Disclaimer: I don't own the Twilight characters
Summary: AU. Laurent bit Bella in New Moon and the Cullens never returned to Forks. Without them, she was forced to learn about being a vampire on her own and find her own way in the world. Set roughly a century after NM, this is largely about a life she radically altered, at first unknowingly.
I saw Bella coming long before I ever met her. I had dreamed about her for as long as I could remember: a slight woman with long, dark hair emerging from a cluster of trees, reaching for me. The impossible strength of her fingers as they closed around my wrist, the unnatural whiteness of her skin, would have been terrifying but for the kindness in her golden eyes. I knew that she would never hurt me: she was the comfort of my childhood and the light of my teen years.
My mother was surprised when I first told her about the dreams. Not because what I saw when I slept had an uncanny way of coming true; she had experienced similar dreams since she was a young child. But the ability had been passed only from mother to daughter for generations. I was the first boy to inherit the power.
A deep rift had always separated me from my mother, caused largely by her bitterness that I wasn't a girl. I had hoped that the knowledge that I shared her power would bring us closer together, but somehow it pushed us even further apart. She was never cruel to me. An undeserved harsh word never passed her lips, and I had everything that I could ever want. Between us, however, hung a heavy atmosphere that felt like accusation.
Although I hated her for it at the time, I am now grateful for my mother's silent resentment. It was that which drove me from the house one night and put me behind the wheel of the car. I drove for hours until I reached an unfamiliar wooded area. Feeling rebellious, still furious, I left the safety of the car to enter the trees. I normally would have been far more cautious but, drawn into myself, I didn't see the sharp fall until I was tumbling down it. I landed awkwardly on my leg and screamed as I heard the bone snap.
Unable to move, let alone climb the incline I had fallen down, I huddled into myself and tried to keep warm. If I could get through the night, I told myself, then rescue would come in the morning. The idea was implausible: no one knew where I was. I didn't know where I was. How would anyone find me, unless by sheer luck? I stubbornly clung to the idea as I tried to chafe some warmth into my arms.
I was fighting a losing battle. The autumn had come, bringing with it frosty nights. Lying on the frigid forest floor, with only my thin jacket for protection, I stood no chance of staying warm. I don't know how long I lay there before I began to lose consciousness. I didn't know if the encroaching blackness was sleep or something more sinister, but I was glad to escape the cold.
The last thing I saw was her. The woman with the dark hair and golden eyes I'd been seeing all my life. Just as in my dreams, she leaned down and wrapped her arms around me. At last, I thought, and slipped into unconsciousness.
When I woke I was warm and comfortable. There was pain in my leg but it was muffled and distant, not the sharp agony I had experienced in the forest. Rosy warmth on my cheeks told me that there was a fire nearby and, opening my eyes, I saw an old fashioned open fireplace.
She sat in front of it, her eyes watching me keenly.
"Good morning," she said quietly. "How are you feeling? You've been out for a while."
I tried to answer but instead spluttered into a coughing fit. She was on her feet in an instant, pushing a glass of water to my lips. I gulped it down eagerly as soon as the coughing subsided, longing for something to soothe my swollen throat.
She grimaced apologetically. "Sorry. I should have made you drink before asking you to talk."
"It's okay. I'm a little sore," I answered her previous question, "but alive."
She frowned at me. "Which is miraculous in itself. You were out in the forest without even a proper coat. What were you doing?"
I felt my cheeks heat up. "I-I don't remember," I mumbled. "The last thing I remember is falling down that hill."
Her brow burrowed further, as if she suspected a lie, but before she could push the issue any further I said, "Where am I?"
"My house. It's lucky for you I live in the forest or you wouldn't have been found for a long time." Her tone was sharp, but when I squirmed uncomfortably she seemed to soften. "You're welcome to stay here until your leg is healed, unless there is somewhere else you'd prefer to go."
"I'll stay here!" I said too quickly.
She raised her eyebrows but otherwise ignored the remark. "I should get you something to eat," she said, moving away from the bed and towards the door.
"I'm Joseph, by the way," I called as she was leaving.
She paused at the door. "Bella," she told me, and then left me alone.
