When the next Christmas comes, everything goes smoothly again until 11:30 at night when Jacob leaves the bathroom and notices a light is still on in the kitchen. He walks over to the doorway and is right about to flick off the light before he notices Sarah sitting at the table in her pajamas.
"Oh—Hey, honey," he says in surprise, walking into the kitchen. "What are you doing still up?"
She looks up at him and just stares a while before answering. She is clutching a glass of milk on the table, but it looks like she hasn't touched it.
"I couldn't sleep," she says in a dull tone.
His brow narrows as he examines her distracted expression. He walks over to the table and sits in the chair next to her. "Okay," he says decidedly. "What's up?"
Sarah slowly meets eyes with him, starting to look a little scared. "Promise you won't just act like I'm crazy."
He tilts his head a little. "Why would I ever do that?"
"Dad..." She loses her voice a little for a moment, having to stop to take a long breath. "Dad. I saw him again."
All of his bones feel chilled for a second. He gathers his breath, looks at her steadily, and says, "Who?"
"You know," she says, her voice rising. "You already know who I'm talking about. The man I told you I saw before. That...vampire."
"Shhh!" he says to quiet her down, looking quickly in the direction of his and Bella's room.
Immediately afterwards, of course, he sees Sarah's reaction to this and knows it was a huge mistake. She also looks in that direction, seeming to realize exactly what his nervousness means.
"Alright..." Jacob sighs. "What are you talking about? What man?"
"It was when I was outside helping Allie look for her mitten," she starts to explain, ignoring his questions. "I could have sworn there wasn't anybody else around and I didn't hear anybody coming, and then when I turned toward the sidewalk he was right there walking. When he saw me looking at him he smiled and said, 'Hello there' and went on walking. I don't think he thought I would recognize him. But it was like he was pretending to just be walking by after I saw him."
Jacob starts shaking his head, but he doesn't interrupt her. As much as he can't let it show, he needs to hear all of this.
"I tried to follow him, but he could walk so fast, right through the snow. I lost sight of him behind the neighbors' fence and ran to catch up, but in just a few seconds he'd disappeared. I looked all around for him, but he was just gone!"
"So it was some guy you've seen before in the neighborhood," Jacob says, but he knows his concern is showing all along. "Maybe he has friends here he always visits during the holidays."
"No. I swear, he couldn't have been human. It was just like you always described them in the legends. His skin, his eye color. It was freezing and he wasn't even wearing a coat!"
"Sweetheart," he starts in a slightly mocking voice, "if you were so convinced you'd just seen a vampire walk by, why in the hell would you follow him?"
"Oh, what's the big deal!" she says, starting to get frustrated. "You know him, don't you? That must be why he keeps coming here. So he can't be dangerous."
For a moment Jacob can't find any words, just staring down at the table.
"I'm a big girl now, Dad," she says. "Don't lie to me. I already know. I've had it figured out for a while. About Jared, and Mom, and you. I know that you're a werewolf!"
His eyes go wide, his mouth dropping open a little in shock, and then he just slowly starts shaking his head again. "Listen...I don't know where you get these ideas. I'm just a normal guy."
"No, you're not normal! I've always known it. All the times you've been able to do things...When I was little and I fell through that thin ice! Nobody else would be able to get me out like you did. I've always remembered...I passed out and dreamed I was being carried by this big animal, and we were moving so fast I couldn't even see where we were. I know now it wasn't a dream...And everything else. Your friend Jared died—"
"In a car accident," Jacob interrupts in a firm voice.
"Or protecting Mom from that bad vampire family. Because she wanted to be with you. She's the woman in the story. Right? It says that one of the wolves was killed in that fight. Jared died two years before you and Mom got married. That's how long you always tell me you were together before you got married. The stories also say it was the biggest wolf pack there's ever been in the tribe. There were supposed to be ten. Including Jared, all of your old friends make ten. Uncle Embry, Uncle Quil, the Clearwaters..."
"Okay, stop, stop." As Jacob sighs, his face briefly shows the smallest incredulous smile. Then with a resigned look, he hesitates in silence for a long moment before looking straight back at her and saying, "Alright, listen. First of all....You must not ever assume that a vampire isn't dangerous, no matter who they are—"
Sarah immediately flies out of her chair and throws her arms around him. "I knew it!" she says.
"Okay, settle down," he says, laughing a little as he hugs her back. "I swear to God, all you got from your mom is her worst parts. We're talking about real vampires and werewolves. You should be terrified, not excited. Now listen..."
