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Seeds of Survival

A/N: Unending thanks to my beta, LJ Summers for her patient tutelage, continued support, unstinting red highlighter, and snarky love. ;-D

The snow had settled on the ground for good, and Christmas was only a few days away. I checked on everything almost obsessively, knowing we were bound closely to the house until spring. Every time I looked east, my chest ached, feeling I wasn't honoring the promise I'd made to Emmett. I had slipped onto their land several times to observe from a distance, and all appeared to be well. It wasn't much, but given Bella's rigid refusal, it was all I could do. Now, they would be on their own until the snow melted.

How do I help someone who refuses my help?

The next morning, about mid-morning, I thought I heard a voice call out above the howl of the wind.

That's not possible. I must be hearing things. No one would be abroad in this weather.

I paused and stepped closer to the entrance of the barn, listening carefully.

There it is again. I swear that's a voice calling.

I stepped out into the whipping wind, and tried to screen my eyes from the blowing snow so I could see. It was hopeless, the swirling snow reduced visibility to only a few feet. But while I was focused on looking, I heard the voice again, a little closer, off to my left, moving past me.

"Uncle Edward!"

"Thomas! Is that you?" I hollered back. "I can't see you! Where are you?"

"I'm here, Uncle Edward! I can't see anything, either."

"Stop, Thomas! Stay where you are. Don't move, just yell!"

"Okay, Uncle Edward!"

I quickly grabbed a rope and tied one end around my waist and the other to the barn door. "Thomas! I'm going to come and get you. I have to follow your voice. Keep shouting!" I started out into the raging wind.

"Papa! No!" It was Mattie standing in the doorway of the house.

"Mattie! Get back inside!"

"No, Papa! Don't leave me!"

"I'll be back, Baby. Don't worry. See, I've tied a rope around my waist. Your cousin Thomas is out there and I have to go get him. Stoke the fire, so we can warm ourselves when we get back. Do it. Now."

She knew that tone of voice brooked no argument and disappeared inside unhappily. I turned into the wind again. Thomas and I shouted back and forth, and I moved closer to him in the blinding whiteness. It seemed to take forever, but I'm sure it was only a few minutes before I saw a dark shape looming in front of me.


"Uncle Edward!"

"Come on, son. Let's get you inside. You must be freezing."

I put my arm around his waist and half carried him, reeling us in with the rope around my waist. He was exhausted and shivering violently. I knew he'd been outside, exposed to the bitter cold, too long.

I had him stripped down to his union suit, wrapped in several blankets, with his feet propped up in front of a roaring fire before ten minutes had elapsed. Mattie silently handed him a cup of coffee; and he sat shivering constantly as he tried to speak, "I-i-i-it-t-t. . . ."

"Save your energy, Thomas, until you're warmer. It'll keep." I joined him in front of the blazing fire and Mattie draped me in the only blanket left, then handed me a cup of coffee. I stroked her hair in thanks, and she crawled into my lap. She was really too big for such a thing, but I indulged her, knowing she was frightened and upset.

As his shivers slowed, my exasperation grew and I finally spluttered out, "Thomas, what were you thinking? What are you doing out in this storm?"

He looked into his cup. "It's Ma. She's bad off. She wouldn't let me come, but I didn't know what else to do. I'm sorry, Uncle Edward. I'd have come a long time ago — I know you needed my help on the farm — but she forbade me, and I couldn't disobey her. . . ." His words came out in a rush and his lips trembled.

"I know, son. That's for another time. Tell me what's happened now. You said it's your Ma?"

"Yessir, she took sick a few days ago. I tried to take care of her, but she kept saying she was fine, that I had enough to do without having to nurse her. She could hardly get out of bed yesterday morning, and today, she wouldn't wake up. I didn't know what to do. I panicked, and came to get you. When I started out before light, it wasn't so bad. But the snow got deeper and I left my snow shoes at home, and I floundered a bit. Just as I could see the smoke from your chimney, the wind came up. I knew I was close, so I tried to keep moving in the same direction and I started hollering, hoping you'd hear me."

It was the most anyone had spoke in my house since Alice and the children died. I gaped slightly to hear it, not what he'd said, but simply the volume and quantity.

"Well, I'm glad you were smart enough to shout. You were heading out into the prairie by the looks of things when I found you."

A violent shiver ran through him just then, and I didn't think it was entirely from the cold. We spoke a bit more about his mother and the symptoms of her illness. It was the grippe for sure, and Thomas was clearly out of his mind with worry about her. I sighed and shook my head.

She's so stubborn; she'd rather die than admit to weakness. She won't even let her own son take care of her when she's sick. How thoughtless. I never did see what Emmett saw in her.

But, I'd promised Emmett, and his son had risked his life to come to me for aid. I couldn't let either of them down.

