Welcome back!

Thank you, WritingBabe, for always suggesting such sensible edits. And thank you, RandomCran, for being so supportive and encouraging. Much love to you both.

Same state (Washington), different park.

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Edward eyed the mountain like it was all something to be conquered. It wasn't the peak he was after; he was determined that the elements here would not get the best of him.

The elements in this case weren't earth, wind and fire, but snow, cold and thin air. He and Bella were in a snow field in Mount Rainier National Park, and you didn't need to scale the mountain to get out of breath very easily. Even the lowest terrain in the park was about 2,000 feet above sea level.

The National Park Inn had ski and boot rentals available for guests, so they'd decided to try cross-country skiing even though neither of them knew much about it. They thought they were up for the challenge, and it seemed like the best way to get around the park, which was covered in snow.

Bella was breathing sharply next to him and he knew that the dry, harsh air must be cutting through her lungs, too. Her cheeks and nose were red from the cold, and she was working her ski poles like her life depended on it. Her sunglasses were sliding down her nose.

She slogged on, keeping up with Edward's long legged- stride as much as possible. Together they'd covered a few miles along the Paradise trail, one of the easier routes for beginners. Edward stopped to look at his watch and was shocked to see they'd only been out here a few hours. It seemed much longer.

His girlfriend walked past him, mindlessly putting one pole and one ski in front of the others; as if it was more of an endurance test than something they'd decided to do for fun. Edward stared thoughtfully at her back. Something was wrong, and it wasn't that she was ignoring him while she fought to move forward. She was shutting everything out, and so was he.

The mountain commanded his attention again, after he'd somehow let it slide into the background for the past hour or so. It was hard to take your eyes away because it dominated the landscape so completely, but if you watched the scenery instead of your pace, you ran the very real chance of doing a faceplant off your skis.

And this, he realized, was the problem. They were so focused on trying to ski that they were missing out on the main attraction.

"Hey," he called out to Bella. She stopped and turned around, her mouth open and panting.

"What?"

He pushed ahead until he was next to her again. "Look."

"At what?"

"Everything." He waved his arm around. "The mountain! What we came here to see."

She was so tired that at first it didn't register. Then her face cleared, and she stared at Rainier, the enormous peak rising out of the earth like a force that fooled no one with its dormancy. The sunlight gleamed off the snow with a brilliance that made her grateful she had her sunglasses. Forks was so cloudy, she almost never needed them; but here the skies could be clear on a winter day like today. Until Edward mentioned it just now, she'd focused so much on skiing that she could have been in Queens for all the impression her surroundings made on her.

When they'd arrived at the Inn the day before, daylight was fading fast. The snow and glaciers that blanketed the mountain caught the light from the setting sun, turning the bright white into a soft orange. The ruts in Rainier's face and its exposed rocks took on a dark purple hue, in contrast to the brighter colors of the pastel snow. As they remained outside, the quiet cold and the view inspired a peace and serenity that Bella hadn't felt in ages. Edward sensed it too; he put his arms around her, and they watched the mountain and listened to the silence. Better than a painting at a museum, this was real, and it was glorious.

Today, they'd been so determined to see what they could of the park that they nearly missed it. Edward put his hands around her waist again, like he did last night, and they stood, inhaling the clean brisk scent of the trees and the air. A hawk circled above them, no doubt looking for some delicious small mammal that would stand out against the white ground.

"There's a bench over there," Edward said, tilting his head to a spot about ten feet away. "Let's sit for awhile."

With a grateful nod, Bella slid on her skis to the bench. She pulled her hat off and shook her hair to dry off the sweat around her neck.

Edward sat down hard. "This is great, but I think I'd rather be inside on a court."

"City boy," she teased.

"Oh, like you went skiing all the time when you were here?" He nudged her shoulder.

"Not much," she allowed. "We came here a couple of times, but it was mostly in the summer. My senior class went downhill skiing in Olympic National Park for our trip."

"So how'd you do?"

Bella grinned, spinning the hat on her finger before answering. "I did the bunny slope once and then stayed inside the rest of the time."

Edward burst out laughing. "You hate skiing? Why didn't you say so?"

