Notes: It's DONE. I know, I can't believe it either. A huge thanks to everyone who's followed this fic and left me reviews. If you want to download the soundtrack playlist and check out other "special features" for this fic, there's a link in my profile to an extras post for it in my LiveJournal.
chapter XV children of the night
A month later, all the preparations had been made for the Cullens to move away from Forks. They had already bought a new house in Alaska under a new name most of them would be taking, and Carlisle had found a job at a new hospital there.
The day they were going to leave, Bella and Edward spent a few hours together in the meadow. The sun was not out. Not long before now, Bella might have wished it was bright outside so it could feel more like that first day they ever came here together, when she stared at the incredible thing that was his glimmering body in awe and felt like she was sitting beside someone godlike and out of her reach. But she did not long for their past the way she used to, for the newness and innocence of that time before his appearance in sunlight had become second nature to her and something she now could confidently know as an unremovable part of her life rather than marvel at.
As dusk approached, they both knew it was time to go back, but they were hesitant to move. Finally she was the first to rise from the ground. He followed her at a leisurely pace, looking back behind him all the while. She stopped and looked back at him when they reached the edge of the meadow, gazing back at it with him after seeing the wistful look in his eyes. She knew her own face probably held the same look.
"It's hard to believe we will not come here together ever again," he said quietly, obviously deep in his thoughts and memories. "It is quite sad. Everything started here in this town. And this is our place..."
She smiled a little as she looked to the side at him, and then took his hand encouragingly. "We have a lot of other places to go together now," she said softly.
He gazed at her face a while, his own gentle smile slowly spreading across his face. With some acceptance in his expression, he turned to run away with her, still holding onto her hand. And with that they left behind their untainted past, the simple fairy tale, a still life so stable and frozen in its blissful happy ending. Instead they were heading into a life with no ending at all, complete uncertainty, constant forward motion and change.
Jacob came to the house along with some of the other werewolves just as it had gotten dark. Everyone met in the front yard, the two groups facing each other. Jacob addressed Carlisle, telling him in as polite a way he could what it meant that they would no longer have any boundaries set for his family not to cross. In short , he knew it wouldn't be against the agreement they'd made with the Volturi for one of them to simply pass through the area again, but he still wasn't responsible for anything that might happen to one of them here.
At some of his words, Bella noticed Quil glance at her with a bit of a smirk. She could tell it was no secret that she was an exception to this warning; she knew for a fact now that ever since a while after the word had gotten out about her part in bringing down the Volturi on them, Jacob had forbidden everyone in the pack to ever hurt her "unless it's necessary to protect someone else." She had wondered but not wanted to ask if he had specifically excluded himself from that loophole in his order and made it still forbidden if the "someone else" was him.
Bella realized how formal and unnecessary this all seemed as Carlisle and Jacob then shook hands to signify their agreement. An agreement to end an agreement. There was something almost humorous about it; the Volturi requiring them to at least go through the motions of not being allies because they couldn't permit them to co-exist. Even though they all knew, if begrudgingly, that there would probably never be any reason to attack each other again.
Quil and Embry both stayed behind with Jacob a moment as the others were leaving. Looking at Bella, Embry shrugged as if thinking to himself, Screw it, and then leaned over to give her a quick hug and said, "See you, vampire girl." Quil just reached for her hand and squeezed it briefly, smiling at her and saying noting.
Then Jacob and Edward were facing each other, and after a few seconds of them standing still like this it seemed the silence should have gotten awkward. And it was, a little, but Bella had no doubt that this silence was being filled with some kind of thoughts of Jacob's that he would not say out loud as his last ever words to Edward.
Then Jacob finally spoke again, his tone stiff and unsure. "Right...well...Stay in good health, Edward."
Bella rolled her eyes at his obvious sarcasm; Edward smirked a little, and actually reached out to quickly shake his hand, saying, "Don't worry. This time I think we can be quite confident you'll never have to see me again."
Jacob laughed light-heartedly, and even Bella was able to smile. Despite their words, there was no real animosity in either of their voices.
Before she and Jacob turned to each other, she picked up a canvas wrapped in paper that had been sitting on the porch. She felt strangely shy explaining it to him.
"This is...um...something I decided I'd like you to keep," she said. "I painted it while I was away."
His brow lifted. "You sure?"
She shrugged. "I did a lot of them. It's one less thing to have to pack."
Of course, he could tell this wasn't the real reason she was giving him this one. He was also able to tell somehow that he probably shouldn't take off the paper and see what it was until later when he was away from everyone else.
"I can't exactly carry it back home with me as a wolf," he realized aloud. "You want to give me a ride?"
"Oh...I don't know," she said. "On the roads I could be seen."
"That's right," he said. Ever since he'd seen her again, it had been easy to forget sometimes that she was supposed dead by most of the people she used to know.
Then Bella touched his arm and said, "Wait. I can ask Carlisle to lend me his car. It's safe..."
They did not talk very much as Bella quickly drove the sleek black car around the long winds of the road. They felt no need to say anything. They both knew how this felt for them.
"Are you sad to leave Forks?" Jacob asked her at one point, his tone very casual. He clearly meant the place itself and not the people.
She nodded. "Yeah. I think this town is always going to feel more like home than anywhere else, no matter how long I live away from it. But this had to happen eventually. And it'll be nice living somewhere where I don't have to stay hidden at home all the time. After I got a taste of that kind of freedom again in Florida, it's been bothering me more than usual."
They were silent for a while, listening to the classical music Carlisle's radio was playing softly. Then, just as they got close to the reservation, Bella said, "Jake..."
When she kept hesitating, he turned his head toward her. "What?"
"What were you saying to Edward in your head?" she asked, unable to help her curiosity.
He smiled, leaning back in his seat and putting his hands behind his head. "That he's a filthy bloodsucker and an asshole," he answered.
Bella smiled knowingly. "Fine," she said, echoing his joking tone. "If you don't want to tell me, you don't have to."
He was still and quiet for a long moment, and then finally said with some reluctance, "I...apologized for the way I acted when I was trying everything to convince you not to go to Volterra."
Bella did not look at him, but he could see the look of surprise that took over her face.
"Well...I guess I didn't apologize so much as just explain that it wasn't done out of disrespect for him, because I wasn't even thinking," he explained further. "When I was actually trying to steal you away from him—you know, a long time ago—I didn't respect what you and him had or take it seriously that you were together because of what he is. To me, it was like he didn't count. But I guess I don't really see him that way anymore. Everyone in your family you're with now...They're good people. It's kind of too bad you're all leeches."
As they were nearing his house, she looked to the side at him and smiled warmly. "If you could go back, would you actually do anything differently, though?"
Shrugging, he admitted, "I guess not. I'd just feel a lot more crumby about it on account of him."
She laughed softly.
"And also...I just told him I'm grateful and relieved that he's obviously been able to make you happy," he continued, "even with everything you've lost."
They were now parked outside his house, and she turned to look at him incredulously.
"But of course," he added quietly, "if he's not enough to get you through life sometimes, your best friend is always still here."
She couldn't find any more words. Her face started to crumple a little with sadness, and he immediately leaned toward her and kissed her forehead, his eyes closing with a similar expression of faint pain.
"Just drive away now," he said softly, then turning away and getting out of the car carrying the covered painting.
He stood and watched her driving off even though he could see nothing of her through the dark, shining windows and only watch his own reflection in them getting smaller and smaller.
When he got inside, he went right to his room and set the canvas down on his bed, slowly tearing off the paper with a lethargic lack of energy. The colors of the Olympic penisula scenery were instantly recognizable just through the first narrow tears, even though they were brighter and more defined than one was usually used to seeing them, part of a rare scene with a bright sunset. Or sunrise. Somehow, as he uncovered the whole painting, he got the strong impression that it was supposed to show the breaking of day, not a sunset.
