'Love Actually' Contest

Title: The Missing Piece

Characters: Emmett, Bella and Jacob

Disclaimer: I do not own Twilight or any of the characters within.

Image that inspired you: Image 14

Summary: Emmett believes that his future is set in stone when he is left as sole carer for his disabled brother. But he learns that love can be found in the most unlikely places.

Rating: T

The Missing Piece

"See you later, Jake," I call out as his back retreats into the mess of people in the large room. He doesn't respond. He never does. With his flappers in one hand, and the hand of a staff member in the other, he barely notices that I'm leaving.

I drive at least fifteen miles per hour over the speed limit on the winding country lanes that take me home. The not-so-delightful smell of the English countryside wafts in through the slightly-open back window that I have been meaning to get fixed for months. I floor the accelerator, eager to get home and get some work done in the time I have while Jake is at respite.

I sigh as the front door slams behind me, and take a moment to enjoy the piercing silence that fills the air around me, before I tackle the chaos from our early morning start.

The Christmas cards are everywhere, covering every available surface. The floor, the sofa, the dining table, even the bath, with the water still in, has a glittery Santa floating in it. I pull out the soggy Saint Nick and shake it off, hoping that this particular card isn't one that holds a change of address or one of those annual letters you receive from people you barely know, updating you on all their news. Thankfully, when I peel it open, it reveals a simple message of season's greetings and nothing else.

Having let the bath water out and given the bathroom a quick clean, I turn my attention to the rest of the house, which, as always, looks as though it's been hit by a hurricane. Some of the cards have survived unscathed. Others are shredded into tiny pieces and scattered all over the place. People always ask why I continue to put the cards up when they always just end up trashed and creating more work for me as I go around picking them all up, and displaying them again, just for Jake to begin the arduous task of scattering them once more the moment he comes in through the front door. The answer to that is simple. Because it makes him happy. He's my brother and I would walk over hot coals for him if it would make his life any easier.

The Christmas tree stands sadly in the corner, almost bare of any decoration, since the baubles and tinsel lie around, deposited carefully in the gaps between the cards. My hands run subconsciously down my face as I survey the damage. I have four hours before I have to pick him back up from respite in which to turn the house the right way up again and try to get some paperwork done.

I check into his bedroom, but of course there is nothing to be done in there. It's spotless and impeccably neat. He cannot bear for his bedroom to be out of perfect order. Even so much as a book sticking out from the neat line of spines on his shelf can cause him a disproportionate amount of distress, and he will spend hours pulling all the books off the shelf and re-arranging them until they are perfect again.

Once the house looks a little less like something out of a World War II film, I take a break with a cup of coffee and finally some sweet, blessed breakfast. It's 10.30 by now and I'm starving. My stomach has been protesting for an hour; it's starting to think that my throat has been cut. The first bite of toast is like pure heaven, and you can almost hear the dull thud, the moment it hits my far too empty stomach. I quickly realise that a measly piece of toast isn't going to be enough to appease the beast within, and hunt through the kitchen for something a little more satisfying.

Man, I need to shop. It's Tuesday and that means egg, mayo sandwiches for lunch and fish fingers with potato waffles and peas for dinner. If he can't pick it up with his fingers, then Jake won't eat it, and undoubtedly the peas will end up just about everywhere but their intended destination. But, if he's going to have fish fingers for dinner then I need to shop.

I bury my head deeply into my hands, and just for a moment I allow myself to be overwhelmed. I hear the voices in my head of all the people who tell me constantly what a hero I am. What a good brother. "You must have the patience of a saint," they say. "I couldn't do what you do."

They say they couldn't, but the fact is they could. The fact is that anybody would do the same in my situation, because the alternative would be to put their own brother into care and take pot luck on who he ends up being cared for by. No chance. Having him here with me is hard work, and there are times when I want to scream and shout at him, or tear my own hair out, but here with me I know that he is safe and loved, whether he realises it or not.

For a while I tried so hard to be the hero that everybody thought I was. After our parents passed away I took it upon myself to be everything to Jacob. Father, mother, brother, friend, and care giver. But the day I lost my job and almost my life when I ploughed the ambulance I drove into the central reservation on the motorway, after I was up all night with Jake with tonsillitis, I realised that something had to give.

