Thursday, September 2, 2010

Chapter 13

The Vulnerability of the Mind vs The Strength of the Heart

As Dr. Ashford departed the room, Esme crumbled into the chair beside the bed. Her knees had been threatening to give out on her for nearly an hour, her body too physically and emotionally drained to continue supporting her slight weight. At fifty one, she was at the lowest weight she'd ever been in her adult life, her frail form having taken the brunt of her grief, worry, and overwhelming heartache.

Carlisle stepped to her side, placing a hand on her back and rubbing comforting circles as she wept silent tears. The prominent sharpness of her shoulder blades unnerved him greatly, the visual and tangible deterioration in the health of his family wreaking havoc on his already destroyed nerves.

The disturbing bruise-like circles under all of their eyes belied what little amounts of sleep each member of his family attempted to reassuringly admit too. The truth was not a one of them had slept soundly for longer than an hour or two at a time for nearly a month.

Carlisle had borne witness to Emmett, his youngest son, wearing himself so thin he'd become physically ill from the combination of sleep deprivation and constant emotional distress. On top of the strain his health was sustaining, his marriage as well was beginning to buckle under the burden of the family's tragedy. His available vacation time had run its course and with Rosalie being unemployed, they'd be facing financial hardship shortly if he didn't return to work. It had become the source of severe upset within the couple's once solid and happy relationship. While Carlisle couldn't, in good conscience, permit him to return to work because of his emotional, mental, and physical states, he also couldn't afford to financially support his son's household as well as his own. He was at a loss for what to do because any way he looked at it, it was a lose-lose situation.

Jasper looked worse for wear having earned himself four stitches to the corner of his eyebrow at one point during the endless weeks of unchanging waiting. Unrested and malnourished, his body had no longer possessed the strength it needed to ward off the fatigue he'd been battling for days on end. When he'd collapsed, the corner of his brow shouldered the consequences of his exhaustion when it met the unforgiving wooden edge of a chair. It had been that night, the night he'd spent in the emergency room of the very same hospital they'd practically been living in, that he returned home for the first time since the incident and found that Alice had packed all of her belongings within the apartment in preparation to move out. Until that night, she'd been bringing him fresh clothes and supplying him with toiletries with which to shower and shave in an empty patient room.

Carlisle wasn't sure if they'd spoken a word to each other since the horrific fight they'd had that night or not, but he was certain that, to date, she hadn't yet moved out—nor had he returned home. He and Esme had been trying to steer Jasper and Alice away from marital ruin for over a year, but it had become evident that their efforts had been entirely made in vain.

His family was falling apart at the seams, and there was nothing he could do to fix it; just like there was nothing he could do to miraculously heal his first born son.

He felt helpless. Completely, utterly, and staggeringly helpless.

"Mom..." Edward mumbled, barely possessing the strength to crack his eyes open and allow them to see a hint of the vivid green hidden behind the pale lids and dark lashes.

"Yeah, honey? I'm right here," Esme sniffed, giving his loose fist a gentle squeeze.

"Thirsty," he rasped, unable to succumb to his exhaustion with the discomfort in his throat.

"They won't let you drink anything yet, but let me see if I can at least get you some ice chips or something for now," she replied, instantly moving to lift herself from the chair.

"I'll go," Carlisle stopped her, needing to feel like he was helping somehow. "Stay with him, I'll be right back."

Edward watched his father quickly retreat from the room like a man on a mission until the movement of his thumb across a rough surface drew his attention down to his hand. He nearly groaned when he spotted the silver medallion between his fingers and realized he'd forgotten all about it, again.

He swallowed around the tube, a futile attempt at trying to moisten his throat that only made his eyes squeeze shut against the discomfort. He was in Hell; he was sure of it, and the only thing that was bringing him any shred of comfort was somehow the damn medallion he kept finding himself repeatedly worrying.

"Who?" he questioned barely above a whisper.

"Who what, sweetie?" Esme asked in confusion as her brows furrowed and created a subtle line Edward had never noticed there before. He wanted to ask her who the chain and medal was from, but he felt like his throat was being rubbed raw from the empty swallowing talking forced him to do. Instead, he turned his hand under hers and tapped her with his finger as he looked down at the medal.

"Oh," his mother breathed and he watched as a smile began to tug at the corners of her lips when she looked back up into his face. "Bella. It came from Bella, and this one..." she said as she reached over to lift the one that had been detangled from his other hand and rested upon his sheet covered stomach, "This one came from her father, Charlie."

Feeling completely wiped out, he lacked the energy to do anything other than nod just once as his thumb resumed its circular motion across the medallion's face. His mind was riddled with confusion.

