Thank you to Project Team Beta & my amazing beta's for this chapter: Jennrosee, Shouvley

She'll be fine, Alice assured me, filling the tub with warm water and lavender scented oil.

"Edward," she said aloud. "Bella's bags are in my room. Why don't you load them in your car and bring it around to the front of the house. We'll meet you downstairs when Bella is ready to go, and you can drive her home."

I nodded and walked to the door, casting a worried look at Bella before I closed it behind me. How was she going to face Charlie in a few hours and not raise his suspicion?

~ Chapter 16: Absolution ~

I paced nervously across the front porch as I waited for Bella to emerge from the house. Upstairs, Alice was coaching her on what to say to Charlie. Bella was a terrible liar, but Alice's visions assured her that if Bella stuck to the story of the girls exhausting themselves from exercise then Charlie shouldn't be a problem.

While they were alone, Alice had explained our reasons for keeping Charlie in the dark, even when it appeared that we weren't giving him a chance to say goodbye. Bella agreed, wholeheartedly, that we'd done the right thing. She didn't want her father to be in danger or live in fear of the Volturi's retaliation if he'd discovered the truth. I almost laughed at the hypocrisy of her statement. Wasn't that exactly what she was doing – living in danger every day she remained with me?

Finally, Bella staggered out of the house. She looked more revived, but held tightly to Alice's arm for support as she walked. Alice had dressed her in jeans and a comfortable sweater. Her hair was hanging in loose waves framing her face, and I could tell she was wearing makeup. A light, artificial blush gave her face a rejuvenated glow. It was all part of the charade to keep Charlie's fears to a minimum.

I scooped her up in my arms, and Bella giggled happily as she threw her arms around my neck. For a moment, I let the sound of her laughter melt all my worries. I carried her toward the car like a bride being carried across the threshold.

"I can walk, Edward," she teased.

"I know, but right now I have the perfect excuse to hold you close." I nuzzled my face into her neck and kissed her warm skin as I walked. She didn't complain again.

We waved goodbye to Alice and drove the short distance to Charlie's house in silence. Bella leaned against the window, watching the lush forest pass by. She seemed to be lost in thought, and I wondered if she was seeing her world with new eyes, given the experience she'd just endured.

We were still a few miles from her home when she reached over and took my hand, her eyes never leaving the window. I weaved my fingers between hers and raised her hand to my lips, kissing her knuckles gently. She turned and gave me a sad smile before focusing on the scenery again. I wanted to ask her what was troubling her, but I decided to leave her to her thoughts for a moment. We'd have tonight to talk.

When we arrived at Charlie's house, Bella didn't object to being carried inside. I placed her gently on the couch, pulling the old afghan from Charlie's recliner and draping it over her legs. Darting back to my car, I brought in her bags and tucked them inside her closet. We didn't need Charlie spotting the week's worth of clothes and luggage if we planned to keep up this facade. I was back downstairs and sitting beside Bella on the couch before she even finished straightening the blanket in her lap.

"We have about an hour before Charlie arrives," I said. "Do you want to watch TV, or read, or sleep?"

Bella shook her head. "I don't want to sleep ever again," she said with a smirk.

"All right. What would you like to do?"

"I think I'll make dinner. Charlie is probably in need of a home-cooked meal."

"Bella," I scolded, knowing full well she didn't have the stamina for an undertaking like that. She held up her hand to stop me.

"I made lasagna a few weeks ago. It should still be in the freezer. Would you mind sticking it in the oven for me?"

I smiled and dashed into the kitchen, glad she was allowing me to do things for her. Once the lasagna was baking, I set the table with plates, forks, knives, glasses; everything Bella would need to serve dinner. I did everything I could to ensure all she had to do was dish out the casserole once it was finished cooking.

When I was satisfied I'd done all I could to help, I returned to the living room to find her casually flipping through a magazine. As soon as I sat down, she tossed the magazine aside and crawled into my lap, resting her head against my shoulder. I wrapped my arms around her and held her close.

We didn't speak a word. I hoped she'd eventually doze off, but after the fourteen hour marathon of sleep she'd gotten the night before, I doubted she'd be able to. Bella nuzzled her face into my neck, kissing my marble skin while I ran my finger through her silky hair.

