A dance floor lives and breathes. Heaves. The DJ amps the crowd into a frenzy, pressing against each other, hands in the air. The thick scent of blood surrounds me. Heat, a hundred thundering pulses. Jarring in time and out with the heavy bass underpinning the music. Tonight it's a warehouse in Shanghai, but it could be anywhere. Any night. Humanity is the same the world over. Tribal. Interconnected. Isolated. Lost. I love the abandon; love disappearing among them. Too out of their minds to fear me; to notice my gold eyes and cold skin.
It's a night like any other. The same as every other. For all the moments before it's not and everything changes. A scent I haven't experienced in years, but can never forget. He walks down the steps with a languid grace that draws attention. Or maybe it's his looks that are drawing the attention, more flawless than even my photographic memory recalled. Copper hair untamed; a classic white oxford shirt rolled to his elbows. His eyes are dark, hungry. Haunted. Staring only at me.
He parts the dancers like Moses without a staff. Moving too slowly. I need him here in front of me. I need him to be nowhere near me. I feel hunted, even though he's the one wearing the wounded animal expression. Does he think I'll run? I have before. He's fast, but I'll always be younger. And he doesn't take care of himself anymore. Doesn't feed nearly enough.
I blink. His hands are on my hips, drawing me to him, roughly, pulling me against him. His scent all around me, his lips pressed to my neck. He breathes my name out against my bare skin and I shudder it in. My fingers are knotted in his hair, dragging him up to look at me. I confront those eyes full of accusation and heartbreak. It's been a decade. It could have been five minutes. Nothing has changed.
His hands lift me; my legs wrap around his waist. He moves so fast we appear to vanish. I close my eyes and open them to see the night sky above us as he slams my back against the outside wall of the warehouse. Hard enough to dent the siding. My heels dig into his lower back, urging him on. His teeth are sharp against my throat and I throw my head back, exposing more of my neck - daring him to hurt me. He tears at my underwear instead, one hand pushing my dress up, the other wrenching the neckline down. Exposing me for the world to see; covering me with his body so that no one can.
He sinks into me, fills me, my body giving up its secrets like the worst of traitors. His breathing grows ragged; my whimpers transform into a cry of release. Our foreheads press together, eyes closed. He lets me slide down his body and back to my feet. I am shaky, unstable. He smoothes my clothes, brushes my hair back off my face, tucks it behind my ears.
My eyes stay shut. I can't bear to see his broken expression, can't speak past the lump in my throat. He kisses my cheekbone, his lips unbearably cool and soft.
I stay pressed against the wall for the rest of the night, long after he's gone.
The Christmas lights strung across Regent Street dance like low-hanging stars. The temperature in London hasn't dropped enough yet for snow, but the cobblestones in the alley are sleet-covered and shiny. She steps out of a doorway in front of me wearing a bright orange swing coat. Every inch Holly Golightly; effortlessly chic.
"Don't you get tired of this?" I sound petulant. Childish. I can't help it.
"Of making sure you're okay?" she asks.
"You must have seen that I'm fine. You knew to meet me here."
She arches an eyebrow at me. She doesn't smile. "I knew that you'd be here. I have no idea how you are."
I huff in frustration, and walk away from her. Stalking across the road and into the lobby of the boutique hotel where I've been staying for the last two months. The clientele is wealthy, obsessed with privacy, and pays me no heed. Alice follows me into the bar, peeling off soft kid gloves and asking the bartender for a scotch on the rocks that will melt uselessly in the glass. I've learned there's no point in avoiding Alice. It's better to give her what she wants. The faster to have her on her way.
"Where are you living?"
"Jasper and I have an apartment in Paris."
I sink into the leather wingback. I feel exhausted. Not physically, of course. Nights bleed into days, into weeks. I walk the streets, museums, galleries, without rest. I run to the Highlands for fresh air; the exertion is nothing. But I'm tired all the way through to my bones. I could make small talk with her. Assure her that I'm fine, that everything's fine. But I'm too weary for pretense this time around.
"Why do you keep coming?" This time I'm asking genuinely. It seems so pointless. Year after year. Nothing has changed. Nothing will change. He continues to seek me out, but our encounters are overshadowed by his hatred of me and his own self-loathing. He's drawn to me like a magnet, but he can't stand to be around me. Nothing Alice has to say can alter that.
Alice fidgets with one of her rings, twisting it round and round on her finger. "Because your future hasn't been constant since...since you left. You haven't made a single long-term decision since then. You don't commit to anything. It's like...it's like you don't believe in a future for yourself anymore."
