14. YOU KNOW THINGS ARE BAD WHEN YOU FEEL GUILTY FOR BEING RUDE TO VAMPIRES When I got back to the house, there was no one waiting outside for my report. Still on alert? Everything's cool, I thought tiredly. My eyes quickly caught a small change in the now-familiar scene. There was a stack of light-colored fabric on the bottom step of the porch. I loped over to investigate. Holding my breath, because the vampire smell stuck to the fabric like you wouldn't believe, I nudged the stack with my nose. Someone had laid out clothes. Huh. Edward must have caught my moment of irritation as I'd bolted out the door. Well. That was... nice. And weird. I took the clothes gingerly between my teeth —2—ugh—i—and carried them back to the trees. Just in case this was some joke by the blond psychopath and I had a bunch of girls' stuff here. Bet she'd love to see the look on my human face as I stood there naked, holding a sundress. In the cover of the trees, I dropped the stinking pile and shifted back to human. I shook the clothes out, snapping them against a tree to beat some of the smell from them. They were definitely guy's clothes ——tan pants and a white button-down shirt. Neither of them long enough, but they looked like they'd fit around me. Must be Emmett's. I rolled the cuffs up on the shirtsleeves, but there wasn't much I could do about the pants. Oh well. I had to admit, I felt better with some clothes to my name, even stinky ones that didn't quite fit. It was hard not being able to just jet back home and grab another pair of old sweatpants when I needed them. The homeless thing again ——not having anyplace to go back to. No possessions, either, which wasn't bothering me too bad now, but would probably get annoying soon. Exhausted, I walked slowly up the Cullens' porch steps in my fancy new secondhand clothes but hesitated when I got to the door. Did I knock? Stupid, when they knew I was here. I wondered why no one acknowledged that ——told me either to come in or get lost Whatever. I shrugged and let myself in. More changes. The room had shifted back to normal —i—almost——in the last twenty minutes. The big flat-screen was on, low volume, showing some chick flick that no one seemed to be watching. Carlisle and Esme stood by the back windows, which were open to the river again. Alice, Jasper, and Emmett were out of sight, but I heard them murmuring upstairs. Bella was on the couch like yesterday, with just one tube still hooked into her, and an IV hanging behind the back of the sofa. She was wrapped up like a burrito in a couple of thick quilts, so at least they'd listened to me before. Rosalie was cross-legged on the ground by her head. Edward sat at the other end of the couch with Bella's burrito'ed feet in his lap. He looked up when I came in and smiled at me——just a little twitch of his mouth—o—like something pleased him. Bella didn't hear me. She only glanced up when he did, and then she smiled, too. With real energy, her whole face lighting up. I couldn't remember the last time she'd looked so excited to see me. What was with her? For crying out loud, she was married] Happily married, too ——there was no question that she was in love with her vampire past the boundaries of sanity. And hugely pregnant, to top it off. So why did she have to be so damn thrilled to see me? Like I'd made her whole freakin' day by walking through the door. If she would just not care... Or more than that ——really not want me around. It would be so much easier to stay away. Edward seemed to be in agreement with my thoughts ——we were on the same wavelength so much lately it was crazy. He was frowning now, reading her face while she beamed at me. "They just wanted to talk," I mumbled, my voice dragging with exhaustion. "No attack on the horizon." "Yes," Edward answered. "I heard most of it." That woke me up a little. We'd been a good three miles out. "How?" Tm hearing you more clearly ——it's a matter of familiarity and concentration. Also, your thoughts are slightly easier to pick up when you're in your human form. So I caught most of what passed out there." "Oh." It bugged me a little, but for no good reason, so I shrugged it off. "Good. I hate repeating myself." "I'd tell you to go get some sleep," Bella said, "but my guess is that you're going to pass out on the floor in about six seconds, so there's probably no point." It was amazing how much better she sounded, how much stronger she looked. I smelled fresh blood and saw that the cup was in her hands again. How much blood would it take to keep her going? At some point, would they start trotting in the neighbors? I headed for the door, counting off the seconds for her as I walked. "One Mississippi... two Mississippi..." "Where's the flood, mutt?" Rosalie muttered. "You know how you drown a blonde, Rosalie?" I asked without stopping or turning to look at her. "Glue a mirror to the bottom of a pool." I heard Edward chuckle as I pulled the door shut. His mood seemed to improve in exact correlation to Bella's health. "I've already heard that one,'7 Rosalie called after me. I trudged down the steps, my only goal to drag myself far enough into the trees that the air would be pure again. I planned to ditch the clothes a convenient distance from the house for future use rather than tying them to my leg, so I wouldn't be smelling them, either. As I fumbled with the buttons on the new shirt, I thought randomly about how buttons would never be in style for werewolves. I heard the voices while I slogged across the lawn. "Where are you going?" Bella asked. "There was something I forgot to say to him." "Let Jacob sleep —u—it can wait." Yes, please, let Jacob sleep. "It will only take a moment." I turned slowly. Edward was already out the door. He had an apology in his expression as he approached me. "Jeez, what now?" Tm sorry," he said, and then he hesitated, like he didn't know how to phrase what he was thinking. What's on your mind, mind reader? "When you were speaking to Sam's delegates earlier," he murmured, "I was giving a play-by-play for Carlisle and Esme and the rest. They were concerned ——" "Look, we're not dropping our guard. You don't have to believe Sam like we do. We're keeping our eyes open regardless." "No, no, Jacob. Not about that. We trust your judgment. Rather, Esme was troubled by the hardships this is putting your pack through. She asked me to speak to you privately about it." That took me off guard. "Hardships?" "The homeless part, particularly. She's very upset that you are all so... bereft." I snorted. Vampire mother hen ——bizarre. "We're tough. Tell her not to worry." "She'd still like to do what she can. I got the impression that Leah prefers not to eat in her