Soooo, hi. *waves* I'm sorry this took so, so, so, sooooooo long :-(

Big thanks to sweeneyanne for the beta, aerobee82 for the pre-reading, and yearprincess for looking it over as well :-) Also, I have crazy decongestant-brain, so the proof-reading didn't so much actually happen as it was considered for about 45 minutes and then deemed finished. 0.0 If that sentence doesn't make sense, just pretend it does, mmmkay?

Don't own Twilight.


Chapter 16 - If I Could

"Wake up."

I startled from sleep at harsh words bounding through my room and the sudden intensity of the light being flipped on. I closed my eyes and opened them again, trying to adjust to the brightness. "You have got to stop doing this."

"I've been summoned," Peter said.

Immediately I was alert. I sat up and watched with wide eyes as Peter stormed through my room. He paused in front of my open closet before pulling out my suitcase. It took me a moment to remember I'd hidden my painting of the woods in there. When Peter wrenched open the top drawer of my dresser my attention refocused. "Summoned by whom?"

"You know who." He sounded vaguely irritated that he had to take the time to explain, but one look at the cross set to his frown told me that he wasn't so much annoyed with my questions as he was about the answers he'd have to give.

I was up and out of bed in a flash.

"You said I'd be safe here!" The panic rising in my gut made my voice high, scratchy. This couldn't be happening. I wasn't ready. Before I knew it, I was helping Peter throw clothes in my suitcase. I'd never get used to the intensity of my fight or flight instinct—after all, it was something I'd only recently developed. In some ways I missed the time when instead of worrying about myself, I'd throw myself in front of everyone else, even if it was the worst thing to do in the end.

"You are. They're not coming for you," Peter said. He sounded so sure. "They're here for me."

"Why?"

"I assume they want me to find you." Peter snapped his teeth together and let out a long exhale through flared nostrils. I threw some socks on top of the pile of clothes in my suitcase and Peter zipped it shut. When he spoke again, it was with a softer tone, but not by much. "They can't locate you through their normal means. That leaves me. There is no other reason."

"What's going to happen?"

"I don't know. I'm no fortune-teller. What we are going to do, however, is get you out of here. Once they're gone, we'll regroup." Peter was already half-way to the living room before started following. I hadn't felt my heart hammer like this in months, and along with that memory, came the phantom smell of ashes.

"You knew this would happen." I spat the words at him, desperate for the accusation to do something—anything—to mitigate this disaster, but in the end that's all they were; words.

Peter was composed as ever. "Of course. Didn't you?"

I wanted to throw more digs at him, but this wasn't the time to be arguing. I was dangerously close to a complete meltdown, and there wasn't anything I could do to stop it. This was the absolute last thing I wanted to happen.

"What about my stuff? Oh, God, they'll smell me in the house!"

"They're not coming here," Peter said, still being infuriatingly calm. He turned back to grab my arm so he could guide me toward the front door. It may as well have been some hellish nightmare I was caught in. "I'm going to them. Go west as far as you can go. Drive for a day and stop. I'll come find you. If you don't hear from me in another two, keep going. If you hit the ocean, get on a boat."

The reality of the situation clicked into place the moment I set foot outside. I planted my feet on the front stoop and buried my terror, even if it was only for a moment. "You said that if they asked, you'd find me a newborn."

"And I will, but there has to be a chase."

I wasn't sure how I stopped myself from vomiting all over him.

"Hey, hey." Peter dropped my suitcase and grabbed my shoulders, squeezing just hard enough to jar me back to the problem at hand. "Save the panicking for later. Right now we have a problem with an easy solution. Just take it one step at a time."

"How could you say anything about this is easy?"

For once, Peter didn't have a retort. I stepped around him and walked to the car. The trunk popped open, and I stood, waiting until I felt the cool metal of keys press into my palm. I curled my fingers into a fist to keep from dropping them. I'd known this was coming, but I hadn't ever expected it to feel like this.

