Thank you to everyone who still has warm feelings for this story. I appreciate you hanging on for the ride.

The song for this chapter is Welcome Home by Radical Face and here's the link:

watch?v=iDWC0jpLbkk

oooooooooooooooooooo

Chapter Eighteen

The End: Part Two

Alice and I don't speak for the remainder of the drive back to her house. Even though it's just the two of us—Jasper opted to stay and chat with Edward—where do I even begin? When I let her know I just want to go home, she insists on taking me, but I refuse. As soon as we make it back to her place, I give her a hug and go straight for my car.

I have to get away. I haven't felt this—this helpless—in years. My mind is racing, my pulse flying. There are times in every girl's life when all else fails, and there's only one place left to go, one person left to turn to—the one person whose love is unconditional and never ending. This is that time for me.

I need to go home. I need my mom.

Faster than is legally acceptable, I drive out of the city and into the suburbs of Bellevue. I'm too upset to call Renee while driving, but as I wind through the old neighborhood, I pray she's actually home and not at yoga or ceramics or whatever activity fills her time these days. When I turn down Meyer Avenue and see her garage door sitting wide open, I release an enormous sigh of relief.

Before I go in, it's necessary to spend a little time getting my collective shit together. Renee would birth a cow if she saw me like this—red-eyed and puffy with splotchy, tear-stained cheeks. I pour a little water from a half-empty bottle in my hands and splash it onto my face, using napkins to pat myself dry. I yank the ponytail holder out of my hair and carefully redo the braid that's become a hot mess on the back of my head.

Once I smooth out the wrinkles in my appearance, I get out of the car and take my time trudging up the steep driveway. Glancing at the house next door—Edward's former residence—I notice the FOR SALE BY OWNER sign sticking out of the grass. Several families have come and gone since the Cullens left all those years ago, and it appears the nice, middle-aged couple, who've occupied the place for the last three years, are also ready to give up on the old house.

Not a lot has changed to the home's exterior. It still boasts the same light blue siding and red shutters, still proudly displays the same rock garden Esme installed shortly after they moved in. I notice the backyard has the addition of a large, above-ground swimming pool, but the old toolshed that hugs the fence we shared is still intact. How many nights did Edward and I spend on its roof, listening to music under the stars?

The only other difference I can spot in the backyard is the absence of the small, wooden clubhouse Edward built the year after they moved in. Ever the architect, Edward's lofty attempt at teenage seclusion was quite impressive and even managed to survive a few post-Cullen families—the ones with small children—but it must've gotten knocked down when I wasn't looking.

I remember the day Edward finally finished it. Not ten minutes after he nailed the last board into place, Dr. Cullen made him turn right around and pull every other plank. He claimed it was "to let the light in," but we were smart enough to know he was ensuring Edward and I weren't going to make Esme and him young grandparents. Funny, it was never like that between us back then. Ever. It was just me and him, playing, living, connecting . . . being.

Peas in a pod.

Maybe it's because I don't come home nearly as much as I should, but something about the clubhouse's demise makes me sad. I wish I would've been here to see it go. With a cleansing breath, I jog the rest of the way up the drive and knock twice before opening the wooden door with the same key I've had since I was old enough to walk home from school by myself.

"Mom?" I call, letting my purse slide off my shoulder and onto the foyer floor.

The familiar warmth and scent of the house wrap around me like an old blanket. The combination of fresh laundry and kitchen spices makes me realize how much I've missed this place. Maybe the reason I avoided it so much after moving out for good has something to do with the big, empty house next door and all it stands for. Even when a fresh family would move in and the house was filled anew with laughter and love, it was still empty.

In my eyes, it would always be empty without Edward.

"Bella? Honey, is that you?" Renee yells from somewhere in the house, her voice drawing closer with every word. Seconds later, she appears from around the corner, and her face lights up like Christmas morning. "It is you! What a surprise!" She folds me up in her arms, and I don't have a prayer. The tears start all over again.

