Beta'd by SweeneyAnne, and preread by aerobee82 & alexisdanaan
Don't own Twilight.
Stuttered breaths screamed in my lungs. The world crumbled around me. I convulsed and took ragged breaths, expelling the last glimmers of what made me human from my body. This moment was all I'd ever feared come to pass.
"Guess this is how it has to go," he muttered. "It really is too bad. You deserve better."
I couldn't answer, even if I could think of the right words to say. It wasn't so bad; this paralysis of my tongue, and my silence didn't matter, anyway. He always understood the things I couldn't voice.
"The time for worrying is over. Like I told you; your guts, they'll never be gone. You know what comes next."
All this was true—I knew how this story ended, because I'd already lived it.
I'd once thought life was an endless roller-coaster of blades and loss interspersed with shimmers of the things that made such pain worth it. Love, warmth, Edward… those were the only things that shone through such black. I'd thought life was drowning until there was nothing left of me, but I knew now that was wrong. This path was finite—it had an end—and there was more out there than I'd ever dreamed.
His shadow blanketed my body, and I remembered how he'd sworn it wouldn't turn out like the last time, long ago, in a different life. He'd told me that the surface bends and shifts, just as sure as we all remain static in our core. It was much the same as what he told me now, but how could he be sure? He's the one who taught me nothing is for certain.
Chapter 1 - My Sweet, Short Life
"Edward's mouth brushed once across her neck, like a caress. The squealing clamor coming from Seth's efforts covered every other noise, so there was no discernible sound to make the image one of violence. He could have been kissing her.
And then the fiery tangle of hair was no longer connected to the rest of her body. The shivering orange waves fell to the ground, and bounced once before rolling toward the trees."
—Eclipse, pg. 534
I exhaled the fear built inside me. It was over.
Edward moved in tandem with Seth, graceful in their task to collect the scattered, bleached chunks of what used to be flesh. Pieces of what used to be people. I had never understood what exactly the word dismemberment had entailed. My stomach lurched and my vision swam. My eyes struggled to keep track of Seth and Edward's rapid movements. A moment later the scent of blood wafting through the cold air came barreling up at me with the force of a wrecking ball, and I couldn't maintain my composure. I would find time to be humiliated for my weak stomach later.
No, it wasn't over. Victoria's head might have been severed from her body—her eyes wide and blank—but she wasn't dead. Not yet.
My eyes flew back to the scene without permission. I didn't want to watch, but I couldn't look away as Edward and Seth piled up piece after piece and set the whole pyre aflame with the single flick of a lighter. Sparks shot out from the base, and a dark tower of smoke rose up into the sky. It smelled foul, noxious. For just a moment I could hear the shattering of glass and boards being ripped from a floor. Phantom lava raced through my veins with the memory.
I couldn't breathe.
Victoria was gone. I had never watched someone die before. I heaved.
"Bella, love?" Edward called from across the crowded, snow-littered clearing. He glanced down at my arm, and when my eyes followed his, I found I was still bleeding. Little drops of red ran down the lengths of my fingers to drip onto the snow. I used to think blood spatters across white was the most violent and gruesome image I could conjure, but the flames of the pyre warmed my skin in a nauseatingly welcome way that redefined that absolute. I was sure I'd be sick again.
Edward spoke again; I hadn't noticed him come closer. "I'm going to dress this, alright?"
I heard a soft tear, but couldn't keep my vision from shifting between the blood dripping from my fingertips and the fire raging far too close to me. I was in shock, I had to be. I couldn't feel anything but that murderous heat contrasting against the chill of the wind. I couldn't make out anything over my pounding heart. It was like I was underwater, holding my breath to stave off drowning.
Edward used a piece of his shirt to tie around my arm, and another to wipe the blood from my fingers. That one went straight into the fire when he was done. He kept talking. If I didn't know better I would have thought he was nervous. I caught snippets of words echoing between us; foolish, surprise, tactics, fine. I didn't understand how he could think to use that last one at all.
With effort I managed to rip my attention from the fire long enough to look Edward in the eye. Worry creased his forehead and a frown pulled at his lips. The moment our eyes locked he leaned in and kissed my forehead with that light touch I'd come to love from him. He whispered against my skin, "It's almost over."