It's one of the hardest things in the world to admit that you can't cope, that you need help, but even harder is watching your little brother crying his heart out, rocking back and forth violently after you yelled at him for throwing the fourth sandwich you made him at the wall.

So I caved. I had broken down to Jake's social worker and admitted defeat. I was so afraid that they would take him away from me and force him to live in some institutionalised group home, but they just offered help so that he could stay with me. We all agreed that it would be best for him to stay somewhere familiar, and there was nowhere more so than the home he grew up in.

And then there's Bella. I have never seen anybody interact with Jake quite the way that she does. I want to be jealous of her relationship with him, but there is something so pure and sweet about the bond they share that I can't sully it with an emotion as bitter as jealousy. She brings him to life in a way that nobody else ever has, and I often find myself just watching on amazed as she does whatever she is doing with him. This is, of course, completely counter-productive, since the whole reason she comes in every day is to free up some time for me to work.

Since I lost my job and had my epiphany about doing too much, I took on some work my uncle offered me, just doing a few hours consultancy work for his law firm each week. The work isn't overwhelming and I am able to work from home, but it brings in some money to help see things along. We aren't destitute, far from it, thanks to our parents. But I need something outside of home and taking care of Jake to focus on, and the work he gives me provides me with just that.

But most nights I end up doing the work after Jake goes to bed, since I can't keep my eyes off Jake and Bella when they are together. It's pathetic, but I find myself sort of looking forward to her few hours with us each night. She dances through the door each day at four thirty, not bothering to stop and knock ever since I told her it wasn't necessary, and she always, without fail, greets Jake first. She sails past the dining table, picking up one of his many flappers on the way past, and stands right in front of him, greeting him cheerfully, and tapping his flappers against his arm lightly.

His flappers are just strips of cardboard, usually cut from cereal packets, which he uses to tap against things. Doctors call it stimming, or self-stimulation; my dad used to call it a pain-in-the-arse noise and Bella calls it therapeutic.

I just like to watch him. There's something really fascinating about watching somebody derive so much pleasure from a simple piece of cardboard that still has traces of Tony the Tiger's face on it. He will stand for hours at a time, usually in front of the window, with one hand firmly embedded in his mouth and the other rapping out a continuous beat on the wooden window sill.

I loved watching how his eyes would brighten as they focused intently on his drumming and his teeth would graze against the soft skin of his thumb in time with his tapping. His sense of rhythm was astounding and music was one of the only things that pulled him out of his private world and into ours.

I push small scraps of bread into my brother's hand and watch as he flings them to the waiting beaks of the assembled ducks. The child-like joy he finds at the simple activity warms my heart as he squeals with happiness each time the birds fight over his offerings. His smile lights up his face, his deep brown eyes shining, completely oblivious to the stares of the families around us.

I however am not oblivious, and I make a point of glaring right back at the children, giving them a taste of how it feels to be stared at. Their mother quickly rounds them up and whispers to them loudly about not staring, then offers me an apologetic look before ushering the children away, keeping her eyes very deliberately averted from Jake.

In the absence of any bread from me, or his flappers, which we left in the car, he is tapping his fingers lightly against the opposite arm and staring dreamily out at the water. At times like these, when he has that far away, wistful expression, I would love to be a fly on the wall of his mind and see what's going on in there.

We stand side by side and watch the changing scene on the water for a while, enjoying the antics of the water fowl. Jake's hands clap together excitedly every time a duck crash lands in the water then glides smoothly away with all the elegance of a ballet dancer. It's peaceful and beautiful, and Jake is happy, which means that I'm happy too.

I spent so many years wishing that he would open his mouth someday and start to talk, but he never did, and now sometimes I'm glad. His thoughts are private, all for himself, and he seems to like it that way, and when he is calm like this there is a certain tranquility that comes with being in his company.

Of course, these moments of serene stillness and peace are the exception, not the norm, but he's my brother and I love him to death, even when he's tearing the house up only minutes after I've straightened it out. Tidying the house while Jake is awake is a bit like shoveling the driveway during a snow storm.