Peter reached around me to open the car door, and leaned down to speak quietly in my ear. It was an intimate gesture, one that sent a clear message; what he had to say was only for me. "If I believed that I could change—that I could alter my core and become a better man, I'd do it. I'd rip myself into pieces and reassemble all those shreds — and if I could stop what's happening here, I would, but I can't."

"I don't expect that of you," I said after a moment filled with a swelling heart and twisted stomach-ache. No one had ever expressed something like that to me before.

"I know, but I thought I should tell you anyway."

I was starting to understand that sentiment a lot more, lately. There were some things that just had to be said—whether or not they were understood or appreciated—because it was the only way to expel them, to make them real. If I had learned that lesson back in Forks, I could have saved myself so much grief.

"You'll find me?" I asked as I relented and climbed into the car. I fumbled the keys twice.

Peter leaned through the open window and started the car for me. His mouth an inch from my ear, he whispered, "I will find you. When it is safe."

"How will you know?" I asked, turning my head as he pulled back. Suddenly the fading orange of his eyes didn't send laughter running up my spine.

"I'll know. Remember. Safe." He pressed a card into my hand. "Drive."

I shoved the card in my pocket without looking at it, shifted the car to reverse, and fled. It was something that certainly got easier with repetition. I didn't know what to do, so I followed Peter's instructions to the letter. I merged into west-bound traffic, and floored it. I couldn't make myself stop until I crossed the border into Colorado and four drive-through coffees became the shadow chasing me. It was impossible to catch my breath, though I spent half an hour idling in the parking lot of a rest stop trying.

The only thing that helped was to call Sheila and tell her I had to go out of town and not to worry. It tethered me, and acted as a reminder that there was someone out there who wasn't my family and wasn't a vampire who would care if I up and disappeared.

I rested my forehead against the steering wheel and sucked in a breath through my teeth. The truth of the matter was that it was not unusual this was happening—that I was on the run from psychotic vampires—again. This cycle would continue, over and over, until the day I appeased the Volturi's demands. It was my decisions that caused this; my choice to not marry Edward and stay human. It was my realization that growing up could not simply be forced through will alone and subsequent actions that lead me here, and once I reminded myself of that it was easier to straighten up and start thinking about what I was going to do next.

By the time I pulled back onto the highway, traffic had picked up. I never thought I'd manage to feel claustrophobic going seventy-five miles an hour down the highway.

It wasn't horribly difficult to stay calm, or at least as close to calm as I could get, but still my heart pounded away in my chest as the miles ticked by on the odometer and all my whirring thoughts eventually settled on the same subject. I had to decide who all I was running away from; if I was going to make Peter catch me, or if I was going to walk back to him with my head held high. Really, it wasn't much of a question. I may have been delaying the inevitable for as long as possible, but still, at the end of the day, I wanted to pull the trigger. No matter how difficult the circumstances, I still wanted this to happen on my terms.

I supposed in order for that to happen, I had to accept that there was little I could control, and remember not to let the things I could fall by the wayside. The sun settled into view and I flipped the visor down, thankful for the small distraction—for the light.

Twelve hours alone in the car was starting to feel like sensory deprivation. I couldn't take it much longer.

I made a choice to stay with Peter, just like I'd decided to leave Forks. And the same as back then, I wouldn't do him the injustice of being fickle. There may have been little between us, just a spark—a tease of what could be—but I had to see it through. I deserved to know what might be, because for all of Peter's talk about how people and vampires don't change, not really, he'd admitted just the opposite to me. He'd said he wanted it. That if he believed he could change, he would—and who was he to decide there was any distinction? Who was he to say that change wasn't inherent, even in him?

My thoughts ran through the cycle countless times as I kept my foot steady and started glancing at the exit ramps with longing. I counted the mile markers and wondered just how far was far enough; I didn't think I'd ever get there. It felt like I'd been running for two years, and the finish line was always just out of sight.

Two more ramps went by before I shifted into the right lane and took the third. I'd never be able to cover enough distance; if they were going to catch me, they'd do just as well in Grand Junction as they would in the middle of the Pacific.

