The "Ho Hey" Contest

Story Title: Belong

Pen Name: TheFicChick

Pairing: Edward/Bella

Rating: M

Word Count: 6,057

Beta: HollettLA. (Perfect, as always. xo)

. . .


"Is she yours?"

It all started with a few simple words, but isn't that always the case? Three simple words. There were other three-word phrases over the years – "I love you," "I want you," – and some two-word ones as well – "Marry me," "I do," "I'm sorry" – but every story starts somewhere, and theirs started with those three words.

"Is she yours?"

Edward hadn't even wanted to go to the end-of-the-year beach party. One of the countless reasons he was so relieved that high school was ending was the pending cessation of binge-drinking marathons otherwise known as the weekly Friday night bonfire bashes. And yet as usual, here he is, standing on the sand with a brown bottle in his hand that he periodically tips into the sand to give the impression that he is nursing it slowly. The thin cotton of his t-shirt is already sticking to the beads of sweat dotting the small of his back, and he can feel more gathering on his upper lip and his forehead. The sand under his bare feet is still warm from a long day of baking beneath the sun, and beneath the dull roar of his classmates' voices, he can hear the crackle and pop of the unnecessary fire and the gentle lapping of waves against the shoreline. His eyes scan the crowd until they fall on his reason for coming in the first place: Alice. He is only older by six and a half minutes, but he's never been able to shrug off the protective instinct. And, truth be told, he has a bad feeling about tonight. While he likes and trusts his twin sister's boyfriend, he wants to be there in person in case something goes down. Generally speaking, Alice is the one who fancies herself a clairvoyant, but when something takes root in his mind, he has a hard time shaking it. And so here he stands, pretending to nurse a beer, watching flames lick the inky sky, listening to the ocean and the fire more than he listens to any of the pointless and inane chatter floating on the darkness around him. He shifts his weight, wipes his sweat, pretends to feel something for this gathering other than derision.

He surveys the crowd and his eyes fall on the one face he doesn't recognize: a small slip of a girl, eyes so dark the fire dances in them like a mirror, skin barely a shade darker than the white tank top she wears. White threads of frayed denim tickle the tops of her thighs and her long dark hair is curling in the damp heat. She's talking to Rosalie Hale, laughing and joking, until Rosalie suddenly sprints away, squealing and shrieking as Emmett McCarty tries to catch her. Edward knows as well as anyone else that if he does manage to wrap those meaty hands around her waist, she will receive the same threat-disguised-as-choice he gives all the girls: a kiss or a dip. Edward suspects Rosalie would opt to be dumped in the ocean if only to give Emmett the figurative finger. He dips his head to discard a few glugs of his beer before glancing up again.

His eyes track back to the new girl and narrow when he sees her talking to Jimmy Hunter. Well, "talking" is a loose term: her body language suggests she would like nothing less than to talk to Jimmy, but the boy, true to form, is ignoring all of her nonverbal cues and would likely ignore any verbal ones as well.

Jimmy is bad news and has been since we were kids – the mean-to-animals, zero-fear-of-authority-or-consequences type of bad news that always attracted weaker kids and made the stronger ones give him a wide berth. His unwelcome attention toward Alice had mercifully lessened when she started dating Jasper, but Edward's never been the type to be lulled into a false sense of security. He continues to watch from the other side of the fire, observing as the dark-haired girl takes a few inconspicuous steps away from Jimmy, who in turn repeatedly closes the barely-there distance between them. Her arms have gone from being folded casually across her chest to hugging her own upper body, and when Jimmy reaches out a single finger to touch her bicep, Edward is fairly certain he can see the shudder from his distance of about thirty yards.

He gives up the charade of drinking altogether, tossing his half-full bottle into a nearby trashcan as he picks his way across the sand. When he is a mere ten steps away, he sees Jimmy slide a hand around the girl's waist and she recoils, hands finally falling to her sides and balling into fists as she glares at him and spits something too low for Edward to hear.

