A/N: Sorry this is a day late! I decided to combine the last chapter and the epilogue. Unfortunately, that means this is the final installment of A Forest Fire. I should be posting a new fic in a couple of weeks that'll focus on Leah and Garrett's side of the story. It'll be short - only a few chapters, at most. After that, I'll be starting an Edward/Bella AU. An E/B story from me... shocking. I don't intend to make it a habit, though. Non-canon is still my favourite playground.
Thank you so much to everyone who has reviewed, recommended, and Tweeted about this story, and also to those of you who have been reading along quietly. :) There are a couple of lines from Twilight in this chapter: "It won't be so hard again," and "Was that very hard for you?" Oh, and thank you to everyone who voted for AFF in the Non-Canon Awards. It was the runner-up for best Bella/Jasper pairing!
I'm going to miss writing about these two and interacting with all of you.
28. Ending at the Beginning
Glass pressed against Bella's lips, followed by a bitter liquid that made her wince even as it soothed the ache in her throat. The taste was off — spoiled, somehow. Too cold. She craved heat, something closer to the tempting scent that hovered in the air.
"Nothing," someone said — a different voice from the commanding one of a few moments before. This one was sultry and feminine.
"Give it a moment."
Opening her eyes, Bella sprang up. A man and three women — all of them strangers — tracked her every movement, giving her space. So cautious. The amber color of their eyes and the shimmer of their skin triggered something in her memory. A sun-drenched meadow? A cold forest? A hole in her chest, now stitched up tight. He didn't want her.
That didn't seem right. Maybe she didn't want him. Whoever he was.
"Bella," the strawberry blond woman said. "I'm Tanya. Jasper's friend."
Jasper. Him, she remembered. Warmth and love and friendship. Where was he? She wanted him there with her, whispering sweet words. Keeping her eyes on the others, she crept into the hall.
"We aren't going to hurt you," Tanya said. "Do you remember the wolves? Your friend, Jacob? They're outside. We need you to try some of their blood."
Jake was motorcycles and smiles, but not what she longed for. As she opened her mouth to ask Tanya about Jasper's location, a new desire hit her. The smell that wafted through an open door was months old, but it made her hunger like nothing else ever had. Drawing in a deep breath to savor it, she stepped inside.
Torture and paradise, rolled into one. The room was a ghost of its former self, the furniture shrouded in white. Everything — from the pale gold carpet to the giant bed that stood where some murky memory told her a couch used to be — carried a hint of chocolate and spice and something so perfectly hers it should've been a sin. Faint as the scent was, it called to her, intoxicating and irresistible as any siren. Burying her face in one of the drop cloths brought a growl rumbling up her burning throat.
She had to have it.
"Bella," the male of the group said, but she didn't give him a chance to finish. A new instinct spurred her on. Dashing away from the four who might compete for that perfect scent, she leaped through a window and hit the ground running.
Four-legged creatures pursued her, as well as those from the house, but she was faster. As she raced through the forest, dodging trees, she sniffed the air without success. There was no trace of that heavenly scent out here.
Instead of the mournful howls of the wolves or the fading pleas of the strangers, it was a different scent that finally stopped her retreat: the one that had been in the room where she woke. It clung to the perimeter of a stone cross — a grave. A bouquet of barely-wilted flowers sat in a metal container of water. Engraved block capitals spelled out a name that made painful recognition crash over her.
Oh, God. Alice. Edward. Charlie Renee Austin Sarah Emmett Esme Carlisle Rosalie Seth Jessica Peter Charlotte.
Bella's memories lined up like soldiers in her mind, narrated by a scratchy, exhausted voice that promised her everything would be okay — that she would always be loved. Clapping a hand over her mouth, she sank to her knees. Her new skin sparkled beneath a ray of sunlight, mocking her. She'd asked for this, once. Begged for it.
Be careful what you wish for.
The wet thud of a heart renewed the thirst that sorrow and self-pity had chased away, but a rotting stench ensured her appetite didn't make her lunge and bite. Jake strode through a gap in the trees, bare but for a pair of cut-off shorts.
