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What If?

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I

The first time I caught sight of Bella Swan was on First Beach, when she came down in a group from Forks on the first nice day of the new year. The sun was out, turning the usually stormy gray sea into a light navy blue and glinting off the white-caps. The tide line rose up from the swells of heaving water and broke off into the rocky shore like a metronome. The familiar, steady beating kept me from following the fireside conversation closely. I was busy day-dreaming about being one of the birds floating along the brisk surging of cool, briny wind coming from the ocean. I imagined that I would flap my wings until I could touch the bubbling mess of clouds circling the sun.

Rebecca had run off with her Samoan surfer on a day like this three years ago. Rachel had packed up her battered old station wagon with all her things and drove herself away not long after, waving out the window as she turned the corner. I hadn’t seen either of them since. I was marveling at how much had changed since then, when both my sisters disappeared and left me alone to take care of Billy. I missed them more than I was bitter, though I would have liked to be angry.

What broke me from my reverie was one of the guys from Forks announcing the stragglers returning from the tide pools. A greasy-haired boy with a face like a slice of pepperoni pizza motioned to two girls, introducing the second one with the last name “Swan.”

That’s what caught my attention, initially.

Charlie Swan was family, in a way. Billy had given him the rusty old Chevy – or, as I liked to call it, “the fossil on wheels,” – for less than he had paid for it in the seventies. The girl must have been his daughter, so we sort of knew each other.

She was vaguely familiar, yet I couldn’t place where I had seen her before. She looked nothing like Charlie; she had a heart-shaped face, eyes large and widely spaced, with a thin nose and prominent cheekbones. Her lips were too big to fit her slim jawline, and her dark eyebrows were straighter than they were arched. Yet something about her reminded me of Forks’ Chief of Police.

The more I watched her the more I realized it wasn’t her physical appearance reminding me of him, but rather her mannerisms that made them so similar. She sat quietly, gazing into the fire with dark chocolate brown eyes, eyebrows creating a small crease in the middle of her brow, just like Charlie when he was watching an engrossing sports game. When she smiled, the corners of her eyes crinkled in the same way I remembered on my Dad’s best friend, the kind that lit up their whole face and made them look like younger versions of themselves.

Her smile brought back a vague memory, dulled by time and the fog of youth, somehow strong enough to stick around in my subconscious. Bella Swan was playing in the living room with my sisters, smiling politely, but the girls were too shy to become good friends with the strangely pale girl from Arizona. I was their little brother, and therefore obligated to be as annoying as possible, but Bella never seemed to mind. When I popped my head over the couch and asked if I could play with the Ken doll, that same smile lit up the young girl’s face as she laughed and tossed it to me.

She sat next to another girl, both looking uncomfortable with eyes settled on them. A boy who I recognized as Mike Newton, whose parents owned a sporting goods store in town, offered them food as they rested next to the fire. He had a halo of golden brown hair settled over sky-blue eyes, with perfectly straight, white teeth. His eyes hovered over Charlie’s daughter possessively, and I felt my heart sink.

Apparently, she was already spoken for.

Sam introduced the rest of us, and I thought I saw her eyes flash to me when he said my name, but it was probably wishful thinking. She ate in silence, though not uncomfortably; she seemed to be thinking very hard about something, like her mind was elsewhere.

As we ate, the clouds marched across the sky, blocking out the sun every now and then, their long shadows turning the waves inky black. Overhead, birds cawed at each other, getting ready for the impending rain.

The group thinned as people broke off in twos and threes. Soon, the beach was sprawling with activity. Couples walked down to the shoreline to put their toes in the sand and throw stones into the choppy water. Embry went with them to show off how many times he could make his rock skip before it finally plopped to the ocean floor. Quil wanted to go back to the tide pools, but the water would be too high to see anything cool, so I stayed. Mike ditched the group to visit the village’s tourist trap gift shop, followed by a tiny girl whose height was mostly made up of a bad perm. I’d noticed her following him around all day like a neglected puppy. Some of the local kids went with them, probably heading home. The only people left who I knew were Sam and Jared, neither of which were very interesting to me at the time.

Bella sat alone after Mike and his stalker left.

Maybe she wasn’t already spoken for.

She must have seen me psyching myself up to sit next to her, because her eyes sized me up apprehensively. I wondered if she was comparing me to Mike, who was obviously older, and seemed the popular type – not a fair comparison, in my opinion.

“You’re Isabella Swan, aren’t you?” I asked, trying to break the ice.

“Bella,” she sighed, looking disappointed.

“I’m Jacob Black,” I said, holding out my hand for her to shake. “You bought my dad’s truck.”

Her eyes lit up in recognition and a relieved smile stretched across her face. “Oh,” she replied, shaking my hand. Her fingers were cool and smooth against mine. “You’re Billy’s son. I probably should remember you.”

“No, I’m the youngest of the family – you would remember my older sisters.”

“Rachel and Rebecca,” she exclaimed, her voice rising an octave. Her eyes scanned the girls at the ocean’s edge. “Are they here?”

“No,” I chuckled at the idea of hanging out with my sisters, shaking my head. “Rachel got a scholarship to Washington State, and Rebecca married a Samoan surfer – she lives in Hawaii now.”

“Married. Wow.” Her voice was stunned, mouth hanging open.

That was the moment I realized Bella Swan could never lie – her thoughts were practically written on her face, changing from moment to moment, as ever-turning as the tide. She was an open book, pages flipping in the wind, and I was surprised by how much I liked reading the emotions as they flicked across her features.

“So how do you like the truck?” I winced. I had not made my own distaste for that rusted pile of junk a secret, and now I felt sort of guilty for giving it to this unsuspecting girl with such open, honest eyes.

To my surprise, her smile brightened. “I love it. It runs great.”

“Yeah,” I laughed, fighting against the urge to roll my eyes. “But it’s really slow. I was so relieved when Charlie bought it. My dad wouldn’t let me work on building another car when we had a ‘perfectly good’ vehicle right there.”

“It’s not that slow,” she objected, her chin jutting out stubbornly.

“Have you tried to go over sixty?”

“No,” she admitted, a blush coloring her cheeks.

“Good. Don’t,” I warned, grinning.

She grinned back easily, the same kind of smile that crinkled her eyes and made dimples in her cheeks. “It does great in a collision,” she offered in the truck’s defense.

“I don’t think a tank could take out that old monster,” I agreed with another laugh.

“So you build cars?” She asked, looking impressed.

“When I have free time, and parts. You wouldn’t happen to know where I could get my hands on a master cylinder for a 1986 Volkswagen Rabbit?” I added jokingly, on the very off chance that she would know what that was.

“Sorry,” she laughed, “I haven’t seen any lately, but I’ll keep my eyes open for you.”

I flashed her a smile, eyes appraising. She was pretty, but not overtly. It was a quiet, modest sort of beauty, the kind your eyes could slide over and not notice if you weren’t looking close enough. Now that I was very close, I saw her eyes flash intuitively under my gaze, like she recognized something there.

"You know Bella, Jacob?" Someone asked from across the fire.

I looked over to see a blonde girl from Forks sitting next to a dark-skinned boy, watching us with jealous eyes. The girl was probably pretty, but her face was so puckered up with sourness it was hard to tell. The boy sitting next to her was watching Bella with the same possessive stare Mike had. I sensed a pissing contest in the works.

"We've sort of known each other since I was born," I laughed, smiling at Bella again when the guy’s eyes narrowed.

"How nice," the girl said in an icy tone. Her eyes, which were practically translucent in the light from the fire, narrowed slightly.

"Bella," she called again, her voice deceptively innocent, "I was just saying to Tyler that it was too bad none of the Cullens could come out today. Didn't anyone think to invite them?" Her voice rose two octaves by the end, a knowing smile twitching her lips up.

"You mean Dr. Carlisle Cullen's family?" Sam asked before anyone else could respond, much to the girl’s irritation.

"Yes, do you know them?" she asked condescendingly, turning halfway toward him but not meeting his gaze.

"The Cullens don't come here," he replied in a tone that closed the subject.

The boy tried to win back the girl’s attention by asking her opinion on a CD he held. She turned back to him, thoroughly sidetracked, and began talking too fast for me to understand.

Bella stared at Sam. Her eyes were focused, calculating, working on a problem. I should have known she would see right through his dismissive tone to the implication behind it.

Sam was looking into the dark forest behind us, his hands trembling.

I tried to distract her from his odd behavior. “So, is Forks driving you insane yet?”

“Oh, I’d say that’s an understatement,” she replied, a grimace twisting up her nose.

I grinned in understanding, happy that my diversion had worked. I was about to ask her another question when her ears perked up, and I saw an idea click into place like two puzzle pieces coming together.

“Do you want to walk down the beach with me?” She asked, looking up at me from underneath her eyelashes. Her eyes were wide, innocent, and so easy to read. I was drawn in, eager to learn more about her, so I jumped at the opportunity to talk with her alone.

We walked north, across the multihued stones, toward the driftwood seawall. The clouds swirled to a close above us, like a door sealing us off from the sky. The sea turned its usual dark cobalt, churning in the harsh, biting wind. Walking away from the low fire, the bottom finally fell out on the atmospheric pressure, almost like the rain introducing itself before dancing down from the clouds. The beach and it’s accommodations dropped away, leaving only the shore being battered by the sea, seagulls circling overhead, pelicans calling out to each other, the caw of a hawk – life was in full view around us, transitioning from the sunny morning into a stormy afternoon.

“So you’re, what, sixteen?” She asked, eyelids fluttering up to me and then quickly looking down in embarrassment. A blush, red and vibrant in contrast to the wet sky, bloomed on her cheek.

“I just turned fifteen,” I admitted, feeling very smug.

“Really?” She gasped, eyes widening in shock. “I would have thought you were older,” she admitted.

“I’m tall for my age.” I had just started a growth spurt, and the growing pains were finally starting to seem worth something.

“Do you come up to Forks much?” She asked pointedly, arching her eyebrows up to me.

“Not too much,” I said before I could help it. Frowning, I added, “But when I get my car finished I can go up as much as I want – after I get my license,” I tacked that part on at the end, hoping she wouldn’t pay attention to it.

“Who was that other boy Lauren was talking to?” She asked, changing the subject. “He seemed a little old to be hanging out with us.”

"That's Sam — he's nineteen," I told her, beaming from ear to ear at her casual use of the inclusive plural.

"What was that he was saying about the doctor's family?" She inquired, stuffing her hands further into her pockets.

"The Cullens?” Of course, she had probably noticed them and wondered what their deal was. I had been curious, too, before I asked Billy and got the whole spiel. “Oh, they're not supposed to come onto the reservation." I looked away, out toward James Island, the burial place of my ancestors, reluctant.

"Why not?"

I glanced back at her, biting my lip. "Oops. I'm not supposed to say anything about that."

"Oh, I won't tell anyone, I'm just curious." Her smile was alluring, and the pressure bearing down on us from the clouds made me feel like we had crossed over to a world with no one else in it, no expectations or rules – a world where she might want me, too.

“Do you like scary stories?” I asked, trying to make my voice sound ominous. Billy was a gifted storyteller, and I had spent years listening to him, so I knew the basics, but I wasn’t sure if I would be able to pull her in the same way he managed to suck someone down into his narration, like you were living it in real time.

“I love them,” she enthused, eyes wide and sincere.

I lumbered over to a nearby driftwood tree, lodged in the sand with its roots sticking out like lightning strikes across the sky. I sat on one of the twisted roots, motioning for her to sit on the exposed body of the tree. I stared down at the rocks, encouraged by her enthusiasm, trying to remember exactly how Billy did it. The inflection in his voice, the haunting rumble of his throat, the magic he worked on his listeners; I was pretty sure I could mimic his strategy.

“Do you know any of our old stories, about where we came from – the Quileutes, I mean?” I began, trying not to smirk.

This was gonna be good.

“Not really,” she confessed, eyelashes fluttering against her flushed cheeks as she glanced down.

“Well, there are lots of legends, some of them claiming to date back to the Flood – supposedly, the ancient Quileutes tied their canoes to the tops of the tallest trees on the mountain to survive like Noah and the ark.” I smiled. “Another legend claims that we descended from wolves – and that the wolves are our brothers still. It’s against tribal law to kill them.”

My voice dropped lower, taking on a sinister edge. “Then there are the stories about the cold ones.”

“The cold ones?” She asked, genuine intrigue dripping from her tongue.

“Yes. There are stories of the cold ones as old as the wolf legends, and some much more recent. According to legend, my own great-grandfather knew some of them. He was the one who made the treaty that kept them off our land.” I rolled my eyes in an effort to distance myself from all the superstitious mumbo-jumbo.

“Your great-grandfather?” She pressed, urging me to continue.

“He was a tribal elder, like my father. You see, the cold ones are the natural enemies of the wolf – well, not the wolf, really, the wolves that turn into men, like our ancestors. You would call them werewolves.”

“Werewolves have enemies?”

“Only one.”

She stared at me, eyes sober and impatient, begging me to continue.

“So you see,” I continued, my words driven faster by her sudden seriousness, “the cold ones are traditionally our enemies. But this pack that came to our territory during my great-grandfather’s time was different. They didn’t hunt the way others of their kind did – they weren’t supposed to be dangerous to the tribe. So my great-grandfather made a truce with them. If they would promise to stay off our lands, we wouldn’t expose them to the pale-faces.” I winked, eyeing her ivory skin.

"If they weren't dangerous, then why… ?" She trailed off, looking confused. From the look on her face, she was taking this story really seriously. I was momentarily impressed with myself.

"There's always a risk for humans to be around the cold ones, even if they're civilized like this clan was. You never know when they might get too hungry to resist." I deliberately worked a thick edge of menace into my tone.

"What do you mean, 'civilized'?"

"They claimed that they didn't hunt humans. They supposedly were somehow able to prey on animals instead." I answered nonchalantly. This wasn’t the good part of the story.

"So how does it fit in with the Cullens? Are they like the cold ones your great-grandfather met?"

"No." I paused dramatically. "They are the same ones."

Her face contorted with fear, shocked and real, and I smiled. It would be impossible for a seasoned performer to fake that sort of horror, and Bella was no actress. I was willing to bet she wouldn’t be able to lie if her life depended on it.

"There are more of them now, a new female and a new male, but the rest are the same. In my great-grandfather's time they already knew of the leader, Carlisle. He'd been here and gone before your people had even arrived." I was fighting a smile, trying not laugh at how scared she was.

"And what are they?" She finally asked, straining her voice. "What are the cold ones?"

I smiled darkly. "Blood drinkers," I replied, watching her shiver from my voice. "Your people call them vampires."

For a moment, there was a flash of something I didn’t understand in her eyes – but then she turned away, staring out at the tide as it lapped against the stony beach.

I felt bad for a second, wondering if I had laid it on a bit too thick. After all, the Cullens were real people, and they probably wouldn’t like the local gossip.

“You have goose bumps,” I laughed delightedly, trying to diffuse the tense atmosphere.

“You’re a good storyteller,” she said distantly, still staring into the water like it was trying to drag her in.

“Pretty crazy stuff though, isn’t it?” I continued, trying to bring her back to the beach. I sensed she was elsewhere, turning something over in her head. “No wonder my dad doesn’t want us to talk about it to anyone.”

“Don’t worry, I won’t give you away.”

She was still staring at the sea, cutting me off from whatever reaction she was having.

Was it that bad?

"I guess I just violated the treaty," I laughed nervously.

"I'll take it to the grave," she promised, then shivered.

I was beginning to regret saying anything. I looked out to James Island again, wondering if my ancestors were watching me from there and screaming at me to shut my mouth.

"Seriously, though, don't say anything to Charlie. He was pretty mad at my dad when he heard that some of us weren't going to the hospital since Dr. Cullen started working there."

"I won't, of course not."

"So do you think we're a bunch of superstitious natives or what?" I tried to keep my tone playful, but there was an underlying edge of worry. She still hadn’t looked away from the water.

She turned her head and smiled at me gratefully, but her eyes were hard and guarded – hiding something.  “No. I think you’re very good at telling scary stories, though. I still have goose bumps, see?” She held up her arm to show me the raised skin.

I smiled. “Cool.”

Then the sound of rocks clattering underneath expensive boots announced the arrival of Mike Newton and his shadow. They were fifty yards away, walking over to us. Mike looked determined and worried. The girl following him looked angry, her nose twisted up in disdain.

“There you are, Bella,” he called in relief, waving his arm like a teacher’s pet with the answer to a question.

“Is that your boyfriend?” I asked, trying to disguise the jealousy in my voice.

“No, definitely not,” she whispered, leaning in closer to me. She carefully turned away from Mike and winked at me.

I couldn’t help but beam down at her, eyes half-closed in admiration. Now that I was really paying attention, it seemed like her beauty wasn’t so subtle at all. In fact, it glowed from her face with a pink blush, giving color to her pale skin. Her eyes glittered beneath a frame of long lashes, lips twisted in a conspiratorial smirk. Now I understood the possessiveness of Mike and Tyler, coveting her expressive eyes for themselves.

“So, when I get my license…” I trailed off, stopping myself from reaching out to take her hand.

“You should come see me in Forks. We could hang out sometime.” She smiled again, this time seeming happy at the idea of spending more time with me.

Mike – and the girl who looked like a poodle who kept getting hit with a rolled up newspaper – had made it over to us. He sized me up with a quick once-over and looked back to Bella, satisfied with my frustrated expression.

"Where have you been?" he asked, addressing her as if I wasn’t standing right there staring daggers at him.

"Jacob was just telling me some local stories," Bella explained. "It was really interesting."

She smiled over to me warmly, and I grinned back, pleased by her obvious preference.

"Well," Mike paused, running his eyes over me again. I recognized the jealousy in his voice. “We're packing up — it looks like it's going to rain soon."

The white kids had just picked up on the changing weather, making me heave a sigh. Bella had come with the sun, and now she was leaving with it.

“Okay,” she chirped, jumping up from the ground unsteadily. “I’m coming,” she assured, catching her balance on one of the gnarled roots of the driftwood tree.

“It was nice to see you again,” I said, taunting Mike.

“It really was,” she sighed, smiling up at me with reverent eyes. “Next time Charlie comes down to see Billy, I’ll come, too,” she promised.

My grin felt like it went all the way across my face. “That would be cool,” I replied, trying to sound casual, as if that wasn’t the understatement of the century.

“And thanks,” she added seriously, shooting me a meaningful look before pulling up her hood.

We hiked across the rocks toward the parking lot. The skies were bursting at the seams, allowing a few raindrops here and there to spill over. Her group was loading all of their stuff into the back of a big white Suburban. I watched Bella crawl into the backseat while I returned to Sam, lost in a new daydream.

 

Chapter Text

II

The second time I saw Bella Swan was at her house about a week later, when I drove Billy up to Forks to make up with Charlie.

I’d been a thorn in his side since the beach, begging him to apologize to Charlie so Bella would have a reason to come back to La Push. On the second day, I pulled a few cables out of the TV, stuffed them on top of the kitchen cupboards, and told him it was broken. Billy was pissed about missing the pre-season highlights, and after a few days of assuring him I couldn’t – wouldn’t – fix it, he had to seriously consider missing the first game of March Madness. Finally, after a week of my shenanigans, he asked Old Quil if we could borrow his car for the night.

By way of explaining, Billy handed me the keys and grumbled, “Let’s get this over with, then.”

There was a car parked on the edge of the lawn at Charlie’s house. I watched as Bella jumped out, looking embarrassed, while the driver scowled at us through the heavy rain. We could see him in stark relief from the headlights, making the shadows under his eyes more menacing. His skin was so white it almost glowed against the high beams.

I was happy to intrude on his time with her. I couldn’t ignore it; I’d been imagining seeing her again since the minute she left. If I’d cared enough to worry about it, I probably would have stopped myself from getting so obsessed with a girl I’d only met once. But for some reason, the memory of the beach kept popping up in front of my thoughts. The strange change in atmosphere hanging in the air transported me back to the feeling of safety hiding under old quilts used to give me; like coming home.

I had it bad. Quil and Embry were starting to notice my distractedness, and even guessed it was because of a girl. My face had gotten hot enough to toast bread when they finally discovered the source of my distraction. They knew me too well.

I got suspicious when the car squealed recklessly out of sight on the slick road, then looked over at my father and groaned. His eyes were wide, nostrils flared, staring fixedly on where the car had been.

“Don’t embarrass me, Dad,” I begged.

Without waiting for an answer, I hopped out of the car and called to Bella, a smile pulling my face up.

"Hey, Bella."

She squinted through the rain. "Jacob?"

Just then, Charlie's cruiser swung around the corner, his lights shining on us. I was already climbing out, a wide grin stretching my lips. I was excited to see her again – and to make sure she didn’t forget about me with all of the boys at Forks seemingly tripping over themselves to get her attention.

"Billy!" Charlie called as soon as he got out of the car.

Bella turned on her heel and ran towards the house, motioning for me to follow her when she ducked under the porch.

“I’m going to pretend I didn’t see you behind the wheel, Jake,” Charlie exclaimed, but his voice was more teasing than scolding.

“We get permits early on the rez,” I responded, prepared with a lie.

“Sure you do,” Charlie laughed.

“I have to get around somehow,” Billy chimed in from the passenger seat. I was glad to see he had recovered from whatever spooked him before.

Charlie and I helped Billy out of the car and back into his wheelchair, then hurried inside. I shook off the rain from my jacket on the porch, then rung out my ponytail.

Charlie’s house was familiar, but it felt different now. I hadn’t been there since Bella moved in, and the difference was obvious. The kitchen hummed with activity already. She had turned on the overhead light, casting the room into sharp shadows of yellow haze.

There was a towel hanging on the oven door, a pair of mitts on the counter, and a napkin holder actually containing napkins on the table. I didn’t believe at first when I looked down for the coffee stains on the counter – years ago I made a joke about it to friends, saying, “I think they look like boobs,” to a very receptive group of eleven-year-old boys – that they had disappeared completely. I was under the impression those would have to be taken out with a hammer. But no, for the very first time, Charlie’s kitchen counter was staring right back up at me, daring me to compare it to the caked-on grime of fermented coffee spills sprinkled in crumbs that I was used to. I was half-convinced that residue possessed sentience by now and was crawling around the city dump with a vendetta.

“This is a surprise,” Charlie said, sounding excited.

“It’s been too long,” Billy responded. “I hope it’s not a bad time.” His eyes flashed over to Bella.

“No, it’s great. I hope you can stay for the game.”

I grinned. “I think that’s the plan – our TV broke last week.”

Billy made a face at me. “And, of course, Jacob was anxious to see Bella again,” he added.

I scowled, touching my chin to my chest while studying the floor as if I had just noticed the patterned linoleum was horrifically ugly.

“Are you hungry?” Bella asked, feet headed toward the kitchen.

“Naw, we ate just before we came,” I answered sheepishly, still unable to look up.

“How about you, Charlie?”

“Sure,” he replied.

We moved over to the living room. Charlie plopped on the recliner next to Billy and turned on the game. I sat on the couch for a while, still too embarrassed to try and talk to Bella. Then, when my mouth started watering, I was forced to follow the smell of grilled cheese into the kitchen.

Bella was standing next to the frying pan on the opposite side of the kitchen, slicing a tomato. She had her hair pulled up in a messy ponytail, exposing the graceful curve of her neck as it slid into the towel tossed over her shoulder. After a moment, she stood up straighter, turning her head slightly.

“So, how are things?” I asked when she noticed me standing behind her.

“Pretty good,” she replied, smiling delightedly. She glanced up at me again quickly, eyes alight with enthusiasm. “How about you? Did you finish your car?”

“No.” I frowned. “I still need parts. We borrowed that one.” I pointed with my thumb at Old Quil’s weathered Ford.

She smiled amusedly. “Sorry. I haven’t seen any… what was it you were looking for?”

“Master cylinder.” I grinned, leaning forward subconsciously.

“Is something wrong with the truck?” I asked with sudden inspiration – if I fixed up her car, she would have to come to La Push to get it, right? The monstrosity was old enough to be in a museum, so I could probably drag out a repair long enough for her to come and visit a couple times.

“No,” she snuffed out my idea quickly, poking the sandwiches with a spatula.

“Oh. I just wondered because you weren’t driving it.”

She nudged one of the sandwiches up to peek underneath, then put it back down, looking disappointed with its progress.

“I got a ride with a friend,” she said, standing up straight and raising her chin defiantly.

“Nice ride,” I admired. From what I had seen, it was a newer Volvo. "I didn't recognize the driver, though. I thought I knew most of the kids around here." I added.

She nodded as if half-listening, flipping over the sandwiches.

"My dad seemed to know him from somewhere." I continued, narrowing my eyes in suspicion.

"Jacob, could you hand me some plates? They're in the cupboard over the sink."

"Sure," I replied, eyes falling to the ground in a confused grimace.

I tried to think objectively about the situation. She had been alone, in a car, with a guy… Oh.

Maybe Bella wasn’t all that into me on the beach, and I had misinterpreted the signs. Had one of her other admirers gotten the guts to make a move before I did? Had I thrown our conversation way out of proportion? At the time, it felt like some sort of turning point; knocking over a row of dominos, setting events in motion.

No, I had not imagined anything, I decided; no one could convince me our words hadn’t held something important, something vital. I wanted to know why it suddenly felt like we were talking through a glass wall. There was a juicy secret attached to this, I could tell, because Bella was fidgeting like a restless animal, eyes darting around like she expected an attack at any time. Even when I knew she wasn’t being honest with me, I wasn’t mad. How could I be? It was so glaringly obvious she had a secret it hardly counted as a lie.

The realization that I did not care whether or not she was telling the truth dawned on me, and I began to wonder if she’d put me under some sort of spell. I was usually a strict tell-it-like-it-is type of person. There’s no time to beat around the bush, get on with it, y’know? But now this girl had me wondering whether or not I should call bull or let her keep whatever skeletons hid in her closet.

Maybe I didn’t want to know.

What gave me the balls to think I had a right to know? Did crafting mud-pies together when we were kids make me anyone at all to her? Dropping in had seemed like a normal, socially-acceptable thing to do, but maybe I was woefully wrong.

Maybe I didn’t want to be a part of this story.

No, that wasn’t it. I didn’t want to be in a story where I played the pawn. I felt like a side-character, a plot device, a convenient explanation for the audience. This felt like being used.

Why didn’t I care? What in the world had gotten into me? Was she just a naturally compelling and engaging person? Did she have this effect on everyone?

My chest felt heavy, but I liked her too much to give up. I was willing to be an old family friend until this guy messed up, when I would be waiting in the wings for my next shot. Besides, Bella was good company. She was easy to talk to. I didn’t mind just being her friend.

But I was ever so curious.

“So, who was it?” I asked, feigning nonchalance as I set two plates on the counter next to the frying pan.

She sighed in defeat, shoulders slumping. “Edward Cullen.”

I laughed. Of course, she wouldn’t want to tell me that! No wonder I had to coax it out of her. I’d accused him and his family of being vampires little more than a week ago. She must have seen Billy through the windshield – with his flared nostrils and angry eyes – and assumed I felt the same way.

“Guess that explains it, then. I wondered why my dad was acting so strange.”

“That’s right,” she said innocently. I saw through her right away. “He doesn’t like the Cullens.”

“Superstitious old man,” I muttered.

“You don’t think he’d say anything to Charlie?” She whispered, words coming out in a rush.

I paused. It was clear she was hiding this boyfriend from Charlie, which I didn’t really care about. What she told him was her business. But was I going to be let in on the secret?

“I doubt it,” I finally said, unknowingly answering both our questions. “I think Charlie chewed him out pretty good last time. They haven’t spoken much since – tonight is sort of a reunion, I think. I don’t think he’d bring it up again.”

“Oh,” she breathed, leaning forward with the weight of her relief. I watched her carefully for a minute, trying to decide whether or not she was going to continue. Then I got distracted by the smell of food. I stared at the ground sheepishly when she carried out a plate for me, too.

Bella and I chatted on the couch during the game, though I did most of the talking. She was somewhere far away, lost in other thoughts. When the game ended, she followed us to the front door, still seeming out of touch with her surroundings.

“Are you and your friends coming back to the beach soon?” I asked, trying not to sound desperate.

“I’m not sure,” she hummed, eyes falling to the floor.

“That was fun, Charlie,” Billy said.

“Come up for the next game,” Charlie encouraged.

"Sure, sure," Billy said. "We'll be here. Have a good night." His eyes shifted to Bella, and his smile disappeared. "You take care, Bella," he added seriously.

"Thanks," she muttered, looking away.

I pushed Billy back to the car in silence, wondering if I had missed my shot with Bella Swan.

 

Chapter Text

III

The third time I saw Bella Swan, butterflies were battering at my stomach like runaway freight trains. I was hoping to see her again while simultaneously dreading it. I wondered if she would be as happy to see me. I didn’t have to wonder for long.

We had just gotten onto the porch after parking in the empty driveway when the Chevy pulled up to the yard. I recognized Edward Cullen this time, his eyes fixed on Billy. Bella was sitting in the passenger seat, staring at us with a mortified expression. I glared down at my feet, embarrassed.

She obviously didn’t like me the way I liked her. Heat was flushing up my neck and burning my ears red. Was I too young for her? Two years isn’t that long, I argued with myself.

When Billy’s hands suddenly clutched at the armrests of his chair, I looked up and watched as the Cullen boy leaned back from pressing his lips to Bella’s throat, his eyes flicking to me. Maybe I was imagining it, but his glare felt murderous enough to melt the windshield.

Bella gave the boy a knowing look and her lips moved urgently as she stepped out into the rain, but I couldn’t hear what she was saying. It looked like a warning.

“Hey, Billy. Hi, Jacob.” She greeted, hopping onto the porch. Her voice was strained and impatient, and it was clear we had intruded. “Charlie’s gone for the day – I hope you haven’t been waiting long.”

“Not long,” Billy said, sounding subdued. I couldn’t see his face from my spot gripping the handles of his wheelchair, but his expression from the night we’d come to see the game flashed in my head. “I just wanted to bring this up.” He grabbed the brown paper bag in his lap.

“Thanks,” she said, head tilting to the side in confusion. She seemed more off-balance than usual, somehow. “Why don’t you come in for a minute and dry off?”

She unlocked the door, ignoring Billy’s stare. I desperately tried to look at anything else, but my eyes kept flashing to her hands, fumbling with the keys. She waved us in when she finally managed to open the door, flashing us an almost apologetic smile.

“Here, let me take that,” she insisted, turning to shut the door and glancing back at the truck. The Cullen boy sat in the driver’s side, staring back at us. I couldn’t tell what his expression was, but I had a feeling he didn’t like being interrupted.

“You’ll want to put it in the fridge,” Billy instructed as he handed her the bag. “It’s some of Harry Clearwater’s homemade fish fry – Charlie’s favorite. The fridge keeps it drier.” He shrugged.

“Thanks,” she repeated, this time with more feeling. “I was running out of new ways to fix fish, and he’s bound to bring home more tonight.”

“Fishing again?” Billy asked. I saw an idea forming in his head. “Down at the usual spot? Maybe I’ll run by and see him.”

I resisted the urge to start screaming. If he thought I was going to drive him all the way down to the docks just to drop in on Charlie, he had another thing coming. I was not going to embarrass myself any further just so he could tattle on Bella.

“No,” Bella exclaimed too quickly, her face turning hot and red. It was so obvious when she lied. “He was headed someplace new… but I have no idea where.”

Billy’s face became thoughtful.

“Jake,” he said, not looking at me. “Why don’t you go get that new picture of Rebecca out of the car? I’ll leave that for Charlie, too.”

“Where is it?” I asked, unable to hide my sulky mood. I stared at the floor, eyebrows pulling together. Why would Old Quil have a picture of Rebecca in his truck? Had Billy been handing out copies? He didn’t usually do that.

“I think I saw it in the trunk,” Billy said. “You may have to dig for it.”

I slouched back out into the rain, rolling my eyes.

I should have seen this coming.

Billy read the signs a lot faster than I did, and recognized Bella had started dating one of the Cullens’ kids. It made sense he would try and warn Charlie about it. How had I been so clueless?

I was momentarily surprised when I walked out and there was no sign of the Cullen kid. I had been half-hoping to get a better look at him and see if he really did look so ferocious, or if it was a trick of the light. I dug around in the back of the truck longer than I needed to, unable to go inside and face the uneasy feeling clogging up my throat.

How stupid was I? Did I really think it was a good idea to spend my time daydreaming about a girl I had no chance with? I’d done it so much I’d created a fantasy version of events where she was really into me. I was embarrassed to go in there and confront the fact that I had fallen for a girl who did not reciprocate.

But Charlie Swan was still family, so Bella was sort of family, too. We could still be friends, at least, even if she didn’t like me that way.

I banged the door behind me to show how much I did not appreciate being sent out into the rain so Billy could pass on some sort of warning to Bella.

“There’s no picture anywhere in that car,” I complained before rounding the corner. I dripped all over the floor, probably leaving a mess.

“Hmm,” Billy grunted, trying to sound casual. He spun around to face me. “I guess I left it at home.”

I rolled my eyes and slumped against the counter, hamming it up for the audience. “Great.”

“Well, Bella, tell Charlie” – Billy paused before continuing – “that we stopped by, I mean.”

I suppressed another eye roll.

“I will,” she muttered, looking down at the floor.

“Are we leaving already?” I asked, sounding desperate to my own ears.

“Charlie’s gonna be out late,” Billy explained as he rolled himself past me.

“Oh.” I didn’t know why I was disappointed, since I’d spent most of my time combing through the truck and avoiding having to talk to Bella, but I was. “Well, I guess I’ll see you later, then, Bella.”

“Sure,” she agreed, nodding noncommittally.

“Take care,” Billy said, but it sounded like a warning.

Bella didn’t answer.

I helped Billy back into the car while Bella watched from the door, waving as we drove away. She closed the door quickly afterward, and we drove back home in silence.

 

Chapter Text

IV

The fourth time I saw Bella Swan was my first and only prom experience.

She was gorgeous, of course. The dress had to be worth more than my house, not including the one ridiculously tall shoe. Her dark mahogany hair twirled down to her lower back, pulled back from her face by two shiny barrettes. She was wearing makeup, and I thought it was probably overdone. Her kind of face didn’t belong behind a layer of dust. It was meant for close-up viewing with a microscope if you could manage it.

I immediately felt underdressed. All the guys here were wearing a tux, so I stood out in a long-sleeved white button-up and one of Billy’s old ties. I crossed the floor nervously when I caught her eye, trying to smile apologetically so she would understand how unwilling I was to be crashing this party.

Her date, the Cullen boy, pulled back his lips in a grimace. Bella swatted him on the chest and hissed something through her teeth, and his expression softened. I tried to hold back a laugh. This guy was whipped. I couldn’t blame him, of course, since I was no better. Seeing Bella all dressed to the nines was reminding me of how much I had liked being with her and watching her face change with each passing thought.

I reached them, keeping my eyes on Bella. She was even more stunning up close.

“Hey, Bella, I was hoping you would be here,” I lied, smiling guiltily.

“Hi, Jacob,” she smiled back, and suddenly we were on the beach, transitioning from sunny to damp, talking about ghost stories. She got goose bumps from my story telling skills, and she preferred me over Mike. I forgot about the rest of the room, and her fancy dress, and my smile became more genuine. No matter the circumstances, it was still good to see her.

“What’s up?” She asked.

“Can I cut in?” I asked tentatively, glancing over to her date. I was momentarily taken back by how smooth and beautiful his face was, like a statue in a museum. The hair on the back of my neck prickled.

He didn’t say anything, but set Bella on her feet and took a step back.

“Thanks,” I said, trying to be friendly.

He just nodded, glancing intently at Bella before he turned to walk away.

I gulped, putting my hands on Bella’s waist. Her arms reached up automatically to wrap around my shoulders.

“Wow, Jake, how tall are you now?”

“Six-two,” I replied with a smug smile.

We weren’t really dancing. With my recent growth spurt I had only gotten clumsier, and Bella had a bulky cast on her leg, so we just swayed side to side without moving our feet. I’d heard about her accident in Phoenix, but didn’t think much of it. Bella wasn’t known for her grace, always distracted from her feet by her thoughts. I was prone to daydreams myself, so I couldn’t judge.

“So, how did you end up here tonight?” She asked offhand, as if she already knew the answer.

“Can you believe my dad paid me twenty bucks to come to your prom?” I admitted, shame coloring my cheeks.

“Yes, I can,” she muttered, glaring at the wall behind me. “Well, I hope you’re enjoying yourself, at least. Seen anything you like?” She teased, nodding toward a group of girls lined up against the wall in gaudy pink and green dresses, looking like a box of candy – the kind I wouldn’t have been allowed to touch in a store, for fear I’d end up breaking something and have to pay for it.

“Yeah,” I sighed. “But she’s taken.”

I glanced down at her for just a second – then we both looked away, embarrassed.

“You look really pretty, by the way,” I added shyly.

“Um, thanks.” She replied, squirming uncomfortably. “So why did Billy pay you to come here?” She asked quickly.

I looked away, uncomfortable again. This was the part I’d been dreading.

“He said it was a ‘safe’ place to talk to you. I swear the old man is losing his mind.” I tried to laugh, and she joined me, but neither of us sounded right. “Anyway, he said that if I told you something, he would get me that master cylinder I need,” I confessed with a sheepish grin.

“Tell me, then. I want you to get your car finished.” She grinned back at me, seeming relieved.

I couldn’t smile back. It felt like all the lights in the room were trained on me, turning my face and ears red with heat.

“Don’t get mad, okay?”

“There’s no way I’ll be mad at you, Jacob,” she assured me in a soft voice. “I won’t even be mad at Billy. Just say what you have to.”

“Well – this is so stupid, I’m sorry, Bella – he wants you to break up with your boyfriend. He asked me to tell you ‘please.’” I shook my head, cringing at myself for going through with this.

“He’s still superstitious, eh?” She asked, a relaxed smile dancing on her painted lips.

I grinned in relief. “Yeah. He was… kind of over the top when you got hurt down in Phoenix. He didn’t believe…” I trailed off self-consciously.

Bella’s eyes narrowed. “I fell,” she insisted.

For whatever reason, I was abruptly certain she had done nothing of the sort. It might’ve had something to do with how bad she was at lying, but for whatever reason, just as she was insisting she fell, I suddenly knew it wasn’t the truth.

“I know that,” I lied quickly, wondering what she was hiding.

Would I ever know the secret?

“He thinks Edward has something to do with me getting hurt.” She said. It wasn’t a question.

I felt her anger like it was my own, and I couldn’t meet her eyes. We had stopped swaying, but my hands refused to leave her waist, and hers were locked around my neck.

“Look, Jacob, I know Billy probably won’t believe this, but just so you know” – I looked at her now, intrigued by her solemn tone – “Edward really did save my life. If it weren’t for Edward and his father, I’d be dead.”

“I know,” I replied quickly, still not convinced.

"Hey, I'm sorry you had to come do this, Jacob," she said. "At any rate, you get your parts, right?"

"Yeah," I muttered, looking back down at my feet.

"There's more?" She asked in disbelief.

"Forget it," I mumbled, "I'll get a job and save the money myself."

She glared until I finally looked up.

“Just spit it out, Jacob.” She ordered.

“It’s so bad.”

“I don’t care. Tell me,” she insisted, eyes burning into mine.

“Okay… but, geez, this sounds bad.” I shook my head. “He said to tell you, no, to warn you, that – and this is his plural, not mine” – I lifted one hand from her waist and made air quotes with my fingers – “‘We’ll be watching.’”

I watched her face warily for the angry reaction I knew was coming, expecting her to take the defensive, but then she laughed. Her eyes crinkled in that age-defying smile, and she was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. The rosy color of her blush managed to burn through the makeup, darkening her creamy skin and highlighting the cheekbones beneath.

“Sorry you had to do this, Jake,” she snickered.

“I don’t mind that much,” I replied honestly, my shoulders releasing pent-up tension while I smiled in relief. I glanced down briefly, trying to be discreet as I checked out her dress again.

“So, should I tell him you said to butt the hell out?” I asked hopefully.

“No,” she sighed. “Tell him I said thanks. I know he means well.”

The song ended, and she dropped her arms, scanning the room for her date. My hands hesitated on her waist, eyes trailing to her leg.

“Do you want to dance again? Or can I help you get somewhere?” I asked hesitantly, worried she would lose her balance if I let go, and unwilling to leave her now that the worst was over.

“That’s all right, Jacob. I’ll take it from here.”

I flinched at the voice. It was soft and nonconfrontational, but it sent chills down my spine. I hadn’t even heard Edward walk up. I stared at him with wide, shocked eyes for a second before coming to my senses.

“Hey, I didn’t see you there,” I mumbled. “I guess I’ll see you around, Bella.”

I stepped back, waving half-heartedly.

“Yeah, I’ll see you later,” she replied distractedly.

“Sorry,” I repeated before turning to the door.

I took one last glance over my shoulder before leaving. She had her head resting against his chest, a peaceful expression melting her features. I sighed, and closed the door behind me, saying goodbye to Bella Swan.

Or so I thought.

 

Chapter Text

V

Summer passed in a haze. I spent most of my time on the beach with Quil, Embry, and some other boys from school. Faces blurred, but they were all friendly, and mostly familiar. On the copious amount of rainy days, I hunkered down in the garage, making real progress now that I had the master cylinder for the Rabbit. Embry was working on procuring the windshield from a guy who ran the forklift at the dump, and Quil helped with the grunt work. Overall, my life was uncomplicated.

Bella never visited. Or called.

I tried to move on and settle my sights on any of the girls who frequented the beach and watched us run around with our shirts off, perched in the sand on top of their towels the way birds sit on telephone wires and watch cars go by. If our games and general tomfoolery got too close to their position, they’d get spooked, and fly off with their towels fluttering behind them like wings. Since when was Amy Fuller so shy? And when did Kim Cronweller start wearing bikinis?

My peers and I were transitioning, forming new roles in our enclosed little town. I’d seen it happen with my sisters, though I was too young to understand why they suddenly scorned hanging out with boys, even their younger brother. I still didn’t. How were you supposed to get a girl alone if they traveled in packs? How was I supposed to ask one out if they were never alone?

So I didn’t move on, and pined over Bella, knowing full well she was off with her hot, rich boyfriend. I couldn’t blame her, really, for her decision. A girl like her had choices when it came to dating, and she had made the obvious choice, it seemed. Who was I compared to an uber-wealthy, swimsuit-model-looking senior?

I was a gangly teenage boy with scars on my hands, more often than not covered in grime, and any money I managed to save went directly into the Rabbit. I would never be her first choice.

I saw Sam often that summer, along with Jared Cameron, who followed him around like a lost puppy. I had expected Sam to go off to college or something, like Rachel, but even the council didn’t try and stop him from staying. Bitterly, I remembered when Rebecca ran off to get married instead of going to school, Old Quil had all but gripped his chest and keeled over.

Sam had them all in his pocket, and he knew it.

I saw him in town with Billy too often for my liking. He was always running into us; in the supermarket, the Council building, even on the beach, where Billy wasn’t there to act as a buffer. I never approached him on my own, though his eyes focused on me with a knowing look, like there was a secret between us, but for the life of me I couldn’t figure out what it was.

School started up again with all the usual excitement. Something was off, though; I couldn’t pin-point the exact reason for my feeling of unease, but I blamed Jared Cameron for sitting behind me in Algebra II and boring holes into the back of my head for the entire forty-five minute lecture. Even Quil noticed.

“Did you stab him with a fork or something?” He asked at the end of class.

“Not that I recall,” I replied, mystified. “Although I could be forgetting something that happened when we were younger. Maybe I stole one of his toys in the sandbox,” I joked, trying to brush it off.

 

 

It was only a couple weeks later when Billy got a call from Charlie.

Five minutes later, Billy’s face was completely slack, devoid of its usual color, and my fingers gripped the wheel of Old Quil’s decrepit Ford so hard my knuckles went white. The old man sat in the back, hands resting on his cane, looking unsettled as we bumped along the road.

Chief Swan’s house was swarmed with police cars, their lights and sirens on – all three officers of Forks Police Squad were present, leaning over the hood of the old Chevy with a map.

“Charlie?” Billy called from the passenger seat.

“Billy!” Charlie yelled back, loping over to the car.

He looked awful; eyes bloodshot, hair sticking up every which way, mustache twitching as he spoke. He kept glancing behind him, his eyes scanning the tree line bordering the lawn, pausing on the little trail where it poked out and searching, always searching. We barely understood a word he said, his sentences were too frazzled and disjointed. I got most of the story on the way there, otherwise I would have been completely in the dark.

Old Quil leaned forward to Billy and whispered something in his ear. Billy nodded and asked Charlie if he could use the phone.

I didn’t think much of their interaction until later, after hours of walking through the woods and yelling for Bella. I had come back to the house to complain about how tired I was getting and got surprised when I was received by Sue Clearwater. She had set up shop in Charlie’s kitchen, feeding all the volunteers. She thrust a cup of hot coffee in my hand and wrapped a blanket around my shoulders, then plopped me in a chair next to the radiator. I wiped off the steam clouding up the window to my right.

That’s when I saw it.

Sam Uley emerged from the woods – shirtless, as usual – carrying Bella Swan.

I threw off the blanket and placed the steaming mug onto the windowsill. The back door was left hanging open as I ran across the lawn to where a large group had gathered around her.

“Is she hurt?” Someone asked.

“No, I don’t think she’s hurt,’” Sam replied. “She just keeps saying, ‘He’s gone.’”

“Bella, honey, are you alright?” Charlie asked.

Bella’s mouth moved, but I couldn’t hear what she said over all the commotion.

“I’m right here, baby.”

Charlie took his daughter from Sam’s arms. The Chief had a lot more trouble with the limp body compared to Sam, who wasn’t even panting after running through the woods carrying someone. He turned to join Jared Cameron and Paul Lahote.

When had they arrived? I didn’t remember seeing them out in the woods. There wasn’t time to wonder about it, but I made a mental note to ask Billy later.

The house was too small for everyone to tumble in, so most of the volunteers huddled together outside under the giant spruce tree. Blankets and coffee were distributed. I glared through the pounding rain as Sam, Jared, and Paul were allowed inside.

I didn’t have to go to school the next day, at least. Billy and I decided to sleep in, then call Charlie. We didn’t have long to sleep, as it turned out. When I heard the phone ring, I waited for Billy to answer it, then raced to the kitchen to listen in on the other line, hand over my mouth to keep from alerting them to my eavesdropping.

“… Sorry I’m calling so early,” I heard the Chief say.

“It’s no problem,” Billy replied. “Is Bella hurt?”

“No, she’s fine. She’s sleeping…”

“She’ll be alright, Charlie. Give her time.”

“Thanks, but that’s not why I called. I just got a call from Mrs. Stanley, and she says that from her second-story window she can see fires out on the sea cliff, but I didn’t really – ”

“Oh, that’s just some rowdy kids, you know,” Billy cut him off, his voice louder than before. “They’re having a bonfire up there. Celebrating, you know.”

“Oh!” Charlie exclaimed, sounding offended. “And why are they doing that?”

Billy paused. “You understand the feelings around here about the Cullens,” he hedged.

“Uh-huh.”

“And, well, they’re celebrating that they left.”

“Really?” He asked sarcastically.

“Look, Charlie I’m sorry – ”

“Well, don’t apologize to me.”

“All the same, I know Bella’s upset about it. I’m sorry you’ve got to deal with all this.” There was a hint of regret in his voice that I didn’t understand. “But the fires will go out soon enough, it’s pouring buckets out there.”

“I know, I know, I’m surprised they got them lit at all in this weather.” Charlie hesitated, and then added grudgingly, “Thanks for sending Sam and the other boys up. You were right – they do know the forest better than we do. It was Sam who found her, so I owe you one.”

“Don’t think on it,” Billy replied. “You would do the same for me, right?”

“Yeah, of course,” he agreed, though he still sounded sour. “I’ll talk to you later.”

The phone call ended. I tip-toed back into my room, then plopped onto the mattress. I was bone-tired from sloshing through the muddy woods all night, and I was asleep before my head hit the pillow.

We went to Forks that Friday for the football game, but Charlie had his hands full. Bella was totally out of it; she didn’t even know we were there. She sat at the kitchen table looking out the window at the pattering rain, watching the drops race each other down. I sat across from her, speechless, until she finally turned her head to face me.

Her eyes were completely lifeless, face slack and empty. It was like looking at a shell.

“Hey, Bella,” I said softly, leaning forward.

She didn’t speak. After a moment, she turned back to face the window.

From then on, Charlie came to watch the game at our house. I didn’t ask why the bags grew so heavy and dark beneath his eyes. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know.

 

 

A few months after the Cullens left, the snow had all but melted along the edge of the lawn. Green had started to reappear as the pine needles shook off their heavy blankets of snow, shadowed in thick swirls of fog. The days were still short, but they were getting noticeably longer, and at seven in the morning it was light enough to go out back to the garage.

I had started getting up early on the weekends to work on the Rabbit. It was peaceful; something about the still air, or the smell of damp moss. The birds chirped outside along with the ancient radio, and I hummed with them, settling into a brief reprieve from the noises between my ears.

I was elbow deep in the Rabbit’s engine when Billy called me back in from the porch.

 “What’s up?” I asked, lumbering up the steps. My footfalls were too heavy and the wood groaned under my weight.

“Bella’s coming to visit,” he announced. His chest swelled with a smug smile.

“Bella?” I asked, my voice rising two octaves. “Bella Swan?

“Yeah. Charlie just called from the station, says Bella asked for directions to the house so she could see you. She left about ten minutes ago.” He replied, raising his eyebrows.

Bella Swan was coming here?

I ran inside the house and banged into the bathroom. With a groan, I realized I was covered in grease.

And Bella Swan was on her way!

It all seemed very sudden, since I hadn’t heard from her in months. From what I knew, she was still catatonic. But I could still remember how captivating she was, back when she was talking. Maybe she remembered something good, too.

She probably remembered me with less grease, though.

I was somewhat successful in removing the stains on my face and hands, but my arms were another story. When I heard the roar of the Chevy’s engine I gave up and threw on a black sweatshirt. The hairband fell out of my hair as I pulled the hood over my head, but I didn’t have time to put it back up, because Bella Swan had just pulled up to the house.

I ran out the door to greet her halfway, pretending not to hear Billy howling in laughter behind me. He was probably right; I was way too excited to see her than I should have been. I knew that, and yet, I didn’t care.

“Bella!” I grinned.

Because seeing Bella, no matter the circumstances, was always a good thing. Even as she was then, all hollowed out and pale, like a ghost. She was shockingly thin, with dark bags under her eyes framed by flat, dark hair hanging limply on the sides of her face. Her eyes, which had once shone with delight and flashed with intuition, now stood as two decaying statues of an old, forgotten monument, crumbling against gravity and the wars which left their empire to rot.

Her face lit dimly with a spark of enthusiasm, and the edges of her mouth twitched up in a poor mockery of her old grin.

“Hey, Jacob!” Her smile widened and became more familiar.

I felt something click into place, like a key in a lock.

I’d forgotten how easy it was to love Bella Swan.

“You grew again!” She accused, throwing her hands up in amazement.

I laughed, throwing my head back. “Six five,” I affirmed, flicking some hair over my shoulder in self-satisfaction.

“Is it ever going to stop?” She wondered, shaking her head in disbelief. “You’re huge.”

“Still a beanpole, though.”

I grimaced, getting a better look at her. She really had become like a skeleton, with hollow cheeks and quivering legs, like each raindrop was hammering her deeper into the mud.

“Come inside! You’re getting all wet.”

I pulled an extra rubber band out of my pocket and threw my hair back up to get it out of my face as we went through the front door. She gaped openly when I had to duck to fit through, and I couldn’t hide my smirk.

“Hey, Dad,” I called. “Look who stopped by.”

Billy had picked up a book for the first time in a month, obviously trying to seem casual from his perch next to the window. He closed it without marking his spot and wheeled forward to meet us.

“Well, what do you know! It’s good to see you, Bella.” He extended his palm to shake.

Her hand was practically all bone with a thin layer of skin holding the joints together. It got swallowed up in Billy’s grip like a rock disappears in the ocean on its last skip.

“What brings you here? Everything okay with Charlie?” Billy asked, glancing over at me smoothly.

“Yes, absolutely. I just wanted to see Jacob – I haven’t seen him in forever.” She answered, smiling timidly up at me.

I felt my whole body perk up, like when a dog sees a ball. I was smiling so hard my cheeks started to hurt. If I’d had a tail then, it would have started wagging.

“Can you stay for dinner?” Billy asked, stifling another laugh at my obvious excitement.

“No, I’ve got to feed Charlie, you know,” she replied quickly.

“I’ll call him now,” Billy suggested. “He’s always invited.”

Bella laughed, the sound raw in her throat. “It’s not like you’ll never see me again. I promise I’ll be back soon – so much you’ll get sick of me.”

I doubted that, but I wasn’t about to try and stop her.

“Okay, maybe next time,” Billy chuckled.

“So, Bella, what do you want to do?” I asked eagerly.

“Whatever,” she answered, though her cheeks darkened and I knew she was lying. “What were you doing before I interrupted?”

I hesitated. Was this a test?

“I was just heading out to work on my car, but we can do something else…”

“No, that’s perfect!” She interrupted, eyes lighting up all the way for the first time since she’d arrived. “I’d love to see your car.”

“Okay,” I replied, hiding my surprise. I hadn’t pegged her as a car girl. “It’s out back, in the garage.”

She smiled even wider, waving at Billy. “See you later.”

We walked through the thick wall of trees and shrubbery between the house and the garage. I held back a few branches for her while we walked, checking to make sure she was okay on her feet. I didn’t trust her balance. Her legs wobbled like an uneven table.

Calling the structure a garage was an overstatement at best and insurance fraud at worst. It was just two sheds bolted together with the interior walls knocked out. What really shone was the Rabbit, my labor of love, the machine I woke up for. She was still up on the cinder blocks, but I was getting ready to put some tires on, as soon as I could find some.

“What kind of Volkswagen is that?” She asked.

“It’s an old Rabbit – 1986, a classic.” I beamed with pride.

“How’s it going?”

“Almost finished,” I chirped. Then, lowering my voice, I added, “My dad made good on his promise last spring.”

“Ah,” she said, though it sounded more like a moan. She was quiet for a few seconds, eyes blank and lifeless, arms wrapped around her torso like she was wearing a straitjacket.

“Jacob,” she began, eyes landing back on the car. “What do you know about motorcycles?”

I shrugged. “Some. My friend Embry has a dirt bike. We work on it together sometimes. Why?”

“Well…” She pursed her lips, narrowing her eyes at me, deliberating.

“I recently acquired a couple of bikes,” she finally admitted, “and they’re not in the greatest condition. I wonder if you could get them running?”

“Cool,” I said, excited for a challenge. My cheeks started to hurt again with how big my smile grew. “I’ll give it a try.”

She held up a finger to tell me to cool it. “The thing is,” she began, and I felt my hopes shatter.

But then she continued. “Charlie doesn’t approve of motorcycles. Honestly, he’d probably bust a vein in his forehead if he knew about this. So you can’t tell Billy.”

My hopes glued themselves back together like nothing had happened. “Sure, sure,” I agreed. It seemed kind of obvious that we wouldn’t tell the adults. Only Bella would have to worry about lying, since she was so bad at it. The thought made me smile and add, “I understand.”

“I’ll pay you – ” she continued.

“No,” I interrupted, offended. “I want to help. You can’t pay me.”

“Well… how about a trade, then? I only need one bike – and I’ll need lessons, too. So how about this? I’ll give you the other bike, and then you can teach me.”

Hanging out with Bella Swan and getting my own motorcycle? There was only one word to describe this. “Swee-eet.” With two syllables.

She squinted in suspicion. “Wait a sec – are you legal yet? When’s your birthday?”

“You missed it,” I teased, narrowing my eyes in mock resentment. “I’m sixteen.”

“Not that your age ever stopped you before,” she muttered. “Sorry about your birthday.”

“Don’t worry about it. I missed yours. What are you, forty?” I joked.

“Close,” she sniffed.

“We’ll have a joint party to make up for it.”

“Sounds like a date.”

I liked the sound of that. Now that the Cullens were out of the picture, I might have a fighting chance with her.

“Maybe when the bikes are finished – our present to ourselves,” she added quickly.

“Deal.” I said, unable to reign in my excitement. “When will you bring them down?”

She bit her lip, and a hint of red appeared in her cheeks. “They’re in my truck now,” she confessed.

“Great,” I enthused.

“Will Billy see if we bring them around?”

I winked, trying to be suave. “We’ll be sneaky.”

We eased around from the east, sticking to the trees when we were in view of the windows, walking very natural-like in case Billy happened to be spying. I unloaded the bikes from the truck bed with ease, wheeling them one by one into the shrubbery where Bella hid. I could tell she was impressed by how I was able to handle them, but the bikes weren’t that heavy. She was mostly skin and bones, I realized with trepidation. She probably couldn’t throw these bikes around like I could.

“These aren’t half-bad,” I commented. I was used to things that were falling apart, but the bikes were mostly intact. “This one here will actually be worth something when I’m done – it’s an old Harley Sprint.”

“That one’s yours, then.”

“Are you sure?”

“Absolutely.”

“These are going to take some cash, though,” I said, frowning down at the black, twisted metal. “We’ll have to save up for parts first.”

We nothing,” she disagreed. “If you’re doing this for free, I’ll pay for the parts.”

“I don’t know…” I muttered.

She was giving me so much. Not only did I get to see her, but she was handing me another project. The gears were turning in that familiar way in the back of my head, analyzing the parts, the structure, the body of the bikes. There was no feeling like being finished with a machine, something you built and got running with your own hands. On top of that, she was giving me a bike that could probably buy a new addition to the garage.

“I’ve got some money saved. College fund, you know.” She shrugged.

I nodded, trying to figure out what her motives were. Was she dying? Is that why she looked so sick? We skulked back to the garage in thoughtful silence.

We didn’t need to hide once we were in the garage, since there was no way Billy’s wheelchair could out-maneuver the uneven ground separating it from the house. I started pulling the red bike to pieces, trying to decide what was salvageable. After a second, I realized Bella was wavering on her feet like a leaf blown in the wind, so I opened up the passenger door of the Rabbit for her to sit in the seat instead of falling on the ground.

Despite her appearance, Bella still had the same bite. Even though she looked more like a ghost than a person, she listened to my happy chatter with the same amused interest as before, chiming in every now and then to put her two cents in.

“Quil and Embry?” She interrupted at one point. “Those are unusual names.”

I chuckled. “Quil’s is a hand-me-down, and I think Embry got named after a soap opera star. I can’t say anything, though. They fight dirty if you start on their names – they’ll tag team you.”

“Good friends,” she commented, raising an eyebrow.

“No, they are. Just don’t mess with their names.”

“Jacob?” Embry shouted distantly.

I winced.

“Speak of the devil,” I muttered to myself, “and the devil shall appear.”

“Jake? Are you out here?” Quil yelled, closer this time.

“Yeah!” I shouted back, then sighed.

It wasn’t a surprise to see them, since they usually stopped by around this time, but I had been hoping Billy would turn them away. Instead, he must have told them Bella stopped by, because they were both peering into the shed with mischievous grins. They stopped short when they saw Bella, surprise widening their eyes. I figured they were worried she was about to keel over.

Embry was a beanpole like me, with chin-length hair parted down the middle, one side tucked behind his left ear while the right side swung free. He had gotten it cut last week to make him stand out, but I thought it looked like a website when it stops loading halfway down the page. Quil was shorter but more burly, and very proud of his arms. His mom buzzed all his hair off in fourth grade to kill – once and for all – a massive infestation of lice, and he had decided to stick with the look, thinking it made him look tough.

Embry kept looking back and forth between Bella and I, but Quil was focused solely on the girl in his vicinity. I could see him flexing already.

“Hey, Jake,” Quil greeted, eyes still on Bella. He smiled impishly, and Bella grinned back uncomfortably.

Quil winked. “Hi there,” he said in a deeper voice, wiggling his eyebrows.

“Quil, Embry – this is my friend, Bella.” I intercepted, glaring at Quil.

“Charlie’s kid, right?” Quil inquired, holding out his hand for her to shake. I shared a look with Embry when he grabbed her hand and shook firmly, practically straining to push out his muscles.

“That’s right,” she confirmed.

“I’m Quil Ateara,” he announced grandly before releasing her hand.

“Nice to meet you, Quil,” she said diplomatically.

“Hey, Bella,” Embry jumped in, eager to introduce himself. “I’m Embry, Embry Call – you probably already figured that out, though.” He smiled shyly and waved with one hand, then shoved it into the bottom of his jean pocket.

“Nice to meet you, too,” Bella replied, though it sounded more genuine this time.

“So, what are you guys doing?” Quil asked, still looking at Bella.

“Bella and I are going to fix up these bikes,” I explained, and both their eyes snapped to the black, twisted metal beneath me like I had called them to attention.

We probably got carried away with the shop talk, but it was exciting to have a new project. We were all very interested in anything with an engine, and dreamed of one day owning a garage together. This was a good start-up project, the kind that could build a reputation if we did it right. After the third round of inquiries on the gear shift, Bella stood up with a sigh.

I looked up apologetically. “We’re boring you, aren’t we?”

“Naw,” she said, and it seemed like she meant it. Her face looked like it had more color, or maybe it was warmer in the shed with two more people in it. “I just have to go cook dinner for Charlie.”

“Oh… well, I’ll finish taking these apart tonight and figure out what more we’ll need to get started rebuilding them. When do you want to work on them again?”

“Could I come back tomorrow?” She asked hopefully.

I smiled in delight. I didn’t miss Quil elbowing Embry’s arm as they exchanged grins.

“That would be great!” I exclaimed.

“If you make a list, we can go shop for parts,” she suggested.

My face fell a little. “I’m still not sure I should let you pay for everything.”

Bella shook her head. “No way. I’m bankrolling this party. You just have to supply the labor and expertise.”

Embry rolled his eyes at Quil. I glanced over quickly to glare at them.

“That doesn’t seem right,” I insisted, shaking my head.

“Jake, if I took these to a mechanic, how much would he charge me?” She challenged, hands on her hips, eyebrows raised. I couldn’t help but smile.

“Okay, you’re getting a deal.” I admitted.

“Not to mention the riding lessons,” she added.

I groaned internally, eyes flickering over to my friends.

Quil grinned widely at Embry and whispered, “Which one do you think she’ll be riding?”

“That’s it, get out,” I muttered urgently, shoving Quil into Embry’s shoulder.

“No, really, I have to go,” she protested, heading for the door. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Jacob.” She added, disappearing from view.

“Wooooo!” Quil and Embry chorused, standing up and fanning their faces mockingly.

I hooked my elbows around each of their necks and knocked their heads together.

“Ouch!” Quil groaned.

“Hey!” Embry exclaimed.

“If either of you set so much as one toe on my land tomorrow, I’ll strip your eyebrows off with duct tape.” I threatened.

“Gosh, Jake, defensive much?” Quil grumbled, rubbing his head when I let them go.

“C’mon, we’re not gonna cramp your style – but maybe Bella wants to hang with us, too.” Embry smirked.

“Okay, that’s it – get out!”

They didn’t leave, which ended up being both a blessing and a curse. They teased me incessantly about Bella, but having them around ended up being useful because we got the bikes torn apart three times faster.

Chapter Text

VI

I woke up later than usual after staying up into the wee hours of the morning to work on the bikes. I hopped in the shower, every nerve ending under my skin alive with excitement. Charlie called to invite Billy down to watch the football game, letting us know that Bella would make good on her promise to come back, even though rain was coming down in buckets. I was prepared this time, though, and met her at the truck with a black umbrella and only three grease stains on my jeans. I held the umbrella over the driver’s side door as she opened it.

“Charlie called – said you were on your way,” I explained with a grin.

Despite the icy rain, her answering smile was warm and cozy, like a lit fireplace.

“Hi, Jacob,” she said. Her eyes were open and full of feeling for the first time since I’d seen her after the Cullens left.

“Good call on inviting Billy up.” I held out my hand for a high-five, laughing when she had to reach on her tip-toes.

Harry pulled up to get Billy after a few minutes of sitting on the couch and pretending we weren’t waiting for him to leave. I showed her my room with glowing cheeks, then settled onto the couch as if we were going to watch TV.

“So where to, Mr. Goodwrench?” She asked as soon as the door closed behind Billy.

I pulled out the list I’d made last night and smoothed it out over my knee.

“We’ll start at the dump first, see if we can get lucky. This could be a little expensive,” I warned her. “Those bikes are going to need a lot of help before they’ll run again.”

She didn’t look very worried, so I continued. “I’m talking about maybe more than a hundred dollars here.”

In response, she took the checkbook out of her purse and fanned herself with it. “We’re covered,” she said.

When we got in the car, I couldn’t help noticing the gouging hole where I had managed to fix the antique stereo system that came with the original car. A blind man wouldn’t have missed it. I had been especially proud of that little accomplishment, after bringing the engine back from the dead.

“Did the stereo break?” I asked. If I had known, I could have fixed it.

“Yeah,” she replied too quickly.

I poked around in the ripped-up cavern. “Who took it out? There’s a lot of damage.” I wondered aloud.

I was concerned about more than just damage to the car; it was clear somebody had clawed this out with their bare hands. There were scratch marks up and down the whole thing, and some dried blood congealed on the edges. I already knew Bella had gone a little crazy after the Cullens left, but was she feral, too?

“I did,” she admitted, cheeks turning pink.

I laughed, sort of impressed. “Maybe you shouldn’t touch the motorcycles too much.”

“No problem,” she laughed along with me, sounding relieved.

The day only got better from there. She was ambivalent about the dump at first, which was understandable given the ankle-deep mud and slopping rain, but she seemed to genuinely enjoy herself. She returned every smile I sent her, joking alongside me, and even pretended to be excited when I showed her the grease-blackened parts I found.

It could have been my imagination, but she looked healthier. Brighter. The circles beneath her eyes weren’t as pronounced, her cheeks had some color, and her eyes were alight with emotion again. I hoped it was because of me.

On the way to the Checker Auto Parts in Hoquiam, I filled her in on life in La Push. Embry was pining after our new math teacher, and turning into a real algebra whiz as a result. Quil had recently gotten chewed out after hitting on a senior’s steady girlfriend, but that was about all I could think of. She still seemed interested, but I was struggling to hold up the conversation.

“I’m doing all the talking,” I complained. “Why don’t you take a turn? What’s going on in Forks? It has to be more exciting than La Push.”

“Wrong,” she sighed. “There’s really nothing. Your friends are a lot more interesting than mine. I like your friends. Quil’s funny.”

I frowned. “I think Quil likes you, too.”

She laughed, as if the idea were ridiculous. “He’s a little young for me,” she snickered.

My frown deepened. “He’s not that much younger than you. It’s just a year and a few months.”

She could tell we weren’t talking about Quil anymore, but her voice stayed light and teasing. “Sure, but, considering the difference in maturity between guys and girls, don’t you have to count that in dog years? What does that make me, about twelve years older?”

I laughed, rolling my eyes. “Okay, but if you’re going to get picky like that, you have to average in size, too. You’re so small, I’ll have to knock ten years off your total.”

“Five foot four is perfectly average,” she sniffed indignantly. “It’s not my fault you’re a freak.”

“And I think I’ll add ten to my total, since I didn’t break a sweat carrying those motorcycles to the garage,” I continued.

“That’s not fair – you’re huge! How can I compete with that?”

“Can you change a tire?” I asked.

“Well, no,” she stammered, eyes flickering over to me. “Why? Is something wrong with the truck?”

I laughed. “You really don’t think you’d be able to tell if one of your tires went flat?” I asked incredulously.

Her cheeks burned. “I’m not sure!” She exclaimed, a smile fighting against her stern glare.

“Ooh,” I said in mock disappointment. “I’m gonna need to knock off two more years – sorry, Bells, but no eighteen year old should be so ignorant about their own car.”

“Can you balance a checkbook?” Bella quipped, reaching into her pocket and flourishing her wallet. “I’m in charge of bookkeeping at my house. I was in charge of paying the bills and dealing with taxes for Renee back in Phoenix. And I do all the shopping, and the cooking. I doubt you could do all that.” I didn’t miss her dubious side-eye.

“Okay, okay, I’ll give you a year for keeping house,” I acceded. “But I think the Rabbit alone adds about twenty years to my age.”

“What?!” She yelled in mock outrage. “Five at most.”

We went back and forth like that for the whole two and a half hours to Hoquiam, where a middle-aged man with a buzzcut who obviously knew more than I did about motorcycles gave us a deal on our supplies. He smiled paternally at me and nodded as we walked out the door.

By the time we got back to La Push, I was thirty and she was twenty-three. The more we talked, the more confident I became in a new realization.

I was in love with this girl.

I hadn’t been expecting it, or even hoping for it, really. I didn’t know I was looking for her before we met, but afterwards, it seemed inevitable that my life would revolve around her. Her laugh was infectious, her rapture entertaining, her words drawing me closer. I wasn’t really sure when it happened, but when we pulled up to my house, I was never more sure of anything in my life.

I was in love with Bella Swan.

Billy wasn’t back yet, so we didn’t need to be sneaky about hauling the supplies back to the shed. I did all of the heavy lifting, and Bella held a few branches aside for me. I showed Bella my system for putting things together.

“So, we lay everything out on the floor, right?” I explained, probably sounding like a lunatic. “And here’s the toolbox.” I patted the three gallon bucket from Home Depot behind me, filled with wrenches, hammers, and rusty nails buzzing around the bottom. If Billy ever saw it, he would probably make me get a tetanus shot.

“Okay,” she nodded.

“So, now we get to work,” I declared, picking up a wrench.

I was eager to show off a little. This was the only thing I had ever been graceful at, or so I’d been told. Rachel once marveled at my talent when I fixed her car a few months before she left. I was thirteen at the time, and she was the more maternal of my two sisters. I’d taken her praise to heart and started working more seriously on the rotting old Chevy parked out back. I’d built that hunk of junk from scratch, with two hands and my friends, each offering their own advice. They always had me do the finer work on the engine, the kind where you needed more precision. My fingers were long and nimble, damn near the only thing about me that could manage any amount of elegance. My body was too long and my feet were too big to be anything but clumsy, and though I was friendly, I got awkward and shy around most girls.

Not Bella, though.

For some reason, things felt right with Bella. It was easy to be myself around her, or to talk to her about whatever was running through my mind at the time, and I found myself fascinated with her replies. It took some prodding to get her to really start talking, but once I got her going, she went back and forth with witty quips like we had known each other our whole lives. Even when we were silent, it wasn’t uncomfortable. I enjoyed her company too much to feel awkward or nervous. It was enough to be near her and see her face that I was content to be just friends, though I longed for more.

The day passed too quickly. It got dark outside the mouth of the garage incrementally, until my eyes finally found it pitch-black. We heard Billy calling for us soon after I noticed, and Bella jumped up as if to try and pick up my mess.

“Just leave it,” I said. “I’ll work on it later tonight.”

“Don’t forget your schoolwork or anything,” she said, mouth turning down in a frown.

“Bella?” Both our heads snapped up as Charlie’s voice drifted through the trees towards us, closer than the house.

“Shoot,” Bella muttered, turning towards the door with wide, panicked eyes. “Coming!” She yelled back.

“Let’s go,” I smiled, snapping off the light.

In the darkness, it felt even more natural to reach out and take her hand. Her hand was soft and delicate, a few degrees colder than mine. We ran out of the garage together on the familiar path, tripping over our feet in the darkness. By the time we made it out of the trees, I was doubled over laughing, but my grip on her held the way the earth holds people to the ground.

Charlie was standing under the little back porch, and Billy was sitting in the doorway behind him.

“Hey, Dad,” we both said at the same time, starting up another round of laughter.

Charlie stared at us with wide eyes that flashed down to our joined hands.

“Billy invited us for dinner,” he said absentmindedly, as if noting the rain.

“My super-secret recipe for spaghetti. Handed down for generations.” Billy said gravely.

I snorted. “I don’t think Ragu’s been around that long.”

We had come a little late to the party, it seemed. The Clearwaters were already there, though Leah stayed inside the whole time on the phone. I caught a snippet of her conversation, but it didn’t make much sense.

“No, Sam, tell me,” she pleaded. “What is going on with Emily?”

I knew Sam, but had no idea who Emily was. I didn’t pay much attention, because Leah and I weren’t really friends, and I was preoccupied with my own teenage drama.

Seth, Bella, and I had been relegated to the “kids’” table – which is a nicer way of saying we ate spaghetti out of our laps on the back porch. We caught little bits of the conversation inside, but it wasn’t very interesting. Mostly talk about the latest football game. I think Harry and Charlie made fishing plans. Sue tried valiantly to get Harry to eat something green and leafy, finally sighing as she realized her attempts were all in vain. It all felt very normal, in a way.

But it wasn’t normal at all. Bella Swan was there, eating off her plate and taking a second helping. I was glad to see her eat – she was much too skinny to be healthy. I was also ecstatic she was here, with me, and we were relatively alone. I was thrilled that the smile never disappeared from her face throughout the entire night.

Seth kept interrupting every time I was in danger of forgetting him, much to my dismay. I liked Seth, but he had a knack of inserting himself into every conversation and going off on long tangents. I had to admit I was flattered by his attentiveness, but his need for my full attention got annoying as the night grew darker.

Eventually, though, the rain broke up the festivities. We were getting soaked on the porch, and Harry didn’t want Seth to ruin the seats in his car. The living room was too small to gather all of us in, so the Clearwaters headed out. Harry had driven Charlie down, so Bella gave him a ride back in the Chevy, pausing to wave goodbye as she got in the driver’s side.

I was sitting back on the couch, one foot on my opposite knee and arms crossed behind my head, enjoying the waves of euphoria as they crashed against me. My smile must have been goofy, because Billy laughed when he joined me.

“How was your day, son?” He asked.

I needed no further prompting. “Awesome. Incredible. I had the best day.” I couldn’t stop smiling.

“What did you do?” Billy inquired, raising one of his eyebrows.

“We hung out in the garage,” I answered. It wasn’t really a lie, since we did that for the better part of the afternoon.

“You and Bella?” He prompted, giving me a knowing look.

“Yup,” I replied.

“Hmm…” he hummed, thoughtful. His eyes glazed over to the old blanket slung over the back of the couch. It was something my mom made when she was pregnant, and Billy kept it around as a reminder of her.

“What about you?” I asked, feeling rude.

“Good day,” he grunted. “Fish were biting. Good company,” his eyes drifted back to me. “Bella looks better today. Charlie was happy about it.”

I grinned from ear to ear. “You think so?”

Billy smiled back. “Just don’t do anything stupid,” he warned. “I won’t stop Charlie if he decides to shoot you.”

I rolled my eyes. “It’s not like that, we’re just friends.” I replied, looking down at the floor with pursed lips. “She doesn’t see me that way.”

Billy clapped my shoulder with his leathery hand. When I met his eyes, they were earnest and warm. “Give her time, Jake. The Cullens hurt her. She needs to heal.” His words held weight, like they had a double meaning. I wondered if it had something to do with how she broke her leg in Phoenix.

 

 

The next day I breezed through school, not hearing a word. I slept through first and second period, too tired to keep my eyes open after working on the bikes all night. I was excited to show Bella my progress, like a kindergartener running home to show off the macaroni art they made and get it put up on the fridge. I waited for her outside, afraid Billy would notice my elevated mood and ask about it.

“Hey, Bella,” I called, loping over to the Chevy when it pulled up on the lawn.

“Hey, Jacob,” she greeted, waving at Billy. He smiled through the window, holding the curtain to the side and watching us intently.

“Let’s get to work,” I said in a low voice, unable to restrain the eagerness in my tone.

Bella laughed. “You seriously aren’t sick of me yet?” She wondered as I led the way around the house to the garage.

“Nope. Not yet.” I didn’t add that I would never get tired of her, not if I saw her every day for the rest of my life.

“Please let me know when I start getting on your nerves. I don’t want to be a pain.”

“Okay,” I agreed with a laugh. “I wouldn’t hold your breath for that, though.”

I watched her expression closely when we walked into the garage and she saw the red bike standing up on its kickstand, looking more like a motorcycle than it had any right to. Her mouth opened in unveiled shock, then pure awe.

“Jake, you’re amazing,” she breathed.

I laughed again. “I get obsessive when I have a project.” I shrugged. “If I had any brains I’d drag it out a little bit.”

“Why?” She asked, looking up at me with furrowed eyebrows creating a crease on her forehead.

I looked down, unsure how to explain without admitting what felt so obvious; she was beautiful and smart, and I was utterly obsessed. It was the most natural thing to fall in love with her, more so than the rain pattering against the metal roof of the shed. If I had to say goodbye to her now, it would physically hurt. Would she ditch me once these bikes were finished and I was no longer useful?

Finally, I spoke, my words slow and uncertain. “Bella, if I told you that I couldn’t fix these bikes, what would you say?”

She didn’t answer right away. I glanced up to see her expression had softened and become flushed with emotion.

“I would say… that’s too bad, but I’ll bet we could figure out something else to do. If we really got desperate, we could even do homework,” she joked, grinning warmly.

I smiled, shoulders relaxing. I sat next to the red bike and picked up a wrench, falling into my normal position.

“So you think you’ll come over when I’m done, then?”

“Is that what you meant?” She shook her head. “I guess I am taking advantage of your very underpriced mechanical skills. But as long as you let me come over, I’ll be over.”

“Hoping to see Quil again?” I teased.

“You caught me,” she joked.

I chuckled. “You really like spending time with me?” I marveled, trying to understand how I could possibly be interesting enough to hold her attention.

“Very, very much,” she replied, still smiling wide. “And I’ll prove it. I have to work tomorrow, but Wednesday we’ll do something nonmechanical.”

“Like what?”

“I have no idea. We can go to my place so you won’t be tempted to be obsessive. You could bring your schoolwork – you have to be getting behind. Because I know I am.”

“Homework might be a good idea,” I said, making a face. My teachers had all bit into me today, trying to get me to pay attention. There was a paper I needed to do for English, too. I just wasn’t totally sure when it was due.

“Yes,” she agreed. “We’ll have to start being responsible occasionally, or Billy and Charlie aren’t going to be so easygoing about this.” She gestured to indicate us as two parts of a whole, and I beamed.

“Homework once a week?” I proposed.

“Maybe we’d better go with twice,” she suggested, wincing.

I sighed heavily. I supposed, if I had to do homework, I might as well do it with her. Then I remembered the paper bag sitting on the floor. I reached over my toolbox and pulled out two cans of soda, cracking one open and handing it to her.

“Here’s to responsibility,” I toasted. “Twice a week.”

“And recklessness every day in between,” she added.

I grinned and touched my can to hers.

 

Chapter Text

VII

The week passed by in strange lulls and lurches. Time moved slower at school; so slowly I had to stop myself from yelling at the clock. With Bella it sped up until every moment flew by and it was over. I was throwing myself into this project with more vigor than I had ever thrown at anything. I was eager to prove myself to her. For some reason, pulling together scrap metal and making them into functioning bikes felt like my opportunity. She had mentioned a date, too, which had me rushing the whole process.

Wednesday passed in a blur. I slept in class again and started snoring during Ms. Smith’s lecture. I had managed to rack up a number of detentions for failing to pay attention in class, and then for skipping those detentions to work on the bikes, so I snored in detention during lunch and came home ravenous. Bella drove up just as I was almost done shoving an entire bag of chips down my throat, so I chugged water from the spout until I heard her knocking.

She drove us back to Forks, where we distracted ourselves from the pile of homework on the table by making lasagna. Well, I didn’t help much, but she let me taste. I grudgingly added another year to her age for being a good cook. Eventually, though, we had to get down to business.

Charlie found us spread out on the floor in a whirlwind of papers and books.

“Hey, kids,” he said, his eyes straying to the kitchen. I couldn’t blame him. The smell of basil wafted in through the doorway like a fine mist, covering the whole house in a warm, comforting fog.

I stayed for dinner, so there were no leftovers besides the plate I took home for Billy.

On Friday we spent the afternoon in the garage. She was vocal about how impressed she was by my work, and it fueled my ego. I ended up spending the whole night fixing those bikes and sleeping through most of Saturday.

I was so close to finishing those bikes I could feel it. Then we could go on our date.

I woke up to Bella throwing my backpack at me.

“C’mon, Jake, we have work to do,” she said, pulling me out of bed.

Billy, Charlie, and Harry spent the whole day fishing, so Bella and I were completely alone on her couch when we had finished our homework. My favorite show was on, but I couldn’t focus on it. Bella leaned her head on my shoulder, a sigh escaping from her lips. I thought I could tell what she was thinking about, but when she opened her mouth, I didn’t see her words coming.

“Jake, do you believe in fate?”

My heart skipped a beat, spluttered, and then picked back up at triple speed.

“Fate?” I asked, voice cracking. I winced in embarrassment.

Bella didn’t seem to notice. “Like destiny. Kismet. Do you think it’s real?” She persisted, eyes intense and entreating.

My heart wouldn’t stop hammering like a drum in my ears. Our faces were close enough that I could smell her spearmint gum.

“Yeah,” I breathed, then shook my head in an effort to clear it.

“Sorta, I guess. I’m not sure.” Was my genius response.

“Do you think people have soulmates?”

My face turned burgundy with a deep blush. “Why?” I hedged.

She sighed, looking back at the TV. She was quiet for so long I started to think she wasn’t going to say anything more.

“Can it be fated to meet your soulmate and lose them?” She whispered, almost to herself.

“No,” I said, catching on. “I don’t believe in soulmates.”

This was about the Cullens. I could tell because she was doing the same thing with her arms she did whenever they came up. Thinking about them hurt her, obviously, and I was smart enough to connect the dots. She’d been dumped on the curb like yesterday’s trash. I had already assumed this, and felt conflicted.

On the one hand, I was glad the Cullens left. If they hadn’t, she never would have come to me with the bikes. On the other hand, she went nuts when they left. She was still sort of freaky sometimes. But I liked that about her; she didn’t deny her neurotic tendencies. Bella was unapologetically compulsive, living almost entirely in the moment, like a wild animal.

Did I want them to come back? No. Did I wish she had stayed with Edward? No.

But did I wish she hadn’t been hurt so bad? Of course.

It wasn’t normal to go so crazy over a break-up. I knew I was missing a piece of the picture; there was some part of the story I wasn’t being told. It must have been the most horrible part, so I tried not to think about the possibilities.

“But I’ll tell you one thing,” I continued when she didn’t say anything. “He was an idiot to leave. You’re a catch, Bells,” I added.

Her face turned red. “Uh, thanks,” she stammered, sitting up straight and staring down at her hands.

The night went back to normal, like flicking on a light. Charlie came home and found us still sitting on the couch with a friendly distance between us.

“I probably ought to go,” I sighed, glancing at the clock as Chief Swan reclined in his favorite chair.

“Okay, fine,” she grumbled. “I’ll take you home.”

I smiled at her unwilling expression. She obviously liked hanging out with me, and I was starting to think things could easily swing from platonic to romantic.

“Tomorrow, back to work,” she said as soon as we were in the truck. “What time do you want me to come up?”

I smiled, completely failing to hide my excitement. “I’ll call you first, okay?”

“Sure,” she agreed, frowning at the road.

My smile widened.

 

 

The next morning, I tested the engines one last time and called Bella, too eager to let her dangle any longer.

“Hello?” She greeted, breathless.

“Bella,” I said formally. I nodded, though she couldn’t see me.

“Hey, Jake.”

“I believe that…” I paused for dramatic effect. “We have a date,” I said, my voice thick with implications.

 She was silent for a second, and then she was yelling into the phone. “They’re done? I can’t believe it!” I had never heard her so excited about something. My chest swelled with pride at the thought that I was the one to make her so happy.

“Yeah, they run and everything.” I laughed.

“Jacob, you are absolutely, without a doubt, the most talented and wonderful person I know. You get ten years for this one.”

I almost sighed. If only I could have recorded that.

“Cool! I’m middle aged now,” I joked.

She laughed. “I’m on my way up!” She exclaimed, then the line went dead.

I rolled the bikes under a spruce out of sight from the house, then dug up some old ribbons out of Rachel and Rebecca’s room. I put them on both handlebars, since this was a gift to both of us.

She pulled up on the side of the house, close to the trees, and noticed me immediately. Her face lit up the way I remembered from her pre-zombie days. I ran out of the house to greet her, tripping on the steps in my haste.

“Ready?” I asked in a low voice so Billy wouldn’t hear.

“Yeah,” she replied, though her voice was reserved.

I loaded the bikes into the truck easily, laying them carefully on their sides so they didn’t show, though she might have been able to help. Bella wasn’t looking like one of the walking dead anymore; she was still slight and short, but there was a hardiness to her now. She was no longer in danger of being blown away by the wind.

“Let’s go,” I said, my voice higher than usual with excitement. “I know the perfect place – no one will catch us there.”

I led us south, and she turned onto the winding dirt road that led out of town through the forest. We wove in and out of the forest, every now and again breaking through the thick wall of moss-covered trees into a picturesque view of the Pacific Ocean. It was like a painting, with thick strokes of dark gray clouds brushing against where the churning sea beat against the horizon. The trail wound higher up the land, above the shoreline and on top of the cliffs bordering the beach.

I was talking about finishing the bikes, though I could tell my explanations had gotten too technical for her to follow. She didn’t stop me, so I continued, unable to hold my tongue when discussing anything with an engine.

When we were almost there – and without any warning I could discern – Bella stomped down on the brake like she was trying to kill a spider.

“No!” She shouted.

“What’s wrong?” I yelled back, alarmed.

“That guy – he just jumped off the cliff! Why didn’t they stop him? We’ve got to call an ambulance!” She exclaimed, throwing open her door and hopping out of the cab.

I laughed, and she spun around to stare at me with wild eyes.

“They’re just cliff diving, Bella,” I explained. “Recreation. La Push doesn’t have a mall, you know.” I teased, trying to hide my irritation as I recognized the group standing on the cliff.

“Cliff diving?” She repeated, looking at me with dazed, disbelieving eyes. Then she gazed back at the cliff, watching Paul Lahote leap off and cut smoothly into the gray saltwater.

“Wow. It’s so high,” she breathed, sliding back into the driver’s seat. Her eyes were still wide with shock. “It must be a hundred feet.”

“Well, yeah, most of us jump from lower down, that rock that juts out from the cliff about halfway.” I pointed out the window at the much more reasonable height. “Those guys are insane. Probably showing off how tough they are. I mean, really, it’s freezing today. That water can’t feel good.” I grimaced, disgruntled.

“You jump off the cliff?” She asked, raising her eyebrows.

“Sure, sure.” I shrugged, grinning. “It’s fun. A little scary, kind of a rush.”

She looked back at the cliffs, where Embry was pacing the edge. I saw her eyes widen and a smile stretch her face; a look I recognized. She was about to be impulsive.

“Jake, you have to take me cliff diving,” she said. It wasn’t a question.

I frowned disapprovingly. “Bella, you just wanted to call an ambulance for Sam,” I reminded her.

“I want to try,” she insisted, starting to get out of the car again.

I grabbed her wrist. “Not today, all right? Can we at least wait for a warmer day?”

“Okay, fine,” she agreed. I felt the goosebumps raising on her arm as the wind rocked the cab with a great gust of icy air.

“But I want to go soon,” she added, still hesitating halfway out the door.

“Soon,” I conceded, rolling my eyes. “Sometimes you’re a little strange, Bella. Do you know that?”

She sighed. “Yes.”

“And we’re not jumping off the top,” I added.

We both watched as Embry ran up to the edge and flung himself off the cliff, cartwheeling as he barreled through the wind. I thought I could hear his exhilarated scream in my head.

“Fine,” she said. “Not the first time, anyway.”

I sighed. “Are we going to try out the bikes or not?” I demanded.

“Okay, okay,” she said, tearing her eyes away from Jared waiting on the cliff. She put her seat belt on and closed the door. The engine was still running, a steady roar echoing from the engine as it idled. We started down the road again.

"So who were those guys – the crazy ones?" She wondered.

I made a disgusted sound in the back of my throat. "The La Push gang."

"You have a gang?" She asked, impressed.

I laughed at her reaction. "Not like that. I swear, they're like hall monitors gone bad. They don't start fights, they keep the peace." I snorted. "There was this guy from up somewhere by the Makah rez, big guy too, scary-looking. Well, word got around that he was selling meth to kids, and Sam Uley and his disciples ran him off our land. They're all about our land, and tribe pride… it's getting ridiculous. The worst part is that the council takes them seriously. Embry said that the council actually meets with Sam." I shook my head, voice full of resentment. "Embry also heard from Leah Clearwater that they call themselves 'protectors' or something like that." I clenched my hands into fists, wishing I could hit something.

“You don’t like them,” she observed.

“Does it show?” I asked, sarcasm dripping from my mouth.

"Well… It doesn't sound like they're doing anything bad." She soothed. "Just sort of annoyingly goody-two-shoes for a gang."

“Yeah. Annoying is a good word. They're always showing off—like the cliff thing. They act like… like, I don't know. Like tough guys. I was hanging out at the store with Embry and Quil once, last semester, and Sam came by with his followers, Jared and Paul. Quil said something, you know how he's got a big mouth, and it pissed Paul off. His eyes got all dark, and he sort of smiled—no, he showed his teeth but he didn't smile—and it was like he was so mad he was shaking or something. But Sam put his hand against Paul's chest and shook his head. Paul looked at him for a minute and calmed down. Honestly, it was like Sam was holding him back – like Paul was going to tear us up if Sam didn't stop him." I groaned. "Like a bad western. You know, Sam's a pretty big guy, he's twenty. But Paul's just sixteen, too, shorter than me and not as beefy as Quil. I think any one of us could take him."

"Tough guys," she agreed. "Isn't Sam a little too old for this kind of thing?"

"Yeah. He was supposed to go to college, but he stayed. And no one gave him any crap about it, either. The whole council pitched a fit when my sister turned down a partial scholarship and got married. But, oh no, Sam Uley can do no wrong."

I could feel my face drawn in puckered lines of outrage and fear. I was still bitter over seeing Embry on the cliffs.

"It all sounds really annoying and… strange. But I don't get why you're taking it so personally." She peeked over at my face, looking uncomfortable.

"You just missed the turn," I said evenly, watching as the side-road disappeared behind us.

"Thanks for the heads-up," she muttered, executing a wide turn and nearly backing into a tree.

"Sorry, I wasn't paying attention."

I stayed quiet, trying to regulate my breathing.

"You can stop anywhere along here," I said softly.

She pulled over and cut the engine. The silence felt suffocating, like a vacuum was sucking all the air out of the cab. I hopped out, going around the back to get the bikes.

I couldn’t ignore the problem with Embry anymore. I’d kept busy with these bikes, but now that they were finished I could let my mind dwell on the frustrating situation with my friends. Quil and I barely hung out anymore, sitting at lunch together in awkward silence while stealing glances over at Sam’s gang. Their new member was particularly concerning.

I tried to brush it back. The clouds had parted over the tips of the pine needles breaking the horizon from the trees. The sky was a clear, sharp blue behind the patchy gray fog of saturated sky, and the air was heavy with humidity. We were farther away from the coast now, and the wind had died down. I was uncomfortably aware of the heat when I put on a fake smile and pushed the red bike over to Bella’s side.

“Happy late birthday. Are you ready for this?”

“I think so,” she murmured, looking down at the bike with sudden trepidation.

“We’ll take it slow,” I promised, turning to get mine.

I focused on controlling my movements; the bike was never handled more carefully than when I picked it up that one time. The only sound I made besides the steady whoosh in and out of my chest was the kick-stand clattering up.

“Jake…” Bella hesitated, biting her lip, as I came around the back of the truck.

“Yeah?” I asked, sighing.

“What’s really bothering you? About the Sam thing, I mean? Is there something else?” She asked, watching my face closely.

I grimaced. I knew she was a bad liar, but I was no better. I looked down at the dirt and kicked my shoe against the front tire of the bike over and over, mimicking the pulse behind my temples.

I sighed again. “It’s just… the way they treat me. It creeps me out.” The words started to trip over themselves in a rush to get out of my mouth. “You know, the council is supposed to be made up of equals, but if there was a leader, it would be my dad. I’ve never been able to figure out why people treat him the way they do, why his opinion counts the most. It’s got something to do with his father and his father’s father. My great-grandpa, Ephraim Black, was sort of the last chief we had, and they still listen to Billy, maybe because of that.

“But I’m just like everyone else. Nobody treats me special… until now.”

“Sam treats you special?” She interjected.

“Yeah.” I nodded, looking back up at her. “He looks at me like he’s waiting for something… like I’m going to join his stupid gang someday. He pays more attention to me than any of the other guys. I hate it.”

“You don’t have to join anything,” she said angrily.

I’d never seen Bella so mad. Her nostrils flared, eyes flashing, fingers itching her palms like she wished she could punch something. For half a second I was scared, and then I almost laughed. She looked like a glass statue, yet her reaction was reminiscent of Quil.

“Yeah.” I muttered, going back to setting time with my foot.

“What?” She asked suspiciously.

“It’s Embry. He’s been avoiding me lately.” I explained.

“You’ve been hanging out with me a lot,” she said guiltily.

“No, that’s not it,” I assured her. “It’s not just me – it’s Quil, too, and everyone. Embry missed a week of school, but he was never home when we tried to see him. And when he came back, he looked… he looked freaked out. Terrified. Quil and I both tried to get him to tell us what was wrong, but he wouldn’t talk to either one of us.”

I didn’t look up to see her reaction. “Then this week, out of nowhere, Embry’s hanging out with Sam and the rest of them. He was out on the cliffs today,” I said, my voice low and tense.

I looked up. She was biting her lip anxiously.

“Bella, they bugged him even more than they bother me. He didn’t want anything to do with them. And now Embry’s following Sam around like he’s joined a cult.

“And that’s the way it was with Paul. Just exactly the same. He wasn’t friends with Sam at all. Then he stopped coming to school for a few weeks, and, when he came back, suddenly Sam owned him. I don't know what it means. I can't figure it out, and I feel like I have to, because Embry’s my friend and… Sam’s looking at me funny… and…” I trailed off, swallowing the lump in my throat.

 “Have you talked to Billy about this?” She asked, sounding as horrified as I felt.

“Yes,” I snorted. “That was helpful.”

“What did he say?”

I made a sarcastic face, mocking my dad’s voice. “It’s nothing you need to worry about now, Jacob. In a few years, if you don’t… well, I’ll explain later.” Then I switched back to my normal voice. “What am I supposed to get from that? Is he trying to say it’s some stupid puberty, coming-of-age thing? This is something else. Something wrong.”

I bit my lower lip, clenching my fists at my side, trying very hard to stop the moisture in my eyes from building up any further. If you cry in front of Bella Swan, I threatened myself, just about ready to declare this the worst day of my life.

Suddenly, her arms were wrapped around my waist, face pressed against my chest.

“Oh, Jake, it’ll be okay!” She promised. Her words were muffled by my shirt. “If it gets worse you can come live with me and Charlie. Don’t be scared, we’ll think of something!”

I was frozen for a second, then wrapped my arms hesitantly around her shoulders.

“Thanks, Bella,” I said, my voice thick.

It was in that moment I decided not to hurt Bella again. She was small and breakable, like a glass bird. And she loved me.

Bella Swan was no actress. She couldn’t fake this kind of emotion. And no one could hug me like this – like she was holding me together. There was no other way to describe it. My heart soared higher than I had thought possible before, and I found my earlier grim mood evaporated into the humid air, and the only thing I could seem to think about was the smell of her strawberry shampoo.

“If this is how you’re going to react, I’ll freak out more often.” I kept my voice light and normal, almost laughing. Of their own accord, and certainly with no order from me, my arms tightened around her. I brushed my fingers against her hair, soft and tentative.

She pulled away quickly, laughing with me.

