The Path Not Taken

"Many of us crucify ourselves between two thieves – regret for the past and fear of the future." – Fulton Oursler

AN1: Just a little primer. This story an AU for Chapter 6 (Switzerland) of Eclipse. It's an alternate 'day after' for Bella's little foray to La Push. This story is presented to you with many thanks to my much loved and ever patient betas, Im2xshy and jdficwriter.

What little was left of the house was still smoldering here and there as I got out of the truck. Cutting through the Crime Scene tape marking off the property, I walked up onto the soot stained front porch to see that the first floor had fallen into the basement. There was no second or third floor. The scorched foundation, the stone fireplace, and most of the chimney were still there. Everything else was gone. The furniture - the artwork - Edward's piano - everything. Esme's lovingly restored and maintained Victorian mansion was a shattered burnt out wreck. The smell of wood smoke was thick in the air, and under it I could detect the sweet smell that said that one or more vampires had died here. Mixed with it was a faint whiff of scorched fur and burnt meat, telling me that at least one member of the Pack had met their end here as well.

There was a comforting sort of numbness currently wrapping itself around my heart and mind. Like Novocain for the soul. If it weren't for that sense of unearthly detachment, I think that the horror before my eyes would have crushed me to the ground and killed me on the spot. This couldn't possibly be real. What had I done?

All I had wanted was to see Jacob. I hadn't meant for any of this to happen when I'd made my mad dash for the border. I had needed to see Jacob. Why couldn't Edward understand that? "And why couldn't you understand that he was afraid?" a small voice whispered in the back of my mind. Why indeed. I had known that he didn't want me to go. That he feared for my safety. And when Edward had feared for my safety, he had been prone to panic. I cringed internally as I realized that I was using the past tense. I knew that he was dead. The house wouldn't have burned while he lived.

The smoke swirled around me, both the sweet and the acrid. Bile burned in the back of my throat as my memories crept up on me, bringing with them the stinging burden of guilt and the realization that my life was over before it really began. What life would I have when my reason for living was gone?

It was only yesterday that I made what I'd seen at the time as my break for freedom, when I pushed my truck to its poor decrepit limits driving from Newton's to La Push, spurred on by that stupid Olympic Wolf flier. Jacob was thrilled. He and I took a long walk, and had just reached First Beach when the howls had risen across the reservation. Jacob dashed into the trees to phase only to emerge a moment later with a look of unholy glee on his face.

"I have to go Bella, Sam is calling up the full Pack. All of us."

"What? Why? I thought…"

Jacob cut me off abruptly, flashing a savage smile. "Your leech broke the treaty. He crossed the line to come after you. Two of the others, the males, came after him and dragged him back before he got very far, but it's too late! Jared caught his scent! The treaty is broken! We can finally put an end to this crap!" he said, as fierce joy lit his face.

I know that my face must have turned white. I felt faint and swayed. I would have fallen if Jacob hadn't caught me and guided me to a seat on a driftwood log. "This can't be happening," I thought. "Not over me!"

"Jacob, please," I whispered. "Please, don't do this. You don't have to do this. They don't hurt anyone. They wouldn't. You know they wouldn't."

Jacob shook his head mournfully. "They've really got you, don't they? Don't you see? They're the opposite of everything good - everything normal - of everything human! Don't worry Bells, it'll be okay." He backed away as the howls grew insistent. "I'll be back soon, and we'll talk. It'll be okay. We can be together now, with no one in the way." Turning he ran for the trees. His clothes exploded as he didn't even take time to undress. There was a russet colored blur, and he was gone. I wasn't fast enough to even draw breath to shout after him.

I sat there for a long moment paralyzed with horror. I hadn't meant for this to happen. All I had wanted was to see Jacob - to see my friend. I hadn't meant this! Scrambling to my feet I ran on stumbling unsure legs back to the Black house. I threw myself into my trusty old Chevy only to find that when I turned the key, nothing happened. Sobbing in frustration I beat on the steering wheel. They'd disabled my truck! How stupid could I be? If Edward could do it, the wolves could do it. It had only taken me a second to realize what I had to do. I leapt out of my truck and ran up the walk to the Black's front door. I didn't even bother to knock as I barged inside and dashed into the kitchen. Yanking the phone off of the hook I tried to dial out, only to find no dial tone.

A gravelly voice behind me had said, "I disconnected it."

Turning I saw Billy Black sitting in his wheel chair. Gone was the jovial man I'd known. The man who sat there now had a face carved from hard implacable granite. His eyes which had been so warm had been as hard and cold as black flint. If anything he looked colder and more stone-like than any of my family of vampires, whom he despised so completely.

"Billy, you have to stop them! Please! This shouldn't be happening!"

Billy had shaken his head slowly. "No Bella," he had said. "I don't. I couldn't anyway, even if I wanted to. I have no way to reach them and I don't want this stopped. I want this over and our spirit warriors will end it today. They will do what my grandfather lacked the strength and the will to do."

"It doesn't have to be this way," I pleaded as my tears began to flow. "Edward only crossed the line because of me! Please Billy, don't let them do this!"

Billy sighed and said, "Bella you're confused. The cold ones are not your friends and they're not your family. They're monsters who have no place in a sane world. This was always going to happen. It was set in stone from the first day that they returned to Forks. All you did was help it happen a little sooner."

I let out a frustrated scream and tried to run out of the house, but Billy moved to block my way.

"Stay here, Bella. It's not safe out there right now. The Pack won't hurt you, but if the Cullens find you in the woods…"

Having a target for my anger and fear, I finally exploded. "Goddamn you, Billy Black!" I screamed. "You and your whole damned hating tribe! Today I'm more afraid of your damn wolves than I could ever be of the Cullens!"

I planted my foot against his wheelchair and shoved him roughly out of the way as I burst out of the door and began running. Before I was out of sight of the house, I heard him shout my name, but I didn't spare him anymore thought. I ran until I fell, and then I got up and ran again, and fell again. Edward will be so mad over the bruises I'm collecting, I thought irrationally. Eventually a stitch in my side made me slow to a walk, but I didn't stop. I was in a daze. I vaguely recall catching a ride on a logging truck part of the way, with the driver casting worried glances my way the entire time. It couldn't be every day that you pick up a zombie hitchhiker.

The road back to Forks seemed to stretch out endlessly as my panic skewed my perception of time. I had to reach the Cullens, even if I was too late. I don't know how long it took, but it was still daylight when I rounded the bend in the road barely a hundred feet from the Cullens' driveway. Two things had happened at once. The first was that I had snapped out of my daze when I saw the Forks police car parked at the foot of the drive with its lights quietly flashing. The other was that I had realized what I've smelled for the last several miles. The acrid smell of wood smoke.

I broke into a stumbling sprint as the drivers' side door of the police car opened and one of Charlie's officers got out. Pete somebody or other.

"Hey Bella, I…" he began cautiously.

I didn't even look at him, but angled my path to get past him.

"Whoa! Whoa!" he shouted as he cut me off and grabbed me around the waist. "You can't go up there! Your dad and the fire crews are still working."

"Let! Me! Go!" I screamed desperately as I tried to beat at him with my fists. "I have to get there!"

He pinned my arms my sides as his temper flared. "You can't!" he said flatly. "That's a crime scene up there! You dad would skin me alive if I let you go!"

I struggled on for a few moments before the last of my desperate strength abandoned me, leaving me limp. Taking my lack of resistance for submission, Pete had loosened his grip slightly.

"Good. If you'll stay calm, I'll get on the radio to your dad," he said, as a little gentleness crept into his voice. Then his tone had toughened again as he finished, "But if you try to get past me again, I'll lock you in the car."

He released me and reached for his shoulder mic to summon Charlie. As soon as he did, I made my break for it, and true to his word, I found myself locked in the back seat of his squad car. I shouted, and pounded on the window, to no avail, before lapsing into a sullen silence.

Perhaps ten minutes later, I heard the sound of a car coming down the driveway. It was Charlie. He got out of his car and nodded to Pete as he walked towards Pete's squad car. Taking his non-verbal signal, Pete unlocked the door and I scrambled out. Without hesitation, I tried to get between them and escape up the driveway, but Charlie caught me and pinned me against his chest.

"Hold it, Bells!"

Crying now, I tried to kick myself free.

"I said, HOLD IT, ISABELLA!" he shouted.

Going limp again I looked up into his face. He looked old, grim, and tired. "Please, dad," I pleaded. "Please let me go. I have to be there."

He shook his head sadly. "No sweetheart, you don't, you can't. There's nothing to be done up there now. The fires are under control, and the Seattle Crime Lab boys are working the scene. Anything you could do would just make their work that much harder."

"Fires?" I whispered, horrified.

He nodded again, his face looking even grimmer, if that were possible. "Whoever did this torched the house and all of the outbuildings."

"Maybe no one was home," I whimpered, hoping against hope that it was true.

Charlie sighed as he said, "Bella, I've had everyone working the phones for the last two hours, trying to pin down the location of the Cullens, hoping that they weren't here. So far, everything points to them all being home when the fire broke out." He'd paused, as if he were considering his next words, and then went on. "They haven't found any bodies in the house and the outbuildings, but with a fire that big and that hot…"

A numbing roar had been building slowly in my head as he'd spoken. They wouldn't find any bodies. Burning a vampire left nothing; nothing but ash and bad memories. That was all I had left of my future. Ash and memories. The smell of wood smoke filled my senses. I lost his last words, even though I could see that his lips were still moving, as the noise in my head became deafening, crushing my mind and soul, obliterating my consciousness as my world faded into blackness.

When I regained consciousness I was on my own bed. For a moment I hoped that this was just a nightmare, but then I realized that I was still in my clothes, and that they smelled faintly of wood smoke. The nightmare was real. It hadn't been some awful dream.

