Pre-read by aerobee82 & alexisdanaan, and beta'd by sweenyanne in 2013
Subjected to ftld's editing machete in 2020
Stuttered breaths screamed in my lungs. The world crumbled around me. I convulsed and took ragged gasps. This moment was all I'd ever feared come to pass.
"It really is too bad," he muttered. "You deserve better."
I couldn't answer, couldn't think of the right words to say. It wasn't so terrible, this paralysis of my tongue, and my silence didn't matter, anyway. He always understood the things I couldn't voice.
I'd once thought life was an endless roller-coaster of anxiety 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 that was wrong. This path was finite—it had an end—and there was more out there than I'd ever imagined.
His shadow blanketed me, 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 that 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 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 frigid air crashed into me with the force of a wrecking ball, and I could no longer maintain my composure. There would be time for humiliation over my weak stomach later.
Victoria's head lolled in the snow―her eyes wide and blank―watching me as I shifted my weight back and forth… back and forth… I didn't want to watch, but I couldn't look away.
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 black smoke towered into the sky. It smelled foul, noxious—like it would contaminate me if I took too deep a breath. For just a moment I could hear the shattering of glass and boards being ripped from a floor. Phantom lava raced through my veins.
Victoria was gone—I had never watched someone die before. I doubled over and heaved.
I couldn't breathe.
"Bella, love?" Edward called from across the crowded, snow-littered clearing. He glanced down at my arm: I was still bleeding. Little drops of red crawled down my fingers to drip onto the snow. Blood spattered across white used to be 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 felt sick.
Edward spoke again; I hadn't noticed him come closer. "I'm going to dress this, alright?"
A soft tear competed for my attention, 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 chasing away the chilling wind as my heart pounded away. It was like I was half an inch underwater, desperately kicking my legs to keep from drowning—every gulp of air seasoned with salt water.
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 finished. He kept talking. If I didn't know better, I would have thought he was nervous. Snippets of words echoed between us; foolish, surprise, tactics, fine. I didn't understand how he could think to use that last one at all.
With effort, I tore 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 loved. Time slowed to a crawl, my breaths came easier. Edward whispered against my skin, "It's almost over."
Then, without warning, the world around us 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. 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 perhaps, although I only caught half of what he said until Jane's name splintered the air. Her smile burned in my memory, as vivid as the wind cutting across my cheeks. When Jacob's name passed his lips next, my heart stopped and I finally understood. We were rushing because of the Volturi, but Seth ― Seth was afraid for his brother.
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.
When we arrived at the clearing, it felt like it had been weeks since we'd left the comfort of the Cullen's house. I searched for Jacob, but there were only the shadows of vampires standing in a loose circle around the fire, voices too soft for me to hear. Alice smiled with forced ease. "He'll be okay, Bella. They took him back to La Push, but he'll recover. 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'd been worried.
"Yes. Carlisle saw to him." Alice nodded firmly, but her demeanor shifted in the next moment. She repeated, "It'll be okay, Bella."
Her last statement sounded broader.
"How bad is he hurt?" I asked.
Alice faltered for a moment; Edward took the opportunity to answer. "He broke a few bones, but they were already mending by the time the others left with him. Alice is right: he'll be fine."
There was that word again. Relief washed through me, but respite was fleeting. A greater fear came straight after — rushing through me and erasing my composure. Alice whispered, "They're coming. Two minutes."
A trembling 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 with tangled hair, and 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 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. Jasper's was a fierce rumble 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 from the trees; the smallest sent shivers down my spine. I would never forget the malicious lilt to Jane's stride. She appeared disappointed to see us all whole and undamaged.
Jasper took a step away from the girl when Jane's eyes settled on her, and 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. I concentrated on breathing in soft, even measures, while Jane talked to the girl in a low voice, too quiet for me to make out.
Something terrible was about to happen. I could taste it on the tip of my tongue and feel it in my fingers and toes.
Jane smiled, and I jerked my head away so fast the girl hadn't even screamed yet. My first instinct was to look toward Edward, to find some slight reassurance in him, but his face was emotionless. He watched the production as if it were of no more interest than the grass shivering in the breeze. 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 all he felt was Jane's gift slicing through the girl.
"What is your name?" Jane demanded. "Who created you?"
Jasper's reaction was an anchor—the only point I could focus on in this sickening hurricane. I kept my sight trained solely on him, 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 he'd had one. 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. At least I wasn't the only one of us too weak to keep my face blank and emotions hidden away.
A sudden movement caught my eye; Felix strutted around the barrier of the fire. Jasper made short and quick strides closer to Alice, Edward, and I, and a moment later Felix stalked towards the girl. They intended 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 bonfire erupted into an inferno 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 from the fire 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 in her final moments. She deserved a sad face somewhere in this sea of apathy.
Jasper stepped closer, his eyes focused over my head toward Edward, and after they settled their silent conversation, he moved closer to my side. His hand splayed over the small of my back with pressure so light, I might have imagined it. 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 pride and sympathy that bubbled and ebbed away as quick as it came, and then nothing but a tangled web of black confusion and sadness threaded over a core of rage, clawing its way from where his hand touched my shirt.
The world kept spinning, time kept marching. Conversation and argument swirled around me and through the clearing, as thick as the towering plume of smoke. The last of the screams died, and ashes fluttered through the wind.
