Summary: The very first time I fell in love, of course it had to be it with the very same boy that my girlfriend had fallen for. My name is Edward Cullen, and I am an idiot. Written for the JBNP Fandom 4 Autism.

Pairing: Jacob/Bella.

Rating: T

Genre: Humor, Friendship, AH

Beta: the lovely Babs81410

Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of Stephenie Meyer. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.

X-x-x-x-X

If only Lauren Mallory had stopped throwing herself at me, life would have been perfect.

Well, maybe not perfect, but as close as it was likely to get, at least until I got out of this dreary little town. My life had finally reached a state of equilibrium. My sister's best friend Bella had become the perfect cover. I felt a little bad taking advantage of her crush, but it wasn't as if she wasn't a willing participant. And I had told her, or rather, Alice had told her, before things went too far.

After all, it wasn't as if I had planned it. I had just gotten so sick of the derogatory terms, the dirty looks, and the "unintentional" elbows I took to the gut in gym class. I wasn't even certain how they knew. It wasn't as if I had ever had a boyfriend, or flirted with any of them, or liked any of them, or could even stand any of them. Perhaps that was the problem. I wasn't friends with any boys other than my sisters' boyfriends. Hell, Emmett was so good natured that he even put up with Rosalie, which made him a saint. Although, not if you considered what they got up to when Carlisle and Esme weren't around. I wondered idly if that was part of the reason I was gay: I associated sex with women with my less-than-subtle sisters, and, just, eww. I knew this wasn't true, of course, but that didn't stop me from complaining to them and blaming them. Once I whined to Alice while suffering through a weekend when our parents were out of town, and she just giggled and called me a ninny and dragged a disheveled Jasper back into her room. I fled to the kitchen, but just as I entered the room, Emmett was hoisting Rosalie onto the counter, and I immediately turned around and locked myself in my room. Then I turned the volume up on my stereo, and I thought about living blissfully and quietly alone.

Well, maybe not alone. I really wouldn't mind sharing my space with the right someone. If only I could meet... anyone at all. Alice tried to reassure me that there were plenty of fish in the sea: I was just stuck in a little tributary far upstream, but I wouldn't always be. She prattled on happily that Mr. Right was out there, waiting for me. I just had to be patient.

The trouble was, I thought, I couldn't even meet Mr. Wrong in Forks.

I did have a mortifying and momentary crush on Tyler Crowley, though. The year before, Tyler had left for summer break with a shaggy Afro, a bad attitude, and baggy clothes that covered a bony, angular frame. He came back to school sophomore year with a haircut, a flashing smile, new clothes, and the suggestion of muscles. I spotted him while climbing out of Rosalie's Jeep, and had gawked out of the corner of my eye (I hoped) for precisely thirty six seconds before Crowley opened his mouth to make a crude comment about the new girl, and my short-lived crush ended as quickly as it had begun. Without thinking, the chivalrous instincts that my mother Esme had instilled in me kicked in. My ability to defend myself was less than consistent, but something about her made me want to protect her. I stepped in to chide Tyler for offending the deeply blushing, embarrassed girl. Alice actually popped in front of me and took over before five words had left my mouth. And thank goodness, because after, "Hey Crowley, leave her alone," I had nothing. No followup at all. My twin sister was tiny but fierce. She put Crowley in his place before turning back to the new girl and introducing herself brightly. She timidly replied that she was Bella Swan.

The girl looked even more embarrassed at Alice's friendly but overwhelming advances than she did at Crowley's harassment. Which left me to rescue her from both of them. My quieter approach earned me her instant gratitude. Her shyness appealed to me as well. Alice volunteered me as her guide around school, displacing a visibly disappointed Mike Newton. We had homeroom together, as well as English Literature directly after, and Alice had History with her right before lunch. My sister pulled Bella bodily to their lunch table, where I had to continue sheltering her from Alice's intimidating exuberance and Rosalie's disdainful indifference.

By the end of the lunch period, I realized she was looking at me with an unconscious little smile that I recognized. She was far from the first girl to look at me this way, although I only realized it for what it was within the prior year. And behind her, I noticed that a half dozen boys around the cafeteria were watching Bella with interest, and a couple girls were looking at us with envy. Lauren Mallory was at the forefront.

That was when I stopped and took an objective look at Bella, and I realized that she was pretty in an understated way. She wasn't stunning like Rosalie, or curvy like Lauren, or expertly styled like Alice. But her eyes were wide, her bottom lip full, her figure slim, and her hair thick and long. And she was not only a novelty, but we were a novelty together. She was the first person I had taken any active interest in outside my family, and it made our classmates wonder.

I let them. It wasn't a conscious decision. But I noticed that as I spent more time with Bella, the whispering about me started to include her. One day when I was passing behind her lunch table, Lauren asked her friends rather rudely and loudly what on earth it was that Bella possessed that she did not. Once again, my instincts of self-preservation were overshadowed by my desire to defend my new friend, and I calmly surprised both her and myself by answering that Bella possessed kindness, basic human decency, and a kind of beauty that Lauren could never hope to have.

I was proud of myself for putting the petty girl in her place, and a few tables away, to my simultaneous horror and pride, Alice was clapping. Rosalie, for once, looked proud of me. But it did have another unintended consequence. From that day forward, everyone thought I was dating Bella Swan.

Bella herself was rather confused. She suffered some backlash on behalf of Lauren and her flock, which caused all of us, Rosalie included, to shelter her further. She spent more and more time with us, and with me, although I made no approaches to her beyond those of friendship. But at the same time, I did nothing to dispel the rumors of our romance. Because the more time I spent with Bella, the less I heard the muttered terms of faggot or queer. Instead, I got sly suggestions about how hot my girlfriend was, and the last time someone elbowed me, it was accompanied by a wink.

I didn't correct any of them.

When homecoming rolled around, she became my de facto date. I didn't ask her to go with me, nor did she me, but we were going together with Alice, Jasper, Rosalie, and Emmett, so she automatically became my date. She didn't quite know what to think, though, since I hadn't actually said anything. She arrived two hours before we were supposed to go to dinner so that Alice could dress her up and attack her face with powders, creams, and colors. She emerged from Alice's room with bedroom eyes, and she peeked at me through her now-thick lashes. I just smiled at her, told her how pretty she was (because she was, and because I did like to see her smile when I complimented her, even if it didn't mean what she hoped it did), and held out my arm for her to hold.

Rosalie glared at me over Bella's head, and Alice looked worried.

We had a wonderful time. I danced with her during all the slow dances, stood off to the side with her during the fast ones, and cracked dry jokes about our classmates to keep her laughing. By the end of the night, she was absolutely smitten. I was flattered, even if I didn't return her affections.

Rosalie pulled me aside as soon as we got home, declaring that if I didn't have the balls to tell Bella that we weren't dating, she would do it herself, and it wouldn't be pretty. Emmett managed to pull her off me before our exchange came to blows, but instead of immediately finding Bella, who was holed up in Alice's room, I was a coward. I just fled to my own bedroom. I had let it go too far. I didn't want to lose either the protection she unwittingly offered me, nor her friendship, which I had grown rather dependent on. Alice knocked quietly and asked if she could tell Bella herself. My voice stuck in my throat. I wasn't willing to come out to anyone other than my sisters, but although we had only known her for a few months, Bella felt like family.

I didn't stop Alice. And to my shock, the next soft knock on my door was Bella. When I told her to come in, she startled me by sitting next to me where I was moping on my bed and gently placing her hand on top of mine. I was too shocked to move. What exactly did Alice tell her? Quietly, she asked me, "How much easier is it if they think we're together?"

I looked at her in surprise. She was smiling warmly at me. "Well, much," I admitted.

She squeezed my hand tightly. "Then how about we don't correct their misconception?"

I was relieved, and I smiled back at her. She looked so very pleased to have made me happy. I answered, "That would be helpful, yes."

So I officially had a girlfriend. It was wonderful. Over the course of our sophomore year, Bella became the closest friend I had ever had. Up until that point, Alice was my only real confidante. Rosalie and I tolerated each other, but we weren't particularly close, and she was off with Emmett most of the time anyway. And ever since we had moved to Forks in middle school, Alice had been joined at the hip with Jasper. I felt like a fifth wheel until Bella came along. She was calm and quiet, but still witty and entertaining, and our silences were as comfortable as were our animated discussions about music or literature, and I liked watching the little flecks of gold in her deep brown eyes. If only she had a Y chromosome, we would have been perfect for one another.

