This chapter is for those who stay the course.

Disclaimer: I do not own Twilight.


Chapter 36

I make it one
Watch the sun
Sink behind the trees with the keys to the kingdom

"Keys To The Kingdom" – UNKLE

Human memories can be fragile, fleeting things; like smoke, they fade with time. Even seen though the unerring mind of a vampire, such memories are hazy and almost surreal; the sensation is not unlike looking through the wrong end of a telescope. That is particularly true if the vampire is not interested in capturing the memories.

After my change, time was fluid. There was no past or future, only now. I remembered nothing. I woke from dreams of ashes and fire not understanding where I was. I saw a dark, dirty room and shining, golden eyes all around. I heard the whisper of hushed breaths, and a low voice murmuring in my ear.

I felt no fear—only thirst.

I ran, wondering at the feel of the wind whispering across my skin as the forest around me became a blur of green. I felt some curiosity about the slim, white figures that followed me, even allowing one of them to change my course; I knew they could not stop me if I refused.

I hunted, gasping as a warm creature writhed under my fingers. I fed, moaning soundlessly when the blood filled my senses, heat and salt crashing through me. The thunder of a dying heart pounded in my ears. My nerves sang. A world opened before me and I gladly fell into it.

When I surfaced, something inside me clicked into place. Time began moving forward, settling into something I could follow.

I turned from my kills and saw a beautiful young man waiting. He told me his name—Edward—and my own as well. He smiled kindly at my questions, and waved the others forward to introduce them.

The Cullens, I learned, were a family of sorts, and creatures like me: vampires. They knew me, or a version of me that I myself did not recognize. They showed me their ways and explained their history. They told me about their extraordinary gifts, and how they made life both easier and more challenging.

I became fast friends with Alice, the tiny dark-haired seer, though the others distinguished themselves as well. Jasper was a warrior with the power to soothe my moods. Emmett and Rosalie were the protectors, while Carlisle and Esme acted as teachers and historians.

It took longer to get to know Edward, the mind reader with one weakness: me. He could no more hear my thoughts than I could his. When I looked at his eyes and the way he smiled, I felt sure there was something else behind their slightly haunted expression. He slipped into the background when the others were gathered, becoming watchful, but distant. Pain often flashed over his face when he thought no one was watching and I wondered who he had been to the girl called Isabella Swan.

When he approached me one evening, offering to tell me about my human years, I was amused; I had no interest in the human Bella or the people in her life. Edward's voice was sweet and low, however, like lovely music, and I found myself listening without meaning to. I watched him as he spoke, following the graceful lines of his face and changing expressions, silently noting the traces of sadness in his eyes.

"Why are you going this?" I asked, giving him a small smile when his brows drew together in confusion. "Don't get me wrong; it's sweet of you to take the time, and I do enjoy spending time with you, but I don't need all of this information, Edward. I don't remember any of the things you're telling me."

He was quiet for a moment before nodding thoughtfully. "Fair enough," he said, flashing a grin. "Let's just say that I promised myself I'd tell you about the girl I used to know."

I rolled my eyes good naturedly. "And you're not the type that breaks promises, right?"

"That's right." Edward winked. "And see? You're getting to know me better already."

As he continued speaking, my amusement slowly became curiosity. So much of my human story was shadowed by darkness and threats that I did not understand and I realized with a jolt that my existence, both human and immortal, was a puzzle from which pieces were missing. The things that Edward could tell me, however, might help me put parts of the puzzle together.

I also quickly understood something that Edward was not saying: he had loved Bella Swan. He loved me. He still loved me, in spite of the fact that there was nothing left of that girl. A sense of pity swept over me for the kind boy at my side, and I found that I was grateful he could not hear my thoughts.

aDc

I made an effort to be kind to Edward after that evening, though that often meant not being near him. He worked hard to hide his unhappiness, but wasn't really fooling anyone. I felt a vague sense of guilt knowing he was lonely, though I also knew there was nothing I could do to ease his feelings. My guilt only increased when I became aware that he continued to see the humans I had left behind in Forks.

"We've tried to talk him out of speaking to Charlie and Renee," Esme told me one day when Edward had disappeared with his phone. "Nothing about those conversations with your parents soothes Edward's conscience. But he insists on continuing with them."

"I could tell him not to bother," I said thoughtfully, and frowned when Esme shook her head. "Why not? Nothing about what I am bothers me. I ... I don't know anything but this life, and I like it."

Esme's smile was gentle. "That's good to hear, Bella. I hope that you continue to feel that way always, even if your memories ever return."

