A/N: Steven Tyler says canon should "walk this way. . ."
The night air was heavy with the threat of new snowfall. Around them, the mountain forest stood quiet watch in the darkness as Edward and Bella made their careful way up the hillside.
Edward led the way, Bella's gloved hand warm in his, the heat radiating up his arm with the steady thrum of her heart, mingling with the sounds of their own soft breaths and the hissing crunch of their footsteps through the dry powdered snow.
It was slow going; almost painfully slow, but Edward was of no mind to care.
Gone were the days when he would simply toss Bella over his shoulder and rush headlong into disaster.
When he made the disaster.
The grief of those times, the longing . . . the loathing, had taught him, among other things, to let go – to let even the simplest moments unfold around him like a flower, one petal at a time, revealing their essence at a predetermined pace.
Or, in this case, Bella's pace.
His left front pocket thumped impatiently against his thigh.
"This is incredible." Bella's voice was muffled in the cold, humid air.
They had come at last to a small promontory of rock just above the tree line. Before them the mountainside dropped away from them into a deep valley, the tree blackened slopes blanketed in snow.
The sky above hung low, glowing softly the way only winter nights could, the pale rose of the clouds reflecting the light from the village, bathing the night in shades of blue and violet; bright enough even that Bella had not even thought to bring her headlamp.
Not that she would have needed it.
Across from them, the entire hillside of the Whistler Blackcomb resort was alight.
It was New Years, and, in keeping with tradition, hundreds of skiers waited at the mountaintop, holding all manner of torches aloft, ready to herald in the New Year.
"It is, isn't it?" Edward looked down at her rapt expression, feeling only a little guilty for having to disturb it.
Patience he had learned. Accepting it proved to be more difficult.
Especially now, when he could detect the faint hint of something secret lurking beneath the serenity of her gaze; the same something that had seemed to infect the rest of his family since before Christmas.
Did she know?
Did Alice guess?
Christmas itself had come and gone with little fanfare. The Cullens had, by mutual agreement, forgone exchanging gifts over the holiday, and instead spent the day in quiet appreciation of their newly reunited family in the house's large great room.
Unfortunately, their attempt at a peaceful gathering in front of the fire lasted all of about five minutes before rapidly degenerating into Emmett and Jasper teasing Edward mercilessly about "making sounds like a dying elk" in the middle of the night while Bella blushed furiously into her hot chocolate; until the ensuing melee threatened to involve Esme's carefully decorated tree and Carlisle herded the whole mess of y-chromosomes and cheerful antagonism out into the snow.
Edward had had just enough time to hear Alice and Rose zero in on Bella before he was shoved headfirst into a snow bank.
To her credit, she remained mum – something that Edward had apparently not been able to do the night before.
Although, in his defense, there was little he could have done about it.
One minute they had been stumbling, slick and slippery and very naked, out of the shower; and the next he had been flat on his back on the bed, with Bella straddling his thighs, a wicked grin on her face, murmuring, "I just want to try one thing . . ." while the long dark curtain of her hair fell over his hips and she introduced him to the warm, wet pleasures of her mouth.
The subsequent shiver that ran down Edward's spine had nothing to do with the fact that Emmett and Jasper had managed to stuff half the snow in British Columbia down his shirt.
Even now, a full week later, he was radiating equal parts smugness and bliss as he and Bella hiked hand in hand, through the snow.
Who could have been quiet at a time like that?
I don't sound like an elk.
Maybe we can try that again. For scientific reasons, of course.
Contemplating a repeat performance of what had been one of the greatest highlights in his limited sexual experience to date, Edward was also doing his best to ignore the soft, niggling voice in the back of his mind that dared to whisper he had been caught up in an elaborate ruse.
That someone in the house was using his discomfiture to conceal something. And they were using a united front to do it.
He just couldn't be certain what was being hidden – or by whom. Since Bella had come home to them, silence had rippled out of her into the rest of the family, leaving only the barest waves of subconscious thought to splash against Edward's mind. It was odd, and sometimes frustrating. But it was also a relief.