wolf form?" "And?" I demanded. "Well, we do have normal human food here, Jacob. Keeping up appearances, and, of course, for Bella. Leah is welcome to anything she'd like. All of you are." "I'll pass that along." "Leah hates us." "So?" "So try to pass it along in such a way as to make her consider it, if you don't mind." "I'll do what I can." "And then there's the matter of clothes." I glanced down at the ones I was wearing. "Oh yeah. Thanks." It probably wouldn't be good manners to mention how bad they reeked. He smiled, just a little. "Well, we're easily able to help out with any needs there. Alice rarely allows us to wear the same thing twice. We've got piles of brand-new clothes that are destined for Goodwill, and I'd imagine that Leah is fairly close to Esme's size___" "Not sure how she'll feel about bloodsucker castoffs. She's not as practical as I am." "I trust that you can present the offer in the best possible light. As well as the offer for any other physical object you might need, or transportation, or anything else at all. And showers, too, since you prefer to sleep outdoors. Please... don't consider yourselves without the benefits of a home." He said the last line softly —u—not trying to keep quiet this time, but with some kind of real emotion. I stared at him for a second, blinking sleepily. "That's, er, nice of you. Tell Esme we appreciate the, uh, thought. But the perimeter cuts through the river in a few places, so we stay pretty clean, thanks." "If you would pass the offer on, regardless." "Sure, sure." "Thank you." I turned away from him, only to stop cold when I heard the low, pained cry from inside the house. By the time I looked back, he was already gone. What now? I followed after him, shuffling like a zombie. Using about the same number of brain cells, too. It didn't feel like I had a choice. Something was wrong. I would go see what it was. There would be nothing I could do. And I would feel worse. It seemed inevitable. I let myself in again. Bella was panting, curled over the bulge in the center of her body. Rosalie held her while Edward, Carlisle, and Esme all hovered. A flicker of motion caught my eye; Alice was at the top of the stairs, staring down into the room with her hands pressed to her temples. It was weird —2—like she was barred from entering somehow. "Give me a second, Carlisle," Bella panted. "Bella," the doctor said anxiously, "I heard something crack. I need to take a look." "Pretty sure" ——pant—2—"it was a rib. Ow. Yep. Right here." She pointed to her left side, careful not to touch. It was breaking her bones now. "I need to take an X-ray. There might be splinters. We don't want it to puncture anything." Bella took a deep breath. "Okay." Rosalie lifted Bella carefully. Edward seemed like he was going to argue, but Rosalie bared her teeth at him and growled, "I've already got her." So Bella was stronger now, but the thing was, too. You couldn't starve one without starving the other, and healing worked just the same. No way to win. Blondie carried Bella swiftly up the big staircase with Carlisle and Edward right on her heels, none of them taking any notice of me standing dumbstruck in the doorway. So they had a blood bank and an X-ray machine? Guess the doc brought his work home with him. I was too tired to follow them, too tired to move. I leaned back against the wall and then slid to the ground. The door was still open, and I pointed my nose toward it, grateful for the clean breeze blowing in. I leaned my head against the jamb and listened. I could hear the sound of the X-ray machinery upstairs. Or maybe I just assumed that's what it was. And then the lightest of footsteps coming down the stairs. I didn't look to see which vampire it was. "Do you want a pillow?" Alice asked me. "No," I mumbled. What was with the pushy hospitality? It was creeping me out. "That doesn't look comfortable," she observed. "S'not." "Why don't you move, then?" "Tired. Why aren't you upstairs with the rest of them?" I shot back. "Headache," she answered. I rolled my head around to look at her. Alice was a tiny little thing. 'Bout the size of one of my arms. She looked even smaller now, sort of hunched in on herself. Her small face was pinched. "Vampires get headaches?" "Not the normal ones." I snorted. Normal vampires. "So how come you're never with Bella anymore?" I asked, making the question an accusation. It hadn't occurred to me before, because my head had been full of other crap, but it was weird that Alice was never around Bella, not since I'd been here. Maybe if Alice were by her side, Rosalie wouldn't be. "Thought you two were like this." I twisted two of my fingers together. "Like I said" ——she curled up on the tile a few feet from me, wrapping her skinny arms around her skinny knees——"headache." "Bella's giving you a headache?" "Yes." I frowned. Pretty sure I was too tired for riddles. I let my head roll back around toward the fresh air and closed my eyes. "Not Bella, really," she amended. "The... fetus." Ah, someone else who felt like I did. It was pretty easy to recognize. She said the word grudgingly, the way Edward did. "I can't see it," she told me, though she might have been talking to herself. For all she knew, I was already gone. "I can't see anything about it. Just like you." I flinched, and then my teeth ground together. I didn't like being compared to the creature. "Bella gets in the way. She's all wrapped around it, so she's... blurry. Like bad reception on a TV ——like trying to focus your eyes on those fuzzy people jerking around on the screen. It's killing my head to watch her. And I can't see more than a few minutes ahead, anyway. The... fetus is too much a part of her future. When she first decided... when she knew she wanted it, she blurred right out of my sight. Scared me to death." She was quiet for a second, and then she added, "I have to admit, it's a relief having you close by ——in spite of the wet-dog smell. Everything goes away. Like having my eyes closed. It numbs the headache." "Happy to be of service, ma'am," I mumbled. "I wonder what it has in common with you... why you're the same that way." Sudden heat flashed in the center of my bones. I clenched my fists to hold off the tremors. "I have nothing in common with that life-sucker," I said through my teeth. "Well, there's something there." I didn't answer. The heat was already burning away. I was too dead tired to stay furious. "You don't mind if I sit here by you, do you?" she asked. "Guess not. Stinks anyway." "Thanks," she said. "This is the best thing for it, I guess, since I can't take aspirin." "Could you keep it down? Sleeping, here." She didn't respond, immediately lapsing into silence. I