They sat quietly in her living room. Biology textbooks and sheets of paper covered with her round writing and his scrawl were spread over every flat surface.
Jacob was lying on the floor, using his habitually discarded shirt as a pillow. Lazy late afternoon sunlight filtered through the curtains and Bella turned so that some of it landed on her face. Closing her eyes, her lips curled into a small smile. Sunny days were hard to come by in Forks.
She heard him sit up, somehow knowing that he was studying the way the light danced across her skin.
"Let's take a break," he said sleepily. "All I can think about is photosynthesis."
Is that what they're calling it these days? she thought sarcastically. Jacob never looked at plants like he wanted to run away with them.
"Sounds good," she agreed. "Want to make some popcorn?"
"Sometimes I feel like you ask questions when you already know the answer, Bells."
She laughed and got up to go into the kitchen. Her knees cracked as she stood and she wrinkled her nose, blushing slightly. Why did being human have to be so noisy?
Jacob pressed the back of his hand against his mouth to hide a smirk, but he wasn't quite fast enough.
"Shut it," she snapped. The metallic jangle of pots being rearranged spilled out of the kitchen. "Not everyone can run through the woods for half a day without breaking a sweat."
Following her out of the living room, he started to correct her. "Actually, wolves don't-"
She set a saucepan on the stove with more force than necessary and drizzled oil into it. "I know. It was a metaphor."
"Sure it was." He went to the pantry and pulled out a large jar of popcorn kernels, shaking it rhythmically as he walked over to join her by the stove.
Leaning against the counter in silence, they watched the oil slowly heat up.
"So this one time I read a really good story," Bella said pensively after a while, frustration apparently forgotten.
A strand of hair had slipped out of her ponytail, and Jacob reached out and gently tucked it behind her ear. "Is it the one about how you guys came over here and stole popcorn from us?"
She laughed and swatted at him. "No. It's about salt."
"Yeah. Once upon a time, there was a king who had three daughters-"
"Jeez, Bells, what is this story rated?" He clapped his hands dramatically over his ears. "If it involves a flood, princes spending the night, and a butcher, I've heard it and it makes my ears bleed. You're trying to corrupt a minor."
Bella rolled her eyes. "Oh yeah, your poor virgin ears."
A slow, suggestive grin spread across his face. "Hey, do you wanna-"
"Cut it out, Jake."
"Sorry." He forced his face to relax into something that resembled repentance. "Please continue."
She sighed loudly and pretended to have trouble opening the container of popcorn so he wouldn't see her struggling to hide her own smile. Why did he have to make it so hard to stay mad at him?
"So this king wanted to know how his daughters felt about him. He calls them all into the room and asks them. The oldest one says, 'Father, I love you more than my life.' He approves and she leaves the room happy. The middle one says, 'Father, I love you more than the whole world.' He's flattered and she leaves with praise, like her sister."
Bella dumped several handfuls of kernels into the sizzling oil. "Then youngest daughter thinks about it and says, 'Father, I love you like salt.' Furious, the king banishes her."
Bella closed the lid tightly over the kernels and gave the saucepan a shake before continuing.
"The princess is homeless and alone when a prince finds her. Inevitably, they fall in love because that's what princes and princesses do." Bella's tone implied that, while a necessary plot device for fairy tales, the predictability was a bit contrived. She continued. "They're going to get married and she knows the king will be there, but he doesn't know that his daughter is the bride. So the day of the wedding, she goes to the kitchen and tells them not to put any salt in the food. They're confused, obviously, but they agree."
The sound of the first few kernels popping made Bella jump.
Her hand slipped down the handle of the saucepan and she yelped, whipping her hand to her chest.
"Shit, are you okay, Bells?" Jacob's voice was urgent but gentle, like he already knew she would be fine. She found it oddly soothing.
He turned on the faucet and flicked his finger through the stream of water until it was cold enough, and she let the water run over her hand for a few minutes. The relief was immediate.
Jacob reached behind him to give the pan another shake and turn down the heat, keeping one hand on Bella's shoulder.
When her hand was almost numb, she turned off the water.
"It's not that bad, really. I just barely got the edge of those two fingers." She indicated the small red marks. "Thanks though, Jake."
"No problem." He gave her shoulder a comforting squeeze and she leaned into it. "So the food at the wedding sucked?"