"I don't, actually. I'm not a fan of the cold and I hate heights. But I really wanted to try cross country." She looked at him curiously. "You're always so interested in sports. I thought you'd like it."

"I do, but I don't think my legs are in shape for this. They're more used to doing free throws."

"Do you want to head back to the Inn?"

"In a moment. I'm loving this view."

"You can see a lot more when you're not moving," she agreed.

They sat quietly, breathing easily now. Directly in front of them was the Nisqually glacier, embedded in the southwest side of the mountain. The glacier was shaded in certain spots where dirt and debris were frozen, heightening its visibility in the snow that covered the mountain.

"That feeds the Nisqually River." Bella spoke softly now, inspired by the subdued atmosphere that was at odds with the enormity of the park and the mountain.

Edward nodded. "The melted snow and glacier ice…doesn't that form the head of the river?"

"You learn fast, grasshopper." Bella smiled widely, even though her lips were chapped. The apples of her cheeks had been burned by wind and sun. "It's too bad it's winter and not summer. You can see a lot more of the mountain when it's uncovered. And the flowers here are spectacular."

"Oh, I don't know," Edward said, squinting at the peak. "This is pretty incredible."

"It is beautiful, with all the snow," Bella agreed.

He put his arm around her and squeezed her shoulder. "You look cold. Should we go back?"

She shuddered. "I don't want to cut it short for you. It's the first time you've been here."

"Hey, you've seen one 14,000 foot mountain; you've seen 'em all."

Bella laughed. "And of course there are so many of those in New York City."

"I can't enjoy it much when you're sitting here freezing your butt off. C'mon." He stood and held out his hand to help her up. "Let's go. We can ski back to the car."

"You sure?" She got up but looked at him uncertainly.

"Positive. Besides," he said as he grabbed the poles, "I can think of some good exercise we can get indoors that's a lot more fun. And we can look at the mountain all we want out the window."

"I like the sound of that."

Since it was Christmas week, the Inn was crowded with holiday vacationers. A number of families, college students, and other couples were also out skiing or hiking. At least Bella and Edward had returned early enough where they could shower and get to dinner without having to wait for a table.

Edward checked his phone for messages while they waited for their food. Thankfully, no one from work or home had tried to reach him; he'd sent Carlisle and Esme a message to let them know he and Bella had arrived safely in Forks, but he'd had no communication with anyone since then. He'd cleared away as much as he could before they left so there were no outstanding questions about investigations or court cases – at least, nothing he could take care of from 3,000 miles away.

Bella watched him as he scrolled through several apps and then closed them after mere minutes. A satisfied smile spread across his lips before he noticed Bella was looking.

"What?"

"Nothing," she said, but her grin gave her away. "You look peaceful. Very rested, too."

"I am." He folded his arms across the table. "It's been a good vacation."

"Are you having a good time?" she asked.

"Oh, sure." When he noticed the lightness had gone out of her tone, he spoke a little more seriously. She really wasn't sure.

"I'm very glad we came. I mean it," he said, meeting her eyes. "It's been nice staying with your parents. I like them. They're good people."

She nodded thoughtfully. "They really are. I knew they'd like you."

"Think they do?" He rearranged his silverware, looking down at the plaid place mat.

"Definitely," she said firmly. "You mean you can't tell?"

"Ehhh, well, I thought so, but you know, I'm not the best judge of character."

Bella snorted. "You're like, the best judge of character I've ever met."

He shook his head. "This is different. It means a lot, so I'm inclined to read into things. Mostly negative things."

"Like how you bested my dad by catching the only fish when you guys went to the lake?"

"Not so much that." He waved his hand dismissively. "He was very cool about it."

"It was a good fish."

"Yeah, he even let me eat most of it."

"Told you he liked you." She grasped his hand from across the table. "So…what are some of these negatives you're talking about?"

He hesitated, looking off in the direction of the kitchen, which had one large swinging door. Edward had always wondered whether he'd ever be lucky enough to see two waiters trying to go in opposite directions at the same time so they bumped into each other like Laurel and Hardy, and dropped trays of food on the floor. It hadn't happened yet.

"I'm not so sure your mom likes me," he confessed.

"Really?" Bella looked legitimately confused. "Did she say anything bad to you?"