Time slid by, tangled and confused as I tried to steady my breathing and come to terms with what had just happened. Then, without warning, it all sped up again.
Edward tore himself away from me in the space of one blink. He stood by Seth with a fearsome look on his face, his eyes unfocused. "No!"
Seth whimpered and began to pace while my mind struggled to keep up with the abrupt shift in atmosphere.
"No," Edward repeated, harsher. "Don't— Go, Seth!"
Seth threw back his head and howled into the sky before bolting through a gap in the trees, and before I knew what had happened Edward started pulling me through the woods toward another tower of smoke.
More words came spewing out of him, explanations maybe, though I only caught half of what he said until he mentioned Jane. Her name splintered the air and sent tremors through me. Her smile burned in my memory, as vivid as the wind cutting across my cheeks. My heart stopped when Jacob's name passed his lips next, and I finally understood. We were rushing because of the Volturi, but Seth—Seth had taken off because his brother was hurt.
Whatever explanation Edward gave was lost; I could only hope that when we got to the others, we wouldn't be confronted with more death. My thoughts were consumed with fear for Jacob, and I wondered if the last thing I ever would have done was give him hope, when I knew nothing could ever come to be between us. I didn't know if the lie was horrible or something to be thankful for.
Edward paused and turned to grip my shoulders. "Are you with me?"
I nodded, the action entirely reflexive. We had to get to the others. There wasn't time to deal with whatever part of my brain had shut down.
When we arrived at the clearing it felt like it had been weeks since we'd left the comfort of the Cullen's house.
My eyes automatically searched for Jacob, but all there was were the shadows of vampires standing around the fire, talking too quietly for me to hear. Alice turned toward me with a forced ease, and she smiled. "He's going to be okay, Bella. They took him back to La Push, but he's going to be okay. Good as new."
"Are you sure?" My throat ached, dry and irritated from the smoke. Edward relaxed next to me, and I realized those were the first words I'd spoken since Victoria had found us. He must have been worried.
"Yes. Carlisle saw to him." Alice nodded firmly, but her demeanor shifted in the next moment. "It's going to be okay, Bella."
For some reason that last statement sounded more broad.
"How bad?" I asked.
Alice faltered for a moment; Edward took the opportunity to answer. "He broke quite a few bones, but they were already mending by the time the others left with him. He's going to be fine, Bella."
There was that word again. Relief washed through me, but respite was fleeting. A greater fear rushed through me when Alice whispered, "They're coming. Two minutes."
A weak growl echoed from the opposite side of the fire, and my breath caught in my throat when I caught sight of the girl cowering in Jasper's shadow. She was dirty and wild, hair tangled and matted with dirt streaking her face between glowing red eyes. She glared at me—hard, cold, vicious—hungry with a need that I couldn't grasp the complexity of. She was like a warning, an omen of what was to come. If I squinted just right, she looked like me.
"She surrendered," Edward explained from my left side. "Don't be afraid. Jasper will keep her in control."
As if to punctuate Edward's assurances, Jasper growled right back at the girl trembling in the dirt beneath him; his was a fierce rumbling that shook the ground and distorted the air as it erupted from his chest. The girl quieted, but her needy eyes never left mine.
Alice grabbed my hand in hers. "They're here."
Five shadows spilled out from the surrounding trees; the smallest sent shivers down my spine. I wouldn't ever forget the malicious tint to Jane's stride. She almost looked disappointed when she looked around the clearing to see us all whole and visibly undamaged.
Jasper took a step away from the girl he'd been guarding when Jane's eyes settled on her. He adjusted his stance to allow himself a full view of all present. Emmett shifted a little closer to me, his sight, too, focused squarely on the Volturi. Their defensive behavior did nothing to quell the unease rising in me. Panic began spreading through my limbs, and I expended as much effort as I could on breathing in soft, even measures, while Jane talked to the girl in a voice too low for me to make out.
Something bad was about to happen. I could taste it in the air. In and out.