It was First Beach. Their place. But this sentimental meaning of it alone was not what made him stare at it in slight disbelief with the breath knocked out of him for a second. That wasn't the point. What made his heart feel so overwhelmingly full as he looked at it was that he knew Bella had not painted this anywhere near La Push. But to someone who was familiar with the beach and didn't know any better, it would unquestionably look like something that had to have been painted while looking at it or a picture of it as a reference. Every detail, from the rocks that came out of the water in the distance to the large piece of driftwood pictured right in the bottom right corner that he and Bella had always sat on together like a bench, was painted so accurately he could tell a photograph of the scene from the same angle would hardly be distinguishable. No human would have the precise enough memory to be able to do this.
It wasn't signed on the bottom. In case he kept it hanging somewhere that visitors to his house could see it, it wouldn't be a good idea for Charlie to see a new painting with his deceased daughter's signature in one corner. Jacob turned it over, not exactly expecting to find anything. But there on the inside of the wooden frame he found the tiny message in impossibly neat writing: "Do you remember? Love always, Bella."
And the intended meaning of the gift was clear. No matter how far away from this place she was, it and the crystal clear memories associated with it were always going to be with her. And it was the same for her memories of him. Nothing would ever fade for her and she would always miss him when she couldn't see him, always love him every bit as much as she still did now.
She would always want. She would always have.
As the Cullens all stood together outside of their now emptied house under the dark blue sky of a night that had almost completely fallen, Jasper took out his lighter, volunteering to do the job. He looked around at all the others' faces, seeing if they were ready. They all waited in a preparing silence, and Carlisle nodded to him.
He sprung into action, disappearing into a window of the house. The others could hear him moving quickly from place to place inside, and then after a while they started seeing dark smoke escaping from windows, and then saw some of the flames he'd started beginning to light up the dark cavities of every room where they had spent so many days and long nights.
They had decided this was necessary. Or even if not completely necessary, reasonable. The Volturi would be returning here soon wanting to see that the Cullens were honoring their agreement. The more convincing they could make it appear that they were serious about never moving back to Forks again, the less they needed to worry about them feeling the need to keep checking in on the area for very long. And it meant a lot to Bella, and even a little to some of the rest of them, for this place to finally be as safe from vampires as possible.
Besides that, though none of them had said as much, it was understood that most of them did not like the idea of someone else occupying this house for ages after they were gone. It was one of their only homes they had ever had designed and built specifically for them and their needs, and they just couldn't imagine it getting turned mundane being lived in by humans for the first time.
Jasper came back to stand with the others, and Alice came to his side and wrapped both her arms around his waist as she stood by him and watched. Edward had taken Bella's hand, and he also went to Esme's side to put his arm around her shoulders, and then she and her son exchanged small, bittersweet smiles. As they watched the fire starting to consume the entire house, their golden-amber eyes all reflected the light of the flames and looked like softly burning embers.
Bella squeezed Edward's hand in hers, leaning her head against his shoulder. She knew she would probably be crying if she could. Even if their memories of living here would always stand out to them in many ways, for the rest of her family this home was still just one of many, while it meant worlds to her for so many reasons. But this was a good thing. She, more than any of the rest of them, needed to let go.
Jared married Kim a month later. Jacob and four of his friends ended up gathered at a table at the wedding reception, watching as they had their first dance.
"Aren't they just sickeningly cute?" Brady said as he joined their table, sitting next to Leah and immediately taking the cigarette she was smoking from her fingers to steal a drag.
Embry laughed. "Another wedding for one of us," he mused. "Doesn't it make you feel kind of old?"
"Not me," Collin said with a laugh. "Heck, we've all got plenty of time before we'll even start looking any different."
"Jake, are you planning on still being single once Quil and Claire get married?" Embry asked.
"That's funny," he said sarcastically, but with a small smirk.
A curious look crossed Brady's face. "Are you still fooling around with that cute waitress? Layla, or something?"
"Lilah," Quil corrected.
Jacob shook his head and answered, "No, it's not like that anymore."
"Could I get her number?" Collin asked with a grin.
"Shut the fuck up."
Many of them broke into short laughter.
Brady went on, "Huh. I thought that might...you know...turn into something. You actually seemed kind of close."
Jacob shrugged. "Sure. But not close enough."
"What else? For it to be worth the risk."
"Would it kill you to try to be happy with somebody?" Embry asked.
"No, but it wouldn't be very fair if it didn't work."
"That's no way to think about it."
"Easy for you to say. You've already imprinted on somebody."
Quil smirked and said, "I thought you were so certain that's never going to happen to you."
"That won't be much of an excuse for never telling somebody it could happen if it does once I've already married her and given her three kids or something."
Collin shook his head slowly, looking a little depressed by the truth of it. "Ugh. It's tough luck, isn't it?"
Embry sighed. "It's not like you can ever make sure you'll never hurt anybody anyway," he said. "That's just life, isn't it?"
"That's not the point," Jacob said. "Any girl I'm going to get involved with just has a right to know what kind of risks she's taking, at least if it starts to get serious. And if I'm going to tell her anything I better be pretty damn sure I'm ready for that and she's the kind of person who could handle it. It's not as simple as just...meeting somebody nice."
Quil shook his head, letting out a long sigh. "Dang...When did we get so grown-up and responsible?"
The others laughed again. Even Leah, who had been sitting in a bored silence most of the time, cracked a grin.
Jacob thought back on what had brought them to this conversation, and said, "The funny thing is...Lilah and I have kind of gotten even closer ever since we decided to just be friends, and now everybody else at work seems to be getting the idea that we've started going out."
Quil cracked up laughing.
"That must be awkward," Collin said.
He shrugged. "She thinks it's hilarious."
"I guess she was never dumb enough to fall in love with you, then," Quil said.
Jacob laughed. "Thanks. Either that or she's as good an actor as I am."
Emily came over to their table after she'd been talking to Sue at the one next to theirs. Embry was the first to look up and see her. "Hey, Em!" he said as she waved in greeting.
She gave off a radiantly cheerful appearance in a bright mint green dress, one of her hands rested on her now quite large belly as she walked over as if lingering there unconsciously. At her appearance, Leah considerately put out her cigarette by smashing the end into her hand. Jacob stopped himself from laughing as he noticed her breathing hard through her clenched teeth for a moment, knowing what she must be doing even as the table blocked his view, and then she relaxed a little and sat shaking her hand with the now subsiding pain as the burn was already healing. Always with her tireless show of toughness.
"Don't you look pretty as a picture," Embry said to Emily.
"Thanks," she said, smiling in a way that somehow lit up her entire face even though only the beautiful half of it could smile. "I feel like a whale."
"Bet you can still move fine on the dance floor," Jacob said, offering his hand to her.
"Are you trying to get away from us?" Collin teased him.
"Yes," Jacob answered, and his completely serious tone made them all start laughing again. "No more kids' table crap for me."
He got up and started dancing with Emily to a slow song, talking with her casually about how the ceremony had gone for a minute as they swayed in slow circles. Then she said, "I heard some of what you were talking about over there...Quil's right, you know."
Jacob looked down at her with a raised eyebrow. "About what?"
"It's pretty amazing how grown up all of you are already. It's strange to think it was only five years ago you were still that innocent and more carefree kid...when I had to tell you not to fight with your brothers..."
"Em, you're gonna make me cry," he said sarcastically.
"I mean it. I know you still have a lot of doubts about how well you handled that situation with the Cullens. But I couldn't be more proud of you. Sam was right to want you to lead the pack instead of him."
He smiled at her half-heartedly. "You know I'd much rather have stayed that innocent kid a lot longer..."
"Of course you would. That's why it's so admirable you didn't just endlessly wallow in bitterness about everything that's happened to you like Leah—Bless her."
Jacob raised an eyebrow again, mouth tightening in a small smile.
"Okay, so you had plenty moments of complaining and self-pity, too," she said, making him laugh. "But you've still become capable of always doing what you know you have to, no matter how much you don't like it or how hard it is. And I know whatever happens to you now...even if you don't find someone for you anytime soon, or even ever...you'll be able to handle it and you'll be okay. I think you could handle anything."
He smiled warmly, leaned down and kissed her cheek. "Do you know how much I love you to death? And you really do look nice, by the way."
