10. WHY DIDN'T I JUST WALK AWAY? OH RIGHT, BECAUSE I'M AN IDIOT. I felt like ——like I don't know what. Like this wasn't real. Like I was in some Goth version of a bad sitcom. Instead of being the AA/ dweeb about to ask the head cheerleader to the prom, I was the finished-second-place werewolf about to ask the vampire's wife to shack up and procreate. Nice. No, I wouldn't do it. It was twisted and wrong. I was going to forget all about what he'd said. But I would talk to her. I'd try to make her listen to me. And she wouldn't. Just like always. Edward didn't answer or comment on my thoughts as he led the way back to the house. I wondered about the place that he'd chosen to stop. Was it far enough from the house that the others couldn't hear his whispers? Was that the point? Maybe. When we walked through the door, the other Cullens' eyes were suspicious and confused. No one looked disgusted or outraged. So they must not have heard either favor Edward had asked me for. I hesitated in the open doorway, not sure what to do now. It was better right there, with a little bit of breathable air blowing in from outside. Edward walked into the middle of the huddle, shoulders stiff. Bella watched him anxiously, and then her eyes flickered to me for a second. Then she was watching him again. Her face turned a grayish pale, and I could see what he meant about the stress making her feel worse. "We're going to let Jacob and Bella speak privately," Edward said. There was no inflection at all in his voice. Robotic. "Over my pile of ashes," Rosalie hissed at him. She was still hovering by Bella's head, one of her cold hands placed possessively on Bella's sallow cheek. Edward didn't look at her. "Bella," he said in that same empty tone. "Jacob wants to talk to you. Are you afraid to be alone with him?" Bella looked at me, confused. Then she looked at Rosalie. "Rose, it's fine. Jake's not going to hurt us. Go with Edward." "It might be a trick," the blonde warned. "I don't see how," Bella said. "Carlisle and I will always be in your sight, Rosalie," Edward said. The emotionless voice was cracking, showing the anger through it. "We're the ones she's afraid of." "No," Bella whispered. Her eyes were glistening, her lashes wet. "No, Edward. I'm not___" He shook his head, smiling a little. The smile was painful to look at. "I didn't mean it that way, Bella. I'm fine. Don't worry about me." Sickening. He was right ——she was beating herself up about hurting his feelings. The girl was a classic martyr. She'd totally been born in the wrong century. She should have lived back when she could have gotten herself fed to some lions for a good cause. "Everyone," Edward said, his hand stiffly motioning toward the door. "Please." The composure he was trying to keep up for Bella was shaky. I could see how close he was to that burning man he'd been outside. The others saw it, too. Silently, they moved out the door while I shifted out of the way. They moved fast; my heart beat twice, and the room was cleared except for Rosalie, hesitating in the middle of the floor, and Edward, still waiting by the door. "Rose," Bella said quietly. "I want you to go." The blonde glared at Edward and then gestured for him to go first. He disappeared out the door. She gave me a long warning glower, and then she disappeared, too. Once we were alone, I crossed the room and sat on the floor next to Bella. I took both her cold hands in mine, rubbing them carefully. "Thanks, Jake. That feels good." "I'm not going to lie, Bells. You're hideous." "I know," she sighed. Tm scary-looking." "Thing-from-the-swamp scary," I agreed. She laughed. "It's so good having you here. It feels nice to smile. I don't know how much more drama I can stand." I rolled my eyes. "Okay, okay," she agreed. "I bring it on myself." "Yeah, you do. What're you thinking, Bells? Seriously!" "Did he ask you to yell at me?" "Sort of. Though I can't figure why he thinks you'd listen to me. You never have before." She sighed. "I told you ——," I started to say. "Did you know that 7 told you so' has a brother, Jacob?" she asked, cutting me off. "His name is 'Shut the hell up." "Good one." She grinned at me. Her skin stretched tight over the bones. "I can't take credit —2—i got it off a rerun of The Simpsons" "Missed that one." "It was funny." We didn't talk for a minute. Her hands were starting to warm up a little. "Did he really ask you to talk to me?" I nodded. "To talk some sense into you. There's a battle that's lost before it starts." "So why did you agree?" I didn't answer. I wasn't sure I knew. I did know this ——every second I spent with her was only going to add to the pain I would have to suffer later. Like a junkie with a limited supply, the day of reckoning was coming for me. The more hits I took now, the harder it would be when my supply ran out. "It'll work out, you know," she said after a quiet minute. "I believe that." That made me see red again. "Is dementia one of your symptoms?" I snapped. She laughed, though my anger was so real that my hands were shaking around hers. "Maybe," she said. Tm not saying things will work out easily, Jake. But how could I have lived through all that I've lived through and not believe in magic by this point?" "Magic?" "Especially for you," she said. She was smiling. She pulled one of her hands away from mine and pressed it against my cheek. Warmer than before, but it felt cool against my skin, like most things did. "More than anyone else, you've got some magic waiting to make things right for you." "What are you babbling about?" Still smiling. "Edward told me once what it was like —a—your imprinting thing. He said it was like A Midsummer Night's Dream, like magic. You'll find who you're really looking for, Jacob, and maybe then all of this will make sense." If she hadn't looked so fragile I would've been screaming. As it was, I did growl at her. "If you think that imprinting could ever make sense of this insanity..." I struggled for words. "Do you really think that just because I might someday imprint on some stranger it would make this right?" I jabbed a finger toward her swollen body. "Tell me what the point was then, Bella! What was the point of me loving you? What was the point of you loving him? When you die" ——the words were a snarl——"how is that ever right again? What's the point to all the pain? Mine, yours, his! You'll kill him, too, not that I care about that." She flinched, but I kept going. "So what was the point of your twisted love story, in the end? If there is any sense, please show me, Bella, because I don't see it." She sighed. "I don't know yet, Jake. But I just... feel... that this is all going somewhere