Title: your heart remained the same
Fandom:
Twilight
Pairings: Jacob/Bella, Jacob/Renesmee, Edward/Bella
Rating: Teen
Spoilers:
Through Breaking Dawn
Notes
: Though this does take place post-BD, it doesn't bear much resemblance to that neat, tidy package SMeyers envisioned in her ending. This is intentional. Where she sees imprinting as eternal soulmates, I see it as a rape of free will. Where she sees unchanging eternity as happily ever after, I see it as a curse. Story title from the song "Inch" by Charlotte Martin
Warnings: Angst, angst, a tiny smidgen of happiness, and then a buttload more angst.

Imprinting is just another way of getting your choices taken away from you.

Jacob, Chapter 16, Breaking Dawn

It takes her longer than it should to notice. Maybe because she's too lost in her own happiness to see. Maybe because it makes her too uncomfortable to think about it. Maybe because, from the moment Renesmee is born (and Bella is reborn), he feels less hers.

Whatever the reason, she doesn't notice until she's telling her best friend that they are leaving Forks. "People are becoming suspicious; it's time."

He says nothing, watches her, full lips pressed tightly together.

She feels awkward, ungraceful, for the first time in her new (un)life. "You can come with us if you want," she adds in a rush. "Or not. It's your choice."

He smiles the bitter smile, the one she used to blame on Sam Uley, the wolf smile. "What choice?" he says, and this is when she understands.

He doesn't come with them, but he promises Nessie he'll be there soon.

For a week, Nessie spends every moment staring out of windows, her hand pressed to the glass. Bella wants to scold her daughter, but every time she approaches her, she finds herself gazing at the empty road as well.

Once, she turns to find Edward watching them both. She wishes the kiss she gives him would take away the hurt lurking in his eyes.

Jacob manages to stay away eight days. Nessie squeals and runs out the door at the first sight of his old black motorcycle roaring down the driveway. He catches her up in his arms, twirls her high in the air, and her daughter's laughter is the sweetest music Bella has ever heard.

But she has a blurry human memory of being held aloft by those same strong arms, and the notes turn sour. She wishes she had run to greet him, too. Wonders what he would have done. Curses herself for the thoughts.

Now that she has noticed, she can't stop watching. On the surface, he is happy, smiling Jacob. Teasing Rosalie, exasperating Edward, playing with and watching over Nessie. Carlisle and Esme have taken him in like one of their own. He and Emmett have epic battles on the Playstation. Even Alice dances around him. None of them can help being drawn to that irresistible alivealivesowarmandtheyareallcolddead spirit.

And to Bella? To Bella, he has always been the sun and the air, and she never thought she'd miss him this much when he is just across the room shining his warmth and life on someone else.

He looks up from his chess game with Nessie and catches her watching him. He smiles and winks, and she doesn't know why this is when she remembers: he could always smile when his heart was breaking.

When Renesmee is nine (or five, or twelve, it's hard to keep track the way she grows), she wraps her small arms around Jacob's neck and declares, "I love you better than anybody else in the world, Jacob. Wanna know why?"

"Why?"

"Because you only belong to me."

The flicker of a furrow on Jacob's brow, and Edward tenses all the way across the room. Bella wants to ask what's wrong, what Edward heard, but then Jacob's eyes meet hers, and she already knows.

Part of him will always be hers.

He takes trips sometimes, disappears for days or weeks. Occasionally on the motorcycle, more often as the wolf. Nessie has learned not to worry; she knows he will always come back to her.

Bella knows he spends every second away trying not to. Sometimes, she hopes he will succeed.

When Renesmee is sixteen (six and a half, actually, but sixteen is what it says on her shiny new driver's license), she asks Jacob for a kiss.

Her parents don't mean to overhear, but with a house full of vampires, eavesdropping is a way of life. They both stop moving, stop breathing, listen.

A moment of strained silence, and then Nessie's exasperated sigh. "Not on the forehead, Jacob."