He takes a firm hold of her shoulders to pull her back away from him and make her look at him again. "This is very important," he says. "I know it might be pretty difficult to go on pretending you don't know anything. But you have to swear to me you'll never mention anything about this to your mother. Understand?"
She only looks confused. "But...why?"
Jacob sighs again, trying to find a good way to explain. "Because...I'm just afraid it could hurt her if she knew that he's been here. And besides, if he wanted her to know, then he wouldn't be hiding himself like this."
"But what is he coming here for?"
He shakes his head. "I don't really know for sure. But my guess would be that...maybe he just misses seeing her."
"Does she miss him, too?"
Jacob frowns, unable to look straight in her eyes for a second. "There's no doubt in my mind."
Sarah still looks a little unsatisfied, almost worried. "I don't understand...She did want to be with you, didn't she? I thought that was why..."
"Yes, of course she did. She did. But it was pretty hard for her. When you get older, you'll see...sometimes these things just aren't...simple."
She thinks about it a while and then nods, seeming able to comprehend that much. "It's okay. I'll never tell her anything."
He smiles and takes her face in his hands, leaning forward to kiss her forehead. "That's my girl."
She starts to look excited again. "So the way you're always so warm when everyone else isn't...Is that because....?"
"That's right. It's one of those weird wolf things."
"But what's it like changing? Does it hurt?"
He smiles bigger as he remembers how much she sounds like Bella asking him all the same questions in his garage a long time ago. "No, it doesn't hurt. It just takes getting used to."
She is beaming now, overjoyed to have everything suddenly make sense to her. "There's so much I want to know..."
"I bet. But there'll be a better time for asking these questions."
"Oh, I'll never be able to go to sleep now," she groans as he stands up.
He laughs. "Just try."
When Jacob returns to the bedroom, Bella has woken up and turns over to face him as he gets back in bed.
"Did I hear Sarah with you?" she asks.
"Yep," he says. "She just had a headache and couldn't find the Tylenol. Sorry if we woke you up."
"Mm. It's okay..." She moves close to him, wrapping an arm around his waist. "Now I don't even feel like I can get back to sleep, though..."
Even in the darkness, without being able to see his face clearly, she can perceive how he is barely hearing her words because of how still and unresponsive he is lying next to her, as if deep in his own thoughts. She sits up on her elbow and looks at him. "Something wrong?" she asks.
He reaches out to her in the dark, one arm wrapping around her waist. "No," he whispers.
She brings her face close to his and they stay with their foreheads rested together a long moment.
He says in a struggling voice, "Bella..."
"What?" she says gently, smoothing her hand over his chest and then running just her fingertips under the edge of his shirt at his neck to rest on his bare skin underneath.
He hesitates one more moment, and then says, "Sometimes I just want you to talk to me."
She grins. "What do you mean? About what?"
"Are you really okay? Are you happy?"
She goes into a brief, surprised silence next to him before she is able to respond. "Jacob, how could I not be happy?"
He looks at her face thoughtfully, trying to see everything there in the dim light, and runs his fingers through her hair and along her neck. "You never talk about him."
The conflicted pain slowly registers in her eyes as he feared. But perhaps it doesn't look as bad as he expected.
"No. I guess I don't," she says simply, her face quickly shifting to a more detached expression.
"I'm sorry. I just...I hope you don't feel like you can't. It's not like I want you to just forget he existed."
"I...I know. Don't be sorry. And please don't think you have to worry about me. I mean...I think I'm actually getting along pretty well now, considering everything, don't you think? Give me some credit."
"Sorry. I can't help it, I just...Well. I guess I should just shut up now."
With the light, quiet giggle that comes from her then, he knows she has managed to push him completely out of mind again. It is now far past midnight and suddenly everything is back to feeling safe and secure.
She whispers, "Come here," pulling at his shirt and kissing him eagerly. Settling him in between her legs. Grabbing his hair as his back starts to rise and fall in the darkness that doesn't completely hide from him the tears that well in her eyes after a while.
She cried the first time he made love to her, feeling him completely after using so much energy for so long trying to keep him a safe distance away and not feel how it hurt her. Sometimes she still does when they're together. He can't imagine her not always being this way. Constantly emotional, so easily turned into a shaking nervous wreck, her still-pounding heart so often functioning on overload. Tripping all the time with her useless feet and dropping dishes so often they're all used to hearing the shattering noises from the kitchen. Uncontrollably going into tears when she's mad, when she's scared, when she's extremely happy. Not delicate or weak, he would say. Maybe Bella just feels things more intensely. He can't blame her too much for getting so overtaken by certain feelings before that he thought were just insane.
