A/N: Hey everyone, long time no see! Looks like I'm slowly going back to business after a long torturing period of writers' block. Here's another oneshot, takes place between Eclipse and Breaking Dawn, so possible spoilers for everything up until then. Reviews are most welcome, especially after this long forced break. Happy reading :)
Being left alone at the Cullen house was a rare experience. The silence was both blessed and eerie, but mostly I was relieved to be alone. Two weeks before the wedding, it was all Alice had been talking about – flowers and seating arrangements and RSVPs. All this ongoing wedding talk made my skin crawl. Fortunately she was out hunting today, or at least I thought she was. Whatever she was doing, I was just grateful for her absence, and I was determined to make the best out of it.
I'd spent enough time at the house to make myself at home, and even a larger amount of time in Alice's room to know my way around. What I'd been looking for was right at the entrance to her enormous wardrobe. I took the opaque plastic bag off its rack and carried it into the room. I placed it on Alice's bed and fiddled with the zipper for a moment. The material rustled as I carefully pulled the dress out.
I felt very sneaky wearing it without Alice around, but I pushed the thought of her reproach away. For once I wanted to try it on without having someone squealing in delight over my shoulder. To be honest, it was much easier to put on with some help around. It took me a while to get it right; the hooks and buttons were too small for my clumsy fingers. Once I got it zipped properly, I took a deep breath and turned to face the full length mirror behind me.
Staring back at me was the reflection of a stranger. There was obvious glint in her brown eyes, one which could only be the result of exhilaration. The faint flush in her cheeks suggested a similar notion. Her hair, the only trait we seemed to share, was streaming down her shoulders, dull and shapeless. It didn't seem to bother her. There was no resentment in the way she held herself, not even towards the fact she was days away from her nineteenth birthday and wearing a wedding gown.
I did half a spin; my reflection imitated the motion. The dress whooshed softly around me, and stilled when I stilled. I would never admit it to Alice, but I liked the dress a lot. When I first saw it, my first thought was how right it'd been for Edward, but the truth was that it had been right for me as well. It fitted me perfectly, showing off curves I had never suspected existed, and making me appear more graceful than I could ever be.
I was more like the stranger in the mirror than I cared to admit. Somehow in the haste of preparations, I got caught up in it all. It wasn't until I'd looked closely that I realized my excitement was showing. My reflection radiated with a definite glow. It was so close now. Two weeks were all that had left before I tied myself to him in every way humanly possible.
I'd made my choice, and I was determined to follow it through, but at the same time it terrified me, in a way I could never admit to anyone. So close to the wedding, there was nothing left to do but stressing, and I found myself doing that more often than not. This was why I'd decided to try on my dress. It dissolved some of my silly insecurities. It made me appear more his equal, more like a part of his world. Wearing it soothed me, in an odd sort of way.
I was so absorbed with self-reassurances that for a moment I didn't realize mine wasn't the only reflection staring back at me. As soon as I realized I wasn't alone, I turned back with a start. He wasn't just a reflection. He was leaning against the doorway, just watching me, unmoving. My first instinct was to escape into Alice's wardrobe, but acting on it seemed pointless; he'd already seen too much.
"Edward, what are you doing here?" I asked frantically, still somewhat tipsy about the way he'd sneaked in on me. I'd already abandoned my instinctive wish to flee the room. There was no reason to hide now, and he didn't seem as if he was going anywhere. There was no reason to freak out either. I didn't care about traditions or superstitions. It had all been Alice's obsession. We'd already had all the bad luck the world could offer; I could only hope we'd seen the last of it with Victoria's destruction a few months ago.
I didn't walk towards him. It was a short distance to the door, but I feared I would stumble over the train of my dress. My heart kept its violent rhythm, and I didn't think that would be any help for my faulty balance. "I thought you were off hunting with Emmett," I told him. "Does Alice know you're here? Do you want her to bite your head off if she ever finds out about this? It would be a little difficult to replace the groom two weeks before the wedding."
"Emmett and I didn't go far," he finally replied, still giving me a look so intense it made my insides melt. It also reminded me why it was worth going through all this. I'd keep my side of the bargain, and then he'd have no choice but keeping his. My skin tingled with anticipation.
He hadn't said anything else, nor had he looked away. His stare was piercing, almost too piercing, as if he remained unaware of his affect on me. I could feel more blood rushing to my face, settling just beneath my cheeks. For a moment I regretted I hadn't kicked him out of the room like Alice would have done, had she been here with me. "What?" I whispered, looking down with difficulty.
