Monday, January 24, 2011

Chapter 35


Let Love's Light Shine


Christmas Eve, Edward's home was aflutter with activity. The voices of his family and friends filled the air with joyous laughter and the occasional impromptu holiday carol. The Christmas tree that Bella had coerced him into helping decorate, twinkled merrily at Edward as he sat in his recliner, baby Ian suckling a bottle while nestled safely in his arms. Beside them, his brothers roughhoused on the couch while they played the new video game they'd gifted to him. All was almost as it should be. Almost.

Alice was once again not in attendance for the family gathering, but Edward tried not to let it bother him as it didn't appear to be bothering Jasper as he thought it would—or perhaps should. Just the day before, as he and Bella drove her to the airport so she could spend the holidays home with her parents in Mississippi, he'd asked why she hadn't come for Thanksgiving, or the Santa Run. Alice's answer had been simple: because Jasper hadn't asked her to, and that, in and of itself, had spoken volumes to her. Coupled with Jasper's attitude throughout the day while his wife remained absent from where Edward felt she belonged, it spoke volumes to him as well.

Still, he'd made a promise to his Peanut to be friends until the end, and he intended to honor that promise. As she leaned into the passenger side of the car to hug him goodbye, he reminded her of the vow he'd made to her and asked for her to join him and Bella for New Year's Eve. With a laugh and a kiss to his cheek, she promised to be there—for him.

After gently pulling the bottle away, Edward shifted baby Ian in his arms and began softly patting his back. The fragrance of baby powder and formula tickled his nose and he wondered if the only time he'd ever experience that unique scent was while holding other people's children. It saddened him to think he'd never hold a fragile bundle of his own one day, but unlike the rest of his worries, this one had been weighing on him long before the disastrous night of his last fire call. Movement in his peripheral vision had his head turning in those moments of consideration for the possibilities of his future, to find Bella gazing upon him with a soft smile.

"What?" he asked, a slightly bashful smile crossing his lips as he wondered how long she'd been standing there watching him.

"Nothing," she snickered, pushing away from the wall and walking toward him. "You look good holding a baby. It suits you."

He nodded as she lowered herself down onto the arm of the chair, his smile growing wistful as he pressed his cheek lightly against Ian's, his hand smoothing down the baby fine hair on the back of his head. "I always wanted kids...still do...someday, anyway."

"They'll be lucky to have you." Bella leaned against the back of the recliner, her arm resting behind Edward's head and propping up her own as she softly ran the pads of her fingers over Ian's bright blond, silky strands. Her hand settled on Edward's upper arm as she lowered it, and her thumb ran back and forth across the fabric of his t-shirt.

"Is your back still bothering you?"

"Yeah," he sighed. "But I don't want to take anything for it yet."

"Okay, just let me know when you do," she replied, lightly scratching the back of his head. She smiled at him as he turned his head and leaned it into her touch.

From across the room, Alec watched them with a mix of envy and incredulity. He would have given near anything to have been given the chance to have someone like Bella in his life, and yet, Edward had the perfect opportunity right in front of him, but remained hesitant to take it. If it had been him, Alec would seized the opportunity the moment it had been presented with nothing more than a leap of faith, but it hadn't been him, and this was just one of the ways they were polar opposites of one another. Alec took risky chances outside of the job, Edward took them on it.

Finishing off the last of his beer, he checked his watch and sighed before standing. "Welp...that's it for me. Time to head home to the fam'."

"Momma-dukes dragging you to Midnight Mass tonight?" Edward chuckled, holding out his hand for their brotherly shake.

"You know it. Every year," he laughed, turning to look at the guys on the couch. "Em, you're still covering the first half of my shift tomorrow, right?"

"Yep," Emmett responded, not looking away from his game.

"Alright, I'm outta here. Merry Christmas everyone."

It wasn't long after Alec left that Charlie and Renee began saying their goodbyes as well. A light snow had begun to fall just after dinner, and they wanted to get home before the roads became hazardous. The warm hug Renee gave him along with a kiss to his cheek, and the firm handshake with the clap on the shoulder he received from Charlie, made Edward think back to Charlie's fiftieth birthday and how welcoming their family had been to him. Never before had he been to a family affair, not even his own, where he felt as though he just...fit in. But with her family, he did.

