A/N: See, what happened was, when I said "See you tomorrow" I really meant "See you Monday." ;)
LOL. No. This just took longer than I thought it would, as per usual for me. :)
Most characters belong to S. Meyer. The rest belong to me. All mistakes are mine.
This is marked COMPLETE.
Six and a half years after That Day:
Bella and I took a hand in hand stroll through the first floor of our London townhouse while keeping an ear toward the backyard, where the kids were playing for the last time. Both pairs of eyes scanned our surroundings, each focused on a different part of the house that recalled a certain scene to mind. At the moment, I took in the entryway, which had always appeared bigger than it was, due to the large windows that allowed in plenty of light even on typically cloudy, London days. The generous windows were one of the features I'd appreciated about the drafty and somewhat awkwardly laid-out house from Day One.
I caught the way Bella's eyes focused on the bay window, the one in the front room with the window seat and the plush cushions. She always loved that bay window. It had a way of catching the morning rays, regardless of how weak they may have been, and reflecting their heat into every nook of that room. When Bella's smile became wistful, I imagined what she saw in her mind, and an image of her sitting there, nursing our newborn daughter, flashed through my mind. Swallowing, I looked away.
Instead, I let my gaze wander up the first flight of three, steep flights of stairs. Bella's gaze moved in the same direction.
"Edward, do you remember when Jay and Mase tumbled down almost that full flight?"
"Oh yeah. And if I recall correctly, based on your ensuing, blood-curdling screams, you didn't find it quite so amusing at the time."
With the incident almost a year and a half behind us, Bella snickered at it easily now. "It was about a month after we moved in."
I nodded. "They'd been racing one another down the stairs again, just as we'd specifically warned them not to do from Day One."
Bella snorted. "When we found them, they were in a piled heap at the bottom of the landing, Jay on the bottom and Mase on top of him, both of them holding hands and crying."
"And after we made sure they hadn't broken any bones, and that you weren't going into early labor from the fright, we gave 'em both the biggest scolding of their young lives."
She laughed. "You spent the rest of the night waking them every half hour to make sure they didn't have concussions."
"Needless to say, the disobedient little fuckers and I were in a great mood the next morning, with them punished, the three of us sleep-deprived, and without you," I growled, grinning, "who happily escaped to the movie studio for the day."
She offered me a mock look of apology. "But hey, at least the fall scared them enough to keep them from racing up and down the stairs."
"Yeah, it kept them from racing up and down those stairs for about two weeks."
We laughed hard at the memory. When our mirth subsided, I pulled her against my side and pressed my lips to her temple.
"Bella, we had a good year and a half here, didn't we?"
"We did, though it was interspersed with some…not so good. But that's how it goes, doesn't it?"
Filling my lungs, I looked around the house once more, expelling one of the last breaths I'd ever expel into the home that served our family for a couple of Christmases and for other American and British holidays; for a few birthdays and for a birth, for a wedding and for a quick, honeymoon weekend jaunt to an English castle in the countryside; for visits from family and friends, for successful releases of new best-sellers and for the early days of a thriving new consulting partnership and venture; for first words, advanced words, and for the novelty of our older kids suddenly developing English accents; for museum visits and sightseeing and movie lot tours and award nominations...and for the occasional and unavoidable arguments, heartaches, and hardships.
While still in New York, the film studio sent us a swarm of emails and images of different living options for our extended stay in London. We'd chosen our temporary home based on a mutual desire for historical and cultural authenticity rather than for contemporary style and comfort.
'It's a beautiful home, Bella, but I've heard that genuine Victorians can be drafty and a bit hard to maneuver with their numerous floors.'
'Yes, but the listing says that it's been remodeled with modern features while still keeping to its original Victorian charm. I'm sure it'll be fine.'
When Bella laid actual eyes on the Victorian townhouse, she fell instantly in love.
It took me a bit longer.
The home was on a wide, tree-lined street and part of a row of terraced, white-stucco, nineteenth-century homes that were typical of that era as well as of the area, and embodied all the history its age and location implied. And just as nineteenth-century-constructed London homes tended to be, this house was built narrowly, with two or three rooms to a floor. It was also built high, with four stories and three separate staircases and an abundance of steep steps to climb and descend - though, in the past few years, an elevator had been added. And while I refused to take it, and the boys preferred to run up and down the stairs, I was grateful it was there for Bella's use, at least while she was pregnant.
'Bella, I'm going for my daily run, and all I have to do is climb up and down these staircases. You need anything when I make my return trip, love?'
'Jay, Masen, slow down and hold on to the banisters. Only two more levels to go!'
'Bella, if you've got a late-night craving, let me know and I'll take the half-hour hike to the kitchen and get it!'
Then, there were the fireplaces, one in almost every room, so that even when we lit a couple, there were more than what we (I) knew what to do with. They allowed a cool, London draft throughout the house, no matter how high we (I) set the central heating system. Combined with the typical high ceilings and large windows of Victorian-era homes, we (I) felt downright chilled to the bone some nights.
'Jay, Mase, go put on some socks, guys. Yeah, Bella, no one knows better than me that you can't catch a cold from a cold floor, but Jesus, I'm freezing just looking at you three with bare feet.'
'Bella, love, do you want me to pass you a sweater? No? Are you sure? Maybe the baby's cold? Yes, I'm aware she's still in your stomach.'
'Come here, my love, and let me bury myself inside that warm, little piece of heaven since it is your fault I'm always cold. Ouch! I'm just joking, my love.'