"No, no, nothing like that. She just seems kind of distant. Not too terribly friendly. She's real polite when we talk, but it's like it only goes so far." He frowned, the lines on his forehead marking his frustration. "I just get the feeling I'm being held at arm's length. I'm not sure how else to say it."

"Do you want me to say something to her?"

"No, I don't want to stick you in the middle of it. Not yet, at least." The waiter came and safely delivered their dinner.

Bella cut a couple of pieces of ravioli and held one up on her fork. "But if there's a problem, I should ask her about it. She's not usually like that. Really, like I told you ages ago, she's friendlier than Charlie."

"See, I'm not sure there is a problem. So I don't want you to bring it up." He reached across the table and squeezed her other hand. "We have some time left here. Let's see what happens."

It was a good meal; not the most elaborate or sophisticated they'd ever had, but satisfying after hours of trying to ski. They were finishing coffee when Edward asked her if she'd changed her mind about dessert.

"I'm only hungry for you," she said quietly, then leaned in and said even more softly, "We're out of my parents' house. I think we should take advantage of that."

He lifted her hand and kissed her fingers. "I like how you think."

No matter how casual Charlie and Renee were about their daughter sharing a bedroom with her boyfriend, Edward couldn't get out from under the feeling that every noise, every movement was somehow monitored. They could be quiet during sex if necessary, and in fact, they had been; it was a concern unspoken but acknowledged that vocal enthusiasm would be embarrassing for all concerned. But now they were in a hotel, and even if the walls were thin, the people on the other side were strangers they'd never see again.

Edward held her hand as they left the restaurant and walked to the other end of the Inn. They passed the common room where other guests were relaxing in front of a fireplace with a huge, welcoming fire. At any other time, Edward might have been tempted to stop there and enjoy it, but he had other flames to fan.

Bella entered the room first and Edward closed the door behind them. She turned and took hold of his hands, tugging him toward her as she walked backwards. "C'mere, my mountain man." He laughed.

"Nature boy." Her voice deepened. "Women want me. Fish fear me."

"Cut it out." He grabbed her around the waist and tossed her on the bed.

"Whoa. You can take the boy out of New York, but you can't take New York out of the boy."

He unzipped his pants and mumbled a few words about taking something out, all right.

She knelt on the bed and kissed him, gently at first but then with much more need. Edward kept the connection while slowly tugging on her sweater, pulling it up until they had to break apart so she could slide her arms out. Bella unbuttoned his shirt and set it on a chair near the bed.

"Does sex in a new location excite you?" She was working on his pants now, tugging them down while he tried not to fall over.

"Sex with you excites me, sweetheart. Anywhere, any time." He flopped on the bed, taking her with him.

"Not fussy, then."

"Not about this, no."

"You're such a guy."

"You were expecting someone else?"

The bed was topped by a soft down quilt, and the room was very warm – too warm if you had clothes on, but Bella didn't. Edward was wearing only his briefs. He climbed above her on hands and knees and kissed her, then began gently working his way down her stomach, avoiding her breasts for the moment but taking special pains to exaggerate the kisses as he went lower.

He hooked his fingers inside her panties and pulled them down expertly, tossing them somewhere over his shoulder. At the moment, he didn't particularly care if they landed in Tacoma.

Edward rubbed his hands lightly on her thighs, whispering "Beautiful." He separated her legs and found what he was looking for, the place that was always home for him regardless of where they were.

"Talk to me, baby," he murmured as he kissed her belly, her legs, and in between. "There's no one but us, so don't hold back." Edward settled in and explored her with his mouth, slow and light to start, the way he knew she liked it.

"Yes," she said, her voice catching at the end of the word. She arched her back and moaned, sensations coursing through her that were by now familiar, yet always seemed new. She sighed his name and ran her hands through his hair, occasionally pulling hard when he teased her just right. The soft , wet noises from the contact echoed off her skin like a soundtrack to the release building up inside her.

"More," she whispered, then said it louder. "More." And Edward heard her.

She cried out and almost twisted off the bed, her eyes widening and then shutting tight. Bella called out his name again, much more than a sigh this time, loud and guttural.

"I missed that," he murmured, kissing his way back up her body. "And I seem to have forgotten these." He unsnapped her bra and removed it, putting it somewhere on the nightstand without even looking. Studiously, he traced one breast from the top to the nipple before replacing his finger with his mouth.

