A/N: I cannot thank you enough for your patience and understanding during the long delay for this chapter. I've been told that I can't apologize *eyes naelany*, so I'm going to try to stick to that and just tell you how much I appreciate your kind words and the thoughtful PMs.

Special thanks to AHizelm, EchoesOfTwilight, IngenueFic, kimberlycullen10, naelany, and theladyingrey42 for being my prereaders and holding my hand through this chapter. Without you ladies, it might never have been completed, and I adore each of you!



When I heard the annoying sound of Edward's alarm, I wanted to cry. There was no moment of confusion, no wondering where I was or what that sound was. I knew instantly that I was lying in bed with his arms around me and that sound meant only one thing…he was leaving.

He reached behind me, slapping at the nightstand until he found his phone. I heard him muttering something under his breath – all I caught was the word "fucking" – and then his arm lifted as the noise mercifully ended. Instead of getting up, he pulled me closer, his lips finding my forehead as he sighed. My arms squeezed around his waist as I lifted my face, kissing him softly. He returned my kiss, our lips moving gently at first before he moaned.

My lips parted, my tongue meeting his as our kiss deepened. He broke away for a moment to murmur, "Good god, Bella…" before his lips crashed to mine again, his kiss desperate. Our bodies were pressed closely together, and I realized with a start that I could feel Edward's hard length against my abdomen. My instinct was to jerk away, but I kept my hips still, my only reaction a soft gasp.

He started to turn away from me, but I ran my hand between his shoulder blades, coming to rest on the back of his head as I pulled him closer. "What-?" he started to ask, but I cut him off, silencing him with my kiss. He froze for just a second before his hand moved to my thigh, his fingers tightening as he gave in. He kneaded my thigh as we kissed, and I felt a strange hesitation in his touch until he suddenly hooked his hand behind my knee and pulled it toward him. My knee came to rest on his hip, and he was suddenly right there.

I shuddered, though whether it was in fear or desire, I'll never be sure. I think it was a bit of both, but when he tried to apologize and move away again, I shook my head. I didn't trust my voice enough to speak, and I didn't want to try to explain what I was feeling, anyway. I just wanted to feel it.

He exhaled lightly, and I felt his tension in the way his muscles were straining as he held perfectly still. His hand clutched my calf, and after a few moments, his thumb began rubbing gently, soothingly, along my knee. I relaxed minutely, feeling his hardness against that most sensitive part of my body. He twitched. I gasped.

He again tried to pull away, murmuring apologies and encouragement, and my frustration flared. I laced my fingers through his hair, my other hand on the small of his back while I forced our bodies as close together as I could. His lips were motionless against mine, his resistance passive but unmistakable.

"Kiss me," I whispered. I pressed my lips to his again, but there was still no response. "Damn it, Edward…please." My lips parted as I tried to encourage him. "Please?" In desperation, I traced his lower lip with my tongue.

With a groan, his lips parted, his mouth hungry against mine as his hands gripped my hips. I expected him to push me away, but he pulled me closer, giving a soft whimper when he brushed against me. He broke our kiss, his warm lips ghosting over my throat as he murmured breathlessly, "God damn, Bella…is this what you want?"

He didn't wait for an answer, holding me close as he made his way down my neck. He pulled at the oversized neck of my jersey, kissing along my collarbone before he returned his lips to mine. I felt light-headed, nearly drunk, and there was a fluttering in my chest that I tried to shove away. I gasped as I tried to focus on something, working to ground myself in something real.

At the sound, Edward slowed. His lips still journeyed along my neck, over my cheeks, across the bridge of my nose…but the urgency was gone. He was mastering himself, regaining control, and I let it happen. My kisses became lighter as I shifted my body away inch by inch. His grip on me lessened, his hands soothing as he caressed my face. The jittery feeling began to subside, leaving me feeling tired and drained…and somehow relieved that this latest ordeal was ending.

With a few more chaste kisses, Edward brushed back my hair, and I opened my eyes to find him smiling at me gently. I could just see him in the dim room, so I couldn't make out the light of pride in his eyes, but I knew it was there. It radiated from him, making me want to smile and scream at once.

Fucking ridiculous that my boyfriend has to be proud that I can kiss him.

I worked to ignore the berating voice in the back of my mind, but it was hard – since I fully agreed. If Edward noticed, he didn't let on. He glanced at the alarm clock, sighing softly as he turned back to me and pulled me close. "I have to go…" he murmured quietly.

Trying to push away my disappointment – and that infuriating relief – I rolled over and sat up on the bed. I reached down, picking up my jeans before standing. As I pulled them on quickly, I was intensely aware that I was standing in a Seahawks jersey and my underwear. My blush heated my cheeks, but when I turned around at last, Edward was sitting up in bed, studying the quilt.

I cleared my throat, saying, "I'll, umm…be right back…" Without waiting for an answer, I escaped to the bathroom, leaning against the counter as I fought the tears that threatened to spill from my eyes. I wasn't even entirely sure what I was upset about – that Edward was leaving, obviously, but there was more. I turned on the water, looking at my eyes in my reflection as I waited for it to heat. I breathed evenly, peeling away layer after layer of emotion until, finally, it was there.


More than loneliness or sadness or any of those things I expected to feel when faced with Edward leaving me for the first time, I felt frustrated. I wanted so badly to show him what he meant to me, to be able to express my love for him physically, and I thwarted myself at every turn. Beyond that, though, my eyes widened as I realized that I was physically frustrated as well.

Shaking my head to chase away those thoughts, I focused instead on getting through the next half hour as I washed my hands. I would have plenty of time soon to try to figure out what all of this meant for me. After drying my hands, I ran my fingers through my hair and took a deep breath, forcing a smile and looking at myself in the mirror until it reached my eyes.

I opened the door again, my smile softening when I saw Edward fully dressed and my bed made. I walked to him, slipping my arms around his waist as I murmured, "You didn't have to do that, you know…I'm just going to go back to sleep after you leave."

I bit my bottom lip, swallowing as I felt his lips press against the top of my head. His arms wrapped around my waist, and we stood in silence for a long moment. My thoughts wandered back to our beginning, when I was afraid to even touch him, and my spirits brightened when I fully realized how far I'd come in such a short time. There was hope for me yet.

I felt his hand rubbing my back gently before he kissed the crown of my head again and whispered, "I know. I just…wanted you to be comfortable."

I smiled, tightening my arms around him before I lifted my head to look up at him. "Thanks," I said simply. I was filled with longing…desire…and that damn sense of frustration again when I saw the look in his eyes.

Well, there may be nothing we can do about me right now, but…

"You can use my shower, if you want, before you go." The words were out of my mouth before I really considered them, and I would have been mortified to admit what I was thinking – after all, he'd told me what he did in the shower sometimes – but I wanted him to be comfortable on his trip, and I knew I damn sure wouldn't have been right then.

He froze for a moment and then nodded. "Thanks…" Neither of us mentioned it, but I could tell from the faint blush on his cheeks that he knew what I was offering. We stood there awkwardly, not knowing what to say.

When he shifted his weight from one foot to the other, I finally broke the uncomfortable silence. "I think I'll go make some coffee and find Jasper…"

I couldn't meet his eyes, but when I started to turn away, he gently cupped my chin, turning my face toward his. He studied me carefully for a moment and then smiled, leaning down to brush his lips against mine. "I'll be right out," he promised.

I nodded, and it seemed to take an unusual amount of resolve to walk from the room. I wanted to stay. I wanted to…help him…

Sighing, I shook my head, pushing away the impossible thoughts for the time being. Instead, I glanced into Jasper's room, finding it empty, and walked down the hallway to the kitchen. I started a pot of coffee and then went in search of Jasper and Alice. Since they weren't in his room, I grabbed my coat from the rack by the front door, slipped on my shoes, and then stepped outside, grumbling at the cold breeze that met me.

They were there, but instead of just Jasper and Alice, I found Emmett and Rosalie helping them as well. Alice had packed enough for a month-long trip if it had been me, and she'd brought everything into the house, even though they'd stayed for such a short time. I went down the front steps and helped them finish loading everything.

By the time Jasper slammed the trunk lid, there was just enough room inside for Edward's bag. Everyone went back into the house, and I followed them to the kitchen, where Jasper began pouring coffee for everyone. I brought out the cream and sugar, and I tried to join in the conversations around me, but I just felt…flat. Wrong, somehow.

My mood didn't improve any when Edward walked into the kitchen freshly showered with his bag in his hand. He said, "Show me where your luggage is, Ali, so I can put it in the car." Emmett told him it was already done, and Edward frowned, saying that he was going to load the car.

Jasper snickered, grinning as he said, "It was a great excuse to bug Em and Rose."