Until that day, he'd only been familiar with Charlie and Renee, but even with only just meeting the rest of the extended Swan family, they welcomed him with open arms and made him feel as though he were one of them; a part of their family. It felt good, and he found himself interacting with them with ease; something he'd never really been able to do with his own extended family.

Being around them also made Edward feel envious of the kind of family they had, and he wished that he could one day have one like them—or possibly have them as his family. There hadn't been any arguments or lingering tensions disrupting the festive atmosphere during the gathering. There hadn't been any awkwardness between members of their family that hadn't seen each other in months, or even years in some cases. Just love, laughter, and fond memories in the making resided within the rented hall that day; just as it should have been.

"I'm going to get another piece of pie. Do you want some?" Bella asked, smoothing her hand over the back of his head to erase the trails her weaving fingers had left behind.

"Sure...can you heat it up a bit though?"

"I'll think about it," she snickered lightly, leaning in to kiss the top of Ian's head before rising from the arm of the chair.

"Gettin' all kinds of cozy over there, huh?" Emmett laughed after Bella left the room.

"Leave your brother alone," Carlisle chastised, swatting Emmett in the arm to get him to move over and make some room on the couch. "And turn the volume down. Ian looks about ready to fall asleep."

After taking his seat, Carlisle turned toward Edward and leaned against the arm of the couch. "Some of the guys were planning to have a few drinks together tonight down at E-9. Are you planning on going? Wish them a Merry Christmas?"

"No." Edward had known about it for weeks, and had thought about going, but with how much discomfort he was in, he didn't feel up to it.

"They missed you at the Christmas party last Friday night..."

"I didn't feel well, Dad," Edward groaned. "I still don't."

"You can't keep avoiding anything having to do with the department, Edward..."

"I'm not..."

"You are, son. The only station function you've participated in since leaving the hospital was the Santa Run, and that was just because Bella practically begged you to do it..."

Edward closed his eyes, trying not to lash out as he'd become prone to doing. Over and over he repeated the same thought to himself in his mind: He's your father and he's just trying to help.

"Pop, it's not a big deal. Let it go," Emmett cut in, wary of the tension that was descending upon the room. He knew his father's heart was in the right place, worried over how Edward had been distancing himself from the station, and the people still working in it, but he also knew how hard of a time his brother had been having lately and how much he didn't want everyone seeing him so miserable.

"You used to be involved in everything around there, but for the last few months it's like you can't get far enough away from it. Are you reconsidering coming back after you recover?"

"What? No I'm not reconsidering," Edward barked, as Emmett stepped in to take Ian before their arguing woke him, the irritation in Edward's voice instantly gaining the worried attentions of the women in the kitchen. "I just don't see the goddamn point in being around everyone when I feel like shit!"

"But you felt well enough the next day for Charlie's birthday get-together?"

"Hey! That's enough." Esme hollered. "Damnit, Carlisle. When will you learn that he won't hear what you're really saying when you speak like you're an...I can't even say the word."

"Asshole."

"Thank you, Rosalie," Esme clipped, her admonishment met only with a slight smirk and shrug.

Turning her gaze to her son, Esme's eyes were filled with remorse for the years she spent hoping they would one day learn how to communicate efficiently with one another outside of their jobs. "Edward, honey, your father loves you and just worries for your well being. We all do. If you say you just weren't feeling well enough to socialize with your friends, then there's nothing to argue about. Is there, Carlisle?"

"No," he sighed, and turned to look at his son. "Is that really the only reason?"

"Yes," he answered, but he knew it was a lie.

And so did everyone else.

Later that night, after everyone else had gone home, Edward took a hefty dose of pain killers and muscle relaxants before reclaiming the recliner as his bed for the night. Beside his chair, Bella laid quietly, stretched out along the couch while watching the tree lights twinkle. Wordlessly, she reached over to him, her hand skimming down his arm to find his hand, and she laced her fingers through his. Time seemed to stand still as she offered him her silent comfort, but she could almost feel when he decided to open up to her. Just a minute before his nearly whispered words broke through the silence surrounding them, his thumb began to caress the side of her palm.

"It's too hard being around them—the guys from the station..."

Bella squeezed his hand gently, her heart hurting for him, but she remained silent, letting him get out what he needed to without interruption.

"He wants me to still be active in the department...do shit with them, go to the meetings, stop by the station just to say hi or hang out or something, but he doesn't get how hard it is for me to be around all of it without knowing whether or not I'll ever be able to go back to doing what I love to do..."

