Endless hugs to TwiSNFan for her quick beta work, to all involved at the Beneath The Mistletoe Contest for their hard work, and to anyone who voted for our first born.
Walking Under Stars
With my eye makeup finished, I flip my head over and begin pulling my hair up into a ponytail.
"Nice view," says Edward, passing me with a light tap on the ass.
Standing, I secure my hair and begin my morning ritual of searching for pins to hold my bun. My roommate stares back in the mirror at me with that same crooked grin that's worked its magic on a string of girls since we were sophomores and his voice broke. His grey t-shirt is damp with sweat, his cheeks still pink from the cold air outside.
"Have you seen any bobby pins lying around?"
Edward kicks his running shoes into the corner of the bathroom. "Are you kidding? They're fucking everywhere: the coffee table, beside the computer, in the kitchen…"
"Ah!" I spy a couple peeking out of my makeup bag. "It's okay, I found some."
Wrapping my hair around itself, I secure it tightly, watching from the corner of my eye as Edward lifts his shirt up and over his head before he tosses it aside.
"God, you can't seem keep your clothes on around me, can you?" I joke, taking another pin from between my lips.
"Whatever," he replies with a smirk as he grabs his junk through his sweat pants. "You know you want it."
I keep pinning, but watch in the mirror as he reaches in and turns the shower on before slipping his sweat pants off. The pipes bang as the water rushes out of the ancient pipes, just as they always do, and his fingers deftly work the faucet until the creaking stops.
The sight of him in his underwear has long since stopped making me blush with girly embarrassment. I don't know how many times I've seen Edward walk around our apartment half naked, or caught him ushering a girl out at some unseemly hour in just a sheet. I mean, I'm still a woman, I can totally appreciate how good he looks, but he's also my best friend, and I have a boyfriend who I really like.
Rolling my eyes, I stick the last of the bobby pins into my hair. "Can you just keep your underpants on for two more minutes until I finish my hair?"
I step out of the way as he reaches for the shaving cream from beneath the sink. "I don't know… they're really starting to chafe." He snaps the elastic for good measure.
"Well, I don't think Ben would appreciate you getting your dick out in front of me."
Edward throws his head back and laughs. "What's he going to do, attack me with his paint brushes? Give me a stern talking to?" He shakes his head. "What a fuckin' pussy."
I huff back. "And you're going to beat him with your typewriter, I suppose? Write him as the villain in your next TV pilot? Ooh, scary."
I should tell him off for talking about Ben that way, but it won't do any good. Edward doesn't like Ben, and Ben doesn't like Edward – not that he'd ever admit that – it's just the way it is. Edward thinks Ben is a pushover and too soft, and Ben thinks Edward is a narcissistic asshole. To be honest, I never got the whole writers vs. painters thing… but I think they're both right.
"Have you noticed Ben's hands?" asks Edward with a grin, unable to let it go. "Does he, like, get manicures and shit? They're so girly and slender."
The bathroom fills with steam as the water finally heats up.
"He does not," I shoot back, starting to get annoyed. "You just don't like anyone who doesn't like you."
He looks down at himself, and then back up. "What's not to like?"
Ignoring him, I grab my wrap top from behind the bathroom door and slip it on, securing it behind my back. After a goodbye shouted as I close the bathroom door behind me, I pick up my leather case as I hear a horn honking outside.
In stockinged feet, I run on tip-toe across the floorboards to the window of the living space and peer around our Christmas tree to the street below. There, pulled up to the kerb fresh from school drop off, is Emily. She waves, and I give a little wave back. After rugging up and dashing downstairs, jamming my feet into my sneakers as I go, I slide into the passenger seat to find her peering through the windshield up at the apartment building—more specifically, the third story windows.
"What are you doing?"
"Just – uh – just checking that your guttering is clear. And the paint on the windows… you know… old buildings..."
I snort. The beautiful, art deco, salmon-pink apartment building that Edward and I have called home for the past five years is in need of a little repair, but I know Emily isn't interested in maintenance. Even the wreaths and lights that its inhabitants have strung everywhere in an attempt to muster Christmas cheer aren't what's got her attention. "Bullshit. Edward's in the shower."
Emily shakes her head as she pulls away from the kerb. "I still can't believe you two haven't kissed."
I set my purse by my feet. "I've known Edward since I was sixteen. He used to snap my bra strap and call me names at school."
"Well, you know what that means…"
A laugh bursts from my lips. "That he secretly likes me? Yeah right, I've heard that one. No, seriously, it's…" I shrug and reach for the radio. "We're just friends."
Emily peers over her sunglasses at me. "But what if you were single?"
"But I'm not."
"But what if you were? You're telling me you wouldn't let him do all sorts of nasty things to you? Cos, girl, I'm married and I sure as hell would."
"Are the kids excited about Christmas?" I ask, changing the subject. "Only one week to go."
Emily takes the bait, just as I knew she would. She's one of the best corporate accountants at our firm, but her kids are her kryptonite. "Yes, so much. Although I have to constantly stop them from breaking into the Advent calendar." She laughs. "I've already busted SJ trying to sneak three candies instead of one."
I laugh. "Growing boys, huh?"
Emily snorts. "Yes, but why'd it have to be three?" Her expression changes a little, and she gives me full Mom-mode. "Are you sure you don't want to come for Christmas Dinner? There's always room for one more…"
With a wave of my hand, I shake my head. "No, really, it's fine. We're doing orphan-Christmas, just like we do every year."
"Oh, Bella," says Emily, sounding concerned. "It sounds—"
"It's okay, really. There's eight of us every year. It's not as desperate as it sounds, I promise. It's just none of us have family nearby."
I shrug, because that's not entirely true. Alice, upstairs, was a foster kid, hopping from house to house when she was younger, and James, who lives downstairs, lost his parents in a car accident. But we all have each other. For one of us to be missing would be… wrong.
Emily reaches over to pat my knee. "Okay, then. The offer is always there."
The rest of the trip to work is taken up with small talk about Christmas, and grumbling that we're both being made to work right up to Christmas Eve. When we arrive at the parking lot beneath our office building, I change out of my flats and into ridiculously high heels, which tend to be the uniform of choice for female corporate accountants. I want to kneecap the person who decided this should be the case. Or make the bastard walk a mile in my shoes.
It's ten o'clock when Edward first texts me. I'm in a meeting with a client and one of the partners of the firm, and already wishing for the day to be over.