Obviously, there were benefits to the relative cold. However, despite the few quirks inside the house, the backyard was a hit with me from Day One. It was the epitome of an English garden, with stone pathways bordered by flowering bushes, paths where the boys could run free and wild with the occasional falls and skinned knees, and where Gracie eventually learned to crawl then chase after them. There was a small, shallow pond edged with trees, whose lush foliage reflected in the water and danced with its ripples.
It was in this garden, whose blooming, spring beauty was absent on the day after our first Christmas in London - Boxing Day in the UK - where Bella and I exchanged vows.
By then, she was almost seven months pregnant with our daughter, Gracie. With the garden blanketed in ivory snow, Bella looked like a Victorian-era queen, resplendent in the simple, white velvet set that Mom designed for her. The dress flared and fell to just below her knees, with ivory faux fur trim along the long-sleeved wrists and the collar. She wore white, patent leather, ankle boots, and the set was finished off with an ivory faux fur wrap for the outdoor portion of the ceremony. Bella left her dark hair cascading loosely down her back, which contrasted perfectly against the snow-covered surroundings. The boys and I wore dark, custom-tailored suits designed by my cousin, Jamie.
That was it.
Because it wasn't about the clothes, the party, or even the words we spoke while surrounded by family and friends. The vows were immaterial if not irrelevant. We'd already made one another those promises, while perhaps not in those actual phrases nor with an audience, years earlier. If anyone asked me now to recall the vows word for word, I wouldn't be able to do so beyond the obvious and commonly known richer, poorer, sickness, health, death do us part, etcetera.
But I recalled, with crystalline clarity, the brilliant expression on Bella's beautiful face as I recited my part and pledged my soul to her. And I could still feel the pure pride, joy, devotion, and the riot of other, indescribable emotions that I felt when Bella recited her part...and became my wife.
I also recalled that we moved indoors as soon as the reverend pronounced us Mr. and Mrs. Cullen-Swan because it (I) was friggin' cold. We warmed up with an English wedding breakfast and enjoyed some great British fare including the cucumber sandwiches that Bella had fallen in love with, and all the Cornish cheese tarts, minced meat pies, Scotch eggs, and saffron buns in London. We toasted with champagne - sparkling grape juice for Bella - and after a few toasts, Jamie and I were ready to borrow the DJ's system and relive those glory days when we swore we'd grow up to be famous rappers. All the while, Jay and Masen cheered us on, and Bella covered her face and laughed. Then, we left it to the real entertainment while Bella and I shared our first dance as husband and wife.
Bella grinned radiantly. "So, how does it feel to be shackled to your very own ball-and-chain?"
"It's not bad, believe it or not." A little drunk and a lot over the moon, I gave her a playful wink and placed my hand just underneath her protruding midsection. "Maybe a bit heavy on the ball part, but I think I can manage."
"Ass." She grinned as I carefully dipped her, and she lifted a patent-leather white boot in mid-air, eyes dancing with impish mirth. "Here's hoping you can handle me tonight, Mr. Cullen-Swan."
Brushing my lips against her neck, I whispered in her ear and enjoyed the shiver that ran up her spine. "The only problem I see about tonight is being able to wait 'til tonight to ravish you."
"Hey, panita, why don't you carry your pregnant wife up those three sets of stairs and get a room? Oh wait, you obviously already did! Hah!"
Everyone burst into laughter, and chuckling along, I lifted Bella back up as my eyes flashed to Emmett. He was a few feet away, dancing with his own pregnant wife and in his usual, boisterous manner, recounting some tale to all the fortunate couples surrounding them.
"Anyway, as I was saying, when she shoved her finger in my face, gyrated those gorgeous shoulders, and said, 'Ex-kee-use me, mister, you may be fine and all with your thick and dark man-bun and your half-Latino good looks, but that does not give you the right to listen in on my private phone conversations!' I knew I was a goner!"
Mack threw back her head and burst out laughing. "Emmett, you liar! That's not what I said! What I said was, 'You better get your nose out of my business, buddy before I break it!'"
More laughter ensued, and all the while, I twirled Bella gently around.
"Edward, when did you know you were a goner?"
"Subconsciously? Probably the moment when a beautiful, angry woman standing up for herself accidentally broke my nose. Consciously? It was my second night in Costa Rica, and my broken nose was aching like a fucker...yet it was the memory of that beautiful, angry woman standing up for herself that kept me awake."
We held one another's gaze.
"And you?" I asked.
"Subconsciously? Probably when a good-looking stranger with a slightly crooked nose walked into a coffee shop one day," - her dark eyes bored deeply into mine - "and passed me the cold coffee I'd forgotten to pick up...and forced my subconscious to remember how he stood by me on the hardest day of my life. Consciously? It was when I looked up one day, about a year later, and saw him on TV, giving the most technically accurate yet confusing as hell interview on a new flu strain, and I knew I could listen to his technical-speak for the rest of my life and never grow bored."
I snorted, our eyes locked on one another.
"Well, if we go by Emmett's continued exuberance, by his still-existing man-bun, by that long-winded best man toast he gave-"
"My God, it was like a mash-up of every story he's ever told, wasn't it?"
"-and by the fairy tale he's telling now, this marriage thing might not be as restrictive as has been rumored." I quirked a brow.
Bella chuckled heartily before resting her head on my chest. For a few seconds, I brushed my lips back and forth against her hair.
"Are you happy, Bella?" I murmured.
She didn't lift her head right away. When she did, the dark, sparkling eyes that met mine were all the answer I needed. Nonetheless, she expanded in that way only she knew and spoke with a fervency that made my heart skip a few beats, her voice thick with emotion.
"Thank you, Edward."
"For what, my love?"