"Bells, don't run. If you try to attack a human... Jesus. I can't fucking kill you. I thought it would be... I can't do it. Please, please don't make me."
Instinct told her to fight or flee — that he was an enemy — but the past sent her into his too-warm arms. The others drew nearer, keeping to the shadows: a strange, tense audience of wolves and vampires.
"Here," Jake said, grabbing her hand. As uncomfortable as it was to touch his heated skin, it was a hundred times worse when he used her fingernail to slice open his wrist and held the wound to her mouth. The blood wasn't like what she drank in the house. That had been merely unappetizing; this was putrid. Even so, she forced it down her throat.
Jake placed some welcome distance between their bodies, but held his hands ready as if to catch her. He needn't have bothered. Nothing happened.
"Seth!" Jake said. "You're up next."
"We think Edward might be her singer," Carmen said. "She went crazy when she smelled his old room."
Feeling as though he was suspended in a dream, Jasper repeated the news for everyone else. Horror, followed by a collective sigh of relief swept through Leah and Garrett's house. For the first time, Jasper was glad his brother had gotten sick. That illness prevented Edward from joining them on this trip, keeping him safe in Spain. If he had been in Washington — if his scent had been fresh — not much could have stopped Bella from hunting him. His flirtation with death saved his life.
"Jasper," Carmen said, drawing his attention back to their phone call. "We tried all of the wolves' blood. It didn't work. I'm so sor—"
Silence, on both ends of the line. Leah shattered the uneasy quiet by stomping out of the room. Carlisle placed a heavy hand on Jasper's shoulder.
"Are you sure?" Carmen asked.
"All right, if that's what you want. When?"
"As soon as possible."
Only Carlisle and Esme accompanied Jasper to the edge of the old treaty line to meet Carmen. Leah refused to speak to him once his decision was made, and Garrett said his goodbyes at the house.
"Be good," Carlisle said with a sad smile.
"Remember that girl who was injured in the woods. You smelled the blood and didn't attack. Don't forget that. You're stronger than you think."
After a brief hug, Jasper turned toward a tear-stained Esme. She caught him by the shoulders, holding on as if she could turn back time and fix everything if only she refused to let go.
"Knowing you has been such a privilege," she whispered.
Shaking his head, Jasper held her at arm's length. "Hey, you'll still know me. We'll have e-mails and Skype and phone calls, right? And I won't be a newborn forever. Just... maybe no hugs for a few decades."
"Yes. You'd better call, or I will hunt you down."
"Duly noted." He attempted a grin as he pressed the baby shirt from Alice into her hand. "Give this to Rose and Emmett for me, okay?"
Esme nodded. "Of course."
As he opened the passenger door of Carmen's rental, Jasper looked back at his pretend parents. Hundreds of memories floated up: an imaginary scrapbook populated by Carlisle offering quiet support after a slip, Esme forcing him to hunt after Alice died.
"Thank you," he said.
He didn't say goodbye. Once inside the car, he told Carmen to drive.
"I'll take you most of the way before I do it," she said, swallowing hard as they picked up speed. "Bella is already there, so we can't go to the house while you're still human. And I'll need to hunt first."
Absentmindedly, he murmured his assent. Already, nausea churned his stomach and made his mouth water. Watching the twists and turns in the road didn't help. Her driving was even worse than Edward's. In an attempt to distract himself, he took out his phone, called Tanya, and asked to speak to Bella.
"Hello?" The word came out in the faltering, too-quick manner of one not accustomed to trying to speak at a human speed. He could hear hints of her old voice, but she didn't sound quite like his Bella.
It didn't matter.
"Yeah, it's me. How are you doing?"
"I can hear your heartbeat. It's so distracting."
In spite of everything, a chuckle rose up his throat. "I bet. You remember, though? You remember your life?"
"Not everything, but I remember... I remember the people who mattered."
"Good." The sigh that passed his lips carried some of the tension out of his shoulders. "Hey. I love you."