Have you seen my glasses?
I stifle a snort. You don't need glasses. Fucking hipster.
My phone vibrates a second later. They help me think.
You need all the help you can get.
You might want to watch that smart ass. It'll get spanked.
Without my permission, my cheeks flush a little. My mind wanders, trying to come up with a witty retort, but I've got nothing. I'm still fumbling for an answer when my boss interrupts. "Miss Swan, do you have the high-level figures for the last quarter?"
I'm jolted back into reality. I tap at the keyboard in front of me to bring up a bunch of charts on the projector, and do what I do best. "Yes. As you can see…"
I manage to mostly ignore my phone's constant buzzing, but I know it catches the attention of my colleague more than once because at the end of the meeting, he sends me back to my office to follow up on my "urgent business" while he sees the client out.
The first half dozen or so are from Edward. I can ignore most, because I know that's what he does when writers block takes its hold—he fires random shit at me until inspiration strikes again. I'm used to it. There's also one completely out of left field from Jasper asking if I'd know where to find a Turducken—whatever the fuck that is. The last is from Ben, and it brings a smile to my face.
Lunch? I'm buying.
I grin as I tap out a reply, telling him I'll meet him in the cafeteria.
I'm touching up my lipstick when Emily asks, "Hot date?"
"Ben," I reply with a smile. "He's buying me lunch."
"Oooh," she says, and then she tilts her head, studying me. "Wait—he's buying?"
"Yeah," I reply, popping my lipstick back into my purse and standing up.
"That's a first," I hear her mutter, and then louder, "Have fun!"
I give her a little wave and make my way to the elevator. When I reach the cafeteria, Ben is already waiting, seated at a table near the back. With a big smile, I head in his direction. He stands, but his smile looks forced.
"Hey," I say as I reach him. I tilt my head up for a kiss, and he leans in to kiss me chastely on the cheek.
"Hi," he replies, gesturing to the empty seat.
As I sit, I study his face. He seems standoffish, even more so than his normal arty aloofness. There are flecks of green paint in his hair, and blue beneath his ear, which I notice as he turns to order a burger from the server. I ask for a turkey salad on rye, and reach for Ben's hand. They're paint free, and his nails are clean and… well… manicured.
How did I not notice this before?
"How's your day?" I ask, turning to small talk.
He shrugs, screwing up his top lip. The conversation is stilted as we compare mornings, and it's not until I'm halfway through my sandwich that he abruptly wipes his hands on his napkin and sets it beside the plate.
"Bella," he says, his voice shaky. "I…" he lets out a long breath before, "I don't think we should see each other anymore."
I pause, my mouth open and my sandwich in mid-air. "You what?"
Now that the first words have come out, the rest seem to come in a rush. "We're just so different, you know? I mean, you're all"— he waves his hand around, indicating the cafeteria full of suits— "and I'm, you know, not. I mean, I'm an artist. I thought it could work but…"
I stare at him, slowly resting the remainder of my sandwich on my plate. "But what?"
He's starting to look really uncomfortable. "But you're… we're…" He clears his throat, and picks up his napkin, wringing it between his fingers.
Damn, they really are girly.
"You know what?" I say, standing and collecting my purse. "Just forget it." I'm annoyed, and I'm embarrassed. I've just been dumped on my lunch hour, in a room full of my colleagues. Combined with the sound of Christmas carols being piped throughout the cafeteria, my nerves are frayed. I want to get out of here and back to my desk...or better yet, home, with a bottle of red wine and a pint of ice cream.
He stands too, an expression on his face that could only be called pity. "Oh, Bella. I'm so sorry."
"Whatever." I fumble with the clasp on my purse, not making eye contact. The last thing I want is his pity.
His tone is so nauseatingly apologetic it's making me even more irritated. "It's my muse," he splutters. "I just don't think… I mean… it's almost like being with you has made it" —he scratches his head with his girly fingers—"constipated or something. Nothing flows."
"Your what?" I say with a shriek, a little louder than I intended, because seriously, that's got to be the worst break up line ever. "I make you constipated?"
"Not me," he says hastily as I turn on my heel and make for the door. "My muse."
"Unbelievable," I mutter, still walking, and studiously avoiding eye contact with a gaggle of girls from HR.
"Bella, wait!" He calls after me, and I stop. The diners nearby murmur to each other and watch the spectacle unfold. I try to ignore them and keep the mortification at bay. I fold my arms across my chest as he speaks again. "I'm, um..." He fans out his wallet. "I seem to be a bit short..."
He can't be serious.
He shuffles awkwardly in his chair.
Oh my God, he's serious.
Huffing, I stride towards the table with feigned defiance. I'm grateful that I never left anything of mine at his place, nor let him leave anything at mine, because now I never have to see him again. Reaching into my purse, I find enough to cover my own meal, and I toss the bills on the table.
"Merry fucking Christmas, asshole,"
"On the house."
With a rap of his knuckles against the bar, Jasper slides a shot of something clear towards me. I eye it momentarily, but when he nods his head toward it impatiently, I throw it back, wincing as the tequila burns my throat.
"Thanks," I croak, coughing.
"A week out from Christmas," muses Rose, her long finger circling the rim of her beer bottle. "What an asshole."
"That's what I said!" Crap. That came out much louder than I'd anticipated. I flush, embarrassed—tequila was a bad choice. "That's...yeah. He's an asshole," I reply, regulating my voice a little better.
I can already feel the alcohol warming my blood, pooling in the base of my stomach, where it curdles with the acidic feeling of being dumped the week before Christmas. I slump a little lower in my bar seat, resting my head against my hand. As soon as Alice heard the news, she'd been on the phone to Rose, and then to Vic, and then there we were an hour later, holed up at Bar Humbug, our local haunt.
James and Alice are playing pool nearby, sharing the only pool cue and doing their best to avoid the spots of ripped felt on the table. Threadbare silver and gold tinsel hangs from the light above them—a lame attempt at decorating the grungy bar for the holidays.
"Hey, lovers." Victoria slides onto a barstool with the gracefulness of a cat. "What are we drinking?"
"Tequila," responds Jasper from the other side of the bar. He pours one for himself and tosses it down, barely wincing as the empty glass hits the bar.
"Ooh," says Vic, tapping long, scarlet nails on the shiny bar top. "Who got dumped?" She tosses her red hair over one shoulder. "Or who dumped who?"