It was a moment before he spoke again. "You look lovely."
The words made me look up. His stare was less intense now; it was wistful, full of yearning. And yet, I couldn't help but chuckle. "Lovely?" I echoed. "Not beautiful? Breathtaking? Ravishing?" I spoke the words as I slowly advanced towards him. Each word brought me a step closer, until I was finally in front of him. My lips curled into a teasing grin. "Should I be offended that lovely was all you've managed to come up with?"
This was when I noticed his eyes, really noticed them, for the first time. They were dark, and not from thirst; serious, mostly that. And… hollow, in a way. He didn't seem willing to take part in my banter. He just… stood there, keeping that bloodcurdling gaze on mine. I laughed – the sound was nervous and somewhat shaky – and reached out to touch his cheek. He didn't flinch back, although now I'd almost expected him to. His eyelids fluttered close, but the motion didn't seem one of pleasure. A chill ran down my spine. "Edward, what's wrong?"
At the sound of this query, he opened his eyes and looked at me again. His blazing stare weakened me instantly. I needed something to hold on to, but even the doorway was too far. Suddenly I dreaded stepping away from him. On some hidden impulse, I knew I should better be on my guard.
"Edward, what? What is it?"
"I need to speak to you."
His tone gave nothing away. His expression was smooth, a perfect façade of calmness. I saw right through it. Something was wrong. And once I'd made this observation, there was this constant ringing in my ears as horror washed over me. Nonetheless, I struggled not to let my panic show. I could keep calm. I would. Falling apart without knowing the reason for it seemed like the wrong strategy here. "Alright. I'm listening."
"No. Not like this. Will you… change and come outside with me?"
"Of course," I replied slowly, trying to pinpoint what was it about his voice that made it sound so odd. "Where do you want to go?"
"I'll be down in five minutes."
With fingers shaking twice as bad now, it took me nearly ten minutes to figure out how to undo the back of my dress, and another five minutes to take it off and change. When I met him in the Cullens' living room nearly twenty minutes later, the light hadn't returned to Edward's eyes. I remembered all too well the last time I'd seen his eyes so dead. A shudder went through me; I tried very hard to compose myself before I reached him. There was absolutely no reason to panic, I told myself over and over again. He knew how stressed I'd been over the wedding. He wouldn't try pulling off any nasty tricks so close to it.
Or would he…?
But I had to push the question away as soon as I reached the bottom step. He got up from the piano bench and was by my side in less than a second, too fast for me to get my alarm under control. If he had noticed the fright in my eyes, he didn't comment on it.
"Are you ready to go?"
I only nodded because I didn't trust myself with speech. It felt as if every nerve in my body was on edge. It all felt familiar, painfully so; him suggesting us to take a walk, our silent wandering into the depth of the forest, my nervous anticipation to what he had to say. I remembered everything that followed, the darkness, the emptiness, the hole in my chest. Suddenly the pain was there again, although not as poignant, just a hazy memory of it, a reminder. The ringing in my ears worsened. I tried not to panic, but at the same time I couldn't help it. He wouldn't be so secretive if what he had to say was any good.
The meadow was blossoming in its midsummer glory. I remembered the wild colors from our multiple visits there the previous summer, before all hell broke loose in September. Were we to repeat the same chaos now? It seemed ridiculous to think so – hadn't I tried on my wedding gown just half an hour ago? – but at the same time, I didn't seem able to shake off that bad feeling.
He didn't suggest we'd take a seat or that I'd rest against one of the boulders that surrounded the neat circle of vegetation. He didn't even step into the brilliant sunlight like he'd usually done in my presence. The perfection of our meadow was completely overlooked. We stood facing each other in the shadow. I put my arms around myself – it was chilly away from the sun. I looked up at him expectantly, but nothing came out at first.
When he did speak, though, I wished he had never had.
"Bella…" His voice broke as soon as he uttered my name. I recognized the longing in his tortured gaze. It was the same I found there earlier when he observed my dress. The blood in my veins turned to ice. This was not good. "I'm not sure how to… There's something I need to… I should have done this a long time ago. Not so close to…"
"Hey," I murmured, reaching out for him again. Unlike he'd done earlier, this time he drew back. His reaction caught me so off guard that I gasped. He'd never recoiled from me before. The impact of rejection was instant; hurt was excruciating, a blow straight to my stomach.
It was nothing comparing to what followed.
"I can't go on with all this."
