XIV. Lux aeterna
"You came back."
Slowly, Edward turns to face the dark-haired boy in mourning. Like all those here in the graveyard, his face is drawn, tired from sleepless nights, and his eyes are rimmed an angry red. Yet when Edward offers a hesitant, gentle smile, Seth's lips automatically stretch in response, and unmistakable, welcoming warmth spreads through his thoughts.
"I did," Edward quietly says. When the boy falls in beside him, as if the three months he's been gone never passed, they begin a long, familiar circuit around the rows of mottled gray granite and marble. Carefully, watching Seth's reaction in his periphery, he adds, "I promised your sister I would."
For a moment, Seth doesn't answer. As he shoves his hands deep inside his pockets, his gaze diverts down to the bright spring grass. With a sharp frown, he huddles inside his thin wool jacket, but Edward knows that his actions have nothing to do with the lingering chill in the early April air. Chewing the inside of his cheek, he thinks hard about what exactly he wants to say – weeks worth of questions and confusion – before he finally settles on a simple statement. "You saw her right before she died," he says. His words waver and crack at the end.
Nodding, Edward mimics the boy's posture and solemn expression, recalling the tired, frail teenaged girl who'd barely been able to speak when he'd last held her hand. "Yes," he murmurs. "She called me late last week. I came down and stayed with her for a little while one afternoon."
Seth swallows. "Mom said she was… different after you left. Like maybe… like maybe she was okay with what was happening." When the boy looks up, his eyes are wide and glassy, and beads of shimmering wetness gather along the lower lids. Even without his gift of hearing, Edward would know what those unshed tears represent, but because he does hear, there is no doubt at all. For inside Seth's mind, brighter and louder than the loss and sorrow, there is unexpected hope, a selfless, compassionate hope for final peace for a dying sister, and it bleeds into his voice when he presses, "Was she? Was she okay with it?"
Like always around this particular boy, the gentleness and faith in someone so young is moving – humbling – and in response, Edward's lungs swell with a deep breath of air that stretches him from the inside out. Mingled in with the calming sweetness of the early blossoms, the acrid fragrance of freshly broken earth coats his mouth and tongue, and without thinking, in response, his pale golden eyes lift to scan the horizon before focusing on a second dark green tent in the distance. Like the one they just departed, it's the somber marker of yet another loved one gone – this one a man, mentor, confessor, and friend – and the sight of it sends through him a pang of bittersweet sadness that Edward is sure will never truly fade.
"I think she was," he answers, his voice distant and hollow. Hidden inside his hand, in unconscious habit, Edward's thumb smoothes over the old strand of beads he still carries with him. "I think she found whatever it was she was searching for and made her own kind of peace with God."
The boy's lips pinch together but then he nods, seemingly content with Edward's response after no more than a second of contemplation, as if those few words were all he truly needed to hear. As they pass along the western wall, the two turn quiet again, so much so that to Edward, in the distance, the waves softly lapping against the shore of the lake sound like peals of thunder.
"It's weird you being in a tie," Seth suddenly blurts.
Surprised by both the abrupt loudness and turn in topic, Edward's head jerks left and his eyes widen, and when he sees the faint pink spots of shame decorating Seth's cheeks and the way he looks as though he wants to sink into the ground, Edward wants to laugh. Especially so when he hears the one phrase the boy doesn't say – at least not aloud:
That it's even weirder seeing the circle of shiny gold around Edward's finger.
As much as he wants to, Edward doesn't laugh, however, at neither the remarks concerning his attire, nor the ones concerning his choice in eternal companion.
Because the boy is right; it is strange.
All of it.
The black suit, so similar yet so different from the uniform he's always worn. The dark, neatly patterned fabric knotted around his neck that now replaces the old square of virgin white.
The emblem around his finger that marks him as hers instead of the long chain and cross that marked him as His.
The cabin in the heart of the vast boreal forest, mere miles from the arctic line, that he – they – now call home.
It's all a world away from these gray walls of mortar and stone. It's a world away from everything he thought he knew. As joyous and happy as Edward is, as much as he thanks God each day for what he's been given, still, there is no denying that the existence he now leads is not the one he'd envisioned over these last decades. Nor can he say that the transition has all been easy. Finally biting her had almost killed him.
