The ride never got old. It didn't matter that he skimmed along the same streets every night, or that his bike topped out at just under 110 mph. It didn't matter that the raindrops ricocheted against him like buckshot at top speed. And it didn't matter that he only had two legs during the experience. There was just something about the sensation of the wind screaming through his hair and the humming of the mechanical beast beneath him that made Jacob Black smile, that made the adrenaline pump through his veins just a little bit harder. It wasn't as much fun as hunting vampires, but it was a close second.
The garage space that he and Quil rented was halfway to Port Angeles, but Jake could make the trip in almost half an hour…as long as he didn't get pulled over, which, he was ashamed to admit, happened more frequently than he would have liked. Wolf senses were great for most things, but they made for a lousy radar detector. And Jake liked to go fast. Sometimes he found himself silently thanking Bella as he rode. If it hadn't been for her he might never had gotten on the back of a motorcycle. And for that, if nothing else, he would always be grateful.
He liked the late shift – more cars, fewer people. Machines Jacob understood, but people were crazy. And most weren't worth his time. He was good natured enough, but he just didn't have the patience or the desire to deal with the neuroses of the human race. Quil was the better front man, more charismatic and personable. Together they were the ultimate tag team, and it was starting to show. They had celebrated their first profit just eight months ago, finally paying off what they owed on loans and entering the black. The result had been tremendous: both boys had managed to move out – they were now renting a house near the border line on the south end of the rez. It wasn't anything glamorous, but, like the garage, it was theirs, and sometimes that was enough.
It was enough, Jacob told himself. All he needed.
He wondered why it always seemed like he was trying to convince himself of that.
He strolled through the door to find that Quil was sprawled on the couch, playing football on an ancient X-Box that he'd won off a frat boy in a rather uncouth bet in Seattle last year. That was the night Jacob and Jared learned never to bet against him…ever.
"Hey, Billy called for you," Quil said.
Jake dumped his ancient backpack by the door, where the hardware inside bounced off the tile with a metallicclang. "When, now?" he demanded. "It's almost eleven."
"Nah, I wasn't even home yet, but the caller ID says he called around six. Didn't leave a message." Jake sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose between his fingers. Billy had some vendetta against answering machines and all related technology. He would call the house repeatedly until someone picked up. Or, in this case, call the house once and make everyone else jump through hoops to figure out what he wanted.
"Did you call him back?" Jake asked, wearily.
Quil nodded without taking his eyes off of his video game. "Yup, no answer."
No surprise there, it was tricky for Billy to get to the phone sometimes, so in most cases he just chose to ignore it. Jake contemplated letting it go until morning, then going to see his father. A meal and bed both sounded freakishly good right then, but he couldn't fend off a nagging sense of worry that something might be wrong. With a sigh he picked his keys.
"Later!" Quil called to the closing door.
"Dad?" Jacob strode through his father's open front door without so much as knocking.
"There's no need to blow the walls out, Jacob," Billy chastised, needlessly adding "I'm in the living room." He was parked squarely in front of the television, eyes fixated on the game. "Damn Yankees," he murmured. Jacob just sighed. Billy seemed to get more athletically militant the older he got. The most recent victims of his wrath were the pitchers on New York's winning team, but his ire would shift targets by next week. When his son walked into the room Billy at least had the decency to mute the game.
"Dad, would it really kill you to learn to leave a message? Contrary to what you might think, voicemail isn't evil."
Billy snorted in distain and wheeled himself back out of the room and towards the doorway to the kitchen. "Why bother? You seem to always get the message in the end."
"Yeah, when I show up hours later," he muttered, but his father was set like a stone in his ways, and only time and harsh weather could change them. Billy rolled to a stop in front of the kitchen counter and held something out to his son.
"Here. Some mail came for you today. Figured you'd want to see this." A tension that hadn't been there before suddenly clouded his voice
"You opened it?" Jake asked dumbly, flipping what appeared to be an envelope and invitation over in his hands.
"My house, my mail, just read it."
Jake flipped the card over in his hands, but in his head he was recalling a similar setting, and another card just like this one. It always seemed to trace back to Bella, no matter what he was doing; she was never far from his mind. Numbly he read the thin placard and suddenly his brain sputtered to a stop, faltering and stalling like an engine. In disbelief his eyes scanned the page again and again and again. And each time the same words registered in his mind, and yet he could not comprehend them.
"I…" he stuttered. Billy sighed and rolled to the fridge, pulling out two beers. He popped the top on one while Jacob tried to form coherent words. The second he held out to his son, who waved him off. "What is this?"
"Well, looks to me like an invitation," Billy replied tritely, his tone bitter. "Called Charlie this afternoon and apparently Bella and a friend bought a property up Port Angeles way. She's been back about a week now, renovating and what not."
"Living with Charlie till she finds a place, he said." Billy sounded as though he were announcing a funeral, his eyes dark and hooded as he watched his son. Jacob felt the tingle of nervous energy prickle his veins, forcing him to pace the width of the tiny kitchen, reading the note over and over again, tracing the raised letters with his fingers.
"I guess," Billy muttered. "And there's more, flip the envelope over." Jake did, and felt his heart shudder to a slow stop as his head. In a handwritten scrawl that he recognized from days long gone, passing notes and apologies over the treaty line, Bella had written something just for him:
I miss you
He stuffed the whole bit, envelope and invitation, into the wide back pocket of his oil streaked jeans, and whirled around and out of the kitchen before Billy had a chance to protest.
"Jacob!" he bellowed, dumping his beer onto the counter and spilling it all over the floor in the process. "Shit! Jacob, wait!" He wheeled out after his son, who was standing beneath the frame of the screen door. "Where are you going?" he demanded.
"I don't know yet," Jake answered truthfully, his voice cracking.
"It's late," Billy reminded him needlessly. "Go home."
"I will," he murmured. And he would. Eventually. With shaking hands, he let the screen door slam shut behind him. Billy watched him run down the driveway and heard the bike roar to life and scream off into the darkness. He wheeled back into the kitchen, the light gone from his face.
"Boy's gonna get himself hurt all over again. These kids…they never learn," he murmured to no one as he cleaned up the foamy remnants of his beer.
He didn't recognize the storefront. Port Angeles wasn't now, nor had it ever really been, one of his primary hangouts. Jacob never had much of a use for shopping. He threw down the kickstand on his bike. It was pushing midnight, but he couldn't resist taking a look around. He was compelled.
There wasn't much to see. The block letter address above the door was the only discernable detail Jacob could make out. The rest of windows and doors were all hidden behind butcher paper or covered with pieces of black trash bags. Despite his formidable boots, Jacob treaded lightly against the sidewalk, and resisted the urge to lean in and smell the door handle, to see if she really had been here. An older couple, the only other people on the deserted sidewalk, crossed the street to avoid him and sped up their pace. The graying woman hugged her husband's arm just a little tighter and shot Jake a fleeting look as they scooted by.
He should go; he knew it.
His feet started to turn and lead him back towards his bike.
But in rebellion his hand shot out to see if the door was open. It swung out with a creak, and somewhere, deep in the recesses of the building, a bell chimed once. Jacob felt the adrenaline coursing in his chest, the combination of fear and hope left him uncertain of what to do. He ordered his hand to let go of the door, tried to will his body back onto his bike and out of this town as fast it would carry him. But his limbs mutinied and they weren't listening to him, to reason. They were following the commands of a different Jacob, a younger one. A Jacob still clinging to the thread of hope tangled around a girl, and a beach, and a motel room.
A light flickered to life in the storefront. And a voice called out a simple greeting.
And so suddenly the moment that Jacob had longed for and dreaded and dreamed of and yet not dared to dream of had arrived with no consideration for his preparedness. He recognized the voice, soft like the sounds of the waves on First Beach, or the throaty whisper of a lover in the depths of the night. He knew that voice and its freshness, its proximity sent a shiver down his spine as he crossed the threshold and let the door fall closed behind himself.
The store was still mostly dark, one light shining somewhere past the bend of a hallway, the other illuminating the still covered window behind him. In the black no man's land between the two, Jacob heard soft footsteps.
"I'm sorry," the voice called out cautiously – sweet, but with an edge of uncertainty. The kind of uncertainty brought on by unexpected visitors. "We're not open until the end of next week but if you'd like, I can-" her voice suddenly cut off. There was a shuffle, and then the world was lit up bright as dawn. Exposed fluorescent lights protested and unwillingly crackled to life, and Bella's sharp intake of breath signaled when her eyes had adjusted to the change enough to recognize who had entered her restaurant.
She looked…different, Jake realized. Her hair was shorter, less wild but that wasn't it. It was as if her skin fit better, or she was more comfortable in it. Her eyes were bright; they held no traces of the burdens and secrets she had once guarded. She was not tan, but the Florida sun had been good to her. She was brighter, more open. Older, but still young. Wiser, but still genuine. Beautiful, but still friendly. And when she smiled that slow, hesitant smile, it was all Bella.