was out in seconds. I was dreaming that I was really thirsty. And there was a big glass of water in front of me —2—all cold, you could see the condensation running down the sides. I grabbed the cup and took a huge gulp, only to find out pretty quick that it wasn't water——it was straight bleach. I choked it back out, spewing it everywhere, and a bunch of it blew out of my nose. It burned. My nose was on fire.... The pain in my nose woke me up enough to remember where I'd fallen asleep. The smell was pretty fierce, considering that my nose wasn't actually inside the house. Ugh. And it was noisy. Someone was laughing too loud. A familiar laugh, but one that didn't go with the smell. Didn't belong. I groaned and opened my eyes. The skies were dull gray —ä—it was daytime, but no clue as to when. Maybe close to sunset——it was pretty dark. "About time," Blondie mumbled from not too far away. "The chainsaw impersonation was getting a little tired." I rolled over and wrenched myself into a sitting position. In the process, I figured out where the smell was coming from. Someone had stuffed a wide feather pillow under my face. Probably trying to be nice, I'd guess. Unless it'd been Rosalie. Once my face was out of the stinking feathers, I caught other scents. Like bacon and cinnamon, all mixed up with the vampire smell. I blinked, taking in the room. Things hadn't changed too much, except that now Bella was sitting up in the middle of the sofa, and the IV was gone. Blondie sat at her feet, her head resting against Bella's knees. Still gave me chills to see how casually they touched her, though I guess that was pretty brain-dead, all things considered. Edward was on one side of her, holding her hand. Alice was on the floor, too, like Rosalie. Her face wasn't pinched up now. And it was easy to see why —2—she'd found another painkiller. "Hey, Jake's coming around!" Seth crowed. He was sitting on Bella's other side, his arm slung carelessly over her shoulders, an overflowing plate of food on his lap. What the hell? "He came to find you," Edward said while I got to my feet. "And Esme convinced him to stay for breakfast." Seth took in my expression, and he hurried to explain. "Yeah, Jake ——I was just checking to see if you were okay 'cause you didn't ever phase back. Leah got worried. I told her you probably just crashed human, but you know how she is. Anyway, they had all this food and, dang,"——he turned to Edward—2—"man, you can cook" "Thank you," Edward murmured. I inhaled slowly, trying to unclench my teeth. I couldn't take my eyes off Seth's arm. "Bella got cold," Edward said quietly. Right. None of my business, anyway. She didn't belong to me. Seth heard Edward's comment, looked at my face, and suddenly he needed both hands to eat with. He took his arm off Bella and dug in. i walked over to stand a few feet from the couch, still trying to get my bearings. "Leah running patrol?" I asked Seth. My voice was still thick with sleep. "Yeah," he said as he chewed. Seth had new clothes on, too. They fit him better than mine fit me. "She's on it. No worries. She'll howl if there's anything. We traded off around midnight. I ran twelve hours." He was proud of that, and it showed in his tone. "Midnight? Wait a minute —2—what time is it now?" "'Bout dawn." He glanced toward the window, checking. Well, damn. I'd slept through the rest of the day and the whole night —i—dropped the ball. "Crap. Sorry about that, Seth. Really. You shoulda kicked me awake." "Naw, man, you needed some serious sleep. You haven't taken a break since when? Night before your last patrol for Sam? Like forty hours? Fifty? You're not a machine, Jake. 'Sides, you didn't miss anything at all." Nothing at all? I glanced quickly at Bella. Her color was back to the way I remembered it. Pale, but with the rose undertone. Her lips were pink again. Even her hair looked better —u—shinier. She saw me appraising and gave me a qrin. "How's the rib?" I asked. "Taped up nice and tight, i don't even feel it.'7 I rolled my eyes. I heard Edward grind his teeth together, and I figured her blow-it-off attitude bugged him as much at it bugged me. "What's for breakfast?" I asked, a little sarcastic. "O negative or AB positive?" She stuck her tongue out at me. Totally herself again. "Omelets," she said, but her eyes darted down, and I saw that her cup of blood was wedged between her leg and Edward's. "Go get some breakfast, Jake," Seth said. "There's a bunch in the kitchen. You've got to be empty." I examined the food in his lap. Looked like half a cheese omelet and the last fourth of a Frisbee-sized cinnamon roll. My stomach growled, but I ignored it. "What's Leah having for breakfast?" I asked Seth critically. "Hey, I took food to her before I ate anything" he defended himself. "She said she'd rather eat roadkill, but I bet she caves. These cinnamon rolls... " He seemed at a loss for words. 'Til go hunt with her, then." Seth sighed as I turned to leave. "A moment, Jacob?" It was Carlisle asking, so when I turned around again, my face was probably less disrespectful than it would have been if anyone else had stopped me. "Yeah?" Carlisle approached me while Esme drifted off toward the other room. He stopped a few feet away, just a little bit farther away than the normal space between two humans having a conversation. I appreciated him giving me my space. "Speaking of hunting," he began in a somber tone. "That's going to be an issue for my family. I understand that our previous truce is inoperative at the moment, so I wanted your advice. Will Sam be hunting for us outside of the perimeter you've created? We don't want to take a chance with hurting any of your family —i—or losing any of ours. If you were in our shoes, how would you proceed?" I leaned away, a little surprised, when he threw it back at me like that. What would I know about being in a bloodsucker's expensive shoes? But, then again, I did know Sam. "It's a risk," I said, trying to ignore the other eyes I felt on me and to talk only to him. "Sam's calmed down some, but I'm pretty sure that in his head, the treaty is void. As long as he thinks the tribe, or any other human, is in real danger, he's not going to ask questions first, if you know what I mean. But, with all that, his priority is going to be La Push. There really aren't enough of them to keep a decent watch on the people while putting out hunting parties big enough to do much damage. I'd bet he's keeping it close to home." Carlisle nodded thoughtfully. "So I guess I'd say, go out together, just in case. And probably you should go in the day, 'cause we'd be expecting night. Traditional vampire stuff. You're fast —2—go over the mountains and hunt