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Winter In The Air

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Winter In The Air

David Archuleta

~O.o.O~

Like music, like magic
Somehow it just happens
I could stay here forever
Nothing can compare to this moment with you
And winter in the air

~O.o.O~

Bella Swan sat on the couch in front of her Christmas tree with its lights blinking slowly, much to the annoyance of her best friend, Jasper Whitlock. He'd argued every day for the past two weeks that the lights should be stationary, but Bella had had none of it. Their Thanksgiving dinner was barely off the table before she'd dragged Jasper to the Christmas tree lot. He just didn't understand her adoration of the holiday. They'd been friends and roommates for the past three years, and he knew almost nothing about her past, other than the fact that she was from a small town with loving parents that she never saw and that she had an almost obsessive love of Christmas. She would never speak about where she came from, but she was so open about her feelings and everything else in her life. She was an enigma to him, but he loved her anyway. As a talented artist, he oftentimes found himself wanting to draw her restraint, to sketch into life the slight sorrow she carried with her.

The twinkling string of lights entwined in the tree reminded her of home while the red and gold swirl tinsel throughout its evergreen boughs reminded her of emerald green eyes and a heartwarming smile. Edward Cullen had been her first love, her only love to be more accurate. When she left home seven years ago at her mother's insistence, Bella never looked back. She missed Ed terribly, but they were never meant to be together, and she felt it was better to let him move on with his life without her. Her heart ached as it always did when thinking about him. It made her wonder if her mother was wrong-if maybe the legends and traditions could actually be broken without dire consequences, but Bella always dismissed that thought immediately. Her mother would never intentionally break her daughter's heart.

You see, Bella Swan was no ordinary girl. Her given name was Isabella Kringle, and she was the daughter of Charles and Renee Kringle, the current Santa and Mrs. Claus. She was their only child and set to inherit the mantle of Santa when the time came for Charlie to retire, which hopefully wouldn't be for at least fifty more years. Magic was woven deeply into the soil and environment of her hometown, the North Pole. It not only kept its inhabitants safely hidden from the outside world, but it extended their lifespan as well. Charlie was coming up on almost forty years of being Santa, having only fallen in love and found Renee on his very first ride as Santa Claus. Bella was born a decade later, aging like a normal human child until her growth slowed around the age of sixteen. Alice and Edward were twin elves, born just a few months before Bella came into the world. Their father, Carlisle, was Santa's right-hand man and Elven Elder who ran Santa's toy workshop.

All three children had been thick as thieves, but Bella and Edward had had a special bond. They were the best of friends, always having each other's backs. It was no surprise to either one of them when their relationship progressed to a different level when they became teenagers. They went on dates and held hands; they were each other's first kiss and sexual experience. Esme, the twins' mother, was thrilled that the pair cared so deeply for each other. She could readily see the bond that Bella and Edward had was one that wouldn't easily be broken. Carlisle, Renee, and Charlie were less optimistic, especially Renee. Bella was the Kringle's only child, and in order for the Santa Claus lineage to continue, Bella needed to marry a human male. Renee felt that indulging in a teenage romance would only hurt her daughter more when the time came for her to choose a husband, who could not be an elf like Edward.

One night, when her mother's constant browbeating became too much, Bella decided to take Renee's advice and move away for a while to experience the outside world. Her mother was right. She and Edward were only going down a path of heartbreak. She figured that even as it stood now, she was certain that she'd never love another man as much as Edward. She'd break it off with him and give him the chance to find someone else. She donned her fur-lined boots and jacket kept by her parents' front door before starting the trek to Edward's house. At only twenty-one, he'd already done well for himself at work. Although they didn't use normal human currency in the North Pole, all the residents still earned wages and worked a variety of jobs just like in the outside world. Bella herself worked at the town bakery, a job that she thoroughly enjoyed. Edward was second in command of Santa's workshops, working closely with his father. He was bright and creative and had an intense love for toy-making. Bella knew that her father was confident that Edward would easily fill Carlisle's shoes when the elder elf decided to retire.