“It’s hard to believe I’m two years older than you.” I didn’t miss her slight emphasis on the word older. “You make me feel like a dwarf.” She craned her neck pointedly to see my face.

“You’re forgetting I’m in my forties, of course.” I reminded.

“Oh, that’s right,” she said sarcastically.

I patted her head. “You’re like a little doll,” I teased. “A porcelain doll.”

She rolled her eyes, taking another step away. “Let’s not start with the albino cracks.”

“Seriously, Bella, are you sure you’re not?” I stretched my arm out next to hers to show the difference. “I’ve never seen anyone paler than you… well, except for – ” I broke off, and she looked away.

“So, are we going to ride or what?” I asked.

“Let’s do it,” she agreed, more enthusiastic this time.

 

 

Chapter Text

VIII

“Okay, where’s your clutch?” I quizzed.

She let go of the grip to point to the lever on her left handlebar, which turned out to be a mistake, because the bike wobbled dangerously beneath her. She grabbed the handle again, struggling to hold it straight. I stifled a laugh.

“Jacob, it won’t stay up,” she whined.

“It will when you’re moving,” I promised. “Now, where’s your brake?”

“Behind my right foot.”

“Wrong,” I said. After half a second of hesitation, I grabbed her right hand and curled her thin fingers around the lever over the throttle.

“But you said – ”

“This is the brake you want. Don’t use the back brake now, that’s for later, when you know what you’re doing.”

“That doesn’t sound right,” she said, eyes narrowing in suspicion. “Aren’t both brakes kind of important?”

“Forget the back brake, okay? Here – ” I wrapped my hand around hers and squeezed, pulling the lever down. “That is how you brake. Don’t forget.” I squeezed one more time for good measure.

“Fine,” she agreed.

“Throttle?”

She twisted the right grip.

“Gearshift?”

She nudged it with her left calf.

“Very good. I think you’ve got all the parts down. Now you just have to get it moving.”

“Uh-huh,” she muttered distractedly. She bit her lip and stared down the long stretch of dirt road, framed by a thick misty border of forest. The road was sandy and damp, but not muddy.

“I want you to hold down the clutch,” I instructed, trying to hide the nerves biting at my stomach.

She wrapped her fingers around the clutch.

“Now, this is crucial, Bella,” I stressed, eyes widening in earnest. “Don’t let go of that, okay? I want you to pretend that I’ve handed you a live grenade. The pin is out and you are holding down the spoon.”

She squeezed tighter, knuckles turning white.

“Good. Do you think you can kick-start it?” I only asked to be polite, knowing that even if she threw all her weight into it there still wouldn’t be enough force.

“If I move my foot, I will fall over,” she told me through gritted teeth, eyes focused on her grenade.

“Okay, I’ll do it. Don’t let go of the clutch.”

I took a step back, then slammed my foot down on the pedal. There was a short ripping noise as the ignition lit while the force of my kick rocked the bike. Bella started to fall sideways, but I caught her before she got knocked to the ground.

“Steady there,” I chuckled. “Do you still have the clutch?”

“Yes,” she gasped.

“Plant your feet – I’m going to try again,” I said, putting my hand on the back of the seat just to be safe.

It took four more good kicks before the engine rumbled to life, roaring louder than the truck. Bella’s fingers turned even paler around the clutch, vibrating along with the hum of the machine.

“Try out the throttle,” I suggested. “Very lightly. And don’t let go of the clutch.”

Hesitantly, she twisted the right handle. Though the movement was small, the bike snarled angrily. My grin widened in satisfaction.

“Do you remember how to put it into first gear?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“Okay,” I said, waiting expectantly.

She stared at the handlebars, not moving.

“Left foot,” I prompted after a few seconds.

“I know,” she said, taking a deep breath.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” I inquired, raising one eyebrow. “You look scared.”

“I’m fine,” she snapped, kicking the gearshift down a notch.

Reverse psychology; 1, Bella; 0.

“Very good,” I praised. “Now, very gently, ease up on the clutch,” I said, backing away.

“You want me to let go of the grenade?” She asked in disbelief. Her wide eyes glared at me like I was the crazy one.

“That’s how you move, Bella.” I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. “Just do it little by little.”

She looked back down at her right hand, strained and shaking over the clutch.

Just as her hand began to loosen, she jumped up in shock, like a horse spooked by a snake.

“Oh!” She gasped, letting her hand fall off the clutch.

The bike bucked underneath her, yanking forward and then collapsing to the ground, falling on top of her right leg. The engine choked off.

“Bella?” I asked anxiously, ripping the bike off her. “Are you hurt?”

She wasn’t listening. Her eyes were far away, in a different world, somewhere closed to me.

“Bella?” I repeated, shaking her shoulder.

“I’m fine,” she mumbled, still looking dazed.

I didn’t believe her. I pulled us to our feet slowly, running my eyes up and down her to check for any abnormalities. “Did you hit your head?”

“I don’t think so,” she replied, shaking it back and forth to check. “I didn’t hurt the bike, did I?” She asked nervously.

“No. You just stalled the engine,” I replied. “You let go of the clutch too fast.”

She nodded. I could tell she wasn’t really paying attention.

“Let’s try again.”

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“Positive,” she asserted.

Bella insisted on kick-starting the bike herself. I wish I had a camera, because it was a sight to see. She had to jump to slam down on the pedal with enough force, but every time she did the bike would wobble and totter between her spindly legs. My hands hovered over the handlebars to keep it balanced. It took her a total of twenty-eight tries to get the ignition lit.

By then, I was nearly doubled over in laughter and ready to just do it for her, but then the engine roared to life. When she revved the throttle experimentally, it snarled hungrily. I smiled, and she mirrored my enthusiasm.

“Easy on the clutch,” I reminded her.

Her lips turned up in a tight smile, eyes full of something I didn’t recognize. Satisfaction? Mischief? Amazement? I decided to call it stubborn.

“Ease off slowly,” I warned, watching her fingers twitch on the clutch.

“I will,” she assured me, and then she was flying.

That’s my girl, I thought for a second, then; Crap! Bella, no!

I probably shouldn’t have been surprised. She was going way too fast, and a turn was coming up. I watched her right foot slam down against the back brake with a sense of dramatic irony. Figures that the brake I specifically told her not to use would be the first one to pop in her head, and – Bella being Bella – she would find a way to be spectacularly clumsy going forty five miles an hour.

The bike tottered underneath her like a seesaw. Finally, after an agonizingly slow two seconds where I felt painfully guilty for letting her get on the back of a motorcycle, she yanked the handlebars and went flying into a tree on the side of the road.

I hopped on the back of the Harley and kicked it down in one shot. Adrenaline was pulsing through me; I could hear my heart hammering over the roar of the engine. I went way too fast and stopped too abruptly, flying into the handlebars when I jammed the brake.

“Bella!” I yelled, throwing off the Harley.

She was hooked around the tree, face mashed into a rock. Blood was trickling down her neck and splashing against the moss. I pulled the bike off her, throwing it to the ground and letting it stall. Bella rolled over, gasping for breath.

“Wow,” she murmured wondrously, so low I couldn’t be sure. Her eyes were glazed over and fixed on something I couldn’t see. I was paying more attention to the bloody gouge in her forehead.

“Bella!” I shouted, crouched over her, trying not to scream like a blonde cheerleader in a bad horror movie. “Bella, are you alive?”

“I’m great!” She enthused, flexing her arms and legs like a marionette puppet.

“Let’s do it again,” she continued, sitting up.

“I don’t think so,” I said in a low voice, holding back my stomach as it threatened to climb up my throat. “I think I’d better drive you to the hospital first.”

“I’m fine,” she insisted brightly, grinning up at me below the gore on her temple.

“Um, Bella?” I began, blinking rapidly. She must have been having one hell of an adrenaline rush. “You’ve got a huge cut on your forehead, and it’s gushing blood.”

She clapped her hand over her head with a sickening slap.

“Oh, I’m so sorry, Jacob,” she gushed, pushing against the gash like she could force the blood back in the way it came.

“Why are you apologizing for bleeding?” I wondered aloud as I wrapped my arms around her waist and pulled us up to our feet. “Let’s go. I’ll drive.” I held out my hand for the keys.

For once, she reached into her pocket and handed them over without protest.

“What about the bikes?” She asked.

I had to think for a second. Was she medically stable enough to leave alone for a few minutes? She was standing without swaying, which was good for Bella. The slasher-movie gash on her forehead gave me pause, though, because it was still pouring blood all over the place.

“Wait here. And take this,” I said, pulling my shirt over my head. It already had some blood on it, anyway. I threw it to her, and she caught it, which I counted as another sign she was still too high on adrenaline to feel the extent of her injuries. Normal Bella didn’t have the coordination to catch something if it floated into her hands.

I raced back to the truck, threw the Harley into the back, and pushed the Chevy as fast as it would go down the road. The engine groaned loudly, protesting against the gas pedal. I left the truck running and ran back to her, grabbing her waist. She had started to sway on her feet a little, and was looking green underneath all the blood.

“Okay, let’s get you in the truck.”

“I’m honestly fine,” she insisted as I helped her into the cab. “Don’t get worked up. It’s just a little blood.”

I shook my head, closing the door behind me.

“Just a lot of blood,” I muttered, going back for the other bike.

When I settled into the driver’s seat, Bella was already talking.

“Now, let’s think about this for a second,” she began. “If you take me to the ER like this, Charlie is sure to hear about it.” She glanced down to the sand and dirt caked in her jeans, shaking off in little clumps on the seat.

“Bella, I think you need stitches. I’m not going to let you bleed to death,” I said stubbornly.

“I won’t,” she promised.

I glared back.

“Let’s just take the bikes back first, and then we’ll make a stop at my house so I can dispose of the evidence before we go to the hospital.”

“What about Charlie?”

“He said he had to work today.”

“Are you really sure?” I asked, disbelieving.

“Trust me. I’m an easy bleeder. It’s not nearly as dire as it looks.”

I don’t like this. I don’t like this. I don’t like this, repeated in my head the whole drive back to Forks.

Bella sat staring out the window in a trance, like she was dreaming with her eyes open. I kept glancing at her, trying to determine if she would notice if we went straight to the hospital. She flinched, and my foot leaned harder on the gas. The truck replied with a sputtering moan, but I kept pushing.

“You still okay?” I checked.

“Yeah.” It wasn’t as convincing as before.

“By the way,” I added. “I’m going to disconnect your foot brake tonight.”

When we got to her house, she ran upstairs and disappeared into the bathroom. My eyes narrowed in suspicion. I counted the seconds as they ticked by, wondering how long it should take someone to clean up that much blood while also bleeding the whole time. Finally, after two long minutes, I decided to sit at the bottom of the stairs. Three minutes later, I glanced up at the bathroom door.

“Hurry up,” I called.

“Okay, okay,” she shouted back.

It was another thirty seconds before she came lumbering down the steps, wearing clean clothes and holding a drenched, bloody rag to her head. I realized a second later it was my shirt, soaked with her blood, and it nearly turned my stomach. She smiled timidly at me, a blush coloring her cheeks, as if the gnarly gash in her forehead was an inconvenient flaw of her own.

“How do I look?” She asked.

“Better,” I allowed.

“But do I look like I tripped in your garage and hit my head on a hammer?”

“Sure, I guess so.”

“Let’s go, then.”

I hurried her out the door before she could mention the dishes piled up in the sink. Bella was one of those people who could never walk by a sink of dishes without washing them, and now was so not the time.

She stayed conscious the whole ride to the hospital, which I took as a good sign. She really did look better now, so I relaxed. I was stretched out in the small cab, one arm casually wrapped around the back of Bella’s seat. She didn’t seem to mind my hand hanging next to her shoulder, hovering over her hair and falling back down against the seat. About halfway, though, I wondered if maybe she had gotten some sort of concussion.

“We should have grabbed you a jacket,” she frowned, staring down at my chest with guilt-ridden eyes.

“That would have given us away,” I teased, trying to make her smile again. “Besides, it’s not cold.”

Actually, I was pretty comfortable. I had felt too warm all day, so now the glacial air floating in through the cracked window felt nice.

“Are you kidding?” She exclaimed.

She shivered and reached out to turn the heat on as she eyed me warily. I felt her eyes boring into me and sat up a little straighter, focusing hard on the road whizzing by.

“What?” I asked self-consciously when I couldn’t ignore it anymore.

“Nothing,” she assured me. “I just hadn’t realized before. Did you know, you’re sort of beautiful?”

I rolled my eyes.

“You hit your head pretty hard, didn’t you?”

“I’m serious.”

“Well, then, thanks. Sort of.”

She grinned. “You’re sort of welcome.”

We were at the hospital forever. No one seemed to think this was an emergency, so I stopped worrying that she would bleed to death in front of me. Eventually, Dr. Snow gave Bella a total of seven stitches, and I got to hold her hand the whole time. I came home practically glowing, more hopeful than I had ever been that I might have a chance with Bella Swan.

 

 

Chapter Text

IX

I was more present in school now that the bikes were finished. Embry was still ignoring Quil and I, and hanging out with Sam and his goons more than ever. I blamed myself for leaving my friends to their own devices. Quil and Embry were thick as thieves, but if left alone, their similarities grated against each other. On Tuesday, Bella had to work, and I had decided to go to the dump and pray that I could find some decent tires there. Quil wanted to confront Embry after the last bell.

“C’mon, man, I got plans,” I whined.

“We have to ask him what his problem is,” Quil insisted.

“He’s not going to talk to us,” I reminded him.

“Doesn’t matter. We’re brothers, man. We can’t let him get dragged into this nonsense.”

I sighed. “You’re right,” I conceded, and he was.

Embry was my best friend. So was Quil, but he was technically my cousin, so I didn’t count that. I couldn’t let Embry get drawn into a cult like this. What sort of friend would I be if I didn’t at least try?

We waited outside his last class, skulking around the door very stealthily, though when Embry came out he was not as surprised as we had expected.

“What’s up, Em?” I nodded.

“Hey, Em,” Quil greeted.

He didn’t say anything, just shook his head and looked down at the ground.

“What’s up?” Quil asked. “What’s going on with you, dude? How come you’re hanging out with Sam so much?”

“I can’t tell you,” Embry said through gritted teeth, still staring at the ground.

“Hey, I get it, you don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to,” I started. “But we miss you, bro. We wanna know if you’re okay.”

Embry looked up, his face conflicted for a second, then his expression hardened. “Don’t worry about me.”

He turned on his heel and fled, moving quicker and more fluidly than I remembered him being. We’d all been going through insane growth spurts, so he had been as long and gangly as I was. Now, he seemed more sanguine, slinking through the hallway without stumbling over his own two feet once.

I’d never really been dumped by a friend before. At least not outright and with no explanation. I was angry, but tried not to focus on it. I was easily preoccupied with Bella, who seemed to have some sort of death wish.

After school on Wednesday, she managed to stay upright for a grand total of five minutes before hitting the brake too abruptly and launching herself into a tree. She didn’t even seem to mind. She was dreamy again, eyes fixed on dead space. I strongly suspected she had some sort of concussion, and Dr. Gerandy agreed. I slipped him Charlie’s number at the station so I didn’t have to be the bearer of bad news.

Bella had to work again on Thursday, so I spent the afternoon tinkering with the Rabbit while Quil watched. We mostly talked shop, ignoring the elephant in the room. It was too sad to picture Embry off doing God-knows-what with Sam and his cronies.

“Charlie’s getting nosy,” Bella complained when she picked me up from school on Friday.

“Maybe we should cool it with the bikes,” I said without thinking, distracted by Quil making crude gestures at me from the rear-view windshield. When I noticed the vehement objection boiling on her lips, I added, “At least for a week or so. You could stay out of the hospital for a week, right?”

“What are we going to do?” She griped.

I smiled cheerfully, glad that she had included me as an automatic participant.

“Whatever you want,” I replied.

I hadn’t expected it to be such a hard decision. She stared out the windshield with eyebrows furrowed, lips pursed, eyes focused. Not on the road – Bella rarely had to try so hard to keep the Chevy in the right lane. She leaned forward, clutching her chest the same way she did when the Cullens came up.

“What are you thinking about so hard?” I asked softly.

“Well…” She began slowly. “I found this place in the forest once. I came across it when I was, um,” – I didn’t miss the hesitation – “hiking. A little meadow, the most beautiful place. I don’t know if I could track it down on my own. It would definitely take a few tries…”

“We could use a compass and a grid pattern,” I said confidently, trying to be helpful. “Do you know where you started from?”

“Yes, just below the trailhead where the one-ten ends. I was going mostly south, I think.”

“Cool. We’ll find it,” I promised.

On Saturday morning I sat sprawled out across the living room floor, effectively taking up the whole room, drawing a grid across the key section of the map. Bella sat at the kitchen table, visible from the couch, and talked to Billy. The house was so small we were pretty much in the same room, and I found myself being more at ease than I would have imagined I could be with my dad and Bella together.

“Maybe we’ll see the super bear,” I joked, not looking up.

Billy laughed. “Maybe you should take a jar of honey, just in case.”

I chuckled. “Hope your new boots are fast, Bella. One little jar isn’t going to keep a hungry bear occupied for long.” I teased, eyeing the brand-new hiking boots that smelled like a department store.

“I only have to be faster than you,” she retorted.

“Good luck with that!” I laughed, rolling my eyes as I refolded the map. “Let’s go.”

“Have fun,” Billy rumbled, wheeling himself toward the refrigerator.

Bella’s expression became grave when we reached the very end of the dirt road, stopping near the sign that marked the beginning of the trailhead. With a great deal of effort, she got stiffly out of the truck and stared at the dense green wall with faraway eyes.

“I went this way,” she murmured, pointing straight into the thick forest.

“Hmm,” I muttered.

“What?” She asked defensively.

I looked into the damp forest pointedly, then at the clearly marked trail, and back.

“I would have figured you for a trail kind of girl.”

“Not me,” she said bleakly, face still strangely empty.

I watched her expression as it grew somber, then she noticed me staring.

“I’m a rebel,” she added, cracking a smile.

I laughed, pulling out our map. “Give me a second,” I said, grabbing my compass. I angled the map in the direction we were headed.

“Okay – first line on the grid. Let’s do it.”

Bella was slow, but I didn’t complain. The woods were a familiar place to me, part of my childhood, and they brought back good memories. I whistled an old song I couldn’t remember the words to and strolled easily through the thick undergrowth. I checked the compass every few minutes to make sure we were headed in the right direction, but it was easy to keep us on the right track, since we were moving along at such a leisurely place.

“Hey… Jake?” She asked hesitantly.

“Yeah?”

“How are things… with Embry? Is he back to normal yet?”

My stride got longer in my haste to evade the question. I didn’t even notice she had faded from my side until her footfalls got quieter. I stopped to let her catch up.

“No. He’s not back to normal,” I admitted, mouth pulling down at the corners. I didn’t start walking again, too heavy with the weight of loneliness to move.

“Still with Sam,” she said. It wasn’t a question.

“Yup,” I answered.

After a moment of thought, I wrapped my arm around her shoulder, holding us together. She must have understood how troubled I felt about this because she didn’t playfully shake me off, as she had countless times before.

“Are they still looking at you funny?” She half-whispered, eyes full of concern.

I stared through the trees. “Sometimes,” I said honestly. I’d been avoiding Sam and his gang as much as possible, but seeing them in school was inevitable. The classes I had with Paul and Jared were bad enough before, but now that Embry was sitting with them, there was an extra pair of eyes glaring at the back of my head.

“And Billy?”

“As helpful as ever,” I said sourly, scowling down at my feet.

“Our couch is always open,” she offered, like she hoped I would say yes.

I laughed, picturing the Chief’s face when he found me sleeping in his living room. Bella always knew what to say to get me out of a funk.

“But think of the position that would put Charlie in – when Billy calls the police to report my kidnapping,” I joked, feeling more like myself.

Bella laughed, too, sounding almost relieved.

Once we’d gone six miles, we cut west and headed back along another line of the grid. We didn’t find the meadow, and Bella was ready to call it quits as soon as the overcast sky stopped filtering in sparse light. Her lips puckered up in disappointment.

My eyebrows furrowed. “As long as you’re sure we’re starting from the right place…” I glanced down at her for confirmation.

“Yes, I’m sure.”

“Then we’ll find it,” I promised, grabbing her hand and pulling us through a mass of ferns. On the other side was the truck, right where we left it. I gestured toward it proudly, pointedly raising my eyebrows at her doubts.

“Trust me,” I said, not realizing how much I meant it until the words were already out of my mouth.

Abruptly, I realized I wanted her to trust me for more than just my navigational or mechanical skills. I wanted to be the person she called when something went wrong. I wanted her to tell me every inconsequential thought that ran through her head. I wanted her to trust me enough to love her.

“You’re good,” she admitted. “Next time we bring flashlights, though.”

“We’ll save hiking for Sundays from now on. I didn’t know you were that slow,” I teased, a laugh bubbling in my throat.

She yanked her hand away and stomped around to the driver’s side while I chuckled under my breath.

“So, you up for another try tomorrow?” I asked, sliding into the passenger seat.

“Sure. Unless you want to go without me so I don’t tie you down to my gimpy pace.”

“I’ll survive,” I assured her. “If we’re hiking again, though, you might want to pick up some moleskin. I bet you can feel those new boots right now.”

“A little,” she confessed, cheeks sprouting red daisies under her skin.

“I hope we see the bear tomorrow,” I added. “I’m sort of disappointed about that.”

“Yes, me too,” she agreed sarcastically. “Maybe we’ll get lucky tomorrow and something will eat us!”

“Bears don’t want to eat people. We don’t taste that good.” I grinned mischievously at her, but she didn’t see it in the dark cab. “Of course, you might be an exception. I bet you’d taste good,” I added, voice thick with implications.

“Thanks so much,” she replied, scowling out the windshield.

Chapter Text

X

The weeks flew by. With each one, Bella and I grew closer, and I got more desperate to prove myself to her.

After the bikes were finished and she finally stopped stalling the engine two times a week, I had expected her to back off a little. I had been expecting a polite retreat. “Thanks again for the bikes – don’t call me, I’ll call you.” That sort of deal. But Bella spent all of her free time with me now, so I was suddenly busier than usual. She didn’t really mind what we did, though lately she had been throwing herself into the search for the meadow with a fervor that both frightened and aroused me.

I also came to the terms with the fact that Bella was certifiably insane. I’d known it for a while, but I’d been ignoring it for her sake. I could no longer look away when her smile became deranged and her eyes suddenly slunk low, like an animal skulking towards its prey. On the bikes, she kept getting disappointed when it stayed upright, despite her reckless driving.

I wondered why her obvious insanity didn’t bother me. Finally, I came to the conclusion that love must make you look at people differently.

I was in love with Bella Swan, of that I was sure, so much so it felt like I’d never not loved her. I didn’t see her through objective lenses. She was always just the girl I loved; even if she was crazy, or reckless, or irrational, I loved her just the same.

But I couldn’t help recognizing the signs of her descent into madness. She was getting thin again; the kind of dangerously thin that swayed in the wind and folded like paper whenever she wrapped her arms around her chest. When she wasn’t trying to kill herself on the bike, there was a shade of anxiety behind her eyes at all times. It reminded me of a deer; she was always on high alert, jumping at little noises, like she was waiting for the mutant bear to catch up with her. If I let her stew long enough, sometimes her nose even twitched back and forth.

Embry had officially ditched Quil and I, so on Tuesdays and Thursdays when Bella had to work, we would huddle up in the garage and work on the Rabbit to focus on something other than the strange looks from Sam.

Quil shared my concerns, though he was more eager to find out what was going on. I tried not to think about it most of the time, too afraid of what it might mean if I were next.

Puberty hit me like a hammer, almost overnight. I was now six foot seven, and Coach had his eye on me for Spring basketball tryouts. My voice got lower, but it was still too throaty for my liking. On my arms, where there used to be skin and bones, wiry muscles now stood, strong and hard. Hair sprouted on my chest, which was the best part. I proudly displayed it every chance I got, walking around without a shirt most of the time.

“When are you gonna get cold?” Billy complained.

“Are you kidding? It’s warm in here,” I responded, opening the fridge door.

The cold air dried the sweat in my hair. I took a deep breath in, then sighed and grabbed some orange juice. I sat back on the couch, chugging directly from the carton.

Billy shook his head. “You’re gonna eat us out of house and home,” he commented.

I rolled my eyes. “I’m growing,” I offered as an excuse.

Quil and I skipped the garage the day before Valentine’s Day, and instead rode our skateboards into town. We stopped at the corner store, where I put two quarters into a dispenser and got a box of conversation hearts.

“Ooooh,” Quil sang. “Are those for your girlfriend?”

“Shut up,” I muttered, shoving them into my pocket.

The next day I waited outside for Bella to arrive, since the rain had all but let up for the time being. She seemed surprised by the date, though she must have gotten a dose of the holiday at school.

“Happy Valentine’s Day,” I said, smiling and ducking my head to the ground. I held out the pink box, balancing it on my palm in front of her.

“Well, I feel like a schmuck,” she mumbled. “Is today Valentine’s Day?”

I shook my head with exaggerated disappointment. “You can be so out of it sometimes. Yes, it is the fourteenth of February. So are you going to be my Valentine? Since you didn’t get me a fifty-cent box of candy, it’s the least you can do.” I tried to keep my voice light and teasing, but I couldn’t hide the undercurrent of longing.

“What exactly does that entail?” She inquired casually, though her hesitation made me self-conscious.

“The usual – slave for life, that kind of thing,” I joked nervously.

“Oh, well, if that’s all…” she said sarcastically, rolling her eyes.

She took the candy, sealing the slave-for-live deal. I smiled.

Today was homework, which I couldn’t ignore any longer, but tomorrow was a full day we could spend together.

“So, what are we doing tomorrow? Hiking, or the ER?”

“Hiking,” she decided. “You’re not the only one who can be obsessive. I’m starting to think I imagined that place,” she said, frowning into space.

“We’ll find it,” I urged, trying to bring her smile back. “Bikes Friday?” I offered.

“I’m going to a movie Friday. I’ve been promising my cafeteria crowd that I would go out forever,” she admitted, scrunching up her nose in distaste. Something about her tone felt dismissive.

I dropped my eyes back to the ground, wondering if maybe I should have ignored Valentine’s Day.

“You’ll come, too, right?” She added quickly after seeing my expression. “Or will it be too much of a drag with a bunch of boring seniors?”

“You’d like me to come, with your friends there?” I asked doubtfully.

“Yes,” she said, and I couldn’t detect an ounce of deceit. “I’ll have a lot more fun if you’re there. Bring Quil, and we’ll make it a party.”

“Quil’s gonna freak. Senior girls,” I chortled, rolling my eyes. I had no intention of actually inviting him.

Bella laughed with me. Neither of us mentioned Embry, for which I was grateful.

The next night, I worked harder on the Rabbit with the reminder of my old friend nipping at the back of my heels like a dog who needs to go out. By Friday, she was street legal, and running like a thoroughbred. I held back tears as I drove to Forks, overjoyed at the newfound sense of freedom, and nervously looking forward to finally being able to take Bella out.

I remembered the first time we’d met, when I vowed to come up and visit when I got my car finished. I was finally making good on my promise, one year later. Better late than never, I guess.

I leaned against the hood while I waited for Bella to come home, feeling buoyant and light. The grin stretched across my face as soon as I saw her enthusiastic expression.

“No way!” She shouted, jumping out of the truck and running up to me. “You’re done!” I can’t believe it! You finished the Rabbit!” She beamed up at me, eyes lit up in excitement.

“Just last night. This is the maiden voyage,” I explained.

“Incredible,” she breathed, raking her eyes over the car with admiration evident in her smile.

She held up her hand for a high five. I smacked my hand against hers, but left it there, twisting my fingers through hers. My smile grew wider when she didn’t pull away immediately or react negatively.

“So, do I get to drive tonight?” I asked, leaning in closer to her face.

“Definitely,” she said, then sighed.

“What’s wrong?”

“I’m giving up – I can’t top this one. So, you win. You’re oldest,” she admitted.

I shrugged confidently. “Of course I am.”

A Suburban came chugging around the corner. Bella pulled her hand away from mine abruptly, and I made a face.

Lo and behold, Mike Newton, of Newton’s Sporting Goods, parked across the street.

“I remember this guy,” I said in a low voice. “The one who thought you were his girlfriend. Is he still confused?”

She looked up at me, raising an eyebrow.

“Some people are hard to discourage,” she observed.

“Then again,” I responded thoughtfully, “sometimes persistence pays off.”

“Most of the time it’s just annoying, though.”

Mike got out of his car and crossed the road.

“Hey, Bella,” he greeted, then turned his wary eyes to me.

I smirked. Thanks to my recent growth spurt, this guy’s head couldn’t even clear my shoulder. He didn’t seem to recognize me, though he had written me off just a year ago.

“Hey, Mike! Do you remember Jacob Black?”

“Not really,” he said uncomfortably, holding out his hand for me to shake.

I grabbed him a little harder than I needed to. “Old family friend,” I introduced myself, shaking his whole arm effortlessly. When I let go, Mike flexed his fingers. I grinned.

The phone inside started ringing.

“I’d better get that – it might be Charlie,” Bella said, running into the house.

Mike and I were fated to become enemies. I knew it the moment I saw his cookie-cutter smile and expensive running shoes, and I knew it now, as we stood several yards apart facing away from each other. I was glad we made no pretense at becoming familiar; why bother? I didn’t need to know anything about him other than he thought he had a shot with Bella, and I was going to prove him wrong.

Bella came out looking upset. “Ang is sick,” she announced glumly. “She and Ben aren’t coming.”

“I guess the flu is making another round. Austin and Conner were out today, too. Maybe we should do this another time,” the coward suggested.

I wasn’t afraid of a little competition. “I’m still up for it. But if you’d rather stay behind, Mike – ”

“No, I’m coming,” he interrupted. “I was just thinking of Angela and Ben. Let’s go.” He turned towards the Suburban.

“Hey, do you mind if Jacob drives?” Bella asked. “I told him he could – he just finished his car. He built it from scratch, all by himself,” she bragged, in a possessive tone that woke up the butterflies in my stomach.

Mike noticed it, too. “Fine,” he snapped.

“All right, then,” I said.

Now that everything was settled, and Newton understood I was the preferred chauffeur, a smug grin slipped over my teeth. I hopped into the car comfortably, relegating Mike to the backseat. I eyed his disgusted expression in the rearview mirror and my smile grew wider. I chattered at Bella on the drive to the movie while he sulked silently against his knees.

He changed his strategy about halfway to the theater once he realized Bella was too distracted to notice his disappointment. He leaned forward, resting his chin on the shoulder of her seat; almost touching his cheek to hers. Bella shifted away, turning her back toward the window, looking uncomfortable.

“Doesn’t the radio work in this thing?” Mike interrupted, sounding like a petulant child.

“Yes,” I answered curtly. “But Bella doesn’t like music.”

She looked at me with wide eyes, mouth open in shock.

“Bella?” Mike asked, annoyed.

“He’s right,” she mumbled, eyes still fixed on me.

I smiled serenely at the windshield. She had no idea how much I noticed about her. I would have to make that apparent somehow, I decided. Sooner rather than later.

“How can you not like music?” Mike demanded.

Bella shrugged. “I don’t know. It just irritates me,” she lied.

“Hmph.” Mike leaned away.

When we got to the theater, I handed Bella a ten-dollar bill, fresh from the cash jar stashed in the back of my closet.

“What’s this?” Bella objected, trying to shove it back into my hand.

“I’m not old enough to get into this one,” I reminded her.

She laughed loudly. “So much for relative ages. Is Billy going to kill me if I sneak you in?”

“No. I told him you were planning to corrupt my youthful innocence.”

Bella snickered, and I heard Mike’s footsteps speed up behind us. This felt almost exactly like a date, except for the embarrassing third wheel. He sulked and brooded, obviously unhappy. I wanted to tell him he could leave – I could handle it from here – but that was a good way to ensure he stayed.

The movie was terrible. I hadn’t paid any attention to the name, so I walked in completely blind. The special effects department must have been given a paintbrush and three metric tons of red paint. It was an absolute bloodbath from start to finish. In just the opening credits, four people got blown up and one got beheaded. Ten minutes in, I started giggling under my breath.

“What?” Bella whispered.

“Oh, c’mon!” I hissed through my teeth, trying not to be too loud. “The blood squirted twenty feet out of that guy. How fake can you get?”

I tried in vain to stop the laugh that bubbled on my lips when a flagpole speared some guy into a concrete wall. To my surprise, Bella joined me, and we busted our sides laughing as the movie got more and more ridiculous.

Of the highest importance, in my opinion, were the arm rests on either side of Bella’s seat. Mike had claimed his side of her, holding up his palm, identical to how I rested mine. In any other setting, I would have already taken her hand, but I knew with one of her friends watching it would mean gossip, something I was sure she tried to avoid.

Bella, stubborn as ever, folded her arms tightly across her chest and glared at the screen.

Mike gave up our three-way standoff halfway through the movie. He pulled his arm back and leaned forward to put his head in his hands. He moaned in a way I was familiar with, having two older sisters who got ‘stomach bugs’ once a month.

“Mike, are you okay?” Bella whispered.

The people in front of us turned to look at him as he groaned again, louder this time. The sweat glinted off his face in the light from the screen. He moaned, then bolted for the exit. I didn’t hesitate before following Bella. This movie wasn’t worth missing the look on her face if she found Newton hurling in the hallway.

“No, stay,” Bella whispered. “I’ll make sure he’s okay.”

I rolled my eyes, walking next to her up the aisle.

“You don’t have to come. Get your eight bucks worth of carnage,” she insisted.

“That’s okay,” I whispered, then switched to my normal speaking voice as we entered the hallway. “You sure can pick ‘em, Bella. This movie really sucks.”

I went straight for the bathroom, since Mike was nowhere in the lobby, not that I expected him to be, but a boy could dream. I didn’t have to look very far. He was hunched over the closest toilet seat to the door, heaving violently. I almost felt bad for him.

I exited immediately, before he could see me. “Oh, he’s in there, all right,” I assured, rolling my eyes. “What a marshmallow. You should hold out for someone with a stronger stomach. Someone who laughs at the gore that makes weaker men vomit.” I laughed to emphasize my point.

“I’ll keep my eyes open for someone like that,” she responded sarcastically.

We were all alone in the hallway. Both theaters were halfway through the movie, and it was deserted – quiet enough to hear the hum of the popcorn machine and a girl at the concession stand snapping her gum. I went to sit on the dark velvet bench against the wall, patting the spot next to me for Bella.

“He sounded like he was going to be in there a while,” I explained, stretching my legs out fully. Settling in here was better than sitting in the theater watching that horrible movie. I was prepared to wait as long as it took for Newton to get it all up, assuming Bella and I would be alone the whole time.

I couldn’t ignore my feelings anymore. I was head over heels for this girl, totally and completely wrapped around her finger. I was willing to do anything for her, including just being her friend, but she had to know I was an option. I couldn’t have her operating under the delusion that she was too crazy for me to want her.

When she sat down, I wrapped my arm around her shoulders, expecting her response.

“Jake,” she protested, leaning away.

I dropped my arm, reached out, and took her hand firmly in mine, wrapping my other hand around her wrist when she tried to pull away.

“Now, just hold on a minute, Bella,” I said calmly, trying not to notice how much I sounded like my father. I’d rehearsed this in the bathroom mirror enough times that I had my lines memorized. “Tell me something.”

Bella grimaced. “What?” She muttered in a sour voice.

“You like me, right?”

“You know I do.”

“Better than that joker puking his guts out in there?” I jerked my thumb at the bathroom door.

“Yes,” she sighed.

“Better than any of the other guys you know?” I asked, already knowing the answer.

“Better than the girls, too,” she said pointedly.

“But that’s all,” I observed.

She paused for a moment, pained speculation in her eyes. “Yes,” she finally whispered.

I grinned down at her, trying to sound reassuring. “That’s okay, you know.” I squeezed her hand gently. “As long as you like me the best. And you think I’m good-looking – sort of. I’m prepared to be annoyingly persistent.”

“I’m not going to change,” she said slowly, in a grave voice.

I thought about her words for a second. What did that mean? Did I want her to change?

I suppose she would, in a way, if we were to redefine our relationship. But only in title, I thought. I had already proven she couldn’t do anything reckless enough to drive me away. I knew she was crazy, and I loved her anyway. I didn’t mind just being friends, though I hoped for more. I wanted her to love me back in the same way I loved her.

I understood now what she meant.

“It’s still the other one, isn’t it?”

She cringed, even though I didn’t say the name outright.

“You don’t have to talk about it,” I said softly. She nodded gratefully. “But don’t get mad at me for hanging around, okay?” I patted the back of her hand. “Because I’m not giving up. I’ve got loads of time.”

“You shouldn’t waste it on me,” she sighed.

“It’s what I want to do, as long as you still like to be with me.”

“I can’t imagine how I could not like being with you,” she replied earnestly.

I beamed. “I can live with that.”

“Just don’t expect more,” she warned, tugging on her hand.

I held onto it. “This doesn’t really bother you, does it?” I asked, squeezing her fingers.

“No,” she sighed, smiling down at our joined hands.

“And you don’t care what he thinks,” I added, pointing back towards the bathroom.

“I guess not.”

“So what’s the problem?”

“The problem,” she insisted, “is that it means something different to me than it does to you.”

“Well…” I tightened my hand around hers. “That’s my problem, isn’t it?”

“Fine,” she grumbled, giving up. “Don’t forget it, though.”

“I won’t,” I assured her. “The pins out of the grenade for me now, eh?” I asked, poking her in the ribs.

Bella rolled her eyes, and the tense atmosphere dissolved. I chuckled quietly, absently tracing designs against the back of her hand, until I came across a smooth, hard scar for the first time.

“That’s a funny scar you’ve got there,” I said, twisting her hand to examine it. “How did that happen?” I asked, following the long silvery crescent with my index finger.

Bella scowled. “Do you honestly expect me to remember where all my scars come from?”

“It’s cold,” I murmured, incredulous. It felt like how I imagined a marble statue might if it had been locked in a freezer overnight.

I was distracted a second later when Mike emerged stumbling from the bathroom, his shirt and face drenched with sweat. His skin was pale and slightly green. He looked like something from a better horror movie than the one playing in the theater.

“Oh, Mike,” Bella cooed, shifting into mother-hen mode.

“Do you mind leaving early?” He whispered, hamming it up.

“No, of course not,” she assured him, pulling her hand free and getting up to help Mike walk.

“Movie too much for you?” I asked viciously.

Anger was boiling up in me like lava, threatening to blow my head off in an eruption. I was momentarily surprised by how violent I felt all of a sudden, but I blamed it on the movie. If I was being honest, what really pissed me off was Mike’s smug look as Bella wrapped her arm under his shoulders, supporting his weight.

“I didn’t actually see any of it,” Mike mumbled at the ground. “I was nauseated before the lights went down.”

I wanted to scream. I wanted to kick something. I wanted to pound my fists on his face like a deranged gorilla. My thoughts turned vile with curses aimed at Newton and his stupidity. What was wrong with me? This wasn’t normal. The anger bubbled with unease, spinning turmoil in my gut. The feeling made me wonder if I was getting sick, too.

“Why didn’t you say something?” Bella scolded as they staggered toward the exit.

“I was hoping it would pass,” he whined.

I rolled my eyes, trying to swallow this sudden and unexpected surge of ferocity, then remembered the Rabbit.

My heart stopped for a moment, then picked back up in double time.

“Just a sec,” I exclaimed as we reached the door. I ran as fast as I could to the concession stand, probably freaking out the teenager with heavy eyeliner behind the counter.

“Could I have an empty popcorn bucket?” I asked breathlessly.

She glanced at Mike once, then thrust a bucket at me.

“Get him outside, please,” she begged.

I smiled sympathetically, just as worried as she was about having to clean up the mess.

Bella towed Mike outside. I heard her take in a sharp breath, buckling under his weight, so I grudgingly helped her get him into the back of the car, then handed him the bucket with a serious look.

“Please,” I begged, trying to convey how deeply I would beat him into the ground if he messed up the upholstery.

He nodded, eyes wide and afraid.

We rolled down the windows, hoping it would help Mike keep his stomach down. Bella curled into a ball with her arms around her legs, shivering.

“Cold again?” I asked, wrapping my arm around her shoulders before she could protest.

“You’re not?”

I shook my head.

“You must have a fever or something,” she grumbled, then touched her fingers to my forehead. “Whoa, Jake – you’re burning up!” She exclaimed.

“I feel fine,” I said honestly, shrugging. “Fit as a fiddle.”

She frowned and touched my head again.

“Your hands are like ice,” I complained.

“Maybe it’s me,” she allowed.

Mike groaned in the backseat, and I heard him heave into the bucket. I checked anxiously over my shoulder for any spray on my car while Bella grimaced, looking a little sick herself. I should have asked for another bucket.

Driving back took longer than I expected. I spent the time wondering about the seething, bubbling anger simmering below the surface. It didn’t really feel like anger, because I had no reason to be angry – it felt like something else, like my blood was reaching its boiling point. Maybe Bella was right, and I did have a fever.

I was thinking about our conversation at the movie theater, going over it in my head. I kept getting stuck on her scar. I couldn’t imagine what it might be from, but I had a feeling it was related to the Cullens. Maybe it was why they left.

I didn’t stumble on any revelations. I was too distracted by the odd feeling in my chest, like a ticking clock, counting down to something. Bella shuddered, and I tightened my arm around her, wondering if I should roll the windows back up.

Bella drove Mike home in the Suburban while I followed, then took Bella to her house in the Rabbit. We were quiet the whole way back. She seemed lost in thought. I was distracted by my stomach, which felt like it had suddenly become a swarm of bees.

“I would invite myself in, since we’re early,” I said as we pulled up next to the Chevy. “But I think you might be right about the fever. I’m starting to feel a little… strange.” I wasn’t sure how to describe this burning sensation prickling up my spine.

“Oh, no, not you, too!” She cried. “Do you want me to drive you home?”

“No,” I replied, shaking my head. My eyebrows joined together above my eyes. “I don’t feel sick yet. Just… wrong. If I have to, I’ll pull over.”

“Will you call me as soon as you get in?” She asked anxiously.

“Sure, sure,” I agreed noncommittally.

I stared out the windshield, biting my lip, trying to find the right words. For whatever reason, this impending separation felt more permanent than all our other goodbyes. The atmosphere around us had changed, pressing down like a storm. We balanced on a precipice, staring down a blank, empty future. I needed to make sure she knew what she meant to me; that I didn’t care if she was broken beyond repair, or that she didn’t love me back; she was still one of my best friends.

Bella stared to get out, but I grabbed her wrist lightly and held her there.

“What is it, Jake?” She asked, a crease forming between her eyebrows.

“There’s something I want to tell you, Bella… but I think it’s going to sound kind of corny.”

She sighed. “Go ahead,” she breathed, crossing her arms impatiently.

“It’s just that, I know you’re unhappy a lot. And, maybe it doesn’t help anything, but I wanted you to know that I’m always here. I won’t ever let you down – I promise that you can always count on me. Wow, that does sound corny. But you know that, right? That I would never, ever hurt you?”

Her eyes became less defensive, and her hard face melted into kindness. “Yeah, Jake,” she said softly, loosening her arms. “I know that. And I already do count on you, probably more than you know.”

My smile felt like it was cracking the defensive barrier between me and the festering feeling running through my bones. It was like lightning – a sharp crack in my skeleton. I didn’t want her around for the thunder.

“I really think I’d better go home now,” I whispered.

Bella got out quickly. “Call me!” She yelled as I pulled away.

I zoomed home, trying to think of a word that could describe this sort of feeling.

 

Chapter Text

XI

The closer I got to home, the more sure I became that something was wrong. There was a heat building up inside me, a blazing wildfire burning my flesh, flames lapping up higher and higher. I imagined I felt the same way a house did when it caught fire, an orange blaze licking at the open windows, trying to escape.

I stumbled up to the front door, wondering if I looked as bad as I felt. I almost ripped the door off its hinges when I opened it, pulling so hard it groaned like an old man getting off the couch. My vision got blurry and unfocused; I leaned over the kitchen sink, waiting for the ringing in my ears to stop.

“Jake?” Billy asked, rolling out of the living room. “What’s wrong, son?”

My neck snapped up painfully, and I raised my hand to rub the aching muscles. I turned too quickly, almost losing my balance. I couldn’t say anything. The muscles around my mouth weren’t listening to me anymore, though I screamed at them to move.

“You look weird,” Billy said, eyes wide.

That was all it took.

My vision turned red with the force of my anger. My entire body shook violently, burning like I’d been thrown onto a pyre. The volcano exploded in my chest, so insane with fury that I couldn’t make my body work right. The fire trembled down my spine, throwing tight spasms out along my arms and legs. Heat flooded through me, and my vision filled with a silvery shimmer for a second.

There was a thunderous crack as I fell onto the kitchen table, crushing it into splinters beneath me. My body contorted violently, ripping and shredding me apart. There was a tearing sound, along with the crunch of my bones as they broke under the strain.

At this point, I was half certain I was dead. It felt like my body had been raked over the coals, burned to a crisp. The other half of me was wild – completely feral. No coherent thoughts ran through my mind; just flashes of color and instinct.

My train of thought returned with the realization that I had become something else. I looked down and saw two heavy paws where my feet should have been, scratching up the linoleum. My back stretched in one long, rolling extension, shaking against the counter.

I did not recognize the man in front of me; I’d never seen my father’s face in such raw dimensions, nor had I seen it so in-focus. He was no one, just another obstacle in this cramped space. I prepared to leap at him and rip out his throat, but confusion made me slow, so I didn’t jump at his neck immediately.

First, I had to figure out what the hell was going on.

My thoughts spun wildly, taking in every inch of the room. It should have been familiar, but there was no recognition for the home I once knew. I couldn’t even remember myself, let alone my family, or any of my friends. The present moment was crystal clear, etched in my brain like a wood carving, but no other thoughts made themselves known besides the vicious anger and crippling fear. I caught a glimpse of myself in the window, and my mouth opened to scream, but instead a snarl ripped through my throat. I watched as the enormous, over-sized wolf growled back at me, murder in its eyes.

So, I’d finally gone nuts.

This thought sent an image flashing in front of my eyes; a girl, eyes empty and dead, body pale and spindly, like an apparition that would disappear at any moment. Her shoulders were hunched forward, thick brown hair hanging like a curtain halfway down to her waist. Bella, her name popped up in my mind, unaccompanied by the sting of rage.

Hanging out with crazy Bella so much was bound to rub off on me eventually. Maybe our parents would take us to the same mental institution. We could make macaroni art together on the weekends.

What caused the snap? I wasn’t upset – I was happy. I’d finally made my intentions clear with Bella, and she still wanted to be my friend. I should have been overjoyed.

Why was I so angry?

There was bloodlust in me; something I’d never felt before. Sure, I’d gotten mad at people, even managed my way into a couple fights, but this was entirely different. A furious hatred welled up in my chest, enough to set my teeth on edge against another growl. My eyes scanned the room for a target, something I could take out my anger on, then finally settled on the weak, small man sitting in the doorway.

We stood there, faces inches apart in the tiny kitchen, both of our eyes wide and shocked, until I heard a familiar voice. My ears perked up, and I swiveled my head around to look for where it came from.

Don’t freak out, Sam’s voice echoed crystal clear in my ears.

I scratched at the floor, whining. Where was he? What was he doing here?

Then, another voice I recognized sounded off in the back of my head, and I realized I could see something other than the kitchen in front of me.

Good advice, Embry snickered, running through a part of the forest I knew. It was where the one-ten ended, east of the trail. Impossible to follow, he continued, but, still, a good idea.

Hello? I thought, muscles still tense as though preparing to spring. Embry? Sam?

Hey, Jake! Embry greeted enthusiastically. You finally decided to show up, eh?

What the hell is going on? I growled, surprised when the sound reverberated in my chest with a wild, animalistic quality.

The important part is not to panic, Sam instructed. Get outside.

My shoulders rolled in an unfamiliar way as I hesitantly lifted one paw and dropped it a foot in front of me, trying not to focus on the fur covering what used to be my right arm.

I jumped when the phone rang. It sounded different than normal; too high, almost shrill, like a bad opera singer trying to break glass with their voice. I growled instinctually, and was about to rip it off the wall, when whoever it was hung up.

Okay, Sam said. Now, keep moving. Try to get out of the house without breaking anything else.

Good luck, Embry chortled.

You still haven’t explained anything, I griped.

Oh, but you already know, Sam replied. Billy’s been telling you the legends for years.

I paused. Suddenly, I remembered who I was. I felt sick when I realized the man I had just been about to rip apart was my own father, the man who I’d taken care of most of my life. I shuddered in disgust. The monster stared back at me from the dark window, eyes dark and cruel.

I sensed the others’ surprise – they hadn’t expected me to adjust so quickly to being a wolf. It had taken them days, weeks even, to understand they hadn’t completely lost their sanity. As the memories flooded through both Sam and Embry of the first time they’d shifted, and the legends passed from them to me, I finally understood.

I was no longer just a teenage boy.

I was a teenage werewolf.

Oh, crap! I thought, stamping my foot on the ground stubbornly. Is this why puberty hurt like a bitch?

Embry laughed, slowing his run to a light jog, then leaned his chest to the ground in a long stretch.

Yeah, Sam chuckled along with him. Werewolf puberty, I guess.

The word didn’t give them as much trouble as it gave me. I flinched at the casual mention of what was just thrust upon me.

It’s not as bad as it seems, Embry assured me weakly. I could tell he only half meant it.

Am I, like, reading your minds? I asked.

Yes, Sam answered. And we’re reading yours.

WHAT?!

There really was no reason to be so shocked. It wasn’t like I hadn’t already guessed as much, but it felt like such a gross invasion of privacy… They would have gone nuts by now, constantly hearing each other’s thoughts…

Only in wolf form, Sam corrected. And it can be annoying, but useful when we need to strategize.

Strategize? I asked. What –

I couldn’t even get the word out. Before Sam had time to think, I had already connected the dots.

Vampires.

If the wolf legends were real – and I could no longer doubt them when I had the evidence right in front of me – then the other stories must also be true.

The Cullens were vampires.

And somehow, Bella knew. I didn’t need to read Sam’s mind to know that. It was obvious, now, why she had asked me to tell her the stories on the beach. I had been used for information, like a spy, unwittingly trading knowledge to the enemies. And after they left, when she fell apart, the dead look in her eyes now made sense.

Because she had loved them, anyway.

If there was no absolute truth in this world – if legends could be real and facts could be proved wrong – then there was still one thing I knew from the tip of my toes to the part in my hair; knew in the pit of my stomach and the marrow of my bones; I knew how love had the power to blind you. My whole relationship with her was proof enough that there was nothing that could make me stop loving her. Even now, when I knew she had used me, I wasn’t angry with her – though I seemed to be angry at everything else.

The only explanation I could think of for how she could love them was that she had been bewitched. Her face pressed against Edward’s chest at prom flashed in front of my eyes. She’d looked peaceful, content.

The same way I felt with her.

She didn’t have a choice in loving him, either.

Just like I didn’t have a choice becoming a werewolf.

My shoulders slumped in defeat.

The phone rang again. My head snapped up to look at it, remembering a promise I’d made, among others, to call when I got home safe. Bella was probably about to drive down and kick the door in.

You told her WHAT? Sam roared in my head.

I flinched, unwillingly remembering the day I met Bella on the beach. I didn’t know the stories were real. I was just trying to impress her…

Billy reached for the phone on the eighth ring, recovering the use of his arms now that I wasn’t baring my incisors at him.

“Hello?” He asked warily.

I could hear the buzz of Bella’s voice on the other end like a bug flying around my head.

“Billy, it’s me, Bella – ” she began, her voice panicked. “Did Jake make it home yet? He left here about twenty minutes ago.”

“He’s here,” Billy said in a flat voice, eyeing me up and down.

“He was supposed to call me,” she insisted, irritated. “He was getting sick when he left, and I was worried.”

“He was…” Billy hesitated, eyes wide. “Too sick to call. He’s not feeling well right now.” He continued, eyes falling to the destroyed table beneath me.

“Let me know if you need any help,” she offered hopefully. “I could come down.”

“No, no,” Billy said quickly, voice edging on hysteria. “We’re fine. Stay at your place.” It sounded like an order.

“Okay,” she agreed slowly, drawing out the word and painting it with doubt.

“Bye, Bella,” Billy replied, rolling over to slam the phone back on the wall.

As soon as he was out of the way, I ran through the entrance to the living room and out the back door. It broke off when I ripped through it, but I didn’t care.

Oh, hell, Embry was defending me from Sam. You can’t be mad at him. He didn’t know! None of us did.

You didn’t run your mouth about it, though, Sam retorted, headed for a spot in the forest about a hundred yards behind my house. Jacob, how could you be so careless?

I didn’t know! I whined, racing towards him. It doesn’t matter. Bella would never tell anyone. And if she did, no one would believe her. Everyone knows she went nuts when the Cullens left.

Yes, she was deeply hurt by them, Sam agreed, remembering the night he found her in the woods.

I winced at the memory. She was damp and cold, practically lifeless, eyes fixed on blank space. Her body hung limp and loose in Sam’s arms. Mud was matted in her hair and streaked against her face, though her skin seemed to glow in the darkness.

Now there was no way I could be mad at her. Not after seeing that.

But why…? I trailed off, already hearing the answer.

The Cullens came back, Sam explained anyway. They triggered the change. With so many vampires, we’ve had more wolves than ever… He slipped off into his thoughts, no longer bothering to put words with them.

I followed along while he explained through his memories. Sam, Embry, and I met in a small clearing lined with moss and carpeted in wet, sticky ferns. Normally the woods would have been pitch black at this time of night, but I had night-vision now, so I could see the other wolves with perfect clarity.

Sam was pitch black and the size of a Clydesdale, but thicker and more muscular, though I noticed with satisfaction that he wasn’t as big as I was. He explained how I was the rightful Alpha, and I immediately shot down the idea. I couldn’t be in charge; besides, Sam was older, and had been doing this longer than I had. I wasn’t about to stage a coup.

Embry was slim and sleek, with silver, black-spotted fur. He filled me in on how the only three men who could have passed on the gene to him were all married at the time, and he was most likely Sam’s half-brother. They both liked the idea of being family, but there was still doubt, since nobody knew who Embry’s father was.

I learned about imprints, got a run-down on how some random vampire was picking off hikers, and practiced some of the pack lingo. I interjected at times with my own thoughts, and Embry chimed in with his, but it wasn’t crowded until Paul and Jared showed up.

Hey, Jacob, Jared greeted. He’d just dropped Kim off at her house, and was savoring the taste of her lips on his.

Ugh, Paul groaned. Keep it in your pants, lover-boy.

Uh, hey, I greeted, uncomfortable.

Yeah, we know all your secrets now. But at least you know all of ours, Paul joked.

Your secrets aren’t very interesting, I quipped.

Hate to break it to you, Jared interjected, but neither of your minds are churning out anything brilliant.

Don’t worry about it, Jake, Embry said in an aside. We keep each other’s secrets.

I missed you, man, I thought.

Me, too, he sighed. And Quil.

We all paused at the reminder. It dawned on me that Quil was probably going to shift, too. He’d sprung up just like the rest of us.

Why don’t we warn him? I asked, turning to look at Sam.

We are bound to secrecy. Sam informed me. Only council members know, and a select few… he trailed off, considering the strange force of his imprint bond. He shook his head and continued. It’s need to know only, Jake.

But he will know soon enough, I insisted. We can’t give him a fair warning? That’s so stupid!

We don’t know that Quil will shift. The Cullens have been gone for more than six months, and it has to stop eventually, Jared responded hopefully.

You will not explain any of this to Bella, Sam ordered quickly, his voice holding the force of an order I couldn’t ignore.

My knees buckled under the weight of his injunction. I hadn’t even realized what I’d been planning to do, since it seemed so obvious that I would tell Bella everything.

No, I can’t do that, I whined, paws scratching the ground beneath me.

You will do exactly that, Sam decreed, his voice taking on the double timbre of the Alpha. Bella can’t know about us. It would be a liability.

Liability, I scoffed, and my knees trembled against the pressure on my shoulders. I felt the pull to follow orders; after all, it would be irresponsible to expose this secret to the world. But hadn’t Bella kept the Cullens’ secret well enough? She’d dated one of them, too. Maybe she would be more into me if –

My thoughts cut off immediately. I gagged against the sudden spasm in my throat.

I can’t – I choked – I can’t even think about it, I realized, amazed. What the hell, Sam? What did you just do to me?

I did what I had to, Sam said evenly, though not without remorse. Bella can’t know any of this. She’s had enough supernatural influence. Let her live a normal life, Jacob. It’s what she deserves.

I fought against the order with all the force of my vicious anger. I paced in the woods behind her house, panting and whimpering, trying to get the weight off my shoulders. Nothing worked, and my frustration grew until I finally fell with a thud on the forest floor, the breath banging out of my lungs in a huff.

That was the night I learned no member of the pack can refuse the Alpha.

 

 

The next night was much, much worse.

After getting updated, Paul and Jared phased back into humans while Embry and Sam ran patrol. I was invited to go with them, but declined, preferring to sulk as the sun began its climb over the mountains.

I still couldn’t bear to go home. I didn’t want to deal with Billy right now; so I moped on the edge of a cliff-face bordering the ocean. The steady tug and pull of the waves was calming, like a lullaby, and I was tired after straining so hard against Sam’s edict. The heavy dawn air clung to me, like it felt the weight of my grief. Overwhelmed by the barrage of thoughts drilling holes in my skull, I closed my eyes and let a tear fall down my nose. When sleep came, I welcomed it with relief.

I woke up when it was dark again. Sam was laid up beside me on the cliff, his head held high and regal, fur waving gently in the light breeze blowing off the tide.

Wolves are nocturnal, he said. You’ll have to adjust your sleep schedule to go back to school.

Hmm, I replied, only half-awake.

Go home to Billy, Sam urged.

Or what? You’ll make me?

No, Sam replied, sorrow tinting his thoughts. I saw myself in his eyes; a lovesick kid, scowling at the ocean like it had caused all my problems.

I won’t take away your free will, Sam added. If you don’t want to be part of the pack, you don’t have to be. But would you leave Bella unprotected?

No, I growled, the hair on the back of my neck standing at attention.

Then fight with us, Sam pleaded. Be a protector, Jacob. You don’t have to be a monster.

I don’t want to be a monster, I whined. My choice was already made for me, so it didn’t really matter what I wanted, but I tried not to dwell on that while Sam was listening.

There’s something else we need to talk about, while it’s just us, Sam continued. It’s about being an Alpha.

I grimaced, lips pulling back from my teeth. I don’t care about that. Why should it matter who my great-grandfather was? You’re better at this than I could ever be.

It’s about the responsibilities that come with it, he said, pretending not to hear me. You may not like what I have to do, but if you really believe I lead better than you would, then you need to let me. I can’t let you run off and tell your girlfriend everything, not because I think Bella will sell the story to the Washington Post, Sam rolled his eyes. It’s because of Emily.

Emily?

Yes. His tone was somber, despair tainting his thoughts. And Leah, too. You remember?

Sure, sure, I agreed, urging him to continue.

I loved Leah, too, Sam confessed. I still do. I broke every promise I ever made to her. It haunts me to this day, even though Emily is everything I would have asked for if I’d known myself well enough.

She could be my Emily, I insisted.

And if she is, you’ll tell her. But it’s not safe for you to be around her right now.

What’s that supposed to mean? I growled.

Sam raised his eyebrows as if I was making his point for him. Do you remember when you shifted?

I didn’t want the reminder. I stared back at the ocean, trying not to see my scowl through his eyes.

You could do that around her. Emily knows all too well… his thoughts trailed off with remorse.

Don’t cry, I begged. I couldn’t handle him losing it on me.

I’m not, he said defensively.

Already, I had begun to depend on Sam. I trusted his logic. How could I not, when I heard all his thoughts? I knew it hurt him to see me suffering, and I understood why he didn’t want me to see Bella.

But he didn’t know her. He should have known she wouldn’t let me go without putting up a fight. And from what I knew about her, I was looking forward to seeing it.

I didn’t realize how true my prediction was.

 

Chapter Text

XII

I spent the night running patrol with Sam and learning the ropes. It was strangely easy to fall into being a wolf; animals were much simpler than humans. The woods were alive at night; owls hooted in the distance, deer scurried away in skittish hops, and crickets rubbed their legs together in sweet music. I found myself looking over my shoulder for Bella, half expecting her to be there stumbling through the underbrush, and got disappointed when she wasn’t.

I finally went home when the stars faded against a lightening night sky. I was bone-tired, looking forward to falling head-first into my bed and not surfacing until Billy dragged me off by the ankles.

Billy was sitting on the porch in his bathrobe with a mug of steaming coffee in one hand and a cigarette in the other. He only ever smoked twice a day; once when he woke up in the morning and once before bed at night. He started after my mother died, to my sisters’ dismay, and no matter how much they hounded him he refused to give it up.

I listened for cars nearby. The house was mostly invisible from the road, buried behind tall pine trees seeping with moisture. But there were neighbors, and in a town this small gossip flew faster than you could dial a phone, so I had to be careful.

Sam told me how to shift back, and prepared me for the pain, but he failed to mention how naked I would be. He must have thought it was obvious. I waddled out of the forest with my hands trying to cover my unmentionables.

Billy cackled when he caught sight of me. I hadn’t heard him laugh so hard in months. Was he relieved now that I knew the secret? The idea left a bitter taste in my mouth.

He tossed me a pair of basketball shorts from the laundry pile in my room.

“Embry called,” he said as an explanation, still catching his breath and wiping a tear from his eye. 

I scowled. “Of course,” I muttered, pulling on the shorts. 

The back door had been re-attached to the frame, but I didn’t expect the extent of my new werewolf strength. When I went inside, I ripped it off the hinges with hardly a tug, the metal grinding and moaning in protest.

I groaned.

It only took me fifteen minutes to fix, but Billy’s eyes watched the whole time, so it felt like an hour. I ignored him completely, pretending he wasn’t there, trying to focus on something I could do.

When the door was hanging in its proper place, I trudged back inside and plopped on the couch. I didn’t look up when Billy’s chair creaked up beside the armrest, too tired to acknowledge anything besides the back of my eyelids.

“Jacob,” he began, then paused, waiting for a response.

He could keep waiting for all I cared.

“Jacob,” he repeated. “I’m sorry, son, but I couldn’t tell you.”

“Why?” I asked, voice hoarse. I realized with a sudden shock that there were tears in my eyes. I blinked them away, grimacing.

“Would you have believed me?” Billy countered.

“No,” I admitted in a defeated tone.

“Would it have made any difference?”

I sighed. “S’pose not.” A moment later, I added, “But I would’ve appreciated a heads-up.”

The phone rang, shrill and insistent, from the kitchen. My arms were long enough now that I could reach it from where I was sitting if I leaned over the back of the couch. I picked up the phone on the second ring.

“Hello?” I asked, voice cracking.

“Oh, Jake,” Bella groaned sympathetically through the receiver. “You sound horrible.”

My eyes were half-closed in exhaustion, but they shot open when I heard her voice. Sam’s edict slammed down onto my shoulders like a brick wall. My muscles buckled under the weight, trying to hold myself up.

“I feel horrible,” I whispered. I waved Billy away, but he kept his patient eyes fixed on my face, listening to the conversation. Probably taking notes to tell Sam later.

“I’m so sorry I made you go out with me,” Bella lamented. “This sucks.”

“I’m glad I went,” I murmured honestly.

If anything, the movie was the one thing I did right that fateful night. It felt like years rather than days had passed since then – like I’d gone through seven years of my life in two nights.

“Don’t blame yourself. This isn’t your fault,” I added quickly, hoping she heard the double meaning in my words.

“You’ll get better soon,” she promised. “I woke up this morning, and I was fine.”

“You were sick?” I asked dully. At least she hadn’t driven herself crazy yesterday when I was nowhere to be found.

“Yes, I got it, too. But I’m fine now.”

“That’s good,” I answered, but my voice was flat and dead. She would see right through me.

“So, you’ll probably be better in a few hours,” she encouraged. I sensed she was trying to plan a visit, but I couldn’t let that happen.

“I don’t think I have the same thing you did,” I murmured, closing my eyes and breathing in through my nose. The phone started shaking against my ear, and it took me a minute to realize it was because my arm was nearly vibrating.

“Don’t you have the stomach flu?” She asked, confused.

“No. This is something else.”

“What’s wrong with you?”

“Everything,” I whispered, letting sorrow drench my words. “Every part of me hurts.”

Every inch of me was protesting against Sam’s order. I had to tell her. It wouldn’t feel real until I did. My mouth begged to form the words, but I couldn’t. My throat closed up just thinking about it.

“What can I do, Jake?” She begged desperately. “What can I bring you?”

“Nothing. You can’t come here,” I said quickly. My legs were quaking so hard the couch shook beneath me.

“I’ve already been exposed to whatever you have,” she insisted.

I ignored her, focusing on my breath so I didn’t rip into a wolf on Billy’s couch. “I’ll call you when I can. I’ll let you know when you can come down again.”

“Jacob – ”

“I’ve got to go,” I interrupted.

I couldn’t hold my body in the right form. The heat from my anger was stiffening my muscles and crackling along my spine, waiting for the sparks to set off the explosion that would turn me into a wolf.

“Call me when you feel better,” she pleaded.

“Right,” I agreed, knowing full well I wouldn’t be feeling better any time soon.

I refused to hang up. She was still on the other end, and this felt too much like goodbye. She waited, too, until the silence stretched long enough to cover the distance between us and became awkward. I wondered what her face looked like now. Imagining how the crease between her eyebrows would deepen as she studied my face imploringly sent a stab of pain into my chest.

“I’ll see you soon,” she finally said.

“Wait for me to call,” I repeated, trying to make it sound like a warning.

“Okay…” she trailed off, only half-agreeing. “Bye, Jacob.”

I couldn’t say the word.

I wouldn’t say the word.

I had promises to keep, and so help me, I would fulfill them.

“Bella,” I whispered longingly, wishing the last two nights had never happened, then hung up the phone.

Chapter Text

XIII

I didn’t call Bella.

She called again towards the end of the day, waking me up. I laid sprawled out on my bed, feet and hands touching the floor, while Billy talked to her.

I could hear her end of the conversation, too, if I focused. I had super-hearing now, which was something to add to the list of things I was not allowed to tell Bella. I was beginning to think it would be easier to make a list of things I could say to her, but that was too depressing.

“He’s still in bed,” Billy said carelessly, almost bored.

“Did you take him to see a doctor?” She asked suspiciously.

“Of course,” Billy replied, annoyed. “He needs to rest, Bella.”

She called several times a day for the next two days, until finally, after ignoring the panicked ring for two hours straight, Billy pulled the cord out of the wall.

Billy and Harry went fishing on Saturday, and I spent the day as a wolf. When I ran past my house around one in the afternoon I smelled the rust and burning oil smell of the old Chevy, and a faint trail of lavender. It wasn’t hard to put two and two together. Bella had stopped by, despite me specifically telling her not to. My suspicions were confirmed when Harry called to tell Billy that Charlie had been asking questions on Bella’s behalf.

“Harry told him you had mono,” Billy laughed. “The kissing disease!” He hollered, slapping his knee.

I scowled and skulked out of the house, transforming into a wolf mid-stride on the grass.

I was getting better with control. Sam was impressed. They all figured it was because I had the gene on both sides, like a super-wolf, but I didn’t look at it that way. I focused on control more than any of them because it was the only way I could see Bella again.

I was getting better at being a wolf and worse at being a human. I barely did anything in the house besides sleep and eat, and when I could, I did most of my eating at Emily’s house.

Emily was a busy person who was never content to sit and relax, which was a good thing, since she had five werewolves coming and going at all hours. I passed out on her couch more times than I care to admit, and ate all three meals there most days. Plus snacks. Emily made the best snacks.

All of us but Sam got into the habit of calling her “Mom,” and she beamed at us with pride every time without fail. I liked Emily, though I could have done without Sam’s constant praising.

I was settling into the pack, though I was still bitter about Bella. It felt like an invisible cord tugging at my heart, pulling me to Forks with every beat. I was miserable and sullen without her, nothing like myself. I came to the conclusion that a part of me had been given to her, and the only way to get it back was to see her again.

It didn’t matter if she didn’t feel the same way. I didn’t care if we were just friends. I would take whatever shred of peace she could offer.

Sometimes I wondered whether or not she would even accept me being a werewolf, if I ever found a way to tell her. She didn’t seem to have a problem with the Cullens being leeches, but Bella often acted irrationally. I doubted she would be cool hanging out with a guy who couldn’t stop himself from bursting into a wolf every time he lost his temper.

On Friday, we got another whiff of the bloodsucker who had been snatching up hikers in the woods near La Push, and the whole pack followed the trail into the Hoh River, where it was lost in the water. I growled and sliced at the river, trying to imagine my claws were digging into the leeches’ skin instead of splashing myself.

Eventually, Sam sent me home. I traded off with Jared and Paul, meeting them in the parking lot of the corner store after the clouds had lightened to a silvery gray. I waved and ran over to them, but they didn’t look pleased to see me.

“What’s up, guys?” I asked, cocking my head to the side.

“You know what,” Paul spat.

I rolled my eyes. “PMS?”

“Jake, quit it,” Jared warned.

“You” – Paul’s pointer finger poked my chest – “have got to stop thinking about Bella Swan.”

“Huh?” I squinted, pushing his finger away.

Jared tried to hide his laugh with a fake cough. “Ahem. Paul had a dream last night.”

“You’ve got me lusting over this leech-lover – ” Paul began fervently.

“Listen,” I commanded, holding up my hands in surrender. “I can’t help it.”

Paul rolled his eyes. “Oh, right. I forgot. You can’t help it. You’ve loved her forever and ever and you’ll love her for the rest of your life, blah, blah, blah.” He threw his arms up in exasperation. “You think no one’s ever had a goddamn crush before? What makes you so special?”

A car honked from the road. I didn’t turn to see who it was.

I bristled. “If you’re looking for a fight, you’ll get one,” I promised. “You don’t have to provoke me.”

“I do that part for your own sake,” Paul scoffed, pushing my shoulder away.

So much for going home to sleep.

Paul and I ran off into the forest to shift and duke it out. You could always count on Paul to give you a good snarling, ripping, knock-the-trees-down kind of fight when you most needed it. His fuse wasn’t hard to set off, and it was short. Not a good combination in a werewolf.

I needed to fight – though my muscles were sore and my eyelids were heavy – because I couldn’t go home yet. My instincts were in overdrive with a vampire so close, since I was one of the few who were in charge of stopping it. Someone had to do the dirty work around here.

The fight ended – in fact, most of my coherent thoughts broke off – when Sam caught a whiff of Bella’s scent in the woods near where the one-ten ends.

I ran at the speed of light, catching up to her quickly. She had her nose buried in the worn map, and she kept glancing at the compass, but she was going the right way. I followed parallel about a hundred yards west, slinking noiselessly in the fronds.

Does she really need a bodyguard? Embry asked, annoyed. We should be looking for the bloodsucker.

A low growl rumbled in the back of my throat, scaring a field mouse and sending it scuttling off through the ferns.

Calm down, Jake, Sam reminded me. Keep an eye on her. The woods aren’t safe right now. Charlie must’ve warned her already, he was at the crime scene this morning…

She’s a rebel, I replied, lips curling into a sarcastic smile.

Bella had gotten much faster since our first hiking trip. She moved at an even pace, her breathing settling into a natural, hypnotic rhythm. I crept closer, still about fifty yards away, so I could watch her face.

The crease between her eyebrows was deeper than I’d ever seen it, and she looked sickly pale in the thin, green-tinted sunlight slanting through the vines. I knew immediately that she was in pain, and it made my chest ache like someone had punctured one of my lungs, letting all the air out like a deflated balloon.

It’s not your fault, Embry said reassuringly, though his words held no comfort for me.

I knew Bella better than they did. She was not the kind of girl who should be left to her own devices; she was tearing at the seams. I whined, the sound breaking out of my chest like a sob, and the guys politely ignored it.

I wasn’t surprised when she barreled into the meadow with a shocked slant to her mouth. I’d already found the perfectly symmetrical clearing nestled deep in the forest while on patrol, and so I knew she would stumble on it if she kept to the grid. I was proud of myself for half a second, then my heart plummeted when I saw her reaction.

She balled herself up on the ground, curled around the tall, thick grass that waved in the light breeze like ripples on a lake. Her fingers dug into her sides as she gasped for air, like she was trying to hold herself together. I understood more than I wanted to.

Embry appeared beside me. C’mon, man, let’s get outta here.

No, I responded resolutely.

She’s leaving anyway, Jared added, coming up on Embry’s other side.

He was right. Bella was pushing herself up from the ground weakly, like she’d been struck down by a mighty blow.

NO! I roared.

The wind had shifted, and now I could smell the sickly-sweet scent of a bloodsucker close by.

Smelling it meant we only had seconds. Half a second later, we could hear it – the soft, hollow footfalls that no living thing ever made.

Paul was already foaming at the mouth. Sam dug his heels into the dirt like it was play-doh and turned with a flourish, arriving just as the leech appeared on the opposite side of the meadow.

My muscles reacted instinctually, coiling up tight like snakes getting ready to strike, when Sam gave the order.

Wait, he said with his double-edged Alpha voice. The order cut through me like a knife and my body froze just as I was about to lunge for the vampire’s neck.

She recognizes him, Sam added incredulously.

I couldn’t argue. Her face had gone smooth with shock, then her lips turned up in a polite smile.

“Laurent!” She cried in surprised pleasure.

I was stunned past surprise. I was numb, waiting for the next twist of the knife in my chest.

Jacob, stand down, Sam instructed, this time in his normal voice. It could be one of the Cullens.

Look at the eyes, I rumbled, haunches low in a crouch. They’re red. That means it eats humans, right?

We don’t know that yet, Sam argued stubbornly.

I’m not about to find out!

She might not like it if you kill her friend, Embry added quietly, already crouching, hidden in the brush like the rest of the pack.

“Bella?” The vampire asked in an astonished, musical voice.

“You remember,” she answered, a friendly smile lighting up her face.

See? Sam asked me pointedly.

We were bordering the meadow, lined up in a V formation less than twenty yards away. I kept crawling closer, trying to keep my eyes on Bella.

If he makes so much as one step in the wrong direction… I trailed off, letting my imagination run wild.

Shh, Paul hushed me. I wanna hear.

The black-haired leech grinned and strolled forward, his stony face bemused.

“I didn’t expect to see you here,” he commented, as if talking about the weather.

“Isn’t it the other way around? I do live here. I thought you’d gone to Alaska.”

He stopped ten feet away, cocking his head to the side like he was deconstructing a confusing sculpture at a modern art museum. Bella was intently focused on him, an odd air of release rolling off her shoulders.

“You’re right,” he confirmed. “I did go to Alaska. Still, I didn’t expect… When I found the Cullen place empty, I thought they’d moved on.”

I expected her reaction this time. “Oh,” she moaned, biting her lip. She clutched at her sides, face twisted in pain. “They did move on,” she choked.

“Hmm,” he murmured. “I’m surprised they left you behind. Weren’t you sort of a pet of theirs?” He asked innocently.

I nearly blew the whole thing then. My mouth opened to let loose a feral snarl, but my breath caught when Sam exerted his control.

QUIET!

Bella smiled wryly, like she was holding back tears. “Something like that.”

“Hmm,” the bloodsucker hummed thoughtfully.

Bella noticed something then. Maybe it was the sharp teeth glittering against his polite smile, or his bright, blood-red eyes, but it didn’t matter. She winced, then took a shaky step backwards, eyes wide and mouth open in shock.

Slobber dribbled from my muzzle as my mouth watered at the thought of ripping the leeches’ head off.

Stay down, Jacob, Sam ordered, leaving no room for debate.

I shifted away from Sam so I was at the very edge of our formation, closest to Bella. If Sam refused to do anything, I would block an attack.

We won’t let it get that far. He might not attack.

What does it matter? I argued. It’s the same smell from the campsite. We know he killed on our lands. Why are we hesitating?

We do not risk being seen unless provoked, Sam growled back. Trust me, you don’t want her to watch you rip apart a vampire.

“Do they visit often?” The bloodsucker asked casually, shifting his weight forward towards Bella.

Bella jumped like a startled fawn, then lifted her chin in defiance.

“Now and again,” she lied. I didn’t like the way my earlier assumption – that she couldn’t lie to save her life – was being proven. “The time seems longer to me, I imagine. You know how they get distracted…” she trailed off, biting her lip as if she knew he wouldn’t believe her.

“Hmm,” the vampire said again.

Does this guy say anything else? Embry asked rhetorically.

“The house smelled like it had been vacant for a while…” The vampire continued, a dark smile twisting his face.

“I’ll have to mention to Carlisle that you stopped by. He’ll be sorry they missed your visit.” She pressed her finger to her chin in an imitation of deep thought. “But I probably shouldn’t mention it to… Edward, I suppose” – she winced, face twisted in pain, then continued – “he has such a temper… well, I’m sure you remember. He’s still touchy about the whole James thing.”

She rolled her eyes exaggeratedly and waved her hand like she was pushing the idea out of her way, but her voice had gotten high and anxious, and the nonchalant pretense slid away like mud in a river.

“Is he really?” The leech asked, his voice turning up in skepticism.

“Mm-hmm,” Bella hummed, chewing on her top lip nervously.

The vampire was much more at ease. He took a casual step to the side, gazing around the little meadow speculatively, bringing himself closer to Bella so inconspicuously I wasn’t sure she noticed.

“So, how are things working out in Denali? Carlisle said you were staying with Tanya?” Bella chirped, voice cracking on the last word.

The leech paused, freezing so completely it creeped me out. Not only was his smell revolting, but everything about him was off. Alien. Unnatural.

“I like Tanya very much,” he said thoughtfully. “And her sister Irina even more… I’ve never stayed in one place for so long before, and I enjoy the advantages, the novelty of it. But, the restrictions are difficult… I’m surprised that any of them can keep it up for long.” He smiled conspiratorially. “Sometimes I cheat.”

Bella made a choking sound in the back of her throat and my legs tensed.

“Oh,” she said faintly. “Jasper has problems with that, too.”

Why isn’t she running? Someone asked, but I was too focused to notice who.

“Really?” The bloodsucker asked, as if he were really interested. “Is that why they left?”

“No,” she answered quickly. “Jasper is more careful at home.”

“Yes,” he agreed. “I am, too.”

The vampire took a hauntingly fast step forward, and I was practically vibrating with expectation.

“Did Victoria ever find you?” She asked in a rushed, breathless voice. Her desperation made it clear that she knew he was going to kill her – then why did she stay? Why didn’t she run?

The vampire froze again. I held back the snarl twitching my upper lip.

“Yes,” he said, his lips the only part of him moving. “I actually came here as a favor to her.” The leech grimaced. “She won’t be happy about this.”

“About what?” Bella asked eagerly, urging him to keep talking.

She keeps dragging this out, Paul complained.

Quit stalling! Let’s get him, Embry encouraged.

Wait, Sam ordered.

The vampire was glaring into the trees on the other side of the meadow, back turned to us. It would be easy to leap while he was distracted, take him out quickly – but Sam had given an order. I could not fight the heaviness in my limbs.

Bella took a hesitant, shaky step back and the bloodsucker turned, an amused smile dancing on his lips.

“About me killing you,” he purred.

Bella staggered back another step, and my eyes widened.

Did you hear that?! I exclaimed in my head. Why aren’t we killing him yet?

Sam chomped his teeth together audibly. We wait until she runs.

I only half-heard the rest of their conversation after the vampire confirmed his plan to kill her. I didn’t think it mattered, and my ears were ringing with rage. My whole vision clouded over in red, hot anger, threatening to boil me alive. The rest of the pack weren’t listening anymore either, since the leech had stopped making sense. He was throwing around too many names I didn’t know, his voice hissing like a snake. The pack was rumbling in our heads, getting ready to attack, waiting for the order that would end this disgusting leech’s despicably long life.

I tried to understand the spiraling voices, following the curling pathway to their inevitable end.

Protect the tribe.

Protect our families.

No time to waste, Jared thought.

We’re ready, Paul insisted.

The conversation continued in the clearing, though none of us followed it closely. The words buzzed in my ears, an unrecognizable jumble of sounds lost in the torrent of thoughts bombarding me. Time stood still; we could have been waiting seconds or days for all I knew, but I snapped out of it when Bella’s face twisted in horror and fear, like she was being torn in half.

I clenched my teeth together, blocking out the noises in my head and focusing on the space between the two figures in the meadow.

The bloodsucker shifted his weight slightly, and Bella stumbled another step back.

He frowned. “I suppose she’ll be angry, all the same,” he said.

I didn’t wonder who he was talking about. It didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was the fear on Bella’s face.

“Then why not wait for her?” She choked, her chin raising as she tried to swallow.

A mischievous grin widened his sinister cheeks. “Well, you’ve caught me at a bad time, Bella. I didn’t come to this place on Victoria’s mission – I was hunting. I’m quite thirsty, and you do smell… simply mouthwatering,” he said, as if it was a compliment.

The ride back from the woods after our first hiking trip flashed across my eyes.

I bet you’d taste good…

“He’ll know it was you,” she whispered bleakly. “You won’t get away with this.”

“And why not?” The vampire’s smile widened, his sharp teeth glinting ominously. His eyes rounded the meadow. “The scent will wash away with the next rain. No one will find your body – you’ll simply go missing, like so many, many other humans. There’s no reason for Edward to think of me, if he cares enough to investigate. This is nothing personal, let me assure you, Bella. Just thirst.”

“Please,” Bella gasped.

It felt like she was talking to me.

“Look at it this way, Bella. You’re very lucky I was the one to find you.”

“Am I?” She mouthed, barely making any sound.

She momentarily lost her balance on a branch when she took another hurried step backwards. The vampire moved with her, like a deathly dance.

“Yes,” he assured her in a velvety hiss. “I’ll be very quick. You won’t feel a thing, I promise. Oh, I’ll lie to Victoria about that later, naturally, just to placate her. But if you knew what she had planned for you, Bella…” He trailed off, shaking his head slowly, as if this offended him. “I swear you’d be thanking me for this.”

She stared back at him with a horrified expression.

The vampire sniffed as the breeze blew the small flyaway hairs framing Bella’s face in his direction.

The pack tensed.

This was what we had been waiting for.

One of the things passed down to us through the ancient legends was how alike the cold ones were with sharks. The scent of blood lures them from far away, drives them into a frenzy. I prepared to leap out and defend Bella.

“Mouthwatering,” it repeated, inhaling deeply.

Bella cringed away, eyes squinted shut. Her mouth moved as if she was speaking, but no words came out.

Sam started running, and the vampire turned his neck sharply in our direction at the sound of his heavy paws thudding against the ground.

We all followed, and the vampire began backing away in astonishment.

Never seen a werewolf before, huh? Jared barked, enthused. Watch this, leech!

“I don’t believe it,” the bloodsucker breathed, eyes wide.

Bella looked over at the trees, confused, then back at the bloodsucker, who was starting to remember his legs. He backed away more quickly now, sizing us up.

Sam eased out of the trees, quiet as a shadow, and stalked deliberately toward the vampire.

Bella’s mouth flew open in shock. Her eyes quite literally bugged out of their sockets.

If only I had a camera… I thought wistfully.

I still got it, boys, Sam snarled menacingly. Bella shuddered at the sound, shrinking into herself, limbs tight in shock and horror.

Bet I get the first bite, Paul growled, the sound rumbling low in his chest.

You’ll have to beat me to it, Jared replied.

They both followed Sam, Paul on his left flank and Jared on his right.

We’ll show them, right? Embry asked me, prodding forward into the meadow on Jared’s right as I mirrored his movements exactly on the opposite side.

They can’t have all the fun, I answered distractedly.

Bella was suddenly close enough to reach out and stroke my fur, not that she would, but it was one of the possibilities running through my mind. There were lots of maybes, and what ifs, bouncing around my skull like an angry hornet’s nest. Most of them I’d been mulling over in secret, trying to figure out a way to follow Sam’s order while keeping my promise to her. Imprinting was one of them, and I would know as soon as our eyes met.

I heard a gasp and then two clumsy feet brushing the grass.

It was always good to see Bella.

Even when her face was twisted with horror, body pale and wispy, like a good wind could knock her down. I felt what I always felt when I saw her, and what I would always feel, no matter the circumstances; the cozy, welcome-home feeling, like a warm bed after a long day in the snow, or how the sun beams its light on a patch of land where you stand, and you feel its heat radiating down from the tip of your scalp down to the base of your spine; or the way a cat purring on your chest warms you from the inside out.

I loved her. But I knew that already.

Were we meant to be together? I wondered as our eyes met.

Focus! Sam growled, the sound echoing like a crack of thunder.

My head whipped back to attention, though my heart stayed securely with her.

The bloodsucker turned and fled into the forest. We were after him, snarling and snapping at his heels ferociously.

In the background there was a harsh, piercing wheeze as Bella inhaled sharply, then a thump on the ground, accompanied by a sob.

I’d never heard Bella cry before. It hurt more than I imagined.

But I only focused on that later.

In the moment, I was ravenous. My legs outpaced Sam easily, and soon I was face to face with a vampire who had messed with the wrong pack of werewolves.

It was hardly even a fight. The others were quick on my heels and the leech was soon engulfed by the pack. The grinding, screeching, scraping crack of his neck was satisfying, but the smell of noxious smoke burned my nose and throat like I’d drank a bottle of hand sanitizer.

When it was over, we gathered the ashes, taking them back to the tribal council.

“You did good, son.” Billy beamed up at me, clapping his hand on my elbow.

I couldn’t muster enough enthusiasm to reply. Even when they handed me the leather band with a bag of ashes hanging from the end, I only felt numb, like the cold from the vampire had infected me. My melancholy mood distracted me from the impromptu celebration forming on the cliffs.

Physically, I was obligated to be there. But no one could stop me from closing my eyes and pretending Bella was sitting there, holding her piece of me.

Chapter Text

XIV

In the moment, I had relished in killing the bloodsucker, hoping it would give me the release I needed. Instead, I was more wound up than ever, plagued by thoughts of Bella.

Her terrified eyes were plastered on the back of my eyelids. I couldn’t sleep without her staring at me, horrified by the monster she saw. The sound of her sobbing echoed in my ears, worse than the phone ringing. Which it did. Constantly.

It wouldn’t have been so bad if I could at least talk to her, but Sam forbade it, since I had no claim on her.

He’d seen through my eyes when I looked at her, felt the love I felt, but didn’t believe it was an imprint. My world hadn’t shifted the way his and Jared had; gravity remained unchanged and centered. Did that mean my feelings didn’t matter? Did that make my love null and void of any true meaning? Was I supposed to break all my promises to her over something I had no choice in?

There had to be a way.

But I had to be careful. Sneaky. My thoughts were only safe when I was human, and as a wolf I had to avoid thinking about Bella at all, though my bitterness seeped through. I was driving them all nuts.

Billy especially.

“Get on that damn phone,” he roared at eleven-thirty on Wednesday night, after Bella had called once every half hour since three o’clock. “And tell that girl to stop calling this damn house!”

I was on the couch, elbow deep in a bag of Doritos. I looked up, broken out of a reverie.

“I can’t talk to her,” I said sullenly. “I’m not allowed.”

Billy got the chance to get it all off his chest when Harry called the next night. Charlie had asked Harry if we were out of town, since no one was answering the phone.

I wanted to answer the phone.

I wanted to tell her the truth.

But how could I?

The question haunted me. How could I betray the pack? How could I avoid the edict? How could I get her back? It burned a hole in my chest, like she had broken my ribs and ripped out my heart, keeping it with her. It felt like she was squeezing it, squashing the muscles and preventing blood from traveling to the rest of my body. The pain was so staggering it made me dizzy.

One night, we caught the scent of another vampire and followed it to Crescent Lake, but we were too late. This time there was blood spattered on the trees, much messier than before. This was a new bloodsucker; maybe younger, and a whole lot sloppier when they ate.

We were meeting at the trailhead to go over the problem together, try to work out a schedule so there would always be at least three wolves on patrol. We were going to be running double shifts now, which would seriously cut into my brooding time.

We heard Quil as we reached the edge of the forest, and rushed into our wolf forms to out-run him. I could hear him stumbling through the brush behind us, slowing down both me and Embry. Eventually, his yelling grew faint, and then it was gone. 

It only took a few minutes for Sam to give us our assignments. I would be running all day and through the night, as if my sleep schedule wasn’t already sporadic enough to make me feel jetlagged all the time. I was bummed while we ran patrol, but my countenance changed as soon as I heard the rusty Chevy chugging along the highway, winding through the forest towards La Push.

I turned on my heel from the trail worn by countless laps around the perimeter, tongue lolling out in a stupid grin.

Bella! I howled. You came!

Jacob! Sam yelled, stopping me in my tracks.

No, no, no, I whined. You can’t do this. She came to see me.

You can’t tell her anything –

I won’t! C’mon, you know I’m not able to do that. I can handle this, if you just give me a chance to explain –

You can’t explain anything, do you understand? Sam snarled, a grisly sound rolling out from behind his teeth.

Billy wants me to tell her to stop calling, I argued, trying to come up with an excuse. He’s getting annoyed. He won’t be happy she came. I need to talk to her, eventually.

He’s got a point, Embry interjected.

You realize you have to break up with her, right? Jared asked.

Why do I have to do that? I snapped, though I knew exactly why.

I was a monster now, too dangerous to let myself be around normal people.

Because you can’t be friends with her, Paul rolled his eyes, since it was obvious. I don’t get why you’re so eager to have that conversation.

No, I can control myself, I swear! I protested, feeling like a petulant child. Why does she have to get dumped again? I wondered, a pang of guilt stabbing my stomach.

I understand, Sam replied, and I knew he did. He’d had to do it with Leah, too, though he had Emily to fall back on. I had no one.

No excuses.

I shook my head, trying to think of something convincing.

You said so yourself. You have to talk to her sooner or later. Sam shrugged. Guess it might as well be now.

I was so mad I had trouble shifting back into a human. The others pulled their shorts on while I struggled to regain control.

Why did it have to be now? Why did they all have to come? Was it not enough they would get to see it through my memories – now I’d have to see it through theirs, too?

I was furious with the pack, and myself, and a little miffed at Bella, too. I was mad at everything in general. Apparently, fate had decided I was born to suffer. I must have done something bad in a past life.

Bella was parked on the side of the road outside my house, feet up on the dashboard, doodling on an old test. Her hair stumbled down past her shoulder and poured into the crook of her shoulder, pooling at the bottom of her folder.

I sighed, feeling like the ocean, lapping up against the shore and being pulled away, only to come back a second later, crashing on the sand. I knew I would always return to her, whether I wanted to or not. Just like the tide, I was drawn in, over and over, unable to stay away for long.

I tapped the door sharply, making her jump.

My hands gripped the doorframe, trying to block out the pack behind me. When her eyes finally drank in my full appearance, I had to consciously focus on not tightening my fist so hard that an impression of my palm was left in the metal.

Her eyes were wide when she gasped, “Jacob?”

I couldn’t say anything. All I could think of were Sam’s eyes boring into my back.

Bella noticed them, then, all gathered behind me. Her eyes focused on the center of the group, where Sam was, and I saw them harden in fury. She looked murderous – no, she looked bloodthirsty. I half expected her to hop out of the car, fists swinging.

Then her expression changed, became broken, as if she had realized fighting would do her no good. She looked hopeless as she gazed at Sam, crossing her arms tightly.

“What do you want?” I demanded, growing more tense as it dawned on me how much I would have to hurt her.

“I want to talk to you,” she said in a weak voice.

“Go ahead,” I hissed through my teeth, glaring viciously.

She flinched like I’d slapped her and the pained look crossed her face again.

“Alone!” She hissed back, stronger this time. The anger was giving her fire, despite the haunted look in her eyes.

That’s my girl, I thought to myself, fight back.

I glanced behind me, as did the others, looking for Sam’s permission.

Sam nodded once, the same calm, diplomatic expression on his face I’d become accustomed to. “Go ahead,” he said in Quillayute. He turned and walked into my house, followed by the others, who avoided making eye contact.

“Okay,” I breathed, loosening my shoulders a little. They were still in earshot, but at least there was no more visible audience.

I sighed. Now we were getting to the hard part.

Bella took a deep, unsteady breath. “You know what I want to know.”

I didn’t answer. She stared back at me with anxious trepidation, like she could sense the goodbye coming.

“Can we walk?” She asked, choking off at the end.

I didn’t move. I couldn’t bear to do this.

Please don’t make me do this, I begged silently.

But she got out of the car anyway. She walked off to the trees on the north side of the lawn, and I followed. She glanced over her shoulder, jumping when she saw me next to her. I was a lot quieter now, and her feet were clumsily loud in the mud.

She walked right into the forest, too, where I thought I could hear the thump of paws falling on the ground not far away. The trees shielded us from the rain pelting on the canopy, though drops fell here and there. We kept walking further, and Bella said nothing, eyes distant and unfocused. I sensed she was only there physically, thinking very hard about something. I grew impatient, paranoid about the pack watching, and decided to get to the point.

I picked up my pace, getting ahead in just two long strides, and swung around to face her. I stood like a wall between her and the path, blocking the entry into the forest.

“Let’s get this over with,” I said. My voice sounded choked even to me.

She waited, glaring up at me impatiently.

I was the one with the secret now.

“It’s not what you think,” I said wearily, the weight of Sam’s injunction hunching my shoulders. “It’s not what I thought – I was way off.”

“So what is it, then?”

I studied her very closely. I tried to preserve her face in my memory the way it was now, as opposed to what I knew was coming soon.

“I can’t tell you,” I croaked.

Her jaws gnashed together audibly. “I thought we were friends,” she hissed through her teeth.

“We were,” I answered, trying not to put too much stress on the past tense.

She saw right through me. “But you don’t need friends anymore,” she spat sarcastically. “You have Sam. Isn’t that nice – you’ve always looked up to him so much.”

“I didn’t understand him before.”

“And now you’ve seen the light. Hallelujah!

“It wasn’t like I thought it was. This isn’t Sam’s fault. He’s helping me as much as he can.” My thoughts turned back to the conversation we’d had on the cliff, about the responsibilities of an Alpha.

Was he wrong about Bella? How could leaving her be right?

“He’s helping you,” she repeated, disbelieving. “Naturally.”

My hands were shaking in anger. This wasn’t right. The idea of living without her felt unnatural, like growing gills and breathing underwater. I took three slow, deliberate breaths, trying to calm myself down. Bella stood close, less than a foot away, watching me with wide, confused eyes.

“Jacob, please,” she whispered in a pleading voice. “Won’t you tell me what happened? Maybe I can help.”

“No one can help me now,” I moaned. Despite my better efforts, my voice broke on the last word.

“What did he do to you?” She demanded. Water pooled in front of her chocolate brown eyes, and she stepped forward with her arms open wide, as if to embrace me.

I cringed. As inviting as she was, I couldn’t allow myself to get so close. It was more than just Sam’s order this time. I was on the edge; one slip up and I would be a wolf, with sharp claws and piercing incisors that could rip through her skin like a hot knife in butter.

“Don’t touch me,” I whispered, unable to put the right strength in my words.

“Is Sam watching?” She mumbled, wiping away a tear with the back of her hand as it dripped from her eyelashes and rolled down her cheek. She folded her arms in the same way she did when she was hurting, and I tried to conjure up a picture of her smiling, but nothing came. All I could see was the torn expression marring her face.

“Stop blaming Sam,” I snapped reflexively, though I wanted to blame him, too. I reached up to twist my hair into a ponytail, pulling out a rubber band from my pocket.

“Then who should I blame?” She retorted, the angry fire returning to her eyes as it flared up along my spine.

