"On Our Way Home" by Cassandra Lowery
Disclaimer: All elements of the Twilight books are the intellectual property of Stephanie Meyer. This derivative work is intended for entertainment only and is not intended for profit. I only wish to play with her characters and in her world...
After helping Bella into the window seat, I placed her battered school backpack in the small compartment over our heads while Alice slid her Coach carry-on next to it. I gently closed the compartment door before moving in from the crowded aisle as tired tourists filed past us, toting their carry-on bags. Sliding into the aisle seat, I gazed once again into the beautiful eyes that I had never thought to see alight with life again.
Bella gave me a tight smile, the same smile I had seen pass over her features only a few times since we left Volterra hours ago.
There was something very wrong with that smile that haunted me, mitigating the joy that had exploded within me in that shadowed alley when I realized that I held a living, breathing Bella in my arms, the joy that had been renewed when our safety became a reality as Alice guided the stolen sedan past the Volterra limits.
Thankful for the wide first class seats that Alice had insisted upon, working her Alice-magic in obtaining them with much sweet talking and several generous bribes, I lifted the dividing arm between my and Bella's seats, placing my arm around Bella's too-thin shoulders and pulling her against my chest. Now she could sleep at last.
Ignoring Alice's frantic whispers to Jasper on her cell from the seat behind me, I sighed as I again noted the changes in Bella's appearance: the deep purple circles under her eyes that denoted far more loss of sleep than could occur during her travels to Italy and back, the drawn paleness of her face, the dull lankness of her once-shiny hair, the loss of fifteen pounds of weight, the unconscious shifting of her body as if she were in pain, and, most concerning of all, the tug-of-war behind those beautiful brown eyes. Gazing into her eyes once again as I cupped her thin face in my palm, I saw her love for me war with uncertainty, hurt, anxiety, and, worrying me the most, fear.
What was Bella afraid of now?
We had walked away from Volterra alive, all three of us, which was no small miracle. I now held her in my arms, allowing all the gratitude and love I felt for her shine from my black eyes into her brown ones. But the battle behind her eyes continued...
Breaking our gaze for just a second, Bella reached up to press the attendant alert button next to the reading light above our heads. I nodded in agreement, planning to ask for pillows and a blanket for Bella. Her drooping eyes and slow movements revealed her sheer exhaustion, and I couldn't wait to hold her while she slept, a simple act that I had missed horribly over these past months and, over the last twenty-four hours, had never thought to be blessed to experience again.
She had accepted my caresses in Volterra, during the car ride to Florence, and through the airport, but she had not returned them.
I kept telling myself that she was exhausted.
That she was in shock.
That she was still reeling emotionally from our narrow escape.
But I felt her weak resistance even now that we were comfortably seated, in her stiff refusal to melt into my arms as she had always done. While she slept, however, I could hold her as closely as I wanted to...
The attendant approached, her professional smile firmly in place. I caught in her thoughts the observation that Bella must be ill. Cancer, she decided, noting her thinness and he sunken, empurpled eyes.
"How may I assist you," she asked, her eyes fixed on me rather than Bella. I ignored her rather lascivious thoughts as Bella addressed her.
"May I have a Coke, please? And please leave the can," Bella asked the attendant.
I frowned at down Bella, knowing how caffeine affected her system and how badly she needed to sleep. "Bella," I remonstrated gently.
She looked at me, her eyes strangely blank in her pale face. I had never seen her look so unwell...or so inhumanly lovely. "I don't want to sleep," Bella said in a strangely flat voice. "If I close my eyes now, I'll see things I don't want to see. I'll have nightmares."
I sighed. Her excuse was legitimate, I'm sure, but I was equally certain that Bella was not telling me the entire truth.
We settled into our seats for the flight, and I hoped that, despite the caffeine, Bella would sleep. But she waged a war against her exhaustion, against her frail humanity, as she drank soda continually.
But, thankfully, Bella let me hold her throughout the flight from Florence to Atlanta. I couldn't help it—my fingers constantly reassured me of her actual physical presence as I touched her too-prominent cheekbones, her pale forehead, the almost-transparent lavender hues of her eyelids, the welcome weight of her hair over my arm.
I kissed her almost as continually as I touched her, pressing my lips to her hollowed face, her pert nose, her white forehead, her adorable ears. From time to time I lifted her hand to my lips, kissing her fingertips and the oh-so-welcome throb of life in her wrist.
But something in her eyes—a wariness that was very nearly distrust—kept me from kissing her where I desired most: her lips. Although thinner and nearly colorless with exhaustion and stress, her mouth was set in a stubborn line that was not anger; it seemed more closely related to fear.
