THE COUNTER IN ALICE'S BATHROOM WAS COVERED WITH a thousand different products, all claiming to beautify a person's surface. Since everyone in this house was both perfect and impermeable, I could only assume that she'd bought most of these things with me in mind. I read the labels numbly, struck by the waste.
I was careful never to look in the long mirror.
Alice combed through my hair with a slow, rhythmic motion.
"That's enough, Alice," I said tonelessly. "I want to go back to La Push."
How many hours had I waited for Charlie to finally leave Billy's house so that I could see Jacob? Each minute, not knowing if Jacob was still breathing or not, had seemed like ten lifetimes. And then, when at last I'd been allowed to go, to see for myself that Jacob was alive, the time had gone so quickly. I felt like I'd barely caught my breath before Alice was calling Edward, insisting that I keep up this ridiculous sleepover faade. It seemed so insignificant. . . .
"Jacob's still unconscious," Alice answered. "Carlisle or Edward will call when he's awake. Anyway, you need to go see Charlie. He was there at Billy's house, he saw that Carlisle and Edward are back in from their trip, and he's bound to be suspicious when you get home."
I already had my story memorized and corroborated. "I don't care. I want to be there when Jacob wakes up."
"You need to think of Charlie now. You've had a long day - sorry, I know that doesn't begin to cover it - but that doesn't mean that you can shirk your responsibilities." Her voice was serious, almost chiding. "It's more important now than ever that Charlie stays safely in the dark. Play your role first, Bella, and then you can do what you want second. Part of being a Cullen is being meticulously responsible."
Of course she was right. And if not for this same reason - a reason that was more powerful than all my fear and pain and guilt - Carlisle would never have been able to talk me into leaving Jacob's side, unconscious or not.
"Go home," Alice ordered. "Talk to Charlie. Flesh out your alibi. Keep him safe."
I stood, and the blood flowed down to my feet, stinging like the pricks of a thousand needles. I'd been sitting still for a long time.
"That dress is adorable on you," Alice cooed.
"Huh? Oh. Er - thanks again for the clothes," I mumbled out of courtesy rather than real gratitude.
"You need the evidence," Alice said, her eyes innocent and wide. "What's a shopping trip without a new outfit? It's very flattering, if I do say so myself."
I blinked, unable to remember what she'd dressed me in. I couldn't keep my thoughts from skittering away every few seconds, insects running from the light. . . .
"Jacob is fine, Bella," Alice said, easily interpreting my preoccupation. "There's no hurry. If you realized how much extra morphine Carlisle had to give him - what with his temperature burning it off so quickly - you would know that he's going to be out for a while."
At least he wasn't in any pain. Not yet.
"Is there anything you want to talk about before you leave?" Alice asked sympathetically. "You must be more than a little traumatized."
I knew what she was curious about. But I had other questions.
"Will I be like that?" I asked her, my voice subdued. "Like that girl Bree in the meadow?"
There were many things I needed to think of, but I couldn't seem to get her out of my head, the newborn whose other life was now - abruptly - over. Her face, twisted with desire for my blood, lingered behind my eyelids.
Alice stroked my arm. "Everyone is different. But something like that, yes."
I was very still, trying to imagine.
"It passes," she promised.
She shrugged. "A few years, maybe less. It might be different for you. I've never seen anyone go through this who's chosen it beforehand. It should be interesting to see how that affects you."
"Interesting," I repeated.
"We'll keep you out of trouble."
"I know that. I trust you." My voice was monotone, dead.
Alice's forehead puckered. "If you're worried about Carlisle and Edward, I'm sure they'll be fine. I believe Sam is beginning to trust us . . . well, to trust Carlisle, at least. It's a good thing, too. I imagine the atmosphere got a little tense when Carlisle had to rebreak the fractures -"
I took a deep breath to steady myself. Jacob had begun healing too quickly, and some of his bones had set wrong. He'd been out cold for the process, but it was still hard to think about.
"Alice, can I ask you a question? About the future?"
She was suddenly wary. "You know I don't see everything."