Confusion as to why he'd awoken to Bella tending to his care.

Confusion as to why she and her father had given him Sainted medals.

And absolute bewilderment as to why she was still apparently visiting him so long after the incident.

Dr. Ashford had told him he'd been in a medically induced coma for nearly three weeks. He could have understood her stopping by a time or two the first few days, but she was still coming around that long afterwards? It didn't make sense to him, and his mind's muddled state wasn't helping him comprehend it either.

"She's a very sweet girl...Bella," his mother's voice cut into his broken thoughts and he tried to open his eyes to look at her, but they only cracked open enough to see the beginning spread of a wistful smile upon her face before they closed again upon their own accord. "She's been here nearly every day, even when she should have stayed in her own bed down the hall."

Esme paused, her eyes drifting from Charlie's chain in her hands to her son's face. She could tell instantly that he hadn't yet fallen back asleep, even though she knew he was exhausted. The puckered line between his eyebrows had made a reappearance along with his consciousness—the sight of it dichotomously relieving and dismaying for it meant that the son she had known had returned to her, but was once again carrying the weight of the world upon his shoulders. If only he could live a day without the burdens he continuously shouldered and without that nearly permanent stress line etched between his brows.

"Edward, honey...I know you and I know how difficult it is for you to allow anyone to help you...but please, sweetie, don't push Bella away and try not to make her feel any more guilty than she already does after Rosalie acted so horrendously toward her, okay?" Esme asked hesitantly. She thoroughly despised the idea of placing any additional weight onto his shoulders, but she truly didn't think she could handle having another member of her family hurt that wonderful young woman so deeply again.

"Mmhmm," he hummed automatically as her voice lifted in question. What he was giving his affirmation or acquiescence to, he had absolutely no idea as most of her words had been lost somewhere in the empty expanse between consciousness and slumber. The last thing he remembered before slipping away into a deep sleep was having wanted something to drink.

Nearly six and a half hours after being ousted from the ICU, Jasper could stand the wait no more. His parents had disappeared behind the steel gray doors nearly two hours ago at the request of Edward's witch of a nurse, and not a word had been spared in their direction since. With a growl of frustration he launched himself out of his seat and began anxiously pacing the small room, deepening the path into the carpet fibers he, and countless others, had been carving with their restless bodies.

"I can't take this shit anymore," he groaned, his hands furiously rubbing over his face and through his hair. "Nineteen days. Nineteen fucking days we've done nothing but wait for him to wake up, and the minute he does and doesn't have that goddamn tube shoved down his throat, we get tossed out here to wait some more."

As his hands rushed over his face once more, the tip of his index finger caught one of his stitches on the corner of his eyebrow, tugging the skin and making him wince. "Goddamnit!"

He wanted to scream. He wanted to punch something. He wanted to do anything that would rid him of the anxiety that had been shaving decades off his lifespan for the last three weeks. In just three weeks, Jasper's entire life had gone up in flames and crumbled around him, leaving him feeling like he was standing in a pile of smoldering rubble. He'd watched his brother nearly perish in his greatest fear played out right before his very eyes. His wife had finally thrown in the towel and given up on him and their marriage. And to top it all off, he was flat broke with the undeniable knowledge that he could never return to the profession he'd felt obligated by family tradition to join.

That night and that fire, watching his brother run into that deathtrap without a second thought and then watching him plummet through the floor into the basement, had run continuously through his mind in an endless loop. He'd known the moment he'd taken his helmet and turncoat off that morning, when the fire had finally been extinguished and nothing had remained behind but a heap of steaming foundation and debris, that it was the last time he'd ever take that gear off—because two am that morning had been the final time he would ever put it on.

Jasper had never possessed what it took to live that lifestyle, and that's exactly what it was. Firefighting wasn't a career or a job—it was a life. You lived it day in and day out whether you were on the clock or not. It isn't something you do; it's something you are.

But it wasn't him.

In three weeks he'd not only nearly lost his brother, and most likely his wife, but he'd also lost himself.

"Jazz," Alice sighed softly, reaching her arm out to catch his hand as he neared her.

Just the slightest touch of her fingers against his wrist and he crumpled to the floor before her. A man on his knees in supplication, desperately needing just one piece of his life to not slip from his grasps as he burrowed his face into her soft stomach and shattered.

"Please don't leave me...please don't leave me..." he repeated his tear filled whispered mantra, his hands gripping the sides of her shirt as he rocked back and forth on his knees.

Bella, uncomfortable with bearing witness to what should be a private moment between a husband and wife, quickly averted her eyes, checking the clock above the doorway as she rose from her seat. Noting that the cafeteria would be closing in twenty minutes, she quietly excused herself, casting Alice an apologetic smile on her way out.

