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Stephenie Meyer owns Twilight. Guiltward is ours.

Chapter 21

EPOV

In our time apart, I'd somehow forgotten the quiet luxury of her presence. As we lay in her bed, her body on top of mine, there were no distractions save the pumping of her heart and the whisper of breaths in my ear. I rested my hands on her head, massaging her scalp and relishing the feel of the silky strands under my fingertips. She sighed contentedly and shifted position, the slight movement causing my cock to grow hard inside her once again.

"Mmmm," she smiled, her lips tickling the skin just behind my ear.

"Yeah? You like?"

"What's not to love about the vampire stamina?" she teased, punctuating the sentence with a roll of her hips.

Oh, Jesus.

How I'd managed to be relaxed while enveloped within her for the past few minutes now seemed incomprehensible to me. Where she was once comfortably warm I felt her flesh turn to fire as I dragged my hands down her back to plant them firmly on her ass. I bent my knees and began to thrust, slowly re-acclimating myself to the sensation of sliding in and out as she wrapped herself more tightly around me.

Her breaths, her moans, were hot in my ear and laced with a desperation that matched my own sense of urgency. It was as if our union mere minutes before was now forgotten, as if we were feeling each other for the first time again. We rocked together, clinging to each other, murmuring, whimpering, as we raced to the brink.

I just need to see her. Make sure she's okay. That the bloodsucker hasn't hurt her, or worse.

I tensed underneath her and felt her flinch in response to the growl that rumbled in my chest.

"What's wrong?" she asked, her voice laced with uncertainty and apprehension.

"Your friend's here," I said through gritted teeth. "The — it's Jacob. Jacob Black."

"Shit," she mumbled, scrambling off of me and throwing back the covers in search of her clothes.

I hissed as my cock registered the abrupt absence of her delicious warmth. Sighing dramatically, I clasped my hands over my forehead.

I suppose I owed him for taking care of Bella while I was gone. But as I watched her pull a T-shirt over her beautiful breasts, I'd never hated him more.

She shimmied into her boxers just as he banged loudly on the front door. "Stay here, ok?" she asked.

"Fine," I said, somewhat petulant. As much as I longed to go with her, I'd learned that Bella was not only stubborn, but had grown into a fiercely independent woman. I knew that Jacob was a friend and confidantof hers, and so I unhappily accepted the realization that she would, at times, wish to be alone with him. "But he'll know that I'm here," I warned. "And I suspect he'll be angry. God help me, Bella, if he—"

"Just relax, Edward," she soothed, reaching over to stroke my jaw. "This was going to happen sooner or later. I can handle him."

As she walked down the stairs, I pulled on my gym shorts and focused my attention on Jacob's mind in an attempt to decipher whether I needed to be on the defensive, or whether I needed to strike first. His thoughts were a jumbled mess, the worry, confusion, frustration, and dread stacked so high that he struggled with himself to keep them from toppling over, from presenting themselves in tears, or growls, or worse.

I heard the click of the lock as she opened the door and saw the relief flood his mind and overtake his body when he realized she was intact. "Oh, thank God," he croaked, wrapping his arms tightly around her to lift her off her feet. He held her there, his senses momentarily crippled by the gratitude he felt at her well being, before leaning down to kiss the top of her head.

And that's when he knew. The scent of my breath in her hair caused him to recoil in disgust, his body stiffening around her as he lowered her gently to her feet. He staggered backward, shaking his head, until his body collided roughly with the door. Though he made no attempt to speak, his other senses were on overdrive. He examined her carefully, cataloguing the tangled hair, the swollen lips, the marks on her neck left by my mouth. His nose and lungs, at first filled with my scent, now expanded further to collect the smell of Bella, the aroma of lust he'd had the occasion to notice only a few times before, years ago when she was young and lonely, yet never desperate enough to share it with him.

Her pulse raced, and I heard her take ten deep breaths, no doubt attempting to calm herself as he fumed before her. I stealthily moved toward the hall and lingered in the doorway to her bedroom, ready to fly downstairs should his thoughts become violent.

"He's here," he spat.