So much for trying to pass as human.

Renee is alert at once. "Bella, you're crying! What is it? What happened?"

I shake my head against her shoulder and bury my face in her neck, hugging her tighter. "I just needed to see you, Mom. I've been missing you." My confession only prompts more tears, and suddenly, I'm five years old again.

"Oh, sweetheart, I miss you, too. Every day," she says, rubbing my back and smoothing a hand down my braid. Pulling away, she wipes the tears from my cheeks with her thumbs. "Come on, let's go in the kitchen. I'll make us some cocoa, and you can tell me everything."

I sniffle and nod, managing the faintest whisper of a smile. "'Kay."

And we talk. A lot. I open the doors to my soul and tell her everything that led me to her kitchen table, starting with leaving Voss Butler and making a fresh start at my old alma mater. Renee is so proud to hear I've gone back to school I fear she might burst with joy. She's always believed in me, always told me I was capable of anything, but she never forced my hand in any given direction. She always let me choose my own path, content to cheer me on from the sidelines.

According to Renee, as long as I'm happy and healthy, it's enough for her. God love her, I could be scraping grills at the Sizzler, and she'd be right there, beaming her thousand-watt smile with pride shooting out of her ears.

I'm so very lucky to have her.

We still haven't reached the root of my tears, and Renee innately knows this. Finally, I tell her about Edward. She already knows how close we were when I was young, and I fill her in on the rest. How my feelings for him began to change when I was sixteen, but I never let him know. How he kissed me the night before he left. How I've been dreaming and wondering what that kiss meant to him ever since. She gets the full rundown of everything that's happened since he's been back, as well.

Renee smiles at me with wisdom in her deep blue eyes. "I've always been aware of the kismet between you two. In fact, I'd even go so far as to say you two are soul mates," she says, sipping her cocoa.

Oh, here we go. "Mom, please don't start in with the spiritual junk. It's really not helpful."

"Just listen, will you? A soul mate doesn't have to be a lover like everyone thinks. It's anyone whose heart beats the same as yours. As long as their inner light recognizes and connects to your inner light, the way it always has between the two of you, the rest doesn't matter—age, gender . . . relationship status."

All righty then. I'm about to chalk up my talk with Renee as a loss, but she doesn't give me the chance.

"Look, baby, timing is everything when it comes to these things. I understand how you feel about him—how you've always felt about him—but you were far too young the first time around and, obviously, now is not the best time, either. You just have to go on with your life—like you're doing now with school. Just focus on you, and let the chips fall where they may."

I drown the lone marshmallow in my half-empty cup with a nod, deciding it might be worth hearing her out after all.

"I spoke to Esme last week. Good God, after what that woman—that Anna—did to him, we can't even pretend to imagine what he's going through right now. But the truth is, Edward left Seattle a boy and came back a man with baggage and problems and issues that had nothing to do with you." She takes my fidgety hands, forcing me to look at her. "Sweetheart, sometimes you just aren't ready for each other yet, you know? Sometimes, you have to fall apart over and over to realize just how much you need to come together again. You two have a friendship that has always defied convention. There was a time when the two of you knew each other better than you knew yourselves. Some people will go their whole lives never knowing that kind of connection. Don't lose it over something as uncontrollable as timing."

I lean back in my seat with a sigh. It'll take a moment to let everything she's said sink in, and I know I need to give it room to simmer, but I know what she's trying to get across. At least, I'm pretty sure I know.

"Thank you," I say earnestly. "Thanks for talking to me and for letting me vent. And I'm sorry I don't come around as much as I should. That's going to change; I promise."

Renee gives me her patented sunny smile. "Well, good. I'm never opposed to seeing more of my only daughter. Now, how about we heat up some leftovers and watch bad Lifetime movies until we want to puke, hmm?"

