A Snowfall Kind of Love
Summary: There's one thing on my grown-up Christmas list, and while it includes a number of specifics in varying degrees of dirtiness, it really all boils to the one thing I've wanted for a year and a half: a do-gooder with unruly hair and a Mister Rogers sweater, and a lifetime of nights that would land me squarely on the naughty list.
Disclaimer: They're still not mine. I still like to pretend otherwise.
A/N: This is unbetaed, because life with three kids under five means I'm very nearly always flying by the seat of my pants, and as a result, I'm posting as I write. (gulp) That doesn't mean HollettLA isn't still my number one lady (especially when she sends me pictures of dessert). Please be forgiving of the mistakes.
ALSO, I haven't logged into my FFnet account in eons, so I'm about a billion years behind in replying to messages. My apologies; I will catch up eventually. In the meantime, thanks, as always, for being awesome.
Happy December. xo
(Twenty-four days until Christmas)
When I was seven, all I wanted for Christmas was a Barbie Dream House. Jessica Stanley had been on and on about the Barbie Dream House she was getting since well before Halloween, and to my seven-year-old brain, anything that Jessica Stanley wanted had to be the height of cool. She had an entire shelf of pink plastic baskets filled with Barbie dolls and a small chest of drawers for the thousands of tiny accessories that went with them. Jessica Stanley's bedroom was Barbie's dream house, but that didn't stop her parents from bestowing upon her the real deal. And despite the fact that that year my dad had been working extra shifts at the police station just to pay the bills, on Christmas morning, there was a Barbie Dream House beneath the tree in our living room.
When I was eleven, it was a new bike. Not just any new bike, but a BMX stunt bike just like the one Tyler Crowley had, and rode to jump off the top of the concrete stairs outside the library and pop wheelies over curbs all over town. Charlie wasn't wild about the idea of his daughter riding a stunt bike, but on December 25, there was a girls' BMX Mongoose propped up next to the fireplace with a big red bow on the handlebars.
When I was sixteen, it was a car. I assured my father that I wasn't picky; I just wanted something that could get me around town so that I wasn't solely reliant on him to chauffeur me. I told him I'd saved enough to contribute, but he waved me off, and when I woke up Christmas morning, there was a secondhand red Volkswagen Cabriolet parked in the driveway.
As it turned out, it was the last Christmas gift my father ever gave me.
Which is all by way of saying that despite the fact that my life hasn't always panned out quite the way I hoped, my dreams have always had a way of coming true at Christmas. That said, it's been years since I made a Christmas wish. And back when I was in the habit of making them, I was also largely in the habit of believing in Santa Claus.
But then, in the wake of my sixteenth Christmas, I realized the truth behind the truth: the magic I'd spent years believing in wasn't Santa, but Charlie. The magic I'd put all my hope and faith in hadn't been a myth, but a man. A man who loved me, a man who never let me down, a man who always gave me as much magic as was in his power to give.
Maybe that's the point of this whole thing: not Santa, not flying reindeer, not presents. Maybe the whole point is where we find magic – real magic – when we look past the supernatural. Maybe, if we're honest, the reality is even more magical than the myth.
Or maybe I'm just grasping at tinsel because this is the first time since I was sixteen that I've wanted something desperately enough to wish for a miracle.
The wind is biting as I rush across campus, its icy fingers winding through my hair and sliding down the back of my neck, chilling my skin through layers of clothing. I hug my down-filled jacket around my body and duck my head in a vain attempt to shield my face from the blustery weather. Despite my efforts, I feel tears pricking at my eyes, and I have no doubt that my nose could give Rudolph's a run for its money. It's officially December, and while the weather has already been seasonally cold, we have yet to see a single flake of snow. My fellow students at Logan University are getting antsy to sled or have snowball fights on the quad – or in one particular fraternity's case, make naked snow angels in the grassy square outside the library.