As the elevator doors closed behind her, she slumped against the wall, her hands coming up to cover her face. Their family was falling apart in bits and pieces and her heart broke for each and every one of them. Pulling her phone out of her pocket, she knew she was overstepping her bounds, but the love and heartache in Alice's eyes when she'd reached out for her husband, and his returning emotional collapse, proved to her that their marriage still had a chance to be salvaged.

But if they even had the slightest hope of saving it, they'd need help.


"Irina? Hey, it's Bella...listen, do you remember that therapist friend of yours I got all that free legal counsel for? I need her number...I need to cash in a favor."

Bella snagged a pen off the lobby's reception desk and scrawled the name and number across the palm of her hand before heading into the cafeteria. She spoke with Irina for a few minutes as she loaded up two beverage trays with styrofoam cups and began filling them with coffee. She paused, the coffee pot hovering over the seventh cup as she listened to Irina ramble on about her visit with Walt, their old landlord, that afternoon. She couldn't recall having ever seen Rosalie drink coffee during any of their run ins with each other, but she had once seen her drinking some kind of tea.

"I'm sorry, Irina...what was that?" she asked, her attention having drifted as she eyed the selection of teas, trying to figure out which one she might like.

"I said Walt's going to reinvest the insurance settlement into a retirement property somewhere in South Carolina. He'd been thinking of selling the building for a few years now, and the building was worth way more than the place he's looking at buying, so he's going to go for it. He said he wants to cut all of us a piece of what's leftover because he feels horrible about what happened," she repeated and Bella nearly dropped her phone right into a steaming cup of coffee.

"Say what?" she sputtered. "Why?"

"Something about the wicked witch in 1B threatening to sue him for her losses. I told him she probably let her renter's insurance lapse and he should tell her to shove it where the sun don't shine, but he said he'd rather pacify her with a conciliatory settlement than be drug through a lawsuit that could take God knows how long. I meant to call you earlier about it, but things have been crazy around here. I forgot what living with my parents was like...and let's just say, I'm suddenly remembering why I wanted to move out so damn bad at the first chance I got," she grumbled and Bella chuckled under her breath. "You think you can talk to one of your lawyer friends and possibly get together some kind of legally binding contract for Walt so he doesn't get burned? You know she'll try to sue him even if he cuts her a check."

Bella sighed, giving up on her attempt to choose a flavor of tea and just grabbed a few different kinds, "Yeah, I can do that. I'll call Jay first thing in the morning. Lemme let you go, though. I'm about to have my hands full and, knowing me, I'll drop my phone and then everything else."

"Okay hon'. We'll talk to ya soon," Irina replied and Bella laughed as she heard Tanya in the background yelling out "Sweet dreams sweet pea!"

After saying goodbye and goodnight to her friends and slipping her phone back into her pocket, she filled a bag with packets of creamer, sugar, and stirrers, and filled the last cup with steaming hot water before heading up to the register to pay. Nearly twenty dollars poorer, she headed back up to the waiting room and stepped off the elevator to the awaiting sight of the entire Cullen family, sans Edward, gathered closely together within the waiting room.

She patiently waited, leaning against the wall next to the elevator until Esme looked up with a soft smile and waved her in to join them.

"I brought you all back some coffee...I figured you could use it about now," she said, slightly apprehensively.

"Oh, that was very thoughtful of you, sweetie. Thank you," Esme replied graciously, standing to help her with one of the trays.

"Um...Rosalie? I wasn't sure what flavor tea you like, so I brought back a few different kinds, but if you'd rather have coffee, you can have mine and I'll drink the tea. Whichever you prefer," Bella offered as politely as possible. Their acquaintanceship hadn't warmed up even slightly since the night she'd been verbally lashed by the blonde, but Bella hadn't stopped trying to be casually friendly toward her either. And from the looks of it, her latest attempt hadn't chipped any of the ice off her shoulder either.

"Tea's long as it's decaffeinated," she remarked, not an ounce of appreciation or gratitude in her tone. Bella had to fight against rolling her eyes as she held the cup of hot water out toward her, only to have Emmett take it from her because apparently his wife was beneath accepting anything from the likes of her.

"Thanks didn't have to do that," he smiled apologetically.

"No problem. Just figured I'd save you guys the trip before the cafeteria closed since I was going down there anyway," Bella smiled back, handing him the assortment of teabags; one of every decaffeinated flavor they had available.