"I'm just now getting used to it myself," Edward hears himself say, answering far more than the boy asks.
"Fa– I mean, Edward?" Seth stutters.
Shaking his head to clear the cobwebs, Edward looks down and then smiles, oddly grateful for the boy's inadvertent slip. For whatever reason, it's a reminder and at the same time, almost like coming home, if only to visit.
The spots of color have faded, but Edward still feels the extra degree of heat from Seth's discomfort. His heart rate ticks up in time, too, and before he opens his mouth to speak, Edward already knows why. "Can I… can I ask you a question?"
Softly, his eyes returning to the triangle top of the green tent in the distance, Edward replies, "Of course, you can." Because the boy deserves at least some answers.
"Do you regret leaving?"
Sighing because there is no simple response to Seth's query – at least not one that he's capable of sharing – Edward rakes his fingers through his hair, fighting a useless battle against the ever-constant wind.
"Yes and no," he says after a moment. The words come slowly, as though he's deciding then and there. "It wasn't an easy decision – leaving, that is. In fact… there has never been a harder one for me. Some days it's still hard. Meaning that sometimes I miss…" He pauses, tilts his head, and haphazardly waves toward the towering structure nearby. "I miss all this. The people. Teaching. The shelter. Doing all the things I used to do every single day – the routine of serving in this particular way. This was home for me." He stops again, but this time Edwards smiles because the flawless face of the woman who kissed him yesterday before he left and the same one who will kiss him hello when he returns tomorrow flashes through his mind. "But… for me, it was the right thing to do."
Clearing his throat, Seth buys a little bit of time before asking what he most wants to know. "It was Bella, right?"
"Partly," he admits, as he spins the ring around his finger. "It was more me."
While he'd like to know more – as would most of the parish – Seth chooses not to ask for the details Edward doesn't want to give. Instead, his shoulders slump a little and like the teenager he is, he drags his toes, leaving a dark line that cuts through the grass. He moves the conversation yet again. "It's… different now that you're gone."
Out of habit, Edward clasps his hands behind his back. "I know."
"I don't really like Father Samuel." The boy's nose crinkles as he pictures a russet-skinned man wearing a pinched, always-serious expression. "He's kind of… I don't know. He's strict about stuff you never cared about. And don't tell him, but he's kind of boring."
Edward grins and laughs, lifting his face toward the pale gray sky. "Come on, he's all right," he says, even as his frame still shakes. He's met his successor after all, and Seth's blunt appraisal isn't far from the mark. Sam is strict and he is boring. But Edward knows that he's a good man, too. "You just have to… show him the ropes. Or just… humor him like you did me."
Seth finally cracks a grin. "I guess. I don't think he'll ever learn, though."
"Maybe. Maybe not." When Seth drops his gaze to the ground again, turning quiet both outwardly as well as inwardly, the laughter ceases, and Edward lightly places his palm on the boy's shoulder.
"I miss you, too," he breathes, because he does. Edward misses the boy's mind and company. He misses the kindness and goodness that radiates out from him – evidence of everything he believes. "Just because I'm no longer here and my… job… description has changed, you can always call me."
As he hands him a small ivory card with nothing more on it than a row of neatly printed numbers and dashes, Edward pictures the blurry scene that Alice gave him just before he and Bella left Chicago.
In that maybe-future is Seth – tall, lanky, and aged some ten to fifteen years – and he's smiling with his entire face. He steps through a pair of heavy oak doors, and as he walks, his heels click loudly against hard stone. Framed against the warm flickering candlelight, he's a dark yet familiar figure, one cut all in black. A square of white rests against his throat.
The boy eyes the card like a prize before taking it and slipping it into his pocket. "Really? You don't mind?"
Edward's lips turn up and he steals another glance across the way. "You call, and I'll be here. Always."
She's faster than Alice said she would be. At least that's the way it seems, and as they dart between stands of dark green spruce and fly across hidden fields of swaying grass, it's no easy task to catch up to her. Bella's strides are long and stretching, fueled by the richness and strength of the human blood that still lingers and infuses her hardened muscles, and now, as she runs from him, she's little more than a pale white flash against the shadow of the forest.
She loves to run.
