Title: Crossroads

Summary: She was good, honest, sweet ... alone. He wanted her happy, whole, safe ... his. Two strangers, one road trip at Christmas.

Pairing: Edward/Bella

Rating: M

Word count: 14,698

Crossroads

He stands in the misting rain, his left shoulder soaked through as he holds the large black umbrella squarely over her. She is so small in her grief, all straight lines and shadows. Draped in gray, she blends with the skyline making her wraithlike. Flashes of sunny days, blowing hair and vibrant smiles play in his mind. She is bright colors and vivid days. This is not her place. These are not her people.

He flexes his fingers on her hip just to remind her that he is there for her.

He looks around at the group huddled around the box. All of them smiling sadly at her and nodding knowingly when she wipes her eyes or lets out a shaky sob.

As the townspeople come to pay their last respects to their beloved Chief of Police, they stay to watch the never before seen daughter cry before the casket of a stranger. To them she shows the right amount of respect and grief for their leader.

Only he knows her heart.

He watches her stagger under the sorrow of having been unloved and unwanted her entiredamn life …feeling the total abandonment from the last of those who never wanted her. She grieves for what she never had and what will never be.

He stands taller and meets their eyes in a way that brokers no discussion. He can't help but find them all guilty by association for enabling the bastard; the deadbeat dad he had always been.

He will be her sentinel in her time of weakness. His arm moves on reflex at her pain and pulls her closer against him, wrapping himself a bit tighter around her.

She gives a watery smile up to him as he kisses her hair and she nudges his shoulder with her head in thanks.

He sighs deeply as his cheek rests against her damp hair and allows his mind to wander.

She hadn't even known what the man looked like until she walked through his house just hours before the viewing. Pictures of a familiar stranger laughing with other strangers made a softly wistful smile grace her lovely face.

"He was happy," she whispered to the empty room as she replaced the framed picture only to pick up the next and gently run her fingers over the face behind the glass.

It made his blood boil to know this man never had any intention of ever knowing his daughter. It made his chest tightened to know she had been conditioned her whole life to accept this so easily as her normal.

Being brought back to her side by a unison 'amen', his eyes follow her glassy stare to the closed box. A deep sigh escapes her and he again runs his hand along her arm to comfort her and tether himself to her.

As the group of mourners filter out of the wooded cemetery, he turns her to him under his umbrella.

Lifting her face with his finger, he waits for her to see him.

"… You holding up all right, Sweets?"

"I'm fine. I'm doing fine. This was the hard part, you know." She smiles weakly up at him.

"We can head back to the motel if you want to be done with the day." He frowns down at her.

"No, Moondoggie, this is a once in a lifetime moment. We shouldn't scrimp on it," she gently admonishes him.

Pulling her into him, he buries his face in her silky damp hair.

"I want to chuck you over my shoulder and run, hide you in a cave somewhere," he growls.

She laughs as she runs her hands up and down his back enjoying the tickle of his breath on her neck.

"Well now, wouldn't that get the town talking," she pulls back smiling, "not much longer now, okay?"

He nods and wraps his arm around her leading her back to the truck, this time feeling his right shoulder becoming soaked through.

~o0o~

Across Sue Clearwater's living room, he admires how she stands with a cup of punch in one hand and a tissue in the other receiving well-meant words and awkward hugs with grace. Phrases like, "Thank you for being a friend to him," or "Thank you for coming today and showing your love for him," and, "It's so wonderful to meet the people who made his life so rich," slip easily from her lips. He watches her comfort each well-wisher with a gentle grace that confounds him.

Finally, unable to be this disconnected he returns to her side. She smiles up at him and he relishes how her shoulders relax. He takes the warm punch cup from her hand and places it on an end table before taking her hand, kissing the back of it and entwining their fingers.

When Sue Clearwater comes to stand with her toward the end of the day, she lets go of him long enough to wrap both arms around the older woman.

"Bella, we're so glad you could make it. Would you introduce me?" Sue smiles in his direction as she pulls back from the hug.

"Oh, I'm sorry, Sue, this is my very dear friend, Edward Cullen." Sweets smiles up at her Moondoggie as he extends his hand to shake Sue's.

"It's a pleasure to meet you, ma'am," Moondoggie says.

"Oh, the pleasure's all mine and thank you for helping Bella get here on time. When I tracked her down, I didn't know what to expect."

"How did you track her down?" he asked.

"Well, when I was looking through Charlie's papers I found financial aid paperwork for Isabella Swan from a year ago. I contacted the Gateway Community College to find her. I never knew Charlie had a daughter." Sue sighs.

"Isn't that a wonderful name for a college?" Sweets interjects, deflecting, he suspects.

Moondoggie smiles at her and wraps his arm around her shoulder.

"So you were his girlfriend?" Sweets asks the widow Clearwater.

"Yes, we were together for fifteen years," Sue sighs wistfully.

"I'm so glad he had you, that he had so much love in his life. Thank you for that," she hugs Sue again.

"Will you be here long?" Sue asks quietly.

"No ma'am, tomorrow I'll be on my way."

"You couldn't stay through Christmas? It's so close." Sue looked at Moondoggie for help in her plea.

"No, I should head out after tomorrow. But thank you for the kind offer," Sweets smiled stiffly.

He fades out of the conversation as his heart registers that there is no 'we' in her comments to Sue. He realizes with a jolt that for all they've been through, perhaps she still considers him just a friendly ride. He pulls her gently into himself as he rejoins the conversation.

"Will you be back this way, do 'ya think?" Sue asks wiping the corner of her eye.

"I'm not sure," she hesitates.

"Of course, but please don't leave without my number and address," Sue adds sadly.

He rubs his hand along her arm to soothe her and sighs as she melts back into him for comfort. Caging her in, he rocks them slightly from side to side.

As Sue retreats towards the kitchen, he turns her in his arms. "Very dear friend, little one?" he smiles down on her. He grins as she blushes.

"You are my friend, Moondoggie," she says softly into his collar.

"No love, I'm your very dear friend," he teases.

Gathering her gumption, she looks up into his handsomeness, "Yes, you are, but so much more. You're my friend on an unfriendly road, my umbrella in the storm. You're my strong arm to lean on. You are MY Moondoggie." Her voice quivers with that and she slumps into him, burying her face in his shirt.

He smiles softly, hoping he hasn't pushed her too far with his teasing. She is understandably tender today. He sways them slowly as his hand smooths lazily down her silky brown hair. After a moment, he speaks.

"Yes, I'm your Moondoggie and you're my Sweets. I've been so proud of you today. You were so kind and strong, so brave all day. I'm very proud to be your Moondoggie tonight," he whispers into her hair. Are you ready to say your goodbyes?" he asks, trying and failing to keep the hope out of his voice.

"I should help Sue clean up. I can't imagine how hard this day must have been for her." She reluctantly pulls back to look up at him for understanding.

He shakes his head at her gentle ways and looks around the room.

"Well, send a flare up when you're ready," he kisses her forehead and begrudgingly releases her.

~o0o~

As she helps the women in the kitchen, he helps the men take the tables down and load them into pick- up trucks to be returned to the Reservation's rec center. Each time he walks down the entrance hall his steps slow and his eyes search for her in the kitchen.

"She your girlfriend?" Jake Black asks walking backward as they carry two tables out the front door.

Moondoggie studies him with his teasing smile bright against his dark skin. It doesn't go unnoticed that she is closer to young Black's age than his. Unsure how to answer the lanky teenager he sets it all aside and decides to respond on a more primal level.

"She's mine, yes." He meets the boy's eyes to drive home the message.

"That's cool. She's a real looker. I wish she had come around when Charlie was alive." The boy's easy grin slips slightly.

Having promised his Sweets to behave, he chooses not to inform the boy that an invitation was never extended. Choosing instead to pick up his pace and send the awkward teen scrambling to keep up.

Later, as he walks into the kitchen to claim his girl he watches her smile and joke with Sue and two older women. She moves gracefully around the small kitchen cleaning and putting things away. When he catches her eye, her face lights up, and reaching for her, he smiles brightly back and breathes out "their loss, my gain."

~o0o~

"Moondoggie, I don't think I can take much more of this day."

He looks over to see his Sweets rocking on the passenger side of the darkened truck cab. He pulls over to the shoulder and puts it in park.

Unbuckling and sliding on the bench towards her, he pulls her in.

"Are you sick?" he feels her forehead as he speaks.

"No, I just … I just don't think I can take much more." She begins to fidget in his arms like her skin is crawling.

"Is your stomach sick?"

"No, I just need … ugh … I don't know." She barks out in frustration and tearstrack down her cheeks as she grabs fists of her hair and begins rocking again.

