A/N: Post-Breaking Dawn: once again, I'm messing with imprinting.
It's nothing new when she tells him they need to talk. It's the same distant gnawing at her gut and the guilty butterflies in her stomach and the clouded head and fake-happy smiles. She knows it isn't fair to him, but she can't live (dead, dead, already dead) with this gash down her soul. She's doing this for her daughter even if it hurts.
It's an easy excuse to give Edward. "I'll be back in an hour," she mumbles, and kisses him on the cheek. She sees it in his eyes when she's walking to the woods but pretends that the hurt is just exhaustion, even when that has forever been impossible (she's always tired; can never sleep).
She easily sets her mind-shield over them, even when they walk farther and farther into the green. There is no chance that anyone could hear them now, human or vampire or wolf; mind-reader or emotion-controller or psychic. His mouth is set in the same hard line that she remembers from those days so many years ago—the Sam Uley, my-best-friend-left-me, empty-on-the-inside face.
She takes a breath even when she doesn't need it.
"Nessie…" she says, and his eyes grow wider in anticipation because he has always been the perfect husband. Her heart clenches in the cold (always cold), and if it were still beating she knows it would have stopped a long time ago. It's sick and wrong to be feeling this way, but part of her still wonders about that choice.
"What is it?" he asks, and his face is intent and cautious. It's the same expression as he holds before the pack meets (she remembers because she has been there, in those fuzzy human memories that don't matter anymore), and she knows that she needs to tell him or he'll go insane.
"Nessie wants children, Jake."
His eyes go from the harsh black to deep brown in confusion, then darker in understanding before settling back to coal.
It's one word but he says it like it's the answer to life. She knows it's a lost cause before she even begins, and her five-hundred-track mind is running over apologies for Renesmee.
"Jacob," she says quietly. "You promised me that you would keep my daughter safe and—"
He interrupts her with a deep voice and a pointed finger. "You know that's not playing fair. I have done everything for Nessie and I always will, but I can't do this." The pain on his face is evident and she know that it's hurting him to disobey the imprint. It's not something that comes naturally, especially not to an Alpha, and some inane part of her is proud that he still has that much control.
"Please." She looks at him with the same eyes (different color, different light, different age, but still very much the same) as when he was her protector, her guardian, and his expression falters ever so slightly. "This is all she wants, Jacob."
Jacob clenches his jaw and closes his eyes; breathes in air like a drug. It makes her wish she could do the same (something so appealing about need), but she just continues to stare.
"There is something really wrong about this, Bells."
"There's nothing wrong about children. She just wants—"
"I'm not talking about that," he snaps, and she sees a glimmer of that old Jacob, the stubborn, pre-Nessie one, again. "I'm talking about all of this control. Look at me, and look at you. I know she's your daughter and I'm her husband but neither of us deserve to be belongings. You know that, Bella. I've always said you were too good for that."
She bites her lip hard enough that if she were still human it would have drawn blood. "She is my life," she tells him, and places a hand on his too-hot skin. It burns; nearly as painful as fire, but Bella has always been a masochist and considers this part of the job.
Jacob shakes his head. "You said that about him, too."
The bitter edge in his voice almost surprises her. She figured that the imprint overcame everything, and was glad—because as long as he had forgotten about her it was easy for her to forget about him. But best friend or true love or son-in-law, there was a part of Jacob that still got caught in her heart.
"We all belong to someone, Jake. You and I know that best."
Jacob looks down and shuffles his feet. "Doesn't mean it isn't wrong."
She nods and they're both quiet for a minute. She listens to the sound of his heartbeat and wishes she had her own to hear.
"You have to understand," he finally says. His husky voice is low and rough and even with her super-hearing she leans close to listen. "I can't make another person deal with this. If Nessie and I have kids, not only will they be in this supernatural world, but they'll be wolves. What if next time, it's even worse? What if there's another broken heart and crying girl or…" he trails off and she knows that they're both thinking about the twisted triangle they all say is gone now.
"Sometimes…" he whispers, even quieter now, and she moves closer until she can feel the heat of his skin. "especially when you were with him or dying or telling me we couldn't be together, sometimes I would wonder if imprinting meant I could be happy. And when you had Nessie…" a faint, shadow of a smile reaches his face but it isn't out of happiness. "I felt that pull and I thought, okay, this is it. No more pain."
She looks at him and his eyes are somewhere else. "No one can escape pain, Jacob. It's not human."
Jacob scoffs and smirks down at her. "You managed to."
Her laugh is careful. "Even though my heart's not beating, I still know pain."
They both look away in the silence.
"I just can't, Bells."
Bella nods. She knew how this would go even before she told him. Jacob may have been forced into this life, but he wouldn't do the same to someone else.
When he looks at her, she stares at his brown skin and wide mouth and that burning part of her that she locks away is screaming. It takes most of her strength not to kiss him then—she satisfies herself by leaning her head on his shoulder and breathing in his (still perfect) scent.
Jacob sighs. "I know it doesn't matter now," he says. "I know it never really mattered. But I still love you. Always love you. Even with Edward and Nessie and imprinting, I still think one day things will work out."
Bella's smile is real, even though, truly, she always knew. "If it doesn't," she whispers, "you can keep all of my heartbeats."
He presses his lips to the top of her head and she imagines that both of them are breathing.