Except for now.
Under the circumstances, he supposed, there was no reason to be nervous.
And yet here he was, a vampire; a perfect predator; a man who had all the knowledge of the world at his fingertips; who could hardly bear the overly clichéd anticipation of a single, human moment.
Immortality had never felt so ridiculous.
The weight in his pocket tugged at his shoulders, goading him, its meager contents the spark that would set his entire future alight.
An eternity passed – or was it a second? – and, at long last, Edward took a deep breath, grit his teeth, and pulled a tiny velvet box out of his jacket.
"Bella?" His voice sounded dry and cracked, even in his own ears.
She turned to him, eyes open and unsuspecting.
She doesn't know . . . Edward wasn't certain if that was a comfort, now.
He licked his lips and soldiered on, "I have something for you."
Instinctively, it seemed, her eyes flickered from their joined hands, to his closed fist, tapping nervously against his thigh.
Could she hear his silent mantra?
He was practically shouting inside his own head.
Let me be calm.
Let me do this before the words explode out the top of my head and I make a fool of myself. Again.
Or, at least, not any more elk noises.
How does anyone survive this?
Edward drew her close, placing the velvet box in her hands, and covering them with his own.
"You said in Montana that it wasn't our time. That too much had changed – that we had changed. And maybe you were right. But maybe you weren't. Shh – let me say this."
Bella's unspoken words puffed out in protest, hanging in the fog of her breath.
"I've done things backwards, Bella. I lied to you. I broke your heart. I've done things to you that both our fathers would have thrashed me for." She smiled at that. "I've created enough shame and regret in your name to last me the rest of my life – and I don't care – well about the lying and the heartbreaking I do – "
Babbling, Edward, you're babbling. He could almost feel his subconscious pounding on his temples, trying to stop him before he wrecked completely. Just say it!
"I can't be without you, Bella. No matter how hard I tried to push myself, I couldn't stay away. You're like the fixed point in a compass to me. Wherever you go, with all my heart, I must follow."
Gently, he pried open the velvet box.
Nestled in faded black satin was a flat gold band, wound over with the eternal Celtic knot, the strands coiled and divided into tiny snakes, with tiny ruby eyes, all baring their tiny diamond fangs and devouring their own tails.
The eternal return.
Bella looked down at their joined hands, and then up, her eyes streaming.
"'Thy firmness makes my circle just,'" he whispered, hearing his own voice break. "'And makes me end where I begun.' Marry me, Bella. Be my forever. Make time stop for both of us."
Bella was openly crying now, which Edward would have found seriously disturbing, except for the fact that she was also smiling and sniffling; awkwardly trying to wipe her eyes and hold his hand simultaneously.
"Of course," she choked out, hastily removing her left glove. "Of course, I'll marry you."
She might have said more, something along the lines of, "As if you had to ask," but Edward was already kissing her so thoroughly that there wasn't room enough for a thought between them.
X X X X X
"Tell me about the ring." Bella had unzipped her jacket, tucking her gloveless left hand –still clasped in Edward's – inside. Her body was a column of heat against his chest, the cooler metal of the ring, and her chilled fingers, pressing over his heart.
"It was my mother's mother's." Edward rubbed his thumb gently over the inlaid pattern, snug under the last knuckle on her ring finger. "Her people came from the Old Country, so I'm guessing it had actually been in the family for much longer. My mother wouldn't wear it – 'too pagan,' she said. But she did tell me that I might 'find the right time, and a girl of my own' someday. And, of course, she was right." He rested his chin on the top of Bella's head. "It's funny, the things I remember. I couldn't tell you if my father's eyes were brown or blue, but I know for a fact that he always left the spoon out of the sugar bowl, and that he couldn't, for the life of him, keep a pair of gloves."
Bella's giggle was muffled in his coat.
"And I know they would have liked you very much, if they ever could have met you."
Her arm wrapped tight around his waist, a warm band of comfort against that cold sliver of regret.
"Maybe, someday . . ." she whispered against his chest.
