A/N: Here we are - the very last chapter. I'm both relieved and a bit sad that it's over. The response I've gotten for this story has been wonderful and I can't thank you guys enough. Now I'll just let you go on reading and (hopefully) enjoying the final chapter, and I'll see you in a long-ass end note at the bottom.
If someone had told me a year ago what my life would be like, I would have laughed in their face and told them they had lost their mind. Or maybe I would have been pissed off, certain they were just mocking me. Either way, I wouldn't have believed them. And I would have been miserable, longing for what I knew I could never have.
And yet, by some miracle, I had found it.
Everything had changed that fateful day over eight months ago, when I let my sister coax me into accompanying her to the opening of a new fancy art gallery. I absolutely loathed big events like that, but for some reason, I had agreed to go. It turned out to be the best decision I had ever made in my entire life.
It was the day I met Bella for the first time. And from that moment, nothing had been the same.
I was not the same. So much had happened over the last couple of months, both good and bad, but all in all, I was happier and more satisfied with my life and things in general than I had ever been before. Maybe that shouldn't be so hard to accomplish, seeing how I had never really known true happiness before Bella entered my life, but here I was, enjoying every moment of it.
Well, most days, anyway. I still had my down periods when I just felt like a big fat waste of space. But these days, it didn't take too much verbal ass kicking from my friends - or my girl - to remind me that just because I was having a bad didn't necessarily mean that the rest of the world was automatically against me.
In other words, I would still find myself in a dark hole every once in a while, where I couldn't for the life of me understand what Bella could possibly see in a reject like me. But every time it happened, it took a little less effort for me to climb back up. Then I would always apologize to Bella, knowing she was hurting right along with me whenever my self-esteem dropped like that.
And she forgave me every time. In fact, she kept assuring me there was nothing for her to forgive in the first place - that I couldn't help feeling the way I did and that she would always be there for me no matter what. Somehow, she always knew just what I needed to hear.
In turn, I did everything in my power to make her see that went both ways - I wanted to be there for her, too. And there were days when she was the one to lean on me as well, and not just the other way around. I figured we just had a way of completing each other. It was a nice thought.
It seemed like our love just grew a little stronger each day, and sometimes I couldn't help but wonder if it would always be like that, or if we would someday reach a point when we simply couldn't love each other more than we already did. But after giving it some thought, I decided to believe that true love knew no bounds. It would just keep growing for the rest of our lives. Another pleasant thought.
Less pleasant, though, was the fact that four months had passed, and things were still strained between me and Alice. In all fairness, we were both trying to move on, but it turned out to be much harder to get over the past than either of us had anticipated. We would make an effort to see each other from time to time, and while we rarely got into any arguments, it still wasn't the same.
In a way, it made me sad. But at the same time, I refused to dwell on what could have been. Things were out in the open now. We were honest with each other. And maybe someday, we would once again find that close friendship we used to have when we were younger. I was holding on to that hope.
So was our mother, by the way. I knew it had been killing her to watch me and my sister drift apart like that. At least she had Carlisle. The two of them seemed to get a little closer each time I saw them. I didn't have any problem with that, and apparently, neither did Alice. She told me once that she still missed our father a lot, though. I told her I missed him as well.
I think that might have been the first time I had ever admitted that to anyone.
Now I was waiting for Bella to come home. We had been living together for months now, and there were still moments when I had to pinch myself just to make sure it was all real. Of course, I would do so most discreetly, not wanting anyone to think I was a complete nut-case. I had always thought of my place as simply an apartment, but now, with Bella to share my space - and bed - it had become a home.
Bella made my life far more than just bearable. Before I met her, I preferred to just stay at home and hide from the world, but she actually made me want to go out and see it. Live in it. And the best part was, I knew she would say the exact same thing about me. In fact, she had told me, many times.
And I never got tired of hearing it. It made wonders for my self-confidence. Not to mention what it did for my bruised and battered heart.
The familiar sound of keys rattling from the other side of the door snapped me out of my thoughts and I failed to hold back a grin, knowing Bella had arrived. I pushed myself up from the couch and went to greet her, reaching the door just as it swung open and I was met by the most precious sight in the world - the smiling face of my girlfriend.
"You're home!" Bella grinned happily at me. "I thought you said you had to be working late tonight." She walked right into my waiting arms.
"Yeah, well, I got off early. Staff meeting got canceled at the last minute." I wasn't the least bit disappointed by that, seeing how it meant I got to spend more time with my girl. She smelled so sweet, like honey and apples. I couldn't help but sniff at her hair as I wrapped my arms tightly around her and hugged her close. If she noticed what I was doing, she didn't seem to mind.