Neither one of them said anything as the moments ticked by. Each had questions that swarmed to escape from between parted lips, and each longed to offer up explanations. Both wanted to laugh, to smile, to share and cry and talk, but words just didn't seem to be expressive enough to convey all the billowing emotions. Finally, Jake said the only words his spinning brain could hang onto.
"You came back." That familiar flush rose in Bella's cheeks, and her smile widened into a grin. She looked down, embarrassed by her body's uncontrolled reaction. She wanted to say dozens of things; she owed him an explanation, a reaction, something. But all she could force past her lips was the truth.
"How could I stay away?"
With a will of their own, Bella's feet were suddenly flying towards him, and Jacob met her halfway, closing the distance in three huge strides. And in the center of the room they collided, Jake crushing the air from her lungs, and Bella wrapping her arms around his neck. Where their bodies met was nothing but welcomed warmth, and Jacob shivered as the floral scent of her hair overwhelmed his senses. He inhaled the essence of Bella, and when he finally breathed her back out again the words, "welcome home," followed with her.
Neither of them seemed to be able to grasp the reality of their situation.
"This place looks great."
"This place is a disaster," Bella responded with a chuckle. Jacob was silent for a moment as he took in the half-painted walls, the mounds of packing debris, the exposed wires, and the flickering lights.
"Yeah," he laughed back, "but it has, you know, potential."
"It looks like a hurricane tore though it, but I appreciate the sentiment."
"There's, uh…paint in your hair," Jacob said stupidly, running one of his large fingers down her neat part.
"Yeah," Bella muttered, combing through her locks with shaking fingers. "I was touching up the bathrooms. I can't really afford to hire anyone, so I'm trying to do it all myself. It's kinda tuned into a nightmare and I…I was just going to make myself some dinner. You hungry?"
"Dinner? It's midnight?" Bella smiled sheepishly, and Jake drank in her glow.
"Yeah, I've been keeping some strange hours lately and…well, c'mon." She grabbed his hand with both of her smaller ones and yanked him down the hall, like a child leading her best friend. And suddenly they were kids again, and Bella was leading him down the beach, laughing and teasing.
And Jacob would follow her anywhere.
The kitchen was the exact opposite of the rest of the restaurant. The destruction and chaos of the dining room were replaced with stainless steel order. It wasn't a large room, but between the white linoleum floor and the silver shelves and racks every pot, pan, and jar seemed to have a specific place. A table that didn't match any of the other pieces of furniture in the dinning room had been jammed into the only free space in a corner, right beside a row of built-in coolers. Bella plunked him down on a chair that didn't seem all too solid, and then began moving around the room in a flurry of motion that was more graceful Jacob had ever seen her before. He couldn't help but watch her, taking in the movements of her hands, the sway of her hips. With each passing second she became more real, and the previous five years began to fade into nothingness.
"What are you thinking, Jake?" She was pouring olive oil into a skillet perched over a massive burner, but her eyes were focused on him. Even from across the room, he fidgeted beneath her gaze, which seemed to strip him of all pretenses.
"I don't know," he shook his head slowly, and then had to laugh at the sheer ridiculousness of the situation. "I don't know where to start. Where do you pick up after five years?"
"No clue." She grabbed a faded black baseball hat off a rack full of white coats, and pulled her hair up underneath it. When she turned to face him again, Jake recognized the White Sox baseball logo on the front of it. "What do you want to know?" She smiled brilliantly. "I'm serious, ask me anything." Jake resisted his instinctual urge to ask something inappropriate and instead threw up his hands.
"I don't know. What about…this?" he asked with a chuckle. "You own a restaurant; how did this happen?
"What, surprised?" With deft hands Bella ran something leafy, green, and unidentifiable under a stream of water in the sink.
"I guess," Jake responded with a shrug. "It was just a career path that never occurred to me."
"That makes two of us," Bella conceded with a laugh. "It was actually Phil's idea, of all people. I bummed around in Jacksonville for a few weeks with no real idea of what I was going to do. I called University of Alaska and withdrew from the first semester saying that I was going through a 'family emergency.' They were even nice enough to return my enrollment deposit and everything. So I hung around Florida for a week or too, basking in the humidity and contemplating getting a job in retail." She gave a fake shudder and pulled a ridiculously long knife out of a chopping block. A very real shudder passed through Jacob's frame and he felt his blood run cold.
"Bella…" he cautioned, but she didn't pay him any attention, spreading the greens out on a cutting board and attacking them with quick slices way too close to her fingertips. "Are you sure…"
"Relax Jake," she said, never looking up from her work. "I've actually got pretty good knife skills. Who would've guessed?" She shrugged.
"Not me, danger-magnet," Jake shot back, still fighting the powerful urge to disarm her. Old habits die hard.
"Funny. Anyways, where was I? Oh, so I thought about going back to work and all, but one night it was just Phil and me. Mom had a PTA meeting or something, and I made dinner for us and Phil made the joke that it was so good I should do it for a living," she explained, dumping the greens into the frying pan, and retrieving some unidentifiable meat and white stuff from the coolers. "He was only kidding, but all I could think was 'hey, sounds better than selling shoes.' Next thing I knew I was getting accepted at the Art Institute of Florida. Three years later and I was home free. But that's why I wear this," she pointed at her baseball cap, "instead of that stupid chef's hat: it was Phil's. It's my way of thanking him for the inspiration…plus it's way more comfortable." She put the meat in the pan and grease sizzled and spit everywhere, but Bella didn't seem to care. "You want a beer?"
"Huh?" Jake realized that he'd been staring, letting her voice wash over him. He was lost inside his head, recalling the last time he'd seen her, their last days together in the summer of her wedding. "What?"
"Do you want a beer?" she asked again, only this time she was already standing in front of him with a cold bottle. He reached for the Corona in with one hand, and grabbed her own hand in the other. He just looked at her and gave it a squeeze. Bella smiled and returned the gesture.
"I'm really here, Jake."
"Just making sure."
"I think I know where I want to go next," she said. She was sitting cross-legged on the bed in their cheap motel, somewhere along the coast of California. Jake stuck his head out of the bathroom, half of his jaw slathered in Gillette.
"Great, where to?"
"I think I want to go to Jacksonville," she answered in a tiny voice.
"Cool. See your mom for a bit?" He pulled the cheap disposable razor across his skin in three slow strokes, and then tossed it in the trash. Toweling off his face he walked back into the room and saw that Bella was crying silently as she watched him bustle about.
And that's when Jacob realized that she was saying goodbye. She wasn't coming back.
And he wasn't staying.
He'd known that it couldn't last forever, this fieldtrip that they were living. Eventually they would run out of money, eventually the pack would need him, eventually her family would need to see her. Eventually they would have to rejoin the real world, full of vampires, werewolves, and responsibilities. But even after two weeks, it just seemed too soon for Jacob. He finally had what he wanted, and now he would have to say goodbye.
At least this time her heart would keep beating. It was a small comfort, as his was in the process of breaking.
To cover up the twitching of his hands and his shaky breathing Jake pulled out his duffel bag and began to dig through it. His trembling fingers found the map almost immediately, but he continued digging, fighting the blurs that rose in his eyes. When his breathing was more even he dumped the folded paper that they'd swiped from a motel in Oregon, onto the bed. His hands were steady as he smoothed it out on the checkered bedspread.
"If we push we can make it there in four days." He traced his finger along the length of interstates, his voice solemn. "Or we can take the longer route, more scenic, stretch it out over about a week."
"Scenic route, please," Bella said softly, her hands gentle on his shoulders as she peered around him at the map. The sharp edge of panic was rising in her voice, cutting through her words sharply.
She wasn't ready for their trip to be over either.
At least the feeling was mutual.
"What is this?"
"Seared duck breast on a bed of fennel and plum wine-poached gnocchi," she said with a tone of such simplicity that she might as well have been handing him a cheeseburger.
Bella sighed in frustration and plopped the plate down on the table in front of him. "Fancy chicken and dumplings…don't wrinkle your nose! I've seen you eat way worse!" Her face turned bright red, and she looked ready to skewer him with the nearest sharp object. But instead she grabbed and dumpling between two of her fingers and held it up against his lips. "Taste!" Reluctantly he opened his mouth, and a shiver shot through his frame as her finger tips brushed his lips. The food became an afterthought, but he chewed for Bella's sake and was pleasantly surprised.
"Very," he conceded. But then couldn't help but ask the obvious question. "So, are you going to feed me the rest of it, too?" Playfully, she swatted him with dishtowel and sat down to eat beside him. She slid her chair over so that their shoulders were touching. Bella chewed slowly, checking to see that each bite tasted just the way she wanted to, all the while watching him out of the corner of her eye. Jake squirmed under her scrutiny.
"Jacob Black," she declared.
"Nothing, I just like being able to say your name and not be disappointed. There was a Jacob on the line with me at this nightclub where I worked for a while, and every time someone called his name I'd get excited for just a split second." She smiled a private smile, and he knew she was remembering feeling that way – hopefully disappointed. Inside Jacob's chest something cried out in joy.