She smiled back at him. "I guess I feel nice. I feel...surprisingly great. I thought this would be a lot harder, you know. All of this when our whole family should still be here, but they're not..."
He nodded somberly. "I know."
"And it is hard, but...I don't know. A couple months ago it felt like the world might as well be coming to an end and it was hard to have any hope. And now...Kim and Jared are married and very happy today. I'm about to have a baby. Bella had been dead to you for years, and now she's a good friend again. We've all still got each other, when things could have ended up a lot worse. And with the Cullens gone, we should finally have some peace here. What happened with the Volturi was terrible, but because of it and the trust you were willing to establish between us and the Cullens, we ended up breaking a cycle going back many generations, and that's pretty incredible if you think about it. It's possible nobody will ever have to be turning into werewolves here ever again."
Jacob let that sink in for a while. Then he said, "If that's the case, then I guess after enough time there won't be anybody who even believes the legends are true anymore."
Emily looked at him closely and curiously, tilting her head a little. "Jacob Black. Don't tell me that makes you a little sad. The thought of there being no more protectors ever again after you're gone, nothing special and magical about this place anymore?"
He let out a short laugh and said sarcastically, "Well gee, when you make it sound that cheery..."
"Yeah," she said with a knowing smirk. "I thought so."
"The crazy kind of life you've had...even though it's brought you a lot of trouble and grief...I bet as long as it wasn't for the people you've seen die, you wouldn't ever trade it in for a normal one. Not for anything."
He looked like he wanted to disagree at first. But then after some consideration, he sighed and just looked at her with slightly narrowed eyes, seeming annoyed by her ability to figure him out so easily.
"Let's just enjoy a normal life today and not think about it," he said, and she smiled in agreement.
After another month passed, Bella started going to high school again for the first time of many. She actually enjoyed going on long shopping sprees with Alice during the first weeks of living in their new town, because nobody here knew her and it was okay for her to be seen. Starting anew in a different place felt so liberating in many ways that it made her wonder why she had been hanging onto something that she'd already lost for so long by wanting to stay hiding away in their house in Forks.
Two months later, Jacob came home from work to find a note Billy had left him on the fridge before leaving with Sue: It's a girl. Anna Lucille. 7.5 pounds.
Seven months later, the pack and their families met together at a bonfire to commemorate the deaths of their friends a year ago. Paul's mother told stories about him misbehaving as a boy that had everybody laughing and tearing up at the same time. When Leah started sniffling beside him, Brady reached for her hand resting on the log they sat on and squeezed it. She didn't look at him, but for a split second she smiled a little.
From far away, sitting alone, Bella watched and listened, running her bare toes over the sand.
The Uleys came over to Jacob's house to drop off some lasagna Emily had made. She nearly always had an overabundance of food she'd cooked and would end up handing some of it off to other people whether they needed it or not.
Sharp eyes watched the meeting from outside the tiny kitchen window, curiously observing as Anna, now three years old, came scampering in with her parents following her. Bella could easily make out their words.
"Hey, Banana," Jacob said brightly, looking down at her with his hands hidden behind his back. "Have you got a new dress?"
Anna nodded her head, grinning big, and said, "My grandma made it."
"I should have known," he said, smiling over at Emily as she put the food away for him; he knew Emily's mother to be some kind of genius seamstress. "Hey, I've got a surprise for you."
"Where?" Anna said, restlessly rocking back and forth on the balls of her feet.
Jacob took his hands out from behind his back in closed fists, showing them both to her. "You'll have to guess what hand it's in."
She stared for a moment, then pointed to his right. "That one!"
"The left?" he asked, holding up the other one. "Are you sure?"
"No, that one!" she said, giggling.
"Okay, if you say left..." He opened his large left hand to show her a little bottle of bubbles, faking astonishment. "Woah, how did that get there?"
Anna took it excitedly and then as she started filling the kitchen with the bubbles she blew out of the tiny wand attached to the cap, Sam said to him with an amused smile, "Now she'll never calm down. Quit spoiling my kid, huh?"
Jacob laughed and nudged him with his elbow. "Whatever, I just found it in my box of cereal today."
Smiling, Bella watched them all together for another minute, and then while Jacob was momentarily turning away from the others to put something in the garbage, she said something to him with her mind. Hi. I'll just see you at the usual place when you've got time.
His reaction could not give away to anyone else there what was happening, but his brief smile to himself after he went still for a second in surprise was enough to know he'd gotten the message. After that she turned and quickly fled.
Inside, Sam was getting a slightly disgusted look on his face and looking around. He glanced out the window just moments after he might have been able to see something for a second. "It really reeks in here," he muttered.
"Sorry," Jacob said, knowing he didn't need to explain what it was. "She must have come by here while I was out earlier. At least it's always easy to tell so I know I can expect her to drop in again soon."
Emily looked at him with her arms crossed, raising an eyebrow. "Couldn't she just call when she wants to drop by? They've got phones."
He smiled. "Animals can communicate through scent very effectively," he said, jokingly matter-of-fact.
Sam gave a short laugh. "I wonder if it would do much to keep other leeches off our lands if we marked our territory by pissing on trees—Ow," he said, getting a kick from Emily's foot for forgetting to watch his mouth around Anna, though she was still completely distracted playing with her new toy. He and Jacob both laughed as he reached for her hand with an apologetic look. "Sorry."
As soon as they had left a while later, Jacob grabbed a can of soda from the fridge before heading outside. He drank it as he walked energetically toward the woods, heading to a designated place he and Bella both knew about half a mile past where the trees ended going into the neighborhood, easily recognizable by an especially huge tree with some thick upraised roots.
He found her sitting delicately on one of the roots, patiently waiting. As he approached he finished off his drink, crushed the can flat in his hands, and then put it away in the pocket of his jeans. She turned to look at him with a smile of greeting, and he stayed back about eight feet, remembering it was always harder right at first for her to be exposed to his scent again.
"No need to be so shy," he said as he started pulling his shirt off over his head.
"I don't like to interrupt your plans," Bella said with a shrug.
"Coming in and saying hi isn't interrupting. You could have met Anna."
"Yeah, I bet Sam would love that," she said sarcastically.
"He should. You were kind of looking out for her before she was even born." He was now pulling his shoes and socks off, starting to make a pile of all his clothes on the ground.
She just shrugged again. "I'm glad I got to see her anyway."
As he turned slightly away and started unbuttoning his pants, she looked away.
"Nothing you haven't seen before," he pointed out teasingly.
She smiled tightly as she heard him finishing undressing. "Not from every angle," she said, as if that was very relevant.
Jacob laughed. "I guess that's true."
Shortly after that came the brief sound from behind her of bones converging and straining in lightning-fast rearrangement and then the ground giving under the added weight of some great mass. She stood up and looked behind her shoulder at the reddish-brown wolf with a challenging grin.
"Ready?" she asked.
He came forward to stand next to her, not going past the large tree. It was always their starting point, and a point a few miles off in the distance that used to be where the treaty line was drawn was the destination. Bella crouched down in a ready position, and his large yellow eyes watched her count down with her fingers, three two one.
They both propelled themselves forward, shooting off as fast as bullets. Jacob pounded against the ground heavily with every quick stride while Bella's tiny and graceful feet were effortlessly quiet, but for a while they kept about the same speed. There were about seven feet of space maintained in between them, and as Bella ran with a fired up smile and her hair whipping back behind her, she could look to the side and see Jacob's big right eye looking at her through all the thick foliage they charged through and past.
But when they got closer to the end point he started gaining speed, finally putting all of his energy into it, and started passing her. This was how it usually happened. After playing quite a lot of baseball games with her family, Bella knew by now she had only average speed for a vampire. Up against a werewolf that usually wasn't quite enough; as long as he wasn't tired at all, Jacob would beat her in a race nearly every time.
Sure enough, Bella was eventually chasing the sight of his tail flying behind him as he got many meters ahead of her, and then he made one final long leap to the finishing point, stopping so abruptly his paws slid forward a little clumsily on the muddy ground before he turned around.
She was laughing at his ungraceful stop as she met him there, and he growled ungratefully.
