The Black Balloon Contest
Title: Passing Afternoon
Your pen name: glasscannonlj
Characters: Edward, Bella, Jacob
Disclaimer: Twilight and all its characters belong to Stephenie Meyer. I'm just taking them out to play – and twist the knife a bit.
Summary: When Bella reverses her decision after the events of Eclipse, Edward counts the passing years, watching her live on without him. Entry for the Black Balloon contest. Post-Eclipse AU, Edward POV. Based on the song "Passing Afternoon" by Iron&Wine
Favs are hugs and reviews are kisses. Poor sad Edward needs lots of both. ;)
In the end, Bella made the right choice – the choice I had always wanted for her, and yet had hoped would never come.
I had known she had changed her mind a week before she worked up the courage to tell me. She had been dreaming of dark-eyed children and a house with lace curtains and an entire life I could never give her. She didn't speak of it in daylight hours, but the words she murmured in her sleep painted a vibrant picture.
She was in love with both of us, and that was the problem. She loved me desperately, and always would, she said. But she loved him too, and that was the life she was meant to have. I stopped her explanations as the tears began to fall. I knew her reasons. Somehow I had always known.
I drove her to the treaty line one last time, and Jacob's wide eyes and open mind confirmed everything I needed to hear. He would love her, care for her, give her more than I ever could. He understood her sacrifice – and mine. He wouldn't forget.
I took her face in my hands, felt her tears slip between my cold fingers and her flushed cheeks, and kissed her forehead.
"I'll never be far," I whispered into her hair. She nodded, placing her small, warm hands over mine. Jacob didn't move, but his mind spun with curiosity, wondering what I had said to her, wondering what my last words to her would be. And wondering, if our places were reversed, what his last words to her would have been.
For us there would be no goodbye, no final declaration of love. She knew, and I knew, and that would be enough. It had to be enough.
I kept my promise: I was never far. My siblings went off to college again, but I refused to leave Forks. Carlisle and Esme stayed with me, in our big white house in the forest, and the others visited as they could. Jasper avoided me and my grief as much as possible, but I knew he understood it better than anyone.
Years passed in an unnoticed cycle of seasons, all cold and empty. I watched, but I never intruded. As long as Bella was safe and happy, I never would.
I wondered if she felt my presence, if she knew that I ran a perimeter around her house every night while she slept, or knew that any time Jacob would take her somewhere new and exciting, I had already picked the details from his head and removed any threat before they arrived.
I would keep her safe, and Jacob would keep her happy. Some days it almost felt like a fair trade. It was still more of her than I deserved.
It gave my life purpose, as the months slipped by unmarked. I could do this for the next sixty, seventy years, protect her and watch her happiness from afar. And when she passed, I would follow soon after. Seeing the rest of my life laid out with a clear and definite end was almost comforting.
Days, weeks, months, years. I could no longer pinpoint the date, as sunrise bled into sunset behind the ever-present clouds.
Driving through town on an errand for Esme, I caught the familiar cadence of Charlie's thoughts, nearly shouting with joy. His mind was, as ever, guarded and garbled. He was happy; something new for Bella and Jacob, some recent change…
I found myself parked in the rain outside the auto garage Jacob had worked at for the last – three years? five years? I had lost count – before I had consciously decided to go see him. There was a favor I needed to ask of him, one I had been thinking of off and on since that last day at the treaty line.
I paused with my hand on the car door handle, searching for his thoughts in the small building before getting out. Jacob's mental voice was nearly more familiar to me than my own now, and I found him easily. He was focused on the task at hand, but his thoughts were happy, excited, and he thought of Bella every few seconds.
Now was definitely the time to ask.
I got out of my car and positioned myself outside the garage, upwind from Jacob. I listened for the moment he caught my scent, waited as he realized I was actually here, and finally decided to come out to see what I wanted. I could feel the rain on the back of my neck, droplets trickling down under my shirt, but it seemed like the furthest thing from important.
He was glad I had come by now, rather than when Bella was around. I didn't cringe at the thought.