Bella opened a cabinet to pull out a big stainless steel bowl, her hand leaving droplets of water on the surface. "Yeah, it did. Everyone there was grossed out and angry. But all of a sudden, the king started crying. People we really worried and kept asking him what was wrong, because it wasn't particularly regal behavior. Eventually he said, 'I once had a daughter who told me she loved me like salt. I punished her, but I see now that she loved me the most. And now I have no idea where she is.'"
She paused to put a lump of butter in a small bowl and slide it into the microwave while Jacob turned off the stove, dumping fluffy, steaming popcorn into the bowl on the counter. They moved around the kitchen smoothly, focused on what they were doing but always aware of each other. Sometimes when they cooked together, it felt like dancing.
"The king's daughter lifts up her veil and says, 'I'm right here.' And they all lived happily ever after." Bella finished.
Having told the story, she felt oddly deflated. Jacob's lack of a reaction wasn't helping.
Pouring the butter on the popcorn, she glanced at him and asked, "What'd you think?"
"It's a good story, don't get me wrong," Jacob said hesitantly, considering the question. "I'm just not buying it. I don't think she loved him the most."
"Really?" Bella sounded slightly disappointed as she took a handful of napkins from the holder on the table. "Can you grab two sodas?"
"Sure." Jacob crossed over to the fridge easily as Bella walked back into the living room. "She loved him like a seasoning," Jacob said from the kitchen. "I just think that's not as much as life or the world."
Bella fluffed the pillows on the sofa and wiggled into them. "That was actually my initial reaction, too." He joined her, setting the bowl on the coffee table in front of them. "But then... I don't know. I guess I got something different out of it." She shrugged, trying to make the comment seem off-hand.
They cracked open their cans at the same time. It was a uniquely amiable sound, one that indicated the start of a good conversation between close friends.
And they were close friends. They spent so much time together that they didn't always have to finish their own sentences. They had started to adopt each other's hand gestures and speech patterns. Sitting in silence had become just as comfortable as talking.
And somehow, it still wasn't enough. Bella wasn't sure if it ever would be.
"Well, can I hear your interpretation or do I have to beg?" he asked, letting his voice drop suggestively at the end of the question.
She nudged him with her knee and inspected her soda through the small opening.
She looked away. "Am not."
"Are too. But Bells, you do not want to play this game with me. I am both immature and persistent and I'll probably win."
"Jake, I told the story. I think you should go first."
He took a long pull of soda while rolling his eyes. Bella smiled and settled further into the pillows, waiting for his explanation.
Jacob set the can down. "Okay, fine. It's like this."
He pushed the bowl of popcorn along the table so that it was centered between them. He gestured to it with an open hand. "This is life."
Bella nodded pensively.
He took shook the salt shaker over the bowl, watching the grains stick. "This is love." He set the shaker down and sat back triumphantly.
Bella glanced at him, then back at the bowl. "That's it?"
He threw his hands up in the air, letting out an exasperated huff. "What'd you mean 'that's it?' I just explained my life's philosophy to you and you're completely unimpressed." He let his hands fall into his lap. "Maybe you just don't appreciate my zen-like approach."
"No, I did appreciate it. I just don't see why the salt is so important in that scenario. It's still just a seasoning, like you said before."
"Okay, so I was wrong about that." He took her uninjured hand and flipped it so her palm was facing up. His fingers lingered for a second longer than they needed to, as they always did.
Jacob plunged his hand into the bowl and grabbed a piece of popcorn from the bottom. He put it in Bella's open hand. "Eat that, Bells, and tell me how it tastes."
She popped it into her mouth and chewed, her teeth squeaking slightly against it before she swallowed.
"Ummm... it tastes alright."
"Exactly. It's just 'alright.' Now eat this one," he said as he handed her one from the top of the bowl.
Of course, she'd seen where he was going from the start. Truthfully, she had imagined that he would feed her the popcorn himself. Startled by her own insidious daydream, she pushed the thought aside. Her silent reminder to herself that he was her best friend was becoming something of a mantra.
"That one's way better," she conceded, "but I think the butter helps a lot."
"Yeah, the salted butter."
"Point taken." She wiped her hand off on a napkin. "So popcorn is better with salt and life is better with love."
"Yeah. It makes it worth it." He sat quietly for a moment before leaning back again.
Bella watched him, suddenly and inexplicably wondering what his mother had really been like. Not her own fuzzy and scarce recollections, but his bigger ones. What had it had felt like to lose her? To keep losing her, a little every day. First, the exact color of her eyes, then her lyrical laugh. What was left?