"I love you, too." A quaking breath. "I guess we have to talk, don't we?"
"Nah. Not just yet. I'll see you in a few days. We can talk then."
"A few... Jasper, what are you—"
"You know what I'm doing."
"But you don't want this!"
"Yes, I do. Easiest decision of my life, I promise. I'll see you soon."
Burning. Had it ever stopped? Maybe Alice, the Cullens, Bella — all of it — had been a fever dream borne from Maria's venom. Pieces of happiness his mind created to keep his sanity from splintering under the pain.
A blessedly cold hand stroked his hair while someone sang, "Duérmete, mi niño." Tinny voices came from a speaker, weaving stories about his life, begging him to remember. Carlisle and Esme spoke of Alice. Emmett told him about years of chess games and bets and pranks on Edward. Bella's new voice told him what she could of how they fell in love.
Concern that wasn't his own leaked into his awareness, colored robin egg blue. Carmen. Agony tightened its fist around his heart. One last, shuddering beat, and his pulse went silent.
Carmen watched him without speaking, crouched in a defensive pose. At the sight of her familiar face, he focused on the cloudy visions of his brief walk in the sun, straining to etch them into his new memory. Waking up was easier, this time — less disorienting. He knew what to expect.
Groaning, he rubbed his throat. Oh, God. Thirsty. So thirsty.
It went against everything he'd seen of newborns in Maria's army, but there was something he wanted even more than blood.
Carmen's mouth relaxed into a smile. "Come on. We'll hunt on the way."
He found her among towering evergreens, singing to the birds that flew away from her. Frustration rolled across the ground, unfurling like wings. Whirling around, scattering pine needles, she faced him. The instant her gaze locked with his, the forest green of her emotional signature burned into red-orange.
Jasper gasped. A heat he'd felt only once before blanketed his skin, shifted his world on its axis. Alice's theories about vampire mates were right.
"What is that?" Bella whispered.
"That... that is me being so damn lucky."
He took his time about moving closer, relishing the bond as he took Bella's hand and the puzzle pieces clicked into place. Bringing her wrist up to his mouth, he placed his own mark over the one left by James.
"Yours," she said — a beautiful echo of some other time, some other life. With a ripple of mirth, she added, "I've never done this as a vampire."
Brushing her hair over her shoulder, he nipped at the scar left by Charlotte. "I'll be gentle."
"I hope not."
Bracing her back against a tree, he lowered his mouth to hers. Love and want surged through the connection, as bittersweet as the tingle of her venom on his tongue.
"I'm sorry," he said against her lips. "Your family—"
"I don't want to think about it. I can't. Not yet."
Holding her tighter, he let love rise up inside of him and wash over her grief. "Okay."
"I'm sorry about Peter. Kate told me what happened."
"You're apologizing for his death? After everything his visit cost you?"
"It cost both of us."
Her emotions whipped back and forth, newborn-fast: sadness, fury, regret, insecurity.
"Stop," he said, skimming his nose along her cheek. "Easiest decision of my life, like I said. You are worth it. L'Oréal commercials, remember?"
Her bark of laughter startled a flock of birds that had been foolish enough to remain near the predators. "I do remember that. I wish I could remember everything."
"Maybe you can. The important stuff, at least."
Grinning, he jerked his head in the approximate direction of Tanya's house. "You and I kept records, in a manner of speaking. Do you remember your password?"
From: Bella Swan
To: Edward Cullen
I have a newfound respect for your self-control. Jasper says the thirst gets better after the first couple of years. I sure hope so. It amazes me that you didn't drain me on the spot in Biology. You didn't know me, back then. I know you and care about you, and I don't want to think about what I would undoubtedly do if we were in the same room.
Who knew the singer connection went both ways? Maybe we're just an anomaly. It's not like there's a wealth of similar cases to compare to ours. Or, you know, any at all.
By the way, when that body of yours reaches the age of 100, I'll be at your birthday party. I'm going to practice and practice and practice my control in preparation for inviting myself, so you'd better make it.
