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Prologue

Wait, I wanted to say. Just a minute. But I was still locked in place, listening to the echo of Edward’s voice in my head. (New Moon 377)

The storm-cooled air was a relief, even as chilled to the bone as I already was.

“Jacob.” I wanted to apologize, I wanted to be able to give him what he wanted, what he deserved. He’d given me more than I thought possible. But I couldn’t say more than his name.

“Bella, I meant what I said” Jacob met my eyes and I felt that pull again. The pull to take away his pain. Why couldn’t this one thing be simple? This one solace for my ripped up heart?

“It’s fine. Don’t worry, don’t feel guilty. I know, I know even without you telling me.” He looked away.

“Now get inside and get warm. And no more cliff diving without adult supervision. I’m officially calling it. Saving from drowning makes me older than you.”

I laughed once, painfully, and hoped it only sounded hysterical to myself. I’d really almost died, almost killed myself with my own need to see and hear my beloved. I’d panicked Jacob while he tried to protect me, while Harry Clearwater was dying, while the other werewolves, half of them younger than me, were risking their lives.

But could I live without hearing him? Without having hope of hearing him? The hole in my chest ached, even in Jacob’s diluting presence.

I kissed his cheek, trying to seem like I wasn’t just chickening out of really kissing him.

“I’ll try, Jake.” He smelled clean and like Jacob, while I still smelled like seawater and probably sweat, from falling asleep next to Jacob’s furnace level body heat.

I got out of the car and tried not to shiver. I didn’t want to make the choice I was going to make.

I didn’t believe I could love anyone like I’d loved Edward. I didn’t want to let go of Edward. I would never forget Edward. I loved the Cullen family, still, as my own.

But they were gone. And I couldn’t follow. I’d never had a chance of following...

Jacob wouldn’t leave, would stay the just-human-enough supernatural creature that he was, and stay with me. He loved me.

I didn’t know if I could love him. I did love him, in so many ways. He was beautiful, funny, my own sunshine, a far too cavalier protector. He made me feel alive -- whole, sometimes. But when I knew how I’d loved Edward…it didn’t seem like enough.

Still…And no voice interrupted this time. Maybe even my hallucinations knew when to give up on advice and just let me muddle through.

I love you Edward. I will always love you.

I opened the door of the car again.

“Bella, what’s wrong?”

“I’ll try Jacob”

I stomped down on my thoughts as hard as I could.

I kissed him. My Paris, maybe. My Jacob.

For 2 seconds I kissed his warm, soft, oh so different mouth, then ran into the house slammed the door and managed to catch myself on the coat rack as I slipped on the hall rug.

I didn’t know whether to cry or laugh. I felt dizzy.

Coward.

I expected Jacob to be pounding on the door any second.

I was terrified of it.

But of course, he knew me much too well and I heard the car door click quietly, from where I waited fearfully behind the door, and then nothing.

It didn’t make me feel much better.

Vicious vampire, hunting me so she could torture me to death. Check.

Dearest (and almost only) friend-and-more in the world risking his life hunting vampires. Check.

Father hunting werewolves while there were dangerous vampires around. Check.

Love of life gone, and considering possibly ruining the only thing that made my life a life anymore by making a go at a sure to be disastrous relationship? Forcing all that remained of love out of my hollowed out chest for a person I truly loved, if not in exactly the right way?

It was a sign, I think, of how far gone I’d really become that this last item suddenly seemed like the biggest of my problems.

Well, look on the bright side. I thought sarcastically to myself (probably also a bad sign for my remaining sanity). Maybe you’ll be brutally murdered tonight, and not have to think about your love life anymore.

Quickly, to distract myself from the threat of looming death I had once again brought to the forefront of my mind, I went to the kitchen to see about making dinner for Charlie. Who knew when he would be home, but he would need to eat, and it was all I could really do for him, with one of his best friends dead. And I needed to eat too, though the soreness in my throat protested the thought and I poured another glass of water for myself.

Then, restless and trying desperately not to think about Jacob, my best friend who I’d just kissed and then run from, I cleaned the kitchen. I was getting to work on the living room and thinking about the bathroom when I heard Charlie’s pulling up the drive. I ran to the door and out to him as he trudged up the walk looking worn, tired, and old. I hugged him around the middle as tight as I could.

“I’m sorry about Harry, Dad.”

“I’m really going to miss him,” Charlie mumbled.

“How’s Sue doing?”

“She seems dazed, like she hasn’t grasped it yet.”(NM 393-394)

---

After dinner, Charlie went up to bed, and I followed, exhausted from almost drowning, and from too many worries.

I tried picturing a small Edward moment (Edward waiting by his car for me), and fell asleep holding myself together.

But I dreamed about Jacob’s warm hands pushing water out of my lungs. His warm mouth. His light that was more than the sun. And fire floating on water.

Chapter Text

I woke up with an odd, not quite happy feeling, but not unhappy either - rested. By the light coming through the window (weak as Forks’ light tends to be) it was later in the morning than I had managed to sleep in a while.

I smelled something cooking, which meant that Charlie was making breakfast, but another whiff confirmed that he was at least sticking to his eggs and bacon repertoire rather than burning down the kitchen.

He looked tired and red eyed when I greeted him in the kitchen, and I felt guilty again for my recklessness the day before, and for the past few months really. He wasn’t that young, not so much younger than Harry. And he was like me more than I usually remembered. He held onto things.

“Dad…I’m really sorry you know”

“I know Bella. I am too. Sometimes it’s just someone’s time though, and you can’t do anything about it.”

“Um…no…well you know, yeah, but” I really hated talking about this, especially with Charlie, a fellow emotion-avoider. “I haven’t really been…myself lately. But…I’ll get better, you know, I’m getting better.”

Charlie looked away. “Yeah, I know kiddo. I just worry. You’re a bit too much like your old man. We’re stuck in our ways. Not our nature to move on from things…”

Charlie cleared his throat and stepped closer.

“I love you Bells. I just want you to be happy. So…you take your time, I guess, to make that happen. Just. Try, okay?” Looking extremely uncomfortable, Charlie turned to the frying pan on the stove.

“Got breakfast at least. I’ll be going to Sue’s right after, try and help out if I can, you know. I can drop you by Jake’s if you like.”

Oh god, Jake. Jake my best friend. Jake, the brightest star in my empty night sky life. Who I’d kissed without any real idea if I could love him the way he deserved.

“Um…sure, that’d be great” As great as a root canal, maybe. But I had to do it. If nothing else, I’d proven I still wasn’t doing great on being alone yet. And Jake deserved everything, every effort I could give him.

----

My plan to be mature, fair, and to give Jacob a chance was nearly immediately ruined.

“Bella!” Jake beamed as he swung the door open and Charlie (thank goodness) drove away. It made my heart warm to see his big form smiling my familiar Jacob-smile at me. I smiled back.

“Can’t….breathe” I gasped, because he’d pulled me into one of his crushing bear hugs. What he did next though, I simply wasn’t prepared for.

He leaned in to kiss me.

I was sure I was okay with it. Kissing Jake had been quite nice actually, not awkward like kissing a brother. A bit breath-taking actually, even if he wasn’t Edward.

But I couldn’t help that in my surprise my first instinct was to pull back in alarm.

It was exactly the wrong thing to do, and I had to deal with both guilt and my odd emotional transference as his face crumpled and my heart squeezed in painful sympathy.

“Oh. Well come in, I guess I don’t have to say I’ve been expecting you.” Now he looked bitter and pained, and I felt like a jerk.

It wasn’t like I was repulsed or anything. It was just startling, seeing someone’s face coming toward mine in that way, and there was still that painful memory of Edward’s (painfully) beautiful face.

 

And Jacob was frowning furiously at me through the rain telling me we couldn’t be friends.

 

And Jake was telling me he’d never hurt me.

 

And I was torn apart and crying, and I couldn’t even tell why anymore because it was both of them.

 

I’m not good for you.

 

All I wanted to do was run away from this.

 

I’m not good enough. Not enough.

“Jake…”

“Yeah, fine. Why don’t you just get it over with?” angry bitter Jacob. Hurt Jacob.

“It’s really not what you think – Jacob, you know—“

“Yeah, you value me as a friend. You love me, but I’m no Edward blood-sucker Cullen .”

His words stung, as they had been meant to, and I flinched. It wasn’t fair.

“No, you aren’t” I replied more sharply than intended. He flinched too, and I felt worse instead of better.

“Jake, I don’t mean that. Or I do, but…Look you don’t understand at all.”

“I understand fine. You felt bad that I’ve been pining over you and that I saved your stupid life, so you gave me a pity kiss. “

Argh. If he kept this up all I’d end up doing was shouting at the idiot.

“Jake shut up.” He scowled harder, and opened his mouth to retort.

“It wasn’t pity. And I don’t regret it. But we have to talk, and if I punch you in the face it’ll probably not help. So just shut up, okay.”

His face blanked in that new way he had, a way that disguised his emotion, but I could tell he was listening.

“Look, we both know I’m not…whole, or well, or—you know I’m kind of broken. I don’t know if I can change. I don’t know if I can be enough for anyone to love anymore.” Oh geez, I was going to cry. “You deserve…more” I stopped, to pull back my tears. It was selfish to cry. To think about what would be noble and feel sorry for myself.

Jake’s silence and feigned passivity vanished so quickly that it was as if passion, like the wolf, burst out of him.

“I don’t understand Bella! Why? Why can’t you be whole? What did…Cullen take from you, that you can’t even imagine loving me, loving anyone? It’s sick, like he was some kind of drug or something, and now you can’t get by without him. You’re better than that. You’re not supposed to—you—he was an idiot, a monster and even if you don’t know you’re better off—you should do better than pine after him. It makes me sick to think of it. And sometimes I don’t even think you mind…you—”

He was breathing hard, and trembling.

I wanted to back away. I didn’t want to share Emily’s fate, her price for loving a werewolf. It was shallow, but I didn’t. I wanted to take him in my arms and take away his hurt. To pull him to me as if I could envelope his giant form and protect it.

“Move back. Run.” The beautiful voice was there. But this time I didn’t listen. It was Jake.

“Jake…” I moved forward, and the voice faded. I wrapped him insufficiently in my weak arms and felt the trembling jump and then slow.

“I’ve felt sick.” I spoke quietly. It was surprising how easy it was, after all the worry and the stress and the reasoning, to talk to him here hugging his warm chest and looking at the worn carpet.

“I am still sick Jake. I don’t know why. I…loved Edward…I still love him. And it was…I loved them all, the Cullens. I was going to be one of them. Be part of the family. It was like I found a place, where I wasn’t too awkward or too “middle-aged”, where I fit. And it was perfect. HE, loved me . What was I? It made me special. And…being…a vampire…I would be something, strong and graceful and brave, Jake. And I’d have forever…with him, and them.”

God I still yearned for that with part of my heart so hard. To be special, and to fit in to a world. To not belong anymore to this world in which I I felt so unnatural. It was perfect.

I didn’t notice how hard Jake was shaking again, until he tore himself out of my arms and sprinted out of the house.

I ran after him and stood watching as he bent as if in pain, shaking so hard he almost vibrated, breathing heavily as he apparently forced down his impending change.

“You…were…going to be…come a vampire.” He gasped. He was in pain. He was exhausted. I moved over to him and fluttered my hands uselessly over his back searching for a way to soothe.

“I wanted to be a Cullen. Not like Victoria, not ever like that.”

“You’d be dead Bella. Cold. Dead. You’d kill people if you could. Me, Charlie, oh God. You’d be worse than dead.”

“You don’t understand. The Cullens—“

“I know, they’re “good vampires”. You wouldn’t be you Bella. You wouldn’t blush, you wouldn’t trip…” He shook slightly again.

“Please don’t say it anymore Bella. I can’t bear it. Do you understand? They can go out of control. Smelling blood and all, it’s in our stories, our tribe’s. Smell blood and it might not matter if you were “good”. And if we had to kill…I’d die if I had to, to keep you from being one of them.”

His clutching, desperate embrace was a bit painful, but I clung back. I would never believe as he did, that vampires were these monsters, nothing left of their old selves. But I could understand the terror of bloodlust. I’d seen it. And I could understand what it might feel like to be Jake’s enemy. Someone who would kill him or be killed.

 

It would feel worse than death.

“It doesn’t matter now Jake. It doesn’t matter, because it won’t happen. It’s in the past.”

We stood like that for a long time. Even after his breathing evened out, and he absent-mindedly took my hand in his. It was a quiet moment, but my thoughts were deafening.

“Jake. I want to…try. To be with you…I mean, you know like um…well date seems a stupid way to put it…but…” I was a babbling idiot. But Jacob was smiling down at me. He leaned down again and I didn’t pull away. His lips were very warm, of course, and an odd rushing feeling, like a whistling wind was coursing through me. Almost painful but still good. And somehow I went on.

“You’re my best friend. I love you. I don’t know if I can do more. I’m not over…what happened. But I want to try. To…uh…be more.”

Jacob frowned just a bit. “I meant when I said I could wait Bella. I won’t ever give up on you. I don’t want you to try and be with me this way and then regret it because you’re still too in love with the leech—sorry vampire, fine Cullen . I can wait. And I will.”

“No, I want this. I need it. We can just…take it slow.” It took more courage than I expected to rise up on my toes to pull him into a kiss.

He sighed out like he was collapsing.

“Damn it Bells.  You know I can’t refuse you.” He sounded happy though, and I smiled.

“My Jacob.”

We walked to the beach. His warm hand around mine now saying nothing more than what was absolutely true.

----

His warm hand heating me from the inside and out as we sat on that familiar driftwood, his arm wrapped around my shoulder. His warm eyes looking into mine, unsure but still smiling. His lips warm on mine and his hand scalding into my spine and driving out the cold.

Of course I loved Jacob.  Of course I loved him loved him. Not just as a friend, a brother.

But not like Edward.  Never like Edward.

But his warmth was filling that emptiness in me.

It wasn’t right, a part of me argued, to not be able to love him as much as I knew I could love. But he was here. And he wanted me. He held me together.

 

It wasn’t right to move on, like it was easy, like my mind really was a sieve, a quiter, more cruel part of me whispered.

He wanted to be with me, and if I could give him that, give him all that I could now that I was broken and torn, that would be enough, wouldn’t it?

It would be enough, and I would hold together, not tear apart again, more.

And suddenly I was kissing Jacob desperately, almost violently clutching at him and pulling him to me as tightly as possible.

Warning bells went off.

Careful. You get carried away .

It wasn’t quite Edward’s voice, and then it was gone.

I broke away gasping. I looked up into Jacob’s face, his closed eyes.

He opened his eyes and looked down at me.

Smoldering

That’s what his eyes were doing.

“Um…sorry, I guess I got carried away?”

A warm forehead bumped mine, a husky laugh dusting my blushing cheeks.

“Don’t apologize Bells. That was, God, that…” the laugh again and I was unceremoniously scooped up, and up and up into Jacob’s arms as he stood and spun me around into a tight hug.

But I could breathe just fine, and I was laughing. Maybe this would be easy.

---

Returning to Jacob’s house was sobering. In the giddiness and turbulence of our morning confessions, we’d completely not thought about Harry.

Charlie and Billy sat at the little round dining table looking uncomfortably close to tears, and neither speaking to nor looking at each other.

“Hey dad” I murmured as Jake greeted his father. “Have you eaten?”

“Been helping Sue with the arrangements, didn’t get the chance” Charlie mumbled back gruffly. We didn’t meet eyes, a classic Bella and Charlie non-emotional moment.

“Maybe I could make something,” smiling a little, “Jacob will help me.”

“Why don’t we make a bunch then. For everyone.” Meaning for the pack.

“We’ll need to go to the store for that,” I replied, remembering Emily’s muffins and how fast they’d gone, thinking how much 5 Jacob-size appetites might eat.

“Let’s start with lunch for just the four of us. Do you have stuff here? We could just make grilled cheese. Then we can go to the store for dinner stuff.”

--

I made the sandwiches and Billy and Charlie ate quietly, exchanging only brief words about what was yet to be done for the funeral at the end of the week and some problem with Leah, locked in her room refusing to come out.

Jacob held my hand under the table and I was surprised by the swooping in my stomach. From his smirk I guessed I was blushing. Idiot. I kicked him under the table. He smiled wider.

--

We held hands as we walked to the market as well, debating over how many lasagna to make for dinner. I thought 4, Jacob said 8.

“But will they even have enough of what we need for 8? It isn’t a huge supermarket.”

“The Ateara’s own the store and old Quil is an elder, he knows .” Jacob replied.

Sure enough the store was much more packed with food than I’d have thought from the outside. Quil’s familiar face was absent.

“He’s not feeling well lately,” Jacob said tensely.

“So you think…?”

“Yeah, any day now.”

“Well…at least then he’ll know right, and you can be friends?”

“I’d rather it didn’t have to be this way though.” He squeezed my hand and I squeezed back, feeling sad because he was sad, even though I didn’t think being a wolf seemed so bad.

I’d written down a list of ingredients for one lasagna, and now we multiplied it all by 8, quickly filling a basket. Lucky that I would have someone to carry the bags.

Jacob was glancing at me guiltily.

“Yes, Jake?”

“Well…you should know, there’s been a couple new additions.”

“To the pack? Why didn’t you tell me? Who?”

“The Clearwaters.” He fidgeted uncomfortably and I automatically took his hand.

“Seth? Because of Harry?”

“And…and Leah. The shock, Billy thinks it, the shock, might have triggered the heart attack. And the shock of that triggered Seth. Officially the two of them are locked in their rooms out of grief. Sam has it under control for now though.”

“Leah? But I thought it was only boys.”

“So did we, there’s no record of it ever happening to a girl before.”

“Wow. But Sue, she knows?

“Harry was a tribe elder and now Sue will take his place, so she does know.”

“Poor Seth and Leah.”

“Seth’s taking it pretty well, under the circumstances. He already managed to change back and forth once. But Leah…”

“Will they be at dinner?”

“Probably not, not enough control yet. But Sam will take them some. We’ll probably eat up at Emily and Sam’s place, is that all right?” he looked nervous.

“They don’t like me.” I guessed.

He tensed, “They like you fine. They just don’t know you.”

Vampire girl I thought to myself. They wouldn’t trust me, not with Jacob.

But then he was lifting me up along with the grocery sacks and I couldn’t find it in me to worry as we made our way home.

Several grueling hours in the too small Black family kitchen later, I had 4 lasagnas baked and 4 more waiting and Jacob was sprawled asleep on the couch.

He was too big for it by far and his feet hung over onto the floor.

I suspected he hadn’t slept since Harry died, so I let him, feeling light and peaceful, comfortable with the familiar recipe and at home in the Blacks sunny (if tiny and now messy) kitchen.

A thunder of feet outside sent Jacob jackknifing up with a silent, dangerous grace.

At once he relaxed and collapsed back down to the couch.

“Idiots.”

I struggled with my rioting, panicked, heart as the door banged open and Embry and Jared appeared, purposefully tramping hard enough to shake the house.

“Hi there Bella,” Embry grinned, darting his eyes to Jacob as he leaned against the oven “What’s cooking, good looking?” Embry waggled his eyebrows. I groaned and blushed.

“Sam sent us to help bring the stuff up, everybody’s on their way.” Jared said smiling, watching Jacob glare at Embry.

“Hi Embry. Hey Jared.” I managed to get out in what I hoped was a not pathetically meek tone.

“Sure guys, we’re almost done here, right Bels?” He strode across the room and swung an arm around me and I felt my face go red hot.

“Oooooh…What’s this!?” cried Embry with apparent glee.

Jared elbowed him.

“You’re embarrassing her” my face heated another couple of degrees.

“Oh, Jake’s going to be intolerable now, Bella,” Embry went on, ignoring Jared.

“Shut up Call.” Jacob snapped, eyes smiling.

“Hey, this is the vampire girl, she’s tough.”

Jake growled and hugged me tightly to him.

--

Eventually we made our way to Emily’s little house with half a cooked dinner for a werewolf pack.

Would this be the life you wanted for me Edward? I thought with a twinge of pain

Jacob squeezed my hand and I pushed away thoughts of my painful wound.

And I smiled at him and squeezed back.

Emily’s house already seemed full to bursting with people, but it had a lot to do with the fact that most of them were werewolves. Jared and Embry quickly dove back into the fray, shoving up against their “brothers”

Jacob was unfazed, though I felt a sudden anxiety.

Reaching into the fray, he seemed to draw up out of nowhere a small copper-skinned girl.

“Bella, this is Kim, Jared’s girlfriend. Kim, Bella”

My first impression was of a petite girl with a plain face, cheeks too round and a nose too flat and broad for classic beauty. Then she grinned nervously and her smile was incandescent, as if she’d been lit from the inside.

“Nice to meet another im—girlfriend. There aren’t enough of us around here. Too much testosterone.” She chirped, in a high but pleasant voice, glancing at Jacob as she corrected herself, not wanting to confuse me with Quileute words, I guessed.

He frowned at her at her and she turned a splotchy red.

I elbowed him in the side, as Jared, seeming to sense his girlfriend’s distress began stalking over glaring at Jacob.

I smiled encouragingly at Kim,

“It’s nice to meet you too”

She smiled again and Jared stopped glaring but still came and put his arm around Kim, nestling her into his side. She smiled brilliantly again, and he looked at her in what appeared to be amazement.

And I was inexplicably, brutally reminded of Edward

“You really shouldn’t do that to people,” I criticized.

“It’s hardly fair”

“Do what?”

“Dazzle them like that—she’s probably hyperventilating in the kitchen right now.”

He seemed confused

“I dazzle people?”…”Do I dazzle you”

“Frequently,” I admitted

(Twilight 167)

It was like being kicked in the stomach and I couldn’t stop myself from gasping quietly at the pain of it.

Every werewolf in the room heard and turned to see if I was in danger.

I knew my face was bright red, could feel my eyes stinging hotly.

It was like my wound had been reopened newly made.

I heard myself mumble to Jacob,

“Uh…the bathroom, where…?”

I fled the room to tend to my once again aching wound, but not before I saw Jacob’s stricken face.

In the bathroom alone, I shook, and cried, and desperately held myself together as quietly as possible, struggling to catch my breath. Knowing it wasn’t quiet enough, that they would know I was melting down like an idiot in the bathroom, knowing Jacob knew and was hurting along with me.

Would it always be like this?

Hurting me, hurting Jacob

I flushed the toilet hoping to block the werewolf super senses as I sniffled inelegantly and tried to regain control.

But sometimes forgetting Edward, forgetting that blazing love and healing the hole inside of me seemed impossible.

Maybe I would always be broken.

But I had promised to be strong for Jacob, to give him all that I could so that it would be enough.

I needed to be strong, because otherwise life was really empty. Those terrible days when I thought Jacob had given up on me too had been one blow more than I could take.

Clutching my sides I breathed deeply. I splashed cold water on my face to try and clear up the splotchy redness. I am not a pretty crier. I pushed away my pain.

Jacob’s hurt expression I held onto.

My Jacob.

To him I would give all I had left to give. So I’d told myself. And I would have to make it be enough.

Returning to the main room was difficult, knowing I’d just had a practically public breakdown, that my eyes were still puffy and red and my nose runny. I found him immediately sitting quietly apart, looking far too old and weary.

He turned, of course, knowing I was there.

My sun, dimmed.

I smiled at him and it felt real, if watery and pathetic. “Sorry,” I mouthed.

He opened his arms.

--

 

The rest of dinner went smoothly and the warmth of a pack, which was like a big, loud, bickering, loving family, soothed my hurt.

I made tentative conversation with Kim, who seemed to take my temporary insanity in stride, and was eager to be friendly. We turned out to share reading taste, which made conversation less painful. Emily, face seeming less scarred each time I saw her, perhaps only from familiarity, added her own opinion on modern romance novels. It reminded me that for all her motherly aura she was scarcely older than me as she giggled and stage whispered around her hand, teasing Sam.

Of course the most of my time was taken up with Jacob, who was back to his more cheerful self, full of chatter and joking, faking irritation when Embry teased him.

He never let go of my hand, even to eat.

And so before I knew it my crying jag seems long past and Jacob and I were warm and full being loaded up with leftovers and “til tomorrow”s by the group. Having grown up the only child of a single parent, and socially awkward, I’d never known such a feeling as this of large-scale general welcome.

At his car Jacob kissed me breathless, tasting of warmth, lasagna and Jacob, something uniquely him. When he pulled away I was pressed shamelessly against him again, He laughed at me.

The ride home was quiet but restful. My hand, stupid as it seemed, felt cold without Jacob’s holding it. He needed both to drive though, so I curled it in my lap, willing that warm feeling back.

At my house I leaned over to kiss him goodnight and he looked surprised and gratified. I reached back to push the door open before I got carried away, imagining an angry Charlie catching us making out in the driveway.

Jacob tensed, went absolutely still, for a moment before he began to shake.

“Vampire” he snarled.

Chapter Text

Get out of the car!

Don’t get out of the car!

It wasn’t Edwards voice screaming in my head this time, but my own mind, seeking to solve an impossible problem. Stay in the car with an angry werewolf on the verge of shifting? Or go outside and possibly face a murderous vampire?

I stayed put. At the same time Jacob seemed to roll out of the driver’s side door and then explode.

The car shook

Then absolute silence

A wolf’s howl, sounding too close, sure to wake Charlie.

Jacob.

Oh holy crow, Jacob! Fighting a vampire.

I jumped out of the car.

To do what , I didn’t know, but I couldn’t leave Jake to fight a monster. A monster I’d brought down on him.

But it was still again, except for the wind, or something like it, rustling in the trees. It seemed so dark

“Jacob!” I hissed, knowing he’d hear, not wanting to wake my possibly still sleeping father. “Jake”

There, something in the trees. A flash of white? Something moving quickly.

Not Jake, but my speeding, beautiful death.

I closed my eyes reflexively. At least it might be quick now.

A dark shape burst from the woods and grabbed the vampire by her red hair and shook.

The hair broke and she went flying off back into the woods. In the distance other wolves howled.

The Jacob-wolf looked between me and the direction Victoria had flown.

Oh, it was Victoria!

Grumbling, or making a wolf-y equivalent to it he paced warily around me.

“Jake?” I whispered, heart pounding, “Are you okay? It-it was Victoria again.”

A large wet nose brushed my hand.  He continued to pace around me

A few interminable moments of silence then a rustling in the trees had me spinning, panicking, reaching for shaggy red-brown fur.

Another werewolf, smaller than Jacob trotted out of the woods and bared its teeth at me. While not exactly encouraging, it seemed to me better than the alternative and I relaxed fractionally. Jacob, stood solidly in front of me and bristled at the other wolf.

The new wolf huffed, or snorted, and looked away.

Jacob licked my hand.

“Oh, ew! Jake!” His head turned as a wolf black as the night galloped out of the trees followed by the others. Sam growled at the smaller wolf and it cringed submissively.

Jake trotted away from me into the forest.

“Jake!” I called in mild distress as I made to follow him. After all, the Jacob wolf seems comforting and familiar, I felt safer with him there. But a grinning wolf, tongue lolling moved into my path, mirroring me when I tried to go around.

I recognized this wolf, I thought.

“Embry!” I whispered, “Where did Jake-“

“It’s fine Embry,” came Jacob’s serious, and not quiet enough voice, “I’m decent.”

Jacob walked out of the forest wearing shorts that appeared to be a size or so too small.

I felt my face warm. They seemed revealing even though they were falling past his knee

He grinned briefly, apparently seeing me blush, then went back to looking grim.

“We didn’t think she’d be back so soon,” he said to me, though clearly also addressing the pack.”

“Are you okay Jacob?” he looked and sounded unharmed.

“’M fine, it was you she wanted,” he ran a hand through his shorn hair. “Me she just wanted to get out of the way.”

I squinted at him, to check the veracity of his words, unable to see anything clearly in the dark.

“It was stupid, with Harry and Leah and Seth and all, and since we'd just chased her off, we didn’t have a guard on the house. Leah made it fast because she was already shifted and running in the woods.”

The smallest wolf, who’d growled at me, curled a lip at Jacob, then growled at me.

“Cut it out Leah, jeez.” She didn’t like me. I wondered why.

“Look Sam, I’ll stay here tonight and keep an eye on things. We’ll have to start patrolling again tomorrow, even with everything.”

“I’ll stay outside,” he said sharply, looking at Embry and another wolf who appeared to be grinning at each other. Supposedly he couldn’t read their minds right now, but it maybe he’d just gotten to know them too well. I didn’t understand though,

What he was saying made no sense though.

“Jake, it’s cold, you can stay in my room.”  It certainly wouldn’t be the first time. But no, better not to think on those lines.

The Embry wolf coughed and fell over on his side.

“Shut up, Bells,” Jacob sounded embarrassed. “Right, you go inside, I’m going to shift and kill Embry and Jared.” I still felt confused and Jacob gave me a pained look.

Stay in my room. Ah. I blushed hard. Then I hugged him impulsively.

“Night Jake”

“Night” he said back, sounding dazed.

“Wait,” I said, pulse speeding. “Victoria…Charlie…!”

“He’s fine, just sleeping.”

Reassured, I went inside, listening as I got ready for bed. I didn’t hear any werewolf scuffles. Then again, I supposed I wouldn’t.

Were they really good enough to defeat Victoria, who was invincible in my nightmares?

As I turned out the lights, after checking in on Charlie just to reassure myself, I called out the window.

“You know, you really can come in Jake, just to sleep. It’s cold.”

Then I went to bed.

I woke up screaming

It was like a dream I’d had once before, when I’d first discovered Edward was a vampire,

The green wavery light of the forest, the strange echoing quiet. There was Edward. In my dream I could really see him again, his unreal, breathtaking, untouchable beauty. And then there was a huge wolf, a red brown wolf with warm laughing eyes that were so familiar in that animal’s face. Jacob. Beautiful in his own earthy way.  Around him the light seemed to gather and warm.

But Edward was snarling ferally as I’d only heard once before. Then Jacob growled back, howled and they leapt toward each other

Time slowed as they collided. Impossible power, blood, teeth tearing and ripping through fur and perfect shining skin. Possible that they would both die. Impossible that both would live.

I loved Edward still. And I knew now that I loved Jacob, much more than I’d thought possible. But I still loved Edward more, didn’t I?

Did any of it matter, when one or both of them could die right here in front of my eyes?

It was a dream, and so I could see hundreds of Jacobs at once. I didn’t want him to die. I didn’t want either of them to die!

Edward was falling, Jacob was falling.

“NO! No no no no no.”

“Bells!” A hissing whispering voice. I was sitting up in bed. Crying loudly, coughing.

“Bella, it’s okay! Bella, please!”

Jake sounded so upset that I stopped crying, or tried to, but I was still hiccoughing and leaking in a way that was probably very unattractive.

He rubbed my back as I calmed down until I was sniffling.

“Jake? What are you doing here?” I sniffed. Everyone was still alive.

In comparison, his absence seemed almost a relief.

“You invited me, remember”

“You stayed?” I smiled weakly.

“You look funny when you sleep Bells” I laughed weakly, the nightmare fading, the beautiful face of my other love fading. I felt a twinge from my gaping, invisible wound.

“Charlie?”

“He started to come over here, then sighed and went downstairs. You should probably go let him know you’re okay.” He seemed regretful, still running his large hand up and down my back.

“He’s probably all worried again.” His hand was very warm. Alive. His blood had seemed so real.

“Yeah.” Jacob sighed and looked down into my eyes. His eyes were intense and I leaned up toward him. Jacob. In my bedroom. This was too much, too fast and I still loved Edward but I was drawn in.

Our lips were barely touching when Charlie called uncertainly up the stairs

“Bella?” I gasped and shied away. Jacob ran a hand through his hair looking embarrassed.

“Bella, you up?”

“I should go”

“You should go”

I smiled at him.

“I’ll see you later today?”

“Yeah. Might have to meet with the pack to talk more about the attack and hunting her but yeah. Come over whenever.” He squeezed my hand

Charlie’s feet started thumping up the stairs.

I hugged Jake, and watched as he leapt carelessly out the window.

Without Jake I felt the dream slinking back, painful and horrible.

Helpless in this world of supernatural creatures I loved.

But when Charlie knocked on the door I answered.

“You can come in Dad”

“He peeked his head in.”

“Didn’t mean to wake you Bell, just…”

“I know. Sorry, just a nightmare.”

“Hm. Thought they’d been getting better.”

“They are.”

There was an awkward pause, before Charlie shrugged his shoulders in apology.

“Well, I could make breakfast, if you’re hungry,”

“I’ll make it. I’m fine, really Dad.” I smiled, and it must have been convincing enough because something subtle in Charlie relaxed and he smiled at me.

No more zombie, check.

“Good, good. I’ll probably go up to the Res again, help Billy and Sue with everything.” He looked away. “You gonna come along with me?”

“Yeah,” I sounded happier even to myself now. “Yeah, I told Jake I’d come by.”

“Good,” Charlie repeated. “Well, I’ll just let you come down when you’re ready. No rush.”

He clomped downstairs.

About an hour later after a shower, some slightly less careless dressing than usual, my rich brown sweater and some fairly well fitting jeans, carefully brushed hair, plus one breakfast of scrambled eggs and awkward conversation with Charlie, and we were on the familiar road to La Push.

“So” Charlie said ominously “You and Jake have been doing good? No more fights?”

“No,” I smiled, “Not really.”

“He’s a good kid, you know, Jake.”

“He’s not a kid Dad, he’s not that much younger than me.”

He thought about that.

“Well you’re still a kid to me too Bella. What I mean is, he’s a good guy. He cares about you.”

“I know.” Feeling wary. Charlie seemed to be working up to some kind of “talk”

If it was a sex talk I would jump out of this moving car.

“And you care about him.”

“Uh huh”

“Just, that’s good, I think, you know, to have someone like him in your life.” Charlie seemed to back off the topic, to my relief.

“Yeah.”

“Well, anyway, looks like it’ll be a fair day, maybe you guys can get out to the beach no need to get involved in…everything.” he paused again.

“You, uh, used to like it out there, when it was sunny.”

I did?

“Yeah, that might be fun” Unless we were attacked by a murderous, vampire, with hair that shone like fire on the surface of the water. Had she been stalking me even then, ready to kill me before I could stupidly kill myself?

I needed to warn the pack. Victoria in Forks was terrible. Victoria in La Push seemed somehow exponentially worse.

Charlie parked in front of Jake’s house and got out with me. He was picking up Billy before going over to the Clearwater’s.

Just like the day before I was greeted by a bounding and exuberant Jacob, a somewhat overwhelming sight for Chalie I could tell. He swung me around and then before I could think, kissed me soundly. In front of Charlie.

In front of Charlie.

Charlie cleared his throat and mumbled something, to which Jake laughed and lifted me once more in a hug.

“Jacob!” I hissed.

“What’s up Bells?” he replied smirking. It was like he didn’t even care that Charlie was standing right there. I looked exaggeratedly at Charlie, faintly blushing now but possibly holding back a smile.

“Oh well, it seems like he knows now.”

“He has a gun Jacob.”

Charlie laughed at that and patted Jake on the shoulder

“You two don’t get in too much trouble now.”

Unfortunately, and unbeknownst to Charlie, Jake and I went straight to business that day, heading up to Emily’s (and Sam’s?) as soon as he and Billy were gone to Sue’s.

It was only around ten in the morning but the werewolves were out in force. Or, okay, not exactly force, they were yawning around the table and stuffing themselves with yet another huge batch of muffins. To my surprise Kim was there too, looking equally sleepy and only picking at her muffin from her perch in Jared’s lap. She looked quite tiny sitting there, and I imagined with chagrin that I must also look very puny next to Jacob.

Leah and Seth were there, looking worn out and unhappy. Unhappiness seemed unnatural on Seth, but Leah’s scowl looked well-practiced.

“Great. Why is vampire girl here? I thought we were about killing them, not making out with them.” I felt myself go bright red in embarrassment, pain, and annoyance.

Jacob tensed and quivered slightly before retorting angrily.

“Shut up Leah!”

“Jacob, Leah, please,” Sam cut in, not in the voice of command I associated with him but instead in a tired, almost apologetic tone. “Bella is with Jacob. She knows everything, and has encountered the red haired bloodsucker before. She is what it is after.”

Leah flushed. “And we’re the one’s laying our lives down. Why doesn’t she just get her blood sucking boyfriend to come back and kill it? He’s like a million years old, right? Seth’s 14.”

Jacob put an arm around my shoulder

Leah sneered at him, “Oh, please. Rebound much? Or did you just wear her down, panting after her like a dog?”

His arm tightened painfully as his form shook.

“Jacob!” Sam barked out, sounding like himself. “That is enough Leah.”

She fell silent but glared at me once more before taking the nearest chair and looking pointedly away from everyone.

Jacob smoothed a hand over where he’d squeezed my arm.

“All right Bells?”

“I’m fine Jacob. Are you all right?”

Leah made a low noise in her throat and Jacob growled softly.

Embry and Jared looked uncomfortable. Paul appeared to have fallen asleep on half of a muffin.

Emily looked mournful and started to go to Leah, who switched the direction of her lethal glare until she backed off again and refreshed the muffin basket and pulled a pitcher or juice out of her seemingly bottomless fridge.

“Okay listen up.” Sam ordered. Jared kicked Paul’s chair, and Kim hid a smile, as his head jerked up, the half-muffin now attached.

“We have to start patrolling again. We didn’t think she’d be back so soon but we were wrong, and her last attack was the most aggressive yet. The only time we’ll break is for the funeral and Bella will be there, so if the redhead comes around at least we’ll be with the target.”

“We’ll run in pairs or groups. Bella you’ll stay here with Emily and Kim. Two at a time on the house while the rest of us hunt. Jacob, you and I will take Seth out on the first run.”

Seth smiled weakly. Even not knowing him, it hurt to see his usual cheer buried under grief.

“Jared and Paul, head up to Forks and see if you can catch a scent. Embry and Leah you’re on the house.” Embry glanced concernedly at Leah from the corner of his eye. She had her eyes closed and her head in her hand.

Sam kept talking but I stopped listening and instead thought back on my nightmare, substituting in an enraged and terrifying Victoria. It made me shiver.

Jacob squeezed my hand.

So I spent the remainder of my spring break mostly cooped up in Emily’s cozy little cottage, sometimes chatting with her and Kim, often sitting in silence or reading, worrying, and waiting.

By the second day Kim expressed the wish to be a werewolf herself and out doing something, instead of just sitting around uselessly. Emily chided her, and Leah, on house guard duty and grabbing a snack (and whose unique position seemed to have prompted Kim’s statement) snarled out a sting of profanity.

But I agreed. Being doomed to be the helpless one while supernatural fighters saved your life was wearying and disheartening. Better to be fighting for yourself.

We can save each other equally.

I remembered saying as much to Edward, and squeezed my middle to hold myself together. Without Jacob’s ameliorating presence my spells were getting worse again, and sometimes when Jared or Sam came in I couldn’t breathe looking at the loving couples.

I wondered how Jake and I looked.

Sometimes I walked on the beach by myself, keeping careful watch for vibrant red out on the surface of the water.

When Jacob returned to Emily’s I felt a sweet relief mixed with tenderness and love. I could breathe again. I wasn’t going to fly apart at my broken seams.

There were a few more breathless kisses. I overreacted terribly at times, but Jacob only seemed elated and amused.

Friday came.

I dressed in my only black dress and stockings and rode in silence with a solemn Charlie.

The funeral was awful, Leah and Seth crying with their mother, while the pack looked on solemnly. Charlie and Billy dabbing at their eyes while trying to remain stoic.

I suppose the service was nice, I was not at all an expert; hadn’t been to a funeral since my grandmother’s a few years ago. The funeral ended uncomfortably as Leah broke out of her mother’s embrace and ran for the forest. Face grimmer than I’d ever seen it, Sam took off at a jog after her. Emily watched him go with tears streaming down her face. It seemed as if the whole reservation was there. Harry had been an elder and clearly well loved. I held tight to Charlie and Jacob’s hands on either side of me. Two funerals I would not be attending if I had anything at all to do with it.

It was the last official day of spring break.

 

It felt like my whole life had changed, but it’d only been a week.

 

Of course, it wasn’t the first time my life had changed overnight.

Chapter Text

 

The weekend passed in a blur. I spent it finishing up my homework in Emily’s kitchen and hanging around with Jacob, feeling that returning to school without him would be especially painful. School felt like a distant past after the last week.

It poured on Monday, of course, and I scraped my hand slipping in the driveway on my way to my truck. Not the most auspicious return to school. I ran straight to English class with a heavy heart, but smiled at Jessica as I sat down near her. She fake smiled back at me but I tried not to be bothered. It made me lonely. When Angela came in I smiled at her too, and she smiled back genuinely, if a bit unsure.

“Bella, it’s good to see you? Did you have a good break?” she asked in her kind, quiet way as she set her things down and took the seat next to mine.

I thought for just a fleeting moment of the cliff dive, the awfulness of Harry’s funeral, the terror of Victoria hanging over me, Jacob’s warm hands, burning lips.

“You know, I think I did,” I said, and I smiled back a smile full of the warmth in my heart. “How was yours?”

Angela had spent most of her break with Ben, and was full of the same kind of warmth as me. Chatting to her felt surprisingly natural. I was grateful. She at least wouldn’t treat me like a pariah. Jessica glanced back our way a couple times in confusion or disgust before the teacher came in and started class

Mike Newton, who’d been late to English, smiled widely and sat next to me in Calculus. I said hello. It was easy to chat with him about spring break as if mine had been as normal as his.

Lunch came faster than I’d expected, and brought a strange longing for the comfort of the wolf pack. Something about meals with them was so whole and comforting. But I only hugged myself a little bit as I sat down at my usual table, ignoring Lauren’s and her friends’ glares while I smiled and said hello to Ben, Tyler, Connor and Eric. I nodded to Katie and Ryan Marks too.

Still, even though lunch went well, and I managed not to maim anyone but myself in PE, I was happy when the day ended

“Oh my GOD” Jessica screeched. “Who’s that?”

The roar of the motorcycle pulling to a stop in the parking lot let me know whom she was talking about before I looked up. Jacob swung casually off of the bike and pulled off the helmet. At least he was wearing a motorcycle jacket rather than going shirtless as usual.

“It’s just that sophomore from La Push” Mike replied sharply.

“Just? That’s the guy Bella’s dating?!” I saw her glance at me appraisingly from the corner of my eye. My face heated.

“They aren’t actually dating” Mike grumbled

“Actually, we are,” I murmured quietly, blushing and not bothering to pretend I wasn’t listening.

Everyone turned and stared at me. I blushed harder.

“Since when?” Mike demanded.

“Spring break”

“No wonder you seemed so normal today. Sorry” exclaimed Jessica, looking and sounding unrepentant.

“I’m happy for you Bella” Angela smiled at me.

“How in the hell does she do it?” muttered to a girl next to her, Stacy something. “What is it about her?"

“He’s a sophomore? Eric asked no one in particular.

“Doesn’t look like one.” Tyler responded.

Jacob ran a hand through his hair and looked up and directly into my eyes, smiling widely.

“Hey, Bells” he called.

I trotted over to him as fast as my legs and unfortunate center of gravity would carry me, slipping a couple times, but staying upright.

“Jacob” I admonished, smiling stupidly, “Did you skip last period?"

He grinned. “I thought I’d come see you.” He reached out and steadied me automatically as I stumbled up to him.

He hugged me tightly. I couldn’t help but hug back.

He glanced at my gaping school friends then leaned down and kissed me a little more seriously than was strictly necessary.

I heard Jessica shriek something before all my senses honed in on Jake.

I broke away before I could lose control of my few remaining wits.

I looked into Jacob’s warm eyes and tried to summon a little outrage

“You did not just come here to show off that we’re dating” I scolded.

“Course not Bella,” he breezed sunnily. “I missed you”

“I missed you too Jake” I sighed, giving up even the pretence of anger.

He lifted his bike into my truck with a show of effort, for our audience. Though he probably didn’t mind flexing his supernaturally enhanced muscles. “Your place? I don’t have any patrol today.”

“We have to do homework Jacob”

“Sure, sure”

Feeling positively buoyant, I waved much more enthusiastically at my friends than usual as Jake and I climbed into my truck.

They really weren’t so bad, my school group. They’d stuck around more or less, while I was so out of it. They weren’t Jacob though, who was after all still my best friend. I felt myself relax and expand in his presence. Soon I was laughing and filling with the usual sunshine his presence brought me.

We did do homework. We were virtuous and productive, more or less, for almost 2 hours. But then Jacob kissed me, and I kissed him back, and we ended up on the couch. He had reverted to his usual shirtlessness as soon as we got to my house and I couldn’t help running my fingers over the smooth skin of his broad chest and back. He leaned over me, seeming huge, as I lay back, the fingers of one hand burning trails up under my shirt, up my back, just brushing the edge of my bra. His lips moved along my jaw to my throat and I gasped loudly. I curled my fingernails against his skin and he groaned. Everything was beginning to feel hazy. I was so warm. As if I had forgotten what it was to be cold. As if I’d never be cold again. His hands were rough from working in his garage, but gentle as they slid my shirt up my body and I felt like my skin had become silken soft and hyper sensitive. We shifted and I felt something I’d never felt brush warm and firm through at least two layers of clothing into my thigh and sighed again.

The sound of a key in the door broke loudly into our haze.

Oh holy crow! Charlie.

We sprang apart. I frantically straightened my hair and clothing as Jacob grabbed at his books at random, opening one over his lap.

Charlie walked heavily into the hallway.

“Bells? Jake?” He called.

“We’re here Ch-Dad”

He looked cautiously around the corner before lumbering in looking suspicious.

“Hn.” He harrumphed, taking in our too innocent act.

“I’m watching you, son.” He directed at Jacob, looking stern yet slightly amused.

“Dad” I groaned.

“So I’m guessing there’s no dinner?” He replied, looking pleased

“Sorry.”.

“It’s okay. I can fend for myself, you know. Not the first time you and Jake have let time get away from you. Want me to make us something?”

“No!” I said too quickly. “I have some stuff for spaghetti. It’ll be quick.”

“Fine” he said. “No rush. Jake, you staying to eat?”

Jacob sighed, stood and stretched.

“Nah. Billy’ll be expecting me”

He went slightly red in an endearing way as he leaned over to kiss my cheek.

“See ya tomorrow Bells. Charlie.”

“Hn.” Charlie grunted again

I blushed harder than Jake. “Sure, sure. Bye Jake”

---

Again, the pattern of my life took on a new shape. New not so much on the outside -  it was still school, work, and Jacob, definitely not in that order.

But new in experience.

At school it was easier to laugh and talk with my cafeteria crowd. Even Jessica showed signs of coming around. At work I talked with Mike Newton and worried less about leading him on now that he knew about me and Jacob.

 

With Jacob I basked in a warmth and fullness I hadn’t felt in months.

I was not back to normal; I still felt the wind knocked out of me at times by painful beautiful memories. I still had nightmares. But maybe I was less broken beyond repair than I had been.

It was easier to be on my own, to act normal for Charlie.

Jacob now was like a warm light settling permanently in the empty parts of me.

Twice more that week he met me after school on his bike, and though I ought to have been concerned about him ditching class I was too happy to see him. The latest visit he’d called a cheery hello to my friends. Jessica had asked if he had a brother.

I was surprised the following Wednesday however, to hear the tell-tale roar in the parking lot as I walked toward the cafeteria at lunchtime. I ran out to see Jake loading his bike into my truck looking unusually serious.

“Jake” I called, “What’s wrong?” I thought of Victoria and my pulse sped.

“Quil.” Jake said quietly as I stuttered to a stop beside him.

“He shifted.” I responded, feeling both relief and regret.

After all, although I wanted to be a werewolf, I knew the pack, Jake included, still viewed it as a terrible curse.

“So why are you here Jake? Shouldn’t you be with him?”

“Came to take you to Emily’s. We’re leaving Leah while the rest of us try and work with him. It’s easier to only worry about one place while we’re distracted”

I climbed into the passenger side of my truck, glad I would only be missing Spanish and PE this afternoon.