Had he grown up thinking she would be around forever? Maybe, like most kids, he had just skipped along from one day to the next, never thinking about death until he'd had to. She was almost overwhelmed by curiosity, but she knew that now wasn't the time.
Maybe she would ask gently one night, while they were listening to waves break along the beach or while studying the stars. She would make sure it was dark enough for him to hide things, if he needed to.
"I think you're making salt a bigger deal than it really is," she said instead.
He met her eyes briefly. "It is a big deal, though, Bells. People die without salt." He patted her open biology book next to him on the couch. "It's a dietary requirement or whatever..." He paused, seeming to work up the courage to say something. She brought her soda to her lips, hoping that the predictable movement would make it easier for him to talk.
"Plus it can make your heart do weird stuff."
His tone made her stop mid-sip before swallowing audibly and setting the can down slowly on the coffee table.
Why was it so hard to breathe? It was like he had poured something thick into the air.
Out of habit, she immediately returned to her old, silent chant: Jacob's your best friend. Jacob's your best friend. Jacob's your best friend. It felt like a well-worn path in the woods, and she knew every inch by heart. She could follow it with her eyes closed, with music on, with her head full of poetry.
Except that this time, she had come to the end. There were no trees blocking her way, but it was crowded with sunlit undergrowth.
Bella cleared her throat nervously. "Jake, I think I may have told you that story for a reason. I couldn't figure out what it was until just now, but..." The living room was bright and suddenly sweltering. Some of that must have been coming from him.
When had he gotten that close? She looked up at him, but he was staring at her lips.
Bella found that it was nearly impossible to breathe now. She felt her feet leave the hard-packed dirt of the path and tentatively step onto the new, warm grass.
Before she could stop herself, she leaned forward and kissed him. His lips were smooth and hot and soft. Bella kept her eyes half open. She wanted to see him.
He didn't pull back at all, so she slowly dragged her fingers back along his jawline toward his ear and curled them in his hair. He gasped softly and left his mouth open for her, his eyes still closed. She parted her own lips and silently and carefully tugged on his bottom lip with her teeth. Their mouths were sweet from the soda.
How many times had she imagined this, before the old mantra had a chance to be recited? She'd lost count of all the nights she had stayed up wondering if he tasted as good as he smelled: woodsy and clean.
And now she knew the answer. He tasted even better.
He tasted like the air right before a thunderstorm- soft enough to flow through her skin, but filled with crackling electricity.
I'm kissing Jacob. I'm kissing Jacob right now. I'm kissing Jake! There was no need for persuasion and self deception this time. Her new incantation had a jubilant boldness to it.
Jacob uncertainly slid his hand up her arm and gently took her hair down. He dragged his fingers through it, reveling in the sensation. She sighed against his mouth.
He slowly moved his hand so his thumb was resting between her jaw and ear and the rest of his fingers were curling around the back of her neck. She closed her eyes as goosebumps prickled along her skin.
"Bells?" His whisper was almost reverent as she placed a small kiss at the corner of his mouth. "Is this really happening?"
She didn't trust herself to speak, so she nodded and let her tongue trace his bottom lip for a fraction of a second.
It was enough.
He twisted, pushing her back against the pillows, fingers knotting in her hair, their mouths moving in hot waves. It was her turn to gasp as his leg slid between hers, trying to find a way to get closer to her, to touch her more. Her forgotten biology book fell off the sofa with a loud thud.
He kissed her cheek, her jaw, her neck. She could only draw ragged breaths through her open mouth as his arm slid around her waist and pulled her closer, his lips near her ear. She arched into him and dragged her nails down his back, feeling his muscles tense under her fingers. He inhaled sharply through clenched teeth and and then groaned loudly, resting his head on her shoulder and moving his hips hard against hers.
Bella's eyes shot open.
"Um, Jake? I think we should stop." Her voice didn't sound like hers. "We're already going to have to lie if anybody asks us what our first kiss was like because I feel like we definitely just broke some kind of rule." She was rambling.
He laughed breathlessly into her shoulder. "Sorry."
He lifted himself off of her and she sat up, straightening her shirt. He grabbed his open textbook from off the coffee table and flipped it over onto his lap.
"I don't think that makes much of a difference," Bella mused, pointing at the overturned book. It wouldn't have fooled anybody.
He rested one foot against the edge of the table to make it less obvious. "Hey, it's the thought that counts."
