The Golden Phase of Dying Leaves
When Bella returns from Italy after failing to save Edward, Jacob isn't sure if he can do anything to pull her out of her state of numbness this time.
1. Chapter 1
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"The Golden Phase of Dying Leaves"
Alice Cullen brings Bella back from Italy and has to carry her vacant and catatonic form into Charlie's house. She had to stop her from offering herself to the Volturi after she watched them grab Edward from the sunlight and then he finally saw Bella in the distance running to him desperately, noticing her too late, before they took him far into the hiding shadows. She could hear the nightmarish sounds of rock-hard limbs getting torn from his body like the brilliant screaming of diamonds, and then there was just the sound of her screaming blocking out everything else.
And now there is nothing. A deafening silence. Even if she dies now, she's sure her soul will not rest, the despair is so deep and poisonous. At least a desire for death would be a desire for something, would give her some sense of motion and purpose, but all she has left is hopeless, frozen stasis.
Because she hasn't just lost something. Now that he no longer exists and it is the kind of world in which something this unfathomably horrible could happen to her, the entire world might as well have lost something. Everything has been abandoned and left to waste.
Jacob sits in Emily's kitchen while she moves busily around the counter in her apron, his face deeply sullen. The house fills with the warm scents of her cooking, banana bread baking in the oven, but right now she is working with the kind of seriousness with which someone would bury a body and there is nothing comforting about the atmosphere.
"You helped her before," she tells him. "You'll get her through it again."
He shakes his head hopelessly and says, "I don't know. Not this time. She loves me—I think—but not enough. Not enough for it to make any difference now."
"That's got nothing to do with it," Emily says, taking the bread out of the oven. "I'm sure the more she cares, the more it just scares her right now."
Jacob watches her prepare the loaf of bread, cutting it in half as if it's for communion, then wrapping it up in cellophane on a red plastic plate. She doesn't tie it with ribbon or attach a card with flowers pictured saying "I'm sorry for your loss" or whatever message could possibly be appropriate. Emily is practical about giving love, not sentimental, and when it really counts she doesn't dress it up with flowers and poetry. Her strongest medicine has no sweet flavor added. She wears the scars and ugliness of love inescapable and can handle washing the blood out of clothes or sitting by the sick as they become horrifyingly unrecognizable, the nasty business of caring about people, not just the gentler parts of true love and family.
"Take this to her," she says, setting the bread by him on the table.
"She won't eat it," he says, giving a dismissing shrug. "Nobody can get her to eat anything."
She looks at him like he's still missing the point. "Well, you'll have to somehow, because you're probably the only one who can. Do whatever you have to do. Convince her to eat."
Bella still hasn't cried. Not even once. Sometimes when people come to see her and talk to her, they find her almost seeming happy and able to talk normally, like she's in complete denial and has forgotten what happened. And sometimes she won't speak at all, or can't even be convinced to get out of bed.
One evening Jacob comes over while Charlie is out and finds her sitting out in her back yard wearing the gown she wore to her Junior prom with nothing else, her feet bare and her hair looking like it hasn't been brushed in days. She has deep circles under her eyes, and he thought she looked shockingly thin and brittle when he first saw her again after Edward left but now she's almost skeletal.
He sits by her and immediately draws her close to him, wrapping his arm around her and finding her skin ice-cold. "What are you doing?" he asks in shock. "It's freezing, Bella."
She looks to the side at him and very delicately and sadly smiles, like he is something lovely but so distant and out of her reach, just another sad memory. "Jacob," she says, her voice coming out as just a weak chime. "Were you ever going to tell me about Sam and Leah?"
His brow narrows. He doesn't ask how she found out about that, or understand at all why it matters right now.
"Come on, honey," he mutters softly, hooking an arm under her knees, and then as he carries her inside she feels nearly weightless in his arms.
Jacob remembers how she used to take so much effort to stay occupied when she was getting through the dark but not darkest time before, making plans with him every single day she could and always happy to make dinner at home and being so thorough about her own schoolwork as well as helping him with his sometimes. Her house always looked immaculately clean and organized, and he also attributed that to her need for distraction. But now the place is a bit of a neglected wreckage, dishes piling up in the kitchen and random items scattered across the floor and desk in her room. He notices this as he goes inside and then upstairs to find a sweater for her, and then he comes back down to put it over her shoulders where he sat her down in the living room with her legs lying across the couch. He sits beside her, putting her feet in his lap, and starts rubbing them with his hands to warm them up.