Rose responds before I can. "Bella did. By Ben."
"Good fucking riddance," says Vic with a shrug. When Rose tilts her head at her, she continues. "What? He was too square for Bella."
Sighing, I rap my knuckles against the bar, signaling for another shot.
"Edward!" I wobble a little in my seat, but hold my arms out, righting myself before I slide right off.
The smell of cold, wintery air clings to him, and his nose is tipped-pink. He's still wearing his damned glasses, too, the dark rims stark against his pale skin. He tries to hide his smirk, but fails as he looks down at the line of empty shot glasses in front of me. Picking one up, he gives it a sniff, wincing. "Who gave her tequila?"
Alice snorts. "We gave her the first one—the last four are on her."
I feel myself drift sideways, and with a thump I land on Vic, my head on her shoulder. Laughing, she throws her arm around me as I snuggle in, inhaling the scent of tea roses and vanilla.
"Sorry, hun," she says, setting me up properly again. "You're cute, but those days are behind me. James is man enough."
Still at the pool table, James fist pumps the air. "Hell yeah!"
My head spins a little, but I giggle. Edward laughs throatily as he slides into the chair beside me where Rose had been moment earlier. "She's reached the frisky stage, has she?"
Rose laughs, shaking her head as she plops into a seat further down. "You know what she's like with tequila."
Edward mutters under his breath, and it sounds something like, "Do I ever."
That just makes me giggle again. He looks over, eyes shining behind the fake lenses in his glasses. "Something funny?"
"I got dumped." I press my bottom lip out, slouching a little. Repeating it doesn't make it sting less.
"Good," says Edward. When I look at him, my mouth agape, he tries to cover his ass. "Not that you got dumped. Good that that loser is out of the picture. Because face it—" He leans closer, until I think I can feel his breath on my top lip when he speaks, "—he was a loser."
I blink a couple times, and I try to think of something witty, but it's hard because my head is spinning and my mouth watering from the smell of gingerbread and whiskey on Edward's breath. The best I can do is, "Yeah. A losing loser who... loses."
Edward nods slowly, and he's smirking again. "Profound. Mind if I use that?"
"Do it," I say, tapping the bar again. Jasper shakes his head, and makes a slashing motion across his throat. I'm drunk, but even I know that means enough is enough. I sigh, and my body all but collapses as I try to stand up. "I wanna go home now."
"Okay," says Edward, catching my arm. "Let's go."
The night air is frigid and the ground is covered in a light dusting of snow. My legs wobble as I hit a patch of ice on the road, and Edward and I both laugh as I right myself. His hand is warm against my lower back. Comforting.
"No, no," I slur, waving a hand in his direction. "I got this. I can do it."
Shaking his head, Edward smiles, gesturing to the two flights of stairs ahead of us. "Be my guest."
Flicking my very loose ponytail over my shoulder with some drunken sass, I start up the first flight, using the wall and balustrade to hold myself steady. It's slow going, but the whole time Edward is behind me, guiding me, the fingers of his right hand pressed gently to my lower back. "Careful," he insists, his hands coming to rest on both hips as I stub my toe and almost fall forward face-first.
"Always am," I shoot back.
At the first landing I'm puffing like I've run a marathon and the exertion has my head spinning. "Stairs are—," leaning forward, I rest my hands on my knees, trying to catch my breath "—stairs are hard," I say, saving myself as I list to the side a little.
"That's what she said," Edward mutters from behind me.
For some reason, I find that more hilarious than I normally would, and my voice echoes off the solid walls of the stairwell. "And that's what I did said!"
"Aaaand we've reached the stage where you start butchering the English language." Edward grabs me again, but I bat him away.
"I can do this," I say indignantly. I might not be able to hold a relationship, but I can climb a flight of fucking stairs. It's after I trip, landing on my hands and knees on the staircase, that Edward sounds like he's had enough.
"Do you want help or not?" Edward asks.
Standing up straight—or as straight as possible—I lean in close enough to see my reflection in his glasses. "No."
Sighing, Edward rolls his eyes. "Go on then."
Turning to face the second flight, I realize that there's no way my wobbly legs will take me up another set of stairs. So instead, I bend down, I stick my ass in the air, slap my hands against the stairs, and half crawl half walk up.
"See?" I say. "Easy peasy."
"Oh, for fuck's sake," Edward says, but not before I've struck quite a rhythm and made it to the next landing.
"Hey!" I shriek as he suddenly upends me, setting me over his shoulder. "Put me down!"
He ignores me, and I open my eyes, looking down to where we've come from, immediately regretting it.
"Ohhhhhh my god," I say. "That's a looong way down…"
"Isabella, don't you dare throw up down my back," Edward practically growls.
"But it's so farrr," I slur. "Soooo farrrr."
"We're almost there," he says, and the bumping motion combined with being upside down makes the blood rush to my head.
"Wait!" I interrupt. "Have we passed Mrs. Cope's apartment yet?"
Edward doesn't even sound puffed. It must be all the running he does. "We're there now."
"Is her mistletoe still there?" I ask, referring to the sprig that our randy, almost-elderly neighbor-across-the-hall strings up each year in the hope that she'll catch the pizza guy, or the cable guy...or Edward.
"Yeah, it's there."
"Stop!" I shout. "Stop, stop, stop!"
Edward doesn't answer me straight away, but he brings us to a standstill. "Why?"
I manage to get the words out before I dissolve into an uncontrollable fit of giggles. "So you can kiss my ass!"
I'm still laughing as Edward sighs deeply, and turns to our door. Somehow, he manages to unlock it and get us inside. He's still carrying me as we pass our tree, and I smile happily when I notice that he remembered to turn the lights on before he came out tonight.
"You remembered the lights," I say, and I yawn.
"Of course I did," he says. He continues into the hallway, and stops at the bathroom, flicking the light on as we enter. He sits me down on the closed toilet lid, and I sway gently. Suddenly there's a toothpaste-laden toothbrush thrust in front of me. "Brush," he says simply, and then he leaves the room. I oblige, and avoid looking at the mirror and the mess that my makeup has likely become. I figure I'll deal with the train wreck that is my life in the morning.
When I open the bathroom door, Edward is waiting for me. It takes me a bit by surprise, and I look up at him. He's staring back, all summer-blue eyes and sympathy, and all I can say is, "I got dumped. Less than a week before Christmas. Dumped."