I scrambled out of bed and stumbled downstairs to find that Charlie wasn't home. His cruiser was gone, but my truck was there. How it had gotten there I had no idea. Had Charlie sent someone out to get it? Had Billy had one of his merry band of murderers drop it off? One thing was clear in that moment. My days as a wolf-friend were done. However long I lived after this, the Quileutes would be a hated enemy. That thought burned in my heart in a way that frightened me, even as it felt right. I'd never hated anything before. Not like this.

I raced out to the truck, ignoring my body's complaints of hunger and thirst. I didn't care if I ever ate or drank again. Fortunately, my keys were in the ignition when I reached the truck, and the engine turned over at once. At least they'd fixed the damn thing. I reversed out of the driveway recklessly, heedless of any possible oncoming traffic, and slammed the truck into gear. I pushed the old Chevy harder even than I had the day before, because today's grief made Jacob Black's loneliness pale into insignificance. Yesterday, I thought that I knew what guilt was when I'd turned away from Jacob. I'd really had no earthly clue. I was so eaten up inside that I couldn't even cry to relieve the pressure. There wouldn't be enough tears left in my life, there weren't enough tears in the whole world, to wash this guilt and sorrow away.

Arriving at the Cullens private drive, I rammed my truck through the police barricade at the bottom of their long driveway, and roared up to the smoldering wreckage that used to be my future, which led to where I was currently standing, looking into the burnt out foundation of the Cullen mansion…trying to decide whether or not it was worth living another minute without Edward. The odds already weren't looking good, when suddenly they got worse.

"Hello Bella."

I spun at the familiar musical tones of his voice. "Jasper?" He looked tired, dirty, and worn down to a nub, but if he was alive, then Edward could be alive! He looked wonderful to me. I stumbled down the steps and started toward him, but he backed away and held up his hands, palms out.

"Stay back!"

It was then that I noticed his eyes were brilliant ruby red.

"Who?" I stuttered.

He knew what I meant. "The Quileute Elders," he said with a shrug. "As such I'd prefer that you stay where you are. I owe Edward that much at least. I'm off the wagon for good; or least for as long as it takes me to avenge my family." His face twisted in pain.

Much as I hated them for what they'd done…poor Billy. And…oh god…Sue Clearwater! Oh god…our family?

"The family, are they…"

He cut me off. "Dead? Yes. Emmett and I were patrolling the boundaries when the dogs crossed the line at the opposite end and hit the house with perfect timing." He looked disgusted with himself. "I let a rank amateur like Sam Uley put one over on me, and my family paid the price."

"It wasn't your fault, Jasper."

"I know it wasn't, it was yours," he answered tersely, studying me like he'd never seen me before. "How the hell could you do that?"

I froze as my guilt choked me, and he could see it.

"I mean, what was so important about Jacob Black? Edward was your mate for God's sake. Your dalliance with the dog had his anxiety levels at all time highs and it didn't help that he knew that Black intended to take you from him if he could. What did you think he was going to do when you pulled your jailbreak?"

"I'm sorry, Jasper."

"Don't say that!" he snarled. "You don't ever get to say that. You don't have the right!" He looked away. "They killed my Alice and Rose first. They caught them out hunting close to the house." He gestured towards the woods. "Out that way a few miles you can find their ashes.

"Then they hit the house. Carlisle and Edward tried I assume, but there was no stopping them. Carlisle isn't a fighter, and once Esme was dead, he wouldn't have cared what they did to him. It was over before we got here, the house and the outbuildings were an inferno. They were leaving, probably to find us when Emmett and I hit them from the side." He flashed a savage smile. "They never had a chance. Emmett and I killed three of them, including your 'boyfriend' before they even knew we were there.

"They always seemed to be under the delusion, that the Council of Elders apparently fed them, that they were a match for us, one on one, or even two or three on one. That ain't the way it was, Bella. They lived at our sufferance. The Treaty was to keep us from having to kill them all if one of them started something. Not the other way around. The only thing that let them accomplish as much as they did was the fact that they caught us by surprise while Emmett and I were patrolling in case they came after us, after Edward pulled his bonehead stunt."

"H-how many were there?"

"Just five. One of them was killed inside the house. Sam Uley took off like the coward he is after he got bitten. With any luck he screamed out the last hours of his life all alone somewhere out there in the woods. The last one Emmett and I tortured until he reassumed human form, and we questioned him," he said in a matter of fact tone. "The kid's name was Quil, you know him?"

I swallowed back bile and thanked my hurry for not letting me eat this morning, as I thought of happy-go-lucky Quil, and nodded. One more bit of guilt that I would bear to the end of my days.

"Good, then you'll be glad to know that he was one of the ones that killed Edward. Him, your boy-toy Jacob, and some kid named Embry, but not before Edward killed some wolf named Paul for killing Esme."

I began to cry, and scrubbed at my cheeks furiously. "What happened to the bodies," I choked out.

"Still concerned about them are you?" he asked snidely, and then shrugged. "We gave them to the fire." He gestured at the house. "It seemed the thing to do since they'd thoughtfully provided it, and it wouldn't do to leave evidence for your father to find and puzzle over."

"Where's Emmett?"

He looked sad. "Once it was over, and the big doofus realized that Rose was gone, he was inconsolable. He couldn't go on, so he asked me to put him with Rose."

My eyes must have shown my horror, because he nodded stoically.

"Rosie's fire was still burning, so I added Emmett to it. At least they're together now, if there's an afterlife for us that doesn't revolve around eternal damnation."

"W-what will you do now?" I asked as I stumbled backward and sat down on the blackened front steps.

He shrugged indifferently. "With Ali gone, I have nothing. No future, no hope. So I'll simply take as much revenge as I can and hope to die somewhere along the way."

"I thought that's what you'd already done," I said faintly, as I gestured at his blood saturated eyes.

He shook his head. "No Bella, I'm not even close to done. The leadership of the tribe is dead, as is the current crop of wolves, but when they reappeared I made contingency plans in case hostilities broke out. Had nothing happened, they never would have seen the light of day. I spent weeks working genealogy sites to assemble a coherent picture of the clan and family structure in La Push and its allied tribes. I know which families carry the wolf gene. I have a list," he said, tapping his temple, "Here. By the time I'm done the gene will be extinct and so will the wolves. The tribe will have to do without its 'protectors'."

"Jasper, you can't! What about any children?"

"Stop that! Stop acting like your opinion matters on this issue! You of all people don't get to judge me on moral or ethical grounds. It's because of you that this war happened, my family is dead, your mate is dead, and my mate, your supposed best friend, is dead! You just couldn't leave the dog alone, could you? No, you just had to try to have it all."

I shrank in further in on myself with each word. He was right. I half-expected him to kill me.

"What will you do…after?" I whispered.

He shrugged. "Assuming that I'm successful, I suppose I might head south and challenge Maria to a losing fight and if I manage to kill her, well that may balance out what I'm going to do here. One way or another, I'll find a way to join Alice. We aren't meant to survive the loss of our mates, Bella. Not for long. You had a tiny taste of that while Edward was gone. Now you'll know what it's really like, because he isn't ever coming back. I don't envy you."

Sure enough, despite my sense of detachment I gasped as I felt the old fissure in my chest ripple and flare with pain as my heart finally began to catch up with reality.

"What about me?"

He shrugged. "What about you? My brother, your mate, was in love with you. My family loved you. Come to that, so did I. For their sakes, for Alice's sake, I won't kill you. But I won't help you either. I don't care what you do. Run and hide if you want. With all of your protectors gone, it's a toss up who will find you first. Victoria or the Volturi. Good luck with whomever it is. If it were up to me, you'd live a long healthy life, alone with your guilt, but I just don't care enough to spend decades making it happen."

"Jasper, I'm sorry," I whispered again.

In a blur, he was right up in my face, and for the first time ever I was truly frightened of one of the Cullens. I shrank back. When he spoke this time, his voice thick with rage, and his barely-there Texas twang thickened. "Ah, told you to stop saying that. You don't have the right. This, this is too big for Ah'm sorry. To big for any apology that doesn't involve blood! Take your 'sorry' and stick it wear th' sun don't shine, Bella Swan. The only thing that we ever did was love you, and look what you did to us!"

There was a draft of displaced air and he was gone, back to where he'd been standing before, only now he looked like a vampire. "I need to hunt. You're altogether too tasty smelling and my control is too thin now. Good-bye Bella. I'd say 'have a long and happy life', but I doubt the first will come to pass, and you don't deserve the second." Then he was gone, towards La Push. I wondered bleakly how many more people would die today.

The pain in my chest flared, making me gasp. I hugged myself tightly, trying to hold myself together, like I did before. It wasn't working. This pain was too savage, too overwhelming. The last time, my subconscious hadn't believed that Edward didn't love me. This time my heart knew for certain that he had loved me, but it made no difference, because I would never see him again. I gasped again, doubling over in pain. It felt like I was dying.


A sudden epiphany caused me to stagger to my truck. There was no life without Edward. And while I would never again see him here, I might see him again….elsewhere. I would not wait for the Volturi or Victoria to find me. There was too much chance of Charlie or some of my friends becoming collateral damage if I waited, and I'd already caused so much collateral damage the last 48 hours, that I'd need several lifetimes to work off the accumulated karma.

My truck engine roared and I was already rolling, headed for La Push in Jasper's wake. Headed for the sea cliffs. Again I pushed my poor truck to its limits, and it complained as the speedometer crept past 60 miles per hour. The engine was starting to knock, but it wouldn't have to run for much longer. Some part of me hoped that, in my madness, I'd succeed in summoning Edward's voice as I did before, that he would care about me enough to be with me now - to try and argue me out of my decision. He never came. I smiled bitterly. Why would he? After the holocaust that I'd triggered for him and his family, why would he care? I prayed that I was wrong about that. I couldn't face eternity without him, not in this world, and certainly not in the next.