He shrugged as everyone laughed, Rosalie glaring at her twin though a smile quirked her lips. The smile on my face felt fake, and I stayed quiet as the rest of them joked. All of it just drove home that Edward really was leaving, and I fixed him a cup of coffee in silence just to have something to do. He murmured his thanks, taking a sip before he set it to the side and pulled me close, wrapping his arms around my waist from behind as he leaned against the counter.

My fingertips traced his hands as I let their voices wash over me. Everyone seemed to be in a good mood, all things considered, even Edward the few times I heard his voice. I didn't register what he – or anyone else, to be honest – was saying until he straightened, and I stepped to the side. I watched as Emmett patted him on the back, saying, "Have a safe trip, fucker. Tell Carlisle and Esme I said hi."

Edward laughed. "I will. You know Mom's going to invite you to Christmas again."

With a grin, Emmett answered, "You know I would, too, but I'm going home for Christmas this year."

I watched woodenly as Emmett and Edward finished saying goodbye before Rosalie stepped over to hug Edward. That brought a hint of a smile to my lips, and then Alice was suddenly there, her arms around my waist as she kissed my cheek. Jasper and Edward exchanged a guy hug as Jasper said, "Have a great trip, man. Be careful on the drive."

I felt a fluttering of panic as I realized that this was it – they were leaving now. Before I could even seek him out, Edward's arms were around me. I clung to him tightly, my face buried in his chest. A distant corner of my mind tried to tell me to grow up – it was "only" three days, after all – but I couldn't hear it over the sound of my heartbeat.

His hands rubbed my back soothingly, silence around us until I finally lifted my head. I hadn't heard everyone else leaving, but we were alone in the kitchen, and Edward gave me a tiny smile as he whispered gruffly, "There are no words for how much I'll miss you."

I swallowed, my mind racing, but in the end, I was only able to nod and answer quietly, "I know…no words."

That beautiful crooked grin was on his face then, and he murmured, "Three days," nodding as if convincing himself. We shared a sweet kiss and then parted.

He slipped his pinkie into mine as we walked to the front door side-by-side. When we stepped out onto the porch, Emmett was standing with his massive arms wrapped around Rosalie, shielding her from the cold. Jasper was out by Edward's Volvo, talking to Alice, who was sitting inside with the car running. He glanced over at the sound of the door and leaned in, kissing her once more before they said their goodbyes, and he closed the door.

Edward took my hand, squeezing it once as he kissed my forehead. "Stay here…it's too damn cold out…" he said softly. I looked up at him, his eyes reflecting all those things I felt that neither of us had words for.

He hugged me briefly, a ghost of a kiss lighting on my lips, and then he was gone. I watched his back as he made his way to the car, and I really felt the cold for the first time. I sensed Jasper standing close to me and slipped my arm around his waist just as his settled on my shoulders. He held me close, and I rested my head against his shoulder.

We watched together, waving as we saw Edward and Alice wave in the glow of the dash lights. The silver car turned around and drove away, leaving me feeling hollow. I heard Rosalie's quiet voice, and then the door closed.

I squeezed my eyes shut, surprised when I felt something drip onto my cheek. I hadn't realized I was crying. Jasper rubbed my upper arm gently before turning me around to face him and pulling me into his embrace.

"Shh…" he whispered. "I know, Bells…I know. It'll be alright…" He kept up his quiet encouragement as my tears slowed and then dried.

His voice sounded wrong somehow, just a little off, and I realized that his love had just driven away, too. He was doing what he'd done for so many years now, putting me first, making sure I was okay, and I was filled with love and admiration – and a little bit of fucking awe - for him. That one moment showed me what I'd known, but never really fully understood.

Jasper was fucking unbelievable.

My face was hidden in his chest, and I squeezed him tightly, smiling when I heard his –oof-. When I raised my head, he was smiling down at me. "Feeling better?" he asked.

I nodded. "You?"

He shrugged and gave me a lopsided grin. "I'll make it."

We both sighed at the same time, and Jasper chuckled. "Let's get inside, B. It's fucking freezing out here."

He tickled my ribs as I stepped back, and then he ducked away as I swatted at him. He walked a couple of steps in front of me, and when we reached our rooms at the end of the hall, he stopped and looked at me.

"Want me to tuck you in?"

The smile on my lips was genuine as I looked up at my best friend. I took a moment to really consider his offer…there was always something wholly comforting about Jasper being there when I crawled into bed, feeling him kiss my forehead and hearing him make some stupid comment before he turned out my light and closed my door. My instinct was to say yes, of course. That was just normal, just what we'd always done.

But I didn't want my normal anymore.

"I think I'll be okay." My voice was quiet, but I'd said it – and the beaming, proud smile on Jasper's face was enough to make me blush. I rolled my eyes at him, muttering under my breath, but I couldn't stop the smile on my face either.

"Alright, silly girl. Well, you know where I am if you need me." He nodded to his door just across from mine.

"I do…and you know where I am, too, right?"

His smile softened as he said, "That I do. Good night, Bells." With that, he hugged me briefly and kissed my forehead before we each turned to our doors.

As soon as I walked into my room, I almost turned around and walked out.

One more night wouldn't hurt…right?

I bit my bottom lip to stop from calling out for Jasper. I felt it immediately – the difference, the absence. A void seemed to empty me, one that came with the knowledge that Edward wasn't there – not in my bed, not in this house…not even in this town.

Taking a deep breath, I let it out with a sigh, straightening my back as I walked to the bed. My shoulders slumped when I got there, but I crawled beneath the covers, the scent of Edward both making me ache and soothing the hurt I felt. His fragrance was strong in the room, and when my head settled on the pillow, I heard something crinkle.

The unexpected sound startled me, and I shot upright in bed, reaching toward the lamp. As quickly as my fright had come, it dissipated, and I was left with only curiosity as I clicked on the light. I searched in my pillowcase, pulling out a small package that brought with it the distinctive fragrance of sandalwood. A small giggle escaped me when I saw that it was wrapped in notebook paper, and I sat there for a moment just looking at it as I wondered what was inside.


I rolled my eyes at myself and started to turn it over to open it. As soon as I moved my hand, though, a bar of soap slid out into my lap. I raised it to my face, inhaling Edward as tears filled my eyes again and a silly smile settled on my lips. Lowering it, I caught sight of the label and laughed out loud when I saw the name.

Stud Bubbles?

I giggled, tracing the letters with my fingertip before I inhaled once more and then put the soap on my nightstand. I opened the paper slowly, hoping like hell that he'd left me some sort of message along with his unusual – and perfect – gift.

Once I had carefully unfolded the paper, I smoothed it across my knee, staring down at Edward's handwriting for the first time. It was amazingly neat – much more so than mine, which I found ironic since he was studying to be a doctor. After spending a minute or more doing nothing but looking at the note in my lap, I finally began to read the words with my heart in my throat.

Dear Bella –

I'm no good at this sort of thing…using just words to explain how I feel. I'd much rather be there to show you, but since that's impossible right now, I wanted to at least try to let you know what you mean to me.

I'm sitting in the guest room I'm sharing with Emmett, waiting for him to get out of the shower, and you just left here a few minutes ago. I've started this note at least half a dozen times, and nothing seems right. Every time I try to say what I feel, someone else has already said it better, so I finally decided to let one of them speak for me. I hope you understand why.

Please remember that I love you and know that you are constantly on my mind, in every thought I have.



I sighed quietly, rereading his words as I moved my pillow to lean against the headboard and settled back against it. I could nearly hear the smooth tones of his voice saying the words to me, and I closed my eyes, imagining him there beside me.

It was a dangerous game I was playing, though, and before I could let myself get too carried away, I opened my eyes to see what else he had written. The tears that threatened earlier spilled onto my cheeks as soon as I saw the first lines, written in Edward's elegant scrawl but ingrained in my mind for years.

Sweetest love, I do not go,
For weariness of thee,
Nor in hope the world can show
A fitter love for me

I don't know how many times I read through the poem, poring over the words as if I couldn't recite them from memory. By the time I finished, I had Edward's short note memorized as well, and my phone was in my hand.

I debated calling him, but I didn't trust my voice, and I knew Alice would be there beside him as well. In the end, I decided to go for something simple. He would understand. My fingers flew over the keys, sending the only text I could just then.

I love you.

I didn't expect an answer right away; I knew he was driving and still had a few hours ahead of him on the road. But that didn't stop me from staring at my phone wistfully after I'd folded the note and tucked it under the bar of soap. As the silent moments marched on, I stretched out on the bed, lying on my side with my arm under my pillow.

I tried to go to sleep, but my eyes kept popping open to look at the blank screen on my phone. Eventually, I did feel drowsy, the excitement and lack of sleep catching up with me, and I was just dozing off when I heard the tell-tale beep of a text.

My hand darted out, grabbing the phone before my eyes were even fully open. I smiled down at the name "Edward" on the screen and then hit the button to read his message.