Jacob appeared then, walking out from the back of the garage and wiping the engine grease off his hands. "Edward," he nodded at me, his face impassive but his thoughts as open as ever. "I take it you've heard?"
A series of images flashed through his mind: Jacob proposing to Bella, Bella smiling softly and saying yes, the small ring he'd saved for months to buy for her, the way she'd kissed him afterwards, steady and unrushed.
I flinched and nodded once at him. I should have seen it coming, should have picked it up from his thoughts earlier. It hurt more than I had expected.
We stared at each other for a long moment, my mind refusing to focus on the task at hand, seeing instead the night I had proposed to Bella, the fight she'd put up about it, the ring she hadn't had to give back to me because she had refused to wear it in the first place…
Jacob cleared his throat and I forced my eyes to see him, and not the look in Bella's eyes when I had knelt in front of her, holding my mother's ring.
"So, um…" Jacob started.
"I need to ask you a favor, Jacob," I cut him off, somehow finding my voice.
He sighed and scowled, but didn't argue. In his mind's eye I saw myself reflected back, and was shocked at the man that Jacob saw. Black eyes set above deep bruises in an emotionless face, rigid stance that spoke more of death than life. I blinked and forced the image from my head.
He was right: it was best that I had come to see him when Bella was not there.
I scrambled to reassemble my thoughts, concentrating on what I needed to ask, and why. "You'll… get a house together? Or an apartment? Eventually?"
He looked confused but nodded. I blocked out his thoughts.
"I need to ask," I started, staring him in the eye, "that you live in the neutral zone, not on pack territory."
He wrinkled up his nose in disgust, and I found myself wondering if it was a mannerism he had picked up from Bella. "Why?"
I sighed, and when I spoke my voice was flat. "Jacob, I need to be able to get to the house. If it's on pack territory, I can't do that."
He shuffled his feet uncomfortably and looked away. "Look, I know everything you do for her – for us. I catch your scent all the time, I know you keep a perimeter around her house. It's not that I don't… appreciate what you do, but we can handle this," he said, slipping into the pack plural. He looked back at me. "She'll be safe on our land, I promise."
I shook my head. "There are worse things out there than the stray nomadic vampire. If we need to join forces again, it would be best for everyone if we were working from neutral soil."
He looked at me for a long moment, uncomprehending, and I could hear the questions forming in his mind.
"The Volturi are not gone, and they do not forget," I ground out, my voice sounding hollow and foreign.
A memory flashed through his mind, pack memory – Paul lingering after the rest of the wolves had gone, listening from a distance to our conversation with the Volturi envoy:
"We don't make exceptions," the female stranger said. "And we don't give second chances. It's bad for our reputation. Which reminds me… Caius will be so interested to hear that you're still human, Bella. Perhaps he'll decide to visit."
"The date is set," the small female Cullen replied.
Jacob's eyes widened, and he seemed to pale. "They could come for her? Still?"
I nodded. "And if they did, the best thing would be to get you and her as far away from the pack as possible. Too many people in La Push know our secret, and the Volturi would not take that well, werewolves or no." My voice was emotionless, clipped. Dry facts for another day.
He nodded slowly, still looking shaken. "We'll get a place in Forks, then, in the neutral zone. I'm sure she'll be happy to be close to Charlie. It won't be—"
We both turned our heads to the east at the same moment, caught her scent in the same instant.
Jacob grimaced. "I forgot, she's bringing me lunch today."
I turned to leave, instinctually wanting to avoid the pain that running into Bella would cause all of us.
"Thanks," he called after me, and even with full access to his mind I couldn't begin to comprehend what he was thanking me for.
I paused. "Get her a place with white lace curtains," I said softly without turning, knowing he would hear me. "It's what she always wanted."
Hours blurred into weeks, the weather turned warm again, and one day a stiff, cream-colored envelope arrived in the mail, addressed to me in Jacob's scrawling hand. I opened it to find a wedding invitation – forget-me-nots on heavy cream cardstock, printed at home but still simple and elegant and so very Bella – and a note written on a piece of lined paper torn from a spiral notebook, also in Jacob's handwriting.
