I spent the next day with Renee. Charlie was nowhere to be seen, presumably taking some time to analyse all the new information he had been given, but my mother was more than eager to see the children again as soon as possible, and also wanted to spend time with me, as that had apparently been her original intention when she decided to come here.
We considered staying home, but then Renee started to worry because she didn't have presents for the children, which reminded me that I hadn't done any Christmas shopping at all and the big day was only two days away. So we got into the shiny new Ferrari that was my 'after' car – an ostentatious vehicle in bright red that I was rather indifferent towards but which Edward insisted I drive – and made the drive up to Seattle for a bit of girl time. Renee chattered happily most of the time, as usual, not really needing me to contribute, but I listened anyway. It had been a while since I’d had a proper update on her life, and I was glad to hear that things were still going well.
Shopping for the family was actually a fairly difficult exercise. I felt I knew everyone well enough to buy their presents without too much trouble, but there was the slight issue that, in a family where everyone had an almost infinite supply of both personal and collective funds, everybody tended to just buy anything they wanted or needed for themselves. Still, I was determined to get something for everyone, so, after leaving Renee browsing through Toys 'R' Us and arranging to meet her there later, I began my quest for Perfect Presents.
Walking through the crowded mall had me a little on edge to begin with, but after ten minutes or so I was sure I had no urge to sink my teeth into anyone around me, and I relaxed. Despite my initial uncertainty, I actually managed to get some good gifts. A book store provided me with an interesting looking history book for Jasper and a collection of old English folk tales for Carlisle; no doubt they both already knew most of the contents, but I hoped they would appreciate them all the same. Then I found some nice bits of jewellery for Rose and Esme; ruby earrings for Rose, and a gorgeous silver charm bracelet for Esme, which I coupled with tiny diamond studded letter charms, one for each of the family's initials. The clothes section of the same department store yielded a deep purple cocktail dress that just screamed Alice and a pretty blouse for Renee, and on my way out I spotted the gifts section, which provided me with Emmett’s present – a teddy bear that growled when you squeezed its stomach that I was sure would make him laugh – and a rather cheesy 'World's Best Dad' mug that I just had to get for Charlie. Sure, it was kind of cheap and over-done, but it meant more than that to me, and I hoped he would realise that. Charlie had been through so much in the last year and a half because of me, and I really wanted him to know I appreciated it.
And so I was left with the biggest challenges: Edward and the children. Toys seemed a little trite; as silly as it was, I wanted to get the kids something meaningful for their first Christmas. Similarly, this was the first Christmas that Edward and I had had together. We'd agreed that I would not moan about him getting me a gift, as long as he let me get him something in return, but what were you supposed to get for the love of your life when he was quite literally the man who had everything? Asking him what he wanted had been no help; he'd just smiled sweetly and told me that he was sure to love whatever I picked out just because it came from me.
I wandered around the mall for a good half an hour and still had no clue what to get for them. Just when I had decided to give up, go meet up with Renee and try looking online when I got home, quite by chance I spotted a little antique store, tucked away in a corner between a Starbucks and a Bath & Body Works. The sign over the door identified it as 'Papa John's Antiques' – an unimaginative name, sure, but I couldn't help the way my eye was drawn, thanks to my new vampire vision, to a beautiful little locket displayed in the window. Intrigued, I decided to go inside and ask about it.
A little bell rang over my head, announcing my entrance, and there was a loud thump and a low curse as someone in the back of the store dropped something in surprise. Pretending I hadn't heard, I started browsing around the shop, which was empty of people but stacked to the roof with all manner of gorgeous old knick knacks. There were tea services, lawn ornaments, jewellery, and a whole corner devoted to old dolls and teddy bears.
An elderly man dressed in a very festive red and green sweater came bustling out of the back room, rubbing his head and trying not to look uncomfortable; clearly whatever he dropped when the bell startled him had landed on his head.
“Hello there Miss,” he said with a smile when he spotted me. “What can I do for you today?”
“I was just looking around,” I replied with a little smile, testing the air and reassuring myself that my control was intact, and very glad of the brown contact lenses that Alice gave me to wear before I went out. “I saw the store and thought I might find some hidden gems. I’m a little stuck for Christmas presents.” I laughed a little, trying to seem embarrassed. Trying to seem human. It was harder than it should have been, given that I was human less than two weeks before, but somehow I managed.
The man smiled, nodding. “Yes, we get a lot of that this time of year. It's a shame that we're often people's last resort. There are so many beautiful unique pieces here that would make wonderful presents. I wish I could say there's never the same stock two trips in a row, but we don't sell that fast.” He laughed at his own joke, not seeming perturbed that I didn't laugh with him. “Have you seen anything that's caught your eye?”
“Well,” I said, feigning thoughtfulness. “There is something in the window that caught my eye. That little locket with the rose on the front?”
“Ah yes! An exquisite find, that. Brought in by a lady whose mother left it to her. She didn't want it, needed the money for something else I think. Can't quite remember. Let me go fetch it for you, feel free to explore a little more.” And with that he bustled off towards the front of the store.
I went back to studying the toys. Some of them were a little worse for wear, but most were very well preserved and quite beautiful. I suddenly found my eyes drawn to a little train set on a shelf near the back. It was larger than most model trains, and looked as if it was made out of tin or some other kind of metal. I wasn't entirely sure what about it had me so captivated, but I went over and gently lifted it down anyway, very aware of the strength I was using so that I didn't break it. There were dents in places and the metal had discoloured slightly around the funnel, but it didn't look too serious. Someone – presumably a former owner – had scratched the letters EM into the bottom of it.
“Now that's a real beauty,” the shopkeeper commented, coming up behind me with the locket. “Picked that one up at an auction in Chicago last summer. Definitely used, but still in working order.”
“Working order?” I asked curiously.
He nodded. “It's an old style of toy train made by a little company in New York around 1910-ish. They went bust during the war, got bought out by someone who turned them over to making munitions, but before that they made the best tin toys money could buy. They were famous for making trains that really worked, moved literally under their own steam.” He reached across to tap the top of the cab. “This little guy has a real working steam engine in him, with a burner and a water boiler and everything. It was an incredible find, still had all the extras too.”
He gestured towards a box underneath the train's display stand, which was open to reveal a matching tin coal trailer, two carriages, a guard's box and a set of tracks.
“How much?” I asked.
He seemed startled by my request. “Well Miss... um... I don't know if it's really in your price range. I mean no disrespect, of course, and I don't mean to presume, but... um,”
He rubbed the back of his neck with his free hand self-consciously, and I smiled, trying to reassure him.
“It's no problem, really. How much did you pay for it?”
He seemed to read my face for a minute, as if trying to see if I was serious. I kept my eyes open and honest, as much as I could while slightly distracted by the tiny imperfections on the surface of the contacts. Finally, he sighed.