"For helping me believe in this again, and for patiently allowing me to get here. For helping me realize that a perfect relationship doesn't mean that a relationship will ever be perfect. It means that we'll always work, together, to get it as close to perfection as possible. Happy doesn't begin to cover it."
It took me a few moments before I could reply, and when I did, it was with a kiss as fervent as her words, all while I smiled against her mouth.
"I think we're pretty damn close to perfection."
Almost exactly two months later, on a February 26th which was unseasonably warm, our daughter, Grace, was born at the Kensington Wing of Chelsea and Westminster Hospital.
From beginning to end, it was a relatively easy labor and birth. With the boys safely cared for at home by "their" pop-pop, Charlie, who was staying with us for a few months, and knowing what to expect this round, Bella breathed in all the right places, focused at the right times, and I played my admittedly small part. We were so good at it that Gracie arrived after only a couple of hours of labor, with a sweet whimper that made the nurses exclaim, "Aww!"
I, on the other hand, was almost brought to my knees by that whimper, and by the sudden force of the adoration that ensued. It wasn't that I'd loved Masen any less at birth nor that I loved Gracie more than I did both of my boys, it was simply that Gracie was my little girl. At birth already the spitting image of her mother, with a halo of dark, silky curls, and eyes that promised to be as dark and deep as Bella's, by the time I shakily cut the cord, and they placed Gracie in my arms, I was a willing goner.
"Oh boy," Bella chuckled tiredly a short while later. "I think I've been replaced as the foremost woman in your life."
"Not exactly replaced," I murmured, my eyes on our daughter as I stroked her newborn, gauzy cheek, "but you might have to do some serious sharing of the title from now on."
Bella loved her unconditionally as well, from the very beginning.
So did the boys.
"Our baby Gracie's here! Our baby Gracie's here!"
They shouted it in unison around the house when we brought Gracie home, then stage-whispered it when we told them not to shout around the baby. They followed Bella everywhere and sat in quiet awe as she nursed. They passed me diapers, and they passed Bella outfits, and they passed Gracie toys for which she was still too young. When Bella took to nursing Gracie by the bay window, they sat with her until they grew bored by the silence.
More and more, Bella sat quietly, gazing through that window while she nursed. Charlie and I took the boys to run errands, to run around Kensington and Hyde Parks. I brought them into my office while Bella slept. When she began sleeping through Gracie's hungry and eager wails, Charlie and I took turns waking her.
"Bella, love, do you want to start expelling milk so I can feed Gracie while you rest?"
"No, I've got it."
"Are you sure?"
"Yeah. I'm just tired. She's always hungry."
"Masen was the same," I chuckled. "Remember?"
"I guess." She offered me a faint smile and a shrug.
"How's the latest rewrite for the screenplay? I haven't seen you working on it in-"
"Edward, I'm exhausted. Editing the screenplay is the last thing on my mind."
"Is something wrong, Bella?"
"No. Like I said, I'm just tired."
I was a doctor, for God's sake, who knew about the irrefutable connection between physical and mental health. I'd spent over a decade working for an agency whose main focus was physical and mental health. More than all that, she'd warned me herself, more than once, what to look out for.
'When I tell you something's wrong, you don't need to worry; it's when I deny something's wrong...'
Nonetheless, I think...I know part of me knew something was wrong even before the day a week later, when Charlie, the boys, and I arrived home from a walk through the Tower of London, a favorite spot of the boys, and were greeted by the sound of Gracie screaming at the top of her lungs. Heart pounding, I took the stairs three and four at a time, up three flights and found our daughter safely if angrily in her bassinet. A few minutes later, I finally found Bella in our home office on the first level, the room furthest from our bedroom. As I knelt in front of her, with a whimpering Gracie in my arms, tears streaked Bella's cheeks as she stuttered out garbled, stilted explanations that twisted my heart into knots.
"I fed her, but she kept crying, and I...I can't...she screams so loudly...and I kept checking the monitor to make sure she was okay...but I...I couldn't...she screams so loudly..."
"Shh. It'll be okay, love." Despite my efforts, my voice broke. "Charlie went out to find some formula. She'll be fine."
She nodded miserably. For a while, as both of my girls cried, I gently rocked one and stroked the other's arms, her legs, her face...
"Something's wrong. I haven't felt...right..."
"I know, Bella," I said, stoically forcing out the admission. "I know. We'll reach out for help, okay?"
They diagnosed her with postpartum depression, magnified by her predisposition toward depression. And though they assured us that the medications were generally safe for use during nursing, Bella wouldn't take the risk with our daughter's health. She stopped breastfeeding, and for a while, as we waited for the medications to take effect, the guilt over not nursing made Bella feel even worse. It was a vicious cycle. She took time off from the screenplay, and I took time off as well. Charlie helped immeasurably with watching the boys. Rose took a couple of weeks from her practice back home and flew into London to help us find a therapist who'd fit Bella's personality and lifestyle. Vera sent Bella loads of pediatric information confirming that Gracie would never recall this period. Emmett picked up my slack, and Mack kept in constant touch with Bella.
"I feel as if I've failed her," she confessed in bed one night, soon after being diagnosed. "I feel as if I've failed all of you."
And though it shredded my heart to hear her say that, I allowed no sign of weakness in my voice when I replied.
"You haven't failed anyone, Bella. The boys are having a great time hanging out with their pop-pop and with their Aunt Rose. Gracie is safe, she's fed, and she's as happy as a month-old baby, who requires nothing beyond warmth and food right now, can possibly be." I smiled softly as I ran my fingers soothingly through her long hair. "And I'm here with you, where I'll always be."