I examine her face for signs of pity, but find none. A long silence stretches between us. She's right, of course. I live day to day. I can't picture any kind of future, so I don't bother trying.
"I worry," she says, finally, with a small shrug. "We all worry."
The family. Alice's trump card. Flung to the four winds in no small part because of me. Fingers of guilt and regret trail cold across my skin.
"Come to New York, Bella. Rosalie and Emmett are living in the apartment there. Rose wants everyone together. Carlisle can convince him to come."
My eyes feel scratchy. If I were human, this would be where tears would start to prick and well up, but in this life I'm denied the simplest outlets for emotion. For grief.
"He won't come if you tell him I'm going to be there."
The words sound cold, but I know the steel truth of them. If Rose thinks there will be some cozy reunion around Esme's antique dining table for Christmas on the Upper East Side, then she's crazy.
Alice juts her chin out in determination. "Come to New York," she says, picking up her gloves and standing. Smoothing out the line of her coat. "We'll be there by the end of the week. This has gone on long enough, even by our standards."
I think about China. The way he exhaled his desperate release. All the tears that he and I will never shed.
Alice begins to smile. My decision already unfolding into consequences behind her eyes.
"Thank you," she says simply, and is gone.
Outside the window the first flakes of snow are starting to flutter. I press my fingers against the glass. I'm not sure what Alice is thanking me for. Even if, by some miracle, Carlisle can get us in the same room, the damage is long done. Like a shattered vase where the tiniest pieces were lost, there is no way to put the rest back together cleanly now.
I sign for the check and head up to my room to pack.
"What are you doing here?"
Rosalie's tone is cold. She barely halts her stride through the marble lobby of the apartment building. Her stilettos click noisily toward the elevator. She doesn't look over her shoulder.
I get up and trail after her, cursing myself inwardly for believing Alice.
Rose stabs at the button for the penthouse, eyeing me with suspicion. I press myself against the far wall of the elevator and look down at my feet. Even after all this time, even after everything, Rosalie still has the power to make me feel so small. Inadequate.
She waits me out as we ascend the floors, saying nothing.
"Alice," I eventually sigh, with a shrug. "She told me...I thought..." I wave one of my hands carelessly, explaining everything and nothing. The doors slide open, and Rosalie stalks into the apartment, clicking on lights and shuffling through her mail as if I am not even there.
The entrance way opens out into a living area that faces a bank of windows overlooking Central Park. The view is stunning, even at night. I think about leaving. The flight from London was stuffy and uncomfortable, even in first class. I should go back to the hotel, soak in the tub. Maybe run upstate and feed. Rose sinks into one of the lush, cream sofas and looks up at me. "I guess after almost a century I should give up hope that Alice will stop meddling," she says, and gestures at the chair opposite.
"We all should," I say, sitting down with a sigh.
"She always gets in touch with us, you know. When she's seen you. To let us know what you're up to." Rosalie laughs, but the sound is jagged. Sharp. "That's Alice. Trying to hold water in the palm of her hand. As if through sheer force of will, some day it will all be okay and we'll be a family again." She practically spits the word at me, all pain and venom.
"You make it sound like I've been unreasonable. Like you're the one who lost something." My voice sounds gritty and unfamiliar. Turns out I was wrong. I'm not ready to have this conversation with her. With anyone.
"We all lost something, Isabella," she seethes at me. "And you're more of a selfish bitch than even I believed if you think differently."
"She was my flesh and my blood," I respond, low and cold. "You know nothing about my loss."
Rose recoils as if I've slapped her. But only for a beat. Suddenly she surges forward, fire flashing brightly in her eyes.
"She was Edward's as well. But that meant nothing to you. He drowns in his grief, while you gallivant around the globe pretending like nothing happened."
No one has said his name to me in over ten years. I hate the way it sounds. When he finds me, now and again, we never talk. Hearing it now makes me remember that last day in horrific, vivid detail. The keening sound that came from the back of his throat as he held her. A noise that seeped into my bones and took up residence there, even as I drowned him out, screaming at Carlisle to save her. Even as Carlisle shook his head at me in defeat, his face ashen. Even as I ran.
And hearing it is enough, somehow, to cause the dam to break. Every emotion I've kept locked up inside me seems to burst forth at once, crashing over me like a tidal wave. I fold in on myself, buckling into noisy, empty sobs. Rosalie doesn't move.
"I don't know why she did it," I gasp. "Why she risked it. Why she left us."
"Yes, you do." Her voice is soft, no louder than a whisper.
I shake my head, my hair in my eyes, and my chest constricting, and I feel frantic. Unable to catch my breath. Unable to remember that I don't need to.
