Shoot the Sky

This story was written for PreferBrunettes as part of one of the famous ADF freecycle exchanges. If you're a twifan and haven't been over to A Different Forrest, you should totally check it out. Lots of fun to be had. Great sense of community. :)

Thank you to my prereaders mera_naam_joker and ssarrahh and my beta latetolove for their helpful feedback and editing. This story would be crap without them. 3

Warnings: sexual situations

Bella wasn't in a position to dislike Jessica Stanley. Even if her clothes were too tight, her hair was too big, and her words were too empty, Jessica was one of the two females at Forks high school who was willing to sit with her at lunch, and the only female capable of revealing bits of gossip and drama that always seemed to elude Bella's ears.

So when Bella set her cafeteria tray down on the table next to Jessica's and dutifully occupied the last vacant seat, she carefully tuned into the unstoppable track of words streaming from the perky girl's mouth.

"…not that she could really say anything else. I mean, hello, he's a college guy. Hot. And he plays soccer. Super hot. She would never have been able to show her face at UDub ever again. Ever. And her parents sure aren't going to pay to send her out of state. They won't even buy her a new cell phone. Not that her parents are cheap, but Kelly's undeniable transformation into a social outcast ranks below her mother's need for a new Coach purse every other month."

Jessica took a breath, and Bella, who had been waiting for that precise moment, hastily interjected, "Alice Cullen has a Coach purse."

Jessica blinked—either in surprise at Bella opening her mouth without prompting or disbelief that she'd referenced a designer label—and turned to look at the Cullen's table. The sight of the empty seat that had been a permanent fixture there for the past two weeks yanked inexplicably on Bella's spirits. But Jessica was more concerned with the bright red handbag beside Alice's untouched plate of nachos.

"Not a Coach. That's Dolce."

Bella didn't bother feigning surprise. "Her brother Edward…where has he been lately? I haven't seen him around."

A knowing spark lit Jessica's eyes, her grin conspiratorial, and Bella immediately knew she was forgiven her poor segue way. Angela, Mike, Eric, and Tyler all leaned in to catch Jessica's whispered words…

"Mental institution."


"It's true. My mom was there when Dr. Cullen came in to withdraw his enrollment. He had, like, some sort of breakdown."

Angela's little gasp and the boys' derisive retorts were all muddled beneath Bella's recollection of a beautiful face contorted in barely contained rage. Picking disinterestedly at the lasagna on her tray, she silently contemplated her lab partner-free fate and the unceremonious end to the brief mystery that was Edward Cullen.

Closing her eyes, Bella counted to ten and prayed for the familiar, grouchy rumble of the ancient Chevy to rattle her eardrums. But when she flicked her wrist, she was disappointed with a faint series of clicks that was almost comical by comparison—almost.

She dropped her hand from the ignition with a sigh and allowed her head to fall forward on to the steering wheel. Her truck was dead—at least temporarily—and she was pulled off on the shoulder of a road at ten o'clock at night. It was dark and only the occasional sweep of headlights illuminated the rain-slicked road. It was the first time Bella had ever felt the least bit of desire to own a cell phone.


Lip caught between her teeth and eyes on the drops of rain dribbling down the driver side window, she contemplated her options, which were limited to either sitting in her truck and waiting for Charlie to come looking for her or getting out and trying to flag down one of the passing cars and asking to use a phone. She wondered which one would be less likely to arouse Charlie's latent paternal ire over her safety.

Deciding that if she waited too long, he would assume she was lying dead in a ditch, Bella made to grab the door handle only to gasp and jump backward into the passenger side of the truck when a blurred face appeared silently through the water rivulets distorting the window.

At first all she saw were the pale, sharp angles and cutting amber eyes. The thought Edward Cullen loomed up like a thrilling and frightening wave in her subconscious, but it broke harmlessly against the shore and receded back into oblivion at the sight of honey blonde hair hanging neatly to his ears. It was not Edward Cullen. It was his brother Jasper. Jasper Hale, Bella recalled.

He strummed his knuckles against the glass.

She hesitated only a moment—a brief lapse of rationality during which her instincts screamed to hit the lock because this boy was not a boy and somehow more than a man—before crawling back over to the driver's seat. Heart still jumping in surprise, she fought with the manual crank briefly before deciding to settle for opening the door instead.

He stepped easily out of the way as she slowly pushed it open wide enough for him to lean between the door and truck's frame.

"I didn't mean to scare you."

It was the first time she'd heard him speak, and she detected a faint musical lilt to his voice that was reminiscent of a pick drawn lazily over the strings of an acoustic bass without allowing for the notes to resolve entirely. It was a deep, unnerving drawl.

"You didn't," she said too quickly and fumbled to add, "scare me. I was just startled."

He nodded as if the face value was all that was there, and Bella relaxed slightly. He wasn't as intimidating up close, she decided. At school she only ever saw him prowling fluently along the halls or sitting with a disconcerting awareness beside Alice at lunch. But right then, with his lean form outlined entirely in darkness and the weak cab light softening the features of his face through shadow, he was not so unapproachable. There was even something almost magnetic about the way his strange eyes watched her.

He tipped his chin toward the dash of the truck. "Car trouble?"

"Yeah," she answered unhelpfully.

"Did it stall while you were driving?"

"No. I pulled off to the shoulder when it started raining because there's lumber in the bed and I had to cover it with the tarp." She gestured to the bright blue laminated canvass stretched across the wood she'd picked up from Harry Clearwater for Charlie's back porch remodeling project. "When I tried to restart, all I get is a clicking noise. I would call Ch-my dad, but I don't have a cell."

She knew she was blushing, felt the heat creep up from the collar of her t-shirt to flood her face. It was a little mortifying how clueless she was about cars in general and even more embarrassing how helpless she was under the current circumstances.

She risked a glance up at Jasper, expecting amusement or condescension, but he was staring at her darkly with a feebly disguised intensity that had Bella gripping the vinyl seat on either side of her thighs to keep from bolting. His body swayed forward into the truck as fluidly as if he were a stray branch caught in a stiff wind. The grip he maintained on the door and cab kept him suspended a few inches above her face.

Bella inhaled slowly and was hit by the sweet scent of his breath as it fell across her cheek. He smelled like peppermint candies. Her gaze fell to his nearing mouth, which was parted slightly, as if in preparation to…

She swallowed.

Jasper seemed to be watching the movement of her throat.

And then a car passed on the other side of the road, the sound of tires turning over wet pavement drawing Bella's attention for a brief moment. By the time her eyes returned to Jasper, he was rocking back on his heels, face lifted as if to catch the slow falling rain. He looked beautiful.

"You got a flashlight?" he asked without looking at her.

Bella raised an unsteady hand to her cheek, where her skin tingled with the phantom pressure of his incomplete gesture. "Um…a flashlight?"

"I'll take a look under your hood." He finally lowered his chin in order to catch her eye. "That is, if you want me to?"

Bella fought bravely through her sudden disorientation to focus on the meaning of his words, and somehow managed to recall that Charlie had indeed stored one in the glove compartment for this exact purpose. (Although she doubted Charlie had accounted for Jasper Hale's impromptu arrival when he was putting together her highway survival kit. Otherwise he would have included a can of pepper spray.)

"Yeah, I do. Have a flashlight, I mean." She retrieved the green cylinder of hard plastic, sliding the power switch to discover that the batteries were fresh, as expected. A beam of light shot through the windshield.

Jasper opened her door the rest of way.

Over two months in Forks, and Bella still wasn't accustomed to the constant dampness. The persistent grey skies and their endless abundance of rain ate her spirits. She missed the sun and the dry heat that didn't make her hair frizz. But that was all there was in Phoenix, she reminded herself silently as she hopped from the truck and pulled up the hood of her jacket. It was all sun and heat. No little house in a little yard. No '98 Grand Am. No Phil. No Renee.

She supposed Phoenix wouldn't be that much better than Forks.

Jasper's low, smooth voice directed her where to shine the light, and she diligently aimed the flashlight at the greasy bits of metal and plastic. Jacob kept the truck in tip-top condition, so she was mildly curious as to what the problem was, if only because it meant that she'd have something to hassle him about the next time she saw him—which was looking like it would be fairly soon.

Jasper leaned intently over the engine. And although Bella couldn't make his face out in the darkness, it was easy to see the confidence in the stillness of body. He didn't fidget like most teenage boys would in a similar situation. And he didn't ramble about what he was looking for or what had convinced him to pull off the road and help her in the first place. He just touched a hand into the halo of illumination provided by her flashlight and then nodded slowly.

"Your battery cable. It's corroded."


Her blank stare prompted his elaboration. "Not enough current is getting from the battery to the starter solenoid."

Bella wondered if that was something any male would be able to discern just by peering under the hood for ten seconds, or if it was something that took some skill and knowhow. She tried to picture Eric Yorkie standing over her engine and doing something aside from commenting on how it looked like the insides of the Millennium Falcon.

"That's bad," she guessed.

"Only if you plan on using the car to drive somewhere," he agreed.

She had to fight to keep the surprise off her face. She hadn't pegged Jasper as the sarcastic type. In fact, she'd assumed he was the type who didn't joke at all. At school if he wasn't talking with Alice he was glowering into the middle distance. "Good to know it's still fully functional as a bomb shelter then."

His smile was slow and wide and managed to capture a darker amusement than the situation called for. "Or as a history museum exhibit."

Bella scowled but remembered herself before she could let loose a sarcastic retort she would've used on someone she was more familiar with. She didn't know Jasper. Not really. And he was trying to help her out of a sticky situation. Sighing, she asked, "Can it be fixed?"

He nodded, good humor still lingering in his eyes. He almost looked amused. "Yes. But it'll need to be towed unless you get roadside service."

She shook her head. "My mechanic has a strict ten o'clock curfew."

It turned out Jasper was one of those enviable people who could pull off the crafty single-eyebrow-raise. "Even on weekends?"

Bella thought of Jacob lying passed out on the couch when she had stopped by to pick up some tools from Billy. "On weekends he hibernates."

"There's a 24 hour towing service based out of Port Angeles," he offered while closing the truck's hood.

Bella, not quite sure where to point the flashlight, let it fall to her side. The darkness closed in on them immediately. "Do you have a phone I could use?"

"I do, but it's dead."


"But," he said and then paused, his voice reluctant. "I live close by. You can call from the house."

Bella wanted to ask if he could just drive her home but thought it would be rude considering Charlie's house was more than fifteen minutes away. "Thanks. That would be great."

The truck didn't lock. But it wasn't as if she had to worry about anyone driving off with it, and Billy's tools were buried under all the lumber in the back. So she trailed after Jasper as he led them around to where he had pulled up behind her on the muddy shoulder. At first Bella couldn't make out much about the car. It was a shade of black that caused the body to nearly vanish in darkness of the overcast night, and only a stray swing of the flashlight illuminating the grill kept her from running straight into the front of the car, which stretched a deceivingly long distance from the windshield.

Wielding her flashlight more effectively as she made her way to the door, Bella tried to give the vehicle a subtle once over. It was predictably sleek and shiny—a Cullen standard Bella assumed—but there was nothing contemporary about the long lines and sharp angles.

"It's a 1967 Shelby GT500."

Bella squinted at Jasper over the top of the car. As he unlocked and opened his door, a cab light came on, and she switched off the flashlight before climbing inside. There were only two seats. She took a quick inventory of the unblemished leather seats and sleek dash. A satellite radio gleamed from the center console, which was pristine and modernly designed. It didn't look like a 1967 anything.

Jasper brought the engine to life and then pulled out from behind her truck.

Plus, it didn't make any of the awful sounds her truck was constantly spewing.

The car was silent, Jasper was silent, the radio was silent, and Bella thought that in the stillness her breathing sounded more like crackling white noise than air coming and going from her lungs. Not sure what to do with herself, she looked out the window, but soon realized it was pointless, she couldn't make out anything in the vague blackness as it whipped by. Bella tried to sit as still as possible in the middle of her seat and breathe as little as possible.

"Is there a bubble in the tinting?"

She whipped around to look at Jasper. He was staring calmly through the windshield, giving no indication that he had spoken to all and not turning when she didn't speak up right away. Bella stole the moment to study his dark profile which stretched nearly from floor to ceiling. Jasper was tall—taller than either of his brothers—but not bulky like Emmett or lanky like Edward. He didn't look like a teenage boy, she noticed for the second time that night, and he didn't hold himself like one. There was no slouching. His shoulders rested back against the seat and both hands grasped the steering wheel, which he was clutching tightly. It was the only part of him that betrayed any tension.

His eyes slide over to her briefly, and Bella blushed at the thought of him having caught her staring so unabashedly.

The grip he had on the steering wheel constricted. Bella looked away.

Silence loomed almost painfully. Then, with a quiet curiosity, he asked, "Can you see anything? Through the window right now?"

Brow puckered, Bella turned once more to eye the indecipherable dark shapes. "No," she said, "not really."

Jasper nodded and didn't try looking for himself. "Are you too cold?"

Damp from standing in the rain, Bella was beginning to feel a bit chilly but thought she would survive until they made it to the house. "No. I'm fine."

He reached with one hand to turn on the heat anyway. "Then let me know if you get hot."

After that Bella resigned herself to spending the rest of the ride in strained silence. But as she was staring listlessly out at where the headlights illuminated the quick-moving road, the rhythmic tapping of rain against the glass reached a soothing tempo that lulled the tension from her body. First her fingers and then her shoulders relaxed. Her head fell back against the seat.

Jasper started talking again, but in a more engaging tenor. "She's doesn't look her age because she's been completely restored. The frame is about the only original part left." He brought the car to a smooth stop at an intersection and then seamlessly coaxed it back up to speed. "I just picked her up today from Seattle, where they installed the new engine. Wanted to go for a test drove before I get home and Rosalie starts taking her apart."

"Her?" Bella asked, amused. He sounded so earnest.

"Yes," he said, "her."

He said it the same amount of earnestly as Jacob always did. Maybe that was why her next words slipped out so easily. "It looks like the Batmobile."

Jasper's lips pursed in bemusement. "I would disagree. There is a distinct absence of tail fins."

"You could get some."

"I could," he agreed, not sounding enthusiastic at the prospect.

"What about thrusters? Or some body armor at the very least. Maybe a grappling hook."

"I'll have Rosalie look into it."

Bella tipped her chin in thought. "She's your sister, right? Your biological one?"

"How do you know so much about Batman's set of wheels anyway?" Jasper changed the subject. Bella didn't mind as long as he kept talking. His voice was so soothing. And it had character. She bet he was a good storyteller.

"My mom," she offered, "has a thing for George Clooney. And Val Kilmer. She liked seeing them dressed in all black and throwing their weight around."

"Batman Forever and Batman and Robin," he muttered. "You know those are the two worst in the franchise, right?"

Bella shrugged. "I've never seen any of the others." Renee didn't find Michael Keaton particularly worthy of their ritualistic Friday night popcorn and eye candy sessions.

"You miss your mom."

The simple statement rolled off of Bella like water. She knew her life story had been completely circulated around Forks high school within a week of her arrival. "Yeah. But it's easier knowing she's happy."

Jasper turned off the main road then. The narrow drive he pulled into was so obscured by a thicket of greenery and dense trees that Bella doubted she would have even noticed the entrance had she been passing by on her. But Jasper executed the sharp turn deftly and followed the winding drive

The house shone like a pearl nestled against black velvet. An almost surreal amount of light shone from large square windows set in the white stucco walls. Just enough space had been carved from the surrounding woods to make room for the home that seemed to be an organic extension of its environment. It was the most elaborate building Bella had seen since her move to Forks. The sheer size was enough to intimidate her as Jasper pulled into a massive, well-lit garage.

