A/N: Beta'd by sweeneyanne and pre-read by AlexisDanaan & aerobee 82.

Don't own Twilight.

(Not Leaving) Without You

Her first thought was that, as she had learned the definition, she was definitely insane for what she was about to do.

Her second was that she should probably pass right by the brightly lit but somehow still ominous looking apartment building, press the accelerator to the floor, and drive until she ran out of gas. Then hitchhike.

She never thought she'd see him again—something she'd become oddly at peace with.

It all started in high-school. She'd been quiet and a bookworm; he'd been that kid whose car was just old enough that he could pretend it was vintage as he leaned against the hood and rebelliously let a cigarette dangle from between his lips. It was only natural for a girl to be intrigued by the stereotypical enigma that was Jasper Whitlock, and Bella proved to be no exception. It was just that he had this look about him; this dark and daring tint to his features superimposed over the classical teenage angst that shadowed the student's every footstep. He'd found a way to set himself apart from the crowd; it was something Bella had a slight admiration for.

She dreamed about him sometimes...

He lingered on the peripheral of her high-school experience, always seen but never heard, nothing more than a faded ghost wandering the halls of Forks High—until he wasn't anymore. At the time she'd thought it was kind of like having a bucket of ice-cold water thrown in her face. One moment she and her Dad were driving home from dinner at his favorite restaurant, the next Charlie was flipping the siren on and very nearly shouting at her to stay in the car as he threw his door open and ran toward the pickup parked on the side of the road, a figure pinning another to the side of it, aglow in the flashing blue and red lights of the cruiser.

It took her a moment to fully absorb the situation, to realize that Mr. Whitlock was towering over his son with a fist raised, right up until the moment Charlie grabbed hold of his arms and wrestled him closer to the front of the truck. Everyone knew that Jasper's father had some problems, the least of which was not his alcoholism, but to see it acted out before her was something else entirely. Charlie's booming warning echoed through her head as she unbuckled her seat belt, and it was as if a force greater than herself shoved the cruiser's door open and stumbled onto the side of the road.

Somewhere in the back of her head she registered Charlie's look of exasperation, but once he had the elder Whitlock handcuffed against the hood of the truck he waved her over, and really, that was the moment it all began. Jasper's face was bloody and swollen, a look of complete mutiny and humiliation spread over his features, thick as the blood oozing down the side of his face. Bella did her best not to tremble as she took the keys Charlie held out to her and promised to take Jasper to their house to wait for him.

They'd never spoken before, and she'd thought that unlikely to change as he reluctantly climbed into the passenger seat and waited for her to start the engine with crossed arms. The drive was more than a little uncomfortable, though his attitude thawed by a few degrees once they reached her house.

He stood silently in the kitchen while Bella wrapped a couple handfuls of ice in a towel and wet a washcloth, only moving when she pushed him backwards to make him sit at the kitchen table so she could wipe the blood from his face. At the time she'd thought the whole thing horribly romantic, like something out of a book or a movie. Now that she was older she was able to look back at the events that followed with a little more perspective, although she still thought that maybe the look he gave her was because she was trying to take care of him, and no one had ever done that before. It was the meaning that changed over the years.

It happened like it always did with teenagers. Quick and intense, flooded in hormones and too early declarations neither party was ready for. She almost couldn't believe that they lasted as long as they had, and if they'd started just like all teenagers did, then at least they ended the same way.

They drifted to and away from each other in an almost clockwork fashion. One week they'd be on, the next they'd be off. One day he'd be breathing sweet words into her ear, and then that weekend he'd be storming away from her, furious with her insistence that he should at least apply to one school, or that he could do well on his final exams if he'd just let her help him study. He had always been so stubborn in the belief that he was heading nowhere, and every now and then Bella would give up trying to convince him otherwise before coming back for another go at it.

They graduated, and Bella left for college a couple weeks after Jasper went... well, she never had been sure where he'd gone.

Her foot pressed heavily against the brake of her rental car as she idled in one of the guest parking spots, and she wondered if she could pinpoint the exact moment that compelled her to travel across the entire country to arrive yards away from his doorstep. The cynic in her wanted to say that it was obviously the instant he'd sent her an e-mail and she hadn't immediately deleted it—but though her heart was pounding and her fingers were gripping the steering wheel far too tight in the blinding panic that rumbled through her, she still had enough perspective to realize that couldn't possibly be the case.

It had been building for a while now. Every single time she e-mailed him back; every time he called her and she didn't hang up; all those nights they'd stayed up far into morning talking—and yet those were all lies, too. She knew, deep down, that the tipping point had been three weeks ago, when Jasper had finally talked her into taking some time off work to come and see him. It had taken far less convincing than she would have liked to believe, but the moment he'd proposed the trip she'd been caught up in a whirlwind of memories, the good and the bad, and was struck with an intense desire to see the man her first boyfriend had grown up to be.

Honestly, she thought it was for the best that it had ended, that they had been split from each other. Jasper had been in a horrible place back then, and she'd been young and naïve to the core. They weren't ready for anything as serious as they'd pretended their relationship was, and though it had taken her a while to see it, eventually she came to terms with the fact that even if he'd stayed, even if she'd left with him like he asked her to, that it would have ended just the same. It was better that the cord was cut when they were still young—and if she kept telling herself that over and over again, then maybe someday she'd be able to let go of all the could-have-beens that raced through her dreams ever since she'd first seen his name pop up in her e-mail.

Her friends claimed that he made her gun-shy, that he'd screwed her up just as sure as he had his own problems, but she never really saw the validity of their insistence, not until she realized just how evenly divided her feelings on the reunion were torn between anticipation and fear.

She could call the force that propelled her from her car many things. She could say that it was curiosity; she wanted to see him, she wanted to examine all the little things about him that she knew would be different now in person rather than in photographs. He was a little taller, had let his hair grow longer... she'd yet to see a picture of him with the sullen scowl she remembered so well from when she was younger, and she wanted to know if it was simply that he hadn't sent her any with him making that particular expression. She could categorize her steps up the sidewalk leading to the front door of the apartment building as a longing to reach out and touch him, and she could call her finger pressing the button next to 'Whitlock' on the panel a sense of determination, delusional in its belief that maybe this could be the thing that finally got him out of her system and stopped him from haunting her. Jasper had been gone for a long time, but that didn't mean she didn't still dream about him sometimes.

Really, she just missed the hell out of him.

The outer door of the building swung open far sooner than she expected, and for a moment she was struck dumb by the realization that Jasper was standing right there. It was positively surreal. He was a familiar sight in faded blue jeans and a black t-shirt painted with a logo she couldn't recognize, and yet the happy smile on his face befitted a stranger, the sparkle in his blue eyes completely foreign to her. She'd spent nearly her entire senior year of high-school glued to his side, but she had never, ever seen him look happy.