"I know," he says, and because he's my best friend he doesn't need to say anything else. He slides his arm around me and guides me toward my room, where I plonk myself heavily on the bed. He doesn't leave, but he crouches down in front of me, and his gaze meets mine. I'm feeling drunk and lonely, and, to be honest, a bit horny, so seeing him like this brings up a swirly mixture of emotions.
"Will somebody ever love me?" I ask, the words falling out in an oozy mess.
Edward shifts his concentration to my boot, and he slowly draws the zipper downward. "Yes."
"Will they expect me to be somebody different?" I ask as he slips the boot from my foot, revealing a red, reindeer-decorated sock.
He shakes his head slightly. "No."
"Do you think there's somebody for everyone?"
Edward slides the other zipper down. He pauses a beat, but nods. "Yeah." I watch him remove my other boot and set it neatly next to the first, right beside my bed. "Scoot back," he says.
"I can't sleep in my clothes," I mumble, rapidly losing the last of the thoughts that make any sense.
I wriggle out of my jeans, pulling my socks off in the process. When I reach down to pull my shirt off over my head, Edward stills my hand with his. "Can you stop trying to take your clothes off, please?"
Lifting it up a little to expose my stomach, I try my best to copy his well-worn smirk. "Do you want to do it instead?" He stares at me for a moment, making me squirm. He's never looked at me like this before. I like it. It makes my pulse beat harder and my head spin.
Groaning, he tips his head back, his eyes fixed on the ceiling. I watch the long line of his neck, his throat constricting as he swallows thickly. With a sigh, he looks down, shaking his head. "Not tonight. Just get under the covers, will you?"
I wriggle back under the covers, tucking them up beneath my chin. The room spins for a moment, but my bed is just so comfortable, I can't help but close my eyes. When I open them, Edward is on the mattress beside me.
"For what it's worth," he says softly, his hand brushing my cheek gently. "It's his loss."
His touch is warm and soft against my skin, and so, feeling brave, I press my lips to his open palm.
Edward leans closer, and just like before, his breath tickles my skin. He's really, really close. It doesn't feel weird. I don't feel like I'm doing something wrong. It feels like what should happen next is natural. Like it's meant to be. I let my eyes drift shut as I wait for our lips to touch.
But all I get is the smell of whiskey and sweet gingerbread as he sighs against my lips. "Fuck."
Somewhere, far away, I hear his voice whisper a goodnight, and a heartbeat later I'm fast asleep.
It feels like just a moment later that the side of my bed dips as Edward sits gently.
"How you feeling?"
All I can do is groan.
He chuckles, deep and low. "That good, huh?"
"Mmm." My lips stick together as I try to speak. "Whose idea was tequila?"
Edward laughs properly now, shaking the bed in the process. "Yours apparently. You'd finished almost half a bottle before I got there."
Just the thought of alcohol sends a wave of nausea rolling through me, and the feeling sends me flying upwards, my hand cupped over my mouth.
"Fuck. You gonna hurl?" says Edward, reeling backward. "Bella?"
I nod my head, feeling a cold sweat gather at the back of my neck.
"Shit," he spits, searching my bedroom floor for a towel or a bucket or something.
Still covering my mouth, I throw back the covers and run into the bathroom, where I spend the next twenty minutes emptying my stomach and crying. By the time I'm finished I'm a sticky, puffy, snotty mess. Edward is leaning against the wall outside the bathroom when I finish, his arms crossed over his chest. A dozen emotions flicker in his eyes before he settles on something that looks like sympathy.
He sighs, tucking me beneath his arm. "Don't cry. You know I can't handle it when you cry."
I sniffle, patting balled up toilet paper against my puffy eyes. "I'm not crying anymore."
He lets me bury my face into his shoulder, where I close my eyes and breathe in the comforting smell that lingers on his skin. Sighing, I let the feel of his arms around me relax my muscles and clear my mind.
"You wanna talk about it?" he asks quietly, and I know that even though he thought Ben was an ass, and even though he thinks I'm better off, he'll still sit and listen patiently if I want to cry about it. Maybe it's the hangover, but with my head pressed against Edward's chest, listening to the steady beat of his heart, I can't find it in me to talk about Ben. Or his girly hands.
"Did you go for a run already?" I ask, resting my chin on his chest.
He looks down at me nodding, and the proximity of his mouth to mine makes my stomach tighten. I'm not sure where it comes from, but I'm suddenly overcome with the urge to lift onto my tiptoes and press my lips to his.
Memories, or parts of them anyway, come flashing back. "Did we… Did we do anything last night?" I clear my throat. "You and me?"
"Oh." I pull the sleeves of my sweater down and over my hands, clasping them in front of me. I don't know if I'm relieved or disappointed. I guess I'd always hoped that I'd remember kissing Edward if it ever happened.
Not that that I've thought about it...much.
I take a little step back, desperate to put a little distance between us before I do something crazy. I'm about to brush it off, put it down to tequila-brain, when I look up and there it is; the smirk that Edward wears so well, lifting one side of his mouth. "Almost."
"Almost?" I squeak. "What's almost?"
Letting go of me completely, Edward steps back, crossing his arms over his chest. I do the same, but only because without my arms around him, I'm not sure what to do with them.
"You don't remember?"
Chewing on the inside of my cheek, I shake my head. I don't know why I lie. I remember every second. But in the cold light of a hangover I don't know what to do about the swell of feelings I'm experiencing. Right now I'm thinking about vomiting again. Or laughing. Or crying. Possibly all of the above.
Edward takes a deep breath, his chest broad against the underside of his shirt. He shakes his head. "You know you can't lie to me, right?" His words are a little clipped, but there's still a hint of a smile on his face.
I press a clammy hand against my traitorously pink cheeks. "Yeah. I know."
Edward tugs me forward by the material of my sweater. We've been this close a hundred times before, but something in his eyes and in the heavy thump of my heart against my ribs tells me this is different.
"I want you, Bella."
He says it so quietly that for a moment I wonder if I've misheard him. The words send a flash of heat up into my cheeks and across the back of my neck. "You do?"
He nods, lifting his hand to rest it gently against my cheek. "I always have. But I want you whole. I want you to kiss me—," my heart skitters erratically as he leans in, his lips parted, "—the way I want to kiss you."
For the second time in twelve hours I feel like my knees are going to collapse beneath me. I want him to kiss me so badly I can barely breathe.