"Problem here?" he asks when he's finally beside the stranger girl, one hand in his pocket and the other coming to cup the back of the girl's neck. He feels her freeze beneath his touch, and when she gives no other outward reaction, he deduces that she's weighing her options.

Jimmy, for his part, takes in Edward's possessive demonstration, his eyes shifting from the hand on her neck to Edward's face before squinting through the darkness. "Is she yours?" he asks finally, eyes dancing between Edward and this slip of a girl with wild hair and fire in her eyes.

"Yeah," Edward replies, eyeing her warily before sliding that possessive hand down her back and around her hipbone. "She's mine."

"Sorry, bro," Jimmy offers, tone not quite matching the sentiment, and he casts her a dark look before wandering off, ostensibly in search of someone else to bother.

"So, I'm yours, huh?" she challenges, slipping out of his hold and folding slender arms across her chest once again as she stares up at him, the frizzy wisps of her hair glowing silver in a halo of moonlight while the dancing fire bathes her face in gold.

"There are worse things to be," he replies with a shrug, and for the first time, he sees her smile up close.

In the three long months of summer thereafter, she becomes his in every way that matters: in title, in heart, in body. She feels like his in all the little and not-so-little ways: in the clasp of her small hand in his larger one; in the soft affection in her eyes when they meet his; in the submission of her naked body beneath his own.

"Is she yours?"

When he answered yes, the words were a lie; he had no idea how true they would turn out to be.

. . .

The ring in his pocket is heavier than the laws of physics suggest it should be, and "solitaire" seems like an odd word choice for a betrothal stone. It means so many things – a game to play alone, a solitary gem – but none of them imply togetherness. Still, Alice assured him that Bella's style was timeless, classic, and that a modest-sized solitaire met those style requirements.

His pocket is heavy but his heart is light, and he thinks about the life he has been building with Bella since that chance meeting by a shoreline so many years ago. So much has happened in the in-between – college, jobs, cohabitation – but so little has changed in the way her eyes spark, her skin glows, her hair frames her face like a portrait. Absolutely nothing has changed about what she does to him – the hitch in his breath, the galloping of his heart, the crackling heat in his skin – and he knows that if she says yes tonight, it never will.

As with so many things in life, his grand proposal doesn't go entirely as planned. In fact, it doesn't go anything like he planned, with his car blowing a tire on the highway and them reduced to waiting an hour for a tow truck, meaning they miss their dinner reservation entirely. They make their way back home and, at Edward's dejected face, Bella grins and tells him to stay right where he stands on the welcome mat while she dashes inside and crashes about in the kitchen before reappearing with a bulging reusable grocery bag and the small quilt that they use to sit on at the beach.

"Come on," she says, grabbing his hand in hers and dragging him out to where her junker of a truck sits in the driveway.

"Where are we going?" he asks, still subdued by the rather spectacular derailing of his plans.

"It's still our so-called anniversary," she replies, the engine roaring to life. "We can still have a nice night out together."

He smiles softly as she drives, a firecracker of a girl in a just-too-short dress, bouncing along in the cab of her antique pickup truck with her heels on the bench seat between them. In that moment, his desire to marry her very nearly chokes him.

"Okay," she says, pulling the car off into a pitch-black field.

"Where are we?" he asks, glancing around, realizing that he'd been so intently focused on Bella that he hadn't paid a blind bit of notice to where they were headed.

"Does it matter?" she counters, impish grin tugging at her mouth, and she slips out of the cab, taking the bag and the blanket and leaving her shoes behind. He follows and winds his way around to the bed of the truck where she's spreading out the quilt and climbing up into it. He follows her – would follow her anywhere, really – and kicks off his own shoes and peels of his socks before rolling up the cuffs of his dark gray slacks.

"What are we eating?" he says as he eyeballs the bag, unbuttoning the cuffs of his shirt and folding them back until they are just below his elbows. She plops the bag into her lap and peers down into it.

"Well," she says with a flourish. "We have two slices of leftover cheese pizza, a block of cheddar cheese and some Triscuits, half a tub of baked mac and cheese, or some apples."