A glance at my wristwatch has me gasping and loading Jake into the car somewhat frantically; the time has escaped us and we only have half an hour before Bella is due to arrive.

When we finally arrive at the house, after fighting our way through the rush-hour traffic, Bella is already there, standing by the front door reading.

"Always with your nose in a book, Swan," I tease, tugging lightly on the loose strands of her hair as she finally emerges from whatever story she was reading and grins broadly at us. Her ability to get completely lost in books always amazes me. I've never been able to switch off that completely, but when she reads it's like the rest of the world doesn't exist. I saw her once in the park sitting under a tree, completely transfixed by whatever she was reading. There was a football game going on to her left, and a family with children screaming and shouting at one another to her right, and yet her eyes remained fixed on her book. Even when one of the children kicked a ball that landed only feet from her, her concentration never wavered.

"Hey, Jake," she sings, smiling happily at him and tapping his arm lightly with her fingers, in the absence of any spare flappers. His eyes brighten immediately as the familiar gesture registers with him, and he taps his cut-off Frosties packet against her shoulder in response. "Have you been to feed the ducks?" She knows his routine by heart now, and although he will never respond, she always asks him anyway. I love that about her.

She cheerfully links her arm with his and guides him into the house, where he immediately makes a beeline for the Christmas cards I have arranged back on the mantelpiece. Sighing, I watch as within a single minute he has undone a good half an hour's work. But his smile is so bright and his eyes so focused on the pattern he makes on the floor that I cannot be angry at him for it. Bella shoots me a sympathetic look, but I shrug it off with a grin. Anybody watching Jake right now would be helpless to the smile that curls my lips upwards.

"Wanna dance, Jake?" she asks him, motioning towards the stereo system and looking to me for the go ahead. I nod her forward enthusiastically; there is nothing more beautiful than when they dance together, and I know now that I can wave goodbye to any work I planned on doing this afternoon, until Bella takes Jake for his bath.

Jake is still standing amongst his Christmas card carnage, but the moment Bella presses play on the stereo he bounds over into the large space in the centre of the lounge. There used to be a coffee table there, but when I realised how much Jake loves to dance, I threw it out to clear a space big enough for him.

He stands now in the middle of the open space, his large hand held loosely in one of Bella's delicate ones, his flappers still securely held in the other, and his feet begin to tap in time to the rhythm of the music. His lips move incoherently in time to the words of the 80s pop song blaring from the speakers, but no sound escapes; it never does. He takes his time, working his way into the rhythm and then after a few moments, he drops Bella's hand and begins to twirl and bounce around the room.

His almost six foot frame dwarfs Bella, who is tiny, and to a casual observer may appear fragile. But she moves with what could be considered wreckless abandon, completely unconcerned about the gentle giant, whose limbs are flying out unpredictably around her. If his hand caught her around the face he could really hurt her, but she doesn't appear worried, so neither am I.

I am torn between who I want to watch more. Jake, with his childish innocence and pleasure in the simplicity of the moment, or Bella, who is usually shy and reserved, but allows herself to let go and dance in another person's home, for the sake of my brother. They are both so beautiful individually, but together they are stunning.

Part of me wishes that I could join in, be a part of the beautiful scene in front of me, but somehow it would seem like an intrusion. It feels like my self-conscious and frankly terrible dancing would blemish the otherwise perfect picture that the two of them present.

It is amazing to me that when they eventually stop, after all that twisting and twirling, Jake doesn't look the slightest bit dizzy or disorientated. He merely stands, frozen in the centre of the room, looking expectantly at the stereo, waiting for more music. But Bella is exhausted, and slumps to the ground, leaning against the wall and breathing heavily.

"You've worn Bella out, Jake," I teasingly chastise, winking at Bella who scowls playfully in response.

"Yeah, yeah, McCarty, let's see you do all that and not break a sweat." Her feisty response brings a grin to my face. It has taken her so long to be comfortable being snarky like that with me, and I relish it.

When she first came to work for us she was so shy and quiet I was afraid that the slightest bit of sarcasm would either break her or send her running for the front door. But she has been working with Jake for almost six months now, and has allowed the restricting bonds of shyness to drop, giving as good as she gets in terms of sarcasm and baiting.

