Monday, January 24, 2011

Chapter 34


The Confessional Hour

Saturday, December 19th, Edward awoke from slumber slowly. Stretching his fingers, they seemed to be ensnarled in a mess of silky strands. A familiar weight rested in his lap, but his grogginess was too heavy to discern its origin. Disoriented, his eyes opened and drifted around the room before falling to his lap. Even in his still waking state, he'd have recognized the brunette chaos of hair his hand was buried in anywhere. Ever so gently, he untangled his hand and brushed the hair away from Bella's face.

Resting his hand over her ear, Edward traced the curve of her soft cheek with his thumb. There was a sharp tugging at his heart as he watched her eyes move behind closed lids, and in that moment, as his head fell back and his gaze turned to the ceiling, he knew he was a goner. He'd fallen; hard and fast, and for someone he could no longer bear the thought of losing. In the last two months, he'd suffered more ups and downs than ever before, but she'd been there for him every step of the way.

She'd been there to calm his furious storms when he began having to fight Workman's Comp to continue paying for his physical therapy after just a little over two months of treatment.

She'd been there to hold him with steady arms and soothe him with tender words each time he shattered under the weight of his reality, and she'd been there to help him pick up the pieces in the aftermath.

She'd been there to ease his heavy heart when their holiday table held the empty seat of one of his nearest and dearest friends—his Peanut.

Thanksgiving had been a relatively solemn affair; conversation at the dinner table stilted by what her empty seat represented. Tension filled the air surrounding the table, but Edward could only feel heartache at Alice's absence, and remorse for the discomfort Charlie and Renee likely suffered through the evening.

The first Saturday of December, Bella was there for him again with a never ending supply of smiles to which he could return as he feigned jolliness while belting out "Ho-ho-ho...Merry Christmas" repeatedly. The annual fire department Santa Run had once been Alice's favorite event of the year, and for years she'd faithfully sat beside him, playing Mrs. Clause to his Santa as they passed out candy and collected toys for charity. Her absence on a day they'd shared and enjoyed together from the very beginning of their friendship, nearly made him wish his station brothers hadn't wasted the effort in getting him into the passenger seat of the old '39 Ford fire engine. Nearly, but not quite, as seeing Bella take such joy in participating in one of his station's traditions kept his spirits afloat.

As his eyes drifted back down to her sleeping form, his thumb still caressing her cheek with the lightest of touch, his thoughts turned toward his past experiences with the emotion that was building within him. Love, something he'd felt with varying depth for few of the women that had come in and out of his life in the past. He'd never truly had his heart broken; had never fallen so deeply for someone that their departure crumbled him, but he'd been hurt once—by someone he'd once considered a good friend.

The end of their relationship hadn't been a dramatic or drawn out event. Swift and with few words exchanged, he'd watched her gather what few of her belongings had accumulated in his home over their year long courtship with tears in her eyes. For months after he'd held her hand while walking her to her car, and kissed her forehead in a speechless goodbye as they embraced, he tortured himself with thoughts of what could have been if he'd just begged her to stay. Those thoughts had circled his mind continuously, but no matter what his imagination envisioned, he'd known the truth. Whether he let her go, or begged her to stay, their fate would have always been the same. Letting her go earlier on just saved them the broken hearts postponing their inevitable demise would have cost them.

Kate had been a good woman; sweet, kind, and generous, but she hadn't been strong enough to willingly accept the sacrifices his career could impose on not only him, but onto her as well. Edward understood her reasoning, her need to leave him, despite what she felt for him. He understood it well enough back then at the young age of twenty four, just as well as he understood it now at twenty nine—he couldn't live without the career, and she couldn't live with it. Their relationship had been destined to end in stalemate from the very start, and in taking the risk of trying to forge what wasn't meant to be, they'd lost a friendship they'd both cherished.

It was this part of his history with romance that conflicted him to the core as he gazed upon the beautiful woman curled into him while she slept. Angry words or hurtful actions hadn't been the wedge that had driven his friendship with Kate apart. What had driven them apart was love—the love she felt for him that cultivated the insufferable fear she felt at the thought of losing him, and he couldn't stand the thought of losing Bella's presence in his life in such a way.

