A/N: So this guy takes place a few months before the wedding. Thanks to cejsmom for prereading and Kristina for doing her amazing beta work. And thank you guys so much for reading, reviewing, and just being plain awesome. Hope you enjoy!
The crisp spring air fills my lungs as I shrug out of my jacket lean back on the park bench, watching Masen with a weary smile on my lips. He's jumping through the puddles on the sidewalk, grinning with satisfaction as the light concrete is darkened by splashes of water that are slowly erased by the sun. I'm afraid to look away, and I'm afraid to blink, afraid that I'll miss one smile, one giggle, one moment. It's always so hard spending time with him, knowing that it won't last. Knowing these moments are limited. But today… Today is worse.
Today the melodies are sorrow and despair, today the notes are long drawn and burning of melancholy; today the bright sunlight is clouded by regret.
It differs little from any other day, though it's undeniably worse. Today is worse.
This morning, when I picked Masen up, things had changed. Like the inevitable transition of the seasons, but more permanent, more irreparable, because there was no hope that gentle thaw of spring would eventually cycle back around. This morning, Bella had decided to leave Masen at Esme's so that I wouldn't have to come to her house. So that she wouldn't have to see me. Nobody said what they were really thinking, skirting around the truth as to why it was so difficult, so impossible for us to face one another. But we all knew.
Maybe it was for the best, but maybe I always liked that I got to see her when I came to visit the son that we shared.
Not really, though.
My own son had been terrified of me this morning, clinging to his Grandma, begging to stay and play with her and Grandpa Carlisle. I'm sure I'll always carry it with me – the apprehension on his face, looking up at me like I was a stranger.
Which I practically was.
I knew exactly how many days it had been since I'd seen him last. And as the number climbed past a hundred, I knew this time it had been too long. I knew that this time, he was old enough to know. I knew that this time would be different. I knew, but I couldn't have predicted the icy, wrenching betrayal that twisted in my chest and nearly crippled me when I saw the look on Masen's face and I realized he didn't want to come with me. When I realized that he didn't recognize me. That he was afraid. Of me.
He was supposed to always be the one who greeted me with unabashed excitement. He was the one who was never supposed to hold it against me, how long I'd been away. Even as a toddler, he'd never played shy with me. Not once.
"All kids do it," Esme told me when Masen began whimpering for his mom, her voice laced with sympathy. But it did little to ease my humiliation – I wasn't some uncle that he saw only at Christmas or a family friend who came around once or twice a year. I was his father.
"Mom," I'd choked out and then I realized what a pair Masen and I made – both crying for our mothers.
Esme had just looked at me – her face the same mixture of happiness and pain she always wore around me. Like she was proud of me, but if she'd been able to choose a life for me, this would never be it. Family was everything to my mother, and I'd failed her. I'd failed my family.
Today she wore more pain than happiness.
"Come with us," I'd pleaded. "We're just going to the park."
Esme shook her head. "He's your son, Edward."
"Tell him that," I'd said, trying to sound angry. But my eyes betrayed me with the burning sting of rejection.
It wasn't his fault, the way he was acting. He had done nothing wrong.
"Not everything is beyond repair," Esme said softly, but I'd never doubted my mother more.
We got out to the car, and it took Masen thirty minutes to stop crying for Bella and Garrett. Thirty tortuously long minutes of hearing him wail, "I want my Momma" and "I want my Garrett." And in those thirty minutes, something within me changed. There was a sudden resolve and clarity in the breaths I drew, like I'd just come to a decision that had been haunting me for a long time.
What I had decided though, I wasn't exactly sure.
By the time we'd arrived at the park near my apartment, things had begun to return to their normal rhythm. He gave me a tentative smile when I told him I'd bought ice cream for us to have after dinner, and then he'd told me that Aunt Rose had let him play with dolls last week and Garrett didn't like that and, oh yeah, he'd packed Toy Story and could we please watch it tonight? It's his all-time favorite movie.
