A/N: OMFG, I'm kind of shocked that we reached this point: the last regular chapter of Wisp. I'll probably do a futuretake or two, but this is it, guys, the last chapter. It's been surreal, this journey, and I can't thank enough all of you who have come with me and little Wisp. I'm deeply, deeply honored, is all I can say.
All standard disclaimers apply.
"Emily? Am I an orphan?"
Emily tilted her head to the side, considering the question. "Where did you hear that word?"
"We watched a movie called Annie yesterday."
"I see." Emily settled herself further into the molded vinyl chair in Bella's room. This wasn't such a bad place, all things considered, but she knew that Bella hated it. There were too many other people around, and Bella did not want to make friends with any of her fellow patients. The only thing she wanted was to return to Forks, where she felt safe and secure. "An orphan is someone whose parents are dead. You said your mother died when you were born, but no one's been able to locate your dad as of yet. If he's still alive, you're not technically an orphan." She paused. "I know that's not what you mean, though. You feel like an orphan, living here."
Bella nodded, looking glum. She'd been in the hospital for three days following her auto accident—not because her injuries were so serious, but because it was a struggle to find a place for her. Emily argued tirelessly with her social worker and a judge, insisting that putting her in a secure psychiatric facility would not be in her best interest—that she needed an environment better suited to her needs. Finally room had been found for her at Brookside, a halfway house for developmentally disabled adults learning to live on their own. While she did not have the same problems as her fellow patients, it was the best the state could do. She needed to learn similar skills as the other patients, and here her progress would be carefully monitored.
"I want to go home, Emily."
"I know you do. Unfortunately, that's not an option right now."
"Edward is good. He's sorry for talking to Tanya, I know he is." Bella's hand drifted over the rigid plaster cast on her right leg, the only remaining physical reminder of her accident. She'd been badly bruised and had a big knot on her head, but those things had healed in the two weeks she'd been out of Edward's care.
"I'm sure he's very sorry, and I know he didn't do it on purpose." Emily had said the same thing to Bella many, many times already. "But rules are rules."
"If he's in trouble for talking to Tanya, I should be in trouble for taking Scott's car," Bella argued.
"Do you remember when Scott and I explained it to you before? You were still in the hospital, and your medicine might have made you forgetful. Normally, someone who steals a car gets in a lot of trouble, but you didn't know that, and you were very upset. Those are called mitigating circumstances, and Scott and the judge decided your broken leg was enough of a consequence for you."
"Why couldn't I go live with Mother? Or Rose?"
These were questions Bella had already asked multiple times, but Emily kept hold of her patience. This girl felt like she had lost everything, and the least Emily could do was listen, even if her hurts were the same day after day.
"Bella, I explained that already, remember?" she said gently. "That's not how this works."
"But it feels like I'm in trouble for something Edward did!"
"I know it feels that way. I do. But the laws are there to protect you. When Edward told Tanya things he shouldn't have told her, he was not being a good guardian for you. He hurt you, even though it doesn't feel like it to you."
"This is hurting me more!"
The infuriating thing was that Bella was right. Emily understood that Edward had broken the rules, and the consequence was revocation of his status as Wisp's caregiver. But taking her away inevitably hurt Bella just as much as, if not more than, it hurt him. She needed stability and routine, which Brookside could give her, but she also needed affection more than perhaps any other person Emily had ever known. The staff here were nice enough, in a clinical way, but they were overworked and constantly busy. They didn't have either the time or the inclination to befriend their new little patient—certainly not as Edward had done, taking her to his heart almost instantly. Esme and Carlisle Cullen had volunteered to take Bella home with them, but a judge had stated that they were too close to the original situation, and thus Bella had to leave Forks.
"I know it doesn't feel good. I know you don't like it. But this is a good place for you right now, and you're learning things you'll need as you mature." The words sounded empty even in Emily's own ears. Bella didn't want to learn new skills. Not without Edward. Not without her family.