He'd thought Kate had understood and accepted him and his willingness to make such great sacrifices, but he'd made the mistake of not knowing for sure if she truly did. He couldn't risk taking that chance, that leap of faith, again. Regardless of what he felt for Bella, and what he suspected she felt for him, he needed to know, without a hint of uncertainty, that she was capable of accepting every part of him, and his life, while aware of the heartache that loving him could cause her.

Reaching over to the end table beside the couch, Edward picked up his cell phone to check the time. Despite having not fallen asleep until after two in the morning, he'd awoken well before his alarm was set to go off. Spasms in his legs, and cramps in the muscles of his back had left him in such discomfort while lying flat on the bed that he'd had to move to the reclining seat of the couch. He'd pleaded with Bella for her to use the comfort of his bed, but she'd stayed with him there, curled up on the couch, doing what she could to ease his pain. For over an hour she'd tried to massage away his aches with kneading and caressing strokes, but as amazing as it had felt, it had brought forth little relief. Sleep had been impossible to achieve until he'd finally relented and taken his prescribed muscle relaxants and pain killers.

Not wanting to wake her, as it was only a quarter after seven and the alarm had been set for eight thirty, Edward contented himself with a muted television program while she continued to sleep soundly. Every so often, his gaze would fall to her serene face and his fingers, with a mind of their own, would caress her soft skin; a graze of her temple, a trace of her arched brow, a smoothing away of her bangs. Loving touches that spoke volumes of the emotion he kept locked firmly within himself while she was awake.

All too soon for his liking, the alarm sounded and she awakened with a jolt. Quick to silence the grating noise, he smiled faintly down at her as she rolled onto her back and rubbed her eyes with loosely fisted hands; something he'd come to know, with how often she would spend the night, would leave black smudges of day old mascara beneath her eyes. But not this morning. Their Friday night had been spent only with each other as company—no visiting friends, or sports games, or nights out dancing with the girls. Just the two of them, free of make-up and dressy clothes. Though he was reluctant to admit it aloud, it was nights such as those he liked best. Quiet, peaceful, and comfortable.

Sparkling brown eyes looked up at him from where her head rested in his lap as her hands returned to the warmth beneath the blanket. Smiling, she turned toward him once more and he felt her playful fingers lightly scratching his side as she greeted him with a husky voice. "Morning. What time did you wake up?"

"A little after seven," he replied, halting his hand's movement to brush the lock of hair away that had fallen in front of her eye. "How'd you sleep?"

"Good...I should be asking you that, though." Her gaze was warm and portrayed her concern as her hand moved around to his lower back, gently rubbing the muscles that had been hurting him the night before. "How are you feeling? Did you sleep okay?"

"Been better, been worse," he shrugged, his eyes closing in pleasure at her kneading touch.

"Did you sleep okay?" she asked again, conscious that he hadn't answered.

He nodded silently, not wanting her to worry over the fact that he really hadn't, or have her assume that it had been because of her that he hadn't. In truth, having her spend the night on the couch with him hadn't caused him any further discomfort. On the contrary, really; he quite enjoyed the occasional nights they spent sleeping together on his couch, but it had been the chaotic dreams, brought on by the narcotics in his medications, that had soured his rest.

"You don't have to go today if you're not feeling up for it," Bella voiced quietly, gently circling the tips of her fingers against a knotted muscle.

His eyes opened and focused on her as he reached around his side to grasp her hand. He kissed the back of it in appreciation and lowered it to the blanket, smiling as he spoke. "He'll only turn fifty once, Bella. If it gets to be too much I'll head home early, but I want to at least show up."

"Okay."

