Posted: Friday December 16, 2011

This one-shot was written for the Anonymous Angst Contest. Winner of the Popular Vote and Most Deserved HEA.

Huge thanks to my beta-Goddess, Irritable_Grizzzly, and my Sprinkle Queen, Vican.


I hear him before I see him, the quiet squeak of the wheels on the stroller reaching me as I bend over my garden bed, trying to rid it of a sudden burst of spring weeds. The sound makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end, partly in shock, partly in disbelief, and when his familiar frame comes into view around the hedge from next door, I stand and take a deep breath.

I haven't seen him for a week. A week in which I've wondered, probably too many times, how he is. What he was doing. If I should try to see him.

But now here he is, as if nothing has happened, pushing the bright red stroller along the sidewalk, looking my way and smiling as he slows down and stops near the mailbox.

"Hey, Bella."

I wipe my dirty hands on my jeans and try to match his casual ease, but it's difficult. This is surreal.

He looks so happy. How can he when I feel like my stomach is made of stone?

"Hi." That tiny word is almost too much, but even so I follow it up with a smile, trying to hold back the storm of anxiety that's crawling over my skin. "How are you?"

"Great," he says, the sun bright in his hair. "Beautiful day. Thought I'd take Bri to the park for a while. You know how she gets if I don't let her run around to tire her out."

I swallow, noticing the dark circles under his eyes.

"Edward... "

The briefest flicker of shadow passes behind his eyes and his smile falters, but then it's back, too bright, stretching across his face like a glass mask, in danger of shattering at any second.

"Well, we'd better go. Tanya left pancakes in the oven for when we get back, and I don't know how long my stomach is willing to wait."

"Edward, if you want to talk—"

"Gotta go!" he says, waving. "See you later. Have fun battling the weeds."

He walks away, smile still firmly in place as the squeaky wheels echo down the empty street. I watch until he turns the corner toward the park, and then I burst into tears.

...

For the rest of the week I avoid working in the front yard. I'm at a loss as to how to speak to him. How to act. And yet I still watch him from the window, and the sight of him pushing Bri's stroller as he talks quietly to her, pointing out trees and birds as if he doesn't have a care in the world, absolutely breaks my heart.

I remember the day he and his wife moved into the house behind mine three months ago. We'd quickly become good friends when I'd brought over a basket of muffins, and our conversation was instantly easy. We'd talked about Tanya's work as an executive at an ad agency, and how lucky Edward was to be a freelance composer and stay-at-home dad.

And then there was Bri. As soon as I saw her, it was clear she was an adorable mix of both of her parents: Tanya's creamy skin and perfect face, and Edward's vibrant eyes and hair. I've never been much of a kid person, but right from the start, Bri was different. She'd always struck me as four going on forty, and the fist few times I spoke to her, I was amazed at how much she understood without me having to explain.

...

...
"Your house is big," Bri says, squinting at my bedroom window as we sit on the swings in her backyard.

"Yes it is. Too big."

"Why?"

"Why is it too big?"

"Yeah. Is it because you're there all by yourself?"

I smile. "Kind of."

"Was it smaller when other people lived there with you?"

I think about it for a second before answering. "Actually, yes. It did seem smaller when my parents lived there with me."

"Did they move out?"

"Kind of. They passed away."

"What does 'passed away' mean? Is it like when Daddy drives too fast and passes people on the highway?"

"No. Not like that. It means they died."

She's quiet for a few seconds, looking at me carefully before saying, "Are you sad they died?"

"Well, it happened a long time ago."

"How long?"

"Ten years."

"That's more years than me."

"That's right."

"But you're still sad?"

"I guess."

"Don't you believe in heaven?" She tilts her head, her tiny brows furrowing.

"Um... I don't know."

"Well you should. Because if you believe in heaven, then all the dead people are up there having a lot of fun. They probably even have a trampoline."

I smile. "Do you believe in heaven?"

"Yes. My canary's up there. I told God to give him a mirror. He likes looking at himself."

I laugh, and she looks at me questioningly before laughing herself. Then I make a scary face and chase her around the yard as she squeals in delight. When I finally catch her, I swing her around until I'm breathless and her giggles are too shrill. Her joy is infectious.

We both collapse onto the grass and look up at the sky, watching the clouds pass over us.

"I'd miss Mommy and Daddy if they died," she says after a while. "Do you miss yours?"

"Yes. Do you miss your canary?"

"Yes, but I told God not to let him anywhere near his wallpaper. He eats it right off the wall, and when he poops it comes out all different colors."

I laugh until Edward comes out onto the back porch to see what's wrong with me.

...

...

...

It's a hot night, and I wake suddenly, my unconscious brain hearing something outside.

It's someone yelling.

"Goddammit, Tanya, why won't you just talk to me? This is fucking ridiculous! JUST TALK! This isn't my fault, so stop acting like it is! YOU wanted to take Bri to that fucking party, not me! I told you what would happen, but as usual, you didn't fucking listen!"

My stomach tightens as I walk over to my window, looking over at Edward's house. All the lights are on, every room unnaturally bright, and as I watch, Edward slams out of the back door dressed in his pajamas and stalks over to the swing set, mumbling to himself.

My first instinct is to go to him, to comfort him, but I know it's not my place. Besides, I don't know what I could possibly say. Maybe he needs this - to just let it all out. It's better than that false happy-mask plastered all over his face.

He's not happy.

He's miserable.

Beyond miserable.

I just wish I could do something about it.

...

...

...

"Honey, where's my iPod?"

"On the table."

"Which table?"

"The dining room table."

"Where on the dining room table?"

Tanya raises an eyebrow at me and rolls her eyes. "Is he kidding me with this?"

I laugh as Edward crosses behind us into the dining room.

"Don't worry. Found it."

"I'm so glad," Tanya says, her voice dripping with sarcasm. "For a moment I was worried that it'd been lost in the dense tropical wilderness that had suddenly sprung up in our house. I was going to offer you a metal detector and a machete."

Edward appears in the doorway and scowls at her. "It actually was hard to see. It was behind that giant ugly vase your mother gave us for our wedding."

"Oh, no. Obscured by the Wedgewood. Did you escape unharmed?"

He stares at her for a few seconds, unblinking and unimpressed, then turns to me when I can't hold in my laughter any longer.

"Bella, please. Don't encourage her. If she turns into an even bigger smartass than she already is I'll have to buy her larger pants."

"Daddy! Hurry! Mr. Honeybear wants to dance!"

Edward looks over his shoulder. "Coming, sweetheart! Save some air-tea for me!"

He looks back at us and shrugs. "Backyard tea party. Very exclusive guest list: only Barbies and teddies allowed. I'm the DJ. It's going to rock. Swing by later if you don't have anything better to do. I'll leave your name at the door."