I'd like to continue to get to know you through e-mail and Skype, if you'd still like to know me. If you could fill in a few blanks in my memory, it'd help a lot.
And if you're feeling guilty and blaming yourself, knock it off this instant. It's completely unnecessary. It was Charlotte's fault, no one else's.
This is going to sound weird, but can you send me something of yours? Something you've worn. Maybe seal it in a plastic bag to preserve it. I have a plan to get myself accustomed to your scent. Jasper is dubious. He called me a masochist when I showed him my outline, but I think it could work. Best to start small, though.
How are you doing? And how's Irina? Hope you're both well. Talk to you soon.
From: J. W. Hale
To: Emmett McCarty
I swear, if you don't quit with the forwards, I'm going to eat you. I won't even feel guilty about it.
From: Irina Moravcová
To: Bella Swan
Did you really ask my man to send you his dirty clothes? I do not know the protocol for this situation. Am I supposed to tell you to back off? I feel like I should remove my earrings in preparation for a fight.
In case it wasn't obvious: I'm joking. You are welcome to Edward's laundry as long as you stay away from his neck. I think trying to get used to his scent is a marvelous idea. Don't let Jasper dissuade you.
I'm sorry we probably won't have a chance to get to know each other better in person. Perhaps we could be penpals? I could teach you to speak Finnish.
From: Bella Swan
To: Irina Moravcová
I'd like that. :) Us being penpals, I mean. Not you telling me to back off.
Finnish? Sure. Hey, Edward tells me you've been struggling with learning to play the piano. Would you like to join in on my Skype conversations with him sometime? I could give you singing lessons.
From: J. W. Hale
To: Rosalie McCarty
Please don't tell any of the others about this e-mail. Not even Emmett. Bella and I have been making plans to keep all of you safe from the Volturi, and we agree this is the best way.
If they find you, tell them about Bella. Tell them she is a shield. Her power can block Kate's, and obviously she was able to block Edward when she was still human. Aro will want to read your mind once you mention it, I'm sure, and he'll see this e-mail. Let him know that in exchange for the family's safety, Bella and I will offer our services to the Volturi. Eleazar says that Aro would love to add our gifts to his collection.
I'm not sure any of the others would be willing to send us off to the Volturi, but I know I can trust you to do this. I don't mean that in a bad way; I just know you'll do whatever it takes to protect them.
From: Rosalie McCarty
To: J. W. Hale
I hope it won't come to that, but if the Volturi do show up, I'll go through with your plan. Thank you. Thank Bella for me.
Wow. I think a few icicles just formed in Hell.
I've been wondering. If you could become human again, would you? Or would you do the Jasper thing of saying it was too dangerous and you couldn't take the risk? I think it's worth the potential dangers, but I'm sure you already knew that.
Also: are you going to keep using my maiden name for your e-mail? I'm not complaining. Just asking. I always liked being your twin.
I'm attaching some new pictures of Noah. "Some" meaning 26. Carlisle got camera-happy.
From: J. W. Hale
To: Rosalie McCarty
Bella says you're very welcome, and shares your opinion on things getting a bit chilly in Hell.
I don't know what I would do if offered the chance to become human again. Not having kids isn't the end of the world for us. We are content without them. On the other hand, I really enjoyed being human, for the most part. It was frightening and I hated not being able to protect Bella, but I liked the changes. I liked the options. Immortality has its own set of drawbacks and limitations, as you well know.
Not much point in dwelling on what-ifs, though, is there?
I intend to keep using your maiden name for this e-mail indefinitely, for nostalgia's sake. I liked being your twin, too.
The pictures are great. I can't believe how quickly Noah is growing. He looks just like you.
From: Jacob Black
To: Bella Swan
How's my favorite leech? By that, I mean Jasper, of course, since I'm pretty sure it wasn't his idea to send a drum set for Sarah's birthday. Thanks a TON for that, by the way. Jess loves them, really. Sarah sent a thank you note to Edward with drawings and photos. I'm sure he'll pass it on to you.