"I guess we'll have to go get her and bring her back here," I sighed.

"Oh, Uncle Edward, I don't think she'll like that. She probably won't let you do it."

"Well, I won't leave my house and my livestock to tend to her, and I won't send Mattie alone. The only option is for her to come here. That's it. That's all there is to it," I stated flatly.

Neither Thomas nor Mattie argued with me. They both knew better.

~ o ~

By the time the wind died down, Thomas and I were warm and dry, Mattie had fed us all a hearty lunch, and Thomas and I had discussed options for bringing Bella back here. There was no way to take a wagon, the snow was too deep, and we couldn't carry or drag her ourselves, it was too far. I had seen some Indians on one of my hunting excursions in the summer using a sort of sledge behind their horses that dragged on the ground and carried large bundles. I made a crude drawing for Thomas, and we agreed it was our best bet.

Thomas and I went down to the riverbank to hunt for two trees that might serve as poles for our sledge. Mattie didn't like to go down to the river, so she stayed on the crest of the wash watching us. Luckily, we found two trees of roughly equal size almost right away, quickly felled them and stripped them of their branches. Mattie carefully joined us then to help carry the branches back to the house. I'd shown her by example that we couldn't afford to let anything go to waste, and she knew that wood was a valuable resource.

After we harnessed up the horses, I started lashing the poles in place while Thomas scrounged up a smallish piece of canvas and a couple of saddle blankets to tie between our makeshift poles. It didn't look like much, but it held together when Mattie climbed on to try it out. I bundled her up in every blanket we had before setting off for Emmett's. The snow was deep, so Thomas and I walked ahead of the horses, breaking the trail. It was exhausting, slow work and it was past dark by the time we reached their soddy.

As Thomas tended the horses, I went in and checked on Bella. She was still alive, though unconscious, and it appeared she had tried to get up at some point during the day. The fire was out and it was bitterly cold inside their dwelling. Mattie quickly laid and sparked a fire, then rooted around in their stores for food. We all needed a hot drink and something to eat after the long, cold excursion.

I went back out to the barn to help Thomas. Old Jack and Bill had worked hard that day, and I wanted to be sure their feet and legs were okay — no ice packed into their hooves — and give them an extra pat for their effort. Thomas had tended to them carefully and well. He was good with animals, something I hadn't noticed before.

When we returned to the house, the lantern was lit, the fire was blazing cheerfully, the smell of food cooking mouthwatering, and best of all, Mattie had coffee ready and waiting for us with two empty cups warming on the hearth.

"Thank you, sweet baby girl," I murmured into the top of her head, kissing her lightly and stroking her hair. She smiled at me and went back to her cooking.

"It looks like Ma tried to get up," Thomas said from beside the bed. He held his mother's hand in his and stroked her forehead lovingly. "I can't tell if she's cooler or not though." He frowned.

"Come get a cup of coffee, Thomas. Warm yourself by the fire. If your hands are like mine, they're so cold, I'm surprised you can feel anything." I smiled warmly at him. Of all Emmett and Bella's children, he was the one I knew least, lost in the middle of a big family.

After we ate, Mattie dipped a small cup of broth out of the cooking pot. She hesitated before going over to Bella's still form in the bed and looked up at me, her eyes wide. She was afraid of Bella, I knew. I sighed and took the cup from my daughter's hand. Thomas seemed relieved when I didn't hand it to him, but took it myself to the bedside.

"Bella? Bella, you need to drink this. Come now, just a few sips." I propped her up with one hand and held the cup to her lips with the other. When the warm liquid touched her lips, she parted them slightly and allowed me to tip some inside her mouth. In this way, she drank about half the cup without speaking or opening her eyes. She was very weak and lost inside the fever. I laid her back down, and drew the blanket up to her chin before drawing the curtain partway for her privacy.

Thomas, Mattie, and I sat in front of the fire and discussed our options. I wanted to be sure to include Mattie as what was happening – the changes to our households affected everyone. Either way we looked at it, the two households would have to be merged, at least for the time being.

I refused to abandon my land and I wasn't sure I wanted to continue the claim on Emmett's. When we filed our homestead claims, we ceded title to each other in case of death or abandonment because women weren't allowed to own property on their own. Of course, we didn't want to burden our wives with such business, so Bella had no idea she was living on what was now my land.

I would not live under her or any woman's shrewish thumb. Alice and I worked together as a team to run our land and home, but I only knew Bella as an adversary. Living in what she deemed to be her house on her property was out of the question. It didn't matter that she had no real rights of any kind, I knew how Emmett had indulged her and let her rule his roost. I would never abide that myself, and I refused to subject Mattie to her tyranny. I knew it would be hard enough for Bella to have to heed my rules. It was really very simple: we would have to move Bella, Thomas, and their livestock to my farm. I turned to Mattie, but before I could ask, she spoke.