You are the best of me.

I blinked and read it again, my breathing shallow as I recognized the paraphrase. My eyes still on the phone, I reached over and carefully slid the note toward me, unfolding it once more. I finally glanced away from the small screen then, my eyes searching out the fourth stanza of the poem.

When thou sigh'st, thou sigh'st not wind,
But sigh'st my soul away ;
When thou weep'st, unkindly kind,
My life's blood doth decay.
It cannot be
That thou lovest me as thou say'st,
If in thine my life thou waste,
That art the best of me.

My mind was overloaded, the possible implications of his text too much for my sleep-deprived brain, but I was left with a strong sense of just…being loved. And it was the most beautiful feeling in my world.

With a soft, content sigh, I returned the note to its place on the nightstand, but I couldn't bring myself to clear the text. With my phone still in hand, I fell asleep with my arm curled toward my chest, Edward's message resting near my heart.



I tapped the steering wheel irritably as I sped toward La Push. The sun was still rising, just hovering over the horizon, but I hadn't been able to sleep.

Besides, I knew Jake would be awake.

On the drive up, I'd been the voice of reason, telling Edward and Emmett we couldn't just go kick the shit out of him. And I'd meant it…at the time. But the more I watched Bella with Edward, the more I saw how hard she was trying…and the happiness in her eyes that had been missing for years

I clenched my jaw, my teeth grinding as my nostrils flared. I shook my head.

That fucker better not mess this up for her.

I'd known for years that Jake was into Bella – all of us had. We would've had to have been blind not to. But for him to have witnessed firsthand everything she went through and how far she'd come and still put his own selfish desires above hers just sickened me.

When Alice had left earlier this morning, I'd been left with way too much time alone to think. I'd tried to fall asleep but just couldn't…it felt wrong without her there, and I was antsy, worried about the haunted look I'd seen in Bella's eyes just before she'd turned to go to her room. It stung a little that she didn't need me anymore the way she had for so long, but I was so fucking proud of her. All of her progress had to look minimal to anyone on the outside, but for me, as someone who'd been there from the beginning, it was earth-shattering.

When she'd told me she didn't need me to tuck her in, I'd seen the reluctance in her eyes. She knew all she had to do was say the word, and I'd be there. But she didn't – and that alone told me she really was moving on.

I still felt hollow sometimes when I wondered what I was supposed to do with myself once Bella didn't need me so much anymore, but all it took was one look from Alice, and I knew where I belonged.

So I'd found myself sitting in bed fully clothed, tossing a baseball into the air and catching it over and over and over. At first, I hadn't been sure what was wrong, but as my toe had begun to tap and my jaw to clench and relax, I'd eventually realized that my thoughts were circling around someone unexpected: Jacob Michael Black.

I didn't think he understood how fragile Bella was, even now. Yes, she was stronger than she had been, and God knows she'd come further than I ever thought she would. But the wrong words from us – the people she loved and respected, the ones who'd been her world for so long now – could shake her confidence and…break her.

I'll be goddamned if I let that happen.

My foot pressed harder on the accelerator, willing my dad's old truck to go just a little faster. I would've taken Rosalie's car, but I knew she'd be dragging Emmett out for some Black Friday shopping. I snorted.

Better him than me.

My humor was as short-lived as my smile, and I sighed, glowering the rest of the way to La Push. When I pulled up at the small house Jake still shared with his father, I found him sitting on the steps of the front porch, leaning against the post with his legs sprawled in front of him. His head turned at the sound of the truck, and he raised a hand half-heartedly before running his fingers through his hair and standing.

He looked…"morose" was the only word that came to mind.

I frowned as I cut the engine, climbing out of the truck. I wasn't expecting a sad Jake, and to be honest, it pissed me off a little bit more. I was expecting him to be the same asshole he'd been to Bella – not the guy who'd been one of my closest friends for years.

"Fucking figures," I muttered under my breath, pocketing my keys.

I climbed the stairs and rested one shoulder against the post of the railing, crossing my arms in front of my chest as I looked at Jake levelly. He watched me for a moment and then scrubbed both his hands across his face. With his face still covered, he mumbled, "She fucking hates me, doesn't she?"

I raised an eyebrow but didn't answer. When he finally lowered his hands to look at me, I could hear the drawl in my voice as I said pointedly, "I don't know. She's always been more forgivin' than me."

He heard the implication in both my words and tone, and he hooked his thumbs into the belt loops of his jeans and spread his feet. His demeanor was cocky, and his face held equal measures of defiance and confidence. "That right?"

I nodded once.

He waited – I guess for some sort of response – but when I gave nothing further, he seemed to deflate. His shoulders slumped as his hands dropped to loose fists by his side. He turned away, going to stand at the edge of the porch and look out at the trees surrounding his house. His hands gripped the railing, his thumbs flicking at the peeling white paint as he swallowed. "Do you hate me?"

I rolled my eyes, frustrated with the way he was responding. "No, I don't hate you. But what the fuck were you thinking, jackass?"

His head whipped around toward me, his eyes flashing. "Don't fucking call me that."

That's right…get pissed.

I was dimly aware that I was goading him, picking a fight, and that was alright with me. He'd been a goddamn prick, and it was time someone called him on it. "You yell at my best friend like that, and I'll call you whatever the hell I want."

I took a step toward him, and his eyes narrowed as he turned his body to face me. He took a deep breath, visibly calming himself, and when he answered, his voice was so quiet that I could barely hear him. "I didn't mean to. I really didn't. But then the things she was saying…I just got…" He shook his head, rolling his eyes. "…so fucking pissed off. She's so naïve!" He started ranting, muttering to himself under his breath, and I reached out, putting a hand on his chest to stop him before he started pacing.

"What are you talking about?"

"All of it. This perfect guy, this Edward." He rolled his eyes again. "It's all a crock of shit. She thinks he's some goddamn saint, all patient and caring and whatever-the-fuck-else. It's bullshit, J, and you know it."

My first instinct was to jump to Edward's defense, and the impulse gave me pause. I exhaled, puffing out my cheeks as I realized that Jake was exactly where I'd been just a few short weeks ago. Looking from the outside in, it really did seem too good to be true. I'd taken a leap of faith based on what I'd seen, but I knew Bella like no one else did. I saw her every day, and I'd watched as that little worry line that was always – always – just above her eyebrows gradually disappeared. I'd heard her singing around the apartment, giggling and being silly. And I'd seen the way Edward watched her like she was his whole goddamn world.

Jake's little speech hit me hard, though, because he struck on the one thing I was still secretly worried about. It was deep down, hidden even from me most of the time, but I knew it was there.

What if I'm wrong?

I took a shallow breath, shoving the thought away. My frustration with Jake was compounded by my own fears and disappointment in myself, making my voice harsher than I'd intended. "It's not fucking bullshit. You haven't seen how good he is to her, and you won't because you're so goddamn blinded by your own jealousy. Because that's all this is, Jake. You're pissed off that she didn't pick you, and you're pitching a fit like a toddler who lost his favorite toy."

"Don't you dare-" he started, taking a step toward me before abruptly turning away. He put his hands on the railing again and seemed to be trying to break it in two, squeezing and twisting so that paint chips dropped to the ground. He took a moment to gather himself, his hands relaxing, and his jaw worked before he finally said, "I love her, J."

"Do you?" The words whipped out of me before I'd even consciously thought of them. "Do you even know her, Jake?"

"I know her," he whispered, still looking away from me.

"Do you?" I pushed, asking the same question again. "Do you really know her? Jake…" I trailed off briefly, trying to decide how much to say. I knew I had the words to make Jake back off – or at least see that there was a lot more to Bella's past than he knew about – but that wasn't my story to tell. "Look, man, I can't tell you everything I know…but what I can tell you is that the Bella you see? That's not Bella. I mean, it is, of course, but she…she acts. Even with you guys. Hell, even with me sometimes. It's like she's on a stage, putting on whatever performance she thinks we want to see. You know how she is. She thinks it's her job to watch out for people, take care of them. She won't let you see how hurt she really is."

I realized there were countless ways he could take my words, but I couldn't think of a single one of those interpretations that wouldn't be accurate, so I quieted, letting my words hang in the air. My hands tightened into fists as I thought about the way Bella let her mother apologize endlessly because she thought it helped Renee, no matter what it was doing to Bella herself. There had been so many times that I'd fought the irrational urge to shake her when I could tell she was putting on a brave face for me.

But that had been changing recently. Some of her walls were crumbling, and as much as I hated to fucking admit it, the only difference was…Edward. It rankled like a motherfucker that he'd been able to heal her so much in a month when I'd spent years trying to help her get over what that asshole had done to her, but at the heart of it all, I felt gratitude. As much as I'd wanted to be the one to fix her, it was actually sort of a relief to have some help. I would've had to have been blind – or the most arrogant douchebag on the planet – to not recognize the changes in her since Edward came into our lives.