The corners of my mouth twitched in a bleak, twisted smile. “You don’t want to hear that.”

“The hell I don’t!” She shouted, throwing her arms up in exasperation. “I want to know, and I want to know now!

“You’re wrong,” I hissed.

“Don’t you dare tell me I’m wrong – ” she howled, and I could tell I’d struck a nerve. “I’m not the one who got brainwashed! Tell me now whose fault this all is, if it’s not your precious Sam!”

“You asked for it,” I growled, seething with rage. My heart throbbed with a ghost of the pain I was about to inflict on her. “If you want to blame someone, why don’t you point your finger at those filthy, reeking bloodsuckers that you love so much?”

Her mouth fell open and her breath came out in a low whoosh. She froze, clutching at her chest like I’d stabbed her in the heart. I stood across from her, furious, raging against how unfair this whole situation was. She loved creatures who had turned me into a monster, but still, the words felt too harsh the moment I heard them. It wasn’t right to hurt her like this. She wasn’t to blame; it wasn’t her fault.

“I told you that you didn’t want to hear it,” I said, trying to make my voice less of a snarl.

Her mouth closed abruptly. “I don’t understand who you mean,” she whispered, so low I almost didn’t hear.

I raised one eyebrow in disbelief. “I think you understand exactly who I mean. You’re not going to make me say it, are you? I don’t like hurting you.”

“I don’t understand who you mean,” she repeated robotically. Her eyes looked right through me, like I was a ghost.

“The Cullens,” I said slowly, drawing out the word and studying the familiar expression that twisted her face. “I saw that – I can see in your eyes what it does to you when I say their name.”

She shook her head back and forth. I wasn’t sure if she was disagreeing or trying to clear her head.

“Don’t tell me you’re listening to Billy’s superstitious nonsense now,” she said feebly.

“He knows more than I gave him credit for.”

“Be serious, Jacob,” she begged.

I glared back down at her critically. She knew exactly what I meant, and she was purposefully avoiding it.

“Superstitions aside,” she continued quickly. “I still don’t see why you’re accusing the… Cullens” – she winced, tightening her arms – “They left more than half a year ago. How can you blame them for what Sam is doing now?”

“Sam isn’t doing anything, Bella. And I know they’re gone. But sometimes… things are set in motion, and then it’s too late.”

“What’s set in motion? What’s too late? What are you blaming them for?” She questioned defensively.

Before I could think about it, I was in her face, voice shaking with fury.

“For existing,” I hissed.

She shook her head in confusion. “You’re being ridiculous,” she stated.

“Fine,” I sighed, taking another deep breath and letting it come out of my nose slowly. “I won’t argue it with you. It doesn’t matter anyway, the damage is done.”

“What damage?” She shouted.

“Let’s head back. There’s nothing more to say.”

She gaped openly up at me, like a fish out of water.

“There’s everything more to say! You haven’t said anything yet!”

And I’m not going to, I thought to myself. I stepped around her, heading back to the house with quick, urgent steps.

“I ran into Quil today,” she yelled at my back.

I paused midstep, my throat closing up. I was too afraid of what my face would give away if I turned around to face her, so I stared at the house, trying to control my ragged breathing.

“You remember your friend, Quil?” She asked accusingly. “Yeah, he’s terrified.”

I whirled around, ten feet away from her.

“Quil,” I sighed, looking down at the ground.

“He’s worried about you, too. He’s freaked out.”

I stared past her, desperately trying not to hear her words.

“He’s frightened that he’s next,” she goaded.

I clutched a nearby tree for support, feeling sick to my stomach.

“He won’t be next,” I muttered, trying to convince myself that my best friend would not be submitted to the same unique form of torture I was experiencing. “He can’t be. It’s over now. This shouldn’t still be happening. Why? Why?” I repeated, slamming my fist into the tree.

I miscalculated how much force the small sapling could handle. It wasn’t much taller than I was, with a thin trunk and pointy twigs for branches, which gave way and snapped off loudly under my fist. I stared at the sharp, jagged edge for a second in shock that quickly melted into horror.

“I have to get out of here,” I said quickly. I turned on my heel and stalked away so swiftly that Bella had to jog to keep up.

“Back to Sam!” She accused, panting.

“That’s one way of looking at it,” I mumbled in the other direction.

The rain was pelting down now, spiking against my skin like pine needles. Bella chased me, her feet scurrying about ten feet behind until we got back to the truck.

“Wait!” She called as I turned toward the house.

My hands shook with the force it took to keep me human. I spun around, trying to keep my expression cool and distant.

“Go home, Bella. I can’t hang out with you anymore.” My voice sounded dead.

She winced. More tears streamed from her eyes like a leaky faucet, but she didn’t bother wiping them away this time. The rain washed them down her face, soaking her thick brown hair and turning it jet black.

“Are you… breaking up with me?” She asked, her face contorting in agony.

I laughed bitterly, but it sounded more like a bark. “Hardly. If that were the case, I’d say, ‘Let’s stay friends.’ I can’t even say that.”

Her face scrunched up with a sniff. She was falling apart because of me, and I could do nothing about it.

“Jacob… why? Sam won’t let you have other friends? Please, Jake. You promised. I need you!”

The reminder of what I’d said to her in the Rabbit before all of this happened was enough to make me want to cry, too. Her voice was thick with loneliness, and a dark, blank look crossed her face, reminding me of the first time she’d come down with the bikes.

“I’m sorry, Bella,” I said, enunciating every syllable in a voice that wasn’t mine. Could she hear the double meaning? Would she be able to read between the lines? Was it possible to show her how much it hurt me to have to do this?

Her voice was barely a whisper, but I heard it loud and clear. “I’m sorry that I couldn’t… before… I wish I could change how I feel about you, Jacob.” She reached out her hands desperately, like she wanted to grab me and pull me into her arms. “Maybe… maybe I could change,” she murmured, stepping forward with her hands outstretched. “Maybe, if you gave me some time… just don’t quit on me now, Jake. I can’t take it.”

The heat of my anger got washed away by the cold rain, falling as hard as the tears from her eyes. I reached out for her, too, hands shaking. “No. Don’t think like that, Bells, please. Don’t blame yourself, don’t think this is your fault. This one is all me. I swear, it’s not about you.”

“It’s not you, it’s me,” she sobbed. “There’s a new one.”

“I mean it, Bella. I’m not…” human, I wanted to say, but the word got choked before it could come out of my mouth. “I’m not good enough to be your friend anymore, or anything else. I’m not what I was before. I’m not good.”

“What?” She breathed, appalled. “What are you saying? You’re much better than I am, Jake. You are good! Who told you that you aren’t? Sam? It’s a vicious lie, Jacob! Don’t let him tell you that!” She shrieked, anger heating up her cheeks.

I felt my face harden and go flat. “No one had to tell me anything. I know what I am.”

“You’re my friend, that’s what you are!” She hollered. “Jake – don’t!” She exclaimed as I started to back away.

“I’m sorry, Bella,” I repeated, my voice breaking.

I turned and took three long strides to the door, then pushed myself into the house with less grace than I was capable of.

The pack had no doubt disappeared into the forest as soon as the coast was clear, leaving only Billy sitting next to the couch in his wheelchair, gazing at me with a meaningful look in his ancient eyes.

I plopped onto the couch. Water squished beneath me and dripped with a quiet plink, plink, plink, on the floor. My head found its way into my hands, still shaking, but this time with quiet sobs.

I didn’t even think about Billy watching. He was silent, and the pain in my chest distracted me from his inquisitive gaze.

It felt like I was being ripped in two. The part of me I had left was angry, bitter, and depressed – the part left with her was the old Jake, the one who didn’t have to worry about being too dangerous for the girl he loved. Bella took my sunshine, and I got the gloom. It almost seemed fair, since I’d gone and broken her heart – again – and left her all alone to deal with the aftermath.

The phone rang, but it had been ringing so much lately that I barely noticed. My breathing was getting more and more ragged, each inhale stabbing at my throat like knives. I was shaking so hard the couch rattled and my teeth clattered together in my mouth, shivering uncontrollably.

“Hello?” Billy answered, voice gruff.

Charlie’s voice buzzed through the speaker. “Hey, Billy. Is Bella down there?”

“Yes,” Billy responded cautiously. “She’s leaving now. She and Jake had a fight, I think.”

“A fight?” Charlie’s voice was suddenly nervous. “What was it about?”

“Not sure,” Billy answered, eyeing me warily. “But she looks pretty upset.”

“Right,” came Charlie’s quick reply. “Thanks for the heads-up.” The line clicked dead.

Billy wheeled out to the back porch,

For the first time in a while, I felt cold. This was no normal chill; it came from my bones, freezing from the inside out.

“Charlie just called, Bella. I told him you were on your way home,” Billy rumbled. The pity in his voice made me wonder if she still had the same tortured look on her face, the one branded into my mind, eyes pleading with me to stop hurting her.

Before Billy could turn around, I was in my room. I flopped onto the bed, slamming the door shut with a kick of my leg. The Chevy roared to life and puttered down the road, and I was finally alone with my thoughts.

There had to be a way.

 

Chapter Text

XV

I’d surprised myself this afternoon by not shifting in front of her. It might have been partly due to Sam’s injunction not to tell her the secret. I suspected differently. Bella was a soothing balm to my anger; her pain only made me mad at myself for allowing it to happen. Her face, staring at me from the back of my eyelids, begged me to find a way.

Sam didn’t come to the house to get me, so I figured the guys were giving me time to mope. That was good. I had to think without anyone eavesdropping.

Memories flashed through me. Each one felt like I was putting my hand on a hot stove. Instead of shrinking away from the pain, I welcomed it, letting it fuel my frenzied planning.

Distantly, the phone rang again, and I groaned. Somehow, the sound had invoked a Pavlovian response in me, and each echoing ring produced a ghastly image in my head. Bella, arms crossed, face pale and eyes puffy from crying, biting her nails on the other end, waiting to hear my voice.

It wasn’t her, though. When Billy picked up, Charlie’s furious voice was demanding answers.

“I don’t know what to tell you. Sam Uley is a good kid, he’s been doing wonders for the reservation. I don’t think he had anything to do with this,” Billy defended.

“I’m not buying that. It doesn’t make any sense.” It was Chief Swan this time, not Charlie.

“Maybe…” Billy trailed off, and though I couldn’t see his face, I imagined it drawn in heavy lines of thought. “Jake got tired of being just a friend.”

“Don’t you put this on Bella!” Charlie shouted. Even if I didn’t have supernatural hearing, I probably would have caught it. His voice was lower when he continued. “Bella’s made it clear all along that she and Jacob were just friends.”

“That’s not what Jake says,” Billy lied.

“Well, if that was it, why didn’t you say so at first?”

Billy started to answer, but the Chief cut him off. “No, Billy, I think she’s right about this.”

“What makes you think that?” Billy retorted, aggravated.

“Because I know my daughter, and if she says Jacob was scared before – ”

“Maybe you don’t know her as well as you think you do,” Billy snapped.

“WHAT DO YOU MEAN I DON’T KNOW MY DAUGHTER AS WELL AS I THINK I DO?” Charlie screamed.

“Ask her about the Cullens – ” Billy began, but was interrupted quickly. That name was probably forbidden in Charlie’s house.

“If you think I’m going to remind her about that, then you had better think again. She’s only just starting to get over it, and mostly because of Jacob, I think. If whatever Jacob has going on with this Sam character sends her back into that depression, then Jacob is going to have to answer to me. You’re my friend, Billy, but this is hurting my family.”

Billy was silent for a moment. Then, his voice barely a whisper, he responded.

“I guess this means you’ll be watching us, then?”

“You got that right – those boys set one toe out of line and I’m going to know about it. We’ll be keeping an eye on the situation, you can be sure of that.” I imagined him strapping on his badge as he spoke.

“I have to go,” Billy said quickly.

“Fine. Yeah. Goodbye.” Charlie’s side of the conversation ended.

Billy called some other people, but I stopped paying attention. His conversations couldn’t drown out the buzzing between my ears.

At one point I must have passed out from exhaustion, because I found myself dreaming.

It was weird because I knew I was dreaming. It wasn’t even really a dream. My subconscious had dragged a memory of my old life out of the vault, projecting it like a movie. I was alone in a deserted theater, watching idly, distracted until I realized what was going on.

It was Bella, sitting on the beach beside me, her eyes alight with curiosity.

“Do you know any of our old stories, about where we came from – the Quileutes, I mean?” I began, trying not to smirk.

“Not really,” she confessed, eyelashes fluttering against her flushed cheeks as she glanced down.

“Well, there are lots of legends, some of them claiming to date back to the Flood – supposedly, the ancient Quileutes tied their canoes to the tops of the tallest trees on the mountain to survive like Noah and the ark.” I smiled. “Another legend claims that we descended from wolves – and that the wolves are our brothers still. It’s against tribal law to kill them.

“Then there are the stories about the cold ones.” My voice dropped lower.

“The cold ones?” She asked, genuine intrigue dripping from her tongue.

“Yes. There are stories of the cold ones as old as the wolf legends, and some much more recent. According to legend, my own great-grandfather knew some of them. He was the one who made the treaty that kept them off our land.” I rolled my eyes in an effort to distance myself from all the superstitious mumbo-jumbo.

“Your great-grandfather?” She pressed, urging me to continue.

“He was a tribal elder, like my father. You see, the cold ones are the natural enemies of the wolf – well, not the wolf, really, the wolves that turn into men, like our ancestors. You would call them werewolves.”

“Werewolves have enemies?”

“Only one.”

She stared at me, eyes sober and impatient, begging me to continue.

Then the screen started burning at the edges, and Bella’s face faded in a billow of smoke, replaced by her hollow, empty stare. It was all I could see. Then, in a distant echo from the past, my words came back to haunt me.

“It’s just that, I know you’re unhappy a lot. And, maybe it doesn’t help anything, but I wanted you to know that I’m always here. I won’t ever let you down – I promise that you can always count on me. Wow, that does sound corny. But you know that, right? That I would never, ever hurt you?”

I would never, ever hurt you…

How wrong I had been.

I bolted up in bed.

Before I could think anything through, I’d already opened the window with a loud shriek, and was halfway outside when Billy’s chair started squeaking down the hall. I was in the forest by the time he reached the door. I heard his tentative knock, then his sigh, and his wheels scraped back to the living room.

I didn’t dare turn into a wolf. I ran the whole way to Bella’s house barefoot, hardly noticing the mess of mud climbing up my calves. The others would smell me soon enough, if they didn’t already hear me crashing through the forest.

I scaled the tall spruce on Charlie’s lawn in half a second. Before even glancing at the house, I perched myself on the highest branch, the tree bowing under my weight. Thankfully, the branch didn’t tear off. I started swinging, angling myself toward her window. The tip of the branch scraped across her closed window like nails on a chalkboard, and I winced.

A shape appeared in the window. Bella’s skin glowed in the darkness, her face a pale moon set against a black backdrop. The clouds hanging in the sky reflected against the glass and hung like curtains over her face, sending shadows across her cheekbones to highlight the emaciated angles of her cheeks.

I swung harder, this time scraping myself on the siding. A high-pitched squeal chirped against the window as the tree scratched itself against the house again.

“Bella!” I hissed, trying to get her attention. “Ouch!” I exclaimed, swinging back against the siding and earning another scratch. “Damn it, open the window! OUCH!”

Two seconds later, the window flew wide open, and Bella poked her head out.

“What are you doing?” She gasped, eyes wide.

“I’m trying to keep” – I huffed, shifting my weight as the tree bounced me up and down – “my promise!”

Bella blinked. “When did you ever promise to kill yourself falling out of Charlie’s tree?”

I snorted, unamused, and started swinging again. “Get out of the way,” I warned.

“What?” She asked, blinking again.

I swung my legs back and forth, increasing my momentum.

Bella’s eyes got even wider in the dim light filtering through the clouds. “No, Jake!” She hissed, but hopped to the side, because I’d already jumped.

I grunted, launching myself through the open window. I landed on the balls of my feet with a low thud, looking over to the door automatically and holding my breath. Charlie’s breath hitched, then picked back up into a muffled snore.

I grinned, pleased. Sometimes, being a werewolf had its advantages. And it was always good to see Bella.

Even when she was not as happy to see me.

“Get out!” She hissed, venom dripping off her voice.

I blinked, surprised. I hadn’t expected her anger, though I should have. It made sense that she would hate me right now. The way she saw it, I had dumped her for Sam a few hours ago.

“No,” I protested. “I came to apologize.”

“I don’t accept!”

Her hands slapped against my bare chest, pushing furtively, trying to shove me back out the window. She dropped her hands away quickly, like my skin had burned her, staring up at me with wide, furious eyes.

I was speechless. I wanted to get on my knees and beg for forgiveness, explain everything and hope she would understand, but the words got caught in my throat. Bella swayed on her feet, eyes rolling into the back of her head.

“Bella?” I whispered anxiously, grabbing her elbow before she fell. I steered us over to the bed, where she plopped into a limp heap on the mattress, looking a lot like my pile of dirty clothes at home. “Hey, are you okay?” I asked, eyebrows flying up to the top of my forehead.

Bella gazed up at me, and I got my first good look at her. Her eyes were red and puffy, cheeks still wet with tears. She must have been crying before I got here.

“Why in the world would I be okay, Jacob?”

My face fell. “Right,” I agreed, guilt flooding my stomach. “Crap. Well… I – I’m so sorry, Bella.” I apologized sincerely, hoping she could hear the gravity in my voice and understand how much I meant it.

“Why did you come here?” She asked rudely. “I don’t want apologies from you, Jake.”

“I know,” I whispered bitterly. She wanted answers. She deserved answers. “But I couldn’t leave things the way I did this afternoon. That was horrible. I’m sorry.”

She shook her head slowly, eyes still half-closed. “I don’t understand anything,” she whined.

“I know. I want to explain – ” I broke off abruptly, words getting choked off.

I sucked in a deep breath. “But I can’t explain,” I growled in Sam’s voice. “I wish I could,” I added.

Bella’s head fell into her hands. When she spoke, her words were muffled. “Why?”

I couldn’t allow this to go on. It wasn’t only hurting me, staying away from her. She had gained some weight in the past couple months while we were friends, but now her face was thin and sallow again, like a skeleton. Her arms trembled under the weight of her head, and new tears spilled out from the corners of her eyes.

I focused hard on the lump in my throat, trying to find some give in Sam’s edict. There had to be a loophole. My face puckered in concentration, teeth clenching, trying to spit it out.

Bella turned her head to look at me with one glassy, bloodshot eye. “What’s wrong?” She asked, eyebrows furrowing in concern.

I exhaled heavily, letting go of the breath I didn’t know I was holding. “I can’t do it,” I muttered, frustrated.

“Do what?”

I ignored the question. “Look, Bella, haven’t you ever had a secret that you couldn’t tell anyone?” I asked knowingly. Her face twisted in guilt. “Something you felt like you had to keep from Charlie, from your mom…?” I pressed. “Something you won’t even talk about with me? Not even now?”

Her eyes tightened suspiciously. “I don’t know why you came here, Jacob, if you were just going to give me riddles instead of answers.”

“I’m sorry,” I whispered again, though it didn’t describe the chasm of guilt I’d fallen into. “This is so frustrating.”

We stared at each other for one long moment. From the hopeless look on her face, I knew she was feeling the same despair that gripped me. We didn’t need words to communicate; a look was enough for me to know she was just as desperate to know the secret as I was to tell it.

“The part that kills me,” I said as a thought occurred, “is that you already know. I already told you everything!”

“What are you talking about?”

I sucked in a startled breath as the first time I met Bella Swan swirled around in my head. I leaned forward, trying to impress on her the importance of my next words.

“I think I see a way to make this work out – because you know this, Bella! I can’t tell you, but if you guessed it, that would let me right off the hook!” My excited words burned intensely, fast and eager.

“You want me to guess? Guess what?”

“My secret! You can do it – you know the answer!”

I was surprised this idea hadn’t come to me sooner. It seemed foolproof, but Bella was intent on proving me wrong. She blinked twice, face blank, looking up at me with confused, glistening eyes.

“Hold on, let me see if I can give you some help,” I panted. I screwed up my forehead in concentration, fighting against the pull to follow Sam’s orders.

“Help?” She breathed, eyelids fluttering shut and then opening wide.

“Yeah,” I responded, still breathing hard. “Like clues.”

I took her face in my hands and held it a few inches from mine. Her cheeks fit easily in my palms, fingers twisting in the roots of her hair. Her eyes were wide and trusting, though I didn’t deserve it.

“Remember the first day we met – on the beach in La Push?” I whispered, heart beating a hundred miles an hour in my chest. She was so close, lips parted in surprise, her soft skin under my hands pulsing with her heartbeat.

“Of course I do,” she replied.

“Tell me about it.”

She took a deep breath, still staring up at me with wide, distant eyes. “You asked about my truck…” I nodded, urging her to continue. “We talked about the Rabbit…”

“Keep going,” I insisted.

“We went for a walk down the beach…” She trailed off, cheeks growing warmer beneath my burning skin. I nodded anxiously, stomach turning at the memory.

“You told me scary stories… Quileute legends,” she mouthed.

I closed my eyes, then opened them again slowly. “Yes,” I said feverishly. I tried to make my voice slower so each word had time to soak in. “Do you remember what I said?”

Her face flushed bright red, no doubt thinking of the Cullens.

“Think hard,” I pushed.

“Yes, I remember,” she breathed, voice creaking like a door whose hinges needed oil.

I inhaled deeply through my nose. The lump in my throat was bobbing up and down, making me nauseous.

“Do you remember all the stor – ” I got cut off. My mouth hung open, choking against the word.

“All the stories?” She finished.

I nodded once, unable to do anything else.

She started to shake her head, a resigned look on her face.

I groaned and jumped off the bed, pressing my fists against my forehead. My breathing was fast, angry, biting at me with every inhale.

“You know this, you know this,” I muttered to myself.

“Jake?” She asked, grabbing my attention. “Jake, please, I’m exhausted. I’m no good at this right now. Maybe in the morning…”

I took a deep breath, trying to steady myself. “Maybe it will come back to you. I guess I understand why you only remember the one story,” I added bitterly, slumping back onto the mattress beside her. “Do you mind if I ask you a question about that?” I asked, hiding my eager curiosity behind a thick layer of sarcasm. “I’ve been dying to know.”

“A question about what?” She asked, eyes narrowing.

“About the vampire story I told you.”

She glared at me, a sudden spark lighting up her eyes.

“Did you honestly not know?” I wondered, my voice becoming thick in my throat. “Was I the one who told you what he was?”

Her teeth clenched together, and she stared back at me defiantly.

I suppressed a bitter laugh. “See what I mean about loyalty?” I murmured, voice getting low and grave. “It’s the same for me, only worse. You can’t imagine how tight I’m bound…” My eyes closed at the memory of fire trembling down my spine, turning me into a monster.

“Isn’t there any way for you to get free?” She whimpered. I felt her ice-cold hand reach around to the nape of my neck, twisting her fingers in my hair.

My hands trembled. I didn’t dare open my eyes to see her. “No. I’m in this for life. A life sentence.” I laughed bleakly. “Longer, maybe,” I added.

“No, Jake,” she moaned. “What if we ran away? Just you and me. What if we left home, and left Sam behind?”

“It’s not something I can run away from, Bella,” I whispered, eyes fluttering open of their own accord. “I would run with you, though, if I could.”

Her eyes bored into mine, cutting right through me.

My shoulders started shaking above my hands. I took another deep breath.

“Look, I’ve got to leave.”

“Why?” She asked, lips trembling.

“For one thing, you look like you’re going to pass out at any second. You need your sleep – I need you firing on all pistons. You’re going to figure this out, you have to.”

“And why else?” She insisted, as if that weren’t good enough.

I frowned. “I had to sneak out – I’m not supposed to see you. They’ve got to be wondering where I am.” My mouth twisted into a scowl. “I suppose I should go let them know.”

“You don’t have to tell them anything,” she hissed.

“All the same, I will.”

Anger flashed, white and hot, across her face. “I hate them!” She exclaimed.

My eyes widened in surprise. “No, Bella. Don’t hate the guys. It’s not Sam’s or any of the others’ faults. I told you before – it’s me. Sam is actually… well, incredibly cool. Jared and Paul are great, too, though Paul is kind of…” I trailed off, then continued. “And Embry’s always been my friend. Nothing’s changed there – the only thing that hasn’t changed. I feel really bad about the things I used to think about Sam…”

Bella glared at me in disbelief. “Then why aren’t you supposed to see me?” She demanded.

“It’s not safe,” I mumbled, looking down at the floor.

She didn’t answer, but I heard her heart start to beat erratically, and her breathing sped up.

“If I thought it was too… too risky,” I whispered reassuringly. “I wouldn’t have come. But Bella,” I looked up at her again. “I made you a promise. I had no idea it would be so hard to keep, but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to try.”

Her nose turned up in confusion.

“After that stupid movie,” I reminded her. “I promised you that I wouldn’t ever hurt you… So I really blew it this afternoon, didn’t I?”

“I know you didn’t want to do it, Jake,” she said softly. “It’s okay.”

“Thanks, Bella.” I took her hand in mine, trying to warm it up. “I’m going to do what I can to be here for you, just like I promised.” A grin pulled up the corners of my mouth at the idea of seeing her again. “It would really help if you could figure this out on your own, Bella. Put some honest effort into it.”

She grimaced, but her voice was too tired to have any bite. “I’ll try.”

“And I’ll try to see you soon,” I promised, then sighed. “And they’ll try to talk me out of that.”

“Don’t listen to them.”

“I’ll try,” I vowed, shaking my head doubtfully. “Come and tell me as soon as you figure it out,” I said, then hesitated. “If you… if you want to.”

“Why wouldn’t I want to see you?” She asked.

“Oh, I can think of a reason,” I answered harshly. “Look, I really have to go. Could you do something for me?”

She nodded too quickly, swaying off balance for a second from the force.

“At least call me – if you don’t want to see me again. Let me know if it’s like that,” I begged.

“That won’t happen – ” she began, but I held up a hand to cut her off.

“Just let me know.”

I stood and headed for the window.

“Don’t be an idiot, Jake,” she complained. “You’ll break your leg. Use the door. Charlie’s not going to catch you.”

“I won’t get hurt,” I muttered, but turned for the door. She didn’t know about the super-fast werewolf healing, and I didn’t think Sam wanted me showing off, though he hadn’t expressly forbidden it.

I hesitated as I passed the bed, feeling the same tug in my chest as before, like someone was ripping the heart from my chest. I held out my hand, eyes pleading. She took it without hesitation, and I yanked her into my arms.

She fit perfectly, clicking into place like a key in a lock. I sighed, hoping this wouldn’t be the last time I ever saw her.

“Just in case,” I muttered into her hair.

“Can’t – breathe!” She gasped.

I dropped her immediately, keeping one hand on her waist to keep her upright. I pushed her gently back onto the bed.

“Get some sleep, Bells. You’ve got to get your head working. I know you can do this. I need you to understand. I won’t lose you, Bella. Not for this.”

I was at the door in one stride, opening it quietly, then walking silently down the stairs and out the back door.

When I was outside, I disappeared into the trees, then quickly undressed. Shifting came easily, like a welcome relief, though I was not greeted with a kind reception.

Who the HELL do you think you are? Sam roared immediately.

Jacob Black, reporting for duty, sir, I replied, smug.

That went better than I planned. I didn’t kill her, which was definitely a priority, and she didn’t scream to wake up Charlie, so that was good, too. But she had also forgiven me for hurting her today, even offered to run away with me, and that was what had me feeling lighter than air.

SHIT! Paul exclaimed, JACOB, YOU LOUSY SON OF A –

Hold on! I interrupted. I followed orders. She doesn’t know anything. We just… reminisced.

Oh, can it, meat-for-brains, Paul retorted. There was a REASON you weren’t supposed to talk to her. Do you have any idea how bad it would be if you killed the Chief’s daughter? You think they’re after us NOWjust wait until Charlie sends every hunter in Forks after the ‘mutant wolves’!

Sam and Paul were running the outer perimeter of La Push, so I joined them. Paul was blowing a blood vessel over Bella, his dream from the other night replaying in the back of his mind. Sam was on a whole new level of anger; disappointment. Somehow, this made me feel worse than if he had been yelling with Paul.

Am I doing this wrong, Jake? He wondered, almost to himself. Would you rather be Alpha?

No, I insisted, but I can’t be away from Bella. We’re a package deal.

I see that, Sam barked back. There was an edge to his tone, though, something I couldn’t name.

What is it? I urged, sensing he was deliberately not thinking about whatever lurked beneath the surface of his thoughts.

Nothing. But I wonder… He trailed off, and just as I was about to get a glimpse of whatever it was, Paul howled.

The resort, he panted, pushing himself up to the edge of the forest. It stinks!

Sure enough, Paul had stumbled upon a fresh trail, snaking up from the border to the resort near the hot springs. I turned too quickly, spraying dirt behind me, and raced Sam to Paul.

Shit! Paul thought, catching the scent of blood, and then –

SHIT! He yipped anxiously.

There was a wailing screech, and I saw through Paul’s eyes a portly middle-aged woman in a bathrobe with a towel twisted on her head. She had one hand holding a cellphone to her ear and the other clutched to her chest, eyes wide with fear.

Get the hell outta there! Sam roared.

Don’t need to tell me twice, Paul replied, already running back into the forest, following the scent the leech left.

Jake – take the east, Sam ordered.

On it, I replied.

We caught up with Paul, pursuing the vampire through the woods. She had a shockingly bright head of wild red hair, making it easy for us to spot her. The leech was careful to stay in the trees, out of reach from us, launching herself forward through the air in fifty-foot leaps. We kept up until we’d chased her halfway to Canada, then turned around.

Jake – stay on patrol. Keep clear of the crime scene. Paul, come with me to Harry’s. I need to talk to the council. Sam was in full-on crisis control mode.

Don’t think you’re off the hook, he warned me before turning human again.

Paul smirked. He’s gonna kick your ass.

Not before I kick yours, I replied, switching directions with the intent to teach him a lesson.

He laughed, then his voice disappeared, and I was alone as a wolf.

This was the part of being a werewolf that I liked. The freedom was electrifying – I could let go of the human side and immerse myself in the wild. I tried to circle around the spot where Paul had smelled the leech while also avoiding the rapidly increasing number of police and state troopers, but I couldn’t find another trail.

The rain was beginning to let up, and the sky was lighter than usual, though I didn’t trust it to last. Soon, the rain would wash away whatever scent remained, and we would be left in the dark again. This game of cat and mouse was not amusing, I thought glumly.

Embry came to relieve me at three in the morning, looking worse for wear.

Man, I wish I could get a full night’s sleep… He groaned.

Do you know about Paul getting caught yet? I asked eagerly, ignoring him.

Now I do, Embry replied, momentarily scanning the memories as I brought them to the front of my mind. Hmm, he added. How does she keep getting away from us?

No idea, I replied, already halfway back to my house. But I’m gonna sleep on it. I’ll let you know if I have any revelations.

Like how to get around Sam’s order?

I cringed. You caught that, huh?

Hard to miss, Embry chortled. Good for you, dude. Stick it to the man, and all that jazz.

Sam is still in charge, I replied carefully.

Oh, yeah, of course, Embry agreed quickly. But you didn’t agree with the injunction, right?

‘Course not, I growled.

So you think Sam was wrong?

I hesitated, rounding in on the trees surrounding my house.

I don’t care, I finally decided. It doesn’t matter whether or not I imprinted on her. I love her anyway.

You think she feels the same way?

Maybe… I trailed off, gazing at the familiar worn porch. I could see every single chip in the paint, crack in the wood, speck of dirt. I saw Bella just as plainly.

She could, I said doubtfully, not like that, though, not right now… I sighed.

Doesn’t really matter though, if she can’t get over the werewolf thing, Embry thought flippantly.

Whatever, I rumbled, I’m going to sleep. Have fun running, I added smugly.

Chapter Text

XVI

I woke up to Billy pulling me out of bed by the ear, growling something unintelligible.

“OUCH! Jeez – Hey! What was that for?” I cried from the hallway floor, where I’d managed to slap away his pinching fingers.

Billy was furious. I’d never seen him look so affronted. “Bella knocked down our door five minutes ago, looking for you. How you didn’t hear her, I have no idea.” He ran a hand down his face in exhaustion. “You must be getting even less sleep than I do,” he joked, laughing with grim humor.

“Is she here?” I asked, sitting up and peering down the hall at the front door. It was open, swinging in the wind.

“No, she said to tell you she’s waiting for you at the beach.” He eyed me warily. “She mentioned how Charlie was gathering a bunch of hunters to search for the wolves,” he added suspiciously. “Please, Jacob, for my own sanity, say you didn’t tell her about the wolves.”

I smiled guiltily, raising my eyebrows and looking down at the floor.

Jacob,” Billy gasped, horror-struck. “You told her?”

“It was before I knew the stories were real,” I defended. “On the beach, when we first met, I was just trying to tell her some scary stories.”

Billy’s face fell. “Is that all you thought they were?” He asked, voice cracking. “Our history, our legacy, just ghost stories?” He shook his head, then rolled to his room.

“Dad – ”

“I hope she’s worth it,” Billy yelled, slamming his door shut.

I rolled my eyes. He was so dramatic when he needed a nap.

Finding Bella was effortless; my feet followed her path over the sand as if it were my own. She was sitting on our bone-white driftwood tree stranded deep in the rocks, with the roots facing up and twisting like a hundred brittle tentacles. Pieces of spindly vegetation hung on the tips, laid there by a recent storm. That tree had been there my whole life, and I’d always been fascinated with it, so it seemed a fitting spot to make our own.

She was staring towards the ocean, though the light filtering through the damp clouds wasn’t enough for even me to see the water. For the first time, I couldn’t read her face, though her emotions were plain. Some mixture of resignation and despair.

The emotions didn’t seem applicable. She promised to call if she didn’t want to see me, but here she sat, staring out at the sea as if it had condemned her to a horrific death.

“Hi, Bella,” I said softly, feeling shy.

Bella jumped, then her eyes searched for me in the darkness. The sun was just starting to peek out at the base of the clouds, slicing a sliver of pink sky on the horizon.

“Jake?” She asked, breathless.

I kept my distance, trying to interpret her reaction. Was she afraid of me now? I realized the tenuous thread of hope I held onto had grown tighter when I found out she came to see me; it wasn’t a phone call, at least. I’d half expected her to forget about the promise and call anyway, since the landline was her usual weapon of choice.

“Billy told me you came by – didn’t take you very long, did it? I knew you could figure it out.” I babbled on nervously.

“Yeah, I remember the right story now,” she whispered.

Oh, so it was gonna be like that.

She must have felt the change in atmosphere after I scanned her face, recognizing the signs I’d been too naïve to catch; her guilty eyes, the way her frown turned down at the corners and pulled down the purple bags beneath her eyes; the hollow cheeks from her pinched lips.

It was my turn to be dumped.

“You could have just called,” I spat.

She nodded, looking down in shame. “I know.”

I started pacing to keep my body under control as anger, hot and red, boiled in my blood and sparked the fire that would rip my skin and warp my bones. I couldn’t do that here, not now, when she was standing just a few feet away. Plus, I was mad enough to say a few choice words, and I wanted to get them out before becoming an animal.

“Why did you come?” I demanded, pacing faster than a normal human should be able to.

“I thought it would be better face-to-face.”

I snorted. “Oh, much better,” I said sarcastically, folding my arms against my chest.

“Jacob, I have to warn you – ”

“About the rangers and the hunters?” I interrupted, teeth gnashing together. “Don’t worry about it. We already know.”

“Don’t worry about it?” She demanded, looking offended. “Jake, they’ve got guns! They’re setting traps and offering rewards and – ”

“We can take care of ourselves,” I growled, sounding too much like a wolf for my liking. I walked faster, calculating the distance between us. Could I shift right here and not hurt her? I’d been closer to Billy the first time, and he didn’t have a scratch on him.

“They’re not going to catch anything,” I continued furiously. “They’re only making it more difficult – they’ll start disappearing soon enough, too.”

“Jake!” She hissed, balling her fists up at her sides.

“What? It’s just a fact.”

Her face twisted in revulsion. “How can you… feel that way? You know these people. Charlie’s out there!” Then her face turned to horror.

I came to an abrupt stop, feeling like a moron. There she stood, the love of my life, not a few feet away physically, but on a completely different plane mentally. I’d never felt so disconnected from her before, like our minds weren’t on the same frequency anymore. Had I changed that much while becoming a werewolf?

“What more can we do?” I asked, frustrated.

“Could you… well, try not to be a… werewolf?” She suggested, voice barely above a whisper.

I threw my hands up into the air, trying to figure out where this girl got the balls to ask that with such sincerity.

“Like I have a choice about it!” I shouted. “And how would that help anything, if you’re worried about people disappearing?”

“I don’t understand you,” she said stubbornly, crossing her arms.

I glared. I was shaking so hard my limbs no longer felt under my control. If I was going to get a jab in, I didn’t have much time left before I tore into a wolf and couldn’t say anything she would understand.

“You know what makes me so mad I could just spit?” I fumed.

She flinched away from my hostile tone.

I waited, taking three ragged breaths before she finally nodded, mouth hanging open in horror.

“You’re such a hypocrite, Bella – there you sit, terrified of me! How is that fair?”

“Hypocrite? How does being afraid of a monster make me a hypocrite?” She shouted.

“Ugh!” I groaned, jamming my fists into my temples to keep my skull from exploding. “Would you listen to yourself?”

“What?” She insisted.

I took two steps forward to lean over her and glare fully into her eyes. “Well, I’m so sorry that I can’t be the right kind of monster for you, Bella. I guess I’m just not as great as a bloodsucker, am I?”

Bella, who usually flinched at any mention of the Cullens, jumped to her feet and glared right back, fighting my anger with her own.

“No, you’re not!” She shouted. “It’s not what you are, stupid, it’s what you do!”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” I roared, my shoulders convulsing with the force of my rage.

She didn’t answer right away. For a split second, she looked surprised, and then her eyes were carefully guarded.

“Jacob,” she pleaded softly, voice even. “Is it really necessary to kill people, Jacob? Isn’t there some other way? I mean, if vampires can find a way to survive without murdering people, couldn’t you give it a try, too?”

My spine straightened out with a strange click, like a missing wire had been connected. My eyebrows shot up as if that would allow me to see more. “Killing people?” I demanded.

“What did you think we were talking about?” Bella asked, exasperated, as she raised her arms to slap them on her sides.

I had been sure I was about to shift, but all of a sudden, there was a new thread of hope holding me human. I wasn’t willing to believe it, since I’d let myself be fooled before.

“I thought we were talking about your disgust for werewolves,” I said in a blank tone.

“No, Jake, no. It’s not that you’re a… wolf. That’s fine,” she said quickly, as if it were an inconsequential detail that I ran around as a wolf most of the time. “If you could just find a way not to hurt people… that’s all that upsets me. These are innocent people, Jake, people like Charlie, and I can’t just look the other way while you – ”

“Is that all? Really?” I interrupted, a surprised smile breaking across my face. “You’re just scared because I’m a murderer? That’s the only reason?”

“Isn’t that reason enough?” She asked, voice rising two octaves.

I couldn’t help it; I laughed.

“Jacob Black, this is so not funny!” She screamed.

“Sure, sure,” I agreed, leaning over and resting my hands on my knees, still shaking with laughter.

Then, I took one long stride to close the gap between us. It had been there for too long, in my opinion. I wrapped her into my arms, not planning on letting go.

“You really, honestly don’t mind that I morph into a giant dog?” I asked, practically jumping for joy.

“No,” she gasped. “Can’t – breathe – Jake!”

Unwillingly, I let go, but took both her hands. “I’m not a killer, Bella.”

She studied my face for a second, then smiled in relief.

“Really?” She asked, breathless again.

“Really,” I promised solemnly.

Suddenly, she threw her arms around me, letting out a cry of relief. I wrapped myself around her, stroking her hair.

“Sorry I called you a hypocrite,” I apologized in a murmur.

“Sorry I called you a murderer,” she responded, words muffled by my chest.

I laughed, feeling light enough to float into the clouds.

She pulled away, eyebrows furrowed anxiously. “What about Sam? And the others?”

I shook my head, no longer feeling the weight of Sam’s injunction. It was meaningless now that she already knew. I could tell her whatever I wanted. I’d found my loophole.

“Of course not. Don’t you remember what we call ourselves?”

“Protectors?” She asked confidently.

“Exactly.”

Her eyes narrowed in confusion. “But I don’t understand. What’s happening in the woods? The missing hikers, the blood?”

I felt my face harden into worried lines. “We’re trying to do our job, Bella. We’re trying to protect them, but we’re always just a little too late.”

“Protect them from what? Is there really a bear out there, too?”

“Bella, honey,” I said patiently, reaching out and cupping my hand to her face. “We only protect people from one thing – our one enemy. It’s the reason we exist – because they do.”

She stared blankly for a second before recognition lit her eyes, then died out as her face drained of color. Her lips opened and a terrified moan broke through her teeth.

I nodded gravely. “I thought you, of all people, would realize what was really going on.”

“Laurent,” she whispered. “He’s still here.”

I blinked twice, then cocked my head to the side. “Who’s Laurent?” I asked, not having registered that leeches had names.

Her eyes darted from side to side like she was sorting through a pile of pages printed heavy with ink. “You know – you saw him in the meadow. You were there… You were there, and you kept him from killing me…” She trailed off, eyes widening in fright.

“Oh, the black-haired leech?” I grinned, remembering the shrieking of his spine as I severed his neck. “Was that his name?”

Bella shuddered. “What were you thinking?” She whispered. “He could have killed you! Jake, you don’t realize how dangerous – ”

I interrupted her with an unconcerned laugh. “Bella, one lone vampire isn’t much of a problem for a pack as big as ours. It was so easy, it was hardly even fun!”

“What was so easy?” She asked wildly.

“Killing the bloodsucker who was going to kill you. Now, I don’t count that towards the whole murder thing,” I added quickly. “Vampires don’t count as people.”

Her eyes were bugging out of her skull. I was surprised her nose didn’t start bleeding from the forceful thrumming of the veins in her forehead.

“You… killed… Laurent?” She breathed.

I nodded. “Well, it was a group effort,” I qualified.

“Laurent is dead?” She whispered.

My voice changed, shooting up an octave. “You’re not upset about that, are you? He was going to kill you – he was going in for the kill, Bella, we were sure of that before we attacked. You know that, right?”

“I know that,” she said in a rushed, gasping voice. “No, I’m not upset – I’m…” she stumbled back a step, then sank down onto the trunk of the driftwood tree. “Laurent is dead,” she said as if to convince herself. “He’s not coming back for me.”

“You’re not mad? He wasn’t one of your friends or anything, was he?” I asked anxiously.

“My friend?” She stared up at me, relief and confusion mixing up her mouth. “No, Jake. I’m so… so relieved. I thought he was going to find me – I’ve been waiting for him every night, just hoping that he’d stop with me and leave Charlie alone. I’ve been so frightened, Jacob…” She trailed off, and I recognized the hollow look in her eyes. “But how? He was a vampire! How did you kill him? He was so strong, so hard, like marble…” She trailed off, eyes becoming distant.

For a moment, I saw the toll being a human wrapped up in the supernatural world had on her; the dark shadows under her eyes touched the edge of her cheekbones, holding up her down-trodden eyes.

I sat down next to her and wrapped an arm around her comfortingly. “It’s what we’re made for, Bells. We’re strong, too. I wish you would have told me that you were so afraid. You didn’t need to be.”

“You weren’t around,” she mumbled distractedly.

“Oh, right,” I replied, color tinting my cheeks.

“Wait, Jake – I thought you knew, though. Last night, you said it wasn’t safe for you to be in my room. I thought you knew that a vampire might be coming. Isn’t that what you were talking about?”

I stared at her for half a second, realizing she had no idea how much I loved her. Did she really think the threat of death would keep me away from her? I would have to change that, somehow. I made a mental note to come back to it.

I ducked my head when I realized what I would have to explain. “No, that’s not what I meant.”

“Then why didn’t you think it was safe for you there?”

I looked up guiltily. “I didn’t say it wasn’t safe for me. I was thinking of you.” Like always, I wanted to add, but she was already letting me drape my arm over her shoulder, so I wasn’t going to push it.

“What do you mean?”

I looked down and kicked a rock. “There’s more than one reason I’m not supposed to be around you, Bella. I wasn’t supposed to tell you our secret, for one thing, but the other part is that it’s not safe for you. If I get too mad… too upset… you might get hurt.”

She looked past me thoughtfully. “When you were mad before… when I was yelling at you… and you were shaking…?”

“Yeah,” I mumbled, face dropping even lower. “That was pretty stupid of me. I have to keep a better hold on myself. I swore I wasn’t going to get mad, no matter what you said to me. But… I just got so upset that I was going to lose you… and that you couldn’t deal with what I am…” I was starting to babble, so I kicked another rock.

“What would happen… if you got too mad?” She whispered.

“I’d turn into a wolf,” I whispered back.

“You don’t need a full moon?” She asked, raising her eyebrows.

I rolled my eyes. “Hollywood’s version doesn’t get much right.” Then I sighed, adding solemnly, “You don’t need to be so stressed out, Bells. We’re going to take care of this. And we’re keeping a special eye on Charlie and the others – we won’t let anything happen to him. Trust me on that.”

Bella’s face became chalky pale. “Laurent is dead,” she gasped.

“Bella?” I asked anxiously, pressing the back of my hand against her ashen cheek.

“If Laurent died… a week ago… then someone else is killing people now,” she panted.

I nodded, clenching my teeth together. “There were two of them. We thought his mate would want to fight us – in our stories, they usually get pretty pissed off if you kill their mate – but she just keeps running away, and then coming back again. If we could figure out what she was after, it would be easier to take her down. But she makes no sense. She keeps dancing around the edges, like she’s testing our defenses, looking for a way in – but in where? Where does she want to go? Sam thinks she’s trying to separate us, so she’ll have a better chance…” My voice faded when Bella’s body turned rigid.

She was looking positively green in the light reflecting off the mossy ground. She rolled forward, gagging, and then leaned over the tree to dry-heave onto the sand. She groaned, flailing uselessly against an empty stomach, head tilting back and forth like she was trying to shake it out.

“Bella!” I caught her shoulders as her body went limp against the log and lurched forward to collide with the rocks. “Bella! What’s wrong?”

“Victoria,” she gasped after another heave.

I pulled her onto my lap with ease. It was too easy; she was weightless, not made of substantive materials. I laid her head against my shoulder, cradling her legs over my lap carefully. She seemed so fragile then; like a glass bird.

“Who?” I asked urgently. “Can you hear me, Bella? Bella?”

“She wasn’t Laurent’s mate,” she moaned into my shoulder. “They were just old friends…”

My voice was frantic. “Do you need some water? A doctor? Tell me what to do,” I demanded.

“I’m not sick – I’m scared,” she explained in a whisper.

I patted her back comfortingly. “Scared of this Victoria?”

She shivered. “Yes,” she whimpered.

“How do you know she wasn’t his mate?”

“Laurent told me James was her mate,” she explained, flexing her hand.

I pulled her face around to look at me, holding it steady with my free hand. Her eyes were panicked, distant, like she was no longer seeing the same beach I was.

“Did he tell you anything else, Bella? This is important. Do you know what she wants?” I asked.

“Of course,” she whispered vacantly. “She wants me.”

My eyes widened, then narrowed into slits. “Why?” I demanded.

“Edward killed James,” she whispered. For the first time, she said his name without flinching. “She did get… pissed off. But Laurent said she thought it was fairer to kill me than Edward. Mate for mate. She didn’t know – still doesn’t know, I guess – that… that…” she swallowed hard. “That things aren’t like that with us anymore. Not for Edward, anyway.”

I was torn in several directions, but too curious to examine the feelings. “Is that what happened? Why the Cullens left?”

“I’m nothing but a human, after all. Nothing special,” she explained in a weak, tired voice.

My chest rumbled with a growl. “If that idiot bloodsucker is honestly stupid enough – ”

“Please,” she moaned. “Please. Don’t.”

I hesitated, then nodded when I saw how hurt her expression was.

“This is important,” I repeated, switching to my business voice. “This is exactly what we needed to know. We’ve got to tell the others right away.”

I stood, pulling her up with me. I kept two hands on her waist until I was sure she wouldn’t fall.

“I’m okay,” she lied, face still green and sweaty.

I traded my hold on her waist for one of her hands.

“Let’s go,” I insisted, pulling her back towards the truck.

“Where are we going?” She asked.

“I’m not sure yet,” I admitted sheepishly. “I’ll call a meeting. Hey, wait here for just a minute, okay?” I leaned her against the side of the truck like a kickstand and released her hand.

“Where are you going?” She asked anxiously, eyes widening.

“I’ll be right back,” I promised, turning and sprinting through the parking lot. I ran across the road and into the bordering forest, where I disappeared into the trees.

“Jacob!” She yelled after me, voice hoarse.

I rolled up my cut-off sweatpants and left them in a pile under a bush. I wasn’t going far.

Jacob? Embry asked.

You’ve got some balls, kid, Jared interjected.

Where have you been? Sam demanded.

Probably breaking more tribal laws, Paul growled.

Doesn’t matter, I repeated the words over and over quickly, trying to stop myself from thinking about the conversation on the beach. Meet me here, I ordered, thinking of the first place that came to mind. We need to talk, it’s important.

What –

Sam didn’t finish his question. I phased and pulled my shorts back on, loping over to the car.

Bella was sitting in the cab of the truck, hyperventilating. When I rapped on the window, she jumped with a yelp of terror, then undid the lock with shaking fingers.

“You’re really scared, aren’t you?” I asked as I climbed in.

Bella nodded mutely.

“Don’t be. We’ll take care of you – and Charlie, too. I promise.”

“The idea of you finding Victoria is scarier than the idea of her finding me,” she whispered.

I laughed. “You’ve got to have a little more confidence in us that that. It’s insulting,” I said, only half-joking.

Bella shook her head, closing her eyes. “Where did you go just now?” She asked.

I pursed my lips, saying nothing. The injunction no longer held any weight, but there were probably some things I should keep to myself. I wasn’t sure if this was one of them.

“What? Is it a secret?” She challenged.

I frowned. “Not really. It’s kind of weird, though. I don’t want to freak you out.”

“I’m sort of used to weird by this point, you know,” she said weakly. The corners of her lips twitched with the ghost of a smirk.

I grinned back with a genuine smile. Of course, she had already proven herself to be more than understanding when it came to crazy, supernatural things.

“Guess you’d have to be,” I agreed. “Okay. See, when we’re wolves, we can… hear each other.”

Her eyebrows pulled down in confusion.

“Not hear sounds,” I went on, “but we can hear… thoughts – each other’s anyway – no matter how far away from each other we are. It really helps when we hunt, but it’s a big pain otherwise. It’s embarrassing – having no secrets like that. Freaky, eh?” I asked, peeking at her face out of the corner of my eye.

“Is that what you meant last night, when you said you would tell them you’d seen me, even though you didn’t want to?”

“You’re quick,” I observed.

“Thanks.”

“You’re also very good with weird. I thought that would bother you.”

“It’s not…” she trailed off, turning to look out the window. “Well, you’re not the first person I’ve known who could do that. So it doesn’t seem so weird to me.”

“Really?” I asked, voice rising three octaves. “Wait – are you talking about your bloodsuckers?”

“I wish you wouldn’t call them that.”

I laughed. “Whatever. The Cullens, then?”

“Just… just Edward,” she said, inconspicuously pulling one arm over her torso.

She was slumped against the seat of the cab with her knees angled towards me and feet on the dashboard. My arm had swung itself around the back of her seat reflexively as I got in, but now she leaned against me instead of shying away. My arm tightened involuntarily.

“I thought those were just stories. I’ve heard legends about vampires who could do… extra stuff, but I thought that was just a myth,” I said, recovering from the shock of hearing her say his name twice in one day.

“Is anything just a myth anymore?” She asked dryly.

I scowled. “Guess not. Okay, we’re going to meet Sam and the others at the place we go to ride our bikes.”

I started the truck and headed down the familiar road. The engine chugged along the narrow, slick streets, sputtering when I accelerated. We didn’t make it half a mile before she started in on the twenty questions again.

“So did you just turn into a wolf now, to talk to Sam?” She asked curiously.

I nodded, praying she wouldn’t ask where my clothes went when I shifted. “I kept it real short – I tried not to think about you so they wouldn’t know what was going on. I was afraid Sam would tell me I couldn’t bring you.”

“That wouldn’t have stopped me,” she said through clenched teeth.

“Well, it would have stopped me,” I said morosely. “Remember how I couldn’t finish my sentences last night? How I couldn’t just tell you the whole story?”

“Yeah. You looked like you were choking on something.”

I chuckled with dark humor. “Close enough. Sam told me I couldn’t tell you. He’s…” I trailed off, looking for the right words that wouldn’t make her jump out of the car screaming. “The head of the pack, you know. He’s the Alpha. When he tells us to do something, or not to do something – when he really means it, well, we can’t just ignore him.”

“Weird,” she muttered, looking back out the window.

“Very,” I agreed. “It’s kind of a wolf thing.”

“Huh,” she huffed.

“Yeah, there’s a load of stuff like that – wolf things. I’m still learning. I can’t imagine what it was like for Sam, trying to deal with this alone. It sucks bad enough to go through it with a whole pack for support.”

“Sam was alone?” She asked softly.

“Yeah,” I said, lowering my voice. “When I… changed, it was the most… horrible, the most terrifying thing I’ve ever been through – worse than anything I could have imagined. But I wasn’t alone – there were voices there, in my head, telling me what had happened and what I had to do. That kept me from losing my mind, I think. But Sam…” I shook my head. “Sam had no help.”

“Will they be angry that I’m with you?” She asked.

My face scrunched up. “Probably.”

“Maybe I shouldn’t – ”

“No, it’s okay,” I assured her. “You know a ton of things that can help us. It’s not like you’re just some ignorant human. You’re like a… I don’t know, spy or something. You’ve been behind enemy lines.”

I meant it as a compliment, but she frowned, scowling out the windshield for a moment. I continued as if I didn’t notice.

“Like the stuff about the mind-reading bloodsucker. That’s the kind of thing we need to know about. That really sucks that those stories are true. It makes everything more complicated. Hey, do you think this Victoria can do anything special?”

“I don’t think so,” she said quickly. After a moment, she sighed. “He would have mentioned it.”

“He?” I asked, tilting my head to the side. “Oh, you mean Edward – oops, sorry. I forgot. You don’t like to say his name. Or hear it.”

She squeezed her midsection. “Not really, no.”

“Sorry,” I said again.

“How do you know me so well, Jacob? Sometimes it’s like you can read my mind.”

“Naw,” I said modestly. “I just pay attention.” To you, I almost added.

I pulled over on the little dirt road and cut the engine.

“You’re still pretty unhappy, aren’t you?” I murmured in the deafening silence after the engine’s roar died off.

She just nodded, staring unseeingly into the misty forest.

“Did you ever think… that maybe… you’re better off?”

She inhaled slowly, then let it out in a rush. “No,” she breathed.

“’Cause he wasn’t the best –” I started.

“Please, Jacob,” she interrupted, begging in a whisper. “Could we please not talk about this? I can’t stand it.”

“Okay,” I said, taking a deep breath. “I’m sorry I said anything.”

“Don’t feel bad,” she consoled me. “If things were different, it would be nice to finally be able to talk to someone about it.”

I nodded. “Yeah, I had a hard time keeping a secret from you for two weeks. It must be hell to not be able to talk to anyone.”

“Hell,” she agreed in a dark voice.

The pack crashed through the forest ahead of us, stopping when they noticed the truck. I watched the shimmer ripple through the trees as they shifted, and sucked in a sharp breath.

“They’re here. Let’s go.”

“Are you sure?” She asked nervously while I popped my door open. “Maybe I shouldn’t be here.”

“They’ll deal with it,” I replied, then grinned. “Who’s afraid of the big, bad wolf?”

“Ha, ha,” she said sarcastically.

But she hurried around to meet me at the front of the truck, standing close enough to feel her sweatshirt brushing against my elbow. Her hand was shaking as badly as mine, so I took it and squeezed.

“Here we go.” 

Chapter Text

XVII

Bella cowered into my side as the pack emerged, a single entity, from the forest. Their faces all turned from curious and cautious to furious in the same split-second, making my heart hammer in my chest.

“What have you done, Jacob?” Sam demanded.

Paul thrust past Sam and spoke before I could defend myself. “Why can’t you just follow the rules, Jacob?” He yelled, throwing his arms in the air. “What the hell are you thinking? Is she more important than everything – than the whole tribe? Than the people getting killed?”

“She can help,” I insisted quietly, trying to keep my voice calm.

“Help!” Paul scoffed. His arms began to quiver. “Oh, that’s likely! I’m sure the leech-lover is just dying to help us out!”

“Don’t talk about her like that!” I shouted back, squeezing Bella’s hand as mine reflexively balled into a fist.

A shudder rippled through Paul, hunching his shoulders and shaking down to the base of his spine.

“Paul! Relax!” Sam barked.

Paul shook his head back and forth as if to clear it. I wasn’t completely sure he was in control of the movement.

“Jeez, Paul,” Jared muttered under his breath. “Get a grip.”

If I was in a better mood, I probably would have rolled my eyes at him. Jared never learned not to poke an angry bear. Paul twisted his head toward Jared to show his teeth in irritation, then shifted his glare to Bella. I took a step to put himself in front of her, knowing what came next.

“Right, protect her!” Paul bellowed.

Paul roared in outrage, another convulsion heaving his body forward. He threw his head back, a growl tearing from between his teeth.

“Paul!” Sam and I shouted together.

Paul fell forward, vibrating violently. Halfway to the ground, there was a loud ripping noise, and he exploded. Dark silver fur blew out, coalescing into a shape more than five times his size – a massive, crouched wolf, ready to spring. His muzzle wrinkled back over his teeth, and another growl rolled through his colossal chest. His dark, enraged eyes focused on Bella.

In the same second, I was running across the road, straight for Paul.

“Jacob!” Bella screamed.

There wasn’t time to wonder whether or not this would freak her out. Mid-stride, I let the heat shaking my arms send a tremor shivering down my spine. I leaped forward, diving headfirst into the air, and tore into my other body.

We settle this like men, Paul assured me.

I wouldn’t have it any other way, I replied.

I charged, attacking head-on, as was my way. Paul snarled and snapped his jaws at me, baring his teeth with lips curled back tightly against his nose. I rammed my shoulder into his, again and again, knocking him back toward the trees, trying to get away from Bella.

Don’t want your girlfriend to see you lose? Paul taunted, snapping at my shoulder.

“Take her to Emily’s,” Sam shouted toward Jared and Embry.

You wish, pip-squeak, I responded, succeeding in shoving us off the road. I grabbed his ear with my teeth, pulling us past the tall ferns bordering the trees of the forest.

We finish this, Paul declared, lunging at me and pushing me down to the ground. I’ll kill you now, traitor!

I shoved him off me easily, tossing him into a nearby tree with a thud.

I didn’t betray the pack, I snarled. She can help. She knows what the redhead wants.

Sure she does! I know what the redhead wants, too. It wants blood! What a surprise! Paul growled.

SILENCE!

Sam had shifted.

Jacob, tell me what you did, he ordered.

I explained quickly, going over the major points of the conversation in my head, trying not to linger on the werewolf secrets I’d given away. They focused on those, though, interrupting when I got to the part where I called the meeting.

God, Jake, why don’t you just invite her to join the council, Paul growled.

Shut up, Sam ordered.

I continued by telling them the stories were all true about vampires with extra abilities, earning a few choice words from Sam and a string of profanity from Paul.

When all was said and done, we shifted and headed over to Emily’s to update the others. My stomach twisted with nerves to see Bella again. Would she run screaming? Had I lost all my humanity in her eyes?

Sam ran ahead once he saw the tiny house, leaving Paul and I in his dust.

“Isn’t it sad?” Paul asked as Sam disappeared inside.

“What?”

“He’s like her slave,” Paul explained, scrunching up his nose. “You should be more glad you didn’t imprint on Bella.”

I laughed. “He’s still got it, though,” I quoted mockingly, unable to agree.

We walked through the door together, still laughing. The smell of fresh blueberries and eggs frying made my mouth water. Paul punched me on the shoulder and I went in for a kidney jab, then scanned the room for Bella.

All was normal, but it felt different. Lighter. More friendly. On the kitchen table, where Embry and Jared were already dipping their forks in for seconds, was a cracked blue-and-white china pitcher overflowing with wildflowers. The house was brighter than usual, more welcoming, and I realized why as soon as my eyes landed on Bella.

She was leaning against the counter in the far corner of the kitchen, pointedly looking at anything other than Emily and Sam. It was always good to see Bella, even when she smiled back awkwardly, eyes guarded.

“Hey, Bells,” I greeted cheerfully, grabbing two muffins as I passed the table. I leaned against the counter with her, trying to look casual as the knot of excitement tightened in my stomach.

“Sorry about before,” I muttered under my breath, aware of all the heightened hearing in the room. “How are you holding up?”

“Don’t worry, I’m okay. Good muffins.” She picked one up from the counter and nibbled on the edges.

“Oh, man!” Jared wailed, interrupting us. I took the opportunity to shove half a muffin in my mouth while Bella watched as Jared and Embry examined the fading pink line on Paul’s forearms where I’d managed to scratch him.

Embry grinned, exultant. “Fifteen dollars,” he crowed.

“Did you do that?” Bella whispered to me.

“I barely touched him. He’ll be perfect by sundown.”

“By sundown?” She asked incredulously, looking back at Paul’s arm.

“Wolf thing,” I whispered.

Bella nodded, face blank.

“You okay?” She asked suddenly, running her eyes up and down the length of my body.

I grinned, smug. She was so obvious when she checked me out.

“Not a scratch on me,” I boasted.

“Hey, guys,” Sam announced, still standing at the stove with his hand touching the small of Emily’s back. “Jacob has information for us.”

Paul sat back in his chair, shoving a whole muffin into his mouth, looking bored. Jared and Embry looked up at me, curious.

“I know what the redhead wants. That’s what I was trying to tell you before.” I kicked the leg of Paul’s chair for emphasis.

“And?” Jared asked impatiently.

My voice got serious. “She is trying to avenge her mate – only it wasn’t the black-haired leech that we killed. The Cullens got her mate last year, and she’s after Bella now.”

Bella shivered next to me. Jared, Embry, and Emily stared at her in open-mouthed surprise.

“She’s just a girl,” Embry protested.

“I didn’t say it made sense. But that’s why the bloodsucker’s been trying to get past us. She’s been heading for Forks.”

Bella ducked her head when they kept staring. I was just about to smack the shocked look off Embry’s face when Jared spoke.

“Excellent,” he exclaimed, a smile beginning to pull up the corners of his mouth. “We’ve got bait.”

It took me less than half a second to grab a can opener from the counter and hurl it at Jared’s head. It took Jared the other half to catch it, just before it hit his face.

“Bella is not bait,” I growled, clenching my fists at my sides.

“You know what I mean,” Jared said, unconcerned by my temper.

“So we’ll be changing our patterns,” Sam said, ignoring our antics. “We’ll try leaving a few holes, and see if she falls for it. We’ll have to split up, and I don’t like that. But if she’s really after Bella, she probably won’t try to take advantage of our divided numbers.”

“Quil’s got to be close to joining us,” Embry murmured. “Then we’ll be able to split evenly.”

I looked down at the floor, hopeless against my friend’s inevitable fate.

“Well, we won’t count on that,” Sam said in a low voice, then continued at his regular volume. “Paul, Jared, and Embry will take the outer perimeter, and Jacob and I will take the inner. We’ll collapse in when we’ve got her trapped.”

Emily looked at Sam in worry, and Bella glanced up at me with the same expression.

Sam caught Bella’s eye. “Jacob thinks it would be best if you spent as much time as possible here in La Push. She won’t know where to find you so easily, just in case.”

“What about Charlie?” She demanded.

“March Madness is still going,” I said. “I think Billy and Harry can manage to keep Charlie down here when he’s not at work.”

“Wait,” Sam said, holding one hand up. His gaze flickered to Emily momentarily and then fell back on Bella. “That’s what Jacob thinks is best, but you need to decide for yourself. You should weigh the risks of both options very seriously. You saw this morning how easily things can get dangerous here, how quickly they get out of hand. If you choose to stay with us, I can’t make any guarantees about your safety.”

“I won’t hurt her,” I mumbled, looking down.

Sam pretended not to hear me. “If there was somewhere else you felt safe…”

Bella bit her lip, choosing her words carefully. “I don’t want to lead Victoria anywhere else,” she whispered.

Sam nodded. “That’s true. It’s better to have her here, where we can end this.”

Bella flinched, looking back up at me with unconcealed worry.

“You’ll be careful, right?” She croaked.

I laughed, and everyone but Emily joined me. “Food’s ready,” she announced, effectively ending any conversation for the next fifteen minutes.

Bella spent the rest of the day at La Push, most of it at my house, waiting for my fleeting breaks from running around as a wolf. Charlie brought over two pizzas, looking at all of us suspiciously, and I was glad that I wouldn’t be the one to explain anything to him. Bella couldn’t wipe the worried expression off her face when I walked her to the truck after dinner, so I lingered by the window, waiting for Charlie to drive away.

“Don’t be afraid tonight,” I said while Charlie pretended to be having trouble with his seat belt. “We’ll be out there, watching.”

“I won’t worry about myself,” she promised grimly.

“You’re silly,” I grinned, leaning forward subconsciously. “Hunting vampires is fun. It’s the best part of this whole mess.”

She shook her head. “If I’m silly, then you’re dangerously unbalanced.”

I chuckled. “Get some rest, Bella, honey. You look exhausted,” My eyes traced the dark circles beneath her eyes, fingers twitching to run along her cheekbone.

“I’ll try,” she said doubtfully.

Charlie honked his horn impatiently.

“See you tomorrow,” I said. “Come down first thing.”

“I will,” she promised, then started the truck.

Chapter Text

XVIII

We commenced with Plan A, which started out alright, and then got worse as the days sped by, hurtling towards disaster like a dart meets the middle of a corkboard. I patrolled the inner perimeter with Sam, mulling over how I could get Bella to realize we were meant to be together. I drove them all nuts, so they started letting me go check in on her more often.

Forks High was on spring break, so Bella spent most of her time walking on the beach, staring pensively out at the waves with a haunted look in her eyes. Her dark hair, heavy with the salty spray, hung untamed and wild behind her, twisting like seaweed washed up on the shore. My off-gray hoodie – which she stole after insisting I do my laundry, then promptly elbowed me out of the way when I poured bleach into the washing machine – hung like drapes from her shoulders, billowing out behind her in the wind. Dawn broke across her face when she saw me, cracking into a delighted smile, but the pain never left her eyes.

“I’m sorry for ditching you so much,” I apologized one day as I ran up to meet her, grabbing her hand in mine without a second thought. “My schedule isn’t usually this crazy, but the wolves are on red alert right now.”

She understood, to some extent, but still scowled when I had to leave.

On Tuesday afternoon, I had the pleasure of escorting Bella to work, which just so happened to be the sporting goods store owned by the parents of none other than Mike Newton. He took in a sharp breath when he saw Bella riding behind me on the Harley, and his face turned an odd shade of purple. I waved at him, grinning a smug smile. I could afford some kindness, since I knew there was no way Bella would ever go out with someone as normal as Mike Newton. He couldn’t handle crazy.

Afterwards, when I picked her up from work, we went back to my house, where Charlie and Billy were already watching a basketball game. Bella fixed fish with Harry’s fish fry while I perched on the counter next to the stove. It was the kind of moment I lived for; peaceful, normal. She had the sleeves of her light blue shirt rolled up to her elbows, dipping the filets into two different bowls and laying them out on a baking sheet.

“You guys don’t have anything green in your fridge,” she complained with a reproving glance at me.

“If you take over the kitchen here, I’ll add another year to your total,” I offered.

She rolled her eyes. “I think that would deserve more than just one year,” she retorted.

My arm wrapped around her shoulders before I could tell it not to. “I thought you gave up trying to be older after the bikes.”

Bella laughed nervously, but didn’t shake me off. “I guess I’m still holding out hope,” she joked.

Sam and Emily stopped over after dinner with a cake that could have made Stalin a capitalist. Charlie’s suspicions melted from his eyes instantly, and their conversation flowed effortlessly the rest of the night. I was relieved when he finally stopped looking at me like an alien who had stolen Jacob Black’s body.

Bella and I snuck out while the adults were occupied with Emily’s baking. Sam gave me a meaningful look when I ducked out the door behind her, and I nodded, wishing he would trust me. We went out to the garage and sat in the Rabbit.

I was hit with a sudden sense of déjà vu, being back here with Bella, and with it came a wave of exhaustion. We couldn’t go back to those simpler times anymore, when we were just two irresponsible teenagers looking for an escape. I leaned my head back, eyes closing.

“You need some sleep, Jake.”

“I’ll get around to it.”

I reached over and took her hand, brushing my thumb against her knuckles. Her hands were always freezing, like holding ice, but they warmed up quickly against my blazing skin.

“Is that one of those wolf things?” She asked suddenly. “The heat, I mean.”

“Yeah. We run a little warmer than normal people. About one-oh-eight, one-oh-nine. I never get cold anymore. I could stand like this” – I gestured to my bare torso  – “in a snowstorm and it wouldn’t bother me. The flakes would turn to rain where I stood.”

“And you all heal fast – that’s a wolf thing, too?”

“Yeah, wanna see? It’s pretty cool.” My eyes flipped open and crinkled in a grin. I reached around Bella to the glove compartment and dug around for a minute, then pulled my hand out with the pocketknife Billy gave me for my tenth birthday.

“No, I do not want to see!” She shouted. “Put that away!”

I chuckled, shoving the knife back. “Fine. It’s a good thing we heal, though. You can’t go see just any doctor when you’re running a temperature that should mean you’re dead.”

“No, I guess not,” she conceded thoughtfully. “…And being so big – that’s part of it? Is that why you’re all worried about Quil?”

My face fell at the reminder. “That and the fact that Quil’s grandfather says the kid could fry an egg on his forehead. It won’t be long now. There’s no exact age… it just builds and builds and then suddenly –” I broke off, a lump rising in my throat.

I continued, voice still thick. “Sometimes, if you get really upset or something, that can trigger it early. But I wasn’t upset about anything – I was happy.” I laughed humorlessly. “Because of you, mostly. That’s why it didn’t happen to me sooner. Instead it just kept on building up inside me – I was like a time bomb. You know what set me off? I got back from that movie and Billy said I looked weird. That was all, but I just snapped. And then I – I exploded. I almost ripped his face off – my own father!” I shuddered, feeling sick.

“Is it really bad, Jake?” She asked anxiously, leaning towards me. “Are you miserable?”

“No, I’m not miserable,” I said honestly. “Not anymore. Not now that you know. That was hard, before.” I rested my cheek on top of her hair, smiling to myself.

Being here with Bella reminded me of old movies my sisters used to watch, when teenagers drove out to a secluded place and made out in their cars. I wished desperately for that sense of normalcy, or maybe I just wanted the possibility of being with her like that. She was my best friend, but her pull was impossible to ignore, and the lines between us kept getting blurred. It was like walking a tightrope, swaying back and forth, trying not to fall. I knew we couldn’t keep up this balancing act; one way or another, we would tilt to one side of the wire. I hoped desperately, perhaps in vain, that she would choose me.

It was obvious that Bella loved me, though she had never said it out loud. I knew it wasn’t the romantic type of love I felt for her, but lately it felt like she was starting to come around. The whole werewolf thing had been a set-back at first, then it ended up bringing us even closer. She was still scared, though, and I suspected it was because she was waiting for the hammer to fall. I had to find some way to prove she could trust me, that I would never break another promise. If I could manage that, it could be the tipping point I’d been waiting for.

“What’s the hardest part?” She whispered, breaking my reverie.

“The hardest part is feeling… out of control,” I said slowly. “Feeling like I can’t be sure of myself – like maybe you shouldn’t be around me, like maybe nobody should. Like I’m a monster who might hurt somebody. You’ve seen Emily. Sam lost control of his temper for just one second… and she was standing too close. And now there’s nothing he can ever do to put it right again. I hear his thoughts – I know what that feels like…” I trailed off, looking down at our intertwined hands.

“Who wants to be a nightmare, a monster?” I asked rhetorically.

She stared up at me with wide eyes, listening intently, so I continued.

“And then, the way it comes so easily to me, the way I’m better at it than the rest of them – does that make me even less human than Embry or Sam? Sometimes I’m afraid that I’m losing myself.”

“Is it hard? To find yourself again?”

“At first,” I replied. “It takes some practice to phase back and forth. But it’s easier for me.”

“Why?” She wondered, eyebrows furrowing.

“Because Ephraim Black was my father’s grandfather, and Quil Ateara was my mother’s grandfather.”

“Quil?”

“His great-grandfather,” I clarified. “The Quil you know is my second cousin.”

“But why does it matter who your great-grandfathers are?”

“Because Ephraim and Quil were in the last pack. Levi Uley was the third. It’s in my blood on both sides. I never had a chance. Like Quil doesn’t have a chance,” I added in a bleak voice.

“What’s the very best part?” She asked, a smile dancing on her lips.

“The best part,” I said, grinning back at her, “is the speed.

“Better than the motorcycles?” She asked hopefully.

I nodded enthusiastically. “There’s no comparison.”

“How fast can you…?” She left her question dangling, glancing at me meaningfully.

“Run?” I finished for her. “Fast enough. What can I measure it by? We caught… what was his name? Laurent? I imagine that means more to you than it would to someone else.”

It obviously did – her eyes widened exponentially, and her arms crossed against her chest.

“So, tell me something I don’t know,” I said quickly. “Something about vampires. How did you stand it, being around them? Didn’t it creep you out?”

“No,” she said curtly, looking out the windshield.

I thought for a second, wondering if I should pick her brain some more. “Say, why’d your bloodsucker kill that James, anyway?”

“James was trying to kill me – it was like a game for him. He lost. Do you remember last spring when I was in the hospital down in Phoenix?”

I sucked in a sharp breath, the air scratching my throat. “He got that close?”

“He got very, very close,” she said distantly. Her fingers reached over and stroked the back of the hand I was holding.

“What’s that?” I asked, trading hands and examining hers with another wave of déjà vu. “This is your funny scar, the cold one.” I looked closer, seeing what I hadn’t been able to at the movie theater, and gasped in horror.

“Yes, it’s what you think it is,” she confirmed. “James bit me.”

My eyes got so wide I thought they might fall out of my skull. My stomach churned with bile, and I swallowed hard to keep from screaming. “But if he bit you…? Shouldn’t you be…?” I choked.

“Edward saved me twice,” she whispered. “He sucked the venom out – you know, like with a rattlesnake.”

She twitched at the same time I did.

My whole body was trembling as I lost my grip. The car shuddered beneath us. This was too much for me to handle; sure, I’d assumed something terrible must have happened to her in Phoenix, but not even in my wildest dreams could I have imagined this.

“Careful, Jake. Easy. Calm down,” she soothed.

“Yeah,” I panted through clenched teeth. “Calm.” I shook my head back and forth quickly, trying to clear it. I took a deep breath in through my nose, letting it out slowly through pursed lips, and then only my hands were shaking.

“You okay?”

“Yeah, almost. Tell me something else. Give me something else to think about,” I said quickly.

“What do you want to know?”

“I don’t know,” I said, closing my eyes to concentrate. “The extra stuff I guess. Did any of the other Cullens have… extra talents? Like the mind reading?”

Bella spoke quickly, an edge of panicked hysteria in her voice. “Jasper could… sort of control the emotions of the people around him. Not in a bad way, just to calm someone down, that kind of thing. It would probably help Paul a lot,” she teased in a weak voice. “And then Alice could see things that were going to happen. The future, you know, but not absolutely. The things she saw would change when someone changed the path they were on…” She trailed off, gasping for air and clutching her torso like a buoy out in open water.

I was entirely in control now. My hands didn’t shake when I reached out to grab her arm. “Why do you do that?” I asked. I gave up trying to tug her arm off when she kept it wound tightly around her. “You do that when you’re upset. Why?”

“It hurts to think about them,” she said softly, still panting. “It’s like I can’t breathe… like I’m breaking into pieces…” she trailed off, looking back out the windshield with the same haunted expression she wore on the beach.

I smoothed her hair down, wishing I hadn’t said anything. “It’s okay, Bella, it’s okay. I won’t bring it up again. I’m sorry.”

“I’m fine,” she gasped. “Happens all the time. Not your fault.”

“We’re a pretty messed-up pair, aren’t we?” I asked, trying to break the sudden tension. “Neither of us can hold our shape together right.”

“Pathetic,” she said breathlessly.

“At least we have each other,” I added, smiling.

Bella seemed comforted by that. “At least there’s that,” she agreed.

But we were apart more than together nowadays.

I checked in on her the next day. She had spent the morning at Emily’s house, and Emily was concerned, worried about the look on her face when she ran off to the beach. I found her curled up in a ball on a patch of damp rocks, rocking back and forth with anxiety-filled eyes.

My smile disappeared. “Sorry,” I said quickly.

I pulled her up from the ground and wrapped both arms around her shoulders. She shivered, then pressed her cold cheek against my bare chest with a sigh. I took her hand after a moment, pulling us back up the beach.

“I’m ruining your spring break,” I worried aloud.

“No, you’re not. I didn’t have any plans. I don’t think I like spring breaks, anyway,” she replied.

“I’ll take tomorrow morning off,” I decided. “The others can run without me. We’ll do something fun.”

Bella looked up at me doubtfully. “Fun?”

“Fun is exactly what you need. Hmm…” I gazed out across the heaving gray waves, deliberating.

As my eyes scanned the horizon, they fell upon the cliffs, and I had a flash of inspiration.

“Got it!” I exclaimed. “Another promise to keep.”

“What are you talking about?”

I let go of her hand and pointed toward the southern edge of the beach, where the flat, rocky, half-moon dead-ended against the sheer sea cliffs. She stared, still not understanding.

“Didn’t I promise to take you cliff diving?” I reminded.

She shivered, and I chuckled. “Yeah, it’ll be pretty cold – not as cold as it is today. Can you feel the weather changing? The pressure? It will be warmer tomorrow. You up for it?” I asked, getting more excited as I considered it.

Bella stared at the dark gray water for a few seconds, deep in thought. A crease formed between her eyebrows, forehead crumpling above them, and I wondered if she was considering my offer a challenge.

“Sure, I’m up for it. Fun.”

“It’s a date,” I said, draping my arm around her shoulders. She wrapped her arm around my torso.

“Okay,” she agreed, rolling her eyes. “Now let’s go get you some sleep,” she added, looking up at the dark bags beneath my eyes.

I didn’t end up getting much rest. Early the next morning, Sam knocked down our door and pulled me out of bed by the ankles. I was still half-asleep by the time we made it outside, but the change in weather woke me up.

All the animals were on high-alert, scurrying into every nook and cranny of the forest for cover from the coming storm. Sam and I shifted quickly, uneasy.

What’s going on? I growled, still angry from getting dragged out of a peaceful, dreamless sleep.

We found a fresh trail, Embry replied. She’s hedged herself in beside the mountains. Looks like our chance, he added hopefully.

Chased her down from the Hyas Creek, Jared panted.

She’s headed for the trailhead, Paul predicted.

Not if we get there first, I replied.

Sam and I hopped over the Bogachiel river, meeting the rest of the pack where the mountain sloped into the valley. The red-headed leech was leaping from branch to branch above us, while we barked and snapped up the trees, trying in vain to reach her.

All of a sudden, there was another voice in my head, raging with a familiar fury, and then a different voice, younger and scared.

Leah and Sam Clearwater were wolves now.

Sam didn’t have the wherewithal to handle both situations right now, so I took over the chase while he ran back to La Push to deal with the newest crisis.

It’s always something, I muttered to myself.

I didn’t know girls could shift, Paul remarked.

Seth is only fourteen, right? Jared chimed in.

The leech is gonna get away from us again! Embry exclaimed, annoyed by the distraction.

Sam shifted back into a human suddenly, since neither Leah nor Seth were able to explain the ambulance sitting outside their house. He must have gone with the paramedics, because when he shifted back into a wolf, he was in the woods behind the hospital.

Harry Clearwater had a heart attack, he informed us. It’s not looking good for him.

Leah and Seth howled in agony. The rest of us hesitated in our pursuit of the red-headed leech, muscles bogged down with shock and sorrow, but we pushed on, following her through the valley.

We chased her down to where the rivers converged and snaked into the Quillayute, when she lept from the trees onto the overpass, then plopped into the water with barely a splash, her wild red hair bobbing beneath the surface.

Bella! I thought with alarm, picturing the mouth of the river converging with the ocean.

You go get her. We got this, Paul thought confidently, running alongside the river with Jared and Embry.

Let’s go, Sam agreed, turning and heading back towards the beach.

The others quickly lost the red-head in the rapids, but followed the river as it flowed towards the estuary, stopping at Little James Island and searching for any sign of the bloodsucker. They doubled back, sniffing the river’s edge for any trails leading out of the water.

Leah’s thoughts were vague and choppy, but laced with a feral anger that honestly scared me. Seth was confused and upset, but he was starting to come around. He’d been listening to us more than Leah. She was studiously ignoring us, behaving on instinct and intuition, like a real wolf. She hadn’t come back to herself yet, and I wasn’t really in a big rush to reveal her human thoughts. I was sure they would make me feel even worse than young Seth, whimpering in fear and confusion, worrying about his family.

I was too busy worrying about Bella to pay them much mind. I assumed she would be at the beach, where she had been all week when I went to find her, right where the water meets the sand. Water that the red-headed leech could be in right now.

When we got to the beach, I knew Bella had been there, but the trail was older. The truck wasn’t at Billy’s house, either, but the familiar smell of the Chevy left a faint trail down the road. We followed it down to where tire marks skidded onto the dirt trail that lead to the cliffs.

I groaned. I should have told Billy to keep her on house arrest or something.

A tight knot of worry was tying itself up in my stomach, an ominous feeling of danger creeping up my neck. We followed the tire marks, shifting back into our human forms when we got about a hundred yards in. The woods were eerily silent, uncharacteristically still. Even without any wind, the smoky gray clouds churned in front of a sky that was the same color as a fresh bruise.

My heart thundered to a stop when we got to the top of the cliff, just in time to watch Bella fling herself into the waiting air. Her blood-curdling scream rang in my ears like I’d been hit over the head with an aluminum baseball bat.

My heart started up again in triple time, lurching forward in my chest as if she was dragging me off the cliff with her.

“BELLA!” I roared, but she had disappeared.

Without thinking, I got a running start and jumped after her. As I fell, I saw the white halo of bubbles where she must have crashed into the waves, and angled my body to land there.

I opened my eyes when I broke through the water, blinking against the saltwater.

Bella’s limp body was being jerked around by the current like the rag doll my sisters used to fight over. The water was chilly even to me, so she must have been frozen numb. I didn’t have time to dilly-dally, but her expression momentarily stunned me. Her eyes were closed; peaceful, content, happy, the same as when I’d seen her at the prom dancing with her bloodsucker.

I didn’t pause as the current rocked us into each other, sending the air out of her lungs in a thick cloud of silver bubbles. I slung my hand under her armpit and kicked against the tug of the waves, surfacing a few seconds later.

I got her back to the beach in record time. Sam was waiting there, his face worn and tired. His hands held her up in a sitting position while I beat the space between her shoulder blades, trying to get the water out of her lungs. Saltwater gushed out of her mouth and nose, pouring down into her lap.

“Breathe!” I ordered, my voice wild with anxiety.

She didn’t. Her eyes were open, with dilated pupils, glassy and unfocused, swimming with excess moisture. Her lips were blue, and her body was shuddering violently. I smacked her back again, and another wave of water heaved its way out of her.

“Breathe, Bella!” I begged, a lump building in my throat. “C’mon!”

Miraculously, her lungs took in a sharp, raspy breath of air. Her eyes rolled into the back of her head when we laid her down on the sand. I crouched above her, resting my hand on her chest to make sure it was still moving.

“Bella?” I asked, voice tense. “Bells, honey, can you hear me?” I pleaded, but her body did not respond.

“How long has she been unconscious?” Sam asked.

“I don’t know,” I replied frantically, glancing quickly at the roiling waves beneath the cliff. “A few minutes? It didn’t take long to tow her to the beach.”

My mind was still running fast with adrenaline. I was surprised when I noticed the clouds had finally started releasing their load; a thousand shards of ice-cold glass, striking the earth with precision and bouncing off my skin, melting before hitting the ground. Bella’s breathing was wheezy, like a vacuum cleaner on the high setting. Her heart was fluttering in her chest to the beat of a hummingbird’s wings.

“She’s breathing. She’ll come around,” Sam reassured me, resting his hand on my shoulder and giving me a meaningful look. “We should get her out of the cold, though. I don’t like the color she’s turning…” He trailed off, looking down with genuine concern.

Sam wouldn’t have admitted it out loud, but he always harbored a soft spot for the girl after finding her in the woods. It baffled some of the others, but made sense to me. She had just as much reason to hate the bloodsuckers as we did, in his opinion, and that meant she was working for the same cause, in a sense. I didn’t like to think about how much she still seemed to love the Cullens, so I didn’t correct him.

“You think it’s okay to move her?”

“She didn’t hurt her back or anything when she fell?”

“I don’t know.”

We both hesitated. Then, another miracle occurred.

Bella’s eyelids fluttered open, blinking against the rain.

“Jake?” She croaked.

I was over her face in a heartbeat, arms resting on either side of her face. “Oh!” I gasped in relief, melting above her and oozing into the grainy sand. I blinked, dripping water down from my hair. “Oh, Bella! Are you okay? Can you hear me? Do you hurt anywhere?”

“J-Just m-my throat,” she stuttered, blue lips quivering from the cold.

“Let’s get you out of here, then,” I said quickly.

I slid one arm under her shoulder blades and the other behind her knees, picking her up effortlessly. Bella was ridiculously light – like picking up a discarded feather from the ground. She was also frozen solid, so I hunched my shoulders protectively around her, taking the rain on my back. Her head lolled over my arm, neck limp, eyes staring vacantly toward the furious water.

“You got her?” Sam asked.

“Yeah, I’ll take it from here. Get back to the hospital. I’ll join you later. Thanks, Sam.”

Sam nodded, then turned and ran into the trees.

I half-jogged through the rain – trying not to jostle her head too much – up the beach toward the road. It was sure to get back to Charlie if I strolled through town sopping wet and covered in sand, carrying his semi-conscious daughter, so I planned to cut through the woods. I didn’t really expect Bella to start asking questions, but I probably should have.

“How did you find me?” She rasped. Her voice sounded like two cheese graters rubbing against each other.

“I was searching for you,” I explained. “I followed the tire tracks to your truck, and then I saw you jump, and heard you scream…” I shuddered. “Why would you jump, Bella? Didn’t you notice that it’s turning into a hurricane out here? Couldn’t you have waited for me?” Anger filled my voice as the overwhelming relief got washed away by the rain.

“Sorry,” she muttered. “It was stupid.”

“Yeah, it was really stupid,” I agreed, nodding and spraying drops of rain onto her face.

She looked up at me with solemn, guilt-ridden eyes.

“Look,” I sighed, having already forgiven her without meaning to, “do you mind saving the stupid stuff for when I’m around? I won’t be able to concentrate if I think you’re jumping off cliffs behind my back.”

“Sure,” she grated. “No problem.”

I heard her try to clear her throat as we dove through the underbrush, then felt her wince.

“What happened today?” She asked suddenly. “Did you… find her?” She shuddered.

I shook my head as we made it to the road, crossing the forest in thirty seconds when I didn’t have to go at a human pace. “No. She took off into the water – the bloodsuckers have the advantage there. That’s why I raced home – I was afraid she was going to double back swimming. You spend so much time on the beach…” My voice cracked on the last word.

“Sam came back with you… is everyone else home, too?” She asked.

“Yeah,” I replied. “Sort of,” I qualified when she squinted up at me in suspicion.

Then her eyes widened in realization. “You said… hospital. Before, to Sam. Is someone hurt? Did she fight you?” Her voice jumped up an octave, still too hoarse to sound like herself.

“No, no. When we got back, Em was waiting with the news,” I lied, avoiding the topic of Seth and Leah. “It’s Harry Clearwater. He had a heart attack this morning.”

“Harry?” She shook her head, absorbing my words. “Oh, no!” She cried, voice breaking. “Does Charlie know?”

“Yeah. He’s over there, too, with my dad.”

“Is Harry going to be okay?”

My eyes tightened against tears I wasn’t willing to shed in front of her. “It doesn’t look so great right now.”

“What can I do?” Bella asked, sounding devastated, as we walked through Billy’s front door.

“You can stay here,” I replied, dumping her on the couch. “I mean it – right here. I’ll get you some dry clothes.”

I pulled on a pair of dry cut-off sweats, then threw my hair back into a ponytail. I dug through the closet, trying to find something from my pre-wolf days, and coming up empty. Finally, I gave up and picked my warmest sweatshirt and a pair of sweatpants I hadn’t gotten around to cutting into shorts yet.

I threw the pile of gray cotton at her. “These will be huge on you, but it’s the best I’ve got. I’ll, er, step outside so you can change.”

“Don’t go anywhere,” she begged, eyes flying wide open and hands twitching on the couch beside her. “I’m too tired to move yet. Just stay with me.”

I sat on the floor next to her, my back against the couch. It felt like years since the last time I’d slept. Seeing her on the couch, pale and weak, had dissipated the rest of my anger, leaving a numb, blank feeling in its wake. I leaned my head on her knees, trying not to wince at the cold.

“Guess I could rest for a minute,” I said, then a yawn ripped itself from my throat like a silent roar. My eyes closed, and I was given a brief reprieve from this life I didn’t ask for.

I dreamed about a mermaid. Her hair spun wildly around her calm, moon-like face, hovering in the water. She was wearing a white cape that draped around her like milk as it pours into a glass. She smiled, revealing green teeth crawling with algae. Her skin was so pale it glowed against the dark turquoise water, reflecting light on the shimmering current. When her eyes opened, they were vacant and glassy, with dilated pupils staring back at me in the middle of her chocolate-brown eyes.

Chapter Text

XIX

I jerked awake with a gasp, jumping to my feet. I spun around wildly, searching for the stimulus that had startled my subconscious enough to send me reeling back into the real world.

“Sorry,” Billy grunted from the doorway. “Did we wake you?”

Billy’s face was melted in lines of sorrow pulling down his weathered, leathery face, and I immediately knew why.

Bella wasn’t slow, either. “Oh, no, Billy!” She moaned, voice thick with tears.

He nodded slowly, his expression hard with grief. I hurried over and took one of his hands, squeezing tightly. Billy squeezed back, staring up at me as his chin began to quiver. Sam was right behind Billy, pushing his chair through the door. His normal composure was absent from his agonized face.

“I’m so sorry,” Bella whispered.

Billy nodded. “It’s gonna be hard all around.”

“Where’s Charlie?”

“Your dad is still at the hospital with Sue. There are a lot of…” Billy paused, taking a deep breath. “Arrangements to be made,” he finished, voice cracking.

I heard Bella swallow hard.

“I’d better get back there,” Sam mumbled, then ducked hastily out the door. I suspected he wasn’t going back to the hospital, but to the forest, where Leah and Seth had no doubt already heard the news.

Billy pulled his hand from mine, then rolled himself through the kitchen towards his room. I stared after him a minute, realizing there were tears falling from my eyes as well. I wiped them away quickly, then sat back on the floor beside Bella, putting my face in my hands. She rubbed my shoulders mutely, and I could feel her cool breath on the back of my neck. After a long moment, I caught her hand and held it to my face. It was cold, but that felt good; like an ice pack on a bump.

“How are you feeling? Are you okay? I probably should have taken you to a doctor or something,” I sighed.

“Don’t worry about me,” she croaked.

I twisted my head to look up at her. Our faces were only inches apart, and I could see every line of worry creasing her forehead. Her lips were still a little blue, and her cheeks were missing their usual splash of color.

“You don’t look so good,” I commented.

“I don’t feel so good, either, I guess,” she replied.

“I’ll go get your truck and then take you home – you probably ought to be there when Charlie gets back.”

“Right,” she agreed, but her hands lingered on my skin a moment longer than they needed to, like she was reluctant to let go.

It didn’t take long to get the Chevy. The roar of the truck’s engine cleared my head, as my sorrow became overwhelmed by worry. It felt like the world was getting tilted upside down again, hurtling towards another cataclysmic shift that would change everything. With Harry dying, both his children joining the pack, and Bella jumping off a cliff, today had been more eventful than I could have ever imagined.

Bella was lying listlessly on the couch when I got back, staring off into space. I helped her up without speaking, keeping my arm around her shoulder when a burst of cold air from outside made her tremble like a leaf. I took the driver’s seat without a word, then pulled her next to my side to keep my arm tight around her. She leaned her head against my chest, sighing.

“How will you get home?” She asked.

“I’m not going home,” I replied. “We still haven’t caught the bloodsucker, remember?”

She shuddered and curled up tighter against me, resting her ice-cold fingers on my chest.

Our ride was quiet, but the cab was charged with electricity that buzzed in my ears. She warmed up more now that we were both almost completely dry. Her hair was wild and twisted on her head, scratching against my neck. I ran my hand down her arm, grateful to have her there beside me to confirm she was alive.

Her near-death experience and Harry’s actual death had me combing through my life with a fine-tooth comb. I couldn’t imagine my world without Bella. Her life was tangentially connected to mine, intertwined like two threads of one string. If one was cut short, so was the other.

I puzzled over how my life revolved around her; I couldn’t pin-point the exact moment it happened, but at some point after meeting her I’d gotten completely and utterly whipped. So much so that even as I was reeling from the loss of Harry, I was totally focused on her ragged breathing. When did she become the most important thing in my life? When did she become my entire life?

And then, in a moment of complete clarity, I realized it didn’t matter. I didn’t care how many times she flung herself off a cliff – I would always be there to jump in after her, because no matter what she did or who she did it with, we would always be two halves of the same whole. There was no need to know why; all that mattered was the effect. I was hooked on her like a drug, unable to be ripped apart for very long without getting pulled back like a magnet.

And I knew she felt the same way.

It was obvious to anyone paying attention that Bella needed me just as much as I needed her. She’d been a zombie when we met, but slowly she came back to life, until I had to leave her again. I would spend the rest of my life making up for that, I registered, filing that bit in the back of my head to think about later.

I stopped the truck in front of Charlie’s house. It was shrouded in darkness, then suddenly lit up as a crack of lightning split the sky, followed by a deafening roar of thunder that shook the trees. Bella shivered and cowered into my shoulder as I cut the engine. Everything sat still in the sudden silence.

I’d never felt more sure of anything in my life.

Bella Swan and I were meant to be together.

I threw my other arm around her, crushing her against my chest, binding her to me. This felt better than our other hugs; more intimate, somehow. She fit into me like no one else; this hug was ours. No one else could melt so easily into my skin.

I leaned my lips down to her ear. “Sorry,” I said apologetically, though I didn’t mean it. “I know you don’t feel exactly the way I do, Bella. I swear I don’t mind. I’m just so glad you’re okay that I could sing – and that’s something no one wants to hear.” I laughed, my throat thick with tears.

Her breathing kicked into overdrive. I heard it sanding the walls of her throat.

Her hesitation surprised me. I was used to her pulling away, changing the subject, deflecting, etcetera, etcetera. This was different. She was holding me back now, not hesitantly, not shy, not in a friendly way. In a close way. Like she wanted me, too.

I pressed my cheek against the top of her head, inhaling the smell of saltwater and rain, and something else, something floral. Her cheek was pressed up against my shoulder now, fitting into the crook of my neck like two matching puzzle pieces snapping together. She hesitated again, then did something I wouldn’t have expected in a million years.