Flustered, she laughed and pushed her hair out of her face. Everything felt a bit surreal. Maybe it was because seconds before, he had actually been on top of her.
Suddenly serious, Bella looked at him. "Jake, I think we need to talk about what just happened."
He smiled broadly and absently ran his fingers over his lips. "I think we don't."
"You don't kiss somebody like that and then not talk about it."
He shoveled a handful of popcorn into his mouth and pointed at her. "Whoa, Bells, you definitely initiated that. I was an innocent bystander."
Bella glared at him before grabbing some popcorn for herself and dropping it onto a napkin. "Innocent bystanders do not get boners."
He smirked, leaned over, and took a drink of her soda before she could stop him.
"Gimme a break, Bells. It was only a halfy."
She snatched the can out of his hands. "Go get another one." His eyebrows shot up and he opened his mouth to respond. "Oh my gosh. I meant another soda and you know it."
Jacob gave an exaggerated sigh and stood up. "Fine, fine." Having started for the refrigerator, he stopped and turned around. "Do you want me to get one for you? And I don't mean a soda."
A pillow came flying at his head while he laughed, grabbing it before it could hit him. He tossed it into an empty armchair and walked into the kitchen.
Flexing her arm, she winced. Had she seriously just pulled a muscle throwing a pillow at him? More importantly: had she really just made out with Jacob Black?
"You are so lucky I can't turn into a giant wolf or something," he said when he returned. "You'd be in big trouble."
Her laugh was partially one of relief. The surreal feeling had dissipated, and it all felt strangely natural. "Yeah Jake, you're completely terrifying. But back to that kiss..."
It had to be addressed. Monumental events like kissing your best friend couldn't be ignored, especially if it had felt like everything had clicked into place, like they fit together perfectly.
"I love you like salt," he said.
Panicking, Bella's eyes snapped to his.
"Jake, no. You can't say it out loud like that."
"Well how else can I do it? I don't know how to say 'salt' in sign language and everything I can think of would look sexual."
The sound she made in response was more like a sob than anything else.
"It's okay, Bells. It's nothing new." His hand covered hers and he shrugged. "I've loved you for a while. Maybe forever." He could be commenting on the weather, he sounded so at ease.
She opened and closed her mouth several times before she could form the words she had known were true for months.
"I love you too, Jake." Once she'd started, she couldn't stop. "I love the way you look at me. I love the way you laugh and chew and walk. I love your handwriting. I love how you know all the words to every song on the radio and how you can fix anything. I just..." Overwhelmed, she paused and took a deep, shaky breath. "I just love you."
Before she knew what was happening, Jacob had pulled her off of the sofa and was hugging her fiercely. Her feet were dangling several inches off the ground so she curled her arms around his neck and hooked her legs around his waist, pulling herself up. Their lips met again, but this time, they moved slowly.
She rested her cheek against his bare shoulder and let out a contented sigh as he carried her out of the living room. Why had it taken her so long to kiss him?
Jacob set her down gently on the counter and pushed her hair out of her face. He was looking at her like she had just fixed everything, like she had made it all worth it.
Maybe she had.
"I love your eyes," he began quietly and she blinked back tears. "I love that you keep every birthday card you've ever gotten and the way you pour stuff with both hands. I love-"
She cut him off with a deep kiss, squeezing her legs tightly around him. He smiled against her lips.
"Hope I'm not interrupting anything," said a gruff voice. They jumped apart as Charlie tossed his keys onto the kitchen table.
Shock quickly turned into mortification. Nobody made eye contact.
"Um," Bella said as she slid off of the counter. "No, not at all. Jake and I were just talking."
Charlie took off his holster and set it carefully on the table. Bella had no doubt that his timing was intentional. "If you say so."
"Dad, cut it out," she mumbled quietly in his direction as she followed Jacob into the dark living room.
"I should probably go. It's pretty late," he said as they gathered up their scattered books and papers. "Hopefully this will be funny tomorrow."
"If there's a tomorrow," she replied.
Jacob laughed quietly. "You can wait in here if you want. I've got this," he said, sounding less than confident. He reached out and bushed his fingers across her still-tingling mouth. "You're beautiful, Bells." She smiled, imagining their families gathered around a long, dish-strewn table, years from now, laughing uproariously as Jacob told them about that time Charlie had almost killed him.
"I'm sorry about that, Mr. Swan," Bella heard Jake say formally as he walked into the kitchen.
"Cut the crap, Jacob. And sit down."