"You're still a kid, Ness. Don't rush this. You should…you should see if there's something or someone else out there for you, you know?"

"No, Jacob. You're mine; I'm yours. That's how this works. I want you now. I'm tired of waiting."

"I'm not…" Jacob's voice is husky, choked. "I'm not ready for this yet. I'm sorry."

Then there's the slamming of the door and Nessie's sobs as she is left behind. Edward rushes to her side, but Bella stands frozen.

It is the first time Jacob has refused Nessie anything. A distant howl lets them all know how much it cost him.

He doesn't run this time. Maybe he knows that if he did, they'd never let him back. Maybe he feels guilty enough already. He comes back cautious, and Nessie meets him disdainful. That, apparently, relaxes him, and soon he's charming smiles from her as easily as he always seduced them from her mother.

But the subject of kissing doesn't come up between them again for a good, long while.

Nessie is going to prom, and the perfectly normal boy who asked her is brave enough to meet the family first. Edward glares daggers at him but doesn't touch him, which must mean his thoughts are safely PG. Bella likes him more than she thought she would, at the same time wondering what her daughter is up to.

She understands when Nessie makes a show of introducing him to Jacob, sees her daughter's annoyance when Jake flashes the teenager a friendly grin and shakes him by the hand.

Renesmee and her date leave after the many introductions to the Cullen clan and the hundreds of pictures Alice and Rosalie insist on taking. Nessie has never looked more beautiful, and Bella squeezes her husband's hand as they watch her go.

"Will she be all right?" Jacob asks Edward, his eyes on the taillights.

"Yes, I think so. His intentions appear to be honorable."

"Good." Jacob ambles off toward the multi-car garage, and Bella cannot stop herself from following.

He's opening the hood of one of his favorite cars—it's Edward's and foreign, but Bella can still never keep their names straight—when she steps inside.

"It's okay to be jealous, Jake."

Jacob chuckles darkly. "Is that what you think I am? Jealous?"

"Aren't you?"

"No," he says. He lifts his head, and his dark eyes are alight with some manic emotion she can't begin to categorize. "No, I'm not jealous. I'm relieved. Because if she can find someone, a good someone, then she can break it. I've tried, and I've tried, but I just can't fucking break it."

He turns his attention back to the car. Bella is sure there is nothing all that wrong with it, but he's using his wrench like a deadly weapon against the engine. She steps closer, afraid of what he's saying, hurt by it, but unable to turn away.

His pain is her pain. It has always been thus.

"You don't love Nessie?"

"Of course I love her. I have to love her. And I'll protect her every day of my life; you don't need to worry about that." It sounds like a vow to her, to Nessie's mother. It sounds like resignation.

"Jake, I'm not worried about Nessie." Her hand reaches out to touch his arm. Like always, on the rare occasions when they touch, it is putting her fingers straight into a bonfire. She doesn't pull away. She misses the warmth.

His elbows fall onto the grill, his head sinks. He looks tired. She wants to run her fingers through his hair, draw him close and comfort him. Without thinking about consequences, she does. After all, Jacob is family. No matter how he smells.

Jacob makes no move to return her embrace, but his head rests against her breasts; she can feel the tension start to ease from his shoulders. Funny, as she is a vampire now, and his wolf senses should be fighting this. But, no, they are just Jacob and Bella. JakeandBells. No magic here.

"At first," he finally says, "I used to think—or maybe I just hoped—that everything I felt for you was because of her, because I was waiting for her. But I saw her as soon as she was born, and it wasn't until I'd lost you, until you were…" He draws a deep, rattling breath; she hears the restrained grief in it. He grieves for her, when she has never grieved for herself. "Now, I sometimes think she's the one piece of you I got to keep."

"Oh Jacob," she says, and thinks, you keep my tears and my blushes and my heartbeats and all the years I never lived.