For the next hour, I simply enjoyed our quiet moment. My entire world was wrapped safely in my arms. I could have stayed like that forever, but as the time drew closer for Charlie's arrival, I knew I had to break our comfortable silence.

"I have to go," I whispered, kissing her hair. Alice had seen that Charlie would be more receptive to Bella's excuses if I wasn't there when he arrived. Bella whimpered and snuggled closer to me.

"I won't be long. I'm just going to take my car home and come right back. I'll be waiting in your room when you're finished, but don't rush on my account. Charlie has missed you, I'm sure."

Bella nodded and slid off my lap.

"Is there anything else I can do before I go?"

She shook her head and stared down into her lap, looking worried and anxious. For a brief moment, I considered staying. However, as soon as the thought entered my mind, my phone began vibrating in my pocket – my sister, I was sure. I changed my mind and the incessant shaking ceased immediately.

"I'll be back as soon as I can. I promise." I kissed her head and dashed to my car before I could change my mind again.

I made it back to my house in record time, parking my car in the garage and rushing inside. Alice was pacing across the living room, her eyes vacant and searching the immediate future. I paused to watch the scenes play out in her mind: Bella walking through the kitchen having to grasp the counter for support, Charlie's concerned face as he watched his daughter wince when reaching for objects across the table. When Bella stumbled on weak legs as she carried the dirty plates to the sink, I'd seen enough.

I raced through the forest toward Bella's house, leaping through her window just as she excused herself from the table. Charlie's thoughts were troubled over Bella's fictitious injuries, but he believed the story she'd told him. It took every ounce of self-control not to rush to help her ascend the stairs, but Charlie was watching. As soon as the door to her bedroom closed, Bella collapsed into my arms.

"I'm calling Carlisle," I mumbled as I carried her to the bed. Her face was pale, and I could feel her body trembling in my arms.

"No," she protested. "I'm okay. That just took a lot out of me. I'll be fine." Bella closed her eyes and took several deep breaths. "Just… lay down with me," she whispered through rasping breaths.

I did as she requested, though I worried if it was the right thing to do. I still felt unsure about whether or not I should call Carlisle to check on her. My phone vibrated – a single, short pulse – indicating I had a text message. I pulled the phone from my pocket, revealing Alice's number. Of course she'd seen my indecision, and her brief message comforted me in an instant.

She'll be fine. Let her rest.

My sister was such a blessing. I decided, right then and there, to buy her some outlandish gift to thank her for everything. The phone buzzed in my hand again.

I love it!

I chuckled quietly and put my phone away. Bella slept, curled into my side, for several hours. It was the middle of the night before she stirred and her eyes fluttered open.

"Hey," I whispered, stroking her hair.

Bella looked around her room, confused and disoriented. "What happened?" she asked.

"You were exhausted. You passed out on me as soon as you walked in your room."

Bella rolled away from me, rubbing her eyes with her fingers. "I'm sorry. That must have freaked you out."

"I'll admit I was concerned, but Alice assured me you only needed to rest."

Bella didn't respond, only stared up at the ceiling for a long moment. I rolled onto my side and propped myself up so I could better see her face. "What's wrong?" I asked. She glanced at me as if she'd forgotten I was there.

"I thought I would feel differently by now. I thought I'd just wake up and it would all be over. I didn't expect this to go on for so long. I'm ready to get my life back."

"Bella, your body was under a great deal of stress. You almost – you almost died." She didn't miss my hesitation. Her eyes softened and she looked at me with concern.

"They weren't trying to kill me. They didn't want me to die."

I opened my mouth to argue, but Bella cut me off.

"Even the attempts with Tyler's van, or the guys in Port Angeles, I would have been in a coma for a while. They wanted to give me time to choose. If I had decided to join them… well, my loved ones would have had some closure, I guess. They would have had an easily acceptable story surrounding my death. Of course, by human standards I would appear to be dead, but in reality I would have become… like you." She shrugged, as if it was the simplest explanation in the world.

"But – but Rebekah said you made your decision not to join them almost immediately. Why did they make you suffer so long?"

Bella pushed herself to sit up. "I wasn't being punished," she said, frustrated by my accusation. "Either choice had consequences, but I was the first to decide not to join them – ever. None of them knew how long the process would take to let that part of me go."