It's difficult to believe that in a few short weeks, this part of my life will be a memory, a line item on my resume, a tidbit of my personal history. For the first time in my life, I will cease to be a student. The umbrella of education – no matter how small in diameter or how illusory – will fold itself up and expose me to the harsher elements of the so-called real world: a job (God willing), a "real" life, the onset of my student loan payments. I'll have a master's degree, and I'll join the tide of people trying to shove a toe into the doorjamb of the workforce. Normally, by this time of year, all real-life minutiae has faded to the background, eclipsed by Christmas carols and gift-shopping and house-decorating. This year, however, the vast ambiguity that is my near future has given birth to a niggling anxiety that tempers my usual yuletide excitement. All I want for Christmas is a Plan A.
A job. A guarantee. A little bit of certainty.
Still, I can't deny that the magic of the season is infecting me with more than a little bit of hope. Perhaps, just perhaps, the gods of holiday hope will smile down upon me, and I'll get everything I want.
Well, probably not everything.
A bark of laughter draws my attention to a cluster of undergrads across the quad, stringing lights around the glorified shrub that serves as the campus holiday tree in preparation for tomorrow's tree-lighting ceremony. The female students seem to be doing the majority of the stringing, however, while their male counterparts seem more intent on wrapping each other up like festive mummies. I smile into the collar of my coat. The yuletide energy that surges through a college campus in the weeks leading up to the winter holiday is infectious. Granted, a large part of it is the pending cessation of everything academic – classes, papers, finals – but there's still an undeniably "holiday" element to it: the tree-lighting, the Toys for Tots box inside the door of the student union building, the community service office's endless push for recruits to work at some of the local soup kitchens over the holidays. It's impossible not to catch the fever of the season. A familiar head of dark hair catches my eye as a tall figure steps through the doors of the main administrative building, and I duck my head, quickening my stride in an attempt to reach the corner before he's close enough to call out. I don't know how long the post-relationship awkward phase is supposed to last, but I don't have it in me to bumble through another half-hearted attempt at casual, friendly conversation today. Especially not in the middle of an arctic wind tunnel.
Another icy blast cuts through my coat, my pants, my everything, and I shiver, all of my muscles going rigid in an attempt to thwart the cold's attempts to seep to my very bones. Despite my love of the holidays, I have considerably less affection for the weather that accompanies them. After two and a half years in Chicago, I'm still not quite acclimated to the bitter wind that slices through me no matter how many layers or how thick a coat I'm wearing. Forks was damp and cold, Seattle was gray and chilly, but nothing has ever frozen me all the way through quite like Chicago's winters do. A small part of me wishes that I had listened to Lauren when she waxed poetic about the sandy beaches and warm sunshine of Florida's gulf coast, and part of me wishes I'd taken her advice and opted to do my graduate degree somewhere sunnier.
But then, of course, I might not have figured out that I wanted to specialize in counseling at-risk youth. I wouldn't have spent three incredible semesters working at Grove House. I'd never have had the opportunity to work with Edward Cullen, my brilliant, beautiful, slightly tormented, eternally oblivious supervisor.
I wouldn't have fallen in love with the one man who doesn't, won't, can't love me back.
Merry freaking Christmas.
The heater in my beat-up clunker of a vintage Volkswagen is barely providing more warmth than my own exhalations, and I'm just about frozen through by the time I pull it into the long driveway of Grove House, my fingers stiff around the steering wheel despite the fact that I'm still wearing my mittens. Killing the engine, I peer up at the building before me. A gorgeous renovated Queen Anne-style house the color of vanilla custard with gleaming white trim, it looks like just the type of house that would star it its own holiday film. In the movie world, it would be the home of a beautiful family of six that has matching cable-knit Christmas stockings hanging over the fireplace and drinks steaming mugs of cocoa before bed, all piled like puppies on a sofa with a plaid blanket draped over their laps while they read The Night Before Christmas together. In the real world, it's a home for kids with nowhere else to go. There are no parents tucking them in at night; instead, there's the house's director – a beautiful, brilliant man with his own ghosts – and a small full-time staff of sorts that includes a pair of night security guards, a cook-slash-housekeeper, and me – intern extraordinaire. Still, every time I pull into the driveway, I let myself spend a few seconds imagining a different life for the house. The thought doesn't escape me that the teenage boys inside likely find themselves imagining similar things, not only for the house but for themselves.
