A/N: For all of you that checked out the Broken Holiday Record Contest, this was my entry in it. Hope you all enjoy it, and thank you to all of you who voted for it!

There's No Place Like Home for the Holidays

December 1st

Twenty four days. Just twenty four days left until Christmas...and Bella was dreading it as a tear streaked down her face while withdrawing her final, and undeniably most sentimental and special, ornament from the safe confines of its velvet lined wooden box.

It was her first ever Christmas gift, a stocking stuffer, from Edward - her boyfriend of six years. He'd gotten her an ornament every year, but this one was her favorite because it had a picture of the two of them in a loving embrace on the front along with the words 'First Christmas' at the top, and '2003' at the bottom.

She sniffled, smiling sadly as she tenderly ran her fingers over the image of his brightly smiling face and kissed it before placing it on a branch in the very center of the front of their tree.

She missed him so much. It had been seven long and grueling months since she'd last seen him, since he'd been deployed overseas again for what she prayed would be the last time. The last four years of their relationship had been hard on both of them with the extended periods of separation. This year would be the worst, however, because this would be the first time they wouldn't be together for Christmas.

Even though she missed him horribly, she was so very proud of him. He'd followed his dreams right out of high school and joined the United States Marines. She smiled and sniffled again, remembering just how handsome he'd looked in his full dress uniform when he'd graduated from basic training. He'd achieved amazing things since that day.

In just four short years, he quickly rose through the ranks with his impressive leadership skills and had finally achieved his goal of Master Gunnery Sergeant. He was now leading his own infantry somewhere in the deserts of Iraq.

She sighed as she packed away the last of the storage containers and wondered if he missed her anywhere near as much as she did him at that very moment.

Exhausted and filthy from head to toe from running his squadron through drills all day, Edward collapsed on his cot in his tent and raised his hand to the collection of photos he faithfully placed next to his bed every time he settled into a new base camp. With a faint smile, he traced the delicate lines of the face of the woman he loved with all of his heart. The pictures were few and had become creased and wrinkled over the years, but he carried them with him every time he left home to keep his heart close to him at all times.

When he'd first joined the Marines, he'd never taken into consideration how much time he would lose with his Bella over the years, or how hard the months apart would be on both of them. He was sure that if she wasn't as strong as she was, and didn't love him as much as she did...he would have regretted his decision to join the military - even if it had enabled him to achieve his dreams.

He looked down at his watch and groaned, knowing it was much too late to call her even though hearing her sweet voice would help ease the hollow ache that had taken residence in his chest the moment he'd turned to wave at her after passing through the security checkpoint at the airport. The same ache that always formed whenever he turned to wave at her for one last glimpse of her beautiful face before leaving her side for another undetermined amount of time.

It had been seven months, two weeks, and four days since he'd last seen her beautiful, teary eyed face in person. It had been three weeks and two days since he'd heard her sweet longing voice, and he desperately needed to hear it again.

He couldn't wait to speak with her and give her the news. While they'd both hoped and prayed that this would be the last time he'd be deployed, he now had confirmation that it would be. He'd been offered a position as an instructor at Camp Pendleton, California. He hoped she'd agree to move there with him, but he hoped she'd agree to something else first. Something he'd wanted for as long as he could remember.

Still smiling, he kissed his fingers and touched her precious face before lifting himself from his cot to head to the shower before hitting up the mess hall for supper.

December 6th

Bella ran around her and Edward's townhome, trying to find her other Uggz boot. She swore she was going to strangle Edward's dog one of these days because it was always snatching up her shoes and hiding them. Why he even bought them a dog when he was rarely ever home was beyond her, but Edward claimed he hated worrying that she was always alone while he was gone.

She laughed dryly as she saw Gunner, their three year old blue eyed Alaskan Malamute, rolled up in one of Edward's sweatshirts on his ginormous doggy bed, only his eyes, snout, and entire hind quarters poking out from underneath of it as he looked up at her pitifully.

Some tough guard dog you are, Champ, she thought amusedly.

"I know buddy...I miss him too," she sighed as she bent down to rub his head. "Now what'd you do with my shoe ya little bugger?"

He whined at her and gave her a goofy doggy grin, with his tongue hanging out of the side of his mouth, making her laugh as she scratched his ears.

Just then, there was a knock at the door and Bella braced her hands on her knees as she stood and headed off to answer it. Upon opening the door, she was greeted with the rosy cheeks and shining eyes of her best friends, Rosalie and Alice.

"Good Lord woman, move! It's freezing out here!" Rosalie huffed as she barreled through the door, leaving Alice giggling behind her as she hurried in.

"Why aren't you ready to go yet? If you want those packages to get to him and his troop before Christmas, we have to get it mailed by Monday at the latest," Rosalie spoke again through chattering teeth as she unwound her scarf from around her neck and pulled off her knitted cap.

"Gunner took my damn boot again and I can't find it," Bella shrugged and Rose rolled her eyes.

"Gimme the one on your foot," Rose demanded and Bella snorted as she handed her the shoe.

"Gunner...come 'ere," she commanded, and he instantly rose from his bed and trotted over. She held the shoe out to him and he sniffed it. "Find it."

Bella groaned as the stupid dog took off and came back a minute later with the boot hanging from his slobbering mouth.

"Really, Bella. You know Edward trained this dog to the T. I'm surprised he doesn't stand on his hind legs to make you breakfast in bed every morning," Rosalie laughed as she handed Bella the shoe.

"That damn dog doesn't listen to me for anything," Bella scoffed. "Watch."

"Gunner...sit," she ordered and he grinned that damn goofy dog grin at her again...but didn't sit. Alice tried to hide her snickers behind her stylish scarf but Bella caught the amusement in her eyes and pursed her lips as Rosalie flat out guffawed.

"Man's best friend my ass," Bella grumbled as she grabbed her coat, scarf, and hat from the front closet.

