The Ever After

More departures came soon after.

The reunited Amazons had been anxious to return home—they had a difficult time being away from their beloved rain forest.

"You must bring the child to see me," Zafrina had insisted.

Nessie had pressed her hand to my neck, pleading as well.

"Of course, Zafrina," I'd agreed.

"We shall be great friends, my Nessie," the wild woman had declared before leaving with her sisters.

The Denalis left also; Tanya, Kate, and Garrett also, with them as he would be from now on, I was fairly sure. They left with understandably heavy hearts, promising to visit in time, once Garrett and Kate had gone to Volterra. Tanya was going north, she said; she needed time alone. She embraced Edward and I, and I held onto her for an extra moment, silently thanking her for her friendship, and for the sacrifices she had made for both of us.

Huilen and Nahuel were the ones who stayed, though I had expected those last two to go back with the Amazons. Carlisle was deep in fascinated conversation with Huilen; Nahuel sat close beside her, listening while Edward recounted the story of the conflict.

"Aro was definitely terrified of us," he said gravely. "He saw the weapons we had on our side… Bella, Zafrina, Benjamin, and the wolves."

He looked at Jacob.

Jacob actually grinned back at him—a first, I thought.

"Yes," Edward continued. "That was another sight they'd never seen. The true Children of the Moon rarely move in packs, and they are never much in control of themselves. Sixteen enormous regimented wolves was a surprise they weren't prepared for. Caius was especially afraid—he almost lost a fight with one a few thousand years ago."

"So there are real werewolves?" I asked. "With the full moon and silver bullets and all that?"

"Full moon, yes," Edward explained. "Silver bullets, no—that was just another one of those myths to make humans feel like they had a sporting chance. There aren't many of them left. Caius had them hunted into near extinction."

"And you never mentioned this because…?"

"It never came up."

We sat up late into the night, still talking. Alice recounted how she had kept her disappearance from me, because Edward had to believe that she was really gone. I had forgiven her, of course—my anger at her was far outweighed by the fact that she had given me the tools to keep Nessie alive. To think about what could have happen, if Alice had never made me prepare her to run…

At some point, Seth and most of the werewolves went back to La Push, but Jacob stayed behind.

"Are you sure you don't want to go with them, Jake?" I asked.

He shrugged. "I will…" he trailed off, and I knew he was thinking about his fallen pack-mates.

Nessie tugged on my sleeve. I looked down at her, and she placed her hand on my neck, closing her eyes, and sending me her memory.

I saw her on Jacob's back, felt her fear as she saw Rosalie fall. Then she and Jacob were running, getting closer to the trees, when a vampire came out from behind the trees. Jacob growled, barking and snapping his teeth at the advancing adversary. Then, out of nowhere, another wolf jumped in. Leah. She looked back at Jacob quickly, and a low, mournful whine escaped her lips. Then, turning, she attacked the vampire. Jacob lingered for a moment, then took off quick as lightning.

Nessie removed her hand, looking at me with sad eyes.

I looked at Jacob, and he nodded.

Leah had died, as Rosalie had, to save them.

"Seth…" I said hoarsely.

"He knows," Jacob responded. "It's okay, Bella," he continued. "We knew the risk. All of us did. We chose to fight." He reached out and ruffled Nessie's hair lightly, making her giggle sleepily. I watched his face closely as he did—he was looking at her like she was the most precious thing in the world to him, like he would do anything in his power to protect her.

"Jake," I began softly.

He looked at me again. "It's okay, Bella. Believe it. We're all going to be okay." He smiled his crooked, Jacob-smile.

"I know," I whispered.

We sat in silence until Nessie fell asleep in my lap.

I preoccupied myself mostly with stroking her hair peacefully, until, feeling eyes watching me, I looked up to meet the stare of the half-human, half-vampire Nahuel from across the room. I sensed that he had been watching me for awhile, with his intense, uncomfortable stare. Even when I stared back, he never took his eyes off me. Or maybe he was looking at Nessie. That made me uncomfortable, too.

He couldn't be oblivious to the fact that Nessie was the only female of his kind that wasn't his half-sister.

I didn't think this idea had occurred to Jacob yet. I kind of hoped it wouldn't soon. I'd had enough fighting to last me awhile.