“Leah?” I asked, trying not to sound disappointed. At best she was pointedly indifferent, at worst icy, unfriendly, and caustic.

“Sam says its because it makes the wolves feel better, less possessive than leaving another male wolf, but I think he’s just trying to fix Emily and Leah.”

“Fix them? I can’t imagine them even getting along. They hate each other.” I thought for a moment “Well, Leah hates Emily, at least"

“Nah, they used to be closer than sisters. It’s just…well I don’t want this to make you think badly of Sam again. But Sam and Leah…”

“They were together? When? Is that how he meant Emily?”

“They were. High school sweethearts. We all thought they’d get married. But when he saw Emily for the first time after he phased…it was like love at first sight, I guess you could say. And well, it was a huge mess of course. The whole thing is so fucked up. And Emily refused Sam for a pretty long time. But then after she was injured, well somehow they just got together. And Leah, she acts tough but she was really heart broken. Cause she lost Sam and Emily both. And she’s a pain in my ass, and a huge bitch, yeah, but even I feel bad for her…how could I not, being able to feel it all like it’s my own feelings.”

I didn’t know what to say. I had badly misjudged Leah, thinking that she was just naturally cruel, and stuck up (easy to imagine she would be, what with her model-like beauty). I thought of those first months after , when I was lost and cut off.

“Poor Leah” I said quietly.

“Yeah, Sam feels awful, and maybe you think he should. But it really is like he couldn’t help it. I’ve seen that too.”

"I guess…" It was hard not to feel that Leah had been terribly wronged though.

But on the other hand, could I deny how love could strike suddenly and without hope of denial?

---

When we got to Emily’s I tried to smile with more feeling at Leah.

She scowled at me and then glared at Jacob.

“Damn it Black, you told her. Stuff your sappy shit Bella. I still don’t like you. And you don’t like me.”

“Hey! Don’t talk to her like that!”

“Love the white knight act, Jake, but hate to break it to you, she already had the whitest of white knights when she was with that filthy leech. And if he was still around you’d be in the same position as me, so don’t get righteous with me.”

I gasped and Jacob gave an honest to god snarl out of his human mouth, and began shaking all over.

“Oh, Leah” Emily said softly and infinitely sadly from the porch. For one moment Leah looked absolutely heartbroken and close to tears. Then she stormed out the door past us and off toward the forest.

Jacob, still shaking, was looking between me and Emily in horror.

“Jake…” I said. “Jacob it’s okay.” I took a step toward him and he held out a hand to stop me.

“You’re crying.” He grunted. I reached up and touched my cheeks and found them wet.

“It’s nothing, I’m just too sensitive.” Jacob popped his neck and took a deep breath. He was still shuddering.

“You’re doing that thing.” I was in fact holding my arms wrapped around myself. I hadn’t even felt the reference to…him…hit, but apparently I’d reacted.  I let go.

“I’m fine Jacob. Are you all right?” he was still making what sounded like growls under his breath and shaking his limbs as if to be sure they were intact.

“Jacob.” I took a tentative step toward him. Looking away from Emily’s frozen expression of terror, one hand trembling against the scars on her cheek, I stepped over and hugged him tightly. He sighed and I felt him relax against me. We stayed that was for a long time.

“You have to go.” I finally murmured from his chest.

“Yeah,” he sighed. “You’ll be okay?”

“I’m fine,” I murmured yet again.

“Woah. Hey guys, did I miss something?”

Smiling cautiously, Kim was approaching from her car parked carefully parallel to the front curb.

I wiped at my eyes, and pulled away from Jacob to look at her “It’s fine. Just kind of an argument with Leah.”

“Aww...well, don’t mind her. I promise she really isn’t as awful as she seems. She’s just not in the best state right now. But she’s more bark than bite."

Kim put her arms, thin and cool after hugging Jacob, around me. I felt only the briefest of pangs thinking of Alice’s similarly (though in her case deceptively) frail form, before I surprised myself out of mourning by a familiar, yet unfamiliar, sense of comfort. I hadn’t thought I could feel this way. Not about a human at least.

This sensation, was something I imagined was sisterly, not that I would know.

Even with Angela, who was closest to me at school, there always seemed to be a boundary, a distinction between us.

I’d thought that only the Cullens, could give me this…this kind of home. But it was so simple. Kim, my friend, hugging me. And tentatively I lifted my arms and hugged her back. I felt myself smiling

When I looked at Jacob, he looked highly pleased.

“What?” I asked.

“Nothing, nothing. Gotta go Bells, pick you up later.” He leaned down and kissed me on the head and trotted off into the forest.

Kim stepped back. “Let’s go inside?”

“But Leah…”

“She’ll come back when she’s cooled off. Don’t expect an apology though.” She smiled. “She feels bad, sure enough, but she’s too stubborn to say it.”

“Do you really think so?” I asked as we turned toward the house.

“Yeah. I’ve known her since I was like 2, and she’s always been sort of like this. Stubborn, and tough, but she really is nice. My mom says she’s moody, and I guess that’s true. It’s gotten worse since…well since this whole imprinting thing- not that she knew at the time but-“

“-Kim! No!” Emily broke in sounding more angry than I’d heard her before. But I couldn’t think much about that.

“Imprinting thing? What’s an imprinting thing?”

“Uh oh. She doesn’t know? You don’t know? But shouldn’t she, as she’s Jacob’s?”

“It’s a bit complicated. He was going to explain it to her soon.”

“Jacob’s what? Kim, Emily.  Is something wrong with Jacob? With me? With me and Jacob?”

They both stared at me. After a long moment of all three of us staring at each other Emily sighed.

“Oh, Jake won’t be pleased, and neither will Sam and the rest of them. But I don’t see what we can do now but tell her."

“Is it something bad?”

“No!” Kim exclaimed, sounding horrified.

“No, though I suppose it depends who you ask. The boys and Leah are split on the issue.” Emily sounded tired and sad.

“But, those guys just don’t really understand what it’s like. The imprinted ones all really do like it. And I don’t see how you and Jacob wouldn’t be. You’re just like me and Jared, like Emily and Sam. I mean I know there was the whole vampire thing, Sorry, I know you don’t like to talk about it, Jacob gave us a big lecture before you started hanging out with us, but you guys are just…”

“Kim…” Emily moaned.

“Well anyway, you guys are just, like, meant to be. And that’s what imprinting is. It’s how the wolves find their true love!”

“Huh?” I tried to take in all of what Kim had just said, while also wavering between being touched and annoyed that Jacob had lectured Kim and Emily about treating me carefully. No wonder those first couple days had been so quiet. But I had bigger things to focus on.  “They ‘imprint’ to find true love? What does that mean?” Wasn’t imprinting what baby ducks did?

“We think it is tied into a wolf-related mating thing, maybe to pass on the wolf bloodline, or genes. Which makes it sound strange, I know, but what they say, the wolves who imprint,  is that when they see ‘the one’ for the first time after they change, their world shifts, and they feel intensely tied to this one person, above all others.”

“You make it sound scary Emily! It’s like love at first sight. Really, really, intense and forever love at first sight.”

“That’s the same thing, Kim...”

“But I saw Jacob all the time before he changed, and Kim you knew Jared, didn’t you? Jacob said you had class together and that’s how you met.”

“But the first time he saw me after he changed into a wolf, it was crazy, I’d noticed him before, of course, and everyone was really worried when he was gone for so long. But when he came back to school, he sat next to me like he did every day and I asked how he was, really just to have an excuse to say hi, he looked sooo handsome too, I didn’t know what it was at the time, but anyway, he turned and looked at me, just turned his head like to be polite and then he froze. He got this strange look on his face like he couldn’t believe his eyes. He looked at me like I was some kind of miracle. And he said, “I’m Jared. Jared Cameron” And I was confused, of course, because it wasn't like we didn’t know each other at all. But he said later that for him it was like he was seeing me, really seeing me, for the first time.” Kim took a deep breath, her eyes looking bright. “And he asked me out later that day.”

For my part, I was quiet a moment. So that was why…

“So, Emily, you and Sam, the way he broke up with Leah...”

The door banging open made us all start.

“Yeah, magical fairy tale music and shit - he imprinted on my cousin, and dumped me a couple days later.” Leah said bitterly as she walked in and slouched into a kitchen chair. “And I‘d been so glad they got along so well”

“But if he was in love with Leah already, right - sorry, Emily - so why didn’t he imprint on her?”

“That’s the part we don’t really understand Bella. We don’t know why the wolf imprints on one person over another, or why it happens at all. It is supposed to be really rare, though.”

“Yeah, lucky me.” Leah snapped. Emily looked away toward a picture of herself being held by a laughing Sam, with watering eyes.

“So they can’t control it, it just happens, and it’s like irresistible love at first sight?”

“They say it’s more than that, but as far as we can tell yes.”

“Did Jake imprint on me?”  What answer did I want? Did I want a supernatural love bond thing with someone, when I still felt broken from Edward’s leaving? When part of me still dreamed of Edward coming back, with apologies and renewed vows of love?

But on the other hand, what would it be like to be in Leah’s place, to watch Jacob fall in love with someone else, leave me, not be able to love me…

Had it really been only weeks ago that I’d wanted exactly that?

Now it sounded like a nightmare.

I was really selfish.

No one had answered my question, and I squeezed my arms tightly around myself.

“Did Jacob imprint on me?” I asked again. Leah looked for the briefest of moments sympathetic, then looked away.

“Well…” Kim said, “I thought so.”

“It’s kind of complicated. We don’t know Bella.”

“How can you not know? Why don’t you know? Does he still love me? Is he going to imprint on someone else? Is there any way to know? Oh jeez, what if he imprints on someone else.”  My heart was racing, and I couldn’t breathe. Distantly I could hear a ghostly chorus in my memory -

he’s gone he’s gone he’s gone he’s gone.

“Bella,” Emily soothed, taking hold of my arms. “You know Jacob loves you. It’s going to be okay. He loves you, you know that. It’s just complicated because he felt so much and so strongly for you before he changed and then the pain of not being allowed to see you after. Well he thinks what he felt when he saw you again for the first time was imprinting. Sam and Jared said it didn’t feel as monumental, but he says of course it wouldn’t because he was already in love with you, already felt like you were the world to him before the change.”

“He loved you before, and he still loves you, whoop de-fucking do for Bella.” Leah said bitingly, “But at least you know it isn’t just some weird wolf voodoo shit making him be your love slave. That’s what these two worry about.” She added meanly.

Kim blushed scarlet “You don’t have to be such a bitch, Leah, it’s not our fault!” She wiped at her eyes. “And they do so love us, the imprint just sped things up.”

“Whatever, like I care.” Leah replied, sounding tired now. Then she looked straight at me. “He loves you Bella. I may not always like either of you. And I was prepared to hate you for stringing him along while you pined for those leeches. But you make each other happy. So now just hope that that is enough.” Again, intense, recognizable pain flashes across her face. “

“Leah…” I felt this rush of feeling, which must be sympathy, for that pain I knew so well, of being left loving someone who has moved on from you. It was so strong I had the urge to embrace Leah, like a sister, and I knew in that moment, that for all her moods, and her bad attitude, there was something like friendship sprouting, fragile and frail, between us.

“Forget it,” she said, without the usual bite.

The night was quiet after that, all of us lost in our own thoughts, with nothing to do but wait around for the guys to come back. It seemed awfully unfair, this divide of the sexes. Being the weak one, the one who trusts and waits and hopes was not fun; it wasn’t fair. Longing with every fiber of your being to be the one acting... Looking at Emily, baking fresh banana bread for her wolf boys, Leah, pacing and listening at the door, and Kim, passed out and snoring softly on the couch, I think that there might be a strength in us as well, even if it wasn’t the most exciting kind.

I wished it could be the exciting kind.

I’d drifted off in my thoughts and was curled up on the couch when Leah perked up and opened the door.

“About goddamn time.” She said conversationally to nobody.

A chorus of chuckles rose out of the darkness

“Next time someone else can take the baby-sitting job, you sexist pigs.” Strangely, again I felt sympathetic to Leah. If I were in her place I would want to fight for myself and my friends too, not sit around.

She was a werewolf too after all.

“Leah, give it a rest, we’re wiped.”

“Is everything all right Leah?” Sam asked solemnly. She gave the slightest flinch.

“Like you don’t already know. I’m going home. Bye Bella,” she added the last part looking at my still open eyes, and nodding in something like friendliness. Kim was still peacefully dozing, a slight frown on her face, and Emily sitting at the table with her head resting on her folded arms.

“Bye”

Through the door, too cozy and tired to move, I watched as Leah walked off unafraid into the darkness, and dark, tall shapes crowded up the steps and jockeyed at the door to come in. Jared finally made it in first, and his eyes swept the room restlessly before landing on Kim. The smile on his face gentle, he scooped her up effortlessly. The frown on her face relaxed and she stirred, smiling sleepily, before relaxing against him. Sam crossed the room to Emily and stroked her hair, speaking gentle words from his eyes to hers.

Like some lingering phantom, almost a reflex, I felt the slightest stirring of pain, under my sleepy thoughts.  

But then Jacob entered the room, filling it with warmth and smiling in a way that was almost his old Jacob smile (just a little tenser, a little older). He crossed the room in what seemed like a single step and tucked my hair behind my ear.

“Ready to go home Bells?”

“Hmm” I replied, too tired to form words, but happy to bask in my personal sun.

Laughing quietly he bent down and wordlessly asked permission to pick me up.

“Mmhmm” I murmured, happy now to stay in my sleepy bubble. Happy to not think about why I feel perfectly content now that Jacob was here, perfectly whole in this moment.

He carried me out to the car, his chest a blazing balm against my cheek.

“I told Charlie you’d spend the night in our spare bedroom when I had a break. Said we were at a party and lost track of time and you fell asleep and were too tired to drive. Sorry I didn’t come see you, but I went and checked with Billy and he said it’s fine for you to stay in the girls’ room for tonight. They both said they’d be watching me though, ha, so I guess you’ll have to really sleep there.”

“MMa stay with you?”

“With me in my house, but not with me with me. Charlie does have a gun after all.”

“Mm sleepy.”

“I know you are sweetie.” He answered softly.

“Jake, I love you.”

“I know, I love you too Bells.”

“Did you imprint on me?” I managed to slur out just before another wave of sleep pulled me under. The last thing I heard was his slow, soft response.

“I don’t know.”

Chapter Text

-------

Over the next couple weeks, I did my best to act normal, while inside I was panicking big time. Jacob didn’t bring up imprinting again, apparently hoping I’d let it go, or else had forgotten in the haze of sleep the monumental question I’d asked him. The monumental question to which he’d had no answer.

 

In all areas, excepting the possibility of another encroaching romantic and existential crisis, my life was going remarkably well. I’d never been on friendly terms with so many people. My school friends, even Jessica, had cautiously begun to include me in the lunchroom chatter, and pre-class pleasantries, which was enough to make school bearable. Classes, if not always challenging, once again penetrated my no-longer-absent conscious mind and I continued to get good grades.

 

My life outside school was most remarkable for its lack of resemblance to my former habits. I had always been a loner, shy and awkward - reserved and serious, rather than outgoing and fun loving. All of this had made it only natural that I had never had a great number of friends.

 

Now, somehow, the pack was making that mysterious transition from Jacob’s friends, who took care of me and put up with me for his sake, to my friends - people who I knew and cared about. And who cared about me back.

 

It was Wednesday, and having finished our homework, I was chatting with Kim about the second book in a series we’d both been reading. It was a different sort of book than I usually read. I liked it despite the fantasy genre, which I’d never read much before. It was fun and engrossing, even if I sometimes found the tales of complex romances between various supernatural creatures and the occasional hapless human hit a little close to home. Many of the girls were themselves supernatural, which of course gave me a visceral thrill, and slightly bitter jealousy.

 

“It’s more racy than you usually read, I know Bella.  But I think they’re really fun. And I love the characters! And well…what’s not to love about handsome, heroic werewolf men?”

 

I laughed, despite myself. “The sex scenes aren’t bad. You know, except…it’s not exactly like I have any experience with that sort of thing…it makes me…um…I don’t know…I don’t know anything about…you know...” what I actually felt was indescribable, something that was embarrassed with a side of excitement and tingling warmth. And it was making Jacob's occasional appearances in my dreams (regular dreams, not nightmares) much more interesting. And kissing him even more so.

 

Leah, despite her feigned disinterest, broke in.  “You don’t know how thankful I am that you and Jacob aren’t doing the nasty—“

 

“Leah, that’s gross”

 

“—sorry, fucking like rabbits.”

 

“Leah!”

 

“Don’t be a prude, Swan, you’re not the one who has to share a brain with 7 teenage boys on a regular basis. It’s bad enough now. Once you guys start fucking Jacob is going to be unbearable.  I really don’t need to see that. Teenage boys are disgusting."

 

“We…we haven’t really talked about it. Have you?”

 

“Yeah.” She said shortly. “Before.” With Sam then. Right, no more questions.

 

“But what about—“ Kim broke off abruptly and turned bright red. “Never mind”

 

“What? Kim, you okay? It’s totally fine if you and Jared are. I’m not like…against it or anything.” It wasn’t like I had anything against sex, religious or otherwise. In fact, in my limited experience, I’d felt excited more than anything at the prospect. It wasn’t even my fault that it’d stayed so firmly in the imaginary. I’d asked Edward…But better not to think about that.

 

“No, no. I mean we have-“ she blushed harder. “I mean well, yes, but what I was going to say, well, Jacob told us not to mention it, so—“

 

“What she means.” Leah continued dryly, her harsh voice only slightly irritated. “Is that Jacob has decreed that no mention should be made of scumbag leeches, who may or may not have gotten it on with his seemingly innocent Bella Swan.” She snorted, but nodded to me in what I now recognized as a curt 'no offense'.

 

Now it was my turn to blush. And I did. Deeply and with a feeling of great mortification.

 

“Not that we’d judge you of course Bella! I mean, well he was your boyfriend! And even though Jared says they all smell bad and are evil, I met Dr. Cullen once and he was, wow. I mean, WOW.  And he was really nice, too.”

 

“We—Ed-Edward and I. We didn't’—“ I was almost too embarrassed to be proud of saying his name without falling into a dark pit of heartbreak.

 

“Can I tell Jacob?” Leah asked eagerly, “Or can you? I know it sounds really creepy, but he worries about it, and so he thinks about it more. And it grosses me out, to be honest.”

 

Despite myself I smiled slightly. “You always are, aren’t you?”

 

Leah smiled slightly back at me. I knew that her brutal honesty had come at the cost of her own life-shattering heartbreak. But I hadn't realized that she also saw how we were the same in that way.

 

“You really didn’t? Jared said that Jacob was just kidding himself if he thought that you didn’t. Well, because the bloodsuckers are so beautiful and seductive and all that.” Kim looked at me with an eager curiosity.

 

"Well, that's true, and I guess some of them...enjoy that. And a few of them even don't kill the person after."

 

"Oh, ew, yuck." But she looked interested, and so did Leah, though she was still in her usual position of bluffing relaxation.

 

“But Edward, he didn’t want to risk, he—we only ever kissed a little.”

 

It was strange to talk about these things to these girls, who were my friends, and who knew the dark secrets I did. Interesting to be the expert rather than the one desperate to catch up, at least in terms of vampires.

 

"I guess even if most of them weren't kinda evil, it takes, um, control, to keep from using their super strength and, well I don't know exactly, but I think breaking things, and also biting in like , you know, excitement." Yes, Bella Swan, human-vampire romance expert.

 

"Whoa." Kim smiled at me conspiratorially. " I guess that is a pretty good buzz kill."

 

"The thing is, sometimes it kind of isn’t."

 

"That's scary, Bella." Leah looked sick, and a little scared. "Like mind control," she glanced quickly at Kim, and away before she noticed.

 

Imprinting. Is that what she thought it was?

 

"Yeah, though usually the bad vampires just want to kill you, and then, not so sexy."

 

"Well, I'm still glad they smell like shit to me."

 

***

 

I knew Jacob heard Leah's thoughts, or she told him, because the next day when I pulled up to Sam and Emily's he came rushing out with even more than his usual enthusiasm, kissed me until I was breathless, and squeezed me so hard I thought my ribs would crack.

 

I wasn't complaining though. As kissing Jacob became more familiar, instead of becoming less exciting, I felt a deeper and deeper hunger for more, more contact and closeness, and deep tingling sensation that made me feel flushed all over.

 

And if it was a silly thing to be happy about, that we were both equally inexperienced, that I wasn’t carrying even more Edward baggage...well it was my kind of silly. I was happy that I didn’t have to worry about any experiences or expectations I might had to live up to in Jacob’s mind too.

 

So I kissed him back with interest, running my fingers through his soft shorn hair, down his back, and along his arms. He was warm, as always, but I felt like I was a furnace, or catching fire. He broke away first, gasping and I moved to drop kisses across his cheek and down his throat.

 

Mmm. Jacob.

 

I was lost in a happy haze, his big hand in my hair, his warm skin against my lips, when I realized that he was making an odd strangled sound. And I could feel a warm hot hardness pulsing along with our hearts, pressing into the crotch of my jeans.

 

I was briefly torn between these two important stimuli. But I raised my head to look at Jacob's face. Was something wrong?

 

It was only then that I heard the laughter coming from the house.

 

I had wound myself as close as possible around Jacob. Neither of my feet were touching the ground.

"Jacob." I whispered urgently, my face flaming with embarrassment. "Is everyone right there, watching us?"

 

Jacob, also noticeably red in the face, but still thoughtfully supporting me at the waist and butt so that I didn't land flat on my back, dropped his face into my shoulder and started shaking. With laughter.

 

Well, what else could you do? I glanced at the porch. The wolf boys had pushed out onto the porch and were hooting and hollering. Leah, off to the side and a little apart, as always, shook her head, but smiled slightly at me. Kim was blushing too, but laughing behind a hand. Emily, tugging at Sam to come back inside, waved at me to carry on.

 

And the strangest thing happened. I laughed too.

 

It was like something had come loose in my heart. I felt transformed, but instead of being different it was like I was finally fitting into my own skin.

 

------

 

'I hate shopping' I grumbled half-heartedly as we walked toward certain doom, in the form of Port Angeles' department store.

 

'You don't know how to shop, so shut up," scolded Leah. She was marching us with the determination of a general.

 

"Don't worry Bella! We aren't like, crazy marathon shoppers. But everyone needs clothes."

 

"Especially you, Swan. Your wardrobe choices are non-existent."

 

"Uh, that was sort of by design?"

 

"Trust me, we're not going to get anything drastic, just some clothes that fit, and don't make you look like a middle-aged woman or a member of some home-school religious cult."

 

"No dresses."

 

"We'll see."

 

"Should we have invited Emily?"

 

"Shit. She's got her own damned friends."

 

"You know she's been trying..."

 

"I know. I just...fuck. I can't.."

 

We walked the rest of the distance to the store in silence. But Leah brightened perceptibly as we entered the perfumed, over-bright store.

 

"Trust me Swan, I may spend most of my recent days in rags, but I can make even you look presentable."

 

"Hey," I protested weekly, and Kim laughed delightedly.

 

Leah, was, in fact, excellent at shopping, which I had never before considered an actual skill.

 

Where I saw an exhausting and bewildering assortment of clothing, in a bewildering range of styles that were bold and garish, and bright and bubbly, and sweet and whimsical, but none of them me, (and what did that even mean?) she was unintimidated.

 

Leah somehow would manage to blithely reach through all the mess and clutter and pull out perfectly reasonable clothing.

 

“Here” she said brusquely, handing me a deep blue top. it was long-sleeved and has little pearly buttons down the front in the same ocean blue color, but otherwise unembellished.

 

“It’s an extra small. You’re wearing your clothes too big.” Leah tended to become even ruder, in direct proportion to whether she was doing something nice at the time. She handed me a pair of soft gray jeans and a soft sweater in a coral color I surprisingly didn’t hate.

 

Kim smiled at me sympathetically from around her own huge stack of clothes.

 

My head turned before I consciously recognized what I was hearing.

 

Jacob

 

It was Jacob, with Embry and Quil. Laughing with them in a way that drew the eyes of other shoppers, some looking disapproving, some uncomfortable, some smiling along. Trailing behind them was Jared, looking around expectantly.

 

“Bella.” long fingers snapped impatiently in front of my nose. “Bella.” Leah frowned at me. “Don’t be pathetic. You’ve got to try this stuff on.”

 

“But Jacob-“

 

“Is fine, and will be waiting, patiently and without causing a scene , when we get back” Leah scowled over her shoulder. Because of course, Jacob and the others could hear her perfectly well.

 

I looked at Kim, who sighed, glancing at a now smiling Jared.

 

Much too long later, arms significantly lighter, but still weighed down with a surprising number of clothes, Kim, Leah, and I exited the dressing room to find Jacob, Embry, Quil and Jared, waiting in apparent polite patience, taking up a surprising amount of space, under the suspicious eye of a nearby middle-aged sales clerk, only partially hidden behind a nearby clothing rack.

 

“Did you try on the whole store, Bells? We were about 5 minutes from having the cops called on us.” Jacob’s face flashed a brief flash of annoyance, before smiling at me. “You need help with that?”

 

“I may not be a—w" I flushed and changed words awkwardly “—giant, but I think I can handle it.” I tried to scowl, but ended up grinning back at him.

 

The saleswoman, looking flustered but still suspicious, hurried back to the counter to ring up Kim’s and my purchases.

 

As I paid she whispered to me, looking concerned “How old are you? Those men—“ she glanced at Jacob and the other guys in blatant distrust “It’s not right,” she muttered, either to me or to herself.

 

Startled, I looked over my shoulder at Jacob and his friends. Of course, despite the fact that I was 2 years older than Jake, since his transformation, he looked well into his twenties, while I, in my loose jeans and sweater, likely looked as if I’d barely entered puberty.

 

“I”m 18. But we all go to school together. They-“

 

The woman’s face looked stony and disbelieving. But she handed me my receipt and my bags anyway, without further protest.

 

I looked helplessly at Jake, who now looked thunderous.

 

I held out my hand and he took it, quickly beginning to pull me toward the exit.

 

I followed, almost jogging to keep up with his long stride.

 

“Jake! Jake, slow down, I can’t keep up!”

 

“Jake, man, wait up.” Embry put a hand on Jacob’s shoulder “Let it go man, you know how we look now. Look at Bella.” Jacob turned and looked at me, eyes looking shuttered and face unhappy. I tried to remember how cheerful he’d looked earlier, unconcerned with the opinions of the other people in the store, especially judgy salespeople.

 

Do I do this to you Jacob?

 

Jacob looked at me for a long moment, reaching out his big, gentle hand to slide a finger across my cheekbone.

 

He turned away again, but fell into a more normal pace beside me, allowing the others to catch up.

 

“Jesus, Black, I can’t take you anywhere.” Leah gripped, scowling beside Quil, who looked uncomfortable and shaky. Leah had a firm hold on his arm, which seemed to be somehow steadying him.

 

“Shut up, Leah” Jacob growled back, not turning to look at her.

 

“Next to you, she looks about 13 right now, and if you keep hauling her around that freaking bitch or someone just like her is going to actually call the cops on you.” Leah, now sounding calm and reasonable.

 

“Jacob is two years younger than me.” I said, nonsensically.

 

Embry quirked a quick smile at me over Jake’s shoulder.

 

Jared and Kim, hand in hand, like me and Jacob, and equally unbalanced size-wise, had caught up now, and Jared patted Jacob on the head, both comforting and teasing.

 

“Let’s go get some lunch, eh Jake? We can try to feed up these pipsqueaks.”

 

He tugged on Kim’s hair and she giggled, mock-punching him in the side.

 

Jacob, still at my side, relaxed fractionally, squeezing my hand.


30 minutes later, waiting for 8 large pizzas to arrive at what was definitely going to be too small a table, Jacob was feeling better, but I was not.

 

Looking at him sitting next to me, now muscular, tall, and looking like the television version of a teenager, rather than an actual one, I felt decidedly small and plain. I had never thought about our relative beauty, the way I had almost constantly with Edward. Jacob, my sort of beautiful, comfortable friend, made my blood race now, and when we kissed I went up in flames, but I hadn’t thought much about the kind of couple we made to the outside world.

 

The store clerk had been wrong about everything. Why was I worrying?

 

It hadn’t been her “concern,” or the suspicious looks.

 

It was that for the first time since I’d fallen unexpectedly into loving Jacob, I looked at me, and I looked at Jacob, and I wondered what it was that he saw when he looked at me.

 

And I wondered again about the Imprint.

 

I wanted it fiercely. No matter what Leah thought it was.

 

“Earth to Bella, come in Bella.” said a soft voice next to me. Kim nudged my shoulder with hers. We were close in height, especially seated.

 

“You okay?” she murmured, though of course everyone a the table could hear if they wanted to.

 

“Yeah,” I murmured back anyway. The others seemed to be caught up in some kind of cheerful argument.

 

“You’re doing that thing,” she tapped my elbow with one finger, and I realized I was gripping my arms around myself, holding them tightly across my body, as if to hold myself together. I consciously forced myself to relax.

 

“I didn’t notice-I-“ I looked at Jake out of the corner of my eye and saw that despite his apparent cheer he was holding himself too still beside me, and carefully not touching me.

 

“Thank you” I mouthed at Kim. She smiled encouragingly at me.

 

I put my hands carefully at my sides, allowing my fingers to brush against Jake’s. He twitched slightly, as if shocked, then his hand fell still beside mine.

 

Stung, I put my hand over his. My fingers were cold, and his felt like fire by comparison. It felt good.

 

Again his hand twitched, then stilled. Feeling embarrassed, though no one was looking at me, I started to withdraw my hand, when suddenly his turned, in one of the lightning fast moved he could make now, and embraced mine.

 

I smiled at him, and saw him glance at me out of the corner of his eye and smile a little wider, at whatever cheerful insult Leah was spouting at him at the moment.

 

This had to be enough. This time I couldn’t be so wrong.

 

After dinner (Jake having eaten 1 and a half pizzas, and myself 2 slices), which had ended up being the odd blend of comforting and fun I’d come to expect from the pack, the drive back with Jake (who had shamelessly foisted Embry and Quil onto Leah to drive home) was mostly quiet. Jake’s hand lay in my lap, and I held it in both of mine, absently holding and petting it. The rough calluses and long slender fingers seemed fascinating at the moment, as I lulled myself into an almost doze. About half a mile from my house Jacob suddenly turned off the road onto a dark, quiet, and unfamiliar road, then pulled the car over.

 

“That’s it.” he said, suddenly, loud in the previously silent car

 

“Wha-“ But before I could finish he’d picked me up, depositing me unceremoniously on his lap, somehow managing not to bang my knees or elbows on any of the doors, or windows.

 

His mouth crashed down onto mine, and he kissed me as if he was drowning. His mouth was hard against mine, and one hand was in my hair while the other wrapped around me, pulling me into him. His tongue traced along my lips then slid into my opening mouth stroking against mine as his hand ran down through my hair to trail along my shoulder and down to my hip. I gasped, breaking away to breathe, and his lips moved along my cheek, frantically, down the column of my throat like fire.

 

My hands, which had been frozen by my sides, and trapped by his embrace, pulled free as if of their own volition and were stroking down his shoulder blades, across his biceps, down, along his sides and under his shirt to the burning skin beneath. He was kissing across my shoulder now, one hand pulling at the neck of my sweater. now he was grazing his teeth along my collarbone, and I felt myself making a long, breathy sigh, as my hands clenched into the muscles of his back, and finally, finally because it felt like forever, he brought his lips back to mine. His hand stole under my shirt, pressing against the bare skin of my back, stroking along my sides.

 

His burning hands curved around my back, and his lips trailing fire across my skin were the only real thing in the world and then I was kissing my way down his neck and pulling up his shirt, not wondering what I was doing, not thinking of anything of all. Jake’s shirt hit the back seat, and I ran my fingers down over his chest, across the firm planes of his stomach, feathering along and then shying away from the waistband of his jeans.

 

His hands tightened around me, his fingers dipped under the band of my bra, brushing with the lightest touch against the curve of one breast. I shifted on his lap, pressing myself forward into him to give me room to begin squirming out of my sweater—

 

Suddenly I was back in my seat and the car was beeping irritably. Jacob’s car door was open.  And he was gone.

 

My body was burning and shaking, like I’d come suddenly out of a fever.

 

“Jake?”

Chapter Text

“Jake?” the cold night air blowing against my overheated skin tickled against my skin as if I’d been shot through with electricity.

 

I heard harsh breathing and realized Jacob was not gone, just standing beside the truck, bent over with his hands on his knees and breathing heavily as if he’d just run a very long way.

 

“Jake!” I scrambled over the seat, banging my knee against the gear shift, and almost tumbling head first out of the cab in my haste.

 

I reached out a hand, wanting to rest it against his back, see if he was alright. But had I hurt him in some way?

 

“Jake! Are you okay?” I asked instead, hand half extended.

 

“You-You didn’t stop me,” Jake said, sounding breathless. He grasped my hand and stood up. His face was flushed, and flushed further when he glanced over at me.

 

“Stop you from what?” I climbed back into the truck and felt Jake’s hand briefly brushed my hip, as if to steady me.

 

He was blushing heavily as he climbed in after me, his eyes still glancing at me and away.

 

“Stop me from—“ He blew out a breath “What we were doing. Bella, you were fine with that? With me- with us…”

 

Now I was blushing deeply as well, my face atomically hot in a way much less pleasant than the fire that had swept through me before.

 

“You don’t want…”

 

He laughed suddenly putting a hand over his face.

 

“Bells, what part of that felt like me not wanting you?” He ran his hand over his now short hair.

 

“But you…”

 

“God, that was—are you trying to kill me?” He laughed again and turned the car back on.

 

“I don’t understand” I whined, hating myself for doing so.

 

“Bella…did you really want our first time to be…that?”

 

Now I flushed anew, in a whole new shade of humiliated.

 

The truth was, it hadn’t occurred to me where what we were doing might lead. I had been pure feeling; I’d been running on instinct and heat and want.

 

“I’m sorry,” I said chastened. Why hadn’t I stopped, even thought of stopping? Why had it always been Edward who pulled away, who had never been carried away, had worried about virtue and taking things slow?

 

Was it something about me? That I got out of control, like some kind of crazy virgin nympho? Or was it that I just wanted him, wanted them, much much more than-

 

“Bells, no, don’t cry.” Jake looked over at me, alarmed, pulling over the car once again, to reach and pull me across the seat toward him again.

 

With my face against his shoulder (when had he put his shirt back on?) I felt better and worse, and perversely, my tears fell more freely.

 

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to…” I cried, nonsensically, while he awkwardly stroked his hand down my back.

 

“Bells, I’m not mad!” he said desperately. “I thought you would be! I just grabbed you! I practically mauled you! I was surprised you didn’t slap me, push me away. Now that I know you’ve never…never…” he broke off, blushing. “Shit. I want to to be different for us, is all, the first time at least.”

 

My tears were drying rapidly, my heart lifting absurdly. I was being so so stupid. Assuming the worst. Jacob wasn’t…him. He’d promised to never, ever leave me. He loved me. He loved me.

 

“Really?”

 

Jacob sighed in apparent relief. “Of course. Jeez, Bells, I love you.”

 

“I love you too, Jake.”

 

I peeked up, conscious that my face must be terribly splotchy and red. But we was looking at me with such a look, such a beautiful look. I couldn’t look away.

 

He coughed finally, looked back at the road.

 

“So, can I drive you home now? I’d rather not risk Charlie’s wrath tonight.”

 

“Just tonight?” I teased, leaning against him. I’d been stupid, but I couldn’t really regret it now, filled as I was with relief.

 

He looked at me, heat in his eyes, the same heat that had stroked its way up my body just minutes before.

 

“Gotta save up my credit with him while I have a chance Bella.” He grinned at her. “So try not to look too teary when you see him. I don’t want him to think I screwed up. Don’t know if you’ve noticed, but he’s gotten a bit more protective lately.

 

I laughed, wiping my eyes.

 

“You’d think he’d be used to me falling apart by now.”

 

“As someone who loves you, Bells, it’s not something you get used to.”

 

I reached over to pat his hand. “Thanks Jake”

 

He smiled, “Now, now. we can’t get started again. Keep those hands to yourself, Bells. I know I’m irresistible, but--”

 

“You are, you know. Irresistible.”

 

“Ah, come on, you’re making me blush.” and he was, though I could barely make it out in the dimly lit truck. Blushing was much prettier on him than on me especially against his russet skin.

 

He glanced over and gave me one of the smiles that made me feel like I’d been filled with bubble bath.

 

It was enough that, when I got home, with my bag of purchases, and now in a kind of breathless good cheer, Charlie was apparently unworried.

 

If he saw any lingering redness around my eyes, well, he knew better than to ask.


The incident with Jacob started me thinking though.

 

The way he said, “us,” “our first time,” “when we,” he was talking about the future. Our future. A future in which we made love, and stayed together. Lived happily ever after?

 

A future in which Edward really never came back.

 

A future where I really moved on?

 

I knew it was odd. I loved Jake. It was probably too fast, too strange. The Cullens had left, and I’d been gutted for months. I’d been a zombie.

 

Now, just a few months out of my zombie phase, I was in love with Jake, part of the pack. I couldn’t even say for sure when I’d fallen in love with Jake. It had happened so gradually, so that he was woven into the fabric of my new life before I even realized I had one.

 

But I still wasn’t making plans for the future. Not really. I’d forgotten how to think about the future. I didn’t want to think about the future.

 

I’d fought with Edward about going to college, about going to prom. What did those things matter, when I was going to be a vampire? I was going to have forever to go to college, to do everything, as many times as I wanted.

 

Except I wasn’t.

 

Edward didn't love me. He'd left, and I had to believe it was forever. It had to be forever, because it was the waiting that would destroy me. The hope. He was gone. He didn’t want my love, or my waiting, or my hope.

 

Jake loved me. And I loved him, despite everything that had happened. I loved him enough to want the future that I had left to be with him.

 

I loved him enough, to maybe start thinking about more than just making it to tomorrow.

 

Things couldn’t go on this way. Falling apart, taking Jake with me. I needed to really decide to get better.

 

Easier said than done.

 

I needed a plan.

 

____

 

It sounded simpler than it was. I’d suffered a loss, a major blow, which had crushed both my heart, and my plans for the rest of my life.

 

But still.

 

I’d been in a fog for months. I’d almost died, and I hadn’t cared. I still felt afraid, so afraid, that I would lose Jacob too, and without him the delicate balance of my life would fall apart, and I’d once again spiral off into the darkest parts of my mind and heart.

 

I couldn’t keep spiraling though, clinging to Jacob because I couldn’t bear to be alone, falling apart at each minor hiccough or potential set back. It would be like drowning him to save myself, and he would let me do it. He'd go down with me, fighting my demons when I couldn't or wouldn't until it destroyed him. I had to do better.

 

Easier said than done

 

I couldn't quite think up a whole brilliant plan forgot to fix myself. It was like I was walking down a dark path, with only enough to see a little ways in front of me, with the rest of the way still a mystery. But I could figure out step one:

 

  1. say goodbye

 

Which brought me to this lonely, almost invisible lane early the next Saturday morning, sitting with the car off, just out of sight of the grand house in the woods that had once been everything I wanted.

 

This is a bad idea Bella. Go home.

 

Oddly calm, I looked to the side and saw him.

 

Angelic and flawless as always, he looked just as if he were sitting beside me.

 

I hadn't seen hallucination Edward in a few weeks, likely by dint of spending few of my waking hours alone, and no longer indulging in my pursuit of self-destruction.

 

He was beautiful, and it hurt to look at him and remember all of my dreams. To remember when he’d smiled at me and it felt like he was the only real thing in the world. To remember that I still loved him. It turned out you could love two people at once.

 

But...it was bearable, somehow. Maybe because I'd been making a new life for myself, maybe because I'd simply adjusted to the pain.

 

Don’t worry. You’re human--your memory is no more than a sieve. Time heals all wounds for your kind.

 

It was one of the things he'd said that most haunted me. As if I was cursed with this sense that if ever I regained some semblance of peace and happiness I was proving that he'd been right. That I hadn't been able to love him enough for him to stay. Because I was human. Weak.

 

I turned away from Edward, and turned the car back on, continued the rest of the way down the little lane until I pulled up in front of the Cullen house.

 

It hurt.

 

If I had hoped that magically- and with the help of Jacob, but also Kim, Leah, Emily, Embry, Quil, Seth, even Paul, Jared, and Sam--that my pain had gone away, well, or even faded to something less monumental, it hadn’t. Of course it hadn’t.

 

Here, all alone in front of this place that represented more than almost any other what I had lost, here the pain was still a burning wound.

 

But maybe I was stronger now. I didn’t turn away and run. I didn’t fall to the ground. I stared at the big, empty house, now quiet and abandoned. It still looked more haunted now than it ever had when it was full of vampires. Like it hadn’t gotten used to being alone either.

 

“Hello, Edward.” Alice. Jasper. Carlisle. Esme. Emmett. Rosalie. I thought of them too, the strange, beautiful family I’d thought for one glorious summer would be mine.

 

“I miss you. It’s isn’t like you said. It isn’t easy to move on.” I was holding myself, like always. Clutching my hands around my rib cage, as if it would keep me from falling apart, or collapsing. As if it ever had.

 

“I wouldn’t have moved on, if you’d stayed. I would have stayed with you. Even as a human.” my lips barely moved, I felt like I was freezing from the inside out. But my voice still sounded so loud in the empty clearing, with only this vacant house to hear.

 

“I didn’t try and stay safe. How could you make me promise to be safe? You knew I would promise you anything. I wanted to promise you everything.” I was so glad I’d broken those promises, and it was strange how that bitter joy sat in the middle of all my pain.

 

“I did it to break my promise” but that wasn't totally true.

 

"I did it for you, to feel close to you. But…I did it for me too. And now…I didn’t mean to move on. But…”

 

The next part of what I want to say still felt like sacrilege “It wasn’t fair, Edward. How could I prove you right and move on? You left because I was too weak, I know. I wanted to prove you wrong.”

 

“Forever is a long time, though. Even if it isn’t as long as I thought it was going to be.”

 

My lips were cold and stiff now, and I couldn't get any more words out. That was okay. None of them were really good enough.

 

I took a shaky step toward the front steps, then another.

 

Soon I was sitting on the front steps, looking at my truck and the woods beyond. And I was all right.

 

I sighed around the pain in my chest. How could you say goodbye to people who didn’t want your goodbyes?

 

Now, when I was waiting for him to appear, my phantom Edward was nowhere to be seen, and it was just me and my inadequate memories.

 

My tears were warm as they splashed onto my freezing arms.

 

I let myself cry without holding back, or feeling guilty, or pretending I didn't feel anything.

 

It felt like goodbye.

 

It felt like I would drown.

 

Again.

 

I sat for a long time, as the sun rose higher in the sky and finally poured full force over the front of the house.

 

I was stiff from sitting on the hard stairs for so long, and shaky with a mix of too much crying and what was probably hunger.

 

But I was all cried out, and it felt weirdly good. There was relief, rather than the dark never-ending despair I only half-remembered from the time right after Cullens left, or the blank emptiness that followed.

 

I should go home. See Jacob. My heart was lighter now, though I hadn't done anything but cry over the same pain that’d been bothering me months.

 

Oh, but there was one more thing I needed to do.

 

I didn’t really have any Edward keepsakes. He’d made sure of that when he left.

 

I had the wreck of the speaker I’d pried out of my truck. It didn’t have many Edward memories tied to it (which was probably why he hadn’t take it with him). I’d decided to bury that here, because I needed to be rid of it. Seeing it, all I could remember was the desperate pain I’d felt as I clawed it out of my truck in the first, terrible days after they left. Frantic but tearless, like a wild creature. Fingers bleeding.

 

But I’d found something real to bury here, to bury with this dead version of my future.

 

It was my prom dress from last year.

 

I retrieved the trash bag with the torn up speaker, my pretty, still not me, dress - now tucked in an old shoe box - , and a spade I’d dug out of Charlie’s garage.

 

Luckily, the dirt in Esme’s front garden was soft, and easy to dig, because I wasn’t so caught up in my plan as to relish unglamorous hole digging.

 

Still crouching in the dirt and placing that sad, beautiful, totally wrong prom dress at the top of the little grave felt right. Piling the dirt on top of the box and patting it down until you couldn’t even tell where the hole had been was satisfying and just physical enough to feel real, like I was earning this, whatever it was. Something like closure.

 

Goodbye Bella...Cullen

 

It still hurt to think that, the most forbidden of my forbidden thoughts. But it was true, that was who I was burying. That idea of the beautiful, perfect, vampire me. The me who would keep Edward for a thousand lifetimes.

 

“Owoooooooooo” A howl in the distance pulled me out of my reverie.

 

“Jacob?” I asked no one at all. It was absurd to think that I could distinguish his howl from the others, let alone from what sounded like miles distance. But even so, as I heard a second howl answer the first, I was sure it had been Jacob.

 

Was he in trouble? What if the vampires had attacked?

 

“Jacob!!”

 

I scrambled to my car, brushing my dirty hands on my jeans and flinging myself into the driver’s seat, fingers shaking and fumbling with the keys. The old truck seemed to take forever to start up, and I turned it too quickly, almost fishtailing out of control before I’d gone anywhere.

 

My phone rang as I was barreling up the Cullens’ long drive, but I couldn’t answer it without crashing the car, and so I ignored it, instead turning, too quickly, onto the highway, heading for La Push, and hopefully, if not Jacob, at least one werewolf who could tell me what was going on.

 

The empty highway seemed ominous, even though I knew the stretch from Forks to La Push was never high-traffic. I couldn’t focus on anything like speed limits, not that my truck would be winning any speed awards even with my foot pressing the pedal into the floor. I jumped whenever I thought I saw something in the forest beside me, and the truck jumped too, almost swerving off the road more than once.

 

It seemed to take hardly anytime, and also much too long, before I was pulling up in front of Emily’s house - where I’d driven without consciously choosing my destination.

 

“Jacob?!” I cried, in a stumbling run toward the front door.

 

“Bella,” two voices said, almost as one. Emily was coming out the front door to her house, looking concerned and confused. And Leah was striding out of the forest, looking relieved and annoyed.

 

She was also naked, and I shot my eyes back to Emily, feeling my face heat up.

 

“Leah, did something happen to Jacob?” Emily asked, coming towards me with concern to grasp my shoulders and hold me upright.

 

“Bella!” Leah repeated. “What's wrong? Where the fuck have you been?”

 

“I was—I heard the howling, was it Jacob? I thought—something must have happened, so I just came here. Emily, where’s Sam? Where is Jacob?”

 

Emily looked more concerned now “There was a distress call, from Jacob. I don’t—Leah?”

 

I followed her gaze back to Leah, keeping my eyes trained on her angry face.

 

“The distress call was for Bella. Somehow, someone slipped through our patrol. And when Jake went to the house to check in—you were gone, had been gone for hours. No fresh leech smell, no sign of a struggle. But gone.”

 

A car was pulling up, recognizable as Jared’s, with Kim looking a bit pale in the front seat.

 

I turned to look for a split second and out of the corner of my eye saw Leah explode back into a wolf and give one more howl.

 

Jared, halfway through scooping Kim out of the car, slowed, setting her on her feet beside him and taking her hand to gently tow here toward Emily and me.

 

“What’s up guys? I heard the call, but I had to go get Kim. False alarm?”

 

“It looks that way.” Emily sighed, dropping her hands from my arms and smiled tentatively.

 

“It sounds like we’re about to have more company. Why don’t we all go inside.”

 

Kim, looking dazed, widened her eyes at me in question. I shrugged.

 

Jacob hadn’t actually thought I was missing, had he?

 

Leah was the first to follow us in. She’d thrown on a long, loose cotton dress, and stalked in as if in full battle armor.

 

“I repeat: What. The. Fuck?” She said, glaring at me.

 

“I don’t understand! I just went…to run an errand. I didn’t sneak out! I didn’t think anyone would worry! I’m fine!”

 

Leah gave me a measuring look, then blew out a breath, looking calmer.

