So, I'm back. With another chapter. I got a couple PMs asking if I'd dropped this story, and the answer is no, no, and definitely not. I know it takes me a while, but my new years resolution was actually to get these out faster. We're actually coming close to the end (relatively speaking), and there'll probably be another 4-6 chapters plus the epilogue. Unless I get all uncontrollably wordy like I sometimes do, and then you'll have more.

I want to say thank you to pepolas and PurpleBookWorm for still caring about this story when it was practically MIA, and to my bestest beta, Elvelethril, because she makes everything that much more fun.

Also, for anyone who's interested, all my stuff is now cross posted to bythedamned(dot)livejournal(dot)com in case FFnet goes on another bender, or you just like LJ better.

A/N: Stephenie Meyer owns, I just play.


"I love you."

He tipped his head to the side and laid it on the arm he had draped across his knees.

"I love you too."

And for once, it didn't fix anything.


The worst thing was, nothing changed. At all. Or maybe that was the best thing, 'cause it's not like I wanted Jas to pick up the world as I knew it and shake it like a child's toy until all the loose pieces fell out. But at the same time, how was it even possible?

Jas was still Jas – friendly, smiling, even polite. Hell, specially polite. He still waited until I'd unbuckled my seatbelt to get out of the car, and grumbled over Mrs. Beekman's choice of essay topic with me. Which was great and all – it wasn't like I wanted to fight. Besides, even if I did, Jas wouldn't, oh no. There'd be no raised voices, ever. He would just sit there, staring at dust motes lit up by the one meager bedside lamp and not fight as hard as he could. And then in the morning – back to normal.

I knew I should be grateful, because dating a pacifist was at the top of the 'quit your whining' list, but it still left me feeling like I'd been knocked unbalanced. Like even though he hadn't pushed me over, he wasn't there to help me back up anymore either.

Something was off. He knew it, I knew it, but he was still the same old Jas. Which, of course, encouraged the festering knot in my stomach, dripping acid into my anxiety and making it impossible to sleep. If Jas was his same old self, even this upset, how far back did the wrong go? Besides the obvious bumps, and Ali's play, because we'd talked those out. And I was trying, damnit.

Or maybe it didn't matter. Maybe, sure, we had our friction like all couples, but it didn't matter in the face of everything that was right. Because we were good, always good, and this was just a little spat.

That was the thought that helped me finally get to sleep, somewhere around three in the morning, when even the creaks of the wooden house had settled down.

Jas smiled in the morning, and I did my best to return the favor as we plopped ourselves into the icy car, our frosty breaths mingling in the wide space between us. He tucked his hands between his knees, replacing heat with friction, and I prayed to the gods of outdated engines that the car wasn't too cold to start. We wouldn't even be at school long, but Esme said we had to go.

"There's nothing to worry about."

"I know," I said, too sharply, and I took in a chilly breath before trying again. "I know." Even if it was just a reminder of that other thing that ate away at my calm. It shouldn't be such a big deal, Charlie signing my sister over to himself like it hadn't already been that way for ages. Years. Just making it official, now, right in time for her fifteenth birthday. But again, if things could change so drastically and still look the same, how could you ever really know where you stood?

And there I went, riding the other worry-train I frequented. In this, though, it helped that Jas was the same, still creeping a hand over to my knee for a reassuring squeeze. I did muster up a real smile, then, because the world couldn't be that off-kilter if Jas was still putting up with my spaz attacks.

"It's just my brain, you know? And it won't listen when I tell it to stop."

I could see his tiny laugh in the crystallized air more than I could hear it, but it still helped thaw the atmosphere.

Jas and I would be at school just long enough for one class because Esme was picking us and Bella up for the hearing at ten. Charlie had let Alice skip school entirely today, which was probably a great idea except that I wished I could see her first. The way it was set up, we'd be meeting them just outside the courtroom.

As soon as I settled into History, I texted her.

All ready to go?

I fidgeted through half a lecture of slavery laws before I got an answer.

Charlie's making me wear slacks. Slacks!

I'm sorry?

Me too, I'm going to put them out of their misery once this stupid day is over.

Ms. Belfy looked up when I laughed, but I swallowed it down with a cough and tried to look apologetic. Only Alice would care what pants she wore to a guardianship hearing. And maybe it made me a bad brother, a bad person even, but I was kind of relieved that Alice wasn't leaping into this arrangement without a backwards glance. I knew better than to think we were both on edge for the same reason, but still. It had taken us both a long time to build up our new families, but why did that mean we had to fracture the old?

I knew why, I told myself, and it was the right thing. The right thing. That was the chant that got my butt all the way to the courtroom.

The seats were long and wooden, as stiff and unwelcoming as church pews, and I was surprised to see strangers in the room. Charlie hadn't mentioned that, had already made my mental schedule for the day unreliable, and it made my jaw tense and my fingernails clack against the underside of the bench.