I blinked, undecided whether he was referring to what I thought he'd been referring. My first impulse was to dismiss it. Surely it was nothing but a case of cold feet. Ever since our engagement had become official, he'd been taunting me about my insecurities, so much so that at some point I'd begun to suspect it was his way of concealing his own doubts about the matter.
Looking closely, though, it seemed more than that, far too serious than any anxiety attack I'd experienced ever since our engagement had become a sealed deal. He looked beyond nervous. He looked downright petrified.
Needless to say, it wasn't like Edward to appear so insecure. While it was nice to know that even the invincible Edward Cullen had his moments of weakness, I didn't like it. He was my anchor. Whenever I got afraid, all I had to do was look at him and rest assured everything would be okay. A moment ago I gloated over the possibility of a potential flaw; now I wanted more than anything to set things right again. Seeing him so helpless defied all logic.
"You mean the wedding? We don't have to – it doesn't have to be – I mean, it'll be inconvenient to call it all off on such short notice, and Alice will be properly pissed at both of us, but I'm sure it won't be such a big de…" My voice trailed mid-sentence when I caught up on his expression, which was impossibly more grim.
"I don't mean the wedding," he said gravely, and so quietly I thought I misheard him.
"You mean… later?" I could barely let the words out without blushing. I hoped he couldn't detect the disappointed note the question carried. If he had meant his part of our agreement, I told myself I wouldn't resent him. I wouldn't make a fuss. I wouldn't pester him about not making good on his promise. Maybe I was pushing my limits way beyond his patience. Who said I needed to have every human experience? If that was the thing that bothered him, I'd rather have my Edward back than take our relationship that step forward.
Once again, I couldn't have been more wrong.
"I don't mean my promise to you. Well, in a way, I do, but not that particular promise. Everything I've promised you – all of it – I can't do it. I shouldn't have done it. I should have stopped it much earlier, before things came to this."
"I don't understand what you're telling me," I whispered, head reeling. Thinking back, I would have preferred it if he told me he wanted to call off our deal.
"You know what I'm telling you." He sighed and looked straight at me. I didn't like what I found in his eyes. "Bella, this has all been a wonderful, incredible dream. But that's all it's ever been, a dream. Both of us are good at dreaming. This is why it lasted as long as it has. But it's time to wake up now. It can't happen. Us can't happen."
From a dark corner at the back of my mind, a soft reproach surfaced. I'm a good liar, but still, for you to believe me so quickly… I hoped that, if you thought I'd moved on, so would you… When I told you I didn't want you, it was the very blackest kind of blasphemy. Well, I'd definitely learned my lesson. He had made sure of it, long ago. "I don't believe you." The quiver in my voice made the statement less confident than I had intended. "Not this time."
For a moment he looked at loss. Then, slowly, he shook his head. "I guess I have brought it onto myself, after… that time. But this time is different."
"You're lying." There was something hot and wet against my cheeks. The tears came as no surprise to me. My throat felt tight ever since he'd started speaking. "You don't mean it. You can't mean it. Not now, not ever."
"Bella, don't you see how wrong this is? You deserve so much better."
"There's nothing else I want!"
It was as if I hadn't spoken. "You deserve a chance at normal life; warmth and a family, a human family. I can't give you all that, but he can."
He didn't use his name, but he didn't have to. I hadn't heard from Jacob in weeks. His name came up a few weeks ago, when we had finalized the guest list right before the invitations were sent. Edward was truly chivalrous, asking if I wanted to invite Jacob and his dad, although I could sense the effort in simply bringing it up. It was partly why I refused. Deep down I'd always known he'd never gotten over that kiss a few months ago. But was it that kiss that triggered his decision to call things off? Was it really down to choosing sides again?
"I avoided thinking about it because I was so thrilled you've actually agreed to marry me that I was blind to everything. He's your equal, in a way I can never be. He can give you so much more than I can. He will make you happy. Things will be normal with him."
Even if I could find the words to fight him off, it seemed useless to even attempt it. He looked so determined, so convinced of the things he was telling me – could he seriously, actually mean them?
"I'm doing it for your sake," he whispered. "This is what's best for you."
"Being with Jacob isn't what's best for me," I argued, but as soon as I said it, I remembered that kiss, and doubts began to form almost instantly. I wouldn't need to be careful with Jake. I wouldn't have to come up with silly compromises to take our physical relationship into its inevitable next step. I wouldn't have to marry him while still in my teens against my better judgment. And most of all, I wouldn't have to cut myself off from my parents' lives in order to be with him.
Looking up at Edward, he nodded ever so slightly, as if for the first time he could read my mind. "You know it would."