The courage she'd shown last night when she went to bed on her own…that wasn't the same thing as the false bravery I'd come to expect from her in situations like that. She was stronger, more confident, and anyone who could bring about that kind of change in her had earned my respect.

At once, I realized that silence still hung heavy in the air, and I lifted my eyes to find Jake. He was staring at the trees surrounding his house, his face expressionless. I watched him until he finally nodded, turning to look at me.

"That's alright. I've got time."

I blinked. Then I stared at him incredulously.

Then I fucking exploded. "You've got time? Fucking hell, Jake, haven't you heard a goddamn word I've said? You know how much I love Bella. Do you think I'd just step aside and let some random asshole off the street get close to her? She loves him. He loves her. All you can do is get in the way."

He rolled his eyes, and it took every shred of restraint I had not to punch him in his smug face. "I can't believe you fell for his shit, too. J, he's sleeping in her bed. Already. You think that's all fucking innocent, and he's not trying anything?"

"Completely innocent? No, of course not. I'm not stupid. But the fact is, jackass, that Bella trusts him enough to let him in her bed."

Jake snorted, shaking his head. "Unbelievable," he muttered.

I clenched my jaw once before forcing it to relax as I inhaled. "Jake, you have two choices. Back the fuck off right now…or let me know if I need to kick your ass. I will not let you mess this up for her."

He blinked his eyes rapidly, his mouth opening slightly in obvious disbelief and exasperation. "You've known me since we were kids, Jasper, and you're telling me you're on his side? What the fuck?"

"No. Dickhead. I'm on Bella's side. You know this. As long as he's good to her and he keeps making her smile like that, he is a damn saint in my mind. And if you loved her like you claim to, you'd wake the fuck up and see that she's happy for the first time in seven years. How could you even think about taking that away from her?"

As I spoke, his mouth opened and closed as he started to interrupt several times. By the end, though, he'd snapped it closed and was watching me with a pained look on his face, his eyes tight. He looked away without saying anything. For once, Jake was left speechless, and I let the quiet linger before I lowered my voice and spoke again.

"One more thing, Jake. And you better listen the fuck up."

I waited until he raised his head. His jaw was clenched at my tone, but I didn't care. He deserved worse.

"If I ever hear you suggest that what happened to Bella wasn't real or that she exaggerated or anything like that again-" I held up a finger when he opened his mouth to interrupt. "I will kick your ass. And that's a fucking promise."

I actually heard the rumble of a growl from deep within his chest, but it was tempered by the pain and shame I saw in his eyes as my words sunk in. He didn't say anything, and I was torn, almost wishing he'd be an asshole so I could let out some of this pent up frustration by stomping him into the ground. I sighed instead.

"Jake, you've been a great friend to us for a long time. You know we both love you. But I can tell you right now that if you don't get over this shit with Edward, you won't be welcome anymore…and it won't be just Bella that says so."

Long minutes went by where neither of us said anything. Jake seemed to be sizing me up, testing my resolve, but I didn't crack. He was fooling himself if he thought I didn't mean even one of the words I'd said.

He inclined his head, lifting his chin as he muttered, "I see how it's going to be."

I rolled my eyes and shook my head. "Tell you what…I know you're upset right now, so I'm going to give you some space. You know where I am. Give me a call when you decide to stop being an ass and support Bella." Not waiting for him to answer, I stepped forward, clapping him on the back as I gave him a brief hug. I turned and walked away, not looking back until I was in the truck and had started the engine.

Jake was still standing there on the front porch, now leaning against the house with his arms crossed over his chest. I couldn't see his expression clearly, but I doubted I'd made much of an impact at all. Muttering to myself, I sighed as I turned onto the road that would lead me out of La Push.

Contrary to what I'd said, it would hurt like hell for us to cut him out of our lives. Bella, especially, wouldn't understand it. She'd internalize, deciding she'd done something wrong, and it would probably hurt her worse than the harsh words he'd said to her. She didn't seem to understand the implications in them, and I wondered if she'd really even heard all that Emmett said had transpired. When I thought of Jake asking if it had been real…I still wanted to kick his fucking ass.

But I'd bit back my sarcastic comments and kept my fists to myself, and even though I had doubts about how much he'd taken in, I hoped that some of it would germinate inside that thick skull of his and maybe eventually grow into some sort of clue. Of course, if he even hinted again that Bella had made up what happened with James and the aftermath we'd been living with for years, I didn't think I'd be able to control myself.

My thoughts ran in circles all the way back to Forks. Even though I was still frustrated with him, I felt more at ease now that I'd confronted him and said what I needed to say. As I turned onto my parents' road, I yawned, the lack of sleep catching up to me at last. I drove down the winding driveway and parked beneath the tree where my dad always left the truck.

My legs felt leaden as I climbed the front steps back into the house, where I could hear my mother in the kitchen. When I glanced in and waved at her, she smiled, took in my appearance, and clucked her tongue. She walked over, taking the keys from my hand as she hugged me and then stepped back, giving me a stern look.

"I won't ask where you've been, young man, but you look like death warmed over. I have a good mind to send you out to help your father cut wood for the fireplace, but I won't. You have guests, Jasper. You'd best get back into bed so you're up to entertain them later."

"Yes, ma'am," I mumbled, wishing like hell she'd just let me go already. I yawned quietly, my eyes watering as I scratched the back of my head, and her expression softened.

She hugged me again, lowering her voice as she held me close. "Bella is looking so much better…I'm so proud of you, son."

I blinked in confusion, my mind growing fuzzier by the minute. "Why? I didn't do anything. It's Edward."

She stepped back, tilting her head up to look at me. She pinched my side and muttered, "Now that's a damn fool thing to say, and I didn't raise any fools. Jasper, baby, you know I adore Bella. I always have. But without you, there's no telling what would've happened to that poor girl. I know Charlie tried his best, but he didn't have the first idea what to do with her." She trailed off, a soft smile growing on her face. "You're dead on your feet…go to bed, sweetie. You know your mama…"

I hugged her again, resting my chin on the top of her head as I grinned lazily. "Thanks, Mama…I won't sleep too long, I promise."

She muttered something under her breath that I didn't catch – but I was just as glad not to. By the time I started down the hallway, I could already hear the rattle of pots and pans behind me. I pushed my way into my bedroom and the noise mercifully faded away as I stripped down to my boxers and climbed into bed. I was asleep within moments.

I don't know how long I slept, but I woke up when the mattress depressed as someone settled on it. For a split-second, I thought Alice had come back, but then the weight of Bella's arm was around my waist as she cuddled up next to me. I gave a half-smile, my eyes still closed as I muttered, "Morning, silly girl."

"Morning? It's three o'clock, Jazz." She giggled, but it sounded a little flat as she pressed her forehead between my shoulder blades.

I frowned, repressing my sigh. When I tried to roll over to face her, she tightened her arm around me stubbornly, keeping her head firmly against my back so I couldn't move. Instead, I reached over my shoulder, ruffling her hair. "What's the matter, Bells?"

I felt her shrug and then sigh as she released me. "I just…miss him," she whispered.

"Yeah…I know what you mean." I groaned, stretching as I settled on my back, my arm stretched across the pillow. She accepted the silent invitation, resting her cheek on my chest as she moved closer to me. "I miss him, too."

She started to nod and then processed what I said, snorting as she laughed. "You're such a damn dork." She giggled, and I smiled at the sound, closing my eyes again as I rubbed her upper arm.

"Yup. You love me, though."


We lay there silently for a while, and I nearly drifted back off to sleep before she sat up. "Hell, no…come on, Jasper. Get your ass up. Rose and Emmett are going to be back soon."

I was warm and comfortable and still sleepy, so I did the only thing I could. I pouted. "So?"

It didn't work.

"So you're not leaving me alone with them. Besides, we have serious slumber party planning to do. Now get your ass out of bed and go take a shower because you reek."

She wrinkled her nose playfully, and I rolled my eyes, scratching my bare chest. "Sure, sure…" At the casual use of the phrase we'd all picked up from Jake, my eyes snapped open, and I sat up.

Bella looked at me pointedly, an eyebrow raised in a silent question.

I ran my fingers through my hair, tugging lightly as I decided to get it over with. She'd find out anyway, and I wasn't awake enough to be evasive. Instead, I went for blunt. "So…I went to talk to Jake."

"You did…what? Why?" The note of honest confusion in her voice made me grit my teeth at how oblivious she could be sometimes.

I took her hand, resting it on the mattress between us as I shifted up to lean against my headboard. "Because, Bells, he was a fucking prick to you. I wasn't going to let him get away with that."