Jasper's fingers were dry as they slid between mine, quelling the noise of my anxiety and trying to siphon some of it into himself. I didn't know how he did it, how he always did it, but it helped. The warm pressure of his hand and the slight nod he gave me when I looked up. Like he had the master schedule and everything was playing out according to plan. Like everything would be okay, just because he was keeping an eye on it.

He let me go easily, though, when Alice slid in beside me. I'd thought she'd be huddled over with Bella, going through whatever girl-ritual they had for times of stress, but instead she just pulled her knees up to her chest, getting snowy footprints all over the bench. Whatever, it deserved it. Her hair was pinned back in a way that made her look even younger, but her pants were just pants. I couldn't see what all the fuss was about.

When I propped an elbow up on the rigid backrest, Alice slid noiselessly over, and seemed content to sit in the awkward shadow of my arm. Her eyes were up front, watching some schmuck haggle his case with the judge, but her shoulders slowly drifted against my side and I let my arm drape around her.

It was like a reminder of my real purpose here. I didn't just tag along to fidget and fuss, I was here to support Alice, her oldest rock before she'd discovered the rest of her buoys. And Jas had helped me tamp down all my shit so that I was ready, prepared, to help Alice with hers.

"Hey, Edward?"

"Mmm?"

"Does this seem kinda wrong to you?"

Yes,I thought, but knew better than to say it. "How come?"

"I dunno, I mean, shouldn't I be waiting for Dad to come back?"

I physically shuddered at the thought, and on my other side Jas slid his hand back across mine. If he were anyone else, anyone less entrenched in the Masen drama or anyone more judgmental, I would've wanted to hide this conversation from him, to protect Alice from having all her desperate longings for a shitty father overheard, because who in their right mind wouldn't pity that? Jas and I had already covered that, though, eons ago if each month was an age, and when I chanced a glance up his eyes were soft with understanding.

But right now, especially now, I had to be a big brother. Only, in part, to remind her that I would always be one, even after today.

"You know how Charlie is about going by the books. He's just making sure you're taken care of in the mean time."

That was it, all I said, because it was the best compromise of understanding and firm I could come up with. I didn't say anything I wanted to, about how Dad might never come back and I'd rather he'd fuck off instead, because those were words for another time. Not now, not when our entire family – small though it may be – was about to go up on display.

Ali still seemed unsure, though, uneasy in the tiny space she took up next to me, so I gave her shoulder a squeeze. "S'not adoption, you can't get rid of your old brother that easily."

She still didn't look up, stared without focus into the sterile room, but her shoulder nudged more cozily into my armpit. "You're always my brother."

I relaxed around her, just a little more.

Then, the previous defendant in his too-large suit took a seat, the judge called out a number that made Charlie perk up, and I whispered, "Good," into the commotion that followed.

Alice was impossible to hear, even in the cramped room, and Esme was quiet except to confirm her presence. Charlie spoke clearly, calmly, giving the judge the formality and respect he knew he was due and the judge deferred to the Chief of Police's sound judgment easily. In the end, it came down to just a few signatures. Charlie scratched his name out easily and efficiently, while Esme had to strain on the tips of her toes to reach the judge's lacquered desk. Alice, technically, had no say and didn't have to sign anything.

When Alice sat back down, all she said was, "I have to call Seth."

Charlie ushered us all out into the hallway, where Alice and Bella finally had their little pow-wow. Then he tried to start organizing, arranging rides back to school, but when Alice asked if she could go back home he folded immediately.

"Edward," she said, stepping in close beside me. "Did you drive here? Can you take me home?"

I blinked, slowly, just as everyone else did. It was the last thing I was expecting, really, and I felt a rush of regret for letting Esme check us out of school.

Jas spoke up, though, for what was probably the first time. "You wanna gimme the keys? I'll pick you up before track?"

My eyes went to Esme, my own guardian in everything but the eyes of the law, for permission to skip out on the rest of the day so that at least I could spend some more time with Alice, driving or not. There wasn't much more left to attend, and once it was clear she was just waiting on Charlie's permission, I started fishing out the car keys.

Jas let his hand linger, cupped under mine to catch the keys, and I wanted to kiss him right then and there. For being upset for god knows how long and still being the best boyfriend I could hope for when I felt tense as a string tugged from both ends. Instead I just whispered, "Thank you." I could have said it aloud, nothing in that that everyone couldn't hear, but that way he knew it was the intimate kind of thank you, with a meaning only for him.

Charlie dropped us both at his place, making sure Alice had her key in the door before he waved and pulled back out into the street. I waited around in the entryway while Alice sent off a lighting-speed text and said, "I'm gonna go change."

When she came back down she looked like Alice again, except for the obvious wrong color of her eyes and hair. Still, though, she had on jeans, some overly complicated tank/cardigan/jacket combo and her snow boots.

"Going somewhere?"

"Actually," she said, eyeing the grains of the floor instead of me, "when I asked I meant home-home."

It took me a second to really get it because home home didn't usually register for me anymore, but as soon as it did I started thinking of reasons not to go.

