Well kids, I did it. I have no clue what the heck I was thinking, taking this on. The whole reason I even started was because I wasn't satisfied with SM's brush-off explanation of Bella's auditory hallucinations. And literally a whole book later, here I am. Finally. Thanks for sticking around.

EPILOGUE

Weeks later I found myself thankful that life had settled back to the predictable routine I had heretofore—pre-Bella—found so banal. Remarkably enough, the thin excuse that Esme had found Los Angeles to be less than ideal was accepted by everyone as reason enough for our return to Forks. Life slipped right back into the familiar patterns of school and hunting, although there was a new note of friendship between Rosalie and myself that added to the melody of my life with my family.

I spent as much time as I was allowed—and it was quite limited, given Charlie's unrelenting (and well-deserved) animosity toward me—with Bella. I refused to entertain the knowledge that her transformation was less than a year away, focusing instead on my quest to see Bella accepted to a laudably accredited university. I was sure I could find a way to persuade her to give me more time, I just hadn't yet figured out how. I was equally sure that she would enjoy at least a few semesters in college, and I also knew without a doubt that getting Bella into an Ivy League school would impress her father, thereby making her happy in the process. Perhaps I could use that for leverage… Not that I wanted to manipulate her, but I knew she wasn't ready for this. I just needed to make her see that, and I knew that I would be able to, given enough time.

I also knew I could make her see the treasure it would be to have her as my bride. I felt an almost uncontrollable, unspeakable joy at the thought of including Bella in my family, someday. As chagrined as she had been to agree to my terms of marriage, however, I didn't want to press the issue. I was aware of another issue that remained unspoken between us—that of Jacob Black. The few times Bella mentioned him in my presence, I tried to maintain a diplomatic attitude but it was futile. The revulsion I felt toward myself for having left Bella so emotionally bereft so as to seek the company of a werewolf was compounded by my sense of dread I felt in regard to the wolves in general. But my dislike of the La Push pack did nothing for the emotional distress Bella was feeling, since now that I and my family had returned with some measure of permanence, Jacob refused to speak to Bella.

As reluctant as I was to admit it, Jacob Black had filled a void that my abandonment had been the catalyst of. I was sure he would have developed a bond with her as well, during my absence. Her forgiving me was no doubt a thorn in his side. I assumed it was possibly a result of the inevitable jealousy he must be feeling, and I would be lying if I said this didn't please me in some small measure. Bella was in love with me, even after the hell I had caused. But my presence must have chafed Jacob quite badly, because he'd maintained a cold shoulder toward her ever since it was re-established that interacting with Bella meant associating with me.

One Saturday afternoon, she made me aware of just how much Jacob's silence bothered her. "It's insulting, is what it is!" she sputtered as I drove her home from work. "Positively rude! When I called, his dad said he refused totalk to me! He was home, but he just didn't want to come to the phone to even speak to me! Billy will usually at least say he's not home or he's sleeping or busy or something. I could tell he was lying but at least he was trying to be courteous about it… I guess he also hates me now!"

I knew Jacob's father had even more reason to want Bella Swan out of his son's life, as long as I was in the picture. "It isn't you, love," I reassured her. "No one hates you."

"It sure feels like it," she huffed, crossing her arms.

"Jacob is aware that we've returned," I tried explaining. "No doubt he's determined we'd be together, and he wouldn't come anywhere close to where I am. The antagonism is too deeply rooted."

"That's ridiculous. He's also aware you're… different… from normal vampires," she insisted.

"Still," I reasoned, "that's enough of a reason for him to stay away."

She huffed again, glaring out the window.

"Bella, we each are what we are. I'm able to maintain control but that doesn't me he can, too. He's quite young. More than likely we would fight, and I'm not sure I would be able to stop before k—" I broke off abruptly, mentally kicking myself for even starting to mention the idea of killing Bella's friend, werewolf or no. "Before he got hurt. It would hurt you, and I don't want you to be unhappy."

Bella's eyes widened before I had finished my sentence. "Edward Cullen!" she gasped in shock. "You were going to say 'killing him', weren't you? Tell me!" Bella gulped.

Damn.

I didn't want to lie to her; I had already done that enough. After a beat I answered as truthfully as I possibly could. "I really would… try… to keep it from coming to that," I replied. It was the best I could do, and it was the truth. I found myself distracted by something as we turned the corner onto her street.