The small key-code entry box next to the front door is the only thing that doesn't quite match the house's otherwise traditional exterior, and I punch in the four-digit code with my frozen fingers, stepping through the front door to be enveloped by a wall of heat. The warm blast from the pumping radiators makes me shiver in anticipation of the coming thaw of my bones, and I flex my frozen fingers inside my sadly inadequate mittens, wincing at the ache that precedes the thaw. The low sound of the television hums from the direction of the living area, and when I peek into the room I see Seth and James lounging on the couch watching an action movie. Jake is sprawled in an armchair with a magazine, and the newest addition to the house, Riley, is frowning down at a notebook. Not wanting to disturb them, I shrink back and make my way toward the office at the front corner of the house. The wooden floorboards creak beneath my feet in announcement of my approach, and by the time I arrive on the threshold, Edward's looking up in expectation. As always, my heart gives a pleased little skip at the warm smile on his face.
"Hey," I say, shrugging out of my coat and unwinding the purple scarf from around my neck.
"Hey there, Michelin Man," he replies, watching from between stacks of papers as I drape the puffy coat over the coat stand behind the office door. I roll my eyes at the familiar jibe; Edward always gives me shit about my coat.
"The Michelin Man was white, jackass." He pushes his wire-rimmed reading glasses up his forehead and into his unruly hair before raising an eyebrow in the direction of my outerwear. "That's cream," I inform him, but I don't know why I bother – it won't do any good.
"Whatever you say," he says with a half-shrug, eyes twinkling. "You look like a marshmallow puff."
"Yeah, well, you look like Mister Rogers," I reply, shooting a pointed look at his gray v-neck sweater, and he chuckles. I'd never admit to the truth of the fact that his elbow-patched sweaters have become appealing to the point of alluring, and I've spent more than one night imagining sliding my hands beneath them, up over the planes of his warm chest, feeling his heat – his heart – beneath my palms.
I cross the small room toward where my small desk sits next to the corner window. Prior to its rebirth as a group home, this particular house was a residence, and it doesn't take much deductive skill to work out that the room Edward selected for his office was at one time a library of sorts. The walls are lined with built-in floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, and the wall opposite the window boasts a small fireplace. There's a window seat that Edward has repurposed for storage – "storage" meaning a place for more towers of paper – and bright winter light pours through the windows.
Dropping into my desk chair, I cup my hands around my travel mug in an attempt to warm them. I need to buy better gloves. And a better travel mug, come to think of it. "What are you doing?" I ask, trying to catch a glimpse of whatever's sitting on the desk in front of him.
"Just finishing up the schedule for the rest of December," he says, lowering his head once again and returning the glasses to his nose. "I wasn't sure what your travel plans were for the holidays."
"I don't have any. Staying local."
"What days do you want off?"
"Doesn't matter. I'm happy to help as much as you need it."
"What am I going to do without you next year?" he muses.
"I guess you should make it a priority to find another intern with absolutely no social life to speak of," I suggest lightly, despite the small tug I feel somewhere deep in my chest.
A faint smile pulls at the corner of his mouth, though his eyes stay on his desk. "Speaking of which, we should probably talk about that, too. Hang on."
I stay silent as he frowns down at the schedule; I can see from the color-coding that he's scheduled himself to work every single day this month, including Christmas. No surprise there. Taking advantage of his momentary distraction, I consider him: the sharp angles of his face, the barely-corralled revolt of his hair, the smooth curve of his neck. After adding a few more light notes in pencil to various squares on the calendar grid, he drops the writing utensil and leans back in his chair, pushing his glasses back up to the top of his head and swiping his eyes with his thumb and forefinger.
"What days are you taking off?" I ask pointedly, and as a reward I'm treated to one of his trademark grins.
"I know you graduate mid-month, but you're welcome to stick around through the holidays," he says, bypassing my question entirely. "We'll keep you as long as you'll let us."
