Hello, Bedford Falls! Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas, movie house!

Merry Christmas, Emporium! Merry Christmas, you wonderful old Building and Loan! Hey! Merry Christmas, Mr. Potter!

Happy New Year to you — in jail. Go on home — they're waiting for you!

It's a Wonderful Life

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Oh I don't want a lot for Christmas, This is all I'm asking for, I just want to see my baby, Standing right outside my door, Oh I just want you for my own, More than you could ever know, Make my wish come true, Baby all I want for Christmas is...You

All I Want for Christmas – Mariah Carey

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Chapter Three - Attaboy, Clarence

Life continued on, and as much as we would all like to wrap ourselves in the fantasy world of Christmas and love, reality has a way of popping the proverbial bubble.

While I would have loved nothing more than to lose myself in Edward, the Cullens, and the wonderland of their home at Christmastime, I couldn't allow myself to get lost that way. Falling back into old patterns would mean I didn't really learn anything after all, and I refused to accept that as truth. We needed to go slow this time, do things right.

I wanted this time to last.

That meant keeping my focus on the real world. Finals would not go away, nor would any of my other commitments. I needed to find a balance of me and him, of me and them, and I needed to stick firm to that resolve. This was all well and good, except when that one thing you are trying to moderate is greater than any temptation known to man. Or woman.

Edward insisted on following me back to my dorm that Friday evening, unwilling to accept that after all that time, my truck was capable and reliable. Some things would never change. He was ready to follow me into Butterfield, up the flights of stairs to my dorm room, when I stopped him with a firm denail.

My refusal took Edward by surprise. It put him off at first, and he took my independence as

rejection.

"I can help you prepare for finals, Bella. I helped you study in the past," he insisted, trying to break my resolve. There were only a few inches between us, and it was all I could do to stick to my guns.

"No. I am doing this my way. Give me until Thursday. It's only a few days. Not forever."

His eyes narrowed in irritation at my chose of words, annoyed at my reminder. We had yet to speak about resolving our physical differences. But we had time. We had the rest of our lives, however we chose to define them.

I reached out to smooth his hair away from his face, a gesture that I would happily repeat over and over. Part of it was the feel, the ability to touch him again, to enjoy the sensation of his cold skin and his hair between my fingers. I was also well aware that he liked it. I did too.

But instead of letting my hand follow its usual path, Edward gently grabbed it, turning it in his so that he could brush his lips gently along the sensitive skin of my wrist. Our physical contact was just as visceral as it had been that first time he touched me months and months ago. If anything, it had grown stronger with the realization that we were grounded in something deeper than pure physical attraction.

"'Til Thursday," Edward whispered. He leaned towards me slowly, his eyes holding mine as he gently kissed my lips. He didn't release my wrist, holding me securely against his cheek.

""Til Thursday," I promised. I didn't speak what sang through my heart. Until Thursday, and then I was his. I already was. I always had been.

Keeping thoughts of Edward at bay was not a simple task, but I soon found I didn't need to work as hard as I might have thought. He was like the prize waiting on the other side of the door. My motivation to push forward through finals. To get to Thursday.

He kept a constant vigil in subtle ways. The candle every night outside my window. Sprigs of holly or mistletoe on the sill every morning. Simple little reminders that I was always in his thoughts, just as he was in mine.

For six days, I focused on nothing but school and studying. By Thursday afternoon, I'd completed my final exams. My first semester of college was complete, and I was absolutely

exhausted. I left my classroom in a daze, wishing for a handful of simple things. Lying prone on a couch, something to eat, and Edward.

He stood, waiting patiently as I pushed through the double doors of the lecture hall. I shouldn't have been surprised to find him waiting; it probably felt interminably longer for him than it had for me. He was dressed like any other red blooded American college student; jeans and a snug t-shirt which peeked out from inside a jet black parka.

I stopped, watching as classmates passed him by. Girls staring and whispering, sending coy glances his way. He never looked at them. His eyes never left mine. To him, it was like no one else existed. Edward was waiting for me, and I was finally confident in what that meant.

Closing the distance between us, I dropped my backpack on the ground, quickly unzipped his parka and pulled it open. Before he could protest, I slipped my arms inside to wrap them around his waist. I knew the inside of his coat wouldn't be warm, but warmth wasn't what I was looking for. I took long, slow, deliberate breaths, inhaling the scent that I had missed so much.