"Hey, hey," he says in alarm as he gently pulls her hands from her hair and shakes them. She has been so brave all day. He's amazed it took her this long to implode. He finds himself slightly relieved to see her finally let the bottled up tension, out.

"Okay, enough," he says firmly, watching her still, "This is what we are going to do." He feels her rest her head on his shoulder. "We're going to stop at the Chinese restaurant near the motel and get you some Wonton soup."

"Hot and Sour," she whispers into his collar as he wraps his arm around her.

He smiles into her hair, "Hot and Sour soup, then we are taking it back to the room. I'm running you a bath and you are soaking and eating your soup until you're pruney and the bowl is empty, then your bows and cats jammies and into bed."

She's so quiet for a minute his breath begins to shallow in anticipation.

"Your Harley Davison," she whispers.

"My T-shirt?" He moves his shoulder to try to get her to look up.

She just burrows in a bit deeper and nods her head.

He squeezes her, "okay Baby, My Harley Davison T-shirt and into bed."

"K," she sighs.

"Okay," he smiles.

Releasing her, they both return to their side of the cab, buckling the seat belts.She reaches her hand across the empty space as she looks out the windshield. He lifts it to his lips and entwines their fingers as he pulls back onto the logging road.

~o0o~

She crawls cat-like across the bedspread and he watches her sweet little ass shift from side to side.

He swallows thickly.

What this woman does to him.

He moves to the side of her bed to holdthe blanket up while she slides under and burrows against her pillow. She has a flowered pillowcase that she puts on each new pillow she meets in each new motel they encounter.

Once she has made her nest just so, he leans down and kisses her forehead as he reaches over to turn off the bedside light.

"Goodnight, Sweets," he whispers against her hair.

"Aren't you coming to bed?" she yawns.

"No, I'm gonna step out for a smoke and get a shower before I hit the sack," he says brushing his calloused hand over her forehead. He then runs his knuckle along her cheek and grins as she smiles sleepily and turns her head to kiss his fingers.

"Don't be long," she mumbles into the sheets.

He grabs his jacket, feeling for his smokes in the pocket, but he is pulled up short as he reaches for the door knob.

"Moondoggie," she whispers, "why didn't he want me?"

With that, his jacket hits the floor and he is climbing across the bed, pulling her up to him as he leans against the headboard.

"Aww, baby girl, that question has looped in my head all day." He shakes his head. "I don't have an answer. If he were alive, I'd flatten him out and gladly do the time," he growls.

"He loved so many people, had such a good life, I just don't understand why I couldn't have fit into that." He feels her tears soak through his T-shirt as her head makes a pillow of his stomach.

He forces himself to unclench his hands and concentrate on gently running his hand down her waterfall of brown locks. "Baby, all I've come up with is the old saying 'outta sight, outta mind.' I know it's not right to take that approach when a sweet little girl is involved but…" he shrugs. He feels as if his words fall limply onto to the bed around them and wonders if she is even still awake.

After a few moments, she begins to shake. Sitting, she grabs the remote from the bedside table and throws it against the wall.

"Why couldn't he even try? He left me in hell, Moondoggie. What's wrong with me? Why has no one ever cared? My mom was a coke whore. My father never acknowledged I existed. I am nothing. I am nobody. I have nothing. I … I'm so tired, so damn tired, tired of being lost, tired of being alone, tired of being scared. All the time, Moondoggie, I'm scared all the damn time." As she runs out of steam, she looks pitifully at him with glassy eyes and slumps into the middle of the bed in eerie silence.

He doesn't try to touch her, but he volleys back in a soft voice, "because he was a coward, a self-centered, self-absorbed prick that didn't deserve your tears, your love. He didn't deserve you, Bella."

He leans forward to drive home his point, "Sweets, you are kind, sweet and beautiful and that sonofabitch didn't deserve to breathe the same air you breathe. Down to the marrow, I mean that." He swallows thickly as his eyes sting.

"Come here, Baby," he holds out his arms and waits for her to move into them. When she lifts her face the broken anguish reflected back breaks him in two. There are no words to heal this, so he gently rocks her.

She focuses on his breathing, his hand running lightly over her hair, as the rhythmic rocking soothes the devastation that is her parentage.

Her father is dead.

Her mother is dead to her.

Her death would be so easy she thinks as he rocks her—simply to stop being, to rest. She sighs heavily into his chest and listens to his heartbeat.

Moondoggie, her Moondoggie, she could never be the one to make him cry at her graveside. Her heart clenchesat the thought. She likes to make him smile; it always washes across his face as though he is as surprised by the facial movement as she is. She smiles against his shirt and runs her hand over his chest, up to his shoulder.

"Thanks, Moondoggie," she whispers.

"Do you think you can sleep now?" he whispers back.

"Mmhmm," she nods.

"Good, let's get you snuggled back in."

He gets off the bed and once again holds up the blankets as she snuggles back down onto her flowery pillow. Folding them over and tucking them under her chin, he then kisses her forehead and cheek as she quietly smiles with her eyes closed.

"Sleep, Sweets. I'll be here," he says quietly as he grabs his jacket off the floor and heads out the door.

~o0o~

He paces the parking lot trying to untangle his thoughts. He feels responsible for Sweets that's a given. He's helped her get through these tough few days but now the big question that weighs on his mind this misty night is what is he going to do with her now.

He can't abandon her.

He can't take her on the road with him.

Does she even want to stay with him? He needs to talk with her, but he's not sure he can bear the answers she might give.

Three cigarettes in and he hasn't unknotted a damn thing. But he finds himself freezing in the cold, damp air. A shiver runs down his back and he pulls the collar of his jacket up higher. How anyone survives in this dark wet corner of the world is beyond him. He can't wait to get on the road tomorrow and shake the dust off this godforsaken town.

He creeps quietly into the darkened room, lit only by a sliver of light from the bathroom. Leaning over the bed, he checks that Sweets is sleeping peacefully then gathers clean sweats and a T-shirt and heads for the shower.

Still warm from the shower, he sits in the armchair in the corner and eats the rest of his fried rice while watching her sleep. As he finishes, he throws away the carton and then goes to brush his teeth. With sleep being elusive, he returns to the chair and continues his vigil.

As he sits there in the dark, his mind runs a slide show of memories of the past few days featuring hues of gray, black and wet green. But the pictures in his mind move slowly to light and sun, varying shades of yellow. He smiles in the dark and closes his eyes letting the sun behind his eyelids take him back.

~*C*~

Three months, he was three months late heading south.

He stayed in St. Paul too long but he promised his buddy, Mike, he'd get the job done for Newton Construction before he left.

As he finally pulled into Dunny's, he saw Bob's tow truck and a beat up Volkswagen Rabbit parked out front. He rounded the shop to the back and parked near the fence. Prying himself off the seat of his Harley Electra Glide, he slowly took off his helmet and lifted his arms over his head, stretching from side to side.

Ah, heaven.

He pulled off his glovesand tucked them inside his helmet as he walked around to the front. A bell dinged announcing him as he entered; unzipping his jacket, he followed the sound of old men laughing.

He was pulling his muffler from around his neck as he arrived at the back storeroom.

"What are you two old goats up to now?" Edward barked without looking up.

"Edward, my boy, you're a sight for sore eyes. I thought for sure you must have laid it down hard up north."

Edward looked up to see his old friend limping toward him. He slapped the old man on the back and let himself be brought into his tight hug.

"Nah, Dunny, you know better than that. Too fine a paint job to let the blacktop kiss it," Edward laughed. "How are you holding up Bob? Your flames are the talk of five states," Edward said as he walked further into the room to shake hands with the frail old man still seated by the chessboard.

"Good to hear, good to hear, Edward," Bob smiled widely, pleased that the work of his hands had been so well received. Edward's bike was his last paint job, and he took great pride in the results. Edward, Dunny and Bob had stayed up many a night working out the design. When finished, it looked like the bike was engulfed in gas flames from fender to fender. It was gorgeous.

"Pull up a chair and have a seat, Boy. You're not in a hurry are ya?" Dunny asked reclaiming his place across from Bob.

"No, I was hoping to crash here tonight, if you have room," Edward said as he pulled up a chair between the two men and straddled it backward.

"That'll be fine. We'll be glad for the company," Dunny said just as a crash came from the front of the store.

"What the hell," Edward shot up, but Bob pulled himback, signaling for him to remainseated as the swinging door banged open and hit the wall.

"Dunny, I'm sorry but I knocked over your chip rack. Here, take your coffees and let me get out there and clean it up. Do you think the chips are smushed?" The voice changed from humor to alarm.

Edward turned to see a tiny slip of a girl carrying two stained mugs in one hand, and what looked to be a plate of banana bread in the other.