The smile on my face is purposely open, and I swallow the burning question that's been nagging at me with increasing ferocity as the days tick by. I get my master's degree in less than three weeks, I've been working at the group home for a year and a half, and not once has Edward put voice to the possibility that I can stay on after I'm done. That he wants me to stay on after I'm done. "You've got me until January," I say. "Hopefully at that point I'll find someone who actually wants to pay me to put up with him."
The grin graduates to a chuckle. "Bella, we're a non-profit; I'd never be able to pay anyone to put up with the array of bullshit I'm capable of producing."
The self-deprecation is familiar, and I frown at him slightly before shrugging. "That's probably true. You really are quite infuriating."
"You have no idea how many women have said those exact words to me."
"I do recall in rather clear detail hearing Kate scream something along those lines at you in the driveway," I remind him, and he groans.
"I'm never going to live that down, am I?"
"You're awfully cocky for someone whose boyfriend showed up to your place of employment with a boom box and gifted you with a drunken curbside serenade of 'In Your Eyes'."
"Are we really going to go down the list? Because we both know I have more ammunition on you than you could even dream up for me."
He holds up his hands in mock surrender. "Uncle."
"Thought so." I take a sip of my coffee and lick my lips. "What's on today's agenda?"
"We need to reschedule the assault advocate for next week, bed linens and towels need to be washed, and Shelly called in – her husband is sick – so we have to figure something out for dinner tonight. She said she left all of the fixings for chili in the fridge, but I've never made it before, so I don't know if we want to risk it."
"I make a mean chili," I tell him. "Put that on my plate. You can call the assault advocate and handle the laundry."
I nod, rising from my chair. "I meant what I said," I say, gesturing toward his schedule. "Put me in wherever. I'm just about done with school stuff, so my schedule's pretty wide open."
He nods, glancing down at the calendar before looking back up at me, his face a picture of sincerity. "Thank you, Bella." At his earnestness, my heart warms in my chest.
"You're welcome, Edward."
Twenty minutes later I'm chopping a green pepper when I feel the sensation that I'm being watched. As I turn my head toward the doorway, I see Jacob Black hovering, watching me chop with his careful, guarded eyes. "Hey, Jake," I say, and he nods in greeting. When it's clear he isn't going to say anything, I gesture toward the bowl of diced onion with my knife. "You like chili?" He nods again but makes no move to enter the kitchen, so I gesture again, this time toward the other green pepper sitting at my elbow. "Want to chop?"
"Sure," he says, finally entering the kitchen and approaching the sink. He washes his hands quickly and dries them before selecting a knife from the wooden block on the counter and picking up the pepper. I slide a cutting board over to him and he begins to slice. I watch in surprise as his large hands nimbly dice.
"Wow," I say after a moment. "You're good at that."
"My mom taught me," he replies softly, and I nod as I go back to my chopping. It was one of the very first lessons I learned when I began taking counseling classes: never push until it's clear that it's welcome. For a few minutes the only sound in the large kitchen is the steady slice and chop of knife blades, and when I occasionally glance over at Jake's work, I'm struck by how fluid his motions are, how gentle and graceful his giant hands look. "She liked to cook," he adds as an afterthought, and I hum in response.
Jacob Black is currently our longest-term resident at Grove House. He's been living at the facility for sixteen months and was one of the first cases that Edward gave me the lead on when I advanced from my practicum to my internship. Jake's parents were killed in a car accident when he was fifteen, and he was subsequently sent to foster care. When the very first home he was placed in turned out to be a bad one, he ran; Jake spent three months living on the streets before he showed up at Grove House.
When I finished my undergraduate degree in sociology and opted to pursue a master's in counseling, I had no idea that I'd end up wanting to work with kids like Jake – kids the system can't help, but who are powerless to help themselves. Sadly, most of the kids who survive on the streets are the ones who opt for a life of drugs or crime or worse. For kids who simply don't have a home but don't want to get sucked into a life of darkness, there's Grove House. I only wish more kids found their way to us before they opted for a life with no options. At this facility, they have shelter, food, and education opportunities while we work on helping them find suitable homes. Sometimes we're able to work with social services to get them better placements; other times they simply age out and move on to a life where they're able to work and create homes of their own.
