A Love Worth Defending

What They Have Left

The click of the door was a thunderclap in the silence as Edward and Bella faced each other for the third time in two days. Edward could have stared at her for the rest of his life without getting enough. He missed her powerfully, and he put his hands in his pockets to keep them chaste.

For her part, Bella took herself and her smile to the kitchenette. She inhaled as if to speak but stopped herself with a soft laugh and shake of her head.

“May I share in the joke?”

“It’s stupid.” Bella rolled her eyes. “I keep wanting to offer you something.”

“As in…”

She waved a hand toward the refrigerator. “Coffee, tea, orange juice.”

“Oh.” Edward chuckled. “Some juice would be great.”

Bella retrieved a glass from the cabinet. “You’re gonna drink it too.”

“Whatever you say, Ms. Swan.”

His tone changed the atmosphere, and Bella set the glass on the counter with a slight tremble. Her heart rate sped up, and Edward inhaled deeply as her natural scent intensified around him.

How easily things shifted with a word.

“Perhaps I should offer you something,” Edward said. “You didn’t have breakfast yet.”

“I’m fine,” Bella said as her stomach rumbled in dissent. “Maybe just some toast.”

“Let’s make it French,” he said.

Bella watched in fascination as he produced the ingredients from the cabinets and refrigerator. “Were you guys expecting an army?”

“We just wanted you to have everything you needed.”

Bella reached for the juice she poured. “Thank you.”

Those simple words tucked themselves into Edward’s heart, and he held onto them as he whipped up a modest stack of French toast in minutes. Setting the plate in front of her with a decorative side of fruit, he bowed with a matching French accent. “Your meal, mademoiselle.”

Bella gave an amused nod, picking up the provided knife and fork. She sectioned off a small piece and looked into a pair of eager golden eyes. “Are you going to watch me eat?”

If Edward could have blushed, his cheeks would have been six shades of red. “I think I’ll take that juice now.”

He instead directed his attention to tidying the minimal mess, using human speed so as not to stare as Bella mmm’d her way through her meal. The simple domesticity of the scene was not lost on Edward, and he hoped this would be the first of many such occasions.

“You really are good at everything.” Bella set her utensils on the plate, dabbing at her mouth with the napkin. “That was amazing.”

“I’m pleased you enjoyed it.” He removed her dishes and set them in the sink. “Though I do not understand how you find it appetizing.”

“Well, it’s no irritable grizzly, but…”

Bella paused as the familiar retort passed her lips, and Edward met her eyes. He could almost see the memory of their first breakfast in her kitchen the morning after the meadow. Everything had been simple then, so bright and full of possibilities….

“Shall we go into the sitting area?” Bella said. “I know you’re comfortable standing, but…”

“No, that’s fine. Whatever you’d like to do.”

Bella tucked her feet beneath her on the couch. “Tell me about Victoria’s death.”

Edward parked on the bench across from her. “Didn’t Jasper explain?”

“Yes, but he wasn’t there.” She looked up. “And he’s not you.”

Edward nodded, wanting to keep her gaze on his face. “At first Victoria raged, fuming and spewing obscenities about your escape. But upon realizing she’d lost, her thoughts mellowed and she became relieved.”

“Why?”

“Because she was about to see James. The shift in her mental focus was startling. Though uncertain about the immortal afterlife, she was convinced James would be there. Her final thought was of his smiling face.”

Bella shuddered in disgust. “And she’s really gone?”

“I was watching her simmering ashes when Jasper called report you were safe.”

“Why did you choose Jasper to look after me?”

“I felt he was the best choice.”

“Better than you?”

Edward blinked, floored by the baldness of her question. She averted her gaze, and he cleared his throat. “Under the circumstances, yes. Victoria was our enemy—yours and mine—and I needed to handle her demise myself. Besides which….”

“Yes?”

“I promised not to return until you called,” he said softly. “And you hadn’t yet done so.”

“Right.” There was another long pause before she asked. “Why was I removed from my mother’s house?”

“Cullen family policy. We never conduct supernatural business in a human’s home without their permission.”

“So the myth is true?”