good, hard to see as it is now. I guess you could call it faith." "You're dying for nothing, Bella! Nothing!" Her hand dropped from my face to her bloated stomach, caressed it. She didn't have to say the words for me to know what she was thinking. She was dying for it. I'm not going to die," she said through her teeth, and I could tell she was repeating things she'd said before. "I will keep my heart beating. I'm strong enough for that." "That's a load of crap, Bella. You've been trying to keep up with the supernatural for too long. No normal person can do it. You're not strong enough." I took her face in my hand. I didn't have to remind myself to be gentle. Everything about her screamed breakable. "I can do this. I can do this," she muttered, sounding a lot like that kids' book about the little engine that could. "Doesn't look like it to me. So what's your plan? I hope you have one." She nodded, not meeting my eyes. "Did you know Esme jumped off a cliff? When she was human, I mean." "So?" "So she was close enough to dead that they didn't even bother taking her to the emergency room —i—they took her right around to the morgue. Her heart was still beating, though, when Carlisle found her___" That's what she'd meant before, about keeping her heart beating. "You're not planning on surviving this human," I stated dully. "No. I'm not stupid." She met my stare then. "I guess you probably have your own opinion on that point, though." "Emergency vampirization," I mumbled. "It worked for Esme. And Emmett, and Rosalie, and even Edward. None of them were in such great shape. Carlisle only changed them because it was that or death. He doesn't end lives, he saves them." I felt a sudden twinge of guilt about the good vampire doctor, like before. I shoved the thought away and started in on the begging. "Listen to me, Bells. Don't do it that way." Like before, when the call from Charlie had come, I could see how much difference it really made to me. I realized I needed her to stay alive, in some form. In any form. I took a deep breath. "Don't wait until it's too late, Bella. Not that way. Live. Okay? Just live. Don't do this to me. Don't do it to him." My voice got harder, louder. "You know what he's going to do when you die. You've seen it before. You want him to go back to those Italian killers?" She cringed into the sofa. I left out the part about how that wouldn't be necessary this time. Struggling to make my voice softer, I asked, "Remember when I got mangled up by those newborns? What did you tell me?" I waited, but she wouldn't answer. She pressed her lips together. "You told me to be good and listen to Carlisle," I reminded her. "And what did I do? I listened to the vampire. For you." "You listened because it was the right thing to do." "Okay —u—pick either reason." She took a deep breath. "It's not the right thing now." Her gaze touched her big round stomach and she whispered under her breath, "I won't kill him." My hands shook again. "Oh, I hadn't heard the great news. A bouncing baby boy, huh? Shoulda brought some blue balloons." Her face turned pink. The color was so beautiful —4—it twisted in my stomach like a knife. A serrated knife, rusty and ragged. I was going to lose this. Again. "I don't know he's a boy," she admitted, a little sheepish. "The ultrasound wouldn't work. The membrane around the baby is too hard —2—like their skin. So he's a little mystery. But I always see a boy in my head." "It's not some pretty baby in there, Bella." "We'll see," she said. Almost smug. "You won't," I snarled. "You're very pessimistic, Jacob. There is definitely a chance that I might walk away from this." I couldn't answer. I looked down and breathed deep and slow, trying to get a grip on my fury. "Jake," she said, and she patted my hair, stroked my cheek. "It's going to be okay. Shh. it's okay." I didn't look up. "No. It will not be okay." She wiped something wet from my cheek. "Shh." "What's the deal, Bella?" I stared at the pale carpet. My bare feet were dirty, leaving smudges. Good. "I thought the whole point was that you wanted your vampire more than anything. And now you're just giving him up? That doesn't make any sense. Since when are you desperate to be a mom? If you wanted that so much, why did you marry a vampire?" I was dangerously close to that offer he wanted me to make. I could see the words taking me that way, but I couldn't change their direction. She sighed. "It's not like that. I didn't really care about having a baby. I didn't even think about it. It's not just having a baby. It's... well... this baby." "It's a killer, Bella. Look at yourself." "He's not. It's me. I'm just weak and human. But I can tough this out, Jake, I can ——" "Aw, come on! Shut up, Bella. You can spout this crap to your bloodsucker, but you're not fooling me. You know you're not going to make it." She glared at me. "I do not know that. I'm worried about it, sure." "Worried about it," I repeated through my teeth. She gasped then and clutched at her stomach. My fury vanished like a light switch being turned off. "I'm fine," she panted. It's nothing." But I didn't hear; her hands had pulled her sweatshirt to the side, and I stared, horrified, at the skin it exposed. Her stomach looked like it was stained with big splotches of purple-black ink. She saw my stare, and she yanked the fabric back in place. "He's strong, that's all," she said defensively. The ink spots were bruises. I almost gagged, and I understood what he'd said, about watching it hurt her. Suddenly, I felt a little crazy myself. "Bella," I said. She heard the change in my voice. She looked up, still breathing heavy, her eyes confused. "Bella, don't do this:' "Jake —4—" "Listen to me. Don't get your back up yet. Okay? Just listen. What if... ?" "What if what?" "What if this wasn't a one-shot deal? What if it wasn't all or nothing? What if you just listened to Carlisle like a good girl, and kept yourself alive?" "I won't —u—" "I'm not done yet. So you stay alive. Then you can start over. This didn't work out. Try again." She frowned. She raised one hand and touched the place where my eyebrows were mashing together. Her fingers smoothed my forehead for a moment while she tried to make sense of it. "I don't understand.... What do you mean, try again? You can't think Edward would let me... ? And what difference would it make? I'm sure any baby —u—" "Yes," I snapped. "Any kid of his would be the same." Her tired face just got more confused. "What?" But I couldn't say any more. There was no point. I would never be able to save her from herself. I'd never been able to do that. Then she blinked, and I could see she got it. "Oh. Ugh. Please, Jacob. You