Hours later, I could still hear screams ringing in my ears.
Alice's curtains shivered in the unseasonable chill. I should close the window, but that would involve moving. It would involve thought and purpose: engaging in anything of the sort would surely break the cautious equilibrium of staring at the ceiling, reviewing the subtle imperfections of the paint above my head. The harder I concentrated, the less room there was for terror piercing my eardrums and the acrid stench of smoke.
How Edward could watch something like that happen and then walk away was unfathomable. I'd already showered three times since leaving the woods; I'd never be clean again. I could swear there were ashes glued to the inside of my lungs: my inhales stuck just the slightest bit before I could breathe back out. My world was falling apart at the seams. Throughout the morning and afternoon that small, teenaged girl set ablaze had plagued me, and how could it be I was the only one? No one mourned her.
Edward didn't understand. Or, maybe he didn't understand to the extent I needed him to. He seemed to think I smothered myself in some 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 she probably had a better idea of what was haunting me. I couldn't be sure; I wasn't paying all that much attention to her, anyway.
Bottles of nail polish littered the bedspread. Alice sat on the floor, busy painting the nails of my hand hanging off the mattress. 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 there until today. Not until I felt it crushed.
"Stop pushing her," Jasper said, leaning against the door frame. 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 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 formed, I was immensely curious to know the answer.
"Many things." Alice smiled. "Whatever this is, it will pass."
Something rose inside me at her assurance, some vicious and black offense that consumed me in the span of a second. "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."
It wasn't right to snap at Alice like this, and soon enough, I had guilt contending for my attention as well. "Sorry."
"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 said nothing else on the matter.
Alice tried to convince me to stay, but wasn't surprised that I 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. By the time I got home there was just one clear thought in my mind, and I latched onto it with desperation, hoping 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 leaving a nasty taste in my mouth.
The ceiling in my bedroom was much less effective than Alice's, and it held little distraction from thoughts of Jacob.
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 would be present when it happened. 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 with no warning, they were all dead, too. It didn't feel like my fault, but it felt like my burden. I'd been so naïve to think this horrible thing would happen off in the shadows, and I'd never have to truly acknowledge it at all.
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 between my fingers as I looked to the empty rocking chair in the corner, wishing for answers when it had none.
The sound of the front door slamming brought me to my feet and down the stairs before Charlie had the refrigerator door fully open. It was almost time for dinner—I could have us both fed and Charlie in front of the TV within thirty minutes if I tried hard enough. I could be in La Push within the hour.
"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 ask too many questions.
"You hear what happened to Jake yet?" Charlie asked, 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 of a demand.
"Hollering, mostly." Charlie shook his head. "Dr. Cullen said he'd recover just 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 desperate pleas for asylum thundering in my head every 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 might have happened in two days to cause whatever little signs I was giving off that told him I wasn't doing so well. I was almost disappointed that he wouldn't ever be able to figure it out.
"Alright. Whenever you're ready, then." Charlie gestured towards my jacket and keys still on the kitchen table, waiting. "You going to see Jake?"
"Right after dinner." I darted to the refrigerator. Sandwiches. I could focus enough for sandwiches.
"I can fend for myself. Go on, I know you won't believe he's okay until you see for yourself," Charlie nodded toward the door.
I needed no 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. No one to hide from, but also no one to press me forward.
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. 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 slurred and tired.
"Ed-ward," Jacob clarified, an overlong pause in the middle and last syllable drawn 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 the kiss. "I'd forgotten about that."
"I was more worried about whether or not you were going to live—I haven't gotten to worrying about the rest, yet."
"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 afterwards."
"I get it. You don't want it bad enough."
"That's not exactly what the problem is." My smile felt plastic and awkward; a lie on my face to match my words.
"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, unsure how much to tell him. The rest of the pack would know everything as soon as he phased, and I didn't know if I could risk my uncertainties spread so wide. Edward deserved to hear this from me, not plucked from the errant thoughts of werewolves. "I haven't exactly gotten that far yet."
"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 mumbled. "― I don't know. I think I'm too far gone."
"You just had to go and fall in love with a friggin' vampire." Jacob laughed and then groaned; whatever cocktail Carlisle had prescribed was wearing off.
In another time and place, it could easily have been Jacob I fell in love with—I could see it with frightening clarity—but that wasn't here, and it wasn't now. "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? It was a good one, right?"
I sighed. Everyone kept asking, but I didn't know what to say. "No, I don't want to talk. 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 his haze. "So, you're upset because the vampires and werewolves were trying to kill each other, after they all explicitly told you that would be the case?"
It sounded nuts when he put it like that. I was embarrassed for myself.
"Even I didn't realize you were that naïve." Jacob cleared his throat with gritty, deep coughs, 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 small.
"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.
The relief I felt knowing Jacob was okay was short-lived. Back in the car I felt closed in. The darkness outside pressed from all directions; my high-beams cut a narrow canyon forward, encouraging my foot to press heavier on the accelerator. My vision swam, the light narrowed—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 left me cold and shivering. I was helpless to stop any of it. I couldn't do anything but grip the wheel tighter and weep.
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 I wasn't so sure I'd ever be able to believe that again.
I forced myself to inhale, long and shaky, 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 would. Still, I pressed closer, let Edward hold me tighter. I was too weak for anything else.