"It's not that, exactly. But you do see my future, sometimes. Why is that, do you think, when nothing else works on me? Not what Jane can do, or Edward or Aro . . ." My sentence trailed off with my interest level. My curiosity on this point was fleeting, heavily overshadowed by more pressing emotions.
Alice, however, found the question very interesting. "Jasper, too, Bella - his talent works on your body just as well as it does on anyone else's. That's the difference, do you see it? Jasper's abilities affect the body physically. He really does calm your system down, or excite it. It's not an illusion. And I see visions of outcomes, not the reasons and thoughts behind the decisions that create them. It's outside the mind, not an illusion, either; reality, or at least one version of it. But Jane and Edward and Aro and Demetri - they work inside the mind. Jane only creates an illusion of pain. She doesn't really hurt your body, you only think you feel it. You see, Bella? You are safe inside your mind. No one can reach you there. It's no wonder that Aro was so curious about your future abilities."
She watched my face to see if I was following her logic. In truth, her words had all started to run together, the syllables and sounds losing their meaning. I couldn't concentrate on them. Still, I nodded. Trying to look like I got it.
She wasn't fooled. She stroked my cheek and murmured, "He's going to be okay, Bella. I don't need a vision to know that. Are you ready to go?"
"One more thing. Can I ask you another question about the future? I don't want specifics, just an overview."
"I'll do my best," she said, doubtful again.
"Can you still see me becoming a vampire?"
"Oh, that's easy. Sure, I do."
I nodded slowly.
She examined my face, her eyes unfathomable. "Don't you know your own mind, Bella?"
"I do. I just wanted to be sure."
"I'm only as sure as you are, Bella. You know that. If you were to change your mind, what I see would change . . . or disappear, in your case."
I sighed. "That isn't going to happen, though."
She put her arms around me. "I'm sorry. I can't really empathize. My first memory is of seeing Jasper's face in my future; I always knew that he was where my life was headed. But I can sympathize. I'm so sorry you have to choose between two good things."
I shook off her arms. "Don't feel sorry for me." There were people who deserved sympathy. I wasn't one of them. And there wasn't any choice to make - there was just breaking a good heart to attend to now. "I'll go deal with Charlie."
I drove my truck home, where Charlie was waiting just as suspiciously as Alice had expected.
"Hey, Bella. How was your shopping trip?" he greeted me when I walked into the kitchen. He had his arms folded over his chest, his eyes on my face.
"Long," I said dully. "We just got back."
Charlie assessed my mood. "I guess you already heard about Jake, then?"
"Yes. The rest of the Cullens beat us home. Esme told us where Carlisle and Edward were."
"Are you okay?"
"Worried about Jake. As soon as I make dinner, I'm going down to La Push."
"I told you those motorcycles were dangerous. I hope this makes you realize that I wasn't kidding around."
I nodded as I started pulling things out of the fridge. Charlie settled himself in at the table. He seemed to be in a more talkative mood than usual.
"I don't think you need to worry about Jake too much. Anyone who can cuss with that kind of energy is going to recover."
"Jake was awake when you saw him?" I asked, spinning to look at him.
"Oh, yeah, he was awake. You should have heard him - actually, it's better you didn't. I don't think there was anyone in La Push who couldn't hear him. I don't know where he picked up that vocabulary, but I hope he hasn't been using that kind of language around you."
"He had a pretty good excuse today. How did he look?"
"Messed up. His friends carried him in. Good thing they're big boys, 'cause that kid's an armful. Carlisle said his right leg is broken, and his right arm. Pretty much the whole right side of his body got crushed when he wrecked that damn bike." Charlie shook his head. "If I ever hear of you riding again, Bella -"
"No problem there, Dad. You won't. Do you really think Jake's okay?"
"Sure, Bella, don't worry. He was himself enough to tease me."
"Tease you?" I echoed in shock.
"Yeah - in between insulting somebody's mother and taking the Lord's name in vain, he said, 'Bet you're glad she loves Cullen instead of me today, huh, Charlie?'"
I turned back to the fridge so that he couldn't see my face.
"And I couldn't argue. Edward's more mature than Jacob when it comes to your safety, I'll give him that much."
"Jacob's plenty mature," I muttered defensively. "I'm sure this wasn't his fault."