"Oh Bella...he loves you. You're just not a very authoritative person," Alice giggled. At this Gunner barked and jumped at Bella, attacking her face with doggy kisses that made her squeal as she tried to fight him off.

"Blugh," she grimaced, wiping the doggy drool off her face. "Yeah...I'll leave the commanding up to Edward. I just wish he'd stop taking my damn shoes...then we'd get along swimmingly."

After one last trip through the lower level of the townhome to ensure she wasn't forgetting anything, Bella grabbed the cardboard box containing the beginnings of Edward's care package off the kitchen table and turned toward her friends. "Alright...let's roll. We've got a ton of shopping to do, and one day to do it."

"Someone's in an abnormally good mood today," Rosalie commented amusedly as they stepped back out into the frigid December air and made their way down to Bella's Trailblazer that was already warming up, thanks to the automatic start that Edward had installed two years prior.

It had been the first thing he'd done as soon as he'd come home from a three month stint in Germany after hearing from his father how she'd nearly broken her leg from slipping on the ice while scraping off the windshield. Just one of the many reasons he hated being away from her so much. If he'd have been there, he would have warmed up her truck and scraped it free of ice for her...and salted the path from their door to the truck...which she hadn't done.

Bella smiled as she adjusted the box in her arms and met the eyes of her friends. "Edward called last night. It was the first time I've heard from him in weeks."

"Does he know when he's coming home yet?" Alice asked, smiling brightly at her friend. She often wondered how they'd managed to keep their relationship so strong over the years. It seemed they spent more time apart than together since the day he left for boot camp.

"No...he doesn't, but..."she trailed off as she tossed the box in the back of the truck and then spun toward her friends. "When he comes home this time...it's for good! No more overseas deployment!"

The three of them squealed and laughed as they hugged each other, overcome with joy.

When they'd calmed down, they all climbed into the truck and chattered excitedly on their way to the mall. They were collectively buying gifts for his entire infantry. Nothing spectacular, just care packages to let them all know that they were all in someone's thoughts during the holidays. It was something Bella had come up with when Edward mentioned that some of his men didn't really have any loved ones back home waiting for them, and Alice and Rosalie jumped at the chance to do something nice for them.

"So what's he gonna do when he gets out?" Alice asked as they approached the entrance to the mall.

"He's not getting out...he's going career, but he wouldn't tell me what his plan was. He only told me that our days of spending months on end apart were over. Sneaky bugger's holding out on me," Bella chuckled.

Upon entering the mall, they divested themselves of their hats and gloves and opened their coats, ready to tackle their massive shopping list.

"Okay...what's the battle plan?" Rose asked, looking at Bella.

"We need packages of undershirts, tank tops, socks...lots of socks, and underwear...try to get multiple sizes and styles. Then for fun, I figured some Nerf footballs, a dartboard maybe, some playing cards...stuff that's easy to send...nothing huge. Our last stop will be the grocery store for sweets and treats that won't spoil quickly."

"What about phone cards, or like envelopes and stamps and stuff...writing supplies maybe?" Alice asked and Bella grinned widely.

"Great idea! Oh! Did I tell you guys that the kids at the community center all drew pictures and wrote letters for them?" Bella asked.

A week before, Bella had asked all the kids in her after school program to make some pictures for the soldiers that couldn't be with their families for the holidays. They'd taken to the project with an astounding level of enthusiasm and within a week had compiled stacks of paintings, drawings, letters, and handmade ornaments out of construction paper for them. She hadn't expected her kids to do as much as they had, but it warmed her heart that they all wanted to do something nice for the men serving their country.

"Aw, that's so sweet," Alice crooned, wiping at her misty eyes.

After seven hours of shopping, one trip back to Bella's to pick up Gunner, and four trips back out to the truck to drag all of their purchases into Rosalie's living room, the trio collapsed on the couch, sighing exhaustedly in unison. Looking around at the plethora of bags cluttering the floor, they shot wary looks at each other knowing they'd be up half the night sorting everything out into boxes to be shipped to the troops.

"Well...let's get to it ladies," Rose chuckled as she slid off the couch and onto the floor.

They worked diligently for the next several hours, listening to Christmas carols and wrapping individual packages marked only by size on the nametags- each containing a package of shirts, tank tops, socks, underwear, razors, shaving cream, batteries, a phone card, writing supplies, envelopes, stamps, two different kinds of sweet treats, and at least two pieces of artwork from her kids along with a letter. The only three packages that differed from the rest, were the ones designated for the three women in his troop. They were wrapped in a different style paper and had frilly bows on them. The girls hoped they'd be able to distinguish them from the rest...or else some guy would be wondering why he was getting women's bras and underwear for Christmas.

Aside from those personal packages, they wrapped all of the entertainment type purchases and packed them into two boxes that Edward could dole out randomly. Looking around at the stacks of cardboard shipping boxes, Bella knew one thing for sure. After the insane amount of money they'd all spent today, she definitely wasn't looking forward to what it'd cost her to send all of them.

The only comfort the sight before her provided, was that no one in his squadron would feel forgotten come Christmas Day. That was enough for the three of them to smile for what they'd done.

December 17th

"Hello?" Bella answered the phone with a drowsy voice. Sneaking a peek at her alarm clock, she blearily read the glowing numbers depicting the time. It was quarter after two in the morning.

"Baby," Edward sighed, grinning like a fool and wide awake because it was only quarter after one in the afternoon on his end. "What did you do?"

"You got the packages already?" she snickered as she rolled over to turn the bedside lamp on and Gunner lifted his head up from the foot of the bed to look at her curiously before getting up and laying back down, curled up right beside her.

"Yeah...that was insane!" he laughed, "I can't believe you did all that. Everyone's been going on and on all day about how wonderful and amazing you are."

"Well, I had some help," she smiled. "Did you like your package?"

"I love it, sweetheart. I already added the new photos to the collection next to my bed. Thank you," he responded, wishing he could wrap his arms around her. It had been too long. Way too long. "I miss you, Bella. I miss you a lot, baby. I can't wait to come home."