Tanya and I laugh as he slides his baseball cap to the back of his head and attempts a ridiculous gangsta walk as he goes.

"My husband's officially insane."

"And adorable."

"Yeah, that too."

...

...

...

The kettle whistles and I make a cup of herbal tea, staring vacantly at the bag as I dip it in and out of the steaming water. If things had been different, Tanya would be here with me, complaining about the chauvinists she works with and pressuring me to go on blind dates with some of her more bearable co-workers.

I wasn't interested in dating, not after what happened with my last boyfriend, but I'd still listen intently as she described each of them in precise detail.

Tanya was nothing if not precise.

Occasionally she'd complain to me about Edward, and that would make me uncomfortable. I didn't want to hear about their marital issues, because I felt a certain loyalty to Edward. Almost like he and I were friends first so I had to takes sides.

There was an ease about Edward that'd always made being in his presence addictively relaxing. It had been that way from the day we'd met.

Some people just 'fit' into your life. Tanya and Bri were like that. Easy. Perfect.

But with Edward, it was even stronger. Like there'd always been an Edward-shaped hole in my life and he finally showed up to fill it.

He quickly became my best friend.

Despite everything that had happened, I couldn't deny that I missed him.

...

...

...

The first morning Edward and Bri pass my house after they moved into the neighborhood, I see them from my porch. I wave and smile. They stop and I walk over to them.

"Great stroller," I say, impressed by the sleek design even though Bri looks too big for it. "Are you comfy in there, miss?"

Bri nods enthusiastically, beaming up at me.

"Yeah, most four-year-olds are happy to walk to the park," Edward says, trying to look disapproving, "but apparently my little princess insists on her chauffeur-driven ride."

"It's red like a Ferrari!" Bri offers.

"Does it go as fast as a Ferrari?" I ask, smiling.

"Only when Daddy jogs."

"Do you like it when he jogs?"

"Sometimes. But I like it when he walks and talks to me too. He can't talk when he jogs. He gets too wheezy."

"Shush, small person," Edward says, laughing. "Stop your filthy lies. Your father is super-fit and never wheezes."

"Yes you do," Bri insists, frowning up at him. "And sometimes you groan too. And say bad words."

"Aaaand that's enough out of you. Look! A birdy."

I laugh as Edward pulls the canopy back so Bri can see the swallow that's perched in the tree outside my house. She's immediately entranced and gazes up at it in wonder.

"So, how are you settling in?" I ask.

"Pretty well considering Tanya's in the middle of an anxiety attack about where she's going to put everything. I don't think she realizes that if she puts something into a cupboard and doesn't like it, she can actually move it. She's trying to get everything perfect the first time around. This morning, I'm pretty sure I saw a color-coded flow-chart with all possible cupboard permutations."

I laugh. "Sounds serious."

"Unfortunately, yes."

"Maybe I can help her. Sneak some stuff into drawers while she isn't looking."

"God, yes, please. Otherwise we're going to be living out of boxes for the next month."

"No problem. I'll head over soon."

Edward nods and smiles, and I'm grateful that I finally have neighbors I can socialize with. My neighborhood is in an older area, and even though the houses all have wonderful history and style, everyone living around here are retirees.

Edward and Tanya bought their house from a bitter Italian man whose wife left him, and would often lament to me about how terrible women were. When he'd told me he was selling, I was more than a bit relieved.

Now Edward, Tanya, and Bri have brought a little bit of light into my world, and I'm looking forward to getting to know them better.

"Well, we'd better get to the park," Edward says, looking down at Bri. "I hear the fairies will be there today. Don't want to miss them."

Bri looks up, beyond excited. "Really? Can we bring one home?"

"Oh, I don't know, princess. Fairies are very fast. You'll have to do a lot of running around to catch one."

"I can run! I can run faster than anyone!"

"All right then, let's go. Say goodbye to Bella."

"Goodbye, Bella!"

"You two have fun now," I say, waving.

"We will!"

They head off and I hear Bri say, "Go faster, Daddy! Jog!"

"What, and get all wheezy? No thanks."

He laughs when she wails in disappointment and starts jogging, and I can hear Bri's giggle as they reach the end of the street and turn the corner.
...

...

...

I can't sleep.

My anxiety churns inside me until the bitter taste of acid crawls up into my throat.

Every damn day he pushes Bri's stroller past my house, the sound of the squeaky wheels drilling into my brain like solid guilt, and every day I hide inside and let him pass, not confronting him. Not talking to him.

Trying my very best to ignore him.

I've always thought I was a good person. Someone who helps others and would never hurt them, and yet the situation with Edward proves me wrong.

How can I just ignore what's going on? Why am I so afraid of acting?'

What's the worst that could possibly happen?

I sigh and turn over.

You could break him, that's what could happen. Break him so much he'll never be able to be put back together.

You have to do this right or not at all.

I exhale and grind my teeth.

Still, I have to try. This can't go on.

Fix it, as much as you can. Then, we'll see what happens.

I look at the clock. It's 3:42.

I sigh and close my eyes, hoping that when my alarm wakes me, I'll know what to do.

...

...

...

He looks at me through the crowd, his eyes desperate. Then he's walking, coming over, and when I put my arms around him, he makes a noise that makes me feel like I never want to let him go.

"Bella... "

"I know. You want to go?"

"Yes."

"My place?"

"Yes."

"Okay."

The car ride is quiet, thick with tension.

He stands behind me as I unlock the front door, head down, like a condemned man.

He follows as I walk inside but stops in the middle of the room, frozen and tense.

"Would you like a drink?"

He shakes his head.

"Something to eat?"

A quiet 'no'.

I stand in front of him and lightly touch his hand. In a second his arms are around me, his head heavy on my shoulder.

"Can we just be like this for a while?" he whispers. "Nothing else. Just this."

"Of course."

I stroke the back of his neck as I hold him, knowing no matter what I do, it won't be enough.

He doesn't go home that night, but when he leaves the next day, he says he needs time and space.

I watch him cross from my backyard into his with a growing sense of unease.

The cracks are already starting to appear.

...

...

...

I pull the muffins out of the oven and prod them.

Perfect.

So this is my grand plan? Muffins?

Kind of lame but at least it's a start.

I lay them out to cool, suddenly nervous going over there.

I haven't been to his house since... well, since thatnight. The night everything changed.

Will he invite me in? Slam the door in my face? Not answer and just wait for me to go away?

He didn't pass my house this morning, and as much as it disturbed me to hear the stroller every day, not hearing it set me even more on edge.

He'd yelled at Tanya again last night. Screamed at her. Then I'd heard him talking to Bri, apologizing for having scared her.

He's losing it.

Understandably.

I couldn't just stand by and watch it happen. He was my friend if nothing else. But Tanya was my friend too, and Bri was...

I swipe away a tear from my face.

