Entry #21 – AH

Truly Anonymous Twilight O/S PP Contest
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Title: Serendipity
Picture Prompt Number: #24
Pairing: Edward/Bella
Rating: T
Word Count (minus A/N and Header): 9,890

Summary (250 characters or less, including spaces and punctuation): a vignette of a boy and a girl who, on their journey to find themselves, found something much more beautiful. Set in the heart of Paris, their love story defies the short time they have.

Warnings and Disclaimer: Stephenie Meyer owns Twilight. All other characterizations, plot lines, backgrounds and details belong to the respective author. No copying or reproduction of this work is permitted without express written authorization.

A/N: Many thanks to my beta team for their editing skills and French assistance.

~:~

Serendipity

"A walk about Paris will provide lessons in history, beauty, and the point of life" - Thomas Jefferson

No words had ever stated it more beautifully or more accurately. Paris represented hundreds of stories woven together, past and present, painful and triumphant, that, when bound together, would immediately compel someone to move to France. It was artistic, it was poignant, and it was all within fingertips' reach.

It was also the capital of love and heartache, but I'll get to that in a moment.

I first arrived in Paris at the beginning of September, a former Art History-turned-Business major who left Tulane University in order to 'find myself.' I couldn't stand how cliché that sounded, and really couldn't believe I actually used it. Out loud. What did it even mean? What, exactly, was I supposed to be looking for?

While asking myself these questions, I realized I needed to look further into where, specifically, I had lost myself in the first place. I pinpointed it down as closely as I could, to the time my relationship with my best friend and boyfriend of four years ended and my aspiration to become an artist floundered. The downfall spiraled from there. I changed my major to Communications and Business, I packed away my canvases and charcoals, and my formerly creative lifestyle in the French Quarter of New Orleans became dreary and bleak. I didn't want to go into business. I wanted to be an artist. But art was subjective, the world had too many artists already, and I was tired of failing. Besides, it reminded me of Jake.

I discovered I was severely, hopelessly unhappy when I almost failed out of my junior year. I just couldn't take it anymore. But I had already finished most of my credits, and so I did the second most commonplace thing of which I could think: I wrote down a bucket list. I wrote down everything I had always wanted to do but never had, and then narrowed it down to my top five favorites:

1. Run a marathon. Or hell, run a 5k. (Read: just get my ass off the couch. I was tired of being lazy and un-toned.)

2. Learn to speak fluent Italian.

3. Finish writing a novel.

4. Go to Colorado and climb every mountain (this one could've been a problem, given #1, but I couldn't remove it from the list)

5. Take a semester off, move to a foreign country, and paint again.

It wasn't difficult to choose the one I wanted to do the most. It also wasn't difficult to figure out which one scared me the most. But that was the point of a bucket list, right? To do things that you wanted to do, you just didn't have the guts to actually do them?

My education meant the world to me, but I was doing something I hated. I had to keep that in mind as I put my degree on hold, packed up my things, and bought a plane ticket to Paris, France. The world was full of too many wonderful places to visit, and France was decided upon by closing my eyes, pointing to a map, and writing down the location. It was that simple. I needed simplicity in my life again.

Besides, they had wine, cheese, culture, and men with French accents who, in movies, fed visiting women strawberries dipped in chocolate and whispered to them how beautiful they were.

It didn't sound too bad to me.

I had never been to Europe before, and Paris, as I quickly discovered, was as magical as everyone said. I spent the first month exploring everything I could. I visited the Louvre and saw the 'Mona Lisa' in person. I went into Notre Dame and spent hours looking at the exquisite stained glass, reading the stories etched within the art. I walked under the Arc de Triomphe and down the Champs-Élysées. I took a boat tour of the Seine River. I lived on freshly baked croissants, decadent chocolates, warm cups of espresso, and homemade crepes bursting with fruit. I rented a one-bedroom studio apartment in the 6th Arrondissement and Saint-Germain-des-Pres, right beneath a street lined with old antique shops and dusty bookstores, and I began to feel more alive again. It only took two months of over-indulging and serendipity for me to finally feel like the old Bella, the one I'd wanted to find, and I never wanted to leave.

But nearing the end of my first month, three things were missing: I still hadn't opened the suitcase containing my art supplies, I didn't have anyone to share my experiences with and was becoming rather lonely - aside from a blog my parents read - and most importantly, I still hadn't visited the Eiffel Tower.

I couldn't do anything about not having anyone with me. That was my own fault, as I basically left without telling anyone. My friends weren't happy about that. But I could knock out two birds with one stone, even though one would take more courage than I had. I was in Paris, and damn it, I was going to eat, paint, and be happy. I was going to find myself again.

It was a beautiful Saturday morning. The sun was high in the cloudless Parisian sky, bathing buttery light down on the sidewalks, and something told me it was the right day. I delayed pulling out my supplies until the last possible minute, but finally, I tugged the suitcase out from the closet, looked inside at the rows of paints, brushes, and pencils, and sighed.

I couldn't even say what I was afraid of. Failure, maybe. I didn't want to realize that I'd lost the skill I once had but never developed, because if I did, I had no idea how to get it back. But it was Schrödinger's cat all over again. He would never know if the cat within the box was dead unless he opened it. I would never know if my artistic skills were gone if I didn't attempt to use them.

Damn. I couldn't win.

It was a relatively short walk to the Eiffel Tower. I stopped for a strawberry and vanilla parfait, took the long walk around the city, delaying my arrival as long as I could, but finally, the tower came into sight. I almost felt overwhelmed as I looked at it. It was history and beauty and everything Thomas Jefferson said all wrapped into one iconic image, and I couldn't believe I was standing at the base of it. Even more, I couldn't believe I hadn't come to visit it before.

