Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. I am in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise, I just use their creations to have my wicked way with them. No copyright infringement is intended.
Many thanks to Jadsmama and Ladysharkey1 for their amazing pre-reader- and beta-skills. Without the two of them, I would be nothing.
"One of the greatest discoveries a man makes, one of his greatest surprises, is to find he can do what he was afraid he couldn't."
"I know you can do it, angel." There was so much conviction in his voice that Bella was almost starting to believe it. Even sitting in the community college waiting area, faces with her similarly nervous-looking peers and, with her courage sinking below street level, he was still there for her even though he was miles away.
He was right: she knew she could do it. She was ready.
At least…everyone thought so.
But at that moment, everyone's thoughts seemed to be grossly outweighed by her own insecurities. What if they were wrong? What if she failed and the results came back pegging her intelligence only a few bars above a chimpanzee's? What if she fell short of the mark? Then what would she do? "But what if the questions aren't anything like the ones I practiced?" she asked in a shaky voice as her hand nervously stroked circles around her swollen belly as the baby fluttered around, seemingly as on edge as his mother was. "Or what if I stumble on the first question and completely black out in a state of panic?"
"Or what if the Mayans were mistaken and the world ends today instead of December 21st 2012?" Edward suggested cheerfully, Bella's temper flaring as he had the audacity to chuckle at her expense.
"Edward!" she growled, her hand clenching around her phone. If there had been a way to drag him through the little sleek device and smack him upside the head, she would have done it. Being as it was, he was lucky he had to work and not within her striking range. "Don't you start making fun of me!"
"Sorry." Through the phone he sounded like a puppy being scolded, her frustration immediately shifting to endearment as he added, "I was only trying to make you see that you are ready, Bella. I believe in you – hell, we all do – you just have to believe in yourself."
"But I have to get these crazy grades to get into Northwestern." Bella could feel her eyes well up as she stared at the closed door; the very one she would go through in only half an hour to start her first day of testing. "I may be able to earn a high enough score to pass the test but, what if I fail to get into Northwestern?"
"Then I'm sure another school would be more than happy to have you," Edward assured her. "We did some digging into it the other day, didn't we? As long as you pass, you're on equal footing with anyone who earned a regular high school diploma. If Northwestern won't have you, we'll get you into an English Literature program somewhere else."
She sighed, still feeling lost among the small gathering of fellow test-takers gathered around her.
"I know that but…"
"There are no buts," Edward argued decisively. "Now, just sit back, relax and try to think about happy things until Leah arrives."
In spite of herself, Bella had to smile at that. He knew her so well. "Don't you think that's a little easier said than done?" she still countered. "I bet that right before you went in to perform your first surgery you were as much of a wreck as I am right now."
"True," he chuckled, his voice lowering seductively as he went on, giving Bella the chills in a way she wasn't sure was appropriate given that she was in the company of others, "but how about you think about last night? I, for one, remember how your skin felt underneath my fingertips and how you tasted when…"
"Okay, okay!" Bella interrupted him, her cheeks flushed and her heart beating violently at the memory of their lovemaking the night before. It had been Edward's way to calm her down again and divert her mind from the test and to say that he succeeded would be the understatement of the century.
He'd succeeded quite well, in fact.
With her stomach getting bigger and bigger now that the countdown was narrowed to weeks instead of months, they'd had to get a little bit more creative when it came to positions but, at the same, time it seemed like her body was so much more responsive to his touch since she was pregnant.
These days Edward only had to look at her in a certain way or ghost his fingers over her skin to get her to the brink.
"Wow, Bells!" Leah's voice was suddenly right beside her ear, making her jump. "I never would have thought you'd be the kind of person who had phone-sex in the middle of a classroom!"
Bella could feel her cheeks almost explode with embarrassment as she nearly dropped the phone, looking up at her friend with wide eyes. "For heaven's sake, Leah, keep your voice down!" she hissed, her eyes shooting from left to right to see if anyone had heard her. "And for the record: I wasn't…doing that."
"Looked an awful lot like it," Leah snorted, "and I'd be very surprised if that's anyone else than 'lover-boy' on the other end." Her head nudged towards the phone, only then reminding Bella that Edward was still on the line as she sang, "Hi, Edward!"
