Notes: Huge thanks to Alice's White Rabbit and Kherisma for wrangling my wayward words. I heart them both so much.

I wanted to tell either a Christmas or New Year's Eve story this year, and this is what I came up with.

On the Stroke of Midnight

I'm supposed to be happy. I'm pretending to be. The problem is, I've never been very good at lying. Apparently, three hours of faking it is my limit.

I did what I was supposed to, I got dressed up for a party I didn't want to go to. But when it came time to leave, I stood in front of the mirror in my apartment and wondered if anyone would notice if I didn't show up. I look good. My hair is pulled back in a sleek ponytail; the ends spiraled in a loose, thick curl. My eyes are darkly lined and my lips are red and glossy. Skinny black pants and a tan sweater scattered with tiny gold sequins are appropriately festive. I may look good, but I don't look happy.

I'm not happy.

But I paste a smile on my face anyway and grab a black leather jacket and my purse before I head out the door. My friends would notice if I didn't show. And they'd probably send someone to check on me.

For a while, the smile on my face is fairly believable. I drink. I laugh. I chat. I see their pitying smiles when they think I'm not looking. So I laugh harder, fake it more. It's New Year's Eve; no one wants to see me moping in a corner. When the tears finally threaten to spill over, I escape onto Rose and Emmett's balcony with my drink. I've had four vodka tonics and am well on my way to demolishing a fifth. I know this is stupid, I'm only going to get more depressed and maudlin, but I can't help myself.

No, I don't want to help myself. A part of me welcomes the self-indulgent misery. I want to wallow in it. I feel like I deserve at least that much. I want to go home to my empty apartment and cry until there are no tears left. But I've done that every night for the last month and a half. Everyone wants me to just snap out of it; as if this is something I can just move on from. It's over, and I'm not ready for it to be. I can't accept the fact that it is.

He's here. I can hear his voice spilling through the window that's been left open a crack. The apartment is hot and in my short-sleeved sweater, I was very comfortable inside. I realize that the outside air is frigid, and I won't be able to stay out here long dressed the way I am. I drain the last of my drink and contemplate running in to grab another, along with my jacket. It's almost midnight and I want to be back out here so I won't be forced to stand alone in a crowd while every other couple kisses and wishes each other a Happy New Year. I can't do it. Not with him standing in the crowd or worse, kissing someone else.

If he met someone else, I don't think he'd flaunt it in my face but I don't know. Maybe I don't know him at all anymore. Nine years. We made it through college, starting our careers, moving in together for nine years. We made it through stupid fights and silly misunderstandings for nine years. But we can't make it through this.

Our families are grieving, our friends bewildered. Our lives are so intertwined, I have no idea how we'll ever untangle them. I'm friends with his sister; he's friends with my brother. They're dating each other. They're trying to support us both without taking sides, but it's hard.

He looks good tonight. Too good. I've always liked him dressed a little preppy. He's wearing a crisp white shirt with grey pinstripe pants and a black sweater. And he's wearing the glasses. The glasses I helped him pick out. They're matte black, metal frames that emphasize his high cheekbones and the incredible planes of his jaw. I hate him for it. I hate him for looking so good, and being such an asshole.

I hate him for breaking my heart.

I hear the sliding glass door open, but I don't turn my head, figuring it's just someone who wants to sneak a quick smoke. It isn't until I smell the scent of the cologne I bought him last Christmas that I realize I'm in trouble.

"You look good," he says quietly.

I don't answer. I don't have anything to say. Or at least not anything productive. It will devolve into a screaming fight like every other time if I do.

"You're not happy, though," he adds.

I whirl around to face him, and try to steel myself for the shock of seeing him, but my breath catches anyway. He's so beautiful. He'll always be heart-stoppingly beautiful, and I will never, ever be over him. Not even after I've moved on. I swallow the thick press of tears that clog my throat at the thought of moving on from him. It seems impossible, but logically, I know I will. Someday. Eventually.

I know I need to. He can't give me what I need and we've done this for long enough. I've wasted nine years of my life on a man who can't commit. I can't keep doing this to myself when I know that I'm someone who needs the goddamn ring. I hate myself. I want to be fine with spending the rest of my life with him without the ring, but I need it. And he can't give me that. Won't. I don't really know which.