"It's alright, Papa. It is what needs to be," was all she said.

Thomas made a weak attempt to argue that he would be fine on his own, but I could see the relief in his eyes when I first told him what I'd decided. I could see he was trying his best to be the man of the house, but that the burden was very heavy and wearing him down. Moving Bella was definitely a risk as the grippe had a strong hold on her, but I knew I had to do it before she woke, or she'd refuse and we'd all be back to where we started, and I couldn't have that, either. The proverbial rock and hard place. I had to choose the best for the whole family, not just one member, but I wasn't happy about it and I knew there would be hellfire when Bella woke. If she woke.

I've never wished ill on anyone my entire life, but I have to admit it would be easier on us all, including her, if she passed in the night.

The next morning, at first light, we finalized our preparations to leave Emmett's homestead for mine. Thomas and I foraged again for saplings to made a second sledge to hitch to his team. We'd decided to make several trips back and forth before trying to move Bella. If I was going to house them and their livestock for even a short duration, supplies would have to be brought as well. And, the more we traveled back and forth, the path would become beaten down, hopefully providing easier passage for our human cargo.

Thomas and I trudged back and forth all day carrying food and supplies while Mattie watched Bella. She'd refused broth when Thomas and Mattie tried to feed her, but she sipped for me as she had the night before when I tried at lunch time.

On our last trip, we brought Bella and Mattie. We had been extremely lucky, it had been a fair day with little wind, for which I was grateful. I dragged Samuel's old cot closer to the hearth and Mattie took care of settling Bella into bed so Thomas and I could look after the animals. It took all our efforts to get everyone settled in and the livestock bedded down for the night before dark.

Bella's condition remained unchanged for days. We all took turns keeping the fire going all hours. She refused any and all food offered by Thomas or Mattie, but she would part her lips and swallow for me.

Thomas and I spent the next several days making endless trips between the two houses, bringing wood, feed, and food from their farm to mine. We enlarged my barn by packing the snow into high walls, having nothing else to build with. Improvising, we used the wagon ribs and small trees to fashion a frame over which we stretched the canvas wagon covers to make a roof.

Suddenly, it was Christmas morning. In all the fuss, I'd forgotten, but the children hadn't. Mattie cooked all day, preparing a special feast, and I rooted out the long-forgotten package from town, bought all those months ago so my children and my wife would have something today. I sat on my bed with the curtain drawn for privacy.

I opened the paper parcel slowly, and let my fingers drift over the contents. A pretty shawl for Alice, a woolly scarf for Samuel, hair ribbons for the girls, a book or two, a small soft blanket for the baby, and a small bag of penny candy. I wasn't aware I was crying until a tear splashed against the brown paper. I let the sorrow wash over me for a minute, let myself feel my own sadness and grief at all I'd lost before I dried my tears and went to celebrate what I had left.

Thomas could use a new scarf. His is tattered and full of holes. Mattie would be rich in hair ribbons now, not that she ever wears them anymore. Maybe I should hold onto those until her birthday in the spring...

"Papa?" Mattie's soft, shy voice spoke from the other side of the curtain.

"Yes, baby girl."

"Are you all right? Do you need something?"

"No, sweetheart. I'm fine. Don't worry. I'll be out in just a minute. I bet supper is just about ready isn't it?"

"Yes, sir."

"It smells so good; I wouldn't miss it for the world."

I pulled a few things from the parcel, and tied the rest back into the brown paper before putting it back on the shelf over the bed. When I went back into the main room, Thomas was still outside, and Mattie was bent over the fire, so I quickly slipped the presents next to their plates on the table. Although Bella slept through Christmas, we did our best to include her in the festivities as we sang, danced, and played games around the table after dinner.

~ o ~

It was just before New Year's when Bella finally woke up. I had to hand it to her, she was a fighter, having lingered in a fevered delirium for over a week. The past couple of days, she'd been a little stronger, willing to take some gruel from me, and as I spooned a little bit into her mouth, she suddenly groaned.


"No, Bella. It's Edward."

Her eyes fluttered open and she struggled to focus on my face.

"Emmmmmmett? Wh... where's..."

"He's not here, Bella." She weakly tried to rise, and couldn't even lift her head. "Please eat a little more gruel. You've been sick for a long time and you're very weak."


"Shush now and eat. Rest. It will all make sense later, I promise." She was too weak to argue with me for once, and simply ate several more spoonfuls of gruel before drifting back to sleep. As I laid her back on the pillows, Thomas burst through the door with Mattie close at his heels.

"Ma! Ma!" he shouted. Her eyelids fluttered. "Mattie said you were awake!"

