bella go again and has made the choice to join her permanently in the Federal Witness Protection Program. He had only one demand in exchange for giving up his identity and his family: for Bella to marry him "for real" before they leave Washington forever to assume new identities and begin a new life together.

**Warnings: The top of the chapter starts out a lot like the last one left off, but as for the rest, well . . . you may or may not want to have some tissues nearby.


Chapter 23:

BPOV–

His lies on his side next to me, his fingers grazing my body and his eyes wide with wonder. I blush and shiver, but smile as I watch him explore. He circles each breast, then my nipples. They're darker now thanks to pregnancy hormones, and the rapt attention he pays them tells me he's noticed.

It also has me squirming, but I enjoy watching him and witnessing his thoughts play out behind his eyes. A slight crease forms between his brow and stays long enough to make me wonder what he's thinking about this time. I can guess when I catch him open his mouth as if to speak and then close it again just as quickly.

"You're trying really hard not to ask how big they're going to get, aren't you?"

His eyes dart to mine, surprised, and then he laughs, lowering his hand to my stomach.

"You know me so well already."

I smile. "That's a good thing."

He leans over and kisses me. "Yes it is… especially since we're getting married today."

I giggle, a nervous but happy sound. "Yes, we are."

It's been a week since we made our decision and it's still just as surreal as it was seven days ago. Married. I'm going to be married.

Somehow I always figured I'd be the kind of girl to have a long engagement, to do everything in the right order, at the proper time, and with the blessing of both sets of parents. Yet, here I am… my parents dead, his parents out of the picture, and me knocked up and getting married after a weeklong engagement. I can't help but be amused by the situation because the only other alternative is to be heartbroken.

My one comfort is that I've already told Edward all of this and he understands completely—if things were different, we would not be headed to the federal courthouse today. We might have been planning a wedding, as my amazing fiancé was quick to point out, but we would never have eloped.

He swirls a lock of my hair around his finger and stares down at me. "Are you having second thoughts? You look nervous."

I shake my head. "No second thoughts. I'm a little nervous, but excited. And at least I don't have to worry about tripping over my dress in front of a huge crowd of people."

He chuckles lightly. "That would have been something."

I whack his chest. "It wouldn't have been funny."

"Yes, it would have."

I roll my eyes. "Shall I trip for you today, then? I'm sure it could be arranged."

"Sure, why not. I'll catch you and it'll be a good story for the grandkids."

"Grandkids? Getting a little ahead of ourselves again, aren't we?"

He smiles and wags his eyebrows. "We'll see..."

I want to be exasperated by him, but I can't be. His positive outlook on our future is helping me more than he knows. His enthusiasm for sharing a life together and for having a family of our own is infectious. I've even caught myself humming lullabies and daydreaming about a backyard full of toys in the last two days.

It's such a change from how I've felt in the past two months. I like it, but I still feel a moderate amount of fear. If anything happened to either Edward or the baby I don't think I could survive it. I couldn't live through losing everything again.

A finger traces over my bottom lip. "Baby… where did you go?"

I sigh. "Nowhere. Just thinking." He gives me "the look", so I elaborate. "About how much you and this baby mean to me."

His green eyes search mine. "Feeling afraid again?"

I nod, unable to hide it from him. We've talked about this, too. About my fears, and his.

He slides his arms underneath my shoulders until I'm wrapped so tightly in his embrace that there's barely room to breathe between us.

"Want me to remind you again?"

"Yes," I whisper.

"Okay. We're safe, Bella. We're protected. Our baby is protected. No matter where we go, there will always be someone looking out for us. There will always be someone to help us when we're in trouble. Right?"

I inhale shakily and nod.

His nose nudges mine. "And we'll get a dog too. A big ass German shepherd."

I smile, but think about it for a moment and make a face. "Don't they shed a lot?"

He grins. "A Doberman Pinscher then, and you'll teach me to shoot."

I'm not so sure about that idea yet, so I move on. "We can get an alarm on the house we live in."

"Exactly, and we'll put bullet proof glass in both our cars."

I laugh as much as I'm able while squished against him. "Very funny."

He raises an eyebrow. "You think I'm joking? I'm as serious as a heart attack."

"You are not," I say, giggling.

"You're right, I'm not, but it got you laughing."

I bend my legs and wrap them around him, pulling him closer to me, if that's possible. "Thank you."

"You're welcome."