Edward trailed off, his thoughts a chaotic mess. The two Percocets he'd taken weren't helping matters, either. His whole body was tingling, and just the slightest of movements would exacerbate the sense of vertigo the drugs inflicted upon him to the extreme point of making him feel severely nauseated. Those debilitating sensations made it incredibly difficult for him to keep his thoughts straight even when they weren't as jumbled a mess as they were right then.

"I just...don't get the damn point, ya know? What's the point of me hangin' around the firehouse just getting in everyone's way, or going to the meetings when most of what they talk about is who's on what duty for the next month, or showing up just to watch them run drills...it's bullshit. I'm not anywhere close to going back so it's pointless for me to be there. He thinks it'd make me feel better, but being around all that shit when I can't really be a part of it would just make me feel worse."

Bella slowly sat up as he spoke, resting her elbows upon the arm of the couch and tucking his hand beneath her chin, held between both of her own. Her thumbs caressed the back of his hand as he grew silent and stared off into the distance, his thoughts consuming him.

"Do you miss it that much?"

His head turned slowly, vaguely conscious not to move too quickly to avoid a dizzy spell, and he nodded once. "Yeah...I do."

"And you enjoyed doing stuff with them before? Hanging around the house on your days off and what not?"

"Sometimes..."

"Did you have fun doing the Santa thing a few weeks ago?"

"Yeah." As he said this, a slow smile crept across his lips at the memory of Bella's flushed cheeks and gorgeous smiles.

"So what's the problem?" His eyes opened, confusion filling them as he regarded her with a furrowed brow. "Just participate in the events or gatherings or whatever that you enjoy, and don't worry about the rest. Your dad wasn't saying you needed to attend all of them...at least I don't think that's what he meant. He just doesn't want you to shut out your friends, Edward, because that's what they are. They're not just coworkers.

"And you love the job—you're passionate about it. Something that means that much to you shouldn't bring you down...it should help lift you back up."

"It's not that easy," he sighed, his fingers closing around hers.

Pressing her cheek against their hands, she smiled sadly. "It doesn't have to be that hard either."

The longer Edward tried to contemplate the truth of her words, the heavier his eyelids became, and sooner rather than later, he slipped quickly into slumber. Bella watched him sleep peacefully for a few minutes, the twinkle of the Christmas tree lights flickering upon his face, before settling herself back down on the couch—all the while keeping their hands clasped.

Just before four a.m., the last of the flurrying flakes fell from the winter sky. The neighborhood was a picture of serenity, blanketed in a thin layer of sparkling white, but all was not as it appeared; for in the den of Edward's home, he writhed in silent agony. Brought out of his disorienting dreams by his growing discomfort, for a moment, he almost felt as though he were once again just waking up from his coma. Tears brimmed in his eyes as an hour passed and the return to sleep remained far from his reach. His fingers pressed and kneaded into the muscles of his lower back, but his ministrations provided little relief from the throbbing pain.

As quietly as he could manage, Edward maneuvered himself into his wheelchair. Tango, awakened by the distressed sounds his master had been making, followed him loyally throughout the lower level of the home. After a quick drink of water to swallow down another dose of medication, and a trip to the bathroom, Edward locked the wheels of his chair and pulled himself into his bed. Lying stomach down, he buried his face into a pillow and prayed for the pain to subside. Unaware that he'd woken Bella, Edward startled as the mattress dipped and groaned beside him.

"How long have you been up?" she asked softly, her voice barely above a hoarse whisper. Her hand slid up and down his back in long strokes, her worry filled mind guiding her instinctive actions.

"A while," he muttered, turning his face away from the pillow to see her. The sight of his bloodshot eyes in the dimly lit room pulled at her heart and her hand moved to caress his cheek.

"You should have woken me."

Her words hadn't been reprimanding or chiding, but spoken with a gentle tenderness that said more than just the words themselves could convey. And, for once, Edward understood. She wasn't upset that he'd tried to manage on his own, but because she cared for him and would do anything to help ease his suffering—and for that, he loved her even more.

"You needed rest..."

"You need it more," she whispered, her hand slipping beneath the back of his shirt. His eyes closed at the feel of her soft, warm hand gliding over his skin. "Lift up."