As Bella lowered herself back down into her chair at the far corner of the room, she took in the sight of Alice and Jasper finally holding hands and attempting to comfort one another. And when she lifted the lid off her coffee cup to pour in a copious amount of sugar and creamer, she spotted the number scrawled across her palm and had to silently contemplate who that impending favor would benefit more—Alice and Jasper, or Rosalie.

"Bella, you're more than welcome to come sit up here near us," Carlisle offered, giving her a kind and encouraging smile. "Esme and I were just about to fill everyone in on Edward."

"I'm fine, but thank you. I don't want to intrude," she replied, busying her fingers with the plastic lip on her coffee cup. Carlisle had been nothing but nice to her since the night of the blow out in Edward's room, but after hearing part of their argument that she assumed hadn't been meant for her ears, she'd found it difficult to feel comfortable around either him or Rosalie. When they were together it was downright impossible to feel at ease.

Esme, at seeing Bella's hesitancy and the shadow of guilt that passed across her features, rose from her chair and crossed the room to sit beside her. As she reached out to place a comforting hand upon Bella's forearm, Bella's head turned and her gaze flickered up to Esme's.

"How is he?" she whispered, not wanting to disturb the others — a nearly impossible feat in such confined quarters.

"He's okay," Esme nodded. "He's asleep again, but we received some hopeful news. His paralysis might not be permanent and he's recovered a small amount of feeling in his legs. They downgraded his condition, too, so he's stable, and they're hoping to move him out of the unit sometime within the next week."

Bella nodded, her gaze drifting back to the lid of her coffee cup, "That's...relieving," she admitted upon a released breath.

"It is," Esme affirmed as she relaxed into her chair. "I'm sorry again about earlier. I wish you hadn't felt the need to leave."

Bella released the inside corner of her lip that she'd been chewing on and shook her head as she looked over at Esme. "It was a big moment for all of you. It wouldn't have been right for me to intrude on that."

"Isabella," Esme sighed. "Trust me when I say that you've more than earned the right to intrude, as you put it, in on any moment large or small in our lives."

Bella was just about to thank her for her kindness when Esme suddenly turned toward her with beseeching eyes. "Speaking of intruding...would it be too much of me to ask you to stay with him tonight? It's just...Carlisle and I haven't spent a single night at home since he was brought in and now that we can rest just a little bit easier, we could really use a night in our bed instead of chairs, and I just don't think I can leave knowing he'd be here alone. He's so confused every time he wakes up and it breaks my heart to think of him being alone like that."

Bella's eyes nervously darted around the room, taking in his siblings that would, undoubtedly, spend the night with Edward, and she hesitated to answer. She wasn't sure what answer to give as she'd be more than willing to keep him company, but she felt she'd be taking the opportunity away from one of the others if she accepted. It wasn't until she caught Alice's gaze locked intently on her, obviously having overheard Esme's request, and the silent nod Alice gave her that she finally answered.

"No...I mean no it wouldn't be too much. I can stay if it's okay with everyone else."

Twenty minutes later Bella stood awkwardly in Edward's room as she watched the entire Cullen clan retreat, each of them heading to the comforts of their homes for once. She'd already called her parents to tell them she'd be home in the morning, just so they wouldn't worry—even though she fibbed a little about where she was spending the night. She knew for a fact her father would have had a conniption if he'd known she was planning to spend the night in a padded chair in her condition rather than in her own comfortable bed, small as it may be.

She put down her emergency oxygen pack on the edge of the counter, hoping it'd be out of the nurse's way, and tossed the bag of magazines and puzzle books Esme had left for her into the chair. Her eyes flickered over to Edward's face only to see him still sleeping soundly and snoring faintly. The serene sound of it, no longer inhibited by a ventilator, or marred by beeping machines surrounding him, as the nurse had silenced his telemetry monitor for the night, made a faint smile cross her lips as she wandered over to the wall of photographs.

"Mrs. Cullen's letting someone else stand guard for a night, huh?" a woman's voice startled Bella, making her gasp, a hand flying to her chest as she spun quickly toward the woman.

"Sorry, sweetie. Didn't mean to sneak up on you. Was just coming in to check on Edward and Mrs. Cullen," she chuckled lightly, moving further into the room.

"It's okay," Bella breathed, trying to calm her racing heart as she watched the woman erase Linda's name from the dry erase board and write her own down. She even added a little smiley face next to it; Kara.

"What's your name, honey?" Kara asked, only briefly glimpsing at her as she tended to Edward.

"Bella," she answered, trying to stay out of her way as Kara moved to the other side of his bed to check his telemetry monitor.

"Ahh, so you're the infamous woman I've heard so much about," Kara sniggered, casting Bella a teasing smile. "Mrs. Cullen is quite fond of you, no wonder she chose you to take her place tonight."

