A/N: Hey, guys! Sorry this chapter has been delayed. We were directly hit by Hurricane Sandy and were without power for a week, Internet for even longer. Thanks to all of you who sent encouraging emails, PMs, and tweets! That really warms my heart.
Edward snuggles to Keye, Sandy, and Aleea, my angelrific pre-readers, for their unending support and friendship.
Extra special thanks to my awesome betas, Katmom and Sue (chayasara), for always making time for me in their busy schedules. They catch all my recurring foibles and help smooth out the prose. Mwah!
All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy;
for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves.
We must die to one life before we can enter another.
~ Anatole France
My sisters slip from the room as I continue to stroke Isabella's hair and wait for her to look into my eyes. The strands aren't as lank and lifeless as when we met, but they've lost the new luster achieved with Carlisle's Neupogen substitute. We knew all along his concoction would only prolong the inevitable, but it pains me to feel the evidence beneath my fingertips and witness it with my returning vision. Her cheek remains pressed against my chest and she sighs softly.
"Isabella, I heard things. I know Carlisle's had the serum ready for a while now, and I also know the Neupogen substitute is no longer working." I place a kiss on the crown of her head, keeping my voice soft and nonjudgmental. "I understand you didn't want to make the choice without knowing if I would survive . . . but I'm here now."
Isabella trembles against me and raises her head. Her soulful brown eyes tear up. "I'm sorry, Edward . . . it might be too late. I'll do it. I'll let them give me the serum."
"Don't say that, sweet one. It's not too late."
"I hope not."
"Let me look at you." I sweep her hair back, cupping her head between my palms. "It's so good to be able to see you again . . . and feel your warmth in my arms. It drove me crazy to be trapped inside myself unable to respond."
She ducks her head and tugs at her hair. "I look awful. You must be wondering what you ever saw in me."
"Did you love me less when I was damaged?"
"Of course not!" Her cheeks redden with ire, the kittenish anger part of her charm.
"Then why do you think I'd find you any less alluring when you're unwell?" My strength is still in the process of returning, but I'm feeling better minute by minute. I scoop her in my arms and sit up against the headboard.
"I'm sorry. I'm just so weak and fragile . . . ugly." Her voice shakes, and she looks down at her lap.
"Isabella, I never want to hear words like that from your mouth again." I press my lips to her ear and soften my voice to remove the sting of my tone. "You're beautiful—oh, so beautiful. You're the sole reason I care if the sun comes up each day or if the stars remain in the sky. You are the reason I survived this ordeal at all."
Isabella tips her head up and smiles at me; her fingers explore my face lightly—almost as if she fears I'm still in danger of breaking. I trap her hand against my face, pressing it harder to my skin. "I won't disintegrate beneath your fingertips. I'm never leaving your side again."
Her tears fall in earnest. Shudders wrack her small frame, her shoulders quaking as the sobs are wrenched from deep within. It's as if she's been holding it all at bay for so long and the dam finally burst, allowing her emotions to come barreling out. She grips the front of my shirt and presses her face into my neck, her tears scalding my skin. "I'm so glad . . . you're okay. I didn't know what to do . . . how to go on. I know it's selfish of me, but I couldn't stand the thought of a moment of existence without you." Her voice hiccups, giving out.
"Shh . . . it's okay, my love. I understand better than you might think."
Isabella pulls back to look at me, her tearful eyes softening with understanding. It seems she's finally realized how I've felt about her all along. Perhaps she couldn't fully understand until the threat of losing me for good was a reality.
Rosalie walks into the room, an apologetic expression on her face. "I'm sorry to break up the reunion, but we've got to move."
"Move?" I question, tucking Isabella's head under my chin.
"Well, surely you don't think we're staying here?" Rosalie looks at me as if I'm daft. "Once the Volturi discover Carlisle brought them a fake cure, they'll be all over this place."
"Was this all planned?"
