Disclaimer: All familiar elements belong to Stephenie Meyers. *Thank you so much* to everyone who has reviewed, added to alerts, recommended, favorited, or messaged me about Nicknames and Rumors. I cannot tell you how wonderful and unexpected the feedback has been.


Thirty-four

Sparks caught on a high breeze, lifting towards the sky, the flames of the bonfire dancing before my gaze. Though we were several feet above the tide line, the scent and sound of the ocean surrounded us, the blue of the waves glittering beneath still bright August rays. We hadn't been able to wait for the sun to set, not at the height of summer when it didn't fully disappear until well past nine. Only now were fingers of purple filtering across the sky, teasing at the very edges of the horizon as dusk slowly crept across the landscape.

I reclined against Edward's chest, my hair spilling over my shoulders. I'd had the ends trimmed while I was visiting Renee in Phoenix and it was the closest I'd seen him get to being angry with me. "How would you feel if I cut my hair?" he'd asked when I tried to protest that it wasn't a big deal. The look of horror that had crossed my face in response proved him right.

The feel of his arms around my waist, secure and warm, drew an unconscious smile to my lips. While the visit to Arizona had been for only three weeks, I'd felt restless and on edge the entire time I was gone, missing him terribly.

"Like the cat that got the canary," Edward's voice whispered in my ear, observantly noting my smile.

"I can't help it," I whispered back, dragging my eyes from the fire Jasper and Emmett had built—with Alice firing orders about where to place the kindling and how to pile the wood. His lips caught mine as I turned my head, incredibly soft and sweet.

"You'd think she'd been gone a year instead of three weeks," Emmett called, his voice playfully sardonic. His legs were stretched out in front of him, hands splayed behind, his tee shirt stretching across his broad chest. Rosalie lay on her side on a tartan blanket spread beneath them both, her head in his lap. While Emmett's hands were carelessly bordering the sand, Rosalie had her legs bent, ever conscious of dirtying her linen capris and drapey top.

"If you weren't just as useless in my absence, I'd be insulted," she softly replied, the typical sharpness missing from her tone. Both she and Jasper seemed unusually reflective, her twin glassy-eyed as he stared into the fire.

"I might not listen to emo moaning like Edward, but I'm sure I'd be pretty lost," Emmett agreed, dropping his eyes to her face and gently stroking a blond strand from her cheek.

The distance might have been worth it for the reunion alone. While Edward hadn't insisted on picking me up, he'd wasted no time in appearing on my front porch after Charlie and I got back from the airport. Heedless of my dad's presence, he'd swept me into his arms, burying his face in my throat. I'd turned beet red but been unable to resist returning the embrace, wrapping my arms around his neck. Edward had only put me down, gently placing me back on the floor of the entryway, when Charlie gruffly coughed.

The following day, a knock had sounded on the door before I'd even gotten out of bed. "Goddamnit!" I swore as I tumbled from the tangle of sheets to the floor of my bedroom. I wondered who in the hell would be at the front door at seven in the morning.

I should have been able to guess.

"Edward?" I wasn't fully coherent, staring at him in confusion, trying to protest as he took my hand and led me back up the stairs, kicking the front door shut behind us. "Did you wait for my dad to go to work?" I'd asked as my brain cells slowly began to fire, standing before him suspiciously as he drew to a halt in my bedroom. Edward reached for the hem of my tee shirt and I didn't think to resist as he pulled it over my head.

"Maybe," he responded, tossing the shirt aside and wrapping his arms around my waist with a sigh. "I missed you," he breathed, his lips warm against my throat.

"I missed you," I admitted. Renee had easily sensed my distraction, frequently huffing in exasperation when my mind drifted in the middle of conversation, eyes distant as I thought of Edward.

"Did you?" he asked, the smile in his voice belying the insecurity that needed me to say it again.

I placed my hands on his cheeks, lifting his head from my throat so I could stare into the eyes I'd missed so much. "More than you know," I said firmly.

The crooked smile that crossed his lips didn't reach his eyes. "Oh, I know," he murmured. He dropped his head, capturing my lips so forcefully that the thought of speaking again was the last thing on my mind.

I squirmed at the memory, my hands fisting in the pockets of the hoodie I was wearing to ward off the chill of being only yards from the ocean. As if sensing the direction of my thoughts, I felt Edward's lips ghost against my hair, his hands tightening around my waist and slipping under the hem of the hoodie. I stilled, eyes wide and darting to Alice and Jasper, Rosalie and Emmett, certain they'd notice the movement.

There'd been no need to be surreptitious the morning after I'd returned from Phoenix, his hands eager as he palmed my breasts, his mouth moving from my lips to my ear. I hadn't meant to whimper as his teeth nibbled the lobe, lifting my own hands to tug at the hem of his shirt. "Edward…"

He yanked at it with me, only tearing his lips away as the fabric obscured his face, blindly reaching for me before it was fully off. I laughed softly, then gasped as he picked me up and abruptly sat down on the narrow bed. I could only fold my legs around him, inhaling sharply as I felt his arousal through the rough fabric of his jeans and my worn sweats.