Edward was chuckling when Bella brought the phone back to her ear. "Tell Leah I said 'hi' back." Just the warmth in his voice was enough to bring Bella's heart rate back down to normal and make her feel all comforted on the inside. "I take it you'll be fine from here on out?"
Bella nodded, only realizing he couldn't see that when things remained quiet on the other end. "I think so…yeah…what time's your next surgery?"
"Five minutes ago?" Edward's voice sounded apologetic, like he already knew how guilty Bella would feel hearing his reply. "I'd better go in now. Marcus has been looking at me for some time."
Letting out a deep sigh, she tried to tell herself that things were all going to be okay, even if the pit of her stomach was telling her differently. She felt so bad, keeping him from where he needed to be, especially now, when he was slowly starting to earn back some of the trust he lost when he fell into his addiction and start to earning more freedom on the floor. "Go help people," she urged Edward, her voice stronger than she could have hoped. "I'll see you when you get home."
"Go kick some GED-ass, angel. I know you can do it," Edward replied. "Let me know how it went as soon as you walk out of there, okay? I love you!"
"Love you, too." Regardless of how she was feeling, there was a huge smile on her lips when she ended the call, shut down the little device and placed it carefully in her purse. "You're a little late, aren't you?"
"Ugh! Don't remind me!" Leah groaned. "I was ready to go at seven but then the little munchkin decided to get sick and throw up all over me so I had to shower and change or I would have smelled like puke all throughout the test…which I don't think will help with keeping my mind in the game."
Bella grimaced, not exactly looking forward to that part of being a mom. "That explains it. Is he okay?"
Leah nodded before going on with her rant. "Of course traffic was brutal by the time I finally made it out of the driveway, so instead of arriving here at least half an hour early, like the rest of us – like any normal person would; I'm the lazy schmuck who stumbles in with only minutes to spare."
On clockwork, almost as if Leah had planned it so, a small group of college employees came in, carrying the paperwork and other stuff that had to be dealt with in order for them to start their first day of testing, the nerves making Bella's handwriting look like a scraggly mess instead of the neat script Aro had hammered into her as she filled out the forms.
"Okay, let's do this," she muttered, Leah's hand was as clammy and shaky as hers as they grabbed hold of each other while finally walking into the testing room, the neat rows of tables and chairs looking more like little execution blocks than the jump-starters to many good things.
"Hey, we get to sit next to each other!" Leah remarked, her voice overly chipper with nerves as she found to empty seats at the same section, Bella nodding nervously as she sat down for the first of what would be two marathon sessions of over four hours that would determine her future.
Well, at least the math test won't be until tomorrow.
Her nerves rose again as she stared out in front of her, watching as more and more students started to trickle in until the entire room was filled, the nervous energy of twenty or so test-takers making her feel nauseous and stifled as she absentmindedly stroked her belly.
From the moment one of the supervisors placed the first part of the test – science – in front of her, Bella's mind went into the zone, the nerves and worries completely eradicated by a sharp concentration and determination to succeed. It didn't even stop when all three tests for that day – science, social studies and reading – had been completed. Even as she drove home, making quick calls to Edward, Carmen and Esme on her way to let them know how it went, she was still in the zone, the cadence of reading, thinking, answering and prepping going on and on as she went about her day; cleaning, cooking, prepping for the final leg of testing that would take place the next day and even as she fell into a deep, dreamless sleep almost the second her head hit the pillow, her mind never wavered from that almost trance-like state of hyperawareness.
It was amazing, if not slightly terrifying.
As she expected, math proved to be the greatest challenge out of all her tests; some of the questions seemingly impossible to answer even after she broke the problems down into more manageable pieces and forced herself to work through the slight panic to solve them all, some seemed to be completely unwilling to submit to logic, making her feel frustrated and afraid of failure by the time she put her pencil down.
At least you managed to write down some sort of answer to all of them, she told herself as her test was handed in and placed on the pile to be marked and graded. Yeah, but it won't matter if all your answers are wrong!
She sighed, the corners of her eyes capturing Leah's encouraging smile as the final part of their exam was handed out, Bella mouthing a 'good luck' in return as she knew this was the one Leah had been dreading.