Bella had no idea what to say to that, or what to think of the fact that Esme had apparently been speaking kindly of her to one of Edward's night nurses, so she just returned her smile and lowered herself down into a chair.

"Okay, he should be good for a while," Kara said as she turned away from her patient and toward Bella. "I have another patient right next door tonight, so if you need anything and I'm not right outside the room, just give a little knock on window. Esme has a stash of a blanket and a pillow on the left side of the cabinet under the sink. I'm sure she wouldn't mind if you used it, but I can get you something else if you'd like, though hers would be much more comfortable."

"I'll be fine with hers, but thank you," Bella smiled graciously.

"Do you need anything before I go check on my other patient?" Kara asked, stepping into the doorway and Bella shook her head.

"Okay. Well if you get thirsty, there's an ice and water machine in the break room just around the corner. There should be some cups you can use in one of the cabinets as well, and if there are any snacks tucked away in there, you're more than welcome to them."

"I'm good for now, thanks. Is there anything I need to know for him? In case he wakes up?" Bella asked concernedly.

"The only thing I can think of offhand is he can't have solid food yet. They'll be starting him on a liquid diet in the morning and working back up to solid foods. If he gets thirsty, he can have a little bit of water, but if it's too uncomfortable yet for him to swallow, you can give him ice chips to suck on. That's about it though. If there's anything else, just come and grab me, okay?" she asked, her tone and smile friendly.

Bella thanked her one last time before Kara left to check on her other patient and then she was left alone with Edward in the nearly silent room. Not wanting to disturb him, when she turned on the television, she muted it instantly and sank lower into her chair as she flipped through the few available channels. Nearly two hours later, lounging between two chairs quietly pushed together and snuggled up in Esme's microfleece throw blanket, she was severely regretting that large cup of coffee she'd had as she was wide awake and without even a hint of drowsiness on the horizon of her consciousness.

Her mind was just as restless as her body and she didn't think she could endure another silent sitcom so she reached down into Esme's entertainment bag and began rooting around for something else to occupy herself with. Finding a worn from being read, and apparently enjoyed, book and a flashlight, she nestled herself back into the chairs as comfortably as possible and attempted to lose herself in a tale of romance.

By the time she reached the sixth chapter, she wanted to laugh out loud. It was the exact same kind of cheesy romance novel her mother had avidly read and collected for years. Phrases like "powerful erection" and "silk and virile heat" had her biting down harshly on her bottom lip to avoid cackling mirthfully. As hard as she tried to contain it, a slight snigger escaped her as she turned the page and made a mental note to remember the title so she could get a copy for her mother.

"Good book?" A raspy voice suddenly called out.

Bella jumped so forcefully that the chair her legs had been bent and propped upon went flying, screeching across the floor and unceremoniously dumping her previously slouched form onto the ground. She jumped up, dumping the book and miniature flashlight into the heap of blanket as a deep and gravelly chuckle floated across the room.

"'re awake," she breathed, her face flaming from embarrassment. How long had he been awake and watching her?

"Apparently," he replied, a fading smile still tugging at his lips as he tried to shift in bed. As his face contorted into a pained grimace, Bella extracted herself from the tangled blanket and moved to his bedside.

"Do you need help? Just tell me how...I don't..." she trailed off, still reeling from her mortification and realizing she was rambling.

"I need to...sit up," he informed her, his words interrupted by a fit of painful coughing.

"Here," she nearly whispered as she reached to press the button that would raise the back of his bed. "Just tell me when."

"Do you need anything else?" she asked, feeling a case of inexplicable nervousness begin to creep up on her after she'd helped him get situated. "Water, ice...the TV remote? Your mother left some magazines and stuff if you want one of those."

Even through his discomfort and waning awakening confusion, he couldn't help but chuckle slightly. He'd had no idea such an insignificant comment would work her up into such a frenzy. It was rather amusing.

"I'm fine, Bella...really," he replied, not wanting to burden her after startling her so bad that she fell to the floor.

"You know who I am," she breathed, her eyes widening in surprise.

"I wouldn't go that far...but I remember your face...from that night," he said, futilely attempting to ignore the irritating discomfort in his throat.

"About that night..." she paused, her fingers fidgeting against the bedrail. "Edward, I'm so sorry for what happened..."

"Stop," he halted her, his head shaking as his eyes closed. He didn't expect or even want an apology from her. He may not have remembered that night clearly, but he knew that his being in that building to start with had been because he'd chosen to go into it. He'd known the dangers, the risks. She had no reason to apologize for the consequences of his own decisions.