I checked into a room on the second floor of the first motel I saw a sign for. It was one of those places where the rooms open to a walkway wrapped around the building, and I found myself leaning against the railing, staring out over the parking lot, tracing the ground all the way out to the horizon. I couldn't quite wrap my head around it—the way so much had changed, but still, here I was, running from vampires and hiding in hotels so far from home.

Nostalgia was cut short by the sound of ringing in my pocket, and the moment I caught sight of the name flashing on the screen I darted for my door and flung my suitcase inside. It was hard to breathe, hard to swallow; I wasn't sure I'd be able to speak if I tried. The call went to voicemail and with a lack of subtlety impossible to comprehend everything that had happened since my rude awakening became so real the Volturi might as well have been lined up in front of me.

I couldn't think of any other reason he'd call. When the phone clenched in my fist started ringing again, I answered before panic could set in any further.

"Edward?"

"Are you okay? Where are you?" Edward demanded in place of any sort of greeting.

I leaned against the door just as my knees buckled, and slid to the floor. Now that I wasn't speeding down the highway it was all crashing in on me. Edward worried was something I dealt with on a near day to day basis when I lived in Forks. Knowing that his concern was valid was the last straw.

My voice cracked. "I need help."


I'd never expected to find myself sitting on the edge of a queen sized bed, watching Edward pace across a seedy motel two miles off the highway. The individual components had all crossed my mind at one time or another—Edward and a bed, Edward distressed, hiding in cheap motels—but they'd never combined like this into one event.

It was surreal, like I finally had all these things I used to dream about in the palm of my hand, and even if they weren't so twisted and warped, I didn't want them anymore.

"We shouldn't stay here," Edward said, but I shook my head.

We'd agreed that Edward would meet me in Grand Junction, and from the moment he arrived we'd been in a stand-off over this point. Edward wanted to leave immediately; to get on a plane and head for somewhere the Volturi couldn't reach. I refused.

"He said to give him two days. That he'd find me when it's safe." My voice was quiet and monotone; dead. Edward obviously didn't know how to deal with it, but then again, he hadn't ever seen me on the run before. The closest he'd come was camping out in the mountains, but even then, he'd managed to wind up fighting.

Edward grumbled. "Jasper is playing this far too close to the vest."

I picked at a thread coming loose from the bedspread. "That's just the way they are. They know what they're doing."

"No, Alice is even worse." Edward shook his head and grumbled. "'When it's safe.' What does that even mean?"

I wasn't really sure. I didn't think we were being followed, surely Edward would know if we were. There had to be something I was missing. Peter said he'd know. My head jerked up, and I examined Edward a little closer. "How did you know I was in trouble?"

Edward finally stopped pacing. "Jasper told me the Volturi had sprung into action, that they're looking for you. He tried to convince me I should hide, but how could I?" Edward's head fell and he reached a hand up fiddle with the hair at his nape. "How could I run away when you're in danger?"

I had a bad feeling that this was exactly what Jasper had been trying to prevent. If Edward had been told to hide, that meant the Volturi were probably looking for him, too. After all, they'd expect him to be with me. Peter was going to be so pissed.

"You should go," I said, sounding far surer than I was. "You should have listened to Jasper."

"I will not leave you defenceless. Jasper is out of his mind if he thinks I'm going to go along with his ridiculous plan of sending you off on your own."

"Jasper didn't send me here." I didn't bother explaining, or trying to argue with him. Once Edward got something like this in his head, there was no hope in trying to convince him otherwise, and Jasper had obviously left out some key details when explaining the situation. Instead, I reached into my pocket for the card Peter had given me. If I couldn't do anything about Edward, then maybe I could figure out what Peter had meant when he gave it to me. It was a debit card; one of the ones that only worked at an ATM. I was sure that he'd meant for me to use it.

"Who did send you here, then?" Edward asked, looking unhappier by the minute.

"A friend."

Edward took an audible breath. "I thought we weren't going to lie to each other anymore."

