Yes, this is the last chapter—I am sad to see it end! But it is a nice long one, for you dedicated readers, without whom this story would never have reached its potential. This chapter is particularly dedicated to SilverTippedFeather, who has encouraged me greatly. If all of you found pleasure in this story, please leave me a review, however short. I treasure them. J Thank you once more, from the bottom of my heart, and please enjoy.
The youth stirred, and reached out his hand to the maiden.
He had been frozen for so long that he was very weak.
The maiden took his hand
And together they walked out of the room and down the stairs.
There on the second floor
Waited the troll princess, an axe in her hand.
Quickly the maiden took the small bow and arrow from beneath her rags
And shot the troll princess in the heart.
Nothing was terribly clear for at least an hour. At first, I leaned almost all my weight against Jacob's great neck. It mortified me, but I had no choice—I would have fallen otherwise. My consciousness—or attention—even faded in and out. I absently wondered what Sam's jaws had done to me, and if he had caused permanent damage. But thoughts of myself were secondary next to the dominating fear that paralyzed my movements—fear for the small gray wolf.
I wanted to help—tried to help—when Jacob and Seth phased and picked Leah up to carry her back to her house, but Jacob told me to stay back. I shuffled after them down the path, dripping wet, trying to get my head to clear. Sam had ducked off into the trees—I don't know where he went.
Seth, Jacob and I had just reached Leah's yard when she caught a moment of consciousness, and in a quaking, whimpering fit, she phased back into her broken human body. Shreds of her sarong still hung around her, and Seth and Jacob covered her, their faces tight with distress. I could not bear look at her—the bones of her right arm were in pieces.
Now, I leaned against the doorframe of the Clearwaters' living room, arms folded. Leah, unconscious again, lay on her back on the couch wearing one of Seth's sleeveless shirts and his baggy sweatpants. Her arm was bound in a sling—Jacob and I had managed to set her bones. A large bruise stood out around her right eye, her lip was split, and lacerations lined the skin of her neck and arms. Jacob sat on a short stool before her, his back to me, his arms resting on his knees. Seth had gone to get their mother.
I shifted, purposefully taking a breath. Again, I was clad in Seth's clothes. I did not mind their scent now, or that of Jacob Black. And Leah's scent of pine and fire—I held onto it, drawing it in, for I sensed it fading. I swallowed hard.
"Will she die?"
Jacob, wearing jeans and a black shirt now, did not turn his head.
"I don't think so. But there's no way to set her ribs if they've misaligned without surgery—and if her spine is broken..." He took a deep breath, then did not go on. Something sat like a rock in my gut. I straightened, then leaned my back against the doorframe. My brow tightened, and I reached up to rub my eyes, then covered them.
"This is my fault," I whispered. "I did this." I took a step toward Jacob, my voice thickening. "I should have let them kill me. Then Sam would have been satisfied and Leah wouldn't have tried to protect me."
Jacob did not move for a long time. And then, his dark head tilted, and he looked at me out of the corner of his obsidian eye.
"You think so?" he asked quietly. "You don't think a fight between Sam and Leah has been a long time coming?" He faced me more fully. "And you think you being dead would make her happier?"
I stared at him, baffled. Jacob sighed and ran a hand through his short hair. He returned his gaze to Leah.
"Leah told me. She showed me everything," he muttered, then shook his head. "Yay for telepathy."
"Everything?" I stammered.
"Relax, leech," Jacob answered. "It was a good thing." He looked at me again. I froze.
"She cares about you," he said. "A lot. That's why I decided to break the alpha command." He got up, took a blanket off the back of the couch, and gently draped it over Leah. "And I haven't heard a thank you for that yet, by the way."
"Jacob," I managed, feeling like I was reaching the limit of what I could endure. "I don't know what you're talking about."
Jacob sighed again, then turned to face me. I saw the guarded look in his eyes, even if I couldn't read his mind. But his frame carried resignation—and even a little detached sadness—and that arrested my attention.
