Thursday, January 13, 2011

Chapter 33


The last week of October was filled with many things for the people of Tacoma; last minute searches for perfect costumes, purchases by the cartfuls of candy to pass out to trick-or-treaters, the carving of pumpkins to sit upon porch steps—flickering with the light of the tea light candles nestled within. But while most of the city was rushing toward Halloween with excited smiles upon their faces, Edward, unknowingly, was creeping toward something altogether different.

October 30th, two pumpkins sat upon the kitchen counter in Edward's home, still awaiting to be carved as he sat, miles away, working with his physical therapist to overcome what he wouldn't allow himself to believe was permanent. Costumes and trick-or-treaters, decorations and ghoulish gatherings, and the pumpkins and candy Bella had brought over were the farthest things from his mind as he listened to Seth's every word of encouragement and praise.

"You got this, Edward," Seth chanted.

Edward's eyes were screwed tightly shut, his hands gripping the sides of the matted table, his entire body trembling from the effort he was expending to bend and raise his right knee all on his own. A bead of sweat slipped from his brow as a heavy breath wheezed and hissed through his teeth, and for a moment, he considered giving up, but he couldn't.

Not now. Not ever.

"You can do this. I know you can. Focus on the connection," Seth encouraged. Edward could hear the grin in his voice, though he couldn't see it, but the sound of it urged him on. He was getting there, he knew he was. Just a little more.

With a steeling breath, he focused on the muscles he was trying to control, picturing with his mind what he was commanding them to do.

Bend, raise...move.

He felt his heel slide, his sock slick and the movement uninhibited as it would have been by the rubbery tread of his sneakers. He felt the shake of his leg muscles as it slowly raised off the mat, and he gripped the sides of the table harder to hold himself steady.

"Lift, Edward...Keep going," Seth chanted. "You're doin' it, man! C'mon, all the way!"
His teeth grit together as he felt his heel slide in miniscule increments, each slight movement painfully slow in coming and fought for with every fiber in his being. Ten long weeks of intense physical therapy had brought him to this defining moment. This moment where he was finally succeeding, rather than trying and failing.

"You got it, man! Just a little more!" Seth crowed joyously, garnering the curious glances of others within the room.

Edward's breaths rushed in and out of his lungs as he felt the underside of his foot flatten against the pad. His eyes opened, prickling as moisture rushed into them at the blurry sight of his knee fully bent before him.

"Yeah!" he shouted, one arm soaring into the air in victory.

"You did it, Edward," Seth laughed, clapping. "That was all you, my man."

For the briefest of fleeting moments, Edward laughed and wished that Emmett had been there with him, that he hadn't needed to run errands after dropping him off, but the moment disappeared as he became overwhelmed with emotion. His arms crossed over his face, shielding him from the views of bystanders as he fought to keep his composure. His torso jerked with every sob he tried to hold within.

Seth's hands braced his ankle and the underside of his knee, preparing to help him lower his leg back down to the pad, but Edward's muffled voice stopped him.

"Don't...leave it. Please."

Ten long weeks it had taken him to get here, to finally feel like he wasn't fighting for the impossible; to finally feel like there truly was something to hope for. He wasn't ready to give that feeling up just yet by having someone lower his leg back down for him. When he was ready, he'd put the effort forth to do it on his own.

"Pretty moving stuff, huh?" Seth asked, lowering himself to sit on the edge of the padded table. "The first big breakthrough."

With a calming breath, Edward wiped the evidence of his tears on his sleeves and lowered his arms. Staring at the fluorescent light above them, he nodded. "'s, uh...pretty damn amazing."

"You think it feels good now, just wait until we get you out of that chair on your own," Seth chuckled, lightly punching his shoulder.

"How long until then?"

Seth met his eyes and shrugged; there really was no definite timeline he could give. "Don't know. Everyone makes progress at a different pace."

At Edward's dismal nod, Seth patted the pad and stood. "Keep your head up, Edward. We'll get there. You know what they all say, Rome wasn't built in a day."