"So I take it you missed me?" he asked between bites. She nodded, chewing thoughtfully.
"More than you'll ever know. You probably think I've been a bad friend…and I have been, but…it's just that I wasn't ready to deal with this part of my life for a long time. It took a while before I could come to grips with Forks."
"I understand," Jacob assured her. "You don't owe me an explanation-" he began, but she waved her fork at him.
"Yes, I do. You more than anyone because you helped me more than anyone." She took a long swig from her beer, using the downtime to sort out what she wanted to say. "It took a long time for me to exorcise all the demons this town left in me, and to find out who I was without them. And as much as I missed you, I was secretly a little afraid that if I called, if I heard from you, I'd go back and just ruin everything I was accomplishing. I needed that time by myself…for myself, as selfish as it sounds.
Bella's expression was distant as she spoke. She was somewhere far away, locked in a memory. Seeing herself scared and shattered and possessed by her own emotions. Seeing herself in pain – the way Jake had seen her so many times before. Bella the zombie. "But I did miss you," she admitted softly. "I'd be willing to bet that not a day went by when I didn't think of you."
Right then Jacob wanted nothing more than to reach out, take her head in his hands, and kiss her until his lips flaked off.
"Yeah, me too," he murmured instead. "I'm glad you came back though." They ate in silence, each absorbing the confession of the other until Jacob decided to ask a question he'd been contemplating all night.
"So, what time do you want me to show up tomorrow?"
"What?" Bella asked, confused. "You mean, here?" Jake reached over and poked her in the shoulder.
"C'mon Bells," he said, the nickname rolling off his tongue so effortlessly that he didn't even notice. "You can't possibly finish all this work on your own in time for your grand opening. Plus, unless your power tool skills have improved with your knife skills, I don't want to think about you assembling tables and stuff."
"But don't you have—Charlie said that you and Quil have a garage now-"
"Yeah, but tomorrow is Sunday so we're closed, and I work during the evenings usually, so I can help you out during the day."
"I…Jacob, I don't know what to say," she stammered, a look of disbelief on her face. "I don't want to impose or anything, but God yes I would love the help. I was worried that I wouldn't be able to get it all done on my own and…I can't pay you," she blurted out.
"It's okay, I just want to help-"
"I can pay you in food, though! You can be my official menu tester, just like tonight. And we can catch up and…oh, Jacob." Bella leaned over and threw her arms around his neck with such force that it almost knocked him out of chair. "You really are the best friend a girl could ask for."
"Don't worry," he laughed into her hair. "You can pay me back with that lifetime of eternal servitude that you still owe me."
A day outside of Jacksonville, Bella took the bike into town in pursuit of a movie to rent and microwave popcorn. Jacob used the downtime to shower, letting the lukewarm water slough off the day's worth of sweat and humidity. When he walked damply back into the room Bella was sitting on the bed, wrapped in nothing but the paper thin sheet. As if her intentions weren't already obvious, there was a new box of condoms sitting on the bedside table.
"Hey," she said. The curtain of her dark hair wound around her neck, a deep shadow contrasting sharply against her pale skin. Jacob tried to open his mouth, tried to say something, but the only sounds that emerged was a cough. Bella patted the bed beside herself and motioned for him sit down.
"I won't bite," she said. Jacob couldn't tell if she was trying to be ironic, but her face was serious, soft. He shook his head in protest, but just couldn't make the words come out.
"Jake please, I just want to talk."
"So you decided to get naked?" he blurted out. It was the first thing that came to mind. He instantly regretted the words, not wanting to hurt her feelings but surprisingly Bella only laughed softly.
"I was trying to be sexy," she confessed, that delightful blush rising in her checks again. Jacob couldn't help but notice that the rest of her skin seemed to flush as well, tracing the curve of her bare shoulders with his eyes.
"Bells, you don't have to try." Jacob suddenly felt equally exposed, standing there in nothing but a towel, which he suddenly wished was bigger. In desperation he tried to focus on just her face as he nervously paced around the bed. "And why are you even trying in the first place?"
It didn't take a blush to indicate that Bella was embarrassed. She dropped her eyes, staring at her hand in her lap. Her lips parted, but she hesitated, choked on the words.
"It's…it's something I want to experience," she confessed. "I don't have a good reason. I just…" she glanced up at him with trepidation. "I want my first time to be special. There's no one else in the world I feel more comfortable with than you." Without thinking about it, Jake sat down beside her, keeping the towel tightly wrapped around himself. A terrycloth barrier. But he cupped her hand in his own, and gave it a reassuring squeeze.
"You mean, you never…?"
"No." They looked at each other awkwardly, sidestepping around a topic that neither of them was in the mood to broach. In his head, Jacob was doing battle. The hormone crazed teenager inside him wanted nothing more than to take Bella up on her offer. To fall back onto the bed with her and lose himself in her depths. But the other part of him, the man, the friend, knew that giving in could destroy…everything. Their friendship, Bella's confidence, his own pride. He wanted nothing more than to be her lover but…but not like this. Not in a move of desperation because she'd run away from man she truly loved and was looking for comfort. He wanted it to be special, at least for her.
"Bells, there's not a whole lot I wouldn't do for you, but I won't help you do something you'll only regret in the morning." She sighed sullenly beside him.
"Please tell me this has nothing to do with my virtue," she muttered, bitterly.
"What?" Jacob asked, confused. "No… it's just that I want you to be happy, and I'm not sure this," he said, fingering a flap of her sheet-toga, "in a cheap motel is the way you want it." Suddenly she dropped his hand, throwing the offending limb back at him.
"That's just it, Jacob, I'm tired of everyone telling me what bI/b want! When does it get to be my decision?" she demanded. "I want to do this, and I've decided that I want to do it with you, with my best friend, with…whatever it is that bwe/b are." The fire faded from her voice, leaving it empty, sad. "I want to do it with someone who cares about and loves me and…and who I care about. I want it to be special too," she admitted, "and you are special, Jacob Black. You are to me."
His walls were crumbling. "I don't want to be the man who ruins it for you," Jake confessed, brushing his damp hair out of his face. "I just…I want you to be sure. Sure this is about you and not…him. Sure you're ready." Truth was he wasn't sure if he was ready either.
"It's just my body," she said softly. "It's nothing compared to my heart. And you already have…" she drifted off, her gaze sliding away with her voice. Jacob lifted her chin gently with the crook of a finger. She looked at him reluctantly.
"I already have what?" His question echoed with sincerity.
"What's left of me," she answered with a broken voice. "You have what's left of my heart. It's all I have to give."
"It's more than enough," Jacob breathed, and then he let the towel fall from between them.
Every movie he'd seen, every novel he'd ever read, every sex education class Jacob had ever sat through seemed incomprehensible. Every boy thinks that he'll be the pinnacle of sexual prowess. That he'll be confident and sure and perfect from day one. Sitting in bed with Bella, nothing between them but air, Jacob realized that it was all ego, it meant nothing. He had no idea what he was doing. He shook beneath her gaze, shook as he touched her face - so gently. Shook as his hands explored patches of skin previously hidden from view.
She did too.
Like an animal, Jake surrendered to his instincts. His mouth began to roam, exploring every inch of her body. The flush seemed permanently etched into Bella's skin as Jacob's lips traced the line of her collarbone, the hollow of her elbow, the tip of each slender finger. They trembled beneath his touch.
"You okay?" he whispered into her palm.
"Yes," she breathed. Absently her other hand traced patterns along the flesh of his back. The light touch spread goose bumps down his neck, and Bella's smile became less nervous. "That feel good?"
"Yes." It was his turn to answer breathlessly. His hand traversed downward, over the swell of a breast, tapping lightly against ribs. Bella's breath cut off sharply, and he froze, panicked. But the expression on her face was not one of fear, more like irritated mirth. Jake's fingers danced against her ribcage again and Bella writhed beside him.
"Stop it," she warned, but Jacob couldn't resist. He freed his other hand and began tickling her without mercy.
"What?" he teased. "Stop what, Bells? I can't hear you." With sudden ferocity she kicked and pushed at him, but the manic laughter that now burst from her mouth robbed her of the ability to speak. In vain she shook her head back and forth, thrashing wildly against his indomitable strength. In a heap she fell backwards onto the bed, and Jacob crashed beside her. And it was through the laughter that they both realized there was contact where there had never been any before. And it was easy, it was okay.
Jake surrendered his grip, and Bella, gasping for air, beat her fists against his arm.
"You jerk," she hissed, but there was no anger in her tone. He laughed, his arms closing around her.
"You're right." Jacob pulled her on top of himself awkwardly. "Do your worst, I deserve it." But all her hands did was slide across his chest, and her legs tangled with his own, and her body began exploring the uncharted trails on his skin. Her lips and fingers, caresses and whispers tested the limits of his control. But he was careful, he was slow as they moved together like waves beneath the sheets, rising and falling with the tide. Her face was buried in the crook of his neck, her voice making small animal noises. His voice answered only in her name.