I can't help but laugh. "That actually sounds pretty great, but I think I'm going to take a walk first. I need a minute to myself to absorb everything." I get up and put my mug in the sink, making my way toward the foyer. I pause at the archway that separates the kitchen from the rest of the house and turn around. "Mom, is it okay if I stay the night? I mean, I know my room is now craft central, but I could sleep on the couch."

"I would love that, Bella. We'll have our own little slumber party. Ooh, I should throw some wine in the fridge." And she's off.

I smile to myself as I head out of the kitchen and out of the house. Instead of taking a walk, I wander into the backyard intending to sit on the rope swing that always hung from an old maple, but that, too, is gone. It's cold and almost dark now. The dreary afternoon has fast faded into a dreary evening.

I feel so unsettled. What am I even doing out here?

I'm about to give up and go back inside when the toolshed catches my eye. I take tentative steps toward the chain link fence that separates the two yards and look around. The house that's now for sale seems empty—cold and hollow—so I go for it. I climb the fence until the metal bar is pressing into my shins and place my hands onto the shingled roof of the shed. Like I've done a million times before, I heave myself up and onto the structure. My hands pay the price and are speckled and dotted with scrapes and tiny bits of gravel.

Carefully, I turn myself around until I'm sitting on my butt and lay back. Man, how did we do this and think nothing of it? There is nothing even remotely comfortable about this roof, no matter how I situate myself.

Regardless, I fold my hands on my stomach and stare up at the big black abyss. I know there's some value to what Renee said in the kitchen. I know no matter what's happened in the past month, Edward and I have a friendship that should not be thrown away. The bond that began twelve years ago grew from something pure and tangible. It wasn't centered around sex or hormones or superficiality. It stemmed from a shared need to be heard, loved, and understood.

Maybe in a few years, we'll cross paths again and fall right back into step, and things will be just like they used to. We'll find ourselves in a new time and place where our biggest concern will once again be which one of us gets to pick the flick for movie night, or whose turn it is to flip for pizza. Until then, I'll be content in knowing that, while what Edward and I had is gone, it'll never be forgotten, and I'm stronger for having endured it. All of it.

Only vacantly do I hear the sound of tires squealing in the distance, but it doesn't do much to disturb my scratchy, uncomfortable serenity. However, five minutes later, when I hear the chain link fence rattle and see a pair of hands on the edge of the roof, I nearly scream bloody murder.

It's Edward, and he's looking at me with angry determination. As if on cue, a rumble of thunder echoes in the distance, and the rain begins to fall.

"What the hell are you doing here?" I sputter as he struggles to board the toolshed. Before he lifts himself up, he heaves a smashed and wrinkled box onto the roof. I recognize it instantly. "Edward, I don't care—"

"Well, I do care, Bella," he says, squatting on his knees beside me. "You wanted to know what was in the fucking box; I'll show you what's in the fucking box. I should've just shown you in the first place and ended this whole thing when you barged into my house."

I close my eyes, rubbing my forehead. "It's really not my business—" I start, but he interrupts me, shoving his hand into the box and pulling out a small object.

He thrusts whatever it is at me. "This is the rock you gave me after your trip to the beach. See? You tried to paint the snow-covered mountains on it, but I teased you because it looks like the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. And here," he begins, reaching back in the box and producing another memento, tossing it in my general direction as I remain stunned. "Here's every ticket stub from every movie we've ever seen together, including when you dragged me to see Pocahontas. I didn't want to go, but you made me, and I loved it. Why wouldn't I? It's a great fucking movie," he says, his eyes like blazing malachite. He doesn't seem to notice how drenched we're both becoming.

"Edward, really—"

"And this," he says, tossing a wadded up bundle of fabric at me. "From when we made T-shirts for each other down at the pier."

I hold up the saturated T-shirt with blazing red letters spray-painted across the front. I'd forgotten all about the day we had them made and how funny we thought we were. Even though we hadn't coordinated at all, I made his to say "Nerdward," and he presented me with one that said "Talk Nerdy to Me." We wore them constantly.