"Maybe I hardly ever beat you," she started in a teasing tone, turning away from him as she looked down at how dirty her shoes were now, "but at least I can come to a sudden stop without nearly falling over."
His smell suddenly came looming very close, and before she had the chance to look behind her he shoved his snout hard into her back and pushed her over onto the ground.
"Jake!" she said with annoyance, turning around with the front of her clothes now covered in mud, and his throat just rumbled with his odd-sounding wolf laughter.
"That's it," she said decidedly as she got back on her feet. "We're going again."
When they raced all the way back to where they'd started, she didn't beat him this time either.
After he was human again and had changed back into his clothes, they walked toward the beach together as night was falling, and he told her, "Don't worry. You'll catch up to me someday."
Her smile then was just a little sad. She knew that was true.
The Cullens' new home was in a secluded area in the mountains and was even larger than their last house, with grand balconies extending from two of the bedrooms and enough rooms for Edward to keep two pianos now. Bella had turned half of the top floor into a studio for her to paint in. It was the one place in the house she had all to herself and would go to spend time alone with her thoughts doing something that came easily; Edward had joked once that she had finally found a relaxing activity to replace sleeping.
She honestly didn't find that too far from the truth. Instead of working through her thoughts with revelations in dreams, she painted pictures now. In fact, she painted more than they knew what to do with. A couple years ago she had started a website to start selling some of her paintings under a pseudonym, including a bio describing herself as a 36-year-old male restaurant owner who lived in Indiana with his boyfriend which made Emmett die laughing when she read it out loud to everybody. By now she'd starting gaining enough minor cult popularity that everything always sold within an hour, and none of her buyers knew that she gave most of their money away to charity.
One afternoon when she had been painting and listening to Edward playing downstairs for a while, she heard his footsteps on the first floor as he started to walk away from the piano after finishing a sonata and said something to him by putting her voice in his head. Can't you play one more, please?
She could hear him laugh lightly as he went back to the bench, and then the house filled with delicate notes again as he started Debussy's "Pagodes."
Everyone knew Bella enjoyed some measure of privacy while she was painting, but later Edward got too nosy about what she was coming up with today as he often did and came into the studio to see her for a moment. She turned to smile invitingly at him and then looked back at the canvas she was working on, continuing to paint with incredibly fast brush strokes that would almost be just a blur of movement to a human's eyes.
"Hm," he said, looking around at other ones she had finished which were still drying. "These are different. Is there some theme here, or are you going completely abstract now?"
Bella grinned a little, rising from her seat to go stand beside him. "It's a series," she explained. "They're not exactly supposed to be abstract. I just got this thought of trying to visualize and paint things...you know...that can't actually be seen. Different feelings and perceptions. Like this..."
She pointed to one which was an explosion of intricately detailed textures in soft pastel colors in the center of a dark gray background. "This is titled The Caress of Light. It's the feeling of sun on your skin."
Edward's brow slowly lifted as he looked at it. "But only the way it feels to us," he said, somehow getting a clear idea that it depicted a sense much more intense than the way a human feels the warmth of the sun.
She nodded. "Well, yeah. And this other one is The Shape of Song. It's the sound of you playing piano."
He looked at that one closely, taking in the soft impressions of different purple and blue colors that filled it. Then he pointed to the only other finished one, which was all in very bold colors and had a much more aggressive and messy feeling. "And that one?"
"That's the sound of a human playing piano," Bella answered.
He broke into laughter at her joking tone, and then she shook her head.
"No, that one's...Well, I'm calling it The Music of Blood."
Edward's face went a little more serious in realization, and he stared into the canvas for a long moment like he was falling into its bizarre and wild beauty. "It's...the scent of blood," he said. "Blood that sings for you."
He was now shaking his head slowly in amazement. "That's remarkable," he said, looking around at all the paintings again. "It's like...I can somehow understand exactly what you're trying to convey, and the sensations just jump out at me. I said your talent must have something to do with being able to express how you see things to others, but...How do you do it?"
She shook her head, seeming to feel overly complimented. "It's not like you'd ever be able to tell what these are supposed to be depictions of if I didn't tell you. It's only when I explain the title of each one that it just clicks."
He smiled and then shrugged. "Well, the effect is very impressive nonetheless." He looked at them some more and started sighing. "They won't mean much to the people who buy them."
"A lot of my art doesn't make sense to people outside of our world," she said. "But the stranger they are and the more cryptic the titles are, the more people seem to like them."
He laughed again. "Or perhaps you have a few fans who aren't fooled by your bio—at least the part that says most of your work is inspired by dreams. That painting The Protector and the Cold Woman might have sold to someone who knows a lot more about certain Native American legends than the average person and didn't just think it was romantic. And the one of yourself shimmering in the sunlight with blood all over your clothes and a flower in your hair? Somebody might have found the title Diamonds Are Forever sort of funny and not that cryptic."
Bella's eyes widened just a little at the thought, and then she crossed her arms and continued to look at all the paintings thoughtfully. "I don't know...I like the idea of people with mundane lives owning a little piece of my life and being able to enjoy it as just fantasy. It makes me feel like I can still be a little connected to their world."
He smirked. "And so the legacy of our kind often perpetuating the myths of our kind themselves continues into the twenty-first century."
She giggled, leaning into him and wrapping her arms around him. He held her with a content sigh, kissing her cheekbone, and then she put a thought of hers into his head which made him laugh adoringly—an image of them alone together in a luxurious room somewhere in Greece.
"Again?" he asked. "We just got back from going away together two months ago."
"But we go back to school soon," she said. "We won't have as many chances for that sort of thing during the year."
"This is true. We'll have to think about it."
Her next thought she once again communicated directly into his head: That's no fun. We should be more spontaneous.
He laughed again, leaned in and kissed her, and they kept their foreheads rested together for a while.
"How did I ever live without being able to talk to you like this?" Bella wondered. After just a few years of finally having mastered all the aspects of her abilities, it was already as natural to her as if she'd always been able to do it and was now very hard to imagine being without.
He only shook his head a little in answer. Then in a swift, silent movement together, they had both lowered themselves to the floor as they started kissing again.
Now, she said as he gently pressed her back onto the wood floor. Right here. For it occurred to her that it was one thing they'd never done.
He held her hand back against the floor by her head, intertwining his fingers through hers and smiling eagerly down at her. "No wonder you find it so horribly distracting when I come in here," he muttered.
She laughed softly before she lifted her head up a little and his lips found hers again with an invigorated force.
The next time Bella visited Forks was at Christmas. She was there waiting patiently by Jacob's window when he woke up after sleeping in quite a bit, a wrapped gift sitting at her feet.
"Well, good morning," he said with surprise, and then raised an eyebrow when he noticed the package. "Santa came?"
Bella smiled. "It's a blanket I had as a little girl," she explained. "And which my mom also had as a little girl. It's something I've been holding onto just for the memories, but we've been getting rid of a lot of things to get ready to move again and I thought...maybe Anna..."
He nodded. "Sure, sure," he said through a yawn as he got out of bed. "Sam and Em would love for her to have it. And they'll probably guess it's not really from me or Billy as soon as they see it's wrapped."
"You don't wrap your Christmas presents?" Bella asked.
Jacob left the room and she heard him go into the closet for a moment. He came right back to show her a couple tied plastic bags with bows stuck on them with a sheepish smile.
She sighed, shaking her head, and then she took the two pathetic gift bags as she passed him to leave the room. "Get dressed," she said, "and then I'll show you how this is done."
Bella found a neglected supply of gift wrap after a fast search through his house, and then they sat on the floor of the den as she helped him wrap up a mind-boggling amount of gifts for all his friends and some of his friends' parents or kids, trying to give him quick lessons along the way in curling ribbon and folding the ends of packages neatly.
"You can only do this because you've got such dainty little hands," he complained after doing the best he could to get Jared's box to look good.
Bella suddenly freezed in the middle of finishing the last package, and then she looked toward the front of the house.
"What?" he asked, looking over at her.