She looks down at herself, idly running her fingers along the silky fabric of the dress along her waist and hip, and a slow and disturbing smile spreads across her face.
"I wanted to look so beautiful," she says absently. "Perfect. And I had to have a stupid cast on my leg..."
"I remember," Jacob says, not even trying to use a light tone. "You did look beautiful."
She looks up at him like she's almost forgotten about his presence. "That's right," she says, as if she is remembering the night more clearly. "I saw you there..."
He stares at her with growing concern, slowly shaking his head. "Bella...please," he begs. "I don't know what to do. I'm here. Tell me what you need me to do."
Her eyes as she looks back at him are still somewhat dreamy, not completely in the moment, but for a glimmer of a moment they look almost sorry. "I need you to give up on me."
He shakes his head again, some tears welling in his eyes that he blinks away. "No," he says without hesitation, though not in any way that could be called eager either. "I can't do that."
Bella looks away from him, staring away at nothing. "You will," she just says surely.
They haven't spoken aloud about it at all, though ever since she came back she has had her motivation for everything so completely destroyed that she doesn't even have the strength to lie to herself and repress the truth anymore. It is no longer necessarily hidden between them or from herself that she is probably a little in love with Jacob, just inconsequential. Now it's just another thing that's meant to end badly, in one way or another, after the passing of enough time. He'll get killed one day while he's out hunting down vampires, or he'll find someone else who he can't ignore the same way Sam couldn't leave Emily alone despite being so devoted to Leah up until the moment he met her. Or after ten years they'll end up fighting more often than they're not fighting, feelings that were once new and passionate becoming tired and not enough to survive on anymore, because they're only human and that's just what happens and they can't help it.
There was only ever one person who could love her in a way that was unquestionably immutable and permanent. But now that love that she once worried would still exist with nowhere to be directed far too long after she's dead is gone. She is still alive. Everything is backwards and funny. It feels like being the only living person left after the end of the world.
Jacob has never been the kind of person to give up easily.
He knows other people, if in his position, might have had to stop trying and let go of Bella by now, after the apparent hopelessness of the situation started eating away at them too much. Sometimes when people start slowly and gruesomely dying from disease or they descend into drug addiction or stop eating, the ones close to them have to give themselves distance from it after a while because it gets to be too much to watch and they're too scared of being brought down with them. They tell themselves it's better to let somebody else save that person or stay beside them through it because they aren't strong enough to. It doesn't necessarily make them bad people. It's just a very human weakness, a primal instinct. Self-preservation.
But it's just not in his nature to lose hope and give up. At least that is still true for now. No matter how bad things get, he doesn't just see complete futility in life or in what he's doing. He wants too much to believe there is some kind of elusive logic and meaning in the design of the universe. He has had his own share of pain and anger over things that have happened to him, especially recent changes in his life. But with more dangerous things like Victoria out there, he can see how even a thing like a werewolf most definitely has a purpose in this world.
And of course nobody in the pack is more determined to take care of Victoria or better suited to be protective of Bella than he is. Things like that have worked out rather conveniently for her. Even if he also sometimes feels like frustratedly asking of some force behind all this, Doesn't it matter what the cost is for me?, he can't help feeling at times like he was sent to her, as someone with both the willingness and capability to be everything she needs.
It doesn't make much sense to him that he hasn't imprinted on her. He's supposed to be here for her, and he isn't supposed to be here. Obviously destiny just likes screwing with people sometimes or else it would be more simple.
She doesn't dream of Edward anymore. When she does dream it is of more vague images and fears, the stink of death and sickness and her own pointlessly weak human body rotting away or just breaking into pieces.
Then when she wakes up and sees herself in the mirror, her frail figure and sun-starved skin, she doesn't look much different from those images. She can feel herself dying, and not just because of what has happened. Everyone she sees around her is dying. Dead. Ever since the angel she met with very old eyes and a blindingly bright eternity ahead of him decided that he wanted death just like everyone and everything else gets, she knows nothing is permanent and sustainable.
