Thursday, September 30, 2010

Chapter 22

The Long Awaited Homecoming

Wednesday night marked the first, only, and last night Bella spent in Edward's room since he'd been moved from the ICU. It marked the last night because his nurse nearly flew off the handle when she'd found them sharing his bed and overnight visitors had been banned the following two nights while she was on shift. Bella wasn't sure if her relief following that bit of news stemmed from the knowledge that she slept much better in her own bed at home, or if it arose from her fear of not being able to survive another night spent in his arms when she felt for him the way she did.

She wanted to curse Alice, Tanya, and Irina for pushing into the forefront of her mind, the thoughts she'd been locking away, where they infiltrated her every quickly erected defensive mental wall. It had been those thoughts that she'd been forbidding herself to contemplate that had made her feelings for him blossom, and create the chink in her armor that she now bled through continuously.

But still, even though overnight privileges had been revoked due to their taboo hospital room sleeping arrangement, Bella continued to visit daily.

When Saturday afternoon rolled around, and along with it Edward’s being discharged from the hospital, Bella stood beside the members of his family, all of them, with a matching beaming smile that, for once in the past few days, was entirely genuine. Regardless of how deeply she still ached, she was happy for him to finally be heading home.

“You’re gonna follow us, right?” Edward asked and she had to laugh. All day he’d been pestering her to promise him she’d join the caravan back to his home.

“Yes, Edward,” she rolled her eyes when her soft laughter died down. She nudged him in the side and pointed at the doctor in his room, the person he should have been paying attention to.

“Someone from our rehabilitation center will be coming by your place of residence this afternoon to ensure you have any and all equipment you’ll need to make your transition back into your home as least stressful as possible. I’m assuming the list of recommendations provided have been implemented already?” he paused, looking at Edward’s parents.

“Yes, they have,” Carlisle nodded. “We’ve had the ramps installed in the front, garage, and rear entrances. The contractors are due to install the handicap accessible shower stall on Monday in his lower level bathroom, but I’m sure we’ll be able to manage until then. His furniture has been repositioned to give him easier maneuverability on the lower level, and his guest room bed has been moved down to the first floor as well.”

“Excellent,” the doctor nodded, satisfied. “Well, Edward, I do believe you’re all set. A home health aide will come by twice a day for a few hours at a time to assist you with anything you may need, but from the looks of it, you have quite the support system already. I almost doubt you’ll need anything from them at all.” The doctor reached forward, extending his right hand toward him and Edward grinned as he shook it. “I wish you well and the best of luck, my friend.”

“Thank you...with any luck this’ll be the last you see of me,” Edward laughed.

“With any luck, indeed,” The doctor chuckled, shaking hands with Carlisle. “Take care everyone.”

If anyone had questioned how excited Edward had been to be getting out of the hospital, the doubt in question evaporated as he sped his new wheelchair down the walkway toward the parking area.

“FREEDOM!” he crowed, throwing his hands in the air and looking like a crazy person as he coasted down the walkway, leaving his family and friends—and Bella—laughing in the dust behind him.

“He’s gone absolutely mad,” Emmett guffawed, cradling little Ian in one arm and hooking the other around Rosalie.

“No,” Esme grinned, not so discretely linking her arm around Bella’s, “He’s just found a little piece of happiness.”

Bella tried to look away, uncomfortable with the rather unsubtle insinuation that she knew to be entirely false, but her gaze landed on Alec’s grinning face. He winked at her as he tossed an arm over her shoulders and ducked his head down.

“He has, you know.”

By the time she reached her car and slid into the driver’s seat, she had an incredible urge to just bash her head against the steering wheel in hopes that it would knock some sense into her. She’d felt it coming on for quite a while, slowly building in intensity, but approaching nonetheless. The weight of his family’s, and even Edward’s, expectations of her were beginning to press down upon her. She’d lost count over the days of how many times someone mentioned he needed to keep a positive mental outlook to overcome the obstacles he’d face, only to follow the mentioning minutes later with a falsely nonchalant comment about how much he’s changed for the better since she’d come into his life. Or how many times someone mentioned how much assistance he’d need once he went home, only to follow it with words of praise toward her over how wonderfully she’d taken care of him in the hospital.

Good god,” she breathed to herself, her eyes darting around the parking lot through her windshield, having not even yet put her keys into the ignition, “How did he deal with this for so many years?”