"I miss you, too, Edward. This is the longest you've ever been gone," she sighed, fighting back her tears. "When you get home we're not leaving this bed for at least a week. I just want to wrap myself around you and never let go."

"Consider it a done deal," he chuckled, rubbing the center of his chest, right over his heart that was throbbing with desperate longing to be with her at that moment. "So what have you been up to since your last letter? I got one from my parents yesterday. Mom said she finally convinced you to join them for Christmas."

"Yeah...she did. I just...it won't be the same without you there, Edward. It's gonna be hard enough spending Christmas Eve with my own parents without you. Spending Christmas day with your family while you're not there is gonna be excruciating," she admitted.

"Bella, love. Please spend the day with them. They adore you and I want to know that you're surrounded by people that love you as much as I do, not sitting at home crying because I'm not there. Please, baby. I know how hard this has all been on you, it's been hard on me too, but it's almost over," he tried to soothe her, wishing there was something he could do in that moment to ease her heartache. "Besides, Emmett and Rosalie will be there this year since they're spending Christmas Eve with her parents."

"Yeah, I know. Rose told me. She and your mom kind of ganged up on me when we went out to breakfast at the beginning of last week," she responded, grimacing slightly at the memory of it.

They'd been relentless throughout the entire meal, almost nearing the point of telling her they'd have Emmett hogtie her to the roof of his Jeep if she didn't willingly show up on her own. It had been utterly ridiculous. And then Esme had pulled out the "I'm already spending Christmas without one of my children, please don't be the second child I have to miss on that day," card...and come on, what person would have the heart to refuse her after that?

"I bet they did," he chuckled. "It's just because they all love you so much. Sometimes I think they love you more than me."

"Of course they do, because I don't walk around with a stick up my butt all the time," she teased, trying to lighten their conversation and he laughed.

It wasn't often they got to speak to one another and she tried her best to contain her heartache when they were granted the rare opportunity. She never wanted to taint the precious few minutes they had with melancholy. She could wallow in her longing for him on her own time...she had plenty of it when he was gone.

"I do not have a stick up my butt," he shot back defensively, earning himself a few questionable looks to which he rolled his eyes and mouthed "girlfriend", getting them to laugh.

"You sure do...that commanding officer persona thing you have going on is like a giant broomstick up your ass," she laughed. "By the way...your dog still won't listen to a word I say. He ate, not just stole, but ate my damn sneaker yesterday."

"Bella," he whined, fighting off his amusement because he knew damn well she loved Gunner to bits and pieces. It was the reason she was so soft with him and let him get away with murder...which drove him nuts. "You have to lay down the law with him. He won't listen if you constantly baby him...and don't argue with me, I know you do it. I can't count how many times you've used that baby voice with him and snuck him treats when you should have been crating him."

Bella just laughed under her breath as she buried her face in Gunner's fur and rubbed the top of his head vigorously. As much as she griped about the dog, she really did love the hell out of him.

"He's in the bed isn't he?" Edward asked suddenly, catching her off guard.

"What? No," she squeaked, her eyes widening at the dog's goofy panting grin. "He knows he's not allowed in the bed."

"You're such a crap liar, baby," he laughed after Gunner groaned as he rolled, giving Bella his belly to rub.

"Tattle tale...what'd you give us away for?" she chastised, scratching his belly in the spot that made his leg shake.

"Bella...you gave yourself away when you squeaked out your denial," he chuckled, shaking his head and wondering if he'd ever stop falling even more madly in love with her.

Even if she spoiled their dog rotten constantly.

"I love you," she chuckled, laying back against her pillows.

"Uh huh...suck up," he grinned, leaning back in his chair as he ran a hand through his hair. He'd give about anything in that moment to be at home, laying in bed with her and just joking around like they were doing over the phone. He missed her smile and her laugh tremendously. "I love you too, baby. More than anything else in this world."

They spoke for a while longer, trying to soak up as much time as they possibly could, regardless of the late hour on her end. Sleep was inconsequential to her when the chance to hear his voice arose so infrequently. He wished he could stay on the phone with her until the moment he was able to return home, but much to his dismay, he had to end the call much sooner than he would have liked.

It killed him to hear the tears in her voice as they said their goodbyes when they'd been absent for the majority of the call, but he knew it wouldn't be that much longer until he'd never have to hear her sadness from thousands of miles away again. Hopefully anyway.

He knew there was no guarantee in that though, and that if there ever arose a situation that required him to be deployed again, he'd have to follow orders. It was just a part of being in the military.

When the call to defend your country arose, you bravely put your life on the line and answered with pride.

As Bella hung up the phone and turned out her light, she allowed the tears to flow freely and curled herself up with Gunner as she cried herself back to sleep. With each day that passed, her longing and desperation for him to return to her deepened and she prayed even more fervently for the day when she could wake in his embrace every morning.

December 24th - Christmas Eve

Bella woke early after a long restless and tear filled night. She hadn't heard from Edward in a week, and hadn't received a letter from him in nearly two. Depressed and missing him to the point where it hurt just to breathe, she forced herself from the bed and tugged her side of the bedding back into place. His side hadn't been disturbed since the day she'd washed the sheets and remade the bed. The sight of which every morning only served as a vivid reminder of how very far away from her he was.

She showered and dressed in a pair of jeans and a turtleneck sweater. Nothing dressy, because it had never been required at her parents' house...not that she'd bother to put in the effort anyway if it had been. Before gathering Gunner's bowls and a chew toy, she set Edward's gifts under the tree, determined to leave the tree and his gifts there until he returned home to her. She didn't care if the tree was still up and decorated in July if he wasn't able to return home before then. It was staying up, and the moment he returned home they'd celebrate Christmas together.

She packed her truck with the gifts for their families, along with the caramel apple pie she'd made for dessert and her overnight bag, and then went back in to retrieve Gunner before locking up their home and heading to Forks to be with her parents. She'd spend the night there and then head to the Cullen's home in the morning.