"But I should be nursing her. I should be holding her more. You of all people know how important nursing is to a baby's immune system."
"Bella, I also know your physical and mental health are more important to our daughter's health, to our entire family's well-being in the long run. Her immune system will be fine. She's got a germaphobe, James Bond slash Jack Ryan-like epidemiologist as her father, remember? Any virus that dares come her way is going to have to get through me and my mad skills."
She offered me a melancholic smile. "Edward, what would I do without you?"
I drew in a deep breath. "Well, since I'm leg-shackled to you by a ball-and-chain, you'll never need to find out."
"You're an ass." Her ensuing chuckle held a bit more humor.
I wiped away her tears, forcing mine to remain at bay. "Bella, we'll get through this, and Gracie and our boys (and I) will be perfectly fine, just as long as you're well. You, my love, are the heart and soul of this operation here."
On the day, a couple of weeks later, when I came home and found Bella back by that bay window...feeding Gracie her bottle while Bella and the boys sang softly to her, I exhaled the long breath that had been trapped in my lungs for weeks. Bella must've sensed me standing there and staring because she looked up, already smiling, her dark eyes sparkling once more. And I smiled broadly in return, finally allowing a tear to fall.
That night, after we put the boys to bed, and I took a turn feeding Gracie, Bella's fingers flew swiftly over her keyboard. And much later that night, we found solace and peace and pleasure...and love in one another once more.
The house in Kensington was also where a few days after Bella's and my wedding, Alice paid her first visit to Jay.
By the time of her first visit, we'd been in London for three months. In those three months, Alice called her son via Facetime nightly. Their conversations weren't long, but neither could we expect them to be long or complicated - Jay was four. They usually involved a four-year-old's discussion on the day's events around the house and as we explored the wonders of London and beyond.
There was no communication with Jasper, and Jay appeared to recall his father rarely if ever. But neither did Bella and I avoid mention of either of his parents to Jay. We made a point of reminding ourselves that we were doing this to provide Jay with a safe, stable, and loving environment while allowing Alice and Jasper an opportunity to straighten themselves out. What would happen upon our return to New York was more or less up to them. Whenever we brought his parents into the conversation, Jay reacted with smiles and easy replies when it came to mentioning his mother. By the time that first Christmas in London rolled around, Jay seemed to have completely forgotten about his father.
The first visit from Alice was a strange though a gratefully non-drama-filled, three-day event. There'd been some anxiety on Bella's and my part before her arrival. She'd given us little information about her plans beyond the date. There'd been no mention of Jasper for months, and as we wondered about that situation, we also wondered if she'd really show at all as well as what sort of attitude she'd bring along with her, what expectations regarding lodging, and what expectations regarding Jay.
Obviously, we had lots of questions.
When Alice finally arrived, she pulled up in a black cab which was almost weighed down with Christmas presents for Jay and for Masen, walked into the house with a breezy, "Hey," for Bella and me, hugged her son fiercely, tussled Masen's hair, and sat on the rug by the lit fireplace with the boys, while they opened expensive presents neither quite understood.
By the time the three-day visit was over, and we were all in bed for the night, I was somewhat livid.
"She spent the entire visit acting more like Masen and Jay's long lost, overindulgent aunt rather than like Jay's mother," I hissed into the quiet of the night, recounting it for Bella, who understandably spent most of Alice's visits elsewhere in her own house. "Every day, she breezed in with more unnecessary gifts for the boys, and with them being four and two-years-old, they played for about five minutes before setting them aside. Then, she stayed for about three hours every day before leaving just as breezily."
"Edward," Bella murmured softly, "at least she didn't spend the visit being combative. That's something, right?"
"Yeah," I muttered. "And when I suggested that if she visits again, she may want to cut down on the presents because neither boy needs so many unnecessary gifts, she looked for a moment like she was getting ready to curse me the fuck out, but then she just said, 'I will visit again...and I'll keep your suggestion in mind.'
Bella chuckled at my imitation of my sister, but I shook my head.
"This bouncy, 'fun-overindulgent-Aunt-Alice-who-can-just-breeze-in-and-out' attitude didn't leave me feeling very confident of her ability to be a decent mother to Jay once we return home."
"Did you get a chance to speak with her about what's going on with her life back home?"
"Yeah, but she was vague. Said Jasper's not around anymore, but we've heard that before," I snorted.
"Did you actually verbalize that thought, sardonic snort and all?" Bella quirked a brow.
"No, Bella," I grumbled. "I kept it to myself. I just..." Sighing, I raked a hand through my hair. "I don't even know what to say...what to expect from her anymore."
We were both quiet for a few minutes, our hands knit together over her stomach and feeling Gracie jump around.
"I suppose we'll just have to give it time, Edward; as you said back in New York, we'll take it one step at a time."
Alice visited a couple of more times, each short visit proceeding more or less in the same vein, though with fewer gifts. Over her next couple of visits, she began taking Jay out - to the park, for ice cream, for bike rides around the neighborhood; just like a fun aunt. And, in all honesty, Jay adored her, looking forward to it on the days leading up to a visit, and obviously out-of-sorts for a couple of days after she'd depart.
By the following September, we'd been in the U.K. for a year, and Bella had just celebrated her thirty-eighth birthday. In March, Jay had celebrated his fifth birthday. Masen turned three in August. I was staring down the barrel of forty, and Gracie was a thriving, happy seven-month-old adored by her parents and spoiled rotten by her older brother and cousin, who loved spending hours every day making her laugh, coaxing her into walking after them and trying to teach her, her first words.