Truth be told, she couldn't say the man standing in front of her bore much resemblance to the boy she'd fallen for in high-school at all. He'd pulled his life together in the past couple of years, and while he'd never really told her exactly what it was that he'd done after leaving Forks, it had been painfully obvious, even through the phone and internet, that whatever it was that had happened had been just the push he'd needed to leave behind the things that plagued him.

Jasper had grown-up, and well, but she'd never really let that truth take hold of her. To acknowledge that he was actually in a good place, that he was doing well for himself and had finally let go of the demons that had always haunted him would lead her down a dangerous road—but now that incontrovertible fact was practically slapping her in the face and demanding her attention.

"Fuck, I've missed you."

She probably would have been able to hold on to her determination to keep this meeting platonic if he hadn't taken two rapid steps forward to grab her face between his warm palms and kiss her. She was almost embarrassed by how little of a fight she put up, but he'd always had some sort of pull over her, be it a curious fascination with the teenage boy who didn't really seem to talk to anyone, a gentle tugging to the side of her boyfriend as they strode down the clammy beach, or in the way she felt a little piece of her heart break apart from the whole and leave with him as she watched the glint of the sun bouncing off the back windshield of his Pontiac.

A thousand thoughts and words and fleeting sensations of fingernails digging into the flesh of her hips came rising up like a torrent at the feel of him so close after so long, and for a brief moment she was entirely lost in the movements of his lips and heat of his body—she couldn't believe she'd ever managed to get the smell of him out of her head—but then sanity snapped back into place, and she allowed herself one more chance to savor the feel of his lips against hers, and took a step back.

"Hi." She absolutely hated how breathy and pathetic she sounded.

"Hi," Jasper murmured back, that slow grin spreading over his face again as he brushed a strand of wayward hair behind her ear. "How was your flight?"

"Long," she answered, his easy question serving to help her regain her bearings. The plane ride had actually been hell, but a crying child and overly friendly woman sitting next to her seemed inconsequential at the moment.

"Hey," Jasper said, moving his hands from her cheeks to her shoulders before giving an affectionate squeeze. "Calm down."

"Sorry, this is just..."

"Yeah, I know." Jasper let out a short laugh before leaning in to press another kiss to the side of her head. He stepped back, somehow managing to slide the shoulder strap of her bag off her arm without Bella noticing until he'd already hoisted it over his shoulder. "Come in?"

She was nervous, and she knew that he could tell. It was an odd sort of butterfly let loose in her stomach; instead of feeling awkward and unsure of how to act she felt a warm sense of familiarity settling over them as they ascended one flight of stairs to reach his apartment. She wistfully thought that it was almost as if they'd known each other in another life, and had been granted the chance to start over as entirely new people. It was too bad that wasn't the case.

His apartment was small—just a living room that faded into a kitchen and dining area, a hallway to the left with a bedroom and bathroom—but it was so him that she almost couldn't breathe. It was as if his bedroom back in Forks had been transformed into the larger space. The dark colors, modern lines, and CDs stacked on the coffee table all screamed 'Jasper'. She was happy to see that the couch was large and comfortable looking; there was no way she was going to ask him to give up his bedroom for her.

She didn't realize just how dangerous all that recognition could be until much later that night—not until she'd had the opportunity to wash the stale airplane air off her skin and he'd taken her out to dinner at his favorite restaurant. It wasn't until she found herself sitting next to him on the couch watching old Nick at Nite reruns that Bella noticed she had her head resting on his shoulder and an arm splayed over his stomach as he reclined. It hit her how easy it was to fall back into the old definitions of 'them'.

She thought about moving at least a dozen times before the next commercial break, but just when she'd worked up the resolve he laughed at a gimmick that she'd always found particularly hilarious and shifted in his seat just enough to tug her closer to his side. It wasn't until that moment that she really saw it, the way that she wanted him, even after all the time and heartbreak that had passed them by.

It took ten minutes to win the argument over who was going to sleep where, and he grudgingly retrieved a blanket and pillow for her before bending down to kiss her on the lips for the second time as a goodnight—and she allowed herself to wonder if maybe he wanted it all back, too.

"I cannot believe that you learned how to cook," Bella laughed, thoroughly amused with the scene before her.

"Had to figure out how to feed myself at some point along the line," Jasper shot back with a smirk before turning his attention back to the stove top.

"You ever going to tell me about that?" She knew he wouldn't, at least not now.

"Maybe someday, if you're lucky."

"Guess that means I've got to stick around for a bit," she answered. It was such a bad idea, this game they were playing.

It had been an entire weekend full of these exchanges. While Saturday had been spent in his apartment, Sunday had seen them wandering the town. It had felt safer to at least attempt to put the brakes on the flirty banter Jasper always managed to suck her into, and she'd figured that maybe if they were out in public she'd be able to behave more appropriately, instead of sliding back into the niche she'd so enjoyed when he'd been her boyfriend. Her plan had backfired horrendously. Jasper was persistent in touching her, be it grabbing hold of her hand to pull her through a crowd, or slinging an arm over her shoulder as they strolled down the sidewalks.

She had been delusional when she'd told herself that all the little signals shot between them had been meaningless, and it had been stupid of her to come here with the expectation that it would be nothing more than a friendly reunion. It wasn't even what she really wanted, though she was still determined to keep that desire shoved far in the back of her mind, and her heart.

It was far too easy to fall back into that old and blurry space between lovers and love, and she was terrified that if she let the teasing and touching continue that she wouldn't have a chance in hell at keeping herself from crossing the line into the first and then overflowing into the latter. And then there was the matter of the kisses—she had to stop letting him kiss her.

He made her think things that she shouldn't even consider, like that she hadn't ever actually tried to make a long-distance relationship work, and she didn't care to, either. She thought that their mild flirtations and steadily progressive friendship was much healthier anyway. The most time she'd been able to justify leaving work for was five days. Come Wednesday morning she would be boarding a plane back to her life in Washington, and they'd go back to late night phone calls and the nearly obsessive trading of e-mails and text-messages. If she let this go too far now she wasn't sure she'd be able to cope when she had to leave. They had separate lives, and a continent spanning the distance between them.

"Whatever it is that has you so freaked out, can you just stop it?" Jasper snarked from his position across the kitchen from where she sat on the countertop. "It was kind of funny before, but now you're making me jumpy, too."

"It's just weird," Bella said quietly, shaking her head a little at the side of his head. "I honestly never thought I'd get to see any of this from you."

"Because you were sure you'd never see me again, or because you thought I was a hopeless train-wreck?"

"Maybe a little of both," she teased.

"Not so long ago that was a fair assumption." Jasper nodded as he plated up their breakfasts.

"You're really not going to tell me anything?" she sighed as she hopped down from the counter to join Jasper at his table.

"What do you want to know?" he asked before taking a large bite of eggs.