He kisses me, slow and soft.

He pulls away, and although I can feel his body responding to the way I'm wrapped around him, he makes no move to take advantage of it. I wonder if he will, but honestly don't feel up to round two this morning.

Which reminds me…

"Do you think it's bad luck for us to be in bed together the morning before we get married?"

He seems taken aback by my question. "Are you serious?"

"I don't know. Maybe a little. Isn't it against tradition for the groom to see the bride before the wedding?"

"I think it's against tradition for the groom to get the bride knocked up before the wedding too."

"Nice."

"Oh, come on, I didn't mean anything by that. Besides, we're just making it legal, baby. I'm pretty sure God already considers us man and wife."

"What makes you say that? And since when are you a religious person?"

"I'm not, but I do believe in a higher power. Carlisle's father was an Anglican minister and I was given the same sex-talk he gave Carlisle. It included a lot of discussion about the emotional and spiritual aspects of sex and why those were the real reasons you should wait until you're married to start having it."

I arch an eyebrow. "I can see that was a very effective talk."

He laughs. "It was… for the most part."

"Uh-huh."

"What? It was! I was never interested in meaningless sex."

"So that first night…"

"Do you even have to ask? I was already in love with you then."

I smile. "I know, baby. I loved you then too."

~(~)~

The ride to the courthouse is quiet, but as soon as we arrive, we cause quite a commotion. At least six plain-clothes officers escort us every step of the way between the car and an unmarked stairwell. As we ascend, they surround us, which makes climbing the stairs a bit claustrophobic.

I'm relieved when we finally reach the sixth floor and, after waiting only a few moments for guards to clear and secure the hallway, we are taken to a conference room in the same part of the building we'd been in last week.

Once we're safe inside, we're allowed to remove the black, hooded windbreakers that we were given to wear while they were moving us. Alice takes them and even smoothes down my hair where the hood messed it up.

"Okay, we're going to do your photos for your new IDs first, as well as have you give us signatures in your new names. The office will use those to prepare all your documents so they'll be ready for you when you arrive in your new location. Just remember that you're not to mention your new identities to anyone, for any reason, until that time. Not even in this building. Everyone who needs to know that already does. Understand?"

Edward and I both nod, and I can't help but look at him and imagine calling him by his new name. It's hard to wrap my mind around, but if that's the least of our troubles from here on out, we'll be lucky.

"Obviously, the final order of business is getting you two married," Alice continues, smiling. Edward grips my hand a little tighter. "I've made arrangements with one of the judges to officiate, and we already mailed in your application for the license, so we just have to pick it up. I'm fairly sure I can convince them to hand it over, but if not, we'll have to escort one or both of you down there to pick it up before we proceed to the judge's chambers."

I nod and Edward says he understands.

"Any other questions for me about today?" Alice asks.

We shake our heads.

She smiles again, but for the first time, I notice there's something almost mischievous about it. "Okay, then. This should be pretty quick. I'll go let the office know you're here. Young and Uley will be right outside the door, so if you need anything, just knock."

She turns to go and then stops. "Oh, and Bella... there's a bathroom right there. Just in case."

She's gone before I can really respond and Edward and I are looking at each other incredulously.

"That was… odd."

He nods. "Yeah, didn't she radio in that we were here when we pulled in to the garage downstairs?"

I hadn't even thought of that, but he's right. "Yeah, she did."

"She's up to something. Or something's wrong."

I sigh. "I don't think anything's wrong or she wouldn't have left us."

"Are you sure?"

"Positive. You might be right about her being up to something though. This is Alice we're talking about."

He frowns, looking at the door and I follow his gaze, listening. Muffled voices and footsteps sound for a moment, but then pass.

I turn and pull Edward towards a chair. "We might as well relax and get comfortable. There's no sense worry–"

Before I can finish my statement, he pulls me back and spins me around. I'm a little bit dizzy from the motion as he kisses me deeply.

"What was that for?" I gasp when he lets me go.

His eyes rove up and down the length of my body and he steps back, holding my hands out to the side. "I don't think I've told you yet how beautiful you are in that dress."

"Oh," I say, looking down at the simple, white, A-line garment.

I have to admit that it is pretty, especially with the sapphire blue accessories that Alice chose to go with it—a thin patent leather belt and peep-toe shoes. In typical Alice style, they'd been a surprise. As are the new clothes she'd chosen for Edward.

