A/N: And so it goes.
Edward heard the women's laughter and paused before he knocked on the door, simply listening. Alice sounded jovial, which was a good emotion given the circumstances.
Today he would give his little sister away to another man.
As the eldest brother, it was Emmett's right to walk Alice down the aisle, but as with everything else, he had deferred to Edward. In any event, Edward and Alice had grown even closer in the eighteen months since James had attacked their family. Emmett said it was only right. It was Edward who'd cared and provided for her since he'd returned from Texas, and Edward who Jasper sought out to ask for Alice's hand.
It had been an interesting eighteen months.
As Edward suspected, though Jasper had made his share of mistakes, he'd hit the ground running. From their time at West Point, Edward knew Jasper was a natural leader. He had a charisma that made men want to follow him. There had been a great deal of enmity to overcome with some of the ex-Union soldiers who bristled at taking orders from an ex-Confederate.
In the end, though, Jasper rallied. The newspaper was running like a well oiled machine - or rather like a well led Army regiment. He earned every penny he was paid, and it was more than enough to provide amply for his son, Alice, and the family they would doubtless have together.
Edward, always prone to second guessing himself, frequently tried to put himself in his father's shoes. Would Carlisle have approved of Jasper for his only daughter?
But then, Carlisle would have appreciated the way that he took care of his little boy. Many widowers would have foisted their children off, either marrying as quickly as possible or leaving the little ones with relatives. True, Jasper had given Peter over to Edward and Bella for a time, but he'd never forgotten or ignored the child.
Carlisle would have done anything for his children. For Peter - and for Alice - Jasper struggled to fit in with a society he had not been raised a part of. He was a good man, a good father, and most important, he made Alice very happy.
Edward thought Carlisle would have loved his soon to be son-in-law well.
As promised, when the year marker came and went and his newspaper business was flourishing, and when Jasper asked for Alice's hand, Edward consented. To seal the deal, he'd signed over the property Carlisle had set aside for Alice over to Jasper, and the women had set about planning what would doubtlessly be the society wedding of the year if not the century.
Much of society continued to look down their nose, talking behind closed doors about the Cullens and their odd, unappealing proclivities. Yet here they all were with very few exception, their faces eager. Of course. Esme Cullen and Alice Whitlock nee Cullen were well known for throwing the best parties in Chicago.
Edward had no patience for hypocrites, but he would do anything to see his sister happy. So he smiled widely and shook hands, greeting each of his guests politely while his sister, wife, and mother readied upstairs.
But now the time was upon them. The guests were seated, and Jasper was ready for his bride.
Edward knocked on the door. There was a flurry of noise and activity before it opened a crack, and he was met with his mother's already red eyes. She'd been crying all day no doubt, but she was smiling. Happy.
"You look lovely, Mother," he said sincerely, bending to kiss her cheek.
"Papa!" Hearing his voice, Eleanor gave a delighted squeal and wrestled herself out in front of her grandmother. She lifted her arms, her bright green eyes dancing.
Grinning at his baby girl, Edward lifted her up. "Well, look at you. You look just like a little Princess. When did you get so pretty, Ellie?"
Eleanor giggled as he peppered kisses to her cheeks.
"It's time, then?" Esme asked, bringing Edward back to the matter at hand. She reached for the baby as she spoke.
"That's what they tell me," Edward said easily, transferring his daughter to his mother's arms. "Is Alice ready?"
"Come see for yourself."
She opened the door wider to let him in.
Edward's eyes fell not on his sister but his wife who sat by her side. Bella was smiling at her sister-in-law, but broke off their conversation when he stepped in the room. Her smile widened, the gentle expression in her eyes just for him. She was heartbreakingly, breathtakingly beautiful with her hair curled and swept up into an elegant style, a sapphire pendant setting off the graceful curve of her neck.
"What did I tell you?" His sister's voice snapped Edward out of his reverie. "He has eyes for no one but you. How very predictable, brother mine."
Edward shifted his gaze to his sister, hoping he looked appropriately abashed. "I apologize, Alice. Come. Stand. Let me appreciate you in full."
Alice rolled her eyes but stood, taking the hand he offered and spinning for him.