Jane smiled, and I jerked my head away so fast the girl hadn't even begun to scream. My first instinct was to look toward Edward, to try to find some small reassurance in him, but his face was emotionless. He watched the scene as if it was of no more interest than the grass shivering in the breeze, and I couldn't stand it. To the right only I was only met with more of the same. The girl's screams shredded the clearing, and no one made any move to help her—they didn't allow the slightest frown to pass their lips—except for Jasper. Jasper who had his eyes squeezed shut and jaw clenched so hard I thought for a moment he might shatter his teeth. Jane let up, and the moment the girl stopped screaming I watched Jasper's nostrils flare with a noticeably deep breath. I wondered if he felt like I did, or if it what he was feeling was actually Jane's gift slicing through the girl.
"What is your name?" Jane demanded. "Who created you?"
I kept my eyes on Jasper, and did my best not to listen to the conversation being had between the Volturi, Carlisle, and Edward. It wasn't exactly soothing, Jasper's reaction, but at least it was something. Now that Jane had let up he was just as stoic as the rest of them, but there was something there in his narrowed eyes, so subtle I couldn't place it. It made the events transpiring less horrific, if only by a fraction. It was like he recognized that something terrible was occurring; like he would stop all this violence in its tracks, if only he were able instead of standing by in idle resignation like all the rest.
A sudden movement caught my eye, and I blinked once to see Felix moving toward the fire. Jasper made short and quick strides closer to Alice, Edward, and I, and a moment later Felix stalked toward the girl. It was obvious they were going to kill her.
"Don't watch," Edward said, his voice so quiet I had to strain to hear him even though his lips were only an inch from my ear.
I didn't answer, and I didn't comply.
The girl screamed and howled; Felix seemed to take a severe amount of pleasure in her destruction. The smoldering bonfire erupted when Felix threw her still squirming limbs into the flames. A shriek pierced the air so intensely that I worried I'd lose my hearing.
I couldn't look away any more than I could stop the tears streaming down my cheeks. I couldn't explain it; there was something in me that didn't care if I didn't know her, or that if it hadn't been for Jasper she would have tried to rip my throat out. She was just a girl—or at least she used to be—and she deserved a witness. She deserved a sad face somewhere in this sea of apathy watching her final moments.
I caught Jasper's movement out of the corner of my eye. He stepped closer, his eyes focused over my head toward Edward, and after whatever conversation they had playing out between them was settled, he moved closer to my side. His palm splayed over the small of my back. Jasper hadn't touched me once in over a year, not since Phoenix.
I'd expected a torrent of calm, or maybe a measure of sedation—instead, I felt a swell of respect and sympathy that bubbled and ebbed away as quick as it came, and then nothing but a tangled web clawing through my body from the place where his hand touched my shirt. It made me think he was just as upset about what was happening before us as I was.
The world kept spinning, time kept on marching. Conversation and argument swirled around me and through the clearing, as thick as the towering plume of smoke, but all I could do was stare as the last of the screams died and ashes fluttered through the wind.
Hours later, I could still hear her screaming.
The evening air was cold, unseasonably so, but I couldn't force myself to climb out of bed and close the window. I couldn't make myself do much of anything except for stare at the ceiling and try my hardest to forget the terror piercing my eardrums and acrid stench of smoke.
I didn't understand how Edward could watch something like that happen and then walk away as if it had never happened. I'd already showered three times since leaving the woods; I didn't think I'd ever be clean again. I could swear there were ashes stuck to the inside of my lungs.
I couldn't have said what I expected to be met with at the Cullen's house, but business as usual certainly was not it. Over the past day I'd felt like my world was falling apart at the seams. All through the morning and afternoon I'd been plagued by that small, teenage girl set ablaze, and how could it be I was the only one? There was no discernible difference in those I called my surrogate family. No black shrouds or overcast haze settled over a gloomy living room. No one mourned her.
I'd gotten the impression that Edward didn't understand. Or maybe he just didn't understand to the extent I needed him to. He seemed to think my behavior was wrapped up in some sort of fear of him, and after I made a lone attempt to convince him that wasn't the case; he left me alone with Alice. I thought that she probably had a better idea of what was haunting me. I couldn't be sure; I wasn't paying all that much attention anyway.