Her smile was back in full force almost the moment her eyes glanced over the topic she would have to write a two hundred and fifty word account on; the subject so close to her heart that the entire essay started to take shape in her mind, almost like a photograph becoming visible in the tray of chemicals.
Many people believe you cannot learn everything in school. Some say that experience is the best teacher. What is more important to a person's education: things learned in school or through real life experiences?
Her hands had trouble keeping up with her mind, her pen flying over the paper as the sentences kept pouring out, making her feel almost bereft when the last period had ended the final sentence, some two hundred and fifty odd words later.
"Jeez, I need a drink!" Leah groaned, stretching the strained muscles of her back and hands as they walked out of the room after handing in the final part of the test. She looked apologetic, her eyes wandering to Bella's swollen stomach. "Well, tea maybe?"
Bella chuckled, running her hand over her stomach. Her little baby boy had been in a complete uproar ever since she'd finished her essay, like he knew that the worst part of the challenge was behind them. "Tea sounds good," she finally answered, her grip on her stomach intensifying as it rumbled, "as long as it comes with a sandwich and one hell of a piece of cherry pie because I'm starving."
"Yeah," Leah grinned, "that's definitely one part of being pregnant I sometimes miss: the perfect excuse to gorge…though you'll regret it later."
"Psah!" Bella huffed. "Later, schmater! Edward told me he'd still love me if I weighed half a ton. I figure I may as well test his theory."
Through lunch, as she gave in to the demands of her belly and ate quite a lot more than she could have ever imagined eating, she started to feel a little better on the math test as she and Leah discussed some of the answers. "I may not have sucked so badly after all," she hummed, polishing off the last bite of her second slice of cherry pie.
"I'm sure you nailed it, Bella," Leah sneered with a lot of fake confidence, her hands wringing nervously in her lap. "We both did."
Bella tried to hold on to that thought as she made her way back home but as she let the door fall shut behind her, emptiness immediately taking hold of her as she looked around the house.
What to do now?
She could go and find something to clean but, between her nerves having needed a lot of distraction over the past couple of days and her empty afternoon schedule now that she didn't have her job at the library anymore, the house was already clean enough to eat off of every random flat surface.
"I could bake a cake," she mused, her eyes wandering gingerly over towards the kitchen door. Cooking, her normal way to kill an hour or two, was out of the question, of course, since Edward had booked a table for them at a nice little restaurant to celebrate the end of her tests. "Yeah," she muttered on, "baking a cake sounds good."
But then you'll have to eat it, too. She grimaced at the thought.
"We'll just find a book to read, baby," she sighed, rubbing her belly.
Bella settled into the huge lazy chair next to the window in her very own library and felt weird…almost guilty, with her feet resting on the little footstool and a book resting on her baby bump. She felt like she should be doing something…homework, cleaning, cooking…something.
Instead, she was just sitting there; the summit of decadence, reading a book in the middle of the day like some blasé lady of leisure. Is this what my life is going to be like for the next couple of weeks?
She hoped not.
As much as she liked the idea of not having to do anything, even after five minutes of just that, she was already starting to experience the downsides of not having anything to do. In all of her years, or at least for as far back as she could remember, she had never been in this position; there had always been loads to do, whether it was cooking, cleaning or caring for James, her days had always been filled to the brim. This…it wasn't like her.
It wasn't her.
Sighing, she sagged backwards in her chair, feeling more and more frustrated with herself for not being able to enjoy doing nothing when in all her life this had been what she dreamed of. Why couldn't she just enjoy it like everyone else would?
Closing her eyes, she rested her head against the soft upholstery as her eyes wandered, catching the sunlight pouring in through the window and following it out to the trees and the birds and the sounds of kids playing in the streets down below.
The next thing she knew was the sound of the door, waking her up with a startle as Edward returned home after his day of work. Well, apparently there is something you can enjoy doing on your afternoons off!
"Bella?" She could hear his voice calling out to her as she was still trying to find her bearings, the abandoned book sliding off her lap and landing on the floor with a dull thud as she rose.