She deliberated on what to ask him for a moment, digging into her own breakfast as she thought. She wasn't sure what exactly she thought she was going to gain from churning up the past and asking questions about events that no longer held any significant relevance. He'd left, it was as simple as that, and she never really begrudged him for it, no matter how much it had hurt her to watch him drive away. She understood, to an extent.

She finally settled on asking, "Where was the first place you went?"

Jasper shifted his weight in what seemed to be discomfort, and when he spoke his voice was quiet and his eyes were trained right on hers. "I went to Phoenix."

There was possibly one answer he could have given that would have surprised her more, and it would have involved space travel. They'd always talked about going to Phoenix together. "You did?"

"Yeah." Jasper offered no explanation. He just sat silently as he ate his breakfast and Bella absorbed that little bit of information.

"Why?" she finally asked once it became apparent he had no intention of talking about his trip any more than he had to.

"I wanted to see where you grew up. Look, can you do me a favor?" Jasper asked as he cleared his plate and stood.

"Sure," she answered, craning her neck up a bit to look him in the eye.

"Can we just... can we not get stuck in the past? I'd really like the chance to start clean."

She wanted to tell him no, to explain that starting fresh was a luxury she couldn't afford when it came to him. If she let herself begin from now, then there was nothing to hold back all the latent and rearranged feelings that raged through her at his sight and smell. If she didn't keep that view of his rear windshield wedged firmly in the front of her mind, she was going to let this become something that it shouldn't, and she was already teetering far too close to the edge as it was.

The problem with that logic, however, was that he'd worked hard to turn his life around, and she knew it. He deserved his clean slate. "Okay."

Her agreement eased some of the tension between them, but did nothing to lessen the increasingly difficult to ignore attraction she was trying so hard to deny. She was starting to think that it was impossible to break free of him. He was always under her skin, even before she knew him. Even when he was a ghost traveling the country and lived on only in her dreams, he was always there.

"Where did you just go?" Jasper laughed, and her eyes darted to the right to see him crouched by her chair with an amused expression on his face.

"I was just thinking."

"Was it really hard for you?" he asked with a lopsided grin and an arched eyebrow that caused an unavoidable laugh to bubble out of her.

"Shut up." She shoved his shoulder just hard to enough to throw him off balance and stood from her chair as he wobbled in place, trying to keep himself from falling over. It was quite the amusing sight.

"You're so mean," Jasper chuckled, a hint of a pout contorting his lips. Not that she'd been staring at them.

She kind of hated him for taking the whole of the situation so well, or at least not showing that it was a little weird for him, too. It would have been nice to know that she wasn't the only one who felt like she was caught in the middle of some bizarre alternate reality where the courses of their lives hadn't veered so far away from each other, only to merge again years down the road.

"Don't you have a job you have to get to?" she nagged, feeling the corner of her lip curl into a smile.

"Trying to get rid of me already, are you?" She absolutely did not admire the way his muscles flexed as he rose to stand upright in one smooth motion. "I see how it is."

"Hey, the sooner you leave, the sooner you'll be gone." Bella laughed at her bad joke, and made a half-hearted attempt to stop herself from feeling warm when he smiled back at her.

"As you wish." Jasper dropped a kiss on top of her head before he grabbed his jacket and headed out the door.

She was only mildly ashamed of snooping once she was sure Jasper was well on his way to work, and as she poked through his cupboards and medicine cabinet, she wondered just what she had thought was going to happen when she booked her ticket to come and see him. There was a very insistent part of her that was getting exactly what it had wanted, and another, just as stubborn, piece that was banging its head against a wall and calling her an idiot.

She was starting to wish that she hadn't so diligently kept the fact that she was not only back in contact with Jasper, but that she had flown across the country to visit him from her friends. It would have been nice to have someone to call, to be able to ask for advice and hash out all the conflicting emotions raging through her. It just might help to suss out just what it was that she was so terrified of. She wanted to say that she was afraid of him, and his inherent capabilities to hurt her—but there was a nagging in the back of her head that said what she was really afraid of was having to be the one to walk away this time, even if they'd both known from the beginning that they were only going to get four days together.

She was scared to seize the moment and make the most out of her vacation. She was terrified to let herself care about him more than she already did. She was horrified with herself for being that girl who refused to even try to see what might be, because there was no denying it—if she could just stop forcing herself to be blind, she'd see that even after only two days it was obvious that they worked together, and well.

She briefly fantasized about quitting her job back home and moving to Virginia as she perused his bookshelves and CD rack. They had just slightly varying tastes; if her books joined his on the shelf there would be few duplicates, yet his interests bordered so closely on hers that she was already making a mental list of items to pick up from the library. The titles were loosely organized by what she assumed was genre, and she picked a couple of the more worn looking ones off the shelf to flip through. Jasper always had liked to read.

She wasn't sure what exactly it was she was looking for—some vague indication that the presentation he was putting on was a facade for her benefit, maybe. It would be so much easier to keep her head if she could find some remnant of the person who hurt her all those years ago. She could justify her caution, if only it was valid.

Instead she found nothing but shadows of a healthy and at-peace Jasper littered all over his apartment. There were no packs of cigarettes hidden behind the books, no nearly drained bottle of whiskey stashed away in the back of a kitchen cabinet. There was just a bottle of aspirin in the bathroom and more Judd Apatow movies than she knew existed sitting on the shelf to the right of his television. There wasn't one single flashing neon sign declaring 'Stay away from this dude, he's got more problems than you can count', and it figured that now that she was finally looking for it, it was nowhere to be seen. God knew there had been a thousand warning signs back when she was a teenager, and she'd ignored them all.

She drew the line at poking into his dresser drawers and nightstand, though she couldn't quite talk herself out of sitting in the middle of his bed and staring at the space around her, feeling like all she wanted was for him to come back home.

She had been hesitant to start dinner off with alcohol, but then Jasper ordered a bottle of wine like it was something he did all the time, and an irrational jealousy rose up in her at the thought of him sitting in this same restaurant, at this table, with some faceless, and no doubt, slutty woman who could never appreciate all that he was. A glass of wine seemed like the perfect way to at least soften up the edges of the irritatingly persistent scene playing out in her head. It wasn't until they stumbled through his front door a couple of hours later that she realized it might not have been the greatest idea she'd ever had.

He just looked good. It had to be the smile. God help her if he'd ever smiled like that back in high-school, if he had there wouldn't have been anything that could have stopped her from hopping in the passenger seat of his Pontiac the day he'd shown up at her house out of the blue and told her he was leaving and wanted her to come with him. She'd have dropped it all in a second—her college acceptances, her steadily improving relationship with her father, her friends... They were all just flashes of memories in her head at the sight of the dimple formed by the curl of his lip.

"You want a beer?" Jasper asked, his face flushed enough to tell her that she wasn't the only one who was feeling a bit uninhibited—she'd spent the past five minutes vividly recalling the way his skin had tasted in the back seat of his car on his eighteenth birthday.