“I got the full set for $150 at auction. When I valued it, the guy said it was worth about that much. I have the receipt if you want to see it.”
I shook my head. “No, that's fine. Tell you what, I’m not done shopping just yet. How about I finish looking around, and we can agree on a price for everything once I’m done?”
That seemed to calm him down, and he nodded, smiling again. He handed me the locket, taking the train from me carefully. “I'll get this all boxed up for you while you look around, okay?”
“Sure.” I replied, smiling back. His heart skipped a beat, and I felt a momentary thrill of satisfaction; he found me either attractive or frightening, and as I had never really been either before, both were rather empowering concepts.
I followed him to the counter, setting the locket on it's little velvet pillow gently on the counter-top before picking it up. It was silver, a little tarnished, but still in good condition. Carefully opening it up, I found space for a little picture and an engraving in a language I vaguely recognised but didn't understand.
“Is this French?” I asked over my shoulder; the shop keeper had gone to retrieve the box of accessories that went with the train.
“Yes, I believe it is,” he replied, grunting a little under the box's weight. “Think it means 'more than my own life', or something like that.”
Perfect, I thought with a grin. That was Nessie's present sorted, and the train set would be an ideal gift for EJ. Just Elizabeth and Edward to go. I had a sudden flash of inspiration.
“Do you have any sheet music?” I asked, setting the locket gently back down.
“Over by the books.” came the reply, accompanied by a vague wave in the direction of the other side of the store.
I went over to the shelves of books, browsing until I found the cardboard box full of sheet music books wedged in between two more filled with old vinyl records. The colours of the paper varied from light cream to aged yellow, and some were rather dusty to boot. I flipped through them almost absentmindedly, wondering if I was really going to find something that Edward didn't already know, and deciding that it was probably impossible. Just when I was going to give up, a familiar name caught my eye. I stopped flipping, gently pulling out the book, suddenly overwhelmed by a memory that I was only vaguely aware I still had.
“You know Debussy?”
“Not well. My mother plays a lot of classical music around the house. I only know my favourites.”
“It's one of my favourites too.”
I smiled happily, glad that my human memories hadn't been entirely lost just yet. I hoped that other things might trigger memories in the way this simple music book had, but decided to let them find me rather than seeking them out. Satisfied, I took the full orchestration of Debussy’s Claire de Lune back to the counter, where the shopkeeper had finished boxing up the train and was carefully transferring the locket to a little jewellery box.
“Find everything you wanted?” he asked with a smile.
I pursed my lips. “Almost. I just need to find something for my daughter.”
I didn't bother to mention that she was my younger daughter; a good idea, considering that he looked startled to hear that I had a child at all, though he tried his best to hide it. Probably better not to tell him that I had three.
“What did you have in mind?”
“Well,” I crossed my arms and tapped one finger against my chin. “It's her first Christmas, and I wanted to get her something she'll enjoy now but still appreciate when she's older.”
He seemed to think about it for a moment, and I saw the moment when he had an idea; I almost expected a little cartoon light bulb to flick on over his head.
“How about a music box?” he suggested, gesturing to a rather impressive display of them set out beneath the glass counter top between us. “Kids love music, and she can use it to keep jewellery or make-up in when she gets a bit bigger.”
I smiled, studying the boxes. “Sounds good. How about that one?” I pointed to a little box in the middle of the arrangement, and he pulled it out for me to get a better look. It was small, decorated mostly in gold with little pink and purple flowers around the edges. In the centre of the lid was a picture of a ballet dancer balanced on the tip of one toe, her other leg extended behind her and her pink tutu sparkling thanks to a light dusting of glitter. When I gingerly opened the top, it began to play a tinkly rendition of Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty Waltz, and a miniature ballerina that matched the one on the lid stood up straight and turned slowly on her tiptoe. There was a little mirror on the inside of the lid, and space in front of the dancer for storage. It was absolutely perfect.
My smile must have shown my satisfaction, because the shopkeeper grinned knowingly and, with practised care and speed, closed the lid, wrapped the box in bubble wrap and slid it gently into a plain white cardboard box just big enough to hold it, which he then taped securely shut.
“There you go,” he said cheerfully. “All done?”
“Yep.” I grinned. “Thank you so much.”
“My pleasure. Now, I believe we still have to settle on a price.” He didn't look altogether comfortable with this idea; I was fairly certain he thought I was a financially limited young mom or college student, which was understandable, even if it was completely wrong.
My smile turned soft. “Just give me a number. I promise I can pay you. And if you say anything less than $200, I’ll know you're short-changing yourself.”
I pointed a warning finger at him, and he chuckled. He excused himself for a moment, then returned with a large leather bound book, which he set carefully on the counter beside my purchases.
“This is a ledger where I record all my purchases and sales.” he explained. “It helps me keep track of stock, and also helps me remember what I spent on things so that I can set my prices accordingly.”
He flipped through the book for a minute, muttering to himself and making notes on a pad of paper, carefully marking pages to go back to later with leather bookmarks. Eventually he set down his pencil and turned the pad toward me.
“Okay. That's how much I paid for all of this.” He tapped a figure at the bottom of the page. “I usually set prices at about four-thirds the price I paid. That is to say, the price I paid, plus a third of that amount extra. Now, I don't know about you, but I was never much one for Math in school, and I’m not used to working out pricing for this large a sale, because frankly, I don't get people coming in here and buying this much. So, I think the best bet is to do four-thirds of the whole price, if you're happy with that, rather than working out the prices individually and adding them up.”
My mind – which worked a lot faster than it used to and had clearly gotten over its general aversion to Math – had actually already put itself to work on that exact calculation and come up with an answer while he was speaking. Of course, I couldn't tell him that, but I also knew that the total of four-thirds the cost of each item and four-thirds of the total cost were not the same thing at all. I had the feeling that the talk of money was making him feel very awkward, and he wanted to get it over with as soon as possible. In the interest of speeding up the process, I decided to offer a compromise.
“Listen,” I said. “I'm willing to give you $700 for all of this. That's more than you've asked for, but I think it's probably closer to what it's all worth. Now don't argue with me,” I cut over him when he opened his mouth to protest. “You said yourself that you don't get many sales, and I have the means and the desire to help you. So,” I took out my wallet and quickly counted out the money and held it out to him. “Here. That is yours. Keep the change.”
He looked at me, astonished, for a minute, then gingerly reached out and took the money. I smiled happily and set about dividing my purchases between my other bags; there was no way it would all fit into one of the tiny brown-paper bags that I could see behind the counter. I would have to carry the train set, but that wasn't too much bother. I had momentarily forgotten that while I was actually a supernaturally strong vampire, I still looked like a 110 pound teenage girl with very little in the way of muscles; the shopkeeper looked a little concerned.