Miraculously, I was allowed to stay. Bella once asked me gently whether there was anyone, family or friend, I would like to contact. I told her that I had no one and she never raised the subject again. Scared that I would be told I would have to leave when I was healed, I never asked whether I could stay on a more permanent basis, and she never gave any sign that she wanted me to leave.
That time with Bella was the happiest I had been in my short life. I was with the woman I had dreamed of for years, and she genuinely enjoyed my company and friendship. My only regret was that friendship was all she seemed to desire. That thought never made me sad for too long, because then I was still confident that one day she would return my love. Why else would I have dreamed of her so often and for so long? It must be fate.
She was easily the most fascinating person I had met in my – admittedly short, inexperienced – life. She knew so much: from folklore and legends to a dozen different languages to the medical skills that allowed her to nurse me back to health. Every night she would tell me a different story about her life, and not once in the months she stayed with me did she repeat one.
Only two things marred our time together. The first was that there was obviously something different about her. She was slightly too perfect, too beautiful. She never fumbled or slipped. Sometimes, half an hour would pass without her blinking a single time. I didn't mind these differences, though some would find them unnerving. I had been accustomed to prophetic dreams from a young age, and so was inured to the extraordinary. But Bella became visibly upset when she realised that she had done something to mark her out as different.
The second was that although most of the time she smiled and laughed, there were occasional days when her face was filled with a sadness that bordered on grief. It gave me an almost physical pain to see the light leave those much loved eyes. Although I questioned her, sometimes tactfully, sometimes forcefully, about the cause of her pain, she always brushed me aside and made a conscious effort to appear cheerful.
Sometimes, without telling me why, she would disappear for a day or two at a time. She always made sure the house was well stocked with food and supplies before leaving, but I was lonely and restless without her presence. Eventually I discovered her library, which soon became my favourite room in the house. Although her collection wasn't large, it consisted of some impossibly old manuscripts. Yet another sign of her strangeness.
I loved to explore her house. Each room was a treasure trove, filled with artefacts from what seemed like every country in the world. That was another clue that she was not normal: she looked to be the same age as me or only a little older. She couldn't possibly have had time to visit all these places, and yet the evidence of her extensive travels was everywhere.
In our final night together, we sat companionably by the fire. Bella was engrossed in a book that lay open on her lap while I was attempting to carve something attractive out of a large and unwieldy piece of wood. I had never carved anything in my life, but the house was dotted with wooden figurines and I wanted to make something that would please Bella. So far, all I had managed to do was give myself a few nasty splinters.
Setting the block of wood aside, I decided to broach the subject that had been preying on my mind since I first woke in her house.
"I know you're not normal. But it's okay!" I rushed to reassure her as her eyes flashed. "It's good. Because I'm not normal either, and if I were normal I never would have found you."
"What do you mean, Joseph?" she asked slowly. "We met because of your accident. Although I admit that running around a forest at night does show abnormal levels of stupidity." She glared pointedly at me; she had told me many times what she thought of the intellect of a person who ran unprepared into a forest without even the benefit of light.
"Apart from that. I'm not normal because I have dreams that come true. I see things before they happen." I eyed her warily, knowing how that would sound to most people. "You don't believe me?"
"No, I believe you. I once knew someone with a similar… talent."
I was momentarily surprised by that piece of information, but pushed it aside for later examination. What I had to say was too important to allow myself to be sidetracked. "I dreamed of you, Bella," I said gently. "I've dreamed of you for years. I've loved you for years."
Staring into the fire, she didn't answer me for a long time. When she finally spoke, her voice was sad. "I can't love you, Joseph. Not in the way you want."
"Why not?" I demanded, a hint of petulance creeping into my voice.
"I love someone else," she said softly. "I've loved him for more than a lifetime."
"Then why isn't he here?"
Agony flickered across her face before she brought her features under rigid control again. "Because he doesn't love me," she said neutrally.
"If he doesn't love you, then you're free to love me!" I shouted.
She shook her head sadly. "It's not as simple as that. I'm not free; I can never be free. It's part of our – my," she amended quickly, "nature to be unchangeable. I can't be free of loving him because he ceased to love me, even if I wished it."