"Maybe," he agreed, just as quietly.
But before the somber air could settle around them, the neighboring hillside came alive, as a loud, long horn counted the midnight hour, and multitude tongues of flame poured down the mountain in a joyful cry, like miniature Grendels, except, instead of being harbingers of sorrow and death, they came bearing hope and happiness, and no thought of regret, to the waiting crowds below.
X X X X X
For a long time they watched the lights, until the mountain slopes were once again dark, and the village glowed peacefully, nestled in the vale between.
It was Bella who broke the silence.
"I have something for you, too." She looked up at Edward, excitement brightening her tear-streaked face.
"What? Bella . . . " They had not exchanged gifts at Christmas by mutual agreement.
"It's not, well –" Bella rummaged throuhg her coat, reaching into a pocket sewn into a lining.
Edward heard the telltale crackle and rustle of paper as she pulled out a worn letter size accordion folder. The twist strap was gone, and the whole works was held together with string. "Here."
Bella shoved the whole thing unceremoniously in his hand, and looked at him anxiously.
It was surprisingly heavy, and it smelled like oil and old exhaust.
"What is –?"
"Just open it, okay?" Bella bounced nervously on her heels.
Edward pulled the flap and the entire works burst open like a piñata. Sheets upon sheets of folded paper, wrinkled receipts, and carbon copies fanned out in his hands.
What in the world?
Beside him, Bella was grinning maniacally.
Her eagerness rubbing off on him, Edward started thumbing through the envelope. Parts receipts, schematics, and brochures slipped through his fingers, all bearing the same words in the heading: Jaguar.
The name skipped by over and over until he flipped to the final pocket, and pulled out something he had never expected to see again.
Softened with age, and smelling faintly of grease and hydraulic fluid, was a folded piece of paper stamped with the official seal of the State of New York.
He opened it, rubbing his thumb over the faded signature under the heading "Transfer of Ownership."
From the only time when the farce had truly been a success, when he had not needed to pretend to be someone, something he was not – someone who belonged.
"You didn't . . . " he breathed.
"No. I didn't." Bella smiled at him gleefully. "Everyone did."
Her fingers were blistering against his skin as she shut his gaping mouth.
"In so many ways we are alike, Edward. We believe we don't belong – that we don't deserve to be loved, that we're always on the outside. But it's not true."
Bella dug through her pockets, and Edward heard the unmistakable clink of car keys. The smooth, oblong bits of metal were effortlessly familiar as she pressed them into his palm.
"Your family loves you, Edward. Let them love you."
Edward looked musingly at the worn keys. "How did you -?"
"I found a picture of you in one of the albums in you room. You looked so happy then. And I remembered the story you told, how you said you felt like you belonged. So I showed it to Rose and she was able to track it down, and Jasper talked the owners into selling. He's very . . . persuasive." She plucked the paperwork easily out of his surprised grasp, and plucked something out of it. "Here."
That something was a photograph, but not one of his. The lighting was off, dark shadows barely pierced by a flash, the garish light stark and sterile against mounds of detritus – cardboard boxes, dust, broken things long forgotten. Beneath it all, Edward could just barely make out the long sweeping lines of the Jaguar's hood, as the car crouched under the odds and ends piled upon it.
"The man you sold it to gave it to his son as a graduation present. He drove it into the ground. The motor's fried, and the clutch is toast – again – and somehow the kid managed to fuck up the steering, but the old man never had the heart to sell it. So it's been rusting away in a barn out in Ohio for the last thirty years."
Even in the darkness, Edward could see the flaking chrome on the bumper, and the telltale red brown that marred the once shiny gunmetal gray surface.
"When I bought the Mustang I wanted to remake myself. I was ashamed of how – how easily I was broken. It was loud, and dangerous and fast, and it was the first time I'd ever done something for me. And somewhere in there, in all that grease and noise, I found the courage to be me, and to like who I'd become."
The glossy surface of the photograph winked up at him, a mirror, as Bella seemed to peer effortlessly through his thoughts and reflect them all back at him.