"Absolutely," I told him as we got out of the car. I could feel the tightness behind my smile, and I tried, I tried to relax. "It's my all-time favorite, too."
He'd liked that.
But I still couldn't shake the feeling I'd made my mind up about something, even if I didn't know what.
"Daddy, watch!" Masen shouts, and I tug on the brim of my hat and watch as he takes a running start before leaping into one of the biggest puddles. He sweeps his boot through the water so that droplets trail out from the puddle to the ground next to my shoes. I look up at him in mock horror.
He grins, toothy and wide. My heart skips a beat.
The front of his jean are soaked through, and I'm sure his fire-engine red rubber boots are filling with water, but I'm so relieved to see that he's enjoying himself that I don't have the heart to stop him.
I glimpse farther down the sidewalk to where Demetri, bodyguard extraordinaire, sits. His thick arms are crossed over his chest as he casually glances our way, and though he's supposed to blend in, he fails terribly. He probably draws more attention than just Masen and I would on our own. But like Jasper says, better safe than… not. By now, maybe it should feel normal to have security tailing us, but it doesn't. Admitting that you need someone there to protect you and your son for an innocent excursion to the park isn't normal. Dem is always careful to keep a respectable distance and Masen never mentions it, but I know he knows we're being watched.
"Daddy, come splash with me!" Masen says, eyes bright as I get to my feet. I leap towards the puddle next to him, and he shrieks with laughter. I race with him through ankle-deep puddles in brand new sneakers, and it doesn't take long until we're both soaked.
"This is fun," Masen says, looking up at me like he's finally just remembered all the long afternoons we've spent together in this very park.
"It is," I agree. I grin and pat the top of his head, where his floppy red rain hat sits. It matches the boots he wearing – Esme says he hasn't taken them off all winter. She said a girl at preschool told him that she liked his hat, and he's worn it everywhere since.
Somewhere along the way my little kid became a boy, and I missed it entirely.
"Can I push you on the swing?" Masen asks, looking toward the swing set across the playground.
I look down at my feet – my shoes, my socks, everything is soaking wet. My jeans are heavy with water from the calf down. "You're not cold?" I ask him.
He shakes his head. "Nope."
I don't remember being cold very often when I was a kid either. It's not all that warm out and the sand is still wet from the rain, but the sky is clear and the sun is shining. We'll probably dry out soon enough, but I know to watch him, and drag him home and into dry clothes the moment he starts to look chilled.
Besides, I'm not ready to go yet either.
"Okay," I agree. "Let's go."
His face lights up again and he tears across the park, his legs taking him as fast as they can towards the swing set. I tip my head towards Dem before I grab my jacket and jog after Masen.
When I catch up to Masen at the swing set, I let him push me and he watches with amazement at how high I can get. My hat blows off in the breeze and Masen rushes to grab it. I laugh, realizing that somehow I've forgotten how much fun swings are. The smile that spreads across my face feels so genuine that I almost forget the hollow ache that's settled in my chest for the past six months.
"You're as tall as the trees, Daddy!" Masen shouts excitedly as he races back to the swings and climbs onto the one next to mine, legs pumping furiously as he tries to get moving.
"Give yourself a push and lean back when you go back, Mase," I instruct as I swing by. "And sit up when you start to come back up. Make sure you hold on tight." I grin when his face twists up in concentration as he begins to gain momentum. I hop off the swing and the chains rattle behind me.
"There you go!" I cheer, and finally his face breaks out into a proud smile. "All by yourself!" He lets out a cryof delight as he lurches toward sky. I sit back in my swing, leaning back as I squint through the sun to watch him.
It's in that moment that I feel we have an audience, and I tense, watching Masen, trying to absorb everything about him in that moment before I turn around and it ends. I casually pick my hat up from where Masen dropped it in the sand, brushing it off on my jeans before settling it back on top of my head. I dig my sunglasses out of my pocket and roll up the collar of my jacket. I finally chance a look over my shoulder, my shoulders sagging as I sigh.
My cell rings in my pocket, and I know who it is before I even look at it.