If his plan was to get her drunk and seduce her, it wasn't going to take much effort. If that wasn't his intention, well, then maybe it might turn out to be hers, because at the moment she couldn't think of anything in the world that she wanted more than to feel him pressed against her. A beer was definitely a horrible idea; she said 'yes' anyway. She was tired of avoiding him when he was standing right there; looking at her like all she had to do was cross the space between them.

The biggest problem was that the more time she spent in his presence, the better she got to know him and the more they talked, it was becoming increasingly apparent that the man she'd been reintroduced to was someone she was genuinely interested in, and even if they didn't have a history, she thought she'd still be able to say that was true. She wasn't so sure what that meant.

He'd asked her for a clean slate, and while she'd agreed, she hadn't actually followed through. Two steps brought her close enough to reach out and take the bottle he held out for her, and the brush of his fingers against hers felt almost electric. It seemed like such a good idea to shuffle her feet forward one more time and allow her touch to linger on the cold glass wrapped in his warm fingers.

"You know, I meant it," Jasper said suddenly as he shifted the bottle to his other hand before placing it on the counter next to the bottle-opener. "I missed you so fucking much."

"I missed you, too." It was looking to be a night full of bad choices, but when his hand grabbed hold of her wrist and tugged her close enough to kiss her, she couldn't regret the confession she'd kept hidden for so long.

Stumbled footsteps flung her back into a time long ago, and she couldn't squash the uprising of the memory of just how good it had felt to lay in the grass with him, her head on his chest, though it couldn't be said that she tried very hard. His fingers slid under her shirt and brushed their way up her ribs, and she was lost. It was such familiar comfort; the way they worked together, how his head tilted to exactly the right angle, how he knew without words to grab the backs of her thighs and help her jump and wrap her legs around his hips when she rested both forearms on his shoulders and tangled all ten of her fingers in his hair. It had never been like this, not since him.

When he pinned her body between his and the hallway wall she resigned herself to being that girl who did stupid things sometimes.

Straining her hands downward to tug at the fabric just below the collar of his shirt was an act she'd performed a dozen or so times before, but it felt entirely new, just like the near forgotten feel of his stubble scratching against her neck was nostalgic. Her reservations were left as puddles of clothes all along his hallway; fear was checked against his bedroom door. Even the voice of reason in the back of her head screaming that this was a horrible idea quieted when his fingers brushed against the skin under her navel.

She traced her forefinger over the thin, white scar on his arm she knew to be the evidence of one of countless altercations with his father, and she almost couldn't believe it, that this was the man that boy had grown up to be. He was so different and yet so undeniably the same—passionate in all the ways that she remembered, but somehow so much more. She felt like this was how it was meant to be, and she wondered if they were cheating all those years ago—if maybe they weren't supposed to find each other then, but somehow it was different now. She liked that idea far too much, and she was happy to let it go floating away when the door fell open behind her and rapid steps combined with gravity sent them tumbling sideways across his bed.

It was in the way she could fit her fingernails into the tiny and faded grooves they'd left behind the last time she'd been with him, in how his breath gusting over her ear made the exact same whoosh she'd never been able to forget, no matter how hard she tried. It was the way he kissed her softer, let insistent hands travel further... It was how he kept just enough weight pressing her down to make her feel like she was smothered in some sort of blissful cocoon.

She could feel his heart pounding away behind his ribs, just slightly out of sync with her own.

"I didn't plan this... I swear, I didn't," Jasper breathed across her cheek, and she knew he meant it. She was also pretty sure that he hadn't discounted the possibility, but a detail so small meant nothing to her right then.

"Be quiet," she muttered, and for the first time since she'd been in his presence she let herself drift away in the fog of all he inspired within her.

It was in little touches and hard presses of fingertips. In panted breaths and sweat and skin. In fireworks. It was magic, and no matter how much it was all the same, there were still such sharp contrasts, because he'd never before pressed a soft kiss to her lips and pulled her close to wrap his arms around her to drift off to sleep.

The first time she woke up it was to warm breath ghosting over her skin and light kisses on her shoulder—and she opened her eyes to see Jasper laying next to her in bed, fully dressed with damp hair.

"What time is it?" Bella mumbled, and she crossed an arm over the sheets loosely draped over her and wriggled around to face him.

"Seven-thirty," Jasper whispered. "I gotta go to work"

"Then go," she laughed, lightly shoving his shoulder as she burrowed deeper under the covers, content to let herself enjoy the moment while it lasted. Even in her half-awake state she knew that once he left and her mind cleared, all of her afterglow would be washed away by stupid things like reason. She had big plans to fall back into the happy impressions of her dreams for as long as possible.

"I'll be home early," he told her, a strange expression crossing his face for a brief moment before he shook his head to clear it and climbed off the bed. "I'll see you later. There's coffee made for when you decide to join the land of the awake."

"Okay," muttered into her pillow, already falling back asleep.

The second time she woke up it was to a clearer head and a clenching stomach. Reality crashed in from all sides, and it took a moment of staring at the ceiling before she realized that she could not ignore that she was lying naked in Jasper's cold and empty bed. She had no idea how to handle this one.

She was sure step one involved getting up, showering, and getting dressed, but she couldn't quite keep herself from crumpling into his sheets and letting a few tears fall for all that she was going to leave behind in this little apartment—for all that she was going to lose when she went home the next day. She felt like the worst kind of moron, and she greedily breathed the smell of him off the pillow he'd slept on, because she didn't know when she was going to get to smell him again. She was so embarrassed for acting this way, like it was the end of the world just because she'd thrown all her boundaries and resolve out the window and done something that she'd never been able to convince herself she wouldn't do in the first place.

She didn't begin to feel even close to normal until two hours later when she'd finally pulled herself together and downed three cups of coffee. She didn't actually feel calm until she grabbed Jasper's spare set of keys and walked to the park two blocks away. The whole crazy thing just seemed to be a bit less insane from a park bench in a strange city.

She tried to picture it, if she could see herself living here, and the scary thing was that it was so easy to do. She could see herself giving up the small house she rented in Washington and fleeing the state just like Jasper had done so many years ago. She could picture herself unpacking boxes in his little apartment, and coming here every few days to people watch. She'd have to find a job, which she wasn't sure she could do. She hadn't had any idea what she wanted to do when she was in college, and had only gone for her Bachelor's degree. She'd majored in Literature, which was basically worthless, and the only work she'd ever done before partnering with Angela to open the bakery had been as a cashier at the sporting goods store in Forks.

She wouldn't have any friends here, no family. She couldn't make the hour long drive home to see her Dad whenever she felt like it. She'd have to leave Angela in the lurch, and even if none of those other things were true, she wouldn't ever be able to do that. It didn't even matter in the first place—Jasper hadn't made any indication that he was even thinking about anything beyond tomorrow.