far enough away that there's no chance he'd send anyone that far from home." "And leave Bella behind, unprotected?" I snorted. "What are we, chopped liver?" Carlisle laughed, and then his face was serious again. "Jacob, you can't fight against your brothers." My eyes tightened. "I'm not saying it wouldn't be hard, but if they were really coming to kill her —2—I would be able to stop them." Carlisle shook his head, anxious. "No, I didn't mean that you would be... incapable. But that it would be very wrong. I can't have that on my conscience." "It wouldn't be on yours, Doc. It would be on mine. And I can take it." "No, Jacob. We will make sure that our actions don't make that a necessity." He frowned thoughtfully "We'll go three at a time," he decided after a second. "That's probably the best we can do." "I don't know, Doc. Dividing down the middle isn't the best strategy." "We've got some extra abilities that will even it up. If Edward is one of the three, he'll be able to give us a few miles' radius of safety." We both glanced at Edward. His expression had Carlisle backtracking quickly. "I'm sure there are other ways, too," Carlisle said. Clearly, there was no physical need strong enough to get Edward away from Bella now. "Alice, I would imagine you could see which routes would be a mistake?" "The ones that disappear," Alice said, nodding. "Easy." Edward, who had gone all tense with Carlisle's first plan, loosened up. Bella was staring unhappily at Alice, that little crease between her eyes that she got when she was stressed out. "Okay, then," I said. "That's settled. I'll just be on my way. Seth, I'll expect you back on at dusk, so get a nap in there somewhere, all right?" "Sure, Jake. I'll phase back soon as I'm done. Unless ..." he hesitated, looking at Bella. "Do you need me?" "She's got blankets," I snapped at him. "I'm fine, Seth, thanks," Bella said quickly. And then Esme flitted back in the room, a big covered dish in her hands. She stopped hesitantly just behind Carlisle's elbow, her wide, dark gold eyes on my face. She held the dish out and took a shy step closer. "Jacob," she said quietly. Her voice wasn't quite so piercing as the others'. "I know it's... unappetizing to you, the idea of eating here, where it smells so unpleasant. But I would feel much better if you would take some food with you when you go. I know you can't go home, and that's because of us. Please ——ease some of my remorse. Take something to eat." She held the food out to me, her face all soft and pleading. I don't know how she did it, because she didn't look older than her mid-twenties, and she was bone pale, too, but something about her expression suddenly reminded me of my mom. Jeez. "Uh, sure, sure," I mumbled. "I guess. Maybe Leah's still hungry or something." I reached out and took the food with one hand, holding it away, at arm's length. I'd go dump it under a tree or something. I didn't want her to feel bad. Then I remembered Edward. Don't you say anything to her! Let her think I ate it. I didn't look at him to see if he was in agreement. He'd better be in agreement. Bloodsucker owed me. "Thank you, Jacob," Esme said, smiling at me. How did a stone face have dimples, for crying out loud? "Urn, thank you," I said. My face felt hot ——hotter than usual. This was the problem with hanging out with vampires ——you got used to them. They started messing up the way you saw the world. They started feeling like friends. "Will you come back later, Jake?" Bella asked as I tried to make a run for it. "Uh, I don't know." She pressed her lips together, like she was trying not to smile. "Please? I might get cold." I inhaled deeply through my nose, and then realized, too late, that that was not a good idea. I winced. "Maybe." "Jacob?" Esme asked. I backed toward the door as she continued; she took a few steps after me. "I left a basket of clothes on the porch. They're for Leah. They're freshly washed —2—I tried to touch them as little as possible." She frowned. "Do you mind taking them to her?" "On it," I muttered, and then I ducked out the door before anyone could guilt me into anything else.
15. TICK TOCK TICK TOCK TICK TOCK Hey Jake, thought you said you wanted me at dusk. How come you didn't have Leah wake me up before she crashed? 'Cause I didn't need you. I'm still good. He was already picking up the north half of the circle. Anything? Nope. Nothing but nothing. You did some scouting? He'd caught the edge of one of my side trips. He headed up the new trail. Yeah —2—/ ran a few spokes. You know, just checking. If the Cullens are going to make a hunting trip... Good call. Seth looped back toward the main perimeter. It was easier to run with him than it was to do the same with Leah. Though she was trying ——trying hard——there was always an edge to her thoughts. She didn't want to be here. She didn't want to feel the softening toward the vampires that was going on in my head. She didn't want to deal with Seth's cozy friendship with them, a friendship that was only getting stronger. Funny, though, I'd've thought her biggest issue would just be me. We'd always gotten on each other's nerves when we were in Sam's pack. But there was no antagonism toward me now at all, just the Cullens and Bella. I wondered why. Maybe it was simply gratitude that I wasn't forcing her to leave. Maybe it was because I understood her hostility better now. Whichever, running with Leah wasn't nearly as bad as I'd expected. Of course, she hadn't eased up that much. The food and clothes Esme had sent for her were all taking a trip downriver right now. Even after I'd eaten my share —i—not because it smelled nearly irresistible away from the vampire burn, but to set a good example of self-sacrificing tolerance for Leah——she'd refused. The small elk she'd taken down around noon had not totally satisfied her appetite. Did make her mood worse, though. Leah hated eating raw. Maybe we should run a sweep east? Seth suggested. Go deep, see if they're out there waiting. I was thinking about that, I agreed. But let's do it when we're all awake. I don't want to let down our guard. We should do it before the Cullens give it a try, though. Soon. Right. That got me thinking. If the Cullens were able to get out of the immediate area safely, they really ought to keep on going. They probably should have taken off the second we'd come to warn them. They had to be able to afford other digs. And they had friends up north, right? Take Bella and run. It seemed like an obvious answer to their problems. I probably ought to suggest that, but I was afraid they would listen to me. And I didn't want to have Bella disappear ——to never know whether she'd made it or not. No, that