"Partially. Let's just say Carlisle left the planning to me. He wanted to remove himself from it as much as possible to avoid giving anything away to that . . . sicko Aro." Her lip curls in disdain. She starts flying around the room, opening and closing drawers, stuffing Isabella's clothing into a duffel bag before heading into the bathroom to grab her toiletries.
Isabella remains curled against me, heartbeat steady. She knows about this already; otherwise, there would be pulse and adrenaline spikes. No, she's extremely calm now that her tears have dried.
"You knew?" I ask her.
"Yes. I've been in on the planning with Rose and Alice from the beginning." When she lifts her head to look into my eyes this time, there's a steely determination there. Gone is the weeping human that called herself an ugly duckling, and in her place is a fierce lioness ready for battle.
Alice returns, silently going through the closet and returning with an armload of my clothing. Her eyes are solemn, and she averts her gaze whenever our eyes meet. Shame radiates off her, but I don't know its source because I still can't read her mind.
Part of me prays my gift will return while another, almost equal part, hopes it doesn't. It's a burden to know the contents of the minds around me—to be forced to pick through the vile drudge of another's thoughts is a high price to pay for the times those thoughts are kind, charitable, or beautiful. So often the thoughts of humans are full of raw ugliness and hatred.
Finally, everything is packed. Emmett and Esme come to say goodbye, but they're not coming with us. The two of them will leave a trail of breadcrumbs for the Volturi to follow, hopefully leading them away from us long enough for our mission to be completed, whatever it is. I know why Alice is coming with us—because of her second sight—but I wonder why Rose and not Emmett or Esme.
Esme smiles and takes Isabella's hand. "I have a surprise before you go." She races to the front door and brings in Sue and Hannah.
"Mama!" Hannah hurls herself into Isabella's arms. When she sees me over her mother's shoulder, her big brown eyes grow even wider. "Edwood!"
Isabella sets her down and she flings herself onto my lap, throwing her chubby arms around my neck and placing wet kisses all over my face. "Nana missed you, Edwood! I knew you'd come home!"
"I missed you, too, princess. More than I can ever say." Her warmth seeps under my skin, spreading through my entire body. I cradle her in my arms, hating what I need to tell her. "Listen, Hannah . . . your mom and I need to go away for a little while. It's so she can be cured of her illness."
"Grandpa Carl found the magic potion?"
"You could call it that, yes. It will make your mom all better, but it might take a while. We need to go somewhere private."
"Yes, baby." Isabella joins in, kneeling next to the bed and rubbing Hannah's back. "Mama might be a little . . . different, but she won't be sick anymore. Grandma Sue will take care of you while we're gone, okay?"
"You'll be with Edwood?" Hannah asks uncertainly, looking back and forth between us.
"Yes, the whole time."
When she looks to me, I nod.
"Okay, Nana stay with Grandma Sue."
Hannah curls up in my arms and falls asleep, her warm little breaths puffing against my clavicle. How I miss the sweet, sweet smell of baby shampoo, apple juice, and animal crackers. Eventually, Sue comes over to lift her from my arms, and I let go reluctantly.
"Thank you for all you've done for my girls, Edward," Sue says graciously. "I'm so glad to see you on the mend."
"Thank you, Sue. I'd do anything for them."
"That's apparent." She glances over at Isabella, who's deep in conversation with Alice just outside the bedroom door, before leaning in closer and lowering her voice. "Will you change her now? And what will happen when she smells Hannah?"
"Yes, we're going to change her as soon as possible. I wish I had an answer for you, but I'm just not sure what will happen once she's been turned. Unfortunately, we don't have the luxury of waiting until Hannah's older."
Sue nods sagely. "If there's anything at all I can do . . . just say the word."
Isabella's eyes soften with love when Sue pauses to say goodbye, and she leans over to kiss Hannah's cheek and stroke the fine strands of her hair. Hannah's face is slack as she slumbers in Sue's arms with the perfect trust that only a child can manage.