Everyone thought we were madly in love. Girls like Jessica Stanley wanted to know what Bella's secret was. Boys like Tyler Crowley left me alone. But Lauren Mallory stared at us from across crowded rooms, staring daggers into Bella, but winking at me. She made a point to brush her breasts against my arm if we stood next to each other, or lick her lips suggestively until they were chapped, or flip her hair in some kind of ridiculous attempt to show off her neck, or blow her perfume at me, or maybe just to hit me in the face with her blonde locks, I wasn't sure. As soon as she was out of sight, I would mimic what she had done for Bella's amusement, and we would laugh.

So tenth grade passed without much incident. Over the summer, she spent nearly every day at our house, and any weeks during which Charlie was scheduled for the night shift, she would sleep over. Somehow, rumors spread about that too. Eric Yorkie nudged me when we ran into each other once at the grocery store and noted how convenient it must be to have my girlfriend at my house every night. Bella had, in fact, slept in my bed a few times when she fell asleep reading a novel late at night, and I had seen no reason to kick her out. I even enjoyed waking up with another warm body in my bed, but it was much in the same way that I liked sleeping with my childhood chocolate lab, Muffin. Either way, I just grinned at Yorkie's words. I justified it to myself by thinking that it wasn't my fault he read too much into it.

X-x-x-x-X

The first day of junior year was wholly different than the first day of sophomore year. As I climbed out of my Volvo, I spotted something, or rather someone, that made me lose motor control and drop my keys on the pavement. I heard the roar of a motorcycle approaching, but didn't think much of it, unlike all the other students, who were gawking behind me with open mouths. But then the motorcycle pulled up in the empty spot just to the right of mine, and its rider lifted off his helmet.

Sweet Mary, mother of God.

My mouth went dry. Swinging his leg over the seat was the most striking boy I had ever seen. Actually, "boy" hardly seemed like the right term. He could have stepped directly out of a GQ magazine. He was even taller and muscular than Emmett, with a strong jawline, high cheekbones, flawless dark skin, sparkling black eyes, and long black hair. His leather motorcycle jacket moved easily over broad shoulders, and when he bent to pick up a paper that Bella had dropped, I couldn't help but stare at his tight, round ass. I was in lust, if not in love.

Then the stranger straightened to return Bella's paper, and his face broke into the brightest, widest, most infectious grin that I had ever seen. That was it. I was done. I was in love.

Then he spoke. "Oh, hey, Bella Swan? Is that you?"

"Y-Yeah," she stuttered, her eyes wide. "I'm Bella. I'm sorry, do we know each other?"

"Yeah. It's me, Jacob. Jacob Black? We used to make mud pies together."

"Wow, yeah, that was you? Oh my gosh, you sure have grown up!"

"And I've got less dirt on me than the last time we saw each other."

He sure did clean up well. Or maybe he would look better shirtless and sweaty and covered in grease from that motorcycle.

Jacob held the paper out. "Here, I think this is yours."

Bella blinked down at their hands. Jacob's fingers were lightly brushing hers as he handed her the paper, and she had stopped breathing momentarily. "Wow, you're so warm," she exclaimed, her cheeks pink and flushed. I had never, not once, seen her look so flustered. Not for me, not at Crowley's taunting, not at Lauren's rude words.

He left his hand where it was and grinned at her. "Yeah. Warm hands, warm heart," he chuckled, and I tried and failed to find a reason to separate his hand from Bella's and take it in mine. "How's the truck working out for you? I hope the clutch isn't still sticking? I see you didn't bring it today. Do you need me to look at it? I'd have paid a lot more attention when I was fixing it up if I knew you were going to get it."

"My truck? Huh?" Bella answered eloquently.

Jacob prompted, "Red Chevy pickup, old as dirt, ugly as sin? It's yours, right?"

"How did you know that?" Bella replied, her brain having been struck dumb at the sight of him. Then she got annoyed. "Wait, ugly? My truck's not ugly, it's perfect!"

Jacob laughed heartily, and I was warmed by the sound. I wanted to hear that laugh again and again. "I'll take credit for it, then. It was my dad's. Charlie bought it off him, and I tuned it up before he passed it over to you. I was afraid the thing had broken down on you when I realized you didn't drive it today."

"No, no," she shook her head. "I just got a ride from Edward." She pointed back at me, and Jacob finally broke his gaze away from Bella. He hadn't taken his eyes off her since he spotted her, nor she him.

Jacob visibly straightened before jutting his jaw out quickly in a nod. "Hey, man. Nice to meet you. Sorry, didn't mean to monopolize your girl."

Bella was facing slightly away from me and toward Jacob, so I couldn't see her very well, but I thought she looked momentarily stricken. If I had ever wanted to correct someone about the status of our relationship, it was now. For my own sake, not for hers. But I didn't. Instead, I watched for any sign of him as the day passed.

Much to my simultaneous excitement and dismay, Jacob and Emmett were apparently already great friends, despite the fact that it was Jacob's first day at his new school. Rosalie's boyfriend waved him over to our lunch table and explained that they had met a few weeks ago during football practice. Jacob had transferred to Forks High because, unlike the tribal school on the reservation, it was large enough for both a football team and a pool. The football coach was thrilled to get him, but Jacob explained that the real reason he came was because of the swim team. He wasn't certain that he was a good enough wide receiver to get a football scholarship as his new coach claimed, but he was fairly certain that he was a fast enough swimmer, and a scholarship was his best shot at going to college. "I mean, Coach hasn't seen me play in a single actual game, so what does he know?" he declared. "And my dad thinks I should maybe not even bother playing football. If I blow out my knee or something, there goes the swimming too, you know?"

Emmett shook his head. "Well, seeing as you're too fast for anyone to catch, you're not too likely to get hurt."

"Nah, I'm not so fast on my feet," Jacob shook his head modestly. "If I want speed, I've got to get on my Harley."

"Oh, that's yours?" Rosalie perked up. She had picked up Emmett in her Jeep that morning, and had arrived well after Jacob's now-storied entrance. His was the first motorcycle that had been seen in the school's parking lot, and it had already sparked wild rumors about its owner. I had listened to Lauren gossip to her girlfriends about the bad boy who had gotten expelled from the tribal school, and an hour later, heard Jessica try to convince a skeptical Angela that Jacob had fathered a baby the previous year and left his school to avoid seeing the distraught mother. I wondered if any of the stories I heard about him had any merit, but was too nervous to ask such a rude question. Alice, however, had no such qualms, and told him what she had heard, much to his amusement. Rosalie had heard some of the same rumors, but she didn't care about them at all. She wanted to know about the bike. "A Harley Sprint, right?"

"Yeah!" Jacob perked up. "You know bikes?"

"I know machines," she answered. "250cc or 350?"

"350," he answered. "It's a 1973. Restored it myself. Dragged it back from the mouth of hell, basically. Thing was barely scrap metal when I got it."

"You guys are going to get along great," Bella smiled. "Jacob was the one who fixed up my old truck."

"Damn, then you must be a miracle worker," laughed Rosalie. "Where'd you get the parts?" she wanted to know. "I like Frank's Auto Zone for my normal maintenance. He gave me a great deal on a SwayLOC for my Jeep."

"Anywhere and everywhere. Frank's is great for modern stuff, even older cars, but he doesn't have a lot of connections for vintage bikes. I had to go to Port Townsend for the carb, and the tires? All the way to Seattle." I quickly got lost listening to them talk. I glanced over at Bella, who was just as confused as I was. But it didn't escape my notice that she hung on Jacob's every word as if it was poetry.

I caught myself staring on several occasions, and hoped I wasn't being as obvious as Bella. But if Jacob noticed our infatuation, he made no sign of it. He spoke animatedly, gesturing widely with his hands. And he was full of energy and enthusiasm. I found myself laughing uncharacteristically loudly at Jacob's stories and anecdotes. He was a natural storyteller, a trait that Bella claimed he had inherited from his father. But even when I had no idea what he was talking about, such as when he began discussing football plays with Emmett or during the entire talk with Rosalie about their respective machines, I couldn't tear my eyes away. Because Jacob had the most beautiful mouth I had ever seen on another man.

And my heart nearly stopped when he caught me staring. But he just smiled at me and returned to his conversation.

I didn't know what to make of it.

X-x-x-x-X

Things only got more confusing, partly due to Jacob's oral fixation. The boy always had something in his mouth: his pencil eraser, sticks of licorice, carrot sticks, toothpicks. It was impossible for me not to look, and once I looked, impossible not to imagine something else in Jacob's mouth. To my horror, Jacob caught my gaze more than once. But every time, he just flashed his signature grin and went back to whatever he was doing.