was stupid. I would tell them to go. It made no sense for them to stay, and it would be better —i—not less painful, but healthier——for me if Bella left. Easy to say now, when Bella wasn't right there, looking all thrilled to see me and also clinging to life by her fingernails at the same time... Oh, I already asked Edward about that, Seth thought. What? I asked him why they hadn't taken off yet. Gone up to Tanya's place or something. Somewhere too far for Sam to come after them. I had to remind myself that I'd just decided to give the Cullens that exact advice. That it was best. So I shouldn't be mad at Seth for taking the chore out of my hands. Not mad at all. So what did he say? Are they waiting for a window? No. They're not leaving. And that shouldn't sound like good news. Why not? That's just stupid. Not really, Seth said, defensive now. It takes some time to build up the kind of medical access that Carlisle has here. He's got all the stuff he needs to take care of Bella, and the credentials to get more. That's one of the reasons they want to make a hunting run. Carlisle thinks they're going to need more blood for Bella soon. She's using up all the O negative they stored for her. He doesn't like depleting the stockpile. He's going to buy some more. Did you know you can buy blood? If you're a doctor. I wasn't ready to be logical yet. Still seems stupid. They could bring most of it with them, right? And steal what they need wherever they go. Who cares about legal crap when you're the undead? Edward doesn't want to take any risks moving her. She's better than she was. Seriously, Seth agreed. In his head, he was comparing my memories of Bella hooked up to the tubes with the last time he'd seen her as he'd left the house. She'd smiled at him and waved. But she can't move around much, you know. That thing is kicking the hell out of her. I swallowed back the stomach acid in my throat. Yeah, I know. Broke another of her ribs, he told me somberly. My stride faltered, and I staggered a step before I regained my rhythm. Carlisle taped her up again. Just another crack, he said. Then Rosalie said something about how even normal human babies have been known to crack ribs. Edward looked like he was gonna rip her head off. Too bad he didn't Seth was in full report mode now ——knowing it was all vitally interesting to me, though I'd never've asked to hear it. Bella's been running a fever off and on today. Just low grade—2—sweats and then chills. Carlisle's not sure what to make of it——she might just be sick. Her immune system can't be in peak form right now. Yeah, I'm sure it's just a coincidence. She's in a good mood, though. She was chatting with Charlie, laughing and all —2— Charlie! What?! What do you mean, she was talking to Charlie?! Now Seth's pace stuttered; my fury surprised him. Guess he calls every day to talk to her. Sometimes her mom calls, too. Bella sounds so much better now, so she was reassuring him that she was on the mend-On the mend? What the hell are they thinking?! Get Charlie's hopes up just so that he can be destroyed even worse when she dies? I thought they were getting him ready for that! Trying to prepare him! Why would she set him up like this? She might not die, Seth thought quietly. I took deep breath, trying to calm myself. Seth. Even if she pulls through this, she's not doing it human. She knows that, and so do the rest of them. If she doesn't die, she's going to have to do a pretty convincing impersonation of a corpse, kid. Either that, or disappear. I thought they were trying to make this easier on Charlie. Why... ? Think it's Bella's idea. No one said anything, but Edward's face kinda went right along with what you're thinking now. On the same wavelength with the bloodsucker yet again. We ran in silence for a few minutes. I started off along a new line, probing south. Don't get too far. Why? Bella asked me to ask you to stop by. My teeth locked together. Alice wants you, too. She says she's tired of hanging out in the attic like the vampire bat in the belfry. Seth snorted a laugh. / was switching off with Edward before. Trying to keep Bella's temperature stable. Cold to hot, as needed. I guess, if you don't want to do it, I could go back —2— No. I got it, I snapped. Okay. Seth didn't make any more comments. He concentrated very hard on the empty forest. I kept my southern course, searching for anything new. I turned around when I got close to the first signs of habitation. Not near the town yet, but I didn't want to get any wolf rumors going again. We'd been nice and invisible for a long while now. I passed right through the perimeter on my way back, heading for the house. As much as I knew it was a stupid thing to do, I couldn't stop myself. I must be some kind of masochist. There's nothing wrong with you, Jake. This isn't the most normal situation. Shut up, please, Seth. Shutting. I didn't hesitate at the door this time; I just walked through like I owned the place. I figured that would piss Rosalie off, but it was a wasted effort. Neither Rosalie or Bella were anywhere in sight. I looked around wildly, hoping I'd missed them somewhere, my heart squeezing against my ribs in a weird, uncomfortable way. "She's all right," Edward whispered. "Or, the same, I should say." Edward was on the couch with his face in his hands; he hadn't looked up to speak. Esme was next to him, her arm wrapped tight around his shoulders. "Hello, Jacob," she said. "I'm so glad you came back." "Me, too," Alice said with a deep sigh. She came prancing down the stairs, making a face. Like 1 was late for an appointment. "Uh, hey," I said. It felt weird to try to be polite. "Where's Bella?" "Bathroom," Alice told me. "Mostly fluid diet, you know. Plus, the whole pregnancy thing does that to you, I hear." "Ah." I stood there awkwardly, rocking back and forth on my heels. "Oh, wonderful," Rosalie grumbled. I whipped my head around and saw her coming from a hall half-hidden behind the stairway. She had Bella cradled gently in her arms, a harsh sneer on her face for me. "I knew I smelled something nasty." And, just like before, Bella's face lit up like a kid's on Christmas morning. Like I'd brought her the greatest gift ever. It was so unfair. "Jacob," she breathed. "You came." "Hi, Bells." Esme and Edward both got up. I watched how carefully Rosalie laid Bella out on the couch. I watched how, despite that, Bella turned white and held her breath ——like she was set on not making any noise no matter how much it hurt. Edward brushed his hand across her forehead and then along her neck. He tried to make it look as if he was just sweeping her hair back, but it looked like a doctor's examination to me. "Are you