"So how did it go today?" I asked when I finally - most reluctantly, I might add - released her and took a step back so I could really take in her appearance. She looked a little tired, but still beautiful as ever. Today was Tuesday, which meant it was the day of her weekly therapy sessions with Dr. Kate Stanton.
"It went well, I guess." Bella looked thoughtful for a moment. "We talked a lot about my childhood today, about whether or not I used to feel neglected by Renee as a kid. Kate pointed out a few things that never really occurred to me before. It was quite... interesting."
I nodded in understanding. "You wanna tell me about it?"
"Yeah, sure. After dinner. I'm starving." She batted her lashes at me. "What should we make tonight? I think I'm in the mood for..." she tapped her finger against her chin, "...chicken. Is that okay with you?"
"Absolutely. With steamed vegetables and rice?" Bella nodded in acceptance, leaning in to give me a peck on the lips before grabbing hold of my hand and pulling me with her towards the kitchen.
Cooking together had become somewhat of a routine for us and we both took it quite seriously. It had all started with Carmen - my dietician - making the suggestion when I confessed to her early on how I barely knew how to turn on the stove. Bella instantly jumped at the idea, and from that moment on, we pretty much made all our meals together.
Of course, in the beginning, I had mostly been observing Bella as she practically did all the work, but I was a quick learner when I wanted to be. In fact, I had even done some research on the internet, and I was seriously considering taking some kind of cooking class. Again, it had been Carmen's idea. She had taught me that I couldn't avoid food just because I needed to lose weight. I still needed to eat.
Wise words, indeed. However, that didn't change the fact that I sometimes wished I could just put a chain and a lock on the fridge - surely that would be more effective. Carmen had just laughed when I threw the suggestion out there, as if I had been joking. Although she quickly sobered up once she realized I was serious and started explaining how my body required proper nourishment.
I had decided I liked her. Carmen didn't take any bullshit from me. She had told me straight out, the first time we met, that she would only be able to help me as long as I didn't fight her. Her methods may have seemed tough at first, even downright cruel sometimes, but in the end, I truly believed she could help me - if I would let her. It was up to me whether or not I wanted to get in shape.
And to be perfectly honest, it wasn't a hard choice to make. My mind was set. Not only was I sick and tired of being referred to as 'the fat guy', but I also didn't want to end up like my dad and die of a heart attack before I was forty. I had too much to live for these days.
Besides, while Bella and I hadn't really discussed the subject much, yet anyway, I was pretty sure I wanted to have kids of my own some day. And the thought of them being ashamed of me - their father - because of the way my body looked was almost unbearable. I made a silent promise to myself never to let it come to that.
As a result of my determination, along with Carmen's assistance - and more will-power than I knew I possessed - I had already lost almost thirty pounds over the last four months. The first time I realized my pants were getting loose around my waist, I started fucking bawling. When I told Bella, she cried right along with me. I figured she had been even more concerned about my health than she was letting on.
Of course, simply counting calories and only eating healthy food wasn't enough by a long shot, even though it was a start. I was also forced to do the one thing I dreaded above most other - I had to start working out. The mere thought nearly sent me into a panic attack, but when Carmen told me I could begin with taking long and quick walks, I happily agreed out of pure relief.
When Emmett found out, he tried to persuade me into joining him at the gym where he used to work out, but I flat-out refused, insisting I would not set my foot at a place like that before I had lost at least a hundred pounds. Then he pointed out that going to the gym would make me lose the weight that much faster. Naturally, he was right, but I wouldn't budge. I preferred to keep what little dignity I had.
Emmett was a good friend, though, and didn't pester me about it. In fact, he was very supportive, even going as far as to accompany me on my daily walks from time to time, encouraging me to keep up the speed. Ironically, it was one of those days when we happened to run into Jacob Black of all people. We started talking, and that's when I finally learned what Jake did for a living.
At first I thought he was joking when he told us he was working at one of the biggest gym in town, but it turned out he was serious. Emmett's face lit up and he elbowed me in the side, mumbling something about 'a fucking sign from above'. I just shook my head at him and was about to change the subject, but clearly my brain had other ideas.
Before I knew it, I was asking Jake some casual questions, all of which he was more than happy to answer. And then he came up with the suggestion that would come to change everything.
He offered to let me use the gym outside office hours when it would be closed to the public, as long as I promised to bring someone to assist me at all times, someone who knew how to work all the machines properly and would make sure I used them correctly. I also couldn't leave any signs that I had been there, or it would get Jake in trouble.