The closing of the garage door behind them echoed ominously.

Bella got out of the car, thought it was a little strange that Jasper took a deep, cleansing breath as soon as he had his door closed, and then gaped at the number of other vehicles. It was more of a hangar than a garage.

"Welcome," Jasper said in his quiet way, "to the Batcave."

The inside of the Cullen house was as bright as the outside. Light hardwood blanketed the floors from white wall to white wall to white wall. Scattered floor lamps aided the majestic chandelier that hung beside a massive curling staircase to light the wide open spaces of the lower floor. The entire back wall of the house had been replaced with floor to ceiling glass that somehow—despite its transparency—managed to keep the night's darkness at bay. Debussy's Clair De Lune—played with a bold elegance and mastery Bella had never heard before—pumped a vigorous energy through the atmosphere.

Bella's senses were working double-time to keep up with the onslaught.

When her eyes fell on the grand piano in the living room, she was surprised to find the bench empty. The music was coming from tall, standing speakers on the far side of the room and was abruptly cut off as a young woman stood from a beige armchair. She leaned forward to place a black remote control on the coffee table.

"Jasper, you're home." The beautiful woman smiled warmly as she approached. "And you brought a friend."

"Esme, this is Bella Swan. Bella, this is my mother Esme."

The sound of her name on Jasper's lips caught Bella by surprise, distracting her enough that she hardly noticed the lack of warmth in Esme's hand as it grasped her own.

"It's nice to finally meet you," Esme said sincerely.

Finally? Bella shot a politely questioning glance at Jasper, who was studiously overlooking her. "It's nice to meet you, too," Bella offered.

Even though Bella knew Esme wasn't Jasper's biological mother, it still seemed odd that a woman who couldn't have been more than twenty-five would have five teenage children. But she certainly looked the part of the modern homemaker. Modestly but chicly dressed, neatly groomed, and exuding a maternal wisdom that Renee had never attempted to acquire, Esme seemed to be cut out from the pages of Home Living.

"Bella!" Alice appeared at Esme's side out of nowhere and didn't hesitate to wrap her slim arms around Bella's stiff shoulders.

Bella returned the gesture awkwardly. "Hey, Alice."

But then the girl was turning toward Jasper. "I accidentally grabbed your phone charger out of car when I left you at the dealership. Sorry."

He nodded slowly, his eyes knowing something that Bella didn't. "That's alright. Accidents happen. Although admittedly less with you."

Smiling radiantly at his easy acceptance, Alice pressed a kiss to his cheek.

"But Bella does need to use a phone. Her truck broke down on Halyard."

"Damaged battery cable," Bella chimed in. "Not enough current getting to the starter solenoid." Jacob was going to be impressed when she explained it to him the next day.

"Oh, no." Esme frowned. "That doesn't sound good."

Bella shrugged off her concern. "It's nothing Jacob won't be able to fix. I just need to call my dad and the towing company."

"I'll get you a phone. This way." Alice's smooth palm had slid inconspicuously into Bella's left hand, and the smaller girl began leading her from the room. When she glanced back at Jasper, Bella caught the amusement lifting his lips, and the sight caused her breath to catch. He shook his head and left turned toward another doorway.

Alice didn't take her to the kitchen as Bella anticipated she would. Instead she was guided up the sprawling staircase and down a wide, carpeted hallway. Bella wondered if the Cullens were one of those families who used only cell phones instead of having a landline.

When they entered what she assumed to be Alice's room, Bella surveyed the subdued greens and beiges in surprise. She had pegged Alice as a pink person.

Alice had released Bella's hand and was walking toward the queen-sized bed, leaving Bella to drift alone in the middle of the room. Alice sunk silently onto the edge of the bed. When her face lifted to Bella's, it was not smiling or warm as it had been downstairs. There was sharpness to her features that Bella had never noticed before. Her eyes—so similar to Jasper's and Edward's—were hooded and bright, almost threatening in their watchfulness.

Bella went still. Her fidgeting hands turned stiff. She couldn't look away as Alice's mouth mechanically moved, compressed, released the words, "its okay, Bella."

It was as if she were watching the lips of a stone statue moving.

"What is?"

"What's going to happen with Jasper. You don't have to be afraid."

"I don't…"

"You'll be good for him. And he might be good for you, too."

Bella's eyes widened in horror. "Alice, I think you've got the wrong idea. Jasper just gave me a ride because my truck wouldn't start. I promise we're not…doing anything. Today was the first time I'd even talked to him. Really."

Alice continued staring at her unblinkingly. Skin too white, lips too red, and body too still, she was a china doll left—abandoned—on the bed by a forgetful little girl. And Bella knew that it was all wrong.

"But you're alive," Alice intoned. "There was a chance he wouldn't make it home, but he did. Because it was you."

Her heart and lungs racing each other inside her chest, Bella could only stare.

"He's been searching for it for so long now. As long as I've known him, he's been struggling to find what the rest of us have found." Finally Alice moved. She lowered her chin and leaned forward. "You'll help him, won't you?"

The warning edge of Alice's voice answered her own question.

Bella was resisting the instinct to back away. "Alice, I'm sorry, but I don't understand."

Something flashed across Alice's vision, something Bella couldn't see. And when it was gone, Alice's expression had relaxed back into something more human. "Don't be afraid," she said. "He doesn't know what he's doing either. But I think it's going to work out. In the end."

Bella's hands trembled for a phone to call her father. And, as if she knew, Alice pulled a narrow, red cell from her pocket and held it out in offering.

"But you should know. I've been wrong before."



"You don't know anyone who drives a Shelby, do you?"

Bella's head whipped up from where she was bent over tying her shoe. Charlie was standing by the front door, peering out the window at the front lawn.

"Why?" she asked, already dreading the answer.

He took a slow drag from his coffee mug. "Because there's one parked in our driveway."

Hurrying to detangle her fingers from her laces, Bella leapt to her feet and peered over Charlie's shoulder, as if she needed a visual confirmation. The sleek, black sedan was even more impressive in daylight. The paint job shined and the pristine condition of the body made the car seem all the more timeless. She was sure that if she'd been a boy, she would have been very impressed.

"That's Jasper Hale's car," she said morosely.

Charlie raised an eyebrow. "That Cullen boy who gave you a lift on Friday night?"

Bella nodded.

"What's he want?"

Nothing good, Bella was certain. And when the driver-side door opened, she bit her lip and ducked into the kitchen. Charlie followed her at a more leisurely pace.

"You know, if we don't leave in five minutes, you're going to be late for school," he said.

"I know." Bella picked up her book bag out of a kitchen chair and hoisted it up over one shoulder. "I'll just go see what he wants."

There was a knock at the front door.

"Five minutes," Charlie reminded and set about putting on his service belt.

Bella nodded absently and left kitchen, only opening the door after she had taken two calming breaths.

"Morning," Jasper greeted as soon as they were face to face. When she stepped outside, he smoothly backed out of her way as she closed the door behind her.

"Hey," she said weakly. It was almost surreal to see him standing tall, broad, and beautiful on her front porch first thing on a Monday morning. This was no late-night chance encounter in the rain. There was no car for him to fix. No good excuse to call it a chance encounter.

And she could see him too clearly. Could see the way his shirt clung to his chest and biceps, the faint scars the peeked out above his collar, and the muted tones of caramel that shot through his blonde hair. There was almost too much of him to take in.

Jasper wasn't put off by her obvious discomfort. "I came to see if I could give you a ride to school."

Bella's eyes slid to the empty strip of cement where her truck was usually parked. When Jacob had gone under the hood to replace the battery cables he'd discovered something else that needed fixing and had confiscated the truck for a series of repairs. She wouldn't get it back until Wednesday.

"How did you know I don't have my truck?"

"Your mechanic hibernates on weekends, remember?"

Five minutes. "Thanks, Jasper, for the offer, but I don't think it would be a good idea."

She could tell right away that she'd caught him off guard. His brow furrowed although the rest of him remained as motionless as ever. "Your father doesn't like you riding in cars with boys?"

Only boys that looked dangerous like him. "It's not about my dad."

He continued looking at her blankly.

She sighed, feeling all kind of frustrated and embarrassed. "It's just…Alice…"

"Alice." Jasper said her name with slow reverence, and if Bella had had any doubts about his feelings for the girl, they were squished then and there.

"Yes," Bella continued reluctantly. "I don't think she likes us spending time together very much."

"She told you that?"

"Well," Bella considered, "not exactly. She said…" How could she even begin to convey the bizarre exchange that had transpired in Alice's bedroom?


"She,"—Bella groped for the least embarrassing explanation—"she said we'd be good for each other. That I would help you or something." Her cheeks warmed. "But she was…frightening."

Jasper laughed, and the low, stilted sound went straight to the back of Bella's neck, where it teased her skin and set tingles down her spine. "That she is," Jasper agreed, still grinning. "Why else do you think I'm here?"

"Oh. Just tell her I turned you down. Nicely."

But Jasper was shaking his head. "But I'm going to school anyway. It'd be a shame not to carpool. We've only got one Earth, you know."

"It's three miles away."

"Six miles round trip," he corrected.

Bella rolled her eyes.

Jasper stepped backwards off the porch. "If I drive fast enough, you'll only have to endure me for four minutes each way. And I know how fond you are of staring out the window, so we don't even have to talk. It'll completely undermine Alice's scheming without her being the wiser."

The look he was sending her was entirely too inviting.

"Will you tell me why she wants us to spend time together?"

"Of course."

"You still haven't told me," Bella murmured into her textbook.

Jasper kept his eyes on the teacher, who was lecturing at the front of the room. "Told you what?" he asked quietly.

"Why it is Alice made you drive me to and from school for three days and forces you to eat lunch with me."

Most guys would have reacted defensively to the insinuation that a girl bossed them around. But not Jasper. He didn't so much as blink.

"Sometimes Alice gets feelings, like a hunch. She got a feeling about you."

Bella shook her head. "It's strange." Too strange.

She saw him nod slowly out of the corner of her eye. His voice was solemn. "I know."

"…and Max. Jasper and Bella. Diane and…"

Straightening at the sound of her name, Bella glanced around in confusion. All of the students were chatting. The teacher Ms. Mathews was reading from a clipboard.

She turned toward Angela, who was exchanging phone numbers with a short, freckled boy. When she was done, Bella touched her shoulder. "What just happened? What were those names for?"

"Partners for our final projects."

Bella's mouth fell open. "No."

Angela's smile was sympathetic.

"My," Jasper drawled. He was leaning back against his chair, relaxed and indifferent. "What a happy coincidence."

Alice would certainly be pleased.

Sometimes Bella wished she were closer to Angela or Jessica. If only she had been officially inducted into the circle of female confidence that all other teenage girls seemed to slide so easily in and out of at will. Renee was the only person Bella had ever felt a desire to confide in. And that wasn't because she felt Renee could offer sound advice or empathize with what she was going through. No, she confided in her mother simply because Bella knew that she cared, and Renee wouldn't hesitate to confide in her. There was comfort in the reciprocity of the divulgence.

Neither Angela nor Jessica would confide in Bella. Not because they didn't like or didn't trust her, but because nothing yet occurred to affirm the depth of their friendship. Their relationship hadn't been validated by sleepovers or out-of-the-way gestures of familiarity. Bella was entirely too passive—too content to be herself by herself—for those things. So they were friends without the threat of betrayal or neglect. It would be difficult for Bella to do either Angela or Jessica a wrong.

Or maybe she just wished that Jacob Black was a girl. If he could still be Jacob—trustworthy, easygoing, sunny, mechanically inclined, sarcastic, and a know-it-all—but have the propensity for talking about feelings and teenage boys. It would make conversations like this more direct. (Then again, Bella was a girl and she didn't really care about those things. Before now.)

"I just got assigned this huge project for history. It's a big part of our grade."

Bent over the Rabbit's engine, Jacob absently wiped his hand on the grease-stained rag hanging from one of his belt loops. He was installing some bit of metal Bella couldn't recall the name of. "That sucks."

Jacob liked school work less than he liked mowing the lawn and doing the dishes.

"Yeah, pretty much," Bella agreed. "But we were assigned partners so I don't have to do it all on my own."

"Who do you have to work with?"

"Jasper Hale."

Jacob glanced over to where she was sitting on an overturned plastic crate. "The guy who picked you up when the truck's battery cable gave out?"

"Yeah, that's the one." Bella had only briefly explained that night's occurrences to Jacob when she had dropped off her truck the next day. And she had jumped right over the strange conversation she'd had with Alice. It should have been something the two of them could laugh over, but for some reason, Bella hadn't felt comfortable divulging the exchange.

"So he's one of the Cullens then, right?"

Bella perked up in surprise as Jacob returned to his work. "You know the Cullens?"



"But I hear people on the Rez talk about them sometimes."

"What do they say?" Did the Cullens come to La Push regularly? She wondered then why she'd never seemed them here before.

Jacob sighed. "Stupid things. You know wonky superstitious Quileute things. Apparently the Cullens are from our 'enemy clan' or something." He snorted and rolled his eyes. "The elders don't have anything better to talk about, I guess, since Bob Barker left The Price is Right."

Enemy clan? Carlisle certainly didn't look Native American.

"It's strange," Jacob continued. "They've been talking about them more and more recently. And everyone seems really tense about it. Even dad's been acting weird. Like he's waiting for something bad to happen. And don't get me started on Sam Uley."

"Leah's boyfriend?"

"Ex-boyfriend." Jacob shook his head in wonder. "I think he's gotten caught up in some pretty serious drug use."

The only previous time Bella had been in the Cullens' house, Bella hadn't had the opportunity to sit on their living room sofa. Now she was making up for lost time. Because it was the most comfortable piece of furniture she'd ever had the pleasure of sitting in. Pulling her socked feet up onto the cushion, Bella settled back with a spiral notebook against her raised thighs.

"This couch," she said while snuggling into one corner, "is amazing."

"Thanks. I built it."

Bella peered over the tops of her knees at Emmett, who was sprawled in a lay-z-boy across the room. He'd been the one to answer the door when she'd arrived. After gesturing her into the living room and suggesting she get comfortable, he'd dragged the reclining chair ten feet and turned it around to face the sofa. Now he was watching her. And grinning mischievously.

Bella couldn't explain it but she felt so calm and relaxed. As if she was sitting in her own worn couch at home. "Really?"

"You bet."

Well, he certainly looked like he spent hours a day lugging heavy wood around.

"Don't believe a word he says." Jasper entered the room carrying a glass of water. He set it on the side table closest to Bella, making sure to maneuver a coaster beneath it. "Esme bought it from IKEA."

"Jeez," Emmett complained. "Did Edward give you his stick to shove up your ass for safe keeping or something?" He caught Bella's eye. "Edward was always a little party pooper. Probably because the poor guy never got any—"

"Are you going to be sitting there all evening?" Jasper asked as he sat not far from Bella on the couch.

Ignoring his brother, he lifted his eyebrows suggestively at Bella. "You smell good."

"Christ, Emmett."

"Don't take the Lord's name in vain," Emmett said piously, but didn't take his eyes off Bella. "Seriously, you smell good, you've got long legs, and you're pretty cute. Like a baby giraffe. Gotta boyfriend?"

Jasper sighed. "Did Rosalie put you up to this?"

"What do you mean?" Emmett asked innocently.

Jasper paused as if listening for something and then shook his head. "Never mind."

Emmett flashed his dimples and an impressive set of teeth. "Just trying to be friendly."

"No," Bella answered. "I don't have a boyfriend."

Emmett looked shocked. "Why not? Half the guys at school wanna take you on a cafeteria table. The other half wants to date you and then take you on a cafeteria table."