 

“So what you’re saying is, Jake’s an idiot?”

 

Jared snorted, dropping heavily on the couch, which made a creaking protest, next to Kim, an arm draping over her narrow shoulders.

 

“Nothing new, then. Now what?”

 

“Now, I guess I break out the emergency rations.” Emily seemed to have regained her calm, and headed for the garage. Kim perked up.

 

“Ooh! I’ll help, do you have any blueberry? I’m starving!”

 

"But, Jake--"

 

Leah snorted. "Oh, he's coming, don't worry. They all are. In fact-"  She tilted her head, scowl deepening, then turned back to the door.

 

A moment later I heard it too, the unmistakable sound of Jacob, bellowing in anger and pain.

 

"BELLA! Bella! Damn it, Sam, get off me! I know what Leah said! Bella!"

 

"Jake!" As always, his pain called to me, and I hurried toward the door, only to find Leah immovable, blocking my exit. She flung the door open, but shook her head and block me when I tried to duck around her.

 

"No. He's not in control. Idiot." Me or Jake? I glanced away from him to her for a moment. Oh. Both of us.

 

"Bella!" Jake shouted, striding with that unconsciously inhuman quickness  toward me, looking like a storm cloud and shaking all over. "Where the hell were you!? Are you alright?"

 

"Leah, it's fine, let me go." She didn't. Jake saw and his face darkened with fresh anger.

 

"I'm fine Jacob- I just was running errands!"

 

Sam and Paul, who I'd paid no attention to, stepped in front of Jacob as he moved toward the steps up to Emily's door.

 

"Get the fuck out of my way Sam." Jacob snarled.  Literally, it was a sound not meant to come out of a human throat.

 

I made a failed attempt to duck around Leah and saw Embry and Quil lope up to flank Jake, smiling but looking nervous and placating.

 

"It looks like she's fine, Jake, you saw what Leah showed us. Now just take a breath. You'll scare her." Embry smoothed. Quilt seemed less calm, shaking slightly himself, in that unsettling way the wolves all did when they were in danger of changing. Like Jacob was.

 

"It's fine, I'm not-" I tried to interject - because the thought of being afraid of Jacob was ridiculous -but several things happened nearly simultaneously: Jacob's hand shot out and he shoved Embry, hard enough to send the smaller (well, less giant) boy flying back across the drive, narrowly missing impacting with my truck. Quil danced back several feet and exploded into a wolf, almost stepping on Seth, who'd been hanging back uncertainly, causing Leah to curse and burst away from the doorway toward her brother.

 

"Enough!" Sam ordered sharply. "Jacob, you need to focus. You are not going into that house if you are in danger of shifting." I took a step forward, without thinking.

 

A hand dropped onto my shoulder and I started.

 

"Not so fast, Bella" I could feel the tension humming through Jared but his face and voice were mild and calm. "Jake won't thank us if you run out there and he really does lose it." Poor Jacob.

 

Jacob was glaring between Sam, Paul, and Jared. He looked suddenly at me, face unreadable, and then cursed, and dropped his hands to his knees and took several deep breaths, shuddering, but moving toward normal human movement. The pack and I all watched silently for a moment. Quil lay down with his head between him massive paws, and Embry limped to sit on the front step, scowling, but not looking seriously angry. Leah dragged her brother toward the house, glaring at Jake.

 

After only a minute, though it seemed much longer, it was just Jacob, hands braced on his knees, no longer breathing hard, or shaking as if he was bursting at the seams.

 

Jared relaxed fractionally, letting go of my shoulder and I darted forward toward Jake, tripping down the stairs with no control, but miraculously on my feet, I flung myself at him, arms extended. He caught me and held me tight for a too-brief moment, and I could feel the echo of his recent fear.

 

"What happened Jake? Why did you think I was missing? Did she come near the Charlie's house again?" He pulled back, arms loosening, and frowned at me.

 

"Where in the hell were you Bella?" Oh. He was mad at me!

 

"I just had to run some errands?" I repeated what now somehow felt like a very lame excuse, still bewildered. "I didn't think--"

 

Jake held me back at arm's length and frowned down at me.

 

"So you just snuck out, not letting anyone know, not warning anyone, for some errands?" He demanded. Like I'd purposely avoided him.

 

Well, I was glad that nobody was around to follow me. That was private.

 

I’d honestly not considered whether or not the pack might be watching my house.

It wasn't fair. I could feel tears building up somewhere deep down, but it wasn't fair. Why should I feel bad? I didn't want to worry Jake, or any of the wolves. But I wasn't some prisoner, or a helpless child. I moved away from him, crossing my arms defensively.

 

"I didn't sneak!" Not a great comeback, admittedly, but it felt good, in a way I couldn't place.

 

"Well, you didn't tell anyone where you were going--"

 

"I didn't know I wasn't allowed to leave my own house without your permission."

 

One of the wolves, who of course we're all still there, inhaled in a pained sounding sympathy.

 

"We are trying to protect you, in case you haven't noticed!"

 

"In case you haven't noticed, I've never complained, and I appreciate you doing so much, risking yourselves, hunting Victoria..." I was losing the initial flush of my anger, recalling all the sacrifices the wolves, most of them my age or younger, were making for me. Tears of frustration were burning in my eyes. Why could I never fight for myself?

 

Because you need him to love you.

 

I glared Jacob, with the most sincere anger I could manage. Fighting back the angry, frustrated tears stinging in my eyes.

 

"But I didn’t know you wouldn’t be able to tell I went out! I came over here as soon as I heard the howls. I was worried about you, you jerk!"

 

"We tried to call you," Leah said, in a carefully neutral tone from the steps.

 

I remembered my phone ringing and colored.

 

"I was driving over. I couldn't answer without crashing the car, I was driving too fast."

 

Leah nodded, and I realized what the movement I’d seen out of the corner of my eye had been.

 

“Yeah, that’s true. She was a menace on the road. Almost crashed like 5 times.”

 

A huffing laugh came from one of the other wolves, as Jacob closed his eyes as if in great pain.

 

"Jeez, Bells, you are going to be the death of me."

 

I half-glared, confused now that the tension was dissipating.

 

Jake sighed and shook himself, looking at me with a less certain glower.

 

"You should have left a note or something."

 

I scowled at him, despite feeling like the world was righting itself.

 

"You could have called me before jumping to conclusions." I paused, noticing how tired Jake looked now that he was no longer furious.

 

I reached out a tentative hand, pausing just for a moment in hesitation before I grasped his.

 

"I'm sorry I scared you, Jake.”

 

He ran a hand over his head, in that way that always tugged at my heart, because it meant he’d forgotten again  that he’d cut all his beautiful hair off.

 

“Yeah, well, I guess I could’ve…” he trailed off, looking uncertain and weary. He would have always over reacted. Who knew better than me, except perhaps the pack, how absolutely deadly the vampires could be.?

 

I stepped forward hesitantly, placing my hands over his still tense arms.

 

“Nothing is going to happen to me, Jake.”

 

He pulled me toward him and wrapped his arms around me.

 

“Shh. Don’t jinx it, Bells.” His voice had a smile in it now though.

 

“You don’t believe in jinxes” I poked him in the side.

 

“I might start.”

 

“Jerk” But I was feeling pretty un-jinxed as he tugged my toward the house, and the telltale smell of warm muffins and family.

 

The big empty house still lingered in the back of my mind, and the pain wasn’t gone or forgotten, but that wasn’t all there was for me anymore.

Chapter Text

It was a few days later when the reality of Jacob and the pack’s fears was driven home for me.

 

Charlie’s harrumph over his newspaper drew my attention off of the novel I was reading. Charlie and I had reached a comfortable, if unconventional accord, which allowed us to avoid awkward breakfast conversation, when neither of us were really awake enough to appreciate the effort of making small talk.

 

While Charlie often huffed over sports losses, or a particularly frustrating current event, I usually took little notice, preferring my escape into romance, fantasy, or both.

 

But today, something about his wordless distress compelled me to respond.

 

“What’s wrong, Dad?”

 

“It’s this situation in Seattle,” He made the noise again, then looked at me across the table from him.

 

“I don’t want you going up there by yourself, you understand, Bella?” Since Charlie rarely attempted to curtail my activities in any way, I was surprised. A cold feeling of dread stirred in the back of my mind, like part of me knew what he was talking about already.

 

“Why? What’s going on in Seattle?”

 

“Well, it’s not just Seattle, really, Portland too, and all-”

 

“Dad! What is it?”

 

“I don’t want to scare you too much, Bella, it just, it looks like they’ve got some kind of serial killer or something up there.” The cold feeling intensified. A serial killer…or something.

 

“They’ve had quite a few disappearances up there, the last few weeks. At first it was just some disappearances among the homeless, a couple runaways, so they couldn’t be sure if there was really something…going on. But now…” He sighed, and turned the portion of the paper he’d been reading so that I could see it. It was a picture of several young people, under a headline that read. Disappearances and Deaths Continue to Rock Pacific Northwest.

 

Charlie pointed to one picture, separated from the others.

 

“This boy, Riley Biers, he disappeared last year from Oregon, but a couple witnesses claim he’s been spotted in Seattle, near where some of the more recent bodies were found. Not that witnesses are necessarily that reliable on stuff like that. ”

 

Charlie looked sad and grim.

 

“Talked to the Department up there, not sure if it has anything to do with the missing hikers. Thought they were animal attacks, but the bodies they’ve recovered up there have some similarities.” He frowned at me in concern. “Now, don’t go telling your school friends Bella, we’re trying to avoid causing a panic.”

 

“Yeah, don’t worry, it’s not exactly good lunch room talk.”

 

“Just be careful, kid, okay.” Charlie said, carefully not looking at me, as he ventured onto the dangerous ground of emotional talk (now that I seemed to not currently be in a mental breakdown of any kind, we had gratefully returned to avoiding discussing overly personal topics). Much better to talk gruesome murder than to express emotion to your teenage daughter. I smiled fondly at Charlie, then glanced away.

 

“You too Dad.”

 

The upside of this rash of murders and disappearances being tied together, callous though it seemed to think it, was that Charlie and his deputies had officially ceased hunting for out of control wolves in the woods, making both them and the pack more safe.

 

On the other hand, seeing those faces was haunting somehow. Probably because I had a much better idea than Charlie how and why these people were dying. And why some of them weren’t dying at all.

 

In school I struggled to focus, thinking about the pictures of the missing persons. The relatively few, odd bodies.

 

I was very, very afraid that I knew what might be going on.

 

I said as much to Kim and Emily that afternoon

 

Kim looked surprised, but Emily just sighed.

 

“Sam’s been worried about this. It would explain a lot, actually.”

 

“Explain what?”

 

I glanced at the window, Quil and Seth were on house patrol today, and playing some wolfy game at the edge of the woods. Jacob, Sam, and Jared were on patrol, since them running patrol together made it easier to consolidate their major vulnerabilities, us, into one spot, which could be easily guarded.

 

“It doesn’t make sense, that the shifts kept happening, after…they... left. The one leech passing through, three or four wolves could have easily taken it out. Sam was a little surprised when Jacob showed signs that he was going to shift, actually, but he figured he was just so close already, it was too late for him. Plus, of all of them, he has maybe the best lineage for it.”

 

I felt cold suddenly.

 

“Even once we knew that the other one, the female, was here, was hanging around…It doesn’t make sense. Why do we need eight wolves, for one bloodsucker?” I could hear Sam’s voice, underlying Emily’s words. Leech, bloodsucker, the calm logistical sense, the instinct.

 

“The Cullens were here for almost three years. Sam thinks just one or two vampires, passing through the area, it wouldn’t necessarily activate the wolf genes, unless they were hunting nearby, or came onto our land. Which is rare actually, almost as if it might be instinctual...anyway...A large family, living nearby, you’d think it would have activated more quickly… Sam shifted for the first time a little over a year after the Cullens arrived. But Jared only shifted in spring the next year, about sixth months later-”

 

Oh, God.

 

“When the nomads came through.” Kim and Emily give me blank expressions.

 

“Victoria, Laurent, and James. They were a group of vampires, the Cullens called them nomads, came to Forks in March, last year- James wanted to kill me. The Cullens killed him in Phoenix. That’s why Victoria… and Laurent was the one they killed earlier this year.”

 

“Right. Well, Paul shifted about week or so after Jared, then nothing for almost a year, and then Embry shifted, then Jake, then Seth and Leah, then Quil, about one a month. It was spread out, but now this rapid increase. The Cullens are gone. It could just be some sort of flaw in the shifter genes, that it takes a while for it to get going-“

 

“Which doesn’t make any sense, because it’s magic, as much as it’s a gene, right?” asked Kim, suddenly, looking frustrated. “They turn into giant wolves to protect our land, and you’re saying they didn’t turn much when the Cullens were here for three years, but now they’re turning like crazy.”

 

“Because Victoria, or someone, is turning a bunch of people, and they are holed up in Seattle?”

 

“Yes, but why would pack magic care about Seattle. Unless…”

 

Unless they weren’t just in Seattle. Or unless there were so many of them that whatever mystical power or energy controlled the wolf transformations considered it a risk.

 

Or both.

 

They were here, or had been here, or coming here. Watching. Hunting.

 

To kill me. And anyone who got in their way.

 

How many vampires could the wolves really fight against and win?

 

I looked at Emily’s scarred, still somehow beautiful face. At Kim’s startled round face, which made her look years younger than she was.

 

They’d become my friends.

 

To Victoria they would only be in the way.  

 

I ran out of the house

 

“Bella!”

 

“Bella, wait!”

 

Why hadn’t I thought? This was all because of me, and now an army of vampires was gathering in Seattle. Because of me.  

 

I wanted to run and run. Not until Victoria wouldn’t find me, because she always would; I was pretty much doomed. But until she would never find this cosy little house, where they let me be quiet and alone when I needed it, or where I could talk and laugh over books with Kim, seek warm counsel over muffins with Emily, where Leah would burst in with her scathing attitude hiding her soft, damaged heart. Where the peace would be happily shattered by a rough and rowdy tumble of the overgrown wolf boys,  weary and too brave, filling the house with welcome and family. Away from Jacob, who’d somehow pulled me back from endless despair, and who made the future look beautiful and full of sunlight, instead of dark nothing.

I stopped on the front porch.

 

I had nowhere to go.

 

I couldn’t protect myself. I couldn’t protect anyone

 

The wolves would come, to rescue me, no matter where I ran, because they’d promised me.

 

Because Jake loved me.

 

I didn’t have to leave. Relief

 

But it was only because I’d already doomed us all.

 

I sat down on the front porch and stared off into the forest. Waiting.

 

------

Of course, the world refused to stop for the impending doom of almost everyone in the world I loved.

 

I tried to shake off the fears I’d awakened, or at least to not think about it, but that had never been my strength, and I felt myself slipping, not into the despair of last fall, but into a sort of vague melancholy, which made the world recede a bit. Now that I’d been without it, I recognized it as the odd numbing sense of distance between me and the world, like I was reaching to it through plastic wrap, or wrapped up in thick, stifling, wool.

 

“Death Toll on the Rise, Police Fear Looming Gang War” the morning paper had announced. The article had detailed several homicides from the last two weeks alone. No one I knew. Not yet.

 

It shouldn’t have surprised me when I noticed the brightly colored flyers that appeared all over the school one morning. But the bright pink and black flyers still caught me off guard, because of one potentially terrifying word, spelled out in big, overly cheerful lettering (in which I suspected the hand of Jessica).

 

“Only 3 weeks to PROM!” the poster’s exclaimed.

 

“A Night to Remember!’ Don’t miss Fork’s High School’s Senior Prom. Saturday, June 3rd! Tickets for sale at lunch in the cafeteria!"

 

I stared at the posters, cheeks hot and throat dry.

 

“Bella!” said a soft, but cheerful and welcoming voice beside me. I spun around, blush deepening.

 

“Do you think you’ll go? Ben and I are so excited, and I know Jessica is already making a list of possible dates!" Angela asked, smiling at my flustered face.

 

“Oh, um, well. Dancing you know…"

 

“Of course,” she replied, comprehension clear on her face. “But you should come you know, senior year and all. And I think your boyfriend would like it."

 

“Jacob?”

 

Would Jacob like it? I had not considered that. The only time I’d danced with Jacob had been when he was still an awkward, non-supernatural human. Plus he’d been delivering a warning he didn’t understand. And I’d been dating--

 

It was almost an afterthought to push aside the thought of his name now. A familiar ripple of pain across a familiar worn path in my brain. Funny how it was almost comforting, compared to the thoughts I’d been keeping company with lately. At least he was, as far as I knew, safe.

 

“Bella? Bella? Are you alright?” Angela touched my shoulder gently.

 

“What? Yes! I…I never thought about it before, prom." Jake, smiling down at me. Holding me, Saving me.

 

Jake, dying for me.

 

“Well, no need to worry too much about it. But think about it?"

 

“Yeah,” I said, sounding vague and ditzy to myself. “I, um, gotta go."

 

Angela smiled and patted me on the shoulder.

 

-----

Two days later I slumped down on the couch at Emily's feeling exhausted. All aside from the possibility of impending disaster, thinking about prom had led me to the end of the school year. Figuring out what to do after graduation was looming more and more eminently. I hadn't applied to any colleges, or even spent any time thinking about the future since even before the Cullens had left. And now that I was thinking again, it seemed clear that that had been a bad idea. I was tired, and the thought that if Victoria had her way it wouldn’t matter what I planned, was panic inducing rather than relieving, which was the only proof that I wasn’t totally losing it.

 

“-Bella?” I heard, coming out of my unhappy reverie.

 

“Huh? Sorry...."

 

“I was just wondering if everything was okay. You seem distracted.” Emily looked concerned and I wondered if she knew as much about me as I knew about her, and thought she probably did.

 

“I just…” my eyes were stinging. I pushed away my more painful worries and instead asked “Do you think Jake wants me to ask him to prom?” It sounded so stupid.

 

“Prom?” Emily blinked at me, surprised.

 

“You know, dancing, badly decorated gyms…” I mumbled, feeling more and more foolish. “I’m not really a dance kind of person...but do you think...I thought maybe Jake might want…would he like it?”

 

Emily’s face softened, and she smiled encouragingly.

 

“I think Jake would love to go to prom with you, Bella. But I think he’d also love to not go with you.”

 

My face felt so hot. Why couldn’t I ever stop blushing?

 

“I know they’ve been busy, and that you’re worried, Bella. But you know he loves you.”

 

I nodded. Yes, I knew. The fears I’d entertained about imprinting, or my persistent sense of inferiority had been pushed to the background, and it gave me an odd clarity.

 

If I wasn’t so selfish, so needy, would I be able to push him away, to get him out of my life, of the fight? I wouldn’t. And I knew it.

 

And the worst part was, that I was glad that it was too late anyway, that Victoria would come and the wolves would fight no matter what I did.

 

No part of me was ready to say goodbye to Jacob Black. And if it came down to it. If I needed to say cutting things in order to keep him safe, like I had an infinite year ago to Charlie, well, I was pretty sure I couldn’t do it.

 

A tentative, gentle hand on my arm pulled me back to the present yet again.

 

“I think I hear them coming back.” A benediction and a curse.

 

Sure enough, a moment later the door banged open and four boys stomped in, laughing and shoving and taking up much more room than seemed possible.

 

It was a comforting distraction. It was hard to feel as afraid when they were here, filling up the kitchen, seemingly without fear, enormous and healthy.

 

Sam, sweeping in, his usually serious face collapsing into a boyish grin as he swept across the room to Emily.

 

Paul, making a beeline for the food, only pausing to wink at me, to tug one of Kim’s braids.

 

Quil, making a ridiculous bow and then sweeping me up into a bear hug.

 

And Jake, growling, but his eyes smiling, as he pulled me out of Quil’s arms, into his own.

 

“I’m not a doll, you know.” I protested, not upset in the slightest, raising my face for a kiss.

 

“Sure, sure, Bells,” he murmurs, bringing his burning lips down to mine.

 

Suddenly I was not out of step with the world, even if it was just for this moment.

 

I pushed my head into Jake’s warm shoulder. Even though he was the person I was most worried about, in moments like this I still felt like somehow...I felt safe.

 

---

 

“Do you want to go to Senior Prom?” I asked, out of the blue, blush safely concealed by the dark of my truck’s interior. I felt Jake look over in surprise, but kept looking straight ahead, eyes on the road serving as an excellent excuse to not melt in embarrassment.

 

You want to go to prom?” he laughed, “Bella Swan, who hates crowds, dancing, and dressing up?”

 

“Well,” No. That was  the truth, so it doesn’t make any sense why I’ve asked. Except, they’d wanted so badly for her to go, last year, even with my leg in a cast. It made them happy, having me do normal things, even if I grumbled and complained.

 

I wanted to make Jacob happy. Wanted to give him all the happy memories he might want, just in case…

 

It felt like all the air had been violently sucked from the truck’s interior, like I might collapse in on myself, like a dying star. But I’d had a lot of practice now, and I didn’t want Jacob to know i had been slipping, had been sliding into being...damaged again, so I managed to hold still enough that my hands barely shook, and when I gripped the steering wheel tighter, they couldn’t even do that.

 

“Bella…” Jacob murmured, gently. “If-if you want to go…”

 

I blew out a breath.

 

“I don’t Jacob, I just thought...you’re right, prom is kind of my least favorite things all rolled up together, but I thought...something romantic...you might...want...”

 

Oh crap, this was humiliating. What was I even saying?

 

Jacob laughed though, looking pleased instead of confused or annoyed.

 

“Awww, that’s sweet Bells.” he grinned at me, and I wanted to turn my head to look more fully at that grin, but familiarity with the limits of my own driving skills kept my eyes (mostly) on the road.

 

“You’re a jerk” But the tight discomfort in my chest faded.

 

“Tell you what,” he slung an impossibly long arm across my shoulders.

 

“Let’s do something that night. Just the two of us, or we can do something with the pack, or with your friends. But we don’t have to go to the dance.”

 

I’m too pleased with this new scenario to care about the teasing. “Like a date?”

 

He’s grinning again, and just for a moment I turn to bask in that glow.

 

“Yeah, like a date. It’s about time, right?”

 

The warmth of that moment dispelled the half-gloom I had been stuck in, at least for the evening.

 

I saw something imperceptible relax in Charlie’s face at dinner, and I knew that he’d noticed.

 

I went to bed humming, hoping that this was one of those nights when Jake would sneak in during his patrol, waking me up in his arms.

 

Naturally, this was the night my nightmare came back.

 

It was dark, but not full night dark, more like a deep in the forest dark. I knew, somehow, that a battle was going on somewhere, in the distance. I needed to get there. To protect them.

 

A growl, behind me, and I spun. I recognized that growl.

 

“Jake?”

 

“Isabella”

 

I turned back and an angel was standing in front of me.

 

“Edward!” He smiled his angel’s smile and something in my heart (still) leapt.

 

“You shouldn’t trust them Bella. They’re animals. They can’t control themselves.”

 

“Who?”

 

The growl again, and this time when I turned A familiar red-brown wolf was there, muzzle curled back, teeth as long as my forearm.

 

“It’s for your own good.”

 

“Wha-“

 

“Bella” the wolf said, gasping and broken for a moment, somehow speaking human words without moving his muzzle. Still snarling at Edward, Who replied with a lion’s roar.

 

Hurtling toward each other, with death in their eyes.

 

A too loud crash. Blood.

 

Jacob, falling.

 

“Edward, no!”

 

I jerked awake, panting, swallowing a scream.

 

There was someone in the room.

 

Before I knew what I was doing I was cringing back, curling my legs under myself. Preparing to- to run? Jump out the window?

 

Yes. Outside, away from Charlie. Away. Jake would find me.

 

Large hands caught me as I leapt. I started automatically, fruitlessly, to twist.

 

“Bella - Jesus. What are you doing? Bella!”

 

“Jacob?” I relaxed marginally, then all the way as he pulled me into his warm chest. I curled into him. Safe.

 

And started crying.

 

“Bella, shh, you’ll wake Charlie. It’s okay, shh, I’ve got you. Just don’t want to be murdered, Bella”

 

He kept up a stream of comforting nonsense, mixed with my name, his hand stroking down my back.

 

I raised my probably splotchy, tear-streaked face to look at his. Reassuring myself that he was real, and here.

 

There was something in his eyes, something broken.

 

“Jacob? What’s wrong?”

 

He blinked down at me, shook his head.

 

When he looked at me again, his eyes were clear of whatever I saw before.

 

He scowled,  still gently stroking one hand down my back.

 

“What were you thinking Bella?”

 

“Thinking? About what?”

 

Oh right, my aborted leap for the window.

 

“Someone was here. But I didn’t see you. I thought- I thought- ” I’d barely been thinking, the combination of the dream and the shock of feeling myself not alone.

 

I pulled Jacob more firmly to me, with all my pathetic strength.

 

“Can you stay?” I asked, pressing my face into his chest to hide my blushing. Even though what I was asking was totally innocent.

 

He sighed  against me, and seemed to sag a bit. All the wolves were getting tired, with this endless high alert.

 

“Yeah… I’ll stay.”

 

He moved easily toward the bed, lowering us both down, and the relief was so great that I no longer even felt embarrassed.

 

I was already drifting off, curled firmly into Jacob, still holding onto him, like I could keep him safe from my nightmares.

 

“I love you, Bella.” He murmured, and there was something, something I was missing…

 

“Love you” I sighed, and fell asleep.

 

 

When the sun made one of it’s rare, full appearances in Forks and La Push, it was hard to remember to feel worried, or haunted by nightmares.

 

I woke up as the sun was rising, completely warm, and with only the fading traces of pleasant dreams.

 

I was curled against Jacob’s side, in a way that should have been strange, but wasn’t, knees resting against his thigh, my hands curled between my chest and his side, and my forehead resting against his rib cage. I could feel his arm resting behind me, radiating heat.

 

I tilted my head up to look at his face, still relaxed in sleep, bathed in the unusually bright morning sun.

 

I’d told Jacob before that he was sort of beautiful, but in truth that was an understatement. I’d always found his skin beautiful, not only because it was a warm, sun-kissed rich brown, even in the gloomy La Push weather, so different from (and therefore interesting compared to) my own nearly translucent pale. But it was also so smooth and even (heaven forbid a supernatural creature ever suffer a pimple or dry skin). His was not the classic Hollywood beauty Edward had possessed.  His high cheekbones could have made his face look stern, especially in combination with the straight line of his nose, and his thick, dark eyebrows, but in contrast with his lush mouth and luminous skin, they made him breathtaking. It was a face made for emotion - meant to be laughing, talking, or as I’d realized lately- looking at me in the intent way that made my face flame and heat curl inside me.

 

But then again, I was in love with him.

 

I knew when other people saw Jacob these days, they saw his body - ridiculously tall, prematurely mature, supernaturally muscled, usually shirtless- I ran a hand up his chest to cover his heart.

 

I forgot sometimes, or took for granted, how beautiful he was. Because he’d brought so much beauty into my life that had nothing to do with the strength of his arms and abs, or the masculine beauty of his face.

 

“Mm. Bella?” he mumbled sleepily, blinking his eyes at me in sleepy affection, their deep brown a shade or two darker than my own.

 

I leaned up to press my mouth against his. The dream the night before and this perfect morning stirred something in me, between peace and desperation.

 

His hand curled around my back.

 

“Good morning, Jacob” I said against his lips, propping myself up to brace against his chest.

 

His chest rumbled under my hand with laughter.

 

He picked me up, and sat me on his stomach.

 

“You can say that again, Bells. Watch out, I could get used to this kind of morning.”

 

“Me too”

 

I wanted him. I blushed hard at the thought but there it was.

 

I leaned down over him, pressing my lips to his chest. It was so warm, his heart beat strong and true.

 

Jake’s body stiffened beneath me and he closed his eyes like he was in pain.

 

His hands ran up my legs to squeeze my hips (such as they were) and he sighed.

 

Several interesting parts of me went up in flames.

 

I groaned and dropped my head against his chest.

 

“We can’t do this, Jake. Charlie.”

 

“I’m not doing anything, Bella, this is all you.” he chuckled again.  I kissed his chest again.

 

He sucked in a breath and his fingers spasmed against my hips. I smiled in satisfaction, not lifting my head.

 

“Charlie’s not here. Maybe he had an early shift?” He was still laughing at me.

 

I kissed him again, sliding lower on his body, until his hands caught me.

 

My brief fear of rejection was squashed by the look in his eyes.

 

He lifted me up as if I weighed nothing, my legs dangling down to the mattress on either side of him.

 

“Don’t you have to go to school?”

 

“Oh, shoot! What time is it?” I squirmed until he put me down, then promptly rolled off the bed.

 

“Ow!”

 

Now he was definitely laughing at me. He sat up and peered down at me. It really wasn’t fair that almost everyone I hung out with was supernaturally graceful.

 

“You okay, Bells?”

 

“Shut up, Jake.” I had about half an hour.

 

“Don’t you have to go to school too?” he stretched, sliding out of bed and rolling his neck and shoulders.

 

“Yeah, yeah. Guess I should. Sam’s got me on patrol tonight. Again.”

 

“You won’t be in trouble for staying with me last night, will you?”

 

“Nah. I was done when I came by anyway.”

 

I pulled clothes out of drawers blindly, and remembered just in time that I couldn’t change while Jacob was in my room.

 

But I didn’t want him to believe this little bubble of safety and happiness we’d woken up to.

 

“Stay.” I told him, ducking out of my room to the bathroom, grateful to the gods of police department scheduling who’d gotten Charlie out of the house at the right time, yet again.

 

Jake’s laughter followed me to the bathroom.

 

We didn’t have time for anything fancy for breakfast. But Jacob happily bolted down the jumbo bowl of cereal I put in front of him, while I ate my own more modest portion.

 

He drove me to school (in my truck), despite my half-hearted insistence that he leave for his own school day.

 

So when I stumbled into first period, with just 5 minutes to spare, I was warm and still blushing from a breathless kiss he’d given me in the parking lot before melting into the forest.

 

Jessica smirked at me as I slid into my seat. I tried to bite back my smile. Smiling too much in pre-calc was never a good idea.

 

“Morning, Bella. You look happy today. Was that Jacob dropping you off for school?” Angela asked, too innocently. I tried to muster a glare.

 

“He stopped by this morning...yeah.”

 

“Oh my God!” Jessica replied, in a restrained shriek.

 

“Shhh”

 

“I really want to hate you sometimes, Bella Swan. Are you bringing him to prom? Can he bring some friends, preferably ones that look like him?” Apparently she and Mike were off again. He threw a disgruntled look at her, which she didn’t notice.

 

I laughed, imagining the chaos of the La Push pack descending on the Forks High prom.

 

“I think we’re going to do something else, just the two of us, or with some of his friends from La Push.”

 

“WhA-” but her exclamation was mercifully cut off, by the start of class.

 

It resumed promptly after, and continued, with more restrained but still supportive input from Angela.

 

“I think the kids from La Push are allowed to come, as long as they buy tickets, I think they have to be invited by someone from Forks.”

 

“Yeah, there was like a lawsuit or something.”

 

“I’ll ask Jake and maybe the others. But I hate dancing, and I hate dressing up, and I hate you guys.” I grumbled, walking into last period. They froze for a moment, looking at me.

 

“Did Bella make a joke, Ang?”

 

“She really did.”

 

“Haha.”

 

---













Chapter Text

The sun, and my brightened mood, lasted through the rest of the week.

I knew everyone noted my improved mood, but kindly chose not to comment.

 

Jake had a couple weekday afternoons off, and we walked on the beach, did homework at my house, and made out in a patch of sun in Charlie’s backyard like the teenagers we were, until I was breathless and aching for something still just out of reach.

 

Saturday the sun was still shining, though huge puffy white clouds were moving across the sky like cheerful, overgrown bumble bees.

 

Kim and I were in short sleeves. Emily never wore short sleeves, but she had on a lightweight teal blouse that shone against her coppery skin. It was strange to remember that Emily was only a year or two older than me. But giggling, and talking about our boyfriends, baking, and books as we walked through La Push to the market (on the slim pretence of seeing if they’d gotten in any early strawberries), I’d never felt like such a normal person in my life.

 

Emily loved Sam. Like really really loved him. It was fascinating to me, because I still didn’t totally grasp the whole “imprint” thing. I mean, the love at first sight, feeling of “meant to be” I kind of did get. But the whole thing was so magical. And for all the wolves were clearly magical creatures, they never felt so otherworldly, so supernatural, the way the vampires did.

 

I didn’t like to think of imprinting as exactly like “true love”, since mine and Jacob’s case was so unclear. But hearing Emily and Kim, it was hard not to see it exactly that way.

 

Still, the sun was out, and Jacob had made a very convincing case over the past few months that I was what he really wanted. The looming danger had overshadowed romantic concerns, and I was not anxious to bring them back.

 

We were walking back, promising strawberries in tow, when a mix of familiar and unfamiliar voices up ahead caught my attention.

 

It was Jake, Jared, and Embry, talking to three girls I’d never seen before.

 

The girls looked somewhere around our age, and they were all very pretty, with long hair (two of them glossy and straight, and one falling in shiny waves). Embry was smiling down at a small, curvy girl, who was all but batting her eyelashes up at him. A tall girl, rolling her eyes at her friend, was clearly making some sort of snide remark to Jared. And the third girl…

 

She was tall too, though less so, and willowy where the other girl was athletic, and she was smiling at Jacob with a certain light in her eyes. She was talking to him, something that made a flush chase across his cheeks and down his bare chest, while he shifted his weight in discomfort.

 

“Who’s that?” I heard myself ask faintly, eyes on Jacob’s blushing face.

 

His face turned immediately towards mine, and he straightened up.

 

“Jen, Meg, and Lindsay. They go to school with us.” Kim whispered quickly. “That’s Lindsay, talking to Jacob. She’s a Junior, but she’s really nice. She just-”

 

“Bella!” Jacob’s face split into a grin, and he waved his ridiculously long arm, like it was possible to miss him.

 

I tried to guess whether he was really happy to see us. There was no reason to think he wasn’t.

 

Except that girl, Lindsay, she looked exactly like the kind of girl Jacob should imprint on. Could imprint on. Would imprint on, in my very worst nightmares.

 

Jared caught Kim, who I hadn’t noticed running off, and spun her around as she locked her legs around his waist. The tall girl rolled her eyes again, but tugged at Kim’s messy braid, smiling affectionately.

 

Emily touched my arm.

 

“Okay, Bella?” I snapped back into focus.

 

Jake shoved Embry, nearly knocking him into the girl still smiling coyly up at him, and causing him to snarl in a way I really hoped no one thought too much about.

 

I felt painfully awkward making my way to him, not comfortable enough to run, the way Kim had, feeling like my loose weekend-only jeans and worn t-shirt were terribly shabby.

 

“Bells!” Jake pulled me to him with both arms, and pulled my back against his broad, warm chest. “This is Lindsay, that’s Meg, and that’s Jen - the one Embry’s drooling on. Linds, this is Bella, my girlfriend.”

He said it so easily. I relaxed against him and tried to smile in a friendly, not jealous, not crazy way at Lindsay, who was smiling back, only a hint of color in her cheeks suggesting any awkwardness.

 

“It’s so nice to meet you. The way Jake talks about you, we all thought for sure he was making you up for the longest time. Not that he has any reason to make up girlfriends these days.” She winked at us, patted Jake’s arm. “The guys around here have really been growing up well lately.”

 

Jacob snorted, like this was an old joke.

 

“We’d better get going. Jen, either you and Embry get a room or let’s go.” She linked arms companionably with Meg and waved goodbye.

 

Jared, now carrying Kim piggyback, trotted over, pushing Embry as he went.

 

“Get a grip, love boy. These chicks are going to gang up one of these days and cut your balls off.”

 

“Jared, gross.” Kim laughed, kicking his side.

 

“Oof, sorry babe. Still not a horse though.”

 

Embry cackled. “We heard he’s a hell of a ride though, right, Connweller?”

 

Kim shrieked as Jared lunged at Embry, who jumped behind Emily, sticking his tongue out.

 

“Coward,” Jake laughed.

 

“I prefer to think of myself as chivalrously protecting the ladies from the sight of Jared’s sorry ass getting kicked.”

 

See, I reasoned to myself, this is so easy.

 

And it was easy, so much of the time. But I couldn’t stop waiting for the other shoe to drop.  Whether it was Jacob imprinting on some perfect, unknown girl, or the death of all of us. Maybe it was just me. No-fun Bella.

 

“You okay, Bells?” Jake whispered down to me. Looking up at the tense, too old lines in his worried face I felt a pang. My Jacob, the Jacob I'd (though I didn't know it at the time) first fallen in love with was always smiling. That gawky, awkward, sort-of-beautiful boy who made my parts all fit right.

 

I’d brought shadows into his eyes, and his life, in so many ways. And all I had to give him in return was my love.

 

I smiled up at him, hoping I was hiding my fears.

 

“Sure sure, Jacob. But would it really hurt you guys to put on shirts?” I poked his bare, very warm chest. “You’re going to cause some kind of mob riot someday.”

 

“As long as you come to my ‘shirtless mob riot’ I think I'm good with that, Bells.” He winked.

 

“Gross”

 

Embry shoved himself between us at that point, cheerfully ignoring Jake’s dire threats, and I took that excuse to link arms with Emily.

 

“They never pick on you.”

 

“Oh, that’s just what I call the ‘Sam effect.’” She smiled.  “He’s actually a big softie, of course. The way he mother hens those boys... Don’t want to ruin his mystique though.”  she waved her scarred hand as if performing a magic trick.

 

I still found Sam intimidating on a good day, but it was hard to doubt Emily’s smiling assurance.

 

“I don’t know what I’d do if it was Jake that everyone was intimidated by.” I glanced back to see Jacob, now giving a piggyback ride to Embry and rushing toward Jared and Kim with a battle cry. “Though I guess I don’t have to worry about that…”

 

“I think you'd be surprised Bella. Are you coming to the bonfire in a couple weeks? The day before your prom I think.”

 

“Ugh, don’t remind me. But yes. Jacob said I could come, to learn about...uh, wolf stuff I guess.”

 

“You’re one of us now Bella, part of the pack. Your connection with Jacob...you’re a wolf girl now.” She squeezed my arm affectionately, and we subsided into companionable silence.

 

Lunch that day was a rowdy affair, with even the periphery patrols pulled for a big wolfpack lunch. It’d been a few weeks now since any vampire sightings.

 

Despite the recent calm, and the general optimism of the wolves (excepting perhaps Leah and Sam), the discussion following turned grim.

 

“We’ve seen the news, and even if they haven’t tried our boundaries lately, we’ve smelled them.” Sam’s deep voice was solemn.

 

“The red-haired leech isn't giving up. She’s either setting up a distraction or creating an army. Most likely it is a combination of both.”  

 

“Is this still just to kill Bells?” Paul asked, ignoring a cautionary growl from Jacob, who was wrapped around me, a warm, protective, cloak. “‘Cause no offence, that kind of seems like overkill. Literally.”

 

“It could be. But I believe that even though it started that way, and even though she certainly still plans to kill Bella-” Jacob growled.

 

“Cool it, idiot, Jesus. Like he means it as a good thing.” snapped Leah.

 

“-I believe encountering us has triggered this new action. Either that or she wants them, not Bella at all, and believes she can lure them back with all this..show.” he threw me an apologetic look.

 

“No matter our protection, if she wanted to kill one human girl...I’m sorry Bella, but she could  just wait and find an opening. She has forever.”

 

“I understand.” I paused. “Did- Did Jacob tell you what I told him? About…them, about James?”

 

“In the sense of injecting it into our wolfy-mind meld, yeah, basically I think we got it.” Quil, looking mildly fascinated and also horrified. “Can I see it?”

 

“It?” Jacob was tense behind me, and I ran a hopefully not too clammy hand down his thigh in what was meant to be a soothing gesture.

 

“Where it bit you.”

 

Kim gasped. “But she’s not a vampire, you said if you got bit you turned into one!” This was clearly directed at Jared.

 

“You should.”

 

I held out my hand, scarred palm up.

 

Jacob ran one finger across it and shuddered.

 

“E-Edward, sucked out the venom. That’s why I didn’t...”

 

“Gross!”

 

“That’s sick.”

 

“But she’s alive, isn’t she?”

 

“It’s kind of… romantic, isn’t it? That he saved her?”

 

“It’s messed up.”

 

“Shut up, Connweller.”

 

“Don’t talk to her like that!”

 

“Quiet, all of you.” The wolves went silent as one.

 

Kim, unrepentant, winked at me. Leah slapped her head lightly, and chaos threatened to break out again as Jared bristled.

 

“Bella, we’ve seen from your conversation with Jacob that some of them have special abilities. Outside of the Cullens, you are aware of vampires with these abilities?”

 

“James, they said he had a tracking ability. That's why we ran. Once he targeted someone he could always find them. And Victoria…”

 

“She’s the redhead?”

 

“Yeah, she had some kind of… Self-preservation power. Like she could find a way out. That’s why Rosalie and Esme couldn't catch her. I don’t really understand it much...sorry.” It felt so odd to be saying their names here, in this wolf war council.

 

I wasn’t holding myself together, even.

 

“Well, shit.” Jared.

 

The Cullens had never felt farther away, even though I was talking about them.

 

“How common are these abilities?” Emily, looking at me with my exact fears in her eyes

 

“They said they were rare. But… 5 of the vampires I met had powers.”

 

“Out of?”

 

“9”

 

“Well, shiiiiiiiit”

 

“So here is the question, of the bloodsuckers the redhead makes, how many of those might have special abilities? We don’t know.”

 

“How hard is it to make a new one?”

 

“Anyone who is bitten but not killed...but a lot of them can’t stop in time…” Weird, this new position as vampire expert. This information had felt so different when I'd been greedily acquiring it, as a prospective future member of the Cullen family. My fingers itched to grasp around my middle, hold me together. I felt like I was dissolving. I leaned back into Jacob instead, hard.

 

“It takes 3 days. They said. It...it hurts, the whole time. The venom, it burns. It feels like you’re being burned alive.”

 

“Awesome, so unless some “nice” vampire is there to suck out the venom… It’s basically death or being tortured until you turn into a blood-sucking monster.”

 

“Wait, does it have to be a vamp who sucks out the venom?”

 

“Well, the venom would turn you into a vampire if you got it into your mouth, right?”

 

“But, I mean, if you can kiss them without them turning you...”

 

“Eww.”

 

“What if it gets in a cut?

 

“But Bella, she kissed that one, her boyfriend , right?”

 

Oh God.

 

“Uhh,” I glanced at Jacob’s tense face. “Yes, we kissed, but that was all. Ummm. The Cullens had friends who...they were a group of sisters who didn't kill people but they would sleep with human men...and um, they were fine, as long as they didn’t bite them by mistake or accidentally...break anything...” I’m sure you could have seen my face from space.

 

“Ohh, ewww.”

 

Leah made a gagging sound.

 

Jacob was vibrating around me.

 

I patted his thigh again.

 

“Thank you, Bella” Sam said solemnly. I was very grateful for his stoicism.

 

“Vampire venom is toxic to us, according to our own histories. So while we are safe from transformation, it is good to consider the possibility of removing the venom before it can spread. Though it could be more toxic to us than to a normal human. It is not a sure thing, so try not to get bit.”

 

“Yeah, cause we were all gonna go out and try it out, just for fun.” Leah muttered, still the only one who could always count on being able to backtalk Sam.

 

It was silent for a long moment.

 

“So,” Quil asked, “How many bloodsuckers means we’re all toast, and probably the girls with us?”

 

Leah put a protective hand on Seth, who scowled. And Sam, Jared, and Jacob let out eerily in-sync growls.

 

“We aren’t toast.” Sam bit out through clenched teeth. “And Brady and Colin will be...any day now…”

 

“Brady and Colin are 13 years old, Sam” Leah said furiously, hand still clenched around Seth’s arm.

 

“Meg’s gotten pretty tall… Do you think…”

 

“Nah…”

 

“If...I mean, if Victoria...I don’t want to die,really, but...” Jacob was already shaking his head in silent fury and denial. I had to say it though.

 

“Maybe, maybe if she got me, that’s what she wants. She would…”

 

She would leave everyone I love alive.

 

Jacob's steady growl, and the shaking of the chair were were sitting in, was all I could hear.

 

Sam looked at me for a long moment. A weighing gaze, and I didn’t look away.

 

Was that respect, in his dark eyes?

 

“Your offer is appreciated, Bella. I do not think she would stop at this point. If Bella was still her only goal, she could easily wait for a weak spot in our defenses. This show of force, the testing of our defenses. That’s something else. She has forever, after all, like we said, and we are more than merely human, but we aren’t perfect.”

 

Jacob’s growl hadn’t let up, if anything he seemed to be getting angrier.

 

“Jacob Black, you will control yourself, or you will get out of this house.” Whatever pack magic Sam used leashed in Jacob’s growling, but I could feel angry, frustration vibrating under his skin.

 

“It’s okay, Jacob. Shhh,” I soothed.

 

“Regardless of whether the leech would cease her attacks. We would not surrender you, Bella Swan,” Sam spoke with some kind of extra push behind his voice. “We will not. Despite our continuing questions, Bella Swan is recognized as the imprint of Jacob Black, our brother. And no harm can be allowed to come to her. She’s ours.”

 

Oh. That was a surprise. I felt something warm in my chest, and my eyes teared up.

 

Jacob must have felt it too, because he relaxed around me, sighing.

 

“So what are we going to do?”

 

No one knew the answer to the question, beyond ‘do our best to not all get dead’.

 

Still, the amazing thing about the boys, and even Sam, who by all rights should have still been a boy himself anyway, was that they were never down for long.

 

Somehow the conversation soon shifted to some embarrassing incident involving Embry, Quil, and some girls who were unfamiliar to me, but everyone else (except maybe Emily, who I recalled was not from La Push originally) seemed to know well.

 

Soon Emily’s felt again like a cozy little house overflowing with overgrown teenage boys, and love, but otherwise normal. The talk of supernatural battles faded to the background, though it didn't vanish entirely.

 

Dinner with Charlie was very quiet, by comparison , but comfortable, and he seemed content hearing my (heavily edited) stories of my La Push friends, a group he heartily approved of, crediting them (not incorrectly) with my improved well-being.

 

I had the nightmare again that night.

 

It was different, they always were. But it was the same.

 

“Please don’t leave me”  I sobbed holding Jacob’s bloody face in my hands. The forest was so still. Where was Edward? He was supposed to...

 

I woke up with a gasp, as if ripped free of the nightmare by my own sense of self-preservation.

 

I felt myself being pressed against a warm chest before I realized someone was even in the room with me.

 

“Bella,” Jake groaned, sounding pained. I relaxed against him, holding back tears. Listening to his heartbeat.

 

I fell asleep with him wrapped around me, keeping my fears at bay.

 

In the morning he was gone, and I felt oddly adrift.

 

Like some sort of subconscious gate had been opened, I had versions of the nightmare every night that week, sometimes more than one a night. That dark, lonely, cursed forest. Sometimes I was alone, searching desperately for something, someone. Sometimes I was running, scraping my hands and knees against trees and rock to get...where? Sometimes Jacob and Edward fought while I stood by, certain they wouldn’t both survive and powerless to stop it. The worst nights these dreams ended with me holding Jacob in my arms as his blood seeped into the mossy forest floor.

 

By Friday, I was exhausted at school, feeling like a shambling zombie again.

 

Jacob couldn’t be around every time I had a nightmare. In fact, I hadn’t seen him since Wednesday. It couldn’t be that he was avoiding me. It’d only been a few days. It made me anxious though and uncomfortably reminded of the confusing, painful distance Edward had created before he’d left. Had I done something? No, no, it must just be a coincidence, or wolf business. Maybe even school. The paranoia and the desperation from the dreams was slipping into my waking world.

 

I was holding myself together again by only the barest thread, and I caught myself surreptitiously gripping my arms around my middle. Holding myself together. Bracing for some unknown disaster.

 

I still had a lot. I had Emily’s house, and Emily and Kim and Leah, and the rest of the pack. Surely, if Jake wasn’t...if something was wrong , then I would know.