Bella rested her forehead against the rim of the steering wheel, closing her eyes as her vision blurred from tears. She wasn't sure if she could muster up the strength she'd need to continue enduring the weight of the Cullen family's expectations of her. How Edward had managed to survive years under the oppressive weight baffled her.

She'd seen the good in him, had witnessed time and time again over the last month just how selfless and bighearted he could be. She'd watched him place aside his own worries and problems to help others sort through theirs. She'd witnessed the degree of dedication and unconditional love it took for him to be able to put another person before himself, even when in his situation he had every right to think only of his own needs.

She'd seen it—and she was afraid.

Bella was afraid that if he kept focusing on the problems of others, he'd buckle under the weight of his own problems. She was afraid of the very real possibility of Edward never recovering completely, and even more afraid of what it would do to him if he didn't. And she was terrified of the thought that his family would suffocate him with their high held expectations of him, and destroy what chances he did have at making a full recovery.

It was that fear, the very fear of the weight she was already suffering beneath, that gave her the strength to turn the key in her ignition, wipe the tears from her eyes, and take her place in the caravan heading toward Edward's home.

Someone needed to be there for him the way he was always stretching himself so thin to be for everyone around him. Someone needed to be there to stand up to them and make sure Edward was focusing on the only thing he needed to be—himself. Someone needed to help him shoulder the weight of the hardships he'd face instead of unloading the weight of their own burdens upon his shoulders.

And that person would be her, because in her mind, she owed it to him. His bravery and selflessness had given her the chance to live the rest of her life, to find happiness and joy and anything else she had ever longed for. With any luck, she'd be able to give him the same chance.

Only a block from the hospital, Bella's cell began to ring as the caravan of five cars was stopped at a red light. She quickly fished through her purse to retrieve it and cursed when she dropped the hands-free earpiece on the passenger side floor.

"Hello?" she answered, just as the light turned green.

"Hey, kiddo. Are you all on your way yet?"

"Hi,, yeah. We just left the hospital so we should be there in...thirty minutes, I guess?" she replied, jostling the phone around as she tried to find the speaker phone button. The last thing she needed right then was to get pulled over for a moving violation because she was talking on the phone while driving. "Did you and Mom get everything set up? The Cullens left the key, right?"

"Yeah, yeah...everything's ready, Bells. I think you and Alice went a little overboard on balloons and stuff, but your mother found a spot for everything. Mom just left about a half hour ago to pick up the cake, so she should be back any minute now. Do you want me to fire up the grill now, or wait?"

In the front seat of Alice's car, Edward was staring into the rearview mirror, his head whipping around to look behind them every minute or so. The third time he nearly spun himself right into the backseat, Alice burst out laughing.

"What are you doing?"

He turned back around in his seat and looked into the rearview mirror as he frowned and spoke, "She's driving and talking on the phone."

"So?" she shrugged and he scowled at her.

"It's a distraction! She could get into an accident," he barked, spinning around to look behind him again.

"Edward, really," Alice scoffed, rolling her eyes. "We're going thirty five. What's the worst that'll happen? She rear-ends me and scuffs her bumper?"

"That's not the point," he mumbled, distracted by watching her suddenly burst into laughter. It made him wonder who she was talking to and why he didn't ask to ride with her when he'd really wanted to. He just didn't want to push his company on her when, for the last few days, it hadn't seemed like she'd really wanted to be around him as it was. Ever since he'd acted like such a prick toward her, she hadn't laughed with him like she was with whomever she was speaking to on the phone. It was only a slight change in their easy going friendship, one that could be explained away by a plethora of excuses, but the change was enough to cause him to worry that he'd never see her again after he left the hospital. It had almost made him wish something else would go wrong with him just so he'd be stuck there and she'd continue to visit him.

Alice let her gaze flicker toward him curiously after he turned back around in his seat and slumped in on himself. His earlier exuberance extinguished entirely. He was acting just like he had the day after Ian had been born, all happy and smiling when people were looking at him, but folding in on himself when they'd look away—only he was fully aware that Alice could see him.

At first, she'd just thought he'd been upset about having been kept out of the loop about Rosalie going into premature labor, but he'd kept acting the same way even after finding out that no one else had known either. As the day wore on, it became more and more evident that his gloominess had everything to do with Bella's unusual absence, and little to do with anything relating to the family.

"You like her, don't you?" Alice asked, intently keeping her expression neutral and her eyes focused on the road ahead. Still, out of the corner of her eye, she saw his head snap to the side.

"Of course I like her. How could I not like someone that's bent over backwards for me damn near every day? What the hell kind of question is that?"