As his eyes reopened, he focused them on her shadowed face, backlit only by the light streaming in from the hall and the faint glow from the television flickering across her features. "I don't want an apology..." he paused, attempting to clear his throat and lessen the grittiness of his voice unsuccessfully. "Or a thank you."

Bella's eyes darted between his solemn ones, the vivid green hue she'd seen earlier in the natural light of day streaming into his room dulled to a murky forest green by the veil of the night's shadows that had taken over with the setting of the sun. She searched his eyes for answers to questions she couldn't even begin to fathom, desperate to understand the mind of the man before her. It confounded her that someone who had put everything, even his own life, on the line for another wouldn't desire at the very least a simple and sincere phrase of gratitude.

"How? How can I not thank you for doing what you did? If it weren't for you, I wouldn't even be here," she sputtered, finally capturing the ability to put words to her confused thoughts.

"I was just doing my job," he nearly groaned as aggravation began brewing beneath the surface of his skin. If she'd only been coming around to express her guilt and gratitude, she'd done so and could leave. The last thing he needed was someone hovering over him with nothing but pity for him in their eyes, but when his eyes drifted back to hers, there wasn't a shred of the useless emotion to be found. Instead, her gazing dark depths flashed with defiance and determination.

"Well..." she breathed, steeling herself and her voice, "Too darn bad. I don't care if you were just doing your job or not. What you did—saving my life—deserves gratitude, so thank you."

Bella wasn't sure what reaction she'd been expecting him to have to her brazenness, but his hoarse laughter wasn't it. What perplexed her even further was that she couldn't even pinpoint where anything she'd said had been even mildly amusing. At her bewildered expression, Edward's laughter began to subside.

"Did...did you just say...darn?" he questioned, unable to stamp down his amusement even though his side felt like it was on fire. He couldn't recall having even heard the word since grade school at the very least. Even his own mother, who cursed about as often as an Atheist attended church, wouldn't have bothered with an attempt to clean up the word damn.

"Uh...yeah? So?" she replied, feeling suddenly self conscious and simultaneously concerned as he grimaced and reached across his torso, his hand coming to rest overtop the rubber tubing exiting his chest wall. "Are you okay?"

Her words floated to him on a gentle breeze of a soft voice filled with sincere concern. Edward's eyes opened, his prior amusement banished from his entire being by the searing pain in his side, and once again focused his gaze on her. Moments passed as he coddled his side, his mind wondering at her presence in his room, alone—without a single member of his family accompanying her.

"Why are you here?" he managed, forcing his gravelly voice through his arid throat and mouth. The constant questioning of her motives was wearing on him; the confusion behind why she had been visiting him and was continuing to do so draining him further with each awakening.

"I don't...understand," Bella shook her head, her brow furrowing as she looked at him sadly. "Wouldn't anyone in my situation be here? Do you not want me here?"

Her heart hurt at the thought that he might ask her to leave and not return, because she knew, regardless of all he'd done for her and how much she wished she could repay that kindness to him, she'd obey his wishes. She could handle Rosalie's unwelcoming demeanor, the discomfort of being surrounded by his family's palpable anguish, and even awkward silences that had arisen between herself and Carlisle, but she couldn't ignore Edward and what he wanted. He was the only reason she was in that room, and he'd be the only reason she'd stay away from it.

"No," he shook his head. He'd never given much thought to the number of victims that attempted to show support to those that had helped them and gotten injured, or even worse, in the process. He'd never given it much thought because most of them didn't.

He could have understood a card in his room from her and her family, or even a bouquet of flowers—that at this point would have been long since withered and dried up had he not been in an ICU and they'd been allowed in his room. He could have understood those sympathetic gestures, but her constant presence, not to mention the costly trinket she'd bestowed him, he couldn't even begin to understand.

Bella's eyes fell to her hands that laid upon the bedrails, the sudden tears building in her eyes as her heart plummeted to her feet, and she nodded as she chewed on the inside corner of her lip.

"I see," she whispered, nodding once again as she took a quick glimpse around his room, forcing her tears back before she looked upon his face. "I'd really hoped to get to know you after what you did for me and everything your family and friends have told me about you...I, um..." she trailed off, not really knowing what to say or how to make her departure any more comfortable for either of them. Truth be told, she felt incredibly foolish and her embarrassment was mounting exponentially by the passing moment.

"I hope you get better soon," she said as she backed away from the bed, internally cringing at her idiotic choice of words. The man was laying in an intensive care unit bed for crying out loud.

As Edward watched her turn and begin picking up and folding the blanket from the floor, his mind was racing, trying to figure out what the hell was going on. This woman—Bella, confused the living daylights out of him and as he spotted the IV attached to his arm, he nearly reached over to rip it out, hoping to cease the flow of narcotics entering his brain and making it impossible to sort anything out logically.