We'd spend some days on set with Bella, at the studio in Leavesden, Hertfordshire, about an hour's drive from London. The studio also happened to be where another wildly popular series was once filmed, and though the boys were still young, and Gracie was tiny, they enjoyed strolling through the official tour sites.
"Say 'Masen' first," Mase commanded, kneeling in front of Gracie while she sat in her stroller, and we leisurely took in the scale model of Hogwarts.
"No, Gracie. Say 'Jay' first. It's much easier to say. Right, Uncle Edward?" Jay said, running back from his explorations to kneel next to Mase and plead his case.
"'Masen' isn't hard to say, right Daddy?" Mase asked with a frown.
Bella and I exchanged continued amused looks at how the boys spoke nowadays, pronouncing some of their words more like Brits than Americans - 'first' became 'fihst' and 'hahd' instead of 'hard' and 'Dadday' instead of 'Daddy; and somehow, I was Uncle 'Edwahd' again to Jay.
"No, Mase," I'd say. "It's not hard to say, but 'Jay' does roll off the tongue easier, so you shouldn't be surprised - or upset - if Gracie says Jay's name first."
While Masen pursed his lips and Jay grinned triumphantly, Bella picked Gracie up from the stroller and pointed out all the books in Dumbledore's office to her.
"But, you should both be ready to hear her say 'Mama' first, either way."
"Oh man!" both boys cried out.
And chuckling, I moved in and kissed my daughter's forehead, whispering conspiratorially, "She's going to say "Daddy" first."
Alice arrived for a visit a few weeks later, the day before Halloween.
She was...different this time around. She arrived in a black cab with a typical fierce hug for her son, with a hug for Masen and Gracie - the latter who just stared at her through rounded eyes too young to remember her last visit - and with an age-appropriate, inexpensive yet well-thought-out Halloween book for each child.
When Bella began to leave the room to go work on her latest novel - the screenplay was perfected by then - Alice called out.
Slowly, my wife turned around.
"I just wanted to say...thanks."
The strange thing was, as I watched them both, and the kids sat on the rug scanning their books, it was as if the two women communicated something I didn't quite understand - not yet. But Bella drew in a deep breath and nodded stoically.
After a while, Alice approached the corner where I sat working on my laptop.
"Edward, would you mind if we took a walk, you and me?"
I held her gaze, with growing unease and curiosity, then I shut my laptop. "All right. Let me just let Bella know so she can watch the kids."
We walked in awkward silence, rigidly side by side through the Kensington streets full of perfectly restored, terraced Victorians. Eventually, the residential homes gave way to upscale shops. We crossed the streets and wandered aimlessly through the manicured gardens of Kensington Park, with burnt orange and golden leaves scattering in our wake, as if they knew what was coming. When we took seats on one of the concrete benches, for a while, we said nothing, while our eyes skimmed the misty landscape.
"I want to take Jay trick-or-treating tomorrow," she began shakily, "just him and me."
I released a long sigh, my chilled breath mixing with the mist on the typically cold, autumn day.
"All right," I nodded, "but Bella and I are taking the kids to a Halloween party in Covent Garden. Then we're going to take the three of them trick-or-treating together. You can take him afterward."
"No, Edward. No. I'd like to take Jay trick-or-treating before all that. Then, I'll drop him off, and you guys can all go-"
"No, Alice," I said decisively. "You can take him afterward. That's it."
For one long moment, Alice stared at me.
"Edward, you do realize only two of those kids are yours, right?"
My jaw tightened, nostrils flaring, and at that point, my first instinct was to tell her that JJ was more Bella's and mine than he was hers. But, in an attempt to follow Bella's advice and control the instinctive rise in blood pressure my dealings with Alice always caused, I inhaled and exhaled deeply before replying.
"Yes, Alice; I'm aware, but I'm sure you've realized that Jay's been living with us here in London for over a year now. He's become part of our family, and though he calls us Aunt and Uncle, we're who provide him with guidance, comfort, and daily care."
"Whereas I play the part of the aunt in his life now, right?" She offered me a wry and humorless grin.
"At this point, he, Mase, and Gracie act more like siblings than cousins, and they're expecting to spend the entire day together tomorrow. You don't have to take him just to prove a point or to spite Bella and-"
"You know what, Edward? I'm trying, I really am, but you can be such a self-centered, egotistical ass."
I reeled back. "You're trying, but I can be a self-centered, egotistical ass?" I retorted.
"But no one will ever call you out on it, will they?" she continued. "Of course, not. Because you really are Mister Perfect. Because you are superior, you and Bella, so that makes it okay for you to judge the rest of us and treat us as inferior when we don't live up to all your expectations."
I glared straight ahead. "At this point, Alice, my only expectations when it comes to you revolve around the well-being of the boy that you-"
"But don't you see what you're saying there?" she choked. "Your only expectations when it comes to me revolve around JJ."
I gripped my hair at my scalp.
"Seriously, Alice, I have no goddamn clue what you-"
She put a hand up, palm out, and I turned my head around and watched her swallow hard.
"The point is, Edward, I know tomorrow is Halloween, and I know JJ's grown used to you and to Bella and to the kids, which is why I'm willing to take him earlier so that you can all still enjoy what you've planned together. I want to give you guys the time together." She dug a finger into her chest. "I'm not trying to hurt you or him…or Bella, believe it or not. But I am his mom...and he has to start getting used to me in that role again."
"What do you-"
"After Christmas, I'm taking him back home, to New York."
"We're here through March."
For a handful of seconds, my heart stuttered to a painful standstill. Simultaneously my lungs constricted and my throat closed off. For those few seconds...I wondered if I was actually having a heart attack.