"I want you to kiss me because you want to, not because you're drunk," he says, his green eyes focused on mine so intently I'm afraid to blink. "I want you. But you have to want me, too."
"I—" I swallow, my throat suddenly dry.
He presses his lips softly, so so softly, to the corner of my mouth, and it feels like the blood stills in my veins.
"Just think about it," he says, releasing me as he steps away.
For the remainder of the weekend, when I'm not suffering from the world's worst hangover, I'm in a daze. Which is probably a good time to be that way, because Edward is barely around to see me stumble my way through the weekend. He spends the entire time holed up in his room, and through the closed door, I can hear the frantic clacking of his old typewriter.
I wasn't joking when I said I'd known Edward for most of my life. We'd been friends through high school and college, and when it came time to find a place to live we hadn't thought twice about finding somewhere together. Everything with Edward has always been easy, like breathing, and now things are upside down and inside out, and instead of being scared there's this bubbling in the pit of my stomach that can only be described as excitement. It feels like a film has been peeled back from my vision and all of a sudden I can see clearly.
The list of expectations that I've had for my ex-boyfriends, all of which they inevitably never live up to, they're all Edward. I feel stupid for not having seen it sooner. I've been so desperately seeking that one perfect guy, when he's been standing right here the whole time.
I watch as he kicks around the kitchen on Monday morning, still wearing yesterday's clothes as he drops two pieces of bread in for me while he reads the paper. I can hear the music from his iPod from across the room, and he's got those stupid glasses on while he reads the paper. I watch as he wipes a smear of peanut butter from the corner of his mouth, his brows puckered into a frown as he reads. I'm not sure what I want to kiss more—his mouth that tastes like peanut butter, or the wrinkle between his brows.
He looks up as I approach, still chewing on his breakfast. He pulls his earphones out. "You leaving early?"
I nod. "I have an early meeting." I have to hide my head in the fridge as I lie. I can't tell him that the idea of seeing him undressed in the bathroom is more than I can deal with at the moment. "Did you sleep at all last night?" I call from behind the door.
"Nah," he says, sounding vacant. "I was on a roll." He watches as I sit opposite of him at the table. "Are you still coming to dinner tonight?" he asks, grabbing a knife as I pass him the butter. He sounds clearer now, and he seems totally at ease—like yesterday didn't happen. It sends my thoughts into a tailspin.
"Of course," I say. "I might be a little late though." I'd completely forgotten about dinner with his art school friends.
"S'cool," he says with a shrug, handing me two pieces of toast. "I can wait."
I look up, a piece of toast hanging from my mouth. Our eyes meet and there's a distinct twinkle in Edward's gaze. Swallowing, I nod robotically. "Well, I guess I can try to skip out on my last meeting. It's...err…" I'm frozen still as he reaches out and swipes a spot of butter from my bottom lip with his thumb. "Um…"
My eyes glaze over as he oh-so-casually sticks the thumb between his lips. "...It's not really that important or anything anyway."
The other times I've hung out with Edward's arty friends, I've usually felt a little like an outsider. Once they find out I'm corporate, I tend to get cast aside. But this time feels different—like I belong. Maybe it's got something to do with the way Edward's hand has been resting a half inch above the curve of my ass all night, but tonight I feel like an extension of Edward and, as such, part of the group.
Edward guides me gently toward another guy; goatee, grungy vintage band tee, and ink covering one arm. "Bella, this is Peter, I don't think you guys have met."
I smile, shaking his outstretched hand. "Nice to meet you."
Peter gives Edward a sidelong glance as he grins. "So you're the beautiful Bella we've all heard so much about, huh?"
Heat flushes up my neck, creeping up into my cheeks. I look up at Edward, surprised to see two spots of colour appear on his cheeks also. "Okay, that's enough of Pete," he says, angling me away toward the table. "You want a drink?"
I shake my head as I grimace. "No. I think I'm still recovering."
"Suits me," says Edward, and he snags two bottles of Coke from a bucket of ice. He removes the lid of the first with careful fingers and passes it to me.
With an eyebrow raised, I nod pointedly at the soda. "You either?"
Edward uncaps his own bottle and sends the lid skidding across the table. It spins a little before it comes to a stop. "I can't write drunk."
I laugh a little. "Isn't there a saying about writing drunk?"
He stills his fingers, which have rather distractingly been tracing the curve of the bottle. "Not me. Not for this." Edward leans toward me, like he's about to tell me a secret. He's in my personal space, but I don't feel uncomfortable. I shift closer to him. "I have to do this right. It has to be perfect."
His intensity completely unguards me. It makes the hairs on my arms stand up and my breath catch in my throat. When he reaches out to rest his hand on my hip, his cold fingers a stark contrast against my skin, I pretty much stop breathing altogether.
I suck in a deep breath as Edward turns away, the sudden flood of oxygen making my head spin. From there, the tension that crackles between he and I only intensifies. He spends the whole night beside me, a hand on my back, his arm brushing mine, his presence alone making it hard to hold conversation.
After dinner, we're all seated at a table that's strewn with empty plates and glasses, remnants of dessert sitting half-eaten on our plates, when the woman sitting on Edward's other side leans across to speak to me. "When did you two finally get it together?" she asks, glassy-eyed and red wine-lipped.
Edward turns to me, his head cocked to one side, his eyes dancing.
Staring at the two of them, I open my mouth a few times, trying to formulate a reply that fits.
Sitting back in his seat, Edward slings his arm across the back of my chair in an almost possessive gesture, his fingers drifting softly across my shoulder. "A couple months ago," he says casually. When he makes eye contact with me, it's almost impossible to ignore the mischievous twinkle there...but there's something else, too. "Right, babe?"
Hearing him use a term of endearment for me other than "dude" or "fucker" causes something to rattle in my stomach. "Yeah," I say, a little waver in my voice. "It's been about that long." I feel a bit stronger as I try to play along. "Besides, who's counting?
"Exactly," agrees Edward, and he grins at me. "When you know, you know, right?"
She smiles lazily, raising her glass at us—almost splashing Edward with its contents. "Well you make a lovely couple. Just lovely."
The others agree, and glasses are raised in a toast to happiness, friendship, and to everybody finding love. When Edward's glass clinks against mine he pins me with a gaze that makes me feel like the bottom has fallen out of my stomach. My blood crackles in my veins like popping candy as his eyes sweep over my face, my neck, my décolletage, leaving a scorched skin in their wake. I have to tear my eyes away for fear that I'll burst into flames.
