Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. I am in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise, I just use their creations to have my wicked way with them. No copyright infringement is intended.


Many thanks to Jadsmama and Ladysharkey1 for their amazing pre-reader- and beta-skills. Without the two of them, I would be nothing.


"Peace and rest at length have come,
All the day's long toil is past;
And each heart is whispering, 'Home,
Home at last!'"

Thomas Hood

22.

"Just a few more steps." Bella wasn't sure if her little pep-talk was directed at herself or at the bone-weary man hanging over her like an overgrown (and kind of heavy) rag doll.

He nodded, his mouth pressing into a hard line as he tried to ease his weight off of her, the two of them completing their awkward shuffle up the back steps and into the house. Finally.

She'd never admit it, but inside Bella was as tired and worn down as Edward looked, though she knew that at that moment her own grief didn't matter.

He mattered.

And right now, he looked like a man who'd reached the end of his strength.

He stood as she did, obediently allowing her to strip him of his coat and shoes before she tugged him along again, their ascent to the first floor taking what felt like hours until they finally reached the bedroom, a huge sigh of relief causing some of the tension to slip from Bella's shoulders that had been there for most of the day.

They had made it; there and back again.

But at what cost?

Looking at Edward, his normally so strong and vibrant figure slumped on the bed like an old man, her eyes started to prick as her heart slowly broke for him. What had she done to him by forcing him to go to the cemetery before he was ready?

"Do you want me to run a bath for you?" she asked, figuring he was probably as cold as she had become from standing at that graveside for close to an hour, until the icy wetness of the grass seeped into their shoes and their fingers felt like popsicles regardless of their warm woolen coverings.

He shrugged, though she could see him shivering as he ran his hands through his hair, backward and forward and backward again, his fingers tugging on the ends like it was the only thing he could do to make himself feel something again.

She knew how it felt, though her pain and grief had in no way been similar to his.

That emptiness, though? It had been her sole companion for years.

Determining his indifference was about as much of a reaction as she was going to get out of him, she hurried into the bathroom, running the water over her hand until the temperature was just right before pouring some lavender bath stuff into the water before she returned to the bedroom.

Edward hadn't moved an inch since she left, his broken body still hunched on the bed, making her want to crawl on over to him, wrap herself around him and cry for his pain.

But she couldn't.

She had to stay strong.

He needed her.

Taking a deep breath, she pulled her shoulders backwards, stalking over to him with a cheerfulness and confidence as fake as a two dollar bill as she rubbed her hands together to warm them up. "How about we get you out of those clothes and into the water as soon as we can, huh?"

Nine times out of ten this would have been an innuendo to all sorts of sexy pleasures but this time, as Bella carefully unbuttoned his shirt and brushed the fabric away from his shoulders, there was no undercurrent of lust.

Only of love.

Love and pain.

With a minimal assistance from Edward, who still appeared to be locked in an almost catatonic state, she managed to get him out of his clothes and into the bath, the water sloshing down around his body as he sat down, his eyes slowly starting to respond to the world around him again as the heat warmed his limbs and the lavender calmed his troubled mind.

"Lie back, honey," Bella urged, gently pressing on his shoulders to get him to lay back in a somewhat relaxed state as she scooped some of the hot water into her hands to wet his hair, a spark of hope flickering in her heart when, after a while, Edward brought his hands up to rub his face, sighing deeply as he lay back again, the back of his head connecting with her shoulder over the rim of the huge garden tub as Bella kneeled behind him, not caring if she got wet or not.

She was not who was important.

"I'm sorry, angel." His voice was hoarse from crying, the sound of it making her jump as it echoed through the otherwise quiet bathroom.

"Don't be," Bella assured him, squeezing some shampoo into her hands before starting to gently massage his scalp. "What you did today was so hard…your mind needs time to heal from all of that." She smiled sadly, even though she knew he couldn't see it, the pressure of her hands running through his thick, unruly hair making him groan with pleasure, a reaction that couldn't have made her happier. "I'm so proud of you, Edward."

"Love…you…" he muttered, sounding half asleep as his head fell back slightly again, though not from emptiness but from simple fatigue, his body soft and compliant as she finished washing his hair, her heart bursting at the simple intimacy of being able to do something as mundane as this for the man she loved.