Eventually, the hushed conversations around us faded away.

I felt oddly tired. Not sleepy, of course, but just like the day had been long enough. I wanted some peace, some normality. I wanted Nessie in her own bed; I wanted the walls of my own little home around me.

I looked at Edward and felt for a moment like I could read his mind. I could see he felt exactly the same way. Ready for some peace.

"Should we take Nessie…?"

"That's probably a good idea," he agreed quickly.

Jacob stood just then, yawning. "it's been awhile since I slept in a bed. I bet my dad would get a kick out of having me under his roof again."

I touched his cheek.

Although I had said it many times already, and although I knew everything I wanted to say, I whispered softly, "Thank you, Jacob."

"Anytime, Bella. But you already know that."

He stretched, kissed the top of Nessie's head, and then the top of mine. Finally, he punched Edward's shoulder. "See you guys tomorrow. I guess things are going to be kind of boring now, aren't they?"

"I fervently hope so," Edward said.

We got up when he was gone; I shifted my weight carefully so that Nessie was never jostled. I was deeply grateful to see her getting a sound sleep. So much weight had been on her tiny shoulders. It was time she got to be a child again—protected and secure. A few more years of childhood.

The idea of peace and security reminded me of someone who didn't have those feelings all the time.

"Oh, Jasper?" I asked as we turned for the door.

Jasper was sandwiched tight in between Alice and Esme, somehow seeming more central to the family picture than usual. "Yes, Bella?"

"I'm curious—why is J. Jenks scared stiff by just the sound of your name?"

Jasper smiled, for what I was certain was the first time that evening. "It's just been my experience that some kinds of working relationships are better motivated by fear than by monetary gain."

I frowned, promising myself that I would take over that working relationship from now on and spare J the heart attack that was surely on the way.

We were kissed and hugged and wished a good night to our family. Esme hugged us extra hard, telling us to be sure we came back the next day. I promised that we would—I knew that she out of all the Cullens was taking the loss of Rose and Emmett the hardest. The only off note to our departure was Nahuel again, who looked intently after us, as if he wished he could follow.

Once we were across the river, we walked barely faster than human speed, in no hurry, holding hands. I was sick of being under a deadline, and I just wanted to take my time. Edward must have felt the same.

"I have to say, I'm thoroughly impressed with Jacob right now," Edward told me.

"The wolves made quite and impact, didn't they?"

"That's not what I mean. Not once tonight did he think about the fact that, according to Nahuel, Nessie will be fully matured in just six and a half years."

I considered that for a minute. "He doesn't see her that way. He's not in a hurry for her to grow up. He just wants her to be happy."

"I know. Like I said, impressive. It goes against the grain to say so, but she could do worse."

I frowned. "I'm not going to think about that for approximately six and a half more years."

Edward laughed and then sighed. "Of course, it looks like he'll have some competition to worry about when the time comes."

My frown deepened. "I noticed. I'm grateful to Nahuel for today, but all the staring was a little weird. I don't care if she is the only half-vampire he's not related to."

"Oh, he wasn't staring at her—he was staring at you."

That's what it had seemed like… but that didn't make any sense. "Why would he do that?"

"Because you're alive," he said quietly.

"You lost me."

"All his life," he explained, "—and he's fifty years older than I am—,"

"Decrepit," I interjected.

He ignored me. "He's always thought of himself as an evil creation, a murderer by nature. His sisters all killed their mothers as well, but they thought nothing of it. Joham raised them to think of the humans as animals, while they were gods. But Nahuel was taught by Huilen, and Huilen loved her sister more than anyone else. It shaped his whole perspective. And, in some ways, he truly hated himself."

"That's so sad," I murmured.

"And then he saw the three of us—and realized for the first time that just because he is half immortal, it doesn't mean he is inherently evil. He looks at me and sees… what his father should have been."

"You area fairly ideal in every way," I agreed.

He snorted and then was serious again. "He looks at you and sees the life his mother should have had."

"Poor Nahuel," I murmured, and then sighed because I knew I would never be able to think badly of him after this, no matter how uncomfortable his stare made me.

"Don't be sad for him. He's happy now. Today, he's finally begun to forgive himself."