"I smelled you on Leah," Jacob told me. "I made her tell me what had been going on. We phased, and she let me in her head, and I saw everything—all her memories of you. And everything she thought about you." Jacob's mouth tightened for a moment, but he looked at me squarely. "And I told her I wouldn't hurt you, because you had saved her life. But I also told her to tell you to get the heck out of Dodge, because all hell would break loose once Sam found out. But she didn't have the chance." Jacob turned and gazed down at her. "Sam followed us, and gave us an alpha command—an unbreakable order. He told Leah to go inside her house and stay there, and he told me to go protect Bella, while he went with the rest of the pack to kill you." Jacob met my eyes again. "Both of us broke the command. I can't tell you for sure what happened with Leah, but if it was anything like the up-ended torture that I went through…" Again, he trailed off, and I was left with what my vivid imagination could provide.
My eyes fixed on Leah's still face, and pain riddled my chest. Why was it that, wherever I went, whoever I touched, all I brought was suffering?
Jacob sat down again. Neither of us spoke any more.
I wanted to kneel next to Leah, to brush that stray strand of hair away from her forehead, lay my hand on her brow and whisper to her, to beg her forgiveness. I longed to plead with her to open her dark, bright eyes and just look at me.
But I couldn't. Not with Jacob there. I had to stand where I was, unmoving, caressing her with only my gaze, all of my pleas caught in my throat.
I blinked. Something went off-kilter, as if I stood on a slanted deck of a ship. That name sounded so strange, so awkward, cutting into my thoughts like that and invading the open air of this room…
Jacob spoke tightly, without looking at me.
"Bella knows you're here."
The reality of what he'd said slammed into me. My eyes went wide.
"You were trying to keep it a secret?" Jacob turned a strange look on me.
"I swore to her that she'd never see me again," I snapped, my stomach suddenly churning with strange, old emotions. "I meant it when I told her she didn't belong with me—I wanted her to be able to live without—"
Jacob stood up so fast even I didn't see it, and grabbed my arm. He yanked me around, and we were halfway through the door before I realized that he was protecting Leah's rest from the noise of a quarrel. I instantly gave in, and went with Jacob. He let go of me. We came to the threshold of the front door, and he wheeled around and faced me. His black eyes blazed.
"Listen," he hissed. "It wasn't exactly my idea. But I had to give Bella some sort of explanation after I spent five minutes dry-heaving in her front yard."
Our eyes locked. I did not answer. Something in Jacob's hard exterior cracked. He looked down before I could see through it.
"And now that she knows…" He took a breath. "She wants to see you."
The stone in my gut turned to shards of glass.
"No," I said. "No. I won't do it."
Jacob lifted his eyes to me.
"You owe me."
Now I was lost. I stared at him, trying in earnest to understand what it was he had just meant. His face gave away nothing—just hard determination, as if he had a bullet clamped between his teeth.
"What?" I managed stupidly.
"I saved your butt," he said. "Even if you had managed to take down Sam, the other pack members would have been on you—heck, I might have been forced to kill you myself. You owe me a favor."
"No, I understand that part," I waved him off, my brow knotted so hard it hurt. "I just don't understand…" I gazed back at him, almost imploring him to finish my thought for me.
"…why I would let you anywhere near the girl I love when she loved you first?" he said, with a bluntness that hit me in the chest. I swallowed. He stepped an inch closer to me. I braced myself for an insult, for a belittling comment about how he wanted to prove that I was no longer a threat, and that he had conquered Bella Swan's heart for all to see. But instead, that crack in his hard exterior opened wider, and that distant sadness came near. It illuminated his eyes.
"Would you want a girl to be with you because she was settling?" he whispered. "Or because, given an option, she chose you?"
For a long moment, I could not speak. And then my eyes were drawn back into that living room where Leah lay asleep. My head came back around, and I burned Jacob with my eyes.
"I will not take Bella back," I bit out, the back of my throat stinging. Jacob blinked.
"I don't think you're in that position," he said. "Seems to me like she would be the one deciding whether or not to take you back." Jacob started to go back into the living room.
"Really, Jacob—" I called, still bewildered. "Why would you do this?"
He stopped, and looked at me.
"Haven't you ever heard that old saying?"
I waited. He looked away.
"'If you love someone, let her go. If she returns, she was always yours. If she doesn't, she never was.'" He strode back into the living room. "Go on, Edward. She'll be at the Forks High parking lot at ten. Don't keep her waiting."
I went by my house before I worked my way to the high school. I put on my gray pea coat, even though it was warm out, and turned up the collar. I did not want anyone to see my bruises.