I miss them. All of them. To go from seeing them every day, eating dinners together, babysitting Bri every weekend so her parents could go to a movie...

Going from that to nothing? No tiny-armed cuddles? No giggling tickle-fights? No teddy high teas?

Too alone in a big, empty house with dark windows.

The pain of it twists inside me, and for the first time since the night everything went to hell, I let myself miss them.

I don't know how long I cry, but when I'm done I know that the cracks inside me are less. Red? Yes. Angry and raw? Definitely. But smaller. Ready to be filled.

At the very least, I have to help Edward do the same.

After splashing cold water on my face, I wrap up the muffins and head out the back door, walking quickly to the gate that connects our yards. It squeaks as I open it, and it sounds too much like the wheels on Bri's stroller.

Closing it behind me, I walk up the stairs to the back porch and knock on the French doors. There's no movement inside so I knock again, cupping my hand around my eyes and peering through the glass.

The house is filthy. Dirty clothes and take-out containers are piled up in the dining room, newspapers strewn on the floor, the family photographs that had been so beautifully arranged on the sideboard are either smashed or placed face down. Only one of Bri is still visible, and her sweet face stares back at me with stunning green eyes.

I knock again, even louder, and finally I see Edward emerge from the hallway, squinting into the morning sun as he opens the door and looks at me in confusion.

"Bella? What are you doing here?"

"I brought you muffins."

He looks at the basket, his face completely slack. Then the fake smile I despise so much spreads across his face and he takes them from me, holding them up to his nose.

"Wow, they smell terrific. Tanya will be thrilled she doesn't have to cook breakfast."

"Edward -"

"Come in. I'll wake Bri. She'll be so happy to see you."

He walks back to the hallway and calls up the stairs. "Honey! Bella's here! Grab Bri and come down. She brought us muffins!"

"Edward... "

He walks into the kitchen, shoving dirty dishes aside so he can put down the basket.

"They'll be down in a sec."

"Edward, no... "

"Coffee?" He ignores me and bustles around with the coffeemaker, his smile determinedly in place.

"Edward, please... talk to me."

He shakes his head, struggling to get the grinder loaded. "No time to talk, Bella. Busy morning. Tanya has to head off to work, and then I'm taking Bri to the park. Busy, busy, morning."

"Edward -"

"Come on, you two! We're waiting! Get your lazy bones down here!"

I walk around the kitchen island and touch his arm. "Edward -"

"They'll be down in a sec," he says, nodding, even as the tears run down his face. "Just give them a few minutes. They'll be here."

"No... they won't."

He freezes, his hand still on the coffeemaker, and I can practically hear his carefully-constructed wall of denial and delusion crumble into a million pieces.

"They... they'll be right down."

"No."

"Yes."

"Edward... "

He looks down at me, his face contorting as he finally lets reality in. Huge gasping sobs come from him as I pull him into my arms, stroking his back as he cries, letting out all the agony. Letting it pour down his cheeks and groan out of his throat in thick, heaving breaths. Letting the grief and regret and sheer bone-deep loss spill out onto his kitchen floor as the scent of double-choc muffins fills the air.

I cry too.

"I told her... " he sobs, gripping my shirt. "I told h-her... the weather was bad. But she... she didn't-... s-she didn't listen."

"It wasn't her fault."

"No, it was m-mine. I should h-have - God... I s-should have been the one... the one driving. Me. Not her. If I had then -"

"Then you'd be dead too."

"I should be. I should be with th-them."

"God, Edward, no."

We cry harder, collapsing onto the floor, clutching at each other as if we can stop ourselves from falling into an abyss of pain, but I know he's already there. He's been there ever since the night we waited for Tanya and Bri to get home from a birthday party upstate. We'd been in the middle of a Scrabble game when the doorbell rang, and the policemen's professional sympathy faces told Edward what had happened before their mouths had the chance to.

He's been drowning in grief ever since, so deep that he hasn't been able to confront the reality of them being gone; pushing an empty stroller past my house every day, talking quietly to the ghost of his dead daughter as he wheels her to the park. Coming home and yelling at his dead wife every night.

So now, we cry together, but I know his pain is infinitely greater than mine. I mourn for my friend and her beautiful little girl, but he mourns for his whole life. For his entire family. For the future they'd planned together. The lives they'll never live.

Everything.

At the funeral, I'd been able to tell he wasn't coping. I should have done more. Taking him home and letting him sleep on my couch was a start, but I should have known it wasn't enough. When he'd left my house the morning after the funeral, he'd told me he needed time, and I was happy to give it to him, but I know now he needs far more than that.

He needs help.

...

...

...

I stay with him all day, cleaning the house, making sure he eats, and consoling him when the grief drags him under again. That night I sleep on the couch, making him take two sleeping pills so he actually gets some rest. In the morning I make him breakfast, and when he's finished eating he automatically heads to the hallway closet and unfolds the stroller.

"Edward... "

He looks up at me in surprise before realizing what he's doing.

"Oh... right. That's right. I - ... sometimes..." He sighs. "It's easier if I make myself forget."

He swallows and stares at the stroller, touching the bright red canopy with gentle fingers. "She looked so beautiful when it was down. It made her eyes look even greener. She used to giggle when I drummed on top, like it was raining. Her laugh was -" He stops, covering his eyes with his hand. "Sometimes, at night, I think I can still hear her."

I walk over and put my hand on his arm, squeezing gently. "Why don't you come and stay at my place for a few days?"

He draws in a ragged breath.

"Please, Edward. Staying here, where everything reminds you of them... it's too hard."

He looks up, his eyes red and wet, torn between wanting to stay and needing to let them go. Eventually he nods, folding the stroller up and putting it away.

I make sure the house is clean before locking it, and we walk across his backyard and into mine.

"Bella, do you believe in heaven?"

The way he says it reminds me so much of how Bri had asked me the very same question a few weeks earlier.

I think for a second before saying, "I didn't used to, but I do now. Bri convinced me that her canary's up there, eating God's wallpaper."

He lets out a sound that's half-sob/half-laugh. "Her canary isn't dead. She let him out of his cage one day. Wanted to give him his 'freedom.' She just liked to tell people he was dead because it sounded more dramatic."

I laugh, and after a few seconds he joins me. Inevitably our laughter leads to tears, but this time they're less grief-stricken and more filled with love-memories.

"Want to help me pull weeds?" I ask as we walk into the front garden.

"Sure," he says, wiping his face. "It's not like I have anything better to do."

...

...

...

Two weeks later, my front yard is completely weed-free. So are my back and side yards. Edward has taken to tending the garden beds every morning instead of going to the park. Although he keeps himself as busy as possible, in the quiet moments when he doesn't have anything to distract him, he grieves.

Too many nights I hear him crying, but I figure that's what he's supposed to do. It's natural. Part of the process. And some nights I join him, unable to bear hearing his pain. Letting it add to my own.