"Somebody just pulled up outside the house," she said curiously, and then quickly started finishing wrapping the present in fast blurs of movement as she kept talking. "A woman. I hear her talking on her phone."
"Oh crap, it's Lilah," Jacob said, looking over at the clock. "You know, my friend—Is it really past noon already?"
"Lilah's spending Christmas with you?" Bella asked.
He shrugged. "One year Sue insisted I bring her along to have dinner at her house after she met her once and found out she doesn't really do anything on Christmas. Her dad's kind of an intense religious freak who disowned her years ago, so...Anyway, now it's become a yearly thing and she and Leah are sort of tight and it's just plain freaky..."
Bella laughed and then looked toward the front door as she could hear Lilah getting close. As she started to stand up, Jacob held a hand out and stopped her.
"Hey, just sit tight," he said. "It's fine."
She tilted her head at him, looking a little doubtful. "What are you going to say?"
"Don't worry about it," he said, shrugging. Then after he heard a knock at the door he called, "Come in!"
Lilah burst in through the door mumbling a stream of curse words describing how cold it was, holding a coat tight around herself and carrying something in a plastic bag.
"Good God, you can hardly tell which house is which around here," she was saying breathlessly as she pulled a newsboy hat off of her short-cropped hair and headed right into the den. "With all the snow piling up on your....Hi."
Her voice trailed off weakly and just barely got the last word out as she noticed Bella.
"Hey," Jacob said to her, then nodded toward the bag. "What's that?"
Lilah's attention was partially entranced by the unexpected sight of Bella, and she kept staring at her a moment before she realized she was staring and finally looked back at Jacob, giving him a delayed answer. "Uh. Pie. It's a pecan pie."
Jacob looked a little unpleasantly caught by surprise. "Oh...Uh...You didn't have to bring anything."
Bella grinned at his slightly scared expression while Lilah rolled her eyes a little; it seemed obvious that Jacob had had bad experiences before with food Lilah had touched.
"No need to run away screaming," she promised. "It's store-bought."
Jacob laughed and then noticed her glancing curiously at Bella again. "Sorry," he said, gesturing toward the alarmingly beautiful girl next to him as he stood up. "This is my friend Bella."
"Hey," Lilah said with a smile.
"Hi, you must be Lilah," Bella said amiably as she got to her feet as well. "And it's really nice meeting you, but I better get going."
Lilah occupied herself finding somewhere to throw her coat off after she and Jacob turned to each other to say goodbye. Bella could hear him holding his breath as she came close to hug him, as he often did to make the smell not so bothersome when he got very close to her; his voice sounded a little tight when he whispered close to her ear, "See you."
When she drew back, she raised a hand to his face with a last warm smile, sliding it away as she walked past him toward the front door. After putting her gloves away in her coat pockets, Lilah came to stand closer to Jacob and watched as she stopped one last time at the door.
"You guys have a nice time," she said to them with a last smile before opening it, letting a charge of freezing air into the house and then abruptly leaving through it.
"Well, they're not supposed to eat until two, but I'm sure we can go on over to the Clearwaters'," Jacob said. "Just have to wake up my dad from his nap..."
When he looked back at Lilah, he found her still staring at the door Bella had left through in some awe.
"Hey. Lilah." Smiling in amusement, he whistled to get her to look at him.
She turned her head, still seeming a little bewildered, and then finally said, "My God, Jacob. I mean...Wow. Isn't she a little young for you?"
He had to laugh loudly at the irony, and then he just shook his head as he turned away from her to get his own coat. "Actually, she's way too much for me to handle."
"Yeah right," she said, snorting with laughter. "You?...Weren't you ever going to tell me?"
"What?" Jacob asked, throwing his hands up innocently as he turned back to her. "I've known Bella forever. There's nothing to tell."
"As if. She looks like she's kind of lost except when she's looking at your face."
He just smirked at her a little mysteriously. "She's married."
Lilah's brow shot up. "Woah. I guess I actually don't want to know."
He smiled uncontrollably, laughing more. "No, it's not like that. Well...I mean..."
She started laughing as well after he kept struggling to explain it. "Well, yeah, I guess she looks a little too...straight-edge for that."
"Maybe I like them that way," he said, his mysteriousness now much more joking. "I'm full of surprises."
She broke out into laughter again. "Uh-huh...I bet she makes a real nice pie," she said, now just teasing him.
He grinned and then shrugged, saying, "She used to."
Lilah raised an eyebrow at that but then just shook her head, dismissing the comment like she was used to ignoring all the other strange sorts of things he sometimes said by now.
When Bella came home that day, she went right to her bathroom to shower first as she usually did after she'd been away in Forks collecting an unpleasant wolf scent. Afterwards she found Edward waiting in their room, relaxing on the couch with his feet on the table listening to Nina Simone. She came up behind the back of the couch and leaned over him, putting her arms around his shoulders and planting little kisses on his neck. With his eyes closed and a content smile on his face, he just stayed still a while before finally pulling her over the back of the couch into his lap.
"Merry Christmas," he said. "Did you give the Uleys the gift?"
"I didn't see them," Bella said. "But Jake will give it to them. They'll probably just tell the girl it was something that belonged to his mother or something, not that it should make much difference to a five-year-old whether it's new or not."
Edward nodded. "I'm glad you thought of a better use for it than throwing it away. You have gotten rid of so many of your other things by now."
She shrugged. "When I decided to keep a lot of that stuff before I was turned, I thought I was getting rid of all the more important things. A while ago I couldn't have imagined letting go of my mom's blanket now that I've lost my mom. But now I still have ways of knowing what's going on with all the people I've left behind. And I've still got my best friend after all this time. That's all that matters, I don't need all the stuff."
He smiled at her, and then after a while he started to look deeply thoughtful. "May I ask you something?" he said, circling his arms around her waist. "It may seem like a strange question..."
"What?" she asked.
He sighed, thinking a while before he spoke again. "I spend so much time cursing that day I left you, hating that I ever did it and left you alone for so long because of the consequences. But sometimes I wonder if...now that you have known Jacob and had all that time becoming close to him, if you would ever really wish I could go back and undo it."
Bella looked surprised. "Of course I would," she said easily. "I mean—now that I know what I'd be missing by never knowing him like I do now, I guess it could be hard to give that up, but that's exactly why I never should have known—"
He held a hand up, stopping her, and said, "I suppose what I really mean to ask is if you really would have prefered to be completely alone that whole time, rather than end up hurting him."
"Yes. 'Prefered' is a strange word, but it just wouldn't be fair to say otherwise."
He thought a while, looking like he still had not gotten quite the answer he was looking for. "Alright. What if you had still come to know him that well but it was different, and he had never seen you as potentially anything more than a friend, but during that time I was gone you still fell in love with him? If it would have ended up hurting you but never him, would you want to give that up?"
She stared off into the air for a moment, looking like this question, much more than the others, had completely taken her by surprise. Finally she shook her head and said, "I don't know if I can really imagine that."
She shook her head more, still looking like she was thinking hard about it. "Because it just wouldn't have...You have to really love somebody to do what he did for me. But what's so strange to think about is at the same time, he was being so selfless all along; it's not like he had to have that certainty that I could eventually return his feelings as a motivation. He was my friend and he did everything he possibly could for me and took care of me while you weren't there, even though he knew I was in no condition to be able to be his girlfriend or anything like that anytime soon. Like you said it yourself, he was the one who stitched me up after you'd left me bleeding. He did all of that only to end up watching me run right back to the person who had hurt me so badly in the first place. But the thing is...I know that if he was given the choice to go back and do it all over again, knowing how it would end, he would. In a second. He would never choose to leave me all alone. And it's only that kind of love and that much kindness from somebody, and no less, that ever could have made me able to fall in love with anybody besides you."
Edward took that in and then nodded with understanding. "I suppose if he at least could never have any regrets about how it happened, that is somewhat of a relief," he admitted.