I found a table and placed my things in front of me. The movements were painfully familiar, like a runner stretching his limbs after nursing an injury, and I felt a sense of anxiety and excitement rush through me. Before I could think twice, I set up the easel, propped the canvas before me, took a seat, and thought.

My gaze flitted around, looking for inspiration. First and most obviously, the Eiffel Tower itself. Its lace steel criss-crossed to the point at the tip, so graceful I wasn't sure I could convey its meaning on paper. Around the surrounding lawn, tourists and natives alike sat with picnic baskets and card games, enjoying the unusually warm day. It was a beautiful scene, and one that would've made any other artist happy, but I was becoming more and more frustrated. There was nothing that stood out to me. In my other paintings, few and far between, there had always been that one thing that when I looked at it, I just knew. And here I was, sitting in Paris, France, and I couldn't find a single thing. Maybe I really had lost my touch.

I dabbled with paint, making blurry smudges on the canvas and painting over the lines until I was ready to give up, but finally, something caught my eye. It wasn't anything particularly outstanding. It was just a mess of auburn, almost copper hair, catching the sunlight. I hadn't ever seen that shade before, and the way the colors blended together sent something surging within me. When followed by striking green eyes, a strong jawline, and muscular arms that picked thin blades of grass before he laughed, falling back against the lawn, I knew I couldn't resist the image.

I spent three hours working. I almost felt uncomfortable, intruding on such a personal moment that the man was sharing with his family, but the strokes looked heavenly against the canvas and I was afraid to stop myself. By the time lunch rolled around and my stomach began to growl, I had a rough sketch and couldn't wait to finish it. Finally, something I was proud of, or at least, a start. As I began to pack up my things, I almost screamed as the chair beside me moved. The canvas tilted slightly to my right, and lean fingers gently stroked the dry canvas.

"Do you always paint unknowing strangers like this?"

Color flushed in my cheeks, embarrassed, and I pulled the canvas back toward me. "No. But when I do, they don't normally catch me."

I peeked. I couldn't help it. He was smiling. His eyes were even more beautiful up close, but he looked tired, almost overwhelmingly so. "You should be more sneaky, then. I've been watching you stare at me for three hours."

"I wasn't staring," I retorted, my stomach knotting as he observed my sketch carefully. I never really showed anyone my work before it was completely finished, and his perusal felt raw. My fingers twitched, itching to reach for it. "I was just looking for something to practice on. I didn't know you could see me."

"I was your inspiration?"

If possible, the blush deepened, and his laughter grew. He enjoyed embarrassing me. "I didn't say that either. I said I needed something to draw."

The boy pointed toward the tower behind us. "You're in Paris, alongside the Eiffel Tower. Instead of drawing that as practice, you chose a stranger?"

"Maybe." I reached over for it, but just as my fingers touched the edge, he pulled it away. I huffed. "C'mon, please? I'm sorry, I didn't mean to be weird."

He laughed. "I'm not mad. I find it funny."

"I'm glad I could amuse you." Again, I reached for it, and it moved farther from my grasp. "What will it take to get my drawing back?"

I looked at his cheeky face again, clearly proud of his suggestion. "Dinner, tonight."

He was cute. I wasn't going to deny that. Like I noticed at first, he had a strong jaw, muscular build, beautiful eyes, and that obscure-colored hair that caught the sunlight at just the right angle. He had a British accent, and that was never bad. His clothes fit him in all the right places, his biceps bulging beneath the fabric. But he also had a cocky grin and made me feel uneasy. If I went with him, I was worried I would lose myself all over again in an entirely different way. But maybe that wasn't such a bad thing.

When in Paris, right?

"Fine," I agreed slowly, and he handed back the portrait. "Dinner. Seven o'clock. If you're late, I'm not waiting."

Who the hell had I suddenly turned into?

He nodded, shoved his hands in his pocket, and pointed over toward the base of the tower. "Meet there. Promise?"

His voice faltered for a moment, and I almost asked him why he chose me. He seemed genuinely excited for tonight, to the point of blackmailing me into it, but he was attractive, seemed intelligent, and had a swagger that could make any girl drop dead. I was mousey, inexperienced, and the girl that no guy ever fell for. I was the girl who was ignored at parties as her friends got hit on endlessly. I was the girl who never really used to care.

But an attractive guy was asking me out, and I was tired of being the one who always went home alone. Loneliness was despairing and more frightening than anything I could've imagined. And so, uncharacteristic for Bella Swan, I followed my heart and nodded.

~:~

I really hadn't ever worried about getting dressed before. To me, it was simple: open closet door, pull out clean clothes, put them on, and go. But that was when I wasn't trying to impress…well, anyone. But for some reason, although he was a stranger who asked me out, and not vice versa, I wanted to feel pretty. I dug out every dress I brought to France, including the ones I bought in the expensive Parisian boutiques on a whim, and tried each one in front of the floor length mirror, but nothing looked right. Before I knew it, I had a pile of clothes on the bed and absolutely nothing to wear, and I was ready to scream.

I remembered why I didn't go on dates much.

After quick video chatting with my best friend and one of the best stylists in Hollywood, I landed on one of the first dresses I bought when I moved out to Louisiana. I curled my hair, I applied make-up, and I even wore heels - small ones, but heels none-the-less. I didn't realize how nervous I was until the walk over, and I kept fidgeting with my outfit, wanting to make a good impression. I wanted to feel beautiful.