She crept towards the doorway, but Charlie saw the movement and waved her into the kitchen. "Why don't you go upstairs?" he suggested, not meeting her eyes. Bella realized suddenly that her dad was just as uncertain as she was. "Jacob and I are just going to have a... talk."
He also had several guns.
Bella nodded and started toward the stairs. Realizing that she probably wouldn't get to say goodbye to Jacob before he left, she turned around.
"Night, Jake," she said softly and gave a short, awkward wave.
"Night, Bells." His smile was fast, but his eyes flickered as he looked at her, making her blush.
While she got ready for bed, the sounds of a guarded but effective conversation floated up the stairs. After the apology would come an explanation.
We're in love. It just happened.
Maybe that would be followed by some fatherly advice from Charlie. He obviously liked Jacob, so maybe he could escape with minor injuries.
Edward had never been able to win Charlie over, Bella remembered. But he hadn't really needed to. The plan had always been to sneak around, whisper, and eventually leave.
It still hurt when she really thought about him, she realized. But it was getting better every day. Bella never expected to forget Edward completely, but she could feel the memories trickling away, little by little.
And she let them.
Eventually, she heard the front door shut. Charlie picked up the phone and dialed a number so familiar that the buttons he pushed were completely smooth. Bella briefly wondered how many times the Black residence had been called from that very phone with invitations to come over and watch the game or speculation about how the weather would affect their catch. There had probably been late night calls made and received, filled with gruff concern, quiet agony, and the kind of sympathy that comes only with decades of friendship.
"You doin' alright?"
"I can't believe she's gone." His voice is full of alcohol and disbelief.
"Neither can I."
But nothing like this call had ever flashed across those wires.
Bella strained to hear Charlie's side of the conversation.
"I don't know. I just walked in and they were..."
"No, not that."
"That's what I told him."
"Not yet. I'm heading up there now."
"Alright, you too."
He hung up and Bella scrambled into her bed.
Although she was expecting it, Charlie's soft knock on the door still made her jump. "Come in."
He came in and walked slowly over to her desk. Studying the photos pinned to the cork board there, he sighed. He sounded tired.
"When I said to learn to love what's good for you, I didn't mean on the kitchen counter."
Bella snorted and picked at her purple bedspread for a while, not sure what to say.
He pointed to the picture of Billy and Jacob. "Two of the best people I know."
She nodded, chewing her lip.
"Look," he said, walking over and sitting on the bed near her feet. Pausing, he seemed to be collecting his thoughts. "I just want you to be happy."
"I am, Dad."
"Okay." He paused again. "Are you and Jacob...dating?"
They hadn't really had a chance to figure out what to call it, she realized. "I love him."
Charlie shut his eyes briefly and nodded. "Okay."
Okay? That was it? Apparently the cross-examination had been satisfactory.
"But go easy on him, alright? The kid's been through a lot."
Even as she felt the sting, she knew his concern was well-placed. Some of Jacob's pain had been her fault. She couldn't deny that.
Charlie stood up and kissed the top of her head. When he got to the door, he stopped.
"Oh, and you're grounded for... a week."
"For kissing Jacob?"
Charlie shifted uncomfortably, not used to bargaining with her. "Okay, three days. But stay off the counter top."
Bella couldn't stifle her laugh and Charlie's mustache twitched as he smiled.
"Love you, Dad."
"Love you too, Bells."
As soon as he had quietly shut the door, she climbed out of bed and went over to her desk. Unpinning the picture of Jacob and Billy, Bella wondered how long it would take before it finally sank in.
Somehow, throughout the course of the day, between studying biology and leaning in so their lips could touch, Jacob had become hers.
She could stare openly while he worked on the Rabbit without having to pretend to be studying the engine. She could kiss him and touch him and tell him that she loved him. She could be Isabella Marie Black; she could be Mom and Grandma.
But not much had actually changed, when she thought about it.
They would still fight and laugh. They would still sing off-key when they listened to that classic rock station out of Port Angeles and they'd burn every grilled cheese sandwich they made. She would always put her cold feet on him to warm up, even after he'd stopped phasing. They would still be best friends.
He would still tempt her. They would stop at every car accident they saw to ask if they could help. Bella would run outside before summer thunderstorms and close her eyes; when Jacob asked why, she would smile. They'd run away when they needed to, but they'd always come back home.
They would go by many names over the course of their life together, but he would always be Jake and she would always be Bells. And they would always have a love like salt.