The man who was hurting.

He woke only long enough to sleepily help dry himself off, tug on some sleep pants and get into the bed, his deep, even breaths and light snores barely audible from underneath the bedding as Bella stripped out of her clothes and took a quick shower to rid herself of the day and the stiffness that had come from standing in the cold for too long and kneeling beside the bath.

When she was done, there was nothing she wanted more than to crawl into bed with Edward, wrap herself around him and forget about the rest of the world but, even if it pained her to walk away from him, Bella knew that she didn't just have herself to think about.

She was a party of two.

And the baby growing inside her needed to stay healthy, meaning that, even though the whole idea of food had never sounded less appealing to her than at that moment, she knew she had to eat something.

Settling for a sandwich she quickly cut some bread and put in under the grill while cutting up some pieces of leftover chicken, tomatoes, cucumber and salad, the job about done by the time the bread was ready. Her stomach started rumbling by the time she squeezed a good dollop of dressing on top of the trimmings before squishing it with the other end and pouring a tall glass of milk before she settled in front of the television.

Just in time for the news.

Over the weeks, she'd learned to appreciate the kind of things the television had to offer a little better than she initially did but, apart from the news and the odd documentary or movie here and there, she still didn't really like it. It was so loud and overpowering that it hurt your eyes as well as the rest of your senses and the commercials were so annoying that Bella felt more like boycotting every single product advertised than buying the stuff.

But she knew hers wasn't exactly a popular opinion.

Fortunately, Edward didn't watch much television either, preferring a more quiet night of soft music and a book or maybe a movie on DVD (which was one aspect of watching television that Bella could see the perks in) instead of the blaring singing, dancing or modeling competitions or confusing series Leah, Carmen and Alice were always talking about.

The news didn't exactly make for uplifting entertainment but at least it gave Bella a strange kind of pleasure to be informed of what was going on in the world around her. It had been a mystery to her for so long and to actually slowly start to feel she was becoming up to date on her current events felt kind of good, even if she always had spent minutes afterwards trying to get rid of the guilt and the fear some of the more gruesome goings on left her with.

Quickly rinsing off the plate and making sure the doors and windows were locked and everything was switched off, she tiptoed back up the stairs, making sure to be as quiet as she could, even though Edward was still dead to the world when she slid into the bed, shifting until she found his warmth. Her body curled around his sleeping form as she fell almost immediately into a dreamless sleep, the exhaustion of the sleepless night behind her and the events of the day finally catching up.

It was still dark, the vibrant red numbers on the alarm reading 'middle of the night' when a wandering hand woke her up, the pressure of Edward's erection, thick and long, against her backside leaving her no doubt of his intentions as one of his hands fondled her breasts, his fingers slipping underneath her camisole while the other dipped beneath the waistband of her sleep pants.

"I need you," he whispered hotly into her neck, his wet kisses scorching against her skin as he tugged her sleep pants and underwear down and out of the way as he kicked himself out of his own, his fingers moving her to readiness as he thrust his hips into her backside, sending Bella into an almost sensory overload with the way he kept on kissing every available bit of skin.

"Have…me," she panted, pushing back against him.

She had tears in her eyes when he entered her, a loud gaspy moan leaving her throat as he moved slowly – torturously so – while his hands caressed and loved and his lips kissed and whispered more love into her ears.

After everything that had happened that day, it was such a relief to have him back with her and be connected again in the most intimate way and just to know he loved her still.

That nothing had been broken beyond repair, though they each still bore their scars.

When they collapsed, completely sated and worn out, next to each other, their bodies immediately scrambled to find one another again, his arms pulling her against his chest as she settled her head on his pecks, one hand over his heart as he ran his lithely through her hair. "Everything's going to be alright," she muttered, not quite knowing if she was talking to him or to herself.

"I'm sorry for checking out like that earlier," he spoke, his voice still bearing the traces of his grief. "It's just…the pain became so overwhelming when it came out that by the time I was done, I had nothing left inside me anymore."

"I was a bit worried at one point," Bella admitted, downplaying her own fear and worries so as not to make him feel even guiltier, "but I'm so proud of you, Edward."

"I should have done this a long time ago," he answered, his disappointment with himself still shining clearly through in his voice. "I should have mourned her openly, like a man, instead of keeping it all hidden and bottled up inside."

