Chapter Twenty – Edward

It felt as if the world as I'd known it was falling apart. It had been nearly a month since I almost kissed Claire, and I was yet to recover from it. I hadn't told anyone, but at the same time it felt as if everyone knew somehow. I was getting even more paranoid than before, constantly thinking people were looking at me funnily, even people I didn't know. Sometimes it felt as if Bella herself knew. For the first time I was grateful about her being miles away. I was sure she would have figured it all out simply by looking at me. Then again if she hadn't been miles away, I'd never been tempted to think of Claire as a substitution in the first place, I would never have kissed her, and this whole mess would have been spared from me.

I guessed it was my way of laying the blame on someone else, although I knew well there was no one else I could blame; no one but myself. The thing that hurt me most about this whole incident was that Claire had to stop me. I wasn't strong enough to realize that what I was doing was wrong until she had pointed it out to me. I wasn't strong enough to stop. When she rejected me once, I tried a second time, still without entirely grasping what I was doing. It didn't matter that it was hardly even considered a kiss, or that it could have gone much farther than there, and then I'd been in some serious trouble. I felt humiliated just the same. What did it say about me as a person, about my ability to remain committed to my almost fiancée? I didn't want to dwell on it.

I had been avoiding Claire the best I could, which wasn't really that difficult. School suddenly became insanely busy after the Thanksgiving break. The amount of schoolwork I got piled up, combined with the pressure from work, was pulling me under, and I was grateful for it. I didn't even have to come up with an excuse. I bumped into her occasionally in the hallway or in the building's lobby, and always managed to get away with some mumbled apology. I could see she wanted to talk, but I couldn't face her. It wasn't as if she had something to do with this. She didn't push me into anything – not consciously, at least – but speaking about it was going to remind me it had happened, and there was nothing I wanted more but forgetting it.

I hadn't yet dropped my suspicions about Bella and that man, whoever he was, but suddenly it didn't matter. I was consumed by guilt, and even though she had no idea what was going on here, I was desperate to make amends. I guess it was somewhat stupid of me – if she hadn't realized something was up until then, she was bound to, as a result of that – but I didn't stop to think about it. I needed to do something to make me feel good about myself again, something to assure me I still had her, that us still existed.

This was partly how I'd come up with the nearly impossible plan of flying to London on New Year. A month or so before Christmas, most of the flights over were nearly fully booked. It meant I was going to miss a few days of school again, but I didn't care. I'd told myself that all we needed was seeing each other, even if for a few days. Things would work themselves out as soon as we did.

So I sent her our first Christmas ornament with a secretive card, instructing her to call me so I could tell her personally about my imminent visit. It was tough keeping things away from her, especially when we were talking on the phone so often. In more than one occasion, I was close to telling her, but I wanted to wait for her to get the card first. I knew she was having a hard time, and it was strange not to be there for her to see her through it, so I was trying to do all I could to make her happy, even if from a distance.

She was a magnificent dancer, but not that good an actress, so I knew she couldn't have faked that gleeful reaction when I finally told her. It encouraged me. Another man or not, she sounded as if she was looking forward for my visit, just as much as I had. Maybe things weren't as hopeless as I pretended they had been.

xoxox

For the first time in forever, I wasn't going to spend Christmas in Forks. My parents were coming over here again, mostly in order to save Emmett and Rosalie the trouble of flying across the country with the baby. We didn't want them to stay in a hotel on Christmas, but now that one of the two spare rooms in Emmett and Rosalie's place – the bigger one – had been turned into a nursery, there wasn't enough room for two extra people there, unless one of them took the couch. I suggested one of my parents would come and stay at my place since they were going to spend a few days with us. Knowing that my mother would probably want to spend time with Jade, my father said he would.

Emmett and I went to pick them up from the airport. We hardly spoke as we waited for their flight to arrive. He was exhausted after another sleepless night. I hadn't been very talkative these days, not since I realized he wouldn't be very helpful aside for scolding me for suspecting Bella. He ventured in the direction of the café as soon as we walked in, and got me coffee too without even asking if I wanted one. I nodded wordlessly as I took the plastic cup from him.

I looked at the board; their flight was just arriving. It was blinking in faint orange on the giant screen that hung over our heads. There was a flight coming from Heathrow listed right below my parents'. I tried not to linger too much on it. I forced myself to look anywhere but at it. I didn't want to think about what ifs. She could have been on that flight. She could have spent Christmas at home with all of us. Instead she was away, and it was going to be our first Christmas apart. I didn't realize how much this revelation hurt until this moment.

