WriteOnTime beta'ed, and I can't thank her enough—for the grammar and, more importantly, the friendship.
It was after nine that night when I finally scrambled into a cab at O'Hare. I spit out Edward's address to the driver and sat back to wait, my knee bouncing restlessly, willing the trip to be shorter. I thought about calling him, but I was nearly there and this needed to come from me face-to-face. Plus, I had to admit to myself that I was slightly afraid that if I called him, he'd tell me not to come. Just the thought of that was enough to end me, and I had to close my eyes and breathe slowly through my nose to keep myself from bursting into tears.
The driver let me out in front of Edward's building and I raced through the lobby, throwing only a quick wave of my hand to Rick, the night doorman. In the elevator, I focused on my feet to avoid looking at my reflection in the polished metal wall panels. I tried to think of what I would say, but my overtaxed brain wasn't helping me out. I was just going to have to wing it, and hope that when I saw him, I would know the right things to say to fix this.
In front of his door, I set my roll-on against the wall and pressed my hand against the door frame, taking a moment to breathe deeply and pray that this wouldn't be the last time I ever came here. Then I pressed the bell and waited.
"Coming…" I heard Edward's muffled voice from somewhere inside and my heart went into overdrive. He threw the deadbolt and swung the door open. When his eyes met mine, he froze, with his mouth slightly open.
"Bella, what are you doing here?" he asked, bewildered.
"I'm so sorry, Edward!" The instant I started to speak, I also started to cry. The physical and emotional exhaustion caught up to me and I fell to pieces. I needed him. I needed to get him into my arms and hang on to him. I threw myself at him, wrapping my arms around his neck and burying my face into his shoulder as I wept. He huffed slightly in surprise as my body hit his, but his arms came up immediately to catch me and he took a half-step back to steady himself.
"Bella, what's wrong? What happened? What are you doing back here already?"
"I fucked up. I'm so sorry. I was so wrong. I never should have gone. Just, please…"
"Hey," he said softly, prying me away from him a little. But I wouldn't let go, I couldn't let him set me back down and away from him. He only managed to push me back enough to look at my face. "Calm down, Bell. It's okay. Just tell me what happened. Did the interview go badly?"
He called me "Bell". That was his nickname for me. Somehow, that reached me. He was still my Edward; there was still something of us here.
"The interview went fine," I said, my voice still reedy. "They want me, but I don't care. This is where I belong. Here with you."
Edward sighed, and his face softened with emotion. I felt his hands tighten on my arms. I wanted to touch him, and run my fingers down his cheek, but I didn't want to push too fast. I still had things to say and I was sure he did, too.
"No, let me explain. Not that I'm trying to excuse what I did, but I want you to know why."
"Come inside," he said softly, and I realized we were still standing in the open doorway. He tugged on my hand and pushed the door closed behind me. We didn't go far, just to the couch to the right. Edward sat first, and I sat next to him, folding one leg up underneath me and angling in to face him. I didn't let go of his hand. I held it tight in both of mine, stroking my thumbs over his knuckles. I kept my eyes on our joined hands because it was easier that way. I wanted to see us still together, even if it was just our hands.
I took a deep breath to steel myself and started talking. "I felt like I had to do it. Not wanted to— had to. I spent all that time with Jay hiding myself away, refusing to realize my own potential, because I was afraid. I was willing to sell myself short for the sake of staying where I was safe. And stupidly, I thought if I didn't do this, I'd be repeating that same mistake. But I was so wrong. Just because everything in Chicago isn't what I planned, doesn't mean it's not right. It's absolutely perfect. What would have been wrong would be throwing everything I have away for the sake of something I didn't even really want."
Edward listened to everything I said in silence. When I finished, he brought his other hand to cover mine and squeezed.
"Are you sure about this? I never wanted you to turn down something you want for me. You'd only resent me later for it. If you want this, I promise you, we'll figure out a way to make it work."
Finally I looked up at him, forcing myself to look straight into his beautiful green eyes, so he'd know I was sure. "I'm positive. Yes, it was a great opportunity, but not the right opportunity. At least, not for me. I'd never be happy there, not truly. I'm just so, so sorry that I handled it that way. That I had to hurt you like that and go all the way there to figure out what should have been so obvious to me."