If I didn't know better, I'd doubt that kid's paternity. She's gotten to be pretty good friends with Edward since he became your beard for sending stuff to her. Must be her mother's fault. I know she didn't get such god awful taste from me.
So, I have some news. Do you remember a couple of years back, when I told you that Jessica's parents were splitting up? Of course you do. Freaky vampire memory. Well, apparently Elaine, her mom, has moved on. I had no idea how serious it was until last night. As far as I knew, they were just eating dinner together because Elaine hates cooking for one and they both enjoyed having the company. Apparently not. Elaine and Charlie are engaged. Yes, YOUR Charlie.
Hmm, I guess that means you and Jess will be stepsisters. Try to contain your excitement.
Sarah is looking forward to Uncle Charlie becoming Grandpa Charlie. She's very into fishing right now — always tags along with him and my dad, and she thinks gutting fish is awesome.
Anyway, gotta run. We're meeting Charlie and Elaine in Forks for a celebratory dinner.
From: Emmett McCarty
To: J. W. Hale
Dude. I understand why Bella doesn't feel ready, but seriously. You need to stop being such a pussy.
Kate said you've gone out among humans dozens of times now. We'll meet you outside, one at a time, to start with. No kids, obviously. If you have Kate, Tanya, and Eleazar to hold you back, it'll be fine. It's not like you have to get on a plane or anything. Why do you think we moved to Montana? It sure as hell wasn't for the weather.
I'm not scared. You shouldn't be, either. Get your ass down here. Bad enough you're missing the bachelor party (it's going to be epic). You have to come to the wedding. I'm pretty sure the possibility of your presence is a big part of the reason they put it off for so long. And I can't be the only one there making jokes about Edward FINALLY getting some. Don't do that to me!
"What is that?"
The wheels of Jasper's desk chair dragged on the thick pile of the carpet as he pushed himself back to make room for Bella to sit on his lap. "Um. I'm not sure," he said. "It's a video."
She snorted. "Yes, I can see that much."
"Oh. Bachelor party?"
"I... think so? Shit, I hope so. If this has become an average Tuesday for him, then I think we have cause for concern."
"Well, he did say the party was going to be epic. Can't imagine Edward enjoyed it much, though."
"Mm. I think that was kind of the point."
"Y'know, if you want to make the wedding, you should probably head off soon. Tanya, Kate, and Eleazar are packed and ready to go."
"It's your brother's wedding. You should be there. Me, I'd eat the groom before he could say, 'I do,' but you will be fine."
The tightly woven threads of her confidence in him bundled around his chest, building him up until a smile pulled at the corners of his mouth.
"You think so?" he said.
"Absolutely. If you get tempted, just think of doughnuts with bacon. No appetite can stand up to that."
"Have you been reading our old e-mails again?"
"Yes, but I didn't really need to. That experience is one that stuck with me."
Cloud shadows raced across the ground like dark, wavering giants. The sky felt bigger here — closer, somehow. As if it was a great blue ceiling that could be touched by scaling a ladder or a mountain.
Deer blood sloshed in Jasper's belly. As the front door of the new Cullen homestead swung open, Eleazar and Kate each grabbed one of his arms, just as he'd instructed. A white-veiled Irina waved at him from an upstairs window. Her joyful emotions stretched across the distance between them: glittering silver that he knew had lightened Edward's midnight, become the new star in his sky.
Rosalie was first. She crossed the clover-strewn grass with a padded envelope tucked under her arm, her hair shining bright gold under the occasional bursts of sun. Her scent was as Edward had described it based on his memories of her from almost century ago: floral layered with spice. Eleazar tightened his grip, but Jasper smiled. He wouldn't hurt her. Couldn't.
"Ugh," she said once she was close enough for her weak eyes to see him clearly. "You look entirely too young."
He laughed. "Oh, I don't know. I think you could still pass as my twin."
"Flattery will get you everywhere." Perching on a mossy log, she balanced the envelope on her knee. "It's good to see you. Skype and e-mails aren't enough."