 

I made extra effort to talk to talk with Angela and Jessica, and even with Mike, Eric, and Ben at school. I wasn’t going to become a zombie again.

 

But it was hard to remember what we talked about. It was hard to follow from one sentence to the next, and to make the right expressions in the right places.  It was like the world was retreating from my eyes, getting harder and harder to see.

 

I’d see Jacob tonight. Or tomorrow. Everything would be fine.

 

The nightmares would go away again.

 

---

 

I had plans to go dress shopping with Kim in Port Angeles on Saturday. It was the last thing I wanted to do, but I was set on clinging to the bits of normalcy in my life.

 

Given the current situation, us going by ourselves had been out of the question, and Leah had very acidly refused to take on more human-sitting, just because she happened to be the lone wolf-girl. Jared had, of course, volunteered, and to only my slight disappointment, Paul was along as support.

 

I’d picked up a jumbo sized coffee at Starbucks first thing when we pulled into town, and my mood lifted along with the fog of my exhaustion.

 

Kim was an easy person to shop with, since she really cared about clothes only a bit more than me, and we both had similar miniscule budgets and no desire to splurge. Paul and Jared waited outside (Jared only reluctantly agreed after the combined efforts of Kim and Paul).

 

We giggled over silly dresses. It felt nice. I didn’t want to compare it to my time with the Cullens, but inevitably I did. It was really my only prior experience with this sort of thing. I felt a pang of guilt. Because this was better. It felt natural, and like me. And there was no uncomfortable extravagance to remind me of my inferiority, or bulldozing of my opinion.

 

Not that I didn’t still love Alice. I’d been lucky to receive her over-the-top affections.

 

Paul and Jared were laughing about something when we left the store, our purchases in hand, looking like a catalog advertisement for laughter, or manliness, or something, and drawing the gazes of several passers by, though luckily, they were fully dressed.

 

Paul slung a casual arm around my shoulder, as Jared wrapped Kim up in a hug and tugged at her bag, trying to peek inside.

 

“Success, I take it?” Paul asked, rolling his eyes at Jared. “I’m just glad you guys don’t shop like some chicks do.”

 

“Yes, I think so.” I felt uncomfortably aware of the heat of Paul’s arm, welcome for it’s comfort but unfamiliar and odd.

 

Paul had begun extending these casual affections to me only in the last couple weeks. He was similarly affectionate, especially with Kim, (the wolves tended to keep certain respectfulness for Emily’s person, though they all clearly adored her). With the pack his affection took a form that was frequently semi-violent. If it’d seemed at all romantic, or even out of the ordinary I would have worried. But it didn’t. So I didn’t feel uncomfortable exactly.

 

I’d just never had these kinds of affectionate relationships before. I’d always thought it was something in me. Too much reserve, or just plain too weird to fit in with people that way.

 

“So, can I see? What’d you pick, something sexy? Jake’ll lose it, and probably cry, which would be funny. On the other hand, you don’t want to know the kinds of things he thinks already.”

 

“Ummm, what?” I squeaked, blushing.

 

Paul laughed.

 

“Trust me. But don’t worry, Swan, you really  don’t want to know the shit we know about Conweller over there. Jared’s the absolute worst at hiding his thoughts. Jake’s getting better pretty fast.”

 

“Okay...what kind of...no, I don’t want to know. Poor Leah.”

 

“Yeah, it’s no wonder she’s turned into such a bitch. Not that she was exactly a sweetheart before. We’re just lucky that Sam can control his thoughts. She’d definitely slit every one of our throats to avoid having to experience that shit show from the other side. Imprinting is so fucked up.”

 

Jared’s long arm shot back at that, hitting Paul hard in the chest so that he stumbled back, almost knocking me to the ground.

Paul snarled and his hand on my arm was close to painful, even as it kept us both upright. His was still the shortest temper of any of the wolves, and thus he often had the worst control.

 

But then he laughed, and suddenly he was just Paul again.

 

Kim made Jared walk with Paul after that, though I could tell she really wanted to cave into his puppy dog eyes.

 

She linked arms with me instead, grinning us, and turning us away from the car, “Now, for some serious shopping.”

 

---

 

It wasn’t until I got home that afternoon tired and carrying a bookstore bag in addition to my dress (thank goodness for Kim), that I realized I’d been hoping that Jacob would show up, even though I knew he had patrol, and that he was terribly behind in school, and probably had a million other things to do too.

 

Or he just didn’t want to see you.

 

“You’re no good for me Bella.”

 

The remembered words didn’t sound like him in my head, not really, but the sting  (at the moment at least) had nothing to do with the memory of that terrible night in the woods.

 

I had a nightmare again, of course, recalling that night always resulted in nightmares.

 

“Bella,” Jake said, eyes sad, in a familiar forest. “I’m no good for you. I’m no better than him.”

 

“You’re not him, Jake.”

I woke up with tears drying on my face, to curtains blowing against the now open window.

 

I was alone.

Chapter Text

I could feel myself slipping away again.

 

It was different this time, because it wasn’t a big dramatic change.

 

Nothing enormous and catastrophic had happened.

 

In fact, everything was just fine. Really.

 

Only, I was so so tired. The nightmares, the constant worries - about Jake yes, but worrying about this seemed to bring my other worries to the surface too. I was afraid of Victoria. I was afraid of what could happen to Kim and Emily and Leah and the boys. I was afraid for Charlie.

 

For the first time in a long while, I didn’t want to go to Emily’s. I wanted to stay home and lay in bed, and try not to fall apart.

 

But I went, because they were expecting me. Because they would worry if I didn’t show up, and it was all my fault anyway.

 

I had to keep pretending everything was okay. Because as long as I kept going through my normal routine, everything would be fine.

 

I wondered if Jacob would worry if I wasn’t there. What if he was relieved? He’d carried my burdens for so long…

 

Where was Jacob. Why was he suddenly more like a shadow in my life, instead of the sun?

 

Why did it feel once again like I was orbiting a suddenly distant star?

 

How could this be happening again?

 

“Are you okay, Bella?”

 

“Huh?” I asked, jerked out of staring blanking at the page of my book. “I’m fine, sorry. Sorry, I’m just tired. I didn’t sleep well.”

 

“I hope Jake didn’t keep you up. I know he told Sam he needed to check on you, because you’ve been having nightmares.”

 

“Everyone knows about that?” That was a whole different kind of nightmare.

 

“Well, just that you’re having bad dreams. Which is perfectly normal. I know I’ve had my fair share.”

 

“Oh, well, but Jake didn’t come over last night.”

 

Though he probably had. That’s why my window had been open.

 

“I didn’t see him at all yesterday.” I sounded like I was whining and cringed. Kim and Emily explained a glance. What did it mean?

 

“Bella,” Emily said, gentle and concerned, “Do you want to lay down? Maybe you’re coming down with something. You could try and take a nap in the guest room?”

 

“Oh, um, sure. Thanks, Emily. Sorry I’m so boring today.”

 

“Don’t worry about that Bella!” Kim patted my arm, “Everyone has bad days. You don’t need to pretend to be feeling good when you’re not. Not for us. There’s a saying about it, I know I read one somewhere, I just can’t remember it right now.”

 

“Thanks,” But I knew this was the start of the end. How long would anyone want to keep hanging around me as I slipped back into zombie mode? Who would I even have left if Jacob kept drifting away?

 

And Kim, Emily, and the pack meant so much more to me than my school friends.

 

I let Emily lead me to her cozy guest room and lay down obediently, curled onto my side, and drifted off.

 

When I jerked awake, from a dream that immediately slipped out of my memory, Jake was there.

 

“Bella,” he said softly. He pressed one hand against my back, oddly hesitant. “It’s time to go home.”

 

“Jake, you’re here. What time is it?”

 

“It’s almost 5. Charlie will be home soon.”

 

“Oh. Do you want to come for dinner? He always likes seeing you.” I want to see you.

 

There was a long pause.

 

“Sorry, Bells. Can’t tonight.”

 

“Oh.” my voice sounded small. “Well...maybe you can come by later?”

 

“Sorry. Patrol.”

 

“Okay. Well, but, you’ll come over soon? We could do homework together, or…”

 

He glanced toward the door. He was...impatient?

“Sure, sure…Bells, you need help?  It’s kind of dark in here.” I wanted to say yes. But I didn’t.

 

“I’m fine.”

 

Fine fine fine fine.

 

If I thought it enough maybe it would be true.

 

He walked me to my truck in unusual silence.

 

“Jake, I - ”

 

His lips pressed against mine. Oh, thank goodness. My eyes started to flutter closed but stopped. His face, what I could see of it with his lips pressed against mine, looked so unhappy. Almost like he was in pain. The something in my chest that was tied inextricably to Jacob, tugged.

 

Why?

 

His arms around me felt the same, pulling me into him tightly, maybe more tightly than usual, while the kiss stayed chaste. Just his lips, moving gently against mine.

 

“Goodnight Bells. Love you.”

 

“Yeah, me too. See you tomorrow.”

 

---

 

I had the nightmare again.

 

It was the old version.

 

And it wasn’t.

 

I was looking for someone, for Jacob, for Edward, it didn’t matter.

 

Because I was alone. I was alone in the dream, in the forest. Wandering and wandering. Never stopping. Until I was running through the forest, only the sound of my own breath in my ears. I was running and running and there was never anyone to find.

 

When I woke up I was alone. But the curtain was still swaying slightly in front of my closed window.

 

--

 

Monday flew by in a blur and also seemed to take forever.

 

Angela and Jessica were nice, the whole gang at school had welcomed me back and accepted me far beyond what I expected or probably deserved.

 

But more and more of my life, my heart, was bound to the pack in La Push. This made school difficult on an ordinary day.

 

It was not an ordinary day. The possibility that Jacob’s love for me could be waning, haunted me, though when I tried to lay out the facts there was no particular evidence that this was happening. He was busy, we were in danger, I hadn’t been sleeping well. He could be worried, there was no reason to think he was avoiding me.

 

Despite this sensical train of thought, I was unconvinced.

 

Still, even though school was where my mind most wanted to slip away and send me back to my zombie mode, I needed to keep it together. I was finally getting along with almost everyone at school again, even Jessica.

 

If I let myself slide back into that emptiness, I didn’t know if I’d ever get out.

 

School was a purgatory, cut off from my real world, filling my day with the meaningless motions of normality.

 

That was a relief today.

 

I tried hard to follow the lunchtime chatter, to focus on what was being said, to feel interested in everything.

 

Naturally, today the talk at the lunch table was all about prom.

 

If it hadn’t been for my fears and worries over my relationship with Jacob, I was surprised to find myself by not totally disgusted that I'd been talked into going. I wasn’t looking forward to dancing, but Jacob and the guys (except maybe Jared and Kim) didn’t care about that either.

 

It still felt disloyal to think it, but it was a relief to know I could put on the dress I'd picked with whatever pair of non-heels I wanted and just go to the stupid dance with Jake and the pack with little to no fuss. No pressure to have the perfect human night.

 

Or it would have been, if my new life didn’t seem to be slipping through my fingers as surely as my old one had.

 

I had a feeling if I lost Jacob and the pack, I would happily surrender myself back to the endless blankness. It was a horror and a comfort.

 

“Bella?! Hello, Earth to Bella.” Jessica waved a hand in front of my face, her smile just a little bit irritated.

 

“Huh? Sorry…”

 

“I was just saying , you said that La Push guy you're dating, he’s coming, and bringing some of his hot friends? Please say yes.”

 

“Oh, um yeah, some of the guys...hot, I'm not sure, whether…” I scanned through the group in my head. Embry, Quil, Paul, Jared (though obviously in his case he literally had eyes for no girls but Kim) I didn’t think about it much but…

 

I blushed and Jess’ smile widened “Yeah, I guess they are pretty...yeah.”

 

---

 

That afternoon I worked on homework with Kim, Paul, Seth, and Jake.

 

It should have been nice. Normal Kim helping Seth with some math problem he didn’t get. Normal Paul flying through his homework with (initially shocking) ease, then distracting Seth with stories of which Leah would definitely not approve. Normal Jacob seemingly working all at random, only half of his mind on his work.

 

Jacob’s hand frequently rested on my thigh, hot and comforting. But it seemed like he didn’t quite look directly at me. While all my work took twice as long as usual, because I watched him, and wondered.

 

I tried to talk to him as he drove me home in my truck. I’d even let him drive.

 

“Jacob, Is everything alright?”

 

“Huh? Yeah, fine. Why do you ask?”

 

“You seem quiet. Are you not getting enough sleep? Are you worried about Victoria?”

 

“Nah, well, yeah, I’m not getting any sleep. Actually, fell asleep in English class today, it was the worst. Mr. Brandt’s the kind of teacher who makes a huge deal of it, like he’s gotta wake you up, and make a big show of getting everyone to look at you. He’s a crap teacher too. I learn way more just listening to you and Kim, sometimes Paul. He’s a closet nerd you know, not that he hides it as well as he thinks. Anyway, so I…”

 

He kept up a steady stream of cheerful nonsense all the way home.

 

It almost felt normal.

 

But it wasn’t.

 

--

 

Tuesday afternoon, after another interminable day at school I had work. Mike was friendly, if never entirely without hope of something other than my friendship, especially when Jessica had spent the afternoon crowing about how over Forks boys she was.

 

“Hey! Bella?! Fancy seeing you here!” Quil’s loud voice boomed through the peace of what had been a quiet Monday afternoon.

 

Mike’s head popped up, and he scowled for a moment before summoning up a smile.

 

“Hey, uh, Jacob, right?”

 

Quil laughed. Loudly, despite my half-hearted shushing. His body shivered, in a way that made my heart leap.

 

“Nah, man, different dude, turns out--.” He ran his hand over his shaved head, and relented a bit, “Jake’s my...cousin.”

 

Mike reddened and stammered an apology.

 

I gave him an apologetic look as Quil swept me into a hug.

 

“Hey, Bell, sorry, ‘cept not really, bit of an alarm, nothing major and everyone is fine.” He whispered as we hugged for what probably looked like an indecent amount of time for people who had just established they were not dating.

 

He ruffled my hair as he pulled away.

 

“Ugh, Quil!”

 

“So, me and the guys have really been getting into this outdoor stuff, Bella, do you have any equipment to help some novice outdoorsmen?” His voice was booming again, and I could see Mike trying to pretend he wasn’t paying close attention to us out of the corner of my eye.

 

Quil’d also slung a casual arm around my shoulder.

 

“Quil!” I hissed at him, “ You’re doing this on purpose--he’s going to think--”

 

“Who, Mick? Oh I know all about what he thinks.” He tapped the side of his head.

 

“It’s Mike, and he’s fine. You can’t read his mind, you just know what Jake thinks he thinks.” I paused. Thinking about what else Quil had told me.

 

“Jake-- everyone’s okay?”

 

“Yeah, it’s no big. Just one of those bloodsucker bastards, seemed headed this way. I was closest to you, lucky me.” He waggled his eyebrows. I looked hard back at him. He was ever so slightly tense, whether from anxiety, excitement, or his own warring wolf instincts I didn't know.

 

So I showed Quil around, let him make too- loud bad jokes and pretend to flirt with me.

 

It was oddly comforting.

 

Eventually, Mike, unable to hide his disgust, declared that he would do some clean up in the back room.

 

I really tried to care that he was annoyed.

 

But Quil was such good company. My mood was lifting for the first time this week.

 

Quil produced a backpack from somewhere and pulled out homework, satisfied with having driven Mike away, and happy to behave reasonably now. I set out my own homework, pre-calc, my least favorite.

 

We worked in relative peace for a while.

 

When the door chimed I looked up, heart speeding up in excitement.

 

It was Embry.

 

“Hey,” he called, smiling. Was it just me or did he sound concerned. “Everything good here? Quil’s not giving you too much trouble, is he?”

 

Mike, who’d peered out of the office curiously, snorted and withdrew.

 

“What are you talking about, I have been, as always, a perfect gentleman. In fact, Bella’s going to leave Jake and run away with me. We’re planning a June wedding.”

 

“Yeah, eloping with your best friend’s girlfriend, classic gentlemanly behavior. Man, you know you shouldn’t think that kind of stuff. He’ll see it, you know. And I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Jake can kick your ass now.”

 

“Well, if he doesn’t like it --” Quil began, sounding slightly irritated.

 

“Yeah, yeah, I know. He’s an idiot. This isn’t news. Sorry, Bella.”

 

“For what?” Embry looked at my face for a long moment, before quirking up one corner of his mouth.

 

“For telling you Jake’s an idiot, I guess. Though you’ve probably figured that out for yourself. He says you’re pretty smart.”

 

“Uh, thanks, I guess. There wasn’t any trouble, was there? Jake...he’s okay? Everything is okay with him? I haven’t really gotten to see him lately... All the patrolling. And I guess he’s pretty behind in school.”

 

I was trying to seem nonchalant, but knew I was failing. Quil and Embry exchanged a look I didn’t understand.

 

Then Embry smiled at me.

 

“Trouble? Oh, no, nothing like that. In fact, I was just coming to give Quil here the all clear. What time are you off? It always this empty?”

 

“5, and no, it’s been kind of quiet. There’s this story about a giant bear, you know. Missing hikers…”

 

“Of course, those giant bears, you have to watch out for that, huh? Yeah, Billy actually said he got some calls from hunters about hiring native guides, though what the hell that has to do with giant bears... People are so dumb.”

 

Quil laughed.

 

“It’s 4:30 already. Why don’t we stay til you leave, you can give us a ride at least part of the way home. Hey, you got any cookies at your house?”

 

“Cookies?”

 

“Yeah, like chocolate chip, peanut butter, oatmeal. You made some one time, and brought them to Emily’s right?”

 

“You want me to make you cookies?”

 

“Well, I wouldn’t say no. It’s tiring you know, all this running around. Plus, the extra body temp, it really burns through calories.”

 

The end result was - I drove Embry and Quil back to my house, promised them cookies, and was left feeling oddly confused as they trotted off into the forest and I went inside to make dinner (and bake).

 

I figured it out as I was dressing the salad.

 

Distraction. They’d been distracting me with their light talk and their flirting and requests for baked goods.

 

Something was going on, and the wolves knew about it.

 

One idea instantly sprang to mind. The most obvious and most terrifying.

 

But no, I’d been in a fog, and Jacob had been upset, about something, something he wouldn’t tell me, but I’d definitely know if he’d imprinted.

 

Wouldn’t I?

 

Once the idea was there, it was hard to shake it off.

 

Jake had promised to never, never hurt me. The only time he had, it had been because of his transformation. Because he’d been ordered to stay away, and worried he’d hurt me (he’d been bitter about all the secrets I’d been hiding, but that hadn’t been what kept him away, not really).

 

Wouldn’t it make sense that the only reason he’d stay away now would be to avoid hurting me again?

 

Though, on the other hand, would he care so much about that, if he had imprinted, and therefore wasn’t in love with me anymore? Not that Sam didn’t still care about Leah, or want to avoid hurting her...but he’d still broken up with her, right?

 

No, it didn’t make sense. He definitely hadn’t.

 

But what if he had?

 

---

It was a bad day at school. The worst part was, I was far enough sunk down into my own obsessive thoughts that talking to people felt like reaching out from a great distance through molasses, but not so far gone that I didn’t see the looks on their faces when it took me too long to respond, or when my reactions weren’t quite right.

 

By the end of the day I was exhausted, in the way that made my body ache, that felt like each motion was a struggle. And yet I didn’t want to sleep. I didn’t want to do anything.

 

Naturally this was when Leah stormed into Emily’s house, shoved Jared, who’d come by to visit with Kim, out the door, and glared at me.

 

I’d been staring out the window from the kitchen table, not reading the book clasped in my lap, but staring blankly out at the steady drizzle that was typical for a La Push spring. It was a comforting sight for once.

 

“What the fuck, Bella?” Leah asked, dropping unceremoniously into the seat across from me.

 

“Um, what?”

 

“You and Jake. And don’t think I wanted to get involved. He’s trying hard not to think about it, but he’s not great at that and I can feel all his moods and shit anyway. And here you are, looking like someone kicked your puppy. I’m not stupid, you know.”

 

“Um, involved in what?” Feeling increasingly confused and concerned I shot a look at Kim, who hopelessly mussed and flushed, came up to take the other chair.

 

She smiled sheepishly and shrugged. “You’ve been a little quiet lately. More than usual. And you seem sad. More like you used to, back when you first started coming over.”

 

Emily hesitated against the kitchen counter.

 

Leah was less overtly hostile lately, but the rigid discomfort, barely concealing her pain, was worse in many ways. They had settled recently on an unspoken buffer of space between them.

 

What would it have felt like if the Cullens’ hadn’t left, if instead I’d just had to watch him move on with someone new, with someone he was destined to be with?

 

What if that happened anyway, only it was Jake who I watched… Jake who was happy with someone else, and I could never--

 

Fingers snapped in front of my face.

 

“No drifting off.” I couldn’t tell them what I was thinking. If I was wrong I’d seem so needy and pathetic. And if I was right...well was it so bad to want to put off the real pain for as long as possible.

 

“I-I don’t think anything is wrong with me and Jake...I mean I’ve been a little distracted lately,  and he’s been really tired, but—oh”

 

My heart stopped, everything in me stopped. Maybe the possibility of putting it off was ending right now. Maybe this was that talk. Did Leah think I already knew? Of all people, she’d be the one who would come to support me...She’d understand, she’d want me to fight, she’d want me to know...she’d want me to be strong this time...

 

Not again

 

“No...He-did he-who…”

 

I realized I was crying, not big sobs, just tears trickling down my face, burning like acid.

 

“Leah!” Kim yelped, one small hand fluttering over my back.

 

“Leah, what’s happened?” Emily rarely addressed Leah directly. I must have looked really bad. She stepped past the imaginary border between them and I felt her hand brush over my hair.

 

“I don’t know what the fuck is wrong with her!” Leah bit out, sounding vaguely panicked. Her hand clenched convulsively around mine.

 

“Did something happen to Jake?”

 

“What? No! He’s being an asshole, and he’s not telling us why. It’s something about Bella...but...damn it -- I just thought she was being moody again, or they had some kind of fight?”

 

“Well, I guess he hasn’t been around much, has he?”

 

“But they’re not broken up. He was here the other day, doing homework with us, and he was touching her the whole time.”

 

“Yes, but they didn’t talk much, did they?”

 

“No...but...she’s been so tired lately, I didn’t think…”

 

My world was falling apart. Again.

 

“Bella”

 

My head shot up. And three heads turned with mine to look at the large figure standing rigid with...something... in the doorway.

 

“Jake,” and I was still crying but my mouth stretched into a smile. He was still here.

 

I was so pathetic.

 

“Leah, what the hell ?” He growled, a low, not human, sound. She snarled back, but that was pure Leah.

 

They glared at each other.

 

“Well you weren’t going to talk to her. I didn’t sign up for your relationship drama, Black.”

 

“What’s going on?”

 

“Did you guys have a fight? It’s kind of hard to imagine Bella--”

 

“It’s none of your business! Stay the fuck out of it! It’s- we’re fine”

 

“Jacob, you know...Sam said-”

 

“What the fuck would Sam know about it?”

 

“Did you -- Jake, you can tell me. Did you— oh, God, please-”

 

The conversation surrounding me abruptly ceased.

 

Four faces looked at me, concerned, like I’d gone nuts.

 

Maybe I had.

 

Gone gone gonegonegonegonegone.

 

“Bella,” Jacob said, soothingly, like I was a wild animal likely to spook at any moment, “What are you talking about?”

 

“You-” I looked at Leah, for some kind of confirmation. She blinked at me blankly.

 

“You didn’t...um, didn’t you….you know...im-imprint… on, uh someone?” It was not my most eloquent moment and just asking the question was excruciatingly painful. “ Someone else?”

 

I cringed for a blow.

 

“Did I-!” Jacob looked thunderstruck, and affronted.

 

“Now I really don’t understand what’s going on!”

 

Emily sighed softly in the background, sounding relieved.

 

Leah reached over and smacked my head. Hard.

 

“Ow!”

 

“Leah!”

 

“Hey!”

 

“Leah, what the fuck !” Jake scooped me into his arms and away from the table, looming over me defensively.

 

Leah ignored him.

 

“Don’t be an idiot, Bella. Goddamn, as if we don’t have enough problems.”

 

“You told her I imprinted! On someone else?”

 

His arms tightened around me, almost to the point of being painful. I could feel his chest vibrating against me. I didn’t care about that, the growls I could hear ripping out of him, or the way his body was shaking. I pressed my face against his burning neck, tears still hot against my cheeks. The feeling of him holding me was perfect. Too hard, too hot, too tense - so I knew it was real.

 

I let their voices wash over me.

 

I didn’t notice when Jake strode out of the house, me still in his arms.

 

I curled my face against the heat of Jake’s skin, feeling his pulse beat below my lips and cheek, breathing in the rain, forest, sweat, and purely Jacob-smell of him.

 

And i just tried to keep breathing.

 

Holding on to him. For as long as I could.

 

Still here.

Chapter Text

 

When I finally lifted my face, Jake and I were sitting on a familiar driftwood log, the somewhat dreary La Push beach stretching out in shades of grey and damp around us. It was no longer raining, but a thin mist fell around us, chilling my skin wherever it wasn’t in direct contact with Jake.

 

I shivered.

 

“Shoulda brought a coat. Shit. Shit.” Jacob muttered, distracted. He ran his hands briskly up and down my arms and pulled me closer into him.

 

I sat quietly while he fussed, knowing I was worrying him, but stuck somewhere deep in my own mind, trying to make sense of a world that suddenly seemed nonsensical.

 

I didn’t feel cold at all, not really.

 

I didn’t want him to stop touching me.

 

Jake sighed. But it wasn’t the one I expected. It wasn’t a content sound, or exasperated, or even angry.

 

He sounded...defeated.

 

I couldn’t ignore that.

 

“Jake…”

 

“No, Bells, let me---” he paused for a moment. I looked up at his face but I couldn’t read it.

 

“I didn’t imprint on anyone else. I don’t know how you could--” Jake’s made an odd disconsolate noise as his calm facade broke for a moment. I couldn’t understand what was going on. I was obviously missing something.

 

Something was wrong with Jake. Something more than just the upset at Emily’s.

 

That thought helped me focus my disordered thoughts.

 

He rubbed a hand against his head in frustration. He looked very tired.

 

“Maybe it would be easier? If I could imprint on someone else. Would you want that?” his voice was quiet, casual, but he was very tense around me.

 

I couldn’t bear to think that he might want to imprint on someone else, might want to love someone else.

 

What was wrong with Jake? What had happened to him?

 

“I won’t though. Do you understand that Bella? I don’t care what Sam or the Council, or anyone says. I imprinted on you. And that can’t be undone. Or -- and even if I didn’t--if this isn’t -- you have to be able to see someone else to imprint. And I can’t . I can’t see anyone but you Bells, can’t even want to--” he made a choking sound, and then groaned.

 

“God, I love you. I love you so fucking much . And I don’t care. If you can’t--if you never-- it doesn’t matter, but god, it hurts, so fu-”

 

Jacob was shaking again, he was coming apart around me. Not in impending transformation, but in something much more terrifying.

 

Jacob was crying.

 

My hands moved without conscious thought, wrapping around Jake’s waist, holding him close. I felt a surge of protectiveness.

 

I was weak. I was useless. I was pathetic. But Jacob was mine, mine to protect from whatever this pain was. His pain was mine.

 

“What’s wrong, Jake.? Why...why? What happened?”

 

Jacob made a watery-sounding laugh. He was rubbing his cheek against my head, in a way that seemed not quite conscious.

 

“We can be whatever you want Bells. Seriously. I - I can’t promise I’ll never...want more...never push. But - but you can say no, you know, you can always say no. I won’t ever leave you, or stop loving you, no matter what. I just, I can’t pretend. Don’t make me pretend. If I’m supposed to be whatever you need, maybe it’ll be enough, it’ll be--” he sounded odd and desperate. Like he was begging me for something. Like I held something vital to him, and he wasn’t sure I would give it to him. Like I was the one with the power to break him .

 

I didn’t like it.

 

“Jacob!” I twisted in his lap and grasped his face, ran my fingers across the high, broad planes of his cheekbones and pulled his head down so that his eyes would look into mine. But they were closed.

 

“You’re scaring me.” he tensed in the beginning of a recoil, and I tightened my grip on his face. I could never actually hold him there by force, but he stilled anyway.

 

“I don’t understand what you’re talking about. Are you trying to b-break-up with me? You want me to break up with you? Why? What happened? What-- what do you need? I’ll- I’ll fix it, Jake. Whatever it is. I’ll fix it, I’ll do anything you need, I swear.”

 

His eyes looked into mine, finally. They were red-rimmed and exhausted and sad. How long had he been sad?

 

“My poor Jacob.” I murmured, without really meaning too.

 

Just once, I wished my love could do anyone any good.

 

He shuddered. His dark eyes looked into mine, pained and searching.

 

“You talk in your sleep you know.” he said, out of nowhere.

 

“Yeah, I know. I never know when I’m doing it though.”  

 

“Well, you talk all the time. And then, one night, a couple weeks ago, you said...you said his name.” There was a special, frightening venom in the word, which left no doubt of who he meant.

 

“I didn’t mean to hear, it seems weird and private, or whatever. I just wanted to check on you. You weren’t yourself. You kept pulling away from me, you were sad. You were staring into space again, like you used to. And I heard you talking in your sleep. Begging someone, begging him not to leave you.  And I knew, it was just, you can’t help it. You can’t control it. People can’t control what they dream about. It doesn’t have to mean anything. But the way you said it, the way you were drifting away again... I figured out, or I realized...It’s still... him for you. It’ll always be -- Then Saturday, like you sensed me there, you said, ‘You’re not him, Jake,’...and...I-” he shuddered, and stopped talking - not as if he’d said what he’d want to say, but as if he’d gotten lost.

 

And I’d believed I was covering up my recent issues.

 

“I thought, well,  you tried, you said you’d try, and so you did, but you couldn’t, you just could love me, not like I wanted. I knew I’d pushed a lot, before you were really...ready. You even said, you told me that could wouldn’t… And I know I said I didn’t care, wouldn’t care but... ” he brought up his hand to run over his shorn hair, but when he bumped one of my hands (still pressed against his face) he grasped my hand.

 

“I didn’t know what it would feel like, to be...so...close, and then,” the corners of his mouth turned down and deeps lines of misery made his face almost unfamiliar.

 

He raised his eyes back to mine. Like he was asking for something, but I still didn’t know what he was talking about. Did he want me to not love Edward anymore? Not remember him? I would do anything for Jacob, but I didn’t know how to do that.

 

“But maybe, maybe-- it was just too fast, maybe you could. Could you - I know I was pushy. I should have been patient, then maybe someday… you, your feelings could change. Maybe you could…love me, then? God, I’m so pathetic -- ”

 

I think my mouth literally dropped open.

 

“What!? Jake I do --”

 

“Don’t. Don’t say it.  That’s not what I want. I know, I know you love me. Just not like you loved--” his face twisted into something horrible - hurt and bitter and heartbroken.

 

I’d broken Jake’s heart. And I’d never even realized it.

 

“No, Jacob, you don’t know, if you think….” I had honestly no idea what to do. I’d never thought he’d think--this. It had never occured to me at all that I might cause him this much pain. This particular pain.

 

I’d been selfish. It had never occured to me that my feelings could hurt Jacob like this. But of course, of course, I should have.

 

Love gave someone the power to break you.

 

Love...gave you the power to break someone.

 

“I love you.” I said, quietly, urgently, breaking into his fretting. “I’m in love with you”

 

You are my life now.

 

He’d said that to me, he’d always been better with words than I was, and how odd that those were the ones that came to my mind now, as I tried to make Jacob understand what he was to me.

 

But I wouldn’t say that, even though it was what I thought.

 

Those words had lied. But I wasn’t lying to Jake. I wouldn’t.

 

“I won’t lie to you Jake. I’d never lie about that.” I knew how those pretty lies could hurt.

 

Jake’s eyes searched across my face and he sighed, collapsing in on himself. He looked much, much older than 16. Like he didn’t believe me.

 

“What were you dreaming about, the other night… when you tried to jump out the window? The last two weeks? Saturday night?”

 

“What?” the other night. I wished I had better control of my face, because I felt myself flinch. Of all the things, this was one thing I didn’t want to tell him.

 

“I don’t remem-” his face darkened, his eyes closed. He pulled away.

 

“You’re just--” he looked away from me.

 

“It was just a nightmare. Jake,” I plunged forward, pulling his body to mine.

 

“I swear, a nightmare, it’s just...I’ve been having it for weeks, I don’t know why,  I have bad dreams all the time. I never talk about. It changes, sometimes I’m all alone, looking for someone, looking for you because...something is happening, I don’t know. But...what you heard, it’s probably...It was you. You and - and Edward. In the forest, always a different part. He’s there. And you come, and you fight. You fight and it’s all my fault. It’s because of me. And the blood- there’s so much blo-”

 

I shook my head, I never thought about the end of the dream if I could help it.

 

“I would fight Bella.” Jake said fiercely, hugging me to his chest. “I’d fight if he came back for you. For what he did to you; how he treated you. Because I love you-”

 

“NO.” Jacob scowled, but he didn’t understand. “In the dream, Jake. You die. I beg you both to stop but it’s too late. Sometimes you both die, sometimes just you. I beg him to stop. But - it’s not a trust thing. It’s not a belief thing. The way they fight. They’re so strong. They’re so fast. I don’t know why in my dream it’s you and him. But I know what it means. You know too, right? You guys all know? We don’t know how many there are. But they’re so strong. They’re too strong. You’re going - you could die, and it’s all because of me.”

 

“And then...the other night. You were leaving, you told me you were the same as… well… But, Jake, it was never because I didn’t love you enough. More like the opposite, if anything. I didn’t know, you hear, that you thought - I’m so sor --”

 

Jacob’s lips sealed over mine in a searing kiss.

 

I pulled myself desperately against him, smoothing my cold hands down his strong shoulders, his smooth back. The heat of him against my mist-cooled skin was almost painful.

 

I gasped.

 

His tongue swept into my mouth, a beautiful fire.

 

A fiery current, an ocean’s tide, and it pulled me under. But I didn’t want to come up for air.

 

My knees were on either side of his hips, though I couldn’t remember moving.

 

One big hand moved under my sweater and my t-shirt, spanning across my back and sliding up.

 

I was never going to be cold again.

 

I was never going to be alone again.

 

His lips pulled away from mine and I gasped, but they were already pressing against my cheek, my jaw, down my neck, until they came up to the neck of my sweater. He murmured something against my skin, but I didn’t know what, and I didn’t want to ask. I didn’t want to pause or think.

 

I ran my hands up into his shorn hair, raked my nails across his scalp.

 

“Jake, please.” I begged, pushing myself into him, like I could fuse us together.

 

He groaned and his hands moved. My sweater split at the neck and fell half off.  His lips moved on frantically, his tongue swept across my collar bone.

 

I ran my hands up into his shorn hair, raked my nails across his scalp. Every touch felt magnified, even the prickly of his hair against my hands sending tingly pleasure up through my arms into my chest and down to the rest of my body.

 

“Jake, please.” I begged, pushing myself into him, like I could fuse us together.

 

We were still outside.

 

“Jake. Is your dad home?” I gasped, and he tensed.

 

Jake dropped his head against my shoulder.

 

“Probably.”

 

I pressed kisses down his chest. My hips tipped forward to brush against him, where he was hard and straining against his thin shorts.

 

We both groaned.

 

We needed to stop.

 

Anyone could walk by.

 

“No.” Jake said, suddenly, Standing up, with me in his arms. He laughed.

 

“No?” I wrapped my legs around his waist automatically, to help hold myself up, and desperately held back was would probably be a very inappropriate sound from escaping my mouth.

 

“Billy’s at a council meeting… Hold on tight.” he smiled, looking breathless, and then he was moving, striding, and then running with the kind of smooth gait he’d never have been able to manage 4 months ago.

 

-----

 

We snuck in through Jacob’s bedroom window, giggling, even though we were almost positive that Billy wasn’t home.

 

The desperation from the beach had abated, but my hands were still shaking as Jacob pulled my sweater over my head.

 

He smiled at me, looking nervous.

 

“You’re sure?” he asked, hands running up and down my sides over my t-shirt. “We don’t have to, I got carried away before, but...” he pressed his lips against my neck, and laughed against my skin, and I shivered, this time definitely not from cold. I couldn’t even remember what cold felt like.

 

I took his hands in my own. He lifted his head to look at me. I’d wanted this for what felt like so long.

 

“Yes.” I said simply, pushing up to my toes to kiss him. Luckily, he met me halfway.

 

The intensity was back, flames flickering through my veins. The sensation was gentler now, the heat a hazy bubble not an inferno of desperation, riding the tail of our fear of losing each other.

 

I wished I could slow things down, crystallize each moment. But I was swept away in the tide of feeling.

 

Jacob’s hands, so big, so warm, and so gentle, moved up my sides, pulling my t-shirt up over my head. Reverent. His fingers were slightly calloused, long and graceful. Running down my spine. Threading into my hair, as if it were as precious as gold.

 

I gasped as he kissed down my neck, to the modest curve of my breast over the top of my bra. His mouth was hot, his lips, the barest edge of his teeth.

 

I dug my fingers into his back, so insignificant, so weak. But he growled and pressed closer against me in response, so that I could feel his heart, beating as fast as mine. His fingers were trembling too.

 

Here, finally, we were equals.

 

I let my hands drift down to my jeans, unbuttoning them and beginning to shimmy out of them before Jacob even realized what I was doing.

 

His lips left my skin as he realized what I was doing, and he looked at me in surprise, and then something so warm, so full of promise, and love, and belonging and wonder - everything that Jacob, my Jacob, had always given me, that I didn’t know whether to weep or grab onto him and never let go.

 

I chose the latter. I kicked my jeans off, and brought my hands up to cradle his face in mine, pulling that generous mouth back to mine.

 

My tongue brushed against his and he lifted me with one arm, so that he wasn’t looming over me anymore.

 

I’d never felt him like this. He was hard and blazing against me, with nothing but my underwear and his worn basketball shorts between us.

 

We tumbled to the bed.

 

Without the height difference it was so much easier to explore. I pressed my lips to his broad shoulders, along the line of his collar bone. Over his heart.

 

He shuddered and pulled me up by the shoulders, pressing his lips desperately back to mine, pulling my hands into his and setting them against the bed as his lips traveled down my neck, and further, to where the thin, unexciting beige of my bra still covered my breasts.

 

His tongue skated along just under the edge of my bra and I whimpered.

 

He let go of one of my hands and reached under my back fumbling with the clasp.

 

“Shit, why is it so difficult...oops.” I had a feeling my bra would never be properly functional again, but I didn’t care, because he was sliding the straps down my shoulders, and I’d never been so exposed to anyone before, and the look of awe on his face as he looked down on what I knew was nothing special…

“Sorry about that,” he breathed. “Wow.”

 

I laughed, despite myself.

 

“I don’t care. Jake, I-” Thought, and the beginnings of self- consciousness fled as he pressed his lips directly to my breast.

 

I didn’t have words, only feelings, and it should have been embarrassing that I clasped his head to me, and whimpered and pushed my hips up against him, into the evidence of his arousal, sending molten desire singing through my veins.

 

His tongue moved and I moaned again, breathy and needing.

 

He moaned back, a hand squeezing my hip, sliding down into the waistband of my panties.

 

He tugged them down. And I only regretted that he moved away from me.

 

I shivered, and my eyes fluttered open just in time to see him kick off his shorts.

 

He was so beautiful. I wanted him.

 

But it wasn’t going to work, it was absolutely was impossible.

 

I didn’t care.

 

“Jake,” I whimpered.

 

His slid his body back over mine, his legs sliding between mine.

 

His fingers brushed, hesitantly between my legs and an odd, keening whimper escaped me.

 

“Oh,” he breathed, running his hands up my body,  “Bells, I love you so much.”

 

I could feel him, as he brushed against where I suddenly realized I wanted him most.

 

I tilted my hips toward him. Reached my hand down, on instinct.

 

When I touched him he groaned and thrust helplessly against me.

 

“Wait, condom…” he groaned, not moving away from me.

 

“It’s fine.” I gasped, forcing my reluctant mind to form complete thoughts. “Pill.” Thank goodness for Renee’s unapologetic zeal for safe sex.

 

“You’re sure, you -” I banished thoughts of Renee from the room and slid my hand around that part of him again, curious and impatient.

 

Jacob made a helpless moan that shot heat through my body, and rational thought flew off to the back burner.

 

“Yes.”

 

We moved at the same time, fumbling, not quite smooth or perfect, or sexy.

 

And then suddenly there was nothing at all between us.

 

I winced slightly, shifted. He sunk further into me and I gasped. It was painful, almost too painful, though somewhere in the mysterious parts of my body something was stirring, which wasn’t pain at all.

 

“I’m sorry, Bells. I’m so sorry” he panted, holding absolutely still.

 

“Shh. It’s fine. We belong together.” I promised him. Even in the midst of my discomfort, I knew that.

 

And soon it didn’t hurt. Soon he was moving, and we were moving together, and I knew sweat was dampening my hair, and running down my chest, and gathering along my back, because it was like being in a furnace, having Jacob wrapped around me, but I didn’t feel self-conscious. We were perfectly in sync, perfectly together. His massive body above me, around me, but I didn’t feel weak at all. My legs wrapping around his waist, trembling and sliding against him on some instinct I didn’t know I had. Whimpers and muffled moans, and Jacob’s name were spilling from my lips, but I didn’t feel embarrassed. Kissing his shoulder, his chest, whatever part of him I could reach, frantically, but there was no fear.  There was a conflagration building down in the center of myself, and I chased after it. And it was glorious. My head fell back as my vision went white, and I clung to Jacob with everything I had and sobbed out his name.

 

Vaguely, I was aware of him tensing, of him groaning my name, a rush of warmth, of the heat and weight of his body falling more heavily against mine.

 

When I came back to myself it was in a haze of warmth and sleepy well-being.

 

Jacob was still lying on top of me, but he wasn’t completely crushing me, which was impressive control on his part, since my limbs felt like jelly. I let them flop onto the bed.

 

I ran my hands, calm now, down the smooth skin of his back, petted his arm.

 

“Love you, Jake” I said, falling asleep.

 

I woke up an unknown amount of time later. Still tangled up in Jake’s bedding and his long limbs.  

 

Ugh, I mused, half-heartedly. I was sweaty, sticky, naked and I had to pee. I hoped Billy was still gone. The light in the room was dimmer, but not entirely gone, so it must not have been too long.

 

“Yeah, got it Sam. Yeah, she’s fine, tell Em not to worry so much. Sure sure, we’ll come back to Emily’s for dinner. 7:30? Yeah, sure sure.”

 

Jake was the on the phone.

 

He grinned at me and then made a face. I smothered giggles in his pillow. I felt strangely relaxed. Loose. I giggled again.

 

He hung up and pounced at me, causing the bed to creak and shake alarmingly.

 

He kissed me hard, despite his playfulness, but I squirmed away.

 

“Please tell me Billy is still gone. I need to pee.” I blushed, which seemed ridiculous considering we were both currently naked. And what we’d done together. I blushed harder.

 

“Of course he’s still gone, or we’d both be deep shit. Worth it though,” He grinned at me. I couldn’t help but smile back.

 

I still felt like a criminal sneaking across the hall in only a giant shirt of Jacob’s.

 

Closing the door to the room felt like a return to a happy bubble outside of all our normal concerns. When Jacob held out his arms I tripped happily back into them.

 

--

Unfortunately, we couldn’t linger for long, we had to clean up and get dressed, and sneak back out the window, just in case. Billy would be gone for a while, but we didn’t know what the neighbors might say to him. Although he’d been perfectly friendly since Jake and I had patched up our relationship, I still always worried he would decide I wasn’t good for Jacob.

 

Since I often wondered myself, I did not a have a great defense.

 

And that did not even touch on what he would think of our recent activities.

 

The sneaking was fun, even though my part mostly involved keeping all my limbs pulled carefully in to prevent somehow fatally injuring myself while Jacob gently lifted me out of the window and back to solid ground.

 

“It’s not fair.” I complained, with no real rancor, “You used to be clumsy too.”

 

“Sure sure, Bella.” He replied, with no real sympathy. “But it’s not just because you’re the clumsiest person on Earth. You’re also really short.”

 

“Haha.”

 

I was sore, in an odd new way, and part of me couldn’t believe I’d actually, that we’d actually , done well, what we’d done.

 

I felt light, so light, and whether it was from a rush of endorphins or just because all of my usually confused emotions had been smoothed over and buoyed by this new intimacy with Jake, I wasn’t sure.

He was clearly feeling similar things. He was grinning and humming, holding my hand and sneaking glances at my face as we walked.

 

“Jake, where are we going?”

 

“I dunno. Just don't want to go meet the others yet. We still have a little while before dinner, I think. Or we’ll be late, I don’t really care. Do you?”

 

He was looking at me in a way that promised so much adventure and laughter, for just the two of us. I would have followed him anywhere.

 

“No, I really don’t.”

 

Despite the big relationship step we’d just taken, it was like we had gone back to the early days of our friendship. Jake talking, gesturing with his big hands in the fascinating, graceful way he had, me tripping over my feet and blushing, both poking fun at each other like children. As easy as breathing, like it’d always been with him.

 

But it was better too, because I wasn’t barely holding myself together. I wasn’t chasing after lost love like a junkie after a fix. It was like the protective shell between me and the world was finally, totally gone, and the wind felt extra cold on my cheeks because of it (despite the rest of me being cocooned in a gigantic sweatshirt of Jacob’s). It felt good, exhilarating, raw - as if I'd just lost a layer of skin - and a little scary.

 

But scary was okay with Jake next to me, beaming out warmth and acceptance and love.

 

Was this what things would have been like, if I’d never met--well, no reason to think of that now. It was enough that it was how things were now.

 

We eventually wandered back to Jacob’s garage, and I sat in the front seat of the rabbit, drinking a lukewarm soda, feeling warm nostalgia, even if it was for a time that was only a couple of months ago.

 

Jacob worked on some part I couldn’t identify, his fingers deft as he did whatever it was to fix that mysterious hunk of metal as surely as he’d fit all my jagged pieces back together.

 

But my worries had started creeping back in. Not about what we’d done exactly… but...

 

“Oh, jeez Jake. What if he knows?” I asked suddenly. “I can’t ever talk to Billy again, he’d definitely know. You’re only 16. It’s probably illegal for me to even sleep with you.”

 

“Nope, age of consent is 16 in Washington, Bells. Not that that matters for us. And how would he know?”

 

“Ugh, gross, why do you know that? And he’d know because I’m never going to be able to talk to him again.”

 

“Hey, I know stuff, you know.  And if you aren’t going to talk to him, then how will you give it away by talking to him?” I gave him a pitiful glare, which probably looked more like a pout.

 

“Just chill, honey, you don’t see me worrying about Charlie, do you?”

 

“You should. He likes you, but I don’t know how we would- oh god, Charlie! He’s a cop! He will definitely be able to tell.”

 

“It’s not something you can tell about people, Bella.” he said, teasing and soothing at once, methodically combing through a pile of small bits of metal.

 

“Well, not humans anyway.”

 

“WHHHHHAATTT?” I shrieked, loudly. And I liked to think of myself as not a shrieker.

 

Jacob winced, and smiled up at me, reaching up with his free (probably oil-stained) hand to stroke down my leg.

 

He was trying to distract me. I narrowed my eyes.

 

“What do you mean? Not humans? Can the wolves-”

 

His smile turned sheepish.

 

“Well, yeah, we can tell. But-”

 

“Oh no. Oh no. Oh, no no no no no no no.” My head thunked against the doorframe when I tried to propel myself out of the car and instead I crumpled into a ball of pain. “Ow. ow ow ow.”

 

“Oh, Bells.” I could hear laughter mixed in with his sympathy, but didn’t pull away a moment later when his hands gently lifted my head. His eyes were intent (if also amused) as he ran them over my poor abused forehead, and brushed his thumb across what was likely a new bruise.