At least her picture hadn't been released to the press. That was a small miracle. The story of Chase's abduction in relation to an ongoing case of human trafficking was hot news across the globe, but no one, thankfully, had leaked Bella's name, photo, or location, so the world was still wondering who this mystery girl was. Emmett and Rosalie refused to answer probing questions about the girl, instead focusing only on their joy in getting Chase back, and their commitment to bringing to justice everyone associated with Felix. They'd visited Bella once, careful that they weren't followed by any news vans, and she'd cried when she saw Chase safe in Rose's arms where he belonged. Emily herself had moved temporarily back to Seattle to help ease Bella into her new home, but this week she would have to return to Forks and her other patients. Bella needed to learn to rely on herself, whether she wanted to or not.
Because even more changes were coming, and Emily didn't know whether they would ultimately turn out to be good or bad in Bella's eyes. Scott Williams, her social worker, had been removed from her case and officially reprimanded for leaving her alone in the car, causing the situation where she was able to take it. Having been part of the incident herself, Emily still didn't know how she felt about it. She regretted the choice she and Scott had made, certainly. And in hindsight she could see their error. But at the time the thought that Bella would steal the car was not even on their radar—it was such an uncharacteristic thing for her to do. Whether as Wisp or Bella, the girl was usually tractable and obedient. She did what she was told. She did not act out, or act for herself. Clearly, however, she had been pushed too far that day. She reacted in the only way she felt was open to her. Emily felt a twinge of guilt every time she saw that plaster cast on Bella's leg, but at the same time she couldn't live in the past.
In two days, Bella was to meet with a new family court judge, ostensibly to see how she was settling into her new placement. It was a little unusual, but then, Bella's case was entirely unusual. Emily was glad that a judge was willing to step in, since there'd been so much confusion and upheaval in Bella's life. Bella did not like her placement or her new social worker, an elderly Latina with a heavy caseload. Maybe a judge would be able to explain to her, to reach her in a way that Emily could not. This situation wasn't ideal, but with social services, nothing was ever ideal. The state was doing the best it could.
Three days after Bella was removed from his care, Edward packed his things and returned to his condo in Seattle. It was too hard to listen to the unnatural silence of the cabin on his parents' property, too hard to fall asleep every night in that bed without the warm weight of his sweet Wisp anchoring him. He did his best to throw himself into his work, but he often found himself staring into the emptiness of his cold home, so foreign to him now, not knowing what he was supposed to do next. The flat grey view out his huge windows mocked him with its nothingness. Where he had once felt comfort from the blinking lights of boats on Puget Sound, now the water was just more emptiness. Like his days, it held no meaning. He tried to write, returning over and over to his book now so hopelessly off schedule, but the words refused to come to him as they used to. He would read important articles in academic journals, only to find that a half an hour had passed and he had no idea what he'd read. Or he'd return to the same sentence over and over again, his eyes passing over the letters, his mind retaining nothing.
Being in this bed alone was marginally easier, since his body had no muscle memory of Wisp's warmth curled around him here, but he found himself still unconsciously reaching for her. Insomnia plagued his nights, and he thus found himself sleeping later and later during the days. Normal parts of his routine began to fall by the wayside—answering his phone, getting groceries. His hair looked like a rat's nest when he glanced in the mirror but he didn't go out to get it cut. A strange greyness settled over him, like the constant grey outside his windows. He remembered color, like he remembered the feel of Wisp's sweet body in his arms. The music of her low giggles. But it was lost to him in the present.
Emmett and Rosalie had visited her—something Edward had been told he was not allowed to do—and assured him that, while she was not particularly happy to be there, she was in a good place. The staff were professional, and she would get all the occupational and physical therapy she could handle. Emily was with her, and while they had a regular physical therapist already on staff, they let Kate come and see Bella specially. Pet got to stay with her, too, though the rules usually did not allow for anything except therapy animals. Rose, laughing, even explained that they gave Pet some sort of test, which she passed, and she was now officially Bella's therapy animal. She had a vest and everything.