Edward's arms wrapped around my shoulders, his coat encasing me like a cocoon. It allowed me to burrow in deeper, and I continued to breathe him in. Sweet and heady and intoxicating, it lulled me and energized me at the same time. This is exactly where I was meant to be.

"You are killing me; you realize that, don't you?" he whispered in my ear. "I don't see you for days, and this is how you greet me? How will I ever be able to stay away again?"

"Can you take me home, please? I am so tired, and I just want to be with you."

"More perfect words…" Edward whispered as he bent down, one arm sweeping my legs out from underneath me, the other still secure around my shoulders. I would have protested, but I didn't want to let go. And unlike the stubborn child I had been two years ago, I didn't care that people stared. Let them.

Edward scooped up my back pack and carried me to his car where he settled me safely in the passenger seat. My backpack was deposited in the backseat, next to a familiar looking duffle bag.

"I stopped to get some of your things. You are staying with us until you leave for Washington," he replied as he caught my surprised expression.

"How did you know I was going to Washington?" We'd not spoken of my holiday plans.

"Carlisle spoke to Charlie. He's having the house opened up. We'll be in Forks for Christmas too," Edward started the car and pulled out into the flow of traffic. "He didn't want Charlie to be concerned about strange people being seen on the property."

"But-" I started to protest, "you have everything set up here, you've already put everything together."

"They're just trappings, Bella. Haven't you figured out that you are more important than decorations or Christmas trees? We're all going to be together. That's how it's meant to be. I promised I wouldn't leave you again, and I won't. We won't."

"What about Rosalie's ice skating?"

"There are places to skate in Washington, Bella. She'll still get her fix."

I dropped my head back against the seat, watching out the side mirror as Hanover disappeared behind us. The concept of family and what they did for each other had always been such a mysterious, glamorous concept to me. Something I coveted, yet really never understood. To know that the Cullens would pick up and move their Christmas celebration across the country for me was nothing short of awe inspiring.

"We leave the same day as you do. Flights were full, so we are all taking different routes. Carlisle mentioned to Charlie that he's seen you, and that you and I have been in contact, so it shouldn't be too incredibly awkward for us to show up at the same time."

They thought of everything, the logistics, even the ramifications. It made me suddenly feel very small and insignificant. What could I do to reciprocate? They were moving their world for me.

Edward pulled off the road, onto a hidden drive that had been cleared of snow. It wound through the bare trees for roughly a mile before ending at a cliff over the Connecticut River.

"Come on, I know you are tired and hungry, but I want to talk for a little bit before we get to the house." He was out of the car, and around to my side in a flash, with a thick, soft fleece blanket.

Once I was safely wrapped in the warmth of the blanket, Edward scooped me up and sat me on

the hood of the car. The wind ruffled his hair, the glossy strands sweeping against his pale skin. I reached out, and he caught my hand before I could touch him.

"I want you. You realize that, don't you? Intellectually, emotionally-" he broke off, struggling to articulate his thoughts, "physically. It doesn't lessen. Our connection only grows stronger. There will never be anyone else for me, only you. It's the nature of who I am, of my life. You need to realize that, Bella. This is forever for me. For our kind. No one else will ever touch this part of me."

Edward's lips trailed along the inside of my wrist, his icy lips burning my skin and sending my pulse racing. My life was exposed right there, one small nip and he could take it easily.

"Carlisle insists that we have souls. For a long time I believed that I'd lost mine. But as you once said, your soul is mine. What you've made me realize is that I do have one. You claimed it that day you walked into biology. I'd go to the ends of the earth for you, to be with you, to keep you with me."

"Edward, I-" his words rushed through me, confusing and intoxicating. I should be angry at him, stay angry. Everything he'd told me that day in the woods had been false. It was never in his nature not to want me, but he would do everything he could to protect me.

I had the perspective and understanding now to comprehend what he did and why. It wasn't just to protect me, it was to protect everyone. He denied his own nature for the sake of everyone else, making the ultimate sacrifice for all of us. It was a noble intention that had been fundamentally flawed and executed to disastrous effects.

"Let me finish, please," Edward insisted. "Do you still want this life? My life?"

When I didn't answer, he continued, "Are you willing to give up your family, your future? Think about it, Bella. No more Christmases with your father. No more spring break trips to visit your mother. They cease to exist. You have to cut ties, to move away."