With his shirt tossed to the side, Bella knelt beside him and worked her small fingers against his tense muscles. Hands splayed across his upper back, she slid her hands downward in search of the knots causing him discomfort. His whimpering as she hit a particularly sore spot had her downward descent halted abruptly.

"Right here?" she asked, her knuckles beginning to knead against the tension as he nodded.

As the Percocets finally began to set in, Edward's whimpers and groans slowly trailed off into soft snores. In the light of the Christmas tree still twinkling in the corner, Bella's fingers lightly traced the length of his surgical scar. The vivid pink scar tissue, a six inch long line down the center of his lower back, contrasted dramatically against his pale skin. Looking at it, she was reminded just how close his family had come to losing him—how close she had come to losing him before she'd ever even known him.

Softly, her lips touched the marred skin and left behind the faintest of kisses.

Carefully, so as not to wake him, Bella slid from the bed and retrieved her blanket from the couch. As she gently laid it over him, he stirred, and with bleary vision, he reached for her hand.

"Come to bed."

At his groggy whisper, her eyes darted to the couch where she'd had every intent of returning—only to find Tango and Cash sprawled out across it. His fingers, wrapped loosely around her wrist, tugged gently. He watched as she bit her lip, contemplating momentarily before climbing over him, and he turned toward her as she settled in.
When she turned onto her side away from him, he wrapped his arm around her and pulled her back into his chest.

"Is this okay?" he breathed, the warmth of his breath tickling the bare skin of her neck. She smiled to herself as she brought the blankets higher up over them while he snuck his other arm beneath her head.

"Yes," she answered, a sigh of comfort escaping her lips as she relaxed into his embrace.

Being with him, lying together with him and feeling the heat of his body surround her, felt as natural as breathing to her. She no longer worried if it was inappropriate for them to be as affectionate with each other as they sometimes were without declaring their feelings for one another, and she didn't question any longer where she belonged in his life. Bella was content with the pace at which their relationship had grown, and continued to grow, and she was more than happy to accept what he was willing, or able, to give.

There had been many times he'd brought her to tears with his misdirected and unwarranted anger, but it was times like these that he made her fall so irrevocably in love with him. Times like these when he showed her with actions that she was special, that she was wanted in his life... that she was significant, to him.

Times like these when her hand rested delicately over his own and, without prompt or expectance, his fingers parted and laced together with her own.

Christmas morning, after eating the little bit that his unsettled stomach could handle of the delicious breakfast feast Bella had made him, Edward stretched himself out across the couch. Bella eyed him sadly as she wrapped her scarf around her neck.

"Are you sure, Edward?" she asked, hesitant to leave. "I don't mind staying."

"Bella, go," he shook his head, trying to smile. He wanted to go with her so badly, to see the family members of hers that had been so welcoming and kind to him, but he could barely tolerate sitting in his recliner, much less his wheelchair. Add to the lingering discomfort of his back the queasy stomach from the Percocets and the throbbing headache they left behind, and he felt fit for death.

"I want you to go and enjoy yourself."

"But I hate the idea of you sitting here alone on Christmas," she argued, her worry shimmering in her eyes as she lowered herself to the edge of the couch.

Edward couldn't help but admire how beautiful she looked in her close-fit white sweater, the snowflake pendant he'd given her for Christmas dangling against the porcelain skin of her chest just beneath the scarf surrounding her neck. His eyes raised from the shiny charm to her own and he reached out to tuck a lock of her silken curls behind her ear.

"That pendant looks beautiful on you."

"I love it," she blushed, smiling as her fingers reached up to touch the diamond flecked snowflake. "Thank you, again, but I know what you're doing. Stop trying to distract me."

He let loose a breathy chuckle as he shook his head, knowing for once he hadn't been trying to divert her attention. He'd merely been giving her a complement.

"Go Bella, really," he sighed, taking hold of one of her hands. "Open presents, eat tons of food...laugh and be merry and all that. Don't worry about me here. It's just another day to me, I'll be fine."

As she leaned down to hug him goodbye, he wrapped his arms around her and kissed her cheek. "Tell everyone I said Merry Christmas and I'm sorry I couldn't make it...and save me some of your mom's apple pie."

She laughed as she stood and ran her fingers through his overgrown hair. He was due for another haircut soon, and she was sure he'd start griping about it any day now.

"I'll try to sneak a piece or two before Uncle Gil sticks his fork in it and claims the whole thing for himself. Promise to call if you change your mind or need anything?"