"These are perfect," he said. Edward looked up at the headboard behind them, at the top of the bed. "Did everyone hear me?"

Bella laughed, still breathy from her own high. "Come here," she urged him. "I have more to say." She grasped him and easily slid him inside, wanting him as much as she did. "Edward," she purred. "This is heaven…oh!" His hips pushed up as his large hands lifted her ass.

The pale blandness of the room slipped far away as she sank into the down quilt, its clean smell mingling with the scent of sweat and sex. Her fingers trailed lightly up and down his back, concentrating on the memorial tattoo for his brother that she knew lay on his shoulder. She often gently traced Garrett's wings when she and Edward were together like this, to convey the reverence she had for Edward's great loss. The sanctity of Garrett's memory mirrored the sacredness of their own love, and tonight she again said a prayer to the boy she would never meet.

Edward shifted and moved more swiftly, spurred on simply from being inside her. Their connection was now hard and fast, perfect and noisy; and moments later, Bella was crying out again. Edward's heavy pants grew into a long groan as he came, every muscle strained until he was able to relax.

He wrapped an arm around her lower back, holding her tight against him while savoring the last moments of their physical connection. He'd stay like this as long as he could, inside her and around her, unless she was uncomfortable enough to need him to move. She'd never asked him to, though, in all the times they were together.

After some time had passed, he kissed down her neck, easing back to his side of the bed but pulling her flush against his side. Edward stroked her hair, winding his fingers through it and scattering it on the pillow.

"Do you miss it here?" he murmured.

She exhaled and thought about her answer. "Sometimes. I miss my family, and the space here. It's all so open and so pretty. And clean," she added as an afterthought. Edward laughed.

"But I wouldn't come back, " she added.

Edward stopped playing with her hair. "Never?"

"Not while I have what I need in New York." She moved along his chest so she could see his face, balancing her chin on her fist. "I'd never come back here if it meant leaving you."

"What if I came with you?"

"I'd go anywhere with you," she said softly. "I've lived in two extremes – total nature and total city – so I think I could live anywhere. But would you be happy here?"

"I think I could be."

"For the rest of your life?" she pressed. "I think you need to be in a city. Or at least, really close to one."

"There's always Seattle."

"Yeah, there is." She circled her index finger along the center of his chest, then moved it lazily around his stomach until she was threading through the fine hairs just below his navel. "It's not New York, though."

"But it has some really great breweries. And the seafood is awesome."

"Good points," she said, her fingers drifting lower yet. "But leaving New York…I don't see you doing that, and being happy."

He shut his eyes as her hand closed around him. "This would be the wrong time to expect me to give you a thoughtful opinion."

"Then forget about it for now. Let's talk more like we did before," she murmured, and climbed on top of him.

They'd agreed to return to Forks the next day, so they left after breakfast. Their time in Washington State was coming to an end, and Bella wanted to take Edward to the Olympic National Park for another hike, since he'd been so anxious to see it. Earlier in their visit, they'd covered what Edward called the most important landmarks: Bella's schools, the diner and the small bodega-style store where she bought candy and soda after school; and the spot in the woods where she'd hang out with Jessica when they were in middle school and felt like they were the oddest pre-teens in the world. She recounted the memories she had from each place, her hands flying to accent her words as she laughed. Sometimes, she'd get so caught up in a story that she'd stumble over words or not entirely make sense. But it was a funny, guileless side to her that Edward hadn't seen much of before, so he let her go with her stories and enjoyed watching her tell them.

The last event of their trip was scheduled for a few days before they returned to New York. Bella had warned Edward that Renee wanted to have a party to introduce them to anyone they might not have met. Her mother seemed determined to be sure everyone on the peninsula had the chance to see Bella and her boyfriend. Charlie went along with the idea because beer was involved, and because he was generally indulgent of his wife.

"We don't have many relatives in the area, so almost all of my parents' friends are like family," Bella explained.

Edward nodded. "I could see that when we went down to the station." The men didn't just respect Charlie, they cared for him like family. It only made sense because the force was so small, but Edward also had a good understanding of that kind of bond because of his parents and their wide net of loved ones. His parents' friendships were like relations as well. He liked having that in common with the Swans.