Bella frowned, and when she opened her mouth, I knew it was going to be to defend him, and I really couldn't take that shit. Not given the implications he'd made. This was always the problem with Bella - she thought that every problem was her fault, no matter what it was. Sure, she was pissed at him initially, but now that she'd had a chance to calm down and think things over, she would "see" where she had been wrong.

"Don't." I put my hand across her mouth, and she wrinkled her forehead, biting my palm. "Ouch! Damn it, Bella..."

"Don't what?"

"Don't defend him...don't tell me that it's okay and he 'was just' or whatever the hell else you're going to say. He was out of line, and I called him on it."

She didn't respond, just sitting there frowning at me.

"I wish you would call him on some of his shit sometimes." I felt my frustration growing with the confused look on her face. "Bella, do you seriously think it's okay that he thinks that what happened to you wasn't a big deal?"

At the flash of pain in her eyes, I was instantly contrite. Fuck...

I sighed, pulling her close as I kissed her temple. "Sorry," I mumbled, my jaw clenching. My nostrils flared as I breathed deeply, trying to calm myself.

When she inhaled, I braced myself because I knew those words - those defenses - would come anyway.

"Did he really say that?" Her voice was quiet, but there was a subtle menace to it that I had never heard before.

Her face was turned toward the bed, watching her fingers as they played with the tie of her pajama pants. That thick brown hair was a curtain between us, and I reached out, pulling it back so I could see at least the side of her face.

"Say what, Bells?" I kept my voice quiet and calm, trying to be encouraging so I wouldn't betray the surprise I felt.

She looked up then, and the fire in her eyes matched the steel in her voice. "Did he say it wasn't a big deal?"

My eyes widened as I took in the look on her face, the way her jaw was set in a stubborn line while her eyes blazed. Not wanting to answer carelessly, I thought back to what Emmett had said, specifically. "I don't know exactly what was said, Bella. I wasn't there. But from what I understand...he at least implied that...that maybe you made it up. Or exaggerated?"

There was no reason for my words to be a question, but her response had thrown me off-balance, and I was too busy watching her to moderate my tone.

"I see."

What the fuck does that mean?


She had been staring ahead, her jaw working as she thought, and she jumped a little as she glanced over at me. "What?"

"You alright?"

I wasn't ready for the sight of her blinking rapidly, tears filling her eyes as her chin quivered. She tilted her head back, looking up at the ceiling as she pulled her knees to her chest and wrapped her arms around her legs. She lowered her face then, burying it against her knees as her hair formed a barrier between us. I saw her shoulders shake, heard those all-too-familiar whimpers and sniffles.

What the hell?

The last thing I'd expected my news to do was make her break down this way. I was prepared for her to yell at me. To defend him. To even not care and just go about her business with that numb look on her face. But this...

Without even thinking, I moved to sit beside her, wrapping my arms around her. For once, she didn't lean against me, didn't let me comfort her. She was curled up in a ball, collapsing in on her self, and there was nothing I could do. I sat with my arms around her, rubbing gently as I murmurmed, "Shh...Bella, sweetheart, what is it? Talk to me, Bells..."

I couldn't take it - this not knowing what she was going through. There was nothing I could do, though, but sit there, rubbing her back and kissing the top of her head as I whispered softly to her. Eventually she stilled, and she leaned against me for a moment before she pulled away and scrubbed at her cheeks angrily.

"What if he's right?" Her voice was strangled, choked with emotion, and I frowned as her words sank in.

"What the hell are you talking about?"

"What if he's right? What if I am making too big a deal out of…out of all of this?" She bit her bottom lip, pulling the sleeves of her long-sleeved t-shirt down over her hands as she wrapped her arms back around her legs. My mind stupidly focused on the shirt for a moment, noticing that it was a new one – a Washington Huskies soccer shirt – before I shook the thought away and returned all my attention to what she was saying. "Jazz, what if I…" She sniffled and hiccoughed before continuing, "What if I could've been okay all this time? Maybe it wasn't really that bad. Maybe I fu-"

"God damn it, Bella! You just stop. Right. There." Her eyes flashed with anger, but I didn't fucking care. I wasn't about to listen to that shit. "Give me a chance to say something?"

Her jaw tightened and she lifted her chin, nodding once.

Of course, now that I had her attention, I really didn't want to say what I needed to say. We'd talked about so much over the years, but one thing I'd always avoided was the aftermath of James' attack. Bella didn't remember most of it – or if she did, she never mentioned it – and I hadn't wanted to talk about it, much less upset her with it.

I took a deep breath and exhaled, rubbing my eyes with the heels of my hands before I began speaking. Vaguely, I was aware that I was using Bella's trick, looking ahead so I didn't have to see the reaction to what I was saying, and for the first time, I really understood why she did that.

"When I first got to the hospital…" I barely recognized my own voice, rough and gravelly with anger and regret and reluctance. "Bells, you looked…dead. They warned us before we went in that you looked rough, but I wasn't ready to…to see…" I broke off, swallowing as I remembered her lying there, her face pale and waxen, the dark rings around her eyes standing out in sharp contrast. Her cheekbones seemed sharp enough to cut through her skin, and her lips were gray and chapped with an angry split in the bottom one.

Shaking my head, I tried to shake my memories. "It was bad, Bella. That doesn't even come close to what really…" God damn, when did I become so tongue-tied? "But as bad as you looked, physically, I knew you were going to make it. They told us that you were unresponsive because you were sedated, and I was okay with that. I was angry…" I trailed off, making a small noise of disbelief at the ridiculous understatement. "And lost, and you didn't even open your eyes that first day."

I sat there at the side of her bed, watching all the blinking lights, my eyes focused on the spiking line that was her heartbeat. Anything to keep from looking at the broken body lying on the bed. Plaster and gauze, IVs and needles, goddamn plastic tubing everywhere, all running to the shell of my best friend who hadn't opened her eyes in the seven hours I'd been sitting here in this plastic chair.

It was getting late, and I tensed when I heard the footsteps in the hallway. So far, they'd let me stay at her side, but I knew this would be the time they kicked me out.

Or tried to.

"I argued with the nurse…my mom, your mom…your dad…finally, they let me stay overnight, but I had to wait in the waiting room. I passed out at some point, and as soon as people started coming in again, I was back in your room." I felt Bella's hand slip into mine, and a ghost of a smile settled on my lips as I squeezed her hand in return.

It faded as quickly as it had come.

"You finally opened your eyes that morning, but…" I licked my lips, staring down at Bella's hand in mine. "You might as well not have for all the damn difference it made."

I lifted my head at last, glancing at her, but the sight of her brown eyes swimming in unshed tears was too much for me, and I quickly ducked my head again. "Your eyes were dead. Like you weren't even there. When I asked if it was…him…something flickered in them, but you wouldn't even look at me. Even when I got in your face, you managed not to see me."

I stopped for a moment, letting my words hang in the air as I tried to think of how to phrase what I wanted to say next. "Four days. Four fucking days we sat like that. I tried to talk to you. I'm not sure if you listened or not…"

She took a shaky breath and whispered, "I'm sorry, Jazz."

I wanted to growl. She was missing the point. Again.

Instead, I took a deep breath and laced my fingers through hers, schooling my expression before I turned to look at her. I kept my eyes trained on hers even though I wanted to look away, and my voice was steady as I said, "No, Bella. Don't apologize. You have nothing to be sorry for. I'm trying to tell you that Jake is…Dead. Fucking. Wrong. What happened to you was very real and very traumatic, and he can go fuck himself if he doubts that for one second."

Her eyes flickered between mine as she swallowed. I couldn't read her. I'd noticed that more and more lately…the predictable responses were gone, and I wanted to cheer that she'd stopped being so goddamn robotic all the time, even if it made anticipating what she needed harder.

She smiled.

And then she hugged me so tightly she nearly cracked my ribs.

I laughed, wrapping my arms around her again and sliding us both down on the bed. She settled against me, her head on my chest, and she tickled my ribs as she murmured, "Thank you."

I shook my head with a fond, disbelieving smile. "No need for thanks, silly girl. Just telling you what I know."

And thanking God you didn't freak the fuck out on me.

Her hair was tickling my nose, and I wrinkled it, trying to get it to stop. I brushed her hair back and settled more comfortably on my pillow, hoping like hell that Bella would let me sleep a little longer now. She surprised me, cuddling up close and resting her hand on my chest with a soft sigh. She relaxed in my arms, and we lay that way for a long time. I assumed she hadn't slept very well after Edward left because before long, her breathing was even and light, the regular sound lulling me to sleep as well.

It seemed like only minutes later that my door slammed open and Rosalie's annoying voice said, "Are you two still in bed?"

"Go the fuck away, Rosie," I muttered, my eyes still closed.

"Not a chance, Spazzy Jazzy. Get up. Now. Dinner's in fifteen minutes, and you know what's after dinner." She sang the last, her voice becoming this half-irritating, half-silly sound that made me laugh in spite of myself.