She could tell, though, even from the corner of her eye. "I just want to see it, you know? Especially when it's just a few blocks."

"I thought you had to call Seth?"

"I told him you were over. I'll see him after school."

After that, I had no solid arguments left. I swung my backpack onto the kitchen floor and got to work buttoning up my jacket.

The walk was quiet, if cold, and we'd both pulled our hoods up by the time we reached the old house. The planters were still empty and the shutters needed new paint, but given the state of disarray it'd already been in, it hadn't changed much since I'd last seen it. It was weird to think of my old room, just sitting there, lifeless and stale. I didn't want anything it had to offer, the possessions or the memories, and was perfectly happy to write it off as a place I'd stayed in on my way to the Cullen's.

If Dad were in there, right then… I didn't know what I'd do. Slink away, probably, or level him with some monumental stink eye the way only a slighted son could.

Ali, though, she wanted it. Not just Dad, obviously, but the old Dad. The one who used to play This Little Piggy on her toes and taught her how to brush her teeth. Hell, maybe she'd even take the other one – not right after Mom went, and not right before he left, but the interim father. The sober one, the one who stayed up too late in front of the TV and couldn't cook pasta worth a damn, but was still a warm body to curl up against on a couch. Was still a parent, who tried.

If that parent came back, then I really didn't know what I'd do, what side of forgiveness I'd eventually decide on. How much was too much? What if you could be sure the worst was behind you?

Luckily, I didn't have to guess, because Ali's soft question broke the silence. "Think we could get inside?"

"Gave my keys to Jasper," I said, automatically.

"Oh."

I didn't give a shit if there was still a spare taped under the mailbox.

"Think he'll know where to find us?"

"'Course," I said, and then when I saw her too-rapid blinks, I put my arm out like I had in the courtroom.

She stepped under it, again, and we fell back under a hush, toes just barely avoiding the dry patch of grass announcing the Masen home in favor of the swept, public sidewalk. If only Mom could see us now.

"You're not really gonna change your name, are you?"

"Naw," she said, tipping her head into the puffy fabric at my side.

"Good."

When we got back to the Swan's, my car was idling in the driveway. Jas was still in it, but Seth was perched on the front step, obviously immersed in typing out a text on a much older, more cumbersome phone.

"Seth," Alice called out, and he hopped up and towards us in one great lunge.

"Al. I was just texting you."

"Oh," she said, patting down her pockets. "We walked to the old house."

"Oh. Was it…" His eyebrows shot up, halfway through an expression like he was waiting for some cue from her on how to finish it.

She reached him, then, fitting herself under his arm after mine like a monkey swings to tree after tree. "Let's go inside?"

He nodded, and only then looked up at me. "Hey, Edward."

"Hey, Seth. I'll see you later, Ali?"

She nodded. "Yeah. See you at my party."

Jas was waiting for me in the car, and it was an unfamiliar relief to get in when the frost was already gone from the windows.

"Everything go according to plan today?"

I nodded slowly, ruminating over the right answer and realizing that it really had. "Better, actually."

"Good," he said with a genuinely relieved smile before adding, "you know, we could skip." Then he hooked an arm behind my headrest to pull out of the driveway.

I shook my head. "I could use the run. Besides, Coach'll kill us if we're not primed for the Wolves meet."

Jas rolled his eyes. "Understatement."

But that was as far as our conversationalist skills got us before we fell into silence, and Jas flipped the radio on to the station that offered up more of my tastes than his. Polite as a default, just like he was to Mike and even Tyler. Hell, even that squat little grandma-lady who once parked us in at a gas station for forty-five minutes. Forty five! So, all in all, polite wasn't really anything to crow over.

But, I thought as we slowed for a yellow, that was kind of exactly why I loved him. Because even though he was upset, barely in the mood to dish out anything above polite today, he'd still managed to push all that aside when it really mattered. He'd allowed us to fall back into the us that was, the gravity of the day pulling us back to our foundations where there was always a shoulder waiting to be leaned on. And I was so grateful for that alone, those hours of respite, that I couldn't really expect him to keep it up once the danger had passed.

Jas wanted a lot – or, no, he just wanted one thing that felt too big – but with all he'd given for me, I could definitely afford to reciprocate more. That night, I zoned out at dinner to make up my mind, and twirled my pen over my homework while I carefully picked out my words.

When I finally slipped into Jasper's room, knocking softly first like I'd never felt obligated to do before, Esme was just reaching for the door.

She raised an eyebrow after a quick flick of a glance at the clock, and I promised I would head to bed in just a few minutes.

"Alright, sweetie," she said, passing me with a pat on the shoulder.

"Hey," I said into the open room, still lingering in the doorway, and he swung his legs around to the edge of the bed closest to me.

"Hey." He didn't muster up any more energy than I had.

"Can I?"

"Yeah, sure."

He slid over a few feet, leaving me an open spot on the end of the bed. Not that I couldn't have sat countless other places or, hell, on his other side, but it was still nice to have a spot picked out for me. One less thing to fret over.