Emmett volunteered to coach me on the spot. In fact, he seemed almost more excited about the whole thing than I was. I was hesitant at first, but then thought 'hell with it' and agreed, although somewhat reluctantly. And it took almost a week after that until I had worked up enough courage to actually make my way down to the gym, even though I knew for certain that nobody else would be there.
The first two weeks, I loathed it with a passion, desperately trying to come up with all kinds of lame excuses why I couldn't go, but Emmett saw through me every time. At one point, he even asked me straight out if I wanted to give up the whole idea. I was ashamed to admit that for a second, I wanted to say yes.
I didn't, though. The next couple of hours were pure hell, and I was in pain for a week after that night, but I didn't give up. And for the first time - for as long as I could remember, anyway - I felt genuinely proud of myself after that work-out session. The best part was that the feeling lingered for quite some time. It was not something I was used to. But it felt fucking great.
So, yeah, it was safe to say that my life as I used to know it was no more. I never thought I would actually find the strength to change my self-destructive lifestyle, but here I was, heading for a better, healthier, and most of all - hopefully - a much longer life. And I never would have dared to take that step if it hadn't been for my girl.
Bella and I were two of a kind. She meant the world to me and I could honestly say that I loved her with all my heart. One day, I was going to ask her to marry me. And I truly believed she would say yes.
I was absolutely exhausted, but in a good way. I was also famished, but the moment Edward's arms slipped around me from behind and I relaxed into his embrace, I forgot all about what we were doing and just relished the feeling of his strong arms around me. It was the best feeling in the world. Or maybe waking up together in the morning was just as amazing. And cuddling on the couch. Oh, and the sex...
Who was I kidding? Everything was amazing as long as Edward was involved. Just when I thought I couldn't possibly love him any more, he would say or do something that made me fall even harder. As the weeks passed, turning into months, our relationship continued to grow stronger.
Of course, we didn't always agree on everything, but I doubted any couple did. Bickering every once in a while was perfectly normal. Even my therapist - Kate - said so.
And the make-up sex was really great as well.
So, I had started therapy a couple of months back, and I had never once regretted my decision. I had felt a connection with Kate right away, and she was easy to talk to. She liked to speak her mind and get straight to the point, but that was okay, because I knew I needed to hear it. And she was usually right.
Today, our focus had been on the relationship I had with Renee, and what it was like growing up with her. It may have seemed like a difficult topic, but to my surprise, the words kept coming. In a way, it felt good to get it all out there. Sure, I had been talking to Edward a lot, as well as my dad, but sometimes, I had to admit it was almost easier to spill my guts to Kate.
Maybe it was because that was the only reason I was sitting in her office - it was her job to listen to my life-story, and I didn't have to worry about disappointing her. Not that I really thought Edward or Charlie would ever feel that way, but still, there were times when I kind of preferred to talk to an outsider, someone whose first reaction wasn't automatically to defend and protect me.
Sometimes, I just needed someone to be tough with me, even if it wasn't always fun. I had come to that conclusion pretty quickly.
I still wasn't sure Renee and I would ever get to a point where we would see eye to eye on things. We were just too different. The things she found important, I couldn't care less about, and she didn't understand me and my needs any better. It was sad, yes. But I had learned that you could never change another person. She may have tried over the years, but she failed.
It had taken quite some time, but I had finally found myself. I knew who I was, and who I wanted to be. Somehow, I didn't think my mother could say the same. A part of me couldn't help but feel sorry for her, because I truly doubted she had ever been really happy. She was a good actor, though.
I thought back to that day, over four months ago, when I had knocked on her door, determined for us to clear the air, once and for all.
"I just want to know why." I crossed my arms protectively over my chest. "Be honest with me, Renee. Did you ever stop to think about what your behavior did to me, or were you just too self-absorbed to even care?"
She huffed. "Isabella, I don't appreciate your tone. You and Charlie are both acting as if I've been a horrible mother to you, and I don't think I deserve to be treated that way. Haven't I always given you everything you could possibly want? I don't understand what's gotten into you. You've changed since you met that... guy, and I have to say it's not for the better. Let me tell you-"
"No, mother,"I cut her off, giving her a hard look. "It's time for you to be quiet and listen to me for once. You've always taken me for granted, assumed I wanted just what you wanted in life, but you've never once bothered to actually ask me. I'm done waiting for you to come around, so I'm just going to tell you. I don't care about material stuff. I just want to be happy."
"Life is not some fairytale, honey," Renee sighed, sounding almost sympathetic. "It's not some sappy romance novel where the heroine always ends up with the handsome prince and they live happily ever after in some shiny castle. I hate to break it to you, but that's just not how it works. In real life, you have to struggle to get somewhere. And money is everything. Simple as that."
