SM owns Twilight and its characters. I own this story. 2010.

I can't thank these two ladies enough, BilliCullen and Scooterstale, both of whom stuck with me all the way from the very first chapter to the very end. You ladies are both wonderful, and this story turned out so much better because of your influence. Thank you one last time.

Note: This is the last regular chapter. A brief epilogue will be posted immediately after.


There's Only Here, There's Only Now


Slumped on the barstool, propped up by my elbows, I stared down at the kitchen counter, following the black, messy scrawl that filled the page. Starting with what was almost legible, each line progressively worsened, turning sloppier, slanting harder. There were countless dark splotches from where the pen had borne down too hard, too, and by the end, even though the words were by my own shaky hand, I could barely discern a single letter.

But then again, that wasn't really the point.

And now that I was finished, as I looked around the room, I didn't know what else I was supposed to do. I didn't know how to put the pen down. I didn't know how to stand up. I didn't know how to do anything.

I just knew that… it hurt.

It hurt in ways I hadn't known before. But unlike what I did know, this wasn't raw or angry or vicious. And even though in the back of my mind, the sights and sounds were all still there – the stench of blood and dirt, the dampness of the mist hitting my face, the screech of tearing metal and the wail of her horrific screams – there was no pounding in my head. There were no teeth tearing through my skin. There were no sharp knives carving their way down my chest.

Instead, I only felt empty. Like something essential, some part of my foundation, had been taken away and never replaced.

Lifting my face to the ceiling, I closed my eyes and took a slow, deep breath, trying to fill my chest with something that could displace this awful sense of being hollow inside. It worked for a handful of seconds, when the stretch of my ribcage gave me something new to feel, but relief was gone the moment my lungs collapsed. So I breathed in again, and again, over and over, sucking in chestfuls of warm, fragrant air, wanting to hold on to that distraction of physical sensation – needing to – so that I could stop myself from drowning in nothing.

When that stopped working, too tired to hold myself up anymore, my arms folded and I laid down my head. The granite was hard and cold against my cheek, but the discomfort barely registered at all, and after a moment, the room began to slowly blur, turning into a watercolor of misshapen lines and color. I didn't understand why until I wiped my thumb across my eyes.

At some point, minutes or maybe days later, from somewhere behind me came the soft pad of bare feet across the tile, followed by a quiet intake of air. Before I could raise my head, however, my whole back was suddenly blanketed in warmth when Bella's chest pressed tight against me. And then her arms snaked under mine, wrapping around my middle, hugging me even tighter.

"Hey," she quietly said, as she rested her chin on my shoulder.

The comforting weight of her, the blended scent of her lotion and my soap, the softness of her voice – just… Bella – acted like a kind of grounding, like a tether to the here and now, pulling me back from an edge I hadn't even been aware of, and when I breathed in again, some of the hollowness seemed to peel away and recede. Without thinking, I reached down to my stomach and clasped one of her hands, locking her fingers between my knuckles.

"I want a drink," I whispered.

All around me, she stiffened. "Ed–"

I shook my head and clung to her hand when I thought she'd pull away. "No, don't worry. I'm not going to… I can't," I said, rushing through the words, spitting them out so that they would be true. "I just… I just wanted you to know that… that I want to."

"Okay," was all Bella replied, but then her lips pressed against my shoulder blade through my shirt and the hand I wasn't latched onto left my stomach so that she could brush the damp hair off my forehead.

Swiping at my eyes again, I swallowed back a lump of thick salt and acknowledged what I finally understood to be the grief that I'd been running from for so long. To Bella, but mostly to myself, I confessed, "I miss her."

Bella exhaled slowly. "I know," she said, and then she kissed my shoulder again. "I know you do."

Time here in my kitchen was a strange entity, something my mind couldn't seem to follow, so I wasn't sure how long we stayed like that– me folded in half across the counter, Bella wrapped around me. We didn't speak. And other than the occasional tightening of my grip or the light stroke of her fingertips across my face, we didn't move either.