Most of the time I give him space, letting him find his way through his sorrow, but occasionally he wants to talk about them. I sit and listen, stroking his arm or touching his shoulder, letting him know he's not alone.

It hurts to hear his stories, because it makes me miss them so much, but for him, I think it helps. Helps him to remember them vibrant and alive, softening the crushing reality of their deaths.

Even in the moments when he's quiet and calm, it's obvious how raw he is; a giant walking wound that it hurts to even look at. I suggest therapy and he agrees, knowing that he needs more help than I can give.

After a few more weeks, he cries less, and every day he climbs a little further out of the abyss.

He stays in my parents' room, unable to face going back to his house. Instead, I've made several trips to his house, gathering clothes and toiletries, getting everything he might need, making him comfortable.

After a month, I stop asking if he wants to go home.

After three months, it's strange to think he's lived anywhere else.

I'm glad he's here, and his quiet presence makes my house seem small again.

Full.

...

...

...

Four months later, he's working again and running late to meet a client.

"Bella, have you seen my phone?"

"Yes, it's on the kitchen bench."

"Where on the kitchen bench?"

I roll my eyes. "It's exactly equidistant between the toaster and the fruit bowl. Would you like GPS coordinates as well?"

His head appears around the corner, and he glares. "Don't be a smartass. Nobody likes a smartass."

"Then don't be a man-looker. Open your eyes."

He tilts his head. "A man-looker?"

"Don't deny it. You know what I'm talking about. It used to drive Tanya crazy too."

Shit.

I look at him, panicked. "I'm sorry- I... God, Edward."

He smiles and shakes his head. "Don't worry about it. It did drive her insane."

"Yes, but she also thought it was adorable."

"No, she used to think I was adorable in general, but my 'man-looking' was aggravating as hell."

"Yeah, okay. Still, I'm sorry."

"It's fine, Bella, really."

"Okay."

"I'll see you later."

He strides down the front stairs and gets in his car, waving as he pulls onto the road.

I blush, because I shouldn't be agreeing with my dead friend, but I can't help it. He is adorable.

...

...

...

Six months after the accident, Edward decides to sell his house. He admits that he'll never be able to live there again, and to be honest, I don't want him to. I like living with him. He's my best friend, and I don't want him to be anywhere else.

We take a week to box up all the things he wants to keep and decide to donate the rest to charity, but when we get to the red stroller, he's torn.

"When I look at it, I can almost see her," he says, leaning against the wall. "I don't know why my memories of her in it are so vivid, but they are."

"I understand."

He looks at me, frowning. "What went through your head that first day I came by after the funeral? You must have thought I was a crazy man, wheeling an empty stroller to the park."

"I didn't think you were crazy. I thought you were hurting."

He looks down, the muscles in his jaw tightening. "It made me feel better... pretending they weren't gone. At the time I just couldn't get my head around it. The pain of knowing I'd never see them again. Never... hold them."

I nod, trying not to cry. "I know."

"I just missed them too much. I still miss them."

He hasn't spoken about them in a while, and it's obvious that he needs to.

"They'll never really be gone, you know," I say softly. "People told me that so many times when I lost my Mom and Dad, but it's true. They'll always be a part of you - inside your heart... in your memories. All those parts of them - the important parts... everything you loved - will always be with you. No one can take that from you."

We're both quiet for a few seconds, and then he walks over and wraps his arms around me, hugging me tightly as he draws in a deep breath.

"I never thanked you for helping me," he whispers into my shoulder. "Without you, Bella... I have no idea what I would have done. Coming to me that day... making me face up to things... opening your house to me? I don't have enough words..."

He holds me for long time, and I relish it, because he doesn't show a lot of physical affection. Not anymore.

When he steps back, there's fresh determination in his wet eyes. "I'm going to give the stroller to charity. Let someone else get use out of it."

"You're sure?"

"Absolutely."

It doesn't escape my attention that later that day, when the Goodwill truck comes to collect everything, Edward himself puts the stroller in the back. I stand beside him, holding his hand as he cries silent tears watching it disappear down the street.

...

...

...

I finally see the familiar outline of my house through the sheets of rain and breathe a sigh of relief as I pull into the driveway. It's taken me two hours longer than usual to drive back from seeing my sister's new baby in the next town over, but the rain wasn't the sole reason. There was also an accident on the interstate, and police had closed one of the lanes; all of us crawling along, bumper to bumper as the storm crackled and flashed around us.

It's been a long couple of days, and not just because I took the nightshift with the baby so Alice could get some rest. Time has also dragged because I've missed Edward, far more than I would have thought possible.

Until last night, I hadn't realized I haven't spent a night away from him in the ten months we've been living together. In fact I realized that apart from him occasionally having to meet clients who were commissioning music from him, we barely spent any time away from each other at all.

Now, as I turn off my headlights and gather my bag, I yearn to see him. Hug him. Breathe in his scent and ask him what he's been up to without me.

Apparently he's missed me too, because as I open the car door, he comes striding out of the house, ignoring the streaming rain as he clomps down the steps toward me.

"Bella. Jesus Christ." He all but barrels into me, enveloping me in a hug so tight I can barely breathe, whispering, "Thank God, thank God, thank God," over and over again into my neck.

"Hey," I say, my words muffled against his shoulder. "I missed you too."

The hug is strong and fierce, and takes me completely by surprise. I figure that a few nights away from me have done him some good.

Suddenly he pulls back and grabs my shoulders, glaring at me. "Where the hell have you been? You should have been home hours ago!"

"I know. The traffic was terrible."

"You should have called me!"

"My phone died. I was helping Alice with the baby last night and forgot to charge it."

"What about the car charger?"

"It doesn't work. My cigarette lighter is fried."

He swears under his breath and snatches my bag from me, wrapping his arm around my waist and pushing me firmly forward, up onto the porch and out of the rain.

"Edward, what's going on? Are you angry with me?"

"Yes, I'm fucking angry with you," he says, spinning to face me and throwing down my bag. "If you were going to be this late you should have fucking called. Not just left me sitting here waiting."

"I'm sorry, I didn't think you had somewhere else to be."

"Christ, Bella, I don't have somewhere else to be! That's not the goddamn point! I was waiting for you, and when you didn't show I -" He puts his hand over his eyes and exhales. "I thought... God, I thought something had happened to you."

My stomach drops as I realize what an incredibly insensitive idiot I've been.

"Oh, God... Edward, I'm so sorry."

I walk over and hug him, and he collapses around me, squeezing me tightly and burying his head in my neck. "I thought I'd lost you," he whispers, his breathing ragged. "I turned on the news and saw the accident, and I thought -"

"Oh, Edward, no."

"I was so scared it was you."

"I'm fine. I'm so sorry I didn't call. I'm an idiot."