Once they're gone, Isabella sits on my lap with her arms around my neck and lays her head on my shoulder. "I hope this is all over soon and I can be with you and Hannah."
"I have the same hope." I hold her to me and rock us back and forth.
A few hours later, we're on the road. Rose drives with Alice as co-pilot, and I sit in the back with Isabella. We board the Cullen jet, land in Georgia, and drive the rest of the way to Pennsylvania—right back to Uncle Lou's cabin.
"You told Angela you're alive." I look askance at Isabella.
"Yes. While you were languishing, I made an executive decision." Her chin comes up in that defiant little way she has.
"Okay? No lecture?"
"I trust your judgment." I can't help but smile.
"Well . . . it's about time." Isabella nods firmly.
The terrain around the cabin looks different without crystalline prisms of snow bejeweling the trees and bushes. The ground is saturated from the runoff of many feet of snowfall, and blades of green grass are just beginning to erupt from the pine needle covered soil. Golden rays of light tip the edges of the trees and bushes, while deep shadows remain in the secret crevices the canopy of their branches and leaves create below. The cabin itself looks much the same, and the sight brings with it a sense of nostalgia. This is where I first came upon Isabella, where she tricked me into thinking she was inside humming when, in fact, she was busy leveling a shotgun at me. Where she fed me her tainted blood and then nursed me back to health with Hannah's. Where I first discovered she was my mate.
Alice turns and winks at me. "Isn't this the perfect place to change her, Edward?"
"Are you certain nobody knows about it?"
Alice gives me her patented are-you-for-real look and refuses to answer.
Once the car comes to a smooth stop, Isabella stretches with a sleepy yawn. "We're here!" Her smile and the wonder in her eyes as she gazes around causes a clenching in my chest.
I focus on getting her settled in, leaving my very capable sisters to bring in the luggage and secure the perimeter of the property. It's hard to admit, but although my strength is up to about ninety percent, my vampire senses are still inadequate. My hearing and vision, although much more acute than a human's, is deficient for vampire standards. There's no sign of my mind reading ability, and I'm beginning to think it might not come back.
It takes me under a minute to empty the cooler, stock the refrigerator with food, and head upstairs to put Isabella's clothes in the dresser and closet. As I finish up, Isabella is just wandering into the bedroom. She trails her fingers over the duvet and glances out the window that faces the rising sun.
"The sun used to wake me in the mornings. I'd leave the blind up so I'd be enveloped in its warmth as it rose higher in the sky." She points between two trees where a perfect V of blue nestles between. "It's as if that was made to be the perfect natural alarm clock."
Coming up from behind, I sweep her hair to the side and press my lips against the warm skin on the back of her neck. She shivers with pleasure and sighs sweetly, leaning back into my waiting arms. Her hands grab onto my arm, pulling it closer to her breast, and we lean on the window frame and watch a family of cardinals making a home in the top of a tree as the sun climbs higher in the sky. The male bird squawks at me once, his chattering making his displeasure over my presence known, but they continue their work. Isabella oohs and ahs over them, narrating every move they make as if I'm not here to observe for myself. No matter—I find everything this woman does to be endearing.
"Lunch!" Alice calls up the stairs.
I lead Isabella by the hand, linking our fingers, and we descend the stairs together. The rustic wooden table in the kitchen is set up with a tureen of soup and a platter of sandwiches—ham, turkey, roast beef, and chicken salad. There's a pot of Isabella's favorite tea and a pitcher of ice cold milk—by the slight layer of cream on top, I know it's whole milk and bet it's organic, too. Alice flits around the table like a wood sprite, ladling out soup and pointing out sandwich and beverage choices. I roll my eyes and open my mouth to scold her about the ridiculous display, but a bubble of laughter from my mate halts me.