As Dunny rushed to help, Edward raked her over from head to toe. She had on a printed summer dress with a little, blue knit sweater that just reached under her breasts. Herblack boots came up to her knees, leaving three inches of leg peeking out. She wasn't tall, but her slender build and long straight hair gave the illusion of height.

His eyes popped back up to her face when the laughter between the girl and Dunny abruptly stopped . His turquoise eyes met with her browns and he scratched the back of his neck, embarrassed at being caught taking her all in.

Bob cleared his throat behind him and Dunny took that as his cue to make introductions.

"Ah,Bella dear, this is our friend Edward Cullen. Edward, Boy, this is our new friend, Bella," Dunny smirked at Edward from under his greasy mustache and Bob wiggled his eyebrows at Edward.

Two old fools.

"Is that your Rabbit out front?" Edward challenged.

"Um, yes," she said as she cautiously followed Dunny further into the room, making sure to give the stranger a wide berth.

"Well, it doesn't look as if it's going to get you too far." Edward ducked as Dunny took a swing at his head.

"What, old man?" Edward laughed.

"Sit down and put on some manners, you ass," Bob barked as he kicked Edward's chair and glared at the kid.

Edward immediately felt the rebuke and knew he had been rude to the pretty girl.

"Sorry, um Bella, I just … well I've been on the road for too many days. I'm tired and road weary. I didn't mean to take it out on you," Edward tried to put on his most convincing smile as he finger-combed his auburn helmet hair.

"That's allright Mr. Cullen."

"EDWARD" both old men shouted.

"Please, call me Edward," Edward said before shooting a 'what the hell' look at the guys.

She blushed and nodded before continuing, "Is that your bike I saw coming in? It's beautiful," she smiled shyly and took the seat that he turned around for her to sit in.

Dunny wobbled in with a folding chair and strangely, the four found themselves crowded around the chessboard, the pieces moved to the side to make room for the plate and two mugs. The old men filled the girl in on the history of Edward's bike and the paint job. How Edward had showed it in Chicago and Detroit last year.

It didn't go unnoticed by Edward that she had returned kindness for his harshness. Edward watched her interact with Dunny and Bob. She was soft spoken but asked questions to keep the men talking. He watched her placea piece of cake on a napkin; passit to Bob with a smile and a pat to his hand. He frowned at the two old men, smiling with crumbs on their beards, just soaking in the sunshine of this girl.

It was a goddamn tea party.

She turned to offer Edward a piece of banana bread. Taking a bite, while feeling all eyes on him, he tried to chew casually. It was moist, sweet and damn good. He stood to get something to drink.

"Where'd the bread come from? Bob, you're not taking up baking are 'ya?" Edward smiled as Dunny barked a laugh at Edward's barb.

"Nah, little Bella brought this with her," Bob said to Edward's back.

He came back with two bottles of water, passed one to the girl, and looked at her to explain.

"I … I made it for the trip before I left Phoenix," she said looking down at the bottle in her hand, "Thank you for the water" she jiggled the bottle in his direction.

"So where are you heading on this trip; you traveling alone?" Edward asked his voice rising at the thought.

He watched her look at the two older men for help as she paled at his questions.

Dunny spoke up first, "She's heading north." He gave the boy a sharp look, which Edward ignored.

"You're taking that deathtrapup north? You don't have snow tires. I bet you don't have chains. Dunny, what the hell," he glared at his friend.

How could the old man have cake and tea and then let her drive in ignorant bliss to her death? Visions of Volkswagen Rabbits buried in mounds of snow flashed in his mind and he stood up abruptly, bumping the table, sloshing the mugs.

"I'm gonna go pick up that display." He didn't look at the three who sat stunned as he made his way out the swinging door.

Edward picked up the wire frame, shaking his head.

What the hell was wrong with him? He lost his cool again. Maybe he should just get his truck and hit the road for Vegas.

"I'm sorry."

He looked up into brown eyes as he took thechips she held out to him.

"What the hell … what are you sorry for?" he asked as he busied himself stuffing yellow bags none too gently into the wire basket of the display rack.

"Here, let me do that," she chuckled softly as she took over. "I seemed to have upset you. I'm sorry I imposed on your visit with your friends.It's obvious you haven't seen each other in a long time. I'll be on my way so you can enjoy your time with them," she smiled wistfully, "They're so glad you're here."

He handed her the last of the chips and wiped his hands on his jeans.

"Look, I'm the one that's sorry," he said as he rubbed the back of his neck. "Don't leave on my account. I'll behave. I'm just … I just … ah fuck if I know." He let out a breath that brushed a lock of hair offhis forehead and laughed miserably at his own expense.

He gave her a stiff smile and headed back to the store room.

"DUNNY!" Edward shouted as he busted through the swinging door.

"WHAT, YOU ASS!" Dunny wobbled over to him, "did you make her cry? I'll kick your ass if you made her cry, Boy."

Edward had never seen the old man so riled, not even when Bob was diagnosed.

"No, God no, well I don't think so," Edward amended as he rubbed his calloused hands over his face. "Look can we put my bike away and pull out the truck?"

"I'll play a round of chess with Bobby while you're out, Dunny," An old pair of shoulders relaxed and a young pair tensed as the feminine voice filled the room.

"That would be sweet, Bella," Bob said as he patted the seat next to him.

She rubbed her hand along his shoulders as she took her seat.

"Okay, teach me how to beat Dunny," she giggled as she watched Bob set up the board.

The two men left the room grabbing coats, keys and helmet as they headed out the back door.

Bob's voice saying "Sweet, Bella" echoed in Edward's mind as he snapped up his jacket.

Walking along the fence line toward the gate, Edward lit up. Blowing outhis first drag, he shoved his other hand in his jacket pocket, rolling his shoulders against the wind hitting his back.

"What's the deal with Sweets in there?" Edward asked trying to sound aloof. He cut his eyes over to Dunny as he took another drag.

Dunny worked the key in the lock before answering.

"She rolled in here about ten-thirty this morning. She filled up with gas and washed her windshield. By the time she came in to pay, her lips were blue and her teeth were chattering. I invited her back for a warm cup. She talked our ear off while she watched us play a game of chess and then offered to fix lunch since we had let her stay," he smiled to himself."Then she danced for us while she didthe dishes."

"What?" A dark room, pumping music and a pole flashed in Edward's head.

"She said she had taken ballet for a few months when she was little, but that it didn't take. She was showing us how bad a dancer she was," the old man shook his head, "Ithought she did pretty well. She's such a pretty, little thing," Dunny whispered at the last.

She was a pretty, little thing and Edward hated that he had missed the dancing, but he also had the notion she wouldn't have danced if he had been here.

"Did she tell you anything, Dunny? She's too young to be driving out here alone," Edward said as he ground out his cigarette butt with the toe of his boot.

"She said she finished high school in Florida," Dunny watched his young friend light up a second smoke, shaking his head that the boy was so tangled up. "I think she travels a lot," Dunny added as an after-thought.

"Did you look over her car? Is the engine sound?" Edward asked as he followed Dunny to the barn-like shed.

"No, she's been keeping us pretty occupied since she got here. You want to help me check it over before we go back in?" Dunny asked as he scratched his chin in thought.

"Yeah, you back this out and I'll pull the bike in. Then we'll give her hunk of junk a look." Edward threw over his shoulder as he headed back out the gate.

~o0o~

As Edward put the key in the ignition, he looked up to see the girl come outside without a coat, smiling as though she was sane.

"Where's your coat, Sweets?" Edward barked over the wind.

Bella hesitated in her walking before wrapping her arms around her torso and continuing on.

"I won't be out here long. I just wanted to see Bobby's paint job before you put it away," she said shyly as she ran her hand along the gas tank.

"Here," he said quietly as he took off his jacket leaving him in his Henley and a cableknit sweater. He slipped it around her shoulders. It was huge on her going well below her cute little butt. It still left her legs exposed. That summer dress wasn't doing her a bit of good.

He wished he had his leather duster; it would go to her ankles.

She gave him a small, "Thank you."

He groaned as she walked around his bike touching it, caressing it all while being wrapped up in his jacket.

What this girl did to him.

He had been on the back foot since he first laid eyes on her. She had the whole 'damsel in distress' thing going on, but it was more than that. She was good, genuinely sweet and giving to the two old men she'd just met. There were few people he valued more that those two, used-up old geezers. That she saw the value of them meant a great deal to him.

He continued to watch her walking slowly around only stopping to pull the jacket tighter and the collar up to her face when a gust of wind hit her. He watched her pull the collar to her nose again and close her eyes.

Was she sniffing him? Good Lord!

He shifted from side to side and looked back toward the shed seeing that Dunny had pulled out the truck.