They helped Renee prepare for the party, and Edward even got another master class from Charlie, this time in chopping wood. They needed enough to stoke the fireplace in the living room, and since it hadn't snowed or even rained in a few days, The Chief wanted to take advantage of the dryness. They did liquor store runs for beer and wine, and Edward was relieved at the ease with which he now slipped into Charlie's truck. It wasn't just the ice being broken; something had been built, too. Charlie didn't talk much more than he had when they first met, but his words with Edward seemed to come easier and more relaxed.

Edward was still conscious of Charlie's supreme role as Bella's dad, and that continued to make him cautious. But he also found he liked Charlie, and to his immense relief, Charlie seemed to like him. He enjoyed their conversations about sports and beer, and even the ones about touchier subjects like law enforcement.

Renee, on the other hand, was still a puzzle with some pieces missing. She was kind enough to Edward and carried on the rote conversations, asking about his parents and the rest of his family, telling him about her work as a life coach and patiently answering his questions because he was pretty sure he'd never understand it; and expressing her gratefulness whenever he helped cook or clean up. Nearly every time they were in the same room, and probably when she thought he wasn't looking, her face slipped into something sad; an expression of wistfulness that he sensed was linked to Bella as surely as their gestational connection had been so many years ago.

Tonight, the dining room table was practically groaning from its load: a slow cooker with pulled pork; plates of roasted chicken and ham, trays of lasagna and baked ziti; bowls of salads, snacks, dips and breads…it was enormous. The menu might be different than what his family served, but the sentiment and the amount were the same.

Edward helped Charlie haul some coolers on the small back porch, where they dumped ice and shoved bottles of beer. From the outside, they heard the doorbell ring, and Renee calling out, "Coming!"

"I'll bet that's Jacob and his friends," Charlie grunted.

"He's always on time?"

"When food is involved, yeah." Charlie wiped his hands on his pants. "Better go inside before it all disappears."

Bella answered the front door. As soon as she opened it, a collective yell went up from outside. It sounded like a full stadium of Seattle fans during a Seahawks game. Once they came through the door, it looked like a full stadium, too.

At first, all Edward saw were huge shoulders. Five…no, six sets of them. Two of them at a time were hugging Bella; everyone was laughing, including her. They treated her as if they were the brothers she never had.

"Hey Charlie!" They were all tall and muscular, but this particular man, who looked to be a few years younger than Bella, had a huge white smile that stood out from his russet skin. Cropped black hair covered his head like fleece.

"Hello, son." The two men hugged and then Charlie gestured to Edward. "Jacob, this here's Edward. Bella's boyfriend."

Edward was so pleased at Charlie's description that he smiled as widely as Jacob did. Jacob probably thought he was thrilled to meet him.

"Hey Edward. Good to meet you. Heard a lot about you." Did everyone here speak in clipped sentences?

"Good to meet you, too. Bella's told me a lot about you-said you've been friends a long time." Damn, now I'm doing it again, too.

"Oh, yeah," Jacob answered easily. "We've known each other since we were really little. My dad and Charlie have been friends for years. "Charlie held out a beer which Jacob took with a nod.

"Your dad didn't come with you?" Charlie asked.

"No, Harry and Sue are picking him up on the way over. He figured he'd want to leave the party before I do."

Charlie nodded. "He's probably right. Well, help yourself to something to eat, Jacob. You know-like it's any other time you're here." His mustache twitched. "Renee asked me to get more ice, so I'd better take care of that before she lets me have it." He vanished through the crowd in the living room and back into the kitchen.

Edward took a sip of his beer and nodded at Jacob. "You and your dad live on the reservation?"

"Yup. My dad's retired, mostly from disability. He can get around pretty well, but I'd hate to leave him alone, you know?"

Edward nodded. "That's really good, that you help him. Do you work nearby?"

"Yeah, I own a gas station and car repair shop in LaPush. It's real close to the house."

"That's great," Edward said. Jacob was even younger than Bella, but he already had his own shop. Edward admired that. "How's business?"

"Solid," Jacob said enthusiastically. "There are other stations around here, but not many places that fix cars. I got approval to work on the Forks town fleet last year. I do some maintenance on the police cars, even."