"You do, Bella. You know exactly why she did it." Rosalie is suddenly crouching beside me, one cool palm on my knee to steady it as it jitters. "You know why, because you did it too."
All the air leaves my lungs in a whoosh. I stare at her, wild-eyed. My mouth falling open in a silent cry.
"I remember that day, Bella. I remember you getting off the plane from Rio. I'd never seen you at odds with Edward before, and it was shocking. I'd thought you so weak before that, mooning around after him like the schoolgirl you were. But I was wrong; you were impossibly strong. You knew exactly what you wanted, and you weren't going to let anyone take it from you."
Rose tucks my hair behind my ears, and I see her just as I did then. Fierce protector; sister; mother; friend. And now that I've let myself feel, I can't stop. Every fiber of my being is aching for the time we've been apart. For all the things I've destroyed; the things I've missed.
"You wanted your baby more than your own life. And Bella, Ness felt exactly the same way. It's why she didn't tell any of us until it was too late, and it's why she didn't listen to Carlisle when he warned her of the risks."
The truth is like cracks in the ice around my heart. I can't stop crying.
"She knew it was dangerous, Bella. She knew. There was no way even a half-vampire was going to be able to conceive safely with a wolf. But she couldn't not try to keep that baby alive, any more than you could."
My beautiful girl. My baby.
"You can't forgive her for leaving you, Bella, but Ness didn't believe she had a choice. You have a choice. You left Edward, and it's destroying him."
I want to refute this, but I can't. I've seen the wounds he bears. I know I am both the cause and the salt.
I want to tell Rosalie these things. To explain. To tell her what it's been like, year after year. City after city. But my words are not for her. My breathing evens out with my resolve.
She stands and walks to the study, returning with a print out of a map, and some scribbled directions.
"He'll be there the day after tomorrow. Same as every other year."
He's chosen a meadow, and I know I'm in the right place right away. Even before I see the rough-hewn cross below the lone tree. It's beautiful, peaceful. The dawn light is cast in mist, and the winter-stripped tree is a colorless skeleton, but even in this bleak season I can see why he chose this. The mountains and the forest draw back here, leaving wide open sky. A space she would have loved.
"I thought you'd never come."
He sounds the same. He certainly smells the same. Alice would wrinkle her nose and mutter about wet dogs, but to me he smells like my history, my home. When I turn to watch him approach, I catch my breath at how much he's changed. Still tall and broad-shouldered. But there is silver in the hair at his temples, and wrinkles around his eyes. He has his hands shoved in the pockets of his jacket, and makes no move to come towards me in greeting.
This had seemed like a good idea when I left New York. Now it seems insane. Selfish.
"Ever year, Bella. Every year I thought, maybe this time. Maybe enough time has passed, maybe..." His eyes are filled with tears. I can't tell if they're for me, or for what we've lost. He sounds so crushed.
He laughs. A dismissive, discordant sound. "Bella, there haven't been vampires in this area for over twenty years." He scrubs at his eyes with the heel of one hand. "Besides. There didn't seem much point in..." He gestures at himself, at the tree. Something crumples inside me. He has this choice. He can turn his back on this aspect of his life, can stop waiting and grow old. Time will pass for him now. Seasons will mean something.
He can let go.
I turn back to the tree. Somehow it seems fitting that he hasn't tried to tame the undergrowth. She would have liked that.
He walks up behind me, but keeps his distance.
"This place was special to us," he says, without elaborating. I think of another meadow, a hundred lifetimes ago. Of purple flowers and the late haze of summer sun. Of whispered promises of love and forever.
"Why now, Bella?"
That's the question I don't have an answer for. Not a good one anyway. I kneel beside the rough wood of the cross, running my finger along it. No name. No dates. Just this desolate, natural tribute.
Jake senses him before I do, looking over my shoulder at the line of trees at the edge of the clearing. I expected Edward to be surprised to see me, but his expression is cautious. Almost fearful. Jake draws him into a tight hug, clapping Edward on the back. They smile at each other, and my chest feels tight. Jake shoves his hands back into his pockets, looking down at me.
"I'll leave you to it."
Panic wells up. I'm not sure that I'm ready for this. The flight instinct is still so strong.
"No, Jacob, don't...I don't want you to feel like..."
He places a huge, warm palm on my shoulder. "I'll come back at sundown, and spend a while with her then." The tiny wrinkles around his eyes crinkle as he smiles, and I want to touch them. As if smoothing them out would let us all go back in time. I don't want him to leave. I don't want him to have to come here in the first place. But he gives my shoulder a squeeze, and nods briefly at Edward, and then he's striding away toward the trees. And it's just the two of us.