cold?" he murmured. I'm fine." "Bella, you know what Carlisle told you," Rosalie said. "Don't downplay anything. It doesn't help us take care of either of you." "Okay, I'm a little cold. Edward, can you hand me that blanket?" I rolled my eyes. "Isn't that sort of the point of me being here?" "You just walked in," Bella said. "After running all day, I'd bet. Put your feet up for a minute. I'll probably warm up again in no time." I ignored her, going to sit on the floor next the sofa while she was still telling me what to do. At that point, though, I wasn't sure how.... She looked pretty brittle, and I was afraid to move her, even to put my arms around her. So I just leaned carefully against her side, letting my arm rest along the length of hers, and held her hand. Then I put my other hand against her face. It was hard to tell if she felt colder than usual. "Thanks, Jake," she said, and I felt her shiver once. "Yeah," I said. Edward sat on the arm of the sofa by Bella's feet, his eyes always on her face. It was too much to hope, with all the super-hearing in the room, that no one would notice my stomach rumbling. "Rosalie, why don't you get Jacob something from the kitchen?" Alice said. She was invisible now, sitting quietly behind the back of the sofa. Rosalie stared at the place Alice's voice had come from in disbelief. "Thanks, anyway, Alice, but I don't think I'd want to eat something Blondie's spit in. I'd bet my system wouldn't take too kindly to venom." "Rosalie would never embarrass Esme by displaying such a lack of hospitality." "Of course not," Blondie said in a sugar-sweet voice that I immediately distrusted. She got up and breezed out of the room. Edward sighed. "You'd tell me if she poisoned it, right?" I asked. "Yes," Edward promised. And for some reason I believed him. There was a lot of banging in the kitchen, and ——weirdly——the sound of metal protesting as it was abused. Edward sighed again, but smiled just a little, too. Then Rosalie was back before I could think much more about it. With a pleased smirk, she set a silver bowl on the floor next to me. "Enjoy, mongrel." It had once probably been a big mixing bowl, but she'd bent the bowl back in on itself until it was shaped almost exactly like a dog dish. I had to be impressed with her quick craftsmanship. And her attention to detail. She'd scratched the word Fido into the side. Excellent handwriting. Because the food looked pretty good ——steak, no less, and a big baked potato with all the fixings——I told her, "Thanks, Blondie." She snorted. "Hey, do you know what you call a blonde with a brain?" I asked, and then continued on the same breath, "a golden retriever." "I've heard that one, too," she said, no longer smiling. "I'll keep trying," I promised, and then I dug in. She made a disgusted face and rolled her eyes. Then she sat in one of the armchairs and started flicking through channels on the big TV so fast that there was no way she could really be surfing for something to watch. The food was good, even with the vampire stink in the air. I was getting really used to that. Huh. Not something I'd been wanting to do, exactly... When I was finished ——though I was considering licking the bowl, just to give Rosalie something to complain about——I felt Bella's cold fingers pulling softly through my hair. She patted it down against the back of my neck. "Time for a haircut, huh?" "You're getting a little shaggy," she said. "Maybe —2—" "Let me guess, someone around here used to cut hair in a salon in Paris?" She chuckled. "Probably." "No thanks," I said before she could really offer. "I'm good for a few more weeks." Which made me wonder how long she was good for. I tried to think of a polite way to ask. "So... urn... what's the, er, date? You know, the due date for the little monster." She smacked the back of my head with about as much force as a drifting feather, but didn't answer. "I'm serious," I told her. "I want to know how long I'm gonna have to be here." How long you're gonna be here, I added in my head. I turned to look at her then. Her eyes were thoughtful; the stress line was there between her brows again. "I don't know," she murmured. "Not exactly. Obviously, we're not going with the nine-month model here, and we can't get an ultrasound, so Carlisle is guesstimating from how big I am. Normal people are supposed to be about forty centimeters here" ——she ran her finger right down the middle of her bulging stomach——"when the baby is fully grown. One centimeter for every week. I was thirty this morning, and I've been gaining about two centimeters a day, sometimes more___" Two weeks to a day, the days flying by. Her life speeding by in fast-forward. How many days did that give her, if she was counting to forty? Four? It took me a minute to figure out how to swallow. "You okay?" she asked. I nodded, not really sure how my voice would come out. Edward's face was turned away from us as he listened to my thoughts, but I could see his reflection in the glass wall. He was the burning man again. Funny how having a deadline made it harder to think about leaving, or having her leave. I was glad Seth'd brought that up, so I knew they were staying here. It would be intolerable, wondering if they were about to go, to take away one or two or three of those four days. My four days. Also funny how, even knowing that it was almost over, the hold she had on me only got harder to break. Almost like it was related to her expanding belly ——as if by getting bigger, she was gaining gravitational force. For a minute I tried to look at her from a distance, to separate myself from the pull. I knew it wasn't my imagination that my need for her was stronger than ever. Why was that? Because she was dying? Or knowing that even if she didn't, still ——best case scenario—4—she'd be changing into something else that I wouldn't know or understand? She ran her finger across my cheekbone, and my skin was wet where she touched it. "It's going to be okay," she sort of crooned. It didn't matter that the words meant nothing. She said it the way people sang those senseless nursery rhymes to kids. Rock-a-bye, baby. "Right," I muttered. She curled against my arm, resting her head on my shoulder. "I didn't think you would come. Seth said you would, and so did Edward, but I didn't believe them." "Why not?" I asked gruffly. "You're not happy here. But you came anyway." "You wanted me here." "I know. But you didn't have to come, because it's not fair for me to want you here. I would have understood." It was quiet for a minute. Edward'd put his face back together. He looked at the TV as Rosalie went on flipping through the channels. She was into the six hundreds. I wondered