I blinked at her in confusion. "Why wouldn't I? From what Edward has told me, I was struggling with the things in my past, even years afterward. My human memories can't possibly be better than what I have now."

"I understand what you're saying," Esme allowed, running one hand over my shoulder as we walked amongst the trees. "You're more like Edward than I first realized."

"Oh? How so?"

"You're both very determined. Once Edward has something in his head, it is impossible to dissuade him. We tried very hard to stop him from seeing you after all, and look at how that turned out."

I couldn't help joining in when Esme began to laugh.

aDc

Time continued moving forward. Pieces of the puzzle began to take shape. I had a present. With the family that had adopted me, my future was forming. I abandoned a past to which I felt no ties, content with the knowledge that a new past was forming with each passing moment.

When my thirst had abated enough for travel, the family moved east to the mountains straddling the border of Montana and Wyoming. It was there that I stood in the door of the music room of a house I had visited once before but did not remember, watching Edward at the piano. His music rolled over me, soaring with aching beauty. As I watched, Edward turned his head, his eyes closed as he lost himself in his playing. And out of nowhere at all, the puzzle pieces of my memories began to reassemble.

Images and impressions fell out of the void and back into my consciousness. I knew immediately that these memories were half-formed, but they felt real. I saw Edward in a music store, his peculiar eyes shining at me across the room. I saw him sitting beside me in a car, his handsome face creased with anger. Curled beside me in a bed, a smile curling the corners of his lips. Hovering above me, his whole being radiating apprehension and concern as he pushed the hair away from my face with his hands.

I drew in a tremulous breath, crossing the room to stand beside the piano as Edward's song drew to a close. My chest ached and my eyes burned with tears that would never come. When he opened his eyes and his gaze locked with mine, I knew in an instant who Edward Cullen was and what he had meant to me. I remembered him.

aDc

Other bits and pieces of my early human years came to me as time passed, the pieces slowly filling out the puzzle. There were disjointed images and ideas, even sudden waves of emotion, all tying the creature I had become back to the flesh and blood girl from Forks.

Faces came to me, unbidden, and sometimes voices. A dark-eyed man with a mustache that I understood was my father, and a slim, pretty woman I realized was my mother. Young men with tawny skin and dark hair, whose voices still cracked with youth. I knew that those people had loved me and I them, but felt no grief at the idea that I would never see them again.

I learned darker things about my past, too. That someone had hurt me, though the details were fleeting. There was a vague shape, hulking but always cast in shadow, and a voice that made my fists curl in anger. I knew that the secrets wrapped around the memories had hurt me almost as much as the man called James Chase, and that I had spent far too much time living in fear.

One bright spot continued to emerge, of course, shining like a beacon through the clouds: Edward. I could not recall every detail about him that I'd learned as a human. I didn't remember meeting his family, or much about the times we had spent together. Most of the words we'd shared before my change were gone, though I could recall the way his voice had made me feel. I knew that he had been kind and gentle, and very often as inhumanly patient as only a vampire could be. He had helped me when I'd asked, going against many of his own beliefs, and had shown strength when I'd lashed out at him. I remembered the way he smelled, and the cool press of his hands over my skin. The way his lips and lounge slid over mine and the sound of his throaty groan in my ear when I pulled him close.

As pieces of my memories returned, Edward found a place in my past. As we hunted and explored the forests around us, talking endlessly about whatever came to mind, Edward found a place in my present. One afternoon, I leaned toward him, and twined my fingers around his. A slow smile lit his face, and another piece of the puzzle slid into place as Edward found a place in my future.

~aDc~

I was fifty miles from the house when my phone buzzed on the seat beside me. Bella's text flashed across the screen when I glanced down, and I chuckled at the impatience I could read behind her words.

I know you're close; Alice has stopped dropping hints about your whereabouts.

With a grin, I pressed down a little harder on the accelerator with my foot.

It had been almost two weeks since I'd left for the U.S., traveling west to Washington State. Unlike years before, Bella had briefly considered traveling with me before deciding against it. We both knew it would be easier for me to slip in and out of the city of Forks without her, and she trusted me to satisfy my curiosity about her family without giving myself away.

In the nine years since her change, Bella had recovered only a small number of human memories. She felt some curiosity toward the people she'd known, but nothing more. In contrast, I felt drawn to Charlie Swan and Renee Dwyer. Perhaps because my own parents had died I had been left behind, I identified with the family Bella had been forced to abandon. I wanted to know—hoped, really—that their lives continued moving forward, and that they coped well with their loss.