What did she have to fear now?
We didn't speak. She felt so fragile in my arms that I was quite afraid that she would disappear if I blinked; perhaps her unspoken fear came from the same source: fear that I, too, would disappear.
I gloried in her tentative touches as she traced my features, too: her tiny, delicate fingers warm against my face and throat. Burying her hands in my hair from time to time as if to pull me closer to her for a kiss, Bella inexplicably stopped herself every time.
I stopped breathing each time she paused in pulling me to her, hoping that she would kiss me as I so yearned for her to do, yet I was unwilling to take a step for which she was not ready. I didn't understand why she was holding me at arm's length, both literally and figuratively; I felt confused and frustrated beneath my overwhelming sense of thankfulness that my Bella was alive and safe in my arms.
An hour into the flight, Bella sighed, fidgeted a little, then sighed again. She pulled herself up to a sitting position from the half-reclining one we had enjoyed since the pilot had turned off seat belt light.
I looked at her, confused and concerned, and Bella blushed, color suffusing her face for the first time today. How I had missed her blushes...
"Um, I need to use the facilities," she murmured, embarrassed.
I stood, helping her out of the window seat and into the aisle. She gave me another one of her tight smiles, but her eyes were filled with fear.
"Stay here," she pleaded. "Don't go anywhere."
"Of course not," I reassured her, understanding better now. Bella was afraid that if she took her eyes off of me-as she would be forced to do in using the toilet-I would disappear. I couldn't blame her; I would feel the same way if using the facilities was necessary for me. "I'll be right here, love."
"Okay," she agreed quietly, turning away from me to walk back toward the facilities between our quiet first-class section and the teeming regular cabin.
As soon as she slipped into the tiny toilet area, I sank weakly into my seat. Alice slid into Bella's seat beside me, giving me a warm hug. "Just be patient, Edward. All will be well later on; I see you in her room, kissing her passionately, after she's had a chance to sleep. It will all work out perfectly."
My sister gave me one more quick squeeze around the waist, then rose to her feet just as Bella lurched down the aisle toward us, unbalanced by some slight turbulence. I, too, rose from my seat to assist her as Alice slipped back into her seat behind us.
The airliner flew through a pocket of rougher air, and Bella stumbled into my arms as she returned to her seat. I wrapped my arms around her, adjusting quickly for her weight to keep her upright and safe.
Once Bella regained her balance, she moved out of my arms and slipped past me into her window seat. Bereft, my arms empty, I hid my disappointment behind a cool mask, Alice throwing me a sympathetic glance before I reseated myself next to Bella.
This was difficult...so difficult. I knew that Bella deserved an apology—and more than that: apologies, explanations, pleading, begging—I was willing to do anything and everything to earn Bella's trust and love once again. I watched her surreptitiously as she huddled against the window, staring into the darkness with blank, tired eyes.
Then I saw a tear trickle down her thin cheek.
I felt a tug on my arm, and I turned to see Alice at my elbow. "Let me," she said in a voice too quiet for Bella to hear.
Obediently I slid from my seat, allowing my sister to take my place. I stood in the aisle like an idiot, barely noticing the attendants trying to edge past me as they served the other passengers, watching Alice place her hand on Bella's thin shoulder. Bella didn't move until Alice called her name, then she looked at my sister as though she were a ghost, her eyes wide with disbelief and shock. A strangled sob escaped her, and Alice pulled Bella into her arms. I just stood there, mesmerized, until Alice's low hiss alerted me, and I seated myself in Alice's deserted row.
Alice held Bella gently and consolingly as my girl's tiny body shook with the force of her sobs, and a faint keening sound slipped through her clenched jaws. Horrified at Bella's obvious suffering, I was on my feet before my mind caught up with my body, bumping my head against the low baggage compartment and undoubtedly cracking the thick plastic above the passenger seats in my panic.
Rounding Alice's seat's current seat, I knelt in front of them, ignoring Alice's glare and her muttered, "Sit down, you idiot!" I took Bella's trembling form into my arms, nudging my sister aside as I seated myself, Bella curled into a fragile ball in my lap, so warm against my cold body. She continued to sob deeply, each cry shaking her thin body until I thought she would shatter with the force of her weeping. Alice slid into the seat on Bella's other side, running her fingers through Bella's lank, tangled locks, cooing softly under her breath in a calming manner.
The first class flight attendant paused at my elbow, but Alice shook her head at her, refusing her polite offer of help before she had a chance to ask. The attendant smiled thinly, then quietly left as Bella continued to cry, her too-thin arms snaking around my neck to hold herself more closely to me as her hot tears soaked through the shirt Alice had just bought for me.