Was it some kind of a sign? I certainly hoped so. I was certain that if Crowley had caught me doing it to him, it would have ended with name-calling at best, or a pummelling at worst. Jacob did nothing of the sort. Did it mean that he didn't mind? Could he even tell that he was my new object of affection? And could it be that he might actually feel the same way? I couldn't figure out how to find out, or even how to approach the subject. If I was wrong, and he found out how I felt about him, I would simply have to crawl into a hole and die.

But what if, by some miracle, he actually did feel about me how I felt about him? How was I ever supposed to figure it out? My perfect plan of having Bella as my girlfriend until high school graduation started to look flawed. He thought I was straight, didn't he? Was I even managing to hide it any more? I cursed myself for my lack of courage.

I also caught Bella staring at Jacob almost as often as I caught myself. I saw her biting her own lower lip unconsciously. Curious, whenever I noticed Bella's new habit, I looked around the room for Jacob. And sure enough, Jacob was somewhere nearby with something trapped between his lips.

My supposed girlfriend spent more and more time with Jacob. They had been assigned as lab partners in chemistry early in the year, while I was stuck next to Mike Newton in the back of the room. Newton caught me eyeing Jacob more than once, but thankfully, he assumed that I was being protective of Bella instead of crushing on Jacob. "Your girl gets along a little too well with her new lab partner, huh?"

This seemed like a better explanation for my attention than reality, so I glowered and grumbled, "Yeah. Thinks he rules this place because he won the football game last week. Good thing Bella wouldn't know a football if one hit her in the head."

Mike snickered, and I felt terrible for disparaging my best friend. Especially when Alice turned around from her place in front of me and glared at me. "You were cheering pretty loud yourself when he caught that thirty-yard pass and jumped over the cornerback and into the end zone," she reminded me.

It was true. Although I couldn't explain the rules of football to save my life, had no idea what a cornerback was, nor had I ever attended a game before junior year, I hadn't missed a home game all season long. At least in this setting, it wasn't at all unusual to be caught watching Jacob; everyone else was too, and they couldn't tell that I was looking at his spandex pants instead of the game. And Bella, who didn't understand the game either, was happy to go and cheer for both Jacob and Emmett. And we both always found him easy to spot, even with his helmet covering his handsome face. He was the only player with a thick black braid emerging from his helmet. Whenever I saw it, I wanted to pull the tie out so that his thick hair could fall loose around his face. For that matter, I never wanted him to cover his beauty with a football or motorcycle helmet. But I wanted him to sustain a head injury even less, so I kept my inappropriate wishes to myself.

I narrowed my eyes at my sister. "I'm surprised you could even hear me over your own shrill screeches, sister dear."

Just then, Mike pointed at Bella and Jacob. "Seriously, you okay with this?" I looked up and saw Jacob nudging Bella with his shoulder. They were both giggling like children.

I was not okay with that, but not for the reason he thought. Outwardly, I just scowled.

Even if I had tried to avoid him, I couldn't escape Jacob. The very same afternoon, the doorbell rang. I was reading in the parlor and was closest to the door. So although I heard Rosalie's feet tapping their way down the stairs, I opened the front door to find Jacob's smiling face.

"'Sup, man?" Jacob walked right in, clapping me on the shoulder. I wanted to return a physical greeting, but didn't know how. His thick hair was wet, soaking the back of his shirt so it clung to him. I inhaled as Jacob swept by me, and a clean, bright scent floated into my nose. Jacob smelled wonderful.

"You're wet," I said, much to my own mortification.

Jacob just laughed. "Showered after practice. I was rank, dude. Can't visit a lady smelling like the locker room." I wasn't certain if I wanted to keep smelling his amazing soap or sniff his unadulterated sweat. I felt like a pervert.

"If only Emmett thought the same!" Rosalie appeared behind them and showed him into the garage, where they did something incomprehensible to Rosalie's Jeep. I wanted to sit on the workbench and watch them work, but could think of not a single plausible reason I should do this, since I normally complained to my older sister that watching her work on cars was less interesting than watching paint dry. So I returned to the parlor and tried to read, but instead, I think I re-read the same passage of The Crucible a dozen times. I finally fabricated an excuse of needing to get something out of my own car, and when I couldn't resist any longer, wandered in to find Jacob bent under the hood. I had no idea how long I had been gawking at the sight of his round butt aimed toward me. I probably would have drooled on myself had Rosalie not smacked me in the head with an oily rag. I scurried to my car, where I retrieved a totally unneeded precalculus textbook from the back seat.

When I turned around, Jacob was pulling a large red lollipop from his mouth with a popping sound. His lips were wet and bright red from the candy. I lowered my book in front of my tightening groin and cursed myself for wearing boxer shorts that morning. I would have to throw away all of my loose underwear in favor of briefs. Jacob grinned and stuck up his hand in a wave. "Hey, man. I'm going to your girlfriend's house for dinner in, like, half an hour. My dad missed her lasagna and invited himself over. She knows she has to feed me, so she's making two trays. Wanna come?" Then he stuck the lollipop back in his mouth and sucked on it, hollowing out his cheeks. Did he do that on purpose? I thought I would die.

"No, no," I stammered. "I've got, uh, this, uh, history, uh, I mean, uh, math to do."

I ran directly to my room, locked myself in my bathroom, and took a very, very long shower. I turned on the cold water, but even that did not dampen my lust, so I turned on the hot tap, thanked my parents for buying a house with so many en suite bathrooms with sturdy locks, and got reacquainted with Not-So-Little-Anymore Ed while imagining Jacob asking me, "Wanna come?" under very different circumstances. When I climbed out, I felt dirtier than I had before I started. And after dinner, when I found another lollipop sitting on the kitchen counter, I needed another shower.

X-x-x-x-X

Things only got worse when football season ended. I was leaning next to Bella's locker as she hung up her coat, when he strode down the hall in his usual mouthwatering outfit of dark jeans, tight tee shirt, and leather motorcycle jacket. But his long, sleek hair was shorn short, and he ran his hands through the unfamiliar spikes. I wanted to pull his hands away and replace them with mine. Bella turned around and spotted him several seconds after I did. She nearly cried when she saw him. "Oh my god! What did you do?" she wailed.

Jacob looked at her in alarm. "What, Bells? What's going on?"

Seemingly involuntarily, she reached up and lightly touched his new hair. "Your hair!"

"Aw, honey, it's okay!" His face relaxed into its usual easy smile, but his eyes melted a little looking down at her. He caught her hand in his as she lowered it slowly, and he rubbed his thumb into her palm. My heart sank at the tender gesture. I wanted him to touch me that way. "It's for swim season. It's just hair. It'll grow back."

Then he caught my dark look at their hands and quickly dropped hers, looking guilty. He abruptly stepped back, away from her. I didn't notice Bella's blush, although in retrospect, she must have been blushing, but I noticed Jacob's, and I hoped against hope that it meant what I wanted it to. But it probably meant the opposite.

"I love your long hair," Bella was quietly admitting. "But this way I guess I can see your face better," she whispered. She cleared her throat. "Actually, it looks pretty good."

Jacob grinned again, and his eyes flicked back and forth between me and Bella. "Well, I'm told I'm a handsome devil, so thanks."

"You certainly are a devil," I murmured, and Jacob just laughed.

I couldn't decide if it was a blessing or a curse that Jasper was on the swim team with Jacob, giving me a reason to start attending swim meets with Alice. The first time I went, I was late. Actually, Bella and I were late together. We had lost track of time in the library, where we were doing an English project. Normally, we would have gone straight home afterward, but we had ridden in with Alice, and she was our ride home. Neither of us said so, but we were grateful for the excuse to go to the pool.

The spectator stands were located on the second floor, while the pool was on the first. As usual, I held the door open for Bella, who made a little choking noise as she entered. Then I nearly fell down the stairs when I saw Jacob, rivulets of water running down his dark skin. His biceps and pectorals flexed as he pushed himself out of the pool. And has he arose out of the water, I got my first look at Jacob's abdominal muscles. For all that was holy, was that an eight pack? Or a ten pack? Was that even possible? And oh god, a V leading into his speedos. He barely fit! Even with shrinkage! Dear lord. Thankfully, rather than tumbling down the steps and splitting my skull open on the tile, I just dropped my books, which clattered loudly, echoing through the large room.

The mess caught Jacob's attention, along with everyone else's, and to my horror, he raised his hand in a wave and shot us his signature grin. "Oh, hey," Bella sighed beside me, just as I involuntarily whispered, "Damn." Then, to cover up my verbal slip, I whined loudly about picking up my things, which I then held in front of my pants. Thank goodness I had switched to briefs.