I swallowed hard, nervous about what she was saying about what she had to give up to stay human – to stay with me.

"Can you change your mind? Can you… get that part of you back?"

"No," she confessed, looking down at her lap.

She knew how I felt – how the idea of damning her soul for eternity sickened me. Her admission made me feel as if she'd done it to spite me. "And what happens when your life ends?" I asked, my tone harsh and scolding. "What happens to you now that you've turned your back on them?"

Bella reached up to cradle my cheek in her hand, her touch instantly soothing me. "I have it on good authority that if I die, if it happens today or five hundred years from now, my soul will be delivered to its final resting place… just like yours, and your family."

All of the fury rushed out of me, and I just stared at her, unable to process what she was saying.

"You are not damned, Edward. You're a good man, and moral and worthy."

I closed my eyes and shook my head, refusing to be absolved of the things I'd done.

"Even when you resisted Carlisle's way of life you still found a just and ethical way."

My eyes flew open at her statement. She knew. She knew about my past, about the time I defied my father and murdered so many in my rebellion. I'd never told her. If I was honest, I never wanted her to know about that side of me. I never wanted her to see the depths of vile and evil things I was capable of.

She gripped my face with both of her hands, forcing me to see the serenity in her eyes. "You saved more lives than you took, Edward, and you've asked forgiveness for that more times than I think you even realize. You are not damned. None of you are. You will let that ridiculous notion go, once and for all."

I couldn't help but chuckle at her conviction. I'd rarely seen her so passionate about anything before.

Bella dropped her hands from my face. "You're laughing?" She sounded hurt and confused by my reaction.

"I'm – I'm stunned. Shocked might be a better description. I've spent my entire immortal life believing something as truth, and once again, you have turned my world upside down."

Bella smiled, sheepishly.

"Tell me about what happened." I requested. "And about them."

She hesitated for a moment, clearly thinking about what she wanted to say. "They did try to make it easy for me. At first, I was just wandering in the darkness. I didn't know what was happening. I could hear you, and I tried to move toward the sound of your voice, but I could never find you. That terrified me." She watched my reaction carefully. I must have hidden the sudden burst of anger I felt well because she went on.

"I – I kinda shut down. I didn't know what to do, where to go, or how to get out of that place. I almost…" she dropped her eyes to her lap, shamefully.

"You gave up."

She nodded, keeping her eyes down. "And then I heard your voice again. You were telling me it was okay. That I could let go. Like you were telling me goodbye."

"I was," I admitted, swallowing around the lump in my throat as I recalled the night her heart almost stopped beating.

"That's when Rebekah came to me. She took me to our meadow. Well, not exactly our meadow, but it looked almost the same. She – they knew I would be more comfortable if I was somewhere familiar, special. Rebekah stayed with me the entire time. She explained everything that was happening and why. She explained the choice I had to make and the consequences of each decision. It didn't take me long to decide, and she stayed with me until it was time to leave – to come back."

"Weren't you in pain?" I asked cautiously.

Bella's face fell. She clearly didn't want to tell me. Timidly, she nodded. "But the pain of being without you would have been far worse," she confessed.

I would have thought her statement was only to pacify me, but I'd known the torture of considering eternity without her. I'd lived it for the last week. She was right. I'd endure the agony of transformation a hundred times not to lose her.

Bella yawned, and I could see her eyelids beginning to droop.

"You should sleep, love. The more you rest the stronger you'll feel."

She didn't argue as I pulled her closer to me. She snuggled into my side, her head on my chest and her hand resting over my silent heart. I tried to process everything she'd told me, but one overriding thought continued to subdue the others – Carlisle was right.

I stared at the ceiling, awed by everything she had seen. She had suffered, and she had sacrificed part of herself for me – for us – but moreover, she had given me a sense of peace and hope I hadn't felt in over a hundred years. It was possibly the greatest gift she could have ever given me. One that I didn't know I desperately needed. I let out a deep breath, and with it the heavy weight of my guilt and disgrace.

"I love you," she whispered.

I kissed her head and wrapped my arms around her tightly. I would never let her go.

"I love you. Goodnight, my angel."

~ End ~

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