"You want to ride with me back to the shed?" He asked.

She smiled and nodded hesitantly.

Here, put this on," he said, helping her with the heavy helmet; adjusting the chin strap.

This close, she really had to look up to see him, "Thank you, Edward."

He nodded but didn't look at her directly.

His bike had a deep, high back seat, great for long distance travel, but not so great for giving pretty girls a ride. He decided to push back a bit and have her sit between his legs. He held her hand as she cautiously straddled his bike, carefully tucking her skirt around her thighs. He pulled her back against his chest as he leaned forward to kick the stand and start the ignition.

God, she felt good.

He wanted to bury his face in her hair, hold onto her, run with her. He could be in the next state before Dunny or Bob knew what hit them. He chuckled to himself.

"Hold on Sweets, it's just a little ride," Edward called over her shoulder and was rewarded with her grabbing onto his jean-clad thighs.

Lord!

He revved the engine a bit more than necessary and gunned it, taking it toward the road. He smiled as he felt her hands tighten. He took her about a mile down the road before returning to Dunny's and pulling into the back lot.

He cut the engine and helped her not so gracefully dismount the bike. She took off the helmet as he dismounted, and after he had hung the helmet on the handlebars, he turned in time to find his arms full of feminine goodness.

"Thank you, that was so awesome! Oh, I want to go again. That was great!" She squeezed him again before letting him go.

He smiled down on her and pulled her closer by the collar of his jacket.

Her smile was brilliant in the sunshine.

Her happiness lit up the world.

"I would have given you a ride sooner if I'd known that was my reward," he said smiling back at her.

"Well …" she blushed, taking a step back.

"Hey, where'd you take Bella? You had Bob coming out to see what was going on," Dunny barked as he hobbled toward the couple.

" … You all right, Bella girl, did he scare you?" Dunny asked, looking her over as he talked.

"Aw, come on, you make me out to be an ax murderer. Don't scare the girl with your nonsense, you old goat," Edward barked back, feigning insult.

"I had a great time, Dunny, don't be mad at Moondoggie. He couldn't help showing off a little. Is Bobby okay? I want to tell him how beautiful his work is. It's art." She beamed between the two men.

"I worked on it too, you know," Dunny mumbled.

"Come on, let's take this inside. Sweets is turning blue," Edward nodded toward the shop.

As Dunny turned to hobble toward the back of the shop, Edward pulled her back against his chest. "You gonna be the Gidget to my Moondoggie, little girl?" he whispered in her ear.

He heard her gasp and laughed, enjoying being on top for once.

Taking her jacket covered hand he towed her back inside.

~o0o~

The three men waited until the swinging doors stood still before starting their discussion.

"It's too late in the day for her to head out now," Bob started.

"She can stay here tonight and get a fresh start in the morning," Dunny agreed.

"We need to check out that car before she goes anywhere." Edward huffed.

"If she stays the night, we'll do that first thing." Dunny nodded.

Bob tapped the table, "Shh, she's coming."

"Dunny, you only had three mugs. What's with that?" she laughed as she came into the room hold three steaming coffees and a Coke.

Her hands were shaking and red as she put them down. Edward wanted her to put his jacket back on since she was obviously still cold. He took his coffee and pushed it in front of her. She frowned at him and he nodded for her to take it.

She tucked her hair behind her ear and then tentatively wrapped her hands around the big warm cup. He relaxed and sat back.

Bob nodded at Dunny to start the conversation.

Dunny frowned then cleared his throat; "Ah, Bella dear, the day is getting on and we've enjoyed your company, but …" he stopped talking as her face fell.

"Oh … Oh, yes, of course, I … I've stayed way too long. I'm so sorry to have imposed on you." She stood and started looking around, for what the men had no clue. "I'm such a stupid fool, gah!" she whispered to herself as she tugged on the tips of her hair.

"Hey, sit back down," Edward said as he banged her chair on the floor.

She sat with a thud, dropping her hands into her lap and hanging her head.

"That is not what Dunny meant. He…We want you to stay the night. It'll be after dark by the time you get to the next town and we haven't checked your car to see if you'll even get to the next town." Edward tucked his head to see if she was hearing him.

Dunny tried again, "Please stay the night. Edward can bed down by the stove, here and you can have the twin in the spare room. Bob and I share twins in my room since he needs help getting up at night."

"She don't need to hear all the gory details, Dunny," Bob barked.

She peeked up at Edward.

"I want you to stay. I won't sleep a wink with you out on that lonely stretch of road at night," he said softly, only to her.

Looking away from him she said to the room, "I can sleep out here, there's no need to put Ed…"

"No" was shouted in unison.

"Okay, well then," she said thoughtfully, "to earn my keep I should make dinner. That's my final offer." She smiled shyly around the room.

The three men blew out a breath and sat back in their seats reclaiming their coffee. Bella slid her hand warmer toward Edward. He took a couple of sips and slid it back to her. She smiled sweetly as she wrapped her hands around it once again.

~o0o~

"Moondoggie?"

Edward sat up straighter and listened to the pat, pat, pat of socked feet moving closer.

"Moondoggie, why are you up?" she whispered.

"I could ask you the same thing, Sweets," he said as he rubbed his eyes and pulled his blanket tighter around his shoulder.

"I was … well, Bob makes a lot of noise at night," she winced.

Edward huffed out a laugh. "Yeah, well I guess that would be rough." He pulled the blanket from around himself and offered it to her.

She frowned but took it. As he moved to his makeshift bed to retrieve another, she hugged the blanket, still warm from him, closer and asked, "What's wrong with Bobby?"

"He was diagnosed terminal about eight months ago. That's when he moved in with Dunny. They go way back."

He rubbed his neck while he thought, and with a decision made he continued, "They met in rehab." He looked over to see her reaction. When he saw her quietly waiting for more, he continued. "Dunny had a gambling problem and Reno ate him up; when there was nothing left it spit him out. By that time, his wife had taken their two-year-old daughter and left. He's never seen the little one since. She's probably got grown kids of her own by now." Edward frowns down at his hands. "He hit the bottle hard and didn't come out for a good ten years. He was living in a shelter and panhandling. A… a doctor who volunteered at the shelter befriended Dunny and helped him." Edward turned away from her as he wiped his eyes with the back of his hand.

"I'd like to meet that man someday. What a wonderful thing he did in helping Dunny," she smiled in the dim light of the room. "And Bobby …" she asked looking back at him.

Edward shifted in his seat, "Bob… well I don't know as much of his story. He was in rehab for drug and alcohol addiction. It was his third time in, I think, and to hear Bob tell it 'third time's a charm because Dunny had his back.' Edward and Bella sat side by side near the stove smiling into the darkness.

She reached over and gave his hand a squeeze.

"Look, Sweets, ah… Bella, we've all got a past. I don't need to know your secrets, but I've got questions in my mind that won't let go."

"Okay, how about you ask your questions and I'll answer if I can." She smiled enough to reassure him and turned in her seat toward him. He lifted the blanket, pulled it back over her shoulder, and angled his body toward her, resting his ankle on his knee.

"Thanks, now shoot," she said with a forced brightness.

"Okay, uh … how old are you?" Edward dropped his head as she began to giggle.

"That's your first big question?" she nudged him with her shoulder and he nudged back, "Nineteen. There was a time when I was terrified to tell anyone my age, but I'm a legal adult now so … screw 'em."

He looked at her to explain that burst of venom. She folded her hands on his knee and continued.

"I'm the child of an addict. Apathy was the only emotion Renee, my mother, offered me. I was invisible, a ghost. When I was fifteen, I got a crush and made the mistake of reaching for normal. Renee came home to us holding hands at the kitchen table while we studied and I guess a switch flipped in her."

She looked up as Edward took her hand, encouraging her to continue.

"I had become a threat, competition, I guess. She was relentless. Names like whore and slut were constant. She tripped, slapped, scratched or pinched me anytime I was within reach. The last night she came home high and attacked me in my bed. She took a broom handle to me. When she passed out, I stole three watches from the meal ticket she was bedding, packed a bag and left. I pawned one for eight hundred, bought a ticket to Florida and never looked back.

"Aw, Sweets, I'm so sorry," he whispered into her hair as he pulled her closer, "how did you survive?" He squeezed his eyes shut from the visions invading his head.

"When I got on the bus for Florida, I had days to think and I decided, no matter what, I was not going to smoke, drink, do drugs or sell my body." She paused, cleared her throat before continuing. "I figured if I stayed away from any habit that cost money I wouldn't have to do that last thing to keep up the cost of the others," she shrugged.

"Smart thinking," Edward whispered past the lump in his throat.