"Where are you going?" he questioned, groaning slightly because his tolerance for the constant haze of confusion had reached its limit.

Bella quickly swiped at the tear that had escaped as she'd turned her back on him and turned back around, even more confused than she had been at any point in the last twenty minutes. "You..." she paused, rubbing a hand across her forehead. Her head was starting to pound from trying to keep up with him. "You said you didn't want me here. I don't want to be a burden or cause you any more stress than you're already under, because that's the last thing you need."

She pulled Esme's folded blanket to her chest, wrapping her arms around it to comfort the onslaught of mixed emotions whirling around inside of her.

"No I didn't," he shook his head, his hand moving up to his throat as his voice cracked.

"Look, Edward," she sighed, clutching the blanket tighter. "I only want to help you in whatever way I can, but if you don't want me here then just tell me."

"Why do you...want to help me?" he asked, barely able to get his voice to carry the words. He tried to swallow, but when he did so, he promptly gagged as the tube in his throat shifted.

"Oh God," he whimpered, intense pain flaring up his back, stomach, and chest as the reflexive heave subsided.

Bella dropped the blanket back on the floor as she rushed back to his bedside, panic coursing through her veins as a tear slipped from his left eye and sped down the side of his face, disappearing into his hairline.

"Edward, what do you need? Tell me how to help you, please," she pled, her hands fidgeting frantically with her fear of touching him and hurting him even more.

As he fought to take in a breath that didn't send a shard of searing pain lancing through his chest, his telemetry monitor began wailing its alarm with his rapid spike in heart rate and drop in respiratory rate.

"Whoa there, bud...what's goin' on?" Kara questioned, sounding slightly breathless as she rushed to his opposite bedside. "Hey Bella, do me a favor and hit that yellow button on the right that says silence."

Bella turned and searched for the button frenziedly as Kara spoke soothingly to Edward. When she found it, she pressed it with a shaky finger and nearly sighed in relief at the cessation of the jarring alarm.

"What happened?" Kara asked, her eyes focused on Bella as Edward continued struggling to breathe.

"I don't know. We were talking and his voice cracked and then he gagged and...well..." she trailed off, her hands making circling gestures toward Edward, indicating his current dilemma.

"Oooh, that had to hurt," Kara grimaced, her hand coming to Edward's forehead. "Edward, honey, don't try to take a big breath in, just try a few slow small ones for me. Was it the tube that made you gag?"

He nodded vigorously as he fought to take small breaths, his eyes screwed shut against the bursts of pain exploding in his chest.

"Do you feel nauseas at all?" Kara asked, pressing some keys on an automatic pump that was attached to one of his IVs. He shook his head against her hand, his breaths beginning to come slightly easier but the pain still radiating throughout his torso horrifically.

"'ll be okay. The pain should be dulling in a moment, just give it a second for the bolus to kick in," Kara told him in a soothing tone before lifting her eyes to meet Bella's terrified ones. "He might nod off for little bit with the boost of pain meds. It's nothing to worry about though, okay? As soon as he's comfortable I'll go fetch you both some ice and water. It sounds like the tube might have stuck a little to the inside of his throat—it happens from time to time when they try to empty swallow."

"I'll go get it," Bella replied, feeling like a useless bystander bearing witness to Edward's agony.

By the time she'd made it to the employee's break room around the corner, her tears had broken free and were streaming down her cheeks faster than she could swat them away. Inside the confines of the tiny lounge, furnished only by a small round table and four chairs, she braced her hands against the short counter between the ice machine and microwave.

She chastised herself for not getting him something to drink earlier even though she'd asked and he'd said he was fine. She should have known how thirsty he had to have been. Guilt pounded away at her as she questioned herself why Esme had asked her of all people, someone who didn't know him any more than a stranger she'd pass on the street, to stay with him. As she pressed her forehead against the edge of the top cabinets, she calmed her tears, taking deep breaths in and resolving herself to take better care of him; if he even allowed her to stay, because at that point, she wasn't sure if he wanted her there or not.

"Hey honey, you okay?" Kara's soft voice beckoned her from her self berating.

"Yeah," Bella sighed as she turned, attempting to smile reassuringly. "How is he?"

"He's sleeping. He fought it for a while...looked like he was waiting for you. You've been gone a while, you sure you're okay?" Kara asked, slipping into one of the plastic chairs surrounding the meager table.

"God this is so confusing!" she wailed, feeling as though she might start crying again. "One minute he tells me he doesn't want me there and the next he's asking me where I'm going. I can't keep up with him."