He was glad of all of this—that people were trying to give Bella everything they could to mitigate the change. But he couldn't be there to help, to ease her fears and comfort her, and that gutted him. He'd lost her by his own actions, and there was nothing he could do to fix that. Not for either of them.
Twice Tanya tried to call, but he let it ring to voicemail. She did not leave a message either time, and she did not call again. He hoped she got the hint.
Finally, knowing he was sinking into depression but not knowing what else to do about it, Edward did what Emily had been telling him to from the beginning. He called around until he found a therapist who sounded promising over the phone, and he made himself leave his condo for an appointment.
It didn't fix things, and just feeling how hard it was to make those calls and follow through on the appointment showed Edward how far he'd fallen. Part of him wasn't sure it was worth the effort of climbing back out of the dismal hole he'd dug for himself.
Two days after his second appointment with his new therapist, the doorbell rang.
The unusual sound jerked Edward out of his stupor, and he found himself automatically getting to his feet and moving toward the door before his mind caught up with the rest of him. Solicitors weren't allowed into the building, but he didn't want to talk to any of his neighbors. He supposed it could be Esme come to check on him—he hadn't been answering his phone, after all—but he really couldn't say for sure.
He pulled open the door without checking the peephole, acting before he could change his mind. His eyes opened wide, and he wondered if he was hallucinating.
Because Bella was standing there, right in front of him. On crutches, yes, but standing.
"Bella," he whispered. His mind refused to supply him with any other words. His heart hammered, high and hard, and spots danced in front of his vision for a moment. He wondered if he was going to pass out.
"Edward." The tension on her face relaxed instantly when she saw him. So beautiful. In the space of six weeks, his mental picture of her had turned fuzzy around the edges, but now there she was, fully real, before him.
"Are you real?"
Those sweet pink lips quirked into a puzzled little smile. "I think so?"
She swayed a little on her crutches, and Edward's mind snapped back to reality. "Shit," he swore, backing up, tripping over himself in his effort to clear a path for her. "Come in—can you come in? What can I do? Should I— ?"
She ignored him, all her concentration focused on using her feet and her crutches to creep her way slowly through the doorway and into his home. Edward swallowed hard, only just managing not to pick her up and do it for her, though his hands twitched at his sides. She took four small, careful steps, then paused with all four "limbs" planted—one leg wrapped in a bulky plaster cast—and looked up at him with those big brown eyes that killed him every single time they turned his way.
"Edward," she said, and in her voice was everything he had been without for so long—warmth, color, life. One arm reached for him, her crutch falling to the floor with a clatter.
Given permission now, Edward stepped close and wrapped her tightly in his arms. Bella—his sweet Wisp—she was here. Here. Her body fit perfectly against his, and he felt the telltale warm dampness of tears when they fell against his neck.
"Bella," he said, hugging her fiercely. He didn't know how long he would get her this time before life dragged her away again—a half an hour? More?—and he didn't intend to waste that time. He inhaled a deep breath, feeling his chest expand in a way it hadn't for more than a month now. Maybe she wasn't his Bella anymore, but for this moment he was willing to pretend. He was hers, after all, no matter what happened. Nothing could change that.
She held to him just as tightly as he hugged her, the other crutch falling to the floor. Edward kicked the door closed and picked her up in his arms, bringing them to his living room. The black leather couch was chilly against his skin at first, and it didn't feel anything like the plush sofa at his parents' cabin. But Bella was in his arms, and he didn't care about anything else.
"Edward," she said finally, sniffling into his shirt. "I made up my mind."
"About what, sweetheart?" He leaned back, brushing her long, silky hair away from her face. She scrubbed at her wet cheeks and looked up at him with those huge dark eyes.
"I love you," she said, her voice clear despite her tears. "I don't want to be away from you anymore."