I smiled for Nahuel's happiness. But the battle that had happened earlier cast a dark shadow on the white light, keeping the moment from perfection. I took in a deep breath. Tomorrow, I thought. Tomorrow would be a day to grieve, a day to remember. But tonight… for the last few hours of tonight, I wanted to think of nothing but what I had to be thankful for. The life I'd fought for was safe again. Alice and Jasper were back. My daughter had a beautiful future stretching out endlessly in front of her. Soon, I would go see my father; he would see that the fear in my eyes was gone, and he would be happy with me. Suddenly, I was sure I wouldn't find him there alone. I hadn't been observant as I might have been in the last few weeks, but in this moment, it was like I'd known al along. Sue would be with Charlie—the werewolves' mom with the vampire's dad. Maybe, I thought, he could help her deal with the loss of her daughter. She would grieve, I knew, but she wouldn't have to grieve alone. The thought comforted me a little, it eased the guilt that I felt over all the people who had died because of me.

But the best feeling of all was the surest fact of all: I was with Edward. Forever.

Not that I'd want to repeat the last several weeks, but I had to admit they'd made me appreciate what I had more than ever.

The cottage was a place of perfect peace in the silver-blue night. We carried Nessie to her bed and gently tucked her in. She smiled as she slept.

I took Aro's gift from around my neck and tossed it lightly into the corner of her room. She could play with it if she wished; she liked sparkly things.

Edward and I walked slowly to our room, swinging our arms between us.

He didn't speak, but put his hand under my chin to lift my lips to his.

"Wait," I hesitated, pulling away.

He looked at me in confusion. As a general rule, I didn't pull away. Okay, it was more than a general rule. This was a first.

"I want to try something," I informed him, smiling slightly at his bewildered expression.

I put my hands on both sides of his face and closed my eyes in concentration.

I hadn't done very well with this when Zafrina had tried to teach me before, but I knew my shield better now. I understood the part that fought against separation from me, the automatic instinct to preserve self above all else.

It still wasn't anywhere near as easy as shielding other people along with myself. I felt the elastic recoil again as my shield fought to protect me. I had to strain to push it entirely away from me; it took all of my focus.

"Bella!" Edward whispered in shock.

I knew it was working then, so I concentrated even harder, dredging up the specific memories I'd saved for this moment, letting them flood my mind, and hopefully his as well.

Some of the memories were not clear—dim human memories, seen through weak eyes and heard through weak ears: the first time I'd seen his face… the way it felt when he'd held me in the meadow… the sound of his voice through the darkness of my faltering consciousness when he'd saved me from James… his face as he waited under a canopy of flowers to marry me… every precious moment from the island… his cold hands touching our baby through my skin…

And then the sharp memories, perfectly recalled: his face when I'd opened my eyes to my new life, to the endless dawn of immortality… that first kiss… that first night…

His lips, suddenly fierce against mine, broke my concentration.

With a gasp, I lost my grip on the struggling weight I was holding away from myself. It snapped back like stressed elastic, protecting my thoughts once again.

"Oops, lost it!" I sighed.

"I heard you," he breathed. "How? How did you do that?"

"Zafrina's idea. We practiced with it a few times."

He was dazed. He blinked twice and shook his head.

"Now you know," I said lightly and shrugged. "No one's ever loved anyone as much as I love you."

"You're almost right." He smiled, his eyes still a little wider than usual. "I know of just one exception."

"Liar."

He started to kiss me again, but then stopped abruptly.

"Can you do it again?" he wondered.

I grimaced. "It's very difficult."

He waited, his expression eager.

I can't keep it up if I'm even the slightest bit distracted," I warned him.

"I'll be good," he promised.

I pursed my lips, my eyes narrowing. Then I smiled.

I pressed my hands to his face again, hefted the shield right out of my mind, and then started in where I'd left off—with the crystal-clear memory of the first night of my new life… lingering on the details.

I laughed breathlessly when his urgent kiss interrupted my efforts again.

"Damn it," he growled, kissing hungrily down the edge of my jaw.

"We have plenty of time to work on it," I reminded him.

"Forever and forever and forever," he murmured.

"That sounds exactly right to me."

And then we continued blissfully into this small but perfect piece of our forever.

the end

A/N: love it or hate it, I'd love to hear your comments! Thanks for reading!

O