All the while, Alice watched me with stoic calm, a calm I wasn't used to seeing from her.
Eventually drawing in a deep breath, I exhaled it in a long gust and finally managed a reply which, while steady, erupted thick and hoarse.
"I'm not sure that's the best thing for JJ right now. Like I said, Bella and I will be here at least through early spring, in case there are any last-minute rewrites for the Gemma screenplay. What's more, back in New York, the three of us agreed that he would remain with us-"
"Edward, the day I agreed to this, I told you and Bella that it wouldn't be a permanent situation."
Again unable to respond right away, I instead took the time to study my sister. Alice held my gaze patiently through cool, blue eyes that unflinchingly maintained full eye contact, refusing to blink - allowing the inspection. Yes, since her arrival in London, she seemed...different, but now I noted that the pronounced dark circles which had constantly rimmed her eyes for the past few years appeared less prominent. The ceaseless animosity, misery, and bitterness in her every word, in her every action were toned down...perhaps gone. Even that peculiar, forced buoyancy from her previous visits was missing.
But this wasn't a job interview where a candidate's qualifications were measured by their ability to maintain eye contact nor a beauty pageant nor a congeniality contest. There were other considerations, such as-
"Jasper's out of the picture, permanently this time, if you're wondering about him."
"How did you know-?"
"Your crooked nostrils were flaring," she smirked, "and I can pick up on clues too, big brother. I suppose it's a family gift."
A long moment of silence ensued, during which we remained locked in one another's wary, mutually suspicious gaze, both of us refusing to be the first to look away first, no matter what would finally be said between us.
"When you and Bella proposed bringing JJ to London with you, you know I was completely opposed to it, even when Bella proposed that I could use the time that JJ would be away to get my shit together. By the way, she really is eloquent, isn't she? 'Get your shit together.' I can see why she's such a successful, worldwide, best-selling-"
"Anyway, the point is, after you convinced me, I saw the time that JJ would be away as a final opportunity to fix things with Jasper."
Shaking my head, I chuckled mirthlessly and dug my fisted hands in my pockets, kicked my feet out in front of me, and leaned back against the park bench.
"Alice, you never learn."
She snorted. "I thought...if we were alone for a while, without JJ to take care of, maybe we could recapture those times...go back to the way things were when it was just the two of us, and we-"
"And you were both fucking around behind Bella's back. Lovely, as the Brits would say. What a great foundation you wanted to build on."
Alice's eyes flashed with a familiar fury. "Can you just shut up for a minute, and listen to me? This isn't about Bella, Edward. It's not about how I betrayed her or about how my very creation fucked with your head and ruined your life."
"Stop putting words in my mouth."
"But that doesn't mean they're not words you're thinking, does it?"
I exhaled hard. "Alice-"
"Again, it's not about you or Bella. Not yet. To make a long, miserable story short, for a couple of months, I was led to believe it was working, and we were finally on the right track - and then I came home from work early one day because I wasn't feeling well, and I found Jasper fucking someone on my bed."
Nostrils flaring, I shut my eyes, biles of fury and disgust rising to my throat. "Jesus."
"And that was the last straw, the one that finally opened my eyes." She snorted, and her eyes panned away. "Not those mature things like family and responsibility or even the well-being of my son, but the final betrayal I couldn't deny, an image I'd never be able to erase from my head." She snorted cynically. "Talk about fucking Karma, huh? It couldn't have been more perfect had you and Bella planned it that way."
"Seriously, Alice? He fucks up on you, again, and we're to blame?"
"That's not what I meant," she said, sounding genuinely remorseful. "Never mind."
Again, we were silent.
"Well, aren't you going to say anything about that?"
"Other than 'It's about fucking time?' What more do you want me to say?"
For half a minute, Alice stared before she turned away, her eyes absorbing the Park's vast green lawn before stopping to scan each individual tree and autumn-toned limb. When her gaze panned back as far as she could see, she swept her eyes up to the gray sky, to the gauzy clouds, and studied those.
I recognized those methodical actions, the preciseness of them, the doggedness in her undertakings, in her pursuits no matter where they led. It was a trait I'd recognized in JJ throughout the year he'd been living with us; a tenacity in his actions, persistence in the rightness of his course, even when it got him into trouble. And when he did get in trouble for it, Bella and I would correct him…then Bella would quietly joke that it was a family trait. Because Masen was the same way. And Bella further claimed that Gracie was showing signs of being exactly like her dad, like her big brother…and like her cousin.
It was a family trait. It was how we Cullens inspected and studied and extrapolated from the world around us. Sometimes, our conjectures were wrong, but my children and I, and my nephew and I...and my sister and I…we had a habit of digging in. And when we dug in, we dug in hard, many times to our detriment. Sometimes, we dug our own holes, nice and fucking deep. No one could dig us into holes better than we could do so for ourselves.
When Alice finally spoke, with her eyes still on the silvery, London skies, her voice quivered, barely audible above the afternoon breeze.
"What do I want you to say, Edward? That's always been the question between us, hasn't it?"
Raking a hand through my hair, I breathed hard in frustration. "What is it that you want me to say, Alice? What is it?"
Her blue eyes panned back to me, unshed tears glistening at the corners. "Maybe something along the lines of 'Alice, you're not a complete and total screw-up? Alice, you're not a fucking monster?'"
"Alice, don't make me out to be the bad guy here. You go around calling me Mister Perfect and arrogant, and everything else you've always called me to blame me for your mistakes, yet I never claimed to be perfect."
Her tears fell. "You never had to claim it, Edward. It was always there."