"Thomasssss," she murmured.

He quickly took my place at her bedside. She tried to open her eyes again, but she was too tired. Thomas took her hand and placed it on his cheek. "Ma, oh, Ma!" The tears began to overflow, and she managed a "shhhhh" before she slipped into unconsciousness.

"Noooo!" Thomas cried, sobbing into her chest.

"Quiet, son, she's just sleeping now. It's all right. Her fever seems to have broken in the night. She's not out of the woods just yet, but it's a good sign." I rested my hand on his shoulder and squeezed slightly. He just nodded and sniffed, wiping his nose and eyes on his sleeve, and I could suddenly see the little boy he'd been. "You stay here and keep your mother company. I'll take care of the livestock this morning. Don't you worry."

I caught Mattie's eyes and spoke to her with mine. We both silently bundled up and went outside to give Thomas some privacy with his mother. Mattie and I stayed outside for the rest of the morning. Once the animals had all been fed and watered, and their stalls mucked out, Mattie and I made snow people in the side yard. She "accidentally" shoved a handful of snow into my face and I pretended to be angry and chased her around as she squealed. Thomas came out to see what all the fuss was about, and a rowdy two-against-one snowball fight rapidly ensued. They pelted me with so many, I didn't stand a chance and called uncle once I was completely covered, trying to make the fun last. They turned on each other then and Mattie led him on a merry chase.

I knocked as much snow off of me as I could and entered the house still chuckling. I stripped off my outer garments, ready to warm myself and dry my damp clothes by the fire. When I turned around, Bella was awake and watching me.

"What's going on? Why am I here? I demand you take me home!" Her voice was unexpectedly strong.

I swallowed down my anger. "What's going on is my attempt to keep you alive. You are here so we can take care of you while you're ill. I refuse to take you home until you've recovered."

"Don't you take that tone with me. I am not your wife or child."

Thank God.

"No, you're not. But you are my brother's wife, and I am duty-bound by a promise I made to him to take care of you. To protect you and your children as my own."

"I insist you take me home."

"You are free to return home when you are well and strong enough to do so on your own. Until then, you and Thomas will remain here."

"But our livestock, our home..."

"Your livestock have been moved here where Thomas and I can look after them together. Your home will still be there when you return..."

The door slammed open, cutting me off. "Ma, Ma! You're awake!" Thomas made for the bed, still bundled up and covered in snow.

"Thomas! You naughty boy, you're getting snow all over the floor and this bed!" she reprimanded him, but I could hear her heart wasn't really in it. There was a softness in her voice I'd never heard before, tenderness for her son.

"I'm sorry, Ma." He sat up and removed his coat and scarf.

"Where'd you get that scarf? That's not yours."

"Uncle Edward gave it to me for Christmas. It's real warm. I've never had a new scarf before."

Bella looked at me and said nothing. Mattie had slipped in during all the ruckus, and she stood shyly at my side, clinging to me for reassurance.

"Baby girl, I'm starved. Can I help you get some lunch together?"

"No, Papa. It's all done. I left it warming on the hearth this morning," she whispered.

"Well, let's eat then. All that playing in the snow has made me hungry!" I tweaked her side and winked at her. It had been so long since I'd heard her laugh and squeal like the child she was. I hated to see that end so quickly because of our houseguest.

Thomas helped Bella eat some gruel mixed with stock from the stew Mattie had made. She wouldn't let him feed her, but he helped her raise her hand to her mouth as she clutched the spoon. Her strength and stubbornness constantly surprised me. Mattie and I sat at the table and ate in silence as usual. I tried unsuccessfully to make some small talk, but that was something I'd never been particularly good at.

Before light the next morning, I heard whispering in the main room. I shifted silently closer to the curtain and listened carefully. Bella was trying to convince Thomas to leave and return to their farm. Thomas didn't want to go, but he couldn't disobey his mother either. I ended the matter by rising and entering the main room, effectively cutting her off. Thomas made his escape to the barn.

To say I was angry was an understatement. I was livid. This stubborn woman was willing to jeopardize everything I'd worked so hard to take care of and protect for nothing but foolish pride and willfulness. I'd never met anyone so selfish and self-centered in all my life.

"We're leaving today. Right after breakfast. Thomas is out preparing the horses."

"You are not. You're staying right here until I say otherwise."

"I refuse. You can't keep me or my son here. You have no right."

"Oh, woman. I have every right to do with you as I see fit. Until now, I have respected your wishes over the wishes of my brother, and what I believe is right for all of us. That stops right here. Right now. I will not allow you to jeopardize your health, and the health of everyone in this house because of your foolish pride!" I was shouting now. I never shouted. I never had to.