I called Charlie regularly during the first year following Bella's disappearance. We spoke only for a few minutes each time, long enough for him to tell me there had been no movement on Bella's case and to assure me that they hadn't give up. I let him comfort me, knowing that he was soothed by his own words. Knowing that Charlie expected me to act as a typical young man, I gradually allowed him to believe that I was moving on, as humans always do. I let the calls taper off in favor of sporadic emails and the occasional card through the postal service. I watched his data footprints, as well as Renee and Phil Dwyer's, and that of the Quileute boy called Jacob, analyzing the data they generated and accumulated as they moved through life.

Officially, Bella Swan's case was closed. The evidence in the case was somewhat inconclusive, but compelling. Bella was seen driving the Chevy truck seconds before it hit the water and none of the many witnesses at the scene that afternoon could place her anywhere but behind the wheel. The Chevy had gone into the open water just beyond the confines of the marina during high tide, when the currents were strong. Many of her belongings were found by divers, and the temperature of the water at that time of year meant that Bella would have succumbed to exposure rapidly. Though a body was never recovered, it was generally accepted that Bella Swan had drowned.

The humans grieved; sometimes struggling with the intensity of their loss as they sought ways to fill the hole Bella's vanishing had left. Renee and Phil Dwyer separated briefly when their marriage faltered. Jacob Black had left La Push for two years to stay with friends in Northern California while attending community college. Charlie Swan had immersed himself in his work, spending untold hours searching for signs that his daughter had either run away or been forced to leave against her will.

With time, Bella's friends and family persevered. They worked and played, and found and lost love. Renee and Phil reconciled, Jacob returned to Washington to open a body repair shop in Port Angeles, and Charlie learned how to let his daughter go. Every fall, they honored the tradition they'd begun that first year, and gathered in Forks to celebrate Bella's life. I sent a card to Charlie's house every year and when it was convenient, I made the trip to watch and listen to the humans from afar.

Now, as I pulled into the end of the long drive leading to the family's latest house, a flash of color caught my eye. In the next moment, I'd parked and was out of the car, sprinting into the woods on the trail of a sweet scent that I knew very well.

An impish grin spread over my lips as I chased after Bella, following easily as she darted around the tree trunks. With a short burst of speed, I was beside her and laughing when she pouted; after her newborn year, Bella's running speed had lessened, a development she was still lamenting. I ran a little faster, egging her on, and a laugh bubbled out of her as we hurtled over the terrain. As we approached a gorge, I dropped back enough to let Bella soar over the distance between the banks first before following close behind. I laughed as I landed on the other side, and then headed northeast, cutting my speed enough to allow Bella to catch up.

The crash of rushing water filled my ears as we ran along the riverbank. The sound increased steadily to a roar as I slowed, coming to a stop at the edge of a waterfall. White water thundered over the edge into a steep ravine, the impact at the bottom sending a fine mist pluming into the air. When Bella appeared at my side Bella moment later, however, I saw nothing else. Her hair was pulled back in a loose braid, setting off her wide, golden eyes. She smiled, her nose crinkling a little with delight, and I let my eyes move boldly over her lithe body, taking in her simple garnet red top and jeans, and the heavy, practical boots she still favored. Every atom of my body hummed with arousal.

Rather than throwing myself at her, I reached out to tuck a stray lock of hair behind her ear with a grin. "Hey."

"Hey." Bella's answering smile was wide as she looked at me, and the joy that lit her beautiful face filled me with happiness.

The next moment, she was in my arms. I swept her close, closing my eyes as she wound her arms around my neck. The solitary days I'd spend during previous fortnight fell away as I held her, and Bella sighed softly.

"Welcome back, Edward."

"Thank you," I murmured. "It's nice to be back."

Bella smiled against my neck, though her voice was somewhat forlorn when she spoke. "I'm glad you're home. I missed you."

Pulling back, I looked down at her, my chest aching when I saw the emotion in her eyes. "I missed you too, sweetheart."

Without another word, Bella raised up on her toes to close the short distance between our lips. I leaned in, pulling her lower lip between mine, grazing the plump flesh with my teeth. She let out a soft hum, twining her arms tighter around my neck, and the corners of my lips turned up when her tongue darted out to run over my top lip. I moved my hands to frame her face, moving her head slightly as our mouths opened against each other. A low groan rumbled through my chest.