But I was holding her, and her tight grip, crushing the collar of my shirt, showed me how badly she needed me right now. And I relaxed a little for the first time since...since her eighteenth birthday.
Oh, I wasn't stupid. I knew I had major repair work to do on our relationship, but for the first time, I felt a sensation of hope. For some reason, a verse of Scripture came to mind, "And hope does not disappoint."
I buried my nose in her hair, relishing her softness, her closeness, her beloved fragrance, her need for me.
After nearly twenty minutes, Bella's sobs quieted, her hands loosening from my shirt collar, and I hoped that, exhausted by her crying jag, she would sleep.
But she pulled herself into a sitting position and with a faint smile, slid out of my arms and back into her window seat, gently nudging Alice aside with an apologetic grimace so that my sister had no choice but to return to her place behind us. As Bella put distance between us again, I shifted myself fully back into my seat, frowning with disapproval as she reached for the call button and ordered another Coke.
Bella seemed bound and determined to remain awake, and there was nothing I could do to stop her. The desire to ask her for a reason seemed pointless; she would only give me the nightmare excuse again, but I knew that it was a merely a cover for her real fear: that if she fell asleep, I would disappear.
Could I reassure her? I imagined doing so, but a sharp poke in the back of my seat from Alice caught my attention. I twisted to peer back between our seats at my sister who shook her head sadly. "Don't try it," she advised in a voice too low for human hearing. "Just let her be for now. You'll work it all out later."
I sighed, turning forward, but unable to keep myself from reaching for Bella's hand and holding it in my cold one. She took it willingly, again giving me her same flat, tired smile that failed to reach her eyes.
Her pain was all my fault, and I despised myself for her inability to sleep peacefully. I had stolen so much from her by leaving her. The evidence was sitting right beside me, sipping on a can of soda in order to keep her drooping eyelids open. Bella was so thin, so pale, so lifeless. The former brightness of her eyes was dimmed not only by exhaustion but also by a deep-seated pain that refused to leave, despite my presence.
What had I done to this beautiful, fragile girl whom I loved more than my own existence, without whom I would not and could not continue living...or existing?
The seat belt light blinked back on, the pilot announcing that we were on descent to Atlanta. I heard Bella sigh quietly, so I turned to her noting that her brow was creased as if she were in pain.
"What is it, Bella?" I asked anxiously.
She sighed again, avoiding my eyes. "Nothing. I'm fine."
I glanced back at Alice, hoping to learn something from my sister that would let me know how serious Bella's discomfort was.
But Alice was grinning widely, and the wink she gave me reassured me completely, so I settled back into my now-upright seat, watching Bella out of the corner of my eye.
Bella shifted uncomfortably in her seat beside me, turning often to look behind her for some reason. Then she wriggled again, sighing as she crossed her legs tightly.
Then I got it, grinning to myself. Alice and I exchanged amused glances as Bella continued to fidget and look longingly at the small airplane lavatory. The sodas she had been drinking all day must have affected her just after the seat belt warning flashed on, and now she was rather stuck.
If everything wasn't so unresolved and strange right now, I would have teased her gently, and she would have smiled beautifully. But she wasn't talking to me freely...or really at all right now, so even gentle teasing was out of the question.
The moment we landed and the seat belt sign flashed off, Bella was out of her seat and scurrying for the bathroom. I didn't dare look at Alice for fear I would burst out laughing, and Bella didn't need to hear our merriment at her discomfort...even if the situation was rather funny.
I stood to open our overhead compartment, taking Bella's backpack down for her so that we could deplane as soon as she returned. Alice was also prepared by the time Bella came up the aisle toward us, and the three of us smiled faintly at the too-cheerful flight attendants as we walked into the Atlanta airport. Fortunately, our connecting flight was on time. I offered to purchase Bella something to eat at the row of eateries lining the west side of our wing of the airport. She started to refuse until Alice intervened and told her to eat something if she wanted to stay awake.
Nice reverse psychology, Alice.
Alice remained with our carry-on bags, calling Jasper on her cell as Bella walked beside me down the causeway. She did not reach out her hand to hold mine as she used to when we walked somewhere together, but her eyes kept sliding sideways several times a minute, apparently making certain that I was still beside her.
I had to admit that I couldn't stop glancing at her, either.
Bella finally decided on a turkey sub, and I ordered her a large one over her protests.
"If you can't eat it all now, you can take the other half on the plane in case you get hungry later," I suggested, and she finally nodded. I frowned, though, when she ordered an extra-large Coke to go with her sandwich. She noticed my displeasure and simply shrugged, making no apologies.
