Abject terror. For all the nightmares, horrifying waking thoughts, and suicidal ideation I had suffered, nothing compared to the pure dread I felt when faced with a door marked "Auditorium." I shook myself, praying that it was another dream and that I would wake safely in my bed, but I knew it my heart that this was real. I could feel Bella's hand in mine, but it did nothing to slow my panicked heart rate. Bella's hand. If only I could shut everything out except for the feel of her cool fingers between mine.
I could hear the student before me, as she played a Rachmaninoff piece to near perfection. Of course there would be people with talent equal to or better than mine. In Forks, I was a big fish. In New York City, I was an amoeba. I glanced at Bella, and she must have seen the stark fear in my eyes. Carefully, she unlaced our fingers and began a slow massage of the heel of my hand. It felt wonderful, but it didn't distract me from the fact that the Rachmaninoff had ended. I was one song closer to my own audition. Suddenly I wondered if the Ravel piece I had prepared would be too showy. I had a Liszt sonata to show depth and emotion, and I was pleased with that choice, but the professors might think me a t-ball player trying out for the major leagues if I presented the Ravel as my opener.
"Stop second guessing yourself, Edward," Bella murmured as she worked her way down each of my fingers. I fought for the words to explain my trepidation, but she reached across me for my other hand and I had to busy myself with juggling my music.
"But the Ravel..." I muttered, imploring her with my eyes. Dad cleared his throat and I turned to him, begging him to understand my hesitation.
"Is the best piece you play. You've mastered it, Edward. You have no reason to fear." His eyes shone with pride as he completed my thought for me.
"We would never steer you wrong, Edward." Mom had unshed tears in her eyes as she watched Bella's careful ministrations. Bella squeezed my hand gently and I turned back to her, searching for yet more reassurance. She only nodded and chewed her bottom lip gently.
I sighed, knowing that I really had no choice. I could pull out a Rachmaninoff myself, or I could trust my first instincts. I decided that with Bella there, I would take the plunge. I would either soar or falter, but if she was there to catch me in the end, everything was worth it.
The door opened, and my breath caught. "Give them three minutes to finish their notes, and then come in," the girl on the other side said. She smiled encouragingly and hesitated for a moment. "They don't bite, I swear," she whispered, then closed the door quietly.
I turned to Bella, drinking her in with my eyes. Her hair was down and in soft curls from Alice's efforts. A deep blue turtleneck set off the rose of her cheeks. Her eyes, though, were what I would remember as I set my music on the stand. They were glowing with pride; she believed in me, even when I couldn't believe in myself. Her strength had led me here, and it would sustain me until I reached the door on the other side.
I sat in front of the keys with no clear memory of how I actually got there. Bella's eyes were all I could see as I tried to acquaint myself with the instrument. I heard a throat clear and I turned to see a table with three people who were awaiting my next move. Bella's eyes.
I stood slowly and turned to them, taking deep breaths to steady myself. "My name is Edward Cullen, and I will begin with the Ravel."
Great. I had no choice but to play it. Bella's eyes. I sat again and brushed my fingers lightly over the keys, lovingly. Whatever happened, I would still love the piano. I would still play it, even if Bella would be the only one to hear. With that thought, I began.
I played the moment I saw her and the first time I heard her speak. I played the flush of her cheeks and the graceful arch of her neck. My fingers fluttered over the laughter we had shared, however quiet it might have been, and the friends she had brought into my life. Before I had registered the end of the song, I had begun again with the Liszt, playing the longing my heart felt when I watched her sleep, and the intense joy she brought with just a smile. I poured my love and intense devotion to Bella Swan into every note coaxed from the hammers and strings.
There was a sight-reading exercise that followed, but I floated through with no difficulty at all. If I read piano, I caressed the keys as I would Bella's collarbones. When the music called for forte, I gave it the intensity of a first kiss. She was in every aspect of the performance, just as she would be in every aspect of my life, no matter the results of my audition.
As the last note died, I realized that I had truly done it. I had succeeded, even if I failed. Little more than a year ago, I could barely speak aloud. I had no friends to speak of, and barely even communicated with my own family. The faith of one girl had changed my entire life, and no matter the outcome, I would forever be different. If I did nothing else today, I would tell her how very much she meant to me.
I realized that the judges were speaking and I quickly turned my attention to them. One was an older man, probably in his fifties and he was smiling as he thanked me for sharing with them. A younger woman, probably in her early forties was nodding along with the first man's sentiments.
The last man was probably no older than thirty. He was eyeing me shrewdly and made me want to check my shirt and tie for spilled food. "How old are you, Edward?" he finally asked.
"I'm eighteen, sir," I answered softly. I hadn't realized there would be an interview. I thought I would play and run, and the thought of having to now speak caused a fine sheen of sweat to break out.
"You play with a maturity and an understanding that far surpasses any eighteen year old I've heard," he said, and his eyes narrowed. I gulped, wondering if I would have to produce proof of my age. "You feel deeply, do you not?"
I nodded, thinking once more of Bella waiting for me on the other side of the door. Bella's eyes, full of pride.
"It's been an honor," the young man finally said. My head snapped back so that I could meet his gaze. His smile now matched the other two, and I felt my heart skip a beat. Before I could stop myself, I replied.
"The honor has been mine."