X-x-x-x-X

The next few weeks were, in short, confusing. Bella and I should have talked about our feelings for Jacob. After all, we were best friends. But I didn't want to hear her voice my fears: that not only was she considering breaking up with me, taking from me a security I had gotten used to, but that she was doing it for the first boy I had ever had real feelings for. Because in addition to the basic lust I had for him, I had fallen in love. Jacob was simply one of the kindest, warmest, and funniest people I had ever met.

He drew crowds. He told mesmerizing stories but terrible jokes, and somehow, the combination was endearing. I think the bad jokes were on purpose, just to make him less intimidating. Because he towered over everyone, even Emmett. He held the door open for girls and women alike, fist-bumped the jocks, chatted up the nerds about their favorite subjects, and complimented the band and drama geeks about their talents without a trace of irony.

On the other hand, I was a quiet introvert at baseline, but degenerated into a tongue-tied, stuttering fool in his presence. I blushed furiously at whatever attention he sent my way almost as badly as Bella. My body betrayed me at the most in opportune moments, and I learned to trade not only my comfortably loose underwear for tightly fitted briefs, but my neatly fitted pants for relaxed fit with big pockets that I could use to stuff my hands into to hide the evidence. I prayed that Jacob didn't see his effect on me almost as much as I prayed that he would, and that he would shock me by returning those feelings.

But I was much too afraid of rejection to approach him at all. I didn't have a clue if he was gay, let alone if he had any feelings for me beyond those of friendship.

His dating history didn't help clear up my confusion in the least. He denied any prior girlfriends. He had rejected the advances of every girl who had approached him, including but not limited to Lauren, Jessica, Victoria, Bree, and Vanessa, the first of whom made up nasty rumors about his past in retaliation. So I knew that the stories I heard were half-truths at best, and flat out lies at worst. But one of them piqued my interest, and despite knowing how likely it was to be a lie, I held onto it like a drowning man to a buoy.

Lauren said that Jacob couldn't get it up for her, but he could for a straight, male classmate in La Push, and that the resulting scandal was what actually prompted him to switch schools.

I knew that simply by virtue of coming from Lauren's lips, the story was as likely to be true as Lauren was to be a virgin. But the best lies have a kernel of truth at the center, do they not?

So I continued to hope, watch and wait. I examined him for any signs that he was attracted to men, and more specifically, to me. And I saw what I wanted to see. He continued not to date any girls despite more than ample opportunity. His clothing was a little tighter than that of our other male classmates (much to my delight). He returned any nervous smiles I sent his way with his own broad grin. And he touched me. Casually, of course, but more than anyone other than my own mother and twin sister.

The first time he threw his arm over my shoulder, I froze idiotically and nearly sent all of us toppling over. Bella and I had been chatting as we walked through the hallway on our way to lunch. Jacob squeezed into the space between us and draped his arms over our shoulders. I was so startled at his heat, and the feeling of his muscular body against mine, that I didn't just stop walking. I dug my heels in, and when Jacob and Bella tried to keep going, we almost became a chain of human dominos. Jacob apologized profusely, and I stuttered that it was fine, desperately hoping I didn't say out loud that I wanted him to keep touching me, which was the only thought running through my mind. Thankfully, Bella had dropped her books, which distracted them both from my paralysis.

The next time he repeated the motion, he did it in exaggerated fashion, very slowly, and with ample warning. Bella still blushed, and I still stuttered, but neither of us dropped anything, and no one fell. After that, he kept doing it. And if we ran into each other outside school, in any unexpected locations, I got a man hug, the sort with fists clasped between chests and ample thumping on the shoulder and back.

I knew I shouldn't be reading so much into his affectionate behavior, but it didn't stop me. He greeted many of his friends with some kind of physical gesture. Bella would get a bear hug, lifted off her feet, and spun around while she giggled. Alice got absurd, fake, European-style kisses on each cheek, which were actually several inches apart and punctuated by loud smacking sounds, and a "Hello, dahhling," that only reinforced my suspicions that he was gay. And if Rosalie allowed it, he would go so far as to get down on one knee and kiss the ring on her hand. Emmett and Jasper got the same man hugs I did, but I liked to think that mine were tighter, and that he held on to me longer.

I should have known better.

X-x-x-x-X

There were signs as to what was going on all along, but by March, I really should have known. We all drove to Seattle to watch Jacob, Jasper, and the rest of the swim team compete in the state finals. Jasper was competing in the 100 yard butterfly and the 100 yard backstroke, the team in the 200 yard medley relay and the 400 yard freestyle relay, and Jacob himself was a finalist in seven separate events. I couldn't keep track of them all, but Bella surprised me by knowing not only the names of all his events, but his best times. That should have been my first clue. Her shrieks of joy as he won the first, second, and third were loud and blatant enough to tell me, but I still didn't realize. But when he positively leapt out of the water after the team won the 400 yard freestyle relay, and instead of running to his teammates and celebrating with them, he jumped into the stands and grabbed my girlfriend, covering her in dripping water as she screamed happily in his ear, I really should have known.

But I was blindly in love. And I had spent most of the evening with my attention divided between Jacob himself and his Quileute friends, who were sitting the next bleacher over behind Jacob's father and Charlie Swan. Instead of watching the chemistry between Bella and Jacob, I was watching their group. They had apparently known Jacob their entire lives, and they weren't going to let his triumph pass without their support. There were four of them, two boys and two girls. The first girl was tall, almost as tall as me, and strikingly beautiful, with sleek, straight hair halfway down her back, full lips, wide-set almond eyes, high cheekbones, perfect skin, long legs, pleasing curves, and a slender waist. The other was petite, although not as tiny as Alice or Bella, with hair nearly as long as the other girl's, dark brown eyes, and a lovely smile. The boys were just as attractive as they were. One appeared slightly younger, more of a baby face, and closely resembled the first girl. The remaining boy was about our age. He was shorter than Jacob, which still put him a couple inches above me, and stocky, appearing to be made solidly of muscle, with a broad nose, bright brown eyes, a defined jaw, and an mischievious smile.

Was one of these friends the reason Jacob didn't date anyone at Forks High? Was one of these individuals my competition?

They weren't, of course, but I didn't know it at the time. After winning the final relay, while Bella was laughing happily in his arms and Emmett and Rosalie were reaching down to clap him on the back and congratulating him, his friends dropped down to the tile and hoisted him up on their shoulders. He soaked all of them as well, but they didn't seem to care at all. But when he tipped to the side, throwing off their collective balance and steering them to the pool and then fell back into the water, dragging the first girl down with him, she came up sputtering loudly. She let out a string of curses that would make a sailor blush and jumped on Jacob, trying to hold his head under water. Before the referee could get them out, the stockier boy yelled, "We'll save you, Leah!" before pushing the other boy into the water and cannonballing in after them.

When they finally emerged from the water, laughing and yelling, I didn't feel any better about my theoretical competition. The boys stripped off their wet jeans and tee shirts right at the poolside, too cold in their waterlogged clothing to run into the locker room first. My heart sank as my libido rose; Jacob's friends' bodies were almost as appealing as his own. And beside me, my damp girlfriend's breath left her in a woosh as the girl climbed out last and did the same. She stripped down to a simple black set of bra and panties, giving the assembled group a little show, right before a scowling referee handed her a towel.

I might have been gay, but I wasn't blind. She had the body of a lingerie model. Beside me, Emmett's eyes were bugging out. He muttered to Rosalie, "No wonder Jake isn't dating anyone at Forks High," before she grabbed him by the chin, forcing him to look away from the dripping girl and directly at her scowling face. "Sorry, babe. I'm just sayin'." He blinked at her and shrugged with a falsely innocent smile. "But she's not even half as pretty as you."

Meanwhile, Jacob had Leah in a headlock and was giving her a noogie as she continued to swear at him. I tried to reassure myself that they couldn't be romantically involved; no boy would do this to a girl if he ever wanted her to kiss him ever again. But that didn't make me feel any better about the boys, or the one girl who remained dry.

X-x-x-x-X

I was still worried about all the wrong things the next day, when Alice threw a house party to celebrate the swim team's victory. Our parents were in Portland for the weekend, where our mother was visiting a potential client. Half our school must have turned up, plus the entire teenage population of La Push. I spent most of the evening trying to worm my way between the warm bodies who were packed like sardines into every square foot of my home. I was keeping my eye out for Jacob's old friends, trying to find signs that one of them might be his boyfriend or ex-boyfriend. The girl from the day before, Leah, showed up on the arm of a huge Quileute as big as Jacob, but clearly a few years older, and they spent the entire time trying to devour each other in a corner of the room. And Bella had idly mentioned that the other girl at the pool was his sister, so I was no longer worried about either of them.

