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The Road Less Traveled

Summary:
Bella's worry over Jacob's disappearance drives Edward away. Years later, when she's had time to come to terms with herself and grow up, she and Jacob meet again. He, too, has matured. Can they build a life together? And what about Edward? TRLT Prequel to The Road Not Taken by Daintress of tm_switzerland .


Notes:


1. Chapter 1

Rating 5/5   Word Count 4739   Review this Chapter

Bella tapped loudly on Billy’s door with her foot, her hands taken up with the huge casserole dish she’d brought. There was no answer, and she was getting quite wet. With a wry expression, she fumbled for a minute, shifting a potholder to the bottom of the dish, and holding it one-handed while she turned the knob to let herself in. It was spring break, and she hadn’t been to visit since Christmas. This would be a great opportunity to get the floors swept while Billy wasn’t home. He always protested when she tried to help keep the place clean.

She put the casserole in the fridge for later, and shook her head at the pile of dishes in the sink. It wasn’t easy for him to reach them, she knew. It looked like Emily hadn’t been by lately. She started running the water, fishing the dish soap out from under the sink.

As she worked, she thought about the term paper that was due when she got back to Dartmouth. Being an English major was a lot more fun than the discipline she’d originally chosen, and most of her assignments kept her mind occupied even when she wasn’t actively working on them. It was a fortunate thing.

Thinking, however, couldn’t keep the world at bay entirely. Eventually, her neck started to prickle, and she cast a glance over her shoulder nervously, wondering if Billy’d come home and she hadn’t heard him. When she did, the coffee mug she was washing fell to the counter, bounced, and shattered on the floor. She gasped. Leaning against the front door, arms folded angrily across his bare chest and with an expression of mingled disbelief and loathing, was Jacob Black.

“Jake?”

She whispered his name just as he growled, “What are you doing here?” They both blinked in silence for a moment. Then Bella raised her chin.

“Dishes. I come by to see Billy when I can, to help out.” she replied evenly, studying his expression.

She wasn’t surprised when his next words were, “Get out.”

Bella nodded slowly. “Of course. I’m sorry I disturbed you.” She stepped over the mess she’d made and towards the door. He shrugged away from it and opened it for her, but she paused and looked up into his face.

“I’m glad you’re home, Jake,” she said quietly.

“That makes one of us.” His voice was cold. He looked over her head, instead of down into her eyes. She nodded again, and ran for her truck as the door slammed behind her. The rain had picked up. It soaked her almost immediately and it occurred to her that Jacob had been dry. He’d been in the house when she arrived, then. She wondered when he’d returned, and why no one had written to her. She’d received a letter from Quil and Embry only last month, and they hadn’t mentioned Jake at all.

She threw open the truck door, anxious to get out of the rain, and out of Jacob’s line of sight. She’d obviously managed to hurt him again just by appearing here. But before she could jump inside, a warm hand closed around her elbow and pulled her back, slamming the door closed with enough force to knock another clear inch of rust into the pooling water.

“I’ve changed my mind,” Jacob growled, still furious, but quieter. Bella swallowed and looked up into his angry eyes until he released her and turned away. When he started back to the house she followed, closing the door quietly behind herself. Jacob was already sitting on the too-small couch in the next room. She stepped over to the sink while his eyes were turned away and shut off the water before it could overflow. Then she bent and began picking up the ceramic shards of the mug she’d dropped.

“Leave it.”

She looked up. He was glaring at her from the other room. Bella bit her lip, threw away the handful of pieces she’d already gathered, and went to stand near where he was seated. There was only the one couch, after all, and she didn’t imagine he’d want her that close to him. As she stepped into the room, Jacob leaned forward, elbows on his knees, and dropped his face into his hands.

Minutes passed in silence. “I’m back for twenty minutes!” he grumbled to himself finally. Then he looked up. “What are you doing here?” he asked again. Instead of sounding angry, now, his voice was filled with pain.

“I’m sorry,” Bella said at once. “If I’d had any idea you were home, I wouldn’t have come. I just wanted to look in on Billy – bring some dinner...” she trailed off. There really wasn’t anything unusual about her coming here. She was here a day out of three, each time she had a break from school, and every summer.

“I thought you were,” he paused, then narrowed his eyes, “going to college,” he finished. But they both knew he wasn’t talking about college. He thought she’d be a married vampire by now. She had thought so, too.