"Bella, Bella," he murmured to the night. And when the waves broke in a crash of light and heat, she moaned only for him. Damp with sweat he pulled her down, and she willingly collapsed into his embrace, lying on his chest. Her lips kissed the skin over his pounding heart.
"Thank you," she whispered into the darkness.
His hands combed weakly through her hair until they both drifted into unconsciousness.
"You seem…sad today." Bella's knife stopped mid chop. They had established a routine. Bella cooked in the morning, testing out recipes and finalizing her menu. Jacob thought she was cutting it a little close to the wire, what with the place opening in five days, but she assured him that all great chefs are constantly perfecting their menus. Jake would work while she practiced – installing light fixtures and improving the leaky bathroom plumbing. The things they could both do, like painting or staining the tables, basic cleaning, they saved for later at night, when Jacob would came back after his shift.
He always came back.
"I'm just having a bad day," she murmured. The steady thck, thck, thck of her knife on the cutting board resumed, but its pace was slow, dreary. Jake braced a level against the wall where he was hanging shelves by the kitchen entryway, and made a couple of marks on the wall with a piece of chalk. Bella's tone told him not to push the issue, but he couldn't help it.
"Anything I can do to help?"
Bella peered at him through the open door and smiled weakly. "You're already helping more than enough," she reminded him. "My ghosts are my problem." That's when Jacob realized what Bella's expression reminded him of. It was the same one that had been on her face the night she…they left. As she'd stood in a dreary motel room and watched the clock count down to the time of her marriage, the wedding she'd run away from without so much as an explanation. It was the look of being haunted. By love, by fear, by choice. It was a look that Jacob never wanted to see mar Bella's sweet face ever again.
"What happened?" he demanded, the usual levity vanishing from his voice. Bella walked out of his line of sight, and he heard the grill sizzle as she worked. "Bells, talk to me."
"There's nothing to talk about, I just did something stupid and that's that. Let it go, Jake." She stomped back into view. "I'll be fine."
Jake dropped the level and drill back into his backpack and stormed into the kitchen. The heat pulsing through his veins was something he hadn't felt for a long time. For five years. It was the kind of anger that made him focus to keep his lines, his form from blurring. It was the kind of anger that, for the earlier portion of his life, had been directed solely at Edward Cullen. For the first time in as many years he found himself hating Edward for his mere existence, for having entered Bella's life and ruining any chance she ever had at being whole, at being free. It didn't matter that she hadn't married him, he'd taken an piece of Bella's heart when they first met, and from that day on she was like an unfinished puzzle. Her parts didn't fit the way they were designed too, the way they should. She would never be perfectly happy, never perfectly content, never perfectly whole.
Thanks to Edward Cullen.
Bella ignored him, so he put on hand on her shoulder and turned her away from the salad dressing she was mixing.
"What?" she demanded, glaring up at him fiercely.
"Talk to me."
"There's nothing to talk about!" she shouted, wrenching herself from Jake's grasp and turning back to her work. He hovered behind her like a shadow, even though he could tell from her stance that she was absolutely seething. More gently, more calmly he reached out and brushed his fingers against her soft hair where it danced along her neck. She flinched away from his touch.
"I'm sorry, Bells," he murmured. "I didn't mean to snap I just…I remember seeing you like this and I don't like it. I didn't like it then, but it's even worse now cause I've seen how happy you can be." She didn't turn around, but her whisking noticeably slowed. "And I like it. I don't want to lose you back into that…that emptiness again." He turned to walk away but Bella grabbed his wrist and pulled him back.
"I took a detour on the way here this morning," she confessed, looking up at him with the same worried expression he'd been wearing moments ago. "Charlie told me they moved, but I just felt…compelled. I wanted to be sure, I guess."
"You drove by the Cullen place?" Jacob asked. Bella nodded and squeezed his wrist.
"I just…I don't really know why I went. I told myself I needed closure, but mostly I think I was just confirming that all my memories weren't some kind of twisted delusion. That I didn't imagine…him," she stuttered at his name. "That I didn't imagine running from my own wedding."
"Did it help?"
"Does it look like it helped?" she asked with a bitter laugh. "I don't know, maybe it'll feel better down the road, but right now it just drudged up so many memories. It looked exactly the same as when I left, and it made me realize that if I ever see Edward again he'll look just the same and…I don't know." She groped for the worlds to make her point. "Change gets easier in time. But the idea that he hasn't changed at all…it just makes it harder to move on, I guess." Jacob was surprised as how steady her voice was, at the strength in her grip. He'd been wrong. This wasn't the same sad little girl that had run from Forks five years ago – she really had changed. All that pain and heartbreak had made her that much stronger, he could see it now reflected in her eyes.
"I'm sorry," he said again, but she waved him off.
"You don't need to be," she said, sandwiching his hand between both of hers and pulling it against her chest. "I gave you so much to worry about over the years, it shouldn't surprise me that you still do. And for that iI'm/i sorry. I will be okay, this is just a hiccup and…and it doesn't change anything about us." Jake's heart stuttered at the word 'us' and he opened his mouth to ask what she meant by that, but then an acrid scent wafted through the room.
"Do you smell smoke?" Bella dropped his hands and sprinted in the direction of the fire extinguisher.
They called Renee from a payphone outside a Texaco station in Callahan, and she was waiting for them on the porch when they pulled up an hour later. A dog-eared gossip magazine and an empty pitcher of lemonade gave Jacob the impression that she'd been waiting outside since her phone had rung. She was an aged reflection of Bella, pale and slim and soft. Her brown hair framed her face in sleek bob the same way that tiny laugh lines framed her eyes. When they roared into the driveway she leapt from her seat, shouting something unintelligible into the door way of the modest house before leaping off the porch. She landed with the grace of a woman half her age, a skill that was so remotely un-Bella it helped Jacob distinguish between them. The smell of Liz Claiborne flooded his nostrils as Renee blew past his and swept her daughter up into her arms before Bella could even fully untangle herself from the bike.
"Bella," she crooned, and they embraced like that for so long that Jacob almost felt like he was intruding. Somewhere during their reunion, Phil appeared. He hovered awkwardly on the curb, staring at Jake with a puzzled, almost concerned expression. Jake was almost certain that he was not what Phil had come to picture as Bella's savior. Towering over him, wearing a ratty leather jacket, and standing beside a destructive looking motorcycle, Jacob looked like the bad boy come to dinner. Phil nervously rubbed a hand over an early balding patch and then shot him his best "disapproving stepfather" look. Jake decided right then and there that he liked the man.
"And you, Mr. Black…" He didn't have time to contemplate family dynamics anymore because Renee had detached herself from Bella and was reaching up towards him. "Get down here and let me give you a hug." He obliged and stooped over, allowing Renee to embrace him in a vice-like grip. Despite her composure, her arms shook with restrained emotion, and in a voice that cracked just slightly she whispered into his ear. "Thank you for bringing my baby home."
With strong hands he juggled the paint can back and forth, letting the cool metal smack against his palms.
"You know," Bella said, voice dripping with sarcasm, "they have this neat little invention called the stick. I hear it mixes paint really well…" She reached over and poked him between the ribs with one of those free paint stirrers the clerk from Home Depot had given her.
"Don't need no new fangled technology to mix paint, Bells. I like to do it the old fashioned way." He shot her a smile and a wink, and her face relaxed a little. "Just like my pappy before me."
They had 4 days left, and the stress was clearly getting to Bella. Her shoulders were tense beneath her paint-stained tank top as she pushed a roller across one of the dining room's never-ending walls. Wine colored flecks of paint dotted her milky skin like rogue freckles. Jake's fingers twitched with the urge to reach out and touch her arm, reassure her that it was going to be okay – they'd get it all done. But instead, he settled for opening his own paint can, a sage green trim, and pouring it into an empty tray.
"So, how did your tart come out today?" The question was past his lips before he could stop to think twice. He and Bella had come to an unspoken agreement: he didn't talk about food unless she did first. Yesterday she had been psyched to iron out the kinks in her dessert menu. But the scowl that returned to darken her features made him fairly certain that the outcome had not been as favorable as hoped. She inhaled sharply.
"We're not going to talk about the tart. Instead we're going to paint until I no longer have the urge to stuff my oven full of M80's and light a match."
"Yeah," he agreed. "That would probably be counterproductive." She sighed roughly again, a dirty sound coming from her the thin line of her pretty lips. Lips that Jacob often found himself watching, thinking of lately. He reminded himself to stop thinking with his lower brain, tried to focus on the multitude of other problems at hand.
"What am I going to do if I can't pull together a simple dessert spread?" Bella demanded of no one in particular. "I mean, I'm not a pastry chef, but I made easy tarts in my first two months of school. Why the hell can't I seem make one now?!" She slammed her paint roller into the tray with more force than necessary, causing a burgundy flood that ran over the sides and began to stain the unfinished, concrete floor. "Damn it!" Jake set his own brush down (more gently), and stood up.
"That's it," he said in exasperation, throwing up his hands. "Stand up." It was an order, but a gentle one at that. Bella's face was red from a combination of paint and frustration, as she glared up at him from the floor.