Her dress was long and lovely, her hair perfectly coiffed, but far and away the most stunning accessory to her wedding ensemble was Alice's content grin. flushed cheeks, and the twinkle in her eye. She was happy. Her happiness radiated off her in waves.
"Stunning, Alice. Truly," he said softly, clasping her hand. "Jasper is a lucky man."
Rosalie, who had been sitting at her other side, stood, helping her fasten a strand of pearls. "There now. She's ready."
"Are you ready, sister?" Edward verified.
"More than ready," Alice replied, her tone fervent. She didn't look at all nervous, but serene with her choice, her life.
Esme stepped to her daughter's side, her tears spilling over, and Edward stepped back, taking Bella's hand instead to give his mother space. Putting her free hand against her daughter's cheek, her voice trembled as she spoke. "My precious girl. I'm so happy for you. Oh, if your father could see you now."
Alice wrapped her arms around her mother, holding tight. "Papa can see me. He can see all of us. I'm sure of it."
Stepping back, Esme laughed when Eleanor wiped her wet cheeks, her miniature expression hilariously concerned. "Well. I'll take my seat then."
Giving Alice's hand one last squeeze, Esme took her leave.
For a moment, Edward let his hand linger on Bella's back, as he kissed her cheek. Then he offered his sister his arm. "Shall we?"
Alice grinned at him, slipping her arm through his. "We shall."
"Good gracious, child. Hold still," Bella admonished, trying to keep the squirming toddler firm on her lap long enough for the photographer to snap a picture.
Eleanor whined. She had been patient. She'd patiently sat through the first photos of the whole family. Now she wanted down off her mother's lap so she could return to her favorite past time: following her elder cousins, Peter and Charlotte, around.
Edward chuckled. "You know, little one, when I was young, photographs took many minutes. You're lucky. If you hold still for just a few seconds, there will be cake."
The little girl's eyes brightened at the word cake. She sighed, imitating Bella's wary expression, and settled back against her mother's chest looking impatient.
As promised, just a few seconds later Eleanor was up and running as fast as her uncoordinated legs could take her across the lawn to where her cousins played.
Laughing lightly, Bella sank down onto a sofa on the porch. Having no particular want to return to his guests, Edward was content to sit beside her and he put his arm around her shoulders, holding her close. In any event, Emmett, Esme, and Rosalie were making the rounds well enough for all of them.
"Do you regret not having a wedding like this?" Edward asked quietly, remembering their own tiny wedding en route to Chicago from Houston.
Bella looked up at him, her expression bemused but gentle. "Alice is glad to be the center of attention. I was just glad to be yours."
Edward tilted his head, letting his lips linger against her forehead, wishing they were not in polite company so he could go further. His passion for the woman at his side had only grown with every passing day. "As I am yours," he murmured softly.
They stayed this way for a time, simply watching the goings on around them, thankfully undisturbed.
Edward's eyes strayed to Emmett who spoke animatedly with Jacob Black. He remembered when his contemporaries had been shocked to see the Native American man invited to the Cullens' dinners and parties. They weren't so surprised anymore, and some had gone as far as to form tentative associations with the young man. It gave Edward hope that his city, his country, could change, one person at a time.
To that effect, though his principles had nearly cost him his life, if not those of his family, Edward had continued in whatever small crusade he was on. His newspaper still sought the truth behind even the most outwardly respectable men of power, his store was still open to any who had money to buy, and the buildings he owned were made affordable so the lower classes of the city had adequate homes.
He did what he could. He knew he couldn't change the world.
As long as his family was proud of him, Edward withstood the occasional glower and the condescension of some of his peers.
Slowly, though, supporters were coming out of the woodwork. Edward had high hopes that in some years, it would be enough that Emmett could fulfil his dream: to have a law practice of his own that would provide affordable legal service to all those who might need of it. Of course, it was not an endeavor he could hope to take on alone, and so the more friends he had, the more likely it would eventually come to pass.
Edward was distracted by a child's wail and looked quickly over to where the children had been playing. He was somewhat relieved to see that first it was not his daughter who was crying and second that Peter was fine, just startled by his tumble.
As he watched, Peter called for Alice and buried his teary face in the side of her dress as he clung to her. Alice stroked his hair comfortingly.
Beside him, Bella let out a soft sigh. There was a wistful expression on her face as she watched Alice with Peter.