When her breathing has evened out I offer her a hand, which she takes and thanks me for helping her to her feet. Then we stand and watch Jake as he flaps Tony the Tiger against his hand repeatedly, with a look of intense concentration on his face.

There is silence between us; the only sounds are our breathing and the light tapping of cardboard on skin. There is nobody else in my world who I can be this comfortable with in silence. Nobody else who I can spend an hour with, say absolutely nothing, and still walk away feeling like I just had the best conversation.

While she bathes Jake, I sit in the office next door. I'm supposed to be working; I have plenty of work to do, but as usual it is going to have to wait until Jake is in bed. I am completely captivated by the sounds emitting from the bathroom. The room is tiled and so her voice echoes around as she chats animatedly to him, despite his lack of response, and at one point she even sings to him. She isn't the best singer, and she will certainly never grace the stage, but the songs she sings are familiar to him and she knows it. Everything she does while she is with him is designed to make him happy. She steps out of her comfort zone time and time again just to raise a smile from his lips, and is often rewarded with one from me too.

I don't feel like me too often any more. The me I was before Mum and Dad left us alone. Each day that I spend just trying to get by, I can feel the real me slipping away gradually. The goofy, playful me. The guy who got kicked out of high school for a week after putting washing up liquid in the fountain and covering the lawns in soap suds. The guy who had a smart mouthed response to just about anything people said. I love my brother to the moon and back, but at the same time I missed being me. Each day that Bella comes in to help out with Jake I can feel myself slowly returning. Each time she cracks a joke or throws a sarcastic comment my way I can sense the life returning to me. When she plays pranks on me, with Jake as her wing-man I find myself retaliating just the way I used to. When she's here it feels like we're a real family, not just two people living in the same space and drifting around each other, the way that it did for so long, before she came to us.

I hate watching her leave every evening at eight, but as much as I will the hands on the clock to slow down, the time always arrives, and she always goes with a parting smile and a cheerful "Bye, Jake. Bye, Emmett, see you both tomorrow." Always Jake first. I love that.

Today though, today I will ask her to stay for a drink after her shift finishes. Every night she leaves Jake curled up in his snoezelen, enjoying the soft tinkling music and the twinkling of the fairy-lights, which are strung up all over the room, with a lava lamp and a tall tube of water that lights up and bubbles in time with the music. Aside from when he is dancing with Bella, being in there is his favourite thing, and watching him is pure pleasure.

He lies back in his giant bean bag, with his mouth open in wonder as his eyes follow the patterns of the lights on the ceiling and the walls and his fingers dance in the air above his face, absorbing the colourful beams from around him. The look of wonder on his face is a joy to behold, and I could stand in the doorway and watch him for hours.

But today, as she turns away from the door with a wistful smile, and reaches for her bag, I touch her arm gently. She jumps in surprise and her hand flies to her chest with her long delicate fingers splayed out as she looks up into my eyes with a look of shock.

"Sorry, I didn't mean to startle you," I say quickly, cursing myself for being such an idiot.

She smiles lightly and shakes her head. "No, it's okay. I'm just jumpy, not your fault."

I stare at her for an unreasonably long moment, enjoying the sight of her amazingly deep, brown eyes as they stare right back at me. They are so wide and bright, and framed by long lashes that flutter against her high cheek bones as she considers me carefully. When I have gazed at her for a moment too long, she begins to shuffle uncomfortably, and once again goes to reach for her bag.

I reach for it too, and beat her to it, but I don't hand it over. I hold it in my hands, still staring at her like a lunatic, and probably making her feel incredibly uncomfortable by now. One eyebrow quirks at me, questioning my weird and uncharacteristic behaviour, but amazingly, despite said behaviour, she doesn't look afraid. On the contrary, her expression is more one of concern and curiosity.

Her hand tentatively reaches out for her bag, but instead of taking it she rests her hand over mine where it is still clutching it desperately, as though holding her bag hostage will stop her from leaving.

Her mouth opens as though she wants to say something, but in her hesitation I beat her to it as I blurt out the only word I can think of to say.