"We're very much alike, you know. It's not the thing itself – it's the knowing, the believing that we're worth it that keeps us from being happy. So maybe this," Bella squeezed the keys in his hand, "this can be the way you start over."
A breeze was building, scouring the low-lying clouds out of the trees and into the sky, swaddling the mountaintops in milky white robes. It whipped the loose strands of Bella's hair into their faces, cradling them both in gentle entreaty.
"Only one of us ever left the woods. It's time for you to leave the forest, Edward. It's time for you to come home."
The first smattering of snowflakes caught in their hair, and in Edward's eyelashes, blurring his vision; and he felt the truth of her words in his bones; and the snow covered rocks he stood upon seemed to shift, as the many fragments of his life heaved, and then settled together.
"Only if you go with me," he murmured, pulling Bella gently into his arms, pressing his lips to her temple. "There is no home for me without you."
X X X X X
"What am I going to do about Jake?" Bella stared at the mess of papers strewn in her lap, as though somewhere within the contents of her thesis she might find the answer.
Edward drummed his thumbs on the steering wheel. They were once again on the road, somewhere above the Idaho Panhandle, the wintry landscape whipping by them as they made their way steadily east, before the long, leisurely turn back down into Montana.
If he were being honest, Edward would have told Bella that her dog was the least of his concerns; that the prospect of "a word" with Dr. Reyerson was what had him shaking in his metaphorical boots. Even with the space of a month, and the luxury of a few thousand miles between them, the final, opaque look of disdain the good doctor had bestowed upon him still made Edward squirm.
But Edward knew that Jake had been a friend when he could not, had cherished her, protected her in her loneliness as only a dog could, and that he owed that simple dedication as much courtesy as he was able to give.
"I don't know," he said at last. "He will do his best by you because that is what he knows. But, and I think maybe your wolf-friend Jacob didn't tell you, there is a natural antipathy between my kind and wolves – all wolves."
Bella looked at him in puzzlement, and Edward sighed, feeling slightly embarrassed.
"We. Don't. Hunt. Wolves," he elaborated. "Canis lupus and all their descendants are the single most repellant thing to our kind. In any form. And whether they know it or not, it's that all consuming disgust that your Shapeshifter friends have capitalized on."
"So when Jacob told me that vampires stink –?"
"The feeling is beyond mutual, I assure you," Edward finished for her.
"But why wolves?"
"Why vampires?" Edward retorted dryly. "You do realize this conversation is ludicrous on multiple levels."
"Yes, Socrates, thank you." Bella leveled him a sour look. "But unlike a certain other person in this car, I'm willing to adopt a stance of suspended disbelief in order to further my investigation."
"You're willing to do a number of things in the name of science, I'm discovering."
"Yes, I – ugh, Edward!"
Bella whacked his arm with her thesis draft, and Edward snickered.
They drove on in silence for a several minutes while Bella fumed and Edward fizzed.
At long last, Edward was able to compose himself enough to offer her what comfort he could.
"Truthfully, Bella, you would know better than I how Jake will tolerate me. That day with the deer was a bit . . . extraordinary. There was blood on the air and you were afraid, and Jake knew it as well as I did. And we were interfering with his hunt. But I can't say with any certainty that that won't happen again."
His eyes slid from the road ahead to hers.
"What I can promise you is that I would no sooner harm your dog than I would a single hair on your head, and whether or not he believes it is entirely up to him."
If only Dr. Reyerson could be so easily convinced.
X X X X X
If he'd been asked, Dr. Reyerson wouldn't have been able to say exactly what it was that made him abandon his curriculum revisions for his current position at his office window.
Nor would he have been able to say which he found more entertaining: the look on Edward Cullen's face – equal parts fastidious disgust, and wary determination, mixed with what appeared to be an apparent urge to vomit – or Jake's very real impersonation of a reluctant table, with a manifestation of all the gravitational properties of lead – with Isabella in the middle, doing her damned best trying to press them together like two polarized magnets.