"Promise," he agreed, though he had no intentions of interrupting her time with her family.

As she stepped out of the front door, Bella had to do a double take. The walkway had been shoveled and salted, as had the entire driveway and sidewalk in front of the house. Even her car, parked in Edward's driveway, had been cleared off of all the snow that had fallen the night before.

"Merry Christmas, Bella!" a man's voice called out. Bella's gaze darted toward the neighboring house to see George, Edward's elderly neighbors' son, waving at her. With a smile on her face, she returned the greeting as she crossed the yard toward him.

"You didn't have to do this, but thank you, George," she said gratefully as he set aside his shovel.

"It was nothing," he laughed, shaking his head. "Just returning a favor."

At her confused expression, he clarified. "Edward's taken care of the shoveling and salting for my parents in this weather since my father threw his back out quite a few years back. I'm just paying it forward, I guess you could say."

"Well, thank you, again," Bella smiled, her heart warming at the thought of Edward looking out for his sweet neighbors out of the goodness of his heart. "Have a Merry Christmas, and please, wish your family the same from us."

George grinned widely at her as he nodded, pleased that the nice young man from next door had found such a lovely young woman to settle down with. "You, too."

After saying goodbye to him, Bella headed off to join her family in celebrating the holiday while Edward laid upon the couch with a heating pad beneath his back, watching marathons of holiday-centric movies. Across town, her Aunt Cheryl's house was filled to the brim with members of her family all carrying on, laughing, and bursting with joy.

But joy of her own was difficult to find.

Bella smiled as she hugged and greeted everyone, chuckled as Uncle Gil made an obnoxious toast after spiking the eggnog, and tried to look attentive while her cousin jabbered about the gifts she'd received from her parents and her fiancĂ© the night before. She even joined in the household-wide chorus singing of a carol or two, but throughout it all, her thoughts remained with the man spending the holiday alone. They hadn’t even made it to their early supper before her mother pulled her aside under the prose of needing help in the kitchen.

“Talk to me, baby. What’s bothering you?” Renee cooed, cupping her daughter’s cheek. “Did Edward just not want to come?”

“No, Mom,” Bella shook her head and tried to smile as Renee lowered her hand. “He wanted to, he just really didn’t feel up to it.

“I just...”she trailed off, her gaze falling to watch fingers trace a pattern in the granite countertop. “It doesn’t feel right being here with everyone when he’s all alone.”

She would have felt better if at least someone was with him, be it a friend or family member, but there was no one. Rosalie had taken Ian to her grandparents’ in Puyallup early that morning. Emmett was working and he’d be joining Rosalie as soon as Alec came in to relieve him. Jasper had gone with their parents up to his grandmother’s, none of them knowing Edward wouldn’t be joining her at her family’s gathering when they left first thing in the morning. Alice was in Mississippi, and all of his friends, if they weren’t working, they were busy with their own families as well.

There was just no one around to be there with him, and it saddened her. Christmas was all about being with the ones you loved, and someone she loved was spending it alone.

“Then go be with him, honey,” Renee urged softly. “You won’t miss out on much here, just some jokes that only Gil understands the punch-line to, and a squabble or two over the drumsticks and last piece of pie.”

“It’s okay,” Renee smiled, rubbing Bella’s arm as she appeared to hesitate. “Let’s put together some plates for you to take home, and you two can have Christmas dinner together. The family will understand.”

“Thank you, Mom,” Bella sighed, wrapping her arms around her mother.

“There’s always next year, baby,” Renee comforted. “These ups and downs won’t last forever.”

After helping her mother pack more of the food than was truly necessary for just the two of them, and apologizing to her family for leaving early, Bella began her journey through the snow covered roads back to Edward—back to where her heart had been pulling her since she’d left his house earlier that morning.

Nearly dozing off during the umpteenth rerun of ‘A Christmas Story', Edward’s eyes shot open at the sound of the front door opening and closing.

“Alec?” he called out, assuming it could only be him returning to get ready for work. “Is that you, man?”

“No, it’s me,” Bella smiled, turning the corner into the den.

“Why’d you come back so early? It’s only...” he trailed off to look at the clock. “Two-thirty.”

She shrugged, setting the bag of food down on the coffee table before removing her coat and tossing it on the recliner. “It was just the same old get together as every other year—loud and chaotic. I’m not missing much.”