As the snow flurried softly around her face, Bella slowly walked past the white picket fence with an old-fashioned lantern blazing at the end of Edward's walkway. It was their private joke that she was always welcome when the light was burning. That lamp was always blazing, every single night. It was one of the things that had always brought Bella comfort-that Edward loved her and would always be there for her. As she knocked on his front door, her heart ached for what she was about to do, but there was really no other choice in her mind. She couldn't let the legacy of Santa Claus die because of her selfish heart. No, she had to be an adult and sacrifice for the good of the entire world-even though it felt like her own life was spinning out of control.

Back in the present, Bella sighed and opened her teary eyes. She wouldn't continue down that path of torturous memories. She couldn't bring herself to relive the look on Edward's face when she broke up with him and explained that she was leaving for the outside world and to find her true love. His face contorted in pain, like a knife had been dug deeply into him, and she physically felt his pain. She hoped that if he thought she would find love again, maybe he'd give himself the chance to do the same. But in the end, she knew that her true love was the elf who lived on Cotton Street in the pale blue house with cinnamon shutters. Whatever marriage and love that she found outside the North Pole would always pale in comparison to Edward. She'd be living a hollow life, and that made her sad.

She tried not to let herself get swallowed by her memories often, but it was hard, especially this time of year. She wanted nothing more than to go home, say screw the traditions, and throw herself into Edward's arms-consequences be damned. That's if he hadn't moved on by now. The thought of that happening made her chest hurt. As much as she wanted him to be happy, the idea of him loving another woman seared like a wound that would never heal. Bella had been out in the human world for the past seven years. She'd gone to college, made friends, and even kissed other men, but she'd never fully given herself to anyone. While she didn't think any less of the girls who chose to share their bodies freely, she could never bring herself to experience that with another man.

Bella shook herself from her reverie when she heard Jasper opening the door to their apartment.

"Bells?" he called out. "There was a strange letter for you on the doorstep."

Curious, she uncurled herself from the couch to meet her best friend by the door. The sight of the fancy stationery with calligraphy writing froze her in place. Even if she hadn't already recognized her mother's beautiful script, she'd have felt the magic emanating from the envelope. Her fingers visibly shook as she took it from Jasper's outstretched hand. His brow furrowed in concern when he noticed his friend's reaction, but he didn't say anything. Bella sat back down on the couch and slowly opened the envelope as if it were a dangerous snake coiled to attack.

After a few moments of reading, Bella looked up at Jasper with tears streaming down her face. "I need to go home," she told him, half-sobbing. He sat down next to her and took her hands in his comfortingly.

"Okay," he replied with a nod. "Let me know the details, and I'll book us a flight."

When he noticed her confused look, Jasper squeezed her hands. "Bella, you're my best friend. Obviously something is wrong at home, and I'm going to come with you. You're my family, sweetheart."

More tears cascaded down Bella's cheeks as she flung herself into Jasper's arms to hug him tightly. When she had calmed down slightly, she wiped her tears away and steeled herself to tell Jasper about her home.

"There are some some things I want to share with you, but I need you to keep an open mind." Bella sighed before murmuring, "We're going to need tequila for this conversation."

After about an hour of talking, Jasper threw back his third shot of tequila and sat back against Bella's couch. He ran his hands through his shaggy blond hair as he thought through everything that had just been laid upon him.

"So, let me see if I can narrow this all down. Your parents are the Kringles, and you're in line to take over the Santa Claus job, but you need to marry a human in order for the magic to take effect. You fell in love with your best friend, who is an elf. When you came to realize that you could never marry him because of your destiny, you broke it off with him and came out here to move on with your life."

Bella pursed her lips slightly. "Pretty much. Except that I moved away to allow him to move on. Even back then, I knew there was no hope for us."

She sighed and closed her eyes. "I don't know why I'm making this more difficult than it needs to be. I should just suck it up and move on, but I can't. When I think of Edward, my heart aches. But when I think about never having the chance to be Santa, it aches just as much. I've literally dreamt of being Santa Claus since I was a child. I'd always foolishly imagined Edward by my side. Plus, there are so many children in this world that believe, I can't let them all down by ignoring my birthright."

Bella looked over at Jasper's contemplative face. "What are you thinking?"

He looked directly into her eyes with warmth and compassion. "I'm thinking we should look into those airline tickets if we're going to visit your parents any time soon."

Her eyes widened comically. "You-you still want to come with me?"