"Yes," she whispered. "But Jake—"

"Don't 'but Jake' me, Bella. Are you okay? Did he hurt you?"

"No. No, it's not like that," she said.

"Then why don't you tell me what the hell is going on here? Why that fucking leech, who nearly destroyed you, is in your house? Is that why you won't answer my calls? And don't you have a boyfriend? Does Thomas know about this?"

Through his mind, I saw her eyes harden and her jaw set in a defiant line.

"Don't you dare raise your voice to me, Jacob Black. What I do with my life, and who I invite into my house, is none of your goddamn business. Edward's here because I want him here. And that's all you need to know."

"That'd all be fine and good, Bella, if it wasn't complete and utter bullshit. It is my business," he hissed. "He's a vampire, for God's sake. Who left you for dead. And like that's not enough, now that he's back, you won't speak to me. So yeah. I think I have every right to be a little pissed."

"Fine," she said in a sharp voice. "You're pissed. Whatever. But look, Jake, I haven't been avoiding you because of Edward. I've been avoiding you because you're a liar."

"Huh?" He had no idea to what she was referring. Confused by her ire, he studied her, taking in her steely gaze, creased brow, hands on hips, before he began to revisit each word they'd shared since she arrived in Forks several days ago. Finding no lies there, he shook his head and looked at her imploringly. "Bella, I don't know what—"

"I know about Victoria."

The rage pumped through his veins, thundered in his ears, clouded his vision until he, quite literally, saw nothing but red. Coherent thought eluded him for an instant, his mind hobbled by anger, by agony, until he was at once rational enough to direct all his effort into keeping himself in human form.

"I want to talk to Edward," he said calmly.

"Jake, I don't think that's—"

"I wasn't asking your permission, Bella," he snapped. "I know he's here. I can smell him all over you. So you either ask him to come downstairs, or I'll go get him myself."

"No," she insisted. "Not now. Not like this. You can talk to him later if you want, after you've calmed down."

"Not later," he hissed, gritting his teeth. "Now."

I heard her pulse speed, her breaths grow raspy, and I smelled the salt of the single tear that collected in the corner of her eye. In a flash, I was downstairs, my bare torso resting against her back, my arms wrapped protectively around her as I stood face-to-face with the man who'd tried so desperately to take my place.

"Jacob." I nodded.

His mind spun at the sight of me, his body too consumed by hatred to acknowledge outwardly my presence. Though it'd been nearly six years since we'd crossed paths, his contempt for me had not faded with time. If anything, his disdain had festered, his hostility fueled by each year that passed with Bella unhappy and unfulfilled. Now, separated only by the woman we both loved, it was all he could manage to remain human. Sweat beaded on his forehead as his blood began to simmer, and his fingers twitched as he pictured himself, in wolf form, knocking me to the ground and tearing the limbs from my body.

"I understand you're upset," I said evenly. "And I don't blame you. But you need to calm down."

"Don't you tell me to calm down, you fucking corpse."

His whole body was vibrating now, his teeth rattling as he fought the nearly irresistible instinct to phase.

"We both know what could happen if you do this here, Jacob. I don't want to hurt you in front of Bella, but if you can't control yourself, I won't hesitate."

His vision was coated in a red film, but the face of a woman flashed in his mind at my words. She was beautiful, or had been, her face now scarred by a trail of four claw marks, tracking from her forehead to her jaw. Jacob turned around and stormed out the door, pacing to the far end of the yard before propping his arms against a tree and sucking in deep, labored breaths.

Bella started to follow him, and I grabbed her arm. "No way, Bella. Not by yourself. It's too dangerous."

She whirled around and squirmed out of my grasp, her body radiating heat and anger as she looked me square in the eye. "Jake would never hurt me."

I winced, gut-punched by the unintentional implication of her words. He had never hurt her. Not like I had. I raked a hand through my hair as I searched in vain for the proper response. "Bella," I said quietly. "He's not in control of himself right now."

Her features softened, and she ran the pad of her thumb along the waistband of my shorts. "Look, Edward," she sighed. "I know how to handle him. You'll only make him madder."