I could see the parking lot at the cliff tops ahead of me. I didn't even slow down as I blew through the parking lot gate and smashed through the fence on the other side of the lot. I heard the front tires blow out, and the truck got hard to steer, but it only had to make it another hundred feet down the overgrown trail, to the cliffs. I gritted my teeth and ground the gas pedal into the firewall. They say that your life flashes before your eyes at times like this, but it wasn't so with me. All I saw were the faces of the dead - People who had died because of me.

The branches stopped slapping at my side windows as I burst out into the open and, in the same moment, I was airborne. I whimpered and clutched at the steering wheel. For some reason it felt cold against my palms. What a funny thing to notice right no…

"Bella!" My name was spoken by a beloved and familiar voice. He came! I turned to my right, expecting to see him, but the passenger's seat was empty – and I was falling. The ocean filled my windshield.

"Bella!" He sounded panicky for some reason. Concerned. My heart lifted. He still cared for me. He would be there to welcome me. "Bella, wake up! Please, Love!"

Shouldn't I be in the water by now? I was still falling, the wind whistling around my cab, the ocean drawing closer….

"BELLA!" He was past panicked now. He actually sounded scared. I wanted to comfort him, to hold him, and make it okay again.


And with that, I woke up.

I opened my eyes to find myself staring into two wide frightened eyes that were the color of dark amber. I stared at him for what seemed like forever, trying to process what was happening. I craned my neck and took inventory of my surroundings. I was in my room, in my bed, lying on my back, my face felt hot and sticky, it was daylight, and Edward was holding me.

Edward was holding me! He was here, actually here!

"Bella?" he said, in that smooth honeyed tone he reserved for me alone. "Are you…alright?"

Was I alright? I gave an inarticulate moan and lunged up at him with my entire body, my arms encircled his neck and my legs kicked free of the covers and wrapped themselves around his hips, as I smothered his startled face with hysterical tear-stained kisses. Yes, I was crying again – with relief. All I can say is that it's a good thing that vampires are durable, because had he been human I'd have probably broken his neck with my desperate clutching hug.

Sensing what I needed, Edward just held me, stroking gently, my back, my sides, my hair – anywhere he could reach, as he murmured soft words of love. That just made me cry harder, thinking about what my childish stupidity and selfishness could have cost me yesterday. I felt suddenly small and mean.

Little by little, my tears slowed and stopped. As they did I realized that I was shivering ever so slightly. Edward mistook it for a reaction to his cold body and tried to gently pry me loose, I guess so he could get me back under the covers. That wasn't going to happen. Besides, I wasn't cold. I was ecstatically relieved. I was shaking with exultation! I wondered if this is what Ebenezer Scrooge felt like when he woke up to a second chance. Surely this was worth some Christmas bells!

He leaned in and kissed me tenderly. "Bad dream?"

I couldn't speak right then because of the lump in my throat, so I pulled myself tightly against him and nodded into his neck.

He sighed. "Want to talk about it?"

I shook my head, no. Not yet. Because I feared that this was the dream, not the other way around. Some part of me was terrified that if I gave voice to it, it would somehow come true, and I would be back there in my truck cab, watching the ocean come at me – because I'd managed to kill the only man I've ever loved. I'd killed my forever, and for what? To be Switzerland? I'd been delusional when I'd said that.

I pulled back so I could see him again. "I'm okay," I lied, in a raspy voice. My throat felt raw from my crying.

Edward offered me that wonderful half-smile of his and I felt my heart finally start to ease. "I beg to differ, my love. You're a mess. A beautiful mess, but still a mess."

I sniffed. "T-thanks, I think." Damn it, I couldn't keep the quaver out of my voice.

He sighed and kissed me again, longer, deeper, and more firmly than I was used to. I felt my shivering slow, as my heart rate picked up. My arms tightened as I kissed him back desperately. All good things must come to an end, and I whimpered softly as Edward pulled back to place tender little kisses along my jaw.

He pulled back again and said, "Much as I'd love to stay here with you, you need to clean up and eat." He kissed me again, too briefly.

"Where's Charlie? What time is it?"

"It's 9:38 in the morning, Love. Charlie was out the door to go fishing two hours ago, which was good, because your nightmare was a noisy thing. Had he been here, he would have heard you, and you wouldn't have woken up with me here."

God, I couldn't imagine what that would have been like. Without Edward here to reassure me immediately….

I sighed. "I'll take a shower. Can you get me something to eat, please?"

"Your wish is my command," he replied with a dazzling grin.

He moved off the bed and helped me up, only to kiss me again, as soon as I was on my feet.

"I'm torn," he murmured with a smirk. "Part of me wants to get your breakfast; the other part doesn't want to let you out of my sight."

I winced slightly. I knew that he probably didn't mean it that way, but I couldn't help but wonder how much of the last half of that sentence was just Edward being Edward, and how much was due to his girlfriend being a clueless self-centered jackass the day before.

He noticed and raised an eyebrow. "What is it?"

I shook my head. "We'll talk while I'm eating, I promise."

"Well," he murmured, "that sounds ominous."

I smiled softly and kissed him on the cheek before snagging my toiletries and heading for the bathroom. How had I missed how insecure he was about me? Maybe Angela had been right. I'd thought that I was the Doubting Thomas in this relationship. "Not for you, so that's all that matters." I kissed him again, and dashed for the bathroom.

"What do you want to eat?" came the distant shout through the closed door.

"Surprise me!" I shouted back.

Yes, he does, I thought. From the very first day. I stripped and stepped into the shower, reaching for the shampoo. It was going to be a long day, and I had something that I needed to get out of my hair.

I hadn't realized how hungry I was. Apparently a bad dream can leave you feeling like a starving wolf. I winced internally at the analogy. I got the feeling that I was going to be hyperaware of wolf related things for a while. "Or maybe it will just be Jacob related things," I thought as I looked pensively out the window at my old truck. I was halfway through a plate of sausage and eggs, when Mr. Superspeed finished his clean up and joined me.

"What are you thinking about, Love?"

I smiled at the familiar question. "What makes you think that I'm thinking about anything?"

He sighed. "Sweet Girl, I know that look. I know it like I know my own hands. That cute little V between your eyebrows says that you're processing something. Probably that dream. Are your ready to talk about it?"

"Can I ask you a couple of questions first?" I held up a hand to forestall his answer. "Before you say anything, I need to ask for absolute honesty in your answers. Don't spare my feelings in the least. A lot is riding on this."

He frowned. "Okay, I'll repeat my earlier feelings that this sounds ominous."

"And I'll repeat my answer," I replied, "and say, not for you. Just give me straight answers and I'll tell you no lies," I quipped.

He looked solemn. "All right, ask your questions, Love."

"How close did you actually come to breaking the treaty yesterday?"

He winced. "Are you sure that you want that answer?"

I steeled myself and nodded.

He took a deep breath and said, "Too close. To paraphrase Wellington, 'It was a close run thing. The closest run thing you ever saw in your life'. The only thing that stopped me was the knowledge that it would probably start the war, and I didn't have the right to risk that, not with you there with him, and not with my family on the line. Still, the battle between my need to reach you and what was right was every bit as intense as in was that first day in biology. And like that day, I barely won."

He looked unbearably sad, and I knew what he was thinking. Had he failed that day in biology, what we have now would never have existed. The magical beautiful thing that we share now came so close to not existing at all. The thought made me want to cry again, but I resolved not to. It was a time to be strong and ask the hard questions and listen to the equally hard answers. The sight of my tears always made him stop talking.

I cringed internally, hiding my feelings the best that I could, when he spoke of risk. I remembered dream-Jasper, who was presumably some fragment of my subconscious, reaming me out about rights. What right did I have to risk a war? If I didn't want them to fight, why was I doing things that could provoke a fight? Was I an idiot?

Apparently I was.

I nodded and reached out to take his hand. I marveled at the fact that he didn't pull away anymore, like he had on our first semi-date at La Bella Italia.

"Edward, are you jealous?"

He closed his eyes and looked like he was in pain. I kicked myself. Angela had been right. I am an idiot.

"Honestly Edward, it's not going to make me stop loving you, I promise."

"I-I tried not to be." I couldn't believe that he was stumbling over the words. I took it as a measure of his sincerity. "I trust you Bella, I do. It's him I don't trust. I admit that having you out of Alice's sight, around young wolves, scared me. That's what made me disable your truck the first time you tried to visit him. To Alice, and to me since I can see what she sees, having you blank out when you're with the wolves, is like having you die. Absolutely anything could happen to you there and we'd never know, never be able to prevent it. You'd just come home in a coffin with no explanation. I-I think the war would start within the hour of your death. My family would have to kill me to stop me."

I was horrified. This was my nightmare in the opposite direction. "Edward! I forbid you to ever…"

He bowed his head and pinched his nose. "You see, this is why I didn't want to talk about this before. It's such a fundamental part of who we are and the mess that we're currently in."

I calmed myself down. Getting angry with him was counterproductive. "What is?"

"Our mate bond."

I think my hairline tried to swallow my eyebrows as I squeaked, "Our what?" It was my dream all over again. Still I'd seen what the Cullen couples were like together. My subconscious must have made the obvious conclusion. Now that I thought about it, it 'felt' right.

He sighed. "The mate bond. It's…well I suspect it's our version of wolf imprinting. It's what makes Victoria so determined to kill you. It varies more though. I suspect that it happened the first time that our eyes met across the cafeteria, before I ever spoke to you, before I ever knew your scent, I was your mate, and you were mine. Carlisle thinks that's why I was able to do the impossible that first day in biology. To the best of his knowledge, no vampire has ever resisted his or her singer…until me. He thinks that my subconscious instinct to protect my mate overrode everything else. It makes sense. Jessica was so nasty with her thoughts that first day; I remember this perplexing desire to protect you from her."

I must have looked dumbstruck, because he smiled slightly.

"Is it so hard to believe?" he asked.

"Er…no?" I said, as I recalled the salient details in my dream. Then I gathered my scattered wits and asked, "How does it tie into where we're at now?"

He shook his head in self-deprecation. "In so many ways, not the least of which is, that I'm stupid."