She pressed her lips tentatively to my collarbone, then worked her way up my throat. I shivered, grabbing her waist with one hand and tilting up her chin to look at me with the other.

Her dark eyes swam with tears, but they were hard with resolve. She gazed back at me steadily, then closed her eyes and leaned in to press her lips against mine.

 

Chapter Text

XX

The blood under my lips bubbled with excitement. I kissed her back with a vengeance, fingers knotting in her hair with an iron grip. She ran her hands down my bare chest, and though her fingers were cold, they lit a fire in my belly. I gripped her tighter, throwing one of my legs over her lap.

Finally, we pulled away from each other, panting, and I was staring into her eyes like a blind man seeing the sun for the first time when it occurred to me.

Maybe I did imprint on Bella.

Hadn’t I loved Bella before shifting? And after, when I wasn’t allowed to see her for her own safety, didn’t it feel like an invisible thread tied to her heart was pulling me towards her with each beat?

Maybe Sam was wrong. Maybe it didn’t have to be a complete one-eighty perspective change. Was it possible the impulse was always there, since the first time on the beach, and I didn’t notice a change because nothing had changed?

I was always meant to be with Bella. I knew that in my gut, I felt it in my chest – the love I had for Bella had molded, changed, become stronger after the shift. Being away from her now was like trying to pull apart two magnets.

I gave Bella a kiss on the forehead. “Where did that come from?” I gasped.

She shook her head. “I’m sorry, Jake, I – ”

I interrupted her with another kiss. When I pulled away, I sighed. “Don’t be sorry, Bells. I know, I know,” I added, rubbing her back with my hands.

She was really starting on a crying jag now. She hiccupped, the air scraping down her throat noisily. I tried not to be offended, and pretended not to notice when a tear fell down my own cheek, refusing to wipe it away.

“Charlie should be back soon,” I reminded her softly.

She nodded. “I’m so sorry, Jake,” she whispered earnestly.

“I don’t mind,” I replied. “You always take care of everyone, I don’t mind taking care of you for once.”

She scoffed, looking down at her hands, intertwined on her lap. “It’s rotten work,” she mumbled to herself.

“Not to me,” I insisted. “Not if it’s you.”

I hooked my arm around her waist and walked her to the door, supporting her weight in my arms. She always felt delicate, but now she was fragile in my arms, like a porcelain teacup in mid-air after teetering off the edge of a table – seconds away from shattering in a million pieces on the floor.

I hesitated at the door, and so did she, staring up at me imploringly.

“You’ll be careful tonight?” Bella pleaded.

“I will,” I promised, then grinned. “We still have a leech to kill.”

She made it inside okay, and I shifted into a wolf, but didn’t leave the house. I ran the perimeter of Charlie’s property for a while, then laid down across from Bella’s window, listening to what was happening with Leah and Seth.

It’s all my fault, Leah moaned, stumbling through the forest around La Push. I could see it in my mind’s eye like I was there. Her grief was all-consuming; it burned through my loving musings of Bella, and I found myself sorry for feeling so happy when one of my brothers – my sister – was hurting so.

It’s not your fault, Seth responded immediately, though we all heard as his mind wondered if maybe it was Leah’s sudden shift that gave Harry a massive heart attack. In truth, he hadn’t considered it before because he was too busy dealing with the confusing tumult of emotions associated with the first shift.

Everyone was confused. We didn’t have time to wonder about it while chasing the red-headed bloodsucker, but now that we had lost the trail we could focus on other things. No one had ever heard of a female wolf, not in the whole history of the tribe. Then to top it all off, little Seth Clearwater, the boy who had hung on my every word just a month or so ago, must have been triggered into shifting early after watching his sister turn into a wolf in his living room and then seeing his father, unconscious and pale, while they waited for an ambulance.

Poor Sue would have had to lie through her tears and breaking sobs, tripping over her words, trying to explain why her living room was destroyed and claw marks were marring the coffee table, but the elders were there faster than the ambulance. Old Quil made sure there weren’t any suspicions in the EMT’s eyes while Billy called Charlie.

Sue was always trying to get Harry to eat something green, Paul thought flippantly, it isn’t Leah’s fault all the cheeseburgers caught up with him.

Leah growled something fierce, the exact words lost in the sea of her rage, but the message was clear. Paul backed down immediately, humbled by her intense and overwhelming grief. Jared and Embry shoved off when she took a swipe at them. She was too far gone for them, only Sam – with the power of his commanding Alpha’s voice – could calm her down now.  

As if turning into a wolf and accidentally killing her father weren’t enough, Leah could now hear every thought Sam had, which often included Emily. Like kicking a wounded animal, each image of them projected into her mind stabbed at her heart, and I could feel all of it.

I didn’t want to think about Leah, or Sam, or even Seth, but I couldn’t help it. Even when I tried to tune them out, the shaking, screaming, sobbing pain from Leah reverberated with the thunder in the distance.

My thoughts returned to Bella, like a moth drawn to the light, and I couldn’t squash the hope I felt when I thought of how connected we were, how right we were for each other.

Don’t start, Jared thought, rolling his eyes at me.

What?

You didn’t imprint on her, Jared responded scathingly, running towards Charlie’s house as I heard the cruiser turning onto the street. You would have known the minute you saw her in the clearing.

You know better than I do what I was feeling in the clearing, I growled back as Jared ran up beside me. The bloodsucker was going in for the kill – there was no time for gawking. Besides, I already knew and loved Bella. It wasn’t this huge change like it was for the rest of you – she was already the only girl I saw. And when I looked into her eyes… it was like coming home, I guess. Isn’t that the way it is for you guys?

Jared, surprisingly, was turning it over in his head. I was amazed when I realized he might actually believe me.

Then, Charlie came ambling out of the cruiser, concentrating very hard on putting one foot in front of the other. Jared and I watched from the cover of the trees, listening as the front door creaked open and Bella walked out sheepishly. She wrapped a slender white arm around his midsection before he even noticed her presence.

“I’m so sorry about Harry, Dad.” Bella’s voice still hadn’t fully recovered, though it sounded hoarser with tears than seawater now.

I worried about that for a second, and Jared heard it. He side-eyed me.

Shut up, I growled, though his thoughts had no words attached.

“I’m really going to miss him,” Charlie mumbled.

“How’s Sue?” Bella asked.

I shared a knowing look with Jared.

“She seems dazed, like she hasn’t grasped it yet. Sam’s staying with her…” I knew Sam was explaining everything to Sue, who was now supposed to take her husband’s spot on the council. “Those poor kids. Leah’s only a year older than you, and Seth’s only fourteen…” Charlie shook his head, mirroring the pack’s feelings when it came to the newest, youngest member.

They walked into the house, and we heard their footsteps in the kitchen. There was the sound of a microwave, and Bella’s clumsy footsteps tripping across the kitchen. Plates and silverware clinked together, and then we heard them chewing.

I relaxed. Bella was safe, and doing what she did best; taking care of someone. Charlie was in the right hands.

You should tell Sam, Jared said pensively. About Leah and Bella. Kind of a bad time, but he’ll find out one way or another.

I was reluctant to leave Bella alone, especially after the stunt she pulled. Funny how it seemed like an eon ago that I was pulling Bella out of the water, trying to beat the breath back into her lungs.

I’ll stay here, Jared promised, and I knew he meant it. He understood that even if I hadn’t imprinted on her, Bella had taken hold in my heart. And our brotherhood ran so deep that if she were hurt, my heartbreak would hurt the whole pack, just like Leah’s.

As I ran home, Leah howled in agony, turning her emotional pain into physical sound. She really was not taking the change well at all. Sam would have to face her, eventually, and try to explain again. I howled along with her in solidarity, but she broke off abruptly.

I don’t want your pity, she growled through the mind-link.

I made it to the Clearwater’s in record time and changed back into a human reluctantly. I didn’t like not being able to keep tabs on Bella through Jared’s mind, but he wasn’t paying much attention to her, anyway. He was running the perimeter of her house, as restless as the rest of us.

Immediately, I regretted coming in. Sue was sitting at the handkerchief-sized kitchen table with a steaming mug that smelled like chamomile between her hands, looking shaken. Her eyes glanced up to meet mine, and they were completely empty. I knew that look. I had seen the same eyes in Sam’s memory of Bella on the night he found her in the woods.

Sam seemed like he was pleading with her, but he looked up at me with a patient expression. I felt the need to update him on Seth and Leah, as second-in-command.

“Seth is calming down, despite Leah’s better efforts.” I rolled my eyes and crossed my arms. “He should be able to phase back soon, but she’ll be a bit longer.”

“Thank you, Jacob. Do you guys need help?”

I winced, imagining Sam confronting Leah. When did my life become a soap opera?

“Yeah, you’ll need to do it sooner or later.”

Sam looked at Sue, who was staring into her drink like it was a black hole trying to drag her in. He calculated for a second, then walked outside to shift.

As soon as we were wolves, we started running towards Leah. I didn’t need to hear her thoughts to recognize the agonized howl hanging in the air, but still, I did.

Dad… Seth… Oh, Mom! Mom, how can you ever forgive me? Even if you could, one day, love me again – even if you love me now, how can you ever look me in the eyes?

Leah, you didn’t kill Dad, Seth soothed, but it only fueled the fire.

I remembered the other reason I came to meet Sam, and immediately regretted it. He looked over at me as we raced through the forest to Leah, shaking his giant black head. I was surprised when I realized he harbored his own suspicions, but he was only focused on one thing.

Now is not the time, Jacob.

Jared, Paul, and Embry circled around in formation. Embry took my left flank, thinking about the possibility of a fight with Leah.

Would she really attack the pack?

Hello? Seth’s young voice rang in all our heads at the same time. He loped along behind us, trying to keep up with our break-neck pace.

Seth, Sam stopped and turned to address the youngest member. You should go home to your mother. She needs you, son.

His voice rang true even without the added mental image of Sue hunched over her tea, a blanket wrapped around her shoulders, all alone. Seth shuddered, whimpering, before shaking his head.

I can’t go home without Leah.

Sam’s weary shoulders rose with a deep breath before he turned back around. Let’s go get her, then.

So we went to meet Leah on the edge of the cliff, staring out as the storm picked up. She was wondering whether or not Bella had the right idea by jumping.

She wasn’t trying to kill herself, I rumbled before I could think better of it.

Are you sure about that? Leah hissed, turning around to face the pack. I know you’re worried about that, Jacob. In fact, I really wish I didn’t know how much you feel for that leech-lover – as if this isn’t all their fault!

Enough, Sam commanded, and all fell silent, each of us waiting for the hammer to fall.

Leah, he continued, his thoughts becoming softer with genuine fondness. Despite everything he put her through, and the imprint bond being so strong, he truly loved Leah. What they had wasn’t the sort of thing that can be erased by any magic – ancient and binding or not.

Lee-Lee, he pleaded, using an old nickname that knocked the wind out of her, twisting her intestines in pain. Now you know why I had to leave you. And how sorry I am. But this fate is not something I ever wished on you – I only hope that you can forgive me enough to let me help you.

Leah collapsed on the ground in a huff, strangled sobs coming from her muzzle. She let the deep waves of grief fall over her, drowning in sadness.

It was a long night. Eventually, we got Leah and Seth back to their house and calmed down enough to shift. Leah quickly covered herself up with her hands, but not fast enough.

Sam didn’t go in the house with them, allowing the family to grieve together without intrusion. He nodded at me, then sent Jared, Paul, and Embry to run patrol on the outer perimeter. They didn’t mind the chance to listen in, or insert their own opinion of my recent revelation.

Good luck with that, Embry chortled, throwing his head back as he ran.

Tell me everything, Jacob. Sam’s voice was unyielding and impossible to ignore.

She kissed me tonight.

Paul and Embry were howling with laugher at my expense, but Jared was oddly quiet. I focused on Sam’s reaction.

It’s possible, Sam admitted with hesitation. You think it’s the same, Jared?

Jared was a little confused, but he took my side. He loves her, we all know that.

Is it as strong as what you feel for Kim?

Jared paused. I’m no expert –

I decided to butt in, since they were talking about me like I wasn’t even there. Seriously, guys, can’t you see it? I asked rhetorically. What if it was only earth-shattering to you guys because it was such a monumental shift? Sam – you loved Leah, and Jared – you didn’t even know Kim’s name. I loved Bella before, and I love her still. Maybe the bond was already there before I shifted, and I didn’t really notice after because nothing changed.

Does that change her feelings, then? Sam was suddenly glaring at me, and I didn’t understand his anger until he continued with his train of thought. You’ve seen what the leeches did to her. His voice became gentler when he thought of the broken girl curled up on the forest floor, and then the image of her lying on the beach, lips blue, while I desperately tried to beat the water out of her lungs. You realize that if you haven’t imprinted on her, you could be setting her up for another heartbreak. We will not hurt her the same way the cold ones did.

I would never – I began, but he interrupted.

I would never have done it to Leah, he said, an ancient sadness coloring his thoughts as his eyes met mine. I didn’t have a choice.

I wouldn’t have a choice. Just like I didn’t have a choice in being a werewolf. If I hadn’t imprinted on Bella, then there was a possibility I would hurt her in the future.

But it’s rare, I argued. It doesn’t happen all the time.

It’s more common than we thought, I fear, Sam responded. Many of the legends have been lost. It’s possible you’ve imprinted on her, but you need to be sure. Absolutely sure.

The only thing I was sure of was I needed to see Bella again.

Sam agreed, thinking that she probably needed more supervision after her activities today, and let me go. He shifted back to go check on the Clearwaters.

I sat outside Bella’s window for a minute, listening. I heard the wind as it whipped through the trees, and the fall of rain on the roof, dripping down the gutter and making soft thuds against the grass. Charlie was snoring, but closer than that was a sharp, jagged breath being pulled in an unsteady, irregular rhythm. I whimpered with Bella, wishing more than anything to hop in through her window again.

I didn’t, though, partially because I needed to process the long day behind me, and partly because Leah was hurting more than I was. She didn’t spend long in her human form, turning back into a wolf and howling again. She needed someone to listen to her, and unfortunately, it was Jared, Embry, and I who got the honor. I sighed, trying very hard not to see things from her point of view.

But it was impossible. All night was a constant battle of memories and revelations from the girl. Her emotions fought each other for dominance. Anger at Sam battled her loyalty to the pack, mostly her brother, who embraced being “on the team,” almost immediately. And grief, rolling in like waves ebbing and flowing on the shore, fighting with guilt. Most of her thoughts didn’t even have words attached to them, just raw, unfiltered emotions and pictures swirled up like water when you flush it down the drain.

Leah’s constant pain beat at me the way the ocean beats on a cliff face, and at three in the morning when I traded shifts with Sam, he heard how her grudge had rubbed off on me. Instead of getting angry like I expected, he hung his head in clear and distinct shame. It lightened Leah’s mood a little to see him suffering, too, but an instant later she felt guilty for it, and howled again.

I left, grudgingly wishing Sam luck.

Chapter Text

XXI

The next day was Saturday, and a pretty one at that. The sun peeked through the sparse clouds in golden beams of light, stretching tenderly down to kiss the earth. Billy woke me up when he needed a ride to Sue’s place, so I stretched and groaned, muttering something about needing to talk to Bella. He rolled down the hallway with a sigh, but I fell back to sleep before he was out of sight. It felt like seconds later he was back, saying Charlie was coming to Sue’s, too, and bringing Bella. I jumped out of bed as my father chuckled.

When we got there, Charlie and Sue were mourning at the table while Bella stood behind Charlie with her hands resting on his shoulders. When I saw her, I couldn’t help but grin from ear to ear and take one of her hands in mine.

“Hey, Bells.”

“Hey, Jake.”

“How ya’ doin’, son?” Charlie asked gruffly, eyeing the hand intertwined with his daughter’s fingers. Bella blushed and started to pull away, but I gripped her hand tighter.

“Sad about Harry,” I responded, though standing next to Bella had really improved my view of the situation – somehow, no matter what was happening, whenever we were together all was right in the world.

Charlie seemed to notice how very not sad I was and huffed, turning back around to the papers on the table. The adults continued their funeral preparations while I pulled Bella out the front door, my feet heading towards the beach without deciding to.

“Are you ever going to let go of my hand?” Bella asked sarcastically while I pulled her along with me towards the shoreline.

“No, I think I’ll keep it,” I joked, pulling our intertwined hands up to rest against my chest and covering them with my other hand. She laughed nervously, a pink blush coloring her cheeks.

Subconsciously, my arm tightened. She leaned into my side as we walked in charged silence, passing over the way to our twisted driftwood log.

We sat in silence for another moment, studying the water. I knew our thoughts were on the same wavelength when she looked up at me and said, “ Jake, about last night –”

“Good, wasn’t it?” I interrupted, raising my eyebrows and grinning.

She rolled her eyes. “What I meant to say is… Well, I’ve given it a lot of thought, and… I-I can’t live without you, Jacob. I know it’s cruel, because I can’t love you as much as you love me,” her chocolate eyes met mine, melting me into a puddle of goo on the sand. “You know I love you. More than anyone else. But how can I let you love me back, when I know I’ll always be broken? You deserve more.”

“I don’t want anything more,” I responded, taking both of her hands in mine and holding them against my chest. “You’re more than I could ever ask for. We’re perfect for each other, don’t you see? You’re freezing all the time,” I remarked as she shivered, trying to diffuse the sudden tension with humor, “and I’m a walking furnace.”

Bella laughed nervously, eyes running down my chest and back up to my eyes. She was always so obvious when she checked me out. I could only smile wistfully down at her, wishing she could see how I saw her.

Because I felt the same way, ‘cept I was a lot more discreet with my ogling.

“I love you, Bella,” I said, searching her eyes for the cringe that usually followed, but she continued to look back, her unflinching, molten eyes torn.

“I love you, Jacob,” she gasped, as if realizing it for the first time. Her eyes flashed with intuition, and her eyebrows raised in surprise. “I love you even though I’m broken, and even though I don’t deserve you, I want you. I have a confession,” She held her fingers up to my lips when I tried to interrupt. “Please, you have to know the truth,” she pleaded, moving her hands so her palms kissed both my cheeks. “I’ve found that… when I was doing something dangerous or stupid, like riding the bike… I could remember him more clearly. I could remember how his voice sounded when he was angry. I could hear it, like he was standing right next to me. You know how I try not to think about him, but this didn’t hurt so much – it was like he was protecting me again. Like he didn’t want me to be hurt.”

Bella scowled. “That night, when he… left,” she swallowed hard before saying the word, her hands twitching towards her chest. “He made me promise not to do anything reckless or stupid. For Charlie’s sake, of course.” She scowled down at our feet, close together in the sand. “I wanted to break a promise to him, after he broke all of his. But I got addicted to his voice, because it made me feel… worthy, I guess. Cared for. Someone who can be loved.

“But when I look at you…” She stared back up at me, almost in awe. “Whenever you’re around, it’s like I’m a whole person again, and sometimes it’s enough to make me think I could make you happy.”

Acting out of instinct – or shock, I couldn’t really tell – I took Bella’s face in both of my hands and leaned down until we were eye-to-eye.

“You are worthy of love, Bella.” I whispered, and she leaned in closer as my warm breath hit her face. “Even if you weren’t, I would still love you, because it’s what you need. I’m made for you, don’t you see? I’ve always been what you needed – your own personal sun,” my joking tone was marred by the edge of hysteria. “I have a confession, too.”

“What could you possibly need to confess to me?” She asked, her voice muffled from my fierce grip on her jaw. I tried to relax the muscles in my hand, remembering how delicate she was. “I just admitted I’m insane. You’re not going to have me committed?”

I grinned and let loose a throaty belly laugh that bounced off the crags bordering the sea and reverberated back to us in echoes.

“I hear voices in my head, too, remember?” I reminded her. “But it’s not about that. It’s about us.”

I waited for her to say something, but her incredulous eyes continued to stare at me with some unrecognizable emotion. Relief? Maybe. She must have been pretty nervous to tell me about her memories of the bloodsucker, but I didn’t let him stop me now. I was so happy that she had finally admitted her feelings that I didn’t worry myself about any hallucinations. Besides, I already knew she was crazy. Her questionable sanity wasn’t exactly news.

I took my hands from her face, balling them up at my sides.

“Well, you see… Sam thinks it’s possible that I may have… imprinted on you.” I managed to get the words out, but I couldn’t look her in the eye as I said them.

“Imprinted?” Bella’s voice revealed her surprise and confusion. “Isn’t that what baby ducks do with their mother? Because she’s the first thing they see after hatching, right?” She grabbed my hands, still clenched into fists, trying to divert my attention from the multi-colored rocks bordering the beach.

“What does that have to do with wolves?” She asked, still trying to get me to look at her.

“It happened to Sam when he met Emily. Broke Leah’s heart, but he had no choice. The moment he saw her…” I trailed off, trying to find the right words to describe such an indescribable feeling. “It’s not like love at first sight, really. It’s more like… gravity moves. When you see her, suddenly it’s not the earth holding you here anymore. She does. And nothing matters more than her. And you would do anything for her, be anything for her… You become whatever she needs you to be, whether that’s a protector, or a lover, or a friend, or a brother.”

I looked up after a moment of silence, but her face was completely blank. I wondered if maybe I finally broke her.

“Bella –” I began, but she interrupted as if she didn’t hear me.

“You imprinted on me?” She asked, her eyes melting and spouting out from the fringe of lashes beneath them.

“I think so,” I said, brushing the tears away with my thumbs. “It’s different for us, though – for Sam it was a complete one-eighty. It wasn’t as obvious for me, because I already loved you. You were already the most important thing to me.” The wind blew her hair out of place, and I tucked it back behind her ear. “And when I saw you for the first time after shifting, you were in danger. I didn’t even have time to savor seeing you again, because we had to get rid of the bloodsucker. But I felt the pull. It was like I was holding one end of a rubber band and you were holding the other, and I kept waiting for it to snap. The anxiety was constant. It hurt to be away from you, and I hated breaking my promise. I drove the guys crazy,” I added, huffing out a breath of relief. It felt good to tell her all the things that had been weighing me down.

She listened with rapture. When I was done explaining, her features seemed dreamy and distant, though she didn’t take her eyes off me. The tears had stopped, but her eyes were still wet and red. I brushed her cheekbone again to try and bring her thoughts back down to the present moment.

“Bella, honey?” I asked softly, and she blinked like I had woken her up from a dream.

“How long does an imprint last?” She asked, her eyebrows coming together and forming a crease on her forehead. I smoothed it out with my thumb, and she sighed.

“Forever,” I promised, understanding the real question. She wanted to know if I would ever leave her like the leeches had.

“Really?” Her voice was hesitant, with an undercurrent of hope.

“C’mon, Bells, you can handle vampires and werewolves being real, but the possibility of soulmates is hard to believe?”

A bitter-sweet smile broke across her face. It grew and reached her eyes when my lips turned up into my old grin, the kind of grin that was totally devoid of any werewolf angst – the kind I reserved only for her.

“Is that what we are?” She asked in a shy voice.

I leaned down to press my lips to hers gently, but once we got started, it was hard to stop. My hand gripped her waist frantically, our lips moving together in new ways I didn’t expect. When we pulled away, gasping for air, my hands had ducked under her shirt and climbed up her back, and her fingers were twisted up in my hair, the rubber band falling out in the process.

“Yes,” I answered her question breathlessly, my lips brushing against hers as I spoke. Another shiver, unrelated to temperature, quivered up her spine.

I grinned, feeling lighter than I ever had. If she wasn’t holding me there, her fingers tight on the roots of my hair, I might have flown away.

But her past was waiting in the wings, ready to ruin the moment. “Jake… I’m not sure if I can be with you like that. Not yet, at least.” She rested her hands over my thrumming heart, pushing away to stare up at me. “I love you, even without this imprint thing, but I thought I’d already found my soulmate, and when he left… It very nearly killed me. I don’t know if I can survive it again.”

“I’m not like him, Bella.” I insisted, fists shaking as I tried to control the anger flaring up. “I would never hurt you. He was all wrong for you, but I was literally made for you. And I’ll prove it.” I leaned down to kiss her again, but she pulled away, so I stood upright rigidly, dropping my hands from her side.

She stepped forward immediately, reaching out and resting her hands back on my shoulders.

“Jake, I’m not saying ‘no,’ I’m just saying, ‘not yet,’” she got up on her tip-toes and pressed her lips to the hollow beneath my throat.

I huffed, placing my hands on her forearms with a shrug. “I guess I tend to rush into things. But can you blame me? I’m still human, after all.”

Bella laughed in a casual, care-free way, the same way she used to when we were sitting in my garage drinking warm sodas. It made me feel even lighter, like flying through the woods as a wolf, going so fast my paws hardly touched the ground.

“I don’t blame you, Jake,” she assured me. “Since I’m the older one, I should know better than to let you grope me on a public beach.”

My face got hot. I hadn’t meant to let my hands get ahead of my thoughts, but I didn’t regret it. Her skin was smooth, soft, like velvet beneath my fingertips.

“I thought we had decided I was middle-aged,” I retorted.

“You’re sixteen. And I’m eighteen. I don’t even think that’s legal,” she said, a smile still playing around the edges of her lips. Her soft, full lips…

I jerked myself out of it because I wanted to combat any misgivings she might have about my age more than I needed to be close to her. “The age of consent in Washington is sixteen.”

She looked down at her feet, but I could see the tips of her ears turn red. “Thing is, Jake…” She trailed off, tapping a piece of driftwood with the tip of her tennis shoe. “I’ve never… been that close… to anyone before.” She cringed, as if admitting a huge flaw.

I sighed in relief. I had been worried about her expectations in the sex department, since the bloodsuckers were all so ridiculously hot. It was nice to know she wasn’t going to be comparing me to that.

I laid my cheek on the top of her head, right over the part in her hair. “Me neither,” I said cheerfully. “I’m willing to take it slow. I’ve got loads of time. I’ll be hanging around until you get sick of me.”

I smiled, remembering the last few hours of my time as a normal teenage boy at the movie theater with Bella. In hindsight, it was pretty funny how such an important conversation had happened while some joker puked his guts out in the bathroom next to us. If I’d had werewolf hearing then, I’d have heard him right through the wall and it would have ruined the whole moment.

Bella smiled against my chest, wrapping her arms around my waist and hugging tight. I was perfectly content to stay like that for the rest of the day, eternity even, but she pulled away too soon, securing one of my hands in both of hers.

“We should go back soon,” she said, her eyes drawn in regret. “Someone needs to make those guys lunch.”

“Oh, Emily’s on it,” I responded, waving my hand as if to push the idea away from her. “She’s probably over there with enough food to feed a small army.”

“Oh, well,” she mumbled. “What are we doing today? Don’t you have to run around as a wolf?”

I smiled sheepishly down at her. “I leave you alone too much, and you’ve shown how much trouble you can get up to unsupervised.” I rolled my eyes towards the cliff face on the other side of the beach to emphasize my point. “So I’m appointing myself babysitter.”

Bella’s nose scrunched up in disgust. “I do not need a babysitter,” she complained, turning out to face the horizon as the sea roiled beneath it. The tide was coming in, and the water was creeping closer and closer to our feet.

I sighed. “I should probably run it by Sam, though.”

She turned back to face me, but I was looking out at the water, wondering if the red-headed bloodsucker was still there. Bella brought me back down to the beach and our driftwood bench when she ran her finger along the edge of the bags under my eyes.

“How much sleep did you get last night?”

“I’ll sleep when we catch the leech,” I said, wrapping one arm around her waist and pulling us over the sand.

Without another word, we walked back to my house. In my excitement, I yanked the door open with more force than was strictly necessary, and I heard it groaning, begging to be put out of its misery and fly off the hinges. I closed it carefully behind us, because I don’t make the same mistake twice.

“Hey, kids,” Charlie called absentmindedly from the table, swallowing the last bite of the sandwich in his hands. He sat back, rubbing his stomach and smiling dreamily, enjoying the simple pleasure of good food.

He was not alone in his appreciation. Sam and Billy each had the same drowsy gaze in their eyes, though Sam looked more like he hadn’t slept in days. Even Sue seemed a little brighter after eating half of her own, though her eyes were still wet and red. Emily was washing dishes at the sink, but she smiled when she caught sight of my hand wrapped around Bella’s waist.

“Where did you two go?” Charlie asked, catching sight of my arm at the same time.

“The beach,” Bella responded, cheeks heating up under Charlie’s knowing eyes.

“Cool,” Charlie responded, surprising me. I had been expecting him to be more suspicious, but maybe he was saving that for a smaller crowd.

“I was gonna go work on the Rabbit.” I addressed Billy, but my words were really meant for Sam. “Do you wanna come?” I asked, looking at Bella.

“Sure,” she chirped. The color still hadn’t completely faded from her face.

“How much more work does that car need?” Sam asked casually, but his eyes were serious.

“Not much. Should be done around dinnertime,” I shrugged, feigning a casual tone.

“You want a ride home, Bells?” Charlie asked.

“That’s okay, Jake can drive me,” she responded.

His eyes narrowed. “You sure? I thought the Rabbit needed work.”

“Just a new tire,” I assured him. “I’ll have her home early, Chief. Don’t worry.”

He was appeased by my explanation and stood up to bring his plate to the sink. We said goodbye and set off to the garage, swinging our hands between us as we walked through the trees.

“You’re in a good mood,” Bella observed.

I shrugged, unable to wipe the smile off my face. “I’m with you,” I replied.

I took us around back to the garage, and things felt the same way they did before I had turned into a wolf, only better. Now, Bella wasn’t timid and sheltered, she was more present. Her smile was wider, too, and her eyes shone a little brighter. Maybe it was just wishful thinking, but I hoped being with her was what caused the change.

“How old is this car, anyway?” Bella asked, handing me the wrong wrench for the third time in a row.

“The lug wrench, Bells,” I reminded her, though I didn’t mind watching her lips purse in confusion as she stared back down at my haphazard toolbox.

“Is it this one?” She asked, picking up an L-shaped rod of metal.

“Yeah,” I answered, taking it from her hand. My fingers brushed against the pulse on her wrist, and I heard her heart react.

Suppressing a smile as a blush lit up her cheeks, I turned back to the wheel.

“It was made in 1986, remember?” I flashed her a grin, unsurprised at how little she cared about the make and model of cars. She had taken the truck without a single groan or complaint, which was more than I could say for myself.

“Oh, right. I remember now.”

“Sure, sure.”

“So this imprint thing…” Bella began, looking down at her feet. I tried to keep my hands steady as I took the bolt off the wheel.

“What about it?” I prompted when she didn’t continue.

She was silent for another instant, and I resisted the urge to look over and measure her expression. “What do I tell Charlie? I mean, he’s gonna get suspicious sooner or later.”

I raised an eyebrow, flashing a crooked smile her way. “You could always tell him I’m your boyfriend.”

Her face puckered up like she bit into a lemon, and I tried not to be offended.

“You realize he carries a gun, right?”

I scoffed. “We hunt vampires, you think I’m scared of a few bullets? Besides, Charlie’d never shoot me.”

“So confident,” she mused, touching a finger to her chin. “I wonder if you would feel the same if he had caught us on the beach.”

I smiled at the memory. “I still wouldn’t change a thing,” I said, winking at her and triggering another blush.

“Seriously, though,” Bella pressed on, determined to make a thing out of this. “After the funeral, we have to tell him.”

I sighed. “Sure, sure. After the funeral,” I agreed.

Her eyes narrowed. I could tell she wasn’t done asking questions.

“Spit it out, Bells.”

“Are you sure you imprinted on me?”

“What do you mean?” I retorted, craning my neck to look her full-on in the face. This was the exact question I had hoped she wouldn’t ask.

“Well, you said Sam broke Leah’s heart when he imprinted on Emily,” she began, staring out the door as if planning escape should her words spark enough fury to send me exploding into a wolf. I paid more attention when I noticed how her arms had crossed against her chest, holding herself together.

“I was wondering how that worked… Did he love her before…?” she continued, turning back to look at me.

Her curious eyes met mine and I was a goner. I was about to spill my guts.

Oh, well, I thought, they know I can’t keep my mouth shut.

“It’s a long story. And very . . . strange. There’re so many strange things about this new life. I haven’t had time to tell you the half of it. And this thing with Sam — well, I don’t know if I’ll even be able to explain it right.”

She looked up at me through her eyelashes, reminding me of the first time we had met and I’d told her the ancient legends. It seemed like a mistake at first, but now that it had proven to be a useful loophole, I was oddly grateful for it. I enjoyed the memory of such a simple time, when the old stories were just a scary story to tell pretty girls on the beach…

“I’ve got loads of time,” she quoted, urging me to go on.

I repositioned myself so one elbow rested on her knee and my legs stretched out on the ground, one foot up against the wall. Absentmindedly, I clenched the lug wrench hard enough to leave a dent. I still wasn’t quite used to my enhanced werewolf strength, but I was getting better. Two weeks ago I would have already broken it in half.

“Sam had it so much harder than the rest of us. Because he was the first, and he was alone, and he didn’t have anyone to tell him what was happening. Sam’s grandfather died before he was born, and his father has never been around. There was no one there to recognize the signs. The first time it happened — the first time he phased — he thought he’d gone insane. It took him two weeks to calm down enough to change back.

“This was before you came to Forks, so you wouldn’t remember. Sam’s mother and Leah Clearwater had the forest rangers searching for him, the police. People thought there had been an accident or something. . . .”

“Leah?” She asked, tightening the arms still wrapped around her chest.

I lowered my voice, sounding grave even to my own ears. “Yeah. Leah and Sam were high school sweethearts. They started dating when she was just a freshman. She was frantic when he disappeared.”

“But he and Emily —”

“I’ll get to that — it’s part of the story,” I exhaled slowly, then let it all out in a gust. We were getting to the sensitive portion.

“Sam came back,” I said, “but he wouldn’t talk to anyone about where he’d been. Rumors flew — that he was up to no good, mostly. And then Sam happened to run in to Quil’s grandfather one afternoon when Old Quil Ateara came to visit Mrs. Uley. Sam shook his hand. Old Quil just about had a stroke.” I paused to laugh.

“Why?”

I leaned over to put my hand on her cheek and pulled her face around to look at me. Our faces were just a few inches away, and I could smell spearmint on her breath when she gasped and blushed under my touch.

“Oh, right,” she said quietly, “Sam was running a temperature.”

I laughed again. “Sam’s hand felt like he’d left it sitting on a hot stovetop.”

She didn’t move, so neither did I. After a quick, unsteady breath, I continued.

“So Mr. Ateara went straight to the other elders,” I whispered. “They were the only ones left who still knew, who remembered. Mr. Ateara, Billy, and Harry had actually seen their grandfathers make the change. When Old Quil told them, they met with Sam secretly and explained.

“It was easier when he understood — when he wasn’t alone anymore. They knew he wouldn’t be the only one affected by the Cullens’ return” – I pronounced the name with unconscious bitterness while she flinched at the mention of them – “but no one else was old enough. So Sam waited for the rest of us to join him. . . .”

“The Cullens had no idea,” she whispered. “They didn’t think that werewolves still existed here. They didn’t know that coming here would change you.”

“It doesn’t change the fact that it did.” I responded bitterly.

“Remind me not to get on your bad side.”

“Why do you make excuses for them? You think I should be as forgiving as you are? We can’t all be saints and martyrs.”

“Grow up, Jacob.”

“I wish I could,” I murmured quietly.

She stared at me, her face smooth with shock. “What?”

I chuckled. “One of those many strange things I mentioned.”

“You . . . can’t . . . grow up?” she said blankly. “You’re what? Not . . . aging? Is that a joke?”

“Nope.” I popped my lips on the P.

Hot, red blood flooded her face. Tears filled her eyes. Her teeth mashed together with an audible grinding sound.

“Bella? What did I say?”

She was on her feet now, hands balled up into fists, her whole frame shaking. Even though I could tell she was royally pissed, I had to suppress a laugh, because in all her fury she looked like a chihuahua barking at a rottweiler.

“You. Are. Not. Aging,” she growled through her teeth.

I tugged her arm to get her to sit back down, wondering what could possibly get her this mad. “None of us are. What’s wrong with you?”

“Am I the only one who has to get old? I get older every stinking day!” She nearly shrieked, throwing her hands in the air. Some part of me realized she was throwing a very dramatic and out of character fit, but most of me was trying to understand where this had come from. Didn’t women start worrying about getting old around thirty? “Damnit! What kind of world is this? Where’s the justice?

“Take it easy, Bella.” I was very close to laughing.

“Shut up, Jacob. Just shut up! This is so unfair!”

“Did you seriously just stamp your foot? I thought girls only did that on TV.”

She growled unimpressively.

“It’s not as bad as you seem to think it is. Sit down and I’ll explain.”

“I’ll stand.”

I rolled my eyes. “Okay. Whatever you want. But listen, I will get older . . . someday.”

“Explain.”

I patted the passenger seat of the Rabbit. She glowered for a second, but then sat; the color in her cheeks had burned out as suddenly as it flared up. She self-consciously perched herself on the seat, one knee pressed to her chest and the other touching the floor. She looked calm enough to me. I chalked it up to hanging around vampires too much, who probably had all sorts of weird personality traits. 

“When we get enough control to quit . . . ,” I said. “When we stop phasing for a solid length of time, we age again. It’s not easy.” I shook my head, abruptly doubtful. “It’s gonna take a really long time to learn that kind of restraint, I think. Even Sam’s not there yet. ’Course it doesn’t help that there’s a vampire trying to get through our defenses. We can’t even think about quitting when the tribe needs protectors. But you shouldn’t get all bent out of shape about it, anyway, because I’m already older than you, physically at least.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Look at me, Bells. Do I look sixteen?”

She checked me out again, and I smirked when she finally met my eyes after hesitating on my chest.

“Not exactly, I guess,” she finally admitted, cheeks turning a light pink

I rolled my eyes again. “Not at all. Because we reach full growth inside of a few months when the werewolf gene gets triggered. It’s one hell of a growth spurt.” I grimaced when I remembered the growing pains. “Physically, I’m probably twenty-five or something. So there’s no need for you to freak out about being too old for me for at least another seven years.”

She shook her head as if to clear a picture from her mind. My smile grew broader.

“So, did you want to hear about Sam, or did you want to scream at me some more for things that are out of my control?” I joked.

She took a deep breath. “Sorry. Age is a touchy subject for me. That hit a nerve.”

My eyes tightened, thinking about earlier, when she’d said the vampire had broken all of his promises. Had he promised her immortality? Was that why she was so broken up about him leaving? It didn’t fit – I couldn’t see her wishing to live forever, not after seeing her jump off a cliff the day before.

She interrupted my reverie before I could say anything. “So once Sam understood what was going on, once he had Billy and Harry and Mr. Ateara, you said it wasn’t so hard anymore. And, like you also said, there are the cool parts. . . .” she hesitated briefly. “What happened between Leah and Sam?”

I sighed. “This is the really weird part.”

“I’m a pro at weird.”

“Yeah, I know.” I grinned before continuing. “So, you’re right. Sam knew what was going on, and everything was almost okay. In most ways, his life was back to, well, not normal. But better.”

Then my fist tightened, bracing for impact. “Sam couldn’t tell Leah. We aren’t supposed to tell anyone who doesn’t have to know. And it wasn’t really safe for him to be around her — but he cheated, just like I did with you. Leah was furious that he wouldn’t tell her what was going on — where he’d been, where he went at night, why he was always so exhausted — but they were working it out. They were trying. They really loved each other.”

“Did she find out? Is that what happened?”

I shook my head. “No, that wasn’t the problem. Her cousin, Emily Young, came down from the Makah reservation to visit her one weekend.”

She gasped. “Emily is Leah’s cousin?”

“Second cousins. They’re close, though. They were like sisters when they were kids.”

“That’s . . . horrible. How could Sam . . . ?” she trailed off, shaking her head.

My eyes trailed down to the tire. “Sam did love Leah. But when he saw Emily, that didn’t matter anymore. He broke Leah’s heart. He went back on every promise he’d ever made her. Every day he has to see the accusation in her eyes, and know that she’s right.” I stopped abruptly, unwilling to talk about Leah’s transformation.

“How did Emily deal with this? If she was so close to Leah . . . ?”

“She was real angry, in the beginning. But it’s hard to resist that level of commitment and adoration.” I sighed. “And then, Sam could tell her everything. There are no rules that can bind you when you find your other half. You know how she got hurt?”

“Yeah.” The story in Forks was that she was mauled by a bear, but Bella knew more than the average human.

“Well, weirdly enough, that was sort of how they resolved things. Sam was so horrified, so sickened by himself, so full of hate for what he’d done. . . . He would have thrown himself under a bus if it would have made her feel better. He might have anyway, just to escape what he’d done. He was shattered. . . . Then, somehow, she was the one comforting him, and after that. . . .” The rest was history.

“Poor Emily,” she whispered. “Poor Sam. Poor Leah…”

“Yeah, Leah got the worst end of the stick,” I agreed.

“Has anyone else…?” She trailed off, eyes searching my face. Bella wasn’t exactly a gossip, so I sensed she was on a fact finding mission.

I was more than willing to be an informant.

Although I wouldn’t mind it if she wanted to tie me up first.

“Yeah. Jared,” I answered. “No drama there. It was just a girl he’d sat next to in school every day for a year and never looked at twice. And then, after he changed, he saw her again and never looked away. Kim was thrilled. She’d had a huge crush on him. She’d had his last name tacked on to the end of hers all over in her diary.” I snickered.

She frowned. “Did Jared tell you that? He shouldn’t have.”

I bit my lip. Bella and Kim would get along.

“I guess I shouldn’t laugh. It was funny, though.”

“Some soulmate,” she grumbled.

I sighed. “Jared didn’t tell us anything on purpose. I already told you this part, remember?”

“Oh, yeah. You can hear each other’s thoughts, but only when you’re wolves, right?”

“Right. Just like…” I trailed off, silently cursing myself for bringing up the leech.

“Edward,” she said, surprising me. I watched as she tightened her arms around her chest.

“Sure, sure. That’s how come I know so much about how Sam felt. It’s not like he would have told us all that if he’d had a choice. Actually, that’s something we all hate.” The bitterness was abruptly harsh in my voice. “It’s awful. No privacy, no secrets. Everything you’re ashamed of, laid out for everyone to see.” I shuddered.

“It sounds horrible,” she whispered.

“It is sometimes helpful when we need to coordinate,” I said grudgingly. “Once in a blue moon, when some bloodsucker crosses into our territory. Laurent was fun.”

She flinched. I assumed she had some bad memories about the incident in the clearing she was trying to suppress, but then she suddenly grasped my arm with both hands, holding on for dear life.

“Promise me something, Jake.”

“Anything,” I said, my lids drooping as I smiled down at her indulgently.

“Don’t go getting yourself killed for me. Whatever wolf-y bond you think we have, it’s not worth dying for. Victoria is dangerous,” she shuddered, and her grip tightened. “Don’t underestimate her.”

I wasn’t worried about Victoria. I was concerned that she wasn’t taking imprinting as seriously as she should.

“Imprinting is a little bit more powerful than that. More absolute,” I said solemnly.

“But –” she started, and I cut her off.

“If you’re killed, so am I,” I tried to explain. “It’s happened before, a wolf’s imprint died because of another member of the pack. Even if it’s just an accident, it’s an inevitable fight to the death for the wolves involved.” I swallowed. “It’s one of our most strictly followed laws; we don’t harm or kill a fellow wolf’s imprint. There are no exceptions.”

“You’re not saying you’d fight them if they didn’t –”

“Of course not. Besides, I’m not technically in charge of them.”

“Technically?”

I sighed again. This wasn’t someone else’s personal baggage, it was mine. And now I was going to dump it on her. “It’s silly. You remember how my great-grandfather, Ephraim Black, was the last chief? He was also the last Alpha of the pack.” I shrugged, brushing off the ancient responsibility as I always did. “So, technically, I’m supposed to have Sam’s job.” I rolled my eyes. “It shouldn’t matter who your great-grandparents are, I think. Sam is a better leader than I will ever be, and I don’t want to put up with all the pack drama any more than I already do.”

She was staring at me with a deeply contemplative look, so I let her for a minute, waiting for a reaction. I could get lost in her expression as easily as a ship gets knocked over by a wave. Finally, she smiled, and snorted.

“What?”

“You never were one for responsibility, were you?” She laughed.

I huffed. Since when were girls into responsibility?

“But that still doesn’t mean you guys have to fight –”

“Bella, honey,” I sighed. “You don’t really expect us to let a vampire kill innocents on our land and get away with it, do you?”

She ducked her head. “I just want you to stay safe.” Her hands tightened on my arm again, voice urgent and pleading. “Please, be careful. I can’t lose you.”

I softened into butter left lying on the counter all day. “Don’t worry about me, Bells,” I assured her. “We’re going to get this vampire, and then you’ll see. I’ll bring you some of her ashes, if it makes you feel better. Besides, hunting leeches is kinda fun.” I couldn’t control the bitter smile; it was a habit.

She shivered, and I inched closer. I rested my hand on her cheek again, moving forward until our faces were inches apart, and pressed my lips to hers. Electric sparks tingled where our skin met, and I forgot where we were for a while.

Chapter Text

XXII

The rest of the afternoon passed effortlessly. I marveled at how easy it was to be with Bella, like I’d known her my entire life. I filled her in on Quil, whose grandfather said he had been “acting out,” in school, though I didn’t know the particulars since I hadn’t gone back yet.

“You haven’t been going to school?” She asked, eyes narrowing in disapproval.

“Nah,” I replied. “Billy got me on sabbatical. Since I have mono, you know,” I winked.

We chatted about the pack. She was eager to hear about how Embry was doing, and she listened to my stories of our antics with a smile dancing on her lips. I went on to tell her about the time Paul and Embry fought over a hotdog. While they were tumbling around on the ground, Jared managed to swallow it whole.

Too soon, I had to take her home. The Rabbit’s back wheel was replaced – so it no longer made a funny squeaking sound every rotation – and I couldn’t put off the drive to Forks any longer without incurring the wrath of Charlie. I sighed as we pulled into her driveway, taking my arm off her shoulders when I saw the Chief walk out onto the porch with his hands buried deeply in his pockets.

Bella giggled. “I thought you weren’t scared of a few bullets?”

My eyes narrowed, but my tone was light and joking, a smile tugging on my lips. “I’m not, but you should be. He doesn’t have supernatural aim, after all.”

“And you do?”

“Of course,” I smirked. “But wolves can’t really throw things, y’know, cause we have legs instead of arms.”

She laughed while I walked her up to the door. Charlie seemed surprised at the two feet of space between us. His eyes were sad, eyebrows drawn together over his face.

“Hey, Bells” he greeted, his shoulders drooping.

“Hey, Dad,” Bella replied, stepping up onto the porch and wrapping an arm around his midsection.

“Are you coming back tomorrow?” I asked, stepping up with her.

“We’ll be back for the funeral,” Charlie replied, his voice heavy and thick with unshed tears. His eyes were red and bloodshot, but his face was dry. He was probably waiting to be alone to let the waterworks happen.

“I’ll see you guys there,” I replied, turning around as Bella walked into the house, shutting the door behind her.

“Wait a sec, Jake,” Charlie called, clamoring down the steps to the porch and fixing me with a narrow-eyed stare.

I gulped. “Yeah?”

“You two seem to have gotten closer,” he observed quietly, glancing back to the house to check that Bella wasn’t peeking through the curtains. She was standing at the sink, washing a plate with her eyes fixed pointedly downward.

“Really?” I asked stupidly. I was hoping to have Bella around for this conversation as a buffer. I wasn’t scared of Charlie per se, but the man had a loaded gun and could easily make my death look like an accident.

“Be careful,” he cautioned. “She’s stubborn, like her father.” He smiled wistfully, as if he was remembering an old joke. “She doesn’t get over things easily. When the Cullens left…” He trailed off, looking down at his feet. I noticed his face get dark with a blush I recognized from his daughter. “Well, let’s just say I’m grateful she’s feeling better, and I have a feeling it has a lot to do with you.”

His eyes raised to mine. His lips were pursed in a guarded expression. “You know that, don’t you?”

I nodded seriously. “You don’t have to worry, Chief. I won’t hurt her like they did.” I focused on making my voice brighter. “Besides, we’re practically family, right?” I asked, playfully punching his shoulder. “I ain’t going anywhere.”

He smiled, though it didn’t reach his eyes, and rubbed his arm. I thought I’d only punched him lightly.

“I hope so,” he said, eyeing me up and down. “I don’t want to have to shoot you, Jake. Billy wouldn’t like that.” He laughed, and so did I.

That night, it was Sam, Jared, and I on patrol. We ran the perimeter of Forks and La Push, but it was quiet everywhere. I kept checking in on Charlie’s house, but the only sounds I could hear were snoring and a lighter, even breathing from Bella’s room.

I think Jake is right, Jared thought suddenly. Bella is his imprint. There’s no other way to describe it, right, Sam?

Sam was more hesitant. It feels the same, he commented, slowing down on the edge of the coast. But is it just wishful thinking?

I growled. I’m right here, guys.

Jared laughed. See? He’s just as defensive about her as we are, he thought.

Sam joined in on the comedy at my expense. Welcome to the club, Jake.

I realized what he meant as soon as he thought it. Bella was officially recognized as a wolf’s imprint now, and no one would harm her without going through the pack. It calmed me down significantly to know she would be protected. If anyone needed a pack of over-sized wolves for protection, it was Bella.

 

 

The next morning at dawn, Harry’s body was wrapped in a white sheet and some of his possessions were laid on top of him, then placed in a hand-carved canoe and sent out to sea with a candle burning on his chest. The candle got snuffed out immediately by the soft, dribbling rain falling from the overcast sky. Most of the tribe was there, choking back sobs. Bella stood next to Charlie, her hand on his shoulder while silent tears flowed down his cheeks like the river’s current. He didn’t bother wiping them away.

Sue, Leah, and Seth stood at the water’s edge, wrapped in each other’s arms. Leah and Seth were wearing as little clothing as possible, though it was unseasonably cold. People kept shooting accusing glances at their casual appearance, but it changed to pity when they saw how genuine their grief was.

I stood next to Billy, on the other side of Charlie, glancing over at Bella every now and then. She maintained the same stoic, solemn expression throughout the whole ceremony, but I could see fear in her eyes. I wondered if she was worrying about having to attend another funeral like this should we have trouble with the red-headed leech.

Afterwards, a smaller group congregated at Sue’s house. She sat on her new couch, picked up from a secondhand store yesterday to replace the one her children had destroyed. Leah and Seth sat on the floor, whispering quietly to each other. Sam set up a blue plastic fold-up table outside and lit the grill while Emily set up the food.

Bella peeled herself away from Charlie, who sat with Sue, Billy, and Old Quil in the living room while the rest of the group transitioned outside. The house was too small to accommodate so many wolves and their families, so we set up chairs around a fire pit out back. Jared was lighting a batch of driftwood Paul and Embry had gathered while Kim watched with interest. I was helping roll a few fallen trees over to the fire so more people could sit, since there weren’t enough chairs. Bella was helping Emily set up the food, and though I wanted to give them privacy, I couldn’t help overhearing their conversation.

“Jacob seems… happier,” Emily remarked as Bella placed a large bowl of macaroni salad on the table and began to peel away the plastic wrap. Emily was opening a plastic container of hot dogs and started placing them on the grill with a pair of metal tongs. My mouth began to water at the smell of meat cooking, and I gravitated closer to the pair.

“Does he?” Bella asked, her voice a few octaves too high.

“I think having you around has helped,” Emily continued, a knowing smile curving half her face.

Bella blushed beet red, and I had to suppress a laugh.

“I just hope they’re not putting themselves in harm’s way for me,” Bella said, wringing her hands nervously.

My fists clenched at my sides. Did she really think we were that helpless?

Emily, though, was calm and patient. “I understand,” she said, placing a hand on Bella’s shoulder. “Every time Sam walks out that door, I worry. We can’t help it, though; it’s part of being a wolf-girl,” she joked.

Bella laughed once, though the crease between her eyebrows didn’t lighten up. “I guess we’re both wolf-girls, now, huh?”

Emily smiled. “At least we have each other,” she said gently. “Kim has been eager to meet you, actually, since Jared told her about Jacob imprinting.”

Bella jumped a little in surprise. “He told them about that?”

Emily laughed lightly, unconcerned with Bella’s reaction. “Jake ran it by the rest of them before telling you, because of how… unusual it was. He didn’t want to say anything until they were sure.” Her voice was kind and reassuring, but Bella’s eyes didn’t relax.

“Jacob mentioned that it was different for him…” She trailed off as they paced over to the door to grab some more food from the fridge inside. I could still hear them, though, even with all the other voices buzzing around me. I focused on theirs, trying to pinpoint the source of Bella’s worry.

“He feels very strongly for you,” Emily conceded as I heard the fridge door close. They walked out, arms full of two more dishes. One smelled like lasagna, and the other was some sort of chili.

“But are we soulmates, like you and Sam?” Bella wondered, eyes flickering to me. I averted my gaze quickly, pretending to be interested in Embry and Paul’s conversation around the fire pit.

“What if…” she continued, apparently deciding I didn’t look like I was listening. “Is it possible he hasn’t imprinted on me? Will he find his real soulmate one day, and leave me like Sam had to leave Leah?” Her voice became high and strained, and I heard her thick-throated swallow.

Emily looked shocked for a second, but then her face went smooth. She must not have expected Bella to know about Leah.

“I doubt it,” she replied, shrugging while pulling off the top of a Tupperware container. “I’ve seen the way he looks at you, and it’s the same as the other imprinted wolves.” Emily smiled over at Sam, who was scolding Jared for letting the fire get too big. “You two are right for each other, two halves of a whole. You don’t need to doubt that.”

I stood up from my seat, throwing my arms up in a long stretch. I peeked through my eyelids to see Bella’s gaze drifting down to my exposed midriff, and smiled when she blushed at being caught.

I’d let them talk long enough, I thought. Time to add some testosterone to the mix.

“Hey, Bells,” I greeted, throwing an arm around her shoulders and tucking her into my side. “How’s the grub coming along?”

“Just about ready,” she replied, looking up at me with surprised recognition. Emily’s smile grew broad when she saw us together, probably confirming her earlier words to Bella about the way I looked at her.

I felt it, too. The gravitational pull she had for me, the way all my thoughts seemed to revolve around her some way or another. An invisible cord had fastened itself between us, tied around both of our chests.

Charlie came ambling out of the house, pushing Billy’s chair down a makeshift ramp I’d brought over from our house. I noticed them gawk at my casual embrace of Bella, then give each other a meaningful look. I had a feeling they’d been gossiping about us before.

We ate around the fire, swapping stories about Harry. Charlie, Billy, and Old Quil had the most, but even Sue chimed in with a funny anecdote about how nervous he had been when he proposed. People laughed and cried, but Leah sat on the ground staring into the fire all night, not seeming to register any of it. I felt bad for her, then remembered her harsh words the other night; I don’t want your pity.

I sat on a damp log next to Bella, our shoulders touching. I was sad about Harry; I’d known him my whole life. He was so close to Billy it was like losing an uncle. But the joy of having Bella let me hold her hand kept from diving headfirst into grief.

The sun had just finished its descent behind the mountains when Charlie stood up and said, “It’s a school night, kids.”

Bella groaned next to me. Spring break was over in Forks.

I grinned. “Not for me,” I bragged.

Bella glared up at me for a moment before her gaze softened. “That’s probably for the best. You look like you could use some sleep.” She reached up absentmindedly to trace the circles under my eyes, and I caught her hand, holding it there. My lips brushed against the palm of her hand.

I forgot about the crowd around us. It was just me and her, inches away from each other’s face, leaning closer as the seconds ticked on.

“Ahem,” Charlie interrupted, clearing his throat to cover up a laugh. Billy was smiling at both of us as our cheeks got dark.

“You comin’, Bella?” Charlie asked, sauntering slowly away from the fire while saying his goodbyes.

“Yeah,” Bella replied, standing up too quickly and losing her balance on the wet grass. I grabbed her arm to steady her, fluidly rising from my own seat.

I walked her out to the cruiser a few feet behind Charlie. We stopped just outside the passenger door while he got in the driver’s seat. Neither of us really wanted to say goodbye.

“You’ll come back tomorrow, after school?” I asked hopefully, almost pathetically.

“Of course,” she promised, and my smile broadened.

I leaned down to her ear so Charlie wouldn’t hear. “I’ll be out tonight. Well, tomorrow morning, actually. If you want, you can leave your window open.” I wiggled my eyebrows as I pulled back, hands pushed down to the very bottom of my pocket. I didn’t want to seem too grabby in front of her dad.

Her mouth opened in shock, and she looked like a fish gasping for air. “Jake –” she started, but I interrupted.

“You don’t have to. The pack will thank you if you don’t,” I joked, thinking about leaving them with one less wolf. “But if you need help getting to sleep, I don’t mind.”

A warm smile tugged up at the edges of her lips, fighting against her indignant expression.

“I’m not sure that’s very responsible of us.” She said jokingly.

“I’m not one for responsibility,” I retorted, leaning back down and pecking my lips to hers quickly before backing away, heading back into the house.

“Think about it,” I called over my shoulder as she lowered herself into the car with a dazed look on her face.

Charlie’s expression was one for the history books. It looked almost painful for him to suppress his smile, his lips pursed like he had just swallowed some nasty cough medicine. I waved at him as they pulled away, and he nodded solemnly, one side of his mouth turned up in a grimace.

 

 

I was running the line between the reservation and Forks with Embry and Seth at my side while Paul, Jared, and Sam were patrolling La Push. Leah was sulking along the coast, feeling sorry for her mother, who was overwhelmed by the responsibilities of being an elder on the council.

Hold on a sec, guys, I thought, turning to the right and bolting over to see if Bella’s window was open. Leah scoffed while Seth wondered if he would ever imprint. I was surprised to hear him thinking about a girl at school hopefully. Embry and Paul snickered, Jared rolled his eyes, and Sam wished I would stop being so immature.

It didn’t matter what they thought, though, because as I approached the house, I caught a whiff of the sickly-sweet burning scent that had become all too familiar.

The red-head, I growled, and the rest joined me.

The red-headed leech? Seth asked, though he could see her in our thoughts. He was still getting used to the pack mind.

This should be fun, Leah thought to herself. I might finally get to kill a bloodsucker.

The whole pack was coming. The trail was new, probably less than an hour old. I followed as it wound through the trees around the house then split in two different directions. One trail led further into the forest while the other continued straight, towards the town. The other trail was a different vampire, one I didn’t recognize.

My eyes glanced up to Bella’s window. It was wide open, though the night air stung with an unseasonable chill.

I need to check on her, I insisted, shifting out of my wolf form before Sam could order me not to.

I pulled on my shorts, then climbed the spruce that grew in Charlie’s little front yard. My weight bowed the tree toward the house as it had before, and I swung myself in the same way, feeling accomplished.

My feet hit the floor with a dull thud, and Bella sat bolt upright in bed, eyes flying open.

Charlie’s snores hadn’t even been interrupted. I was getting better at the whole ‘werewolf-strength’ thing.

“Jake,” she hissed.

“Hey, Bells,” I greeted, walking forward and sitting on the edge of the bed, satisfied now that I could tell she had not been touched by the vampire smell. I brushed a piece of hair out of her eyes. “You look good with bed-head.” I joked.

She tried in vain to pat down her wild brown hair while I chuckled under my breath.

“You came,” she whispered, eyes wide in surprise.

“Of course I did,” I said in a low, throaty voice. “I said I would, right?”

She nodded. “Will you stay?” She asked, laying her head back on the pillow and opening her arms for me.

The invitation was too good to resist. Her hair was twisted like seaweed across the pillow, still wet. Her eyes were unguarded and trusting. I could practically see her thoughts laid bare in front of me. Even if I didn’t know her so well, I would have recognized the fear there. Charlie had mentioned her nightmares to Billy, propelling her out of sleep and into waking life as she screamed bloody murder. Maybe I was kidding myself, but I thought maybe I could keep the bad dreams away, whatever they were. I laid down next to her, resting one hand on her waist and lifting the other to cup her cheek.

“I want to,” I admitted. “But Sam is probably gonna kill me if I’m up here too long. I caught a whiff of the red-head outside, and the whole pack is on their way to follow the trail.”

Her eyes widened to the size of dinner plates and her breath came in uneven gasps. “Victoria was here?” Bella nearly shrieked.

We both tensed up as Charlie’s snoring came to a sudden halt. We relaxed again a moment later when it started up again.

“I’ll tell you everything as long as you promise not to freak out,” I offered, rubbing circles into the exposed skin on her side with my thumb.

She didn’t say anything, just looked at me imploringly.

I sighed. “I came by to see if your window was open, but when I got here I smelled her. There’s a new smell, too, another bloodsucker I don’t recognize. Don’t worry, though,” I said reassuringly, because her heart was beating erratically and her breathing had become too fast to be healthy. “We’re going to take care of it.”

“No, Jake!” She insisted, wrapping her arms around my neck and pulling us even closer together. “Please, stay here. I don’t want you to get hurt.”

I was distracted by how her body felt pressed up against mine. Without thinking, I rolled us over so I was on top, supporting my weight above her with one of my forearms on the side of her head. The other wound itself around her knee, pulling it up against my hip. My nose dipped into the crook of her neck, then traced a line up to her ear while I inhaled her scent. She was like a bouquet of flowers, erasing the burn of the leeches.

She gasped at the sudden, blurringly fast movement, and reacted automatically. She lifted her other leg to wrap around my hips and arched her back so the whole length of her body was touching mine. When I pressed my lips to the sensitive skin behind her ear, a moan rumbled in her chest, making my need even greater.

There was an electric charge where our skin met, surging through me and setting every nerve on fire. She kissed my Adam’s apple and I swallowed, my throat suddenly very dry.

I realized with sudden terror that I had no idea how to do this. I may have been eager to get closer to Bella, but I was still a virgin. Did she feel how tight my nerves were coiled? Was she just as nervous? My train of thought abruptly halted when she pressed her lips to mine, as if one more moment apart would be their undoing. I kissed her back fervently, wrapping my arms around her waist and running my hands across the skin on her back.

From outside our bubble, I heard the hard thump of paws against the ground, and remembered why the pack was gathering outside. I groaned, pulling my face away from her, feeling torn.

“Jake,” she sighed, eyebrows rising and meeting in the middle of her forehead. “You have to go, don’t you?”

“Yes,” I replied. “But I don’t want to.”

“Do I have to kick you out the window?” She joked halfheartedly.

I laughed, but the movement pressed us closer together, distracting me again from the matter at hand. A growl erupted outside the window, close enough for Bella to hear. She pulled away, eyes wide, and her arms loosened their grip.

“I’ll be back,” I promised. “Try to get some sleep.”

It felt like tearing off a layer of skin, but I managed to untangle our bodies and hop out of the window. I quickly undressed and shifted into a wolf, instantly bombarded by Sam’s anger.

What were you thinking?! He snarled, the fur on his back bristling with aggravation.

The bloodsucker could’ve climbed in the window, I answered.

Fire burned in my belly, the memory of her weight in my arms giving me away. I needed to focus now, but the electric feel of her skin against mine had awakened every single one of my nerve endings.

We don’t have time for this, Sam growled, turning on his heel and following the scent of the leeches.

The pack had split up to follow in both directions, and we had to catch up now. I was grateful for any sort of distraction, anything to keep me from thinking about how close we had been –

Jesus, Jake, get a grip, Paul scolded.

Shut up.

Focus! Sam ordered.

Why would they split up? Embry wondered, hanging on the edge of the forest as he and Leah reached the town.

The red-head’s scent just goes into the river, Seth added. He was tagging along with Jared and Paul, following the other trail. They decided to run down to where the Hoh meets the Pacific, to see if there was a trace of her along the riverbed.

Jake, go follow Embry and Leah. I’ll meet up with the others so we can cover more ground, Sam instructed.

Sure, sure, I thought, picking up the pace as we raced towards our respective stations. I was glad to be out in the cool night air. It cleared my head, made it easier to focus on strategy. Leah and Embry were arguing over whether the streets were empty enough to justify following the scent through town.

We should circle around first, I suggested, joining in the debate. See if there’s an exit trail.

Why don’t you boys do that while I take this bloodsucker down, Leah replied. I’m going in.

I like this girl, Paul thought, eavesdropping. She’s got bloodlust.

I have an idea, Embry thought. Two of us go through while one goes around. Leah, you think you can run the town’s perimeter before we make it across?

Of course I can. I can make it around the town faster than you can get halfway through. Watch this.

Leah darted into the forest, faster than a bullet. She insisted that her small size was an advantage because it made her the fastest, but that was only good if you were avoiding a fight. I suppose it came in handy when we needed a runner, though. And her competitiveness made it so she was always up for a race.

C’mon, I urged, my hair standing on edge as the smell burned my nose. This scent was too strong; the bloodsucker must have been here just minutes ago.

Embry smelled it too, and we darted out from the cover of the trees, noses to the ground.

We heard it before we saw it. The growl of a feral animal came from an alley in the heart of downtown. As we rounded the corner, fur standing on edge, we caught the salty smell of fresh blood.

I’m on my way, Sam growled, turning so fast the ground beneath him got torn up. Jared, Paul, and Seth were hot on his trail. Leah growled and diverted her course around the town, barreling out of the trees onto a deserted street.

I looked to Embry. We had maybe thirty seconds before the leech noticed our presence, and I could feel our determination building with the tension in our muscles. We didn’t need to plan; this was instinct.

You think he’ll be surprised? Embry mused.

I slunk to the right and behind the building, hesitating at the edge just as Embry paused on the other side of the alley.

No one sees Death coming, I replied. Leah?

I’m around the corner, she responded, flying over the sidewalk.

Good. Back up Embry.

On it.

Jake, Sam said, we’re on our way. Hold your ground.

We will, I responded, stepping into the alley, a snarl building in the back of my throat.

The bloodsucker shrugged away the corpse, blood-red eyes darting over to me, and I realized I knew him.

Mike Newton?

Who?

The entire pack had the same thought simultaneously, which would have been amazing if I weren’t face-to-face with a bloodsucker and his drained victim.

There wasn’t time for an explanation, but my memories of the last time I’d seen the boy were swirling around my head. Mike turned towards the other side of the alley and saw Embry standing there, haunches trembling.

In an instant, Mike was in the air, launching himself on the roof.

Damnit!

Tricky son of a  –

Leah leaped off the sidewalk, trying to keep pace with the vampire as he hopped from rooftop to rooftop, moving so fast he blurred with speed. Embry and I ran on the opposite side, weaving around the buildings in our way. We had never pursued a vampire outside of the woods, and the more urban landscape was trickier to maneuver than we expected.

Mike was flying over the buildings, and we were only getting glimpses of a dark blur here and there, but his scent was strong enough to follow his trail to the edge of town, where the highway exits. Sam, Paul, and Jared were pushing themselves faster than they had ever gone, and Seth was holding his own a few yards behind them, but they weren’t going to catch up anytime soon.

Embry, Leah, and I were the front line. We couldn’t afford to lose sight of him, but he vanished into the brush and we were left with only a scent trail, albeit a very fresh one. We followed it up against the edge of trees lining the highway when the trail abruptly stopped.

Did he have a car waiting?

He must have, Leah sneered, stalking forward and sniffing the asphalt.

Could the red-head have picked him up? Sam asked no one in particular.

How did she go from the water to the highway?

He could have hopped onto a passing car from the overpass, Embry noted.

So what do we do now? Seth panted, taking advantage of Sam’s distraction to catch up with the rest of their group.

We make sure La Push is safe, Sam replied. Jake, you guys circle Forks. Check on Charlie’s house.

I didn’t need to be told twice. Leah and Embry followed me back to the town limits and circled around the perimeter while I ran straight to Charlie’s.

The sickly-sweet smell had faded with time, meaning the bloodsuckers hadn’t come back while we were distracted, which was a relief. As I was thinking about how I would tell Bella who I had just seen sucking the blood out of someone, my heart sunk down to my knees.

Her window was shut tight against the dark night.

Jake’s got blue balls, Embry teased.

Why do I have to hear about this? Leah grumbled.

I do not have blue balls, I insisted weakly. I laid down on the grass, resting my head on crossed paws. I guess she got cold.

Leah scoffed. She probably got tired of waiting, she thought bitterly, remembering the nights when she sat up waiting for Sam to come back after he disappeared.

Leah… Sam began.

Save it, she interrupted. What you’re doing is wrong, Jacob. You’re just leading her on.

Shut up, Leah, I growled. She’s mine.

Yeah, right now she is, but what happens when you meet her friends? What if you imprint on one of them? You’re lying to her about that possibility. She should know. Her thoughts were strangely protective of Bella. I hadn’t noticed the feeling of kinship Leah had for her, but now that I knew it was there, it wasn’t hard to understand why.

It isn’t a possibility, I snarled, willing it to be true.

Leah, Sam cautioned, this isn’t about Jacob, and you know it.

So what if it isn’t?

Her thoughts were vicious vipers biting at the back of my mind. Was she right?

You need to try and understand. Sam sounded weary even to himself. If Jacob says he’s imprinted, then he has. He’s seen it through our eyes, he knows how it feels. We need to trust him.

Why should I trust him? What has he done to earn it?

You followed his orders back in town, Embry reminded her.

That was different.

It doesn’t matter, Sam declared. Jacob is family. We trust our family.

Seth yawned. Leah quit being antagonistic for a few minutes to tell him to go home and sleep, but he wasn’t about to “miss out on the fun,” so they ran patrol a few times before he finally tuckered out. Leah went home with him, struggling to keep her own eyes open. The others shifted back into human form once we were sure the leeches had left the area, leaving Sam and I on guard.

I was thinking about Bella, about the charge her skin had. I could still feel it electrifying every inch of my skin. My chest felt oddly empty without her pressed against it.

You understand now, Sam commented. It’s impossible to describe, isn’t it? How much power she has over you. She could tell you to walk on water and you would do it. His thoughts turned to Emily, how much he missed her during these long nights…

I get it, but I’m not sure if I want to hear it. I rolled my eyes.

Sure, sure. Sam replied, stealing my line.

Isn’t it weird that Mike Newton is a vampire? I asked, changing the subject when Sam’s thoughts got explicit.

It’s interesting, Sam replied.

We thought about it together for a while, to distract ourselves from running to the people we would rather be with. Sam only remembered Mike’s face vaguely, having only met him once in a group, but he knew his father. Mr. Newton and his wife were definitely not vampires.

We can only speculate, Sam finally said, but we can assume that the Cullen’s haven’t bit him, since they’ve been gone for six months. Maybe the red-head… but why?

Sam was remembering the same generic, non-descript white boy that usually came from Forks. He couldn’t understand what Victoria might see in him. I had to agree.

Jared and Paul came to relieve us around four in the morning, and I stumbled into bed completely naked while my mind was swimming with images of Bella and I, tangled up in her sheets.

Chapter Text

XXIII

I woke up the next morning to Billy holding a phone in my face. “Bella,” he mouthed, followed by a throaty yawn.

“Bells?” I slurred, still half-asleep.

“Jacob! What happened last night? Is everyone okay? Did you find – ”

“No,” I mumbled, shame breaking through the fog of sleep. “They got away. I’ll tell you when you get here,” I promised, rolling away from Billy’s prying eyes and curling up on my side with the phone laying over my ear.

“They?”

Oops.

“Yeah, uh…” I started, but the pull of sleep wouldn’t be ignored. My eyes closed of their own accord, and I was drifting off when her voice vibrated in my ear.

“Jacob Black!” She yelled. “Who was out there last night?”

“Do you remember that guy who was puking his guts out at the movie theater?” I breathed.

“Mike?”

“Yeah, him,” I sighed. “He was out there. Hunting downtown.”

“Hunting…?”

“It’s kind of a long story,” I hedged. “Shouldn’t you be on your way to school?” I asked, glancing over at the outdated alarm clock on the floor.

“Crap!” She exclaimed. “I’ll see you later, Jake!”

The line went dead, and I collapsed onto my back, handing the phone to Billy.

“What did she want?” He asked, taking it from my hand.

“To say g’morning,” I grumbled, eyes closed.

Billy said something after that, but I didn’t catch it, because I was already fast asleep.

I woke up around noon. It was the most I’d slept in the last week, but I still felt tired. I blamed it on the weird dreams about Mike Newton.

In my dream, I was a wolf, which wasn’t unusual. Some of my more pleasant dreams were about running through the woods, filled with the feeling of absolute freedom that came with flying faster than a bullet.

This was not one of those dreams.

I was a wolf, but I was not in the woods. I was in the hallway of a movie theater, and Bella was there, shivering when I pressed my nose against the crescent-shaped scar on her hand. I couldn’t hear what she was saying, but she was visibly uncomfortable, one arm wrapped around her torso like a vice.

And then, Mike Newton – who I had not thought of since getting him out of my car and saving the upholstery – came stumbling out of the bathroom, a popcorn bucket sloshing blood in his hand, smiling at me with pointed fangs and crimson eyes.

Why did I have to recognize this guy?

Not only did I have to tell Bella that Victoria had gotten away – again – but I had to explain what I didn’t really understand. Did this mean there were more vampires in Forks than we thought?

And what did it mean that both his and Victoria’s scent was at Charlie’s house? Would he be at school with her today? How long had he been a vampire? It couldn’t have been long. He was totally average and human at the movie theatre, I’d even seen him leaning over a toilet bowl blowing chow. If he had become a vampire after the Cullens left, it wasn’t likely they had been the ones to bite him. This meant the treaty was still intact, unfortunately. I would have liked an excuse to kick Edward’s ass on sight.

Victoria must have turned him into a vampire. Why would she create a vampire out of Mike? He was possibly the most vanilla person I had ever met in my life. He never seemed like a threat to me.

But he was, now. Maybe not to me, but definitely to Bella and the town of Forks. I wondered if people would be worried about him at school. Had his parents reported him missing? Would Charlie have mentioned that?

One thing was for sure; I was going to have more questions for Bella than I had answers.

But first, I had to check in with the pack.

I didn’t bother to pull on a pair of shorts before running out the back door, hopping over the side of the wheelchair ramp and shifting mid-air. Sometimes it was fun to be a werewolf.

Billy scoffed from the kitchen table. He had become used to seeing me naked, after accidentally phasing one too many times and coming home with my tail between my legs, looking for some underwear.

“Tell Sam I’m waiting for my invitation to the wedding! Sue got hers in the mail yesterday.” He called.

Hear that? I thought.

Emily put it in your mailbox this morning, Sam chuckled. We found it wedged between the couch cushions. No idea how it got there.

I’ll pass it on. Anything new?

Quil – he started, but didn’t get to finish.

JACOB FUCKING BLACK!

I winced, absorbing Quil’s very loud thoughts. He was having quite a day, and had always been very vocal. He found it quite convenient to have a direct link to my mind to get his point across and make sure I listened. He had many questions, but the loudest and most direct of all stood out.

YOU DIDN’T TELL ME?!

I couldn’t, I tried to defend myself against his sudden barrage of thoughts. And I felt terrible. But, hey, now you know what happened.

I thought we were family, bro.

We are, even more than before. And Embry, too. I tacked the last part on, wondering if we would ever know which one of our fathers had been unfaithful.

Wait, really? He asked, momentarily stunned while he processed so much new information.

Congrats on the wedding, by the way, he added as an afterthought.

Thanks, Sam chuckled.

Before I could read his mind, Quil had always been very forthcoming. He was a forward, goal-oriented type of person who would blurt out whatever thought made it to his lips first. Only after he shifted – and I was privy to every inconsequential musing that passed between his ears – did I realize how much of his thoughts he kept filtered.

Wow, so we could be half-brothers. Cool. ‘Course, we’ve always been close. Hey, Jake, you remember when we were little and ran around on all fours and barked at our parents when they told us to come home? We must have been practicing for when we turned into wolves! Hey, is this why I’m huge now? Like, I’ve always been jacked – you know that, Jake, deep down, I’ve always been the muscle – but now I’m on Schwarzenegger levels. I nearly ripped the door off the house this morning. And my arms aren’t the only thing that’s gotten bigger! You’ll see –

Quil! I finally interjected. Aren’t you confused?

What’s there to be confused about? This explains everything! I mean, it’s pretty crazy that we’re werewolves, but isn’t it cool?

He was probably right, but I didn’t have time to agree. His thoughts ran a mile a minute, thinking things through. His mind went so fast I found it hard to keep up, flashing over every single detail of the last few weeks and making connections before I could fully understand them. One second he was going on about how his grandfather nearly had a heart attack when he phased at the kitchen table, then recalling how Sam had been there in his mind, explaining. And Old Quil was so proud, his face nearly beamed with delight. Then, he was gushing about how he had outrun a car on the highway, and how good it felt to fly through the trees.

You’re not mad? I asked, coming up on the clearing where he stood with Sam, practically jumping in his excitement. You don’t feel like a monster?

Are you kidding? Quil was surprised by how sinister I made it seem. This is the coolest thing that’s ever happened. Hey, when do I get to kill a leech?

Patience, Sam cautioned. You need to learn how to fight them first.

How different can it be from fighting as a human?

You can’t punch a vampire, man, I joked. I’d missed Quil.

So, who else is on the list? Who’s gonna join up next?

Sam and I exchanged a look. As far as we know, Sam said delicately, you’re the last one.

Aw, that sucks. Quil moaned. How come I gotta be the last to know?

I don’t make the rules, Sam chuckled. He liked Quil, too.

So, you and Bella Swan? Quil asked suggestively, trying to wiggle his eyebrows but only managing to raise them. Facial expressions were different as a wolf, and it took some getting used to.

I know, I know, I sighed, it’s complicated.

Quil heard the conflict in my thoughts. He could tell she was still broken up about the bloodsuckers leaving, and now that he knew how she had been abandoned by her leech-boyfriend in the woods, he understood why I was frustrated.

She seems into you, though, he noted. I mean, not as much as she’s into me, but she likes you more than most people do.

Oh, please, I scoffed. As if any girl would be able to put up with you.

Hey, Sam interjected, why don’t you go get Embry? He should be at Emily’s. Send Paul, too.

Sure, sure, I replied, running back towards my house.

I shifted back a few feet from the porch railing, launching myself over it and pulling on the pair of basketball shorts Billy left out. They had gotten wet from the rain, but it was better than nothing.

“Emily put the invite in the mailbox this morning, it got lost. Quil shifted, so I’m gonna head over there now and get Embry, do you need anything while I’m out?”

“Could you drop me off at Sue’s?” He asked. I noticed his hair was wet, like he had just showered. He was wearing nicer clothes than usual, with a hint of cologne on his collar.

“Suuuuure,” I said, drawing out the word. “You got a date?”

Billy gave me a stern look. “Harry’s funeral was yesterday, Jake.”

“I know. That’s why I’m asking.”

“I figured someone around here better act civilized,” he grumbled. “When was the last time you wore a shirt?”

“I’m gonna wear one when I pick up Bella from school,” I affirmed, wheeling him out to the car.

“Oh?” Billy prompted, side-eyeing me from the passenger seat.

“It’s safer for her in La Push,” I explained, turning on the windshield wipers. “We caught a vampire last night in Forks.”

“The red-head?” Billy asked.

“No, a new one,” I sighed. Billy should probably know, anyway. “Newton’s kid, the guy who owns the sporting goods store in town. I recognized him from that movie I saw with Bella.”

“Hmm,” he rumbled, low in his chest. “Maybe I should invite Charlie over tonight.”

“Good idea,” I enthused. “We can invite them over for dinner.”

“I’ll call. Maybe he’ll mention something about the Newton boy.”

“Sure, sure.”

I dropped Billy off at Sue’s, then drove over to Emily’s. I could go faster running, but Quil was overloaded enough as it was, and I didn’t want to add to his confusion. If I was being honest, though, I couldn’t stop thinking about Bella, and these were the kind of thoughts I wanted to keep to myself.

I was imagining our reunion. She would be surprised; her mouth would hang open in shock when she saw me. Then, she would run into my arms, shirking away a couple senior boys vying for her attention, and I would know she was safe again. Butterflies clamored in my stomach when I stuck my head in Emily’s door.

“Embry!” I called. “Quil shifted!”

“Now?” He yelled back, sitting in front of a half-eaten sandwich.

“Sam told me to get you and Paul,” I answered. “Is that the time?” I added, eyes widening when I caught sight of the clock on the stovetop.

“Yeah, two-thirty. Why?”

“I gotta go. I’ll see you guys tonight.”

Paul hummed around a mouthful of food, standing up from the table with a smirk and nodding at me.

I didn’t have time to grab a shirt. I dropped off the Rabbit in favor of the Harley, which would get there faster and have the added benefit of fitting in the back of the truck. I did not, however, think about how wet my shorts were getting in the misty rain. By the time I got to Forks, my butt was practically sliding off the seat.

I had impeccable timing, as always. Just as I pulled up behind the truck, I heard the final bell ring, and students came pouring out. I put down the kickstand and leaned on the seat, stretching my legs out in front of me. I caught more than a few incredulous stares, and one or two girls were twirling their hair in my direction, but I didn’t see their faces. I was too busy looking for the one I saw when I closed my eyes, too preoccupied to bother acknowledging anyone but Bella as she stepped out of the Gym. When she caught sight of me, her eyes lit up over a broad smile.

“Geez, Jake, do you need me to lend you a shirt?” Bella called when I stood up and started walking towards her.

“Sorry, Bells, I was running late,” I answered lightly, meeting her where the sidewalk joined the asphalt and wrapping her in a hug.

I sighed. The world was finally in its proper place.

Or, more accurately, my world was where she belonged – with me.

“Can’t – Breathe!” Bella gasped.

“Whoops,” I laughed, letting go and taking one of her hands. “Sorry.”

“It’s okay,” she responded, a little breathless. Her eyes roamed the planes of my stomach, then up my arms and chest, and finally landed on my eyes. Her hands twitched as if to reach out and touch me, but then she shook her head, cheeks going red.

I smirked. “Glad I didn’t wear a shirt yet?” I asked.

Her blush darkened. She hid it behind her hair, looking down at her feet as she stepped down from the sidewalk and started walking towards the truck.

“How are things in La Push?” She asked hesitantly, glancing up at my chest and then looking quickly down.

“Good. And you can go ahead and stare all day, I don’t mind.”

Her eyes darted up to me, then turned pointedly over to the gawking student body. “Yeah, I figured,” she said sarcastically.

“If you had my body, would you hide it under a shirt?”

“If I had your body…” Her eyes met mine as we approached the truck. I recognized the mischievous glint in her eyes from the night before, reminding me of the spark between us where our hands met. “I would do a lot of things.”

Now it was my turn to blush.

She could have my body, if she wanted it. I was ready, willing, and most definitely able, but as yet inexperienced. I’d always been the friend who was a boy, never the boyfriend.

I lifted the Harley into the bed of the truck with two hands even though I only needed one. I would have shown off for Bella, but eyes were starting to bore into me from every side, and I was feeling shy all of a sudden. I caught a glimpse of a stern-looking middle aged man with a bald head and bulbous stomach peering through a nearby window, but when I noticed him he abruptly averted his gaze.

I chuckled humorlessly. I was strong, but not immune to suspicion. They could sense an air of danger around me – something I emanated consciously or unconsciously. Admittedly, the Harley probably didn’t help. But it was better for them to keep their distance, even if they didn’t quite know why.

Bella handed me the keys absentmindedly as she got in the cab, slinging her backpack onto the floor and cranking the window open to let some air in. It was warmer out today, a hint of spring in the air despite the steady drizzle. I hopped in the driver’s side, eager to get away from prying eyes and be alone with her.

I peeled out of the parking lot. As soon as we were on the road, I threw one arm over the back of the seat and brushed her shoulder with my fingertips. Bella leaned into my chest, whether for warmth or comfort, I wasn’t totally sure. I raced over the highway, the Chevy’s engine groaning the whole way.

“Take it easy on the truck, Jake,” she scolded. “It’s old enough to be your grandfather.”

“We’ll be safer when we get to La Push,” I insisted. “Plus, I built this car. She can’t break down on me. In fact, I’m sure she won’t. I think that ought to add another year to my age,” I added teasingly.

“I still think being a good cook is worth more than one year,” she argued. “I mean, what did you eat for dinner last night? Pizza?” She lifted her eyebrows at my meek expression. “Plus, I do all the shopping. I know how to get groceries on a budget. When I was living with my mom, I used to balance her checkbook at the end of the month,” she bragged.

“Okay, okay, two years,” I conceded. “But you gotta admit, turning into a wolf has got to add on a few more for me.”

“Not really,” she grumbled, looking down at the hand in her lap with the crescent-shaped scar.

I vaguely remembered the other day when she had gotten so worked up about getting old. Maybe this joke wasn’t funny anymore now that she knew I wasn’t aging.

“Tell me what happened last night,” she gasped suddenly, looking up at me with wide, fearful eyes. “Did anyone get hurt? You said Mike –”

I shook my head. “The pack is fine. Last night was… interesting, I guess.” I wasn’t sure where to start.

“You said Mike was hunting,” she prompted.

My fists gripped the steering wheel tighter. “Yeah. We didn’t get there fast enough to save them, though.”

“Save Mike?”

“No,” the image from my dream of him stumbling out of the bathroom with fangs dangled in front of my eyes. “Save them from Mike.”

Bella was quiet for a moment. Her eyebrows came together over her eyes.

“I don’t understand,” she said stubbornly.

“He’s a bloodsucker, Bella,” I sighed. How had she not put this together already?

“He can’t be!” She exclaimed, throwing her hands up. “He – I mean, Mike?

She was as perplexed as the rest of us were. “Was he in school today?”

“No, but –” she started, then paused suddenly, grappling with this new information. “Wouldn’t the Newtons have reported him missing or something?”

I shrugged. “Would Charlie know anything about it?”

“He took the last couple days off for the funeral, but…” She looked back down at her scar. “It takes three days to turn into a vampire,” she murmured.

“So, he must have disappeared at least three days ago,” I thought aloud.

Bella lifted her head to look out the windshield, and I studied her face. Something was clicking together – some trivial piece of information falling into place. I could see it when her eyes flashed with intuition, like a cartoon when a lightbulb goes off above someone’s head. Her mouth parted in horror, and the air blew out of her mouth in a quick gust.

“Jess said Mike went camping with his parents over spring break,” she breathed, wrapping her arms around her chest and hugging tight. “They do it every year.”

I gripped her shoulder tighter. “Where?”

“Olympia,” she gestured towards the Olympic mountains, hiding behind a green layer of trees.

My hands shook with the weight of being human. “The red-headed leech must be responsible. His scent was with hers, at Charlie’s. I just don’t understand why, if they were that close –” I cut off abruptly when Bella leaned out of the window and heaved her lunch.

“Woah, Bella!” I cried, pulling over to the side of the road.

She was back in the cab, looking positively green and even paler than usual.

“I’m fine,” she groaned.

“No, you’re not,” I insisted, rolling down my window to let some air in.

“Really, Jake –” she started, then leaned out the window again.

I held her hair this time. When everything had come up, she collapsed back into my chest, a thin layer of sweat coating her skin.

“What’s wrong?” I asked desperately.

“Poor Mike…” she moaned, closing her eyes and resting her head against my neck.

“I know,” I said, rubbing her back. “Do you want to talk about it?” I asked, eyeing the scar on her hand.

I thought I knew what she was thinking about. She had briefly told me about what happened in Phoenix last year, and I remembered how banged up she’d been when she came back. I figured she was remembering her own attack, minus the rescue…

I felt a little sick thinking about it, too.

She shook her head. I pulled back onto the road.

I relaxed a little when we crossed the border into La Push. The green wall of trees broke off and there was the shore, the same as it had always been while I was growing up. The familiar view was comforting.

Bella’s heartbeat returned to its normal rhythm, and her breathing was coming easier. The sweat was gone, and some of the color had returned to her cheeks. She sighed, then looked up to me with a guilty smile.

“I’m sorry about that,” she said sheepishly. “Do you think I could borrow a toothbrush when we get to your house?”

“Sure, sure. Don’t be sorry, Bells,” I answered, brushing her cheekbone with the back of my fingers. “I know this must be hard for you. We will get Victoria, though. It’s just a matter of time.”

“How many people have to die?” Her voice was full of sorrow.

“I’m sorry –”

“Oh, Jake, don’t you dare apologize!” She exclaimed, throwing her hands on my chest. “This is all my fault. She wants me, Jake. Not Mike, or his parents, or the hikers –” her breathing hitched and tears sprung up in her eyes.

“None of this is your fault, Bella,” I sighed, pulling into Billy’s driveway. “Don’t blame yourself.”

She started to get out of the truck, but I rested my hand on her wrist.

“Look at me,” I demanded when she wouldn’t make eye contact. “C’mon, Bells, you can’t seriously believe this is your fault.”

She shook her head, biting her lip as another tear fell down her face.

I wrapped my arms around her shoulders, pulling her into my chest. I patted down her wet hair, inhaling the scent of her strawberry shampoo. She smelled good in the rain.

“Jake?” She asked, voice muffled by my skin.

“Yeah?”

“Do you think she made him a vampire for a reason?” She asked quietly.

“I think…” I trailed off, feeling torn. I wanted to tell her the truth, but at the same time, I wanted to protect her from it.

“I think she wants to get numbers on her side,” I sighed. “Not that it matters, the pack is bigger than it’s ever been. Oh! I forgot to mention, Quil shifted today.”

“Quil?” She asked, eyes lighting in recognition. “I’m so sorry,” she added softly.

I snorted. “Don’t say that to him. He’s ecstatic.”

She smiled. “I’m glad he isn’t as grumpy as you were,” she teased.

I rolled my eyes. “You were just as annoying,” I countered. “Calling every fifteen minutes. Billy actually pulled the cord out of the wall.” I laughed.

“I knew there wasn’t anything wrong with the phone lines!”

“We figured you would take the hint. No such luck,” I said, grinning down at her.

“I wasn’t the first one to be annoyingly persistent,” she chided, raising an eyebrow. “You’re trying to distract me,” she accused.

“It worked, though,” I smiled, leaning closer to her face.

She blushed and looked down at her feet. “Can I use that toothbrush now?”

She brushed her teeth inside while I changed into dry shorts and a shirt. I waited on the couch until she joined me in the living room.

“Bella?”

“Yeah?”

“The other day… When you jumped off the cliff…” I paused, watching her flinch. “Was it because you thought Victoria coming here was your fault?”

Her face softened. “No, Jake,” she said, resting a hand on my cheek. “I was trying to hear Edward,” she explained, voice low.

“Oh,” was my genius response. “Do you still… want to… hear him?” I asked slowly.

She didn’t say anything for a minute, her face a confusing mix of emotions. “I want to be with you, Jake.”

“That’s not a no.”

She sighed. “Sort of. It’s complicated. I want to give him up, because I know you’re right – Edward and I were wrong in every sense of the word. But I loved him,” she confessed, hanging her head in her hands. “I loved him with everything I had. He took part of me when he left, and I’ll never get it back,” she whispered the last part, as if saying it out loud made it too real.

“But you love me, too, right?”

She smiled halfheartedly. “Yes. I love you.” Then, after a pause, she continued. “That’s the problem. I love you enough that if you got bored or annoyed at my humanness, I wouldn’t survive. You would take part of me, too,” she looked up at me, wide brown eyes glistening with tears. “I can’t spare any more pieces.”

I took her face in my hands and leaned in to show her what words couldn’t describe; the unbreakable bond of our bodies joined as one, how inseparable we were. How across any distance, even beyond death, we would be together.

“Jake, please,” she pleaded breathlessly, our faces inches apart. “Be sure.”

That stopped me in my tracks.

Was I sure?

The air around us crackled with electricity. Her skin flushed pink beneath my hands, eyes wide and begging me to be sure.

Absolutely sure, Sam’s words rang in my ears. You see what those leeches did to her.

Being with Bella was as easy as breathing. She was my Bella – crazy, freaky Bella. The only person who could love both a vampire and a werewolf in the same year. Overbearing at times, sure. Destructively impulsive on occasion, definitely. But she was also giving, and kind, and funny, and the most decent person I had ever met. I’d known her my whole life, sorta. It definitely felt like I had.

But without that, was I sure I’d imprinted on her? Could I promise I would never look into a stranger’s eyes and be stripped of my love for her?

My body rejected the idea immediately. I could feel her pull, the gravitational force I had seen through Sam and Jared’s minds. I was made to be with her.

I was sure.

I leaned down and pressed my lips to hers.

I wasn’t sure where she ended and I began for a few minutes, caught up in the heat of the moment. Bella was kissing me back with the same hunger I’d seen in her eyes at the school, running her hands all along the planes of my shoulders and working their way down my chest.

Just as I was getting to the clasp hook on her bra, the phone rang, shrill and insistent.

Reaching over Bella’s head, I grabbed the phone off the receiver and slammed it back down, returning to the matter at hand. Bella giggled, pulling me back down to her lips by the collar of my shirt.

The phone, which I vaguely remembered reconnecting to the wall, resumed its siren call a moment later.

This time, I picked up and growled, “What?”

“Jacob,” Billy scolded. “Is that how you answer the phone?”

I dropped back onto the couch, running a hand down my face. “No, you caught us – me” – I corrected quickly – “at a bad time.”

Bella was on the verge of laughing. I pressed a finger to her lips as a warning, but then I ran my thumb under her chin, lifting it up to mine…

“Jacob!” The phone vibrated in my hand. “Are you listening?”

“Sorry, phone cut out.” I lied. “What was that?”

“Charlie says he’s busy at the station,” Billy repeated warily. “Said they found two more bodies in the woods this morning, attacked by wolves.”

I sat up, alert. “Two bodies?”

“Yeah. The Newtons, who own the sporting goods store.” Billy explained slowly. “No sign of their son.”

“Hmph,” I huffed. “Figures.”

Bella was watching me anxiously, so I rested one hand on her cheek and kissed her forehead. I wanted to affirm how much I loved her, to prove how absolutely sure I was.

“He said it’s okay if Bella stays for dinner, though, since he’s not gonna be home ‘til late. There’s a search party combing the woods for Mike.”

“Hmm,” I hummed, twirling a lock of Bella’s hair in my fingers.

“Are you paying attention?” Billy asked accusingly.

“I’ll let the guys know,” I promised. Bella was running her fingers across my collarbone, tracing the lines along my shoulder, making it hard for me to concentrate.

“Sooner rather than later,” Billy insisted.

“Sure, sure.”

“Jacob, what are you doing?”

“Uhm…” I trailed off, holding the phone away from my ear and pressing my lips to Bella’s neck.

Billy waited a couple seconds for a response before asking, “Is Bella there with you?”

“Yeah,” I answered, throat thick. “We were just going to Emily’s.”

“You get on that,” Billy warned. “Sue is giving me a ride home. I’ll be there in five minutes.”

I snapped out of the trance and back into reality, where Bella and I were in a precarious position on the couch, which would no doubt get me shot if Chief Swan happened to stop by. Billy would feel the need to do some parenting if he found us tangled up like this, and it was safe to assume if Billy knew about it, Charlie would know soon enough.

“Yeah, leaving now,” I said quickly, hanging up the phone.

“Where are you going?” Bella asked, looking forlorn.

We are going to Emily’s,” I corrected, standing up and offering her my hand. “Sue is driving Billy home now, they’ll be here in a few minutes.”

“Oh,” she breathed, throwing her shirt on inside-out.

I laughed. “Is that a new fashion trend?”

She looked down and scowled, then took her shirt back off.

This was definitely an improvement from the shirt being on, but I couldn’t let myself get distracted again. I walked briskly into the kitchen, trying to extinguish the fire growing in my belly and pooling between my legs.

“I’m decent,” Bella announced, gliding over to me and pressing her lips to the hollow of my throat.

My arms wrapped around her waist without hesitation, pulling her closer to feel the heat of our moment alone. I wanted to tell her how utterly indecent she looked to me, how very tempting she was at any point in time.