"You've got company," Demetri says when I answer.
I sigh. "I saw them. I guess we'll head to the apartment."
"I'll follow you there." I'd try and tell him he doesn't have to, but he would anyway.
"Thanks, Dem," I say and then hang up.
I let out a long breath, chewing on my lip. "Hey Mase?" I finally say as he swings by. "We gotta go, buddy."
"Already?" he looks down at me, frowning, hands still wrapped tight around the chains.
"Yeah," I say as I stand behind him and grab the sides of the swing to slow him down. "I'm sorry."
His feet kick the sand as he looks behind us at the small crowd gathered. There are a group of teenage girls and two moms with their toddlers, and I can see the cell phones in their hands, paying too close of attention. They're trying and failing to look inconspicuous as they close in for a better look.
If it were just the few of them it wouldn't be a big deal. But I know how this scenario plays out. All too quickly one person can become a large group that becomes far too much to handle.
"Can't they go?" Masen pleads, pushing his rain hat back on his head as he glances back at the onlookers.
"They won't," I sigh. I hold out my hand and he hops off the swing. "Come on, I'll race you to the car."
His spirits brighten as he tugs his hat down on his head. "Ready?" I ask, and he grins as I crouch down onto the balls of my feet, like a sprinter at the starting line. "Set…" He takes off before I can say Go!
"Cheater!" I call as I begin to jog after him. He laughs, running wildly through the grass. I catch him just before we reach the car and I hoist him up into the air as he giggles furiously.
"I was gonna beat you, I was gonna beat you Daddy!" he pants.
"Only because you're a little cheater!" I laugh, feeling a thousand times lighter, even with him in my arms.
"Nu-uh! I'm the fastest in the world! None of the girls can catch me at recess." I smile because I used to be fastest too, until I realized that letting that one skinny brunette catch me was far more fun than running away.
When I get Masen buckled into his seat, I'm actually kind of out of breath, my feet still soaked, a smile glued to my face. I start the car and see the teenage girls have given up on trying to look casual and have followed us right to the parking lot. Behind them, more people have begun to wander our way, curious about what's causing the commotion.
I can see Dem standing by his blacked-out SUV, arms crossed over his chest as he waits for us to leave safely. My heart clenches as I look back at Masen, and I can't help but wonder he'll ever know that it doesn't matter how long or short our days together are, it will never, ever be enough.
When we get to the apartment, we change out of our wet clothes and sit on the terrace with bowls of ice cream. I feel like shit for having to leave the park so early so I figured, fuck it, we'll have our ice cream before dinner. I'm all kinds of rebellious. Masen's cross-legged on the ground with his ice cream in his lap, and I'm laying on my side in the sun, the bowl on the concrete next to me. The unrelenting bustle of the city doesn't reach us easily up here, and I try and revel in the calm and quiet.
I watch Masen as he shovels ice cream into his mouth, his eyes roaming over empty flower pots and the withering ivy that snakes up a piece of lattice that leans against the outside wall. The balcony stretches across nearly two entire sides of the building, and yet aside from us, the empty planters are the only other things on it. I think about getting some patio furniture, and then wonder how often I'd really use it.
I like it down here on the ground with him. It feels closer, somehow.
"Daddy?" Masen asks, and I look up at him with my spoon halfway to my mouth.
He tilts his head to the side. "How come you don't live at home?"
I almost choke on my mouthful of vanilla. I swallow and set the spoon back in the bowl as I face him. "What do you mean? This is my home. Well, this is one of my homes."
"Yeah, but. Like, why don't you live at my home? With me and Mommy."
Oh. I clear my throat, and there's this pain in my chest, it burns and twists. "Because…" Shit, what would Bella say? Because your Daddy loves his music more than he loves us? Because your Daddy chose a million people over two?
Because Garrett probably wouldn't appreciate it if I crashed their party?
I swallow hard. "Because your Mom and I –" I clear my throat and try again. "Because Garrett –" I sigh then say quietly, "Because my job takes me all over the world."