Three more times before the end of his session, Edward raised and lowered his right leg of his own will and effort. Upon leaving the center, Seth praised him on his hard work, and with a friendly smile, told him to go out and celebrate.

And celebrate he did.

That night, Bella arrived at his house to find the driveway packed, and cars lining the street on both sides. From the sidewalk she could hear laughter and music floating from within the house; the sound of it brought a smile to her face. Entering inside, she was almost positive she'd walked into the wrong residence as more people were milling about than she'd seen since the afternoon of his return home from the hospital. She greeted everyone casually with a kind smile as she made her way toward the den, even pausing on her journey a handful times to mingle and catch up with some of his friends that called out to her. But it wasn't until she saw Edward that her soft smile lit up her entire face.

With a beer in his hand, his head was tossed back as he laughed. Just mere feet away from him, sat Felix and Demitri, arguing over who could carry the most hose up to the top of the fire tower.

"Just wait until I get out of this chair," Edward chortled, pointing the neck of his beer bottle in their direction. "I'll dust both your asses. Just like the old days."

"Bella, sweetheart, you're finally here," Esme's warm voice called out to her. Hearing her name called, Edward's eyes flashed in her direction, his brilliant smile returning as he set his bottle down on the coffee table beside him. A warm arm wrapped around hers and her gaze turned to the side to see Esme smiling at her. "How was work? Are you hungry at all? I left a plate of eggplant parm' in the oven for you. It should still be warm."

"Work," Bella laughed lightly as she spotted Edward wheeling his way toward her from the corner of her eye. "I might be hungry in a little bit. I had a late lunch with one of my coworkers."

"Okay," Esme smiled again, patting her arm. "Just let me know if you get hungry and I'll heat it up for you, alright?"

"Thank you." As Esme walked away, Bella turned her gaze to Edward, a snicker falling from her lips. "Dare I ask what the occasion is?"

"Just a good day," he shrugged, motioning for her to follow him out onto the back deck. She'd nearly made it outside before a feminine voice shouted her last name, beckoning her to turn, only to see Rosalie heading toward her with a drink in her hand.

"You're late, you've got some catching up to do."

Taking the drink from her, she stood there, fully aware she was gaping, unsure of what to make of the ear to ear grin on Rose's face.

"It's not it?" she asked, slightly amused but mostly wary as Rosalie laughed mirthfully while shaking her head.

"You know...if you keep that up, one of these days I might actually like you enough to consider you a friend."

"Uh, thanks?...I guess?"

After closing the sliding glass door, she turned to see Edward chuckling under his breath.

"Don't let her fool you, she already does. She just likes being difficult."

"Ah ha. I'll keep that in mind," Bella snickered, raising her drink to her nose and making him laugh. "What? I had to check. So what are we doing out here when the party's in there?"

Edward cleared his throat and gestured to a patio chair. "I just wanted to talk, and it's kind of rowdy in there."

"All ears. Lay it on me," she smiled after taking her seat. He wheeled himself closer to her and took her drink from her hands to place it on the table. Taking her hands in his own, he stumbled over the words he wished to say to her.

"I, um...I know I haven't been the easiest person to be around lately. I'm sorry for that. I'm sorry for all the times I've snapped at you...or acted like an ass toward you. I've..."
She lightly gripped his fingers encircling her hands as he trailed off, trying to bring him back to her from wherever his mind had ventured off to. When his eyes came back to her, he shook his head and lowered his gaze to their joined hands.

"I've never been like that before...I don't...I don't want you to think that's who I was...or am...I just..."

Ever since his talk with Charlie, recollection of the way he'd treated her had been weighing heavily upon his conscience. While she was capable of understanding that it wasn't her he was angry with, as she hadn't been at the tender age of nine with Charlie, he still felt the need to ensure her that she'd done nothing wrong; nothing to deserve his hideous behavior.