"See, now that's really awesome. It's the advantage of living in a small town; they can keep it simple for you and for the squad cars." Edward swirled his beer around in the can; it was almost empty. "Man, I can't even think of what you'd have to go through to get the okay so you could work on cars in New York. Though they have their own garages anyway."

"Right, right." Jacob nodded. "Charlie said you were a cop. I guess that gives you both a lot to talk about." His gleaming smile never dimmed, and Edward found him surprisingly sincere, and earnest. There was nothing but friendliness on his face and in his stance. Edward had half expected some show of jealousy, but Jacob seemed far from it. He liked the outdoors and was even enthusiastic about basketball. They had a long conversation about the departure of the Seattle Supersonics to Oklahoma and how difficult that was for a faithful fan, and Jacob listened respectfully while Edward went on at length about his love of all things Knicks.

He was in the middle of telling Jacob about his fishing trip with Charlie when Bella showed up, towing along a pretty, short woman by the hand. "There you are! I see you and Jacob have already met." Her cheeks were flushed and her eyes were bright. "Hey, look who I found!" Bella pulled the girl so she was standing in front of her. "Edward, this is Bree. Bree, this is Edward. And I think you and Jacob already know each other."

Jacob shook his head and laughed. He put his arm around the young woman and gave Bella a quick kiss on the cheek. "Thanks for bringing her back to me, Bella. I never would have found her if it hadn't been for you," he said solemnly.

Bella gave him a playful knock on the chest. "You bet you wouldn't. There's a big crowd here."

The house was packed with what seemed like half of Forks and the Quileute reservation. Bella grabbed Edward's hand and pulled him toward the dining room. "Did you have anything to eat?"

"Did you have anything to drink?"

She stopped at the table and grabbed a plate. "I may have had a few…cups. Or cans. I can't remember."

"Then please, let me get you some food." He took the dish out of her hands. "You know what happens when you drink on an empty stomach."

"Oh God, you'll never let me forget that, will you?"

"Probably not. At least, if you fall asleep, you're at your own parents' house this time."

"Shut up." She grabbed him at the waist and squeezed. "There's so much food here. Do you want something else?"

"Actually, what I could really use is some fresh air." The heat of the house, the fires, and the close bodies was closing in on him.

"Go ahead." She waved toward the front door. "I'll be here, eating." She pulled out a chair, pushed aside a bowl of potato salad so she could set down her plate, and cut into her pasta.

Edward watched her, those routine mannerisms of hers very familiar by now. All it took were her simplest acts of grace or clumsiness, and his throat would nearly close with the wave of love that rose up from his heart. It did again now, and Edward swallowed hard before kissing the top of her head and turning away. He'd take years of seeing her eat, walk, laugh, or drop a book out of her hands – the same hands that touched him exactly how he needed it.

The cold air outside hit him immediately, and for once it felt great. A few men were congregated in the driveway, smoking. He glanced at them but didn't recognize anyone he'd met so far. As he sat on the stairs, the voices got louder and angrier.

His attention was now focused on where the small group had become more of a cluster. They'd all moved in, like some invisible string was pulling them together.

It soon became apparent that the string was an argument. Edward saw shoulders again- this time, two sets of them were thrown back. One was in a leather bomber; the other, in a denim jacket. The men wearing them were pointing fingers at each other's chests and faces, and getting dangerously close.

Edward walked over casually and listened for just enough seconds to get a handle on what was happening. It sounded like an argument over a girl. Old Quileute language crept in here and there as the two men – boys, really – hurled more and more accusations and insults at each other.

He knew this scenario; had seen it dozens, if not hundreds of times in his life. He stepped closer to the group and said, "Hey. Hey. Let's calm down here."

One of the boys on the fringe of the group warned him, "You don't want to get in the middle of this, man."

Edward barely turned his head to acknowledge him. "I'm good." He looked from one man to the other. "What's going on here?"

"It's none of your business," Leather Jacket spat. "Get lost."

He put his hands out in front of their chests but didn't touch them. "It is my business when two guys look like they're going to kill each other in front of my girlfriend's house." That distracted them enough so they stopped glaring at each other and looked at him in surprise.