"Pride? Pride? I can't believe you have the gall to call me prideful when you're the one making decisions for everyone else! I refuse to stay here and listen to this another minute!" And with that, she threw back the bedding and made to rise. She was too weak and wobbled, her knees starting to give out before she made it to the door.

"You are not leaving!" I roared as she caught herself on the row of coats hanging by the door. "Mattie!"

"Yes, Papa?"

"Go to the barn and ask Thomas to bring me a lead rope. Now."

"Yes, Papa," she whispered and scurried out the door.

"You have caused me to lose my temper and shout at my daughter. Get back in bed. This minute!"

"And if I don't?"

"I will put you there forcibly."

"You would hold me here against my will."

"I would, and I will," I said moving towards where she stood against the wall, clinging to my coat. Thomas came in the door at that moment.

"Thomas. We're leaving. Right now. Help me." She reached for him, but before she could touch him, I bent forward, grasped her waist, and threw her over my shoulder. I turned and bypassed the cot by the hearth, carrying her to my bed in the corner. I threw her down on the corn husk mattress none too gently. Her eyes blazed into mine with defiance and surprising strength. She moved as if to rise again, and I held her down by her shoulder.

"Thomas, bring me the rope, son."

"Don't you dare, Thomas." She turned to me and slapped me across my face. "How dareyou!Trying to turn my son against me."

"Mattie, take the rope from Thomas." My voice was deadly calm now, my eyes never leaving Bella's. "Do it now... Do you have it?" She hummed in response. "Come here and hand it to me." I held out the hand furthest away from Bella and the bed. "Thank you, baby girl," I said gently when I felt the rope in my palm. The minute I began tying one end of the rope around Bella's wrist, she began to struggle in earnest, flailing against my body with unexpected strength given her recent weakened state. In frustration, I finally climbed onto the bed and pinned her down by straddling her torso. I made quick work of tying her arm to the bed, making sure the rope was not in contact with her skin or too tight. As I went to climb off her, I looked in her face, and she spit into mine.

"There, I think that settles the issue for now. You will remain tied here until you learn some manners, some gratitude, and to be a gracious guest. In. My. Home." I ground the last part out between clenched teeth.

When I looked up, the children were white with fear, their eyes as big as saucers. Neither had ever seen either Bella or I behave in such a manner. I, myself, was amazed at my own behavior.

She pushed me too far.

I walked out of the silent house, taking my coat and hat with me. I went up to the rise and sat with Alice until nightfall. I had no idea, none at all, how I was going to handle myself or anything else when I went home.

~ o ~

A strained silence filled the next few weeks. I released Bella from the restraint the following morning. Even she had to admit defeat when she stepped out the door to leave and couldn't see her hand in front of her face. Blizzards raged endlessly outside, the snow piling higher than the roof.

Thomas, Mattie, and I made the best of it, playing games, reading to each other, practicing ciphers, spelling, and writing when we were not mending tack or making prairie grass twists to burn. Bella refused to join in, despite Thomas' repeated pleas. She kept to herself, sitting in the corner in Alice's rocker, staring into the fire. We simply ignored her after a while. It was like living with a ghost.

She would stir to life when Mattie would approach the fire to cook or make coffee. Bella moved automatically, almost like sleepwalking, revealing a lifetime spent cooking. I wondered if Mattie would be like that one day, and I fervently hoped not.

Our sod house was small, and there was only one real bed. Bella and I were forced to share it at night. I kept the curtain open to quash any impression of impropriety. Not that I could imagine kissing or touching Bella in that way. Even if she weren't so difficult, she'd been my brother's wife, and I had never thought of her as anything other than a sister. We faced away from each other in the small bed, taking care never to touch, even in sleep.

We passed the rest of the winter this way. Not touching, barely speaking, simply existing in the same small space together. Mattie and I did our best to give Thomas and Bella time and privacy alone together, but Bella never showed the same courtesy in return. I was relieved that she'd stopped fighting me, but I was worried about her listlessness as the weeks passed. It was as if the fire in her had been snuffed out that day she'd spent tied to the bed. She slowly began to join in with the daily chores over time, but remained silent, aloof, and distant.

I hadn't been able to visit Alice and the children since that frightful day because of the deep snow. I longed for her advice, her wisdom. I knew she would know what to do because she always did, especially when I didn't. I tried to talk to her when I was out getting wood or water a few times, but I seemed only able to feel her comfort when I was up on the rise.

Late one night, after the snow began to melt, I was roused by something. I lay still, listening to see what had awakened me. There was nothing but silence. Just as I was drifting back to sleep, I heard a soft noise beside me. I waited, listening again intently. The sound repeated, and I realized Bella was crying. I rolled over carefully, and started to speak before I realized she was still asleep.