It was only until I was standing at the base of the Eiffel Tower, searching subtly for that familiar copper hair, when I realized I didn't even know his name. Butterflies flittered in my stomach. How could I possibly go on a date with someone I barely even knew? I knew he was British. I knew he was observant. But anything beyond that was a mystery. There was also a very good chance that he wouldn't show up, that it was all a hoax, but just as he promised, he did. Right on time, wearing a white button-down, holding a yellow rose with a coy smile on his face, he walked up toward me and handed me the stem.

"Thank you," I whispered, suddenly incredibly shy. I had never received a flower before. "It's beautiful…" I searched blankly for his name.

"Edward," he answered, laughing. "I'm glad you like it. Girls are always so bloody picky about their flowers."

I twirled it between my fingertips, smiling. Edward. I liked that name. "I'm Bella."

"More conventional people probably would've gone through that first, huh?" He laughed, and held out his hand, which I brazenly took. "Are you ready to go?"

I nodded. "As ready as I'll ever be."

I listened attentively as he spoke about his life, his family, his hometown, and anything else of which he could think. He was an eloquent speaker, his voice smooth as honey, and I found it difficult to pay attention to anything else. His hand stayed warmly within mine as we crossed different streets and walked up narrow, cobblestone alleyways, leading me to an unknown restaurant on the opposite side of town. The sun was ready to slip below the horizon, and as a shadow fell over Paris, it felt as if the city came alive.

But as I continued to look at him, trying to pinpoint what was nagging within me, I finally realized what seemed off since the last time I saw him, only a few hours ago. His skin was even paler, almost peaked, and the circles under his eyes were more pronounced. I noticed the bruising alongside his jaw, his ragged breathing, and the gentle way he carried himself, as if he would shatter if he took a step too hard. Every so often, I would see him wince, as if it pained him to go much farther, but whenever I began to ask, I stopped myself. He didn't bring up how it affected him, and we had only known each other for a handful of hours. I didn't want to overstep my bounds.

We arrived at a small, authentic French café with wrought iron tables scattered around a dimly lit portico. We took our seats, sipping wine and eating baskets of freshly baked baguettes, and the conversation never faltered. As we spoke, I felt as if I'd known him all my life, and I liked the easy way I could open myself up to him. I had never had anything like that before.

"Tell me about yourself," he finally said. "I feel like I've done most of the talking. I want to know about you."

I shrugged. "There isn't much to say. I'm a student in New Orleans, born and raised in Seattle, who decided she needed some time away from everything. So I decided to come here."

"It must be lonely, being here by yourself."

I bit my lip, hoping he couldn't see how true his words rang. "It has both perks and downsides. I've enjoyed my time here, though. I wish it didn't have to end."

"Why did you really decide to come here?" The intensity in his eyes made it difficult to look at him, but whenever I tried to pull away, I found I couldn't. I frowned curiously, trying to see for what he was aiming.

"I told you. I needed some time away from everything, and traveling seemed like the best option-" But as I spoke, even before I'd finished the sentence, Edward was shaking his head. "What?"

"I don't believe you."

What was I supposed to say? I came here to find myself? I rolled my own eyes at the thought. But I also couldn't find it within me to lie to him. "I was tired of being…who I was, I guess. I was doing something I hated, studying something I hated, and I began to hate myself for doing it. I just…I needed to breathe. I needed to remind myself what I truly wanted in life, and I couldn't do that in New Orleans."

"What made things that way?"

I wasn't used to such bluntness, and it unsettled me. "I don't know." Maybe that was a lie, I wasn't sure. I sipped more wine. "I went through a bad relationship, my parents got divorced, and I wanted to change almost every aspect of my life. Which I did. But…"

"You aren't happy with the changes."

I nodded.

"At least you figured it out before you got a career, got married to the guy, and lived the rest of your life miserably," he pointed out. "That would've been worse than catching yourself mid-stride and correcting the errors before they became too permanent."

"I hadn't thought of it like that," I murmured as they set down plates of caviar, crackers, and cheeses. "I guess I just wanted to remind myself what I enjoyed opposed to what people told me to find pleasure in. Those are two completely different things."

Edward laughed quietly, as if remembering a joke I didn't understand. "Once you figure that out, darling, you've learned the purpose of life."

We ate through the different courses, Edward going through and explaining what each meal was and how it was to be enjoyed in the traditional French sense. We ate grilled seafood, salmon with capers, ratatouille, and chocolate mousse for dessert until I couldn't stand. The heaviness of the previous conversation had been forgotten.

As we continued to eat, drink, and laugh until the night air grew cold and my eyes drooped tiredly - or maybe, just maybe because of the alcohol - I leaned back in my chair and looked at him. "What's your story, then? Over here on a weekend holiday with your family?" The alcohol simmered warmly beneath my skin, and I found myself wanting to reach over and touch him.

Bella, no. That isn't why you're here.

Isn't it?

Gah.

But my internal debating quieted when I noticed a change in the atmosphere. The former grin on Edward's face slipped, just long enough for me to see the pain hidden underneath, and as he shifted in his chair I saw the agony that crept through every bone in his body. He took a sip of water and held up one finger, appearing as if he were trying to catch his breath. "Irony," he commented, smiling sadly, as he waited for the spell to pass.

Suddenly, the pieces fell into place and I wasn't hungry anymore. I pushed away my dessert plate, wondering how I didn't see it before. I'd spent months watching my great-grandfather suffer, and the experience was still branded in my mind.

"Acute Myeloid Leukemia," he answered, confirming my worst fears. "Stage IV. We came here because they gave me three months, at most, and I decided I wanted to travel. I hadn't ever been outside England, unless you count visiting my dad's family in Wales every other holiday. I'd always wanted to see Paris."

A heavy lump formed in my throat that I couldn't swallow. "How long ago did you find out?"

"A month ago."