think I should kill my baby and replace it with some generic substitute? Artificial insemination?" She was mad now. "Why would I want to have some stranger's baby? I suppose it just doesn't make a difference? Any baby will do?" "I didn't mean that," I muttered. "Not a stranger." She leaned forward. "Then what are you saying?" "Nothing. I'm saying nothing. Same as ever." "Where did that come from?" "Forget it, Bella." She frowned, suspicious. "Did he tell you to say that?" I hesitated, surprised that she'd made that leap so quick. "No." "He did, didn't he?" "No, really. He didn't say anything about artificial whatever." Her face softened then, and she sank back against the pillows, looking exhausted. She stared off to the side when she spoke, not talking to me at all. "He would do anything forme. And I'm hurting him so much.... But what is he thinking? That I would trade this" —2—her hand traced across her belly——"for some stranger's ..." She mumbled the last part, and then her voice trailed off. Her eyes were wet. "You don't have to hurt him," I whispered. It burned like poison in my mouth to beg for him, but I knew this angle was probably my best bet for keeping her alive. Still a thousand-to-one odds. "You could make him happy again, Bella. And I really think he's losing it. Honestly, I do." She didn't seem to be listening; her hand made small circles on her battered stomach while she chewed on her lip. It was quiet for a long time. I wondered if the Cullens were very far away. Were they listening to my pathetic attempts to reason with her? "Not a stranger?" she murmured to herself. I flinched. "What exactly did Edward say to you?" she asked in a low voice. "Nothing. He just thought you might listen to me." "Not that. About trying again." Her eyes locked on mine, and I could see that I'd already given too much away. "Nothing." Her mouth fell open a little. "Wow." It was silent for a few heartbeats. I looked down at my feet again, unable to meet her stare. "He really would do anything, wouldn't he?" she whispered. "I told you he was going crazy. Literally, Bells." "I'm surprised you didn't tell on him right away. Get him in trouble." When I looked up, she was grinning. "Thought about it." I tried to grin back, but I could feel the smile mangle on my face. She knew what I was offering, and she wasn't going to think twice about it. I'd known that she wouldn't. But it still stung. "There isn't much you wouldn't do for me, either, is there?" she whispered. "I really don't know why you bother. I don't deserve either of you." "It makes no difference, though, does it?" "Not this time." She sighed. "I wish I could explain it to you right so that you would understand. I can't hurt him" ——she pointed to her stomach—@—"any more than I could pick up a gun and shoot you. I love him." "Why do you always have to love the wrong things, Bella?" "I don't think I do." I cleared the lump out of my throat so that I could make my voice hard like I wanted it. 'Trust me." I started to get to my feet. "Where are you going?" "I'm not doing any good here." She held out her thin hand, pleading. "Don't go." I could feel the addiction sucking at me, trying to keep me near her. "I don't belong here. I've got to get back." "Why did you come today?" she asked, still reaching limply. "Just to see if you were really alive. I didn't believe you were sick like Charlie said." I couldn't tell from her face whether she bought that or not. "Will you come back again? Before ..." "I'm not going to hang around and watch you die, Bella." She flinched. "You're right, you're right. You should go." I headed for the door. "Bye," she whispered behind me. "Love you, Jake." I almost went back. I almost turned around and fell down on my knees and started begging again. But I knew that I had to quit Bella, quit her cold turkey, before she killed me, like she was going to kill him. "Sure, sure," I mumbled on my way out. I didn't see any of the vampires. I ignored my bike, standing all alone in the middle of the meadow. It wasn't fast enough for me now. My dad would be freaked out —2—Sam, too. What would the pack make of the fact that they hadn't heard me phase? Would they think the Cullens got me before I'd had the chance? I stripped down, not caring who might be watching, and started running. I blurred into wolf mid-stride. They were waiting. Of course they were. Jacob, Jake, eight voices chorused in relief. Come home now, the Alpha voice ordered. Sam was furious. I felt Paul fade out, and i knew Billy and Rachel were waiting to hear what had happened to me. Paul was too anxious to give them the good news that I wasn't vampire chow to listen to the whole story. I didn't have to tell the pack I was on my way —2—they could see the forest blurring past me as I sprinted for home. I didn't have to tell them that I was half-past crazy, either. The sickness in my head was obvious. They saw all the horror ——Bella's mottled stomach; her raspy voice; he's strong, that's all: the burning man in Edward's face: watching her sicken and waste away... seeing it hurting her, Rosalie crouched over Bella's limp body: Bella's life means nothing to her—— and for once, no one had anything to say. Their shock was just a silent shout in my head. Wordless. //// I was halfway home before anyone recovered. Then they all started running to meet me. It was almost dark —i—the clouds covered the sunset completely. I risked darting across the freeway and made it without being seen. We met up about ten miles out of La Push, in a clearing left by the loggers. It was out of the way, wedged between two spurs of the mountain, where no one would see us. Paul found them when I did, so the pack was complete. The babble in my head was total chaos. Everyone shouting at once. Sam's hackles were sticking straight up, and he was growling in an unbroken stream as he paced back and forth around the top of the ring. Paul and Jared moved like shadows behind him, their ears flat against the sides of their head. The whole circle was agitated, on their feet and snarling in low bursts. At first their anger was undefined, and I thought I was in for it. I was too messed up to care about that. They could do whatever they wanted to me for circumventing orders. And then the unfocused confusion of thoughts began to move together. How can this be? What does it mean? What will it be? Not safe. Not right. Dangerous. Unnatural. Monstrous. An abomination. We can't allow it. The pack was pacing in synchronization now, thinking in synchronization, all but myself and one other. I sat beside whichever brother it was, too dazed to look over with either my eyes or my mind and see who was next