FOURTEEN: Really Mine
Quick A/N: Considering how the last chapter played out, a lot of you will probably be very frustrated with the beginning of this chapter. Please, before you send me hate mail, read it through to the end. You will be very happy if you do. Well, at least I hope you will. Oh, and also, I highly recommend going back and re-reading chapter five. It's kind of important that you remember a certain part in that chapter for the middle and end of this chapter to make sense. For those of you who'd rather not… Remember the Hershey Kisses. That's my hint for you. Okay, read on. –Sarah
Okay, so she knows. She knows. All you have to do is confirm it. You simply say, 'Yes, Bella, my darling! It is I, your one true love!' I mean, really, would that be so hard? Oh, come now, Edward! You're not going to lose your nerve again are you?
Normally Edward would have scowled at something like what Alice had just said, but he and Bella were still completely riveted on each other, so his sister's words barely registered in his brain. Bella was all that mattered. Absolutely nothing else was even the slightest bit important.
Hellooooo! Earth to Edward! Do something! Say something! At least make up your mind so I can see what's going to happen! If I weren't dead already the suspense would be killing me! Just decide soon, will you? If not for my sanity then for Bella's. If you don't tell her soon I will. I swear it, Edward. Alice noticed a slight tightening in her brother's jaw. He was clenching his teeth, which meant that she was finally getting through to him on some level. It would be best if she heard it from you. I know you're frightened of what will happen when you tell her, Alice continued in a softer, kinder tone, but shouldn't you be more concerned about what will happen if you don't? She deserves to know, just as you said before. I like her, Edward, and I cannot stand idly by while you torture her in some misguided attempt to protect her from what you are. Let her come to her own decisions about you, about us. Trust her. Have faith that her love for you is as strong and unwavering as yours is for her.
The rest of the class was slowly gathering their things to leave, and Alice was doing the same as she silently communicated with her brother. The only difference was that she was straight-faced. Edward and Bella's poignant performance had left all of the other girls in tears.
The boys were rubbing their fists over their moist eyes and muttering about allergies.
"Mr. Cullen, Miss Swan," Ms. Reeder sniffled as she stood up from her seat. The sound of her voice made Bella twitch; she and Edward ripped their eyes away from each other and reluctantly turned their heads to focus on their teacher. "That was-," Ms. Reeder had to pause to put a hand over her heart, "so beautiful. You so convincingly conveyed the love that Romeo and Juliet felt for one another, and the horrible grief they suffered when they were forced to part. I hope you'll consider joining the drama club, because you both have so much-." Ms. Reeder's voice faltered and she touched her fingers to her lips. "I'm sorry," she squeaked. "I'm just so moved!" She reached for a box of tissues on her desk and found it empty. "Excuse me, please," she hiccupped as she hurried out the door.
The classroom was empty now. Even Alice had gone.
Once again, Edward and Bella were alone together.
Edward could hear the rapid thumping of Bella's racing heart and he slowly slid his eyes in her direction. She was back to staring at him in awe-struck amazement. He imagined how that look might change when he told her the truth about what he was. "Yes, darling," he'd say, "it's me. But, you see, the thing is… I'm sort of… a vampire." Not only would that revelation make this her worst birthday ever, it would repulse her. He was just sure that the joy and the love he saw in her eyes now would turn to fear and disgust. Icy terror swept through his system and crystallized, causing him to shudder just slightly.
He couldn't do it. He couldn't tell her. He couldn't watch as her love for him turned to revulsion. It would break him.
Let Alice tell her, then. Maybe Alice was wrong, maybe it would be better that way. Maybe it would be less painful for Bella if the truth came from someone other than him.
Then again, maybe he was just a coward.
As self-loathing threatened to swallow him whole, Edward turned and strode quickly to his desk; he could feel his inner agony manifesting itself in his facial expression, and he wanted to hide it from Bella. He hated himself so intensely right now it made him want to retch.
He heard Bella gasp out his name, heard her stumbling footsteps on the carpet as she clumsily hurried to join him at his desk. He caught a very strong whiff of her when she leaned heavily on the edge of the desk, using it for support. Venom started flowing from his teeth and he clenched his jaw so tight the muscle in his cheek jumped. It took all of the strength and willpower he had to ignore her as he used his arm to sweep his books and papers into his black messenger-style book bag.
"Edward!" Bella called after him as he stalked out into the hectic hallway. "Edward!" She wasn't going to give up.
He heard her quick footsteps following behind him. If the hallway had been empty he'd have been able to move at his full speed- he'd have been gone before she'd even exited the classroom. The hallway, however, wasn't empty, so he had no choice but to move at a human pace. He knew Bella was going to catch up with him, but he kept walking. He weaved in and out of clusters of chattering teenagers who were trying to put off going to their next class for as long as they possibly could, using them to put distance between Bella and himself. He could hear her struggling to make her way through the horde of high-schoolers; she couldn't move as swiftly or as gracefully as he could.
"Edward, please!" She called out to him again, and this time he heard a tearful quaver in her voice. That was what made him slow down and change course.