He loves to watch her.
Graceful, lithe, and strong, with her head thrown back and hair streaming in ribbons, she's utterly captivating. She laughs as she runs, something she seems to do a lot of anyway.
"Come on, old man," Bella calls over her shoulder, as she leaps across a rock bed river, wide and now rushing from the gradual spring thaw.
Gladly taking the bait, Edward grins and steps up his efforts. A fan of dirt and debris kick from his heels, and as he races forward, silky strands of air part across his face and flow past his ears, bringing with them scents of pine, earth, and the cleanness of melting snow.
Sometimes he forgets just how fast he truly is.
So he catches her.
Perhaps rougher than he intended, Edward's arms wrap around Bella's waist and the two tumble to the ground, laughing and rolling like boulders, leaving a wide swath of destruction in their wake.
"Old man?" he asks when they finally come to a halt. "I can still catch you."
Bella laughs, a loud, throaty sound that makes his heart and chest feel warm and full, and she winds her slender arms around his neck. "No fair," she says, pressing her lips to his. "You cheat."
"I do not," he scoffs, rolling them over, reluctantly dragging his mouth away from hers. "I still can't hear you. I should get something out of this deal, you know."
When he thumbs the long, elegant column of Bella's neck, tracing the curved, shimmering crescent above her jugular, she smiles, but Edward doesn't miss that she winces, too. "You haven't fed?" he asks, kissing that mark he left twelve weeks past.
Bella shakes her head. "I wanted to wait for you."
"Why? Alice said you'd be fine."
"I know." Her gradually lightening eyes slide away from his. "I was afraid."
Edward's brows slant. "Of?" His voice is soft, caressing, because he knows.
"I don't trust myself yet," Bella says. "What if… what if someone was there and I couldn't stop?"
She doesn't have to say anything else, because even though he can't hear her, he can see the memory in her eyes. Two weeks changed, she almost succumbed when a solitary hunter stumbled into their woods, and only Edward's iron grip had kept her at bay.
"It's all right. I understand." Gently, he pushes back a strand of tangled, wind-blown hair, tucking it behind her ear.
"It's hard," she whispers, swallowing back what he knows to be liquid fire. "Much harder than I thought."
Slowly, Edward nods and then brushes his lips across her temple, then her cheek, then her lips, repeating the circuit until she shivers in his arms. With a sigh, her fingers thread through the short hair at the nape of his neck. "You're distracting me."
His shoulders shake and he grins against her. "I know. You're still young, so it's easy to do."
"I still don't understand how you stood being so close to me."
"Simple. You smelled like a dream." The corner of his mouth lifts into an arrogant smirk, something he's just now learning to do, but then he grows serious. "No, but really, being in the same room with you was Hell those first few times. And even later, resisting you was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do."
Bella doesn't ask him what was the hardest thing he's ever done. She knows as well as he does. She knew it the moment he appeared on her doorstep that night after dark, eyes filled with mourning and fire.
"I choose you," he'd said, as he dropped to his knees before her.
"Are you okay?" Edward asks, as he lightly strokes her skin. "Do you want to hunt now?"
"Not just yet. It's not unbearable. I just want to be like this for a minute." Bella rests her cheek against Edward's sternum, listening to the resounding silence. "Are you okay?" she whispers.
Holding her tightly to his chest, Edward closes his eyes and pictures the path Seth and he had walked the other day. As they had turned the final corner, making their way back to Leah's grave, Edward's gaze drifted to the right where an old ramshackle building, a small clapboard thing with faded paint and crooked steps where St. Mark's old groundskeeper keeps his tools, still stands.
Intact and proud, after more than a century of wear, that small building is about the size of the church just outside of Arviat that he briefly visits each week. Worlds away, he thinks to himself again. Yet when he kneels behind the rough-hewn pine pew in the tiny northern church and when his head bows and he makes the cross, Edward knows.
His eyes open and for a second, the bright sun climbing across the cloudless sky is almost blinding. "I'm more than okay," he finally says.
Because Edward knows that Father Carlisle was right. That he no longer has to ask for the forgiveness that's already been given. That long-lived doesn't mean forever-dead. That he can love God and love Bella, too.
They were all right.
He has both.
Thank you for reading!