For five days he'd tried thinking of a way to convey how deeply sorry he was, but he'd come up shorthanded at every turn. Grand gestures had never been a strong suit of his, and until recently, he'd never felt the need to make one. At the very least, he felt he owed her a sincere apology, but after having said it, he felt as though it wasn't enough; could never be enough. The two simple words just weren't capable of erasing the hurt he'd caused, and for that, he was even more sorrowful.

"How can I make it up to you?"

His eyes were pleading with her to make a demand of him, but she did no more than smile softly as she shook her head. "You have nothing to make up for, Edward..."

"No, Bella, I do...I really do. Please, anything. Anything at all. Just tell me what to do."
Her lips pursed as his thumbs caressed the backs of her hands, his eyes still pleading with her. She truly didn't feel he owed her a thing. The apology he'd offered had been more than enough, but as the chill in the evening air began to seep into her skin and rob her of warmth, she conceded to his request—frivolous as her demand would be.

"Carve the pumpkins with me."

"What?" he snorted out a laugh. "That's it? Are you serious?"

"As a heart attack," she nodded, wanting nothing more than to head back inside where the warmth was calling to her. "After everyone leaves, you and me at the kitchen table."

Hours later, at the kitchen table with a rather large pumpkin in his lap, is exactly where Edward found himself. Changed from her work clothes into a pair of his sweats and one of his t-shirts, Bella sat beside him, a trash can between them to catch the seeds and flesh they were scooping out with smiles on their faces. At ten after midnight, they emerged from the house and placed their works of art on the porch floor, one on either side of the small ramp. Ever conscious of the firefighter blood pumping and coursing through the veins of the man beside her, Bella brandished an LED tea light candle to him with a flourish that made him laugh. As they headed back inside to shower and turn in for the night, one goofy, toothy Jack-O-Lantern, and one handsome flaming Maltese cross flickered away long into the night.

Halloween night, after spending hours passing out candy to children by the van-full, they sat together on the couch playing cards until the wee hours of the morning. Both nights, Edward had asked her to stay—and she had. With little argument. And so began a change in their accustomed routine.

During the week, Edward continued to attend his therapy sessions, with an additional hour tacked onto his Monday, Wednesday, and Friday sessions for his aquatic therapy. Saturday afternoon he returned to the center once again for the single hour in the basement pool, but instead of heading down with Seth alone, Bella accompanied them.

The enclosed room smelled of chlorine, the familiar scent striking a moment of nostalgia in Bella as she dropped their folded towels onto a poolside bench. The echoes of their voices off the walls, combined with the chlorinated air brought her back to the days of her childhood when her parents would bring her to the local Y on hot summer days. She'd loved going there, swimming with the other children, playing games in the water, and capturing her parents' attention each time she built up the courage to jump off the next to highest diving board. She never did work up the courage for the high dive, but she'd tried. Repeatedly.

Slightly self-conscious after removing the terrycloth cover-up she'd tossed on to make the trek into the basement, Bella quickly waded into the tepid water. The swimsuit she wore, borrowed from her mother, was anything but revealing; nothing more than a simple, black one-piece, but she'd never worn so little in Edward's presence.

"Shut it, Seth," she warned, her mashed lips belying her tone. He just chuckled and winked, restraining himself from asking when she'd traded in the barely there bikinis for the more conservative, grandmother look she was currently sporting.

"What? What'd I miss?" Edward asked curiously, having become distracted from his surroundings the very moment his eyes landed on Bella.

"Nothing," Bella snorted, halting in the water as he pulled his t-shirt up and over his head.

She'd only seen him shirtless a few times, shortly after his return home, and he'd been attractively sculpted then. But now, after relying so heavily on his upper body for maneuvering and mobility, his once toned physique had become cut and defined. Stone statues of mythical Gods had been chiseled with the sinfully beautiful musculature lines his torso and arms now boasted.

Heat surged like a tidal wave up her neck and into her face as she tore her gaze away, her breath trapped in her chest with little possibility of a discrete escape.

"I always feel like a giant tea bag in this damn thing."

Saved by the grumblings of the man who'd stolen her breath away, she laughed and gathered a hold of herself before turning her gaze back to him. Seated in a plastic chair that slowly lowered him down into the water, Edward's lips pursed, making Bella snicker again as she waded toward him.