"I can't lose you, Bella. Not you too. I really fucking can't."

"I know. You won't. I'm sorry."

I stroke his back as we hug, both of us gripping desperately at the other, and part of me registers that something has shifted between us. The way he's touching me... how I feel as he caresses my shoulders... the down-low ache I get as I sink into him.

"If you have to go there again, I'm coming with you," he says as his lips brush against my throat. "And I'll drive. Don't make me go through this again, please."

"Okay."

I stand on my toes and hug him tighter, and for the first time, I can't help feeling I want to do more than hug.

A lot more.

...

...

...

He glares at me, at the end of his patience. "You can't use 'noire', woman! It's French!"

"So what? I let you have 'sushi'! That's Japanese!"

"Yeah, but it's used in everyday conversation!"

"Only by people who eat it! And 'noire' is used by film buffs every day."

"Oh, bullshit!"

"They do! 'Film Noire' is a very famous term."

"If you're going to cheat, then I'm not playing with you."

"Pussy."

"Cheater."

"Loser."

"That's it!"

He shoves the Scrabble board off of the table and grabs me, lifting me out of my chair as he digs his fingers into my ribs, my resulting screams way too loud for a Sunday night in our quiet little neighborhood.

He struggles to keep me still and I'm laughing so hard it actually hurts.

"Admit you're a cheater!" he orders, laughing too.

"No!"

He pushes me back onto the table and forces his fingers under my armpits. "Admit it!

"NEVER!"

I dissolve into giggles as I hook my knees under his chest and push desperately, trying to get him off of me, but he's too big and too strong. In a few seconds he has me pinned, my wrists trapped in his hands as he pushes them against the table, our laughter eventually petering out.

"You're not getting up until you admit it," he says, panting. "You've been pulling this crazy Scrabble voodoo for over a year now, and it's ending tonight. Now, either admit it, or be prepared to spend the rest of the night right here on the table. I'll use you as my pillow and have a very comfortable sleep. Don't fucking doubt it for one second."

I struggle against him and grunt in frustration when he won't budge.

"Just three little words, Bella, and I'll let you go: I'm a big cheating cheater who cheats."

"That's seven words."

"Whatever. Say them."

"Over my dead body."

He flinches, a flicker of pain passing over his face.

Shit.

Stupid, Bella. Stupid, stupid choice of words.

"I'm a cheating cheater who cheats," I say quickly, trying to get back the playful atmosphere I've just completely nuked.

He loosens his grip, but doesn't let me go, and suddenly, having him this close is the one thing I want most in the world, and the thing I'm most frightened of.

"Bella..."

"I know, I'm sorry."

"God..."

"I'm sorry. It was dumb. Ignore me. Please."

He releases my wrists and brushes my hair away from my face, gazing down at me, staring and frowning like he never wants to stop looking at me. Like I'm keeping him anchored in whatever storm of emotions is playing behind his eyes.

Suddenly, all the air goes out of the room because the way he's looking at me... holding me... hot and flushed as his body covers me...

God, I want him. No barriers between us. Just skin, and mouths, and him inside.

He doesn't move, doesn't stop staring, and my stomach ribbons and curls as I stare back, seeing the face that I never want to lose. The one I want to see crumbling in pleasure, above or below me.

My mind has been resisting this attraction for months, but my body apparently has no such qualms. It craves him, no matter how guilty that makes me feel. It doesn't understand that he's a widower and my best friend. It just sees an attractive man who makes us come undone with a lift of his eyebrow. It sees the broad set of his shoulders and the firm planes of muscles under his shirt. It feels the jagged jolts of electricity every time he touches us, and wants more of him.

"I'm sorry," I whisper again, not sure what I'm even apologizing for anymore.

He's so close that I can see how fast the pulse in his neck is pounding, his chest brushing against mine as he breathes heavily.

I can't help touching his face, gently running my fingers across his cheek and down his jaw. He closes his eyes and exhales, and as usual when I touch him, I wait for him to pull away.

"Bella." His voice is full of protest. Implied excuses: "Bella, don't. Bella, we can't. Bella, we're friends."

I'm tired of being friends. I want more. All of him.

He opens his eyes and looks down at me, his gaze full of the same longing I see more and more often these days. But I know he won't act on it. He never does.

Instead, he imagines what it would be like if he did. The way he looks over my face, I know he's wondering, What would it be like to kiss her? Could I? Should I?

I hold my breath as I watch him struggle to make a choice, the tension between us thick and unbearable, getting worse every day we inhabit the same space and refuse to acknowledge our building need.

He doesn't date. I don't date. We just circle each other like satellites, pretending we can stay the same when it's so damn obvious something has to change.

And yet, I watch in frustration as he extinguishes his desire for me with sheer force of will, his inevitable guilt winning as he pulls away.

No. Not again, dammit.

Without thinking, I grab the back of his head and pull him down to me, kissing him before I have a chance to chicken out.

I can't not kiss him. It's a compulsion I've been fighting for too long, and as our lips connect I gasp at the sensation. It's almost too much. Too strong. Too right. It must affect him in the same way because his whole body tenses as he inhales sharply, and my knees tighten around his hips as my heart rate spikes.

I kiss him more determinedly, desperate for him to understand my need. To return it.

At first, he grips my shoulders, stilling me, and then, ever-so-slowly, he responds, mouth relaxing, lips moving; letting himself go as he presses me back into the table.

Then, our mouths open, and with a low groan he lets go of all pretense of trying to deny what he feels. He kisses me roughly, desperately, and I kiss him back with just as much hunger, clutching at his shoulders, pulling him down, taking as much of him as I can and still needing more.

This is right. This is how we should be together. He feels it too. I know he does.

The truth of it is in every tiny gasp between us. Every low moan of well-overdue satisfaction. Every brush of covetous hands over heated skin.

I wrap my legs around his hips and pull him against me, feeling how aroused he is, grateful I'm not the only one.

"I want you," I whisper before kissing his neck, inhaling as I grind against him. "I know you want me too. Please, Edward..."

Suddenly, the spell is broken and he freezes, tension bunching all of his muscles.

No.

Please, no.

Not now.

Don't say it.

"I can't." He drops his head, panting, still lying on me but somehow not with me at all. "I can't do this. I really can't."

"Edward... please."

"No. I - no."

I feel beyond empty as he moves away; every place he touched me is now void of any sensation except a cold ache, screaming for him to come back.

"Edward -"

"It's late," he says, scrubbing his hand over his face. "I should go to bed."

"No, don't." I'm so desperate I feel like clinging to him, forcing him to stay, but the look in his eyes tells me he won't be convinced no matter what I do. He's already gone.

He's halfway to the stairs when I blurt, "She'd want you to be happy, you know."

He freezes in his tracks, shoulders tense. Even without seeing his face, I know he's angry.

I continue regardless. It needs to be said.