He cannot see her having chosen that other life and being something different now, always graceful and collected, not even being able to cry. The woman she has turned into has no conceivable connection to such a version of herself. He can be hopeful when he looks at her as having grown into someone who is all his Bella, different from the person she was at eighteen. Maybe, he hopes, it makes her miss everything that meant so much to that younger version of herself a little less the more she grows more comfortably into this very mortal skin.
One year later, they find a broken tree ornament on the floor in one corner of the living room. When Sarah says the cat was probably playing with it, Bella jokes, "Or maybe Santa Claus broke it. Remember that year he knocked over one of our plants?"
Sarah and Jacob both laugh, but then they exchange a secret, knowing smile and he winks at her.
Late that night, Jacob goes outside to take out the trash. He decided a couple months ago that it's time to give up phasing and he hasn't done it since, but there is enough of the wolf still left in him for the loathsome scent to hit him as strongly as ever as soon as he is out in the cold night air.
He doesn't look around for him. He doesn't have to. After setting down the trash bags, he crosses his arms and stares up at the sky a long moment before speaking, wanting to ignore it just a while longer.
Finally he reluctantly says, "You know you aren't supposed to be here."
Far to Jacob's right, the much shorter figure steps out with that familiar surreal grace from behind a tree. His skin is so pale that it blends in with the surrounding snow and makes him appear almost translucent, like a ghost.
Jacob turns to face him and they just stand looking at each other for a long time. Even though it shouldn't surprise him, it is an unpleasant shock to his system to see how he really has not changed at all after all this time. The color of his eyes, his hair, even the distinctive and slightly creepy way he stands so completely, patiently still like a human never does—everything takes Jacob back to places he would rather not return to, and his breath stops for a second as he has to register all of this completely. It's him, all right. Not just some bad dream constructed from memory.
And he knows right before Edward Cullen speaks that hearing his voice again is going to be just as bad as the rest.
"No, I am not," he says smoothly and calmly. "I suppose this means you need to alert the others who are also still capable of phasing that a Cullen has crossed the treaty line."
Jacob relaxes his arms, putting his hands in his pockets, and looks down to kick around a chunk of ice. He knows Edward already sees his answer in his head anyway, so he takes his time. "No," he finally says. "I'll let this one slide. But only because it's Christmas."
Edward doesn't laugh, evidently taking in some of Jacob's thoughts he hears then before he explains. "I only ever come here on Christmas."
The inevitable question is one he doesn't really want to hear the answer to. "...Why?"
Edward looks up at the sky thoughtfully, just as Jacob was doing earlier, and doesn't seem to feel like acknowledging it out loud either. "Did you know there are more suicides on this holiday than any other time of the year?" he then asks.
Jacob just raises an eyebrow.
"I suppose it makes sense...because of what this day means for a lot of people in the world. The way some spend Christmas must really put in perspective for them what they have...and what they don't have. Just how blessed or alone they are."
"Do you leeches not celebrate Christmas?" Jacob asks, noting the way he talks so speculatively about it.
Edward smirks dryly. "We do...but it is not really the same. It's different when you don't exactly have a conventional kind of family."
Jacob shifts his feet a little restlessly, and Edward hears something frustrated in his head.
"Actually, I am not meaning to talk about myself," he says. "Yes, I come here every year at this time because this date makes me especially aware of the passing of time in ways hardly anything does and also makes it unbearably impossible for me to ignore my loneliness without her. But mostly, it is to check on her. At least...it started out that way, and as nothing else. I used to dread having to come here before my feelings about seeing her life here became...more complicated. But I imagine there isn't a more appropriate time once a year to try to get a fair impression of how she is doing now than this day."
"It isn't your job to make sure she's happy," Jacob says, losing his patience and starting to sound angry. "That's my job now and there's nothing you can do anymore. Except leave her alone."
A deep, stabbing pain flashes across Edward's face before it is replaced with a look of defiance. "I told you this would happen, Jacob Black," he says. "I told you that even if she chose you and I did all I could to make it easier for her rather than keep fighting over her, I would still never be able to completely let her go. If you love Bella and intend to stay with her for the rest of her life, you either need to get it over with and kill me or accept that I'm always going to be a part of her life in some way."