Bottles of nail polish littered the bedspread. Alice was busy painting the nails of my left hand, and I couldn't wrap my head around it. How could Alice care about makeup after what had happened out in the woods? The events weighed heavily on my heart, on my soul—I'd never really believed that it was even there until today. Not until I felt it crush.
"Stop pushing her," Jasper said, leaning against the doorframe. He'd come out of nowhere. "Give her some space, Alice."
"It's fine," I mumbled, my gaze falling back to the little bottles scattered over Alice's bed.
"Just one more coat," Alice conceded. Her hand settled on my knee. "I only have to do the topcoat, and then we'll be finished."
The door latched shut behind us without another word from Jasper, and Alice got to work on finishing my nails.
"I know it's hard," she murmured. "But you'll be okay. You always are. No matter what happens, every time I see you, you're okay."
"What do you see now?" I asked, at first out of courtesy to keep our conversation going—but once the question had passed my lips I found that I was immensely curious to know the answer.
"Many things." Alice smiled. "I do know that whatever this is, it will pass."
Something rose up inside me at her assurance, some vicious and black offense that rushed through me in the span of a second. Even I was surprised at how harsh I sounded when I replied, "I don't want it to pass. I never want to forget this. Someone should remember."
Alice paused, and then set down the bottle of polish. "I didn't mean it like that."
I tried for a smile. It didn't work this time, either. "I know."
"It's okay to feel broken up about it, Bella. What happened today, none of us ever wanted you to see something like that."
"But that's the reality you live in, isn't it?" It was a challenge, and one Alice backed down from.
"Sometimes." She didn't say anything else on the matter.
Alice tried to convince me to stay, but in the end I just couldn't. The moment she freed me from her clutches found me fleeing from the Cullen house on far sturdier legs than I knew I had. Only minutes later I was racing down the highway, the pace of my thoughts only slightly slower than the speed of my truck. By the time I got home there was just one clear thought in my mind, and I latched onto it with desperation in the hopes that it would chase all the horrors clinging to me into the shadows. I needed to go see Jacob, to see with my own eyes that he was, indeed, okay―but there were pretenses to keep up. There were lies that needed to stay viable. I had to wait for Charlie to make it home before I could leave. He had to see all the bags and the hair and makeup job Alice had done; he had to believe that I'd been shopping with her this whole time.
I had no idea when it was I became this person who lied to her father so much. All that deception was starting to leave a bad taste in my mouth.
The ceiling held little distraction from thoughts of Jacob.
I was surprised Edward didn't come over, but perhaps he realized that I needed some space, or maybe Jasper had stopped him like he'd tried to get Alice to back off earlier. I hadn't spoken more than twenty words to Edward since watching him kill Victoria; since setting eyes on the Volturi and watching them burn that girl to ashes. I wasn't even sure which event was causing me such conflict, which death weighed more heavily on my mind. I shook my head and stared at the ceiling, refusing to blink.
I was eighteen years old, and not forty-eight hours ago I'd agreed to marry a man who had lived so long and seen so much that he was completely unaffected by ripping a woman's head off and setting her body ablaze. I was no fool―I knew it was her or me―but I hadn't known I was going to be present when it happened. I hadn't thought it would be Edward who killed her. In all the time we'd spent together I had never felt so small.
Victoria had been out to get me. I had always known that they were going to kill her, but that knowledge hadn't ever solidified into reality. The rest—the newborns—all those people who had their lives ripped away from them without any warning, they were all dead, too. It didn't feel like my fault, but it felt like my burden.
I wondered if one day I would look back on this moment and realize that this was the first step. This decision that I hadn't ever wanted to admit was there could be something that defined me, not just for the rest of my lifetime, but for forever. Suddenly the potential, endless years stretching out in front of me seemed so vast. They would be filled with pain and hard choices, leaving the people I loved, and death―so much death. I hadn't understood that last part before. The blankets bunched under my clenching fingers as I looked toward the empty rocking chair in the corner, and I knew the answers to every question I had laid in the one I didn't want to ask.
Could I deal with the possibility that one day might look at myself and see that I was unaffected by these things that horrified me now―and for Edward, would that be worth it? I didn't know, and I didn't want that to be a choice I had to make.