Jasper had picked up a number of the books Bella had brought with her and was thumbing through them. "And which half do you fall into, Emmett?"

"Not the same one as you."

Bella was staring mortified at her notebook, and Emmett chuckled at her expression.

"Aw, I'm just teasing." He waved a large hand in the air. "Of course I'd date you first."

"Emmett." An icy voice cut through the atmosphere of the room. Rosalie was poised at the bottom of the stairs, hand on hip and eyes on Emmett. Each of the Cullen children was frightening in their own ways. With Jasper it was his quiet, yet intense awareness. With Emmett it was his sheer size. With Alice it was her unrelenting determination. With Rosalie it was the strength thinly veiled by deadly beauty.

Emmett grinned heartily. "Hey, babe. I was just getting to know Bella here."

"Yes, I heard. You were one step away from getting carnal knowledge. Don't let me interrupt." She strode into the kitchen, Emmett watching her go fondly.

"That's my Rosie."

Bella tried to smile. "She seems…nice."

"There are a lot of words I would use to describe Rosalie," Jasper said. "Nice isn't one of them."

"Oh, I think it applies to certain parts…"

Bella turned away from Emmett's distant expression to find Jasper reading the back cover of one of the books. "I don't know much about the Civil War," she admitted. "So I brought those books and a few movies."

She pulled the films from her book bag, and Jasper looked over the titles: Gettysburg, Glory, and Gone With the Wind. They had been the three shelved closest together in the library.

"No," Jasper said, "these won't work."

"Oh. Are there others you think would work better?"

An indelicate snort came from Emmett's corner. "Jasper's more of a live action fan. And the guy's a huge Civil War junkie."

Bella looked at Jasper in surprise. "You do war reenactments? I saw one of those with Renee once."

Emmett guffawed loudly, the sound causing Bella to wince. "Yes! Yes, that's exactly it! Jasper participates in Civil War reenactments! Perfect. You're a sharp one, Bella."

Jasper looked somewhat less amused.

"Come on, man," Emmett chided, "tell us some good stories about your experience in the Civil War…reenactments. And try to make it sound exciting so Bella doesn't fall asleep."

"But of course there was nothing he could do. The wounded were slowing the entire regiment's retreat down. The Yanks were gaining every hour. Fear was setting in. The Major was losing control of his ranks. Some of the men began scattering east and west, deserting because they thought they could escape on their own. Perhaps some of them did. The Major never saw any of them again."

"What did he do? Did he leave the wounded?"

"No. He shot them."

"What! Why?"

"I told you. They were slowing down the entire regiment—300 men. They would have all been captured had they kept trying to move the wounded. The rules of war weren't always observed. Prisoners could be tortured, slaughtered, or starved. It was a mercy to put those men out of their misery before the Yankees got to them."

"That's awful." Bella shook her head against the bedspread. "Did the rest of the regiment get away?"

"Every last one of them."

Bella looked down at the paper where she had been taking notes. After three days of coming to the Cullen's house after school and listening to Jasper tell stories from the Civil War, Bella didn't have more than half a page of notes. Whenever Jasper spoke she found herself so completely enthralled by the unhurried sway of his voice—which took on hints of a Southern drawl the longer he talked—that she quite forgot the spiral notebook and lying a few inches from her face. The pen twirled absently through her fingers.

The details he was able to give were astounding. One of Jasper's ancestors—for whom he was named—had been a major in the Civil War and had kept a detailed diary of his experience. The book had been passed down from generation to generation, and apparently jasper had read a copy of it religiously when he was a young boy.

When Jasper spoke about the experiences from the diary, it was almost as if he were reliving them word-for-word. Reclined in the bedroom's window seat, he didn't look at Bella once. His gaze was entrenched in the middle-distance, so that Bella, who was sprawled across the bed, felt almost like a passive observer rather than an active participant to the discussion.

And she couldn't take her eyes of him. She wondered if he was seeing ink-stained pages and sprawling handwriting or if he was seeing smoke-glazed skies and thundering cavalry. At times Bella swore she could smell gunpowder.

It was easy to forget the real purpose of him telling her all of this. She was supposed to be thinking of ways to use the information in their project. Most of what she'd managed to jot down was abstract summaries and partial quotes

But one word in particular was scribbled multiple times in the margin and between lines.


Alice and Jasper had stopped holding hands. Bella was sure of it.

Before that night—the one when she'd gotten in car and crossed a line she couldn't recall ever seeing—Alice and Jasper had been nearly inseparable, with Alice always taking him by the hand and leading him.

They were still inseparable (both of them had taken up permanent residence at Bella's lunch table), but they were never holding hands and Alice was never bodily leading him anywhere. They walked down the hall side-by-side, shoulders whispering together.

Bella tried to ascertain what had changed between them in two weeks, but couldn't see beyond that small, seemingly insignificant, physical adaptation. They were just as fond, just as irrevocably drawn into each other's orbits. Alice still smiled at Jasper as if he were the brightest light in her life.

She smiled at Bella as if she were the one carrying the match.

"Where did you even get this?" Bella looked wonderingly at the nicked wooden handle and the dull, grey metal of the gun held loosely in her grasp. A revolver. An old revolver. From the Civil war according to Jasper. It was big and beautiful in a crude and dangerous way. Compared to the sleek design of the handgun Charlie carried, the one in her hands seemed naked almost, the raw components and curves on display for anyone to see.

A Colt Dragoon Revolver.

"E-Bay?" she asked doubtfully.

"No," Jasper grinned. "It was passed down with the journal. And I'm almost certain it has just as many stories to tell."

Cautiously, she turned it over this way and that. "It's heavy."

"Four pounds, two ounces."

It felt heavier than it sounded.

"A lot of the times it was stored in a saddle holster, so the weight wouldn't have been much of an issue."

"So this is what the Confederates used?" Part of their history project included a presentation, and it had been Jasper's idea that they bring in an authentic Civil War relic to display. She had thought he meant the journal. Now they were standing in the Cullen's backyard—behind the beautiful garden Esme spent so much time cultivating to perfection—enjoying the break in rain and…well, Bella wasn't exactly sure what they were doing out here.

"Some of them. It was a .44 caliber popular with the cavalry to take out the mounts of the opposing forces. First invented during the Mexican-American War—I wouldn't pull the trigger with it pointed at your leg like that."

Bella froze, gun gripped tightly and eyes wide. "Holy crow! It's loaded?"

"With gun powder and bullets, sure."

She quickly shoved it back into his hands. "Why didn't you tell me? I could have shot you!"

"Wouldn't have been the end of the world."

"Oh, I don't know. I probably would have passed out while you bled to death on the ground."

His lips tugged upward in amusement. "You don't like blood?"

"I'm fond of it so long as it stays in my veins, where I can't smell or see it. That's just where it was meant to be, you know? And don't get me started on the school blood drives. I see all those kids standing in the gym and can't help picturing cattle lined up for the slaughter."

Jasper chuckled and the sound was almost derisive.

"What?" Bella asked.

"It's just…I stay away from blood drives, too."

Jasper handled the gun confidently, Bella noticed. He wasn't shy about holding the handle firmly, and when he raised his arm as if to take aim, the way he braced his body was relaxed and poised. He had done this before.

But Jasper didn't fire. Instead, he motioned her closer. "You see how I'm holding it."

She stepped to his side. "Yes."

"Then, here, take a shot." He held the out the revolver barrel first.

Her mouth fell slightly open. "That's okay, I'm not—"

"Just try."

Bella accepted the gun as if he were passing her a dead bird. Knowing that it was loaded made it feel heavier, and she almost dropped it when he released the handle. She adjusted her hand around the bulkiness of the weapon until she was mimicking the way she'd seen Jasper hold it.

"Your parents won't care that we're firing a gun in your background?" Charlie would care.

"They know I'm responsible and that I've had the proper training."

But he wasn't the one using a gun.

Bella sighed and peered unenthusiastically at the tree line only a few yards away. "I don't want to hit anything."

"Then shoot the sky."


Suddenly he was standing over her shoulder, just inches away. Where other people leaked heat, Jasper seemed to draw warmth away from his environment. The small space between their bodies was chilled and empty.

His fingers lightly grazed the nylon jacket covering her shoulder. "Pull back the hammer," he instructed.

She did and heard a tiny 'click.'

"Raise it into the air. No straight up."

Her arm felt weak as she lifted it.

"Squeeze the trigger."

Bella wasn't sure which was louder, Jasper's voice above her ear, the pounding of her heart, or the heavy breaths whooshing past her lips.

Then her finger contracted.

The sound of the discharge echoed sharply in her ears, and she hadn't been prepared for the kickback. She flinched and stumbled slightly backwards, but Jasper had moved smoothly out of her path.

He was watching her stunned expression knowingly.

"That was…" Exhilarating.

She was smiling. Why couldn't she stop smiling?

"Feels good, doesn't it?" Jasper said. "Doing something dangerous just to learn something about yourself. It's worth it."

"Yeah, and I…can I do it again?"

No one answered the door when Bella knocked. And she spent a full five minutes deliberating before tentatively pushing the door open and calling out, "Hello?"

There was only resounding silence.

Bella glanced inside and then back over her shoulder at her truck—streaked in light—sitting in the driveway. The sun had made a rare grand entrance shortly after school let out and had lingered during Bella's brief stint at home before driving to the Cullen's house. She and Jasper had plans to outline the paper that was part of their history project.

If something had come up and Jasper wasn't home, then Bella could maybe drive to La Push and enjoy the unprecedented weather with Jacob. He'd probably pushed the Rabbit out of the garage to work on it outside. If she made the trip down, there would at least be a can of warm soda in it for her.

Just as she'd decided to leave, Alice's voice carried from the living room. "Come in, Bella."

She did, feeling only a small bit of resignation at having to abandon her fleeting plans.

Alice was sitting on the living floor, face tipped up toward the ceiling, nylon-sleeved legs stretched out in front of her, and the toes of her ankle boots popping back in forth as if counting out a steady beat.

When Bella sat down beside her, Alice slid a wide grin in her direction. "He's playing."

"Who is?"


"Playing what?"

Alice pointed a finger toward the ceiling. "His guitar."

After straining to hear past the silence, Bella could just barely make out the faint strains of high chords drifting down the stairs.

"He doesn't play very often?"

"Never." Alice's smile hadn't diminished, and she grabbed Bella's hand to give it an affectionate squeeze.

Bella wasn't sure how to respond but didn't take her hand away. The acquaintanceship she'd gained with Alice over the last couple of weeks was a surreal one, where the smaller girl was always subtly pushing her forward towards something Bella constantly looking back over her shoulder to make sure she wasn't wielding a butcher's knife.

If Jasper weren't so amused by Alice's silent fervor, Bella might have been frightened.

"You know, why don't I leave? You can tell Jasper that—"

But Alice's hand tightened around hers like a vice.

"It's been harder for him than the rest of us," she said, eyes still on the ceiling.

With nothing else to do, and secretly craving answers to this convoluted mystery that she'd so witlessly been caught up in, Bella asked, "What's been harder?"

"The life we lead goes against our very nature. It was hard for me at first to fight it. It was hard for all of us. But we found cause to change. We all found something that meant enough, that was more important than the instinct to—"

Alice cut herself off, fell silent, then took a shallow breath.

"I thought that Jasper had found something, too. But he still struggles. He tries, but because he's trying for all the wrong reasons, it doesn't work. He isn't happy here."

Staring down at Alice's cold fingers entwined with hers, Bella considered everything she wasn't being told. Alice wasn't referring to human instincts. There was something…off about the Cullens. It was in the way they glided instead of walking, the way they stared with golden eyes, the way their skin was always cold, the way they were so still, the way they didn't come to school on sunny days, the way they never ate, and the way they lived apart. If Jasper was struggling against the hold of something, it wasn't his humanity.

Bella considered all this and knew that her next words would be an acceptance of something that was very much beyond her. "Why do you think I can help?"

Alice completely turned her attention to Bella. "You're the first person outside of our family he's ever spent meaningful time with. He's never cared enough before."

"He only does that because you tell him to," Bella said bluntly.

"Yes, and I think it's time he stopped doing things for my sake."

"I just don't see what I can do to—"

"He never touches you, does he?"

Bella would remember if he had.

"Well that would be a start."

The light trickle of music stopped.

The loud whine of the vacuum rung in Bella's ears, as she dragged the hose's nozzle across the bench seat. The plastic tube sent vibrations up through her hand as she stretched to reach the far side of the cab.

A suspicious number of crushed Doritos were wedged into the crevice of the seat, and she'd found an unopened condom under the passenger floor mat. Bella was going to have to have an unpleasant conversation with Quil the next time she saw him.

Satisfied that she wouldn't find any more orange dust or straw wrappers Bella reached back to turn off the power vac. Then she moved to close the door…and nearly fell over backwards at the sight of Jasper leaning against the hood of the truck.

"Holy crow! When did you get here?" She looked around for the ostentatious Batmobile but saw no car parked on the street. "How did you get here?"

"I know about the conversation you had with Alice." He tried to say this casually. His voice was casual, his posture was casual, but the effort was wasted when his eyes—darker then she'd ever seen—were boring into her like they were.

Bella fidgeted restlessly. Why would Alice tell him about that?

"She thinks she knows best," he said simply. "She always does. It's one of the things I can't stand about her."

Stuck between a rock and Jasper Hale, Bella hesitantly replied, "It seems like she's trying to help you."

Jasper shook his head at her as if she were a small child saying that clouds were made of cotton balls. "She's just as bored as I am. And you,"—he gestured lazily at her—"are no different than the rest of them."

Bella swallowed the dismissal with a twinge of difficulty. "Alice doesn't seem to—"

"Alice doesn't always get what she wants," he snapped and shoved his hands into his coat pocket. He turned his head away as if to hide his clenched jaw.

"You're angry." She could literally feel it falling off him in silent, petulant waves that crashed down, drenching her with anger, and uncertainty, and fear, and want. And they all seeped inside to fill her own heart to the brim until they overflowed into her chest and Bella felt herself become just as angry, just as uncertain, just as frightened, and just as wanting.

And she didn't know why.

He straightened up, pushing away from the truck. "I've humored Alice up to this point, but now I'm done. I'll finish the rest of the project

Bella stared at him wide-eyed. "Don't you think you're over-reacting? If you don't want me coming over anymore, fine, but this is our project."

"I'll put both our names on it."

"It's 25% of my grade."

"Then it's a good thing we'll be getting an 'A.' 97 percent."

"That's not the point!"

Jasper started walking backwards down the drive. "The point is Alice and I won't be bothering you anymore. And it would be in your best interest not to bother us."

"Did-did you just threaten me?" she sputtered in shock and began following after him.

"I didn't need to," he said, not turning around. "You'll be dead soon enough anyway."

Flushed with anger, Bella reached out to grab his sleeve. "What the hell is that supposed to mean?"

But Jasper moved too quickly. In a fluid motion that she could barely follow, he snatched her outstretched wrist and pulled it tightly—almost painfully—against his chest. The violent action brought their faces within inches of each other. Her vision was filled with the scornful curl of his lip.

"It means," he growled, "that in 10, 20, maybe 80 years you'll be dead, and you aren't worth it." He bit the words out savagely and yet Bella could detect the desperation underlying them. "You aren't worth my time, or my consideration, or my relationship with Alice."

Bella couldn't understand why her eyes began to sting or her mouth went dry. "Fine," she bit out under her breath. "Email me the project when you're done."

He said nothing. Neither of them moved away.

Jasper's hold on her arm had relaxed, his thumb tracing long circles across the inside of her wrist. The sensation of his cool touch against her skin was coaxing a quickened pace from the pulse point. Bella stared transfixed as his fingers extended their path so that they dipped down inside her sleeve, pulling farther from her wrist with every stroke.