In the background of our conversation, my ears had picked up a rapid, pulsing noise. I was familiar with it; it was quite similar to the sound I'd heard over seventy years before, when Carlisle had sworn to Ephraim Black vow of humane behavior and respect for the boundary lines of his lands… I remembered the rhythmic cadence of the chief's voice and Carlisle's solemn answers… The sound of Ephraim's breathing… the sound of his heart. It was that sound that I was reminded of now, and there was only one explanation for it.

"That won't ever happen anyway," Bella was saying, shaking her head, "so there's no point in stressing about it." She took a deep breath and changed the subject. "My dad's probably counting down the seconds as we speak so you should bring me home now before I get into even more trouble for being late."

The profanities that were flashing across Charlie's mind were almost on par with the smugness I felt radiating from Jacob Black's subconscious. A small ball of worry formed in my stomach and I glanced at Bella, blissfully unaware of the maelstrom she was about to become a victim of. I slowed the car to a stop and stared down the street towards Bella's house, towards the woods surrounding her father's property and the russet-colored form lurking there. Damn you, Jacob Black…

"Bella," I began hesitantly. It felt like my lips were barely moving. "You're… already in trouble."

Bella squinted through the rain-spattered windshield. "What's wrong?" she asked, concern leaking through her voice.

I inhaled deeply, again momentarily distracted – by the sound of her heartbeat and the rush of happiness I felt upon hearing it. "Your father," I exhaled.

"My dad?" she cried.

I glanced over at her and noticed the fear in her eyes. Cursing Jacob's name once more, I gritted my teeth and tried to explain. "You… probably won't end up in a pine box," I phrased delicately, "but he's definitely considering the idea of putting you in one."

"Why?" she asked, incredulous. "What'd I do?"

We had pulled up to her house at this point, and my eyes flashed to the motorcycle that stood in her driveway. It looked menacing, even amidst the drizzle, even with the rust and old-fashioned body frame. It nearly made me sick to think that Bella had tortured herself upon this machine simply to try and hear my voice, and it damn near made me go darting through the woods to choke the life out of Jacob for even suggesting the idea to ride it had been a good one. Bella's shocked voice was the only thing that kept me in my seat.

"Why? How could he betray me like this?" she asked in a gasp that bordered on a sob. Tears sprung up in her eyes and the look on her face was one I hadn't seen before- a mixture of anguish and anger that made the temptation to tear Jacob's head from his body even stronger. "Is he here still?" Bella asked through clenched teeth.

I nodded. "Yes, he's over there, waiting for us." I inclined my head toward the path that wound through the forest where Jacob stood seething and smug all at once. In reality he was waiting for me, waiting on behalf of his pack to remind me of an understanding I'd known all too well since its inception decades ago.

Faster than I would have thought possible for a human, and certainly less clumsy than I would have predicted her capable of being, Bella unbuckled her seatbelt and rocketed towards the forest with her fists clenched at her sides. A tremor of fear slithered through me; provoking a young werewolf was precisely the sort of situation I'd hoped to avoid Bella being put in. Dashing after her, I wrapped my arms around her waist and pulled her close.

"Let go!" she said, struggling. "TRAITOR!" she called into the forest. "I'll kill him!"

"And your father will hear," I cautioned. "After which, he'll probably brick the doorway over, once you're inside."

Her eyes flashed to the house, rested on the motorcycle, and she began writhing again. "Let me just get one shot at Jacob and I'll handle my dad," she answered.

"The only reason Jacob Black is still here is because he wants to see me," I said quickly, hoping to placate her. It seemed to work, as she stopped struggling.

"To talk?" she asked uncertainly.

"For the most part," I replied, deliberately casual.

"What about the other part?" she asked in a trembling whisper.

Her sudden nervousness worried me; what was she expecting? I could hear Jacob sigh mentally, impatiently. I brushed back a few stray tresses of hair that had fallen into her face, leaving my hand on her cheek and trying to calm her down with the sincerity in my eyes. "It's alright. He isn't here to instigate an altercation with me, he's here as… as a sort of wolf pack spokesman." I slid my hand down her face, across her collarbone, and down her arm until I secured my arm around her waist. "We really ought to hurry; your father is losing his patience," I said, guiding her towards the forest.