They never see that boy again after prom. Nessie never mentions him. She is Jacob's shadow once more, and the part of Bella that alwaysforeverandadaysheknowsthisnow loves Jacob wants to shake Renesmee. The part that loves her daughter is stronger and knows losing Jacob would break her.

Bella knows what it is to be broken; she will not let it happen to Nessie.

It is already too late for Jacob.

Bella and Renesmee enroll in Dartmouth the same year. Edward never sold the house he'd bought should the occasion arise, and it is, of course, perfect.

Jake gets a job at an auto mechanic's a couple of blocks away. It reeks of oil and grease and cigar smoke; the noise is overwhelming. Yet somehow, Nessie prefers to do her homework there, instead of the peaceful, book-loaded library at home.

Bella follows her example. The first day she turns up, Jacob grins and tosses her a warm soda. She doesn't (can't) drink it, but it makes her think of rainy days and easy smiles when she thought she'd never smile again.

It's still too easy to smile around Jacob.

Another year passes, and Nessie asks Jacob for a kiss. This time, he grants her wish.

One floor above, Bella wraps her arms around herself and shakes. Edward sees; he says nothing.

Nessie has always been the bright light in their house, the joy that makes each day more beautiful than the last. Now, she is positively radiant. She glows even out of the sunlight.

It is love. They all see and know this, and the happy chatter bounces from room to room. Alice is already talking wedding plans, and Bella is horrified when her sister-in-law suggests Nessie wear Bella's dress.

The horrified "No!" slips out before she can stop it.

Alice believes her stuttered additions about it being too soon to be talking about marriage. Rosalie doesn't.

Neither does Edward.

After that, Bella makes more of an effort to adjust. She sees the way Nessie adores Jacob—openly, wholeheartedly, unreservedly—and tells herself this is the way he should be loved. He deserves this.

She knows there is no man in the universe who could take better care of her daughter, knows he will love and protect her always. Jacob keeps his promises.

She tries to kill the little voice inside which whispers he loved you more. She isn't sure that's even true, but his smile never lights up his eyes anymore.

She tries not to notice that either.

It is inevitable, really, has been coming since the day her daughter and her new self were born. But she isn't ready for it when Nessie and Jacob—my Jacob, her heart painfully insists—stand together, hands entwined (she misses the warmth of his hands), and ask for their blessing.

She doesn't know what she is going to say, but it doesn't matter because Edward speaks first, and he's asking for a minute to talk to Jacob without Nessie. Renesmee is appalled, but Jake tells her it's fine, and then it is just the three of them. Jacob, Bella, Edward. That triangular cord which has lost all balance; Bella feels it shifting again inside her.

"What's this about, Edward? Thought you'd accepted me as your son years ago."

"That was when I thought it inevitable that you would fall in love with my daughter."

"I do love Nessie. More than my own life."

"But not more than her mother."

Bella inhales sharply, an unnecessary action, a human reaction. She stares at Edward, cannot imagine why—when he has feigned blindness all these years—he chooses now to speak. "Edward, please," she begs and doesn't know what she's asking for.

Jacob's jaw clenches and unclenches, but he does not tremble. The wolf is fully in his control. "I've never lied to Nessie. She knows about my past with Bella. She doesn't care. This is what she wants."

"But not what you want."

"It stopped mattering what I want the day she chose you." Jacob makes no attempt to hide his bitterness.

Bella winces. Edward doesn't.

"It matters when it involves my daughter's happiness."

"You know I'll make her happy. I'm what she wants. I'm her choice. And if you fight that, you're just going to end up hurting her yourself."

Edward starts to say something in response, but Bella cuts him off. "Let it be, Edward. Don't tear our family apart over something dead long ago."

It's a continual, neverending death, though, and Bella feels it again in Jacob's arms when she hugs him and tells him congratulations and welcome to the family.

Bella has a Jacob-drawer in her heart, in her mind. She keeps it locked up tight. For a while, after the change, she thought it had disappeared.