The drive from Seattle to Forks seemed like it took forever to Bella, made only impossibly longer by Gunner's howling along with the radio. She thought it had been cute when Edward had first taught him to "sing along" when he played the piano while everyone sang Christmas carols, but it had gotten way out of hand when Gunner started howling every time one of the familiar songs came on the radio.

And because it was friggen Christmas Eve...every station she flipped to, had some damn holiday song on.

Why oh why hadn't she remembered to grab her iPod? Or at least a damn CD.

"Alright furball...I'll make a deal with you," she said as she pulled into the driveway of her childhood home. Gunner looked at her and his tongue lolled out to the side as he cocked his head at her. It was times like this she wondered if the dog could understand every word she said. "Behave yourself, don't eat any damn shoes, and I'll save you the ham bone for dessert."

He panted and licked his chops as he warbled out a whining groan. She chuckled and shook her head as she opened her door and he nearly knocked her on her ass as he bolted from the truck and proceeded to pee on every bush on his way up to the front door.

"Yup...and we're off to a fantastic start," she grumbled, righting herself from where she'd clung to the door for dear life.

"Bells honey, leave everything in the truck. I'll bring it in," her dad, Charlie, called out to her from the front door. She looked up and smiled as he bent down to pet Gunner before moving aside to let him in the house.

"Please save your mother from decimating the holiday ham. I swear I've had to extinguish three fires already today," he chuckled, leaning down to kiss the top of her head as he zipped up his coat. "Merry Christmas, honey."

"Merry Christmas, Dad. I'll see what I can salvage. No peeking at the gifts ya nosey bugger," she laughed, moving into the house.

"I make no promises," he teased as he made his way down the front steps.

She made her way into the kitchen, her nose crinkling a bit at the mix of smells wafting through the house. Cinnamon, nutmeg, glazed ham...and burnt rubber. She couldn't help but wonder just what it was that her mother had set on fire as she took in the war zone claiming itself to be a kitchen.

Looking up, she snorted a laugh at what looked like mashed sweet potatoes on the ceiling.

"Mom...what did you do? It looks like a bomb went off in here," she laughed, calling out to her mother.

"Bella? Is that you baby?" her mom's voice echoed from down the hall.

"None other," she mumbled under her breath as she started lifting lids from pots on the stovetop.

Okay, so the stuffing was toast...if that was actually stuffing, she wasn't sure. At least the veggies seemed edible.

"Oh honey," her mom chuckled as she entered the kitchen. "I do hope you can save some of that."

"It's not so bad actually, Mom," she smiled cheekily as she approached her for a hug. "Merry Christmas."

"Merry Christmas, baby. Have you heard from Edward today?" she asked and Bella sighed as she frowned and shook her head.

"I'm sure he'll call, sweetie. He'd never let the holiday pass without calling you," her mom smiled warmly.

Bella forced a smile on her face as she nodded, but she couldn't manage to smother the searing ache within her chest and how empty she felt without him there with her. With hopes of taking her mind off of his absence, she attacked the kitchen with vigor, scrubbing every surface until it sparkled and then set out to make some fresh stuffing and dinner rolls.

It didn't help. Not in the least.

When they sat down for dinner, Bella barely touched her food, merely pushing it around her plate as she conversed with the people surrounding their dinner table. Billy and Jacob Black had joined them, as well as Jacob's girlfriend Nessie. She was nice and Bella tried her best to keep her engaged in conversation so she wouldn't feel awkward being surrounded by people she didn't really know. She'd been doing a good job of it until Jacob asked about Edward and she had to excuse herself from the table, unable to keep her tears at bay any longer.

When she managed to calm herself and cool her now splotchy skin, she exited the bathroom and startled when she nearly ran into Jacob.

"Jesus you scared me," she laughed breathlessly.

"Sorry...I just wanted to make sure you were okay. I know how hard of a time you have when Edward's overseas or even just stationed somewhere across country. I shouldn't have brought it up," he apologized sincerely.

"No...no, it's okay. I just...it's just harder today than most days...with him not being here," she admitted, letting out a stuttering breath.

"I can only imagine. Listen, Nessie and I are going to take one of those horse drawn carriage rides through the Christmas lights later tonight. You should come...enjoy some hot cocoa and take in the scenery," he offered, hoping to keep her from moping around all night long.

"Thanks, Jake," she smiled, almost genuinely but grateful for the offer nonetheless. "But that's kind of a romantic thing...and having a third wheel tag along kills the feeling of it."

"Please...she's made me bring her there every night for the last two weeks. Having company one night won't be the end of the world," he laughed.

"No, really. You guys enjoy it together. I have to hit the sack early anyway to be at the Cullen's bright and early in the morning for their traditional pajama breakfast," she chuckled as she rolled her eyes.

"My God...they still do that?" he guffawed as he swung an arm over her shoulders and led her back to the dinner table for dessert.

"Yeah...I don't think they'll ever give it up," she grinned amusedly as she shook her head.

The rest of the night went by a tiny bit easier. She wasn't sure if it was because she'd cried and released some of her built up and bottled emotions, or if it was just because Jake went above and beyond the duties of friendship to keep her laughing with his juvenile antics...like bursting out in song but singing all the wrong lyrics, or getting into a battle of holiday movie quotes with her even though he knew he'd never best her in that competition.

It was a game they'd played as kids, and he'd never won a single round against her. Ever.

When their company left for the evening, Bella and her parents opened their gifts. Her father had already packed their gifts for Edward in her truck when he'd retrieved her belongings earlier. Her mother had gotten her a new set of holiday themed pajamas, with the Cullen's traditional breakfast in mind, and a beautiful heart shaped locket necklace that she'd placed her and Edward's pictures in before wrapping.

Her father had gotten her a new printer since hers had finally bit the dust, and a two hundred and fifty dollar Visa gift card so she could buy something she "really wanted". Her stocking contained the usual - new gloves, a bottle of perfume and lotion in the same scent, a package of chapsticks, and a handful of scratch off lottery tickets...her favorite part of her stocking every year.