His are as simple as mine, but just as nice. His new navy slacks and white pinstripe shirt actually match my outfit, but not obnoxiously so. In fact, with his top button left open and his sleeves rolled up, there is nothing obnoxious about him. I can't help but run my eyes over him, appreciating his form the way he did mine.

It's only the sound of his smooth laughter that brings me back the present.

"What?" I ask, looking up to find his highly amused eyes staring down at me.

"You'd think I was the one showing off all that leg with the way you were just looking at me."

My cheeks heat, but I just shrug. "It's not your legs . . . it's your arms."

"My arms?"

I nod. "The way you have your sleeves up? It's pretty sexy."

"You're kidding."

"Nope." I shake my head and reach up, snaking my arms around his neck while I press my lips to his. It's a quick kiss, but a good one.

"I'll keep that in mind in the future," he says when he pulls away.

We laugh and he takes me by the hand, sitting down before pulling me into his lap. His long fingers find my ring and play with it, while I run my free hand through his hair. It's one of those easy moments that require no words and it's nice to learn we can have those in the midst of a day as busy and profound as today.

I'm just about to see if Edward wants to play another round of twenty questions, something we've been doing a lot to pass the time and discover new things about each other, when the door opens and Deputy Young tells us to follow her. She and Uley escort us to the office of the U.S. Marshal for the Western District of Washington where Alice is waiting for us.

A half hour later, our pictures taken and our signatures saved for future use, we leave the office again—back in our black jackets with the hoods up—and head to the stairwell with our security team in tow. They escort us two flights down, where once again we wait on the landing outside the hallway until Alice gets the all clear.

When I glance up at Edward, I notice he's starting to perspire slightly and I wonder if it's dawning on him how seriously they take our security and why that is. It's hard to pretend that there isn't a clear and present danger to your life when six armed guards escort you everywhere you go. Squeezing his hand, I get his attention.

"You okay?"

He nods, smiles, and then kisses me. "Yeah."

"You sure?"

He takes a breath and nods again. "I'm good now."

There's no time to get into why he wasn't 'good' because it's time to move out into the hall. He keeps me close to his side as we go, which reassures me that it's most likely not cold feet he's experiencing. In fact, the way he's practically pulling me along makes it hard to deny his enthusiasm to get to our destination.

Then again, maybe he's just anxious to get out of the hallway.

Eventually we come to a door and Alice disappears inside with Young, leaving us with Uley and the rest of our protection detail.

Young pops her head back out a few moments later and ushers us inside an office with a small seating area to the right and a woman sitting at a desk to the left. In between them stands an impressive set of double doors, the large brass letters over the frame reading, Judge's Chambers – The Honorable Judge Marcus Aro.

Deputy Young says something to Uley while I take a deep breath to soothe the nerves that have suddenly flared up. Turning my head towards Edward, I see him doing the same.

He smiles down at me and lowers the hood off of his head. "Here we go."

"Yeah, here we go." A nervous giggle escapes me as I lower my own hood.

Deputy Young seems amused by us as she takes our jackets from us, telling us she'll hold them while we're otherwise occupied.

We thank her just as Alice opens the door to the judge's chambers.

"We're ready for you," she says.

Edward holds his hand out for me and I slide my hand into his with a thrill.

Now that the moment is here, I'm really, truly happy about it. Happy with the setting. Happy with the dress. Happy that it's just me and this man—the man I love and want to spend the rest of my life with—committing ourselves to each other.

It may not be what we might have wanted in a different circumstance, but it's perfect. Perfect and intimate and everything we need.

Alice introduces us to the judge, an odd looking gentleman with wavy brown hair and an enormous forehead. He smiles and shakes our hands before asking if we had any preferences for our vows.

A quick glance at Edward and we're both shrugging.

"Traditional, I guess."

The judge nods and moves back behind his desk while Alice and Deputy Young move to stand on either side of us. I get a quick encouraging smile from Alice before my attention is drawn back to the judge.

He puts on a pair of reading glasses and smiles again at us.

"Today we are here to witness the legal union of you, Edward Anthony Cullen, and you, Isabella Marie Swan, as husband and wife. What we do today is done in conformity to the laws of the state of Washington and in the historical Western tradition of the act of marriage. Before we begin, I would like to confirm that you both have requested to be married and you are both here of your own free will and desire?"

Edward and I glance at one another, our hands clutching together a little tighter, and nod.