I told myself that this was nothing—that I could do this. But even as I dragged my way to the parking lot, as if my limbs were made of stone, my stomach rolled, my jaw clenched, and I felt colder than I had when I had sunk beneath that river. Perhaps I did not have to imagine too hard to grasp what Jacob and Leah had gone through when they defied that alpha command.
I took short steps, my hands rammed in my pockets, my head low. This is what it was like to swallow a poisonous cocktail of guilt, anxiety, humiliation, awkwardness, and dread, compounded and thickened by an inexorable force pulling me toward her, like a meteor pulled in by gravity—or a moth to a flame. And along with that, there was a haze in my mind, and an uncertainty in my balance that made me feel like I was walking in a dream.
I crossed the asphalt. The trees retreated, and the cloudy sky opened up above me. My right foot hit a stone that skittered away. I lifted my head.
There, in the very spot where I had saved her from the careening van, stood Bella Swan. She wore jeans and a brown jacket, and she stood by the passenger door of her beat up orange pickup. Her eyes found me.
And one thought ran through my mind:
She looks so young.
She was still a remarkably pretty girl, her dark eyes and full lips set off by her chestnut hair and pale skin. Her countenance bore the mark of two losses: that of her parents' marriage—and me. I felt a smile full of pain try to start on my face.
And I couldn't even bear to look in the mirror at my scars anymore.
I took ten more steps toward her. I counted them. Our eyes never wavered from each other. I stopped when I was still ten steps from her. And I knew, before we exchanged a word, that she was no longer the same Bella Swan I had left behind.
Her lips parted. I did not breathe. Her eyes softened.
I softened my own gaze, strange, sweet, familiar anguish flooding my chest.
"Hello, Bella Swan."
I wondered who had spoken his name into the silence—until I felt my lips close. My eyes and eyelids ached—even more so when I tried to open them. My eyes only dimly focused, and then sharp pain lanced down my entire right side.
I jerked, which clenched all my muscles and forced a jagged grunt from my chest. I screwed my eyes shut. My right arm was bent at the elbow, and held tight against me by something like a bandage or a sling. And then a hand pressed against my forehead. It was warm. My eyes flew open.
"Jacob?" I rasped. He gave me a crooked smile.
I frowned, and made my eyes focus this time.
"You saved Edward's butt. Then he saved yours. Then I saved his." He took his hand away from my face, and knelt down beside me, resting his elbows on the edge of the couch. "It's been a busy day."
I turned my head toward him, studying his face—his face that bore forced levity. My throat choked, and it took a minute for me to force out the word.
Jacob jerked his head away, and his jaw muscles worked. He sucked in a breath, then met my eyes again.
"He's around. Somewhere. Took off into the woods after I finished the fight for him."
I let out a rattling breath and stared at the ceiling. A ceiling I recognized as the one in my living room.
"How did I get back here?" I wondered faintly.
"Seth and I carried you," Jacob answered. "Edward tried to help, but he was a little unsteady on his feet."
I blinked, and turned back to him.
"Is he all right?"
Jacob watched me for a moment, then nodded once.
"Yeah. He's with Bella."
Nothing happened for a moment. Then, a sickening, cold sensation, like half-frozen mercury sliding down my throat into my stomach, stopped my heart and chilled my bones.
"With…With Bella?" I stammered. He nodded. I sat up.
"Hey, hey! What are you trying to do?" Jacob cried, but I grimaced and forced my stomach muscles to lift me into a sitting position. I sat up, leaned sideways against the back of the couch, and let out a gasping breath, then panted until the pain subsided. Jacob got up and sat just behind me on the couch, and I felt his shoulder against my back. I felt him touch my injured elbow with his fingers, not wanting to hurt me.
"Don't try to get up," he warned. "I know you broke your ribs."
"I don't care about my ribs," I snarled. "I want to know why Edward is with Bella."
"Because she found out he was here. And I…" He let out a breath. And when he spoke next, his voice carried quiet power, and the most desperate desire I had ever heard:
"And I want her to look him in the face, and choose me instead."
My panic mounted.
"How did she find out?" I demanded.
"I had to explain what was happening when I broke the command."
I stopped. I twisted my head, but could not move more for the pain. I could barely see him behind me out of the corner of my eye. Finally, what he had been saying earlier made sense to me.