"I had the address for a battered women shelter in Jacksonville. I floated a few nights until they found a bed for me there. My face was enough proof that I belonged, but I bought a cheap wedding band at a pawnshop to help seal the battered wife story.

"I helped in the kitchen to keep my bed, worked nights at a laundromat and cleaned office buildings for two years while I got my GED. By then I was close to eighteen.

"Renee was still in Phoenix and I had this stupid idea that if I moved back, I could use her address without her knowing and get resident tuition rates for college. However, that didn't work. I guess she got the meal ticket to marry her, and that put me out of range for grants.

Edward pulled his arm around her and she rested her head on his shoulder. "I'm so sorry, Sweets," he whispered.

"Don't get all maudlin. This is a kick ass beginning to a really great story. My memoirs are going to rock," she whispered past her tears.

I want to ride to Phoenix and take a bat to her," Edward ground out, playing with her fingers.

"I know, and I'm sorry to put that in your head. But I'm safely away from that now. Sometimes I feel as if it happened to someone else. I'm good now Moondoggie. Try to let it go, I have." She smiled softly.

He tightened the hug and rocked her gently. They sat quietly for quite some time.

When she yawned, he loosened his hold and looked at her.

"Before you head back to bed, I'd like to know where you're heading."

She sat back and looked at her hands in her lap, "I'm heading to Forks, Washington to bury my father."

"When do you need to be there?" he asked quietly.

'The funeral is on the nineteenth, three days from now." She said.

"We could make that, I think. Forks is up in the Olympic peninsula, isn't it." He leaned forward thinking.

"Yes," she leaned forward matching his position and looked at him, "we, Moondoggie?"

He noted what he thought could be a tinge of hope.

"I can't let you go up north in that car, in those clothes, after that story. I want to get you there safely," he shrugged.

"Moondoggie, I've taken care of myself my whole life. I learned to make a sandwich by the time I was three. I was grocery shopping at six. I was managing our bills by the time I was ten. My mom has been an addict all my life. I've made my way." She squeezed his hand looking into his face for understanding.

He looked at her while he tried to get his emotions under control. How was it possible for her to go through so much and not be hard and bitter? She was kind, sweet and had wisdom far beyond her nineteen years. Finally, he nodded acceptance. He watched disappointment wash over her and spoke quickly to cut off her thoughts.

"I've been on my own for eight years. I know what it's like to be alone. I'm not asking to run your life. I just thought we could ride in the same direction for a while. I'd like the company." He rubbed the back of her hand with his thumb and looked up to read her.

Her eyes were swimming, but she was smiling.

He held his breath.

"Okay, that sounds nice, if it's not putting you out by changing your plans."

"I was going to hang with a buddy in Vegas through the holidays. But this is better. Much better," he added giving her hand a squeeze.

"K," she smiled shyly and dropped her head.

"Okay," he smiled down on her.

"Let's get some shuteyebefore the two codgers start barking for their breakfast. You've totally spoiled them." He stood helping her up.

"Do you want to stay out here? I can stoke up the stove and you can bed down out here." He ran his hand down her arm, "nothing funny just sleep, scouts honor."

She hesitated before saying, "K, I'll go get my bedding."

~o0o~

Edward felt someone kicking his foot.

He kickedout at the air.

"Hey, Edward, you stealing the cookies?"

He opened his eyes to Dunny's scraggly face hovering over him.

"What the hell, Dunny, back the hell off me," he swatted at the old coot.

"Shh, you'll wake her," his voice softened at the word 'her.'

The two men looked over at the sleeping beauty snuggled under layers of blankets.

Edward rolled out of his side of the pile of blankets and motioned for Dunny to follow him to the small kitchenette.

He started making coffee while Dunny popped some Wonder Bread into the toaster.

"Stealing the cookies, Dunny?" Edward snickered.

"Well, what's the girl doing in your bed, huh?" Dunny smacked the back of Edward's head.

"Hey," he rubbed the spot, "if you'd look closely you'd see that our blankets are folded in opposite directions with the folds up against each other. It was all quite … chaste."

Dunny watched the back of the boy's neck redden and rubbed his jaw in thought. After a moment, he thought to test his theory.

"She's a young little thing," he said offhandedly.

Edward shot him a glance.

"She's not that young, nineteen, a mature nineteen." He dropped casually.

"That's an eleven-year gap. She's a good girl. You shouldn't play with her is all I'm saying," Dunny busied himself with buttering the toast.

"I'm not playing," he shot back defensively pouring two mugs of coffee, then turning to face his friend.

"I'm not playing," he said quietly. "I care about her, Dunny, she's amazing. She deserves a friend," he paused, "We talked last night. I'm going to take her up north, make sure she gets where she's going safely."

He slid a mug over to Dunny and waited.

Dunny smiled widely, "I'm glad to hear that," he nodded, "Bob will be glad to hear that, too. Yep, that's good news," he nodded again. He shot a look at Edward and added, "You'll be a gentleman?"

Edward smiled down on his old friend, "I'll be on my best behavior. I'll wait until the cookies are offered," he laughed.

"When you leavin' out?" Dunny asked taking a bite of hisjellied toast.

"I'm thinking as soon as Sweets and Bob are up and fed. Can you keep her car until after the nineteenth? I'll call and let you know when I'll drop her back for it. I don't know what her plans are beyond then."

"Yeah, I'll look it over." Dunny said with grape jelly dropping onto his sweatshirt.

Edward pulled a paper towel off the roll and handed it to Dunny, "I have winter tires on the bike. Can you change them out?"

"Yeah, sure, what did you put on?" Dunny asked as he spread the purple stain on his collar.

"Dunlop Sportmax Roadsmarts," Edward laughed as Dunny made a face, "they worked like a charm. The family name still stands proud." He threw his head back and laughed when Dunny threw the balled up paper towel at him.

"Shut up, you little prick,"

"Such a potty mouth this early in the morning, tsk"

Both men turned to see a rumpled, but toasty Bella leaning against the doorframe.

"I'm sorry Bella, you weren't to hear that," he shot a condemning glare at Edward, who broke out in a new round of laughter as Bella winked at him.

~o0o~

He watched her bend to hug Bob. She didn't let on how much she knew, treating him the same as she did yesterday.

"Bye Bobby, I'm gonna miss you." She gave him another good squeeze and a kiss on the cheek. "I love you," she whispered.

He held on loosely to a strand of her hair as she pulled away, reaching to shake Edward's hand only when it finally dropped from between his fingers.

"You don't be a stranger. Bring her back to us as soon as you can," Bob looked away blinking.

"Will do Bob, not long after the first of the year. Think that'll work for you?" Edward asked shaking his friend's hand.

"Well, if not I'll catch you on the other side," Bob said dropping Edward's hand.

"Save me a good parking spot, cuz I'm bringing the flames with me" Edward smiled.

"Where you're going the flames will be provided," Dunny groused, feeling left out.

Bella turned and hugged him. "I love you Dunny. Thank you for opening your home to me." She squeezed him one more time while he pat her back awkwardly.

Edward took her fingertips, letting her know it was time.

"You'll call them, let them know you saw me?" Edward asked Dunny as he towed Sweets to his side.

"The parental units? Yeah,I'll give them a call once you're on your way."

"Thanks, Dunny, for everything," Edward said as the older man pulled him in for a hug.

~o0o~

Pulling out was hard but it felt good to be in the shelter of his Dodge Ram.

She cried all the way to the next town.

A little out of practice being around women, he left her to it as long as she didn't make herself sick.

As they were pulling into a Walmart parking spot, she finally spoke.

"Yesterday was just about the best day I can remember. Thank you." She gave him a watery grin.

He lifted her hand to his mouth and whispered, "my pleasure."

"What did Dunny say about your parents?" she asked turning her body toward him.

"When I blow through, Dunny calls my mom and pops and lets them know how I'm doing."

"You don't talk to them?"

"Not for eight years," Edward says as his hands tighten on the steering wheel.

"What happened?" she asked.

"A difference of opinion," he shrugged.

She looked at him waiting for more.

He huffed, "My pops thought I was shit. I disagreed."

They sat in silence until the cold started to creep into the cab.

"Come on, we need to buy some supplies for the trip and you can't go any farther north in those clothes." He almost growled the last part.

She chuckled, "I'm sorry I'm not meeting your fashion standards, Mr. Cullen."

"Don't," he tried not to smile, "I can't believe you don't even have a coat."

"I've never gone above the I-10 corridor until this trip. I had enough money for gas, that's it."

"But food, lodging," he frowned at her trying to solve the puzzle, "the banana bread."

She nodded, "I had it rationed out for three days."

But she gave it to us?

"They were so nice. I wanted to give back to them, share with them. I thought of it as my Christmas present to them," she looked at him for understanding.