"So, it's all my fault?" I hissed. "Everything you've done, everything you've gone through is my fault because I supposedly set some unattainable expectations by trying to live a life where I didn't fuck others over while taking everything I wanted and damning the consequences?"
"That's not what I'm saying, not exactly."
"Alice, grow up," I spat. "Take responsibility for your own actions. You've pulled some crazy shit throughout your lifetime, but what you did a few years ago," I scowled, "what you did That Day in that lobby, yes, Alice that was pretty monstrous. And then the way you handled things afterward-"
"Yes, that was monstrous," she agreed in a strangled whisper. "You want me to own that? I'll own it. I think back on that scene, and on the things I said, and I did, and even the things I thought that day…and I cringe, Edward." She cringed. "I disgust myself. And everything I did afterward was just as monstrous, from forcing Bella to spend a night in jail to having the courts force her into anger management and therapy to slapping her with a restraining order when I knew she wasn't dangerous; I knew she wasn't crazy. She broke down because I broke her, Jasper and I...and she was justifiably angry and hurt…and…and here I was now, with her husband and with the baby she'd always wanted. But I wanted that life too, Edward."
She hissed the last part with a sudden ferocity that had been absent for the most part, and at the hint of the return of her defiance, my own building fury flared.
"So, you had to take it from her?" I snarled.
"At the time, I thought that was the only way."
"In what convoluted universe would you think that?"
"In my convoluted universe." She searched my eyes. "Edward, for the past few months, I've been in therapy."
For a few moments, I could do nothing more than blink.
"And my thinking was convoluted, and I'll never be able to explain it to you properly, I know that. It'll never make sense. I've learned that. But can I try? I know it won't change anything with Bella-"
I swallowed hard, bewildered, reeling and frustrated by a difficult sibling relationship I'd never quite known how to navigate.
"Alice, I'm glad you're in therapy; I really am. I've been to therapy too, and I'm fucking relieved as hell that you finally, finally cut that bastard loose, once and for all. He was never a father to Jay or a real man for you, so as horrible as it is that Jay will never have his real father in his life," I sighed, "Jasper was useless. But you're right; the things you did to Bella, those won't be erased by Karma, remorse, or by therapy. That's not how real life works. Yes, she moved on. We moved on together, and we're happy, but the wounds remain, and while some wounds scar over, they do leave a scar."
"Can I do this for you and me, Edward?" She sobbed openly now, further shocking me in an afternoon ripe with overwhelming surprises. "Can I try to explain this to you…for you and me? To see if I can make you understand, even if just a little bit…what I've always wanted you to say?"
I locked my jaw hard while a riot of bewildering emotions roiled inside me, each one a wave ready to knock me over. And as soon as I nodded, Alice dove in with the first surge.
"From the first time I met Bella, I saw her…and I thought she was perfect; at least, she seemed to have the perfect life. Yes, I had looks and money, Edward, and a great apartment, and a bunch of fake friends, and a fledgling career that, as you've pointed out, I'd earned with a more-or-less bought diploma. But do you know what Bella had, Edward, even before she met you?"
She paused, and I waited, her voice weighed down by an age-old pain so heavy I felt it on my shoulders when she replied.
"She had a father who adored her. I'd hang out with her in her office or after work, and he'd text her not out of obligation or to scold her or to throw money at her in one form or another…but for conversation, for your basic, normal, day-to-day boring conversation." She chuckled. "She'd roll her eyes sometimes as she answered his calls or texted him back, but I could tell she adored her father as much as he adored her. And…and I wondered what that was like, having that sort of relationship with your father, with any of your parents." She paused. "But there was more. She had a great career, where the entire newspaper respected her for her talent. She'd walk down those hallways at the publication, and everyone would offer her these…awed smiles, Edward. She'd smile back at them just as broadly because she wasn't conceited. As a matter of fact, I could tell she had no idea how much awe and respect and admiration were behind those smiles. To top it off, she had this…easy beauty about her. She didn't wear the labels I did, yet she always looked so put together, so graceful. Sometimes, I'd stare at her while we talked, and Jesus, the woman barely had anything on her fucking face. The glow that radiated from her was real; she was real. She had a real life, and I admired her and fucking hated her at the same time."
"When did the hate overpower the admiration?" I asked after a pause.
Alice sighed unevenly. "In her real life with her real, everyday problems, one big problem popped up. She wanted to have kids, and she and her husband were trying and trying and...nothing. And one day I met her husband, and of course, he was good-looking because what else, right?"
I shrugged. Again, she paused, this pause so extended that I began to think she was done.
"The first time I met him...and flirted with him, I swear I fully expected him to ignore me. He had her, for God's sake; Miss Perfect. Why would anyone risk her? So when he didn't ignore me…" – even as she recounted the story, her eyes grew wide, and I could hear the shock in her voice – "when he flirted back instead…God, Edward, there's no good excuse, but it was exhilarating and...and I saw it as my chance."
"Your chance for what, Alice?"
She met my eyes, silent tears rolling down her cheeks. "My chance to claim her perfect life. They'd been having trouble conceiving, so I...I told him I was on the pill-"
"Alice," I scowled in disgust, "I don't need all that."
"The point is, I wanted to see if I could be better than her in something. When I got pregnant quickly, easily, I saw it as a sign that her life…that perfect life was meant for me."
"Her life wasn't perfect, Alice, especially not with that bastard as a husband."
"I know that now. And That Day..."
After another bout of silence, she squared her shoulders, drew in a deep breath, and blew it out hard as if gathering her courage.
"I may not even have fought for Jasper as hard as I did That Day...had you not shown up."
"What?" I spat the word slowly, enunciated it furiously.