"Who says so?"

He shrugged. "Most of my family, but especially Esme and Alice. You see, I've read their minds for years, decades. I know what it means to have a mate. Bella, we fall in love only once in our long lives. Change comes hard for us when it comes at all, so falling in love is a onetime emotional earthquake. And we can't fall out of love. That's why the lie I told you that day in the forest was so vile. My heart raged at me for allowing such blasphemy to pass my lips. How could I ever not love you? There are no divorces in our world. If our mate should die, we can't get over it and try again with someone else. There is no moving on from it. As it is, I would have two possible futures should you die; to die myself, as expeditiously as possible, or to become a maniac like Victoria. Okay, there's a third future if I were to go to Aro and have him let Chelsea enslave me the way that she did poor Marcus."

"Then why did you leave?" I asked quietly. "How could you leave?"

"That's where the 'being an idiot' part comes in," he replied. "I thought that, since you were human, the rules didn't apply to you the same way that they do to us. I never stopped to consider the fact that…it's always mutual. We can't afford a human error rate when it comes to love, Bella. Since we only get one bite of the apple for all eternity, we can't afford to be wrong. So, when we fall in love, it's because that person is our soul mate, our one and only 'other half'. If they can't love us back the same way that we love them, then we just don't fall in love with them. At all. You follow?"

I nodded numbly. Thinking back to those dark months after September, I now recognized what it was that had been happening to me. I was a vampire who'd lost her mate. No, who'd been rejected by her mate!

He must have read my face, because he spoke quickly. "I convinced myself that your humanity made you a special case, while ignoring the fact that, since I was already in love with you…you weren't. The proof lies in how we both handled our separation. I was like you, only worse. But I was convinced that, being human, you could shake off the bond, recover, and go on with your human life."

"What about you though? What would have happened to you?" I whispered, but I already knew the answer. I'd never really understood until right this moment.

He shrugged. "It's hard to think about what I was thinking back then. My justifications were so convoluted, that here and now I can barely believe that they were my own thoughts. I love you, Bella. There's nothing that I wouldn't do for you. I loved you then too. I thought that if you could be safe and happy, I would take my pain and live with it. Proud to suffer for my love." He snorted it self-disgust. "That was a losing battle from the first day. The first minute. Like I said when we talked after Italy, I wasn't more than a few hours, or days at most, from crawling back to you and begging you to take me back. I needed my mate! The only thing that could have stopped me was if you'd truly done as I'd intended, moved on with your life, and asked me to leave you alone."

As if! I'd long since finished my breakfast, so I stood, and rounded the table to sit in his lap, placing my arms around his neck.

"You really are a sick, masochistic lion, aren't you?" I teased, trying to lighten his mood as I kissed him gently. God bless the vampire mating bond.

"Tell me about it, my not-so-stupid lamb," he said with a sigh. His arms slid around me tenderly and he buried his face in the hollow between my neck and shoulder. I heard him breath deep as he shuddered. "Anyway, you originally asked me about jealousy. Yes, Bella, I'm a jealous and possessive man. It's coded into my DNA. You'll understand if….'

"When!" I interjected sharply.

"When you become one of us," he finished. "The need for our mate is all consuming. Especially in the beginning. Even before I'd come to terms with what you are to me, I was jealous. I used to daydream about killing Mike Newton for his pornographic daydreams, featuring you."

"Does Jacob…." I started, but he stopped me by anticipating my question and nodding into my shoulder.


"Is it so much worse than Mike was?"



"Because Newton didn't know that I can read minds. Black does, and he doesn't mind sharing." He sighed and pulled back so that he could see my face. "Whenever I'm within range, I get bombarded. If I see him on border patrol, I get it right in the face. He's trying to rattle me." He paused before going on. "While we were in Florida, I thought over my actions the first time you tried to go to see him, and I came to see the strategy that he's pursuing with Charlie's tacit support. So I decided that the only thing to do was to be the bigger man, and stop trying to block you from seeing him…and pray that it didn't get you killed. I would learn to live with the fear."

"And what exactly is his strategy?" I was frowning at the thought of Edward living in fear of anything. That wasn't right.

"To provoke me into forbidding you to see him, so I look like the controlling jerk boyfriend. He wants it to be a 'them' versus 'us' situation, with me and my family as the 'them' and you, Black, and his Pack as the 'us'.

"Like that'll happen," I scoffed.

He sighed. "It's already happening. It happened just yesterday."

I cringed, because I had to admit that he was right. Then I thought of something. "You said that you rethought your position on Jacob, and me going to La Push, while we were in Florida. You never said anything to me. That's why I made a break for it while you were hunting."

Edward's arms tightened around me as he growled, "I changed my mind."

"Jacob's porn show?"

He shook his head. "Disgusting as his thoughts were, I trust you not to betray me like that, and I'm certain that the Pack would stop him if he got too pushy with you. They may be bigoted as hell when it comes to us, but they're still good decent people at heart." He paused. "No, what put me over the edge was an image from when we were gone; when the grey wolf, Paul, tried to attack you. I didn't want you anywhere near him. Black had been throwing all sorts of stuff at me right from the opening moments of that conversation in front of the school, trying to get me to lose my composure. I didn't give him the satisfaction, but that was what decided me to stick to my guns about you visiting La Push." He looked down. "He didn't really get to me though until he hauled out the memories of your suffering at my hands."

"Edward, stop that," I said as I used my hand to tilt his chin up, and kissed him. "No more apologies. You were wrong, you've said that you were wrong, and apologized profusely for being wrong. You suffered as much as I did. I'm better, you're better, and we're getting better together. Jacob doesn't get a vote, and I told him so yesterday. He called what he did to you 'fun'!"

Edward looked rebellious for a moment, and then shrugged. "For him it was. As much as I agree that we're dangerous, the Elders have really gone overboard de-humanizing us to those kids. They don't just distrust us, they honestly hate us. They despise us for even existing. Add in the fact that Jacob generally wishes I were dead, because I'm in the way of his having you, and yeah, he sees hurting me as legitimate fun. I don't merit the same consideration as a human being, because I'm vermin; and more to the point, I'm vermin who took his girl."

I snorted. His girl? My 'skating on thin ice' absent friend was presuming a lot. "Why didn't you tell me all of this before now?"

"I didn't think it was my place."

I was aghast. "Not your place? Edward, Jacob was hurting you! How is it not your place?"

He grimaced, as if in pain. "A lot of reasons. I didn't think you'd believe me. You've shown a marked tendency to doubt my word when it comes to Jacob Black."

"I do not!" I argued.

"Yes," he replied firmly, "you do. And I'm not the only one to notice it. It's what Jacob is counting on in his campaign to take you from me."

"His camp…he has a plan?"

Edward grinned wryly. "What, you think he'd undertake something like this without a plan? Back when I realized that I wanted to be with you, I had a plan too."

I shook my head. "Good thing for you that I had a plan too, and mine worked. Because you and the planning? Not so much."

He smirked. "I thank the god I'd stopped believing in, every single day, that you're in my life. That you are my life."

I leaned in and kissed him passionately. It went on until hypoxia started to become an issue. I pulled back panting. "I love you, too," I gasped out, "but bringing the sweet words isn't going to distract me."

"Not even a little bit?" he murmured in that velvety voice of his, as he leaned towards my lips.

I was in serious danger of losing control of the conversation. "Not even," I shot back, as I leaned away. "I'm onto you, Edward Cullen. Now tell me."

He was smiling that half smile of his that was designed to turn me into goo. "Well, you certainly are 'on' me," he murmured as he shifted under me unnecessarily. I could feel my pulse starting to race.

"Edward Anthony Masen Cullen!"

He froze, and then sagged contritely. "I don't like being a cliché, Bella; the overbearing jackass of a boyfriend who forbids his girlfriend from seeing her friends."

Truth be told, Edward had only forbade me from seeing the wolves. My regular friends like Angela he had no issue with. I was the one who was disconnecting from them, little by little, because they didn't fit into the world that I lived in now. "Yesterday I might, just might, have seen some truth in that," I growled. "I know better now. Now tell me what he's planning."

"He's going to play the jilted friend card. Guilt-trip you into seeing him as often as possible under conditions that he controls. Try and take things between you back to where they were while I was gone. Make me the enemy of all that's good and pure - meaning your relationship with him. Like I said, 'us' versus 'them'. He'll test your boundaries. Nudge them a bit at a time until you find yourself somewhere with him that you never intended to be. I saw hints of childish fantasies in there. Like the one where he kills me and you step into his arms, murmuring 'My hero'. There's another thought he had to flat out kidnap you."


"I didn't say he was seriously considering it, Bella. But it's sort of an article of faith in the Pack and amongst the Elders that we've used our spooky vampire powers to brain wash you. Otherwise you wouldn't be with me. Jacob wishes that he could get you away from my 'influence' for an extended period of deprogramming. That one wandered off into an erotic ending where his lovemaking turns out to be the magic bullet that 'cures' you of your 'obsession' with me."

Ewww! "Well, he's going to have to get over it if he plans on being my friend!"

Edward looked nonplussed for a moment, and then spoke in a cautious tone. "Bella, you don't understand. He isn't your friend anymore. He hasn't been for a while, probably since before I came back, and he doesn't want to be. He wants you, period. He doesn't care that you're with me at all, or that we love each other. Since I am what I am, he considers our feelings a sham. A poor substitute for the 'real thing', and he considers what he feels for you to be that 'real thing'. He thinks that you'd feel it back, once you're free of my 'influence'. He's been actively pursuing you for quite awhile and he has no intentions of stopping. If he has to fake simple friendship to lure you in close, then that's what he'll do."

I stared at him, weighing his words and thinking about the consequences of the course that I'd been on just yesterday, as well as the one I that was contemplating now.

"You're sure?" I asked. I saw the sadness bloom in his eyes as he thought that I doubted him. I spoke quickly. "No, Edward, I don't mean that I don't believe you. I mean, are you sure of your interpretation of his thoughts?"