"Stay," I almost command, earning myself a look of confusion, but still no fear.

"I don't unders-"

"For a drink. Stay," I interrupt. My mouth seems to be under the impression that if I don't let her get a word in edgeways then she won't be able to reject me. My brain disagrees however, and panic begins to set in as I realise that I asked her to stay after work and now she's gaping at me in stunned silence.

"I-I'm sorry. That was stupid; you can just ignore me." I want to look away, but my eyes won't let me. They remain trained on her face as her expression drops into something that could be mistaken for disappointment if I didn't know better.

"Oh... okay," she mumbles eventually, her eyes dropping to the floor and her long hair swinging forward to shield her face from me. If it were even a remote possibility, I would think that maybe she wanted to stay. But that's stupid. She is beautiful, intelligent and full of life, and I'm just me, stuck in this perpetual state. Never moving forwards, never moving back. Just frozen in time since the day my parents died and left me sole care giver of my autistic younger brother.

I love my brother and would do literally anything for him, including putting my life completely on the back-burner in order to be everything I can be for him. I'm not even really me anymore.

Except when you're around her, the voice inside my head whispers to me truthfully. I try to ignore it, for her sake. But as her fingers unfurl mine in order to retrieve her bag, and a bolt of lightning shoots through me at her gentle touch, I know I can't let her walk out of the door without knowing.

"Do you feel it, too, Bella?" The words spill out in a rush and I feel like a monumental idiot for behaving this way in front of the woman I adore. Her eyes flicker briefly to where our hands are situated, just millimeters apart, before she raises them to look at me with a deep penetrating gaze.

"I feel it," she whispers in response, her three tiny words igniting a fire inside me that has been dormant for too long.

I take a step towards her and hear her sharp intake of breath. I am close enough now to reach out and touch her, to run my fingers down the soft, ivory skin of her cheek, or to run my fingers through the brown curls of her hair. But my hand remains rigid by my side. It's been too long since I've done this. There was a time I would have just taken the plunge and kissed her, letting the chips fall where they may. But that was then, and this is now, and Bella is altogether too important for that.

I'm not good with words. I never have been. But now I am wishing so hard for something, anything to say that won't make me sound like a complete moron. My brain searches desperately for great words of wisdom, something that will go down in history as the best words ever spoken in possibly the most awkward moment ever experienced by two people.

But apparently words aren't necessary. Her step forward matches mine, and now she is so close that I can breathe her in. She smells amazing, an amusing mix of her own sweetly scented perfume, and Jake's washing gel from his bath, with a slight hint of his shaving foam. It is heaven and home all mixed as one and I have to stop myself from pressing up against her and inhaling every inch of her. Instead, I watch as her hand tentatively lifts and reaches up to press lightly on my chest. She is so tiny that her hand is at the level of her eyes as it sits above my heart, feeling the beat as it races inside my chest. The skin beneath her hand tingles and sparks with an unfamiliar excitement, which I try and fail to hide. My smile is wide and heavy as she looks up into my face through long lashes, sweet and sexy at the same time.

"I feel it," she repeats in an almost silent whisper that echoes around my head and fills me with yet another unfamiliar feeling. Subconsciously, my hand moves from my side and lands on top of hers, our eyes still locked together intensely.

The only sounds in the room are our breathing and a light snoring emitting from where Jake has apparently fallen asleep in the snoezelen.

After a long moment, Bella's eyes drift away from mine and down to the floor, her hair once again falling forward and shielding her face from mine. I feel the loss of her eyes immediately and move to rectify it. My free hand comes up and I brush the hair away and tuck it behind her ear. The soft strands feel like spun silk in my fingers and I almost audibly whimper when I retract my hand and lose that softness. Instead, I hook a finger under her chin and nudge upwards gently until her eyes meet mine again.

I am completely floored when I see the same emotion in my eyes reflected back at me through hers. All this time she has been coming into my home and helping me with Jake as I watched on, completely enraptured by her. Is it possible that she has felt the same all along?

"Emmett," she whispers, and my simple name sounds like a prayer on her lips. My fingers stray from her chin and move to her cheeks, brushing a red blush onto her flawlessly white skin. Beautiful.