Bella was giggling, too, and she rolled away to sit up on the side of my bed with her feet hanging over the edge. "Fucking Rosalie," she yawned and then stood up. She turned back, tossing a pillow at my head. "No fair, by the way, tricking me into napping with you."

I just smiled at her angelically.

She rolled her eyes and snorted. "Take a shower, stinky," she called over her shoulder as she closed my door.

I sniffed myself and shrugged. I don't fucking stink. But I dutifully got up and went to my suitcase, rifling through my clothes and pulling out a clean pair of boxers and t-shirt. I showered quickly, eventually thankful that Rose had given me a fifteen minute warning - it wasn't a good idea to show up late to dinner in the Hale household.

When I finished, I dressed again and pulled on a pair of fresh socks, not bothering with shoes as I went straight to the kitchen. Mama was there, of course, and I kissed her cheek before grabbing dishes to set the table.

With the exception of Emmett, dinner was just like old times. We talked about Dad's work and Mama's garden and how school was going for Bella and me. Rosalie told us all about the house she'd bought in Seattle before she left Portland. It was an older house, two bedrooms, and she fell in love with it immediately. I'd known about it and had helped with some of the paperwork, but it was all news to Bella. When she glanced at me, my eyes flashed her an apology, and I saw her smile tighten before she nodded and the smile reached her eyes again.

Soon, we were clearing the dishes and putting away leftovers. My parents said their good nights to everyone, and as soon as they had gone to their room to watch TV, Rosalie rubbed her hands together. "Alright, annual Hale-Swan sleepover starts in fifteen minutes!"

Bella caught my eye and grinned, and I chuckled, smiling in return. I told Rosalie I was going to change, and when Bella started off down the hall after me, Rose called out, "You better have your asses in the living room in fifteen minutes!"

When I glanced down at Bella again, her eyes issued a challenge, and we took off running at the same time. We stayed side-by-side, Bella doing this weird little skip thing, and I heard her door close just before I shut mine. With a stupid smile still on my face, I let my jeans fall to the floor and pulled on some pajama pants. We were utterly ridiculous on these nights, but I didn't care.

Rosalie had started this sleepover tradition when we were nine, just a year after we met Bella. It hadn't taken long for us all to become one big family. The only year we'd ever skipped was the year Bella had been in Phoenix, and the following Thanksgiving had been the first time – in nearly a goddamn year – that she'd acted like herself.

So I gladly let them do whatever the hell they wanted to do to me. I sang stupid songs and played Truth or Dare and hung out with my girls, nearly being one for one night of the year.

And it was damn well worth it.

I used the restroom and washed my hands, drying them before running my fingers through my hair and trying to get my mind in the right place for the night. When I walked back out of my bedroom, I noticed Bella's door was still shut, and I could hear her muffled voice. I started to knock but then caught Edward's name and lowered my hand, grinning as I headed toward the living room.

When I got there, Rosalie had Emmett sitting on the couch, his feet on the coffee table with those damn little foam things between his toes, and she was painting his toenails some sort of shimmery purple. I plopped down on the loveseat, reaching over for a handful of popcorn from the bowl sitting near Emmett's feet.

"That's a good look for you, Em." I snickered, and he swatted at my hand, sending the popcorn flying as I laughed outright.

"Don't laugh, fucker," he warned. "You're next."

I smirked at him and shrugged. "Always am."

Bella walked in the room then, her eyes a little red around the edges, and to draw attention away from her, I said, "Just be glad she hasn't whipped out the eyeliner."

Rose didn't look up, smirking as she painted Emmett's little toenail. "That's next."

Emmett's expression was goddamn priceless – eyes wide and unblinking, mouth gaping open as he looked to me for help. I shrugged and snickered again, this time pulling the bowl of popcorn in my lap as I settled back to eat it. "It's easier just to go along with it, man. Otherwise, she'll pin you down and torture you with the tweezers."

Bella's giggle drew my gaze, and I was happy to see that she seemed relaxed again. She walked over to the DVDs and picked one out, popping it into the player before she came over to the loveseat with the remote in hand. She bumped me with her hip, saying, "Scoot over."

We sat on the loveseat together, eating popcorn and alternating between making fun of Emmett and watching Finding Nemo. We'd seen the damn thing so many times that we said half the lines with the characters, and before long, Rosalie finished with Emmett and moved on to Bella's toes. She'd spared him the makeup so far, but when he reached over to grab some popcorn, I muttered, "I wouldn't get too comfortable…she's giving you a false sense of security."

Rose tried to play innocent, but I caught the wicked gleam in her eyes. She searched through her nail polish and pulled out a soft pink for Bella, imitating Dory speaking whale as she worked. As soon as she finished with Bella's pedicure, she turned to me with a bright smile.

"Jazzy! Let's see…" She clapped her hands once, and she and Bella bent over her case again while I leaned back further in the loveseat and rolled my eyes.

By the time my toenails had been painted a garish lime green, Emmett and I had finished the popcorn and Finding Nemo had ended. Bella hopped up, going to the DVD rack and running her finger along the titles. "Sin City?" she asked, earning a whistle of approval from Emmett.

Rosalie apparently had other plans, though, because she said, "Alright, Emmett…time for you to go to bed."

He looked confused, protesting that he wanted to watch the movie, but she silenced him with a look and told him it was family time. He frowned at her, nearly fucking pouting, and she leaned over, whispering something in his ear. From the way his lips spread into a lecherous grin, I was damn sure I didn't want to know what she was saying, and it took everything I had not to punch the smirk off his face when he kissed her good night and stood up, walking down the hall without another word.

Both girls watched Emmett leave, and when we heard his door close, Rosalie hopped up and went straight to the entertainment center, opening the door on the bottom left. I groaned, staring up at the ceiling, and sure enough, I heard the familiar scratch of the needle on a record.

When I raised my head, Bella and Rose were already standing in the middle of the living room with the coffee table pushed to the side, and Bella tossed me a brush that bounced off my chest and landed on the couch cushion. I sighed, standing and picking up the brush as I went to take my place beside them.

The music started, and I had to laugh as I recognized the song. "The motherfucking Bee Gees? Really, Rose?"

"Shut up." She bumped her hip into mine, nearly knocking me over. "And get ready to sing, Mr. Gibb."

Bella was laughing so hard on the other side of Rose that she snorted, and that did it for me. The sound was infectious, and I was chuckling as I sang, "Well, you can tell by the way I use my walk, I'm a woman's man…no time to talk."

Rose busted out her disco moves, and Bella collapsed on the ground, laughing so hard when my sister started doing the John Travolta point thing that she just couldn't take it anymore. Seeing her that way was what always made this worth it, and I hammed it up, too, strutting my way around the living room. When I got back to Bella, she'd calmed down a little, and I leaned down, offering her my hand. She took it and stood, dancing and shaking her shoulders as she sang along.

As the song was winding down, Rosalie was ready, putting on the next immediately. She jumped back in place, belting out, "At first, I was afraid; I was petrified…"

Midway through the song, just as Bella was doing a little impromptu dance during the instrumental section, Emmett's snicker broke through the music. We all froze at once, our heads whipping toward the hallway. He was leaning against the doorframe, a smile on his face and his arms crossed over his chest.

Rose was the first to move, throwing a couch pillow at his head. He ducked it, but the one from Bella hit him right in the face, and he laughed again, holding up his hands in submission. "I was just going to get a beer…" he said with a grin. He started to turn and then stopped, saying, "Oh, Rosie?"

She blushed, which was really goddamn weird to see, and skipped over to him. He whispered something to her, and she bit her bottom lip, leaning in closer to him. My eyes narrowed, especially when he said something else, and she threw back her head, laughing. He winked at her and left, heading toward the kitchen.

She giggled as she crossed the room again, changing out the records. When the music started, I tilted my head, confused as I didn't recognize it. "What is this?"

Rose snickered. "Emmett suggested our next song…he said it was perfect for you." I didn't like the way her eyes – exactly like mine – were twinkling.

I still didn't recognize it when someone started singing, "Body…wanna feel my body? Body…such a thrill my body."

I glanced at Bella, and she shrugged, a confused look on her face as well. Rosalie, however, was turning red, her shoulders shaking with suppressed laughter, and I caught why when the next verse started, "Every man wants to be a macho, macho man."

"Very funny," I chuckled, shaking my head as I walked over to the record player. "How about something we know, though?" I lifted the needle and pulled off the record, slipping it back into its sleeve. I pulled out another Village People album, playing "YMCA," and we sang and danced for a while longer before Rosalie mercifully closed the cabinet and started up Sin City on the DVD player.

Bella and I grabbed drinks for all of us – sweet tea, of course – and we all three sat on the couch. I sat in the middle, holding a new bowl of popcorn, while they were on either side, curled up with Afghans over their legs. I never did understand how they could be cold after singing and dancing that way – I was sweating – but whatever worked for them.