"You needed to figure it out in your own way. I wasn't hurt because you went, Bell. I was hurt that I wasn't a part of your decision to go."
"I know. I'm sorry. I've been so stubborn about standing on my own feet, so that I wouldn't owe anybody for any part of my life. I wanted every choice I made to be mine, and mine alone. But I lost sight of what mattered, and that's you. Trying to keep you on the outside was wrong. You're the center of my life now, Edward. You should have been at the center of this, too."
Edward's face was lined with emotion again. He shifted forward abruptly, pulling me into his chest. His arms wrapped around me and I felt his lips press against my hair. I closed my eyes and sighed into him, my fingers clutching at his shirt. "I love you," he murmured.
"Edward, I love you so much, it's crazy." I was crying again, but this time in relief. He hugged me tighter and for a few minutes, we just held onto each other. "I told you I was a mess," I murmured against his chest.
He chuckled and the vibration moved all the way through me. "You did. And maybe you are. But it's coming into focus now, right?"
I sighed. "It's crystal clear now."
"That's the important part. We'll keep figuring the rest out as we go," he said, tightening his arms around me. After a moment, he spoke again. "I'm sorry, too, Bell. I lost my temper and blew up at you."
I shook my head against his chest. "You had every right to be mad."
"Yeah, but storming out was the wrong way to handle it. I was just hurt and lashing out. I'm sorry."
"You said sorry already."
"I'm still sorry. I can't believe I almost lost you just being blind and stubborn."
"Hey," he nudged me back so that he could look down into my face. He moved his arm so that he could cup my face. I leaned against his palm. His thumb swept across my damp cheekbone. "You weren't in any danger of losing me. You know that, right?"
"I wasn't sure. You were so mad. And then you said you wanted to talk when I got back. I was so afraid that I'd figured out my shit too late."
"I told you I'm in this for the long haul, Bell, and I meant it. I'm not going anywhere. Yeah, I got mad, but I wasn't leaving you. I'll never leave you."
The tears started afresh and I tried to think of something, anything, to say in response to something like that from him. But I had no words, and even if I did, I was incapable of saying them at that moment. So I just reached up for his face and pulled him down to me and kissed him. It was sweet, lingering and intense; my lips pressed hard against his as we held on tight to each other. When we finally broke apart, it was only so I could tuck my face into his neck under his jaw. Edward stroked my hair in long slow passes and I just closed my eyes and inhaled him, blissful in our reunion.
"Do you want to talk about Volterra?" Edward asked at length.
I sighed and sat back a little. "It was amazing. All modern and efficient. I could hardly even believe I was there. It was like a dream."
"But, then you should…"
I held up my hand to stop him. "I said it was like a dream, but what I figured out while I was there was that it wasn't my dream. It would have been a great opportunity, and who knows what my career would be like if I followed that path. But it's not the path I want to be on. I don't want to work like that, and I don't want to work with people like that." I could barely suppress the shudder I felt run through me at the memory of Aro, always standing too close, always touching me too much.
But I should have known I could never get anything past Edward. He noticed the shift in my voice and looked at me closely. "Did something happen?"
I shook my head. "No, not really. But yeah, I got a vibe, you know? Aro would have become an issue, if I'd stayed."
Edward's face grew stony, and I stroked his jaw lightly with my fingertips, trying to diffuse him. "Don't let a creep like that scare you off, Bella."
I smiled softly, "He didn't. I could have handled him. The whole thing just felt wrong. I was confused and overwhelmed, so it took me a little bit to get clarity on it, but once I did, all I could think about was getting back here to you, as fast as I could."
"Jesus, I missed you," he sighed. "I know it's only been a day, but it felt so much longer."
"I know. I missed you, too. But I'm back now, and I'm not leaving again. Ever."
I wiggled closer, scooting half way into his lap. He tightened his arm around my waist and lifted me up against him. It was like I couldn't get close enough, I couldn't have enough of me touching him. Edward must have felt the same way, because his hands never stopped moving, rubbing and stroking across my shoulders, down my back, down my thigh, and then back up.
I tucked my face back into his neck and pressed my lips against his skin. He exhaled, long and slow. I did it again and his hand stopped on my hip, his fingers curling in. I slid my hand up the back of his neck and into his hair, always so thick and soft. Edward turned his face down, his lips seeking mine.