“I’m finishing my junior year at Dartmouth,” she said anyway. He didn’t respond, but he leaned forward again and his head fell back into his hands. The silence stretched so long, Bella began to think he was probably finished talking to her. She waited anyway. The least she owed him was the satisfaction of throwing her out again. And she wasn’t the same Bella she’d been when he left. She was strong enough, now, to give him that without breaking.

“You aren’t wearing any rings,” he observed, though his eyes were still focused on the floor.

Bella took a deep breath, then sat down cross-legged on the floor facing him. “Jake, I called off the wedding when I heard you’d left.” Again, the silence seemed to sprawl out like actual distance between them. “That – hurt him, of course. From then on, every moment of silence, every glance into the woods, every blank expression seemed to hurt him more. Near Christmas that year, he dropped out of school and disappeared. It finally hurt more to be with me than it had to be away, I guess. I’d chosen him, but he couldn’t accept that I still cared so much for you.” She thought for a moment. “It’s possible, too, that the more worried I got, the more I mentioned you in my sleep.”

Jake kept his face in his hands, long after Bella fell silent. “You probably wish you’d never met me,” he whispered finally, realizing that even in his absence he’d managed to ruin her happiness.

“No, of course not, Jake,” Bella replied. “You were there for me – my own personal sun – during the darkest time in my life. Without you, how could I ever have learned to survive? I’d still be that broken girl who couldn’t function without him.”

Jake thought about that for a minute and then turned his head to look at her. “Who was there for you this time?” he asked bitterly.

Bella smiled sadly. This time had been much the same as last, at first. But then subtle differences had brought her back to consciousness much faster. She still had Alice, for one thing. Alice had come to stay with her over the Christmas holiday right after Edward had gone. Having proof that she hadn’t just imagined the Cullens kept the nightmares from returning. It also helped knowing that no matter how badly it hurt, she was still capable of love. Jacob had taught her that.

After Alice went home, either Embry or Quil had been out to the house every day for the rest of break. Back at school, she’d changed her major, and the work was much more difficult than high school. She couldn’t get away with attending Dartmouth on autopilot.

“This time was easier, somehow. I learned how to get by.” And I realized that I can’t be trusted with anyone’s heart, she added to herself, that the world is safer for the people I love if I’m alone.

Jacob stared at her, surprise wiping away the bitter mask. Then he sat back and changed the subject. “Thanks for taking care of Billy.”

Bella smiled. “It was the least I could do. And speaking of that, I should clean that up before he gets home,” she added sheepishly, gesturing toward the kitchen. Jake’s eyes followed her hand, noticing the wolf charm and diamond that still dangled from opposite sides of her bracelet. Then, finally, a bit of a smile crept onto his face. He stood.

“I’ll help.”

They picked up the broken mug and finished the dishes in silence. When they were nearly done, Bella looked up at him. “I left a casserole in the fridge,” she said, trying to force her voice into a normal tone. “Try and leave some for Billy, okay?”

Jacob nodded, but the atmosphere changed subtly. “You’re going, then?”

“It was never my intention to cause you more pain, Jake. I’ll head back to school as soon as I can.”

“But you’ll be back this summer.” The expression on his face gave away the hopeful tone he was suppressing. Bella didn’t answer at first. She’d been afraid of this from the moment he’d stopped her from leaving. She rinsed out the dishrag she was holding for much longer than really necessary.

“It’s better if I don’t,” she said quietly. “I’ll find a job near campus to keep me busy until next year.”

“Why? Because I came back?” he demanded, sounding honestly confused, and more than a little hurt. Again. Bella closed her eyes.

“Jake, I’ve done a lot of thinking these last few years. I’ve grown up a lot thanks to you, and Edward, too. I benefited from knowing you both in ways I’m only just starting to realize. But it didn’t work both ways. Neither of you benefited from knowing me at all. All I’ve done is cause you both the worst sort of pain. I think it’s better if I just stay away. I’m strong enough, now, to make it on my own. But I’m not strong enough to live through hurting you like that again.”

Jake stared down at her, his face twisted with pain. She tried to meet his eyes, but winced at the expression he wore, and looked away. “Please,” she whispered. “I need to go.”

“Because if he ever wants you back, you’ll go to him,” Jacob guessed, his voice suddenly cold again.

Bella looked up at him, startled. “He’s not coming back, Jake, but if he were, I don’t know if I could be with him. I can’t stand to hurt him any more than I can stand to hurt you. I –“ she broke off. For the first time in several weeks, she felt tears starting in her eyes. She forced a chuckle and continued. “I’ve broken every heart I’ve touched. Ruined the people I cared about most. It’s really just better if I’m alone. Goodbye, Jacob.”