"I don't want to be away from you, either," Edward said, brushing at the damp tear tracks on her skin. "But, Bella, it isn't up to me. You know that."
A slow, triumphant smile broke over her face, and her eyes gleamed bright. "No," she said, "it's up to me. It's finally up to me."
"What do you mean?"
"The judge told me. It took time to fix it all up—I don't really know why, but it did. But I went to see the judge and she said I was smart and should be able to make my own decisions. I have to have a con-conservator," she said, stumbling over the word, "to help me, but that's okay. Carlisle is going to do that."
Bella nodded, smiling bright. "He said to think of him like my dad—a good dad, not like the one I had before. That he's here to help me make good decisions and teach me."
Edward's head spun. This was...a lot of information to take in. So Bella was no longer a ward of the state, and if she had a conservator to look after her, it meant she was no longer considered mentally incompetent. She was a real adult now, in the eyes of the state. A whole, true person.
"I get to choose," she said, her hands gently rising to cup his cheeks. A week's worth of stubble lay on his skin and she stroked it gently with her fingers. "I finally get to choose."
Edward drew in a slow breath as Bella's face drew alongside his own. He had time to deflect her, but he didn't—couldn't. Her warm breath brushed his cheek, and then her lips lightly, gently touched his own. It was the most delicate kiss he'd ever experienced—the sweetest touch, sweeter than anything he could have imagined. So soft. Not daring to breathe, he moved his mouth ever so slightly and kissed her back. For so long he'd been telling himself he couldn't have this—couldn't have her. She was forbidden, and he'd hammered it into his head until he pretty well convinced himself that he didn't want her. Not like this.
But seeing her standing outside his door—standing—had...changed something. Exactly what, he couldn't say. But his arms shook slightly as he held her, and he knew as he kissed her that there was no going back from this. He'd been hers from the moment Carlisle put her in his arms, hurt and unconscious. Now he gave her the remaining part of himself, the last thing he'd been keeping hidden away, convinced that this could never be.
The kiss was slow, and almost painful in its brevity. Edward felt a groan of disappointment rise in his throat, almost voiced, as Bella's mouth left his. She hovered a breath away, her dark eyes opening, rich velvet brown, full of both contentment and wonder. "I choose you."
Okay then. Edward refused to resist anymore. She wasn't magically all better—there would still be challenges ahead for both of them. In some ways, she might never really become "normal." But that didn't mean anything to him. He wasn't perfect, not by a long shot, and if she was willing to try, then he was, too.
"I love you," he told her, stroking her back with his palm, long strokes from the nape of her neck to the base of her spine.
"No more Tanya." She searched his eyes, hers pleading for his acceptance.
"No more anyone. Just you and me, Bella." He kissed her forehead gently, then dropped his chin so he could look at her again. "I don't know what will happen—I can't predict the future. But I'm willing to try with you, sweetheart." Maybe this wouldn't work. But he'd do everything in his power to make sure it did.
An hour later, after apologizing profusely that there was no food in the house, Edward served Bella from a delivery pizza, making sure she was comfortable on the couch, careful of her broken leg.
"I can't believe you came all the way here by yourself," he said, so incredibly proud of her.
She grinned through a mouthful of Canadian bacon and pineapple. "It was scary," she confessed, "but we learned about riding the bus the other week, and Carlisle told me your address." She swallowed. "He wanted to come with me so I didn't get lost, but I said I had to do it on my own."
Edward didn't like the thought of her wandering Seattle by herself, but he understood. She needed to learn to do things for herself, and this had been a successful test. She was here, safe, with him.
"I'm so glad you found a judge who was willing to give you a chance," he said, and he meant it from the bottom of his heart. "But, Bella, I want to talk to you about something."
"What?" She looked at him cautiously, and the anxiety on her face broke him. Her automatic trust in him had been badly broken by the events of the last couple months—Tanya, and then their enforced separation. She did still trust him, but it wasn't innate anymore. He mourned that loss, even as he knew their relationship, like any relationship, had to change. Change was inevitable.
