It was Saturday, a quarter to five, and Bella was at Jacob's house with Jacob, doing nothing much at all and enjoying it greatly.

Jacob had just hung up the phone and announced that Billy was staying at Charlie's to watch the game and she was thinking Good. No working vehicles means I'm stranded for the next few hours. I'm stranded at Jacob's house with Jacob, doing nothing much at all and enjoying it greatly.

Jacob lingered in the living room doorway, watched Bella stretch and smile to herself, broad, dimpling, satisfied.

He swallowed fire, felt his mouth run dry after it, rested his cheek against the cool pine of the doorframe, watched.

After a moment he asked "You gonna stick around, Cheshire cat?" in a soft, low voice designed to combat quavering.

"Sure, why wouldn't I? Besides, with my truck being sick and the rabbit being in for" – air quotes, eye rolling – ""elective surgery", there's no escape."

Bella yawned, wrapped it up in another cat-and-a-whole-tub-of-cream grin, buried her face in the couch cushions and mumbled "I'll cook if you like," then "Wait."

She twisted around and craned her neck to look at him, suddenly puzzled. "Why am I the Cheshire cat?"

Jacob shrugged, tried not to smile too much when he said "You tell me..."

--

Bella didn't tell him. She busied herself rifling through the fridge and freezer looking for anything but fish, and trying not to feel so ridiculously embarrassed over her smiling and his smiling and the whole damn Jacob at Jacob's house, smiling, stranded, Cheshire cat, you tell me thing.

Fish. Fish. More fish. Blergh!

Jacob had gone out to the garage to check on his "patients", but apparently he was back, because when she slammed the freezer door shut, she could hear him half-humming, half-singing You can learn a lot of things from the flowers, especially in the month of –

Bella's stomach lurched into her chest and froze there. She forced her eyes to the calendar on the far wall.

Saturday. February.

Fourteenth.

--

When Bella told Jacob she was going to get Billy and Charlie to come over here to watch the game, so they could benefit from her culinary brilliance too, he didn't try to hide his surprise.

It was hard enough keeping a lid on the crippling disappointment.

Bella didn't notice anything. She didn't.

She just kept her head down and dialed.

Bella dialed and Jacob dusted off his brave face, the most cheerful and the most determined one he could find.

The night was still young, he told himself. All was not lost.

--

"You're gonna have to help me out here Bells. What's this skillet you're talking about?"

Bella smiled fondly, picturing Charlie in the kitchen, bereft and bewildered. "Uh… the one you've had since 1987. Or possibly longer."

There was a pause before Charlie said "Right. That skillet." making no attempt to hide the fact that he still had no idea what she was on about.

Bella sighed, an impressively audible high-to-low that Charlie couldn't fail to pick up on, even on the other end of a phone. "Okay," she said, all charity and head-shaking, "third cupboard on the left for the skillet."

A couple of plodding footsteps later hinges creaked and Charlie said "Yeah?" like she'd told him the first few digits of a phone number and he was poised, hovering over a notepad, waiting for the rest.

Bella's brow furrowed in silence.

"Bells? You there?"

"Yes, I'm - " She smothered a sudden nervous giggle at the mental image of him standing there with the cupboard door open, just waiting.

"I'm - " The giggles hit again, side-stepped into a cough. "I'm here, sorry. Just… You seriously need me to tell you where it is in the cupboard? I mean… It's not Narnia in there, dad."

Jacob snorted, inquired whether they'd call him Lucy from now on in a whisper so ridiculously loud he may as well not have bothered with it.

"Shh!" Bella scolded, trying to look stern even as delicious, delicious relief flooded her body, because everything was okay, Charlie was bringing the skillet and Jacob was making jokes in too-loud whispers and everything was okay, everything was back to normal.

Thank God. Crisis averted. Now I'm just at Jacob's house with Jacob, doing -

"Bells?"

Bella jumped a little at the sound of her name, blushed for no good reason when she realized she'd just zoned out on Charlie.

Jacob watched the pink singe light up her face, tried not to read too much into the fact that she had been staring at him, failed, read in all sorts of things, all sorts of wonderful, impossible, inevitable…

"Um, what dad? No, sorry. Okay. I think it's at the back under a bunch of other stuff… a colander and…" She squeezed her eyes shut, trying to see it. "a spatter guard?"

"Got it!"

Charlie's overly triumphant declaration boomed through the receiver and Jacob snorted again, was about to go in for some more loud whispering when Bella kicked him in the shin.

He frowned, rubbing at the area with the back of his calf, muttering something that sounded like Women, and Bella smiled to herself and thought There. Minor physical abuse followed by pouting even though he barely felt it. Normal. Everything's back to -

"Waitwaitwait!" she squealed, hearing the click of the cupboard door and a grunt of effort that indicated Charlie was pulling himself up off the floor. "Um. Sorry. I want the spatter guard too. I'm gonna need you to…" she looked over at Jacob again, lowered her voice to TV-presenter levels, "…go back to Narnia."

Jacob's brave face had done wonders for his mood and he couldn't help grinning widely at her self-satisfied smirk, thinking She likes being funny. It's so cute that she likes being funny. She is so fucking cute.

"Sorry dad. Awesome. Okay. Just a couple more things. Umm… My oven mitt. It's just next to the - " Bella's eyes widened. "Oh you did? Go dad!"

She glanced quickly at Jacob, decided was looking dangerously whispersome again, doled out another quick kick to his shin just in case. "Alright. One last thing from home and then we can make a list for the store so that - "

Bella stopped talking abruptly, bit her lip as she listened to whatever Charlie was saying. Jacob watched her do it, and tried to forget her dad was on the other end of the phone discussing pots and pans, lists and trips to the grocery store.

He was swallowing fire again, thinking Nightisstillyoungallisnotlost.

"Well I'm gonna need a couple of fresh ingredients, cos I refuse to be limited to fish. And I figured you could pick them up on your way, since my truck and the rabbit are out of action. I mean, unless you want me and Jake to take the bike, cos we could totally - "

Charlie interrupted her immediately. "No no! No trouble at all. I'll get whatever you need. No need to put yourselves… out. With the bike."

Bella found herself grinning, because parents were just so wonderfully predictable sometimes. "Great, thanks. So I just need the garlic mincer, and then we can get started on that shopping list. Okay. Directions."

She bit her lip again. (Jacob noticed again.)

"If you're facing the sink, it's to your left. Second drawer."

Bella heard the drawer open, then a lot of rustling and huffing and finally, just as she was beginning to tap her foot, "S'not here, Bells."

She sighed again, high-to-low. "Yeah, it is. Just… look again."

"I did look again – three times. Honestly sweetie, it's not there. You must have misplaced it or something."

Bella's eyes narrowed. Misplaced? The audacity. Bella Swan did not misplace kitchen items.

"Keep looking," she ordered flatly.