"Okay, spill it. I'm no expert, but he put up one hell of a fight against falling asleep for someone who doesn't want you here, so either there's a miscommunication somewhere, or it's the drugs talking and you need to just ignore it," she chuckled lightly.

Bella groaned as she pulled out a chair and collapsed into it, leaning forward and resting her head against the palm of her hand. She wasn't sure where to begin, so logically, she started at the beginning, even including her moment of disgrace when he'd startled her out of her own little world. Kara listened intently, chuckling lightly from time to time along the way, but never losing her empathy for Bella's frustration.

"Oh, hon'," she patted Bella's hand in a gesture of comfort. "I don't think he was telling you he didn't want you there when he said no."

At Bella's look of disbelief, Kara sighed and shook her head; a small, sad smile crossing her lips as she focused her gaze on Bella's. "I've been working here for the better part of almost thirteen years. I can't tell you how many times one of my patients has been a firefighter or a police officer, but I can tell you how many times the person they were trying to help when they got hurt became a frequent and familiar face at their bedsides as you and your family have for Edward."

"How many?" Bella asked curiously.

"Twice. You're the second," Kara answered, leaning back in her chair and watching as the information sank in. "Bella, I don't think you realize how truly amazing of a person you are. These guys get hurt all the time and most of the time, if they're lucky, they'll get a sincere thank you or a card for their efforts, but rarely do the people they save stick around longer than a few days at most."

"So you see, when he said no, I think he was answering your first question, not telling you he didn't want you there," Kara said encouragingly, patting Bella's hand once more as she stood from her seat to fish out a plastic pitcher and some cups for her.

Bella didn't know why, but her mind had instantly drifted to nearly twelve years before, when her father had lain in a hospital bed fighting for his own life the way Edward had been. She tried to remember the faces that came and went from her father's room, but most she could recognize easily as his friends and coworkers. Had the person he saved even ever come to check on him at all? She couldn't recall, but then again, she'd been just a child at the time so it was possible that they had but she just couldn't remember it.

Suddenly exhausted, mentally, emotionally, and physically, Bella took the pitcher of ice and cups from Kara, thanked her, and headed back to Edward's room. Walking through the doorway, she was greeted with the sound of his faint snore and the sight of only the light of the television flickering across his slumbering face now that the hallway lights had been dimmed for the night. After setting the items in her hands on the sink counter, she lowered herself into her chair tiredly, laying Esme's folded blanket across her lap and proceeded to watch him sleep.

A million questions weaved in and out of her mind, but her ability to focus on them had long since disappeared, and within a half an hour she found her head bobbing as she began nodding off against her will. It must have been the twentieth or so time her head had slipped off its resting spot on her palm when she opened her eyes and went to shift into a more comfortable position, but she froze when she saw his eyes were open and focused on her.

"Hey," she whispered, trying to mask the yawn that escaped her after she spoke.

"Hi," he whispered back, once again unsure if she was really there. The medicinal haze had returned in full force, leaving him feeling numb and disconnected from everything.

"Are you thirsty?" she asked, mustering up just enough energy to lift herself from her chair as he nodded. She silently poured some of the water in the pitcher until the cup was half full and then unwrapped a straw to place into it. Standing next to his bed, she pressed the button to lift the back of his bed a bit since Kara had apparently reclined it again once he'd fallen asleep.

"Here...Kara said to take small sips," she said quietly, holding the cup for him and bringing the straw to his lips.

He watched her closely, trying to clear his muddled thoughts. He took in the softness of her gaze as she watched him take small pulls of the cold liquid; how she caught the small dribble that escaped the side of his mouth at his first painfully forced swallow with the gentlest of touches. And finally, how drawn her features were, either from exhaustion or prolonged worry—possibly both.

And in that moment, even through his drugged haze of confusion, he was able to come to the conclusion that she wasn't there solely out of pure pity or guilt. She was there, helping him and caring for him because she wanted to—because she cared enough to, and he was okay with that.

What solidified his acceptance of her presence at his bedside was the tenderness she treated him with as she silently returned to his side after placing the empty cup on the counter and began passing a cool damp rag over his sweat slicked face and neck. He couldn't remember anyone, aside from his mother, tending to him with such compassion and gentleness.

He tried to fight against the heaviness of his eyelids as another bout of exhaustion crept upon him, but it was a losing battle. He forced his eyes open one last time, looking directly into her eyes as she swiped the cloth over his forehead.

"Bella...thank you," he whispered, his eyes closing slowly as he gave into the medication pulling him back under. He fell asleep quickly, but not before he heard her softly spoken reply.

"You're welcome. Sleep...I'll be here."

No comments:

Post a Comment