Bella smiled at him slowly, taking his face in both her hands to make him look directly at her. "I'm sure of this much," she said. "I couldn't be the person I am now without having known him. And yes, there's a part of me that will always feel things for him that can't ever be resolved, and I'll always have a hard time living with that. But more than anything else in my life, he is the thing that has showed me that people can survive and move on from just about anything. Even people like us, despite the fact that we change a lot less easily and a lot less often than humans do. And there are even times that I look back and I feel as if I was only living half a life with you before I knew the full pain of loving somebody else and knowing what could have been and then realized there was never anything perfect about us. Before then it was an escape for me, like a fantasy, not something that the ups and downs of reality could ever touch...
"But you can't just run and enjoy that kind of escape for eternity. You've got to put your feet in the ground and grow together at some point, even though it can hurt. And I guess that's how I feel about my entire relationship with Jacob, as painful as it's been at times. That's why I can't just move on and try to forget about him. He's been an integral part of my experiences and I can't exactly regret any of that now."
Edward was starting to smile very happily, brushing some of her hair back. "I don't know how you became this comfortable with yourself," he said with amazement, "but I hope you know how incredibly happy it makes me to see you this way now."
She smiled back. "Well, I'm happy," she said. "So maybe it's time you stopped dwelling on all your regrets every time I go away to see him. Maybe it was a mistake to get so close to him at first, but I'm better with him than without him now."
"Very well." Edward reached for his stereo remote to turn off the music. "We better go join our family. I know we don't usually give gifts, but I have a feeling I'm not the only one who cheated this year."
Bella laughed. "Wonderful, more stuff I don't need to take with me when we move."
"Regularly replenishing your supply of things you don't need is part of being a Cullen, sweetheart," he said with a humored grin.
"Because we already have everything we could ever need," she said with a warm smile.
He leaned in to kiss her softly and said, "That is quite true."
Then once when she came to Jacob's house in the early evening, she found him looking through magazines in bed with a cast on his leg and his head bandaged. As she came into his window, she noticed at once that he smelled differently than she was used to—still familiar and like him and just as intensely attracting to her as ever, but not as unique with that unusual sense of otherness his scent had always had before. His blood smelled like that of a normal human now. She did not have to find him recovering from what looked like severe injuries to understand very quickly what had changed.
"What in the world did you do to yourself?" she asked in a high and almost angry-sounding voice, carefully keeping as much distance from his bed as she could for now in the cramped little room. His smell was not only different but a little more potent than usual, gnawing at her senses from covered wounds.
"Me?" he asked, then laughed whole-heartedly. "It was some bimbo who ran a red light. You should see the car."
She let out a quick breath in a sound of contained frustration. "Well, it looks like you picked a good time to give up being able to heal."
He laughed again, like the words made little sense to him. "It was almost four months ago that I stopped phasing. Think I look older yet?"
The way he turned his face back and forth to let her see every angle could only make her laugh a little, for he was so banged up and bruised that if he had actually aged noticeably in the last few months it was the last thing she could tell. And making the question sound funny was surely his intention, for his bright white smile was shining out among the painful-looking discoloration of the rest of his face as the one unquestionably recognizable part of his visage.
It was certainly an unusual visit. Bella eventually helped him out of his room so they could sit with the television on, and she ended up practically waiting on him all day so Billy wouldn't have to. Then she stayed past the time Billy had gone to bed, sitting at Jake's bedside and talking to him. They kept making each other giggle and laugh like kids trying and failing to stay quiet at a sleepover.
Then after a while she wondered something aloud. "You think it's still possible for you to end up imprinting now?"
Jacob slowly and unsurely shook his head. "Most of the others talk like it's not a serious risk anymore once we've gotten to this point," he said. "But I guess we can never know for sure. Sam's gone back to normal now, too, but it still doesn't seem like there's anything normal about his love for Emily. They say even once you've aged it's not completely impossible to make the change into the wolf again...Maybe I'll never be completely normal again, not inside and out."
She nodded. "Well, that's true regardless. You're a guy who gets regular visits a few times a year from a vampire friend who you know is a vampire."
He smiled and nodded in agreement. Then with a new thought he asked in a light and curious tone, "Do you think you'd still be a little jealous if it happened?"
Bella didn't have to think for long before answering. "Probably a little," she admitted. "But not because of you imprinting. It would be a bit hard to see you with anyone no matter what...It was even kind of surprisingly difficult meeting Lilah that one Christmas, actually."
His face lit up in complete surprise. "Seriously?"
She smiled herself at the ridiculousness of the idea. "I know. Even though I know it's been a long time since you guys dropped the whole friends-with-benefits arrangement..."
"Good lord, I'm so glad we never actually called it that," Jacob said with a sudden laugh, seeming to find something cringe-worthy about applying that wording to his and Lilah's initial relationship.
Bella smiled again. "I don't know. Of course I realize it's so petty and unreasonable, but seeing how beautiful she is, and yet in such an ordinary and human way...It made me just the faintest bit envious. Maybe she never really had that much of you, but I suppose it was the one thing I've never been able to have from you anymore. When I first started seeing you again after being turned and found that you just couldn't really want me in a physical way anymore because of your strong natural aversion to my kind...Well, how could it not bother me just a little? Even though I knew it was probably better and easier for you that way, I couldn't help it."
He was grinning mildly. "Well, at least you're not going to smell awful to me anymore now," he said. "You can be sure we're both happy about that no longer getting in the way."
She looked for a while like she was trying to think as optimistically, but as she kept looking close at him, something else about the thought of him changing like this and what it meant was threatening to dull her smile. And after a stretch of silence, she finally got out what she had to say to him.
"You can't get yourself hurt like this, okay?" she said softly. "You can't. Not again. I can't take it."
Her tone was half joking, masking vulnerability. But he could hear the underlying fear in her words and understand the true meaning. And he knew she didn't really think his answer would make any difference, but he just smiled at her tiredly and said in his encouraging way, "Okay."
He was starting to look and sound very sleepy, and a while after that he closed his eyes. She leaned over him and softly kissed his forehead, closing her own eyes for a moment. She stayed that way lingering right over him a little longer than any close physical contact between them was usually sustained, bringing a subtle and small smile to his face as he was distantly aware of it while already starting to doze off. Then she remained sitting at his side, watching the slow and peaceful movements of his body as he breathed, for a few hours into the night.
Sometimes when she came here and found him sleeping, she would use her talent to invade his unconscious thoughts and manipulate his dreams so that he would sometimes wake up later aware that she had been there even without her having spoken to him out loud. Tonight she did this only to let him see her still here with him late into the night and to say to him as he was still asleep, I'm leaving now. Get better. Goodbye.
For Jacob, the dream did not stay coherent and orderly after she left, but took off on its own, drifting into other images and memories of her that he had dreamed of times before. Then he relived the half-remembered and half-imagined moment she had shown him once, the very first thing from her head she had ever used her talent to let him see: the two of them holding each other in his car at night, a light kiss on his shoulder...
He woke up with this image still in his mind, and he was alone. It was hard to tell how much of what he remembered dreaming had been manipulated, and there was something especially surreal and disorienting about waking up from the dreams this time. He reached up to his neck and then inside the collar of his shirt, running his fingers along his collar bone until he found the spot just at the top of his shoulder where his skin was ice-cold and there was still a tiny groove of a scar where Jane's sharp tooth had barely punctured him.
Even though it was Bella who had kept the venom from the bite from spreading, not caused the mark herself, when he saw it or touched it he always remembered the cold kiss she had left there forever, in place of letting all of him become something that could ever conceivably be hers. He closed his eyes again, smiling to himself a little before drifting back to sleep and feeling the peaceful sense of acceptance and safety it always gave him to acknowledge the way he was permanently marked there.
People heal. They do. Like the slow growth and budding of flowers, it is something that only happens delicately and without someone waiting and watching for it to finally happen.
Bella now wore the bluebird charm from the necklace Jane Healey had given her on her silver bracelet along with the wolf, and she could no longer think of Paul and Seth without also thinking of her. Every time she looked at it, she remembered that if she had never been turned that girl would probably not be alive. It was a reminder to herself of something she knew she had to accept in order to make things right. After an entire life of easily blaming and hating herself for things, she knew now that this could be just as harmful to others as the most selfish acts. There was a kind of cruelty and even meaningless easiness in self-punishment. Forgiving herself was the only real path to learning from the past and improving her life.