 

“Some of it is a smell thing. We can’t always tell...but some stuff doesn’t wash off right away, you know. And then there’s the whole-” he tapped his head and I groaned, closing my eyes.

 

“I forgot.”

 

“Don’t worry, we’re getting better at focusing the whole thought sharing thing. And anyway, it’s not so much of a big deal any more. Because we all know that stuff about each other.”

 

“Oh geez.” Was I going to hyperventilate? I opened my eyes to find myself looking right into Jacob’s.

 

He was starting to look worried.

 

“I’m sorry, I should have warned you before--” but I stopped him there. I was still super mortified, but…

 

“It wouldn’t have changed anything. I just don’t know how I’m ever going to look at anyone ever again. Oh my gosh!” I had a sudden worse thought.

 

“Seth is only like 14! He shouldn’t even know about stuff like...this. Oh, holy…”

 

Jake just laughed and kissed my forehead over my bruise. It shouldn’t have felt good, but it did.

 

“You’re so funny, Bells.”

 

--

 

Dinner was pretty much as embarrassing as expected. With way too many knowing glances and snickers. It was a sign of how comfortable I’d grown with the pack though, that it wasn’t truly awful enough to send me running out the door. It was just family stuff.

 

Still, it was a bit of a relief to head home to Charlie. The quiet dark of my truck felt calm and safe after everything that had happened, and gave my brain some much needed time to process.

 

Charlie greeted me cheerfully from his usual spot on the couch, and I sat with him a bit, not paying attention to whatever sports game was on, but answering questions about Emily and Kim and Embry and Jake, which always made Charlie happy. Ever since my zombie phase, he liked to hear about the friends and life I had now.

 

Satisfied that I’d been normal for Charlie, and not sent out any “your teenage daughter just had sex” vibes,  I headed upstairs.

 

As I lay in the dark, I let my brain again drift. I had room to think about what had happened between me and Jake. I didn’t feel different, beyond the physical little aches, but…I smiled into the dark.

 

I didn’t have any nightmares, only waking briefly when a large, warm, familiar body slid into bed beside me, curling around mine.

Chapter Text

Quil stopped by my work again on Thursday. I tried very hard not to be disappointed to see him.

 

Just, I’d really hoped to see Jacob. A bubble of happiness and self-consciousness expanded inside my chest and I blushed.

 

Still, Quil was easy to talk to, cheerful, and once he’d driven Mike off he stopped pretending to flirt with me.

 

When the door chimed again, Mike poked his head out and frowned. I looked up from the counter where I’d settled into finishing some Spanish homework, with dubious help from Quil.

 

It was Jacob, looking a bit wild, clothing askew - exactly as if he’d hastily thrown it on at the edge of the forest - and barefoot.

 

“Jake,” I said, sounding absurdly surprised, like a silly ingenue in one of the old movies I used to make fun of Renee for watching.

 

“Hey, Bells, Quil give you much trouble?”

 

Quil made a scoffing noise, and ruffled my hair again.

 

“No worries bro, I took good care of her.”

 

“Hey!” I objected, ruining my protests by smiling. I felt a little breathless. And I couldn’t take my eyes off of Jake.

 

He was smiling right back at me, the tips of his ears red, so it was hard to get too embarrassed.

 

He looked absurdly handsome.

 

“When you off, Bella?” Jake asked, leaning across the counter to press his lips against mine.

 

“Huh?” I asked, several moments later when he pulled back to cuff Quil on the side of the head.

 

“Sam said you can go ahead and head back, so take your delicate sensibilities and go already.” Jake said to Quil, who’d apparently been making some sort of complaint while my ears had stopped working.

 

Quil aimed a quick punch at Jake’s side and dipped in quickly to kiss my cheek before ducking Jake’s return punch. I spared a brief concern for the counter displays.

 

“Bye, Quil.”

 

“Fine fine, but remember, you’re in public you guys. Mark is right in the back room, try not to scar him for life.”

 

He whistled as he left.

 

“It’s Mike,” I offered, half-heartedly.

 

“So?” Jake asked as if none of the distractions, starting with his kiss, had occurred.

 

“So?”

 

“When do you get off work? Why are you still working here anyway? You hate this outdoorsy stuff, don’t you?”

 

“Not until 5. I need this job, Jake. And Forks isn’t exactly bursting with options. I hate having to ask Charlie for money.”

 

He made a mournful face, which should have looked silly on his giant, muscled self, but looked endearing instead. I leaned in to kiss him despite myself.

 

“Do you think, tonight...”

He paused, and his cheeks colored a pretty dark rose hue over the russet of his skin, which always inspired me with instant resentment and envy. Guys shouldn’t be so pretty when they blushed.

 

I leaned forward to kiss him again.

 

The chiming of the door, for real customers this time, pulled me away from Jake, and back into the familiar, if boring, routine of my job. Mike came out to greet the customers and provide any expert information needed, since I was still more or less useless in that regard. Jacob shot me a look full of warm promises as he took off. I had a feeling he wouldn’t be far.

 

Sure enough, when I came out of the store at the end of my shift, Jacob was leaning against my truck, arms crossed, looking way too pleased with himself. He was dressed more carefully now, in jeans, a shirt and even a decent pair of sneakers.

 

“Jacob Black...what are you up to?” I asked suspiciously, smiling nonetheless.

 

“Get in Bells, I already cleared it with Charlie, you and I are going on a date!”

 

“I’m driving,” I replied instantly, but he shook his head.

 

“Nu-uh, you don’t know where we’re going.” He twirled a set of keys.

 

“Since when do you have keys to my truck?”

 

“Hey, remember who put this thing into working order!”

 

“And then sold it to me!”

 

We drove out of town, still bickering good naturedly about the truck.

 

“Now, this is nothing too fancy, so don’t get your hopes up, but I think you’ll like it.”

 

“I’m not exactly dressed for a date.”

 

“What do you mean? You look great.” I looked at him doubtfully, glancing down at my well worn jeans and slightly baggy sweater. But he was whistling under his breath, one hand gently squeezing my leg. No sign of purposely buttering me up.

 

The restaurant was one in La Push that I’d never heard of. True to Jake’s warning it wasn’t fancy precisely, but rather well-lit and cheerful, with warm, well-worn honey colored wooden tables and chairs. But it looked out over the sea, and in the hazy golden light of the setting sun breaking through the clouds, the water a sparkling mix of dark and blue, it was a dazzling view.

 

We talked about the pack, traded stories about our families, and argued about Jacob’s disinterest in classical literature.

 

“You can’t think Romeo and Juliet is stupid! It’s Shakespeare!”

 

“Can so Bell, cause it is! Everything’s set up too neatly, just so they end up dying. Annoys me.”

 

“It’s a tragedy! The whole point is that the circumstances all contrive against them.”

 

“Well, and what if they do? I still don’t see how them dying helps anything.”

 

I knew ‘it’s romantic’ was a stupid answer to Jacob’s complaints.

 

“It’s not supposed to help anything. They’re in a hopeless situation. There’s nothing else they can do.”

 

“Not with that attitude. Just give up Bella’s you won’t turn me into a Shakespeare lover. At least, not tonight. We read Jane Austen too. You like her, right? Pride and Prejudice and whatever? Kind of dry isn’t it? So much talking and nothing racy even happens between the main chick and what’s his face. What’s the point?”

 

He gave me an engaging smile.

 

“You,” I reached across the table to poke his chest and ignored his over the top wounded expression. “Are a philistine.”

 

He laughed, unrepentant.

 

 

As we left the restaurant I felt buoyant, filled with anticipation.

 

“Where are we going Jake?” I laughed, leaning out the truck’s open window to look at the stars, peeking out just for a moment from the perpetual cloud cover.

 

It was still a cool night, but of course, I was never that cold with Jacob around.

 

Everything felt sparkling, the stars in the sky twinkling down, the cold wind brushing against my skin, Jacob’s smile as I glanced over at him.

 

He took us down a curving series of unmarked roads, where the forest foliage encroached, threatening to retake our path.

 

Finally he stopped the car, in the middle of no place I recognized.

 

I heard the crash of the waves out of the darkness as the engine died.

 

“Are we at the beach?”

 

“Not exactly, somewhere close though. We’re near the cliffs, you know, where we saw the guys cliff diving that one time, only down below.”

 

“Why?”

 

“Well...you’d better come see.” He grinned nervously, and came around to the side of the truck, catching me when I inevitably tripped hopping down from the truck in the dark. There was only a thin slice of moon.

He fiddled a moment at the bed of the truck and then it lit up, and I saw that he had arranged a couple strings of fairy lights around a nest pillows and blankets.

 

Jacob lifted me effortlessly up into the truck bed and hopped in after me.

 

“Oh my gosh, Jake. This is….” I felt suddenly, bizarrely, nervous, and looked down.

 

“Listen Bells...we can just look at the stars. I mean - I didn’t mean, I thought you might want--I just…” he laughed.

 

“I can’t say I didn’t want—you know, I’m, well,’a guy’ seems like a lame line, but…”

 

“No-” I cut in, feeling breathless again but no longer uncertain.

 

“This is perfect.” I shivered.

 

“But also cold.” I reached out toward him and he met me halfway, laughing as I pressed my cold fingertips under his shirt, and pulling a fluffy comforter around us.

 

Snuggled into the blankets, warmed by Jacob’s heat, surrounded by warm light and looking up at the stars, everything in me felt perfectly aligned.

 

I could, somehow, now see the path of my life with bizarre clarity. The cloudy, green beauty of La Push. The grey-blue sea. Emily’s warm kitchen. The pack. Two, no, three dark little heads, running off barefoot down a wooded path…

 

When Jacob leaned over me and pressed his lips to mine, his hands tracing burning, sparkling trails up my sides, I let the tide of emotion sweep me away.

 

And as inevitable as the tides, as the phases of the moon, as rain in Forks, we came together.

 

----

 

I had been looking forward to the La Push bonfire off and on for weeks, when not distracted by other crises (real and imagined).

 

Emily was excited for the chance to record some of the lesser known tribal legends, to prevent them from being lost.

 

“All of this confusion about imprinting, about the change and when and why it happens. This is just one of the more extreme examples of how losing connections to our culture hurts us,” she’d explained, making notes next to a collection of “Native American Mythology of the Pacific Northwest.”

 

It was going to be the first time hearing the formal history of the wolves for almost all of us, due to the recent expansion of the pack.

 

But first things first, I had to do something with which I had little experience.

 

I had to wheedle Charlie out of a bad humor.

 

I’d missed curfew the night before, and I had a feeling that Jake’s and my dishevelment (Charlie interrupted our goodnight kiss) had not escaped his too keen observational powers.

 

I made eggs, bacon (extra crispy), and toast.

 

“Morning, Dad” I smiled tentatively.

 

“Hmm.” he muttered, looking slightly caught off guard nonetheless.

 

I let him start his breakfast as usual, peeking at him over the top of the book I was pretending to read. Some Kim recommendation, that under other circumstances I’d be eagerly consuming.

 

“So...the barbecue in La Push is tonight...with Emily and Sam and everyone?” I asked, tearing small pieces off of my toast.

 

Charlie looked up from his food and newspaper.


“I’m really sorry about last night, Dad” I blurted out, forgetting my carefully thought out arguments.

 

“You know I’m glad to see you getting out of the house, making friends. But you’re still my daughter, Bella, and you know I like Jake, but—” Oh god, oh god. It was going to turn into a sex talk.

 

“I know!” I rushed out, panicking “I’m really sorry, we lost track of time, and then the road was really dark! It won’t happen again. Jake’s...really great,” I blushed. “He’s good for me.” I said, quieter, but more sincere.

 

Charlie looked uncomfortable. “Hn. Well, I do know you’re growing up kiddo. Though not as fast a Jake. What’s going on with that kid?”

 

“Growth spurt, I guess,” I lied, hiding my glowing face behind my book.

 

Charlie sighed, and I peeked at him.

 

“Just...try not to do it again,” He made a stern dad expression at me.

 

“So, I can go tonight? And tomorrow, to the dance?”

 

“You can go.” He snorted when I tried to hide my victorious smile.

 

“Just tell Jake I’m watching you two.”

 

--

 

“Bella!”

 

“Hey, Bella!”

 

“Ooh, are those cookies? What a surprise! Bella brought cookies, Em!”

 

Embry relieved me of said cookies as Quil gallantly kissed my cheek, ignoring Jake’s mock growl.

 

The pack was all here tonight, along with Emily, Kim, Billy, Sue, and Old Quil. Everyone who knew the truth about the Quileute wolves.

 

There was also a mountain of hot dogs large enough to feed an army, or 8 teenage werewolves and a handful of normal humans.

 

Emily had made several trays of cornbread and other food offerings lay scattered around that.

 

We sat down beside Emily, who was bundled up in a large coat and fuzzy hat, and squeezed my hand, while admonishing Embry.

 

“Don’t eat all of those. Sam—tell him-” Embry stuck his tongue out, which was gross, since he was chewing his way through about 5 cookies.

 

“Ow, shit. Come on Sam!”

 

Sam cuffed Embry on the head and simultaneously rescued the cookies, though he snagged one as he set them aside, chuckling at Emily when she huffed in mock disapproval.

 

“Service charge, babe”

 

Across the fire, Leah rolled her eyes at me.

 

Kim was snuggled into Jared’s chest, protected against the wind chill. Her fine hair haloed around her head in the firelight, and she sputtered when it blew into her eyes and mouth. Jared laughed, smoothing her hair out of the way, even while his eyes were almost reverent as he looked down at her.

 

All around the campfire, as I snuggled into Jacob, the pack fought and argued and laughed.

 

It was a thoroughly mundane counterpoint to the stories that followed dinner.

 

The legends, especially now that I knew they were real, were fascinating.

 

How many stories we thought were myths were actually true?

 

I wondered how the story of the vampires would have seemed to me if the Cullens had never left, despite myself.

 

Now, with Victoria hunting me, and nearly everyone I cared most about on the front lines, they seemed terrifying. The ease with which the first wolves had been torn apart by the vampires I could imagine all too easily.

 

I ran my finger over the cold scar on my hand, shivered and leaned more firmly into Jake.

 

Now all the faces around the fire were solemn.

 

Sue was holding hands with both her children, her face looking older, marked with the stress of the last couple months.

 

The Cold Woman. It was all too close to reality.

 

Though in my mind, for some reason, maybe the mention of golden hair, I imagined not Victoria, but Rosalie.

 

It was easy to imagine her like that, an avenging goddess.

 

How human and vulnerable the wolves must seem next to that kind of creature - unnaturally beautiful, glittering in the sun, skin as smooth, hard, and flawless as diamonds.

 

It was only as Old Quil finished the tale, the warning, that I noticed the cold stinging of tears on my cheeks.

 

“Burden,” Quil scoffed, “I think it’s cool.”


Seth nodded, and it was like a spell was broken.

 

The boys went back to laughing, and teasing.

 

But looking across the fire at Kim, gazing up at Jared’s smiling face, and at Emily beside me, head ducked down over her notebook, despite her still pen, I knew we were all thinking about the third wife, about the burden and sacrifice of watching these people we loved be chosen.

 

Of the helplessness of possibly watching those we loved die while we had not way to help.

 

I wondered what her name had been...the human woman who died to save the tribe.

 

I wondered what it meant that instead of “never more than three” we had eight wolves, and if Sam was to be believed at least two more showing signs of impending change.

 

I wondered if the third wife had been scared, as she plunged the knife into her own heart to save her husband.

 

I wondered what she looked like, the normal human woman who defeated that beautiful, cruel, goddess.

 

----

 

I woke up in my own truck, wrapped up in a blanket.

 

I blinked in confusion.

 

“Jacob?”

 

“Hey, sleepy head,”

 

“Oh, crap! What time is it?” I wished, only for a second, (but for the first time ever) that I hadn’t mangled my truck’s center console.


“Don’t worry. We’re good.” Jacob smiled from the driver’s seat as the truck rumbled to protesting life.

 

“I made Billy call Charlie and tell him you fell asleep and I was driving you home. So it’s all very responsible and adult approved.”

 

“I told Charlie I’d be home by midnight”

 

“You will be, don’t worry.”

 

We rode in silence for a while, the dark of the road and the darker dark pressing in from the forest on either side teetering between peaceful and spooky.

 

“Did you have a good time? Kim said she’d have nightmares. ‘Course, Paul says she just said it so Jared’d get the night off and spend it with her. Like she needs to really give him a reason.”

 

I thought about the stories, and I wasn’t too sure Kim was exaggerating that much about nightmares.

 

Jacob put a warm hand over mine.

 

“I’ll be on patrol tonight, but I’ll be close.”

 

I didn’t want to think about him on patrol, after hearing about all of those sons of Taha Aki who’d never come home from their own patrols.

 

“Jacob, promise you’ll be careful.”

 

“Sure, sure,” he agreed easily, totally unconcerned.

 

When was he sleeping anyway? He’d been out late with me last night, then presumably had school, and now it was midnight and he was preparing to be up the rest of the night, running as a wolf?

 

“Aren’t you tired?”

 

“Nah, Billy’ll let me sleep all morning tomorrow. And the wolf healing helps with stuff like sleep deprivation.”

 

I frowned.

 

“You sure you want to still go tomorrow?”

 

“What, you’d really break Quil’s heart? He’s got his heart set on meeting some senior girls.” Jacob laughed. “All the ones in La Push remember too much of his embarrassing childhood.”

 

And gradually, as always, Jacob breezed through my fears, and warmed my chilled heart, returning me to Charlie in a sleepy good humor.

 

Charlie, noting my general state of innocent sleepiness nodded grudgingly at Jake, who promised to pick me up the next afternoon, for “prom preparations” at Kim’s.

 

---

 

I frittered away the morning in anxious cleaning.

 

Why had I agreed to go to this dance?

 

I hated dancing, and I didn’t know how to do any of the girly stuff involved in getting dressed up.

 

So it was with trepidation that I knocked on Kim’s door.

 

“Geez, Bells, you look like you’re facing a firing squad.” Jake joked, a comforting, if annoying, presence at my side.

 

“I don’t get why you have to do this big girly thing anyway, you look great.” I blushed.

 

“Thanks, Jake,” I muttered, feeling like maybe he actually had imprinted, if he was this clueless about my generally uninspiring appearance.


Kim opened the door, shushing someone behind her and smiling widely.

 

“Bella! I hope you don’t mind, but even though they aren’t coming, I invited Leah and Seth over! Well, Seth’s more here to see Mal, but whatever. Come in!” She grabbed my hand.

 

Jake stepped forward as well, only to be shoved back.

 

“Nuh uh, Black. Not happening. You do not have the estrogen level required for this party.”

 

“You must be kidding, Leah!”

 

“Sorry, Jake!” Kim replied. “She did the same thing to poor Jare. He’s hanging around somewhere, probably with Paul.”

 

“Wh-But-” Jake sputtered, looking outraged.

 

“Smooth. Yet somehow unconvincing. This is a dude free zone, you’d just be making googly eyes at Swan here, distracting her and getting in my way.”

 

“Then what the hell are those two doing here?” Jake asked, outraged.

 

Quil and Embry waved from the couch, where Seth and a boy who had to be Kim’s brother were playing some sort of video game.

 

“They don’t count.”

 

“Since WHEN?”

 

“Since I said so. Out.”

 

She shoved Jake out the door again and shut it firmly in his face.

 

There was a bang, and the house shuddered.

 

“Oh! Jake, please don’t break my house! My mom would kill me.”

 

There was a strangled growl sound from outside.

 

“Bye Jakey, don’t worry, we’ll take good care of your girl.”

 

A pause.

 

“Hey, there’s kids here, dude, not cool.” Embry laughed.

 

“Um…”

 

“Don’t worry,” Kim laughed, seeming surprisingly okay with Jared (and Jacob) being barred from her house. “It’s good for them to learn a little patience. Plus, Leah said she’ll make him well...it was rude, but anyway, she’s great at this girly stuff. ”

 

“I don’t want to wear a bunch of makeup,” I warned, warily.

 

“Relax,” Leah huffed out “I don’t exactly own foundation in your color, even if I wanted to play Barbie with you.”

 

We ended up spending almost as much time talking and goofing off as getting dressed.

 

It was fun.

 

Kim’s brother, Malcom, was Seth’s age, but comically opposite in build, on the short and chubby side - unsurprising, given that he was 13.

 

Despite the differences in their appearance, Seth was clearly happy to be having a chance to hang out with a friend, and to show off Quil and Embry, his “cool, older guy friends” as Leah explained, very quietly, in Kim’s bedroom, rolling her eyes, but with one of her softer expressions.

 

No one forced any makeup on me, though in the end I asked Kim to brush a little mascara on my eyelashes (not too weird feeling), and put on a little lipgloss.

 

The dress I’d picked out was simple, a dark blue slip dress with silver sparkles and thin straps that more or less totally hid the straps of my bra. Leah’d nodded in apparent endorsement of this plan and gone the extra step of safety pinning the two together.

 

I’d stuck to my plan to wear sneakers, and they felt like a hidden security blanket under the long skirt.

 

Leah, it turned out, was interested in styling hair, especially since she’d been force to shear hers into a pixie cut.

 

She handed me my book and took a curling iron and who knows what else to my hair, the end result being that my hair was swept gracefully back from my face then fell in neat, but not too neat ringlets down my back.

 

She’d done some kind of cute, braided updo on Kim, whose baby-fine hair was generally resistant to taming.

 

“You sure you don’t want to come Leah?” She asked, fiddling with the top of her dress, which was strapless and bright red, flaring out from the waist and falling just below her knees, revealing her thin calves and delicate little silver heeled sandals, that she swore weren’t hard to walk in.

 

“Yeah, hanging out with those morons all night, and getting hit on by Forks high dudes not exactly high on my top ten list, Kim. You’re done, by the way.”

 

“Oh! Right - Mom! Dad! You can come look now!” Kim hollered. Leah winced, stepping back.

 

As if her yell was a signal (and knowing what I did about wolf hearing, it probably was), the doorbell rang.

 

“Oh, I’ll grab that. Ken, do you know where the camera is?”

 

Kim’s mom was very like her in build, a petite woman, with shoulder length hair and Kim’s big smile. Her face was more angular than Kim’s, who clearly got her wide cheekbones and round face from her father.

 

He was stocky and solid seeming, not particularly tall (then again I spent all my time with giant werewolf boys), but cheerful and easy going. I felt like Charlie would like him.

 

Jake, Jared, and Paul were ushered in, pictures survived and then we were off.

 

Paul had a beat up SUV that luckily fit 7. It hadn’t been built to hold 7 supernaturally muscled, over 6 foot men, but we made it work, Kim warning everyone not to sit on her dress or crush her feet, Quil and Embry briefly engaging in a shoving match for shotgun (Embry won), and only Kim and I ending up seatbelted.

 

Paul had the music way up, and everyone was louder than usual. We rocketed into Forks, luckily missing any Forks PD or highway patrol, because Paul drove way too fast, and Embry was egging him on from his position up front.

 

As we pulled in the the parking lot of Forks’ answer to the Italian bistro, a basic rip-off of Olive Garden, my anxiety returned.

 

Mixing the Pack with my lunch crowd was bound to be a huge mistake.

 

We were meeting Jessica, Angela, Ben, Katie, and Eric, (who had provided the invites needed for my La Push friends to attend) as well as Mike, and Mike’s date, a pretty blond named Amy who I didn’t know well. In order to swing the pack attendance at prom, my cafeteria friends had come through with invites. Quil had agreed to be Jess’ date, a combination I regarded with horror as her jaw dropped and Quil’s chest swelled with swaggering male bravado.

 

Dinner was fun, even though Mike, Eric, and even Ben were a little put out by the pack’s effect on the female members of our group.

 

The guys were good fun though, and even Paul, the most uncertain temper, was in high spirits.

 

Best of all, I hardly needed to speak to anyone aside from Jake, and Angela, who was seated next to me. She was seated across from Embry, and blushing a little in the face of his blatant flirting, but calmly continuing to include Ben in the conversation and brushing her hand affectionately against him from time to time in reassurance (which was why he was the least irritated of the guys).

 

Jess was ridiculous, of course, but Quil and even Paul seemed to be enjoying her steady, outrageous flow of conversation.

 

Mike was clearly incensed, he still had a sort of proprietary sense of Jessica’s attention, and Amy’s eyes kept getting stuck on Paul, which didn’t help.

 

Still, it was almost a shame to break up the dinner party and head to the dance.

 

The cafeteria, decorated to some indefinable theme with the usual streamers, paper lanterns, and glitter, was underwhelming, but the lights were low, and the music was...well it was music.

 

Jake swung me onto the floor to suffer through whatever it was that was playing, spinning us in a wild circle before setting me down and cracking himself up holding my hands and moving them in an awkward approximation of a dance.

 

“Jake! Stop!” I laughed, as he raised both my arms in the air before spinning me.

 

“You’re a natural Bells!”

 

I felt a little embarrassed, but not so much that I could bring myself to stop Jacob from dancing us around the room.

 

Luckily, a slow sang came on after a couple fast ones and Jacob lifted me and pulled me close.

 

“Jacob!” I whispered at him, “Put me down, we must look ridiculous.”

 

“It’s the only way Bella, I can’t stoop all the way down to you just so we can talk, I’ll put my back out.”

 

“You’re 16, and you have,” I dropped my voice quieter, just in case, “Superpowers. I think you could manage to bend, slightly, for 3 minutes.”


“You know I’m officially 45, and I cannot. You weigh like 5 pounds, this is way easier, see, look, it’s catching on” he turned us so that I was looking at Kim and Jared, who were dancing in a very similar style, Kim’s legs hanging down, and her eyes closed in apparent peace.

 

It looked even more silly than I thought.

 

“Of course,” Jake laughed, “some people take a different approach…” he turned again so that I could see Jess and Quil, making out shamelessly, one of her legs hitched up on Quil’s hip and one inching upward on his calf.

 

“Oh, ugh, Jake! I don’t want to see that!”

 

Jacob laughed and pulled me up until we were face to face.

 

“You’re no fun, Bella,” his eyes were sparking and he leaned toward me. I moved my face back.

 

“Nuh-uh. I know what you’re doing.” but I didn’t really try and pull back as his lips pressed against mine. I desperately hung onto my wits, which still, darn them, tended to flee whenever Jacob kissed me. He knew it too, the jerk. But I kept my legs relaxed, instead of curling them up around his waist, which was a small victory.

 

I danced much more than I planned, and not just with Jake. Embry taught me the “mashed potato” and Paul waltzed me around the room totally off the beat of the hip hop song playing. Kim and I bounced around to a Shakira song I’d never heard before (tearing my radio out of my car and not listening to music for over 8 months was proving to be a real handicap in terms of my ability to recognize the songs being played.

 

Kim could really move her hips, it turned out, and that combined with her joyful face had more than one guy glancing her way. I hopped along, and tried half-heartedly to copy a couple of her moves. Jared “accidentally” tripped some hapless guy who wandered over to dance with us, and I saw Embry pass him a dollar.

 

We sat out a lot too though, my legs slung over Jake’s. It was so much easier to chat with people with him next to me, throwing in jokes, and totally relaxed and unbothered by any stammering I did, his big hand smoothing down my back, or stroking my ankle.

 

And suddenly, it was the last song, and a cracking voice was crooning,“You’re beautiful, it’s true”

 

It was a sad song, about losing love, and it should have made my chest crack open.

 

But it didn’t.

 

Cradled in Jacob’s arms, standing on my own two feet for once. I rocked side to side gently, leaning my face against his chest, hearing his heart thud against my cheek.

 

Though the never-quite-perfectly accurate memory of Edward’s breath-taking angelic beauty tugged at the back of my mind, more of me remembered riding next to Jacob in my truck, clouds peeking through the cloud cover to glint across his brown skin.

 

Telling him he was sort-of beautiful, while he pieced together the pieces of my broken soul.

 

Tears pricked behind my eyes, but I blinked them away, holding Jake closer.

 

The spell broke of course, as soon as the lights came up, throwing the gym into mundane relief.

 

We tugged Quil away from Jessica, and piled back into Paul’s car.

 

The night of freedom had done wonders for the wolves, who looked years younger.

 

Kim was smiling a sleepy, Mona Lisa smile, pressing her flushed face to the cool window from her perch on Jared’s lap.

 

Paul put on some loud aggressive yet cheerful music and we were rocketing home. Part of me was already considering whether I would be too much to ask Jacob to sneak in and spend the night with me at Charlie’s.

 

Then with a crash something slammed into the car.

 

We all went flying, but I caught a glimpse of pale, pale faces just before the world spun.

 

Vampires.

Chapter Text

One minute we were all laughing, packed too tight into Paul’s beat up SUV, tired and exhilarated.

 

The next moment something crashed into the car, sending it careening across the road and flying into the forest.

 

Jacob’s arms wrapped around me and my head was pulled down to tuck against his chest. Just in time as the world promptly upended, like the world’s worst roller coaster, we went spiraling off the road before crashing to a stop amongst the trees. I closed my eyes. I felt an impact, and a rain of safety glass. My head bounced against something.

 

“Fuck” said...someone. My ears were ringing, I couldn’t tell where it came from. I heard a chorus of snarls and the car shifted as the wolves bailed out, moving away from the car to shift. From outside the ringing came a sound like crashing waves.

 

Jake hadn’t moved, though he was shaking hard, and saying something. I couldn’t focus. My mouth tasted like blood.

 

“Jared, get the fuck out. You’ll kill them both. Jar-Shit. Fuck!” Jacob shot through the back window, in one of the graceful, Matrix-moves I always forgot he could make. He set me gently on the grass several yards from the  the smoldering remains of the poor SUV, next to the broken remains of a tree. The next moment he was gone.

 

The car jolted.

 

Then it exploded.

 

“Kim! Jake! Jake!”

 

The car hadn’t exploded, Jared had transformed while still inside, leaping from the burning remains of the car. Alone.

 

But before the thought of Kim, small, human Kim, trapped in that exploding SUV could fully form in my mind, Jake was setting her limp body next to me.

 

“Oh god. Oh crap. Kim. No, no, no. Kim.” I pressed my hand against her cheek. It was sticky. Blood.

 

“She’s alive, Bells, I don’t-”

 

A wall of fur sent him tumbling off into the forest.

 

Jared’s brown fur was still quivering as he stood looming over us, shaking, growling, and snarling.

 

Jacob’s red-brown self sprang out of the forest a moment later, bristling at Jared, who snarled a warning.

 

Jared was the most easy going of the wolves, I’d always thought. Now he was all menace, the black fur around his eyes threatening rather than silly, towering over me and the still, still body of his imprint.

 

But we weren’t alone in the forest. The white of the vampires’ skin seemed to glow in the moonlight as they plunged toward us, drawn by Kim’s blood, and probably my own, though I couldn’t feel any injuries at the moment.

 

Their faces were twisted in an unthinking bloodlust I’d only seen twice before, and utterly inhuman.

 

One was missing an arm, and another looked like a large bite had been taken out of it’s midsection. Neither seemed particularly concerned with the losses.

 

Jacob and Jared turned as one and leapt at the vampires.

 

I saw more flashes of fur, as two more wolves overtook the vampires, taking one crashing to the ground and pulling it’s head off in a single bite that sounded like breaking granite.

 

I should be checking on Kim, trying to wake Kim, but though I clutched her arms, and pulled myself so close I was almost sitting on her, I couldn’t look away.

 

The wolves were much more evenly matched than I’d thought. They moved swiftly and silently among the trees, despite their huge size. Their teeth tore easily through the vampires’ flesh.

 

Still, the vampires were so agile, and though they didn’t work as a team, the lack of concern for themselves or their fellows was sometimes an advantage.

 

A loud crack made my teeth clench against a scream as Quil fell with a canine shriek of pain.

 

Seth’s chest was heaving as blood fell heavily from wounds I prayed weren’t bites. Where had Seth come from? He barely dodged an incoming attack, falling, more than leaping out of the way, of a vampire lunging for his throat, and struggling to pull himself back to his feet.

 

A tall male tossed Paul over his head, sending him careening into the forest.

 

A vampire punched a small, fist-sized hole through Sam’s shoulder.

 

But the wolves were going to win.

 

Sam and Leah ripped a vampire in half, perfectly in sync in battle.

 

Jared leapt onto a group of three closing in on a weakening Seth and tore into them, like a mad thing. Seth, still heaving through his mangled chest, grabbed the last by the head and they ripped it apart between them.

 

A female vampire, blond hair dirty and unkempt, hurled Jacob out of it’s path as he nipped the head off her companion.

 

Embry tore it’s legs off.

 

Paul, face bloody, held a skinny vampire boy (who’s age when transformed I didn’t want to consider) to the ground and methodically tore off his arms, legs, and head.

 

A small girl, who couldn’t have been more than 16, landed in front of me in a crouch.

 

Her face gleamed in the moonlight, looking anguished and human, her eyes wide and liquid crimson for a moment before the bloodlust overpowered her.

 

Oh, crap.

 

But she leapt back instead of forward as Jared leapt out of the forest over us, glancing only fleetingly at Kim’s pale, bloody face before he took off after her.

 

Then it was quiet.

 

We all waited for a moment, not moving or speaking.

 

Was it really over?

 

Then Sam made a wuffing noise and picked up a pale leg, tossing it toward the shattered, still burning wreck of the SUV.

 

I turned to Kim, pressing my shaking fingers to her throat, even as I glanced through the brand new clearing for familiar red-brown fur.

 

Seth fell heavily, transforming back into a human boy. Leah transformed at almost the same moment, sprinting on human feet to her brother, heedless of her nudity.

 

Jacob crashed out of the ragged treeline, naked and bloody, eyes shooting to where I was bent over Kim, completely failing to take her pulse.

 

“Shit, Sam, Quil’s starting to heal.” Embry was abruptly human again, and I made a faint “meep,” despite myself and averted my eyes, as he dropped down beside the prone (and also now human) Quil.

 

Jacob pulled his eyes away from mine with what looked like effort.

 

“Oh, God. Fuck. The bone-” he made a choked sound, and looked around wildly. “We got to- shit, does anyone have a phone? Or clothes?”

 

Sam’s voice was a rough rumble, the hole in his shoulder leaking blood (but slowly, already healing).

 

“I’ve got it. I’ll call...Em-” he sounded lost for a moment, and it was terrifying. But of course, he was only 19, for all we all relied on him to lead us. “Sue, I’ll call Sue, then Em, she can...Em, we left Emily in the house, Paul--” Paul didn’t wait to hear the end of Sam’s panicked plea, he turned and plunged into the darkness. I looked up at Sam, shaking, barely holding himself together, clutching the phone too tight.

 

“Jake-” He looked up from Quil, who’d just made an awful half-canine sound.

 

“Call Emily, Sam. Leah- you got your phone?”

 

Leah was holding Seth desperately, and snarling loving insults into his pained face.

 

She hurled something at Jake a moment later.

 

“Hear that, you little punk, Jake’s gonna call Mom. So keep your goddamn eyes open.”

 

Jake dialed with shaking fingers, cursing under his breath.

 

“Sue--shit, sorry, we’re, I don’t know, somewhere off the highway, near the borderline. No, no, they seem like they’re gone, or dead. Quil’s fu-his leg’s broken. And Seth, --I don’t know, he’s still bleeding, is my Dad-” he choked back what sounded like a sob. “Bella and Kim were with us, Kim’s not moving--please. No, she’s alive, she’s breathing. Yeah.” he breathed in suddenly, “Paul went to check on Em, go to Emily’s, Paul can bring you here. Oh, uh, none of us but Sam, Leah, and Seth have clothes. Yeah. okay.”

 

He ended the call. Rubbing viciously at his eyes for a moment before his eyes found mine again, pleading and lost and concerned.

 

It was worse than the battle, this after part where all the superhuman warrior-wolves turned back into freaked out teenagers, and I didn’t know how to take a pulse, and I didn’t know whose blood was on me. And I couldn’t help Jacob.

 

Every wolf turned to look to the far edge of the clearing. What now?

 

Jared stumbled and fell into our clearing.

 

“KIM” he howled. And like magic, but most likely because no one could possibly stay unconscious when the love of their life screamed like that, she moved, a small pained moan breaking through her lips.

 

“J-Ja-?” she tried to sit up. It was only then that I looked at the angle of her right arm and leg.

 

The sound she made was truly awful. Jared burst back into a wolf and howled for real.

 

“Kim. Kim. It’s okay, d-don’t move. It’s okay. Sue and Emily are coming. We’re gonna get you to the hospital, just please, don’t move.”

 

“Ja-red. Jared. Where’s Jared, I can’t-” her voice cut off with an odd raspy bubble.

 

Jared’s big nose pressed down toward her face. She was breathing oddly now.

“I-I- can’t-” She passed out again.

 

“Jake, I think she can’t breathe, I don’t, I don’t know why.” I held my ear to her chest.

 

“It sounds weird.” Jared was whining and growling near my head, and it made it hard to concentrate.

 

Sam’s legs strode into view and he sunk into a crouch, leaning his dark head over Kim’s chest, shushing Jared absentmindedly when his growls increased.

 

“She’s not breathing well, maybe a broken rib, a punctured or collapsed lung.” He put a gentle hand on Jared’s muzzle as he ran his other hand with careful impersonal care over her scalp and down her neck.

 

“No serious head injuries that I can tell. Sue and Paul will be here soon. We’ll get her to the hospital. She’ll be all right.” he promised, sounding like he was trying to reassure himself. He patted one giant hand gently against her thin shoulder.

 

The wait seemed like forever.

 

They were definitely going to have to re-break Quil’s leg. Kim kept breathing, coming to briefly, when Jared snuffled anxiously at her face. She woke weeping in pain though, and he didn’t try to wake her again.

 

A grim-faced Embry carried Quil over us, and Leah, looking terrified, young, and half-wild, moved Seth as well. Consolidating the vulnerable. The wolves, whatever form they were currently in, sniffed Seth anxiously for signs he’d been bitten, then subsided uneasily, exchanging concerned glances.

 

“It hurts a lot.” I offered, taking Jake’s hand for reassurance. “A lot. It was like being burned alive. I’m pretty sure, if he was bitten he’d be… he wouldn’t be quiet... just, we could tell.” Jake’s hand tightened painfully on my hand, and he growled, but Leah closed her eyes in something like relief, some of the tension leaving her.

 

Finally, the wolves perked up, in that eerie way they sometimes all moved together. Jacob, who’d curled around me when I’d started shivering from some combination of the cold night and spent adrenaline, raised his head off my shoulder.

 

Kim whimpered as Jared raised his massive head.

 

A moment later I heard the car too.

 

It turned out to be two cars, a beat up truck with a camper shell and a newish looking Subaru. I hoped their owners didn’t mind some blood stains.

 

Sue flung open the door of the Subaru, looking very like Leah, her eyes wild. She sprinted toward her children, embracing Leah and running a gently hand down Seth’s cheek.

 

“Billy. What’s he supposed to do out here?” Jake muttered to himself. He glanced down at me in concern. “Billy’s in Sue’s Sube, can you hang tight for a moment? I know you’re cold…”

 

“I’m fine Jake, go get your dad.”

 

Jacob stood, and I remembered that he was naked, blushing, because his dad was here, Sue was here, and even old Quil, climbing out of the truck with Emily and Paul.

 

No one else had any time for embarrassment though.

 

“Bella!” Emily called, spotting me first, standing out like a beacon, pale, human, and shivering in the moonlight.

 

“Where’s- oh, God, Kim- where’s- Sam! Oh, Sam!” He’d transformed again during the wait, stalking an anxious, silent guard around our huddled group, and was looking at her with the kind of intense look that shouldn't come from a wolf. I knew he was going to shift and averted my gaze but instead heard a muffled thump.

 

Emily had thrown herself at wolf Sam and was clinging tightly to his neck, face buried in his fur. The wolf was absolutely still, and I had a feeling he hadn’t been this close to Emily in this form since the accident.

 

I thought he would pull away, retreat. But instead, after a moment he sighed and dropped his head, pressing against her. Then he stepped back and transformed.

 

I turned again, blushing and feeling foolish for doing so in the middle of everything else going on. Turning pulled at some previously unnoticed cut and I winced, Miraculously though, I seemed to be more or less intact.

 

Sue snapped into action and I felt a sigh of relief ripple through the pack.

 

“Sam, Jacob, Embry, come get some pants on, for heaven’s sake. I brought sweats, but I have no idea how we are going to explain what happened to your suits.

 

Leah she handed a dress and a large blanket.

 

“Lee, Get your brother to the truck. We can’t take him to the hospital.” She paused sucking in a breath and looking briefly at a loss.

 

“Get Quil in there too, Jacob, Embry.” Billy’s voice was calm.

 

“Samuel?” he asked, gently.

 

Sam shook himself, a very canine motion and took the pants Embry was holding out to him.

 

“Right. We’ll need to re-break and set Quil’s leg as soon as possible.”

 

The large brown wolf transformed into a shaking and enraged Jared.

 

“Who give a shit  about his goddamn leg?! Kim needs to go to the fucking hospital, now!”

 

Sue threw a pair of sweatpants at his head and knelt beside me and Kim.

 

She pressed a much more assured hand than mine to Kim’s throat, and looked at Billy with concern.

 

“She’s not doing great. Possibly some kind of internal injury, multiple broken bones. Her pulse is…” she glanced up again, this time to Sam. “He’s right. She needs to be in the hospital immediately. She’s only human.” Sue pressed a hand to my face. “Bella should be checked out too. She’s bleeding and she’s freezing cold. Charlie…”

 

“The police and the hospital will both want to know what happened to these girls. Car accident is the most obvious answer, but the car is destroyed, and everyone but Kim and Bella is going to be totally unharmed…”

 

“M-maybe,” I started, lips chattering hard. Jacob cursed and strode back over to us, dropping down behind me and wrapping me in his arms. Sue made a noise of protest and he growled.

 

“Gently, Jacob, hush. She could have other injuries, don’t jostle her.”

 

“Maybe,” I began again, “It was just Kim and me, going somewhere? But my truck - Charlie will want to see the accident…” the warmth filtering through my cold body, the fading adrenaline, the security of Sam knowing what to do again, of Sue and Billy and Old Quil, taking charge, of Jacob wrapped around me.

 

I drifted off, not asleep or unconscious exactly, but floating between the two.

 

I awoke who knows how much later to a slight stinging sensation and the sound of growls and curses.

 

“Ow.” I murmured, and the growls increased.

 

“Shit, Jake, stop, man- Sam!”

 

“Jacob, be still.”

 

I opened my eyes and looked up at Sue, who smiled at me.

 

“Is Jacob all right?” I asked. I was in the back seat of the Subaru now, wrapped in a rough blanket.

 

“He’s fine, Bella. Just having some control issues.” Billy, sounding calm as ever, though I saw that he was watching his son with concerned eyes.

 

“The ambulance will be here soon. Everyone who’s not supposed to be here needs to get away.”

 

Paul, Leah, and Embry hopped into the truck bed with Seth and Quil.

 

“Right, we’ll take care of Quil’s leg, and see if we can get Seth cleaned up.”

 

“Em, you’ve got to come too..” his voice was regretful rather than authoritative. I peered over Sue’s shoulder and saw that Emily was crying, holding a hand against Kim’s cheek.

 

“She’s…”

 

“She’ll be okay. The ambulance is coming.”

 

“It’s gonna be weird, Charlie won’t like it.” Billy sighed.

 

In the distance I heard the faint wail of a siren.

 

Emily heard it too, she took Sam’s hand and stood.

 

Then Sam went stiff. Gasped and began shaking. A second later a new sound split the night.

 

The howl of wolves.

 

Sam crumpled forward and Emily stepped forward automatically to try and catch him.

 

“No!” he cried, his voice already rough and unnatural.

 

He was about to change.

 

Jared spun from his vigil over Kim. He grabbed Emily’s hand and yanked her toward him, while shoving Sam, hard, so that he fell back several steps.

 

He exploded a moment later.

 

He howled, and the strange howls stopped.

 

Embry hoped out of the truck bed and skimmed out of his sweatpants, taking a running leap and changing to fall in line as the black wolf that was Sam dove into the night.

 

“Well, shit.”

 

Things went about as well as could be expected from there. By the time the paramedics arrived, the truck was gone.

 

Sue explained that Jared had called her, because she was a nurse, and she’d arrived here only a moment before the ambulance did. With Kim in poor shape, and me bleeding and shivering, they didn’t stay to question our story, instead loading me and Kim into the ambulance, with instructions to Sue to follow with the boys, so they could also be checked out.

 

Kim was not good, and I was sure Jared was going to lose control when they loaded her into the ambulance, neck braced and strapped down, shouting all sorts of scary sounding medical terms.

 

I got a lighter treatment, but they made me lie down as well and fastened a neck brace on me. I felt a sense of dread unrelated to our near death experiences.

 

Charlie was going to lose it.

 

Someone must have called him, because he met us at the hospital in record time, storming through the emergency room doors before they’d even released me from the gurney.

 

“Bella!” he shouted, drawing the attention of several nurses.

 

He spotted Jacob first, looking worn out and young, and now cleverly fitted out in slightly too small hospital scrubs.

 

“Son,” he put a hand on Jacob’s head. “You okay? I talked to your Dad, he’s gonna try and get here soon. You all right? Where’s Bella?”

 

“Yeah, I’m fine…” he sounded shell-shocked, and I didn’t think it was all for show.

 

Jacob raised his eyes to mine and then Charlie was striding over.

 

“Sir, you can’t- oh, Chief Swan, sorry, but we have to check her out before…”


“That’s my daughter, Nance, ’m not here in my official capacity at the moment.” his worried face loomed back into my limited field of vision.”

 

“I”m fine, Dad,” I began instantly.

 

“I’ll believe that when the doctor tells me so.”

 

“It’s Kim who’s...Is Kim here? What about Jared? Is Jared…”

 

“I know about the Connweller girl. Sue said she called her parents and the Camerons, they’ll be here soon. Now why you or Jake didn’t call me…”

 

“My phone-it…” was in the car when it caught on fire, but I couldn’t say that. “I lost it in the-the accident.”

 

“Hn. Now what in the hell-” then mercifully, because I wasn’t sure what the story was, Charlie was pushed back as a doctor bustled over.

 

“Second victim from that accident on 110. Seems to only have superficial cuts and bruises but Sue Clearwater reported she may have lost consciousness. Some signs of confusion, may also be in shock.”

 

“Name?”

 

“Isabella Swan,” Charlie said gruffly, sounding concerned again.

 

“Hello, Isabella,” the doctor smiled at me. She had a warm face, very human, with sun-browned skin, wrinkles at the corners of her eyes and grey threaded through her hair.

 

“You don’t look like Dr. Cullen.” I didn’t know why I said it, except that I’d been surprised for a moment.

 

She laughed, “No, that’s true. How do you feel Isabella?”

 

“Is Kim okay?”

 

“Your friend is in good hands. How are you?”

 

I thought about it.

 

“I’m cold?” Where was Jacob? “Where’s Jacob? He’s warm.”

 

“I’m right here, Bella,” he called, too far away.

 

“Does your head hurt?” She pressed gently above my ear and I whimpered.

 

“Yes.” Now that I thought about it, I didn’t feel well at all. I felt cold, sick, and sore.

 

The doctor continued examining me, shining bright, painful lights that made me nauseous into my eyes, and feeling along my sore head and my neck, listening to my chest.

 

“All right. I think you have a mild concussion, so we’re going to get some scans and keep you overnight for observation. Possible whiplash as well, which is to be expected,”

 

“No.” I replied, wincing when she tilted my head with her fingers. I hated hospitals. “I want to leave. Dad…” Charlie frowned at me.

 

“You do what the doctor says, Bella.” he looked as shocked as I felt when tears started spilling down my face.

 

“There, now Bella, I’ll stay with you, and you can come home first thing tomorrow morning, when the doctor says its safe.”