She never makes any decision to go anywhere, but others take her away from home. Victoria is still alive and trying to come after her, so she's still safer spending a lot of time on the reservation. She'll stay at Jacob's or at Emily's and people will put their arms around her shoulders in soothing gestures or put food in front of her that she usually won't even look at. Sometimes she'll pick up pieces of food and start to try eating, and at least if she makes it look like she's trying she won't keep being watched so closely, but it's like her body rejects it. After managing to take a couple swallows, she can't seem to find the energy to get any more down.
Because she is so unresponsive most of the time and won't seem to be paying attention to anyone else, some people have started talking about her in third person while she is there or having somewhat private conversations nearby, murmurs about how both the Clearwaters are adjusting to joining the pack on top of the shock of losing their father on the same day they first made the change. This is how she figured out the story about Sam leaving Leah. After hearing enough bits and pieces about it that she only absorbed subconsciously, her mind slowly put it together, like the way things finally come together for her only in dreams sometimes.
She finds she has a slightly morbid curiosity about other people's troubles now. When before she could only be absorbed in her own pain, suddenly it's like she sees suffering everywhere.
Bella wakes up after dozing off on Emily's couch under a quilt, startled by a piercing howl coming from outside that sounds impossibly close.
She and Emily are alone in the house. All of the boys are out going after Victoria. They were confident that this would be the night they could finally get her cornered and it would be over. When Bella gets up and looks around the house, she finds Emily looking out a window and seeming very distressed.
"It sounds like they've brought the attack too close to here," she says nervously. "If she makes it into the residential area, there are too few places for them to conceal themselves. She could find her way right to you."
For a while Bella just watches her anxiously looking out the window. Then she asks what is probably the only genuine question she has articulated in days. "Why were they howling like that?"
"It was just one of them," she explains, clearly worried because of it. "They shouldn't be making any noise like that where they can he heard from here. Someone's probably gotten hurt and didn't mean to..."
She waits just another moment. Then she starts drifting with an absent-minded kind of movement toward the front door.
"Bella!" Emily says in shock. "What are you doing?"
"It's not like I can hide from a vampire in here," she explains in a careless, mechanical sort of tone. "Obviously my best chance is to get where they can protect me more easily. And I don't want her coming near you and any other people."
Emily keeps looking at her in horror, not liking the idea at all, but she doesn't stop her from leaving. Bella knows she has to stay at the house so that she'll be here as soon as someone can make it back with something to report.
What she told Emily isn't the real reason she leaves. She isn't even completely sure what has made her legs carry her away with such decided direction all the sudden. But she finds there is something she still cares about after all. Even if it feels to her like the world has ended all around her, it turns out there is one thing that could still make everything worse.
She needs Jacob to come back to her alive.
She starts quickly walking away from the house in her bare feet towards the woods in the distance, in the direction it sounded like the noise from one of the wolves came from. She has been spending the night here sometimes when the pack gets worried that she won't be as safe at home, and she's still wearing just a short nightgown of Emily's that she's been letting her borrow. But she doesn't even feel the cold. Most of this feels kind of like a dream except for the driving need to know if they finally killed Victoria, if she hurt somebody. If he is alright.
Bella gets deep into the forest where it's so dark she can hardly see anything, and then she stops when she hears fast and heavy running far off to her right. Then in another place, farther away, more ahead of her.
And somehow she finds her voice to call out his name, high and frantic, like her soul fervently pulling out of her mouth after lying numb and dormant for so much time.
A response comes as a quiet, short howl that she can barely hear but can tell is coming from her right. It does not seem like a sound of warning or fear; she can tell somehow as soon as she hears it that the danger is gone. They finally got her. So she immediately takes off running in his direction.
There is a mighty rumbling over the earth far away, the sound of incredibly fast paws running at their greatest speed. Then he slows down as he comes into view ahead of her, just as a massive and almost indiscernible black shape in the dark, and then as they get closer he changes and keeps running to meet her.
They collide together with simultaneous heavy exhales of breath, Jacob picking her up off the ground with an awed look in his eyes after she throws herself into his arms, and then she's wrapping her legs around him as they kiss each other desperately. His completely uncovered body is burning against her own and feels like the fire and running engine of life, the white-hot spark of creation from when the universe was young and new, and it suddenly seems incredible that he's still here.
"You're alive," she says, breathing the words in relief while his hot mouth is at her neck.