I supposed that we stayed like that until I could feel something again.

~.~.~

"Do you want food?"

Startled by the abrupt intrusion of sound, I looked up and around until my eyes found a familiar slender figure directly in front of me. Across the bar, Bella stood, wearing nothing more than a faded t-shirt, a pair of my old pajama pants rolled up at the waist, and a soft, close-lipped smile. Her hair was up in some kind of knot, with a handful of strands falling loose and framing her face, and my lips lifted in involuntary response because, for whatever reason, she'd never been more beautiful than she was right now.

"Food?" she asked again, lifting her brows as she leaned across the bar to rub something off my face.

"I don't kno–" I stopped, trying to think, and it was like sifting through thick, sticky cobwebs. The cramp in my gut answered for me. "Yeah, I guess. Did I fall asleep?"

"You did." Before pulling away, Bella rubbed my cheek again with a quiet, impatient huff, and then moved toward the refrigerator. "Your watch left a mark."

Scrubbing my face a little too hard, still struggling to wake up and knock the lingering cobwebs away, I mumbled, "How long?"

"Thirty, or maybe forty, minutes," she called out as she disappeared behind the refrigerator door. "What do you want?"

"I don't care." I frowned down at the granite and followed the path of one of the darker veins, noting the way the metallic flecks glittered beneath the overhead light. It looked like thousands of tiny diamonds hiding inside the rock. "Whatever's fine."

Rather than pressing or asking again, Bella continued rummaging through the refrigerator, finally making a triumphant, "Ah-ha," kind of noise when she pulled out a half-full gallon of milk. Vaguely, I processed the rattling of plates and the clink of silverware, and when I looked up again, it was just in time to see a slab of fudge-brown cake and a glass of milk being placed in front of me.

"Where the hell did this come from?" I asked before knocking back half the milk. I didn't even appreciate that I was thirsty until the liquid hit my tongue, but ice cold from being in the back of the fridge, enough to make my temples pang and my esophagus jerk, it washed away the tacky dryness of my mouth. So I swallowed down the rest in two more gulps.

The smile on Bella's lips widened as she watched me, turning carefully playful, and the contrast to the prior softness made me grasp just how much she'd been tiptoeing. "You doubt my baking prowess?" she asked, even as she filled my glass up again.

I wanted to laugh, but the best I could manage was a fleeting grin and dip of my head. "Yeah, I do."

"Okay, fine, that's probably true," she chuckled. Still smiling, she sat down and immediately stabbed a fork at her own slice, and for a split-second, I was transported back in time, to last July when covered in taupe-colored paint splatters, I'd first sat down at the table in her house and shared this exact same meal. Mid-bite, Bella glanced up from her plate, almost as if she'd read my mind and seen the same scene. "There's a bakery right across from the grocery store, and it called to me. Just couldn't resist."

When I opened my mouth, only to find that no words would come out, her forehead wrinkled, her eyes abruptly dropped away from mine, and she quietly added, "Bad days deserve cake."

Hiding behind the glass in my hand, I nodded as my insides flipped in recognition, because there wasn't really any other way to put it.

Today was a bad day.

Although as we sat in silence, eating chocolate cake that should have tasted like cardboard given my last several hours yet somehow didn't, I realized that while bad and hard and maybe downright miserable, the second of June, two-thousand eleven, wasn't the very worst of my days. No, I'd lived that one already, far too recently, and there was a small, sharp pulse of guilt deep in the center of my chest, because I was admitting that my worst day had nothing to do with my sister and everything to do with the woman sitting across from me.

After only finishing about half of what was on my plate, I set my fork down, stood up to creaking knees and a stiff back, and walked around the bar, where Bella watched me as though I were about to run away, or maybe just fall down. "You done?" I asked, loosely looping my forefinger around hers. When she nodded, I slowly pulled her off her barstool and lead her into the living room. "Sit with me?"