His facial expression said everything without words. He didn't have much time left.

I couldn't understand why I felt such a strong emotional response toward him. We had only known one another for a few hours, but it was beyond the standard amount of sympathy a person usually showed toward a cancer victim. It was searing pain ripping through my chest, tugging at my heartstrings. The thought of a world without someone like Edward was empty and hollow, and I found tears pooling in my eyes. I felt stupid as I wiped them away before he noticed, although I wasn't quick enough. He grabbed my wrist gently, his slender fingers holding my hand for only a moment before letting it fall back to my side.

"Hey," he whispered. The lack of conversation was making me light-headed, but sometimes, words just weren't enough to convey everything. "I don't want pity."

"I know." I looked down at my lap through tear-blurry eyes. "I'm sorry."

He laughed, dabbing my cheek with the corner of a napkin. "Don't be sorry, either."

I could feel myself returning, that overwhelming desire to retort back and banter for hours, but I'd learned this through years of life experience: when you found someone was terminally ill, something within you changed. You were more careful, more reserved, less prone to hurt their feelings. I knew he didn't want the pity. I could see it written across his face. But I didn't know how to continue on, and that was a new, terrifying feeling for me.

Instead, I focused on something else. Anything else. The way his hand felt warm in my own, the beauty of his face, the laughter we'd been sharing. I looked at him again curiously, and he sat back in his chair, taking another sip of wine.

"You're wondering why I look like this." His copper hair, as if in response, fell down into his eyes.

I shrugged. At least it was a conversation topic I could stomach without crying in front of him. "I wasn't until you mentioned it."

"I gave up treatment." He said it as easily as if he said he'd given up swearing. "It was too expensive and it wasn't working. Why live out my last few months in pain and suffering for something that might never amount to anything? I wanted to be with my family. I wanted to travel. For God's sake, I wanted to look like a bloody human being. So I told them to lay off putting the chemicals into my body, let the blood cells take care of themselves for a little while, what's left of them, and…leave."

"That must be difficult for your family," I said without thinking, and when I looked up to judge his reaction, he didn't look as upset as I thought he would be.

"It's the hardest part," he answered grimly. "To see how it kills them kills me even faster, but…I can't stay away from them. I'd rather die after having spent as much time with them as possible than live three more months alone. It's a torture in and of itself."

My chest began to ache again, but fortunately, I didn't have to respond. Edward smiled beautifully, sadly, slipped several Euros onto the table, and took my hand.

"Come on," he said, pulling me out onto the narrow street before I had time to question him. "Paris is most beautiful after dark."

He was right about that. We walked along the well-lit streets, embracing the culture and the ambiance that accompanied France after hours, and it felt like we had all the time in the world. The lights of Paris shone in front of us, twinkling like stars, and I never wanted the evening to end. I hadn't ever spoken to someone before who shared the same values, the same dreams, the same sense of humor. It was refreshing in a way I couldn't describe, and no matter what I did, I was irrevocably drawn to him.

We began walking back to my apartment just after midnight, his jacket draped around my shoulders, his hand within mine. Everything felt right, comfortable, lovely, but there was always that underlying feeling that nagged at the back of my mind that I couldn't ever shake, no matter how hard I tried. I leaned into his side and rested my head against his shoulder, listening to the patter of footsteps along cobblestone, my mind racing quickly.

"You're brave, you know," I murmured sleepily. "I wish I had your confidence. I've never met someone so strong." In the morning, I was sure I would be horrified that I admitted my feelings so bluntly, although the smile that graced his face was worth the blush.

I felt him shrug. "I'm dying. What's the point in being scared about it?"

My great-grandfather had said the same thing. "Was it hard to…you know. Come to terms with?"

"At first. But there comes a time when you realize no matter how much resistance you put up and how much you fight, cancer doesn't care. It sucks, and it's a wanker who doesn't think twice about your feelings. It's the most abusive relationship I've ever been in." He cracked a smile. "So what else can I do besides be thankful for what I do have? I could have cancer and a car could've hit me today, too. That would have been worse."

I laughed quietly. "All about perspective, then?"

"Exactly."

I sighed. "I wish it didn't happen to good people."

Very softly, I felt his lips brush against my temple, his own heavy sigh mirroring my own. "Believe me, Bella, I wish the same every day."

We reached the entrance to my apartment building, the street dim and narrow, taking each stair slowly. I turned toward him once we reached my front door, reluctant to step away from his embrace, and gave a nod, suddenly shy. "Thank you for a wonderful evening."

"You, as well," he said. "Thank you for indulging me."

I laughed. "I couldn't exactly say no." Not that I would've wanted to, but telling him that, on top of everything else, seemed like giving him too much power.

"Could I maybe take you out again? I know you only have a short amount of time left before you go back to America, but…I enjoyed my time with you, Bella. I'd like to get to know you better."

I only had two months left. Less, by morning. It seemed startling that I would even consider becoming involved with anyone with a deadline looming, but I couldn't resist. I could only nod, thanked by the brilliant smile that would haunt every waking moment, and he took a step back. I pouted, already missing the comfortable way I felt as I folded against his side, but it was late, we were tired, and he began to laugh at me. "What?"

"Are you expecting me to kiss you?" He looked smug, self-assured. I crinkled my nose.

"No." I didn't sound as confident as I wanted to be.

"Good." He grinned cheekily. "Good things come to those who wait." There was an expression across his face I couldn't place as he pressed his hand against my cheek, almost nostalgic, before pulling back. "Goodnight, Bella."

The feeling of his palm against my cheek was warm and lingering. I watched him walk as far as the end of the hallway before he turned down the staircase, giving one last smile before he left.