His words, a cautionary probe into my intentions, crystallized so much of my previous actions. My move to Hanover had healed the old wounds, but it had also moved me further away from the anchors of my life. My fragile ties to my mother and father weakened as I set myself adrift. I'd thought it was my way of growing up, of standing on my own. But now I had to wonder if all my actions, all my choices, subconsciously prepared me for this.

"Will I maybe, someday, be able to finish school? Will I be strong enough to be around people?"

Edward frowned, confused by my question.

"I enjoy school. Well, I enjoy learning. And I know that you'll all teach me things, but I enjoy this too." I waved my free hand, a vague indication of Hanover, of Dartmouth. "Will I be strong enough someday to come back here? Or somewhere else?"

"I don't understand?" Edward's eyes searched my face, trying to follow my wandering string of logic.

"I hardly see my parents, Edward. I haven't seen Renee since May. Charlie was August. I've slowly been distancing myself. I love them, I always will, but my relationship with them exists through phone lines and the internet. I don't have to give that up. Yes, there will be considerations about my lack of aging when I do have the strength to be around them, but I have time before I need to worry about that. I can figure out a way to have both, it doesn't have to be… absolute."

Holding my arm up, I bent my hand back, exposing the tender skin of my wrist. Webs of blue veins were visible underneath the fragile tissue, the blood coursing through them, the very thing that separated us.

"This is my choice, my decision. I love my parents, and they love me. But you are my family. You are home. You're where I belong." I raised my wrist higher, directly into his line of sight. "I may give you this, but I won't lose myself. I need to know that there will still be a ime/i. Everything else I can figure out, but I won't lose that."

Edward's fingers traced along the faint lines of my wrist, never breaking my gaze.

"The simple fact that you worry about it tells you that you won't, Bella. You will be exactly who you want to be." His fingers continued to trace the blue lines that crisscrossed my wrist, cold against my inflamed skin.

"Good, then that's the end of that conversation. Let's enjoy now, this time together. We can revisit logistics in the spring." He tried to hide his smile at my use of the 'logistics' but it didn't work. I'd stated my intentions, and it made him happy. It made me happy too. "I want to finish one year here, simply because I can. Once we get to that point we can figure out what comes next. For now, let's just be."

He kissed my wrist one last time. "'Tis the season for rebirth. Come on, they're waiting for you."

By the time we got to the house, darkness had set in. I could see Carlisle standing in the gazebo, his arm around Esme. The flicker of the candlelight set off his blonde hair, making it appear like spun gold.

"Tonight's candle is the beginning of the final series. Peace. He fought for this, for you. Even more than Alice did. If it weren't for Carlisle…"

"Edward, what's done is done. We are good now; things are the way they are meant to be." I stood in the clearing for a moment, watching Carlisle and Esme as they stood arm and arm, oblivious to the world.

There had been four candles in the series.

Hope for what could be again.

Love of the people around us.

Joy at being together again.

And peace, forgiving what has passed so that we can have faith in the future. That faith culminated on Christmas morning in rebirth. Our lives had followed a parallel path, and we'd been reborn. We would never take that for granted again.

Edward smiled and led me into the house. I followed him willingly.

"Do you remember where the bathroom is, upstairs?"

When I nodded, he handed me my bag. "Go change into your pajamas and meet us in the great room. We have one more tradition, and I think you'll like this one in particular."

Edward gently nudged me towards the steps, "Alice picked up some food for you earlier, now go change."

Too worn out to protest, I climbed the steps to the guest bathroom I'd used my last visit and unzipped my bag.

"I'm too tired to fight," I called out, knowing he could hear me, "but we will have a conversation about you going through my clothes. You'd better not have nicked any of my underwear."

Laughter rang through the house. Multiple voices; feminine and masculine. I loved the way it sounded, bringing the house alive. Filling it with love and happiness.

I quickly stripped out of my jeans and sweater, throwing on the flannel pants and waffle shirt, then pulled my hair back into a messy ponytail. Edward waited for me patiently in the hallway, having already changed into clothing similar to mine.

"What are you up to?" I asked, eying the flannel sleep pants incredulously. They were embroidered with small penguins holding martini glasses.

"Shhh…just enjoy it."

He placed a steaming mug in my hand and then gently scooped me up to carry down the hallway. Instead of protesting, I let my head fall against his chest. I felt warm and loved. I'd gone to long without that feeling, and I allowed myself to bask in it.

"Don't start the breathing thing again, we need to make it downstairs please," he instructed. There was a lightness in his tone that made me feel wonderful.