"You went with what you thought was the only bearable option for you in that moment," Bella argued. "I'm not saying it was the right one but I understand why you made that choice."

"I will never be able to undo what I did." Bella wasn't sure if he was speaking about the accident that claimed Claire's life or the way he'd handled things afterwards. "But things are going to be different from now on. No more hiding."

She reached up, craning her neck to place feathery kisses along his jaw. "No more hiding."

Edward chuckled as she couldn't stifle her yawn in time, his lips pressing to her hair as his arms folded around her, making her feel safer and more secure than she ever had. "Sleep," he whispered, the even rising and falling of his chest and the warmth of his body soon lulling her back into oblivion.

When she woke again, it was to Edward placing butterfly kisses all along her naked shoulder, a faint light ghosting through the curtains as she blinked. "What time is it?"

"It's time to get up," Edward chuckled, a disgruntled whimper unstoppable as the warmth of his lips left her skin as he threw his legs over the other side of the bed.

Alright, then.

With another deep, unhappy sigh she threw the covers back, her body protesting against the cold as she quickly slid into her warm, fluffy slippers and the comfy sweatshirt she'd stolen from Edward. Casting another wistful glance at the bed, she slipped downstairs, hoping she would get breakfast done in time for Edward to get out of the shower.

After everything that happened the day before, he deserved something special.

And seeing as he probably hadn't eaten anything after yesterday's lunch, he would probably be famished too.

She was right.

The huge grin that graced his mouth as he thundered down the stairs made her heart speed up, his boyish pleasure as he scooted the stack of chocolate chip pancakes in his direction so far removed from the anguished man she'd put to bed the previous night that it was hard to believe it had all happened.

"God I love you," he groaned around a huge bite of breakfast, his hands already busy slicing off another mouthful.

"Yeah, yeah," she chuckled, her own breakfast of tea and oatmeal looking slightly less appealing, though the fresh fruit she'd sliced on top of the oatmeal did look rather nice. Still, as much as the pancakes made her mouth water, the memories of what it felt like to revisit your meal were still too fresh in her mind to risk it. The morning sickness might have gotten better since she started to follow Doctor Amun's diet but that didn't mean it had completely gone.

Which was why there was no bacon.

The smell of it alone…

She was still in a happy mood as she sat in class, even though she completely failed the math test, as she already knew, and her nerves started to build up as the morning advanced and the moment they would be given the keys to their new home drew nearer.

She was excited to walk in there and know it was her house – their house – but still…

It was such a big place and it needed some work before they could move in, as well as a whole lot of new furniture to go with the classy, historic look and feel of the place. Edward had made no secret of his aversion to get involved in the decorating and furnishing of the house, claiming that it would only be fair if she got to decide what the place would look like since she would be spending the most time at home out of the two of them.

It made sense, of course, but at the same time, Bella felt that it wasn't completely fair to dump everything on her.

What if he didn't like it?

What if she made all the wrong decisions and ended up with crappy builders who ripped her off and left her with a house lying in ruins?

Would she be able to get it all done before the baby would be born?

A part of her wanted to move out of their old house and away from all of the bad memories connected to it as soon as she could but she didn't want to risk bringing their baby home to a nursery that wasn't completely safe and utterly perfect.

She sighed, pressing her lips into a hard line as she got into her car and punched the directions into her GPS to the little café she was supposed to meet Carmen, the soothing voice giving her directions and the distractions of downtown traffic soon calming her mind as she navigated to the little eatery on Michigan Avenue, slap bang in the middle of the bustling city center.

Her cheeks were red from the cold as she made her way inside, Carmen immediately jumping up to pull her into a warm, motherly hug as she greeted her. "You look so good, querida." She smiled, holding Bella at arm's length to get another look at her. "Pregnancy suits you very well."

"Thanks," Bella muttered, still a little uncomfortable with the topic even though she had long since accepted and embraced the little bean growing inside her. "It's not so bad now that I'm not puking every day."

"When's your next appointment with the OB?" Carmen immediately wanted to know. "You have to get some pictures for me when they do your first ultrasound. I want to know what my grandbaby looks like!"