She shivered as a breeze blew against the newly exposed skin. Somehow her nose brushed Jasper's chin. He raised her hand toward his lips.

The sound of a car door closing had Bella jumping white-faced out of Jasper's hold. For the first time she realized they were standing together in the middle of the street.

A familiar red sedan had pulled up along the curb. Jacob was pulling his dad's wheelchair from the backseat and unfolding it beside Billy's opened door.

Bella cleared her throat and prepared some impartial goodbye to give Jasper, but when she turned back to him, he was already walking off down the street.

"Great." Lip between her teeth and hands clenched at her side, she walked back to the driveway where she'd abandoned the vacuum. "Hey, guys," she greeted, trying to sound enthusiastic.

Jacob looked like he was in pain. "I didn't know that you had boyfriend."

"I don't," she said, steadfastly ignoring the weight of Billy Black's concerned stare.

"I can't stand your moping any longer," Jessica said matter-of-factly at lunch. "It makes you less pretty, and I'm not used to feeling genuine pity for other people."

"He's not worth it," Angela offered more kindly, touching Bella's arm in comforting gesture.

"Angela's right," Jessica agreed. "I don't care how hot he is, no man is worth crying over. It ruins your chances of attracting an even hotter guy."

"I am not crying," Bella said. She wasn't even frowning. But ever since the blow up with Jasper last week she'd been feeling uneasy and more than a little crestfallen. It wasn't anything she was losing sleep over, but she was obviously projecting if Jessica and Angela were able to pick up on it.

"Not on the outside. But we can all see you're crying on the inside. Don't feel ashamed—"

"Shut up, Eric." Jessica picked out a crouton from her salad and popped it her mouth. Mid-chew her eyes lit up and she raised an excited hand. "I know! I'll throw a party this weekend. UDUB is on spring break this week so a bunch of college kids are back in town. And since my dad still feels bad about forgetting my birthday, I can totally guilt trip him into being scarce for a couple of days. It's just the thing you need, Bella. College boys are so good at cheering me up."

Erik performed a mockery of jazz hands. "Yay college boys."

College boys weren't as great as Jessica and Eric had made them out to be. Definitely undeserving of jazz hands or any other excited gesture.

A bulky coed knocked into her shoulder for the tenth time in…Bella couldn't remember how long she'd been standing at the foot of the stairs. But it had been a while.

She frowned at his beefy back. So maybe there was a gesture college boys deserved. Stupid college boys.

They were packed like sardines in the first floor of Jessica's house, dozens of boys and girls—who Bella could only recognize a few of—grinding and swaying to the beat of a booming base that rattled the windows. Or maybe it was her eyes that were rattling. That seemed like a strong possibility.

The living room tilted slightly to the right.

A very strong possibility.


She turned—wobbled—until she found Jessica's flushed face beneath a mass of wilting curls. For some reason, Bella hugged her. Jessica tried to return the gesture without dropping her red plastic cup.

"This is a great party, Jess!"

"I know, right. Are you having fun? Forgetting your troubles"

"I…" Bella thought really hard about whether or not to lie. "…don't know."

"That's because you haven't met Kyle yet. He's tall and blond just the way you like 'em. I swear he could like be Jasper's brother. Kyle!" Jessica had stepped up onto the stairs and was waving her hands frantically in the air. A lanky guy with broad shoulders and bleached hair looked up from small group of guys crowded together by the floor lamp. He grinned at Jessica and started towards them.

He's not beautiful like Jasper was her first estimation even from a distance. And as drew closer she couldn't help but pick out the difference Jessica so easily overlooked. He was shorter than Jasper, not by much, but enough that the carefully timed swagger of his legs and shoulders screamed haughtiness instead of natural grace. His white-blond hair was cut close to his scalp, stiff with style gel. He was fair-skinned, but his neck and cheek were touched with patches of red color—from the intense heat of the room or the burn of alcohol, Bella didn't know. His brown eyes were sharp with guarded anticipation.

Jessica nudged Bella in the shoulder. "Stop frowning."

Bella worked up a tipsy smile.

"Jessica," Kyle greeted, leaning against the banister. "Quite the show you've got going tonight."

Bella had to lean forward to catch his deep voice through the throbbing music.

"I don't know what you mean," Jessica tittered, looking flattered.

"All these beautiful friends you've got parading around without dates." He winked flirtatiously at Bella.

She fought the urge to roll her eyes.

Jessica took her cue admirably. "Oh, Bella, this is Kyle. He's a soccer player. Kyle, this is Bella. She's recovering from a bad breakup."

"No, I'm no—"

"So, I'm just going to leave you two to get better acquainted and go make sure no one's missed the toilet and hurled on the bathroom floor."

Jessica brushed past Bella so quickly, it hurt Bella's head and threw off her precarious balance. She stumbled but Kyle managed to catch her shoulders to steady her.

He grinned in a knowing sort of way. "Not a seasoned drinker?"

She tried shrugging, but he was still holding her. "Not really. And I wasn't going to, but…" she trailed off when her earlier logic escaped her muddled mind. All she could recall was Jessica's persistence.

"A year at Washington will cure you of that," he said as if they'd just had a ten minute conversation about her college plans.

Maybe they had, and she'd just forgotten.

"You wanna go outside? The fresh air might help."

With the heat of the room, the music, the bodies, and his hands all pressing down on her, Bella thought going outside would be a swell idea. She nodded and stepped toward the front door—which was only a few feet away—but one of Kyle's hands had dropped from her shoulder to her hand and was holding her back with the persistence of a dropped anchor.

"Out back," he half-shouted across the humid space between them. Bella thought it was silly to walk all the way across the house when there was perfectly fresh air right on the other side of the frosted glass window-in-the-door. But Kyle was already leading them into the crowd, muscling past stupid college boys and tipsy high school girls. Bella was pulled along in his wake.

Kyle's hand was calloused and warm. It reminded her of Jacob, and she held on tighter.

They weaved in front of the couch, where at least six people were forced into close quarters, girls practically sitting in the guys' laps. Angela and a short guy Bella recognized from French class (Berry…Benny…Brad…Bobby…Bob?) were one of the couples. They were holding hands and leaning close to talk to hear each other over the music.

Bella smiled even when neither of them looked up to see her uncoordinated wave. She could see Angela and Bob having a very, very promising future together. They both had lovely eyes.

The kitchen was just as crowded as the living room. A constant current of people was moving towards and then away from the kegs set up on the island. The music took on a muffled quality here, but the swell of boisterous conversation was almost enough to compensate for the loss in volume.

Kyle apparently knew some of the people leaning against the refrigerator and exchanged greetings and words that meant nothing to Bella, but he always kept moving towards sliding patio door.

"Chris! Man, I thought you weren't coming."

"Donnie dragged my ass out of bed."

"I needed a date."

"Shut the fuck up."

"But you're glad you came, right? I mean, you're gonna make it worth it, right?"

"Right, man."

"All right. I'll catch you later."

The outside air wrapped around Bella like a cool blanket, and when the door slid closed behind them, all the noise disappeared from ears. She felt that she could focus for the first time in an hour.

Sort of. The three people clutching cigarettes on the back porch were only a little fuzzy.

The smell of the smoke made her nauseous, so she stepped down onto the wet grass, inadvertently pulling Kyle with her when she forgot they were holding hands. Before she could try to disengage, he took the lead again, walking them towards the far part of the property where there was a man-made pond and very little light. The people on the patio were the only other people in the backyard, and they didn't spare Bella and Kyle a second glance as they made their escape toward peace and quiet.

Bella finally tugged her hand free and took a deep breath of unpolluted air. "Thanks for bringing me out here."

"No problem. I was getting a little claustrophobic in there anyway."

Bella frowned down at the pond. She'd been hoping he'd want to go back inside and leave her alone. She was tired of people she didn't know.

"Whoa, there." He pulled her straight as she began teetering toward the water's edge. "Maybe you should sit down."

"The grass…it's all wet." And she was wearing one of Jessica's dresses.

"Well, here then." He sat down cross-legged and then held out a hand in invitation. "I don't mind getting wet."

Bella stared at him in confusion.

He grinned and, before she could process what was happening, reached up to grab hold of her hips to pull her down into his lap.

Bella sputtered in shock. "Oh. No. That's—that's okay. I'll just stand. I don't mind."

His laughed against her ear. "Relax. There's no one out here to see us or anything."

Was that supposed to be reassuring? "I just don't—"

His arm snuck around her waist like a seatbelt and she instinctively stopped moving. "Relax," he repeated, softer than before, his tone cajoling. He gently nudged her paralyzed legs. "You situated okay? Comfortable?"

Unable to relax or to find the strength to move away, Bell remained stiff against his chest. "Um, yeah. I'm okay."

"Nice night out, huh?"

"It's…" Bella's voice faltered at the feel of a hand running up and down her side with deliberate slowness. Up to her ribs then down to her hips. She could hardly bring herself to breathe. "It's…nice out."

"Yeah." He ducked his chin to rest on her shoulder. Beer-stained breath soaked her cheek.

"I think—I think I'm ready to go back inside now." She could hardly hear her own voice.

His lips touched her neck. She shuddered. Bella screamed at her body to move.

"Just a little bit longer," he exhaled against her.

She was shaking her head. "No, I want to go now. Please—"

Her voice was stolen from her by the alien pressure of his hand cupping her breast. And she was so shocked, so horrified by this sudden invasion, that it took her too long to form a comprehendible response. He used the time so slide his other fingers up the inside of her bare thigh.

"Stop!" she wheezed finally, choking on her bewilderment.

He caressed her through her underwear.

Finally her hands did what she'd wanted them to do all along. They clutched at his and pulled it forcefully away. "Stop!" she repeated. The word was desperate mantra in her head. Stop. Stop. Stop. Stop. God, stop!

But he only used his weight to roll her sideways onto the grass. Bella hardly had the time to process the fear that seeing him loom over her invoked, before his shadowed form vanished from her sight and she found herself wobbling on her own two feet. A cold hand was gripping her upper arm.

Kyle was lying on the ground, clutching at his side as if in pain. "What the fuck…" he moaned.

It didn't surprise Bella to hear Jasper's deep timbre ask, "Are you all right?" He was peering down at her through the darkness in much the same way they had on the first night they'd talked. He was all bright eyes and chiseled jaw.

"My heart," she answered, raising a hand to her chest, "is moving very fast."

"You're scared," Jasper supplied. "But you don't need to be." His eyes flickered briefly to Kyle's sprawled form. "This asshole won't come near you again."

"Hey!" Kyle made it to his feet; face flushed all the way to his colored roots. "What the hell is your problem?"

"You're ranking rather high on the list at the moment," he answered evenly.

Bella stepped in closer against Jasper's side when she caught the wet gleam of rage in Kyle's eyes. The solidness of him made her feel safer. When he didn't push her away, she turned her face into his shirt. Every inhale brought her the distinct sent of detergent and leather.

"Why the fuck did you kick me in the ribs, you shit!"

Jasper regarded him with aloof disgust, as if Kyle were a bug he couldn't be bothered to squish with the bottom of his nice shoes. "She told you to stop, and you didn't."

"This isn't you're fucking business."

"It's my business that you understand when a lady doesn't want you touching her." Jasper leveled him a cold, dark look that had Bella's breath catching painfully. "Or that you're enough of a piece of shit not to care."

Kyle's lips curled in a snarl. "And how the fuck do you know she didn't want it?"

"Bella," Jasper asked, eyes still on Kyle, "do you want this boy to finger fuck you?"

Her eyes rounded in horror. "No!"

Jasper raised an eyebrow at Kyle, who scoffed through his clenched jaw. "Fucking cock tease," he muttered under his breath while turning away.

He didn't get very far.

Jasper moved like a strong current through water—swift, effortless, and forceful—to cut off his retreat. One moment he was supporting Bella's weight and the next he was seizing fistfuls of Kyle's shirt. The blasé facade was gone. Jasper jerked Kyle forward until their noses nearly crashed together. Kyle shoved against his shoulders, trying to put distance between him and the icy stillness of Jasper's face.

But his struggles were in vain. Jasper didn't so much as flinch under the onslaught. Instead he said in a low and careful voice, "The only reason you aren't a bloodless corpse on the ground right now is because I happened to eat before I came, and you'd taste like warm shit on the ass of a heifer anyway."

The words were clipped steel that Kyle recoiled from. All fight was gone from limp body as he stared into Jasper's eyes with alarmed bafflement. "What the hell, man," he muttered listlessly.

Bella took a stilted step toward them. "Jasper…"

Kyle staggered back the moment he was released. He looked from Jasper to Bella and back to Jasper with wide eyes. "Not worth this shit."

Bella hardly noticed his hurried departure for the house. She was staring at Jasper.

He was a giant standing in Jessica's backyard. Not because of his physical size—which was always a little bit intimidating—but because of the sheer force of his presence. His awareness alone seemed to lay claim to every little thing in the vicinity, as if he had power over it all.

But then he looked to her, and the intensity faded away as if he were pulling the awareness back into himself and couldn't see past her face. "You're trashed," he noted.

With Kyle out of sight and out of mind, all of the adrenaline and anxiety slipped from her, and the warm, fuzzy confidence of intoxication hugged her affectionately in its grasp. Jasper, she remembered then, had been very, very mean to her. And they were not on speaking terms. So she just shrugged at him.

"Where are you staying tonight?"

She stared resolutely at the pond.

"I don't imagine you're going home like this," he continued, and Bella was frustrated that he probably thought her lack of response had to do with her being in a drunken stupor and not her complete and utter resentment of his existence.

Petulant, she crossed her arms.

"You shouldn't stay here. That asshole hasn't left, and he's planning on cornering you later with his friends. He thinks I'll finish up with you in a few minutes."

She had to bite her tongue to keep from asking how he could possibly know that. He was probably just trying to scare her.

Jasper sighed audibly. "Is there somewhere else you could stay?"

Bella scowled at the concern he was showing her. What did he care what happened to her?"

"Maybe Angela—"

"Just don't worry about it," she finally snapped. "I'm not worth your time."

He was silent, watching her—always watching her, always from the outside looking in—and looking thoughtful.

"Alice sent you," she said bitterly, hating that it mattered to her.

"No."—Bella glance up at him in surprise—"And I imagine it must have been very hard for her not to."

"Someone get the girl a cookie," Bella mumbled, trying to force down the pleasure she felt blooming in her chest.

Jasper shook his head. "She wouldn't eat it."

"Of course not." All of the Cullens followed a strict 'special diet' that didn't include any form of food or water. They ate air. No wonder they all looked like models.

"Bella!" hollered a voice from some distance away. "Bella, are you out here?"

Angela was leaning out the patio door, squinting into the darkness. The smokers were gone from the porch.

Bella sighed before raising her voice to call back. "Yeah, I'm here, Angela!"

"Are you okay?"

"Yeah, I'm…I'm with Jasper."

Angela took a moment to respond. "Are you sure you're okay?"

"She's worried about you," Jasper said.

Bella rolled her eyes. "Thank you, Captain Obvious." Louder, she said, "Yeah, Angela. Just a teeny little bit drunk."

Jasper snorted.

Bella shot him a glare. "What?"

"You're swaying and you can't get your eyes to focus."

"I am not swaying."

"Your speech is also slightly slurred."



"I'm fine, Angela! Go kiss Bob again!"

"Who's Bob?" she shouted back.

"His name's Ben," Jasper offered.

"Fine! Then go kiss Ben!"

"Thanks, but he's not my type."

"I wasn't talking to you!"

Jasper smirked and looked away.

"We didn't even kiss in the first place!"

"Well, don't make the same mistake twice!"

