The world was burning. Around me, smoke filled the air, drawing a haze over the room, and all the blocked exits.
I was surrounded.
The vampires stood motionless, and I paced around, looking for a gap or a point of advantage. But they didn't give me one.
I was going to die.
But I wasn't scared. I didn't want to die, but I was as ready as I was ever going to be.
And I wasn't unprepared.
I bared my teeth, growled, and welcomed the attack.
Bella sat across the log from me.
"We'll leave first," she said quietly, brushing hair over her ear.
I wanted to snarl at her, shout until she saw reason. And I did toss out a remark of some kind. But more than anything, I wanted to be there for her, keep her safe, save her from the bastard who kept her from me.
I wanted to kiss her.
"Leah? Hey, wake up."
A hand shook my shoulder. I ignored it.
"Come on, Sam'll kill me."
I raised an eyelid. My eyes blurred, since I was tired and the light coming through my window was a little much, so I could only see an impression of Seth next to my bed.
"I patrolled last night," I said. "Unless vampire armageddon's here, tell Sam to screw himself."
"We're having a meeting at Jake's. All of us, human."
I crammed the pillow over my face. "Because he can't tell me at the bonfire?"
"Nope." Seth had too much freaking energy for whatever-the-hell time it was. "Come on, or he'll start without us."
He thudded out of the room. I groaned one more time.
"Don't go," I told myself. "He can't boss you around all the damn time."
But I climbed out of bed and grabbed for my jeans anyway.
Everyone else was there by the time I showed. They stood in a loose circle outside Jake's house, most of them shirtless. I stifled a yawn as I walked up.
"What's wrong, Leah?" Paul asked, grinning. "Too much action last night?"
"Outrunning your sorry tail is not action," I said.
Paul scowled, but Sam held up a hand. "Jacob's gotta run to Forks, so let's get started."
I rolled my eyes and went over to Seth. He gave a sympathetic, half-nervous grin and moved away from Brady to give me space.
"I just talked to Bella and Edward," Jacob said. "They think a vampire was in Bella's room."
Of course. Bella again. I exhaled my annoyance, and Sam shot me a cool-it look. He knew when I was getting wound up. And I fucking hated it, so I scowled back.
"We're keeping an eye on Bella tonight at the bonfire," Sam said, "while the Cullens search around for the vampire."
My eyes practically bugged out of my head. "It's a council meeting!"
"So we can't babysit an outsider!"
"Bella isn't an outsider," Sam said, with a sickening I'm-so-patient tone to his voice. "She's been friends of the Blacks for years."
"I have white friends, but I'm not exactly parading pack traditions in front of them, either."
Sam's face flattened. If he'd been in wolf form, he would've pulled alpha on me. "It's our job to protect the area, Bella included."
"Throw her to the leeches," I snarled. "Maybe our families won't be in danger."
Jacob turned, glaring. I shot him a challenging grin, but before he could so much as advance on me, Sam spoke. "It's final. Jake, we'll see you tonight."
As Jacob ran off, the rest of the pack took it as a cue to make their own exits. But I turned to Seth before he could go and muttered, "Are you hearing this?"
He shrugged. "Bella's cool."
I kicked the mud underfoot and sent some of it flying toward the walls of Jacob's house. It fell sadly short. "She's not one of us."
"Well..." Seth brightened. "Maybe it'll do her some good to hear a different view of vampires. See what we see."
"She doesn't see the Cullens like other vampires! You've seen what Jacob sees."
Seth held up his hands. "Hey, I get where you're coming from. But there's not much we can do about it."
Not much we could do. There was never much we could do. "I'll...I'll..."
"What? Start crap? While Mom's there?"
I stopped cold. I wasn't scared of Mom, but I also knew better than to push her buttons.
"Is this really about Bella hearing the stories?" Seth asked.
I grimaced. "I need another reason?"
"No. But..." Seth scratched the back of his head. "I've been dreaming about her like I'm Jacob."
"It has nothing to do with that," I said quickly. "But it's none of her business."
Seth shrugged and turned back toward home. I followed after a second, forcing the scowl on my face to soften. If Sam was going to be stubborn about it, there wasn't much I could do.
But I still wasn't happy about it.
The nice thing about the bonfire? It was one of the few chances I got to eat my fill.
I got there early and scarfed down three hot dogs before the rest of the pack had shown up. By the time Jacob and Bella came out of the woods, I was sated and slightly drowsy. I wouldn't fall asleep - I wanted to hear the stories, especially if there was a chance a stranger would hear them before me - but running patrols kicked my ass.
Several of the guys got up to greet Jacob. Others hung close to the food; I wasn't the only one eating my weight in barbecue tonight.
"Keep her downwind!" Paul called between bites. "I can't eat if I have to smell bloodsucker all night."
I stared at the fire. If I pretended they weren't here, they couldn't bother me, right? Never mind my ears, sensitive even in human form, could hear Bella breathing and Jacob chewing over the combined sounds of the outdoors. And that's when they didn't talk.
A spark popped in the air, and I glanced over right as Bella took a seat on the other side of the fire.
I didn't expect anything to happen. Certainly, I didn't expect to feel my entire world shift. I didn't expect to look in Bella's face and see everything I'd been missing in life, everything I'd wanted to feel with Sam but couldn't let myself feel anymore. And I didn't expect to feel a calm so peaceful I felt my lips start to tilt up in a smile.
Shit. I knew what this was.
I forced my eyes back to the flames and schooled my face to severity. I had lots of practice keeping my real emotions buried - Sam's constant presence made sure I did - but I couldn't remember how I'd felt five minutes before, or how I normally appeared.
I blinked hard. "What?"
Seth offered me a bag of chips. "Want some?"
"No thanks." My voice even sounded softer to my ears, more gentle. I shot Seth a quick look to see if he noticed, but he was too busy hurling the bag at Embry to pay me any attention.
I focused back on the fire and let the chatter of the group surround me. The colors of the flame were inviting, and I was with my family. My heart was in Bella's hands, and I'd never felt safer.
Except. It was total bullshit, and I knew it.
My brain, though shaken, was the same as it had ever been. I knew Isabella Swan was in love with a vampire first, and Jacob Black second, if his thoughts could be trusted. She'd run off and sparkle in the sunlight and be rich and beautiful and happy and undead.
And I would be left alone.
But it's okay, the imprinting whispered in my thoughts. You want her to be happy. You want her to go after what she wants, even if it's not you.
Billy spoke up, and I did my best to shove the voices away. The stories didn't seem as important now. Nothing did. Nothing besides the figure snuggled against Jake on the other side of the bonfire.
Halfway through the stories, a tear trickled down my cheek.
"Leah," Jacob said quietly. "I'm taking Bella home. Can you take my patrol 'til I get back?"
The rest of the group was gone, except for Sam and Emily, who kissed each other good night at the edge of the cliff. I braced myself automatically, but the sight didn't fill me with as much self-hatred as usual. Considering I hadn't left already because I was too busy carefully not watching Bella, it wasn't too surprising.
He hefted Bella in the air, and I noticed she was asleep. She leaned into his chest, and a tingle ran through my body. The grin threatened to return, but I was ready for it, and I stayed expressionless.
I jerked back to reality. Sam was standing next to me by the dying embers of the fire.
"Nothing," I said quickly. "Let's go."
I started changing out of my clothes, and I noticed Sam wasn't. "What?"
He shook his head and started stripping as well. "Sorry."
I slipped my clothes in the backpack I'd brought - I'd come back here before returning home, so I didn't have to drag everything with me - and shifted. It had to be the first time I was so relieved to be in wolf form and not human. Maybe I would've enjoyed being a wolf before if Sam hadn't been able to read every thought in my head, but he didn't seem to weigh on me as much now.
I shot forward, and Sam followed on my heels. I was faster than him, but I wasn't in the mood for racing. I felt somewhat relaxed, at ease.
Why what? I thought back.
Are you relieved to change?
I gave the mental equivalent of a shrug. Just the stories, I guess.
I don't know, Sam thought. Something's different with you tonight.
Don't think about it, I told myself. Don't think about it don't think about it don't--
Come on, Leah. You're gonna slip up eventually.
He was right. I darted through the trees and got some distance so I wouldn't have to see him, and then I thought about seeing Bella at the bonfire. The peace and calm reared up as strong as before, and Sam didn't miss it.
Yeah, I thought, elation replaced by misery.
But you've seen Bella before. We've all seen her.
You didn't want Bella to know I'm a werewolf, I said. I haven't seen her in months.
He searched my memories - the intimacy of his mind wasn't quite as bad now, and I didn't fight him - and with a growing sense of stress, he thought, Great. This isn't a mess at all.
I didn't have anything to say, so we ran in near-silence for a few minutes. I focused on the smells of the forest, searching for the smell of something wrong. Jacob had found the smell of a vampire in Bella's room, so it was extra important we keep an alert out for it. But nothing seemed out of place.
Finally, Sam thought, What do you want to do?
What is there for me to do?
Fight for her. She's your soul mate.
I laughed with an edge, and with some relief. It seemed the bitterness wasn't completely gone, and it was a relief. I was still here, even if my body betrayed me.
Fight who? Jacob? Or fight Cullen?
Not really fight. You can show her why life with you would be better.
Is it really? I asked, thinking automatically of Emily's freshly scarred face, thinking of our breakup. I had some distance now, so the images lacked their sting, but Sam recoiled from their presence.
Besides, I thought again, what do you think Jacob's going to do when he finds out?
Sam rounded and drew closer as we crossed into a field of forested trees. The moonlight was even brighter here, and his black fur gleamed in the light.
He'll know to back off, Sam thought with confidence. He knows the strength of the imprinting bond.
I snorted. We'll see.
Another one of Jacob's memories. They sat in the lobby of a movie theater, nearly touching, and I felt the burn that signaled the change hovering below the surface. It was small at this point, but as I felt Jacob's love for Bella - and now, my own, on top of it - the flame grew.
This time, my eyes flew open. My mom didn't wake me up much.
"Jacob's here," Mom said, her face severe. "He wants to talk to you."
"Did you tell him I was sleeping?"
"Yes. But he didn't listen to me."
He bucked my mom's authority? This was going to be a joy. I sighed and pulled out of the covers. "You might want to stay back here for now."