I stared at my hands as I sat, thinking about how Ali's cuticles were chewed down to the skin today, before swallowing.

"I was thinking, today."

"Yeah." His voice was somber and low, like our conversation was trapped on the bed with us, too soft to carry any farther. "I've been thinking too."

"Oh?" I chanced a look up, and found that we were mirrors of each other; hands in our laps, knees tilted inward just a bit, solid and immobile as if we really were each other's silvery reflections. "Um, okay, I can wait."

I watched his chest fill up with one deep breath. "I think we should come out."

And it was like he'd sucked in all the air for himself, my lungs suddenly felt starved of it. "Umm," I said slowly, feeling the word vibrate in my throat. "Seriously?" How—why—did he really think that was even a possibility right now?

His hands went up in defense immediately. "Edward, just bear with me okay? I really think it'd be okay." I gave him the disbelieving cousin to the stink-eye, and his words ground out even slower, carefully pleading. "I think if we were out, you would look around and see that everything's just fine. Except, there's no way to know if we don't try."

He was pure Jas, all good intentions and thought-out strategies, but even the thought of opening our lives up to the town rumor mill had my teeth grinding. Not now, not so soon. "Jas, I don't think I'm ready for that."

"I know. It's just," his eyes hit his lap, where he was scraping a fingernail across the cottony grain of his pants, before matching my stare. "I don't think you ever will. I mean, I think you're ready, but you'll never think so, and we'll never find out."

"But, why can't we wait for college?"

"'Cause this way, if it goes badly, we'll be leaving anyway. It can be a trial run, built-in escape plan and everything." His shoulders squared with the perk of excitement, the thread of a solid idea. "No one's really had a problem with it, so far, right? And it seems like things are gonna be messier if it just leaks out over time. I want us to take charge of it, to just take that leap."

I mulled his words over, I really did, but even as I could see how in certain situations it was a good idea, I kept coming back to not now. Maybe it would work, maybe, but there was no telling, no guarantee. "I don't— I'm not really a leaping kind of guy."

"I know." He smiled at me then, in an uneven, regretful way. "I know, but I'm asking you to think about it. 'Cause this is just… shuffling. And not even really in the right direction."

"Jas, I don't think," I swallowed, and then schooled myself. No. No more wavering. I matched his gaze straight on when I said, "I can't come out."

His eyes were extra-blue, extra-present when he said, "Well, I can't stay in."

The words scrolled through my mind like ticker-tape, once and then again, while I tried to search for the meaning in them. Anxiety flared, sour and sharp in my stomach, and insisted yes, it was exactly what it sounded like.

"What are you saying?"

"Nothing." He shook his head, suddenly losing his reserved, sure-fire tone. "I'm not saying anything. I'm just telling you what I want."

And that, that right there, was the problem. "Why can't this just be good enough for you?"

"Is it good enough for you?"

"Isn't that exactly what I've been saying?"

His shrug, then, was cruel, a step back from the intimacy of the moment and it burrowed under my skin.

"You say you want this, but you're still leaving yourself a perfect out."

"Jas, I told you—"

"You tell me a lot of things." He sighed. "But, man, I've been getting mixed signals for months." His sharp gestures joined the conversation. "You want to be together, but you don't want anyone to know. You like what we do, but you still think it's wrong. And I know you, when you get worked up over things, you change your mind over and over again. And there's no telling you won't change your mind about me which, just," he trailed off, finally losing steam before adding quietly, "It messes with me, not knowing what to count on."

"Jas. I'm here, right? I know I suck at this," I flopped a hand back and forth between us, "communication thing, but whenever something comes up I always try to fix it."

"I know." His sigh held too much resignation for my liking. "But things keep coming up. I've had more spazzes this year than I have in my whole life."

And, okay, point. That was always the word we used for me, my spaz attacks, and yeah, he hadn't always been the zen to my spaz since we started dating. Like I was contagious or something. But, but…

Without any pretense, he said, "Do you know why I love you?"

"What?"

"You let me be me."

I bobbed a little, mouth open waiting for a bite of something that made sense, but got nothing. He just fidgeted, but the twitch of his shoulders did nothing to distract from how forlorn the droop of his eyes were. Like, somehow, that wasn't a happy thought anymore.

"Everyone else, they want me to be some specific person. I know who I am, okay? I'm nice, and helpful and easy going." Again with the sigh. It sounded less like Jas, the defeat in it, than I'd ever heard, and the words came out with too much burn behind them. "I have to be. Even with my family, it's like, the Jasper mold has been cast. But not with you."

I gaped. It's not like I'd been some counter culture express yourself kind of encouraging boyfriend here. "Jas, I don't…"

"You let me pick the movies."

"What?" I said again, feeling a bit like a record but more like a treadmill was rolling too fast under my feet. Maybe the whole floor was.

"And where we hang out. You don't act all shocked when I don't know the answer to something. And when you ask me to do something, you're actually asking, not telling."

His face was so open, so earnest in the midst of all this side-choosing.