“I suppose. Carlisle taught us to respect human life, and that courtesy extends to their property. Renee is your mother, but it would be disrespectful to convene in her home without her knowledge. These rooms are remote and paid for.”

“Okay, but why was I chloroformed?”

Edward winced, his discomfort returning. “We couldn’t be sure how you might react to the scene, and we wanted to make sure you were safe.”

“You mean ‘subdued’?”

Edward half-smiled but did not deny it.

Bella watched his face and blew out a soft breath. “I appreciate everyone’s effort and dedication on my behalf.”

“But?”

"But I wish I would have had a choice.” Her voice was calm but taut. “That someone would have taken me upstairs and asked before making such a rash decision. Can you understand that?"

"Yes. I can understand that."

Edward turned away, hiding his eyes from view.

"But?" Bella asked.

"But when it comes to your safety, I would rather rob you of choice than risk your life."

"So everything you said last night, all your apologies and wishes to do things differently.” Her gaze bore into his. “Were they all a lie?"

"No. I swore I would never lie to you again. Even if the truth made you hate me."

"Then what is this?"

Edward tampered down disappointment that she hadn't said "I could never hate you" and focused on the question. "This is me being honest, Bella. Confessing my failings rather than pretending they don't exist. Isn't that the better choice?"

She opened her mouth as if to speak then shut it. "Yes, it is."

Edward’s next words were cut off by Bella’s phone. She crossed the room to retrieve it from the nightstand, keeping her back to Edward. “Hey, Mom.”

Edward used the time to gather his thoughts and wash the dishes. He heard both sides of the conversation—Renee’s excitement about Phil’s performance in last night’s game, Bella’s careful sharing of her last 24 hours—and tried to ignore it until he heard his name.

“Have you heard from Edward?” Renee asked.

“Uh, yeah.” Bella’s heartbeat quickened, but she didn’t turn around. “I was talking to him when your call came through.”

“Oh!” Renee was full of apologies. “Don’t let me keep you. Just remember: love makes men stupid. So if Edward did something stupid, that only proves how bad he’s got it for you.”

“Okay, Mom.” Edward didn’t miss the tension in Bella’s voice. “Say hi to Phil.”

“And do the same for Edward. Love you!”

Bella set the phone on the nightstand. Muttering under her breath, she returned to the couch. “Renee says hey.”

Edward folded the dishtowel and set it on the counter as Bella resumed her place on the couch. She seemed tired and overwhelmed, and that was the last thing he wanted.

“Before your mother called, we were talking about last night.” He stood on the edge of the seating area with his hands in his pockets. “And I meant everything I said; I hope you know that. But you haven’t had a moment to think, any real time to process what’s happened. And in fairness, I want to be sure you…”

“Are you trying to leave again?” she asked anxiously. “Is that what you’re saying?”

“No, love." He was kneeling beside her in an instant, though he kept his hands to himself. "I would never do that again."

"But how do I know that?" The fear lingered, but there was grit beneath it. "How do I know leaving won't be your first response when things get tough? Because they will get tough, Edward. It's the law of life."

"Once you're changed, that won't be an issue.”

She crossed her arms beneath her chest. “No.”

Though Bella continued speaking, Edward couldn’t process her words. Her swift, sharp denial was a silver bullet to the heart, and he figured he was bleeding internally. He should have known she wouldn't want forever anymore. It was presumptuous to think otherwise, after all he'd done...

"... certain issues my immortality will not solve. And if we're going to be together for the next thousand years, you have to understand that."

Edward looked at her, blinking as if awakening from a dream. "What?"

"What what?"

“Did you...I mean, are you still..." He exhaled slowly, trying a third time. "You haven't changed your mind?"

"About?"

"Becoming one of us?"

Bella rose from the sofa, walking toward the window. "Edward, I don’t think that’s the most pressing issue right now."

"I know, but..." He looked down, unable to hold her gaze. "I just want to know."

He heard the rustle of the curtains, the click of the latch as she opened the window. The scent of sea air and sunshine flooded the room and filled his lungs to capacity. He knew she was right, that there were other more important questions to answer, and he would answer every one.

But if she still wanted to become a vampire, if that impossible truth had not changed, the confirmation would set so many of his fears to rest….

"What would you have done if you had won?"