Bella could just make out Angela's flabbergasted expression before she disappeared back inside.

"You just spent a full two minutes yelling a conversation at someone because you weren't sober enough to walk over to her, and you don't think you're more than a little bit drunk?"

"Goodnight, Jasper." And with the intent of proving him wrong and walking back to the house in a (semi-)straight line, she pivoted on her heel…

…and immediately started tumbling sideways.

Jasper caught one of her arms to help steady her, and Bella flushed indignantly. She tried batting his hands away, but it felt like she was smacking her palms against marble.

"Stop. You don't like touching me, remember? Or anyone. You like to keep your hands to yourself. Except Alice." She paused to consider. "No. You don't touch Alice anymore either."

"I'm touching you now," Jasper challenged.

"Only because you're a nice guy, and if you weren't touching me, I'd faceplant on the ground."

"So you'll let me take you home?"

"No." Bella began wriggling uselessly in his grip, her legs skating in the wet grass and her free arm flailing. "I don't want to let you be a nice guy. Cuz you're a jerk."

Even in her less-than-sober state, Bella managed to feel instantly guilty over the insult. But she told herself he deserved it because he'd yelled at her and called her worthless. It made her feel marginally better.

Jasper looked frustrated. Bella couldn't imagine why.

"A jerk," he said, "would take advantage of you like that guy feeling you up back there."

"Maybe," Bella allowed. "But you're a special kind of jerk who doesn't like touching. Even Alice, who loves you and wants to help you, sees that you—"

"Right. But what if I did?"

"Take me home?"

"Like touching."

Bella frowned, lost in the thought she didn't get to finish and the sudden anticipative edge to his expression. "What do you mean?"

Slowly, as if wanting to give her time to react, Jasper raised his hand from her arm to her shoulder and then to her neck, which he gently cupped, a thumb brushing over her chin. He leaned in toward her, and Bella was taken back to a rainy night when she'd sat in her cab and Jasper had lowered, lowered, lowered his face toward hers. She remembered imagining that he hadn't pulled away, and her skin had burned at the touch of his lips.

Now, Jasper paused with his ghosting her temple. "I don't need you or Alice to tell me what I need," he murmured. "If I want to care about you or anyone else, I will."

His cheek pressed to hers. Bella's eyes fell close.

"If I want to spend time with you, I will," he continued. The hand not cradling her face squeezed her hip, his fingers finding the top of her panty through the fabric of her dress and tracing the band across her abdomen.

Bella gripped at the leather of his jacket to steady herself. Her legs were disappearing from underneath her.

"If I want to touch you, I will."

Funny how that sounded more like a promise than a threat. Nevertheless, Bella played along. If he pushed, then she had to pull—that way they were both headed in the same direction. "You'd take advantage of me?"

"I understand that's standard behavior for a jerk like myself."

"Yeah." The little agreement was lost in a little, sharp inhale elicited from Jasper's lips touching the corner of her mouth before capturing it completely. Her breath, temporarily confused—unable to go out and not wanting to stay in, swirled chaotically in her chest, lending to the headiness of the moment. She was tipsy, and she was kissing Jasper Hale, and she couldn't breathe.

Somewhere in the back of her fuddled mind, she knew all these things were connected, that one lead to another, lead to another, lead to another. And it wasn't difficult to discern the starting point.

His kiss receded slightly, then returned with renewed persistence the moment she'd sucked in grateful breath. He pushed himself against her as she pulled at his jacket, and they met deliberately in the middle.

He didn't kiss the way she'd expected he might. He didn't do it casually and confidently like he did everything else. He kissed searchingly—leading but without grace. Jasper always did things with the offhand certainty of someone who'd done something a thousand times before. But not this, not kissing her.

When he slowly withdrew from the reach of her lips, she felt less steady on her feet than she had all night. "Jerk," she breathed unconvincingly.

His hands were still on holding her, just as she continued to flex her fingers in the brown leather of his jacket. Jasper grinned knowingly. "Then let me make up for it."

"How?" she asked suspiciously.

"You can stay at my house tonight."

"But I'm staying with Jessica. She let me wear this dress." Maybe if she'd been sober, Bella would have been able to keep the disappointment out of her voice.

"I think it would be a good idea to stay somewhere else. That boy—"

"Kyle," Bella said and shivered. "I don't like him."

"Yeah, well he likes you," Jasper muttered. "Too much."

Suddenly uncertain, Bella stared at his chest as said, "You could…stay with me. Just until he leaves. If you don't have anywhere else to be."

Jasper sighed. "I'm not good with crowds." He squeezed her hip once before stepping back, though he kept a firm hold on her arm. "Especially in small spaces."

"I don't like crowds either."

"Not for the same reason, I imagine."

"No," Bella agreed. "I don't have a problem with touching."

Jasper smiled as if she'd just said something very endearing. Then he started moving in the direction of the house. "You can stay at my place tonight. Carlisle and Esme won't mind. Charlie will never know the difference."

"But Jessica," Bella objected. "And my stuff."

Jasper was leading them around the side of the house and into the front yard. Both sides of the street were lined with cars, mostly older models and with worn paint and rust spots, the type of vehicles that usually filled the parking lot of Forks High School. That was probably why Jasper got away with parking his shiny black Shelby in the driveway next door. No one would assume it belonged to a teenage partygoer.

Jasper opened the passenger door and helped her in. "But my stuff," Bella protested weakly as she settled back against the leather seat.

"I'll get it."

"I thought you didn't like crowds in small spaces?"

"Don't worry about it." And then he shut the door.

The car—the Batmobile—smelled like Jasper with just a little less laundry detergent and a little more of the classic new-car-smell. She liked to think that given enough time they—Jasper and his Batmobile—would smell exactly the same. Of course, it would be best if the car got more of the detergent smell instead of Jasper walking around smelling like new-car all the time. People weren't supposed to smell like cars. No matter how shiny and black it was. Just like people weren't supposed to look like their dogs, no matter how cute the dog—

"Here you go."

A familiar green and white duffel bag was placed on her lap.

She looked over at Jasper in surprise. "How did you know this one was mine?"

"Smells like you."

Bella crinkled her nose but pressed the bag to her face and inhaled deeply. It smelled like canvass.

"You'll suffocate yourself doing that." Jasper had fastened his seatbelt, and was starting the car. Bella watched him adjust the heat controls.

"You know," she said thoughtfully. "Now would be another ideal time to take advantage of me."

Jasper's answering smile made her insides all melty. "Is it taking advantage if you suggest it?" He cocked a challenging eyebrow.

"Please, Jasper, don't take advantage of me."

When Bella woke up the next day, Alice was leaning over her, smiling broadly. "You don't die in the future as often as you used to. Would you like some scrambled eggs?"

Jasper and Bella never talked about the kiss. Jasper reclaimed a seat at Bella's lunch table—Alice did not—but he never once mentioned the kiss.

Maybe Jasper thought she didn't remember it even happening. (She did.)

Maybe he thought she didn't want to talk about it. (She didn't.)

Maybe he thought that Alice would find out. (Although she didn't act as if her boyfriend was going around kissing drunk girls in Jessica Stanley's backyard, Alice certainly knew something.)

Maybe he thought that this most recent incident in their convoluted relationship didn't need to be explained. (It did.)

Maybe he thought that it was implicitly understood that because he had touched her so boldly in private, it was only natural he touched her more casually in public.

His arm across the back of her chair at lunch.

His thumb stroking the back of her neck.

His hand on the small of her back as they walked to History.

His fingers toying with ends of her hair.

And somewhere, lost in all of this, Bella wanted to touch him back.

Bella kicked her legs in the air as she squinted up at the 12 point double spaced font she held a few inches above her face. Soft light filtered in from behind the printer paper, making the words difficult to make out.

She dropped her heels back against the headboard with a sigh.

"So if this is a final draft of part one, doesn't that mean we'll have to switch the slides around so those two on cultural issues come before the political movements that lead to the declaration of the war?"

She lowered the page to look at Jasper, who was sitting upright with his head precariously close to her socked feet. Lying on her back she couldn't see exactly what he was doing to the rough draft of part two of their assignment she'd spent a painstaking three hours writing the night before. He was supposed to be editing it, and his pen hadn't stopped moving in the last five minutes.

"I already changed the order of the slides," he said without looking up from his work.

Bella gnawed at her lip. "Is it really that awful?"

"What makes you think it's awful?"

"You. You're so horrified you can't even look away."

This observation earned her one of her favorite Jasper grins—the slow and slightly off kilter one that always ended with his lips parting. Even aimed at the paper in his lap, it sent goose bumps up her arms.

"Who says I'm writing negative things?"

"I suppose you're drawing gender non-specific smiley faces."

"Of course not. The bows clearly indicate that they're female."

Bella heaved into a half-sitting position and made a grab for the packet of stapled pages. "Let me see."

But Jasper held it mere inches beyond her reach. "I'm afraid I'm not finished," he intoned seriously.

"You are not drawing smiley faces on my paper," she scoffed in amusement. "Who does that?"

He swatted her hand away so that he could return to his work. "It's called positive reinforcement. You have to tell people the things that they do right otherwise they'll only internalize the negative messages, damaging not only their self confidence but handicapping their ability to perform at the desired higher level. If you tell someone what they're doing right it creates a means of overall improvement by which the person already has experience succeeding with on a smaller level."

Defeated, Bella sunk back against the bed. "Are you sure you're only 18, Jasper?"

"Not in the least," he muttered, pen once again moving swiftly over the draft. "By the way, I never knew you were so fond of commas. And dashes. So much so that you feel every sentence deserves at least one of each. That's very generous of you."

Bella clipped his shoulder with her foot. His only reaction was to smile catch her ankle before she could do any more damage—to herself.

"Hey," she laughed and tried to jerk free, but Jasper's hold was adamant. He held her foot captured against his chest with one hand and used the other to pull off her sock.

Bella warily watched his fingers as they hovered threateningly over the now bare skin of the arch of her foot, the most ticklish spot on her entire body. "Jasper Hale, don't you dare…"

But he didn't tickle her. He pressed his fingers to the knobby bone of her ankle, traced the circumference, glided over the top of her foot, and slowly moved down along her calf. Bella watched, mesmerized, first following the intimate trail of his hand and then watching his captivated expression as he did the same.

Jasper's touch was light, assessing, and—of course—cool, chased after by his half-bright eyes, which were almost more invasive with their warmer caress against her skin. She felt his eyes more than his hand as it palmed the back of her knee and slid up the length of her thigh, stopping only at the hem of her shorts as if that were where she ended.

Bella stopped breathing, could feel her lungs constrict almost painfully in her chest as his thumb pressed gently against her inner thigh and his eyes watched.

"You're warm," he said, voice deep and rough with resignation, "and soft. Delicate, almost." His hand retreated back up the length of her leg. "But not to the world. Just to me."

I'm not that pretty.

It wasn't something she thought with disdain or sadness. She didn't agonize over her measly height, didn't resent her small chest, or pity her unremarkable face. It was just a fact, one she rarely lingered on.

She had never really cared about her looks beyond the fact that it had made her stand out like a sore thumb in fake-blond and real-tan Phoenix. Even then, no one had ever really looked at her any longer than it took to dismiss her as average.

But for some reason the boys in Forks looked at her.

And Jasper touched her.

Staring into the steamed mirror at her damp reflection, she touched a hand to the narrow valley between her naked breasts, the same spot Jasper's fingers had—intentionally?—grazed while unbuttoning her blouse.

She stared unblinkingly at her abdomen and recalled how she'd shivered and unintentionally arched beneath him as his hands covered and stroked the exposed skin, not with the intent to arouse but to explore. He'd skimmed her hip, the smooth flesh of her belly, and the small of her back. And as he did, she felt that he was the one at her mercy.

The "thank you" he had murmured in her ear while righting her clothes still echoed in her subconscious.

"I hate it." I hate what it means.

"The diet you're all on?" These secrets you keep from me?

"Sometimes." Yes, all the time.

"Then what?" Don't you trust me?

"It's…everything else." I'm the one who can't be trusted.

"Tell me." I'm not going anywhere.

"It's…" Alice…

"Jasper." We've come too far to doubt her now.

"I hate it." I hate that she isn't enough.

"Hate what?" But you hate something else even more. What?

"Doing the same thing year after year. Living apart from everyone, above them all. Watching everyone else live just to bide my time until…until nothing. I'm not waiting for anything. I'm not waiting for death, or a change. I'm not working toward a future. There's no ultimate satisfaction for me to achieve. I'm still, and the world flows around me."

Bella's fist was in the air, poised to knock, when the door suddenly fell away to be replaced by Esme's concerned face.

"Bella," she greeted nervously.

"Hi, Esme." Bella smiled but then drifted awkwardly on the porch when Esme didn't move to let her in. "Is something wrong?"

"I'm afraid Jasper isn't feeling well," she said with a sympathetic frown. "I think it might be best to come back tomorrow."

"Really? He was fine at school."

"It…came on suddenly."

A crashing BANG echoed from somewhere inside the house. Esme winced but otherwise didn't react.

"Is he okay?"

"He's not in the best of moods," Esme said delicately.

Bella sucked in a deep breath. "Did something happen between him and Alice?"

As a protective mother, Esme couldn't answer 'yes' to the question. So her silence said everything Bella needed to know. "Can I see him?"

"I don't think that would be a good idea. He's very…upset."

Bella could tell that Esme didn't really want to turn her away. So she pushed harder. "I just want to try talking to him. If he tells me to leave, I will."

Esme hesitated. Another jarring crash rang out, and Bella could tell it was coming from upstairs.

"Please, Esme."

Her small shoulders fell, and she stepped back from the door, allowing space for Bella to pass by. "All right. But we'll be right down here if you need anything."

Bella breathed a sigh of relief and slid past Esme before she could change her mind.

Rosalie was perched on the living room sofa, a fashion magazine in hand. She didn't look up when Bella passed but said, "Dropping the mouse into the viper's cage, are we? Jasper better be willing to clean up his own damn mess."

Bella didn't catch Esme's rebuke. She tuned everything else out accept the silence that now seemed so worrying as she ascended the stairs to the second level. She took small measured steps to cross the hall to Jasper's door. When she placed her hand on the knob, the cold, smooth brass reminded her of Jasper. Bella turned it carefully before pushing the door open.

She gaped at the state of the room, the one she and Jasper had inhabited together for so many long afternoons, the one he and Alice had inhabited together for so many days before Bella's intrusion into their lives. It was wrecked. The armoire that normally stood elegantly against the left wall now lay in an indignant heap in the far corner of the room, its drawers scattered from here to there like bombs dropped mid flight. Clothes stranded on the floor added to the carnage of the scene. The bed frame sat naked in its usual spot, two of the four posts broken clean off and nowhere to be seen. Bits of what Bella assumed had once been the mattress littered the floor and upended furniture. The armchair was gone, but there was a suspiciously large hole in the floor-to-ceiling window. Bella wasn't close enough to peer through it and prove her theory right.

A muted rattling sound was coming from the walk-in closet.

Picking her way across the debris of metal springs, crumpled sweaters, and splintered wood, Bella slowly crossed the room. The door to the closet was crooked on its hinges and creaked as she pulled it away to reveal Jasper, his back turned to her and a colorful pile of cloth at his feet.

He was pulling a designer garment from rack, shredding it into two pieces with inhuman ease and dropping it on the floor before mechanically reaching for another. He repeated the process several times, the wooden hangers clattering endlessly together.

The violent precision of his movements stole some of her courage, so that voice was smaller than she would have liked when she called out, "Jasper."

He didn't turn, didn't stop moving.


He was up to his calves in clothes.

"Jasper, stop. What happened?"

A green blouse fell to the pile as two scraps of cloth. Jasper finally stilled.