"You do the same for me," I said quietly, dumbly, because I still wasn't sure how this all added up.

"I'm saying, it fucks with my head, when the one person who knows me the best is asking me to lie."

Oh. I bowed my head next to him to think. I… got that. I did. If I didn't have the escape of the Cullen's, I didn't know how I would have gotten through those years with my Dad. But it wasn't so much about asking him to change as it was allowing me to stay the same. I liked this, I liked now, and I didn't want to lose it. And if that was what he wanted from me…

"I can't tell if you're giving me an ultimatum, or," or what? I didn't know, because it all sounded like end-of-the-line talk to me.

But he shook his head, shaggy bangs hiding his tight eyes from me. "No. I, I want you. I just want you to let me be me, too."

It stung that the two were so intertwined for him, that being loved equated to coming out, and that without one he couldn't trust the other. It was an action over words thing, I got that, but there had to be other actions, right? This wasn't some magical quest where I had to slay one particular dragon to prove I loved him.

"Would you feel better if we had sex?"

His forehead wrinkled immediately into a full on grimace and then, as if that wasn't enough, he slid even farther away across the edge of the bed. "Jesus, not when you say it like that."

"No, I—" I forced out a sharp sigh. Why did he have to take things the wrong way? "I didn't mean it like that. Just, I've been thinking about it." It was really hard to press on under his intense scrutiny, so I looked away, watching the clock tick away seconds of this stilted conversation. "We want the same thing so, you know, there's nothing holding us back. I'm really not trying to stall us out, or anything."

I twisted my neck back around when I felt him stand up. He, too, had his eyes trained on the far wall, but the set of his jaw telegraphed his answer for him.

"I want to," he said lowly, "I do. But not if I might regret it in the morning." And then he tipped his shoulders back toward me, eyes oddly apologetic. "I'm gonna go to bed now."

Then he walked to the bathroom, pulled the latch shut quietly behind him, and I was alone.

The trek back to my room was oddly long, the juts of doorways casting stark shadows in the hallway, and my sheets were chilly when I pulled back the covers.

I believed that Jas still wanted to be with me, I did, but it didn't seem to matter in the thin light of the next morning. Again, we wanted the same thing, but as we both slipped awkwardly into the lumpy seats of my car, neither of us could think of a thing to say. He flipped to NPR, which I hadn't quite managed to cultivate an appreciation for, and we let the chatter of political strife replace any morning conversation.

I was silent through most of lunch – nothing all that shocking or out of the ordinary – but so was Jas, and when the bell rang he bolted before I even had my lunch bag crumpled up. I watched his retreating back, the bobbing backpack with the little grey patch sewn onto it, the proud gold star on it signifying… nothing, if he didn't believe it did.

I looked down at my own threaded patch, and the pale, empty rectangle had no advice to offer.

Mike hitched his own bag high on his back, keeping up with my pace as we headed to Physics, but when he asked about Jas I had nothing to say.

"Are you guys, you know, cool?"

"Why wouldn't we be?" I said dully.

"Whatever, just saying. You know how Ty gets."

That stopped me in my tracks. His expression was casual, easy, like tried and true best friends having a fight was enough drama for Tyler to latch onto, but it still itched under my collar.

"There's nothing to tell."

"Hey man, I'm not speakin' up."

It's not like this is new, I thought bitterly. It felt like it was, it stung like salt water in a fresh wound, but apparently this had been building for a while. Festering. Which is why it was suddenly so big and goddamn ugly out of nowhere.

Jesus, I needed a run. Again.

I let myself fall to the back of the herd – I never was that good at distance anyway – and took advantage of the solitude between school crossing guards and yappy shitzus. My feet slapped the pavement, keeping up with the rhythm of my heartbeat until one sped up and the other fell behind, but it still helped clear my head. It was like meditating except, well, useful.

Not that I came to any useful answers, not really, but I came to some conclusions. Jas wanted me to think about it – it, coming out – and a five mile tour of the greater Forks suburbs taught me that I didn't really know what to make of it.

Those things Jas had said about me, about what I was for him, I couldn't really see it. Well, I could, but all I did for him was exactly what he did for me. Less, it seemed, because god knew I'd needed help with some serious shit over the years. Besides, I'd have to be a shitty person to not do those things; shitty boyfriend I might be, but Jas and I were nothing if not kind to each other. We weren't really the best of friends with most people – the list of people who grated on my nerves couldn't even fit down my arm – but I assumed they had other friends they were nicer to. I didn't really see Tyler taking advantage of Eric the way he did with Jas.

And that's when it started to at least make a whiff of sense, when I remembered all the ways people leaned on Jasper's nice-guy personality. Tyler with homework, Eric with running, most of our teachers when they had too many papers to hand back, and even Esme with the extra chores Rosalie routinely put off. Though, Esme got a by because she'd drop her whole world if Jasper needed a hand.

And then there was me, and I leaned on him all the goddamn time. But, like Esme, I was grateful. And, really, it was kind of sad that that alone drew me apart from the rest.