I nodded and laced my fingers through hers, deliberately holding her there until Jacob's breathing had evened, until his thoughts were colored in cool tones. Keep it together, man. She's confused and grieving Charlie. She'll come to her senses. I just need to get the leech outta here.

Reluctantly, I let go of her hand and tilted my head in his direction. She gave me a wan smile and jogged toward him as he composed himself. When his mind was no longer dominated by fantasies of my destruction, I felt my own tension abate, albeit marginally. But when I heard her soft, familiar greeting and saw her hand drape tenderly over his neck, my body grew rigid once more.

BPOV

"Hey," I said, my voice softer than I anticipated. In the time it had taken Edward to come around, my anger toward Jake had subsided. It's not that I wasn't upset with him for lying about Victoria. God knows I was. But when I really thought about it, it just didn't seem fair to forgive Edward for all his lies and still begrudge Jake for his — especially considering how much he and I'd been through together. Plus, it was all too evident that, in this moment, I owed Jake more of an explanation than he owed me.

Hesitantly, I reached for him, resting my hand at the nape of his neck and feeling his shoulders relax slightly at my touch.

He cocked his head toward me. "So he told you about the redhead, huh?"

"Yeah."

"Well did he tell you it was his idea to lie?" His eyes hardened and his lips curled into an ugly sneer as he motioned in Edward's direction.

I nodded. "Look Jake—"

"Did he tell you it was him who showed up out of nowhere, all crazy black eyes and matted hair?" With each question, his voice grew louder, more intense. Now he was on a tirade, shouting and gesturing wildly as he paced around the driveway.

I thought about following him, or shushing him, but instead I just looked at him. There was no point in interrupting until he'd gotten this out of his system.

"And not that I care what he does to his own kind, Bella, but we could hear that vampire woman squealing for hours. She was in a lot of fucking pain." Jake turned and burned his eyes into Edward's. "And he has the nerve to call me dangerous and out of control! At least I would have killed the bitch quick!"

I glanced at Edward as he stiffened in the doorway. Jake turned to face me then, his body relaxing as he gripped my hands in his warm palms. "You wanna know why I did it? Why I lied?"

I started to tell him that it didn't matter, that I would forgive him no matter how callous the reason, but he didn't let me get a word in.

"We had just started having fun again, Bells," he said softly, giving me a wistful smile. "You were starting to eat more, come around more often. You'd even started listening to music again. I just didn't want to bring it up, you know, give you, like, some sort of false hope or something." He sighed, releasing one of my hands as he clawed a hand through his close-cropped hair. "Aw, shit, Bella. And if I'm honest, well — I guess I thought that I should be the one protecting you. That you were gonna end up with me."

He dropped my hand, shoving his fists in his pockets as he faced the street. I came up behind him, hooking my arms over his shoulders as I hugged him awkwardly on my tiptoes. "It's okay, Jake. I understand."

And I did. I wasn't the only one who had wasted years in the wake of Edward's departure. I was distraught and depressed, but I wasn't blind. I knew Jake wanted more than friendship with me, even before he'd confessed himself that awful night after graduation. And I'd led him on, knowingly. I had let him think he stood a chance because I needed him.

Jake reached behind his shoulder and grabbed my hand. I snuck a glance behind me and saw Edward leaning against the doorjamb, facing the opposite side of the doorway — his averted gaze his meager attempt at pretending to give us privacy.

"I'm sorry," Jake and I spoke the words in unison, and he smiled briefly as he turned to face me again. Sadness, and then determination flashed in his eyes as he stepped closer to me, his face now just inches from mine.

"Don't do this to yourself, Bella. Please."

His words made my stomach drop. Jake could forgive me for hurting him. He couldn't accept me doing something he thought would hurt myself.

"Look, Jake, I know it seems crazy . . . how this must look. But you have to trust that I know what I'm doing. It feels right," I explained.

"I can't do it again," he choked, his eyes beginning to water. "I can't take care of you when — I just can't."

"I'm not asking you to," I insisted. I reached for his hands, but he pulled back and shoved them in his pockets.

"It will be worse this time," he warned. "God, Bella," he muttered, dropping his head. "It will be so much worse. Don't you realize that?"