She feels it all the time now, battering away inside, howling to get free.

Alice has outdone herself. The chapel, the glittering reception, the ice sculptures, and Renesmee's new (thankGodthankGodthankGod) wedding dress are all beautiful beyond belief.

Bella cannot see a hint of Jacob in any of it.

She doesn't know why she goes to the groom's room before the ceremony (except maybe she really does), but she stands outside and listens to the laughter and the teasing. She picks out old, familiar voices, Quil and Embry, Seth and Leah, the family that should have been Jacob's.

Should have been mine.

She knocks when she can bear it no longer, asks for a moment with the husband-to-be. They all look surprised—Leah is angry—but when Jacob nods, they slip away.

Somehow, he looks even taller in his custom-made, tailored tuxedo. He's made a mess of his tie, which gives Bella an excuse to approach him. She is barely touching him, but she can still feel his heat.

She is so tired of the permanent cold.

"Bet you never thought you'd catch me in one of these, huh?" he jokes while she fusses with his necktie.

"You look very handsome, Jacob."

"Yeah, well…" He clears his throat, awkwardness settling in. It does so often between them now. She hates it. "I figured Alice would kill me if I showed up in the same outfit I wore to your wedding."

Bella smiles softly, the distant human memory crystallizing. "I remember that. Cut-off shorts. You were filthy, and you needed a haircut. But you were still handsome. You asked me for a dance."

"And you gave me three."

"Then I want three from you today. It's only fair."

"Sure, sure," he replies flippantly, but then he pulls her into his body, takes her hand and sets it on his heart. "Shall we?"

"Now? But there's no music. And the wedding…"

"Now, Bells." He turns her softly to the rhythm of his heartbeat. It's the only one between them, and this is the first time she misses her own.

"At least, I'm a better dancer now," she says, to counteract that longing.

"I never had trouble dancing with you before."

"Jake, this is barely dancing. This is shuffling in a circle."

"Are you enjoying it?"

"Well, yeah."

"Then it's dancing. Shut up."

She grins and does what he asks. Lays her head against his chest, and lets his warmth saturate every inch of her. She truly is a leech.

"Is this how it would have been for us?" she asks before she can stop herself.

"Nope," he says, putting both arms around her waist and drawing her even closer to him. "Barefoot on the beach, me in cutoffs, you in jeans and a sweatshirt. That's how it would have been for us."

She can picture it, and it's so much more Jake than anything waiting for him out there, so much more her than Edward's dream wedding she can barely recall. "I think I would have liked that."

"Yeah, me too."

They're not even pretending to dance anymore. He's hugging her as tight as possible, and she's clinging desperately back. He buries his face in her neck, whispers, "Bells," and it's a plea for something she would give if only she knew how.

She thinks maybe if she turns her head and lets him kiss her, they will find the answer together.

But there's a knock on the door, and Seth calls out, "It's time."

For the rest of her unnatural existence, Bella will wonder what if…

He marries Nessie. He doesn't falter in his vows. They are easy for him, after all; he promised all this the day she was born.

Bella never claims her remaining dances.

Jacob suggests he and Nessie start out on their own, a little space from the Cullen clan. Rosalie bares her teeth, and Esme wrings her hands. Edward says nothing. Bella forgets to breathe.

Nessie blinks, says absolutely not, and the subject is forever dropped.

She cannot remember the last time she took down her shields for Edward. He has stopped asking. They both know he doesn't want to hear her thoughts.

Maybe he never really did.

Renesmee calls a family meeting. Jacob doesn't want to have children; this is the issue.

Bella thinks this should be between the two of them and says as much.

"Like when you wanted Edward to make you a vampire?" Rosalie adds with a poisonous smile. Rose always takes Nessie's side.

"Why don't you want children, Jacob?" says the ever-rational Carlisle.

Jacob is shaking, partly from rage at the 'intervention,' mostly, Bella believes, from the strain of denying Nessie what she wants. He shrugs, but it is somehow a violent gesture, bones threatening to pop through his skin.