But his male friends had multiplied, and each one was more attractive than the last. And they all kept touching Jacob. My jealousy rose. Granted, most of it was in the form of shoving, headlocks, and as the alcohol flowed, increasingly uncoordinated wrestling. Twice I had to dive in to save one of Esme's priceless vases. Then the drunken declarations of love began. They weren't aimed strictly at Jacob, of course, although he was the recipient of an ample amount of what I hoped was brotherly love. It was an equal opportunity group, with an inordinate amount of lustful praise for Jacob's beautiful sisters, Leah (who didn't bother separating her lips from Sam, her boyfriend, but did let go of him long enough to give the finger to the increasingly vulgar bunch), Rosalie, each other, and my parents' rapidly emptying liquor cabinet.

From time to time, I watched for Bella. She got on well with all of Jacob's friends, some of whom she seemed to know. She explained to me that since most of Charlie's social life consisted of friends on the reservation, she had gotten to know some of their children. But at one point, her laugh turned into a deep frown. Jacob's friends were looking in the same direction she was, but they were laughing like hyenas. I turned my attention around to figure out what all the fuss about.

Lauren had Jacob cornered. She wasn't just drunk, she was plastered. She had him pressed up against a tiny, decorative end table Esme had acquired in an antique shop in New Orleans. He was practically crawling over it to get away from her, but all it did was slide away behind him. She tried to climb onto him as his imposing height was reduced by his awkwardly reclined position. She had her hands all over him, and she was slurring. His face shifted from discomfort to disgust when she breathed her apparently rank breath in his face, just inches from his nose. She moved from stroking up and down his "mussle... muccle... mus-cu-lar arms" to actually reaching around trying unsuccessfully to pinch his admittedly irresistible bottom.

Jacob looked to his friends for help, but they were enjoying the comedy too much to assist. I decided to intervene myself. I had been in Jacob's position before, although she had never been quite so handsy with me, and I was happy to pry her off him. She was like a barnacle, but when I told her that James was asking for her, she stumbled away without further resistance and a muttered, "Pathetic faggy boys don't know what they're missing..."

Jacob didn't seem to register the insult, but I did. He was just happy to be out of her clutches, and he thanked me profusely. He tried to introduce me to his friends, but between being shy, embarrassed about Lauren's behavior and her comment, and trying to save the carpeting in the living room from a vomit stain courtesy of Mike Newton, I spoke with none of them except to wave at them en masse.

It took me a good four minutes to clear a path for Mike to the bathroom, another three to remove the amorous couple inside, ten to ensure he would upchuck only into the toilet, and five more to pack him into Jessica Stanley's car. By the time I rejoined the festivities, Jacob was nowhere to be seen.

I couldn't help myself. Instead of getting to know his friends or joining my sisters on the makeshift dance floor, I went looking for him. I first checked my bedroom, foolishly hoping that he would be passed out in my bed, or better yet, awake in my bed with lowered inhibitions. Instead, I found Lauren entwined with James on my duvet cover. Apparently she moved fast. I promptly ejected them from the room and tossed Lauren's bra into the hallway after her, and then decided to burn my comforter. I thought briefly about bleaching my eyes, but decided against it. After that, I hung a tie on the outer knob, hoping that the signal would keep any other lovers out of my space, and I headed back down.

I checked my father's study, my mother's office, the parlor, living room, kitchen, family room, basement den, and circled the entire house from the outside before I finally heard whispers coming from the gazebo. I snuck up close, but stayed hidden by the trees.

And my heart broke.

My best friend was standing in the moonlit evening with my crush.

"You're cold, Bells. We should go back inside," Jacob was murmuring.

"We should," she agreed. But neither of them even looked back toward the house.

He opened his arms and smiled at her. "C'mon. I'm a space heater over here."

She slowly walked forward, and he welcomed her in. "Mmm..." she hummed. "You're so warm! I feel so..." she trailed off, and she slipped her arms beneath his jacket and locked them around his waist.

"Yeah," Jacob whispered. "Me too."

They couldn't take their eyes off each other.

Jacob seemed not to know what to do with his hands. They hovered about an inch away from Bella's body, slowly roving up and down. He finally wrapped them around her and crushed her against him. It wasn't any closer than I had seen them before, when he would yank her into a tight hug. But their expressions were completely different. Both had their eyes tightly closed, and Bella was biting her bottom lip, a little furrow between her brows. Jacob had his nose buried in her hair, and his eyes were squeezed shut as well.

They remained locked together for what seemed like an eternity, but was probably only a couple minutes. I tried not to breathe, afraid both of disturbing whatever was passing between them, but moreover, afraid of being caught spying.

Finally, Jacob spoke again, but he wasn't any more coherent than he had been before. "God, Bells, I..."

She separated just enough so that she could look up at him, but he barely moved at all. He was still bent over her, and the position left his lips only an inch from hers.

"Please, Jake," she whispered. I could see her trembling.

His eyes were still tightly shut, and he looked agonized. He seemed able neither to pull away nor to close the gap between them. "You have no idea how bad..." he murmured.

She slipped one hand out from under his jacket and wove her fingers into the hair at the base of his skull, and he groaned. It was the sexiest sound I had ever heard, and I hated it and loved it at the same time, because she was drawing it out of him. Not me. "But I do. I do," she pleaded.

Their parted lips touched for an instant.

And then he lowered his hands to her hips, gripping them tightly, and she gasped. But instead of pulling her up and giving her the life-altering kiss that they both so obviously wanted, he locked his elbows, pushed her away, and stepped back. "We can't! You're his, not mine, even if I want you to be mine more than I've ever wanted anything!"

"It's not like that," Bella's eyes were tearing up. He looked at her hopefully. But she didn't continue, I suspect, because she did not want to betray my secret. She really was a wonderful friend. I should have stood up then and there and told Jacob what was really going on and let them have their happily ever after. But my chest hurt, my pulse pounded in my ears, I couldn't breathe, and I was more disappointed than I had ever been.

But mostly, I was afraid.

Clearly, Jacob wasn't gay, and he definitely didn't feel about me like I felt about him. But he was my friend, and he was trying to respect me and my relationship, even if it was mostly a lie. If I stood up now, I would have to tell the truth. And I simply wasn't ready. I wasn't ready to say who I was, wasn't ready to let go of the security Bella offered me, and most of all, I wasn't ready to see how Jacob would react. I knew him well enough to know that he would not call me names, or sneer at me, or ostracize me. But he might be hurt that I had not told the truth, irritated that I had gotten Bella wrapped up in my lies, or worst of all, disappointed that I had not been true to myself.

So I remained hidden.

And I watched as Jacob gently kissed Bella on her forehead and whispered, "I'm sorry, Bells. No matter how badly I want to, and believe me, I want to, I'm not going to do that to him. Or put you in that position." And then he walked away. He hunched into himself, looking smaller than I thought possible. And then I watched my best friend cry.

I should have gone to her. I should have told her she was free, sent her to run after Jacob and given herself over to love. Instead I backed away as silently as I could, hid in the garage until I was certain I wouldn't run into Jacob, and then "casually" went looking for Bella. She hadn't moved from the gazebo, but her eyes were dry. I played it cool. She was biting her lower lip and looking at me anxiously. I knew she was about to ask me to end our farcical relationship so she could be with Jacob.

I should have just let it happen. I didn't even have to come out to anyone in the process. We could have just broken up like any other couple, and that would have been that. But I didn't want to come up with another cover story as to why we had ended it, and I didn't want to lose my best friend. I had this ridiculous fear that we would have to pretend to be mad at each other if we broke up, and I couldn't imagine how that would work. And moreover, I didn't actually want to lose her to Jacob, just as I didn't want to lose Jacob to her. I didn't want to be the seventh wheel in our little group.

So before she could start talking, I began to regale her with my misadventures of the evening, excluding, of course, spying on her and Jacob. I didn't let her change the subject, which was easier than I anticipated. As much as she wasn't in love with me, she didn't relish the task of breaking up with me either, even if the relationship itself was a fiction. By the time I was done talking, she had lost her nerve.

When we left the gazebo, it didn't escape either of us that Jacob's motorcycle was gone from the front yard.

X-x-x-x-X

Jacob stayed away for days. He smiled politely when he saw us in class, but otherwise kept his eyes on our teachers or on his work. He made up excuse after excuse to avoid eating lunch with us, either heading to the library, the gym, or an empty classroom to do homework while he ate by himself. He had no practices to attend, so Rosalie fully expected him to join us after school to work on her car or play video games with Emmett and Jasper, who practically lived at our house, and Alice thought he would join her on our living room floor to do homework. Instead, he was the first out the door and roaring away on his motorcycle before anyone could ask him where he was going.