In return, from her and Edward, she'd bought her mother a pair of diamond hoop earrings and a new matching cashmere scarf and hat set, and a new tackle box filled with goodies for her father along with a plethora of the plaid flannel shirts he loved to wear so much.

All in all, it was a good Christmas in the Swan household...with the exception of Edward's absence...and she called it a night halfway through the third repeat of 'A Christmas Story'.

December 25th- Christmas Day

Bella's alarm clock went off at the ungodly hour of five am, and she slammed her hand down over it repeatedly until it silenced and quickly buried herself back under the warmth of her blankets.

"Go. Away. Gunner," she grumbled as he started pulling the blankets off of her. He whined at her and jumped up into the bed, digging his snout around near her head, trying to uncover her face from her wild hair.

"Bugger off...it's not even daylight yet," she huffed, pulling the blanket back up. He groaned and pawed her back for a few minutes before giving up and rooting himself under the blanket, crawling his way down to her feet.

Bella kicked her legs and thrashed around as she squealed when he started licking her feet and ankles, and ended up catapulting out of the bed when he nipped her toes - landing ass first on the floor.

"I swear you're worse than a five year old on Christmas," she grumbled as he poked his head out from under the blanket and grinned at her with a wagging tongue. Yeah...he knew what day it was, and that Esme would have a giant marinated bone waiting just for him.

Spoiled brat.

"Ah...I see you got the old floorboard rise and shine again," her father chuckled as he stood in her doorway.

"Do I ever get a different kind on Christmas morning from this dog?" she scoffed as she picked herself up from the floor.

"Wonder why he only does it to you...he's never bothered Edward like that," he mused.

"Because he knows Edward would crate him for even trying to get up on the bed and he's all too aware that he's got me wrapped around his little...well not so little paw," she snorted as she slipped a pair of socks and her Uggz on.

"I put all your stuff in the truck already and warmed it up for you. It snowed a bit last night so be careful on the way over to the Cullen's honey. I'm heading back to bed, we'll see you tonight for dinner," he said as he walked over to where she was sitting on the bed and kissed the top of her head.

She smiled up at him as she stood and wrapped her arms around him. She'd always been Daddy's little girl, and no matter how old she got, that was something that would never change. He was her hero, her idol, and most days...her very best friend. She didn't think she would have ever made it through her and Edward's first separation when he went to boot camp without her father, and she was grateful every single day for having him in her life.

"Thanks, Dad. Love you...don't eat too many leftovers today," she snickered.

"Love you too, kiddo, and you know better than to think I'd spoil my appetite before Esme's holiday feast. Try to have fun today, you know Edward wants you to be happy even if he isn't here to share the day with you," he replied, smoothing the back of her hair.

"I know, Dad...I'll try. I promise," she nodded, fingering Edward's eagle, globe, and anchor Marine pendant that she'd bought for him and he always asked her to wear while he was gone. She never took it off from the moment he'd place it on her until the moment he came home and she returned it to his neck. It was their ritual, and they'd never strayed from it once in the past four years.

After giving up on her haystack hair and saying the hell with it, Bella trudged her way down the stairs with Gunner running in circles around her feet the entire time. She held onto the banister with a death grip until she made it to the bottom, fearing he'd send her ass over tea kettle the entire way down with his excitement.

All over a juicy meaty bone. Crazy dog.

By the time she made it to the Cullen's, Gunner had moved into the backseat so he could pace in clipped circles as he slobbered up her rear windows trying to lick the snowflakes that were still falling and sticking to the glass.

"Nutbag," she snorted as she shut the truck's engine off and hopped out, once again almost getting bowled over by the nearly hundred pound beast.

"Gunner! You know better than that shit!" Emmett hollered from the doorway, causing him to cower down into the snow submissively even though his tail was still wagging a mile a minute.

"Need a hand with the packages?" he called out to Bella, stepping out onto the porch as Gunner bolted into the house.

"Definitely," she laughed, making her way around to the back of her truck. Moments later, both Emmett and Carlisle appeared beside her and exchanged warm embraces with her before the men shooed her off into the house.

Stepping through the front door, Bella's eyes closed as she inhaled the delicious scents permeating the air and sighed somewhat happily as her eyes opened. She pulled off her winter outerwear and hung it in the entryway closet, tossing her boots in there as well before heading further into the house to find the others.

"Esme? Rose?" she called out as she peeked into the living room that was decorated like a holiday dream straight out of hallmark movie.

Giant tree with frosted tips and white bulbs, decked out with a mix of elegant and heirloom ornaments, filigree doves, shimmering cherubs, sheer ribbon and topped off with a shining twisted golden grapevine star. Symmetrically stacked gifts lined the floor to both sides of the tree framed by the window that provided the perfect backdrop of a pristine white landscape.

The fireplace mantle was draped with an elegant snow capped garland, adorned with sparkling fruits and shiny ornaments, and the pictures of Esme's beloved children - all six of them - sat nestled behind the decorative strand, a lit glass enclosed pillar candle set between each frame. Hanging across and down the sides of the mantle were the stockings that Esme had hand sewn and crafted for each member of the family.

She could clearly remember the very first year the picture of her and Edward together had appeared upon that very mantle, and just as it had brought her to tears back then, it brought forth the lump of emotion in her throat along with the misting of her eyes once again.

"In the kitchen, honey!" Esme called back, bringing Bella out of her wistful memories of holidays past. She cleared her throat and swallowed as she headed off toward the kitchen, leaving the magical scene behind her.

"Merry Christmas, sweetheart," she sang as she wrapped Bella in a tight embrace. Bella replied in kind after kissing her cheek and moved to hug Rosalie.

"Love the pjs," Rose chuckled, pointing at her outfit that consisted of black cotton pants with colored bulbs and curled green wire all over them, and a red thermal shirt with a neon green bulb right in the center, sporting rosy cheeks and toothy grin while wearing a Santa hat.

