Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Chapter 36


Reemergence of the Man Within


In the days following Christmas, an abrupt change in Edward was noticed by nearly all. There was a lightness in his eyes that had been absent for far too long, and an easiness to his frequent smiles that made him appear boyish and youthful. It delighted his mother to see him shine with happiness, but even more so to see Bella with the same glow. While others had remained obscurely ignorant of the love they all knew Edward and Bella shared finally coming to fruition, just happy to see him free of the burdensome strain of his struggles for once—if only temporarily—Esme was nearly bursting at the seams trying to contain her absolute elation.

The way they looked at each other now, with secrets in their smiles as they glanced at each other from across the room, and the way they couldn't be within a foot or two of each other without some form of physical connection, made her eyes water with tears of joy. She couldn’t have been happier seeing her son having finally embraced and voiced the feelings she’d known he’d been holding within nearly all along. Bella was a wonderful match for him, and she believed he for her, and Esme hoped only for the best for their future together.

New Year’s Eve, unlike many of the days that had passed by in recent months, was met with lifted spirits and high hopes for the coming year. Smiles were plentiful, as were the drinks and the shared laughter, as Bella and Edward congregated with their friends and family at the local watering hole, aptly named Engine House No. 9 for the historic firehouse the bar had been built in.

As the scoreboard clock on the wall counted down the few remaining minutes of the year 2009, Edward sat with Bella in his lap in the now nearly standing room only bar. The atmosphere pulsed with excited energy that could be heard in the cacophony of raised voices and cheap plastic noise makers, but Edward could feel and hear only her as he held her in his arms. In the back corner of the room where they sat, gazing into one another’s eyes, the rest of the world disappeared as the final countdown began.

When the crowd yelled fifteen, he smiled at her.

At ten, he cupped the side of her face and stroked her cheek with his thumb.

At seven, he whispered, “I love you.”

When the crowd yelled five, he pulled her to his lips.

As the final second was shouted and cheers erupted around them, he both ended, and began the year the best way he could imagine—kissing the woman he loved.

From her seat upon the bar, Alice’s eyes fell upon Edward and Bella in the back corner and she gasped, her eyes widening momentarily before an ear shattering squeal erupted from her throat.

“It’s about damn time!”

Edward’s middle finger quickly shot up in the direction of her voice and she laughed as whistles, cheers, and rounds of applause broke out across the bar. It wasn’t until Seth yelled “Get a room!” that Edward lost his composure. Bella could feel the smile on his lips and she broke away laughing breathlessly.

“Happy New Year,” he murmured in her ear as she hid her blushing face. He placed a kiss on the corner of her jaw and chuckled as she snickered her return greeting into the crook of his neck.

As they rejoined their circle of family and friends, Edward and Bella were positively beaming with happiness. They smiled and shared a few chaste kisses as plastic glasses of champagne were passed around, and all was good in their world as Marty, the bartender, took to the stage of his bar-top. Even Alice and Jasper stood amicably beside one another, laying the frayed state of their relationship to rest for the night.

"Man, there's a lot of familiar faces in this room tonight," Marty laughed, a glass of champagne in hand as he smiled down at the crowd.

"As many of you know, I'm a man of few words...most of which come about in some form or another of 'what can I get ya to drink', but after having known many of you for more years than I care to count, I've come to think of you as friends. And tonight, I'd like to propose a toast to my friends.

"This year's been hard," he spoke, pausing to nod silently at Edward. In that poignant moment, Carlisle's hand came to a rest on Edward's shoulder and he held Bella tighter as a lump rose into his throat.

"But I'm a firm believer that no hardship we experience in life goes unrewarded. I believe that, even when it doesn't seem as such, the trials and tribulations we go through, bring us to where we're meant to be in life," he smiled and raised his glass, encouraging others to do the same.

"So here's to overcoming life's obstacles and moving on to bigger and better places. May this year be better than the last."

It wasn't long after Marty's toast that people began to slowly disperse and head home. Both Edward and Bella's parents were among the first couples to leave, followed shortly after by Emmett and Rosalie, and a few other parents of young children who would be waking in the early hours of the morning. By a quarter to one, when Marty announced last call, only a few stragglers remained. Content with just having Bella still in his lap, Edward rubbed her leg as she chatted animatedly with Alice, Tanya, and Irina at the table they circled. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed Alec smiling down at his cell phone that he was holding beneath the table and Edward quirked a brow.

