A/N: Over-the-years, Bella-leaves-Edward thing. Yeeeaaaahhhh.
It's not the end of the world.
It's not even such a big deal, really, in the scheme of things. You imagine Hurricane Katrina and the Korean War; the AIDS epidemic in Africa and genocide in Darfur. And then there's the whole universe, on top of that – not just global warming, but dying planets, exploding suns, and, God, you think, we're all just dust, aren't we?
It's more like a shift in the plates. It's a blurred line – an alternate reality where the fences aren't quite as white. It's a smudge of pen in your signature, an eraser mark never completely faded.
And it's your life, of course. Sometimes you manage to forget about that.
"Whatever," Rosalie shrugs, and all you can think about is how well she must've done in the eighties. An old-Hollywood beauty with a side ponytail and permanent scowl. Fantastic.
"I…" you start, and she looks at you, for once, one eyebrow raised and a hand on her hip, gold eyes dim under the overcast sky. She hasn't interrupted you, and by now the pause has stretched too long to actually be considered a pause. And you realize you have nothing to say.
You watch as she finishes with your stuff, easily lifting a box of books as if it were nothing but feathers. The trunk closes with a slam, and she turns around without saying goodbye.
"Hey," you call out, and she looks expectant. You want to say something final. You want to say something that she'll remember, even a hundred years from now, when you are nothing but a page in the Cullen's too-big book of memories. And mostly you want to say something to him, something like I'm sorry (which you've said a thousand times now), something like I wish (which never makes a difference), something like I love you (but of course that was always the problem, wasn't it?). You can't.
"Thanks," you mumble, and Rosalie the Ice Queen almost smiles.
"You could've called, you know," your father tells you when you walk into the house.
"Sorry," you say, but his expression has already softened. You let him hug you awkwardly and for too long, because you did miss him, actually.
"Do you want to talk about it?" he asks, and you shake your head. The question comes up again at dinner – leftover fish and some pasta, because you're suddenly incredibly exhausted and that's about all you can manage to cook.
You have it rehearsed. Things just didn't work out. Vague, easy – no life-altering heartbreak or mythical beings. But it comes out lame, even in your head, and when you sound out the first syllable to Charlie you change your mind.
"I realized…" you say slowly, "that he could never give me the things I needed. And I could never be what he needed me to be." You laugh, quietly. "I guess you were right."
"Right about what?" he asks, a bowtie falling off his fork.
"Love isn't always the be-all, end-all," you admit. "And…sometimes…it's just the end."
You start working at the old bookstore next to Newton's Outfitters. Of course Mrs. Newton offered you a job, better pay now that you're no longer a teenager, but you declined. You said it was because you wanted to start work in a field you hoped to pursue, or that some kind of bullshit, but really it just seemed too pathetic, in your eyes.
And you like Kendra, who owns the place, anyway. She's in her mid-fifties and looks about thirty-five, with bright red hair and a crooked nose. She lets you stock books and work with the publishers, away from customers and noise. You're good at what you do and it shows – with your help Kendra's shop has become "one of the best-kept secrets in the Olympic Peninsula" (or at least that's what the papers are saying).
You're still living with Charlie – though not for long, you remind him. Kendra's promising a raise and you already have a place picked out, in a town that borders Forks. Close enough to home that you won't forget about him, you tease.
It's not so horrible, living. It's just taken you a while to admit that it never really was.
His name is Johnathan, but he has you call him Nate. He finds you in the back, a pencil in your mouth and a pile of books between your legs.
"You need some help?" he inquires.
"I'm supposed to be asking you that," you say. He shrugs and sits down with you, helps you organize the shipment and tells you that his grandfather, the alcoholic who ruined his mother's life, was also named John. For some reason you tell him about the time in fifth grade when Louise Tenwright nicknamed you Bouncing Bella, on account of how often you ended up on the floor.
His laugh is loud and infectious, and when he shyly admits that he likes your smile, you blush. But that's not a strange occurrence, after all.
He has brown hair that falls in his eyes, which are big and blue and make him look a little younger than he is. When you notice the time and start to get up, the muscles in your legs sore from sitting, you can feel him looking at you.
"Bella?" he asks, and when you turn to answer, he kisses you, soft and warm and…it feels nice. You don't get dizzy or overwhelmed, but you don't find yourself wishing you were anywhere else, either.
"Can I call you?" you choke out when his lips leave yours.
"I'm supposed to be asking you that," he teases, before programming his number into your phone.
It's not until the ninth date, actually, even though all of your friends (you think about this group of people, women and men, old and young, that you have somehow managed to call friends) warned you about the Third Date Rule.
He makes you scallops and risotto while you sit in the living room, but you can smell it burning and come to help anyway, ignoring his pleas of I'm handling it. You hold a wet towel and baking soda to his finger, but you forget about the stove when he starts to kiss you, his right hand still covered in both of yours.