I splay my fingers out in the grass, pressing into the soft earth.
Just the three of us.
Edward sits, his back against the bark of the tree. His eyes are black, and the skin underneath them rimmed with purple shadows.
"You need to feed," I admonish, before I can think about it. It's a hopelessly inadequate thing to say, but I can't help it. He looks haunted and ill.
"Why are you here?" His tone is brittle. Defensive. I've never heard him sound like this.
"Is it true? That you come here every year?"
He glances past me at the cross, his eyebrows drawing together fleetingly in pain. "Where else would I go?"
I think of all the places I have been on each anniversary. All the distractions I've tried. None of it worked. It left me empty and aching. My daughter left me empty and aching.
"She left us," I whisper, clawing at the ground for support as the agony rolls over me again.
"You left me," he insists. His voice is low and dangerous, his fingers curled around the tree roots beside him. As if to hold himself back. From me, from what he might do. All the things he hasn't said in ten years. All the thoughts that have never passed between us.
"You let your barrier drop on the day she died, Bella. You never once shared your grief with me. You never once let me share mine. She was OUR daughter. She was part of both of us."
The words are like knives, all the sharper for their accuracy. I look up at him, staring into his dark eyes. Trying to find my love inside this hollow shell. There's only one answer. Only one way. I've known this all along. I've walked the globe trying to avoid it. But it ends now. Here. I take deep breath to steel myself, and push slowly, flexing my long-unused gift like a strained muscle.
Edward is completely unprepared. His jaw drops, his eyes scrunching closed in agony. The tree roots splinter in his grasp. His howl splits the still morning air. I'm at his side before I've realized that I'm moving, smoothing his hair back off his face, smearing dirt and holding him to me and saying his name, over and over, as he cries. Edward. An apology. Edward. A plea. Edward. An explanation. Edward. A prayer for relief.
He's clutching at me so tight, like a drowning man pulling his savior under. I can feel my jacket tear open in his clenched fist, and I don't care. I don't care. Nothing can make me feel more naked than this, than his looking into the dark recesses of my mind.
"Don't you see?" I whisper into his hair. "Don't you see?"
Every moment of anguish and misery. Every mile I've tried to put between me and this place. Between me and him.
Don't you see? It was the only way. There was too much pain for either of us to try and bear alone, Edward.
How could you have ever borne it for us both?
He draws back at the thought. His hands cradle my face and his eyes are bright with astonishment and sorrow. The pad of one thumb sweeps across my cheek. So gentle, his touch, after so long. Nothing like the last few years of angry, physical reunions. This is my husband. This is my home.
His face is clouded with confusion, understanding beginning to dawning bright across his beautiful features. And with it relief, and regret.
I weaken a little.
"I can't...It's been so long since I've done this, Edward. I don't want to stop, but I can't..."
He nods immediately, tracing his fingers lightly across my forehead. Giving me permission to relax. The barrier draws swiftly back into place and I slump into his arms. Edward lowers me to the ground, leaning over me to press his lips to mine.
"You should have told me," he murmurs, kissing me again. "Why didn't you tell me?"
I close my eyes, shaking my head and reaching up to tug him down to me. I have no answers. Something that made so much sense had, over the years, only became harder and harder to understand. The conviction with which I'd run from him turned in on itself. The loss magnifying and repeating and looping.
"I thought it was for the best," I sigh, breathing in the scent of him, clinging to his neck, his arms, like lifelines. "At first. And then...I don't know. Then every time I saw you, saw the hurt in your eyes, it got harder. Every moment we were apart seemed to make it impossible to find my way back here. To you."
My fingers are in his hair, down the back of his neck, over his shoulders. I need him to be closer. I need him to understand. I slide my palm across his muscled chest, placing it flat against his stone heart.
"Bella..." he whispers, so full of longing. The sound of my name from his lips unravels me. I need to knit us back together. I taste the skin of his neck as I shove the jacket from his shoulders, and he groans. A guttural sound, full of want. He cooperates enough to shrug out of the sleeves, tearing his shirt over his head before descending back to kiss me thoroughly. He is all consuming, the strong planes of his back flexing under my fingers as he slides under my top and makes short work of my bra. The pace of his touch is unhurried, gentle. Nothing like the abrupt couplings of the last few years. He is reverent, and his hand on my breast is enough to light a fire throughout my body. He sparks every nerve-ending at once.