Bella snickered, the mental imagine of young and vivacious Carmen being a grandma so surreal she could hardly picture it, though the enthusiasm with which the other woman had adopted the child as her grandbaby warmed her heart and almost made her cry.

If only she could have been Edward's real mom…

"So," Carmen got right down to business, her excitement buzzing to the point where she could barely hold still until their waiter had helped Bella into her seat and taken their drinks order, "are you excited to pick up the keys to your new home today?"

"Part of me definitely is," Bella nodded pensively, "but a part of me is scared to death of all the responsibility it brings, getting everything done perfectly and in time for the baby."

"You should call Esme," Carmen suggested, the simplicity of the solution completely baffling Bella. Now why didn't I think of that? Oh, yes, I barely know the woman, that's why.

"I don't know," she mused. "I don't know her all that well and she's all the way in Washington. I doubt she'd want to leave her family for something like this."

"I think you'd be surprised, mi hija." Carmen smiled, quickly rattling off her order to the waiter as he came back with their drinks. "From what I've heard, she and Carlisle are contemplating a move back here since Jasper's almost done with high school and poor Rose is starting to get more and more fed up with her mother's childish behavior. They want to make a fresh start."

Bella nodded. She'd heard bits and pieces of what was happening in her old stomping ground but to be honest, she had not paid attention to Edward's updates of that part of his family the way she should. Happy as she had been that week she'd spent under Carlisle and Esme's roof, the memories of Forks were still too painful for her to linger on them long.

She'd tried to keep in touch with Rose at first but conversations through e-mail had become few and far between as both Rose and Bella got immersed in their new lives and apart from that, Bella had soon gotten the idea that Rose had been editing in her happy accounts of life in sunny California.

And now she knew.

"Okay, I'll try," she ceded, wondering how Edward would react if she discussed it with him. "It will be great to have some help with all of this because, frankly, I don't know where to start." She smirked, trying not to become overwhelmed again. "How do you feel about Jasper moving here in a couple of months?"

"Completely freaked out?" Carmen offered, calming herself with a deep breath in and out. "Honestly I should be proud of my daughter for growing up and choosing a good boy to fall in love with – because I think he is a nice boy from a good family, even though it's weird since he's practically family and all, but blood." She fell silent, her fingernails tapping against her glass as she smirked. "The other part of me though…"

Bella sympathized as Carmen made a face. She couldn't even imagine what it would feel like to have the little bean growing inside of her all grown up and ready to date.

Even without the weird, almost incestuous situation, what with Jasper being Esme's stepson, it had to be hard on a mom to let go and know that your little baby was going to explore the kind of things only grownups were supposed to do.

Yeah. Bella protectively cradled her stomach. That's not going to happen.

"There's no stopping Alice, though." Carmen sighed wistfully. "And at least knowing Esme, she will make sure the boy behaves himself, which is why I'm particularly enthusiastic about the moving plans, as you can imagine."

Bella giggled. "I sure can." With two moms and the rest of the family cramping their style, there was only so much mischief those two could get into.

"Back to you, though," Carmen directed the conversation. "Have you decided about Alec's offer yet?"

Bella shook her head, quickly updating an increasingly baffled Carmen on everything that had happened the previous day. "…so I didn't really have the time to think about writing a book and trusting a creepy guy," she finished, that same sense of discomfort creeping up on her the minute her thoughts wandered to Alec.

"Wow, Bella," Carmen gasped, reaching out to take both of Bella's hands in hers, squeezing them over their half-eaten plates of food. "This is huge! After Claire died and Edward fell apart, we all tried to get him out there just so that he could grieve, because it was clear that he wasn't allowing himself to do that, but he always turned us down until, in the end, we kind of stopped trying." Her eyes were full of awe as they landed on Bella. "I knew you'd be good for him."

"He would have made it out there eventually," Bella shrugged, awkwardly playing with her cutlery. "And it's not like it solved everything…but it's a start."

"What did he say about Alec's proposal?" Carmen, sensing Bella's discomfort, asked. "You did tell him about it, right?"

"Of course!" Bella snickered, guiltily remembering the fiasco with the notes. Funny how they just stopped as soon as the police got involved. Feeling herself pale at the thought of some random psycho note-sender still out there, she got back to the topic at hand. "He's been giving me total freedom in this, which is actually more frustrating than if he would have been overbearing about me accepting or declining."