"So now you know," he says as he dumps the remainder of the box's contents onto the roof. Memorabilia tumbles onto the ground, and old pictures blow away in the wind. "It's not Anna that I can't get out of my head. It's you. Does knowing exactly how pathetic I am make you feel any better? Are you any less disgusted with me, knowing you're the one I've been obsessed with since I stumbled into puberty?" When I say nothing, he sighs and plops onto his bottom beside me. "I didn't think so."

I stare at the wet T-shirt clutched in my hands. "You could've told me."

Edward shakes his head. "You were my best friend, Bella. I was lucky to have that. I didn't want to ruin everything by telling you I felt anything more than that. I wasn't like you, you know? You may remember us being one and the same, but it wasn't like that."

"What are you talking about? We were the same; we did everything together."

Shaking his head again, rain drips from Edward's bangs down his face in little rivers, but he doesn't seem to notice. "I was a loser, Bella. A complete and utter loser. You weren't. It was always so easy for you to make friends. You could walk up to anyone on the street and start a conversation with them. Not me. When I wasn't getting my head forced into a toilet bowl or doing someone else's homework to avoid a beating, I was with you. You were my silver lining—the only thing that made school worth enduring every day, the only thing I had to look forward to."

I don't know what to say. Surely, it wasn't that bad for him. "It couldn't have always been like that."

"Trust me; it was. I loved you, too, Bella. You've always been so beautiful to me, but I wasn't the only one who thought so. You may've lumped us into the same category, but you had your pick of the litter in high school. How could I compete with the Nick Delany's and the Mike Newton's of the world?"

Oh, Edward. I want to tell him those guys didn't mean shit to me compared to him, but he continues speaking, and I don't dare interrupt him now that he's finally getting this off his chest.

"When high school was finally over, I was so excited to get to college. I had a plan to spend my time at Princeton redefining myself. I'd step out of my box; I'd date anyone who'd have me; I'd throw myself into every social situation that came my way, all so I could learn how to be somebody you'd have been proud to love." He shook his head at his foiled plan, licking the water off his lips. "But it didn't work like that. I was still the same skinny loser I was all throughout high school, only taller. It wasn't as easy to change as I thought, and friends were hard to come by. Then, long after my family moved to Chicago and I accepted that I'd never see you again, I woke up one day, and my life changed.

"When I met Anna . . . I don't know. Suddenly, I was somebody. She didn't know or care about the old Edward. She didn't know I spent half my high school career in Sam Uley's locker, and I was never going to tell her. With Anna, I was given the opportunity to be somebody else, someone who mattered. She showed me things I'd never seen before, and we did things I'd never done before. Her world was so different from mine, and for the first time in my life, I was able to escape who I really was—who I really am.

"But when we moved here, and the two worlds collided . . . I'd given it a good effort, but you just can't pretend to be something you're not without it catching up to you in the end. She and I are both proof of that. Actually, in a way, I'll always be thankful Anna did what she did."

I grab his arm, yanking him out of his reverie. "How can you say that, Edward? You don't deserve what she's done to you. No one does."

He looks at me with a sad smile. "Maybe not, but no one deserves half a husband, either. Her motives may've been completely narcissistic and malicious, but neither of us were the people we were trying to be, Bella, and it's you who forced me to see that. You made me realize that I am, and will forever be, Nerdward. And I'm okay with that."

I'm reeling inside, but I don't have time to respond before a bright yellow light floods the stranger's yard we're sitting in, and a deep voice booms from the doorway of the house. "Hey! Who's out there? This is private property; I've got a gun! If you damn kids don't get out of here right now, I'm calling the cops!"

"Shit!" I whisper frantically, looking at Edward with wide eyes.

When a beam of light as bright as a spotlight sweeps the yard and lands on us, the man begins yelling again as he descends the steps of his porch.