“Sure you can manage all that?” he asked. “I can close up for a bit and help you carry it all to your car.”
I shook my head. “It's fine. I’ve already got it all. Thank you so much for all your help.”
“Thank you. Honestly Miss, you've just made my day. No exaggeration.”
I grinned. “My pleasure. Merry Christmas!”
I waved as I left the store, smiling happily as I made my way back to meet up with Renee. On the way, I spotted a sports store with a leather jacket in the window, reminding me that I hadn't gotten Jake a present yet, so I made a quick detour to get him a nice black riding jacket to match his bike. Just imagining the look on his face when he opened it made me smile.
Renee was beaming when I found her just outside the store, clearly pleased with her purchases, but she wouldn't let me see, wanting to keep it a surprise. I didn't mind much, and we spent the drive home talking about whatever popped into our heads. She asked a couple more vampire questions, and I ended up telling her about the incident with James, which shocked her more than anything else seemed to.
“We were so close to losing you.” she whispered when I was done, breaking a silence that was starting to worry me. “I can't imagine how you carried on after something like that. I’d be tempted to lock the door and never go outside again.”
I shrugged. “I guess I just didn't see it that way. Edward saved me, and I knew he would do it again.”
“You were that sure of him already?” she asked curiously.
I nodded. “He'd already saved me once, when that van nearly hit me. I didn't know what he really was back then, and he was so insistent on telling everyone that he was standing beside me and pushed me out of the way; I just went along with it because I felt like it was important. But even so, I couldn't make it all make sense in my head, because I was positive he'd been nowhere near me, and he stopped the van with his bare hands. He even left dents.”
Renee looked shocked, and I couldn't help but laugh a little at her expression. Then I got serious.
“Being a human in this world is a bit of a leap of faith,” I mused. “You have to understand that a lot of what you'll encounter is very dangerous. Most people you meet will probably be trying to kill you, and if they aren't then they're at least thinking about it. You have to find the ones that you trust and stick close to them, listen to them, take their advice, even if you don't always like what they have to say.”
“But you don't do what Edward tells you all the time, do you?” Renee looked sceptical.
I laughed a little and shook my head. “If I did, I’d have spent most of the last two years wrapped in cotton wool or bubble wrap or something. He's ridiculously overprotective, and sometimes it's kind of sweet, but other times it's just annoying. He's still adjusting to not having to worry so much actually. I took down a big mountain lion on our hunt the day before yesterday, and I could see he was having an anxiety attack the whole time. I half expected him to suddenly clutch at his heart and drop to the ground.”
That seemed to calm Renee down a bit; she laughed, and I could see that she was imagining Edward, always so calm and composed when she was around, enacting some dramatic death scene like a Shakespearean actor or something. After that, we went back to lighter topics, and reached the house much sooner than I think she was expecting. We transferred her bags to her rental car, and I left mine in the trunk of my car, so they wouldn't be seen by the kids, then invited her in for a cup of coffee before she went back to her hotel. She agreed, and happily settled herself playing with Elizabeth while I went to seek out Esme.
I found her in the kitchen, a cup of coffee already brewing – presumably thanks to a warning from Alice – and Esme jotting things down on a pad of paper and frowning to herself.
“Bella, there you are!” she said when she saw me, looking quite relieved. “I was hoping you'd be back soon. I’m trying to figure out how to accommodate everyone for Christmas dinner. I know a lot of us won't be eating, but it would still be nice to sit at the table, and then there's the question of the Quileutes, how many of them will be there, if the want to come at all that is, and how much they'll each eat.” She huffed. “I've resorted to making notes to try and work it all out, and let me tell you, it's disconcerting. I’m used to solving these sorts of problems in my head.”
I tried to hold in a smile and didn't quite succeed. “Well, the first step seems to be actually inviting the Quileutes, don't you think? Then we can find out how many are likely to make it.”
She smacked herself in the forehead. “Oh my goodness, how dense can I get? I hadn't even thought of that. Oh, but Jacob isn't here, and I don't know any of their phone numbers.”
“I think I might remember Emily's,” I hedged, pulling out my cell phone to dial. “Let me try it.”
I did remember it; Sam picked up with a cheery, “Young residence, Sam Uley speaking, how can I help you?” I could hear shouting in the background, so I assumed the wolves were getting fed, or perhaps just hanging around cluttering up Emily's house, as usual.
“Hey Sam, it's Bella.”
“Oh, hey Bella. Haven't heard from you in a little while. How is everybody?”
“We're good. Is Emily around? I wanted to ask her something.”
“Sure, just a sec.”
I heard him yell out Emily's name , then a few seconds later the phone was passed over. There was the smacking sound of a kiss, and Emily giggled.
“Hi Bella, what can I do for you?” she said, sounding blissful. Her mood was infectious, and I couldn't help smiling.
“Well, Esme's trying to get Christmas dinner organised, and we were wondering if you guys wanted to come along. If you're not already doing anything of course.”
“Really? You want us to come over? All the boys too?” She sounded rather startled.
“Of course.” I smiled. “You're all practically extended family now.”
“Well, Sam and I aren't doing anything particular in the afternoon. The younger ones would have to ask their parents of course. Do you think the other imprints could be accommodated? Claire will be with her family, but Kim and Rachel might be interested.”
“Of course, they're more than welcome. Sue and Billy too, if they can make it. Charlie might be coming, if he's managed to adjust his world-view enough by then.”
“Oh yeah, Jake told us about that. Was he really angry at you?”
“He was mostly angry about being so confused, I think. I haven't talked to him since he left yesterday.”
Emily made a sympathetic noise. “Here's hoping he comes around. It would suck to for you to lose your dad like that. And Billy would miss him too. I doubt he'd be comfortable with werewolves if he can't manage vampires.”
I hummed in agreement. Esme held out a hand for the phone and raised in eyebrow; a silent request to talk to Emily.
“Can I pass you over to Esme? I think she wants to talk details.”
“Sure, put her on. It was nice to talk to you Bella.”
I passed the phone to Esme, who immediately started talking to Emily about how many wolves were likely to come and how much they would each eat. The coffee was done, so I poured out a mug-full – wrinkling my nose at the smell – and went back out to the living room. Renee accepted the cup gratefully, sitting down on the sofa to drink it. I took Elizabeth and played with her for a bit while Renee finished her coffee, then we had one of our short 'lessons', which was the name given to the times we took each day to try and teach the twins things like talking and standing, the latter being the first step in teaching them to walk. Getting the twins to do anything they didn't want to do was virtually impossible, but when the lesson was presented as a game, they seemed much more receptive. EJ, for example had learned to crawl simply because he wanted to reach toys that were placed just out of his reach. Sitting had come naturally, but he couldn't quite figure out leaning forward onto his front, rather disliking the act of folding his legs under himself, so he'd developed a very amusing routine for getting from sitting to crawling, which involved laying on his back, rolling over, and then pushing himself up onto his elbows. The talking sessions in particular were very repetitive, and often seemed to me as if they weren't altogether unlike training a dog to obey commands; lots of repeating the same word over and over again, interwoven with very overenthusiastic praise. But the kids loved it, and most of the time the lessons happened because they asked for them.