"Jake, it won't—"

"Yes it will!" he cried. "He fucking broke you last time. And I've been picking up the pieces ever since. So don't you stand here and tell me that it won't be worse."

"I wasn't going to say that," I said quietly. "I was going to say that it won't happen. That he won't leave." I swallowed the lump in my throat and looked him in the eye, forcing the next words out of my mouth in as even a tone as possible. "But yes, Jake, you're absolutely right. I do realize that if Edward leaves me again, it will be worse. And I'm willing to take that chance."

Aside from the narrowing of his eyes, he had no visible reaction. His breaths were slow and measured. It seemed like an eternity before he finally spoke, and when he did, his voice was hollow. Detached. And cold as ice. "Well, Bella, if that's how you feel—" he stopped short.

"What, Jake?"

"Never mind," he muttered. "Just forget it." He turned and stormed toward his bike. I ran after him and grabbed his shirt sleeve, spinning him around to face me.

"Look, Jake, if you have something to say, just say it."

"Fine, then." He clenched his jaw and took in a deep breath through his nose. "I think you're being stupid, short-sighted, and just downright . . . pathetic," he spat. Dropping his chin to his chest, he sighed and tugged at the back of his neck. When his shoulders began to tremble, he placed both hands over his face and rubbed vigorously before looking up at me again.

"What if he doesn't leave?" he asked, his voice monotone, his eyes flat.

"What?"

"What happens if he doesn't leave, Bella?" he repeated. "What will you do then?"

Oh.

"You're twenty-four, he's, what? Seventeen? How long before that starts looking kinky?"

"I— well— God, Jake, I hadn't gotten that far, yet. I'm still trying to sort through—"

"Well let me make it real fucking simple for you, Bella. I'm pretty sure the heartless stiff over there has no plans to let you celebrate your twenty-fifth birthday."

"Enough, Jacob!" I snapped.

"You wouldn't seriously consider—"

"Shut up!" I yelled at him. "I don't know, I mean— we haven't talked about— God, I hadn't even thought about that, but it's none of your business anyway." I was babbling now, but I hadn't had time to absorb the events over the past several days, much less map out a plan for my future. The truth was, when Jake presented the idea now, a gruesome chill ran through my body. I couldn't pinpoint the reaction, but it was nothing like the desperate thrill that accompanied my youthful fantasies of immortality.

"None of my business, huh?"

"No," I said, more interested in getting him to stop talking than analyzing the truth of his words. "Look, Jake that isn't what this is about."

"The hell it isn't, Bella!" he screamed. "Do you think I like being this way? Do you think I'm happy about being a freak of nature — a monster?"

"You're not—"

"And you know whose fault that is?" He kept his steely eyes on my face but his finger lifted to point at Edward. "His." He shook his head, his voice higher now, panicked and pleading. "Even if I could forgive everything he did to you — which I can't — I could never forgive him for this." He gestured to himself, his nostrils flaring as his face crumpled.

"And if you choose him, Bella—" I set my jaw, steeling myself for what was coming next. "If you choose him, I can never forgive you."

I gasped, stricken. I don't know what I had been expecting from Jake. But not this.

Oh God, not this.

"Jake, you don't mean that," I whispered.

I stared at him, furious, heartbroken, my eyes welling with tears.

His expression softened slightly as he reached out to tuck a strand of hair behind my ear. "It's him or me, Bella. I can't — there's no other way," he said, his voice cracking.

"Please, Jake," I begged. I placed both my hands on his chest and looked up at him as the tears began to spill silently down my face. My chest throbbed and my throat swelled as I rambled, anxious and desperate, fisting his shirt into my hands in a last-ditch attempt to hold onto him. "It doesn't have to be like this. I know you're upset now, but just give it some time. Edward's changed a lot and—"

At the mention of Edward's name, Jake tensed and grabbed my hands, balling my own fists in his before guiding them down to my sides. "No," he said sharply, his voice ringing with a sense of finality that sliced me to the bone.