"Likewise," she snickered, taking in Rosalie's ice blue flannel ensemble that was covered in penguins, candy canes, and wreaths.

No sooner than Bella had sat down next to Rose with a giant mug of fresh coffee, did the phone ring, setting her nerves on an anticipatory frenzied high as she bolted from her seat, knocking the stool completely over and sending it crashing to the floor as she lunged for the phone.

"Edward?" she asked breathlessly and breathed a sigh of relief when she heard his chuckle flow through the receiver.

"Merry Christmas, love. Did you leave anyone standing in your path to the phone?" he asked, and she smiled as she heard the amusement in his tone.

"Not a one...Merry Christmas, baby."

"Have you guys eaten yet?" he asked, trying to find a quieter place to sit and talk to her.

"Not yet...I just got here like ten minutes ago," she said as her brow furrowed with all the noise in the background. "Where are you?"

"The mess hall...it's pretty wild in here right now," he replied, hoping she couldn't hear the anxiousness in his voice.

"Sounds that way," she chuckled. "Are you guys all having a decent Christmas?"

"Eh...I'm sure we've all had better, but we're making due," he said truthfully. "Listen, sweetheart, I can't talk long. I just wanted to wish you a Merry Christmas and tell you I love you with all my heart and I miss you."

"I love you and miss you too, Edward," she said sadly, wishing the call hadn't been so short.

"Soon, Bella...I promise," he vowed as her eyes filled with tears and she sniffled quietly.

"I can't wait," she sighed, wiping away at her eyes. "I'll give you to your mom so you can wish your family a Merry Christmas. I love you, and I'll light a candle for you tonight during Christmas mass."

"Okay, sweetie. Have fun with everyone today."

Bella passed the phone to Esme who kissed her cheek and whispered to her that everything would be okay before pressing the phone to her ear and leaving the room.

"Hey, hey...no tears. Not today baby girl," Emmett murmured as he caught her trembling frame in his arms and she fell apart.

She fisted his stupid t-shirt with the giant Rudolph with the blinking nose as she pressed her face into his chest and sobbed miserably. "God! I just miss him so fucking much!"

"I know doll, I know. He misses the shit out of you too, but I promise it'll be alright. Just trust me, okay?" he whispered as he rubbed her back soothingly.

She sniffled and groaned in discontent as she rubbed at her face and nodded. She could do this...she could get through this one damn day, and every other day still yet to come until he returned. When she'd composed herself, she gave Emmett a watery smile and returned to her seat next to Rosalie and slumped against her side.

Esme and Carlisle entered the kitchen not ten minutes later and together they all carried the breakfast dishes into the dining room. As delicious as the food both smelled and looked, Bella once again hardly ate a thing. She was miserable...she couldn't deny it, and neither could anyone else around the table as they cast her empathetic smile upon empathetic smile throughout the course of their meal.

After breakfast, Carlisle and Emmett headed outside in their pajamas and coats to shovel the driveway while Esme, Rosalie, and Bella began preparing their dinner feast. Christmas tunes flowed through the kitchen radio as they worked, and they'd each pipe in and sing random parts of songs. Thankfully, Gunner was much too preoccupied with gnawing on his giant bone to bother adding his howling into the mix.

The tradition of their joint efforts helped ease some of Bella's heartache, but it didn't take it away completely. It was just easier to imagine Edward out shoveling snow with the guys than it was to imagine him in the middle of a desert wearing fatigues instead of his typical plaid flannel pants and plain thermal shirt.

Around four they all huddled together in the living room, Bella squashed between Rosalie and Emmett with Gunner snoring beneath her feet as the fire in the fireplace crackled and warmed the room. While she trained her eyes on the giant TV across from the couch that was playing Edward's all time favorite Christmas movie, 'National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation', she couldn't help but wish she'd sent him a copy of the DVD in his care package. She knew they had a DVD player somewhere on base, and she wanted to smack herself for not thinking of it sooner.

As the movie played, the room became progressively darker with the gray skies giving way to the bluish purple nighttime hue of snow clouds - leaving the room only lit by the bright white lights of the Christmas tree, the candles along the mantle, and the fire still crackling and popping away.

Just as the feds swarmed the Griswold's house, Gunner shot up from his spot on the floor and howled toward the window. Bella's eyes shot in the same direction and her breath hitched in her throat at what she spotted through the glass.

Out there, in the vast expanse of shimmering white snow and sparkling iced over trees, was the one sight capable of both crumbling her fragile heart as well as finally enabling it to beat fully and strongly once again. For within that pristine frozen landscape, duffle bag slung over his shoulder and dog tags swinging to and fro against his chest as he trudged his way through the snow, was the other half of her heart finally returning home to her.

"Edward," she breathed, her body moving quicker than her mind could process what she was seeing. Tears streamed down her face as her socks slid across the wooden flooring, the thumps of her feet accompanying the clicking of Gunner's paws as they bolted toward the door, leaving the rest of the family behind them laughing. She hopped around at the doorway, trying to slide her Uggz on and open the door at the same time. She nearly fell out the front door, the continued mantra of Edward's name falling from her lips as tears continued to cascade down her face.

"Edward!" she sobbed joyously as she hurtled herself off the porch, landing in the snow and taking off again without even a fraction of a moment's pause.

He looked up and grinned widely at her, dropping his duffle bag from his shoulder to the ground as he held his arms out for her and she crashed into him, knocking him clear off his feet and back into the snow as she laughed and sobbed.

"You're here...you're really here!" she squealed as she attacked his face with kisses and Gunner ran around them in circles, slapping them with his tongue excitedly.

"Yeah," he laughed, swatting the dog away. "I'm here, love. I would have been here last night, but our flight from JFK was grounded until this morning on account of the snow. That's where I called you from this morning."

For the first time in almost eight long months, her tears as she kissed him passionately and languidly weren't ones of heartache and longing...they were tears of overabundant joy.

"God I missed you so much," she sniffled, pressing her forehead against his as she fought to catch her breath.