Jacob is close to losing it now, his hands in fists at his sides. "And what about my children's lives? What about my twelve-year-old daughter already knowing monsters exist? What the hell is next?"
Edward goes quiet, suddenly looking guilty, and for a long moment he seems to have nothing to say.
"Look..." Jacob sighs heavily, getting a little calmer and under control again. "I'm sorry about what you couldn't have with Bella. I amgrateful for that time I know you helped Sarah. I don't even think I can bring myself to truly hate you anymore, and I really don't like having to say this...But stay away from my girls. And I know I don't have to tell you to stay away from Bella. Or are you really too dense to realize how much it would still kill her to find out how completely you've failed to move on after all this time?"
Edward is shaking his head. "You don't understand," he says. "I swear to you, I would never, ever reveal myself to her. With Sarah...that was a terrible mistake, and I am sorry. If I'd had any idea she would be able to piece everything together I never would have allowed her to see me. But it was one of the things I promised Bella the last time that...that we spoke..." His speech became weak for a moment and trailed off as it seemed too difficult for him to think about it. "I must let her move on as much as she will ever be able to. I must never bother her again."
Jacob has become almost completely pacified now. For a while he quietly reflects on everything Edward has told him, and then he asks, "What else did you have to promise her?"
Edward seems caught off guard by him wanting to know this. He looks away from his eyes uncomfortably, staying silent a long time.
Jacob gets the message that he doesn't want to answer and tries another question. "What you said earlier...about how this has become more complicated for you. What did you mean?"
Edward thinks a while about how to explain before he answers, able to understand the concerns behind the question. "As I'm sure you can imagine to some extent, seeing Bella again at all, even for a moment, is always extremely painful for me. I see the ways she has changed so much, when to me it seems like just a short time since I first knew her as that teenager. That is one of the worst parts of it—seeing just how quickly that past that I cherish is slipping away and becoming more and more impossible to ever be reclaimed, perhaps even if something were to happen to you now. And even though I know it does not mean I don't still have a place in her heart and I understand that this is completely different for her as a human, it can be unbearable to see her surviving so well without me when I still struggle every day and always will. I never imagined when I started coming here to watch her that it would be so difficult, because of course I want her to be happy. But I have to give you some credit. It's terrible to see how perfect and wonderful her life really is now. It is far worse than I ever could have feared. Bella has absolutely everything I always wished I could give her. You and her never even fight!"
Jacob shakes with a short laugh before he can help it, and then grins sheepishly at Edward's surprised expression. "Well...maybe never on Christmas," he admits.
Edward manages to smirk dryly before continuing. "However, as much as it hurts to have to see it right before me in such detail, it is always a great relief to see that Bella is, in fact, happy. And my immediate reaction to having to see her so changed may always be painful, but at the same time it's quite extraordinary to see the person she has grown and matured into instead of remaining the same as a teenager forever. Knowing that my suffering has made all of this possible makes my suffering more bearable. And then...I have found other reasons to keep coming back as well..."
He goes quiet a while, looking uncomfortable again and clearly not knowing exactly how to say the rest. "I know I told you that time years ago that I would keep some kind of watch over her in hopes that you might have to leave her someday," he says. "I would like to be selfless enough to be able to say I have absolutely no wish anymore for that to ever happen, for her sake and your daughters', but there will always be a part of me that desperately wants it despite all reason. But this is hardly even about that anymore. I hope you can believe that my intentions in coming to see Bella are entirely harmless and I would never do anything to intentionally disturb the life she has with you. And...I know you really won't like hearing this and I do not expect you to understand, but I really do care about Sarah and Allie. In a way I don't think I can possibly explain. It gives me immense joy to be able to watch them and hear their thoughts, but none of the kind of pain along with it that I feel every time I see Bella again."
He stops speaking and waits a moment, as if expecting Jacob to start threatening him. But Jacob only keeps standing still, his face controlled, and waits for him to go on.
"You see, it's incredible...I feel like I have learned so much about Bella that I never understood before by being able to read her children's minds," Edward says. "Because they are part of her, and take after her in many ways. Especially in Allie, it seems like I can see what she was like as a child. Of course I cannot help but wish they were mine too, but nonetheless, that is something I never could have dreamed of being able to see some day. And to be able to just watch Bella's family the way I can, experiencing everyone's thoughts, even for such a short time every year...it feels almost like actually being part of her life again. And getting to know her children in the small ways I have has given me something to be optimistic about, in a way. I used to think of the rest of my life in terms of how many years she must have left, feeling absolutely no hope about what will come beyond that and never being sure what I can possibly live for after she is gone. Now it isn't so simple. I see, I feel, so clearly when I watch and savor all the ways they are so like her, that she will still live on in a sense..."