Jacob leaned against the trunk of a massive Douglas fir. I had never noticed the overwhelming… musk… emanating from the boy who stood before me, despite the strong scent of pine; he definitely had changed recently. Or "phased", as his pack was wont to term it. He looked briefly to Bella, a look full of longing and resentment. But the look slightly altered once he lifted his eyes to mine- the longing was erased, and the resentment was replaced with a sneer of pure disgust.

Freak, monster, abnormality. Leech, parasite, bloodsucker. Words tumbled about his mind as he tried to find a suitable term for me in his thoughts. The words were mixed with a fierce jealousy and something else I couldn't quite define—a sense of regret, a mournfulness somehow. As though my standing before him had shattered his private dreams and hopes. Loathing rippled from him in nearly tangible waves. I shifted slightly, securing myself as a barrier in front of Bella from a potential outburst.

"Bella," he nodded in acknowledgement, his eyes never straying from mine.

"How, Jacob?" Bella choked out in a pained whisper. "Why would you do this to me?"

The sneer twisting his lips fell, becoming a line of hard determination. "Because it's for your own good," he answered with all the self-assurance of one completely convinced of his own infallibility. His mind briefly flickered over the conversation he'd had with Bella's father less than twenty minutes before.

Jacob! Charlie had exclaimed in surprise at the sight of Jacob Black, shirtless on his front steps. What's on your mind, kid…? His voice trailed off into silent stupor as his eyes lit upon the bulk of engine and exhaust pipes that stood a mere ten feet away. His pupils contracted to pinpoints of rage. He seemed personally affronted by the motorcycle hulking in his driveway. WHAT IS THAT? he'd demanded, and Jacob had proceeded to explain the arcane activities he and Bella had participated in behind Charlie's back, claiming he was worried Bella's adrenaline-craving streak had gotten out of hand. The rest of the conversation was one I was glad Bella wasn't there for, considering Charlie had reacted very nearly the way she was describing at the moment.

"Are you trying to get me strangled?" she was shrieking. "Or were you trying to give him a heart attack like Harry Clearwater? Really, Jacob! Regardless of how angry you are with me, why would you put this on his shoulders?"

The boy/wolf before us honestly hadn't thought of the repercussions of his actions – at least not so far as hurt anyone, and I explained as much to Bella.

"He was only trying to get you punished so we wouldn't be allowed to see each other," I added.

An intense hatred blazed in Jacob's eyes as he realized the extent of my telepathic abilities, but we were both distracted by the pain in Bella's voice as she cried out, "Jacob! I've been punished already; why else would you think I haven't been to your house to beat you for not answering the phone when I call?"

Confusion swept over him even as he battled to hold on to his anger. "Is that why?" he asked uncertainly. Immediately after he spoke, his jaw clenched in an effort to hide the vulnerability he was suddenly feeling. So the leech isn't holding her hostage? he thought.

Bella stared at Jacob distrustfully, so I tried to diffuse the situation. "He was under the impression that I was the one keeping you away," I murmured softly.

"Cut it out," Jacob snarled.

I obliged by maintaining my silence, waiting for him to speak aloud again. I tightened my grip on Bella ever-so-slightly as Jacob trembled, but I had to admire the tenacity with which he tried to maintain his control.

Grudgingly he addressed me. "I guess Bella wasn't lying about… your mental powers, so I'm sure you're already aware of the reason I'm here."

"I am," I acknowledged. I took a deep breath, ignoring the smothering canine odor. As much as what I was about to do would be said in order to break the tension, a bigger part of me was simply being honest. "Before you say what you came here to say, I have something to say first." I raised an eyebrow in inquiry, waiting for his permission.

Fine, he thought shortly, clenching his fists as tremors of discomfort shook his sturdy frame.

"Thank you, Jacob," I breathed, trying to pour as much sincerity into my words as possible. "There will never be enough words to express my gratitude. For as long as I… exist… I will be in your debt."

Jacob blinked, unsure if this was a trick. His eyes flickered to Bella's, but her eyes were locked on my face in an inquisitive expression.

"I owe you for keeping her alive when…" I gulped back the raw emotion that had begun to bleed into my words. "…When I didn't."

Bella started to say my name, but I stopped her by holding up my hand. I stayed focused on Jacob's face, waiting for his reaction. He pursed his lips as he considered my words.

"It wasn't for you," he finally said, his face settling into a distrustful mask again.