I gathered my music and bolted for the door. She would be waiting for me, I knew. I wondered if she had been able to hear my performance, and I couldn't wait to hear her thoughts. Even if she couldn't play a simple nursery rhyme, her perception was always spot-on. I trusted her opinion, and I couldn't wait to receive it. I pushed through the door and was met by my mother's arms. She whispered words of pride and love before passing me on to my father.
I stepped into his embrace and soaked up his warmth and joy. I knew that my father felt whatever I felt. He worked to shield me from the bad, and actively pushed me toward the good. His emotions ran deeply, as well, and I was grateful that I had inherited his sensitivity. "You are the most amazing thing I've ever done," he whispered. I pulled back and rested my forehead against his. "Don't tell your brother or sister I said that," he added quickly, and I breathed out a laugh.
He released me and turned me to where Bella waited about ten feet away. She had her hands clasped tightly behind her back, and her cheeks were high with color. Her eyes, though... Her eyes were blazing with an indecipherable emotion as she waited for me to approach. I closed the gap between us quickly, dropping my music as I walked. Her eyes darkened, and a smile pulled at her lips as I laid my right hand against her jaw and stroked her cheek with my thumb. Without even thinking, my left arm snaked around her waist and pulled her closer to me.
Forte, I thought, as I crashed my mouth into hers. Piano, I thought, as she sighed softly against my lips. My heart raced as my brain caught up with my body. I should have asked, but she felt so damn good pressed up against me. I was dimly aware that she was kissing me back with lips as soft as rose petals, but my mind was fogged with her scent, her sounds, and the silk of her skin against my palm.
"Woohoo!" I heard, deep in the recesses of my brain. Slowly, I came back to my senses and pulled away.
"I'm guessing it went well?" Alice said, leaning against the wall next to me. Emmett was dancing gleefully behind her, no doubt in reaction to my very public display of affection for Bella. Instead of answering either of my siblings, I searched Bella's eyes for reassurance. I saw, reflected, feelings of intense desire and adoration. My heart soared, and I leaned forward to claim her lips once more.
"I have something to show you," she said softly as soon as I was able to pull away again. I did not want to ever stop kissing her, once I had found the courage to begin. What she had to share with me was just as important, though, and I backed away slowly. She took my hand and tugged me around the nearest corner, smiling apologetically to my family as she walked. When we were away from the prying gazes of my siblings, she pressed a piece of paper into my hands. I stared at it for a moment, wondering if she'd written me a special note. Her eyes implored me to open it, so I did.
Dear Ms. Swan,
We are pleased to inform you that have been accepted to the NYU Creative Writing program-
I tore my eyes from the page and found her gaze. She was watching me intently, her eyes unsure.
"You'll be here, too?" I whispered. I didn't think that anything could make me happier that day, but I hadn't counted on Bella.
"If it's okay with you?" she said, her voice halting.
"Okay?" I said, almost laughing at the absurdity of her question. "Bella, I don't want to spend a minute without you. Ever."
Tears welled in her eyes and spilled over quickly. "I don't either, Edward. I wasn't sure, though... You're doing so well, and I know you'll make wonderful friends here. I don't want to ever keep you from-"
I pulled her toward me and cut her next words off with another kiss. She whimpered against my lips and I felt her tiny fingers curl into the hair at the nape of my neck.
"You have never kept me from anything!" I whispered fiercely. "You are the one I wake up for every morning. You gave me the strength to beat the anxiety and the courage to pursue a dream. None of this would have happened without you."
"Edward, you give me too much credit. I believed in you, yes. But you learned to believe in yourself. You have no idea what you look like in my eyes, Edward. To overcome the panic attacks, to struggle against your shyness... You've got more courage than the rest of us combined! Knowing that you count me as one of your friends... well, it's the most amazing feeling in the world."
My brain latched onto that word, friend, and my mouth fell open. "You are the best friend I have ever had, Bella. But you have to know that it's more than that. I am so in love with you that it hurts when you're not near me." I couldn't believe I had just said that, but the words just tumbled out. There was no going back. This wasn't a dream or a nightmare that would be erased the moment I woke up. What was worse, she hadn't yet replied.
I scratched the back of my neck and looked anywhere but at her. This was why I never spoke! Who the hell knew what would come out of my mouth? At least if I wrote it down, it could be scratched out or erased. In a matter of seconds, I had gone from soaring to crashing. I was dimly aware that she had begun to speak, but I couldn't hear her over the sudden rushing of noise in my ears.
"...Edward, look at me please!" she was saying. I dragged my eyes up to meet hers, and sucked in a breath at her expression. The burning emotion from earlier was back as she launched herself into my arms. The letter from NYU fluttered to the ground as I reached out to catch her. She began to press fevered kisses to every inch of my face as she laughed and cried at the same time.
"I love you, too!" she finally said, sniffling a bit. "So much, Edward! You have no idea." Her lips were puffy from our kisses, and her eyes were red from her tears, but she had never looked more beautiful to me than she did in that moment.
"I love you, Bella," I said again, kissing her softly.
I heard Emmett approaching before he rounded the corner. He was still dancing and singing a ridiculous hip-hop song, which alerted us to his presence. "Dad wants to take us all to dinner," he called, just before he came into view. His eyes danced as he saw Bella in my embrace. I steeled myself for the coming ridicule, knowing that he could never pass up a chance to give me hell. He smirked a bit and cuffed me on the back of the head. "We're proud of you, bro. I couldn't do what you just did... like, ever."
"See?" Bella said softly. "It's you. You're the brave one."