to me, while the pack circled around us. The treaty does not cover this. This puts everyone in danger. I tried to understand the spiraling voices, tried to follow the curling pathway the thoughts made to see where they were leading, but it wasn't making sense. The pictures in the center of their thoughts were my pictures ——the very worst of them. Bella's bruises, Edward's face as he burned. They fear it, too. But they won't do anything about it Protecting Bella Swan. We can't let that influence us. The safety of our families, of everyone here, is more important than one human. If they won't kill it, we have to. Protect the tribe. Protect our families. We have to kill it before it's too late. Another of my memories, Edward's words this time: The thing is growing. Swiftly. I struggled to focus, to pick out individual voices. No time to waste, Jared thought. It will mean a fight, Embry cautioned. A bad one. Were ready, Paul insisted. Well need surprise on our side, Sam thought. If we catch them divided, we can take them down separately. It will increase our chances of victory, Jared thought, starting to strategize now. I shook my head, rising slowly to my feet. 1 felt unsteady there —2—like the circling wolves were making me dizzy. The wolf beside me got up, too. His shoulder pushed against mine, propping me up. Wait, I thought. The circling paused for one beat, and then they were pacing again. There's little time, Sam said. But ——what are you thinking? You wouldn't attack them for breaking the treaty this afternoon. Now you're planning an ambush, when the treaty is still intact? This is not something our treaty anticipated, Sam said. This is a danger to every human in the area. We don't know what kind of creature the Cullens have bred, but we know that it is strong and fast-growing. And it will be too young to follow any treaty. Remember the newborn vampires we fought? Wild, violent, beyond the reach of reason or restraint. Imagine one like that, but protected by the Cullens. We don't know —— I tried to interrupt. We don't know, he agreed. And we can't take chances with the unknown in this case. We can only allow the Cullens to exist while we're absolutely sure that they can be trusted not to cause harm. This... thing cannot be trusted. They don't like it any more than we do. Sam pulled Rosalie's face, her protective crouch, from my mind and put it on display for everyone. Some are ready to fight for it, no matter what it is. It's just a baby, for crying out loud. Not for long, Leah whispered. Jake, buddy, this is a big problem, Quil said. We can't just ignore it. You're making it into something bigger than it is, I argued. The only one who's in danger here is Bella. Again by her own choice, Sam said. But this time her choice affects us all. I don't think so. We can't take that chance. We won't allow a blood drinker to hunt on our lands. Then tell them to leave, the wolf who was still supporting me said. It was Seth. Of course. And inflict the menace on others? When blood drinkers cross our land, we destroy them, no matter where they plan to hunt. We protect everyone we can. This is crazy, I said. This afternoon you were afraid to put the pack in danger. This afternoon I didn't know our families were at risk. I can't believe this! How're you going to kill this creature without killing Bella? There were no words, but the silence was full of meaning. I howled. She's human, too! Doesn't our protection apply to her? She's dying anyway, Leah thought. We'll just shorten the process. That did it. I leaped away from Seth, toward his sister, with my teeth bared. I was about to catch her left hind leg when I felt Sam's teeth cut into my flank, dragging me back. I howled in pain and fury and turned on him. Stop! he ordered in the double timbre of the Alpha. My legs seemed to buckle under me. I jerked to a halt, only managing to keep on my feet by sheer willpower. He turned his gaze away from me. You will not be cruel to him, Leah, he commanded her. Bella's sacrifice is a heavy price, and we will all recognize that It is against everything we stand for to take a human life. Making an exception to that code is a bleak thing. We will all mourn for what we do tonight. Tonight? Seth repeated, shocked. Sam ——/ think we should talk about this some more. Consult with the Elders, at least. You can't seriously mean for us to—— We can't afford your tolerance for the Cullens now. There is no time for debate. You will do as you are told, Seth. SetfYs front knees folded, and his head fell forward under the weight of the Alpha's command. Sam paced in a tight circle around the two of us. We need the whole pack for this. Jacob, you are our strongest fighter. You will fight with us tonight. I understand that this is hard for you, so you will concentrate on their fighters —u—Emmett and Jasper Cullen. You don't have to be involved with the... other part. Quil and Embry will fight with you. My knees trembled; I struggled to hold myself upright while the voice of the Alpha lashed at my will. Paul, Jared, and I will take on Edward and Rosalie. I think, from the information Jacob has brought us, they will be the ones guarding Bella. Carlisle and Alice will also be close, possibly Esme. Brady, Collin, Seth, and Leah will concentrate on them. Whoever has a clear line on ——we all heard him mentally stutter over Bella's name——the creature will take it. Destroying the creature is our first priority. The pack rumbled in nervous agreement. The tension had everyone's fur standing on end. The pacing was quicker, and the sound of the paws against the brackish floor was sharper, toenails tearing into the soil. Only Seth and I were still, the eye in the center of a storm of bared teeth and flattened ears. Seth's nose was almost touching the ground, bowed under Sam's commands. I felt his pain at the coming disloyalty. For him this was a betrayal ——during that one day of alliance, fighting beside Edward Cullen, Seth had truly become the vampire's friend. There was no resistance in him, however. He would obey no matter how much it hurt him. He had no other choice. And what choice did I have? When the Alpha spoke, the pack followed. Sam had never pushed his authority this far before; I knew he honestly hated to see Seth kneeling before him like a slave at the foot of his master. He wouldn't force this if he didn't believe that he had no other choice. He couldn't lie to us when we were linked mind to mind like this. He really believed it was our duty to destroy Bella and the monster she carried. He really believed we had no time to waste. He believed it enough to die for it. I saw that he would face Edward himself; Edward's