He hated even the thought of her being upset enough to cry.
He found a break in the crowd and turned left, coming to a stop in front of a bank of lockers that lined that side of the hallway. He stopped in front of the locker that was his, spun the lock, and yanked the door open. He stood there, pretending to dig for a book as he listened to Bella walk up behind him.
"It's you, isn't it?" she asked in a hushed, trembling voice.
Edward closed his locker slowly, quietly, without even taking anything out of it. Then, even more slowly, he turned to face her. The blinding euphoria he saw in her expression made him avert his gaze.
"It's really you," she laughed tremulously as two tears trickled out of the corners of her eyes. "It has to be. I can't believe I ever had any doubt-. But how did you get here? How are you even here? Did you come back with me somehow?"
That question made Edward's eyes snap up and lock with hers. He realized that this was the conversation Alice had seen in her vision last night, but what he couldn't figure out was what Bella meant by "come back with me."
Bella jolted when Edward's soul-stirring eyes connected with hers so unexpectedly. She laughed in a whisper and more happy tears spilled down her face. "I'm sorry," she sniffled and blew out a steadying breath. Her eyes were soaking up the sight of him, tracing over every detail of his face. Her scrutiny made him very uncomfortable, so he looked away once more. She leaned closer and he stiffened when the tantalizing smell of her skin swirled around him. "Edward," she murmured. He could hear the concern and the quiet bewilderment in her voice and his hands curled into fists at his sides.
He knew what she was going to say next.
"What happened to you?"
Edward panicked when she raised her hand, her fingers stretching toward his cheek. He promptly took one giant step backward to keep her from touching his frigid skin.
Bella froze for a long moment, her eyes wide and stunned. Then she jerked her arm back and forced it down to her side. Slowly, unwillingly, she began to wonder if she'd made a horrible mistake. Why else would he refuse to look at her, to speak to her, to let her touch him? If he were really hers he would have told her so. Or he would have kissed her, or… something! Everything she'd been so sure of in class a few minutes earlier was a lot less certain now, here, in the noisy, bustling hallway. Was she really this far gone? Was she so desperate to have her Edward back that she'd just imagined everything that had happened between her and Edward Cullen in English?
"You have… no idea what I'm talking about, do you?" Bella laughed again, but it wasn't a happy sound. Her tears began to flow a little faster. Fresh emotional and spiritual wounds had her wrapping her arms around herself; she felt like she was coming undone. She couldn't even look at Edward Cullen anymore. If he hadn't thought she was crazy already, he probably thought she was crazy now. He'd want nothing to do with her after this, and how could she blame him? She was acting like a complete lunatic….
Oh, it was just too much! The devastating despair that slashed through her chest nearly brought her to her knees. She had to leave. Now. She could feel a total emotional breakdown coming on, and she didn't want to be standing in a crowded hallway with the boy who had her Edward's face when it hit.
"I'm sorry," she coughed out the words on a soft, hard sob and hugged herself even tighter. "You were right before when you said we can't be friends. I won't… I won't talk to you anymore… I promise. I'm sorry." A quiet whimper came through her trembling lips before she turned to half-walk, half-run to a pair of double doors at the end of the long hallway.
"Bella wait!" Edward called after her. He hissed out a whispered curse and pulled a hand through his hair when she ignored him and shoved her way out into the rain.
The thoughts of everyone else in the hall were abuzz with speculation about what had just occurred between Edward Cullen and the Swan girl, but Edward couldn't have cared less about what anybody else was thinking. He had just pulverized Bella's heart for no other reason than he hadn't the moral courage to be truthful with her about who- and what- he was.
You are the biggest idiot I have ever known! Alice's voice rang through his head like musical thunder. If you don't find a way to fix this horrendous mess you've made, so help me, Edward, I'll-! Oh. Well, now. Yes, that's much better. Alice's tone became softer, tinged with pleased surprise, when the outcome of a snap decision Edward had just made came to her in a vision.
Edward caught only a glimpse of Alice's vision before she put a very swift end to their mental connection. She had this ridiculous belief that he shouldn't know too much about his own future, but Edward was sure she just enjoyed torturing him. At any rate, he was encouraged by his sister's reaction to whatever it was she'd just seen, so he turned and went back the way he'd come. His movements were strong and graceful, with an edge of aggression; the other students actually moved to make way for him- like a herd of nervous wildebeest scattering to avoid a prowling lion.
When he arrived at his intended destination- his still-empty English classroom- Edward strode through the door and went straight to his teacher's desk. He snatched a Hershey Kiss out of a jar of assorted candy that Ms. Reeder always kept very well stocked, tucked it in his pocket, and blew back out into the hallway. He went over the rest of his plan in his head as he made his way to his History class.
Bella was lost in a haze of numbness as she wandered to the gym for her last class of the day. She changed into her P.E. clothes in the same numb haze, completely unaware of the stares and whispers her expressionless face elicited from the other girls in the locker room.