He gave my hands one last squeeze and then climbed on his bike. Avoiding my gaze, he stopped to shoot an icy glare in Edward's direction before gunning the engine and peeling out of the driveway.

Strong arms encircled my waist as Edward's chin came to rest on my shoulder.

"You okay?"

I shook my head, clamping down on my lip in an attempt to stave off the flood of tears.

"He'll come around, Bella."

I scoffed. "I seriously doubt that."

Edward pulled me flush against him. "Well, even if he doesn't—"

"No!" I barked. "I can't think about that. I can't . . ."

"Okay. I'm sorry," he said softly.

I buried my face in my hands and wiped my eyes as his hands came up to massage my shoulders. "It's not your fault," I sighed. "It's just— I knew this was going to be a big deal for him, and I should have talked to him about it. I owed him that, you know? But instead I avoided him and he came here at the worst possible time and now it's a complete fucking disaster that I can't even begin to wrap my brain around at the moment."

"Do you want to talk about it?"

I shook my head and turned to face him. "I think . . . I think I need some time to process it all."

"You should eat," he advised. "And you must be freezing," he added, rubbing his palms briskly over my bare forearms.

"Thank you," I whispered, wrapping my arms tightly around him, letting my fingers travel over his smooth shoulderblades.

"For what?" he asked, his voice tinged with surprise.

"For everything," I murmured, the words muffled against his chest. I looked up at him, needing him to understand that the morning's encounter didn't leave me second-guessing. "For loving me. For understanding."

He swallowed thickly and then bent down to kiss me, his lips brushing over my forehead, my cheek, my lips.

"Come on," he said, grabbing my hand. "Let's go inside."

~X~

After a hot shower and a change of clothes, I poured myself a bowl of cereal. We sat at the kitchen table, the silence interrupted only by the clinking of the spoon as I listlessly stirred my cornflakes. After a few soggy bites, I exhaled sharply and pushed the bowl away.

"Do you want to go somewhere for awhile?" Edward asked.

"Yeah," I said. "I don't care where."

He grinned and rose to his feet, holding out his hand to lead me to the front door.

"Close your eyes," he reminded, pulling me swiftly on to his back like old times.

"I remember," I smiled, gripping him tightly as his momentum built to a sprint and the cool wind began to burn against my cheeks.

We hadn't been moving more than ten minutes when he slowed. I opened my eyes to find us scaling a tall spindly pine. My grip tightened around his waist, and I quickly clamped my eyes shut again. He climbed so fast that I had no idea how high he'd carried me by the time his shoulders stopped their movements. He hoisted me on to a platform of sorts and set me to my feet.

"You can open your eyes now."

I gasped at the sight. We were in a tree house at least 100 feet in the air. It wasn't a child's fort, but a simple square wooden plank with a railing about three feet high on all sides. It was stunning, high enough in the treetops that only a few spiry trunks interrupted a panorama that took my breath from my body. From here the entire town of Forks was visible, as well as the ocean in the distance and the Sol Duc river. The air was crisp and clean, smelling of pine, salt and Edward.

"What is this?"

"It's a tree house." His smile was bright and beautiful.

I laughed, stilling myself toward the middle of the wooden platform. "I see that. Did— did you build this?"

"No." He shook his head. "Tree-sitters."

"Ah," I said. We had learned about the protestors in civics class. Environmentalists built the houses and lived in them for weeks or even months in an attempt to dissuade loggers from deforesting. "So I guess they won, huh?" I said, judging by the fact that the tree and the house were still intact.

"Yes," he smiled, watching me as I braved a walk to the edge and leaned onto the rail to take in the expansive view.

"Wow. It's . . . incredible."

"I always planned to bring you here, but I never got the chance." His voice was wistful as he came up behind me, wrapping his arms around my chest. "I often came here at night before I met you. Before I had better things to do at night."

"It's hard to imagine anything being better than this." The peaks of the cascades rose hazy and dreamlike in the distance, the firs around us a carpet of mossy green, the ocean a steely grey streaked with crests of white.

"I used to think so, too." He spoke the words into my neck and kissed me there, softly sucking my skin as his hair tickled my cheek.