 

--

The next morning, with clear CT scans, and feeling much improved, I was allowed to leave the hospital, but Charlie had ordered me on strict bed rest. I wanted to argue that I was 18, and not a kid, but he’d been out to the burnt remains of the SUV by then, and of course the impossible destruction of the car had shot his concern and upset through the roof.

 

So I had to rely on my guests for information.

 

The first, and most constant was, naturally, Jacob.

 

He’d followed us home, and filled me in on both our cover story and the events I’d missed while stuck in the hospital with Charlie on guard.

 

Kim was going to be okay.

 

However, she was not okay now. She’d broken an arm and a leg, and also a rib, which had impaired her breathing, but not actually punctured her lung. It was very likely some of her injuries had been exacerbated when she was pulled hastily from the car before Jared burst out of it, but pulled from the car by panicked teenage boys also worked as an explanation.

 

She was sedated, and on oxygen due to her damaged lung, and no, I couldn’t go see her until she was out of the ICU.

 

Quil’s leg had been rebroken and set straight, and Paul had thrown up a lot afterwards.

 

Seth was healing, he’d apparently had one whole side of his body almost crushed, as if someone had tried to squeeze the life out of him, but couldn’t reach all the way around.

 

Most shockingly, whether brought on by the fight, or just terrible luck, both Brady Fuller and Collin Littlesea had transformed last night.

 

Sam and Embry were still with them, Paul had joined them early this morning, and Jake was supposed to go help out later, being one of the only other wolves not currently in crisis.

 

They were both only 13.

 

There was no sign so far of any vampires returning to the area. At least two had escaped to return, presumably, to Victoria.

 

The official story for the car accident was this:

 

Driving home, Jared, Jacob, Kim and I were hit by someone driving too fast and swerving, probably a drunk driver. No, we didn’t catch the license plate or remember exactly what the car looked like. The car had rolled, damaged by the collision and caught on fire. In the rush of getting everyone out safely, and calling Sue and 911, no one had put out the fire, and somehow it had caused the car to explode.

 

Several elements of the story were difficult to explain if looked at too closely, starting with the destroyed car.

 

Unluckily, Charlie was taking a very close look, but on the bright side, there was no way he was really going to ever land on, “the car was attacked by vampires and then a giant wolf exploded out of it,” so in that sense we were safe.

 

On the other hand, he’d made both paramedics, as well as Sue Clearwater, swear to him that neither Jared nor Jacob appeared in any way intoxicated, put out a public appeal for information on a car seen speeding Saturday night, for a 25 mile range around the site of the crash, and insisted I miss school on Monday to ‘enjoy’ another day of bed rest.

 

So the whole town knew, and were surely speculating wildly.

 

All this and I had finals the rest of the week and graduation the week after that.

 

Fortunately, I was allowed to visit Kim on Tuesday afternoon. She was going to be in the hospital at least another week, but was now being allowed non-family visitors.

 

I was nervous, not sure what I’d find. I felt guilty despite Jake’s attempts at reassurance. No matter what he said, or how out of hand things had gotten, it was after all, my fault that Victoria had come back to Forks, and that she was now threatening the pack.

 

It was a relief to find her propped up in her hospital bed, still with the little oxygen tubes in her nose, but smiling and conscious, stroking Jared’s hand comfortingly with her good hand, and looking pale but smiling.

 

In many ways Jared looked worse that Kim. She had her leg elevated in a cast, an arm cast in a sling, and a large bruise on one cheek, and more bruises peeking out of her shirt, but Jared looked like he’d been under prolonged torture. He was breathing heavier than usual, and seemed unable to look away from Kim’s face. He shook slightly, as if going through some kind of withdrawal.

 

He hunched his shoulders initially when we came in, and I knew he was struggling with some instinct telling him that Kim was in danger.

 

“Hi guys,” her voice was rough, and tired sounding, but sincere, “Are you okay, Bella? I heard your dad had you locked up, and that you had a concussion. Also that Jacob had been arrested?” she made a face. “The last part was from some girls from school, Jacob, sorry, a bunch of them came over during a free period. It was exhausting, honestly, it’s hard to keep the story straight with all the meds.” she shrugged and winced, and Jared made a concerned sound.


“You should have seen Jared,” she continued, squeezing his hand, “I thought he was going to bite their noses off,” she chuckled.

 

“Yep, still a free man,” Jake remarked genially, as we sat in the seats arranged near Kim’s bed, a safe distance from Jared. “Thank God we thought to call Sue. He’s not suspicious any more that me or Jared might secretly be drunk drivers, and he’s fixed on his whole manhunt scenario. All right Connweller?” he tacked on the last question with airy unconcern, which didn’t fool anyone.

 

“I’m fine, really.” Kim sighed, and glanced at Jared, who hadn’t said anything. “Honestly, I’m a bit worried what happens when they take me off the good drugs, but so far so good. It turns out we were lied to guys, drugs are awesome. We’ve wasted our youth being good.”

 

“You have maybe, before this whole wolf thing, I happen to know good old Jare-bear indulged in some recreational fun with chemicals.”

 

I could feel the low tension running beneath Kim and Jacob’s forced light-hearted banter. I wished I could say something to help. But honestly, I was having some hospital and ...other flashbacks of my own.

 

“No, really? Jared, you never told me.” she smiled into Jared’s eyes, still locked on her face, a slight crease of her brow giving away her concern. Jared lifted a shaking hand and pressed his finger to it.

 

Kim’s eyes filled with tears for a moment, before she blinked.

 

“Um, how long are you going to be in here.” I shivered. “I hate hospitals.”

 

“Ugh, me too, but, I mean, it hasn’t been too bad actually. The doctors say another week or two, but my mom saw this special on hospitals being a breeding ground for antibiotic resistant infections, and she’s lobbying to take me home sooner. We’ll see, depends if my dad can rein her in.”

 

She was clearly attempting to soothe Jared by simply willing herself to be cheerful and well.

 

It seemed exhausting, but I couldn’t exactly blame her.

 

Jacob was getting increasingly agitated, rocking his knee up and down, and drumming his fingers on the back of my chair.

 

Finally, Kim yawned, paling alarmingly as she did so.

 

“Ribs,” she gasped in apology, as Jared shot to his feet.

 

We left quickly, with promises to return soon.

 

Jacob was still on edge as we made our way back to my truck.

 

“That idiot.” he bit out. “He’s gonna drive her crazy worrying about him and his precious feelings. I’d be surprised if he even noticed her keeling over, with all his self-pitying bullshit.”

 

“Jake, what? You mean Jared? He’s worried about her.”

 

“He’s being a selfish asshole Bella.”

 

“He- I think he can’t help it, did you see him?”

 

“He should be cheering her up, not making her worry about him, is all.” He muttered, still discontented.

 

“It’s nice that you’re worried about Kim though.”

 

“She’s...I mean, I’ve known her my whole life. Not well, she was always pretty quiet, and we never hung out much, but...plus, she’s,” he paused, looking a little surprised. “She’s pack.”

 

“But she’s getting better, so…”

 

“But you heard her. When they take her off whatever crazy stuff they have her on now she’s gonna be in pain, right? And what’s he gonna do then, just like lose control and turn into a giant wolf in the freakin hospital?”

 

He shook his head, and glanced at me.

 

“Sorry Bells, guess it’s a sore spot. Someone’s gonna have to deal with him, and Sam’s busy with the new guys. I mean, “guys” is pushing it, they’re kids. They’re younger than Seth for Christ’s sake, he’s almost 14, and they’re barely 13. They’re in seventh grade. Damn it.” he hit the dashboard and the truck jolted, but luckily kept lumbering along the highway.

 

“Oops, sorry again.”

 

“Do...do you ever think-” I began. But how could I say this. I hated to bring it up again. I knew he’d disagree, even if I was right, probably loudly. But still… “If it wasn’t for--If Victoria got what she wanted…”

 

“NO.” he thundered, and the truck shook again, as if in warning.

 

“I just…”

 

“No, Bella. No, just no. I can’t think about that. I can’t.” he closed his eyes. “This isn’t even just about you. Even if you...especially if she got you. We’d all fight. There’s no other option now. This army of hers, if it is an army, it’s too dangerous.”

 

My hands shook on the wheel.

 

I thought of the third wife again. Her desperate sacrifice had saved her husband, and her tribe. I wasn’t Quileute, but I was part of the pack now, and Jacob was...mine. They were all mine to protect if I could

 

“You’re right,” I offered, “I just wish there was something I could do to help.”

 

But inside, deep down, I tucked away my thoughts for a later day. If it would save any of them, I would give myself up. I didn’t have super powers. And at some point I might have nothing to offer but my death.

 

And I would give it.

Chapter Text

For better and worse, the next two weeks went by peacefully.

 

It was better because Quil healed, and the strained look started to fade from his eyes.

 

It was better because Kim was able to go home from the hospital and was healing, despite being wheelchair bound and off of the good drugs.

 

I was better because Jared started talking again, and somehow, after Paul and Jacob took him out for a talk and/or fight, he wasn’t leaking desperate menace anymore, or threatening anyone who came near Kim.

 

It was better because Seth was up and about, even if he couldn’t run, or transform yet, and even though he winced every few steps.

 

It was better because Brady and Collin were learning control quickly now that the whole pack was lending a hand.

 

It was worse because we were all on edge, waiting for what might come next. We didn’t know if the group of vampires were all those Victoria had at her disposal. Two had escaped, but did she have an army waiting in the wings? Was she making more?

 

And now I had to sit through my high school graduation.

 

Leah and Paul were graduating too, which I hadn’t actually realized. The wolves all tended to look significantly older than they were, though the younger ones at least still looked like kids (just not like 13-14 year olds).

 

La Push High’s graduation happened to fall on the same day as Forks’, which was honestly somewhat of a relief. Most of the pack would be attending the La Push graduation, meaning I could get this whole thing over without too much fuss.

 

Jacob came, of course, and touchingly, Emily showed up, with Quil (most likely her designated guard for the day, since Sam couldn’t be there).

 

Quil whistled loudly when my name was called and I turned bright red and tripped, almost face-planting on the makeshift “stage”. That seemed about right, as far as ways to end my Forks High experience went.

“Congratulations, Bella!” Emily embraced me, under Charlie’s approving eye. It was a little insulting, how pleased he was, everytime he was presented with proof that I had real, live friends other than Jacob.

 

He aimed a slightly less indulgent look at Quil, who lifted me off my feet and swung me around. He had a slight continuing suspicion of all the wolves but Jake. He knew he wasn’t being fair, couldn’t name his concern. It was hard for me to judge him though. It was likely that watching a bunch of teenage boys growing into giants, who your daughter once accused of being a cult, sometimes projected a vague air of danger, and were frequently partially undressed set off every one of the cop instincts he possessed, and probably a couple “beware of supernatural creatures instincts” he wasn’t aware he had.

 

Jacob grumbled at Quil good naturedly and scooped me into a hug of his own, squeezing the breath out of me before reluctantly handing me off to Charlie.

 

“Good job, Bella.” Charlie hugged me awkwardly. His gruff voice sounded pleased though.

 

“Thanks, Dad. Can we go now?”

 

Jacob laughed.

 

“That’s our Bells, eh, Charlie?”

 

--

 

We couldn’t leave right away, of course, because I had to hug and congratulate and exchange promises to stay in touch with Jessica and Angela, and say goodbye and good luck to too many of my high school classmates to count.

 

But it really wasn’t long at all before we were leaving Forks High behind. I was done with high school.

 

I couldn’t deny the little voice at the back of my mind thinking.

 

And he’s still 17.

 

I wondered where he was. If he was graduating from some other high school far away from here. If he was happy.

 

So much of high school had been tied up in memories of him. It was better to be leaving it behind.

 

Jacob squeezed my hand.

 

I squeezed back.

 

---

 

Emily had a picnic barbecue the next day, in honor of the graduation, and probably as an excuse to get a little distance from our supernatural problems.

 

Charlie was invited, as were what felt like half of the reservation.

 

It was kind of nice, seeing everyone with their families, or friends, without having to be right in the middle of it all.

 

Kim was there, with her family, Jared hovering nearby, as if unsure of his welcome. Her brother Malcolm looked as if he had grown several inches since I last saw him. This was worrying, considering that it had only been 2 weeks since I’d seen him.

 

Brady and Collin, taller than their parents and siblings, and even a couple older siblings, looked gangly and lost, shyly introducing their families to Sam.

 

Embry was presenting a tall, still lovely, middle-aged woman with his smiling eyes to Emily.

 

Leah looked bored, scrolling aimlessly on her phone and ignoring a group of girls cautiously approaching her.

 

Paul and Quil weren’t visibly present, I knew they weren’t far though, running through the woods on four paws.

 

Sue was scolding Seth, who was wincing slightly, meaning he’d probably be pushing himself beyond the limits of his still healing body.

 

Jacob was pacing, looking slightly unsettled. Then he spotted us and his body went still, somehow both more relaxed and spilling over with vibrant intensity.

 

He grinned, and my body went up in flames. I knew I was blushing, but I smiled back.

 

Charlie sighed behind me.

 

“Kid’s got it bad.” he muttered, like I couldn’t hear him.

 

“What was that Dad?”

 

“Nothin’ Bella. You be careful now.”

 

“Sure sure, hey...I’m just going to…”

 

“Yeah, yeah, go on. I’ll find Billy or something.”

“Bella!”

 

“Jake...can’t breathe…”

 

For a party, it was surprisingly okay.

 

Leah eventually made her way over to us, dragging us over to Kim, who was trying very hard to look happy to be there, and like she wasn’t in pain.

 

Paul and Quil were back early and attempting to draw Jared into light-hearted conversation, the subject of which seemed to be Paul’s uncertain future.

 

Emily and Sam wandered over, Emily holding a bowl of what I knew were Kim’s favorite blueberry muffins, Sam trailed by Brady and Collin, who had conceived a strong case of hero-worship for him. Jacob said it was annoying, and complained Sam would get a big head and become more dictatorial, but it seemed really sweet to me. Collin glanced up at Leah and blushed heavily and I tried desperately not to smile, as her steps faltered and she cursed under her breath. Seth had a muffin in each hand, and was using one of them to gesticulate to Sam, Brady, and Collin, briefly making a face at Collin’s blush.

 

Embry came bounding over, catapulting himself onto Paul’s back.

 

“Bella, Jake, hi!” Kim chirped, amid the general welcome.

 

“Hi Kim,” I settled down on the bench next to her wheelchair, patting her hand awkwardly.

 

Her face was wan, and she’d lost weight that she didn’t have to lose.

 

Healing as a human sucked.

 

How well I remembered being the one in multiple casts. Getting help showering from Alice, spending everyday in a haze of pain, brightened by the euphoria of love...

 

Jared smiled at me, in the odd grateful way he had developed, every time Kim smiled.

 

Paul reached over and tugged one of her braided pigtails, smiling at the face she made in a soft way I rarely saw from him.

 

“Our Kim’s pretty tough, huh?”

 

Jared growled and smacked Paul’s hand away.

 

Kim tutted, but a grin tugged at her lips.

 

She’d be all right. We’d all be all right. It was my mantra these days.

 

It was nice, being all together, in the thick of this party full of people I didn’t know.

 

It was like armor, shielding me from the anxiety and awkwardness of the larger party. A warm bubble of safety.


Everyone here was familiar to me, and I felt more and more comfortable being part of this odd, expanding group.

 

“Oh! There’s John and Liz! And they brought the kids!” Emily rose, face lighting up, as she rushed forward to meet them.

 

“Her brother and his family,” Leah explained. “There was some weird...stuff...when she moved here, with Sam and all.” she paused, and sighed. “I guess things are getting better between them again. No one ever could stay mad at ‘miss perfect.’” Her words lacked her usual bite. She sounded tired. I patted her arm.

 

I tried to think of something to say. What was going on with Leah? Leah whose hurt and sadness were usually hidden beneath that amazing shield? Leah who never let her guard down?

 

Then something odd happened.

 

Everyone was turning, to greet Emily’s family, dutiful smiles on, weirdness tucked carefully away.

 

Quil gasped. Dropped to his knees.

 

Was he hurt? He was staring at Emily’s brother’s family, with a frozen, disbelieving look. And the wolves were stiffening around him, sensing something, even though they couldn’t read his mind while human.

 

“Quil, who?” Sam barked, sounding furious.

 

“Oh, shit, no way!”

 

“What’s going on? Seth, what’s going on?”

 

“Is Quill all right? Is he hurt? Jared-”

 

Jacob’s hand pressed against my back as Leah’s body went taut as a live wire under my frozen hand.

 

“We think Quil just imprinted.” he breathed down to me. “But on who? Liz? She’s like 25. She’s married...”

 

Emily’s smile faltered, as she continued to lead the little family over. Someone snarled and the incipient wave of panic subsided, or at least paused.

 

Quil still hadn’t moved.

 

“Guys, this is my brother, John, his wife Liz, and Brooke and Claire.” She said, to our confused silence.

 

“Uh, hi! I’m Kim, and this is Jared, nice to meet you. Emily’s a really great friend so…” Kim dove into the breach, much braver than me.

 

“Claire” Quil breathed, a wavering awestruck prayer.

 

She was looking back at him, a tiny girl, the littlest member of the family, barely more than a baby.

 

She smiled. She had tiny dimples in her round, adorable face. He sighed.

 

No way.

 

“No. Way” Jake said, still behind me.

 

“Oh, Fuck. NO.” Leah growled, beginning to shake.

 

“Sick.”

 

“Oh, gross.”

 

“Shit!”

 

The wolves were going to lose it. This was a disaster. Embry and Paul backed away from Quil, looking horrified, descending quickly toward anger.

 

Sam looked blank, lost. Shocked.

 

John and Liz were beginning to notice something was not right, looking to Emily in question.

 

She was smart though, and had dealt with a lot of wolf-related crises.

 

“Why don’t we go get some food. So sorry about that. There was a car accident a couple weeks ago, don’t know if you heard, some drunk driver drove our some of our boys off the road on the way back from prom…” She continued, leading them away. Claire looked back over her tiny shoulder at Quil, before her sister tugged her hand to move her more quickly along.

 

“NO.” Quil gasped, stumbling halfway to his feet, before Sam’s hand fell heavily on his shoulder.


“Yes. You will stay put. You will not move. We need to figure this out.”

 

For the first time, Quill seemed to realize he’d become the center of attention. Jared braced in front of Kim while she peeked around him with wide confused eyes, Seth, Brady, and Collin frozen in confusion, the two younger boys shaking, not knowing what was going on, but losing control fast, set off by the tension around them. Seth clasped their arms tightly, knuckles white, as if holding them in their own skins.

 

Paul and Embry fell further back, leaving the space around Quil empty.

 

Leah snarled. Jake pulled me against his chest and curled his body over me.

 

“Keep it together, Leah, Bella .” He said my name as if it explained everything. She glanced at me, at Kim, at the clueless party-goers.

 

“Seth, boys. Let’s take a walk,” She glanced to Sam for confirmation, and he gave a tight nod.

 

On stiff legs, hands tight in fists, she marched towards the woods, Seth towing Brady and Collin along in her wake.

 

“Claire.” Quil whined. “Sam…”

 

“No. Impossible.”

 

“Quil, man, she’s a freakin’ kid!”

 

“It’s sick!”

 

“Jared, that’s not possible, right?”

“No, it’s not.”

 

Their voices were rising. People were going to notice. Already Kim’s mom was glancing over, having heard the note of distress in her daughter’s voice.

 

Sam must have seen it too because he snapped out of his shock.

 

“Everyone into the forest, now. Jacob, talk to Billy first, ask him to look into whether this is even possible. Keep old Quil out of it if you can…If something’s wrong with him…I don’t know what we’ll…if he’s becoming a danger…”

 

Jacob’s face was stone; it was ice, as he pulled himself away from me and nodded, tensing as he looked at his friend.

 

The other boys headed for the forest.

Quil wasn’t going to move. Paul shoved him, hard.

 

“Quil,” Sam said.

 

It looked like it hurt him to turn and follow the others.

 

Jared hugged Kim, like she was as fragile as glass.

 

“Babe...it’ll be okay, I promise. Stay with Bella.” He nodded once at me.

 

I was in charge. Huh. that was new.

 

Kim sounded like she was starting to hyperventilate.

 

“Shh. Kim, Kim.” I put my arm around her shoulders, dwarfed by the wheelchair and patted awkwardly, “Do you need your mom? Did something happen? Does it hurt?”

 

She shook her head quickly.

 

“It’s not possible, right Bella?”

 

“What?”

 

“Quil...he couldn’t have imprinted on that-that baby. He’s normal, he’s not- like that . How could that be possible—”

 

Honestly, I had no idea. I didn’t know anything about imprinting, except that it scared me, while at the same time I desperately wished for confirmation of that solid, unbreakable link, to tie Jacob to my side forever.

 

I was selfish that way.

 

None of this was helpful to Kim at the moment, who was worrying beyond what seemed normal for her.

 

But she’d been through a lot lately.

 

“It can’t be. Right, Bella?” Her eyes were red and welling with tears. I had no idea if it was possible that Quil could imprint on a child.

 

I wanted to say no.

 

So far nothing to do with the wolves seemed to be evil. Unlike the vampires (even the good ones) they seemed to have no instincts to harm humans. Emily had been hurt, yes, but it was by accident, not an attack.

 

I didn’t want to believe it.

 

“Um.” I didn’t want to lie, exactly, “I don’t know. But it seems like it’s probably some kind of fluke. Maybe he’s still hurt, or the imprint got confused or something. Sam will figure it out.” With all the time I’d been spending with the pack, I’d developed a reflexive reliance on Sam, which the guys all had (despite their complaints) through their wolf instincts, or because he’d been the one to walk them through the change, or some combination of the two. They’d passed it on to us fringe members.

 

Kim looked worn out, still on the verge of tears, and unusually pale.

 

“Why don’t we go find your mom, or Emily. Maybe you can rest inside? I can tell Jared where you are when he gets back.”

 

“Jared.” she murmured, and it steadied her somehow. “Yeah, it’s the meds, Bella. I hate this feeling. Worrying over nothing…”

 

Emily hurried over to us as we scanned the crowd for Kim’s parents.

 

“Is she sick?”

 

“I’m fine, Em, just really tired, and really confused, and really gross and leaky.” she made an aborted move with her left hand, winced, then swiped at her eyes with her right.

 

“Oh, dear.”

 

“I, um, thought she could lay down, inside. Maybe rest a bit until Jared and the others get back.”

 

“Good idea. Let’s get you some rest. You only got out of the hospital a week ago!”

 

Kim’s parents intercepted us on the way in, though, and insisted on taking Kim home, which probably made a lot more sense in their normal, non-supernatural world.

 

It made me anxious to let her go, all the same. She belonged with us.

 

Kim broke down in tears at this, which did not surprise to her family, so maybe it really was the medications and her poor, slowly healing body causing her to melt down.

 

I promised to let Jared know Kim had been taken home. Her parents exchanged a significant look over her head.

 

Malcolm kept glancing at the forest where the boys (and Leah) had disappeared, shifting on restless feet.

 

Emily sighed as the Connwellers drove away.

 

“So, what exactly happened?”

 

I did my best to explain to Emily, though not being a wolf, there were huge gaps in my understanding. She was a very good listener, and let me carry on despite my confused, rambling storytelling.

 

“Oh.” She sighed when I finished. “I’m afraid he very well may have imprinted. Oh, this is going to be a problem.”

 

“But...it’s Quil, I don’t—” for once she did cut me off, and I was grateful because I had no idea what I was trying to say.

 

“In the legends it always mentions a few things. That the imprinted wolf will become ‘whatever the imprintee needs,’ and that the wolves, who can potentially live a long long time, sometimes found their ‘true wives’ much later in their lives.”

 

“But why does that equal falling in love with a little kid?”

 

“That’s just it, imprinting doesn’t have to be romantic love. Not that I’ve ever heard of it not being romantic. I always wondered why they said that, if there were no examples.” Something ever so slightly bitter and sad had crept into Emily’s voice.

 

“When I tried to tell Sam to go, the last time, after I’d been hurt, and I knew what he was, I found the stories that mentioned the ‘whatever they need’ part. I tried to tell him, I needed him to be something else for me. He said it didn’t work that way for him. And of course, most people believe that imprinting is inherently tied to reproduction, for the wolf-bloodlines.”

 

“But this could be why. The wolf imprints the first time he sees the imprintee after shifting. It never said it had to be accompanied by physical attraction. Quil won’t age...he could just...wait, for as long as necessary, in theory.” She shook her head.

 

“It’s a lot of speculation. We’ll just have to wait. If it really is an imprint, I don’t know what we’ll do. How can we explain a 16 year old boy wanting to spend time with a 2 year old girl, who’s not even related to him? Even to me it sounds wrong,” She glanced over to where Claire was sitting, crying fretfully, and watching the forest, where the pack had disappeared.

 

“The imprint, Bella, some people think it goes both ways. That isn’t discussed much. I know you and Jake have a unique situation, but...Anyway, for the imprintee it isn’t the way it is for the wolves, it’s not like a sudden, unstoppable force. More like a natural affinity, Kim’s crush, maybe your sudden close friendship with Jake, my, well, there was a reason I avoided Sam while he was dating Leah. I wanted them to be happy.” She shook her head.

 

“Once they imprint it is very difficult to refuse them. No, that’s not quite right. It’s hard to want to refuse.”

 

It was a lot to think about. And it made wonderful, terrible sense. Hadn’t I felt an instant, not attraction, maybe, but a connection to Jacob? One I’d never felt for another person. And when I saw him again, after...everything. It had been that same odd recognition. I had liked him, liked the look of him, his smile, his jokes, from almost the first moment we’d met. And that had never happened to me before.

 

I didn’t know if it sounded like a perfect love story, a tragedy, or a horror.

 

I’d wanted it to be true that Jake had imprinted on me for so long. But...making it seem like it had all been because of magic….

 

It made it seem like it hadn’t been him. His jokes, and his sunny smile, and easy acceptance. The warmth of his garage and our laughter. Like it hadn’t been me, broken, and awkward, and scared. Hadn’t been us, finding each other, and just clicking.

 

“But…”

 

“I don’t really think that’s all it is Bella. I think...with no pack magic at all, we would have been compatible. Even if it is wishful thinking, I like to think we had something like a choice. That it isn’t just random.”

 

Yes. That’s what was wrong. I’d never properly considered whether I’d chosen to love Jake. Whether he’d chosen me. Or I’d been chosen for him. Why did it suddenly seem like it mattered?

 

“Do they all know this stuff?”

 

“I’m not sure. You know them, they spend so much time forced to share thoughts, I don’t know if they really talk stuff out. It’s hard for them. But Sam does, of course.”

 

Emily turned at that moment, and it really seemed like it must be magic, because Sam was stepping out of the forest right where her eyes landed. He looked calm and serious, as if nothing had happened.

 

Jake, Paul, and Embry stepped out after him, followed by Jared, Seth, Leah...and Quil.

 

None of them looked quite as tense as they had when they left.

 

I pressed my feet firmly into the ground to keep from running toward Jacob.  

When he smiled at me though, my feet moved of their own accord, and I wondered if it was more evidence of what Emily had said.

 

“Jake! Is everything okay?”

 

“Sure, sure,” but his smile twisted a bit. “Just another day in freaksville.”

 

“But Quil…” Quil looked okay, eyes scanning eagerly across the small crowds still eating and talking as if nothing had happened.

 

“Quil’s fine Bells, the mental woo woo,” he pointed at his head, “Actually came in handy for once.”

 

“Hey,” Jared interrupted. “Where’s Kim?”

 

“Her parents took her home, sorry,” I didn’t know exactly why I was apologizing, he just looked so disappointed. “She wasn’t feeling so well, you know, and her mom thought it was time for some pain killer that makes her super sleepy.”

 

“Yeah.” Jared sighed. “I hate this. Why isn’t she getting better?”

 

“She’s getting better,” Emily touched her face and we all obediently averted our eyes from her scars. “You guys forget how long it takes for us mere mortals to heal.”

 

She pretended not to notice us not noticing her scars.

 

It seemed terribly anticlimactic, until I realized the careful way the wolves were holding themselves, the way that Leah was not looking at anyone.

 

They were all still uncomfortable, they didn’t know what it meant.

 

The exception seemed to be Quil, who strode up to Emily and me with almost his usual swagger, save for the fact that his eyes continually glanced across the yard to little Claire. He looked like he was glowing.

 

He wrapped an arm around each of us, and hugged.

 

“I’m sorry I made fun of you guys for being sappy fools.”

 

“Um, you didn’t.”

 

“Yeah, I did, with Embry and Paul, all the time.” He smiled sweetly. His eyes darted back across the field.

 

“Didn’t need to tell them then. Asshole,” Jacob muttered.

 

“It’s so incredible! She’s a miracle. Emily, she’s your niece? What is she like?”

 

“Well…” Emily hedged. “She’s two. She likes painting, and picture books. She likes puppies…”

 

Quil was fascinated. There was nothing joking in him, or sarcastic. Just an unnatural earnestness.

 

“When, er,” he looked back at Sam, smile dimming, “Could I meet her? Please?”

 

Emily followed his eyes this time back to Claire, who had noticed all the looking and waved, dimples back in her chubby cheeks.

 

Emily sighed. “You can meet the whole family. But they don’t know Quil. And you can’t tell them.”

 

“Yeah, I know, I know!” He was grinning though.

 

Emily looked once more at Sam, who nodded, though I had a feeling he was not as calm as he looked.

 

Leah snorted. “I don’t care if he’s not attracted to her. This is fucked!” She stalked off.

 

Jacob ran a hand over his head.

 

“She’s got a point.”

 

“Yeah. God, like I didn’t already realize how lucky I was with Kim, I didn’t even consider that I coulda imprinted into being some kid’s playmate for like 20 years.”

 

“Bella!” Charlie, who’d of course not been aware of the high supernatural drama unfolding right next to him, but could still probably sense a tense situation, made his way over, glancing suspiciously at the assembled pack, some of whom had shed their shirts following their transformation

 

“We better get going, don’t you still need to pack?”

 

Right. Pack. I’d forgotten.

 

Jacob and I were flying to Jacksonville, Florida tomorrow.

 

Since my first non-zombie email I’d been driven by a combination of guilt and wanting to calm the nearly frantic energy of Renee’s responses. As a result, I’d kept up the most regular email exchange I ever had. And emails had naturally lead to weekly phone calls.

 

She’d really wanted to come for graduation, make it a big thing. I’d resisted. It seemed an awkward thing to bring down on Charlie, upsetting the quiet life I lived with him. And I hadn’t wanted to have a big celebration for my graduation. With just Charlie, I’d known I wouldn’t have to.

 

And frankly, Renee seemed like a foreign concept to my Forks life.

 

I didn’t want to say it was lucky that Phil’d broken his leg, in some kind of baseball sliding incident. But, well, Renee couldn’t very well leave him alone, and I’d been happy to reassure her that I understood.

 

In a moment of reckless sympathy, as she fretted herself to tears, I’d promised a visit.

 

She’d countered, too quickly, by demanding that Jacob join me.

 

Since Sam had basically said that he was going to send Jacob anyway, due to safety concerns (“He’s gonna be such a great mom,” Paul laughed), and Jacob of course was more than happy to accompany me, it was all settled, as well as it could be.

 

I didn’t know it was a relief or a shame to be leaving this newest pack-rocking mess behind.

 

I dutifully said goodbye to each of the pack members, even tracking down Leah to give her an awkward hug.

 

This would be the longest I’d gone without seeing them in months.

 

-----

 

Kim texted me that night, as I struggled to fall asleep, battling my travel anxiety, and the strange fear I’d developed of leaving Forks, which I knew sprang from those last words in the forest, months ago.

 

[im really freaked out]

 

                               [Why?]

 

[is any of it even real]

 

                              [Is this about Quil?]

 

[i just thought jared would have noticed me eventually]

 

[and the wolf thing just sped it up]

 

[like fate]

 

[but i mean if it wouldn’t have mattered even if i was a kid]

 

[it seems like it doesn’t matter at all what im like]

 

Oh, darn. I hadn’t thought of that.

 

                           [I think what matters is that you and Jared belong together.]

 

[does he even feel attracted to me at all? everyone at school was so surprised when he wanted to date me]

 

[it wasnt even to be mean but look at him and look at me]

 

                           [I don’t think that’s true. He thinks you’re beautiful. The way he looks at you, you can just tell.]

 

[but not really]

 

[I wish you werent leaving your the only one who understands]

[*youre]

 

                           [What about Emily?]

 

[she...she doesn’t seem to care about this stuff. she says shes ‘come to terms with the weirdness’ ]

 

                             [I’m sorry I’m going to be gone. But you can always call or text. And we’ll be back before you know it!]

 

[thanks bella. ill miss you]

                 

                         [Yeah, I'll miss you too.]

 

I went to sleep uneasy, and dreamed a new version of my nightmare.

 

It was dark and I was lost in the woods, the same woods as always, though it never helped me find my way.

 

Wolves were howling in the distance. And...someone was crying? A girl. Familiar.

 

I was searching urgently, for him, for her, for whom? It didn’t matter, because the forest was empty.

 

Except for the trail of blood, dark on dark.

 

I awoke with a gasp.

 

“Shh. I got you.”

 

“Jake?” I croaked, tears stinging my eyes.

 

“Yeah, course, a lot of guys sneak through your window at night Bells?”

 

“But you’re supposed to get dropped off tomorrow morning. For our trip.”

 

“Yeah, I know. I’ll just sneak out, go wake up Embry, and make him drive me over. No problem.”

 

I pretended to think it over. Even though there was never really a question of asking him to leave.

 

“Well...we have to sleep, no...other stuff.”

 

He laughed, but quietly. “Sure, sure, Bells.” He lay down, pulling me down with him. He wrapped an arm around me, turning me and pulling me close until I was tucked into his chest, under his chin.

 

I was always cold after my nightmares, and he was always so warm.

 

I felt him kiss the top of my head, as I drifted into a much more peaceful sleep.

Chapter Text

When we heard the car outside the next morning, as we were lifting my one small suitcase into the car, Charlie and I both looked up to watch Jacob, dressed much more...well, just more, in jeans and a slightly too tight t-shirt. It was a nice t-shirt though.

 

Charlie looked down at me and let out a sort of disgruntled laugh.

 

“If I hadn’t known that kid his whole life...he just doesn’t look like any 16 year old, that’s all I’m saying,” he protested, when I looked at him in suspicion.

 

“Don’t start.” I warned. Charlie had severe reservations, though he was doing his best to avoid mentioning them, for which I was grateful.

 

At some point after I’d agreed to the trip to Florida, he’d realized that Renee likely had much different ideas than him about teenage propriety.

 

Divorced parenting 101 said he couldn’t do anything that might seem like disparaging my mom’s parenting in front of me. But I caught a couple hastily aborted phone calls, and he’d been extra suspicious of Jacob, and me and Jacob, and exactly how much alone time we spent together and where, ever since.

 

“Not starting anything. Just saying, I’ve got eyes. I’d like to know what they are feeding the boys down on the Rez. Me and about a dozen professional sports franchises.”

 

I laughed, which surprised us both. Charlie and I had an easy, peaceful coexistence, but we’d never been exactly the buddy-buddy type of father and daughter. 

 

On impulse, I hugged him. And he hugged back.

 

We both stepped hastily back as Jacob, duffle bag retrieved from the trunk, shouted a careless goodbye to a very disgruntled looking Embry, who took off without delay.

 

“It’ll be fine, Dad.” 

 

Jacob ducked his head, almost bashful, but grinning.

 

“Chief. Bells.”

 

“Hi, Jacob” I said, holding myself back from stepping into a much different kind of embrace for Charlie’s sake. 

 

Charlie sighed, not appreciating my efforts.

 

Maybe it was our faces that gave it away.

 

The drive to the airport wasn’t awkward, despite Charlie’s reluctance to let us go across the country to a land of possible adult sanctioned room sharing though. 

 

Jacob was primarily to thank for this. The fact was, Charlie had known him his whole life, and liked him.

 

Plus, Jacob was well, Jacob. When the wolf stuff wasn’t weighing him down, he still carried that ineffable bubble of cheer and sunshine with him.

 

I felt an odd nostalgia filtering through me, like liquid warmth. Weird to think of those early days of our friendship with fondness now.

 

Maybe it was the influence of the rare bright and sunny day.

 

We said goodbye to Charlie and settled into our flight with minimal trouble, though oddly Jacob seemed to draw more attention in the bustling Seattle airport than he did in provincial little Forks/ La Push. 

 

Maybe it was just because people here hadn’t grown accustomed over the past year or so to seeing an increasing number of giant Quileute boys, all topping 6’ (Jacob seemed to be settling in around 6’8”) and built like professional athletes. 

 

The flight was unpleasant, to say the least, as was the plane change in Denver. Jacob’s size was beneficial in many ways, but definitely not for cramming himself into the very limited space available in Coach, or for threading through jam-packed airport terminals, without knocking down throngs of clueless and clumsy fellow travelers.

 

I could tell it was wearing on him, the stress also likely setting off all sorts of wolf instincts on top of the normal discomforts of modern air travel.

 

He was gripping my hand tightly by the end, and to my relief seemed to draw comfort from it.

 

We finally made it to Jacksonville, flying in over a beautiful Florida sunset, and found a frantically happy Renee waving to us near the exit.

 

She looked the same, and something tightened in my chest.

 

I’d missed her.

 

“Bella! Oh, Bella! Oh honey! You look so great!”

 

She embraced me, trembling with excitement. 

 

“Hi mom, you look great too.”

 

“I’m just so happy to see you, it’s been too long!” Her smile grew ever so slightly fixed and I knew she was recalling the last time she’d seen me, deeply despondent and wildly desperate to stay in Forks. The start of my zombie phase.

 

I pushed past the memories.

 

“Mom, this is Jacob. Jacob, my mom, Renee Dwyer.”

 

Renee turned to great Jacob. I saw her start, realize how tall he was- and how mature he looked. Her eyes traveled up and up, eyes widening in that film ingenue way that I could never pull off, but she could, despite being nearly 40.

 

For a moment I worried that this was going to get awkward. It hadn’t occurred to me that Jacob hardly looked like the 16 year old boy next door boyfriend she’d probably been expecting.

 

But Renee was not the type to hold onto suspicion or judgements.

 

“Jacob, it’s a pleasure. Bella’s told me so much about you.”

 

“She has?”

 

“I have?”

 

“Of course. Maybe not directly, but I’m her mother. I speak fluent Bella. Let me just text Phil now, he’s waiting in the car, poor thing. We had to pay that exorbitant airport lot fee. It’s highway robbery!” She snapped her phone open as she spoke and quickly tapped out a message. Then she took me by the arm with a smile of almost apology for Jacob. 

 

“It’s a gorgeous evening! Bella-” she dropped her voice to a whisper and I blushed, anticipating that she was about to say something embarrassing.

 

“-oh my goodness, honey. I’m feeling bad for calling Charlie stuffy - it’s amazing he hasn’t sent you to the nunnery with a guy like that hanging around. Where do you find these boys-”

 

Renee glanced at my face. But then she barreled on when I didn’t crumble.

 

“He’s so tall! You’ll have to tell me everything, later, everything .” She glanced back and smiled brightly at Jacob, who smiled back innocently, even though he’d heard every word of what she’d said. 

 

She hugged my arm. 

 

“I’m so glad to have you back with me.”

 

--

 

“Oh, there he is! Phil!” Renee exclaimed, waving, and calling out, even though he couldn’t hear her.

 

We made our way to Renee’s beat up Subaru, where Phil was waving from the passenger seat, looking surprised like everyone else we’d encountered today, as he took in Jacob.

 

“Bella!” he called out, hoping out of the car (and balancing in a completely unfair way on his good leg) and scooping me into a somewhat unexpected hug.

 

“Long time, no see, Renee’s been like a kid at Christmas waiting for your visit.”

 

He smiled a more reserved smile at Jacob and held out a hand.

 

“You must be Jacob Black, nice to meet you son” 

 

“Nice to meet you Mr. Dwyer.”

 

Renee chatted happily at us as we drove, outlining several competing plans for our entertainment while we were in town. 

 

I tried really hard to pay attention. Renee was clearly excited to have us.

 

But it’d been a long day, and my head drooped, as leaned more heavily against Jacob.

 

“Jake,” I murmured, “Don’t let me fall asleep,”

 

“Shh.”

 

I felt him smile, though who knows how.

 

And then I was asleep. 

 

I woke up what was probably only a few minutes later, as Jacob was lifting me out of the car, with Renee speaking in an excited whisper that I couldn’t yet decipher. 

 

She didn’t sound panicked or unhappy.

 

I was safe.

 

“Mmm. Sorry, Mom.” I said, fighting my body’s suggestion that I go back to sleep.

Jacob was still carrying me, which was silly.

 

“Jake, Jake, put me down.”

 

He smiled down at me, looking...so relaxed.

 

I blushed as he deposited me just inside the doorway.

 

“There,” he smiled at Renee again, and I saw her eyes soften. “Door to door, with no injuries. A Bella Swan first.”

 

“Jerk,” I murmured at him, smiling.

 

He’d definitely won Renee over, and I saw Phil too was softening toward him.

 

Not that either of them were exactly tough customers.

 

Renee kept glancing at my face too, she had no real gift for subtlety, and she really liked whatever it was she saw.

 

Pizza arrived a few minutes later, and luckily Jake had prevailed upon Renee to order two large pizzas. 

 

Dinner conversation was easy. Renee hung on every carefully edited word about our lives and friends in La Push. 

 

Phil interrogated Jacob about his sports interests, and the joys of college scholarships.

 

It was fun. Jake’s jokes and teasing complemented my limited storytelling ability, and filled in the gaps where no good lie rose to my lips to cover up either supernatural danger or teenage mischief.

 

It was strange, how in the midst of it all I could almost see a totally different night.

 

He wouldn’t have been as easy as Jacob. Renee and Phil would have been surprised, awed, by his otherworldly beauty. But they would have warmed up, and his own supernaturally enhanced, but still very him charm took over.

 

Instead of eating a whole pizza by himself, as Jacob was doing, he would have pushed his portion around carefully, secreting it into napkins to hide his lack of a human diet.

 

The scene in front of me was all sunlight, for all that it was night. Edward would have been quiet shades of twilight, calming Renee’s frantic energy, quieting Phil’s watchfulness. Jacob was laughing at some story of Renee’s, egging her on, while Phil smiled in that satisfied, affectionate way of his that had finally won me over to their marriage, and laughed, tossing in details with easy familiarity.

 

After everything, I wondered. Could you really choose that dream over this?

 

Ultimately, perhaps it was for the best that the choice hadn’t been up to me. Easier and less painful, surely.

 

I clasped my hands more securely around Jacob’s, which was resting across my legs. 

 

He looked at me, his same smile that had first pulled me out of darkness, checking in without smothering me in worry, seeing my abstraction, but happy to simply sit with me.

 

My buzzing phone broke the spell though.

 

“Who…Oh. It’s Kim. I hope everything’s okay. Mom, I’m just going to get this, sorry.” As I hurried out of the room, already clicking to accept the call I heard Renee.

 

“Bella really does have a friend? A friend who calls her? That’s wonderful.”

 

Great, mom, thanks a lot.

 

“Hello?” I remembered to ask into the phone.

 

“Bella! I really really wish you were here,” said an almost unrecognizable voice.

 

“Kim? What’s wrong? Did something happen? Is everyone all right?”

 

“It’s nothing like that, it’s - it’s. Bella, was any of it really real at all? I mean, you, you knew Jacob before, so you know it's at least partly real, and I mean, you were with that guy before, the vampire one, and you thought it was real, and then it wasn’t, and oh, I'm not supposed to talk about that, but you see, don't you? It wasn’t supposed to be me. It-”

 

“I'm - Kim, I don’t- what's going on? Is there anyone with you maybe Ja-”

 

“She broke up with Jared, Bella, jeez, you’re so fucking dense.” 

 

“What?!” But Leah was addressing someone in the background.

 

“I don’t care if it made her cry Paul, that’s what happened. Here, you talk to her.”

 

“Bella?” It was Emily, sounding tired.

 

“Emily, are you all right? All of you? What does she mean Kim broke up with Jared. Um, can she do that?”

 

“Of course she can, which is what I also told Sam, before he headed over to try and keep Jared calm.” A note of irritation had crept into Emily’s voice. 

 

What a time to be away from home. 

 

There was a commotion in the background.

 

“Call! What the hell!” Came Leah’s voice. “ No , she doesn’t want you here! And definitely not the pipsqueak squad. I am so including you in that, Seth!”

 

“Oh jeez,” Emily sighed again. “So naturally, poor Kim is being treated to the full pack comfort treatment. Hold on, they’re upsetting her. Here, love, talk to Bella again. Embry, boys, I'm sorry but you’ve got to go. You're not helping.”

 

“Bella?” Kim asked again, sounding more teary than she had before.

 

“Yeah, I’m here. I’m sorry, about...well, what happened? Do you want to, um, talk about it?

 

“I don't know. Yes. And also no, because I'll just cry again.”

 

“Kim...are you sure?” I heard Jacob come into the room quietly behind me.

 

“No.” A sniff, and a low voice saying something I couldn’t make out. “But I needed some time. Doesn't this stuff upset you at all Bella?”

 

I was suddenly very conscious of Jacob behind me.

 

“No, or well, I guess I haven’t thought about it much. But, um, you know after Jacob changed, we were just friends, and he was told not to see me. It was… Not good. So I guess, whatever the reason he loves me…I need him too much to care why.” I paused, realizing something.

 

As much as I loved and needed Jake, Kim felt the same about Jared.

 

“You’re really brave, Kim. I think, you know, whatever happens, you're gonna be okay.”

 

“Thanks, Bella. You’ve all been so good to me. I love you.” more sniffling, and a watery laugh at something I couldn’t see or hear.

 

I was stuck on the love part.

 

I’d never really had a friend, who just...loved me. Aside from Jacob, who in any case had very beyond friendship feelings for me.

 

So much for being a lifelong misfit.

 

“I love you too. You can call me anytime, we’ll just be hanging out with my mom and stuff. Same for all of you. Emily, Leah...Paul?”

 

“I’ll keep that in mind, Swan, tell Jake not to mind any late night calls. A man gets lonely.” His voice sounded very close to the phone.

 

Jake snorted. “I thought you were going to be calling, not a man.”

 

“You’re lucky you’re in another state, Jake. I’m dying to smack someone right now.” 

 

“Um.” I broke in, as Jacob opened his mouth, smirking. 

 

“Spoil sport.”

 

“Hey.”

 

“Leah?”

 

“Yeah, it’s me, just wading through the latest mess here. Thought I'd be glad when someone finally clued in on how messed up imprinting is. But…” she sighed, sounding exhausted.

 

“Anyway, you jerks have fun on the vacation. Lord knows we all could probably use one. Here's Emily.”

 

“Thanks for talking, Bella, I think it helped. Kim thinks you understand better than me, or Leah. I know my feelings don’t make sense on this. Only, I decided when I accepted Sam, that this was how it would be. It cost me a lot, but I took it with open eyes.” She dropped her voice, “Maybe I should have tried harder to explain to Kim, everything I've learned about the imprint. It’s just, they seemed so happy, and so young.”

 

“You're only a year older than me.”

 

“Yes. But sometimes I feel really old.”

 

“Yeah, somehow having to mother a bunch of disgusting teenage boys will do that. Watch out or you’ll go grey by 20.” Leah piped up in the background. This newest crisis seemed to have further thawed her already softening attitude toward Emily.

 

“Thank you Leah.” She murmured with a smile in her voice.

 

“And thank you, Bella. I’ll let you and Jacob get back. We miss you.”

 

“Bye, Emily, bye everyone.”

 

I hung up and turned wide eyes on Jacob.

 

“She broke up with Jared.”

 

“I heard that. Damn.” He looked at me for a long moment. 

 

“Bella…” so he hadn’t forgotten what I said to Kim.

 

“You knew, didn’t you? That I couldn't make it on my own, without you. That’s why you broke away from Sam, and came to my room to try and tell me.” Funny how that thought now warmed my heart despite the remembered pain.