"I'm aware of that, but it doesn't change how thankful I am, and I felt I had to tell you. If I can ever do anything for you, if it's at all possible…" I let my voice trail off, hoping he would offer something so the score would be settled.

He raised an eyebrow and thought, very deliberately, Leave.

"Not possible," I warned, shaking my head in negation. "I'm not the one to ask for that."

"Who do I ask, then?" he asked blisteringly, tacking the title "bloodsucker" on in his mind.

"Her," I replied, nodding once at Bella. I tried turning back to Jacob to see his reaction, but Bella's eyes were locked on mine, lips parted and looking as delicious as ever in a manner that didn't incur thirst at all. "I learn fast," I continued, my eyes still on Bella's face, "and I don't slip up in the same way twice, Jacob Black. If Bella wishes me gone, I'll go, but not before she dismisses me." I swore this as much to myself and Bella as to Jacob.

"That will never happen," Bella murmured.

Oh please, Jacob thought. He audibly retched and Bella tore her gaze away from me.

"Did you need anything else, Jacob? You can cross getting me grounded off your checklist," she said scathingly. "At this point my dad might very well lock me in a tower, but I still won't let it keep Edward and I apart. Nothing will do that. What else do you want?"

Jacob stared at me and I stared right back. You disappearing again so I can have my Bella back, he thought. I felt my lip begin to curl up in a snarl as he nodded at me. "I only wanted to remind your parasite buddies that they agreed to some very specific points in the treaty… which is, by the way, the only thing holding me back from tearing him apart right now." His eyes narrowed to slits as he glowered at me.

This was not the time to discuss an old pact, considering I hadn't yet worked out my delay plan for Bella. "We still remember," I said, just as Bella asked, "And what would those be?"

"There are certain key issues they agreed to, one of which is that the treaty is void if any of them were to bite a human. Not kill, bite." His eyes never left my face, and mine never left Bella's.

"That has nothing to do with you!" she protested defensively.

"Oh like hell it doesn't have any—" He coarsely ground out as much as he could as his the trembling of his body increased. He crushed his fists to his temples and his eyes were closed so tightly he was giving himself a tension headache, on top of the emotional headache he had by dealing with all of this. Un-FREAKING-believable! he thought. That after all the hell he put her through, that even with all the crap he did to her, not only did she take him back she seriously wants to BE one of those disgusting leech corpses?

Anger ran through him, red and blistering, giving way to white heat that surged like an electrical overload. Bella started to move towards him, as if to comfort the dog, and nervously asked, "Are you alright, Jacob?"

I caught hold of her wrist and pulled her back behind me for safety. "Be careful!" I cautioned. "He could very well lose control."

The tremors that had only moments ago been wracking his body had subsided into slight quivering motions in his arms as he considered my words. "Please!" he said disdainfully. "I'm not the one who would ever hurt her." Still, a cold dagger of fear ran its edge along his spine as he realized he could very well put her in danger if he didn't calm down. A flash of memory—not one of his own, interestingly enough—was pulled up in his mind's eye and just as quickly pushed aside with a resentful deliberation. I gave a low hiss, both at the sight and at the accusation in his words. The memory was of a young Native American woman, clinging to a Native American man as he repeatedly stroked the array of scars that ran from her hairline to her wrist. Her eyes were filled with love and acceptance; his with love and guilt.

I was horrified by the glimpse of that girl. The wounds had looked deep; it very nearly made me ill to think of such a thing happening to Bella. It also very nearly made me ill to know it was a real possibility, as long as she continued to associate with the boy who stood before us, glaring at me with his fists starting to clench in anticipation of a good swing at my jaw.

Before we could continue, however, Charlie's voice bellowed at us from the house. "ISABELLA SWAN! YOU GET OVER HERE RIGHT NOW YOUNG LADY!"

He waited, fuming in the silence that met his roar, and I could sense him seething now that he had seen my car out front. I couldn't tell what he wanted more – to lock Bella up in the tower she had mentioned earlier, or to tear me limb from limb.

Bella's eyes welled up with tears as reality came crashing down around her. "Damn," she half-sobbed.

Jacob's brows came together in a rueful expression. "I'm really sorry about that… I just had to try; I had to do something…" He gulped and stared at Bella.

"Thanks a lot," she answered, hurt. She turned her back on Jacob and started making her way back to the house.

"Wait," I called out. I turned to Jacob. "One last thing – we haven't found any remnant of Victoria on our side of the boundary lines. Have you, or has the pack?" I needed to know if she had been around recently. I still intended to make good on my promise to end Victoria, and soon.