"You broke the command?"
"Yeah," Jacob murmured. My breath locked as amazement shook me.
"Why?" I whispered.
He didn't answer. He just leaned forward and rested his chin on my right shoulder. I squeezed my eyes shut—because that gesture, and his radiating warmth, told me all I needed to know.
"Thanks, Jake," I breathed, unable to make more sound. I tilted my head so my crown rested against his temple. For a long time, we were silent, and I fought back the thickness in my throat, and the burning in my eyes.
"So…" I managed, though my voice broke. "Who do you think they'll choose?"
Jacob did not answer. I just felt him swallow—and a shudder ran through him.
"Do we even have a chance?" I murmured. Again, he said nothing. And tears ran down my face.
Jacob scooted in and wrapped his arms around me, gently, and tucked his chin snugly against my neck. I cried there, silently. He held me as I shuddered there, weak with pain. I felt his jagged, fearful heartbeat against my back, and realized that not only my tears ran down my neck.
For a long time, neither of us used our voices again. We just gazed at each other, remembering the curves and angles of faces we knew like the backs of our hands. Then, finally, Bella lifted her eyebrows, just minutely, and spoke.
"You broke your promise," she murmured. "You said I would never see you again."
I drew in a breath. It was shallow, and tight.
"I didn't think you would," I confessed. "I came back because Rosalie told me you'd killed yourself."
Bella stared at me for a moment, then frowned sharply.
"Killed myself? Wha—Why would she think that?"
My mouth tightened.
"Alice saw a vision of you jumping off a cliff into the ocean," I told her. I glanced down as my voice lowered. "There aren't many ways to interpret that."
"I was cliff-diving," she said, as if my reaction was strange. "The La Push guys do it all the time."
I met her eyes.
"That sounds reckless."
She shrugged stiffly.
"They get reckless when they're bored."
I gave her a pointed look.
"I meant for you."
"I didn't get hurt—"
"But you could have," I cut in. "And I asked you not to do anything reckless. You broke your promise first—so our agreement doesn't matter."
Bella's mouth worked for a moment, then she made a sound that was almost a laugh, and she shook her head.
"I don't really recall there being any 'agreement," she said, giving me a severe look. "I just remember you telling me you didn't want me anymore, and leaving. And I had to figure out how to deal with that."
"By jumping off cliffs?" I cried, so much pain welling up inside my chest that I almost couldn't contain it.
"Yes!" she yelped, throwing her hands out in exasperation. "And riding motorcycles and crashing them, and walking through dark alleys and other stupid stuff because…because I thought it made me feel closer to you."
Her volume had dropped as her sentence went on. I fixed my eyes on her, and narrowed them.
She looked at me, and her mouth tightened.
"Yeah," she muttered, giving a futile gesture. "Every time I thought about doing something dangerous, there was your voice in my head saying 'Bella, don't.' 'Bella, stop.' 'Bella, back up.' 'Bella, no. No. No.' All you said was 'no.'" She shook her head and squeezed her eyes shut for a moment. "But I wanted to hear your voice so bad, no matter what you said, so I kept doing that stuff." Bella nodded, once. "Until Jacob pulled me out of the water at La Push." She opened her eyes. "Jacob made me tell him what I was doing, and why. After he listened to me, he said I was acting like a junkie—doing more and more dangerous things to get my fix, more and more often, but getting sicker and sicker. And he was right."
God help me, I prayed in horror—for I could feel my heart breaking all over again.
"Jacob decided to do something about it," Bella told me. "But instead of stopping me—he went with me."
I must have shown my surprise on my face, for she gave a half smile.
"Yeah—I went cliff diving again. With him." She chuckled. "And even though I crashed a couple times, he kept teaching me to drive the motorcycle so I finally got the hang of it. Until I forgot it was dangerous, because I knew what to do." She paused. Her face gained a strange aspect—regret; mixed with triumph. "And I stopped hearing your voice."
A long time passed, and again our eyes locked. My chest had clamped, and I could not breathe. I shook my head.
"I can't believe Jacob put you in those situations."
She held my gaze.
"I'm not made of glass, Edward," she murmured.