"She left."

Bella swallowed back something thick settled like a sinking weight in her stomach. "Alice left?"

It didn't come as a surprise. Alice had stopped surprising Bella long ago. But the inevitability of the action didn't make it any easier to understand.

"But where did she go?"

Jasper turned around and brushed past her. "It doesn't matter," he seethed coldly.

Bella caught his wrist as he swept past. "Maybe it does. Maybe she had a good reason."

Jasper pulled himself free and rounded on her with lightening in his eyes and thunder in his voice. "You know why she did it!"


"She's doing it again!" he shouted. Sneering, he threw up his hands. That's all this is! Another attempt to fix me! To make me see things the way she wants me to see them!"

Bella didn't flinch back even as he leaned angrily toward her with trembling shoulders and accusing eyes. Guilty by association.

Fists clenched, she straightened her back, determined not to let him patronize her. "What things, Jasper? What is it she wants you to see differently?"

"You!" He said it like a curse. "She wants me to see you as something I want badly enough that I start to give a damn about everything else."

"And do you? Want me enough?"

Blunt nails dug mercilessly into the palms of her hand, as he leaned forward those last few inches to press his body against hers until she was forced against the closet doorway, trapped amongst his arms, his chest, the wall, and her own desire to feel more of his weight against her.

His nose brushed her temple, his chin her cheek. "If I wanted you any more than I already do, I'd burn the whole world down just so you'd be the only thing in it."

She exhaled shakily, something inside of her breaking—possibly the lingering resistance she'd harbored not to let Jasper consume her so completely. Her right hand twisted into the thin fabric of his t-shirt. "I don't think that's the feeling Alice was trying to inspire."

His lips grazed hers. "Good."

He kissed her forcefully, and this time he wasn't trying to make a point.

"Dad, this is Jasper. Jasper, this is my dad Charlie."

Bella was more nervous about this meeting than she would have openly admitted. She'd worked hard to keep Jasper and Charlie from crossing paths up to this point. But now that Jasper kissed her when he came to pick her up for school, she figured an introduction of some sort was unavoidable.

Charlie looked the younger man over indifferently. Bella rolled her eyes at the blatant intimidation tactic.

"You're Carlisle Cullen's boy."

"One of them." He shook Charlie's hand with ease.

"The oldest," Charlie said with thinly veiled disapproval.

"Yes, sir."

Charlie pulled thoughtfully at his moustache. "You and Bella are…seeing each other."

"I'm standing right here, Dad," Bella said crossly. "And, yes, we're seeing each other. Now, we need to leave, or we're going to be late for class."

Bella tugged on Jasper's hand, heading toward the front door. He smiled apologetically back at Charlie. "We'll talk more later, Chief."

"We will," Charlie agreed. "Until then, just respect my daughter."

"Of course."


He pressed his lips to her jaw.


Her fingers dug violently into his shoulders. He hummed against her skin.


Tremors—pleasing, aching resonations of nerves igniting and then cooling and then igniting again—shot up and down her spine in sync with the slow, languid thrust of Jasper's fingers in and out of her. His thumb drew light, maddening circles around her clit.

"Please what?" he demanded lowly. She just barely heard him over her quick, harsh breaths.

Lifting her head from the crook of his neck, Bella opened her eyes long enough to notice how far away the chalk board seemed to be, how the numbers, symbols, and formulas were even more incomprehensible than usual. Her knees pressed tighter against Jasper's hips.

The hand now working between her legs, palmed her breast through the thin fabrics of her t-shirt and bra. "Please what?" he prompted again.


Blindly she dropped an open kiss beneath his ear. "Harder. Faster. Please!"


"Like that?"

She moaned, "Yes. More."

One of her hands slipped from his shoulder to brace against the black table top of the lab desk, leaving behind damp, steamy handprint that vanished by the time her fingers were tangled in his hair.

She brought his forehead to rest against hers. "Jasperrrrrr," she groaned against his lips as he continued to move his fingers inside her at an inconsistent pace her hips couldn't meet. She could feel his mouth curve up into a wicked grin.

As if he were the only one who could play dirty.

Letting her head fall back, she moaned as loud as she dared in a vacant classroom. "Emmmmmmeeeeeeeeett!"

Jasper went still as a choked, startled sound escaped him in rare moment of inelegance. Bella smiled victoriously up at the ceiling.

"That…that was not very nice," he said incredulously.

"Well, you're not being very—ahhhhhh."

He pressed into her suddenly, with more force than before. Bella looked down to see he'd added a third finger to his ministrations. Bella gasped and shuddered under the sensation of being stretched in this new way.

"What was that?" he asked smugly.

Bella had the presence of mind to pinch his forearm, but of course he just laughed and quickened the movement of his hand.

The tightening low in her stomach became almost unbearable, the anticipation burning her from the inside out. And if only he would move faster, harder, deeper, she was almost certain she could reach…

And then from nowhere—somewhere behind and beyond the building pleasure—a sharp ache broke through the euphoria, ruthlessly grounding in one throbbing motion.

Jasper froze at the sound of her pained cry. "Did I hurt you?" he asked quietly, a slight waver in his voice—that tremor of doubt he so rarely showed anymore.

Bella wanted to reassure him, to tell him that she was fine, but there was a painful ache between her legs that wasn't lessening. When Jasper slowly withdrew, Bella felt her mouth go dry and her stomach twist with dread.

In the small space between them, he raised his right hand, displaying three fingers covered tip to knuckle in bright red.

It took only the space of a few deep breaths for Bella to understand what had happened. She put together the circumstance, and the pain, and the blood—oh, god, blood. Her blood. All over Jasper's hand.

She blanched white before all of the remaining blood in her body seemed to rush toward her face as the weight of her mortification

"Oh, God, Jasper. I'm…" She risked glancing at his face and immediately wished she hadn't. He was staring at his blood-stained hand, eyes narrowed, brow pinched, and free hand grasping the edge of the desk with visible ferocity. He was perfectly still, not blinking, not breathing.

He was angry. He was disgusted. (Of course he was; his hand was gloved in her vaginal blood.)

The metallic scent stung her nostrils and caused vomit to burn the back of her throat. She felt dizzy and light-headed.

The bell signaling the end of lunch rang shrilly.

"I'm…" Bella staggered backward toward the door, trying to look at Jasper and not look at his hands at the same time.

He didn't move.

"I'm…gonna go," she managed finally and ducked out into the hallway with tears burning her eyes.

Bella didn't go to her next class. She went to the bathroom where there was a full length mirror she could use to check the front and back of her pants for blood stains. Finding none, she went into the first stall and pulled down her jeans and underwear. With trembling hands she wiped away the excess blood, absently—or not so absently—noting that her underwear was ruined and it had been her favorite pair. Sniffling back the threatening tears, Bella straightened her clothes before leaving the stall.

A girl was standing at the full-length mirror applying eye-liner. When the girl smiled at her in a knowing way, Bella felt that she had been caught. This stranger knew that she'd bled all over her boyfriend's hand while he was fingering because she was a virgin and hadn't even touched herself like that before.

But then the girl shrugged. "Hey, you've got a keep it off somehow."

Bella blinked. "Oh…"

This girl didn't know anything about Jasper or Bella's embarrassing blunder. She thought Bella been purposefully throwing up her lunch. To keep the weight off. She thought Bella was bulimic.


"Yeah," Bella said quietly.

The girl returned to fixing her makeup. Bella hurried to wash her hands and exited the bathroom into the steady stream of students that always clogged the hall during passing period. But instead of turning right toward History, she took a left out of building three.

The administration offices were in the next building over, so Bella was only slightly damp from the rain by the time she stumbled into the nurse's office. Mrs. Freed looked up from her desk where she sat eating a sack lunch and immediately leaned forward in concern upon taking in Bella's haggard appearance.

"Is something the matter, Ms. Swan?"

"Yes, I don't feel good." She felt awful—she was dizzy and nauseous, and there was that ache between her legs. "I think…I think I need to go home."

"Well,"—the nurse ran a critical eye over her trembling form—"maybe you should lie down for a little bit. I'll call the chief to pick you up."

"No," Bella said quickly, unable to imagine sitting beside Charlie in the police cruiser after that had just happened. "I can drive. I just threw up in the bathroom, so I should be able to make it home before…"

Mrs. Freed hesitated. "If you're sure."

"I am."

"Bella, Jasper's here to see you."

She buried her face farther into the pillows, which smelled like shampoo from her damp hair. She'd taken a forty-minute shower as soon as she'd gotten home from school. Charlie had been downstairs when she got out. Apparently Mrs. Freed had called him at work to tell him that she'd let Bella leave school because she felt ill.

Charlie had come immediately home to check on her when Bella didn't answer the house phone.

"Tell him I don't feel good," she mumbled.

"I did," Charlie grunted. "He said he 'didn't mind having to hold your hair back.'"

Bella pictured Charlie rolling his eyes with astounding accuracy.

"Tell him it's contagious."

"I got the feeling he has gas masks in that fancy ride of his."

Bella groaned. "Just say I'm sleeping, and don't let him wait here until I wake up."

There was short lull of silence before Charlie reluctantly ventured, "Did something happen between you two? A fight or somethin'?"

"Dad! No, I'm just sick."

"Uh huh." He sighed. Bella thought it might have been a sound of relief. "Well, if you're sure, I'm gonna head back to the station. I'll lock up the house, and I don't want you wandering around outside. There've been a few reports of wild animal attacks. Might be a mad she-bear on the loose."

His hand touched the back of her head before she heard his footsteps receding from the room. Charlie closed the bedroom door behind him, so she could just barely make out the voices coming from downstairs. They quickly dissipated into silence.

Bella sighed in relief, hugged a pillow to her chest, and contemplated how she would manage to avoid Jasper at school for the next month. It would probably mean having to drop out of US History and eating her lunch in a bathroom stall. Maybe she would even walk to school because it was so hard to sneak around in something as boisterous as her old truck…

"How do you feel?"

Bella nearly rolled out of bed as she spun over to find Jasper sitting on the edge of her mattress.

"What are you doing here?"

Jasper wasn't put off by the blatant reproach. "You left school early. I was worried."

"But Charlie—"

"He was leaving the told me you were sleeping." He gave her a pointed look. "You're not sleeping, by the way."

"How did you get in?" Bella diverted dexterously.

He indicated her open bedroom window.

"You didn't."

"I did."

Bella shook her head and looked away at the bedspread. She felt Jasper shifting closer. His hand caught her chin and drew it back up so he could kiss her softly.

"I talked to Carlisle and he said that it was probably just the hymen breaking and not anything more serious, but if you want—"

"You told your Dad?" Bella asked, horrified.

"He's a doctor."

"So? If I committed murder and had some questions about hiding the evidence, I wouldn't ask my dad because he's a police chief!"

His fingers traced her jaw. "What we did wasn't a crime, Bella."

"No, but it was personal and…" Bella really couldn't vocalize the level of mortification she felt over what happened. "And I can't believe you told him," she said finally and then added more softly, "Or that you can even want to touch me after what happened."

"And why would I ever want to stop touching you?" He kissed her again, but Bella remained still and unresponsive against him.

God. He was going to make her say it out loud.

"I bled all over you," she stressed once he'd pulled back, "while you were…down there…it's…it's humiliating." She buried her face in her hands and tried to wish the entire day away.

She felt the weight of Jasper's arm as it circled her waist and pulled her onto his lap. His lips touched her temple.

"But it's what's supposed to happen."

Bella shook her head, still hiding her face. "You looked as mortified as I felt after it happened. And you had every right to be."

"I wasn't upset. I was…"

And there was a pause, one that Bella was familiar with. It was the small lapse of silence that meant the words Jasper wanted to say couldn't be spoken. He had to omit the more terrifying truths and give her only the ones that she needed to understand him and them.

"I don't want to hurt you," he said finally. "Ever. And I almost did. I thought I was going to lose myself and lose you."

Bella allowed him to pull her hands away so that their eyes could meet. He looked as sincere as he sounded. She relaxed enough to wrap her arms around his neck and lean into his solidness. "You don't need to worry about hurting me, Jasper. I know you wouldn't."

His fingers wove back through her hair, brushing along her scalp and causing her to shiver. "I think you're right," he agreed.

He started humming then, a bluesy song she'd heard him play before on the guitar. As far as she could tell there weren't any words to go with it, and she thought it might be something he'd composed himself. He curved an agile hand round the base of her neck and strummed the thumb and forefinger of the other along her spine. His touch was light and teasing, playing her like the instrument she was beneath his ministrations. She squirmed and had to bury a smile against his neck when he purposely sought out the ticklish spot on her right hip.

He continued humming.

"Why are you in such a good mood?" she wondered out loud.

"I am," he drawled thoughtfully without disrupting the cadence of his tune, "picturing you naked."

Bella snorted and rolled her eyes—affectionately. "No, really what is it?"

"Fine. Aside from imagining you naked," he said with a small smile, "I'm also thinking about what happened earlier at school."

Bella groaned. "Please don't. Let's just forget it ever happened."

"Not a chance."


His humming had stopped. "Feeling you like that isn't something I'm likely to forget. And the blood"—his voice caught briefly on the word, a mere tremble of almost-reverence—"only means that I'm the first person to ever be inside you. That when I take you for the first time, I'll make you feel things you've never experienced with anyone else. You'll be only mine."

Bella sucked in a sharp breath, pulled back just enough to catch Jasper's lucid gaze. His frankness regarding his feelings for her—for everything they experienced—never ceased to send reams of fire through her body as if her veins were ready wicks for the slow burn that always accompanied such straightforward and offhand declarations.

And of course she never had anything twice as poetic or half as potent to say back. But she always made perfectly clear exactly how she felt.

Bella brought her face to his and kissed him. Slowly she touched her lips to his, unhurried because they were alone, and the taste of Jasper was something to be savored. He leaned into the sweet caress to entice more from it, to make it bolder. Bella sighed and parted her lips.

Neck aching at the awkward angle, she drew away slightly to readjust her position so that her legs straddled his thighs. Jasper hadn't paused in his pursuit of her as she maneuvered about, resulting his mouth falling to her exposed collar bone. Both hands grasped her hips and brought them flush against his abdomen. Shivering, Bella tugged his lips back to hers. His tongue struck preemptively against her own.

Eager hands blindly grasped the hem of his t-shirt and made quick work of pulling it up his long torso.

"Jasper," she groaned when he seemed unwilling to relinquish his hold on her long enough to get the offending shirt over his head.

Reluctantly he raised his arms, but then made her return the favor as he pulled off her thin blue tank top. She barely caught sight of her bra before it too was discarded over her shoulder to the floor.

She hissed at the shock of Jasper's solid body—always so cold to the touch—suddenly pressed against her naked chest, invading her and cradling her all at once.

Bella's desire for Jasper had a way of emboldening her. There was something to the way she could curl her hands around his exposed biceps, dig her nails into the wide breadth of his shoulders, press kisses to his beautifully defined chest, and run her fingers over the solid dips and rises of his abdomen. Knowing that she could touch him how she wanted and how he wanted left her feeling thrilled and overwhelmed at the prospects. She was nervous and wanting.

"Jasper?" she called breathlessly, not quite sure

His tongue grazed her nipple as he replied, "Yes, beautiful?"

She arched against him until she filled his mouth. "W-why did you come to the party? That night?"

His hands were sliding up and down her bare back, over her ass, and into her hair, taking in as much of her as he could. "I wanted to be close to you."

"But why? If Alice didn't warn you I'd be in trouble." Alice's name—which rolled off Bella's tongue with forced causality—was a carefully applied litmus test, and Bella almost came undone in pleasure when Jasper's touch didn't falter or lose its fervor.