"Yeah. I know the feeling."
Within the house, Esme, Edward, and Carlisle crowded in front of the picture window in the kitchen, each of them holding a child. He'd seen all of the kids through his computer screen, many times. Bella was fond of reading books to them during their video chats — especially her old copies of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass that Irina had stolen from her house in Nottingham just after Kate staged a car accident to give Bella's human family and friends some closure.
The little ones in Esme and Edward's arms were Rosalie and Emmett's boys — a toddler and a five-year-old, respectively. Noah's voice came from deeper inside the house, copying Emmett's shouts at some televised sporting event. Carlisle held the first girl of the new generation.
The new Alice Cullen was all pudgy cheeks and dimples. Dark curls framed her round face, and her eye color seemed to have settled on a familiar, clear blue. In almost every way, she looked like her biological father in miniature.
"Is it strange for you?" Jasper asked before he could stop himself. "Knowing she's Emmett's?"
"Hmm? Oh, Ally?" Rosalie shrugged. "No. Biology doesn't mean a damn when it comes to family. Not really."
Fond amusement pushed his mouth into a smirk. "Has motherhood turned you into a sap?"
She flipped him off.
"Anyway," she said, "I was happy he could help Esme and Carlisle. They wanted that kid for so long, I..." As her voice trailed off, her purple emotions tumbled into guilt and pity.
Jasper began to tell her concern wasn't necessary, but the sound of his own name cut him off. Edward wasn't addressing the vampire in the woods; his words were meant for the blond bundle of mischief in his arms.
"Jasper," he said, "is that bubblegum in your hair? How did you... no, put that back in your pocket. I don't want it... Emmett!"
At Kate's snicker and Jasper's stifled laugh, Rosalie tilted her head in a silent question.
"My namesake appears to be causing trouble," he said.
"Oh. Figures. That boy, I swear. I knew I was tempting fate by giving him Edward as a middle name. Sometimes he drives me as crazy as the original." Pressing her lips together, she tossed her envelope toward the elder Jasper.
"I kept waiting for the right time," she said, "but it never came. I finally decided that now was as good a time as any. If I tried to hold onto it until Bella made an honest man of you, I might have it forever."
Jasper just smiled. When he tore through the flap and tipped the contents into his hand, three leather-bound journals slid out, accompanied by a note on pale blue paper.
This will be the last letter you receive from me.
I think. I have only the vaguest idea of when Rose will deliver it. The others were comparatively easy to judge. Maybe she'll give it to you a week after you become human, maybe a decade. No matter when you get it, this is the last letter I'm writing.
The journals that came with it contain as much of our story as I could cram into three volumes in two hours. Thought you might want it. Once you make the big change from vampire to human, your memory obviously won't be what it used to be.
Even though you don't need me anymore (you don't), promise you won't forget me, okay?
Ha, as if you could. As if I'd let you.
Give everyone a big hug from me, and burn every last one of Carlisle's hideous Cosby sweaters. I love you all.
A fog of lavender-scented steam hugged the ceiling, curling around the bedposts and hiding in darkened corners. The diluted, muddy odor of animal blood hovered in the background, telling stories of recent hunts.
A square of red floating on a white sea caught Jasper's attention as he slipped Alice's journals into his desk. There, nestled on his pillow, was a greeting card. Someone had drawn a grisly scene on the cover: dismembered arms and legs sat on the banks of a Crayola-red pool of blood. Two thick black lines crossed out the whole scene. At their intersection, a yellow smiley-face beamed up at him.
"The hell?" he said.
The message inside was simple: "Congratulations on not killing everyone," followed by Bella's signature and a slew of X's and O's. With a chuckle and a shake of his head, he sprinted into the bathroom.
"Hi," Bella said, peeking around the edge of the shower curtain. "How was your trip?"
"Good." Heedless of the water streaming over her body, he wrapped an arm around her waist and touched his lips to hers. "Missed you, though."
"Missed you, too. Did you like my card?"