how long it would take to get back to the beginning. "Thank you for coming," Bella whispered. "Can I ask you something?" I asked. "Of course." Edward didn't look like he was paying attention to us at all, but he knew what I was about to ask, so he didn't fool me. "Why do you want me here? Seth could keep you warm, and he's probably easier to be around, happy little punk. But when / walk in the door, you smile like I'm your favorite person in the world." "You're one of them." "That sucks, you know." "Yeah." She sighed. "Sorry." "Why, though? You didn't answer that." Edward was looking away again, like he was staring out the windows. His face was blank in the reflection. "It feels... complete when you're here, Jacob. Like all my family is together. I mean, I guess that's what it's like ——I've never had a big family before now. It's nice." She smiled for half a second. "But it's just not whole unless you're here." "I'll never be part of your family, Bella." I could have been. I would have been good there. But that was just a distant future that died long before it had a chance to live. "You've always been a part of my family," she disagreed. My teeth made a grinding sound. 'That's a crap answer." "What's a good one?" "How about, 'Jacob, I get a kick out of your pain.'" I felt her flinch. "You'd like that better?" she whispered. "It's easier, at least. I could wrap my head around it. I could deal with it." I looked back down at her face then, so close to mine. Her eyes were shut and she was frowning. "We got off track, Jake. Out of balance. You're supposed to be part of my life ——I can feel that, and so can you." She paused for a second without opening her eyes——like she was waiting for me to deny it. When I didn't say anything, she went on. "But not like this. We did something wrong. No. I did. I did something wrong, and we got off track___" Her voice trailed off, and the frown on her face relaxed until it was just a little pucker at the corner of her lips. I waited for her to pour some more lemon juice into my paper cuts, but then a soft snore came from the back of her throat. "She's exhausted," Edward murmured. "It's been a long day. A hard day. I think she would have gone to sleep earlier, but she was waiting for you." I didn't look at him. "Seth said it broke another of her ribs." "Yes. It's making it hard for her to breathe." "Great." "Let me know when she gets hot again." "Yeah." She still had goose bumps on the arm that wasn't touching mine. I'd barely raised my head to look for a blanket when Edward snagged one draped over the arm of the sofa and flung it out so that it settled over her. Occasionally, the mind-reading thing saved time. For example, maybe I wouldn't have to make a big production out of the accusation about what was going on with Charlie. That mess. Edward would just hear exactly how furious —— "Yes," he agreed. "It's not a good idea." "Then why?" Why was Bella telling her father she was on the mend when it would only make him more miserable? "She can't bear his anxiety." "So it's better —2—" "No. It's not better. But I'm not going to force her to do anything that makes her unhappy now. Whatever happens, this makes her feel better. I'll deal with the rest afterward." That didn't sound right. Bella wouldn't just shuffle Charlie's pain off to some later date, for someone else to face. Even dying. That wasn't her. If I knew Bella, she had to have some other plan. "She's very sure she's going to live," Edward said. "But not human," I protested. "No, not human. But she hopes to see Charlie again, anyway." Oh, this just got better and better. "See. Charlie." I finally looked at him, my eyes bugging. "Afterwards. See Charlie when she's all sparkly white with the bright red eyes. I'm not a bloodsucker, so maybe I'm missing something, but Charlie seems like kind of a strange choice for her first meal." Edward sighed. "She knows she won't be able to be near him for at least a year. She thinks she can stall. Tell Charlie she has to go to a special hospital on the other side of the world. Keep in contact through phone calls___" "That's insane." "Yes." "Charlie's not stupid. Even if she doesn't kill him, he's going to notice a difference." "She's sort of banking on that." I continued to stare, waiting for him to explain. "She wouldn't be aging, of course, so that would set a time limit, even if Charlie accepted whatever excuse she comes up with for the changes." He smiled faintly. "Do you remember when you tried to tell her about your transformation? How you made her guess?" My free hand flexed into a fist. "She told you about that?" "Yes. She was explaining her... idea. You see, she's not allowed to tell Charlie the truth —2—it would be very dangerous for him. But he's a smart, practical man. She thinks he'll come up with his own explanation. She assumes he'll get it wrong." Edward snorted. "After all, we hardly adhere to vampire canon. He'll make some wrong assumption about us, like she did in the beginning, and we'll go along with it. She thinks she'll be able to see him... from time to time." "Insane," I repeated. "Yes," he agreed again. It was weak of him to let her get her way on this, just to keep her happy now. It wouldn't turn out well. Which made me think that he probably wasn't expecting her to live to try out her crazy plan. Placating her, so that she could be happy for a little while longer. Like four more days. "I'll deal with whatever comes," he whispered, and he turned his face down and away so that I couldn't even read his reflection. "I won't cause her pain now." "Four days?"I asked. He didn't look up. "Approximately." "Then what?" "What do you mean, exactly?" I thought about what Bella had said. About the thing being wrapped up nice and tight in something strong, something like vampire skin. So how did that work? How did it get out? "From what little research we've been able to do, it would appear the creatures use their own teeth to escape the womb," he whispered. I had to pause to swallow back the bile. "Research?" I asked weakly. "That's why you haven't seen Jasper and Emmett around. That's what Carlisle is doing now. Trying to decipher ancient stories and myths, as much as we can with what we have to work with here, looking for anything that might help us predict the creature's behavior." Stories? If there were myths, then... "Then is this thing not the first of its kind?" Edward asked, anticipating my question. "Maybe. It's all very sketchy. The myths could easily be the products of fear and imagination. Though .. ." —2—he hesitated——"your myths are true, are they not? Perhaps these are, too. They do seem to be localized, linked___" "How did you find... ?" "There