"Weird day today," Charlie mused after a minute. "You know, I don't put much stock in that superstitious crap, but it was odd. . . . It was like Billy knew something bad was going to happen to Jake. He was nervous as a turkey on Thanksgiving all morning. I don't think he heard anything I said to him.
"And then, weirder than that - remember back in February and March when we had all that trouble with the wolves?"
I bent down to get a frying pan out of the cupboard, and hid there an extra second or two.
"Yeah," I mumbled.
"I hope we're not going to have a problem with that again. This morning, we were out in the boat, and Billy wasn't paying any attention to me or the fish, when all of a sudden, you could hear wolves yowling in the woods. More than one, and, boy, was it loud. Sounded like they were right there in the village. Weirdest part was, Billy turned the boat around and headed straight back to the harbor like they were calling to him personally. Didn't even hear me ask what he was doing.
"The noise stopped before we got the boat docked. But all of a sudden Billy was in the biggest hurry not to miss the game, though we had hours still. He was mumbling some nonsense about an earlier showing . . . of a live game? I tell you, Bella, it was odd.
"Well, he found some game he said he wanted to watch, but then he just ignored it. He was on the phone the whole time, calling Sue, and Emily, and your friend Quil's grandpa. Couldn't quite make out what he was looking for - he just chatted real casual with them.
"Then the howling started again right outside the house. I've never heard anything like it - I had goose bumps on my arms. I asked Billy - had to shout over the noise - if he'd been setting traps in his yard. It sounded like the animal was in serious pain."
I winced, but Charlie was so caught up in his story that he didn't notice.
"'Course I forgot all about that till just this minute, 'cause that's when Jake made it home. One minute it was that wolf yowling, and then you couldn't hear it anymore - Jake's cussing drowned it right out. Got a set of lungs on him, that boy does."
Charlie paused for a minute, his face thoughtful. "Funny that some good should come out of this mess. I didn't think they were ever going to get over that fool prejudice they have against the Cullens down there. But somebody called Carlisle, and Billy was real grateful when he showed up. I thought we should get Jake up to the hospital, but Billy wanted to keep him home, and Carlisle agreed. I guess Carlisle knows what's best.
Generous of him to sign up for such a long stretch of house calls."
"And . . ." he paused, as if unwilling to say something. He sighed, and then continued. "And Edward was really . . . nice. He seemed as worried about Jacob as you are - like that was his brother lying there. The look in his eyes . . ." Charlie shook his head. "He's a decent guy, Bella. I'll try to remember that. No promises, though." He grinned at me.
"I won't hold you to it," I mumbled.
Charlie stretched his legs and groaned. "It's nice to be home. You wouldn't believe how crowded Billy's little place gets. Seven of Jake's friends all squished themselves into that little front room - I could hardly breathe. Have you ever noticed how big those Quileute kids all are?"
"Yeah, I have."
Charlie stared at me, his eyes abruptly more focused. "Really, Bella, Carlisle said Jake will be up and around in no time. Said it looked a lot worse than it was. He's going to be fine."
I just nodded.
Jacob had looked so . . . strangely fragile when I'd hurried down to see him as soon as Charlie had left. He'd had braces everywhere - Carlisle said there was no point in plaster, as fast as he was healing. His face had been pale and drawn, deeply unconscious though he was at the time. Breakable. Huge as he was, he'd looked very breakable. Maybe that had just been my imagination, coupled with the knowledge that I was going to have to break him.
If only I could be struck by lightning and be split in two. Preferably painfully. For the first time, giving up being human felt like a true sacrifice. Like it might be too much to lose.
I put Charlie's dinner on the table next to his elbow and headed for the door.
"Er, Bella? Could you wait just a second?"
"Did I forget something?" I asked, eyeing his plate.
"No, no. I just . . . want to ask a favor." Charlie frowned and looked at the floor. "Have a seat - this won't take long."
I sat across from him, a little confused. I tried to focus. "What do you need, Dad?"
"Here's the gist of it, Bella." Charlie flushed. "Maybe I'm just feeling . . . superstitious after hanging out with Billy while he was being so strange all day. But I have this . . . hunch. I feel like . . . I'm going to lose you soon."