As soon as I closed the door to my apartment, I couldn't help but mourn for love, loss, and the beautiful, broken man who could never be saved.

~:~

The following week brought pouring rain across the city, more painting - slowly, but surely - and an enthusiastic Edward who kept his word. I couldn't say my heart didn't begin to pound when I saw his phone number on my screen, but I also didn't know how to respond. I knew it was selfish, protecting my heart from someone who would unintentionally but inevitably break it. I also knew I loved spending time with him, and whenever I received a phone call, I would stop anything I was doing to answer it on the first ring.

We went out that next Friday, visiting a handful of museums around the city. He picked me up in the morning with two cappuccinos and a smile from ear to ear, and with each passing minute, I found myself falling harder for him. I hated myself for it, but I didn't ever want to stop it, and I decided the new-and-improved Bella would live in the moment and not constantly worry about the future. As we walked through the city, umbrella above us, splashing through puddles across the street from century-old historic sites, I couldn't imagine a better way to spend my time in Paris. I could feel the bond strengthening within me, everything I'd come to France to find right before my fingertips. I couldn't grasp them, necessarily, but they were there. I could feel it. All the while, I continued to paint, and slowly, the old Bella began to return.

We shook off the rain and entered the tiled, quiet lobby of a quaint museum at the far end of the city, one that Edward had called his favorite. As we walked along, hand-in-hand, looking at the beautiful oil paintings and sketches, the silence felt comforting. He would point out his favorite pieces, I would make comments about what I liked and didn't like, and we were able to have conversations about opinions without either getting upset. It was so different from what I had to deal with regarding Jake, and how I had to tiptoe around his viewpoints as if they were made of eggshells. Edward's breathing was heavy, and every so often he had to stop and break to give his body a rest, and I tried not to show how much it hurt to see.

Finally, we paused for lunch at a small café tucked within the basement of the museum. As I munched on lettuce leaves and croutons, Edward sipped his second cup of coffee and looked inquisitively at me.

"What?" I finally asked, wiping the corners of my mouth. Was there dressing everywhere?

He laughed. "Nothing. I just wonder about you sometimes, that's all."

"Wonder about what?"

"Who you are, I guess. What you're all about. Why you stopped painting. The things you like, the things that hurt you. What you're looking for. I find myself wanting to know much more than you're willing to give."

I felt wary as I scooped up a piece of feta cheese. "That's a lot of questions," I replied gingerly, not sure how to answer them in a few sentences when I'd been searching my whole life and still didn't have a concise reason. "I don't know if I could answer them."

"Try."

I sighed. "Who am I? I…I don't know. I'm Bella."

He smiled. "Tell me more than that. Likes, dislikes, anything. I just want to hear you speak."

I began to ramble. If I thought about what I was going to say, I knew it wouldn't come out as I intended and I would become frustrated. So I decided to look away from him and talk about my family. I told him about my parents' divorce, my new stepfather and the newly formed family branch, my flighty mother, my shattered dad. I told him about growing up in Washington until I moved to Louisiana, I told him about my aspirations to become an artist. As I grew closer and closer to the 'Jacob' portion of the story, I began to skim.

Somehow, he could tell.

"Why did you decide you didn't want to become an artist anymore?" By this point, we'd stood up and walked out into the drizzle again, the sound against the stone soothing.

"I had a boyfriend," I began slowly, trying to word it right. "He was very…strongly opinionated, I guess. He wasn't the most supportive of my art, and in turn, I had to choose whether I wanted to be with him or pursue my passion. I decided it wasn't worth severing that relationship." Even though it had been severed by itself anyway.

I squeezed my eyes shut as the memories came back. The way Jake used to ridicule my work, the way he'd call me talentless and deluded. He said it was for the best, and it's better that he tell me those things instead of some art critic after I'd wasted years trying to get noticed. I was young and naive and stupid, and so I listened to him. I let him beat the creativity right out of me, figuratively speaking, and I hadn't realized the extent of my misery until he left me and I had nothing on which I could fall back.

Instead of remaining silent, like I expected Edward to do, he appeared mad. His nostrils flared, jaw clenched, and he halted to turn toward me. "You just let him stop you? Just like that?"

I was startled. "I…I don't know. I guess so. You do things for people you love, even if you aren't happy about them." The excuse sounded weak, even to me.

"If you love someone, you don't ask them to give up their dream in the first place. It wouldn't matter how bad at art you are, even though I know from experience you are one of the best I've seen. They should be there to support you. That's sickening."

I didn't know what to say to him. I knew he was right. He paused, took a deep breath, pressing a palm over his heart to help relieve the chest pain, and I could see the anguish written across his face. I was afraid I'd caused it.

"I'm sorry," I whispered, placing my own hand atop his. Something felt right about it, more right than it ever had with Jake.

We continued to walk once it passed, and our hands remained together. "I just don't know why you would try to please someone that was so abusive."

I hadn't heard it phrased that way before, and it struck a deep chord within me. "I don't really know. I just…I guess I wanted so hard to receive his approval, but the harder I tried, the more he resented me for it. I had to walk so carefully around him to make sure I didn't upset him, or disagree with him, because I could never be right. I hated feeling so…"

"Inferior?"

I nodded.

"You deserve better than that," he said quietly. "You shouldn't be with someone who treats you like you aren't worth something, or aren't talented. You know you are, right?" When I didn't respond, he stopped again, placed his hands on either side of my face, and looked directly at me. "Bella, listen to me. You are talented, you are intelligent, and you are beautiful. I don't say those things lightly."

In hindsight, that was the moment I was sure I'd fallen in love with him.

"What are you looking for?" I asked him in return as we crossed back across the river and toward my apartment.