This time when Bella ran for her truck, he didn’t stop her. She could see in her mirror that the door to the house stood open behind her, the rain slanting in to soak the floor. She tried not to picture him still standing by the sink as she drove as fast as her truck could manage toward Charlie’s house.

Bella said goodbye to Charlie outside the airport. She’d changed her flight to the very next day, but the earliest she’d been able to manage was a six PM lift-off. Fortunately, dating a vampire for several years had improved her skills. She’d been able to lie to Charlie convincingly, and get out of Forks by nine AM. It was no great hardship to browse the airport shops for the day, though it wasn’t long before she was wishing Alice was around. Shopping was always more fun with someone who got excited about it.

She passed some time in the bookstore, and emerged with several things she wished she’d found on her way TO Forks. Her stomach growled, and she started looking around for a decent place to eat. That’s when she noticed him.

Jacob was staring up at the Departures board in a distinct bubble of space – no one seemed comfortable standing right next to him. She almost turned around and went back into the bookstore to hide behind a shelf for the next few hours. Or headed for her gate, to get passed security right away. But on his face was the crumpled look of pain she remembered so well, and she found she couldn’t just walk away. So, she approached him cautiously. He seemed to feel her eyes on him almost immediately, and turned to stare at her.

Slowly, his face smoothed into a pleased expression. “I knew you couldn’t have gotten so early a flight on such short notice,” he commented when she stopped in front of him. He was wearing the smallest possible amount of clothing, and his tee-shirt was not his own. She’d washed that for Charlie just two days previous.

“You’re much harder to fool than Charlie. Did you run all the way here?”

Jacob shrugged at her incredulous expression. “It’s faster.”

“Why are you here, Jake?” she asked sadly.

“Well, you aren’t the only one who’s spent some time thinking, you know? I thought maybe you’d like to hear what I’ve come up with.”

Bella couldn’t think of an argument for that. He’d vanished for the better part of three years, and naturally she was dying to know where he’d been. What he’d been doing. If he was okay - he’d been okay enough to be angry when he saw her.

“At least let me buy you some coffee or something,” he wheedled.

Bella shook her head, but smiled. “Alright, then,” she mumbled.

They found a place to eat, and a table. It was the middle of the day, not the most popular time for flying, so they were able to sit a little apart from everyone else. You couldn’t exactly discuss vampires and werewolves in front of the average US Airways customer.

As they sat, silently sipping their drinks, glancing at each other and then glancing away, Bella began to notice the changes in Jacob. His face seemed content. Not like he was mimicking Sam’s even temper, but like he’d found one of his own. The calm that graced his features wasn’t Sam’s anymore, and she found she liked the expression much better.

When he began to speak, she was looking away, contemplating that. She hoped she hadn’t ruined whatever peace he’d been able to find. Her own peace had taken so long to build, and she didn’t want this conversation to bring it crashing down around them both.

“Bella, it took me a long time. I tried not think about it at first, you know?” he said quietly. She turned her eyes back to him. He’d set down his drink and had both arms on the table, leaning toward her. His face was more open than she’d seen it since his return.

“But eventually, it was all I could think about. After that fight with Leah, I was worried mostly that he’d kill you in the process. I couldn’t face coming back to La Push and hearing you were dead. I knew if that happened, I would find him. I would – do something you’d have never forgiven me for. That kept me away a long time.

“Then, there was the other problem. What if he didn’t kill you, and you were one of them when I got back? The treaty would be broken. Would the pack move against you? Would Sam give me the order to kill you?” Jacob broke off, and Bella registered the tears starting in his eyes. She didn’t look away, though, and they didn’t fall. “I couldn’t come back to that. Even if you smelled like them, and every base instinct I had was screaming that I should kill you, you’d still be Bella. I couldn’t put myself under Sam’s authority again if there was going to be war. I chose to desert the pack to their fate rather than fight with them, and risk hurting you. That kept me away for a long time, too.”

Bella continued to stare into his eyes, as spellbound by this as she’d been by Billy’s legends at a long-ago bonfire. Jacob looked back at her, his voice still quiet, but authoritative.

“The answer to my fears was easy, but not a choice I was ready to make at the time. If you’d been changed, I simply would have had to become the Alpha when I returned. I wasn’t ready for that. I needed to think long and hard before I felt comfortable with the idea at all. It was – not a choice I could make for your sake. I had to make it because it was who I am, not because of who you are. Does that make sense?”