I place my palm against him, feeling him strain toward me through the denim of his jeans. He nips at my earlobe and my back arches up to him. I'm wound taut. It feels so different. It feels like we're both present for the first time. Both of us here in this moment. His touch no longer feels like recrimination, like a punishment for us both. I curl my fingers around him, and he growls.
I unbuckle his jeans as he pops the buttons on mine and we're working in unison, shoving the barriers of fabric out of the way until his warm skin is pressed against mine from shoulder to toe. My fingers trail across him, writing the stories of the last ten years, composing apologies and sonnets. Penning tales of regret. His mouth is on my nipple, his tongue is spelling out his loss and his hurt and his forgiveness. He trails a hand down my side and I shudder up to him. It's not enough. I need to give him more.
I close my eyes and concentrate, stretching my mind open before him. He inhales sharply, and when I open my eyes, he is staring at me in wonder.
I love you.
I take him in my hand, my fingers wrapping around him, running up and down his length. The tendon in his neck tightens. His eyes are bright.
I should never have left you.
His hand is suddenly between us. His fingers pressing my legs are part, drawing lazy, tantalizing patterns on my inner thigh.
I made all the wrong decisions.
His tip is wet under my thumb, and I draw it back and forth, sliding and grasping and reaching. He tugs his lower lip between his teeth. His expression is awed, but he says nothing. His eyes, black as midnight, are blazing.
I am nothing without you.
His fingers slide into me. His thumb strokes and glides. Pleasure hums in the back of my throat. He throbs in my hand, his hips jerking slightly.
Every time you came for me I wanted to show you. I wanted to cry out for your forgiveness.
His fingers are plunging, curling, inside me. I'm panting, floating.
But every time you looked so sad, so bruised and defeated. And I believed it was my fault, and anything I did, from that point on, would only make it worse.
Suddenly his fingers are gone, and he is hovering above me, his legs between mine. His hands are beneath my knees, lifting and spreading me open before him. I am thrumming with anticipation. The heat of him so close, his hard length pressed against me.
I let you down. I let us down.
Edward leans down and kisses me, long and deep and slow. When he draws back, every line of suffering is gone from his face. It's just him, now. Just my Edward.
He whispers, softly, "I should have fought for us."
Neither of us moves, for a second. And then he shifts above me, unyielding in all the places I am soft, and suddenly even this negligible distance between us is too much. I lift my hips, and he pushes home. My heart swells in my chest. He fills me completely, thrusting in long, slow movements. Whispering promises and kissing my forehead, my cheek, the line of my jaw. The tension of holding my mind open is forgotten. I show him over and over, vividly, how overwhelming he feels.
I love you. I love you. I love you.
"I love you," he murmurs. "Only you, Bella. Always you."
His pace picks up, my body moving under him in unison. The thin thread of my control stretches tight and snaps, my eyes close and my hips are shaking and nonsense words of love and devotion are pouring from my mouth.
Edward tenses above me and plunges forward once more, collapsing over me and breathing hot and shallow against my neck. And he stays there, pressed against me. Inside my mind and inside my body, where he has always belonged.
I never want to be apart from you again.
And I mean it. I never want another day like the ones we've endured through my foolishness and his pride.
"All the days that are left, Bella," he says, lacing his fingers through mine, and drawing my hand up to clutch to his chest. "All of them with you."
We lie there for what might be minutes or hours before drawing apart reluctantly to dress. I'm bent over trying to lace my boot, and he tugs my arm so I lose my footing. He catches me, effortlessly, and pulls me against him to sit in the circle of his arms, under the tree.
The clearing is absolutely still.
"I miss her every day."
It feels like an inadequate confession. A poor representation of all the gaps and broken places inside me.
Edward nods, his chin resting on my shoulder.
"She was my miracle. The chance I wasn't supposed to have. And she was beautiful and brilliant, and I loved her with my whole heart. She was the best parts of both of us Edward, better than either of us."
He kisses me on the cheek.
"It helps to come here," he says. "It helps to tell her that."
He lifts me to my feet. I touch the cross again briefly. A silent farewell, and a promise to return.
Edward takes my hand. "Let's go home."
I can't help but laugh, a sound completely foreign to my own ears, as I squeeze his hand. "I don't know where you live." I manage, with a foolish smile.
He grins back at me, his whole face transformed with joy.
"Let me show you, Mrs Cullen."
It's the first step on a very long journey. We've injured each other in ways too numerous to count. But that smile tells me there's hope, and his still heart tells me there's time, and his fingers in mine say that there's all the will in this world. I kneel in the grass, one hand on the ground.
"I'm sorry I've been away so long, Ness," I whisper. "I'll be back soon."