"Yes."

"We are."

The judge glances behind us. "Do either of the witnesses know of any reason why we may not legally continue with this wedding?"

Both deputies answer with a simple no.

"Very good, then we can continue."

The next few minutes are a blur and I'm suddenly feeling a bit sad that we don't have someone to record this day for us. I know I won't remember everything we say to each other and I want to. I want to remember every precious word, as simple as they are.

"To love you and care for you…"

"To accept you with all your faults and your strengths…"

"To be your shelter in times of trouble..."

"Forsaking all others, I choose only you, for as long as we both shall live."

Edward's warm lips kiss away the tears that accompany those final vows and the judge has to clear his throat to remind us we're not quite finished. Fortunately, he seems amused rather than rebuking, and continues without pause.

"Edward and Bella, you have made your vows. Do you now have rings that you wish to exchange?"

"Oh, I… I'm already wearing mine." I glance up at Edward questioningly.

"We'll get them another ti–"

Edward is interrupted by a not so subtle cough coming from behind me. Turning around, we're both surprised to see Alice is holding a small velvet bag up, swinging it from her fingers.

"You have rings."

Edward stutters out a thank you, but I throw my arms around Alice's neck and hug her.

"You think of everything. Thank you so much."

She chuckles and kisses my cheek before pulling away from me and handing me the bag.

"That's my job."

I hug her once more before turning around to face Edward. He takes the bag from my hand and then drops the rings into my waiting palm. The simple platinum bands are nearly identical except for their size.

"They're perfect."

I smile up at Edward as he takes my ring, and I hold onto his.

The judge says a few more words and then cool metal slides over my trembling finger and clinks against the ring already in place there.

Edward's eyes are exultant as I manage to return the gesture for him.

"I love you," he whispers, when it's in place.

"I love you," I echo, answering his smile.

And just like that, with one final declaration from the judge, we're married.

"Let it be known that these two people have exchanged vows and given and received rings in my presence and before these witnesses. According to the laws of these fifty states, I hereby pronounce they are husband and wife. Edward… you may kiss your bride."

The words seem to echo through the nearly empty chamber, taking my breath away even before Edward can. His joy fades into a tenderness that makes me tremble as he cradles my face between his hands and kisses me swiftly, purely, adoringly.

It's a perfect, timeless moment... the sealing of our vows and binding of our fates together.

When I open my eyes all I see is Edward. That is until a small movement catches the corner of my eye and I realize how carried away we'd gotten. I hide against Edward's chest a little as the judge congratulates us.

Edward shakes his hand. "Thank you, sir."

"A pleasure, my boy. I wish you both the best of luck."

He smiles at us and we smile back. I have to wonder if he knows more about us than he lets on, but don't ask him.

Alice clears her throat then and we turn to face her and Deputy Young. They congratulate us and Alice steps forward to wipe the tears from beneath my eyes.

"Look at you," she coos. "You're a mess."

I smile. "A happy mess. Thank you, Alice."

To my surprise, she frowns and shakes her head. "I hope you'll still be thanking me at the end of the day."

I go completely rigid next to Edward, feeling his hand tighten over mine at the same time.

"What do you mean?" I ask.

Alice turns to Deputy Young and asks her to give us a few minutes and have Uley get the car ready. I am clueless as to what's going on and glance up to see Edward's as worried as I am.

Instead of explaining the moment Young leaves the room, Alice waves the judge across the room and walks away.

"I'll be right back."

My mouth pops open to protest, but she's already gone. Edward and I watch apprehensively as Alice and Judge Aro speak in hushed tones near the door in the far corner of the room. Alice seems very serious, but the judge is relaxed. He nods and smiles, patting Alice's shoulder at last.

"I'm just glad I could help out."

He leaves through the far door, waving at us just before it closes behind him. Finally, Alice turns around and claps her hands together.

"All right, I need you both to listen to me. I have surprise, but it's not exactly… authorized. We won't have very long. You need to know that in advance."

I fist the material of Edward's shirt where my hand lies at his back, watching as Alice meets his eyes, then mine. I try to brace myself, but I'm not at all prepared for what she reveals.

"The Cullens are here."

Oh, God…

"They're waiting right now in one of the courtrooms adjacent to Judge Aro's chambers."

I gasp and next to me Edward starts in surprise, before letting out some odd combination of a shout and a whisper.