“Mama, was tha?” Elizabeth cried after we'd played with her dolls for about half an hour. Renee gave me a quizzical look.
“She wants to play 'What's That?'” I explained. “It's a game we play to help them learn the words for things.” I turned to Elizabeth, crossing my legs and pulling her onto my lap, her preferred way to sit when we played this game.
“Do you want to start or shall I?” I asked her. She thought about it for a minute, tilting her head to the side and pursing her lips in the most adorable way, then grinned and pointed at me.
“Alright then,” I looked around the room, trying to find something easy to start with. It was tricky; the whole house had been decked out in Christmas decorations while we were out shopping. There was tinsel everywhere, and a tree in the corner covered in beautiful decorations. In the end I settled for something easy to identify but hard to pronounce: Edward’s piano.
“What's that Elizabeth?” I asked, pointing at it.
“Pano!” she cried delightedly, and Renee chuckled a little.
“Good girl!” I praised her. “That's the piano.” I said the word slowly and carefully, to let her get a feel for the sound, then moved on to something else.
We played for a little while like that, then it was her turn. This was the part of the game that really helped her learn; she would point to something she didn't know the name for, and I had to tell her what it was. Then she would repeat it a few times until she could at least get close to saying the word right. Of course, she was curious about all the additions to the living room, so I had to explain what each thing was and what it was for. All in all, it was a fairly good game; the biggest success of the afternoon was 'Christmas tree', which came out more like 'Cwismas twee' but was at least recognisable as something vaguely resembling English, which was more than could be said for most of the twins' language.
We could have gone on all afternoon, with Renee watching in amusement from the sofa, but Elizabeth got distracted by Edward coming in through the front door.
“Dada!” she squealed, bouncing up and down in my lap and reaching for him excitedly. He smiled widely, scooping her out of my arms and lifting her above his head.
“Hi Dada,” she said, waving down at him.
He chuckled at her silliness. “Hi precious girl. Have you been playing with Momma?”
“Yeah yeah!” She nodded enthusiastically. “Play!”
Surprisingly, Renee was frowning.
“Edward, where are the other children?” she asked him, sounding as concerned as she looked. “I assumed they were with you.”
“Jacob took them down to the reservation.” Edward explained, bringing Elizabeth down to rest on his hip. “Billy and Rachel wanted to meet Nessie, and EJ decided that Jake wasn't enough protection for going into werewolf country, so he went with them.” He shook his head and smiled indulgently at our son's antics. “Lizzie wanted to stay here and wait for Bella to get back.”
I raised an eyebrow at him. “Lizzie?”
“Me, Mama!” Elizabeth said, clearly by way of explanation, pointing to herself and smiling proudly.
Edward looked sheepish. “Another of Jake's nicknames, I’m afraid. She doesn't seem unhappy with it.”
I sighed, resigned; since the other children already shortened their names, it was only fair that she could too, if she wanted. At least it wasn't another sea monster.
“So where have you been?” I asked casually, getting up and collecting some of the toys that were, as usual, littered around the living room.
“Hunting.” was his only response, just as casual.
I frowned. “We went hunting two days ago. Did you really need to go again?”
He shrugged. “I just wanted to get one more in before Christmas. I was going to ask you to go with me, but then you went out with Renee, and I didn't see why I couldn't go on my own anyway.”
He focused his attention on Lizzie then, effectively ending the conversation. I was still confused – Lizzie had still been at home, and Edward never passed on a chance to spend some one-on-one time with the kids – but I figured that if it was something important then he would tell me. If I had been a more suspicious kind of person, I might have thought he was up to no good, maybe taken a huge leap of logic and concluded that he was cheating on me, but becoming a vampire had, among other things, done wonders for my self-esteem, and I was sure enough of Edward’s feelings to know he would never do something like that. I trusted that all would be revealed in time, but until then the mystery was going to annoy me greatly.
Renee left soon after that, promising to stop by Charlie's on her way back to her hotel to see how he was doing. As I was walking her out to her car, Jacob appeared in his wolf form, Nessie and EJ riding on his back and looking very tiny compared to him. Renee was startled and I think a little frightened by the monstrous wolf, but he gave her his signature wolfy grin and she seemed to calm down a little bit. Nessie was chattering before she was all the way off of Jake's back, excitedly telling me about her afternoon at La Push. She held out a handful of coloured pebbles collected from First Beach, and I admired them with the appropriate enthusiasm, at the same time trying to keep EJ's very grubby hands and clothes from making a mess of me too.
“What did you do with him Jake?” I asked when Edward had diverted Nessie's attention. “Dunk him in a mud puddle or something?”
Jake, still in wolf form, just grinned at me.
“Beach Mama!” EJ said, kicking his legs as they dangled in mid-air.
“You got dirty at the beach?” I asked, and looking a little closer, I could see that what I had assumed was mud was actually wet sand, stuck to his absolutely soaked jeans.
I sighed. “Looks like we're going to have to take a bath tonight.” I cringed, imagining the mess that EJ was going to make in the bathroom; clearly, he had yet to burn off all his excess energy from the day.
Renee smiled at me, and the look in her eyes was almost smug; 'good luck with that' it seemed to say, as she got in her car and quickly made herself scarce.
The bath wasn't actually that much trouble. All three kids fit into the tub in our bathroom without difficulty, and they had a great time splashing about in the water. Edward and I got absolutely soaked, which was hilarious to them, but we had just as much of a good time as they did, so we didn't really mind. We both changed into our pyjamas, and Edward put them to bed while I fetched the presents in from the car and started the arduous task of wrapping them all. I did his first, so that he wouldn't see it, and had just gotten to the children's gifts by the time he came back in.
“Someone's been busy.” Edward commented, eyeing the pile of presents warily.
I smiled sheepishly. “I hope you don't mind, I got everyone's presents today. We're running out of time a bit, and I didn't know when we'd get a chance to go shopping together.”
He waved off my concerns. “It's no problem. We tend to do presents in couples, mostly because Emmett and Jasper can't be bothered to figure out what they're going to get everyone. Emmett would undoubtedly buy stupid stuff if Rosalie didn't take control, and Jasper just doesn't like shopping. Esme and Carlisle choose their gifts together, but that's just their way. Besides,” He grinned and nudged open the closet door to reveal another pile of wrapped gifts that I hadn't even noticed was there. “I'm playing Santa this year.”
I smiled, going back to the gift label that I was writing for Charlie's present.