No, I reasoned. And if my reasoning sounded more like Jasper's flavor of logic, that was probably just an awkward side effect of sharing the same covers for so long. It wasn't just that we were grateful, it was that we hung his happiness on a peg level with our own. And it was weird, actually, to think I had anything in common with Jasper's mother, but we both loved him. No fooling on that.

That was where the industrial gym loomed large, and my thoughts were sidetracked by ill-timed sprinklers soaking anyone too aimless to veer a hard right. It was obnoxious timing, too, right when all my thoughts were starting to line up in a neat, orderly fashion for once. I hadn't even gotten to an answer yet, the sum of all the parts I'd finally put on the tally board. And so I passed the showers, noting and trying not to note that I hadn't actually had Jas naked since last weekend and he was right there – right there! – with water sluicing down his bare back.

As I was getting dressed later, and trying to catch the drips from my hair before they fell down my shirt, I checked my phone and saw a text from Ali.

trying to get ppl to play settlers tonight, u guys wanna come?

It sounded like a good idea because, one, Ali wanted to hang out, just 'cause? I was definitely there. And two, Jas loved Settlers. He rocked Settlers. The way he devoted himself to all that strategizing and executing extensively planned wins – if the game were a person I'd be jealous.

So I handed the phone to Jas, not really sure I could articulate how casual I didn't feel but wanted to, and expected a glimmer of excitement, a nod even. Instead, he didn't even look sorry when he said, "Got an essay."

"Oh."

He handed the phone back. "You should go though."

I didn't even know why that sounded so wrong, coming from him. Maybe the detachedness, or the idea that I'd just as easily go without him as with. But I did want to and, maybe more than that, I wasn't sure I could spend the evening waiting out the chilly awkwardness while I figured out what the hell I should do next.

So I just nodded, said, "Kay. I'll drop you off first," and spent the walk to the car chastising myself for being so stupidly tactless. Of course I was going to drop him off, the Cullens lived in the frickin' boonies – even for Forks. I always drove him home. But no, I'd just gone and said it, like there was even a chance I'd leave him stranded outside the gym locker rooms all night.

Jas was polite in the worst way, thanking me when I dropped him off and pushing the car door closed with even less force than usual. Then he gave me a tiny, tight smile through the window, obviously trying to be fine, just fine, but it was a hoax and we both knew it. It seemed like the more we tried the worse we got.

All the more reason to go see Alice.

Charlie wasn't home yet, and it was Bella who opened the door. She had a Betty Crocker-ish apron on, and a large, orange water spot on the shoulder of her white shirt.

"Edward, hi," she said, with a bit more excitement than I was really anticipating, but she always was a fiend for board games. And cooking which, judging from the complete lack of protection her apron had offered, might have been the current choose-your-own-adventure in progress.

"Extreme cooking?" I asked.

Bella, then, blushed in that way of hers, and it struck me that it had been more than a while since I'd seen it. I'd almost forgot to expect it.

"Seth's an enthusiastic observer," she said wryly, just as Alice and Seth came into the hall, Alice balancing a soup spoon carefully over her palm. The contents were the same suspicious orange as Bella's shirt.

"Edward. You have to try this."

I nearly rolled my eyes, but it was such a nice change in atmosphere that I grinned instead. "It couldn't wait for me in the kitchen?"

"Dude, you're being greeted at the door with Bella's cooking. That's, like, the royal treatment, so shut up and open your mouth."

I did or, well, tried to, but the hand-off was sloppy and the soup ended up all over the scuffed wood of the entry way instead. Seth laughed and went for a towel, and I found myself leaning over a vat of what I was told was tomato bisque in the kitchen.

Bella was gracious when I told her how good it was, but quickly diverted all attention to the honeycomb board set up on the coffee table. She went over the rules for Seth, who was practically unfamiliar with the game and therefore knew he'd end up with his ass on a platter before the end of the night, but he and Alice looked cozy on the couch and I doubted it was really an issue.

About twenty minutes in, when Seth announced he needed a minute to restrategize, Ali caught my eyes across the table and said, "So, Jasper couldn't make it?"

She feigned nonchalance, but the way Bella's eyes snapped up too gave them away.

"He had an essay."

"Oh."

I fidgeted with my cards.

"Alright guys," Seth broke in, "I gotta pee. Be right back." He patted Alice on the knee, and then slipped past the coffee table and down the hall. His escape was more than obvious, and the girls jumped at the opportunity.

"Edward, what's wrong?" Alice asked, just as Bella said, "He seemed pretty upset."

Oh. "You, uh, talked to him?"

"Just a little." Bella tried to shrug it off. "Just the gist of things, really."

"Okay," I said, and sighed, dropping my stack of cards onto the table and giving up any pretense of playing. Alice looked equal parts concerned and curious, so I figured Bella hadn't passed on all of what Jas had told her. "He wants to come out," I told her in a stage whisper, leaning across the table. "And he's pretty mad that I don't."