Bella gave me another quiet smile – a softer, more solemn version of the wide grin she always reserved just for me – as I settled down at the end of the couch. When I motioned for her to lay her head down in my lap, the smile slipped and she looked at me in confusion.

"Humor me," I murmured, motioning again. After another second of hesitation, she finally leaned back with a curious tilt to her dark eyes, yet said nothing as I gently pulled at the knot of hair on the top of her head so that I could comb my fingers through it. She just closed her eyes and hummed with what I guessed was approval. Minutes passed like that, and not once did she guess why my fingertips traced the delicate lines of her face. She didn't wonder why I'd reversed our normal position either, although had she asked, my answer would have been simple. She'd done nothing but hold me together all day long, and now, I wanted to hold her a little.

"I spoke to Dad," I said after a while, talking to her, but maybe more to myself. Daring a glance down, I found her eyes wide open and staring up at me, her expression fathomless. I could only guess where her mind was.

"It was last night while you were out with the dog."

"What did he say?" she asked, just loud enough for me to hear.

Leaning my head back against the cushion, I watched shadows slide across the ceiling, chasing the orange light of the setting sun that now poured through the front picture window. It was still a little strange seeing that window so open and bare, devoid of the heavy curtains and blinds I'd never touched, but it was yet another tiny change brought on by the woman in my lap, another bit of brightness that shined through the house.

"He understood why I couldn't go with them today." I shrugged, still surprised by the easy conversation that I'd spent so much time needlessly dreading. "He didn't argue at all. Just told me… he said that it was okay and that if I didn't mind, they'd like to come by tomorrow before they go back to Seattle."

"They're coming over?"

"Yeah," I replied, as I slowly coiled a silken strand of hair around my finger, focusing on the dozens of shades of auburn and brown that only seemed to show in the sun. Unsure exactly why, I paused before softly asking, "Is that okay with you?"

When I let my eyes slide down again, I caught Bella's lips mashing into a tight straight line and her eyebrows slanting down into a sharp 'v'. "Is what okay?"

"My Mom and Dad coming over here." An spike of nerves shot through my limbs, making my hand twitch as I trailed the pad of my thumb over her forehead to massage away the furrow. "We could… I don't know… have lunch. Or something."

Bella grabbed my hand to still it. "Don't ever ask me that. It's always okay." The conviction and surety in her voice made my heart thump a little faster, and I waited a second before telling her what I really wanted to so that I could take a deep breath. Because the next part was harder and because thinking about it always made my stomach churn. " So I've been thinking..."

"About?" If she heard the slight tremble she didn't act like it.

"About what Ben said..." Bella's shoulders tensed, but she didn't say a word or press, or really even move. "Do you think," I started, then paused for another second to find the words. "Do you think he'd come if I asked him to?"

Against my thigh, Bella's shoulders sagged and her head rolled a little to the side so that she could see me better. "To see Ben with you?"

I nodded little too quickly.

"Yeah," she answered softly. "I'm sure he would."

~.~.~

It was sometime later when we began to speak again, maybe an hour or maybe longer. Outside, the sun had fallen below the trees and the sky had turned to charcoal, lit by just a hint of lingering pinkish light. Inside, it was darker, too, but the dim glow from the table lamp beside me felt somehow warm, comfortable almost, and it turned Bella's pale skin golden. Her eyes were closed again, but I knew that she wasn't sleeping. She was just letting me be, giving me quiet, and space, and everything else I ever needed.

I gently lifted her hand from where it was draped across her chest, flipping her wrist over so that I could stare at the three-inch line that still haunted my waking dreams. Like always, the sight of it was a punch to the gut, one that I instinctively shied away from, but after these past couple of months, and especially after today, there was more there now than just a reminder of what I almost lost or almost never had. There was meaning in that scar, an echo of why, and in that why, the memory of what she did lose.

Wincing, I looked back to her face, and her eyes were open again, penetrating in their study, giving away little as she watched me watch her. Buying a second of time, I coughed and cleared my throat before I slowly said, "I hate that I wasn't with you back in February…" My voice was ragged from the swell of an emotion that nearly stole my breath. "I'm sorry you were alone."