 

“You’d have made it fine. I came to your room because it was killing me to drive you away, to keep away from you when you’d almost died, when I promised never to hurt you, when I -, well, you know.”

 

I stepped forward and hugged him. 

 

“It doesn't matter.” I said, and it was nothing but the truth. “It doesn’t matter if I could have made it on my own. We belong together, no matter what else.”

 

He wrapped his arms around me, and squeezed, almost too hard for a moment.

 

“My mom’s gonna get suspicious,” I murmured, wanting badly to kiss him and take both our minds off everything. 

 

“Yeah, sorry, this stuff is so messed up. Just when I think it’s getting normal, or okay, at least.”

 

“It’s okay, Jake. I’m just worried about Kim and Jared. Are they going to be okay?” I tugged him out of the room.

 

“No idea. The pack’s gonna be a mess. Lucky we’re out here.”



“Bella, Jacob! I was just wondering whether I should send Phil to find you two.” My mom chirped, as we returned to the main room. She was smiling mischievously, but her face fell as she took in our subdued expressions.

 

“Not a good phone call, then honey? It wasn't your Dad, after all, was it?”

 

“No, it was my friend, Kim. Well, our friend. She broke up with her boyfriend, and she was really upset… I don’t really know if I helped…”

 

But Renee was beaming again.

 

“Oh, I'm sure you did help! How nice, that your friend reached out to you for your support.”

 

She was clearly over the moon about the idea of me having the kind of friend that called me about boy trouble. (She had no idea of how complex that boy trouble really was).

 

It was a little embarrassing and insulting how pleased and surprised she was. But then again, she had a point.

 

She proceeded to ask me a dozen questions about Kim, seemingly thrilled by my halting, carefully edited answers.

 

Jacob got approving smiles too, getting credit for being my conduit to something resembling normal sociability. 

 

It was exhausting, and I started to think I should have brought Kim along with me, or Leah or Emily, just to really make Renee’s year.

 

Gradually, her excitement abated to more normal levels.

 

We stayed up late chatting, until I felt like I would nod off in my seat.

 

Renee rubbed my arm, smiling fondly. 

 

“Of course, you guys must be pooped. Now about the sleeping arrangements.”

 

And just like that I was awake again.

 

“Well, I gave you your own rooms,” she began, oblivious to my discomfort. “Honestly, Charlie seemed like he was being crazy. Though it makes a little more sense now.” An indulgent smile at Jacob.

 

“He did point out that since Jacob is 16, his father could be upset. However,” she was surprisingly earnest now.

 

“I don’t believe in controlling young people in that puritanical, oppressive way. That’s what my parents did to me, and look how that turned out. So you each have a room, but I’m not going to pay too much attention to where you sleep. On two conditions. You guys have to be safe, and if you have any questions, or anything confusing or upsetting happens, you guys come to me.”

 

She smiled at my burning face, and Jake’s darker blush.

 

“This doesn’t mean I think you guys should rush into stuff you aren’t ready for yet. But Bella, you’ve always been mature for your age, and I trust you.”

 

She sighed, obviously relieved to have her prepared speech over with.

 

“You kids be good now,” Phil laughed, pulling my mother to her feet.

 

--

The week went by fast. And it stretched on forever.

 

When we weren’t being taken around the city, or to one or Renee’s favorite restaurants, Jacob and I walked on the beach a lot. 

 

The beach in Florida was so different from La Push. The sand was white and gold, and sparkled under the nearly constant sunshine. It was warm and the water pleasantly cool splashing against out ankles.

 

We did plenty of swimming, Phil reclining on a battered lawn chair, cast encased in a plastic bag.

 

When we had time to ourselves we walked along the beach, until I got tired and we sat for a while on the sand, or some conveniently placed bench or ledge.

 

It was like a dream. It was like someone took the gloomy, broken (but still beautiful) start to our friendship and turned all the lights up, inside and out. 

 

We talked too about serious, personal things we had never had a chance to before. 

 

Jacob talked about his family, about Billy and his lingering bitterness over how he’d been so thrilled that Jacob transformed, despite it being one of the worst moments in Jake’s life. 

 

He talked about his mom, how he thought maybe he could remember her more clearly since he changed, maybe because of some enhanced memory thing. And his sisters, who’d left as soon as they could after she passed, rarely coming home or even calling. How he blamed them, but didn’t blame them at all.

 

And I talked back, about Charlie and Renee, and how I tried to take care of them, how I wondered if they really needed me or were just pretending. How I'd always wondered if I'd have liked having siblings. Or if I would have been the odd one out even with them.

 

I didn’t talk about the big, obvious gap in my personal history, which we both carefully avoided whenever possible. 

 

I talked instead about coming to Forks, the first place where everyone seemed to want to know me.

 

 I talked about Kim and the strange simple joy of being around her. About Emily and her quiet peacefulness, and her scary strength. I talked about Leah, and how alike we were, despite the fact that Jake disagreed, and grumbled, grudgingly affectionate, about how difficult she was. 

 

I talked about having friends, and how I'd thought there was a defect in me that kept me from connecting with other, normal humans, until I met him (it was very close to mentioning that most forbidden topic).

 

“And look how that turned out, huh?” Jacob laughed, only a little bitter.

 

We went back to lighter topics and I had the pleasure of watching Jake explain his passion for putting things together and taking them apart.

 

Kim, or Emily, or Leah, or Paul, or Embry, or Quil, even Seth once, called to talk to me, to Jacob, or both of us.

 

No one was handling Kim and Jared’s breakup well, in a way (or so I'd read), that was only natural in a group of people whose lives were so closely, inextricably linked.

 

--

 

“I just can’t right now. I hate hurting him, but then I hate that all I care about is hurting him , you know? I’m not supposed to be that kind of girl.”

 

“He’s being a baby anyway. Fuck him. Or don’t, in this case.”

 

“Paul!”

 

--

 

“She just needs some space, I keep telling them. But half of them are up in arms about imprinting being the worst thing in the world, and the others just keep insisting that it’s worse than pointless to fight. And none of it is helping. Oh, Bella, I’m sorry for dumping all of this on you…”

 

--

“Jake, why fight fate? What is she so upset about?” asked Quil, still apparently content in his own fate.

 

“God, I hope I don’t imprint.” Embry complained in the background.

 

---

 

“To be honest, she’s not doing so great. And he’s worse. Fuck. What’s the point of all this? If we can’t decide anything for ourselves. Dammit!” There was the sound of breaking wood.

 

---

 

“Jake! When are you coming back? Everyone is losing their shit!”

 

“Seth, language!”

 

“Yeah, Yeah. We miss you guys.”

 

---

 

The only reminder of the darker part our lives came near the end of our trip. We’d gone to Friday night dinner with Renee and Phil at a semi-fancy restaurant in Jacksonville and were just  leaving the restaurant when Jacob stiffened, nostrils flaring as I glanced up at him.

 

Oh no. Had Victoria or one (or more) of her minions followed us?

 

“Oh, uh, mom, it’s such a nice night. Do you think Jake and I can stay out a bit longer? We can take a cab home…”

 

“Of course, honey. To be young and in love, huh Phil” She placed a smacking kiss on his cheek.

 

“Don’t count yourself out, Re, you’re still kicking.”

 

She waved us off, giggling and leaning in to kiss Phil for real.

 

“Ugh, gross mom.” I groaned, laughing, in what I hoped sounded like a genuine way as I turned to take Jake’s arm.

 

His very tense arm.


We walked along, in the opposite direction of Renee and Phil, for a couple minutes before Jake spoke.

 

“I smelled one of them, definitely one of them, maybe two, I can’t tell.

 

“Jake. Can you fight two vampires by yourself? What if there are more? Where are we going?”

 

“I don’t know. God, I wish you could have gone home with Renee and Phil.”

 

“I can’t, what if they’re here for me!?”

 

“I know, I know. And even if they aren’t, with our luck they’d attack you just by chance, as soon as I let you out of my sight. Shit.” He looked around. His fingertips were trembling.

 

“You can’t change here Jake, all the people!” 

 

“I know, Bells, but what the hell am I supposed to do? I can’t fight a vampire like this.”

 

I really was going to have to just stop ever leaving my house.

“Okay,” He said, tugging at me to walk faster, half-carrying me as I stumbled. “We’ll head this way, there’s a park or something a couple blocks this way, We drove past.”

 

His jaw was clenched. People were starting to stare as he propelled me down the sidewalk. 

 

“Jake, stop, everyone’s looking at us.”

 

“Great, just what we need.” 

 

“Let’s turn here.”

 

We got out of the bright lights and heavy foot traffic of downtown.

 

Jake picked me up.

 

“I’m gonna run, Bells, don’t freak out.” With no further warning he pulled me close in to his chest, and took off at a run that would probably make Olympic sprinters weep with jealousy.

 

It wasn’t the first time I’d been carried in the arms of a supernatural being running as fast as a car. 

 

It was the same, and also totally different.

 

Some differences were familiar, like the heat of his body radiating into mine, and the smooth but still pliant press of his skin against mine, instead of cold, marble perfection.

 

I hadn’t thought about other differences:

 

His breath filled his lungs, and huffed out above my head, and his heart beat, a strong, steady cadence against my ear. It was comforting, in a way.

 

It was still exhilarating, the rush of air across my face, rushing in my ears. The fluttering in my stomach.

 

I kept my eyes closed, so that I wouldn’t get sick. 

 

I kept my eyes closed even as Jacob slowed, and then stopped.

 

He laughed, a real one, though a current of reckless tension underran it.

 

“You can open your eyes, Bella. You gonna hurl?”

 

“Of course not! It’s just like the bikes.”

 

“I hope you don’t ride the bike with your eyes closed.”

 

I didn’t. Usually. 

 

“Are we here? Is this good?”

 

“Yeah, well, good as we can get on short notice.” We were in a copse of trees, not exactly thick cover, but it would have to do.

 

“How are you going to get to the vampires though? Won’t they be where all the people are? Hunting?”

“I have no idea, I’m kinda winging it.”He handed me his shirt and toes off his shoes. 

 

“Jake, you’re shifting now?” He looked up from shucking off his pants.

 

“I can’t let it kill someone, can I?” Oh shoot, and here I'd wanted to only worry about us not getting killed. He was right though.

 

He balled up his pants and underwear and put them on his shoes and socks. I blushed, even though it was hardly the first time I'd seen him this way.

 

“‘Kay, let me move away. Hey, put that on over your clothes. I won’t go far but hopefully it will make you smell bad to them.” I did as he said of course, and the shirt pooled around me, ridiculously huge. It was also warm, and to my human nose it smelled like nothing but Jake - warmth, forest, sunlight, and that extra special smell that was just him.

 

He broke into a brief grin at that. “You look cute.”

 

Then he transformed.

 

It wasn't really possible to get used to the transformation. It was so sudden and so impossible to comprehend.

 

Wolf-Jacob raised his nose and sniffed. He turned and looked at me one more time before moving into a swift, silent gait which took him out of sight.

 

Then it was just me, sitting there beside his clothes, in the best cover a municipal park had to offer. 

 

The night seemed very dark, and very silent. 

 

It felt like a very long time. I looked at the time on my cell phone, but I didn't know what time we’d left the restaurant, or when Jacob had left.

 

It was terrifyingly quiet.

 

Every rustle sounded like the speeding approach of my certain death. I didn’t dare call out for Jacob, because who knew what I would attract, or if I might distract him. 

 

It also wasn’t lost on me the similarity to my recurring nightmare.

 

My heartbeat sounded deafening. Like a beacon to any passing supernatural creatures.

 

A dark shape passed over my head, blocking the moon.

I think I screamed, but I couldn't be sure. My ears were clogged with panic.

 

Jake landed on all fours in front of me, a low growl rumbling like thunder.

 

He dropped something by my leg.

 

It was a severed head.

 

Ew. 

 

He was still growling, which was a bad sign. He whipped his head snapping at a blur that appeared out of nowhere. A blur that shrieked and bounced back, coming to a stop and resolving (to my human eyesight) into a breathtakingly beautiful but also non-descript woman. 

 

“What are you?” She asked, her voice a beautiful melody, floating over to me like a familiar balm.

 

“You aren’t a child of the moon. You shouldn’t have been able to -” she leapt in some impossible to follow movement as Jacob lunged. 

 

They would want to know, I could - but, no, I'd much rather finish you myself.” She moved to the side and Jake snapped toward her without leaving his position in front of me. 

 

She seemed to see me for the first time, though I had a feeling this was not truly the case.

 

“And what is this you have? A little girl? No, a mate? Covered in that disgusting smell, but underneath, something sweet. She isn't like you, is she? Just a harmless little human.” She smiled, beatifically.

 

She said this all while effortlessly dodging Jacob’s snapping jaws and lunges.

 

“Girl, when I'm done with your beast here, you and I will have a lot of fun. Though, on the other hand--” her hand was suddenly there, freezing and immoveable against my throat, in what I assumed was my last moment on Earth.

 

Oh

 

No...

 

I stared into her beautiful red eyes. 

 

Then she was gone, flying back, Jake shaking her arm between his teeth. His growl rising to a terrifying snarl.

 

She sprang back, still grinning, not seeming bothered by the lack of her arm. Jake dropped her arm and lunged, but she darted out of his way, drawing him along, just out of his reach. 

 

Suddenly she lunged forward, thrusting her remaining arm out against his chest, sending him flying back. He hit a tree just behind me and I scrambled out of the way.

 

But she was in front of me again, lifting me effortlessly by one arm.

 

Her teeth seemed very bright in the moonlight.

 

“Will it be more upsetting to him if I kill you fast, or slow?”

 

She leapt back suddenly, pulling me with her in a way that was definitely going to leave a mark.

 

“Resilient. I really do wish I knew what you were. Are there more of you?” 

 

She smiled at me, and her glorious beauty made me want to smile back, even as I cringed in pain and fear.

 

“Brave little girl. In another life I would let you live. But-” she jumped again as Jake lunged.

 

I felt like I could feel his desperation and his feet slipped and scrambled out from under him as his attack missed.

 

She smiled again. “Then again, having you around is proving to be very effective.” She leaned her head over my neck, inhaling, though her eyes were on Jacob. 

 

Then she threw me aside.

 

I was weightless, flying through the air, for a breathless moment. 

 

I hit the ground hard, knocking the wind out of me. The last thing I felt was the distant pain of my head thudding against the ground.

---

Chapter Text

I didn’t know how long I was out but when I came to it was silent. 

 

Something cold pressed into me and I whimpered before I realized it was cold and wet. Warm breath fanned over my cheek a moment later.

 

Thank goodness.

 

“Jake?” I croaked, starting to feel the various results of my fall.

 

But he was alive. And I was alive. Now if only I could move any part of my body.

 

The breath withdrew and I heard very quiet but heartfelt cursing. A moment later, Jacob’s unusually pale face was looking into mine, as he gently rolled me onto my back.

 

“Shit. Shit. Sorry Bells.” He grimaced.

 

I raised my arm, which apparently did work. I touched his face “You’re hurt?” I tried to sit up. Jacob’s hands held me firmly where I was. 

 

“No, I don’t think you should move. You could have a neck, head thing and I think you aren't supposed to move for those.” He grimaced again.

 

“What happened?”

 

“She broke my leg. But that’s how I got her. Listen, I have to go get the body of the guy one, and we have to burn the bodies. Looks like we’ll be committing acts of vandalism tonight. Don’t tell Charlie.” He was trying for his usual breezy good cheer, but his face was still too pale, and his smile kept turning down.

 

“All right.” I tried to play along.  “Bonfire, sounds fun. You can still shift?”

 

“Yeah, it’s just gonna hurt like a bitch. I’ll be right back. Are you gonna be alright? I hate leaving you here... Oh, well, we’d have to call anyway.”

 

He moved away, and despite his warning I turned to watch him limp over to the mess where our stuff was now half-hidden under a fallen tree.

 

He limped back and dumped it all unceremoniously next to me and dug my phone out of my purse. He scrolled through it briefly, frowning, then dialed.

 

“We’ll need her mom’s help eventually anyway. Hope she’s not on patrol. I couldn’t hear anyone, but don’t know if it’s the distance or what.” he put the phone in my hand and I lifted it automatically to my ear. 

 

“What?” Leah’s voice demanded curtly a moment later.

 

“Hi, Leah.” I replied, aiming for normal, but failing.

 

“Oh no, you can’t be having some kind of romantic crisis too. One is all I can take. Just tell Jake to get his head out of his ass.”

 

“Thanks a lot, Leah.”

 

“What’s wrong with him?” Her voice was alert now, “Bella?”

 

“Um, well, Jake sort of smelled some vampires, and-”

 

“Oh, Jesus fucking -- And he went after them? How many? Were they hers?”

 

“We’ll need your mom’s advice, Leah. I’ll be back.” He promised, eyes dark with worry and pain.

 

Jacob retreated a few more steps and shifted, giving me a long look before trotting into the night.

 

“I guess two. He got them both, but his leg is broken, and I don’t know what else. There was a woman...she...well, it’s fine now. But he went to get the body of the other one, the guy.” I felt the first tears prickling at the corner of my eyes.

 

“We’re okay, Leah,” 

 

She sighed.

 

“I’m not stupid, Bella. Though I may be the only member of this goddamn pack that can say that. You guys need back up? It won’t be quick.”

 

“No, no I think they’re… they didn’t know what Jake was...they were alone. I remember they told me that it’s normal for the nomads to travel in groups of two, mated pairs, you know.”

 

“Weird. But good to know. So not related to the shit up here. And luckily Jake managed to take them both out without either of you outright dying. Great. How hurt are you then?”

 

“I’m-”

 

“You aren’t fine. Again, not stupid. Jake already said you need my mom, so just spit it out.”

 

“She threw me. I don’t know. I hurt all over, but nothing seems broken. I don’t know. I was unconscious.”

 

“Shit. And your mom, she’s okay?”

 

“Her and Phil went home, we told them we wanted a night out.”

 

“Where are you Bella?”

 

“In a park...Jacob needed somewhere to shift. And then...he didn’t want to move me, my neck, or head, or something. He had to go get the body.”

 

“He left you there alone?”

 

“He called you, so that I…” tears spilled down my cheek to my hand holding the phone. I tried again. “I wouldn’t be…” it was no good. I was crying now, alone and cold, and hurting all over in a municipal park in Jacksonville, Florida, where Jake and I had both almost died. The dark seemed so dark.

 

“Shhh” Leah crooned to me, sounding different, softer than usual. “You’re okay. You’re fine. I bet you didn’t cry at all when that bitch came after you, right?”


“No, but it was only because-”

 

“You looked her right in the eye and you’re alive and she’s dead. Deader.”

 

I felt more than heard Jake return, dropping something in the grass a ways away from me, the park seemed a few degrees warmer now.

 

“Jake’s back.”

 

“Good. Who knows what kind of fucked up people go to parks in the middle of the night in Florida. It’s not just bloodsuckers out there.”

 

“Thanks, Leah.”

 

There was a long pause. Jake moved around the field on three legs, gathering what was probably body parts together in a pile.

 

“You’re strong, Bella. Strong. But even if you weren’t. You’re ours Bella,” she said, finally, her voice still gentle. “You’re one of us. You won’t ever be alone again. For better or worse.”  her voice roughened over the last part.

 

“I’ll go get my mom now.” 

 

Jake dropped a last, thankfully darkness-obscured piece of vampire onto the heap and shifted, cursing as he bent to pick a little something from the grass. This proved to be a lighter, though I had no idea where he’d found one in his wolf form.

 

He flicked it and tossed it into the remains of the vampires. It went up with startling suddenness.

 

“Hello, Bella?” Sue’s stern, capable voice  was immediately calming.

 

“Hi, Sue, sorry.”

 

Jacob limped over, putting hardly any weight on his injured leg. 

 

He was still naked, but didn’t seem to care. 

 

“There was -- did Leah tell you?”

 

“I think she got the basics. Jacob decided to pick a fight with two vampires with only you for backup, while he was thousands of miles away from his brothers and sister?”

 

Jacob groaned.

 

“Um, yes, something like that…”

 

“What was I supposed to do, let them kill innocent people?”

 

“And you’re injured.” she continued, not indicating she’d heard Jake, though I thought she had.

 

“Can you move your neck Bella? Does it feel stiff? How much does your head hurt?”

 

I thought about that.

 

“My neck seems fine. I think my head hurts...average amount? My...um…” I glanced at Jacob, who was pulling on his pants. “My arm hurts. I landed on it.” I kept my voice low, even knowing there was no way for it to be loud enough for Sue to hear, without Jacob also hearing.

 

He snatched the phone out of my hand.

 

“How can we go to the hospital without her mom finding out? What can we possibly say to explain how she got hurt? They'll think I - fuck.”

 

“Calm down, Jacob, you need to see if you can figure out what’s wrong with her arm. If it’s broken or dislocated, you’ll have no choice but to go to a doctor.”

 

I let my mind drift away as Jake spoke with Sue. He eventually had to feel my arm, which brought me painfully back into the present. 

 

“Sorry, sorry!” he apologized.

 

In the end though, the pain wasn’t too bad once I started moving it. My arm would certainly be an unsightly mess of bruises by morning, and I might have pulled something, but it could move, and I didn’t think it was just shock telling me the pain was easing to a dull roar. Sue threatened us with dire consequences if we didn’t take care of ourselves, and told us to update Sam as soon as possible.

 

Jacob hung up, and then sat down heavily beside me. The vampire remains were still burning, looking almost cheerful.

 

Jacob’s lips crashed down onto mine a moment later.

 

The kiss wasn’t gentle. His lips moved hard against mine, his teeth scraping over my lip and his hands coming up to pull my face to his, wrapping into my tangled hair.

 

He wrapped his arms around me and held me to him, somehow managing not to jostle or squeeze any of my bruises.

 

Finally, when I was in danger of running out of air he pulled back and rested his forehead against mine.

 

“Bella.” he groaned. “I’m so sorry.”

 

“For what?” I asked, bewildered, absently running my hands over his chest, arms and shoulders, half-concerned, half-affectionate.

 

“I should have let it go. When she threw you like that, and you weren’t moving...Oh God,” he pulled me gently into his lap and held me to him, dropping his face into my hair.

 

“Of course you had to go after them. You’re a good person Jake, a superhero even,” I joked. It sounded feeble at best, but he let out a huff of a laugh.

 

“Didn’t feel like a hero much when she grabbed you. I want to be a good person Bella...but I think I would rather have let them go on killing forever than lose you.”

 

“Hey,” I patted his face. “Don’t think like that, I’m fine, you’re fine. You kept us both safe, Jake. And you got the bad guys.”

 

He stood. I squeaked.

 

“Okay, we have to get home. Think it’s safe to leave this fire here?”

 

Honestly, I had no idea.

 

We ended up staying as the fire burned itself out, growing extra bright, almost white, before gradually dwindling away until it licked feebly at the damp grass.

 

Jacob, who’d pulled his pants back on just in case anyone showed up to investigate the fire, stuffed his feet back into his shoes, and stamped it out the rest of the way. Thank goodness for Florida humidity. 

 

He was still limping heavily, and from my vantage point in his arms I could see him wincing.

 

“Jake, put me down.”

 

“Nope.”

 

“I can walk. I’m fine.”

 

“Sure, sure. But you aren’t going to.”

 

“Jaaaaake”

 

“Bells, you were knocked unconscious and thrown across a park.”

 

“Why isn’t your leg healed?”

 

“It takes a while to heal that kind of thing. Even for me.” 

 

“There’s something else, isn’t there.”

 

“Aren’t you supposed to be concussed?”

 

I waited.

 

“I don’t seem to be healing as fast as usual...it might be the distance, from the pack, or something, I don’t know.”

 

That was not great news, particularly since there was no way for Jake to be treated in Florida or any other normal hospital. His resting temperature was 108°. He could turn into a giant wolf, and who knew what that looked like in a blood test.

 

“Where are we going Jake?”

 

“Home”

 

--

 

It felt like a very long night, even though we made it back to Renee and Phil’s before midnight. We ended up taking a taxi. It was necessary, what with my possible concussion (Jake had very strict instructions from Sue on how to monitor me, which included no jostling) and Jake’s continuing limp.

 

He still complained in a low voice for most of the ride home. Oddly, it was comforting, rather than aggravating, his complaints mixed with some sparks of his returning humor. Most of all it was just so familiar now to let Jake’s voice wash over me, keeping me company and driving away my demons.

 

We let ourselves quietly into our room (technically my room)

 

Jake rapidly shed his clothes (he’d had to reclaim his shirt for the taxi ride), leaving him in boxers, and then set about the much slower process of helping me dress for bed. He pressed his warm hand against my bruised and swollen skin and I sighed.

 

He kissed me gently this time, soft, slow, and molten. I smiled against his mouth without breaking the kiss, pulling him close, with as much relief in our survival as desire.

 

“So,” he said, not pulling his lips away from mine. “Best date night ever?”

 

“I’ve had worse.” I pressed my lips back to his and pulled him down into the bed.

 

---

 

“Oh my gosh! Bella!” Renee shrieked, rattling the windows.

 

I guess I looked as bad as I thought then.

 

Jake, who’d been following me into the kitchen, sleepily rubbing a hand over short hair, stopped, wincing.

 

“What happened?!” Renee cried, rising to run to me.

 

“Ah, well, you see....” I hated lying to her. But at least, after getting a good look at myself in the mirror in the bedroom, I’d prepared for this one.

 

“A random woman attacked you, and pushed you down a flight of stairs?” the woman was necessary, as the bruise around my neck was clearly a handprint if you looked close

 

Renee, not naturally suspicious, looked dubious, as did Phil.

 

“I know, I know it sounds weird. But I swear. She was really strong too. Maybe she was on drugs or something?” Or something, of course. But it was true that she was really strong, at least.

 

“Oh honey, if I hadn’t known you your whole life I wouldn’t have believed it. Why do these things always happen to you?”

 

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Dwyer.” Jake said, shame faced and shoulders hunched and completely in earnest. “I should have stopped her. I just honestly didn’t see it coming. It happened so fast.”

 

“There have been some drug problems lately, some new kind of meth or something.” 

 

“But how will I ever live this down with Charlie?!”

 

Thank goodness for Phil and Renee.

 

It put a damper on the last couple days of our trip, to be sure.

 

Renee hugged me tightly as we unloaded our bags. We’d insisted she didn’t need to park and come in with us.

 

“Bella, it was wonderful to see you. I’m so so sorry you got hurt.”

 

“Mom, it wasn’t your fault,” I patted her back, the reassurance easy and automatic after so many repetitions.

 

“We had a great time,” Jacob put in. She switched her attention to him, embracing him. It was comical how little she looked next to him.

 

“Jacob. Thank you for rescuing Bella. And thank you for coming to stay with us. It was wonderful to get to know you.”

 

Phil gave me a hug as well, and even he seemed shaken by my latest accident.

 

“You take care of yourself, girl. Can’t have you giving your mom any premature grey hairs.”

 

He shook Jacob’s hand.

 

The trip was just as unpleasant at the last one, and it took way too long.

 

As we flew, my legs thrown over Jake’s to allow him fractionally more space I thought of the phone call with Sam.

 

“Hello, Jacob.” He sounded unusually cheerful over the phone as if he was surprised but pleased to hear from us. I felt guilty that we hadn’t been as much in touch with him as the rest of the pack.

 

“How’s Bella? Enjoying the warmer climate?” Jacob heard what I did and made an exaggerated wince at me.

 

“Yeah, yeah we’ve been having a real good time Sam.”

 

“And you’ve thought about what we talked about? Taking up your right?” I gave Jake a questioning look and he shrugged a shoulder apologetically.

 

“No, well, sort of...Actually, the thing is Sam. Well, here’s what happened.”

 

He related what had happened briefly, though it included some details I didn’t know, like how he’d snatched the male off the street and carried him just far enough to avoid dropping the body on the street.

 

And how he’d had to let the female in close to take her out. She’s broken his back leg when he dodged her attempt to break his neck.

 

Even more briefly he related my injuries.

 

Sam was quiet for a long time.

 

“Jacob.” He rumbled, in a totally different tone.

 

“I think you don’t need me to tell you that that was reckless and dangerous. Without the protection of the pack…” He took a deep breath. 

 

“Sam?” Emily’s voice, in the background.

 

“You could have died. Bella could have died. What would your families…”

 

“Sam, I know. I just- they were hunting, Sam. Bella’s mom lives here. I was just supposed to let them kill—”

 

There was a loud cracking sound.

 

“Sam! What happened?!” Emily, now shrill and alarmed, moving closer.

 

“You were supposed to NOT risk your lives on some foolish hero fantasy. Protecting your family is necessary, but this. You just…”

 

“That’s such bullshit, you know-”

 

“We’ll talk about it when you get home.”

 

He’d hung up.

 

We couldn’t wait.

 

It was dark by the time we made it to Seattle, and raining in a steady drizzle. A perfectly fitting welcome home to the land of perpetual cloud cover.

 

Charlie was idling by the curb at the loading zone we we made it out of the airport. He took a long look at my face as we slid into the car.

 

Unfortunately, my skin tone was very bad for hiding even fading bruises, and all of mine still stood out in stark black and purple.

 

“Hmph. Can’t send you anywhere. And Jake, leg better?”

 

He sounded grumpy but not mad. Renee had been right to make me call to warn him.

 

“Totally healed up, Charlie. Just wish I could have done a better job.”

 

“Well, I’ve learned there’s no preventing these things. She’s like a magnet for injury.”

 

“I’m right here. It wasn’t my fault you know.”

 

“I know. But only you, Bells. At least you didn’t fall through a window this time.”

 

---

 

We showed up at Emily’s obscenely early the next morning. Actually, it was 8am, but the long day of travel and my injuries made it seem much earlier. Though jet lag should have made it seems later.

 

“Bella, you poor thing.” Emily hugged me gently, tsk-ing. 

 

“You look terrible.” I looked around Emily and tried not to gasp and return the compliment. 

 

Jared looked awful. He looked older, thinner, and there was something desperate in his face. Something I had a feeling I'd seen before. In my own mirror.

 

Like something vital inside him had broken.

 

“You’re one to talk, you look like shit. Bella got attacked by a vampire, what’s your excuse?” Jacob had less restraint.

 

“Ignore him, Jake, he’ll just lose control again.” Embry rolled his eyes, sounding bored. 

 

“Hey, Bella, so you didn’t like Florida then?”

 

“More like the reverse, I guess.”

 

“Only you could run into vampires in every damn state in the country, Swan,” Leah grouched, pushing through the door and throwing a gentle arm around me.

 

Seth hugged me too, following in his sister’s wake before collapsing on the couch. 

 

“So glad you guys are back, Jake you won’t believe what-”

 

“Everyone here?” Sam asked, coming out of the kitchen eating a bowl of what looked like oatmeal. 

 

“Jacob, Bella, welcome back.” He smiled, then frowned when he looked at me.

 

“You look…”

 

“Yeah, I know.” 

 

“Jacob.” 

 

Jake bristled.

 

“What else could we do Sam?”

 

“We can’t be responsible for every human in the world. You don’t see me patrolling in Seattle, despite what’s happened there.”

 

“We’ve been over this. We didn’t go looking for them, they were just there. Were we just supposed to let them go, they could have stuck around, and it could have been Bella’s mom or stepdad that they ate next.”

 

“He was just worried about you. Don’t look at me like that Sam, you were.” 

 

Sam rolled his eyes.

 

“Let’s start then, Leah, Embry, Jared-”

 

“Paul’s not here.” Collin piped up.

 

“Tattletale.”

 

“He went to get K-”

 

A low grow rumbled through the room, silencing all the chatter.

 

Brady edged away from Jared.

 

“Jesus, Sam, why does she have to come? Can’t you just...she’s one of the only ones who has a choice about this freak show.” Leah looked around the room for agreement. Everyone mostly looked uncomfortable. Though Emily nodded, an apologetic look in her eyes for Sam.

 

I wasn’t sure. Did imprinting really allow for choice, even from the imprintee?

 

Jacob took my hand. 

 

Jared shot to his feet

 

“It’s Paul. Why can’t he just leave her the fuck alone. ” His last word was a snarl and he turned to head for the door.

 

Stop ,” the command in Sam’s voice made almost everyone in the room freeze for a moment.

 

“I told Paul to pick up Kim, Jared. She is still a part of this pack, unless you no longer feel the imprint. She’s ours.”

 

Jared’s face twisted into something part-rage and part- despair.

 

She doesn’t want me.” He said, and I sucked in a breath, my arm rising automatically to wrap around my chest. Leah, too, was staring at Jared in horrified recognition.

 

“Don’t be silly.” Emily spoke up, her usually calm voice sharp. “You know that’s not it. If you would just listen to her. She wants to be seen Jared. So set your own feelings aside and be the kind of man who deserves her.”

 

Jared turned and growled at her. “Like Sam deserved you when you rejected him, or when he almost killed you?”

 

This set everything into chaos.

 

Jacob was growling, and I thought they all were, feeling...something. Something beyond my normal senses.

 

“Well, shit.” Embry and Quil were edging toward Jake, as if for a show of strength. The three of them, always a pack within the pack.

 

“Hey,” Leah growled back, bristling. “Calm the fuck down, Jare- that’s no-”

 

Sam looked up at that moment and all the wolves but Jacob stumbled to their knees.

 

But though the skin of his face looked like it had been pulled to tight against the severe planes of his face, all he said was:

 

“Like I did when I got my head out of my ass, yes. And it was you who advised me to do just that, wasn’t it?” His voice was gentle. Jared dropped his head and sank to sit on the floor.

 

“I’m sorry, Em. I just—”

 

She waved her hand.

 

“It’s nothing.” She placed a gentle hand on Sam’s arm, which he covered with his own.

 

“Soo...what’d we miss?” asked a subdued but familiar voice from the doorway.

 

All the wolves except for Jared, whipped around faster than I could follow to stare at Kim and Paul, who’d arrived unnoticed. Jared just sank further in on himself.

 

“Hi guys,” Kim sounded glum, and looked not much better than Jared. Her braided hair was mussed, and her face looked pale and tired. She was on a single crutch, her leg braced up in a walking cast that gave me unpleasant memories. Her other arm was still in a cast. She looked like she still belonged in a wheelchair. Finding herself the center of the pack’s attention she shrunk back into Paul, standing like a self-appointed guardian behind her.  When Jared suddenly rose to his feet she jumped away, tottering alarmingly and hobbled over to Jake and me, wincing before hugging us both.

 

“Bella! I’m so glad you’re back!” She whispered, even though she must know they’d hear. She didn’t sound glad at all. She sounded on the edge of an unstoppable flood of tears.

 

“All right, let’s get down to business,” Sam was carefully composed again. 

 

Emily’s living room was getting a little small for the full assembled pack. 

 

She passed around her usual basket of muffins and I wondered idly how much she spent on baking supplies for the pack. Everyone continued ignoring the tension in the room. Maybe they were used to it, after a week. 

 

Brady and Colin sat shoulder to shoulder against the far wall, Embry and Quil jostled over the worn armchair. Quil smiled smugly at his victory, while Embry grumbled and took a seat on the floor.

 

Seth had a seat at the dining table with Emily and Sam.

 

Jared simply stayed where he was, slumped in the middle of the floor.

 

The couch was weirdly uncontested. Jacob and I claimed one end. Leah and Paul, by some kind of mutual agreement or due to pack politics we’d missed on our trip to Florida, seemed to be acting as Kim’s escort. She ended up on the couch beside me, with Paul next to her and Leah in front, leaning her head back against our knees.

 

It was a bit sad how mundane and dry a meeting about vampires and werewolves could be, after a couple months of it.

 

Three, or four, (according to Seth, who was insistent that he hadn’t imagined Number 4) vampires had been encountered at the North end of La Push on Wednesday.

 

They hadn’t told us, because it had been easy to take care of them, there’d been 6 wolves running that night - Jared, Embry, Sam, Seth, Collin, and Brady - and the three vampires had been easy to deal with.

 

Jacob’s turn came next. He told our story in as few words as possible, barely touching on how I'd gotten my injuries, and how close it’d been.

 

I had a feeling everyone knew how close it had been anyway. My face heated, feeling their curious gazes tracing my bruises.

 

Jacob’s jaw clenched.

 

“But Jacob got them.” I said, feeling somehow like he was on trial. “And we’re both fine.”

 

Quil grinned at me from across the room.

 

“Man, Jake, takin’ out two vampires solo, great vacation dude.”

 

Apparently Quil’s good mood had persisted since his imprint, despite the turmoil within the rest of the pack.

 

“It was stupid.” Jared had looked over at us when everyone else did, but his eyes were stuck on Kim now. He was simply looking, without anything sexual or overtly romantic to it. It was more like she was just the best thing he’d ever seen, and he didn’t want to look away.

 

She peeked through her lashes at him and didn’t look away for a long moment.

 

“Bella could have died. Everyone can tell that’s a handprint on her neck, man. And why? To stop some random leeches who might have killed some random person all the way in Florida?”

 

Kim frowned. “Why does it matter where they were? Vampires kill people, right? And you guys can stop it. Don’t you have a responsibility to do something if you can help? Bella’s fine. I bet she didn’t care about the risk. She’s tough.” This was surprisingly bold for Kim in a big group setting. 

 

It may have been that she’d forgotten that we were there. Her eyes were on Jared again.

 

“‘ With great power comes great responsibility’ you mean. I think you’ve been reading too many comic books Kimmy” Paul slung his arm over the couch behind her, and tugged on the end of one of her messy braids.

 

I realized that he was doing this on purpose to get to Jared. He had to be. Why?

 

But Jared didn't rise to the bait. I saw all his muscles tense, but he didn’t move or make a sound of protest.

 

“Our first responsibility is to our people. We can’t protect everyone. What happens to Jake if Bella dies? Or what if he died, because he couldn’t fight two vampires and protect her. We’d lose two of our own, and for what?” 

 

Honestly, it wasn’t the time, but I was touched to be ‘one of them’. 

 

Jared was focused totally on Kim, and looked somehow healthier than when we’d come in. Even though all they were doing was arguing.

 

“That’s the deal though, right? Of course I don’t want anything to happen to them, but if it was me- I- I would rather die than just say ‘screw you’ to the rest of the world —”

 

“Easy for you to say,” Embry started, sounding angry.

 

“Irrelevant.” Sam interjected. “No one is dying. What’s done is done. Jacob made what seemed like the best choice at the time and he and Bella are fine. And we’ve got more than enough to worry about right here.”

 

Funny he should say that now, when he’d been the one to originally get worked up about it all. I guess he figured we had been chastised enough.

 

Ultimately, the primary result of the meeting was that Sue was going to take a look at Jake’s leg and decide whether someone needed to re-break it, which we all hoped would not be the case, and Sam was going to have more wolves per patrol, just in case.

 

Unspoken as the logic behind the patrol groups seemed to be, I noticed that never were Leah, Paul, nor Quil ever paired with Jared. And Sam always was.

 

The group broke up more quickly than usual after the official meeting was done. Emily gave us a farewell smile as Sam held out his hand to Jared to get him up off the floor. 

 

We walked with Leah and Seth to their house for our “appointment” with Sue. Most of the pack walked along with us for a ways. Kim came along, though her crutch had been left behind and Paul was carrying her, despite her complaints. 

 

“I could have used the crutch. I’m getting used to it now, I’m way faster.”

 

“You’re a fucking snail, Kim. It’s painful how slow you are. I would have left them at your house altogether, but I didn’t want Jared to actually attack me if I showed up carrying you.” He paused. “Not that I can’t take him, ‘specially now. Collin could take him.” he glanced down at her unhappy face.

 

“You still sure about this?”

 

“No,” she looked very unhappy. “I’m not sure about any of it. I have to...I just want it to go back to the way it was.”

 

“Then go back. Why fight it? Just let yourself be happy. Imprinting is like the best perk of this whole deal.”

 

“Shut up, Quil,” Leah, Paul, Kim, and Embry said together. It sounded like something they’d been saying often.

 

“But do you still love Jared or not?” Seth asked, sounding honestly curious.

 

“You know I do. I love him. How could I not? But…I mean I guess I never really thought about the fact that it wasn’t the same for him. I mean, I could have been a kid or a total stranger or like a vampire for all I know, and he would have felt the same thing.”

 

“We can imprint on vampires?” Seth sounded honestly curious.

 

“Why not?” asked Kim. 

 

“Of course not, Seth. That’s disgusting. You can’t imprint on something that’s not even alive. And who’d even want to get close enough. Ugh, the smell alone.”

 

I had a somewhat different opinion on the aliveness and attractiveness of vampires, but I held my peace.

 

“Yeah, sick man.” Embry added. 

 

Quilt stopped walking and turned around, as if he heard some kind alarm the rest of us didn't.

 

“Oops. Sorry guys. Gotta go. Tea party.” Quil waved a cheery goodbye as he jogged off in the direction of his house.

 

Jake sighed. “So I guess he really did imprint then? I was kind of pretending it was just a freaky dream I had.”

 

“Oh, he imprinted, all right, and he’s been unbearable ever since.” Embry kicked a rock hard, denting a nearby car.

 

“You saw what we did, Jake. It’s not sexual, not romantic. And yet, still so so creepy.”

 

“He’s kind of like a pod person. But he’s really happy now, and Billy and old Quil and our mom all looked into the legends and they did find some kind of mention of something that made them all stop looking all doom and gloom.”

 

“That doesn’t make it not gross. I think if it was me...I’d just kill myself, or let myself get taken out or something.”

 

“Paul!”

 

“You know I’m right. Look at you. It’s like torturing yourself staying away from Jared, and he’s basically broken. His control is shot, his parents think he’s depressed. And you’re at least both consenting almost-adults who can have an intelligent conversation and bone and stuff. I didn’t sign on for being enslaved for life to some kid in diapers.”

 

“We didn’t sign up for any of this.” Jake took my hand.

 

“Is it...does the imprint...um, can you make it go away?” I was thinking of what he had said, about vampires only changing rarely, and how it tended to be monumental when they did. Was that like imprinting? Because if so...well, it turned out it wasn’t so monumental or irreversible.

 

“No one knows,” Leah snorted in disgust. “Because once you do you apparently don’t want to make it go away. Look at Quil. You think a month ago he would have been down to imprint on a two year old?”

“Quil aside though, aren’t the imprinted couples all happy? I mean, what they feel might start out a certain way, but then they like fall in love. Because they’re soulmates or something.”

 

“Ugh, gross, Seth. Have you been reading Mom’s romances?”

 

“Look,” Jake said, “Bella and I...I know you don’t all agree that I imprinted. But it’s the same feeling. I mean I do remember from before I changed, that feeling of just fitting together . It’s not something bad, it can’t be. Because it’s the same feeling...just more. Like you look at the person and it’s like everything just clicks into place.”

 

“You really think so?” Kim asked in a small voice.

 

“Yeah, I do. Not that the kid thing isn’t still messed up. But the whole wolf deal is messed up.”

 

Leah wasn’t convinced “Yeah,  or 1 - you’re biased because you imprinted or 2 - you and Bella just won the lottery and happened to fall in love with someone the universe deemed to be the ‘right person.’ Well, fuck the universe.”

“Fuck the universe. That should be our pack motto, Leah.”

 

---

Chapter Text

---

 

“So children.” Sue said to the group, looking me over, eyes lingering on my more spectacular bruises. “What have we learned?”

 

“Don’t send vampire girl out of state?”

 

“Don’t call her that.”

 

“Dude. She went to Arizona and got attacked by a vampire, she went to Florida and got attacked by a vampire. She dated a vampire. She went hiking and almost got killed by a vampire. She’s being hunted by a vampire here. She’s like...a vampire magnet.”

 

“Stop saying vampire.”

 

“Sue, can you look at Kim too, after we figure out if we get to break Jake’s leg?”

 

“Kim should go to the doctor if she feels bad. She’s not a supernatural creature.”

 

“But you know she won’t…”

 

“Mom, do you have anymore Poptarts?”

 

“In the pantry, Seth. Okay, everyone clear out. I don’t want you distracting Jacob.”

 

“Can I, um.”

 

“No, even you, Bella, especially you. The imprinting makes physiological reactions...weird.”

 

“You can say that again.”

 

“Real fancy medical talk, Mom.”

 

“Out.”

 

We adjourned to the living room, where Kim was napping on the couch.

 

Leah slumped down at the other end.

 

“Is she going to be okay?” 

 

“Mm. awake. ‘M …” Kim mumbled sleepily.

 

“We’ll see. She needs to worry less about her love life and more about her injuries. But whatever. Bella, what are you doing next year?”

 

“Next year? Do you mean, school?”

 

“Yeah, you had that mental breakdown and didn’t apply for college, right?”

 

“Umm…Yes?” There had been an envelope from Dartmouth, which I’d stuffed into the trash before Charlie could see it, and tried hard not to think about. But that hardly mattered now.

 

“Yeah, and Paul and me, we can’t leave this god forsaken place at the moment. Maybe, eventually, Seattle or Olympia but that’s probably it.”

 

“Trapped for life. Woo.”

 

“So, you want to go to community college with us?”

 

My mom had asked the same questions, albeit with more tact than Leah. So at least I had some of my answer prepared.

 

“Yeah, I thought I’d see if I could enroll at Peninsula. You know...figure things out...maybe transfer in a couple of years. Plus, by then....”

 

“Yeah, Jake will be graduated by then, you cradle robber.” 

 

Paul winked at me.

 

“Leah, what the hell is wrong with you?” Jake groused, stalking into the room. 

 

“Why yes, I would be happy to break your leg, Jake. Either one, I’m not picky.”

 

“Haha. My leg is fine, sorry to disappoint.”

 

“The point is,” Paul interrupted, rolling his eyes, “That Leah and I are going to go up to Port Angeles and talk to someone about the school. Cause the Forks campus is way small. We have to make sure we can get the classes we need.”

 

“Paul’s a closet nerd.” Embry whispered loudly. Leah and Paul ignored him.

 

“So I’ve heard.”

 

“He had to turn down a big scholarship and everything.”

 

“Right. And you’re coming.” Leah continued as if Embry wasn’t there. He stuck his tongue out at her.

 

“And maybe Kim too.”

 

“Not Kim.”

 

“Man... are you and her…? Cause--”

 

“Get your mind out of the gutter, Jake. She hangs with me or Leah so that Jared won’t come begging at her window, and she won’t worry herself back into the hospital.”

 

“Oh, is that it, really?” Embry sounded disappointed. “Shit. Can you lie and tell Quil you’re sleeping together? He’s been so annoying lately. I bet him $10 you were.”

 

“Jerk.” Kim mumbled, still apparently asleep.

 

“I don’t care, but it’ll cost you $10.”

 

“Not fair, dude.”

 

“It’d serve him right though, he’s being an ass.”

 

----

 

“Jeez,” Jake complained, when we’d finally left the others behind. “All this drama. I mean, can’t we just spend more time killing stuff?”

 

“Poor Kim and Jared though. Do you think they’ll get back together?”

 

“Yeah. I do. I don’t think they have a choice, really. But they’re both miserable like this anyway. So what’s it helping?”

 

“You don’t feel like that, do you? Like you don’t have any choice but to be with me?”

 

“Do you?”

 

“No! Or, well, I mean...I want to be with you Jake. I - But I realized way back, since---you know, you told me you didn’t want to see me anymore,” Jake winced and put his hand over mine. 

 

“I realized a few times really. I guess I’m kind of slow. I thought, no I knew, it would be better for you to not be tied to me anymore. But I didn’t want to let you go. I didn’t want you to move on and be happy with someone else. I need you, Jake, I guess is what I’m saying. You’re what makes the world make sense to me.”

 

“Bella.” Jake’s voice was a low rumble, barely audible over the rumble of my truck’s engine.

 

I shivered, but not in a bad way.

 

“You know what I think, this is an imprint. But I loved you before I ever changed. It doesn’t matter if I didn’t have a choice because of the imprint. I didn’t have a choice even before that. Love takes away your choices, maybe. But it’s worth it.”

 

“I don’t see how you could have. I was a mess when we started hanging out. I wasn’t sleeping. I could barely talk to anyone.”

 

“Are you really asking?” Jacob asked, voice solemn.