"Shh, sweetheart, it's nothing bad. Well, not too bad," he revised. He dropped to the floor in front of her, letting her wrap a tense arm around his shoulder. "I just want to talk to you about where you've been. Rosalie and Emmett told me it was a good place."
She shrugged, picking at her pizza. "We learn a lot," she allowed. "But I don't like being without you."
"You don't have to be without me," he vowed. "Not anymore. I promise, Bella. But I think the things you're learning are important."
Her lower lip quivered. "Are you sending me away?"
"No." He said it forcefully, and if not for her broken leg, he would have picked her up and pulled her onto his lap. As it was, he took her hands and ducked his head until he met her eyes. "I wouldn't do that to either of us, sweetheart. What would you think about a compromise?"
"What would you think about living there for just a little while longer?"
"Or living here with me," he said, knowing she wouldn't be happy with his first suggestion, "and going there during the day?"
She considered. "So it would be like school?"
"Yeah, in a way it would be a lot like school," he agreed, offering her a smile.
"I'd rather go back home," she said, dropping her eyes for a moment. "Mother and Carlisle and Rose and Chase and Alice are all there. But..." She swallowed. "But you're here."
"We can visit Forks," Edward assured her. "And we can talk about maybe moving back sometime in the future. But right now, Seattle offers a lot of things that are good for us. There aren't any places like Brookside in Forks, no one to teach you."
"If I can stay with you, I can handle anything," she decided, pulling at his shoulder. Edward raised himself up on his knees, meeting her mouth in a gentle kiss.
"I don't want you anywhere else," he promised. "I'm yours, Bella. Your Edward."
"My good Edward," she said with a little smile. "You have been, you know. Since the beginning."
"I've made a lot of mistakes. And I can't promise I won't fuck up again. I'm a long way from perfect."
She shrugged, her arms holding him close. She smelled like sweet pineapple and fruity shampoo, and Edward loved it. Something inside him warmed and expanded, loosening, calming. She was here with him, where she belonged. "I love you," she said, "and I make mistakes, too. I just want...all I want is to be loved, Edward. I think that's maybe what I've always wanted."
Of course it was—it was the one thing she'd been denied her whole life.
"You're so loved, Bella," he told her, unable to put into words exactly what she meant to him. "Not just by me. You have Esme and Carlisle, and Rosalie and her family, and Alice and Jasper. You have a whole family now, people who love you and will always be there for you."
She was crying again, but Edward suspected they were happy tears and he didn't try to stop them.
"I almost want to thank J-james," she said, hugging Edward close, "for kidnapping me. He did terrible things to me, but he also brought me to you. Without him, I could have been with F-felix forever."
Edward held her tighter, refusing to allow that scenario. For her to be kept as a mindless slave for the rest of her life...no. No. He couldn't even imagine it. Far better that James gambled her away in a last-ditch bet, because at least now she belonged, not to Edward, not to the state, but to herself.
She was free.
"Tanya said you weren't my Prince Charming," Bella said, stroking his whiskery cheek, smiling at him. "But I woke up that night and there you were. I think maybe she was wrong."
"I didn't save you with a kiss," Edward argued. "And I hurt you by bringing Tanya into our lives. I'm hardly Prince Charming."
"Not a kiss—not even a thimble." She smiled wider, the hint of a dimple appearing in just one cheek. "You saved me with a banana and a bath, but still, you saved me."
Edward leaned his forehead against hers, reveling in the warmth of her body. There was every possibility, he suspected, that she'd saved him, too.
When they did finally move back to Forks, a year and a half later, it was for a job.
Edward sold the condo, pretty sure they were both done with the city. Bella hadn't liked it from the beginning, and he also preferred to be near his family and friends. Chase was a sturdy toddler, and Alice and Jasper had married. It was time to go back.