I wanted to get lost in his touch, but my mind was preoccupied with the morning's events.

"Edward?"

"Hmm?" he murmured into my shoulder.

"I'm sorry you had to hear all that from Jake," I said. "There are good reasons he's angry with me that are my own fault." I stared out at the river in the distance, squinting at the glare from the early afternoon light.

"It's alright." Edward straightened up, tightening his arms around me. "I was only worried about him losing control, but he held it together. It was pretty impressive actually." He sighed, shrugging. "Anyway, I might not agree with the way he characterized things, but I also can't exactly dispute that most of it was true."

I leaned my head back against his firm chest, contemplating what that meant. "What do you mean?"

"I know Alice told you, Bella. I'm not proud of it, but I did prolong Victoria's suffering on purpose. After I saw what she had planned for you, I— God, I just lost it." I felt him shake his head behind me before adding, "Not that I was in control of myself back then anyway."

I flinched in his arms, not fazed by what he'd done to Victoria, but realizing according to what he'd told me yesterday, his family must have told him about her during one of their unwelcome "visits" to force him to feed.

"And he's right, I am responsible for him being a monster, as he calls it. Well, my kind anyway. According to the mythology, the shape-shifting gene only activates in response to an imminent, proximate threat from their natural enemy."

We stood still for several minutes, my chest expanding and contracting twice for every breath Edward took. He brushed my hair to the side and kissed me softly on the curve of my ear before whispering, "Tell me what you're thinking."

I exhaled and realized as I did that my breath was shaky. "That's not all Jake was angry about."

Edward froze, and I could tell by the stillness of his chest that he'd stopped breathing.

"You wonder if I want to make you immortal."

"Yeah." I felt myself blush and was thankful we weren't face-to-face.

"The answer is yes."

I gasped.

He took a deep breath before placing his hands on my arms and turning me so I was facing him. When his eyes met mine, they were fierce. "But Bella, you need to understand that this is nothing new. From the moment I realized I loved you, I was desperate to change you, to make you mine forever."

"You . . . you wanted that?"

He laughed darkly. "Of course I wanted it. I obsessed over it, fantasized about it." He stepped away and paced around the small platform, gesturing dramatically as he spoke, a display of emphatic emotion unusual for him.

I just stared at him, open mouthed, until he returned and cupped my face with his cool hands. "But, do you see? At the time, I viewed it as the epitome of my selfishness. Further proof I wasn't good enough for you." He looked down before murmuring, "It was another reason I left. I didn't trust myself to be able to deny you."

I closed my eyes and swallowed the stab of pain at the mere mention of his leaving. "And now?"

"Now, I could never deny you anything."

I nodded, speechless, my mind racing. I had begged him so often to change me, to make me like him. It made sense that he would naturally assume it was what I still wanted.

Was it?

"I told you, Bella. I'm done hiding my true feelings from you. I would be lying if I said I didn't want it. I've been without you for so long. I can't fathom losing you twice."

A creeping chill began making its way up my limbs and my heart began to speed up, not a pleasant sort of excitement, but a frightening inward panic. I pressed my palm to my chest, willing the pounding to stop.

"Bella?" My pulse slowed then, as if obeying the sound of his voice.

"It's nothing."

He shook his head, giving me an apologetic smile. "I'm sorry, we don't have to talk about this now." He brushed a piece of hair from my face, tucking it gently behind my ear. "There's time."

I turned in his arms and we once again faced outward, my eyes scanning the silhouette of the treetops where they met the white sky. I imagined Charlie living on somewhere out there, looking down on this scene. I'd never given much thought to an afterlife, never having experienced the loss of someone I loved so much. But as I'd sat at Charlie's grave, I'd been gifted with the faintest assurance of his presence — a small breeze on my neck as I realized his forgiveness was not something that perished with his body.

And now I realized, that although I'd pleaded for Edward to change me years ago, I had never really stopped to consider what it would mean for me. As my eyes swept over the clouds blanketing the sky, thinking of my father, I tried to imagine never dying. Never following in his footsteps, going wherever he had gone.

I couldn't.