This is the absolute truth.
Love, Bella and
I handed Edward a stack of tags to add his signature to, and he went to work, watching me curiously out of the corner of his eye as I cut the paper for Nessie's gift.
“Can I see?” he asked, and I nodded, handing him the box. He studied it for a moment.
“More than my own life?” he asked sombrely.
I nodded again. “That's what the guy in the antique store said. There isn't time now, but we can get a little family picture to put inside it.”
He smiled. “It's beautiful, and very appropriate. What about the others?”
I showed him the other gifts. He smiled at the music box, watching the little dancer go round and round for a minute before turning to the train set. An odd look crossed his face, and I paused with what I was doing.
“Edward? Are you alright?”
“Where did you get this?” he asked in a hoarse whisper.
“The same antiques store. Why?”
“I think I know it.”
I frowned. “What?”
Edward looked up at me, an intense look in his eyes. “Did the owner say where he got it from?”
“An auction in...” I paused, and my eyes widened. “In Chicago. Edward, do you think this could be from when you were human?”
He shook his head. “More than that. I'm pretty sure it was mine.”
While I sat, utterly gob-smacked, trying to process what he was saying, he carefully removed the engine from the box and turned it over. His fingers brushed reverently over the 'EM' carved into the bottom of the train, and a little smile formed on his lips.
“It was mine.” he whispered. “I remember... I used to set it up on the parlour floor every Sunday after church, and I’d steal a piece of coal from the kitchen stove to run the steam engine. The cook used to pretend she didn't notice.” He grinned. “My father was always very serious and proper, but when I had my train out, he would take of his jacket and tie and lie on his stomach next to me, and it was like we were just two kids having fun together. I imagined doing the same thing with my own son. Then after I was changed and I thought it wouldn't be possible, I sold it, along with most of the other things in my old home.”
I put my arm around his shoulders and leaned my head against him. “Well, now you can do it, just like you wanted. You can show him how it works, and you can play together.” I grabbed the roll of wrapping paper and the tape and passed them to him. “Here, you wrap it. You can write the tag too.”
He grabbed my hand as I moved away, looking me directly in the eye in a way that made me think he might have been crying if it were possible.
“Thank you Bella.” he said fervently. “Thank you for everything you've given me. Thanks to you, this is going to be the best Christmas I’ve had in decades.”
I smiled and kissed him lightly on the lips. We quickly finished getting the presents wrapped, and he spent the rest of the night showing me just how grateful he was.
Christmas Day dawned bright white and sparkling. The ground had been completely blanketed in snow overnight, and the morning had that wonderful combination of sunshine and snow that made everything that much more magical. Watching the sun rise, comfortable and warm under the covers of our bed, with Edward's body curled close behind mine and his arms tight around me, I felt consumed by utter bliss. The sun peeked above the tree line, shooting bright rays of light across the room, and rainbows danced across the walls as Edward pushed the comforter down a little, exposing more of our skin to the light. I had yet to see myself in the sun, and it was rather surreal to see my skin sparkling just like his, eight-colour rainbows dancing all around us as I lifted my hand and twisted it back and forth.
“Beautiful.” Edward murmured, kissing the back of my neck and twining our hands together.
I rolled over onto my back, staring up in wonder at his flawless face. His hand broke away from mine to curl around my cheek, cradling my face like the most delicate flower.
“Merry Christmas my love,” he murmured softly.
“Merry Christmas,” I replied with a smile.
We lay like that for a little while, not talking, just staring into each other's eyes, until we heard the sound of movement from across the hall. Then we quickly dressed in our pyjamas and got back into bed. Edward put his arm around me, tucking me securely into his side, and we listened, both grinning when we heard Nessie's excited squeal and the disgruntled grumbling of the twins in response.
“Look guys!” Nessie said, and you could almost hear her bouncing with glee. “Look! Santa's been!”
That woke them up; they started cooing and gurgling happily. It felt like my smile would split my face in half if it got any wider, and Edward was exactly the same. There were a few slightly worrying thumps, and a lot of giggling, and then our bedroom door cracked open and Nessie peered around the edge, stocking in hand. She beamed when she saw us already sitting up, and came bounding across the room, jumping up onto the bed and bouncing excitedly. While Edward made sure she didn't bounce right off the edge and onto the floor, I watched the twins come crawling in behind her, both dragging stockings almost as big as they were. Lizzie, very sensibly, had the handle of hers gripped in one chubby fist, but EJ had clearly decided that he did not want to adapt his style of crawling to accommodate something he had to carry, and so he had the handle between his teeth and his head halfway turned over his shoulder. He looked so funny, I couldn't help laughing at him, but he didn't seem to mind; he just grinned at me as best he could around the fabric in his mouth. I got up, scooped the two of them up off the floor without any trouble at all, and got back in beside Edward and the still hyper Nessie, resting one baby on each knee and cuddling them close. When we finally got Nessie to calm down a little, everyone exchanged hugs and kisses and 'Merry Christmas's, and then the children opened their presents from 'Santa'. There was a lot of excited squealing as they uncovered small toys and candy galore, and I wondered idly how long it was going to take before they ran out of energy and passed out on the couch. Knowing my luck, it was likely to take all day.
Downstairs, everyone was already up and about, buzzing with anticipation. Only my parents were joining us for presents around the tree, but the Denalis and the Quileutes would both be coming later in the day and would be around for Christmas dinner. With 32 people to seat around the table, even if 13 of them weren't eating, it was clear that we weren't all going to fit in the dining room. When we came downstairs, Jasper and Carlisle were in the back garden, busy setting up the big tent that had been used for the wedding, with Alice standing by with a plethora of decorations to make it suitably festive-looking. Rosalie was unpacking a shipment of extra chairs and tables that had been hired at the last minute, Emmett was shovelling the driveway so that people could actually get in, and Esme was in the kitchen, which she had declared off limits to anyone not willing to help her cook. Edward, sensibly, decided he would be of best use entertaining the kids, and I let myself be put to work by Esme, helping her put the finishing touches on all the pre-preparation for Christmas dinner. We did as much as we could without actually finishing everything, so that all it would take would be setting a few timers and shoving a few things into ovens for the meal to be ready in under half an hour. The turkey was happily cooking away, and Emily had agreed to bring most of dessert, including her famous hub-cap-sized muffins. By the time all that was finished, everyone else was finished with their tasks as well, and we all migrated to the living room to watch the kids play. Jacob had turned up at some point, and he was reacting with appropriate enthusiasm to everything that Nessie was showing him.