I glanced up and let out a sigh. "I don't know what to tell you."

"What is that?" Edward asked, nodding toward my hands.

Thankful he was letting the subject drop I sighed and held the card up so he could see. "That's what I'm trying to figure out."

"It looks like a bank card."

"No," I muttered. "It's a message."

If I hadn't been such a mess of conflicting emotions, I would have laughed at the sight of Edward rolling his eyes. "You sound just like Jasper."

I dropped my head into my free hand, exhausted by that statement and all the implications of it that Edward couldn't possibly know he was making.

For the second time in ten minutes, Edward did something completely unprecedented and dropped a subject he was curious about. "Tell me about your life. What have you been doing?"

I absolutely was not going to tell Edward that I'd basically been trying on hobbies like clothes and working as an apprentice bounty hunter. "This and that. We were in Kansas, the weather was really nice. I learned to play blackjack."

"Emmett will be pleased."

"Only until I hit him in the face with a two-by-four for putting me up to riding that damn roller-coaster."

Edward laughed, and for just a moment, everything was the same as it had ever been. "You rode a roller-coaster?"

"Not really." I groaned. "It was more of a spinning, upside-down death trap."

"And how was that?"

"Awful." I felt queasy just thinking about it. "I threw up. Peter still teases me about it."

I realized my slip two whole seconds before Edward.

"I was wondering when you'd finally mention him."

The pounding in my chest was irrational and unwarranted, but still I counted the beats, and waited for the fallout. It didn't come. "You knew."

"Only because Jasper let his guard down in his haste to get me away from the others. Honestly, I can't believe he was so sloppy to come in person. He put a lot of effort into making sure I never knew where you were, or who you were with."

"It's okay, Edward." I rushed to explain. "It was fine. A little rough at first, but we learned to get along. I was fine."

"You and Jasper sure do have funny definitions of 'fine'."

In the space of time it took me to draw enough breath to speak, I was livid. Edward's misuse of that term was near criminal. "Says the man who decapitated a woman right in front of me and then used that same word."

Edward ran his hand through his hair again and came to sit next to me. I felt him take a deep breath, and glanced out of the corner of my eye to see him staring at the floor. I almost felt bad for bringing it up. Almost.

"I was trying to be strong," Edward said, his voice quiet, "so it would be easier for you to deal with."

"Well, it didn't work."

"I know that now. I've learned a lot since you left."

"Yeah." I forced myself to breathe and nodded. "Me, too."

"I'm not happy that you were put into an uncomfortable position like this, or that I was kept so far out of the loop."

"Well, if it makes you feel any better, Jasper has some explaining to do to me as well."

Edward studied me for a moment before cracking a smile. "You're different now. I think I'd like to see you demanding those explanations."

I hung my head and muttered, "A lot of things are different now."

"Oh?" Edward sobered. "Like what?"

I felt guilty in the way that I knew I probably should, to some extent, but didn't. This middle ground I'd found myself clinging to ever since leaving Forks wasn't good for me, and it wasn't fair to anyone. It was wrong to leave Edward hanging, and worse to keep him ignorant of where he stood. In the end, I decided to just come out and say it. "I met someone."

"And by someone, you mean Peter," Edward quickly deduced.

I kind of wished I could lie to him about it.

"Have you decided then?" Edward asked.

I had to look away when I told him. "Yes, I've decided."

He didn't need me to say anything else. "You're happy with him?"

"That is…" I wasn't sure how to express my feelings. In the end, I took a page from Peter's book. "I'm content, and once all of this is over I think we could get to happy. That seems to be where it's going."

"That's all I want for you," Edward said. "I swear to you, there aren't any strings attached—but really, Bella? Peter?"

"I don't know how to explain it," I said lamely. It was immensely frustrating, this inability to put into words what felt so vivid. "He… he steadies me. He doesn't let me wallow in meaningless guilt or demand support when I don't need it. He makes me feel okay with myself, flaws and all—and when it gets to be too much to take, he shows me that he's got scars, too."