Once her sandwich was made and bagged up for her, I carried it while she held the huge drink, sipping at it as we walked back to the boarding area for our connecting flight. We made our way back to Alice, and Bella managed to consume almost half of the sandwich while we waited for our plane to arrive. Seeing her eat something made me feel so much better; now that I was back, I would be able to encourage her to eat regularly so that she could gain back the weight she lost while I was away.
I watched her as she folded away the remainder of her sandwich to eat later: her eyes still looked glassy with exhaustion and some other emotion I didn't recognize...it was as if she was suppressing her emotions so deeply that she appeared wooden and unfeeling.
I knew that she had been through a great deal in the last twenty-four hours, but she seemed to be on autopilot, responding with correct responses when directly asked a direct question, but allowing her mind to wander when we weren't talking...which was almost all of the time.
We boarded our connecting flight soon afterward, quietly settling again into the first-class cabin. This time, however, we were not alone; several business people in suits and ties joined us, spreading out files and booting up laptops as soon as they were allowed to do so.
Once the seat belt sign disappeared, Bella was moving toward the bathroom once again, the large Coke keeping her awake but obviously causing unwelcome side effects.
When she wasn't running off to the bathroom, I held Bella close beside me, unable to resist kissing her hands, wrists, hair, forehead, and cheeks, but avoiding kissing her on her lips the way I wanted to so badly. I refrained for several reasons: Bella's uncommunicative state, the fear and desperation still hiding behind her eyes, my desire for her to fall asleep and get the rest she so clearly needed, and the concern that if I kissed her properly on the lips, I would never be able to stop kissing her...ever.
She remained within my arms, but we did not talk. Bella seemed so fragile—not just physically as I had noted the moment I had embraced her in that alley in Volterra, but emotionally as well, as if one word from me could completely shatter her. Occasionally she would turn to me as if she had a question to ask or a comment to make, but then she would fold her lips stubbornly and turn away to stare out the window instead.
As I held this most precious person to my silent chest, my mind returned to how close I had come to losing her...and not just in Italy. Bella had bravely and recklessly joined my equally brave and reckless sister in this rescue mission to save me. My own foolhardy behavior had placed the two women I loved most in the gravest danger...and they cheerfully risked their lives on my behalf.
Yet the glimpse Alice had provided me as we followed Jane down the shadowed alley had chilled me. If I hadn't had Felix and Demetri behind me, I would have frozen stock-still to process the frightening visions engendered by Alice's deceptively casual words, "In summary, she did jump off a cliff, but she wasn't trying to kill herself. Bella's all about the extreme sports these days."
My sister's words were accompanied by her memory of Bella sitting on a sofa, so pale and weary, her thin face empty of emotion as she explained to Alice about her near-drowning that day—which Alice believed was indeed a suicide attempt—along with her friendship with Jacob Black and the wolf pack, plus her near-death at Laurent's hands and Victoria's attempts to kill her to injure me, "a mate for a mate."
In Alice's memories, Bella was so...un-Bella-ish. Her expression was unemotional except when my family came up in conversation. She hugged my sister warmly, and her eyes lit up a little when Alice mentioned Carlisle and Esme. She nearly smiled once at the mention of Emmett's name, and a look of sadness and regret passed quickly over her features when Jasper's name came up. Rosalie's name was the only one that didn't produce any reaction from Bella.
And when she asked after me, unable to even say my name, Bella's face lost all color, and she bent over, her arms wrapped around her middle, as if she were trying to hold herself together so that she wouldn't fall to pieces.
How well I knew that feeling, for it was the same emotion that had followed me wherever I went during my absence.
I shook my head sadly, my eyes far away as Alice's memories came to an end. I had left for no reason whatsoever. My absence had only brought more danger into Bella's life rather than protecting her; she had entered my world too deeply to be kept safe, no matter what. Laurent and Victoria returning for her...a pack of volatile wolves as her closest friends...a careless, destructive attitude toward her life that resulted in cliff diving and who knows what else—Alice's mind had quickly passed over the image of a motorcycle, and I feared that Bella had been reckless in any way possible in my absence.
She had broken her promise to me to remain safe..."for Charlie's sake" as I had requested.
But then, how many promises had I broken in the woods behind her house? I had gone back on my word far too many times that day. Thus I couldn't be angry at her for trying to level the field a bit...even though her recklessness had endangered the one thing I held most dear on the face of the planet—her.
I sighed in resignation, and I sighed many times that night as I noted every way in which my absence had affected my girl negatively. She seemed...almost shell-shocked...as if she were waking from a very long dream but still could not quite believe what her eyes were telling her: I was here with her, holding her, gently caressing and kissing her each time I thought of another way in which I could have lost the reason for my existence while I was away.