Thrusting my fingers into his hair, I pulled his mouth to mine, my drowsy confusion entirely cleared. Edward kissed me back just as hungrily, his hands slipping under the waistband of my sweats and pulling me forcefully close. It felt as if we were both burning, the heat of him almost too much to bear.

Edward leaned back without breaking the kiss, his hands firm against the bare skin of my back. I folded my legs on either side of his narrow hips, licking at his bottom lip, at his jaw, at the smooth line of his throat. "Bella," he groaned, his hips rocking into mine. I smiled against the sweet spot where his shoulder met his neck, then gasped as his erection pressed against me again.

Quickly, he flipped me onto my back and shucked off my sweats in one swift movement. I couldn't help my sharp inhale of surprise, then grinned at his eagerness. "I did miss you," I repeated, reaching for him.

Edward sank into me with a sigh of relief, his lips at my throat. "I believe you," the words were a murmur against my skin, his hands drifting down my ribs to my hips and lower.

The flames snapped and a piece of driftwood shifted, arcing down towards the pit of the fire. I jerked from my thoughts, hoping the warmth of the bonfire might explain the heat in my cheeks. Edward's hands didn't move from my waist beneath the cover of my hoodie, his thumbs just barely brushing the bottom swell of my breasts. I squirmed uncomfortably, my eyes darting between the other two couples reclining in the sand.

Only when Jasper moved onto his knees, a sheaf of papers in his grasp, did Edward's hands fall away, his sigh of regret blowing against my ear. "Stupid stationary," Jasper muttered, his hands dangerously close to the flames as he stuffed the loose leafs among the smoldering logs.

Alice, sprawled on her stomach, placed a comforting hand on his exposed ankle, her blue eyes filled with understanding. "I'll come back with you at breaks," she said softly.

"It won't be the same," he replied, his voice equally quiet. I frowned as I realized what had been bothering the Hales since the graduation ceremony took place back in June. The Cullen family would no longer be able to run interference for them, their house a constant refuge from the retired attorney and his trophy wife. Carlisle had already secured a position at the university and a realtor had been down from Port Angeles the previous weekend to take photos of the house.

"We could always go back east and see Mom instead," Rosalie offered, her voice reasonable.

"But, babe!" Emmett suddenly whined. "I'll be stuck in Seattle without you!"

Edward shook beneath me, laughing as he spoke up before Rosalie could respond. "No more giving me shit when Bella's out of town, Emmett."

"No kidding," Rosalie was softly laughing as well, lifting her head from Emmett's lap. "That sounded totally…what do you call Edward?"

"Pussy whipped," Alice and Jasper answered at the same time.

I couldn't help the burst of laughter that spilled from my lips, leaning forward with the force of it, then shrieked as I felt Edward's hands curl over my ribs, tickling me mercilessly.

He'd been equally merciless that unforgettable morning, touching me, teasing me, until I was breathless, gasping, eyes wide and unseeing all at once. I was clutching his shoulders, clinging to him, begging though I don't know what for. "Please, Edward…oh, God…please!" I'd felt his lips smile against my neck.

Instinctively, my hands tightened around his shoulders as he shifted to move away. "Just a second," he reassured me, eyes glittering as he reached for his discarded jeans. I bit my lip, flushing as I realized I'd forgotten the necessary condom. I couldn't believe how he made me feel, the crash of emotions and sensations…it was insane to think of how it had all started, a lifetime ago.

"Bella," his soft voice, eyes tender and as he stared down at me, filled me with warmth. "I love you," the words were a murmur, fervent, as he positioned himself between my legs.

"I love you," I whispered in return, arching my neck in a silent plea for his kiss. Edward didn't leave me wanting, lowering his head to mine at the same moment as he slid into my body. I couldn't help my small moan of pleasure and need, wrapping my arms around his neck and my legs around his waist.

"God, Bella…I can't…" I rocked against him, lifting my hips from the mattress, insistent, heedless of his need to go slow. I could feel his muscles shaking beneath my hands, his mouth open against my neck as he drove into me.

I was spiraling higher, all of my muscles tightening, legs clenching around his waist, hands fisting in his hair. Distantly, I could hear him gasping with his own release but I couldn't stop moving, rocking against him until a cry clawed from my throat.

As my breathing returned to normal, my fingers loosening their grip in Edward's now-sweaty hair, his soft laughter blew against my throat. "I don't think I could have stopped if Charlie had walked in today."

I could feel my throat and cheeks burning with the flush I knew he loved so much.

The moon was only a sliver against the sky as the last of the blue finally faded over the horizon, a riot of stars sparkling above. "It's so beautiful," Alice's voice was faint but still audible over the crackle of the fire.

"Won't be able to see the stars as well in Seattle," Edward teased his brother and Rosalie, still trying to get his digs in after my fit of laughter.

"Nothing will make me miss this place," Rosalie replied, tough as ever.

"Not even Mike Newton? Or Lauren Mallory?" Alice called. She was now wrapped in the embrace of Jasper's arms, her small face peeking above the sleeves of his wool coat.

"I'm just glad you took care of her for me," Rosalie answered, a wry smile tilting her lips. "Though if I'd been there…"

"You guys," I couldn't help the exasperated plea of my voice. Even with the added understanding of the Cullen's history, it was still somewhat perplexing how fiercely they defended me.