"She wouldn't want you to hang onto her so tightly that there wasn't any room for anyone else. She'd want you to move on. They both would. Why can't you see that?"

Part of me expects a flood of guilt to engulf me for saying those words, but it never comes. The truth is, I'm right. Tanya wouldn't have wanted his life to stop just because hers did. She loved him. She'd want him to love again too.

He stands there for a few seconds, his fists clenching and unfurling, and then he continues up the stairs without saying a word. When I hear his bedroom door slam, I sigh and collapse back onto the table.

Godammit.

...

...

...

The next morning, he's there when I walk into the kitchen, leaning against the counter and drinking his coffee. He doesn't look up, but stares into his cup like it holds the secrets of the universe.

"Hey."

"Hey." His voice is tight and clipped.

And so we're reduced to this? Monosyllabic greetings as the room steadily fills up with tension and awkwardness?

Great.

I fill the kettle and turn it on, reaching around him to grab the canister holding the teabags. He flinches as my breast brushes his arm, and he quickly moves to the sink and empties the rest of his coffee, preparing to leave.

"Edward -"

"I'm meeting a client this morning, and then I have to go to the studio this afternoon for some sequencing."

"... about last night..."

"Probably won't be home for dinner. Depends on what time I finish."

"... I didn't mean to offend you with what I said about Tanya. I mean, I hope you didn't think that I was trying to -"

He spins around, his eyes full of anger. "How dare you tell me what my wife would have wanted for me? You barely knew her! You think that after three months of friendship you fucking knew her?"

I'm taken aback by his outburst, but even so, my temper is quick to flare. "I didn't need to know her for long to understand that she loved you, and she'd want you to be happy!"

"And you think having sex with youwill make me happy? That a roll in the hay will magically make me forget that MY WIFE AND CHILD ARE DEAD?"

My anger eclipses the pain of his words. "Of course not! God! This isn't about sex! Do you think that's all I want from you?"

"I have no fucking idea what you want from me, Bella, but whatever it is, I'm pretty damn sure I'm not equipped to give it to you!"

"Don't you dare stand there and tell me that you don't have feelings for me because I know you do! It's nothing to be ashamed of! We've been living together for over a year! It's not like we jumped into the sack together three minutes after the funeral! You're the most important person in my life. Why is it so wrong that I want to be with you?"

"Because it just is, okay?"

"No, it's not okay! I can feel how much you want me, but you keep denying it! Why can't you just let yourself be happy? You don't stop living just because life hands you a sucky deal. What happened to your family was tragic, but life goes on! You're not the only one who's lost people, you know -"

"I don't have fucking time for this." He slams down his coffee cup and strides out of the kitchen.

"Wait! We need to talk -"

"No we don't. I have to go."

"Edward, please -"

He grabs his keys and turns to me. "Bella, no! This entire conversation is fucking ridiculous. You think that just because you occasionally make my dick hard, I want a relationship with you? That you can replace what I've lost? You can't. You'll neverreplace her. And more importantly, I'll never want you to."

He glares at me, his eyes more cruel than I could have ever imagined, and something inside me shatters, making me want to double over in pain.

Without another word, he throws open the front door and stalks to his car, not looking back even as I start to cry.

...

...

...

Sometimes it only takes a single event to uproot someone; to tear them free of all comfort and security and leave them drifting, lost in the storm of their own life. For Edward, that event was losing his family. For me, it's the possibility of losing Edward.

As I listen to his car scream out of the driveway I suddenly feel hollow, so desiccated and paper-thin that the slightest breeze could tear me apart. When my tears stop, I turn all of my energy toward holding my layers together, keeping flesh on my bones through sheer force of will, ignoring the blazing pain that lights up my chest like a warning beacon.

And it's in that moment, as my lungs tighten and my face burns, that I realize how much I love him. Not 'care for' or 'like' - none of the watered-down emotions I've been convincing myself I feel - but 'love' - deep and profound. Painful.

And to think that he doesn't feel the same way... that he can't, or won't, love me back...

We hear a lot about the stages of grief, but we don't realize just how often we experience them. Grief isn't limited to death, it could apply to losing your freedom, your health, that job you really wanted, a lifelong dream that should be but never is... anything you've developed an intense connection with.

In my case, it's someone who's come to mean everything to me without even trying.

In a lot of ways, every day features a little death.

And a little grief.

In the fifteen hours it takes for Edward to finally come home, I'm somewhere between anger and depression.

When I hear his car pull into the driveway, I don't move. I've barely moved all day; just shuffled between the couch, the bathroom and the kitchen.

I'm in the kitchen now, emotions churning as I hear his car door slam. I've been standing at the sink washing the same glass for twenty minutes. Realistically I've just been gazing out the window into the backyard, staring at the dark windows of his old house, wondering why, after eight months on the market, it's still empty.

Things were so much simpler when he was over there and I was over here. Separate people living separate lives. Now everything's screwed up and confused, and I don't know how to fix it.

I'm angry at myself for letting myself fall for him, and I'm angry at him for not falling back.

The insecure bitch inside me points out that I can hardly blame him. As he so eloquently pointed out, I'm not Tanya, and could never hope to compare with her. She was beautiful and successful. He loved her. Married her. Had a child with her. Wanted to spend the rest of his life with her.

And what am I?

I'm just the woman who picked up the pieces of him she left behind.

My eyes prickle, but I don't cry. I don't think I can anymore. I'd like to say that I'm numb, but the exact opposite is true: everything hurts. His rejection this morning sent spikes of burning disappointment down all my limbs and into my fingers and toes, and I can still feel them there, twisting and gouging at me with hard edges every time I move.

So I just stand there, full to the brim with hurt and anger, trying to wish it away.

The front door closes and heavy footfalls come toward the kitchen, but I don't turn around. I can't look at him.

After what he said today, I feel like I don't even know him anymore. The Edward I know isn't cruel or hurtful. He's funny and kind and sensitive. He's the man who dotes on me when I sprain my ankle. Who leaves badly-drawn cartoons around the house, reminding me to pay the phone bill and take out the garbage. Who composes a birthday song for me that he records with a thirty-piece orchestra because he has a little extra studio time that day.

He's not the type of man who rips my heart out with both hands and walks away.

The footsteps stop in the doorway, and I concentrate on washing the rest of the dishes to keep myself from falling apart.

"Bella..."

His voice is quiet. Like an exhale.

Mine is thin, like a ghost. "I made you dinner. It's in the oven."

"Please look at me..."

I don't. Instead I put the plate I'm washing in the dish rack and pull out the plug, watching the water and suds spiral down the drain. "You'll need to use the oven mitts. The plate will be hot."

"What I said this morning... I was - I hadn't slept."

"The stupid oven burned the pie I made for dessert."

"Because last night, when you kissed me... I -"

"I'm really going to have to buy a new one."