I'm not supposed to be inviting you but I am anyway. She's taken your name off the list three times already. She won't even talk about it – she's convinced you're off in Europe or something. I got permission from Sam for you and whoever to come onto pack territory for the wedding. I know she would love to see your sister – the short one, not the blonde – but come alone if you want. Stay hidden the whole time if you want. Just come. I know I would have wanted that chance, if our places were switched. She'll forgive you for being there, she'll forgive me for sending this, but she'll never forgive herself if you aren't there.
The buzzing of my cell phone interrupted my third reading of the note.
"Tell me what it says," Alice said without a greeting.
"Can't you see it?" I asked, aiming for sarcasm but achieving entirely emotionless instead.
"I was just starting to get the details when you apparently decided to go along with whatever crazy plan the dog suggested and everything disappeared."
"Jacob wants me to come to the wedding," I said, my voice still flat. My dead heart squeezed.
Alice sighed. "And you're going to go?"
"I hadn't decided."
"Obviously some part of you had."
I knew she was right.
The sun mocked me on Bella's wedding day, reminding me in the slanting rays of midsummer the innumerable list of things I would never give her.
I went alone, despite Alice's repeated offers to go with me. The shaded firs hid me from the callous sun as I crossed the treaty line for the first time since 1937, winding further west, each step an inescapable force bringing me closer to her, closer to this day that I had hoped with whatever was left of my soul would never come.
And yet as my feet took me west, my mind strayed east, to a sunlit meadow, and her hand in mine…
The Black's property backed onto the forest, so I was able to get close enough to see and hear the small assembled crowd as though I was standing in their midst. I watched as first Jacob, and then Sam Uley, followed by the other members of the pack, lifted their noses ever so slightly, and turned to look at me, their dark eyes glittering in the sunlight. Sam gave a brief nod and they each relaxed by a fraction, turning away. Jacob held my gaze a moment longer, his face serious, but the joy and gratitude spilling over from his mind were intense and wordless. I shut him out, and searched instead for the absence of sound that would forever draw me.
I didn't have to search long. Charlie and Renee were inside the small house, his thoughts muffled and hers like humming bird's wings, but through their eyes I saw their daughter, saw her, in her wedding dress, her face alight—
I paced away, into the deep shadows of the trees, blocking everything from my mind, man and beast and god. How could I do this? How could I stand by and watch as Bella married someone else? I promised her I would never be far, but this was too much for any heart to bear, whether it beat or not.
I had watched her live on without me for years – the seasons bled together, and yet in my bones I knew the time that had passed, I knew how many days, hours, seconds it had been since she looked at me, since she said my name. And even all that time, all the kisses I had witnessed, all the sweet words reflected back in Jacob's mind – it couldn't begin to compare to this moment. After today she would be his, finally and forever.
She had chosen this, chosen where she wanted to be, and I wanted it for her, wanted her to be happy. But watching it happen was a different thing all together.
Behind me, music was starting, professionally recorded classical piped through tiny speakers. The chatter, both vocal and mental, died away, into the sounds of shuffling feet in the grass. The door to the house swung wide, and through forty pairs of eyes I watched as Renee emerged, a bouquet of wild flowers in her hands and her face beaming. She walked down the aisle created by the crowd, toward where Angela Weber's father was standing, his back to the forest. Belatedly my mind reminded me that he was likely the only minister Bella knew. Angela emerged a moment later, smiling shyly and carrying wildflowers as well, and as she reached the front of the crowd, the music changed.
I had felt this sensation before, time slowing around me. As I watched Tyler's van careen towards Bella across the icy parking lot. Rushing through the door of the ballet studio, her blood's scent thick in my throat. In Volterra, the clock chimes losing time, her warm breath on my cheek…
In a moment, she would step into the afternoon sunlight, on her father's arm. She would walk down the aisle, wedding dress trailing on green grass, towards the man she loved, the man she would spend the rest of her life with.
And he would not be me.