I watch over her jealousy now, not wanting to miss a single sweet breath or flutter of her eyelashes or a strangely shy and disbelieving glance or a shudder of either cold or fear—perhaps both. Isabella Swan was now safely in my arms, and I was not planning to let her go again...ever.
If she would have me, that is...
But I refused to let that agonizing thought take root in my mind. I reminded myself that Bella was not a person to hold a grudge. Surely she would forgive me? But I knew all too well that I didn't deserve her forgiveness for slicing open her tender, loving heart with my lies in September.
And she had believed me...so quickly and absolutely that it had stunned me.
Almost as if she knew that I was going to leave her.
Almost as if she had been waiting for it...even expecting it.
I shook my head slightly, my eyes glued on the object of my devotion as I hungrily devoured her familiar scent that burned my throat, her soft warmth, her gentle breaths and beating heart, her dark eyes...too dark in her pale, thin face. I could only hold her to me and exult in being in her presence once more...even if she decided that what I had done to her and to my family was unforgivable.
All night long Bella fought valiantly against her sagging eyelids, drinking Coke the whole flight and making nearly a dozen bathroom trips as a result. I had hoped that she would sleep, but she kept fighting the exhaustion with such determination that I further doubted her reasons from the previous flight about being afraid of having nightmares after our confrontation with the Volturi.
Why was she forcing herself to remain awake?
It was almost as if she expected me to leave her as soon as we landed in Washington. But couldn't she see the love shining from my eyes every time my eyes, black with thirst, met her exhausted brown ones? Didn't my constant caresses reassure her at all?
We were nearing Seattle as the sun rose, so I carefully lowered the white plastic window shade to protect myself and Alice from the sunlight during the several minutes before the plane descended into Seattle's familiar and welcome cloud cover.
Just before 8:00 AM, our flight touched down at Sea/Tac in the morning morning light that Alice assured me would be cloaked in cloud cover within an hour. As we stood to gather our things, I was already aware of the family reception awaiting us...not from Alice's frequent phone calls or visions, but from the relieved and excited minds of our family. I knew that they wouldn't be truly free of the wild worry I had subjected them to from my suicidal mission to Volterra, but I also knew that they would forgive me far more quickly and completely than I deserved.
That was the way family worked, and I folded my lips in shame, knowing how absolutely I had shut them out of my life since Bella's birthday seven months ago.
I was diverted from my self-flagellation by Bella's current condition; she was so exhausted that she could barely stand. She kept fighting to keep her eyes open, but her paleness concerned me...along with her lack of appetite. The only thing she had eaten since Volterra was less than half of a turkey sub; she hadn't touched the remainder of her sandwich on the plane and had turned away all food on our flights when it was offered to her. Bella was already so drawn and thin – which had presumably occurred during my absence – that I watched her like the proverbial hawk as we deplaned at Sea/Tac after our overnight flight, ready to catch her immediately should she collapse.
Alice and I were careful to avoid the streaming sunshine coming in through the large windows and the occasional skylight of the airport. Bella seemed to be oblivious to everything as she mechanically put one foot in front of the other as if she were on autopilot at this point. If it would not have drawn too much attention, I would have scooped her up into my arms and carried her through the airport.
But after Bella stumbled over nothing more than her own feet for the second time, I wrapped an arm around her waist and pulled her firmly against me to prevent her from falling flat. Her exhaustion was finally taking its toll; she was barely able to remain upright by the time we reached my family who were wisely hiding out in a windowless corner of the airport as far from the intrusive sunshine as possible.
Jasper's mind was focused like a laser beam on Alice, anxiety tightening his features. I cringed as the tenor of his thoughts reached me; he had obviously been wild with fear as Alice and Bella raced alone to Italy to attempt to save me.
Alice's words on a phone call during their flight to New York rang in his memory, "I'll do everything that can be done, but prepare Carlisle; the odds aren't good... Don't follow me. I promise, Jasper. One way or another, I'll get out...And I love you."
Jasper knew all too well that his mate couldn't keep her promise of getting out of Volterra intact; too many variables were at play for her to be positive about her and Bella returning safely. And I...I was the one who had endangered her. While Jasper's mind sang with joy and relief as Alice came into view, I also noted his barely-concealed anger toward me for placing the love of his existence in such a dangerous position. And his own frustration with himself...for if he had not lost control the night of Bella's birthday, none of these events would have occurred in the first place.
We would need to have a long talk later, Jasper and I.