It hurts, and it's awkward, and he's constantly asking you if you're alright, but you don't really mind. You lie next to him afterwards, tracing the curve of his back, grinning into the pattern of freckles on his bare shoulder.
He's not beautiful. He's not an angel or a statue or some other-worldly creature, and maybe, you reason, maybe that's okay. Because, right then, when he starts to snore in his too small bed with the blue sheets, you're almost happy. Which is something you don't remember feeling in a very long time.
You're at the supermarket. It's a Wednesday afternoon and you were about to start dinner when you realized you were out of garlic. You wander down the spices isle and suddenly…there he is.
"Jake," you breathe, and you're squeezing the clove in your palm so hard that you can hear the skin crinkling off.
Of course he's smiling – this wide thing that takes up his whole face, and he pulls you into a hug before you even notice it.
"Bells," he mumbles, and you laugh awkwardly.
"Been a while, hasn't it?" you say, when he finally lets go.
"And you're still aging," he points out. Your hand automatically reaches for your face, the little laugh lines starting to set in the corners of your eyes, the scar at the bottom of your chin from that broken wine bottle last year.
"Yeah," you nod. "It's…sort of a long story."
"I've got time," he shrugs.
Jacob stays for dinner, and it's over two loaves of bread and a plate of leftover mashed potatoes (you never get around to actually making the food) that you tell him about your new life.
Inevitably, he looks at you from across the table, eyes glinting. "So what's his name?"
You blush bright red and decide to answer honestly. You never could hide anything from Jacob Black, anyway. "Nate."
"And you guys are, like, serious?"
You giggle at his careful phrasing, ripping off another piece of bread. "Yes. No. Maybe."
"That was real specific, Bells."
You grin. "We're, like, dating, Jake," you mock. "I don't know what to say."
"Well," he stares you down, his eyes still just as dark as when you were seventeen. "Do you love him?"
"That's kind of a loaded question, don't you think?"
"Probably," he answers.
You quirk your mouth. "I…I guess I do," you say, finally. "I mean, he's sweet and funny and we spend most of our time together, so…that's love, right?"
"What's so funny?" you ask, a little offended.
He just smiles. "Bella Swan is asking me what love is," he replies. "I just never thought I'd see the day."
You both laugh, but sober quickly.
"I was wrong, you know," you tell him. "I mean, I was so young, and I guess…I thought I knew everything. I thought…" you trail off, not meeting his gaze. "But I did love him. Maybe a little bit too much."
You can hear him swallow as you stare at your plate. "And me?" he asks quietly. "Did you love me, Bella?"
"That one's easy," you say. "Loving you was always easy."
He laughs, sort of bitterly. "Not so much on my side," he points out.
You look at him, then, but he doesn't seem sad or angry. "I'm so sorry, Jacob," you whisper. You take his hand in yours, and he shakes his head.
Nate calls you at work the next day. After talking for a little, he asks you if you're sick.
"No," you answer. "Why?"
"You just sound kinda…funny."
You assure him that you're fine, but there's this little gnawing in your stomach that sort of feels like guilt.
He comes over that night, and over old movies and popcorn he asks you about your night.
"I ran into an old friend," you tell him. You know the wording is all wrong, and even Nate can tell it's more than that. "Do you remember, I told you about him…Jacob Black?"
"Yeah," Nate says, nodding. "You were childhood friends or something, right? Before you got married?"
"Sort of," you say, cringing. Boiling it down like that bothers you for some reason. "He was my best friend for a while," you admit. "He really helped me out when I was going through some stuff."
"Must've been nice, then," Nate says. "Seeing him again."
"It was nice."
"Mmhm," Nate nods, distractedly, but by then he's already turned his head, and you know the conversation is over. He doesn't bring it up again, and neither do you, though you can't imagine why.
Or maybe you can. And it's just that the pain in your stomach seems to be getting worse.
Something changes, and you both know it. Nate gets a job offer in Portland, and the offer to move with him is close to half-hearted. You help pack up his car and handling that last box gives you flashbacks, the only difference being this time you're not the one leaving. But you're not being left, either – you're old enough now to know that.
You kiss him goodbye and he tells you you're wonderful, and it's so Nate, you think, and you can't stop the smile as you wave, even with the single tear sliding down your cheek.
He's not the first guy you've loved and lost. What you've realized now is that – sometimes – that's just the way it goes.
The next morning, Kendra greets you with a sympathetic smile and a new copy of Wuthering Heights. You laugh and accept her hug, which is warm and makes you think a little bit of Renee.
Five minutes before closing, the little bell on top of the door jingles and you hear Kendra call you over. There's an almost-seven-feet-tall Indian boy at the register, and he's holding a family-size tub of Ben & Jerry's.
"What are you doing here?" you ask when you see him.
"What do you think I'm doing here?" he says, incredulous. "I'm your best friend, and I'm bringing you some goddamn ice cream."