I just stared at her. I could do nothing else. She was so transformed—she had gained the mark of deep sorrow but she seemed more—alive than before. I smelled the perfume of her blood even more now, and the beat of her heart was steady. For a moment, I just listened—and then I stopped, a sudden realization hitting me. Her heart…
It wasn't beating jaggedly, like Leah's. Instead, it sounded like pure music—deeper and louder and healthier than ever. I swallowed hard.
"Listen to us," I whispered. "Arguing. I hadn't planned on arguing."
She canted her head, and spoke carefully.
"Why did you come, Edward?"
I bit back the pang I felt at the sound of my name on her lips.
"Because Jacob said you wanted to see me," I confessed.
"No, I didn't," she said. Then she stopped herself. "I mean, I didn't ask him to tell you that."
I raised my eyebrows as puzzle pieces came together.
"Then he must be testing you, Bella."
"No." Her voice was firm, and she shook her head once. "Jacob doesn't test me. He gives me the freedom to choose." Her voice lowered, but I heard her.
"He trusts me."
There it was. She hadn't been meaning to say it, but it came out. This was the difference that she saw between myself and Jacob. And it might be enough.
I took a breath, and finally asked the question I had been meaning to ask all along.
"Do you love him?"
She looked at me. Her brow tightened, and tears welled up in her eyes.
"Bella," I soothed. "It's all right. You can be honest. Do you love him?"
Her tears spilled over, and she swiped them away. But then she nodded once, then again—harder.
"I do." She choked. Then she gave a sudden, startled laugh, and looked at me as if she had been struck by an epiphany. "I do."
I raised my eyebrows.
"You seem surprised."
"I am. I mean…" Her brow furrowed, and her gaze grew distant. "It's not the same. I mean, I don't dream about him or sit by the phone waiting for him to call—and I don't feel that deep, almost…sweet pain that I missed so much when I lost you." She lifted her eyes, and she was suddenly, vividly, in the moment. "I laugh at him when he does something stupid and I worry about him when he's out with the pack and I grin like an idiot when he compliments my cooking. We disagree and we fight—sometimes we drive each other crazy." She paused. "He's my friend." Her visage became thoughtful again. "And somewhere along the way, he became the one who was more important than my pain." She hesitated a long moment, as if forming her thought completely before she voiced it. "Jacob is…" she began, speaking slowly. "Jacob is my heartbeat." She met my eyes. "And I can't ever leave it. Even if I tried."
A slow almost-smile started on my mouth—for what she described sounded familiar to me. Bella studied me, uncertain.
"You're not mad at me?"
I shook my head and sighed, my almost-smile remaining.
"How could I be, Bella?" I hesitated, watching her. "Are you angry with me?"
Her eyes widened.
"No. I mean, yes." She shook her head, beginning again. "I mean, not at first. I was too confused, too shocked." She took a breath. "But then, about a month after I jumped off that cliff, I did get angry at you. I blamed you for being the reason that I believed, all that time, that I didn't deserve to be loved. And when I started to realize that was a lie, then yeah, I got really mad at you. Because I do deserve to be loved." She tempered her words with a soft smile. Her smile faded. "And then I started to forget. Not on purpose—but I got distracted and Jacob kept me busy." She gazed at me, as if from a distance. "And then, one night, I realized I wasn't angry with you anymore. I actually…I actually felt sorry for you."
Her words sank deep inside me, bringing the penetrating pain of finality—and inevitability.
At last, she understood.
"Why did you feel sorry for me?" I asked, needing to hear her say it out loud.
She stopped. I knew she would have difficulty with this—she didn't want to hurt me. But I kept my expression open, listening, and at last she spoke.
"I want to have kids," she told me. "And I want to be a grandma who cooks Thanksgiving dinner and spoils the grandkids." Her visage gained an earnestness—a plea for me to understand, and not be hurt. "I don't want to live forever, frozen in one spot." Her voice lowered to a whisper. "You were right. So…thanks."
I shook my head.
"I didn't do you any service."
"No, you did," she insisted. "If I had never known you, I would not have stuck up a conversation with Jacob Black on a beach once upon a time." She put her hands into her pockets, and shrugged one shoulder. "And if you hadn't left me…I would not have needed him to save me—and he wouldn't have been able to teach me that I actually needed to save myself. You led me to him. Like the north star or something."