"Why?" Mom said. Her tone was not polite.
"Because he's probably going to pick a fight, and you shouldn't be around." I rolled my head on my shoulders and shook my arms. "Seth here?"
"He's on patrol."
So much for help. "Okay. I'll let you know when it's clear."
My mom put a hand on my arm. "I'm going with you."
"I can handle it."
"I don't care."
I sighed. "All right, but I warned you."
We stepped into the large front room, and I saw Jacob's form through the window. I slipped out the door, and he whirled on me, shaking so hard I was surprised he didn't explode on the spot. I tensed, but Mom held her ground beside me.
"You." The words came out more like a growl than human sounds. "You."
"What?" I asked, making my voice biting on purpose. Guess I was more ready for a fight than I knew. "I was trying to sleep. You know, because I covered your job last night."
The shaking eased a little. "You imprinted."
"So!" Jacob stomped away from the door. "I'm the one in love with her!"
"I know. The dreams kinda told me."
"I'm dreaming your memories," I said. "What, you've never had a sexy dream about me and Sam?"
Jacob seemed surprised enough to back off for a minute. He looked at Mom and back at me. "What? No."
"But..." Jacob shook his head. "You need to stay away from Bella!"
"You think I'm going anywhere near her?"
"She's in love with Cullen," I said, matter-of-fact. "Some freaky werewolf bond isn't going to make a bit of difference."
Jacob scowled. "No, it isn't. Because she's going to choose me."
I rolled my eyes. "Can I go back to bed now?"
Before he could speak, Sam came down the street, followed closely on his heels by Seth. They both wore jeans and no shirts or shoes, so someone had tipped them off in the middle of the patrol.
"What's going on?" Sam asked as he closed in.
"Nothing," Jacob said, disgusted. "Nothing at all."
He ran into the woods, and my mom stepped back inside, shaking her head. Seth asked, "Was he picking a fight?"
"If he was, he sucks at it."
Sam stared in the direction Jacob went. "That went better than I expected."
I folded my arms over my chest. "It's not over yet."
Jacob didn't join the pack mental network again until later that night, while we were running as a nearly full group.
The forest creaked as Jacob hit a tree, the shards of his clothes falling to the ground underneath him.
Edward Cullen emerged from the nearest trees, snarling. His shirt hung off him in torn shreds.
"Stop it!" Bella's voice rang in the air.
Without a word, the pack turned south and headed full steam for Forks. Sam thought, Jacob? What's going on?
Jacob remembered how he'd appeared on Bella's doorstep. How he'd confessed his love to her, holding her hand, pleading.
How he'd forced her to kiss him.
STOP IT. RIGHT NOW.
Jacob froze. Edward, hearing Sam's alpha voice echoing in Jacob's head, said aloud, "Your wolf broke the treaty."
He did, Sam thought back. And we'll punish him. But let him leave. He won't step onto your lands again.
"Only if you keep him away from Bella."
Deal. Jacob, get back here. NOW.
Jacob rose to his feet and dragged through the woods like a puppet on strings.
We weren't far from the boundary line. I ran at the front of the back, and Sam didn't say a word to pull me back or stop me besides, Don't cross onto the Cullens' land.
Don't worry. I wanted a piece of Jacob's hide way more than I wanted to risk going into Forks right now. And the more Jacob remembered about the past few hours, the more I wanted to take him on.
He'd gone to Bella because he'd felt my imprinting would stake a claim he couldn't get around. He'd had to make his move now, and damn the consequences. He'd shown up and known Edward was there, so he asked to speak to Bella outside alone, and...I shut myself out of Jacob's mind as best I could before I could see the rest again. It was bad enough already.
Jacob didn't make a noise as we reached the line. My nose burned when their territory came into view, even though the area seemed empty besides the still-distant form of a wolf on the other side. I doubted any of the invisible group was Edward, but I'd be willing to bet they watched us because of him.
God, if Jacob hurt Bella--
I didn't, Jacob snapped, surfacing long enough to answer.
I don't want to hear it.
Jacob zipped over the boundary line, but the smell didn't ease. They were waiting. In response, the pack fanned out, making a barrier between Jacob and the vampires' land. Sam loomed in front of the line, dark and serious.
We'll discuss this closer to home, he thought. His nose worked as well as anyone else's.
We backed off a couple miles until the vampire smell was gone before taking a break. I could feel my muscles tense and ready for a fight, but otherwise, I was a piece of the pack mentality. I wasn't Leah, but Leah and Sam and Jacob and Quil and Embry and Paul and Jared and Brady and Seth. We'd banded together and readied for a fight with the vampires through pure instinct. But we couldn't go after the Cullens and keep La Push safe.
So Jacob got to be the focus of our anger.
Sam spoke as our voice. You endangered us. Our homes, our families...the safety of the woman you supposedly love.
Jacob's eyes flashed. I do love her.
Enough to put the safety of one of your own in immediate risk. Did you think about what this'll do to Leah?
A surge of annoyance broke me free for a moment. Hey, don't do me any favors.
Sam ignored me. Even if Bella didn't get caught in the crossfire, you made an already difficult situation even harder. Bella will suffer, and Leah will suffer.
Jacob's head drooped, and even though flashes of thoughts like I don't care and I had to do it went through his head, what dominated was Bella's tear-filled eyes, panicked for him and for Edward. The hurt shaping her features. The pain he knew she'd felt.
I realized I was struggling to breathe. I sat on my haunches and tried to recover, panting hard.
You can't see her again until this is resolved, Sam thought in the alpha voice. No going into Forks. No going near her if she's here. No loopholes. I'll say when you can see her again.
Jacob whined low, and my body flooded with anger. I thought, You think it'll work? Or Bella will stand for it?
This decision's trying to help Bella, Sam thought. And you.
I shifted to human in an instant. It was a relief and jarring all at once, getting my own mind again. The other wolves, surprised, turned their heads when I glared at them.
"I want to talk to you, Sam," I said. "Alone."
Sam gaped at me for a moment, then shifted back as well. "Fine. I'll see the rest of you in La Push."
The wolves slunk away, Jacob the last of them all. He gave me an inscrutable wolf expression, and disappeared into the trees when I matched his gaze. Once I couldn't hear them anymore, I crossed my arms, and glared. "What are you doing?"
"Making a statement," Sam said, his expression soft. The Alpha who'd chewed out Jacob was gone. For now. "The Cullens will see we're serious when Jacob's out of the way and not involved our dealings. Edward in particular will feel better about protecting Bella--"
"What about her own feelings?"
"And you won't be hurt," he said in a gentler tone. "This is harder than you know."
"Typical." I shook my head. "Using me as a fucking pawn."
"It's my job to protect your well-being."
"It's your job to lead the pack. It's the pack's job to watch after our tribe. There's nothing in there about you butting in my life."
"Fine. What do you want me to do?"
"I..." Crap. He had me there. "Don't know. Not until we get the Cullens sorted."
Sam nodded. "I'm buying time. Once I get back in town, I'll call them and figure our next move. Can we go from there?"
I didn't like it. At all. But for now, it seemed to be the only option. I scowled, and nodded.
"Just...ask me next time," I said.
Sam shifted back without another word. I sighed and did the same.
It was quiet for a while. Too long.
I'd hoped Sam's talk with the bloodsuckers would turn up something good, but of course, the Cullens didn't want something straightforward like a fight. Carlisle, the head of the family, wanted to let the whole thing drop, since they had vampire crap to worry about, but Sam had forced a favor on him as a means to save face. Whose face, I have no idea, but Carlisle had reluctantly gone with it. I was willing to bet Edward had something to do with it.
So we ended up the leeches' lap dogs for a while. But by "we", I meant "everyone but me and Jacob" because Sam wanted to keep the knowledge of my existence secret for a while long, and because Jacob was banned from normal wolfy duties for a while. We took turns running loops around La Push - Sam didn't risk pairing us off - and did nothing else.
Days passed. And Jacob was more patient than I'd expected, with the boring patrols. But he left the area before the week was out, and while Sam checked in to make sure he stayed away from Forks, he didn't push him otherwise. He had to keep the peace, but Sam knew how tough it was to watch imprinting from the outside. He heard it from me constantly.
But still? I was fucking bored out of my skull. Jacob's snit wasn't enough to interest me.
I was walking around the rez about a week after the bonfire when I circled by the Black house. Mom had been visiting Billy a lot to give him support, so I wanted to see what was up with dinner. I preferred to eat at home than try to be cheerful around Billy, particularly since his judging eyes told me everything he was too chicken to say.
But I was surprised to hear screaming from the house. And it wasn't Jacob.
"He's sixteen, Dad! He's not an adult!"
Billy said something too quietly for me to hear.
"Fine! I'll find him without you!"
The door slammed open, and Rachel Black burst through, scowling up a storm. She crossed her arms over her stomach, as if the rage she felt came from her gut. Her wincing expression relaxed marginally when she caught sight of me.
I raised a hand and walked over. "Haven't seen you in a while."
She tossed a furious hand toward the house. "I'm sure you can see why."
"I know the feeling," I said. I did, but I couldn't remember it right now. I hadn't even had it out with Mom in over a week. "You okay?"
Rachel had dropped to a knee, grimacing. "Yeah, yeah. I just overdid it a little."
I reached a hand to help her up. "Here, let me--"
As she took my hand, I cut off. She wasn't cold. Sure, it was June, but she should've been cold to the touch; all humans were. She felt the same temperature as me.
I lowered to her level as she started quivering. Double shit. "Listen to me. Something's about to happen. We need to get to the woods if you can."
"The woods?" she said, through grit teeth. "God, I...I feel..."
I picked her up and ran as fast as I could. No need to hide things from her now. But she was too far gone to notice; she writhed in my grip, sweating and making quiet growling noises under her breath.
We barely made it behind the trees before she jerked too much for me to hold, and I set her on the ground as carefully as I could. Seconds later, her clothes shredded, and she exploded into a wolf much larger than herself, with fur the color of sand on the beach.
Rachel whined and cried as I shed my clothes. I changed, and I could hear her screams in my head.
Hey, hey! I thought as loud as I could. Rachel! It's me, it's Leah!
She calmed enough to think a single word. Help!