As soon as we were within sight of my parents, even more guilt washed through me. Both Carlisle's and Esme's faces were thin-lipped with extreme stress. As usual, they had taken Alice at her word, albeit extremely grim in this case: the chances of all three of us returning safely had not been promising, and Carlisle and Esme had been on tenterhooks, waiting for news of whether I had lived or died and whether Alice and Bella had escaped Volterra safely.
Seeing the three of us home now, safe and sound, caused a stifled sob to escape from Esme; Carlisle rubbed her back consolingly. As we approached them, secreted from the sun behind a pillar, Esme ran forward to hug us, putting us in an awkward proposition as I was half-supporting an exhausted Bella with one arm. But Esme managed to pull both of us to her in a fierce mama-bear hug.
Leaning forward, she whispered into Bella's ear, "Thank you so much" as Bella colored slightly in embarrassment. Then she turned to me, folding me into an almost painful embrace, somehow separating me from Bella. Although I didn't want Bella out of reach at all, I knew that my mother needed this reassurance of my safe return. As Esme sobbed silently against my chest, I wrapped my arms around her, feeling her profound relief and her deep-seated anger flooding her mind in nearly equal measures.
"You will never put me through that again," my mother growled. I smiled down at her, my apology in my eyes as well as on my lips as I replied, "Sorry, Mom."
Meanwhile Carlisle was hugging Bella gently as he spoke quietly, "Thank you, Bella. We owe you."
"Hardly," she murmured, swaying a little in Carlisle's embrace. His relief was immediately supplanted by a deep concern over Bella's condition. As I had, he noted her loss of weight, her pallor, the deep circles around her sunken eyes, and her dispirited expression underlying her current state of exhaustion.
Ever the physician, Carlisle was planning to treat Bella as soon as we were home, deciding that she needed a B-12 injection to counter her obvious malnutrition; he was also concerned about her present state of extreme exhaustion and signs of possible dehydration.
I was upset with myself immediately as I realized the high probability of his diagnosis. Despite all the Cokes she had consumed on the flights home, caffeinated sodas acted as diuretics, leaching the body of much-needed water while removing the sense of thirst that usually signals dehydration.
As if on cue, Bella's legs refused to support her any longer, Carlisle tightening his hold slightly to keep her on her feet. Her head lolled against his shoulder.
I moved to scoop her up into my arms, but Carlisle stopped me, shaking his head.
Alice piped up behind me. "Carlisle is right, Edward. Carrying Bella will call too much attention to us; on an already sunny day, some people will take notice of us, and..." Her voice trailed off. "Anyway, it will be bad. Just support her as she walks."
Esme turned to me, frowning. "She's dead on her feet," she scolded, watching Bella become slightly more attuned to our surroundings. "Let's get her home."
With my supporting her on one side and Esme holding her upright on the other, we escorted a stumbling Bella, her eyes half-closed, through the airport. Bella seemed barely aware of our surroundings. Fortunately, we were able to walk beneath the shade of a pedestrian bridge into the parking structure where I stopped in my tracks.
I had heard the thoughts of the final two members of our family, one of them with whom I was beyond furious.
My memory of that moment was, unfortunately, crystal-clear, like all my memories. But if I could forget one and only one memory from my entire existence to date, this one would be it.
My self-centered sister calling me, calling me, calling me on my cell. Over and over and over I hit "ignore." But finally I took the call out of sheer frustration and some concern regarding a possible family emergency.
"Oh, wow. Edward answered the phone. I feel so honored." Rosalie's tone was peeved as she informed me that Alice was in Forks. My own mind, far from healthy after being holed up in the dank and dusty attic space in Rio for months, was slow in realizing of what my sister was informing me.
Finally Rosalie spoke quickly, knowing that I was very close to ending the call, anger coloring her words, "They didn't want to tell you, but I think that's stupid. The quicker you get over this, the sooner things can go back to normal. Why let you mope around the dark corners of the world when there's no need for it? You can come home now. We can be a family again. It's over."
I couldn't make sense of her words. They swirled around my obviously broken mind, not settling into sense at all.
After a long pause, I had whispered, "I don't understand what you are saying, Rosalie."
Then I heard Rosalie's voice, unusually tentative and halting: "She's dead, Edward... I'm...sorry. You have a right to know, though, I think. Bella...threw herself off a cliff two days ago..."
I had tried calling Charlie, only to be told that he was "at the funeral."
And thus it had begun...my mindless trip to Italy, blindly seeking my peace in death, Alice and Bella's dangerous rescue, and now...this.
I growled, too low for Bella to hear, once I realized that Rosalie and Emmett were waiting beside Carlisle's Mercedes.
