A/N: Stephenie Meyer owns Twilight. You all own my heart.
Four years and three months after passing my qualifier, I find myself in a familiar setting. It's a slightly nicer classroom, in a higher-traffic part of the physics building. On the screen, there's a projected image of a PowerPoint slide, stating the conclusions of an experiment that's been six years in the making. And in the seats, there are five professors with my future in their hands.
I defended my PhD last week, and am now officially Dr. Edward Cullen, Ph.D.
I'm hoping that, by the end of the day, I won't be the only one with a doctorate in my family.
The lights come up, and the most beautiful woman in the entire world smiles. She nods to the professors and then to all of the friends and family here to see her defense. Charlie and Sue. My parents. Alice and – I still shudder – her fiancé, one Dr. Jasper Whitlock.
But not just me.
As the whole room breaks into applause, I hunch down in my seat to put my mouth next to the ear of the most beautiful girl in the world as I grasp her tiny wrists and make her clap her hands together. "Clap for Mommy," I whisper.
Elizabeth does just that, slapping her hands together and cooing/gurgling/drooling.
And it melts this little part of me I didn't even know existed until eleven months ago, when a miracle came into my life. Again.
I moved in with Bella and Charlie as soon as the lease ran out on my old place. We'd only been dating about nine months, but when it's right, it's right. Not long after, I proposed, and six months after that, we tied the knot in a little service in our back yard.
Later that year, Bella came to bed one night and looked at me with a funny expression I didn't even know what to make of. She reminded me that it was almost impossible to take time off to have a baby in the first few years of a professorship. That she didn't want to be one of those women to realize at forty that she had a career but no fertility. That, as crazy as grad school could be, it afforded one of the most flexible schedules an academic would ever have.
That she wanted a child.
That was about when I stopped counting how many times she'd made me the happiest man in the world.
I didn't know if I was ready, but I did know she was right. If we just sat there waiting for the perfect time, we'd probably let it slip on past us. And we could do it. Right then and there, we could.
Grinning like an idiot and tearing up embarrassingly, I told her I agreed. And then I made love to her a whole new sense of purpose infusing every part of me.
The following year passed in a blur. Charlie and Sue got married and Sue moved in. We put an addition on the house and built a nursery. We worked on our theses.
And Bella and I learned first-hand about the miracle of life.
The disgusting, terrifying, never-sleeping, amazing, joyous, fantastic miracle of life.
Somehow, we juggled it all. Midnight feedings turned into midnight thesis-writing sessions. Typically, theorists like Bella finish up their doctorates a year or two faster than experimentalists like I do, but after going part-time for a few months after the birth and all, Bella ended up scheduling her defense for a week after mine.
The month both of us were scrambling to finish writing our dissertations, my mom drove up and pretty much moved in, too.
But it was all worth it. Because we're here. And we're an hour or two away from being done.
Elizabeth squeals, and I bounce her a little more aggressively on my knee. At her continued squirminess, I let her gum on my thumb, wondering if we're going to have to make a strategic retreat. Mercifully, at just that moment, Dr. Banner stands up and thanks everyone for coming, then not-so-subtly asks us all to get the hell out so the committee can tear my wife apart.
Thank goodness. Because I'm pretty sure my angel just let loose one hell of a fart.
I gather up the little stinker and sling her diaper bag over my shoulder, then head to the front of the room. Bella's still got her game-face on, so I don't linger, just give her a quick hug and whisper that I think she did amazing. Elizabeth agrees, still clapping. Bella can't help but smile and lean in to plant a soft kiss on her forehead before I pull her away.
Elizabeth is not amused about this.
"I know, I know," I grumble as that lower lip starts trembling, signaling the ten-second countdown to a Baby Armageddon. "I don't want to leave Mommy to those vultures either." I get her out of the room as quickly as I can. Once outside, I hold her out in front of me, reassuring her that, "With any luck, we'll get her back real soon." I make a goofy face that gets her to at least crack a smile. "And then she'll be Doctor Mommy. Doesn't that sound good?"
Elizabeth only gets one thing out of that whole discussion. Lunging her whole body back toward the room, slimy little hands outstretched, she sniffle-mumbles, "Mama?"
"That's right. Can you say Doctor Mama?"
I enunciate. "Doc-tor Mama."