Hang in there. It'll ease off soon. At the same time, I cast around for whoever was running the Forks circuit. I found Embry and Jared.
New recruit? Embry said, as I made contact.
I replayed Rachel's change, and felt his stunned reply. Crap. I'll get Sam.
Rachel was on her side now, shivering, but more calm. I deliberately walked in front of her line of vision, and she twitched. But she was in too much pain to move more. Leah! Where are you?
Right in front of you, Rach.
There's a big wolf in front of me. Her voice was hesitant. Right?
I nodded my wolfy head and sat back. We're werewolves.
Oh. I felt her poke in my head, rifle through some of the things I'd seen, tally it up. Rachel was quick. Jacob too?
To my surprise, she laughed. No wonder Dad wasn't going after him. He didn't want his ass kicked.
I snorted. Something like that.
"What's going on?" Billy asked, as Sam and I helped Rachel inside. She couldn't walk, and wouldn't be able to for at least the rest of the day. But honestly, I was shocked she'd managed the change back so quickly. Maybe the bit about the Black line being alpha material wasn't bull after all.
We set Rachel on Billy's couch.
"Our pack has another member," Sam said.
Billy paled dramatically, and stared at Rachel, who mustered the energy to scowl at him.
"So don't piss her off, okay?" I asked.
Billy nodded. "Right."
He stared hollowly at her as I knelt next to Rachel.
"Thanks," Rachel told me quietly.
I nodded. "I'll be around if you need anything."
"Can I talk to you?" Sam asked. He walked over to the front door.
"Whatever," I said. I rose and followed him outside.
"The Cullens are making a stand against the vampires," he said, as soon as we'd made a little distance. "They think one of their enemies is running the show."
"Figures," I said.
"Against Edward. She wants to kill Bella."
My knees shook. I ignored them. "Bella's a bloodsucker magnet, isn't she."
"They need the pack to protect her," he said. "They'll bait the vampires in one place, and one of us'll wait with her somewhere else. I thought I'd ask you first."
I don't know what I'd expected, but this wasn't it. "Me? Why?"
"Because what would you do if I tried to keep you back?"
"Go anyway." It would've been my answer even if Bella hadn't been involved. No way I'd miss a fight.
"We're going to go to the Cullens' tonight, since one of them has experience with fighting newborns. I figured you'd want to come, but if you do..."
Sam shifted from one foot to the other. In the past, the action would've been enough for me to hug him. And crappy as it was, even with Bella in the picture, I still wanted to go to him a little.
"What?" I snapped.
"Whether or not you're there, Edward'll pick the imprinting out of our heads. We've only avoided him this long because he hasn't wanted to see us."
My stomach churned. "So much for privacy."
I waved a hand. "Whatever. This is the biggest invasion I've dealt with."
Sam's eyes grew soft. "Lee-lee--"
"Don't." My anger flipped from cool to red-hot. I stepped forward and grit my teeth. "Don't you say that."
Even though he had several inches on me, he cowered a little. And maybe he had good reason. I wasn't the same Leah he'd fallen in love with.
"What time do you need me?" I said, in a voice marginally less pissed than before.
"Great. I'm going to bed."
I could feel him watch me as I left. And I didn't give a crap.
The first voice I heard that night, as I changed and ran toward the border, was Sam's. Most everyone else was present, but quiet.
There's no argument, he said. You can't handle it.
I was surprised to hear a female voice answer. Excuse me?
Rachel? I thought, as Quil and Embry shifted. You doing okay?
Fine. She sounded curt, but normal.
Sam's letting you come? Quil thought.
Rachel snorted mentally. He can't stop me.
Actually... I trailed off as I gave it some thought. Maybe Sam wouldn't. Or couldn't. Rachel was Ephraim Black's descendant, just like Jacob. The only reason Sam was pack leader was because Jacob hadn't taken the job.
Yep, Rachel agreed, pleased. Gotta love those bloodlines.
I have them, too, I thought, a little sour.
She didn't disagree, but Sam changed the subject. Probably because he didn't want to continue whatever fight he and Rachel had been having.
We're going in full numbers to see the Cullens, he thought. It's more a show of strength than anything, but if we can learn any tactics, we all need to know them. And from personal experience, which is why Rachel's coming.
I did the mental equivalent of rolling my eyes. An Oh, please without explicit words. But Sam ignored it, and we trudged off.
The Cullen house wasn't too far from the La Push territory, but it felt wrong crossing the line, seeing the lands that weren't ours, smelling the stinging scent of the vampires. And, oddly, smelling a hell of a lot of humans; I could see unlit strings of lights hanging in the trees around the Cullen places, and the dying odors of food and sweat clung to the air.
I wasn't the only one to notice. They had a party? Embry thought incredulously. When they're going to be attacked?
Bella graduated, Rachel said. Jake told me.
You talked to him? I asked.
Not for long. He hates having his sister in his head.
It's not terrible, Seth thought cheerfully. It was hard to depress the kid.
The conversation ended as we came up on the Cullens. Seven pairs of glowing yellow eyes watched as we slipped into view, but my gaze fell naturally on the fidgeting figure at the end of the line.
As her eyes combed the line, I relaxed as the anxieties and annoyances I'd clung to dissolved. I was surrounded by the pack and the vampires, but somehow, it felt as if the world only had the two of us. It was a feeling I hadn't had in a while, and I couldn't help be grateful.
Edward's head shifted forward, and I felt everyone around me again. I fixed my gaze forward.
"Thanks for coming," one of the vampires said, stepping forward. Carlisle, if Sam's thoughts were right. He smiled and seemed cheerful, which was enough to bring a little bit of my edge back. A friendly-looking leech scared me more than the openly aggressive ones. "We're glad to have your help."
"Is Jacob here?" Edward asked.
Oddly enough, Bella was the one to answer. "No," she said, with a little sigh to her voice. It explained why she'd been searching the wolves.
We've honored our agreement, Sam thought. There was a little afterthought about Jacob leaving the area entirely, and a little smile spread on Edward's face as he repeated Sam's statement word-for-word.
He watched Bella as he finished in a gentle tone. "And apparently, he's out-of-state."
Damn. He was scary.
Bella's eyes filled with tears, and I felt a longing similar to the one I'd felt for Sam earlier, but instead of the memory my interaction with Sam had been, this was a compulsion with nearly the strength of an alpha command. I took a reflexive step forward.
Easy, Leah, Sam thought.
I'm okay. I sat back, compensating as best I could. I'd thought Sam's thoughts would've shown how hard imprinting was, but I'd had no clue. Not from this side.
Edward turned a furious face toward me, and I growled. Everyone watched us now, including Bella, so I shut up. Edward's gaze remained predatory until Bella whispered in his ear.
"Please," she said. "Not again."
His face softened, but his eyes stayed with me, and he drew Bella close to him.
The rest of the night was a blur. I did learn some fighting techniques, but I couldn't help sneaking peeks at Bella. She watched the entire time with her biting her lip and the rolling the hem of her shirt in her hands. She was worried. For the leeches? Really? And not just Edward: Alice fighting in particular seemed to make her tense. I didn't get it, and I spent a lot of the time thinking about her. To the point where Sam stopped telling me to pay attention, since he got tired of it.
Eventually, the Cullens finished running through everything. Edward was still staring at me as the wolves rose to leave, and I thought in his direction, Would it piss you off if I talked to Bella?
"Maybe," he said, too quietly for Bella to hear.
I want to explain. She deserves to know.
After a minute, he nodded once and drew back to the other Cullens. I jogged into the woods, changed to human, put my clothes on, and slipped back out.
Bella glanced in my direction once. As I drew closer, she looked a second time. "Leah? You're a wolf?"
"I'm a wolf," I said as my heart dropped into my stomach. It wasn't fair. Shouldn't the whole soul mate thing make talking easier? "Um. I wanted to say something about Jacob."
"Oh," she said. "He's okay?"
"Yeah. Not happy...but that's not what I wanted to say. I thought you should know why he did what he did."
Bella's face screwed up in a mixture of distaste and distress. "He said he was in love with me. I didn't think it'd turn him into such a jerk."
I couldn't help it. I smiled. "Did he tell you about imprinting?"
"Holy crow," she whispered. "Did he..."
"No." Damn. How was I supposed to say this? "But someone else did, and he thought he'd lose you."
"Yeah." My knack for words was astounding.
"Who is it? Or it is private?"
"It involves you," I said, a bit of irritation returning. "Don't you think it's your business?"
"I guess so. But it's not as if he can control it, right?"
Damn. Damn, damn, damn. "It isn't a he."
Bella gasped. "You're saying..."
I nodded. It was all I could think to do.
"Oh. Oh. Leah, I...I'm so..."
I held up my hands. "Don't worry, I won't get in the way. I know you'll marry Edward or whatever."
Her jaw dropped. "You do?"
"Oh." Ouch. Wrong time for a good guess. "I figured you would. You love him, I mean."
Bella gave a shaky laugh. "Jake's gonna flip."
That was putting it mildly. But hopefully, I wouldn't be around when he found out. "Sam put me on watch detail for the fight. If you're okay with it."
She blinked. "Why wouldn't I?"
I could've gone into one of my rants about imprinting and her choices, but frankly, I felt I'd stuck my foot so far in mouth, it was making its way to my stomach.
"Great," I said. "I'll see you then. Night."
"Leah," Bella said quietly, and my heart thumped so hard against my ribs, I thought it would explode.
"Thank you. For telling me." She met my gaze. "I don't want to make this too hard on you."
I'd never noticed how beautiful her eyes were. Or how her smile lit up her face.
Oh no, I told myself. No, no, no. You might be forced into joining the Suckers for Bella Swan Club, but you're not doing this.
"You're welcome," I finally replied, then ran for dear life.
The night before the battle was stormy. Which suited me in pretty much every respect.
I sat outside the tent and ignored the mumblings of Edward and Bella as snow and wind raged around me. Or, I ignored them until I could hear Bella shivering. Then I could hear nothing else. It wasn't fair. I had heat to spare, and Bella was freezing.
Edward's voice cut through the howling air. "You're right."
About? I thought.
Ah. I took the hint, changed to human, and put on some clothes. Everything was cold and wet, but bits of snow melted off as I walked toward the tent. Edward unzipped the door, and I could see the way Bella was hunched in a ball and trembling. A surge of panic hit me hard enough to hurt.