He laughs. "Hit me with a slice," he says, and she obliges, taking the second for herself and leaning back on one elbow. He mimics her posture, facing her as they munch on their sorry excuse for dinner in the darkness while stars twinkle overhead.

"Sorry about dinner," he says.

"I think this is pretty freaking perfect, actually," she counters and finishes her pizza before reclining to gaze upward. "I mean, really, how often do you get to go stargazing in the Pacific Northwest? Usually it's too cloudy."

"True," he agrees, polishing of his own slice before settling next to her.

She shifts slightly, bringing her thigh and hip flush with his, and suddenly she cackles. "Really, Cullen? Already?"

"What?" he asks, bewildered, and she rubs suggestively against the hardness in his pocket. "Pizza and pickup trucks really get your motor revving, huh?" She laughs again, adding, "There's a country song in there somewhere," before her hand snakes out to trace the outline. As she does, she rises again to one elbow, a frown on her face. "Wait a minute. That's not you." Her fingers trace the small, hard cube. "What the hell is that?"

He reaches into his pocket and pulls it out, and it only takes a beat for Bella to catch up. "This is my question," he says simply, coming up on one elbow and holding the still-closed box between them. "For you," he clarifies unnecessarily, and even in the darkness he can see the shimmering along her lower eyelids.

She reaches out, curling a warm hand around the back of his neck. "This is my answer," she breathes, pressing her soft mouth to his, and he laughs into her kiss.

"You haven't seen the ring yet," he playfully protests, even as his heart soars, and she chuckles right back.

"I don't care if it's a Cracker Jack ring," she says, somewhat breathless. "I'll still say yes."

"Definitely not a Cracker Jack ring," he replies, pulling back to crack it open. "Still yes?" he asks, eyes serious even as his lips are still smiling.

"Always yes," she answers, plucking the ring from the box.

He slides the ring onto her finger before sliding her out of her dress, and when he slides into her in the back of that rusty pickup truck in the middle of nowhere, he wonders if it's possible that life can always be this perfect.

The phone rings in the soft yellow light of early morning, and he takes a moment to appreciate the glitter of the sun where it hits the stone newly placed on her finger before he untangles himself from the combination of her and bed sheets and answers it.

Before he can even say hello, Alice's breathy whisper comes through the line.

"Is she yours?"

He smiles into the yellow-lit room. "Yeah," he whispers in wonder. "She's mine."

. . .

Enormous tears sit heavy on her lower eyelids, trembling in time with her bottom lip and the thin white stick dancing in her hand. She shakes her head once, quickly, and the motion sets the tears loose, sending them tracking slowly down her soft cheeks. He reaches up with a thumb to wipe them away and her eyes fall closed, freeing another pair of tears as he pulls her into the ring of his embrace.

"It's okay, baby," he murmurs into her hair as he feels her body shake with silent sobs against him. "It'll happen." He makes promises he can't guarantee, and he wonders if this makes him a good husband or a bad one. For two years he's been trying to keep this promise, trying to make it more than a promise, and he tries not to feel like less of a man. Less of a man because he can't stop his wife's tears; less of a man because he can't change the single stripe on that stick to a double one; less of a man because he is failing in this most basic of ways.

"When?" she whimpers against his chest, asking for more promises he has no business making.

"When it's supposed to," he guesses, running his palms up and down the line of her spine, wishing he had a better answer. Wishing, as always, that he had more to offer her.

. . .

Waiting. It seems like they have spent years waiting, and he's tired of being patient. He'd wait forever, he knows, but on days like today he is tired, and sad, and defeated. He watches his sister swing his niece high in the air, hears the toddler's bubble of laughter, watches her cotton-thin wisps of hair glow almost white in the sunlight, and it makes him so happy and so sad at the same time.

He wants this. She wants this.

They want this.

Though they have made peace with the fact that their baby will not have his green eyes or her chocolate hair, they want him or her all the same. Desperately. They are so, so good at loving each other, and they want something – someone – else to love, and yet they are waiting.

Waiting for a condom to break.

Waiting for a one-night stand to have a nine-month consequence.