She pressed her lips together and stood swiftly to make the short walk back to where her rental car was parked. This was supposed to be her vacation, and all she'd done was pine and mope and get all depressed over sleeping with her ex-boyfriend. It was absurd, and she was done with it. It was her last day in Virginia, and she was going to spend it acting like the craziest tourist she could muster up. At the very least, she had about half a dozen souvenirs to buy.

She made it back before Jasper, but only by about fifteen minutes.

When he walked in the door and kissed her hello, she didn't pull away first like she had all those other times he'd done the same over the past three days. It was already done, the line had been crossed; there was no sense in fighting it any more. No matter what happened in the next twenty-four hours, it was still going to suck getting on that plane. So she decided to live in the fantasy while she could, and when his kisses turned more insistent she hooked her forefingers in the front belt-loops of his jeans, and pulled him back toward his bedroom.

If she was going to be miserable later, then she was going to get the most out of the little bit of time she had left to pretend that they could stay together. She thought that Jasper seemed to be feeling a little desperate, too, but she never had been all that good at reading him.

So she spent her last night with him tangled up in his bed sheets, laughing and smiling, and talking about everything insignificant that they could come up with.

In the morning she allowed herself a full five minutes to savor the pleasant ache of her muscles before climbing out of bed and getting ready to head to the airport. She felt pathetic for giving in to the urge to use his soap just so she could smell him on the journey home.

She was surprised to find Jasper sitting at the kitchen table absentmindedly thumbing his way through a magazine. He'd gotten up almost two hours before she had. She hadn't wanted to make a production out of leaving; really, she'd hoped to just slip quietly away, especially in the wake of what happened in the past two days.

He turned to look at her with a smile that wasn't all that dissimilar from what she imagined her own looked like, sad and tinged with a bit of regret, and when she dropped her bag on the floor by the door and walked over to where he was sitting he reached out an arm to pull her into his lap.


"Good morning to you, too." It felt far too easy to just be with him.

"When's your flight?"

"In a couple of hours. I actually have to go," she said quietly, unsure if he caught the double meaning to her words.

"I'll ride with you," Jasper offered.

"Don't you have work?" she asked. The one thing she had managed to get right was booking her flight for the early morning, so she could leave without really having to acknowledge that she was saying goodbye to him.

"I took the morning off."

"The car is a rental."

"I'll take a cab back," he insisted, and before she could come up with a reason why he shouldn't come with her to the airport he was already pulling on his jacket, his keys in hand. She kind of wished he hadn't turned out to be so much of a gentleman.

The car ride was spent playfully fighting each other for control of the radio station—a game Jasper was winning, if only because he actually knew the radio stations in the area; she'd been picking at random, badly.

He shouldered her carry-on bag while she fished through her purse for her driver's license and boarding pass, and before she knew it they were standing in front of the security check-point.

"Do you ever wonder?" she whispered, her chin tilted upward as she searched his eyes for any clue as to what he was thinking. "About what might have been for us?"

He stared at her curiously for nearly a minute, some indecipherable expression etched over his features, and the sinking feeling of her heart was positive that she should have kept it all bottled up. She should have repressed the notion and buried it deep down where the answer couldn't hurt, but then he pressed his lips together before leaning closer to kiss the corner of her mouth.

He whispered words over her skin that made her itch. "All the time. You think we'll ever get another chance?"

It was the answer she wanted and the one she'd dreaded all rolled up into one neat sentence. It was intensely sobering, and the fuzzy haze of implied romance that had descended over their last moments together cleared with a sharp gust. She wanted to stay with him, and she knew that she couldn't. She had a life of her own, people who depended on her, and a job she was supposed to be back at tomorrow. She'd wanted so badly for him to say yes, but she hadn't really considered how much it was going to kill her to tell him that there just wasn't any way for them, not right now, and probably not ever.

"No. Not while you're here and I'm there; there's just too much between us, Jasper. Maybe there always has been."

"It sucks," he answered, consonants spat from between his teeth.

She never knew she was capable of the strength it took to hold back the sob clawing its way up her throat when she agreed, "It really does."

And so she boarded her plane with the remnants of Jasper's heat on her lips and a thin line of water blurring the bottom of her vision—and yet another fragment of her heart splintered from the whole and left her to stay with Jasper.

"Are you ever going to tell me where it is you ran off to for four days, or are you just going to keep moping until I blackmail it out of you?" Angela asked with the sort of curious exasperation that Bella knew meant she was sick of being left in the dark.

"You'll judge me."

"Probably." Angela shrugged, and began measuring out the various ingredients she needed.

Bella had known she wouldn't be able to keep her visit with Jasper from her best friend for long. She wasn't really even sure why she'd decided to try and keep it secret in the first place. She'd known Angela since she was fourteen years old, when she was the new kid lost adrift in the middle of a new school. They'd wound up at the same college, though not intentionally, and ever since they'd been inseparable. When Angela had approached her about opening the bakery mid-way through their last year she hadn't even hesitated, and it had been the best decision she'd ever made in her life. They'd been there for each other through thick and thin, and if anyone could understand just what had drawn her to Virginia, it was Angela.

Still, there was the fact that Angela hadn't taken Jasper's sudden departure from Forks particularly well. She'd been quite angry on behalf of her friend, and Bella hadn't actually told her that she'd been in contact with Jasper for months. Shit was going to hit the fan, it was inevitable, and the longer she waited to confess the worse it was going to be. There was only a small comfort in the certainty that if it escalated into a full-blown argument, it would eventually blow over.

She waited until Angela had the measuring cup held over the mixer before saying, "I went to Virginia, to see Jasper."

A loud clank echoed through the kitchen, and for a brief moment Bella was pleased with herself for knowing her friend well enough to have prevented a mess, but then Angela rounded on her, shock radiating from all around her.

"You did what?"

"We're sort of friends now," Bella said, trying to brush off the trip as something far more casual than it had wound up being.

"Oh, that does not sound good at all." Angela shook her head and continued to stare her down. "You do realize that you're going to have to tell me the whole story? I can't believe you managed to keep this under wraps... I just... Wow, Bella."

She scrutinized her friend, hoping that if she looked hard enough she would be able to discern just how Angela truly felt about the news she'd just shared. She'd been expecting the surprise and concern, but what she hadn't anticipated was the cautious look of excitement just barely showing underneath all the more obvious reactions.

"He e-mailed me, back in September."

"And?" Angela prodded, wisely turning back to the task of mixing the cupcake batter. It always helped Bella to open up more when she didn't feel like she was on display.

"I don't know, we just started talking. A couple months ago he asked me to come and visit, and I just... I wanted to see him, you know?" The reasoning sounded pathetic in hindsight.

"How's he doing?" Bella had to give Angela credit for how well she was handling this. Her friend was tense, that much was obvious, but she also seemed to be genuinely putting forward an effort not to be judgmental.

"He's doing really well, actually. He settled down there a couple of years ago, and he... he's got his life together now."

