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The Road Not Taken

Summary:
Epilogue: “She didn’t really seem like that sort of girl,” Tanya commented, her tone just a tad sour, and Demetri quirked a smile.

“I get the feeling there’s a lot more to her than we’ve suspected.”
Sequel to The Road Less Traveled by Daintress of tm_switzerland.The Road Not Taken


Notes:


18. Chapter 18

Rating 5/5   Word Count 3415   Review this Chapter

The cell phone that Edward never used anymore was ringing insistently as the elevator opened to admit them to their floor. Bella followed Edward into his sitting room and waited while he went to retrieve it, already knowing whom it would be. Who else could it be but....

“Alice. Yes. Yes, everyone should come. Tanya? Why?” Edward looked toward Bella, who shrugged. “Alright,” he said into the phone. And then he held it away from his ear and looked at it briefly. She’d hung up on him. Apparently that was all the instruction she required. “She’s a little excited,” he deadpanned as Bella laughed.

She crossed the room quickly and he reached for her, folding her into his arms with relief. This was really going to happen this time. They were going to be together. She was going to marry him. Finally. He let his cheek rest against the top of her head and just breathed in the scent of her hair. His contentment lasted quite some time, until she pulled away and smiled up at him. He noticed with a bit of alarm that there was some sadness in her smile. She didn’t say anything, though. Instead, she took his hand and pulled him across the hall, into her own rooms. He had time to wonder if the situation reminded her of her engagement to Jacob, or if she was already having second thoughts. He had time to wish he’d had the courage to ask first and had a ring ready to offer her. He had time to wonder what she’d ever done with his mother’s ring and wish he could give her that one all over again. He remembered plainly how he’d felt when he’d first seen that ring on her finger, and doubted that whatever he ended up buying for her would ever have the same significance to him.

She led him to the leather couch and he sat obediently, becoming desperate to know what she was thinking, though he hid it well. He watched as she darted to the bookshelf and back again, far faster and far more gracefully than she ever could have as a human. Then she was kneeling in front of him, placing a stack of journals on his right. “You should read them before everyone comes. Just to be sure – “ Bella’s whisper stopped abruptly, but then she seemed to set her jaw. She raised her eyes to his. “To be sure this is still what you want.”

He leaned down until his forehead met hers, closing his eyes. “This will always be what I want.” Nothing in the journals could ever change how he felt about her. However, he was dying to read them. Figuratively speaking, of course. He’d expended a ridiculous amount of effort in the last few years to prevent himself from reading them without her knowledge. If he hadn’t been so afraid that she could read guilt on his soul the way he could hear it in someone’s thoughts, he might have given in to the urge. But he didn’t reach for the first one, waiting, instead, until she offered it.

After a moment, Bella bit her lip and picked up the journal that began with the first time he’d left her, and placed it in his lap. He sat up. “Are you going to sit there while I read them?” he asked, his tone carefully amused. She looked like she was praying, kneeling in front of him with her hands still on the spiral bound book, watching him through her lashes with her head slightly bowed.

“Would you rather I wasn’t in the room?” she asked worriedly.

Edward grinned. “No.” He set the journal aside and lifted her into his lap in one graceful movement. “I’d rather you were here.” He picked up the journal again and held it so they both could see as he opened it, but Bella only rested her head against his shoulder and closed her eyes. She had memorized her own words long ago. She heard the pages turn, and pressed her face against his neck, waiting.

Edward read slowly, for him. He’d often, after the Superman movies came out, enjoyed reading by flipping through the pages at ridiculous speed just to annoy Rosalie and Emmett. This, however, was not the sort of story he wanted to read all at once. Bella had described the pain she felt at their separation, the numbness, the slow reawakening, in great detail. He was thankful to know so much of what had gone through her mind during that time, but pained, as well, to learn the extent of the damaged he had caused.

It was agonizing to read of her first tentative days with Jacob, as she’d realized how it helped her to be around him, but instead of jealousy, all he felt was gratitude that someone had been there to pull her out of her stupor. To make her feel alive again. He would have been mortified to come home and discover the zombie she described herself to have become in his absence. The jealousy didn’t kick in until he read her description of movie night with Jacob and Mike Newton.

Bella felt a low growl rumble through Edward’s chest, and opened her eyes to see what he was reading at that moment. Then she snuggled against him more tightly and pressed a cool kiss under his jaw. The tremor ceased, and he turned his head to kiss her temple in return. “Sorry,” he whispered, turning another page. They both knew it was only going to get worse.

He set down the journal when he’d finished and reached for the next. A quick glance told him that the ones he’d already read were still on her bookshelf, including her thoughts on the trip she’d made to Volterra to save his life. He had both treasured and abhorred reading that. There had been Jacob begging her to stay at the very beginning of it that had torn at his heart. Edward could picture the way she’d kissed Jacob’s palm before rushing to his rescue. He forced himself to remember the rest, as well. The careful way she’d caressed him as they sat in the harsh light of Gianna’s office together, waiting for sunset. And the broken way she’d insisted he was only a dream when she awoke in her own bed, days later. In the moments before he opened the next journal, he recalled the way she’d asked him not to kiss her for fear that it would shatter her heart entirely when he left again. And she hadn’t said if. She’d said when. It shamed him to realize that her fear had been entirely justified.