He looked up. “I’m sorry?”

"Had Rosalie found in your favor at the end of the trial." She raised her voice without turning around. "What would you have done?"

Edward steepled his hands as his elbows rested on his knees, unraveled by the subject change. "I don't know how to answer that. Things are so different now." He paused, tasting her silence. "But based on my mindset and fears at the time, I would have…strongly considered leaving."

That made her turn around. "Strongly considered?"

“Yes.”

She threw up her hands. “After all that posturing in court, you expect me to believe you might have stayed?”

Edward’s head dropped, and he didn’t answer.

“Well?”

“Yes.”

She laughed without humor. “You’re lying.”

“I promised I wouldn’t.”

“You have to be.”

“I understand why you feel that way, but you didn’t know.”

“Know what?”

“During the trial, you didn’t know how close I was to conceding and accepting defeat.”

Bella’s eyes widened. “What in the world are you talking about?”

“When you called Angela Weber first, I thought I had a chance. She was human and had no idea what our relationship entailed. But she was clever and, with nothing to lose or hide, surprisingly effective.”

“I’m glad you were impressed.”

“But it was more than your witnesses or evidence that convinced me I couldn’t win,” he continued. “Something greater against which I stood no real chance.”

“And what was that?”

“You.”

Bella clenched her fists at her sides, and Edward smelled different saltwater in the air. “Please don’t flatter me, Edward. Not now.”

“It’s not flattery if it’s true.” He rose from the couch, approaching her at the window. “I watched you in that courtroom, brave and in possession of a backbone I’d never seen before. And as you defended our love despite my opposition, I realized you weren’t fighting against me—you were fighting for me, for us. Doing what I was too terrified and guilt-ridden to do. And as I saw that, I realized the chances of me ever leaving were…”

“No!” Bella stormed away, putting the length of the room between them. “Don’t try to rewrite the story now. I was there in the basement, remember? I asked you to stop, to let the whole thing go and run away with me. But you refused. You stood there cold and indifferent while I poured out my heart, and…”

“Indifferent?” Edward’s eyes blazed. “No, Bella. Pushing you away was killing me! I was positively nauseated by all I put you through.”

“Maybe so,” she said. “But you did it anyway.”

“Because I was afraid I might lose you.”

“Yes, because you were walking away!”

“No, because I almost killed you on your birthday!”

The room stilled with the force of his shout, and a few tense moments passed. “That’s still no excuse for trying to leave me.”

“Do you know what I remember most about your birthday party?” Edward asked. “Not the glass, your dress, or even my family’s thoughts as you bled on our floor.” He stepped toward her, his voice hollow. “What I remember most, what haunts me day and night is the fear in your eyes after you fell, the bone-chilling terror you couldn’t deny.”

Bella looked away, wrapping an arm around her waist. “Edward…”

“You had never been afraid of me—not after the attack in Port Angeles, not in the meadow, not even in Phoenix as I clamped onto your wrist. But that night when you looked at me, for the first time you saw me for the bloodthirsty monster I was, and it terrified you, as well it should.”

He shook off the memory with a shaky breath. “Yet you denied it. Every time I asked if you were all right, you lied and said you were fine.”

“I was.”

“No, you weren’t.” His voice was low, its fury unmistakable. “Beyond the scrapes on your arm and the stains on your dress, you were anything but fine, and your refusal to admit it only solidified my belief that I had to leave to keep you safe.”

“And what would have changed had I been honest?”

Edward stuttered, not expecting the question. “We…we would have at least talked before…”

“Before you left anyway? Let me clue you in, Edward. Had I admitted being scared, you would have used my words as proof that we shouldn’t be together. And guess what! Things would be exactly as they are right now. Whether in Forks or Florida, we’d be having this same discussion. So excuse me for lying to spare your feelings, but isn’t that what you called yourself doing in the forest?”

He pinched the bridge of his nose, cloaked in shame. “You’re right. I’m sorry.”

“Yes. I’m right, and you’re sorry, but so what?” Her voice cracked with emotion. “What’s the point of discussing that? Does it even matter now?”

He raised his head, his eyes darkening with fear of their own. “What do you mean?”