"There's my little missy," Garrett said at their welcome-back party. He took Bella's hand in both of his, and his eyes were suspiciously bright. "We missed you, little one. This old town just isn't the same without you in it."
Bella surprised him by wrapping her arms around him in a gentle but warm embrace.
"You're like my own girl," he said, wiping quickly at an eye with his gnarled old hand. "If the missus and me had had one, I'd have wanted her to be just like you."
They had a welcome-back party rather than a housewarming, because they were back in the little cabin instead of a house of their own. House hunting from so far away had been difficult, and Edward finally gave up the attempt. As far as Esme and Carlisle were concerned, they could live in the little cabin on their property as long as they wanted. Edward preferred a new start in a new house, but Bella seemed to like the idea of going back where everything had started, and he delighted in giving her whatever she wanted. Later they could talk about moving into a new place. For now, he was content.
Plus, he wasn't the one starting a new job the next week.
Garrett's arthritis had advanced to the point where he could no longer draw without intense pain. He was in semi-retirement, set to train his successor and then phase out of the job as Bella phased in. He was immensely proud of her, and so was Edward. She was scared about so many new duties and whether she would perform them well, but Garrett was there to teach her and her whole family would support her as she learned. She'd do fine, Edward was sure of it.
They'd decided not that long ago that it was best they did not have children. The thought of Bella holding her own baby in her arms was tempting to Edward, but she still walked a rocky road sometimes, and neither of them could for sure say that she would be able to devote herself to another human being so fully. She needed a lot of help herself still. Nightmares still plagued her, though not as often as they used to, and sometimes waking flashbacks as well. There were days, sometimes multiple in a row, where she struggled to do even the most basic things for herself. On her "Wisp" days, as she called them, she absolutely needed the care that Edward was always more than willing to give. Emily and her psychiatrist said that this might never fully go away, and it was something Edward took in stride as just another scar she wore from her past. She did the best she could, and he loved her fiercely, unflinchingly, scars and all.
Carlisle continued to be her conservator, though his role was largely in name only at this point. He and Esme embraced her as Edward's partner and their daughter, and while they were disappointed that there would be no grandchildren, they understood. Bella's wellness came first. They spoiled Chase and looked forward to any other children their impromptu family might produce. Edward was grateful. The last thing Bella needed was pressure to do something she herself wanted to begin with. But as much as she wanted to give Edward a child of his own, she had made the decision with him. It was for the best, and they would not lack for love or happiness in their life.
As Edward glanced at his sweet girl across the crowded living room of the little cabin, he felt a telltale prickle behind his eyes. She was magnificent—graceful, loving, beautiful, and above all so very brave. She'd conquered so much to get here. And there were still questions left unanswered, strings left hanging in the story of her life. Felix and Dr. Gerandy had not yet been found, nor had her father. But they had found her birth certificate and her mother's death certificate. Edward had been able to take her, finally, to see her mother's grave—the only physical tie Bella had left to the woman who had borne her. It felt a little like closure, and also like a new beginning when Bella rose from the damp cemetery grass and tucked her hand into his.
But she still refused to marry him.
To her, marriage was tied to the church, and she shied away from anything religious after her time with the crazy preacher in Puyallup. Edward supposed that it was only reasonable, after all. She'd had the Bible beaten into her, literally, for years. To reject it now made perfect sense.
He still wished she would marry him, but for now he had to accept her answer. She loved him, and he knew that. Maybe someday. She'd overcome so much.
As he watched Rose pass Chase's sturdy little body into Bella's arms, he smiled at the poignant scene. She was starting a job—a job—next week, and they were back home with their family, where they belonged.
His little Wisp. The sweet, scared girl who came to him needing so much.
Her eyes found his over the crown of Chase's head, and she smiled that special smile that was just for him. His smile, his Bella.
Felix might still be out there somewhere, but he hadn't won. Bella had, and she stood taller than anyone else Edward had ever met, all five-foot-two of her. Precious girl. She had won.