This is inspired by Rob's gray boxer briefs (Phoenix has a thing for them. RealMenGlitter, too) and other articles of clothing.

CHAMPAGNE TOAST to my beta Lindz26! We did it! I can't thank her enough. Thank you, Lindz!

Stephenie Meyer owns all things Twilight... inspirational!


Bella POV

It had taken me forever to find this gift for Edward. I wrapped it in tissue and then placed it into a flat box. I tied a bright red ribbon around the package and, finally, I tucked a little card under the bow.

"Bel-la!" The distant call beckoned me.

I ran to the window that had a view of the lake. Edward, with knotted rope in hand, perched on the gentle slope of the bank, was getting ready to launch himself. He waited for me to watch him, flashing me a huge grin. Then, with a wave he took three running steps and jumped hard off the bank, swinging out away from the tree and over the glistening water. At the height of the arc, he released the rope and tucked his knees under his arms. He ended his show with a huge cannonball splash.

I was still amazed how he had regained all his mobility in his upper body. He had no lasting internal damage after nearly dying. Only a mean scar on his chest.

Back on the shore, five young boys whooped it up, pumping their fist in little circles above their heads. "Awesome, dude. That was the biggest splash, by far!"

Edward, his glistening head poised over the water, shouted back, "Try to top that! Come on, round two. Who's next?" One by one, the boys took their turn, never quite matching the size of Edward's splash, they being way smaller and lighter in weight. But it didn't matter. Calling from the floating platform, Edward ranked their jumps on a scale of ten even though it was a false competition, the objective being to just have fun and, in that, they all won.

At the end of the short path that led to the water, sat a tall, lean gentleman who clapped like an audience member at the opera. Edward had laid out a blanket for him, with a chair, and a little folding tray table so that he could set his coffee mug down.

I hurried downstairs to the lake to join him.

"How does it feel to be a hero?" I asked as I approached the man from behind.

J. Jenks half-turned and watched me sit down cross-legged next to him, facing the lake.

"What you mean?"

"I remember when I first met you, J. You told Edward that you weren't the one that saved his life. But after two years, I think you might just qualify as a hero. Because of you, he is where he is today."

"I think you can say the same for yourself. You've been his inspiration."

"Hmm. I guess we both had a hand in it," I conceded. "Why do you do it, J.?"

"One of my favorite authors said in East of Eden, 'You're going to pass something down no matter what you do or if you do nothing. Even if you let yourself go fallow, the weeds will grow and the brambles. Something will grow.' I have the satisfaction of knowing I'm growing something of value, not weeds."

"John Steinbeck. I like that."

"How's school going, Bella?"

"Really well. I'm majoring in Architecture and Ecological Design. Did you know that I helped design this house with Esme? After the fire, she had this grand idea that our families would be spending time here together so she wanted to rebuild and expand the floor plan to include more bedrooms and common space. And she wanted it to be more energy efficient so we designed it to harness passive solar energy for heating." I felt like I was giving a presentation in class.

"But we have so many cloudy days here," J. said skeptically.

"That's what I thought at first. But we have ways to store energy generated from sunny days with the use of certain building materials, orientation to the sun and design. And that's just one of the ways that we've made this house environmentally friendly. I'm using it as the subject for one of my projects."

"That's impressive." J. pivoted to look at the house, nodding. "And it's beautiful, too."

"Yeah, I discovered that I have a knack for this sort of thing. I thank Esme. She got me interested and kind of mentored me. Just like how you mentored Edward."

"I haven't done that for quite a while, as you know. We ended our little experiment once he left for school."

"But he still calls you at least once a week, and you still make yourself available. I mean, here you are spending your whole day chauffeuring five kids from Marcus House, just because Edward wants them to have some fun, away from the confines of the brick prison," I said, making air quotes with my fingers. "That's really nice of you."

"Well, I like Edward. With him you get a sense that he loves life because he needs to devote himself to something or someone. He has a high capacity for love and it's infectious. I'm just glad he uses that energy on positive things and not the streets, or drugs. I think he gives you credit for that. You really helped him focus."

"That's what he keeps telling me. He says he couldn't do it without me."

"And your living arrangements? How's that going?"