ability to read our thoughts made him the greatest threat in Sam's mind. Sam would not let someone else take on that danger. He saw Jasper as the second-greatest opponent, which is why he'd given him to me. He knew that I had the best chance of any of the pack to win that fight. He'd left the easiest targets for the younger wolves and Leah. Little Alice was no danger without her future vision to guide her, and we knew from our time of alliance that Esme was not a fighter. Carlisle would be more of a challenge, but his hatred of violence would hinder him. I felt sicker than Seth as I watched Sam plan it out, trying to work the angles to give each member of the pack the best chance of survival. Everything was inside out. This afternoon, I'd been chomping at the bit to attack them. But Seth had been right —2—it wasn't a fight I'd been ready for. I'd blinded myself with that hate. I hadn't let myself look at it carefully, because I must have known what I would see if I did. Carlisle Cullen. Looking at him without that hate clouding my eyes, I couldn't deny that killing him was murder. He was good. Good as any human we protected. Maybe better. The others, too, I supposed, but I didn't feel as strongly about them. I didn't know them as well. It was Carlisle who would hate fighting back, even to save his own life. That's why we would be able to kill him ——because he wouldn't want us, his enemies, to die. This was wrong. And it wasn't just because killing Bella felt like killing me, like suicide. Pull it together, Jacob, Sam ordered. The tribe comes first I was wrong today, Sam. Your reasons were wrong then. But now we have a duty to fulfill. I braced myself. No. Sam snarled and stopped pacing in front of me. He stared into my eyes and a deep growl slid between his teeth. Yes, the Alpha decreed, his double voice blistering with the heat of his authority. There are no loopholes tonight. You, Jacob, are going to fight the Cullens with us. You, with Quil and Embry, will take care of Jasper and Emmett. You are obligated to protect the tribe. That is why you exist. You will perform this obligation. My shoulders hunched as the edict crushed me. My legs collapsed, and I was on my belly under him. No member of the pack could refuse the Alpha.
11. THE TWO THINGS AT THE VERY TOP OF MY THINGS-I-NEVER-WANT-TO-DO LIST Sam started moving the others into formation while i was still on the ground. Embry and Quil were at my sides, waiting for me to recover and take the point. I could feel the drive, the need, to get on my feet and lead them. The compulsion grew, and I fought it uselessly, cringing on the ground where I was. Embry whined quietly in my ear. He didn't want to think the words, afraid that he would bring me to Sam's attention again. I felt his wordless plea for me to get up, for me to get this over with and be done with it. There was fear in the pack, not so much for self but for the whole. We couldn't imagine that we would all make it out alive tonight. Which brothers would we lose? Which minds would leave us forever? Which grieving families would we be consoling in the morning? My mind began to work with theirs, to think in unison, as we dealt with these fears. Automatically, I pushed up from the ground and shook out my coat. Embry and Quil huffed in relief. Quil touched his nose to my side once. Their minds were filled with our challenge, our assignment. We remembered together the nights we'd watched the Cullens practicing for the fight with the newborns. Emmett Cullen was strongest, but Jasper would be the bigger problem. He moved like a lightning strike —2—power and speed and death rolled into one. How many centuries' experience did he have? Enough that all the other Cullens looked to him for guidance. /'// take point, if you want flank, Quil offered. There was more excitement in his mind than most of the others. When Quil had watched Jasper's instruction those nights, he'd been dying to test his skill against the vampire's. For him, this would be a contest. Even knowing it was his life on the line, he saw it that way. Paul was like that, too, and the kids who had never been in battle, Collin and Brady. Seth probably would've been the same —2—if the opponents were not his friends. Jake? Quil nudged me. How do you want to roll? I just shook my head, t couldn't concentrate ——the compulsion to follow orders felt like puppet strings hooked into all of my muscles. One foot forward, now another. Seth was dragging behind Collin and Brady ——Leah had assumed point there. She ignored Seth while planning with the others, and I could see that she'd rather leave him out of the fight. There was a maternal edge to her feelings for her younger brother. She wished Sam would send him home. Seth didn't register Leah's doubts. He was adjusting to the puppet strings, too. Maybe if you stopped resisting..., Embry whispered. Just focus on our part. The big ones. We can take them down. We own them! Quil was working himself up —2—like a pep talk before a big game. I could see how easy it would be —2—to think about nothing more than my part. It wasn't hard to imaging attacking Jasper and Emmett. We'd been close to that before. I'd thought of them as enemies for a very long time. I could do that now again. I just had to forget that they were protecting the same thing I would protect. I had to forget the reason why I might want them to win.... Jake, Embry warned. Keep your head in the game. My feet moved sluggishly, pulling against the drag of the strings. There's no point fighting it, Embry whispered again. He was right. I would end up doing what Sam wanted, if he was willing to push it. And he was. Obviously. There was a good reason for the Alpha's authority. Even a pack as strong as ours wasn't much of a force without a leader. We had to move together, to think together, in order to be effective. And that required the body to have a head. So what if Sam was wrong now? There was nothing anyone could do. No one could dispute his decision. Except. And there it was —2—a thought I'd never, never wanted to have. But now, with my legs all tied up in strings, I recognized the exception with relief——more than relief, with a fierce joy. No one could dispute the Alpha's decision —u—except for me. I hadn't earned anything. But there were things that had been born in me, things that I'd left unclaimed. I'd never wanted to lead the pack. I didn't want to do it now. I didn't want the responsibility for all our fates resting on my shoulders. Sam was better at that than I would ever be. But he was wrong tonight. And I had not been born to kneel to him. The bonds fell off my body the second that I embraced my birthright. I