And maybe this was part of the reason she felt she had to keep seeing Jacob in order to preserve some important part of herself. Just sometimes. When she was with Edward, he made her feel beautiful and perfect and loved, like her flaws were just part of the way God had made her and she was proof that even monsters like them were his children. He could have made it easy to just start over and forget, because anything she did wrong he forgot. With him, she was always forgiven before the sin was even committed.
But with Jacob she felt like she was just what she was, just Bell, with everything undesirable that included. Nothing incredibly special. Forgiven, but perhaps not as easily or without any struggle. And still loved.
If it still gave her heart a stinging pang whenever she saw him again, she knew that was in part because being away from him in her still often dreamlike life with Edward usually made it easy to ignore the things she had lost and left behind, the sacrifices that life had cost. But she couldn't forget. Otherwise her relationship with Edward didn't even mean anything; it was just a life of constant denial and evasion, an illusion of perfection. She no longer needed that numbness from the rest of the world he could give her, and she found this meant her moments with him only made her happier than ever before.
Meanwhile, seeing Jacob was always like looking into a very honest mirror, because he had been so directly hurt by her and knew her weaknesses so well that her visits to him were like going to confession, a periodic reckoning. It was somehow impossible not to think more about what she thought of herself when she was with him. Having to control herself while being around his scent made it impossible not to stay completely aware of the dangerous risks she took every single day by being what she was now. He had come to represent to her a manifestation of all her mistakes, and though he was fine now and it helped her to be able to see that to move on, this made him a part of her life that could not go away. She knew this was how it was meant to be, even if for her it would always be partially painful. She was always aware of how ironic it was that he would now be her redemption.
At some point after becoming a vampire, Bella had made some gradual but extreme change into the kind of person who was willing to go out dancing. It spoke for how dramatically different she was now that she did not even think about how this would have once been so unlike her the first time it happened, but later she couldn't be sure whether or not Edward had realized it but neglected to point it out during the night for fear of upsetting the possibly delicate miracle that was Bella dancing in a public place. It was simply one of the great many things that she now couldn't find it in her to stubbornly pass up now that she had such a long time ahead of her to live and reading books and being with Edward could only fill so much of that time.
So at some time, without consciously making it a goal, she'd started saying yes to everything just for the hell of it. Going to see a World Series game with Edward and Emmett. Shopping for lingerie with Rosalie. Learning German as long as Jasper was studying it because he found it a lot less boring if he could practice along with someone else. And now, for the fifth time this year, going out to a club with Edward where they actually had to use alternate fake IDs apart from the ones they usually carried because they had just moved to their current city of residence two years ago pretending to both be fifteen.
As they moved energetically together among the crowd, Edward bending over at one point and kissing her arched neck as her arms were draped loosely around his neck, the flashing lights gave their snow-white skin a blue tint. Just about everyone near was aware of them, stealing stares at them instead of paying attention to the band playing on stage, unable to miss their matched surreal beauty and the elegant way they moved that somehow seemed just not quite natural. The large crowd filling the place tonight was giving it some added heat that was slightly uncomfortable for everyone else to move through, but of course neither of them ever broke a sweat.
"What are you thinking about?" Bella asked him at one point while the band was playing a more mellow song and everyone around them was now moving to the music in a more relaxed, swaying way.
Edward smirked. "I believe that's supposed to be my line," he said.
She just grinned. "You just won't stop smiling."
He raised his brow a little. "I was thinking...that we should get married."
She gave a short laugh. "Again?"
"Yes, again. You know, renew our vows. Emmett and Rosalie have done it several times."
"What makes you want to do this now?"
"It's just occurred to me recently that it seems right. In many ways you could say we have started over since the time we were first married. You are a very different woman now—not just physically, of course—in all kinds of incredible and positive ways. And I just have a feeling that you would enjoy the idea more this time, so this time it could be for both of us rather than mostly for me as part of some bargain."
"Hmm." Bella smiled mysteriously. "Well, I suppose you'd have to ask me the proper way if I want to marry you to really be sure."
He returned her slightly sly smile, and then he reached for her left hand and slid off his mother's ring that she wore there. She started laughing as soon as he immediately dropped to the floor on one knee in front of her, holding it out in offering. As the entire surrounding crowd noticed what was going on with excited smiles and all turned toward them to watch while the band's current song was ending, she wasn't even the least bit embarrassed by the ridiculous amount of attention like she once would have been.
If there was one thing Jacob could say with certainty about his life now, it was that he never felt alone. Perhaps there was something about the kind of ties between people in a pack—not that they were really a pack of wolves anymore by now, just a family that once had access to every intimate detail of each other's lives and had been originally formed as that—or perhaps in part it was the shared loss they had experienced together and which nobody else could ever completely understand that made it hard to imagine becoming separated. But after all the years, not one of them had moved away from this place or even grown apart from anyone else in the group in the slightest. Jacob had realized by now that even if he'd never imprinted on someone, the kind of bond he shared just with his circle of friends was perhaps a lot more remarkable and strange than he was usually aware of. Nobody normal had what he had.
The turnout at the party that his friends threw for him at the Clearwaters' for his thirty-fifth birthday certainly validated his lack of any feelings of loneliness. Sue had apparently been watching the skies nervously all day hoping it wouldn't rain because she knew everyone coming wouldn't possibly fit inside her house, but luckily everyone enjoyed sitting in lawn chairs eating hot dogs and cake the whole time without so much as a sprinkle. By the time it got dark there were still over a dozen people hanging around, including Charlie who was having a beer with Jacob by then and having a laugh over some story he was explaining about a bad experience attempting to enjoy fishing with Billy, so Sue put out some lanterns and it was still a couple hours before they called it a night.
But even after the older guests and the couples who had to get their kids home and to bed had gone, a group stayed out together consisting of the former werewolf bachelors and bachelorette plus Embry, whose wife and son were currently out of town; Quil; and Claire, who at age twenty-one had grown into such a tireless party animal it was no wonder she and Quil were meant to be. They ended up going over to the Calls' otherwise empty house and sitting around the kitchen table doing shots together until it was past midnight, being very loud as they laughed over stories they told despite all of them already knowing most of them.
At one point when several of them all suddenly had to use the bathroom at the same time and everyone had gotten up, Brady tripped right over the dog bowl on the floor and only brought Embry right down with him as he clumsily tried to catch him from falling. It made Leah and Jacob both drop to the floor where they were as they exploded into raucous laughter at the exact same time. Then Quil came back in, still zipping up his fly after very quickly relinquishing the bathroom to Claire, and found Leah leaning against Embry for support as she completely doubled over in laughter, everybody who was still in the kitchen suddenly collapsed together on the floor.
Soon after that Quil left to take Claire home because she'd ended up closer to being ready to crash than anyone else, and then just the remaining four of them went out together to walk along the beach. Embry was laughing at Leah and Brady as they played around like they were fifteen, Brady starting to carry her along on his back after complaining about her meandering slowly behind them all, when it suddenly entered Jacob's head: Bella's voice, like the nudging presence of another consciousness suddenly inside him, unmistakable but a little slowly registered as real in his less than sober state. She didn't exactly say anything except just a brief greeting of Hey, but then he saw an image of a wide view of the beach and of himself and the other three as distant moving figures from high up on one of the cliffs, everything appearing through her eyes in vivid contrast and detail despite how dark it was and how far away from them she had to be. It was all clearly just to tell him she was up there somewhere, watching him with his friends, waiting so he could have his fun with them for now and just checking in so that he'd know.
When Brady glanced at his watch twenty minutes later, he looked a little shocked. "Holy crap."
"Yeah, it's time to get the hell to bed," Embry said.
Looking around at all the others, Jacob said, "Go on, I think I want to stay out here a while."
"By yourself?" Leah asked, and he just shrugged in answer.
"I can't believe we're still out," Brady said to him with a light laugh. "It hasn't been your birthday anymore for almost two hours."
"Oh, good," Leah said in a dryly joking tone, "that means we can all leave."