He shrugged. "I may have missed something here and there, but it's hard to misinterpret his parting thoughts to me that day in front of the school. As he was riding his bike out of the lot, he thought to me directly, 'She belongs with me, bloodsucker, and you know it. Get used to the idea.' And he's absolutely confident of his ability to encompass that goal. Bella, that scares me, his confidence in his ability to take you from me. His bloodstream is bubbling with testosterone. He's got the Pack mind pumping up his ego; providing him with tactical input from Sam and Jared, the two of them with the most romantic experience. I've seen men and boys who think like Jacob is thinking right now. They aren't exactly nice people when they don't get what they want. Which, in this case, would be you."

"Make no mistake about it. He's in pain, and he intends that I share that pain, one way or another; preferably by using you and my love for you as his weapon of choice."

Okay, now I was mad. I'd been demanding that Edward let me go and see THAT? No wonder he was a stressed out wreck so much of the time. What message was I sending to him, and to my 'soon to be ex-best if he didn't shape up' friend. I really was an idiot. I truly didn't deserve the man in whose lap I was sitting, which only made me cling tighter.

"Bella?" he said in a worried tone.

I sniffled a bit, because I was close to crying over my own stupidity. "Edward, can you do something for me, please?"

"Anything, Love."

"Set up a meeting at the border. Somewhere out of sight of prying eyes. I don't care who else is there, but I want Jacob, Sam, and if you can talk them into it, Emily."

"Do you think that's a good idea?"

I shrugged. "Probably not, but it's time for me to, as Charlie would say, 'fish or cut bait'. I need to put Jacob in his place once and for all, before something terrible happens. I'd prefer to keep my friend, but with what he's trying to do to us I won't keep coddling him in the hope that he'll come around. If I have to cut this particular Gordian Knot, I'd rather do it in front of witnesses."

He sighed. "Alright, Sweet Girl. It's your call, but I think I'll want Alice there, which means Jasper will be there, and we can't shut Carlisle out. He's the head of our family.

I nodded my assent. "Whatever you need to do to make it happen, and soon; before Jacob tries something else to 'prove his love'."

Edward pulled me close and held me for what seemed like forever. "I love you," he finally murmured.

"I love you, too," I whispered back. Of course, I did. He was my mate. I smiled at that and sank deeper into his steady embrace. He began to hum softly, and I felt sleep creeping up on me. Sleep at this time of the morning? I smiled. Who cares? My last coherent thought was that, awake or asleep, I was where I belonged and where I wanted to be.

It took a week of tense phone calls to set things up, but Edward and Carlisle managed it. So it was next Friday evening before the whole family set out from the house, under promised good weather, towards a patch of second growth forest on the border, a little to the south of the Soleduck River; near the junction of the 110 and Goodman road. Charlie thought that I was having a slumber party with Alice. I was riding Edward's back. Some of the others carried packs and gear. At the meeting would be me, Edward, Carlisle, and Alice; with Jasper as close backup in case tempers got out of hand, and with the rest of the family further back, just within earshot. Not even Esme would stay home. On the Quileute side, it would be Sam, Jacob, Billy Black, Sue Clearwater, Emily Young, and in an unwelcome surprise, Paul Foster, the poster child for anger management and lousy impulse control. Edward had nearly balked at taking me anywhere near Paul, but Sam had insisted. No Paul, no meeting. So I expected him to never let me out of arm's reach. A fair trade-off, I guess.

I wondered though, why Paul? He wasn't the best fighter, or the best one to bring to a summit like this. Diplomacy wasn't in his vocabulary. Perhaps it was a test, to see how badly the Cullens wanted the meeting. Perhaps it was Sam's attempt to prevent the meeting by laying down what he thought was a deal-breaking condition.

Or perhaps Samuel Uley was just being a jerk, like his second in command, who called me every day this past week to spout false platitudes of friendship, encouraging me to blow off my 'stick up his ass' boyfriend and come have some fun….because he was so-o-o lonely. I could almost hear the pout over the phone. I won't deny that he tugged at my heart strings. I felt a genuine need to comfort him, just like I always had. I missed my friend. However, now that I was onto his game, it made me mad too. It was time to put Jacob on 'timeout', and hopefully not alienate the Pack doing it. Jasper was certain that Victoria would remain a threat until the Pack learned to work with us rather than against us.

On top of all of this, Sam had insisted that the entire Pack be on stand-by within earshot on their side of the border. This had to be done, and done in front of witnesses, but if the meeting went south, it would be a powder keg.

"Please let me be right about this." I prayed silently as the trees flew past us in a green blur.

We must have been getting close, because they slowed to a stop and I slid off of Edward's back. Carlisle walked over to Esme and gave her a kiss, while murmuring that things would be fine. She hugged him fiercely before releasing him.

Esme turned to me. "You be careful up there. I don't want to lose any of my children, and that especially includes you, Bella," she said, as she pulled me into a hug and kissed me on the cheek.

"I will," I promised. "I won't get out of reach of Edward for anything."

"Good," she replied. "Carlisle is right, everything will be okay." She made it sound like a mantra. God knows, we needed one right now. She turned to Edward and silently drew him into a hug that likely would have killed me.

"We'll be right back, Mom," he said, quietly.

"See that you are, and bring my daughters back as well!" she commanded.

Alice and Jasper were saying their goodbyes here, even though he would go on with us for a little further. Alice had climbed her mate like a squirrel and was wrapped around him like she was afraid to let go. She was scared, because she couldn't see anything for any of us after this. For the moment, to her 'sight', it was as if we had all died.

I hoped that didn't turn out to be the case, but I knew one thing. If Edward died tonight, I was going with him. I was NOT being left behind to grieve again. Not in my dreams, and not out here in the real world. If you kill my mate, then you'd better kill me too, right then and there.

For his part, Jasper gave me the same appraising look that he'd been giving me all week. My dream had left me unable to look him in the eye, and I'm sure that he could feel my sense of guilt whenever I was around him. He was curious.

Edward pulled me up on his back again and we were off again. We ran for less than a minute before Jasper dropped out and took up his post. A few seconds more and we slowed to a stop in a clearing in the trees that was perhaps sixty feet across. There was an old fire ring in the center of it that looked long abandoned, and the faint trace of an old logging road leading out the other side.

"Are they close?" Carlisle asked.

Edward shook his head. "No, I'm not hearing anything yet."

Carlisle nodded. "It may be the 1st of June, but it still gets cool in the evening. Let's get a fire started before Bella takes a chill. No doubt the Elders and Miss Young will appreciate a fire as well."

In the blink of an eye, the fire pit had been cleared and a small teepee of kindling erected. It was already catching fire and Edward slowly fed it until it was burning brightly. Carlisle and Alice shed their packs and gear, which included a collapsible camp chair, and a thin blanket. Trust Edward to plan ahead. The chair was placed near the fire, and I collected a bottle of water from Alice's pack and sat down to wait. Edward knelt down next to me and held my hand, as Carlisle and Alice took on the appearance of statues.

We didn't wait long. It was only five minutes before Edward's head snapped up. "They're coming," he said, tersely. He stood up, and stepped forward, as if to block any of the Quileutes from getting too close. After a moment he groaned.

"What?" asked Carlisle.

Edward looked pained. "Sue Clearwater is upset. Apparently the Pack has been growing. Her son and daughter have both phased. There's a good deal of turmoil in their minds right now. Leah is making the Pack's mental life as hard as she possibly can." He paused. "Here they come."

I shuddered. Poor Sue. Harry had only recently passed away, and now this. Seth was barely 13, now he would look 25.

I must have made a sound, because Edward looked down at me and smiled softly. "Don't feel too badly. They deceived us Bella. They both changed clear back in March. That's what triggered Harry Clearwater's heart attack. But they've kept them back out of our sight, out of your sight, so as not to reveal their full strength. The other Pack members were very careful not to think about them around me. And they never told you."

I felt like such a fool, given all the information about the Cullens that I'd spilled to the Pack. Mata Hari had nothing on Jacob Black. I heard the growl of an engine and saw the headlights as a newer model Jeep SUV belonging to the Clearwater's clawed its way up the logging trail and pulled to a stop on the other side of the clearing. I watched Jacob and Sam help Billy out of the truck and into the wheelchair that Jacob had retrieved from the back of the truck. Sue and Emily joined them, and a moment later Paul walked out of the forest, clad only in shorts, presumably having come as a wolf and then phased and gotten dressed. Together they moved toward us, with Jacob pushing Billy's wheelchair carefully over the uneven ground. They came to a stop ten feet from the other side of the fire, not feeling confident enough to come closer.

I stood up and moved to Edward's side. We would be equals in this, facing whatever came together.

Jacob looked at Edward holding my hand in disgust and then focused on Edward. I was watching this time and I noticed the tightening around Edward's eyes as Jacob's mental assault began. I quelled the anger that started to grow in me. It was time to put a stop to this once and for all. My attention was drawn back the Quileutes as Sam spoke up, scorn dripping from his voice as he regarded Carlisle.

"We're here Cullen. What do you want to talk about?"

Carlisle shook his head. "Not us. I told you when we set this up, Bella asked for it. We're just here to support her."

The disbelief was evident in their eyes.

"They're convinced that we have you so completely under our control that you're just our puppet," Edward murmured quietly.

Time to disabuse them of that notion.

I took a deep breath and said, "Thanks for coming. Since I seem to be a bone of contention in this situation, I think it's time to have a frank discussion about the future." I glared at Jacob. "Knock it off, Jake."

"What?" he said innocently as Edward's face twisted slightly.

"You know what! Stop it this instant!" I shouted.

Billy cleared his throat. "Exactly what are you talking about, Bella?"

I snorted and gestured at Sam and Paul, who shifted uneasily. "Ask those two. They know. They can't help but know. Every time your son is around Edward, he makes a point of broadcasting the Jacob and Bella porn channel for Edward's viewing pleasure." I shifted my glare to Sam. "So, how would you feel about Paul there constantly speculating on what Emily looks like naked? Come to that, how do you think it makes me feel?"