Waiting for one mother to choose goodbye so another mother gets hello.

They are waiting for someone's unwanted baby to become their very-much wanted baby, and the waiting is very nearly unbearable.

"It's only been—" Alice trails off, squinting in the sunlight as her daughter bends to consider a blade of grass.

"Ten months," he sighs, and the irony is not lost on him. Enough time for them to conceive, grow, and deliver their own baby, if it were possible for them to do so.

Alice's mouth twists and her eyes find his briefly before resettling on her child. "It will happen, Edward. You and Bella will be wonderful parents, and the baby who finds its way to you guys will be the luckiest, most loved baby in the world."

He looks away, his eyes stinging. She's right, and it only makes him sadder.

. . .

The call comes on a rain-soaked Sunday morning as they sit facing each other at the kitchen table, the Times open and in sections on the table between them, twin mugs of coffee with twin curls of steam at their elbows. He finishes reading the sentence he is midway through before rising and crossing the kitchen to snag the receiver from the wall.

"Hello?" he says, mind still on the proposed expansion of the nearby highway.

"Mr. Cullen?"

He frowns, roadwork forgotten at the sound of this stranger's voice in his ear. "Yes?"

"Mr. Cullen, this is Helen Hoover with the Pacific Adoption Agency."

"Oh!" he says, tamping down on the optimism that colors his voice, but he is too late: Bella's wide, hopeful eyes are on his face, and she's always been able to read him like a book. "Yes. Hello."

"Hello. Mr. Cullen, I'm calling because there is a baby girl due to be born next month, and her mother has decided to put her up for adoption. If you and your wife are still hoping to adopt, you have been selected as the recipients."

Recipients. Like it's a package, an ordinary gift instead of the greatest one of all.

"We are," he replies, his voice barely above a whisper.

"Wonderful," the voice says, all business. "You will receive a call upon the birth of the child. The mother has asked for a closed adoption and will be looking to relinquish her parental rights immediately. Of course, there will be a thirty-day waiting period in which she has the right to change her mind, but after that, you and your wife will be the legal guardians and all of the birth mother's legal claims to the child will be terminated."

"Yes," he says, at a loss for any other word. Yes.

"Lovely," she says. "Well, you will be contacted when the birth mother goes into labor. Do you or your wife have any questions for me, Mr. Cullen?"

"No," he says, even as the joyful yes is still pinging around in his mind.

"Great. Well, congratulations."

"Thank you," he replies, returning the phone to the wall and meeting Bella's tear-filled eyes.

"A girl," is all he can say, and when she launches herself at him, he nearly crumbles under the combined weight of Bella and his own relief.

A month. They go from zero to a thousand in that month, painting what used to be his office a pale shade of lavender and buying white-painted furniture: crib, changing table, dresser, glider. Bella launches into a short-lived panic about her inability to nurse a newborn and subsequently spends hours reading books and websites about the best formula, the best bottles, the best cures for colic. They spend the thirty days leading up to the birth steadfastly not thinking about the thirty days that will come after, the month in which they could lose what they've been awaiting for years. Instead, she buys a baby carrier they can wear and enough blankets for ten babies and he irritates a salesclerk by demanding in fine detail all of the safety features of each and every car seat in stock at the baby store. And still, they wait. She buys a nursing pillow and, at his confusion, confesses, "I can't nurse her, but I can at least hold her like I'm nursing her." She looks away, insecurity a pink bloom in her cheeks, and he pulls her close and holds her tighter than he thinks he ever has before, thinks he might love her more in that moment than he ever has.

They cautiously tell their families but otherwise cradle the news close to their chests, deciding they will tell only those who need to know until the thirty-day window has passed.

A month shrinks to weeks, then days, until a ringing phone cuts through the silence of an otherwise unremarkable Saturday afternoon. Their eyes find each other for a beat before he snatches up the receiver. Before he has even returned it to its cradle, Bella is grabbing the already-packed diaper bag, hospital bag, and her purse while Edward searches mindlessly for the keys that are ultimately discovered on the hook where they belong. The drive to the hospital is passed in semi-stunned silence, their only communication the repeated squeezes of each other's hands on the center console between them.