He shrugged, his grip tightening around my hand. "Happiness. However much of it I have left."

At the end of the fourteenth day, he finally kissed me. I hadn't realized how badly I'd wanted it until I felt it. We were standing in the park surrounding the Eiffel Tower, the rain falling gently against our shoulders. We had only wanted to look at the beautiful edifice with the mist weaving through its spokes, and for a moment, we stood there, simply watching the serenity around us. But before I knew it, the umbrella fell to the ground, raindrops clung to our eyelashes, his hands cradled my face, and his lips melted against my own.

It was unlike any other first kiss I had ever experienced. It was tender, comforting, beautiful, and heartbreaking all at once. Our lips moved in tandem with one another, bodies pressed together, and I reached up on my tiptoes, laughing against him as the rain began to pour harder. "You've never looked lovelier, sweetheart," he whispered, kissing my forehead, and as I leaned against his shoulder, I never wanted the moment to end.

We captured it with a photograph, pausing the moment within history. As the stranger took Edward's camera and fumbled for the correct button, we brushed wet hair out of our eyes, smiled widely, and laughed loudly as thunder rumbled overhead. As the woman handed the camera back, she smiled herself. "Votre amour êtes trés beau."

Even I understood the poignant French.

Your love is very beautiful.

On the walk home, the relationship was solidified, something he embarrassingly told everyone we passed. But the huge grin on his face kept me quiet and serene. His arms were wrapped tightly around me as he told vignettes along the way about his travels, his schooling, what he loved and what he hated. He wanted to be a concert level pianist, his secret love was baking, he had read every Dostoyevsky novel published more than once, and he hadn't attended college. He didn't see the need. But if he had, he would've studied Art History, specializing in the Renaissance era, which made me wonder if we might be soul mates. He told stories about his family, particularly his two siblings who were in France with him, which had my sides hurting from the laughter. There wasn't anything about him I disliked, and I wanted to know much more than he revealed.

Before I knew it, we were saying goodbye, and the hollowness returned to my chest, aching and painful. As I watched him walk down the street and turn past the dark intersection, I ran up the stairs and threw myself onto the bed, exhausted. The tears flowed, not from sadness, but from a longing that I couldn't prevent.

Deep down, I knew the perfection was only fleeting. What we had could never last.

~:~

Five of the most wonderful weeks of my life passed too quickly, each moment spent with Edward. In the beginning, he would pick me up and we would spend the rest of the day together before we parted in the evenings, only to repeat the process again the next day. But as time passed, too quickly for my usual comfort level but perfect for Edward, we spent every second. He would stay at my apartment, and while it was entirely innocent, the feeling of being wrapped in his arms as we drifted off to sleep was among the most poignant I would ever experience.

As we neared our six weeks of knowing each other, Edward decided he wanted to surprise me. I arrived at the home he and his family rented through the holidays with one bag, a bag of freshly rolled croissants, and a stomach full of butterflies. I hadn't ever met his family before, and while he said they knew who I was and couldn't wait to meet me, what if they didn't like me? He told me no one's opinion mattered but my own, something he had been drilling within me since I told him about Jacob's emotionally abusive tendencies, but that didn't seem to apply when it came to his family.

But my worries were rendered moot the minute I walked through the door. The house was gorgeous, historic from the early twentieth century with antique furniture and light pouring through the windows. His family was even more beautiful. His parents, both lawyers, were friendly and warm, as were his two younger siblings. I was welcomed by gracious hugs and a cup of tea as Edward gathered his things, although they still wouldn't tell me what he had planned.

"We've heard much about you," his mother, Esme, mentioned as I sat down at the kitchen table. I sipped the tea slowly.

"Only good things, I hope." I said it with a weak, nervous laugh. But they nodded enthusiastically, quieting any fears, and I lit up as I saw Edward take the stairs slowly, a duffel bag slung over his shoulder.

He kissed my cheek. "Good morning, sweetheart." He sipped his own tea, and his siblings giggled in the background as they taunted him for bringing a girl over for what seemed to be the first time. My cheeks reddened.

"Are you still not telling me where we're going?"

"Not a chance," he whispered, bringing both our bags to the trunk of their car. "It's a surprise." He turned to his siblings with a stern but playful grin. "No spilling, either."

"Have fun, and be safe, you two." His father squeezed my shoulders, and through the touch, I could feel the unspoken warning: Look out for Edward. The bags under his eyes were more pronounced, and his steps more careful, but he would never audibly complain. I nodded solemnly, knowing I wouldn't let him out of my sight for a minute.

"Thank you," his mother whispered before I stepped into the car, catching me off guard. "You're better for him than the treatment ever could be."

We drove just over two hours east, going through gorgeous, rolling French countryside until we reached the quaint town of Châlons-en-Champagne. My face was pressed against the window as we drove through, luminous red and yellow leaves dropping from delicate tree branches, historic stone buildings on either side of the narrow street, and a river winding its way across the city with cool, rushing water. We checked into a cozy bed-and-breakfast on the edge of town with rustic, wooden-beamed rooms and homemade quilts tucked into the beds. Before we did anything besides set the luggage down, I jumped into Edward's arms and kissed him as passionately as I could, trying to convey my thanks into touch as best I could.

"You're welcome, sweetheart," he whispered, kissing the top of my head as he set me down, and I wasn't sure I'd ever felt happier.

As the sun set across the French countryside, we ate dinner until we were sure we couldn't move, drank more champagne than needed, stuffed ourselves even more with chocolate soufflés with raspberries and powdered sugar, and walked through the town, observing history unfolded. Edward knew almost everything about France. He could tell me when something had been erected, who had been there, and what significance it held for the country, and I clung onto every word. My eyes were drooping by the time we returned back to the bed and breakfast, still tipsy as we tumbled into bed, wrapped in each other's arms.