Emmett asked me some random questions; I tried to be as responsive as I could to save me his reproach. The airport was swarming with people, families especially, and the noise was overwhelming, closing in on me. I just wanted to get out of there. I could only imagine how it sounded like to Emmett, having spent the majority of the previous night awake with his baby girl against his shoulder.

Thankfully, our parents didn't take long to come out. They both looked weary but excited, as they had always had when they came to see us. My mother's fatigue was all gone when she hugged each of us in turn. My father shook both our hands. We chatted a little on the way out, but Emmett couldn't hide his huge yawns. I hailed a taxi first for him and my mom, and then for me and my dad.

"Emmett looks out of it," my dad commented as we got into our own taxi.

I laughed. "Don't tell him that. He thinks he's Superman."

"I was just like him when he was born. You think you can do it all when your first child is born." He gave me this know-all look, and I could feel my face grow warm beneath his hinting stare. He didn't even know I had proposed to Bella, but he would never ask. Even my mother knew better than pestering me about marriage and family. After four, almost five years now, they were used to things as they were.

During the ride back to my place, we spoke mostly of Alice. She'd just got accepted into this really prestigious dance troupe – I was at loss against her ecstatic babble to even get its name right. The only thing I did know for sure was that their focus was contemporary dance, which was her passion, that they were famous nationwide, and that she was joining them for the winter tour right after the holiday season. We were all really proud of her, and grateful to have her home for Christmas so we could celebrate this first milestone in her career. Jasper was going to join her during the tour, and I thought how lucky they were to be able to keep one another despite their varied paths and interests. Maybe if I were more flexible, like Jasper…

But there were no maybes. Bella had made her choice, and I had made mine. Now we had to deal with the consequences of these choices

"So how are things going?" My dad asked me as the taxi pulled into a stop in front of our building. I reached for my wallet, but he stopped me with this stern look and paid the fair himself. The driver wished us Merry Christmas in a thick accent I couldn't quite place. I followed my father out.

"School is busy." I reached for his suitcase, ignoring his protest. "I've got a lot of work piling up because I spend so much time at Emmett's. I'm trying to do as much as I can while I'm there. Luckily Jade seems to like the piano," I smiled fondly, thinking of my niece.

"She'll always have great respect for music. Rosalie will take care of that."

"Until Emmett ruins everything she's so carefully constructed," I laughed, and opened the door. As soon as I did, I halted with a gasp, a warning of sorts, but it was already too late. The person who was about to step out had already bumped into me full force. I held my arms out instinctively to catch whoever it was. And then my eyes met hers, and my arms froze around her. My laughter died out at once. Claire.

"Oops," she flashed a crooked grin at me.

"Sorry," I mumbled, keeping my gaze on my shoes as I removed my arms.

"Long time no see," she commented softly. "How are you?"

The question was quiet, careful. I dared to look up. Her eyes were serious, searching. She knew what I'd been doing. She knew I'd been intentionally avoiding her. It hurt her. My heart twitched with guilt. I tried not to flinch. "I'm good. Thank you."

She looked as if she wanted to say more, but then her eyes wandered to my father. His hand was still on the door as he stood there halfway between the street and the lobby of the building. He was observing us with a puzzled expression. I felt my face grow pale. I was sure that one look at me would reveal everything that happened about a month ago, as little as it had been.

"Claire, this is my dad Carlisle. Dad, this is Claire Davis, she's our neighbor."

There was surprise in my father's eyes. Nonetheless he shook her hand and asked her how long she'd been living here. She answered his questions, but I could sense her discomfort. For one moment I was grateful it was him coming to stay with me, and not my mother.

I didn't realize they had stopped talking, and her eyes were on me again. I started, then blinked, mentally kicking myself. Get a grip! "I just slipped a note under your door. I'm going away tomorrow for a few days."

"Chicago?" I guessed.

"Yeah. I'll be back right before New Year." She paused, and gave me this hopeful look. "Maybe I'll see you then?"

There was so much more in this question than she let show. I shook my head. "I won't be here when you're back." To the silent question in her eyes, I added, "I'm going to London."

"Oh." There was this tiny, nearly invisible flicker of emotion in her eyes at that, but it was gone as soon as I detected it. "When you're back, then."

"Sure." I swallowed my discomfort, and struggled to meet her gaze again. "Merry Christmas, Claire."

"Merry Christmas," she whispered, said goodbye to my father, and turned to go.