“You’re more than decent,” I said instead, pressing my lips to hers and getting lost in time.

I heard the tires turning into our driveway, but I didn’t pull away. I was too absorbed in her, completely blissed out on the intoxicating high of her mouth pressed against mine. We didn’t disconnect until she heard Billy’s wheelchair rattling on the railing.

She pulled away, rolling her eyes. “Let’s go to Emily’s,” she said, and I thought I heard the same hesitation I felt in her voice.

I drove us in the Rabbit, one arm slung over her seat and the other resting on the steering wheel. We drove in charged silence, stealing chaste kisses every once in a while. She blushed whenever she caught me staring, so I spent less time than I should have looking at the road.

At Sam’s house, Emily was standing in the rain five feet away from Leah, who was vibrating with anger.

“Leah, please –” Emily began. I got out of the car faster than humanly possible and used my long legs to stand between the two women.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

Bella was getting out of the car, so I shook my head at her, but she didn’t heed the warning.

“She wants me to forgive them,” Leah spat, glaring at Bella quickly before settling her icy, unstable stare back on Emily.

“I just said I didn’t think it was worth the heartache,” Emily responded sadly, her face falling somber. “I see how much you’re hurting, we all do. I thought if we could talk –”

“There’s nothing to talk about!” Leah shrieked, her body convulsing. My eyes darted to Bella, who had stopped a few feet away from the Rabbit, watching with wide eyes.

Emily recognized the warning signs and ran back into the house. Bella took a careful step back, finally seeing the danger.

“Leah,” I said, trying to keep my voice steady. She was probably too far gone for me to talk her down, but I had to try.

“Don’t start!” She snarled. Then, with a shiver, she ran into the woods.

I watched her retreat. I had a good idea what she was feeling, and briefly considered shifting so I could try and talk to her, but I didn’t want to provoke her any more than I already had. With a sigh, I turned back to Bella, who was watching me suspiciously.

“Leah is a werewolf?” She asked, stomping through the mud to stand next to me. “Why didn’t you say anything?”

I smiled down at her half-heartedly. “You didn’t ask.”

She huffed, rolling her eyes. “I didn’t think I had to.”

“Well, now you know,” I responded, grabbing her hand. “Does it change anything?”

She thought to herself for a moment. I could practically see the gears turning in her head.

“Is anyone else a wolf?” She asked finally, tightening her grasp on my hand.

“Seth,” I sighed. There was no use hiding anything from her. “They both shifted when Harry died.”

She gasped. “Is that how he died?”

“Well…” I trailed off. This was sensitive information, and not exactly her business. I should have known better than to look down at her curious eyes, but I did, and soon I was telling her the whole story.

“Not really. See, no one thought girls could be werewolves, since it’s never happened before. Harry didn’t recognize the signs in Leah because he thought it was impossible. But then she shifted in their living room. She thinks Harry had a heart attack from the shock.”

“Poor Leah…” Bella mumbled, looking into the forest as if she could find the gray wolf.

“Yeah,” I replied. “She’s having a harder time than I did.”

We walked silently into the house, ignoring Emily’s bloodshot eyes.

Chapter Text

XXIV

The next few weeks passed by in a blur.

Bella and I fell easily into a new routine. I would wake up around noon, shift to check in with the pack and run patrol for a while, then pick Bella up from school. Sam had us running at night, since that was when people were going missing. I spent my nights as a wolf, making sure things were safe in both La Push and Forks. With so many wolves, there was no way another bloodsucker would make it past us, but I worried anyway.

Sometimes we hung out in the garage while I tinkered with the Rabbit or Bella’s bike, which had been dinged up enough times that there was always something to fix. Other days I tagged along while she did chores around Charlie’s house. When I brought over a bag of laundry from my place, she stole another one of my sweatshirts.

On drier days, we rode the bikes over to Emily’s and spent time with the pack. Bella and I did homework there three times a week, which now included college applications. Well, one college application.

“I can’t afford anything but Peninsula, and all the other enrollment deadlines passed a couple months ago,” she admitted with a sheepish grin. We were sitting at Emily’s kitchen table, papers sprawled around us. “And with my track record, I don’t think any other school would take me.”

I laughed. “Same here,” I replied, twirling a lock of her hair between my fingers. “’Cept I’m not the college type. I’ll probably get a job in a garage, or something.” I shrugged, unconcerned with my future as long as Bella was in it.

Emily whacked me over the head with a wooden spoon. “You’re going to college, young man, whether you want to or not. You need an education.”

“Fine, jeez!” I exclaimed, rubbing the back of my head even though it didn’t hurt. Bella laughed at my expression, but I could tell her mind was elsewhere.

“I need to get a new job soon,” she murmured thoughtfully, pen still moving across the application.

I hadn’t forgotten she worked with Mike at his parents’ store, but I was studiously ignoring it. Since their bodies were found in the woods the building had stood closed and empty on the corner of the ramp to get onto the highway. Every time we passed it, she winced. Bella had been hit hard by Mike’s death – or undeath, as luck would have it. Her eyes went hollow whenever it came up, and it reminded me of when she first came to me with the bikes, and the look in Sue’s eyes after Harry died. I’d started calling it, “the death look,” in my head.

I was tired of death. I wanted to focus on the living, the ones we could save, but Charlie was right about Bella. She was stubborn, and refused to move on.

Sam wouldn’t move on, either. He insisted on training the new members during any spare moment, pushing us so hard our muscles ached for days after. It was a necessity. With hikers going missing left and right, we were sure it was the leeches, though we were always too late.

The afternoons were never long enough. Bella had to make Charlie dinner before he got home, so I usually tagged along. She had started teaching me a few things in the kitchen, though I preferred sampling more than cooking. She would slap my hands away when they got too close to the food, but smiled indulgently whenever I was successful in taking a piece and throwing it in my mouth.

Her smile was a drug to me. Every time it flashed across her face, I nearly burst with glee. Like the sun bursting through dark gray clouds after a thunderstorm, her lips would turn up in a grin, and I would gawk at how bright it made her features. Her pale skin glowed like the moon, and I was the ocean, pushed and pulled by her gravity. I made it my job to ensure her grin stayed affixed as much as possible. After seeing her frown and sulk for months over Edward, every smile felt like a confirmation that, like all things, her love for him would pass.

I was a glutton when it came to her smiles. I could eat them up like candy, and sometimes I did. Once in a while, a particularly delectable grin would spread her lips, and I was powerless to stop my body as it leaned down and kissed her cheek, her eyelids, her mouth… It got awkward one night at dinner when she flashed me a quick, shy smile from under Charlie’s watching gaze, and I pecked her cheek. She blushed beet red, then got up and put her plate in the sink despite having a few more bites left, leaving Charlie sitting across from me, eyebrows so high they nearly touched his receding hairline.

I laughed nervously, my face heating up, as I stuck my fork into a piece of meatloaf on my plate. Bella had wanted to tell Charlie about us after Harry’s funeral, but we still hadn’t gotten around to it. Luckily, there was a big game on that night, so Charlie was in a rush. Otherwise, I probably would have gotten an earful.

The next night, when his boots clamored in through the front door, he found me carefully on the other side of the kitchen, cutting up a mushroom into tiny bits. He slapped me on the shoulder as he passed on his way to Bella.

Spending dinner at Charlie’s was also a strategic move, or so I explained to Billy. Every night, Bella would ask how the search was going for Mike, and Charlie usually shook his head, looking tired. But one night, he finally shared some information.

“I don’t think this was wolves,” he said, after Bella inquired about how the hunt for the wild animals was going. “They eat the whole carcass, especially in a big pack. The Newton’s weren’t eaten, though, it was like something had ripped their throats out.” Charlie shivered, then glanced nervously over at Bella, who looked slightly green.

“Sorry, Bells. I guess I shouldn’t share the gory details.”

“What do you think it was, then?” I asked, leaning forward. I needed to keep him talking about the investigation, now that he was mentioning it at all.

He seemed surprised by my sudden, intense interest. “I don’t know. But I don’t want you two hiking out there anymore,” he warned, waving his fork between Bella and me. “It’s not just the Newtons who are getting attacked. We’ve lost five hikers this week,” he grumbled.

“’Course not, Chief.” I replied, turning back to my plate.

At night, when dinner was over, and I had no more excuses to stay, Bella would walk me out to my car and pause next to the driver’s side door. The spruce sheltered us from most of the rain, but a few drops made it through here and there, sticking to her hair and dripping down my nose. I tried not to focus on how good she smelled in the rain, like a flower dipped in dew.

And every night, I offered to climb in through her window.

“Jake…” She sighed, shaking her head. “We shouldn’t. Charlie’s right down the hall…” She trailed off, biting her lip.

I kissed her forehead. “Okay,” I chirped, unbothered.

I was more than willing to take things slow. In a lot of ways, I wasn’t ready either. I needed to ask for a few tips from the guys, and maybe Leah, if she was in a good mood, which was exceedingly rare.

I had only seen Leah smile twice; the first time was when Seth gave her a friendship bracelet he made with Sue on their ancient loom, and the second time was at Emily’s kitchen table while we did homework. She had been held back last year after spending most of it distracted by Sam’s issues, so she worked with Bella on math, her worst subject. Leah laughed at a joke Bella made about common denominators, and before I knew it, they were friends.

When I shifted that night, Leah’s protective thoughts about Bella bugged me. She thought it was inevitable that I would leave her after imprinting on someone else, but she was alone in that category. Even Seth tried to talk her out of it, but Leah was just as stubborn as Bella, if not more. She planned for the day when I would break her heart as if stockpiling for the apocalypse.

It doesn’t matter what she thinks, I tried to reason with myself. I would never hurt Bella.

And it was true. Bella’s pain was mine, and so was her joy. I focused on making her smile to keep from thinking about Victoria plotting to kill her, or Mike lurking in the forest, or the love she still had for Edward.

My sabbatical ended, as they always do, and I had to go back to school. Being cooped up in the tiny building was worse than any hell I could imagine. I had never really been studious; I learned mostly by doing, not by sitting in a classroom and listening to a teacher drone on about numbers. I fell asleep in my first three classes, then shifted during lunch and skipped the rest of the day.

Sam did not approve. It was just him and I, though, and I knew he liked having more than one wolf standing guard. I started thinking about dropping out, but Sam wouldn’t hear it.

It’s almost summer, he argued, school will be over soon. Stick it out just a little bit longer. He was thinking about how proud Emily would be to see her boys graduate together; I had to admit, it was a pretty picture, especially if I imagined Bella standing next to her.

We spent more time at Billy’s as the weeks progressed, pouring over homework. Her senior exams were coming up and Bella needed to study, but we spent a considerable amount of time going over all the material I had missed. She was determined to get me to pass my finals, and I was willing to play along to make her happy. It didn’t matter how much she tutored me; I could only focus on her lips as she spoke.

Billy spent most of his time at Sue’s place, helping her cope with two new werewolf children, so we had the house to ourselves. We ended up taking advantage of the alone time more than once, after being sprawled out on the floor with our schoolwork fanned around us for a little too long. We came together like magnets, and we were just as hard to tear apart.

We spent a Friday afternoon at Charlie’s, on Bella’s request. She wanted to tell him about the new development in our relationship, but we got sidetracked – Charlie was moping around the house with his shoulders slumped in defeat.

The search parties never found any evidence of Mike Newton, and after a few weeks, they finally gave up and declared him dead. Not only that, but the new bout of missing hikers had attracted the state troopers, and they were taking over the case. I was relieved we wouldn’t have to tip-toe around the hunters anymore, but Charlie’s sour mood didn’t make him anymore fond of me.

I hoped he would be more cheerful after spending a weekend fishing with Billy. I knew I would be, because I planned to make Bella smile the whole time he was away.

That Saturday was a balmy seventy-two degrees, and only partly-cloudy, so Bella and I trekked down to the beach with freshly-washed towels and lunch in a brown paper bag. I was prepared for a day of lounging by the water, but Bella had other plans.

We spread out our towels next to each other. She laid on hers, closing her eyes and basking in the sun, so I figured she wouldn’t mind if I went for a swim. It was too cold for a normal human, but for a walking space heater it was refreshing. I dunked my head under, then tossed my hair back as I came up for air.

I loped back over to the towels. Bella’s reaction would have made me laugh if it didn’t turn me on. She sat bolt upright, sizing me up with wide eyes, mouth open in shock. When I landed on the towel next to her and shook out my wet hair in her direction, she barely even shrieked. Instead, she locked her arms around my neck and attacked me with kisses, sprinkling them on my chest and up my throat, finally settling on my lips.

It took me two seconds to get over the shock. I reacted with the same enthusiasm she seemed to have. Our bodies clicked together, and I quickly found myself getting carried away. I was hovering over her with my hands pulling up her tank top to reveal the bra she wore last Wednesday, my lips starting to travel south of her collarbone.

I usually relied on her to keep us from going too far; she was always the first to pull away, the first to pop the bubble with a reminder of our responsibilities. Today, though, her hands held me possessively, creeping lower until her fingers rested on the band of my swim trunks.

I paused, drawing in a ragged breath.

“Bella…” I groaned, opening my eyes to see her face.

Bella looked up at me through her eyelashes, cheeks blazing. She moved her hands to my hips, fingers curling underneath the elastic there. She arched her back, pressing us closer together, then kissed the scruff on my chin sweetly.

I kissed her back, slower this time, skin crackling like coals being blown on. Her hands kept going lower, and my heart hammered harder in my chest. I reached up to the clasp on her bra, my fingers trying to undo the hooks with little success.

Bella smiled and reached up with one hand to help, and soon the bra had gone slack. Her wrists locked behind my neck as I slipped my hands underneath the thin cotton undergarment, spreading my fingers out until they covered her entire chest.

“Jake,” she moaned, grinding her hips into mine.

I gulped, my hands gripping tighter. I wanted her – needed her – more than I cared about anything else. At that moment, I was willing to risk it all just to hear her moan my name one more time. I would have gladly fought a million vampires if it meant I never had to let go. There was no beach, no water, no sky, no sun – nothing but us.

“Jake!” Someone yelled from down the beach.

My whole body flinched as if I’d been electrocuted. Bella jumped, too, turning her head to look in the direction of the intruder.

The voice was familiar, but through the fog of my distraction, I couldn’t quite connect the dots when little Seth Clearwater – not so little anymore – came jogging over to us, an eager smile lighting up his face.

Bella clasped her bra back on while I adjusted my shorts, balling my fist in my lap to hide the damning evidence. Bella giggled at me when I shot her a dark look.

“We’ll finish this later,” I promised, grabbing her hand and squeezing.

Her smile widened as her eyes narrowed, and I had a hard time interpreting what kind of emotion she was conveying before Seth reclaimed my attention.

“Jake, it’s Collin!” He enthused, throwing his arms up in the air to emphasize whatever point he was about to make when he got distracted by the murderous glare I had fixed him with.

“You good, bro?” Seth asked, eyes flickering over to Bella with a subtle worry marring his smile.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” I said, clenching the fist in my lap as if to punch the sand. “What about Collin?”

Seth needed no more urging to launch into his story. “Billy came back early from fishing to call a council meeting, and they all met at our house since it’s the biggest. I hid in the closet after Mom kicked Leah out because I wanted to hear what they were talking about. Like a spy.”

His excitement was palpable, but so was my impatience. Bella sighed next to me and rested her head on my shoulder, watching Seth with a politely interested smile.

“So, when it started, Old Quil wanted to know what the big deal was, because Billy called this top-secret council meeting out of nowhere. I think his exact words were ‘I nearly slipped in the shower when the phone rang! If I break a hip at this age, it’s over.’ Or something like that,” Seth continued, either oblivious to our waning interest in the long-form story or blatantly ignoring it.

“So Billy starts explaining how he saw his sister’s son today at the docks. I guess Collin was tagging along on his father’s fishing trip or something, he didn’t really go into that. But anyway, he shakes Collin’s hand and it’s hotter than if he had let it sit on the stovetop.” Seth announced, throwing his arms up in excitement.

I was shocked out of my previous disinterest. My little cousin? He was too young. He was only thirteen…

“That squirt?” I scoffed, turning to share a look with Bella, when I remembered she didn’t know him yet. She was mildly confused, staring at me like she was trying to memorize my face.

“Not anymore,” Seth said, raising his eyebrows suggestively. “That was the next thing Billy talked about. The kid sprung up overnight. He’s taller than I am,” Seth added, cheeks going red. “But he’s thirteen, which is the youngest they’ve ever heard of.”

I understood his excitement now. He would no longer be the runt.

Good luck getting Leah off your back, though, I thought, glad he couldn’t hear me.

“Someone else is going to turn into a wolf?” Bella clarified. “How many of you have the wolf gene?”

“My cousin, Collin,” I explained. “We thought he was too young to get triggered into changing when the Cullens were here.” I paused, waiting for her to flinch, but Bella fixed her stare on me and didn’t seem moved by their name. I grinned, looking down at my lap and fantasizing about what we could have been doing if Seth hadn’t interrupted.

“That’s not all, though!” Seth cried, realizing he had lost our attention. “Billy called the meeting to tell them about it, but also to ask for permission to tell his dad.”

“Oh?” I asked, raising my eyebrows.

“Yeah, he thinks because he’s so young, it’s necessary. Sam agreed. He thought it would be a fair warning, y’know…” Seth shrugged his arms uncomfortably, no doubt thinking of his father.

“But Old Quil disagreed,” he continued, shaking his head. “He thought it would put us at unnecessary risk, since his dad is from the Makah rez.”

“What did Sue say?” I asked.

“She agreed with Billy,” Sam answered. “Said that Colin was just a kid, he needs his father…” Seth’s hands were shaking even after he balled them into fists.

“Oh, Seth,” Bella stood up suddenly, crossing over my legs and wrapping the young boy in her arms. I watched a tear drop from his cheek onto her tank top.

Bella pulled away. “Let me know if you guys need any food. There’s tons of fish in our freezer, and I’m willing to make it for you if you give me Harry’s Fish Fry recipe.”

Seth laughed, wiping his nose on his arm. “You’ll have to ask my mom,” he replied, taking in a shaky breath.

I smiled and stood up to join them. “So, when are they telling Collin’s Dad?” I asked, clapping Seth on the shoulder in a show of brotherly support.

“I don’t know.” Seth replied. “Old Quil was pretty against it. Said they might as well make an announcement in the newspaper while they’re at it. But then I sneezed, ‘cause of all the mothballs, so Mom dug me out of the closet and threw me out of the house. So I’m not sure. Sam will know, when they stop arguing about it.”

Seth stuck around, hopping into the water to cool down. Bella and I sat on our towels, watching his head bob up and down in the water. I threw my arm around her automatically, and she rested her head on my shoulder.

“Why do you think there are more wolves?” She asked, looking up at me with curious eyes.

“Probably because there’s still vampires around,” I answered, shrugging.

We settled back into thoughtful silence until she asked me another question.

“Do you think the Cullens will ever come back?”

I hesitated. She’d never brought them up on her own before. “Why?”

“Maybe they could help,” she replied innocently. “They killed James in Phoenix. Maybe they could kill Victoria, too.”

My eyes narrowed as I looked down at her. “Do you want them to come back?”

She stared out at the ocean, a deeply contemplative look on her face. “I want you to be safe,” she finally said. “I don’t care how.”

I lifted her chin up to look at me. “Stop worrying about me, Bella. I’m not going anywhere.”

She shook me off and wrapped her arms around her knees, pulling them up against her chest. “It’s not just you. Sam, Embry, Paul, Jared, Quil… the whole pack is risking their lives. Leah is my friend, and Seth is only fourteen…” She trailed off as her voice started edging into hysteria, staring out at the water.

“Hunting vampires is fun,” I assured her. “We’re good at it. It’s what we’re made for.”

“Can you promise me something?” She asked suddenly, turning onto her side to face me and resting her hand on my cheek.

“Anything,” I vowed.

“Run away with me,” she begged, words coming out in a rush. “When all of this is over and Victoria is dead and gone, we’ll pack up the Rabbit and drive until we don’t recognize where we are. We can go anywhere you want, I don’t care – as long as we’re together.”

How could I say no?

“Of course,” I promised, a smile dancing on my lips. “When Victoria is dead, I’ll take you wherever you want to go.”

“What about Billy?” She asked. “What about the rest of the pack – will they let you go?”

I rolled my eyes. “I’m not a prisoner, Bella. I can leave whenever I want.”

A smile twitched up the edges of her lips. “Now?”

“I thought you didn’t want to lead Victoria anywhere else,” I reminded her.

“A girl can dream,” she sighed.

I pecked her forehead. “We’ll go to Vegas first and get married so we aren’t living in sin,” I said, only half-joking.

“Oh, sure,” she replied sarcastically. “And then we can become rocket scientists.”

I laughed. “Seriously, though,” I began, stroking her cheekbone with the back of my fingers. “Do you want to spend the rest of your life with me?”

“I can’t imagine my life without you,” she answered, eyes wide and honest.

“Then why not?” I insisted. “I’ll get a fake I.D. that says I’m over eighteen, and we’ll elope,” I suggested.

She grimaced. “Married? Me? I’m only eighteen.”

I chuckled. “I’m sixteen.”

“Exactly!” She exclaimed. “We’re too young to even think about it. Besides, Renee will kill me if I get married before I’m forty.”

“According to our relative ages, you’re already thirty, right?” I argued. “So we only have to wait ten more years.”

She laughed. “In ten years, then,” she agreed.

Chapter Text

XXV

The wolves were on high alert.

Hikers continued to disappear. Two more kids from Forks – Angela Weber and Ben Cheney – went missing after going on a picnic. We found their blood splattered against the trees on the mountains, seconds too late. We followed the trail of blood and the sickly sweet scent of another unfamiliar vampire until it hit the Hoh rain forest, where the constant precipitation washed it away.

Bella was rattled. She barely ate for a week after her friends disappeared, and her skin became paler than usual. I worried about her more often than not, but there were other things to keep my mind occupied.

The whole town was up in arms now. Anyone with a gun had volunteered their time to rake the forest for mutant wolves. Avoiding them was easy, until they started going missing, too. One of the state troopers was grabbed, prompting the forestry department to close Olympic National Park for the wet season.

We convened on the mountain, trying to figure out what was going on.

It’s like they know when we run, Embry complained.

The smell is stronger, Paul commented, scrunching up his nose.

I think there’s more of them, Seth observed. There’s a few different scents now. I’d guess four or five.

Has she been changing them? Sam wondered, horrified.

Maybe she invited friends, I suggested.

How do we keep missing them?

Where are they hiding?

She’s taking people Bella knows. 

She’s obsessed. 

Why stop at five? Who’s to say she won’t make more?

Is she getting ready to fight us?

What, like she’s building an army for us?

The pack went around in circles, asking question after question, but getting no answers. We suspected she was turning at least a portion of the victims into leeches; how many, we couldn’t say. All we could do was speculate, and in the end, the only solution anyone had was to keep watch and patrol more often. 

We ran constantly, only breaking to check in at meals. I snuck away occasionally, but Sam forbade it after I got caught. I barely ever slept, and always as a wolf. My human hours were too precious to waste them dreaming.

As the school year wound down to an end, Bella became a near-permanent fixture at Emily’s house. When she wasn’t working the register at Old Quil’s corner-store – a job given entirely based on being Charlie Swan’s daughter – the two of them were constantly cooking, making enough to feed the small army tracking mud through the house. In the brief periods during the day when I was able to break from patrol and see her, I always found them joking with each other, laughing and talking about their werewolves.

One day, as I rushed to the door, I caught a snippet of their conversation.

“… I wonder if it’s going to be the last time I’ll ever see him. How do you stand it?” Bella’s voice asked. I heard the sizzle of bacon in a frying pan and floated closer on its mouthwatering aroma.

“One day at a time,” Emily replied patiently. “You have to trust them. They’ll find the red-head, and then this will all be over. You’ll see,” she added confidently.

When they weren’t at the stove, the girls were elbow-deep in wedding plans. Leah, Kim, and Bella were going to be bridesmaids, though Leah was reluctant when Emily gathered them all at the kitchen table to ask.

“I promise I won’t make you wear anything ugly,” Emily vowed.

“Do I have to do any planning?” Leah asked.

“Of course not,” Emily replied. “It’s going to be in the backyard, anyway.”

“Can we come with you to pick out the dress?” Kim interjected, her wide face eager.

“I’m going to need your opinions,” Emily replied. “Leah, you won’t think about it when you’re a wolf?”

“I don’t need to come to that, I don’t think,” Leah said, standing up from the table. “I have to go,” she added, excusing herself to turn into a wolf.

The memory was still rattling around her mind afterward, so we all knew about it.

You could just say no, Embry suggested. Nancy Reagan it.

You could just butt out, she snapped.

Bella said yes to Emily, though she wasn’t very interested in the dresses and flowers aspect. She was in charge of the practicalities. She did all the paperwork to get the marriage license, booked the officiate, and a bunch of other things I didn’t know you needed to do to get married. Once the business end was done, she complained about having to participate in “arts and crafts,” to make the decorations. Most of the time she dutifully followed Emily’s instructions, but I could tell she wasn’t very excited.

“You know, you don’t have to do this bridesmaid thing if you don’t want to,” I said to her one night.

We were sitting in the bed of the truck on one of the rare, cloudless nights when the stars were visible in the night sky. My arm slung around her shoulder lazily, and she nestled into my side the way a bird sits on eggs in its nest. We’d smoked some weed Paul gave me the other day; it was good stuff, though my metabolism burned through it in less than an hour. Bella needed to relax, so I’d gotten some from a local dealer a week ago. The first time we smoked together she only took two hits, choking on the smoke, but then she was back to being Bella for a few hours. My worry dissipated when she smiled up at me lazily with the same age-defying grin she shared with Charlie that crinkled up their eyes and stretched across her whole face.

I’d gotten permission from Sam to skip patrol and take Bella out, to celebrate that she had passed all her final exams. I skipped my tests to run, to Bella’s dismay, but I couldn’t muster up the energy to care much about school. I knew where my talents lie; they weren’t in academia.

“I want to,” she insisted, after considering my question carefully. “Emily is my friend. A sister, almost. We’re both wolf-girls,” she joked, pulling herself up to kiss my throat.

I laughed, the sound vibrating in my chest. “I thought you didn’t like weddings.”

“It’s not that,” she said.

“Then what is it?” I asked, trying to keep the crucial curiosity I felt from tainting my voice.

She scowled, sensing we weren’t talking about Emily and Sam anymore. 

“Renee has a thing about marriage,” she sighed. “She got married too young. She says she wouldn’t change a thing, but I know she thinks it was a mistake.”

“Would it be a mistake to marry me?”

Bella hesitated. “No,” she finally said. “It wouldn’t.”

“Then why not?”

“I’m not that girl,” she said defensively. “The one who gets married right out of high school and pops out a few kids before getting a minivan.” I felt her eyes roll against my chest.

“What do you want to do, then?” I asked, turning on my side to face her.

Her eyes were dreamy. “Maybe I’ll be a librarian. Or I’ll write a book,” she said distantly. “If I ever think of something interesting enough,” she added.

“Will you let me read it before it gets published and sells a million copies?” I asked, only half-joking.

She giggled. “If you promise not to laugh,” she qualified.

“I promise,” I said, pulling her waist closer and pressing my lips against her cheek.

Bella and I had become nearly inseparable. At night, when I brought her home from Emily’s, she would invite me inside to stay until Charlie came home from work. He had been staying at the station later and later, still working on finding all the missing hikers. Since I was keeping an eye on the house, Sam let me wait with her.

We couldn’t keep our hands off each other. Maybe it was due to the looming threat of the leeches, or maybe it was just pure hormones. Whatever the reason, Bella and I always wound up intertwined on the couch in, ahem, provocative positions. I was getting better with the clasp on her bra, and I could take it off without help now. She was getting bolder, too. Her fingers unbuttoned my shorts with practiced ease, and I wiggled them down to my ankles so I could toss them off.

“Jake,” she moaned, running her fingers through my hair. “Let’s do it.”

“Really?” I whispered, voice breaking. I probably would have blushed if all my blood wasn’t pooling on the opposite end of my body.

“Yeah,” she gasped, nodding hard and fast. “Let’s run away together.”

I sighed, collapsing on top of her. “I thought you were talking about something else,” I muttered, voice muffled by her chest.

She laughed, throwing her head back against the armrest. “I am. If we ran away, we wouldn’t have to worry about Charlie walking in.”

I smiled, resting my chin on her sternum. My hands tightened on her waist hopefully.

“I’ll hear him before he turns the corner.”

“You won’t be distracted?” She asked, stroking my hair.

“I’ll keep an eye out,” I whispered, pulling myself back up to kiss her.

“Seriously,” she said, stopping me by resting her hands on my shoulders. “Charlie’s going to come through that door any second now,” she insisted.

I groaned, resting my cheek back down on her chest, my lips tilted down in a pout. “I don’t hear the cruiser,” I said stubbornly.

“Oh, Jake…” she sighed. “What am I going to do with you?”

I opened my mouth to give her a few suggestions but groaned instead when I heard the cruiser’s tires turn onto the street. Grudgingly, I got up and put my pants back on.

 

 

The next night, when I dropped her off, I opened the door of the car and a burst of cold air blew in, going right up my nose and burning the hair in my nostrils. For the first time since I’d shifted, the hair on my arms rose up in goosebumps. 

“OH!” The breath whooshed out of me like someone had punched me in the gut. “Holy crap!”

I slammed the door and twisted the keys in the ignition at the same moment. My hands were shaking so hard I wasn’t even in control of my movements.

“What’s wrong?”

I revved the engine too fast; it sputtered and faltered.

“Vampire,” I spit, jamming the brake.

“How do you know?”

“Because I can smell it. Dammit!”

My eyes raked the street wildly, tremors rolling through my body.

“Phase or get her out of here?” I hissed at myself.

It only took a split second for me to see her horror-struck eyes and white face until I was scanning the street again. “Right. Get you out.”

The engine finally caught, and the tires squealed as I spun the car around, turning toward the road. The headlights washed across the pavement, lit the front line of the black forest, and finally glinted off the car parked in front of the house.

“No, Jacob, Charlie’s in there!” She shouted, voice going up two octaves.

I slammed on the brake. Sure enough, the cruiser was parked on the curb.

Crap,” I swore again, throwing the truck in park and hopping out of the cab. “Don’t follow me,” I ordered.

As always, she ignored my warning. Her nervous steps stumbled a few feet behind me. I was just about to rip open the door when Charlie beat me to the punch.

“Hey, kids,” he greeted, smiling broadly. “I made dinner!”

I stared at him, eyes wide in shock, nose still burning. There had to have been a leech here, but wouldn’t Charlie have noticed someone breaking in? He was a cop, for goodness sake! I itched to go in and inspect for myself, but he would get suspicious if I started turning over his house without an explanation.

“You guys okay?” Charlie asked after a moment, looking between us. “You weren’t fighting, were you?”

“No,” Bella said quickly, walking around and tugging me through the door. “Just surprised. You don’t cook, Dad.”

Charlie shrugged modestly. “I can boil water.”

Bella sniffed. “Is something burning?” She asked, rushing into the kitchen.

I followed after her, eyes on the ground, avoiding Charlie’s worried gaze.

“You’re supposed to take the lid off,” Bella called from the kitchen, voice somewhat hysterical.

“Oops,” Charlie muttered.

She stood in front of the microwave pouring half a jar of sauce into a bowl. I strode quickly past her, trying to find where the scent was strongest. The trail led up the stairs, so I muttered something about needing to use the bathroom before taking them three at a time.

The scent led down the hallway and into Bella’s room, which infuriated me to no end. I hated it. I detested this smell, not just because it meant there had been a vampire in her room, but also for the heat it spread down my spine like a wildfire. My whole body convulsed like I was having a seizure. I clenched my teeth, balled my fists, and took a deep breath in through my nose.

It was a few minutes before I could move. The mental image of a leech standing over Bella’s bed - with teeth brandished, ready to sink into the soft flesh of her neck - kept popping into my head, and I had to start the whole calming process over again. I flushed the toilet in the bathroom to avoid suspicion and ran back down the stairs, legs still shaking. 

“Jacob,” Bella hissed as soon as she saw me, eyes wild with worry.

I leaned down to put my lips to her ear. “They were in your room, Bella,” I whispered, low enough for only her to hear. “I have to go.”

Bella’s eyes went wide with panic.

“What?” She squeaked.

Charlie eyed us suspiciously. “What are you two whispering about?”

 “Sorry, Charlie,” I apologized, turning to face him. “I gotta go.”

“Oh,” he said, eyebrows shooting up. “Does Billy have plans tonight?”

“Yeah,” I lied, not offering any more details.

“I’ll walk you out,” Bella suggested.

“Bye, Charlie.”

“See you, Jake.”

She grabbed my hand and yanked me outside.

“What the hell is going on?” She hissed once the door slammed behind us.

“There was a leech in there,” I growled, closing my eyes and rubbing my temples. “God, those things stink. We must have interrupted it.”

“Victoria?” She gasped, clutching her chest.

“No, I didn’t recognize it.”

I shook my head and made for the Rabbit.

“Wait – ” Bella cried, grabbing my wrist.

“I have to go, Bells.”

“I love you,” she whispered, her fingers going slack.

I turned back to look at her. It wasn’t the first time, but every time she said, “I love you,” my stomach filled with butterflies. I opened my mouth to say it back, but her eyes were wide with an animalistic fear, the kind of panic that flips your stomach and makes everything turn blurry with tears. A terrible, ghastly fear for her life gripped my shoulders and moved my legs back.

“They’re gone, I promise,” I said in a hushed tone, resting my hands on either side of her face. “You’re going to be fine. I won’t let them get that close again.”

Bella shivered. “It’s not me I’m worried about.”

“Not this again,” I groaned, rolling my eyes. “You don’t have to worry about me.”

“This means there’s more vampires, doesn’t it?” She asked pointedly. When I didn’t respond, she continued. “I thought so. How many are there?”

I shook my head. “We don’t know for sure – ”

“Do you have an estimate?”

“Seth thinks four or five,” I responded immediately, regretting it when her face fell in horror. “But we aren’t sure. We think she might be creating more or something, I don’t know – I – I –1” My words stopped coming out, head turning towards the forest.

“I have to go,” I finally said.

“Be careful,” she pleaded.

I grinned half-heartedly, then leaned forward to peck her on the cheek.

“Always am,” I replied.

I parked the Rabbit around the corner from Charlie’s house and ran into the forest, shifting almost immediately.

There was one in her room, I snarled.

What? Sam asked.

Do we have a faulty connection? I asked sarcastically. A leech just broke into Bella’s room, I explained, already following the trail as it wound back into the woods. The scent was fresh and noxious; even worse than usual.

Charlie wasn’t harmed?

Didn’t know a thing.

And Bella?

Worried, but that’s nothing new.

Why were they there? Embry wondered.

I don’t care, I snarled. They’ll die soon enough.

A flurry of thoughts circled around in my ears.

We’re with you, Sam assured me.

Yuck, that thing STINKS!

Yes! This is my chance, Quil enthused.

Not the redhead… Leah mused.

I’m coming, too! Seth insisted.

They all caught up with me, snarling and snapping at the burn in their noses. We ran together in a V-formation with Sam at the front, me on his left flank in the traditional second-in-command position, and Jared on his right. We followed the trail to the Hoh rainforest, where the scent got washed away with the rain.

I jumped on a tree and scratched it up with my claws, bristling with frustration.

They’re purposefully hiding their scent, Sam inferred. They know we’re here, and they’re scared.

They should be scared, Quil growled.

Why were they in her room? Embry wondered. Why would they leave Charlie alone? Unless…

They were waiting for her, I finished for him.  

No, if they were, they wouldn’t have left when she came, Quil argued. 

They might’ve smelled Jake, Paul suggested. I can smell him from clear across the rez. 

Did they take something? Leah wondered.

I don’t know, I admitted.

And I didn’t find out until a week later when Bella complained about her clothes disappearing in the wash.

“When did you notice they went missing?” I asked.

She flinched at the sudden intensity in my voice. “I don’t know. This weekend?”

“After your… visitor?” I asked through clenched teeth.

Her eyes went wide and she made a small choking sound in the back of her throat.

“We were worried about this,” I explained. “I think they were trying to get your scent.”

She nodded mutely, staring out the window the rest of the ride to La Push. I wanted to tell her it would all be okay, but it was a promise I knew I might not be able to keep.

The vampires’ numbers were growing rapidly. More people kept disappearing even after the forest was off-limits to the public, and now there were reports of deadly maulings in the small town of Forks. More people went missing, mostly kids, and Bella became inconsolable when another girl from her class, Jessica Stanley, disappeared.

“Let me go to Victoria,” she pleaded that night, while we were all gathered around Emily’s dented-up coffee table discussing the new precautions we would have to take. “She wants to kill me, not everyone else. Please, this has to stop,” she begged, tears streaming down her face.

“Absolutely not,” I growled. “We’ll stop her, right, guys?”

“Of course,” Quil agreed.

“You have no reason to worry, Bella,” Sam offered.

“What about bait?” She argued stubbornly. “I could go out there and draw them in.”

“No,” I snarled, hands shaking.

She ran her fingers down my arm, trying to comfort me. “Jake, I have to help. I can’t let all these innocent people die because of me.”

“You are helping,” I argued.

“By cooking?” She scoffed. “That didn’t help Mike, or Angela, or Ben, or Jessica.” A tear spilled over her eye and down her cheek.

I wiped it away with my thumb. “You can’t blame yourself for this, honey. I won’t let you.” I kissed her forehead.

She sighed, getting up and going into the kitchen. I watched her leave, eyebrows furrowed.

Chapter Text

XXVI

With the amount of missing people steadily growing in number, Billy told Collin’s father about the wolves and what they suspected his son was becoming. Old Quil threw such a fit they thought he was having a heart attack and took him to the ER, but after a full work-up, the doctors determined he was just extremely agitated. Collin shifted two days later. We welcomed him into the pack, though he was too young to do much but tag along with Seth on patrol.

Another two days later, Seth’s cousin Brady phased unexpectedly. The three young teenagers banded together and were soon inseparable. The pack tended to refer to them with the shorthand, “the boys,” though they would have preferred something less juvenile.

To welcome and initiate the new pack members, the council decided to hold a modified version of a potlatch, an ancient Quileute tradition. Usually, it was about status, and the Chief was supposed to give away gifts to show off how much he had, but this time it wouldn’t be material possessions. This time, the Elders would be giving the ancient stories to us, some hearing it for the first time, others being reminded.

On the day of the bonfire, I helped make macaroni salad, chopping and dicing most of the vegetables. Bella stood beside me at the counter, making the noodles.

“Hand me the olive oil, would you?” She asked, turning off the stove and bringing the pot over to the sink.

“Here,” I said, placing the bottle next to her. After a moment of hesitation, I wound my arms around her from behind and placed my lips to her temple.

“Jake,” she complained, pouring the noodles into a strainer. “This water is boiling hot.”

“It won’t hurt me,” I bragged. “And you’re good enough at this stuff, I don’t think you’ll get burned.”

Her eye roll was so exaggerated I could almost hear it. “Flattery will get you nowhere.”

I laughed, deep and throaty in her ear, enjoying the way our bodies pressed together. “I’m not trying to go anywhere.”

“Good,” she commended, turning around to put her arms around my neck. “Because I need you to carry the food.”

“Jacob Black, the pack mule, at your service,” I joked, leaning in to press my lips to hers.

We gathered on the cliffs, greeted by the constant sound of the waves beating against the rocks. For the first time in a while, things felt normal. Better than normal. Familiar, but not something that happened all the time. Almost like a family reunion. 

Bella seemed nervous at first and asked if it was okay that she would be there since she wasn’t really part of the tribe. I had rolled my eyes and told her to stop being silly. Of course, she would be welcome, and anyone who had a problem with it could answer to me. I wondered if Old Quil would have the same reaction he’d had when Billy wanted to tell Collin’s father about the wolves, but when I towed her out of the forest to the clifftop meeting place – where the fire already roared brighter than the cloud-obscured sun – it was all very casual and light.

“Hey, wolf-girl!” Embry greeted Bella loudly. Quil jumped up to give her a high five and a kiss on the cheek, earning a teasing glare from me. Emily squeezed her hand when we sat on the cool stone ground beside her and Sam.

Billy was there, his wheelchair stationed at the natural head of the circle. Beside him on a folding lawn chair, stoic and brittle, was Quil’s ancient, white-haired grandfather, Old Quil. Sue Clearwater had a chair on his other side; Leah and Seth were also there, sitting on the ground like the rest of us.

I didn’t have to wonder how horrible it was for Leah to sit across the circle from Sam and Emily, but her face betrayed no emotion, never looking away from the flames. She had not been looking forward to the festivities, knowing she would be the outcast among us. I wanted to give her an out, but Sam insisted we all had to come.

Seth was a lot more cheerful. He greeted us with his huge, happy grin. His long, gangly build reminded me of a younger version of myself. The resemblance made me smile, but Bella sighed. She looked contemplative for a moment after Seth walked back over to Collin and Brady, talking excitedly about something.

My whole extended family was there: Sam and Emily, Paul, Embry, Quil, Brady, Collin, and Jared with Kim.

I hadn’t really known her before, but the tribal school was small enough that we had crossed paths enough times to recognize each other in a crowd. My first impression of Kim from before I’d shifted was that she was a nice girl, a little shy, and a little plain. She had a wide face, mostly cheekbones, with eyes too small to balance them out. Her nose and mouth were both too broad for traditional beauty. Her flat black hair was thin and wispy in the unrelenting wind atop the cliff.

That was my first impression. But after months of seeing Kim through Jared’s eyes, I could no longer find anything plain about the girl. He stared at her like she was the only one there, like the world was just a passing vision while she was the only real, tangible thing.

I was beginning to see what Emily meant when she’d talked to Bella after Harry’s funeral. Sam looked at her the same way, like she provided more light than the bonfire. Did I look at Bella like that?

Watching them, I felt like I better understood how this imprinting thing worked. Bella was the only girl I really saw; my eyes were drawn to her like moths to a flame. I couldn’t see past what I thought was her obvious and natural beauty; the way her pale skin glowed in the firelight, the faint blush throwing shades of pink across her cheekbones, the curve of her neck as it sloped down gracefully to meet her shoulders, and the long, wavy hair that began in a widow’s peak above her heart-shaped face and flowed halfway down her back. Her lips, top one slightly bigger than the bottom, were full and rosy. Her eyes were a rich, dark brown, sitting over her nose in perfect balance.

Even though she still harbored feelings for Edward, it seemed inevitable how I had fallen head-over-heels in love with her. Maybe she would never be able to fully reciprocate the feeling, but I was perfectly willing to dote on her until she forgot the bloodsucker’s name.

“Are you gonna eat that hot dog?” Paul asked me, his eyes locked on the last remnant of the huge meal we had just eaten.

I leaned back against Bella’s knees and toyed with the hot dog I had spitted on a straightened wire hanger; the flames at the edge of the bonfire licked along its blistered skin. I heaved a sigh and patted my stomach. It was somehow still flat, though I’d lost count of how many hot dogs I’d eaten after the tenth. Not to mention the super-sized bag of chips or the two-liter bottle of root beer.

“I guess,” I drawled slowly. “I’m so full I’m about to puke, but I think I can force it down. I won’t enjoy it at all, though.” I sighed again in mock sadness.

Despite my joking tone and the fact that Paul had eaten at least as much as I had, he glowered at me with his hands balled up in fists.

“Sheesh,” I laughed. “Kidding, Paul. Here.”

I flipped the homemade skewer across the circle. Bella jumped a little, probably expecting it to land hot-dog-first in the sand, but Paul caught it neatly on the right end without difficulty. She was going to have to get used to hanging out with extremely dexterous people. I smirked, thinking of how else to remind her about my super-human aim. 

“Thanks, man,” Paul said, already over his brief fit of temper.

The fire crackled, settling lower in the sand. Sparks blew up in a sudden puff of brilliant orange against the black sky. There was a thin coating of clouds settled above the tree-tops, but there was still a full view of stars, glinting at us like fireflies. Bella giggled on the log behind me, amused by Paul’s antics.

Kim was nodding off against Jared’s chest, his arms around her. I leaned back between Bella’s knees, resting my arms on her legs like a comfy chair, and smiled wider when she reached forward to play with my hair.

“It’s getting late,” she murmured into the fire. I glanced up to see her eyelids starting to droop lower, and a yawn rips its way from her mouth.

“Don’t start that yet,” I whispered back, though most of the group could hear us anyway. “The best part is coming.”

“What’s the best part? You swallowing an entire cow whole?”

I chuckled a low, throaty laugh. “No. That’s the finale. We didn’t meet just to eat through a week’s worth of food. This is technically a council meeting. It’s Quil, Brady, and Collin’s first time, and they haven’t heard the stories yet. Well, they’ve heard them, but this will be the first time they know it’s true. That tends to make you pay closer attention. Kim and Seth and Leah are all first-timers, too.”

“Stories?”

I scooted back to sit beside Bella, where she leaned against a low ridge of rock. I put my arm over her shoulder and spoke even lower into her ear, pushing aside her curtain of hair.

“The histories we always thought were legends,” I murmured, reveling in the closeness of her skin. I leaned down and pressed a kiss behind her ear. “The stories of how we came to be. The first is the story of the spirit warriors.”

It was almost as if my soft whisper was the introduction. The atmosphere changed abruptly around the low-burning fire. Paul and Embry sat up straighter. Jared nudged Kim and then pulled her gently upright. Emily produced a spiral-bound notebook and a pen, intent on recording the histories, lest they be forgotten. Sam twisted just slightly beside her so that he was facing the same direction as Old Quil, who was on his other side — the four council members assembled.

Leah Clearwater, her face an emotionless mask, closed her eyes — not like she was tired, but as if to help her concentration. Her brother leaned in toward the elders eagerly.

The fire crackled, sending another explosion of sparks spattering up against the night sky.

Billy cleared his throat, and, with no more prelude than my whisper, began telling the story in his rich, deep voice. The words poured out with precision, feeling, and subtle rhythm. His tone was familiar from the millions of times he told me the legends growing up – the bedtime stories that lulled me to sleep, painting dreams of wolves and Chiefs who looked like my father. 

“The Quileutes have been a small people from the beginning,” Billy began. “And we are a small people still, but we have never disappeared. This is because there has always been magic in our blood. It wasn’t always the magic of shape-shifting — that came later. First, we were spirit warriors.”

The familiar ring of majesty in my father’s voice was nothing new, but I noticed for the first time the authority it held. When he had told me the stories as a kid, I hadn’t realized how much magic flowed through him, but now it was impossible to ignore. Emily’s pen sprinted across the sheets of paper as she tried to keep up with him.

“In the beginning, Q’wati, the Creator, made the first members of the tribe by turning two wolves on the riverside into men. The tribe settled in this harbor and became skilled shipbuilders and fishermen. But the tribe was small, and the harbor was rich in fish. There were others who coveted our land, and we were too small to hold it. A larger tribe moved against us, and we took to our ships to escape them.

“Kaheleha was not the first spirit warrior, but we do not remember the stories that came before his. We do not remember who was the first to discover this power, or how it had been used before this crisis. Kaheleha was the first great Spirit Chief in our history. In this emergency, Kaheleha used the magic to defend our land.

“He and all his warriors left the ship — not their bodies, but their spirits. Their women watched over the bodies and the waves, and the men took their spirits back to our harbor.

“They could not physically touch the enemy tribe, but they had other ways. The stories tell us that they could blow fierce winds into their enemy’s camps; they could make a great screaming in the wind that terrified their foes. The stories also tell us that the animals could see the spirit warriors and understand them; the animals would do their bidding.

“Kaheleha took his spirit army and wreaked havoc on the intruders. This invading tribe had packs of big, thick-furred dogs that they used to pull their sleds in the frozen north. The spirit warriors turned the dogs against their masters and then brought a mighty infestation of bats up from the cliff caverns. They used the screaming wind to aid the dogs in confusing the men. The dogs and bats won. The survivors scattered, calling our harbor a cursed place. The dogs ran wild when the spirit warriors released them. The Quileutes returned to their bodies and their wives, victorious.

“The other nearby tribes, the Hohs and the Makahs, made treaties with the Quileutes. They wanted nothing to do with our magic. We lived in peace with them. When an enemy came against us, the spirit warriors would drive them off.

“Generations passed. Then came the last great Spirit Chief, Taha Aki. He was known for his wisdom, and for being a man of peace. The people lived well and content in his care.

“But there was one man, Utlapa, who was not content.”

A low hiss ran around the fire. I didn’t really care enough to see where it came from. Billy ignored it and went on.

“Utlapa was one of Chief Taha Aki’s strongest spirit warriors — a powerful man, but a grasping man, too. He thought the people should use their magic to expand their lands, to enslave the Hohs and the Makahs and build an empire.

“Now, when the warriors were their spirit selves, they knew each other’s thoughts. Taha Aki saw what Utlapa dreamed, and was angry with Utlapa. Utlapa was commanded to leave the people, and never use his spirit self again. Utlapa was a strong man, but the chief’s warriors outnumbered him. He had no choice but to leave. The furious outcast hid in the forest nearby, waiting for a chance to get revenge against the chief.

“Even in times of peace, the Spirit Chief was vigilant in protecting his people. Often, he would go to a sacred, secret place in the mountains. He would leave his body behind and sweep down through the forests and along the coast, making sure no threat approached.

“One day when Taha Aki left to perform this duty, Utlapa followed. At first, Utlapa simply planned to kill the chief, but this plan had its drawbacks. Surely the spirit warriors would seek to destroy him, and they could follow faster than he could escape. As he hid in the rocks and watched the chief prepare to leave his body, another plan occurred to him.

“Taha Aki left his body in the secret place and flew with the winds to keep watch over his people. Utlapa waited until he was sure the chief had traveled some distance with his spirit self.

“Taha Aki knew it the instant that Utlapa had joined him in the spirit world, and he also knew Utlapa’s murderous plan. He raced back to his secret place, but even the winds weren’t fast enough to save him. When he returned, his body was already gone. Utlapa’s body lay abandoned, but Utlapa had not left Taha Aki with an escape — he had cut his own body’s throat with Taha Aki’s hands.

“Taha Aki followed his body down the mountain. He screamed at Utlapa, but Utlapa ignored him as if he were mere wind.

“Taha Aki watched with despair as Utlapa took his place as chief of the Quileutes. For a few weeks, Utlapa did nothing but make sure that everyone believed he was Taha Aki. Then the changes began — Utlapa’s first edict was to forbid any warrior to enter the spirit world. He claimed that he’d had a vision of danger, but really he was afraid. He knew that Taha Aki would be waiting for the chance to tell his story. Utlapa was also afraid to enter the spirit world himself, knowing Taha Aki would quickly claim his body. So his dreams of conquest with a spirit warrior army were impossible, and he sought to content himself with ruling over the tribe. He became a burden — seeking privileges that Taha Aki had never requested, refusing to work alongside his warriors, taking a young second wife and then a third, though Taha Aki’s wife lived on — something unheard of in the tribe. Taha Aki watched in helpless fury.

“Eventually, Taha Aki tried to kill his body to save the tribe from Utlapa’s excesses. He brought a fierce wolf down from the mountains, but Utlapa hid behind his warriors. When the wolf killed a young man who was protecting the false chief, Taha Aki felt horrible grief. He ordered the wolf away.

“All the stories tell us that it was no easy thing to be a spirit warrior. It was more frightening than exhilarating to be freed from one’s body. This is why they only used their magic in times of need. The chief’s solitary journeys to keep watch were a burden and a sacrifice. Being bodiless was disorienting, uncomfortable, horrifying. Taha Aki had been away from his body for so long at this point that he was in agony. He felt he was doomed — never to cross over to the final land where his ancestors waited, stuck in this torturous nothingness forever.

“The great wolf followed Taha Aki’s spirit as he twisted and writhed in agony through the woods. The wolf was very large for its kind and beautiful. Taha Aki was suddenly jealous of the dumb animal. At least it had a body. At least it had a life. Even life as an animal would be better than this horrible empty consciousness.

“And then Taha Aki had the idea that changed us all. He asked the great wolf to make room for him, to share. The wolf complied. Taka Aki entered the wolf’s body with relief and gratitude. It was not his human body, but it was better than the void of the spirit world.

“As one, the man and the wolf returned to the village on the harbor. The people ran in fear, shouting for the warriors to come. The warriors ran to meet the wolf with their spears. Utlapa, of course, stayed safely hidden.

“Taha Aki did not attack his warriors. He retreated slowly from them, speaking with his eyes and trying to yelp the songs of his people. The warriors began to realize that the wolf was no ordinary animal, that there was a spirit influencing it. One older warrior, a man named Yut, decided to disobey the false chief’s order and try to communicate with the wolf.

“As soon as Yut crossed to the spirit world, Taha Aki left the wolf — the animal waited tamely for his return — to speak to him. Yut gathered the truth in an instant and welcomed his true chief home.

“At this time, Utlapa came to see if the wolf had been defeated. When he saw Yut lying lifeless on the ground, surrounded by protective warriors, he realized what was happening. He drew his knife and raced forward to kill Yut before he could return to his body.

“‘Traitor,’ he screamed, and the warriors did not know what to do. The chief had forbidden spirit journeys, and it was the chief’s decision how to punish those who disobeyed.

“Yut jumped back into his body, but Utlapa had his knife at his throat and a hand covering his mouth. Taha Aki’s body was strong, and Yut was weak with age. Yut could not say even one word to warn the others before Utlapa silenced him forever.

“Taha Aki watched as Yut’s spirit slipped away to the final lands that were barred to Taha Aki for all eternity. He felt a great rage, more powerful than anything he’d felt before. He entered the big wolf again, meaning to rip Utlapa’s throat out. But, as he joined the wolf, the greatest magic happened.

“Taha Aki’s anger was the anger of a man. The love he had for his people and the hatred he had for their oppressor were too vast for the wolf’s body, too human. The wolf shuddered, and — before the eyes of the shocked warriors and Utlapa — transformed into a man.

“The new man did not look like Taha Aki’s body. He was far more glorious. He was the flesh interpretation of Taha Aki’s spirit. The warriors recognized him at once, though, for they had flown with Taha Aki’s spirit.

“Utlapa tried to run, but Taha Aki had the strength of the wolf in his new body. He caught the thief and crushed the spirit from him before he could jump out of the stolen body.

“The people rejoiced when they understood what had happened. Taha Aki quickly set everything right, working again with his people and giving the young wives back to their families. The only change he kept in place was the end of the spirit travels. He knew that it was too dangerous now that the idea of stealing a life was there. The spirit warriors were no more.

“From that point on, Taha Aki was more than either wolf or man. They called him Taha Aki the Great Wolf, or Taha Aki the Spirit Man. He led the tribe for many, many years, for he did not age. When danger threatened, he would resume his wolf-self to fight or frighten the enemy. The people dwelt in peace. Taha Aki fathered many sons, and some of these found that, after they had reached the age of manhood, they, too, could transform into wolves. The wolves were all different because they were spirit wolves and reflected the man they were inside.”

“So that’s why Sam is all black,” Quil muttered under his breath, the edges of his lips fighting against a smile. “Black heart, black fur.”

I stifled a laugh. Leah’s mouth twitched on the other side of the circle.

“And your chocolate fur reflects what?” Sam whispered back to Quil. “How sweet you are?”

Billy ignored them, looking pointedly at the sparks from the fire dancing towards the stars, making shapes in a language I didn’t understand. “Some of the sons became warriors with Taha Aki, and they no longer aged. Others, who did not like the transformation, refused to join the pack of wolf-men. These began to age again, and the tribe discovered that the wolf-men could grow old like anyone else if they gave up their spirit wolves. Taha Aki had lived the span of three old men’s lives. He had married a third wife after the deaths of the first two and found in her, his true spirit wife. Though he had loved the others, this was something else. He decided to give up his spirit wolf so that he would die when she did.

“That is how the magic came to us, but it is not the end of the story. . . .”

He looked at Old Quil Ateara, who shifted in his chair, straightening his frail shoulders. Billy took a drink from a bottle of water and wiped his forehead. Emily’s pen never hesitated as she scribbled furiously on the paper.

“That was the story of the spirit warriors,” Old Quil began in his thin tenor voice. “This is the story of the third wife’s sacrifice.

“Many years after Taha Aki gave up his spirit wolf when he was an old man, trouble began in the north, with the Makahs. Several young women of their tribe had disappeared, and they blamed it on the neighboring wolves, who they feared and mistrusted. The wolf-men could still read each other’s thoughts while in their wolf forms, just like their ancestors had while in their spirit forms. They knew that none of their number was to blame. Taha Aki tried to pacify the Makah chief, but there was too much fear. Taha Aki did not want to have a war on his hands. He was no longer a warrior to lead his people. He charged his oldest wolf-son, Taha Wi, with finding the true culprit before hostilities began.

“Taha Wi led the five other wolves in his pack on a search through the mountains, looking for any evidence of the missing Makahs. They came across something they had never encountered before — a strange, sweet scent in the forest that burned their noses to the point of pain.”

Bella shrank into my side. I grinned, and my arm tightened around her.

“They did not know what creature would leave such a scent, but they followed it,” Old Quil continued. His quavering voice did not have the same ring as Billy’s, but it had a fiery edge of urgency, contrasting against his withering body. I heard Bella’s pulse jump as the words rushed out of his mouth.

“They found faint traces of human scent, and human blood, along the trail. They were sure this was the enemy they were searching for.

“The journey took them so far north that Taha Wi sent half the pack, the younger ones, back to the harbor to report to Taha Aki.

“Taha Wi and his two brothers did not return.

“The younger brothers searched for their elders but found only silence. Taha Aki mourned for his sons. He wished to avenge his sons’ death, but he was old. He went to the Makah chief in his mourning clothes and told him everything that had happened. The Makah chief believed his grief, and tensions ended between the tribes.

“A year later, two Makah maidens disappeared from their homes on the same night. The Makahs called on the Quileute wolves at once, who found the same sweet stink all through the Makah village. The wolves went on the hunt again.

“Only one came back. He was Yaha Uta, the oldest son of Taka Aki’s third wife, and the youngest in the pack. He brought something with him that had never been seen in all the days of the Quileutes — a strange, cold, stony corpse that he carried in pieces. All who were of Taha Aki’s blood, even those who had never been wolves, could smell the piercing smell of the dead creature. This was the enemy of the Makahs.

“Yaha Uta described what had happened: he and his brothers had found the creature, who looked like a man but was hard as a granite rock, with the two Makah daughters. One girl was already dead, white and bloodless on the ground. The other was in the creature’s arms, his mouth at her throat. She may have been alive when they came upon the hideous scene, but the creature quickly snapped her neck and tossed her lifeless body to the ground when they approached. His white lips were covered in her blood, and his eyes glowed red.

“Yaha Uta described the fierce strength and speed of the creature. One of his brothers quickly became a victim when he underestimated that strength. The creature ripped him apart like a doll. Yaha Uta and his other brother were more wary. They worked together, coming at the creature from the sides, outmaneuvering it. They had to reach the very limits of their wolf strength and speed, something that had never been tested before. The creature was hard as stone and cold as ice. They found that only their teeth could damage it. They began to rip small pieces of the creature apart while it fought them.

“But the creature learned quickly, and soon was matching their maneuvers. It got its hands on Yaha Uta’s brother. Yaha Uta found an opening on the creature’s throat, and he lunged. His teeth tore the head off the creature, but the hands continued to mangle his brother.

“Yaha Uta ripped the creature into unrecognizable chunks, tearing pieces apart in a desperate attempt to save his brother. He was too late, but, in the end, the creature was destroyed.

“Or so they thought. Yaha Uta laid the reeking remains out to be examined by the elders. One severed hand lay beside a piece of the creature’s granite arm. The two pieces touched when the elders poked them with sticks, and the hand reached out towards the arm piece, trying to reassemble itself.

“Horrified, the elders set fire to the remains. A great cloud of choking, vile smoke polluted the air. When there was nothing but ashes, they separated the ashes into many small bags and spread them far and wide — some in the ocean, some in the forest, some in the cliff caverns. Taha Aki wore one bag around his neck, so he would be warned if the creature ever tried to put himself together again.”

Old Quil paused and looked at Billy. Billy pulled out a leather band from around his neck. Hanging from the end was a small bag, blackened with age. A few people gasped. Bella, to my delight, was one of them. I grabbed the black-haired leeches ashes dangling from my neck – all five of us who had killed him wore it to these meetings – and showed it to her proudly. I didn’t have enough time to enjoy her surprised reaction before Old Quil went on with the story. 

“They called it The Cold One, the Blood Drinker, and lived in fear that it was not alone. They only had one wolf protector left, young Yaha Uta.

“They did not have long to wait. The creature had a mate, another blood drinker, who came to the Quileutes seeking revenge.

“The stories say that the Cold Woman was the most beautiful thing human eyes had ever seen. She looked like the goddess of the dawn when she entered the village that morning; the sun was shining for once, and it glittered off her white skin and lit the golden hair that flowed down to her knees. Her face was magical in its beauty, her eyes black in her white face. Some fell to their knees to worship her.

“She asked something in a high, piercing voice, in a language no one had ever heard. The people were dumbfounded, not knowing how to answer her. There was none of Taha Aki’s blood among the witnesses but one small boy. He clung to his mother and screamed that the smell was hurting his nose. One of the elders, on his way to the council, heard the boy and realized what had come among them. He yelled for the people to run. She killed him first.

“There were twenty witnesses to the Cold Woman’s approach. Two survived, only because she grew distracted by the blood, and paused to sate her thirst. They ran to Taha Aki, who sat in counsel with the other elders, his sons, and his third wife.

“Yaha Uta transformed into his spirit wolf as soon as he heard the news. He went to destroy the blood drinker alone. Taha Aki, his third wife, his sons, and his elders followed behind him.

“At first they could not find the creature, only the evidence of her attack. Bodies lay broken, a few drained of blood, strewn across the road where she’d appeared. Then they heard the screams and hurried to the harbor.

“A handful of the Quileutes had run to the ships for refuge. She swam after them like a shark and broke the bow of their boat with her incredible strength. When the ship sank, she caught those trying to swim away and broke them, too.

“She saw the great wolf on the shore, and she forgot the fleeing swimmers. She swam so fast she was a blur and came, dripping and glorious, to stand before Yaha Uta. She pointed at him with one white finger and asked another incomprehensible question. Yaha Uta waited.

“It was a close fight. She was not the warrior her mate had been. But Yaha Uta was alone — there was no one to distract her fury from him.

“When Yaha Uta lost, Taha Aki screamed in defiance. He limped forward and shifted into an ancient, white-muzzled wolf. The wolf was old, but this was Taha Aki the Spirit Man, and his rage made him strong. The fight began again.

“Taha Aki’s third wife had just seen her son die before her. Now her husband fought, and she had no hope that he could win. She’d heard every word the witnesses to the slaughter had told the council. She’d heard the story of Yaha Uta’s first victory, and knew that his brother’s diversion had saved him.

“The third wife grabbed a knife from the belt of one of the sons who stood beside her. They were all young sons, not yet men, and she knew they would die when their father failed.

“The third wife ran toward the Cold Woman with the dagger raised high. The Cold Woman smiled, barely distracted from her fight with the old wolf. She had no fear of the weak human woman or the knife that would not even scratch her skin, and she was about to deliver the death blow to Taha Aki.

“And then the third wife did something the Cold Woman did not expect. She fell to her knees at the blood drinker’s feet and plunged the knife into her own heart.

“Blood spurted through the third wife’s fingers and splashed against the Cold Woman. The blood drinker could not resist the lure of the fresh blood leaving the third wife’s body. Instinctively, she turned to the dying woman, for one second entirely consumed by thirst.

“Taha Aki’s teeth closed around her neck.

“That was not the end of the fight, but Taha Aki was not alone now. Watching their mother die, two young sons felt such rage that they sprang forth as their spirit wolves, though they were not yet men. With their father, they finished the creature.

“Taha Aki never rejoined the tribe. He never changed back to a man again. He lay for one day beside the body of the third wife, growling whenever anyone tried to touch her, and then he went into the forest and never returned.

“Trouble with the cold ones was rare from that time on. Taha Aki’s sons guarded the tribe until their sons were old enough to take their places. There were never more than three wolves at a time. It was enough. Occasionally a blood drinker would come through these lands, but they were taken by surprise, not expecting the wolves. Sometimes a wolf would die but never were they decimated again like that first time. They’d learned how to fight the cold ones, and they passed the knowledge on, wolf mind to wolf mind, spirit to spirit, father to son.

“Time passed, and the descendants of Taha Aki no longer became wolves when they reached manhood. Only in a great while, if a cold one was near, would the wolves return. The cold ones always came in ones and twos, and the pack stayed small.

“A bigger coven came, and your own great-grandfathers prepared to fight them off. But the leader spoke to Ephraim Black as if he were a man, and promised not to harm the Quileutes. His strange yellow eyes gave some proof to his claim that they were not the same as other blood drinkers. The wolves were outnumbered; there was no need for the cold ones to offer a treaty when they could have won the fight. Ephraim accepted. They’ve stayed true to their side, though their presence does tend to draw in others.”

Old Quil paused, and for one moment his black eyes - all but buried in the wrinkles of skin folded around them - rested on Bella.

“And their numbers have forced a larger pack than the tribe has ever seen,” he continued. “Except, of course, in Taha Aki’s time.” The old man sighed, his gaze returning to the fire. “And so the sons of our tribe again carry the burden and share the sacrifice their fathers endured before them.”

All was silent for a long moment. We, the living descendants of magic and legend, stared at one another across the fire, afraid to break the spell. All but one.

“Burden,” he scoffed in a low voice. “I think it’s cool.” Quil’s full lower lip pouted out a little bit.

Across the dying fire, Seth Clearwater – eyes wide with excessive admiration for our brotherhood of tribal protectors – bobbed his head up and down in agreement.

Billy chuckled, low and long, and the magic faded into the glowing embers. Suddenly, it was just a circle of friends again. Jared flicked a small stone at Quil, and everyone laughed when it made him jump. Low conversations murmured around us, teasing and casual.

Leah Clearwater’s eyes did not open. I thought I saw something sparkling on her cheek like a tear, but when I looked back a moment later it was gone.

Neither Bella nor I spoke. She was so still beside me, her breath so deep and even, that I thought she might be asleep.

My mind was a thousand years away, but I was not thinking about the wolves or even the Cold Ones. I was thinking about the third wife.

Did Taha Aki understand her sacrifice? Could he have prevented it, if he knew her plans? Or was it inevitable that she would die to save him? Was his spirit angry that we had forgotten her name? I glanced down at Bella, whose eyes were shut like Leah’s. Had the legend given her more ideas about surrendering to Victoria in an attempt to shield the wolves?

In the back of my mind, Old Quil’s words kept echoing in my ears. And their numbers have forced a larger pack than the tribe has ever seen.

Why had so many of us phased, when the Cullens left almost a year ago? Why had the youngest in the tribe had their wolf-gene triggered? As far as I knew, it only happened when there was some strong emotion involved. The only time it happened before Seth was after the third wife’s sacrifice invoked the change in her sons. It didn’t make sense. Why would they need to shift, when so many of us already had? Did it really work like that? Or was this fate – something we couldn’t have avoided, even if we knew how?

I refused to believe that. Fate had nothing to do with it. Sure, things could be unavoidable – I loved Bella that way. But this was some sinister, outside force, lurking like a black fog in my peripheral vision. I felt it coming, somewhere deep in my bones, the earth starting to shift beneath us.

Something big was coming – of that I was sure.  

Chapter Text

XXVII

My prediction proved true when we found out about the vampire infestation next door.

We knew they were hiding in the Hoh Rainforest, however many there were, but the constant rain made it impossible to seek out their hiding spot. We had traversed the area countless times, listening for their unnatural footsteps, but monsoon season was upon us, and the constant torrent drowned out most of the noise, like the thick sheets of rain were sound-proof walls.

I had the afternoon off to go to Bella’s graduation ceremony. Sam tagged along with Emily, and Kim insisted on going with Jared, leaving Paul in charge. That should have been the first red flag.

I didn’t regret going; in fact, I enjoyed the bright flush of Bella’s cheeks when her name was called and we started cheering. No one else had werewolves whooping for them, and we were no doubt the loudest group in the crowd.

“That’s my girl!” I yelled, cupping my hands around my mouth like a megaphone.

“Good for you, Bella!” Emily congratulated her once she stumbled over to us, looking dazed.

“Thanks,” she replied breathlessly, looking up to meet my eyes.

“I guess you think this will add a few more years to your total,” I joked, resting my elbows on her shoulders.

She grinned up at me, eyes all bright and lit up like a warm fire, and the breath blew out of my lungs in a whoosh.

“Thank you, Jake,” she said, wrapping her arms around my torso in a hug.

I laughed breathlessly. “For what?”

“Everything,” she mumbled into my chest. “For being my own personal sun.”

I didn’t regret going. Even if while I stood there holding her, the hammer was dropping.

Quil and Embry were sleeping as wolves in a pile, while Leah dreamed a few feet away. They were recovering from a long night of running around in the torrential downpour, slogging through ankle-deep mud beside the flooded river. Paul hopped on top of them and immediately started snoring, leaving Seth, Brady, and Collin to their own devices. An oversight, probably, but an egregiously stupid one.

They went into the deluge, sloshing through puddles as deep as their knees, until they caught a flurry of movement on the riverbed accompanied by a whiff of leeches. They ran after it immediately, and followed it deep into the heart of the rainforest, over to the side of the river, where a clearing had been carved out of the trees for an ancient Quileute long house with a rain-washed barn behind it. The scent was staggering, like getting razor blades stuck up their noses, and it sent them reeling backwards.

Seth had the best sense of smell, and he thought it had to be more than twenty, which meant they were greatly outnumbered. They turned on their heels quickly, howling and yipping in pain once they crossed the boundary into La Push. Their noses burned so badly tears welled up and poured down their fur.

Leah woke up first. Her memories were clouded in panic until Seth was able to assure her they were not harmed. Once she had calmed down enough to hear their crowded explanation, she went dashing for Charlie’s house, where Emily was handing out snacks for the little group assembled there.

“A wolf – ” Charlie gasped when we heard her howling bloody murder outside. He jumped up from his chair and crossed over to the closet under the stairs where he kept his shotgun.

Sam and I shared a meaningful look, getting up with him.

“We’ll check it out, Charlie,” Sam assured him.

“Are you sure?” He asked incredulously.

“We’ll scare it away,” Sam responded, clapping Charlie’s shoulder as he walked by.

The Chief’s knees buckled like he was being pushed down into the floorboards.

I brushed past Bella, focused on the agonized howling coming from the woods outside. I was pre-occupied with the fire shaking my limbs and how it made my spine stand erect. I didn’t notice her footsteps following me until she spoke.

“Jake!” She called, running out the door behind me.

“I have to go, Bells,” I begged her to understand. This howling was a signal. Vampires were here.

“Be careful,” she pleaded, taking one of my hands in both of hers and holding it to her heart.

“Always am,” I responded, arms shaking in anticipation of a fight. “I gotta go now, Bells. I’ll be back,” I promised, flashing her a grin and sealing it with a kiss.

Sam and I shifted, and I immediately knew my sense of foreboding had been completely, terrifyingly, horrifically correct. The whole pack met in the clearing where we had caught Laurent, and we debated whether or not to go and kick some leech ass.

What are we waiting for? Paul snarled, too enraged at the idea of so many vampires close by to think things through.

You rush to your death so eagerly, Sam growled, silencing everyone’s thoughts.

We have a duty to protect, Sam continued. We have to leave three behind, to guard La Push, he added, looking pointedly at Seth, Brady, and Collin.

If we hadn’t gone you wouldn’t know about it, Seth argued. In his mind, they were doing the pack a favor by scoping out the area, and now Sam was elbowing them out of a good fight. And I smelled Victoria, too. Now we know for sure what’s going on. She’s creating an army of vampires to come and fight us.

All of this is for Bella? Leah thought doubtfully.

What else would she be after? I asked rhetorically, my thoughts running a mile a minute. She wants Bella because she wants revenge for what the Cullens did to her mate. Why else would they take something with her scent on it? She must know she’ll have to go through us, I thought, looking around at the people I considered closer than family. We were practically one entity. At that moment I was acutely aware that losing any one of them would be like tearing off a limb.

We can’t let this go on! Embry shouted suddenly, propelled by the grim turn of events. We protect this land, and the people on it.

Voices started to come together; our separate trains of thought all converged into one, spiraling into a whirlwind of instinct.

Protect the tribe.

Protect our families.

We’ve let them multiply long enough, Quil announced, his words standing out in the swirling flurry of voices. If we do nothing, they only get stronger. We end this now, or risk being slaughtered later.

We’ll be slaughtered NOW! Leah screeched, breaking through the jumble of voices as she  jumped protectively in front of Seth, hearing her brother’s approval of Quil’s words. I won’t let my brother die for this. Jacob, she looked at me, eyes pleading. Jacob, please, think of what it would do to Bella if you never came back.

I am thinking about Bella, I growled. I’m thinking about protecting her.

Don’t be stupid, Jake, she retorted. This is a suicide mission! You know we can’t take on that many at once. Be reasonable!

What do you suggest we do, then? I asked, teeth gnashing together.

We pick them off one by one, she answered quickly. They can’t all hunt together, or at the same time. It would be chaos. Think about it  – they would be fighting over food the whole time. They’d tear each other apart. So, we keep surveillance, and follow when one breaks off from the group. We knock them out until their numbers are manageable. Then, when they’re weak, we attack the red-head. It’ll be easier to take them out if they don’t have anyone in charge. I assume she’s the leader, if she made all of them. Unless she had help… Leah’s thoughts became speculative.

How will we stop them from calling out for the others? Jared asked.

They won’t have time to scream, Leah replied fiercely, pulling her lips back from the monstrous incisors guarding her tongue. I’m fast.

How do we know they won’t just attack when they smell the boys? Paul wondered on top of Leah.

Paul was hoping our smell was just as atrocious to them as theirs was to us, and would trigger the same bloodlust he now felt. He was intent on a fight. His thoughts were fogged by rage, sights set on the enemy. Paul was a warrior in his prime, and he feared nothing. He was by far the most experienced fighter – though he was smaller than most of us, and less bulky – and I didn’t doubt he would last until the end if it came down to battle.

When it came down to battle, as far as Paul was concerned.

No one followed us, Collin interjected. We would have smelled them. His nose curled up in disgust, as if faced with a plate of steamed brussel sprouts.

Maybe they’ll catch a trail or something, Jared hoped, tension growing in his limbs. And get curious. Maybe a couple will wander away and we’ll see if Leah’s plan works…

Jared was just as much a warrior as Paul was, though his fight was out of duty, not a craving for vengeance. He decided a long time ago to embrace being a protector of the tribe, and was willing to lay down his life in defense of it. Of course, his thoughts strayed to Kim, and he winced at the prospect of never seeing her again.

And then the memory of the last words I said to Bella flashed through my mind like lightning cracking against my skull.

“Be careful,” she pleaded, taking one of my hands in both of hers and holding it to her heart.

“Always am,” I responded, arms shaking in anticipation of a fight. “I gotta go now, Bells. I’ll be back,” I promised, flashing her a grin and sealing it with a kiss.

Was I about to break another promise?

I looked around me then, sizing up where the general consensus was. Paul and Jared were ready for a fight, that was clear, but Quil and Embry were right there along with them. Quil was eager to prove himself a good fighter and “finally see some action;” while Embry was seething, practically frothing at the mouth with the idea of so many vampires being allowed to “breed right under our noses;” as he put it.

The younger boys were debating whether or not they should be allowed to go while Leah batted each of their arguments down, with Sam backing her up. Leah was averse to anything that would put her brother in danger, but when I paid more attention to her thoughts, I realized the face she saw was mine, then Jared – now Paul – Embry – Quil – Brady – Collin – Seth – even Sam. The faces flashed by interchangeably. We were all her brothers now, despite how averse she was to the idea.

Sam was guarded. I could sense waves of an idea brushing the coast of his consciousness, but he was carefully ignoring it. He was hiding something.

As soon as he heard me thinking about it, his grip loosened, and I caught a glimpse of his thoughts. It was enough to make my blood run cold.

No.

The fur on the back of my neck stood bolt upright. There was a ringing in my ears, but I couldn’t place where it came from. My vision blurred with a red haze, and rational thought was thrown out the window.

If we lure them away from the group with bait…

NO! I barked, surprising even myself with the amount of force the words had. Sam’s knees were buckling under the pressure, fighting against the weight of my vehement protest.

Bella is not bait, I growled.

There was a new edge to my voice, something I’d never noticed. I wasn’t sure I liked it, but there was no way I was backing down on this one. Sam would have to kill me, or I would have to kill him. Those were the only two options rolling around like marbles in my head, ricocheting off of each other.

Calm down, Jacob, Sam ordered.

I took a deep breath in, lungs moving mechanically. It calmed me down some when I confirmed there were no vampires in the immediate area. I was still shaking, though, scared of how close I came to taking a snap at Sam.

It was just a thought, Sam continued. Of course, we would never put Bella in danger. As an imprint of our brother – it was the first time he had declared it officially, I realized – we will protect her, as we do our own family.

His thoughts were louder now, talking over everyone else’s internal monologue. I only had to hear their thoughts to realize why his words sounded like an order.

It could work, Paul admitted.

Bella would be happy to help, Embry noted.

I thought of it first, Jared asserted.

Not on my life, Leah snarled.

I was surprised again by how fiercely she tried to shield Bella. She saw her as a sister, someone who understood the pain she felt. Not because she still believed I hadn’t really imprinted; she’d given that up after seeing us grow closer to one another over the last few weeks. She remarked on it later, saying she’d never seen two people so in sync, like watching planets rotate in orbit around each other. I saw it through her memories; I shifted ever so slightly with every move Bella made, and she adjusted to my presence as unconsciously as blinking.

But Leah knew Bella had also been dumped with no explanation, no calls, no letters, nothing. They were both left to pick up the pieces, meanwhile mythical forces outside of their control were plotting to take their lives away. There was a feeling of camaraderie in Leah’s thoughts.

We don’t need bait, Quil interjected. We need to get rid of those bloodsuckers. Does no one here realize that their numbers will only continue to grow? The longer they take up space the more people keep dying. There’s no time to waste. It’s do or die.

My plan could still work, Leah argued. It’s a good plan!

It’s the best we’ve got, I suppose… Sam trailed off. He was thinking about how much easier it would be if they were distracted.

No, I repeated. It wouldn’t be easier.

I’m not considering it, Jacob.

You’re lying.

Sam sighed, shoulders slumping. I’m looking at it from all angles. You’re not being objective, Jacob.

That doesn’t matter, I insisted. Leah’s plan is still possible. We shouldn’t put ANYONE in danger unless absolutely necessary.

I agree. We should learn more about them before planning our attack. We need to arrange surveillance. Sam was planning, his thoughts headed in another direction. I would have to make sure no one mentioned this idea to Bella, since Embry was right. She would be more than willing to sacrifice herself.

Leah, since you think you’re the fastest – the challenge in Sam’s voice was evident as he began appointing our roles – Go scope it out. Embry, Paul, Quil – go with her. Run the perimeter of the park and move in until you catch their scent, then hang back. You’re there to observe ONLY. If one breaks away, follow, and alert the rest of us. Try and keep an eye on them, but it might be difficult from a distance. Try the ridge, he instructed, thinking of where the valley rolls down into the Sol Duc river. It’s up wind, and high ground. They won’t be able to smell you if they’re on the other side.

Boys, he continued, turning to face the younger trio. You guard the reservation. Brady, you’re on cellphone duty. Stick close to Emily’s house. If anything happens, tell her. She’ll spread the word.

They all ran off, leaving me confused. Why wasn’t I going with them?

Jake, Jared – shift back. We need to talk.

And just like that, Sam was back to his naked, human self. Leah rolled her eyes and urged her group to run faster.

I was surprised, but complied without hesitation, eager to have my thoughts to myself.

The others were itching for a fight. They didn’t remember a time the wolves hadn’t won. But the legends – told to me by Billy until they felt like my own memories – had us dying more than killing. Ripping apart vampires was easy when you outnumbered them five to one, but when they outnumbered us it was a completely different story. I didn’t want to scare them with my bleak thoughts, so I had been holding back. Now that I was finally alone, I could let the fear flood my stomach.

We were going to die.

Maybe not tonight. Maybe not tomorrow. But soon.

Bella and I had been friends for six months. We had been together for three of them. I was still a virgin. It wasn’t fair that I had to die now. But I would. I was going to die. And so were my brothers, my sister, and – if I wasn’t there to protect her from the red-head – my Bella.

Crazy, freaky Bella. My best friend. She would die, too, once the red-head made it through the wolves on the reservation. Maybe Charlie. Billy. Sue. Emily. Everyone I loved, wiped out in a river of blood flowing down the throat of a bloodsucker.

Jared shifted shortly after me, and the wolves peeled away. We waited until we could no longer hear their paws thudding against the forest floor. Sam crossed his arms and gave us a knowing look.

“We have other responsibilities,” he said gravely. “Go to them. We relieve the others at midnight.”

Sam bowed his head, and I realized he knew the legends even better than I did, being a member of the tribal council. His hands were shaking with rage, but his eyes were full of resigned sadness.

“Brady will alert if they need us sooner.”

Chapter Text

XXVIII

I ran through the woods, limbs heavy with grief, butt-ass naked. I had ripped my clothes in the hurry to shift, and I didn’t want to be a wolf right now. I needed to be alone to figure out what thoughts were running through my head. Words had never been my strong suit, but now I had to find the exact right way to explain, and the words wouldn’t come. There were none.

I’d left Bella at Charlie’s house, but she must have driven over to La Push, because when I got to Billy’s she was there. I had only stopped by for a pair of shorts since Bella didn’t like it when I “strutted around half-naked,” in her house. I figured she wouldn’t like me showing up in my birthday suit.

Needless to say, it was a surprise to see her pacing the length of my kitchen biting her nails, but she got the worse shock. If I could do it again, I would, because her face was priceless. She turned red as a tomato the second she saw me and stopped dead in her tracks, knees knocking together. Her mouth flew open, gasping for air. Her eyes skittered down, widened and then – as if it were possible – her face got even more red.

“Jake – !” She choked, turning around to face the sink.

I snickered. Oh, Bella

Why should she have to die?

“Put on some clothes!” She screeched, and I reached out for the shorts Billy left on the kitchen table.

“Sure, sure,” I sighed, pulling on the shorts.

They were too tight – probably on the bottom of the laundry pile in my room for too long. The shorts were stiff and confining, but not nearly as bad as the suffocating fear constricting my throat.

I gulped. This would be the hard part.

Dying would be difficult, sure, but I would go down swinging. I was almost grateful to be going out in a blaze of glory. It was much better to die a hero who would be remembered in the tribe’s legends, if it had to happen. I was just as much of a fighter as Paul, maybe even a little better, except I didn’t go looking for fights. Conflicts came on their own, seemingly out of nowhere.

This would be the hardest of them all, since I knew we couldn’t win.

We were outnumbered. It might be possible to take down these leeches, but at what cost? To kill them all would mean wolf casualties to deal with, and it was entirely possible we’d still be wiped out. I had been glad when Sam ordered the boys to stay and guard La Push, but if a battle broke out, the pack would be stronger with three more. I doubted they would be able to stay away from the fray, anyway. Especially when we started losing.

But saying goodbye to her would be harder than all of that.

Bella peeked over her shoulder, a pink blush still sitting on her cheekbones. Her eyes assessed my mood in a split second. She could always see right through me. I was the slick forest on the side of the highway and she was the passenger, watching my thoughts as they flew by.

“What happened?” She murmured, hesitantly stepping forward.

I reached out and grabbed her waist. She automatically wrapped her arms around my neck, but her eyes were full of worry and intrigue, compelling me for an answer.

I sighed, eyelids drooping, suddenly very tired.

“The red-headed leech.” I hesitated. The words still didn’t come.

“Victoria?” Bella urged me to continue.

I dropped my forehead to rest against hers, closing my eyes and taking a slow breath in. She always smelled like lavender, strawberries, and something else – daisies, poppies, a meadow in full bloom.

“She created an army,” I said slowly, barely managing a whisper. “All the missing hikers… the disappearances… she’s been turning them.” I breathed, brushing my thumb against her cheekbone.

Her eyes were bugging out of her skull at this point. “An army of… vampires?” She gasped.

I nodded. “The boys found the smell. Seth says it had to be more than twenty,” I spat the last word, and it landed between us like a ton of bricks.

Bella jumped as if I’d tasered her. Her hands flew up to my face, mouth open in horror. Her words were lost in shock, but she didn’t need to speak, even if her thoughts weren’t so clearly written on her face. I knew Bella better than the back of my hand, so I knew exactly what she was about to say.

“Jake…” She trailed off, tears springing to her eyes. “Please, don’t fight. I’m begging you. We’ll run away,” she offered. “Just you and me. Leave all this behind.”

I shook my head, resting my hands over hers with a forlorn expression. “It’s not something I can run away from, Bella.” I reminded her. “But I would run with you, if I could.”

“Let me go to Victoria,” Bella insisted, a fierce look of determination hardening her features. “You won’t die for me, Jacob Black.”

“We’re not going to fight them right now,” I continued to explain as if she hadn’t spoken. “We’re trying to spy on them, see if we can nail down exactly how many there are. If they don’t all hunt together, we might be able to take them out one by one, but it’s a long shot.” I closed my eyes again, tightening my grip on Bella’s hands as she tried to wiggle her way out of my grasp. “Eventually, though, we’ll need to fight the group.”

“No, you won’t,” Bella insisted, still squirming relentlessly.

“Bella,” I sighed, opening my eyes.

Her face was hot and wet with tears, eyelashes soaked and heavy. She was staring back at me with an indignant expression.

“You think they’ll just leave if you go surrender yourself?” I asked in a lifeless voice. “We’re gonna have to deal with these leeches eventually. Getting yourself killed won’t help.”

“I can’t let you die,” she croaked, blinking away more tears.

I was in serious danger of crying, too. Would this be the last time we ever saw each other? It seemed irresponsible of me to have our final moments blurred by the moisture accumulating behind my eyelashes. I blinked it away, spreading my hands out on each side of Bella’s face, forcing her to look at me. Her eyes were two open windows with curtains blown to the side by the wind; I could see right through them. She understood the unspoken goodbye in my words and sensed another promise being broken.

“I will never leave you,” I vowed. “Even if I die. Our connection is deeper than that,” my face inched forward as I spoke, until our noses touched. “I’m in love with you, Bella. So ridiculously in love with you. I’ve never felt anything like this before, except in Sam and Jared’s heads, but it’s different when it’s happening to you.” I was starting to babble, but the words I’d been trying to find came pouring out before I had a chance to think of them.

“You’re what’s made this whole werewolf thing bearable. You’re so persistent, I should have known you’d figure it out sooner or later – before that, though…” I trailed off, wincing. “You have no idea how hard it was to turn into a monster. I nearly killed my own father. I was something from a horror movie. And I knew I was too horrible to be with you, even after we got rid of the black-haired leech who was going to kill you.

“But you were so stubborn. I knew you weren’t going to back off unless I hurt you. That was the most despicable thing I’ve ever done, and if I live to be a hundred, I’ll never forgive myself. I said you could trust me, right? I was going back on my word. I had to see you again.

“But even when you knew, even after everything I had to say to you, you didn’t care about any of it. I was still Jake. You were still Bella. None of it mattered to you.” I pushed my hands forward into her hair. “Even after I phased in front of you. When we got back to Emily’s, I was surprised you didn’t start screaming.” I laughed humorlessly, an edge of hysteria creeping up my tight throat.

“I’ve always been myself with you, like I was missing a piece of my personality before, and now I’m fully Jake. You’ve got the whole package, honey.”

I tapped our foreheads together, running one of my palms down her arm and taking her hand in mine.

Her breathing had accelerated, gotten shakier. She was staring up at me through her lashes, but not in the same way as when we first met. This was a focused, heated kind of gaze. She looked at me like I was a meal and she hadn’t eaten in weeks.

“This kind of thing doesn’t end when our bodies die,” I whispered, intertwining our fingers. “We’ll be together again, as one whole piece.”

“Jake,” she choked, chocolate eyes melting over burning tears. “I am you, Jake. You’re a part of me, too.” She shook her head. “I thought I would never be capable of loving someone this much… in this way… again.” Her eyes flickered down to my bare chest.

“Except it’s different for us. You can touch me.” She squeezed my hand, pressing her body up against mine.

“You can kiss me.” Standing on her tip-toes, she pressed her lips to the tip of my nose.

“And you would never hurt me on purpose. You’re my best friend, Jake. And, like you said, it’s hard to resist that level of devotion.” Her lips twitched before falling back into a pout. 

“Wherever you go, I’ll follow. I will always be with you, and I will always want you,” she breathed, her lips brushing against mine.

That was as much encouragement as I needed to smash our faces together. Bella was almost frantic in her movements, fingers shaking as she tried to undo a button of her flannel shirt.

I placed my hands on top of hers to take over the job, then sighed. We may have been going hot and heavy lately, but she’d made it clear she wasn’t ready to be close in that way.

“Don’t tempt me, Bells,” I tried to sound teasing, but my voice was too thick to achieve the appropriate levity. “I’m not eager to die a virgin, you know.”

“Who said you have to?” She asked, voice barely above a whisper. Her hands flattened against my chest, running down against every contour. I practically shivered in excitement.

I had imagined this moment over and over in my head and yet it still exceeded my expectations. But I refused to give up my V-card in Billy’s kitchen. He wouldn’t appreciate me breaking the table again. I scooped her up in my arms, enjoying the surprised shriek it elicited, and carried her to my room. It was only a couple of paper-thin walls away, but at least there was a bed.

Her lips were on my neck, my jaw, behind my ear. Her hands were on my shoulders, pulling herself up to my face. By the time we got to my room, I was done being gentle. I hurled us onto the mattress, but Bella didn’t seem to mind.

We ended up being way too loud. Bella, turns out, is a screamer, which would have surprised me on any other day. I was just as bad, though. Every time she moaned my name, I groaned, flexing harder, until she got louder, fueling the fire. The bed rattled and creaked continuously as we tumbled around on it with reckless abandon. In our kisses was the weight of finality, the end of an era where we denied the irrevocable pull on our bodies to become one.

With my hands preoccupied and Bella pulling on the hair at the nape of my neck, neither of us flinched when the phone rang. I moaned, the sound vibrating in my chest, as I leaned down to press my lips on her breast. We gradually got louder than the ringing and soon forgot it in the heat of the moment. The fire grew and crackled, sending sparks into the air and smoldering on our skin. The bed quivered beneath our trembling bodies as the flames popped and exploded into the night sky, until our kisses got slower, sloppier, more tender.

For a few hours, the world around us blurred away. I melted into her skin, losing every fear I’d ever had.

Chapter Text

XXIX

When we finally pulled apart, gasping for air, I glanced down at the clock. 

It was nearly eleven-thirty. I had less than half an hour left to be human before I was sent to spy on the monsters who would kill us. Like Cinderella, except I was the pumpkin, ticking down to midnight. I wondered idly where Billy was, or if Charlie was freaking out about Bella not being home, but it didn’t really matter. We were there, in bed together – perhaps the only time we would be intertwined like this – and I wasn’t about to let that be taken away. 

She laid on my chest while I drew patterns on the skin above her spine.

“You have to leave, don’t you?” Bella mumbled, turning up to gaze at me.

I shifted onto my side to face away from the clock. “At midnight,” I sighed, trailing my fingers down her waist.

“Charlie!” Bella gasped, sitting up abruptly. “He must have called the National Guard by now!” She hopped out of bed, wrapping the sheet around her.

I grunted, sitting up reluctantly. “Maybe he’s out with Billy,” I mused, pulling on a pair of boxers.

“They said something about going to the Lodge before I left,” she muttered, putting on her bra inside-out.

“Oh, yeah,” I said, remembering the shock I had finding her in my house. “When did you get here?”

She grinned sheepishly. “About ten minutes after you left. I couldn’t stay in that house without making Charlie suspicious.” She shivered. “They were working on a way to distract him when you two didn’t come back.”

Tires came to a slow stop on the road, parking on the curb. I hopped up to the window, trying to squint through the rain.

Billy and Charlie were together alright. Sue was driving them, a dubious look on her face. At first, I didn’t understand why she looked like she was suppressing laughter, but then I heard the slurred, drunken speech of my father, and knew exactly what had happened.

It wasn’t often that Charlie and Billy really drank – they only had a couple beers while watching the game – but once in a blue moon they went absolutely buck wild. Before Harry died, he used to go with them, and often Sue got stuck picking them up from the bar and driving them home.

“I wonder if –” A resounding belch echoed from Charlie’s mouth. “Y’think Bells’s worried?” The Chief slurred, leaning over Billy’s wheelchair like he was using it to keep himself upright.

“Nah,” Billy replied, waving his hand away. He was slouched to the side and had his head tilted back to smile up at his friend with his eyelids half-closed. “She’ll be fine. Jake’s watchin’ out for her, y’know?”

I felt my ears turn red. 

“Bella!” I hissed, hooking her around the waist as she stepped into the hallway, still wrapped in the sheet. “Get dressed, quick. Charlie’s here.”

“Crap!” She exclaimed.

Shitshitshit, I thought, hopping into a pair of old cut-off sweats. Charlie’s footsteps were slow and staggering, but they would make it to the door soon enough.

“What is he doing here?” Bella squeaked, throwing on the first clothes her hands touched. By chance, she threw on a sweatshirt I had thrown on the ground a few months ago and completely forgotten about after becoming a walking space heater. It was too big for her, stretching halfway to her knees.

“I think they went out to the bar,” I answered, rolling my eyes. “Figures.”

Bella grappled with her underwear for a moment, having to sit down so she didn’t lose her balance. I smiled, leaning down to press a kiss to her forehead.

“Don’t try to distract me!” She exclaimed, jumping from the bed to grab her jeans. “Now I have to explain to him what we’ve been doing here.”

“I’ll be good,” I promised, letting her use my shoulders to balance herself while pulling her legs through each cuff of her pants.

“And don’t look so smug,” Bella murmured, biting down on her lower lip.

The door banged against the wall as the two of them stumbled into the kitchen, laughing at a joke I didn’t catch.

“Jake!” Billy yelled. 

I pulled Bella along with me down the hallway and into the kitchen, where our fathers were leaning over the kitchen table, faces red and plastered with careless smiles. Bella relaxed next to me. Charlie was clearly much too drunk to notice our disheveled appearance.

“Bells!” He cried, throwing his hands up in excitement. “How ya been, kid?” He stood up shakily, a broad and goofy grin stretching across his face.

“Just fine, Dad.” Bella’s laugh was slightly manic, but Charlie’s smile didn’t fade from his face.

“Where’ve you guys been?” Billy asked, eyeing me suspiciously.

“Took her out to a movie after you guys ditched us for dinner.” I lied easily, shrugging.

My arm wrapped around Bella’s shoulder of its own accord. I didn’t know how much time we had left, so I had to make the most of it.

Billy wasn’t too far gone to notice the protective stance I held or the fear in my eyes as they darted from his face to the clock on the microwave, counting down the minutes until I had to leave. I was impatient for Charlie to leave so I could fill him in.

“We called to ask for a ride,” Charlie announced accusingly. “No one picked up.”

“Oh, um...” Bella looked up at me, eyes wide and panicked.

I laughed, trying to diffuse the tense atmosphere before our parents noticed it. “I guess we missed it,” I chortled. I didn’t bother apologizing, or explaining, but I did look down at Bella with an adoring smile, remembering exactly what we had been doing when the phone rang.

“Hmph,” Billy grunted. His eyes narrowed almost imperceptibly.

“Oh!” I exclaimed, thinking of another loose end to tie up. “Bella, honey,” I turned back to her, smile widening with amusement.