 

“Yes.”

 

“I love how big your heart is Bella. You don’t let many people get to know you, but when you do you love them beyond reason. It sucked, still sucks, knowing how you feel for the blo- him . But I think it is strong and scary too, to love ‘til it makes you crazy. You’re funnier than you think you are, and braver too. I love that you read the same books over and over. You work really hard, you take things so seriously, even silly things. Sometimes it amazes me how deeply you can feel things, and how much.”

 

I was as still as I could be, hoping there wouldn’t be anything on the road that needed my attention, because it was all on him.

 

“It’s not that I think you’re perfect. You aren’t. You’re stubborn, and withdrawn, you put yourself down so much that sometimes I think you don’t see anything else. You’re sometimes self-centered, even if it’s just cause you’re so lost in your own head. You suck at math and you are the clumsiest person in the entire world. You don’t let enough people in, and you wear it like a badge of honor, even when you’re so desperately lonely.”

 

“I’m not that bad at math,” I mumbled.

 

“Sometimes...I don’t know if I hope that I’m right or wrong about imprinting. But I don’t care. Because I know what it’s like to fall in love with you, Bells. I know why I love you, and that matters to me. It matters more than anything.”

 

We were sitting in front of my house. The car off, and the keys in my lap, even though I didn’t remember parking.

 

“Jake.” there were no words though. My heart was going to burst. 

 

I’d never really thought about what it might be that made me loveable to another person, just wished desperately that I might be. 

 

I hadn’t ever found anything in particular to love about myself. A pale shadow next to a vivacious mother, quiet among lively peers, graceless next to supernatural grace, out of control and insane over lost love, needy and wanting. 

 

But when Jacob spoke like that I felt like he was caressing something so much more than my body. My soul, or whatever, if there were such things, And he was absolutely right. The love he described was an invaluable treasure. And I knew what he meant. I knew him, as I couldn’t even claim to have known Edward. I understood his anger, his pain, his joy, and felt it echoing in me. Hadn’t I known months ago, which felt like years, how his happiness was tied to mine?

 

There were tears wetting my cheeks, but for once I didn’t care.

 

Instead I took Jake’s face in my hands and pressed my lips against his, with all the emotion I could muster.

 

Only Jacob could make our complicated, bumpy, ridiculous history sound more beautiful than magical destiny.

 

“Jacob,” I smiled against his lips a long while later. “Charlie’s at work.”

 

He smiled again before pressing his mouth back to mine, his hand cradling my head. He climbed out of the car, carrying me with him.

 

“Another reason to love you. Your family has excellent work ethic.”

 

--

 

The funny thing about loving Jake, about being with him in that way , was that while it grew more familiar, it didn’t seem to be getting any less absolutely wonderful.

 

His hands, always so warm against my skin, pulled me effortlessly to him, so that I floated up the suddenly romantic sweep of the creaky old stairs to my bedroom.

 

His lips, blazing trails to and from my lips, returning as certain as the tides to tangle with my own.

 

His body, so much larger than mine, so much more beautiful, to my eyes, never overpowering but instead the partner to mine, both of us caught up in the cresting waves.

 

“Bella,” he murmured against my skin as we landed gently (always so gently) in my bed.

 

“Jake!” I demanded arching up toward him.

 

I felt him smile as his mouth covered my breast, tongue flicking out like a flame across my over sensitized nipple.

 

“What are you thinking?” his fingers crept up my thigh stroking teasingly where I wanted him most. Preferably now.

 

“Jacob,” I complained. “Nothing.”

 

He laughed, warm and so intimate against my skin. But he didn’t argue with me as he did as I demanded. 

 

I could kiss Jacob for hours, run my hands over his beautiful skin and just luxuriate in the closeness and rightness of him. He could, and had explored my body in ways that made me blush scarlett even as my mind blanked with pleasure.

 

But a lot of the time, when we were like this, I just wanted him, all the way, no waiting. Nothing between us.

 

I wanted this moment, when I looked up into his eyes as he searched my face in apparent wonder and began to move.

 

And then for a long while I really didn’t think of anything at all.

 

---

 

Apparently, in addition to being a “closet nerd” as everyone kept telling me, Paul also was not a procrastinator. He called the next morning around 9, when I’d barely gotten out of the shower. Jacob, who’d managed to successfully evade Charlie without leaving, was still sleeping.

 

“Who the fuck is calling,” he complained, without opening his eyes.

 

“Hello?”

 

“Hey, Bella. Did I wake you?”

 

“Go to hell, Paul. Hang up the phone, Bells, come back to bed…”

 

“Oooooh. Is that Jake? Tempting you into a life of uneducated sin? Well, good news, we’ll be there in like 20 minutes. So you and Jake can do it, what, like 20 times? And you’ll still have like 10 minutes to get dressed. There’s this thing you do where you bite your lip, that’ll probably speed things up even…”

 

Jake reached over, took the phone out of my hand and hung it up.

 

“Asshole. Can’t he just bother Jared’s girlfriend and leave mine alone? C’mere.”  he tugged on the edge of my towel, smiling suggestively.

 

It really shouldn’t have worked, but he looked so cosy and handsome, his chest warm and broad...

 

When had I moved to touch him?

 

“No...Jake, you know we can’t. Paul and Leah….”

 

“Ugh, no sex lives of their own so they have to interrupt mine.”

 

“Gross, Jake.”

 

“But true, Bells. Mmm. What time is it? Should I go with you?”

 

“We’re just going to Port Angeles, to see about registering for Fall. Won’t Billy be wondering where you are?”

 

“Hate to break it to you, but I have a feeling he knows where I am. Don’t worry, he won’t tell Charlie though.”

 

“What?! Did you tell him?”

 

“‘Course I didn’t tell him. But he’s on the council. If he wanted to he could ask Sam when I’m on patrol. But he doesn’t.”

 

He pulled on my towel again until I moved closer to him and finally gave up, sitting on the bed beside him.

 

He wrapped his arms around me.

 

“Relax, Bella. It’s not like this is some kind of fling. Billy knows that, that’s why he won’t try and get in the way. Though he muttered something the other day about not making him a grandfather before I finish high school.”

 

He laughed as if this was not a horrifying revelation.

 

And I still needed to get dressed. I didn’t have time to properly melt down about this.

 

Jacob kissed my shoulder, a warm rumbling laugh pressing itself into my skin.

 

Darn it, I was trying to be upset about this. 

 

“Jake…”

 

“Mmmhmm?” His arms tightened around me, pulling me further toward him. 

 

“I still have to go to Port Angeles.”

 

“I know. You should get dressed.” He didn’t move, except to kiss my shoulder again.

 

I sighed. “Didn’t you decide you were the mature one?”

 

“I surrender the title to you Bells.” 

 

With regret, but more real concern that Leah and Paul would come barging in if I didn’t appear at the door, with no concern for what we might be doing, I wiggled out of Jake’s grasp.

 

“Don’t look.” I warned.

 

“What? Bells, it’s a little late for that don’t you think? ‘Sides, you see me naked all the time, hell, you’ve seen half the pack naked at the point.”

 

“Don’t remind me.”

 

Changing in front of him was so different from...other stuff though. It felt intimate in a totally different way. In the cold light of day, what if things didn’t look quite as nice?

 

“I won’t look if you really don’t want me to Bella.” He said, his voice more serious now.

 

“No, it’s fine.” But I scrambled into my underwear and bra quickly, feeling thoroughly unsexy.

 

Until I risked a look at Jacob and found him staring at me, looking...something that made my whole body flush.

 

“You're so cute, Bells.”

 

And that was how, despite my best intentions, when the front door banged open I was still in my underwear, and very distracted.

 

“Bella! You have 5 minutes to get your ass down here before I come up!”

 

“Oh, shoot.” I promptly rolled off the bed.

 

“Ow.” I made a face at Jake, who was laughing at me, and still showing no signs of getting out of bed.

 

“Don’t let Charlie catch you. He sometimes comes home for lunch when there’s leftovers.” I scolded, hastily stepping into a clean-ish pair of jeans and scooping a sweater out of my drawer at random.

 

I ran a brush through my hair hastily, wincing.

 

A glance in the mirror showed that I looked flushed and as if I'd been caught in a windstorm.

 

“Coming, coming!”

 

“‘Bout time,” Leah said, smirking.

 

“Sorry, sorry, I um, lost track of time.”

 

“Yeah, you’re a terrible liar. Doesn’t matter. Let’s go, Paul’s gonna lose it. He’s so difficult.”

 

“Jesus, what’s the hold up? You have to pry Jake off of her or something?” Paul asked as we got in the car.

 

“More or less.” Leah laughed.

 

“Hey,” I objected weakly, blushing.

 

---

 

It felt somehow freeing to be on the road to Port Angeles.

 

Leah and Paul seemed more relaxed too. Paul was blasting some song I didn’t recognize on the radio, not that I recognized many popular songs after my months long embargo on music.

 

Leah was humming along, and flipping through a brochure.

 

“Want one, Bella?”

 

“Sure, I really don’t know what I’m looking for, though.” 

 

I’d done very little to prepare for enrollment. I didn’t know what I wanted to study or where I wanted to transfer. I’d spent so long thinking as little as possible about the future, that it’d become a habit with me.

 

It didn’t hurt that the future still included a significant chance of my bloody and painful death by vampire.

 

Still, somehow, over the last couple months, something had been sneaking slowly but surely back into my heart.

 

It’s my life. And it’s now or never. I ain’t gonna live forever…

 

“What song is this?” Leah turned and looked at me in surprise, and Paul raised an eyebrow in the mirror.

 

“Bon Jovi? Everyone knows this song. You been living in a cave up there in Forks?”

 

“Oh.” 

 

“Jake said you don’t like music. You like this?”

 

“Yeah, I guess it’s pretty good.”

 

I looked down at the brochure again. 

 

Hadn’t I wanted to be a teacher, once? Maybe…

 

----

 

College planning, a scarily big registration check, a quick lunch at one of the superior-to-Forks restaurants of Port Angeles, and a stop at the bookstore later, we headed back to La Push.

 

Paul and Leah, notoriously the two most difficult personalities in the pack, has been surprisingly pleasant company. But I was still looking forward to seeing Jake.

 

My dependence on his constant presence to keep me whole and stable seemed to have, not vanished exactly, but relaxed, so that I could feel the warm reassurance of him even when we were apart.

 

But I still would rather see him. And it made me a little itchy.

 

Jake opened the door to his house as Paul rolled to a stop out front. I looked up from digging through my purse for gas money, handing whatever was in my hand to Paul without paying attention.

 

“Hey, this is a twenty.”

 

“Oh, um, oops,” I replaced it with a five, blushing, but still smiling at Jacob.

 

“Still too much, but just remember for next time.”

 

“Now get the hell out, you’re making us sick.” But Leah patted me on the shoulder as I did, in that awkward-affectionate way she’d been indulging in more and more. Like me, her heart was slowly healing. 

 

Jake swept me into a kiss immediately, unconcerned with Paul and Leah’s teasing (inaudible to me), the thump of my bag of books hitting the sidewalk at his feet, or the honking of the horn as they drove away.

 

“Did Paul really make you pay for the ride? That asshole,” Jake breathed out, pulling his inch only bare inches from mine. 

 

“No, we’re gonna maybe carpool so that him and Leah and me can take classes in Port Angeles too. They have more than the Forks campus. So it was gas money. We’re going to take his car, because he says it gets the best gas mileage.” Jake scooped up my bag, without looking at, or breaking stride. Darn those supernatural reflexes.

 

“Hey, Billy,” I greeted, hoping I didn't sound too nervous. Hopefully he would discount my blushing as normal behavior, and not the acute consciousness of the fact that Jacob said he knew we’d been sleeping together. 

 

“Bella,” he said grinning at me. “ Did Jacob tell you our news?” He was as happy as I’d ever seen Billy.

 

Jacob rolled his eyes “We’ll see if that even ends up happening.”

 

Billy frowned, but then waved his hand. “Don’t be so gloomy. Rachel’s coming home.”

 

“Your sister?”

 

“Yeah, turns out she graduated early, without even telling us. And now she’s coming to grace is with her presence before she runs off again.”

 

“Now, Jacob. You know your sisters…”

 

“Yeah, they got out while they could, huh. Never mind that you and me, we’re stuck here. Come on, Bella,” he turned back the way we’d come and tugged me after him.

 

“Oh, but...well, bye Billy! I'm glad Rachel is coming home.”

 

Billy sighed, and shook his head, but didn't comment on our departure.

 

We walked in silence for a while, Jacob towing me along behind him by the hand, but not really forgetting I was there, because he never walked so fast that I was in danger of tripping or pulling my arm out of its socket.

 

Of course, my clumsiness did not require fast walking.

 

I tripped and fell, but Jacob was there already, catching me in his arms and pulling me up to my feet.

 

“Thanks, Jacob.”

 

He looked down at me, eyes still stormy and face twisted into a frown I associated with the early days of his transformation.

 

“What’s wrong?” He loved his sister, and I knew, more than anyone, that Jacob didn’t give up on people he loved.

 

He hugged me to him briefly. Then we began walking again, this time side by side.

 

“She just, she gets dad so excited, coming home every so often and he starts hoping she’ll be back back, not just stopping off to fulfill her family obligation before she leaves again. Billy...you don’t know what he’s like when she leaves again, when Rebecca says every year she’ll be home for Christmas, but then she doesn't come.”

 

“It’s nice that you want to protect your dad, Jake. He’s lucky to have you.”

 

Jacob looked down at me, his expression more clouded now.

 

“You know...you know, don’t you Bella, that I can't do that right? I know you never liked Forks… But even after high school, I can’t leave.”

 

“You would never leave Billy, you don’t abandon people.”

 

“Not because of that.” He shook his head. “I know we’ve talked about it before, I know you and Emily and Kim probably have talked about it. But I can’t ever ever leave. Even when I stop shifting someday.”

 

“I know.”

 

“So it’s not just because of Billy getting hurt. It’s selfishness. They left, they put everything, Mom and all that, behind them. But I'm still  here. I was born here and I'll die here.”

 

“Here,” I paused, not knowing how to say what I wanted to. I’d come to Forks by grudging choice, I'd always hated it. But now, it was the place where it felt like my real life had begun. “Here isn’t so bad.”

 

“You could go to a real college you know. You, we’d make it work. Or if...you didn’t…”

 

“Jacob, no, Peninsula is perfect for me. I’m still figuring things out. I didn’t think about the future for a long time. I didn't want to. But now...the only future I want to think about is one with you.” I added, “If that's what you want,”

 

“Of course it’s what I want.” He kissed the top of my head.

 

“Paul and Leah said you guys could go to college as long as it's not too far, after this all is figured out. Seattle and Olympia have great schools.”

 

“When’d you get so grown up? I'm supposed to be the adult here.”

 

“Yeah, right. Told you I was the mature one.” I smiled at him

 

Neither of us made any more mention of the “this all” we had to figure out and survive.

 

“Let’s go back to your place, Bella.”

 

“Charlie will be home at 5.”

 

“And it's only two now... And then you could invite me over for dinner?”

 

“Bring Billy, I feel bad for abandoning him so fast.”

 

“Deal.”

---

 

A few night later, when Jacob and I were again taking advantage of Charlie’s empty house, a distant (to my ears) howl broke through our happy bubble.

 

Jacob swung out of the window moments later and I shakily scrolled through my phone contacts for Emily.

 

“Bella, did Jacob-”

 

“Yes, we heard, he’s gone to find them.”

 

“Good. Stay put. We don't want to risk another attack like on your prom night. They won’t let anyone get to you.”

 

“I’m not worried about that .” I told her.

 

“I know Bella. That’s why I worry about it for you.”

 

“Is Kim there?” 

 

“No, she...she isn’t doing so well. She’ll be fine at her house.”

 

The wait felt long, even though Emily called back before Charlie got home.

 

“It’s all right, they’re all okay.”

 

“Really?”

 

“Some minor injuries, but nothing bad.”

 

“I wish I could come over, but Charlie will be home soon, he gets off at 9…”

 

“Come by tomorrow, first thing. Call first, we’ll have someone patrol your route.”

 

“‘Kay. Is Jake…?”

 

“He’s fine, but he has to stay on patrol for now.”

 

“I’ll let you go for now, I have to call Kim, and then the council.”

 

“You're calling us first?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Thanks.”

 

Kim called while I was heating up some food for Charlie.

 

“Hey, you heard?”

 

“Yes. She didn’t tell me much though. She’s mad at me.”

 

“I’m sure she’s not... really?” It was hard to imagine the always calm, always kind Emily being mad at someone.

 

“Yes. And she’s right. I’m being crazy. I just don’t know how, like, I can't just get over it. But she said everyone’s fine. So, Leah, Paul...everyone?”

 

My heart hurt for her.

 

“She said there were minor injuries only.” 

 

Kim sighed. “Good.”

 

“How’s your leg? Your arm?” 

 

“The same. I mean, I know it’s only been a month. The casts don't come off for another two weeks at least. But it’s so unfair. When Seth came by earlier today, he even said, it’s so weird that I'm not better. I mean, I know he almost died, and so of course, thank God for werewolf healing. But he doesn't have to rub it in!” 

 

I laughed, as she intended.

 

“Do you and Seth hang out a lot?”

 

“Nah, he came by to see Mal. You know, they all think Mal...well I guess he’s been pretty moody lately. And he’s gotten so big. So Seth comes by a lot more. At least, if he does change... Him and Seth are friends, and he’ll be able to understand about me and Paul and...Jared. He thinks it’s some kind of high school - ohmy God ! He’ll see into Jared’s mind! I hadn’t thought of that.”

 

I tried hard not to laugh, but failed “I think they said...well as long as he’s not actively thinking about ...that. Jacob says then they can’t really see anything.”

 

“Bella, they’re teenage boys. How often do you think they go without thinking about it? I mean, I saw an article about how often teenagers think about sex and, well plus, how often do you think about that stuff? Don’t guys think about it even more?”

 

Oh. When she put it that way…

 

Of course, it was at that moment, as my face flamed, that the door banged open, announcing Charlie’s return.

 

“No, you don’t think -”

 

“That they just tell us that so we won’t freak out. I totally think so.”

 

“Oh my gosh.”

 

“Collin and Brady are only…” 

 

“I know. I don’t think they see everything. Or even most things. And maybe they can control it some. But still…”

 

“Yeah.”

 

Charlie wandered into the kitchen, looking surprised.

 

“Kim” I mouthed, setting his plate on the table. 

 

He nodded, failing as always to not look pleased as punch to see me being “normal”.

 

I gestured upstairs and he nodded.

 

“Sorry, Kim, my dad came home.”

 

“Ohh. He doesn’t know about any of this, does he?”

 

“No, do your parents?”

 

“Sometimes I think they’ve guessed or I wonder if someone told them. With Malcolm probably changing, and me all involved. But then again, Charlie didn't grow up hearing our stories.”

 

“Yeah. He didn’t know about the Cullens either. He just thought Billy was prejudiced.”

 

Billy prejudiced against them?

 

“I know, but what else would Charlie think? People in Forks really loved Carlisle.”

 

“That’s the doctor one?”

 

“Um, yeah, he was.”

 

“He was really handsome, and not scary at all, even though I only saw him once.”

 

I was happy she’d finally referred to him as a person. Even though I understood the attitude the wolves all took toward the vampires, it always made me feel a little uncomfortable when applied to the Cullens. 

 

“Yeah, he was.”

 

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to make you talk about them.”

 

“No, it’s okay. It’s easier now than it used to be.”

 

“Do you think it’ll be like that for me? Eventually?”

 

“With Jared? You really think you guys won’t get back together?”

 

“I- sometimes I am sure. Like, I know the Quil thing...they can’t help it. I know it’s not his fault. And sometimes when I think about how hurt he was, about how sad he is...Sam told Emily he’s having trouble shifting...and it makes me feel like I can't breathe. Like I can just feel his pain, so why am I not doing anything about it. It must sound so silly.”

 

“No, it doesn’t. That’s how I feel, how I felt, about Jacob. Even before he changed. It was like  there was a string tying us together. So that what hurt him hurt me too.”

 

“Even...even before? So it wasn’t just the imprint then?”

 

“No. I think it was just Jacob. Something about him. Even when I was in love with Edward and couldn't see anyone else in that way. Something about him felt familiar. And I liked him.”

 

“Oh...that’s. Do you think it could have been like that, for me and Jared, if we’d know each other more before? Like, could he have just liked me on his own?”

 

“You liked him, didn’t you?”

 

“Yes, but well, he was him. He never even noticed me. When he imprinted...he thought he was seeing me for the first time.”

 

“I don't really know, Kim. But I think I would have loved Jacob sooner or later, even if he never shifted. So there’s no reason that wouldn’t have happened for you.”

 

“Maybe...I was no one though, Bella. I mean, I was happy that way. I didn’t care. But that’s why he never noticed me. The imprint...it made me special.”

 

“That’s not true,” I said fiercely. “I didn’t imprint on you, and I think you’re amazing.” Her fears had ventured so close to mine and I couldn't stand it. Because Kim was someone. She wasn't just the supernatural magic that had touched her life just enough to make her feel not good enough. 

 

“Leah, Paul, Emily...everyone thinks the same. I don’t know if Jared would have loved you without the imprint, I wish I did. But he could have, of course he could, because you’re amazing.”

 

There was a long pause, punctuated by sniffing on Kim’s end.

 

“Thank you, Bella. You’re a good friend.”

 

“You too.”

 

----

Chapter Text

I felt silly calling Emily the next day before I set out. But I did anyway, because risking myself would risk them.

 

As I drove over, I swore I could see flashes of red-brown fur through the trees, and it was a comfort.

 

“Bella!” About half the group was already there and I ran through the usual greetings, which felt less and less awkward as I got used to my general welcome.

 

Jacob came in close behind me and wrapped his arms around me and lifted me off my feet. I’d been pretty sure that he was the wolf shadowing my truck. I smiled and wiggled in his arms until he turned me so that we were face to face. I pressed my lips to his cheeks, his nose, and his lips. I ignored the good-natured groans from the guys, another skill I had been honing over the last couple months.

 

“You’re okay?” I asked.

 

“Course I am Bells. Have a little faith. Missed you last night though.”

 

“You’re spoiling him, Bella. He’s insufferable now.”

 

“Whatever, you’re just jealous. Ooh, Em made pancakes.”

 

“Put me down!”

 

“Nah, this is much faster. And I want pancakes and Bella. Look, there’s blueberry and chocolate chip.”

 

I was hungry…. And blueberry pancakes were my favorite.

 

“I’m not helpless you know,” I reminded Jake as he set me down on a chair, pulling it close to his with one long leg, and setting a plate with one heaping pile of pancakes and one much smaller stack for me between us.

 

“Sure, sure, Bells,” he said through a mouth already full of food.

 

“Gross, Jacob.”

 

There was relative peace as we ate, Emily knew to cook for an army now and so there was plenty to go around. 

 

The remaining pack members trickled in, with some sleepy yawns and half-hearted grumbling as they jostled for food and places to sit.

 

But as even the most voracious eaters began to finish up, Jared still hadn't arrived, even though Kim was there sharing a chair with me and a plate with Paul. 

 

Finally, someone asked.

 

“Where’s Jared?” Kim’s head shot up, though she didn’t say anything.

 

“He didn’t get hit that hard did he?”

 

“Nah. His head was much harder than that tree.” Paul offered.

 

Kim inhaled sharply.

 

“I thought no one got hurt,” I offered, trying to sound nonchalant

 

“No one did, not really.”

 

“Just normal stuff,”

 

“He should have watched his left side! I warned him!”

 

“He’s just not--”

 

“Oh, I hear him!” Seth, helpful and tension-diffusing as always.

 

Jared was….not good. He snarled at Leah, who rolled her eyes.  His eyes were dark pits. He slumped into a corner, not looking at the food on the table. We looked at Sam, who was visibly concerned.

 

That was not comforting.

 

“Kim,” he said, “Can we talk? Bella can come as well, if you like, but no one else. Yes, that means you, Paul. And you too, Jacob.”

 

Kim and I exchanged confused looks, but she beckoned for me to come with her. No one said anything when Emily followed us. We walked a distance away from the house, which I trusted was to prevent the wolves from overhearing.

 

“Kim,” Sam said, his voice even more solemn than usual. “Jared cannot go on like this.”

 

Her face, seemingly always too pale these days, went paler.

 

“What...what do you mean?”

 

“I mean he’s losing control. He can't focus, and I'm worried he’s having trouble shifting back from the wolf.”

 

“You know I didn’t mean for that to happen! I don't want anything to happen to him, I just-”

 

“We know.” Emily interjected. Sam frowned at her.

 

“I think if you tell him what you want from him, clearly, that it will help him. If you don't love him anymore, or don't want his love, the imprint should adapt to whatever you want.”

 

“That’s what you think, Sam, but I don't think it works like that.”

 

He rolled his eyes at Emily, though his lip twitched.

 

“Yes, I know you don’t. But we have to try something.”

 

“But didn’t Emily try that with you?” I asked.

 

“Yes, but-”

 

“But it didn’t work.” Kim said. “Sam, I already...I broke up with him.”

 

“But you didn’t tell him you wanted him to just be your friend. You didn’t tell him that you don’t want him to love you anymore. You didn’t tell him what to be to you.”

 

“I told him and you all of that. That I needed space to think.”

 

“You didn’t tell him that you didn’t love him.”

 

“I tried to, but-”

 

“But you didn’t mean it.”

 

“Well how can she mean it? She obviously still loves him.”

 

“I don’t know. Do you love Jared, Kim?”

 

She glared at Sam, really glared at him, even though her eyes were swimming with tears.

 

My heart was pounding with borrowed adrenaline. 

 

“Sam…”

 

“I’m not in your pack, Sam. You can’t make my choices for me.”

 

“You are, though Kim. You’re a part of this pack. Unless you really are done with Jared.”

 

“I can’t make-” But at that moment, with an enormous crash, Paul came sailing through Emily’s front window.

 

Emily groaned.

 

The door swung open and the other boys and Leah came pouring out.

 

A second later Jacob leapt through the window holding Jared, who he threw bodily away from the house.

 

“Jake!” I cried out, shocked.

 

Jared transformed in mid-air.

 

He twisted his body to land on his feet and snarled for a moment until lunging forward toward Paul, who had picked himself off the ground and was shaking all over.

 

“Oh, no…” Kim moaned, burying her face in her hands.

 

Stop ” Sam ordered, and they did. As usual, even though no one commented on it, Jacob seemed less affected, landing neatly in a crouch and straightening up.

 

Jared had fallen to his belly, but was vibrating with some barely contained emotion.

 

“WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON?” Sam roared, and I had a brief absurd thought that the wolf pack must be the worst kept secret in La Push.

 

“My house…” Emily groaned again.

 

Brady burst into a wolf, nearly decapitating Seth.

 

“Damn it, Jared,” Leah stormed, having yanked Seth, and Embry for good measure, away from Brady, whose wolfy face looked startled by his sudden transformation. “You, selfish, pathetic, fucking moron . So you destroyed Emily’s house, lost control, again , and oh, almost killed us all ! Gee, I wonder why Kim would break up with you. You’re such a catch.”

 

“Oh no…” Kim moaned, dropping her head into her hands.

 

I patted her back hesitantly.

 

What had happened?

 

----

 

As it turned out, Jared’s control was waning. And his usual happy emotional equilibrium was gone. And no one knew exactly what to do about it. 

 

He’d also learned of the pack’s various rumors and suppositions about his relationship with Kim, and her relationship with Paul. That didn’t help.

 

He wasn’t jealous exactly, (he must know it wasn’t true, right?) it was more like he was hopeless. Was this the other side of the imprint? Could the wolf not survive without it?

 

“The way he is right now, he’s no match for Paul. Hell, he couldn’t take Collin or Brady. If anything, he was trying to get beat to hell, or put out of his misery.” Jacob had explained. 

 

 ‘Put out of his misery’ was an awful thing to contemplate.

 

He’d been banned from Emily’s and was spending increasing amounts of time as a wolf.

 

To make matters worse, over the next week there were 5 more skirmishes with groups of Victoria’s vampires.

 

They hit in small groups, 4-8, never exactly enough to be a huge threat, but enough to require all the wolves.

 

It was slowly but surely wearing us all down.

 

The wolves were running patrols nearly 24/7, and everyone not on patrol still had to be ready to run out to fight at a moment’s notice.

 

The 7th attack took place during the day. It was a torrential downpour, which darkened the sky to the point that it was almost night-dark outside. Despite the fact that vampires were not troubled by sunlight, these particular vampires never attacked in the daytime.

 

We didn’t expect it.

 

Quil, Collin, and Brady were out finishing up a five hour shift on minimal sleep. Jared was also presumably shifted, since that was how he spent most of his time.

 

Jake and I had just arrived at Emily’s (escaping from Billy’s ongoing relentless cheer over his daughter’s impending visit), where we found most of the pack. 

 

Seth and Embry were playing some videogame on the console they’d installed here, despite Emily’s half-hearted protests. Leah was brushing Kim’s hair and plaiting it down her back. Kim’s eyes had circles so dark under them that she almost looked like a vampire, though no one else would appreciate that comparison. Paul was asleep on the couch, his too big frame curled awkwardly and his legs dangling off onto the floor. Sam was asleep in his bedroom. Emily was asleep at the kitchen table. Emily’s front window and the surrounding wall was boarded over.

 

None of us had been getting much sleep lately.

 

When the howl came, there was a split second where everyone froze in an exhausted shock.

 

“Shit.” Jake said to nobody in particular. 

 

Sam appeared in the doorway to the kitchen.

 

“Let’s go,” he said, looking exhausted but determined. He always ran twice as many patrols as everyone else.

 

“Not you, Embry,” he remembered, scrubbing a hand over his face. “Sue thinks you probably still shouldn’t walk on that leg for at least a day.”

 

Embry slumped over onto the couch in a mix of relief and frustration. His leg had been broken only the night before.

 

It hadn’t even been 10 hours.

 

We were going to lose.

 

It was a war of attrition. The wolves, for all their supernatural enhancements, for all the magic of their transformation, were not like vampires. They were still human, with human needs. Greater than human needs in some respects. Their metabolisms required much higher caloric intakes, particularly with all of them shifting nearly every day. They had to sleep, even if only a couple hours a day.

 

And no matter how many groups of vampires they killed, a new group showed up, free from battle fatigue, and loved ones in need of protection.

 

Emily’s face as she lifted it from the table to watch Sam leave, was bleak.

 

Kim forced hugs on Seth and Paul, who walked past her to leave, and was now huddled next to Embry on the couch. I joined them.

 

“Of all the times to have two girls cuddling up to me. This has got to be the worst” Embry attempted to joke. 

 

“Sorry.”

 

We waited.

 

--

 

It was never very long, but it always felt like forever.

 

The rain slowed imperceptibly to a grim drizzle.

 

Finally, the first figure stepped out of the forest.

 

It was Collin, limping heavily, and holding an arm across his ribs.

 

Broken ribs, as we’d been forced to learn, were among the most common vampire-fight injuries.

 

Brady followed behind him, looking relatively well, and helping support Seth, though we couldn’t tell what was wrong with him.

 

Sam came next, it looked like he might be covered in blood.

 

Emily threw open the door.

 

“Sam - “ she called out, because of course they were within wolf-hearing distance.

 

Then Paul followed Sam out of the forest, and in his arms was a body.

 

My heart stopped. Oh God, let it not be Jacob.

 

It was the most shamefully selfish, but honest, thought I could have had.

 

I didn’t want it to be any of them. I loved the pack, every single one of them, with a terrifying intensity.

 

But Jacob…

 

Time seemed like it had stopped, but it hadn’t really, and they drew closer while nightmares chased across my mind, blocking my vision until—

 

“NOOO!” It was Kim, screaming, Kim hobbling and stumbling and falling, only to be caught by Embry, who carried her down the stairs of Emily’s house and kept carrying her as we all rushed forward to meet them.

 

It was Jared. Face bloody and still. Was he breathing? Had he been bitten?

 

Embry put Kim gently back on her feet and she swayed. Sam put his hands on her shoulders.

 

The red swirling down his skin looked almost pretty. It felt like this was all happening only remotely.

 

“He isn’t dead.” he said, but that was all. Emily was already on the phone.

 

“Sue, yeah, can you-- yes, well, I don’t know. Yeah, normal injuries on most of them. Jared, it’s Jared. I don’t know, there’s too much...too much...Yes, thank you.”

 

Paul was panting in distress, and his arms were shaking. 


“Kim, Kimmy, I’m so sorry.” She didn’t seem to hear him.

 

“Sam, Jacob, is he?”

 

“Jake, Leah, and Quil were mostly uninjured, and stayed out on patrol. Jared...Let’s get him inside. Is it okay Em? Do you know where the plastic sheeting is?”

 

Underneath the blood still rinsing away, Sam’s face was pale.

 

“Yeah, I keep it under the couch, just a second.” Emily darted back up into the house.

 

“Jared? Jared. Jared!” Kim called out, pressing one hand to his shoulder.

 

He didn’t respond.

 

“Embry, can you.”

 

“Oh, yeah, sure man.” he picked Kim up again, this time holding her bridal style instead of under the arms. “Shit, what the hell happened to him?”

 

Emily was shaking out a large sheet of the kind of plastic fabric I associated with shower curtains or serial killers over her couch.

 

“It’s my fault. Jare, God, I didn’t--” Paul set Jared down carefully and sunk down onto his butt beside the couch.

 

“Jared...He got grabbed, by a big one, got it’s arms almost all the way around him,”

 

“Like what happened to Seth?”

 

“Yes, but because it was larger, we don’t know...the damage. He hasn’t been conscious,”

 

“He was saving me. That fucking leech was about to rip my head off.”  He looked down at Kim, kneeling silently beside the couch and looking at Jared. He had a large bleeding cut across his hairline and and ugly red mark down his throat and shoulder.

 

“I’m sorry.”

 

“No…” Kim said, though she sounded dazed, “It’s not your fault. And you're alive. He’s alive. It’s- it could have been anyone… Right?” She looked up at Sam.

 

He looked down at her, jaw clenched. “Right.”

 

“What can we do?” I asked because everyone seemed frozen.

 

“Maybe we can clean him up a little - so we can see the injuries? Sue will be here soon.” Emily beckoned me to follow her.

 

We gathered towels, cloth bandages, and bowls of warm water, and Emily spoke to me in a soft voice, that would still have been audible to the guys if they’d been paying attention.

 

“We need to be prepared, Bella. Sam, Paul, and Jared, they were the original pack. For a long time it was just them. For all that Paul and Jared have been...not getting along lately, if we lose him….He’s Sam’s best friend, Bella.” Her voice lost some of it’s quiet force and realized she was scared, very scared.

 

We couldn’t lose Jared. “And Kim…”

 

“Yes, I don’t know.”

 

It felt like a long time before Sue’s car pulled up. Billy was with her, and Brady ran out to help him into the house. 

 

Sue’s face went a little white as she took in the scene. There were gouges healing in Seth’s leg, warped and shrunk by his transformation, but still recognizable as made by a human hand.

 

Collin was pale and breathing in short pants, his leg noticeably still broken, and his ribs clearly still not right.

 

Sam and Paul were still covered in blood, most of it Jared’s, but fairly intact.  Paul seemed like he might have a concussion, if he’d let anyone near enough to take a look after he’d collapsed onto his butt. 

 

Jared...well we’d wiped the remaining blood from his face, and attempted to do the same with the rest of him.

 

This revealed more of his injuries than we’d wanted to see.

 

The sight of Sam, gently pushing Jared’s cracked ribs back into his skin was something I would never forget.

 

Kim, who was usually squeamish, had, with an eerie calm, run her hand through Jared’s hair while Sam did so, and wiped away the blood where it obscured the worst of his wounds.

 

Jared hadn’t woken up.

 

Sue, who was made of the same strong stuff as her daughter, tempered through decades as a nurse, only looked daunted for a minute.

 

She dropped to her knees beside Kim.

 

“Is he breathing?”

 

“Yes. Most of the time.”

 

“Good. Then he’ll likely stay that way. Now what happened?”

 

I didn’t want to hear about the battle again. I wandered away while Sue talked, bringing the snacks Emily had pulled out of her emergency rations (beef jerky, in quantities that had probably really confused whatever poor clerk had rung it up) and distributed it to the boys.

 

The calories would help them heal, Emily claimed.

 

I just wanted something to do. 

 

Collin whimpered as he ate. He looked so young. Even the wolves super growth spurts couldn’t really make him look like anything other than a very scared, albeit very giant, teenage boy.

 

Embry was setting Seth’s leg, which had been dislocated.

 

“Sue will have to look at you, Collin. At least all your bones are where they’re supposed to be. You don’t have a collapsed lung, so probably they’ll heal up fine. Hurts like a bitch though, I know.”

 

“Is there anything I can do? Here, take some.” I asked Embry, offering jerky, which he shoved into his mouth without taking his eyes off Seth. He made a quick jerking motion and Seth whimpered.

 

“Seth?” Sue turned.

 

“He’s fine Mrs. C. Leg was dislocated, but I’ve got it back, just like you showed us.”

 

“I’ll take a look at you both soon. Everyone just sit tight.”

 

“It’ll be all right.” Emily murmured sounding lost.

 

---

 

It was a very long day.

 

And nothing felt more absurd than to go home to Charlie at the end of it.

 

Whether I would go home at all had been a subject of some debate.

 

It was getting increasingly difficult to have me drive back and forth from Forks.

 

Assuming that ultimately Victoria still planned to painfully murder me, it divided the wolves’ attention. It spread out the range of territory where Victoria might strike. 

 

The pack could all move faster than vampires, so the distance wasn’t great for them. But it still wasn’t ideal.

 

Then there was Charlie’s total ignorance of the way I really spent my time in La Push.

 

“Hey, kiddo,” he called out genially, as I closed the door on a long sigh - half-relief, half-exhaustion. “You have a good time with your friends?”

 

“Yeah!” I attempted to match his cheery tone. “It was a good day! I’m just gonna run up and change.” There was blood on my clothes. 

 

I had to get it together. I needed to make dinner and act like nothing was wrong, and that I’d spent the day goofing around with my friends. Not dressing wounds and watching the forest.

 

Sam, Sue, and Billy had broached the subject, once the more urgent matters of making sure everyone was going to stay alive had been handled.

 

“You’re 18 now, Bella, and you’ve graduated from high school. So it wouldn’t be so strange, to want to move out on your own.”

 

“We could potentially consolidate our vulnerabilities.”

 

“You wouldn’t have to worry about Charlie getting suspicious, or always getting home on time after something like this.”

 

I’d agreed to think about it. But on the other hand, there was more and more evidence that Charlie enjoyed my continued residence in his home.

 

When I composed myself enough to put on a good show of “tired from my day, but in a good way (instead of a horrifying and terrible way)”, we had what for us was a very pleasant dinner. 

 

Charlie asked about Billy and Jacob, and my friends. 

 

He shared some brief stories from his own day.

 

We had a good thing going now.

 

But still, for everyone’s sake, I had to consider whether moving out might be the safest and wisest option.

 

---

 

Thanks to his miraculous ability to heal, by the next day, Jared looked markedly better, and of  all the wolves only Jared and Collin were still noticeably injured.

 

Jared was still on Emily’s couch, but the plastic sheeting was gone and instead he had a blanket draped over him.

 

Kim was there, sitting beside him, and chatting about something, while he gazed at her in a dazed sort of wonder.

 

“Bella!” Jacob scooped me up and I gasped in surprise.

 

“Jake! Everything okay?” He kissed me.

 

“It’s fine. It was hell, not knowing if Jared would make it. But he’s fine, of course. If I didn’t know how close it was, I’d think he did it on purpose.” he snorted. “Idiot.”

 

“Are they back together then?”

 

“Not yet, but look at them.”

 

“I guess that’s good. They love each other. At least they can talk now.”

 

“Yeah, and maybe Jared’ll stop with the fucking self-pity long enough to actually listen to her.”

 

“Thank god for that. Kim’s really saving this pack. Asshole.”

 

As always, private conversations at Emily’s tended to become public. Embry and Quil sat down with us at the table as we ate, filling me in on the latest - a group of 5 encountered early in the morning, just before sunrise.

 

Emily’s was starting to take on the feel of a barracks in a war zone. Everyone was trying to catch sleep, or bolt down some food before the next catastrophe. And of course, we were avoiding our families so we wouldn’t have to hide what was really going on so much.

 

“Man, this is why I don’t understand Billy. He knows , I mean he knows knows. And he wants to bring Rachel into this mess?” Jacob complained.

 

“She actually showing up this time?”

 

“Yeah, apparently. She’s supposed to drive down next Saturday. Stay for who knows how long. What’s she gonna think?”

 

“Relax, Jake. I always thought your sisters were cool.”

 

“Had a creepo kiddie crush on them’s more like it, Quil,”

 

“Well, they were cool. They were just also pretty hot.”

 

---

 

Kim got her casts off a couple days later.

 

Her arm was still in a sling, and her leg in a brace, but it raised her mood remarkably.

 

She and Jared were spending more and more time together, even though they hadn’t really gotten back together yet. 

 

When she complained that it wasn’t fair that he was healing so fast it was with a smile on her face, and the old light in her eyes.

 

She didn’t stop him from accompanying her on her walk around the field in front of Emily’s, her daily physical therapy exercise.

 

For his part, Jared looked like the happiest recently-almost-dead person I’d ever seen.

 

And when Paul came over one day before Kim had arrived and dumped a pile of battered paperbacks in his lap, he thanked him so sincerely I thought he might cry.

 

The books looked familiar - I had a feeling they were a selection of Kim’s favorites.

 

When I saw Kim playing video games with him the next day, I couldn't help but smile. Her Mario Kart skills roughly equal with mine (meaning non-existent), but she looked like she was having a great time regardless. it made something in my heart squeeze.

 

Embry, Seth, and Quil teased and despaired of her, but she only laughed, while Jared promised violent and absurd retribution. And he laughed too.

 

----

 

It seemed like things were falling back into place. 

 

The skirmishes didn’t stop. But they decreased a bit in number, maybe because Victoria’d finally lost too many of her people, maybe for reasons we didn’t yet understand.

 

The vampires, when the wolves encountered them, more often tried to attack and escape, which was troubling, but at least that meant they didn’t attack all out.

 

Saturday morning found me at the Black house, whipping up eggs, bacon, and pancakes for Billy, Jake, and presumably Rachel if she arrived on schedule.

 

“We really appreciate this Bella, Jacob and I get by in the kitchen, but it’ll be nice to have a good spread. I always worry she’s not eating right.” My remaining concerns about Billy’s approval had vanished over the last couple weeks. He’d embraced me fully as an ally in welcoming his daughter home. 

 

Jacob was lounging on the couch, and if I didn’t know him so well, I would have believed his nonchalant act.

 

“Hey, I hear a car. She drive a shitty SUV that hasn’t had the engine checked in like two years?”

 

Billy rolled over toward the front window. “I don’t see--oh, yes, there she is.”

 

I put the pancakes to stay warm in the oven and peeked out too.

 

“She brought a lot of stuff.”

 

It looked like Rachel had in fact brought all her stuff. 

 

She pulled up haphazardly to the curb, waving to Billy as she climbed out of the car. 

 

I didn’t remember Rachel much, and the memories I did have were of her as a child, a pretty, older, taller, and livelier child than myself.

 

She and Rebecca were about three years older than me, which was a lot back when we were kids. I’d been miserable in Forks, and we’d never warmed up to each other.


I hoped she didn’t remember that too much.

 

“Jesus, Jake!” Rachel cried out, sweeping in like a ray of sunshine. Must run in the family. “Look at you! Dad, what have you been feeding him, human growth hormone?”

 

Despite what Jake had said, about her running off after their mom died, and being mad at the world, and specifically La Push, she was like a summer breeze.

 

She grinned at me when she saw me in the kitchen, flipping bacon onto a paper towel. It was Jacob’s smile.

 

“You must be Bella. And look at that, they’ve pressed you into service, huh? Scandalous, when you should be the guest here. And look at you. Jake should be on his knees thanking whatever gods dropped you into his lap.”

 

“Hi,” I greeted, shy, but already feeling more at ease. She must have that same ability as Jacob, to make people happy and comfortable. “I don’t know if you remember…”

 

“Of course, you’re Charlie’s kid. Forks finally grew on you then?”

 

“Yeah, I guess you could say that. Are you hungry?”

 

“I’m famished. Jakey, you should help her. Get the big plates down. Oh, and get water for everyone. With ice.”

 

“You just got here and you’re already bossing me around.” he grumbled, though I could tell that despite his various complaints he was happy to see her, “It’s my house you know. I actually still live here.”

 

She hugged him. “I’m surprised you can still fit in the door, kid. Seriously, I just saw you at Christmas, and you weren’t this tall. Or this buff. What the hell? Sorry, Dad.” She grinned up unrepentantly.

 

Rachel herself was a good few inches taller than me. She flicked her long ponytail and stood on her toes to reach up and rub Jake’s head.

 

“Get off, Rach, come on.”

 

“Shaved your head too. You join a biker gang or something? And you couldn’t put on a goddamn shirt? Ooh, you like a stripper now?”

 

“Shut up, Jeez, you’re the one acting like you’re on crack or something. Dad - ”

 

I watched in bemusement as Jacob regressed several years before my eyes.

 

Breakfast was fun. Rachel tucked in with evident enjoyment, continuing to needle Jake, while she filled Billy in on her decision to graduate early and her plans for the future.

 

“Don’t really know what I’m gonna do now. I was crashing on a friend’s couch for a while. I should have come home earlier, I know. But it’s kind of embarrassing. I graduate college, I should know what to do next.”

 

“Of course you can stay as long as you want Rachel. This is your home.”

 

“Thanks Dad. I think I’m gonna look for a job in Seattle. They’ve got a great tech sector you know.”

 

It all sounded very reasonable. And yet...if she’d really wanted to leave them behind, moving back home, looking for a job in Seattle. That sounded like the opposite of running away to me.

 

I also hoped that she would wait a while to move to Seattle, given the current situation there.

 

Jacob helped me clean up, griping as he did so that Rachel was already taking over the house, and swearing that he wasn’t going to help her bring any of her stuff inside.

 

Then he groaned.

 

“Those jerks.”

 

“What?”

 

“I can hear them. At least Quil and Embry, oh, and Jared and Paul. Shit. They just have to come pry into my damn business.”

 

“I’m sure they’re just curious. I mean, they grew up knowing your sisters too, right?” he gave me a skeptical look.

 

“Okay, they came over to tease you, but still...she’s really nice, Jake, and she seems to really be back. Maybe it’s a good thing.”

 

“When did you become an optimist, Bells?” he grumbled, one corner of his mouth twitching upwards to give him away.

 

“Must be your stunning example.”

 

Jacob cupped my face in his large hands. “You’re the best girlfriend,” he told me, and bent down to kiss me.

 

“Hey, so you just let them make out all over your house now, Dad?” Jake groaned.

 

“Jake! JAAAAAAKE” Quil’s voice was audible to me now too, a grating sing-song.

 

“Oh! Is that Embry and Quil? I’d love to see them.” Rachel’s face lit up in real pleasure. 

 

She swung open the front door, Jacob and I close behind, and stopped in shock.

 

“So...all of your friends are giant? Did you actually join some kind of gang?” she asked faintly.

 

“It’s...teenage boys, growth spurts, you know.” I tried weakly.

 

At that moment though, Paul raised his eyes, mouth open to say something undoubtedly snarky. 

 

He stopped, mouth still open, staring at Rachel. Frozen, face slowly thawing from shock to awe.

 

Rachel blushed.

 

“Oh, hell no.” Jake snarled.

 

“Well, shit.” Embry remarked.

 

“Oh my gosh, did he…” Kim whispered to Jared.

 

“It looks like it.”

 

“Shiiiiiiiit.”

 

Quil laughed.

 

“Oh.” Billy had rolled to the floor and was taking in the scene with the rest of us.

 

His mouth dropped open.

 

Paul had imprinted on Rachel Black.

 

---