Bella nodded, swallowing hard. Here was the majesty she had once glimpsed in Jacob Black, come to fullness. Her heart seemed to swell, and she blinked and stamped down on it. He continued as if he didn’t notice the flash of warmth in her eyes, but she knew he’d probably seen. Jacob had always understood her instinctively.

“Once I’d come to terms with that, I may have spent a few more months worrying over whether the pack would want me back,” he admitted, his tone turning sheepish. “I’d run from my pain like the coward I was – left them to fight alone if there was going to be a fight. Even if I was ready to be Alpha, maybe no one would follow me.

“But finally – finally I realized that I wasn’t just the Alpha, and I wasn’t just the prodigal wolf, either,” he said, suddenly grinning before turning serious again. “That time taught me a lot about who I am, and I was something more than either of those. And then, suddenly, I wanted to come home.”

He fell silent, picking up his drink again and leaning back in his chair. The spell seemed broken, and Bella took a sip as well. “I’m glad you did,” she said finally.

“Honestly, I am, too. In all that time, I never once thought I might find you here – still human. I did a lot of thinking last night, too.”

Bella winced. This was the part she’d been dreading. “Jake -” she began warningly.

“No, just listen, please?” He waited while she sighed and nodded. “I’m sorry I was so hard on you. Seeing you was a shock. I’d only just made it back, and I was near Montreal when I decided it was time to come home, so I was tired. I was sleeping when you knocked, but I didn’t get up to answer the door. You can imagine my surprise when you came on in like you owned the place, bearing food – the first human food I’d had in a long time, incidentally, and it was really good – and cleaning up all the dishes I’d already been feeling guilty over.” He flashed her a grin and she chuckled in spite of herself.

“I don’t blame you, Jake. You have every right to hate me.”

“You’re not listening. I don’t hate you, Bella. How could I? I was just surprised.” He leaned forward and pried her hands off her Styrofoam cup, entwining their fingers the way he always did when he wanted her attention. They both stared at their joined hands for several long moments. Finally he extracted a hand and put his palm to her cheek, forcing her eyes back to his. “I’ve changed in a lot of ways, Bella. So have you. But I’ve always loved you. THAT has never changed. It never could.”

Bella smiled sadly. “I know, Jake. I’ll always love you, too. That’s why I have to go.” She watched his face fall as he lowered his hand back to the table, and felt an answering disappointment in herself. She’d come so far, learned to be so self-sufficient in the years since Jacob and Edward had both left her behind. But she knew, now, that saying goodbye was always going to be impossibly painful. In spite of herself, she gathered his hand back in and held it securely.

“Bells,” Jake said after a moment. “I know you love him, too. I knew that before I even knew I was in love with you. I would never leave you for that.”

“I know. That isn’t why –“

“Stop that, just listen!” He cut her off gently, impatient with her refusals. “I thought, back then, that I could offer you everything. That we could spend our whole lives together, and be happy. But I can’t. I don’t know when, or if I’ll ever imprint. What time I have to spend with you might be all the rest of my life, or it might be only a few weeks or years.” He paused, but Bella only looked at him, her eyes filled with sadness, and the beginnings of tears.

“And you don’t know when he might turn up again. When he does, you’ll go with him. We both know that. It could be tomorrow. Or next year. Or never. But either way, you’ve only got so much time you can give me.” He took a deep breath, his eyes never leaving hers. Then he squeezed her fingers.

“It doesn’t matter how much time we have, Bella. I want it. I’m willing to accept that it can’t be forever. I won’t even try to kill him when he shows up. Just tell me – tell me you’ll come home for the summer, Bells. Tell me you’ll come home.”

Somewhere during this speech, Bella’s tears had spilled over, but she couldn’t seem even to blink them away. She stared at him for so long, crying silently, though her breathing was even, that he started again.

Please, Bella. Don’t leave forever. If I can wait for you, I will. Just say you’ll come home.” He watched as she closed her eyes, whether in defeat or defiance, he couldn’t know.

Bella could feel the urgency in his voice like it was his own warmth, reaching to surround her from across the table. And it was comforting in a way that alarmed her. This hadn’t been in her plan. She had hoped to never be in a position to hurt him again, not to have to make this awful choice a second time. Her heart welcomed his words even as her mind feared them. She didn’t answer. Finally, her cell phone rang. She jumped, gasping, and dropped his hands.