Why had I agreed to do this? Right. Sucker.
"Um," I said, climbing inside and zipping the tent. "How should I do this?"
"Probably skin contact."
"You okay with that, Bella?" I asked.
"I'm fine," Bella said curtly. Only it sounded as if "I" had four syllables and "fine" was in sixteen parts, so I laid behind her and touched my back to hers. I only felt cold parka, but Bella must've felt something, because she flipped over and wrapped her arms around me.
Happiness shot through me. I put my arms around her and ignored my feelings as best I could, which is to say, not at all. It made me tense up, which was okay because it would've been impossible to relax anyway. Even if your supposed soul mate was entwined with you, a reeking vampire wanting to tear your throat out wasn't exactly soothing.
"I don't want to tear your throat out," Edward said quietly. Probably too quiet for Bella to hear, but considering he had to speak up for me to hear over the wind outside, I wasn't sure.
Thanks, I thought. It was mildly sarcastic, but hey, at least I was keeping the woman he loved warm.
"But you want to kill me?" he asked.
Yes, I thought automatically, but with no rancor. In fact, with Bella snuggling into my shoulder and somewhat happy, I wasn't anything but pleased and calm. Too bad.
"Thank you," Edward muttered. "Jacob wouldn't have been this nice about it."
Guess he proved it already, didn't he?
The grogginess I hadn't had outside was starting to appear, and I sunk into the pocket of warmth I created by being next to Bella and the tent wall. I just hoped the leech wouldn't stare at me all night.
I woke the first minute Bella stirred in my arms the next morning. She gave me a smile without opening her eyes. It was too charming for words.
"Hey," she said, her voice fuzzy from sleep. "Thanks for keeping me from turning into an icicle."
Out of the corner of my eye, Edward was holding the same position he'd had all night. Figured. But Bella sat up, her hair messed up, and she gave him the most sickeningly sweet smile I'd ever seen. Even marble couldn't stand up to her, and he allowed a smile of his own.
I stretched. "So. We have time for breakfast before the big show?"
"We can eat," Bella said. "But maybe you should check in."
I nodded. "See you out there."
I slipped out the tent door and shed my clothes. The air was clear, and probably the sort of cold that came after a snowstorm, since the ground was covered by a good layer of white. But I never felt cold, and the freshness in the air was nice.
I took a breath and shifted.
Morning, Leah, Seth thought. I'm still coming up there, right?
Yep. Seth wasn't fond of the idea of staying behind with Brady and Rachel in La Push, and Sam didn't feel comfortable putting him on the front lines. So he got to share babysitting duty with me. I think we're having sandwiches.
Sweet! Save me some!
I could feel other wolves joining the mental link. How's it going, Sam?
We're moving into position, he thought, and the minds linked with his started to group together. But Alice isn't expecting action for another hour or so.
Cool. I'm gonna have breakfast.
Don't take too long.
I shifted back immediately. Ugh, Sam was so bossy when he was about to fight. He wasn't a big fan, but the thought of tearing into some vamps got my blood pumping. Too bad he was running the pack and I was the one here.
As soon as I'd put clothes back on, Bella and Edward emerged from the tent, holding hands. I wondered how Bella could grab onto a walking popsicle, particularly after she'd been so cold last night. But hey, it was her deal, not mine.
For Bella's benefit - I assumed Edward had listened in - I said, "Seth's on his way. He wants you to save some food for him."
Bella smiled. "Why do I think we have to save food for ourselves?"
We sat around the rocks, and in the blink of an eye, Edward passed out all the food we'd packed. Or rather, the blink of a human eye; Bella was amazed and pleased. I wasn't so impressed. I'd seen him do everything in super slow motion, even though he did it in the span of a couple heartbeats.
Between bites of food - on Bella's side, anyway - Edward and Bella chatted about their impending wedding. Bella shot me a sympathetic look when they started, but it wasn't as if I hadn't figured it out already. Bella seemed a lot more hesitant about the idea of a wedding than Edward. I wondered if Edward would drag her up the aisle if she wanted to back out.
I finished eating a sandwich and switched back to wolf form. Sam pounced on me at once.
We're a few minutes out, he thought. Seth there yet?
Almost! Seth thought. I took a peek out of his eyes, and I could see the rock features from down the mountain. And swaying trees up ahead.
As if on cue, I heard a twig snapping. I turned toward the sound and inhaled deeply, but I was upwind of whatever it was. Edward stood and balled his hands into fists, shooting me a glance.
I don't know, I thought.
He disappeared into the woods in an instant, and Bella jumped to her feet. "Where's he going?"
I couldn't answer with words, so I stepped between Bella and whatever the noise was.
"I asked him to stay with me," she said, her voice tense.
Suddenly, in my head, the pack jumped forward and attacked a wave of vampires, and the clashing in my head threw me for a moment. When I recovered, I thought, Do you see the leader?
A chorus of nos came back as trees in front of me jerked dramatically, and crashes rang through the forest. Bella's hands dug into my fur. I wanted to comfort her, but all I could do was move back and push her further away.
Dammit, Seth! I thought. Where are you?
He was coming from the east, and the fight was to the south. As the noises grew louder, I thought, Stay clear of the fight. I'll need your help if it makes it this far forward.
Can handle himself.
Seth increased his speed. The sounds grew distant again, and closer, and stopped entirely.
"Edward?" Bella called nervously.
Smoke started rising into the air, purple and dark. The part of me connected to Sam's head knew how vampires looked like when they burned; the pack had done it before I'd joined.
But who'd lost?
We got our answer in seconds as a woman walked through the woods, with blood-red hair and a smile so wide it nearly split her face.
"Victoria," Bella said, her voice full of anguish.
The leech's eyes flickered toward me, and back up to Bella. She spoke, and her voice was oddly high-pitched.
"I wanted him to live," she said, "so he could feel the loss of his mate. But I take my shots when I get them."
"You're lying," Bella whispered.
Victoria bared her teeth, but before she could speak again or take any action, Seth launched out of the woods and ran square into Victoria. That was my cue, so I shot forward as well, even as I could feel Bella try to pull me back.
The vampire fought dirty. She punched Seth in the eye, and he whimpered, but I got hold of her shoulder and buried my teeth in, to dislodge an arm. It worked, but she dodged before I could get something else and tried to make a run for it. But Seth recovered enough to cut her off, and he bit square into his torso as she tried to wrap her arms around his waist. He had to pull back, but the injury slowed her, and she whirled, ready to take us on.
The smell of blood filled the air, and Victoria's head snapped over.
Bella clutched a rock in her right hand, and a stream of blood ran down her left arm.
I don't know how it would've looked without the imprinting, but as it was, I could read everything Bella felt in her face. Her grief. Her fury. And most of all, the urge to get something back, even as it meant her own vein opened and the liquid inside spilled onto the ground.
Victoria lunged, but I was ready for her.
I pounced, and with a quick motion, I ripped Victoria's head off her neck. Seth jumped not long after and began taking off her other limbs. She hadn't even had a chance to make noise in protest.
The second I had a moment to breathe, I thought at Seth, Take these to the fire?
Yeah, he thought, sensing my real question. I'll let you know.
He grabbed the head and the arms, since he only had so much mouth and those were the dangerous parts. I checked in with the pack. They were taking down the last couple newborns happily; apparently, they'd had no problems.
Bella still stood in the defiant position she'd been in earlier, clutching the rock she'd used to cut her arm. She didn't seem to notice my presence. I walked over and nudged her leg with my nose.
She whispered without turning her face up. "Edward?"
Seth? I thought.
He approached the fire. I could see, in his mind, the pieces of vampires burning in the middle. He flung the parts of Victoria in, and he caught sight of reddish hair attached to a different head.
Victoria was right, he thought, surprised. And then he was sad. Poor Bella.
Bella saw it in my face somehow. Or maybe it was the way I tensed when I heard. Either way, she backed off one step, a second step, and slumped to the ground, almost as if she was checking to see if the planet was still beneath her. I didn't know whether to back off or get close.
Luckily, Sam made the decision for me.
Leah! he thought in a rush. I hadn't been paying attention, so he got me up to speed: the fight was over, and the Volturi were closing in. The Cullens needed Bella, and we needed to leave.
Got it, I thought. I knelt next to Bella and whined, but she didn't acknowledge me.
With a mental sigh, I changed back and covered myself up with my arms. I didn't have time for my clothes. "Bella. Can you hear me?"
"I wanted him to stay with me," she whispered. "Why did he run off?"
"Bella, we need to get to the clearing."
She raised watery eyes. "Why?"
I didn't have an answer for the question she was actually asking. I didn't try to come up with one. "It's the Volturi."
She stared off into space. I stepped back to change, and once I was a wolf again, Bella pulled herself onto my back. I ran off into the woods and waited to feel Bella crying or sobbing or...something.
But she stayed motionless the entire time.
Leaving Bella with the Cullens wasn't pleasant, but I didn't have time to linger, and truth be told, I really wanted to go back to La Push. Since we'd addressed the major threat, we could relax - at least for a couple days, knowing the way we lived - and take a break from patrolling every hour of the day. The urge to shift was too much to ignore, but if I didn't have to spend time as a wolf constantly, it would be easier.
My vision disappeared the minute Rachel came into our heads and met up with us.
What are you doing here? Sam asked. I told you to stay in town!
You could've USED me, Rachel thought angrily. Everyone else groaned, and from their thoughts, I pieced together memories of a fight they'd had while I'd been asleep with Bella. Apparently, she hadn't been okay with staying behind. Even as a rear guard.
And you're Mister Wisdom? How long have you been doing this, a year?
It's experience you don't have.
Because you won't let me have it. And you won't let me go back to school.
Lay off, Jared thought, tired. We all got this when we first started.
You can't go back to school because you'll have nowhere to change, Sam thought. You'll give us all up.
Is that it? Or are you jealous because I can leave and you can't?
You can't leave.
With that, she disappeared from our heads. Even though she was right in front of us. The entire pack skidded to a stop, and Rachel kept running.
Rachel! Sam bellowed loudly. What did you do?
I waited for an answer, but although she rounded and bared her teeth, Rachel didn't speak in our heads. Still, Sam had heard something - I hadn't been paying enough attention to get it from his thoughts - so he kept communicating with her.