"Because I'd never wanted to be close to a human being before I met you. You were the only person I'd felt more than contempt or indifference for. I looked forward to seeing you, I imagined what it would be like to do this to you." His finger plunged below the waist of her sweatpants and curled inside of her damp entrance.

A long gasp shuddered past her parted lips. She began moving restlessly against him. "And…what do you-do you feel now?"

He pressed strong, disjointed kisses down her cheek, along her jaw, and up to her ear, where he murmured the words, "And now you're in my head and under my fucking skin every damn moment of the day."

She smiled into his cheek. Affectionately, she brushed a lock of mused blond hair behind his ear. Her fingers lingered against his neck. "I wanna make love with you."

His fingers had stilled inside her. But he was nodding and twisting to lie her down on the bed. As his hands left her body, they took her remaining clothes with them.

"Remember how good it felt to shoot the sky?"

She nodded up at him, could almost feel the trigger against her finger and the vibrations that shook her arms as the shot fired.

"Well, this is going to be better."

It was a Friday night, so the mall in Port Angeles wasn't terribly busy an hour before closing. The movie Jasper and Bella had gone to see had been disappointing, so they'd left the theater 45minutes early and had decided to make their way across the street to the small shopping complex.

Bella needed sandals for the warmer Forks weather that came with the beginning of May.

"And you can try on suits for graduation," Bella suggested as they entered Port Angeles's single department store, arms wrapped around each other's waists.

"I already have a suit."

"That doesn't mean I can't watch you try some on." Bella grinned, thinking she would enjoy that very much. "I've never seen you in a tie."

Jasper pursed his lips and hummed disapprovingly. "You're the one who insisted on not going to the spring formal."

"What? You didn't like staying in?" Bella asked innocently. "I personally enjoyed getting accustomed to your new bed."

Jasper chuckled and whispered in her hair. "Minx."

A loud wail drew their attention several yards down the aisle to where a little boy—no more than four years old—was clutching a hand to his red, pinched face. The woman pushing the cart he was holding onto, stopped to kneel by his side.

"What's wrong, Gavin?"

She peeled his hand away to reveal a smear of blood beneath his nose.

Bella winced. "He must have hurt himself," she murmured. "Poor guy."

"What are we gonna do about these nosebleeds, huh?" the woman murmured and pulled a tissue from her pocket.

Bella remembered the travel pack of tissues she had in her purse. "Here, I'm going to go see if she needs a few more—"

But Jasper's hold on her only tightened as she began to move away.

"I'll be right back. And I don't feel like I'm going to faint," she reassured him with a teasing smile.

Jasper shook his head, jaw clenched and brow furrowed as if he were about to get sick at the sight.


He pulled her into his chest, clutching her body flush against his in a hold that was painful. "I want you," he croaked against her neck. "Right now."

Bella shivered, completely startled but flush with want over the desperate need for her he was exhibiting. "O-okay."

Jasper exhaled heavily against her skin, and that was the last slow movement he made. Taking her hand in his, he pulled her back down the aisle at a pace that had her nearly jogging to keep up. Past the clothes, the cooking wear, the home décor. He led them to the very back of the store where there was a door boldly marked: "EMPLOYEES ONLY."

"Maybe we shouldn't—"

Jasper put his hand on the knob and turned until there was a hideous tearing noise. He pushed the door open before she could consider the impossibility of what he'd just done.

The room was large and dimly lit by long fluorescent bulbs that hung from the high ceiling and whose light was absorbed piteously by the brown concrete floor and towers of cardboard boxes organized into vague columns.

Jasper stalked over to where five mattresses were stacked together and tore the plastic off the top one with three succinct pulls. Then he moved to her clothes.

"What if someone sees us?" she murmured half-heartedly as he unbuttoned her top with one hand and her shorts with the other. She felt over-heated and dizzy with lust as the throb between her legs grew with every moment he continued to stare at her like she was something to be devoured. It was him, she knew. It was him making her feel this raw want and in more ways than one.

She'd never needed relief this badly.

"We'll be quick," he promised.

And true to his word she was naked and on her back between one ragged breath and another. The mattress was still giving beneath the addition of their weight when he pushed into her. Bella sighed as he came to stop once he was fully sheathed in her warmth.

"You're worth it, you know?" He said against her parted lips. Her tongue snuck out to catch the corner of his mouth.

"Worth what?"

He pulled back and thrust in more forcefully. "Everything."

"And you have no idea where he is?"

"No, I'm sorry."

Bella frowned and dug her toe into the welcome mat outside of the Blacks' house. "He hasn't returned any of my calls."

Billy sighed sympathetically from just inside doorway, his hands folded calmly in his lap. "I don't know what tell you, Bella. He's a teenage boy. You know how they are."

No. Bella knew how Jacob was. And he didn't just disappear, and he didn't ignore his friends for the hell of it. Maybe he was upset that she hadn't been by La Push in a couple weeks. But school had been busy and Jasper had been…

Bella blushed just thinking about how absorbed she and Jasper had been in their new relationship…and then felt guilty because that was no reason to ignore her best friend.

"I talked to Charlie. Said you're seeing someone. One of the Cullens."

Billy's tone was conversational, but too careful. Bella could sense his disapproval as easily as she had the first time he'd seen she and Jasper together. Bella couldn't fathom what had inspired the less than favorable opinion.

"Yeah, for just a couple weeks now."

"Then you don't know him very well yet."

Bella blinked, not sure where Billy was going with the comment. "Actually we've been friends for a while now."

"But you don't really know him," Billy pressed. "You should be careful."

"Do you know the Cullens?"

Billy seemed to consider something before shaking his head. "No, just looking out for you." He smiled slightly. "I'm a suspicious old man."

Bella relaxed enough to smile back. "I promise you have nothing to worry about. Jasper's great."

"I'm sure he is."

After that strange exchange, Bella reluctantly climbed back into her truck and headed down the road out of La Push. She was letting her mind wander as she drove, when just a mile from the entrance, she saw a group of people disappearing into the tree line. At first, her attention was drawn to the spectacle simply because they were all shirtless and shoeless. But then as she noticed they were all young men, she found herself scanning the faces, hoping to find a familiar one.

And at first she couldn't be certain that she had. The one that struck a chord of familiarity in her seemed like more of a caricature of her best friend. He was too tall, too broad, and his hair was too short. But just as he stepped into the woods, he turned in the direction of her approaching truck, and there was no mistaking that face.

Jacob Black.

Bella pulled off the pavement and into the grass. Rushing to unbuckle her seatbelt and open the door at the same time, she stumbled from the truck and rounded the front to where the group of boys had been congregated just moments before. Looking around frantically she saw no one.

"Oh, I don't think so," she muttered to herself and headed into the woods.

For the first ten minutes, Bella moved with purpose. If Jacob was avoiding her, she wanted to know why. Sure, she'd been scarce, but they had talked almost nightly on the phone up until a week ago, when he had fallen off the face of the Earth and Billy had started offering weak excuses for his absence.

But as her pursuit proved more and more futile, Bella's sense of purpose waned and her pace slowed. She continued moving over damp earth and leaves and passing moss-laced trees, but had stopped searching. Instead her mind turned to the last conversation she'd had with Jacob over a week ago. She had been distracted, thinking about the best way to broach the subject her and Jasper's relationship. But she could remember how upset he'd been while discussing Embry's recent defection. Apparently he had missed a lot of school and was hanging out with a gang of guys who liked to throw their weight around the Reservation. Jacob had sounded morose and angry all at once, and Bella had just let him vent. They never got around to the conversation about Jasper.

Bella wondered if Jacob had found out from Billy, who had found out through Charlie, and maybe that was why he wasn't talking to her. Maybe he'd been angry that he hadn't heard about Jasper from her.

But that didn't explain the cut hair or the strange group of boys she'd seen him with. Were those the same boys Embry had been hanging out with? Had Embry been a part of that group? If so, Bella hadn't recognized him. She'd hardly recognized Jacob.

What if he had been pressured to join? And just what exactly were they doing walking around half-naked in the woods? It wasn't that warm out.

Bella stopped walking. For all her wondering, no one except Jacob could answer her questions. And she clearly wasn't going to find him out here in the woods if he didn't want to be found. He knew the area better than she did. Looking around, she wasn't even sure if she knew how to make it back to her truck.

"Are you lost?"

Bella jumped at the sound of the smooth voice that snuck up on her from behind. She turned and saw a young man she didn't recognize. He was handsome and decidedly not Quileute. His skin was pale as ivory, his clothes worn and stained with dirt. Dark hair was pulled back in a slick ponytail at the nape of his neck, harshly exposing the sharp, cutting angles of his face. His smile was malignant.

"No," Bella answered reflexively. "I'm just taking a walk. With my friends."

"Friends?" another sly voice said from over her shoulder, and Bella whipped her head around to see a woman with a flaming red mass of tangled hair. Her clothes were torn and dirty like the man's. She wasn't wearing any shoes.

Bella felt trapped between them even though they made no move to approach her.

The woman's thin lips curled into a feral grin. "I haven't seen any friends. Have you, James?"

"Not at all."

Bella's voice trembled. "They're just a little bit behind me. I…got a head start."

The man—James—was standing by a tree a short distance away and then he was exhaling heavily over the crown of her head before Bella had even registered his movement. Her feet were frozen in place, instinct screaming that she stay as still as possible. Don't antagonize them.

"It's a shame that you're lying," James said and raised a hand to cup the side of her face. She shivered from the icy contact of his skin. "I could have gone for seconds."

"Please," she murmured, not caring that she sounded desperate and pathetic. These people had every intention of hurting her. Badly. Anticipation gleamed in inhuman red eyes.

"James, it's been so long since I've seen you enjoy your food…thoroughly."

Only Bella's eyes moved to locate the woman who had appeared at their side. A red eyebrow rose suggestively.

"You're right," James agreed without looking her way, "and I do so enjoy having you watch."

The redhead leaned in to skim her tongue along James's ear. "So do I, baby."

"Then it's settled."

Air was forced painfully from Bella's lungs as her back came in jarring contact with the ground, the weight of James's hand on her sternum not giving her the freedom to breathe. He pushed up the hem of her shirt. Cold fingers brushed her pelvic bone just inside her jeans.

The blood in her veins turned to ice. "No!"

As if the force of the word had delivered a physical blow, James flew backward through the air, landing with a thud against a towering oak. She scurried into a sitting position, righting her clothes with shaking hands while she took in the back of the person now crouched in front of her. Those arms and that hair…

The redheaded woman had moved into a defensive position of her own, teeth bared and one hand braced against the ground in prelude to a pounce. "She's ours! Find your own meal."

"Wrong. You're in my family's territory, so she's ours. And, more importantly, she's mine."

Relief swelled inside Bella at the sound of Jasper's voice, even if it was more cold and threatening than she'd ever heard it before. She tried crawling to his side, but he threw out a hand to stop her.

Meanwhile, James had flashed to the woman's side in another impossible burst of speed. He didn't even look rattled from his flying impact with the tree. He just grinned condescendingly. "Family? You mean your coven?"

"I mean me and the six others who have occupied this area for some time. We don't take kindly to strangers hunting on our land."

James tipped his head. "I've never heard of so many vampires staying in one place. It's almost…unbelievable. Tell me, where is this family of yours now? Because, if I may observe, there's two of us, and only one of you."

"Good odds," the woman murmured and began moving to Jasper and Bella's left, as if moving along the circumference of a circle they were the center of.

Bella anxiously curled a hand in the back of Jasper's shirt. She could feel the vibrations moving through his body as he spoke. "So it would seem."

Blindly, Jasper slowly reached back to grab a hold of Bella's arm.

"Except you forgot to count them."

A heart-stopping snarl ripped through the air, announcing the appearance of a huge, bear-like animal, which sprung—gleaming claws extended—toward a shocked James.

Bella gasped but didn't get to see the collision. Jasper had pulled her around into his arms and shot off in the opposite direction of the beast's arrival. Legs hooked around his hips and arms wrapped around his neck, Bella watched over his shoulder as trees, and dirt and rock flew by in blurs of green, brown and grey. Logically she knew she shouldn't be moving that fast, and her body rebelled at the loss of equilibrium. Even with one of Jasper's arms pressed tightly against her lower back, she felt likely to fall at any moment.

She shut her eyes and fought to hold off the nausea.

Breathe in. Breathe out. Don't vomit. Breathe in. Breathe out…

There was a sound reminiscent of distant thunder, and Bella opened up her eyes just far enough so see shapes moving towards them, dark shadows that grew in size and clarity as they progressed swiftly closer. One of them Bella recognized as the animal that had attacked James. The other three were of similar builds but different color.

They were wolves, she realized. Wolves the size of horses. And they were gaining ground.

"Jasper!" she screamed.

The hand on her hip tightened. He knew they were being chased down.

A creek passed a about a yard beneath Jasper's feet, and had her eyes not been open, Bella wouldn't have been able to tell they'd even left the ground. There was no change of pace and no jarring impact as they landed on the side. He breezed over it as if it were a mere puddle to be crossed mid-stride.

The pack was on their heels now. She could make out the flickers of intelligence in their eyes and the sharpness of their claws as they tore at the forest floor. One of the wolves in lead put on a burst of speed and lunged, but another struck its flank, knocking the first off course. It stumbled sideways into the ground, howling angrily. None of the others slowed in their pursuit.

Jasper veered suddenly to the right, and a moment later the trees disappeared as they entered a wide clearing. As the wolves broke through the tree line after them, their pace was slower, almost as if they were giving up on the chase. Bella's relief was short lived however. Jasper, too, began to slow before coming to a complete stop.

Just a short ways behind them, the wolves were pacing restlessly.

"Jasper, what—"

"Are you hurt?"

"Just dizzy. Why are we…"

He eased her down his body until her feet touched the ground. Everything spun violently, and she clung to him in order to stay upright.

His hands smoothed back a lock of hair that had escaped from her ponytail some time during their flight. "Are you sure you're not hurting anywhere?"

"Sit her down, Jasper."

Carlisle's concerned face swam in her vision. What was he doing there?

When Jasper had lowered her to the ground, Carlisle instructed her to put her per head between her knees and take deep breaths. She did. Slowly the buzzing in her ears died away and her stomach no longer felt like it was trying to escape through her throat.

"Carlisle, the tribe."

Was that…Rosalie?

Bella risked looking up from her knees to see Carlisle, Rosalie, Esme, and Emmett all standing in close proximity to where she was sitting in the grass with Jasper at her side. None of them were looking at her, though. They all had their sights trained on the four gigantic wolves prowling back and forth along an invisible line several yards away.

"Jasper, what's going on? Your family, what are they doing here? And those wolves—what are they?"

Jasper was holding his cool hand to the back of her sweaty neck. That simple touch calmed her slightly. "They're not wolves, Bella. Not entirely."

"Then what are they?"

"Men. Quileute men, more specifically."

"But that's not…" Not what? Possible? Nothing that had happened in the last hour had seemed possible. It was like a terrible dream. And yet, at the same time, it all felt incredibly real. Jasper seemed more real than ever before. The ground beneath her felt more real. The humid air in her lungs. The pounding of her heart. It all came in sharper focus as a sense of calm washed over her.

Bella swallowed. "What do they want?" She recalled what they'd done to James and thought she had a pretty good idea.

"I went on their land, which is breach of our treaty."

"But if you hadn't, that man, he would've…" Bella didn't want to think about what he would have done.

"He's gone Bella. He can't hurt you."

"He's dead?"


"Did they…eat him?"

There was a spattering of whines and yapping from the wolves that sounded almost like laughter. But a sharp bark from the large black wolf in their midst put an end to the ruckus. He stepped forward from the rest of the pack, and Carlisle did the same, moving slightly in front of his family.