I opened my mouth to argue with her, but that's when I looked into her eyes and realized for the first time that there was no malice there, only sincerity. My mother truly believed in her own words. To her, love was just something you read about in books - it didn't exist in the real world. In her mind, happiness equaled success, and the only way to reach that state was to buy it.
My heart ached for her in that moment. I was also forced to accept that nothing I said would cause her opinion to change.
In her own way, she probably did love me, just like I had always tried telling myself in order to feel better. But her view on love was twisted. I could see that now.
"I don't agree with you," I told her softly. "I believe differently, and my relationship with Edward is all the proof I need. I'm in love, Mom. To me, that means more than all the money in the world. As long as I have Edward, I will be happy. More than that. He makes me feel complete. I'm sorry you have never felt that way, because there is just no better feeling. I mean that."
When she didn't respond, just watched me thoughtfully, I went on, "I can't believe you never saw how much you were hurting me when you couldn't just accept me for who I was and allow me to be myself. I know - I should've put my foot down a long time ago, but until I met Edward, I didn't even realize why I was so unhappy all the time."
"I didn't know who I was," I continued, "because you never let me find out. You were too busy molding me into someone you would approve of, but what you failed to see was that I hated this strange person I was becoming. It wasn't right, Mom. You need to start seeing that."
For a minute or so, she just looked at me blankly, and I started to become frustrated, wondering if she had even heard a word I said. But then her face softened. And I was amazed to actually see tears in my mother's eyes. The last time I remembered seeing her cry was that fateful day all those years ago when she had caught me playing with a knife in my room back in Forks.
A lot of pain and misery had followed as a result of that day. But I could never regret moving away with Renee, because if she hadn't taken me with her, I never would have met Edward. The mere thought of not having him in my life now was too painful to bear.
"It wasn't my intention to hurt you." Her voice was suddenly small, almost pitiful. "But the world is a hard place, Isabella. You need to think about yourself first, and you can't be afraid to take what you want, because no one else will give it to you. I only wanted to make sure you knew how to take care of yourself. I tried to make you strong, independent. Like me."
"You forgot to add alone and bitter," I sighed. "Mom, if what you're saying is true, then I get what you were trying to do, but it still doesn't make it right. It's never okay to step on other people to get what you want. Acting superior and looking down at others won't get you anywhere. I don't mean to hurt your feelings, but I never wanted to be like you. I wanted to be myself."
For the longest time, she just looked at me, a pained expression on her face. Then she let out a deep sigh. "I'm sorry. I thought I was helping you. I never meant for you to end up hating me."
I shook my head, because she sounded so sad in that moment, so unlike her usual confident self. "I don't hate you, Mom, but you have to understand that some of the things you've done of late were downright vile. The way you've been treating Edward... And you used Jake - an innocent person - for your devious schemes, just to end up humiliating all of us. Was it really worth it?"
She closed her eyes for a moment. Then, after what seemed like an eternity, she shook her head. "What do you want from me? Do you want me to grovel? That's just not me, Isabella. You know that. I told you I'm sorry, and I meant it. The question is, do you even want to forgive me?"
"Want to, yes." I looked her right in the eyes. "I just don't know if I can. Maybe some day, if you're really being sincere. But forgiveness is something you have to earn. It's easy to say 'sorry'. It's just a word. But actually feeling it is a different matter. And I need to be sure you really do before I can say I forgive you and mean it. I need time."
"All right. Fair enough. I can live with that." Renee was quiet for a few seconds. "I'll give you some space. Just... feel free to call me, or just come over if you want. We could just chat." She looked away. "Don't shut me out, okay? Please? I don't want to lose you completely."
I didn't trust my voice to hold, so I merely nodded.
"And for what it's worth..." She still wouldn't meet my eyes. "That guy... Edward. I guess you could have done a lot worse." I blinked at her, not sure whether to feel grateful or insulted by her quasi 'approval' of my boyfriend. It sounded like she meant it, though, and I figured it was all I would get from her at this point.
From that day, I could detect a slight difference in my mother's behavior. In a way, it was like she was really trying to be nicer, to please me. And yet, I could tell she still didn't completely understand why I was being so stubborn about it. I truly believed she was serious when she said she didn't want to lose me, because she must have realized that was a possibility. And that's what she feared.
A part of me doubted we would ever be on the same wavelength, so to I just had to accept the fact that - even though we were mother and daughter - we couldn't be any more different. But maybe that was okay. As long as she respected me. Something told me she was learning, or at the very least trying to. And right now, that was all I could ask for.
"What are you thinking about?" Edward asked, his voice bringing me back to the present. "You seem to be miles away."