"But it's not fair! You're my destiny!"
Rising to her feet, she crossed the room and gently cupped my cheek with her hands. Looking into my eyes, she said, "If there is such a thing as destiny or fate, then mine was set a long time ago, and it is not the same as yours."
I struggled to reply but found myself choking on a sob. Years of absolute certainty were tumbling down around my ears. Bella had always been my hope, the promise of something more than, better than, a life where I was an outcast. To discover now that that hope had been false was almost unbearable.
Bella's arms folded around me as I began to cry in earnest. I briefly tried to struggle away, furious with her, but her embrace, although gentle, was unbreakable. Giving up, I slumped against her and sobbed into her shoulder, trying to enjoy the feel of her arms around me despite the knowledge that it was a sensation I'd never experience again.
Eventually I cried myself into an exhausted sleep.
The next morning I woke and knew that she was gone. I couldn't say exactly how I knew; I just felt her absence upon waking. I stumbled out of bed and into the lounge. As I knew there would be, there was a note on the table. With trembling hands, I picked it up and read:
It's time for me to leave. I'm sorry for what I have done to you.
Live and love, Joseph.
P.S. This house is now yours, along with anything else that it is within my power to give you.
I stayed in her house. It was mine, after all, and where else could I go? Back to my mother who, as far as I could tell, had made no effort to find me? No, better to stay where I was and cling stubbornly to the hope that Bella would return.
The first parcel of money appeared on the doorstep a few weeks later. It was accompanied with a note that bore my name in her beautiful script and a dozen tickets to places I had never heard of. A flame of hope sprang up in me that I would find her in one of those cities, but it was quickly quashed when I realised that when she appeared in my dreams now, her face was turned firmly away from me.
I went anyway, partly because I was beginning to crave human contact, but mostly because I knew it was what she wanted. There was a small, bitter part of me that wanted to throw away her gifts and never leave her house. She left me, why should I listen to her commands or suggestions, no matter how well meaning? It was though, as I have already said, a small voice, easily ignored.
I was glad, in the end, of Bella's gifts to me. The longing for her never truly went away, but it did diminish over time. In every place I visited there were sights and experiences I had never dreamed of to throw myself into. I spent most of the year travelling, returning to Bella's home for a month or two at a time to recuperate and house the mementoes of my long journey. I would stay long enough to scrub the house from top to bottom (in the unlikely event that she returned, I wanted it to be perfect) and to feel thoroughly relaxed. As soon as I felt that I'd slept as much as I could, and the various injuries from my latest adventure had healed, a maudlin feeling would settle over me, and I wanted to leave again. A package would arrive a day or two after my itchy feet started containing bundles of money and a fresh set of tickets.
Very occasionally, I would meet someone like me who was not quite normal. Upon my arrival in a new city, usually dirty and exhausted from a long journey, I would enter the house that Bella had bought or rented for me and find them sitting inside. Some of them were nervous and greeted me with trembling hands and tight smiles; I found others sprawled casually across the sofa, calling out a welcome as if we were the oldest of friends.
All of them had been sent by Bella. All of them had been unable to resist her plea to talk with me, if only for a few minutes. Each of them had a different ability. One boy, barely older than I had been when I first left home, had a heightened sense of approaching danger and how to avoid it. If threatened, one woman could cause her attacker to fall into a deep sleep for long enough to give her time to slip away.
Every now and then one of them would accompany me for a period of weeks or months. These friendships never lasted long as most of them had settled lives to return to. I did not resent their departures; I was merely happy for the time we had spent together and glad to travel on my own once more.
Almost ten years to the day after I had set off on my first adventure, I met Sophia. She was one of the unusual people sent to me by Bella. I found her sitting at the kitchen counter of my temporary home, flipping through a book and absentmindedly nibbling at a strawberry taken from the enormous bowl of fruit beside her. She was as different from Bella as it was possible to be: instead of the long brown hair she had honey coloured curls that fell to her chin. Instead of golden eyes, hers were an azure blue. Far from being softly spoken, she was the charismatic centre of attention, always comfortable in a crowd because was certain of her sparkling charm and quick wit. I had always assumed that if I ever fell in love again, it would be with a woman made in Bella's image. But when Sophia tossed aside her book and gave me a dazzling smile, I felt my heart hammer as it hadn't done in years.