The Quileutes shifted restlessly. "Is that true, Jacob?" Billy asked, while keeping his eyes carefully neutral.

Jacob shrugged. "All's fair in love and war."

"This isn't war, and while I may love you like the brother I never had, I'm not in love with you and I'm never going to be!" I growled. "Now stop it!"

"Why should I?" he demanded insolently, as Emily and Sue joined me in glaring at him.

I held up four fingers and ticked them off. "One, because I asked you too. Two, because you promised me that you wouldn't do this again last weekend. Three, how could you use me like that? And four it's evil Jake. It's an evil thing to do." I nodded at Edward. "Look at him, Jacob. With all the crap that you've thrown at him, he never once struck back. He'd love to defend my honor, but he won't because he knows that it would hurt me if he hurt you. You claim that the Cullens are evil. What sort of person keeps attacking someone who won't fight back? Is it still about the 'fun' Jake? Since when is hurting people who can't fight back, fun?"

Emily switched her glare to Sam and he winced.

"Knock it off, Jake," he said quietly. When Jacob looked rebellious, the timbre of Sam's voice shifted. "That's an order. I only put up with it this long because it let you feel like you were doing something about your situation," he glanced at me and went on, "but that's over now. No more."

Jacob sagged in defeat and some deep instinct in me yearned to give him a hug, but I quelled it. I hated to see him like that, but I'd learned something of consequences in the last week, and I didn't care for what comforting my friend might cost Edward, or his family. Maybe I could hug him again one day, but not now. Not until the boundaries I was establishing with him tonight were permanent.

"Thank you, Sam."

He nodded. "You're welcome, Bella. Now, what brings you out here tonight?"

I noticed that he was excluding the Cullens from the conversation, and that would never do.

"It's about the Treaty. The 'no bite' clause."

Sam's eyebrows rose as Paul muttered under his breath. Paul was worrying me. There were faint tremors running through his muscles, like he wanted to phase, but was holding back. That was unlike him. If he lost it here….

"Bella," Billy answered, "that's not open to negotiation or interpretation."

I sighed. "Then that leaves us all in a difficult situation."

Jacob smirked. "Don't you mean it leaves your precious bloodsuckers in a difficult situation?"

Sam's hand flashed out and smacked Jacob in the back of the head.

"Hey!" Jake objected, and I snickered.

Sam shrugged. "I was just anticipating someone asking me to," he said, as he glanced at Emily, who was still giving Jacob the evil-eye. I had a feeling that my friend was in for a stern lecture on manners later on.

"Thank you, Sam," I said. "And no, Jacob, I meant us, as in all of us. Do you recall the story I told you about Volterra last Friday?"

He grimaced. "Yeah, and?"

I smirked at Sam and the Elders. "I assume that your spy reported on what I told him?" Jacob tried to look sheepish and offended at the same time. He didn't do either well.

Sam nodded. "Yes, he told us. It was obvious that you glossed over some things. I take it that you think there are things that affect the treaty."

"I do," I replied, with a shudder.

Edward's arm slid around me as he murmured, "You don't have to do this."

"Yes, Edward, I do," I answered firmly.

"Something you don't want us to know, Cullen?" Jacob sneered.

Edward regarded him stoically. "No, she had nightmares about Volterra. She still does. If I could sleep, I would have nightmares about Volterra. I'd just prefer that she didn't have to relive that again."

"She's tougher than you think lee…er…I mean, Cullen," Jacob said smugly, implying that he knew me in a way that Edward didn't.

Edward's face tightened. He'd had enough.

"I'm aware of how 'tough' she is, Jacob," Edward replied. "I've seen it in ways and in situations that you could barely comprehend. She's tough enough not to fear us, when you do. She's tough enough the face a sexual psychopath on the streets of Port Angeles and be ready to fight him for her honor against hopeless odds. She's tough enough to walk into a ballet studio in Phoenix, knowing that there's a vampire who means to kill her waiting inside. She's tough enough to walk into Volterra to save me from my own foolishness, knowing that it could cost her, her life. And lastly she's tough enough to forgive me for leaving her and love me anyway." Edward looked at me and smiled before looking back at Jacob. "Jacob Black, the total tonnage of things that I know about Bella Swan, that you don't, would stop a team of oxen in its tracks."

Jacob looked like he was going to argue, but I cut him off. "Drop it, Jacob. He's right, and you're wrong. Leave it at that."

Jacob's jaw closed with an audible snap. He wasn't finished, but at least he'd shut up for now.

Sam cleared his throat. "You were saying, Bella?"

I nodded to him. "Thank you, Sam. As I was about to say, Jacob got the sanitized version of my time in Italy. I didn't want to upset him. Now, you get the unabridged version." And with that, I launched into the tale, starting with my stupidity in cliff diving and ending with our arrival back in Forks. The Quileutes shuddered at the idea that the Volturi had human lackeys, and when I recounted the arrival of 'lunch' I thought that Sam, Jacob, and Paul were going to shift spontaneously. When I was done, Billy stared at me sadly after hearing about the Volturi decree that I had to be changed or die.

"This would kill Charlie, if he knew," he said.

Trust Billy to play the guilt card. His son came by the talent naturally.

"He's not going to know about it, Billy, ever," I replied. "It would be death, or life as a vampire for him. I can't have them coming here. I can't. You have to let that clause in the Treaty go before…"

Edward interrupted. "Bella, I told you there are ways…"

"Alice?" I said, cutting him off. Bless her, Alice had seen what I wanted and smacked Edward in the back of the head. I swear, until I'm changed, I'm going to start carrying a baseball bat.

"Ouch!" Edward hissed.

"I love you, Edward, but please don't try that argument again."

"Bella….." He stopped.

The Quileutes were staring. In fact, I think that Jacob and Sam were going to start catching flies. Paul actually looked amused.

Sue Clearwater interrupted for the first time that evening. "Bella, please tell me what that's about? It sounds like you want to be…one of them."

I sighed. Did we really have to open this can of worms now? All I'd wanted was to let them know that sticking to their precious Treaty would get everyone killed.

"Sue, it isn't a matter of wanting to be a vampire. It's a matter of wanting to be with Edward. I love him, more than I thought it was possible to love anyone. In my heart and mind I already am a Cullen."

All three of my vampires smiled at that. And Edward kissed my temple.

Then I added, "If I have to become a vampire for that to work, that's a price that I'm willing to pay. Before Aro laid down his decree, Edward and I went round and round on this subject."

Sue shuddered and glanced at Billy, looking hesitant. I could see something happening behind her eyes, and I was starting to think that maybe this digression could be a good thing.

"I'm not sure that I understand, you argued with him about you becoming a vampire? He didn't want you to?"

"Bella, may I?" Edward interjected.

I nodded, but I added, "I reserve the right to interrupt if I think you're wrong."

Edward gave me the beautiful half smile of his and I felt my insides starting to melt. The last thing I needed right now.

"I would expect nothing less, Love." Then he turned to Sue Clearwater and said, "Mrs. Clearwater, when you look at me, what do you see?"

She hesitated. "A vampire?" she said, making it sound like a question.

Edward chuckled. "Mrs. Clearwater, you know that I read minds. Your first answer, please? You won't offend me.

Sue looked flummoxed, but she answered. "A monster."

"Good," Edward nodded. "And what do you imagine I see when I look in the mirror each day?"

Sue blinked. I think this was more insight than any of the tribe had ever had into their hereditary enemies.

Edward nodded. "Yes. And I love Bella, more than my own life. That being the case, do you imagine that I would want this existence for her?"

"Then why don't you just go away?" snapped Jacob.

"I tried that," Edward replied evenly. "It nearly killed both of us. I left because I thought that it was the right thing to do; that my world was too dangerous for her. That I was too dangerous. When I wasn't trying to track Victoria, I spent my off time curled up in a fetal ball down in Brazil, fighting a moment to moment battle to keep myself from crawling back to Bella. You saw what it did to Bella. I thought that since she was human, she'd be exempt. She wasn't. I was wrong. Never again will I leave her side Jacob Black, until she orders me away."

I tugged at Edward, so that he looked at me. I locked eyes with him and leaned in for a warm kiss. From across the fire I heard Paul half mutter, half growl, 'Get a room!' We were making all kinds of progress tonight. I pulled back, still holding his eyes and said firmly, "Never."

"Love you, Sweet Girl," he murmured against my lips.

"I love you, too," I replied.

Edward looked back at Sue. "So you see how my view and Bella's view collide. She looks at me and sees the man, not the monster. I promise you that, right this minute, she's looking around this fire at all of us and, while she's aware of our differences, she doesn't see some vampires and wolves having a summit meeting. She sees a bunch of people whom she loves who need to get over it and move on." He paused to pull me close and nuzzle my hair. "How we might feel about it doesn't make sense to her," he finished with a grin.

Carlisle, who'd been largely silent up to that point, chuckled. "Edward is right. You'd have to see Bella interacting with my family as I have. She's definitely different. Completely at her ease."

"And then some," Alice chimed in. "Humans, normal humans, shy away from vampires. They know instinctively that we're dangerous. Bella certainly had a normal reaction to the Volturi, and to Victoria's coven," she glanced at me fondly. "But she didn't with us. The day that Edward first brought her home, she was more worried that we'd disapprove of her as his girlfriend than she was about walking into a houseful of vampires."

Now the center of attention, I ducked my head and stifled a yawn. "Can we get off of 'Bella the human oddity' please? We have to finish up here."

Emily cleared her throat, "Um, Bella?" She looked at Sam guiltily, as if she'd intruded. He smile back and nodded his encouragement.

I smiled at Emily. I'd included her in my request for the meeting, because I thought that her presence might tone Sam down, and it seemed to be working. Over the span of the meeting, the Quileutes had moved closer to the fire. It couldn't have been easy for her to come and face the people that everyone in La Push feared. I owed her.