This time it was hot and urgent; this time his mouth opened over mine and his tongue pushed in. I pressed myself closer to him as his hand slid around to cup my ass and pull me closer to his lap. As I settled my weight against him, he groaned into my mouth.
"Edward," I murmured against his lips. He kissed his way, open-mouthed, across my cheek, down along my jaw, and down to my neck. My head fell back and my eyes closed. I fisted my hand in his hair to hold him to me.
"Hmm?" he mumbled, sucking gently on my skin.
"Take me to bed, please."
Edward gripped my head in his hands, his fingers tangling in my hair, kissing me slow and thorough, and then he did just that.
When the beams of sunlight through the blinds finally stretched across the bed, I woke up. I was on my stomach, my arms sprawled out to the sides, my hair a wild tangle across the pillow. I was still naked, my body still flushed from our desperate couplings the night before. I groaned and rubbed my face into the pillow before opening my eyes and blinking against the light. I reached out to my side and was met with empty bed.
I propped myself up on my elbows and glanced around. No Edward. Our clothes from yesterday still littered the floor in a path to the door, and I smiled.
Then I heard his footsteps coming from the living room and I sat up. He paused in the doorway, a cup of coffee in one hand and the newspaper in the other.
"Where'd you go?" I asked.
His eyes raked down me, naked to the waist where the sheet fell away. Lust flashed across his face, but he simply raised the coffee cup in answer. "Not far. Just to get you your fix. I figured you'd need it."
He crossed the room to sit on the edge of the bed and hand me the coffee. I took a long, scalding pull on it before setting it on the bedside table.
"Thank you. That was very sweet. I do need it. Yesterday was the longest day of my life, in a good way." I reached out and ran my fingers through his hair and he smiled, catching my hand and kissing my wrist.
"I wanted to check on something, too," he whispered against my wrist. I got entirely distracted, watching his pretty mouth against my pale skin.
"What was that?" I murmured absently.
With his free hand, he tossed the newspaper on my lap. It was folded back to a specific section, and there was something circled in pen. I tore my gaze away from his enthralling mouth and picked it up to look. As my eyes skimmed the page, I felt him crawl into bed behind me, wrapping his arms around my waist and resting his chin on my shoulder.
It was the real estate section.
"Our house is still on the market," he whispered, his lips brushing the crook of my neck.
I gasped and my eyes immediately started to water.
"The price has dropped a little, actually. It's a steal now."
"Yes," I whispered hoarsely, the tiny print of the ad swimming on the page through my tears.
"Are you sure?" he asked, his thumb stroking the skin of my waist. "I don't want to rush you or pressure you, Bella."
I twisted in his grasp to face him, so I could throw my arms around his neck and pull his mouth to mine. "Yes. Yes, yes, yes, please," I said breathlessly between kisses.
Edward laughed and pulled me in tight. "Okay, then. Let's make a phone call and buy ourselves a house. If you're sure."
I pressed my hand to his cheek, looking straight into his eyes so he'd know there was no fear, and no distance between us anymore. We were finally in the same place, hand-in-hand, and ready to start moving forward together.
"I've never been more sure of anything in my life. This is what I want. The future with you."
The smile that spread across his face was enough to stop my heart. "Then that's what you'll have."
As I pulled Edward back down into bed with me, wrapping myself around him, I let the happy glow wash over me.
A year ago, still stuck in the dead end that my life had become, I never could have imagined that happiness like this could have been meant for me. It took a lot to get here, and I had to almost lose everything to understand just how much I had gained. But now I knew, and I'd never take it for granted or push it away again. Life lay out in front of me, in a complex tapestry of people and work and friendship and love. I was never going to do less than grab on to it tight with both hands, starting with Edward, this amazing man who loved me despite all odds, and managed to hold me safely even as he freed me to fly.
A/N: Wow. I feel like I've run a marathon after writing this fic. It was by far the hardest thing I've written— in a lot of ways, for a lot of different reasons. I can't thank you all enough for reading, reviewing, pm'ing, encouraging, tweeting, recc'ing, discussing, shouting, and even flaming. It means the world to me that so many of you were reading and engaged.
I thank you all for embracing this story, and even more for participating in this community. We've created a great thing here, and I'm honored to be a part of it.
Oh, and there's a short epilogue coming this week. Nothing major, just a peek into their lives a little ways down the road.