He sensed Bella’s attention on him and realized that his breathing had become irregular. It had been such a bittersweet reunion. She’d said that she hadn’t moved on. That she still loved him. But soon after, he’d discovered that there was Jacob. He read through the events of the remainder of their senior year; the Quileute legends were all preserved there in their entirety. But more disturbing to him was the sense of belonging she’d felt that night with the pack. He recalled his own panic at having her gone where he couldn’t follow. He’d thought of the wolves as dangerous, and to an extent they were. But he could see as he read that even then, they had thought of her as family. To have included her in a council meeting…he forced his fingers to turn the page, wondering what Bella would make of his pauses, perturbed at not knowing.

He measured his breathing carefully and continued, reading quickly through the memories they shared, though reveling in the happiness that their togetherness seemed to have brought her. He read her account of Jacob’s kiss and the resulting broken hand a bit more slowly, pleased to discover that at that point, she really had felt nothing but anger. Nothing she was aware of, at least.

More difficult for him were the pages about her worry for him, his family, and the wolves during the Newborn War, as he’d come to think of it. That the thought of losing him caused her so much pain. And it had been only months later that he’d walked out of her life again – too caught up in his own pain to take hers into account. He gritted his teeth, horrified at his own selfishness. A moment later he felt her hand, unyielding but gentle, caressing his jaw, which relaxed at her touch without any conscious effort on his part. “Sorry,” he whispered again. He pulled her against him a little more tightly and forced his eyes back to the page.

He was surprised to learn that she’d heard his frank discussion with Jacob in the tent. That had been a difficult night. It was indisputable that he’d have far preferred to kill the boy than to let him hold Bella the way he had, fantasizing about her, and breathing in the smell of her hair. But he had restrained himself. And even after how everything had worked out, he was glad he had done so. The thought surprised him. The surprise got him through the difficult passages where she discovered for the first time that what she’d felt for Jacob all those months was love. Perhaps the worst passage in this journal was the trip she’d made to La Push to tell Jacob goodbye. It was offset on the following pages, though, by her account of the night of tears she’d spent in his arms. It was gratifying to read confirmation of what she’d told him during her last days alive. That some of those tears – the worst of them – had been for his pain, not for Jacob.

He turned the pages more quickly, looking for safer topics, but there were none. Although the month between the Newborn War and their aborted wedding had been spent primarily in his company, or Alice’s, her thoughts had been very much with Jacob, particularly once Quil and Embry let slip that Edward had sent him the invitation that sent him running. He had underestimated her anger with him on that occasion. She’d controlled it too well.

There were points of light, of course. The day they’d told Charlie they were engaged was good – when she’d first put his ring on again. But for the most part the rest of this journal was filled with pain for him. He began to understand why she hadn’t felt comfortable getting married to him at that point. Her thoughts had dwelt heavily on Jacob’s safety, even though her words made it clear that it was Edward she’d chosen.

He set the book aside when he finished and wrapped both his arms around her, drawing her tightly against him and burying his nose in her hair. He debated whether or not he wanted to continue, but knew he should. Having surely noticed his distress, she may never give him another opportunity.

He looked down at her for the first time, and she was staring at him worriedly, biting her beautiful bottom lip. He smiled in spite of himself, and put a hand to her cheek. “Thank you,” he whispered. “This is as close as I’ll ever get to hearing all your thoughts.”

Bella couldn’t help but smile back, his expression was so beautiful to her. He picked up the next journal a moment later, though, and she leaned against him again, letting her hair hide her face. College. There wasn’t much to make him happy reading about college. But to her surprise, Edward laughed at her descriptions of Eli, and later Levi as well. The ridiculous discussions that Eli’s study group had generated, spawned by baudy Shakespeare passages, made him chuckle as well. But then had come the first summer. Edward stopped reading altogether, and looked down at her, closing the book on a finger to hold his page.

“You put it back?” he asked wonderingly.

When Bella had gone to Carlisle that first summer to ask him to keep her informed about Edward’s well being, she’d made one other request. She couldn’t bear to keep Elizabeth Masen’s ring in her possession and NOT wear it. But she also couldn’t bear to wear it – a reminder every minute of the pain she’d caused to Edward. She’d asked to be allowed to put it back with the other things Edward’s mother had left to him. Carlisle had sent Alice up to Edward’s room with her to show her the little velvet-lined box, shaped like a treasure chest, which housed all the various gifts Edward Sr. had ever purchased for his wife.

Bella nodded against his chest, and he closed his eyes. “It was yours. I could never have given it to anyone else,” he whispered. “I’m calling Alice right now to make sure she brings it back for you.” This presented a problem because he didn’t want to let go of Bella. He half stood, as he spoke, intending to carry her with him.

But Bella shook a little with a laugh she didn’t quite have the heart to voice. “You don’t think she’s already foreseen that you want it?” she asked. Edward sat down again, noting the wistful tone in her voice. Did that mean she wanted to wear that ring, or that she’d prefer another?