After that I never travelled alone again. When Bella's next parcel arrived, inside I found twice the usual amount of money, two of every ticket and Sophia's name written next to mine. I was glad of her blessing, and found myself wondering not for the first time whether she had hoped I would form a lasting bond with one of the people she sent to me.
We continued to travel until Sophia fell pregnant with our first child. Instead of returning to Bella's house, we bought a home of our own. It seemed right, with the rapidly approaching arrival of a new life, to begin anew.
Bella didn't forget us as our family grew. Upon the birth of each of our three children, we received delicate christening cups wrought from silver, as well as more practical presents for the children to play with. None of their birthdays passed without a bag of Bella's gifts arriving on our doorstep. When the time came for them to go to college, their tuition fees were paid before I had a chance to worry about it.
For many years I was truly happy. My wanderlust sated, my love for Sophia never fading, I was more than content to remain in one place and watch our three daughters grow up.
I had only one sadness.
I was unspeakably grieved that the woman who had given me such a beautiful life, who I had loved even before I knew what love was, walked the world alone. It seemed unfair that after she had provided me with the means to travel the world, introduced me to my wife and provided for my daughters' futures she had no companion of her own. I knew she had found no one to accompany her because she was always alone in my dreams.
It wasn't until long after the girls had left home that the dreams finally changed. Up until then I had seen Bella as a solitary figure on the edge of a cliff, face turned towards a dark sea. When I began to have the new dream, she still stood perched above the black water, but she was no longer alone. A man stood by her side, an arm wrapped tightly around her waist. For the first time in decades, she turned her face to me and smiled.
My happiness that she had finally found a companion did not last long, because my own love was taken away from me. Sophia died quietly one night, of nothing more than old age. The droves of relations and friends who visited the house after her death told me I should be thankful that her end was easy and painless. Somehow, it did not make me feel better. I was close to wishing torment on her for leaving me. The presence of the guests who attended the funeral also did nothing to console me. Fearful as I was of an empty house, their constant presence was an annoyance.
I was finally left alone a few weeks after the funeral. The girls, after trying to persuade me to live with one of them, reluctantly left for their homes. I loved them all, but watching them only just begin their lives while mine felt like it had ended would have been unendurable. Neither could I remain in my home; the life had left it with Sophia.
There was only one place I could go. I quickly packed a suitcase and began the long journey back to Bella's house. When I arrived, I found that nothing had changed. All the trinkets and souvenirs, both mine and Bella's, still stood in their old places, although they were covered in a thick layer of dust. I felt a stab of shame that I had been so neglectful of the house for so many years, but it passed quickly. Bella had urged me to live and love, not tend to her house as if it were a shrine.
I found a certain sense of peace in putting the house back to rights. Here the memories awakened by the discovery of a forgotten treasure didn't cause me pain. There were no photos of Sophia to remind me that I would never see her again; none of her old clothes or perfumes to remind me that I would never hold or smell her. There were no reminders of Sophia at all but the ones I carried in my memory, and those I could choose to look at when I felt I could bear it.
The night after I finally finished cleaning and organising the house, she came to me for the final time. I had fallen asleep in the library, poring over the book I had brought back with me from my first adventure. An impossibly gentle flutter against my cheek woke me. I jolted into wakefulness, my head snapping up to look into a pair of tender golden eyes.
Even though for many years I had seen her unchanged in my dreams, I couldn't quite believe she was real. More than sixty years had passed since the last time I had seen her. I was unmistakeably old. My hair was white and thin, my skin wrinkled. There was also a slight tremor in my hands that had begun when Sophia died.
But Bella was still breathtakingly beautiful. Her hair was the same rich shade of brown, her skin still unblemished and her eyes, rather than growing dull, had more vitality than I had ever seen in them before.
"Bella?" I breathed, feeling something close to fear.
