Site hosted by Build your free website today!

16. TOO-MUCH-INFORMATION ALERT I took off early, long before sunrise was due. I'd gotten just a little bit of uneasy sleep leaning against the side of the sofa. Edward woke me when Bella's face was flushed, and he took my spot to cool her back down. I stretched and decided I was rested enough to get some work done. "Thank you," Edward said quietly, seeing my plans. "If the route is clear, they'll go today." Til let you know." It felt good to get back to my animal self. I was stiff from sitting still for so long. I extended my stride, working out the kinks. Morning, Jacob, Leah greeted me. Good, you're up. How long's Seth been out? Not out yet, Seth thought sleepily. Almost there. What do you need? You think you got another hour in you? Sure thing. No problem. Seth got to his feet right away, shaking out his fur. Let's make the deep run, I told Leah. Seth, take the perimeter. Gotcha. Seth broke into an easy jog. Off on another vampire errand, Leah grumbled. You got a problem with that? Of course not. I just love to coddle those darling leeches. Good. Let's see how fast we can run. Okay, I'm definitely up for that/ Leah was on the far western rim of the perimeter. Rather than cut close to the Cullens' house, she stuck to the circle as she raced around to meet me. I sprinted off straight east, knowing that even with the head start, she'd be passing me soon if I took it easy for even a second. Nose to the ground, Leah. This isn't a race, it's a reconnaissance mission. I can do both and still kick your butt I gave her that one. / know. She laughed. We took a winding path through the eastern mountains. It was a familiar route. We'd run these mountains when the vampires had left a year ago, making it part of our patrol route to better protect the people here. Then we'd pulled back the lines when the Cullens returned. This was their treaty land. But that fact would probably mean nothing to Sam now. The treaty was dead. The question today was how thin he was willing to spread his force. Was he looking for stray Cullens to poach on their land or not? Had Jared spoken the truth or taken advantage of the silence between us? We got deeper and deeper into the mountains without finding any trace of the pack. Fading vampire trails were everywhere, but the scents were familiar now. I was breathing them in all day long. I found a heavy, somewhat recent concentration on one particular trail ——all of them coming and going here except for Edward. Some reason for gathering that must have been forgotten when Edward brought his dying pregnant wife home. I gritted my teeth. Whatever it was, it had nothing to do with me. Leah didn't push herself past me, though she could have now. I was paying more attention to each new scent than I was to the speed contest. She kept to my right side, running with me rather than racing against me. Were getting pretty far out here, she commented. Yeah. If Sam was hunting strays, we should have crossed his trail by now. Makes more sense right now for him to bunker down in La Push, Leah thought. He knows we're giving the bloodsuckers three extra sets of eyes and legs. He's not going to be able to surprise them. This was just a precaution, really. Wouldn't want our precious parasites taking unnecessary chances. Nope, I agreed, ignoring the sarcasm. You've changed so much, Jacob. Talk about one-eighties. You're not exactly the same Leah I've always known and loved, either. True. Am I less annoying than Paul now? Amazingly... yes. Ah, sweet success. Congrats. We ran in silence again then. It was probably time to turn around, but neither of us wanted to. It felt nice to run like this. We'd been staring at the same small circle of a trail for too long. It felt good to stretch our muscles and take the rugged terrain. We weren't in a huge hurry, so I thought maybe we should hunt on the way back. Leah was pretty hungry. Yum, yum, she thought sourly. It's all in your head, I told her. That's the way wolves eat. It's natural. It tastes fine. If you didn't think about it from a human perspective —— Forget the pep talk, Jacob. I'll hunt I don't have to like it Sure, sure, I agreed easily. It wasn't my business if she wanted to make things harder for herself. She didn't add anything for a few minutes; I started thinking about turning back. Thank you, Leah suddenly told me in a much different tone. For? For letting me be. For letting me stay. You've been nicer than I had any right to expect, Jacob. Er, no problem. Actually, I mean that. I don't mind having you here like I thought I would. She snorted, but it was a playful sound. What a glowing commendation! Don't let it go to your