could feel it gathering in me, both a freedom and also a strange, hollow power. Hollow because an Alpha's power came from his pack, and I had no pack. For a second, loneliness overwhelmed me. I had no pack now. But I was straight and strong as I walked to where Sam stood, planning with Paul and Jared. He turned at the sound of my advance, and his black eyes narrowed. A/o, I told him again. He heard it right away, heard the choice that I'd made in the sound of the Alpha voice in my thoughts. He jumped back a half step with a shocked yelp. Jacob? What have you done? I won't follow you, Sam. Not for something so wrong. He stared at me, stunned. You would... you would choose your enemies over your family? They aren't ——I shook my head, clearing it—i—they aren't our enemies. They never have been. Until I really thought about destroying them, thought it through, I didn't see that. This isn't about them, he snarled at me. This is about Bella. She has never been the one for you, she has never chosen you, but you continue to destroy your life for her! They were hard words, but true words. I sucked in a big gulp of air, breathing them in. Maybe you're right. But you're going to destroy the pack over her, Sam. No matter how many of them survive tonight, they will always have murder on their hands. We have to protect our families! I know what you've decided, Sam. But you don't decide for me, not anymore. Jacob ——you can't turn your back on the tribe. I heard the double echo of his Alpha command, but it was weightless this time. It no longer applied to me. He clenched his jaw, trying to force me to respond to his words. I stared into his furious eyes. Ephraim Black's son was not born to follow Levi Uley's. Is this it, then, Jacob Black? His hackles rose and his muzzle pulled back from his teeth. Paul and Jared snarled and bristled at his sides. Even if you can defeat me, the pack will never follow you! Now /jerked back, a surprised whine escaping my throat. Defeat you? I'm not going to fight you, Sam. Then what's your plan? I'm not stepping aside so that you can protect the vampire spawn at the tribe's expense. I'm not telling you to step aside. If you order them to follow you —2— /'// never take anyone's will away from him. His tail whipped back and forth as he recoiled from the judgment in my words. Then he took a step forward so that we were toe to toe, his exposed teeth inches from mine. I hadn't noticed till this moment that I'd grown taller than him. There cannot be more than one Alpha. The pack has chosen me. Will you rip us apart tonight? Will you turn on your brothers? Or will you end this insanity and join us again? Every word was layered with command, but it couldn't touch me. Alpha blood ran undiluted in my veins. I could see why there was never more than one Alpha male in a pack. My body was responding to the challenge. I could feel the instinct to defend my claim rising in me. The primitive core of my wolf-self tensed for the battle of supremacy. I focused all my energy to control that reaction. I would not fall into a pointless, destructive fight with Sam. He was my brother still, even though I was rejecting him. There is only one Alpha for this pack. I'm not contesting that I'm just choosing to go my own way. Do you belong to a coven now, Jacob? I flinched. / don't know, Sam. But I do know this —— He shrunk back as he felt the weight of the Alpha in my tone. It affected him more than his touched me. Because I had been born to lead him. / will stand between you and the Cullens. I won't just watch while the pack kills innocent ——it was hard to apply that word to vampires, but it was true——people. The pack is better than that. Lead them in the right direction, Sam. I turned my back on him, and a chorus of howls tore into the air around me. Digging my nails into the earth, I raced away from the uproar I'd caused. I didn't have much time. At least Leah was the only one with a prayer of outrunning me, and I had a head start. The howling faded with the distance, and I took comfort as the sound continued to rip apart the quiet night. They weren't after me yet. I had to warn the Cullens before the pack could get it together and stop me. If the Cullens were prepared, it might give Sam a reason to rethink this before it was too late. I sprinted toward the white house I still hated, leaving my home behind me. Home didn't belong to me anymore. I'd turned my back on it. Today had begun like any other day. Made it home from patrol with the rainy sunrise, breakfast with Billy and Rachel, bad TV, bickering with Paul... How did it change so completely, turn all surreal? How did everything get messed up and twisted so that I was here now, all alone, an unwilling Alpha, cut off from my brothers, choosing vampires over them? The sound I'd been fearing interrupted my dazed thoughts —2—it was the soft impact of big paws against the ground, chasing after me. I threw myself forward, rocketing through the black forest. I just had to get close enough so that Edward could hear the warning in my head. Leah wouldn't be able to stop me alone. And then I caught the mood of the thoughts behind me. Not anger, but enthusiasm. Not chasing... but following. My stride broke. I staggered two steps before it evened out again. Wait up. My legs aren't as long as yours. SETH! What do you think you're DOING? GO HOME! He didn't answer, but I could feel his excitement as he kept right on after me. I could see through his eyes as he could see through mine. The night scene was bleak for me ——full of despair. For him, it was hopeful. I hadn't realized I was slowing down, but suddenly he was on my flank, running in position beside me. / am not joking, Seth! This is no place for you. Get out of here. The gangly tan wolf snorted. I've got your back, Jacob. I think you're right. And I'm not going to stand behind Sam when —— Oh yes you are the hell going to stand behind Sam! Get your furry butt back to La Push and do what Sam tells you to do. No. Go, Seth! Is that an order. Jacob? His question brought me up short. I skidded to a halt, my nails gouging furrows in the mud. I'm not ordering anyone to do anything. I'm just telling you what you already know. He plopped down on his haunches beside me. /'// tell you what I know —2—I know that it's awful quiet. Haven't you noticed? I blinked. My tail swished nervously as I realized what he was thinking underneath the words. It wasn't quiet in one sense. Howls still filled the air, far away in the west. They haven't phased back, Seth said. I knew that. The pack would be on red alert now. They would be using the mind link to see all sides clearly. But I couldn't hear what they were thinking. I could only hear Seth. No one else. Looks to me like separate packs aren't linked. Huh. Guess there was no reason for our fathers to know that before. 