Edward didn't reply, and after an uncomfortable span I added, "I'm not really sure what it is, but there is something, and I couldn't just not tell you."

"I hate that he sounds good for you."

"He is."

"Do you love him?" Edward asked. "The way you loved me?"

That was a matter that needed immediate deflection. "I could never love anyone like I love you. The way I feel about you—there is nothing that could ever compare."

"But you do love him," Edward said. He sounded so sure.

It was a question I was in no way ready to consider. "I really don't want to talk about this anymore."

"Alright." Edward agreed.

I hadn't understood just how deep Edward's love went, and realizing it now was both a relief and daunting. I hadn't ever comprehended that it was possible for him to be happy just because I was—but it was easy to accept, and even easier to reciprocate. In many ways I believed that this foundation we'd built out of the rubble of our relationship was far better than anything we'd stood on before.

In the spirit of covering all the topics that required some getting used to, I said, "Tell me about the girl."

The last thing I thought Edward would do was laugh. "You mean the one I told you about?"

"Yeah. How was your date?"

"Catastrophic." Edward paused. "And I'm still not sure it was actually a date. I think Rosalie and Emmett were toying with me. They're the ones who tricked me into it in the first place."

"It couldn't have been that bad."

"It was. 'Gentlemanly to the point of insulting' is the exact phrasing she used."

"Ouch."

"It's been pointed out to me that maybe I am a little old-fashioned." Edward shook his head with a rueful smile. "I've been thinking that I should make an effort to get up with the times—to learn other ways to be respectful and demonstrate my feelings—and then, maybe, I'll start looking again."

"I'm surprised to hear you say that."

Edward leaned his forehead to mine for a couple of seconds before pulling away with a smile. "Knowing you, loving you… being without you, I've learned a lot. In you I've found that it's alright to have faults and to let them show, that there are many ways to be strong."

It was the most touching thing Edward had ever said to me. I considered my next words carefully. "That's the sort of thing that makes me happy. I like hearing that you're not giving up, that maybe leaving was something that was best for both of us, and not just me."

"It's never going to be like it was again, is it?"

I looked away from Edward, through the window. Even after all this time it was difficult to admit that he was right; that it was over. It hadn't felt concrete until that moment. I turned the ATM card over in my hand again. "It's better this way."

Edward didn't have any response.

"I'm going to go for a walk."

Edward looked like he wanted to protest, but backed down at the look on my face. I'd gotten somewhat used to coming and going whenever I saw fit, and I wasn't about to give that up.

I headed to the ATM on auto-pilot, confident that I'd figured out this puzzle. Maybe Peter just meant for me to swipe it—it'd be more than enough for him to get an address—but another thought was crawling through my head. Peter didn't need a bank alert to find me.

I stared at the flashing lights, the keypad, and then tried the only thing I could think of.

7233. Safe.

I wasn't surprised that it worked. After so long I'd gotten a feel for how Peter operated.

I did a balance inquiry, ready to be irritated with whatever obnoxious sum came out of the machine, but when the receipt printed out I found that Peter had been quite reasonable. Just a few hundred dollars, and in an instant I understood what Peter meant to say with this gesture.

He was saying that I could leave. I could run off with Edward and try to find my happy ending; we could start over now that I'd gotten my head on straight and had a better understanding of the world around me, if that's what I wanted. Peter would be right on our heels, waiting to find me newborn and red-eyed, so he could say that I'd held up my end of the bargain.

He was saying that this was the time to make my choice.

I withdrew forty dollars, just in case whatever alert Peter had set up was tied to the balance and not access, and also because I wanted him to see that I had no intention of pulling all the money and running off without him. Forty dollars was a reasonable amount. Spending money. A tease that said 'come and get me'. Or maybe I was reading too much into it again.

I climbed the stairs back to the second floor, my hand skimming over the railing, and decided that this time I'd probably gotten Peter's intention right.

"Are you alright?" Edward asked as the door clicked shut behind me.

"I will be."