Following his sounds as he climbed the stairs, she waddled to the door, her body feeling heavier than it did that morning and quite stiff from sleeping in an awkward position. "I fell asleep in the library," she muttered in a gravelly voice, rubbing the top on her head until her hair was even more of a scraggly mess.
Edward's eyes scrutinized her worriedly, a look of relief passing over his features when he found nothing that concerned him. "Do you still want to go out tonight or do you want me to call and cancel?"
"Nah," she shook her head, more to dispel the fogginess of sleep than anything else. "Just give me a moment to splash some water on my face and change into something more suitable, and I'll be good to go." Knowing Edward needed a little more convincing from the look in his eyes she smiled. "Seriously. I'm looking forward to it!"
It was the truth. As she did what she'd announced, freshening up and quickly changing into a comfortable, yet dressy long, light green dress, her hair pulled up into a quick messy bun to get it away from her neck, seeing as the Indian Summer had gifted them with rather balmy temperatures.
Normally, she would be over the moon but being pregnant in a sweltering heat wave? No fun.
At least Edward had been smart enough to pick a place with magnificent lake views that made her sigh with contentment, her eyes gliding over the menu with an expertise built up over many similar romantic dinners with Edward.
"What are you smiling about?" Edward's eyes blazed with green intensity as he peered at her over the rim of his own menu.
"I'm just happy…that's all." She giggled. Her freaky emotions playing up again and making her feel as if she would burst from happiness. "It's weird, I know, to be happy about it when I don't even know if I passed or not, or even if I met the standards your dad's friend required, but already I feel like I'm on top of the world…like all the weight is off my shoulders."
"I definitely understand," Edward nodded. "It was the same for me when I just finished my MCATs. I had no way of knowing if I did good enough to get into a decent medical school, or even get in period, but to get through those exams alone was such a big deal that all else seemed to fade for a couple of days." He chuckled as he added, "Don't worry, though. In a few days you'll be right back to freaking out about the results."
"They said it would take two to three weeks at the least but maybe even as long as four to six before we get our scores." Bella grimaced, already foreseeing that the wait would get a little bit more unbearable with every day that passed.
"So what are you going to do in the meantime?" Edward asked. "That is…if you want to do anything. I can imagine you'll need a rest after all the studying you've been doing and with the baby…"
"No, I need something to do," Bella was quick to intervene, the memory of what it had felt like to be stuck in that chair earlier, with nothing to do, still haunting her. "Do you think Carmen might know something?"
"I bet she does," Edward grinned, and it wouldn't have surprised Bella one bit if he'd surmised what had happened. "Why don't you give her a call tomorrow morning? It's not like you have anything else to do right now," he teased.
"Oh, now you're just taunting me!" Bella growled, sensing from the surety of his words that he may have already spoken to his stepmom about finding her something to do that would keep her busy but not so active that it might hurt the baby. "How did you know I was going to suck at doing nothing anyway?"
"I had a feeling," Edward answered, his voice squeaky from trying not to laugh. "You've been a busy little bee all of your life, angel. It's not hard to guess that you'd be flying up the walls within the hour if you had nothing on."
"And you're okay with that?" Bella wanted to know. "I mean…me doing some charity work?"
"As long as you make sure you don't overstrain yourself and don't take on anything that would put you or the baby at risk, I don't see why not?" Edward shrugged, leaning backwards as the waiter came to fill their glasses and take their orders, only resuming after they were alone again. "Your happiness is more important to me than anything."
"And what of your own?" Bella asked cautiously, trying to shift the conversation towards some of the things that had been plaguing her mind lately. "Are you happy?"
"Ecstatic," Edward answered, swiftly and assuredly. "Why wouldn't I be?"
"I don't know." She shrugged, her heart hammering in her throat with nerves. "I imagine you had a very different idea of how this would go…I mean, with the pregnancy and everything."
Edward eyes narrowed in thought, only going back to their normal size as he finally surmised the meaning of her words. "You mean us getting married?"
Bella shrugged again, nodding guiltily as her eyes dropped to the shining silverware in front of her. "I know you really want to…and I…"
"Stop it right there, Isabella Swan," Edward interrupted her, the severity in his voice making her look up in fright to find that same seriousness reflected in his eyes, his palms open halfway across the table as he reached out for her hands, only speaking when they had wrapped around his. "I won't lie to you and say that it doesn't matter to me – because it does, but that doesn't mean that I want to get married out of obligation."