He felt cut to the marrow.

"I'm sorry, Sweets, forgive me for being an ass. It was a beautiful gift. The best banana bread I've ever tasted and it's been many years since anyone has made those two goats feel as special as you did yesterday, so thank you." He waited for her to smile. "Now let's get you fixed up proper for the occasion, okay?"

"K" she nodded but didn't move.

"What," he leaned forward to see if she was upset.

"I'll let you buy me some sundries if you let me buy us dinner tonight and every other tank of gas."

"That's your final offer?" he smiled at her.

"That's my final offer," she smiled back.

~o0o~

They put in eight-hour days for two days straight. The weather was sunny and bright with crispness in the air. Now that she had a nice thick coat with matching scarf and gloves, he couldn't keep her inside. She opted for drive-thrus and eating in the bed of the truck.

He loved how her cheeks and nose got rosy in the crisp, winter air and how the sun turned her hair into a glossy caramel-colored waterfall. He watched her smile and laugh with the sun on her face and the wind playing with her hair and thought there just couldn't be a more glorious sight than Sweets smiling in the sunshine.

On the second night, she surprised him by earning the next day's gas money by charmingly beating a group of men at pool. She said she learned how to be creative in taking care of herself. He was pretty sure the men enjoyed losing to her as much as he enjoyed watching her win.

~o0o~

"You okay, Sweets?" Edward asked across the darkened motel room.

"Tomorrow's the big day. Tomorrow, after nineteen years I meet my dad." She sniffed in the dark.

"It'll be all right, Sweets. You've come this far. We'll see it through together." He turned on his bed toward her as he heard her whisper, "together."

"Moondoggie?"

"Yeah, Baby?"

"Can I sleep with you tonight?"

She sounded so small and unsure. It broke him to deny her anything.

"Of course, Sweets, come on over." He held up the far side of the blankets and watched as she came bounding to his bed. She didn't stop until she had her head on his chest and his arms snuggly wrapped around her.

"Thanks, Moondoggie, I'll be brave tomorrow." Her breath hitched as she ran her hand up his chest.

He caught it under his and kissed her forehead. "Go to sleep, Sweets, I got you."

"K," she whispered into his neck.

"Okay," he smiled into her hair.

~*C*~

Moondoggie sits in the dark of the motel room watching his Sweets sleep after the heartbreaking day of the funeral. He smiles knowing the last knot has untangled. Fear and hope race through him. He knows what he is going to do, his Christmas present to Sweets. It's four days until Christmas Eve, that's time enough.

For Sweets, he can do this.

He stands and stretches as she rolls over in his Harley shirt.

Damn, what that woman does to him.

He crawls gently into her bed; pulls her close to spoon and feels a peace wash over him. With her hair nesting around him, he drifts off to the last few hours of sleep.

~o0o~

At the Forks Diner, Moondoggie watches her stir sugar into her coffee. She has not made eye contact all morning.

He laughs awkwardly at the situation causing her to look up.

His chest tightens as he looks at her, but he knows it's all or nothing time.

He clears his throat. "You know, we've been so focused on getting here we never talked about what your plans are for after." He takes a sip of coffee and braces himself.

"I … I don't have plans, really. Um, my car is at Dunny's and I have some stuff at Mrs. Cope's in Phoenix. I guess I should go back," she drops her hands to her lap.

He lets out the breath he'd been holding.

"Sweets, look at me," he coaxes gently.

She looks up but doesn't meet his eyes.

"I don't have all the answers but I think we can figure something out together. Do you want to go back to the life you had in Phoenix?"

She huffs, "I have a set of second-hand sheets, some summer clothes," she smirks as he chuckles, "and six old books in a room atMrs. Cope's. I don't have a life there, Moondoggie."

"Good," he smiles as her eyes shoot up to meet his.

"Good? Pathetic is a better word," she bites back.

"Sweets it's good because maybe you might want to stay with me for a bit longer, maybe through the holidays?" He holds her gaze as she thinks.

Please, please, please.

"Moondoggie," she sighs and drops her head in defeat. He swallows thickly. "I don't have any money left, I am beyond grateful, but now it's time to get back to reality," she whispers.

He stares at the top of her lowered head. All he knows is if he backs down now he'll regret it for the rest of his life.

He reaches his hand across the table, "Sweets," he waits.

Slowly she slides her hand to meet his. As he enfolds her hand in his, he hears a soft sob shudder through her.

He moves to her side of the booth and pulls her to him. She drops her head to his shoulder and quietly cries. He lets her go for a bit, rubbing his hand soothingly up and down her arm.

When she calms down to hiccups and sniffles, he brings her face up with his finger under her chin and kisses her forehead, handing her a paper napkin. While she wipes her face and pulls herself together, he takes the opportunity to pitch his proposal.

"Sweets, I don't know for sure what you want, but you don't have to make all of your decisions today. The way I see it, you're not at a dead end, you're at a crossroads.

"This is what I want to do. Now tell me if it sounds good to you. I want to take the next four days and have fun while we travel to Chicago. Don't worry about money; I still have half of my pay from Newton's to blow through. I'd like to spend Christmas day in Chicago. After the New Year, we could head back down and visit with Dunny and Bob. If you want, we can send Mrs. Cope money to box and ship your things to Dunny's. That way you'll be ready to go in any direction you want from there, a crossroads of possibilities."

He sits back, trying to appear calm.

"I can wait until we get back to Dunny's," she whispers.

"You can stay with me until we get back to Dunny's."

She lets out a shuddering sigh, "K."

He lifts her chin, "Okay?" he can't believe it.

She nods and smiles shyly, "yeah."

He pulls her into a bear hug, "Oh God, Sweets, that's the best thing I've heard… ever," he laughs at his stupidity with sheer relief.

She laughs into his collar.

He hugs her again and then rests his arm on the back of the booth as he motions to the waitress.

~o0o~

Relief sits like a third person in the cab of the truck as they head out of town. Like two inmates with death row pardons, they smile and laugh, slightly drunk on the reprieve thatlife has given them.

"Stop!" Sweets shouts.

Moondoggie pulls over in alarm.

Sweets jumps out of the truck and begins walking back to the 'Welcome to Forks' sign.

"Sweets?"

"I'm all right Moondoggie, I just wanted to say goodbye. I won't be coming back," she says with conviction.

He walks up behind her and wraps his arms around her waist, resting his chin on her shoulder as she stares at the sign.

"I never had a mother. I never had a father. I've had more family with you, Dunny and Bob in the past few days than I've had in my whole life. Now that I know the difference, I won't be pining for second best," she sniffs and sighs.

He squeezes her a bit tighter. She turns and kisses his cheek sweetly. "Thank you, Moondoggie."

He turns her in his arms, looking at her lips as he leans in, kissing her on her cheek. "Thank you for reminding me how good it feels to care, Sweets," he whispers.

She looks at his lips and up to his eyes. He smiles knowingly.

"Ready?" he asks as he releases her to take both of her hands.

Turning to look at the sign one more time, she reaches down. Taking a fist of dirt, she rubs it between her hands, watching as the wind carries it away.

She smiles up to him and nods. He places his arm around her and guides her toward the truck. Kissing the side of her head, he whispers, "Good girl."

~o0o~

On the ferry that takes them over Puget Sound to Seattle, Moondoggie takes Sweets up to the observation deck. He loves the ferry and wants to share this it with her.

He settles her on a bench and pulls her into his side as he drapes a blanket over their laps.

"Moondoggie, why Christmas in Chicago?" she asks as she pulls the blanket up under her chin.

He tucks it tighter around them to keep out the draft.

"It's where my folks are, my mom, pops, sister," He says looking out over the water.

She pauses, choosing her words carefully, "the folks you haven't seen in eight years?"

"The same," he says with forced lightness.

"Moondoggie … why?"

"It's time, Sweets. You've reminded me that I have a family, and yes, I'm terrified at facing my pops and his wall of judgment, but I have one, and he is alive. I'm filled with guilt at the idea of seeing my mother and sister, but I have a mom and sister. You've showed me how good it feels to be tethered to another. It's time for me to stop running," he kisses the forehead resting on his shoulder.

"If it gets too tough, we'll go, okay," she says giving him a squeeze.

"Okay," he sighs out.

"K," she says softly as she watched the Seattle skyline loom before them.

~o0o~

They make it to Spokane, Washington the first night. It's a push for Moondoggie, but he has the first phase of 'Operation Sweets' Christmas' waiting for them.

They check into a motel and head out to look for food. They sit side by side and share a soup sampler and beer bread at Soulful Soup and Spirits.