I could continue to face away, watch her procession through the comforting dimness of human vision. Or I could turn and face her, face the reality of this moment, see it with my own eyes.
Time ebbed and flowed, and the wedding march was still in its opening notes as I forced my body to turn towards the assembled crowd. I swayed, a strange sense of vertigo overtaking me as the scene before me swung into focus. My view was just to the left of Reverend Weber – and just to Jacob's right, as he stood at the minister's elbow. I followed his gaze down the aisle, past faces that blurred into a single smudge of humanity, to the back of the house, where Bella and Charlie stood poised in the doorway.
My breath caught in my throat, in sharp contrast to the searing pain in my dead heart. Bella had always been beautiful, but now she was radiant, ethereal, smiling in serene joy as she stepped into the sunlight, her arm linked through her father's and forget-me-nots clasped in her hands.
For a dizzying fraction of a second, I expected her skin to sparkle, my mind half convinced that the exquisite woman before me had to be a vampire, my heart longing to find the similarity between us that would never exist.
But no. She was human, as I had wanted her to be. Marrying someone who could build a life with her, give her children, and grow old with her. As I had wanted.
She had chosen Jacob, but this was my doing.
I watched as she glided down the grassy aisle towards me – towards Jacob – steady on her father's arm, her bright eyes locked onto Jacob's face. My heart cried out; I shouldn't be here, shouldn't be intruding into this moment. What right did I have to witness even another day of her life?
I drew back further beneath the trees, and in that instant, Bella's eyes flickered away from Jacob's face, and for the briefest fraction of a second, met my gaze. Her smile wavered, and even across the distance that separated us I saw the tears form in the corners of her eyes. She dipped her chin slightly, her smile transforming into something grateful and sad, and then blinked long and slow, dark lashes brushing her pale cheek.
Her heart beat once, and the expression was gone, replaced by steady joy, her eyes again on Jacob, and I found myself wondering if I had imagined it.
My feet propelled me of their own accord, and I fled east, away from the look on her face, away from the sadness that should never touch a wedding day. But no matter how far I ran, the sadness ran too.
How could I stay, when she looked at me as she had? And how could I leave, when I had promised her I would never be far?
Jacob was true to his word, even as I wavered in mine. He surprised her with a tiny house on the western edge of Forks, which Bella promptly named Honeymoon. It had white lace curtains for Bella, a workshop for Jacob, and backed onto the forest, for me.
My debt to the werewolf grew.
Days ticked into months, and I found myself unable to leave. I watched as Bella kept house, planted flowers out front, scrubbed her kitchen until it shown, her hair pulled up in a messy ponytail, dirt on her face, and a sparkle in her eye. The white lace curtains fluttered in the summer breeze from the open window.
Her flower garden became my only calendar, the trees at the edge of the forest my throne – a cage for the undead built of growing things, organic cathedral buttresses for the stone monster. The days turned cold, leaves died and fell, baring my tree naked, and still she planted, tended, nurtured. Had she hidden this from me, this love for the earth, for tiny living things? What else would I have denied her, damned to an eternity devoid of life?
Her mind remained a mystery to me still, as intriguing as the first day, as painful as the last, secrets locked away like songs I never learned.
She aged another year, and didn't complain. She harvested from her tiny vegetable garden, and I knew it was autumn. She covered her flower beds, alerting me to the impending frost, and still I stayed, crouched and watching, ever attentive. Jacob sat with her through the long dark evenings, the fire on the hearth providing a counterpoint to their laughter. She cooked, she read, she hummed in vibrancy, she smiled incessantly. She mended Jacob's tattered clothes, needle flashing in the firelight, a wolf-girl caring for her werewolf.
And yet, sometimes when the sun set behind the trees, as the winter twilight turned bitter, she would look out the window towards the fading purples of the east, her face wistful. Did I imagine it was regret that clouded her eyes? Where could she possibly fit regret into a life so full and happy? I longed to know her mind, but I was glad I couldn't hear her voice.
Winter turned to spring, and her flower garden bloomed red and yellow and violet, and still I stayed.