"Yeah," he mutters tightly, running a hand back through her hair. Then he lowers down to the ground until they're both sitting, Bella still partially straddling him. "Are you okay?"
She takes a moment to answer, not sure how to respond and explain it. "I was scared."
He thinks for a second, the look on his face impossible to read very clearly in the dark. "That's good, I guess," he says.
With a sudden violence he grabs her waist, the heat from his hands going right through the thin nightgown to her skin, lifting her up a little and pulling her against him. "I'm alive, Bella," he says miserably, shaking her just a little as he holds her firmly. "I'm here. And so are you."
"I can't feel you," she says regretfully, shaking her head. "Not most of the time. I can't feel anything. I can't even cry."
He sets her back down and takes one of her hands to hold it over her heart so she can feel the strong pulse there, her heart still hammering after she was running. "I know there's still something warm inside of you," he says with determination. "Something that wants to live."
She sits just breathing heavily for a moment. Then she leans closer into him, takes her hand out from under his and slides his hand from over her heart to her breast as she starts to kiss him again. She feels his breath fall out quickly like it's been knocked out of him, and his hands move slowly at first, hesitant. But obviously even Jacob Black isn't the perfectly resilient survivor he seems sometimes because he has lost enough hope to not pull away even though this isn't at all how he must have always wanted it to be. He isn't stupid enough to think this means something it doesn't. But he had a plan before and knew what he was doing when they started spending more time together, knew when would be the right time to make all the right moves and that he just had to wait, but now neither of them knows what is becoming of them or what they're doing or should be doing. She just needs something that will feel completely new to her, some kind of strong stimulation and shock to the system, something to prove that he really is alive and a lot closer than it feels like he is.
When he takes hold of her waist again with her sitting on his lap and lifts her onto him, sliding in slowly, her nails dip deep into the muscles of his upper back. Then she raises one hand to the back of his neck, tensely grabbing at his hair as they settle into a steady rhythm moving together and the initial pain subsides. Their soft gasping and sighing in the dark under the starless night sky sounds almost like crying, but Bella still can't quite cry. She closes her eyes and thinks of the feeling of him beating her very hard to get all the water out of her the time he pulled her out of the ocean before she drowned, trying to somehow connect it to the gentleness of this, to give it more impact to wake her up.
The body can get infected and its bones broken, it gets tired, it gets hungry, and eventually it just stops and decomposes. It also does this. It is a simple and instinctive reaction to unbearable pain in circumstances like these, a strong physical distraction.
And it works. She feels safe here with him, wherever they are exactly, and doesn't want it to stop when it does, his head dropping tiredly into her shoulder as he shudders with climax and her last gasp coming out shaped like the word "Jake" but not quite audible as speech.
She wakes up back on Emily's couch, the house empty but for her and a note left for her explaining that almost everyone is at the Clearwaters'.
Her truck is here, so she leaves after adding to the note to explain that she's going home and write "Thanks again" even though she's not entirely sure whether she has ever had the awareness to thank Emily for her hospitality and generosity before.
It must be Charlie's day off because he is in the kitchen when she gets home, drinking coffee and reading the sports page. She sits by him and lets her eyes wander carelessly across another page of the paper without even noticing what section it is.
"Not doing anything in La Push today?" he asks her after some silence. "I thought you might not be back until later."
She shakes her head and just says, "Hadn't planned to."
It is actually a very strange feeling, not needing to be there now that she doesn't have to be where she has the pack's constant protection. It hasn't quite settled in that it's over.
Charlie starts looking at her more closely. "Bells?" he says, pointing to the side of her head. "You've got something stuck in your hair."
She reaches up and finds it there, something dry and dead, and pulls a small crumpled leaf away from her head. Then as she stares at it in her hand, her eyes go just a little wide and her breathing gets slightly uneasy. It is the first time she has realized after the disorientation of this whole morning that what happened last night really happened.
Bella feels a hand holding her shoulder, looks up to see her dad's concerned face.
"Sweetie?" he says. Obviously he can see that something is wrong with her—more wrong than usual.
She just shakes her head quickly after a moment of delay, gets up and leaves the kitchen.