"It could be worse," she smiled as he quirked a brow at her. "You could be like a buoy with a big ol' life vest on."

"Don't give wise guy over there any ideas," he retorted, jerking his head in Seth's direction. "Yesterday he had me sitting on a foam noodle."

Seth just rolled his eyes and shook his head. "Quit whining and get into the water already."

With a laugh, Edward pushed himself off the chair and submerged himself beneath the water for a moment before surfacing. During his first session, he'd found that swimming was something he was still capable of. He just had to rely on the movement of his arms rather than his legs to tread water, but he was fully capable of doing so and that knowledge thrilled him. Being in the water, he almost felt normal for brief moments in time.

"Mount up," Seth instructed, walking through the water and passing him one of the foam noodles he'd just been griping about.

"What should I do?" Bella asked, unsure of how she'd be participating.

Seth guided her to just a few feet in front of where Edward sat upon the foam floatation device, bracing himself with his arms stretched along the edge of the pool. "Now just hold your hands on the surface of the water."

Turning his attention to Edward, he grinned and took his place beside him. "I'll help with the left, but the right's all you, buddy."

"You know the drill. Bend and lower first, then bend and flex and try to touch her hand. Lower again, abduct outward, bring it back in, and then we'll switch sides. Ready?"

"Yep," Edward nodded, already bringing his right knee up.

It was easier in the water, just as Seth said it would be, the buoyancy helping to buffer the strain of the weight of his legs, and assist in the fluidity of his movements, but it was still a slow process. The muscles in the lower half of his body lacked the strength they needed to combat the water's natural resistance with ease.

"You're doing great, Edward," Bella smiled fifteen minutes into their session, her fingers curving over the arch of his foot as it touched her hand. He smiled back at her faintly, knowing she was trying to boost his spirit as Seth manipulated his left leg for him. He tried not to think of how little progress he'd made with that side of his lower body, and focus on how far he'd come with the other, but it was hard not to think of with Seth's capable hands controlling his leg's movement.

"So what do you guys have planned for the rest of this weekend? Anything fun?" Seth asked with casual curiosity.

"Two of my friends have been bugging me for a girl's night...they wanted to do dinner and a movie or something, but I don't know," Bella shrugged. She wanted to go if for nothing more than to spend some time with Tanya and Irina. She hadn't spent much time with them in recent months, too involved with Edward and the happenings in his life to commit to more than phone calls and a handful of brief luncheons with her closest friends, but she felt guilty leaving him behind.

"Tanya and Irina, right?" Edward asked, assuming the women he'd met once or twice before were who she'd been referring to. At her slight smile and nod, his head tilted to the side and he chuckled. "You should go. Emmett, Jasper, and the guys are coming over tonight for a hockey game. You'd be bored to death surrounded by a bunch of puck-heads."

"Are you sure? I don't have to go..."

"Bella, go," he laughed, shaking his head as Seth slowly brought his left leg out to the side. "Do something fun for you for once, please."

"Okay," she agreed, a slow smile spreading across her lips as she nodded.

“Good stuff,” Seth chuckled. “I got my money on the Flames tonight. Who’re you rootin’ for?”

And just like that, with one simple question, the remaining forty minutes of the session dissolved into an passionate debate of new players, stats, and team standings that left Bella bewildered, but amused all the same. Knowing he’d be at home enjoying his night of hockey on the big screen while surrounded by his friends, she felt excited by the thought of spending a night surrounded by her own.

Leaving the rehab center, Bella and Edward were all smiles as he extended an invitation to Seth to join him and his friends at his house. It thrilled Bella to see a friendship blossoming between the man she cared for and the man who’d been almost family to her years before. It saddened her that she and Seth had lost contact with one another in the years following her breakup with Jacob, but now that they’d reconnected, she was determined to not allow it to happen again.