"Don't be silly, Dad," I mumbled guiltily. "You want me to go to school, don't you?"
"Just promise me one thing."
I was hesitant, ready to rescind. "Okay . . ."
"Will you tell me before you do anything major? Before you run off with him or something?"
"Dad . . . ," I moaned.
"I'm serious. I won't kick up a fuss. Just give me some advance notice. Give me a chance to hug you goodbye."
Cringing mentally, I held up my hand. "This is silly. But, if it makes you happy, . . . I promise."
"Thanks, Bella," he said. "I love you, kid."
"I love you, too, Dad." I touched his shoulder, and then shoved away from the table. "If you need anything, I'll be at Billy's."
I didn't look back as I ran out. This was just perfect, just what I needed right now. I grumbled to myself all the way to La Push.
Carlisle's black Mercedes was not in front of Billy's house. That was both good and bad. Obviously, I needed to talk to Jacob alone. Yet I still wished I could somehow hold Edward's hand, like I had before, when Jacob was unconscious. Impossible. But I missed Edward - it had seemed like a very long afternoon alone with Alice. I supposed that made my answer quite obvious. I already knew that I couldn't live without Edward. That fact wasn't going to make this any less painful.
I tapped quietly on the front door.
"Come in, Bella," Billy said. The roar of my truck was easy to recognize.
I let myself in.
"Hey, Billy. Is he awake?" I asked.
"He woke up about a half hour ago, just before the doctor left. Go on in. I think he's been waiting for you."
I flinched, and then took a deep breath. "Thanks."
I hesitated at the door to Jacob's room, not sure whether to knock. I decided to peek first, hoping - coward that I was - that maybe he'd gone back to sleep. I felt like I could use just a few more minutes.
I opened the door a crack and leaned hesitantly in.
Jacob was waiting for me, his face calm and smooth. The haggard, gaunt look was gone, but only a careful blankness took its place. There was no animation in his dark eyes.
It was hard to look at his face, knowing that I loved him. It made more of a difference than I would have thought. I wondered if it had always been this hard for him, all this time.
Thankfully, someone had covered him with a quilt. It was a relief not to have to see the extent of the damage.
I stepped in and shut the door quietly behind me.
"Hi, Jake," I murmured.
He didn't answer at first. He looked at my face for a long moment. Then, with some effort, he rearranged his expression into a slightly mocking smile.
"Yeah, I sort of thought it might be like that." He sighed. "Today has definitely taken a turn for the worse. First I pick the wrong place, miss the best fight, and Seth gets all the glory. Then Leah has to be an idiot trying to prove she's as tough as the rest of us and I have to be the idiot who saves her. And now this." He waved his left hand toward me where I hesitated by the door.
"How are you feeling?" I mumbled. What a stupid question.
"A little stoned. Dr. Fang isn't sure how much pain medication I need, so he's going with trial and error. Think he overdid it."
"But you're not in pain."
"No. At least, I can't feel my injuries," he said, smiling mockingly again.
I bit my lip. I was never going to get through this. Why didn't anyone ever try to kill me when I wanted to die?
The wry humor left his face, and his eyes warmed up. His forehead creased, like he was worried.
"How about you?" he asked, sounding really concerned. "Are you okay?"
"Me?" I stared at him. Maybe he had taken too many drugs. "Why?"
"Well, I mean, I was pretty sure that he wouldn't actually hurt you, but I wasn't sure how bad it was going to be. I've been going a little crazy with worrying about you ever since I woke up. I didn't know if you were going to be allowed to visit or anything. The suspense was terrible. How did it go? Was he mean to you? I'm sorry if it was bad. I didn't mean for you to have to go through that alone. I was thinking I'd be there. . . ."
It took me a minute to even understand. He babbled on, looking more and more awkward, until I got what he was saying. Then I hurried to reassure him.
"No, no, Jake! I'm fine. Too fine, really. Of course he wasn't mean. I wish!"
His eyes widened in what looked like horror. "What?"
"He wasn't even mad at me - he wasn't even mad at you! He's so unselfish it makes me feel even worse. I wish he would have yelled at me or something. It's not like I don't deserve . . . well, much worse that getting yelled at. But he doesn't care. He just wants me to be happy."