Masen frowns then sighs along with me. "I know."
"Do you?" I ask gently.
He looks up at me with wide eyes, and I know this is about something else before he even speaks. "My friend Heather has two dads. And Mommy says that I'm like Heather – pretty soon I'll have my dad and I'll have my stepdad. But I just want my one dad."
"Hey, buddy…. Come here." I frown as I sit up, reaching for him. He sets down his bowl and crawls into my lap. "You know, you're pretty lucky to have two dads. Some people don't even have one."
"Like how Mommy doesn't have a Mommy?"
"Mommy's Mommy is in heaven," I nod. "So kind of like that, yeah. And you get to have me and – and Garrett," my chest constricts but I try pretend like it doesn't turn my heart to lead to say it out loud. I swallow hard. "And I think that makes you pretty lucky."
Masen tips his head back so he can look at me as he speaks. "But when Garrett is my other daddy, I'll still have you?"
"You'll always have me, Mase," I promise him, resting my chin on the top of his head as I hold him against my chest. "No matter what." I start blinking hard as I stare at the sky, and the only thing I can think is I can't let the kid see me cry.
"Can I come with you?" he asks, his voice small. "Next place you go?"
I think about last fall, asking Bella if she and Masen wanted to come out to L.A., come spend some time in my world. I think of that hope I felt, just on the cusp of blooming with the certainty that she'd say yes. I think about how fleeting that hope was, how lightless my world suddenly was with the news she'd told me next.
I'm getting married, Edward.
I'll never forget her voice, the way the words spilled from her mouth. I'll never forget the way I felt, like she told me my best friend had died. I'll never forget that moment, when I realized I'd really lost her for good.
"Not next place," I tell Masen sadly. "But I'll take you one day, buddy."
"Okay," he says quietly, satiated with the promise of eventually.
I hold him tight, wishing I could make it better, wishing I could make it all easier. Then I get an idea.
"Hey," I say gently, "Do you know what I like to do when I'm sad?" Masen pulls away from me and shakes his head, wiping at tears that aren't there.
"Come on, I'll show you." I gather our bowls of melting ice cream and deposit them in the sink as he follows me through the apartment, down the hall and through the wide double doors that lead into the room that serves as an office. I can almost feel the tension drain from my body as I enter the room. I spend a lot of time writing in here. For some reason, I find no lack of inspiration whenever I'm back in Seattle.
This is the one room in the house that feels even remotely like home. Alice and Jas helped me paint it last Christmas, despite Al's insistence that all rock stars should hire interior decorators. We painted the walls a warm gold, and built shelves out of old barn wood. Alice found a guy in Portland who made desks out of driftwood, curved pieces fitted together and smoothed down enough to create a passable workspace. And even though most of my guitars stay in my apartment in L.A., my favorites each have a place on the wall here.
Looking over my shoulder, I see Masen standing inside the doorway, watching me with curiosity.
"Here, sit down," I nod to the antique leather office chair that sits behind the desk and he crawls up. I grab an acoustic guitar off the wall and pull a tall wooden stool around the side of the desk.
"What are you doing, Daddy?" Masen asks.
I take a seat, leaning over the guitar as my fingers gently brush the strings to check that it's in tune. "We're going to write a song," I smile, adjusting a few of the pegs. When I'm satisfied with the sound, I lean back in the chair and face Masen. "What do you want to write about?"
He shrugs, but I can see the excitement gathering on his face.
I hand him a legal pad and pull one across the desk so it's in front of me, and grab a pencil for each of us. "Hmmm…" I say, tapping the eraser against my chin as I look thoughtfully over at Mase. "Let's start with something easy. Tell me something you like. Something you think is pretty."
Masen looks a little shy. "Ummm… Flowers?" he suggests. "Grandma says flowers are pretty."
I nod. "Flowers are pretty," I agree. "But everyone thinks that flowers are pretty. What about something you don't think anyone else would say."
Masen seems to consider this for a moment, then sighs, "Lacy Roberts."