Just one more class, her mind tried to soothe her distraught spirit. Just one more class and then you can go home and cry.
Crying was all she felt like doing, but she knew that this was neither the time nor the place. Not unless she wanted to pay a visit to the school psychologist's office. So she turned everything off, suppressed everything, became a robot. She could hold it all in for one more hour.
Well, at least she hoped she could.
"Now, who can tell me-? Yes, Mr. Cullen?" Edward's History teacher, Mr. Miller, stopped his lecture when he turned away from the blackboard and saw that the bronze-haired boy in the back row had his hand up.
Edward silently held up his student planner, which had a page up front that acted as a sort of hall pass. The teachers would initial a blank slot on the page if a student needed to use the restroom, go to the nurse, etc.
"Bring it here," Mr. Miller instructed with a wiggle of his fingers.
Edward stood and stepped soundlessly to the front of the room. "Thank you," he said politely under his breath when his teacher returned his planner to him.
"Just hurry back," Mr. Miller waved him away. "We're getting into the thick of the First World War, here. This is really good stuff. You won't want to miss anything."
"Yes, sir," Edward couldn't suppress a grin as he turned to leave. He probably knew the First World War better than his teacher. He'd lived through it for heaven's sake!
Once he was out of his classroom, Edward glanced around to make sure the hallway was empty. When he was positive that he was alone he exited the building in a fantastic burst of speed. Moving at a human pace all day was so tiresome; it was like being forced to wear chains when all you wanted to do was fly. Having a chance to let loose like this, even if it was only for a little while, was incredibly invigorating.
He reached the gym in seconds and stealthily slipped into the vacant girls' locker room.
He picked Bella's scent out of all the others in a nanosecond.
After a brief search of the coaching office in the back- where all of the students' locker combinations were kept- he made quick work of getting into the locker that was assigned to Bella. The door opened with a long, slow metallic creak and her smell hit him right in the face. It was so concentrated and so close…. Edward was mortified by the quiet moan that rumbled low in his throat. He ground his teeth together to slow the flow of his venom and quickly fished the Kiss and a handwritten note out of his pocket. When the note and the candy were safely tucked into the pocket of Bella's coat- which was hanging by the hood on a hook inside the locker- Edward pressed a kiss to his fingertips and trailed them along her coat sleeve.
He was nothing but a blur when he left. The crippling fear he'd grappled with earlier had begun to seep back into his system, so he left as quickly as he could, before that fear could compel him to take the note and the chocolate back.
Inside the gym, Bella's P.E. class was dividing up into two teams. They were going to be playing indoor-dodge ball today- something that would have horrified Bella if she had been in a normal state of mind. In her current condition, however, she couldn't even put forth the effort it took to care.
That was probably why she got smacked in the face with a big red kickball and didn't even realize it until her teacher and the other students converged on her to see if she was all right.
"Ohmigosh, Bella," Jessica Stanley gasped, her hand at her heart. "The right side of your face is all red."
Bella blinked at Jessica for a moment before she was able to mumble, "I don't feel anything."
"Why don't you go to the nurse anyway and get some ice?" her teacher suggested, a pinched, worried look on her middle-aged face. "Go to the locker room and get your things first. You probably won't be back before the end of class."
"Okay," Bella mumbled again with a half-hearted shrug.
She spent the remainder of her last period lying on her back on a very uncomfortable cot in the back of the nurse's office, holding a bag of ice to her face and staring sightlessly at the ceiling.
When the dismissal bell blared she rolled off the cot, tossed the melted ice pack into a nearby trash can, said a quiet thank-you to the nurse, and quickly made her exit.
Bella told herself she wouldn't look for him, but as she stood next to her truck, fumbling in her backpack for her keys, her eyes scanned the bustling parking lot once, twice, and then three times. There was no sign of him or Alice. Blinking rapidly to keep the burning tears at bay for just a few minutes longer she climbed inside the cab of her truck, twisted the key in the ignition, and furiously threw the vehicle into reverse.
When Bella arrived home she found an unfamiliar black car parked behind Charlie's cruiser- a spot that was supposed to be unofficially reserved for her truck. Wearing a frown of mild confusion, she parked in the street and stepped out into the biting cold of the blustery September afternoon.
"Hey! There's the Birthday Girl! How's it feel to finally be legal?"
Bella froze in mid-step and stared with wide eyes at the tall, broad-shouldered man-child who was standing on her front porch and smiling. Birthday? Holy crow, she'd forgotten all about her own birthday! How in the world did this guy know about it?
"Oh, come on," he chuckled, seeing the uncertainty in her expression. "I know it's been awhile since we've seen each other, but don't tell me you don't remember me." He crossed two hulking arms over an unbelievable set of pectorals. Every move he made caused one muscle or another to ripple underneath his long-sleeved black shirt- which hugged him like a second skin.
Bella stared at him, her eyes narrowing with concentration as she studied his face. He had the most beautiful copper-colored skin; a proud, jutting chin; a wide, cheerful smile; short, wind-tousled black hair; dark eyes that were playful and fierce at the same time…. She decided it was a nice face. If she weren't in such emotional distress over losing one Edward- and alienating another- Bella might even consider it a handsome face.