"He wasn't mad?" Jacob asked, incredulous.
"No. He was . . . much too kind."
Jacob stared for another minute, and then he suddenly frowned. "Well, damn!" he growled.
"What's wrong, Jake? Does it hurt?" My hands fluttered uselessly as I looked around for his medication.
"No," he grumbled in a disgusted tone. "I can't believe this! He didn't give you an ultimatum or anything?"
"Not even close - what's wrong with you?"
He scowled and shook his head. "I was sort of counting on his reaction. Damn it all. He's better than I thought."
The way he said it, though angrier, reminded me of Edward's tribute to Jacob's lack of ethics in the tent this morning. Which meant that Jake was still hoping, still fighting. I winced as that stabbed deep.
"He's not playing any game, Jake," I said quietly.
"You bet he is. He's playing every bit as hard as I am, only he knows what he's doing and I don't. Don't blame me because he's a better manipulator than I am - I haven't been around long enough to learn all his tricks."
"He isn't manipulating me!"
"Yes, he is! When are you going to wake up and realize that he's not a perfect as you think he is?"
"At least he didn't threaten to kill himself to make me kiss him," I snapped. As soon as the words were out, I flushed with chagrin. "Wait. Pretend that didn't slip out. I swore to myself that I wasn't going to say anything about that."
He took a deep breath. When he spoke, he was calmer. "Why not?"
"Because I didn't come here to blame you for anything."
"It's true, though," he said evenly. "I did do that."
"I don't care, Jake. I'm not mad."
He smiled. "I don't care, either. I knew you'd forgive me, and I'm glad I did it. I'd do it again. At least I have that much. At least I made you see that you do love me. That's worth something."
"Is it? Is it really better than if I was still in the dark?"
"Don't you think you ought to know how you feel - just so that it doesn't take you by surprise someday when it's too late and you're a married vampire?"
I shook my head. "No - I didn't mean better for me. I meant better for you. Does it make things better or worse for you, having me know that I'm in love with you? When it doesn't make a difference either way. Would it have been better, easier for you, if I never clued in?"
He took my question as seriously as I'd meant it, thinking carefully before he answered. "Yes, it's better to have you know," hefinally decided. "If you hadn't figured it out . . . I'd have always wondered if your decision would have been different if you had. Now I know. I did everything I could." He dragged in an unsteady breath, and closed his eyes.
This time I did not - could not - resist the urge to comfort him. I crossed the small room and kneeled by his head, afraid to sit on the bed in case I jostled it and hurt him, and leaned in to touch my forehead to his cheek.
Jacob sighed, and put his hand on my hair, holding me there.
"I'm so sorry, Jake."
"I always knew this was a long shot. It's not your fault, Bella."
"Not you, too," I moaned. "Please."
He pulled away to look at me. "What?"
"It is my fault. And I'm so sick of being told it's not."
He grinned. It didn't touch his eyes. "You want me to haul you over the coals?"
"Actually . . . I think I do."
He pursed his lips as he measured how much I meant it. A smile flashed across his face briefly, and then he twisted his expression into a fierce scowl.
"Kissing me back like that was inexcusable." He spit the words at me. "If you knew you were just going to take it back, maybe you shouldn't have been quite so convincing about it."
I winced and nodded. "I'm so sorry."
"Sorry doesn't make anything better, Bella. What were you thinking?"
"I wasn't," I whispered.
"You should have told me to go die. That's what you want."
"No, Jacob," I whimpered, fighting against the budding tears. "No! Never."
"You're not crying?" he demanded, his voice suddenly back to its normal tone. He twitched impatiently on the bed.
"Yeah," I muttered, laughing weakly at myself through the tears that were suddenly sobs.
He shifted his weight, throwing his good leg off the bed as if he were going to try to stand.
"What are you doing?" I demanded through the tears. "Lie down, you idiot, you'll hurt yourself!" I jumped to my feet and pushed his good shoulder down with two hands.