"What?" she demanded in response.
"Stand. Up." Jake repeated, offering her a hand, and hauling her to her feet before she any real time to protest. "You don't swear. When you do, I know that you're about to lose it. We're circumventing that step because you won't feel like repainting, and my specialty is fixing cars, not ovens." He grabbed a new mahogany chair off a stack in the corner, peeling it free of its shrink wrapped plastic skin. The pungent smelling varnish filled the air as Jacob set it on the floor, and motioned for Bella to sit.
"Jake, I don't have time to screw around, I…" but the set of his features, the hard lines of his forehead, made it clear that there was no point in arguing. With an exaggerated sigh, so that Jake was fully aware of how put out she was, Bella collapsed gracelessly into the chair. "Happy now?"
"Stop whining and relax," Jacob murmured, ignoring the sarcasm in her voice. With steady fingers Jake began to roam over the tight knots in her back. He found each kink and pressure point, and without realizing it Bella groaned beneath his touch. Each stroke of his fingers sapped away her will to bitch, to fight, to panic. She felt the palpations of her heart calm, leaving her drained of energy. Her head lolled backwards, listing against his arm. She opened her eyes and looked up at him.
"When did you get so good at this?" she asked playfully, the poison now gone from her voice. Jacob stared down at her with a cocky smile.
"What, you mean these magic fingers? I was born with this talent. You can't learn something like this." To emphasize his point he bore his thumbs into the muscles below her shoulder, the ones strained from all the painting they'd done lately. Bella groaned and arched her back away from him as the sore muscles gave way. "Feel better now?"
She laughed that same old laugh, the happy one he associated with warm sodas and carburetors. A healing laugh. "I think so," she murmured, and as if to test the muscles she reached upwards with her right arm, stretching it up to his face. Reaching as high as she could, Bella barely brushed the tips of her fingers against his chin. Her touch felt deliciously cool against his smoldering skin, and Jacob caught her hand and leaned down, pressing it to his cheek.
"Jake," Bella breathed. He closed his eyes and dropped her hand.
"I'm sorry." Something had happened between them. When Bella left, the lines between them had blurred, leaving them stuck somewhere between friends and…something more. They had acted without foresight, both afraid that they'd never see the other again. But now Bella was back…and neither of them was sure where the boundary was anymore, what they were anymore. It wasn't just friendship, but neither was sure if it would, if it could be anything more.
"It's okay, I…" Bella stuttered, taking her hand back. She peered up at Jacob, and that look in her eye said that she longed to say something to him, but she didn't know how. He wanted to reach for her, tell her it was going to be alright, she could talk to him. But he blinked and the look was gone and Bella was getting out of the chair. "C'mon, let's finish that wall so I never have to look at a paint roller again."
"I just think that it's a bad idea," Quil said for the umpteenth time. He couldn't read Jake's expression because his buddy was currently stuck under the body of an SUV, changing the oil.
"A fact that you've already made abundantly clear," Jacob grunted.
"Well if you'd just take my advice the first time I wouldn't have to keep repeating it until I'm blue in the face. The girl's bad news, Jake. Always has been, always will be."
"Yes," he shot back snidely. "You, of course, being the authority on healthy relationships. How old is your girlfriend again? 7?" It was a cheap shot, but Jacob was tired of being the bitch of the week.
Quil kicked him in the leg with his steel-toed boot. "I never claimed that it was normal, but you're like the dumb monkey in the lab experiment. You keep grabbing the electric fence expecting a different result, but instead you just get shocked time after time. At least I have the sense to learn from my mistakes."
"Bella is a person, not a mistake, and she's also my friend, so would you quit talking about her like that?"
"I'll quit when you quit, dude. But we all know what's gonna happen." Quil sighed loudly for emphasis. "And you know how we know that you'll continue to be the stupid monkey?"
"Cause you're inside my head?" Jake asked bitterly. From beneath the undercarriage he groped blindly for his socket set. A black boot kicked it over to him.
"Cause we're inside your head," Quil repeated, sarcastically. "And speaking from experience, it's not a fun place to be when Bella breaks your heart."
"Yeah, I kinda know that first hand, seeing as how I went through it an all."
Quil's feet began to pace back and forth beside the car. "Look man," he tried again, his tone more friendly. "I like Bella well enough as a person and all, but she's a regular relationship el Niño. A natural disaster. I mean forget about how she destroyed the leech, look at what she did to you. Five years go by, no word from her. Can you even tell me the last time you went on a date?"
Jake started to protest, but Quil was on a roll now.
"I can tell you: it was the cute orthopedist, Wendy. You fixed her alignment last spring, she left you her card, you took her to dinner, had a wonderful time. But did you call her again? No."
Jacob rolled his dolly out from under the car and got to his feet. One devastating kick sent the thing skittering across the garage floor where is collided with a hydraulic lift.
"Tell me something Quil: on which date it is appropriate to tell a girl that you can turn into a giant, vampire-hunting, tribal wolf, huh? Second date, third?" he demanded. "Should I wait till I sleep with her?" Jake was inches from Quil, towering over him but his friend didn't even flinch. "No answer? That's rich, coming from a guy who seems to think he knows everything. Tell you what, as long as none of us is remotely normal, you don't get to lecture me on how to have a normal relationship. Some of us have to figure this shit out on our own."
Quil didn't budge, didn't let the cheap shots affect him at all. He just stood his ground before Jacob, looking up at him with pity in his eyes. "We…I just don't want to see you get hurt again, man," he muttered softly, before turning away and walking back into the main office. He left Jacob alone in the garage with nothing but his anger.
Jake came back after his shift. He was streaked with oil from head to toe, but it didn't matter. He was exhausted and craving a shower, but it didn't matter. He just wanted to hear her voice again. Apologize for his transgression that afternoon. Make her feel a little better. Help make her dream a reality. And in the process maybe she could prove Quil wrong, prove that nagging little voice in the back of his head wrong.
Prove everyone wrong
He bound through the doors with the energy of a man who was going to see his best friend. However, he found Bella hunched over the little table in the kitchen, going through a stack of bills. Her puffy eyes and the empty box of Kleenex made it pretty obvious that she'd been crying. She looked up sharply when he strode through the swinging doors.
"Hey," she muttered weakly, leafing through a thick stack of electricity bills.
"What happened?" Jake demanded. "Are you okay?"
She chuckled darkly, and stuffed a bill in the empty tissue box. "Peachy. I'm just having a bit of an existential crisis while I worry that I've made the biggest mistake of my life."
"Been there, done that," Jake murmured, pulling out the empty chair and sitting beside her. "It's always scary when all the money's going out and none is coming in. Quil and I went through the same thing when we started the garage." He didn't mention that they'd taken their minds off their troubles by doing shots (or in Quil's case, body shots) with girls at a dive bar near the UW Seattle campus.
"Yeah, but it's not just me. My sous chef Suzette put money into this place, and Charlie helped us get some financing, cosigned some loans. What if I ruin this for all of them?" She asked.
He shrugged, giving her shoulder a comforting squeeze. "I don't have a magical answer for you there. That's why they call is a risk. But for what it's worth, I think you're going to do fine." His optimism didn't seem to reassure Bella any, though. She bent over and let her face fall onto the cushion of bills.
"Damn it!" she shouted into her water bill. "I though I could do this all on my own, but there's the bills and the menu and the construction and sometimes it's all too much…and then there's you…" Bella's rant trailed off sharply.
"Me?," Jacob demanded in mock outrage. "You're the one who came strolling back into my life after five years. How exactly is that imy/i fault?"
"It's not." And her voice was serious again, calm and contemplative. She looked at him with an expression so honest and open that is cut Jake straight down to the bone. "I'm a train wreck when it comes to relationships, and there're enough boys in Forks and Florida to corroborate that story. I'm good with work and school and responsibility, but I suck at relationships. So for everyone's sake, I've learned to avoid them. But you…" she muttered. "You make me selfish, Jake. There's this part of me that's like a little girl when you're around. No matter what I do, she screams and stamps her foot and I always give her what she wants, even when I know I shouldn't. Even when I couldn't have you it didn't mean I wanted someone else to, so I kept you close and that was wrong of me. You're my friend, Jake. Even after all this time, even after everything I put you through, and I should want what's best for you…but I don't. I want what's best for me, and so I can't trust what I feel around you."
"Why?" he asked hesitantly, but there was still a slight smile on his lips. "iDo/i you feel something around me?"
"Yes," she answered quietly. "But you already knew that."
"Then why are you still fighting? Is there someone else, so other chef I don't know about?" Jacob chided. "It's the hats, isn't it? I can wear the tall hat, Bella. Just give me a chance!" She reached out and socked him in the arm. Gently – they both remembered too clearly what could happen when Bella actually tried to hurt him.
"Shut up," she hissed. "This isn't funny."
"No, it's hilarious," he agreed. "Bella," he murmured, taking her chin gently in one hand. "Why are you still so afraid of what you feel? I care about you, I would never hurt you, and you know that."