My sisters were confused, their boyfriends perplexed, and my girlfriend despondent. The usual ease between us frayed. Instead of reacting in a mature fashion and telling her I knew what was going on, or gently asking if there was something between her and Jacob, I pushed harder. I thanked her repeatedly for the good turn she was doing me, talked about how hard things had been before we started "dating", and generally wouldn't let her get a word in edgewise. The longer things went on this way, the more desperate I became to have things return to what they once were. The more she pulled away, the more tenaciously I held on, and the harder it became to speak the truth.

I knew she was unhappy. Her eyes followed Jacob everywhere, whereas he looked studiously away whenever he felt her gaze. But as soon as her attention was pulled elsewhere, I could see him sneaking looks at her out of the corner of his eye. He looked miserable but stoic.

I tried to maintain my own friendship with him, but his attempts to avoid Bella made it difficult. Plus I didn't want to inadvertently bring them together, and my opportunities to speak with him when she wasn't by my side were limited. It seemed to work well enough for him, because I quickly realized he was avoiding me as well. He probably felt too guilty for harboring desire for what he thought was mine.

I was systematically destroying the very two friendships I had been trying to preserve.

Oddly enough, the denouement finally arrived thanks to Tyler Crowley, the same boy who had unintentionally won me Bella's friendship in the first place. We were opening our lockers, which had always been close to each other due to our last names, when he spotted Bella walking toward us from far down the hall. She looked uncomfortable, as she had allowed Alice to dress her that morning, and was teetering along in heels and a short skirt that showed off her slender legs. "Damn, man." He was ogling her. "You are only lucky bastard, Cullen. What I wouldn't give to have Swan's long legs wrapped around me. She's uptight, but those type-A girls, when they let loose? Shit. I'll bet she's a wildcat in bed, ain't she? Did you teach her everything she knows? She's good, right? Guy like you can have his pick of any chick in the place, I can't blame you for choosing her. She's a sweet piece of ass."

I froze. I was torn between disgust, anger, and, to my shame, a small amount of caveman-like male pride. So my biting retort got jumbled in my throat, and instead, out came a nervous laugh. And before I could gather myself together to put him in his place, he was yanked forcefully back, spun around, and a large brown fist connected with his nose.

I whipped around just in time to see Jacob Black in a fury. It was a terrifying sight. His jaw was tight, he towered over both of us, his fists were still clenched, and his eyes were blazing. "Show a little respect!" he barked at Tyler, who was groaning and clutching at his bleeding nose.

"You broke my fucking nose, you asshole!"

Jacob took Tyler by the collar and shoved him forcefully into the lockers, which banged loudly. "You deserve worse than that, you worthless little punk!" Then he turned his attention to me. I stumbled backward instinctively, but he didn't raise his fists. Instead he pointed one long finger at my face. "And you! Where do you get off letting him talk about your girlfriend that way? If that's the way you treat her, let guys talk about her like she's some slut, you don't deserve her."

A crowd had gathered around us, and before I could answer, Mr. Banner appeared behind Jacob and sent him to the principal's office, Tyler to the nurse's station, and then turned to me. I thought I was in trouble too, but he just shook his head. "I saw the whole thing. I know you didn't actually do anything." Then he turned aside, but stopped himself before he got far. "Although Jacob shouldn't have hit him, you probably should have done something else a little sooner, don't you think?" He looked disgusted and herded away the gathered students.

That was when I realized Bella was standing behind me. She looked confused and hurt, and was clutching her books to her her chest protectively. Of all the moments I should have taken to set her free, this was the most obvious. I almost did. I opened my mouth to come clean, and to apologize, but before I got a single word out, the bell rang.

I ran off like the coward that I was.

X-x-x-x-X

My sisters finally came to our rescue. Bella was avoiding me, and I was moping. I wondered if she had finally found her way to Jacob, to his arms, where she was so obviously meant to be. And after four long days without speaking to me, I realized that as long as she was happy, that I would be happy for her. But my inertia, cowardice, and embarrassment kept me from actually communicating this to her.

I was playing an especially plaintive and mournful sonata by Beethoven when Alice and Rosalie interrupted me. Rosalie grabbed the keyboard cover and threatened to smash my fingers with the heavy wooden lid unless I stopped "that depressing shit you've been playing over and over." As soon as I yanked my fingers back, she demanded, "Where are they? What have you done to Jacob and Bella?"

Alice tried a gentler approach. "We think they're avoiding us. Do you know why? Does it have anything to do with Crowley?"

"Yes… No… Well…" I sighed.

"Spit it out," Rosalie sniffed. "We don't have all day. We want to know what's going on with our friends, and they won't talk to us. What did you do?"

"Rose." Alice put her hand on Rosalie's arm. "Be nice. You're just going to make him clam up. He's already embarrassed, and he already feels bad." She sat down on the bench beside me and nudged me with her shoulder. "But really," she asked gently, "what happened?"

I sighed heavily. "I'm an ass."

Rosalie snorted. "Old news, brother. Old news."

"Rose!" Alice chided. "Go on, Edward."

I looked down at my hands, unable to meet their gazes. After a long moment, I quietly admitted, "I'm in love with Jacob."

"Ohhh," Alice breathed. Rosalie just nodded like she thought this, too, was old news. "But what does that have to do with Bella?"

"She's in love with him too," I clarified.

Alice put her arms around me and leaned her head on my shoulder. "I'm sorry, that sort of hurts, doesn't it?"

"Only because he's in love with her back," I answered morosely.

Alice was torn between being sad for me, and happy for Bella and Jacob. She tried to hide her enthusiasm. "Wait, when did they start seeing each other? No one told me! How am I the last one to know about this?"

"They're not seeing each other," I answered.

"They're pining away for each other from afar," Rosalie interrupted.

Alice still looked confused. "How come? What's the problem? If she's in love with him, and he's in love with her? They're perfect for each other!"

"It's only a problem," Rosalie interrupted, "because he's being a jerk about it."

"Rose! Not helpful!" Alice tried to shush her.

Rosalie shook her head. "Actually, it's extremely helpful. There's nothing Edward can do about it except push them both away. Which is exactly what he's doing. It's not like being an petulant child is going to make Jacob fall for him, or make Edward fall for Bella. It just isn't going to happen."

I sighed again. "I was sort of hoping, about Jacob…"

Rosalie shook her head again and crossed her arms over her chest. "Sorry, no go. He's straighter than Emmett's dick."

I sputtered, but Alice just raised an eyebrow. "Wuh-Huh?" I blinked and asked stupidly.

She shrugged. "It kind of points to the left."

I blushed furiously, and Alice just nodded in understanding. Rosily smirked, and then busted out laughing. It was contagious, and I couldn't help but laugh right along with her. And I realized that my prickly sister had made me feel a whole lot better. "Look," she said. "They both love you, just not the way you want them to. But they're really good friends. You're going to lose them both if you don't come clean. So yank your head out of your ass and tell the truth for once."

Alice protested, "Don't say it like that. You make it sound dirty, like there's something wrong with him. There isn't a single thing wrong with being gay, and you know it, Rose."

Rosalie rolled her eyes. "Not about being gay. About being a prick. Bella's wanted to break things off for weeks now, and he isn't letting her."

Alice and I both stared wide-eyed at Rosalie. I hadn't admitted this to anyone, and I was certain Bella hadn't disclosed these feelings to Alice, let alone to Rosalie, so how did she know?

"What are you talking about?" Alice asked.

"I'm bitchy, not blind. You people think I'm not paying any attention. But there's nothing else to do here, in the corner of nowhere, than people watch. And these three have been providing a bit of drama. I didn't quite get what was up, but Edward just explained. Bella and Jacob are trying to spare his feelings at the expense of their own, and he's only making all of them feel worse. Including himself. You need to break up with Bella. She's just your beard, not your actual girlfriend. It shouldn't be hard to break up with your beard. It's not like she's going to beg for you back or something. Let's face it. She'll love you more."

Alice gently, "She's right. You know she is."

I frowned at Rosalie. "I sort of hate you when you're right."

She just smiled. "Then I guess you hate me all the time, brother."

X-x-x-x-X

Alice did me the favor of tricking Bella into coming over to our house the next day. I don't think Bella knew I was home, and I kept quiet until Alice opened my door and whispered absurdly low, particularly considering that there was no way Bella could hear us two floors away. "She's in the kitchen. She thinks I'm searching for her copy of Pride and Prejudice." She held the paperback in front of her. "It's going to take me a really long time to find it."

I made my way downstairs as slowly as possible. But I went. Bella was sitting at the kitchen table with her math homework in front of her. She looked up with a wary little smile. "Oh, hey."

"I haven't seen you around much lately," I opened.

She nervously tucked her hair being her ear. "Yeah, sorry about that. I've been kind of busy lately."