Warmed through and rested, he walks them to the Campbell House to take a tour of the nineteenth-century mansion wrapped in its Christmas finery. Moondoggie smiles at the sparkle in her eye as they walk up the drive. She has to touch everything, the garland running in every room covered with lights and decorative fruits, theglass and handmadeornaments on the trees throughout the house, the beautiful ball gowns displayed in a lady's dressing room. It thrills him to watch her soak in every homey thing in the beautiful house.

When they find themselves back at the foyer, Moondoggie escorts her out the ornate front doors to a horse- drawn carriage. He sees a lone tear slip from her eye as he tucks a blanket around her torso. He runs his fingers lightly over her skin as his thumb runs a gentle line under her bottom lip.

She smiles at him and holds her breath as he leans in, kissing her salty cheek.

The carriage takes them through downtown Spokane alight with Christmas decorations. They stop in front of the Martin Woldson Theater. She holds tight to his arm as he buys their tickets and escorts her to their seats. As he settles in next to her, she looks to him to explain.

"The Nutcracker Suite … my mom and sister went every year. It was a cornerstone part of our Christmas when I was growing up. Dunny and Bob told me you took ballet when you were little. I would have loved to have seen you dance," he shrugs, "anyway, I thought it would be a good way to kick off our Christmas together."

She squeezes his hand with brimming eyes. "Thank you," she whispers.

"No crying, Sweets," he smiles, raising their joined hands to his mouth as the room darkens.

~o0o~

The bus drops them up the street from the motel. They walk arm in arm through the chilly night. Reaching the warm room, they make short work of getting ready and climb into their separate beds seeking warmth.

Moondoggie is just drifting away when she calls him back.

"Moooondoggie"

"Come on, Baby," he mumbles as he lifts the far side of his blankets.

She slips in and snuggles next to him.

"Night Moondoggie," she whispers.

"Nnnn, Sweets," he breathes out pulling the blanket over her shoulder.

She smiles to herself as he begins to softly snore.

~o0o~

Well rested, Moondoggie gets behind the wheel determined to make Billings, Montana before dark. Sweets occupies her time with chasing Christmas songs on the radio.

After buying tape and Red Hots at the first gas station, she makes garland and a wreath out of thegreen napkins she took from the complimentary coffee counter in their motel lobby. She decorates the dashboard with the garland and spends an hour licking the back of the Red Hot candies and sticking them to the wreath. Moondoggie struggles to keep his eyes on the road as her little red tongue darts out over and over. When she's done, she hangs it proudly on the rearview mirror as he swallows thickly.

After dropping their luggage of in the room, they walk to The Burger Dive where she has a massive hamburger with an onion ring tucked under the bun. He has the Blackened Sabbath burger, sharing a basket of fries. Now that he is away from the torture of the cinnamon incense, they talk freely, holding hands throughout their meal.

~o0o~

With the lights off Moondoggie is finally free to think on the events of the day.

That tongue…

That mouth ...

He closes his eyes against the onslaught of images. He wants to cover that sweet, juicy little mouth with his, to claim it, explore it, own it. He wants to suck the red cinnamon tongue until he's drunk with her.

He wants her, all of her.

He turns over and punches his pillow.

"Moooondoggie,"

He groans into his pillow at the bad timing, really, bad timing.

He waits a minute trying to calm down then lifts up the far side of his covers,

"Come on, Sweets."

She comes over and moves under the covers toward him.

"Turn over, Sweets. Face your bed." He whispers in the dark.

She turns and he slides to her and spoons with her.

"Comfortable?"

"Yeah, this is nice." She pats his arm under the cover.

"Good," he kisses her temple. "Goodnight, Sweets."

They settle into the quiet darkness and he finally begins to drift.

"Moondoggie?

"Yes, Baby," he mumbles.

"Why won't you kiss me?" she asks quietly in the night.

He freezes.

"I kiss you all the time, Sweets" he loosens his hold slightly.

"You kiss my forehead, my nose, my head, my hands. If I walked around barefoot, I'd probably be able to get you to kiss my feet. But you won't kiss my lips."

She squirms a little while she talks.

"Be still, Sweets"

"Why," she starts to turn to see him and it all comes crashing down.

Suddenly, he has her pinned under him as he hovers over her.

"Because you're driving me insane," he lowers his hip so she can feel him.

"Oh."

"Yeah, 'oh,' all day Sweets, with the licking and the cinnamon, you're so good and sweet and I just really want to do very bad things to you right now. He growls out.

She takes a moment to take in her first meeting with an unhinged Moondoggie. Although he's a bit scary, he is also glorious. The heat coming off him is thermal, and spread out under him she finds she really wants to play with fire.

She meets his eyes, "But that doesn't answer my question, Moondoggie. Why won't you kiss me?" she whispers.

He sits up on his heels, pushes her thighs further apart with his knees and runs his hands roughly up her sides as he resumes hovering over her. Running his hands up into her hair as his body presses against her, he angles her head just so, as he leans in. With his lips suspended deliciously close hers, he whispers hoarsely, "Because, little girl, the day I claim your lips, I claim all of you. And there won't be any coming back from that. We're talking all in."

He leans down slowly and places a hot, lingering kiss on the corner of her mouth as his hand glides along her torso stopping to let his thumb run under her breast.

"Now, turn back over and behave or move back over to your bed." He says firmly.

"I'll behave, Moondoggie," she pants as her hip rubs across him as she turns.

He growls and helps her turn over and pulls her roughly against him to spoon. "You're going to get burned, Sweets."

"Oooo, I'm so scared," she laughs breaking the tension.

He chuckles behind her and taps her hip, "Behave." He kisses just below her ear and pulls her in tighter.

"Goodnight, Moondoggie" she pushes back a bit.

"Goodnight, Sweets." He whispers against her shoulder.

~o0o~

They reach Bismarck, North Dakota late afternoon. Sweets sees a pool hall and they take a few hours to fleece the locals. He sits at the bar nursing a beer as he watches her charm a roomful of men. To the younger guys she's a sweet little sister who likes to tease. To the older men she is the daughter figure who touches their arm and praises them. By the time she's done working the room, she has half a dozen men willing to take a pool cue to anydrunken bastard who reaches for her. It's quite amazing to watch.

The first time he watched her play pool he had wondered if she was fleecing Dunny, Bob and himself. However, her smile is more planned with these men. The pitch of her voice more practiced. No, after watching her this second night, he knows he has the real Sweets and everyone else has a stranger that looks a bit like her.

It's late when they leave the pool hall over five hundred dollars richer. They take turns with warm showers and eat pizza in bed watching A Christmas Story.

With lights off they snuggle down under the covers. Moondoggie gave up and got a room with one, queen-size bed instead of two doubles. Who was he kidding? He wanted her in his bed as much as she obviously wanted to be in it.

~o0o~

Sweets takes great pride in paying for their gas on the way to Wisconsin. But he finds that's not all she's been buying.

She has taken to keeping cinnamon mints with her, and moving close to him when she's talking. When he squirms, she just laughs. He also finds green and red wrapped Hershey Kisses everywhere, in his coat pocket, on the dashboard, perched on top of his quarter pounder at lunch.

As they get back on the road, she pops in a CD of Christmas songs. She giggles every time 'I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus' plays and when 'Baby, It's Cold Outside' plays, she makes him sing the male part. It's a good thing he's seen Elf so many times.

When they pull into Eau Claire, Wisconsin, it's a bit early. They check-in and do a little shopping for Christmas presents.

They drop their shopping bags in their room and walk to The Tavern Grill, sharing lasagna and salad. Afterward, they stop by the bonfire in the park near their motel. They stand wrapped in each other by the fire; sipping hot chocolate from the same cup and watching the carolers in the gazebo perform. Moondoggie sways them to the music while his Sweets sings along.

After the little concert, the couple walks back to the motel holding hands. He pulls their joined hands to his mouth for a kiss and then tucks them into his warm jacket pocket. She smiles brightly, understanding better what his little kisses mean.

~o0o~

Christmas Eve awakens cold and icy. They hit black ice an hour into the morning drive and slide off the road. But he just puts it into four-wheel drive and pulls back onto the highway. She reaches over and pats his thigh with pride. He captures her hand and brings it to his lips before letting their entwined hands rest between them on the bench seat.

They pull into Chicago after dark.

Moondoggie is road-weary from the icy conditions.

Once in their hotel room, he collapses face down on the bed.

"Moondoggie, how about we nap for a couple of hours and then have a light, late dinner," She suggests taking off his boots.

He rolls over and holds his arms out and she climbs on the bed to fill them.

"You told me you always wanted to go to a candlelight service. Do you want to do that tonight? There'sa beautiful, old ornate church that has midnight mass with a candle service and a full choir. I think it has a pipe organ."