"Are you… are you serious?" he asks.

Alice nods, a small smile gracing her features.

"You both said you had one regret and only one regret about getting married like this. All things considered, that's less than most people who are headed to the altar. I just thought…" She shakes her head. "After everything that happened, and all that's about to happen, you deserve at least this."

The relief and gratitude I feel on Edward's behalf is immense, but it's shocking nonetheless. She'd had us so convinced this wouldn't be possible. I don't think either of knows how to react.

I turn my head, facing him. "You get to say goodbye."

It barely comes out a whisper, but Edward hears it.

He gazes down at me, offering an awed smile. "So do you."

It's then that the gravity of Alice's surprise hits me.

Without having to face the Cullens in the flesh, I've been able to overcome most of the guilt I've felt in the last week and accept Edward's reassurances. Now, I can feel it all coming back with a vengeance. I'm about to find out for myself if they're really okay with his choice. If they're okay with me.

I shake my head as if to argue with Edward. Why would they want to say goodbye to me? Why would they want to say anything to me? Why would they even want to look at me, knowing I'll be taking him away with me?

Edward sees the weight of my insecurities in my eyes and begins to say something, but there's a knock on the door interrupting us.

"Are you ready?" Alice asks.

Edward hesitates. "Umm…"

He lifts my chin to see my eyes, searching them. I know I have to be brave for him so I smile. This is for him. He needs this.

"It's okay," I reassure him. "They're your family. You need to say goodbye."

With a look of adoration he pulls me up into his arms, kissing me quickly before the door on the other side of the room creaks open.

Alice stands in front of it, one hand ready at her holster. The man asks her if we're ready, eyeing us briefly. Edward lowers me to the ground and gives my hand a gentle squeeze as Alice answers him. She turns to double check with us before allowing the Cullens inside, and when she sees we're ready, she reminds us of how little time we really have.

"You'll have fifteen… twenty minutes, tops. Okay?"

Edward nods in understanding and I digest Alice's warning, realizing quickly I need to buck up and allow the man at my side to make the most of the opportunity we've been given.

He glances down at me, and I take a centering breath before standing straight and taking a supportive stance at his side. Keeping one hand in mine, I wipe my eyes frantically with my free hand to try and hide my mini-breakdown.

Edward's breath tickles my ear. "It'll be fine, sweetheart. You look beautiful."

I breathe deeply and nod, plastering on a polite smile not a moment too soon.

Alice stands aside to reveal a teary eyed Esme Cullen standing in the doorway with Dr. Cullen right behind her. Over his shoulder I can see Edward's brother, sister, and a blond woman I've never met before. One glance at Edward and I can see him trying to place her as well before his eyes lock back on his mother.

Silence hangs heavily in the air, ripe with anticipation. I don't know what to expect and it appears everyone else is in the same boat. We all stand staring at one another until Esme breaks down and crosses the room pulling both Edward and me into a bone crushing hug.

"I love you," she cries. "I love you both, so much."

Caught off guard, I lose hold of my emotions the moment her declaration leaves her lips. Before I can stop it, I'm sobbing and clinging to this woman who has been nothing but kind to me since the day I met her. She has always been genuine, but at this moment, her love and acceptance of me are nothing short of amazing.

With whispered words she tells me how worried she's been for me, how sorry she is that they weren't there when everything went wrong in Forks. She tells me that she and Dr. Cullen prayed for me to be brought back to them, and reveals how badly Edward dealt with my absence. I want to apologize —for what exactly, I'm not sure—but she simply whispers in my ear that she couldn't fault me for falling in love with her son and then hugs me tight when I try to apologize again.

"Stop it, what's done is done. You love him. He loves you." She pulls back to brush the hair from my face, wiping my tears as she does. "He loves you so much."

I nod and sniffle as I attempt to say that I love him the same. That she won't have to worry about me ever taking him for granted. She simply hushes me and pulls me back into her embrace. Edward's arm is wrapped around both of us, across my back.

His thumb rubs soothing circles as he speaks quietly to his mother while I cry. "She's been feeling such guilt. It's tearing her up."

Esme sighs. "She's been through so much. I'm just glad we got a chance to see you both so we could tell her we understand." Her voice lowers, but I can hear the tremor in it. "It's not like any of this is her fault.

"You hear that?" she asks me directly. "None of this is your fault. We don't blame you, sweetheart. We're just sorry we don't get to keep you."