"You could imprint," she whispered, and Jacob felt easy expression on his face fall, crashing to the ground. "Not that it wouldn't be worth the risk," Bella countered quickly, "but I'm just saying…"
"You still don't get it, do you? I'm not going to imprint," he declared.
"You don't know that."
"Yes, I do," he shot back. "Bells, imprinting is designed to help us find our true match, the other half of our soul. Don't you get it? I don't need to imprint because I already found mine. I was already in love with you, I didn't need an instinctual two-by-four to the head to figure that out"
"But the others-" she protested.
"Would have looked right past each other if they hadn't imprinted. Sam would've married Leah, Quil would've found a girl his own age, and Jared would've walked right past Kim 'till the day they graduated." The smile, slow and shy, crept back onto his face. "I was just ahead of the curve. Technically I imprinted that day on First Beach. That's when I decided that I was going to make you fall for me, that I was going to love you." Despite himself he felt the color rise in his cheeks, and Bella noticed.
"That's my job," she said, drawing her finger across his cheekbone, drawing it down to his jaw line.
"I can't believe you never noticed," he sulked. "I wasn't perfect Bells, but I tried to be just what you needed. I was your best friend when you had no one, I was competition when you hadn't made your mind up yet, I was your get-away driver when you wanted to run, and I was your construction crew when you came back." It was Bella's turn to laugh.
"Yeah, I still haven't thanked you enough for that yet."
"I'd like to think we'll have plenty of time." Her hand was still gentle on his face. "But for once I'd like to try being the one to love you, the one you love back, instead of being the concession prize." Her eyes lost their focus, regained some of their characteristic sadness. He knew she was looking back, watching a memory that he couldn't see.
"You remember that night," she murmured finally. "The motel by the beach…"
He recalled it vividly: the feel of Bella sleeping in his arms, the look of panic and pain on her face when she woke up. "Your nightmare?"
"My dream, you mean. The one about us…our future."
"Yeah, I'd like to think we still have time for that too," Jake teased, but Bella's response was dead serious.
"You think?" She dropped her face, letting her hair cover her expression. Jake reached out and pushed the offending, brown tendrils out of the way. Behind the curtain her eyes met his. "I gave up so much when I left Forks. Cut so many ties…lost so many people. I had to," she pleaded. "I guess I just figured that…that I'd always be alone after that. I gave up on two futures. Do you really think I can one of them back?"
"I know so…If you still want it," he assured her.
"I…I do, but what I want isn't always what's best for me…or anyone else." And that dark look resurfaced in her eyes – a look that Jake understood would never fully vanish. It was the remnants of her broken heart, of her love for Edward. Jacob brushed her hair again gently.
"You're just gonna have to trust your instincts, Bells." He shrugged. "That's all any of us can ever do. But I'll be here when you make up your mind. You can count on that." Patience was not only a virtue, but a skill that Jacob had mastered. Knowing Bella, what she'd seen, what she'd survived, he couldn't dream of pushing her into something like this. He had to remember that not all wounds healed as quickly as his own. Bella had her own scars to mend, and it would take time.
A lifetime maybe.
But he was a patient man.
He had expected that to be the end of the conversation, it'd be something they'd revisit on another day, when the restaurant was open and some stresses were alleviated. But instead of waiting, Bella closed her eyes for a moment, and Jacob listened as her panicked breaths evened out, and became calm and steady and slow. He didn't dare to move, lest he destroy the peace of her silent commune. His fingers were steady as stones against the side of her soft face. With deliberate slowness, she began to lean into his touch, pressing her cheek against his palm. Her hand reached up to cover his with her own small one. Her eyelashes fluttered on her cheeks, flickering against her pale skin until slowly she opened both eyes. Her gaze was steady, scared, emotional. A jumbled confusion of feelings mixed with a strange certainty. Jake saw his own image reflected in those endless pools, and almost lost himself there. He felt her jaw tighten beneath his hand as Bella opened her mouth to speak.
"Will you kiss me, Jacob?" she asked softly.
"You're bluffing," he responded automatically, reliving a much different situation in his head. This time, though, the words were gentle, teasing, devoid of their previous harshness.
"Kiss me, Jacob," she ordered without hesitation. She didn't wait for him to respond, instead inclining her heads towards his.
But before they met, Jake couldn't resist interjecting, "And then come back?"
Her rosy lips, a hairsbreadth away from his own, curved into a sly smile. "No," she whispered. "Don't leave in the first place."
Their lips crashed together, and for the first time since that night in a cheap motel five years ago, so did Bella and Jacob.
Both girls tried to get Jacob to stay the night, sleep on the couch and get started in the morning. But there was a growing constriction in his throat, and somehow the idea of drawing out their goodbye made it grow larger. Jacob was an intruder here in Jacksonville. Renee and Phil had been nothing but hospitable, but this was the place Bella had come to escape – a place with no monsters and no magic, and he was contaminating it. He stuttered a series of words that he hope made up a coherent excuse. Something about his father needing him, and helping out on the rez. What happened next was a blur or images.
Another awkward hug with Renee and a handshake with Phil.
Tears welling in Bella's eyes as she walked with him out the door.
The last sweet taste of her lip gloss.
Even when he left her standing on her mother's porch, neither of them said goodbye. Bella didn't have enough strength left. And Jacob wanted to hold on to the hope that if he never said goodbye, she wasn't really gone for good. She had faded in his rearview mirror, shrinking down until she was no more than a speck on the horizon, and Jake could only see her face in his head, where she remained.
Jacob awoke disoriented, an unsettling reality for someone used to taking in the world with heightened senses. It was both refreshing and terrifying. He was aware of his surroundings being too dark (his bed was beneath the window), too uncomfortable (Jake had splurged on two things in his life – his bike and his extra long California King sized mattress), and too occupied (the last person he'd woken up next to was a drunken Embry on Billy's front lawn the night after Sam's bachelor party – long story). As his head and his vision both cleared the smell of strawberries and Ivory soap filled his nose. He tried to stretch his arms, only to discover Bella's head using one as a pillow. Beneath a table cloth cocoon, her naked body was curled into the protective arch of his own. The events of the previous evening came flooding back to him with extreme clarity.
The feeling of Bella's silken hair on his bare chest.
Strong hands, his hands, tracing the curve of a breast, the dip of a hip, the warmth of a thigh.
The sweet, deep taste of her ravishing kisses.
The sensation of their two bodies moving together.
Gently he reached out a hand and traced the line of her shoulder and length of her arm where she slept beside him. Her skin was like fire, warmed by his very presence. In her sleep, she stirred, pulling her knees up to her chest, and rolling over. With a sigh she buried her head into the crook of his shoulder and opened her eyes.
"Morning," Jake murmured into her ear, punctuating his sentence by kissing the top of her head.
"Hi," she replied sleepily, and appeared to toy with the idea of going back to sleep. Instead she stretched her limbs out slowly, creaking back to life.
"Since when do you sleep in the fetal position?" he asked, teasing and propping himself up on one elbow at the same time. Bella glared up at him, mid stretch.
"Since I started sleeping alone. Leave me be, it's too early for sarcasm."
"Fair enough," he conceded. Five years ago, or five minutes, some things never changed. Bella had always been slow to rouse and quick to snap in the mornings. Their days of shared motel rooms, and shared beds, had taught him that she needed at least twenty minutes and a shower before she was willing to be social.
"Are you thinking what I'm thinking?"
"I'm thinking that it would probably be a pretty serious health code violation to ever use this table cloth again," she muttered, pulling at their crude bed.
"Agreed, but can I at least add that I love waking up beside you, but we really have to try doing this in a real bed. No more motels, no more floors."
"That does sound nice," she conceded.
She smiled lightly. "Yeah."
"How do I look?" It was a dumb question. Embry simply stared at him with his mouth slightly agape, Leah turned red then snorted into her popcorn before collapsing into a fit of manic laughter. Quil, who never even looked up from his game of Halo, was the only one to speak.
"Dude, you look like a monkey."
"Quil, it's your suit," Seth reminded him before promptly shooting his pack-mate's character in the back of the head.
"Well obviously he just doesn't have the necessary physique to pull it off," Quil muttered. He dropped his controller and proceeded to tackle Seth to the floor in a move worthy of Willie E. Coyote cartoon sparks. Leah watched her brother's beating and got control of her breathing again, until her eyes drifted back to Jacob, the snorting and laughter resumed. Jacob felt the color rise in his cheeks, but it had nothing to do with being embarrassed.
"Thanks, fat lot of help you assholes are!" He staked off down the hall, desperately pulling at the sleeves of the black jacket, as if that could make them longer. Staring at his reflection in the bathroom mirror, he couldn't help be think he did look a bit like an ape.
Jacob's one good suit had been shredded the year before during an accidental phase (all Leah's fault) and he hadn't had the foresight (or the spare funds) to procure a new one since Bella had returned. Billy's suit was faded, and moths had chewed holes through the coat while it was hanging in the basement. Embry's was too skinny (and he was attending the event anyways) which left him with Quil. Quil who, to this day, was still several inches shorter than Jacob.