This must be what it feels like to start losing your mind, she thinks. Now she can vaguely remember them lying there in silence on the forest floor afterwards, her still clinging to him to stay warm. He must have taken her back to Emily's after she fell asleep. The suddenly potent memory of his incredible warmth inside her and his muscles tensing under her hands can only put a deep pit of nervousness and shame in her stomach. But it is probably the strongest feeling she can remember having about anything in a while.
For once she gets restless just sitting around at home. After noticing a note Charlie left himself saying he needs to pick up some garbage bags, she goes out to the store to get them herself, and then keeps driving around for a while just to drive.
Something strikes her as almost peaceful about being outdoors today. Everything seems surprisingly different ever since the wolves got rid of Victoria and she can go somewhere alone without it being a risk to herself. She no longer feels death following her everywhere as an inevitable presence as much.
Maybe it isn't only that. She can't yet be sure how, but something in her has very subtly changed ever since the night she was with Jacob, even if she didn't feel the impact right away or right afterwards. She still feels detached and left adrift, unable to quite make contact with anything, but at least she is grasping now. She feels the need to find something she can hold onto, some kind of stable ground, even if she may not be able to hold onto it for very long. What else can she do?
When Bella sees him again, he acts like he isn't feeling especially open and vulnerable around her now, like it's fine.
She comes home and finds him and his father there when she had no idea Charlie had plans with Billy. They are together to watch a game, sitting in front of the TV eating a pizza they ordered. And he just gives her a reserved but attemptedly easy smile when she walks in the room, making her feel both comfortable and a little guilty sitting down next to him.
Bella knows he's pretending nothing has really changed in case that is what she wants to think right now. She isn't sure what she thinks except that this is not exactly how she would have expected it to be. Maybe there was a part of her that wanted to prove to herself that Jacob can't be completely depended on, that thought if he would give in and settle for such an easy and mindless kind of experience it meant he was just as messed up inside as everyone else and even everything between them was easy to wreck.
But as she realizes now, it isn't as if what happened could have happened with just anyone and meant absolutely nothing. Love doesn't always thrive on happiness and pleasant memories; in the darkest situations it will find a way of being there, like a stubborn infestation. And surely he knows that. Obviously he isn't still here in her life because he thinks it's possible for everything to go back to how it was, the two of them laughing and sharing soda in his garage and a perfect first kiss that nearly happened in her kitchen a time that feels like years ago.
It seems it has taken all this for her to see just how deeply he is in this with her. She knows he won't leave her even if she starts only speaking in creepy delusional nonsense and won't move unless made to and has to be taken around in a wheelchair just like his father. It should be easy for her to tell herself that this doesn't give her any kind of responsibility for him, that the whole world is cursed and if she doesn't screw him up because of this something else will anyway. But just like she couldn't help but be scared when she thought he might have gotten hurt that night, this one thing she cannot seem to just carelessly accept as an inevitability.
As they passively watch the TV along with their dads, neither of them ever says a word. At one point she inches closer to him and takes his hand, lacing her fingers through his securely. He looks to the side at her, then down at their joined hands with a look of peace and acceptance on his face.
Then as he and his dad are leaving later, he turns to Bella at the door and kisses her, softly and chastely, right in front of Billy and Charlie. It leaves her with some of the anxious knots in her chest coming undone, but she suddenly feels his absence deeply after he's out the door and wishes he didn't have to drive Billy home.
Later that night, not long after she turns the lights off in her room and gets in bed, she hears something knock on her window and sits up to see him right outside it in the tree. She gets right up and goes to the window to open it.
"Hey," he says with a mild smile. "Is this okay? I...kind of got the feeling you didn't really want me to leave, so..."
Bella seems almost confused by his words, registering them a little slowly. "Of course it's okay."
She steps aside to let him climb inside and then they both sit down on her bed, just looking at each other calmly a while before either of them speaks.
Then Bella looks down at the blankets, slowly shaking her head at herself. "I'm sorry I can't be very sure of anything right now," she says.
His eyes become a little sad as he looks at her, and then he leans toward her and takes her tightly into his arms. As she hugs him back, the contact alone makes her start breathing more deeply, letting more air flow through her freely. She didn't know it could still be like this with him.
Jacob has one hand raked in her hair, breathing her in deeply, and then his voice comes out a little jagged and pained when he speaks. "I love you. Do you know that? I love you really terribly."
It is strange for her to realize he has never actually told her so before, not in words. She can only reply softly, "Yeah. I know."