That sound triggered something in Bella, spurring her hold on even more tightly as she began to move her hands. Her touch slid over my shoulders, then moved to run down the length of my back, slipping under the hem of my shirt. I let my hands explore, too, skimming around Bella's waist, caressing her smooth belly beneath her top. She grew still against me as my hands traveled up, teasing the skin on her ribs before cupping her breasts. She inhaled sharply when my thumbs slowly swirled over her nipples, and \let out a small moan when I pulled away only to press my mouth against her neck.

"Feels so good," she whispered, while I lapped at her throat with my tongue.

Abruptly, she pulled back, reaching for my wrists with her hands and laughing when I grumbled.

"Bella," I said warningly, narrowing my eyes at her when she chuckled. "I want—"

"Yes, I know what you want," she replied with a wink, "and you can just hang on a little longer, Edward. Come on; let's at least make an effort to avoid any prying Cullen eyes."

Bella drew me away from edge of the waterfall, into the deeper gloom where the trees were thick. She paused, then knelt on the moss and gave me a wicked grin before jerking me down by my wrists. I was laughing as we fell back together but my mirth turned to a hum of pleasure when our mouths met again.

Bella's fingers moved over the buttons of my shirt as our kisses grew more heated. I tugged at her clothes ineffectually, and she laughed against my lips when I made an impatient noise of frustration.

"Help me," I begged her. "Your clothes are always so complicated."

"Edward, I'm wearing a sweater and jeans!" she protested before pushing me away to pull the sweater over her head.

I snorted, leaning back onto my knees to finish taking off my shirt and then started in on my shoes and jeans. "Not my fault I can never get them off," I said, biting my lip at the sight of her pale, smooth flesh coming into view. Neither of us spoke until after all of our clothes were scattered over the forest floor.

"It feels like longer than two weeks that you've been gone." Bella's voice was soft and raspy as she lay back, and I froze at the raw emotion in her next words. "I ... I hate it when you're gone."

"I'm sorry," I said sincerely, bending again to lay myself over her body. "I never meant to hurt you by going, Bella."

She was nodding even before I'd finished speaking. Reaching to cup my face with one hand, she slid the fingers of the other hand into the hair at the nape of my neck. "You don't have to apologize; I know you didn't mean anything by it. I'm glad you can go and learn the things you want to know. I'm also really glad to have you home again."

Our kisses were gentle at first, interrupted now and then with murmured words of love and longing. Bella groaned shakily when my hands moved to her breasts again, and she kissed me deeply until I pulled away with a sharp gasp. Ducking down, I kissed my way over her throat and collarbone before taking one of her breasts in my mouth. Bella's hiss was loud in the hush of the woods. My desire bloomed, expanding from my belly outward when Bella canted her hips up into me. Our hands never stopped moving, fingers whispering and pressing over skin, always drawing one another closer. I was hard, so hard, and my breath stuttered when Bella reached down and took me in hand.

"God," I groaned loudly, pressing my forehead against her chest, desperately fighting for control over the jolts of pleasure shooting through me.

"I know," Bella murmured breathlessly, "I need you, love."

I raised my head and shifted this time to press our foreheads together, locking eyes with the girl beneath me. I held my breath as she guided me inside her, and shuddered when her eyes widened and her mouth fell open in a long gasp.

"Edward."

Bella's tortured whisper broke the spell. I rolled my hips, sinking deep inside her and grunting as her eyes fell shut. Bella moved her hips to meet mine when I thrust a second time, throwing her head back, exposing her long, white neck with a strangled cry.

"You're beautiful," I told her, my voice tight with the effort to stay in control just a little longer, though I felt it slip when her eyes opened, flashing with fire and need.

"So are you," she replied, running her hands over my body, drawing a gasp when she plucked at my nipple, and a moan when she squeezed the swell of my ass.

"Christ, Bella."

I twisted my hips as I pumped inside her, knowing how much she loved it, and watched her face go slack with pleasure. Bella moaned loudly when I reached to slip two fingers into her mouth. She curled her tongue around them and she sucked hard, and I muttered a curse when she wrapped her legs around my waist, pushing into my skin with her heels, urging me on.

She cried out suddenly, surprising us both. Her body stiffened as she fell, pulsing around me while I continued moving. I steadied her as best I could, holding her as she slowly floated back to earth, my breaths and thrusts growing erratic. She looked at me with focused eyes as I began to soar, my body straining to fly higher and higher until I felt myself fall away. Trembling with the intensity of the sensations I felt, I buried my face in Bella's neck, groaning helplessly when my limbs gave way and I fell against her.

"I love you," she whispered, and kissed me when I told her the same.