Jasper smiled gently at her. "Bells, you're my best friend and I truly love you. Hell, if the time comes and you need a husband, I'll say 'I do' for you."

Bella's heart melted, and she felt tears sting her eyes. "Oh, Jazz."

"I'm an artist who can work from anywhere, even a little village in the middle of nowhere. I have no family, and I have no attachments. Maybe a new life somewhere else would be good for me."

Bella swallowed the lump in her throat. If she was going to be honest with herself, she knew if she was forced to marry, she'd rather it be Jasper than anyone else. She didn't feel a romantic love for him, but it was closer than anything she'd probably feel for anyone else.

"But before I drop down to one knee," he stated with a laugh, "I have a shit ton of questions, the first and foremost being a pretty simple one. Are you sure there's no hope for you and your elf? Like, this isn't some Shakespearean or star-crossed lovers misunderstanding?"

She bit her lip and shook her head slowly. "No, my mom was pretty cut and dry about how the magic works. Edward isn't human, so it's not a possibility. Maybe we can sit down and talk with my dad more about the legends while we're there."

Jasper looked as if he wanted to say more but instead kept it to himself and nodded. "Sounds like a plan. Now how about we look at flights while I pester you with more questions?"

He gave her a goofy smile and made a production out of opening up her laptop, which brought Bella out of her sadness-for now anyway.

~O.o.O~

The following evening at the North Pole, Renee Kringle hesitantly stood in front of the pale blue house on Cotton Street. It was the only dark building in the entire town, devoid of festive decorations or lights. It had been this way for seven long years. It seemed as though more than Edward's heart left home with Bella; she had taken his Christmas spirit with her as well. Normally, Renee quietly left a plate of Snickerdoodles on his doorstep every Friday. He never answered her knock, so she'd leave them outside and notice they were gone when she passed by his house the next morning. She knew they were a favorite of his as well as her daughter's. She'd felt terribly guilty these past few years, watching this beautiful young man grow darker and colder since Bella's departure. Renee truly wished there was a way for the pair to be together, but it was hopeless. Tonight, however, she needed to speak with him in person. She knocked on the door and waited patiently, knowing that he wouldn't answer at first.

"Edward!" she called out. "Please open up! It's important, dear."

A few moments later, she heard footsteps approaching the door, which opened tentatively. Edward's green eyes were dull as he stared at Renee wordlessly. She smiled sadly.

"May I come in?"

He eyed her warily before giving her a jerky nod and opening the door wider.

"What can I do for you, Mrs. Kringle?" he asked in an icy, yet polite voice.

Renee felt an invisible force squeeze her heart. She'd been this man's second mother growing up, and the fact that he was so distant with her and everyone else in his life killed her inside. She glanced around the darkened room and sighed. The inside of the house was as gloomy as the outside.

"I just wanted to let you know that Bella is coming home to visit. I didn't want you to hear it from anyone else, or worse be blindsided when you saw her wandering around town."

Surprise and pain flashed in Edward's eyes momentarily before turning stone cold once more. He shrugged nonchalantly. He wouldn't let Bella's mother see just how much he still ached for her daughter's touch, even after all these years.

"Thank you for the heads up, but it won't be a problem. I barely remember her face anymore."

Which was an outright lie. Edward kept a framed picture of them together on his bedside table. He'd memorized every inch and curve of Bella's face during the nights where she lay sleeping beside him in his bed. It had never felt illicit or wrong though both knew deep down that their relationship wouldn't last. Bella had always felt like the other half of Edward, the piece that made him whole. Even though he knew that day would come when he had to give her up, the girl had shifted something in his soul, and it completely belonged to her. Most days he woke up and functioned on autopilot. He knew it wasn't a healthy way to live, but it was the only way he could cope without completely breaking down.

He swallowed the lump in his throat and addressed Renee once more. "Again, thank you for the warning, Mrs. Kringle, but I'll be fine. I promise not to make a scene or bother her in anyway."

Renee's eyes filled with tears. "Oh, my boy. Please at least call me Renee. I love you too much to be Mrs. Kringle."

Edward blinked back a few tears and nodded. "Sure... Renee."

She reached out and squeezed his hand. "Everything will be okay. I just know it."