"I'm fine, Jake, really," you tell him.
"Bella," he says, his voice deep and mock-serious. "You've just gotten out of a pretty serious relationship. You're going to let me take you home, and you're going to let me give you ice cream and watch some really horrible made-for-TV movie. Because that's what friends do."
"Well," you sigh, a hand on your hip, "I guess if I have to…"
Jacob laughs and takes your hand, pulls you out the door as you yell goodbye to Kendra.
It's almost like you're a teenager again, except this time you're not hurting. Well – of course you still hurt, sometimes – you have bad days and you think about Nate and maybe even Edward and there's this little shell-shocked part of you that feels it. But you know how to live, and this time when you feel the pain you do just that: feel.
You spend most of your days with Jacob. Sometimes he takes you to concerts or new restaurants or bike shows, even, and sometimes you show him little record stores you found; you're even teaching him how to cook. And sometimes you just sit and talk, reminisce about the stupid things you used to do, learn what the pack's up to and how his sisters are.
Charlie questions you one night, when you bring him to dinner at your old house, and you laugh over drying dishes and stealing dessert. Jacob's left the room and he turns to you, cocks his head to the side.
"Are you and Jake…" he starts awkwardly, making some sort of halfway hand gesture.
"We're just friends, Dad," you insist. You've had years of practice saying it, after all.
And when Jacob comes back he tells you that he's thinking of quitting at the garage he works at, maybe starting his own. Charlie agrees vehemently and you just smile. Because there's really no reason not to.
On Christmas you all go to the Black's house, and everyone's there. Sue makes macaroni and cheese, and you bring lasagna, while Emily tugs along Sam with about a hundred pounds of baked goods in tow. You barely recognize Seth, who's got stubble and a broken voice, and Leah whose smile is not so foreign anymore. Quil and Embry greet you with bear hugs, just about crushing your lungs, and, of course, there's Billy, who scolds you for not coming over more often.
The night is loud and long, and you realize just how much you missed the feeling of family that surrounds the La Push crowd. Quil pulls you aside sometime around midnight, says he wants to talk to you in private.
"Bella, baby," he begins.
"I hope you know that baby is definitely not something you can pull off," you tell him.
He shrugs. "So are you and Jake doing it yet?" he asks bluntly.
"Excuse me?" you sputter. "We're…we're just friends, Quil."
"You really haven't changed, have you?" he chuckles.
"Look," you say, "I know you're still thinking about the past, but…that's what it is. Past."
"Bella, I've been with you two for less than twelve hours, but I've seen the way you look at him. There's no way it's all past."
You sigh. Saying it out loud is different, for some reason, but you've known for a while that you've been falling for Jacob Black. Again. You know because you still get butterflies when he hugs you goodnight, and when you hear his voice on the other end of the phone. You know because he's Jacob, still Jacob, your Jacob – just like he's always been. And you love him. Just like you always have.
"Even if…" you start. "Even if I feel that way…that's not what he wants."
"You guys have the worst freakin' communication skills, especially for two people who talk so much." Quil shakes his head. "Jesus, Bella. Just tell him."
You hear shouting from the other room, so you whisper a thanks and join the party again.
Jacob meets you in the doorway, smile wide and bright.
"If he said something stupid, just tell me," he says. "I'll beat 'em up for you."
"My hero," you deadpan. Jacob doesn't answer, and you look up to find him doing the same. You follow his gaze until it rests on a few green leaves hanging by a gold thread.
"Mistletoe," he mumbles. "What'd ya say, Bells? For tradition's sake?"
You can't do anything but nod and feel your face grow hot. Your eyes close on their own, and you feel Jacob's hand go to your cheek, followed by his lips on yours. The kiss is soft, almost careful, but it's Jake, and he tastes like firewood and eggnog, like being seventeen and stupid, and you can't even stop yourself from going on your tip-toes and grabbing a handful of his shirt, twisted in your fingers, pulling him close. You can feel him smile against your mouth, his hand moving down to your neck, making all the little hairs stand up. It feels like forever, and much too short, but eventually he pulls away.
"You're…" he chuckles, breathing heavy. "You're just the same, honey."
"No," you shrug. "I'm not. But this much is."
And then you pull him down and crash your lips to his.
It's not really the beginning.
That was years ago, after all. And it's not like you don't know everything about him already, like how he likes to put those semi-sweet baking chips into his coffee in the morning, and the way that his jaw clenches when he's mad. It's not like you're starting over, because you never even ended – not really.
It's more like you finally got your foot off the breaks. Like you made it to the top of the hill, and now you just get to feel the wind. And there's still so much you have to learn about each other – how his voice gets deep at the end of a fight, the way his eyes droop when he wakes up in the morning, the feel of his naked skin on yours…
But it's all so beautiful – him, and love, and laughter…and maybe even you. Because it's your life, of course.
Sometimes you manage to forget about that.