Rose glares at him. "You should at least have had the decency to tell her before she married you, dog."

"I did." Jacob glares right back.

"But I didn't care about it then," Nessie whines. "I always knew if I changed my mind, you'd agree. You always give me what I want, Jacob. Why not now?"

"Because it's not just about you this time, Nessie."

"What is it about, Jacob?" There is barely controlled hostility in Edward's voice.

Jacob doesn't answer, but he stares at Edward, obviously opening up his mind. Edward flinches and looks away.

"If you're worried about possible outcomes, such as Bella's accelerated pregnancy, I don't think it's too much of a risk," Dr. Cullen says. "I've been studying the chromosomal makeup of both of you for years now, and I think it's safe to say that your children would be healthy, normal—"

"Wolves," Jacob breaks in.

"Your imprinting on Renesmee would suggest that procreating would be for the good of the pack, yes, but I don't see why this should matter so much to you."

"Jacob, please," Nessie begs. She sits on her knees before him and puts her hands to his cheeks. "Just try and see it the way I do."

His eyes close as he envisions the scene Nessie gives him. Then he shakes his head, removes his wife's hands and cradles them between his larger ones. "I do see what you see, Ness. But I can't make you see what I see."

"No, Jacob, no, it wouldn't be like that for them. We would raise them to know what they are, so it wouldn't be such a shock when it happened. They'd be prepared."

"It's not about being prepared. It's about not having a fucking choice." His emphasis is on the last word; he makes it sound dirtier than the swear word proceeding it.

Nessie draws back as though he'd struck her. "Like you didn't have a choice with me?"

When he doesn't answer, she turns and runs.

She blames herself for all of this. She knows it was her choice that robbed him of all of his. If she had not married Edward, if there were no Renesmee…

She thinks sometimes of black-haired children running through the woods of La Push. Wishes she could sleep to dream of them.

After a childless decade, Nessie and Jacob compromise. They adopt.

William is a baby when they get him. Big blue eyes and fuzzy brown hair, with a steady heartbeat, and no magical awareness of everything around him.

Compared to Nessie, whose childhood went by in the blink of an eye, he ages so slowly. Compared to the rest of them, stuck in timeless eternity, his life is a breath of wind.

He is normal, and he is beautiful. He is human.

She loves seeing Jacob with his son. He's so happy, uninhibited. He laughs wholeheartedly again, makes everyone else around him laugh, too.

This is a love Jacob chooses.

The older William gets, the more Nessie frets. She cannot bear the idea of her son growing old and dying, leaving her. In the Cullen household, no one ever leaves.

Alice reassures her, tells Nessie that she will change him herself.

Jacob says over my dead body.

Carlisle says William should make that decision for himself, when he's ready.

William is his father's son. He goes to college, gets married, moves away, raises a family, occasionally brings them back to visit.

He never asks to be changed. Point blank refuses when the Cullens offer.

Bella thinks William is infinitely wiser than she ever was.

William dies at the ripe old age of eighty-three.

Nessie grieves, but there is anger, as well, and it bubbles over often. Why? Why couldn't he change? Why couldn't he stay? Forever and ever and ever and ever…

Forever is Nessie's favorite word.

It used to be Bella's, too. She wonders when she started to hate it.

Two months later, Nessie rushes to her mother's arms, sobbing. Bella thinks at first that it is still grief over William, but Nessie's stumbling sentences reveal another cause.

"He says…he says he's g-going to stop."

"Who's going to stop what?" Bella asks as she strokes her daughter's hair.

Nessie only responds to the second half of the question, but that answers the first half, too. "Ph-phasing."

Bella is already cold and dead, she cannot cry, and yet she feels this down past her iron bones and stone muscles. Deep inside, there is a contraction; something stops functioning. It cannot be her heart. She wonders if it is her soul.