He sighed, pressing his lips together for a moment before he went on. "I've said it before and I'll keep saying it until you get my message: I don't want to marry you until you are ready, angel. I want to get married someday but that doesn't mean it has to be tomorrow, next week, next month or even next year or decade. I'll wait however long it takes for you…I mean that, Bella."
"Okay, then." Her lip trembled with a mixture of emotions, love and gratitude being the most predominant of them all. "I guess that's settled then."
Edward grinned, leaning back in his seat as he sipped from his water, the waiter arriving just in time to put their appetizers in front of them. "Now, let's eat. I'm starving and, I imagine, so are you."
She grinned back, her fingers curling around her cutlery as her mouth pooled with impatience to dig in. He knows me so well.
True to Edward's words, the next couple of days were increasingly agonizing as she waited to get word on her GED. The daily arrival of the mail becoming something she dreaded almost as much as she looked forward to it, though Carmen and her many projects had made sure that on most days, she would be arriving back home way past its delivery.
And every day had been a disappointment as she sifted through the envelopes only to find that the one she had been hoping for wasn't there.
As always with these kinds of things, waiting seemed to be so much longer than it really was, though when after four weeks and still no letter had arrived, Leah and Bella decided to join forces and call the community college to find out what was going on.
Apparently, late September was one of the busiest times in the GED world, with a lot of students electing to spend their summers studying and preparing for the test which meant that the people at the State Education Department who were responsible for grading the tests, would get more backed up as the month progressed.
And it didn't help that they were on the tail-end of the September rush.
There was nothing to it but try and be patient, which was, of course, easier said than done, though Carmen made her life a lot easier as she kept Bella as busy as her ever-increasing stomach allowed. And then, finally, on the thirty-third day after she had taken her final test, an envelope was waiting for her as she got home after an afternoon of helping under-performing kids improve their language skills.
Bella held her breath as she fished the envelope from the stack of letters with shaky fingers, the tips tracing all four corners of the big, manila envelope as she tried to work up the courage to open it.
It's a big one; that should count for something, no?
They wouldn't waste money on a more expensive piece of stationary if they could just as easily fold the letter telling you you're a complete failure into a smaller one, would they?
Then again, maybe they want all of their mail to be as uniform as possible. After all, wouldn't it be strange if your mailman knew you'd passed or failed before you did?
She sighed, taking the envelope back into the kitchen with her and setting it on the table as she got to work on dinner, her eyes drifting back to the innocent piece of mail every now and then as it seemed to take on more weight with every minute that passed.
What if I failed?
What if I passed?
What if I passed but didn't meet Northwestern requirements?
Like with the pregnancy tests months ago, the result hidden within that envelope would have such a profound influence on how her life would go; on how her dreams would maybe, possibly, become reality, that Bella found that she lacked the courage to actually open the darn thing and find out.
As long as I don't know what's inside, I can still have my dreams.
She growled, the meatballs in her marinara sauce sloshing around in the pan as she stirred it a little too vigorously, dropping in some fresh, chopped herbs as a stern voice inside her head kept on lecturing her on her own lack of courage.
Get yourself together, Bella Swan. For goodness sakes, you're a grown woman, about to become a mom. You should be able to open one little envelope!
But what if I fail?
Then you pick yourself up, dust yourself off and try again!
Her hand clenched around the wooden spoon until it started to hurt, her eyes squeezed shut as she tried to focus on one of the breathing strategies she'd learned in her Lamaze class. This might not actually be anything like giving birth but the stress alone is enough to make me hyperventilate.
Dropping the spoon, she turned around with a new determination in her movements as she stalked one, two steps until she was at the table, her hands reaching out for the envelope and tearing it open, afraid that if she took her time and actually tried to be gentle with it, she would lose her determination and back away again.
For a moment her hands wavered as they took hold of the sheets of paper hidden within the envelope, her eyes once again squeezed shut as she took in a few deep, cleansing breaths as her shaky fingers started to pry the paper away from its confines.