Upon arrival, they wait and they pace and Bella tries valiantly not to feel peculiar at the fact that she's one of the rare mothers who passes the time of her child's birth in the waiting room instead of the delivery room. Edward watches her back-and-forth trek, itching to pull her close but knowing she needs the freedom to move. The coffee from the vending machine in the corner has little effect; he's already far too jittery to succumb to the rush of something as inconsequential as caffeine.

After too many hours, the nurse who has been their lone source of information appears through the door that Edward idly expected would be a swinging door but in reality has a security code and a hydraulic hinge. She is smiling, and Bella grabs this stranger's hands before she has a chance to speak. "A beautiful, healthy baby girl," the nurse says. "If you come with me, I'll take you to a room and we'll bring her in when they're done cleaning her up and checking her over."

Bella releases the nurse's hands to clasp Edward's, and the new parents follow the nurse through the brightly lit hallway, their shoes squeaking on gleaming linoleum as they walk. The nurse pushes open the door to a vacant room and gestures inside. "If you'd like to wait here, I'll go get your daughter."


Edward is glad he's standing beside a hospital bed in that moment, as his knees feel weak and he all but collapses onto the thin mattress. Bella's bright eyes find his and she turns to face him, taking his other hand in hers. "This is it," she whispers, and he leans forward, pressing his forehead to her breastbone and feeling her hands rise to rake through his hair before her arms wrap around his shoulders. They breathe into each other for a few moments, the last few moments of their life as two.

"Here she is," he hears from the doorway, and when his head snaps up, he sees their nurse wheeling in a plastic cot. As it draws closer, he can see a white blanket with a thick pink and blue stripe down the middle wrapped around a squirming bundle; he rises, and as the mobile crib comes to a halt before them, he looks down into a tiny face that is at once so strange and so familiar that he finds it hard to breathe.

It's you, he thinks, but does not say. You. The one we've been waiting for. The one we've wanted. Ours.

He doesn't realize he's crying until a tear splats against the cotton blanket, seeping into the pink stripe, and he hears Bella sniffle beside him. It takes everything in him to tear his eyes away from his daughter – oh, God, his daughter – and look at Bella, whose tears are sliding unchecked down her face, one after the other like a parade. "Can I hold her?" she breathes, her hands clutching each other in front of her chest as if she is struggling not to just scoop the infant up without permission.

"You can do whatever you want," the nurse says gently. "She's yours."

He gives a fleeting thought to tempting fate, but even in his silent mind he cannot deny the truth of her words. And as he watches his wife hold their child for the first time, he thinks his heart might simply burst.

As thirty days speed by, Edward learns a lot about being a father: he learns how to measure formula, how to pat a newborn's back with more force than he ever would have dared to bring forth a burp, how to support a lolling head, how to bathe a slippery infant. He learns how to diaper, how to soothe, how to swaddle. But perhaps the most unexpected lesson Edward learns in the first thirty days of his daughter's life is that of helplessness. He has never felt so simultaneously powerful and powerless, and it makes him equal parts anxious and content. He is powerless to keep her if one person decides to take her, but if anyone else tries to touch her, he knows he will not hesitate to fight. He knows he would fetch her the moon and stars, even as he vows he will never make her promises he can't keep.

Each day, the new family of three waits for a phone call that doesn't come, and while they stop short of drawing giant red x's on the calendar to mark off the days, Edward and Bella are both hyperaware of the significance of a certain day at the tail end of the last week in September. They wait, they hold their figurative breath, and while neither of them has ever been particularly religious, they pray.

On the thirtieth day, they realize they know nothing of the protocol. Edward wonders if they will receive a phone call confirming that their daughter will be their daughter forever; Bella hopes no one calls all day, simply to avoid the moment in which she knows a hot burst of panic will erupt in her chest at the simple ring of the phone. Edward takes the day off, ostensibly because it's Friday but really because if that call comes, he's not going to be anywhere else when it does.