Her eyes narrowed in confusion.

“Didn’t you wanna tell Charlie?” I asked, raising my eyebrows innocently.

Her mouth opened wide, then shut, and her head swung mechanically over to her father, then back at me with horrified mortification in her eyes.

I leaned my head back in a throaty belly laugh.

“Tell Charlie what?” The Chief asked, resting his hands on his hips. He was still drunk, but his eyes were sizing up my arm around Bella’s waist.

“Uh, Dad,” Bella began, cheeks flaming. “Well, Jake and I, we… you see, we’re sorta… dating?” Her words flicked up at the end in a question. She didn’t take her eyes off the floor.

To our surprise, both Billy and Charlie erupted into howls of laughter. When they finally caught their breaths, which took longer than it should have, they explained.

“We know!” Charlie hollered, leaning against the counter in relief. “Seriously, Bella, you think that’s news?”

She laughed along with them, the same nervous edge from before marring the sound.

“I guess not,” she conceded.

I laughed along with them, but my mind was elsewhere.

Would this be the last time I laughed with my dad? Did I have enough time to explain to Billy what he meant to me as a father and a friend? How was I supposed to say goodbye to the only parent I had ever known?

“I thought you were going to tell me she was pregnant,” Charlie gasped, still clutching his sides.

“Dad!” Bella shouted, her face turning the color of a ripe tomato.

Our dads chuckled together, shooting a glance at each other in solidarity.

“We oughta get goin’, Bells.” Charlie paced over to the door, missing the doorknob by a couple inches and grasping at thin air with a frustrated expression.

Bella looked up at me, eyes full of anxiety. I brushed my fingertips across her cheekbone while Charlie grappled with the door. Was this our goodbye?

“I’ll meet you out in the truck, Dad.” Bella replied, eyes fixed on me.

“’Kay,” Charlie grunted, stepping out into the dark night and closing the door behind him.

Billy was silent, processing the sudden shift in atmosphere as Charlie got farther away and the weight of our farewell hung in the air. It was easy to pretend he wasn’t there and get wrapped in our own bubble, but his questioning eyes tickled the back of my neck.

“Bells – ” I began, but she pressed her finger to my lips to stop me.

“I love you,” she whispered, brushing her fingers through my hair.

I grabbed the hand she held against my mouth and pressed it against my chest.

“I love you more,” I murmured, tucking a stray lock of hair behind her ear.

Tears were brimming on the edge of her eyes, something I couldn’t bear to watch. I gently brushed our lips together, bristling at the taste of goodbyes on my tongue.

She turned away, running out the door as if she couldn’t bear to stay any longer. I watched as she left, head down and hidden beneath a thick brown wall of hair. Would Charlie notice how distraught she was? Would he blame me, like he should?

“What’s that about?” Billy asked, his voice higher than usual. When I turned back to him, he looked taken aback by the expression on my face. I had no idea what he saw, but I knew it wasn’t anything good.

“The boys found where the leeches have been hiding,” I said, my voice heavy with gravity. “The red-head has been busy there, making an army.” I couldn’t say anymore through the lump in my throat.

The color drained from Billy’s face, collapsing all the leathery wrinkles until he looked more ancient than usual.

“How many?” He croaked, then cleared his throat.

“Seth said more than twenty.” My voice was no more than a whisper, but I knew he could hear. The whole house felt too still, too silent. It bore down on us with the force of a semi barreling ninety miles an hour down the highway.

“Jacob,” Billy whispered, rolling over to me. His eyes were wide and panic-stricken.

“We’re surveilling their territory,” I continued, looking down at my feet. “Trying to figure out the best mode of attack.” My fists were shaking by the end of the sentence. I tried balling them into fists, but that only made my arms rattle in their sockets.

Billy was silent. Without a word, he wheeled down the hallway and into his room. It was bigger than mine by one square foot, with barely enough room to fit his wheelchair next to the bed. He dug around in the tattered bedside table for a moment, then turned back to face me, holding something in his right hand.

“I made this for you when we knew you’d be shifting soon,” he explained, handing me the bracelet.

It was a small wolf carved in soft wood, its head thrown back in a howl. The charm was affixed to a rubber, stretchy cord, loose enough not to break if I wore it when I phased.

“You remember when I taught you how to make those?” Billy asked gruffly while I stared down at the bracelet in surprise and awe.

I remembered the summer afternoons we’d spent working at the table, sun setting the room on fire in orange and pink strokes of light. Billy made intricate wood carvings and sold them to make ends meet. I begged him to teach me every day until my fifth birthday, when he finally conceded and taught me how to hold the knife correctly. I began by carving a circle, which ended up being a lopsided heart, and painted it red. Eventually, I got good enough to work on a few of Billy’s more complicated pieces, and became sort of a geek when it came to different types of wood. I’d done it up until I turned fourteen and decided it wasn’t cool anymore, leaving my Dad to sit at the table and carve alone.

“Sure, sure,” I responded, pulling the bracelet onto my wrist. It hung loose, dropping to my knuckles when I lowered my hand. “I remember how much better you were at it.”

“You made a few, too.” Billy said, pulling out another bracelet with a wolf made out of reddish-brown balsa wood. This one was attached to a metal chain.

“Can you…” I trailed off, biting my tongue against the flood of emotions barreling through me. “Can I give that one to Bella?” I asked.

Billy, eyes grave, nodded solemnly.

“When do you have to go?” He inquired, moving closer.

“Midnight,” I replied, eyes glancing over to the clock automatically. I had fifteen minutes.

Fifteen minutes left to be human with my father.

“Dad,” I said anxiously, plopping down on the bed so we were eye-to-eye. “I want you to promise me something before I go.”

“Anything, son.”

“Don’t unplug the phone this time,” I laughed, though the sound was wrong, more like a bark. “I know Bella is going to be annoying, but try not to cut ties with Charlie over it.”

Billy patted me on the back, then rubbed my shoulder.

“I’ll watch over them, Jake,” he promised. “I’ll make sure Bella and Charlie stay safe.”

“Tell Rachel and Rebecca that I love them,” I instructed, almost formally. “Let Emily and Sue know that I appreciated all the food.” A half-hearted smile pulled up one edge of my mouth. “And I’ll say ‘Hi,’ to Mom for you.”

Billy’s eyes were wet and overflowing with emotion, so he simply nodded, but it was enough. I knew he wouldn’t deny me these final, dying wishes. I stood up, clapped him on the shoulder, then turned and ran out the back door.

I didn’t bother to get undressed before shifting into a wolf. The cut-off sweats were riddled with holes, anyway. The elastic cord on my wrist stretched and strained, but didn’t break. I ran quickly, absorbing the new information the pack had gleamed overnight.

The surveillance team was bored, which was a good sign. It had been easy enough to find the abandoned house where the leeches hid, and it happened to be just upwind from the ridge Sam had instructed them to go to. So far, they hadn’t seen any movement, but the smell was excruciating. They could easily make out at least twenty different distinctly sweet scents, including Mike Newton and the red-head. My legs pushed harder against the ground, practically flying through the forest.

Collin was taking over cell phone duty, switching off with Brady. Seth insisted he wouldn’t need a break until morning, though he had been running all night. Leah whined, trying to get him to take a nap, but he resisted her coaxing, trying to convince Sam he was strong enough to fight along with ‘the big dogs.’

Hey, Jake, Embry greeted when I made it to the ridge. His tongue was lolling out in a wolfy grin, the tenor of his thoughts teasing. So, you’re not dying a virgin, huh?

Bask in the glory, Em, I goaded. Must suck being you.

I’m not as morbid. Embry rolled his eyes, standing up and stretching as I came to relieve him from his spot.

God! Jakey, c’mon, we need DETAILS! Quil jumped onto my shoulders, trying to engage me in some playful fighting to loosen my guard.

I’m not giving you perverts anything, I answered.

Thanks, Jake, Leah jibed sarcastically. I’m SO grateful I never have to see Bella Swan naked. As if we don’t already know everything. Seth ran too close to your house, heard the screaming, and ran for a closer look. Nearly had a heart attack after catching sight of YOU buck-ass naked, going on like the world was about to end. I’m surprised we couldn’t hear you from the mountains.

The reminder was enough for a memory, fuzzy around the edges with euphoria, to jump in the front of my mind. The boys hooted and howled while Leah covered her ears with her paws to try and block the image from her mind.

After that first taste, it was hard to keep my thoughts under control. I was glad when Sam and Jared phased seconds later so the guys would stop pestering me to show some more explicit images. Leah thought idly about calling Bella and sleep at her house to help her deal with all the “unnecessary angst.”

I was itching to think about Bella, like a junkie craving his fix, and with nothing to do but wait and watch…

My stomach churned, remembering how her chest had vibrated beneath mine, moaning my name, running her hands through my hair. Her skin, flushing pink with heat, was soft and giving under my hands. I could still feel the way her nails dug into my back when she cried out, panting in my ear.

Listen, Jacob, Sam intervened. We get it. You had sex. You’re not the first one to figure it out, and you’re not the last. Stop torturing us. Plus, the boys are still listening. Well, Seth and Brady are. Collin fell asleep. COLLIN!

Huh – yeah?

Try to stay awake, bud.

Sorry, Sam.

It’s okay. You’re not missing anything. Sam sighed, laying his head on his paws.

We were positioned about twenty yards away in a triangle around the house. It was a dilapidated old building, preserved by the Quileute historical society and abandoned when funds ran low, with a fifty-foot barn standing crookedly behind it. I took the northeastern side, across from the river, which snaked along the edge of the property, the inky black water sinking stealthily into the valley. Jared sat to the southwest, among the dense vegetation lining the edge of overgrown farmland. Sam was laying over the ridge, with the highest vantage point.

Come on, bloodsuckers. Jared goaded in his head. We know you’re in there. Why don’t you come out and play?

Patience, Jared. Sam cautioned. The best hunters know that patience is key. Wait for one to break off from the herd, then go for the easy kill.

Since nothing is happening, Seth began, trying to sound persuasive, can I come and watch, too? Brady and Collin have got this.

COLLIN! Sam yelled again.

Oh – oh! Sorry, Sam! It won’t happen again.

Seth, you take over as cell phone. Sam ordered. Collin, go home and get some sleep. Your dad is probably worried sick.

I’m awake, Collin insisted, standing up and pacing over the entrance to the forest behind Emily’s house.

Stay that way, then.

I will.

Is she thinking about me right now? I wondered to myself, slipping back into my reverie.

Jacob. Sam, exasperated, pleaded wordlessly with me to focus on the vampires nearby.

Please.

Sure, sure. Sorry.

He can’t help it. Jared added. Still riding that first time high. You remember how annoying you were? Jared snickered.

You were unbearable, Sam joked good-naturedly.

Collin? Seth asked quietly.

I’m awake, the boy insisted.

Are we gonna see some action or not? I groaned.

Waiting for a bloodsucker to appear was excruciating when their smell was so concentrated and strong and close. It felt like ignoring the scent of burning toast in the morning, only this hurt my nose.

You already got some action tonight, Jared retorted.

Patience, Sam interrupted, they will come.

Speak of the devil… I trailed off, eyes catching a flash of movement at the long house door.

In the shadow of the porch, two ruby eyes glinted in the moonlight beneath a fiery red haze of hair. She was at the barn door in half a second, and inside before I could blink. My muscles coiled tensely at the sight, recognizing the leech immediately.

Collin, no! Stop barking. Nothing changes, he commanded, mostly to me. We wait for one to break off from the group.

How do we know the rest aren’t in the house?

Sam rolled his eyes. Too close. Wait until she’s across the river, at least.

Sure, sure. I snarled, drool pooling in my jowls and dripping onto the ground.

This was one bloodsucker I would be more than happy to get rid of. I wanted to kill her almost as much as I had ever wanted anything. More than my driver’s license, more than new shorts, more than even the Rabbit and the Harley. I craved to rip Victoria’s head off with my teeth. I had never really hated a bloodsucker in particular other than the Cullens, and that was a large group. But this one vampire would die if I had anything to say about it.

Dibs, I declared.

Aw, no fair! Seth whined. We’re the ones who found them!

COLLIN!

I’m up! I’m up, don’t worry, I’m up.

C’mon Sam, let him run. Brady implored. Seth can come and help you guys while Collin and I run patrol.

What part of ‘no,’ do you not understand?

Stop! Jared exclaimed, suddenly standing up on all fours, hackles raised.

I saw through his eyes the back door of the barn opening slowly, and then a small, pale face peeked out, looking in all directions. The girl couldn’t have been older than I was, but that didn’t matter. She was a leech, no doubt about it, with blazing red eyes gleaming like jewels atop her full, alabaster cheeks. Her face was cherubic in its beauty, but underneath that was the jarring symmetry of her bones, too alien to be human.

She paused for only a moment, then darted into the trees across from Jared, headed towards the ridge. Two others followed, a burly man with legs like tree trunks and a tall, skinny teenager who managed to look gawky and awkward while sprinting across the yard in a blur.

Let’s go, I urged, taking a roundabout route across the river and catching up with Jared as he caught their trail among the spruces.

I’m coming! Seth exclaimed.

We need to catch up with them, Sam panted, pushing us faster.

One for each of us, Jared noted, pleased.

Focus, Sam ordered.

I hear ‘em, I announced, excited.

The bloodsuckers were up ahead, near an almost-abandoned campsite. The park was closed to the public since so many people had gone missing, but there was always someone out there stupid or desperate enough to try.

If we were successful, they would live to be stupid or desperate another day.

Sam was hopping down the ridge from the other side, getting ready to corner them. Jared was about twenty yards to my right, his mouth watering in anticipation.

Seth was flying over the ground, closing the gap between him and us faster than even he thought he could go. I was glad he would be here so we had the upper hand, but also worried he would overestimate his strength.

Don’t worry, guys, I got this, he assured us.

Seth wasn’t seasoned enough to give into his instincts when hunting, but Sam, Jared, and I were already too deep in the zone to pay him much mind. The bloodsuckers had paused on the edge of the clearing, centering around the sole tent pitched on the far end, inches from the border of cedar trees towering over us.

I was on the opposite edge, farthest away from them, but I would be the first one they saw. The wind shifted, and the tall one caught my scent, turning on his heel so fast I barely clocked it.

“Hey, Dan?” He asked, his face falling from a snarl to a confused grimace.

“What?” The large one rumbled, in a voice like boulders falling down the side of a mountain.

“Are wolves supposed to get that big? Or that smelly?” The tall one took a step back, his voice going an octave higher.

I growled, a low, lasting vibration in the back of my throat. Crouching, I prepared to lunge for their throats.

The girl turned around, a spritely laugh erupting from her full, pink lips. “You’re scared of a dog, Damien?”

“Hey,” the tall leech spat back, “I would pick on someone my own size, pip-squeak.”

The big one, who was watching me with wide, panicked eyes, grabbed both their arms with an iron-tight grip.

“Animals don’t come near us,” he whispered, though we all had supernatural hearing.

Stupid bloodsuckers, Jared muttered. Don’t even know a werewolf when they see one.

I continued to slink closer. The humans in the tent were stirring, but I doubted they would be too upset if they knew the reason we’d woken them up. To my right, Jared exited the trees, entering on the side of the teenage girl. She turned to face him, eyes getting even bigger.

“Nice… doggy?” She asked, taking three stunned steps backward.

Try again, he snarled. 

The three leeches were back-to-back. The tall one was facing me, while the girl was fixed on Jared. When Sam stepped out from the trees, the big one turned to stare at him with wide, stunned eyes.

“She didn’t tell us about these things,” the girl whined, her voice high and unpleasant.

“Then they must not be anything to worry about,” the big one replied.

In your dreams, I growled.

I’m here! Seth panted, running up beside me.

And then we lunged.

Chapter Text

XXX

They weren’t expecting us to attack. When I jumped towards the tall one, he hopped out of the way at the very last second, and I wound up landing on top of the girl. Her scream tore through the clearing like a church bell cracking in half. I got a mouthful of her hair in my mouth while the other two leeches kept their eyes carefully trained on Jared and Sam. 

I can help! Seth exclaimed, leaping forward onto the girl and getting a hold on her arm. She struggled and pulled against him, then with a blood-curdling screech Seth tore her arm clean off. 

The other bloodsuckers didn’t like the sound, either. The big one darted into the trees with Sam snapping at his heels; he had the big leech cornered against the cliff-face beneath the ridge and we could hear him tearing it to pieces, almost simultaneously.

Jared snarled at the tall one, who stared back at him with wide, disbelieving eyes. Just as Jared leaped, the bloodsucker hopped over him and high-tailed it into the trees. 

I still had a grip on the girl’s head. I was just about to twist it off when Seth bolted into the woods after the tall leech, the girl’s arm still in his mouth. 

He’s getting away! He yipped anxiously, throwing the arm into a nearby bush. 

Jared followed quickly after them. I didn’t have time to worry about what Leah would have said if she saw her brother fighting one-on-one with a leech. The girl was twisting violently, trying to punch at me from all sides. 

For half a second, I wondered if this was one of Bella’s friends. Had she known this girl? Gone to lunch with her? 

Could I kill her? 

Of course I could, physically, kill her. It’s what I was made for. I’d done it before, and I would do it again. But would Bella look at me differently if she knew I killed what used to be one of her friends? Someone who got turned into a monster against their will, just like me. Not a vampire who had been alive for a grotesquely long time - a person, a kid my age, who might have a family waiting at home wondering if they would ever find a body. 

It was only half a second. Long enough for her to take advantage of my hesitation. With a terrible ripping sound, like Velcro being torn, her head broke free of my jowls, leaving a large chunk of hair on my tongue. I spat it out, bristling at the taste.

I stood up, staring into her blood-red eyes, and realized I could very easily live with myself after I killed this leech. This thing wasn’t a person, at least not anymore; it was a monster, a blood-sucking parasite created for the sole purpose of killing my girl. 

As I was ripping the bloodsucker to pieces, Seth and Jared caught up with the tall leech. Seth lunged at him, grabbing onto his knee and yanking. The bloodsucker reached around and gripped his shoulder, hissing. Seth whined through his teeth as his shoulder got ground up in the leech’s palm, but his grip held. 

Jared caught up quickly. He leapt over Seth and launched himself right into the tall leech’s chest, pushing him to the ground, where they could easily pull his limbs off one by one. 

The leeches were obviously inexperienced as far as fighting giant wolves was concerned. Their bodies screeched like nails on a chalkboard as we tore them limb from limb, but we weren’t interrupted by the hoard of vampires across the river. Either they didn’t hear, or didn’t care, but it was enough to give us time to escape with their shredded bodies. 

We pulled them apart systematically, and carried the pieces in our mouths back to La Push. Seth’s shoulder had been completely crushed, but it healed by the time we got back on the rez. I was glad I wouldn’t be the one to tell Leah. 

We burned the remains beneath a deserted section of cliffs, curving against a harsh sea in the early morning, just as the first few strokes of light were appearing against the thin veil of pink clouds, hovering in a halo around the sun.

Old Quil made a whole ceremony out of giving each of us three new bags of ashes. He placed them around our necks like he was handing out Olympic medals. Seth was beaming from ear to ear the whole time.

I was impatient. My feet wouldn’t stay still, shifting back and forth on the sand until I dug myself ankle-deep into the surf. Billy shot me a disapproving look, but I couldn’t help it. My restlessness only got worse when I tried not to fidget; it poked at my stomach like a bird pecking at an old tree.

We had survived the night, somehow. I didn’t trust this lucky kill to save us from the fateful battle between us and the army, but it did give me another day with Bella. I had to tell her I wasn’t dead as soon as possible, which made Old Quil’s wispy tenor voice drag on and on for what felt like hours.

Finally, he released us from his hold, and all but Seth rushed off. He stayed on the beach with Billy, Old Quil, and Sue, watching the noxious purple clouds disappear into the gray sky.

 I didn’t bother to go home and get the Rabbit; I was faster on foot. The wind blew my long hair behind me with a harsh whipping sound. The forest receded the farther I got into town, and soon I could see Charlie’s house through the cracks in the web of branches.

About twenty feet away I was bombarded with possibly the worst shock of my entire life.

There was a bloodsucker at Bella’s house – again.

Except this time I wasn’t there; and Bella was.

My feet barely touched the ground. I flew out of the trees and through the front door, convulsing from head to toe with the force of my anxiety.

Heart racing, ears pounding, I wasn’t sure what I expected to find there. Would it have been worse to find blood spattered on the walls? Could I have handled it if I saw Bella’s mangled, bloodless body draped over the back of the couch? Who knows. It didn’t matter; because what I found was much, much worse.

Bella sat on the couch next to what appeared, from a distance, to be a porcelain doll. It was small enough to be a miniature statue of a real person, and white enough to be made of marble. It had spiky black hair pointing every which way, and when it’s eyes met mine, I growled instinctually at the coal-black irises.

“Jake!” Bella cried, standing up and stumbling over her feet with surprise as she crossed the room.

I couldn’t speak. If I did, I might have gagged from the smell. All I could do was stare at her, hoping she would understand the urgency in my eyes.

“This is Alice Cullen,” Bella said quickly, crossing the room and grabbing one of my shaking hands.

My eyes darted over to the leech still perched on Charlie’s couch. She stared back at me with a frustrated, irate look on her granite face.

“You’re alive.” She laughed and cracked a smile so wide it looked as if she might burst into song.

I made a face that must have displayed how very happy I was to see her and how very deadly I was at the moment as I stared down the leech sitting on her living room couch, because she ditched the pleasantries and continued explaining why I should care about the bloodsucker’s name.

“She had a vision – ” Bella continued, rubbing circles into the back of my hand. “You remember how I told you about that? She gets visions of the future, whenever someone makes a decision that puts them on a certain path – she came to warn me about Victoria.”

“I didn’t realize you were aware of the danger,” the parasite chirped from the couch. Her voice was too high, like the sound of shattering glass. It sent shivers up my spine.

Bella blushed, looking down at her feet. “You see, after last night,” – her cheeks managed to get even more red – “I thought I would go looking for Victoria, to surrender, and end this once and for all. But Alice saw me stumbling around the woods, and then it suddenly went black – she came to stop me.”

I still couldn’t talk. Bella’s gaze met mine, and I let go of a breath I hadn’t realized I was holding. I closed my eyes, letting the air filter through my nose slowly, focusing on the sensation in my chest as my lungs deflated.

“She didn’t know about Laurent, or Victoria, or all the missing people… She called Jasper – she says he knows all about this sort of thing – and he’s coming back with Carlisle and Esme,” Bella whispered.

“More?” I spit through my teeth, eyes flying open, my whole body shivering as if she’d tasered me.

Bella flinched. “They want to help. She says Jasper will know how to defeat Victoria.”

I took a deep breath in, but it didn’t do any good. The scent washed up my nose like saltwater, burning my sinuses. I shook my head, closing my eyes.

“Jacob, it’s okay, they’re going to help us,” Bella tried to reassure me, but her words got lost in the fuzzy feeling of rage.

“We have to go,” I said abruptly, pulling us across the room in two steps. “I need to tell Sam.”

“Why?” Bella asked, planting her feet stubbornly and crossing her arms against her chest.

I huffed, placing my hand on her waist instead when she wouldn’t move. “The treaty is still intact. If the Cullens are coming back, we have to change our patrol routes. We can’t be caught on enemy land.”

“The Cullens aren’t enemies!” She hissed angrily, taking another step back. 

I took in a deep breath, balling up my shaking hands into angry fists, and turned towards the door. There was nothing else to say; I knew better than to try and talk her out of risking her life.

She stopped me, grabbing a hold on my hand.

“No, Jake –” she started, but I cut her off.

“Bella,” I sighed, looking down to see her face.

She was staring up at me imploringly; it was the kind of face I couldn’t say no to, no matter how mad I was. I brushed my fingers across her cheek, then leaned down to press a kiss to her forehead.

“Don’t worry, honey, I won’t be far. I’ll come back as soon as…” I trailed off, looking towards the living room, where the leech had craned her neck to watch us.

“You don’t have to leave,” she insisted. “Alice won’t hurt you.”

I shook my head. “I can’t promise I can control myself with a leech in the room.”

Bella scowled. “Alice is one of the good guys. She wouldn’t – ”

“I love you,” I interrupted quickly, squeezing her hand one last time before bolting out the back door.

It wasn’t hard to shift into a werewolf. My fury was hot enough to burn the whole damn forest down. The difficult part was stopping myself from bursting through the wall and ripping the leech into shreds. Even so, I couldn’t make myself go farther than the back window, listening to the conversation in the living room while Paul and Embry wordlessly ran to get Sam.

“Who was that?” Alice asked, her high voice creaking and lilting like an out-of-tune piano.

“Oh,” Bella mumbled, and I could picture the way her cheeks turned red and she looked down at her feet as if I was watching. “That’s Jake.”

“Is he your boyfriend now?” Alice asked.

“I guess…” She trailed off. “More than that, really. He’s my best friend. We were made for each other, sort of. I think… I think that even if you guys had stayed, I would have found him, eventually.”

“Do you love him?” Alice whispered, a strange edge to her voice.

“What kind of a question is that?” Bella scoffed. “Of course I do. I’d fight in his place if I could. I always did want to be Superman and not Lois Lane all the time.” She snorted. “That’s why I decided to surrender myself to Victoria. It’s why I’m okay with the pain it will cause me when you leave again – it will hurt just the same as the first time, make no mistake. But I don’t care; if it means Jacob lives, I don’t care what heartache Edward or any of you give me. I’ll go through all of it with a smile. I’ll sing and dance for joy when you leave me again, because I know it’ll mean he’s safe.”

The tension slowly faded from my muscles as she spoke, until my shoulders slumped down and hung with regret.

I was a little less pissed off after hearing that. Only a little.

I still didn’t like the idea of her letting the leech be so close to her, and I was upset to realize how much she still must have loved the Cullens. The sting was only slightly diminished by her speech, but the fact that she thought getting herself killed would somehow make my life any better was so backwards I didn’t see how she could possibly believe it.

“I’m sorry, Bella,” Alice whispered in a low tone, as if she knew I was listening. “I’m so, so sorry. I promise we’ll make this right. We’ll kill Victoria, I swear. She won’t harm you, or… or your werewolf, I suppose. But I am glad to see you again. I missed you.”

Bella’s voice sounded like she was choking back tears. “I missed you, too. More than you know.”

Sam joined me, hiding in the trees behind Charlie’s house. With a low rumble, I paced away from the window so I would be safely hidden in the damp forest.

The Cullens are back, then?

Sounds like it, I huffed, letting my muzzle fall onto my paws as I laid down next to him.

Bella won’t go back to him, Sam assured me. Besides, who knows if he’ll be coming with them?

With my luck, he’ll be the only one to show up, I grumbled.

We won’t plan on that. For now, we need to discuss our options with the council.

I’ll keep an eye out here, I replied.

Oh, no you won’t, Sam disagreed. You’re coming with me.

I growled, lifting my head to glare at him.

I’m not going to leave her here unprotected.

Embry can keep an eye out. But we shouldn’t be caught lurking here. The treaty is still intact.

So? Are we not allowed to leave the rez?

No, but we might not be able to control ourselves. If you had crossed that one’s path without Bella, would you have known she was a Cullen? 

Not immediately, I conceded. 

And you’d attack, just like any other bloodsucker you saw, right? 

Of course. 

We can’t kill them here, Jake. Not according to the treaty. We can only take them out if they threaten our land. The Cullens haven’t stepped foot here. You could have started a war. 

I wouldn’t have, I argued, but I knew I was wrong. 

Besides, you’re the one who found out they were coming back. You’re also the rightful Alpha, Sam added, glancing over at me warily. Like it or not, there are powers you have which I don’t.

I scoffed. Like what?

Do you remember what happened when you thought I would let Bella be a distraction during a fight?

What do you mean?

You nearly overthrew me, Jacob.

I hesitated.

I didn’t mean to do that.

And before that, when I forbid you from telling Bella – he continued as if he didn’t hear me – and you snuck in through her window anyway. You have power in this pack, too, and it’s time you took some responsibility.

Responsibility, I mocked, rolling my eyes. I didn’t sign up for this, you know.

Neither did I.

Fine, I grumbled. I’ll go. Embry?

‘Sup, Jake?

Keep watch at Charlie’s house, will you? You have permission to kill the leech if she does anything out of line.

No, you don’t have permission to do that, Sam amended. Make sure Bella stays safe, is all.

Killing the leech would keep her safe, I argued.

Then we’d have a whole other problem on our hands, Sam replied, rolling his eyes.

Embry took my position on the edge of the forest. The leech and Bella kept talking, and their words buzzed on the edge of Embry’s ears, but he wasn’t listening. They had started to mention too many names and places he didn’t understand for him to follow it very closely. Sam and I ran to the woods behind Old Quil’s corner store, where we used a payphone to call Sue and Billy.

The council convened at Old Quil’s battered kitchen table. It was an antique, carved from a cedar tree cut down by his great-great grandfather. The legs had intricately carved totems, featuring ravens with long beaks and human hands, a bear with its mouth wide open and snarling, an eagle with sharp talons, and various kinds of fish. I remembered being little and tracing the delicate lines with my finger, marveling at the detail.

Billy sat at the end, forming the natural head of the circle. With the recent reminder of the birthright I didn’t want, I paid more attention to how seamlessly he commanded the attention of the entire council. His chin – though wrinkled skin dangled underneath it – was held high. His eyes were black as night and sharp as arrowheads. Even his hands, which shook as he brought a cup of coffee up to his mouth, seemed strong and resilient.

I wondered if Sam was right. Was my father endowed with a certain magic that put him in charge? Did I have the same power as my father? How could I? I was only sixteen. I wasn’t an elder, or all that smart, really. How could I be expected to be a responsible leader for the whole tribe when I hadn’t even graduated high school?

“What’s this about, Sam?” Billy rumbled, settling his ancient eyes across the table.

Beside him sat Sue, stoic as usual. Her eyes had not fully regained the spark they’d had before Harry died, but she was slowly starting to come back to life. The corner of her mouth twitched at Billy’s voice, and she turned her head to stare at us impassively.

“My question exactly,” Old Quil grumbled.

The eldest of the elders was not thrilled to have us all gathered in his tiny apartment. His white eyebrows, crinkled with age, sloped heavy over his clouded eyes. The wrinkled skin on his face hung from his high cheekbones and slapped against his wispy hair. He wore a hat at all times to hide his not-so-secret bald spot, and today it was a Seattle Seahawks sports cap, the edges worn and frayed.

“We have an important development,” Sam announced, then looked over at me.

I cleared my throat, abruptly nervous. This was the first council meeting I had ever attended, and though I’d known these people my whole life, they suddenly felt like strangers. My hands got slick with sweat, so I wiped them on my legs, then pulled a rubber band from my pocket and twisted the hair up off my neck.

“One of the Cullens came back to check on Bella,” I said, leaning forward and resting my elbows on the table. “The one who gets visions of the future. She saw that Bella had decided to surrender herself to the red-head.” My fists balled up against the scratched table-top. “Bella told her about the leech infestation in the mountains, and now the rest are coming back. They want to kill the red-headed bloodsucker.”

The air stood heavy with the silence that followed. I couldn’t look up from the table. I focused on a burn mark, where someone must have put out a cigar a long time ago. It rose up from the wood like a miniature volcano.

Billy was the first to speak. “So, the Cullens are returning?”

“Apparently,” I replied, looking up to meet his eyes. They were solemn, though not without a glint of hope.

“And you think they will try to attack the red-head?” Billy continued.

“Yes.” I nodded, swallowing hard. “I heard the leech promise Bella they would.”

“Do they know about the army?” Old Quil inquired, his thin tenor voice rising higher than normal.

“I think so, but there’s no way their coven could take on so many vampires at once,” Sam stated.

“We’ll need to talk about it with them,” I argued. “Bella seems to think they could help. Maybe we should let them, since we’re outnumbered, too.”

“You want us to ally ourselves with the enemy?” Old Quil bristled. “No way! Not in a million years!”

“I don’t like it either,” I growled back. “But they’re not technically the enemy. The treaty still stands.”

“Billy,” Old Quil sighed, running a hand over his face in exasperation. “Speak to your son.”

Everyone looked to Billy, who sat with his eyes appraising me, his face carefully composed and neutral. I wondered if he was deciding whether to grab me by the ear or take off one of his shoes and bat me over the head with it like he used to when I was young.

Instead, his lips cracked open the slightest bit, and he said, “Go on.”

I looked back at him with my jaw practically touching the floor for two whole seconds before I regained the ability to speak.

“Look, we can’t take on the red-head and her army all by ourselves. They’re not stupid, they’ll figure out who killed those three leeches and attack first. We can’t take on that many, not even if every teenager in La Push shifts.” I shuddered at the thought. “So I say we re-negotiate the treaty – just to add a provision that if someone moves against us, they have to help us defend the land, or something. You guys can work out the specifics.” I sat back, crossing my arms against my chest.

“If you think for one second that they won’t try to get something else in the deal –” Old Quil began.

“Who cares?” I interrupted. “If we go up against the red-head alone, we all die. If we fight with the Cullens, we might live. That’s how I see it.” I shrugged.

“What does Bella think?” Sue asked quietly, her soft brown eyes curious.

I looked down at the table. “She doesn’t want anyone else to die. She thinks it’s her fault that all of her friends in Forks disappeared.” I looked up to meet Sue’s eyes. “She wants it to end. We all do.”

“I agree with Jake,” Sam announced, resting one of his hands on the table. “I say we put it to a vote. I vote yes.”

“I vote no!” Old Quil shrieked, the veins in his neck pulsing. “We shouldn’t have anything to do with the cold ones, Cullen or otherwise.”

“How would making them an ally hurt us?” I argued. “If they do something that violates the treaty, it’s void. But they haven’t. If they can help us take down the other leeches, I don’t see why we shouldn’t let them.”

“Since when do you trust them? Did Bella talk you into this?” Old Quil asked, though it sounded more like an accusation.

My jaw clenched together with an audible grinding noise. “No,” I replied through my teeth. “She didn’t have time to say much of anything. I barely kept my cool long enough to make it outside.”

“How do you know she’s telling the truth, then? What if it’s a trick?”

I laughed, still on edge. “You should know more about your employees, Ateara,” I barked. “She can’t lie to save her life.”

“She lied to Charlie about the Cullens,” Sue murmured, staring vacantly out the window.

“That’s different,” I said quickly. “Charlie probably knew she was hiding something and didn’t want to press her for details. But that’s neither here nor there, what matters is the Cullens are coming back, and either we accept their help or risk having more enemies. I say we swallow our pride and let them kill the red-head’s army.”

“We risk less if they help,” Sam offered. “It’ll be easy to take down the bloodsuckers if we work together.”

“I say yes,” Sue chimed in, turning back to stare full-on at me with wide, unblinking eyes. “If it means my children will be safer, I say do whatever it takes.”

I nodded, then looked over to Billy. His vote would be the one that mattered most.

He leaned back in his chair, taking another long sip of coffee. The clock on the wall above the antique television ticked noisily. Finally, he put the mug down and spoke.

“I vote yes,” he said simply.

There was no pomp and circumstance, as Billy usually wasn’t one to throw confetti, but I could tell he liked the idea of letting the Cullens deal with the swarm of vampires much more than he liked sending his son on a suicide mission.

I didn’t pay much attention to the rest of the meeting. It ended quickly after that; Sue took Billy home while Old Quil grumbled something about respecting the advice of elders. Sam shifted to update the rest of the pack. I went home and got the Rabbit and pulled on a black t-shirt, then high-tailed it over to Forks.

I went to Bella’s house as a human, hands shaking on the steering wheel. I let the car idle in Charlie’s driveway, debating whether or not I should go in. My eyelids were heavy, and my body felt slow. When was the last time I slept? I couldn’t remember. My thoughts swirled around in a fog of exhaustion, clouding my mind.

What did it mean that she had let one of the Cullens back into her house? Did she forgive them? After everything she’d been through – after being one of the living dead for months – was she going to let them in her life again?

And what about me? Sure, I had just argued that we should be working with the leeches who started the whole werewolf shifting business, but that was only because we had no other choice. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t have touched them with a thirty-nine-and-a-half-foot pole. I hadn’t been hiding my feelings with her, either. Did Bella not care that the Cullens had taken my entire life away? Stripped me of normal human experiences and turned me into the stuff of nightmares? Maybe it was easy for her to forgive and forget, but I was still sore about it.

I debated with myself until she stepped out. Her long hair swished behind her as she opened the door, a smile breaking on her face when she saw me – and suddenly none of it mattered. I remembered why I would always come back, no matter how many cliffs she jumped off of or how many leeches she invited inside.

It was always good to see Bella.

I ran to her, and she met me halfway – when we collided, I wrapped my arms around her without thinking, picking up her weightless body and spinning once before dropping her back to the ground. I pulled away, scrunching up my nose.  

“You smell like a leech, Bells.”

“You’re not exactly fresh as a rose, either,” she joked.

My eyes darted to the front door. Bella had left it hanging open behind her.

“Is the bloodsucker still in there?”

“Her name is Alice,” Bella answered reprovingly, “and no, she went hunting before the others arrive.”

“Oh,” I sighed, letting go of a breath I didn’t know I was holding. “When are they coming?”

“She says they’ll all be here by the end of the day,” she murmured.

I nodded, then pulled her back into my arms. “I missed you,” I breathed, letting my breath saturate her hair, erasing the leech smell.

Bella laughed, hugging me back. “You were only gone for an hour,” she replied.

“Sure, sure,” I sighed, unable to think of anything else.

“I missed you, too,” she whispered, pulling away and resting her palm on my cheek.

“C’mon, let’s get out of here,” I urged, pulling her over to the Rabbit.

The car ride to La Push was quiet. Neither of us wanted to break the peaceful silence that blanketed the car; if we spoke, we’d have to talk about hard things, but for now I just wanted to focus on the steady rhythm of our breathing, and the fluttering of her heart.

But there were things that needed to be said. When I pulled up to my driveway and parked the car, I stared out the windshield at the faded red house, trying not to think.

Bella rested one of her hands on the nape of my neck and the other one on my cheek, turning my face so I had to look at her. Her eyes were wide and worried, concern evident in the slant of her mouth. I wasn’t sure what she saw in my face. Exhaustion, probably. I’d been awake more than twenty-four hours at this point.

“Are you okay?” She asked, brushing her thumb against my cheekbone.

I snorted. “I was about to ask you the same thing.”

“I’m fine, Jake. Don’t worry about me,” she said quickly. “I want to know what you’re thinking.”

“I’m thinking…” I trailed off, trying to understand the thoughts bouncing around my head. Each one sounded like a rubber ball banging against a wall.

“I’m thinking everything is about to get more complicated.” I finally sighed, hanging my head in my hands. “I feel like I’ve failed, because we can’t get rid of these bloodsuckers on our own, and I can’t protect you like I promised.” My voice broke on the last word.

Before I knew it, my shoulders were shaking with muffled sobs. Bella stroked my hair and cradled my head on her chest, letting me cry into her shoulder. The last time I’d let someone comfort me like this was when my mom died. Rachel and Rebecca had let me curl up on their laps after the funeral and wail with them. It felt like if I could ride one of the briny gusts of wind out to sea my tears would overflow the whole ocean.

“Oh, Jake,” Bella sobbed with me. “It’s okay! We’ll figure something out, I promise.”

I sniffed. “That’s not what I mean,” I croaked. “We heard what Alice said about killing the red-headed leech, and we think we’ll have to fight with the Cullens. I know it’ll be easier if we work together, and Sam agrees. We took it to the council, and they voted. We want to re-negotiate the treaty, just to make them obligated to fight with us.”

Bella pulled my face back to look at her. “I don’t understand – the council agreed with you, isn’t that a good thing?”

I wrapped my arms around her, trying to squeeze tight enough we’d never have to let go.

“Jake!” She gasped. “Can’t – breathe!”

My arms loosened, but I kept my hands on her. My palm rested over the trunk of hair on her back, the other one cupping her face.

“I can’t protect you from this,” I repeated, closing my eyes. “I never wanted it to come to this – having to hurt you to keep you safe.” I paused, taking in a ragged breath. “If there was a way we could do this without involving the Cullens, I’d do it in a heartbeat.”

Bella leaned forward to rest her lips on mine. This kiss was unlike the others; she was gentle, soft, forgiving – her mouth was yielding, supple skin pressed up against mine. When she pulled away, a tear fell off her eyelashes onto my lap.

“I don’t care what happens to me,” she whispered. “All I care about is you. If it means I have to beg the Cullens to help, I’ll do it. If it means I give myself up to Victoria – ”

I groaned, cutting her off. “Please, please, if you value my sanity, don’t say things like that.” I cupped her face between my hands, trying to impress on her how serious I was about this. “Do you even know how much I love you?”

She blinked, staring back at me blankly. “What do you mean?”

“Do you remember what I said to you in the garage – about imprints?”

“I think so,” she said dubiously, eyes scanning my face. “Like soulmates, right?”

“It’s more than that,” I insisted. “I’ve told you this before – if you die, I die. This isn’t the sort of thing that ends when one of us dies.” I ran my fingers down the side of her face, tracing the faint spattering of freckles on her cheek.

“All I ask is that you try to understand how important you are to me,” I continued. “Even if you can’t feel the same way. Even if you still love that idiot bloodsucker.”

Bella’s eyes became hard. She grabbed my hands and pressed them up against the pulse in her chest, a fierce determination in the set of her jaw.

“You feel that?” She asked, raising an eyebrow. She waited until I nodded to continue. “That’s my heart. It’s beating for you. Not anyone else. The fact that you would even think I still loved Edward is ridiculous. I’m yours – completely,” she vowed.

It was hard to doubt her when she was staring me down so intensely, like she was trying to brand her thoughts into my head. Her cheeks burned red, and her heart started beating faster – almost as if her body was trying to emphasize her point.

“That’s what I’m trying to explain. It’s like that for me, too,” I whispered. “If you really had gone and handed yourself over to the leeches, it would kill me. I would never recover. Like Taha Aki and the third wife.”

Her nose scrunched up. “I still can’t believe you don’t remember her name.”

I snorted, shaking my head. “I wonder about that, too.”

“C’mon,” she insisted, squeezing my hand and grabbing the door handle. “You need some sleep, Jake.”

I didn’t argue. There was no point; my lashes drooped with my heavy eyelids, fighting against the pull of sleep. I didn’t stumble – I hadn’t tripped over my own two feet since I phased – but I came close to missing a step on the way inside.

Billy didn’t seem surprised to see us together.

“Hey, kids,” he called from the living room.

“Hey, Billy,” Bella replied.

“What’s up?” I mumbled, throwing my arm around Bella and resting my cheek on her hair. My eyes closed of their own accord.

“You look like you could use a nap,” Billy chuckled.

“Hmm,” I hummed, feeling the lull of sleep starting to drag me under.

“Jake, Jake,” Bella tried to rouse me. “I can’t carry you, you’re too heavy,” she insisted, inching us towards the hallway. “Let’s lay down, okay?”

I nodded, not opening my eyes, letting her guide me to my room. When my knees touched the side of the bed, I wrapped my arms around Bella’s waist and fell back onto the mattress.

She shrieked in surprise, then huffed. “Give a girl some warning,” she grumbled.

A burst of air blew through my nose in an exhausted form of a laugh. My arms tightened around her as I let my head rest in the crook of her shoulder. I didn’t think Billy would mind if Bella slept here with me; he could hear every squeak of the bed springs through the paper-thin walls, anyway.

“Jake?” She murmured.

I wasn’t sure if I was dreaming; it felt like I was floating somewhere in between waking and sleeping, a sort of limbo. I hummed in response, I think, though I wasn’t fully in control of the sound. It might have been more of a groan.

“I love you,” she whispered. I felt something soft touch my nose – her lips?

 I didn’t dream; sleep crashed over me in a wave, pulling me out into darkness faster than a riptide. The next thing I knew, my eyes flew open, and Bella was nowhere to be found. 

 

 

I jolted up in bed, looking out the crack in the door to see her sitting at the kitchen table with Billy, an amused smile on her face when she caught sight of me. She giggled, then ran her fingers through her hair. I quickly tried to comb through the tangled mess on my head before giving up and throwing it back in an elastic band.

“You finally awake, sleeping beauty?” Billy called.

“I think so,” I grumbled, letting my feet fall heavily against the floorboards as I walked into the kitchen.

I opened the fridge and started chugging orange juice straight from the carton. I didn’t notice Bella had stood up until she placed a hand over the carton and lowered it from my mouth, pushing a cup into my other hand with a pointed look.

I grinned sheepishly and poured the rest of the juice into the glass.

Bella smiled. “Much better.” She nodded.

She was gracious enough to fry some eggs on the stove while I went over specifics with Billy.

“What time will they be here?” He asked.

“The end of the day,” Bella answered for me.

“And you’ll meet with them then?”

“I guess we ought to set something up first, right?” I asked, looking over at Bella.

She nodded. “We can head over there before Charlie gets home. Alice should be back soon,” she said, dropping a plate of eggs in front of me.

“Alice?” Billy asked, eyebrows furrowing.

“They have names, apparently,” I told him through a mouthful of food.

“She’s the one who gets visions,” Bella explained. “But she can’t see the wolves, for some reason.”

My mouth hung open for a moment.

“Really?”

“Yeah,” she replied, as if the answer was obvious. “She only saw me stumbling around the woods looking for Victoria, then it cut out. She thinks it’s because that’s when you showed up.” She poked me in the side.

I nodded, returning to my plate. I didn’t want to think about what the leech might have seen if I hadn’t shown up.

“Her mate is Jasper,” Bella continued matter-of-factly. “She says he has experience with this sort of thing. He should be here before the rest of them, she thinks. He’s not as… practiced, I guess, with not eating humans. I got a papercut around him once, and he…” She trailed off, glancing at my fork, which had started shaking. I stuffed it in my mouth, glaring down at my plate.

“He can affect your emotions – make an angry crowd calm, and stuff. He’d probably come in handy with Paul,” she joked.

“What about the others?” Billy asked, leaning forward.

I opened my mouth to tell him to butt the hell out and leave Bella alone, but she didn’t even flinch. I had expected her to grasp at her sides and start panting again, like she was being torn apart; instead, she answered him in a level voice, face smooth.

“Carlisle is sort of the leader. His wife, Esme, is really sweet. She was like a second mom to me,” she sighed wistfully, then continued. “They don’t have any special talents. Emmett is really big and strong, and Rosalie is… well, she never liked me very much, so I don’t know much about her. The only other talented one is Edward. He reads minds.” She stared down at the table, tracing patterns in the faded wood.

“Wasn’t that weird?” Billy wondered. “Never having a thought to yourself?”

“He couldn’t read my mind,” she mumbled. “Some sort of glitch in my brain, I guess.”

I covered her hand in mine and squeezed. She smiled up at me, one of her more appetizing grins – and I couldn’t help myself. I leaned over, still chewing, and pecked her cheek.

She giggled and pushed me away, but kept my hand in hers.

Billy leaned forward and eyed me solemnly. “Negotiate a meeting in no-mans-land. You can use the spot where Harry taught you how to shoot.”

I remembered the spot for a different reason, though it was true Harry had taken me out there once to show me the basics of a shotgun. It was also the place I’d taken Bella to ride the bikes, back when I had just gotten them to run. It felt like a lifetime ago; a memory that didn’t belong in this world of monsters.

We left soon after I had inhaled my breakfast. I drove us back to her house in the Rabbit, holding her hand on the center console.

“Can I ask you something?”

“Sure,” she replied.

“How come you weren’t crossing your arms before?” I wondered aloud. “I thought talking about the Cullens hurt you.”

Bella was quiet for a moment. She stared out the windshield as the highway disappeared beneath us and turned into the deserted residential street. When she finally spoke, her voice was soft and low.

“This is the only thing I can do to help,” she whispered. “I’ll be damned if I’m not going to do it to the best of my ability.”

I squeezed her hand. “We’re going to end this, Bella. I promise.”

She nodded, then smiled. “We can make something special for when Charlie comes home tonight – he’s had a tough week, I think.”

I snorted. “He’s had a tough year, to say the least.”

When we got to Charlie’s, my nose scrunched up. The leeches were here.

The little one – Alice – met us at the door with her arms crossed, glaring at Bella reprovingly.

“Where have you been?” She demanded. “We’ve been worried sick – I was just about to send Jasper out to find you.”

“Jake needed –” Bella began.

I cut her off. “What’s it to you?” I snarled. “She’s not your prisoner.”

“How was I supposed to know she didn’t get taken by Victoria?”

I rolled my eyes. “Give us some credit. She’s safer in La Push than she is in a house full of bloodsuckers.”

That’s when I noticed the murderous glare of the vampire standing behind Alice. He was tall, only a couple inches shorter than I was. He had light, wavy hair and oddly textured skin, unlike any other bloodsucker I’d ever seen. It was subtle enough that I couldn’t be sure what the pattern was, but the hair on the back of my neck stood up at the sight.

This leech was more dangerous than the others, that much was obvious.

“This must be the dog,” he said, scowling. “Alice mentioned you.”

I glared back. “This must be the one who took a snap at you, Bella.”

The leech pulled back his lips to bare his teeth at me. A growl vibrated in my chest, and my hands shook uncomfortably.

“Jasper,” said another one, resting a hand on the tall leech’s shoulder. “Be gracious.”

This one was shorter, and blonde; his face was calm, though stern. I was surprised when I didn’t hate him immediately.

“Come on, Jake.” Bella ushered us inside.

I didn’t take my eyes off Jasper, watching his every move. The three of them stood in a loose circle around Charlie’s kitchen table, all identically pale and smelling like a fountain of bleach. I refused to step any farther into the house, planting my feet in front of the door. I pulled Bella closely into my side, angling myself to defend her if one of them attacked. My hands shook so hard they blurred. I tightened my fists, trying not to growl.

“We haven’t been introduced. My name is Carlisle,” said the blonde one.

“Jacob,” I replied, eyes darting between him and the tall one.

“Jacob Black?” He asked, though he already knew the answer. He continued without waiting for confirmation. “I met your great-grandfather once, Ephraim Black. You remind me of him.”

Bella rested a hand on my shoulder, and I felt my frame start to relax. It wouldn’t be wise to shift in Charlie’s kitchen, especially with her so close. I concentrated on breathing through my mouth before replying.

“Really?” I asked through clenched teeth, glaring across the room.

“Indeed,” Carlisle replied politely. “He was just as concerned about protecting his people. It’s very noble, what you’ve been doing. I commend you for it.” His eyes were wide and sincere. I couldn’t detect a trace of deceit in his unmoving, marble face; but I didn’t trust his unnaturally symmetrical features.

“We do what we have to,” I replied diplomatically. “Do you know why I’m here?”

“To protect Bella, I assumed.”

“Yes,” I said through my teeth. “But I have a message from the council. Sam – the head of the pack – wants to set up a meeting to go over this new threat.”

Carlisle nodded. “Yes. As Victoria threatens all of us, it would be wise.”

“We only wanted to go over a few of the finer points – can I be frank?” I asked, glancing down at Bella for reassurance. She nodded, urging me to go on. “We’re outnumbered here. The red-headed leech has created more vampires than we can handle on our own.”

Carlisle’s forehead creased in thought. “The rest of our family is on their way, they should be here soon. Their numbers will help us. From what I’ve heard, Victoria has built a newborn army – something my son, Jasper, knows more about than I do. He can explain the situation, I think, if you would like to go over options.”

I nodded. “We only ask for one meeting. No promises after that.”

“Where?” Carlisle asked.

“No-man’s-land. Come at the highway from the north and follow our scent.” I explained. “We should agree to some conditions, though.”

“What conditions?” The tall one sneered.

My eyes narrowed into slits. “Some provisions to make sure there’s no fighting.”

“That’s a good idea,” Carlisle chimed in. “What did you have in mind?”

I smirked. “No biting.” I didn’t miss when Bella rolled her eyes next to me. “And no ambush attacks. Other than that, we can’t guarantee your safety.”

Carlisle nodded solemnly. “Of course. We do not want any conflict with the pack.” He cocked his head to the side, looking around me. “Will you be there, Bella?”

“Absolutely not,” I growled.

“Of course I will,” Bella insisted, glaring up at me. “I have a right to know what’s going on.”

I pinched the bridge of my nose, closing my eyes against the headache settling in.

“We can talk about it later,” I argued, grabbing her by the arm and pulling us back to the door. “We’ll meet at six o’clock.”

“Bye, Bella!” Alice sang, dancing behind as I stalked through the threshold.

“Bye,” Bella muttered, her mouth set in a determined line.

I should have known what was waiting for me in the car on the way to La Push. Over the months, the spark in Bella’s eyes had slowly returned, but it was never as bright as when she was angry. I could see the hot, indignant tears welling up on the lashes framing her eyes, and I could tell I was in for it.

“You have no right to keep me away from the meeting,” she insisted immediately.

I hadn’t even started the car yet. I sighed, leaning forward and twisting the keys in the engine too quickly. It stuttered and groaned, and I had to try three more times before the engine caught, but Bella continued.

“I will be there, Jake. You can’t stop me. If you won’t bring me, then I’ll ask Alice. She’d be happy to help.”

“Oh, I see,” I spat at the windshield. “As soon as I do something you don’t like, you go running back to the leeches. Well, I’m glad someone else is willing to risk your life, since you love that.” My voice was dripping with venom.

“You know that’s not true!” She cried, turning to face me.

I kept my eyes fixed on the road, hands shaking on the steering wheel.

“Do I?”

“You should, if you have any brains!”

“Oh, so now I’m stupid for wanting to keep you safe?”

“That’s not the point! I have a right to know what’s going on, Jake!”

“You think I’m lying?!” I roared, clenching my fists until the knuckles turned white. “You think I’m hiding something from you? Just go and ask the guys – I tell you everything! Even things they don’t want me to say! You ask, and you push, and you force me to give you these secrets – like Emily and Leah. I should have never told you anything.”

“You shouldn’t have!” She screamed, balling up her hands and slamming them on the seat next to her. “In fact, you should have just let Laurent kill me and save everyone all the trouble!”

“That’s not what I meant,” I argued.

“But you regret it, don’t you? Saving me? I’m fine Jake, you don’t have to worry about me. If I’m that much of a burden, you might as well just drop me off here and never come back to Forks.”

“You don’t mean that,” I scoffed. “You wouldn’t last a day without me.”

She was silent for a moment. “I lived without you before, you know –” she began quietly.

“When the Cullens were here?” I interrupted. “And now they’re back you don’t need me anymore?”

“That’s not what I was going to say!” She screeched, her voice thick with tears.

“But it’s true, right? I was just a convenient explanation!” I barked, glancing over at her before fixing my eyes back on the windshield, vision red with fury. “Just someone who could tell you the truth about the Cullens, and when you were done with me, you didn’t care if you ever saw me again!”

“That’s not true!” She sobbed. “I mean, yes, at first I didn’t see you that way, but –”

“But then they left, and I was the only one willing to put up with you,” I growled.

“No!” She exclaimed, but I was still going.

“You love those reeking bloodsuckers so much, after everything they did to you, after everything they did to me. If you love me so much, how come you’re so nice to them? Huh? You know what they are to me – you knew what you were doing when you let them in your house! God, Bella, can’t you see how pathetic it is?”

Something about what I said opened the floodgates, and a loud sob broke out of Bella’s chest. Part of me felt bad, but most of me was overwhelmed with anger. I wasn’t sure how we had gotten so heated, but now that we were in the thick of it, I could feel the waves of heat rolling off me and shaking my body.

“I know,” she said, her voice breaking. “I’m pathetic, and weak, and human! I know. But I can’t do nothing. I won’t let myself be a burden on you or the pack, and right now I am! Can’t you see that? None of this would be happening if Victoria didn’t want to kill me! I won’t sit at home and twiddle my thumbs while you go and fight!”

“Is that really what this is about?” I hissed. “Or is it about seeing Edward again?”

She flinched at my harsh words. I was hitting below the belt, and I knew it, but I was so angry I couldn’t contain the words, even though I regretted them as soon as they were out.

“I’m not going for him,” Bella said weakly. “I’m going for you. Someone has to be civil to them, if we want them to help kill Victoria.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Do you hear yourself when you talk?” She asked rhetorically. “All this crap about ‘bloodsuckers,’ and ‘leeches,’ – it’s so rude!”

“Oh, well I’ll be more careful next time not to offend the parasites,” I replied sarcastically.

“I’m going to the meeting,” Bella insisted.

“No, you’re not.”

“Yes, I am.”

“This isn’t up for discussion!” I slammed my palm against the steering wheel, rattling the whole car.

We had pulled up in front of Emily’s house. Bella, face red and fuming, hopped out of the car and slammed it behind her. She stomped over the wet lawn, feet squishing in the damp grass, and banged the house door, too. I slammed my fist into the steering wheel, punching the horn over and over again until Sam came out, towing Paul and Bella with him.

Paul was smirking, and Sam was giving me a reproving look. Bella refused to make eye contact, getting in the backseat next to Paul.

“Trouble in paradise?” Paul asked, leaning forward to flick my ear.

“Shut up,” I growled.

“Jacob,” Sam began, his tone warning. “Calm down.”

I was still shaking, my teeth chattering. I didn’t reply.

“Maybe I should drive –”

“Like hell,” I muttered.

The Rabbit was my car. I drove it.

I reversed onto the road, swinging the car haphazardly and nearly taking out a mailbox. We sped down the wet roads, the air in the car tense and stiff, until we made it to the clearing and I slammed on the brakes. We came to an abrupt halt on the edge, and I didn’t bother to take the keys out of the ignition before getting out and running into the forest. My entire body was convulsing, begging me to shift.

The rest of the pack was already there, waiting in the thick trees bordering the muddy road. Sam was the only one who stayed human, waiting next to the car with Bella. She leaned against the hood of the Rabbit, arms crossed around her chest, lower lip jutting out in a pout.

You need to apologize, Leah chastised me.

Buy her another box of conversation hearts, Quil joked.

Shut up, I replied weakly, my heart heavy in my chest.

I shrugged out of the trees, slowly treading over to Bella with my head hanging low. I stopped next to her, then nudged her shoulder with my muzzle.

“What?” She hissed.

I whined, nuzzling my head against her neck, hoping she understood the gesture of reconciliation.

“Oh, Jake,” she sighed, wrapping one of her arms around my neck and knotting her fingers in the fur there. “What am I going to do with you?”

Whatever you want, I thought to her silently. I’m yours.

Chapter Text

XXXI

We waited, watching the trees as three of the Cullens emerged.

The first one to come into sight was obviously the leader. He was not taller, or bigger in any way, but he had the air of someone with responsibilities on their shoulders. I recognized him as Carlisle.

The second one was much taller, with black, wavy hair and matching menacing eyes that roamed along our lines strategically as if he were deciding who he would kill first. His porcelain skin was different from the others, some odd sort of pattern I didn’t recognize, like it had been shattered and glued back together. Next to him was the spiky-haired leech, holding his hand. I recalled Alice’s name from earlier, but I had forgotten what the other one was called.

To my extreme displeasure, the entire Cullen clan appeared out of the mist. Two males and two females emerged from the forest behind the first three, making seven. The pack quickly materialized behind us, snapping at the group of bloodsuckers rapidly approaching.

Damn,” the biggest one muttered under his breath. “Did you ever see anything like it?” The two unfamiliar females exchanged a wide-eyed glance.

Get used to being outnumbered, Paul thought.

We should just kill them now, I thought. Practice for the others.

Agreed, Leah responded.

Sam said, guys, Jared reminded us, treaty’s not broken, we stay down unless they move first.

‘Sam said,’ three people mocked in unison. I may or may not have been one of them.

“You must be Sam Uley,” Carlisle said, nodding respectfully. “I am Carlisle Cullen. This is my wife, Esme, and the rest of my family; Alice and Jasper, Rosalie and Emmett, and Edward.” He pointed to each of them in turn, ending with the bronze-haired one, who I recognized as the leech Bella danced with at Prom.

Unsurprisingly, I hated him instantly.

Sam nodded tightly. “We came to speak with you about the infestation in the Park.”

Carlisle smiled. “Of course,” he said, laying his hands on top of each other in a casual way. “My son, Jasper, has the most expertise in this area. He has agreed to explain.”

The leader’s eyes glanced over to the leech with the weird skin, and so did everybody else’s. From the hood of the car, I heard Bella’s feet grind against the asphalt as she readjusted herself to face him.

The wavy-haired leech looked up, his eyes fixed on Bella.

“How much do you know about me, Bella?” He asked, addressing only her, raising his voice just loud enough to hear from the unpaved road.

“N-not much,” she stammered, eyes wide with shock.

“Edward never told you anything about how I became a vampire?”

“No,” she squeaked.

The bloodsucker nodded thoughtfully, then started to roll up the arm of his ivory sweater. The pack watched with bated breath as we saw the lattice pattern of scars engraved in his forearm. He pulled a flashlight out of his pocket and shined it on his wrist, then traced his finger across a raised crescent mark on the pale skin.

Bella took a few steps forward, leaning closer to get a good look. I followed closely behind, eyes focused on the vampire less than three feet away.

“Oh,” she breathed, as her less-sensitive eyes focused in on the wrist. “Jasper, you have a scar exactly like mine.” She held out her hand, the silvery crescent more prominent against her creamy skin than his alabaster pallor.

The leech smiled faintly. “I have lots of scars like yours, Bella.”

He pushed the sleeve of his thin sweater higher up his arm. Bella gasped as she saw what all the wolves had already seen; the curved half-moons crisscrossed in a feathery pattern, the bright glow of his flashlight throwing the slightly raised design into relief, with shallow shadows outlining the shapes.

Bella grabbed her own scar, eyes wide in horror, then gasped.

“Jasper, what happened to you?”

“The same thing that happened to your hand,” he answered in a quiet voice. “Repeated a thousand times.” He laughed ruefully and brushed at his arm. “Our venom is the only thing that leaves a scar.”

“Why?” She breathed, her voice laced with horror. 

“I didn’t have quite the same… upbringing as my adopted siblings. My beginning was something else entirely.” His voice became hard as he paused to glare at the wolves.

Bella gaped at him, appalled. I nipped at the bottom of her shirt to pull her back, but she ignored me.

“Before I tell you my story,” the bloodsucker said, “you must understand that there are places in our world, Bella, where the life span of the never-aging is measured in weeks, and not centuries.”

The whole pack was eagerly listening in. Sam crossed his arms against his chest, eyes intent on the wavy-haired leech. Idly, I remembered this was the vampire with emotion-controlling powers.

“To really understand why, you have to look at the world from a different perspective. You have to imagine the way it looks to the powerful, the greedy… the perpetually thirsty.

“You see, there are places in this world that are more desirable to us than others. Places where we can be less restrained, and still avoid detection.

“Picture, for instance, a map of the western hemisphere. Picture on it every human life as a small red dot. The thicker the red, the more easily we – well, those who exist this way – can feed without attracting notice.”

Bella shuddered, and I rested my nose on the small of her back.

The leech went on without pause. “Not that the covens in the South care much for what the humans notice or do not. It’s the Volturi that keep them in check. They are the only ones the southern covens fear. If not for the Volturi, the rest of us would be quickly exposed.”

What kind of a vulture is that? Paul wondered.

“The Volturi?” Sam asked.

“Yes,” Carlisle replied. “They are our ruling body – they make sure humans do not learn of our existence, mostly.”

“The North is, by comparison, very civilized,” Jasper continued as if the interruption hadn’t happened. “Mostly we are nomads here who enjoy the day as well as the night, who allow humans to interact with us unsuspectingly – anonymity is important to us all.

“It’s a different world in the South. The immortals there come out only at night. They spend the day plotting their next move, or anticipating their enemy’s. Because it has been war in the South, constant war for centuries, with never one moment of truce. The covens there barely note the existence of humans, except as soldiers notice a herd of cows by the wayside – food for the taking. They only hide from the notice of the herd because of the Volturi.”

“But what are they fighting for?” Bella asked.

The bloodsucker smiled. “Remember the map with the red dots?”

He waited, and Bella nodded.

“They fight for control of the thickest red.

“You see, it occurred to someone once that, if he were the only vampire in, let’s say Mexico City, well then, he could feed every night, twice, three times, and no one would ever notice. He plotted ways to get rid of the competition.

“Others had the same idea. Some came up with more effective tactics that others.

“But the most effective tactic was invented by a fairly young vampire named Benito. The first anyone ever heard of him, he came down from somewhere north of Dallas and massacred the two small covens that shared the area near Houston. Two nights later, he took on the much stronger clan of allies that claimed Monterrey in northern Mexico. Again, he won.”

“How did he win?” Bella asked with wary curiosity.

“Benito had created an army of newborn vampires. He was the first one to think of it, and, in the beginning, he was unstoppable. Very young vampires are volatile, wild, and almost impossible to control. One newborn can be reasoned with, taught to restrain himself, but ten, fifteen together are a nightmare.” He scowled, and I had the sense he was speaking from experience. “They’ll turn on each other as easily as on the enemy you point them at. Benito had to keep making more as they fought amongst themselves, and as the covens he decimated took more than half his force down before they lost.

“You see, though newborns are dangerous, they are still possible to defeat if you know what you’re doing. They’re incredibly powerful physically, for the first year or so, and if they’re allowed to bring strength to bear they can crush an older vampire with ease. But they are slaves to their instincts, and thus predictable. Usually, they have no skill in fighting, only muscle and ferocity. And in this case, overwhelming numbers.”

Sam nodded. “Yes, we noticed that last night. We were able to destroy three, but one of them managed to injure an inexperienced fighter. They are stronger than any the tribe has met before.”

It was quiet for a moment while the vampire paused, his eyes darting warily to the wolves for a split second before he returned his gaze to Bella and continued.

“The vampires in southern Mexico realized what was coming for them, and they did the only thing they could think of to counteract Benito. They made armies of their own…

“All hell broke loose – and I mean that more literally than you can possibly imagine. We immortals have our histories, too, and this particular war will never be forgotten. Of course, it was not a good time to be human in Mexico, either.”

Bella shuddered. I scratched at the grass, creating a patch of dirt.

“When the body count reached epidemic proportions – in fact, your histories blame a disease for the population slump – the Volturi finally stepped in. The entire guard came together and sought out every newborn in the bottom half of North America. Benito was entrenched in Puebla, building his army as quickly as he could to take on the prize – Mexico City. The Volturi started with him, and then moved on to the rest.

“Anyone who was found with newborns was executed immediately, and, since everyone was trying to protect themselves from Benito, Mexico was emptied of vampires for a time.”

Sounds like Mexico was a nice place for a while, Embry commented.

“The Volturi were cleaning house for almost a year. This was another chapter of our history that will always be remembered, though there were very few witnesses left to speak of what it was like. I spoke to someone once who had, from a distance, watched what happened when they visited Culiacán.”

The leech shuddered. I wondered how terrible the Volturi must be to inspire such fear in a vampire who had obviously been attacked hundreds – if not thousands – of times, and won.

“It was enough that the fever for conquest did not spread from the South. The rest of the world stayed sane. We owe the Volturi for our present way of life.”

The wolves all glanced at each other, our thoughts converging and spilling over each other, but the curiosity was impossible to ignore, and when the leech continued we listened rapturously, unable to focus on anything else even if we wanted to.

“But when the Volturi went back to Italy, the survivors were quick to stake their claims in the South.

“It didn’t take long before covens began to dispute again. There was a lot of bad blood, if you’ll forgive the expression. Vendettas abounded. The idea of newborns was already there, and some were not able to resist. However, the Volturi had not been forgotten, and the southern covens were more careful this time. The newborns were selected from the human pool with more care, and given more training. They were used circumspectly, and the humans remained, for the most part, oblivious. Their creators gave the Volturi no reason to return.

“The wars resumed, but on a smaller scale. Every now and then, someone would go too far, speculation would begin in the human newspapers, and the Volturi would return and clean out the city. But they let the others, the careful ones, continue…”

The vampire was staring off into space now, lost in thought.

“That’s how you were changed.” Bella’s realization was a whisper.

“Yes,” he agreed. “When I was human, I lived in Houston, Texas. I was almost seventeen years old when my father was conscripted into the Confederate Army in 1861. But he was old, and I was his only son. I went in his place, lied to the enlistment officers and told them I was twenty. I was tall enough to get away with it. There were other Tejanos who fought the draft by arguing they were Mexican citizens, but I was young, and naïve, and I thought the war would bring me glory. I didn’t care which side I joined, nor did I care what we were fighting for. Only later, when I read about the Confederate agenda, did I regret my decision.”

The leech looked at the ground with a mournful expression, and the spiky-haired one rested her hand on his shoulder comfortingly. His voice was slower as he went on, like the words got stuck in his throat and clawed at his mouth, desperately fighting against being said.

“My military career was short-lived, but very promising. People always… liked me, listened to what I had to say. My father said it was charisma. Of course, now I know it was probably something more. But, whatever the reason, I was promoted quickly through the ranks, over older, more experienced men. The Confederate Army was new and scrambling to organize itself, so that provided opportunities, as well. By the first battle of Galveston – well, it was more of a skirmish, really – I was the youngest major in Texas, not even acknowledging my real age.

“I was placed in charge of evacuating the women and children from the city when the Union’s mortar boats reached the harbor. It took a day to prepare them, and I left with the first column of civilians to convey them to Houston.

“I remember that one night very clearly.

“We reached the city after dark. I stayed only long enough to make sure the entire party was safely situated. As soon as that was done, I got myself a fresh horse, and I headed back to Galveston. There wasn’t time to rest.

“Just a mile outside the city, I found three women on foot. I assumed they were stragglers and dismounted at once to offer them my aid. But, when I could see their faces in the dim light of the moon, I was stunned into silence. They were, without question, the three most beautiful women I had ever seen.

“They had such pale skin, I remember marveling at it. Even the little black-haired girl, whose features were clearly Mexican, was porcelain in the moonlight. They seemed young, all of them, still young enough to be called girls. I knew they were not lost members of our party. I would have remembered seeing these three.

“‘He’s speechless,’ the tallest girl said in a lovely, delicate voice – it was like wind chimes. She had fair hair, and her skin was snow white.

“The other was blonder still, her skin just as chalky. Her face was like an angel’s. She leaned toward me with half-closed eyes and inhaled deeply.

“‘Mmm,’ she sighed. ‘Lovely.’

“The small one, the tiny brunette, put her hand on the girl’s arm and spoke quickly. Her voice was too soft and musical to be sharp, but that seemed to be the way she intended it.

“‘Concentrate, Nettie,’ she said.

“I’d always had a good sense of how people related to each other, and it was immediately clear that the brunette was somehow in charge of the others. If they’d been military, I would have said that she outranked them.

“‘He looks right – young, strong, an officer…’ The brunette paused, and I tried unsuccessfully to speak. ‘And there’s something more… do you sense it?’ She asked the other two. ‘He’s… compelling.’

“‘Oh, yes,’ Nettie quickly agreed, leaning toward me again.

“‘Patience,’ the brunette cautioned her. ‘I want to keep this one.’

“Nettie frowned; she seemed annoyed.

“‘You’d better do it, Maria,’ the taller blonde spoke again. ‘If he’s important to you. I kill them twice as often as I keep them.’

“‘Yes, I’ll do it,’ Maria agreed. ‘I really do like this one. Take Nettie away, will you? I don’t want to have to protect my back while I’m trying to focus.’

“My hair was standing up on the back of my neck, though I didn’t understand the meaning of anything the beautiful creatures were saying. My instincts told me there was danger, that the angel had meant it when she spoke of killing, but my judgment overruled my instincts. I had not been taught to fear women, but to protect them.

“‘Let’s hunt,’ Nettie agreed enthusiastically, reaching for the tall girl’s hand. They wheeled – they were so graceful! – and sprinted toward the city. They seemed to almost take flight, they were so fast – their white dresses blew out behind them like wings. I blinked in amazement, and they were gone.

“I turned to stare at Maria, who was watching me curiously.

“I’d never been superstitious in my life. Until that second, I’d never believed in ghosts or any other such nonsense. Suddenly, I was unsure.

“‘What is your name, soldier?’ Maria asked me.

“‘Major Jasper Whitlock, ma’am,’ I stammered, unable to be impolite to a female, even if she was a ghost.

“‘I truly hope you survive, Jasper,’ she said in her gentle voice. ‘I have a good feeling about you.’

“She took a step closer, and inclined her head as if she were going to kiss me. I stood frozen in place, though my instincts were screaming at me to run.”

The vampire paused, his face thoughtful again. I got the sense he was editing something out.

“A few days later,” he finally said, “I was introduced to my new life.

“Their names were Maria, Nettie, and Lucy. They hadn’t been together long – Maria had rounded up the other two – all three were survivors of recently lost battles. Theirs was a partnership of convenience. Maria wanted revenge, and she wanted her territories back. The others were eager to increase their… herd lands, I suppose you could say. They were putting together an army, and going about it more carefully than usual. It was Maria’s idea. She wanted a superior army, so she sought out specific humans who had potential. Then she gave us much more attention, more training than anyone else had bothered with. She taught us to fight, and she taught us to be invisible to the humans. When we did well, we were rewarded…”

He paused, editing again.

“She was in a hurry, though. Maria knew that the massive strength of the newborn began to wane around the year mark, and she wanted to act while we were strong.

“There were six of us when I joined Maria’s band. She added four more within a fortnight. We were all male – Maria wanted soldiers – and that made it slightly more difficult to keep from fighting amongst ourselves. I fought my first battles against my new comrades in arms. I was quicker than the others, better at combat. Maria was pleased with me, though put out that she had to keep replacing the ones I destroyed. I was rewarded often, and that made me stronger.

“Maria was a good judge of character. She decided to put me in charge of the others – as if I were being promoted. It suited my nature exactly. The casualties went down dramatically, and our numbers swelled to hover around twenty.

“This was considerable for the cautious times we lived in. My ability, as yet undefined, to control the emotional atmosphere around me was vitally effective. We soon began to work together in a way that newborn vampires had never cooperated before. Even Maria, Nettie, and Lucy were able to work together more easily.

“Maria grew quite fond of me – she began to depend upon me. And, in some ways, I worshipped the ground she walked on. I had no idea that any other life was possible. Maria told us this was the way things were, and we believed.

“She asked me to tell her when my brothers and I were ready to fight, and I was eager to prove myself. I pulled together an army of twenty-three in the end – twenty-three unbelievably strong new vampires, organized and skilled as no others before. Maria was ecstatic.

“We crept down toward Monterrey, her former home, and she unleashed us on her enemies. They had only nine newborns at the time, and a pair of older vampires controlling them. We took them down more easily than Maria could believe, losing only four in the process. It was an unheard-of margin of victory.

“And we were well trained. We did it without attracting notice. The city changed hands without any human being aware.

“Success made Maria greedy. It wasn’t long before she began to eye other cities. That first year, she extended her control to cover most of Texas and northern Mexico. Then the others came from the South to dislodge her.”

He brushed two fingers along the faint pattern of scars on his arm. “The fighting was intense. Many began to worry that the Volturi would return. Of the original twenty-three, I was the only one to survive the first eighteen months. We both won and lost. Nettie and Lucy turned on Maria eventually – but that one we won.

“Maria and I were able to hold on to Monterrey. It quieted a little, though the wars continued. The idea of conquest was dying out; it was mostly vengeance and feuding now. So many had lost their partners, and that is something our kind does not forgive…

“Maria and I always kept a dozen or so newborns ready. They meant little to us – they were pawns, they were disposable. When they outgrew their usefulness, we did dispose of them. My life continued in the same violent pattern and the years passed. I was sick of it all for a very long time before anything changed…

“Decades later, I developed a friendship with a newborn who’d remained useful and survived his first three years, against the odds. His name was Peter. I liked Peter; he was… civilized – I suppose that’s the right word. He didn’t enjoy the fight, though he was good at it.

“He was assigned to deal with the newborns – babysit them, you could say. It was a full-time job.” The left side of his mouth curled up in a cross between a snarl and a dark, humorless smile.

“And then it was time to purge again. The newborns were outgrowing their strength; they were due to be replaced. Peter was supposed to help me dispose of them. We took them aside individually, you see, one by one… It was always a very long night. This time, he tried to convince me that a few had potential, but Maria had instructed that we get rid of them all. I told him no.

“We were about halfway through, and I could feel that it was taking a great toll on Peter. I was trying to decide whether or not I should send him away and finish up myself as I called out the next victim. To my surprise, he was suddenly angry, furious. I braced for whatever his mood might foreshadow – he was a good fighter, but he was never a match for me.

“The newborn I’d summoned was a female, just past her year mark. Her name was Charlotte. His feelings changed when she came into view; they gave him away. He yelled for her to run, and he bolted after her. I could have pursued them, but I didn’t. I felt… averse to destroying him.

“Maria was irritated with me for that…

“Five years later, Peter snuck back for me. He picked a good day to arrive.

“Maria was mystified by my ever-deteriorating frame of mind. She’d never felt a moment’s depression, and I wondered why I was different. I began to notice a change in her emotions when she was near me – sometimes there was fear… and malice – the same feelings that had given me advance warning when Nettie and Lucy struck. I was preparing myself to destroy my only ally, the core of my existence, when Peter returned.

“Peter told me about his new life with Charlotte, told me about options I’d never dreamed I had. In five years, they’d never had a fight, though they’d met many others in the north. Others who could co-exist without the constant mayhem.

“In one conversation, he had me convinced. I was ready to go, and somewhat relieved I wouldn’t have to kill Maria. I’d been her companion for as many years as Carlisle and Edward have been together, yet the bond between us was nowhere near as strong. When you live for the fight, for the blood, the relationships you form are tenuous and easily broken. I walked away without a backward glance.

“I traveled with Peter and Charlotte for a few years, getting the feel of this new, more peaceful world. But the depression didn’t fade. I didn’t understand what was wrong with me, until Peter noticed that it was always worse after I’d hunted.

“I contemplated that. In so many years of slaughter and carnage, I’d lost nearly all of my humanity. I was undeniably a nightmare, a monster of the grisliest kind. Yet each time I found another human victim, I would feel a faint prick of remembrance for that other life. Watching their eyes widen in wonder at my beauty, I could see Maria and the others in my head, what they had looked like to me the last night that I was Jasper Whitlock. It was stronger for me – this borrowed memory – than it was for anyone else, because I could feel everything my prey was feeling. And I lived their emotions as I killed them.

“You’ve experienced the way I can manipulate the emotions around myself, Bella, but I wonder if you realize how the emotions in a room affect me. I live every day in a climate of emotion. For the first century of my life, I lived in a world of bloodthirsty vengeance. Hate was my constant companion. It eased some when I left Maria, but I still had to feel the horror and fear of my prey.

“It began to be too much.

“The depression got worse, and I wandered away from Peter and Charlotte. Civilized as they were, they didn’t feel the same aversion I was beginning to feel. They only wanted peace from the fight. I was so wearied by killing – killing anyone, even mere humans.

“Yet I had to keep killing. What choice did I have? I tried to kill less often, but I would get too thirsty and I would give in. After a century of instant gratification, I found self-discipline… challenging. I still haven’t perfected that.”

I was surprised by how lost in this story everyone was. I suspected the vampire was using his power to manipulate our emotions, but the vital curiosity I felt wouldn’t melt away no matter how hard I tried to stifle it.

His expression smoothed into a peaceful smile. “I was in Philadelphia. There was a storm, and I was out during the day – something I was not completely comfortable with yet. I knew standing in the rain would attract attention, so I ducked into a little half-empty diner. My eyes were dark enough that no one would notice them, though this meant I was thirsty, and that worried me a little.

“She was there – expecting me, naturally.” He chuckled once, turning his head to the tiny vampire hanging on his arm with an amused expression. “She hopped down from the high seat at the counter as soon as I walked in and came directly toward me.

“It shocked me. I was not sure if she meant to attack. That’s the only interpretation of her behavior my past had to offer. But she was smiling. And the emotions that were emanating from her were like nothing I’d ever felt before.

“‘You’ve kept me waiting a long time,’ she said.”

The spiky-haired leech gazed up at him lovingly. “And you ducked your head, like a good Southern gentleman, and said, ‘I’m sorry, ma’am.’” She laughed at the memory.

He smiled down at her. “You held out your hand, and I took it without stopping to make sense of what I was doing. For the first time in almost a century, I felt hope.” The wavy-haired vampire took the small one’s hand as he spoke.

The small one grinned. “I was just relieved. I thought you were never going to show up.”

They smiled at each other for a long moment, and then the tall one looked back to Bella, his soft expression lingering. “Alice told me what she’d seen of Carlisle and his family. I could hardly believe that such an existence was possible. But Alice made me optimistic. So we went to find them.”

“That’s a… nice story, I guess,” Bella said, the first one to break the silence. “The happy ending part, I mean.”

“Do you believe she has created one of these ‘newborn armies’?” Sam asked, taking a step forward.

“Yes,” the tall leech replied. “I saw the headlines, but I thought I must be interpreting the signs incorrectly. I didn’t see a motive. Why would someone create an army in Olympia? There is no history here, no vendetta. It makes no sense from a conquest standpoint, either; no one claims it. Nomads pass through, but there’s no one to fight for it. Or, so I thought,” he added, shooting a pointed look over to where I stood behind Bella.

“But I’ve seen this before, and there’s no other explanation. There is an army of newborn vampires in Olympia. Fewer than twenty, I’d guess. The difficult part is that they are totally untrained. Whoever made them just set them loose. It will only get worse, and it won’t be much longer ‘til the Volturi step in. Actually, I’m surprised they’ve let this go on so long.”

“What would it mean, if the Volturi came?” Sam asked, eyes wary.

“They would clear out the newborns and whoever created them, naturally,” Jasper replied. “But you don’t want it to come to that. The Volturi have hunted werewolves all but to extinction. They would seek to destroy your pack here, if they knew it existed.”

Sam’s jaw clenched together with an audible snap. A low growl rumbled in my chest involuntarily, joined by Paul and a chorus of the other wolves, a communal agreement that we would not back down from such a fight.

Jasper’s eyes widened, picking up on the change in our demeanor. “You should not want that,” he insisted. “The Volturi Guard are lethal. They’ve been killing werewolves for centuries. You wouldn’t be a challenge.”

“Then what do you suggest we do?” Sam hissed through his teeth.

“If we want to avoid the Volturi’s involvement, we will have to destroy the newborns, and we will have to do it very soon.”

His face was the hard, stone-cold mold of a seasoned soldier, staring down the barrel of a gun for the umpteenth time. The only option was battle. Our plan to pick them off slowly wouldn’t work if an even bigger group of vampires would come knocking soon.

“I can teach you how,” the tall leech continued, “The young ones aren’t concerned about secrecy, but we will have to be. It will limit us in ways that they are not. Maybe we can lure them out.”

“You won’t have to,” Alice said, eyes fixed on dead space.

“What was that?” Edward asked, voice tense. “What are you remembering?”

“Flickers,” Alice said, eyes darting around distantly. “I can’t see a clear picture when I try to see what’s going on, nothing concrete. But I’ve been getting these strange flashes. Not enough to make sense of. It’s as if someone’s changing their mind, moving from one course of action to another so quickly that I can’t get a good view…”

“Indecision?” Jasper asked in disbelief.

“I don’t know…”

“Not indecision,” Edward growled. “Knowledge. Someone who knows you can’t see anything until the decision is made. Someone who is hiding from us. Playing with the holes in your vision.”

“Who would know that?” Alice whispered.

“Laurent!” Bella gasped.

All eyes focused on her. Her cheeks turned bright red.

“What do you mean, Bella?” Alice was the first to break the silence.

“Wouldn’t your cousins in Denali know enough about Alice’s visions to try and work around them? Laurent lived with them for so long. And if he was still friendly enough with Victoria to be doing favors for her, why wouldn’t he also tell her everything he knew?”

Edward considered this, his forehead creased in concentration. The rest of his family and most of the pack were watching him, since they knew he could hear their thoughts.

Hey, mind-reader, is this getting to the part where we DO something?

The mind-reader is the ginger, right? Do you think he would hear it if I thought about killing him?

Best not to risk it, Leah cautioned, stationing herself on the other side of Bella.

“Hmm,” Edward finally said. “That has to be it,” he decided. “Your theory suits Victoria’s personality perfectly. She’s shown a remarkable gift for self-preservation from the start – maybe it’s a talent of hers. In any case, this plot would put her in no danger at all, if she sits safely behind and lets the newborns wreak their havoc here. And maybe little danger from the Volturi, either. Perhaps she’s counting on us to win, in the end, though certainly not without heavy casualties of our own. But no survivors from her little army to bear witness against her. In fact,” he continued, voice picking up speed, “if there were survivors, I’d bet she’d be planning to destroy them herself…” He frowned into space for a long moment.

“Then let’s go,” roared the biggest one, flexing his arms impatiently. “What are we waiting for?”

My question exactly, Paul agreed.

Carlisle and Edward shared a long glance. Edward nodded once.

“We’ll need you to teach us, Jasper,” Carlisle finally said. “How to destroy them.” His jaw was hard with resolve, but there was pain in his eyes. Unwillingly, I was starting to like him; I could see that he was averse to any violence.

“We need to hurry,” Jasper said. Carlisle frowned, looking shaken.

“Tell us what you’re planning,” Sam demanded. “We have a right to know, as Bella is one of us.”

Edward grimaced, as if remembering the wolves were there.  

“It’s okay,” Alice said, resting a hand on his shoulder, eyes distant. “He has a point.”

“What do you see, Alice?” Jasper asked, gliding over to her protectively, glaring at the wolves as if daring us to strike.

“The decision has been made,” she said ominously. “They’re coming to Forks. Two days, three tops. One is carrying that awful red shirt I told you to throw away,” she added, eyes fixing on Bella with disapproval.

“We can’t let them come that far,” Jasper said. “There aren’t enough of us to protect the town.”

“I know,” Alice replied, her face suddenly desolate. “But it doesn’t matter where we stop them. There still won’t be enough of us, and some of them will come here to search.”

“No!” Bella gasped. “Alice,” she breathed, “I have to go. I have to get away from here.”

“That won’t help. It’s not like we’re dealing with a tracker. They’ll still come looking here first.”

“Then I have to go meet them!” She shrieked, voice hoarse and strained. “If they find what they’re looking for, maybe they’ll go away and not hurt anyone else!”

That was when I’d had enough. Without consciously deciding to move, I was suddenly facing Bella, pushing on her chest with my muzzle to get her back to the Rabbit, where I would drive her as far away as possible.

“Bella!” Alice protested.

“There are too many for you?” Sam asked, though we knew the answer.

Jasper bridled. “We have a few advantages, dog. It will be an even fight.”

“No,” Sam said, a fierce half-smile spread across his face. “It won’t be even.

“Excellent!” Alice hissed. “Everything just disappeared, of course,” she said in a smug voice. “That’s inconvenient, but, all things considered, I’ll take it.”

Bella stared, frozen in horror, as I continued to push her backwards.

“We’ll have to coordinate,” Sam said. “It won’t be easy for us. Still, this is our job more than yours.”

“I wouldn’t go that far, but we need the help. We aren’t going to be picky.”

“Wait, wait, wait, wait,” Bella interrupted. The whole clearing turned to look at her despaired expression. Her jaw clenched in a familiar, stubborn expression.

“Coordinate?” She repeated through her teeth.

“You didn’t honestly think you were going to keep us out of this?” Sam asked.

Bella wasn’t looking at him. She put her hands on both sides of my face and raised my head so I had to look her in the eyes.

“You are staying out of this!” She ordered.

“The psychic doesn’t think so,” Sam replied.

“Alice – tell them no!” She insisted. “They’ll get killed!”

Quil, Embry, and Paul laughed from somewhere behind Sam.

“Bella,” Alice said, her voice placating. “Separately we all could get killed. Together –”

“It’ll be no problem,” Sam finished her sentence, then laughed again. “Can you tell from your vision how many there will be?”

“No!” Bella shouted.

No one paid attention to her except me. I tapped my nose against her forehead, trying to tell her it would be alright.

“It changes – twenty-one today, but the numbers are going down.” Alice replied.

“Why?” Sam asked, curious.

“The newborns fight amongst themselves,” Jasper reminded. “Since they’re obviously untrained, they won’t know how to control themselves.”

“We need to plan strategically,” Carlisle interjected. “To make the best use of our numbers.”

“This isn’t the best place for it,” Sam replied, eyes darting over to where Bella was still staring me down.

“Later tonight?”

“Yes,” Jasper agreed. “If you’re going to fight with us, you’ll need some instruction.”

The pack murmured amongst themselves, disgruntled.

What? They think we can’t kill a leech? Paul thought. Maybe they need a demonstration. 

How many times are we going to have to smell these guys? Embry wondered. 

Might as well learn what we can. As long as I don’t have to be downwind, Leah added.  

“No!” Bella moaned, hands dropping from my face.

“This will be odd,” Jasper said thoughtfully. “I never considered working together. This has to be a first.”

“No doubt about that,” Sam agreed. “What time?”

“What’s too late for you?”

All ten werewolves rolled our eyes simultaneously.

“What time?” Sam repeated.

“Three o’clock?”

“Where?”

“About ten miles due north of the Hoh Forest ranger station. Come at it from the west and you’ll be able to follow our scent in.”

“We’ll be there,” Sam promised. 

Chapter Text

XXXII

I drove Bella back to Charlie’s house, cloaked in silence the whole time. She curled up against the door and rested her forehead against the glass, chin propped up with her wrist. Her stare was fixed on the forest as it whizzed past, but I could tell she wasn’t really seeing any of it. After a few failed attempts at getting her to talk, I gave up. I puffed up my cheeks and then let my breath out slowly through pursed lips.

She was the only one left who was still worried about facing the newborns. I wanted to explain to her how silly she was being – it would hardly even be fun now, with the Cullens’ help – but somehow she had decided this was the end of the world, and I knew better than to try and change her mind about something once she’d settled on it.

I was already on thin ice after what I’d said in the car earlier, though I had my suspicions that Bella had completely forgotten about our fight. I wanted to avoid the subject, afraid I would get just as mad as before and say something I’d really regret.

The silence wasn’t awkward, but the curious whispers in the back of my head wondered if she was upset because she’d seen her old leeches, the ones who had kept her as some sort of pet. Did it hurt to be near them again? To have to work with them to defeat the red-head?

When I pulled into the driveway and looked over at her, there were wet, hot tears melting down her face. My heart lurched forward with remorse, wishing I could make her step in my shoes – metaphorically, of course, because my last pair of sneakers had been mutilated beyond repair weeks ago – so she could feel how devotedly I loved her.

I put my hand under her chin and leaned her face up to look at me. “Could I please have just a few seconds of your undivided attention, Miss Swan?”

She sighed wearily. “You always do,” she replied.

I kissed a tear as it rolled down her cheek. “I got you a graduation present.”

She glared up at me through her eyelashes. “I thought you knew I didn’t like presents.”

“I know. But you’ll like this one, I promise.”

She rested her forehead on my shoulder, slumping against me. “Now isn’t the time to celebrate anything. You should take it back to the store.”

“Don’t be a poor sport. Besides, I can’t take it back. I made it myself. Took a really long time, too.” I didn’t mention I had made it years ago, before I’d known about packs of werewolves and vampire armies.

She didn’t say anything, but her breathing got ragged.

“Oh, c’mon, Bells. You have nothing to worry about. We’re going to get rid of Victoria, you’ll see, this is going to be easy.

“And if you get hurt?” She asked, sitting bolt upright, fire lighting up her eyes. “If any of the wolves die because of me, Jake, I swear – ”

“No one is going to get hurt,” I promised. “Don’t you trust me?”

Bella groaned. “Aw, Jake, you know that’s not fair.”

“Do I?”

“You should.

She leaned forward, peering up, trying to look into my eyes. I looked away, over her head, avoiding her gaze.

“Jake?”

I refused to look at her. It was her turn to deal with the silent treatment.

“Hey, you said you made me something, right?” She asked. “Was that just talk? Where’s my present?” Her fake enthusiasm was unimpressive, but at least I’d gotten her interested.

I rolled my eyes and grimaced at her. She kept up the lame pretense, holding her hand open in front of her.

“I’m waiting,” she added expectantly.

“Right,” I grumbled sarcastically.

But I also reached into the back pocket of my jeans and pulled out a small bag of loose-woven, multi-colored fabric, tied shut with leather drawstrings. I set it in Bella’s outstretched palm.

“Hey, that’s pretty, Jake. Thanks!”

I sighed. “The present is inside, Bella.”

“Oh.”

She had some trouble with the strings. Her hands were shaking too much to get a good grip. I sighed again and took it from her, sliding the ties open with one easy tug of the right cord. She held her hand out for it, so I turned the bag upside down and shook out the silver chain. The metal links clinked quietly against each other as they fell into her palm.

“I didn’t make the bracelet,” I admitted. “Just the charm.”

Bella held the little figurine between her fingers to look at it closer. Her eyes grew wide as she examined the details, and she gasped in awe.

“It’s beautiful,” she whispered. “You made this? How?”

I shrugged modestly. “It’s something Billy taught me. He’s better at it than I am.”

“That’s hard to believe,” she murmured, turning the tiny wolf around and around in her fingers.

“Do you really like it?” I asked.

“Yes! It’s unbelievable, Jake.” Her voice was choked and more tears welled up in her eyes. “Here, help me put it on.”

She held out her left wrist. I fastened the catch easily, fingers lingering on her skin. I smiled when her heartbeat stuttered and got faster when we touched.

“You’ll wear it?” I asked.

“Of course I will,” she responded resolutely.

I grinned, the same smile I reserved only for her, my human smile. She returned it for a moment, then her eyes got clouded.

“Why’re you so upset?” I asked, cupping her cheek in my palm. “This is a good thing. You can relax.”

She shook her head. “None of you should be putting yourselves in danger for me.”

I groaned. “You’re being ridiculous, Bells.”

“Why aren’t you more worried?” She asked, eyes narrowing. “Last night you were telling me you were going to die, and now you’re not even a little concerned?”

I shrugged. “We’ve got numbers on our side now. Plus, we got rid of three last night.” I reached over her and rummaged around in the cluttered glove compartment until I found the three new pouches of ashes. Her eyes widened, and she gasped.

“Are you hurt?” She asked, throwing her hands up to rest on my shoulders.

I laughed at her concern. “Of course not,” I asserted, puffing out my chest a little. “I’m big and strong, remember?”

She laughed. “How could I forget,” she said sarcastically, rolling her eyes.

I sighed. “This is gonna sound corny,” I warned. “But I gotta say it. I won’t let anyone hurt you, Bella. I promise. And I won’t break any more promises, okay?” I tilted her chin up to look at me. “You know that, right? That you’re the most important thing to me?”

“I know. Thanks, Jake”

“Anytime.”

I started to open the door, but she stopped me.

“You’re taking me with you tonight,” she murmured.

“Bells, you shouldn’t stay up all night.”

“You think I could sleep?”

I frowned. “This whole thing is dangerous. I can’t promise it won’t turn into a brawl. Are you sure you want to be in the middle of that?”

She sighed. “Please, Jake, I can’t just sit at home and wait. You know me better than that.”

It was my turn to sigh. Neither of us wanted a repeat of what happened this afternoon, so instead of making the same mistake twice, I grinned half-heartedly. “I guess I’m not surprised,” I replied, taking her hand in mine. “When should I pick you up?”

“Will you stay tonight?” She asked, pulling away. Suddenly, a smile lit up her face. “I’m making your favorite – grilled cheese.”

I grinned, then pressed my lips to the tip of her nose. “Of course,” I replied.

“I’ll unlock the front door after Charlie falls asleep,” she whispered quietly as we walked to the front porch. “Will you come?” She asked hesitantly, pausing with her hand on the doorknob to look at me beseechingly.

My grin spread from one ear to the other. “Sure,” I agreed.

The clock on the oven said it was just after six – Charlie would be home soon. I wondered if I would have time to ask her a question that had been bugging me since meeting with the Cullens.

“Hey, Bells?” I asked.