"Good luck, kid." Charlie lumbers out, leaning heavily on his walker. "She's smart, but she's not that smart."
"Hey," Sue says, resting her hand on his side to keep him stabilized. "Don't say that about my granddaughter." She leans in to rub her nose against Elizabeth's. "You were such a good baby, weren't you? You were a good baby for Mommy."
Girl's seriously got a one-track mind.
"Doctor Mama," I remind her, but she's uncooperative.
The rest of my family joins us out in the hallway a minute later, and I sneak one last look through the doorway as Banner pulls it closed.
"So…" my mother says.
"So now we wait."
"Believe me. We remember."
The night of my defense, Bella told me my mom was pretty much climbing the walls the entire time I was being grilled, getting more and more worried that the committee would fail me with every passing second. I shake my head at her. "It'll be fine." I hope. "Her advisor said she was totally solid."
"I know, but all your plans… If anything goes wrong…"
Like I need the reminder.
I swallow hard and force a smile. "Seriously. It'll be fine. Come on." I gesture with my head toward the hallway. "Let's go get a cup of coffee or something."
Over her protests, I get Elizabeth settled in her stroller, eventually managing to bribe her with her Baby Kermit doll and a half-dozen Cheerios. As one big huddled mass of family, we make our way to the elevator and then downstairs to the cafeteria. On the ride down, I shove my hand in my pocket, feeling for the letter that's been burning a hole there since yesterday.
Mom wasn't kidding when she talked about our plans being tenuous. It isn't easy trying to place a two-Ph.D household. Openings for new professors are hard enough to come by; two in the same department at the same time?
Let's just say Higgs bosons are easier to find.
So when it came time to start looking for jobs, we stuck to big cities with multiple universities. After taking turns flying all over the country to do interviews and present guest lectures about our research, news slowly started to trickle in. Brilliant woman that she is, Bella managed to pick up three offers, one for a three-year post-doctoral researcher position and two for actual professorships. She begged them all for time to mull it over, and I started panicking. Finally, I got an offer for a two-year appointment at a school in the same city as her top choice.
It was something, but considering Charlie and Sue want to move with us, it was far from ideal. We want something stable. Someplace where we can pick out schools with awesome science programs for our daughter. Someplace where we can stay.
And then yesterday, I got a letter. Knowing exactly how overwhelmed Bella was, I held onto it, waiting to show it to her today, after she passes.
I think I know how she'll react. But my stomach still churns, unsure.
My mom insists on taking Elizabeth to go change her while we stand in line for drinks and snacks. Eventually, we all end up piling around a big table in the back, sipping coffees and watching my little girl as she tosses things on the floor and spits Cheerios.
Bella likes to say she's 'experimenting with gravity'. But until she manages to formulate Newton's Law of Universal Gravitation, I'm maintaining my position that she's really just trying to drive her parents mad before they're thirty.
All at once, I feel everything fading away. It's one of those moments. One of those weird, strange, wonderful moments when I sit back and let it all wash over me.
I'm a dad.
I'm fucking Doctor Cullen, for goodness's sake.
If someone tried to tell twenty-three year-old virgin me this? He would have laughed in their faces.
And he would have had absolutely no idea what he was missing.
But he knew he was missing something.
I'm not missing anything now.
As we wait, the grown-ups at the table (among whom I still patently refuse to count myself) make small-talk, discussing plans for Alice and Jasper's wedding, among other things. All the small-talk is colored with nervousness, though. We're all really just killing time, desperate to get the thumbs-up sign. As confident as I am, even I'll admit to being ready to go break into that room and beg them to just tell us already.
Finally, an hour and a half after they kicked us out, my phone vibrates in my pocket. I knock over Elizabeth's sippy cup in my hurry to get to it.
The second I get the screen unlocked and read the text, I'm out of my seat, hands up in the air.
"Yeah?" my dad asks.
"Hell, yeah!" My face hurts with how hard I'm grinning. "Doctor Swan-Cullen is waiting for us upstairs." I lift Elizabeth out of her high-chair and spin her around. "You hear that, sweetie? Doctor Mommy's ready!"
She grins and drools, and in that instant, her big brown eyes look so much like her mother's.
Her amazing, amazing mother's.
My mom's voice breaks through my haze. "Come on. Give her here." She's got her arms out, waiting for me to deposit the wriggling pile of my daughter into them.