"I panicked. Big time..."

"I don't know why I've waited this long."

"Bella, please."

"Probably because Mom used that oven while I was growing up."

"At least look at me."

"I guess it has sentimental value or something."

"I know you're angry. I understand -"

I move to the oven and turn it off, grabbing the oven mitts and opening the door. "The steak's probably a little dry by now, but it should still taste all right."

As I put the plate down on the table he grabs my arm and pulls me to him. "Jesus, Bella, I don't care about dinner! I'm not fucking hungry! Please stop ignoring me. Talk to me."

The warmth of his hand shatters my manufactured calm, and I wrench myself away from him, all the hurt inside me suddenly transformed into hot fury; paper-thin layers hardening into steel.

"What, exactly, would you like me to say, Edward? Huh? Should I tell you that you're an asshole for saying those things to me? That after everything we've been through together I deserve more respect from you? Or should I remind you that you kissed me back last night? I didn't imagine that! And for you to imply that I'm alone in wanting this is one of the most cowardly things you could have possibly done. It didn't just hurt me, it betrayed me. Made me feel like an idiotfor thinking we could be more than we are."

He reaches for me but I push him away.

"No! You wanted me to talk - now let me finish! You act like you're the only one who's experienced loss, but you're wrong. I lost my parents when I was sixteen. SIXTEEN! I was a child, for God's sake. But that didn't stop me from living my life. Or being brave enough to love again. But you... the day Bri and Tanya died, you gave up! You shut down because it hurt too much too love them and lose them. I get that. I loved them too. But they'd be ashamed if they could see you now, because you have love standing right in front of you, and you're too fucking scared to grab it with both hands. You think that happiness just happens? That it's flying around in the atmosphere just waiting to find you? It's not! You have to earn it, Edward. Work for it."

He opens his mouth to answer, but I'm not done yet. My words fly out of me, hot and bitter.

"And let me say this - you don't need to remind me I'm not Tanya. I'm very aware that at best, I'll always be your second choice, and that fucking KILLS me, because what you don't understand is that you're my firstchoice. My ONLY choice. And knowing that I'm not that to you... That I'll NEVER be that to you... "

I swipe at my stupid tears and try to push past him, but he grabs me, holding me fast.

"Bella, wait -"

My blood is pounding in my ears as I slap at his chest, but he grabs my wrists, pulling them against him.

"Let me go!"

"No."

I struggle and he grips me tighter, swinging me around until my back is against the fridge.

"Bella, stop! Listen to me!"

Grunting in frustration, I try to squirm free but he's too strong, holding me in place as I get more and more frantic.

"Let me go!"

"I can't!" he says, putting his weight against me. "That's what I'm trying to tell you! What happened this morning, what I said to you - that was me trying to push you away. I didn't think I'd be able to handle it. Being with you. But it was pathetic, and stupid, because the truth is that I can't be without you anymore. I can't! Today proved that to me. When I said those things to you, I -... The look on your face. I never want to hurt you like that again."

I suddenly can't breathe and make another attempt to push him off, but he presses against me more firmly and yells, "Jesus, woman, would you stop fucking squirming? I'm trying to tell you that I love you!"

Finally, I'm shocked into stillness.

He exhales in relief and leans his forehead against mine, panting, bringing my hands to his chest.

"That'swhat I should have said to you this morning. 'I love you.' Only that. None of the other bullshit. I'm so sorry."

For a moment, I can't talk. Or think.

When his words finally sink in, I inhale. "You... loveme?"

He sighs. "Yes. I've been in hell all day knowing that I hurt you. And worse than that, I lied to you when I said I didn't want a relationship. I wanted one too much. So much it was all I could think about, but I didn't want to admit it because part of me feels that loving you means I'm betraying Tanya, which is something I swore I'd never do. But I finally understand I don't have a choice. Realistically, I think I've loved you for a very long time."

Before I realize what's happening, he's cradling my cheek, and then he's kissing me, his mouth sure and gentle. This time, there's no doubt. No hesitation. Just pure, blood-pounding need, and I never thought that kissing someone could inflame me as much as kissing Edward does. I feel his lips everywhere: echoing down my neck and arms, on the soft skin on the backs of my knees, in the tips of my toes as I stretch up to kiss him more fervently.

"I've wanted you for months," he says, hot breath tickling my skin as he kisses my throat. "Every morning I wake up desperate to see you, and every night I wonder why I'm in my bed and not yours... in hell as I fantasize about all the ways I want to make love to you and then feeling guilty as hell."

He kisses me again, and all I can do is grip his shoulders and get drunk on his touch, my head spinning and my body aching, finally getting what's it's craved for so long.

"I'm sorry I hurt you," he says between kisses. "You were right. I was a coward. I'd been awake all night trying to reconcile my feelings for you, and it was driving me crazy because for so long, I thought I'd never love anyone as much as Tanya, but then you came along and blew that theory completely out of the water. But I felt like loving you... wanting you... and then last night, kissingyou ... insulted her memory. Like it made me a terrible person."

"You're not."

"It doesn't feel that way."

"Well, I'm telling you, so believe it - you're an amazing, beautiful man, and I... I love you too."

We kiss for long minutes, letting all of our hunger for each other take over, and when he finally pulls back, I know the time for talking is done.

Taking my hand, he silently leads me up to my bedroom, kissing and caressing me as he slowly peels off my clothes.

It should feel strange, standing naked in front of my best friend, but it doesn't. It feels absolutely and completely right. Likewise, when I take off his clothes, his body is both a revelation, and completely familiar, like I've touched him a thousand times before but have simply forgotten.

We take our time with each other, kissing and touching until there's no piece of skin undiscovered, and when he finally pushes inside me, I feel like all the cold, empty places have been filled at last.

The first time, neither of us lasts very long, but it doesn't matter because the second time makes up for it. By the time he finally stills, I'm boneless with pleasure, sweaty and sated as I curl into his chest and fall asleep.

Hours later, I wake to find him wrapped around me, my back to his front as he kisses my shoulder.

"I love you," he whispers, his breath making me tingle as he presses against me. I turn my head to kiss him as he pulls my hips back, pushing inside me and kissing me deeply at the same time. Our kiss continues as he sets a slow, languid pace, all of our previous urgency completely forgotten as I rock my hips in perfect counterpoint to his slow thrusting.

So perfect.

So overdue.

Lighting each other up on the inside in the dark room.

...

...

...

I can see him on the back porch as I lay the muffins out to cool. He's supposed to be working, composing some music for a short film, but his manuscript lies on his lap as he watches the kids who've moved into his old house next door run and squeal in their backyard. It's been something he's been doing a lot recently, and the reason is fairly plain - the little girl looks very much like Bri.

I pour two glasses of lemonade and take them out onto the back porch, placing them on the table before leaning down and kissing his neck.