There was some more rustling, a frustrated groan or two.

"Look, are you even sure I have one of these garlic thingamajigs cos I've never - "

"Yes, I'm sure." Bella said through gritted teeth. "That Bolognese you go nuts over wouldn't taste so great if I couldn't get the - "

"Found it!"

"See."

Charlie ignored her aural italics, threw back a whole lot of his own. "You meant the third drawer. That's why I wasn't getting it. It was actually in the third drawer."

"What?! No it wasn't. That's ridiculous! The third drawer is for paper towel, glad wrap, aluminum foil, and any directly associated paraphernalia. I don't allow utensils of any kind in that drawer under any circumstances."

Jacob, who had been pretty quiet for a while there, burst out laughing, staggered across the room, clutching his chest, and fell forward over the table wheezing.

By the sound of it, over in Forks, Charlie was doing more or less the same. When he'd recovered enough to speak he tried for some less than diplomatic diplomacy. "Well, if you say so. I guess it just snuck into the third drawer then, and brought all its utensil friends along. But they all seem pretty at home here in the third drawer, so I don't think - "

All its friends? At home?

Bella's palm collided with her forehead as she realized what had happened. "Ugh. Dad. Who counts drawers from the bottom up? I mean, really. Everybody knows 'second drawer' means second drawer down."

Jacob was still in fits of mirth, called out "Yeah Lucy, everybody knows that!"

Bella covered the receiver for "Quiet, you! No more!", uncovered it and sighed again, high-to-low. "Yes. Thanks, dad. Now, do you need me to tell you where we keep our pens and paper, too?"

Jacob rolled his eyes with a wry grin, put his hands on his hips, whispered a too-loud, mock-exasperated "Men."

--

Dinner was fine. Making dinner had been fine too, although in amongst the perfectly normal talking about everything and nothing there had been moments when Bella had caught Jacob looking at her with this sort of determined expression, and she'd felt her stomach clench, her breath become short and shaken, thought to herself that this all felt a bit like being lulled into a false sense of security.

But it had been fine, and dinner had been fine, and now Charlie and Billy were watching the game in the living room and Bella and Jacob were sitting on the porch steps eating pie. This was a normal end to a normal night at Jacob's house with Jacob, and Bella felt like she could finally start to relax again.

Her lips curled involuntarily at the sight of Jacob ploughing through what was his third helping of pie. She was still nursing her first.

"So Jake, I know you W.W.'s have crazy appetites but you're taking this too far."

Jacob laughed, mid-chew. It wasn't pretty. Once he'd managed to swallow his mouthful he echoed her with a grin. " 'W.W.'s'. You do realize that's only cute because you're the one saying it and I'm the one hearing it, right?"

Bella's face flushed with heat. She couldn't tell if it was because she'd been mocked or (sort of) called cute, or both. Probably both, she decided. Both were obnoxious. Both were –

She kicked at his shoe. "Well do you want Charlie to know about your secret - " she slid into a whisper " - wolfiness?"

Jacob just stared at her for a moment, strangely, appraisingly, his spoon suspended between bowl and lip. Then he snorted in amusement and carried on eating.

Bella pushed her pie around, worried that she might have been (sort of) cute again. "I'm serious by the way," she muttered, watching the crust and the red berry mess travel around the bowl. "If you just keep eating this stuff, at some point you're gonna… burst."

"Well at least I'd be bursting with your deliciousness."

Bella looked up reflexively, immediately wished she hadn't. Jacob's wide smile – Cheshire cat, tubs of cream, deliciousness, strandedsortofcutesmiling…

Jacob's wide smile and the Yeah, I know what I said and I know how you took it glint in his eye only made things worse.

So much worse. sososomuchworseIcan't -

Bella bit the inside of her cheek, a little too hard, winced, looked away.

Jacob set down his now empty bowl, reached out and put his hand on her knee, squeezed. That was normal Jacob behaviour. The unceremonious touching. It was completely normal, but right now, in this context, it was making the skin on Bella's face and neck prickle horribly.

He stopped squeezing, patted instead. "Oh come on, I just like pie is all. No need to get all blushy on me."

Bella looked over at him just long enough to roll her eyes, quickly looked back at the ground, at her pie, at his hand still on her knee and her hands, holding the bowl and… shaking. They were shaking like she had the freaking DTs and there was no way he hadn't noticed it, Oh God.

She turned quickly, held her bowl out for him, kept her arms as tense as possible in a misguided attempt to keep them still, said just as tensely, "Here, since you like it so much."

Jacob accepted with relish, patted Bella's knee again and told her, with an appropriately wicked grin, that she'd make someone a good little wife someday.

Bella glared at him. "Not if I switch teams first."

Jacob shook his head, waved his – no, her – spoon at her dismissively. "Even then. Your husband would just be a chick." He took a bite of pie, chewed and swallowed quickly so he could add "Preferably a really hot one."

Bella was still glaring at him, even if a small and treacherous smile was tugging at her lips. "Preferably? What do your preferences have to do with my choice of lesbian life partner, Jacob? Huh?"

He rolled his eyes, threw up his left hand, the right still busy with pie. "Right, okay. You want to marry an ugly woman. It's your life!"

Bella couldn't help but giggle, watching him eat, gesticulate and sigh dramatically all at the same time, muttered "You're a massive dork, Jacob Black."

He grinned, nodded, qualified. "Only over you, Bella Swan."

Bella looked away quickly, wished she didn't need to, wished she could just laugh it off, kick him in the shin again, watch him pout, be normal…

But her skin burned, her chest pounded, the TV suddenly seemed a hundred times louder, and the room felt too small… even though they weren't in a room at all, they were outside on the porch, and it wasn't as though this was the first time Jacob had said stuff like that, and Charlie and Billy were in the living room watching the game, which was at a perfectly normal volume, so there was really nothing wrong, nothing wrong at all -

"So…"

Bella blinked, lifted her head slowly. Her eyes were bleary suddenly, and she felt low-down and weightless at the same time, like she'd just not-quite woken up.

She watched, trying to make herself ask "So what?", as Jacob scraped the last of his pie out of the bowl, spooned it into his mouth, chewed, swallowed, stacked his – no, her - bowl with the other, dropped the spoons on top – all of this thoughtfully.

"What was that all about earlier?" he asked finally.

It fell like a rock, like a sick stone, heavy, heavy, the air felt heavy and Bella couldn't breathe.

"What was what all about?" she squeaked, fiddling busily with the strings of her hoodie.

She knew what he meant of course. And he knew that she knew. (Of course.)

Jacob knew that she knew, but he decided to tell her anyway. So it was clear. So there was nowhere to hide for once.

"The emergency dad-dinner," he said, with half a smile. "We'll call it an E.D.D."