Upon arriving home, Bella pulled into the driveway beside the Chief’s truck. Inside the house, Carlisle sat at the kitchen table flipping through equipment catalogs while Esme fluttered about the kitchen, pulling together ingredients for a buffet of what looked to be finger foods for the evening’s gathering.

“Hey, son. How was therapy?” Carlisle asked, his gaze lifting from the pages as Edward and Bella joined them.

“Good, I guess. What are you browsing for now?” Edward questioned as his mother came to his side briefly, kissing the top of his head. “Hi, Mom.”

Keeping his attention focused on his father as Bella and Esme headed into the kitchen together, Edward propped his elbow on the arm of his wheelchair and rested his head against his loose fist. Carlisle leaned back in his chair, folding his arms across his chest as he ghosted a chuckle.

“Wishfully thinking more than browsing. Next year’s budget isn’t going to allow much room for raises, much less new equipment—not with three new recruits coming in before the end of the year.”

Edward grunted in response, lowering his gaze to his lap. “Is that when Guseman’s taking over Lieutenant? Who’s moving up to Sergeant?”

“Where the hell did you hear that?” Carlisle asked, his head shooting to the side as his brow furrowed.

“One of the guys overheard you arguing with Commissioner Eleazar. Alec told me about it a few weeks ago.”

“Bunch of eavesdropping little...” Carlisle trailed off, clenching his teeth. “How long have you been stewing over that bit of bullshit?”

Edward’s gaze shot up, unsure what to make of his father’s agitation. “Bullshit?”

“Yes, Edward. Complete and utter bullshit,” Carlisle confirmed, and then shook his head. “Do you really think I would have kept something like that from you? You know better than anyone that anything that doesn’t come directly either from me, or Eleazar, is heresay. What, exactly, did they tell you they overheard?”

Edward answered, smoothing his hand over his hair. “That if I wasn’t back by the end of the month, which obviously I wasn’t, that Guseman would be stepping in.”

“So not only are they nosy, but deaf as well? Spectacular,” Carlisle deadpanned, rubbing his hands over his face. “Look, son, if anything was going on in the station that affected you, you’d be the first person to hear about it. Guseman's stepping up as acting Lieutenant. It's not permanent.”

Watching the relief flood his son’s face, Carlisle had half a mind to call an emergency station meeting and verbally lash each and every one of those gossip hounds soundly. If they were going to waste their energy on eavesdropping, the least they could do was relay correct information.

"What those idiots overheard was a...debate,” Carlisle edited his choice of words, not wanting to admit how heated the discussion had been over who would replace John as Captain when he retired at the end of the month. My argument had been that the spot was rightfully yours, but right now, that's not an option being that no one has any real idea of when you’ll be able to return to duty.”

Edward didn’t miss the fact that his father had said when and not if, but the confidence in his tone when he’d spoken the word did little to quell Edward’s ever present fears of what may come to be. He might never be able to return to active duty. He might regain his ability to move his legs, but not walk. He might never get any better than he was at that very moment.

Even with the progress he’d made, Edward’s life was still full of unknowns; his future still shrouded in uncertainty.

“So what’s going to happen then?” he asked, feeling the opportunity that had been just within grasp, slip between his fingers. He didn't have a problem with Guseman filling his role in his absence; that much was to be expected. Being stepped over for a promotion, however, he wished to avoid if at all possible.

“Nothing. For the time being...everything's just business as usual,” Carlisle answered, causing Edward’s gaze to dart up once more, his brow furrowing in confusion. A faint smile crept across Carlisle’s lips as he shook his head, thinking of the exact words Captain Ellington spoke to him upon hearing of the issue at hand. “John suddenly had second thoughts about retirement...doesn’t think he’s ready to trade in the action for gardening and soap operas with his wife, or so he said. "

Standing in the kitchen, watching over the interaction between the two men, Esme wrapped her arm around Bella’s shoulders when the young woman leaned into her side.

“Did he do that for Edward?” Bella whispered, turning her glistening eyes toward the woman beside her. Esme nodded, smiling and rubbing Bella’s shoulder. “How long will he postpone retiring?”

“Until the right man for the job is ready to take it.”

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