"Can…can you talk to him, Mother? You're—you…you mean so much to him. Maybe you can get him to listen. I can't."

It costs Nessie to admit this, but Bella wishes she wouldn't. She doesn't want to talk to Jacob, isn't sure she can make it through without begging him not to leave her. Knows she doesn't have that right. But I'll do what I can is what she says.

She knocks before she enters their room, realizes that in nearly a hundred years she has never been over the threshold.

"Come in, Bells." Even through the door, she can hear the resignation in his voice.

She slips inside noiselessly. She is always noiseless now, thinks it makes her less real. She misses tripping over her own feet.

"Nessie sent you." It's not a question. He slumps in a chair by the window. It's too small for him, but then everything is.

Even her heart wasn't big enough to hold him.

"Yes." She pulls the other chair next to him.

He lays his hand, palm up, on the armrest, and it brings to mind something from her days as a human, but she can't quite place it. She wishes she could. She hates her fading memories of humanity. It is another way she's losing him.

She puts her hand into his, and he entwines their fingers together. He is still hot like fire against her skin, but she's gifted enough to see the changes. His body temperature is dropping. He even looks a little shorter.

"You've already stopped."

He nods.

"When?"

"When William died. I've already outlived my son. I don't want to outlive my grandkids." He barks a laugh. "Though it's probably too late for that. I've got some catching up to do."

"They're not your only family, you know."

He gives her hand an extra squeeze. "I know. But I'm not like you, Bells honey. I never wanted to live forever. If I could have, I would have stopped phasing a long time ago."

"Why couldn't you?" Jacob is the strongest wolf she's ever known; he's had the control to live in close quarters with vampires for over a century. He's the Alpha. He should have been able to stop.

"Nessie." The word is a sigh, a regret. "She still needed me."

"She still needs you now."

Jacob shakes his head. "Nah, she's finally figured out we're all wrong for each other. She wants someone now who will give her children who won't die. I've seen it in her, even if she hasn't seen it herself yet."

Bella winces. Over a century of Jacob's life has been devoted to Nessie, and still he thinks of it as wrong. "I'm sorry."

Jacob's head whips around to face her. "For what?"

"For taking away your choices."

Jacob laughs, surprisingly light-hearted. His free hand reaches over to muss her hair. "You gotta quit thinking everything's your fault, Bells. That'll get pretty annoying in a thousand years or so."

"I'm serious, Jake. If I hadn't chosen Edward, then—"

"Don't say it. Please." His smile has fallen away, and he strokes her cheek lightly. "You were my choice, Bella. Were, are. Then, now. Loving you isn't something that my animal instincts could will away, and I'm proud of that. The man was stronger than the monster after all. But I don't want you regretting anything. I want you to be happy, Bells. That's all I've ever wanted."

She cannot cry, and she has never needed to so badly as now. She thinks of all the pointless, stupid tears she cried when she was human and wishes she could have them back to pour at his feet now.

He kisses her hand. "Love you, Bells."

"Love you, too, Jake." She kisses his mouth for the first time in over a century.

After that, there are still fifty, sixty years of watching him age slowly, day by day.

Nessie hates it. She pulls farther and farther away. She takes long trips to France with Alice and Rosalie, goes to the Amazon to visit Zafrina. She and her father spend six months with the Denali coven.

Bella is surprised by how little she misses them.

It is not that she loves them less, but she knows she will always have them. Each moment with Jacob has become precious to her, and while Edward and Nessie are away, he belongs only to her.

Her Jacob. She has always been selfish.

He fixes cars, and this time she actually listens and learns. He teaches her how to change the oil, change a tire, replace a broken fanbelt. She can finally distinguish between all the different makes and models. Edward would be proud, but she doesn't learn for Edward.

Jacob takes her out in the sunlight. When she worries about people, he laughs and drags her deeper into the woods, or out across a deserted beach. They lay still for hours while the sun beats down on them, and she pretends it is that and not Jacob's presence at her side which makes her feel so warm and alive.