She's crying in her sleep. I lay back onto the pillows staring up at the ceiling pondering this new information. I'd never seen Bella cry, ever. I didn't think she was capable of it.

Two days later, the sound of a rifle shot rolled across the melting snow to my ears where I was walking in the far field. My heart stopped at the sound, and I ran towards the soddy in dread.

Oh, no! What has befallen us now?

As I approached, I saw the first wisp of smoke rising into the air down by the river and changed direction. Cresting the edge of the bank, I stopped dead in my tracks stunned by the scene below me. Bella had built a small but raging fire and was dropping something in her hands into the blaze, my rifle lying discarded nearby. Mattie was standing stock still between us. I could tell she was frozen in fear. I strode past her, touching her gently on my way. As I approached, Bella dropped more brush on the fire, continuing to stoke it and keep it blazing.

"Bella?" I spoke softly, not wanting to startle her. She didn't immediately look up from the task before her. "Bella?" I tried again. She turned to me and captured my eyes with her fierce beauty. Her eyes were ablaze, hair loosened from its pins and blowing around her head, cheeks flushed, lips pressed into a thin red line.

"Mattie!" she yelled sharply. "I told you to go to the house! Go. Now." I turned to see my daughter running for home. I turned back to Bella and realized her whole body was shaking.

"Bella? Bella, what happened? What is it?" I looked down at the fire near her feet.

"A-a-a. . . A r-r-rac-c-c-oon," she stuttered, clearly struggling to speak. "A-a-a r-rabid r-rac-c-oon in-n the dug-gout."

Oh. My. God. "Mmmaa. . ." I couldn't get her name out.

"S-she's f-fine."

Oh thank God. I almost collapsed in relief. I looked up at Bella. "Are you. . ."

"I s-shot it b-before. . ." She wrapped her arms around her chest, and raised her eyes to the horizon, staring unseeingly before her. "I. . . I. . ." she swallowed hard. "I can't lose another one, not now." She spoke so softly, I almost didn't hear the words.

I unconsciously leaned forward in time to see a tear trickle slowly down her cheek. I raised my hand and hesitated, unsure of the correct action, and finally settled on touching her shoulder. Only after I squeezed lightly did she react by raising a hand and placing on top of mine. We stood there in silence until the fire died down, the carcass reduced to ash.

"You didn't touch it, did you?"

"No. Not with my bare hands. I used a rag."

The next morning, I put on a fresh pair of socks, and noticed that the holes in the toes had been mended. I looked at Mattie questioningly, and she cut her eyes towards Bella and then back to me.

Huh. She darned my socks. That was nice. I didn't know she'd even noticed the holes. I followed her lead and said nothing, though I gave her a shy smile when she handed me my morning coffee.

And just like that, the thaw began inside and outside the little sod shack on the edge of the prairie in earnest.

~ o ~

Soon enough, the rest of the snow melted, and the spring rains came. Thomas and I began plowing the fields as soon as the ground was soft and dry enough. Bella and Mattie would follow behind us, hoeing the seeds into the freshly tilled soil. I started with Alice's old garden, behind the barn, so that our food would begin to grow as we plowed and planted our crops.

Thomas was clearly better with animals than he was with farming, and he and I discussed possibly using most of their land for ranching. We had to cultivate at least part of their acreage, and needed to keep making improvements to both parcels for five years to make good on our homestead claims. It was a lot of land for two men and two women to tend, but Bella and Thomas were both adamant about holding on to Emmett's claim. I reluctantly agreed, and hoped we'd be able to find a sharecropper or tenant farmer willing to take on some of the load.

When we'd moved west the previous spring, our families were the only two out here. We had no neighbors for miles. As the weather warmed and April became May, more families arrived, looking for their own land to claim. One day, a Mr. Banner and his young son approached me as I was plowing in the field. On my last trip to town, I'd spread word that I was looking for a sharecropper or tenant farmer. Mr. Burns, at the general store, had sent Banner my way. He'd lost his wife and four of his five children on the journey, and just didn't have the heart or the strength to stake a claim. He planned to return home in the fall after the harvest came in.

I had him work with me for the week, and sent his son to work with Thomas. After seven days, there was no doubt he was a good fit, willing to work hard for a fair return. He and his son settled happily in Emmett's sod house, and they picked up tending the crops and fields. Thomas happily gave up his plow, and took part of the families' savings to buy a few calves and two promising yearling horses.

I went to visit Alice one day, and suddenly realized that a year had passed. One down, four to go, and this land would be mine free and clear. The visit was sad as always, but the thought was liberating and I entered the soddy with a whistle on my lips that night. Bella looked up with a warm smile at the sound, and I couldn't help but smile back. Her smile really lights up her eyes. How did I not notice that before?

That night, I dreamed of Alice.