Edward hugged me tighter, resting his chin on the top of my head. "I know I sound like a broken record but please, tell me what you're thinking. Your silence in this moment is maddening."

"I was thinking about Charlie." I didn't mention the other doubts that were nagging at me. It seemed that every word Edward uttered rewrote another chapter of my past. I hadn't even had time to acclimate to having him back in my life; I wasn't prepared to respond to his latest revelation. Though I had been eager and cavalier about it in my youth, age and experience — and this morning's visit from Jake — made it abundantly clear that this choice did not come without a cost.

Jake.

His crumpled face filled my mind's eye, and I felt my own eyes sting with tears. His face should never look like that. His face should only ever look happy — sporting the toothy grin he tried to cheer me up with in those early dark days.

"Oh baby, I'm so sorry." Edward interrupted my thoughts of Jake, and I realized he was talking about Charlie. A long silence ensued before Edward spoke again. "He never forgave me."

"No," I said, unable to lie.

"I hurt him too," he said. "I wish I'd been able to plead forgiveness from him before—"

"I know, Edward," I interrupted. And I did. "But that's really not what matters. If he had known why you left, he would have. I don't know where he is now, but somehow I believe he knows. I believe he's already forgiven you."

Edward didn't respond but I thought I felt him nod slightly behind me.

"Tell me about him. About after I left." Edward's voice was barely a whisper. "I want to know. I want to understand what it was like for him, for you."

I exhaled, recalling how Charlie's face had lit with relief when I'd regained consciousness that night, and then slowly, over the course of days, his brow had fallen into a permanent crease as he realized the extent of the damage. "He was really concerned for a while. Tried to convince me to see a counselor but I refused." I laughed softly. "I mean, I would have been committed."

He skimmed his nose along my neck, listening. Though I knew this was hard for him, I also knew we had to discuss the past if we were ever going to be able to move forward. His leaving had had consequences for me, for Charlie, for Jacob. "He was so relieved when Jake started coming around." Edward squeezed my arms briefly before relaxing. "I was so thin, then. Charlie used to barter with me like a child — I could spend an extra hour with Jake if I finished my pasta, that sort of thing."

Edward exhaled and I registered the bobbing of his Adam's apple against my hair as the smallest whimper was muffled in his throat.

"It was never romantic between us. At least . . . not for me. But you should know that I tried." I shook my head with the memory of Jake, his eyes brimming with tears as he fought in vain not to cry in front of me: I know you still love him; I can live with that. But I'm here and he's not. Don't you think you could love me too?

I sighed. "I still hate myself for hurting him. Leading him on was just as selfish as his lie about Victoria. Probably more. I know you two will never get along, being mortal enemies and all, but he's been there for me for the past six years. It hurts me to say this to you, but—" I fidgeted with my hands, struggling to finish this sentence, but grateful I wasn't looking Edward in the eyes.

"But what, Bella? Tell me. I can handle it. I need to handle it."

"I know Jake better than I know you." My voice was barely audible but I knew he'd heard me perfectly.

Edward released my arms and turned, pacing to the opposite railing in the small platform. He placed his hands on his hips as he scanned the scenery.

I hated that my words hurt him, but they were true nonetheless. I didn't know whether I would have survived that first year without Jake. He'd sacrificed so much for me. I smiled ruefully, recalling the way he'd shrugged off gaggles of girls who'd clamored to date him in high school, opting instead to spend every spare minute with me. He knew instinctively to stay away from topics that would upset me, and he was shamelessly protective. One night he'd nearly gotten in a fistfight when one of his buddies had casually mentioned studying Claude Debussy in music class. And most recently, he'd held me together as we suffered through Charlie's last breath.

My chest started to tighten, and it suddenly felt as if I was being crushed from the front and back at once. I didn't know how I could possibly live with myself if I hurt Jake, or how I could possibly live without him.

When I looked at Edward again, his back was still to me, his hair standing on end and his shirt collar dissheveled. His shoulders were tense as he gripped the railing so hard that it splintered. "Fuck," he murmured under his breath, releasing the railing and fisting his hands at his sides.

