For the second time in my existence, I was packing our belongings at the house in Forks. It wasn't as sad as our first departure, but it nonetheless weighed heavily on my mind and heart.
"Penny for your thoughts, love," Edward murmured as he wrapped his arms around my waist and pulled me back against him. I dropped the unfolded clothing into the suitcase and turned in his arms, settling my face against his chest. Not up to words, I pushed my shield out of my mind - a skill long ago perfected - and let him into the stream of sadness, love, and anticipation that made up my conflicted thoughts. He squeezed me tighter and then stood back from me, using his hands to cup my face so that he could look into my eyes. "We have time, Bella. We could stay a little longer."
I smiled up at him, loving how eager he still was to make me happy. "No, no. It's time. And I am looking forward to the Alliance meeting. It's just...this place feels more like home than anywhere in the world."
"To me, too." Edward leaned forward, his topaz eyes on mine, and kissed me softly several times before resting his forehead on mine. "Esme asked me to help her with something up at the house. It shouldn't take long."
"Of course. Go ahead. I'll finish up here." The crooked smile he offered as he left our little cottage still took away my breath, as unnecessary as it was.
I turned back to my suitcase and mindlessly began folding clothing again - clothing almost entirely purchased by Alice, I mused wryly. My thoughts drifted to memories of the first time we'd left Forks, so many years ago.
Through great effort and determination, we stayed in Forks longer than the Cullens had ever dared before. Everyone wanted to stay to watch the wonder of Renesmee growing to maturity, and I enjoyed every opportunity to remain in touch with Charlie. After just seven short years, my adorable bronze-haired baby girl was a beautiful and talented woman, and we'd pushed our ability to explain our appearance to the absolute limit.
A year after Jacob and Renesmee's wedding, we left Forks for the first time. Hard as it was for me and Edward to accept, Renesmee's bond with Jacob kept her in Forks so that her mate could maintain his increasingly elevated position within the Quileute tribe. Charlie and Renesmee's close relationship did much to ease my mind, as our daughter would still be surrounded by family.
We moved to Denali a short time later, and that was where the alarming news first reached us.
Caius had attempted a coup against his brothers.
Humiliated and embittered by the outcome of the showdown in the clearing, Caius funneled his resentment into a rebellious plot to overthrow Aro and Marcus, and take full control of the Volturi. Caius destroyed Marcus, bringing chaos to Volterra as the Guard's loyalties divided between the remaining ancients.
Given his recent stand against the Volturi, the vampire world looked to Carlisle to attempt to resolve the civil war. Thus it was that Carlisle, Eleazar, Edward, Jasper, Alice, Zafrina, Senna, and I traveled to Volterra. Together, the eight of us used our combined talents to immobilize both sides and force a precarious truce; then we proposed a new ruling order called The Alliance.
Vampires throughout the world were called to Volterra to attend a summit chaired by Carlisle and Eleazar. All in attendance agreed that Caius's actions warranted his execution. Alec was also sentenced to death for supporting Caius's treason. Jane, who'd remained loyal to Aro, attempted to save her brother at his execution, and ended up sacrificing herself as well. Aro suspected she did it on purpose to ease her guilt for fighting against her brother in the first place.
The Alliance filled the void left by the decimated and ill-trusted Volturi, giving our kind a governing structure to protect our interests. It consisted of a rotating Executive Council that served for a decade and enforced the rules of our world. The Council's work was supported by a newly reformed Guard and shaped by the delegates to the Alliance Congress who came from each coven and met for a month every ten years.
In deference to the old order and to ensure continuity, Aro was given one of the five seats on the new Executive Council. This also helped ensure the loyalty of the remaining Guard. Carlisle and Eleazar were also elected to the Council, due to their previous experience with the Volturi but also their success in standing against them. The Romanian, Stefan, was included in hopes of ending that coven's vendetta against the Italians. Maggie's talent with deducing lies made her everyone's pick for the final seat on the Council. Her presence represented the wariness most had about whether this new order could work.
But it did. And the vampire world settled into a long era of peace that allowed us to continue living the lives we wanted to live, lives based around love and family, and very much intertwined with the world of humans.
After our initial years in Italy supporting Carlisle as he got The Alliance off the ground, Emmett, Rose, Alice, Jasper, Edward, and I all settled in New Hampshire where I, finally, attended college for the first time. It was hard at first having us separated - Renesmee 3,000 miles away in Forks, and Carlisle and Esme 3,000 miles away in Italy - but college could not have been more invigorating for me. I thrived there and, unlike high school, found an academic environment in Dartmouth where I fit in, where I belonged. Edward was thrilled to watch me enjoy the experience.