We talked throughout the movie, sometimes about what was on the screen, sometimes about random things in our lives. When Rosalie said she was really glad we still did these sleepovers, Bella agreed immediately and said Thanksgiving had always been her favorite holiday because of them. She mused aloud that she was happy that Emmett, Alice, and Edward – she blushed when she said his name – could be here this year.

"Emmett had to switch weekends at work," Rosalie said quietly, her eyes on the screen as she ate her popcorn, but I noticed the faint blush on her cheeks.

"What do you mean?" I asked.

I heard the rustle of paper tearing, and then Bella patted the back of my hand. I turned it over automatically, and she filled my palm with M&Ms as I kept my eyes on Rose's face. She didn't answer at first, just chewing steadily, but she finally said, "Usually he'd be at the Cullens' or in Tennessee with his family, but he was supposed to be on call this Thanksgiving. He switched."

She shrugged, but I saw the smile tugging at the corner of her lips when she continued, "He has to work something stupid like the next four weekends of the guy he traded with, but he said it was worth it."

I stared at her for a minute. "Aww, Rosie, that's so sweeeeet!" It was my most annoying voice, the one I'd developed to irritate her as a toddler and honed during our adolescent years.

She muttered under her breath and then hauled off and hit me across the face with a pillow just as I was popping the M&Ms in my mouth. Chocolate went flying everywhere, and I felt a sharp jab to my ribs as she punched me.

She was always too good at that misdirection shit.

Bella joined in on Rosalie's side, tickling my ribs while I kicked and tried to get away. Somehow, I ended up on my back with my wrists pinned over my head on the couch by Bella's knee. She was tickling me mercilessly, and Rose sat down on my legs, holding them in place. Rosalie was pummeling me with pillows, and it took way longer than it should to finally squirm away from them and stand up a couple of feet away, trying to smooth back my hair and regain some of my dignity.

"Do you wa-" Another pillow across the face interrupted me, accompanied by giggles from Rosalie and Bella. "Very funny." I tried – and failed – to keep the grin off my face. "Now if you're done torturing me, you guys want to make some Surprises?"

"Yes!" was Bella's immediate answer, which was just what I expected.

Rosalie, though, yawned and ran her fingers through her hair as she glanced at the grandfather clock. "I better get to bed, actually…"

When we both protested, she grinned wickedly and said, "Sorry, but I've got a date with Emmett tomorrow, and I need to leave him panting."

"Fucking hell, Rosalie," I muttered under my breath. There were some things I really didn't want to know about.

She rolled her eyes. "Don't be stupid, Jazz. I said I wanted to leave him panting…you don't have to be worried until I say I'm going to be panting with him."

She winked at me as she stood up, and it was all I could do not to gag. After hugging both of us, she headed down the hall, humming to herself.

When I glanced at Bella, she was smiling, but she had that little worried crease in the middle of her forehead. I repressed my sigh and put my arm around her shoulders, guiding her to the kitchen. She went to the cabinet near the stove and turned on the oven, pulling out a cookie sheet while I walked to the pantry and gathered the peanut butter, marshmallows, and vanilla wafers. We'd been making Surprises – our own special treat sort of like S'mores – since we were kids.

I hopped up on the counter as Bella began spreading peanut butter on the cookies, just making idle conversation while I wondered what was on her mind. We'd get to it, I was sure, but only once we were settled into the living room alone with our snack.

I teased her as she worked, just little comments to make her smile, and she rolled her eyes, smacking my arm while I pretended to flinch away. By the time she was pulling our snack out of the oven, she was humming under her breath.

She put all the cookies on one plate, and I poured two glasses of milk before leading the way back to the living room. We sat on the couch just like we always did at our place, with the plate between us so we could share. I picked up the first Surprise and took a bite, sucking in air and mumbling, "S'hot," when the melted marshmallow burned the roof of my mouth.

Fucking smooth, Hale.

Bella snorted and then giggled as I made a mess trying to put down the rest of the cookie without burning myself more. I ended up with melted marshmallow all over my chin and wrapped around my hand. She rolled her eyes and gave a quiet laugh as she pulled out a napkin from somewhere and handed it to me.

"Thanks," I muttered, rubbing at the sticky mess. I wiped my chin with the back of my hand and finally managed to get myself mostly cleaned up. When I looked at Bella again, she was staring at the untouched cookie she was holding.

I sighed. "Alright, Bells…out with it."

She grimaced and wrinkled her nose, stuffing the vanilla wafer in her mouth instead of answering.

"Mature." When she gave me a withering look as she chewed and swallowed, I arched an eyebrow pointedly.

Her lips twitched as she looked at me.

And then she burst out laughing.

"What?" I frowned at her.

"You look real damn tough with marshmallow on your nose." Her eyes were dancing when she leaned over and rubbed my nose. She grumbled and took the napkin from me to clean the rest of it off.

We were both chuckling quietly when she finished, and this time she was the one to sigh as she turned so she could face me. She leaned back against the arm of the couch, cradling her glass of milk and sipping it from time to time. I mimicked her position, taking another cookie as I asked her what was wrong.

She shrugged, and I bit my tongue, giving her the time she needed. "I-I'm…" she trailed off, biting her bottom lip before she exhaled a sigh. "I'm fine," she finished lamely.

"Isabella Marie Swan." My tone immediately told her I was serious. "You think I'm going to buy that line of horse shit?"

She curled her lip and gave me an exasperated look, and then her cheeks turned pink. I began to wonder if I actually wanted to know after all. She cleared her throat and looked down at her hands in her lap.

What the hell is this shit?

"Bella, sweetheart…talk to me. What's going on, silly girl?"

"It's…" She ran her fingers through her hair and then played with the ends nervously. "It's embarrassing."

She spoke so quietly I could barely hear the last word, and I felt a strange tightness in my chest as I wondered what the hell could be embarrassing for her. I reached out, picking up another of our cookies as I gave her time to collect her thoughts. She looked like she needed a chance to think of how to phrase something, rather than like she wasn't going to answer, so I bided my time.

Almost patiently, even.

Just when I was about to prod again, she whispered, "I'm…frustrated…"

I felt the wry smile on my lips. "Yeah, I can sort of tell." Her head snapped up, her brown eyes wide as she looked at me with shock. My smile faded as I said, "Bells? What's wrong?"

She relaxed minutely, her shoulder slumping. She glanced away, keeping her eyes far from mine as she said, "No, I mean…I'm frustrated…"

It took me a moment to figure out what the special emphasis meant. I didn't really get it until she whispered, "And so's Edward."

I quite literally wanted to bang my head on the fucking coffee table.

This isn't happening.

I took a deep breath, my cheeks puffing out as I exhaled.

You just had to know…

I took a sip of my milk and absentmindedly licked my lips as I put the glass back on the table. Bella reached over and picked it up, moving it to my coaster. Settling back into the corner of the couch, I left the rest of our snack untouched on the plate, suddenly not hungry at all.

What the hell do I say to that?

Yeah, I had nothing. No idea how to begin or what to say…so I took another breath and ran my fingers through my hair and just started with the first thing that came to mind. "Okay…so you're…frustrated." She nodded. "That's…that's good, Bells."

She glanced over at me, and her cocked eyebrow told me she thought I was crazy.

"Well, not good. That's not what I meant. But it's…normal…to feel that way." I saw her slight flinch at the word normal, but there was no way to take it back – and I wasn't sure I would, anyway. As hard as all of this was – for both of us – it was time we began to acknowledge the things in her life that weren't quite right.

When she shifted back into her corner and pulled her thighs to her chest, wrapping her arms around her legs as she rested her chin on her knees, I resisted the urge to pull her hands away. I hated the way she closed in on herself because so many times, it meant she was closing me out. But I kept my hands to myself and waited, wondering what she would say, how she would take this.

"I…I know," she said in a small voice, her eyes focused on the floral pattern of the cushion between us. Silence hung heavy in the room for a moment, and then she lifted her face and gave me a small grin, her cheeks flaming red. "But I hate it. Why does it have to be so…so…frustrating?"

I couldn't help it; I chuckled. "That's just the way it goes, silly girl. But there are…ahh…ways to help?"

I shut off the protective part of my brain that wanted to growl at the image of Bella with Edward and tried to concentrate on what she needed. Still, I wasn't about to give her anatomy lessons if I could help it.

Whatever. You know you fucking would.

I sighed, groaning as I realized that annoying little voice was right.