"And I'm not blaming you," she rushed to explain, sobbing brokenly, "not anymore. I'm just trying...because she had everything, and as fucked up as our...yours and my relationship was by then, Edward, at least I had a brother; at least I'd always known, even after you left for college and left me behind-"
"Jesus, I didn't leave you behind, Alice, but it was hard for me too; you knew it was."
"I knew that deep inside, yes. And I knew, that whether out of guilt or even out of the tiniest bit of affection..." she stopped, while her tears fell unchecked, and by then having extrapolated where she was going, my own eyes watered, "even when I fought against you...even when I yelled and screamed and defied, I'd always known I had you on my side. And That Day...she took you too."
"Alice, that's not-"
"And again, I'm not blaming you, and I'm not blaming her, but that's how I saw things in my fucked up head That Day. You walked into that lobby, and extrapolated the scene, and went straight to her side. You were my brother, the only person who had ever really stood up for me, yet you took her side."
"Jesus, Alice." I fisted my hair in both hands. "I didn't take her side That Day because I was trying to punish you...or leave you alone. I took her side because she was alone, and she was hurt, and she was right, damn it...and I was drawn to her from the moment I laid eyes on her."
"And in therapy, and with distance from Jasper, and more than all that, with distance from my son and missing him fiercely and finally realizing how I've been hurting him...I've come to realize and accept all that. And I want my son back with me, Edward. I don't want him to pay for my mistakes anymore. I want to be the parent for him that I never had, the mother my mother could never be, the mother I never allowed your mom to try to be...and the type of loving and protective father you and I never truly had."
"Alice." I squeezed my eyes shut, fighting back the tears before I reopened them wide. "Alice, I don't know that you're ready."
"I'm probably not, but who the hell is ever completely ready, Edward? I'm ready to try my best, I swear that to you. And I'm hoping...I'm hoping," she choked, "that you and Bella are willing to help, if not for me, for Jay because I do know you both love him like he's one of your own."
Again, I squeezed my eyes shut.
'...a perfect relationship doesn't mean that a relationship will ever be perfect. It means that we'll always work, together, to get it as close to perfection as possible...'
"Please, Edward. I swear I'm not trying to hurt you and Bella. I'll wait 'til after Christmas, but I miss my son, and I want to try-"
I pulled her in, and when she wrapped her arms around me, for one long moment, we sat on that hard bench, freezing our asses off and releasing years' worth of anger of blame of frustration...and of mutual mistakes and mistrust into the cool, London breeze.
"We'll help, Al, for both of you," I murmured. "And though I can't promise that the relationship between you, Bella, and I will ever be...normal...when you need me, I'll be there."
"And that...is what I've always wanted to hear you say," she breathed. "Thank you, Edward."
And so on a cool, breezy London day in March, Bella and I walked through our Victorian townhouse one last time. In the kitchen, we stood by the sliding glass doors, another upgrade to the original Victorian that I loved, and watched our three-and-a-half-year-old son and our thirteen-month-old daughter scamper around our English garden for the final time.
"You looked so beautiful that day," I breathed.
"And you looked so handsome in your suit," Bella replied, knowing exactly what day I referred to. "I am going to miss living in London, but I'm anxious to get home as well." She looked up at me and smiled. "I can't wait to see Jay. I've missed him so much over these past three months."
"I know, even though we speak with him nightly. But at least we know he's settled in okay, and Alice is letting him spend the weekends with us until we all transition into...whatever becomes our normal."
She nodded, and sliding her arms around my neck, she smiled softly and sighed. "This life; it's not always fair, is it? But it's far from unfair."
I kissed her tenderly. "So far from it. Love you."
"Love you too. Come on, let's go get our babies and get to the airport."
And...Eight Years After That Day:
Eight years after That Day, Bella and I found ourselves in our bedroom - on a typical Wednesday night, and in what could've been termed a rather mundane, random moment.
By then, she was a successful, world-famous writer; I had a challenging, successful partnership with my best friend, where we lent our expertise to other agencies...and helped to maintain the health of the world around us. We had great friends, with whom we spent plenty of memorable times. We had two, beautiful, healthy, and happy children - a copper-haired, green-eyed five-year-old monster boy who was about to begin Kindergarten and a dark-haired, dark-eyed two-and-half-year-old princess girl who was going to have to get used to not having her big brother around to spoil her all day. But Bella and I would always make sure we nurtured the relationship between them.
We had a seven-year-old nephew, whom we'd always love like our own son. But...he had his mom, who did her best by him, even if she stumbled now and then. Yet we were here to lend a hand without judging because no, we weren't perfect either. And though my sister and my wife would never be the friends they'd once been, for our children's sake, they got along. And my sister and I...well, we'd come a long way.
Either way, that night, that rather mundane, random Wednesday night, Bella knelt in front of me on our bed, and in her tiny non-pajamas, posed a question which was anything but mundane or random.
"I'll ask you one last time, Mr. Cullen-Swan," she breathed huskily, "my erstwhile stranger, my lover, my best friend: What privileges did your broken nose earn you?"
It was...the million-dollar question.
And as I knelt before the woman I'd admired for eight years, and curled a hand around the nape of her neck, slowly pulling her in, I replied with all the honesty, the courage, the confidence, and the love that her love had taught me.
"It earned me the privilege of us, Mrs. Cullen-Swan." I met her lips softly. "It earned me the privilege of us."
Thank you all, so much, for taking another "trip" with me.
Uprising and Seven Nights will continue soon. Don't know which one first yet. It depends on what my Muse decides. ;)
Facebook: Stories by PattyRose
"See" you all soon. :)