"Sure, Emily. What do you want?"

"Edward said that he left because he thought that you were exempt from something because you were human. Exempt from what?"

I glanced at Edward and he shrugged with a smile. Looking at Carlisle and Alice I saw them both smile encouragingly. I sighed. In for a penny, in for a pound.

"It's the mate bond, Emily," I replied. "If I understand imprinting at all, as Jacob explained it, it works the same way, but it's a two way street for vampires."

"Vampires imprint?" she responded.

"We just refer to it as falling in love, Miss Young," Edward interjected. "You have to understand that when we're changed, we're pretty much frozen. Likes, dislikes, temperament, it's all frozen and pretty much unchanging. We can change, but it comes hard for us; and it doesn't come often, but when it does it is permanent. Falling in love is one of those changes. We can only fall in love once in our long lives, and we can't afford to be wrong. So, it's always mutual. If the other person isn't going to fall in love just as hard and just as deep, you don't fall in love with them at all. I thought that, since Bella was human, the rules didn't apply to her; that I would be the only one to suffer when I left. I was horribly wrong, and as a result, I hurt her terribly. More than I can bear at times."

I leaned into him, clinging to his side now; letting him know, non-verbally, that it would be okay.

"That's why we go round and round about mortality, Emily," I replied. "I'm Edward's mate. Vampires don't survive the loss of their mates. They either go suicidal, like Edward did when he thought that I was dead, or homicidal like Victoria did after the Cullens had to kill her mate to save me. While I don't like to admit it, and it makes Edward angry when I do, I think I was past caring when I jumped off of that cliff back in March. If that isn't suicidal, I don't know what is."

I knew Edward would go into a tizzy at that, but we were interrupted by a previously silent member of our gathering.

"So, you're saying that you're running vamp software on your human hardware?" Paul queried.

There was a thunderous silence as everyone stared at him.

He looked offended. "What? I can't contribute? I can't be insightful?"

Billy gave a snort of laughter and Sam shook his head, while all of the women on both sides of the fire seemed to be rolling their eyes. But before we could get back on track, a quiet voice spoke first.

"What would you do if she chose to remain human?" Jacob asked, looking at Edward.

Edward shrugged. "Stay with her for as long as she'll let me, and then when she dies, find a way to follow after her as soon as possible."

"And if she chose to be with someone else?" he asked, looking hopeful.

I cringed. He was still trying to find a way. "Jacob," I said, "you have to drop this. Edward is my mate. I love him, and I'm never going to stop loving him. I can't just turn that off for you. I can't stop anymore than Sam can stop loving Emily. I can't choose someone else. If he dies, I die. One way or another, I die. And even if, by some miracle, I hit my head, got total amnesia, and threw myself into your arms tomorrow, the Volturi will be here in less than a year, turning this place upside down looking for me. If I'm not here, and I'm not sparkling in the sunlight, or very dead, then a lot of people will die. The resulting war would probably wipe out both the Quileute Tribe and the Cullens. Even if I weren't already perfectly willing to accept the Change to be with Edward, I can't have that on my conscience. "

Jacob looked sullen again. It looked like the new boundaries were going to take a while to solidify with him. Billy looked pained too. No doubt he was thinking of his best friend's future loss. And if I was honest, I imagine he fancied the idea of his son and Charlie's daughter getting together, not least because it would pull me out of the Cullen orbit. He'd have to get used to some things too.

Emily jumped in to cover the awkwardness. "I'm curious, Edward. And call me Emily, by the way. I'm curious. What would you have done, if Bella had been exempt from the bond because she was human?"

Something inside me withered a bit as I tried to imagine my Edward under such a circumstance. And I thanked God for the bond that tied me to him, anchoring him in this world with my love.

Edward smiled softly. "As I told Mrs. Clearwater, Emily, I love Bella; more than my own life. Having her live a full and happy human life, even without me, would make me happy. The pain of missing her would be crippling, but I would always be watching, ready to intervene, if needed. I think I could live with that. I would have to live with that, because I love her." He looked down at me, his eyes blazing with wonder and tenderness. "And I thank God, whom I'd stopped believing in for a very long time; I thank him every day that I don't have to find out what that feels like." With that he pulled me close and kissed me passionately. I gave myself to that kiss completely, feeling his lips move against mine, and it seemed that time had stopped, at least for us.

However, all good things must come to an end. My ears were ringing when our lips parted enough for me to breathe and we took stock of our surroundings. I suddenly realized that everyone was looking everywhere, but at us. Except for Paul, who wasn't even pretending not to stare. I blushed beet-red.

"Um...sorry about that," I said. "Sometimes the mate thing gets the better of us."

Billy chuckled quietly. "Well, at least we have something in common. The young folks can still get carried away in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Edward laughed with him, politely ignoring the fact that he'd known Billy's grandfather. He glanced at his watch and grunted softly. "It's late. I think we've covered as much as we can tonight. I want to get Bella back to the house and into bed. She loses too much sleep as it is."

Across the fire Paul chuckled, and as I realized the double entendre I flushed pink. When I glanced at Edward, he was wearing this sexy, proud looking smirk, so I guess the embarrassment was worth it. He'd earned the right to mark a little territory in front of Jacob and the other Quileutes.

Billy nodded in agreement and, in an astounding act, rolled himself around the fire to shake Carlisle's hand. Then he looked at me.

"Thanks for being honest, Bella. I think this is probably more information than we've had to work with in a long time. I won't lie to you, kid. If it weren't for the nosy-ass Italians, I'd fight tooth and nail against you ever being a Cold One. I shudder to think of what things will be like for Charlie. As it is though, I agree, we can't have them here. And if they do come, we want their stay to be as short as possible, and have them go away so completely satisfied that they'll never have to come back again. We'll have to discuss this with Old Quil back at La Push, but I'm pretty sure that I'll be in contact with Carlisle to amend the Treaty." He scowled. "I still wish there was a way…"

I glanced at Jacob's eager and hopeful face, and felt my heart break a bit. "There isn't Billy, short of killing me, or killing everyone else," I interjected. "So just…."

"Yeah, I know," he sighed. "Just let it go."

Jacob muttered angrily under his breath and spun away from the fire abruptly. Before Sam or his father could say anything, he vanished into the black trees on the Quileute side of the clearing. The last sound we heard was that of shredding clothes. After a moment a wolf howled in the fading distance.

Billy shook his head sadly. "He's a good kid really, always has been. He's had to be to look after me," he said, indicating his wheelchair. "Just stubborn about certain things. Worse now that he's phasing." He looked up at me. "Give him some time, Bella. He'll come around. It's not easy to realize that the one thing that you had your heart set on was really beyond your reach all along."

I felt lousy, like I'd kicked a puppy, but it beat hurting Edward, or having Edward have to hurt Jacob for not respecting our relationship. "Or losing everything and everyone that you love in an asinine war that you started with your carelessness," whispered a voice from somewhere deep inside. A voice that sounded suspiciously like Jasper's.

I sighed, thinking of eggs and omelets. "I know Billy, and for what it's worth, I'm sorry."

Billy shook his head. "It happened. You needed him and he was happy to help. The fact that he wanted it to be something more than it was wasn't your fault." He looked at Edward now. "We'll keep him away until he realizes the way things are, but if you ever make it so that she needs him like that again, I won't make him give her back when it's done."

Edward tensed inside my arms, but the confrontation died before it could take its first breath. He nodded. "If she needs him like that again, it's because I'm dead, Mr. Black. Nothing else could keep me from her side now. And if that's the case, I'd approve. She would need him. Need all of you."

He stared at Edward for a long moment and then nodded brusquely. He was turning to leave when Carlisle stopped him.

"Billy, there's one thing I want you to think about, if you will."

"What's that?" he replied, his tone indicating plainly that he wanted to be gone from here.

"Medical services," Carlisle responded. "This boycott of the hospital because I'm there is endangering your people." He gestured at Emily. "What happened to Miss Young was unnecessary. With proper care the scarring wouldn't have been a fraction of what it is."

Billy's face hardened. "What would you have us do?"

"Let your people use the hospital again. If necessary, I'll give you my work schedule so that they can go there when I'm not working. In an emergency, when I am working, call my cell phone and I'll beg off, and go home. Billy, I've spent over 300 years perfecting my craft, and I haven't drunk human blood in all that time. Don't hurt your people over a useless prejudice. Please? I beg you."

Billy looked stubborn then, much like his son, his shoulders slumped. "We'll discuss it back home."

"That's all I ask," replied Carlisle.

He paused for a moment, then walked around the fire to where Sam was holding Emily's hand and glaring at him for bringing up Emily's injury. Paul tensed, as if to phase, and then inexplicably relaxed again. Carlisle reached into his pocket and removed a business card, holding it out to Sam.

"Sam, this is the card of, quite possibly, the best cosmetic surgeon in the Pacific northwest, Dr. Jason MacKinnon. His practice is in Portland. I've taken the liberty of telling him about Emily already. Call him when you're ready."

Sam stared at the card, then back at Carlisle. "Why?"

"Because it's the right thing to do and because, by coming back to Forks, we inadvertently caused Emily's injuries. Had we known…"

"If you had known, your son and Bella would not have found each other," Emily interjected. "Things happen for a reason, Doctor." She smiled fondly at Sam. Even with her scars she was beautiful. "Anyway, I can't afford this." She tried to take the card from Sam, no doubt to hand it back.

Carlisle backed away. "No, but we can afford it. Due to those two, gesturing at Alice and Edward, we have more money that any one family should have, with more coming in all the time. Spending some on you, my dear, is the least we can do."

She hesitated, and nodded. "Thank you."

In the interim Billy had, with Paul's assistance, wheeled himself over to the truck. While Sam and Paul helped him in and loaded his wheel chair, I traded hugs with Sue and Emily.

"We miss you," Emily said.