I couldn't bring myself to protest. He seemed ready to contradict any one of my arguments. And it all came down to one thing – my safety, supposedly that. Defeat was overwhelming. As much as I wanted to win this fight, I knew there was no way I could. He made up his mind. He was leaving again, but this time for good.
"What are you going to... Where…" I couldn't ask it. I couldn't believe we were having this conversation.
"I'm going to Denali." His voice was resigned, resolute. I felt more tears welling up. "I need to get away for a while. Both of us will benefit from the distance."
I wanted to yell at him, to remind him that the only thing that could truly harm me was his absence. Learning his destination didn't soothe me as he had probably intended it to, because the details of another conversation suddenly resurfaced. Rosalie wasn't the first who had mentioned the Denali coven to me, but she was the only one who had brought an important detail about them to my attention. All those females... And one in particular, one whom he admitted had singled him out.
"You – " I started, but soon forgot what I meant to say next. A golden glimpse among the trees across from where we were standing made me halt. Not gold, I quickly realized, but strawberry blonde. "No," I murmured just as she stepped into the meadow. I'd never seen her before, and yet I recognized her at once.
He didn't look back to acknowledge her. His stare was still on mine, and I was wondering if his inability to read my mind was still frustrating to him. Why else would he look at me so intently, if he didn't care about breaking my heart just after it had been mended?
"Tanya has kindly agreed to look after me during my stay."
In perfect synch with his explanation she crossed the meadow, advancing towards us. She was shimmering in the sunlight like the most precious of gems. She had that same graceful step as Alice. She all but glided to his side, her hair swishing about her with every step she took. He offered her his arm. Her eyes were set on mine, cold and victorious, as she linked her arm with his. Looking at them standing there, I began to wonder how I ever believed I was worthy of him. I could never stand up to her astounding perfection. In her golden glory, she was his rightful match. They belonged together in their startling, blinding beauty. In a way he and I could never, would never, belong together.
"Edward, please." A broken whisper, nothing more. Everything was falling apart. My confidence, my heart, my life…
"There's nothing else to say." His voice was soothing, his face a perfect mask. He didn't seem aware of the tears that blinded me, or the tumult inside of me.
"You had it coming," she spoke to me for the first time. I was startled by the pure sound of her voice. It had the same bell-like quality as the other Cullen girls, and it carried just a hint of mockery as she looked me over from my faded jeans to my tear-struck face. "You're only human, after all."
Eyes wide in horror, I watched her as she leaned over to whisper something in his ear. Her scornful gaze was still locked on mine as her lips grazed the skin just beneath his ear. My hands clenched into fists at my sides. Her sardonic grin widened ever so slightly. She nudged him gently with her elbow.
"We'd better go," he said, seemingly unaware of our silent exchange – my misery, her gloating. He was about to turn away, but then changed his mind and brought his gaze to mine. "I'm sorry," he whispered, averting his gaze in a way that made his words sound earnest.
By the time I found the will to move again, they had vanished. I looked around me, but there was no sign of them. If I wanted to go after him, I couldn't. A few steps forward were all I managed before I collapsed onto the soft grass. A single sunbeam fell on me like a spotlight, and I thought how appropriate that was, in a twisted sort of way. The meadow was the perfect stage for my tragedy.
The sunlight hurt my eyes and dried my tears quickly, but I didn't feel its blessed warmth soaking through my skin. Instead I felt cold and numb. I remembered the searing ache only vaguely from last time, and I wasn't looking forward to experience it once more, but the truth was I'd rather have pain over this complete lack of sensation. At least the pain would be a sign that this was real, that he was gone.
And then it truly hit me. He was gone. And he was never coming back.
A fresh stream of tears hit me like a tidal wave. Once the first sob was out, there was no stopping them. I was shaking with them. I was glad no one was around to witness my shame. Being here all alone felt as though I was the only one on the planet. The thought comforted me rather than frightened me. I'd stay here until I was no longer. Nothing mattered anymore. The next rain would wash everything away, all the evidence that he'd been here, and once again it would be as if he'd never existed.
I sat up with a sudden flare of inspiration, my anguish all gone for a moment. Not everything would be washed away. I still had one concrete evidence, the most important one, that he had existed. It was the only physical proof that he had been mine, that he was still mine, despite what had just happened.
But when I looked at my hand, my engagement ring was no longer on my finger.
Next I heard a high-pitched scream. It took me a moment to realize it was coming from me.