She smiled and nodded. "It's me, Joseph," she said, taking my trembling hands into her own perfect ones.
That small reassurance was all I needed to believe that the woman before me truly was Bella. There had only been a small hesitation. "You're happy," I said approvingly.
Her grin widened. "I am," she whispered sincerely. Glancing over her shoulder, she murmured something too low for my hearing. The shadows stirred and a man stepped into the light. From his height and stature I knew he was the man I had seen in my dreams, the one who held Bella so tightly.
"This is my husband, Edward," she introduced us.
Edward nodded politely. I wondered if his silence meant he knew that I had been in love with Bella, loved her still, and hated me for it.
The smallest of frowns creased his brow, otherwise as smooth and flawless as Bella's. "Don't think that," he pleaded. "Bella loves you, and I could never wish harm upon one she loves."
"How did you…?" I began, but let my sentence trail away. I had met many people with strange talents in my lifetime; one who could read minds should not surprise me. I turned my attention back to Bella. "I'm glad that you're happy," I whispered.
"I'm sad that you are not," she replied.
I spread my hands in a helpless gesture, and felt my eyes burn with tears. "Sophia," I croaked. "I cannot be happy without her. I wish-" I broke off abruptly as my voice blurred with tears, but I understood from the compassion in Edward's eyes that he knew what I was going to say. I wished that my life would end. My greatest fear was that I would cling to life for years to come, and my reunion with Sophia in whatever came after would be delayed.
Bella squeezed my hands and stared into my eyes. I knew that she understood my wish just as well as Edward. After all, she had spent more than a lifetime alone. "Soon," she said.
"Soon?" I repeated slowly. "You mean… I'm going to die soon?"
"Yes," said Bella. "That's why I came. I wanted to say goodbye."
I sagged with relief. Most people would be afraid, but I was happy. I had lived a full life, and my children now had children of their own. When Sophia died she took a piece of my heart with her, and I did not want to live with a part of myself missing.
I raised Bella's hands to my lips and placed a tender kiss on each. "Thank you," I whispered. "You've given me a better life than I ever hoped for."
She smiled and cupped my cheek as she had done so many years before. "You made it yourself," she said firmly.
"Goodbye, Bella," I murmured.
She unfurled herself and stood straight. Although her eyes were dry, the fierce look in them told me that she was crying. Blindly, she threw her hand back and reached for her husband. He was at her side in an instant, sliding his fingers through hers. One last, sad smile at me and then they were gone, disappearing through the window too quickly for my eyes to see.
Suddenly unspeakably weary, I struggled from my seat and shuffled to bed. I collapsed onto the mattress without undressing, and my head had hardly touched the pillow when I fell asleep.
In my dream I was in a meadow, running as I had not done in years. There was no need to pause for breath, no gnawing ache in my muscles. Bella ran next to me, and Edward loped effortlessly on her other side. We were all laughing for the sheer joy of feeling cool night air buffet our faces as we sprinted, and for the sight of stars above us.
Without warning Bella stopped, and put out a hand to bring me to a halt.
"There," she said, pointing to the end of the meadow.
I had not noticed before, but someone stood there. Bright hair gleaming in the moonlight, wearing a smile of welcome, Sophia stood with her arms outstretched to me. She looked as she had done the night we first met.
"Go," whispered Bella, but I did not need her prompting. I was gone before the word left her mouth, running flat out across the meadow to my Sophia. I caught her up in a crushing embrace, sought and found her lips. We clung to each other for a long time, smiling through a torrent of tears, each whispering the other's name into our kiss.
Finally we broke apart.
"I've come to take you home," she said, her eyes bright with unshed tears.
"Home," I said, and the word sounded perfect. I felt warm and whole for the first time in the weeks since her death. "Home," I repeated more firmly.
Linking her fingers with mine, she tugged me towards the trees that lined the edge of the forest. I paused before passing through them, and looked back to where Bella and Edward stood. They were watching us, holding each other tightly. Slowly, I raised a hand in farewell. They copied my gesture.
For a moment my eyes met Bella's, and a silent message passed between us.
With that, we turned and walked away from each other for the final time.