Renee and Phil turned up around eleven, causing yet more excitement as Renee arranged a stack of colourful presents amongst the masses already under the tree, and Charlie turned up not long after. He was accompanied, to the surprise of quite a few of us, by Sue Clearwater, who looked a little uncomfortable but smiled pleasantly and soon fell into conversation with Esme on the finer points of holiday cooking. Charlie hovered nervously for a minute, watching Renee 'ooh' and 'aah' over all the things that the children were showing her, then went to stand by the window wall and stared out into the falling snow. Not wanting him to be alone, I took a mug of Esme's home-made eggnog over to him.
“Merry Christmas Dad,” I said, smiling as I offered it to him.
He accepted the mug gratefully, a tight little smile on his face. “Thanks.” He took a sip, and his eyes widened.
I smirked. “Pretty good for someone who doesn't eat, right?”
He nodded. “Very good. Esme cook often?”
“Yeah, most days. The twins are still on bottles, and Nessie prefers to hunt, but Esme makes her dinner everyday. She used to make mine too, when I needed it.”
Charlie frowned. “Hunting? You take your daughter out in the woods with a gun?”
I laughed and shook my head. “No, we don't need guns. We have these.” I grinned and tapped my teeth.
That made him look slightly afraid, and I laughed again to ease the tension.
“So, uh, what do you, uh, eat?” he asked hesitantly.
“Deer mostly,” I said with a shrug. “Or elk. Occasionally we come across bigger game, like mountain lions. Emmett’s very fond of bears, although they're all hibernating at the moment.”
Charlie blinked a few times, looking a little like a startled owl. Then he shook his head and let out a strained chuckle.
“I don't know how you dealt with all this Bells,” he said with a sigh. “I keep waiting to wake up and find out it's all just a bad dream.”
I smiled sadly. “It doesn't have to be bad, Dad. I’m really glad that you can still be in my life, for a little while longer. I'm just afraid of the danger that knowing all this could put you in. I just want you to be safe, and happy.”
He smiled wryly. “There you go again, sounding like the parent instead of the kid. No wonder you're so good at this.” He jerked his head in the direction of the children. “That's the most surreal part of it all, I think – you being a mom. You're really happy with it?” Now he looked concerned. “I mean, you're so young, and you never seemed all that interested in kids before.”
My smile was soft. “I wasn't really. We didn't think it was possible for Edward to father children, and I’d accepted that it would just be the two of us. Then I realised I was pregnant with Nessie, and,” I shrugged. “Everything changed in a heartbeat. I can't even explain it; something inside me just clicked, and having her became as necessary as breathing.”
I glanced over my shoulder, smiling as I watched Edward, lying on his back in the middle of the carpet, lift Lizzie up over his head. She laughed, flailing her arms and kicking her legs, and he grinned up at her with a look of utter devotion in his eyes.
“He's so good with them,” I whispered. “A complete natural. And knowing that I gave him that... that I’m the reason he smiles so much now, when before he was so sad... it's the best part of all of this, the most satisfying. Just knowing that I make him as happy as he makes me.”
“And the kids?” Charlie pressed.
“I'd give my life for them.” I replied seriously, making sure he was looking at me so he would know I meant it. “They are my world, and I wouldn't trade them for anything.”
He studied my face for a moment, then smiled and nodded knowingly.
“Then I’m happy for you. Perhaps I wish we were having this
conversation five years from now, but what has happened has happened,
and you can't change what is. I just hope you'll forgive me for being
a idiot, and let me get to know them.”
I beamed. “I'd love that, and so would they. And you weren't being an idiot, just being a dad. You thought I was in trouble, and you came to my rescue. I think that's pretty brave, all things considered.”
“Time for presents!” Emmett suddenly boomed across the room. Charlie jumped, several people covered their ears, and the girls squealed excitedly. Nessie started jumping up and down, and Lizzie and EJ were bouncing happily too, cooing and gurgling. It took about five minutes to get everyone comfortably situated around the tree, and a further minute for everyone to stop talking so we could actually get started. We were sat pretty much the same as we had been a few days earlier, except that Edward and I had joined the other 'kids' on the floor and Jacob had claimed the armchair. Charlie and Phil sat either side of Renee on the larger sofa, Carlisle and Esme had the loveseat, and Nessie, Lizzie and EJ were in a little row in front of Edward and I. Every now and then, one of them turned round and grinned excitedly at us, and we smiled back.
“You start Carlisle,” Alice insisted once everyone was settled. She was bouncing in her seat excitedly, and I wondered idly why we didn't just give her all her presents straight away, just to get it over with; after all, she already knew everything she'd been bought.
Carlisle chuckled at her enthusiasm, and Esme smiled. They both got up and collected a pile of presents from under the tree, handing them around to everyone.
“We got you all basically the same things,” Esme explained. “So you may as well open them together.”
The children squealed and tore into their gifts, while everyone else took their time. Only the Cullens had been handed parcels, and I worried for a moment that the others felt left out, but they only looked on curiously. I quickly checked the label – which gave no hint of what was inside, just identifying the gift as mine and wishing me a Merry Christmas, love from Esme and Carlisle – and then opened my own gift carefully. Inside was a simple black jewellery box containing a beautiful necklace. A small oval shaped silver pendant hung on a thin silver chain. The pendant seemed to be a sort of emblem or crest; the central focus of the design was a lion, rearing back on it's hind legs, with a small hand above it and a little v-shaped banner bearing three small clovers below. Looking back at Carlisle, I saw he was wearing a ring with the same emblem, and Esme had bracelet to match. Everyone else had unwrapped various pieces of jewellery, all incorporating the same little crest; the boys each had a black leather wrist cuff, Alice had a little grey ribbon choker, and Rose had a necklace similar to mine, but much chunkier. Even the children had them, with EJ getting a little lapel pin and the girls each unwrapping a small hair slide.
Carlisle smiled. “When I was human, my family wasn't important enough to have anything as fancy as a family crest, so I can't claim that these have any deep significance in that respect. But I do believe our family now deserves some symbol, something to help us keep each other in mind if we are ever apart. We are so very different from others of our kind, it would be easy for us to feel isolated if we were to be separated. I hope that each of you will wear these, and each time you look at them, you will be reminded that you are never truly alone, that there will always be others in this world who feel the same way you do, and who love you for everything you are, good, bad, and mildly annoying.”
He smirked at Emmett, who grinned back. There was a chorus of grateful 'thank you's from around the room as everyone put on their new Cullen family crest. Edward did EJ's pin so that he didn't prick himself, then carefully fastened my necklace while I put the slides into the girls' hair. Somehow, the little metal charm, more than anything else, made me feel a real sense of belonging; more than my wedding ring, or becoming a vampire, that otherwise insignificant piece of jewellery made me feel like I really was a part of the Cullen family. I felt a little emotional, and was glad that everyone was distracted by the presentation of a new fishing sonar to Charlie – a gift from all of us that was rush ordered only two days earlier.