So much of the future was still inconceivable to me. It was blurry and grey, with streaks of color woven through of the aspects of life that I thought I might understand―but in the end, I had no idea what was out there, or what I was when stood in the middle of it. I'd always assumed no one knew the answer to that question, but for the first time I thought that maybe I should have a better understanding of myself before throwing it all away. And that was exactly what it felt like I'd be doing; throwing it all away before I even had the chance to see what it could be.
I never thought I might agree with Rosalie about something.
I resolved to let these thoughts stew. Making snap decisions never ended well.
The sound of the front door slamming brought me to my feet so quick that had I been in any state to notice, I would have been proud of myself. I took the steps two at a time, and was met with the sight of Charlie poking around in the refrigerator. It was almost time for dinner.
"Hey," Charlie said. He pulled a beer from the bottom shelf and turned to appraise me. "You look nice."
I didn't even remember what I was wearing. A dress, apparently.
"Alice." It was all the explanation he needed and I breathed a sigh of relief that Charlie wasn't going to be asking too many questions.
"I'm assuming that since you didn't change, you heard what happened." Charlie said, and I nodded.
"Did you see him?"
"Yeah." This was one of those times when I wished Charlie wasn't a man of so few words.
"How is he?" I pushed, hoping for some bit of good news to get me through the drive to La Push. It came out as less of a question and more a demand.
"Hollering, mostly." Charlie shook his head. "Dr. Cullen said he'd be fine, though."
"Good." I let out the breath from my lungs in a single gust, and tears pricked at the corners of my eyes. I'd never felt so relieved in my life.
"Are you okay?" Charlie asked, his brow furrowed.
I wanted to say that no, I wasn't even close to being okay. That I still heard screams and pleas for asylum thundering in my head every single time I closed my eyes and allowed my thoughts to wander, but Charlie didn't need to know that. "I'm fine."
It was obvious that he didn't believe me.
"You can talk to me, you know?" Charlie's voice was gruff and strained as he narrowed his eyes. It felt like he was dissecting me, trying to figure out just what in the world could have happened in two days to cause whatever little signs I was giving off that told him I wasn't doing so well anymore. I was almost disappointed that he wouldn't ever be able to figure it out.
"Alright. Whenever you're ready, then." Charlie gestured toward my jacket and keys. "You going to see Jake?"
"Right after dinner," I answered, darting to the refrigerator. I hoped we had sandwich fixings, I didn't think I could stand the time it would take to cook something right now.
"I can fend for myself. Go on, I know you won't believe he's okay until you see for yourself," Charlie said, nodding toward the door.
I didn't need any more encouragement. The drive to La Push was twice as long as I remembered.
Jacob's house was suspiciously clear of visitors. It took near a full minute of sitting in my truck to realize that everyone must be eating dinner, like Charlie and I had been about to. The lack of bystanders made it both harder and easier to get out of the truck cab and walk through the front door.
Jacob looked better than I'd imagined. Instead of being covered in plaster and bruises he was wearing braces, and had a glassy look in his eyes. It seemed Alice hadn't been kidding when she told me Carlisle was having trouble figuring out how to medicate him.
"I didn't think he'd let you come," Jacob said. His speech was slurred and tired.
"Ed-ward," Jacob clarified, drawing the last syllable out. "Thought he was sure to be pissed. Keep you locked up in that ivory tower."
"I don't know― Oh." In all the musing I'd done over the course of the day, I hadn't once thought about that kiss. "I forgot about that."
"Wow, Bella. My ego is like, ballooning."
"I've had a lot on my mind." I felt terrible that figuring out how to deal with Jacob hadn't been one of those things. I'd been focused on whether or not he was going to be alright, not what was going to happen if he was.
"Was he mad?" Jacob asked. He seemed to be coming out of his haze.
"No. I kind of wish he had been."
"Masochist," Jacob accused, rolling his eyes. "So that was pretty much a waste then, huh? 'Least I got to kiss you once without you breaking your hand on my face afterward."
Jacob interrupted. "I get it. You don't want it bad enough."