The rest of dinner takes on the same kind of energy-charged foreplay. Edward and I banter back and forth, trying to one-up each other to Edward's friends. It seems like a dangerous game, but it's a game that makes my heart flutter and my cheeks ache from the constant smile I'm wearing. The slightest touches carry the promise of more, and by the time Edward's arm is around me, his thumb ghosting the outside of my breast through the flimsy fabric of my top, I'm about to combust.
He makes me feel brave, and so beneath the tablecloth, I slide a hand onto his thigh. The muscles in his leg tighten beneath his pants as I inch my hand just a little higher. Through a smile, I murmur just loud enough so he can hear, "Don't start something you can't finish."
His eyes darken. "Who says I can't finish? And besides," he whispers against the shell of my ear. "Don't worry. I'll make sure you finish first."
I almost launch myself at him then and there, but the clinking of a glass causes me to tear my attention away from Edward, but only barely. I hear Peter call out to him. "Hey, Edward! Forgetting something?"
I see Edward swallow as he looks at Peter. He's wound up—I can sense it from here. "Forgetting what?"
Peter points above our heads, gesturing to where a sprig of mistletoe that I swear wasn't there earlier hangs. But then again, I haven't been paying much attention to anybody or anything but Edward for the past forty-five minutes. "Go on!" He laughs. "Kiss your girl!"
Edward faces me, and I let my head fall back enough so that our lips are all but lined up. He moves swiftly, but smoothly, and when his mouth touches mine, I let myself be completely swept away. By any standard, the kiss is brief and probably suitable for company, but it signals the start of so much more.
"Wanna go?" Edward asks, and we both know he's asking me for more than just leaving this party.
"Yeah," I reply breathily, and with a goodbye to the others that's barely noticed amongst the merriment, we're in Edward's beaten up old Volvo and gunning it back to our apartment.
My fingers fumble with the door keys as Edward's body is pressed to the back of mine. His lips trail my neck as I finally get the key in the lock and twist it open, pushing the door with a violent shove. I think it slams, but I don't care, because I'm pinned between the wall inside the door and every inch of Edward. His hands are in my hair, and mine are in his, and before I know it, I'm hoisted into the air, my legs wrapped around his waist.
"Apartment," I say between kisses. "Now."
"Fuck yes," he says, and he twists us, climbing the first flight of stairs while I attach my mouth to his neck. I can feel his pulse race against my tongue, and I'm delighted to find it racing just as hard as mine.
The door bangs open and we stumble through, a mess of whispered words and lips against skin. The apartment is dark, save for the twinkling of the lights on our Christmas tree. Without warning he unwraps me from his torso and plops me down onto the sofa. Backlit by the lights, he stands over me, looking down at me as I catch my breath. I can see the indecision warring with lust etched plain as day on his features. He's worried about crossing the line; the line that takes us from best friends to something more. The line that can't be uncrossed. The line that, for me, was obliterated the moment he put his lips against mine.
In an attempt to assuage his fears, I reach out for his hand and tug him down to sit on the sofa beside me. "Jesus," he whispers as I throw one leg over his and straddle his waist. The muscles in his jaw work overtime as I slip my jacket off my shoulders, letting it drop to the floor. I lean forward and he wraps an arm around me, holding me close.
The kiss at the restaurant was just enough to give me a taste, and now, here, I want the real thing. I want it all.
I want Edward.
His lips are so close I can taste his breath. He ghosts them briefly against mine, teasing me, playing with me, killing me. "Ask me to kiss you," he whispers, his thumb brushing my jaw.
"Please, Edward—" My breath still as he pulls me flush against him and I feel him pressed thick and hard against my thigh.
"Beg me," he says, and my insides feel like they're shaking as his strong hands press my hips harder to his. "Beg me to kiss you."
"Kiss me, Edward," I plead, my hands tugging at his t-shirt, urging him closer, rocking my hips into his. "Please."
The kiss is perfect. It's everything I've ever wanted but was too stupid to see. It's lip-bruising and teeth-knocking, open mouthed and insistent. And his hands—oh God, his hands—they're so gentle, so reverent in their touch. The contrast between the two is enough to send me insane.
There's barely enough room between us to move, but somehow, between kisses, the rest of our clothing joins my jacket on the floor until there's nothing between us but thin cotton. After ten years of friendship I thought I'd seen everything Edward had to offer. I'd seen him playful and angry and everything in between. But as he peels away the last layers of my clothing, leaving me completely bare, something new and heart achingly tender is revealed to me.
"Are you gonna be my girl?" he asks beseechingly, his eyes shining with truth and raw hope. "Because this isn't a one-time thing for me, Bella. This is it. You're it."
Reaching up, I push my thumb between his brows, smoothing out the crease that's appeared. "I've always been your girl, Edward. Always." He smiles, and I feel his whole body relax. "It's just taken me a while to realize it. That's all."
His grin is unlike any other I've seen on him. "So you're mine?"
"Yeah." I nod and return his smile. "I'm yours."
He gently sets me on the sofa, and he kisses me again, slower, lazier, like he has all the time in the world. His lips alone have left me shaking and breathless, my body screaming for him to touch me, so when he finally does touch me it's like every nerve ending in my body begins to burn, sending waves of goosebumps over my skin. It's never been like this. I've never felt like this. I can't keep my eyes open. No matter how hard I try and how much I want to watch Edward I can't stop them from drifting closed as my body lights up under his hands.
True to his word, he has me shuddering in his arms moments later; his name whispered into the darkness surrounding us.
As he kisses his way up my stomach, leaving damp trails behind, my body goes soft, my pulse thundering and my thighs shaking. He smirks, kissing the side of my mouth and I can smell myself on his breath. The smell of my arousal sends a shock of lust deep into the pit of my stomach, and I tighten my legs around Edward's thighs. My fingers grip into his shoulders, and I need him closer.
"I want to repay you," I say against his skin, but I feel him shake his head.
"Later," he says. "There's plenty of time."
I answer him with an open mouthed kiss, wanting him to devour me, and me, him. The world slips away, and there's just me, Edward, and a burning need to feel absolutely consumed by him. But when he pulls away, I whimper, which quickly turns into a squeak as he hoists me up until I'm perched in his lap.
"You got a thing for throwing me around?" I ask.
He half-laughs, low and rumbly against my chest. "Girl, you know I want you. But I can't wait any longer. My bed is going to have to wait until next time."