"Who are you texting at this hour?"

Alec's eyes shot to the side as he snapped his phone shut. "No one."

"Bullshit," Edward laughed. "You're grinning like a fool. Who is it?"

Suddenly, all eyes around the table were on Alec and in his moment of distraction, Bella reached over and snatched the phone.

"Who's Kelly? Oooh...Alec," she guffawed, skimming through a rather flirtatious text she'd sent him. "She's saucy!"

“Alright, alright. Give it back.” He tried to remain straight-faced, but he ended up chuckling as Bella winked at him.

“So who is she?” she asked, placing the phone in his awaiting hand.

“Just a girl I met at the department Christmas party a few weeks ago.”

“Is she a firefighter?”

Alec shook his head, his smile growing. “She’s a paramedic.”

“Come on, Alec,” Alice laughed, throwing a crumpled napkin at him. “Details, man. Details.”

“Alright, fine. Her name’s Kelly Duncan, she’s twenty-eight, single mom of a five year old son named Nicholas, and they just moved here from Bellevue at the beginning of November. Happy?”

“Getting there,” Bella smirked. “What’s she like?”

“She’s tall, blonde, greenish blue eyes, chock full of tough attitude and funny as shit. Kind of reminds me of a mix of you and Rosalie,” Alec laughed and shook his head as his phone vibrated with another text.

“Why haven’t you mentioned her?” Edward asked curiously and Alec shrugged.

“There hasn’t been anything to say yet. We went out for coffee after the party and have gone to dinner once since, but that’s as far as it’s gone.”

As he opened his phone to read the new text, he smiled to himself knowing it had gone farther than that, much farther, but that wasn’t information he was inclined to share with the table. He’d never meant for things to move as quickly as they had with her, but he couldn’t find it in him to regret it. Something in his gut was telling him it hadn’t been a mistake, and from her texts, she didn’t seem to feel as though it was either.

“Have you met the kid yet?” Jasper asked. “I mean, he’s kind of part of a package deal, ya know?”

“No, I haven’t met Nick, yet,” Alec responded pointedly. The kid had a name. “Kelly’s cautious about bringing guys she dates into his life. She doesn’t want him to get hurt if things don’t work out, and I’m cool with that. I wouldn’t want him to get hurt either.”

“So are you going to go meet her?” Bella asked, pointing at his phone. She glanced at Edward and smiled, reveling in what they’d found in each other, and hoping, maybe, Alec could find it with Kelly. “I think you should.”

“You think? It’s late,” he wavered.

“Seriously. Go for it, man,” Edward piped in as Bella relaxed back against him. He kissed her cheek and laced their fingers together atop her stomach.

“Oh, so now that you finally manned up and got the girl you’re suddenly an expert?” Alec cracked up, making everyone else at the table laugh. “If I listen to you I’ll be toeing dirt for the next five months, but I doubt I’d be as lucky as your ass to have her still waiting for me to grow a pair.”

Edward chuckled, unable to refute the jab. “All the more reason for you to have left ten minutes ago.”

“Speaking of leaving, are you ready to go home?”

Edward failed to notice the numerous pairs of widened eyes around the table at his casual reference of his house as “home”, and the implication it held of him feeling as though it was no longer just his, but hers as well. Bella caught it, and it made her heart flutter, but her eyes softened instead of widening in surprise.

“Yeah,” she breathed, pressing a soft kiss to his lips.

“Okay, an hour ago you two were cute, now you’re just turning me into a diabetic,” Irina snickered, bringing her drink to her lips. “How you two managed to keep your hands and lips off each other for as long as you did is a mystery that confounds us all.”

“Amen!” Tanya and Alice laughed, high five-ing one another.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Bella snorted. “Ladies, and Jasper, enjoy the rest of your evening. Alec,” she smiled as she turned and wrapped her arms around him. “Have fun with your lady friend.”