"So then what will you do after Bella's dead, to keep giving your life that kind of semblance of meaning?" Jacob asks. "Just start spying on her kids instead?"
Edward gives an apologetic sort of sigh. "I honestly don't know. Not for certain yet. All I know is that for someone who practically only lives for something I only allow myself to have one day a year, I am doing considerably well. I have found something that gives me enough hope to get by, and I don't think I can say how much it will take for me to keep that once she no longer exists in this world until I have become faced with that problem. But I can promise you that I would never dream of intervening in your daughters' lives in any way. I might feel the need to watch, but I would never touch their lives, not unless something like Sarah's accident in the kitchen was to happen again."
Jacob stays silent a long time as something slowly registers in his head. "The other promise you made her," he says as he realizes it. "It was that you would never try to get yourself killed again, even if you lost her...Wasn't it?"
Edward sighs softly again, still not wanting to talk out loud about that. It seems to cause him physical pain to answer, "Yes."
Jacob gives a small nod. "But you only said it because you never thought she'd actually leave you."
"Not exactly. At the time I said it, I was merely hoping I would be able to be that strong if needed, even as I knew it might as well be a lie. But it was getting close to the time she wanted to be turned, and I was feeling more and more horrible about it. I couldn't go through with it unless I was certain she wanted it for the right reasons, not because she felt she had to do it for me. So I did my best to be convincing in telling her I had realized after what happened in Italy that it would be wrong to hurt myself and I could never think about doing that again. Surely enough, that was what started it. She'd had all these clear ideas of her options for her future, and this suddenly changed the way she saw everything, even if she didn't want to face it at first. But I could tell. She was beginning to question everything."
"So did you refuse to change her then?" Jacob asks. "Or leave her? Was that what finally sent her to me?"
"Believe me, Jacob. If that were the case, I would have given in and stolen her back, one way or another, a long time ago."
Jacob's face is slowly changing to an expression of shock and awe. "So then...she chose me," he says in a slightly weak voice. "She actually chose me."
Edward raises his brow a little. "Didn't she ever tell you as much?"
"Well, sure. In her own words. But I never thought I could be sure it was the entire truth. Or not just a less painful version of the truth."
Edward shakes his head a little. "You know...I am well aware by now of the ways you're still troubled by it. I know you worry that you do not make her happy enough to make up for everything she gave up. I know you feel sometimes like you could still lose her so easily, as if you have to be perfect to make this whole life worth it...Frankly, I'm disappointed. You are the one who is supposed to know her better than that. If I can tell just by seeing you together for a few hours once a year, when I still can never hear a single thought in her head, shouldn't you be able to see it?"
As Jacob stands frozen in a surprised stupor still processing the meaning of all of his words, Edward looks over at the house, going silent with intense thought for a while. Then he looks back at Jacob and says, failing to hide a trace of deep sadness in his voice, "You've been out here a long time. She must be waiting for you."
He turns and starts to walk away at a relaxed pace. Before he can get too far away very fast, Jacob looks over at him and stops him by saying, "Edward."
He turns and looks back. Jacob just looks down at the ground a while, struggling to find the right words to say and not even knowing exactly what he wants to say. Then he looks back up at him, sighing softly, and says only a little grudgingly, "Merry Christmas."
Edward's mouth turns crooked in a small smile. He gives him a dignified, respectful nod before turning away again.
Soft, warm yellow light spills out onto the porch from an opening door. "Jake?" Bella calls from inside as Jacob looks toward the house.
A strong, icy wind blows past, and when he glances back in the other direction, Edward is gone.
He wakes up, and she is there. After fifteen years she is still right there beside him. And not going anywhere.
Now that he can be sure neither of them will ever see Edward Cullen again, he is able to think of him on this day and understand the sentiment he wrote in an invitation to a wedding that never ended up happening: "Thank you. For her, for everything."
He has now gone long enough without phasing to start aging again. He feels the cold in winter the same way she does. But this time of year doesn't bother him like it used to. The chilling wind is harmless, bringing with it no haunting voices; the earth quiet underneath the heavy blanket of snow with all souls sleeping serenely there rather than clawing out from the past; everything turned to overwhelming warmth and beauty on the most peaceful of days.