I marveled at her metaphor, then acknowledged with one nod.
"That, at least, is something," I said quietly. "I am only sorry that I caused you so much pain."
"It's okay," she murmured. "I forgave you a long time ago."
Again, we met each other's eyes, and the awkwardness was gone. Understanding replaced it—understanding, and resignation.
Bella shifted her weight, and spoke again.
"How long have you been here?"
I forced the intake of another breath.
"Since Harry Clearwater's funeral."
She raised her eyebrows.
"That long? Where have you been?"
"In the forests in La Push, by the side of a river," I murmured.
"Doing what?" Bella murmured.
I closed my eyes for a moment. My thoughts wandered—lit by visions of a crystal river drenched in sparkling sunlight—of flickering leaves and the scent of pine, and the sight of two black eyes that saw right through me. A warm glow settled in my chest, and spread outward, driving the cold from my limbs.
"Learning," I said, my eyes still closed. And when I opened them again, I swallowed hard. No matter the circumstance, or the changes that had been wrought upon us by the worthy ones who had fought so hard to win us, I hated to say these words to sweet Bella again.
"I am happy that you are alive, and well," I said. She nodded. I gazed at her for one more, long moment, my resolve hardening as I saw the healthy bloom in her cheeks, and the light in her eyes. Now, I was strong enough to do what I should have done in the beginning. Now, I had gained something I had desperately lacked to make me that strong. And it sat within my chest, that incandescent glow, that warmth—that complete absence of bittersweet pain.
"Goodbye, Bella Swan," I said. "May you have a long life, full of laughing children."
Her face looked sad. And so I spoke again, only to ease it.
"Perhaps I will see you again in the next life."
She watched me, absorbing my words. But her heartbeat did not pound faster, nor did her breathing tighten. She watched me. And I felt her let me go.
"I'm sure you will," she said, with sincere conviction—enough to make me believe. "Goodbye."
We held each other's gazes, and I wondered at her—much as you would, dear reader, if a bird suddenly came to light on your shoulder, and you gazed into her eyes. For those brief moments, you would entertain the enchanting idea that the bird really did understand you, and shared a kinship with you, even though she was only a little bird with a little life that would burn bright as a match before going out. And then, as that bird sat and sang on your shoulder, you would be faced with a choice: take the bird, and cage her, and keep her with you until the end of her days—for she would take great pleasure in singing for you, and she would delight you with her lovely plumage and bright eye. But then—then, she would die without ever seeing the sun again, or feeling the high winds beneath her wings.
And so, after listening to the bird's spritely song, you would realize that you—who would live infinitely longer than the little bird—ought not rob her of the glory of her much shorter life. And so you would nudge her off your shoulder, she would give a startled chirp, and then—
Oh, and then—the marvelous sight of her taking flight, into the blazing light of the sun, to live in the wind and sing in the flowered trees, and take a mate, and live out the rest of that match-stick life full of the desperate joy that comes from having a number on one's days.
I memorized the sight of Bella there—memorized the feeling of right that flooded me. I inclined my head to her, turned, and walked away from her, up the road again, and though I did not think of it, I had gone almost a mile before I realized I had not looked back.
I did not know where I was headed—I wandered, lost in thought, one weight lifted off me, to be replaced by another. I watched my feet move through the grass, and then the foliage of the woods. It was cloudy—the sun kept trying to peek through, but was always deterred by a gray shroud. I passed between the thick, silent trunks of the trees, steadily regaining my balance and my constitution. My head stayed lowered, my eyes unfocused. And so I stopped mere feet in front of Jacob Black—he stood just in my path, his arms crossed. I lifted my head.
His eyes searched my face with earnest openness, his brow tight, his eyes brilliant.
"Well?" he asked. I smiled at him. I could not manage a full one, but what I gave him was genuine.
"She made her choice," I said. "And it was you."
He stared at me. Then, he swallowed hard, turned aside and pressed the back of his fist to his lips. For an instant, I saw tears sparkle in his eyes, then he let out a watery sigh, rubbed his eyes and turned and stuck out his right hand to me. I gauged it a moment, then grasped it.
"Never thought I'd say this," he said, then cleared his throat and looked at me. "But you're all right."
I held onto his warm hand for a moment.
"So are you."