The most important thing about the boy on the porch, though, wasn't anything that could be seen on the outside. He radiated kindness and sincerity- the warmth of his spirit was his true beauty.
"Jacob." His name came through her lips slowly, softly. "Jacob Black?" But he couldn't possibly be Jacob. Jacob was two years younger than she was, which would make him sixteen now. The kid on her porch looked twenty-something. He was huge.
"Whew," Jacob's smile widened as he wiped the palm of his right hand across his forehead in a joking gesture of relief. "You didn't forget me after all. I was getting kind of nervous." He chuckled as he descended the front porch steps, moving with a graceful but predatory swiftness that seemed almost… inhuman.
He came to a very abrupt halt when he reached the bottom of the steps and just stood there in the middle of the walkway, seemingly frozen in place. The really strange thing, though, was the expression on his face. He was looking at her like she reeked of dead people. Her right coat sleeve seemed to be of particular interest to him.
"Jacob," Bella squirmed uncomfortably. "Are you… okay?"
"Yeah," Jacob came to his senses with a start. "Yeah. Sorry about that." He quickly closed the remaining distance between them, flashed a luminous smile, stuck his hand out and said, "Welcome back."
Bella bashfully slipped her mitten-clad hand into his bare one while she absentmindedly fiddled with her hooded jacket's drawstring with her other hand. Her chest hurt with a mixture of grief and the need to cry. A giant sob was sitting right at the base of her throat, just waiting for a chance to escape. She didn't want to talk, for fear of completely losing her composure, but she didn't want to be rude either. She forced herself to politely say, "Thanks. It's… it's really nice to see you again."
"Same here," Jacob smiled again and nodded his agreement. "You got really pretty. I mean… 'ya know. You grew up… good." Jacob's face scrunched up, like he couldn't believe how stupid the words sounded now that they were out of his mouth.
Bella felt warmth explode across her cheeks and she knew she was blushing. She wished he hadn't said that. She did not, at the moment, have the patience or the emotional stability to politely and gently dismiss Jacob Black's painfully obvious flirtations. She had to get out of this situation soon or she'd snap.
"It's pretty cold out here," she said aloud, making a show of shivering. "Maybe we should go in now."
"All that Arizona sun has thinned your blood," Jacob sent a teasing grin her way.
"Do you think… all of this Washington chill will make my blood thicker?" Bella tried her best to play along with him, even though she was in absolutely no mood for joking around. Edward Masen and Edward Cullen were both weighing heavily on her mind. And her heart.
"I hope so," Jacob replied, shoving his hands in the pockets of his jeans. "Thick blood's pretty much a necessity for people who live in Forks." The humor in his voice had changed, become darker, more serious. It made Bella shiver again.
"Why did you say it that way?" she asked, frowning at him.
Jacob's strong shoulders lifted and fell in another shrug and a broad smile brought the youthful effervescence back to his face. "I'm just messing around," he said. Bella couldn't understand why, but she didn't believe him. Something in the way he'd said what he did was very disturbing, very real.
"Oh," she mumbled, contemplation pulling her eyebrows together. "Well, real funny. Do you want to come inside or not?" She turned and took a step toward the porch without waiting for his response.
Jacob quickly blocked her path and grinned apologetically when she shot him an irritated look. "I'm supposed to keep you out of the house for a little while," he explained. "Your dad and mine are doing, like, last-minute birthday stuff in there," he jerked his thumb over his shoulder, jabbing it at the house.
"That's so nice," Bella was suddenly fighting tears. Don't do it, she mentally ordered herself. Don't you break down now. Not in front of Jacob.
"If you think it's so nice why do you look like you want to cry?" Jacob folded his arms over his chest again and lowered his chin so that he and Bella were eye-to-eye. He was very serious, almost like a cop, but Bella could tell- despite her crumbling composure- that he was genuinely concerned.
"Because my dad… he doesn't make a big deal about things, 'ya know?" Bella was mortified by how badly her voice was shaking. She shrugged one shoulder and tried her best to put on a smile while she blinked the tears back. "I don't know what my problem is. I guess I'm still kind of homesick and I feel guilty about it, especially when my dad's trying his best to make me feel at home here. I mean, the fact that he's inside right now doing stuff that's birthday-related is huge…." The heat of another blush warmed Bella's cheeks when she realized that she had begun to ramble. It was something she always did whenever she wasn't being entirely truthful. She was pretty sure she was the worst liar in the history of humankind. However, she was also pretty sure that telling Jacob the other reason for her sadness- her trip through time and her two Edwards- would land her in the psych ward at the nearest hospital.
Jacob arched an eyebrow, his expression dubious. He looked like he knew she was leaving something out, and he was trying to decide whether or not he should ask for the whole story. Finally, another one of his supernova smiles flashed across his face and he chuckled as he draped a friendly arm over her shoulders.