She was busy slathering butter on two pieces of bread. “Yeah?” She asked, grabbing a package of cheese and peeling the plastic off of two slices.

“Are you upset because… because of Edward?” I asked quietly

Bella was silent for a long time, staring at her work blankly. I worried that she hadn’t heard me, but then she finally spoke, all the words coming out in a rush.

“I’m sorry, Jacob. I know I’ve hurt you because of him, and I regret it every day. I love him. But I stopped needing him a long time ago. All he ever brought me, in the end, was pain. And then, it was like you brought back the sun. Do you remember the first time I came down with the bikes? When you smiled at me something clicked – I’d forgotten how much I really liked you. I love you more than I ever loved Edward, but I do still love him, in a way. It hurts to see him again – of course it does – but it would hurt much, much worse if I lost you.” She stroked my cheek with her fingers.

I took the opportunity to smash our mouths together. The kitchen disappeared around us, leaving only the feel of her lips on mine, my hands running through her hair. In the background was the smell of grilled cheese starting to burn.

Just as the bread had gotten extra crispy – Charlie grumbled that it was “burnt,” but Bella argued it was “salvageable” – the cruiser’s tires pulled up, and the headlights flashed through the window over the sink. Bella rushed to take the sandwiches out of the pan and onto a plate. I laughed, getting up to set the table.

Charlie was in a foul mood, so he didn’t say much during dinner, which was a good thing because if he had started asking questions Bella wouldn’t have been able to lie. She was unusually quiet, too, stealing glances at me and then blushing into her plate. After dinner, Charlie pointedly asked if Billy still had his own house, and I reluctantly took the Rabbit back to La Push.

I was back at Bella’s backyard soon enough, drawn in by the smell of another vampire.

Her house is really becoming some sort of vampire hub, huh? Embry bemoaned.

It was Edward, leaning against the trunk of the spruce tree, staring forlornly up at Bella’s window. I barely recognized him.

But he recognized me.

“Fascinating,” Edward whispered, almost to himself. “The pack mind truly is extraordinary. I wonder, can they hear me, too?”

Tell him to butt the hell out, Leah growled in my head.

He laughed with no humor. “I suppose there’s my answer.”

Get out of here, leech, I growled, my hackles standing at attention. You have no business here.

“My family thought it would be prudent to have one of us keep watch on the house, since we have no need for sleep, unlike you.” His voice was soft, but there was an undertone of dismissal that had me bristling.

Too bad for the treaty, I thought. One of the only bloodsuckers I’m not allowed to kill, and he’s stalking Bella. Figures.

“I suppose that is what I’m doing,” Edward sighed. “But I can’t see any other option. I must make sure she is safe, just as much as you.”

Who died and made that your job?

“I did,” he answered gravely. “Or, at least, the part of me that was selfish enough to hold onto her.”

My eyebrows shot up to my ears.

He shook his head, looking down at the ground. “I suppose her side of the story is quite different. But I didn’t leave because I grew tired of her company – on the contrary, I craved it more and more every day, as a flower in the winter craves sunlight – ”

This guy must be a thousand years old, Quil complained, with the air of someone yelling at a TV screen. Who talks like that?

The vampire smiled, showing his teeth. “I apologize. I’ll get to the point,” he assured us. “I did not leave because I got bored of Bella, it was to save her life.”

I was too stunned for words. Some small part of me wondered if he was lying, but his burning, tortured black eyes were full of sincerity.

“I am a monster, after all,” he reminded me. “You’re right to hate us. We try, but even with decades of experience, we are not perfect.” He grimaced at the ground. “My world is too dangerous for Bella.”

Agreed. So stay out of it.

“I have been, haven’t I?” He growled.

Why didn’t you take care of the redhead, then?

“I tried,” he moaned. “But I’m terrible at tracking. I followed a false lead to Rio – I wasn’t even on the right continent! Don’t worry – I won’t let Victoria taint perfectly good air by breathing in and out any longer. I will finish this.”

And then you’ll leave?

He hesitated. “Yes, if she tells me to leave, I will go.”

She will, I insisted, remembering her words in the kitchen that afternoon.

The bloodsucker flinched as if I’d hit him with a taser.

Oh,” he groaned.

What’s wrong with that guy? Paul wondered.

No idea, I replied. Hmm… maybe…

A vision of Bella and I intertwined on my bed flashed in front of my eyes. I focused on remembering the hot blood pumping through me, the smell of her sweat and mine mixing together, the way her cheeks bloomed like deep burgundy roses –

Edward curled over, holding his arms around him the same way Bella used to, holding himself together.

You don’t like that, do you?

“Not at all,” he hissed through clenched teeth.

Another memory popped up from Sam; Bella, limp and half-dead, lying in the woods with vacant, glassy eyes. The vampire’s face twisted in agony.

This is kinda fun, I thought.

“Whatever you show me, I know I deserve it,” Edward breathed, his voice so low I wasn’t sure I was meant to hear.

How does that work? I wondered. Can you hear me now?

“Yes,” he responded sarcastically. “You don’t have to yell.”

And the psychic… How come she can’t see us?

“We think it’s because the wolves are so unpredictable. You’re completely ruled by your anger; things could change at any instant.” Edward explained. “So it’s difficult for her to see the decisions Victoria is making, because she is thinking of your pack. She only saw her after Bella made a decision that didn’t include you. Now that we are involved, she sees more, because she has become accustomed to our family over the years. She saw Victoria again, but this time she was with the newborns, coming up over the ridge. Then it went blank, so that must be where you come in.”

What am I going to do with Bella? I wondered to myself. I could take her up to the mountain… with her luck, she’d probably slip off the edge.

Edward, the mind-reading vampire who I was trying to ignore, laughed.

I glared.

Quit reading my mind, I ordered.

“It’s not something I can control,” the vampire snickered. “And you have a funny mind. If you weren’t destined to be with the woman I love, I might like you.”

My face went blank with shock.

“Yes,” Edward chuckled. “I picked up on it immediately. If I couldn’t see it through your eyes, I wouldn’t believe it. But it’s obvious, isn’t it? Fate. Destiny. I complicated things, it seems. I apologize.”

I’m not going to forgive you.

“Nonetheless, I am sorry, and I intend to make it up by killing Victoria.”

The redhead is mine, I growled.

“We’ll see,” the vampire smirked, leaning back into the tree and crossing his arms against his chest.

I was too annoyed to fight with him. Besides, the click of the lock on Charlie’s front door reminded me that I was destined for bigger and better things, like being expected upstairs in Bella’s room. I started preparing myself to shift back into a human.

“Will you answer a question of mine, first? Since I’ve answered all of yours.”

No. Shut up.

“Humor me.”

No.

He sighed. “Is she happy?”

Sounded pretty happy last night! Paul howled.

Edward flinched. “I suppose I should have seen that one coming.”

Is she happy? I wondered.

I wanted to think she was. I had seen her when she was a zombie, and her eyes were dull and blank. Now when she smiled, her face was bright and soft, and her cheeks lit up with a splash of vivid color. And she loved me. That much I knew. Even if it wasn’t always a romantic love, she’d been drawn to me from the start, just like I was drawn to her. She came to me with the bikes, after all. And she had to love me to put up with me turning into a giant wolf and tearing up all my sneakers.

But more importantly, I loved her enough that I didn’t care if it were reciprocated; I would go on loving her whether or not the earth and sky were against it. Even if she were against it, I would still love her, because it was in my blood. And I would protect her to the last, particularly from dirty rotten bloodsuckers like him.

“That’s all I care about,” Edward murmured, staring back up at the window. “As long as she’s safe and happy, I will endure any torture you have for me. I will walk the deserts of this Earth for the rest of my unnaturally long existence, completely alone, if she may live a long, happy life and be loved the way she deserves.”

Cool it, man, I growled.

“I know, I’ve seen it – this imprint bond is possibly the most fascinating part about the whole pack,” he replied, ignoring the murderous edge to my thoughts. “It’s the only reason I can bear to leave her – because I know you will protect her with your life, and so will the other wolves. She needs it,” his voice took on a warning tone. “The Volturi are not to be messed with. If they find her, they will kill her and the entire pack without blinking an eye. You will contact me if you hear anything from them,” he ordered.

Suddenly, his arm was stretched toward me, palm out, holding a yellow post-it note with a number written in black sharpie.

How do you expect me to carry that?

“I’ll stick it to you.” The vampire smiled with half of his face. “Or in the pocket of your pants. Just a moment.”

His figure twitched, moving so fast I could barely see him, finishing the task instantaneously.

That is incredibly annoying, you know.

“I know,” he grinned again, his mouth bending in a crooked snarl. “But you should know that I will be keeping an eye on things here. You could slip up and lose her, you know.”

Keep your distance, I warned.

Sam howled to get the packs’ attention and I shifted back into human form. With one last glance at the vampire, I silently opened Charlie’s front door and crept up the stairs into Bella’s room.

She was curled up in a ball on the bed. It was too dark for her to see, but the door creaked when I opened it, and she bolted upright.

“Jake,” she sighed, voice saturated with relief.

I grinned. “Hey, Bells.”

“Come here,” she whispered, reaching out to take my hand and pull me onto the bed.

We laid there in silence for a little while. She was curled up against my chest, nestled like a bird in a nest. My arms wound around her automatically, and I rested my cheek on her hair. I waited for her heart to slow down, but after five minutes it was still going like she was running a marathon.

I sighed, sitting up and pulling her with me. I cupped her face with my hands, forcing her to look at me.

“Please relax,” I begged.

“Sure,” she replied sarcastically.

“This is going to work, Bells. I can feel it.”

Her teeth locked together stubbornly. I could tell she was about to go off by the way her eyes flashed up to mine, so I pulled her into my chest and interrupted before she woke up Charlie.

“Listen to me, Bella. This is going to be easy. The leeches aren’t gonna know what hit ‘em. This morning, when we got those three at the campsite – they didn’t even know werewolves existed. We’ll split them up, get them confused, there won’t even be enough for the rest of us to do. The boys will probably sit out. That’ll get Leah off Sam’s back.” I chuckled.

“Piece of cake,” she mumbled tonelessly against my chest.

I stroked her hair with my palm. “You’ll see. Try to get some sleep.”

She looked up and stroked the bags beneath my eyes. “Do you ever take your own advice?”

I shook my head, a smile pulling on the edges of my lips. “Wolves are nocturnal, you know.”

She rolled her eyes. “I’m pretty sure you need to sleep during the day to be considered nocturnal.”

“Hey,” I said defensively, “I didn’t know you were a sleep expert.”

“Maybe you should relax, too. You’ve been running yourself ragged this whole time trying to protect me – you sleep, I’ll wake you up when it’s time to leave.”

It was my turn to roll my eyes. “I don’t think so.”

“Oh,” she said, eyes alight with an idea. “Didn’t you say Paul gave you some…” She trailed off, raising her eyebrows meaningfully.

I laughed, throwing my head back, then reached into my back pocket to pull out the dime bag I’d stashed there. My fingers brushed against the post-it note Edward had given me. I wondered if he would read it in my thoughts if I threw it out.

“You got a pipe?” I asked.

She nodded, then leaned back to dig around in her bedside table. She came back to the bed with a small purple one-hitter and a black lighter.

We opened the window and blew our smoke out into the night. I scanned the trees for Edward, but he was nowhere to be found, so I relaxed. Bella no longer coughed up her lungs with every drag, looking very expert as she pulled on the end of the pipe with her lips. I kissed her forehead sweetly, feeling fuzzy and light, like a balloon. I wrapped my arms around her waist to keep me tethered to the ground.

The rest of the night was spent on her bed, staring up at the ceiling as the moon filtered through the clouds and created dancing patterns on the wall. My arm was wrapped around her, elbow bent so I could run my fingers through her hair. She leaned on my chest, tangling up her legs with mine.

“What are you thinking about?” I wondered aloud. My body heat had burned off the high faster than a normal human, but Bella’s pupils were still wide, her eyes glassy and red.

“I’m thinking about the people I love who are going to get hurt. Hurt because of me.” She sighed. “I wish my bad luck would focus a little more carefully.”

I snorted softly, trying to keep my voice down so we didn’t interrupt the rhythmic snoring coming from Charlie’s room.

“Is that what you call it? Bad luck? I thought it was recklessness.”

I felt her smile against my shoulder. “You could call it that, too.”

Bella didn’t sleep. I tried to stay quiet and still, just in case, but the minutes passed quickly. It was soon time to leave, so I pulled her stiff body up into a sitting position.

“You ready?”

“How are we getting there?”

“I have an idea,” I said ominously, leaning forward to press a kiss to her cheek.

Bella didn’t argue when I insisted on carrying her down the stairs – I was a lot more silent than she was, and I could avoid the creaky third step without the risk of tumbling onto my face. When we were outside, I let her down, and began stripping off my sweats.

“Jake!” She hissed, looking away, her face burning red.

“What?” I asked, grinning. “It’s nothing you haven’t seen before, Bells.”

She rolled her eyes and looked back at me as I attached the black sweatpants onto the wire wrapped around my ankle. I took a few steps into the forest for a buffer, and started to explain.

“Okay, so I’m going to shift, and then you can get on my back and ride.”

“Really?” She gasped, eyes wide. “But I don’t know how –”

“I won’t let you fall,” I interrupted, my hands already shaking. “You might want to look away.”

She didn’t listen, as usual, and so I ripped into a wolf with her wide eyes fixed on me.

I stopped two feet away from her, gauging her reaction. She stared up at me, eyes full of wonder and fascination. I crouched down on my front legs and dropped my head so our faces were level with each other.

“Jacob?” She asked breathlessly.

I chuckled, the noise rumbling deep in my chest.

She reached her trembling fingers out towards me.

I closed my eyes and leaned my head into her hand. I couldn’t help the thrumming hum resonating in my throat when she ran her fingers through my fur curiously, learning the texture, stroking my neck where the russet color deepened.

Without thinking about it, my tongue licked her face from chin to hairline in a slobbery kiss.

“Ew! Gross, Jake!” She complained, jumping back and slapping me, her expression playful.

I dodged out of the way, laughter coming out in a coughing bark.

She wiped her face on the sleeve of her shirt, laughing along with me.

Chapter Text

XXXIII

Despite her concerns, Bella was able to perch herself snugly between my shoulder blades, and the fists balled up around the hair on my neck kept her from falling off. We arrived at the clearing last. I padded up next to Sam to let Bella down, then stared across the clearing at our new allies.

I got a better look at the leeches now.

As if seeing them from ten points of view all at once wasn’t enough, they were lined up neatly in a V-formation across the middle of the clearing. I recognized Carlisle at the spear point and Jasper beside him, then noted Edward and Alice on the far ends. Bella filled me in on the others’ names by whispering in my ear once we were close enough for her to see.

“The big one with the dark curly hair standing next to Carlisle is Emmett,” she explained. “And the blonde super-model next to him is Rosalie. They’re married now, I think. And the one with the caramel hair is Esme, she’s Carlisle’s wife. She made me Italian food once,” she added wistfully.

Was there any garlic in it? Paul wondered.

Shh, Sam hissed, stepping forward from our loose grouping.

Carlisle took a slow, deliberate step forward. It was a careful movement, by a practiced diplomat.

“Welcome,” he greeted us.

Thank you, Sam responded, eyeing the mind-reader. We will watch and listen, but no more. That is the most we can ask of our self-control.

Edward relayed the message word-for-word, but his voice couldn’t match the power Sam’s had, like a roll of thunder cracking the earth open.

“That is more than enough,” Carlisle answered. “As you know, my son Jasper” – he gestured to where the tall vampire stood, tensed and ready – “has experience in this area. He will teach us how they fight, how they are to be defeated. I’m sure you can apply this to your own hunting style.”

What are their numbers now? Sam wondered.

Once Edward translated, Carlisle nodded. “Tonight, their numbers stand at twenty. Ten for us, ten for you – it shouldn’t be difficult. The numbers may go down. The new ones fight amongst themselves.”

A rumble passed down the line of wolves, a low growling mutter of enthusiasm with no words attached.

We are willing to take more than our share, if necessary, Sam summarized.

Carlisle smiled. “We’ll see how it plays out.”

Do you know when and how they’ll arrive?

“They’ll come across the mountains in three days, in the late morning. As they approach, Alice will help us intercept their path.”

Thank you for the information. We will watch. Sam nodded towards the vampires, then laid down with a huff.

The pack sighed, following Sam’s lead and lying on the ground one at a time.

This might take a while, Leah grumbled, rolling her eyes. If it’s anything like that first meeting.

It was silent for two heartbeats, and then Jasper took a step into the empty space between the vampires and the wolves. His skin was bright against the dark, pale moonlight. He threw a wary glance toward Edward, who nodded, and then Jasper turned his back to the werewolves. His shoulders heaved with a sigh, clearly uncomfortable.

“They’ll fight like children.” Jasper spoke only to the vampires, ignoring the majority of his audience. “The two most important things you’ll need to remember are, first, don’t let them get their arms around you, and, second, don’t go for the obvious kill. That’s all they’ll be prepared for. As long as you come at them from the side and keep moving, they’ll be too confused to respond effectively. Emmett?”

The big one Bella had pointed to earlier stepped out of the line with a huge smile. Jasper backed toward the north end of the opening between the allied enemies. He waved Emmett forward.

“Okay, Emmett first. He’s the best example of a newborn attack.”

Emmett’s eyes narrowed. “I’ll try not to break anything,” he muttered.

Jasper grinned. “What I meant is that Emmett relies on his strength. He’s very straightforward about the attack. The newborns won’t be trying anything subtle, either. Just go for the easy kill, Emmett.” Jasper backed up a few more paces, his body tensing. “Okay, Emmett – try to catch me.”

Jasper was a blur as Emmett charged him like a bear, grinning while he snarled. Emmett was fast, don’t get me wrong, but not like Jasper. It looked like Jasper had no more substance than a ghost – any time it seemed Emmett’s big hands had him for sure, his fingers clenched around nothing but the air. We were all leaning forward intently, eyes locked on the brawl, when Emmett froze.

Jasper had him from behind, his teeth an inch from his throat.

“Fuck,” Emmett hissed.

A rumble of laughter bubbled in the wolves, turning into muttered guffaws.

“Again,” Emmett insisted, his smile gone.

“It’s my turn,” Edward protested.

At the sound of his voice, Bella stiffened beside me. The arm she had wrapped around my neck tightened. I rested my head in her lap, enjoying the way she ran her hands through my fur.

Focus, Jacob, Sam ordered.

“In a minute,” Jasper replied to Edward. “I want to show Bella something first.”

Bella watched with anxious eyes as he waved Alice forward.

“I know you worry about her,” he explained as she danced blithely into the ring. “I want to show you why that’s not necessary.”

My eyes narrowed as I watched him sink into a crouch facing the tiny spiky-haired psychic. Bella liked that one especially, I’d noticed. I swallowed the jealous bile racing up my throat.

Jasper shifted forward, then slinked to her left. Alice stood motionlessly, looking tiny as a doll after Emmett, smiling to herself. Alice closed her eyes, and Bella’s heart thumped unevenly as Jasper stalked towards where Alice stood.

Jasper sprang, landing just on the other side of Alice, who had taken a step to the right just before he leaped. Jasper wheeled and launched himself at her again, only to land in a crouch behind her; all the while Alice stood smiling with her eyes closed.

She took a small step forward at the exact second that Jasper’s body flew through the spot where she’d just been standing. She took another step, while Jasper’s grasping hands whistled past where her waist was. Jasper closed in, and Alice began to move faster. She was dancing – spiraling and twisting and curling in on herself. Jasper was her partner, lunging, reaching through her graceful patterns, never touching her, like every movement was choreographed.

Wonder how many times they’ve practiced this, Paul muttered impatiently.

I don’t see how this is going to help us, Embry grumbled.

Finally, Alice laughed. Out of nowhere she was perched on Jasper’s back, her lips at his neck.

“Gotcha,” she said, and kissed his throat.

Jasper chuckled, shaking his head. “You truly are one frighteningly little monster.”

UGH! Gross, Leah barked.

Ditto, Paul agreed.

Seriously, why are we here?

So you don’t underestimate our opponents, Sam growled, thoughts wary.

“It’s good for them to learn some respect,” Edward murmured, amused. “My turn.”

I growled. Watch it, mind-reader.

To our collective surprise, Alice glided up cautiously beside Bella, and took a place sitting next to her on the mossy ground. I unwillingly slumped out from under Bella’s arm and turned to focus on the sparring vampires.

But I couldn’t help listening.

“Cool, huh?” Alice asked Bella, her voice smug.

“Very,” she agreed.

Edward had taken his place opposite Jasper. He slunk noiselessly forward, his movements lithe and watchful as a jungle cat.

“I’ve got my eye on you, Bella,” Alice suddenly whispered, so low I almost didn’t catch it.

Edward was intent on Jasper, both of them feinting as he closed the distance. I strained to hear the rest of Alice’s hushed whisper.

“I’ll warn him if your plans get any more defined,” she threatened reproachfully. “It doesn’t help anything for you to put yourself in danger. Do you think either of them would give up if you died? They’d still fight, we all would. You can’t change anything, so just be good, okay?”

Bella didn’t respond, but I thought I caught a flicker of a grimace on her face in my peripheral vision.

“I’m watching,” Alice repeated.

Edward was closing in on Jasper now. This fight was more even than the first one. Jasper had however-many-odd years of experience, and by how fast he was moving he had to be relying mostly on instinct, but his thoughts always gave him away a fraction of a second before he acted. Edward was slightly faster, I noticed with disdain, but the moves Jasper used were unfamiliar to him. They came at each other again and again, neither one able to gain the advantage, instinctive snarls erupting constantly.

The wolves and I watched on, adrenaline pumping in our veins. It was not an everyday occurrence to see a vampire and try not to kill it. But here we were, watching the bloodthirsty leeches we had learned to hate go at each other’s throats, expected to just lay here and watch. I longed to join in the fight. I kept thinking, let me in, coach, I’m ready to play, and eventually it turned into a snippet of a song one of us had heard at some point, becoming in the end an annoying, endless loop echoing around in my skull as everyone simultaneously got one line of a sung stuck in our heads.

Eventually, Carlisle cleared his throat. Jasper laughed, and took a step back. Edward straightened up and grinned at him, then shot a sympathetic look over at the wolves.

Mind-readers must hear a lot of annoying bits of songs, Leah sneered, indignant towards his pity.

“Back to work,” Jasper said. “We’ll call it a draw.”

Things went quicker now that they had gotten past all the leeches with extra abilities. The rest all took turns, starting with Carlisle, then Rosalie, Esme, and Emmett again. Then the bloodsucker slowed down, giving more instruction.

“You see what I’m doing here?” He kept asking.

“Yes, just like that,” he encouraged when Rosalie effectively blocked his attack and appeared with her teeth about to sink into one of the scars on his neck.

“Concentrate on the sides. Don’t forget where their target will be. Keep moving.”

Edward – the bloodsucker whom I hated on principle and ignored only for Bella’s sake – kept glancing over to the wolves, reacting to the merged stream of consciousness that threw us all for a loop. Between half of us paying attention, and the other half goofing around while keeping tabs through other eyes, things were a bit cluttered.

Hard to make sense of, I guess, Paul thought.

You get used to it, Quil replied. I don’t mind not having to talk. Speeds things up a bit.

Some of us think before we speak, Leah rebutted.

I was only half-watching, because it was very boring, and I hated every moment of this stupid meeting. My nose was burning, my eyelids felt like they’d been tied to ten-pound dumbbells, and I really wanted to jump into the fray, but Sam forbade any movement. The only reason I endured through the whole thing was because Bella curled into my side, sighing as she pressed her frozen fingers into my fur.

After hurling Emmett into a fifty-foot spruce tree and splitting it in half like a pencil, Jasper concluded the teaching session by turning to face us for the first time, looking like he was clenching his asshole tight enough to make a diamond.

“We’ll be doing this again tomorrow,” he said in a disturbingly cool, serene voice. “Please feel welcome to observe again.”

The welcome was not evident in his tone, but Sam replied diplomatically.

Yes, we’ll be here.

Oh, hey, can we get a sniff of ‘em?

Excuse me?

Sam raised his eyebrows at Seth as if the young boy had asked him to jump in a dumpster.

To get familiar with their scents – so we don’t accidentally kill them, y’know, in the heat of the moment? Seth responded, unsure.

Sam rolled his eyes, but nodded, taking a step forward.

From across the field, Edward sighed and turned to his family. “The pack thinks it would be helpful to be familiar with each of our scents – so they don’t make mistakes later. If we could hold very still, it will make it easier for them.”

“Certainly,” Carlisle said, looking at Sam. “Whatever you need.”

There was a gloomy, throaty grumble from the wolf pack as we all rose to our feet. Bella’s eyes were wide and bloodshot, exhaustion etched into her features. I nuzzled her neck before walking across the field to burn my nose.

The night was fading into sun-soaked clouds, though the light had not yet cleared the horizon, far away on the other side of the mountains. The hair on the back of my neck bristled as we approached the hoard of leeches.

Sam’s heavy paws moved more slowly than usual. Instincts were battling with knowledge; the impulse to lunge forward and rip the bloodsucker’s head off clawed at the whole pack. The empath must have felt our change of mood, since he stiffened. On the other side of Carlisle, the big one – Emmett – stood with his legs far apart, a relaxed grin on his face and a glimmer of mischief in his golden eyes.

Sam sniffed Carlisle, wincing. Then he moved onto Jasper.

It hurts, Seth whined as Sam moved down the line before he did and left him stranded between Carlisle and Jasper.

It was your idea, Sam replied, stopping to let the young boy catch up.

You listened to him, Leah reminded him, breaking the line to accompany her brother.

Single-file, we marched up to each Cullen and got a good whiff of their virulent stench. They were each slightly different, if you paid attention. Carlisle had a whiff of ammonia that reminded me of a hospital; Esme smelled like over-done caramel; Jasper’s smell was slightly burnt, the way creosote lurks on the desert air; Emmett made me think of a fallen tree saturated in bleach; his mate – Rosalie, the super-model – had a hint of sickly-sweet bubblegum; Alice was the most unique, with a thick smell like a cloud of charred incense.

Edward was on the very end, his eyes fixed on Bella. When I approached him, I turned my head pointedly over to where she sat across the clearing. My muzzle fell open, pulling back over my teeth, tongue lolling out in a wolfy grin when our eyes met.

She giggled, face going red, and waved.

My grin grew bigger. I left my place in line to trot back over to her. I’d already gotten more than a whiff of Edward the other night, and I wasn’t interested in paying him any more attention than strictly necessary.

I crouched down to let Bella climb on my back as the wolves backed away, not taking their eyes off the Cullens. I was getting ready to do the same when Edward interrupted.

“Wait!” He cried, crossing the field at a human pace.

What does he want? Quil wondered.

You want backup, Jake? Embry asked.

The two of them hesitated on the edge of the murky forest, their postures stiff with anxiety.

Probably wants to talk to Bella, I replied, rolling my eyes. Stick around just in case, though.

“Have you figured out where Bella will be during the fight?” Edward asked, stopping ten feet away from me.

I growled. That’s none of your business.

“It’s more complicated than that,” Edward said. “You don’t have to concern yourself, if it’s too difficult. I can make sure she’s safe.” He grinned lopsidedly.

My eyebrows narrowed, lips pulling back in a snarl.

It’s gonna be like that, huh?

“What are you saying?” Bella whispered in my ear, feeling my shoulders tense beneath her.

“Just discussing strategy,” Edward responded for me.

That’s it, I thought, bolting for the woods. Embry and Quil followed.

“Jake!” Bella exclaimed, grabbing fistfuls of my fur to keep herself upright. “Where are you going?”

I stopped just inside the protective barrier of trees, then leaned down to let Bella off. Without waiting for her to turn around, I shifted, enjoying how hot her face got at my nakedness.

“It’s nothing you haven’t seen before,” I reminded her.

Bella shook her head, looking pointedly at Embry. “I would ask if he’s always like this, but I already know,” she said.

Embry chuckled, then he and Quil disappeared into the green underbrush.

I pulled on the black pair of sweatpants tied to my ankle wire, then grabbed Bella’s hand. “I wanted to be able to talk for myself. Do you want to me to bring you home first?” I asked, noticing how she swayed on her feet.

“No, I want to know what you two were saying to each other,” she insisted weakly. Her eyes closed heavily, then opened up wide.

“You’re dead on your feet, Bells,” I said, brushing a piece of hair behind her ear.

She leaned into my side, and I wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “I want to be with you,” she hummed, though it sounded more like she was trying to convince herself of it than me.

“Okay,” I murmured, leading us back out to the clearing.

Edward was closer now; the rest of the Cullens stood on the other edge of the clearing, talking quietly in a loose circle. I stopped us a few feet away, not trusting myself to stay human any closer.

“Okay, bloodsucker,” I sneered. “What’s so complicated about it?”

“You’re not considering every possibility,” Edward said. “What if someone gets by you?”

I snorted at the idea. “Okay, so we’ll leave her on the reservation. We’re making the boys stay behind anyway. She’ll be safe there.”

Bella scowled. “I’m right here,” she said in an indignant tone.

“You can’t stay in Forks, Bella.” Edward’s voice was pacifying. “They know to look for you there. What if someone slips by us during the fight?”

Bella’s face went completely white, and she gripped my hand tighter, looking up at me with wide, panic-stricken eyes. “Charlie?” She gasped.

“He’ll be with Billy,” I assured her quickly. “If my dad has to commit a murder to get him there, he’ll do it. It probably won’t take that much. It’s this Saturday, right? There’s a game.”

“This Saturday?” Her mouth gaped open, shaking her head as if to clear it. “Well, crap! There goes your present.”

My present?” I asked, surprised.

“I got us tickets to –” she began, then glanced quickly over at Edward, then back at me, and continued in a lower voice, “There’s this concert in Seattle on Saturday that I got us tickets for. I had a plan… to thank you for the bracelet.” she mumbled, looking at me meaningfully, in a way that sent a shiver down my spine.

“I’d love to hear what your plan was, sometime,” I whispered, then continued normally. “You can always give the tickets to someone else.”

Inspiration lit up her tired expression. “Emily and Kim,” she decided. “At least that will get them out of town.”

I squeezed her hand. “You can’t evacuate everyone,” I whispered softly.

“Hiding you is just a precaution.” Edward interjected. “We won’t have a problem with the newborns. There won’t be enough of them to keep us entertained,” he added, shooting her a smile full of blinding white teeth.

Her face got red, and she looked down at her feet again.

“We can keep her safe in La Push,” I insisted, impatient.

“She’s been back and forth too much,” Edward said. “She’s left trails all over the place. Alice only sees very young vampires coming on the hunt, but Victoria obviously created them. This could all be a distraction. Alice will see if she decides to look herself, but we could be very busy at the time that decision is made. Maybe she’s counting on that. We can’t leave her somewhere she’s been frequently. She has to be hard to find, just in case. It’s a very long shot, but I’m not willing to take any chances. Are you?” His smile became taunting.

He looked over to Bella with a warmer, more charming smile. “Just being overcautious,” he promised.

I ignored his provoking words. I knew what he was trying to do – get me to throw the first punch. I wouldn’t do that – not in front of Bella, at least.

Instead of going for his throat, I gestured to the deep forest east of us, the vast expanse of the Olympic Mountains.

“So we’ll hide her here,” I suggested. “There’s a million possibilities – places either one of us could be in just a few minutes if there’s a need.”

Edward shook his head. “Her scent is too strong. Even if I carried her,” he said, ignoring how I bristled at the image of him holding her. “It would leave a trail. Our trace is all over the range, but in conjunction with Bella’s scent, it would catch their attention. We’re not sure exactly which path they’ll take, because they don’t know yet. If they crossed her scent before they found us…”

Both of us grimaced at the same time, eyebrows pulling together.

“You see the difficulties.”

“There has to be a way to make it work,” I muttered, glaring toward the forest with pursed lips.

Bella sighed and leaned into my chest. I put my arm around her waist, pulling her closer and supporting her weight. “I should bring you home – you’re exhausted. And Charlie will be waking up soon… Wait a sec!” I exclaimed.

I wheeled back to face the leech. “My scent disgusts you, right?”

“Hmm, not bad.” Edward was two steps ahead. “It’s possible.” He turned towards the other Cullens. “Jasper?” He called.

Jasper looked up curiously. He walked over with Alice a half step behind. Her face was puckered up in frustration.

“Okay, Jacob.” Edward nodded.

I smiled down at Bella. “Mind if I carry you?”

She shook her head, eyes closed.

I reached down and yanked her up into my arms, bouncing her a little when I miscalculated how much – or rather, how little – she weighed.

She gasped, eyes flying open. “Are you guys going to play ball with me or something?” She asked sarcastically.

I rolled my eyes, a grin pulling on my lips. “Don’t be such a baby. We’re going to see if I can confuse the scent enough to hide your trail,” I explained.

Both our eyes flickered to Edward at the same time. His face was composed and smooth, but I didn’t trust it. He turned to speak to Jasper.

“Bella’s scent is so much more potent to me – I thought it would be a fairer test if someone else tried.”

I turned away from them and paced swiftly into the woods. We were both silent as the dark forest closed around us. Bella still didn’t know how the woods looked at night; it was probably too dark for her to see the green leaves glowing in the sparse light filtering through the canopy, and her human ears might not have been sensitive enough to hear the frogs croaking amidst the gurgle of a nearby stream, but I relished the stillness and peace the woods afforded us. If only for a few moments, we were completely alone in the sleeping wilderness, so I slowed down to a human pace to try and prolong the moment.

We didn’t go far; I made a wide arc and came back into the clearing from the west, half a football field away from our original departure point. Edward was right where we left him, standing alone, as I made my way towards him.

Jasper and Alice appeared beside Edward like phantoms. I took one more step, then set Bella down half a dozen feet away. She took my hand, then looked over towards Alice.

“Well?” She asked expectantly.

“As long as you don’t touch anything, Bella, I can’t imagine someone sticking their nose close enough to that trail to catch your scent,” Jasper said, grimacing. “It was almost completely obscured.”

“A definite success,” Alice chirped, wrinkling her nose.

“And it gave me an idea.”

“Which will work,” Alice added confidently.

“Clever,” Edward agreed.

“How did you stand that?” I muttered to Bella.

Edward ignored me and looked at Bella as he explained. “We’re – well, you’re – going to leave a false trail to the clearing, Bella. They’ll be looking for my smell with yours, so I’ll lead you there. The newborns are hunting, your scent will excite them, and they’ll come exactly the way we want them to without being careful about it. Alice can already see that this will work. When they catch our scent, they’ll split up and try to come at us from two sides. Half will go through the forest, where her vision suddenly disappears…”

“Yes!” I hissed before I could stop myself.

Edward smiled, true camaraderie beaming from his face. I was momentarily surprised before his face fell in a scowl and he turned to his brother.

“Not a chance,” he spat.

Bella jumped next to me, and I wrapped my arm around her waist.

“I know, I know,” Jasper said quickly. “I didn’t even consider it, not really.”

Alice stepped on his foot, looking up at him, annoyed. She must have hated not being in on the secret just as much as I did.

“If Bella were actually there in the clearing, it would drive them insane,” he explained to her. “They wouldn’t be able to concentrate on anything but her. It would make picking them off truly easy…”

The combined glare of Edward and I had Jasper backtracking. “Of course it’s too dangerous for her. It was just an errant thought,” he said quickly, but I thought I caught his eyes glancing over to Bella wistfully.

“No,” I said. My voice rang with finality, and a subtle edge I had only heard once before – when Sam had suggested the same thing.

“You’re right,” Jasper said. He took Alice’s hand and stared back to the others. “Best two out of three?” I heard him ask her as they went to practice again.

I stared after him in disgust.

“Jasper looks at things from a military perspective,” Edward quietly defended his brother. “He looks at all the options – it’s thoroughness, not callousness.”

I snorted. I’d heard that before.

I had edged closer unconsciously, drawn in by my absorption in the planning. We stood only three feet from Edward now, and there was a physical tension in the air. Like static, an uncomfortable charge generated by the friction between us.

Edward, sensing my discomfort, got back to business. “Bring her here Friday afternoon to lay the false trail. I’ll meet you. Then you can carry her to a place I know, in the east, on the mountain. Completely out of the way, and easily defensible, not that it will come to that. I’ll take another route there.”

“And then what? Leave her with a cell phone?” I asked critically.

“You have a better idea?”

I grinned, smug. “Actually, I do.”

“Oh… Again, dog, not bad at all.”

I turned back to Bella to explain. “We tried to talk Seth into staying behind with the other boys. He’s still too young, but he’s stubborn, and he’s resisting. So I thought of a new assignment for him – cell phone.”

Bella stared up at me, eyebrows raised dubiously.

“As long as Seth is in his wolf form, he’ll be connected to the pack,” I reminded her.

“Distance isn’t a problem?” Edward interjected.

“Nope.”

“Three hundred miles?” Edward asked. “That’s impressive.”

“That’s the farthest we’re ever gone to experiment,” I explained again. This guy was not very considerate of those who couldn’t read minds. “Still clear as a bell.”

Bella nodded absently, eyes distant and thoughtful.

“It’s a good idea,” Edward admitted reluctantly. “I’ll feel better with Seth there, even without the instantaneous communication. I don’t know if I’d be able to leave Bella there alone. To think it’s come to this, though! Trusting werewolves!” His tone was mocking.

My nose wrinkled up in disgust. “Fighting with vampires instead of against them!”

“Well, you still get to fight against some of them,” Edward said.

I smiled, showing my teeth. “That’s why we’re here.”

Chapter Text

XXXIV

I carried Bella back to Charlie’s house in my arms, expecting her to fall asleep on the way there. For once, she didn’t surprise me. I crept in through the front door and carried her up the stairs, dumping her on the bed unceremoniously before flopping down next to her, too exhausted to move.

My body was crooked next to hers, trying to keep as much of myself on the bed as possible, but even with my head pushing against the wall, my ankles dangled off the end of the bed. I bent my elbow so my hand rested between our faces, feeling her warm breath brush my knuckles every time she breathed out. Charlie wouldn’t be happy if he caught us together, but she was fully dressed, and I was careful to stay on top of the blankets. He couldn’t get too angry if it was obvious we hadn’t been doing anything fun.

I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow. At first, my dreams were a blur of colors and the smell of Bella’s hair, but then they became darker, the shadows growing. Out of nowhere, Edward was there, with sharp fangs dripping blood. He was holding Bella, who stared up at him with horrified eyes, a mortal terror freezing up her body. As his mouth bent down to her neck, I lurched forward, sitting up in bed so suddenly that my vision went dark for a moment with the head rush.

It was still early; rosy-fingered dawn was just breaking above the mountains, and I could smell a pot of coffee brewing downstairs. Charlie’s shuffling footsteps groaned on the creaky floor in the kitchen, and he grunted before scratching a chair against the tiles and plopping into it.

I groaned softly, flinging my feet down to the floor with my head in my hands. I wondered idly if I would ever get a full night’s sleep. With a sigh, I stood up and grabbed a pad of paper from the desk adjacent to the bed.

Bella, I scrawled.

Had to leave before Charlie caught us. Not because I’m scared, but because I love you, and I knew you’d be embarrassed. I’ll see you tonight for dinner, after patrol, if you’ll make me a plate.

Forever yours,

Jake

I turned to leave it on her pillow. She was sprawled out on the bed, her hair a halo of brown tangles around her. She looked peaceful, serene, all the lines of worry smoothed out. For a second I wondered if I should stay and hide in the closet if Charlie came up to check on her, then thought better of it. Sam would be wondering where I was, if he didn’t already know. And Emily might have pancakes.

My stomach rumbled at the thought. With a quick kiss to Bella’s temple, I left the note next to her face and slipped through the window, landing on the ground with hardly a thud.

I smelled Edward before I saw him, reminding me of the dream that had pulled me out of sleep. I shifted quickly and ignored him skulking in the woods behind the house, hoping to get out of range as soon as possible.

Had a nice night? Quil asked immediately, raising his eyebrows as he appeared on my right.

Nothing you’d be interested in, I grumbled, still not fully awake.

The leech is still there, Embry noted, materializing on my left. He’s been there since the meeting at the clearing.

We have bigger things to worry about, Sam chided.

He’d sent Paul, Jared, and the boys home to sleep, though Seth was being stubborn and insisted on running with his sister. She pretended to be annoyed, but she secretly enjoyed having her brother nearby to confirm his safety.

We were all on edge. Sam had gone back to check on Emily – sleeping, as most people were at five in the morning – and the others had tense, stiff muscles. The accumulation of leeches on our border was messing with all of our heads.

You already made plans to hide Bella? Leah asked, though it sounded more like an accusation. Why wasn’t I consulted?

I pushed my legs harder against the well-worn path snaking through the forest, propelling myself faster along the patrol route and quickly overtaking the others. Leah responded in kind, accepting my challenge.

We can’t keep her on the rez, she’s been back and forth too much, apparently. I rolled my eyes as Leah caught up. But she’s got tickets to a concert on Saturday. She’s gonna give those to Emily and Kim, to get them out of town.

Sam nodded, pleased. That’s good, he thought. Where does Charlie think Bella will be?

I paused for half a second, slowing down enough to let Leah get ahead by a hair.

I hadn’t thought about that, I admitted, straining to reclaim my lead.

He’s already suspicious after what happened at his house, Sam reminded. We’ll have to think of an explanation for why she’s gone.

I’ve got it! Leah exclaimed, hopping over a fallen log and landing deftly back onto the earth. Tell him she’s going with Emily and Kim to this concert out of town, and they want to go shopping in the city, or something. She can spend the night at my house, and then the next day you can go and lay the trail for the bloodsuckers. Then you can keep her up in the mountains the night before the battle.

Not bad, Sam said appraisingly. You’d be okay with her sleeping over?

As long as Jake doesn’t do what he’s planning, Leah snapped.

What? I asked defensively, knowing exactly what she meant. As soon as she suggested Bella sleeping over at La Push, I had already started to work out a way for her to sleep over with me.

You’re not invited, Leah growled. It’s a girls’ night.

Are you inviting Kim? Seth wondered, his feet falling heavy on the ground about fifty yards behind the pack, held back by exhaustion.

Go home, Seth, Leah nagged for the eighth time that hour.

Make me, he growled back, tired and hungry and irritated. I felt bad for the kid, who was unwaveringly compelled to protect his family from anymore tragedies.

That’s a good idea, Sam interjected. Kim and Emily can go, too. She misses you, Leah.

She growled. Reconnecting with her cousin hadn’t been part of the plan.

They’re going to be in Seattle, right?

Someone ought to listen to the concert… I thought, fantasizing about what plans she might have had to thank me…

Ugh! Leah spat in disgust. That’s all you guys think about.

You’re just mad ‘cause you’re not getting any, Quil quipped.

Neither are you, dumbass, Leah reminded him.

They only need to be gone the day of the battle, Sam insisted. I’d rather not let her out of my sight until absolutely necessary. I’m sure Jared feels the same.

I guess, Leah agreed reluctantly. But we’re not doing nails. And none of you perverts get to come.

We’ll be patrolling that night, Sam said sternly, catching the tenor of Embry and Quil’s thoughts. They were fantasizing about what happened at girls’ slumber parties – something I was curious about, too.

You girls can stay at our place, since it’s bigger, Sam said.

Leah involuntarily recoiled at the word ‘our,’ but we all ignored it.

Fine, she muttered, regretting her idea more and more.

What about tonight? Seth asked eagerly. When are we going?

I don’t think it’s safe for all of us to go, Sam responded. We need some of us here in case the red-head changes her mind. The psychic leech could be lying, too, he added. Although her predictions are better than nothing.

I’ll go with Bella, I volunteered quickly, grabbing at the chance to spend the night with her again.

You two can’t go by yourselves, Sam said. You won’t focus if she’s there. Embry and Quil can go with you.

Okay, I agreed, still excited. Embry and Quil were my usual wingmen; I knew they wouldn’t cramp my style.

You wish, Embry howled, and Quil joined him.

So, when do we have to tell Charlie? Leah asked.

Later, when he gets home from work, Sam replied, distracted by his own hungers. Let’s go back and tell Emily, and she can call to invite Bella over. He was already veering off the trail. Get your story straight before going to Charlie’s, he told Leah.

I’ll go with her, I offered.

Absolutely not, Leah growled, offended. If you’re there, you’ll give it away. It’s supposed to be a girls’ night, after all.

I told her I’d be back after patrol, I whined.

Then run around her house while I go in.

Fine, I barked. But I’ll be listening.

Emily’s house still had the familiar cracked white-and blue teapot – now full of birch branch sprigs holding tiny pink buds – and the smell of blueberry muffins, but it felt dimmer, like the heavy fog outside filtered in through the window and masked the overhead light. Emily had always kept her house tidy, but now it was immaculate – too clean, too organized. She had been going crazy over the last couple days, wiping and re-wiping counters and excessively scraping at the frying pan. Her anxiety was palpable in the air; but when Sam walked in, her face melted with relief, and her arms opened up to embrace him with tightly clenched fists.

The entire pack had made their way to Emily’s. Seth joined Brady and Collin on the couch in the attached living room, picked up the bowl sitting there waiting for him, and joined his friends in slurping up cereal like vacuums. Embry joined Paul and Jared at the table, betting on which one of the boys would finish first. Quil was busy scarfing down his own plate of scrambled eggs, but he slammed a five down on the table and pointed at Seth without even looking up. Leah sat across from them with her legs up on the counter, eyes closed, breath coming in and out evenly. She could fall asleep anywhere, doing anything. Emily was at the stove, pushing more eggs around a pan, with Sam at her side.

I kicked Leah’s chair on my way to grab a plate, waking her up with a start.

“What the hell?” She shouted indignantly.

“Thanks for foiling my evil plan,” I grumbled. “I was gonna invite her to my house for a sleepover.”

She snorted, standing up with her empty plate, and turned towards the sink.

“Oh, let me get that for you, Leah.”

Emily had already taken Leah’s plate from her hands and was running some water over it in the sink.

Leah huffed, watching her cousin. Emily had been going above and beyond lately to make things up to her, always following her around, anticipating her every need. Leah, for her part, had been less outright hostile, holding her tongue in places she would have lashed out before. But Emily was worried, and in need of a sister, someone to talk to. Kim was just a girl, and Bella was clinically insane.

“Did Sam tell you about the plan for Thursday night?” Leah asked tentatively, taking a step towards the sink.

The clamor of the kitchen stuttered to a halt. Seth had just knocked back half a bag of Cheerios at a dizzying pace, and the others had been cheering on the underdogs – Brady and Collin – who were chewing through Kix like they had a vendetta against the little balls of flour. But now they had all paused to stare at the girls, feeling the change in atmosphere.

“No,” Emily gushed, looking over at Sam and then back at Leah, a bright smile on half of her face.

“They’re going to have Bella lead a false trail to the clearing, to lead the bloodsuckers in, and then they have to hide her somewhere in the mountains.”

“What does that have to do with Thursday?”

“Well, Bella’s going to need to stay the night. You see, she had these tickets to a concert in Seattle, and Jake says she was going to give them to you guys anyway, so to avoid making Charlie suspicious, we’re going to tell him you, Bella, Kim, and I are going to the city early to do some shopping, or something, and then go to the concert. But we know you don’t want to leave Sam that early,” Leah said hurriedly, as if the words hurt to say, “so we figured she could stay here that night, and make it a…” she trailed off, gulping.

“Girls’ night.” Leah finished, grimacing.

“Does Charlie know?” Emily asked quickly, ignoring our looks of surprise.

The world kept turning, even after Leah said, “girls’ night,” out loud, and soon Quil was excitedly claiming that Jared and Paul each owed him five bucks, and Sam picked up washing the plate where Emily left off, allowing the cousins to talk. I downed my plate in five seconds flat, then rose to hand the plate to Sam, who was still listening intently to their conversation.

“I need to call Bella first, I think,” Leah said. “And you should probably tell Kim.”

“I can do that!” Jared volunteered. “I’ll head over there now,”

“It’s six in the morning on a Wednesday,” Leah said, throwing the words over her shoulder. “Are you sure Kim’s mom will let you inside?”

Jared smiled, and a memory of him sneaking into her room the other night danced behind his eyes, as vivid in my own mind as if I had been there.

“I can be sneaky,” he sneered.

“Gross,” Leah muttered.

“I’ll call her,” Emily said sternly. “And then you can call Bella. She must be exhausted!” Emily exclaimed, drying her hands on a towel hanging from the oven door, her weary eyes downcast.

“We could all use some sleep,” Sam announced, and the room fell silent once again. “We’ve done well tonight, guys,” he allowed, nodding.

The group dispersed as quickly as we had appeared. We knew Sam, and how to interpret his way of saying, “Get out of my house or so help me.”

As much as we loved Emily’s place – her kitchen was practically a holy shrine in the younger boys’ minds – there were boundaries we didn’t cross. Personal space while we were human was cherished; those days, it was mostly because we had life to attend to, and family to make sure were still alive. I took a couple muffins for the road, jogging over to Billy’s place.

The air was different today; damper, heavier. Rain drops pinched the skin on my shoulders with how hard they fell to the ground, bouncing in puddles on the edge of the gravel roads, ricocheting off roofs and colliding into muddy driveways. When I got home, to the faded-red, rain-washed little house, I wasn’t surprised to see Billy peering out the white lace curtain of the front window.

“Hey, Dad,” I said, throwing him a muffin as I plopped on the couch.

“How’d it go?” He asked, skipping the pleasantries.

I leaned forward; elbows bent on my knees. I told him everything, besides the fact that Bella had come with me. He didn’t necessarily need to know that Bella was there, and he already had to hide enough from Charlie. His grave eyes absorbed my story like he was committing it to memory.

“Do you think it will work?” He asked once I was finished.

I sat back, resting one of my hands on my stomach and letting the air blow out of my lungs.

“It might. I don’t trust the mind-reader, though, but Bella seems to like the psychic. I think we can trust her, but I don’t know about him,” I spat.

“Have you spoken to him alone?”

I hesitated.

“Once,” I admitted. “Sort of. He read my mind and responded.”

“What did he say?”

I ran my hand down my face. “I don’t remember,” I lied.

“Like hell you don’t!” He scoffed. “Something he said could be important to future generations, Jacob. Think of the tribe.”

“I’m not a warrior in a story,” I growled, clenching my fists. “I’m a person. I’m your son. Isn’t going through it bad enough? Why do I have to hash it all out to you?”

“Jacob,” he said, in that old, oh-so-familiar way. I almost groaned.

“I’m really not in the mood for a lecture, Dad,” I said, standing up and making it to the hallway in two steps. “I need to sleep. We can talk more later.”

In truth, I wanted to ignore Edward Cullen’s entire existence. But I couldn’t. When I slept, he was there, smiling broadly and sinking his teeth into Bella, lifeless and pale in his hands. The hand with her scar kept twitching, like she was still trying to fight, stubborn as she was.

Once I’d tossed and turned my way through the day, and the foggy light of day turned into a dark blue hue upon the twilight dew, I shifted and raced along the boundary line, not gaining any comfort from the action.

A battle was brewing, and I was waiting impatiently for the damn fight to start.

Finally, Leah shifted, and we raced to Charlie’s house.

I don’t see why you need to be here, she muttered as we ran.

I’m coming over after, I assured her, thinking of my note.

I hovered in the trees while she put on a gray tank-top and cut-off jean shorts, listening for my cue to cut in.

“Hey, Bella,” Leah greeted, her stern face cracking a smile. “Is Charlie home?”

“Yes,” Bella replied smoothly, like she had rehearsed her lines. “Come on in, do you need something?”

“Well,” Leah began, strutting inside confidently, “I wanted to thank you for helping me pass Algebra Two, so I got us all tickets to that concert in Seattle, you know, the one with the…” Leah faltered, trying to think of the band name, which no one had thought to tell her.

“Oh, Peach Pit?” Bella supplied, her voice a little higher than usual.

“Yes! Peach Pit,” Leah recovered. “And we were going to make it a girl’s trip – you know, shopping, sightseeing, then the concert. Oh, hey, Chief Swan,” Leah added innocently.

I rolled my eyes.

“Hey, Leah,” Charlie said cheerily. “Call me Charlie. It’s been too long, kid.” I heard him clap her on the shoulder.

“It has,” Leah agreed. “Is it alright with you if we go to Seattle?” She inquired subtly.

“Who else is going?” He asked, though I could tell he’d checked out as soon as he heard “girl’s trip.”

“Kim will be there – you met her at the funeral, I think – and Emily, too.”

“Oh, that sounds fun, Bella!” He said brightly.

“Yeah,” Bella said. “When are we leaving?”

“Tomorrow night – that way we have the whole next day in the city. The concert’s going to end late, so we’ll be back sometime Saturday afternoon.” Leah explained, all for Charlie’s sake.

“Cool,” Bella replied awkwardly. “I can’t wait!” She added enthusiastically.

Leah was invited to dinner but politely declined, saying she was just in Forks to run some errands for her mom, and Charlie eagerly offered his help with anything that needed doing around the house. When she left, scowling, I went inside for dinner.

Charlie wasn’t surprised to see me. “Hey, Jake,” he said. “Haven’t you got food at your own house?”

“Not as good as Bells makes,” I replied, throwing my arm around her shoulders and planting a wet kiss on her forehead.

She blushed crimson. “Maybe I didn’t make enough for you this time,” she said. “You’ve put a serious dent in the grocery budget, Jake.”

I grinned from ear to ear, unrepentant. “My bad,” I chuckled.

Later that night, Charlie called Emily in the other room, affirming that there was indeed a trip to Seattle and she would be going with the young, impressionable girls – though Emily was only twenty herself. I wondered why she was treated like one of the adults when she couldn’t even legally drink. Was it her unofficial place on the council, as Sam’s imprint? Was it her scars? Did Charlie give her some credit for being mauled by a “bear,” and surviving? Whatever the reason, he trusted Emily implicitly, and afterwards paid strict attention to the baseball game while I helped Bella with the dishes.

Bella rode on my back more easily than the night before. Embry, Quil, and I stationed ourselves around the edge of the practice ring, spaced far apart to watch from different angles. Bella sat next to me, her back up against a tree. It was a brighter night than the one before, the moon shining through the thin clouds, illuminating the field and elongating the shadows of the trees.

I was starting to recognize the different vampires and attach names to their unnaturally beautiful faces. Jasper and Emmett were already wrestling when we got there – just warming up from the sounds of their laughter. Alice and Rosalie lounged on the hard ground, watching. Edward still hadn’t appeared, which was fine by me. Esme and Carlisle were talking a few yards away, heads close together, fingers linked, not paying attention. It seemed like an intimate moment, and I didn’t want to pry, but from what I could hear of their hushed conversation they were praying. It didn’t make any sense to me, for vampires to be talking to God – but then again, these creatures didn’t act like normal bloodsuckers.

Maybe they got lobotomized, Embry theorized. Or neutered. You know, like how male dogs calm down when you cut off their balls?

Please don’t talk about neutering dogs, Quil begged. It makes me paranoid.

Embry sat patiently on my left, watching the Cullens with a scientific eye. Quil twitched constantly, dying to join in the mock fight. Bella’s heart was hammering in her chest as she watched Emmett and Jasper. They shot at each other, faster than cobra strikes, while the moonlight glinted off their granite-hard skin.

I caught her eyes and smiled the same wolfy grin as the night before, my eyes scrunching the way they did when I was human. Bella tried to smile back, but the slant of her mouth and her furrowed eyebrows didn’t fit together. She swallowed hard.

Edward appeared at the edge of the clearing, closer to us than he was to his family. I ignored him and put my head down to Bella’s level, cocking it to one side. A low whimper escaped my muzzle, trying to ask her what was wrong.

“Just worried, you know,” she said, sighing and looking down at her lap.

Suddenly, Edward was with us. I stood up instinctually when he approached. I noticed him before he spoke, but Bella looked up at the sound of his voice, eyes wide with surprise, and stood up with me.

“He wants to know why,” Edward murmured.

I growled – not threatening, just annoyed – and Edward’s lips twitched.

“What?” Bella asked, looking between us.

“He thinks my translations leave something to be desired. What he actually thought was, ‘That’s really stupid. What is there to be worried about?’ I edited, because I thought it was rude.”

Bella halfway smiled, her heart still racing anxiously.

“There’s plenty to be worried about,” she told me. “Like a bunch of really stupid wolves getting themselves hurt.”

I laughed, a coughing bark in this body.

Edward sighed. “Jasper wants help. You’ll be okay without a translator?”

We get on just fine without you, I growled.

“I’ll manage,” Bella said.

Edward glanced wistfully at her for a second, his expression hard to understand, then turned his back and strode over to where Jasper waited.

Bella sat back down on the cold ground. I leaned my head to the side for a moment, watching Edward’s back with suspicion. Then I folded myself back on to the ground with a rumbling sigh, resting my head down on my paws.

I glanced up at the bright silver clouds, wondering what the bloodsuckers plan was with Bella. Did he think getting rid of the newborn army could fix all the pain he’d caused her? Did he think it would make her come back to him? Was that his plan all along?

Would she go back to him? If he got on his knees and begged, I couldn’t imagine Bella being able to say no, not with the way leeches were able to lure and seduce their prey. It would be only too easy for him to have her under the same spell he’d put on her before. I whined, turning my head over to look at her with one eye, trying to figure out what she was thinking.

A breeze blew through the clearing, and Bella shivered. I scooted myself closer to her, pressing my fur against her left side.

“Thanks,” she sighed, leaning against my wide shoulder.

I settled into the ground, feeling less paranoid now that I could feel her pressed up against me. The clouds marched slowly across the sky, dimming and brightening as thick patches crossed the moon and passed on. Absently, Bella began pulling her fingers through the fur on my neck. I hummed in contentment, the sound rumbling in my throat.

“You know, I never had a dog,” she mused. “I always wanted one, but Renée’s allergic.”

I laughed, my body shaking beneath her.

“Aren’t you worried about Saturday at all?” She asked.

I turned my head towards her so she could see one of my eyes roll.

“I wish I could feel that positive.”

I leaned my head against her leg and started humming again. Bella’s heart slowed, and her hands stopped shaking in my fur. We settled into each other, leaning on one another for support.

“So, we’ve got some hiking to do soon, I guess,” she said sleepily, a yawn breaking free of her mouth.

I rumbled enthusiastically, though I was more excited about being alone with her in a tent overnight.

“It might be a long hike,” she warned. “I don’t think Edward judges distances the way a normal human does.”

I barked another laugh. I’m not a normal human, I thought.

She settled deeper into my fur, resting her head against my neck.

I hadn’t expected to feel this way with her as a wolf, let alone while watching a coven of vampires try to rip each other’s throats out. But here we were, the same as always, with our effortless relationship that was as natural as breathing in and out. I had thought that being a wolf would have taken it away.

I watched the vampires continue practicing in the clearing, while Bella stared at the hazy moon with far-off eyes.

Chapter Text

XXXV: Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle early reactions

The next day met us with a sense of anticipation; the clouds boiled overhead, thick and dark, but didn’t release anything besides a periodic drizzle. The air buzzed with the electricity of a coming thunderstorm and hung heavy with humidity, but the floodgates held. All day while running patrol the pack was jumping at little noises, eyes searching for the cause of our unease, but found nothing out of the ordinary.

According to Sam, I was not allowed to pick up Bella from Charlie’s house for the sleepover, as that would “make him suspicious.” I was dying to see Bella; to hold her, to press my lips to her ear, to smell her hair and know she was safe. But Sam could tell how on edge I was. The slightest nudge either way might set me off, sending me bursting into a wolf at the drop of a hat. My insistent paranoia was intermingling with my growing anger towards the Cullens, particularly Edward. It’s not that I doubted Bella’s love for me, but I was pathetically unable to ask her the question continually on my mind; does she love him, too?  

I wasn’t sure I could handle her answer.

So I spent my waking hours as a wolf, and when Emily’s sputtering VW Bug came chugging down the highway, I ran along beside them, keeping up easily. When they pulled into Emily’s driveway, all four girls poured out of the car – Leah practically had to unfold herself to get out of the tiny passenger seat – and started inside.

I shifted quicker than I ever had, running up on the side of the house silently, and pulled my shorts on just around the corner from the door, hidden by the great, wild, vine-like growth of morning glories hanging from the eave. I waited until Emily, Kim, and Leah had all filtered through the door, then hooked my arm around Bella’s waist.

“Bells!” I hissed, pulling us up against the side of the house.

It took her eyes a moment to adjust to the low light, but finally, she exclaimed, “Jake!”

Suddenly, as my arms wrapped around her waist, and her hands found my face, the friction of the day faded away. The clouds were still circling overhead, dark and menacing, and the wind continued to taste like steam – hell, a vampire army was still coming for us in less than forty-eight hours – but it was always good to see Bella. Her face was pale, but warm and rosy in the moonlight, with great blotches of color blooming on her cheeks, parting the fog in their sincere clarity.

Her brown eyes met mine as she smiled from ear to ear, lighting up her face, and her hair swung out behind when I picked her off her feet and spun us around in a celebratory circle, our foreheads pressed together. When I settled my back against the bare wooden siding of Emily’s house, knees bent to be closer to her height, she wrapped her arms around my neck. I ran my nose against her jaw, searching, and she met my expectant lips with enthusiasm.

I no longer cared who Edward Cullen was; I didn’t even remember his name.

“Hey, where’s Bella?”

“I thought she was behind Leah –”

The voices inside broke through our bubble, and Bella pulled away, red from the tip of her ears to the end of her nose. I chuckled, brushing a chunk of hair behind her ear.

“It’s good to see you,” I said, stating the obvious.

“You too,” she whispered, still panting.

“Do you think they’ll freak out if I kidnap you tonight?” I whispered, pointing my thumb behind me.

“Hmm,” she pretended to think about it. “I can’t see why that would be concerning, no.”

“Good,” I laughed, running my hands along her torso, stopping at her hips. “’Cause I still wanna hear about what plans you had to thank me for the bracelet,” I murmured, listening to her heart beat excitedly in her chest.

“It’s not much of a surprise now,” she sighed theatrically, glancing at the charm on her wrist. “You wouldn’t have liked it anyway.”

“No, I think I would,” I assured her, fingers tightening on her waist.

She wrapped her arms around my neck, biting her bottom lip.

“But I might want to try it later,” she hedged.

“The suspense is killing me,” I groaned.

“I guess you’ll just have to wait and see,” she giggled.

“You’re a stubborn little monster,” I joked, picking her up and throwing her over my shoulder.

“Jake!” She squealed, laughing.

“I should surrender you back to the girls for the night, if you’re gonna be like that,” I teased quietly, but I should have known Leah could hear our whole conversation.

“Yes!” Leah exclaimed, poking her head out the door. “You should.”

“Oh no,” I pretended to quiver. “I’m so scared, Leah. What are you gonna do? Out-run me? Ha!” I laughed.

“You wouldn’t last a minute,” she replied.

“Jake, put me down!”

“That’s not how kidnapping works, honey.”

“I thought you were giving me back?”

“Never,” I promised. “Bye, Leah!”

“Jacob! Don’t you dare!”

At this point, a series of events unfolded which I am not at liberty to discuss due to pending disagreements. However, once it was debated at nauseating length over the course of many late-night dinner parties, I was granted permission to list a series of my own talking points in the aftermath. First off, Leah was far too silent for her own good and we needed to get her a damn bell. Secondly, had I been expecting her to attack, I wouldn’t have turned my back, but this was a surprise, which should not be allowed in a fair fight, and if I had been facing her it would have been a whole different story. Third, and most importantly, why was I on trial for getting my sorry-ass kicked by a girl?

Leah dragged Bella in from outside and threw me off of Emily’s front porch.

“Consider this a warning for the others,” she growled, nostrils flaring. “Goodbye,” she said curtly, slamming the door in my face.

I left Emily’s house, scowling when I heard them all giggle as I stalked back to the forest. 

The night was just more of the same stomach-churning anticipation, and though we were all on edge, Quil and Embry were taking bets on who would kill the most leeches tomorrow. 

I say Jake, Seth said loyally. 

Ten on me, Quil bet, thinking that if he lost he could afford it as long as he won the bet between him and Embry over how long Leah could stand the “estrogen convention.”

Eventually, most of us settled in the forest, stationed on the border of La Push. We were all so tired that our eyes closed of their own accord. I couldn’t say how long we slept - it felt more like a blink. 

Then Leah shifted, and her fiery thoughts crashed into us like a burning tidal wave of fury, knocking all our own sleepy thoughts out of the way and putting all of hers front and center; because boy, did she have a story to tell.

 

 

“Forgive and forget. If you can’t forgive, then just forget it.”

The words echoed in my head, rattling between my ears like a gong.

This was Harry Clearwater’s go-to phrase when his kids were pummeling each other with couch cushions, or getting into loud arguments through the bathroom door, or battling each other with saucepans on their heads for armor and wooden spoons in their hands for swords.

Leah had been seriously considering forgiveness.

Forgetting, in the end, was impossible, though the easier of the two. How could she? Sam was in her head and she was in his. She knew every kiss, every touch, every word that passed between Sam and Emily. She had tried ignoring it, and looking away, then finally stuffing fingers in her ears and singing loudly.

But it was no use; it would have been hard enough under normal circumstances for her to forget about the first great love of her life, which swept away all other worries or cares and in its passion carved out a part of her she believed would always belong to Sam. Even with ideal conditions, heartbreak rips and pulls parts of ourselves away, leaving in its place a fibrous tissue, hard and spongy, so the organ never quite works in the same way again.

Life goes on, sure; but Leah felt like her heart had been torn so many times it no longer had a pulse. She didn’t have the strength to hold onto her anger and frustration any longer.

The idea had been knocking around her head for a while. Emily put it there, originally, when she tried to talk to Leah the first time after she shifted; but Leah scorned it, almost laughingly. The most she could ask of herself was forgetting. Forgiveness meant talking about feelings. She had other things to worry about – better, more important things than something so small and insignificant as emotions when there was an invisible war brewing between the leeches and the wolves.

But her chest felt like there was a hundred-ton anvil sitting on it.

If she examined the feeling at length – which she avoided – it was no longer anger. It was a deep sadness, festering and growing like mold on her ribcage, making every breath heavy and labored, until she felt light-headed and dizzy.

Leah loved her cousin; it wasn’t something she could avoid anymore. The pack mind was heavily biased towards her, and being in our heads was bound to rub off eventually. Before Sam, Leah had been close with Emily, but it was superficial compared to the way she adored her now. As much as she tried not to, she saw how hard the busy little woman worked for her family, how open and overflowing with love she was, despite her scarred face.

Emily came in with a big plate of brownies and a deck of cards. The girls were playing Go Fish, but Leah kept losing, distracted by her inner turmoil.

How does she do it? Leah wondered, realizing that she had heaped her own mess of troubles onto her cousin, too. Their family was fragmented and grief-stricken, and it didn’t need Leah’s added venom on top of it.

But if Leah loved her – truly, and unconditionally, the way Emily loved all of her adopted kids, the way she deserved to be loved – then Leah would have to kill Sam Uley.

What he had done was unforgivable.

She would never forgive Sam, not if she lived a million different lifetimes on a million different planets. What he had done was unacceptable. Hideous, repulsive, toxic. If she didn’t know that he felt the same way about himself she would have tracked him down and killed him as soon as she forgave Emily.

She could only ask so much of her forgiveness. Maybe one day she could be able to forget, but she would never forgive Sam for what he did. The only thing holding her back from killing him now was knowing that he would have killed himself, too, if Emily didn’t want him alive for some unfathomable reason.

In Leah’s mind, forgiving Emily meant taking on all the burdens that come with love – to Leah, love was nothing more than a burden. It held us suspended in hope until it left us ragged, torn up, and bruised.

Loving Bella felt like enough of a burden. 

Leah grudgingly loved Bella in the way a mother might admit to love a child who was sickly more than her other kids. She prized Bella for her quick wit and impulsive nature and respected how daring she was, specifically because Bella was so small and breakable. And she liked how abundantly Bella felt. She thought the reason Bella couldn’t lie was because she felt things so deeply, and so thoroughly, that her whole body became full of the emotion all at once. But Bella was also delicate, too soft for Leah’s thorns, so she admired from afar while silently wishing she could allow herself to be friends with the insane human girl.

Leah silenced her thoughts with a healthy dose of Emily’s special brownies, with a surprise ingredient later revealed to be a very potent cannabis strain. She assured herself that the rest of the pack were so tightly wrapped around Emily’s finger that we would help her kill Sam if he ever went too far again. 

Kick his ass, baby, Paul thought sleepily at that point in the memory, his own thoughts taking on a dream-like quality.

So Leah’s mouth stayed shut – for a little while. Whenever Emily spoke, Leah tried really, really, hard not to grab her cousin by the shoulders and start shaking.

It didn’t come to that, fortunately. Kim was a babbler. A chatty-Cathy, Leah thought. She kept a steady stream of conversation and did not stop talking unless her mouth was full. Leah tuned her out after a while, the way you would a radio, but then a fragment of the girl’s conversation caught her attention.

“You gotta try this swirly thing,” Kim enthused. “It’s where you take his dick and –”

This also happened to be around the time they found out the brownies had weed in them. 

Leah – who had consumed eight in total – found herself becoming loose, like the worn-out elastic of a comfortable pair of sweatpants. Her inhibitions seemed to have left the room for a moment, so while they weren’t looking, she stood up boldly and theatrically, waving slightly on her feet. 

“Do not,” Leah growled, sounding more animal than human. “I repeat, do not talk about those boys' dicks when I am in the room.”

Bella looked relieved, but Kim snickered. 

“Sounds like you need to get laid,” she joked. 

Leah was stunned. It seemed everyone’s inhibitions had gone to another sleepover at a different house and left them without the usual polite barrier of social conditioning. And her vision was slanted - or was she just standing crooked? Leah realized her head was tilted completely to the side, and she quickly adjusted, then blinked a few times to get rid of the blind spots in her vision.

For a moment, Leah was disappointed in the girls. She heard our thoughts, so she already knew we were pigs sometimes, but she had hoped the girls might be less vulgar than their male counterparts. 

For a split second, there was a moment in her memories where Leah considered she should date girls instead, but by the time we all heard it, she was so mortified that we all politely agreed to tease her about it some other time.

Leah sat back down, and Emily folded her cards slowly, smiling to herself. 

“Girls, while we are all together” – her eyes darted to Leah for a moment – “I should pass onto you what I’ve learned. I’ve been doing some digging into the old legends,” Emily explained, leaning forward with her elbows up on the table. “And I think you should know.” 

The circle was no longer a group of girls gathered for a night of fun; this was an impromptu council meeting with the chief’s future wife. The atmosphere became dense, like a wall of thick, billowy fog had fallen over them, a barrier between the world of magic and reality. 

“Back before they were wolves, when the Quileutes were spirit warriors, they also had imprinting, but they called it something else. I don’t know the word, and neither do the translators, so it’s probably very ancient. The women in all of Old Quil’s stories were women who loved their warriors, who manned the ships while the spirits protected their shores against invaders, and shaped their sons into good men so they would become good warriors. They passed down the wisdom of the tribe from generation to generation as part of bearing their own burden, along with their warriors.” 

The circle was silent for a moment, all three of the human girls looking at each other with meaning, while Leah leaned back and picked at her nails. 

“So, basically,” she drawled, feeling like more of an outcast than the albino. “It’s your job to know the stories… and tell them for future generations… so the knowledge isn’t lost?” Leah asked slowly, her muddled thoughts not understanding Emily’s coherent speech. 

“Yes,” Emily replied patiently.

“What stories?” Bella asked. 

“Bayak and Akil!” Kim exclaimed.

She had a blanket wrapped around her shoulders, and she flapped her arms to demonstrate how it gave her wings. It reminded Leah of a happier time, when she was small and yet unknown to the world of werewolves and vampires, with family who told nice, familiar legends with a moral at the end to wrap it all up with a bow.

“By-yuhk and Ah-kil?” Bella asked, sounding out the names. 

“Yes!” Emily exclaimed. “The story of Raven and Bear - how Raven got his black, curled up feet. The raven is called Bayak and the bear’s name is Akil, in Quileute.” 

Kim remembered the stories, too, and was eager to show off her acting skills, so she took up the role of the Raven by perching herself on the far arm of the couch, while Leah wrapped herself in a brown, furry blanket, jumped up, and started lurching around like a bear. 

Emily laughed, then started to narrate the girls’ actions. 

“One time, Raven went to visit his old friend Akil, the bear,” Emily began.

Leah rose her chin in a very solemn, prideful way, and opened her arms out wide.

“Bear planned a nice feed for his guest, a real feast. He told Mrs. Bear to fix a big dish.” 

Leah shook her fist at Bella with her hand balled-up in the blanket to represent the bear’s paw. 

“Bear went upstairs to get a bunch of dried fish to prepare,” Emily said, and Leah picked up her knees and pretended to be walking up a set of challenging stairs, making Kim giggle. “For Bayak, the Raven. Raven watched him, every move he made.”

Kim was still perched on the side of the couch, grinning widely as Leah grabbed a pillow from the ground, pretending it was a fish. She sniffed it tentatively, then held her nose as if it smelled.

“Akil started beating the dried fish, softening it to put in front of Raven.”

Leah put the pillow back on the ground and started jumping on it, to the amusement of the other girls. 

“Bear went to get something. He came back with two sticks with prongs and a straight one.”

Leah went running into the kitchen. She came back with a large spaghetti pot. 

“And he drove the pronged sticks, he drove them straight into the ground, one on each side of the fire, and he put the straight stick across the pronged sticks.”

Leah plopped her prop under the other arm of the couch, and pretended to be setting up a spit over the spaghetti pot, as Kim continued to watch with interest. 

“Then Akil got his box, his chair. He sat down by the fire, put his feet up on the stick, and started roasting his feet by the fire.” 

Kim fluttered down to the floor as Leah slumped back onto the couch, letting her long legs stretch out fully, feet dangling over the spaghetti pot. 

“Raven was surprised! Bear was going to make oil for dipping the fish.”

Emily turned to Bella and quickly explained in a lower voice. “Much of the winter supply of food was dried fish and berries that had been harvested earlier in the summer. This food was dipped in fish or seal oil, called ‘grease,’ before eating. They cooked meals in steambent boxes made out of a cedar plank. They’d fill the box with water and food, add rocks to the fire, heat them up, and then drop them in the box. The water would boil immediately – instant stew!”

Then Emily turned back to Leah and Kim, who had seen their aunts perform this story for them when they were young, and knew their lines very well. “Akil asked Mrs. Bear…” 

“Is the oil coming down?” Leah asked, making her voice deep and low. 

“Oh, yes,” Emily called in a high-pitched tone, imitating Mrs. Bear. “It’s dripping like everything and the pan is half-full already!” 

“Ahh,” Leah sighed, smiling and rubbing her belly, eyes closed in contentment. “We’ll have a lot of oil for Raven to eat with his dried fish and even some to take home.” 

Emily’s voice returned to normal. “Bayak was there watching, amazed at what Akil was doing.” 

Kim rubbed her eyes in astonishment from where she sat on the floor, watching Leah’s feet hover over the spaghetti pot. 

“The reason Bear was getting grease off his feet was because Bear has so much fat in his body, and in his feet, and everything. That’s why he was putting his feet by the fire, so he could get the grease out of his feet. And they were dripping, dripping, dripping.” 

Leah craned her neck as if to check how much oil was in the pot. 

“Finally, Akil got done with roasting his feet for oil, and Mrs. Bear set the bowl in front of Bayak so he could start eating,” Emily said, picking up the pot and placing it next to Kim. 

“Old Raven, he started right in eating, using the oil to dip his dry fish in.” 

Kim grabbed a handful of popcorn, then used her other hand to pick out each popped kernel individually and dip it in the empty spaghetti pot before plopping it in her mouth. 

“And after Bayak got through, Old Bear told him –”

“You take this home to your wife,” Leah declared, slapping Kim between the shoulder blades. “So you can tell her how good Old Bear feeds you and everything.”

“Old Raven agreed. He said –”

“You bet! I’ll tell Mrs. Bayak everything I ate,” Kim exclaimed. 

“Then Bayak said to Akil –”

“I’m going to invite you to come down to my place. I got some dried fish, too.” 

“Old Bear says –”

“Sure, I’ll come.”

“So later Akil came down the river to visit Raven. Bayak got what little fish he had, just a few, and he told his wife to build a fire.” 

“We’re going to feed Mr. Bear,” Kim said to Emily, flapping her wings again. 

“Akil started watching Bayak, because he knows Old Raven,” Emily said with a mischievous smirk. “He knew Bayak was going to do the same thing he had done, to try and get oil for dipping the fish. He knew Bayak always tries to copy what others do.” 

“So Akil watched, and he watched.”

Leah stood back with her arms crossed, tapping a finger to her chin. 

“Pretty soon Raven put two pronged sticks and a straight one crosswise.”

Kim moved the pot back next to the arm of the couch. 

“Old Bear said to himself –”

“I’ll watch him, he’s sure going to do what I did,” Leah rumbled, taking her role very seriously, and making her voice even lower and deeper than before. 

“And sure enough, Bayak sat down, got a box and sat down, and put his feet on the crosspiece by the fire to start roasting them.” 

Kim laid down on the couch with her feet hanging over the edge, dangling just above the pot. 

“Soon he asked Mrs. Raven –”

“Lotsa oil coming down?” Kim squawked. 

“She said, ‘No-o-o-o, old man, there’s not a drop. Your feet are just getting blacker and blacker.’ So Bayak said –” 

“Put more fire on! Put more wood on the fire, so it’ll heat up my feet and the oil will start dripping,” Kim cawed. 

“So she put more wood on the fire. ‘No, no, there’s no oil coming at all,’ she told him.” 

Kim got up and started jumping around on her feet, like they were burned and sore.

“Ahhh-sh, hoh-hoh-hoh-hoh!” She cried, her face twitching in fake pain. 

“His feet began to curl up and dry up and crack and everything,” Emily laughed, clapping her hands together for Kim’s performance. “Mrs. Bayak said, ‘That’s what I told you, old man. You always try to copy what the others do. And it never works.” 

Emily sighed contentedly. “And that’s why today, Raven’s feet are curled and black.” 

“C’mon, Bella!” Kim giggled, grabbing Bella by the hand and pulling her up off the floor. “You can be Mrs. Raven this time.” 

So they told the old stories, and Bella joined in on the re-enactments, and they ended up falling into a big gaggle of laughter. It was very sisterly, but Embry and Quil disagreed, thinking there was potential for more interesting things to happen. Leah growled, but nothing could stop her memories from pouring over us like a flash flood.

The laughter died down, and the girls realized they were out of popcorn, so Kim followed Emily into the kitchen. The room was suddenly very silent. Leah didn’t like being able to hear her own thoughts, so she turned on the T.V. and started flipping through channels, finally settling on a mindless-sitcom with a familiar laugh track heard at regular intervals. 

Leah alternated her attention from the noise of the T.V. to the girls in the kitchen until she heard them laughing about “their boys,” and giggling over the sound of kernels popping. With a look of disgust, she turned to look at Bella.

Someone forgot to tell Bella there was weed in the brownies. I probably should have mentioned something, Leah thought vaguely, as she saw Bella going in for a third. She quickly pulled her back onto the couch, giving her one of the empty popcorn bowls. 

Bella requires a lot of supervision, she thought to herself. Leah was momentarily glad that I couldn’t read her mind at that moment, a common occurrence among the pack members which inevitably made that person focus on it in particular. Since appointing herself as Bella’s guardian wolf, she thought about me far more than she would have liked.

Bella stared down at the scar on her wrist and was very visibly turning something over in her mind. Leah noticed she did this often, even while sober. 

She wouldn’t usually have been brave enough to ask Bella about the Cullens, but since her worries had floated away, she no longer cared what came out of her mouth. Thankfully, it wasn’t rude. 

“Can I ask you a question? I promise I’m not trying to be a jerk, I’m really just curious.” 

“Sure, Leah. What is it?” 

“How did you… stand it?” Leah wondered. “Being around vampires so much.”

 “They’re people too, just like you and I.” 

“They’re dead. Or they should be,” Leah rolled her eyes and took an angry bite of a half-popped kernel on the bottom of the almost-empty bowl. 

“But they didn’t have any choice in it,” Bella argued. “No more than –”

“No more than us,” Leah finished for her. 

“Yeah.”

Leah didn’t like the comparison, because technically, the Cullens' proximity was what activated the wolf gene, but she could see where Bella was coming from. She couldn’t imagine someone signing up to be an undead bloodsucker for eternity. 

This was what Leah liked about Bella. She told you the truth even if your head was so far up your ass you had to squat to find it. It put things in perspective for her. She wondered if maybe it had all happened for a reason, then quickly shut that down. How cruel would fate have to be to have planned this?

Suddenly she asked, “Do you agree with the imprint?”

“I didn’t, at first,” Bella admitted. 

“But you do now?”

“It’s almost like it was there the whole time,” she sighed. “But I couldn’t see it at first, like I was distracted, you know? And well, the Cullens,” she choked a little on the name, “I sort of thought they were going to make me part of their family, and for a long time, I considered them part of mine. But they left, and you guys took me in.” Bella’s breathing became labored, and Leah thought she saw a tear fall down her cheek from the corner of her eye. 

Leah had a rule about staring at people while they cried. Too many people had stared at her after her father died – when all she’d wanted to do was weep uncontrollably – which she hated, and still made her stomach boil with anger to think about. Because of this she found it difficult to look at Bella who, at the moment, couldn’t hide her emotional distress.

“What did you two… do together?” Leah asked after a moment.

“He used to sneak into my room at night to watch over me as I slept.” Although Bella was facing the T.V., Leah could tell she wasn’t watching. Her eyes were far away, in a different world.

“That’s weird,” Leah said, scrunching up her nose in disgust. “Did they all do that?” 

“No, it was just him,” Bella laughed. “And if you think that’s weird, then you don’t know the half of it.” 

“What other weird things did they do?” Leah asked, as flutters of curiosity turned into an odd sense of danger blooming in her stomach. 

“Well, there was this one time,” Bella began, a blush lighting up her pale face. “Our biology class had to do a blood typing lab –”

“He was in class for that?” Leah gasped.

Her jaw fell open and hung wide for a full thirty seconds, her eyes bugging out of their sockets. A leech was able to sit in a room full of kids pricking their fingers? Were the Cullens really bloodsuckers? She agreed with Embry that they must have all been lobotomized, or even better, neutered. A worse option was that they were some other demonic mutation, something that looked and smelled like a bloodsucker but was wholly new to the tribe’s knowledge. 

Fuck, if werewolves and vampires are real, what else is there? Quil thought. 

“No, he showed up later, when I was walking to the nurse with Mike.”

Bella’s face was thoughtful for a moment. Leah could recognize grief when it tapped a person on the shoulder, so she quickly looked away.

“I got sick at the sight of the blood and had to go to the nurse, but he met me on the way and talked Mrs. Cope into giving both of us the rest of the day off.” 

“How?”

“I don’t know, he just… asked. Very politely. But he had this way of smoldering.

Smoldering?” Leah asked, raising her eyebrows. 

“You know – like when his eyes would burn intensely, and his voice was smooth as velvet.” Bella sighed. “People did whatever he wanted. There was a waitress who he bribed, I think, to put us in a private booth – and when he smiled at her I noticed it took her breath away, too.”

Leah was suddenly struck with a realization that felt stupidly obvious. She wholeheartedly expected the leech was a manipulative jerk, so that part wasn’t a surprise. But she realized he could also play mind games, mess with people’s heads. He’d broken Bella’s mind when he left. This was concerning news for the whole pack, particularly me, and startled me enough that I suddenly came to my senses long enough to find myself leaning on a tree outside of Emily’s house, sniffing around for any bloodsuckers I could take it out on, before I was pulled back under the waves of Leah’s grief.

Even if he couldn’t read Bella’s mind – which Leah was not inclined to truly believe, because she didn’t trust a bloodsucker’s word farther than she could throw it – he must know something about the mind of a seventeen-year-old, having read the minds of several thousand teenage girls in high school over the course of his years pretending to be a student.

“What else could he do?” Leah asked, inching closer to Bella intently.

“He ran fast – like, really fast. And he threw me onto his back to carry me sometimes. I was scared the second time because I thought it would make me motion sick, like the first time, but he convinced me to just close my eyes by kissing me. But then he got mad because I tried to kiss him back.” 

Leah had to hold herself down to the couch, her every muscle tensed and coiled, ready to leap into action. Her little dove – so innocent and truthful that she believed everything she was told – had been used and manipulated by an evil, undead creature. Leah refused to let someone with such honest eyes be killed by leeches, or let them twist her into something so wholly different from the original she would be unrecognizable. Such a loss would be unacceptable to Leah, not after we had all lost so much already.

This was her burden, if she loved Bella, which was becoming clearer to her now.

Leah may have had some loyalty to Sam, but he was not her first choice as Alpha. She looked to me first in all things related to the pack, though Sam often overruled me. Nonetheless, she considered herself to be part of “Jake’s pack,” more than Sam’s. She felt the same way about Bella as Emily felt towards her boys; the protective, maternal feeling of an older sister. 

Emily and Kim were still working on the popcorn, high as kites. They had started making it, but then spent a good deal of time in the kitchen shoving the hot, buttery popcorn into their mouths, until they realized they would need to make more. Leah laughed along with the soundtrack of the sitcom. 

“What was it you said before...” Leah recalled suddenly, sitting up again. “About him sneaking into your room and watching you sleep?”

“They don’t sleep, so he’d lay down next to me sometimes or watch from my rocking chair. We spent almost every day together.”

“What did he do while you were asleep?”

“I’m not sure, really, I figured he read some of my books, but he seemed to be entertained by my ‘human moments.’ He used to tell me I said his name in my sleep.” As Bella talked her eyes flashed with intuition, like two and two had come together to make four.

“It wasn’t creepy having someone sneak in and watch you sleep?”

“Well,” Bella began, and then her nose wrinkled up in concentration. “Now that I think about it… It does seem a little weird. But Jacob has done it, too…”

“If Jake is in a bed, he’s sleeping,” Leah snorted. “Besides, Jake has been begging for some action for months. And he asked you, didn’t he? I remember that. He asked you every night for months if he could visit you at night, and you said no. Why didn’t you say yes if it wasn’t weird? It sounds like the bloodsucker was more of a stalker.” 

“But I thought he loved me,” Bella said stubbornly. “He told me that I was his own personal brand of heroin. My blood smelled better to him than all the others, for some reason – I don’t know, he compared it to being a recovering alcoholic, I think.”

“And you thought that was romantic…?”

“Like I said, he was smoldering at me, Leah,” Bella whined. “How could I not believe every word he said? But then that day in the forest, he took it all back. And it felt like I was the one addicted – to him. I was addicted to his smell, and his face, and I didn’t see how I could go on if he didn’t love me. But now I’m almost glad he left, because you’ve welcomed me so kindly and been so nice. I know I’m not always the easiest person to be around.” She grimaced. “I can’t thank you enough for being my friend, Leah. Even if I am just a slow human.” Bella smiled up at her sheepishly, like she was ashamed of her word vomit. 

Leah took Bella up into her arms and hugged tight, fingers clenched. 

“Bella… You need to stay away from those leeches, do you understand?” 

“What? I have to go lay a trail tomorrow, Leah, I can’t avoid them –”

“When this is all over, you need to tell him to leave,” Leah instructed, holding Bella by the shoulders and shaking her a little. “You can’t let them get you, Bella. He’ll put you under another spell, and I don’t think you can recover from it again.” 

“I wasn’t under a spell, Leah,” Bella rattled through her teeth. 

Leah quickly let go of her, balling her hands into fists to keep them from shaking. 

She thought of what seemed to always be on her mind – Sam.

He had made promises, too. 

“Men have a way of saying shit you want to hear,” she said with a huff, slumping back into the couch, her head falling back heavily with sedation. “But I can tell you that Jake means it. And the leech is bad for you – unhealthy. I don’t want to see you go through another heartbreak, Bells.”

“But he looked at me with those eyes – I swear, sometimes when I looked in them, I got so lost I forgot to breathe, and I almost passed out a couple times.”

“Are you going to tell him to leave when this is over?”

Bella looked up in confusion. “Why would I have to?” 

Leah was unable to suppress an eye roll. 

“Isn’t it obvious?” She asked. “Jake didn’t tell you?”

“Tell me what?”

“That the bloodsucker wants you back,” Leah said slowly, wondering if Bella had been hit too hard by the brownies, while simultaneously feeling like she was making a horrible mistake. 

Bella blinked a couple times, then laughed, and took a bite of yet another brownie which Leah quickly nabbed away from her, replacing it with a handful of half-popped kernels.

“That’s impossible,” Bella replied, unphased by the maneuver.

“You’re going to have to choose at some point,” Leah warned. “That bloodsucker is going to give you an ultimatum – and you’re going to have to choose whether to stay with Jake or go and be strung along by a leech.” 

Leah gritted her teeth and gave her the truth she knew Bella would give her. 

“And you shouldn’t choose the leech.” 

Bella laughed. “I’ve already chosen! Didn’t you hear me before?” She shook her head, laughing again. “You guys welcomed me when the Cullens left – and I found that I like this kind of life better than I ever liked the one with Edward.” Then she hesitated. “But he always had a way of persuading me. I’m scared that if I get too close, he’ll talk me into doing something I’ll regret.” 

“You have to remember us when you start feeling dizzy,” Leah urged. “Think of us, if you really like us better. I bet he can’t tamper with your mind as easily as he does other people, if he says he can’t hear your thoughts.” 

“Why do you want me to stay so badly?” Bella whispered, as Emily and Kim turned from the counter towards the living room, her voice low. 

“Because Jake loves you, and I wouldn’t want to have to put up with him if you died,” Leah grunted, slouching. 

“But why would he be so upset?” Bella wondered aloud. “All I’ve done is put him and his family in danger.” 

Leah shook her head. “You really don’t get it, do you?”

“Get what?”

“What this imprint means,” Leah sighed, wishing she didn’t feel obligated to warn the innocent, fragile creature in front of her, with hollow bones and pale cheeks. “I can’t explain it right. Emily knows –”

“Emily knows what?” Called the woman as she stepped into the room carrying a steaming bowl of popcorn. Kim came stumbling in behind her with another bowl – one for Leah, one for the rest of them. 

Leah stood up and wrapped the fur she had used to be Mr. Bear around her shoulders again. 

“Emily knows more about imprinting than I do,” Leah declared, covering her hair with the fur and straightening out her back to stand at her full, imposing height.

“What are we telling now?” Kim asked excitedly. 

“Explaining imprints – here, you come and be mine.” Leah grabbed the girl’s hands and started dancing, forgetting their troubles in a twirl that ended up throwing Kim flying onto the couch. The girls laughed again, but Emily sat calmly next to Bella, watching them with a knowing smile. 

“There are other stories besides the Raven,” Emily said once they had quieted down. “Some kept so secret they have been lost. The third wife is one of them.” She sighed. “We will never know her name, but we know her story, and so we pass it on.

“You see, Taha Aki’s third wife was not from our tribe. She came from the South, as a slave. She had been kidnapped and held captive in a neighboring tribe as a prisoner of war.

“The moment he saw her, his grief from losing his first two wives disappeared. It was no longer gravity holding him to the earth; it was her, and he knew immediately that where she went he would follow, even if it meant passing through the valley of death to find her spirit in the lands beyond the living. He immediately paid whatever price the Chief of the neighboring tribe demanded and took her back to his tribe.”

Bella had been listening to Emily very closely.

“What did the third wife feel?” She asked.

Emily smiled. “We know better than anyone else what she felt. She spent a month recuperating with one of the noble families. She was alone, and scared, and very far away from home. She was a young woman when she met Taha Aki, but was told of his great deeds and many years alive, and was surprised by his apparent youth and dexterity. 

“She was reluctant at first, when he started to show his interest in her. But Taha Aki didn’t push her; he wanted what she wanted, and they were content as friends for a time. She found she was taken care of in this tribe, and loved, far more than she had expected. One day, she asked Taha Aki why he was so fond of her, and why he chose her out of all the other slaves to take home and treat like a queen.

“That was the night when he explained to her the odd phenomenon, with his best analogy being the way baby birds recognize their mother as soon as they open their eyes to see her in the first few moments of life. It felt like he had been suddenly borne anew into the world he had known for so long as something in his soul recognized something in hers; like their bodies had been molded out of the same clay, and he knew from that moment on that she was a part of him, a piece that had broken off long ago in some great schism.

“And she realized that she felt it, too. There was a pull to him; something instinctual, a feeling in the pit of her stomach when he took her hand in his; a whole, complete feeling, and she found herself understanding exactly what he meant.

“And that is why he stopped shifting. He did not want to live without his other half; there was no other reason to wake up and be human if not with her. The tribe had been safe for a time before that, so he was able to pass on the torch to his oldest son. 

“The third wife chose him after the longest courtship known to the tribe – two whole years. She had a hard life before that, and came slow to trust, but she found that Taha Aki was faithful in his promise not to shift again, and began to age with her. They lived together, peacefully, for many years.” 

A hush fell over the listeners as the mist dissolved, and the world continued turning in its lackadaisical, rhythmic pattern. Outside, crickets rubbed their legs together like master violinists, creating a symphony of sweet music as the darkness grew still in the window panes.

Leah realized she was the odd one out. Her heart began to race. 

She’d known she was a freak. Even if turning into a giant, hairy wolf didn’t clue her in, being the only girl in the pack had put her differences out into the spotlight, where they seemed to become bright, shining beacons that highlighted everything she hated about herself. But now she felt like a freak sitting with these so-obviously-human girls. She regretted her idea of a sleepover with Bella more than ever, thinking that she had been foolish to believe she could ever have a “girl’s night,” when she was no longer a girl. 

She was not one of them. She knew that.

The pack knew it, too. 

She was not one of us, either. 

Most of the pack had been relieved when we found out she wouldn’t be bugging us that night. We had put her on the equivalent to cell-phone duty, like the boys. She hated having the same responsibility in the pack as her younger brother. She had been left out, confirming her suspicions that we all didn’t like her very much – which, admittedly, we didn’t.

Why was she here, with the girls, when the rest of the pack was running patrol? Wasn’t she the fastest? Didn’t they need her to protect La Push? Did they think they were going to lump her in with them, those fragile humans who Leah longed to protect? She was suddenly very angry. 

She wanted to punch something. 

No, she wanted to break something. 

No, she wanted to break Sam. 

Her fury focused like a laser beam on the one person she would never forgive. 

Then it came to her – a white flash of hot anger, trembling in her arms, and she bolted out the door, trying to put as much space between her and the other girls as possible before she became a snarling, growling wolf.  

As she shifted, running away from her friends for their own safety, Leah was suddenly completely alone. The feeling came over her in a split second as her skin shuddered and ripped open with a tear.

She didn’t belong to either group. 

A faint shimmer fell over her eyes, like a film of tears clouding her vision, and then she was a wolf.

 

 

This great sadness swept through and dissolved the fire, leaving a silent, smoldering pit of despair in her heart. Sure, she didn’t aspire to identify with the imprints, but they were nice. She could get used to brownies and popcorn and telling old stories. But she could do more; she would do more.

You will never leave me out again, she commanded. 

Fine, Embry barked. Can we go back to sleep now? 

You owe me ten bucks, Quil told Embry.

Out in the tense night somewhere, Sam howled, and I laid my head on top of my paws with a sigh.

Chapter Text

XXXVI

The next morning, the sun rose up in a great burst of blood-red, with orange rays slanting in rows over the small, pink clouds that went scuttling too quickly across the sky. The wind surged forward and rocked the treetops until the whole forest looked as if it was going to shake apart.

It ends tomorrow, someone thought. It might have been me, but my sleep-deprived brain was too slow to catch whether or not the words were coming out of mine or one of the packs’ minds.

I think it was you, Quil groaned, flopping onto his side.

You have the biggest mouth, I argued. I think it was you.