"Never thought I'd hear someone say that."

"Me either," Bella admitted softly. The whole thing would have been so much easier to deal with if Jasper had been just as much of a mess as he had been when he left. Instead he was the type of guy she could picture a future with, and no good would come of that because she'd never ask him to pick up and leave everything he'd managed to carve out for himself behind, and she couldn't just up and move across the country either.

"Did your visit go well?" Angela asked, turning her head just in time to catch a glimpse of Bella's steadily reddening face. "Oh my God."

"It was fine," Bella squeaked out in a belated attempt to not divulge all that had occurred during her long weekend.

"Oh, Bella..."

She wanted to deny that anything had happened and walk right into the office and start balancing the books, but looking at Angela's increasingly worried expression made her realize that this was the chance to talk the whole thing out, like she'd wanted from the moment she set foot in Jasper's apartment.

"I don't know what I was thinking!" The words came gushing out of her the moment she stopped trying so hard to hold them back, and after two deep breaths in, she continued, "He just kept kissing me! And my, God, you should see him now, it's incredible. He's happy, Angela. It was just so damn surreal."

"Okay," Angela replied, abandoning her task once again. "So, if he's all happy and well-adjusted, then what's the problem?"

"He lives twenty-eight hundred miles away—and yes, I looked it up. How in the hell is that ever supposed to work? It can't. It was so, so stupid of me to go there, I have no idea what I thought was going to happen."

"So when you asked me for if I could handle the bakery on my own for a few days, you didn't intend to wrap your legs around his neck?"

Bella would have given just about anything in the world to not promptly turn the color of a cherry.

"Oh, for the love of..."

"Shut up!" Bella snapped. If this went on any longer her face was going to be permanently blushed.

"Alright, alright," Angela laughed, holding her hands out in surrender. "What are you going to do?"

"I don't know," she muttered, feeling instantly sobered. There was hardly anything she could do, and it was a situation she did not like being in one bit.

"What do you want?" Angela tried again, this time taking a couple of paces closer to where Bella was leaning against the stainless steel counter.

"I think I just want him," she sighed, and even though the admission hurt, it felt good to finally give it a voice.

She felt like she was living two lives; one of denial, and one consisting entirely of dreams and fantasies.

The phone calls didn't cease, the e-mails never stopped flooding in. For all intents and purposes, the relationship, if she could call it that, she shared with Jasper didn't change in any way from before she'd gone to see him—and yet everything was so different. Every teasing barb, each flirty innuendo, they all haunted her with whispers and what-ifs and you-should-haves.

It had been nearly a month, and she thought she was going to lose her damn mind.

"What are you wearing?"

Questions like that one were doing nothing to help her situation.

"How many times do I have to tell you that I'm not going to have phone sex with you?" she asked, not nearly as annoyed with him as she was trying to pretend. It was yet another perk of rekindling a friendship with him; Jasper made jokes now. Well, to be honest she wasn't entirely sure he was joking, but she was going to pretend, for the sake of her sanity.

"I'm not sure. Probably somewhere in the low hundreds."

"Christ, I'm in for the long-haul, huh? I think I'm only up to about twelve."

"I am nothing if not persistent," Jasper laughed. "So tell me, how are things going in that dreary state of yours?"

She really hated it when he ragged on Washington, because it was a painful reminder that he'd hated living in Forks, and that he wasn't ever going to come back.

"It's fine."

"It's boring here," Jasper said suddenly, and a charged silence spanned between them over the telephone line.

"Yeah, here, too." Boring and empty.

She was beginning to realize that part of what had felt so weird about seeing him happy was that he made her happy, too—and that was a feeling she hadn't had much of in the past few years. She'd been content, she'd been okay—she wasn't sure if she could honestly say she'd been happy though, at least not like he made her.

Their call ended like every other. Bella pretended that it wasn't so hard to hang up the phone, while Jasper sounded like he was having far less trouble with their situation.

Her semi-tolerable existence in denial-land came to a crashing halt six days later. She really should have seen it coming.

He was a nice looking guy, Bella thought, but she couldn't quite muster up any interest in his chatter. He seemed to drone on and on about nothing in particular as he followed her around the bakery at the end of the day, and it wasn't until she'd wiped down the last of the tables that he finally caught her attention by asking, "So, you wanna grab dinner sometime?"

"I'm sorry, I can't." She didn't mean to sound quite so dismissive, but she didn't feel all that bad about her tone either. She had no desire to date this guy, even if she could.

She navigated her way out of further conversation, using the bakery's closing as an excuse to shoo him out the door. When she turned around from snapping all the locks closed, she caught sight of Angela paused mid-tally behind the display case, staring at her like she'd spontaneously grown another head.

"Well, that was interesting," Bella laughed in an attempt to diffuse whatever was brewing between the two girls. Her friend looked like she had something to say, and judging from the expression on her face, Bella wasn't so sure she wanted to hear it.

Angela kept staring at her with a look of slight befuddlement, until Bella had enough and asked, "What?"

"Why did you turn him down? He was nice, he was cute..."

"I just didn't want to go out with him," Bella shrugged, momentarily perturbed by the truth of her answer.

"Is this thing with Jasper more serious than you've been letting on?" Angela asked after a moment, and Bella immediately shook her head in denial. "Then why won't you date anyone? That's the second perfectly good guy you've turned down this week."

She paused, the realization crashing into her with the force of a freight train. She didn't feel right dating. It felt like cheating. "Son of a bitch!"

"It's about time," Angela chuckled as she shook her head in sympathy.

"When the hell did that happen? This is exactly what I didn't want!" Bella fumed, intensely irritated with herself for falling into the trap of a long-distance relationship without any of the good parts. "He tricked me. He had to have tricked me."

"Come on, it's not that bad." Angela's attempt to reason with her didn't help one single bit.

"Oh, it most definitely is that bad," Bella ranted as she began to pace the length of the shop. "When the hell did this happen?"

"Probably right around the moment you let him start sticking his dick in you again."

"You aren't helping!"

"I never said I was trying to," Angela snickered.

"What am I going to do?" Bella pleaded, coming to a standstill in the middle of the store, and Angela finally had mercy on her.

"Why don't you just tell him how you feel?"

"Don't you think that if the answer was that obvious I would have thought of it already? How is telling him how I feel going to help any? I don't know for sure if he's even interested in pursuing something serious, and even if he was I can't deal with living across the country from someone I'm... dating... or whatever the hell it is we'd be doing."

"Maybe he'd come here," Angela shrugged.

"He hates it here."

"Well, it might not solve all your problems, but what you're doing now? That's not helping matters either," Angela pointed out before tilting her head and cocking an eyebrow. "What good is coming out of driving yourself crazy? How is it helping you to take yourself off the market when you don't even know how he feels about you now, or what he'd be willing to do to make it work?

"Just get on or get out already." Angela concluded her rant with an emphatic wave of her arms that nearly knocked the cash register off the counter top.