"I couldn't make it another day without you," he sighed, holding her tightly to him.

"You don't have to go back do you? This isn't like a temporary leave is it?" she asked anxiously.

"No, love," he smiled at her. "I'm home for good. It killed me to keep it from you, but I wanted it to be a surprise. Merry Christmas, baby."

"It is now," she smiled brilliantly as she kissed him again...and again.

"Bells, honey. You're going to catch pneumonia," her father's voice suddenly floated through the air, breaking apart their feverish kiss. She hadn't even heard the cruiser pull into the driveway she'd been so lost in Edward.

"Welcome home, son. It's good to see you," Charlie grinned as he and Renee passed by them on their way to the house.

"Thanks, Chief. It's good to see you too," Edward chuckled as he and Bella lifted themselves from the snow covered ground.

He wrapped his arms around her and she smiled up at him as she reached behind her neck to unclasp his necklace. Snowflakes began to fall once again as she leaned up to fasten it around his neck and whispered the same words she did every time he returned.

"Thank you for coming home to me."

"Always, Bella. I promised you the first day I ever left that I'd always come home to you," he whispered back to her as he caressed her cheek and leaned in for a kiss.

He'd made that vow to her the day she watched him board the bus headed to Camp Pendleton four years ago, and he repeated it every time he'd left her side since. There wasn't anything in the world that could keep him from her forever. She was his life, his everything.

She was his home.

When they finally entered the warmth of his childhood home, he sent her off to change out of her soaking wet and frozen pajamas and waited until she disappeared up the stairs before flying into action.

"Did you get it?" he anxiously asked his mother.

"Of course I did, and it's gorgeous, Edward," she said, her eyes filled with tears as she handed him the ornament shaped case that held the first part of the most important piece of jewelry he'd ever offer the love of his life.

He opened the case and grinned widely as it sparkled and reflected dancing orbs of firelight around the room.

"I still have your blessings, right Mr. and Mrs. Swan?" he asked nervously as he closed the case and met the eyes of her parents.

"You've had em all along, son. I couldn't be happier officially welcoming you to the family," Charlie chuckled as he clapped him on the shoulder.

Edward took a deep, steadying breath and wiped his suddenly sweaty palms on his fatigues, "It's not official unless she says yes."

"Quit worrying so much. I know my daughter and she's been in love with you for years. The only way she won't say yes is if she's too busy crying and nodding to get it out, honey," Renee smiled warmly as she patted his cheek. Edward embraced Renee and thanked her, telling her he'd needed to hear that.

When he released her from his arms, he turned and placed the hanging ornament case in the center of the tree. He spent just a few short minutes hugging the rest of his family and relishing in their embraces. He'd missed all of them tremendously...even Rosalie who occasionally got on his last nerve.

"Alice and Jasper are still coming, right?" he asked as he lifted his duffle bag off the floor and prepared to head upstairs to shower and change. He'd been wearing the same clothes for nearly three friggen days and he wanted nothing more than to rid himself of them. Well almost nothing more, but the only other thing he wanted would have to wait until later.

"They should be here within the hour. They were leaving his parents' place at..." his father paused as he looked at his watch. "Right about now actually."

"Great...I really wanted us all together for this," he sighed in relief before turning toward the stairs and beginning his trek up them to his room.

Upon entering his room, he was greeted by Bella wearing a pair of his old green plaid flannel pajama bottoms and a cream thermal shirt that literally almost swallowed her whole as she wrapped her arms tightly around his waist.

"Everything okay, baby?" he asked softly, dropping his bag and enclosing his arms around her.

"Perfect...I just wanted a few minutes alone with you," she mumbled into his chest as she ran her hands up and down his back, savoring the feel of him against her.

He hummed and ducked his head into the crook of her neck as he swayed them gently and breathed in her delicate feminine scent. She always smelled like flowers and spring rain and it soothed him like nothing else in the world could besides her touch.

"I'm so glad you came home today," she sighed, finally feeling able to loosen her hold on him. "I didn't think I'd make it through the rest of the day without you here."

"I'm here, honey...I'm here. If I had to hire a private jet to fly me through the snowstorm and get me here before midnight, I would have. I've never spent a Christmas away from you since the day we met, and I don't plan on ever spending one without you," he said as he cupped her face gently and kissed her forehead.

After another passionately shared kiss, Bella left Edward to shower and change and headed back down the stairs to join the others. She'd just made it to the last step when the front door opened, bringing with it a gust of frigidly cold air and two people she hadn't expected to see that night.

"We're not late are we?" Alice giggled, taking in Bella's shocked expression.

"What are you guys doing here?" Bella smiled widely as she jumped off the last step and tossed her arms around Alice and Jasper.

"What do you think we're here for? To welcome Edward home," she blurted and then slapped a hand over her mouth and cringed. "Oh crud...I ruined it didn't I?"

"No, he's already here, Ali," Rose chuckled. "He showed up like a half an hour ago and this pipsqueak tackled him in the snow in just her pjs."

"Did everyone know about this but me?" Bella asked, dumbfounded as Alice whined out a "Drats" and stomped her foot while everyone else grinned and nodded.

"Ohhhh...you guys are mean," she laughed dryly as she shook her head. "So mean."

Dinner at the Cullen's turned out to be a merry and boisterous event once Edward returned back downstairs, dressed almost identically to Bella. The air around the table was filled with laughter and numerous toasts, stolen kisses and touches amidst loving gazes. Edward's arm never veered from the back of Bella's chair as he ate and she'd periodically tilt her head to the side and rest her cheek against his arm as she gazed at him. Each time she did that, he'd lean in for a chaste kiss, unable to keep himself from doing so when she looked at him with so much adoration and joy in her eyes. Joy that he was finally there with her.