I crossed the short distance between us and tugged at his belt loops, turning him around to face me. "Don't be upset with me," I said softly. "It's just the way it is. You were gone a long time."

"Yes," he sighed. "I know." He paused and pinched the bridge of his nose. "I'm not upset with you, Bella. This was my doing. I know you care about him, and although it sickens me to admit, I know I owe him for protecting you when I didn't."

"It's more than that," I interrupted. "He didn't just protect me, Edward. He— he carried me." I shook my head again, frustrated by my inability to express what Jake meant to me. "It's— I— " I trailed off, fumbling for words big enough to describe our friendship. Edward simply looked at me, patiently waiting for me to continue.

"I guess what I'm trying to say is that he didn't just save my life. He made me believe I had a life worth living."

He winced, and then nodded, pulling me close to him and stroking my hair.

"I need him," I whispered, clutching him tight around the waist. "I can't lose him, too."

Edward pulled me tight against his body and I leaned into him, my cheek pressed against his chest, my eyes relaxing and blurring the tableau surrounding us. His steady chest was quiet, no heartbeat but my own pulsing in my ears. His hands moved to my hair, caressing me and pressing me protectively to him. After a few minutes, he took my face in his hands and leaned to me, brushing his lips softly against mine. His eyes closed as he deepened the kiss, sucking my top lip between his soft cool ones, sliding his tongue into my mouth.

The kiss was slow and deliberate, and I could tell he was concentrating on every movement, savoring each sensation as his tongue swept along my tongue, my lips. His breathing sped as he exhaled hungrily through his nose, but then calmed as his tongue retreated and he focused once again on the gentle sucking of my lips.

It was the kind of kiss I'd always wished we had been able to share years ago — full of passion, but also familiar and soothing. I smiled against his mouth as I felt his rigid length press against my stomach. As our tongues tasted and teased, I felt the ache of the morning's events start to lessen.

Our kiss was interrupted by the buzzing of my cell phone in my pocket. I reluctantly pulled away from him as I pulled out my phone. I looked at the screen and saw my agent's name. It seemed years since I had spoken to her or thought about my job, my life outside of my past. The thought made me uneasy.

"I need to answer this, I've been putting her off for days."

Edward nodded.

Janine was breathless, as usual, but masked the frustration I knew she was feeling at my failure to communicate with her. I'd forgotten we'd agreed to a fan event at a conference in Seattle for the following day — when we'd last spoken, I'd told her it would be no problem to resume my media tour by then. Some of the hopeful actors seeking roles in the Dusk screenplay were attending the conference, so the casting director had asked me to sit in on a few read-throughs. I squeezed my temples as the reality of my life outside of Forks began to once again take shape around me.

"Yes, of course, I'll be there," I said, assuming my professional voice. "I'll need a North-facing room. And please arrange a car with tinted windows."

"No problem, Bella. I'll have Becky take care of it. The driver will pick you up at your father's house at 7 a.m. sharp."

"No, wait," I stopped her and gave her the Cullen's address. "Have him pick me up there instead. I'll be bringing a guest."

~X~

Thanks for reading! We are remiss in not pimping more fics in our authors' notes, but if you're interested, here are a few that are OWNING us recently:

What's Owning M:

This Buried Life by EmmanuelleNathan: Formerly a one-shot, recently expanded (4 chapters so far). Story starts off with Bella meeting a sexy and slightly terrifying and VERY handsy stranger. On a TRAIN. 'Nuff said? Guh. I love this story, and not just because I'm a lucky prereader. Get in on the ground floor.

What's Owning V:

Midnight Son of Biotch by GreenGoldfish: irreverent and fuckawesome take on Midnight Sun. Read it NAO. You won't be disappointed.

What's Owning us Both:

Summer of Salt by Lola-Pops: delicious AH with a prickward who will make you swoon and want to kick him in the balls. This story has the most refreshing, self-effacing Bella and moves at a fun, quick pace. Final chapter just posted today! ::sob::

Underneath by NewsSoDark: E/Jake AU slash. I KNOW, I KNOW. But I'm loving it so far. Seriously. Very creative and totally gripping right off the bat.

xoxo ~M&V