Edward chimed in with, "There's no reason for that once Jacob sees the light. His antics in pursuit of Bella were my main issue with her time in La Push. Well, that and the fact that Jacob let me see that one," he pointed out Paul, "trying to kill Bella back in March. I'm disinclined to have her anywhere near him when Alice can't see her and I'm not there to protect her. But I think something can be worked out."

Sue looked nonplussed. "We'd appreciate that."

"One thing to think about, Sue," Edward said.

She waited.

"Hot pursuit. If we're going to bring Victoria down we need to be able to chase her wherever she runs. That means us onto your land and you onto ours. Bring it up to Billy, and soon; before she kills some more innocent humans trying to get to Bella."

Sue looked thoughtful. "I will. You know, you're not at all what I expected."

Edward turned on the charm. "Thank you, but don't forget that we're still dangerous."

"So are we, I'm finding out," she replied. And with that she held her hand out to Edward, and he shook it. To her credit she didn't shudder. Then she and Emily walked to the truck and got in.

It wasn't lost on me that Paul and Sam had left the women talking to us unescorted.

My plan had worked. Information beat ignorance, every time. I yawned mightily. Time to go home.

Carlisle and Alice already had the gear packed up and the fire was extinguished as soon as the truck pulled out. Without further words Edward helped me up on his back and we were off and running, picking up the others on the way out, as we'd dropped them on the way in. I couldn't see anything in the gloom of the night shrouded forest, so I closed my eyes and let my cheek sag a bit against Edward's shoulder. I must have been falling asleep because suddenly Edward stopped and shifted me into his arms, cradling me against his chest. All I heard was, "Sleep Bella," and the wind was flying by us again.

It wasn't until much later, after Alice had helped me into my pajamas and I was snuggling in under the covers of our bed with Edward's arms securely around me as he lay behind me, that something struck my sleep addled mind.

"Edward?" "What was with Paul tonight? There were a couple of times when I thought he was going to phase, and didn't. I was honestly afraid of him after this past March."

Edward laughed softly in my ear. "The no phasing part is easy. Sam laid a temporary Alpha order on both Jacob and Paul. They couldn't take any offensive action at the meeting, including phasing, unless he himself phased first. At the beginning of the meeting, that was the only thing holding him together." He paused thoughtfully. "He's an odd one, Paul Foster. He walked in there thinking that this meeting was the perfect time to kill us all, including you. By the time in was over, he'd changed his mind."


"You," he replied, gently kissing my ear, before trailing cool kisses down my neck to my shoulder. "Us. The way we were with each other was so 'human' that he couldn't see the bloodsucking soul-stealing monsters of legend at all. I think you having Alice smack me in the head helped."

My giggles shook my body, and I rolled over so that I could see him. "That's why you didn't complain about that more?"

He smiled at me tenderly and began a slow rain of gentle kisses on my face. "That, and the fact that I had it coming. I'm sorry, some part of me still wants…"

"Me to stay human," I finished for him. "Edward, you've fought this battle," I said as I nuzzled his throat, inhaling that sweet scent that could always make my head spin. "It was never going to be that way. From that first moment that we made eye contact across the cafeteria it was always going to happen. The only choices that we had were when and how. The how I would prefer is if it was you doing it, of your own free will, as an act of love and desire, because you want me. The when was anytime before I was too old to pass as anything but your older sister or your mother. I refuse to pass through eternity looking like a cougar every time I go out in public with you." I pulled back so that I could see those tawny eyes. "The Volturi have taken the when from us now. All we have left is the how." I kissed him gently, breathing him in. "Please don't let them take that too."

He stiffened into immobility, as he was prone to do in times of stress. I knew that a war was raging between his head and his heart. I could only hope that his heart won. I patiently waited him out, gently moving my fingers in his hair, until he blinked and smiled at me tenderly as his arms drew closer.

"Isabella Swan, I want you. Forever."

Tears gathered in my eyes. I couldn't believe that this was happening.

"Yes, Bella, I will change you. Not because you bartered it from me, but because I simply cannot imagine a world without you in it, nor could I live in such a world if it existed." He paused, and then continued softly, refusing to meet my eyes. "I…I wish that…" He trailed to a stop.

"What do you wish?" I asked softly, my heart swelling as I realized the breakthrough we'd just had.

He sighed. "Please don't think this is a demand, or a condition of any kind, my love. It isn't. I would…I wish that you would consider marrying me of your own free will, out of love and desire. And not because I bartered it from you. Please think about it? That's all I ask."

Hearing him plead his case, with my own words, after finally acceding to my own fondest wish, made me feel incredibly guilty. I closed my eyes as all of Renee's admonitions about marrying young filled my mind with white noise, until one salient fact silenced the din. As I'd said earlier tonight, in my heart and mind I was already a Cullen. I was Edward's mate. Human social conventions didn't apply. My mother's objections to marriage were based on its impermanence, which I always thought had more to do with her character than it did with the institution. Well, I was a vampire in the making. Edward was my forever. You don't get more permanent than that. If I really was a Cullen, I should bear the name before my last days as a mortal human.

"Ask me," I whispered.

Edward froze again, but only for a moment. "What?"

"Ask me to marry you," I said, my voice growing stronger.

Edward looked hopeful and scared at the same time, but he still slid silently from the bed and helped me from under the covers, so I could sit on the right side of the bed. He vanished for a moment and then was back, bending down on one knee, cradling a black velvet box in his hands, reverently. He'd already had the ring. I smiled softly. How could I have imagined that he wouldn't?

"Isabella Swan, it took me far to long to realize everything that you are to me, yet even before I knew that I loved you, some part of me knew that you were my forever. That I couldn't live without you by my side. From now until forever, every day of our lives, I will love you more each day than I did the day before. Will you do me the incredible honor of consenting to be my wife?"

He had the ring box open. It was the most beautiful square cut diamond I've ever seen. It was so large that I felt a bit intimidated. The setting looked very old, yet delicate. Any one of the accent stones was bigger that the diamond in the ring that Phil had gotten Renee. The thought of my mother almost made me panic. Almost, but not quite. This was my future, not hers. I looked up at Edward, seeing the hope and uncertainty warring in his eyes, and held out my left hand. I swear, his hands were shaking as he slid the ring into place and brought to his lips, placing a kiss upon it, as if to seal it in place. With that I slid my arms around his neck, pulled him close, and whispered, so that only he would hear.

"Yes, Edward Cullen, I will marry you."

He pulled back and kissed me then; trying to restrain himself, yet his hands and lips communicated his wild exultation as he set my blood singing through my veins. When he finally let me breathe again, not that I was objecting mind you, and I could draw back enough to see his eyes, I saw something that should have been impossible. A single glistening tear traced its way down his right cheek. I reached up to touch it, but his hand beat me to it, wiping it away.

"Venom," he said, rough emotion making his voice rasp a bit. "Hurt you."

"I thought that vampires couldn't cry?" I said gently, as I cupped his cheek, my thumb brushing over the spot where the miracle had been. I swear, he would have blushed if he could.

"We can't," he replied. "Or at least we're not supposed to. I've never heard of one of us who could." He gave a shaky laugh. "You and I break so many rules, Love. What's one more? When I said that you were resurrecting the human in me, I guess I never realized just how far that would go."

I smiled back and looked down at the ring. If anything it was more beautiful on my finger than it had been in the box. It felt right. I reverently brushed the surface of the center stone with my finger.

"It was my mother's," he said quietly. "Carlisle rescued it when she died. My father had it made by Tiffany's in New York. My memories of him are clouded, but some I recall very clearly. He told me once that, back when Tiffany solitaires were all the rage, he wanted something more substantial for my mother. So he had this one custom made out of platinum."

I gulped. I'd thought it was silver. He lifted my hand and kissed it again.

"Thank you, for making all of my dreams come true," he murmured.

I felt a laugh bubble up inside me and it caused him to look at me with concern. I shook my head and used the thumb that had brushed his cheek to try and brush the worry from his brow.

"It's nothing, honestly," I said, with a smile. "I just thought…you've been making my dreams come true for such a long time, it was time that I returned the favor.'

"Even when I left?"

I nodded. "Even then, because you came back."

I sighed then, as he kissed me again. My arms were around his neck, and our lips never broke contact as I felt his arms shift, behind my back and under my knees, so that he could lift me up and move me to the middle of the bed. Only then did he release me and our lips parted long enough for him to silently tuck me in and lay down beside me.

I smiled at him. "Someday soon…under the covers."

Looking happier than I could ever recall, he nodded. "Soon. Sleep, Isabella. I love you."

I kissed him quickly one more time, before rolling over and wiggling back into his firm embrace. Once I was settled, I murmured, "I love you, too."

He began to hum my lullaby and I felt sleep start to claim me. My last thought before I fell asleep was – "no more bad dreams".

And I was right.


AN2: This story had it's genesis in a debate with a Jacob-shipper. It was centered on the fact that I felt that Bella was being an irresponsible fool in more ways than one every time she went out to La Push. She could have started the war. So, I started a fic in which she did just that and had to pay the consequences. I got one page into it and stopped, because I found that I simply could not kill the Cullens. Could. Not. So the story rotted on my flash drive, until my muse whacked me in the head while I was editing another story. What if it were a dream? And viola! Here we are. Of course, this story requires that Bella not undergo the lobotomy and integrity removal the SM put her through in preparation for Eclipse, but what the heck. I think that you'll like my Bella 2.0 better. ;-)

AN3: As an exercise for the alert reader, you will note that the timeline will have Riley raiding Bella's bedroom at the exact moment that she and the Cullens are meeting with the Quileutes….

AN3.5: Added 05/27/11. I was surprised as hell when Coleen561 contacted me and told me that she'd nominated "The Path Not Taken" for the Avant Garde Awards in the "One Shot" category. Thank you, Coleen. I don't deserve it, but thank you. Copy and paste the link and replace the usual missing components. http[colonslashslash]www[dot]avantgardeawards[dot]com[slash]