Mentally he reviewed the last altercation he had had with that red-haired witch, which had occurred while we were in Italy. He spoke aloud for Bella's benefit.

"Not since Bella was… gone. We fooled her into thinking she was actually getting through our defenses but we were ready to attack. We'd been circling closer in but," he shrugged, "she ran off like her ass was on fire. Looks like she got a whiff of your black-haired little female and took off. Since then we haven't had any sign of her."

I nodded in acknowledgement. "She'll return, and when she does it won't be your responsibility to take care of her. We're—"

Jacob's eyes flashed in indignation. "She murdered people on our lands. The hell she's not our responsibility!"

Bella looked nervously between us. "Now hold on a min—"

"BELLA!" Her protests were cut off by Charlie roaring from his doorway. "I KNOW you can hear me! I can SEE his car! If aren't WALKING through this door by the time I count to TEN….!" The threat hung menacingly in the air. Charlie was fuming, arms planted on his hips, eyes roving furiously back and forth for a sight of his daughter; he was seriously considering shipping Bella off to military school at this point, and I had to calm things down as soon as possible.

"Bella, we should go," I murmured.

She hesitated, her eyes troubled as she looked at Jacob. Their bond ran deeper than he let show, and his instinctive hatred of me was briefly overshadowed by the pain he felt at the threat of losing his best friend.

"I'm sorry, Bells," he breathed. "Good-bye."

Bella gulped. "Jake, your promise… We're still friends, aren't we?"

"I've tried to make good on that promise, Bells… you know that. But now… I don't know if I can keep it. I don't know how," he rasped. "I'll miss you." He stretched his hand toward us, toward her. As much pain as he was in, I began to get uncomfortable. The tenuous hold he had on his control was slipping, and I couldn't trust his earlier insistence that he would never hurt her. Even now, his pain was reflected in her eyes.

"I'll miss you too, Jake," she said, her voice trembling. She reached her hand out to his, whispering his name as she started to walk towards him. My arms held her close, held her back from the danger she was unaware she was putting herself in.

She turned to look up at my face. Her eyes were steady; clear. "It's alright," she said softly.

I stared back at her, the beautiful face that I knew I couldn't live without. She was so trusting, so forgiving… I didn't deserve her, but for reasons I couldn't and probably would never understand she had chosen me. That made it my responsibility to keep her safe, and I knew if she continued her friendship with the unpredictable beast-child in front of me then her safety was not guaranteed.

"No," I replied steadily. "It isn't."

Jacob bristled at my words. "Let go of her! She wants this!" he snapped. His anger elevated to a blind rage as he stalked toward us, and I could tell his reaction was partly due to his inability to control himself as well as an excuse to fight. I felt something akin to panic as I imagined Bella inadvertently being flung against a tree, and in a spin as fast as I could move, I stepped between her and the danger that was on the verge of literally exploding before our very eyes. I found myself wanting to rise to the challenge, to punish this boy before me as a recipient for the frustration I'd been keeping in check since last night. It was unfair, I know, but the threat posed by Jacob's aggression wasn't helping matters.

"Edward, no!" Bella began to plead.

"ISABELLA MARIE SWAN!" Charlie again had unknowingly stopped an unpleasant outburst.

"Let's go," Bella said forcefully, pulling on my shirt. "My dad's only getting angrier; we need to hurry."

I felt myself calm at her touch. Taking a microsecond to assess the situation, I knew that an altercation with Bella's… best friend… was not a good idea. My eyes locked on Jacob, my arms locked around Bella, I pulled us away. I heard her breath hitch in a half-sob as we made our way back to her house but I knew it was for the best. Pain was warring with the anger in Jacob Black's thoughts; he was the epitome of unstable and I vowed to myself that I wouldn't let him hurt her when I'd just gotten her back.

Bella stumbled forward alongside me up the path to her house. Charlie stood, waiting, arms across his chest as he took in the sight of his daughter in my arms.

"I'm here for you," I whispered, caressing her softly.

She inhaled deeply and turned slightly to face me. The pain in her eyes had faded. Love and trust shone towards me instead as she faced forward again, squared her shoulders, and walked with her head held high to the fate that awaited her with walking right next to her.

Right next to her. Where I belonged.

*bows* Thanks for reading.