My fingertips gently traced every contour of his face, running across the deep circles beneath his eyes. My lips pressed against his neck, slowly moving down in a row of butterfly kisses, and I felt his breathing hitch again. I pulled back, concerned, but he shook his head.

"It's okay," he said, his voice hoarse. "It's a different kind of hurt. A good kind."

Before I could stop him, not that I wanted to, I felt his fingertips at the hem of my dress. He lifted me up and pulled the zipper down before bringing it gingerly over my head, the dim light casting shadows across my exposed skin. I shivered as his lips pressed against my bare shoulder, moving across my collarbone and back up my neck. I slowly undid each button on his shirt before it, too, fell to the ground, followed by his trousers. His muscles glowed in the light as he lifted himself above me. For a brief, intimate moment, he simply looked down at me, as if one look could memorize every inch of me.

"You're beautiful," he whispered, his voice coated with saccharine love, pain, and every other emotion I couldn't distinguish nor understand. "Never forget that."

He made me feel beautiful. He made me feel wanted. He made me feel loved.

I didn't know how I would bear to lose him.

He moved against me, his tongue trailing where his fingers touched until I felt him enter inside me. I felt a bundle of emotions knot within me, my face pressed against his shoulder, his arms wrapped tightly around me. It was a journey neither of us had taken before, one during which we took each baby step together, and by the end, I wasn't sure I'd ever felt so complete. It was something I said a lot with Edward.

We lay back against the pillows, sheets tangled between our legs, the silence between us comforting. I rested my cheek against his heart, listening to it drum on, refusing to give its final beat. I kissed the tender spot and wanted to cry, but I blinked back the tears as I felt him brush the hair out of my eyes.

"Bella?"

I turned toward him, my hand pressed against his face. "Yeah?"

His face looked nervous, and he kissed the inside of my wrist. "I love you."

There were so many things I wanted to say, so many things I knew we needed to talk about. I could tell he was growing worse each day with no way to stop it. The cancer surged within him, killing everything in its wake. The only thing I could do was remind him that he meant more to me than anything, even though I could tell that those words broke his heart as he realized their timing and their impact.

So, instead of asking all the questions and worried comments I had in the back of my mind, I let the new Bella take over. I leaned over, kissed him tearfully, and smiled. "I love you, too."

We drove back two days later feeling rested, content, and in love. But as we re-entered the city, I felt as if reality finally caught up with us and maliciously tapped me on the shoulder, pointing toward the ticking clock.

~:-~

I began to grow more worried as the days passed and the leaves fell of the trees, air growing crisper and my flight home looming like a dark cloud. As the proverb said, "All good things must come to an end." I'd never hated a saying more.

His health had taken a drastic turn for the worse once we got back to Paris. He'd been bed-ridden twice, on orders from his mother, who watched over him carefully until he had regained enough strength to step outside again. But with his waning energy, his face grew paler, his skin more sallow, and there wasn't anything to do but watch. It tore me apart.

We had planned on going to lunch one Wednesday afternoon, as he had a doctor's appointment earlier that morning. I painted, finally perfecting the piece I'd started when I first sketched Edward, waited around until twenty minutes before noon, and walked to our usual table below the Eiffel Tower. But unlike every other time we'd met, Edward wasn't there.

At first, I paused. Edward was always five minutes early, no matter where we went. But as I looked at my watch, I tried to rationalize it. I was ten minutes early, which still gave him time to arrive and be early himself. He might have gotten sidetracked, or stopped to get something on his way. As the gray clouds tumbled in, the time passing until almost an hour after our meeting time, I felt dread creep up my spine. I didn't know what had happened, but something told me it was bad.

My worst fears were confirmed when my cell rang. I picked it up on the first ring, praying to God it was Edward, but when I heard his mother's quiet, defeated voice on the other line, my spirits sank heavily. I had to sit down as the pit in my stomach grew larger, and I didn't know what else to say beside, "What happened, Esme?"

He collapsed on his way out the door and was immediately taken by ambulance to Saint-Antoine University Hospital, where his condition was unknown. I hurried down there as fast as I could, past the reception desk and up to the third floor where Esme said she and Carlisle would be waiting for me. While I wasn't family, I was the exception to the rule, and I hurried in to see him before anyone could tell me otherwise.

I wasn't sure how I didn't notice he had gotten so frail. The gown hung lifelessly on his frame, as if his bones were brittle and could snap at any moment. They hurt, he told me once, but I didn't know he had lost that much weight. Through my rose-colored glasses, I'd ignorantly let it go unnoticed, and now it was too late to ignore.

Deep purple bruises covered his neck, arms, and the skin beneath his eyes were dark. His temples glistened from the sweat that broke out from the fever. His eyes were sunken, looking as if he had a hard time keeping them open, and he held a tissue against his nose to stop the bleeding. He grimaced when he saw me enter, but the movement caused him pain, and his expression eventually smoothened.

But he was still beautiful.

"What are you doing here?"

"I came to see you." I felt out of breath. "Are you okay?"

He looked at the monitors and IV attached to him by a multitude of cords. "I've been better." He motioned me toward him, and I carefully sat on the end of the hospital bed. "How are you?"

"Worried." I wasn't going to sugarcoat it for him. "What happened?"

"I don't remember. I was walking down the stairs, things went fuzzy, and the next thing I knew…" He pointed toward the monitors. "I was hooked up to this. I feel as if I'd been run over, my lungs are refusing to function properly, and they're refusing to feed me anything decent."

"That should be the least of your worries," I answered, cracking a smile despite how difficult it was to look at him in such pain. "I love you, you know."