"Can you imagine a Rosalie/Alice tag team?" Jasper mused.

"Oh, all too easily," Emmett nodded. "Leotards…wind machines….throwing bitches to the mat…" I laughed at the image and felt Edward chuckle as well, easily forgetting my dismay.

"I'm going to miss seeing you so much, Emmett," I admitted, not intending to sink the group into reflective sadness again.

"Oh, I have a feeling I'll be crashing in Jasper and Edward's dorm room more often than you'd think."

When Jasper and Edward both groaned in response, we all broke up laughing again.

All too soon, my life was packed away into a handful of boxes and suitcases, not even enough to fill the bed of the truck. Charlie was insistent that I use a tarp from the shed to make sure the contents remained dry. "You never know with this weather," he said gruffly, unable to meet my eyes as he threaded a cord through the tarp's grommets. I didn't protest, knowing this was the last thing he'd be able to do for me as a protective father for some time.

"Thanks, Dad." My own voice was quiet, trying to hold it together.

When he was finished, he stood before me awkwardly, his hands shoved in his pockets. "You can always come home with as many loads of laundry as you'd like," he finally said.

I just nodded, choking back tears. When I'd decided to come back to Washington for my senior year, I'd never imagined wanting to stay. Now I couldn't imagine leaving. I threw my arms around my dad's waist before I could give myself the chance to think about it, then pulled away just as quickly, slamming into the cab of the truck.

I waved through the window but Charlie's figure was a blur through the tears I refused to shed, twisting the key in the ignition and wrenching away from the curb.

I'd managed to regain some calm by the time I turned onto the Cullen's drive. I recited a mental litany of self-reassurances, promising myself that I would call when we arrived in Bellingham, that he would be okay given all of the dishes I'd prepped and wrapped in the fridge, and that I would be home for Thanksgiving—which was only two and a half months away.

Despite this, Edward sensed my turmoil as he helped me from the cab, his hands lingering at my waist as his concerned eyes searched my face. "Are you okay?"

"I will be," I forced a smile, then turned gratefully as Alice bounded down the front steps.

"Bella! You're all packed?" She looked ready to explode with excitement, her hands fists under her pointed chin.

"Of course."

"And you fit everything?" She sounded doubtful.

"Yes, Alice," I smiled, glancing at the Volvo. Because she'd had to share the space with Jasper and Edward, Alice wouldn't be able to take nearly everything she wanted up to Bellingham. The interior of the silver car was piled nearly to the roof, glimpses of pink poking from most of the bags and suitcases.

"Do you think I could throw a box or two under your tarp--"

"Mary Alice Brandon Cullen," Esme's voice was uncharacteristically sharp, appearing on the porch with a frown furrowing her brow. "I told you the dorm closets won't hold what you did pack."

"Mom!" Alice turned, her voice caught between a whine and a plea. "You know Bella probably won't use--"

"We already had a discussion about assumptions and boundaries, Alice." Esme trotted down the steps, a hand on her hip. "Hello, Bella," she said, her voice softening as she planted a kiss on my cheek.

"Hi, Esme," I smiled shyly, glad that at least I wasn't blushing.

"So Edward will drive with you?" she asked, turning from Alice's mutinous expression as if her petite, willful daughter didn't exist.

"Yeah--"

"Even though I'd rather she not take that death trap at all," Edward cut me off, inclining his tousled head towards the rusted truck.

I smacked his arm and would have snapped in reply if Rosalie's red BMW wasn't pulling into the drive behind the truck. Jasper leapt from the passenger side the moment she'd shifted into park, crossing to Alice's side and pulling her into his arms in one swift movement. "Ready, sweetheart?"

His affection was calming and distracting at the same time, probably exactly as Jasper intended. Alice giggled gleefully, her irritation forgotten. "Yes!"

Esme smiled at her daughter then turned to Rosalie with a similar warm greeting. "I see your car is equally weighed down," her brown eyes were dancing.

Rosalie grinned. "Thank God the U provides all the football equipment, otherwise we might have had to take a U-Haul."

"Yes, we'll be calling them soon enough," Esme replied.

"Oh, did you get an offer?" I asked.

"Sooner than we thought," Carlisle had appeared on the porch, Emmett behind him, a duffle thrown over his shoulder.

"It's awesome. The folks'll be in Seattle by October," Emmett grinned, slinging his duffle into the back seat of the BMW.

"It'll be a much easier drive than all the way back to Forks," Carlisle added.

I nodded, thinking of Charlie and trying not to be sad again. I glanced down at the small silver watch he'd given me for graduation. As if sensing my thoughts, Alice spoke, bouncing on her toes as she clung to Jasper's hand.

"It's time."

With a flurry of kisses and hugs, we all piled into the various vehicles. My vision was blurred again as I tried to wave at Carlisle and Esme through the window, the links of the watch shining in a rare burst of sunshine. I couldn't argue when Edward insisted on driving.

As the engine rumbled to life, I felt Edward's fingers thread through mine, a soft kiss landing against my hair before he swung down the drive.