As they began to rise and prepare for the day, Edward wondered at how naturally their friendship had evolved. There were no awkward moments as they moved around each other in the kitchen, brewing coffee, washing the dishes from their late night snack, toasting bagels, and feeding the dogs. There was no tension from a lack of conversation, the silence between them easy to bear with just flitting glances that were answered with soft smiles as they made their way to the table. And when she was ready to leave, her day's plans taking her away from him to help her mother get everything ready for her father's fiftieth birthday bash, her leaning in to kiss his cheek had been anything but surprising.

After the front door latched behind her, Edward let the dogs inside and made his way back to the couch. By the time Alec had wandered down the stairs, still half asleep as he staggered his way into the kitchen for a cup of coffee before dropping himself into the recliner, Edward had been lost in his thoughts of Bella for over an hour. Over and over the possibilities of what life with her as more than just his friend could be like circled in his mind, along with the possibilities of what he could lose if he took that chance to build something more with her.

Unbidden, his mouth formed words his mind hadn't foreseen him saying aloud. "I love her."

"Love who?...What?" Alec questioned, his sleep addled mind scrambling to catch up to the unfamiliar words spoken by his friend. An extremely late night out with some of the guys from the station, on top of a few too many drinks—and the fact that in all the years they'd known each other, Edward had only ever spoken the L word once when not referring to a member of his own family—had left Alec scratching his head in bewilderment.

Turning his head to the side, away from the still muted television he hadn't even been watching, Edward clarified. "Bella. I love her."

"You'd be an idiot not to," Alec responded, sinking deeper into the chair and pausing to take a sip of the steaming black liquid. "What I don't get is why you're telling me and not her."

"I...can't."

Alec's eyes opened from their resting state and drifted to the side to scrutinize the man sitting just feet from him. "Alright, I'll bite. Why can't you?"

Edward's gaze remained distant and fixed to the bleak white wall above the television for long moments before his head shook. "I don't want to lose her. I don't want to ruin the friendship we have by trying to turn it into something more." His gaze turned toward Alec. "I can't risk having it turn out the way it did with Kate."

"You love her, want more with her, don't want to lose her...but you're not going to tell her any of that because it's safer to have her in your life as nothing more than a friend," Alec summarized, his tone incredulous.

"You're an idiot."

Noticing Edward begin to bristle, Alec waved him off exasperatedly with one hand. He was too tired, too hung-over, and in too unpleasant a mood already as it was to get into an argument first thing in the morning. "I'm not trying to pick a fight with you, I'm just telling it like it is. If you think that keeping her as a friend and nothing more while you feel for her the way you do will keep you from losing her, you're an idiot. That's not a jab, that's a fact."

"What are you gonna do when she starts dating someone? You can't sit here and tell me that you won't be eaten alive by jealousy."

"What do you want me to say, Alec?" Edward groaned, rubbing his hands over his face. His arms crossed over his chest as he shook his head and sighed, turning his head to look at his friend. "I didn't say it would be easy, but it's better than the alternative...for both of us."

"You need to pull your head out of your ass and stop comparing Bella to someone from your past. That's your first mistake. Bella's not Kate," Alec responded, his final words stated pointedly. "If she was, she wouldn't have stuck around this long. Kate bailed out at the first sign of the dangers we face becoming a reality she had to deal with."

"I wish you'd get over that shit already," Edward grumbled. "I never faulted her for not being able to handle knowing what we put ourselves through, and you shouldn't either. Kate was a good woman..."

"I never said she wasn't," Alec denied, cutting Edward's argument short. "All I'm trying to get you to see is that you're pissing a damn good opportunity right down the drain for no good reason. Bella's been here for you every step of the way, man. She's seen you with tubes and wires and shit coming out of you, looking half a shade away from death. She's been through hell and back with you and your mood swings, and through all of it she's done everything she possibly could have to help you in any way you needed it."

Alec shook his head as he tried to understand how Edward could think, for even a fraction of a moment, that Bella would leave him at the mere hint of troubled waters ahead. Try as he might to understand it, he couldn't. "If Bella was going to run because she was afraid of losing you to the job, she would have left already with all that she's seen, but she hasn't. That should say something to you, because it sure as shit says a whole lot to me...and everyone else around here."