We stayed a dozen years in Hanover. I completed my bachelor's in English and my Master's in Comparative Literature at Dartmouth before landing a job teaching English at a private school. Edward decided to major in music as an undergrad and then completed Dartmouth's Master's in Electroacoustic Music. Emmett enrolled in the business program, while Rose studied engineering. Jasper completed a doctorate in Physiological and Brain Sciences, while Alice threw herself into the study of languages so she could more easily understand the conversations of all the new vampires appearing in her visions.
Before long, our appearance necessitated our departure - the right clothing, hairstyles, and make-up could barely make me pass for my late twenties, and the same was true for the others. But that simply meant I would have another opportunity for experiencing college in a new place, and we were all excited that the end of Carlisle's tenure on the Council allowed him and Esme to return home to us.
We lived similar lives in Rochester, New York, Madison, Wisconsin, Anchorage, Alaska, and Portland, Oregon. But we weren't always students. Carlisle's medical practices and my teaching and writing careers convinced the others that they could have more productive lives as well.
Edward composed music professionally and worked as a music tutor for disadvantaged children, who would otherwise have little exposure to music. Jasper, whose bloodlust was now well disciplined, was sometimes a history teacher and other times a psychiatrist. Alice engaged in fashion design and her clothing became highly sought after due to the mysterious nature of the reclusive designer.
Esme and Rose decided there was another way they could have children in their lives. Together, they created a foundation that funded domestic violence shelters and orphanages. Headquartered in Portland, Emmett ran the business side of the Foundation, while Rose and Esme did the on-site management of the first orphanage and shelter, respectively. I had never seen either of them more fulfilled or happy. Never again did Esme act the part of the stay-at-home mom or Rose act the part of a high school student, though she did pursue the legal and medical education that she thought would assist her new work.
Inevitably, Edward finally got elected to the Council. Before we left for his decade of service, we took a much needed trip back to Forks. We'd been back for visits many times before - to see Renesmee and Jacob, to help Charlie when he fell ill, and, later, to attend his funeral. We debated returning more permanently then, but there were still too many people in town, namely Mike Newton who ran his family's business and had married Jessica Stanley, who could recognize us. The picture of a sixty-year-old Mike and Jessica accidentally running into our still-teenage selves would have been comical if it wouldn't have been so dangerous. So our visits to the area had to be short and stealthy, for at least a few more decades.
It was a little jarring to watch Jake with the rest of the pack. Whereas his constant proximity to Renesmee kept his wolf gene active, preventing him from aging, Renesmee's mixed background was apparently not enough to keep the remainder of the pack from aging. To be sure, they aged much more slowly than normal, but they aged nonetheless. Jacob's youthfulness seemed particularly pronounced on this visit.
One afternoon I found him sitting on a large piece of driftwood at First Beach. Just like old times.
I sat down next to him. "Hey."
It was amazing how easily we always slipped into our old modes of interaction.
"You okay?" I could tell from looking at him that he wasn't.
We sat for a long time staring out at the water. I knew he'd speak when he was ready.
"So, how do you stand it?"
I looked at him. His hair was short again. It seemed a different length every time I saw him. "Stand what?"
He blew out a breath. "Never aging. Everyone around me is getting older. I didn't used to mind it. But now it's...well, now it feels...weird." He huffed and kicked at the wood with his foot. "All the people who were old when we were kids, Bella, they're all gone. One day...."
I scooted over and leaned my shoulder against his. I knew exactly what he was feeling, although I imagined the fact that I spent most of my time with the Cullens, who also didn't age, made it easier on me than on Jake. "Not everyone around you is getting older."
His eyes flashed to mine. "I know, and I'm not trying to say-"
"Jake, relax. I understand. I know you love Renesmee. I wouldn't be able to be away from this place if I didn't know that. But that's what you have to focus on. You have her. Forever. That's what I focus on. That's what helped me get through Charlie's death, and Phil's. And it's what will help me get through my mom's death, when it happens."
"How is she?" he asked, trying to keep the subject off himself.
"The same. The home says she has good days and bad." Renee developed Alzheimer's ten years before. The only thing that made it bearable was that I had the resources to properly take care of her, and her now faulty memory allowed me to visit.
He nodded, then a long moment passed. "Hey Bells?" I looked back to him. "Are you happy?"
I grabbed his hand and squeezed. His intense heat was still surprising. "Most of the time, immensely. But no one can be happy all of the time, Jacob. So give yourself a break." The smile on his face reassured me. He and my baby would be just fine.
Our decade in Italy was an interesting experience. Not surprisingly, Edward excelled at his work on the Council, and I spent the time catching up with the rest of the Cullens on my language proficiency. By the end of the decade, I was fluent in seven languages, which opened up whole new bodies of literature to me.