Her arms tighten around me, her voice cracking over the last of her words. I'm fairly sure she mouths something else to Edward and I can feel him respond by increasing the pressure of his hand on my back.

Eventually, after a few more words, Esme is persuaded to hand me off to the others. Dr. Cullen is first, his hug less familiar than Esme's but his eyes and words just as kind. Emmett is both more enthusiastic than his parents, and at the same time, more emotional. He feels terrible for letting me go the day Edward was shot and tells me he wished he'd known to hide me away himself. He's also quite glad to see me again, and most especially glad to see me with Edward.

It's only when he says congratulations and asks to see the ring that I realize the Cullens were informed of our purpose here today. I'm stunned, and look around to see how everyone else is taking the news.

No one seems upset or particularly surprised. I glance at Edward and he shrugs. It seems he really did prepare his family for this. There is actual laughter and genuine excitement as they each take a look at my engagement ring and our matching wedding bands. Edward fills them in on the brief ceremony, and for a moment everything feels almost normal.

At least it does until I catch sight of Alice checking her watch. Quite suddenly there's just not enough time.

No time to tell my almost family just how much I wish things could be different. No time to convey what they've meant to me, or how grateful I am that they took me in to their home and brought me to the love of my life. There's definitely not enough time to tell them how sorry I am that they'll never know or even see their grandchild, niece or nephew.

The mere thought of what I'm taking from them sends me reeling and I begin to panic. They should know. We should tell them.

But how can we? What good will it do?

An endless stream of apologies flows from my lips. They try so hard to convince me that no one blames me for anything, but they don't know what I' m really apologizing for.

It makes me feel terrible until Tori—who has remained silent on the side of the room with the unknown blond woman—gets everyone's attention with a completely unexpected show of support.

"Don't apologize for making my brother happy, Bella. Or for being the kind of woman worth sacrificing for."

I blink, my thoughts crashing to a halt. The rest of the room falls silent and with a sad smile, Tori takes a step forward. The blond standing next to her smiles encouragingly, and all at once, Tori is a softer, more vulnerable version of herself.

"I know my brother, Bella. If he'd risk never seeing us again just to be with you, it's because you're worth it. So you can't apologize for that." She shakes her head with a wry smile. "Just like I can't."

In a move that seems to leave everyone even more shocked than they'd already been by her overture, she turns and reaches for the hand of the woman behind her. Their fingers weave together and the blond steps closer to Tori. Tori smiles at her, adoration clear in her expression, even as I watch her steel herself to look back at the rest of us.

She smiles somewhat sheepishly, her gaze drifting from me to Edward before speaking. "This is Jaime... she's my Bella."

Holy cow.

Looking around, it's obvious that this is very new information to most everyone in the room. I find myself inhaling quickly—not from the shock of Tori introducing a woman as her beloved—but because the sentiment behind her words is overwhelming. It washes though me, filling my chest with warmth. I am more than a little overcome that Edward's sister would both accept and affirm his feelings for me in such a deeply personal way.

She's my Bella…

The words echo through my head again. Can she really mean she accepts and respects Edward's choice to leave his family behind? As if to confirm my thoughts, Tori smiles up at an equally stunned Edward.

"I'm sorry I was so hard on you about everything. I was being a hypocrite. Well, I was also being a jealous brat because of how easily Bella fit in and got along, but as soon as I found out you loved her as more than a sister, I was a complete hypocrite. I…" She stops suddenly and takes an unsteady breath. "I've been with Jaime for two years. I've been hiding the woman I love for two years because I wasn't willing to risk losing you guys, or risk you never speaking to me again if you couldn't accept who I am. I just… I've been a coward and I've been unfair to everyone involved, but you… you, Edward, made me brave. You showed me what it means to love someone, truly love someone, damn the consequences."

Edward takes a heavy breath and clears his throat. "Tori… I…"

He shakes his head, seeming at a complete loss until he eventually gives up trying to say anything and goes to her. He pulls his sister into a somewhat awkward embrace, and she warps her arms gingerly around him in return before mumbling into his chest.

"I'm still mad at you," she says, her voice barely audible.

He releases her and though his back is to me, I can imagine his questioning gaze. Tori shrugs and wipes her eyes.

"I'll probably always be a little mad at you for going and falling in love with the one girl you had to give up everything for. I just won't blame you for it. Because I get it . . . I think we all get it."