"Did you really think I was just going to move on and be okay after just six weeks, Edward?" I snap. "Of course I'm not happy."

He snorts, derisively. "You're the one who ended this."

I close my eyes; we're already at the point where we've been a thousand times before. Where we scream and fight and my heart breaks all over again. Where I desperately wish I'd never met Edward Cullen. And then I hate myself for thinking that blasphemous thought. We were so happy. So goddamn happy for nine long years.

I want to blame his Great-Aunt, Edith. She was the one who cornered us at Thanksgiving over the appetizers and unknowingly, unleashed the words that ended our relationship.

"So, when are you two getting married? It's about time, don't you think?" she teases. I blink in surprise, and laugh awkwardly, not really sure how to answer the question. I want to marry Edward, but I haven't been in any hurry up until now. We've been so busy with school, our careers, and moving in together that we haven't really discussed it.

Edward chuckles and wraps an arm around my shoulders, pulling me back against his chest. "Now, I know what you're going to say, Aunt Edith, but I'm just not the marrying-type of guy. I love Bella, and she knows that. What's the point in some ridiculous wedding to prove that we're together? We're just fine, as is."

He kisses my temple as my stomach drops and the room spins. How have I been with this man for so long and not known this?

I try to laugh it off and deflect her probing questions, but after Aunt Edith leaves, I turn to Edward. "Do you really mean that? You don't want to get married, ever?"

He shakes his head. "After what my parents went through in their divorce, I don't think so."

Edward's parents divorced his senior year of college and it was a messy, nasty dissolution. Separately, Elizabeth and Carlisle were lovely people, but they're a nightmare together. They're each seeing other people now, and although the family get-togethers are awkward, it's for the best. It was non-stop screaming for the last three years of their marriage.

"But we've never been like them, Edward. I … I can't believe you feel that way," I say numbly.

By the end of the day, I'm in tears and I cry the whole way back to our apartment. We fight in the car, on the stairs up to our apartment, and once we get inside. We fight for three days. I'm reduced to begging Edward to marry me, and then hating myself for being that pathetic. But he won't budge. And this is something I need. By the end of the next week, we've officially broken up and Edward is living with his brother, Riley. I'm all alone in our empty apartment, trying to find someone to sublet, because there's no way I can afford it on my own. Once I accomplish that, I'll rent a small studio for myself. I don't want to do any of this, but what choice do I have?

"Bella?" Edward's voice breaks me from my memories and I shiver, realizing how cold I am. Before I can protest, he wraps a soft blanket around my shoulders. He must have brought it out with him. I hate that he's still thoughtful and that he still cares. I hate that I can't step forward into his arms and have him keep me warm. And I hate that no matter how much I try, I can't really hate him. No matter how hard I pretend. I'm angry and hurt, and still a little shell-shocked by our breakup, but I can't hate Edward. I can see from the lines on his face and the circles under his eyes that he's miserable, too.

I tug the blanket more firmly around me and whisper a thank you. He nods, and we stand there just a few feet apart, staring at each other. From inside, we hear the countdown to midnight begin and the cold air nearly crackles with tension. He wets his lips and in the warm, amber light streaming out the crack in the door I can see the soft curve of his lower lip. It's always been so kissable. I can still remember the party we met at and the sweet way he asked if he could kiss me for the first time. I know exactly what those lips feel like against mine.

The need for him tears into me, and my vodka-soaked brain finds it completely natural to close the distance between us. He breathes my name when the countdown reaches one, but neither of us wishes each other Happy New Year. Our lips are already pressed tightly together.

The kiss is hot and wet, desperate need fueling the frantic way our tongues tangle together. I moan at the familiarity of his kiss and the sweet completion of his arms around me. I miss this. I need this. I'm still angry and hurt, and I'm drunk. I know this is not a good decision, but I don't care. His arms are so familiar. They feel so right.

"You smell so fucking good," he mutters, and I wonder just how drunk he is. I know we'll regret this later, but I press more tightly against him, feeling the thick length of his cock already hard against my thigh. Attraction to each other and sex are two areas Edward and I never struggled with.