"I did. Was it a reference to the e-mail in which you bemoaned the lack of 'congrats on not going all murder-y' cards out there?"
"It was. Can you believe Hallmark still don't make any? Clearly, there's a gap in the market. I should start a card company."
As he shrugged out of his wet clothes and stepped into the tub, he let his gift run wild. Emotions projected from his chest in a wide arc: amusement, relief, longing, love.
Smiling, Bella placed a hand on his cheek. "I know."
From: Bella Swan
To: Edward Cullen
Okay. Sending me a drop of your blood: bad idea. I wasn't ready for that. I'm not sure I ever will be. Let's not try it again. We'll stick to clothes and locks of hair and the like.
FYI: Vampires can't digest gauze any better than they can digest human food. Ew.
Also, if my blood tasted anything like that when you sucked James's venom from my arm... you are a mutant. It's the only explanation for your absurd level of self-control.
I mean that in the nicest way possible. Honest.
Maybe someone else could send me a sample of their blood? Irina or Emmett or basically anyone who isn't you. I'll work up to smelling yours without going all blood-lusty-insane.
I'll get there. I promise. I have a birthday party to crash in 54 years.
The first snow of the year dusted the forest, outlining everything in white. On the ground, Jasper lay with a purring Bella in his arms, the stolen heat of his kill's blood flushing his cheeks and warming his belly.
"Guess what I heard today," he said.
"Was it Kate on the phone with that human? Ugh. He was a screamer."
"That, and some news. Remember that guy Noah has been dating? They're getting married next summer."
"You're joking. But he's just a baby!"
"A 27-year-old baby."
"Wow." Hesitating, she traced her index finger around a red splatter on his shirt. "You were right. Kids grow up way too fast."
"I know," he said softly. "We can't officially go to the wedding, since, y'know, Noah doesn't realize we still exist, but it's going to be held outside. We can watch from the forest."
Eyes wide, she drew in a sharp breath and held it. "We?"
"Yeah. Wanna be my date?"
"Let's go back," Bella whispered. Her nails cut crescents into one of the arms Jasper had locked around her waist. "I can't do it. It's too dangerous. Jasper—"
"Shh. I won't let you hurt him."
"Neither will we," Tanya said, looking up from her position holding Bella's leg.
"Yeah," Kate said. She had charge of one of Bella's arms. "We'll kick your sparkly ass if you try."
As Edward advanced into the shadow of the trees, Jasper smiled against Bella's neck.
"Just remember," he told her, "if you get tempted to cheat on your diet: regret tastes like maple frosting and bacon."
Bella tried to scowl, but the laugh that forced its way out of her mouth made it hard. "I still say it's not fair that you never tried that combination when you were human."
Edward came to a stop fifteen feet in front of her. He was too close. He was too far. A breeze gifted and punished her with the scent that made her throat erupt in flames like no other — so much more concentrated than the things he sent to her PO Box. Each throb of his heart sparked a new fire.
"Hello," he said, raking a hand through his hair. Around the temples, copper had begun its fade toward gray. "It would seem my 100th birthday came earlier than anticipated."
Bella took a shallow breath through her mouth — just enough air to power her speech. "Y-yeah. You look pretty good for such an old guy."
"It's strange. I don't feel a day over 47." With a shrug of one shoulder, he let his mouth curve into a lopsided grin. "It's good to see you, Bella."
Craning his neck over Bella's head, Jasper sniffed the air. "Hmm. I don't get it. I don't think you smell that great."
Edward laughed. For the space of one of his heartbeats, the years fell away, turning him into the boy who carried her on his back into a meadow a million lifetimes ago. On impulse, Bella twitched her fingers.
"Eleazar? I'm going to lift my arm."
As Eleazar controlled Bella's movements, Edward crept closer, until the fingers of his extended hand could just brush hers. No jolt of electricity accompanied the touch, only a wave of thirst. Another half-step, and she could press her thumb over the pulse in his wrist. Sighing, she let her eyelids flutter shut.