"That's not exactly what the problem is," I answered. I tried to smile, but judging from the look on his face I didn't do such a good job of it. I was terrible at pretending today. "I think that maybe I want it too much. I want a lot of things too much. It all feels so desperate and imperative, and I'm not sure which of all these things actually came from me in the first place. I don't know what I want or what I need, or what just came screaming along with everything else."
"Are you still going to marry the leech?" Jacob asked with narrowed eyes. I got the distinct impression he was weighing his odds.
"Edward," I corrected quietly.
I'd gotten so used to Jacob and the rest of the wolves refusing to call the Cullens by their names that it was habit now, however, this time I was more stalling than anything else. I wasn't sure how much to tell Jake. The rest of the pack would know everything as soon as he phased, and I didn't know if I could take the risk of my uncertainties being spread so wide. The more people that knew, the more chance Edward had to find out second-hand, and anything to do with us or our relationship was something he deserved to hear from me.
"I hadn't exactly gotten that far yet." It wasn't really a lie, not entirely.
"I don't get it." Jacob sighed. "I could... we could be good. We could be so good. Nobody sees it but me."
"I think Edward can kind of see it, too," I said quietly. "As for me— I don't know. I think I'm too far gone."
"You just had to go and fall in love with a freakin' vampire." Jacob laughed and then groaned; the morphine was definitely starting to wear off.
I started to tell him that somewhere along the line I might have fallen in love with him, too, but it seemed so inordinately cruel. Instead I grabbed his hand in mine and told him, "You're always going to be my best friend. Always. And if I marry Edward, then you'll be my best man, if you want."
"That is so unfair. You can't ask me that when I'm high." Jacob chuckled and shook his head at me. "It's cheating."
"Well, let's just say I learned about that from you."
"D'you want to talk about it? Whatever it is that has you so tangled up that you forgot about that epic kiss I planted on you?"
I sighed. Everyone kept asking, but I had no idea what to say. "No. Not really. Not right now."
"How about the gist?" Jacob prodded.
I nodded. I could deal with generalities, maybe. I could at least try. "There were… Some really upsetting things happened after you guys left. Before you left. The whole thing was kind of disturbing."
"I- I didn't realize how violent it would be. I thought that since Edward and I were away from the action it wouldn't be so… much." The explanation was vague and unsatisfying.
Jacob understood what I was getting at, even through the haze of morphine. He gave me a look that clearly meant to say he thought I was insane and asked, "So, you're upset because the vampires and werewolves were killing things?"
It sounded nuts when he put it like that. I was embarrassed for myself.
"Even I didn't realize you were that naïve." Jacob shook his head. The action was labored, and after a moment he sank a little further into the pillows and blankets on his bed.
"This is why I didn't want to talk about it," I protested. I sounded so weak. So little.
"You know where I'll be when you do." Jacob's eyelids started to droop, and I decided that was my cue to head back home.
Once I was back in my truck and on the highway heading home, it took all I had in me to make the correct turn-off instead of give in to the desire to just keep going, keep driving.
The relief I felt knowing Jacob was really okay was short-lived. Another half-mile down the road I had to pull over to try to catch my breath. It hadn't felt real until now. It was just some sickening scene in a horror film I hadn't been able to turn away from, but second by second the reality of what I'd watched happen came crashing in harder.
The steering wheel felt cold under my forehead as it vibrated in time with the engine. The sob that tore its way through my body sent tears streaming down my cheeks; I was helpless to stop any of it. I couldn't do anything but grip the wheel tighter and cry.
The creak of the passenger side door wasn't surprising. My shoulders slumped and my heart ached, and Edward pulled me across the bench seat to bury my face in his chest. "Shh, love. It's alright. Everything's going to be just fine. You'll see."
I couldn't stop sobbing long enough to tell him that I wasn't so sure I'd ever be able to believe that again.
I forced myself to inhale, and the smell of him instantly soothed the wound inflicted on my heart. In some deranged way I hated him for it. If I couldn't find anything in myself to keep going, what good was I? If I didn't hurt for that girl who I couldn't stop seeing as some twisted version of a future me, then no one else would. Still I pressed closer, let Edward hold me tighter. I was too weak for anything else.