He nodded again, this time just to placate the woman before him. He smiled ruefully. "I hope you get what you want, Renee," he replied, trying his best to keep the bitterness from his voice. After all, somewhere in his head, he'd never forgiven Renee for her part in his and Bella's break up. How dare she come to him, seven year later, alluding to regret and sadness over what had happened. Anger flared in his belly briefly before he was able to tamp it down.

Edward opened the door once more, and Renee took her cue to leave. She gave him one last smile before she disappeared into the night, leaving him behind to face a slew of emotions he'd been trying to bury for years. He ran his hand through his messy, copper hair and let out a frustrated sigh. How was he going to face the woman who'd taken his heart with her? He wouldn't be able to avoid her for long in this small town. Worse yet, he was set to be her right-hand man-sorry, elf-when it was her time to become Santa Claus. He needed to figure out how to deal with all of this, and soon.

He picked up his phone and called the one person he thought could help, his sister.

"Alice? Can you come over? I- I need you."

~O.o.O~

Bella's foot tapped nervously as they waited for their rental car to be released to them. The plane rides between Florida and Nunavut, Canada, were long and tiring, yet Bella had an intense excitement running through her veins. They drove their rental to a ferry that would take them to Ellesmere Island, where she and Jasper headed to a small cottage in the middle of nowhere, close to the North Magnetic Pole. There they found the magical gateway to the fabled Christmas village of North Pole. No one in the world, save the gatekeeper and the inhabitants of said village, knew of its existence.

No outsider, other than the Santa's future spouses had ever been allowed to cross the path. Once Bella showed up with Jasper, everyone would no doubt assume he was her intended husband for that very reason. She briefly worried what it would mean for Jasper if they decided not to get married, but her eagerness to see her family (and a certain elf) was foremost in her mind.

Soon enough, they were stepping through a hidden doorway amidst a slew of brilliant, flashing lights and into a snowy village square, brimming with glowing strings of Christmas lights and decorations. There was an enormous tree in the very center, surrounded by gaily lit little shops and alleyways. Holiday music played through speakers while the scents of cinnamon and pine and gingerbread were prominent in the air. Jasper glanced around him in wonder. To him, it was literally a scene out of a movie.

"This isn't real," he murmured. "This kinda stuff just doesn't exist."

Bella let out a tinkling laugh. "It does in my world."

Jasper turned to look at his best friend and marveled at the changes that had overcome her in just the few minutes since they'd been transported to this magical place. Her eyes were sparkling, and her smile was wide. Even her skin and hair seemed to take on a shining glow. He felt like he was truly seeing her for the first time. It was as if the magic of the village instantly seeped under her skin, like a parent welcoming home its wayward child. His fingers itched for his sketchbook so he could capture the joy on her face.

Bella reached out and took his hand, proceeding to pull him away from the center of town. "Come on. Let's go meet my parents."

As the pair strode hand-in-hand through the town, various people stopped to greet Bella. More than a few glanced somewhat covertly to where the pair's hands were clasped. As they walked, she tried to explain the slight physical differences between humans and elves to Jasper. While there were some minor biological ones, the most obvious was that their ears were slightly pointed at the tips, and they were normally shorter than humans. Only a handful of elves were born in each generation that would grow over six feet. Edward, she recalled with a flush to her cheeks, was one of those few. When she'd left seven years ago, he'd towered over her at six foot two.

Her heart sped up at the thought of being so close to him, yet so far away at the same time. She had no idea how she was going to be able to face him-how she'd react to coming face-to-face with her true love once more.

Before Bella even had the chance to knock on her parent's door, it was thrown open, and she was engulfed in her mother's arms. She closed her eyes and sank into the warmth she'd desperately missed these past few years.

"Mom," she sobbed, squeezing Renee tightly.

"Shh, it's going to be fine, baby girl," her mother whispered into her hair.

After allowing Bella a moment to compose herself, Renee ushered the pair inside.

"Jasper, this is my mother, Renee Kringle," Bella introduced.

Jasper took Renee's hand and kissed the back of it gently. "It's a pleasure to meet you, ma'am."

"Oh, none of that ma'am stuff!" Renee teased, tapping Jasper lightly on the chest with a smile. "Especially coming from my daughter's... friend," she said with what sounded more like a question than a statement, arching a perfect eyebrow as well.

Bella rolled her eyes good-naturedly. "Mom, it's complicated."

Renee bit back a sigh. "Life is complicated, Isabella."

Growing uncomfortable, Bella averted her eyes from her mother's face and glanced around the room. "Where's dad at? I want to check on him."

Jasper immediately noticed a guilty look on Renee's face.

"He's, um, at the workshop," she mumbled in reply.

Bella turned sharply towards her mother. "What?" she screeched. "Why is he at the shop? I thought he was really sick!"

Jasper bit his lip, trying not to smirk. It seemed that even magical beings were still regular people underneath, prone to motherly worrying and white lies. He was willing to bet that Mr. Kringle hadn't had even so much as a cold in recent days.

Renee's eyes widened comically. "He's feeling much better and wouldn't hear of taking time off so close to Christmas."

Bella narrowed her eyes, gazing speculatively at the older woman. "He wasn't sick at all, was he? Was this all just a ruse to get me to come home?"

Renee pouted slightly and nodded with tears in her eyes. "I'm so sorry, baby. We just missed you so much, it hurt."

Bella sighed, rubbing her forehead. "Was Dad in on it, too?"

Renee shook her head. "No. Well, not until I fessed up last night."

Jasper couldn't hold back the smile that spread across his face. He'd grown up in various foster homes, so he was delighted to watch their family dynamic. He placed his hand on Bella's shoulder and squeezed it lightly. He'd told her everything about his childhood, so she'd understand his attempt at comfort. She smiled up at him and rolled her eyes, silently acquiescing that she knew her mom had meant well and that she was lucky to have her.

"I get it, Mom. It was still a crappy thing to do, though. I was really worried about Dad."

Renee nodded contritely. "I know. I'm very sorry, sweetheart. It was a foolish and reckless decision."

Bella laughed. "It sounds like Dad read you the riot act already."

Renee smiled. "Yeah, well, I know I deserved it. Why don't you take Jasper down to the workshop and find your dad? As much as he wasn't happy about my scheming, he's so happy to have you home."

Bella felt a warmth in her chest and excitedly grabbed her best friend's hand. "That sounds perfect. Come on, Jazz!"

The workshop was a few blocks from the Kringle home, and Bella walked with a skip in her step. It truly felt wonderful to be home. She welcomed the chill of the air and the taste of magic on her tongue. Her steps soon slowed as their path took them down Cotton Street. She paused outside of Edward's home, and her eyes filled with tears. It was uncharacteristically dull, for lack of a better word. There were no lights or decorations visible, and there was no candle at all in the lampost outside his front door. She felt her chest constrict. Had she done this? Had he lost his Christmas spirit because of her?

Bella had never heard of an elf losing their holiday joy. She wondered if it would affect his future as Head Elf. Guilt ate away at her belly until Jasper nudged her, questioning why she had suddenly stopped to stare at the house.

"It's Edward's home," she explained in a quiet voice.

Jasper nodded in understanding. "Ah, my competition," he replied jokingly.

She knew her friend was just trying to make her laugh, but her tumultuous thoughts betrayed him. I'm sorry, Jasper, she thought. There really is no competition. My heart will always be his.

They resumed their walk in a more subdued manner before shortly coming across an enormous red brick building. The ornate sign outside declaring "Santa's Workshop" was garish and ostentatious, but it was a gag gift from a previous Head Elf to his Santa, and everyone loved it. Bella's hand tingled as she grasped the door's handle and tugged it open. The joyous sounds of happy people working brought a smile to her face. She looked around at all of the tables and boxes laid out as far as her eyes could see. So many of her childhood memories came flooding back and overwhelmed her for a moment.

She felt eyes on her and glanced upwards, towards the second floor balcony where her father's office was located. Her father was standing next to Carlisle, laughing gaily at something his friend must have said. Charlie's brown eyes were warm; his cheeks were rosy and full. He'd put on a few pounds over the years, more than likely due to all of the sweets that children left for him on Christmas Eve, but he wasn't as heavy as portrayed in story books. In fact, only a few Santas in history had ever come quite that close to being the heavy, rotund character. Carlisle still looked exactly the same as he always had: slim and pale but with a kind face. His blond hair was cut short and his blue eyes shone with mirth.

Standing next to the pair was her Edward, who was watching her intently. Their eyes met across the crowded workshop and her heart sped up. He was still very handsome but much different than the last time she'd seen him-a boy no longer. He was leaner and more muscular, his jaw sharper and covered in a light smattering of scruff. His brilliant green eyes bore into hers with such intensity that if she hadn't known him as well as she did, one would think he was angry. But then again, she figured she might not know him as well as she thought. It had been seven years, after all.

"Ho, ho, ho!" Her father's voice rang out in its deep timbre. "If it isn't my Baby Bell! Home at last."

Bella grinned as she rushed past table after table to meet her father at the bottom of the stairway, quickly engulfed in a warm hug.

"I missed you so much, Daddy," she whispered against his chest.

"I know, baby girl. I missed you, too." Bella could hear the tears in his voice and silently berated herself for having stayed away so long.

Charlie pulled back, holding Bella by the shoulders to look her over. "You look well, daughter. I see you've done some growing up."

He glanced over her shoulder to Jasper behind her. He looked back at Bella and arched an eyebrow. She shook her head and smiled.

"Dad, this is my...friend, Jasper."

Charlie let go of Bella to reach out to shake Jasper's hand. "Pleasure to meet you, my boy."

Jasper's eyes were wide with wonder. Even though he'd taken everything so far in stride, it was a bit overwhelming for him that he was shaking hands with the Santa Claus. It was a tad astounding.

Carlisle reached out his arms wordlessly for a hug, which she embraced wholeheartedly. He'd always been a man of few words but with an enormous heart. As her arms wrapped around his father, Bella's eyes strayed behind him and landed on Edward's face. He was watching Charlie and Jasper interact with a strange look on his face. It was a mix between pain and sadness. His eyes met hers and a blank mask came over his face. Carlisle noticed the looks between his son and his once-girlfriend and stepped aside, motioning his arm towards Edward. Bella took a few steps toward him and stopped just shy of arm's reach.

"Hello, Edward," she said, her voice sounding husky to her own ears.

His gaze swept across her face and down the length of her body before making their way back to look into her eyes again. She wondered if he liked what he saw. She'd changed just as much as he had. She'd lost some baby fat from her face and gained it in the form of curves around her waist and hips.

"Hello, Isabella," he replied in a shaky, albeit cold, voice.

For some reason, the coldness in his greeting, not to mention that he used her full name, stung Bella's heart. She hated that she'd hurt him so badly that he was still angry with her. She noticed that his fists were clenched by his sides. She wondered if it was in frustration or if it was to stop himself from reaching out for her. Because she knew she wanted nothing more than to fling herself into his arms. The cracks in her heart deepened at being so close to the man she loved but unable to feel him.

Something inside of her snapped at that very moment. She knew, without a doubt, that things would never work in the long term. She'd never be able to become Santa Claus and work with Edward so closely if she had to live in the same town and marry another man, or worse yet, watch him move on with another woman. Bella swallowed the lump in her throat and resolved to sit down with her father as soon as possible and bare her heart to him. She knew that if anyone knew how to fix her problem, it would be her daddy.

"Bella?" Jasper asked from behind her. Startled, she tore her eyes from Edward's and glanced back at her friend.

"Oh! Sorry, Jazz." Motioning her hands between the men, she made introductions. "Edward, this is my friend, Jasper. Jasper this is my Edward."

Bella felt her cheeks heat up and closed her eyes immediately after realizing the slip of her tongue, deciding to play it cool and hoping to not draw any attention because of it. When she looked up again, the blank mask was gone from Edward's face, and he was gazing at her with a curious expression.

Charlie placed his hands on Bella's shoulders and gave them a light squeeze.

"Edward, you'll have to join us for dinner tomorrow." Charlie piped up in his authoritative voice, leaving no question that it was more of a command than a request. "We're going to welcome home our little Jingle Bell here."

Bella was about to roll her eyes when she noticed the beginnings of a smile quirk on Edward's face. He was the one who'd given the nickname to her when they were children, and Charlie had adored it. He glanced her way, and the mask was put back into place when he noticed her watching him.

"We'll see, Charlie," he replied in a detached tone.

Charlie scoffed. "I expect to see you there, young man. It's a family gathering, and you're family. Your parents and Alice will be there as well."

Edward visibly swallowed and nodded, clearly uncomfortable but resigned to following his Santa's instructions. Bella watched him sadly. She didn't want him to be forced into a situation where he'd be miserable the entire time.

"Dad," she spoke quietly. "Don't be a bully. If he doesn't want to come, he shouldn't have to be forced."

Edward looked at her in surprise. Something warm stirred in his chest as she stood up for him, even if it was an attempt to avoid the elephant in the room-the awkwardness between the two former close friends.

"It's fine, Isabella," he murmured. "I'll just...have to endure it."

The idea that Edward would be "enduring" dinner with their families caused Bella's face to form a frown. Even though things were weird between them now, she still craved his presence; her body still ached for his touch.

Charlie clapped his hands together in triumph. That went better than he expected. "Well, now that that's settled, Bella, why don't you take Jasper on a tour around town? We have a lot of work to do here this afternoon."

Bella smiled at her father and gave him a big hug. "Alright, Dad. I'll see you later. Bye, Carlisle, Edward." She gave them a small wave, her gaze lingering on Edward's before turning away.

They'd just made it to the door with Jasper stepping outside when she felt a tug on her sleeve. She turned around and was met with brilliant green eyes just a few inches from her own.

"Bella..." Edward started to say something else but the words caught in his throat. This wasn't a conversation they should have here. "Are you busy later?"

Confused, she shook her head. "No plans. Why?"

His shot her a determined look. "I think we should sit down and talk over some things before this dinner tomorrow. It's going to be awkward, so maybe we can make it a little less so by speaking beforehand."

"Okay," she readily agreed. She wanted nothing more than to talk to him, to see if maybe there was any hope for their friendship. Then she'd sit down and have that heart to heart with her father later on.

He nodded in approval. "Right, then. Um, how about seven o'clock at my place?"

"I'll be there."

~O.o.O~

"This is a bad idea," Bella whispered into the winter air. She ran her hand through her hair nervously, before knocking on Edward's door. She should've talked to her father first. Then she'd have a better idea of how to handle this situation. She shifted from foot to foot while waiting for him to answer her knock. Sadly, she reached out to touch the lifeless lantern that hung next to the door. It was another reminder of how much things had changed. She started to wonder if maybe he really didn't want her here at all. Maybe their friendship wouldn't be salvageable.

All of her thoughts flew out of her head when he opened the door. Edward stood before her in a pair of gray sweatpants and a long-sleeved green t-shirt that said "Elf Made" on it. She couldn't help but smile, somehow just knowing that it was something that Alice had gotten him. He followed her gaze and cracked a rare smile himself. He hadn't even given a second thought to the clothes he changed into when he'd gotten home from work.

He stepped aside for her to enter the house and closed the door gently behind her. Bella looked around at her former "home away from home." It felt much colder but not in a temperature way. The pictures that had been scattered throughout the room were all gone, the walls and surfaces bare in their absence. In a corner of the room stood a bare pine tree, its owner unable to bring himself to decorate it when he felt so empty inside.

Edward motioned toward the couch. "Why don't we sit? Would you like something to drink? I have beer and soda in the fridge. I think there's a bottle of wine around here somewhere, too."

Bella shook her head. "No, thank you. I'm fine." Her fingers trembled as she unwrapped the scarf from around her neck and sat down. She was anything but fine at the moment.

"So," he spoke quietly as he sat down next to her at a respectable distance, "where do we start?" I have to admit I didn't think that far ahead."

Bella snorted slightly. That was so Edward-like. She shrugged; she honestly didn't know where to begin, either.

"I-"

"I'm-"

They both began to speak at the same time, and Bella let out a giggle as Edward laughed and ran a hand through his hair. He waved his hand at her.

"Ladies first."

Bella took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I'm sorry for everything... for leaving... for not coming back."

He gazed at her quietly before responding. "Do you... Do you regret it?"

"Be more specific. Regret what? Leaving? Coming back?"

He looked down at his feet so his eyes wouldn't betray him. "Loving me."

She gasped and reached out for his hand. "Never," she whispered vehemently. "I will never regret loving you until the day I die."

Edward looked back at her, anguish clear all over his face. "Then why, Bell? Why toss me away like I was trash?"

Bella felt a sob bubble its way out of her throat. "My dream has always been to become Santa when my dad retired. My mom explained that I eventually had to find a husband-a human husband." She emphasized the word human. His eyes widened in realization. "I couldn't give up my dream, Edward."

"I wouldn't have asked you to, Bella."

"That's exactly why this couldn't work. I thought if I broke things off when we were still so young, it would be easier to heal and move on." Her heart broke at how devastated he looked.

"And how did that work out for you, Bell?" he asked, voice dripping with sarcasm. "Because it really worked out chipper for me."

She leaned forward and rested her elbows on her knees. "I'm so sorry, Ed. I didn't know what else to do," she replied in a voice thick with tears.

Edward stood in a flash and started to angrily pace. "I don't know," he yelled. "Fucking talk to me, maybe? You made a decision that involved both of us and didn't even have the guts to talk to me first! Do you know how fucked up that is?"

All of his anger melted when he heard a sob burst from Bella's mouth. He dropped to his knees on the floor in front of her, reaching his hands up to wipe away the tears streaming down her face.

"Don't cry, sweetheart," he murmured. "Your tears kill me."

She leaned into his hands and sniffled. "Trust me, I know how much I screwed up. I broke my own heart, too."

Bella used the sleeve of her shirt to wipe her nose, and he couldn't help the smile that spread across his face. She was still his Jingle Bell. She loved him. She'd always loved him. A dam of sorts burst open inside his heart. He cupped her cheek with one of his palms and brought his lips within inches of hers.

"Tell me no," he whispered. "Tell me to stop, please."

Bella surprised him by taking matters into her own hands, or lips, in this case. As her mouth molded against his, her hands threaded into his coppery, auburn hair. He let out a groan against her lips when she gently scratched her nails along his scalp. Swiftly, he moved to sit on the couch, bringing Bella onto his lap to continue their kiss. He gripped the back of her neck and massaged gently as his tongue tentatively swiped along her cupid's bow. Bella eagerly opened her mouth to entangle her tongue with his.

He broke their kiss reluctantly. "Bella," he pleaded, "give me one night. Please. Give me one last night to say goodbye." If that's all he could get, he'd make enough of the memory to last his lifetime. Because there would be no one else, there couldn't be. Isabella Kringle owned him, heart and soul.

"I can't," she gasped, trying to catch her breath from their kiss.

He sealed his eyes tightly and rested his forehead against hers. Disappointment and anguish washed over his body; he could feel it all the way down to his bones.

"All right, I understand."

Bella pulled back and moved her legs so that she was straddling his waist. She grasped both sides of his face firmly, yet gently.

"No, you silly elf. I mean that I can't say goodbye to you. I don't have the strength to stay away from you anymore."

Desire flared in his emerald eyes. "Then don't."

Their lips crashed together and hands began to roam, exploring places that they'd been missing for years. Bella pulled at his shirt until he ripped it off and flung it over his head. At the same time, she grasped the hem of her sweater and made a similar motion. She sat back on his knees, her pale blue bra covering her breasts, and let her gaze take in the changes to Edward's body. She reached out and ran her hands along the light muscles on his chest. He was also taking in the differences to Bella as well. Her breasts were fuller and her hips had taken on a curvier feel to them. He ran his fingers across the lace of her bra, feeling himself harden when she let out a shudder at the feel of his fingertips, just barely grazing the swell of her breasts. He leaned his head down and placed a gentle kiss directly over her heart.

With passion still coursing through her veins Bella felt a surge of adoration for the man beneath her.

"It's only been you," she confessed. "No one else has ever come close to owning my heart or my body."

A possessive surge ran up Edward's spine, and he kissed her passionately. "It was the same for me, Bell. You're my heart."

He put his hands on her ass and stood up, helping her wrap her legs around his hips. Bella squealed in laughter as they maneuvered the stairs up to his bedroom. Not one more thought was given to anything other than the connection and adoration that flowed between them. Something would need to be figured out, but this wasn't the time. It was the time to reconnect. They both knew that that no matter what happened going forward, they wouldn't surrender each other again.

~O.o.O~