"Well," he said, "I can understand that. But, 'ya know, you've been away for a long time. I think once you get reacquainted with this place, you won't mind being back here so much."
"Wow you're warm." Bella instinctively pressed herself closer to the side of Jacob's body, soaking up his heat. "How can you be so warm?" she asked through chattering teeth.
"Am I? I, um…." A nervous chuckle rumbled through Jacob's chest. It seemed like he was stalling for time until he could think of a way to change the subject. "Hey, I know what'll cheer you up. A walk in the woods." He lifted his free hand and indicated the expanse of lush green forest that flanked Bella's house.
"I've seen the woods before," Bella grumbled. "How is walking through them in freezing cold weather going to cheer me up?"
Jacob gave her a work-with-me-here kind of look. "It'd be a perfect start to the whole getting-reacquainted-with-Forks thing I was talking about," he said matter-of-factly. "And FYI, this is not freezing cold weather. Just wait 'til December, then you'll know what freezing cold is."
"So when does the cheering up part come in again?" Bella's voice was dull with flat sarcasm. Jacob laughed heartily at what she'd said, and Bella found herself smiling at the sound. It was the first time she'd smiled since that… soul-shredding incident with Edward Cullen in the hallway at school. When Jacob's arm tightened around her shoulders, she was surprised to realize that she wasn't uncomfortable with the closeness. Unlike earlier- when he'd made that ridiculous remark about how nicely she'd grown up- there was nothing inappropriate in the way he was touching her. She didn't know if he was trying to make amends because he realized he'd crossed a line or not, but there was nothing but the warmth of genuine friendship between them now; and her battered spirit savored the uncomplicated companionship that Jacob offered.
It was strange, Bella thought, how quickly the camaraderie she and Jacob had shared as children rekindled itself. Well, actually, she supposed it wasn't really so strange. Jacob was easy to like. He had this incredible way of bringing light to dark places. Just being in his presence made her feel safe and warm and… sane. He was like a big blanket that had wrapped itself around her just as she was about to succumb to the icy hypothermia of her grief.
"You'll like this, you'll see," Jacob promised. "There's this… peace in the woods that you can't find anywhere else."
"Are you… are you sure we won't get lost?" Bella was a habitual worrier, which was one of many things she disliked about herself.
"I don't get lost," Jacob oozed confidence. "I spend… a lot of time outside," he explained when Bella quirked an eyebrow at him. "Relax," he chuckled, giving her shoulders a soft squeeze. "You're safe, I swear. Now could you please at least pretend like you're enjoying yourself? Look at all these trees. You can't tell me Arizona has anything as awesome as this."
"Um, hello? Grand Canyon? One of the seven natural wonders of the world?" Bella huffed slightly as she concentrated on keeping her footing.
"Huge gaping hole. Big whoop." Jacob was obviously unimpressed. "I'm talking about stuff with foliage, stuff that's alive."
"Okay, clearly you've never been to the Grand Canyon. And Arizona has plenty of stuff with foliage," Bella said defensively. She stumbled over an uneven patch of rich, dark earth and was instantly steadied by Jacob's gigantic hand.
"The thorns in the cactuses don't count as foliage," he grinned.
"There is an abundance of plant life in Arizona!" Bella insisted passionately. "And the plural of 'cactus' is 'cacti'," she smirked and gave her walking companion a gentle nudge. "Not 'cactuses'."
"Whatever," Jacob laughed. "Scraggly, half-dead shrubs and cacti," Jacob put heavy sarcasm on the word while making air quotes with his fingers, "can't compare to this." He spread his arms wide, inviting his friend to have a look around.
Bella was speechless for a moment as her wide eyes absorbed her surroundings. She'd been so busy playfully bickering with Jacob and concentrating on not falling on her face that she hadn't even paid any attention to where her feet were taking her.
Enormous trees with long, stretching branches stood draped in moss. They were very majestic and intimidating- like nature's guardians. And they were everywhere. There were trees on either side of her as far as she could see, and they created a thick canopy over her head. She lifted her eyes heavenward, trying to figure out just how close some of these trees were to touching the sky. She got a sense of just how big the world was, and how small she was in it. A sort of reverence came over her, and she suddenly felt as if she were in a church. She was ashamed of herself for having spent so many of her childhood summers in this place without ever taking the time to really appreciate its natural splendor.
The beauty of the forest was enchanting, but it was also eerie. Her imagination started to run away with her and all of a sudden, Bella had the absurd idea that these woods played host to all kinds of otherworldly creatures who preyed upon anyone foolish enough to walk amongst the trees alone. As she shivered at her own stupidity, a sudden flood of tingling warmth rippled through her body. It was a sensation that was quickly becoming familiar to her.
Edward. He was close.
She gasped and spun around, her eyes darting left and right, right and left, from one massive tree trunk to the next.
"What's the matter?" Jacob was at her side again in a single bound, towering over her protectively.