As Edward's head dropped to the back of the couch, his eyes closing as his mind once again became overwhelmed with conflicting thoughts, Alec headed back into the kitchen to refill his coffee mug. Before heading back upstairs to take a shower, he paused and leaned against the wall at the entrance to the den.

"Before you decide on anything, just think about what you're doing, Edward," he spoke, lifting his gaze from the mug in his hands. "Women like Bella are hard to find. You'd be a fool to let her go like this."

Across town, Bella and her mother stood side by side in a local bakery, waiting for the young employee helping them to retrieve their order. The corner store was busy, as it always was in the weeks leading up to Christmas; people coming and going in a rush, their faces flushed from the cold and smiles replacing grimaces as they're greeted with delicious scents and festive decor. Bella's own lingering smile as she reached out to take a bite sized pastry from the sample tray upon the counter had Renee tilting her head to the side in curious observation, a soft smile upon her own lips.

"What?" Bella chuckled, a pastry halfway to her mouth as she turned toward her mother. "Want one? Their baklava is to die for."

"You're in a good mood today."

The simple comment had Bella's smile stretching wider as the sweet treat melted in her mouth and her eyes fell to the floor as she nodded. Remembering falling asleep to Edward's fingers running through her hair and waking to his gentle touch upon her face had a rosy blush rising to her cheeks that had nothing to do with the frigid winter air blustering just outside the shop.

"I am...I always am this time of year though," she replied, trying to evade her mother's typical nosiness.

"Mmhm," Renee hummed a laugh, pointing to the tray for Bella to hand her one of the baklava squares. She contemplated for a brief moment whether or not the cause of Bella's near constant smile that morning had anything to do with a change in her and Edward's relationship, but she decided not to press the matter. Her daughter's obvious happiness that day was enough to content her—for the time being at least, but she'd most definitely have her eye on the pair of them later that afternoon.

"How is Edward's therapy going? I haven't seen him since just after Thanksgiving...where did the time go?"

"I have no idea where this entire year went," Bella snickered, shaking her head and turning fully toward Renee. "He's doing good though. He's making great progress with his right leg...his left's still a little iffy, but I think that aquatic therapy stuff is doing him a world of good. Did I tell you he was standing in the pool all by himself the other day?"

"No!" Renee gasped, grabbing a hold of Bella's arm in delighted surprise. "You didn't. That's wonderful!"

"Yeah, it is," Bella grinned, nodding. "You should have seen his face when Seth told him it shouldn't be long before he can do it without the water helping him. Gosh, Mom..."

She trailed off, a tears prickling her eyes and making them glisten a she fought to keep herself composed. Some days, she felt as though her emotions could be just as tumultuous as Edward's. "He's just...he pushes himself so hard, and he wants it so bad, but I keep worrying. I mean, everything looks so hopeful, but what if, you know?"

She discretely swiped the moisture away from her eyes and shook her head. "What if he hits a certain point and never gets any better than that? What if he eventually can stand, but not walk...or walk, but not without a walker or cane? What if he makes it through all of this, but can't return to work? He falls so low when he thinks he's not making any progress...I'm terrified of what his rock bottom might look like if what I've already seen is just the tip of the iceberg."

Renee had just wrapped her arms around her daughter to soothe her fears when their name was called. She pulled back and pressed the palm of her hand to Bella's cheek, swiping a tear away with her thumb. "It'll be okay, honey. You just have to trust that everything will work out the way it's supposed to."

After paying for Charlie's birthday cake, a cookie platter, and the two sugar-free pies they'd ordered weeks before, Renee and Bella hastily made their way back to Bella's car. Forecasts were calling for snow just a few days before Christmas, but the gray skies and bitter winds made it feel as though they'd be seeing flurries of white ahead of schedule. Shivering as Bella turned the key in the ignition and turned up the heat, Renee turned toward her with concerned eyes.