Picking the bag back up off the coffee table to put the contents away in the kitchen, she eyed the movie on the television and smiled. “I’m just going to let the dogs out and go change back into my pajamas. I’ll be back in a minute.”

As her footsteps traveled up the stairs, Edward stared at the ceiling, torn between feeling grateful she’d come back to spend the day with him, and wishing her worry over him hadn’t lessened the enjoyment she should have had while spending time with her family. He appreciated the fact that she cared for him so much, but at times like these, it was such a burden for her to bear. Knowing arguing with her would do neither of them any good, when her footsteps began to descend the stairs, he tossed the throw pillows behind him onto the floor and scooted back to make room for her when she returned after letting the dogs back in.

“You didn’t have to come back so early...but I’m glad you’re here,” he said as he held up the blanket for her to join him. “Did you at least have fun while you were there?”

“A little,” she admitted, looking up at him as he propped his head upon his loose fist. “Everyone said to tell you Merry Christmas and they hope you feel better soon, and Uncle Gil said next year you have to fight for the drumstick just like everyone else.”

Edward chuckled as he laid his arm across her stomach beneath the blanket. “Is it that big of a deal?”

“In the Swan-Morrisey house it is,” Bella laughed. “Having it on your plate after the bloody brawl is akin to being awarded the medal of honor.”

“Who usually gets ‘em?” Edward asked, highly amused by her family’s antics.

“My dad lets them fight over one, and then he whips out his badge and confiscates the other. He’s a big drumstick man, if you hadn’t figured that out already at Thanksgiving.”

As she turned her attention to the movie airing on the television, Edward gazed down upon her and reflected upon the time he, himself, had spent with her family. He could easily see himself becoming part of their family, spending holidays and birthdays with them... with her. While he watched her, he remembered the way he’d catch her eye while she was conversing with another family member, and how she’d smile back at him. He thought of how good it felt to have her sitting in his lap as everyone crowded around the table to sing the traditional birthday song to Charlie as his cake sat before him on the table, fully aflame. He remembered Uncle Gil and Aunt Cheryl sitting beside them, and the wink and smile they’d sent him upon seeing his arm circled around her waist. And he remembered how, even when the others had dispersed back to their own tables, freeing up the chairs around them, she’d remained on his lap while they shared a large square of cake Renee had cut for both of them.

What he remembered most of that day, however, came not from a moment during the party itself, but a conversation Charlie had with him at an empty table long after most of the guests had bid them farewell.

While Alec spun Bella around on the dance floor, her beaming smile coming back to Edward time and time again as the few remaining partygoers finished their evening with conversation over a cup of coffee across the room, Charlie came to sit beside him, and within moments, began to speak as though he could hear the thoughts lingering on Edward's mind.

"She's a sight for sore eyes, ain't she?" At this, Edward's attention turned from the radiant sight of Bella, barefoot and looking stunningly beautiful in a knee length dress, to Charlie. He smiled, and nodded.

"She is."

"Always thought I'd have trouble with her...with the boys, I mean," Charlie chuckled to himself, and then shook his head. "Vanessa's a year older than her and it seemed like she changed from this shy little thing to a boy-crazed lunatic overnight when she hit junior high. Every time I talked to my brother in-law, Renee had to talk me down from locking Bella up in a convent...but I never had those kinds of problems with her. Never had different boys calling the house at all hours, or found different boys' names scribbled all over stray pieces of paper with hearts and crap all around it lying around the house. She's picky, that one."

As Edward's attention drifted back toward the beautiful woman laughing on the dance floor, her eyes still twinkling back at him every now and again, Charlie watched a girl less than half her age in his memories, dancing with her father.

"Sometimes I almost wish she would have been a little more like her cousin. At least then she would have learned to let go when someone didn't love her in return." Charlie waited patiently until Edward turned his head to regard him once again. "I like you, kid, I do. But until I take my last breath, I'll do everything I can to keep my little girl, and her heart, safe. She deserves to have someone love her as devotedly as she does them. If that person isn't you, then let her go so she can find the one who does."


Charlie's words from that day had been echoing in his mind ever since. Every time Bella was with him, her father's voice would remind him that he needed to make a decision. It was unfair to her to leave the state of their relationship in the indefinable territory between being friends or lovers. From the outside looking in, it wouldn't be hard to mistake them as a legitimate couple, and people who didn't know either of them often did. Waiters and waitresses, store clerks—even Seth at one point; and Edward had long since stopped correcting them.