It was the first night we'd slept on the land since I'd filed the claim. The first night on what would be our land. We couldn't stop smiling, and once the children were asleep, we couldn't keep our hands off each other. We made love quickly and passionately rolling on the ground just out of earshot of the children for privacy. We returned to camp disheveled and giggling like children.

Once we lay down by the dying campfire, sleep settled over us quickly. Later, in the dark of night, I roused slightly, cold, and reached beside me for my warm wife. I snaked my arm around her waist and drew her to me, pressing her back into my chest.

"Mmmmmm. . . warm. . . ." I sighed into her hair. It was so soft and she felt so good in my arms. I vaguely heard her soft sigh as she snuggled back into my body, resting her arm on top of mine and twining our fingers together. "Mmmmmm. . . feels good," I sleepily nuzzled the back of her neck, feeling myself harden between us. She hummed softly in response and pressed against me further. I groaned quietly, waking a little more, and moved my lips to the side of her neck, rocking my hips against her gently. She moaned a little louder; her hand reached back and stroked my thigh.

I was almost awake now, and I rolled Alice to her back, my lips seeking hers in the darkness. Her name on my lips, I pressed our bodies together and kissed her. . . .

I jerked awake and pulled back from the warm body below mine. What in tarnation! I was half asleep and confused, but it was definitely not Alice in my arms. I lurched back across the bed frantically. "Bella! I'm sorry! I was. . . I was dreaming. . . ." I rubbed my hand over my face and into my hair horrified at my own behavior.

This is bad, this is real bad. She's Emmett's wife for goodness sakes, not yours. Oh God. . . .

"Mmmmm. . . Edward? What's wrong?" Bella's voice jarred me out of my thoughts. "Did you have a nightmare?"

You could say that. "Um, yeah, I uh. . . . I'm sorry I woke you."

"Well, it was only a dream. Go back to sleep." She sighed and rolled over, drifting back to sleep.

I may never sleep again. Thank God she didn't wake up in the middle of my assault. I didn't want to think about what might have happened if she had. I lay back on the pillows finally, and remained awake the rest of the night.

~ o ~

I did my best to keep my distance from Bella after that, but she didn't make it easy. She'd come to the field to bring me a cool drink of water, or tuck an extra slice of pie in the lunch basket she sent with Mattie. There were no more holes in my clothes, each one carefully mended. She started to lightly touch my shoulder when she passed me at the table, and I began to look forward to coming home at night.

Her small touches and gestures increased as spring turned to summer, and my resistance continued to fade. I'd let my fingers brush hers sometimes when she handed me something to drink. Every so often, I'd catch a glimpse of her hair cascading loose down her back as she brushed it before bed. It looked so soft, and I found myself wanting to run my fingers through it. And, I woke more than once to find that we'd turned towards each other in sleep, our feet or hands touching, or our legs occasionally entwined. I didn't know what to do about any of this, so I did nothing and remained silent.

She'd become sweet and shy — like a young girl — I'd never seen this side of her. And it wasn't just me. She would carefully brush Mattie's hair each morning and evening, dressing her braids with pretty ribbons. They would giggle together sharing secrets only women knew. I loved watching my daughter bloom under her attention. Mattie had never been much given to feminine frills and such, but she was now on the cusp on womanhood, and was ready to leave some of the tomboy behind.

A grand picnic was planned in celebration of my birthday even the Banners were invited to join us. The crops were in the ground and growing well, livestock healthy and thriving, and it seemed that the sadness was behind us, a fragile happiness settling over us all.

We wandered out into the tall grass fields under a brilliant blue sky to spread our blankets on the ground. After the feast, the children ran circles around us, playing some mysterious game known only to them. Mr. Banner excused himself and headed for home, letting his boy stay and play. It was so rare that there was time to sit like this, for the children to play and be children, and I was having a hard time relaxing.

Bella reached over and lightly rubbed my back, sensing my tension, our eyes glued to the joy running loose in the field in front of us.

"I miss them," she suddenly said quietly. I didn't have to ask whom.

"I miss them, too," I murmured back.

"I never thought that Emmett would go first. I was so mad at him when he died and took Matthew and Mark with him." She looked down to her lap and sighed. "I never wanted to come here. This was his dream, not mine. And now I'm here, and he's gone."

I took her hand. "I know, and I'm sorry. I knew you were out-voted when we all decided to travel west. It's beautiful here, but I honestly don't know if I'd have agreed to come if I'd have known what was going to happen."

She caught my eyes and held my gaze, the warmth radiating from them surprising me. "I have something for you, for your birthday."

"You didn't have to. . . ."

"I know. I wanted to. You've done so much for me, for Thomas. This is my way of thanking you. I'm not good with words, you know. That was Emmett's job."