"Oh," Bella giggled nervously and rubbed her arms. "N—nothing. Nothing. I felt like… I felt like I was being watched," she giggled again when she said the words out loud. She was definitely losing her mind. "Stupid, right? Let's just… let's just keep going." She took a step forward, but Jacob grabbed her wrist in a firm, almost bruising grip before she could go any farther. "Hey!" Bella protested, wriggling her arm in an attempt to free herself. Confused, angry, and a little bit frightened, she raised her eyes to his face.
He had the same look as before- the stench-of-dead-people look. His jaw was clenched, his nostrils were flared like he smelled something putrid, and his eyes were locked on something hidden high in the treetops. Bella had no clue what he could be looking at. She couldn't see anything out of the ordinary.
"Jacob, knock it off," she pleaded, twisting the wrist that was still trapped in his fingers of steel. His strange behavior was starting to make her really nervous.
Edward was crouching on the mossy, gnarled limb of an ancient and enormous Big Leaf Maple tree. It was an excellent hiding spot, but Jacob Black- a shape-shifting wolf who liked to use vampires as chew toys- had managed to sniff him out anyway.
I recognize your stink, leech. Jacob's voice filled Edward's mind, blazing through his brain like wildfire. You're that mind-reading Cullen freak, right? I don't know what the hell you're doing over here, but if you don't get your undead butt out of my sight in the next ten seconds you're going to be really sorry.
Edward's eyes narrowed into a cold, hard glare. Jacob's obnoxious and overly-affectionate thoughts about Bella had already pushed him close to the edge; he would not tolerate being threatened by someone who had the ability to sprout a tail. If that overgrown mutt didn't take his filthy paws off Bella, he would be the sorry one.
Edward managed to rein in his anger long enough to remind himself that Jacob knew nothing of the history that he and Bella shared. The poor, stupid mongrel was only trying to protect her.
The fact that Jacob was still a relatively new wolf was also something to bear in mind. Newer wolves had a harder time with control, which meant that they were more likely to phase into their animal forms without warning. He'd heard stories of humans who had been disfigured and even killed by wolves who hadn't fully learned restraint.
And Bella was standing close enough to Jacob that she'd be mauled beyond recognition if he phased.
Edward raised his hands to chest level- a sign of surrender- and disappeared from sight in the time it took Jacob to blink.
"Jacob," Bella begged, still struggling to break loose. "You're hurting me." He instantly let go of her when she said that.
"I'm sorry," he said breathlessly, reaching up to run a shaking hand through his untidy dark hair. He looked furious and horrified at the same time. "Oh, geez, Bella. I'm really sorry," he repeated when he saw the beginnings of a bruise around her wrist. "I didn't mean to-. I didn't even realize I was-. I was just trying to-. Are you all right?"
"Yeah," Bella nodded, rubbing her sore wrist. "I've done worse to myself," she grinned, trying to lighten the mood.
Jacob's mouth twitched like it was trying to smile, but a smile never fully formed. He dragged agitated fingers through his hair again and exhaled a long, gusty sigh.
"Jacob," Bella carefully touched his shoulder. "It's okay, really," she murmured when his wild eyes swept over to meet her kind gaze.
"It was an accident," he rasped after taking a moment to swallow a lump that had formed at the base of his throat.
"I know," Bella frowned when she saw how upset he was. "It's okay," she repeated, giving his shoulder a gentle pat. "I'll live, I promise." A gust of wind sent a shiver rippling through her body a second later, so she hastily picked up his arm and draped it over her shoulders, huddling against him for warmth.
"You're not afraid?" Jacob was stunned. She should be terrified. She should be running in the opposite direction and screaming at the top of her lungs. Instead she put his arm around her like she was completely and totally at ease with him.
"No," Bella furrowed her eyebrows at him like he'd just asked her the stupidest question ever. "I'm cold! Can we go, please?" Her response caused a quiet chuckle to spill out of Jacob's mouth.
"Yeah, we can go," he said. They turned around and made their way back through the ferns and the moss-covered trees.
"And just so you know," Bella said through clicking teeth as they strolled amiably through the peaceful woods, "I don't think I could ever be afraid of you. I know you would never purposefully hurt me, Jacob."
Jacob slowly turned his head in her direction and looked down into her uplifted eyes. "How do you know that?" he asked, speaking softly. Some of the sadness had returned to his expression.
"I just… do," Bella tried to shrug, but the weight of Jacob's ridiculously muscular arm made moving her shoulders impossible. "I feel like I know you, 'ya know? Like, really know you, even though we haven't seen each other in years. You're good. You're the most genuine person I've met since I moved back here."
Jacob rolled his eyes as a grin of embarrassment fell across his lips. "Yeah, well, I try," he muttered.
"Yeah," Bella made herself laugh softly. "I know you do. But… you know I have to ask, right?" Bella spoke carefully and watched his expression for any signs of unease.
"Ask what?" A storm was brewing in Jacob's dark eyes when he finally responded to Bella's inquiry.
"What did you see in the trees?" Bella's eyes were glued to Jacob's striking profile.