You're not too tired?" she asks

"No, with the nap I'll be good to go." He says with a yawn.

"Then, yes, it would mean so much to me."

"Okay, then help me up so I can go to sleep.

~o0o~

They walk up the steps of St. Clement for the Midnight Mass. Moondoggie watches her get lost in the beauty and grandeur of the ornate church. They find seats to the side where they can see the choir loft clearly. As she looks around the church, he slips his hand to rest on the inside of her knee, rubbing small circles with his forefinger.

They share the prayer book and hymnal. Now he understands why his mom and pops always shared their book. There is something beautiful about having your voice mingle with the one you love while saying holy words. He wonders if his family is atMidnight Mass in their church across town.

The priest speaks of the birth of Christ bringing freedom from the past and ushering in hope for the future. Moondoggie pulls her close with those words. He feels hope for the first time in many long years because of his Sweets, and if it was God that sent her to him, he was man enough to thank him.

During the candle service, he can't take his eyes off his Sweets.

She is luminous.

Shebelongs in candlelight.

After the final prayer, the priest gives a few announcements and strangely thanks the congregation for not stealing baby Jesus from the manger this year. Sweets nudges him to see three teenagers giggling and elbowing each other.

They stop by the nativity after leaving the church.

"Look how cute the donkey and cow are. They're smiling at baby Jesus." She squeezes his hand.

"I think they're just glad he's still on the job." He taps the manger with his knee causing the baby to rock, "Hang tough, lil' dude," he laughs.

"Moondoggie," she laughs as she swats him, "that's just wrong."

"What, I was just hoping he's not abducted on his birthday," he gives her a cheeky grin.

She smacks him softly again. Turning to face him, she slips her hands slyly into his jacket pockets and tugs him closer.

"You know, I've heard that a kiss on Christmas is blessed by baby Jesus himself," she whispers as she lifts her face to him.

He smiles lovingly at her, "Let head out, you little temptress."

She huffs as he tows her toward the line of cabs.

~o0o~

"Oh God, I don't know if I can do this." Moondoggie groans as his hands tighten on the steering wheel.

"Moondoggie, Dunny called them and told them we're coming. We need to do this. As the preacher said, we'll put the past behind us and move forward with hope."

"Priest," he cuts his eyes over to her.

She sticks her tongue out and smiles. He chuckles softly and relaxes back against the seat.

"If it gets too bad, we'll leave, I promise," she squeezes his hand.

"Okay," he huffs out.

"K," she smiles.

They pull up a drive that opens to reveal manicured lawns and a three-story mansion, decorated tastefully for the holidays.

He helps her out and grabs the bag of presents from the back.

He catches Sweets out of the corner of his eye, frozen; staring at the house.

He rubs the back of his neck, "yeah, I I come from money," he says sheepishly.

"No Moondoggie, you come from people," she says in awe.

He turns to follow her view, and sees his parents standing on the front porch, hugging each other with tears streaming down their faces.

Seeing his pops crying gives him hope.

Sweets squeezes his hand and begins towing him toward the house. She steps back as both parents embrace their son. There are muffled words of love and forgiveness before he pulls back to face his pops.

"My God, son, forgive me. Please forgive me," his pops sobs out as Moondoggie pulls him into another hug.

"I'm sorry too, Pops," Moondoggie chokes. They squeeze each other with love and forgiveness and then awkwardly pull apart.

Moondoggie grabs Sweet's hand and pulls her into the group. He notices she has been crying, too.

"Mom, Pops, I'd like you to meet my Sweets, Bella Swan," he beams down on her, "Sweets, this is Mom and Pops, Carlisle and Esme Cullen."

"It's a pleasure to meet you, Mr. and Mrs. Cullen," Sweets says sweetly as Moondoggie wraps his arm around her.

Moondoggie smiles as his mom pulls Sweets in for a hug as his pops says, "Please, call us Carlisle and Esme and come inside. We usually have better manners."

Sweets smiles at the older version of Moondoggie and slips her arm in the crook of his, "That's all right it's a special occasion."

"Yes, yes it is," Carlisle smiles down at the sweet miracle that brought their son back to them.

Sweets smiles back at her Moondoggie as he wraps his arm around his mom's shoulders, who in turn pats his cheek.

The large foyer echoes the glad sounds of people excitedly catching up while coats are discarded.

Once in the spacious living room, Moondoggie begins to look around expectantly.

"Where's Alice?" he asks as he looks towards the staircase.

Esme speaks up first.

"She doesn't live here," Esme begins.

"Come on let's all sit and get comfortable," Carlisle says as he ushers them to the grouping of winged back chairs and love seats.

Once seated with Sweets, Moondoggie looks to his mom to continue.

"She was married five years ago. They met at a mixer on campus. Jasper was a TA at the time. It was a beautiful wedding," she says as she sweeps her hand toward a wall of frames.

"Now he's a professor at the University of Chicago and she has an upscale, couture clothing shop called Charming Things." Her face lights up as she adds, "They have a precious little two-year-old angel named Maddie." She finishes with a sweep at another set of pictures on the piano.

"Wow, so much has changed. I've missed so much," he says with grief.

"But you're back now, that's the main thing," Carlisle smiles sadly at his son.

"Are you going to stay for a bit?" Esme asks carefully.

Moondoggie glances at his Sweets, "I …I don't know what our plans are, but we're here for today. Will she … they be coming by today?" he asks keeping his gaze on Sweets who sits stiffly next to him.

"They have Christmas with Maddie in the morning and come over for an early dinner around three. Would you like a drink? I have some hors d'oeuvres to set out," Esme adds brightly.

"Water would be nice, Esme, thank you. Is there a bathroom I could use to freshen up?" Sweets asks as she stands.

"Of course, dear, in the hall off the foyer," Esme says as she swishes toward the kitchen.

"I'll be right back, Edward," Sweets says patting his shoulder.

Carlisle watches his son who has his eyes glued to Sweets' retreating form.

"Son?"

"Something's not right, Pops," Moondoggie says shakily.

"Then go after her and make it right," he smiles knowingly. She's the one, isn't she?"

Moondoggie smiles shyly back, "yeah, yeah she is."

"Then go get her." Carlisle urges.

~o0o~

He doesn't turn when he hears the door open or when he feels her nearing him and the nativity in the foyer.

"It's a nice nativity, she comments, "so realistic."

"Not since the bike ride," he says looking straight ahead.

"What?" she stills at his tone.

"Youhaven't called me by name since you got off my bike. Why now, Sweets?" he asks stiffly.

"I … I don't know," she whispers dropping her eyes.

"Not good enough, Sweets … Why?" he growls out.

"You have your family now, you'll be okay. I … I'm glad you'll be okay now," she smiles up at him as a tear rolls down her cheek.

He doesn't look at her.

He doesn't move but to run his finger over the baby in the manger. He picks it up and slips it into his pocket.

"Edward!"

"No, Sweets," he growls as he spins her around and pins her to the archway leading to the dining room.

"Who am I to you?" He wants to shake her.

He watches her eyes for the truth.

"You're my Moondoggie." She sobs out.

He relaxes his hold on her and pulls her into him.

And you're my Sweets" he rests his forehead on hers, running his hand down her hair.

"I'm going to have to call you by your name sometimes," She says softly.

"I know, but that's not who I am to you.

I want …

I need to be your Moondoggie. I want to be your man.

You're the answer to my great 'Why' Sweets.

You're why I get up in the morning, why I smile through the day, why I see a future. You are my future.

You're it for me, Sweets. You're everything, and I love you," he breathes out as he places the baby Jesus in her hand, encasinghers in his own.

"Moondoggie," she whispers, "you've become my home, my family. I love you so much it hurts to think of a moment without you."

"Then stay with me, Sweets. Tell me you'll stay with me," he closes his eyes and shakes her softly.

"Mooooondoggie," she waits. When he looks at her, her eyes are glancing up.

"Moondoggie, look … mistletoe"

He looks up.

"Remember, it's all in, Sweets," he challenges.

"Yes, please," she sighs, wrapping her arms around his neck.

He growls as he pulls her flush against him. He tugs at her hair, gently tilting her head back. Cupping her face with his hand, he gazes heatedly into her eyes seeing the love and longing he's been waiting for.

"I love you, Sweets," he breathes out as his lips cover hers.

He wraps her tighter, pulling her closer as her mouth opens for him. He groans as his tongue slides along hers.

Tasting,

Feeling,

Claiming.

Her whimper almost makes his knees buckle. Slowly, so slowly, he pulls back with sweet kisses of promise.

"I love you, Moondoggie," she whispers.

He rocks them gently, "I love you, Sweets. Merry Christmas, Baby."

~o0o~

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