"Give me the baby and go congratulate your wife." She nods her head toward the stairs. "We'll catch up in a minute."
Well, when she puts it that way…
I hand over the girl, then duck down to brush the coppery wisps of hair back from her face before kissing her nose. "See you soon." To my mom, I add a quick, "Thanks," and then I'm off.
I take the stairs two at a time, but it still seems to take forever to get to my other girl. When I finally do, I push the door open with enough force to rattle the room. Dr. Banner and Bella both look at me as one. Bella's grinning ear-to-ear, and even Banner looks amused.
"Ah. Dr. Cullen," he says in greeting.
"I'll leave you two. Congratulations again, Bella."
She nods and shakes his hand. "Thanks, Bob. I'll email you tomorrow about finishing up revisions."
"Take your time."
He pats my shoulder on his way out, and then it's just my Bella and me. I don't hesitate to close the distance, crossing the room to her and wrapping her up in my arms. "I am so proud of you, baby."
"That's Doctor Baby, to you."
I laugh and hug her tighter. Kiss her cheek. "I was trying to teach Elizabeth to say Doctor Mommy, but she's resisting."
"Imagine that." She pulls away and looks around. "Where is she anyway?"
"With the cavalry. They'll be up in a minute."
She steps toward the door. "Should we go meet them?"
"Actually." I grab her hand and tug her back to me. Waiting until I catch her eyes, I reach into my pocket. "There was something I wanted to talk to you about anyway. Alone."
"Oh?" Her forehead creases with surprise.
I lean in to kiss the tension away, pressing my lips to the crinkled space between her brows. And once I'm there, I can't help kissing her mouth as well. She's surprised but responsive, opening for me.
And four years may have passed. We may have married and had a baby.
But she's still my girl. My sweet, sexy, horny, devilish girl.
She whimpers and pulls back. "How long 'til they get here?"
"Not long enough," I say with a groan. Focus. "But that isn't what I wanted to talk about anyway."
Her one eyebrow rises, her hand drifting down toward my belt. "Oh, really?"
I stop her hand, only to press the letter into it. "Really."
She pauses, her eyes lighting with understanding. "This isn't…"
My heart in my throat, I grab her other hand. "It is."
She shakes the letter open and scans it with ever-widening eyes.
"Tenure track," she whispers.
"Yup." I study her face, still waiting for her reaction.
I don't have to wait long. After just another second of moving her gaze across the page, her eyes connect with mine, and in a brilliant burst, her whole face lights up. She throws herself at me, wrapping her arms around my neck and squealing. "That's so perfect!"
It is. It's a full-time professorship. In the same city as her other offer.
We'll both be professors – both be able to pursue our careers and put down roots.
Still, I have to check. "I know it wasn't your number one choice but…"
"Screw that." She plants three loud kisses on my cheek. "My family's my first choice. Always."
She pulls back and puts both hands on the sides of my face. "So sure. So, so sure."
For a minute, all we can do is smile at each other and stare.
"We're really going to do this, aren't we?" she asks quietly, eyes shining.
"We are. We're going to do everything." Buy a house. Set up research teams. Teach annoying undergrads. Raise a frighteningly precocious daughter. "Together."
She squeals and hugs me again. "I can't wait."
Just then, there's a knock on the door, and our families pour in. The instant Bella sees the little face staring at her from my mother's arms, she ditches me like so much dead weight and runs to scoop up our girl. Holding her up in the air and making sweet little baby-talk noises at her, she's a vision.
A vision of my life.
And it strikes me all over again that I am the luckiest, happiest man alive.
Bella eventually calms down and gets Elizabeth perched on her hip. She accepts congratulations from everyone in turn. Once they've all had their say, my dad shoves the two of us together. "Come on. Let me get a picture of Doctor and Doctor and soon-to-be Doctor Cullen."
I roll my eyes at him. "There's one Doctor Swan-Cullen in there somewhere."
At his insistence, Bella and I pose with Elizabeth held between us. Just before the flash, we all smile.
Even the little stinker.
And it's just one moment. Just one perfect snapshot out of the chaos of our lives.
But it's there. Captured in pixel form. And real. So real.
I have a feeling it's going to be a keeper.
Thank you. It's been a joy.