'Cause there was no reason for separate packs before. Never enough wolves for two. Wow. It's really quiet. Sort of eerie. But also kinda nice, don't you think? I bet it was easier, like this, for Ephraim and Quil and Levi. Not such a babble with just three. Or just two. Shut up, Seth. Yes, sir. Stop that! There are not two packs. There is THE pack, and then there is me. That's all. So you can go home now. If there aren't two packs, then why can we hear each other and not the rest? I think that when you turned your back on Sam, that was a pretty significant move. A change. And when I followed you away, I think that was significant, too. You've got a point, I conceded. But what can change can change right back. He got up and started trotting toward the east. No time to argue about it now. We should be moving right along before Sam... He was right about that part. There was no time for this argument. I fell into a run again, not pushing myself quite as hard. Seth stayed on my heels, holding the Second's traditional place on my right flank. / can run somewhere else, he thought, his nose dipping a little. / didn't follow you because I was after a promotion. Run wherever you want. Makes no difference to me. There was no sound of pursuit, but we both stepped it up a little at the same time. I was worried now. If I couldn't tap into the pack's mind, it was going to make this more difficult. I'd have no more advance warning of attack than the Cullens. We'll run patrols, Seth suggested. And what do we do if the pack challenges us? My eyes tightened. Attack our brothers? Your sister? No ——we sound the alarm and fall back. Good answer. But then what? I don't think... I know, he agreed. Less confident now. / don't think I can fight them, either. But they won't be any happier with the idea of attacking us than we are with attacking them. That might be enough to stop them right there. Pius, there're only eight of them now. Stop being so... Took me a minute to decide on the right word. Optimistic. It's getting on my nerves. No problem. You want me to be all doom and gloom, or just shut up? Just shut up. Can do. Really? Doesn't seem like it. He was finally quiet. And then we were across the road and moving through the forest that ringed the Cullens' house. Could Edward hear us yet? Maybe we should be thinking something like, 'We come in peace." Go for it Edward? He called the name tentatively. Edward, you there? Okay, now I feel kinda stupid. You sound stupid, too. Think he can hear us? We were less than a mile out now. / think so. Hey, Edward. If you can hear me —2—circle the wagons, bloodsucker. You've got a problem. We've got a problem, Seth corrected. Then we broke through the trees into the big lawn. The house was dark, but not empty. Edward stood on the porch between Emmett and Jasper. They were snow white in the pale light. "Jacob? Seth? What's going on?" I slowed and then paced back a few steps. The smell was so sharp through this nose that it felt like it was honestly burning me. Seth whined quietly, hesitating, and then he fell back behind me. To answer Edward's question, I let my mind run over the confrontation with Sam, moving through it backward. Seth thought with me, filling in the gaps, showing the scene from another angle. We stopped when we got to the part about the "abomination," because Edward hissed furiously and leaped off the porch. "They want to kill Bella?" he snarled flatly. Emmett and Jasper, not having heard the first part of the conversation, took his inflectionless question for a statement. They were right next to him in a flash, teeth exposed as they moved on us. Hey, now, Seth thought, backing away. "Em, Jazz ——not theml The others. The pack is coming." Emmett and Jasper rocked back on their heels; Emmett turned to Edward while Jasper kept his eyes locked on us. "What's their problem?" Emmett demanded. "The same one as mine," Edward hissed. "But they have their own plan to handle it. Get the others. Call Carlisle! He and Esme have to get back here now." I whined uneasily. They were separated. "They aren't far," Edward said in the same dead voice as before. I'm going to go take a look, Seth said. Run the western perimeter. "Will you be in danger, Seth?" Edward asked. Seth and I exchanged a glance. Don't think so, we thought together. And then I added, But maybe I should go. Just in case... They'll be less likely to challenge me, Seth pointed out. I'm just a kid to them. You're just a kid to me, kid. I'm outta here. You need to coordinate with the Cullens. He wheeled and darted into the darkness. I wasn't going to order Seth around, so I let him go. Edward and I stood facing each other in the dark meadow, i could hear Emmett muttering into his phone. Jasper was watching the place where Seth had vanished into the woods. Alice appeared on the porch and then, after staring at me with anxious eyes for a long moment, she flitted to Jasper's side. I guessed that Rosalie was inside with Bella. Still guarding her —2—from the wrong dangers. "This isn't the first time I've owed you my gratitude, Jacob," Edward whispered. "I would never have asked for this from you." I thought of what he'd asked me for earlier today. When it came to Bella, there were no lines he wouldn't cross. Yeah, you would. He thought about it and then nodded. "I suppose you're right about that." I sighed heavily. Well, this isn't the first time that I didn't do it for you. "Right," he murmured. Sorry I didn't do any good today. Told you she wouldn't listen to me. "I know. I never really believed she would. But..." You had to try. I get it. She any better? His voice and eyes went hollow. "Worse," he breathed. I didn't want to let that word sink in. I was grateful when Alice spoke. "Jacob, would you mind switching forms?" Alice asked. "I want to know what's going on." I shook my head at the same time Edward answered. "He needs to stay linked to Seth." "Well, then would you be so kind as to tell me what's happening?" He explained in clipped, emotionless sentences. "The pack thinks Bella's become a problem. They foresee potential danger from the... from what she's carrying. They feel it's their duty to remove that danger. Jacob and Seth disbanded from the pack to warn us. The rest are planning to attack tonight." Alice hissed, leaning away from me. Emmett and Jasper exchanged a glance, and then their eyes ranged across the trees. Nobody out here, Seth reported. All's quiet on the western front They may go around. I'll make a loop. "Carlisle and