We released each other, and then it was my turn to search his face.
"How is Leah?"
"She's up and walking around," Jacob sighed, then put his hands on his hips and shook his head. "She's such a bull-head."
"Did she go somewhere?" I pressed, my concern mounting. Jacob nodded.
"Not sure where. I didn't push her. But I know she didn't go to the river."
My jaw tightened, and I glanced down. Jacob studied me.
"She'll want to see you."
I shook my head.
"It's better if I don't," I muttered. "Better for her."
"Will you quit deciding what's good for girls after they've gotten attached to you?" Jacob snapped. "Why don't you let her decide, huh? Leah's a big girl—she can take care of herself."
I stared at him.
"Is that some sort of blessing, coming from the pack leader?" I asked. Jacob smirked.
"The closest thing you're going to get to it, leech," he said, then stepped past me. "I'm going to see Bells. Get after Leah, before I have to hurt you."
I stared at the now empty path before me, unmoving. I heard Jacob step up behind me.
"Go," he said, and then he cuffed me lightly on the back of the head. A human would have fallen flat on his face. I just felt it thud against me—
My skull buzzed. I lost my balance and fell against a tree. Panic shot through me as I grabbed a branch.
Something popped inside my head, loosened, and released.
—he okay? Crap, did I hit him that hard?
Cold liquid trickled out my right ear. My balance instantly righted. I stood up, and slapped a hand to my ear. My white palm came away covered with watery blood.
Yuck! What is that?
I whirled to stare at Jacob.
"Did you say something?"
His eyes went wide.
What is he talking about?
He looked at me sideways, his bright eyes wary.
Is this some sort of trick?
Oh, that was definitely Jacob's voice—but he wasn't moving his mouth. A slow smile spread across my face.
"I can hear what you're thinking."
His surprise and disconcertion hit me like a welcome wind to a stranded sailor.
I laughed out loud. The relief that rushed through me was so great I almost threw my arms around him like George Bailey did to Burt the cop at the end of "It's a Wonderful Life." Instead, I settled for rapping his forehead with my knuckles, which sent a string of curses rattling from his head. It made me laugh again.
"Thank you, Jacob Black," I said. "You're free to hit me in the head any time you want."
And with that, I took off, leaving a stunned alpha behind me.
I knew right where Leah had gone. I raced up the path, not as worn as the others, new vigor in my limbs. I raced past familiar trees, up, up toward the sky, until at last I came to the place Leah had brought me long ago, the first day we had gone anywhere together—the day I had first begun to listen to her heart.
I halted, silent, by a tree, and hid in its shadow.
There Leah sat, just where she had before, her back to me, facing the broad sky and the vast forest below her. And just in that moment, the sun won its battle, and broke through the clouds, covering Leah with golden light—and with it came the flood of her thoughts and emotions. And for the first time, I heard her.
Beneath the hard surface, which acted like a sound-proof room, the simple chords of her musings bloomed into a symphony that was so breathtakingly beautiful I could not move. The treble of her meandering thoughts was like a harp, but the bass was a steady pulse: the steady, broken beat of her heart.
I stepped out into the sun, still silent, closing my eyes and listening even deeper.
I took a breath, which was suddenly very difficult. This song beneath, the hidden music she had succeeded so long in burying, carried so many emotions, all of them powerful. Her armored defenses, even when she was here alone, were harsh, critical, and bitter. But the melody underscoring this hard shell was gorgeous—the sweetest, most tender, gentle and loving thoughts I had ever heard. And the combination sent an ache right through me that took my breath from my body.
And it was only after listening—and finally hearing the whole of that which was Leah Clearwater—that I made a sound with my step, heard her notice my presence, and dared to near her side.
I heard him make a sound on purpose. I had known he was there for a minute or two, but I didn't have the energy to say anything, or turn. My entire side still hurt, but the sun felt good on my skin. And the tears that ran down my cheeks and neck soothed the ache in my heart.
He came and sat down on my right. Our shoulders almost touched. I did not look at him. I felt him turn his head, and study me. For a long while, neither of us spoke. I wasn't going to say anything. I knew why he had come. I knew he was here to say goodbye.
"I suppose you know where I've been," he murmured.
"Doesn't everybody?" I murmured, not bothering to check the flow of tears that slid down my face. I swallowed. "And how was the love fest?"