Her note was on the floor, as promised, but it was more of a letter than a note. I knelt to pick it up as my father shut the door behind us. The envelope was dark green and blank. It didn't even have my name on it. I idly wondered why she hadn't left it in my mailbox, or stuck a post-it to it, like we'd so often done before that incident on Thanksgiving. But I didn't have to be a genius to figure out the answer. Whatever it was she'd written, she wanted to make sure I'd get it, and read it privately, to judge by the envelope she'd put it in, which was also unusual.

"She seems nice," my father commented, eyeing the envelope. "I didn't know you were close to any of your neighbors."

"Claire is new in the building. She… we have a lot in common," was all I managed. He gave me this close look, one that told me exactly where Emmett got his probing stare. Unlike Emmett, though, he said nothing else. I knew what he was really wondering about.

"I think I'll start unpacking," he said quietly, and reached for the suitcase that stood between us.

"Do you need me to – "

"No, that's fine. I know my way."

He left me alone. I could hear him making his way down the hallway, stopping at the guestroom I'd got ready for him, opening the door. He didn't shut it all the way, so I heard the zipper of the suitcase as he got it open. I darted to the kitchen counter and took a seat on one of the stools. Slowly, and nearly holding my breath while doing so, I tore the envelope open. It was a Christmas card. I opened it and held it flat against the counter. It was filled from top to bottom in small, hasty handwriting, as if she had a lot to say but limited space to say it all. That alone was a bad sign. I took a deep breath, and – somewhat fretfully – started reading.

Edward.

I'm not doing this face to face not only because I'm awful in confrontations like this, but also because I know there's a good chance you'll just walk away and ignore me for another month. Avoiding a letter is never easy – eventually you'll be curious and read it, even if you won't do it right away.

You're a horrible actor, arguably even worse than me, and that says a lot, as you well know. I know what happened a month ago still bothers you. I just wish it wouldn't, though, because nothing happened, really. You should beat yourself up over not getting my any Christmas cards, not over that. It's hardly worth it. No hard feelings, honestly. Trust me, you would have known if I was offended in any way. I would have punched you long before that.

I wish you'd talk to me. I know it's probably easy for you to keep it all in like you've done with Bella a while ago, but I sort of hoped you've learnt the lesson of that time already. I think you'll feel much better talking about this with someone. Have I mentioned I was a good listener?

What I'm trying to say, not very successfully, is that our friendship is too important for me to give it up. It's been a while since I had someone I could trust enough to open up to. I found this someone in you. I wish you didn't take it away from me.

I'll be spending Christmas at my parents'. I'm leaving tomorrow morning, but I'll be home on the twenty ninth. If you feel like talking, please come over. I'll be waiting anyway, because I'm really that pathetic.

Merry Christmas.

Claire.

I flipped the card close. There was a smiling Santa on the front of the card, but his smile looked too cheerful, and so wrong. I felt horrible. I missed spending time with her too, but it felt as if things would never be the same again after what happened – or nearly happened. Cutting her completely out of my life was impossible, not just because our friendship had become important to me too, but because I knew the consequences of trying to shut someone out – I'd already hurt one person by trying to do so.

I really did feel bad about not getting her a Christmas card. The thought crossed my mind when I got the card for Bella, but ended up not getting one for Claire. If I got her one now, she'd know it was because I felt guilty, and it would lose its point. So I just decided to man it up and go talking to her when both of us were back in town. I didn't want to do it as long as my father was staying with me, so I wouldn't have to answer more questions. Besides, she was leaving tomorrow, and it was actually a good thing. It would give me enough time to get over myself. Maybe, like I was hoping to do with Bella, I could set things right again.

xoxox

On the afternoon of Christmas Eve, I called Charlie. He was watching Sophie while my parents were away. I felt bad for him. Since the first Christmas Bella and I had spent together, my parents had always invited the two of them to join us on Christmas Eve, knowing they had no one but each other. It had never ceased to surprise me that Charlie showed up year after year, probably because Bella had insisted. This year, he was on his own again. I hoped it wouldn't be too lonely for him.

I called him before my father and I headed to Emmett and Rosalie's place. He sounded surprised to hear me. "You just missed Bella by half an hour," he laughed softly, and then the sound died out a little. "How are you holding up?"

"I'll be fine." It seemed pointless to pretend with him. I knew we had this one thing in comment. We both missed her. "I just called to say Merry Christmas, Charlie. I hope Sophie is not driving you crazy."