Esme are on their way," Emmett said. "Twenty minutes, tops." "We should take up a defensive position," Jasper said. Edward nodded. "Let's get inside." /'// run perimeter with Seth. If I get too far for you to hear my head, listen for my howl. "I will." They backed into the house, eyes flickering everywhere. Before they were inside, I turned and ran toward the west. I'm still not finding much, Seth told me. /'// take half the circle. Move fast ——we don't want them to have a chance to sneak past us. Seth lurched forward in a sudden burst of speed. We ran in silence, and the minutes passed. I listened to the noises around him, double-checking his judgment. Hey ——something coming up fast! he warned me after fifteen minutes of silence. On my way! Hold your position ——/ don't think it's the pack. It sounds different. Seth —u— But he caught the approaching scent on the breeze, and I read it in his mind. Vampire. Bet it's Carlisle. Seth, fall back. It might be someone else. No, it's them. I recognize the scent Hold up, I'm going to phase to explain it to them. Seth, I don't think —p— But he was gone. Anxiously, I raced along the western border. Wouldn't it be just peachy if I couldn't take care of Seth for one freaking night? What if something happened to him on my watch? Leah would shred me into kibble. At least the kid kept it short. It wasn't two minutes later when I felt him in my head again. Yep, Carlisle and Esme. Boy, were they surprised to see me! They're probably inside by now. Carlisle said thanks. He's a good guy. Yeah. That's one of the reasons why we're right about this. Hope so. Why're you so down, Jake? I'll bet Sam won't bring the pack tonight. He's not going to launch a suicide mission. I sighed. It didn't seem to matter, either way. Oh. This isn't about Sam so much, is it? I made the turn at the end of my patrol. I caught Seth's scent where he'd turned last. We weren't leaving any gaps. You think Bella's going to die anyway, Seth whispered. Yeah, she is. Poor Edward. He must be crazy. Literally. Edward's name brought other memories boiling to the surface. Seth read them in astonishment. And then he was howling. Oh, man! No way! You did not/ That just plain oT sucks rocks, Jacob! And you know it, too! I can't believe you said you'd kill him. What is that? You have to tell him no. Shut up, shut up, you idiot! They're going to think the pack is coming! Oops! He cut off mid-howl. I wheeled and started loping in toward the house. Just keep out of this, Seth. Take the whole circle for now. Seth seethed and I ignored him. False alarm, false alarm, I thought as I ran closer in. Sorry. Seth is young. He forgets things. No one's attacking. False alarm. When I got to the meadow, I could see Edward staring out of a dark window. I ran in, wanting to be sure he got the message. There's nothing out there —u—you got that? He nodded once. This would be a lot easier if the communication wasn't one way. Then again, I was kinda glad I wasn't in his head. He looked over his shoulder, back into the house, and I saw a shudder run through his whole frame. He waved me away without looking in my direction again and then moved out of my view. What's going on? Like I was going to get an answer. I sat very still in the meadow and listened. With these ears, I could almost hear SetlYs soft footfalls, miles out into the forest. It was easy to hear every sound inside the dark house. "It was a false alarm," Edward was explaining in that dead voice, just repeating what I'd told him. "Seth was upset about something else, and he forgot we were listening for a signal. He's very young." "Nice to have toddlers guarding the fort," a deeper voice grumbled. Emmett, I thought. "They've done us a great service tonight, Emmett," Carlisle said. "At great personal sacrifice." "Yeah, I know. I'm just jealous. Wish I was out there." "Seth doesn't think Sam will attack now," Edward said mechanically. "Not with us forewarned, and lacking two members of the pack." "What does Jacob think?" Carlisle asked. "He's not as optimistic." No one spoke. There was a quiet dripping sound that I couldn't place. I heard their low breathing ——and I could separate Bella's from the rest. It was harsher, labored. It hitched and broke in strange rhythms. I could hear her heart. It seemed... too fast. I paced it against my own heartbeat, but I wasn't sure if that was any measure. It wasn't like I was normal. "Don't touch her! You'll wake her up," Rosalie whispered. Someone sighed. "Rosalie," Carlisle murmured. "Don't start with me, Carlisle. We let you have your way earlier, but that's all we're allowing." It seemed like Rosalie and Bella were both talking in plurals now. Like they'd formed a pack of their own. I paced quietly in front of the house. Each pass brought me a little closer. The dark windows were like a TV set running in some dull waiting room ——it was impossible to keep my eyes off them for long. A few more minutes, a few more passes, and my fur was brushing the side of the porch as I paced. I could see up through the windows ——see the top of the walls and the ceiling, the unlit chandelier that hung there. I was tall enough that all I would have to do was stretch my neck a little... and maybe one paw up on the edge of the porch.... I peeked into the big, open front room, expecting to see something very similar to the scene this afternoon. But it had changed so much that I was confused at first. For a second I thought I'd gotten the wrong room. The glass wall was gone —2—it looked like metal now. And the furniture was all dragged out of the way, with Bella curled up awkwardly on a narrow bed in the center of the open space. Not a normal bed—2—one with rails like in a hospital. Also like a hospital were the monitors strapped to her body, the tubes stuck into her skin. The lights on the monitors flashed, but there was no sound. The dripping noise was from the IV plugged into her arm—p—some fluid that was thick and white, not clear. She choked a little in her uneasy sleep, and both Edward and Rosalie moved in to hover over her. Her body jerked, and she whimpered. Rosalie smoothed her hand across Bella's forehead. Edward's body stiffened —2—his back was to me, but his expression must have been something to see, because Emmett wrenched himself between them before there was time to blink. He held his hands up to Edward. "Not tonight, Edward. We've got other things to worry about." Edward turned away from them, and he was the burning man again. His eyes met mine for one moment, and then I dropped back to all fours. I ran back into the dark forest, running to join Seth, running away from what was behind me. Worse. Yes, she was worse.