"So what do you think?" Carmen's head cocked to one side, her brown eyes curious as they waited for Bella to answer.

"I'm not sure," she admitted. "Part of me thinks it might be good to get it all out there – you know? – but another part of me just doesn't trust Alec. I don't know if my story will be in safe hands with him."

"You should Google the guy!" Carmen suggested. "If you still don't feel sure about whether or not you can trust him, there's no way of finding out more about someone than to punch his name into a search engine and see what comes up."

"I might do that." Once again, the simplicity of Carmen's suggestion was only eclipsed by its usefulness. "I'm also going to discuss it with my therapist, I think."

"Your therapist?" Carmen smiled proudly. "You mean you've made an appointment?"

Bella nodded, equally as proud. "You were right about this Zafrina person. She's a bit strange but I really felt a click when I talked to her on the phone so I'm going to meet her on Friday."

"Wow, look at you!" If Carmen's beaming smile would have been any wider she would have been glowing. "You and Edward have both come such a long way. I'm so proud of both of you!"

Bella blushed shifting uncomfortably under all of Carmen's praise. The other woman was right, though: they had both come such a long way since the beginning. The thing was, however, that they still had such a long way to go.

The rest of their time together was spent chatting about smaller things, with Carmen sharing stories about her latest charity projects and her frustration with Alice, who had become even more glued to her phone and computer now that Jasper's move to Chicago was getting closer and closer.

As for Bella, she talked about her pregnancy; the aversion to certain foods she'd picked up and her worry that her stomach still seemed to be as flat as a pancake even though her breasts seemed to be swelling up. Staring really hard at herself in the mirror she sometimes thought she could see the tiniest of protrusions extending from her belly, but at other times, it seemed like a mirage. From the front, her stomach still seemed as flat as it had been months ago and it was really starting to worry her.

"Don't worry, darling," Carmen soothed, her cool hand stroking Bella's cheek as they stood to get back into their coats. "Everything will work out in its own time. It's still early days in your pregnancy and every pregnancy is different. I didn't start showing until the eleventh week when I was pregnant with Alice and I was just as worried as you are even though my doctor swore she was growing just the way she should." She smiled, pulling Bella into another comforting hug. "Have you spoken to Edward about this?"

Bella shook her head. "Not yet. I wanted to wait until my doctor's appointment on Monday before I worried him."

"Talk to him," Carmen pressed. "He's a doctor so, even though he doesn't specialize in it, he knows a thing or two about babies and, even if he didn't, he loves you. Let him help you."

"I'll try." Bella sighed, absentmindedly rubbing her stomach. It did kind of feel like there was something there. If only she could really see it was truly growing inside her womb.

"When it comes to pregnancies, men are standing by the sidelines enough as it is," Carmen pressed, linking her arm with Bella's as they exited the café and made their way back to the parking garage nearby. "You have to involve him in as much of the things you are going through as you can, Bella, especially with something like this, where he can actually do something as opposed to stand by and look hopeless."

"I'll talk to him," Bella promised, though in her mind she was determined not to bring it up unless Edward was still in a good place where it came to his own troubles. She wasn't about to dump more worries on his plate, especially if, according to Carmen, it was just silly 'first-time-pregnancy worries'.

Back in the car, with some of Edward's mellow jazz on the sound system, her excitement started to grow again as she slowly made her way through traffic back to the Lincoln Park neighborhood, knowing that instead of just driving by the place and imagining what it would be like when they finally got the keys – like she'd been doing more and more as they got closer to getting them – she would actually get to go inside and walk those floors she now only had faint memories of.

It would be her house. Their home.

She was positively buzzing by the time she parked her car in front of the house, an extra spark of happiness igniting in her chest when she noticed that Edward had done the same. Finally a home where he can enter and exit from both sides without being struck by bad memories!

His smile was radiant as he reached out to give her a hand, wanting to take no risks helping her up the steps towards the front door. "Are you ready?"

Bella nodded furiously. "Why didn't you go in?" She frowned, looking at Peter and Alistair who stood off to the side.

"I wanted to wait until you got here," Edward answered with a slight shrug. "It's kind of a big moment, you know? We're crossing the threshold of our new place for the first time and I didn't want to do it without you."