Isabella squirms in her chair, reminiscent of a delighted child, and places a hand over her mouth. Her eyes are so lively. "Alice, this is wonderful! It's too much for one girl, really, but I simply love it!"
I sit with Isabella while she consumes two bowls of minestrone, half of a chicken salad sandwich, and half of a roast beef sandwich, licking her fingers and complimenting Alice the whole time. It's the most I've seen her eat since we met—the most hope I've seen blossom in her eyes.
When Isabella proclaims she can't eat one more bite, I rub my hand over her nearly concave belly and ask where she put it all, eliciting another round of giggling.
I begin to wonder where my sisters have gotten off to when the two of them enter the periphery of the kitchen, two shadows over a happy moment. Their faces are business-like now.
"It's time." Rose looks only at Isabella as if I don't exist. They've obviously spoken of this event in some detail because Isabella shudders perceptibly before shaking it off and nodding.
"Where should we do this?"
"The bedroom would be best I think." Rose glances over at me. "You should be there, too."
I glare at her incredulously. "Where else would I be? Is there something I need to know about this?"
"No—" Isabella starts.
"It's going to hurt," Rose interrupts, her tone flat.
Isabella glares at her. "I asked you not to."
I glance between my fierce sister and my apparently equally fierce mate. "Would the two of you care to fill me in?"
"The serum is going to hurt like hell. She might get a fever and some bone pain. Isabella thinks you're too fragile to hear the truth."
"I don't think he's too fragile, Rose! I just didn't want to upset him unnecessarily. We really don't know what effect the serum is going to have on me. Carlisle said everyone is different."
My sister rolls her eyes. "Tomato, tomahto."
I grasp Isabella's hand, rubbing my thumb over the back of it. "I'm okay, you know. Nothing is going to send me back to that place where I was all that time."
She gazes into my eyes, the tears gathering in hers. "How did you know I was worried about that?"
"I just did." I pull my chair out, inviting her onto my lap, and she curls around me, pressing her cheek against mine. "I'm with you, Isabella. Seeing you in any kind of distress will be difficult for me, but I'm here all the way."
"I love you, Edward." She turns her face and kisses my lips softly.
"As I love you." I look deep into her eyes. "Are you ready?" I see the answer in them. She is.
Up in the bedroom, Rose has everything prepared. There are extra blankets and bedding, a cooler of ice packs, and spare pajamas. From another portable cooler, she pulls out three large syringes filled with bright red fluid. I hear Alice bustling around the kitchen downstairs and wonder if she's squeamish about the process.
Isabella lies down on the bed, propped up by several fluffy pillows. She's wearing thin cotton pajama pants in a pink and green floral print and a pale pink tank top. I worry that she'll be too cold, but Rose assures me this is the way to begin.
Rose kneels on the floor beside the bed and takes Isabella's hand. "You remember all that we discussed?" When Isabella nods, she continues, "Do you have any questions before we begin?"
"No. Let's do this." She smiles bravely.
Swiping an alcohol pad over the fold of Isabella's arm, Rose inserts the first syringe and applies slow, steady pressure to the plunger, pushing the neon red liquid straight into the vein. Holding the needle steady, she pops out one cartridge and fits another in place so she doesn't have to stick Isabella multiple times.
"Okay, done. If you feel anything out of the ordinary at all, speak up." Rose glances up at me where I stand rigidly against the wall beside the bed. "Edward, she'll probably start with a fever and intense heat and sweating. That will progress to possible shaking and chills. If the fever goes too high, we need to pack her with ice, and if she becomes too cold, warmer clothing, more blankets. Her body is about to wage a war against that chromosome in her blood, and you have to understand this is not your garden variety fever and chills."
"Got it." My tone is clipped, and I try to rein in my anger. Perhaps Rose didn't abide by Isabella's wishes completely, but she left me out of the loop on the details long enough that it's too late to question the procedure. Of course we have no other choice. I'd take any chance, however small, to keep Isabella alive, but I feel as if I'm being treated with kid gloves.