On one of their excursions, they find a cliff towering over the ocean.

"You wanna do this right?" Jacob asks with a suggestive wiggle of his eyebrows.

"Do you think we should? I mean, you're—"

He laughs. He laughs his true, honest, pre-wolf, Jacob Black laugh, and she knows she will agree even before he says, "Bells, I'm only, like, thirty-six. I'm not dead yet. Besides, you only live once."

They jump together, hands clasped.

When they emerge, still together, he pulls her into his body and kisses her. His lips are soft and warm against her, and she can't remember why she ever gave this up.

The saltwater dripping down her cheeks feels like tears.

They make love on the sand while their clothes dry in the sun. She knows it's wrong, and so does he, but she can't make herself care.

Time, which lost all meaning long ago, is suddenly precious. She must soak up the sun, the air while it is left to her.

He trembles when he touches her, and she knows how much it costs him to break the imprint. Is not sure he could have done it had Nessie not left first. But she did leave, and yours, yours, always yours is what he breathes into her skin.

Nessie and Edward return, and Bella puts her shield over Jacob to protect his thoughts. No matter how careful he has learned to be around Edward, it is a chance she will not take. Edward is her husband, and she cannot spend an eternity alone.

But Edward notices the silence more than he would have the thoughts. The betrayal leaks into his gaze, and she misses the blind adoration. (She has always known she didn't deserve it.)

Renesmee is horrified by aging, the way her mother once was. She fears the lines and wrinkles that begin to crease Jacob's face, the plentiful streaks of gray in his glorious hair. She shudders when he reaches out to touch her shoulder or caress her cheek.

He learns quickly to keep his distance.

Bella traces the creases across his brow with greedy eyes and nimble fingers. She touches her smooth (toosmoothtoohardnothingbutacolddeadrock) skin and wishes she could transplant some lines there. She raises his sore, bent knuckles to her lips and murmurs, "Jacob, my Jacob."

He wants to end his days where he began them. The whole Cullen family moves back to the old house in Forks. Jacob and Renesmee have not shared a room in decades, and the space Jacob inhabits has the strong antiseptic smell of a hospital. Carlisle is the only reason he is not truly in one.

Of all Jacob's old pack, and Sam's, too, only Seth Clearwater remains. He quit phasing when he met his imprint, some fifteen years ago. He brings the whole family round, and the children, as always, make Jacob smile.

Bella sits and holds Jacob's hand throughout the meeting. Seth doesn't mention it, but his eyes are continually drawn there.

As he rises to leave, he says, "You know Leah always said you'd never get over it. I hate it when she's right."

Jacob laughs—a pale echo of his old, boisterous bark—and squeezes Bella's fingers. "I don't mind so much."

She doesn't (can't) sleep, but she sits by his side night after night and watches while he does. Each breath, each soft rise and fall, is precious to her, and she understands now how he used to feel counting down her heartbeats.

Carlisle lets them all know when the time is coming. The whole family gathers together. Bella steps back into the shadows, lets Renesmee take her rightful place. She feels Edward's strong hand on her shoulder and knows he will be here for her when it is over.

She does not deserve him. She has never deserved either of them.

Renesmee's sobs and Jacob's labored breathing are the only sounds, as the others forget even to breathe. Their imitation of life seems blasphemous as the real thing sputters out before them.

"Ness," Jacob whispers, and she lays her head down on his chest and cries. His fingers gently tangle in her hair. "Love you."

Nessie is unable to respond, lost in her grief.

Jacob keeps patting her hair, but his eyes search out and find Bella. "Love you," he mouths. "Always."

"Always," she mouths back.

Tearless (bychoicealwaysrememberitwasyourchoice), she stands on First Beach and watches Nessie step forward. Her daughter flings the ashes into the air, and Bella hopes that, wherever he is, Jacob Black is finally free.

fin.