Jacob's face hardened- became absolutely terrifying- before he quickly manufactured a smile. "Oh," he said with a strained laugh, "I don't know. Nothing, really. I kind of freaked out when you said you thought you were being watched. I got carried away trying to protect you."
Bella tried not to let her disappointment show in her expression. He was lying, but she couldn't figure out why. He'd seen something in those trees. Why wouldn't he tell her what it was?
"Hey, so, how do you like school so far?" Jacob asked casually after a few silent moments.
"It's… bearable. But just barely," she replied, giggling when he chuckled. "How come I haven't seen you there?"
"I go to school on the reservation," he explained.
"Ah," Bella nodded her understanding. "Well that really… bites," she pouted. She couldn't understand when Jacob choked on a laugh.
"Why do you say that?" he asked, his lips still twitching with amusement.
"Because you're, like, the one person I'd actually enjoy being around," Bella frowned.
"You're not making friends?" Jacob tilted his head and blinked at her curiously.
Bella felt her frown deepen. Jacob was pumping her for information. Why was he so eager to know about the kids she went to school with?
"Not really," she answered, eyeing him suspiciously. "I mean, everybody's been really nice and everything, but all of their kindness has either been way over the top or totally superficial. I'm hoping things will get better once they've all gotten used to me."
"Anybody giving you a hard time?" Jacob was back to his cop-like interrogation. His eyes were intense and focused solely on her.
"Jeez. Stand down, Captain Tall-Dark-and-Menacing. I haven't had any real problems with anybody," Bella's frown remained fixed on her face. Jacob was really digging for something. What was it?
Jacob huffed out a hard breath. Obviously, her answer hadn't been what he'd wanted or expected to hear.
"Do you mind if I give you a heads-up anyway?" he questioned darkly after a brief but tense pause. A wide-eyed Bella mutely shook her head. Jacob looked murderously angry and she was stuck between being in awe and being nail-bitingly nervous. "Steer clear of the Cullens, okay?" he requested, his eyes softening as he looked at her.
"What?" Bella was now completely confused. "Alice and… Edward?" Saying his name brought the aches back and she wrapped an arm around her middle. "How do you even know them?"
"It's a small town, all right? Everybody pretty much knows everything about everybody else," Jacob explained in a low, angry growl.
"But…" Bella was at a loss for words for a moment, she was so stunned by Jacob's warning. "But I sit with them at lunch; I have English with them; I…. They might be a little… different, but they've been… nice to me."
"Bella," Jacob said somberly. "Trust me. Just stay away from them. All of them. Please."
"Why?" Bella heard the eager edge in her voice and she tried desperately to dial it back. Her heart was pounding so hard her chest hurt. Jacob knew. He knew the Cullens' mysterious secret, and she wanted in.
"Because. That's why. I know we haven't really seen each other in a while, so it probably seems way out of line for me to tell you who you should be friends with, but could you just do what I say and not ask questions? I'm trying to look out for you." Jacob picked up his pace, and Bella practically had to sprint to keep up.
"Why do you feel like you have to protect me from the Cullens?" Bella demanded. "What about them is so terrible? What do you know, Jacob?"
"I know they're a bunch of freaks, all right?" Jacob shouted. "They might come across as nice and polite and all that, but it's just an act. They are not what they seem."
"If they're not what they seem then what are they?" Bella was not going to let this go until Jacob gave her straight answer.
"Dangerous liars," was all Jacob said in response.
They were back in Bella's front yard at this point, just steps from the porch. Suddenly, Jacob froze, and his nose wrinkled in that weird rotten-flesh-smell sort of way.
"You've got to be kidding me," he snarled under his breath.
"Jake?" Bella was extremely confused and a little apprehensive. She wasn't exactly sure what was going on with Jacob, but she was positive that Edward Cullen wasn't the only one with a super-massive-sized secret.
He twitched when she spoke his name and grudgingly turned his eyes away from the backyard- which was the direction he was glaring in, so Bella could only assume that whatever was bothering him was somewhere back there.
"Seriously, are you okay?" Bella could feel the worry on her face.
"Yeah," Jacob worked up a very convincing smile and draped his arm over her shoulders once again. "Low blood sugar," he explained. "Come on, let's go eat some cake."
Bella wasn't able to enjoy the little party her father and the Blacks had put together for her—streamers and balloons and all- as much as she would have liked. She was too busy mentally obsessing over Jacob Blacks secret, Edward Culllen's secret, and how the two could possibly be intertwined.
The frosting on the cake was jarringly sweet, and she was only able to take a few bites anyway. Thanks to Jacob and all of his question-dodging her appetite was non-existent.
Bella was more than a little confused when Jacob hopped up from his seat and insisted on taking out the garbage for Charlie after everyone had finished eating. Charlie seemed a little perplexed as well, but he let Jacob do as he wanted.
Jacob slammed the trash bag into the tall black garbage can as soon as he was through the back door and banged the lid back into place. Then he turned to a nearby tree and demanded, "Get down here."
Edward Cullen swung down from a low-hanging branch and landed in front of Jacob with a grace that was catlike.