After I finished my first semester of graduate studies and had to find a practicum site, my advisor recommended that I look into Grove House. On my first visit I was intrigued, and when I met Edward I was done for. Something about his earnestness reeled me in, and by the time I saw him interact with the kids who were living here at the time, I was hooked. And, of course, the more I learned about his own back story and how Grove House came to be, the more invested I became. The balance between my investment in the facility and my investment in the man is something I try not to look at too closely.
"Is this small enough?" Jake's voice interrupts my silent musing, and I glance over to the pile of finely-chopped green pepper sitting on the chopping board in front of him.
"Wow, that's perfect. Nice work."
The small smile that touches Jake's lips is the equivalent of a grin for the average person, and I feel a frisson of satisfaction. Jake's smiles are so rare, and seeing one only expounds my festive spirit. "Anything else?" he asks, glancing around the kitchen, and I shake my head regretfully.
"No, actually, that was the last thing. Now I just have to chuck it all in the pot. But next time there's a kitchen duty, I'm coming to find you."
Another small smile, and I feel like a kid who just found a bicycle under the Christmas tree. "Okay." He lopes out of the kitchen and I smile at the chopped vegetables before the unwelcome realization resurfaces: in less than a month, I'll be gone. Jake and the other kids and Edward will cease to be part of my life, and Grove House will become a place I did an internship once upon a time. I logged the hours I needed for the internship requirement weeks ago, but I've been spending more time at the facility instead of less, as if to soak up all of the time I can before I accept my degree and set about starting my career.
After dumping the browned beef into the larger boiling pot, I scrape the green peppers and onions into a frying pan with a pat of butter and turn them up to sauté them. The onions are just beginning to turn translucent when Edward appears in the doorway. "Smells good," he offers, and I roll my eyes to hide my smile.
"It's just onions and peppers right now," I tell him, dipping my chin to the sizzling pan before me, and he shrugs.
"You're talking to a man who would subsist on Corn Flakes if left to his own devices."
"You should be nicer to me," he says, lowering himself into one of the mismatched chairs around the worn wooden kitchen table. "You're going to be needing a letter of recommendation from me in the near future, after all."
"Oh, Edward. We both know that you'd have been lost without me over the past eighteen months. Let's not pretend my letters of recommendation are going to be anything less than glowing."
His green eyes lose a little of their mirth and his lips purse. "Right you are," he says after a moment.
It might be the first awkward silence we've ever endured, and, desperate to banish it, I glance over at him. "Did you talk to Rosalie?"
He nods. "Assault advocate is coming next Thursday."
"Okay." I hear a faint tapping sound, and when I look over his fingers are drumming on the table. "Okay," I say again. "Well, once these are done I'm going to put everything in that big pot, and once it's heated through – about an hour – you guys can eat whenever you want, okay?"
His eyebrows hitch. "Not staying for dinner tonight?"
I shake my head. "I have my group meeting."
"Right. It's Thursday. I forgot. Okay, well, Sam just got here so I'm going to run out and pick up the rock salt for the walkway before dinner. I guess I'll see you tomorrow?"
"Tomorrow," I confirm, and he nods once before smiling and rising from the table.
"Okay. See you."
"See you," I return, watching as his lean frame disappears from the kitchen. I finish the chili and set out bowls and spoons on the table before saying hi to Sam Uley, one of the two night security guards, and exiting the house.
As my beater of a car winds its way along the streets that make up the distance between Grove House and my own home, "My Grown-Up Christmas List" is playing on the radio, and despite the fact that I'm not a big Kelly Clarkson fan, I find myself humming along as my gloved fingers drum on the wheel. There's one thing on my grown-up Christmas list, and while it includes a number of specifics in varying degrees of dirtiness, it really all boils to the one thing I've wanted for a year and a half: a do-gooder with unruly hair and a Mister Rogers sweater, and a lifetime of nights that would land me squarely on the naughty list.