Edward stroked her cheek to get her attention. "I know you once looked on Peter as dear to you as your own child. Is it difficult for you to give up that place in his life?"
She hummed in thought, her eyes again on the pair, watching Alice wipe away the last of his tears before she sent him back to the other children. "At times," she admitted quietly. "You know Eleanor is precious to me. I love her more than my own life. But Peter was the first child of my heart, if not my body."
Edward said nothing but tightened his arm around her, hoping to comfort even this minor ache.
"It is Alice's rightful place, though," Bella continued. She hesitated, but took his hand and put it flat against her belly. "And perhaps, come next summer, we will have a boy of our own."
For a handful of seconds, Edward couldn't breathe. At first he was confused, Bella's words and actions seeming nonsensical. Then, when he thought he understood what she was telling him, his heart seized in his chest for too many long seconds before it started beating in triple time. His face felt suddenly cold, clammy.
"Oh, Bella," he breathed.
Her expression was slightly horrified. "You're unhappy," she realized out loud.
"No," he said quickly, knowing he had to calm his reaction. "No, I'm not unhappy."
And he wasn't. The idea that he'd made her pregnant again made him unbearably proud. What he wanted more than anything was to shout this news to all the gathered guests, appropriateness be damned.
Still, he couldn't help that his thoughts were inundated with what had been and what could have been. He still remembered the glimpse he'd gotten: Bella pale as death and exhausted after struggling nearly a whole day to bring their child to birth. And in the last eighteen months, his nightmares had been plagued not only by the horrors of war, but James Hunter's cold eyes as he stood over his wife's still, lifeless body.
"You're scared," Bella said aloud, reading his expression as easily as if he'd spoken out loud.
Edward said nothing but brought her hands to his lips, kissing her skin. It escaped neither of them that his own hands trembled.
Carefully, she took her hands from his and brushed the tips of her fingers down his cheek. "I'm fine, Eleanor is fine. There is no one to harm us this time," she reminded him. "Think of it. Ellie would be thrilled to have a little brother to boss around."
The tension in Edward's body loosened minutely. "Ellie is thrilled at the crinkling of newspaper," he said fondly. "She is not difficult to please."
Tentative, he laid his hand over her stomach again, remembering the joy he felt watching his daughter grow inside her. His beautiful baby girl with his father's honey blond hair, her face the same shape and structure as Bella's. As he'd promised her the day she was born, he treasured her always.
Perhaps this child would be their Charles. He imagined a little boy with his own fine features and Bella's hair and eyes.
"Life is meant to be lived, Edward," she said quietly, resting her cheek against his. "I know you worry, but I'm glad to give you another child."
At this, Edward finally smiled. Watching Bella become a mother to their daughter had been one of the greatest joys he'd known.
"You've made me so happy, Bella," he said with a content sigh, allowing his worry to fade and his pride and love to fill those spaces in him. "You redefine my definition of completeness every day."
As he sat with Bella at his side, he looked over at his family one by one. His mother, surrounded by her children and grandchildren, every bit the dignified lady with increasingly silver-streaked hair and an adoring smile for her family. His elder brother and his stunning wife; they'd both overcome such difficulties, always at each others side. His newest brother, his old best friend finally happy and whole and looking like he would never let Alice out of his arms. The children: a fresh generation to give them hope and color their world with laughter.
They were lucky; he was lucky. The world, their country at least, was still shaking from having been very nearly ripped to irrevocably shattered pieces. But here, settled on his porch with his family all around him, Edward knew for sure the Earth would continue to turn. His life would continue to unfold, challenges and triumphs alike ahead of him.
After all, tomorrow was another day.
A/N: You know I couldn't resist. *cackles*
And so we come to the end of another story. This story would not have been possible without the help of my wonderful girls: barburella, jadedandboring, and jfka06. And my awesome jump in and beta on a whim girls: GinnyW, Plummy, and Shug. And the expertise of viewers like kismit1496.
Oh em gee, guys. Also - ange de l'aube made me the most awesometastic banner ever. It's so beautiful. I'm gonna beg barburella to put it up on AO3 if you want a gander at it, until I can figure out where to put my banners so people can oooo and aww over them with me.
So thank you for coming along with me on this journey. I had a lot of fun. Thank you for all your kind words. Much. Much. Much love.