"I look like a little kid raiding his dad's closet," Jake moaned. Embry leaned against the bathroom doorframe.
"Yeah…" he agreed. Jake turned around and shot him a glare. "What? It's true."
"Thanks," he muttered, his voice dripping in sarcasm. "That's real helpful."
"Speaking of helpful-" was all Embry managed to say before Leah shoved him out of the way and wormed into the tiny bathroom.
"I swear, all you boys do it bitch sometimes." She was wearing a grin and a roll of duct tape like an over sized bracelet on her wrist. "You sound like women."
Since the last great fight five years ago, Leah had proven to be the proverbial black sheep of the pack. Jacob still felt the smolder of a grudge burn in his chest when he thought of that battle, and Leah's foolishness. But it's impossible to see inside someone's head without gaining a little perspective along the way. Impulsive and aggravating as she might be, it was no lie that she'd had to cope with more than Jacob had, more than any of them. The first victim of the unpleasant side of imprinting, the next thing life had chosen to saddle her with was the premature death of her own father. She gave up school, a future to move back home and help her mother and Seth, and karma's only reward for that had been to make her a historical anomaly – a woman and a wolf. In comparison it made Jacob's sacrifices seem pathetic. He still had Billy, his sisters…and after five long years he still had her.
He could afford to be a little patient Leah
"Seriously, are you sure you don't have ovaries?"
Only a little.
"What do you want, Leah?" Jake demanded. She grinned wickedly.
"Believe it or not, I'm here to help you out." She twirled the duct tape on her wrist and flashed a Swiss Army pocketknife at him. "First things first, take off your pants."
"Where did you learn thing sort of thing?" Jacob demanded, watching with trepidation as Leah's blade slashed precariously close to his tendon. He was wearing Quil's suit pants inside out while Leah knelt on the floor, trimming the threads of the hem.
"One of my friends in Seattle," she murmured. Her voice changed, growing softer, more mournful. It was empty of all of her usual sharpness and cynicism, and Jake realized that she was talking about her stint at the University. Her escape from the reservation. "She was a fashion merchandizing student, and I helped her put on a few low budget shows. One of the school's seamstresses taught me this trick to help compensate for when models were taller than expected." A tearing sound perforated the quiet of the tiny room as Leah ripped out the hemming on the pant legs. The fabric dropped down and brushed against the tops of his socks. Leah grinned triumphantly. "See, they're plenty long."
"Impressive," Jake conceded. Leah folded the fabric to a more appropriate length and then taped it in place.
"It's not pretty, but it'll get you through the night at least," she sighed, getting back to her feet. "Just don't run in 'em or anything. Nothing we can do about the jacket either, so my advice is to just throw it over a chair when you get to the place." When he just continued to look at her dumbly she groaned. "You can turn them right side out now," she directed him. He continued to stare at her with a puzzled expression on his face. "What?!"
"Why are you helping me out?" Jacob asked. Leah's expression grew somber.
"Because I know what it's like to be in love with someone when no one else thinks you should be." As if on cue the sounds of Sam and Emily's arrival reached the bathroom. Leah continued to look away, picking up broken threads off the floor. "You should go," she said softly. "You don't want to be late."
Like middle-schoolers at their first coed dance, Jake and Embry huddled awkwardly near the wall. A good foot taller than almost all the guests, most looked at them with a certain amount of trepidation. Charlie eventually worked his way over to where they were nursing beers, and shook both boys' hands heartily. He gave Jake's an extra pump.
"They don't get much better than you, Jake," he declared. "Thanks for helping Bella out so much this week. I know she really appreciated it, and I do to. You're a true friend." He chatted with them for a little bit about the upcoming basketball season, and their predictions for the World Series and such, and then was called away by one of his deputies who wanted him to meet someone. Jacob breathed a sigh of relief when he walked away. During their entire conversation he'd been waiting for Charlie to broach the subject of why Bella hadn't come home the other night – a conversation he was not keen on having now…or ever, for that matter. Yeah, she might be 24 but she was still his daughter, and Jake had seen first hand how fathers could be. Oh, the stories that Rachel and Rebecca could tell…
"Hey," Embry interrupted his thoughts. "Is it just me or are we getting the evil eye from the dude in the pinstripes?" He jerked his head to the left and Jacob noticed the man in questions. Wearing a blue striped suit, he stood in a cluster with three other seemingly disengaged party guests. They were talking in hushed voices, and two of them were carrying legal pads. Over the head of his shorter counterpart, the suited man was staring directly at Jacob and Embry with a look of distain on his face.
"Who pissed in his drink?" Jake demanded, but Embry only shrugged.
"No clue, but I'm getting pretty tired of being the object of his attention. Either he's checking us out or he's waiting for us to steal the silverware and run…" Suddenly a delicate hand appeared on Embry's shoulder.
"Tact, boys," Emily teased them gently. Since Sam had opted out of the event, claming that he had patrol duty for the night, Emily had asked Embry to be her date specifically because "he's tall enough that I don't have to worry about what shoes I wear." Most of the pack fit that description, but Embry's pleasant disposition made him good company. Didn't stop Sam from giving him a dirty look as they strolled out the door. Jacob couldn't blame him. In a red cocktail dress and shoes that defied the laws of gravity, Emily was certainly turning heads. Her copper skin, and the dark veil of her hair were almost enough to distract from the deep scars that ravaged her face.
"Our dear head chef told me that her uninvited guests in the corner are all critics," Em explained, taking a sip wine. "The short woman is from the Port Angeles Pioneer, the guy in the black is from Zagat Rating, apparently." Both boys looked at her blankly. "Big name foodies. And the man in those obnoxious stripes is from the Seattle Journal. So be careful what you say, boys," she reminded them. "They could be deciding Bella's future." She smiled gently and then spotted Charlie across the room and went to mingle. Unlike the boys, Emily was floating from person to person, making a charming impression with every person she met.
"I'm going to get another round, you want one?" Embry asked, branching off in the opposite direction. Jake shook him off, his eyes fixed on the three critics in the corner. The man from the Journal had stopped staring at him and Embry, but what made Jacob uncomfortable was the fact he was now staring at Emily. He watched him lean into the woman from the Pioneer, lowering his voice.
"Ms. Swan certainly caters to some…unusual people," the man murmured, the words rolling off his tongue like they were something dirty. His eyes trailed Emily as she crossed the crowd behind their group, and his blank expression dissolved into one that could only be descried as a sneer.
The words cut across the din of the room like knives. Intended only for those in an intimate range, Jacob's ears picked them up with ease. He didn't miss much anymore. Embry caught his eye from by the bar and made it clear that he'd heard the offhanded comment too. For the first time in a long time he felt the blood swim past his eyes – the uncontrollable seething of all his muscles, and the unmistakable urge to shift them into something else.
Something much more dangerous.
There is a pack mentality to the boys of La Push, both as wolves and as men. They were a team, a battalion. Emily was their alpha in a traditional sense, but in reality she was a mother/sister/friend to everyone. She was their pillar of strength – having suffered at the hands of their ultimate power, and as one who was still unwilling to be afraid of it. To Jacob, the rest of the boys, it mattered very little what people thought or said. But Emily was something special, a person to be revered. An insult to her was not going to go unpunished.
"Jacob, calm down," a melodic voice whispered, penetrating the haze he was floundering in. He realized that he'd crossed the room and was staring the small group of critics down, breathing heavily and practically vibrating with anger. Emily's hand was firm on his arm, but her voice remained gentle. "Cool your jets, let's go get some air."
He allowed himself to be led away, though he desperately wanted to harness his anger and put it to good use. Emily kept a firm hand on his forearm, and Embry flanked him on the left, much calmer than his packmate.
"I heard him too, Jake," Emily murmured as they wove through the throngs of people, most staring awkwardly in their direction. "It doesn't matter. Let him be a prick – we know who we are and that's all that matters. They're just words," she said gently. Her demeanor was proud, genuine even. The calm in her voice wasn't just for Jacob's benefit, but a reflection of her own inner peace – she really wasn't upset by the comment. "I'm certainly not going to let him ruin my night, and you shouldn't either." She held the door open for Jacob, but he sloughed her off his arm sullenly.
"Just gimme a minute alone, okay?" he asked. "I'm just gonna clear my head and I'll be back." Emily shot him an understanding smile, and took Embry's arm.
"Don't be too long. You don't want to miss dinner."
Jacob let his feet wander for a bit, his anger having evaporated into a dull and tangy shame that clung to the back of his throat. He found himself pacing in the small lot behind the building under the strict scrutiny of the aging Latino line cook, Gustavo. He was leaning against the building, sitting on an overturned bucket. With gusto he took an impressive drag on his cigarette, then exhaled the smoke into the misty night air. Jacob's pacing beneath the single street light seemed to amuse him, and he laughed before holding out a mangled packet of Marlboros. Jake shook his head. "No thanks."