He squeezed my hand. "What do you think helps me stay alive every day?"

I could hear my heart break, piece by piece.

I could tell it was much worse than he was saying, and as night turned into day again, the doctors confirmed as much. The cancer was spreading rapidly, destroying everything, and since he had refused treatment, there wasn't anything they could do besides wait. Esme broke into heart-clenching sobs as they said there was a chance, a very prominent one, that he wouldn't leave the hospital again.

That was the moment it all became real. Edward was dying. The cancer was killing him. Nothing could stop it.

I visited him every day for a week, and each day, I watched him get worse. He knew it, too, but being Edward, he would never say so. His parents were hopeful, always smiling when I arrived at the beginning of visiting hours each day, but even the hope was draining from their eyes. The doctors never had good news, and Edward had asked them not to shield it from him.

The beginning of the end started when he was sent to the Intensive Care Unit for treatment of a bad infection. I wasn't allowed to see him, and for four days, I thought I was going to go crazy. I would sit in the waiting room, my mind slowly drifting more and more as I heard the ticking clock, smelled the antiseptic, heard the cries from the other loved ones who were waiting, just like me, and the stoic, cautious voices of the doctors. It made me itch and cringe and want to cry out, but it wouldn't do any good.

It was always the worst when they promised someone would bounce back from a relapse, only to find that it made them worse than before. When I was finally allowed to see Edward again, he was hardly the same person. Bleeding, swollen gums, whiter than a sheet, thinner than a rail. His grip on my hand was limp, and when I tried to speak to him, he barely had the energy to reply. I spent most of the morning talking about what he missed, showing photographs and different paintings I'd done, but finally, once his mother left the room, he stopped me.

"Bella," he whispered, and I froze. "Come here for a minute."

I lay down beside him, mindful of the machinery, and looked at him. His eyes were closed, serene, but he opened them when he felt me beside him. "What is it?"

"I love you," he reminded me. "You know that, right?"

I nodded.

"I'm not going to make it, sweetheart," he whispered, his voice breaking. I squeezed my eyes shut, willing the conversation to go away. "I know it hurts. It hurts me more than anything, and if it were up to me, I wouldn't be saying this. But better me than a doctor who can't make cancer jokes, right?"

I frowned, tears trickling down my face. "Edward…"

He placed his palm against my cheek, and I felt my face becoming red and swollen, but I didn't care. My chest was heaving. "You are smart, you are beautiful, and one day, you will have your very own gallery right here in this city. I wish I could be there to see it."

I was sobbing at this point, and didn't try to hide it. I nestled into his side, listening to him shush me, stroking my hair. "Please don't do this."

"I want to. I need you to know that the last two months were among the happiest I've ever been, and it was entirely thanks to you. I need you to know how much I love you. I need you to know that if my body wasn't a sodding piece of hell, I wouldn't have waited a second in asking you to marry me, and raising children we couldn't control and spending the rest of our lives in the French countryside, together."

I couldn't picture the image. I kept trying to blink it away, but it was burned in my memory.

"I love you more than anything, Bella. You've kept me alive. For that, I will never be able to thank you."

I buried my face into his chest, my body racked with sobs. "I love you, too," I whispered over and over until he drifted off to sleep for what would be the last time.

Edward Masen died on November 29th, 2011. I couldn't be there when they went through the technicalities. I sat at our table, tears splattering the painting I'd created over the past two months, wondering how life could be so cruel and take such beautiful people away when murderers and rapists ran free in the streets until they reached old age. It wasn't fair. My body shook with sobs as I remembered our moments together, running through my mind like shuffled photographs. I couldn't remember how I got back to my apartment, nor how many days I spent without moving out of bed, but the days blurred together, all centered around Edward, and I wasn't sure if I would ever be whole again.

I boarded the plane bound for New Orleans on December 1st, enough time to get back before the holidays. It felt like I was leaving one life and beginning another as I stepped onto the plane, my heart heavy and mind jumbled. It was difficult holding in the tears for hours as I sat next to strangers, moving farther away from Paris and the Masens, and I hated every second of it. I wanted Edward with me. I wanted to heal, but the wound was too raw. It was part of him, and part of me was buried in that French graveyard, clinging to him, waiting to be reunited once again.

I held my breath, struggling to stay in one piece as I unfolded the note he'd written me one afternoon as I painted, the sun shining down on our shoulders, his free hand within mine. I had the words memorized, and traced my fingers across the page, feeling each letter until I reached the very end.

My dear Bella,

I promise I won't write you a long, sappy love note about how much I care about you, although as you once said, all girls deserve to receive at least one in their lives. So, my love, here is yours.

I won't say I'm not dying, or that I'll get better, or that life is fair. None of those things would be true, and I won't ever lie to you. My life has been filled with hospitals, chemo treatments, suffering,

But I don't like to think about that. It's also been filled with laughter, happiness, travels, and fond memories that I'll carry with me forever. Life may have given me the short straw, but at the same time, I feel more grateful and luckier than almost anyone out there. I have a supportive, strong family, but most importantly, I had you.

Two months might be too short to fall in love, but Bella, I don't care. Two months was long enough for me to not only fall, but fall hard. I can't imagine living without you, and it would be selfish to say I'm not glad I won't have to find out how it feels. You are braver than anyone I know for knowingly dating me. You're setting yourself up for heartbreak, and it means more to me than anything I've ever experienced. You're beautiful, you're smart, and you deserve far better than me.

But you chose me. I won't ever forget that.

I'll break your heart, Bella. But I'll never love anyone as much as I love you.

No matter what happens in the end, darling, remember one thing: we'll always have Paris.