He surrendered, leaning back with a gasp of pain, but he grabbed me around my waist and pulled me down on the bed, against his good side. I curled up there, trying to stifle the silly sobs against his hot skin. "I can't believe you're crying," he mumbled. "You know I just said those things because you wanted me to. I didn't mean them." His hand rubbed against my shoulders.
"I know." I took a deep, ragged breath, trying to control myself. How did I end up being the one crying while he did the comforting? "It's all still true, though. Thanks for saying it out loud."
"Do I get points for making you cry?"
"Sure, Jake." I tried to smile. "As many as you want."
"Don't worry, Bella, honey. It's all going to work out."
"I don't see how," I muttered.
He patted the top of my head. "I'm going to give in and be good."
"More games?" I wondered, tilting my chin so that I could see his face.
"Maybe." He laughed with a bit of effort, and then winced. "But I'm going to try."
"Don't be so pessimistic," he complained. "Give me a little credit."
"What do you mean by 'be good'?"
"I'll be your friend, Bella," he said quietly. "I won't ask for more than that."
"I think it's too late for that, Jake. How can we be friends, when we love each other like this?"
He looked at the ceiling, his stare intent, as if he were reading something that was written there. "Maybe . . . it will have to be a long-distance friendship."
I clenched my teeth together, glad he wasn't looking at my face, fighting against the sobs that threatened to overtake me again. I needed to be strong, and I had no idea how. . . .
"You know that story in the Bible?" Jacob asked suddenly, still reading the blank ceiling. "The one with the king and the two women fighting over the baby?"
"Sure. King Solomon."
"That's right. King Solomon," he repeated. "And he said, cut the kid in half . . . but it was only a test. Just to see who would give up their share to protect it."
"Yeah, I remember."
He looked back at my face. "I'm not going to cut you in half anymore, Bella."
I understood what he was saying. He was telling me that he loved me the most, that his surrender proved it. I wanted to defend Edward, to tell Jacob how Edward would do the same thing if I wanted, if I would let him. I was the one who wouldn't renounce my claim there. But there was no point in starting an argument that would only hurt him more.
I closed my eyes, willing myself to control the pain. I couldn't impose that on him.
We were quiet for a moment. He seemed to be waiting for me to say something; I was trying to think of something to say.
"Can I tell you what the worst part is?" he asked hesitantly when I said nothing. "Do you mind? I am going to be good."
"Will it help?" I whispered.
"It might. It couldn't hurt."
"What's the worst part, then?"
"The worse part is knowing what would have been."
"What might have been." I sighed.
"No." Jacob shook his head. "I'm exactly right for you, Bella. It would have been effortless for us - comfortable, easy as breathing. I was the natural path your life would have taken. . . ." He stared into space for a moment, and I waited. "If the world was the way it was supposed to be, if there were no monsters and no magic . . ."
I could see what he saw, and I knew that he was right. If the world was the sane place it was supposed to be, Jacob and I would have been together. And we would have been happy. He was my soul mate in that world - would have been my soul mate still if his claim had not been overshadowed by something stronger, something so strong that it could not exist in a rational world.
Was it out there for Jacob, too? Something that would trump a soul mate? I had to believe that it was.
Two futures, two soul mates . . . too much for any one person. And so unfair that I wouldn't be the only one to pay for it. Jacob's pain seemed too high a price. Cringing at the thought of that price, I wondered if I would have wavered, if I hadn't lost Edward once. If I didn't know what it was like to live without him. I wasn't sure. That knowledge was so deep a part of me, I couldn't imagine how I would feel without it.
"He's like a drug for you, Bella." His voice was still gentle, not at all critical. "I see that you can't live without him now. It's too late. But I would have been healthier for you. Not a drug; I would have been the air, the sun."
The corner of my mouth turned up in a wistful half-smile. "I used to think of you that way, you know. Like the sun. My personal sun. You balanced out the clouds nicely for me."
He sighed. "The clouds I can handle. But I can't fight with an eclipse."
I touched his face, laying my hand against his cheek. He exhaled at my touch and closed his eyes. It was very quiet. For a minute I could hear the beating of his heart, slow and even.
"Tell me the worst part for you," he whispered.
"I think that might be a bad idea."
"I think it will hurt."
How could I deny him anything at this point?