But if there was one thing Dr. Reyerson knew for certain, it was the look of a woman well bedded. And gazing down at the scene unfolding below his office window he could see it in Isabella Swan. Her movements – despite the current situation – had a lazy, languid quality about them, as though she were a marionette and her strings had suddenly been cut.
And he had no doubt as to who had made her look so.
He would have seriously considered going down and punching the Cullen boy squarely in the face on account of her honor were it not for the way the young man stared back at her – oblivious to the fact that Bella was dragging her belligerently reluctant canine monstrosity directly toward him. The awkward, anxious look appeared on the young man's face when he had been in Isabella's presence before was gone, replaced with an expression of pure wonderment and adoration – as if she had shown him the face of God, and now he could not see it enough.
Dr. Reyerson snorted, remembering when the same look had been plastered on his own face as a teenager, after a night of awkward fumbling in the back of his father's enormous Packard.
I'll be damned.
"So that's how it is," he muttered softly.
As if he had somehow heard him, the Cullen boy swiveled his red headed gaze over and up to the third story window of Dr. Reyerson's office. Their eyes held for a long moment. Dr. Reyerson could have sworn he nodded, but he was not certain, because Jake chose that moment to lean forward and sneeze wetly in the young man's face.
X X X X X
Edward could feel the ripples of disgust from the bottom of his toes to the tips of his hair as the hot, thick strands of dog saliva slid slowly down his cheek.
It didn't help that Bella was fairly braying like a donkey in his ear.
"Oh, Edward, I think Jake likes you!"
He tried to smile, she was laughing from relief after all, but the movement brought the trickling sheen of dog slobber all too close to the corner of his mouth. Instead he settled for leaning back as far as he could, which resulted in the offending mess sliding down into his collar instead.
'Like' seemed to be a questionable word. The affectionate creature in question sat stiffly on Bella's boots, radiating disapproval, forcing her to reach forward unnaturally as she wiped Edward's face with her shirtsleeve.
At the sound of Edward's begrudging "Thanks," Jake began to growl, lowly.
"Knock it of, Jake," Bella muttered, kneeing him gently in the ribs. "He's not an enemy and you know it."
Jake huffed for Bella's benefit, but Edward knew the matter was far from resolved.
He was about to say as much, when he was interrupted by the screech of an old double-hung window opening and the bellowing voice of his own worst-case scenario.
"Swan!" Dr. Reyerson's voice echoed in the small courtyard for all and sundry to hear. "Get yourself and your dog up here. That thesis draft won't read itself. And bring that Lothario with you." The window slammed down again and Edward winced.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the very tip of Jake's tail twitch.
X X X X X
Edward entered Dr. Reyerson's office with the same feeling of anxiety and dread as he'd had over a month before.
He was greeted with the same feeling of silence that was not silence, as Bella's mentor fixed him with his steel gray eyes, and pared him down in his microscopic gaze to his barest, most shameful molecules.
There was no handshake, no stilted dishonest pleasantries, just the barest tilt of a head toward the empty chair by the desk.
Without further preamble Dr. Reyerson opened the bottom drawer of his desk, pulling out a bottle of Glendfiddich and two glasses.
"Scotch?" Dr. Reyerson's tone brooked no opposition.
He slapped a glass in front of Edward, the amber liquid sloshing dangerously close to the rim.
Edward grimaced. This was not going to be pleasant.
For all of you who have waited on this - thank you. All your notes, and bits of encouragement have kept me going in spite of myself, and I can't say thank you enough. As for the next update, if it doesn't come by the New Year, I can't have boozecakes, so you bet your fannies (posterior cleavage outside the US) I'm working on it. Plus, I've been dying to write the next scene for a very, very long time. I promise there won't be another six months of waiting. I can't wait that long myself. :)
The poem is John Donne's "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning." Under the circumstances, I found it highly appropriate.
And now, for interactive purposes, when my husband proposed, he never asked me to marry him, just handed me the ring and said, "put it on." (suave, I know). If you're married, how were you proposed to? If not, how would you like to be proposed to? Aaaand, go!