Okay, here goes nothing.
The minute she opened her eyes, a squeal erupted from her whole being as her eyes fell upon the bold, old-style letters of Illinois Community College Board High School Equivalency Certificate.
"Bella?" Edward's eyes were wide with panic as he dashed into the kitchen, ready to pounce on anyone or anything that threatened the life of his woman and unborn child, his shock turning to joy the minute he noticed what Bella was holding. He must have come in at one point during her fight with the envelope but she hadn't even heard him open the door. "You passed? That's amazing, angel! I knew it, and I'm so fucking proud of you!"
Not caring that she weighed half a ton, he lifted her up and swung her around the kitchen as best as he could with her stomach being in the way, his lips finding hers again and again in sweet, tender kisses that made her heart burst.
"We both knew it – me and junior," he grinned, finally setting her down, his hand lingering on her belly.
"You did, huh?" Bella replied, skeptically. "Is that why you were so anxious to ask me if I'd heard anything over the past five weeks? Or how you kept on reassuring me that even if I failed, it didn't have to mean anything?"
Edward had the good grace to look caught, though he did try to divert her mind by giving her that lopsided grin of his that never failed to turn her brain to mush. "So how did you score?"
And just like that the nerves were back. "I-I don't know yet," Bella stammered, her fingers separating the diploma from the sheet of paper underneath it.
The paper holding her score.
She knew that if she wanted to get in to Northwestern, she needed to earn a score of 675 on each individual test, amounting to a minimum score of 3375 out of a maximum of 4000. It was doable in theory but in practice, she knew that the average student score was much lower.
Upon first glance at the score sheet, her mind was dazzled by the many numbers and boxes on the sheet, some holding personal information or information about the test location, with a graph of her scores and the actual scores and percentiles below that.
"You did it, angel." Edward's eyes were quicker than hers, the pride that shone through in his voice making her buckle on her feet. "Jesus, you're so fucking smart!"
Finally catching on to what he was saying, her mouth fell open as her eyes lingered on the score, blinking a few times to make sure they weren't deceiving her and that she actually had earned a total score of 3590, with only math and science slipping just beneath the 700 mark on their individual score.
"I can't believe it," she muttered, as Edward picked a folder up from the ground that must have fallen from the envelope when she pulled out the larger documents. "This can't be real."
"You earned almost a perfect score on reading and social studies," Edward continued to gush. "I think you scored a hell of a lot better on those than I did on my exams."
Tears started to put from Bella's eyes as she thought back on all those afternoons spent in James' company, with the diseased, old man painstakingly trying to cram as much as he knew of the world and the subject he'd spent years teaching in University and perfecting in practice into her mind.
Thank you, wherever you are. As much as she'd sometimes hated it at the time that she hadn't been free to learn what she wanted to learn or go where she wanted to go, she knew she wouldn't have been standing there that day, holding an almost impossible score – and impossible dream – in her hands if it hadn't been for him.
"I couldn't have done it without you," she sniffed, pulling him towards her with a strength she didn't know she possessed. "Thank you so much for believing in me."
"Nonsense," he assured her, his pride still enveloping her like a warm blanket. "You're the strongest person I know, Bella. You can do anything you set your mind to, as long as you believe in yourself."
Throughout the next two weeks his pride never wavered, always staying there like a visible reminder of just how far she'd come and how much she'd grown as they went through the final stages of her pregnancy together, preparing their home and their lives for the arrival of their son.
But before that could happen, Bella got to experience one of the proudest moments of her life as she walked across the stage, clad in a cap and gown as the Dean of her community college handed her a letter of congratulations, seeing as they'd already received their diplomas in the mail. The hoots and hollers of her entire family made her blush, with Jasper's and Emmett's loud roars only being out voiced by Carmen's enthusiastic Spanish cheers.
This is what it feels like to be loved.
It was all forgotten then; the stress, the years of abuse and even the annoying back pains she'd been having since somewhere during the night. The only thing that remained was happiness.
"Can you believe it?" Leah, whispered, sitting next to her even though they weren't really supposed to, because on their last names, as they waited for the final students to walk the stage.