"Don't," Esme whispered, giving me a look over Bella's drooping head that was half warning, half pleading. "She feels awful."
Esme was right about that. But, as usual, Rosalie's mind centered on...Rosalie.
"She should," I hissed back at Esme, knowing full well that every member of my family could hear me.
Bella lifted her head for a moment, "Isss not her foooolt," she mumbled, barely coherent.
Esme gave Bella a loving look, appreciating Bella's forgiving attitude.
But I was not so ready to let my sister off the hook.
As far as I was concerned, Rosalie could stew in her own guilt for a decade...or two.
But Esme would not let it go. "Let her make amends," my mother almost begged, then looked at Carlisle before continuing, "We'll ride with Alice and Jasper."
"Please, Edward," Bella insisted faintly while I sighed loudly, extremely annoyed at everyone forcing me into an uncomfortable situation with Rosalie, a position I certainly did not wish considering the long ride home.
Slightly more alert, Bella stumbled toward Rosalie and the Mercedes, so I had no choice but to follow as Esme surrendered Bella into my arms, then accompanied Carlisle to my Volvo.
As Alice slid behind the wheel of my car, Jasper beside her, she winked at me. Don't forget...a yellow turbo. For Christmas. I'll hold you to that promise, dear Brother.
I rolled my eyes for her benefit, then focused a withering glare at Rosalie as Emmett opened the back door for me so I could lift Bella inside the Mercedes. I carefully placed her in the middle of the backseat and buckled her in as her head lolled; she was very nearly asleep already.
I took the seat behind Emmett, closing the door quietly then gathering Bella's mostly limp body against mine, adjusting her so that she would be comfortable for the several hours' drive ahead of us. Although knowing how my family drove, we'd probably cut the four-hour drive in half. Easily.
As Emmett started the car, Bella's eyes drooped closed at long last, and I almost asked Emmett if he wouldn't mind keeping within the speed limit so that Bella could sleep as long as possible. But I also wanted her to be in the comfort of her own bed, not trying to get comfortable in the backseat of a car. Plus, I wasn't looking forward to two hours in close quarters with Rosalie, much less four.
So I sighed quietly and said nothing.
As soon as we were free of the parking garage and Emmett was following the Volvo down the freeway toward the Olympic Peninsula, Rosalie half-turned in the passenger seat to face me.
"Edward," she began aloud.
"I know," I cut Rosalie off rudely. Her thoughts were definitely penitent now, but she had been a cold-hearted bitch to call me up to inform me of Bella's death just so I could come home and return our family to the way it was before Bella had touched us all.
After all, this fragile human girl had unconsciously wended her way into every one of our family member's affections...everyone except for Rosalie. Carlisle and Esme looked upon Bella as a beloved daughter, all the more loved for her frail humanity; she needed their loving care far more than the rest of us combined, and they worried over her with the same depth of devotion as I often noted in human parents.
In fact, I caught my parents' thoughts in the car directly ahead, and they were murmuring about both of us in the back seat of the Volvo, slightly concerned about me and my thirst but far more worried by Bella's obvious ill-health. Esme spoke of her pale and thin face and her absolute exhaustion while Carlisle assured his wife that Bella just needed some sleep and some special care to restore her to good health. But beneath his reassurances, Carlisle was extremely anxious regarding Bella's condition.
Emmett looked upon Bella as the little sister, loving her in the same way he had adored the younger sister whom he had lost all those years ago, and Jasper viewed Bella in virtually the same little-sisterly manner...
Wrapped in their own love-bubble, Alice and Jasper were nearly ignorant of the high anxiety emanating from Carlisle and Esme in the back seat as Alice drove, Jasper's hand firmly clasped in hers. They had no thought for anyone but themselves...and Jasper's amorous plans for his mate's "welcome home" celebration...
I sighed, looking down at Bella and worrying anew, thanks to Carlisle's and Esme's quiet conversation. What if Bella were truly ill? What if we couldn't turn around the progression of her extremely fragile state?
Rosalie's soft voice interrupted my rocketing concern, but this time she surprised me by addressing Bella...voluntarily...for the first time. Ever.
"Bella?" Rosalie asked tentatively?
I tried to signal Rosalie to leave Bella alone, to let her sleep, but my sister was nothing if not persistent. She threw me a knowing look as Bella's eyelids fluttered open.
"Yes, Rosalie?" Bella asked sleepily and hesitant, almost as if she were afraid of Rosalie.
My sister took a deep breath, speaking haltingly, "I'm so very sorry, Bella...I feel wretched about every part of this...and so grateful that you were brave enough to go save my brother after...what I did. Please...say you'll forgive me."