"Oh, no, it's not to have her around. She's quiet. She sleeps a lot. You can tell your mom that she's fine."

"Do you have any plans for today?"

"Not much," he confessed. "It's snowing, so there's no point fishing, but a few friends of mine from the reservation might come over to watch the game tomorrow."

I was tempted to ask if one of them was Billy Black, Jacob's father, but I stopped myself on time.

"Anyway, thanks for calling, Edward. I… really appreciate it."

I knew it had taken a lot for him to say something like that. "No problem."

"Bella is lucky to have you."

I thought that if he knew what I'd almost done to her, he'd happily shoot me with his work weapon. "I'm the one who's lucky, sir." Every word was like a dagger to my heart.

"Don't worry, kid. She'll be home soon."

I smiled wryly to myself. I really hoped I could be as optimistic.

xoxox

Tonight was less crowded than a month ago on Thanksgiving, but just as noisy. Rosalie's parents spent the holiday with some relatives, so it was just us, the Cullen clan. Alice's parents surprised everyone and came over as well, and even Jasper joined us. Since him and Alice didn't have the advantage Bella and I had (with Charlie living with such close proximity to my parents and always had), they spent Christmas one year in Forks, another in Texas. This year was technically to be spent in Forks, but since we were staying in New York, they didn't have to travel far. It was fortunate, especially considering we wouldn't see much of them once they went on the road.

Our Thanksgiving feast paled comparing to the enormous piles of food we'd set on our Christmas table. As before, everyone had prepared something. Not having Claire to help me out, I struggled to bake a cake by myself. I spent a week experimenting, determined to get it right, and eventually, I thought I did. Emmett alone had two and a half slices. I thought that was a good sign.

It started snowing at some point of the evening, and we all deserted our plates and stuck our noses to the windows, fascinated by the way the city had turned white. Even in my somber mood, it was easy to become victim to the light atmosphere. You just couldn't sulk in a night such as this one. Emmett and Rosalie's tree looked gorgeous – we'd worked on it the previous week, imitating the tradition at my parents' house. It was glimmering now, when the dozens of ornaments met the sparkling lights. There were many presents at its feet, including one giant box wrapped in red Emmett acted all secretive about. He wouldn't tell anyone what it was. I assumed he got Jade her first sneakers or something, although it was too big a box for that. For Emmett, two months was as good as any other age. If it was up to him, he would have got her a bike.

Rosalie and I took turns on the piano as we all sang Christmas carols. Normally I wouldn't stoop to such clichés, but the atmosphere was contagious. Little Jade brought out the sappy side of us, I thought. Emmett wandered about with that annoying camera of his, but I didn't mind him this time. We all got a little drunk – even my father, who was normally the most reserved, even more than me.

Finally, Emmett announced we were going to open some presents. We decided to exchange gifts tonight instead of in the morning, since we weren't spending the night together. Obviously, Jade got most of the presents. She had enough clothes and toys, so I made her the same gift I had for Bella's birthday, a few years back, a CD with some lullabies on it. I wouldn't let Emmett ruin her with sport stuff, I decided. Emmett, expectedly enough, made a face when I explained to Rose what it was. Rosalie was delighted, of course, and made me her second in command in the musical education of her baby girl.

And there were the usual stuff – some music and books for my father and me, giant sports shoes for Emmett, a random computer gadget for Jasper, some designer's item for Alice, jewelries for Rosalie and my mother. We cheered for the original gifts and mock-groaned for the predictable ones. At some point we made an actual game out of it, running bets based on the size of the gift, the one who got it, and the person they got it for.

Finally, when the number of gifts below the tree lessened considerably, Emmett placed the big box on the table and cleared his throat, then waited very dramatically until everyone quieted down.

"Do you have another baby in there?" My mother joked, which got everyone roaring again.

"Or a puppy?" Alice interjected, scooting closer, until she was kneeling right beside the table.

"Stop guessing," Emmett laughed, jokingly slapping Alice's hand away when she tried to rip the red paper. Then he began doing it himself, speaking as he did: "I added it so you wouldn't be able to see what it is and who this is from."

He wasn't very careful, and pretty soon everyone could see what it was. The box seemed completely ordinary without the shiny gift wrapper he had added on it. But what caught my eye was a bunch of Royal Mail stickers on one side of it, and Bella's handwriting on the other. I straightened in my seat. Everyone seemed to be noticing it at the same moment I had, but I hardly heard their excited gasps. My gaze was set on her name.