For a split-second Bella wanted to laugh at the acronym. But only for a split-second. Once she'd filed E.D.D. away with W.W., she just wanted to close her eyes and put her head in her hands and not discuss this. But the way Jacob was looking at her now, that determined expression…

There was nowhere to hide.

There was nowhere to hide, but that didn't mean she couldn't play games.

"Well..." she said, her mouth pulled in a tight, bright smile. "They have to eat."

Jacob nodded, like he was really considering that response. "Very true. But they have been managing to do that without you these past few decades." He cocked his head to one side, a twitch of amusement at his lips. "In fact, they got it done just last night, when we were at Quil's place."

"Right." Bella answered quickly, ignoring the very obvious fact that he was teasing her. "So. Pizza two nights in a row isn't good."

"Sure, sure."

It was the earnestness of his tone, the completely fake earnestness, and the heavy silence that followed that made Bella defensive. "What, I'm not allowed to care about my dad's arteries?" she asked indignantly.

Jacob nodded thoughtfully again, left them to silence, more heavy silence.

Bella's face burned, her eyes dropped to her knees.

After far too long, when she was just about to grab the bowls and make a break for the kitchen, Jacob said "I thought maybe you were scared."

Bella took that in, exhaled, steeled herself, played on. "Yes, sure, of clogged arteries, absolutely."

"No, not that," Jacob said matter-of-factly. "Although yeah, clogged arteries, eesh. But what I meant was, I thought maybe you were scared of being alone with me…" he paused, clasped his hands together and leaned forward like he was telling her a secret, a stupid, damn secret she already knew, "…because of the date."

Bella didn't reply, just scratched at her jeans, pulled on her strings, tried to pretend they hadn't actually gotten to The Point.

"I saw you through the kitchen window before…" Jacob pressed gently. "Looking at the calendar like it was a car wreck."

Her face lifted with a sharp intake of breath and she quickly got out "Jacob I'm not going to be scared because it's the fourteenth of February. That's ridiculous, okay?"

He held her gaze for a moment, smiled a smile that dissolved quickly, seamlessly, almost as it formed. "Okay…" he said softly. "Too bad though. Scared was sort of my best case scenario."

"Well I'm sorry but you'll just have to pick another one," Bella said less than sympathetically, wrapping her arms around herself, making fists with her hands.

"Okay. That's actually sort of easy since there's only two, really."

Silence. Silence and puppy-dog eyes in her peripheral vision.

Bella caved quickly, far too quickly, asked a question he was waiting for her to ask, a question she knew she wasn't going to want to hear the answer to. "Okay so what's the other one then?"

Jacob's eyebrows shot up. "You want to know?"

"No." Bella gritted out, "I really don't. But you want to tell me."

He grinned. "That's true. Gosh, Bells, you're so self-sacrificing. First with the pie, and now this. A modern day Mother Theresa, that's what you are."

"Just spit it out," she snapped.

"Okay." Jacob cleared his throat, leaned forward again in that embarrassingly conspiratorial way. "The other explanation for the E.E.D. is that you just don't like being alone with me."

Bella blinked. Of course that was the other explanation. Of course. And yet she was so surprised by it. She'd been expecting… She wasn't sure what she'd been expecting. Mockery of some sort. A joke about how she clearly didn't trust herself not to jump him if given half a chance. Anything but You don't like being alone with me.

She shook her head. Her arms loosened around her body, and she twisted to face him.

"I do like being alone with you, Jacob." She smiled weakly, not at Jacob, no, not at Jacob, at the fact that she was about to say something she shouldn't, something she didn't want to say, something the absolute truth of which she couldn't escape right at that moment. "It's my favorite thing."

Silence.

Jacob was nearly lost. He was very nearly completely lost in what Bella had just said to him, and with that smile.

Her slip-up, her 'shouldn't, didn't want to' very nearly had entirely the opposite effect from the one she anticipated, very nearly got her exactly what she wanted, very nearly made Jacob forget The Point, just let it go, let her leave, let himself fritter the night away basking in It's my favorite thing…

Nearly.

He clapped his hands together with a wide and outrageously beatific smile. "Okay then. How about some quality alone time, you and me, right now?"

"I…" Bella's brow furrowed, and she was horrified to feel tears forming in her eyes. She blinked rapidly, searched desperately for something to say, anything, however lame…

"Well sure. That would be fine. I mean… it would be. Except I'm not going to go tell Billy to leave his own house and take my own father with him."

Jacob had already gathered up their bowls and was now towering above her, holding out his hand for her to pull herself up.

"Garage," he said simply.

--

Bella tried to do the dishes. She really tried.

Jacob literally dragged her from the sink – took her hand first of course, took it and held it, then dragged – and told her the dishes could wait till morning, they did every other night in this house, that was the Black family way and Billy would back him up on it.

She stumbled behind Jacob into the living room, where he announced that he was going to take Bella out to the garage to visit with his patients.

Charlie muttered something about a bag of grapes or not being late, Bella couldn't tell.

They were nearly at the door when Billy turned, called out to them. "Hey Jake! You remember the power's still out right?"

Jacob's grip on Bella's hand tightened slightly and he shot a nervous glance her way. She thought she was going to be sick or pass out or cry, because the power was out? Seriously? Everyone knew what that meant. Everyone.

"Yeah," Jacob said, his tone wary. "So?"

"So shouldn't you be taking the gas lamp with you?"

Jacob stared at his father for a moment. His eyes narrowed, his lips twitched, Bella felt his fingers shift and press against hers. "I already took it out there," he answered finally.

"Well. That's smart. Thinking ahead. Just make sure you go in there first and light it, son." Billy yawned, smiled blandly at the two of them, added "We wouldn't want Bella to have to feel her way."

--

There were candles. Of course.

Oh sure, the gas lamp was there, but it was off duty apparently, because Jacob had gone in and lit candles instead.

Bella folded her arms and stared stonily at the little table, set up with crates for chairs, two cans of soda and the damn candles flickering smugly at her.

Jacob sat down and patted the crate next to him.

Bella didn't budge.

"Are we having a séance or something, Jake?"

"No…" He leaned back a little, surveyed his set up, considered. "I mean, we could, if you wanted. But it's not on the agenda."

"What is on the agenda?" Bella asked stiffly, most of her wishing she hadn't.

"Oh, I dunno, a little talking, a little soda-sipping, a little - " he reached back and produced a small package and a smile like big city lights – "showering you with gifts!"

Bella stared at it. At them. The package and the smile. They fell like stones inside her, sick, heavy, she couldn't breathe, all she could do was stare, eyes flitting back and forth, his hand to his face, hand, face, hand, face, hand -

He shook the package at her. "Or, you know, gift, singular."

Bella shook her head, felt her mouth getting ready to form the word What? Because she'd been completely absorbed in his hand and his face and she didn't have any idea what gift, singular was all about. She swallowed just in time, remembered.

Showering.