"Okay," I say, and I kiss him fervently. His lips leave mine, and he makes his way to my neck, sucking gently at the soft part below my jaw. My skin feels like it's on fire—burning at his touch. Every part of me that's pressed to him is begging for me to get closer. With another kiss that leaves us both breathless, Edward shifts to reach for his wallet. I grasp his hand. "I'm okay if you are," I tell him.
"I'm so much more that," he replies, and he reaches down to guide me by my hips. When he slips inside, he groans, and he pulls me close so that my body weight presses against him.
"Oh my god," I say, my eyes rolling back. My skin pebbles and the heat at my centre flares. "This is…"
His own breath shaking with barely concealed desire, he presses a kiss to the side of my neck, making me shiver. "So much better than I imagined."
I want to ask him if he ever thought about us...about this...but he lifts me, and then fills me again and I give up wondering and just let myself be swept away.
"I'm sorry," he says, and suddenly I'm tossed onto my back. His body covers mine and he positions himself above me, thrusting again and causing me to moan. "I'll take my time later," he says, his voice strained. "I promise. I just need…"
"Yes," I say, the words coming out with my breath. My entire body feels electrified—every nerve ending is sparking like cheap Christmas lights. "Please...don't stop."
Edward's rhythm quickens, and my eyes drift closed. I'm stirred by his voice, sounding strained, but full of promise. "Open your eyes," he whispers. "I want to see your eyes when you come."
I do as he says, and I'm pinned under his gaze, and under him. I don't want to be anywhere else.
"Fuck," he says, and he slips a hand down between us. His fingers provide just enough pressure, and I fall to pieces moments before he does the same, my name falling from his lips and into my heart. He shifts beside me, pulling the throw rug from the back of the couch, and he wraps me in his arms.
I smile sleepily as he kisses my shoulder, and the lights from our Christmas tree send a warm glow through the room. Not wanting to spoil the moment, I bask in the feeling of being wrapped in him.
In the end, it's him who speaks first, and he only says two words before I drift off to sleep.
I wake with sticky thighs and a crick in my neck, but when I turn to see a sleeping Edward beside me the discomfort melts away. Unfortunately though, it's nearing seven-thirty, and it's Christmas Eve—my last day of work. Leaving him to sleep, I slip into the shower, unable to wipe the smile off my face. It's still there as I brush my teeth. It's still there when I tip-toe across the living room floor, glancing at a still-sleeping Edward.
The smell of coffee must wake him. I'm standing at the huge bay window that overlooks the street, still smiling, my hands wrapped around my favorite reindeer mug. I feel him behind me. The snow outside is thicker, carpeting the ground and blanketing the cars, but his body is warm as he stands close. He's wrapped in the rug, and is too tempting.
"Are those assholes seriously making you work on Christmas Eve?" he asks, his fingers tracing the collar of my white blouse.
"Yeah," I reply, and I'm already considering calling in. "I have to."
Edward makes a sound in protest as he kisses my cheek. He pauses for a moment. "Bella?" I turn in his arms to face him, but he briefly avoids my gaze. "Are we okay?" I open my mouth to reply, but he cuts me off. "Because I meant what I said. I want this. I want you."
I lift myself up onto my tiptoes to kiss him. "We are so much better than okay," I say, and I grin. "We're freakin' perfect."
He chuckles, but his shoulders seem to relax a little. "I'll see you tonight?"
"See you tonight," I echo, and I watch him as he heads for the bathroom. On the way, he drops the rug, and I murmur under my breath. "It's going to be a long day."
There's an unmistakable buzz around the office. People are wearing Santa hats and gaudy earrings, hideous knitted sweaters and Christmas ties. Emily bakes mountains of gingerbread and sugar cookies, and next to no work actually gets done when someone sneaks in some spiked eggnog later in the afternoon.
It's cheerful and festive and happy and all I want to do is get the fuck out of there and go home to Edward.
My phone buzzes again on my desk and I already know who it's from when I pick it up.
I can still taste you on my tongue.
I almost drop my phone. I can feel heat rushing up my neck and into my cheeks.
"Who are you talking to?" asks Emily, sticking her head over the partition between us.
Looking up, I see her eyes narrow as she takes in my appearance. "Oh my god, are you sexting?"
My mouth falls open. "Emily!" I giggle, pressing a finger to my lips. "Can you keep it down?"
"Are you Christmas sexting?" she whispers loudly. "Who's the lucky guy?"
"It's Edward," I admit, rolling my eyes as my cheeks flame ever further. "I'm texting Edward." My phone vibrates again.
I've been hard all day just thinking about it.
For a moment I'm glad I'm sitting down. I squirm in my seat.
Emily rests her chin on her hands, peering down at me. "You finally hit that, huh?" I don't need to respond. Emily sees straight through me. "So how was it? Was it intense? It was good, right?" she gushes, getting all swoony. "You need to tell me all about it. All the gory details."
Thankfully I'm interrupted by the sound of my message tone.
Should I shave my balls for Christmas?
Jasper! I type furiously, shaking my head as I laugh. I am at work! Please stop texting me about your balls.
Emily keeps at it, tossing sly comments filled with innuendo into the rest of our conversations, and I'm so wound up thinking about Edward at home that I'm ready to quit on the spot at three o'clock when one of the partners come on to the main floor. By the sight of his rosy cheeks and the boisterous way he greets us, I'm guessing he hit the spiked eggnog, too.
"Merry Christmas!" he booms. "Now get out of here!"
He doesn't have to tell me twice.
I fall back, spent, on Edward's sheets. He lays beside me, his skin shining and damp. I'm flying too high to care how I look, because the way that Edward makes me feel...surprisingly, I have no words.
"We gotta do that again," I say in between breaths.
He tilts his head slightly to smirk at me. "Give me ten minutes?"
I laugh and roll over to rest my chin on his chest. "Not now. Just...again." I grin. "Many times again."
Edward chuckles, and I feel the vibration. His fingers meet the dip at the base of my spine, and my body shudders as his soft touch drifts up and down the curve.
"I don't know if I'll ever get enough of this," I whisper, turning my head to listen to his heart beat steadily beneath his ribs.
"Suits me fine," Edward says.
I look up, scooting a little closer. "How long?"
He looks down at me, his arm tightening around my waist. "How long have I known, you mean?"
I nod, and he sighs, staring up at the ceiling. "Maybe forever. Maybe since the day we met. I don't know."