Bella really hated that Angela was right, and she debated arguing further out of sheer stubbornness before she realized that really, that wouldn't do any good either. The only thing she was getting out of this mess was misery and some sick sense of loyalty to a relationship that didn't even exist. They were going to have to actually hash everything out. She wondered if it would be completely ridiculous of her to go home and write herself a checklist of everything that she thought needed to be said, but she knew that if she gave herself too much time she'd chicken out.

She gave her friend a sharp nod before heading into the back to grab her purse and jacket, and the whole drive home she started mustering up the courage she was going to need.

It was automatic to pull up his number in her cell phone and press 'dial' as soon as she walked through the door, and not even the startling revelation she'd had earlier could curb the desire. It was just as well—she'd put a lot of effort into pretending whatever happened between them didn't exist, but to feel like he was her boyfriend, that was where she had to draw the line. They needed boundaries, and she couldn't avoid discussing it any longer. They had to talk.

Four rings later and she couldn't believe that out of all days he picked not to answer the phone, it was this one. It figured.

She should have hung-up and let him call her back, but she'd psyched herself up so much that when his voicemail beeped she immediately began talking.

"Hey, it's Bella. I was just... calling... yeah. I was kind of hoping we could talk about something. So, call me back sometime tonight—or, it doesn't really even have to be tonight, just whenever you have some free time to... talk..."

She couldn't believe the slew of word vomit she was stuck in the middle of. She had to get a hold of herself, and she forced herself to take a deep breath and wrap up her message, "Anyway, just call me back, okay?" And before she could stop herself she added, "I'll talk to you later. Love you."

She didn't even realize she'd said it until the she'd disconnected the call and stared at her cell phone for a good two minutes wondering why something felt so incredibly off about the message she'd just left.

"Fuck my life."

She wondered if it would be easier to simply wait and see what his reaction was, or to frantically try and guess every combination of numbers that may be significant to him to attempt to hack into his voicemail and delete the message. She tried, once, but after his birthday failed to be the code she managed to get a hold of herself.

The one scenario she hadn't imagined was that he wouldn't call her back. Evasion wasn't really his style anymore, or so it had seemed—but she was starting to re-evaluate that observation.

The first day she could pretend that he was simply busy, and she held on to the concocted explanation for most of the second day as well—but when she got home from work and realized that for the first time in months, Jasper hadn't called, he hadn't e-mailed her, hadn't sent her a text-message. He was avoiding her.

She was instantly determined not to be the one to break the silence, but that only lasted until the weekend.

Bella was pissed. She was absolutely furious, both with him and herself. She shouldn't have gotten so flustered, should never have done something so stupid as tell him that she loved him—but who was he to decide the meaning of the sentiment? She could have easily meant it in a friendly way, and she fumed as she hit each of the buttons on her phone that would dial his number. How dare he turn tail and run yet again?

She vaguely recalled something about how calling angry was just as bad as calling drunk, but she pushed it to the side.

He was lucky he answered on the third ring, because Bella had already decided that if he sent her call to voicemail again she would hop on the next plane out to Virginia and kill him. It barely even felt like an overreaction.

"Hey." It was an entirely unacceptable greeting, but her bouncing leg stilled at the sound of his voice all on its own.

"Hi." Well, that just made her feel like a moron. "How have you been?"

"Busy," Jasper answered quickly, and a moment later she heard a crash on his end of the line and a few choice phrases muttered.

"Look, I just wanted to talk to you about..." she started, only for him to interrupt.

"I'm sorry, but I actually have to take care of something right now. We'll talk though, okay? I'll call you later." And then the line went dead and she was left gripping the plastic so hard it made her fingers ache.

She snapped her cell phone shut with a loud click, and finally gave in to the sinking feeling inside her that insisted that she should have known this might happen. Just as soon as he'd come crashing back into her life, he'd gone ebbing out—it always seemed to work out this way with Jasper. Just like last time he was there one moment, and gone the next.

Her first thought was that maybe, just maybe, she shouldn't have slammed on the brakes so hard.

Her second was that she should probably back right back out of her driveway, press the accelerator to the floor, and drive until she ran out of gas. Then hitchhike. It seemed that stress brought out that particular desire in her, or maybe it was just Jasper.

She'd started to think that whatever it was that had happened between them was over, and at some point over the past week she'd become oddly numb to it, so she hadn't the slightest clue what to do about the sight of Jasper's car parked on her street, or his seated form on the top step of her porch.

The angry distance had been all that kept her sane, and now, without warning, it was gone. She should have been elated to see him, but for some reason all she could think was that the bastard could have at least called her back one damn time during the course of the past thirteen days. When she spied the duffel bag sitting next to him it was almost enough to push her over the edge. She hated how easy it was for him to get her all wound up.

She finally managed to talk herself into shifting gears to park and pushing open her car door, but only because she knew it would be far easier to give him a piece of her mind if she didn't have to roll down her window and scream. There was also the added bonus of avoiding her neighbors calling the cops, because if she kept the car in drive she wasn't sure she'd be able to curb the desire to run Jasper over, front porch be damned; she was pretty sure the satisfaction would be worth having her car crash into the middle of her living room.

"What are you doing here?" She couldn't help the angry tone of her voice. He'd been dodging her for almost two weeks without so much as a hint of explanation, nothing more than vague e-mails and scattered texts that said practically nothing, and her words echoed across the short span of grass between her driveway and the front porch step Jasper rose from.

A slow grin spread across his face as he straightened to his full height and waited at the bottom of the three porch steps for her strides to bring her closer. It was strange, she thought, that she still almost stopped short at the sight of him looking happy—and the realization cooled the fears letting loose in the pit of her belly at the words Jasper, here, and baggage. Really, it was that last one that scared her the most—there were so many facets and connotations to the two syllables; they had so much baggage between them, and as she got a clearer view she realized that he had quite a bit of it sitting on the weathered floor of her front porch.

There wasn't really much else she could do but ask, "What, do you think you're moving in or something?"

Jasper just shrugged, and there was a slight sparkle to the blue of his eyes when he took a step forward and answered, "My leave of absence got approved."

"Leave of absence?" she managed to squeak out from somewhere in between confusion and the absolutely sickening pleasure she felt at seeing him at her house. She was so pathetic.

"Yep," he nodded, turning to sling an arm over her shoulders and begin prodding her toward the front door. "Took longer than I thought it would, but it doesn't really matter."

She never should have told him that she didn't think they could give things between them another try because he lived so far away. If he was staying, really staying, then she'd have to give credence to the hornets buzzing around in the pit of her stomach and the lump beginning to form in her throat. She'd have to admit to herself that she missed him, and that somewhere, deep inside, she'd never really stopped feeling whatever beginnings of love had started to grow between them in high school.

If he was staying, she couldn't be angry with him anymore. Well, she could, but it would be massively unreasonable of her.