“I suppose she probably has,” he agreed after a moment, deciding it was better not to ask. Then he cradled her tightly, and flipped the journal open again, his eyes on her until she nodded and relaxed against him to wait and watch. He finished the passages about her first three years of college with little more to trouble him. That Alice had shared her vision of them being together again was upsetting, but he HAD promised not to prevent Bella and Alice from being friends. Also, if it hadn’t been for that vision, Bella might have given up on him entirely. Over the years of their separation, the rare proofs that she hadn’t given up on him had caused the worst of his pain and yet had also provided his only comfort. Perhaps Alice had seen that, as well.

As it was, the only troubling thing about the remainder of that journal was that as he turned pages, his name was mentioned less and less often. It was a subtle, but painful reality. Humans tended to heal. It had taken her the better part of three years, but Bella had healed after losing him. And she’d done it without Jacob, not, as Edward had long assumed, because of him. She’d done it alone. He found himself admiring her strength as he put the book on top of the other he’d completed and reached for the next. He felt Bella tense in his lap, and stroked her hair gently.

“If you think you should,” Bella began hesitantly, “you can skip a few pages here and there.” She didn’t want to forbid him to read anything. She’d offered to allow it, after all.

Edward looked down at her with only a slight smile on his face. “Which pages do you think I might choose to skip?” he asked carefully, and she told him the exact page numbers, marveling again at how easy it always was to remember even the smallest details. It wasn’t as if she had read these journals even once since writing them.

He had no intention of skipping any of it. He’d known that there would be descriptions of her intimacy with Jacob, and being the masochist he was, he had every intention of reading them. But it wouldn’t hurt to know when it was coming, to prepare himself.

He read through the end of her senior year at Dartmouth, still as a statue almost from the beginning. Only when he’d set the journal aside and picked up the next did he realize he hadn’t breathed. He’d tried to find humor in the wolf-back riding. He’d tried to be proud of Bella’s education. He’d tried to force himself to be pleased that at least she wasn’t alone. But all the while his grip on her had grown steadily tighter and tighter. She made no sound, as still and silent as he. He read through all the rest of the journals in this way, his perfect statue-like stillness only breaking to turn the pages. Now was not the time to allow his pain to reduce him to the pathetic sobs that had been so common to him during their years apart. Having her so near helped enormously. Bella watched the pages turn and knew he skipped nothing. She had never truly expected him to.

His silence worried her. If it weren’t for the tightening of his arms around her, the way his fingers dug into her shoulder at times, he would have appeared entirely unaffected. Even still, she would have known better. The final pages of the final journal turned and she read with him the story of Jacob’s death – her thoughts as his soul had spoken to her seemed to blur on the page, and she realized it was because Edward’s hand was shaking slightly. She reached out to steady it, and met his eyes. “If I could have saved him and spared you that pain, I would have done it, no matter the cost,” he whispered after a moment, agony evident in every syllable.

Bella’s mouth fell open in a gasp of pain. “I know,” she whispered. He was now holding her so tightly that she thought he might literally crack her nearly indestructible ribcage. But that didn’t bother her. What was causing her pain at that moment was the agony she saw in his eyes. “I think that’s part of the reason I love you so much,” she admitted quietly. His shock was plain on his face, and his hold on her loosened abruptly into a more tender embrace. She hurried to explain. “Jealousy was so unfamiliar to you. You couldn’t even really admit that you were jealous, and I was too inexperienced to recognize it. But you never hurt him. And in the end, Embry told me what you endured for trying to protect him.”

For a long moment they were both silent, and then Bella took the journal from his hands and placed it on the pile. Edward was still staring at her. That she could sit with him so closely and tell him she loved him after reading through that – reliving the horror that had been her life at that time. He couldn’t even comprehend it.

He had underestimated her love for Jacob. He knew that now. The prose he’d just read proved to him that Jacob had never been a substitute for him. Her love for him had been utterly different than what they shared with one another, and yet in no way less. And rather than making him feel worse, that somehow made the pain easier to bear. No one had taken his place in her life during those years they were apart. Jacob’s role might have been of equal importance to his own, but it was not the SAME as his own. He found he couldn’t tear his eyes from hers. Her expression was as full of love and wonder as he had ever seen it. And yet, he sensed there was also fear. He brought a hand to her face and traced her jaw with a single finger.

“I can’t ask your forgiveness for all that,” Bella said, her voice rising above a whisper for the first time since he’d begun reading. “But I have to know if you can still accept me.” Her tone was a surprise to him. Almost defiant. He felt his eyebrows draw together. “I need to know you aren’t going to leave me again,” she clarified, and before she’d even finished speaking, he was crushing her to his chest again.

“Not ever,” he whispered into her hair. “Not ever again.” When he pulled away, it was only to bring his lips to hers. He could almost feel, as his mind processed all he had read, that he understood her better now than he ever had. The movement of her lips against his seemed so urgent, so insistent, and he wanted very much to pull his legs from under her and lay her down on the couch. But they had agreed to wait. And he didn’t care if he had to wait out the whole century of the treaty. She was worth waiting for.