Each couple took their turn at handing out gifts. The children were gradually engulfed in an ever growing pile of toys, clothes, books, and discarded wrapping paper. Alice and Jasper gave mostly clothes, all seeming to have some future purpose in mind – the dress that I unwrapped was clearly designed to coordinate with my gift to Alice – and Rosalie and Emmett gave everyone little hand painted glass baubles bearing their name and the year of their first Christmas as part of the family. They even had little 'Baby's First Christmas' ornaments for the kids, and of course they all had to be put on the tree straight away. Jake had small gifts for the children; a little woven friendship bracelet for Nessie and dream catchers for both the twins.
“The beads trap bad dreams,” he explained to them. “They stop them from getting into your head. And the feathers attract good dreams. Put them on your bed, or over it, and if you really believe in them, you'll only have good dreams.”
Finally, it was our turn. Edward insisted on giving me my present before we handed around all the others, and since no one else had a problem with that, I soon stopped protesting. He handed me a fairly small rectangular package, a little smile playing at the corners of his mouth.
Dear Bella, read the label. Our story is much better than any of these, but I hope you enjoy them anyway. Merry Christmas. Love, Edward.
I looked at him curiously, but he just smiled serenely. “Open it love.”
I did as he said, my curiosity piqued, pulling the paper off quickly.
The book inside was large and beautiful, hardback and bound in blue leather, with gold embossed lettering on the front. Bella’s Books it said, in a swirling italic font vaguely reminiscent of Edward’s handwriting. I gave him another look, completely perplexed. He chuckled.
“I had considered replacing that old copy of Wuthering Heights,” he explained. “But then I thought it might be nice for you to have all your favourites in one place.” He turned the book over, revealing a list of book titles in the same swirling font; Wuthering Heights, of course, as well as Romeo & Juliet and Pride & Prejudice.
My smile was a mile wide. “Thank you Edward. I love it.”
I leaned over and kissed him lightly on the lips, then began thumbing through the pages while he grinned and put his arm around my shoulder.
“Man Eddie,” Emmett grumbled. “Why you gotta go and make the rest of us look bad?”
No one took his comment seriously of course; we all laughed, and his answering grin made it clear that he was hoping for just that response.
I got up, pulling Edward up with me, and we quickly distributed our gifts around the room. Nessie, of course, jumped up to help, and Charlie seemed a little surprised when she brought him his gift, smiling sweetly and handing it over with a shy, “Merry Christmas Grandpa.”
EJ's eyes went huge when we put his present in front of him.
“That thing's bigger than he is.” Emmett commented, and it was true; the package was about two inches longer than him and twice as wide.
To my great satisfaction, everyone loved their gifts. As predicted, Emmett guffawed when he opened his, Rose and Alice beamed, Esme looked like she was going to cry, and Jasper and Carlisle were surprised that I’d managed to find books they didn't own yet. Renee smiled and thanked me, and Charlie got a little misty eyed, before announcing that the mug would have pride of place on his desk at the station, which made me smile wider than I thought was possible. Nessie loved her necklace, insisting that I put it on her right away, and Lizzie was utterly entranced by her music box. Knowing he would get embroiled as soon as the train set was out, I gave Edward his present to open while EJ was still wrestling with the wrapping paper. He gave me the same curious look that I had given him when he read the label.
Is it cheesy to say I saw this and thought of you?
Merry Christmas, and here's to many, many, many more.
All my love forever,
“Open it,” I urged.
With an excited light in his eyes not all that different from a child's, he unwrapped the music book. At first he didn't say anything, just sat and stared at it, and after a minute I started fidgeting nervously.
“I know you probably already know it,” I said, needing to say something before the quiet got too much. “But I saw it, and it brought back memories. I guess your memory's better than mine, but I thought it might do the same for you.” I shrugged, trying to downplay it, but he shook his head and smiled at me, a beautiful expression of pure love that took my breath away.
“It's wonderful Bella. Thank you.” he said, and the fervour in his voice made it impossible to doubt his sincerity. He leaned in and kissed me, a slightly too intimate kiss for company, but I didn't care. It was such a little thing – buying good Christmas presents – and yet I felt a huge sense of achievement knowing that I could do it.
EJ had finally made it inside the wrapping paper of his present, and his excited shout made everyone's eyes turn to him. Edward grinned and scooted over next to him.
“What do you think little man?”
EJ stared up at him with wide eyes. “Aw fow me Dada?”
“All for you.” Edward confirmed, nodding.
EJ's answering grin was a mile wide, and he immediately got up on his wobbly little legs and gave Edward a hug. There was a chorus of 'aww's from every female in the room, and I was sure I could feel my heart melting right then and there.
“Go give Momma hugs too.” Edward prompted, and he held EJ's hands while he tottered uncertainly over to me.
“EJ's walking Momma!” Nessie exclaimed, and I smiled, nodding.
“Good job buddy,” I praised him when he fell heavily into my arms. He cooed happily and hugged me tight.
“'Ank 'ou Mama!” he said, his voice still shrill with excitement.
I kissed the top of his head. “You're welcome little man. I’m glad you like it.”
Renee insisted on doing her presents next, which distracted everyone for a while, though I could see EJ's eyes wandering back to his train set every now and then. By the time we'd finished all the gifts, it was getting on for three o'clock, and sure enough, our other guests turned up almost simultaneously at about half past. The Denalis were excited to see everyone again, and they were utterly enchanted by the children. Carmen was particularly taken with little Lizzie, and sat cradling her and murmuring to her in Spanish. Lizzie didn't understand a word, of course, but she stared up at Carmen in wonder, as if what she had to say were the most interesting thing in the world. When Irina introduced EJ to her sisters, he gave them a crooked smile that was a perfect miniature of his father's, and they both pretended to swoon. He laughed delightedly, and Edward and I couldn't help joining in. It was the first time I’d seen all three sisters together, and I could see how much more relaxed they were than when they'd been separated.
The arrival of the Quileutes pushed the house to full capacity, and it was unanimously agreed that spreading into the garden a little would be a good idea. It was mostly wolves and vampires outside, since we could stand the freezing temperatures better than the humans, but once the heaters warmed up a little, more people came out. It was wonderful; everyone was admiring Alice’s decorations and mingling. Charlie got into a heated sports debate with Phil, Sam and Emmett, Renee was in the kitchen chatting with Sue, Esme and Emily, Quil, Embry and Jake were playing with the kids, Alice and Rose were talking to Kim, Rachel and the Denali sisters, and Edward and Seth were laughing together, which was less strange since they were good friends. Jared and Paul joined them after a minute, and there wasn't even a hint of animosity between them; they didn't even tense up when Eleazar and Carmen came over, despite not having met them before. Only Leah and I stayed a little separate, though we sat side by side on the door step in a sort of mutually agreed-upon silence.
“Hey Bella,” Emily said from behind us, and I stood up and turned to face her fully, smiling.