"Right." she said, in a voice that was brittle, ready to chip and flake at any moment, probably the moment when that gift was handed over and she opened it and - "Well. You know I don't - "

Jacob held up a hand. "You don't like gifts, yeah, yeah. I respect that, I do. But sometimes gifts are just a necessary evil in this world, Bells."

"An evil you're inflicting on me."

"Only for your own good! What do they call it? Controlled exposure." Jacob smiled, resisted the urge to wink at her. "We'll have you over your gift-o-phobia in no time, honey."

Bella's eyes narrowed. "Not if I run screaming from the room you won't."

Jacob just raised an eyebrow and patted the crate next to him again.

Bella walked (toward the gift!) on legs that felt like tree-trunks, too solid, too straight, legs that would never have been able to run anywhere anyway.

Jacob smiled at her slow progress, at the way she seemed to creak and sway when she finally sat down next to him.

He set the package down on the table, nudged it toward her, and when he said "Happy Valentine's day, Bells," Bella thought Happy? Nothing about this is happy. It's a freaking tragedy, it's a car wreck, it really is, and if he knew that back in the kitchen, why did he keep pushing it, why does he always have to keep on pushing, keep on driving straight into a fucking head-on collision, with bloodshed and lives lost, a broken boy in amongst the metal and I'll take the fall for it, I'll take the fall, I'll wind up in jail, in solitary -

He nudged the gift her way again, and it crashed into her knuckles.

Yes, crashed.

Bella opened it. She tried to be quick, to rip into it like you rip a bandaid off your skin, but it was like a damn fortress, and she was pretty sure that inch for inch, Jacob had used more tape than paper.

He watched her shake and fumble, his face streaked with uncontrollable smiles.

Under the paper and tape was a box, of course, and Bella's skin prickled, her heart thumped, her eyes welled with tears, angry tears, as she lifted the lid.

It was a bracelet. A silver chain, very fine, with a green stone clasp. It was pretty. Very pretty. If she wore jewelry it would be very her.

"Thanks." She wheezed it out through thick, heavy lungs, and thanked God for Jacob's super hearing because she didn't think she was capable of saying it louder, saying it again at all.

He beamed, like the ghost of a Thanks was everything he wanted, pulled the tiny bracelet out of the box and dangled it from his too-large thumb and forefinger.

"It's peridot. I sort of chose it because it's sort of your birth stone."

Bella swallowed, seized a slim opportunity for lightness. "Sort of?" she croaked out, forcing a smile onto her face.

Jacob ducked his head, grinned sheepishly, and when his hair fell around his face, lightness was gone, the whole world was in darkness, the whole world was in darkness because he looked so much like a boy, so much like the boy who had saved her with motorcycles and warm soda and Bells, honey, that in that moment Bella thought her heart would break, really break this time, not just the part that loved like a movie, like a book, like Romeo & Juliet, not just that most bright and wild part, all the parts this time, all the parts that made you human, all the parts that made you care, made things matter, made you matter...

The look on Jacob's face was going to crash through all of it and Bella Swan would cease to exist.

Her throat closed over and she barely heard him telling her that he'd combed through half of Seattle, and really it was just the only thing that he'd found that he liked, so he bought it and went to wikipedia hoping for a miracle, got half a one because it was her birth stone, sort of, according to some lame-ass "tradition" that totally ignored the zodiac and stuff, but anyway it was nice, and he always thought of green when he thought of her, so...

"There."

Jacob smiled and Bella followed his gaze down to her wrist, realized that while he'd been talking he'd been wrapping the bracelet around it, fastening the clasp.

The world was in darkness. Bella Swan did not exist.

"I didn't get you anything," she said flatly, thinking how it didn't sound like her, it really didn't, and maybe it wasn't her, not really, because she didn't exist anymore so how could she be talking to a boy in a garage in La Push, Washington?

Jacob grinned. "S'ok. You know, I really don't like gifts. I'd probably run screaming from the room if you - "

"I didn't get you anything because I don't think of you that way."

Flat. Empty. Not her. Not Bella Swan.

Jacob knew what she meant of course. He quickly worked backward from the way everything had seized and churned around her words, from the pain, and the way it was pulling everything inside him, on and on, inevitably, dragging him to a place where the night was not young, all was lost, brave faces crumbled when you dusted them off…

He quickly worked backward from that and realized he knew exactly what she meant.

But she had played games earlier. She had skirted around The Point. And right now that seemed like a really good idea to him.

"Sure you do." The corners of his mouth lifted gingerly. "I've got the wheel locks and mix CD to prove it."

Bella's mind jumped instinctively to Christmas. Jacob and Charlie belting out carols in the kitchen…

Bile flooded her throat. She spoke rapidly, sharp like a knife through butter. "I'm not talking about gift-giving, Jacob. I'm talking about Valentine's Day. Bracelets and birthstones. Love. I can't be with you like that. I don't feel it. It's not possible for me to feel it. It will never be possible. I don't want it to be possible."

Jacob seized and churned again. It ached. God those words… the last ones, those last seven, the ones you couldn't argue with, the ones there was no skirting around, God, those really fucking hurt.

And the tone of her voice… solid, certain…

The hard line of her mouth, the apology in her eyes…

All of this ached, all of this hit him hard.

But it wasn't a car wreck for Jacob. Car wrecks were real in his world, and that was why a small voice deep inside him had been raging ever since he'd said those words, so flippantly, with a smile, about a calendar and a girl and Valentine's Day for God's sake, you idiot.

He drew in a shaky breath.

This was not a car wreck.

Bella wasn't gone, even if she wasn't – would never be, didn't want to be – his.

The pain lessened. Its grip on his insides slackened.

That was when the tears came. One, two, three, because he was so unbearably sad. And then as those slithered down his cheeks there were more because he was fucking crying. The girl he wanted more than anything had just told him in no uncertain terms that she didn't want him that way, and now he was crying in front of her like fucking salt in the fucking wound.

Bella couldn't speak. Because she wasn't sure she was Bella anymore. And she wasn't sure the boy in front of her was Jacob either. She had never seen him like this. He had always been…

What? Brave? Determined? What the hell is there for him to be determined about now?

The truth was Bella hadn't expected him to respond so rationally to her speech. He never took her at her word. Ever. She had been letting him down gently for over a year now, and even then it hadn't so much been gentle as it had been polite, because the hints were the size of anvils really, and still, every one had flown right past him, he hadn't blinked, he hadn't faltered in his step, in his smile…

She'd been hinting and he'd been ignoring it…

But she realized she'd never actually told him the truth as she had just now. And it was the truth. It was the only truth she knew.

Love, that kind of love, was Edward Cullen's.

She would never get it back. She didn't want to.

And she didn't want to need Jacob so badly. She had never wanted to need him, because she had always known it would end like this.

His heart broken, hers crumbled and emptied out over it.