With her lying beside him, her fingers trailing lightly up and down his arm around her, he had to wonder if he'd stopped correcting outsiders not because he'd been tired of doing so, but rather, because he'd loved her for far longer than he'd been willing to admit; even to just himself.

Her sudden snicker had his eyes darting to the television, just in time to see little Ralphie’s daydream of the praise and fame his essay would be awarded. His gaze returning to her, he captured her fingers as they slid over and between his, squeezing them gently for a moment before letting go and turning his palm up.

Edward’s heart raced and his breaths quickened as her fingertips rested against his open palm for the briefest moment of hesitation before sliding up toward his fingers, her palm flattening against his as she laced their fingers together.

Bella could feel something changing, the air sparking with the current flowing between them, but where Edward’s heart raced in trepidation, hers beat steadily, calmly, as she waited him out. Contrary to what others may have believed he needed, including some of his friends and family, she had no desire to push him into something he might not have been ready for, or possibly have not even wanted.

His eyes closed as her thumb caressed the skin of his hand held within hers, and he tightened his grip ever so slightly. His head bowed, his heart still out of control and breathing still erratic as he swallowed thickly and opened his eyes just as her head turned toward him. His nose grazed her cheek, and his gaze locked on hers as he pressed his trembling lips against the curve of her jaw.

His eyes spoke the words he couldn’t bring himself to say in fear of her rejection. He loved her, was in love with her, and she could see it just as clearly as she could see he was afraid. Slowly, she brought her hand up to cradle the side of his face, skimming over his shoulder and the warm skin of his neck upon its ascent.

“It’s okay,” she whispered, gliding her thumb over the far edge of his cheek as his eyes closed to her once more.

“I’m afraid of losing you.”

His confession was met only with the tenderness of her touch upon his face and the gentle pressure of her grip upon his hand. Seconds passed before he opened his eyes to see her gazing steadily at him, and only then did she answer him with words. Only then could she say them and have him be able to see the truth of them in her eyes.

“You won’t.”

“I might never...get better...”

“I know,” she replied as the tip of his nose brushed softly against her cheek.

He felt his heart speed up a fraction more as her gaze remained unwavering, steady and without a hint of uncertainty for her words.

“My job is dangerous...”

“I know,” she replied, after his eyes had opened to her once more.

He nudged his nose against the tip of hers, his lips hovering just a breath away from the softness of her own, and he looked down upon her as he unlaced their fingers beneath the blanket. His hand slowly came up to her face, the backs of his fingers caressing the warm, smooth skin of her cheek. Keeping his gaze locked on hers, he spoke the words that he feared could tear them apart in both that very moment, and some moment in the distant future.

“I might go to work one day...and never come back home...”

Her hand still beneath the blanket pressed against his side just beneath his arm. Warmth radiated from her fingers and the palm of her hand, and soaked into his flesh as she answered.

“I know, and I’m still here, Edward.”

His thumbs caressed her temples as his eyes closed, the tip of his nose circling the tip of hers lightly as he absorbed the words she'd spoken with such profound sincerity. And then, with the gentlest of touch, his bottom lip tapped the plump curve of hers. A short burst of breath raced from his lungs as she tilted her head just slightly, and knowing this moment would forever change them, he caught her top lip between his own.

As the holiday movie, long forgotten, continued to play in the background, and the snow once again began to fall, Edward, knowing words could never truly convey what he felt for her, showed her instead. With passion he'd never before known, he spoke to her with his body. Every tender brush of his lips upon her skin, and every loving caress of his hands over her body, told her of the longing and desire he'd tried to keep at bay, and conveyed to her the depth of love, adoration, and respect he held for her.

Long into the late hours of night he showered his affections upon her, and Bella reveled in it as she matched his passion with her own. And with every returned caress of his skin and kiss to his lips, Edward's fears began to subside.

In the wee hours of the morning, as the world outside of their warm cocoon returned to the pristine picture of sparkling white coated serenity, by the light of the twinkling Christmas tree, Edward and Bella remained on the couch, tightly wrapped around one another. In the moments before he'd fallen asleep, he'd gazed upon her beautiful sleeping face as his fingers stroked the warm, soft skin of her back, and he smiled—feeling, for once, everything in his life was falling into place.

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