Her eyes flicked to Bella, probably to confirm or deny, whose fingers came up to brush at the drying soup stain.

"Maybe more… disappointed?"

"Either way," I said, "he doesn't get why we can't."

"Why can't you?" Alice asked, voice low as a murmur, and I honestly questioned any progress we'd made this week, her siding with him like that, until I saw the matching looks on her and Bella's faces. Stark, patient, curiosity.

"We just… can't." I gestured uselessly. "Do you have any idea what the people here would do if they found out?"

Bella nodded. "Probably the same thing they did when my mom left. Freak out until something better comes along, right?"

A more realistic answer than Jasper's, at least, but still. "I'm not sure what can really top that."

Alice tucked her hands under the thighs, swinging her knees side to side in a movement that suddenly drew too much attention, and blurted out, "Seth doesn't care."

And, really, I should have seen that coming, seen that she would tell him, but it still blanketed my mind in surprise, panic, and, finally, annoyance. Damnit.

"Alice." I'd been working so damn hard to keep it all a secret, and she went and—

"I didn't tell him!"

I gave her one look that said how much I was buying that.

"I didn't. He just, he asked, and I didn't say no." Her defense came out in a girlish whine. "Not right away, anyway, 'cause I freaked out, and I totally tried to cover it up but he just always knows when I'm lying."

"Alice," I said again, beyond exasperation and still more than a little freaked out. Seth knew, and if he took it back to the res, if he told Jacob, who told his team, who brought it up at the meet…

"He doesn't care," Alice insisted, wringing her hands in her lap.

I snorted. "He can't just not care."

"I dunno," Bella said quietly by my shoulder. Her face was tucked into her shoulder, always the last voice heard, but in the silent bubble that followed she said, "He's probably got other stuff going on, right?"

They shared a look and Alice gave a nod that seemed private, maybe even sad in its brevity. Then she looked back up and said, "I'm really sorry, I am, but I swear he won't tell anyone. Nothing's changed."

Crap. I rubbed a hand briskly over my eyes. "Everything's already changed."

"But change can be good, can't it?" Bella asked, still almost apologetic for speaking up.

"No," I said, cutting down that hopeful look of hers definitively. That was one thing I was absolutely sure of.

A hollow tap of wood pulled us all out of our huddle – I hadn't even realized we were all closed in to whisper over the game – and I tried to distill all my tension through some overly deep breathing when I saw it was Seth.

He, too, looked apologetic, and Alice looked to me before waving him in, but I guessed if he already knew the unspoken secret then there was nothing else I could do anyway. If I was trusting Rosalie's boyfriend, of all people, then I'd better be able to trust Alice's too. Damnit.

"So," he said, dropping down next to Alice with his arm flung out over her shoulder and trying to look cheerful. "Change is good?"

Could we just drop the damn subject already?

"Hardly."

"Oh." His broad forehead wrinkled as he silently checked in with Alice and said, "I thought…"

I glared. Not at him, really, not even in his direction, just with anger and aggression I was trying to dispel elsewhere. It had already started expanding in my chest, driving the breath from my lungs a little faster, muddying up my thoughts into no, no, no.

"It's just," he said, backtracking and explaining in a way that just made my teeth grate, "'cause, Alice and I were talking about it earlier, how even the shittiest changes can lead really good places."

"No," I said again, too loudly, but I didn't care. This time my glare was thrown directly at him and that whole atrocious notion. "That's bullshit. That's just some fucked up thing people tell you at funerals when they never liked your mother anyway."

It was only when Bella gasped did I realize what I'd said. God damnit, I thought, not wanting to go there. Never, ever there. For a moment all I heard was my forced breathing, my pulse in my throat as the same panic I felt all the damn time now churned in my stomach. And then everyone spoke at once.

Bella reached out, saying, "Edward," while Seth adopted a shadow of the rage that memory carried.

"Someone said that?"

But it was Alice's voice that carried above the others', timid and small, directed into her hands. "I remember that."

Seth's attention was immediately on her, hovering and curling around her shoulders. "Someone said that?" he demanded again. "Oh, babe. You didn't tell me that. I'd," his eyes held understanding for just a moment before they lost focus, "I would have fucking punched them if someone said that to me."

And then I remembered, though I shouldn't have ever forgotten, that Seth had lost his Dad. That he'd lived through the bleak horror that was thanking people for their condolences when you just wanted to scream.

"That's fucked up," Seth whispered to Ali, and then looked up at me with much more conviction and, oddly enough, solidarity. Not sympathy, just an acknowledgement of similar paths walked.

"That's fucked up," he said again, confirming it, making it true.

And maybe I should have punched Mrs. Neilson. Maybe I should have just called her out on the bullshit lies she was spewing and told her to leave my family alone. But I was fourteen and grieving and panicking and still trying to come to terms with the phrase, Nothing will ever be the same again. One horrific alteration had snowballed into a life completely foreign from the one I knew before. And now, now, I was down two parents, and that fucking Mrs. Neilson lived at the last known forwarding address for my dad because he and her husband were poker buddies. Like that somehow trumped family.