His hand slides under the blanket, cold fingers skimming underneath my sweater and curling around my hip as he pulls me closer. I shiver, but I don't know if it's from his icy touch or the heat that's building inside of me.

"I want you," I plead.

He grunts and tears his lips from mine. He maneuvers us onto the deck chair that I know Rose uses to lie out on in the summer. I settle onto his lap, clumsily straddling him and pulling the blanket over us both. The noise of the party recedes as I lean in to kiss him again. The kisses are deep now, hungry. The air around us is frigid, but in the little cocoon I've made for us is warm and cozy. I push away the thoughts that this is my ex-boyfriend I'm kissing. That this is only going to muddy things, and make me feel worse. I don't protest when his hand slides under my bra and his thumb toys with my nipple. He knows my body and that his touch takes me from zero to sixty in no time at all.

I lean back and fumble for the clasp and zipper on my pants, needing them off me. Needing him in me. I can't wait another second. Since we first slept together nine years ago, this is the longest we've ever gone without being intimate. Six weeks is a damn long time.

His fingers are suddenly inside my pants and underneath the delicate fabric of my underwear. Did I subconsciously know I'd see him tonight? Did I know this would happen? Is that why I put on the sexy, sheer black panties and matching bra? When his finger brushes my clit, I don't care if I maybe, kind of hoped this would happen. All I care about is feeling connected to him again.

All reason is gone as I grasp his cock, slipping it out through the fly of his pants he must have unfastened. He grunts when I encircle it with my hand and begin to stroke. His fingers grow more insistent. Like always, I'm wet in moments, my body so, so ready for him. He makes me come with his fingers before he ever slips inside me. My hand stops moving on his cock as the pressure of his two fingers thrusting in and out of me, and his thumb on my clit send me spiraling over the edge. I'm still gasping and my head is swimming when he pushes my pants down lower on my legs. He's careful not to let in too much cold air, but it still sneaks in under the blanket. My sides of my thighs are freezing as I sink over him, taking his heat inside of me. We both still. I wonder if this is the last time I'll ever feel him like this, ever slide my fingers through his hair and taste his lips. We pause like that, lower bodies joined, upper bodies pressed tightly together as our tongues lick and stroke. He does the thing he always does and flicks his tongue against the sensitive spot in the middle of my upper lip. I gasp and my hips begin to move.

I can't help it. I gasp and he groans and the familiarity makes me want to cry. My forehead drops to his shoulder and he briefly strokes my hair before his hands move to encircle my hips. I know this rhythm, the sweet slide of him that makes my body come alive. I know the aching want, but the bittersweet desperation is new. My heart aches as I rise and fall over him, saying goodbye with my body even as I race toward climax. I don't want this to end but I can't stop myself. His hands are so large and eager on my hips, sliding across my back, trying to pull me closer. I know Edward is as affected by this as I am. My orgasm is staggering, streaking through my body so fast I can barely catch my breath. He shudders against me moments later, the sounds of his release low and guttural.

We're both a panting, gasping, exhausted mess when we finally come down. He strokes my hair and neither of us shift even an inch apart. Once we do, this will be over. I bury my forehead against his neck, nuzzling into my favorite spot where I fit just so. Can this really be the last time I'll ever feel this with him? I let out a choked sob and he whispers soothingly against my hair. I know he can feel the moment I begin to cry. Tears dampen his shirt, and I am sure he can feel me shaking.

"Don't," he says roughly. "Please, love, don't cry."

His words make me angry, because I know it may be the last time I ever hear him call me love, and I can't bear it. I sit up abruptly and move to disentangle myself from his arms, but he pins my thighs down against his with his large hands. "Don't go. Wait, Bella, there's something I need to say."

I shake my head; I don't want to hear it again. I can't bear to hear him tell me he loves me one more time. It won't change anything. I shift in his lap, lifting off his cock, unable to meet his eyes. I shift to pull my pants back up and he sighs, following suit, tucking his spent cock away, and zipping his pants. When I go to stand he stops me again, his hand warm against the cool skin on my forearm.