"You can't just..." Bella started only to be cut off by a light kiss pressed to her mouth.

"I can, and I did."

"Where are you going to stay?" she asked, even though the small pile of luggage on her porch like a bad omen gave a pretty clear indication of what he intended. His car was parked out in the street; there was only one reason for his bags to not be in it.

"With you." She kind of felt like she might vomit all over him.

"Oh, hell no," Bella refuted, shaking her head sharply and tightening her right fist around her keys, as if a tighter grip could keep him from moving right in to her house like he so obviously thought he was going to.

She'd fantasized about it, yes, but that was completely different from something like this actually happening. Even when she'd first called him to try and talk things through, she hadn't imagined that this would be the next step. Her fantasy involved him moving back home, getting an apartment or house of his own. They'd date and stay over at each other's places every now and then, he'd get a job, and they'd steadily make their way through the paces. Him showing up out of the blue and moving into her house was insanity squared, and she was not ready for it. Besides, she was still mad as hell at him for ignoring her.

"Why not?" Jasper challenged. He looked more amused than anything else. The jerk probably had figured she'd have this sort of reaction, and had planned accordingly.

"Because you don't just ignore someone for two weeks and then show up at their house without warning, expecting to move in with them!" Bella shrieked, something akin to full-blown panic coursing through her now that she was starting to realize that he was actually serious about this. He was actually here, in Washington, stirring up dormant longings that she had finally managed to get a decent hold on. It was like he had an aversion to letting her find her footing.

"I was busy packing," Jasper laughed.

"I'm serious, Jasper."

"What's the big deal?" he asked, squeezing his arm around her stiff shoulders a little tighter. "It's not like I'm cornering you, well... not entirely. I took a leave of absence from work, I sub-let my apartment, it's not like I can't go back if this all goes to shit—but I'm not half-assing it. I want to see if maybe now that we're a bit older and supposedly wiser things between us can work. You said that you couldn't do it because we lived so far apart, so this is my solution. Why bother fucking around? Let's jump in and see if we can do this."

She wasn't exactly sure when it had happened, but at some point Jasper had gotten pretty smart. It was incredibly irritating.

"I don't want a roommate. I hate living with people." This was her last protest, and her weakest, she was sure. Not that it wasn't still completely valid. She'd had a roommate, once, in college, and it had been complete hell.

"Don't try to downplay this into something it's not," Jasper chuckled, prodding her up the three steps before releasing his hold on her at the front door. "I'm not here to be your roommate."

"I need a drink," Bella moaned. It was all just too much to take in.

"If you keep talking like that I'm going to start to think you don't want me here," Jasper teased.

"It's a lot to process." She took a deep breath, and when Jasper pried her keys out from between her clenched fingers she did little to try and stop him. "You just... I had no idea you were going to take that so seriously. A little notice would have been nice, or, you know, any contact whatsoever."

"If I had said, 'Hey, I'm thinking about moving back out there to be with you,' you would have just tried to talk me out of it. Look, I know the last time I saw you things got kind of intense, and I know that you think keeping things casual between us is probably the best idea—but there's something here, and you know it. I'm not that same guy I was when we were kids, okay? If this shit blows up in our faces, then I can do the friend thing—so just calm the fuck down."

"I think I'm having an aneurysm..." Bella muttered to herself. It almost felt like she was hallucinating Jasper unlocking the front door and hoisting the largest of his bags over his shoulder by the strap.

"Just give me a month," he requested, and Bella snapped out of her haze.

"I'll give you a week."

"A month." Jasper nodded firmly with his words as he continued to haul bags into her house, completely ignoring her fading protests.

"No!" She couldn't believe this was happening. The most infuriating part of it was that if he'd brought it up in passing, or just mentioned that it was something he'd consider, then she probably would have had countless sleepless nights fantasizing about how maybe he might just show up at her doorstep one day, loudly proclaim that he loved her, and the sweep her right off her feet to live happily ever after. Trust Jasper to ruin the romantic part.

"You said you love me."

Bella blew out the breath she'd been holding ever since she'd realized the words had tumbled from her lips, and she imagined the expression on her face was quite comical—full of horror and anticipation.

"And then you ignored me."

"No, and then I went to my boss and told him that I needed to take some time off," he corrected quietly. "It took some time to get everything together, and I just... I didn't want to say it back on the phone, okay? I heard that message and I knew that I couldn't stay put. I couldn't be there when you were here, I just couldn't."

"You love me?" she asked, unable to wrap her mind completely around that little tidbit. She'd hoped, but she hadn't dared allow that wanting to overtake her like it started to at his declaration.

"I never stopped."

She was going to forgive him, she just knew it. The funny thing was that it didn't feel like giving in at all.

"You've asked a few times about what happened after I left, well I'll tell you. It was hell. Absolute and complete hell. I wanted to turn around and come back the second I lost sight of you in the rearview mirror—but I was eighteen years old, and I was a stubborn and stupid son of a bitch. So I kept going. I ran, and I'm sorry." Jasper shook his head the slightest bit with his words, and took a deep breath before placing both hands on her shoulders. She'd never seen him look quite so genuine.

"The worst mistake I ever made in my life was leaving you—and I know that it wasn't really as clear-cut as that, but I could have stayed, I could have fought, and I didn't. I should have." Jasper turned in her doorway to keep barging his way into her house, and he reached out to wrap his long fingers around her right forearm and tug her gently along. "I'm not making that mistake again."

The irrational resolve she'd clung to like the last parachute on a crashing plane started to crumble, and she wondered if it was really fair to let the past dictate what they would do now. He was right, about some things. He was still out of his mind crazy, but Bella supposed that was more a matter of how she chose to look at it.

She felt the smile spread over her face before she even had a chance to stop it. It was a hundred dreams she had never been positive she really wanted shoved right into the light of day, and as she stopped digging in her heels and fighting in completely opposite directions with every passing notion, she found that really, Jasper looked quite good standing just inside the front door of her house.

"I'm still mad at you."

"Yeah, I know, but I've got a month to fix that, now don't I?"

"You really want to stay?" she asked, just to be sure. "For good?"

"More than anything. Life kind of sucks without you in it," he answered, that lopsided smile of his making an appearance mid-way through.

She still kind of felt like she might vomit all over him, but for entirely different reasons—and she hadn't been kidding, she was mad as all hell with him. She was irritated and angry and had a very significant desire to throttle him senseless for the way he put her through the wringer over the past two weeks—but she loved him, too, and as she stared up at him she decided that was going to the part she focused on, because just like him, she'd never really stopped.

"One month. You have one month to make your asshattery up to me." She knew he wasn't buying the ultimatum, she was grinning like an idiot.

"Uh-huh," he nodded, taking a step closer and bending his head to talk softly into her ear. "I better get cracking on that, don't you think?"

Somehow she didn't think it was going to take him all that long.