"Aw Leah, c'mere," Jacob said, grabbing her close and squeezing her with intentionally overdone enthusiasm to annoy her.
"Oh, get off of me," she muttered as he forcefully kissed her cheek. But her arms had loosely found their way around him too, and then after he let her go she gave his chest a rough pat. "Whatever you're gonna do out here, don't drown, idiot."
He chuckled at that, something vaguely affectionate in his smile. His bones were starting to feel as unstable as water; as she turned away, he dropped down to sit on the ground, laughing briefly at himself when he landed rather fast and sloppily on his behind. Brady leaned over to clasp hands with him in an incomplete sort of handshake and then slapped him on the shoulder as he said goodnight, and then Embry stopped by him and kneeled to grab him into a hug.
"The girl's right, stay away from the water," he said, and Jacob laughed again and pat him on the back before Embry pulled away and then looked straight at his face. "Hey. I love you, brother."
Raising a hand to take hold of his shoulder firmly, Jacob smiled. "Yeah. You, too."
"I fucking love you to a million pieces. Happy birthday, okay?"
Embry then set his hands lightly on his shoulders as he kissed his forehead. Jacob gave a low, warm laugh as he stood up. "Get outta here," he mumbled after him with a happy grin, giving a final wave to all three of the others.
They were out of hearing range but not even out of sight yet when Jacob felt something being lowered over his shoulders and turned with a bit of a start to see Bella kneeling beside him.
"You don't have a body temperature of a hundred and six anymore," she said as if he needed to be reminded, putting his jacket around him which she had evidently grabbed from his house. "It's a little cold."
He just stared at her face and slowly, adoringly smiled. Somehow he was especially happy to see her tonight.
"Happy birthday, Jacob," she said.
"You're a little late," he pointed out, starting to thread his arms through the sleeves of the jacket.
"I'm always a little late or early to come to tell you happy birthday. It's completely deliberate. Birthdays should be spent with the living, don't you think?"
He laughed. "I guess that's true...But you never completely miss it."
"No. I don't intend to ever miss one."
He frowned just a little at those words. "But it must be a little sad for you...Does it feel to you like nineteen years has gone by really fast?"
"Doesn't it feel a little like that even to you?" she asked.
He shrugged and said, "I suppose. But at the same time...what a damn life it's been in so little time. It's weird to think I've still got more than double this much time left if all works out well. What else could possibly happen?"
Bella just shook her head, smiling faintly.
He looked to the side at her thoughtfully and said, "And I guess you turned out to be the love of my life, as crazy as that is."
"I don't know about that," she said, raising her brow a little. "You've still got a lot of your life left."
"Yeah, but still, the phrase isn't necessarily reserved for the last person who you happen to love in the final years before you die," he said lightly.
"True," she agreed, echoing his absence of seriousness in her tone, and then she sighed. "I guess there just needs to be a whole new phrase invented for what you are to me."
After sitting still in thought for a while after that, Jacob slowly moved to stand up. She followed, guessing where they were headed and going right along silently as he started walking leisurely across the beach. At one point he stumbled ungracefully over a rock he couldn't see in the dark, and they both giggled as she had to grab him before he fell.
"Wow," he just said with vague embarrassment.
"This is funny," Bella said with an amused smile, threading her arm through his as they went on walking as if to help support him if he tripped again. "I've never seen you drunk before."
"I know. It's not really fair. I'll never get to see you drunk." With a sudden thought he flashed her a joking grin and asked, "So you feel like racing me now?"
This got a cheerful laugh out of her for a second. But at the same time the suggestion seemed to bring some of the night's more burdensome thoughts back into her mind, and right afterwards her expression became a little detached and blank and she couldn't seem to look at him.
After they kept going a while, he retracted his arm that she was holding hers around and took her hand in his instead. They walked holding hands the rest of the way to their familiar spot with the driftwood bench, still there after all these years though in much more weathered shape, and then their hands remained clasped when they sat on the ground in front of it with their backs rested against it.
"This has been a very good day," Jacob commented peacefully. "Now I've spent it with everyone who I care about."
As Bella looked to the side watching him closely, it seemed to be getting harder for her to smile.
"You okay?" he asked her, noticing her face.
She nodded. "Yeah. It's just strange. You...You really are thirty-five." As she said it, she somehow looked like she was seeing his face clearly for the first time in a while, as if she had not realized until just this night how different he really looked now.
He brushed it off with his familiar bright smile, the one that was still like a branding iron searing straight into her heart and automatically warming it, and it seemed to take ten years off of his appearance. "Still looking good, though, right?" he said.
She finally smiled again, a smile of genuine and natural warmth coming from deep inside. "Yes...In a way you kind of look better than you ever have, actually."
"You're not the first person to tell me that," he said with an amused look, sounding like it was something sort of funny and hard to understand to him.
"It's hard to describe. The older you get, the more...relaxed you are, I guess. More like the way you were before you ever even knew all those legends and my kind are real."
He shrugged. "I try."
She laughed a little. "You do more than that. You're probably going to live sixty more years out of sheer stubbornness. You just don't give up and get too worn down by anything."
He smiled, his chest shaking with a quiet solitary laugh. Then he looked at her again, seeing the still somewhat heavy look on her face as she just stared off at the ocean, and he nudged her lightly with his elbow. "Hey. What is it?"
She stayed silent for a few seconds. Then when she looked directly at him, for a moment she did not bother hiding the wistful hint of sadness in her eyes.
"I really love you," she said quietly, the look in her eyes very soft. Then she bowed her head down a little, looking away and smiling slightly like she felt kind of silly. "That's all."
He neither smiled or looked sad in response to that. He looked away from her with a thoughtful expression, and then he raised her hand in his and kissed the back of it, closing his eyes. Lowering it back down, he just said in a tone faintly echoing the cocky way he used to talk much more often, "I know."
Bella smirked mildly, inched closer to him and leaned against his side. He naturally bent his head toward her to rest it on top of hers, bringing his left arm back to rest across the driftwood log behind her so that his hand was draped over her shoulder. The cool breeze blew his long shoulder-length hair close to her face so that his scent was wafted past her in strong constant currents, but she did not even go rigid with the effort of resistance. Even though the urge to taste it again was always there, his blood hardly ever felt like a disturbance anymore, but simply a part of him. She just closed her eyes and drew it in, experiencing the smell of him fully just as she always had to hang onto every moment with him. She knew, as strange as it was, that the scent was something she would miss one day. The horribly powerful temptation it gave her that she could never give into was not what she would remember.
"I heard from your dad that the sun is supposed to be out today," Jacob said softly after the prolonged silence. "It's not predicted to get that sunny 'til later in the day, but I was thinking I'd like to stay out the rest of the night and see if there's a bright sunrise anyway...Will you wait and watch it with me?"
She smiled at the thought. If they saw a beautiful dawn, the sight would be just like the one portrayed in the painting of this place she'd given him long ago.
"Sure," she said softly. "I'll stay here as long as you want."
So together they stayed there. Even if the sun did not come out uncovered by clouds in the morning, it would be worth waiting together to see.
They always had to make the most of what they had left. There was nothing else left for them to do but find the meaning and beauty in the strange and tumultuous patterns of their inextricably bound lives. They were not lovers and they also were not just friends, not exactly, just as they'd said long ago they could never be. Bella knew probably neither of them could deny that it sometimes felt as if they were in some kind of a relationship in their own way; even without wandering from her commitments in any way, she got something out of her time with him that her relationship with Edward could not give her. He was never hers and yet he was, in a place strung between them invisibly and never physically manifest, in her thoughts she didn't have to tell him for him to know. In her thoughts she did show him. In vivid images of her and them together that still visited him in his sleep and could always make him feel amazingly young again.
They carried on this way so that the absence of the fulfillment of having became inconsequential next to just being and embracing what they were, seeing that wherever they were now was only where they chose to be and so there was little reason to be unhappy, learning to define their own destiny. It was him who had shown her how to do this and put her back together once again. They made up and painted their own sunrises in the darkness when there were none to see.
the | end