"I'm sorry."

It was being said, over and over again, shaking out of Bella's body in violent gasps, a jagged rhythm, splintered further when she added "I need you so much. I'm sorry for needing you so much." and "I should never have let you be my friend because I knew. But I needed. And I'm sorry."

Bella's eyes were squeezed shut, her arms were wrapped tightly around her quivering form. It seemed appropriate, heralding the return of the hole in her chest, the emptiness that was rightfully hers, the loneliness, the horror of solitary –

She almost choked when she felt him, his too-warm arms covering hers, a hot, low sigh trembling into her hair.

This is goodbye, she thought, oh God please, I –

"I'll always be your friend, Bella, always." Jacob's voice hitched and cracked, his heart clenched. "Don't freak out. It'll be okay, I promise. We'll get through this. We will."

What the hell is there for him to be determined about now?

Bella had been holding her breath, and now she gulped down air. She had been wrapped around herself, and now suddenly she was wrapped around him.

They were close for a long time, and when Jacob released her, he sniffled embarrassingly, and when Bella released him she said "You're amazing."

"Sure, sure." Jacob said, with a weak smile. "But it's not like I can sparkle."

Bella sucked in a tight breath, started sobbing again on the exhale, heaving like she had before, and Jacob was scared again, loved her again, always, put his arms around her again because he couldn't bear to see her fall apart.

"It's okay," he whispered "I shouldn't have said that. I'm kind of on auto-pilot right now. Or something. But we'll be okay, Bella. I promise."

Bella shook and coughed and cried, because she couldn't believe she was letting Jacob Black comfort her again, letting him be her rock in the raging sea she had dragged them both into. She couldn't believe that that was what he had found to be determined about.

All she wanted to do was start saying it again, over and over: I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry. But that wasn't right. That wouldn't help. She had to get a hold of herself, she had to be strong, or at least pretend to be. She had to at least pretend not to need this.

Bella held her breath in an attempt to steady it, blinked to clear the tears from her eyes. She slowly pulled away from Jacob, smiled as best she could, said "You are amazing. You are. You're the best friend I've ever had."

She watched as Jacob stared at her, open-mouthed and longing, however hard he tried, he was always longing for her. She looked down, fiddled with the clasp on the bracelet. It was a moment before Jacob noticed.

"No!" he said quickly, pulling her hand away from her wrist. "Keep it. You don't have to wear it or anything, but please keep it. I want you to… I mean, it was for you. And I was looking for it for so long…" He trailed off, staring into the green bauble and remembering the two weekends he spent trawling Port Angeles and Seattle, all the anxiety and excitement of it… He shook his head, met her eyes. "I don't want it to just end up… being someone else's."

Bella coughed, laughed, sobbed. Jacob wasn't sure which she had intended. She nodded, gripped the table hard when she said "Thank you so much."

Jacob wanted to say "That's what are friends for," and he wanted to say it with an appropriate trace of bitterness. But that would start her crying again, and he couldn't handle that. He was having a hard time handling any of this, and what he wanted most was for Charlie and Bella to go home and Billy to go to bed, so he could be alone and hurt and hopefully fall asleep at some point.

He stood up slowly, cautiously, like his legs couldn't be trusted. Bella did the same.

"Come on," he said, "We'll sneak in the back so you can get cleaned up."

Bella reached out, touched his wrist, held it strangely for a moment, whispered quick and miserable "I'm not the only one with puffy eyes."

--

It wasn't like before, when Edward had been a wide, open wound inside Bella, and Jacob had been out of her reach and she'd been unable to breathe…

It wasn't like before, when she'd been alone and drowning.

She wasn't alone now and she wasn't drowning.

But still, she sleepwalked through school, lay wide awake at night, and there were moments, odd little slivers of in-between, when she remembered his face in the garage, and her throat closed over, her lungs bubbled, she clutched at a doorframe or the edge of her bed or Angela Weber's hand, which was always – had always been - open and willing.

Every time she told herself again, Not as bad, and it was true, and it helped.

Not as bad.

But that didn't change the fact that it hurt.

And she hated herself for being in pain, she hated herself. Because she knew Jacob was trying so hard to give her what she needed, to give her what she swore she would never ask of him, and really he was doing a damn good job of it, of being her friend, always.

It wasn't as though he wasn't around anymore. He was. Jacob was still uniquely, absurdly at her disposal. If she called he'd talk, pretty much as long as she wanted or until Billy threatened to get Sam over to haul him off the phone. If she mentioned coming around she could hear the smile in his voice when he said he'd see her soon.

But he was careful. He didn't push anymore.

Now when she left he didn't ask when she'd be coming back.

Bella was standing in her bedroom at seven forty five on Wednesday morning combing knots out of her damp hair when she realized that.

She fell face-first into her pillow, pressed her palm angrily to the lump in her throat.

Not as bad, not as bad, notasbad.

She repeated it mindlessly until she could stand up again, finish combing her hair.

--

Jacob tried not to dwell.

He tried not to think too much about things like waiting. What if he'd waited? What if he hadn't pushed?

Bella might not have said it, finally.

I don't want it to be possible.

He reminded himself that he had waited, a year and them some, and patiently. (More or less, he thought, Nobody's perfect.)

And it had only been a gift anyway. Just a gift, and candles and Valentine's Day. That was all it had taken for it to be over.

He tried to focus on things other than the aching in his chest, things other than the thousand futures that had been wiped clean.

Bella, graduating college before him of course, waving her hat at him, grinning her Cheshire cat grin... Then sleek and white against sleek, white sand, and sun screen on every inch of skin because she burned so easily... New York, dipped in snow, maybe Paris even, yeah, Paris, and Bella would read a thousand guide books and spout it all back to him authoritatively... Children... Sarah and... a boy... with rich skin, black hair and wide brown eyes just like hers, just exactly like hers...

Jacob tried not to dwell.

He spent time with Quil and Embry. Proper friend time, without vampires and pack minds and not-quite-and-never-will-be girlfriends getting in the way. They patted him on the back and joked that it was nice to have B.B.J. back. Before Bella Jake.

Cute little acronyms. Jacob tried not to hate them.

He put more effort into school, spent time with his friends, and as bittersweet as it was, that included Bella, because he didn't want her to think that being with her that way was all he had wanted, even if it had been what he'd wanted most.

--

There was a party at the Clearwaters' a few weeks later. It was the anniversary of Harry's death, and Sue firmly believed that he would want his friends and family to be together, happy, hopeful, full of good food, that he would rather be honored that way than with mourning, solitude, dark clothes and deprivation.

So there was a party at the Clearwaters' and Bella had been invited.

Not by Jacob.

Embry had called, let slip that Jacob had thought it would be better if another friend asked, just so it didn't seem like he was putting pressure on her.

Another friend.