Fucker.

"I think," Seth said, still wrapped around Alice but broadcasting his words, unashamed. "I think if someone had tried to turn what happened to my dad into a good thing, I woulda lost it. I woulda thought that anything else changing would be the scariest fuckin' thing on the planet."

Alice tipped her chin up, allowing him to leave a kiss on her forehead, and even as he did she nodded with tiny, muted movements, like the fear of change was just one of many topics they'd tabled, pushed aside but permanently awaiting further discussion.

And maybe, jesus, maybe it was. Maybe it was something Ali still thought about too. We'd never dared mention it to each other, obviously.

"You know," Seth said, finally turning towards me. "If it wasn't for your sister... I mean," he squeezed her shoulders and she tucked herself even tighter under his arm. "I'd do anything to have my dad back, I would. But she's my proof that not all changes are that kind of change, you know?"

And when he said it like that, all curled around the person who made it worthwhile, maybe I did know.

Seth turned back to Alice, then, and Bella started furtively scooping up cards and gamepieces with precise movements and shooting me careful looks.

She was a hugger, I knew, hugged Alice all the damn time, and probably thought a little platonic body contact could cure all the world's evils. I could feel my anger coming down, like a hangover or the throb of stubbed toe dissipating, and eventually I was able to put on a smile for Bella's eagerness. Finally, I rolled my eyes, at her, at the scene I'd managed to cause in the middle of a perfectly normal game night, and she strung her arms around my neck for a quick squeeze.

I was actually saved from responding, from having to have any kind of answer for the intimate revelations I still needed some time alone with, by Charlie's loud entrance.

"Well, hey, the gang's all here," he said, pulling his phone and gun clip from his belt. "Where's Jasper?"

"He had an essay," several of us said, in one form or another, except that he didn't really and everyone knew he was just hiding from me instead.

Me and... I took a deep breath to even think it. Me and my apparently latent fear of change.

"You stayin' for dinner, Edward?"

I wasn't going to, had no intention to, but Bella immediately began tempting me with promise of tomato bisque and in the end I called Esme to tell her I'd be home later.

"By ten," she said, because it was still a school night, and I almost grinned. The only person I wanted to stay out late with was in her house.

Which, of course, just doubled my mind back to Jasper and the mess we'd gotten ourselves into, and the smile faded as quickly as it'd come.

Sue joined us for dinner, come to pick up Seth, she said, but obviously willing to spend time hip-to-hip beside Charlie washing the dishes afterward.

Bella gave me another hug when I got up to leave, whispering, "I hope you figure stuff out," and Seth gave me a long nod.

As Ali and I walked to the door I told her, "He's okay, your boyfriend."

"I know," she said, like it didn't even need repeating. But then, leaning up to whisper she added, "Actually, I knew he was a good one, 'cause he reminded me of Jasper. Well," she laughed lightly, in that old-Alice way and momentarily it seemed like everything was the way it should be. "Jasper when he's with you. I needed someone who could handle my crazy."

"You callin' me crazy too?" I said, leaning against the front door instead of opening it and she shrugged, but grinned.

"We're just us."

And yeah, I guessed, but Seth had just spelled it all out so neatly for Alice. He'd taken in a new memory, illuminating as it was damning, and understood yet another clip of Alice's choppy background.

"Hey, Edward?"

"Yeah?"

"You're still coming on Saturday, right?"

"Course."

"Do you think, um, that Esme would let Bella and me come over and cook? In the morning? It's just, with the two ovens and all. There's a bunch of people coming, and we've got so much cooking to do."

Ah, Bella and her cooking. I almost snorted, but I couldn't even muster up some surprise that Bella had over-planned for Alice's birthday.

"It's probably fine. Wanna just call Esme? She'll probably say yes."

"Alright," she nodded. And then she surged forward, hugging me around the waist with absolutely no preamble. No offense to Bella, but not all hugs were created equal.

I folded my arms around her and squeezed back before letting myself out. At least… at least in spite of everything with Jasper, Alice and I had managed to take a few steps closer to being family again. I didn't know what I'd do if I was cut off from both of them.

Under the glow of yellow lights filling up the empty passenger seat beside me, then red then green, I thought about what Seth had said. How easily he'd spoken of change, how he managed it despite… despite everything. It was a glaring contrast to how I felt, how even the mention of a fleeting comment from four years ago struck up the same panic that the thought of revealing our secret did. That the idea of change, in any and all of its many forms, felt like being fourteen and lost again.

Jesus, I thought, one bitchy neighbor opens her mouth...

Still, though, the dots I needed to connect suddenly seemed much closer, like curling a map into a cylinder and finally realizing that Russia and Alaska were practically indecent, they were so close, and not a whole world apart like they'd been drawn. I wanted to show Jasper, to offer up my revelation as some kind of peace pipe that we could sit and share and make amends over.

But when I got home, Jasper's light was already off, and it'd have to wait another day.


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