"Time to go," Edward says through a smile that's suddenly charged with adrenaline. He leaps off the roof and over the fence in a single bound, landing in Renee's yard. Turning back, he reaches for me and, as I scoot my way to the edge of the roof—the sopping wet T-shirt still clutched in my hand—Edward firmly grabs my waist and yanks me down, setting me safely on the ground. We lock hands and make a mad dash across the rain-slick lawn to the screened-in porch in my mom's backyard.

Safe inside, we're both panting, laughing, and dripping wet. We look at each other, and Edward releases my hand to brush away the strand of wet hair that's plastered to my forehead. His smile fades, and his face sobers.

"Bella, I'm sorry for the way I've handled everything. You've been nothing but a great friend to me, just like always, and I never should've pushed you away. That's what I came to tell you. That I loved you then like I love you now, and I always will. You're just . . . part of who I am. It's always been you, and it'll always be you. That will never change for me. I need you in my life—as a friend if nothing else. I just . . . I have my work cut out for me. Going back to square one isn't going to be easy, but it's what I have to do, and I don't expect you to—"

I grab a handful of his collar and yank him down to my level, pressing my lips to his to shut him up. The kiss doesn't last long, and I pull back a few inches when I don't feel him respond as I expect. When I open my eyes, he's staring at me with grave intent, as if he's trying to read my every thought.

Our silent conversation only lasts a few seconds, but Edward must've found the answer to his unspoken question in my eyes. Before I know it, his mouth is on mine, my feet are off the ground, and my back is pressed against the cold glass door. His hand winds into my hair, and he angles my head, giving him the best advantage for which to devour me. His intensity is everywhere all at once—his hands, his lips . . . it makes me dizzy with the emotions I've kept locked away for far too long. I feel as if I'm floating in a dream as colors flash behind my closed lids like a kaleidoscope.

Edward speaks with his lips smashed against mine. "You need someone who can give you the world, Bella" he says, diving back into the kiss with vigor, making me moan. After another moment, he pulls on my bottom lip with his teeth and speaks out of the corner of his mouth, still not breaking our connection. "Someone who will tell you how beautiful you are every single day." I moan again, wrapping my arms around his neck as his voice grows heavy, his words becoming tangled with lust and need. "Someone who will live and die for you because that's what you deserve."

I run my hands through his hair, pulling his head back to look in his eyes. In the cold air, our breaths collide in great white puffs. "That's quite a job description. Think you can handle it?"

A low growl rumbles deep in his throat, and his hand snakes up my neck, taking a firm yet delicate hold of my face. "I know I can," he rumbles.

"Congratulations, then. You're hired," I whisper, my chest heaving. He's on me again in a second, and we're a heady mashup of lips, hands, arms, and legs.

I don't know what tomorrow will bring, or what the future holds for Edward and me, but I do know Renee was right all along. Edward has always been, and will forever be, a part of my soul—my very fabric—because he knows every single inch of it. No matter time or distance, no matter life or circumstance, we will always be us, and nothing can ever change that.

I freaked out before because I never wanted to lose that connection, and now … I know that I never will.

OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

Thanks to Alice's White Rabbit for being such a good friend to me and always being so supportive. A few of you who are on my RL Facebook, including AWR, already know this, but the reason this is so late in posting is because my husband had a heart attack the Thursday before last. He's home and doing well now, and I thank everyone for their well-wishes and prayers.

And to the hideously rude anonymous (shocker) reviewer who had nothing of value to say and let me know how unhappy she was to have to wait over a week for an update, I apologize for the late post once again. I read your review while I was waiting for my husband to have a stent placed in his heart, and let me tell you, it made me feel just terrific. I hope waiting for this chapter didn't inconvenience you too much, but needless to say, my priorities changed just a little bit during the past week and a half . . .

To everyone else, I appreciate all the support I received for this story and these characters, and I hope to see you all in the future. I've got a few ideas floating around in my head, and we'll just have to see which one makes it onto paper.

Xoxo,

A