You want to challenge me? he snarled. I was a good hundred feet away, but his actual growl rumbled the ground. I circled in closer and saw Rachel backing off, her head tilted in confusion. I listened to Sam for her reply.
But Rachel didn't say anything else. Instead, she turned tail and ran the opposite direction.
On impulse, I broke ranks and followed.
Leah! Sam thought. Where are you going?
I wanna see something. Hang on.
I ran to Rachel, exhilaration pulsing through my veins. Could this be it? Finally?
Wait! I called out. I wasn't sure she could hear me, but I didn't know what else to do. If I changed to human, she might not stop. Rachel!
Leah? she thought, surprised.
Rachel was the only voice in my head. It worked. My tail wagged so hard, I could've been a dog.
You broke from the pack! I said as Rachel stopped. And I broke with you!
It totally makes sense, I thought. You're a Black. Goddamn, this is awesome!
Rachel's ears drooped. Sam nearly killed me back there.
It's okay, I thought. We've got some distance now. We'll hear if they're coming.
No, you don't get it. He wanted to fight, and...my body wanted to fight too.
Huh. Must be some kind of alpha thing. I froze as my train of thought continued. Oh no.
If you guys wanted to fight each other...
It's not gonna be safe in La Push. For either of you. If I'd been human, I would've winced. Or me.
Crap, Rachel thought.
No kidding. Let's move!
I started running, and Rachel pushed to keep up with me. Branches cracked a few dozen feet behind me. I jolted, and as I swung left to get some space, Rachel moved to avoid me.
What? she thought.
I heard something. Go faster!
Wait! This was a new voice, but familiar. Slow down, you guys are faster than me!
SETH? I thought, skidding to a stop. What the hell are you doing?
He crossed over the landing, tongue hanging out of his mouth. Coming with you guys. What do you think?
No, you're not, I thought. You're going back. Mom'll kill us.
We can't go into La Push right now, Rachel thought. Well, I can't, and Leah's old enough to make up her own mind. You're--
Just a kid? Like you're inexperienced, Rachel? He snorted.
Why did you leave? she asked.
Seth gave the equivalent of a mental shrug. Dunno. It felt right, you know? The pack's too big, and I didn't wanna stay without you, Leah.
As much as I hated to admit it, Seth's admission made me all warm and fuzzy. He was a sweet guy, when he wasn't an annoying brat.
Even though you can hear all my thoughts? I asked.
It's not that bad, Leah.
But Seth, Rachel thought, you're underage. So go home, or...
Or? You'll order me?
No, Rachel sighed, and for a second, she sounded exactly like Jacob. Who, I was pleased to realize, wasn't attached to us mentally anymore. Freaking sweet.
Howls sounded from the other side of the ridge, and they didn't sound particularly happy. Rachel started running again.
Right toward the Cullen border.
Rachel, wait! I thought, panicked. I chased after her. We can't go back on the Cullens' land now! We don't know--
Where are we supposed to go? she thought. The others need to cool down, and we don't have anywhere to go.
Rachel crossed the line. I blinked, and right away, two vampires snarled right in front of us. Jasper and Emmett, if I remembered right. I skidded to a stop and whined, and Rachel stopped at my warning right before she would've rammed into their legs. She backed up fast.
"What," Jasper said, cold and quiet, "are you doing here?"
Someone had to change to answer, and Rachel and Seth didn't seem inclined to answer. I shifted and grabbed my clothes as fast as I could. This would be a good chance to jump me, but there was no way in hell I'd be naked in front of them.
"We're having some pack trouble," I said, pulling on sweatpants, "and Rachel didn't know the border. We'll leave."
"Not until you give her back," Jasper snarled.
"Give who back?"
"Don't screw with us," Emmett said. "We followed her trail."
My brain put two and two together. "Bella's gone?"
Another couple vampires appeared in a blur. We were outnumbered. Great.
"Wolves. Of course." Alice put her hands on her hips. "What's going on?"
"Hello, Leah," Esme said. Her face was as soft as a vampire's could be. "Can we search the La Push area?"
I frowned. "Why?"
"I can't see where Bella went." Alice frowned. "I know she drove in this direction because I can smell her truck, but she still isn't in my vision. Which either means she's dead, or she's in La Push."
At the word "dead", I flinched. "She's alive."
"How do you know?" Emmett said, but not with malice. A little challenging, but he struck me as the kind of guy who enjoyed fighting. "You have a special Bella beacon we don't know about?"
Alice's eyes narrowed, but she let it drop. "Well? Either someone needs to check La Push, or we need to go."
"You should stay," I said. "It wouldn't be safe for you guys normally, but now..."
I winced and glanced at Rachel. She was our new alpha; she should be handling this. But she shook her head, and I sighed.
"We split," I said. "This is our new pack. Sam might be our enemy now."
The vampires stilled.
"What?" Esme said. "Did you have a disagreement?"
"Yeah." No one spoke, and I realized what they want to know: if they were in for a fight. "It's not really dangerous to anyone outside the pack. It's just drama."
"Great," Jasper said, scowling. "Just what we need."
"It'll be fine," Esme said, pulling out a cell phone. "I need to talk to Carlisle, and we'll make a new plan."
I frowned. "You waited for us?"
"We smelled you," Emmett said. "We came up with it last minute."
I noticed my hands shook. I clenched them over my chest and tried to ignore how terrible I felt.
"Okay," I said. "What if we searched for Bella?"
Esme's brow furrowed. "We don't want to get in the way."
"We don't have time," Alice said, in a quiet voice. Someone not supernatural might not have been able to hear her. But I did, and I didn't miss the look Jasper shot her after I said it.
"You don't?" I asked. "Why?"
"It's none of your business," Jasper said sharply.
But Esme was eying me, and I had the feeling she noticed my stressed appearance. It wasn't hard to pick up on. "The Volturi are threatening to attack."
I frowned. "Why? The newborns are gone."
"Bella and I went to Italy to save Edward a little while back," Alice said with a sigh. "We attracted the Volturi, and they said we had to turn her or kill her. They're antsy about her continued humanity."
It was my turn to gape. "Wait, you have to find her...to turn her?"
"It's not--" Esme began.
I was shaking again, but more from the urge to change. And man, did it take every ounce of discipline to keep from doing it. "You're forcing her?"
"No, no!" Esme said. "But if the Volturi come back, and they don't find her..."
"And if they think she crossed into La Push, and they come across the wolves?" Alice added.
"They don't like shifters," Jasper said. "At all."
My mind spun. I didn't know much about vampire politics, but a human in the know in enemy territory sounded like an act of war to me.
Behind me, Seth whined. I didn't turn to him or Rachel. Complications or not, this was clear-cut.
"All right," I said. "We'll go, and we'll bring her to your house if we find her."
"I can give you my number," Esme said, holding up her cell. "You don't need to come to us."
I gave a tight smile. "I don't exactly have access to a phone."
"It's not safe," Alice said. "If the Volturi came back, and found you..."
"We can't exactly go to Bella's, either," I said. "It's a risk, no matter where we meet up. Even if we send Bella back in her truck alone. We can handle it if you can."
Everyone exchanged looks. Finally, Emmett and Jasper nodded and disappeared. Alice smiled. "Thanks for your help."
"Least I could do," I said as casually as I could manage.
"If you need help," Esme said, frowning, "I don't want you to be homeless."
Great, vampire charity. "We'll figure it out later."
Esme and Alice ran off. I shed my clothes and shifted again.
As if this didn't suck enough already, Rachel thought.
You said it.
Of course, the only one bright and eager was none other than my little brother, who practically bounced with excitement. Let's do this!
It took some time to find a crossing point. The original pack outnumbered us by a lot, and they covered most of the boundary. They also howled and snarled and called for our attention. Which pissed me off more and more as time passed.
But after nearly a half-hour of dancing around, Rachel hit on the solution.
Let's give 'em what they want, she thought. I talk to Sam. Seth comes with me. You sneak in, and if they ask, we say you're watching our backs.
It was a good plan. And I really did want to be alone, so I had no objections to the lack of backup. If you're sure.
Yeah, totally. We shouldn't be fighting with a big threat anyway.
Only one thought gave me pause. You won't try to reintegrate, will you?
Rachel snorted. Hardly. Sam's not the guy I want to work under, you know?
More than you know.
Seth nudged me with his nose. Good luck, Leah. Don't get your throat torn out.
I think you have to worry more about me tearing out someone's throat, I thought. But yeah. Don't get killed either.
They ran off, and I listened to both packs' movements and waited.
Doubt started to creep in. Where would Bella be? Not the Blacks' house; Jacob was still off in Montana or Canada or wherever he'd decided to linger this time, and Bella hadn't seen Rachel in years, from what I knew. Beyond Jake, she didn't have reason to go elsewhere in La Push. So where?
Rachel? It was Sam's voice, in Rachel's head. There was my opportunity.
I crossed the boundary line and ran full-tilt for the town. I was downwind from the pack, and they couldn't hear me. It'd have to be good enough. I'd have to hope--
Before I could even finish the thought, a wolf came running by; Brady, by the looks of things. I stopped and crouched in bushes. I hoped he didn't pick up my scent, but he didn't entirely seem as if he was searching for it. He slumped along toward La Push at a slow rate.
Seth followed my train of thought. Sam probably sent him back. Wait 'til he's out of sight, then make a run for it.
But we're going the same place.
Give him space. He'll never notice.
I hoped he was right. But Brady wasn't the type to pick fights anyway, and I'd win if he did.
He disappeared behind the trees, and I circled around him and into the city limits.
La Push was quiet. Not even troublemakers took advantage of Sam's absence, from what I could hear. Where could Bella be?
I stopped near my house and stared toward the ocean; I was close enough to hear the lapping water, even if we didn't have beachfront property. The sound triggered a memory of one of Jacob's memories. He and Bella always hung out on one particular stretch of beach by the Black house. But it couldn't be that obvious, could it?
Rachel laughed in my head. I bet it's exactly that obvious. Jake's not a subtle guy.
I smirked mentally, and made for the beach.