was a woman we encountered in South America. She'd been raised in the traditions of her people. She'd heard warnings about such creatures, old stories that had been passed down." "What were the warnings?" I whispered. "That the creature must be killed immediately. Before it could gain too much strength." Just like Sam thought. Was he right? "Of course, their legends say the same of us. That we must be destroyed. That we are soulless murderers." Two for two. Edward laughed one hard chuckle. "What did their stories say about the... mothers?" Agony ripped across his face, and, as I flinched away from his pain, I knew he wasn't going to give me an answer. I doubted he could talk. tt was Rosalie —2—who'd been so still and quiet since Bella'd fallen asleep that I'd nearly forgotten her——who answered. She made a scornful noise in the back of her throat. "Of course there were no survivors," she said. No survivors, blunt and uncaring. "Giving birth in the middle of a disease-infested swamp with a medicine man smearing sloth spit across your face to drive out the evil spirits was never the safest method. Even the normal births went badly half the time. None of them had what this baby has —u—caregivers with an idea of what the baby needs, who try to meet those needs. A doctor with a totally unique knowledge of vampire nature. A plan in place to deliver the baby as safely as possible. Venom that will repair anything that goes wrong. The baby will be fine. And those other mothers would probably have survived if they'd had that——if they even existed in the first place. Something I am not convinced of." She sniffed disdainfully. The baby, the baby. Like that was all that mattered. Bella's life was a minor detail to her ——easy to blow off. Edward's face went white as snow. His hands curved into claws. Totally egotistical and indifferent, Rosalie twisted in her chair so that her back was to him. He leaned forward, shifting into a crouch. Allow me, I suggested. He paused, raising one eyebrow. Silently, I lifted my doggy bowl off the floor. Then, with a quick, powerful flip of my wrist, I threw it into the back of Blondie's head so hard that ——with an earsplitting bang——it smashed flat before it ricocheted across the room and snapped the round top piece off the thick newel post at the foot of the stairs. Bella twitched but didn't wake up. "Dumb blonde," I muttered. Rosalie turned her head slowly, and her eyes were blazing. "You. Got. Food. In. My. Hair." That did it. I busted up. I pulled away from Bella so that I wouldn't shake her, and laughed so hard that tears ran down my face. From behind the couch, I heard Alice's tinkling laugh join in. I wondered why Rosalie didn't spring. I sort of expected it. But then I realized that my laughing had woken Bella up, though she'd slept right through the real noise. "What's so funny?" she mumbled. "I got food in her hair," I told her, chortling again. "I'm not going to forget this, dog," Rosalie hissed. "S'not so hard to erase a blonde's memory," I countered. "Just blow in her ear." "Get some new jokes," she snapped. "C'mon, Jake. Leave Rose alo —u—" Bella broke off mid-sentence and sucked in a sharp breath. In the same second, Edward was leaning over the top of me, ripping the blanket out of the way. She seemed to convulse, her back arching off the sofa. "He's just," she panted, "stretching." Her lips were white, and she had her teeth locked together like she was trying to hold back a scream. Edward put both hands on either side of her face. "Carlisle?" he called in a tense, low voice. "Right here," the doctor said. I hadn't heard him come in. "Okay," Bella said, still breathing hard and shallow. "Think it's over. Poor kid doesn't have enough room, that's all. He's getting so big." It was really hard to take, that adoring tone she used to describe the thing that was tearing her up. Especially after Rosalie's callousness. Made me wish I could throw something at Bella, too. She didn't pick up on my mood. "You know, he reminds me of you, Jake," she said —i—affectionate tone——still gasping. "Do not compare me to that thing," I spit out through my teeth. "I just meant your growth spurt," she said, looking like I'd hurt her feelings. Good. "You shot right up. I could watch you getting taller by the minute. He's like that, too. Growing so fast." I bit my tongue to keep from saying what I wanted to say —i—hard enough that I tasted blood in my mouth. Of course, it would heal before I could swallow. That's what Bella needed. To be strong like me, to be able to heal.... She took an easier breath and then relaxed back into the sofa, her body going limp. "Hmm," Carlisle murmured. I looked up, and his eyes were on me. "What?" I demanded. Edward's head leaned to one side as he reflected on whatever was in Carlisle's head. "You know that I was wondering about the fetus's genetic makeup, Jacob. About his chromosomes." "What of it?" "Well, taking your similarities into consideration —2—" "Similarif/es?" I growled, not appreciating the plural. "The accelerated growth, and the fact that Alice cannot see either of you." I felt my face go blank. I'd forgotten about that other one. "Well, I wonder if that means that we have an answer. If the similarities are gene-deep." "Twenty-four pairs," Edward muttered under his breath. "You don't know that." "No. But it's interesting to speculate," Carlisle said in a soothing voice. "Yeah. Just fascinating" Bella's light snore started up again, accenting my sarcasm nicely. They got into it then, quickly taking the genetics conversation to a point where the only words I could understand were the the's and the ands. And my own name, of course. Alice joined in, commenting now and then in her chirpy bird voice. Even though they were talking about me, I didn't try to figure out the conclusions they were drawing. I had other things on my mind, a few facts I was trying to reconcile. Fact one, Bella'd said that the creature was protected by something as strong as vampire skin, something that was too impenetrable for ultrasounds, too tough for needles. Fact two, Rosalie'd said they had a plan to deliver the creature safely. Fact three, Edward'd said that —u—in myths——other monsters like this one would chew their way out of their own mothers. I shuddered. And that made a sick kind of sense, because, fact four, not many things could cut through something as strong as vampire skin. The half-creature's teeth —u—according to myth—u—were strong enough. My teeth were strong enough. And vampire teeth were strong enough. It was hard to miss the obvious, but I sure wished I could. Because I had a pretty good idea exactly how Rosalie planned to get that thing "safely" out.