"Up to anything interesting?"

"Oh, you know," she shrugged. "Making sure Charlie doesn't starve to death, extra shifts at Newton's, the usual."

"Mike giving you any trouble?" I tried to segue.

"No, no. He's a nice guy, you know that. He knows we're together."

"Not like that ingrate Crowley." She peeked up at me, and I finally apologized for not standing up for her. "I'm sorry about what happened. I meant to defend your honor, but Jacob beat me to the punch quite literally."

She smiled warmly at me. "I know you didn't think those nasty things he said about me, obviously. I'm sorry you had to be a part of it at all."

"No, Bella. You've been a wonderful friend to me. The best friend I've ever had, and I've taken advantage of your generosity." I sat down next to her and took her hand in mind. "You deserve so much more, so much better, than I'm able to give you. Both as a friend and a partner."

"Don't say that, Edward!" she protested, ever more concerned about my welfare than about her her own. "You didn't need to punch Tyler in the face. All that did was get Jacob tossed into detention. You're a great friend!"

"I haven't been," I denied, "but I'm trying my best now. I promise I'll do better. But I was wondering if I could ask you for a favor."

"Of course. Anything." She was completely sincere, and I knew I did not deserve her friendship. "What is it?"

"I was wondering if you do me the enormous favor of dumping me."

"What?" Her eyes grew wide. She was shocked. I had been clinging so desperately to our false romance that she was totally blindsided by the request.

"I know you aren't happy with me, and how could I possibly expect you to be? We're not together, not really, and I'm not giving you the love and devotion you deserve."

"But what about everyone else?" she protested. "I know things weren't good for you before. I don't want it to back to that."

"A lot of that was just feeling alone, Bella. I don't want you to dump me as a friend, you know. I desperately hope that you don't. And I didn't say I was ready to steal the microphone to the PA and come out to the whole school. I'm not sure I'm there yet. And I'm pretty sure we can break up anyway. But I think I had better stop holding you in front of me as a human shield, don't you? You're sort of smaller than me, anyway, and all that happens when I do that is that we both get blasted with shrapnel, and I feel like even more of a pansy than I already do."

She giggled at that, and I was relieved to have made her smile. "Do you really mean it?" she asked hopefully. "We can break up but still be friends?"

"I think that between you and I, it will change basically nothing, don't you? I know you're not exactly in love with me, and you're pretty clear that I'm not in love with you."

"I suppose that's true," she grinned at me.

"In fact," I smiled and looked at our clasped hands, "I'm pretty sure you're in love with a certain someone else, and that that certain someone is in love with you. And I think that maybe as soon as you leave here, you'll drive to his house on the reservation and kiss him until you're both blue."

She laughed again. "Are we that obvious? We aren't kissing or anything, I swear! We aren't doing anything, hardly even talking!"

"I know you're not, and I have no idea why. If I was in your position, I'd be trying to round third base by now," I admitted with what I hoped was a wry grin.

"Seriously?" her eyes went wide.

"Um, have you seen him in those speedos?"

She threw her head back and laughed. "Oh my god, I thought I was going to die that first time we saw him climb out of the water at that first meet!"

"Me too! My heart actually stopped. It hurt, it actually hurt."

She peeked at me from the corner of her eyes. "I'll bet that's not the only thing that hurt," she smirked.

"Isabella Swan!" I was shocked, not so much at the insinuation, which was spot-on, but the fact that my shy little Bella said it. Then we both laughed again, and I draped my arm around her, and realized that this was the best possible thing I could have done for our friendship.

X-x-x-x-X

It turned out that I was right about Bella's next destination. She drove straight to Jacob's house from mine, and although I never found out the details about what had transpired, she rode to school the next day clinging to him on the back of his motorcycle. Rosalie teased her about wearing the same clothes two days in a row, which wasn't true in the least, and Rose knew it, but caused Bella to turn adorably red, just as Rose had hoped.

Then Jacob spotted me, and he let go of Bella's hand. His grin, which was more blindingly happy than I'd ever seen it, fell from his face. Behind me, as expected, I heard the rumor mill start to turn. I tried to tune out the not-so-hushed voices, and with Alice pushing me bodily, I turned to approach the newly happy couple.

I tried to give them my best smile, but have no idea whether a grimace actually appeared. I tried to be happy for them, and I was, but although I was starting to get over my need to shelter myself with Bella's security, I had not actually gotten over Jacob. I took a deep breath. "So does Forks High have a new 'It' couple?" I asked.

Bella smiled happily at me, but Jacob looked like a deer frozen in headlights. I decided to focus on what was easier, and opened my arms to hug Bella. I thought that a physical demonstration of affection would probably further confuse the gossip mongers behind me, and enjoyed influencing the stories they would tell. Plus, I wanted her to know I wasn't going to hold anything against her. And I admit that it was partly selfish, an attempt to ensure our friendship remained intact. "Hello, Edward," she murmured as she squeezed me back.

"Good morning, my dear." I let go of her. Then I turned to Jacob and extended my hand. "You'll take good care of her, right?"

He stared at my hand as if it would electrocute him, but after a pause, he shook it and answered, "Of course I will."

Bella looked back and forth between us, and I finally decided to man up. "I think we need a minute, is that okay?"

She nodded, squeezed his hand briefly, and walked toward the building with Alice and Rosalie. They lingered on the steps, out of auditory range. I hadn't spoken to her, so I didn't know what she had told Jacob. Until then, I hadn't decided what I was going to tell him, if anything. Now that the moment was upon me, I decided to just get everything into the open. "So what did she tell you?" I asked him.

His large hand went to the back of his neck in a nervous gesture. "Uh, she said that you guys are great together except for the total lack of chemistry, and that we're all supposed to still be friends. But I'm sorry, man. I should have still talked to you first. I have no business butting in. I don't want to be that guy, you know? And I just don't know how you couldn't... She's... she's something else, you know?" He shoved his hands in his pockets and stared at her across the lot. He was obviously smitten.

"That she is," I agreed. "She's a wonderful, beautiful girl with a warm heart. I'm sure you two will be very happy, and that makes me happy. Honestly," I reassured him.

He was still staring at her. "Is it true that you guys never even kissed?" he blurted out, then immediately apologized. "I'm sorry, that's totally none of my business. I'm being rude, but I don't mean to. She told me last night. I just found it kind of hard to believe. She's, like, irresistible."

I chuckled dryly. "Most of the male population here agrees with you. And she doesn't even realize it. She thinks she's plain, but she's beautiful. But that's the best part, right? Because there isn't an ounce of pretension or vanity in her. But to answer your question, we never kissed, other than pecks on the cheek. We had a very Victorian relationship."

He finally tore his eyes from her and looked at me skeptically. "Are you sure you're okay with me and her being together? I feel like a jerk. I mean, you guys only broke up yesterday. There should be a waiting period or something."

"Trust me," I smiled. "She's really not my type."

He didn't get it. "Okay," he agreed, but his expression showed that he just didn't believe me.

"Really, Jacob. She's not my type," I repeated slowly. He nodded again, arching a brow at me, wondering why I was belaboring the point. "None of the girls are my type. None of them."

It was actually rather comical watching his face as understanding dawned. "Oh!" he finally said. "Oh, okay!" Then he brightened. "Wow, that makes me feel so much better!"

"Why?" Now it was my turn to be confused. I had imagined him happy at the revelation of my sexual orientation, but not this way.

"I felt like such a dick stealing another guy's girl. But you really don't have feelings for her, not like that, anyway."

"No." I decided to be a little brave. "If anything, if there were a love triangle between the three of us, she would not be my object of affection." I was terrified at what he might say, and cursed myself for not just ending the conversation. But then he spoke.

"Aw," he chuckled. "You're trying to make me blush." He grinned, and my fear abated. "But it'll take more than that to embarrass me," he joked. "I'm pretty conceited. The last gay guy that had a crush on me liked to tell me how sexy I was."

I was shocked, both at his casual reception, his nonchalance, and the fact that he even knew another gay man. I usually felt like the only one in the world. "The last guy?"

"Sure." He stopped to look at me, leaning on his motorcycle. "A buddy of mine. It's kind of a running joke between us. He liked to say it back when my height was shooting up but my muscles looked like they were withering away. I was all angles, bones, bad skin, bad hair, clothes didn't fit, but I thought I was the shit. He liked to put me in my place if I was getting too big for my britches."

My bravery reared again from nowhere, and I looked him up and down appraisingly, shocking myself. I said, "I highly doubt you ever went through an awkward stage, Jacob."

He just shrugged and grinned. "Everyone goes through an awkward stage. Some are just worse than others, and some last longer."