Bella had swallowed thickly, squeezed the sandwich she'd been holding so hard she was clinging onto slices of cheese while chunks of bread scattered over the floor.

She had been staring into space, her mind frantically chasing excuses not to attend, when Charlie had walked in, heard Embry's concerned voice calling through the receiver, taken the phone from Bella.

Less than a minute later Bella had heard him cheerfully accepting the invitation for both of them, and now here she was, hovering by the table in the ridiculously large and woefully untended backyard, biting her nails while Emily dished out Sam's dinner.

Embry, Quil and Jacob already had theirs. They were sitting together under the old grand fir, eating.

Jacob waved. Bella waved back.

Emily swiped a roast potato before handing over the plate and groaned. "God, I want Sue's oven. One of these days I'm going to just… steal it. Or make you steal it. Yeah, that's better."

Sam chuckled. "It's built into the wall, babe. Little heavy, too."

Emily sighed, eyed his carrots with regret.

Sam laughed again, leaned in and kissed her cheek. "But I'll try."

"You will?" Emily was wide-eyed with mock reverence.

"Sure!" Sam said. Then he looked down, addressed his plate sincerely. "Anything for you, roast potatoes."

Emily smiled good-naturedly, smacked him on the back of the head and turned back to Bella. "Are you sure you're not gonna eat, Bella?"

Bella was still staring at the grand fir, watching the flames from the small bonfire light up the green against the black, muttered "Um, I dunno…"

"At least try the potatoes. And the carrots. For me."

Emily took her silence as concession, reached for another plate and loaded it up, and then she was gone and Bella was sitting at the table next to Sam, poking at the potatoes, which really did look pretty good.

"You having a good time?" Sam asked.

Bella smiled, speared a carrot. "Uh huh. Not as good as Charlie though."

She could hear his laughter from all the way inside the house and upstairs (and she didn't have the advantage of super-hearing).

Sam snorted, smeared mustard on his steak. "Yeah, the olds are really getting into it."

"Uh huh…"

Bella's carrot was forgotten. She was staring at the grand fir again, and if she concentrated very hard on it she could make out four figures in her peripheral vision.

She put her fork down, closed her eyes, and when she opened them again she was looking directly at them, Quil, Embry, Jacob and the fourth figure, a girl, a pretty girl, with skin like Jacob's and hair down to her waist, who was stretching and grinning like a Cheshire cat…

"Who's that?" she asked sharply, before she could stop herself.

Sam looked up from his steak, followed her gaze. She was staring at the side of the house now.

"Who?" Sam asked.

"Um…" Bonfire or no, it was long johns weather. But Bella's face felt hot, her palms slick with sweat. She pressed them into the cold wooden table. "Over there with Quil and Embry. And Jake." She tried to make that last part sound like an afterthought.

"Maria?"

Bella shrugged, and it was stiff and strange, since her palms were glued flat to a flat, high surface.

"Jake hasn't introduced you two yet?" Sam asked.

He sounded surprised. Bella shook her head. It was stiff and strange like the shrug had been.

"Oh, make sure he does," Sam said, between chews, "She's brilliant."

Bella suddenly picked up her fork, speared three pieces of carrot ate them in one mouthful. She followed it with half a potato, then abruptly dropped her fork again, turned to Sam and asked "Can't you just introduce us?" a little violently.

Sam shot her a funny look, tapped his plastic knife against his paper plate a couple of times before dropping it. "Sure. No problem."

He had started to get up, ready to head off in their direction, when Bella realized what an absolute freak she was being and stopped him. "Wait. Don't worry. Finish your food." She smiled a frayed smile. "I didn't mean right now. Just… you made it sound like it would be, I dunno, more appropriate if Jake introduced us."

Sam nodded as he sat back down. "Well you are his - " he paused, seemed annoyed that he had done so " – friend, and she is his cousin. So I figured he'd wanna do the introducing."

Bella nodded vigorously, muttered "Yeah, of course," in a pathetic attempt to pretend she'd known about this cousin business all along. She swallowed hard and the clicking sound it made seemed way too loud in her head. She couldn't help wondering how loud it was for Sam, cringed and looked away.

"I probably actually already have met her, when I was a kid," she said, as nonchalantly as possible, even though she was so embarrassed, and she could feel stupid, ridiculous, nervous tears forming in her eyes.

"I dunno," Sam said doubtfully. "She's an out-of-towner."

Bella picked up her fork, dropped it again because her hand was shaking. "Well so was I," she countered, "Back then. But you know, Christmas visits and such."

She turned to flash Sam a smile she'd been working on and just as she did, the first tear rolled down her cheek.

Sam noticed of course. Bella figured anything else would have just been too much to ask.

She rolled her eyes and wiped her cheek just as he asked "Are you alright?"

She sighed, peeled her fingers from the table, set her elbows in their place and let her head fall into her hands. "Sure. I'm fine. It's just… been a long week. Or a few… long weeks."

Sam didn't say anything after that, it felt like several minutes of silence to Bella, and when she turned, scraped her hair back off her face, she was pretty sure he wouldn't be there. But he was, and he was smiling at her, a sort of smile she'd never seen on him before. It was gentle, kind… sort of fatherly. (Which was sort of unnerving.)

"Bella, I know things have been… complicated, between you and Jake lately, and - "

"You do?" Bella felt her eyes widen despite herself. "He… talked to you… about… it?"

Sam shook his head. "No. Not at all. Pack mind."

"Oh. Right. So…" Bella bit her lip, struggled to suppress a sudden burning curiosity to know what Jacob had thought about her about these last few weeks, what he had thought about Valentine's Day, about all of it. "And?" she asked finally, wincing because she was being so obvious.

Sam smiled. "Well… it's more of a but than an and, really."

Bella leaned forward encouragingly.

"I know things feel complicated. For both of you. And I understand, believe me." His gaze flitted meaningfully to Leah who had emerged from the house, or close enough, was slouched in the doorway, eyes closed, headphones on. "I know things feel complicated, but I don't think they really are anymore. They don't have to be. I mean, you should know, Jake really does get it now. This whole friendship thing. It isn't some ploy to win you over. It's sincere. He genuinely gets it."

Bella found the grand fir again, flickering darkly. "You don't have to tell me that."

Sam sighed. "I don't have to. And I probably shouldn't. But I thought it might put you more at ease."

Bella nodded slowly at the firelight, thought the words more at ease, moreateasemoreatease.

"And Bella?" Sam cleared his throat awkwardly. "You should know that he's always going to care so much about you."

Bella's eyes snapped back to Sam's suddenly, and she squinted like she was searching for a memory. "He said that?" She shook her head, smiled a sharp, nervous smile. "He thought that, I mean?"

Sam frowned. He seemed annoyed at himself again. "Well, not in so many words, but I..."