“That will be Alice,” she predicted, reaching for her purse. Alice was used to her future disappearing when she was going to La Push, but she’d been informed of the change in plans early that morning. She knew Bella was at the airport right now.

Jake’s smile began before she’d even answered the phone. By the time she’d exchanged greetings with Alice Cullen, it was the bright smile that reminded her of the sun. Her own personal sun. She wiped her eyes on her shirt sleeve as she spoke.

“Hi, Alice... no, I’m fine... I thought that must be why you called. Sorry to have worried you.” She looked warily over at Jake, but he was leaning back in his chair, looking immensely pleased with himself. “I’d appreciate if you wouldn’t mention it to anyone, though,” she told Alice after another pause. She nodded as Alice assured her that Edward was careful never to ask about that sort of thing. His only questions were about the Volturi. That made Bella frown, and for the first time, Jacob looked concerned.

“Have you seen something about the Volturi, then?” she asked worriedly, whispering as quietly as humanly possible. She knew Jacob would still hear it, but no one else was close enough. It wasn't the sort of thing she could afford to have a random vampire overhear.

“No,” Alice answered quickly. “He just wants me to keep an eye on them. If I see anything, you’ll be the first – well, no, you’ll be the second to hear about it.”

“I’d like to be the first, thanks, it’s my neck,” Bella replied with a dark chuckle. “You can call him after.”

“Right,” Alice agreed. But Bella could hear in her tone that she was humoring her. “I hope –" Alice paused, and then continued after a moment. “I hope you’ll be happy, Bella,” she said finally. “He would want that, too.”

“Thanks, Alice.”

They hung up, and Bella looked guiltily over at Jacob, who was gazing away from her now, into a crowd of people who’d just arrived and were heading toward the escalators. There was no trace of annoyance on his face. “I didn’t tell you everything about Italy, before,” she admitted in a whisper. “But I can’t tell you here. It’ll have to wait for the summer.”

When he looked back at her, Jacob was grinning again, triumphant. “I can wait,” he affirmed. And she knew he wasn’t just talking about the Volturi story. She smiled back at him, and took his hands again. They had a few hours, still, before her flight, and a lot of catching up to do.

He laughed out loud when she told him about her original major. “I thought I’d study to be a veterinarian. I figured once I changed, I’d be strong enough to be useful to the pack. You were the only one who could have morphed in that much pain. If it had been Sam, even, we would have had no one who knew what a canine bone was supposed to look like.” She laughed with him, but she noticed that his eyes strayed to her hands, resting lightly in his. She hadn’t needed to hold herself together to say it. It had been a year, maybe more, since she’d been that fragile. He’d smiled even wider.

When it was time for her to leave, Bella felt more confusion than she knew what to do with. She was sad, of course, to be leaving him behind. But the emotion she felt most, and the one she feared most, was hope. She wanted to hurry and get back to school, so that she could come home again. She struggled to make sense of her own feelings, as they walked toward security. She didn’t have anything with her but her purse and the books she’d bought earlier, so at least she wouldn’t have to stand in the longest line and watch him walk away.

Before she could approach the conveyor belts, Jake stopped short, pulling her back toward him with maybe a little more force than necessary. He noticed, for once. “Sorry,” he whispered, lowering his head to look in her eyes, the beginnings of a smile turning up the corners of his lips.

“I’m used to it,” Bella returned, grinning back. They looked at each other for a long moment, and then she stepped even closer, holding her breath.

He cocked his head, hesitating over the teasing words that were on the tip of his tongue, but in her eyes he could see a strength that hadn’t been there before, and he decided to risk saying them. “Am I reading your body language right, this time?” he asked gently, already wrapping his arms around her waist.

Bella laughed, her hands running up his arms to tease the hair at the base of his neck. “Yeah, Jake. I think you’ve finally got it down.”

When he kissed her, it was nothing like the demanding kisses that had made her angry, nor the sweet kiss that had made her sad. His lips were hot, and burned against hers, galvanizing the hope that had begun to grow in her heart. It was a kiss full of promise, and it seemed to go on forever, but not nearly long enough. She let herself get lost in it – in him – until the sounds of the world started to press back into her consciousness. He seemed to pull away at the same moment, grinning sheepishly.

Bella passed through security in a bit of a daze, and waved before she headed to catch her plane. Jacob watched until she was out of sight and then let his eyes drift across the crowd of people that were walking behind her. Finally, he made his way back through the airport, and started the long trip home. It took a while to get out of the city, but once he did, he raced through the woods, back to La Push. Back home, where it finally felt like he could belong again.