Denim Jacket didn't lose focus for long. "Girlfriend. Don't talk to me about girlfriends." He jabbed a finger at the other man even though he had to lean around Edward, who'd planted himself right in the middle. "Fucker stole mine."

"Well, that sucks. But you've both got to find another way to work this out."

Leather Jacket snarled again. "Listen, my man, you don't know anything about this. How about you go away and find yourself another beer or something?"

"Oh, I know a hell of a lot about this. I've seen fights like this hundreds of times, and it's never worth it." The guy threw his hands up in a "WTF?" gesture, so Edward explained it to him, slowly. "I'm a cop. A New York City cop. We wrote the manual on breaking up fights. And I can tell you, this one isn't going to go any further. Not right here, not right now. Take it some place else, or better yet, hug it out, gentlemen." He added as an afterthought, "If you don't want to listen to my advice, think of it this way: any fight in the Chief's driveway isn't going to end well."

That seemed to pull them away from each other.

Edward backed off from the two men but remained nearby, crossing his arms casually over his chest. Finally, Denim Jacket jerked his head to the right and said, "Let's go." They were walking toward their car when the front door slammed and Charlie came running down the stairs.

"What's going on?" he demanded.

"A few guys had words. Some of them are leaving," Edward replied, tilting his chin toward the car that was now pulling away.

Charlie peered after the car as it tore down the street. "Damn that Paul," he muttered. "He's been a hothead all his life. Never thinks before he opens his mouth." The Chief turned to the young men who were still there. "Sam. You know better," he said to one of them, who'd stayed in the background while the argument simmered.

"Hey, I wouldn't have let it get ugly," Sam protested. Edward raised his eyebrows at that, and Sam turned away to stare at the garage door.

Charlie pointed at Leather Jacket. "What happened, Quil?"

"It's nothing, Charlie."

"It's not nothing when someone almost starts fighting on my front lawn during my daughter's party, and her boyfriend has to break it up. Good thing Edward was here."

"He's pissed at Paul because of Claire." Sam walked over and smacked Quil on the shoulder, then not-so-gently pulled him toward the street. "We'll leave now. I'll talk to them."

"You'd better," Charlie warned, then called after them, "You okay to drive?"

"Yeah. Never even got the chance to have a beer. Or Renee's lasagna," Sam called over his shoulder.

Charlie shook his head, his hands on his hips. "Damn kids." He gave a big inhale, then slapped Edward on the back. "Come on back inside. Billy's here, and I want you to meet him." He looked up at Edward. "And thanks for taking care of that."

"No problem." He wouldn't be doing it for much longer – at least, not in an official capacity. It was bad enough he had to invoke The Chief's name to get those two huge guys to back off. Once he hung up his badge for school, he'd have even less leverage when trying to keep two strangers from coming to blows. It was part of what he'd be giving up, and there was no changing it, even as he knew that his career plans would bring him more than he'd lose.

He basked a bit in Charlie's gratitude, which he knew wasn't easily given. It would become an important souvenir from this trip.

Everything after that was peaceful if loud, and Edward found he really enjoyed meeting the Swans' friends and talking about everything from fishing to Bella to sports and New York City. He lost track of the number of people he invited to New York, and if even half of them took him up on it, he'd be one busy tour guide for the next decade.

Close to midnight, Renee began clearing the dishes off the table and putting away the leftovers. No one helped her; Charlie had turned on the TV to argue with Billy over whatever was being discussed on ESPN. Bella was saying a lengthy good-bye to Jacob and Bree; by the way her eyes were drooping at half-mast, Edward knew she'd be ready for sleep soon. Most of the guests had left, and the rest were relaxing with coffee or one final bite to eat.

Edward picked up utensils and whatever serving dishes he could safely carry at once and brought them into the kitchen. Renee was bent over, arranging dirty plates in the dishwasher, and didn't hear him. She startled when she heard him put everything in the sink.

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to scare you."

"Oh, no, that's all right." Her face reassembled itself into the usual expression she had around Edward: friendly, yet still guarded. "I'm so tired, I guess I wasn't paying attention."

"You worked really hard to make this a great party, Renee. Thank you." He meant it. She'd cooked a lot on her own, with only some help from Bella. He'd offered to do as much as he could, but Renee seemed satisfied to work on her own, or with her daughter.