Bella shook her head, the realization that she'd met the challenge she'd set herself not really having sunk in, even after days of getting used to it.
Before she could reply, though, her name was called as Bella was invited back onto the stage to give the Valedictorian speech, something she'd been having nightmares about ever since her study advisor had called her with the request to speak at the graduation ceremony.
Keeping something in mind James had once told her, she had decided to keep her speech close to home, using some of the things from her essay since they seemed to fit the occasion.
Clearing her throat, she rubbed the creases out of the thin piece of paper, using those fleeting moments to steel her nerves, her hand rubbing her belly as she finally started to speak. "My fellow classmates, friends and families. It is with our heads held high and our eyes firmly fixed on the horizon that we graduate today, with hopes in our hearts for what the future may bring."
She licked her lips as she paused for breath, standing a little straighter as she picked up more confidence with each word she spoke. "None of us have walked the easy road to this point; whether by fault, by accident, or by choice, we ended up having to hack our own way through the forest, instead of relying on the conventional roads through the educational system but, even though it may have seemed like it at the time, we were never alone."
She smiled, her eyes flashing briefly towards the back where she knew her family was sitting. "In our essays, we were asked whether we thought real life experiences or formal education to be more important to a person's education. Well," she smiled mischievously, bouncing on the balls of her toes, "I don't know about you guys, but for me, that question was completely unanswerable because in my life, both of them have held equal importance, though perhaps from someone who hasn't ruled out teaching as a future profession, this may not be the smartest thing to say."
There were a few nods and chuckles, strengthening her confidence even more as she went on. "For me, real life has been a hard school of learning but looking back on it, all of the challenges and misfortunes I've faced along the way have given me the strength to go on and the will to hope and believe that there's more out there than the nothingness I came from. An important part of that 'more' is what got us through school and helped us to triumph over the very tests we've equally blessed and cursed so much over the past couple of weeks."
"So, no," she concluded, "for me there is no choice between the school of life and the school of books, simply because in my situation, neither one could exist without the other; with life giving me the strength to persevere and the drive to succeed, and books opening my eyes to what's out there and handing me the key to be a part of it." She looked up, her eyes gliding over the first rows, her peers. "That is the lesson I hope we all take with us from this experience: life is too precious to experience it from the sidelines. If you want to make something out of it, you've gotta go out there, use your talents and grab life by the horns until you feel you've made it work." She smiled, believing in her own words and proud that she'd made it through her speech without messing up. "Good luck in doing so, to all of you, and congratulations."
The whole room erupted in cheers as her fellow students threw their caps into the air, Leah grinning from ear to ear at her as Bella carefully made it back down the stairs, running out to meet her as soon as Bella's feet were back on solid ground.
"That was amazing!" she cried, wiping some tears away. "Forget English Literature. You should go into politics, girl!"
"Nah," Bella chuckled, basking in the warmth of her friend's embrace. "I'll just stick to what I know."
The room around them had become a mess of people looking for each other and celebrating as the graduation ceremony had drawn to a close, her family and Leah's soon flocking around the two of them to offer their own hugs and kisses.
"Only a few more months!" Seth sighed as he hugged his sister while Jared stood off to the side with little Embry in his arms beaming widely with pride. Leah had admitted that, through all his perseverance and devotion, he'd finally worn her down and got her to go out on a date with him, which had proven to be an astounding success.
As she watched him slowly approached Leah and kiss her on the lips with a caution as if he still believed she was going to slap him away, she couldn't be happier for both of them. Sure, Jared might not be rocket-scientist material and his progress in earning his ABE credentials had been slow, there was no man who could love her and Embry more or be as determined to provide them with the best he could achieve than Jared was.
"You rocked that stage, angel," Edward's voice was suddenly in her ear, his arms pulling her into a strong hug. "I couldn't be more proud of you than I am right now. I love you."
"I love you, too." She smiled, though suddenly tensed up as a strange sensation washed over her. Or more accurately: out of her.
"What's wrong?" As always, Edward was quick to pick up on the change in her, his eyes worriedly scanning her face as his fingers dug a little deeper into her arms.
She looked up at him, her whole being shooting in a state of panic, though, really, she was ready and had been for quite some time. "I…I think my water just broke."