Something stirred in my stomach – hunger. Or anticipation. Maybe both.

It was all set up. Billy had borrowed Old Quil’s boat and invited Charlie to the rez for some open sea fishing before the Mariners went up against the Nationals that afternoon. Collin and Brady, protesting the entire time, were grudgingly holding down the fort. Sam had snuck off to say goodbye to Emily, so Jared and I raced to catch up with him while Paul and Quil howled in laughter.

Where’s the fire? Embry hooted.

Stick your tongue down Kim’s throat for me, Jared.

Hey, what did she mean by ‘swirly thing,’ last night?

Oh! Sick, Seth thought, half in awe and half in confusion, as an image of Kim in a precarious position filled all our heads.

Nice, Embry appraised.

Could any of you be quiet, for like, two minutes? Leah grumbled from where she was still curled up underneath a tree behind Emily’s house. It’s like a non-stop family road trip.

You’re one to talk, I scoffed.

She winced, her limbs still heavy with sleep. That terrible, empty, molded-rib cage feeling had replaced the fury, mighty and insidious. I focused on where I was headed, feeling like time was moving too fast and I was spending it poorly.

Emily’s house was still shrouded in darkness, shielded from the rising blood-red sun by the tall cedar trees of the forest. The curtains and windows were all shut, and in the shadows, the little ranch seemed to be sleeping along with its occupants.

Leah got up smoothly from her spot, and in an instant she had bolted into the forest, avoiding Sam as much as possible.

Each was cautiously aware of the other. Sam was wracked with guilt and wanted to beg at her feet for forgiveness, but Leah was so embarrassed she didn’t want to face any of us. Leah had to focus on his genuine feelings of remorse and breathe deeply through her nose when angry tears pricked at her eyes.

We were all eager to get inside, but I was the fastest, so I raced through Emily’s front door first, pulling up my shorts as I ran. Sam was a foot behind me, and Jared was struggling to jam a leg into his sweatpants.

My eyes focused on Bella immediately and unconsciously, and then the rest of the room was utterly uninteresting and bland in comparison. She was curled up on the couch, eyes shut lightly. Emily and Kim shared the bed upstairs.

I let Sam and Jared race up the creaky staircase without a glance.

This was a better sight.

Bella hadn’t been without the crease between her eyebrows for a week, but her face was smooth now, softened around the edges, all the worry washed away with sleep. Carefully, so as not to wake her up, I slid myself onto the couch with her. She stirred, laying her head on my shoulder, but her breathing remained paced and slow.

Jared bounded down the stairs with a groggy Kim in his arms.

“You wanna clear out, Jake,” he warned, nodding towards the door.

“Sure, sure,” I answered distractedly.

Jared was already gone.

I rested my hand on her hair, running my fingers through the strands and following them down to their pointy ends, brushing against the small of her back.

She shivered, and moved again so she was on her side, one arm curled up on my torso.

I wrapped my arms around her waist and brushed my lips against her widow’s peak.

“Jake,” she murmured.

“Bells?”

She stirred again, this time raising her chin, then settled it back down against my collarbone with a sigh.

“Jacob,” she breathed. “My Jacob.”

“Bella, honey? Are you awake?” I laughed, though my heart thudded loudly.

She started, then settled quickly back into my arms.

“No,” she grumbled.

I chuckled, my own throat still thick with sleep. “We oughta get out of here before Sam throws us out,” I said, grabbing her wrist and pulling it up to my neck.

“Sam?” Bella, confused, raised her head to look up at me before realization dawned on her face, as bright red as the sun as it poked through the trees and slanted in through the window to light up the back of the couch.

I took hold of her knees and brought them across my lap, sitting us up swiftly.

“We can go back to Billy’s place, Charlie’s probably picked him up by now,” I offered, standing up with her in my arms.

“Oh, let me walk,” she insisted, wiggling her legs out and landing on the ground clumsily. “You’re going to be carrying me enough today,” she said, leaning on my arm to catch her balance.

“Okay,” I laughed, supporting most of her weight on our way out the door.

Bella was stubborn as a mule, but I didn’t mind half-carrying her back to Billy’s, because it was the first extended amount of human time I had spent with her in what felt like forever. She woke up more thoroughly when we were out in the windy day, but her hands still clutched at me feverishly, like she was trying to prevent me from ever leaving her arms again. I walked with my arm hanging off her shoulders, eyes scanning the path ahead and then getting drawn back to her like moths to a flame.

We took the short-cut through the woods, on a path that seemed a lot smaller when I was a wolf. As a human, it felt too wide, too ominous and imposing. The forest was so completely still I thought that time might have stopped.

“What did you do last night?” Bella wondered, squeezing my hand where it rested on her collarbone.

“Nothing, really,” I replied.

“When do we have to go lay the trail?” She asked, letting her fingers drift up to the pulse on my wrist.

“Not sure. You got any bloodsuckers on speed dial?” I joked.

“I don’t remember the house number,” she murmured.

“Oh, wait,” I said, reaching into the pocket of my black sweatpants. “The bloods – I mean, Edward” – I corrected when I saw her menacing glare – “gave me a post-it note the other night with his number on it. You can call when we get to Billy’s and tell him we’ll be ready in an hour or so, if you want.” I shrugged. I didn’t like this part of the plan. “They know where to meet us.”

“Good idea,” Bella hummed distractedly, eyes fixed on her feet as we maneuvered over the damp ground.

I tightened my arm around her. “What are you thinking about?”

“I’m not sure,” she said, blinking. “I think I’ll need some coffee to figure it out.”

I laughed. The sound echoed off the trees and came back to us.

The sun started cutting through the mossy trunks of the trees bordering Billy’s house, and I could smell benzene and oil wafting out of the garage. It was so familiar that I automatically relaxed my tense shoulders and my steps became less urgent. Bella was able to keep pace with me easily, but we stayed in a comfortable silence that reminded me of early mornings working on the Rabbit. Things seemed so much simpler then.

Billy was waiting for Charlie when we got there, sitting by the front door with his pole and his lunch on his lap in a metal pail. I flew halfway into the kitchen and then stopped so suddenly when I noticed him eyeing me warily that Bella slammed into my back with a piercing slap. I was hoping he would be gone so Bella and I could continue our conversation from the night before, and he must have recognized that in my face. The “swirly thing,” kept reappearing every five minutes in my thoughts like a pop-up ad, reminding me how vitally important it was that I ask Bella about it later.

He looked away, holding up his hand.

“I don’t want to know,” he said.

I sighed in relief. “When’s Charlie coming?”

“Should be around soon. Might want to bring Bella back to the garage,” he grunted, pointedly looking at her with a knowing smile, then turning back to me.

My ears burned with embarrassment.

“She stayed the night at Emily’s, but Sam came home to say goodbye, and he sort of kicked us out,” I explained defensively.

“Sure, sure.” Billy’s grin was mocking. “I changed the sheets while you were out, by the way. And don’t you worry about Charlie, Bella,” Billy added, as my fist balled up on the small of Bella’s back and my eyes popped wide open. “I’ve got my part of this under control.”

“Yeah, I know Charlie’ll be fine,” Bella replied, glancing up at me anxiously.

“I wish I could be with the rest of you tomorrow.” Billy chuckled regretfully. “Being an old man is a hardship, kids.”

Bella rolled her eyes. “The urge to fight must be a defining characteristic of the Y chromosome,” she huffed, elbowing me in the kidney.

I laughed, and Billy grinned.

“Have fun with Charlie,” I hinted when Chief Swan’s tires came sloshing down the road, dragging Bella towards the hallway, where we could hide in my room.

“Good luck, you two,” he answered, his grave eyes lingering on mine.

For a moment, the sunlight streamed in, lighting up Billy’s black eyes with saffron flickers of flame. He looked so much younger at that moment I almost didn’t recognize him. It was a glimpse of the man my mother had loved, and the father my sisters remembered, whom I had never known. A newfound respect for him bloomed in my chest. With a solemn nod, I pulled Bella into my room and closed the door quietly behind us.

The cruiser pulled onto the lawn just as I managed to pull the curtain. Bella and I hid under the covers, giggling like kids, while the two old friends greeted each other at the door.

“Hey, Billy!”

“How’s it going, Charlie?”

“Alright, alright. How’s Jake?”

I was distracted by how close Bella was, and how electric it felt where our skin touched, and the feather-light brush of her lips on my neck, and trying to keep quiet about it so Billy wouldn’t know.

“Who knows?” He chuckled, his wheels squeaking. “You see him more than I do. Can’t seem to tear those two apart.”

“I hope they know what they’re doing,” Charlie grunted. “She’s not as flighty as her mother, I don’t think, but she wasn’t right after the Cullens left.”

They were outside now, and Charlie helped Billy into the front seat of the cruiser, then folded up his wheelchair and put it in the backseat.

“They’ll work it out,” Billy said confidently. “I think all that’s left is to decide which one of us is going to be Grandpa, and which is going to be cool Grandpa.”

Charlie laughed, and then the cruiser’s engine ignited.

“I’m hip with the kids,” Charlie said.

The cruiser puttered away, and I repositioned myself over Bella with a sharp squeal of the bed springs. She ran her fingers up my neck, twisting the hair on the back of my scalp so it hung around us like a jet-black waterfall.

“They’re gone now,” I told her.

She ran kisses up the length of my jaw. “How long do we have?” She whispered, her breath brushing against my ear.

“Not long enough,” I sighed, falling onto her side, cupping the side of her face with my palm. “No length of time with you will ever be enough.”

She reached out and rested her hand just underneath my jaw, fingers running through my hair.

“If you die tomorrow –”

“I’m not going to die, Bella.”

“But you could,” she said pointedly, then paused, frozen for half a second. Her eyes went completely blank. She shook her head as if to clear it. “No. I can’t do that. I won’t live if you die.”

“That’s ridiculous, Bella.” My voice shot up three octaves.

Bella flinched. 

“You’ve got to be joking,” I laughed nervously. “Think about Charlie. Think about me. I’ll be one pissed-off ghost if you off yourself.”

“What would you do if I died?”

“That’s different,” I argued.

“Not really,” she retorted. “Didn’t you say that once? ‘If you die, I die.’ I remember because you were so serious.” She shook her head again. “I couldn’t doubt you.”

My tongue got tied up in knots when I looked down at her. Her eyebrows were raised, waiting for my rebuttal, no doubt running down a list of talking points she had compiled before bringing the subject up.

“If you die today,” she continued, “I want you to know that I love you. More than I love Edward, or Alice, or any of the Cullens.” She pushed a strand of hair out of my eyes. “No matter what happens, you should know that.”

“Bells, I…” I trailed off, wondering if I should tell her that I knew about her conversation with Leah.

“You don’t have to say anything,” she whispered, looking down at the pillow. “I just wanted to tell you, in case I don’t get the chance again.”

“I love you, too,” I responded immediately, shaking my head to clear it, then laughed. “But I think I’ve made myself clear on that.”

She smiled half-heartedly, twirling a chunk of my hair in her finger.

“And I’m not going to die,” I promised, rolling my eyes.

“Well –” Bella broke off, a colossal yawn rippling through her body.

“Let’s get some coffee, huh?” I chuckled, pulling back the covers.

She didn’t speak until three sips into her mug, when she looked up at me with wide, frightened eyes.

“I should call them and find out when we need to be there to set the trail,” she whispered.

I followed Bella to the phone on the kitchen wall, where she poked numbers into the ancient phone, twirling the cord in her hand. I walked up behind her and wrapped my arms around her waist, resting my chin on her shoulder and wondering if it would be good for my back to sleep this hunched over.

“I wonder who will answer,” she mumbled to herself.

I pressed my lips to the skin behind her ear as she held up the phone and waited.

It only rang once.

“Hello?” Sang a smooth, high voice.

“Alice,” Bella sighed in relief. “It’s me, Bella. I’m calling to see when we should be there to lay the trail.”

“I know it’s you, Bella. I would see if anyone else was trying to call me,” the leech said, annoyed.

“Sorry,” Bella apologized. “But can you let Edward know?”

I kissed her neck, then moved up to her jaw, trying to distract her from the phone and pull her back into my room, where we could forget about bloodsucker armies.

“I think,” the leech said indignantly, as if she was too smart for thinking – she was used to knowing. “That you’re going to want to pack for cold weather. I can’t see where you are exactly because you’re taking off with that dog this afternoon. But the storm that’s coming seems particularly bad in that general area.”

“What should I bring?” Bella asked, picking up a pen and notepad from the counter.

“Don’t worry, Edward is overpreparing, as usual. He’s packed enough gear to get you through a week up there, let alone one night. But it’s going to snow on the mountains,” she warned.

“Ew, snow,” Bella muttered.

“Wear a jacket. And tell Jake to hurry up – you’d better get going. You’ve got to set a trap and make camp before the storm comes.” I could hear the frown in her voice. “Don’t forget your coat, Bella. It seems… unseasonably cold.”

“Okay,” Bella replied.

“Have a nice night,” Alice said in farewell.

I had to agree with the psychic leech – the weather was gearing up to do something big, even on the rez. It was strangely sunny and warm, the air so still and thick it hung like condensation on the side of an ice-cold glass of water.

Bella tapped the padding of the thick parka I grabbed from the hall closet.

“I thought you didn’t get cold anymore.”

“I don’t,” I replied, grinning. “I’m bringing this for you since you’re not prepared.”

She rolled her eyes and took the jacket.

Bella rode on my back, only losing her balance twice. Her hands still gripped my hair, but there was a lot less tugging, which was sort of disappointing.

This is weird, Quil complained. You can’t just let your girlfriend ride you while we can hear your thoughts. There’s gotta be a law about that.

It’s Bella’s thing, man, Embry snickered. She gets turned on by riding monsters.

Shut up, I growled.

They did not.

I took a long detour, making sure her scent would be nowhere near the trail we’d hide later. When we arrived at the clearing, it seemed like an odd place for a battle. The sun broke through the clouds above to light a halo of buttery gold atop the tall, thick blanket of purple bellflowers, with long dandelion stems poking through and leaning over to the side, weighed down by their heavy yellow petals. The mind-reader met us there, his skin refracting sharply against the bright sky, with a giant backpack. It was so large I wondered if he had broken into Newton’s boarded-up store and thrown the entirety of their remaining inventory over his shoulder.

“Hello, Jacob.”

I growled in response.

“Bella,” Edward nodded, eyes sliding up from mine to hers.

She swung her leg over my head and hopped onto the ground, catching her balance on my shoulder when she landed uncertainly in the sopping wet grass.

Edward took a step forward.

Hold it right there, bloodsucker, I growled.

Edward stopped but smiled ruefully at Bella.

“We’re going to need you to walk north for a ways, touching as much as you can. Alice gave me a clear picture of their path, and it won’t take long for us to intersect it. I’ll go along with you, and let you know when to turn around.”

“North?” Bella wondered.

He smiled and pointed out the right direction.

Bella wandered into the woods, leaving the clear yellow light of the clearing behind. I pulled my teeth back, snarling, as the leech smiled smugly and went to join her.

I stayed about thirty yards away, keeping tabs on the bloodsucker. He walked in a parallel line to Bella, about twenty more yards away. Bella walked slowly, trailing her fingers over anything in arm’s reach; rough tree bark, wet ferns, moss-covered rocks.

“Am I doing this right?” Bella called over to him.

“Perfectly,” the leech purred.

Bella’s face lit up like switching on a lightbulb.

“Will this help?” She asked, running her fingers through her hair and catching a few loose strands, then with a swish of her hand, she draped them over the ferns.

Tell her she doesn’t have to do that, I thought, trying to make it louder in my head so the leech would hear me. I thought I saw him throw me an exasperated glance, but he moved so quick it was hard to tell. 

“Yes, that does make the trail stronger,” the bloodsucker replied. “But you don’t need to pull your hair out, Bella. It will be fine.”

“I’ve got a few extras I can spare,” she replied breezily, wedging another hair into a broken branch that cut through her path.

It took a while for her to reach the spot where the newborn army would be certain to cross the trail, but Edward didn’t seem to be impatient with her pace. He had to lead a bit more on the way back, to keep her on the same path. He only went a couple feet closer, but it made the fur on the back of my neck stand up.

We were almost to the clearing when she fell.

The wide opening was just ahead, and my paws were padding harder against the murky ground to catch up with the light. Bella must have gotten too eager and forgot to watch her feet. She managed to catch herself before her head bashed into the nearest tree, but a small branch snapped off under her left hand and gouged into her palm.

“Ouch! Oh, fabulous,” she muttered.

“Are you all right?” The leech called.

I was already running, trying to focus hard enough to shift back to a form with opposable thumbs, but the bloodsucker was rapidly approaching, too. 

I’ve got her, I insisted with a whine, I’M her boyfriend. 

He reached Bella first, leaning down next to her before she could finish her next sentence. 

“I’m fine. Stay where you are. I’m bleeding. It will stop in a minute.”

“I’ve got a first aid kit,” he said, pulling off the comically large backpack as if it were only a cloth tied to the end of a stick. “I had a feeling I might need it.”

I sulked out of sight. He had probably come prepared for this – maybe even hoped for it. An excuse to get close, to turn his “smoldering” eyes on her and set another spell. I growled from the underbrush, cursing him out loudly in my head. 

“It’s not bad. I can take care of it – you don’t have to make yourself uncomfortable,” Bella gasped, still seeming startled by how suddenly he had come beside her.

“I’m not uncomfortable,” he said calmly. “Here – let me clean it.”

“Wait a second, I just got another idea.”

Looking slightly green, without looking at the blood, and breathing through her mouth queasily, she pressed her shaky palm against a rock within her reach.

“What are you doing?”

“Jasper will love this,” Bella muttered to herself.

She started for the clearing again, pressing her palm against everything in her path.

“I’ll bet this really gets them going.”

For a brief second, an image of wild animals – no, not animals, leeches – catching the scent and flying ravenously down the trail flickered before my eyes. My muscles tensed uncomfortably, and Edward flinched, then sighed. 

“Hold your breath,” she instructed, side-stepping away from him.

“I’m fine,” he replied evenly. “I just think you’re going overboard.”

“This is all I get to do. I want to do a good job.”

They broke through the last of the trees as she spoke. She let her injured hand graze across the ferns. I watched from behind the curtain of the trees, wondering if I would be able to shift back with a leech standing so close to the love of my life. 

“Well, you have,” Edward assured her. “The newborns will be frantic, and Jasper will be very impressed with your dedication. Now let me treat your hand – you’ve gotten the cut dirty.”

“Let me do it, please,” Bella insisted.

Edward didn’t listen to her. With a flash of movement, he took her hand and smiled as he examined it.

“This doesn’t bother me anymore,” he murmured in a silky voice. 

She watched him carefully as he cleaned the gash, her eyes searching his face as if trying to find meaning in a long passage of prose. Edward continued to breathe evenly in and out, the same small, smug smile on his lips.

One wrong move and I’ll snap your wrist off, bloodsucker, I snarled. 

I was screaming death threats in my head. Luckily, none of the other pack was there to hear my tirade. I wanted it reserved for Edward’s ears only; only he should have had to feel how bitterly I hated him. He must have, because he kept glancing over to me as if to tell me to cool it, which only made me more angry. If I hadn’t already been a wolf, I would have shifted. 

“Why not?” She finally asked, breathless, as he smoothed a bandage across her palm.

He shrugged. “I got over it.”

“You…” She trailed off, shaking her head in disbelief. “Got over it? When? How?” Her eyes glazed over, searching her memories for something, but I couldn’t tell what it was she was looking for in his smile.

Why was she staring at him so intently? It was unsettling how focused she was on his face, hanging on his every movement like he held the world in his hands. 

Edward pursed his lips, seeming to search for the words. “I’ve had to live without you for a long time, Bella. That changed the way I look at a lot of things.”

With a pang of remorse, I remembered the way she had looked when Sam found her in the woods that fateful night. Edward closed his eyes and looked down at the ground, a low groan escaping from between his lips, too quiet for Bella’s ears to pick up. 

“Did it change the way I smell to you?” She asked, an almost mournful edge to her voice.

“Not at all. But… having experienced the way it feels to lose you… my reactions have changed. My entire being shies away from any course that could inspire that kind of pain again.”

Bella stared at him with wide, shocked eyes. He smiled at her expression.

“I guess you could call it a very educational experience.”

Break it up, I growled. You bandaged her hand. Time to go. 

The wind tore through the clearing then, lashing her hair around her face and making her shiver like a leaf hanging off the thin stem of a branch.

“All right,” Edward said, reaching into his pack again. “You’ve done your part. Now it’s out of our hands. Time to go camping!”

Bella laughed nervously at the mock enthusiasm in his voice.

“Where are we meeting Jake?” She asked.

“Right here.” He gestured to the trees in front of them just as I stepped warily from their shadows.

She looked surprised to see me human, as if she had been expecting the same red-brown wolf who had carried her to the clearing. I had my arms folded across my bare chest, my face carefully expressionless as I watched them.

Edward’s lips pulled down at the corners. “There had to have been a better way to do this.” He sighed, speaking my thoughts aloud.

“Hey, Jake,” Bella greeted as I got closer, picking up her pace.

Bella embraced me and handed the thicker jacket to Edward, who took it back with a scowl.

“Hello, Jacob,” Edward said.

I ignored the pleasantries, all business. “Where do I take her?” I asked, though I had a pretty good guess.

Edward pulled a map from a side pocket on the pack and offered it to me. I unfolded it.

“We’re here now,” Edward said, reaching over to touch the right spot. I recoiled from his hand automatically and then steadied myself. Edward pretended not to notice. “And you’re taking her up here,” Edward continued, tracing a serpentine pattern around the elevation lines on the paper. “Roughly nine miles.”

I nodded once.

“When you’re about a mile away, you should cross my path. That will lead you in. Do you need the map?”

“No, thanks. I know this area pretty well. I think I know where I’m going.” My tone was polite, though strained. It took some effort.

“I’ll take a longer route,” Edward said. “And I’ll see you in a few hours.” He smirked over at me, then glanced forlornly at Bella. He didn’t like this part of the plan.

“See you,” Bella murmured, tightening her hand around mine.

Edward faded into the trees, heading in the opposite direction. As soon as he was gone, my mood lifted.

“What’s up, Bella?” I asked with a big grin.

She rolled her eyes. “Same old, same old.”

“Yeah,” I agreed. “Bunch of vampires trying to kill you. The usual.”

“The usual.”

“Well,” I said, zipping up the jacket I’d given her. “Let’s get going.”

Making a face, she took a step closer. I bent down and swept my arm behind her knees, knocking them out from under her. My other arm caught her just before her head hit the ground.

“Jerk,” she muttered.

I chuckled, already running through the trees. I kept a steady rhythm, a brisk jog at a human pace.

“You don’t have to run,” Bella insisted. “You’ll get tired.”

“Running doesn’t make me tired,” I said evenly. “Besides, it will be colder soon. I hope he gets the camp set up before we get there.”

She tapped her finger against the thick padding of the parka I brought her. “Thanks, by the way. How did you know I would need this?”

“I don’t like the way the weather feels. It’s making me edgy. Notice how we haven’t seen any animals?”

“Um, not really.”

“I guess you wouldn’t. Your senses are too dull.”

Bella rolled her eyes. “Alice was worried about the storm, too.”

“It takes a lot to silence the forest this way. You picked a hell of a night for a camping trip.”

“It wasn’t entirely my idea.”

The pathless way to the campsite began to climb more and more steeply, but I didn’t slow down. I leaped easily from rock to rock, not needing my hands to keep my balance. Bella laughed and called me a mountain goat.

“Jake?”

“Yeah?”

“Can I ask a hypothetical question?”

“Shoot.”

“Well…” She trailed off, picking at her fingernails. “You said this would be easy. Really easy. And, if it really is, then someone could… hypothetically… sit out, right?”

My eyes narrowed. “Hypothetically… yes. That’s why Brady and Collin are guarding La Push, and Seth is on cell-phone duty. What are you getting at?”

Bella pursed her lips, glancing up at me shyly and then quickly looking back down at her hands.

“Spit it out, Bells.”

She sighed. “What if I asked you to sit out?”

My pace slowed for a moment, but I quickly recovered from the shock.

“Hypothetically?”

“Of course.”

“I would say no.”

She nodded, biting her lower lip, refusing to look up at me.

“Everything’s going to go off without a hitch,” I promised. “Even if you’d asked and I’d said no, you wouldn’t be mad at me afterwards.”

If everything does go off without a hitch, you’re probably right. I won’t be mad. But the whole time you’re gone, I’ll be sick with worry, Jake. Crazy with it.”

“Ye of little faith,” I grumbled.

“Don’t say that. You know how much you mean to me. You’re my best friend. Even with this imprint thing, you’ve always been my Jacob. When you let your guard down.” She grinned up at me.

I smiled the old smile I knew she loved. “I’m always that,” I promised. “Even when I don’t… behave as well as I should. Underneath, I’m always in here.”

“I know. Why else would I put up with all your crap?”

We laughed together, and I enjoyed the moment.

I enjoyed the moment, until I wrinkled my nose, and she opened her mouth to say something else, but I changed the subject. “We’re not far now, I can smell him.”

She sighed.

“I’d happily slow down, Bella, but you’re going to want to be under shelter before that hits.”

I looked up pointedly at the sky, and she followed my gaze. A solid wall of purple-black clouds was racing in from the west, darkening the forest beneath as it came.

“Wow,” she murmured, staring up at the sky in thinly veiled awe. “You’d better hurry, Jake. You’ll want to get home before it gets here.”

“I’m not going home.”

She looked up at me, surprised. “You’re camping with me and Seth?”

“No,” I chuckled. “You think I’d let him have all the fun? He’ll take over tomorrow, during the fight.”

Bella was silent for a second. She stared at me, her face contorted with worry.

“I don’t suppose there’s any way you’d just stay since you’re already here?” She suggested. “If I did beg? Or trade back the lifetime of servitude or something?”

“Tempting, but no. Then again, the begging might be interesting to see. You can give it a go if you like.”

“There’s really nothing, nothing at all I can say?”

For a second, her eyes flashed hungrily, and her fingers brushed my collarbone.

I gulped.

“Nope,” I replied, trying to keep the joking tone in my voice. “Not unless you can promise me a better fight. Anyway, Sam’s calling the shots, not me.”

“Didn’t you say something a while ago…” She trailed off, eyes unfocused. “About your grandfather, being the Alpha… Are you second in command of the pack, then?”

I blinked. I’d forgotten about telling her that.

“Oh. That.”

“Are you?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“How come you never mentioned that?”

“Why would I? It’s no big thing.”

“I don’t know. Why not? It’s interesting. So, how does that work? How did Sam end up as the Alpha, and you as the… the Beta?”

I chuckled at her term. “Sam was the first, the oldest. It made sense for him to take charge.”

Bella frowned, her eyebrows coming together in confusion. “But shouldn’t Jared or Paul be second, then? They were the next to change.”

“Well… it’s hard to explain,” I hedged.

“Try,” she insisted.

I sighed. “It’s more about the lineage, you know? Sort of old-fashioned. Why should it matter who your grandpa was, right?”

“Didn’t you say that Ephraim Black was the last chief the Quileutes had?”

“Yeah, that’s right. Because he was the Alpha. Did you know that, technically, Sam’s the chief of the whole tribe now?” I laughed. “Crazy traditions.”

She was still working on the idea, evidently trying to chew her bottom lip off. “But you also said that people listened to your dad more than anyone else on the council, because he was Ephraim’s grandson?”

“What about it?”

“Well, if it’s about the lineage… shouldn’t you be the chief, then?”

I was silent, staring into the darkening forest and pretending to concentrate on where we were going.

“Jake?”

“No. That’s Sam’s job.”

I kept my eyes on our pathless course.

“Why? His great-granddad was Levi Uley, right? Was Levi an Alpha, too?”

“There’s only one Alpha,” I answered automatically.

“So what was Levi?”

“Sort of a Beta, I guess.” I snorted at her term. “Like me.”

“That doesn’t make sense.”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“I just want to understand.”

I met her confused eyes and then sighed.

“Yeah, I was supposed to be the Alpha,” I admitted.

Her eyebrows pulled together. “Sam didn’t want to step down?”

I scoffed. “Hardly. I didn’t want to step up.”

“Why not?”

I frowned, uncomfortable. “I didn’t want any of it, Bella. I didn’t want anything to change. I didn’t want to be some legendary chief. I didn’t want to be part of a pack of werewolves, let alone their leader. I wouldn’t take it when Sam offered.”

Bella was silent for another long moment. I didn’t interrupt, staring ahead into the forest.

“But I thought you were happier. That you were okay with this,” she finally whispered.

I smiled reassuringly, then leaned down and pressed my lips to her forehead.

“Yeah,” I said as I pulled away, enjoying the flush of red in her cheeks. “It’s really not so bad. Exciting sometimes, like with this thing tomorrow. But at first, it sort of felt like being drafted into a war you didn’t know existed. There was no choice, you know? And it was so final.” I shrugged. “Anyway, I guess I’m glad now. It has to be done, and could I trust someone else to get it right? It’s better to make sure myself.”

She stared at me, her face a mixture of surprise and awe.

“Chief Jacob,” she whispered, resting her head against my collarbone. I felt her cheeks go up in a smile.

I rolled my eyes.

On the down-low; hearing her say the words sent a flutter of butterflies in my stomach.

Just then, a glacial wind shook the trees around us more fiercely than before. The sharp sound of wood cracking echoed off the mountain. The light was vanishing as the grisly cloud covered the sky, and little white specks of snow began to flutter past us. I picked up the pace, keeping my eyes on the ground now as I flat-out sprinted. Bella curled into my chest, recoiling from the cold.

Five minutes later, I dashed around to the left side of the stony peak and saw a little tent nestled up against the sheltering face. More flurries were falling around us, but the wind was too fierce to let them settle anywhere.

“Bella!” Edward called out, his voice saturated in relief.

We’d caught him in the middle of pacing back and forth across the little open space. He flashed to our side, a swift blur that appeared in front of us within the blink of an eye. I cringed, then set Bella on her feet, steadying her as the wind threatened to knock her backwards.

“I need to get her inside. This is going to be bad – my hair’s standing up on my scalp. Is that tent secure?”

“I all but welded it to the rock,” Edward replied, sounding sincere.

“Good.”

I looked up at the sky, now black with the storm, sprinkled with swirling bits of snow. My nostrils flared.

“Bella,” I grabbed her hand to get her attention. “I’m going to change, I want to know what’s going on back home.” I turned my head to glare at Edward. “Are you staying, then?”

“I’d like to keep in touch with the pack, for coordination purposes. If you’d be gracious enough to perform such a service, that is.”

I scowled, then looked back to Bella, and my face softened. “Are you okay if I leave for a minute?”

“Of course,” she assured me. “Do what you need to do. I’ll be waiting here.”

I leaned down to press my lips against hers quickly, then hung my jacket on a low, stubby branch, and walked into the murky forest without a backward glance.

Chapter Text

XXXVII

I knew Edward must have been lurking somewhere nearby, but I couldn’t smell him, and he was out of sight, so I let him stay out of mind.

I was keeping watch outside the tent, stationed in front of the zipper. A mighty gust of wind shook the entire forest, putting everything on a slant. The snow came at me from the right, covering me like a blanket, and I had to keep shaking it off. The temperature was dropping steadily. I could feel it through my downy layer of fur, so I figured Bella must have been freezing.

The rest of the pack were sleeping. I could follow their dreams if I tried but they were mostly just swirls of color and sound that made little to no sense. Sam was having a nightmare, watching a vampire with Emily’s face kill Leah, while she listened to him as he kept whining and twitching. She was the only other one up, and I really didn’t want to be hearing her thoughts as she eavesdropped in on Sam’s dream. I almost woke him up to ask him to keep an eye out at the tent – just to spare whatever dignity he had left – but then thought better of it.

I shifted and pulled on the black pair of sweatpants I’d worn on the hike up the mountain, then entered the tent.

Bella was huddled up in her sleeping bag, shaking with the tent as the wind picked up. When she noticed me, her lips twitched, but she was shivering so badly I couldn’t tell if it was a smile or a grimace.

“W-w-w-w-w-what t-t-t-t-time is it?” She pushed the words through her chattering teeth.

“Late,” I said, crawling onto the ground and undoing the zipper at her head. “Scoot over, honey, I’ll warm you up.”

The wind rocked the tent roughly, and she shuddered along with the thin plastic covering but held onto the edge of the sleeping bag with an iron grip. She shook her head, stuttering on a word stubbornly, unable to squeeze it out through her chattering teeth.

I rolled my eyes. “C’mon, Bells. Don’t you like having all ten toes?”

“J-J-J-J-Jake, you’ll f-f-f-freez-z-z-ze,” she complained.

“Not me,” I said cheerfully, cramming my body into what little space was left next to her. “I run at a toasty one-oh-eight point nine these days. I’ll have you sweating in no time,” I promised, forcing the zipper up behind me.

I wrapped my arms around her, holding her snugly against my bare chest. She sighed, pressing her icy fingers eagerly against my skin.

I flinched. “Jeez, you’re freezing, Bella,” I complained.

“S-s-s-s-sorry,” she stuttered.

“Try to relax,” I suggested as another shiver rippled through her violently. “You’ll be warm in a minute. Of course, you’d warm up faster if you took your clothes off.”

She glared up at me, teeth still chattering.

“That’s just a simple fact,” I said, laughing. “Survival one-oh-one.”

“C-c-cut it out, Jake,” she replied, still pressing herself as close as possible to my bare skin. “N-n-n-nobody really n-n-n-n-needs all ten t-t-t-toes.”

I moved my hand down to the small of her back, pulling us closer together. “You’ll thank me in the morning,” I laughed, placing a kiss to her frozen forehead.

We laid in silence for a moment while Bella defrosted. One by one her muscles thawed, until her shuddering slowed and her body was almost completely still in my arms.

“There,” I said, pleased. “Feeling better?”

She was finally able to speak clearly. “Yes,” she sighed.

“Your lips are still blue,” I mused. “Want me to warm those up for you, too?”

She smiled shakily. I tilted her chin up to reach mine and pressed our mouths together, just for a light peck – but once we collided, there was nothing that could pull us apart. Her lips moved hungrily against mine, hands moving up my chest and tangling in my hair, which hung wildly down in front of my eyes. We were squeezed together tight inside the sleeping bag, but my hands managed to find their way to her face, warming up her cheeks until they were deep red.

When she finally pulled away, I leaned over to kiss her jaw.

“Is this why you didn’t want Seth to keep watch tonight?” She laughed.

“One of the reasons,” I muttered against her skin, a grin tugging at my lips.

She kicked her boots off and pushed her toes against my legs. I jumped a little at the flash of cold, but then I leaned down to press my cheek against her ear.

“Ahh,” she sighed contentedly.

The storm howled outside like a wild animal, attacking the tent, but I wasn’t worried about it. I was trying very hard to control the hot thrum of blood pooling between my legs, focusing on anything but her body pressing on mine, but it was no use. It felt like an electric current running between us, electrifying every nerve ending and setting my skin on fire.

Bella’s body relaxed slowly as she thawed, piece by frozen piece, and then turned limp. I relaxed next to her, burying my nose in her hair, smelling that unique, spring-meadow freshness, like a valley of lilies.

“Jake?” She mumbled sleepily. “Can I ask you something? I’m not trying to be a jerk or anything, I’m honestly just curious.”

“Sure,” I chuckled.

“Do you think we would be together without the imprint?”

I moved to see her face. Her eyes were half-closed, blinking away sleep stubbornly. I pushed her hair behind her ears, then rested my head next to hers so we were eye-to-eye.

“I would love you no matter what you did. Even if you went back to the bloodsucker” – her nose wrinkled at the term – “I would fight for you, tooth and nail, until your heart stopped beating.”

“Mmm,” she hummed. “I love you.”

I chuckled again, smoothing her hair down. “I love you, too, Bells.”

The wind was finally starting to die down. As the silence lengthened, her eyelids drooped shut, and her breathing grew slower, more even.

“That’s right, honey, go to sleep,” I whispered.

She sighed, and her face was peaceful, content – I was surprised when I recognized it as the same expression she’d worn at the prom.

When I thought she was unconscious, I heard howling in the trees outside and assumed it was only Seth until my nose caught Edward’s scent. I groaned, pressing my nose deeper into Bella’s hair, trying to block it out.

Then the zipper was pulled back, and the leech was suddenly inside the tent, closing the door behind him. He sat at the very edge of the space, his legs pulled up against his chest, eyes fixed on me.

“Seth is here, too,” he muttered.

“Perfect. Now you can keep an eye on everything else, while I take care of my girlfriend.”

Edward remained perched on the edge of the tent, perfectly still, his eyes boring into me.

I ignored him, closing my eyes and resting my forehead against Bella’s, trying to slow my breathing to match hers. It wasn’t easy; the wind picked up again and shrieked like a banshee flying through the trees. The tent shimmied, and every now and then the poles would suddenly jerk and quiver, pulling me back from the edge of sleep every time I was close to slipping under. And Bella was still pressed against me, each line of her body conforming to mine, making it hard to focus on anything but the fluttering in my stomach.

“Please!” Edward hissed suddenly. “Do you mind!”

“What?” I whispered back groggily, surprised at his sudden outburst.

“Do you think you could attempt to control your thoughts?” He whispered in a low, furious tone.

“No one said you had to listen,” I muttered, defiant, but my ears got hot with embarrassment. “Get out of my head.”

“I wish I could. You have no idea how loud your little fantasies are. It’s like you’re shouting them at me,” he complained.

You could just leave, I thought.

“I’ll try to keep it down,” I whispered sarcastically.

I remembered her peaceful, happy face just before she closed her eyes. Are you jealous? I wondered, knowing he would hear. I can make her just as happy as you did, and even more, I can take care of her. You could never warm her up like this. Doesn’t it make you positively green that I can make love to her? I know you never got that far, I taunted.

“Yes,” Edward mumbled, so low it almost got lost in another gust of wind. “I’m jealous of that, too.”

“I figured it was like that,” I whispered smugly.

“Go to sleep, Jacob,” Edward murmured. “You’re starting to get on my nerves.”

“I think I will. I’m really very comfortable,” I replied, settling in closer to Bella. She sighed in her sleep, nestling her head in the crook of my shoulder.

But I couldn’t sleep. He was still there, like an absurdly beautiful gargoyle on the roof of a church, crouching like he was waiting for a chance to jump on me.

If you won’t let me sleep, you might at least make it interesting and answer a few of my questions.

“Maybe I would,” he said.

“But would you be honest?” I wondered aloud, mostly to myself.

“You can always ask and see.” He smiled, like he was enjoying an inside joke.

“Well, you see inside my head – let me see inside yours tonight, it’s only fair,” I said.

“Your head is full of questions. Which one do you want me to answer?”

“The jealousy… it has to be eating at you. Unless you have no emotions at all.” That wouldn’t have surprised me.

“Of course it is,” Edward agreed, the smile disappearing from his face, his grin falling into a scowl, giving me a glimpse of the grotesque monster beneath the smooth skin. “Right now it’s so bad that I can barely control my voice. Of course, it’s even worse when she’s away from me, with you, and I can’t see her.”

“Do you think about it all the time?” I whispered. “Does it make it hard to concentrate when she’s not with you?”

“Yes and no,” Edward said, sounding surprisingly honest. “My mind doesn’t work quite the same as yours. I can think of many more things at one time. Of course, that means that I’m always able to think of you, always able to imagine…” He trailed off.

We were both silent for a minute. Does she think of me as much as I think of her? I wondered.

“Yes, I would guess that she thinks about you often,” Edward murmured in response.

“Does that bother you? Do you wish you could see what she’s thinking, too?”

“Yes… and no, again. She likes it better that way, and, though it sometimes drives me insane, I’d rather she was happy.”

The wind ripped around the tent, shaking it like an earthquake. My arms tightened around Bella protectively.

“Thank you,” Edward whispered. “Odd as this might sound, I suppose I’m glad you’re here, Jacob.”

“You mean, ‘as much as I’d love to kill you, I’m glad she’s warm,’ right?”

“It’s an uncomfortable truce, isn’t it?”

Just then, Bella stirred, and her lips moved soundlessly for a moment before she began mumbling, “Jacob… my Jacob…”

I sighed. “I’d tell her all of this, but she’d never believe me.”

“I know,” he said, smiling.

“You think you know everything,” I muttered.

“I don’t know the future,” Edward replied, his voice suddenly hopeful.

We were silent for a long moment. I listened to Bella’s quiet musings, most of which didn’t make sense. My name was a common theme, and my heart swelled to the size of the tent. Jacob, my Jacob, kept echoing in my ears, even after she finally settled down.

Once she was silent again, and both our breathing had slowed to a normal rhythm, I remembered what he had said when he was walking her to the clearing, and her reaction.

“What would you do if she changed her mind?” I asked.

“If she decided to take me back…” The leech sighed wistfully. “I don’t know that either.”

I chuckled quietly. “Would you try to kill me?” I asked sarcastically, secretly hoping he would try.

“No,” he answered, voice resolute.

“Why not?” I was still amused with picturing exactly how I might go about fighting Edward. 

“Do you really think I would hurt her that way?”

I hesitated for a second and then sighed. “Yeah, you’re right. I know you’re right. But sometimes…”

“Sometimes it’s an intriguing idea.”

I pressed my face into the sleeping bag to muffle my laughter. “Exactly,” I agreed.

“What’s it like? Losing her?” I asked after a quiet moment, no longer laughing, my voice suddenly hoarse. “When you left her? How did you… cope?”

“That’s very difficult for me to talk about.”

I waited.

Edward spoke slower than before, enunciating every syllable. “When I thought I could leave her… that was… almost bearable. Because I thought she would forget me and it would be like I hadn’t touched her life. For over nine months I was able to stay away, to keep my promise that I wouldn’t interfere again. It was getting close – I was fighting but I knew I wasn’t going to win; I would have come back… just to check on her. That’s what I would have told myself, anyway. And if I’d found her reasonably happy… I like to think that I could have gone away again.”

I didn’t respond for a moment, digesting his words. “And what did you find, when you came back?”

“I found her happier than I had hoped. I found that she was able to move on with her life… and I found her with you, of course. What I hadn’t expected was how… how angry I was to be right.”

My arms flexed around Bella. “But you said you left because you knew you were too dangerous for her, why wouldn’t you be happy to find her safe?”

Edward spoke slowly again, as if the words hurt. “Jacob, from the second I realized that I loved her, I knew there were only four possibilities. The first alternative, the best one for Bella, would be if she didn’t feel as strongly for me – if she got over me and moved on. I would accept that, though it would never change the way I felt. You think of me as a… living stone – hard and cold. That’s true. We are set the way we are, and it is very rare for us to experience a real change. When that happens, as when Bella entered my life, it is a permanent change. There’s no going back…

“The second alternative, the one I’d originally chosen, was to stay with her throughout her human life. It wasn’t a good option for her, to waste her life with someone who couldn’t be human with her, but it was the alternative I could most easily face. Knowing all along that, when she died, I would find a way to die, too. Sixty years, seventy years – it would seem like a very, very short time to me… But then it proved much too dangerous for her to live in such close proximity with my world. It seemed like everything that could go wrong did. Or hung over us… waiting to go wrong. I was terrified that I wouldn’t get those sixty years if I stayed near her while she was human. 

“So I chose option three. Which turned out to be the worst mistake of my very long life, as you know. I chose to take myself out of her world, hoping to force her into the first alternative.”

“What about the fourth alternative?”

He smiled humorlessly, a dark, sinister smile, and I immediately knew what he meant.

My entire body reacted instinctively. My nostrils flared, eyes flying open. I crushed Bella to my chest, a low rumble grinding in the back of my throat.

“But you left because you didn’t want to turn her into one of you. You want her to be human,” I whispered, horrified.

He just nodded, waiting for my breathing to slow down.

“I like option one,” I muttered after a long, terse silence.

Edward didn’t respond. He continued to sit there, still as a statue, watching me.

“You know exactly how much I hate to accept this,” I whispered slowly, “but I can see that you do love her… in your way. I can’t argue with that. But I really think I make her happy. She’s stubborn, no one knows that better than I do, but she’s capable of healing. She’s healed before. And with me, she’s human, with Charlie and Renée, and she can grow up and have kids, and… be Bella. You love her enough that you have to see the advantages of that plan. She thinks you’re very unselfish… are you really? Can you consider the idea that I’m better for her than you are?”

“I have considered it,” Edward answered quietly. “In some ways, you are better suited for her than another human. Bella takes some looking after, and you’re strong enough that you could protect her from herself, and from everything that conspires against her. You have done that already, and I’ll owe you for that as long as I live – forever – whichever comes first… I even asked Alice if she could see it – see that Bella is better off with you. She couldn’t, of course. She can’t see the wolves. But I’m not stupid enough to make the same mistake I made before, Jacob. And I’m not as selfless as she gives me credit for. Until she tells me to leave, I’m here.”

“And when she tells you she wants me?” I challenged. “You know she’s already told me – what do you plan to do?”

“I’ll let her go.”

“Just like that?”

“In the sense that I’ll never show her how hard it is for me, yes. But I’ll keep watch. You see, Jacob, you might leave her someday. Humans die all the time, for various reasons. I will always be waiting in the wings, hoping for that to happen.”

I snorted. “Well, you’ve been much more honest than I had any right to expect… Edward. Thanks for letting me in your head.”

“As I said, I’m feeling oddly grateful for your presence in her life tonight. It was the least I could do… You know, Jacob, if it weren’t for that fact that we’re natural enemies and that you’ve also stolen away the reason for my existence, I might actually like you.”

“Maybe…” I mused. “If you weren’t a disgusting vampire who wanted to suck out the life of the girl I love… well, no, not even then.”

Edward chuckled. “Can I ask you something?” He said after a moment.

“Why would you have to ask?”

“I can only hear if you think of it. It’s just a story I overheard Sam thinking about, tied up with a memory of Bella. Something about a third wife…?”

“What about it?”

Edward didn’t answer, no doubt listening to the story in my head. I heard his low hiss, blending in with the screaming of the wind.

“Of course,” Edward seethed. “Of course! I rather wish your elders had kept that story to themselves, Jacob.”

“You don’t like the leeches being painted as the bad guys?” I mocked. “You know, they are. Then and now.”

“I really couldn’t care less about that part. Can’t you guess which character Bella would identify with?”

I had already connected the dots before he was finished, but I was silent for a moment, stroking her hair and placing a kiss on her forehead. “Okay, I see your point,” I murmured, watching her eyes flutter underneath their lids.

“She wants to be there in the clearing,” he sighed. “Alice has seen it, but she just ends up stumbling around in the forest.”

“You know, your military brother gave her the idea just as much as the story did.”

“Neither side meant any harm,” Edward whispered, backtracking.

“And when does this little truce end?” I asked. “First light? Or do we wait until after the fight?”

There was a pause as we both considered.

“First light,” we whispered together, then laughed quietly.

“Sleep well, Jacob,” Edward murmured.

It was quiet again, and the tent held still for a few minutes. The wind seemed to have decided it wasn’t going to flatten us after all and was giving up the fight. Right on cue, the pop-up ad in my head reminding me to ask Bella about the swirly thing made itself known, and I found myself drifting into a very nice, very vivid dream…

Edward groaned softly. “I didn’t mean that quite so literally.”

“You could leave, you know – give us a little privacy,” I whispered. “Why did you come here, anyway?”

“The jealousy,” Edward murmured. “I couldn’t stomach the thought of you two, all alone…” He flinched.

I snorted. “Some chaperone,” I muttered.

“Would you like me to help you sleep, Jacob?” Edward offered, smiling again.

“You could try,” I said doubtfully. “It would be interesting to see who walked away, wouldn’t it?”

“Don’t tempt me too far, wolf. My patience isn’t that perfect.”

“Jacob…” Bella hummed, “my Jacob.”

My laugh was barely a whisper. “I’d rather not move just now, if you don’t mind.”

Sleep took me then; like a fog creeping on the ground, it slunk over my eyes the way a cat prowls forward, with silent footsteps, and took me off to odd, slanted dreams – all of which made more sense than reality. 

Chapter Text

XXXVIII

“Jacob?” A voice whispered. “Jake, wake up, Jacob…”

Bella rose before I did. My eyes struggled to open against the blinding light of the morning.

“Jacob,” Bella cooed, and I felt her lips on my nose, quick and soft and sweet.

My right arm was completely dead with sleep, but had started slowly coming back to life with a pins and needles feeling of static. Sunlight streamed through the tent, bathing the world in a bright white sheen. For a moment I thought this was another dream, or that we had been attacked by the red-headed leech in our sleep and died as lovers do – together – and so stayed as lovers do beyond the veil. Without telling it to, my body reacted accordingly, though I wouldn’t have prevented it. My numb hand flopped onto her waist, pulling her into my chest.

I think I muttered her name, though sleep still held my eyes closed. It might have been more of a groan.

“Jacob,” she hummed again. “Open your eyes, Jake.”

My lips reached for where I thought her head would be, but I miscalculated and got a mouthful of her hair.

“Jake!” She exclaimed.

“’M teethin’,” I mumbled incoherently, just as my toes curled up in a full body stretch. My arms reached up of their own accord and spread out across the tent, effectively spilling my body out of the sleeping bag. There was a tearing sound as the seam ripped apart.

Whoo!” I exclaimed, falling over onto my back.

Bella laughed. “You’re too big to be teething. And you just broke the sleeping bag, doofus.”

“We won’t be needing it again,” I muttered, resting my cheek on the ground just a foot away from hers, my eyes still closed.

She was silent for a moment, so still she might not have been there at all.

“Tonight, the leeches will be gone,” I said, opening my eyes.

Her face was sharply defined in the light bouncing off the snow that cast down in a light blue glow from the tarp. She had dark purple bags under her eyes the size of bruises, and her cheekbones cut sharply down to her jaw. The shadows made her look like a skeleton. I longed to reach out and make sure she wasn’t a trick of the light. 

“Jake…” she muttered, then bit her lip. For a moment, it looked like she was going to say something important, but then her face changed, and she shook her head. “We can break another sleeping bag when you come back,” she whispered, turning over onto her side to face me with a devilish grin.

“I’m not gone yet,” I reminded her. “C’mere, honey,” I taunted. “Smell the morning breath.”

She rolled her eyes. “I bet I could get you to stay here with me for the battle,” she said suddenly, grabbing my hand on her waist.

“Do you?” I asked, raising my eyebrows.

“It has to do with your surprise.”

“Does it?” In a moment of red-faced embarrassment, my voice broke.

“Mm-hmm,” she hummed, hooking her knee on my hip.

“While I love where this is going,” I assured her, running my hand up her thigh. “You should know that Seth is outside.”

I had smelled him with my first breath full of fresh, crisp mountain air, blowing in with a musky, woodsy smell, and something else, something sweet.

“And Edward,” I added through gritted teeth.

“Oh,” she mouthed, shying away.

“But they’re not bothering me,” I told her quickly.

“Yeah, I know,” she replied, rolling her eyes again. “I wouldn’t have woken you up if I didn’t have to, anyway.” She ran a thumb underneath my eye, cupping her palm to my cheekbone. “Seth has been pacing outside for the past hour. I think he wants to talk to you.”

“He would’ve howled if it was something important.”

Right on cue, Seth howled.

I groaned. “Really, man?” I shouted.

Seth whined outside, scratching the tent with one of his paws.

“Fine,” I muttered, balling up my knees and sitting upright, not bothering to tie my hair back.

“Be careful,” Bella whispered.

I hesitated on the zipper.

“Always am.”

I grinned, looking up at her for a moment, trying to memorize the way she looked in the morning light, perched on her gray cloud of blankets, like an angel riding atop a great thundercloud. I wanted to remember how the dawn lit her creamy skin crimson beneath her cheekbones; how her mouth slanted up to return my smile – the way she pushed her hair behind her ear. I wanted to be able to picture it all.

It might be the last image I’d ever have of her.

Seth panted outside, waiting for me to undo the zipper.

Without another word, I left.

Edward wasn’t far, but not in sight, and as I shifted I wondered if he could still read our thoughts when he couldn’t see us. He had been impressed by the distance we could manage, and the night before he revealed that he couldn’t hear a thought unless you were thinking it.

So he didn’t hear everything.

Geez, you think YOU hate it? Leah grumbled.

Sam and the others are getting ready in the clearing, Seth said importantly.

Come, Jacob, Sam summoned, and I was powerless to disobey. My paws were already flying over the forest floor, speeding towards the clearing.

“If I could,” Edward Cullen said to Seth, and I focused in on what he was seeing.

Edward had appeared on the edge of the campsite, and now he lingered by the tent, his hands up in surrender.

Hell no, I thought. Seth, you have permission to kill him.

Seth, you do NOT have permission to kill him, Sam commanded, because Seth was getting ready to pounce.

“I just want to talk to Bella,” Edward sighed, his shoulders sagging miserably.

For a second, I felt bad for him. Then I remembered the truce was over.

Don’t let him in the tent, I warned Seth. She doesn’t have to talk to him.

“Ahh,” the vampire said, raising a finger in the air with a twisted smile. “But if she wants to talk to me, you couldn’t be opposed, could you?”

The fur on the back of my neck slowly stood up, until each individual hair was fully erect, snarling even as I barreled closer to Sam and the clearing, unable to turn around with a direct order hanging over my head. I strained against it, but the psychic said there was more trouble on the way… that we’d be cutting it close…

“Bella?” Edward called gently, his voice hesitant and trembling.

Don’t say anything, I pleaded with her, though I knew she couldn’t hear me.

We have to stay focused, Jacob, Sam reminded me. The psychic says the Vultures are coming – we have to do this quickly, and get out as fast as we can.

Do we trust her? I wondered idly.

I guess we’ll see, Sam sighed.

Embry and Quil were sparring in the field. Paul and Jared were racing the perimeter with Leah pulling ahead of them. Brady and Collin were running the worn trails around the treaty line, checking in on the cliffs, where they could see a little boat out in the distance. Seth was listening to something flutter in the tent – a frantic heartbeat.

She says the trail will work, and the young leeches will split into two groups once they catch the scent of the others. Our job is to stop the ambush before it happens.

He was so weary in that moment, utterly bone-tired, as if he’d been carrying a ton of bricks on his back with a bare plank of wood, and he’d walked for miles looking for water, and finally found a sign telling him where to find a river. Did he believe the sign? Could he trust the river ran clear? Could it really be that easy?

We’ll see what they do, he finally said, but we’ll be prepared for any possibility. The girls went to Seattle this morning?

Left right before Billy drove by with Charlie, Leah confirmed. I had to duck and hide from the windows.

Good, Sam nodded, so they’re fishing, then?

Out on the water right now, I think, Colin said, sniffing out at the sea as it crashed into the cliffs.

Everything’s ready, then, Sam sighed again. Now we wait.

I was only half paying attention to Sam.

Bella had emerged from the tent, wearing a black sweatshirt I thought looked familiar. She peered around Seth at Edward, eyes curious.

“What’s going on, Edward?”

The leech smiled, showing off a full set of dazzling white pearls, his skin shimmering almost identically to how the snow fractured the sunlight all around them, throwing rainbows on the bright white backdrop like it was a canvas.

“You wanted him to stay with you,” the leech said, in a low, velvety voice. “I offer myself, in his stead.”

Oh, that son of a –

“I don’t understand,” Bella said, blinking.

Don’t say it, you filthy bloodsucker, I threatened. Or I swear on my life, I’ll rip you limb from limb.

Edward smiled, almost looking abashed. “I want you to know that I would be more than willing to take his place,” he said, looking up at her through his eyelashes.

“What are you saying?” She breathed, completely frozen – a deer in the headlights.

“Bella, when I left you, it was the worst decision I have ever made in my entire existence,” the stupid, irritating, disgusting bloodsucker began, “and if I live for eternity I shall never make such an egregious mistake again, because I will be in love with you until the cliffs have turned to sand and the sea overtakes the land, and when I burn in hell, I will be thinking of you, the love I lost.”

He sounded like an esteemed actor reciting Shakespeare – dramatic and phony.

“I should no longer love you, though,” he continued, staring morosely at the ground. “And I shouldn’t be doing this. I’m about to be more selfish than anyone has any right to be, but I cannot bear to live in a world where you don’t love me. So, say you want me to stay with you,” he begged. “Ask me to stay with you and I’ll be at your beck and call for eternity. Or, if you truly don’t care for me the way I care for you – if I have caused you too much pain, it would be better to end it all now, wouldn’t it?” He chuckled humorlessly, staring down at his feet.

Bella seemed utterly dumbfounded, standing with her mouth wide open, completely speechless. I was wondering where the leech got the goddamn nerve –

“I’ve complicated things, it seems,” he continued. “But it doesn’t change how much I care for you. Isabella, I can no longer live without you – so tell me to leave, or keep me as your own. The choice is yours, my love.”

“Edward,” Bella breathed, clutching at her chest the way she used to.

“I know how to redeem myself. I’ll sacrifice myself, for you, my one and only love,” the parasite purred. “There are plenty of ways to die in battle, and Alice can’t see because of the wolves. If you don’t want me here, as a complication between you and Jacob, I will willingly toss my body onto the pyre – I’ll even light the match! It will be the one selfless thing I’ve done in my entire existence, to make up for all the other times.”

I’m gonna kill that filthy, reeking, repulsive –

Jacob, STAY!

My spine trembled, torn in two. The majority of me wanted to go rip that bloodsucker limb from limb, but the other, smaller, more rational portion of me still had to listen to Sam. The two parts battled with each other while Bella regained her ability to speak.

“Oh, no, Edward! No, no, no, no,” she choked out in horror. “No, Edward, no. Please, no.” Her hands began to tremble.

“What’s the difference, Bella? This will only make it more convenient for everyone. You won’t even have to lift a finger.”

“No!” Her voice got louder. “No, Edward! I won’t let you!”

“How will you stop me?” he taunted lightly, smiling to take the sting out of his tone.

“Edward, I’m begging you. Stay with me.” Her knees looked like they were about to give out.

He laughed lightly, shaking his head. “For fifteen minutes while I miss a good fight, only so you can run away with the dog once you know I’m safe again? Absolutely not.”

“I won’t run away. I’ve changed my mind. We’ll work something out, Edward. There’s always a compromise. Don’t go!”

“You’re lying.”

“I’m not. You know what a terrible liar I am. Look in my eyes. I’ll stay if you do.”

His face hardened as he examined her face.

“Forever?”

Bella gaped for a moment, her jaw moving mechanically up and down without making any sound.

“Please,” she finally gasped, wild, turbulent eyes bouncing back and forth between Edward and Seth.

“That’s what I thought,” he said, his face becoming completely smooth and blank for a fraction of a second. Then he smiled like he had a secret.

“I love you, Bella,” he murmured.

“I love you too, Edward,” she whispered, lips quivering.

My heart sank down to the earth’s core.

He smiled again, like a magician about to pull a rabbit out of a hat.

“Not as much as I love you,” he said, his voice softer than silk.

He turned to walk away, and my muscles tensed, realizing I had been pacing the length of the clearing so ardently that I’d managed to wear out a little trail straight across, cutting the land into two sections. On the other side, the rest of the Cullens had appeared, and from the look on Alice’s face, she had no idea what was going on with her brother. The empath had his eyes fixed on me, like he was concentrating very hard on something.

I snarled, jumping onto the side of the clearing where the rest of the pack was standing, tense and erect.

“Anything!” Seth heard Bella cry, her voice strangled. “Anything you want, Edward. Just don’t do this!”

I returned to pacing.

Edward paused, turning slowly on his heel. “I don’t think you really mean that.”

“Stay,” Bella begged, still frozen to the spot.

He shook his head. “No, I’m going,” he said, then paused, tilting his head as if deciding on something. “But I could leave it to fate.”

“What do you mean?” She choked.

“I don’t have to do anything deliberate – I could just fight for my family and let the chips fall where they may.” He shrugged. “If you could convince me you really did want me to come back – more than you wanted me to do the selfless thing.”

“How?” She whispered, fingers shaking.

“Kiss me,” the leech said.

I howled.

Let him go, Leah pleaded on my behalf.

I was past words. Plenty of books had already described jealousy – in so many ways, in so many forms; in flowery ways that made me cringe and in slasher-killer ways that made me laugh; with passion and with colors and with big words I had to look up in the dictionary. But nothing could have prepared me for feeling so sad and angry at the same time.

I was angry all the time, so that was nothing new. But I was surprised by the sadness – that was something I hadn’t expected. It felt like someone reached down my throat and pulled my stomach out through my mouth when I realized he had just played her like a fiddle, and now she was putty in his hands.

Either way, I was out of commission at the moment, so Leah fought with Sam while Bella stood, eyes round as dinner plates, looking like someone had just punched her in the gut.

“Ask me, Bella. He can’t hurt me if it’s what you want.” Edward’s eyes tilted down to meet hers. He had appeared half a foot away from her in the blink of an eye, one of his hands reaching out as if to touch her, but hesitating an inch away from her skin.

I was ten feet in the mud.

The worst part, the real cherry on top, was knowing I could have just stayed in the damn tent.

For an agonizingly slow five seconds, Bella nodded, and then finally said, “Kiss me, Edward.”

Stop watching, Seth, Sam growled.

I howled again, scratching the ground.

 

 

Suddenly, as if my howl had signaled them, there was the unmistakable scent of new leeches, wafting down the mountain with the morning fog.

Seth howled stridently outside the tent. Bella clung to his fur.

“What’s wrong?” she demanded, shaking Seth’s shoulder.

The repugnant, stupid, and ridiculously good-looking leech had left as quickly as he had appeared, hearing the thoughts of the pack as they smelled the young leeches and leaving Bella a crumpled mess on the ground. If I had been able to feel anything, I might have reacted to that, but I slipped willingly – almost relieved – into the instinctual plural mind of a wolf pack on the hunt.

“What’s wrong?” Bella asked again, fingers twisting in Seth’s fur.

It’s not fair, Seth whined, a great wad of saliva falling from his jowls into the dirt of the campsite. I can fight, too.

Shut up, Leah commanded.

In the trees, Sam said urgently. Out of sight.

They’re at the end of the trail, Embry reported, already in place. They’re splitting up now – just like the psychic said.

Sam took us around to head off the ambush party just as the first hoard of the undead got to the clearing. Embry was disappointed that they weren’t hissing like vampires did in films. Quil noticed the biggest of the Cullens grab one of the newborns and snap its spine in half over his knee, grinning broadly from ear to ear.

The second group was getting ready in the brush, not paying enough attention to their surroundings. They hadn’t heard us yet, or at least they were pretending not to. We could hear them whispering to each other, passing around a familiar red flannel.

“I’ve been smelling this thing for so long I think I can taste it,” said a vaguely familiar tall girl.

“Ang, I love you, but you’ll have to tear me off to get a piece of my meal,” said a shorter boy next to her, breathing in the scent deeply.

They were an unorganized group, milling away from each other in little clumps of ones and twos, but there was one who buzzed around them methodically, like he was counting. He kept muttering things to the others.

“Whatever you do, don’t let the girl escape,” he commented as he fluttered by the ones with the flannel.

I growled, the sound vibrating so low I wasn’t sure anyone would hear, but then one of the leeches turned their heads sharply in my direction.

Before the bloodsucker had time to realize what he was looking at, Leah had her teeth in its neck, tackling it to the ground. Sam jumped, too, and with a screeching hiss like nails on a chalkboard they were finishing it off.

Paul and I moved at the same time to the closest one. The others crouched down low in defensive stances, feinting back as they watched us with fearful trepidation. Jared leaped forward and separated the tall girl from her shorter friend. With a great snarl, Embry and Quil leaped onto a leech who was built like a barrel, taking him down with a resounding thud that shook the ground. Leah crawled closer to the remaining vampires, herding them towards the clearing like sheep to the slaughter.

As I ripped the head off what looked like a life-sized barbie doll, I heard Alice’s sharp voice cut into the shrill mechanic scraping.

“Bella!” She yelled, coming to an abrupt stop in the middle of the clearing, eyes linked with Edward.

My breathing cut off just as Paul ripped the leech’s arm out of its socket.

Then Seth smelled it – the redhead, with one other.

Oh, no, no, no, I chanted, as if that would stop it from happening

And then my feet were flying over the ground, the wind screaming in my ears.

I wasn’t alone. The mind-reading leech whom I hated to the very depths of my soul was on my heels. But I hardly even registered him. My mind was focused on the girl Seth was looking at, the one with thick brown hair and honest, trusting eyes that were sweeter than chocolate.

“What is it, Seth?” She asked, her voice shaking like a leaf as it flutters to the ground.

That was when I crashed through the trees and into the small cliff-top clearing, landing in front of Bella.

Seth and I thought together for a moment, not using words, but understanding better than if we had.

Go, Seth!

He wheeled around on his heel to take my place in the battle down the mountain.

I nudged Bella against the sheer cliff face as I turned to face Edward.

After this, no more truces, I thought, snarling.

We were going to have to fight the red-headed leech and whoever was with her. Edward would undoubtedly be involved, despite my objections, since he was here and had nothing else to do but stand there and sparkle.

Might as well make yourself useful, I growled.

He nodded.

Bella tangled her fingers in my fur, shoving her face in my neck, sobbing like a widow. I pushed her away with my nose, a sting of rejection piercing my heart like an injection of adrenaline. She put her hands on both sides of my face, holding my muzzle in her palms.

It was like I’d never left her embrace. We were back in the tent, blue sunlight slanting in from the east – back in my bed at Billy’s house, back in her bedroom in the middle of the night, back in the movie theater, back in the garage, back to the day she brought the bikes – she was still Bella. I was still Jake.

And we were still two parts of one whole.

Even if she loved the bloodsucker. Even if she let him trick her and kiss her and hell, even if she ran off with him and left me in the dust, she would always be my Bella, and I would always be her Jake.

“Who?” Bella whispered, her eyes fixed on mine, shattering the thin air.

“Victoria,” Edward spat next to me. “She’s not alone. She crossed my scent, following the newborns in to watch – she never meant to fight with them. She made a spur-of-the-moment decision to follow my scent, guessing that you would be wherever I was.”

A flurry of movement in the far-off trees caught my attention, and my body shifted automatically in front of Bella, putting myself between the red-head and her prey.

I’d like to see you try, I thought bitterly, as a real-life nightmare stalked out from the black shadows of the forest. 

Chapter Text

XXXIX

Two parasites edged slowly into the small opening of our camp, eyes intent, cold, and calculating. They glistened in the sunlight, so bright I had to blink my eyes a few times to adjust. With a jolt of surprise, I recognized the blonde one.

He was just a boy – though now he was muscular and tall, he still had chubby cheeks and a look of innocence, even with his vibrant, blood-red eyes smirking at Bella the way a cat stares down a mouse. He was closer, but my eyes didn’t focus on him, because Mike Newton was – and would remain until his dying day, which would be soon, I was sure – harmless.

Behind him, a few feet to the side and a few feet back, was the red-headed leech.

Her orange hair was wild and unkempt, with twigs and leaves caught in giant, unruly curls. I wondered why she didn’t dye it, since it was impossible to blend in with her surroundings when her hair looked like an overgrown bonfire. The wind blew freely through the trees, and the fire seemed to shiver around her face, as if it were alive. Her eyes were completely black, suspended above her thin cheekbones like two lumps of coal. Her lips were pressed into a tight line of disapproval as she glared hungrily at Bella.

There was a striking feline quality to the way she held her coiled body, a lioness waiting for an opening to spring. Her restless, wild gaze flickered between Bella and I, but never rested on me for more than half a second. She couldn’t keep her eyes off Bella as she stalked forward.

Tension rolled off of her, nearly visible in the air. I could feel the desire, the all-consuming passion that held her suspended on the edge of success – it was palpable, a fine mist hanging in the air.

Her plan was obvious. Practical, even, though I wouldn’t have admitted it. What she hadn’t counted on was the truce between vampire and werewolf. If there had only been one of us there, Mike could have distracted whoever was guarding Bella, and Victoria would be free to snatch her.

Seth howled in joy as he got to the clearing, quickly pouncing on the nearest bloodsucker.

The fighting was reaching a climax – Alice had just whipped two leeches into Emmett’s arms, where he slammed their heads together so hard their skulls cracked in half. The Clearwaters were bonding over ripping apart a leech who spat venom at them. Paul had just ripped off the head of the biggest newborn in the group and thrown it onto the pyre of vampire pieces. With a flash, it caught fire and joined the ever-growing pile of ashes.

I was on my own.

We’re with you, man, Quil whined, feigning injury and backing off from a leech he was trying to corner.

Fight well, Jacob, was all Sam said, because I was only half-listening.

Mike looked at the red-head out of the corner of his eye, waiting on her command.

He was young for a vampire. From his stance I could tell that he would be strong, but inept. I could fight the likes of him in my sleep. The red-head seemed to know this, so she jerked her chin toward Edward, wordlessly ordering the boy forward. I watched as her eyes flickered quickly to me, then darted back to Bella.

I was eager to fight her, but I knew it would be foolish to do it alone. Just looking at her screamed danger and sent sirens going off in the back of my head. But I was smarter than she suspected, and in the back of my mind, a plan began brewing.

In my peripheral vision, Edward tilted his chin towards me and nodded once.

Better know what you’re doing, leech, I growled as Mike tensed, ready to spring. Behind him, Victoria’s eyes were drinking in Bella rapturously, hungrily, eyes alight with madness.

“Mike,” Edward said in a soft, pleading voice.

The young bloodsucker froze.

“She’s lying to you, Mike,” Edward told him. “Listen to me. She’s lying to you just like she lied to the others who are dying now in the clearing. You know that she’s lied to them, that she had you lie to them, that neither of you were ever going to help them. Is it so hard to believe that she’s lied to you, too?

Confusion swept across Mike’s face. Edward shifted a few inches to the side, away from Bella, and Mike automatically compensated with an adjustment of his own.

“She doesn’t love you, Mike.” Edward’s soft voice was compelling, hypnotic. “She never has. She loved someone named James, and you’re no more than a tool to her.”

When he said her lover’s name, the red-head pulled her lips back in a teeth-baring grimace. Her eyes stayed locked on Bella.

Mike cast a frantic glance in her direction.

“Mike?” Edward said.

He automatically refocused on Edward.

“She knows that I will kill you, Mike. She wants you to die so that she doesn’t have to keep up the pretense anymore. Yes – you’ve seen that, haven’t you? You’ve read the reluctance in her eyes, suspected a false note in her promises. You were right. She never wanted you. Every kiss, every touch was a lie.”

Edward moved a few inches forward, towards Mike. The redhead’s gaze zeroed in on the gap between him and Bella. It would take her less than one blink to appear at our side with even the tiniest margin of opportunity. I dug my claws into the ground, an unmovable wall between her and the object of her attention.

Slower this time, Mike repositioned himself.

“You don’t have to die,” Edward promised, his eyes holding the confused blonde boy frozen, suspended in a trance. “There are other ways to live than the way she’s shown you. It’s not all lies and blood, Mike. You can walk away right now. You don’t have to die for her lies.”

Edward slid his feet forward and to the side, leaving a foot of space between him and Bella. Mike circled too far, overcompensating this time. The red-head leaned onto the balls of her feet.

“Last chance, Mike,” Edward whispered.

Mike’s face was desperate as he looked to the red-head for answers.

“He’s the liar, Mike,” she purred through bared, glistening teeth. “I told you about their mind tricks. You know I only love you.”

Her voice was what I imagined a fluffy white kitten to sound like, a babyish, soprano tinkling. I was waiting for the strong, wild, catlike growl I knew would signal she was about to strike.

Mike’s jaw tightened, and he squared his shoulders. His eyes emptied – there was no more confusion, no more suspicion. There was no thought at all. He tensed himself to attack. Victoria’s body seemed to be trembling, she was so tightly wound. Her fingers were ready claws, waiting for Edward to move just one more inch away from Bella.

The snarl came from none of them.

It came from me.

Edward had heard the plan working itself through the gears in my head, and had executed his part very well, and now it was my turn.

I flew through the space between Mike and I, throwing him to the ground. Edward was now standing in front of Bella, arms outstretched, holding her against the steep cliff-face.

“No!” The red-head cried, her baby voice shrill with disbelief.

I ripped and tore at the blond vampire beneath me. It was way too easy – I had him pinned down, one paw standing on his windpipe while I tore off his hand, throwing it behind me so it didn’t try to reconnect itself while I was busy.

“No,” she said again through her teeth, a deranged sort of high-pitched growl.

Edward started to move toward her, blocking her path to Bella.

Mike was on his feet again after a well-aimed punch to my knee. He was misshapen and haggard, eyes wild with anxiety. With a vicious snarl, he flung his foot into my shoulder. I heard the bone crunch.

It only hurt for a second; but I yelped and backed away, limping as the bones set and healed. I started to circle him, preparing to strike again. Mike had his arms out, ready, looking almost comical with one of his hands missing.

A few yards away, Edward and the red-head were dancing.

It looked like dancing from the corner of my eyes. Not quite circling, because Edward was not allowing her to position herself closer to Bella. She sashayed back, moving from side to side, trying to find a hole in his defense. He shadowed her footwork lithely, stalking her with perfect concentration. He began to move just a fraction of a second before she moved, reading her intentions in her thoughts.

Mike glanced at her, distracted for a second.

I lunged from the side, tearing his arm off with a hideous, grating screech. I threw it into the forest with a thud. Mike roared in fury, and I skipped back as he took a swipe at me with his remaining hand.

Victoria was weaving through the tree trunks at the far end of the little opening now. She was torn, her feet pulling her toward safety while her eyes yearned toward Bella as if she were a magnet, reeling her in. I could see the burning desire to kill warring with her survival instinct.

Edward could see that, too.

“Don’t go, Victoria,” he murmured in the same hypnotic tone as before. “You’ll never get another chance like this.”

She showed her teeth and hissed at him, but seemed unable to move farther away.

“You can always run later,” Edward purred. “Plenty of time for that. It’s what you do, isn’t it? It’s why James kept you around. Useful, if you like to play deadly games. A partner with an uncanny instinct for escaping. He shouldn’t have left you – he could have used your skills when we caught up to him in Phoenix.”

A snarl ripped from between her lips.

“That’s all you ever were to him, though. Silly to waste so much energy avenging someone who had less affection for you than a hunter for his mount. You were never more than a convenience to him. I would know.” Edward’s lips pulled up on one side as he tapped his temple.

With a strangled screech, the red-head darted out of the trees again, feinting to the side.

Edward responded, and the dance began again.

Mike’s fist caught my flank, and I couldn’t help the low yelp that coughed out of my throat. His eyes were trained on me, so I backed away, twitching my shoulders in an attempt to shake off the pain. Mike closed the distance between us, driving me toward the cliff face beside Bella.

Just like herding sheep, I thought bleakly, snapping at Mike and forcing him back again.

From where she danced, the red-head hissed. I didn’t look to see what she was doing.

I wasn’t limping anymore. My circling took me within inches of Edward; my tail brushed his back.

“No, he won’t turn on me,” Edward said, answering the question in the redhead’s mind. He used her distraction to slide closer. “You provided us with a common enemy. You allied us.”

I heard her teeth clench.

“Look more closely, Victoria,” he murmured, pulling at the threads of her concentration. “Is he really so much like the monster James tracked across Siberia?”

I almost laughed when her eyes popped wide open, then began flickering wildly from Edward to Bella to me, around and around.

“Not the same?” She snarled in her little girl’s soprano. “Impossible!”

“Nothing is impossible,” Edward murmured, voice velvet soft as he moved another inch closer to her. “Except what you want. You’ll never touch her.”

She shook her head, fast and jerky, fighting his diversion, and tried to duck around him, but he was in place to block her as soon as she’d thought of the plan. Her face contorted in frustration, and then she shifted lower into her crouch, a lioness again, and stalked deliberately forward.

Now this was the fight I’d been waiting for.

The red-head was no inexperienced, instinct-driven newborn. She was lethal. Even I could tell the difference between her and Mike, and I knew that she would take more than one wolf to take down. Maybe more than one mind-reader, too.

Edward shifted, too, as they closed in on each other. Their crouches were identical, lion versus lioness.

The dance increased in tempo, with sharp crunches and crackings reverberating off the cliff face whenever the red-head tried to get through Edward. As Edward gained the upper hand, Mike looked up, anxious for his partner.

I struck him down, ripping and tearing and shredding, but his feet landed on my chest, and suddenly Mike had launched me back, soaring ten feet in the air. I crashed into the rocky wall above Bella’s head with a force that seemed to shake the whole peak. The breath whooshed out of my lungs as I rebounded off the stone and collapsed on the ground a few feet away. A low whimper escaped through my teeth as I landed with a thud.

Sharp fragments of gray stone showered down, falling like bats as they whipped clumsily through the air and bounced off each other. I dug my claws into the ground, trying to pull myself up, but my vision was spinning and there was a sharp ringing in my ears. The world came back into perspective slowly, as three Mikes turned into two, and then just one, which was far more manageable.

Newton’s not a bad fighter, I admitted, surprised.

Behind Mike, I could see the redhead’s twisting flame of hair blurring this way and that, with Edward closing in. He seemed to be leaning into the choreography aspect – he leaped and spun just like a violent ballerina to the sound of metallic snaps, tears, gasps, and shocked hisses. The music sped up, and the dance quickly became deadly.

Mike lurched forward, his red eyes brilliant with fury. He had re-attached his other arm, but seemed to have lost a few fingers in the process. His mangled, broken hands curled into talons. His mouth opened, widened, teeth glistening, and I bristled on the ground, trying to calculate how hard I needed to kick to fling him clear into the trees.

Bella gasped. I could hear her heart bounding anxiously in her chest and smell the rusty crimson scent of blood. In that split second, Edward sighed, pausing in his attack to roll his eyes with exasperation.

The dance broke apart violently in that same second. Edward took advantage of the redhead’s distraction and flung her halfway up a tall spruce on the edge of the campsite. Simultaneously, he twisted backward and caught Mike by the arms. As he planted his foot against Mike’s back and heaved, he nodded to me.

I was up in a flash as Mike’s piercing shriek of agony filled the campsite.

The red-head was crouched low, though one of her legs hung limp, as if most of it wasn’t attached. She smiled, a wild, Cheshire cat type of smile, with too many teeth to mean pleasure. She coiled and sprang weakly, propelling herself forward.

I whistled through the air and collided with her mid-flight. The impact sounded like an explosion. We landed back at the base of the tree. It broke in half this time. The ancient spruce cracked like the sound of a shotgun. She rushed me, clearly off-balance, lurching forward unsteadily. I sunk my teeth into her shoulder and tore it off with an ear-splitting metallic screech.

Mike wasn’t doing so hot, either. From somewhere behind us, I heard his tortured plea.

“Victoria!” He screamed as another crack echoed off the mountain.

The red-head didn’t even flinch. She tried to launch herself forward, but I had her carefully pinned down.

Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker, I thought as my jowls closed around her neck, snapping off her head in one motion.

The shivering orange waves fell to the ground and bounced once before rolling toward the trees.

I dismembered the headless corpse, swift and business-like, trying to get it over with and burn the pieces before they had time to pull themselves back together. Edward had dropped all of his pieces of Mike together in a pile of quivering, twitching limbs. He covered them with dry pine needles, then started grabbing pieces of the red-head I flung in his direction.

The fight was winding down in the clearing. Leah and Seth were piling their limbs into the fire while Jared and Quil finished off the last bloodsucker. I was surprised to see Carlisle and Esme on the side with one of the younger leeches, making no move to strike.

“She surrendered,” Edward explained. “Only Carlisle would think to ask.”

I carried the final chunk of the red-head – her torso, cracked in half – to the fire in my mouth, avoiding the eyes I could feel boring into mine. I added it to the pile, and Edward pulled a silver rectangle from his pocket. He flipped open the butane lighter and held the flame to the dry tinder. It caught at once; long tongues of orange fire licked rapidly across the pyre.

“We need to get every piece,” Edward said in a low aside.

I wanted to avoid Bella’s focused gaze, so together we scoured the campsite, occasionally tossing small lumps of white stone into the blaze. I handled the pieces with my teeth, though they tasted like hand sanitizer and smelled even worse.

I had considered changing into a form with hands, but then the leech Esme and Carlisle had been holding was suddenly gone, having shaken them off after claiming to surrender. The two of them looked at each other with alarm as Paul and Sam bounded after her, but she had vanished into the trees, and all they could do was follow her scent. It was starting to lead up the mountain, towards the purple beacon in the distance…

The raging fire sent a pillar of choking violet toward the sky. The thick smoke curled up slowly, looking more solid than it should. It’s noxious scent polluted my mind and made my thoughts fuzzy with how much it burned.

This is the end of the truce, I grumbled, pacing away from the fire to help corner the leech between Sam and Paul.

“Jacob –!” Bella began, her voice high and trembling before she was cut off.

Deja-vu swept over me as the unmistakable hair of the girl from so long ago – the one on the beach, who had followed Mike around like a puppy – came barreling at me from the side. I was so surprised to recognize a leech that I was slow to respond, and she got her arms around me, squeezing.

I felt the right side of my body get crushed into a gelatinous mush. My vision was replaced with a sharp, blinding white light, and I could no longer feel anything but the whoosh of air as it left my lungs. It felt like I had been submerged underwater. Through the din, I heard a sharp bark from Sam as he leaped onto the leech. Paul was on his heels, already ripping off the girl’s leg.

The world was spinning again, except this time it wasn’t because I was hurtling through the air. I felt the pull of vertigo on my stomach and had to try very hard not to pass out. I limped away from Paul and Sam as feeling returned to my body. It started with sharp pins and needles in my hand, then progressed to a dull throb, and finally became a deep, painful ache, throbbing with each thrum of blood whistling past my ears.

Shift, Jacob, Sam ordered distractedly, tossing a piece of the girl’s arm to Edward, who threw it over his shoulder into the fire casually, as if throwing out yesterday’s newspaper.

The pack was on their way, leaving the clearing behind. Emmett held his fist out for Paul to knock with his nose, an inter-species fist bump. Alice was telling the wolves to clear out; the Vultures were coming. Edward’s voice was clearer than hers as he explained.

“We knew there was a good probability of this happening. Earlier this morning, Alice saw it and passed it on to you, correct? The Volturi decided it was time to intercede. They aren’t coming for us. It’s just the normal contingent of the guard that usually cleans up this kind of mess. Nothing momentous, they’re merely doing their job. Of course, they seem to have timed their arrival very carefully. Which leads me to believe that no one in Italy would mourn if these newborns had reduced the size of the Cullen family.” The words came through his teeth, hard and bleak. “I’ll know for sure what they were thinking when they get to the clearing. It’s all going to be fine. Alice can see that.”

I crawled towards Bella, a sharp whine coming out of my nose as I exhaled. She seemed to understand and came over to me on her hands and knees to kiss the sides of my face with her palms.

“You’ll have to leave quickly. The Volturi do not honor truces with werewolves. The Volturi won’t recognize the scent – they won’t realize the wolves are here; this isn’t a species they are familiar with. The pack will be fine.” I heard Edward assure Sam before darting off into the trees without a second glance.

Bella buried her face in my neck and started to sob. “I’m so sorry,” she murmured over and over again, her hands resting on the soft fur behind my ears.

Then Sam was there, pushing Bella away. I growled weakly, panting with the amount of energy it took to fill my lungs.

Shift, Jacob, Sam ordered again, this time with the double timbre of the Alpha, and I had no choice but to oblige. 

Chapter Text

XL

“Jake’s the only one wounded. He got carried back while Bella got away on Seth’s back. Doctor Dracula is coming as soon as he can.”

All of this was whispered over the railing of Billy’s back porch by Embry as he pulled on his shorts while grabbing an extra pair from Billy’s trembling, outstretched hand. I learned this later, when the memory rattled around in his head from time to time, mingled with a tinge of guilt for what he didn’t tell Billy.

What he didn’t tell Billy was how broken I was, getting tossed around by the guys as they carried me to the treaty line, still naked as the day I was born. He avoided the discussion of what was happening as I laid in the forest just behind the treaty line, protected by my brothers and cradled by Leah and Sam.

Embry returned with my clothes.

“Son of a bitch,” I grunted, pulling on the baggy basketball shorts. “Fuck, ouch! Motherfucker,” I gritted through my teeth.

The right side of my body was crushed, but my fingers had already started to heal in uneven, unnatural positions. My ribs felt like they’d broken into my lungs. There was a sudden, piercing pain in my shoulder. I panted, and choked out a puddle of frothy blood, and my ears were suddenly full of a harsh ringing, like the tardy bell at school, and I’d never heard my heart hammering so hard in my chest before –

“We have to do something!” Leah cried, her hands fluttering uselessly over me. I could hear her sobs piercing the air like a battle shriek.

Sam’s hands sat me up against a tree trunk, tilting my head down and to the side so that all the blood in my mouth fell straight onto the ground.

The world was slanted and blurry. Suddenly, I was hit with a wave of vertigo that broke my fever, and for the first time in months I felt cold. Sickly, icy cold, the kind that turns your lips blue and your fingers black. Time no longer made any sense; I could have been sitting there for five seconds or five years and I wouldn’t have known the difference.

In a flurry of motion my eyes didn’t make sense of, Bella was at my side. I felt my left hand pressed up against her thrumming heart and cool fingertips wiping away the thick sheen of sweat on my forehead.

“Breathe, Jake,” she ordered.

She held my matted hair back as another bit of blood came spluttering out of my mouth.

Even as these symptoms manifested, I could feel the healing taking place almost immediately. I was already breathing again, though it was shallow and fast. I struggled to catch my breath as my vision became more focused. All I could see were a pair of glistening, chocolate-brown eyes, but that was enough. I struggled to regain consciousness and return home, to the girl I loved.

I moved my lips, trying to speak, but Bella quickly shushed me. “We have time,” she said, like she was trying to convince herself. “You can tell me later, and I’ll tell you about my plans to make it up to you.” She laughed, or sobbed, I wasn’t sure.

“Just keep breathing, Jake,” she begged.

“Bella,” I mumbled. “Bella, honey…”

“Jake,” she breathed. “Jake, I’m here, it’s me. I love you.”

“I love you, honey,” I murmured, half-conscious.

“Keep breathing, please,” she pleaded.

“I’m breathing,” I assured her, more steady this time.

“… His life is not in any danger.” Dr. Cullen’s voice floated over us. “He’s healing at an incredible rate, though his injuries are extensive enough that it will still be a few days before he is back to normal, even if the rate of repair holds steady. But because of his advanced healing, I’ll need to re-break some of the bones to set them in the right alignment, which would be dangerous out here. Would you be comfortable allowing us to treat him in my home?”

“If you have to do it, you have to do it here,” Leah growled.

“Seth,” Sam commanded, “go ask Billy if the doctor can come and treat Jake at his place.”

“Charlie’s there,” Embry argued.

“I said Seth.

“It’s important to get an IV in him, if you want any level of pain control, and I can’t do that in the mud. Let Billy know that,” hissed an icy, feminine voice.

With all of my energy, I managed to tilt my head towards the voice, and my eyes caught a flash of long blonde hair gleaming in the sunlight. I groaned. Why did I always have to recognize the Cullens?

“What’s blondie doing here?” I asked breathlessly, thumping my head back onto the tree trunk.

“Rosalie is a doctor, too,” Carlisle explained, suddenly much closer to my ear.

I blinked and found him shining a penlight into my eyes. There were cool fingers on my wrist, and what felt like a stethoscope on my chest. When Carlisle tried to touch my right side I winced, gasping for air.

“Jake, shh, it’s okay,” Bella murmured, anxiously tying back my tangled, clumped hair.

“Bella, honey,” I whispered. “You can go back to him, if you want. I just want you to be happy.”

Her eyes swam with tears again, but her voice was defiant.

“I’m happier with you,” she insisted, drawing her face close to mine.

“It’s a good thing he’s in his human form,” Dr. Fang interrupted. “I’ve never been to veterinarian school.”

The Doc propped my broken arm over his shoulders and was supporting all my weight as we trudged through the forest. Bella was tucked into my left side, pretending to help. The rest of the pack had formed an entourage around us, keeping sharp eyes on Dr. Dracula and Blondie as they crossed the boundary line and entered La Push.

Seth came swerving through the trees, pumped up on adrenaline. “Billy said it’s okay!” He cried, hopping next to Bella and resting a hand on her shoulder. “Well, ‘okay,’ is a strong word,” he amended. He launched into a lengthy explanation as I was dragged back to the house, chattering like a nervous chickadee the whole time.

Seth had made the mistake of running inside when he saw his mother through the window, too excited to tell her all about his glorious first battle to think it through. Charlie, Sue, and Billy were eating on the couch in front of the TV when he came charging in, barefoot, with blood and dirt streaked across his face.

Charlie jumped up immediately, and Seth knew he had to think of a lie quickly. As the kitchen erupted into voices, he was thinking as fast as his fourteen-year-old mind could remember, and came up with what he thought was a very believable lie.

“I told them you’d gotten into an accident on the bike,” he admitted, staring at his feet. 

“You did what?

“It was all I could think of!” 

“Charlie’s going to have an aneurysm,” Bella groaned. “Why couldn’t you tell him literally anything else?” 

“I panicked.”

She sighed. “What did you tell them about the Cullens?” Bella asked, exasperated, from under my arm.

“I said the doctor and his daughter were driving through when they saw you guys wiped out on the side of the road,” Seth reported. “He was real mad, Bella. I think his face turned green. You might wanna give him some time to cool down.”

“I’m not leaving Jake,” she asserted, her arm tightening around me.

I winced, and she immediately started fluttering her hands around for a safe place to put them before finally sighing and placing one on the small of my back.

“He’s your father, Bella. I’m sure he’ll forgive you,” Blondie chimed in.

Bella’s eyes went wide with surprise as her head swiveled around to look at the blonde leech. “T-Thanks, Rosalie,” she stuttered, then turned her attention back to her feet.

I groaned as we jostled and fumbled through the forest, mostly because of Bella. If it were just the Doc carrying me, we probably could have gotten there with less fuss. But I was just as reluctant to let go of her as she was to leave me. I needed her more than I realized – it had always seemed like she was the one needing the protecting, the healing, but now the tables had turned and she was more essential than my lungs.

“JACOB BLACK!” I heard Charlie bellow through the trees.

Bella jumped, and I winced.

“Sorry!” She whispered, patting my chest.

“S’fine,” I grunted.

We broke through the trees, turning onto the road beside Billy’s house, where Chief Swan was hanging out the front door, his face a disturbing shade of purple.

BELLA SWAN! YOU GET IN HERE RIGHT NOW!”

“Don’t worry, Bella, I’ll put in a good word for you,” the doctor promised.

“I’m not sure that will help,” Bella replied meekly.

Dr. Fang’s word, in the end, was the only thing Charlie would listen to. The Doc stayed in the living room, talking Charlie off the ledge, while Bella and Blondie brought me through the hallway. Carlisle was smooth and unwavering in his assertion that he and his daughter – Rosalie, who was supposedly going to school to become a doctor herself – were on their way to a medical convention in Seattle, so they thought they’d stop by Forks to see how the town was doing without them.

Charlie was so mad I thought I could hear the steam whistling from his ears. I wasn’t worried about him, though; Charlie’s anger boiled easily, but once it bubbled over it usually evaporated just as fast as it came on. I had my concerns about Billy, though. He sat stock-still in the living room, his eyes wide and shocked, but blank. His silence was more intimidating than Charlie’s shouting.

Carlisle smoothed everything over, somehow, though I wasn’t paying much attention. The blonde vampire and Bella got me into my room and plopped me on the bed unceremoniously. Blondie immediately started wrapping Bella’s arm with gauze.

“You’re hurt?” I asked weakly.

“It’s just a scratch – I did it with a rock while you were fighting Mike,” Bella explained, wincing.

“What?”

“Like the third wife,” Bella elaborated. “I distracted Victoria while you guys were fighting – it was right before you and Edward switched.”

I nodded as Doctor Cullen came into my room, shadowed by Charlie.

“What the hell were you doing on the back of a bike, Bells?” Charlie asked, though it sounded more like an accusation. “Didn’t you promise me I’d never catch you dead on one of those things?”

“Don’t blame her, Chief,” I said through my teeth, biting back a howl as Carlisle started wrapping something on my foot. “It was my idea.”

“No, it was mine!” Bella insisted, grabbing my non-broken hand. “Don’t blame Jake, Dad.”

“I don’t care whose idea it was!” Charlie boomed.

Billy rolled up to the doorway beside him. “Let’s give the doctor some time to work,” he insisted, pulling on Charlie’s arm.

“Alright. C’mon, Bella, we’re leaving.”

“No!” She exclaimed.

“She won’t be in the way,” Carlisle assured him. “I’ll give you a call when we’re all done here.”

So Charlie, with his tail between his legs, slammed the front door behind him on his way out.

That was when the screaming began.

The screams were mine, and most of them were swears, brought on by Carlisle resetting all my broken bones. I hadn’t any idea what “resetting” meant before, but I soon learned it was more accurately called re-breaking my bones so they would heal at the right angles. As the doctor snapped my bones like chopsticks, I held Bella’s hand tight against my chest, letting her whisper in my ear and brush the hair off my face.

“I love you, Jake,” she murmured. “I love you so much. Oh, Carlisle, please be gentle!”

Blondie rolled her eyes. “Be gentle breaking his bones?” She scoffed. “I’ve got something better.”

Something sharp poked my arm, and then a slithering coolness slowly crept up to my shoulder. The cold swept through me, like a gust of wind, knocking me on my back. The last thing I saw before I lost consciousness was Bella’s hair, swinging over my head like a pendulum. 

 

 

I wasn’t quite awake. I was floating somewhere between reality and dreams; but even here, I knew Bella was nearby. I felt her presence like a rope holding me up. A finger brushed my cheekbone, and somehow, I knew it was her.

But the voice I heard was not Bella’s.

“Can I come in?”

Blondie’s voice wafted in one ear and out the other. If I had been more awake, I might have groaned.

“He’s still sleeping,” Bella said softly.

“I have some more morphine for him,” Blondie explained.

I opened my eyes blearily when I felt the needle again, blinking against the bright overhead light.

“Do you mind talking to me for a few minutes?” Blondie asked. Her voice was hesitant, tentative. “I didn’t wake you or anything, did I?

“No, I was awake,” Bella said, her voice unsteady. “Sure, we can talk.”

I felt Bella shift her weight next to me, and then the bed dipped further as someone else sat next to her. If her voice didn’t give her away, I would’ve known it was her by the faint, sickly-sweet scent of bubblegum brushing against my sheets.

“I may never see you again,” she said. “I figured I’d better make the best of this opportunity.”

Bella squeezed my hand, but I was too weak to squeeze back.

“Please don’t think I’m horribly interfering,” Rosalie said, her voice gentle and almost pleading. “I’m sure I’ve hurt your feelings enough in the past, and I don’t want to do that again.”

“Don’t worry about it, Rosalie. My feelings are…” Bella trailed off. “Well, it’s not your fault, at least. What is it?”

Blondie laughed lightly, and it sounded like a chorus of old, dissonant bells, ringing in an abandoned church, somehow embarrassed. “I’m going to try to tell you why I’m glad you’ve chosen to stay human.”

“Oh,” Bella gasped.

“Did Edward ever tell you what led to this?” I could hear the sinister smile in her voice, and imagined how she would look gesturing to her unnaturally glorious immortal body.

Bella’s voice was suddenly somber. “He said it was close to what happened to me that time in Port Angeles, only no one was there to save you.” She shuddered next to me, and I wanted to ask what had happened to her in Port Angeles, but my mouth was glued shut by the morphine.

“Is that really all he told you?” Blondie asked.

“Yes,” Bella replied, her voice blank with confusion. “Was there more?”

“Yes,” Blondie replied, her voice harsh and bitter. “There was more.”

It was silent for a moment. I could hear the bloodsucker taking in sharp, ragged breaths, like she was trying to calm herself. I wondered if this was just a very bad dre