Mid-afternoon, the sun is sliding through the windowpanes in white-yellow slants, and he suggests a walk. She agrees, and he retrieves the strapped baby carrier from the hall closet. He chews his lip as he holds it up. "Do you want to wear her?"

She gives him a soft, knowing smile. "You can," she says, and he wants to shake his head but he can't. Bella helps him get the contraption rigged to his torso, and they slide their nearly-sleeping daughter into it, a dark purple hat that his mother had knit pulled down almost to her eyes. He clips the pacifier leash to the strap and smiles over his almost-daughter's head. "Ready?"

Bella nods and they set out, walking unhurriedly along the sidewalk. They say little, enjoying the crunch of a few already-fallen leaves beneath their feet, and Edward silently prays that when they return home, the light on the answering machine isn't blinking. He prays that a nineteen-year-old girl from somewhere else entirely decides to leave this particular experience in her past, and he prays that this time next year, he'll be watching the tiny infant on his chest take wobbly, drunken-sailor steps toward him. They walk, they pray, and they bask: in late afternoon autumn sunlight, in each other, in her.

They return home and Bella sets about making dinner, but by nearly five p.m., he can no longer take it, and he sneaks upstairs under the guise of taking a shower but as the water runs and the bathroom fills with steam, he pulls out his cell phone and dials the number, his knee bouncing as he counts off the rings in his ear.

"Pacific Adoption Agency, Helen speaking."

"Hi Helen, it's Edward Cullen."

"Mr. Cullen, yes. How are you?"

"Good. Great, thanks. Listen, I was just curious about the protocol…today is the thirtieth day, and my wife and I were wondering if we'd be receiving a call to confirm that the birth mother is officially relinquishing her rights, or…" He lets the rest of the thought trail off into silence, unwilling or unable to lend it voice.

"Well, technically she has until the close of business today to change her mind, which is an hour from now. And I never like to plant false hope, Mr. Cullen, but in my experience if she hasn't rescinded yet, the likelihood that she will in the next sixty minutes is very slim."

"Thank you," he breathes, the words utterly inadequate.

"You're welcome," Helen says. "So if you don't hear from me before six, congratulations. She's all yours."

"Thank you," he says again, his voice barely audible over the comparative roar of the running water.

"It's been my pleasure," Helen says, and he disconnects the call, sitting on the lid of the toilet seat as steam curls around him.

Sixty minutes. Taking a shower will kill about ten of them, but there's a tiny margin of possibility that it could be one-sixth of the remaining time he has to call his daughter his own, and he isn't about to waste it on hygiene. He shuts off the water and descends the stairs. When Bella's eyes track his descent, they are confused for a beat before they narrow in suspicion. "You called, didn't you?"

He nods. "Six p.m."

Bella's gaze moves to the clock on the wall, and he sees her throat move with a swallow. "Fifty-five minutes," she says, and he nods as he lowers himself beside where she is sitting with the baby nestled in the dip between her joined legs, two tiny feet in her palms. "I love her so much," she murmurs, and Edward scoots closer, draping his arm over her shoulders and curling his fingers around her bicep to pull her into him slightly.

"I know," he replies. "Me too."

They marvel at tiny toes, tiny fingers, even tinier fingernails, and the ticking of the clock on the opposite wall is the loudest thing in the room.

"What if…" She trails off, and while they haven't spoken of it in the past month, it hasn't been far from either of their minds.

"I don't know," he says, not wanting to reassure her if he's only going to have to comfort her later. He doesn't tell her about Helen's all-but guarantee; he doesn't have the heart. Instead he sits and he holds his two girls and he hopes furiously. The sunlight shining through the bay window goes from yellow to gold to orange, and the minutes tick by in relative silence.

At 5:50, Maya falls asleep like a child who only just missed seeing the ball drop in Times Square. Edward stares at her face and knows that no matter what happens in the next ten minutes, he will never forget the infinite perfection of her tiny eyelashes or the impossible flawlessness of her miniature features.

At 5:53, his knee begins to bounce. Normally, Bella would still his anxious movement with a warm hand on his leg, but both of her hands are clutching tiny feet, and she isn't willing to let go even for the space of a breath.