I could tell that my proud sister meant every word, formal and stilted though her tone was. Rosalie rarely apologized for anything; in fact, she apologized to me precisely four times in seventy years. But her willingness to apologize to Bella did ever so slightly thaw the frozen reserves of my heart toward her.
But we would definitely have a long talk afterward regarding the selfish way she had treated Bella up until now. And Rosalie's attitude would have to change. Greatly.
"O corsh, Roschalee. Izz not your fault a' all. I'zzz the one ooo jumpt offfff...damn cliffff. O corsh I forgiff youuu." Bella's magnanimous acceptance of Rosalie's apology was barely discernible, even to vampire hearing; the vowels and consonants slurred together so that it was nearly impossible to understand her words at all. Bella's eyes had closed halfway through her words, and her head nestled more heavily into my chest by the time she finished speaking.
If I didn't know better, I would have thought that she was talking in her sleep...or drunk.
Emmett was attempting to muffle his laughter as he drove. "It doesn't count until she's conscious, Rose," he winked at his mate, amused by Bella's slurred words.
"I'zzz conschussss," sighed Bella, not opening her eyes.
"Let her sleep," I cautioned both Emmett and Rosalie with a pointed look.
I drew my Bella closer to me, once again reveling in her delectable scent, the softness of her hair (lank though it was now), and the warmth of her body against my cold form. And once again I worried over her, fearful regarding her obvious decline in health since I had left.
What have I done to this most precious of angels? Was I directly or indirectly at fault for Bella's thinness, her obvious malnutrition, the fear always present deep in her eyes?
The answer was all too obvious, even to me.
I heard Jasper in the car ahead of us, his thoughts breaking through my self-recriminations. Yes, man, you fucked up, big time. But you can fix this easily, Brother. And Alice says that Bella will return to normal after just a few weeks of being back with you...back with all of us. So stop your brooding and enjoy holding your girl. Got it?
I did "get it," and I took my brother's wise advice: I shut out everyone's thoughts as well as I could (which isn't exactly easy while driving in morning traffic through Tacoma), choosing to focus my eyes, my mind, and my heart on this lovely, brave, fragile girl sleeping so trustingly in the arms of a dangerous vampire.
Gratitude swept through me...gratitude and a quiet sense of joy. Only forty-eight hours ago, I had been shattered by the news of Bella's death, and my only desire was to attempt to join her in the afterlife...if such a thing was remotely possible for one such as I. But, impossible as it was, being with her after death was my only hope. My love for my family had faded into nothingness when all I could think of was my Bella, dead and gone, her quiet laughter quieted forever...and by her own decision.
I simply couldn't live in a world in which Bella Swan did not exist. Living without her while she still took breath, while she lived out her normal, happy human life would have been sheer torture, but knowing that I couldn't have this one last tiny slice of satisfaction, of knowing that I had freed Bella to live a happy life...that final loss of hope was far more excruciating than my hellish transformation from human to vampire nearly a century ago.
But now I held my Bella—my living, breathing, beautiful Bella—right here in my arms. Even though she was damaged, both physically and emotionally, by my absence, I couldn't berate myself right now; I was simply too happy to focus on the negative aspects at this moment.
Of course Bella and I had a lot to discuss together before we could return to what we had been to each other before her disastrous birthday party. But now we had time...blessed time. Time to work out the kinks in our relationship and make things right,.
Even the discussion of a possible compromise regarding her immortal status.
For I knew now that one lifetime was simply not enough to express my love to this woman. And our forever had been jeopardized too many times.
All was possible now. My life—our life—was laid out before us to live as we wished. No matter what obstacles awaited us, we could face them, together.
Bella smiled softly in her sleep as she burrowed her head into my shoulder. I leaned over and pressed a kiss into her temple, inhaling her beloved scent and thrilling to the resulting burn in my throat...the burn that proved that my Bella lived.
Too soon we entered the city limits of Forks, and I steeled myself to accept Charlie Swan's blame and rage that Alice warned me about as we passed the high school. I knew too well that I deserved every harsh word that Bella's father would dish out...and then some.
But right now I was too happy to allow Charlie's boiling anger to rob me of my joy.
Because Bella was alive.
And I was alive.
And we had at least her lifetime ahead of us to love one another...
If not forever.
Thank you for hanging in there and waiting for this work to come to full fruition. I started writing this story almost a year ago, so I'm thrilled that it's actually completed.
Thank you for reading my stories; I so appreciate your reviews and comments!
I'll have a new chapter of Pinned but Fluttering up in a few days. I appreciate your patience!