When dessert had been finished off, Esme suggested that since Edward hadn't been home for the beginning of the holiday season, that they all go on the traditional carriage ride through the Christmas lights in lieu of opening gifts - to which everyone unanimously agreed and headed off to change into warmer clothing. When he passed her on his way to bringing his and Bella's plates to the sink, he kissed her cheek and thanked her because he hadn't been sure of how to postpone the gift giving portion of the evening. He'd had something very special in mind for how he wished to propose, and the timing for it had to be perfect.

Bundled up from head to toe, they all piled into Bella's and Emmett's trucks and headed off toward the familiar annual winter wonderland. Edward held Bella's hand tightly in his, cradling it to his heart the entire way as he drove and she rested her head against his arm. He couldn't even begin to describe how good it felt to be so close to her after having spent so long apart. He hoped they'd never have to endure it again. Every now and again he found himself sighing contentedly and drawing their hands to his lips to kiss her fingers.

Upon arriving at their destination, they all exited the vehicles and purchased their cups of hot chocolate, complete with whipped cream and marshmallows, from the concession stand before climbing into their carriages - each holding just one couple. As they rolled slowly down the path, snowflakes swirling gently around them, they found themselves focusing more on each other than the beautifully lit scenery around them as they huddled close together. Edward couldn't help but notice how the lights sparkled in the dark depths of her eyes like twinkling stars. She was absolutely beautiful to him. Always had been since the day he'd first laid eyes on her nearly seven years ago.

His anxious nerves for his impending proposal were fading, leaving behind only excitement to finally put the ring on her finger that would make her his forever.

From the carriage rides they headed straight to the town church for the last Christmas service of the year and filed into the pews along with a large number of other townspeople. When it came time for them to kneel and pray in silence, each person in the Cullen party prayed for the same thing.

For the safe keeping of their country's soldiers putting their lives on the line daily overseas, and for them to be once again reunited with their loved ones.

Each one also thanked the Lord for the safe homecoming of their own loved one.

On their way through the communal line, they each stopped and lit a candle for those of Edward's fellow soldiers who were unable to be with their families for the holidays and wished for peace and happiness to find them wherever they were in the world that night.

Pulling back into his driveway, Edward smiled to himself as he noted the illuminated time on the stereo in Bella's truck. Their timing had been perfect. Fighting against the sudden blustering winds, they all hurriedly made their ways into the house, a mixture of sighs and relieved chuckles breaking out amongst them as they found warm shelter from the biting cold and heavy snowfall.

"Alright, everyone. Pjs and blankets in the living room in ten minutes," Carlisle stated, already making his way up the stairwell.

Everyone dispersed excitedly, especially Emmett who practically barreled over everyone on the stairs, and changed back into their traditional outfits. Even Charlie and Renee donned their holiday sleepwear once again before rejoining everyone.

When Edward and Bella made it back down the stairs, he wrapped his arms around her from behind and faced her towards the tree.

"There's a special gift hanging in the center of the tree for you. I want you to open it before we all start diving in," he whispered, causing her to shiver in response to the warmth of his breath on her ear. The only other sound in the entire room was the crackling of the fire that someone had gotten going again.

Bella opened her eyes and instantly spotted the elegantly painted and jeweled ornament hanging in the precise center of the tree, and knew without a doubt, it was what he was referring to because she hadn't seen it there before he'd arrived. Tentatively she approached it, nervous as to what could be inside of it. When she stopped within arm's reach of it, Edward lowered himself to one knee behind her as every other person in the room silently stood from their seats and gathered behind him.

As Bella turned to face him with her bottom lip trapped between her teeth, she gasped and nearly dropped the fragile ball at the sight that had formed behind her. Tears rapidly filled her eyes as her hands began to shake and her knees threatened to give out on her upon seeing Edward down on one knee before her.

He smiled up at her and gently took the ornate casing from her trembling hands and pried it open in her direction to display it's safely nestled two and a half carat masterpiece of a ring. The only ring he could find that could even come close to matching her beauty; a brilliant-cut princess three-stone engagement ring, with channel set rounds beside the center stones and bezel set diamonds along the side gallery and inner scroll design.

"Edward," Bella whimpered as her eyes fell upon the most exquisitely crafted piece of jewelry she'd ever seen in her life and tears streamed down her cheeks.

"Being that it's after midnight, I could think of no better time for this moment that I've awaited a lifetime for. Today, the day after Christmas, marks the day that I first laid eyes on you seven years ago at the very top of the hill behind the high school. It also marks the very day I began to fall in love with you," Edward began, gently taking a hold of her left hand.

"You were the most beautiful girl I'd ever seen, flushed from the cold and exertion of climbing your way back up to the top with your snow tube. You're still to this very day the most beautiful woman I've ever seen, but now, after seven years, the beauty within you that I knew nothing of that day, shines so brightly that it's capable of bringing light to even the darkest of my days," he continued, fighting back the lump that had risen in his throat and caused his voice to tremble as he held her hand tighter.

"Isabella Marie Swan, I vow to love you passionately and unconditionally until the moment I take my last breath, and for eternity thereafter. Would you, the love of my existence, please do me the honor of becoming my wife?" he finished, a tear of his own escaping the side of his eye and trailing down the side of his face as he gazed up at her.

"Yes," she choked out as she sobbed, nodding her head vigorously as she gripped his hand with every last bit of strength she had and fought to remain standing and the room erupted into a mix of sobs and euphoric cheers.

"I'd be...honored to be...your wife," she spluttered as he slipped the ring on her finger and kissed it before standing and kissing her with every ounce of love he had for her.

"Thank you, baby...you've made me...the happiest...man in the world," he chuckled through their tear filled kisses, her face cradled gently between his hands.

Later that night, on the cusp of the breaking dawn of the day he'd met the love of his life seven years prior, the dwindling fire continued to crackle and pop - still warming the room and all the slumbering forms of his loved ones that were curled up with their significant others amidst the ambient sounds of Christmas carols that remained lingering softly in the air. As he observed the scene around him with his fiancé, his future wife and lifelong soul mate, in his arms and Gunner on the floor beside them, Edward could only think one thing...

There's no place like home for the holidays.