"I swear you two were cast from the same mold," Alice rolled her eyes, trying desperately hard not to laugh.

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Nothing...absolutely nothing," Alice snickered, unable to keep it in any longer. They were just too much alike and both blind as bats. Neither could see what was right in front of their faces. Oblivious the two of them were, but she had faith they'd figure it out on their own, in their own time.

Years ago, when she was young and naive, she may have thought it best to meddle where she didn't belong by trying to force their eyes to see what everyone else could with ease, but if life had taught her anything, it was that there was no need to rush. She'd spent the last six years of her life running toward the future, only to wake up one day and realize that, in her haste, she'd lost what it was she'd been rushing to achieve.

Slow was good. Slow would allow them the time they needed to really know one another, to find in each other what they both wanted and needed. Slow would hopefully keep them from waking up one day to the world of hurt and longing her life had become.

Behind Bella, Alec and Jasper pulled up the rear of the caravan, riding together in Alec's new car; a used but well taken care of 2002 Mercury Cougar. It wasn't anything even close to what he'd wanted, but he'd been desperate for wheels, it ran well, and it was all he could afford until his divorce was finalized. He just hoped it would hold out until he could afford what he really wanted; a 2010 Chevy Tahoe that could simultaneously carry all his friends and tow the boat he hoped to buy in the future.

"So he's really gonna let you crash at his place?" Jasper grumped, ticked off that Edward would let his friend live with him, but not his brother.

"Uh huh," Alec nodded, "I can't afford a place of my own right now and the station's not exactly an ideal place to live, so..." he trailed off with a shrug.

"That's bullshit," Jasper fumed. "I asked him a week ago if I could crash there and he flat out told me no."

"Dude, he's not giving me a free place to crash," Alec argued, "He needs help. He can't exactly do shit on his own right now. Can you honestly look me in the eye right now and tell me that you'd be willing to be at his beck and call just to be able to stay there? Because that's pretty much the arrangement I made with him."

"I would've helped him," Jasper scoffed, making Alec burst out with incredulous laughter.

"Really, Jas? Do you even remotely understand what it's going to be like living with him?" Alec pressed angrily. All Jasper ever did was bitch and moan at the slightest inconvenience and that was the last thing Edward would need to live with. "He'll need help every time he has to take a leak, or get in and out of his wheelchair, or bathe, or dress. Could you really do all that shit for him without getting pissed off? Could you really sit at home, knowing you'd have more fun going out, just because you can't leave him there to fend for himself?"

"I..." Jasper trailed off, unable to answer.

"Yeah, I didn't think so," Alec seethed, gripping his steering wheel until his knuckles turned white. "You see, Jasper, while you've been sitting around only thinking about yourself and the problems you're having, everyone else has been thinking about helping your brother with his problems. Even Emmett has stepped up to the plate by switching shifts so he and I are never working at the same time. One of us needs to be around constantly to help your brother when he needs it, because let's be realistic, I love Bella and I think she's great and all, but she doesn't have a shot in hell of being able to lift him out of that chair. She can't do it all on her own the way everyone's been letting her do lately."

Jasper sat in the passenger seat just stewing in his simmering anger. He was tired of people acting like he didn't give a shit, because he did. He wanted to help his brother, and he planned to be there for him as much as he could, but there were things in his own life that he needed to focus on as well. "You act like I don't give a damn at all, but if you haven't noticed, I've got a shit-ton of my own issues going on. My marriage is going down the shitter, I have no career anymore, no fucking money..."

"Oh boo-fucking-hoo!" Alec shouted. "Maybe if you could focus on someone other than yourself for five minutes your marriage wouldn't be swirling down the toilet, ever think about that? I won't even get into the career thing because if you can't get your head where it needs to be on the job, then you have no business being there and putting everyone else at risk. And as far as money goes, ya might have some now if you hadn't pissed every paycheck you've ever earned down the drain. Don't expect people to feel sorry for you because, face it, Jasper, the mess you're in right now is of your own making. If you don't like it, then clean it up, but for fuck's sake, don't bitch about it while you're doing it."

By the time the caravan pulled up to the front of the house, all three of the Cullen sons—and one Cullen baby boy—were in foul moods. Edward because it seemed like the entire city was standing on his front lawn, waving ridiculous 'Welcome Home' signs around and cheering. The last thing he wanted was an audience watching him get lifted out of the car and dumped into his wheelchair. Jasper was still simmering in his post-argument anger, and Emmett had a migraine from Ian's colic-induced wailing.