"Oh, no problem. Really, it's our pleasure." She smiled genuinely at Edward, which gave him the courage to subtly redirect the conversation so he could clear up some of his own concerns.

"I've enjoyed staying here with you and Charlie," he continued. "You've both been so generous. I was really looking forward to meeting you both."

She rinsed out one of her prized Corningware casserole dishes and wedged it into the dishwasher. "We were very happy when Bella told us she was coming home this Christmas. I'm glad she brought you. It's been so nice having you here."

Edward noted how Renee automatically said Bella had come home; there was no malice or sarcasm in her words, it was just how she thought of it. "This area is beautiful. I can understand why you like it so much."

"It's been our lives," she said agreeably. "We do love it here."

He picked up a dish towel and mopped up the water that had collected along the side of the sink. "Are you worried Bella won't be coming back to Washington State?"

Renee laughed, but it was more resignation than mirth. "I know she's not coming back – not permanently, anyway. She's made her own life for herself."

Edward pressed his lips together, trying to find the right words. He didn't want to aggravate Renee's sensitivity on this, or make her feel the hurt any worse. "She's done really well for herself. She's so smart; she really cares about the people she's helping, and everyone at her agency loves and respects her."

"Oh, I know," Renee said, a certain strain evident in her voice. "I just wish she'd found all that right here, maybe in Seattle." She smiled again at Edward, this time with more warmth. "But then she probably wouldn't have met you."

"And my life would be worse off for that," he said quietly. "I'm sorry it seems like my gain is your loss. I'm sure I'd feel the same if it was me. I know my parents would, too. But Renee," he said, waiting until he was sure he had her full attention, "I love your daughter very much. I'm not you…I'm not her parents, and I would never try to be. But I will always take care of her."

Renee's eyes softened, and Edward thought that maybe she was finally seeing him. As he stood before her and said things he'd declared only to her daughter, the veil she'd kept around herself finally lifted.

"I know that too, Edward. Charlie and I couldn't have found someone better for Bella if we'd kidnapped a man and programmed him with what we want for her." She smiled. "I'm sorry if I gave you the impression I didn't like or approve of you. It's just sinking in that our girl is gone, and whenever she comes back, she'll be a visitor."

Edward took her hand in his – loosely, but with enough warmth to underscore his words. "That'll never be true, Renee. This will always be home to her. I know Bella, and I know that's how she thinks." There was relief in his voice now that he saw the real point of Renee's turmoil. He couldn't solve it, but he could at least let her know he understood.

"I can't fix that for you. I mean, I can make sure she's as safe as possible in New York, but she hates it when I get a little extreme on that." Renee laughed, closing her eyes. He knew she was picturing Bella.

"It's something you – and, I guess, Charlie – have to get through. It was going to happen," he added.

"But expecting it is far different than what you feel when it happens. It's here, and now I realize the years she's spent at school and in New York were supposed to prepare me for this."

"Maybe nothing really can," Edward replied. "You're a great mom, and Bella loves you very much. There will always be things she'll talk to you about before she talks to me. Maybe things she'd never say to me."

Renee put her hands on Edward's shoulder and squeezed hesitantly, then pulled him to her into a strong hug. "I can see why Bella fell in love with you," she said, inches from his ear. "I'm glad she has you." She pulled herself away and gave another laugh. "There's only so much Charlie wants to hear about all this. I don't know whether he's in denial, or he just doesn't have the patience."

"I'd go with the first." Edward handed her the last of the party dishes so she could wedge them into the dishwasher rack. "I'm glad we were able to talk."

Renee smiled at him again, still warmly. "Me, too."

Edward gave her a quick kiss on the cheek and excused himself to go to sleep. He was suddenly very, very tired.

As he left the kitchen, Renee called out to him one more time.

"Yeah?" He spun around on his heel.

"Thank you, Edward." Her eyes were lighter, although tears still shone in their corners.

Upstairs, Bella was already asleep in bed, snoring slightly. Drinking brought that on in her. He drew the blanket around her shoulders and tucked it in, and she didn't even stir.

Once he closed his eyes, Edward drifted right off; the beer and the edge of insecurity over Renee had both evaporated from his system.

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