She smiled, feeling the corners of her mouth pull against the wideness of it. "I'm glad you waited." She giggled, rising to her tiptoes to kiss his lips. "But just so you know: if you even as much as try to carry me over the threshold, I'm going to puke all over you."

And she wasn't kidding, because as stable as her stomach felt at that moment, she knew better than to make any sort of sudden moves so shortly after a meal.

Edward pouted, looking adorably boyish as he peeked at her through his eyelids. "Please?"

"Nope." Bella shook her head. "But you're free to hold my hand."

"That'll do." He grinned, grabbing hold of her right hand as if he was afraid she was going to withdraw the offer, the intensity of his green eyes as he brought their joined hands to his lips making her wobble on her feet.

"Guys?" Peter scrapped his throat as he encroached on their private moment. "How about we get this show on the road?"

Bella nodded eagerly, her hands shaking as Alistair handed her the keys. "I think you'll have to do it," she chuckled, relinquishing the keys to Edward, "or we'll be here until midnight."

"We'll do it together," he offered, pushing the key in the lock before transferring their still-joined hands to the small piece of cold metal, Bella's heart hammering in her chest as it turned and clicked, making the door jump open just a little.

Home.

Sure, the place didn't smell like home just yet and their footsteps as they cautiously stepped into the foyer sounded hollow in the empty space but the connection was there already.

"No regrets?" Edward asked, his arm encircling her waist as he came to stand next to her.

"None!" Bella beamed. "Now go sign the last of the paperwork while I relish the moment."

She chuckled as he scurried off, knowing as well as he did that this whole exchange ceremony was just a formality; a production more for the sake of sentiment. All the important documents had already been signed and notarized and all dealings with the former inhabitants closed.

This was just the icing on the cake.

She closed her eyes as she let her hand glide along the smooth mahogany of the ornate banister, seeing images of children running down the stairs and Edward carrying her up late at night.

Family.

They were going to become a family in this house.

The thought of that alone, being part of a family when she couldn't even remember what that felt like, made her cry silent, happy tears as her hands clenched around the firm, warm wood as if to soak that rose-colored image of the future up and absorb it into her skin.

"Angel?" She looked up to find Edward standing in the doorway to the kitchen, his eyes slightly apprehensive but full of love and…pride? "We need you in here."

He waited until she'd joined him, wrapping his arm around her again as they walked into the kitchen, the one part of the house that was a letdown as far as she was concerned. Too modern for such an amazing historic building.

"I don't like what they've done in here either," he whispered, always managing to read her thoughts in some strange, almost creepy way. "We'll change it."

"Won't that be a shame?" Bella gasped. "It's almost brand new."

"We could always see if we can sell it or something," Edward shrugged, obviously not seeing anything wrong in ripping out a brand spanking new, fully functioning kitchen just because he didn't like it. "It's got to go, though. I know you agree with me."

Bella guiltily admitted she did, the wastefulness still striking her as wrong even though she could already see a kitchen more in character with the house taking shape in her mind. "So, what did you need me for?"

"Your signature next to mine," Edward stated. "I want you to know that, whatever happens, you will always have a home here." He chuckled, running his free hand through his hair. "Though, of course I hope I'll always be living here with you."

"I hope that too," she muttered, a big old lump forming in her throat at the thought that she would be co-owner of this amazing place. It was…surreal, to think that even though she had come from nothing, now had almost everything she could have ever dreamed of and more.

Her signature was the last thing needed to finalize their purchase, Peter and Alistair wisely slinking off the leave the couple to bask in the amazingness of their own new place.

Bella bit her lip, her eyes huge as she took a few steps. "It's ours now." She felt like doing a little dance…and so she did; her stomach mercifully cooperating as she twirled around the kitchen like a complete lunatic, stopping only when her body collided with Edward.

"We're home," he chuckled, his strong arms lifting her up and setting her on top of the worktop, the cool granite doing nothing to quench the fire his stare ignited in her being. This man…

His lips found hers hungrily, her legs closing around his waist as she pulled him nearer, deeper, closer, until they were as connected as they could be with their clothes still forming a barrier between them.

It wasn't long afterwards that they officially 'christened' their new home.


Thoughts?