One summer morning, her scent changed. It was subtle, but I understood instantly. My silent heart echoed hollowly.
Two days later, Jacob ventured into the woods behind their house, shortly after sunset. Bella had gone to bed early.
"I can smell you," he said softly. "Are you still here?"
"Yes," I answered, perched in a tree not far away.
He took a few ambling steps in my direction. Easy, relaxed. A man strolling through the woods. "Am I going crazy," he asked after a minute of silence, "or does Bella smell different?"
"She does," I replied, and even to my own ears my voice sounded resigned.
"You know why," Jacob said.
"It wasn't hard to guess."
He thought it through for a few minutes, strolling around my tree. I listened as his mind hit on the correct answer and then disregarded it, only to return to it moments later.
"Congratulations," I said, the word sticking to my teeth.
"You're surprised?" I asked.
I read the shrug in his mind. "I suppose I shouldn't be. We had decided to start trying, but... Wow."
I turned away, crouched gargoyle becoming stone again. In another life, I could have been happy for this man. In another world, I could have celebrated with him as my brother. A baby, a child, one of the many things Jacob could give her that I could not.
If it had been anyone but Bella, I would have been happy for him. Anyone but Bella.
"I feel like I owe you my first born child," he said one night, as we sat in maple trees twenty feet apart, staring at the moon.
I watched as images flitted through his mind – Bella had just had her first ultrasound, and Jacob's mind was frozen in the moment of awe at hearing his child's heartbeat. His daughter's heartbeat, the nurse had told them confidently, and I could see from the remembered, grainy picture in Jacob's head that she was correct.
I banished the ghosts my mind conjured of a little girl with Bella's eyes and my hair.
"You don't owe me anything, Jacob." My voice was gravelly. I hardly spoke to anyone but him anymore.
"I owe you everything," he objected aloud. His mental voice agreed. So open and truthful. He would be a good father.
I stared out through the trees, across their backyard, to their little house with its little curtains, the squares of light pouring from the windows onto the dark lawn, framing Bella's steady heartbeat – but I saw the rooftops of Rio de Janeiro, the dungeons of Volterra. "You kept her alive when I couldn't," I ground out, emotion long since flayed to dust. "I will always owe you more than you know."
He shook his head, defiant and stubborn. "She stayed because of you." I never would have had a chance if you hadn't gone, he thought, internal and external overlapping, but not contradicting. "And we never could have beat the redhead and her army without you." And what you did, letting her go like that… "Thanks isn't enough, but…" He trailed off into the sound of the summer crickets.
We stared at the moon, and were silent.
"Still, there's something sort of Rumplestiltskin about it, isn't there?" Jacob said sometime later. I had counted eight hundred forty-two beats of Bella's heart in the silence.
"I don't want your daughter, Jacob," I whispered, and let my words be carried away on the wind.
Jacob's daughter was born late one stormy spring night. Carlisle attended to the birth in their little house, at Bella's request. I hid in my tree on the edge of the property, banishing thoughts of Heathcliff from my mind as the lightning cracked around me.
Rebecca came into the world screaming, but that was the last time I heard her make that particular noise. She was a happy child, first gurgling and then laughing her way through life. She had Jacob's coloring but Bella's eyes. She was the smallest human I had ever seen.
By the time Caleb arrived, Rebecca had learned to run. In the lengthening shadows of long summer evenings, she would run in large, oblong circles in their backyard, singing songs only she knew. I had seen every day of her life, but I couldn't say exactly how old Rebecca was when her brother was born.
The late summer lilies bloomed, and the leaves of my maple dyed blood red, then sailed to the ground one by one. Jacob raked the yard, and Bella balanced Caleb on her hip, laughing as Rebecca dove into piles of fallen leaves, scarlet startling in her chestnut hair.
As the sun set and the rains came, as Bella's birthday loomed once again, I made my promise anew: I would never be far. I could count the next seventy autumns, and then follow her into the dark. I would watch her, protect her, cherish the life Jacob had given her. It would be enough.
It had to be enough.