"Please." His voice is hoarse and desperate, almost frantic and I lift my gaze to his. His eyes are pleading with me, and I concede, staring expectantly at him, wondering what he has to say. He clears his throat once and I realize how nervous he looks. He gathers me close again, this time with my legs draped over his thighs so I'm sitting sideways on his lap. He cups my cheek in his hand and stares into my eyes.

"I love you, Bella. I have loved you for nine years and I will never, ever stop. I made a mistake when I told you that I could never marry you. But, I panicked. I kept picturing us turning into my parents and I had this ridiculous idea that if we didn't get married, it meant we could never end things like they did. But, here we are. It happened anyway.

"I want to apologize, because being apart from you was the worst pain I've ever been in. Worse than breaking my leg and needing to get it re-broken when it didn't heal right three years ago. Worse than any pain I could ever imagine. I hate being apart from you and I don't ever want to feel this way again."

I sniffle and wipe at my tear-streaked face. I open my mouth to speak, but he shakes his head and I let him continue.

"I love you more than my own fears and insecurities about marriage." He brushes his lips across mine. "So, I need to ask you something. Bella, will you marry me?"

It takes me an unbearably long time to process his words and understand what he's asking. He slides a hand into his pocket and pulls out a small black velvet bag. My hands are shaking as they fly up to my mouth, disbelief and shocked-happiness making me gasp loudly. His hands are shaking too as he loosens the drawstring and tips the contents of the bag into his palm. I can't see the ring through my tears but I nod frantically and reach for him.

"Yes, Edward, oh God, yes, I will," I babble as tears stream down my cheeks and I press myself tightly to him. My whole body is trembling and I'm half-terrified I'm lying drunk somewhere, dreaming this. But Edward's hands feel so real as they wipe my cheeks and cradle me close.

Eventually, the crying stops and I feel him gently coax me to sit up again. His hands have stopped trembling, and the ring slides onto my finger, cool and heavy. It's beautiful, modern, and classic all at once. I love it, but at this point, I would have been equally happy with a rubber band, so long as the meaning was there.

"Are you sure?" I ask him. "You won't regret this?"

He shakes his head and uses his thumb to wipe away the streaks of dark makeup that smudge my cheeks. "I would only regret losing you. I will never regret choosing to be with you."

"If you're sure," my voice wavers. I want this, but I can't survive another breakup.

"I am." His voice is strong and steady, and I trust the look in his eyes.

"I'm sorry that I need the ring, and the piece of paper and the ceremony," I say. "I just …"

I'm frustrated. I haven't been able to put into words why they matter so much to me. But they do. To me, they're tangible proof of commitment. Of love, and trust, and hope. Without them, it feels like we're just pretending. Like we have an easy out. Intellectually, I know they don't matter. If we promise to love and honor each other one night while we're out on a walk, it's no less meaningful than in a carefully-orchestrated wedding ceremony. And yet, I can't shake the feeling that they matter.

"How … how does a small, intimate wedding sound?" he asks.

Honestly, I want a big wedding. I want the massive, extravagant celebration of our love. But ultimately, I want to walk down the aisle and see Edward waiting at the end. That is more important than anything else.

"I'll go to city hall if it is what you want," I tell him, and every word is true. He has made a huge gesture for me, this is the least I can do. He relaxes and leans in to kiss me.

The ring is still cool and heavy on my finger, but it feels so right as I reach up to cup his cheek. He lies back on the lounge chair and I follow him, never breaking the kiss.

We kiss for so long, but I feel like I can never get enough. We're kissing deeply, my hand buried in his hair when the door opens. I don't turn to look or separate myself from him at all. Edward is all that matters. The chatter of voices stops and there is dead silence for a moment.

"Huh," my brother, Jasper, says. "Guess they worked it out."

I smile against Edward's lips as people go back inside and I kiss him again. The air is crisp and I know I'll have to unwind my body from his soon so we can go home. We will have to talk more and work through the nasty things we've said over the last six weeks. We'll have to knit our lives back together and repair the tears. But for now, I revel in the promise of the new year and the future that lies ahead of us.

Notes: What do you think? This was one of those stories that hit me unexpectedly and wouldn't let go until I finished. I hope you liked it.