He lets out a long, heavy breath, as if he has been holding it for a while, before pulling away and looking at her face again. "I know you think I can't promise you anything..."
"I don't want you to," she says. "God knows I'm not in any kind of condition to be able to make promises."
Jacob sighs. "As far as I know, maybe you're right," he admits. "Maybe I will only end up hurting you eventually, almost as badly as it's hurt you to lose him, even if I'd rather die than do that...But I'm here right now. And right now is when you need me the most. Maybe there are at least some things that work out the way they should."
She is able to smile, just faintly and weakly. "Yeah."
As he pulls her into his arms again, she softly kisses his shoulder and then rests her head into it, completely relaxing against him like she could fall asleep this way. He feels strong and solid against her, binding her to the feeling and physical world so she can't drift away.
Jacob is still there when she wakes up in the morning, lying beside her over the covers with his arm draped around her waist and his slow, warm breath falling on the back of her head. She slides his arm off of her and turns over onto her back to look at him a minute. Then she glances at the clock, seeing it's late enough that Charlie probably just left, and then sits up and just stays that way for a while, looking out the window and thinking. Finally she gets out of bed, leaving him to sleep longer, and goes downstairs.
Bella idly looks around as she comes into the kitchen, as if she's been taking so little notice of things for so long that some of the sights around her house seem new. She finds the bread that Emily baked for her still sitting on the counter days after it was brought here, not touched at all. She brings it to the table and sits down slowly, looking down at it with some uncertainty.
She knows there is a distinction between living and simply existing. There is a difference between just loving, which is easy, and giving love. Loving on its own is just something that happens to people, even terrible people, whether they always want it to or not, and it only happens inside them.
But giving love is much harder, a lot more draining. It is something you can see, and sometimes it really isn't pretty. It means staying by someone when they aren't as strong and beautiful and they're letting themselves go to waste. It means allowing yourself to get attached even if someone may not always be there. Being willing to die for someone else doesn't even count; death is just a way out, and not nearly as hard as this.
It means holding yourself together after someone is lost because that is what they would have needed you to do. And choosing not to just forget them.
And maybe the only true angels in the world are those strong enough to do this, or to support someone else until they're able to do it, the people who can give themselves away without any inclinations to protect and preserve themselves. They do it even though it may lead to them getting hurt more often than not, or possibly even mean they will only get hurt.
So then what is the point? Bella isn't even sure she has any kind of an answer to that right now. She doesn't know if strength, the only kind that really matters, is something everyone either has or just doesn't have. If it is something you can sometimes draw from somebody else. If, once it is then taken away, it can somehow be found again. Or if it's just gone.
She stares down at the plate for just another moment in her murky and reluctant thoughts, and then starts slowly unwrapping the bread with weak-feeling hands. She doesn't bother cutting it into slices. She just picks up one of the halves in her hand, goes still looking at it for a moment, and then closes her eyes in effort as she takes a bite of it.
Her mind starts latching onto specific memories of laughter and other horrible, too-tangible things, and once the floodgates are opened it doesn't stop coming, finally making it completely real to her. His crooked smile, the amazingly elegant handwriting on the notes he wrote for her during class, the smell of him left on her clothes and in her bed after he'd been there that now lingers nowhere, his fingers dancing across the piano keys and striking notes with perfect precision that stirred feelings in her she didn't know she could have.
At last the tears start coming, and then they don't stop until they're flowing out endlessly, violently shaking her whole body with the sobs until it becomes hard to breathe, the remembered images and feelings flooding out like stabbing weapons, He's gone he's gone oh God. I can't. But through it all she keeps breaking off pieces of the bread and putting them in her mouth. It is unbelievably difficult to eat something and cry at the same time, like they are two completely different and conflicting bodily processes. Sometimes she has to stop a moment and hang her head down with the back of her wrist held over her closed mouth, just breathing in heavy gasps and sobbing, before she can completely force down just one mouthful. But she doesn't stop, not until she has eaten all of it, after sitting there alone for what has felt like hours.
She is sure her body will just break apart because the pain is too great, too much to hold all at once as she finally processes it, but after a while she becomes aware of the soft sound of a clock ticking on the wall and she is still here, all her bones still held together.
Humans and their breakable bodies are not designed to last forever and through anything. But they are strong enough.