I lean forward, taking my time as I lower my lips to hers. I want her to know that she can pull back from this. I won't do this unless she wants it. But as her eyes close and her tongue comes out and strokes languidly over her lips I lose my doubts. She wants this just as much as I do.

As my lips finally meet hers I hear a soft moan and worry at first that it has come from me, but as her lips vibrate against mine and I hear the sound again, I realise that she is enjoying the experience as much as I am. Her lips are soft and warm against mine and molded together they seem like a perfect fit.

My hands move from their former positions and one snakes around her small waist, pulling her into me tightly as the other finds its way into her hair, the fingers tangling with her soft curls.

I pull back after a moment; I don't want to push her further than she is ready and willing to go. As my eyes drift open I am awed by the sight that greets me. Her eyes are still closed and her lips are hanging in the air as though mine are still locked against them. Then, slowly, ever so slowly a small smile turns up the corners of her mouth and her hand moves to her face, where one finger delicately traces her lips as they emit a small sigh of contentment.

Her eyes are blurred and unfocused for a moment before they lock with mine and I swear to God, the smile on my face is the goofiest it's ever been. She smiles shyly and the sight of it sends my heart leaping through my chest like a wild stallion.

She takes a step forward and at first I think she is going to kiss me again, but instead she wraps her arms around me and rests her head against my chest. Her grip around my waist is ferocious and yet gentle and she is perfect. This is perfect. I reciprocate the embrace with one of my old, famous bear hugs, and kiss the top of her head as though we have been together for years. Her hair smells like summer and I am instantly transported to an alternate reality, with trips to the beach and picnics in the park. A world with hand holding and public displays of affection. A world where I am not alone and Jake is not alone, but instead we are a family. A single unit in three parts. A world where Bella doesn't leave at eight o'clock and return at four thirty the following day, but stays with us.

She takes a deep breath in and I feel her whole body relax as she exhales and snuggles into my chest a little more tightly. I smile as I stare down at her. She must feel my gaze, because after a moment my view shifts, and I am no longer looking at the crown of her head, but instead her eyes are once more holding mine. I want to lean down and kiss her again. My heart tells me she wants it too, but my head says "what if?" What if it's not what she wants? What if she slaps you, tells you to get your hands off her? What if she runs from the house and you never see her again?

My indecision lasts for so long that her face contorts into a look of confused concern.

"Are you alright, Emmett?" she asks her voice soft but clear, and I want her to say it again, just so I can hear her saying my name again. She says it with so much reverence, it's like the simple two syllables are sacred to her.

I hope that they are.

"This is..." I trail off, searching for the words to describe the situation we have found ourselves in.

"New? Different? Confusing? Terrifying?" she lists off without hesitation, a soft smile holding her lips.

"I'm gonna opt for all of the above, I think," I reply.

"Well, can't we be confused and terrified together?" she asks hopefully. "After all, it's so much friendlier with two." I laugh out loud as she shamelessly quotes from the Winnie the Pooh book I listened to her reading to Jake yesterday. Her mischievous grin tells me that she knows perfectly well that I was listening in, when I had been studiously pretending to work.

Still laughing I drop a chaste kiss on the end of her nose, then whisper, "I like the sound of that," against her forehead.

Her hand grips the cup lightly; her fingers slotted through the handle and splayed out on the other side. Her other hand is cupped around it, enjoying the warmth it is giving off as she sips the scorching hot liquid tentatively. Flinching slightly, she pulls back and blows on the drink and steam clouds up and swirls around her face.

Looking up, she sees me watching her and I am embarrassed, but she smiles and tells me that I make good hot chocolate.

"It's the mini marshmellows that make it," I reply seriously. "You have to get the number just right or they can make it too sweet."

She smirks at me with an eyebrow quirked in question at my very feminine observations.

"I've had a lot of mugs of hot chocolate... shall we say... returned, to me by Jake. He likes it how he likes it, and hot chocolate tends to hurt when it gets thrown at you."