Bella held me for a long time while our limbs tangled around each other. She kissed me hungrily when I pulled her on top of me, and reached between my legs with a wicked smile and chuckle. Her laughter stopped when I slipped my fingers inside her, and she let loose a long sighing groan that sounded like my name.

aDc

The sun was low in the sky when the keen edge of our hunger for one another had finally eased. We lay, side by side on the moss, talking as our hands wandered lazily, now and then stopping to press our lips together, reminding ourselves that our short separation was ended.

"How are they?" Bella asked, one finger curling around a lock of my hair. I didn't need to ask who she meant.

"They seem really well," I replied, "more so this year than any before."

"Is Charlie still dating ...?" Bella bit her lip against a smile as she trailed off; she found the idea of gruff Charlie Swan dating inexplicably amusing.

"Still dating Sue Clearwater, yes." After Harry Clearwater's sudden death five years earlier, Charlie had pitched in with the Quileute tribe to help Sue and her children through their mourning. Charlie and Sue's relationship had matured over the years that followed, particularly when Charlie stepped in as a father figure of sorts to Leah and Seth. No one seemed surprised when the bond between Charlie and Sue became romantic.

"I think they may get married sometime fairly soon," I continued, grinning when Bella's eyes widened. "I overheard Charlie thinking about engagement rings."

"You're terrible," Bella said with a sniff, though there was a smile in her voice. "And Renee and Phil?"

"They seemed okay, too. It sounded as though Phil was being transferred to the Phoenix area in Arizona. They both seemed fairly excited about it."

"Hmmm, that's nice," Bella mused. "Good that Phoenix is a warm, dry place, too. I think Renee has a hard time with rain and snow ... she's not a big fan of anything cold or wet."

"Probably one of the many reasons she left Forks."

Bella smiled at my obvious attempt to soften the events that had led up to her parents' divorce so many years ago.

"Thank you, but you don't have to say that," she murmured. "I don't remember any of it anyway. Besides, I'm more interested in what's going on with Jacob."

"He and Leah are about to welcome their second child," I told her, grinning when she gave a little squeal of delight. Some of the clearest memories Bella had recovered were of her old friend—next to me, Jacob was the person that Bella remembered best. "Their little boy is already two and everyone seemed really excited about the new addition."

It was fully dark before Bella and I sat up to find our clothes. We felt a different kind of hunger then, and were both eager to hunt. We knew, too, that it was only a matter of time before the others came looking for us; that they had left us alone all afternoon impressed us both. While we dressed, I noticed that Bella had grown quiet, and that her eyes were downcast as she pulled on her boots.

"They're not still looking for me, are they?" she asked suddenly. Her face was sad when she looked at me. "From what you've told me Charlie and Renee seem happy ... do you think they've let go?"

I gave her a smile as I finished tying my shoe and then stood, holding my hand out to help her to her feet. "Yes, I do. Charlie still looks in the missing persons databases now and again, and I know that he and Renee wonder about what happened to you and why you were never found. They've made peace with not knowing, though ... or they're getting to that point."

Bella nodded, a smile ghosting across her face as we began walking back toward the house. She was quiet for a while longer before her soft voice reached out to me in the dark again.

"I'm glad. I just don't remember them enough to feel as though they should miss me, if that makes any sense."

My chest felt heavy at her words. "I understand, but you shouldn't feel that way, sweetheart. Your parents remember you, and their memories are happy ones. They'll always love you, and I don't think anyone would want to take that from them."

"No, you're right," she agreed, "they know what they need better than I do at this point. I wondered though ..."

"Wondered what?" I asked when she trailed off.

Bella stopped to gaze at me, her face illuminated by the tiny shafts of moonlight filtering through the canopy of trees overhead. "I think I'd like to go with you next year," she said, "to Forks, I mean, when you go back for the memorial. I'm ready to see them for myself. And it's too hard to be away from you, Edward."

I kissed her, smiling against her lips when she hummed contentedly. "I'd love that."

~Fin~


A/N

And there you have it.

Eek, done! :)

I don't really have anything to say but thank you, as always, for reading and your many, many supportive thoughts and words. So many of you have been with this story from the beginning and I am just blown away that you stuck it out. I hug you! Thanks too, to my former co-writer, transitory07, for coming up with the original story idea.

The collaboration that Discordia81 and I submitted for the LDA Contest, Show Me Something More, won 1st Place in the Public Vote as well as Judges' Choice. Whut! Link on my profile if you want to try something a little different ;)

My entry for the Happily Ever After Twific Contest, The Beach House, is up on the TwiFanfictionRecs Top Ten Completed Fics for April 2013. Squeeeeee ;) Info on my profile. Go vote for your fave completed fic.