And I was sorry, so much, because I got it now. I got what it meant when she sat there beside me all day long, ignoring whatever else she needed to. I got what it meant when she served me cake and smiles, and I got what it meant when she wrapped her body around mine, lending me her warmth. Sitting here with her, feeling her weight on me, I understood what it was not to have to be alone anymore, and how that was so much better than the numbness I'd searched for in the bottom of my bottles of scotch.

"I'm–"

"I know you are." Bella's finger across my lips silenced me. "We've already gone over that. It's done."

I shook my head because there was more that I wanted her to know. Still grasping her hand, I pulled her wrist up, and with my finger, I traced the line of silvery flesh, noting her sharp intake of air when I did, before bringing it to my lips to kiss. "I'm sorry… I'm sorry you lost your son."

As if stricken, Bella's features froze in a mask of instant sorrow. She hadn't expected that and her eyes watered, yet no tears spilled over. I was afraid that I'd overstepped, but then she smiled. Vulnerable and sad, but a smile nonetheless. Just as softly, she whispered back, "I'm sorry you lost your sister."

My throat bobbed, fighting against the sudden sting behind my eyes, but then exhaling something between a sigh and a small, pained laugh, I said, "Yeah, me, too."

Twisting her wrist around to capture my hand, Bella squeezed my fingers before slowly asking, "Do you want to talk about her?"

There was a brief second of free fall, where my stomach plummeted, where the room fell away, and the couch beneath me ceased to exist. The air in my lungs burned hot and my eyes screwed shut, but instead of blackness, I saw the glare of headlights shining through the rain and the fast forward rush of an approaching tree. My chest throbbed, aching from an invisible weight, but when I opened my eyes again and felt Bella's hand still squeezing mine, that pain somehow faded.

I jerked in muted surprise as I realized that my reaction to that kind of question –no, I – wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. Just like before, it wasn't debilitating, and it didn't steal my air. There was just the same sense of emptiness that I'd felt this morning, only somehow less.

Reeling a little, I stared straight ahead, watching our reflection in the television screen, noting that in the dark outline, we looked like only one person.

"She was… she was stubborn," I heard myself finally say. My jaw twitched, as in my mind, there was a sudden image of a twelve year old girl stomping her foot and storming down the hall when she hadn't gotten her way one summer day. I hadn't remembered that afternoon in years, but almost as though it were yesterday, I could hear her high-pitched voice yelling at me because I'd said no when she had wanted to drive my car down the driveway. I shook my head. "And she could be such a pain in the ass sometimes. I swear, Mom and Dad let her get away with everything."

Chewing my lip, still remembering snippets from our shared youth that I'd almost forgotten, I added, "She couldn't play the piano for shit." I chuckled quietly then, reliving all the hours I'd sat beside her, positioning and repositioning her chubby fingers. "Didn't have the span for it. Or the patience… God knows, I tried to teach her. "

"You did?" Bella said, pulling me out of my abstraction. "You told me once that you played, but I honestly thought you were lying to impress me."

I laughed at that – a real laugh that shook my shoulders because I remembered the day I'd slipped and told her, too. She'd looked like a drowned rat, soaked to the bone, but smelled like a dream – like flowers and rain. "I used to be decent," I admitted, shrugging when her lips curved up. "I haven't really kept it up. It's… it's been a while since I wanted to."

Maybe one day.

"But Maria was… " I started again, moved by a sudden need for Bella to know my sister. My chin fell to my sternum and I sighed heavily. "She was beautiful… Everyone says that, I know… about people who are…" I fought to hold the line of my smile. "But she was. She looked so much like my Mom, which is, I think, why it was so hard for my Dad… maybe for me, too."

I lifted my head toward the now barren wall that had once housed a dozen family pictures. "Good in school, too," I went on. "And she was… kind to people. That's why she was going into nursing." Half in the present, half in the past, I laughed again, this time quieter, nostalgic, longing for what could never be. "People just… loved her. Everyone."