"I know that, Jasper." As she huffed and brushed her hair out of her face in exasperation, I was reminded of the way she'd always been as a little girl, so sure, so superior, and I grinned. Her eyes narrowed dangerously, making me try to school my expression, but then her shoulders slumped as she exhaled, and she really did look like a little girl, lost and alone. "I mean…" She bit her bottom lip. "I'm not stupid. I-I remember…" She broke off, closing her eyes and swallowing before she forced herself to continue, "I remember what it's like. But it's been a really long time now, and I didn't exactly have a lot to go on, you know? So I…"

This time, she trailed off and didn't say anything else. I nodded slowly, watching my fingers as they picked at a worn spot in my pajama pants. "You don't know what to do?"


The hush in the house seemed oppressive as we sat there, neither of us saying a word until we both cleared our throats at the same time. My chuckle matched her giggle, and when our eyes met, she smiled at me.

"Well, umm…" I began in a quiet voice. "You remember when…ahh…when we…?"

I really didn't want to finish my sentence, and I knew I wouldn't have to. She nodded immediately, her neck flushing with her embarrassment.

"That's a good place to start." She tilted her head, looking at me questioningly, and I sighed, shaking my head. Fucking Bella. "Your hand. Remember?"

"Oh." She blushed again, nodding as she gave a small giggle.

I didn't even want to know what she was thinking. She opened her mouth to speak and then closed it again, her eyes widening as she glanced away. "So umm…"

"So…yeah…when he comes back, that's a…good…place to start. I mean, if you've been ahh…well…you know…"

She nodded, not meeting my eye as she gazed across the room. I found myself suddenly curious – and worried. Not worried because of what they had or hadn't done…worried because I had no clue what they'd done, and I didn't like the distance between us that not knowing indicated.

Just as I was about to suck it up and ask her, I saw her spine stiffen, and she straightened. She lifted her chin the way she always did when she was trying to be brave and said, "We…have…" Her voice deflated near the end, softening to barely a whisper, but she kept going. "Nothing…major…but…god, Jazz…" She sighed, flopping against the couch with her head on the back and a dreamy look on her face. "He's amazing."

I couldn't help my amused smile – it was either that or give into the urge to protect and defend that I always felt with her. It was definitely strange to listen to Bella talk this way, but I also felt a foreign hope rising in my chest, a hope that she might have the same kind of future, the same kind of love, that I had with Alice.

"He's been so patient…like, ridiculously patient. Sometimes I want to scream that I'm not that patient, but it's almost like he knows what I need better than I do. He's kind of like you that way, actually." She kicked out, nudging my foot with hers, and I caught her toes and tickled her. She squirmed and giggled, yanking her foot away.

"That's really good to hear, Bells. Are you…okay…with everything so far?"

She wrinkled her nose in thought and then nodded. "I have my…moments…you know? But it's alright. I'm okay." She sighed. "I worry sometimes that he's going to give up…because it doesn't always work for me. It's like we're in…I don't know…seventh grade or something. Every little thing is a victory, you know?"

I swallowed the lump in my throat and nodded, letting her get it all out now that she was talking. She went on for a few minutes more, skirting around what, exactly, they'd done, though I got a pretty complete picture when I filled in the blanks.

And I had to admit…if what she was telling me was true, Edward really did have the patience of a saint. My grudging respect for him was growing and becoming not quite so grudging anymore.

Thankfully, the discussion about Bella's sex life eventually turned to other things, and we both stretched out again, growing more comfortable. I propped my feet on the coffee table as we polished off the last of our Surprises, and Bella cleaned up our mess and took our empty dishes into the kitchen. I could feel my eyelids getting heavier and knew it wouldn't be too much longer before I'd be heading to bed – I prayed that Bella didn't really intend for us to sleep on the floor like we had so often when we were kids. It was all well and good when there was the lure of staying up late, but now that we were older, my warm, comfy bed was much more appealing.

When she came back in the room, she handed me a bottle of water and plopped down right beside me on the couch, resting her head on my shoulder. She curled up with her feet beside her, and I knew it wouldn't be long for her either.

There was still something I wanted to ask her, though – something I'd been curious about for days but hadn't had the chance to bring it up. "Hey…" I brushed her hair away from her forehead, where it was tickling my cheek. She made a noncommittal hum, and I smiled as I felt her relaxing. "What did Jane say to Alice that pissed her off so bad?"

Bella sat up immediately, her eyes wide. "That…bitch!" She began muttering under her breath as she turned to face me. "Okay, so…you guys were playing basketball, and Jane was being Jane." She rolled her eyes and her nostrils flared. "And she acted like she was all innocent or whatever, and then she asked Alice if…" Her voice faded away suddenly, and I didn't understand the faint flush on her cheeks. When I raised a questioning eyebrow, she swallowed and finally finished, "She asked Alice if you still liked it when…when she licked your scar all the way down."

"Oh." I had nothing else, only one lame syllable as my own cheeks heated. Goddamn Jane. I was never going to live down the few times I'd fooled around with her – never. And it had to be even more hurtful to Alice because I did like it when she did that…but it wasn't the same as the slutty shit Jane had done. I liked it with Alice because she paid special attention to me, making my flaws into things she loved. How the hell could I explain that?

"I guess you do then." Bella's voice was half-embarrassed, half-amused, and when I glanced at her, she wouldn't meet my eye.

I ran my fingers through my hair and sighed. "I can't believe she said that shit in front of you and Rosalie, too." Saying it in front of Alice, I could – unfortunately – believe. Jane had always had a vindictive streak.

"Yeah, well, umm…" Bella shifted uncomfortably. "Anytime I see your scar, all I can think about is the way you nearly gutted yourself on that dock." I knew she was changing the subject on purpose, and I was grateful, so I just went with it.

"Hey, now! That wasn't my fault!"

"Oh hell, yes, it was!" She turned to face me, her knee pressing against my thigh as she scooted back just a little so she could see me. "You were the one chasing me!"

"Yeah, because you called me a turd-face and said I liked Leah!"

She looked at me indignantly for a moment before her shoulders shook once, and then she dissolved into giggles. It was an argument we'd had so many times over the years that I wondered sometimes if I even really remembered what happened clearly. All I knew was that one minute, I was chasing Bella along the old wooden pier, and the next, my feet slid out from under me, and I fell over the side. A broken piece of wood caught me as I was falling, ripping my skin from my pelvic bone up to my belly button, and I was sure I was dying when I hit the water and saw the cloud of blood bloom in front of my face.

Instead, I just passed out. I found out later that Charlie pulled me from the water, and I came to in the emergency room. When I glanced at Charlie, he was soaked from head to toe, police jacket included - it was the first time I'd ever seen him shaken like that. He was deathly pale and his hands were shaking, and as soon as I opened my eyes and stupidly muttered, "Mom?" he said, "Oh, thank God…" and sat down hard on a plastic chair.

I was brought out of my musing when Bella's fingers tangled with mine, and she squeezed my hand. "You don't know how thankful I've always been that Charlie was there…" Her eyes were focused on the patterns the fingers of her other hand were tracing on the back of mine. "I can't…if he hadn't…" She gave her little grunt of frustration and turned to look at me then. "I love you, Jazz. Thank you for…everything."

I felt the force of her words deep in my chest, and the enormity of everything we'd been through hit me hard. I didn't want to turn what was supposed to be a fun sleepover into something deep and probably wholly depressing, so I just pulled my hand from hers and slipped my arm around her shoulder as I squeezed her to my side. I kissed the top of her head and murmured, "I love you, too, Bella…and you're always welcome. Thank you for being you."

She gave a small snort and shook her head, but I just tickled her to lighten the mood. She squirmed away and punched my ribs – lightly, thankfully…she wasn't as vicious as Rose. I smiled and hugged her once more before yawning and patting her arm. "Come on, silly girl. I think it's bedtime."

I stood up and reached down to grab her hand, pulling her to her feet as well. Her eyes looked darker, haunted, and I wondered how much sleep she was getting with Edward gone. I was so tempted to just tell her to stay in my room or that we could sleep in the living room after all, but she'd been trying so hard. I didn't want to sabotage her, especially if she was feeling weak, so I led her to our rooms and left the decision to her. I saw the way she squared her shoulders, lifting her chin just a little, and I couldn't help but smile.

That's my brave girl.

"G'night, Bells." I hugged her, and she squeezed me tightly, kissing my cheek before she pulled away.

"Night, Jazz." With a small smile for me, she turned and walked into her room, and I waited until I heard the click of her bathroom light before I went into my own bedroom to crawl into bed and call Alice.


A/N: Thank you so much for sticking with me, and I hope this chapter was worth the wait - and that the next won't be nearly so long in the making! I wish I could explain why this one was hard for me, but it's hard for even me to understand, so I'll just say that it was and thank you again for waiting.

I'm in the process of setting up a blog for JOotG because there are some questionable elements in it so far, and there will definitely be some umm...MA content coming up as Bella and Edward get a little closer, starting in the next chapter even. Please check my profile for information as it goes up. I am planning to post an edited version here, but all the chapters will be available in full and uncensored on the blog and on twilighted.