Gustavo chuckled again, and then asked him a question in Spanish. He
didn't understand a word of it, but the inflection seemed to mirror his mood, so he just said "yeah," and continued pacing. Suddenly Bella's voice pierced the air, echoing through the back door to the kitchen.
"Gustavo, dónde usted puso las setas?" she asked.
"Qué?" The old man took one last, long drag on his cigarette before snuffing it against the side of the building and hobbling back inside. He and Bella had a short exchange in the doorway, after which she stuck her head outside. Gustavo had snitched on him.
"What are you doing back here, Jake. You're not throwing up are you? Oh God, I gave them all food poisoning!" she panicked, running out to place a hand on his forehead. "Just like in my dream last night." Jacob swatted her hand away gently.
"I'm fine, stop freaking out – you're a hit in there," he assured her. "I just came back to get some fresh air." Bella shot a glace at the dumpster he was standing beside and then looked back at him, one eyebrow cocked.
"Wow, and they tell me I'm a bad liar," she teased, but there was no malice in her voice. "What's really going on? Too many women hitting on you? I mean I can understand why…" she murmured with a laugh, blatantly looking him up and down. He gave her a half hearted smile.
"I look terrible, Bells," he said softly.
"Well, I suppose you do look better half-naked…or all naked, but I like the suit." She waited for him to laugh or smile but Jacob just hovered awkwardly. He scratched the back of his neck and tried not to meet her eyes.
"I'm just not sure…we're right for this type of scene, you know Embry and me…I'm not sure we're…classy enough for something like this, you know? We-"
"What are you talking about?" Bella demanded. She grabbed his face in and forced him to look at her.
"It's just…that writer made a comment about how it was 'unusual' that you'd invited guests like us, and let's face it – he's right. Two oversized Quileute werewolves and the victim of a supernatural mauling? We're not subtle."
Jake struggled for the words. "I just think…I don't know. This is your world now and…maybe I just don't belong in it." He absently tugged at the cuffs of his shirt. "I don't want to be responsible for you getting a poor review and…and I don't want them…these people to look at you badly cause of, well you and me and…stuff," he finished weakly. Bella held his head fast, but didn't say anything right away, merely stared at him with an unidentifiable expression on her face. Jake fought the unnerving instinct to squirm under her gaze.
"Jacob Black," she said finally. "I'm disappointed in you. Do you really think that little of yourself? Of me?"
"But-" he interjected, but Bella was not going to be interrupted. She raised her voice, talking over him.
"You think I care about what those people think? Those critics and idiots?" The color was rising in her cheeks with every word. "They're not worth a second thought or your time. You're more of a man than anyone in that room. You are strong and brave and smart and loyal and kind and a hundred other things that I would give my left hand to be. But most importantly you are…" she drifted off, the anger seeping from her voice. Replacing it was a tone so breathy, so tender, that Jacob had to strain to hear it. "You are the man I'm in love with…and I have been for a long time. It just took me a while to realize this was where I belonged. So there."
Jake didn't have anything to say to that. All he could do was draw Bella up in his arms and kiss her. In the alley behind her restaurant, next to the dumpster, under the glow of a streetlight, he kissed Bella Swan will all the passion he could muster. With strong arms he lifted her off her feet and crushed their two bodies together. She returned his enthusiasm, tangling her hands in his hair and wrapping her legs around his waist. When they finally parted Bella was gasping for air. She leaned her forehead against his.
"So I take it you feel the same way?" she asked breathlessly.
"What gave it away?"
"Maybe the way you just tried to devour me. That being said," she leaned in and gave him a single, gentle peck on the lips. "I have to go finish cooking. You go back into the dining room and try not to be a total head-case. Also please don't maim any of my guests. And then, after these people leave, you and I can finish what we've just started. Sound like a plan?" He set her back on her feet, and Bella hurriedly fixed her hair.
"Yeah, that's one deal I'm going to hold you to." She smiled brightly and gave his hand one, final squeeze before running back into her kitchen. Jake watched her go, certain that after what Bella had just told him he could handle anything. As he was walking back around to the front of the building, Bella stuck her head back out the door.
"Oh, I forgot to mention: that table cloth the guy from the The Journal is eating off of…" she let the words hang in the air, disappearing again with a subtle wink. Embry spent the rest of the evening wondering why Jake couldn't stop laughing every time he looked at the table full of writers.
"I'll tell you when you're older," he muttered, before asking the waitress to bring their table another round.
Quil was parked on the couch, exactly where Jacob had left him several hours earlier. Again, he didn't even look up from his game when his roommate strolled through the door.
"So, how'd it go?" Jake didn't answer, but the sound of a second set of footsteps across the threshold was enough to draw Quil's attention away from the TV screen. Bella strolled through the door, and gave him a jaunty wave. "So, good then?" She ignored him and turned into the kitchen, seemingly intent on exploring the house. Jake walked over and clamped Quil on the shoulder, a gesture of friendship, a sign of apology.
"Dude, we have got to find something for you to do," he said, noting that Quil was still playing the same game.
"My girlfriend is seven!" he whined. "What do you want me to do with my time, huh?"
"Well my truck could use an oil change…" Bella said, emerging from the kitchen with a smile on her face.
"Yeah, I'll be sure to get right on that," Quil muttered bitterly. Bella stepped in front of the television and handed him a Styrofoam container. "Left-overs?"
"There weren't any. Spaghetti with double meatballs – I whipped it up for you before we left for the night. Jake said it's your favorite." He eyed the box suspiciously, like he was wondering if it's been poisoned.
"A peace offering?" he asked bluntly, assuming that Jake had spilled the beans on their argument days ago.
"A thank you," she replied. "For being such a good friend."
Quil looked up in disbelief. "What, to you?"
Bella shook her head. "No," she said, jerking her chin in the direction of where Jacob was hanging up his coat. "To him. And for what it's worth, I'm sorry. For everything." She patted his shoulder as she walked by. "Now Jake, how about a tour…"
"Hey Bella?" Quil called, before she disappeared into the hallway.
He smiled. "Welcome back."
Bella's truck stayed parked in front of the little brick house all night, and the next morning Jacob awoke to the feeling of her lithe figure curved against his. She was curled into a tight knot, but her body folded perfectly along the lines of his own, his arms
still wrapped around her. With a small sigh he nuzzled his face into the top of Bella's hair, breathing her scent of sweat from sleeping beside his warm body all night and strawberries from her shampoo. His breath tickling the back of her neck, she stirred beside him. With a contented sigh, she rolled over to face him, sleepy eyes peering at him through the wild tangle of her hair. She didn't say anything, just studied his face in the morning light, a soft smile playing across her lips. After a moment, she snuggled back beneath his arms, buried her face in his chest, and closed her eyes. She sighed in her sleep as Jake absently traced the line of her cheek with a finger. Her skin smoldered where it met his.
Though he would've been content with closing his eyes too, and surrendering to
another hour of sleep, Jacob had something else he wanted to take care of. His
clock blinked 7:36am at him, which meant the drugstore would be open. He figured that if he hustled he could pick up a copy of all the daily papers and be back before Bella was awake. With deliberate slowness he began to untangle himself from her limbs. Just as he was going to slip from the bed, something snagged the waistband of his boxer shorts and pulled him backwards.
"And just where do you think you're sneaking off to?" Bella asked, sleepily. "This is your house, remember? I'm the one who's supposed to sneak out and make the walk of shame back to her dorm room, not you." He laughed and tried to pry her fingers off his underwear, but Bella hung on with vice-like tenacity.
"I was going to pick up a copy of the Journal so we could read your review," he admitted.
"Don't bother," she told him. "I don't care about that, I don't care about any of them. I gained more coming back to Forks than I ever expected to, and no review is going to change that. I don't want you to go anywhere." Jake collapsed back onto the mattress, full of reluctant indignation.
"Ever?" Jake asked, teasingly. Bella stroked his cheek gently with her fingers, and
looked at him with an expression uttered contentedness.
"Never," she whispered. Then, as an afterthought she poked him and added, "Unless
you take me with you."
The ride never got old. The Harley roared and chewed up the road like a crazed animal, and Jacob was the one holding the reins. Through the depths of the darkness and the misty air he flew, leaving the rest of the world tumbling in his wake. His heart raced, pounding in his ears, only this time it had nothing to do with speed.
Bella curved around his back, molding herself to Jake's frame. Her arms were cool around his stomach, creeping under his shirt to rest against his smoldering skin. Lacquered nails bit gently at his flesh, urging him to go faster, faster. The rain pelted them both, slicking back her hair, bleeding the colors into the night. Her touch, her presence behind him, the way her laugh was snatched away by the screaming wind, all of it added to up to some greater whole that he couldn't quite classify. It felt something like joy.
They didn't need speak; some things never need to be said. But in that moment Jacob felt as though something clicked into place. His missing piece had returned, fitting snugly into the grooves and cracks of his life. And it didn't matter that they were both damaged goods, didn't matter that she was normal, didn't matter that he wasn't. It was right. It was okay.
It was enough, Jacob told himself. All he needed.
Only this time he was right.