He was still talking, but Bella didn't hear him. She didn't hear him because she couldn't. Because she was miles away. She was miles away now, in the forest, watching Edward Cullen's lips as they'd sounded out "I'll always love you… in a way."

She felt sick. And not just a little. The kind of sick that leads to throwing up all over a table full of potatoes and carrots, steak and paper plates.

She stood up abruptly, grabbed the back of her chair to steady herself. Sam turned, reached back and touched her hand, asked if she was okay again.

His hand was so warm on hers, hot even, and Bella's eyes fluttered shut, fluttered open.

"Um, I'm not feeling all that well," she said, concentrating on the words as they came out of her mouth, praying they would come out alone. "I think I'm gonna head home, lie down for a bit."

"Sure," Sam said, and he said it like he really understood. "Do you want me to drive you? Or I could get Charlie if you're - "

"No! No. I don't want to ruin his night. It's important. It's important for everyone and I... I'll just... I'll go. Just tell him I'm fine, I had a headache, it's nothing. Tell... tell Jake that too." Her lips contorted dangerously in time with her stomach. "I mean, if he asks. And Sam?"

"Yeah?"

"Could you eat the rest of my food and tell Sue I said the potatoes were awesome?"

He smiled, promised he would, took his hand from hers and pulled her plate over to his to prove he meant it.

Bella watched Jacob carefully while she asked Sam to say goodnight to Emily for her, waited till he was laughing at something Quil had said, or maybe it was Maria, or Embry, or Seth now, there were so many people around him it was hard to tell. But he was busy laughing, that was what mattered, his head thrown back, his body shaking with it, and she took the opportunity to walk quickly, her body shaking too, round to the side of the house and out onto the street.

She slid into her truck, her sick, sad truck that Jacob had patched up for her again, turned the key, revved the engine, drove stupidly fast, or as stupidly fast as the old thing would go, all the way back to Forks.

--

It was about an hour later when Jacob stormed up to Sam, demanded to know what he'd said to Bella.

Sam tried not to take the vicious glint in his eye personally, told him "Nothing."

Jacob raised an eyebrow. "Emily said she went home, you were the last person to talk to her and you said nothing?"

Sam rolled his eyes. "Nothing bad. Look, she just seemed tense. So I told her not to worry, you guys would be okay, and you'd always care about her. I was just trying to - "

"And I'm supposed to believe that's what made her leave?"

Sam shrugged. "No, not really. She was feeling sick, or she had a headache. Or yeah... She did seem upset. I don't know. Look I'm sorry Jacob, I was just - "

"Stay out of it," Jacob hissed, before turning and jogging round the side of the house.

Sam sighed, sat down and pressed his hand to his forehead.

Emily appeared out of nowhere, sat beside him.

"So now I'm the bad guy," he said wearily. "I was only trying to help."

Emily smiled. "I know," she said. "And I think you did help." She glanced over at the side gate that Jacob had slammed a moment ago. "Now maybe the two of them will clear the air. And things will be better." She stroked Sam's shoulder, followed his eyes to Leah, who was now smiling secretively into her cellphone, said again, just as hopefully "Things will be better."

--

Jacob dropped near soundlessly onto Bella's bedroom floor. She probably wouldn't have heard him even without the stealth, seeing as her head was wrapped in pillows and the room was full of the sounds of noisy, very unglamorous weeping.

He stood by the window for a moment, watching her body shake and heave, thought how strange it was to not know what to do. A few weeks ago it would have been easy, the most obvious thing in the world, but now he was watching Bella fall apart and he didn't know what to do.

In the end he just said "Hey."

Bella's face flew out of the pillows, she whipped around like she'd been coiled on a spring. "Jacob?" she croaked.

"That's me…" He tilted his head, stepped closer to the bed. "What's going on?"

Bella breathed heavily for a moment, staring at him like he was a ghost. Then she said "Jake, get out of here," angrily, the way a perfectly mortified person says Get out of here. "You'll wake Charlie up and he'll freak out."

"Bells, it's 8:30. Charlie's still at the party."

"8:30?" Bella asked, disbelievingly. It felt hours since she'd left the party, hours that she'd been lying on her bed, crying herself into this hideous, sticky-haired sore-eyed state.

Jacob nodded, stepped closer to her, shuffled back a little.

"Just go," she pleaded, trying not to be too appalled at the nasal quality to her voice that made it sound even more whiny that it would otherwise. "I'm fine. It's nothing."

Jacob stood stock-still. He had to be careful. If he wasn't careful he would do the easy, obvious thing, go and sit on her bed with her, pull her into his arms and kiss her hair… He'd kiss her hair and she'd think he was pushing again.

"You don't seem fine," he said softly.

"Yeah, okay. Busted. I'm not fine, I'm crazy." Bella snorted, flushed with horror at the sound and at the very real possibility that she had just sprayed mucus everywhere, reached for the tissues by her bed and pulled out three. "Big news, huh?"

Jacob grinned a little, because there were so many things he could say to that under different circumstances, and because she was so damn cute right now, trying to blow her nose without actually blowing her nose.

He coughed loudly to give her an opening, and when she was done he stepped closer and said "Bells, just tell me what's wrong. Sam said you were talking about me before you left, about you and me. Did he say something to upset you?"

Bella watched him intently, breathed, thought about you and me and how easy it would be to take that the wrong way. She reached for another tissue. "No, no. He was fine. He was really kind, actually. He just made me more…" she paused, rolled her eyes, "… at ease."

"Okay," Jacob grimaced, remembering how much of an asshole he had been. "Remind me to apologize to him later."

"Sure, sure," Bella said without bothering to ask why. She was too busy rubbing her eyes and feeling miserable.

"Alright," Jacob said, "So if Sam was cool, what's making you… crazy?"

A suitably lunatic grin spread across Bella's face. She leaned forward on her hands and knees and whispered "Vampires. That's what. The bad ones just kill you. The good ones make you crazy."

"Oh." Jacob felt a surge of disappointment. He also felt stupid, and then angry, because disappointment meant he'd been hoping, and that was something he'd been determined never to do again when it came to Bella and things being about him.

He swallowed thickly, shoved his hands into his pockets for something to do. "I thought you were… I mean, not over Edward Cullen because that's…" he enunciated the next words like a thespian, "… n o t p o s s i b l e. But you seemed like you were doing better."

"I was. I was doing better. I was sort of… happy, wasn't I?" Bella looked up at him with wide, red-rimmed eyes, sniffled pathetically. "But then there was Valentine's Day…" She sat back on her knees, held up her right arm, shook her sleeve down, " …and this stupid, pretty bracelet! And now everything is awful with us. Everything is just ruined."

Jacob's breath caught. He suddenly realized Bella had been pulling her sleeves down over her hands all night. In fact she'd been pulling her sleeves down over her hands all week, all week and the week before that and…

She'd been wearing it. She'd been wearing the bracelet.