My eyebrows shoot up and I do a double take, trying to hide my amusement. "Lacy Roberts," I repeat once I trust my voice won't sound mocking, writing the name down on the legal pad. Masen mimics me, scribbling something on his own page. "Now, why do you think Lacy Roberts is pretty?"
"'Cause… she's got red hair. And she smells like pickles."
This time I have a hard time disguising my snort of laughter, but I grin as I look up at Masen. "She smells like pickles? I like that."
He smiles shyly back at me as I write it down on the paper. "And she always lets me be doctor when we play house." I keep writing as he tells me more about Lacy. "She can do the most skips in a row on the jump rope, and I build the biggest towers with the blocks so she can knock it over. She always shares her pickle and cheese sammaches with me even though Nathan always asks first." I smile and nod. I guess that explains the pickle smell.
Masen continues, "She stood beside me at class pictures because we're the tallest and she told her mom I'm her best friend."
I look up at Masen, pencil poised just above the legal pad. I kind of have to shake myself, and I have to wonder if Bella has any idea that this was how I used to sound when I talked about her.
"She sounds really nice, buddy," I say softly.
Masen nods, all excited. "She's my best friend, too. Who is your best friend, Daddy?"
I point the eraser end of my pencil at him across the desk. "You are," I say with a wink.
His smile grows. "Can I have two best friends?"
"You can have as many as you want," I tell him.
"Who's your other best friends?" he asks.
"Well… Uncle Jasper. Uncle Ty and Uncle Mark."
"Because you make music together?" Masen asks.
"Are we gonna make music together?"
"Yep," I say, nodding again.
"Mommy is one of my best friends. Is Mommy your best friend too?"
I tap the pencil on the legal pad. "Mommy used to be my very best friend in the world," I tell him softly.
"Exactly like Lacy."
"I hope me and Lacy are best friends when we're old like you and Mommy."
I smile sadly. I want to tell him no you don't, not like me and Mommy. But instead I say, "I sure hope so too, buddy."
After we've filled up an entire page about Lacy Roberts, I pick away at the guitar, singing about Lacy, Lacy, pickles and cheese, you share your sammach though Nathan says please. I sing until Masen is blushing and giggling so hard he nearly falls out of his chair.
When I finally put the guitar away, our laughter has rewritten the gloomiest parts of the day. I swear there's something infinite about music, like it's the purest way to cleanse the soul.
Ty always says that it's magic, but it's so much more than that.
Masen slides from his chair and does a thorough inspection of the office, testing out a few of my other guitars and grinning at the goofy pictures that Carlisle took of Mase and I when he was two. We were painting a birdhouse for him to give to Bella for Mother's Day, and Masen is covered in streaks of reds and yellows and blues. In one of the pictures, he's reaching out and smearing his paint-covered hands over my face, and it was such a beautiful moment that I couldn't care that it took me nearly a week to get the blue streaks off my jaw. Esme had grabbed the wrong paint, and I'd let her explain to Bella why I was returning our son looking like a human canvas of a watercolor painting.
I think Bella was too pleased with the birdhouse to be overly angry, anyway.
When Mase and I leave the office, we play hide-and-seek and cook dinner together, and it's perfect. Like, movie-montage perfect. And as we laugh and play I realize that I feel full, like bursting with happiness. Like I can't handle how big he makes me smile. And I want this, I want to hold onto this feeling, I want to hold onto him just like this.
I want to stay here, like this.
I want to stay.
And like that, it hits me.
I realize what it was that I decided earlier, while listening to Masen in the backseat crying for a man who isn't his father, when I looked into his face and he was staring up at me like I was a total stranger. I realize what I've know all along, what I know every time he laughs, he smiles, he cries. What I've known every time I look at Bella and I see the guarded sadness, the longing and the disappointment. What I've known every time our eyes meet and we're mirrors of each other as we silently wonder what could have been. What I've known every time I close my eyes and see her face, what every memory tells me, the ones I hold on to until I'm trembling and tired and ready to run far from it all.
I'm coming home.