After Edward, Alice and Jasper served back-to-back terms on the Council. With them situated in Italy and the rest of the Cullens in Portland, Edward and I went on an extended period of travel. We made no itinerary and followed no set plan. We went only where our interests and whims dictated. It was me and Edward against the world in those years, and we became closer than ever before. We were equals, partners, in all things.
At the end of Alice's term on the Council, we finally, and at long last, returned to live in Forks. It'd been eighty-three years since we last lived here. I was, technically at least, one hundred nine years old, though I was still the baby of the family, as Emmett frequently pointed out.
Carlisle returned to his work at Forks Hospital, while Esme and Rose opened and operated a shelter in Port Angeles. Emmett continued to run the Foundation, which he managed to do from Forks most days. The rest of us decided, given the stress of our recent experiences in Volterra, to take it easy and play the part of Forks High School students just one more time. While the school itself looked nothing like the old grouping of buildings that stood when I went there for real, walking the school halls and attending classes gave me a strange but not unpleasant sense of déjà vu. Of course it helped that Edward and I were lab partners in biology.
The best part about returning to Forks was our ability to refocus on family. It had been so long since Edward and I spent so much uninterrupted time with Renesmee. I relished in our mother-daughter time and tried to impart to her the ideals that had helped shape my life: Dream big. Love hard. Live like there is no tomorrow. The latter is challenging when you're immortal, but one thing I've learned is an appreciation for life is at the heart of humanity.
These years were something of a homecoming for Renesmee too, as she and Jake had spent the previous decades traveling and attending college. Jake had found it simply too difficult to remain during the years when, one by one, his pack members finally succumbed to life's final rite of passage. He knew each time, even without seeing. They returned to Forks when we did - Renesmee to work as a doctor for the Quileutes (how she loved seeming older than her parents!) and Jacob with an engineering degree that would allow him to take on construction projects needed around La Push. So we all began new lives here together.
The most special memories were also the most commonplace ones: forced shopping trips with Alice and Rose, hearing the guys argue over video games, watching Esme bring her gardens back to splendorous life, listening to Edward play his lullaby for me at his old piano, seeing Edward's pride and adoration for his daughter, sharing old stories with Renesmee, and the endless rounds of pranks and competitions within the house, so often instigated by Emmett in one form or another.
But it could only last so long for us. Which brought me back to the clothes I was finally finished folding. As I zipped the bag closed, Edward surprised me.
"Perfect timing, I see. You're all finished here?" He pressed open-mouthed kisses behind my ear and along my jaw line.
I hadn't heard him come in through the thickness of my memories, and I melted into his touch. "Mmm, yeah. All done."
"Good, because I have a surprise for you." I looked up at him smirking and met his beautiful smile.
"You know I don't like surprises." I was only half-heartedly protesting. Years of experience told me that I liked Edward's surprises more often than not.
"You'll like these surprises. Trust me." His face was alive with excitement.
"Surprises? I thought you said ‘a surprise.'"
"Yes, yes. Semantics. Here." He smiled as he placed a box in my hands.
I made quick work of opening it and gasped. "Oh, Edward! This wasn't supposed to arrive for another month!" The first copies of my eighth novel - a supernatural fantasy, of course - filled the box.
"Yes, I know, but I wanted you to have them before we leave."
I reached up and kissed him as enthusiastically as I could with a boxful of books in my arms. "Thank you," I said, finally.
"You're welcome. But don't you want to know where we're going?" His amusement was pronounced. I loved to see him happy and playful.
"Well, the Alliance meeting is in three weeks," and I was our coven's delegate this time, "so, Italy?"
"Italy, yes. But not before we spend some time here," he proclaimed as he handed me an envelope.
I looked at him suspiciously as I opened the flap and slid out the tickets. "Happy 100th Anniversary," he murmured softly as he watched the emotion play across my face.
"Rio!" That could only mean one thing. "We're going to Isle Esme?!"
"What better place to celebrate our hundredth anniversary?" He looked radiant at the success of his surprise.
"Oh, Edward! It's perfect!" I threw my arms around his neck.
He laughed and picked me up and I wrapped my legs around his waist. "I love you, Bella. Forever and forever and forever."
"God, I love you too, Edward, so much."
He carried me into our bedroom, at least it was for this one last night. He lowered me onto the bed and followed after, propping himself above me on his forearms. "I still don't know what I did to deserve you, love."
I playfully punched him in the shoulder. I didn't allow him any of his self-loathing anymore, and he didn't allow me my old insecurities.
"You were you, Edward. And that was enough. That was everything." I lifted my shield out around him, showing him what he meant to me, and what I wanted him to do.
His eyes darkened perceptibly and he smiled before lowering his mouth to mine. And then we shared another small but perfect piece of our forever.