The next thing I knew I was sitting in complete darkness. My room, some unconscious voice at the back of my mind pointed out. I was tangled in my covers; the familiar warmth wrapped around me like a hug. It took my eyes a while to adjust to the darkness after the blinding brightness I had left behind. I was still panting, heart still beating wildly as a result of my realization, the sight of the missing ring.
Gradually I became aware of a gentle voice beside me, murmuring soft comforts in my ear. I recognized the voice as his, a discovery which only intensified my weeping. I didn't know what happened or how I got to my bedroom. Did he defy Tanya and bring me back here, a final kindness? For the moment I didn't care. I held on to him as tightly as I could, sobbing into his chest.
"Shh… It's alright, Love. Everything's fine. Everything's fine."
Love. It almost sounded scornful now.
"Shh... You're going to wake your father. You don't want to give him a heart attack two weeks before the wedding, now, do you?"
At that, I tore my face from his shirt and looked up. His eyes were gleaming, dark amber in the darkness. He nodded, as if he considered my reaction an improvement, and wiped a straying tear with his thumb. My skin tingled where his thumb touched.
"What... What did you say?" I managed, trying to get my breathing under control.
"About giving your father a heart attack? It's just that I wouldn't think he'd fancy the idea of me being here – "
"No. Not that part. The part about... the wedding?"
"The wedding in two weeks?" He sounded confused, and looked even more puzzled at my astounded expression. "We are getting married in two weeks, if I'm not mistaken; unless those feet are cold again." He said it fondly, gently rubbing his feet against mine. I had to blink to assure myself I wasn't imagining it.
"But you said you didn't want..." I let my voice trail and stared at him. "You wanted to call the whole thing off."
"Why would I do that? There's nothing else I want but to make you my wife." The confidence in his eyes shifted into concern in a matter of seconds. "Bella, Love, what is it? Why are you crying?"
"Because you just said – You decided – You went with – " It was useless. I couldn't string three words together, let alone full sentences. Confusion lingered in his stare before he pulled me closer to his chest again. His fingers threaded in my hair, slowly combing through it. Closing my eyes, I took a deep breath, cursing myself for my masochistic tendencies. It would hurt twice as bad when he left.
"Does this have anything to do with the dream you've just had?"
The word made me look up from the damp material of his shirt. "What – what dream?"
For a moment he looked as if he wasn't sure whether to laugh or moan in frustration. Then he settled on the first option, and his arms tightened around me. "You were having another dream, sweetheart."
The meaning of the words slowly crept into my subconscious. Just another dream. I blinked away a few stray tears as I struggled to bring my eyes to his. There was a distinct gleam in them, seemingly relief. "It wasn't real?"
He laughed again, and pressed a kiss to the top of my head. "Do you know of a world where I wouldn't want to marry you?"
I couldn't believe my own stupidity, but at the same time I couldn't think of a reason why it wouldn't seem real to me. The dream encased everything I had feared of; Edward stepping back so that Jacob could take his place, the wedding being called off in such short notice, Tanya… All my deepest fears and insecurities embodied in this one hideous nightmare.
"I can't say I'm surprised," he continued, still speaking softly over my head. "You have an overly active imagination. I can't wait to see how it plays out when you're a vampire."
"You still… want to change me?"
"I don't want that, ever. But since we've made our deal…" He shifted a little, making me look at him. "Bella, why would you even think I'd want to do such a thing? Calling it all off? Why would you doubt my love for you?"
"I don't. I would never. It's just…" I remembered his tortured expression when he said those horrible words to me. It haunted me now. I thought I might as well confront him about the thing that had been bugging me for a while now. "How is it possible you're so cool about all this? Aren't you scared?"
"I'm terrified." The words threw me off a little, although I should probably have seen it coming. For a moment, he looked as defenseless as I'd often felt. "But it doesn't change things. Both of us have made our choices. It's only inevitable we follow them through."
Now, that sounded more like my Edward. Listening to him, I wondered how I could ever believe the other one was real. I nestled further into his embrace. "I love you," I whispered.
"As I love you," he replied with another kiss to the top of my head. "Go back to sleep now, my beautiful dreamer. I'll still want to marry you when you wake up."
I laughed through tears. He tucked the covers around me, and I snuggled closer to him as soon as he eased himself against the bed board. The cold that sipped from his body was familiar, comforting. This is real, I told myself as my eyes fluttered close again. Being forever by his side was both my biggest dream and my only reality. I was going to make it all come true in two weeks' time. And as I drifted into a dreamless slumber, I'd never felt more confident about the approaching wedding.