Strong gusts of wind made the brisk air feel bitingly cold as they hurried their way toward Bella's car. As they made it to the passenger door, Edward wished he could open the door for her like a true gentleman and usher her inside out of the frigid, blustering breeze. Hoisting himself into the passenger side first, and waiting idly by as she folded up his chair and placed it in the backseat, he longed for the day he could make such a small gesture to show her how precious she was to him. The most he could do was start the car and get the heater going, which he did before she'd taken her seat behind the wheel.

"Jeez! I didn't think it'd get so cold tonight." Bella's teeth chattered as she spoke the words. As she gave the car a few moments to warm up, she rubbed her hands together rapidly, using the friction to thaw her frozen fingers.

Edward reached out and took her hands between his own fractionally warmer ones. His large hands engulfed her tiny ones held within, instantly soothing the stinging ache from the cold she'd tried to rub away from them.

"Did you have a good time tonight?" he asked, bringing their hands up to his lips to blow warmth into them with his breath.

"Yeah, I really did."

He returned her smile as he parted their hands and placed a kiss upon one of her palms. "Me too."

"I don't know about you, but I'm ready for a cup of hot cocoa and maybe a movie in bed," Bella grinned, leaning forward to peck his lips before putting the car in gear.

"Sounds like a plan to me."

On their journey home, Bella stuck to the back roads and side streets at Edward's request. The late hour mixed with the icy slush in the roads remaining from the Christmas snow, in combination with the high prevalence of drunk drivers on that particular evening, made the main roads a hazard best avoided. What Edward hadn't thought about when he'd made the suggestion, however, was their new path would take them directly past his old fire station.

"Looks like Jane and the guys are out on a call."

As Bella commented on the absence the trucks in the bay, she glanced at Edward as they passed the building to see if a spark of interest had lit up his features. It hadn't. He'd merely flicked his eyes toward, and back away from the building and nodded.

"Yep."

Later that night, long after Bella had fallen asleep, Edward remained wide awake. He stared at the ceiling above him, mindlessly tracing patterns with the tips of his fingers on the bare skin of Bella's back.

Their night had been an enjoyable one, made immensely more so by the intimacy and passion they'd shared prior to her falling asleep curled into him, but as he lay there, an emptiness began to pulse and ache within him. It had been growing steadily since the moment they'd passed the station house, and with each minute that passed, it continued to slowly consume him.

Unable to lie there any longer, he carefully extracted himself from Bella's hold, placing a kiss against the top of her head before sliding himself into his wheelchair. He'd been trying to ignore the source of his hollowness for as long as he could, but after his father's words on Christmas Eve, spending time with some of the guys from the station at the bar that night, and passing by the empty station, he could ignore it no longer.

He missed the job. He missed the sound of the engine’s sirens wailing, the air horn blaring, the diesel engine roaring. He missed the smell of smoky soot and exhaust fumes that lingered in the station bay long after they’d returned from a call. He even missed the smell of the wax he’d used religiously to keep the chrome trim on the trucks shined to a T, and the paint buffed to the vibrant red he’d admired, and favored, his whole life long.

But most of all, he missed the camaraderie... the feeling of being part of something bigger than just himself.

He’d felt brief moments of it over the course of the evening, a joke between members of the brotherhood shared here, a tale of glory from the old days there, but the moments were tainted by how distanced he felt from it all. He’d laughed at some of the stories of practical jokes they’d played on one another over the years, and even felt a flicker of excitement rise within him as Felix and Demitri recounted animatedly for their group one of the fiercest battles with the blaze they’d all come out victoriously against—but for most of it, he’d felt almost as an outsider. Someone who once knew of the adrenaline and pride that coursed through their veins, but had long since forgotten the feel of it.

By the light of the moon shining in through his kitchen window, a handheld radio that had laid dormant for months upon the kitchen counter sat illuminated in the milky white glow. Edward sat for endless minutes staring at it as it almost seemed to call to him, beckoning him to embrace the one thing in his life he’d loved before there’d been anything—or anyone—else to own a part of him.

After wheeling himself closer, Edward’s hand shakily reached out to grasp the scanner. His heart beat erratically in his chest as he fingered the dial that would bring it to life... and subsequently, simultaneously bring him back into his past as well as the uncertainty of his future. Closing his eyes in trepidation, he turned the knob just enough to power it up—but not nearly enough to hear anything.