He loved that she'd been wearing the bracelet. It killed him that she'd been wearing the bracelet.

He stared at the silver trembling along Bella's pale wrist, at the peridot that wasn't really her birthstone but had reminded him of her. He was so transfixed that it took him a moment to register what she'd just said.

When he did, he was kind of pissed. "Ruined? Seriously? That's not fair. I've been trying really hard to make this okay for you, so don't tell me that - "

"I know. I know. You're wonderful, everything's great, forget it." Bella was aware that she sounded like a petulant child, but that was okay, because really, she was a petulant child right now, blubbering in her bedroom over nothing, over something that should be nothing, over nothing that was something she didn't understand.

Jacob turned around with an exasperated sigh, muttered "Okay then," turned back around abruptly and threw his hands up. "Seriously Bella. What the hell am I doing wrong?"

Bella gasped, dropped her tissues and covered her mouth with both hands. Fresh tears started to fall because she was awful, she really was, why was she being so awful? "Nothing," she said quickly through her fingers, "It's not your fault. I'm sorry, Jake, I know it's not your fault. It's just that it's so… We're not…"

One hand fell into her lap, the other wiped frustratedly at her cheeks. "You don't talk like you used to, you're not… It's… We don't laugh anymore and I - "

"We do so laugh!" Jacob interrupted indignantly. "Just yesterday with the garlic mincer and the cherry tomatoes! I dare you to say we didn't laugh."

Bella giggled helplessly at the memory for a moment, mumbled "That was funny," sniffed, then resumed her hysterical tirade. "But you know what I mean. You do. It's just not… It's just not the same anymore."

"Bells," Jacob's brow furrowed, he peered at her in bewilderment. "It can't… It can't be exactly the same. I can't… do that. I don't know why you would want me to do that."

Bella gasped again, more tears fell, her body quivered with them. "I know! I know. I'm sorry. But I just… It's like… you don't call anymore. I call you. And you pick up and you're all nice and everything but it's not… And you have all these other… people suddenly and it's good, it really is, I just didn't think it would be so… And you don't tease me anymore, which is nice, it really is, but… and… you're all respectful and, and appropriate and you don't hold my hand without asking, or at all, you don't… You don't touch me anymore. I have to touch you. Except I can't. And you don't. Like right now, I'm bawling my eyes out and you're not even touching me. You, Jacob Black, are not even touching me. What is that about?!"

Bella had risen up on her knees on the bed and was staring pleadingly at Jacob, who stood wide-eyed, swaying slightly like her words were a wind.

He was breathing hard and his hands trembled, twitched, his palms itched, the tips of his fingers burned.

Finally he opened his mouth, hesitated for a fraction of a second before asking "Do you want me to touch you?"

Bella pressed her lips together, stared at him for a moment longer before closing her eyes. Tears slipped through her lashes, down to her lips, and she nodded awkwardly, mumbled "Yes please."

Jacob took a step toward her, a small, cautious, un-Jacob-like step. First one, then another, and he was there.

He lifted one hand to her face and heat thrummed in the pads of his fingers as he got closer and closer. The other followed, even more slowly, even more tentatively, then suddenly quick and sure when Bella leaned into his other palm.

It was then that he was there he realized how difficult this situation was.

Because things were getting obvious again and he knew exactly what he wanted to do. Everything in his body was screaming at him to lean down and kiss her. Just like that. Simple.

But he'd tried that twice before. Both times she'd held his gaze as he'd leaned in, her eyes pouring soul into his, and both times she'd ducked away at the last moment, pretended not to notice what had almost happened. He'd pretended to buy it, swallowed the sudden emptiness it had left him with, the excruciating loneliness, even if she was still right there, no more than three feet away.

He couldn't feel that again.

Even as Bella inched closer on her knees, breathing a shaky line to his lips, Jacob knew he couldn't feel that loneliness again.

So he straightened, slowly. Made his hands limp, so they slipped away from her skin.

"Bella, please don't do this if… I've been trying so hard to let go… of this. So if you don't mean…" He sighed heavily, because he didn't know how to put this, he didn't know how to dress up I love you, I'm scared of you, please don't hurt me, and for a second he wanted to just say it, exactly what he felt…

But it would be too much. Too much like trying to kiss her again. And then the loneliness when she'd turn away, when all she could say would be "Sorry…"

It would be too much, so he ground out half a shrug and said "It's not like I want you to declare your undying love for me or whatever, I just don't wanna waste my - "

"I love you."

It was a too-loud whisper, absurd, rough and wet with tears… It was a too-loud whisper, and Bella thought of the kitchen on Valentine's Day, smiled.

Jacob didn't smile back, and she decided she'd give him another thirty seconds before getting pissed about it. In the meantime, she rose up as high as she could, reached up with shaking hands, her chest pounding, too heavy, too light, her head, her blood, her heart…

Bella reached up and pressed her fingers to Jacob's face.

She felt her way along hard lines and soft dips, she felt the smooth hollow under his cheekbone on one side, the gentle roughness of his jaw on the other. She watched her hands move over his skin, bright and perfect against his darkness, shuddered gorgeously when her thumb trace the lines of his lips.

On and on it went, this traveling touch, till her fingers slid into his hair, down to the collar of his shirt, which was damp with sweat because he'd been running, and Bella smiled and thought of him running to her, said clearly – no confusion, there would be no confusion anymore – "I'm in love with you, Jacob."

Jacob was silent. Or he would have been silent if his breath hadn't been coming in short, stark, open-mouthed bursts. Bella was smiling at him and he still wasn't smiling back. He couldn't. He couldn't move any part of his body. He was locked. Immobilized. His eyes on hers. His throat on fire.

When he spoke, finally, his words stumbled through the flames. "SeenowI… justsaidIdidn't want youtodo that."

Bella's fingers drifted down his chest as she began to sink into the mattress. Her chin tilted back to look up at him and one eyebrow rose, kinked like a question mark. "Well… do you like… mind?"

Jacob laughed. His eyes slipped closed and he said "No, I don't", and he laughed, and he took Bella's face in his hands again, leaned down as she rose back up.

When they were level, so close, just far apart enough so that she could be his focus, he said slowly, deliberately "You're so funny, Bells", watched the sweet, well-pleased smile bloom on her lips as he leaned in to kiss them for the first time.

--

Feeling.

It was easy. It was complete.

Bella pulled Jacob backward, down onto the bed, really pulled. When they landed he smiled against her lips, and she smiled too, reflexively, easily, completely.

Jacob was moving just fine now. One hand combed through Bella's hair, the other curled around her thigh, and he was whispering into her neck, something like "God, I've wanted you so much."

Bella whispered back "I've wanted you, always. I've always wanted this."

It wasn't true. Bella knew it wasn't strictly true, but at that moment, wrapped up in Jacob Black, kissing him because she loved him, it was what she felt.