"I would hardly call it that—"
"There's no point in wasting your time feeling sorry for me, or duty bound, or whatever," I shook my head and closed my eyes. "I know where you went, and I know why you're here. So go back to your precious Isabella and leave me alone."
"You don't mean that."
"Yes, I do," I insisted, still staring straight ahead through the blur of my tears. "I always say what I mean."
"You may mean it right now, because you're angry," his soft voice said by my ear. "But it's not what you want."
"Who the heck are you, to tell me what I want?" I demanded, fresh tears spilling down. "You have no idea what I want."
"Yes, I do," he said quietly.
"Oh, really?" I snapped. "What is it, then?"
There was a moment of silence, and then he slid his cool hands up to cradle my tearstained face. Before I could move, he had turned me toward him—
And for just an instant, I saw straight into his vibrant, sunlit, topaz eyes before he pressed his lips deeply to mine. Stunned, I let my eyelids flutter closed, as shock and wonder coursed in thrilling, almost painful paths through my chest, and my pulse raced with fire.
He kissed me over and over, in a different, gentler fashion each time, and I found myself responding, losing all my reason, and every train of thought.
Then, he withdrew, just inches, and gazed at me, still cradling my face. I marveled at his beauty, at the lines of his pale face, and the way the wind ruffled his hair.
Then, he bent his head, and pressed his lips to my jaw, where the newest tear had fallen. One by one, he cooled each heated tear with the press of his kiss, until at last that gentle pressure rested against first my right eyelid, and then my left.
At last, when my eyes drifted opened again, and he sat so close to me that the coolness of him soothed my fever, his brilliant eyes traced my features, and he brushed a strand of hair away from my face.
"And I know what I want, Leah Clearwater," he whispered. "I want to be the one to make sure that you never, ever have another reason to cry."
"That might be a challenge," I warned, trying to blink away the last of my tears.
"Oh, I'm very stubborn," he smirked. "You'll have to beat me away with a stick."
"I might try that," I chuckled, my eyes welling up again. His eyes twinkled.
"I can withstand a lot. You'll have to do more than—"
But new tears had spilled, and I could not let him finish. I got up on my knees, so my head was higher than his, wrapped my good arm around his shoulders, bent and kissed him more fiercely than I had ever kissed anyone, with all the passion and relief and joy in my body. And then he rose beneath me, carrying the kiss, and wrapped his arms around me—gentle, but not afraid. Careful of my injury, but not worried. His lips locked and moved with mine as if he knew he could not break me, and I pressed against him as if I knew he could not hurt me. Because he couldn't. And he wouldn't.
And there, beneath the light of the sun, high above the sweeping forests of La Push, I felt the pieces of my heart click back together, and bind with a new, unbreakable fastening, until it was stronger than it ever had been.
And for just an instant, as Edward Cullen held me pressed against his chest, I swear I felt, beneath the strength of his silent chest, his heart give a single, powerful beat.
Suddenly the castle was filled with sounds of joy and laughter.
All of the stone statues which lined the halls began to move
And return to life,
For they had all been enchanted by the troll princess
And her mother.
In a happy celebration, the maiden and the youth were married,
And crowned king and queen of that land.
The troll castle was taken apart stone by stone.
A new castle was built in its place,
And a city rose about it.
From that day onward,
If any traveler on the open road
Asked the way to a kingdom that lay east of the sun and west of the moon,
People would answer,
"The way to that kingdom is hard,
But if you reach it,
You will find a welcome within."
Once upon a broken heart
I was walking alone in the dark
Looking for a way to start again
What I wouldn't give for a friend
There was no love in my life
There was no light in my eyes
All the tears that I had cried and cried
Seemed like they'd never end
And I never believed fairy tales came true
But now I know that they really do
Now that I've found you
Now that I'm here with you
Just look at the sun shine!
And you showed me a world I'd never seen
I woke up and fell into this dream
Happily ever after just took time
Once upon this broken heart of mine.
This is the way a fairytale feels
This is the way I know it's real
Because this is the way a broken heart
-"Once Upon A Broken Heart"
by The Beu Sisters
A/N: Thank you so much, dear readers. Go ahead and listen to this last song on youtube. It's a perfect ending for this story. :)