Relief courses through me with her words and I can feel the change in Edward when he tucks me back under his arm. I wrap my arm around his waist and lean into him. He pulls me close and looks down at me, his smile lighter thanks to the weight that's been lifted from both of us.

After a moment I meet Tori's gaze, wanting to thank her—to say something to her—but she simply smiles and glances between us. "Just take care of each other."

Edward squeezes my waist and inclines his head toward his sister's girlfriend. "You too. Be happy."

Tori's eyes water and her voice falls to a whisper. "You be happy, too."

And just like that, without it being stated out loud, the time has come to say goodbye.

Emmett is the first to say the words. "So, this is it then."

Edward looks at everyone. "If we could stay . . . "

"We know," Dr. Cullen says, stopping Edward's apology.

Emmett steps forward. "He's right, man. We know."

Edward seems frozen for a moment then grabs Emmett in a typical man-hug.

He whispers hoarsely. "Love you, bro."

Emmett's voice is just as rough. "You too, Ed. Always."

They release each other and Emmett squeezes his brother's shoulder, nodding towards me. "Take good care of her."

I smile, feeling my cheeks heat as he turns his attentions on me.

"You take care of him too, okay?"

I nod and he opens his arms to me. I step forward and accept the gesture with a lump in my throat.

"I will. Thank you for everything, Emmett. I'm so sorry for—"

"No, no." He interrupts me. "No more of that. You're one of us now. Remember that, and just know that I'll never ever be sorry I answered Alice's call."

His words move me to tears once again and he holds me while I cry, rocking me back and forth like a big brother should.

I sniffle against his chest. "Thank you."

"I'd do it again in a heartbeat."

Behind us, I hear Carlisle struggle to clear his throat and Esme's breath hitch. There's a rustle of clothes and a moment of silence before Edward speaks in a choked voice.

"It's okay, you guys. We did this once already."

I turn from Emmett's arms just in time to see Carlisle offer his son a parting embrace. When they separate, Edward gives his father's shoulder a tight squeeze.

"I hope I can be as good a father someday as you've been to me. As good a husband as you've been as well."

Carlisle blinks and swallows thickly. "You will be."

The share a long look and then Edward nods and turns his gaze on his mother.

"Mom…"

Esme smiles through her tears and reaches up to push a strand of wayward hair across Edward's forehead. He wraps his arms around her small shoulders and she takes a ragged breath, straining to muffle her cries as she moves to hug him back.

"Don't cry, Mom."

"I'm sorry. It's just . . ." She shakes her head and looks up at him, waving a hand in front of her eyes as if that will stem her tears. "It's your wedding day. Even if you weren't leaving, I would be crying."

I feel a flicker of a smile lift my lips and Edward chuckles. He kisses the top of her head.

"Happy tears, I hope."

"I think they would have been."

She glances around his shoulder at me and holds a hand out. "Come here, sweetheart."

My breath catches and my eyes fill with tears anew as I comply. Edward turns halfway and reaches for one hand while his mother takes the other. I don't dare look at him right now or I'll crack into a thousand tiny pieces. Instead I focus on the look of love and determination in Esme's green eyes.

"My son loves you very much."

"Yes," I answer, too emotional to say more.

"You love him the same?"

I nod and sniffle indelicately. I want to say, "more than I ever thought possible," but the lump in my throat won't allow it. Esme seems satisfied though.

She looks back and forth between us for a moment and then takes a deep breath. "I'm going to tell you a secret now, okay? And this is my one shot at doing the mother-in-law thing, so pay attention."

Edward and I both laugh at that and she smiles before she continues.

"Neither one of you are perfect, kids. Neither one of you will be able to meet the other's every want and need. You are going to hurt each other, and say things you don't mean, and disappoint each other terribly sometimes. That's just what happens when two individuals try to live as one."

She stops for a moment and has to take a breath to hold her emotions at bay. I give up completely and lean into Edward, my vision blurred by tears and my lips trembling.

"You two have a lot going against you, but if you're committed to seeing it through, anything is possible. Even 'happily ever after'."

Edward's lips press against my temple, their warmth soothing. I turn my head to look at him and I know what he's going to say even before he says it.

"That sounds good to me."

I smile through my tears. Me too.

~(~)~

THE END


I'll have the epilogue up ASAP, and thank you again for sticking with me. Your love and kindness has meant the world.