I smiled apologetically and wrapped my arms around his waist. "Sorry, baby, I was just thinking about Renee. Nothing bad," I hurried to add as I watched him frown. "Never mind. Did you get started with the vegetables...?" I stopped and gave him a sheepish look when I realized he was already finished with his task. "Okay, I'll start paying attention now. Sorry. I won't space out again." I blushed.
He chuckled and kissed the top of my head. "Feel free to space out anytime, love. Just remember we're supposed to meet up with our friends in less than two hours."
I held back a sigh. On the one hand, I just wanted to spend the rest of the evening alone with Edward, but on the other, I really enjoyed hanging out with our friends as well. We hadn't planned anything fancy, just a movie night at Rosalie and Emmett's place. Rose had called me last night to warn me that she had also invited Alice and Jasper, but they still hadn't confirmed if they were actually coming or not.
Over the last couple of months, I had only seen Alice twice. Both times, she had been polite and quiet, but it didn't take a genius to figure out that things were still awkward between her and Edward. I wished I knew how to make it easier for him, but I couldn't really do much more than keep showing him my full support. Maybe they would someday find their way back to each other.
Speaking of friends, as it turned out, Edward and Jacob had actually become pretty close over the months. Jake was a really great guy, and I was starting to warm up to his girlfriend - Leah - as well, even though she had seemed a bit cold at first. The two of them would hang out with the rest of us every once in a while, and they were both going to join us tonight.
To say that Renee had been shocked when she first learned about Jake becoming a part of our tight little group would have been an understatement. The look on her face was priceless.
As for my old friends, they were barely more than a distant memory these days. We had run into Jessica and Lauren at the mall one day, a few months back, and I had finally gotten to introduce them to Edward. They both acted polite enough while we made some trivial small talk, but their true colors had been shining true as they couldn't keep the repulsion off their faces. I knew Edward noticed as well.
I still don't know who had been most surprised by what happened after that - Jessica and Lauren, Edward, or myself - but I cut Jess off in the middle of a sentence, gave the two bitches a big fake smile, and told them loudly to go fuck themselves. Judging by the way their jaws practically hit the ground, I would have to say maybe they were the ones who had been most shocked after all.
Needless to say, we parted ways immediately after that. Once Edward had recovered from the shock of hearing me drop the f-bomb, he actually burst out laughing and told me he had known I had it in me all along. Then he kissed me, right there in the middle of the mall, and the rest of the world ceased to exist for a while.
I hadn't seen or spoken to Jess and Lauren since that day, and I could honestly say I had no regrets, whatsoever. If anything, it was a relief to know those two were no longer a part of my life. I certainly wouldn't miss them. After all, I had real friends now.
Real friends, and real love. A year ago, I didn't know either of those things were even possible.
"Come on." I turned off the stove and tugged at Edward's hand. "I think I need to work up my appetite before I can actually eat." Seeing the understanding shine in his eyes, I smiled coyly at him before adding, "And I really think I would do that best in the bedroom. Care to help me?" I barely got to finish the sentence before he had swept me off the floor, causing me to squeal as he carried me out of the kitchen, bridal style.
"I love you," I told him breathlessly. He stopped in his tracks, looking me right into the eyes.
"I love you, too," was his response. Then he leaned in to kiss me passionately.
We never made it into the bedroom.
End Notes: And it's done. We've reached the end of this story, although for Bella and Edward, it's just the beginning. They are both healing, but as all of us know, it won't happen over night. It takes time. I chose to keep the ending somewhat open, leaving it up to you readers to decide what happens next, but I assure you they are both finally on the right path. They are moving forward, and they are doing it together. That was my intention with this all along, and now I can only hope you are as happy with the way things ended as I am. I was never going to change Edward into some 'perfect' model, Bella loves him just the way he is, and now when he's getting help to become more healthy, he will learn to like himself better as well. As for Bella's eating disorder, it's all out in the open and she's learning to cope. That's what life is really about if you ask me. There is no magical cure to fix all our problems. You have to want to get better, for yourself as well as for others. And these two have finally reached that point. Now when I'm done rambling, I just want to take a moment to thank all of you, for the last time, for all the kind words and support you've been giving me. Some of you have shared your own stories with me, and I just hope all of you end up as happy and healthy as Edward and Bella. Now, some of you have asked if I will start a new story, and I'm sad to tell you it probably won't happen. Of course, you never know what happens in the future, but right now, I feel like I'm done with writing. I won't leave the fandom completely, though, I'm nowhere near ready for that. I will still be following and reading my favorite stories, and I'll most likely tweet about them too. Okay, thanks again! This story wouldn't even be here, let alone finished, without my wonderful readers. Love you all!