Sure enough, as I closed in on a piece of driftwood several hundred feet from the Black house, the burning smell of vampire made it to my nose. As I focused, I could see a bulky figure sitting on the wood. Bella wore several thick layers; apparently, she'd stolen clothes from the Cullens. She'd thought ahead.
I was quiet, but apparently, not quiet enough. Bella stiffened and called, "Who's there?"
Before I answered, I shifted and pulled on my clothes. My feet were moist from the forest, and I was tracking sand into my jeans, which I hated. But it was not the time to be naked. "Leah Clearwater."
Bella turned as I put my shirt in place. "Leah. What are you doing here?"
"Long story," I said, walking toward her. "The Cullens are looking for you."
"They are." It was flat, distant.
I didn't know what to do. I was out of my depth, and really, it'd be best to give the Cullens' message and get back to protecting my own hide. But my body ached for her in a way I hadn't quite ached before, not even with Sam, and I wanted to make it stop. I had to try something.
"Mind if I sit?" I asked.
She nodded, and shifted to allow me room. I sat, and stared out at the water, nearly black in the post-sunset gloom.
"I came to see Jake," she said in a quiet voice. "I forgot."
"Yeah. Sorry about that."
"Why are you sorry?"
"He acted because he saw me as a threat."
"Are you a threat?"
I snorted. "Depends. You think leaving you alone is a threat?"
Bella was quiet for a moment, and she said, "Being alone...it's hard."
I wanted to apologize again. But it wasn't my fault Edward was dead. It wasn't anyone's fault but Victoria's, and possibly Edward's decision to charge into a fight. Or was I absolving myself because I was glad Edward was out of the way?
Whatever. Selfish or not, my thoughts didn't really matter here. "So what are you going to do?"
Bella stared at me intently. I didn't return her look; I wouldn't be able to curb my own intensity if I did. "You won't drag me back?"
"I don't know," I said. "I should. If the Volturi find you here, they could kill everyone."
"So why don't you?" Her voice was anguished.
"Because I figure, something life-changing like being a lee--" I stopped myself. "Vampire? You should choose, if you can."
"But I can't choose. They're forcing it on me."
"They?" Was she pissed at the Cullens? I'd love a chance at them.
Darn. "So the Cullens aren't pressuring you?"
Bella let out a shuddering breath. "I wish they would. I owe them so much."
"You don't owe them anything," I said, and I was surprised at the heat in my voice. "They exposed you to this. You'll be doing them a big favor, and not the other way around."
Bella didn't answer for a minute, and my skin heated with embarrassment. Maybe I'd overstepped.
"I'm going to do it," Bella said. "Even without Edward, I have to."
"Because I won't expose everyone to the Volturi. Not my dad, and not you guys."
It made sense. And I'd known what she was going to say, but still, I pictured her pale and statue-like and smelling of predator and death, and I wanted to...I don't know. Not get mad, because of the imprinting. But not be happy.
"This isn't exactly a safe spot," I said. "It might do some good to do your thinking somewhere else."
"Are you kicking me out?"
I laughed wryly. "I don't have the authority. Especially now. I have to leave myself."
Bella sniffled, and thanks to the rising moon, I could see her brush tears off her cheeks. "You do?"
I nodded. "Pack crap. We don't wait for the vampire crap to end."
"It isn't...I didn't..."
"No, no. Completely unrelated."
Bella stood and brushed off her clothes. She took two steps, and stopped. "Leah?"
I stood so fast, blood rushed to my head. "Yeah?"
"Will you...come with me?"
The head rush was replaced by elation so strong, I tingled from head to toe. "Where?"
"To the Cullens."
Bye-bye elation. "I wish I could."
She looked at me over her shoulder. A breeze blew locks of hair around her face, and the moonlight made her tear-filled eyes shine. She could've said anything, and I would've done it.
But she didn't say just anything. "I don't want to be alone for my last night."
"You're..." The words stuck in my throat. "Tomorrow?"
A million reasons popped into my head. To say goodbye to Charlie, her mom, and her human friends. To eat something tasty for the last time. To enjoy a sunny day. Something. But I opened my mouth and nothing came out.
"It all seems different now," Bella said. "Like I'm actually giving something up. It never felt that way with Edward."
She bit her lip and stared at the ground. With a shake of her head and a hard swallow, she started walking up toward the road, where her truck was parked.
"This is epically stupid," I muttered. "Clean break. Say goodbye and leave her with the leeches."
But to leave Bella alone was worse than putting up with vampires. And as much as I hated it, I'd have plenty of time to be alone after today.
I jogged after her.
"Thank goodness!" Alice danced up to the truck in her delicate way. Even with a vaguely subdued manner, which I guessed was because of Edward's death, she was brighter than she'd been in the woods. It didn't stop her from throwing me a flat look. "We thought something happened."
Bella slumped out of the truck, and I followed suit. I did my best not to wince at Alice's smell.
"Sorry," Bella said, "I needed time to myself."
"You should eat something. I always forget how much you need to eat, and I can't remember the last time you did."
Bella stiffened. I couldn't imagine why. "I'm fine. I'll be drinking blood in a couple days anyway."
Alice raised an eyebrow. "I guess you're hanging around?"
"She asked," I said, "but if it's a problem..."
Esme and Carlisle came out of the house together, holding hands. Gag me.
"It's not a problem," Esme said, smiling. "I'm so glad you found her."
I shrugged. "She came because she wanted to. I had nothing to do with it."
"I want to go to bed," Bella said.
Carlisle nodded. "Of course. I have everything ready when you are."
Bella went in the house, and I stayed at her side, not saying a word. I wanted to talk - I could have used a little distraction from the awful stench - but the sight of Bella in the light killed the urge. I could see her puffy red eyes, her distant stare, the lack of color in her skin. She seemed half-dead already. I couldn't help but think she'd seem more resilient as a vampire.
God. What a thought.
We went upstairs and into a room with a canopy bed. Bella stopped in the doorway and regarded it with watery eyes.
I slid around her and ran my hands over the dark purple comforter. The rest of the house was had a grossly pale color scheme, so I liked the change. "Huh. Soft."
"Yeah," Bella said. "It's pretty nice."
She closed the door and climbed into the bed. She didn't bother to take off her shoes, and I could see mud smeared on the sheets before she pulled the comforter back up. But hey, the Cullens could get the bed specially cleaned. Or replace it altogether. It made my lip curl a little. I had only one set of clothes, and I hadn't washed them in days.
Oh well. At least I didn't have to suck down blood cots to live.
I sat on the comforter next to Bella. "What do you want me to do?" I asked quietly.
"I don't know," Bella said, biting her lip. "You mind sharing a bed?"
I sniffed experimentally. There was a bit of a Cullen stink, but nothing too bad. Apparently, none of the leeches used the bed.
"Nah," I said. "But if the room across the hall was a bathroom, I should clean up."
"Will you be okay by..." Oops. Probably shouldn't remind her she was solo. "Um, here?"
I went to the bathroom and jumped in the shower. I won't lie; the shower was so great, it felt positively sinful. I had to put on my dirty clothes again - no way I'd wear the smelly crap the Cullens had lying around - and I couldn't use a towel, but I dripped back into the bedroom and climbed into the bed once I was done.
Bella wasn't asleep. I'd kind of hoped she would be, but she stared at me with lifeless brown eyes as I settled in.
"I'll give them this much," I said. "The Cullens know showers. And beds."
"Yeah, they do."
She sidled up next to me, and her skin was even chillier with the snug sheets and the leftover heat from the shower. Without thinking, I slung an arm around her shoulders. Just as I realized what I'd done, and before I could pull back, she drew in closer.
It was a bad idea. I knew it. There was BS about the imprinting being flexible, about being whatever the person needed, but there was nothing flexible about the happiness and calm settling over me. There was also no way I could move away, since Bella was the one who'd acted. Edward wasn't lurking in the corner anymore.
She wants me here, I thought. It can't be what I want it to be.
"I don't know if I want to sleep," she murmured into my arm. "If I dream...if I have nightmares…"
"I'll be here," I whispered.
She continued as if I wasn't there. "But this is the last time I'll be able to sleep. And if I dream of him, I can't let it go."
Maybe Edward was lurking after all.
"What would you do?" she asked.
I couldn't tell her I wouldn't do any of this. It wouldn't help. "Try to sleep."
Bella adjusted the comforter so it was up closer to her chin. I warmed up the bed quite a bit, but she shivered and drew closer.
"Warm enough?" I asked.
Bella laid a kiss on my arm, and my skin tingled. I kissed her on top of the head.
Whatever the night was, and whatever I thought I wanted, I knew there wasn't anything more perfect than lying with Bella next to me. Accepting it was apparently what I'd needed because I relaxed, and all the stress of the last few days left my body.
I fell asleep.
My dream was filled with golden light. I ran, wolf and woman in one. One moment, my feet had pads; the next, I felt dirt and leaves against my skin. Once I reached the shore at La Push - it was the stretch near Jacob's house, but minus the buildings I was used to - I was fully human, and wearing silky pants and a thin tank top.
Bella stood on the beach. She was the same as always, but with red eyes and a slight sparkle to her skin.
"I love you," she said.
I closed the distance between us, and we kissed. She was warm and soft under my hands, as if we were both human. I could feel fangs in her mouth, and I pulled back, confused. She wasn't Dracula, and sparkle monsters don't have fangs. Bella pulled away from my touch.
"Don't leave me," I said. My heart sped in my chest.
The sea grew completely still behind Bella, and she smiled. Her face was right in front of me, but she seemed a million miles away.
"I love you," she said, as if she was yelling from a great distance.
We tumbled to the ground - which was covered in grass now - and we kissed with more urgency. My blood heated as we pressed together, and as Bella moved her mouth to my throat, I cried out from the pain in my chest.
"It hurts," I gasped.
"Wait," she said. "It'll get better."
The pain grew until I couldn't stand it anymore.
And I woke up, panting.
It was daylight, and I was bathed in sunlight. I could see treetops and blue skies straight ahead, broken up slightly by the occasional cloud.
When did I get outside?
My nostrils flared, and I grimaced as vampire smell sluiced forward. The room around me focused. I hadn't noticed, with my preoccupations the night before, but the bedroom had a wall of bare windows, letting in the outside scene.
I pressed a hand to my chest and breathed as well as I could. It was hard; my lungs felt like they'd shrunk. Or as if something squeezed them. But the more I breathed, the more I relaxed.