Jasper helped me to my feet.

"We apologize for breaching the treaty," Carlisle began, sounding earnest and peaceable. "It will not happen again, and the only reason it occurred today was because a girl's life was at risk. There was no malicious intent."

Bella leaned into Jasper and said quietly, "Your dad's talking to a wolf. From now on you can't make faces when Charlie yells at the microwave."

"I do not make faces," he murmured back but then hesitated. "On the outside."

Carlisle continued on in front of us. "We were unaware that there was an active pack in the tribe. But we give you our word that we will not infringe on your land again."

A stirring went through the wolves, as if they were silently communicating displeasure to one another. But the large black wolf, the one who stood in front of all the others and seemed to speak on their behalf, regarded Carlisle silently before dipping his head in sign of acknowledgment.

Bella felt Jasper relax beside her. "The female," he said, and the wolves turned to him, "did you get her?"

More noises of discontent from the pack. The leader moved his head from left to right.


Bella paced back and forth across the floor of Jasper's room, the same room Alice had taken her to her first visit to the Cullen's house. Alice had sat on the bed exactly where Jasper was sitting now and had told her that she, Bella Swan, was going to change Jasper's life.

Now Bella knew that Jasper had heard that conversation, too. He'd heard every conversation she'd had with Alice. Every conversation she had across the cafeteria. He could hear her heart beating that very moment.

Because he was a vampire.

"I don't know where to start," she muttered more to herself than to him.

Jasper answered anyway. "Do you have any questions?"

So many she couldn't keep them all straight.

"Why didn't you tell me?" Not that she didn't already know why. The fact that you're a vampire probably wasn't something you went around sharing with everyone. She could think of a dozen possible reasons why he wouldn't have wanted her to know. They were all logical, and yet not one of them eased the hurt she was feeling. She felt lost, abandoned at sea without so much as a life preserver to keep her afloat.

And she felt that Jasper had been the one to cast her overboard.

Jasper grimaced slightly."I didn't think it would be a good idea for you to know. There are…rules against humans knowing what we are."

"Carlisle's rules?"

"No. Someone one much more powerful and dangerous."

Bella halted in her pacing. "So you were never going to tell me?"

This was something Jasper took a moment to consider. "I would have had to have said something eventually."

Because vampires didn't age.

Bella closed her eyes, and it was as if the entire weight of the world—or at least of the world she knew—was bearing down on her with unforgiving force, punishing her ignorance and naiveté.

As if Jasper had ever planned on their relationship being anything more than temporary. A quick fix. A break from his immortal existence. As if she was anything more than a human.


"And this…thing, this power that you have over people's emotions. You've used that on me before?"

"A few times, yes," Jasper admitted tersely, and Bella could tell this was not something he wished to discuss. She didn't care.


"Does it matter?"

"Just tell me, Jasper."

"Once or twice when we first met in order to keep you calm. And then there were a couple of times when I had you feed off my own feelings."

"When?" she pressed relentlessly.

"Last weekend," he muttered, "in the backroom at the store."

Bella pointed at him accusingly. "I knew it!"

The sting of truth left her flush with humiliation and indignation. God, she'd never felt so…used. Was that all Jasper wanted from her? A warm and willing body? Is that what Alice had intended all along? She thought that if Jasper were intimate, he'd have a change of heart about humans? He'd learn to want more than just their blood?

"Stop it. Stop doubting us." Jasper's hands curled into fists around the comforter. "I wasn't controlling you. I wasn't making you want things you wouldn't have wanted otherwise."

"And how am I supposed to know that for sure, Jasper? I'm just trying to understand why you would go through the trouble in the first place."

"I don't do it because I want to control you," he repeated. "My ability…it's like you using any of your senses. You use your eyes to see and your ears to hear because it helps you to better understand the world and function as a part of it. Being able to feel what others are feeling is just another extension of that. Sometimes I influence others emotions without thinking and sometimes I influence them without thinking its wrong."

Bella had to look away from the intensity of his gaze. "Are you doing it to me now?"

"No. Of course not."

"Of course nothing! Nothing is of course right now, Jasper." She stalked toward the window, arms crossed and fingers pressing painfully into her ribs.

It had started raining. Hard. The water washed out the color of Esme's garden and pounded against the house's glass wall. It was beautiful. Powerful. Unstoppable. When the rain came, it claimed some part of your conscious. You couldn't stand outside and not realize it was raining. But when it left, it left you behind. The rain couldn't take you with it.

Bella could have stood watching it for hours.

Jasper sighed, and from the nearness of the sound she could tell that he had stood to follow her. "Will you please talk to me?" he asked quietly from behind her.

"About what?" Bella asked without turning around.

"Tell me what you're feeling."

"Don't you already know?" Bella muttered bitterly.

"But I don't know why."

"That's right. You would need Edward here for that."

"Fine. I'll go first." Jasper stepped in front of her, obstructing her view of the window. Bella had no choice but to look up at him. "I'm scared. Because I can feel that you're closing yourself off to me, and I've never needed anyone the way I need you."

"Why do you need me, Jasper? There are thousands of girls out there you could learn to care about. What does it matter if it's me? Maybe at your next high school you'll find someone—"

"No." Jasper gently grabbed her chin. "You're the one I care about. You're the one I need. After I met Alice, I thought that was it. I thought I had found what I needed to make my peace with this life. But I was wrong. And she knew. All this time."

And yet it didn't make any sense for him to feel this way. She should be next to nothing in his immortal eyes.

But he never made her feel like nothing. His hand in hers was enough to make her soar.

Jasper's thumb brushed her bottom lip. "I love you, and I know that you love me. Nothing that happened today changes that."

Didn't it?

"I need to…think…about things."

Because her truck was still parked in La Push, Bella had needed someone else to take her home from the Cullens' house. Jasper had offered to take her himself, but she'd declined. When she'd gone downstairs, Esme had been waiting with the keys to Carlisle's Mercedes.

The drive stared out in silently with Bella stewing in the passenger seat and Esme remaining respectfully stoic as she navigated the wet, winding roads that led to the heart of Forks.

But the quiet seemed to artificial to Bella, who assumed Esme had heard the entire conversation she'd had with Jasper. It almost seemed neglectful not to say anything during the fifteen minute drive. And Esme had always been so kind to her—had made her snacks no one else would even eat.

"Thanks for giving me a ride, Esme."

"It's no problem, dear."



"Why didn't he tell me?" Bella asked, not even certain what was she looking for. A confirmation? A lie? A good enough reason to turn her back on all of this?

Esme took a moment to respond. "At first, it wasn't even a choice really. We can't tell humans what we are. It would have been dangerous for both you and the family. And there was no reason for you to know. You were…"

"Just a human," Bella finished bitterly, causing Esme to wince.

"Yes, even if you were sweet and intelligent and friendly, you didn't belong with us. But then things changed."

Bella unconsciously held her breath.

"As long as I've known Jasper, he's always been a very practical young man. He's practical about what he is and what he's done, and what his future will hold. He isn't lost like Edward is, isn't resentful like Rosalie. But he'd always been restless. This life that we lead is hard for him. He didn't used to drink from animals, and I've always understood that the reason he tries so hard to stick to the diet now is because of Alice. He would do anything for her."

Bella found herself nodding along. "He really loves her."

"But sometimes doing something for the sake of someone else isn't good enough. Jasper told himself he couldn't kill humans because it would hurt Alice. Now he tells himself he can't kill humans because they're not so different from you, and you're so wonderfully full of life and potential. You reminded him why humans deserve to live in the first place."

Lip caught ruthlessly between her teeth, Bella turned to the window. "And now what? What more is there for us? What else can I give him?"

Esme didn't offer any answers.

Bleary-eyed, Bella stumbled to the front door with all the lethargy that came with not sleeping for 28 hours. A few seconds of wrestling with the door knob, and she swung back her arm to find Jacob Black standing stern-faced in her door.

But one look at her and the rigidity melted away into concern. "You look like shit, Bells."

She nodded glumly. "Found out that my boyfriend is a vampire, and my best friend is a werewolf."

"Guess that's pretty rough."

Bella's eyes started burning even though she was internally screaming at herself not to cry. Perhaps if she hadn't been so exhausted, feeling so emotionally exploited, and so conflicted, she would have been able to stave off the tears. It was rare she ever felt the need to cry. But the urge crept up on her then when her defenses were down—battered into submission—and there not enough fight in her to resist.

Jacob detected the small sniffles, the watery eyes, and stepped forward to pull her into a suffocating hug that Bella returned with all her might.

"Ok, Jake," she mumbled against him, "you're so big, and you cut your hair. You've been ignoring my calls."

"And I turn into a wolf."

"That, too."

Bella felt his lips touch the top of her head—a gesture he'd never been tall enough for. "I wanted to tell you. I really did, but I literally couldn't. Sam's orders."

"Sam Uley? Was he that big black wolf?"

"Yeah." Jacob's chest rose and fell beneath her head as he hefted a deep sigh. "He's our alpha. If he gives us a direct order, we physically can't disobey. And he likes keeping us on a short leash."

Bella made a sound caught somewhere between a sniffle and snort. "Worst pun ever."

Jacob didn't give a witty comeback, and she knew that it wasn't just Jacob's appearance that had changed.

"Jake, are you okay?" she asked carefully. "I can't imagine how hard it must be now that you' know."

Jacob shrugged slightly, his arms still around her, burning with unnatural heat. But Jacob had always been so warm. "It's not so bad," he said quietly. "At first, it was awful. I didn't understand what was happening, and I couldn't control the phase. But it keeps getting easier. And it has its perks. Dad lets me stay out as late as I want."

"Then what is it, Jake? You're so tense."

His kissed her hair again, simultaneously tightening his hold on her. "I won't let them hurt you, honey. I promise."

Bella blinked away her tears in surprise. "The pack? Why would they want to hurt me? I thought they were meant to protect people."

"Of course we'd never hurt you. I meant the Cullens. You don't have to be afraid. They'd be stupid to break the treaty, and they refuse to stay away from you, then—"

She pulled back far enough to see his face, which was lined with determination. "I'm not afraid. The Cullens would never hurt me, Jake."

"You shouldn't be so certain. They're monsters, Bella."

"No," she said and stepped away from him completely, "they're vampires. They don't hurt anyone."

"They eat people, Bells."

"They eat animals."

"Because of a treaty."

"No. Because they know that killing people is wrong. Just like you would never use your power to hurt a human."

Jacob's lips thinned into an angry line. "They are nothing like me."

Sighing, Bella ran a hand over her unkempt hair. Jasper had said that the wolves and his family didn't get along, even if they did have a treaty. Natural enemies was the exact phrasing he'd used. She thought it was ridiculous. "You don't know them. I do."

"Know them?" Jacob asked incredulously. "They've been lying to you since the beginning. And they must have put on some kind of act for you not to have realized they weren't human." Jacob paced heatedly down the small hallway, looking at the floor as he wondered aloud, "I just can't figure out why they did it. What would they want from you?"

The words—the words she had spent the last 13 sleepless hours relentlessly doubting—leapt to life like a stuck match in her chest, and smoldered past her lips with a slow-burning antagonism that even caught Bella off guard. "Jasper wants me because he loves me. There doesn't need to be another reason."

Jacob stared at her gob smacked. "L-loves you?" he choked.

Bella met his gaze steadily. "Yes, Jacob. We love each other."

"You've only been dating for a couple weeks!"

"Well," Bella cleared her throat and finally looked away, "but we've been seeing each other longer than that. We were friends first. Sort of."

In one long stride, Jacob was back in front of her, taking her small hands between his warm, rough ones. "He's a vampire, Bella. He drinks blood. He doesn't breathe. He doesn't sleep. He doesn't age—"

"Jacob, please," she pleaded, shaking her head, even as she couldn't look away from the sorrow in his eyes.

But Jacob continued, quiet but relentless. "He can't walk with you in the sun. He can't eat the things you cook. He can't give you children. He can't live in public. He can't give you the life you deserve, Bella."

The tears fell slowly, then. They didn't burn; they soothed. And Bella didn't move to wipe them away. "I know," she said and squeezed his hands. "I know, and I still want to be with him. That has to mean something, right?"

"Maybe we won't have forever. Maybe we won't even have a lifetime. But we're…I'm seventeen Jacob." She looked at him imploringly. "I'm seventeen, and I'm in love. He doesn't have to give me a life. He just has to make me happy."

Jacob dropped his eyes. The battle was lost, and the defeat stung. "How long do you think the happiness is gonna last, Bella?"

"I don't know. But I want to find out."

It had been a few weeks since she'd had to drive herself to school, and her hands trembled slightly on the steering wheel as she turned into the slick parking lot. It was Monday morning, and Jasper hadn't shown up at the house. Not that she had expected him to—she'd asked him for space after all. But she had certainly hoped to see him.

She'd hardly been able to keep herself from driving over to the Cullens' house the moment after Jacob left the day before. But she had been exhausted, and when Charlie returned from his fishing trip, he'd declared her unfit to drive anywhere until she'd had a solid eight hours of sleep.

Bella had jolted awake that morning with the knowledge that when she saw Jasper, something would be different. They would be different. And they would be better.

She was late. She had lingered at home, waiting, in case Jasper had decided to pick her up but was running a few minutes behind. She hadn't wanted to miss him. Now she was cursing herself for wasting time, and delaying they're meeting.

Climbing out of her truck, Bella made a quick visual sweep of the parking lot. Only a few students lingered outside—either lazily slouching across the wet pavement or hurrying to beat the bell. Jasper, Bella knew, was probably already inside. She groaned in frustration at the thought that she wouldn't see him until lunch, and spent a few moments staring wistfully at his Shelby parked several spaces away in the next aisle.

Still watching, she adjusted the weight of her book bag and began turning toward the school, when the front car door opened.

Jasper stepped out, head turning in her precise direction as he shut the door behind him.

Bella inhaled sharply. At first her feet refused to move and remained stubbornly rooted to the ground beside her truck. But then Jasper wasn't moving either and she couldn't stand the distance a moment longer. Slowly, her body seemed to come to life and began carrying her closer to where Jasper was standing apprehensively behind his car. As she drew nearer, she felt lighter and her feet moved quicker, so that she nearly collided with him at a running pace when she reached for the fabric of his shirt and rose up on to her toes to seek out his mouth with hers.

She kissed him and knew that the relief and ecstasy she was experiencing as they touched didn't belong solely to her. Jasper wrenched her closer and felt her deeper, and it was impossible to image feeling this good for an eternity.

Jasper's hands slid up her body as his kisses became shorter, shallower, more endearing. Until finally he pulled back. "Are you ready," he asked, mouth teasing at a smile.

"Yes," she exhaled shakily. Composure was slow in coming. He was so close. "Did you bring the gun?"

Jasper tugged the strap of his book bag. "I've got it."

"Good. I have the slides and a final copy of the essay."

They shared a warm, appreciative smile that could only pass between lovers. Bella kissed him slowly once more.

"You know," Jasper said thoughtfully, his hand catching hers as she drew back and started toward the building. "The presentation isn't until sixth period."

Bella stopped walking. "So?"

"That's almost five hours from now. It might be a good idea to take the time to go make some final edits. There're a few last-minute revisions I've been considering. Your house isn't that far. And you've got a computer in your room. Your dad won't be home."

She wondered at his ability to make such suggestions with a straight face and carefully schooled her own into confusion. "I'm not sure I follow."

"I'm saying that I want to take you home and make rough love to you for the next several hours under the pretense of doing school work."

Bella blinked. "Why didn't you just say so?" She walked past him to the passenger-side door. "You got Rosalie to install the turbo thrusters on this thing, right?"

~ fin ~