"Did I find a button?" I asked, the picture of innocence. I knew exactly what it did; I felt it too, but the way in which he joked was so free. I wanted to hold on to that.

"Someday you'll realize how much you play with fire around me," Edward responded quietly. His voice was husky, low. It wasn't a threat on my life. If I had to guess, it was more of a promise. "Someday, I am really going to enjoy showing you. But not tonight. We have other things to do."

He gently sat me down in the great room, his hand around my waist to stabilize me as he led me to the open end of the couch. Carlisle and Esme were curled up in a giant chair, a blanket casually wrapped around them. Jasper sat with his back against the fireplace with Alice's head propped in his lap. Emmett and Rose lay prone on the floor, Emmett's head resting on a stack of pillows, Rose curled into his side. They didn't need the comfort of pillows for padding or blankets for warmth; it was the sensation, the feelings it evoked. They might not be physically human, but their hearts and minds would always be.

"It's about time! Let's get this show on the road!" Emmett crowed as he hit play on the TV remote. Legal language filled the screen. "Sit down, drink your fake blood, and enjoy."

Edward sat on the couch, and gently pulled me down next to him. I curled my legs up underneath my body and took a sip of the steaming mug.

Tomato soup. Fake blood indeed.

The familiar music filled the room as the credits started to roll. For two hours, no one moved, no one spoke as the story of George Bailey, Bedford Falls, and Clarence, Angel Second Class filled the room.

I've seen It's a Wonderful Life dozens of times. The innocence, the idealism, the simplicity had always been so striking to me. But somehow, in all the times I'd watched it, I'd never caught the big idea, the 'so what'.

As George wanders through the town, seeing the impact of his wish to 'never have been', he understands that life is better because of his impact on it. My heart ached at the parallels, the reality as compared to fiction. Edward's words had been so similar when he left…as if I never existed. The impact had been the same as George Bailey's. My life, our lives, were richer

because of our connections, our relationships. We could survive anything, as long as we had each other. Very simply, we made each other better.

Edward's arms tightened around me as George ran through the town, shouting his greetings in his rush to get home. I understood exactly what he felt, the knowledge, the power of realization and the ability to correct those mistakes. It was never too late; we'd just needed a small push and willingness to believe.

As the closing credits began to roll, Jasper and Alice quietly got up and left the room hand in hand; Alice blew a kiss as she passed. Rosalie followed, a small smile on her face. It was the most I'd get from her, but it was a start. Emmett was next, stopping at the end of the couch to ruffle Edward's hair. Edward shook him off in irritation, but I could tell he secretly enjoyed it.

Esme flipped off the end table light and climbed out of her chair. She slipped in between the couch and the coffee table to smooth out Edward's hair and placed a quick kiss on the top of my head.

Carlisle stood next her, a smile on his face.

"Here's a toast to Carlisle Cullen," I paraphrased the line from memory, "my personal Clarence. The richest man in town."

His smile grew, and I swear, if it were possible, he would have had tears in his eyes.

"I am now, Bella. I am now."

He dropped a hand on Edward's shoulder as he moved past us.

"Attaboy, Clarence," I whispered. It was all that needed to be said.

With everyone out of the room, and the lights off, we were left with the fading embers of the fire and the twinkling lights of the Christmas tree. Edward pulled the blanket in tighter around me and slid me into his lap.

"I know you are thinking it," he chided me as I buried my head in his neck. "Don't-"

I took a long, deep breath and laughed.

"-do it."

I kissed his neck, just a small quick peck against the spot where, in his human life, his pulse would have hammered. I felt him shudder against me.

"I thought you couldn't read my mind, Edward Cullen," I whispered, enjoying the sound of his

ragged breathing.

"I don't need to read your mind. I know you. That's what counts."

He lifted me carefully, shifting so that we could stretch out on the couch, my head easily coming to rest against his chest. The blanket wrapped safely around me to keep me warm. I let my hands explore, tracing the lines of his face and neck as the fire cracked and popped behind us.

"It took us a while to get here, but we're here now, Edward. It's going to be a wonderful life. I just know it."

It was the truth. I'd put myself back together after he left. I could have survived without him or the rest of the Cullens if they had never come back. And I would have been okay. But my life was better, richer with him. With all of them.

Our future lay stretched out before us. Ours to craft and guide as we saw fit. There would be hard choices, and it wouldn't always be perfect, but so long as there was hope, love, joy, and peace, we could never go wrong.

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