"Um, we had a rough start. As soon as we found an apartment that was equidistant between Hastings College and UC Berkeley we seemed to get over our stupid power struggle. But we're both liking San Francisco. It's so diverse, and we love the weather. You and Maxie should come visit us there. You can haunt your old Alma Mater."

"Not a bad idea. I haven't been back to Hastings since my fifth year reunion. My old Family Law professor keeps asking me to join him at the annual symposiums." J. shrugged his shoulders. "I just never had the time."

"Edward would love that. Walking around with you in the college that you both share, god, I think his head would explode with pride."

J. laughed, "I've created a monster. It's a terrific law school. I'm glad Edward took my suggestion."

"You did more than suggest, J. Your contact there was so nice to Edward. He helped design the perfect intern program, blending undergraduate work with some classes in basic law. I swear Edward spends more time at Hastings than at the Berkeley campus. It's a good thing we live together or I'd never see him."

"Do I detect a complaint there?"

"No, no. To be honest, I like not spending every waking minute with Edward. I still have a lot of growing up to do and I can't be there all the time for him, as much as he'd like me to. We spend enough time together and apart. Thankfully he's patient with me because I have a lot of shit to sort out in my head. Oops, pardon my French."

"What are you conflicted about? You are lucky to be alive after what you went through, lucky to have someone who is so devoted to you, lucky to have a loving family."

"That's just it. A friend of mine said that conflict is innate in a lucky person. Everything seems okay now, but I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop."

"Bella, don't make the mistake of waiting for some big moment to come before you move on. Go ahead and start living your life now. Commit to life, Bella, so you don't just go through the motions."

I rested my chin on my upturned knees and hugged my shins. Go through the motions? Is that what I was doing? Did I just sleepwalk through the past two years? I was always letting Edward take the lead, steering me in his direction. What if I was really meant to do something entirely different?

Fuck! Looks like I have to make some decisions.

I turned my attention back to the lake. On cue, Edward shouted at me, "Bella, come join me, the water's fine!"

J. and I both laughed, the symbolism not escaping us.

"Go ahead, Bella, jump in," he prodded me gently, "with both feet."

Already dressed in my swimsuit, I shimmied out of my shorts and top. "Thanks, J. You're a godsend." I kissed him lightly on the cheek and ran to the shoreline, making a long graceful dive into the cool, clear water. It felt good.

Edward POV

Ah, peace and quiet. The swaying of the hammock lulled me into sweet relaxation.

J. and the boys left about an hour ago. When I told J. of my plan to spend July 4th with some of the boys from Marcus House, I was so surprised that he offered to drive them here. I was totally prepared to make the trip to Port Angeles to pick them up. But he said he missed seeing me, the sentimental fool. I swear, every time I think J. has had enough of me, he's got my back. I owe so much to him.

We had a fuckawesome day. I think the boys had fun. No, I know they did. I would have totally dug a day like this when I was at Marcus. Who wouldn't like cutting it up in the lake, then lunch on the grill of hot dogs and hamburgers, followed by exploring in the surrounding woods. We had such a good time that I promised we'd get together next month, before I left for school.

Bella walked up to me and put her hand on the hammock, gently rocking it.

"That was nice. Everyone had a good time," she said, a little too mechanically.

"Did you?" I asked Bella.

"Me? Sure, sure."

"You've been absent today." I tapped her temple gently. "Something on your mind?"

"Well… I had an interesting conversation with J. He's a wise man."

"Oh? The king of quotes. He has a way of clearing away the bullshit. Should I be worried? Relieved? Jealous?" I laughed nervously.

"Riiight. He's not my type." Bella slapped me on the arm. "I guess I have a lot to think about."

"So it seems. Let me know if I can help."

"Naw, I have to do this all by myself." A little frown pulled down the corners of her mouth.

Oh, shit. This sounded ominous. Bella had been really detached lately. Almost like a zombie. She's never too happy or too sad, she's just, well, there. I kept waiting for some spark but what if it was me that was killing her spirit? What if we were killing each other?

For the first time since I had met her, I had doubts. Now, I think she was having her doubts, too.