"Hmmm." He leans his head to the side as I kiss down to his clavicle, reveling in his skin and scent. "You're an evil woman who's determined to distract me from my work," he says, reaching around to pull me into his lap.

"Actually, you're managing to be distracted without any help from me. Looks like Sarah's having a hard time catching her brother."

"Yeah, but she'll get him. She's just wearing him down."

He kisses me, our breathing quickly becoming fast and shallow, and I wonder if I'll ever get used to how he affects me.

"How long has it been since I last made love to you?" he asks, kissing down my neck as I grip his hair.

"Too long." In fact, it's only been a few hours, but I just can't seem to get enough of him.

He grazes his teeth along my throat in a move I've come to realize is guaranteed to make me insane with lust. Sure enough a few seconds later he whispers, "I'd really like to be inside you now."

Summoning supreme restraint, I pull away, laughing at his handsome yet crestfallen face. "Not until you finish four pages of your score."

He leans back in the chair and exhales, running his hand through his hair. "I sometimes think you delight in seeing how many times you can arouse me in one day."

"Don't be ridiculous. And for the record, your current streak is sitting at twelve."

He fixes me with a dark glare. "Oh, the things I'm going to do to you later."

"Write them down in case you forget."

He smiles and pulls me into his chest, and we sit for a while, just holding each other and watching the kids play.

"They're a nice family," I say, referring to our new neighbors.

"Yeah. Emmett's invited me to the game on the weekend. Apparently he has great seats."

I smiled. "It's nice that you boys are bonding."

"Yeah. He's a good guy."

It makes me happy to see Edward spending time with Emmett. It's just another step forward for him, to socialize with people other than me.

A low laugh rumbles in his chest as Sarah finally catches her brother, taking him down in an impressive tackle as she yells, "YOU'RE IT!" and runs away giggling.

"Do you ever think about having kids again?" I ask, stroking his arm.

He sighs. "Yeah, of course. I loved being a father, and Bri was ..." He squeezes me tighter. "She was an amazing kid. I loved being her dad."

"You were a great dad."

"I had a dream about her the other night," he says. "She was sitting in the red stroller, looking up at me and smiling, and the joy on her face... she was so happy, Bella. So beautiful and peaceful and happy. But the strange thing was, her eyes weren't green. They were brown."

The image sends a tingle up my spine. "That's not so weird, and it sounds like a nice dream."

"It was. Just to see her again. I miss her."

"Yeah, I know."

I take a deep breath, preparing to tell him something that I've been putting off all week, unsure how he's going to react.

"You know, I went past the Goodwill store the other day..."

"Uh huh."

"And do you know what I saw sitting out the front?"

"What?"

"Bri's stroller."

He turns to me, frowning. "What? How did you know it was hers?"

"It still had that squeaky wheel. And that little frayed part on the side where she attacked it with scissors."

He stares at me for a few seconds, and I really wish I knew what he was thinking.

I stroke his face, watching him carefully. "I guess whoever bought it originally doesn't need it anymore and gave it back, ready for another couple to use."

"I guess." He looks shell-shocked.

"I considered buying it back."

His frown deepens. "Why?"

"Well, I know how much it used to mean to you..."

"Well, yeah, but ..."

"And because we're going to need a stroller."

"... I mean, it's a nice idea. To have something to remember her by but..." He freezes, his breath stopping and his eyes widening. "What... what did you just say?"

I try to contain my smile but fail miserably. "I said, we're going to need a stroller."

He stares at me, cautious hope in his eyes. "Bella, are you saying... ?"

I nod. "I'm pregnant."

In a second he envelops me in a massive hug, and for a few moments I'm not sure if he's laughing or sobbing. It turns out it's a bit of both, and when he pulls back his cheeks are wet, but he's wearing the most dazzling smile I've ever seen.

"Oh my God, you're having my baby?"

"Well, unless I've been banging some other hot guy multiple times a day for the past six months, I'm pretty sure it's yours."

He hugs me again, and doesn't let go for a long time. It's kind of fitting that in the background, all we can hear is the sound of children's laughter.

That night, as we wrap around each other, naked and blissfully happy, it occurs to me that for all of the fragility humans are burdened with, we're also remarkably resilient. Our hearts can be broken and torn, shattered into a million tiny pieces that fly around our souls for years on end, but it only takes one person, one event, one love, to stitch it all back together.

But love is never a sure bet. It's volatile and dangerous, fickle and transitory, but at its best, it can be miraculous and everlasting, and that's what makes the gamble worthwhile in the long run.

"I think we should buy it," Edward whispers into my hair, his voice heavy with sleep as I stroke his back.

"Buy what?"

"Bri's old stroller. I think she'd really like her brother or sister to have it."

I smile against his chest, squeezing him tighter. "Me too."

Suddenly the thought of hearing that squeaky wheel fills me with hope instead of dread. It signifies a new beginning for Edward and me - something wonderful rising from the ashes of a terrible tragedy.

"Edward?"

"Hmmm."

"I have the strangest urge to name our child 'Phoenix'."

He presses his nose into my hair. "You're lucky I love you, because a lesser man would disown you for that suggestion."

I laugh. "What's wrong with Phoenix?"

"Bella, our child will not be named after a city. No Brooklyn, no Paris, and absolutely no Copenhagen."

"You know a kid called 'Copenhagen'?"

"No, but I'm pretty sure some pretentious celebrity is going to name some poor kid that any second. Just... no. Plus, no fruit. Any child named 'Apple' is immediately handicapped in life. Seriously, how many careers could that kid have? President Apple? I don't think so."

I snuggle further into his chest and smile. "Actually, I was thinking more like the mythical bird Phoenix. Not the city."

"Hmmm? Oh. Okay then."

"Okay?"

"If you'll stop talking and let me go to sleep, then sure."

In about three seconds his breathing evens out and his arm around my shoulders goes limp. I have the strongest urge to wake him up to tell him I love him, but I figure he already knows.

"Edward," I whisper to his beautiful sleeping face. "I think I'm really warming to the name 'Copenhagen'."

He gives himself away by smiling. I laugh as he wraps his arms around me and draws me closer, entwining our limbs and pressing his lips to my forehead.

"Okay, you win. Copenhagen it is. Now, for God's sake, woman, sleep."

I laugh, so full of joy that I'm pretty sure sleep isn't going to come to me anytime soon.

Lord, how I love him.

And in the long run, that's what it all comes down to: believing in that oneperson enough to want to risk everything in order to love them, and to be rewarded by having them love you in return; carrying their heart inside yours through the dark nights and endless mornings, letting their laughter soothe your tears, their patience balance your frustration, their joy triumph over your grief.

And even though most days contain a little death, they're also full of new beginnings. New life.

This was ours.

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Thank you so much for reading.

If you have a moment, I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Kiya x