One. Two. Three. She counted the quick thumps. Once, she had begged that sound to keep going — to not give up. She tried to focus on that instead of the song of his blood, remembering the clawing panic of the hospital. Ever-so-slowly, his heartbeat calmed. The peace that washed over her skin was her own, not manufactured by Jasper's gift.
"There," she said, opening her eyes. "It won't be so hard again."
"Was that very hard for you?" he asked with a smile. It was a shared memory, not a real question, but she still provided an answer.
"Let's put it this way: your self-control definitely makes you a mutant."
From: Leah Clearwater-Sawyer
To: J. W. Hale
Ugh. Some nomads have been hanging around here. A new pack emerged and took care of them, but not before Jake's eldest granddaughter started phasing. Poor kid. She doesn't deserve it, even if she is the spawn of Jessica's spawn.
I don't know if you remember, but one of Carlisle's theories way back when was that the power of my blood was somehow related to me being a female wolf. He said something about how it could be that because I was no longer able to create life, I could, well, create life.
Anyway, I took the new she-wolf aside and told her about what happened to me when I started phasing. Then I told her about you and Bella. Tragedy, tragedy, human lives cut short, blah blah blah. I laid it on thick, but it turned out I didn't need to. She has the same mindset I did all those years ago: the fewer vampires there are in this world, the better.
So, what do you say? Want to try some of her blood?
Stretching his legs out in front of him, Austin shifted on the hard plastic seat and glared at his watch. An hour of boredom awaited him and Angela before their flight would begin to board.
"Next year," he said, patting his wife's knee, "let's go somewhere closer to home."
She didn't seem to hear him. Given the way she stared, unblinking, at a spot over his shoulder, he expected to see a celebrity when he turned around. Instead, a bright-eyed, giggling replica of his first love walked arm-in-arm with a man who looked almost like Jasper Hale.
Everything about her was just as Bella had looked forty years ago: the length of her hair, the way her eyes crinkled at the corners when she smiled. Even her rapid, short strides were Bella's.
Austin squinted. Was that bacon on top of the maple bar in the man's hand? Bella, he remembered, had once claimed that even looking at the bacon maple variety offered at Voodoo Doughnut made her feel nauseated.
"Oh, my God," Angela whispered, taking his hand and squeezing it hard. "It'll frighten that poor girl if I start crying and hug her, won't it?"
"Nah. She'll already be about as scared as she's going to get when I do it first."
The Jasper-like man tilted the pastry from side to side, examining it. "I'm not sure it's going to be at its best," he said. "I mean, we assembled it from airport food. I doubt it's gotten any better since I last tried it."
"Oh, stop being a pansy and eat the damn thing. You've stalled long enough."
Her voice was Bella's, too. As the man rolled his eyes and took a bite, the almost-Bella glanced at Austin and Angela. She drew her eyebrows together as if trying to place the faces of the couple who seemed so fascinated with her. Scarcely breathing, Austin offered her an apologetic smile. She froze.
Austin thought she would grab her boyfriend's arm and rush away, but she raised her fingers as if tempted to wave — as if she recognized them. Her grin was like falling in love with Bella had been: a slow-growing warmth.
"Urgh," the man said. "You're right. It definitely tastes like regret." A chime from his pocket made him groan. "Perfect timing. I'm covered in frosting and bacon grease. Will you hold this, sweetheart?"
She accepted the doughnut he placed in her hand, but not without wrinkling her nose. "It's probably your sister."
"Yeah, most likely." After wiping his fingers on a napkin, he answered the call. "Hey. About time you called me back... no, I'm not going to tell you. Didn't I say it was a surprise? We'll be there in a couple of hours, and you'll know as soon as you see us... Yeah, just the two of us. Tanya and the others are coming along in a couple of days. No, you don't have to send him away. It'll be fine. I'm certain. If you... all right, all right, you can have a hint. You're so damn stubborn. Um. It's not decided, by any means, but maybe..." Catching his lower lip between his teeth, he shared a secret smile with his companion. "Someday, I might need that shirt back."