Emmett's eyes caught the movement, and his naughty grin curled wider than ever. "Why don't you do the honor, little bro," he said, beckoning at me to move closer.

I bit my lip, but approached him anyway. I was sure they could all read the guilt in my tortured expression. All I could think about was how the hell she had managed to hide it so well. Clearly Emmett had been in the secret, but he hadn't said anything either. I was genuinely surprised he had managed to keep his mouth shut.

We got the box open, and took out the bubble wrap she had padded it with. It contained what looked like candy of all shapes and sizes, and many smaller packages, each nicely wrapped with the name of its recipient on it. There was an envelope on top of everything, addressed to everyone. I pulled it out and opened it. The card had three penguins on it, with Santa hats and Merry Christmas curling over their heads in sparkling letters. I didn't trust my voice, and I wouldn't endure any sort of humiliation from Emmett, so I just handed it to him. He made a whole show of clearing his throat before he read it.

Dear everyone,

In case Emmett hasn't yet told you what this box is all about, it's my way of being with you without being with you. I miss you every day, and I can't wait to see you again soon. Give big hugs to baby Jade for me.

I love you all.

Bella.

"She's something, this kid, isn't she?" Emmett asked as he flipped the card close, not even waiting for the 'awww's to cease. He was beaming straight at me. I tried not to cringe.

Emmett had made me his helper, and together we started distributing everything in Bella's box. The candy had all sorts of unfamiliar labels. The chocolate and jelly beans and the rest of it had no names on it, so we just set it all on the table and decided to divide the loot equally between us later.

She had got something for everyone, even Rosalie's parents, as if she assumed they'd be with us. Emmett seemed especially thrilled by a tee shirt of some soccer team or something. She got Jade a similar baby suit. My parents seemed touched by what she'd given them – a first edition of something for my father, a miniature music box for my mother. Alice squealed quite loudly over three pairs of fuzzy leg warmers.

Finally, there was an envelope with my name on it. It was the last item in the box, aside for a few chocolate bars that slipped to the bottom. I snatched it from Emmett's hands and opened it, turning my back on him. It was another card, smaller than the one she got everyone. It was white with bright blue, sparkling snowflakes on it. She added in her handwriting All I Want for Christmas… on top. I ventured to the other side of the room before I opened it. She stuck in a photo of mistletoe (as if she couldn't find a card with a picture in it), under which she added, again in her writing,

... is you.

Emmett made me promise I'd keep my gift G-rated, and so if you need further explanations about what this card means, call me so I can, umm, explain myself better.

I felt blush begin to creep onto my face. I knew Emmett's eyes were on me even though he was across the room. I was having a hard time maintaining composed expression. It was quite clear what her intention had been. I hoped no one would ask me how come she had only sent me a card. Resisting the urge to call her now, to ask her if she'd gone out of her mind, I went over to the other room where my coat had been, and hid the card in one of the pockets. Then I heard Emmett's voice, urging me to go back. He still had that goofy grin on when I joined them, as if he knew exactly what that card contained.

"Ours next," my mother said, beaming at me as she handed me another envelope. This one was thin and rectangular, so it couldn't be another card.

I threw her an inquiring look, but opened it anyway. I gasped as soon as I pulled it out – I recognized the logo of the airline. I looked up, confused.

"You're looking a little sad these days," she said, as if it was a suitable explanation. I read the destination on the ticket again. It was for Heathrow.

"But I'm already – "

Emmett snorted. "Check the dates, butthead."

There were muffled giggles all around me, as if they'd all been in on the secret. Feeling my face redden again, I double checked the ticket. It was for five days before my designated flight.

"We already switched your other ticket," my father said as my shocked stare shifted between him and my mother.

"We thought you could use a few extra days with her," my mother added, smiling.

"You'd better bring back some of that good stuff," Emmett said, his mouth full of chocolate.

I held on to the ticket as if my life depended on it. I was absolutely speechless, amazed they would do something like that for me. I knew what it took to get seats on a flight anywhere on Christmas time. I bet they had to pull a few strings to get it. I walked over to my mother and gave her a hug, still in a bit of a haze.

"How did you even…" I started, but soon faltered. Some things had better be left unasked.

I just sat there with that idiotic smile across my lips and silently endured my brother's teasing. Knowing I was leaving in less than a week made all the difference in the world. And I wouldn't tell her. I couldn't wait to see her face. I thought about her card, hidden inside my coat. All I want for Christmas is you.

Well, that was exactly what she was going to get.