Bella, after rolling over and feeling the bed beside her empty, rose and looked around worriedly. She quickly pulled the t-shirt he’d worn to bed on to cover her nearly nude body, and went in search for him. Her footsteps were almost silent across the hardwood floor, but when she spotted him in the kitchen she took extra care to remain unnoticed. She watched on silently as he warred with himself internally; the struggle he was enduring to find the strength to reconnect with the part of his past that had always made him feel whole, evident upon his face dimly lit by the glowing orange light of the small screen.

Unaware he was being watched, Edward slowly, painfully slowly, continued turning the knob until a faint hum could be heard emanating from the speaker. For moments he listened, his ears straining to hear the empty airwaves over the thudding of his own pulse. A slight crackle came across, sending his heart skipping at the sound of a radio transmit button being depressed, and a burst of breath escaped him as his fingers deftly twisted the knob back into the off position.

“Don’t.”

The soft word startled him, his head jerking to the side to see Bella slowly approaching him. He briefly wondered how long she’d been awake, and for a moment longer, how long she’d been standing there gazing upon him, but as she lowered herself into his lap, the thought vanished. She gently lifted his hand still clutching the scanner and rested it in her lap. Bringing her arm around his shoulders, she kissed the side of his face and spoke only in a whisper.

“You don’t have to let it go. This is who you are, Edward.”

His gaze turned to hers and she lightly pecked his lips. His arm around her waist tightened as he laid the portable device in her lap, unsure if he could handle hearing a call go out, or listening to the voices of his station mates.

“Stay with me...?”

“I’m right here, honey. I’ll sit here with you all night if that’s what you need.”

As she said the words, he couldn’t imagine a more perfect person to have been blessed to be loved by. With her, he didn’t feel the need to hide his weaknesses as he did with so many others, and allowing her in didn’t make him feel vulnerable as he once thought it would. She accepted him as he was; broken pieces, flaws and all. Being with her, having her at his side, made him feel as though he could face anything, no matter how small or great—and in that moment, having her with him gave him the strength to turn the scanner back on and try to reconnect with a piece of himself he worried he may have pushed so far away, he’d lost it forever.

As they listened to the subtle hum floating from the speaker, Bella eased his apprehensive anxiety with gentle strokes of her fingers through his hair as she rested her forehead against the side of his neck. When he tensed as it squawked to life, bringing forth the voice of a medic radioing back to dispatch, Bella pressed her lips against his the warm skin of his neck, feeling his pulse race beneath.

“Medic five to dispatch...”

“Dispatch, over.”

“MVA vic on board. Twenty-two year old male, minor injuries, vitals stable and holding. En route to Tac-Gen. ETA ten minutes.”

“Copy that, Medic five. Tac-Gen alerted and awaiting arrival.”


“Is Tac-Gen short for Tacoma General Hospital?” Bella asked quietly, continuing the stroking of her fingers through the hair on the back of his head. He nodded silently and closed his eyes, waiting for what he knew would come shortly thereafter. Minutes seemed to pass in eternities of their own as he waited for the tell-tale squawk to bring forth a familiar voice of one of his own—and when it did, he felt something completely unexpected...

Relief.

“Engine twelve clearing scene. Heading back to headquarters, dispatch. Over.”

“Copy that, Engine twelve.”


The tension that had held him rigidly began to dissipate, allowing him to relax into Bella's embrace. They continued to listen for nearly an hour, murmuring softly to one another over the voices and tones the scanner emitted, but as fatigue began to wash over him in heavy waves, he finally turned it off. Three more calls had gone out, but thankfully, his station hadn’t been one of the ones hit out. He knew it could change at any moment, but right then, at that very moment, his brothers, and sister, were safe within the sanctuary of the station walls—and that knowledge seemed to be all that was needed to put him at ease.

As he returned to bed with Bella, the connection he’d felt he’d lost and may never find again, began to resurface. In the quiet moments before sleep found him, he realized that what everyone had been telling him all along had been true. He could no more distance himself from the job and the bond he felt with his fellow men than he could from his own body, and in attempting to do so, he'd only succeeded in hurting himself.

Deep down he'd known it all along; he was a firefighter, and wheelchair bound or not... a firefighter at heart he would always remain.

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