"Why didn't you do anything?" I ask.
His nose wrinkles and he shrugs. "Never the right time. When I was single, you weren't. When you were, I was too chicken shit."
I shake my head minutely, half in relief that we finally sorted our shit out, and half in relief that he chose me. I'm about to make a comment about how lucky I feel when something catches my eye across the room. It's a pile of paper, stacked neatly, next to Edward's vintage typewriter.
"What's that?" I say, gesturing with a nod of my head.
Edward follows my gaze before shifting to stare into my eyes. "It's your Christmas present."
"Wait…" Suddenly full of energy, I scramble into a kneeling position. "Is that your manuscript?"
"Yeah," says Edward casually. "Finished it this afternoon." He shifts, sliding smoothly from the bed, stark naked, and collects it. I'm sure I notice his fingers shaking when he passes it to me.
I trace the lettering of the title. Restrung.
"It needs editing, of course," says Edward. "And I'm sure Liam'll wanna have it transcribed into Word, but I think this is it, Bella." He leans forward. "This story's gonna be something. It needs to be told."
I flip to the first page, and tears spring to my eyes. I know this story; I've heard it before. I've lived it before.
"This is us," I whisper.
"It's you," he says simply, honestly. "This is the story of how much I love you."
And although I have always loved Edward, now the words seem so different—they mean so much more, hold so much more weight. "I love you, too."
The next morning Edward and I stumble downstairs for Orphan Christmas. We can hear Vic massacring 'All I Want For Christmas' from the landing. Edward knocks, but pushes the door open anyway. Rosalie looks up from the bowl of cream she's whipping, and her eyes dart between Edward and I a few times. Chuckling to herself, she turns back to the bowl. "It's about fucking time."
Emmett reaches over to dip his finger into the cream, but is met with a sharp slap on the hand. He clutches the hand to his chest, feigning shock. "About time for what?"
Rosalie jerks her head in our direction, and Emmett looks up. His dimples appear as he smiles. "Hell yeah! Finally."
"What finally?" chirps Alice as she enters the apartment behind us, her tiny frame dwarfed by a massive turkey in her arms.
Edward leans in to press a kiss against my temple. "I'll leave you to it."
"Gee, thanks," I deadpan, rolling my eyes, but smiling, as he taps me on the ass lightly.
Alice beams at me over the turkey, her dark eyes shining. "Took you long enough."
I shrug, unable to hide the shit-eating grin that threatens to split my cheeks from ear to ear. "Yeah, yeah. I'm just a little slow off the mark is all."
Rosalie hip-checks me as I pass, smirking at me over her shoulder and still whisking furiously. "Alright, enough fucking around. Grab that bowl of green beans and make yourself useful, Swan."
The tension loosens from my shoulders as I realize that no one really cares that Edward and I are suddenly a thing. No one cares that we've been best friends forever. No one cares because they all saw what I didn't. They knew first what took me years to realize: there's never been anyone for me but Edward. There may never be anyone else. They know it, and now so do I. The revelation feels like a weight has been lifted from my chest. I feel so light I'm afraid I might float away altogether.
Perched at the counter, I set to work and watch the merriment happen around me. We're in Alice and Jasper's place because it's the biggest. Our parties have always been there, and our annual Orphan Christmas always has a great location.
The makeshift table is made from trestles holding up old doors that Alice has decorated with holly, tinsel, and candles. It's a mish-mash of secondhand cutlery and mismatched plates, jam jars full of flowers from her balcony, and serving plates that look approximately thirty years old. I just have to hope that the legs of the table are strong, because between the decorations the table is filled with turkey, ham, mashed and roast potatoes—at James' special request—green beans, pies, Rose's biscuits and gravy, which she insists are called Yorkshire puddings, and countless other dishes.
Glasses are raised, turkey is carved, and we all tease Emmett mercilessly about the hideous knitted sweater that a distant aunt has sent. Edward and I both eat with one hand, keeping the other hidden beneath the table, our fingers intertwined. Surrounded by the people we love, I can't help but feel like it really doesn't get any better than this.
This is it. This is what the Hallmark cards are about. The cheesy made-for-TV movies. It really is about those little moments between opening presents and drinking eggnog until you pass out, the moments of stillness where you realize what's important and what you hold dear.
My heart swells with gratitude until I feel like it's about to burst. Looking around at my friends—my family—I can't help but feel a strong swell of emotion. Beneath the table, as if he can feel every beat of my over-full heart, Edward squeezes my hand. His touch pulls me back into the moment, grounding me. He leans over to kiss me gently on the cheek and the way he looks at me tells me enough—this is our first Christmas together, but it won't be our last.
Far from it.
"Our friends are great," I say as I yawn. I walk slowly but steadily up the stairs, my tummy full of food, and my arms full of leftovers.
"I think you're pretty great," says Edward, and it's all I can do not to swoon and fall right back down to the ground floor. I've never seen Edward like this with anyone, and Emmett, who's known him the second-longest, told me the same thing just this afternoon.
That made me smile.
"Here we are," he says, pausing outside our door. "Home sweet home."
I giggle. "You say that like we've travelled for miles. We walked upstairs.."
He grins, shifting the Tupperware container Alice thrust at us that's filled with pie and who-knows-what other desserts. "It's nice to come home though...you know." He looks at me intensely. "With you."
Something seems to grab his attention somewhere up over my right shoulder, and his brow furrows, but it's only brief. Moving quickly, he reaches up to grab Mrs. Cope's mistletoe and yanks it from its hook. He turns to look at me, a cheeky grin on his face. "I think I'll bring it with me," he says. "Hang it over the foot of your bed."
"The foot?" I ask. "Why would you want to hang it over—" It dawns on me as I remember the way he yanked me across the sheets, legs spread, and he knelt before me and loved me until I couldn't see straight. A rush of heat floods through me, sending tingles between my legs and causing my nipples to harden. "Oh!"
Edward grins as he reaches around me with his free hand, unlocking the front door and holding the mistletoe above us. He smiles as he leans in for a kiss.
"Merry Christmas, girl."
I smile, warm with eggnog and love for this boy who wears fake glasses and has calluses on his fingers from hours at a clunky old typewriter—the one he spent hours putting his love for me into words, words that I have no doubt will end up clad in a dust-cover someday.
"Merry Christmas, Edward," I say, and I kiss him right back.
Thank you for reading.