"I have a gift for you," she said. "Just something to replace what James destroyed that night you found me in the basement." She handed me a flat box tied with a ribbon.

"Really? Aw, that's sweet of you." I slipped the card out from under the bow and read Bella's shy and messy handwriting. She had scribbled:

"Thanks for saving me. I hope you like it."

I untied the ribbon and lifted the lid. Nestled in the folds of tissue paper was a brand new Stoli t-shirt, not faded, or worn and stitched together in makeshift repair. It looked bright and beautiful. I looked up at Bella. She had tears in her eyes for some reason.

"Thank you, baby. I do like it. I can't believe you remembered, especially in the state you were in. After all you went through, you remembered what happened to my t-shirt."

I jumped out of the hammock, unbuttoned the shirt that I had on and slipped it off. Then I shook out my new Stoli shirt and pulled it over my head and down my torso. It smelled new and crispy, and it was a perfect fit. Ahh, it will take no time at all to break in this bad boy.

When I finally looked up, Bella was crying. Full out bawling.

I sat down on the porch step and gathered her up in my arms and held her tightly. "Shh, shh. My love, please don't cry about it. What brought this on? What did I do now?"

"It's not what you did. You've been a fucking rock. It's me. I don't want to grow," Bella wailed.

Weeds? What the fuck? I held her and stroked her back, thinking of what she said while she wet my new Stoli tee with her mucousy tears.

Ahh, this is J. talking. The weeds thing. Something's going to grow, no matter what you do or if you do nothing, etc. etc. How many times have I heard him give me that little pep talk. To hear that come out of Bella rang alarm bells. Sounds like she was about to do a little personal gardening.

I guess it's time for me to be a man and get this out on the table.

Shit, I was scared.

"Bella, look at me." I pulled her away and lifted her chin with my fingertips. Her red eyes looked back at me through wet eyelashes. "Lately, I've been feeling some distance between us. I chalked it up to the pressures of finals and coming home for the summer. But it hasn't gotten better. I've told you so many times, through my words and actions that I would be with you until you told me that you loved me... or to go away. So, I've been waiting... patiently."

She started to focus on my eyes, a little crease forming between her eyebrows.

"It was just yesterday that I told myself to let you go. At first I thought I was doing you a favor by giving you time and space but I've come to the conclusion that maybe I'm causing you some harm by hanging around, waiting for you to love me. You've always been someone I could rely on... always, but now I need something more. I need to rely on your love and commitment... to yourself. I want to know that you know that you are doing the best for yourself.

"I mean, what if I wasn't around? Maybe you would find someone that you really got excited about, someone you could devote yourself to. Someone that you could let into your heart, one hundred percent. I love you too much to be an albatross around your neck."

I took her hands in mine. "I'm going to say this to you with all the love that I can. I'm going to give you an out, if you want to take it. You can end this now and no hard feelings. A clean break. I'll be fucking devastated, but that's just me. Because, if we go on like this, we might end up hating each other."

"Is that an ultimatum?" she said, looking down at her hands clasped between my palms.

"No, but it's a challenge, Bella. Take charge of your life."

"Huh, that's exactly what J. said," she said pensively.

Bella sunk against my chest. I could feel her nervous fidgeting; the constant bouncing of her foot against the stair created a tap, tap, tap beat in the quiet afternoon.

After a few minutes, she grabbed the card from my lap and went into the house, saying over her shoulder, "Be right back."

I rested my head on my arms, burying my face. I did it. I finally got it off my chest, the dull weight that had been pressing on my heart for the past six months, at least. I would accept my fate now, knowing that I did everything I could to make mine and Bella's life meaningful, if only briefly.

At that moment, I felt peaceful. For the first time in two and a half years, I had no sense of urgency. I had no regrets or confusion. I was calm, even without the benefit of Bella to relieve my stress.

This was good news.

Finally, Bella returned to the porch and sat down next to me. She handed me the same card. "I've changed my mind. Please read it again," she said emphatically.

I opened the card and my chest constricted. The words I had most wanted to hear from her were declared clearly and loudly. She had crossed out "I hope you like it." It now read, in big block letters:

"Thanks for saving me. I LOVE YOU."