"Yeah? He did that for me, too." I smiled.

"I know." She smiled sweetly and reached into her basket, withdrawing a folded bit of fabric that she handed to me.

I looked closer at the fabric in my hands and realized it was store bought, not homespun. And it wasn't just a piece of fabric, it was a shirt, sewn for me by hand. Her hands.

When did she. . . . "When did you. . . ."

"Sometimes when you were in the fields for the day and I could sneak a little time away from my chores. Mostly late at night when you were sleeping. You snore, you know." She nudged my shoulder with her own, her smile widening.

I couldn't believe she'd given up sleep to sew me a shirt as a surprise and a thank you. I looked earnestly into her eyes, and saw truth, love, and gratitude there. "Thank you, Bella. It's very handsome. I will wear it with pride. Thank you." I hoped my eyes reflected my sincerity. My hand reached out of its own accord, and tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear.

"Edward, you have been nothing but attentive, thoughtful, or gentle with me. I was awful to you, and you took care of me anyway. You rescued me from my own stubbornness when I was sick and wanted to die. You gave me space and patience when I was living but dead inside. And you were like the gentle warm rain of spring and the sunshine when I decided to live again. Thank you."

Her eyes burned into mine with sincerity and something more. She touched my cheek. "I don't expect anything from you, Edward. I know how much you loved Alice, and I know you could never love me like that. I'm happy with the life we have, but I want you to know that there could be more, if you wanted." She broke her gaze away at the end, afraid of what she might see in my eyes.

"Bella," I said softly, reaching for her chin, making her eyes meet mine. "You're right, I could never love another like I loved Alice, just as you could never love another like you loved Emmett. I've tried to keep space and distance between us as was proper, but you've continued to reach for me and let me see how beautiful you are. We're so alike – I never knew that before – we fit together easy and you've made my life so simple." I looked down as I felt the heat rise in my face. "I try not to think of those things with you. I never thought you'd see me that way." I smiled sheepishly as I looked up and met her eyes.

My hand moved to cup her cheek, my thumb running across the soft skin over her cheek bone. She leaned into my hand.

"So beautiful," I murmured in amazement.

Slowly, looking into her eyes for permission, for any sign of hesitation, I leaned forward and pressed my lips to hers. They were warm and soft and welcoming. I sighed into her mouth and she moaned softly into mine. I pulled back to look at her.

"I don't know what to do now," I admitted. "At one time, I'd have courted you, but now. . . ."

"Now, we've been living in the same tiny house, sharing and building a life together. We've spent all this time getting to know each other. . . ."

"But, you're not my wife; you're my brother's wife."

"My marriage vow ended with Emmett's death, though my love for him lives on."

I realized then that I still considered myself to be married to Alice. But Alice was dead, and we were now parted. I thought about my life with Alice. My life after Alice. My life with Bella. They were different, as if I was living another life, a second life. I had never thought there would be another for me after Alice, but now I wasn't so sure. Bella and I weren't perfect, life had broken each of us, but in the breaking, we were reformed to fit perfectly together.

"Will you excuse me please, Bella? There's something I need to do."

Surprise flashed in her eyes, but she nodded her assent, and I kissed her forehead before I rose. "Thank you for the very special birthday picnic. Shall I help you pack things up?" She shook her head. "Okay, then I'll see you back at the house for supper." I turned and walked away quickly.

I had intended to go straight to the rise, but my feet took me on a rambling journey around the farm instead. Memories old and new flooded my mind, bringing both tears and laughter. I finally strode onto the rise when the sun was lowering in the sky. I sat down on the warm earth and shared all my thoughts, dreams, and memories with Alice and our children. I told them that I loved them and that no one could ever take their place.

Then, with tears streaming unchecked down my cheeks, I admitted my attraction and growing feelings for Bella. I told Alice of my internal struggles and how I had still felt married to her, but now I understood that our vows ended with her death. I told her I would still visit, but that I wouldn't be coming as often anymore. I laid it all out for her, holding nothing back. When I was done, I pressed my hands and lips to her grave gently, lovingly. "Goodbye, Alice," I whispered and rose, lighter in heart and spirit and headed down the hill towards home.

The next and final chapter will post in approximately 2 weeks :-)

The Foxy Fics compilation benefitting The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research is now available. I've extended my popular o/s I Burn for You Gladly by one chapter especially for this worthy cause. Look for chapter 1 of this story to post on Twilighted during March 2011. Chapter 2 will ONLY be available in the foxyfics compilation. There are 39 authors contributing work, including tara sue me, so it's well worth the $5 minimum donation. Go to ./ for all the details.

Also, an early heads up – I am writing a new piece for the FGB Fundraiser for Autism Awareness coming April 2011.

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