“Hi Emily,” I said. “I'm so glad you guys could make it.”
“Me too.” she agreed. Then she held out a wrapped package. “Here. This is for you.”
I was a little astonished; I hadn't really expected to get more presents. “Oh Emily, you shouldn't have.”
She shook her head. “Don't worry. Jacob's told me how you are about gifts, and this is entirely home made. It's kind of a tradition.”
Curious, I tore open the paper. Inside were three folded blankets, one pink, one purple and one blue, all beautifully embroidered with what I assumed were Quileute tribal symbols. They were made of soft, downy fabric, and each had a name across the top, cut out of silky fabric in a slightly darker shade than the rest of the blanket.
“You made these?” I asked disbelievingly.
Emily blushed and shrugged, her scarred face pulling up a half smile. “Well, I had a little help from Sue. It's a Quileute thing. When a woman has a new baby, the other women of the tribe are supposed to come together to make the child a blanket, with totems and patterns for health and prosperity. And I thought, since you guys are practically family now, we should do the same for you.”
I was touched by her kindness, and I couldn't help but give her a hug.
“Thank you.” I said fervently. “They're beautiful.”
I pulled back and took her hand, still smiling. She was smiling too, though she looked a little startled by my enthusiastic response.
“Come on, let's go see what they think of them.” I urged, and she let me lead her over to where the children were playing. Leah followed, perhaps out of curiosity, perhaps because she didn't want to be left alone.
“Look guys,” I said, crouching down near them. “Come see what Emily made for you.”
The kids loved their blankets. Lizzie put hers around her shoulders and snuggled into it right away; it swallowed her up completely. Then she put her arms up toward Emily, a sweet little smile on her face. Emily glanced at me, and I nodded encouragingly. Then she leaned down and picked Lizzie up very carefully. Lizzie kissed her on the cheek and gave her a hug, and Emily's half-smile was soft and happy.
Nessie was looking up at Leah curiously.
“What are you looking at?” Leah asked, shifting a little uncomfortably.
“Daddy says you might be our aunt one day.” Nessie said matter-of-factly. Leah's eyes went wide, she spluttered a little, and the boys laughed.
“Don't laugh Jakey,” Nessie scolded him. “It's not nice.”
Jacob just grinned.
“Oh god,” Leah muttered to herself, too quiet for anyone but me to hear. “I'm going to be a leech's step-sister.”
I patted her arm sympathetically, and she jumped, clearly not having expected me to hear her.
“As long as they're happy, that's what matter's right?” I murmured, and she nodded slowly.
“I guess so. Just don't expect me to be too welcoming.”
I smiled. “I wouldn't dream of it.”
Esme opened the kitchen window then, calling for everyone to sit down. With lots of chatter, but surprisingly little fuss, everyone found a seat, and I was glad to see that they didn't immediately polarise back into their separate groups. Esme had very sensibly decided on a large round table, so there was no real head, and everyone could see everyone else. Three gaps had been left for Billy's wheelchair and the twins' high-chairs, and it took a minute for the chairs and place settings to be rearranged to fit. The older women still in the kitchen started bringing out dishes while everyone was still getting organised, putting them in the middle of the table for people to pass around when they were ready. Once everyone was sat where they wanted to be, no one had a plate that wasn't going to use it, and all the food was out on the table, everyone quieted down a little while Carlisle thanked everyone for coming and said a quick prayer, before inviting everybody to dig in. Then the chatter started up afresh, silly stories and laughter interspersed with requests to pass the potatoes or the turkey or the stuffing. Crackers were produced from somewhere, and occasionally somebody would pull one; each time the little 'bang' sounded around the table, Lizzie jumped, EJ crowed excitedly, and everyone else cheered. When dinner was at last cleared away, having been mostly consumed by the wolves, and dessert was served onto plates, Alice set about shushing everyone. I was completely confused, not knowing what was going on. Edward was grinning in anticipation of whatever it was, but when I asked him what was going on, he acted like he hadn't heard me. Eventually everyone was quiet, and Carlisle cleared his throat unnecessarily.
“Now,” he said. “I know we've done presents already, but there's one more thing that myself and the rest of the family have to give, which we wanted to save for when everyone was here.”
He got up, walking around the table to stand beside me with a wide kind smile. I looked up at him curiously, and he reached into his jacket and pulled out a plain white envelope with my name on it.
“For me?” I asked.
He nodded. “For you, and Edward and the children too. We've been working on this since the summer. It was supposed to be a wedding gift, but what with one thing and another,” he winked at Lizzie, who giggled. “We haven't had the chance to give it to you.”
He held out the envelope, and I took it, intrigued as to what it could possibly be. Edward was still grinning, as was everyone else in the family, and I felt self-conscious with everyone's eyes trained on me. I quickly opened the envelope and reached inside, pulling out an old iron key and a photograph. Studying it, I found it showed a tiny little cottage in the middle of the forest, seeming almost to grow out of the trees. It was beautiful, with roses and ivy forming a lattice up the walls, a thatched roof with a chimney letting out a little trail of smoke, and a tiny little patch of garden in front.
“What is this?” I asked, still a little confused.
Alice giggled. “It's a house silly. For you.”
“We thought you guys might want a place of your own,” Esme chipped in. “It's only small, but it's big enough for the five of you, and certainly better than squeezing all of you into the top floor of the house. We've already moved everything over, so you just need to take your Christmas presents back with you and you're all set.”
“It's a miracle you didn't notice.” Rose added, grinning.
A light-bulb went on in my head, and I pointed an accusing finger at Edward. “That's where you went the other day, when you said you'd been hunting.”
He smirked at me. “Well, I couldn't tell you where I’d really been, could I? We were working on it the day the twins were born too.”
I was flabbergasted, and felt a little bit like I was going to cry. I stared at the picture for another second, then smiled widely. I got up, and went all round the table giving everyone a hug and thanking them.
I couldn't believe how lucky I was to have such a loving, caring family. They'd made so many sacrifices for me, changed their lives and even their mentalities to accommodate me, and yet they still went out of their way to give me a gift that they knew I would love. If nothing else, today had confirmed once and for all that I was where I was supposed to be. Surrounded by the people I loved, I felt, for the first time in a long time, that I truly belonged. I was not one step out of sync, as I had sometimes felt among my human friends. These were people who knew the real me, all of me, and accepted me, loved me, without question. Edward had always thought I would be giving things up to be with him, but I had always known he was wrong. He had given me so much, opened my eyes to a whole world that I hadn't even known existed. And yes, at times that world was dangerous and frightening and full of enough craziness to drive anyone mad. But it was also beautiful and full of love and affection. It was my world now, as well as his, and I felt that it always had been. As long as I had him by my side, I could face anything it had to offer.
I couldn't wait.