"He throws them at you?" she asks in surprise. "He always seems so sweet." She is genuinely shocked. She has never seen any side to him but the one he always displays to her, and suddenly I am hit by a thought, which makes me chuckle. "What?" she asks, looking completely confused now.

"It just hit me. It would seem that I'm not the only McCarty to have a crush on you."

She blushes adorably and looks back down to her drink, blowing on it softly again, but she can't hide her smile, it is too bright and too wide. After a moment she chances a glance up at me and blushes even more deeply when she realises I haven't looked away.

"Brothers, eh?" I joke, winking at her and trying to break the tension that has suddenly fallen. It works and she laughs, shaking her head at me in amusement.

"Yeah, and I love you both but in very different ways." She is relaxed for a moment, before she realises what she said. "I mean... Not love, just... you know... I mean..." she stammers her way through a dozen incomplete explanations until I shush her with a finger lightly placed over her lips.

"I know what you mean, Bella. Relax." She exhales sharply and her breath is warm against my finger.

After a moment I remove my finger and replace it with my lips. I almost feel bad for a moment about my inability to stop kissing her. But when her hands drift up into my hair and she pulls me closer, my guilt is quickly forgotten.

Her lips are so soft and her body feels so right pressed up against mine. I almost die when her tongue comes out and shyly seeks entrance to my mouth. I gladly accept and she tastes amazing. Like chocolate and marshmallows and Bella. All Bella.

The gentle tugging of her fingers in my hair feels unbelievable and sends desire coursing through me. Then her hands stray from my hair and run down the muscles of my back, her fingers tracing their contours lightly, and I am helpless to the groan that escapes me. Mini me has sprung most decidedly to attention and I know that if I don't stop now, I won't stop at all, and she is better than that. I am better than that.

With not inconsiderable effort I manage to pull out of the kiss and we stand in one another's arms, breathing heavily. I don't move, afraid that if I do this perfect moment, this perfect embrace will crumble like a house of cards and I cannot bear even the thought of that kind of pain.

Bella is the first to move, of course. But nothing crumbles and nothing breaks. She merely slides her hands down my back slowly, her fingers caressing each muscle as they pass, then they snake around and come to rest on my hips, her fingers slotting through my belt loops.

"You're beautiful," I whisper. She looks up at me shyly for a moment before averting her eyes back down to her feet. I'm not having that. One of my hands grips both of hers and the other cups her cheek, tilting her face back up to mine. "You're beautiful," I say more forcefully this time, enjoying the blush that colours her cheeks instantly. "Don't ever doubt it." Her smile sings to my heart as it twitches at the corners of her mouth. I can see her fighting it, wanting to argue with me, but my face is so determined and sincere that she can't help but believe me.

"I have to get Jake into his bed, before he's so far gone that I can't move him," I say, my tone laced with regret, but I can't help but smile at the disappointment on her face.

"O-okay," she murmurs, her face flushing with what looks like embarrassment.

"You could..." Her head shoots up as I speak, as though she is desperate for me to finish the sentence. "I mean... You could stay... If you wanted to. It won't take too long." I am mumbling and stuttering over my words. How is this ever going to work, when she is almost painfully shy, and I can't form a single coherent sentence around her?

She stays anyway, despite my incoherent babbling. She curls up on my sofa and I put a film on for her while I sort Jacob out. He is groggy from falling asleep in his snoezelen, so it is easy to convince him to crawl into bed. As always we switch out his main light and turn on his globe, which lights up with star constellations that project around the room. His eyes follow the star shapes as they slowly rotate around the room and I quietly read one of his books - something about Green Eggs and Ham - until his eyes are too heavy and they drift closed.

I stand as quietly as I can, and replace the book on his shelf, in the perfect place, spine lined up exactly with his other volumes. I don't want to find it ripped to shreds in the morning.

I stand in the doorway and watch him for a long moment as he snuggles into his bed. He looks so warm and cozy and utterly content all curled up there under his thick covers. Watching him sleep, you could be forgiven for thinking he was completely normal. Not trapped inside his own world, struggling to interact with other people on the most basic of levels, each and every day. In sleep he is just like everybody else.