At 5:55, the phone rings, and Bella lets out a choked half-sob that pierces Edward's heart with even more brutality than the shrill sound of the phone. When he answers the call – a wrong number – he doesn't know whether to be relieved or furious.

At 5:58, they are both holding their breath, and Bella has taken up rocking slightly, even though their daughter has not stirred.

At 6:01, they are both crying.

. . .

"So this is the upside to not being able to nurse her," comes Bella's soft voice from the doorway, and he looks up from where their daughter is swaddled on the nursing pillow around his waist to find her soft eyes.

"What?" he murmurs.

"Getting to watch you feed her." The glider rocks gently as he watches the baby's tiny mouth work against the bottle nipple, and in that moment, he learns an important lesson that he suspects he will keep learning over and over in the years to come: that fatherhood, in the end, has very little to do with biology. He hears the muffled ring of his cell phone in his pocket, and when he pulls it out, he sees his mother's name staring back at him.

"Hi, Mom," he says softly, still rocking, Bella still standing at the threshold to the nursery with the most beautiful smile on her face.

"Edward," his mother's voice says, more breath than voice. "Edward, is she…" She falters, and he knows the feeling. "Is she yours?"

His eyes move between Bella and his daughter – his daughter now, always – and he feels something release in his chest. "Yeah," he says softly, tucking the phone beneath his chin and moving his hand to the soft downy fuzz on his daughter's head. "She's ours."

. . .

"Not too high, Maya!" he calls, and his daughter gives him an aggrieved pout before she disregards his warning entirely and continues to ascend the jungle gym. Her once white-blond hair has gone more strawberry over the past five years, and the smattering of freckles reminds him of the sparse ones on the skin of his wife's shoulders. Her hazel eyes are entirely her own, and he is ashamed but willing to admit that he once worried that he might think of them as the eyes of a stranger. But as with everything about his daughter, her unique features are just that – uniquely hers. "Maya!" he says again in warning, and she glances over to where he is sitting on the bench, giving her a warning look. She sighs and halts but doesn't descend, instead making herself comfortable on the metal bar and letting her purple high-tops swing freely beneath her.

Edward tamps down on a grin as he observes her talking to the boy who's been following her around the playground for the past hour, watching her climb and run and jump and essentially mimicking everything she does. He thinks perhaps he should dread the day that his daughter is a teenager and boys chase her with entirely different objectives in mind, but he spent so long wanting to have days as a father that he can't not anticipate, cherish, long for every single minute of every single one of them.

Evidently tiring of the little boy's pestering, Maya descends the jungle gym a little too rapidly for Edward's liking and sprints across the rubber ground, launching herself onto a swing belly-first. She pushes herself back and forth a few times before turning and sitting in the seat, pumping her legs with single-minded determination. The sunlight is blocked temporarily by an older woman, and Edward glances up to see her smiling kindly down at him. "I'm sorry, do you mind if I sit here?"

"Not at all," he says, sliding closer to the end to make more room, and she lowers herself gently with a relieved groan.

"Thank you," she says, depositing a large bag on the ground at her feet. She rummages in her bag and pulls out a juice box, fiddling with the plastic-wrapped straw before poking it through the small foil hole and resting the drink on her lap. She sits silently beside him until a child too young to be biologically hers appears to ask for a sip; he feels instantly shamed when he remembers the relative insignificance of biology. His eyes find his own daughter once again, and he can see the chains of the swing going ever-so-slightly slack as she reaches the apex of her trajectory.

"Not too high, Maya!" he calls again, and he thinks he can see her roll her eyes even as her legs stop pumping and stick straight out, her red-tinted hair flying behind her as she swings forward and then obscuring her face slightly as she flies in the opposite direction.

The woman beside him chuckles. "Is she yours?" she asks, all of her wrinkles deepening as she smiles warmly, and Edward returns the smile for a moment before returning his eyes to his daughter.

"Actually," he says, joy in his voice, "I'm hers."

. . .