"Baby, can I ask you something?" she questioned, covering Bella's hand on the gear shift with her own to halt her from putting the car in reverse. "If Edward doesn't ever fully recover, or never goes back to his career...will you still care for him the way you do now?"

"Wh...what?" Bella sputtered, her brow furrowing and eyes flashing to her mother's face in bewildered anger. "Why wouldn't I? What kind of question is that, Mom?"

"Please don't take offense, honey," Renee responded softly, apologetically. "You're just so emotionally invested in him, and even though you try not to let others see that, we can. I worry, is all.

"I'm not saying that either myself, or your father, wouldn't support your choice. We would, you know that, don't you? We just want to make sure that you're not running headlong into something you're unsure of."

Bella's gaze focused on the frigid world around them through the windshield—people walking by bundled up from head to toe, barren, leafless trees, cars driving by with occasional bows tied to antennae or wreaths strapped to grills—and her thoughts turned to the man who owned her heart. She couldn't even be sure when, exactly, she'd fallen so deeply for him, and it had never been her intent to, but at some point she had.

At one time, she'd wanted nothing more than to be his friend, but in the quiet moments they shared together, he'd endeared himself to her. Somewhere in the mix of smiles he reserved just for her, the way he'd sometimes reach for her hands when he was speaking to her or pull her closer to him on the couch while they watched TV, and the text messages he sent mid-day during the week just to say hello to her, she'd fallen in love with him.

Still gazing out of the windshield, Bella spoke the words she'd thought a million times, but had never said aloud.

"I love him, Mom." Her gaze flickered away from the windshield to look at her mother beside her. In those warm eyes, glistening with unshed tears, Renee saw the very truth of every word she spoke. "Whether he walks again, goes back to work one day, or stays just as he is now...I love him. I can't change the way I feel for him, and I don't want to."

Renee's hand clasped hers and gave it a gentle little squeeze as she smiled softly. "Have you told him how you feel?"

"No," Bella sighed, shaking her head. "He's got so much to deal with as it is. It just feels like telling him would put more pressure on him, and I'm content with where we are...wherever it is that we are, anyway. Some days I'm just not sure, but others it feels like..."

"Feels like what?" Renee encouraged, glad her daughter was finally opening up to her.

Bella's gaze returned to her and she shrugged slightly. "Like he might feel a little of what I do, too...maybe...I don't know."

"Well...I, for one, think he does," Renee smiled, patting Bella's hand. "And I think you two would make a wonderful couple...as long as he keeps treating you as well as he has recently. A few months back I wasn't so sure, and neither was your father, for that matter."

Bella snickered as she put the car in reverse and carefully backed out of their parking spot. As they made their way toward the hall they rented at the local VFW, she assured her mother that Edward had been on his best behavior toward her ever since she'd been in the hospital with the flu back in September. While it was a slight fib, as she'd had a few minor run-ins with his temper since then, he'd caught himself with nothing more than a warning look from her as she walked away from him to give him time to cool off. Sometimes it took minutes, other times a few hours, but every time he'd sought her out again after he'd calmed down, he'd gone above and beyond to show his sincere remorse.

Shortly after two, Bella and Renee had finished getting everything prepared for the party and were heading back home to get themselves ready. At the same time, Alec and Edward were heading back from the rehab center to do the same. For the short hour Edward had been with Seth, he'd been able to focus on something other than Bella, and his feelings for her, but as the passing time brought him closer to seeing her again, his thoughts centered upon her once more. When Alec pulled the car into the driveway, Edward made no move to unbuckle his seatbelt; instead, he just turned his head to look at the man beside him.

"I'm driving myself crazy."

Alec burst out laughing at his declaration and shook his head as he removed the keys from the ignition. "Edward, no one's saying you have to shit or get off the pot at this very moment. Things are going good between you two the way they are, right?"

"Yeah..."

"Then don't worry about it," Alec shrugged. "All I was saying was don't make a rash decision you'll regret later. If you don't feel right telling her how you feel, then wait until you do, but don't tell her you don't want to be anything more than friends. There's no sense in burning bridges you might want to cross one day."

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