I ran my finger lightly over the words, feeling the deep grooves that her earnest pen had made. "Do you mean it, babe? I've waited years to hear you really say this again. Please don't play with me."

"I... I do. I know it now." She was sobbing, blowing bubbles of snot from her nose. "I love you!" She wailed it like she was trying to convince me, clutching my shirt and stretching little dimples into the wet fabric with her fingertips. My new t-shirt was getting a beating.

"But I don't understand how your feelings can change in one afternoon, after one conversation with J," I asked. I wasn't convinced.

"Edward, it never made sense for you to love me, to choose me from all the other girls. You're gorgeous and I'm, well, look at me," she pulled away a bit, pointing to herself. "I remember the first day we met; you admitted that you were just using me. I've carried that with me ever since then, first with the breakup from Rosalie, then James' trial, then your recovery and school. I really felt responsible for keeping you on track. But you're doing well now, exceeding everyone's expectations. And so I've struggled recently, waiting for you to wake up and realize that you don't need me anymore. I've been protecting myself, holding back, from you. From life."

"I've noticed."

"Now you are suggesting that you don't need me." Bella stressed each word. "You are really willing to let me go?"

"Yes, I meant what I said."

She sighed while her shoulders relaxed. "In a weird way, that frees me from my worst fears. The shoe has finally dropped and it's my turn now. My turn to take charge and choose what I want." Bella put her arms around my waist and laid her head on my chest. More tears were wetting my shirt but she was calm.

"I want you," she said steadily. "I want to start fresh. I want to know what it's like to be in a relationship of my choosing, not by being enlisted on a bleacher in a football field."

"Yeah. I've always felt guilty about that, Bella. I want a real relationship, too. No drama."

"You want boring?" she asked, testing me.

"When it comes to life and death, yeah, I've had enough," I said. "But when it comes to tripping up my heart when we touch, looking forward to the end of the day to be with you, filling my world with beauty and purpose... that's the kind of excitement that I want. That's what I get from you."

I tipped her chin up to look into her eyes. Her eyes always gave her away and I needed to read them now. They looked back at me, clear and confident. "Are you sure? Clean break, remember?" I pressed her for reassurance.

She giggled lightly. Sitting up and taking my hands in hers this time, she asked with a smile and a twinkle in her eye, "Edward Cullen, I love you. What would you say if I asked you to be my boyfriend?"

My response was visceral. My heart seemed to stop and my breath hitched as I recognized that same question as the one that I had asked her that first day I met her. This time it was real. Years of hard work, of walking a tightrope between staying on track and falling into the abyss, had come back full circle to Bella's simple declaration of acceptance.

But it meant more than that to me. It was my redemption. Here I thought that I was releasing Bella, but actually she had just given me my own freedom. Freedom from the fuckups of my past, my need to right my wrongs, my obsession to prove myself to those that I loved. If I had lost her because of what we went through together, then my life would forever be shadowed by my past.

Bella, it seemed, was willing to see me in a new light, starting today. I was getting the clean break. A real chance to start over.

I hunched over, hugging my stomach, trying not to weep… and not succeeding. My tears flowed onto my lap and I felt her arm hug my shoulders and pull me to her.

"You love me," I said so softly, I wasn't sure if it was in my head.

Bella pushed the hair from my face and kissed my wet eyelids. "Yes, Edward, I do. You did it, babe. You proved all that you said you would, so long ago… to our families, to J, to God even, and to me. I know now that I love you with all my heart and my mind. No longer will it get in the way. Let's go inside, my love. I'll prove it to you."

I wiped my face on the sleeve of my, now abused, Stoli tee. I took her outstretched hand, allowing her to pull me to my feet.

With unspoken surrender and gratitude, I nodded as Bella led me into the house and into her heart.

~The End~

This has been an amaaazing experience, writing and completing a story. I can't tell you how I've enjoyed, cringed at, struggled with, thrilled at, and been thankful for the whole process.

There is a wonderful quote by Anais Nin, "Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage." That's for all you first time writers who have found this venue to test your courage. Congratulations!

I'd love to hear your reviews of this chapter and the story as a whole.


And for those telling others about my story, thanks for pimping!

I love you all!