"Good afternoon, Jacob," he said with a polite but cold smile. "Lovely day for a party, isn't it?"
Jacob took a step forward and thumped Edward's chest with his index finger. "You have no place here," he growled. "Stay away from her, do you hear me? Stay away from her or I'll kill you."
Edward's smile became darker, more dangerous. "You forget which side of the line you're on, mongrel," he said. "You're in my territory. The only way you would have grounds to kill me is if I kill a human first, which is something I have no intention of doing. I would never hurt Bella."
Jacob was enraged and disgusted by the tender tone Edward used when he spoke Bella's name. "You and your kind," he sneered angrily at the pasty, undead freak in front of him, "you never intend for anyone to get hurt. It's always something that just happens, right? I don't really care what your intentions are, Cullen. You're a danger to her no matter what. Stay away from her."
"I'd never let anything happen to her. I'd protect her with my life," Edward said evenly. When Jacob scoffed at his use of the term "life," Edward's golden eyes narrowed just slightly. "I don't owe you any explanations, Jacob Black," he hissed. "And I don't take orders from you, either. The terms of the treaty have not been violated, so you can take your threats and go to hell with them."
"That's really rich coming from you, you soulless killing machine!" Jacob snarled through his teeth.
Edward stared at him unblinkingly for a long moment before he turned and swung back up into the tree. "Go back inside," he ordered through the leaves. "They're wondering what's taking you so long."
Jacob took a deep, steadying breath before he opened the back door and reentered the kitchen.
Presents followed the cake, and Bella was happily surprised by the new laptop and webcam from her parents. She knew her reaction to the incredible gifts wasn't what it should be, but it was hard to work up the proper level of excitement when Jacob kept twisting his head around to glare at the back door.
Later that night, Bella was up in her room getting ready for bed. She picked her coat up from her bed and turned to drape it over the back of her desk chair. It slid to the floor and Bella stooped to pick it up. When she did, a Hershey Kiss fell out of her pocket and landed with a soft thump. A folded piece of paper floated to the floor as well.
"What?" Bella mumbled to herself. With knitted brows she carefully picked up both the paper and the candy.
She crumpled to the floor when she read the words that were so elegantly scrawled across the paper.
My Sweet Bella,
A kiss for you, dearest. Happy birthday. I owe you quite an explanation, and I know I should have given it to you at school earlier, but the story of what happened to me since we last saw each other is such an intricate one and I just didn't how to tell you. Forgive me, darling. You must know I would never hurt you for anything in the world. I ask you, please, to meet me in the library before school tomorrow. Come at six. The door will be unlocked and you'll find me there. I love you, Bella.
Bella sat in a heap on the floor, staring at the words and gasping for breath. "I knew it," she laughed in a whisper. She felt a little crazy. All of this was so impossible, but she would find a way to believe it if it meant she could have her Edward back. "I knew you were mine."
Bella got out of bed at five the next morning, having never shut her eyes the night before, and shivered her way into the bathroom. She brushed her teeth, combed her hair, and got dressed. All the while her heart was thundering in her chest. EdwardEdwardEdwardEdward…. His name was inside her, seemed to be her life force. She threw open the bathroom door and slammed right into her father.
"Bells? What're you doing up?" Charlie's face was still pinched with sleep and he was in his pajamas.
"Gotta go to the library. School project. Worked out an agreement with the librarian," Bella gave her explanation in short, breathless bursts.
"Oh," Charlie stifled a yawn as he shuffled into the bathroom. "Okay. Well, have a good day."
"Yep, thanks, I will!" Bella snatched her backpack up off her bedroom floor, grabbed a banana out of the kitchen and sprinted out to her truck.
Bella paused at the library door just long enough to pull in a quivering breath. She could feel Edward on the other side. She pulled the door open and stepped inside. She saw Edward sitting at one of the long wooden study tables. He stood as soon as their eyes met.
She took a step toward him and he started walking in her direction. They met in the middle of the room.
Bella stared at him in wonderment, her eyes brimming with tears. "Are you really mine?" she whispered tremulously.
Edward's eyes glowed tenderly as he whispered back to her, "Yes."
Okay, so there we are. I'm really, really, reeeeaaallllly sorry I took such a ridiculously long time. You guys have to know that I hate making you wait. I've really been struggling with things lately, dealing with a lot. Life has me down on my knees right now. My story kind of fell by the wayside for awhile. Then my computer crapped out on me and I had no way to post anything. It just got fixed again a couple of days ago, so here is the long-awaited update. Thank you all for being so wonderful and enthusiastic and patient. If the updates don't come as quickly as you like, I'm very sorry, but I don't need or want anybody to take over the story for me. Just keep being patient with me and send me good thoughts. I'm thinking I'll post shorter chapters from now on. Maybe then the updates will be more frequent for you guys. I just want all of you to be happy, so if shorter chapters will accomplish that, then that's what I'll do. Hee-hee. I hope everyone had a happy Thanksgiving. -Sarah