Until I let my hand drop, and my hand touched sheet instead of skin.
"Bella?" I said, confused.
Rosalie stood the doorway, arms crossed over her chest. Her face was blank.
"Oh," I said, and I touched my chest again. "She started."
Rosalie nodded once. "She wanted someone to tell you."
"How...how is she?"
"As well as anyone can be, I guess."
My hearing extended for a moment, and I could hear others walking around in the house. But I pulled back as quickly as I could. If Bella was suffering in any way, I couldn't hear it.
"I guess I'll get going," I said, pushing out of the bed. "I should see how the pack is."
Rosalie held up her hands as if she didn't give a crap. She probably didn't. "Esme said you can come back at any time."
"How did you get to be the messenger?"
"Everyone else is either keeping an eye on Bella, or hunting. I hunted yesterday."
Ask a stupid question. "Thanks."
She nodded and left.
The pain in my chest spread to my arms, to my stomach, and on, until I was hunched over. Sam had said I would be in pain. Was this some imprinting thing? Or was the thought of Bella dying finally catching up with me? My body felt there was only one person for me, and I was starting to realize nothing could change that reaction. I'd pine for Bella like I pined for Sam, only there was no chance of moving on.
It was the end.
"No," I whispered.
I shoved the sheets away from me. They clung to my feet, and I kicked them away. I flung myself out of bed, and I breathed hard. My eyes fell on the imprint Bella had left in the sheet, and I shook my head, grit my teeth, and forced back the tightness in my throat and the stinging in my eyes.
No. This was no end. I wouldn't let it be.
I ran down the stairs and out the front door as quickly as I could, which was fast, if not quite as fast in human form. I wanted to make the tree line before I did anything else, but I'd go for a good run as a wolf, and I'd figure things out. It'd be okay.
But before I made it out of the Cullens' driveway, I stumbled over a body.
He stared off into space like he was zoned out in class. He seemed young enough to be in high school. But his skin was blue, and he had a savage-looking bite mark on his neck. It didn't stop me from pressing fingers to his throat, but he was dead.
A note was affixed to his shirt. Carlisle's name was scrawled across the top in a fancy cursive, so it wasn't for me, but I was far past polite at this point. I pushed the paper open with shaking hands.
We're coming, the inside read, in the same handwriting.
"Fuck," I said.
There was no one in the main area of the house when I rushed back inside. I caught sight of Carlisle in a side room adjacent to the living room. I knew immediately who was with him, but I only hesitated a second before stepping inside.
Bella's eyes were closed. I didn't know if she was actually unconscious; I had no idea how this worked. But even with the news I had to spread, I stared at her. Her face was slack, and her muscles were completely still, but there was still color in her face. I could hear her heart beat.
If Carlisle hadn't spoken, I don't know if I would've remembered he was there. "Leah?"
I felt the paper in my hand again. I forced myself to hand Carlisle the note. He pulled it open, and after examining it, he turned his wide eyes on me.
"How'd you get this?"
"It was on a dead body," I said. "Out front."
"In the open?"
Leave it to a vampire to be practical. "I put him in your garage."
He dashed out of the room. I wondered if I should stay with Bella. I wanted to. But this was more important, rebellious body or not.
I went back to the garage.
Emmett and Jasper spoke to each other in low voices next to a yellow sports car, and the rest hovered around the body. I didn't know how Carlisle had called them in, but I was glad he had. As I drew closer, I could see Rosalie checking the stranger's pockets, and Esme brushing back the bangs of his hair, lip quivering. Alice scowled at me from next to Carlisle, who examined the bite on the guy's throat.
"Anyone know him?" I asked.
"Mike Newton," Alice said, with a bite to her voice. "He's Bella's age. We went to school together."
"It leaves a message," Jasper said.
Rosalie drew back. "Nothing in his pockets."
"What should we do?" Emmett asked.
"I'm not sure there's much to do," Carlisle said. "Alice?"
"I can't see anything." She looked at me pointedly even as she spoke to Carlisle. "You know that."
Alice couldn't see anything because a werewolf in the house blocked her vision. I'd been so wrapped in my own head and what Bella wanted that I'd ignored the warnings. And now an innocent bystander was dead.
Carlisle's voice cut through my thoughts. "The Volturi are challenging us. But they're giving us warning. Why?"
"To scare us?" Esme said.
"Why'd they scare us if they want us dead?" Emmett asked.
I had to think. I'd made this worse by my involvement, by always thinking of...
"Bella," I said. It all seemed obvious now. "She told me they collect vampires. They want us to leave her behind."
The Cullens exchanged looks.
"Drive the rebellious ones out," Carlisle said. "Kill them. Take what's left."
"Crap," Rosalie said.
Esme turned to me. "You should get out while you can. Get your packs to safety."
"I'll warn the others," I said. "But I'm not leaving."
"They'll kill you," Jasper said. "They'll take any opportunity."
"They could've done it already," I said. "They have to be watching the house. But Mike was right there when I left. Not when you guys did."
Carlisle shook his head. "They must want all the wolves here."
"But they don't have the numbers," Jasper said. "There's only three of them, and they couldn't have had the time to get anyone from Italy."
"We only saw three," Alice said.
Esme frowned. "But you were watching them."
Alice threw up her hands. "Victoria found a gap, didn't she?"
"So what do we do?" Emmett asked. "Fight?"
"Running gives them what they want," Jasper said. "What else can we do?"
"I defer to you, Jasper," Carlisle said. "What are your thoughts?"
Until then, I'd forgotten Jasper had organized the offensive against the newborn vampires. But Jasper shook his head and said, "Newborns and vampire armies are one thing. The Volturi's your area."
"I have to bring the wolves in," I said. "You fight alone, and you don't stand a chance. And when you're gone, who's to say they won't go after us anyway?"
Carlisle nodded. "We have some additional allies. We'll see if anyone can get here in a couple of days."
"If they even want to fight," Rosalie said.
Everyone looked at her.
"What?" she said. "You think everyone's gonna rush here to die? Really?"
I hated to admit it, but she had a point. And from the worried expressions around me, the others thought the same thing.
"We have to try," Carlisle said.
They fell silent, and the singular heartbeat in the room - mine - seemed to dominate. Maybe because it was likely I'd get killed in the next couple days, and my heart wouldn't beat anymore.
I looked at Mike Newton with a lump in my throat. I could play the guilt game all I wanted, but I hadn't killed him. I hadn't been the one who moved to town and created the werewolves, much less the one who had contact with dangerous Italian vampires. Maybe it wasn't fair, but I hated every vampire with every cell in my body. Even the ones standing with me.
Even Bella, dying slowly inside the house.
The first day went quickly from there.
Rachel and Seth were waiting for me the minute I got outside. No agreements had been made with the pack, but after I shared my information, Rachel thought, This should get 'em listening again.
They went back to talk while I waited with the Cullens. Or, more appropriately, while I stared at the completely motionless Bella, and I took breaks to pee. With nothing else to do, I listened to the Cullens, which was almost as pointless as watching Bella. Some went to finish feeding, and the rest spoke on cell phones, alternating between politeness and belligerence and defeat. Night fell, and the teams swapped out. Must've been nice to not need sleep. Once the initial adrenaline dropped out of my system, I changed, checked in on Rachel and Seth, and curled up on the lawn. It wasn't a soft bed, sure, but the grass didn't singe my nose. And I was more exhausted than I'd known.
I woke up the second day because the smell of vampire made me want to barf.
The Cullens stood on the lawn in a row. Before I could change and ask what was going on, four more vampires appeared on the driveway, all with amber-colored eyes. From the sounds of things, they came from Alaska. They ignored me completely and focused on the Cullens. Whatever, at least it gave us better numbers.
Not long after, I listened in as Rachel spoke to the pack with Seth at her back. It seemed as if they'd help, so most of the chatter was working out logistics. It was the same inside the house, with the Alaskan crowd. I'd never felt more like a bystander in my life, since all I could do was pass messages back and forth. It got old fast.
When both meetings ended in late afternoon, I was relieved to get back to Bella. But as I closed the door and took Carlisle's empty chair, all relief disappeared. Bella's skin had lost its color, even though I could still hear her heart. She'd stopped breathing late the night before, before I'd gone off to sleep.
"I don't know if you can hear me," I said. "Maybe you can hear the whole house. I don't know how this works. But you should know the Volturi are coming. I'll do everything I can to protect you. Buy you a little time, at least."
I took her hand. It was colder than before, but there was still a little warmth. I squeezed gently, and the surge of hatred and anger I felt was comforting. Familiar.
"Bastards waited for you," I said, muttering. "They'll regret it."
Bella's hand twitched in mine. It meant nothing in terms of how she was feeling and doing, but it made me feel better.
I fell asleep holding her hand.
The third day, I woke to the sound of glass shattering. Without opening my eyes, I threw myself over Bella.
She grunted with the contact, and I opened my eyes to see if she was okay. Everything about her said vampire: marble skin, oddly altered face, and almost all of her smell. Her heart was still going, but so fast I couldn't make out separate beats.
I straightened. The room seemed as it always did, and the single glass window was intact. I went to the window and peeked outside.
It was a mess.
Fallen trees and branches lay scattered all over the yard, as well as mounds of dirt and holes where trees had uprooted. I could see three small fires in the area visible from the window, but they wouldn't spread far, thanks to the ever-present moisture. Blurred vampires rushed around, too numerous and fast to pick out. A wolf ran into view - Sam, by the looks of things - and grabbed hold of a blur, taking an arm away for himself. The vampire swung with another arm and slammed his fist into Sam's jaw, and Sam went flying.
It was only a matter of time before they made their way in.
But before I could leave the room, I smelled smoke. When I looked around, I could see it pour in from the under the door. I coughed and ran out, my heart in my throat.
A line of vampires in black robes stood on shattered glass, the holes where windows had been at their backs. I counted: five in all, too many for me to take on by myself. The source of the smoke was obvious; one of the vampires was setting fire to the couches with a flamethrower. I bent slightly and balled my fists, and the vampires grinned at me, baring teeth.
A short female with a high voice spoke. "Bella's in there?"
I growled. "You'll have to get through me to find out."