"I still don't believe you. You're the sort of boy who rules in his adolescence. Charming, funny, fearless, outgoing, athletic, good looking..." I trailed off, appalled at myself for revealing too much.

And to my horror, he teased me. "Ooh, sounds like someone else has a crush on me." When he saw my face fall, he backtracked. "Hey, sorry. I'm being a dick."

"I... I..." Stupidly, all I could come up with was, "Well, I'm gay, and you're... you."

I barely heard his response. My own brain was screaming and shouting at me for actually, honestly, truly coming out to someone other than Bella and my family. I was horrified and proud of myself all at once. Then I finally registered Jacob again. He was laughing. He read my expression again, and my deep blush, and said, "Hey, it's no big deal. It's flattering, man. I have no idea why you'd have a crush on me, since as I just said, I'm a huge dick. Oh wait, that's why you like me!" I blinked slowly until I realized he was making a joke. A terrible, awful, lame pun. Just to make me laugh and put me at ease.

So I laughed with him, and he looked infinitely pleased. "Did you just say what I think you said?" I said, feigning indignation.

"Yep," he nodded, looking smug. "There's plenty more where that came from." He tapped the side of his head. "I'm full of terrible jokes, don't you know that already?"

And I finally relaxed. I had been brave and honest, and I still had both of my best friends.

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Over the next few days, I let my newfound boldness take over. I came out to my parents and my only other close friends. Esme expressed relief that I had ended my relationship with Bella, and claimed that they had known all along and were confused when I declared that she was my girlfriend. Carlisle said he was proud of me for my honesty and self-awareness, and I felt a rush of pride quite similar to the first time I showed him an A on my report card when I was a small child, and he had crowed about what a smart boy I was. Jasper just smiled wryly and said that he had wondered all along what Bella thought was going on, and that it all finally made sense. Emmett was the only one who showed any surprise at all. He jokingly called me a "mo" and then asked me to give him an objective critique on his looks and physique. Rosalie scolded him harshly and punched him in the arm, hard, and I knew from experience that it would leave a nasty bruise. She could pack quite a wallop. I was both exasperated and touched by my big sister's protectiveness. She said that the only person allowed to call me names was her. And other than "jerk" or "ass", she never, ever did.

None of them said anything to anyone else, and to my relief, basically nothing changed.

A few days later, Jacob and I were eating lunch together, waiting for Bella and everyone else to join us. The odd resolution of our strange little triangle had gone incredibly well, and none of my fears had materialized. Most of our classmates were still quite confused at the fact that Bella had apparently switched boyfriends but that we were all still friends, and I couldn't care less.

Jacob was not so subtly eyeing Bella where she stood in line. "When she told me I was her first kiss, I didn't believe it. Not that I thought she was lying, or something, because I know she wouldn't lie about something like that. Or about basically anything. But it was just perplexing that a girl as pretty as her, with a long-term boyfriend, no less, had never been kissed."

"It's true," I shrugged. "And now you know why."

"Yeah. So now I can feel less guilty about telling you that it makes me crazy, man. I'm her first kiss, first love, first everything. It drives me wild." He turned to me and looked deadly serious, and I wondered what, exactly, "everything" meant. I didn't have the nerve to ask. But there was a seductive quality to his voice. Raw love and desire that I wished was aimed at me, but it was not to be. "And I want to be her last everything, too. Her only, you know? There's just, there's something about her." He licked his lips and returned his eyes to her.

I just smiled. I knew exactly what he meant, because there was just something about him. But there was nothing I could do about Jacob's sexual orientation, and even if he was gay, that was certainly no guarantee that he would have been interested in me anyway. But he was my friend, and she was my friend, and I was genuinely happy for them. "Then treat her better than I did. Treat her like she deserves to be treated, and make her happy."

He grinned at me then, and my heart lifted. Because Jacob's smile was the sun, even when it wasn't for me. "You know I will."

After everyone else joined us, he casually inquired about my love life. I answered that it was less existent than it had been while I was dating Bella, and that was really saying something. I quite literally had not met a single gay guy in my age range, let alone one that I was actually interested in. At least that I knew of. Then the conversation degenerated into speculation over who might be in the closet. Emmett childishly pointed out anyone he deemed effeminate or fey, and frankly, his language became rather offensive and demeaning, although I knew he meant nothing by it. Then he helpfully suggested that I stand on our lunchroom table, come out to everyone then and there, and ask who wanted to go on a date with me. Just as I was trying to politely decline, I spotted a mischievous glint in Jacob's eye. Before I could stop him, he stood up on his chair.

I was terrified.

And then he opened his mouth. He pointed directly at Emmett, and once everyone had turned their attention toward him, he loudly announced that, "Emmett McCarty has decided to make reparations for years of being a giant dildo. We're taking cash donations for the opportunity to throw a liquid filled condom at his head. One dollar gets you water, five dollars gets you red kool-aid, ten gets you vinegar, and twenty gets you the liquid of your choice." He waggled his eyebrows and added suggestively, "Any liquid of your choice. All proceeds go to the local Humane Society, because he is a dog who needs to be neutered, and all donations go directly into his tightly whiteys."

Rosalie immediately whipped a $50 bill out of her wallet and shoved it down the front of his pants. Several students broke out laughing, many rolled their eyes and ignored us, but six members of the defensive line of the football team rushed Emmett waving bills in their hands, pinned him down, and attacked him with money. His ex girlfriend then made a contribution, along with her two best girlfriends, and by the end of the lunch period, Emmett was grinning, because he had $115 in his pants.

But Jacob didn't let him walk away scot free. That very afternoon, he and the linemen pinned Emmett to the goalpost and pelted him with unmentionable fluids. Emmett smelled awful but was still smiling, because no one had gotten the money off him. He had stuffed it down his shorts again, and once he was dripping, no one was willing to go exploring for it. Rose shrugged and made her own $500 donation to the Humane Society, and everyone was pleased.

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A few weeks later, he and Rose graduated. Alice and Esme threw a huge party, and once again, half of Forks High turned out, and the entire teenage population of La Push, courtesy of Jacob. But this time, Bella spent the entire time tucked under his arm, or pressed against him as they danced, sitting in his lap, or kissing him feverishly in the gazebo. They both looked positively blissful, and they couldn't keep their eyes or their hands off one another.

I couldn't resent either of them, even if I had been relegated to the position of third wheel somewhat by default. Particularly since Jacob arrived with his two best friends flanking him. One was the stocky fellow I had seen at the swimming state championships, whose name turned out to be Quil. But I barely registered Quil's presence. Because on Jacob's other side was a boy I had never seen before. He had apparently been spending a lot of his time caring for his sick grandmother, and had not come to either the swim meet or our earlier party. He peeked at me with sparkling brown eyes, a strong nose, defined jawline, and a lopsided grin.

I was captivated at the very sight of him. Because although Jacob might have been the most striking and handsome boy I had ever met, this boy was the most beautiful I had ever seen. I was in lust, if not in love.

But unlike my first meeting with Jacob, this boy had eyes only for me. Not for Bella.

Then the stranger spoke, and his voice was like honey. "Hi, I'm Embry. You must be Edward," he said simply, and pushed his floppy bangs out of his eyes. That was it. I was done. I was in love.

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That was just over a year ago. We're all at the beach on one of Washington's rare, sunny days. Bella and Jacob are taking a much-needed break from last minute wedding plans, as they are set to be married in three weeks. I'm watching him play with her in the frigid surf. She's clinging to him, ostensibly for his body heat, but it's just an excuse. They're like magnets that can't pull apart from each other. Their wedding timeline is tight, but will give them a chance to enjoy being newlyweds before they go off to UDub together, where Jacob earned himself a scholarship for swimming, just like he had hoped. There is some gossip amongst our recent classmates that Bella must be pregnant, but those of us who know better know that our friends are simply meant to be together, and that's that.

Alice and Jasper, who have wisely stayed dry, and are currently failing to gather enough people for a game of volleyball, will soon be off to Dartmouth. It will put them both a bit closer to Rosalie and Emmett, who are home for summer vacation between their freshman and sophomore years at NYU and CUNY, respectively. Emmett has stationed himself at the grill and is refusing to relinquish the tongs, and Rosalie is soaking up the sun lying several feet away. And finally, much to my eternal delight, Embry has just been awarded a scholarship to UC Berkeley, only an hour away from Stanford, where I will be going to school.

I leave his side briefly to return Emmett's attention to the grill. Rosalie is applying sunblock, so his eyes are on her, not on a hamburger which has just caught fire.

After I turn back around, having saved most of the remaining food, I see a tiresome sight. Now, if only Lauren Mallory would stop throwing herself at my boyfriend, life would be perfect.

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