Isabella peers up at me cautiously, and the fear in her eyes decides it for me—I can't upset her now. My anger washes away on a wave of love and concern for my mate, and my posture relaxes as I fold myself down to the bed and lean against the pillows beside her. I take her hand and place a gentle kiss on the back of it. "Whatever you need, sweet one. Lean on me through this, okay?"
"Thank you, Edward." She rewards me with a beatific smile worthy of angels and drifts to sleep.
An hour later, Isabella's fingers claw around mine convulsively and beads of sweat break out on her pallid skin. Her eyes fly open in a cry of pain. She's throwing some heat, but it's not more than a mild fever. Her back arches, and she turns her head my way, eyes frightened. "Edward, it hurts . . ."
"Where, my love?" I caress her face, offering her steady eyes full of confidence to look into.
"My bones—" she gasps out.
Before I can open my mouth, Rose is right there with a glass of water and a white pill. "Swallow this. It won't kill the pain entirely, but it'll take the edge off."
Isabella sits up with my assistance and swallows the pill gratefully. "Thanks."
Rose presses a hand to Isabella's forehead. "Only about 101 right now. Edward, if her temp gets above 102, you need to pack her with ice. The ideal range is to keep her temp between 100 and 102 through the entire process."
"Okay." I pull Isabella closer, and she rests her head on my shoulder, draping an arm over my stomach. "Rest and don't worry about anything."
"I'm not worried. I'm in the best of hands."
Two hours later, the fever spikes to 102.5 and I grab ice packs from the cooler, tucking them around her torso. Alice enters the room for the first time with a wet washcloth for Isabella's forehead.
"Have you seen anything?" I ask.
"She'll be fine."
Alice grimaces. "I can't always see her clearly because of the wolf chromosome. It's murky, but I think she's going to be fine."
I nod, relaxing again. "Carlisle?"
"One big blank so far."
When Isabella's temperature goes lower and her body shudders with chills, we bundle her up with extra blankets. Over the next forty-eight hours we traverse a delicate balance, keeping her body at the prime temperature range for the serum to work its magic. Toward the end, when her fever is raging once again, Isabella grows ornery and throws off the ice packs. Rather than restrain her and chance injuring her fragile body, I strip my shirt off and she settles against me with a contented sigh. At least I'm useful as an ice pack.
When the sun rises on day three, Isabella's temperature has returned to normal. Rose proclaims this okay now because the "burning in" process should be complete. I help Isabella into the bathroom where Alice has drawn her a bath, and she sinks into the fragrant water with a sigh, her lids fluttering closed. I bathe her and massage shampoo into her long tresses, fully enjoying taking care of my mate, and Isabella accepts my attention gratefully.
Rose and Alice air out the bedroom and change the bedding, while Isabella soaks in the tub. The scent of fresh pine needles wafts in on the breeze from the open window, bringing with it the essence of spring. I blow-dry Isabella's hair, enjoying the silken feel of it running through my fingers, then bundle her in a fluffy robe and carry her down the stairs and out to the front porch. I set her on the rustic wooden bench, and Alice brings her a steaming bowl of oatmeal and a cup of tea.
"How do you feel?" I ask, after she's finished half of her breakfast.
"Like I've been hit by a truck and pieced back together." She smiles, a spark of hope in her eyes. "But I feel different at a deep level. Do you think I'm imagining it?"
"I'm sure you're not."
Rose joins us on the porch, probably because of our conversation. She leans on the edge of the railing and smiles. "We'll start drawing blood daily from here on out, Isabella. You did exceptionally well through the process—now we just wait for prime time."
"Prime time?" Isabella questions.
"Once your blood reaches its optimum level in seven to ten days, we change you."
A/N: Thoughts, theories, opinions? Next chapter, I'll be announcing the winning flavor for Emmett's Party Pack! *wink*
Next story to update will be I Want It Painted Black.
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