Ian's first night home, just the night before Edward was due to be released from the hospital, had been Emmett's rather brutal introduction to new fatherhood. He'd spent the entire night rocking his fussy baby in his arms as he paced the lower level of his and Rosalie's townhome in a sleep deprived zombie-like state. It was the only thing that seemed to calm Ian's cries. By four am, a half hour after his last feeding, Emmett and Rosalie were in the ER, both severely distressed and exhausted. It only took the doctor a quick examination to give them a diagnosis of colic and suggest they try a different formula, but they still hadn't slept since—too worried and overwhelmed to be able to fall asleep.

"Tell me they're not all staying," Edward grumbled as Carlisle engaged the locks on his son's wheelchair.

"No," he chuckled. "I'm pretty sure it's just the welcome wagon. Okay, just like we practiced. You ready?"

"'Bout as ready as I'll ever be," Edward sighed, lifting his legs one at a time with his arms to turn toward his father. "Lift with your legs, old man, or you'll throw your back out."

"Just shut your pie-hole and leave your old man jokes in the car or I'll haul you out of there the old school way and really make a spectacle out of this," Carlisle laughed as Edward wrapped his arms around his neck.

"You'd bust your ass and put us both in the hospital if you tried," Edward retorted just as Carlisle went to give a hefty heave and pull him from the car. Carlisle burst out laughing, losing his footing and almost falling forward into the car on top of his son.

"Quit pussyfooting around over there! We're hungry!" a familiar voice shouted, making Edward's gaze shoot over Carlisle's shoulder. About twenty feet away, Felix and his entire crew stood back by Alec and Emmett, all decked out in their uniformed blues next to the aerial ladder truck. He hadn't even heard the trucks pull up over all the commotion on his front lawn.

"You didn't think they'd miss your homecoming if they weren't on a call, did you?" Carlisle chuckled, tightening his hold and bracing himself to lift again. "On three, Edward. One...two...three."

With one hefty heave and a careful pivot, Edward was seated in his wheelchair with only a slightly pained grimace. His ribs and side were still tender and being hoisted only ever brought that soreness front and forward in his awareness, but at the very least, it was tolerable when compared to anything he'd experienced in his first few days after waking.

"Don't you guys have work to do?" Edward joked as he rolled himself toward his crew. As he was trading brotherly handshakes and fist bumps with his co-workers, he spotted Bella standing awkwardly next to the crowd on his front lawn, patiently waiting for his gaze to find her. As soon as it did, she smiled as she pointed at herself and toward his front door, silently telling him she was escaping the crowd and heading inside. He just chuckled under his breath as he nodded to her and watched her all but run for cover.

"Isn't that...?" Mike started and his eyes widened as realization set in. "Holy shit, it is! That's the girl from the fire!"

Alec's hand shot out and smacked the back of his head, hard. "Say it a little louder, asshole."

Completely unfazed, Mike turned his head toward Edward, grinning like a fool, "Man she's hot! Tell me you're hittin' that naughty nurse style," he laughed, jokingly punching Edward in the shoulder, oblivious to the furious fire sparking in Edward's eyes.

"Ugh, you're disgusting. Someone should have you neutered," Jane groused, her face appearing as though she'd just tasted something foul as she stepped forward and leaned down to give Edward a hug. She kissed his cheek, laughing lightly at his expression when she pulled back. "Deep down somewhere I actually give a shit or two about you, otherwise I wouldn't be on my third shift in a row just to cover for my jackass brother so he could be here. You owe me big time as soon as you get your ass back into the station rotation where it belongs."

Edward wasn't sure what to make of her declaration, having never really seen eye to eye with her on anything, but he couldn't stop the grin from forming across his face. Maybe there was some hope for all of them yet if it was possible for someone to have chipped a block of ice off Jane's shoulder.

"Alright, we're on a time crunch here and I wasn't lyin' about us bein' hungry, so how 'bout you say hello to all these nice people out here so we can take this party inside, huh?" Felix chuckled, rubbing his stomach.

Edward sighed, looking over at the crowd watching him intently and nodded as he reached down to grasp the wheels of his chair. For the next half hour he shook hands, laughed uncomfortably, and said thank you more times than he could count—all the while wishing he could have escaped with as much ease as Bella had.

But as soon as his lawn had been cleared and his front door had shut behind him, the only thing he could think of was how good it felt to finally be home.

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