I wonder what he dreams about. Does he remember our parents? Did he ever even know that that's who they were? Did he know how much they loved him? Does he know how much I love him? How much it hurts me that I can't be everything that he needs?

Sighing, I pull the door shut behind me and lean back against it, my head bumping lightly against the white painted wood. Then, walking through to the lounge I am about to start speaking when I catch sight of her, curled up on the couch with her head rested on one arm and a book in the other. She is fast asleep. She looks so comfortable and content curled up there that I do not have the heart to wake her. Instead, I fetch a soft blanket from the cupboard and drape it gently over her, taking the book easily from her hand and marking her page before setting it on the table. As I lean down to tuck it around her shoulders I can't help but drop a small kiss on her forehead, causing her to stir slightly but not wake.

I smile wistfully as she snuggles deeper under the blanket, unconsciously reveling in its warmth. Her nose twitches adorably when she sleeps and I find myself watching her for a long while before I realise what I am doing. I force myself to retreat, while everything in me wants to stay and watch her. But watching her sleep is just barely a step above stalking, and over-stepping the mark is not something I'm keen to do before I even have the chance to take her on a date.

My stomach comes alive with butterflies at the thought of asking her out for dinner. It was difficult enough just asking her to stay for a drink, how the hell am I going to ask her on a full fledged date?

I tell myself that I'm being stupid, that she will say yes. She kissed me for goodness sake. But the voices in my head, which have been telling me for months that she couldn't possibly want me, are going into overdrive on this one, and I need to stop over-thinking it before I talk myself out of this before it's even begun.

Tomorrow I will ask her. I will put my stupid insecurities aside and I will come straight out and ask her to have dinner with me. I will put myself out there and hope to God that she says yes.

Bleary-eyed and mumbling incoherently, I stumble my way neanderthal-like into the kitchen, after one of the worst night's sleep of my life. My brain can't quite work out what's going on when I go to switch on the coffee machine and it is already on and gurgling away happily. My fuzzled brain struggles to come up with an explanation, and finds it when I turn and see Bella sitting at the breakfast bar with an amused expression. One corner of her mouth turns up in a shy smile as she pushes a steaming mug of coffee across to me.

"Two sugars, right?" she asks, her brown eyes sparkling as they look at me hopefully. I am amazed that she remembers how I take my coffee, and take a long drag. It's perfect and I can feel my body coming to life as the first caffeine hits my system.

"Marry me!" I joke, enjoying the blush that colours her cheeks. She ducks her head with a quiet giggle and stares into her coffee mug as though it contains the answers to all the questions of the universe.

Silence descends around us as we both revel in the early morning caffeine and the peace that we both know won't last once Jake wakes up. The quiet isn't uncomfortable or stifling the way that you might expect. Her presence is calming - tranquil amidst the chaos of my life, and I want so badly for her to stay around.

I feel the words bubbling up in my throat just as she opens her mouth to speak, and of course we speak over each other. It's only the most important question I will probably ever ask; naturally the moment doesn't go to plan.

She stammers out an unnecessary apology and tells me to go on. My head screams at me to stall, to say something else, that she will say no at best, or run away screaming at worst. But my heart is begging me to just go ahead and ask her. To stop wishing and dreaming and start living. They fight it out amongst themselves, and eventually my heart wins out.

"Bella, I... can I... would you like to... I mean... Dammit!" Just because my heart won, doesn't mean that my head plans to make it easy. The words trip over themselves in a rush and still she is clueless as to what I'm trying to say. Her expression, when I finally convince myself to look up at her, is compassionate but curious and silently urges me to try again.

"I was thinking maybe we could... You might like to..." Her hand lands softly on top of mine; stopping the relentless fidgeting they have been caught up in since I started speaking. Her touch soothes me instantly, and one look into her eyes tells me that I'm being stupid. She will say yes. Of course she will.

I am still un-twisting my tongue to try and communicate with her in plain English, when her lips are suddenly planted against mine, effectively silencing my incoherent ramblings. Her lips dance against mine for only a moment before she pulls back, her fingers weaving into my hair as her forehead rests against mine.

"I'd love to, Emmett."

"The world you desire can be won, it exists, it is real, it is possible, it is yours." - Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged