I was leery of the last few steps in the underground tunnel that connected us to the main house, I admit it. Edward's fingers were completely laced through mine. I felt his love surround me, I knew that though I had his forgiveness I did not have his trust. And I also began to suspect that I did not deserve it - because I would do it all over again in a human's heartbeat to get us to where we were now. We were free, living on our own. They might not be thrilled with how I did it, but I did it. And I was still proud of myself for having accomplished that much. If there had been another way to make it happen, I would have tried it.
Nor had I earned back the trust of anyone else in the family, save Jasper. Carlisle, though proud of me, had felt I had used information in an improper and dangerous way. He had been less than thrilled. It was kind of an unusual position to be in – to be the distrusted one. The one the Cullens felt they had to watch as if the slightest provocation would set me running somewhere. I began to understand what it felt like when Jasper had newly arrived all those decades ago.
I'm nervous, I thought strongly in the bubble of my shield to my mate before we joined the rest.
He smiled at me with great encouragement and whispered, "Don't be. They're your family. Bella, love, it'll be better. Someday. We just need time to recover - and that is one thing we have in overabundance."
Time. I snorted quietly. Right. I thought back to the last time I had seen the family in one place. Awkward smiles, crooked shrugs, just-a-bit-too-hesitant pats on the back, feeling the eyes of everyone watching every move, every flicker of emotion that I hid on my face... If you say so.
"I do." With a bracing smile, he opened the door and ushered me into the main house.
"Merry Christmas!" Esme called. Of course, she was the maternal one. The caretaker and peacemaker. With gliding steps, she came to us, as if she were in her home and we were - guests. "So glad you came," she murmured as she hugged me.
"Merry Christmas," I replied, looking over her shoulder, uneasiness rolling in me like dirty, churning sea water when I noted the tension around her eyes. Distant, polite smiles returned my greeting.
Jasper, though, grinned at me, from over his laptop computer. "Hey, sis. Lookin' good."
"Thanks, Jazz. You too." Beside me, Edward stiffened. Only for a millisecond, but enough for me to notice. Jasper, perhaps inured to such feelings, did not react.
Light embraces, more of those distant smiles, the discussion of a family hunt – and slowly, the atmosphere became less stilted. More "normal." "Christmas dinner," Emmett joked with an airy wave toward the world outside the insulated windows of the Main House. "A time of family togetherness."
"But first, presents!" Carlisle said with a flash of boyish enthusiasm. That he, the oldest of us all, could find that kind of spirit for this day encouraged me. As if we shed heavy, awkward cloaks, we all began to lighten up a little. The cloaks, though off, were draped lightly within view, however.
Laughter, the same funny stories were told as they had been every Christmas before the Volturi scattered us. Each of them shared their favorite Christmas with the Cullens, one by one, in between opening presents.
"...And then," I concluded at the end of my turn, "Edward let me open my eyes and you were all tying a bow around my Camaro and I was so overwhelmed!" I met each pair of dark amber eyes – we all needed to hunt. "You really are the best family ever."
"Okay, enough with the sucking up," Rosalie said on a sigh. "Your turn to give a gift to your husband. That one," she suggested, pointing at a slender box I had picked up to give to him privately. At my panicked expression, Rose's lips slid into a most mischievous, sly smile. "Come on, Bella. You know the rules."
If I could have blushed, I would have. "But that was supposed to be private," I whispered. My eyes met Edward's and he appeared concerned, but he didn't say anything to release me from this part of the tradition. "Please?"
Amusement and curiosity and some small wickedness lit his whole expression. "It was in the stack to come over," he assured me. "Maybe you've mistaken that box for another?"
"Oh, come on, Edward! You know that isn't possible."
I next sought refuge with Jasper. But he pulsed a wave of helpless amusement at me and I sighed and visibly cringed. "Okay, okay..."
I flashed to the arrangement of gifts under the tree – Esme and Alice always managed to make everything look like it was created for a magazine layout – and collected the small box from Rosalie, who was holding it.
Alice, of course, knew what it was. I was doing my level best not to shield myself from any of the special gifts in the family unless it was during private time between myself and Edward. That, no one begrudged us. Taking the silver-wrapped box, I made my way with lagging steps to my husband to walk the plank of Cullen amusement at my expense. "Merry Christmas."
His smile was warm as he tugged me gently to sit on his lap. I sighed and buried my face in the slope of his shoulder. Long fingers made short work of the paper and he found the Tiffany-blue square box. I had gone with Tiffany – a big surprise by the audible gasps of the family – because he liked that store and this was a gift to appeal to his sense of what was valuable as well as his sense of humor.
"Tiffany, my Bella? I can hardly wait," he murmured into my hair.
Anticipation was tangible. I curled up into a ball on his lap.
"What is it, Bells?" Emmett called from his place near the fire. "You weren't so scared a few months ago!"
"Enough!" Edward shot back, irritated on my behalf.
Jasper blinked at him in surprise before shaking his head at Emmett. Edward, frowning a little, flipped the lid of the box off...
To reveal a beautiful, diamond-studded...
Collar. With a thin golden leash. I threw my shield up immediately to encompass just our two minds.
It was meant as a promise, I informed my stunned spouse. A promise that I am yours and you can keep me as near to you as you want, while I earn your trust back.
A...collar, Bella? A flurry of incredibly, unexpectedly lascivious thoughts flew through his mind - open to me because of our mutual communication in such moments, when he could share his mind with me. Then, obviously mortified, he pressed his forehead to mine. Sorry. I am sorry you caught that.
I pressed his body subtly with my own. Don't be!
But I'm also sorry that I haven't adequately communicated with you. He nuzzled my hair slowly, lovingly.
Nor I with you.
He sighed a little. We still need to work on that.
"That's what New Year's Resolutions are for," I said out loud, withdrawing my shield so we were as we always were.
Becoming more aware of the rest of the still-flabbergasted reactions of the rest of the family, I took a deep breath. "What?"
"That, Bella," Alice said with a twinkle in her eye, "is so hot."
Edward laughed – a deep belly laugh that made Christmas the best day in months – while holding up one hand. "No, Alice, I do not want to know!"
The family's conversations escalated and echoed and all, for a time, was comfortable and easy.
And Edward really, really liked the collar.