She smiled, looking half-bored, and pain flooded my body. I dropped to my knees and screamed as loud as I could. This was not the time to hold back, in case someone was free and could help.
"Fine by me," she said.
I channeled the pain, and my clothes split as I grew and changed into the wolf. The pain was still there, and my cries turned into whines, but I had teeth that could pull vampires apart. It seemed they knew it, too. They circled, wary.
The pain disappeared, and I pushed onto all fours, my muscles shaking. I scanned the vampires for some kind of advantage, but I knew victory too much to hope for.
I was going to die.
But I wasn't scared.
Come on, I thought, baring as many teeth as possible. What are you waiting for?
Leah! Seth called. Where are you?
Before I could answer, a couple of the vampires advanced, and I rushed forward to meet them. I got my teeth around the neck of one in seconds, and even as I bit his head off, I was surprised at the suddenness of it. But the second drew his arms around me, and I realized their plan: draw me out with the fire, distract me with the fight, and take me down.
So much for buying Bella time.
But the pressure went away as quickly as it appeared. I heard a crash to my right, and the vampire screamed. Apparently, the burning furniture had done him no favors.
"Are you okay?" someone behind me asked. The voice was musical and sweet, like a vampire. I turned, and my jaw dropped.
The vampire was Bella. Or it had been Bella.
She looked exactly as she had a few minutes before. But her now-open eyes glowed an eery shade of red, and my skin crawled. I wanted away from her.
And I realized, with a shock so acute I lost all contact with my emotions, what was really different here.
The imprinting was gone.
"Bella," the short female said. "Just who we wanted to see."
A vampiric snarl came from Bella's teeth. "While I was changing."
"Coincidence," the vampire said, staring at her acutely. I wondered if she was working her whammy on Bella. If so, Bella didn't seem fazed. "We found out the Cullens allied with other supernatural entities, and we decided to act."
"Sure," Bella said. "To kill me, and my friends."
"Only if you refuse us."
"I do. Isn't it obvious?"
The vampire rose a hand. "Last chance."
"You never gave me one."
She dropped the hand, and her remaining three companions rushed us.
I was prepared for a fight, and as such, I hit the one vampire that took me on with a ferocity I'd never been allowed to use. He was old and strong, and he landed a couple of blows, one of which tore a gash in my leg. But I tore off anything he gave me and threw it into the growing flame, and he was out of commission before long. Which was good. The fire was spreading to the rest of the house, and Bella needed my help.
Or so I'd thought.
I turned to her, and saw the remnants of one vampire at her feet. The second danced around in one of the tactics Jasper had taught: a feint and grab. Maybe it would've worked on an average newborn. But Bella had something the other newborns hadn't: patience. I could see her wait for an opening.
But before she found one, the pain returned. My muscles seized up, and I fell onto my side. I clamped my mouth shut to keep my whines from getting too loud and distracting Bella.
Apparently, the other vampire hadn't figured the small female's plan because he turned toward me. It was all Bella needed. She twisted his head off and tossed it into the fire.
The pain disappeared, and I didn't wait. I scrambled up as fast as I could, and tackled the small female. I fell short and only grabbed hold of her torso, but Seth appeared seconds later and took her entire head and shoulders in his jaws. We both tugged, and she snapped apart.
Get out! Seth said. He spit the contents of his mouth behind me, and I felt heat flare. I threw my own vampire piece to the side and jumped out of the house.
My front right leg complained, but I ran out a couple dozen feet before stopping. The Cullen house caught my eye before I could check for injury.
I hadn't thought there was much to the place besides glass, but apparently, there was enough for a good bonfire, and enough dead vampires burning to turn the smoke purple. I couldn't see Bella in the flames, and I stepped forward to go back, but my leg buckled again. I looked down and saw a decent-sized wound. It hurt, but it would heal within a couple hours.
"The blood," Bella whispered.
Bella stood to my right, gaping at my leg as if it was the most amazing thing she'd ever seen. As I watched, the human expressions she'd managed in the house faded away, revealing only hungry monster beneath.
I ran away from the house at full tilt. Bella followed.
The fighting seemed to be contained to the woods now, and as we drew near, she ran off. It was probably the smell of more blood; I couldn't be the only bleeding wolf around. But it was enough to give me a chance to catch my breath and ask around.
Anyone there? I thought. I've got Bella, and she needs blood.
I'll get Alice, Rachel thought, in a fierce cry. She'd taken down a vampire of her own. She was trying to get to her.
Another vampire rushed me, and before I could make sure Bella was taken care of, I was lost in the fight once more.
It was over after an hour.
The Cullen house was a smoldering heap, and bonfires roasted corpses everywhere. Carlisle had been completely dismembered, but, to my surprise, Esme had reassembled the pieces and seemed confident about his recovery. Jasper had apparently made a mistake while trying to fight with Alice, and a flamethrower-wielding vampire had burnt him to a crisp. One of the Alaska vampires was dead, as well as Paul.
We'd gotten lucky.
After I was sure it was over, I found Alice a couple dozen miles from the fight. She seemed alone, but I could hear some quiet snarls off to the distance. Alice didn't seem concerned, although her face was scrunched up almost as if she was crying.
"It's over then?" she asked. Her voice was steady.
I was still a wolf, but it wasn't like my message was complex. I nodded.
"They only sent a small team," she said. "They'll send more next time. We just gave them a good excuse."
My stomach churned at the thought of more. But it was nothing compared to the sight of Bella walking over the nearby ridge. Her hair was mussed, and she wore the same baggy clothes she'd taken from the Cullens when she'd gone to La Push, but they bore smoke stains and long streaks of blood. Her demeanor was human again, but everything else screamed monster.
"Can I talk to Leah alone?" she asked with her new voice.
Alice answered by disappearing. It didn't make me feel better. If anything, I felt the hackles on my neck go up.
"You're not gonna change back, are you?" she asked quietly.
I decided to let my lack of changing speak for itself.
"Okay," she said. "I wanted to tell you that we're leaving. And we..."
She trailed off, and shook her head.
"I could use your help," she said. "If you want to come. I won't know anyone except the Cullens, and I want someone to keep an eye on me. Just in case."
With a surge of anger, I shifted back to human.
"To kill you, you mean."
Bella's red eyes grew a little distant, but she nodded. "The Volturi killed my friends, and they'll kill more. We can't wait for me to get better at this."
"I'm not your lapdog anymore," I snapped. "The imprinting's gone."
She blinked once. "Oh."
"Oh is right." I shook my head. "I need to piece together my life. Again. I don't have time to chase after you and the Volturi."
"Don't." I didn't know what inspired me to say the next part, but I did. "Would there be anything else for me anyway? Besides more death?"
"Never mind. Don't answer."
"I do have an answer."
She looked...well, not like the Cullens. There was something decidedly hesitant about her, and she squirmed like a human. I'd never seen any of the others uncomfortable, not like this.
I sighed. "It doesn't matter."
Bella swallowed. "If you change your mind, we're leaving tomorrow night."
"So I can run dramatically to your car after I have a hard night of thinking?" I shook my head. "Sorry."
I changed and ran off. She didn't try to stop me.
La Push was boring.
It hadn't been at first. Sam and Rachel worked out a truce, and there was a big funeral for Paul. Seeing his parents and family wrecked sucked more than I could say, but it was definitely not boring. Getting a lot of accolades from the non-wolfy tribe for helping fight the fire at the Cullen house - so dangerous! So brave! - was also not boring, but it felt wrong, particularly during the period of mourning. It was like needing a coat and getting a thin sweater: similar to what you need, but not nearly enough.
The boredom popped up after the post-fight attention faded away. Sitting around for days on end while Sam tried to browbeat Rachel and Seth and me into coming back to the pack was nothing short of excruciating.
But we need you, he said in one of our meetings. We're smaller, and more vulnerable. The Volturi proved it.
All our answers were the same: no. We didn't want the life being in Sam's pack gave. Seth wanted to go back to school and have some kind of life again, and while Sam hadn't exactly taken it away from him, it was hard to do while on high alert. Rachel did go back to school four days after the big fight, although she'd come back every weekend to go for runs as a wolf. She was partially waiting for Jacob, who was taking Bella's absence as an opportunity to come back.
As for me...well, I'd been sarcastic when I told Bella about a hard night of thinking, but I spent a couple weeks giving her offer real thought. She'd left a message for me the morning before she'd left with the Cullens, and my mom had given it to me on a piece of paper. I'd ignored it at first, but the more Sam called me and stopped by my house, the more I felt my gaze drifting over to the paper.
It's never too late, it read, along with a phone number.
Fifteen days after the fight, my mom knocked on my bedroom door. "Sam called. He's in the normal spot."
I groaned. "Tell me you told him off."
"Oh, I did," she said. "Felt pretty good, too."
"But it didn't work."
That was the moment. Nothing special happened, no fights or fires or dramatic imprintings. I just made a decision.
I grabbed the paper, kissed my mom on the cheek, and ran to the clearing Sam usually held pack meetings in. The so-called "normal spot". Seth was off at the beach with the younger wolves from the other pack, and I knew we wouldn't be interrupted.
The clearing itself wasn't what it had been when we'd started meeting at the beginning of the year; the area surrounding had been logged somewhat recently, and there weren't trees for a good mile on either side. Sam sat on a stump in the middle of the area, lost in thought.
"I'm here," I said.
He twitched. Apparently he hadn't been expecting me, no matter what he'd said. "Thank you."
"Don't thank me yet," I said. "I came to say goodbye."
I shook my head. "I wouldn't feel right if I didn't give things an ending, so I thought I'd tell you in person."
"Leah," Sam said.
I held up a hand. "I need to find a life, and I won't do it if I'm waiting for something to happen. There's nothing for me here besides more of the same."
"So what, you're gonna be like Jacob? Run away?"
It was rich, coming from him. "No. I'm going to meet up with Bella and help her kill the Volturi. I'll figure out the rest after."
Sam fell silent with shock. I waited for him to speak, and when he didn't right away, I walked past him, toward the road.
Finally, he cried, "But you belong here!"
I smiled without turning around. "Not anymore."
That's how I left La Push. There was no night of contemplation, no chase after her car, no romantic kiss. But when I met up with Bella again, maybe I did feel something. On my own terms.
After all, it's never too late.