“Why are we discussing the past, Edward? I bled, you pushed me, and I fell. You lied and tried to leave, and I took you to court. You refused to lose, and I left the state. What’s the point?”

“I don’t know, Bella. I just…” He ran agitated hands through his hair. “I am so sorry for lying to you, for making you lie to me. I’m sorry for trying to leave, for putting us through that asinine trial. I’m sorry for every single decision I’ve made since Thursday save the one that ended in Victoria’s death. I’m sorry for making you doubt me, for breaking your trust. And even ‘I’m sorry’ isn’t enough to convey…”

“Then please stop saying it.”

“Then what should I say? How can I make things right between us? I’ve reached the end of myself, Bella, and I don’t know where to go from here. It is unfair to keep revisiting the unchangeable past, but the future is scarier because it’s uncertain, and I …I don’t know what to do.”

Edward fought the urge to look away, blinking only when she did. Her expression hadn’t changed, and as the silent seconds ticked by, Edward held his proverbial breath, looking for the slightest sign of reprieve.

At length, Bella looked down, breaking their connection. She stepped around him, and Edward heard the dip of the bed as she sat upon it. With a weighty sigh, Bella spoke.

“You’re right.”

He turned around to face her, his heart in his throat. “What was that?”

“You’re right. We can’t keep talking in circles about things we can’t change. We need to find a way to deal with what we have left.”

Edward felt as if his very insides were trembling. “And what do we have left, Bella?”

Bella raised her gaze but did not meet his eyes right away. When she did, they both swallowed hard. “Edward Cullen, I love you. I love you so much it physically hurts to be this close without touching you. And I miss you. I miss you holding me at night, kissing my face and humming me to sleep. I miss every sweet and easy thing about us, every dream and wish we shared before this last week destroyed it.”

Edward was nodding along. When she stopped talking, he closed his eyes, bracing himself. “But…”

She blew out a long, harsh breath. “But nothing.”

“What?”

“There are no ‘buts’ in love, Edward. No ‘I love you, but I can’t forgive you.’ No ‘I love you, but I’m leaving you.’ Love is challenging, frustrating, and sometimes painful. But it bears, believes, hopes, and endures all things. We’ll never recover what we lost, and it will take time before we feel at ease again. But as long we stay together, we’ll be fine.”

If vampires could cry, Edward would have been a sobbing mess. Instead he stared at his beloved, marveling at his good fortune. Despite his belief that love had pushed her at trial, after she tossed him out last night, he couldn’t be sure of her feelings. But now, he was sure of something even better.

Her refusal to give up on them.

“Thank you.” He was breathless. “From the bottom of my heart, Bella, thank you.”

“Stop.” She waved him off, smiling as she came to her feet. “Now if you don’t mind, I need you to return to your room.”

The request was a total surprise, but he fought off his disappointment. “Of course.”

“Since you’ll be packed in three seconds, could you make the flight arrangements? I want to be in Forks in time to surprise Charlie with dinner.” She retrieved her return ticket from her wallet. “You’ll need this, right?”

Edward stared at her hand, and before he could stop himself, he bent to kiss it. Her gentle gasp filled his heart, and he released her, not wanting to push too fast.

“Thank you,” he said again, meeting her eyes.

“Thank you.” A warm blush flooded her cheeks she made no attempt to hide. “I’ll see you in a minute.”

“I’ll be waiting.”

“Okay.”

They stared at each other for another few ticks of the clock before Bella playfully shoved him. “Go or we’ll never get out of here.”

Edward grinned, turning to leave with a spring in his step. Bella chuckled behind him, and her laughter followed him next door. He packed and secured their flight in ten short minutes, and by the time he remade the bed, Bella was knocking on the wall between them.

He joined her in the hallway where she was locking her door. Handing him the keycard, Bella smiled up at him. “Ready?”

Edward tilted his head and frowned. Holding out a hand for her overnight bag, he hoisted it on his right shoulder. After a beat of hesitation, he extended his left hand in invitation. Bella looked at his outstretched fingers and met his eyes as she laced their fingers together. Her trusting touch kissed his very soul, and he caressed her skin with his thumb, smiling into her eyes.

“Now we’re ready.”

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