Bella sat up and settled beside me. But instead of letting go of my hand, she held on and circled my waist with the other, hugging herself tightly against my side, resting her cheek against my chest. When I breathed in, she was all that I could smell, all that I could taste, and all that I could feel.

I swallowed and kissed her forehead, burying my nose in her hair. "It gets easier, doesn't it?"

"Yes," she breathed, as she gripped my side tighter, finding the niches between my ribs. "Yes, it does. Slowly, but it does."

A long moment of silence followed, where I gazed around the room, stunned by the complex war that had waged inside my mind and body. I'd experienced it all today: laughter and sadness, fatigue and fear, bitterness, longing, and love. And now hope. Real hope, the kind that burrowed its way into my bones.

"Bella?" I asked, as my eyes glued themselves to the far wall.

"Yeah," she murmured, her voice muffled against my chest.

I loosened my hold and gestured for her to sit up a little more. "What… what do you think of this room?"

She spun half way around to study me. "What?"

Licking my lips and pressing my palm flat against the top of my knee to still it, I asked again. "What do you think of it?" I grimaced. "Be honest."

She took a moment to answer, with one finger tapping her chin, before looking up at me like she knew exactly where I was going. "I think," she said, covering her mouth with the tips of her fingers, as though she were hiding a grin. "I think that I'm living with a man who's–"

"Colorblind?" I finished for her, recalling the very first time she'd said it.

"It's true," Bella answered, lifting up off the couch to press her lips to my cheek. Her lips were so warm and so soft. "You have a lot of things going for you. But you have terrible taste in color. My house was awful when I got it. I kind of wanted to hit you."

I would have blushed but I knew that she was right. "Would you pick out a new one?"

Instead of responding immediately, she crawled onto my lap, this time straddling me so that we faced, and she gently took my face between her palms, preventing me from looking away. "I will if you want."

My hands automatically dropped to her waist, as though that was the only logical place they could ever be. "And will you bring over all your stuff? To stay?"

"After all that work we did on mine?" One brow cocked up, but I knew her answer because the rest of her face had gone all soft.

I nodded, tightening my grip on her hips to keep my hands from trembling.

"Yeah, I can do that."

Just like that.

Quieter, my heart fully in my throat, I told her, "I want to redo…" Hesitating for a split second, racing through all the arguments I'd had with myself over so many weeks, fighting with what I wanted and what I'd always known, I rushed through the rest. "The whole house… I want to start over. I want to do all of it."

She tensed and her lips parted ever so slightly, because she knew what I was saying and what that meant. "All of it?"

"Yeah," I ducked my head before leaning closer to capture her lips, and my voice shook when I said, "There's one room though…" Gathering all my resolve, I sucked down a deep, cleansing breath, grateful that when my chest expanded, hers was there to meet it. "I may want… I might need to save it til last."

Slender arms wrapped around me and Bella hid her face inside the crook of my neck. Her lips moved against my skin. "Then we'll just save it until the end."

"It'll take a while," I warned, even as I held her tighter. "The house is still in pretty rough shape."

"Lucky for you," she whispered, kissing my neck before moving to my mouth. "I have a while."

.

.

.


A/N: I'll say my goodbyes here.

Thank you to everyone for taking this ride with me. And a very special thank you to those who have been kind enough to stick with me from the very start – I'm rather humbled by your patience and persistence.

I may or may not have another fic up my sleeve ;) so if you're interested, you might consider alerting my pen. I really hope to see you all soon.

Before you go on to the epilogue, I'd like to make one final, more serious comment: Some of the themes in this story are very serious in nature and are more than just plot devices to me. Death, depression, substance abuse, and suicide are very real. Some of the choices that characters made in this story are not ones that I'd personally recommend or endorse. If you or someone you know needs help, please don't be afraid to seek it. Nothing is insurmountable.

-K


Chapter title: Lyrics from There Are the Days, by Van Morrison.