"The worst part . . ." I hesitated, and then let words spill out in a flood of truth. "The worst part is that I saw the whole thing - our whole life. And I want it bad, Jake, I want it all. I want to stay right here and never move. I want to love you and make you happy. And I can't, and it's killing me. It's like Sam and Emily, Jake - I never had a choice. I always knew nothing would change. Maybe that's why I was fighting against you so hard."
He seemed to be concentrating on breathing evenly.
"I knew I shouldn't have told you that."
He shook his head slowly. "No. I'm glad you did. Thank you." He kissed the top of my head, and then he sighed. "I'll be good now."
I looked up, and he was smiling.
"So you're going to get married, huh?"
"We don't have to talk about that."
"I'd like to know some of the details. I don't know when I'll talk to you again."
I had to wait for a minute before I could speak. When I was pretty sure that my voice wouldn't break, I answered his question.
"It's not really my idea . . . but, yes. It means a lot to him. I figure, why not?"
Jake nodded. "That's true. It's not such a big thing - in comparison."
His voice was very calm, very practical. I stared at him, curious about how he was managing, and that ruined it. He met my eyes for a second, and then twisted his head away. I waited to speak until his breathing was under control.
"Yes. In comparison," I agreed.
"How long do you have left?"
"That depends on how long it takes Alice to pull a wedding together." I suppressed a groan, imagining what Alice would do.
"Before or after?" he asked quietly.
I knew what he meant. "After."
He nodded. This was a relief to him. I wondered how many sleepless nights the thought of my graduation had given him.
"Are you scared?" he whispered.
"Yes," I whispered back.
"What are you afraid of?" I could barely hear his voice now. He stared down at my hands.
"Lots of things." I worked to make my voice lighter, but I stayed honest. "I've never been much of a masochist, so I'm not looking forward to the pain. And I wish there was some way to keep him away - I don't want him to suffer with me, but I don't think there's any way around it. There's dealing with Charlie, too, and Ren��e. . . . And then afterward, I hope I'll be able to control myself soon. Maybe I'll be such a menace that the pack will have to take me out."
He looked up with a disapproving expression. "I'd hamstring any one of my brothers who tried."
He smiled halfheartedly. Then he frowned. "But isn't it more dangerous than that? In all of the stories, they say it's too hard . . . they lose control . . . people die. . . ." He gulped.
"No, I'm not afraid of that. Silly Jacob - don't you know better than to believe vampire stories?"
He obviously didn't appreciate my attempt at humor.
"Well, anyway, lots to worry about. But worth it, in the end."
He nodded unwillingly, and I knew that he in no way agreed with me.
I stretched my neck up to whisper in his ear, laying my cheek against his warm skin. "You know I love you."
"I know," he breathed, his arm tightening automatically around my waist. "You know how much I wish it was enough."
"I'll always be waiting in the wings, Bella," he promised, lightening his tone and loosening his arm. I pulled away with a dull, dragging sense of loss, feeling the tearing separation as I left a part of me behind, there on the bed next to him. "You'll always have that spare option if you want it."
I made an effort to smile. "Until my heart stops beating."
He grinned back. "You know, I think maybe I'd still take you - maybe. I guess that depends on how much you stink."
"Should I come back to see you? Or would you rather I didn't?"
"I'll think it through and get back to you," he said. "I might need the company to keep from going crazy. The vampire surgeon extraordinaire says I can't phase until he gives the okay - it might mess up the way the bones are set." Jacob made a face.
"Be good and do what Carlisle tells you to do. You'll get well faster."
"I wonder when it will happen," I said. "When the right girl is going to catch your eye."
"Don't get your hopes up, Bella." Jacob's voice was abruptly sour. "Though I'm sure it would be a relief for you."
"Maybe, maybe not. I probably won't think she's good enough for you. I wonder how jealous I'll be."
"That part might be kind of fun," he admitted.
"Let me know if you want me to come back, and I'll be here," I promised.
With a sigh, he turned his cheek toward me.
I leaned in and kissed his face softly. "Love you, Jacob."
He laughed lightly. "Love you more."
He watched me walk out of his room with an unfathomable expression in his black eyes.