head. Okay —u—if you don't let this go to yours. She paused for a second. / think you make a good Alpha. Not in the same way Sam does, but in your own way. You're worth following, Jacob. My mind went blank with surprise. It took me a second to recover enough to respond. Er, thanks. Not totally sure I'll be able to stop that one from going to my head, though. Where did that come from? She didn't answer right away, and I followed the wordless direction of her thoughts. She was thinking about the future —2—about what I'd said to Jared the other morning. About how the time would be up soon, and then I'd go back to the forest. About how I'd promised that she and Seth would return to the pack when the Cullens were gone___ / want to stay with you, she told me. The shock shot through my legs, locking my joints. She blew past me and then put on the brakes. Slowly, she walked back to where I was frozen in place. / won't be a pain, I swear. I won't follow you around. You can go wherever you want, and I'll go where I want. You'll only have to put up with me when we're both wolves. She paced back and forth in front of me, swishing her long gray tail nervously. And, as I'm planning on quitting as soon as I can manage it... maybe that won't be so often. I didn't know what to say. I'm happier now, as a part of your pack, than I have been in years. I want to stay, too, Seth thought quietly. I hadn't realized he'd been paying much attention to us as he ran the perimeter. / like this pack. Hey, now! Seth, this isn't going to be a pack much longer. I tried to put my thoughts together so they would convince him. We've got a purpose now, but when... after that's over, I'm just going to go wolf. Seth, you need a purpose. You're a good kid. You're the kind of person who always has a crusade. And there's no way you're leaving La Push now. You're going to graduate from high school and do something with your life. You're going to take care of Sue. My issues are not going to mess up your future. But —2— Jacob is right Leah seconded. You're agreeing with me? Of course. But none of that applies to me. / was on my way out anyway. I'll get a job somewhere away from La Push. Maybe take some courses at a community college. Get into yoga and meditation to work on my temper issues.... And stay a part of this pack for the sake of my mental well-being. Jacob ——you can see how that makes sense, right? I won't bother you, you won't bother me, everyone is happy. I turned back and started loping slowly toward the west. This is a bit much to deal with, Leah. Let me think about it, 'kay? Sure. Take your time. It took us longer to make the run back. I wasn't trying for speed. I was just trying to concentrate enough that I wouldn't plow headfirst into a tree. Seth was grumbling a little bit in the back of my head, but I was able to ignore him. He knew I was right. He wasn't going to abandon his mom. He would go back to La Push and protect the tribe like he should. But I couldn't see Leah doing that. And that was just plain scary. A pack of the two of us? No matter the physical distance, I couldn't imagine the... the intimacy of that situation. I wondered if she'd really thought it through, or if she was just desperate to stay free. Leah didn't say anything as I chewed it over. It was like she was trying to prove how easy it would be if it was just us. We ran into a herd of black-tailed deer just as the sun was coming up, brightening the clouds a little bit behind us. Leah sighed internally but didn't hesitate. Her lunge was clean and efficient ——graceful, even. She took down the largest one, the buck, before the startled animal fully understood the danger. Not to be outdone, I swooped down on the next largest deer, snapping her neck between my jaws quickly, so she wouldn't feel unnecessary pain. I could feel Leah's disgust warring with her hunger, and I tried to make it easier for her by letting the wolf in me have my head. I'd lived all-wolf for long enough that I knew how to be the animal completely, to see his way and think his way. I let the practical instincts take over, letting her feel that, too. She hesitated for a second, but then, tentatively, she seemed to reach out with her mind and try to see my way. It felt very strange ——our minds were more closely linked than they had ever been before, because we both were trying to think together. Strange, but it helped her. Her teeth cut through the fur and skin of her kill's shoulder, tearing away a thick slab of streaming flesh. Rather than wince away as her human thoughts wanted to, she let her wolf-self react instinctively. It was kind of a numbing thing, a thoughtless thing. It let her eat in peace. It was easy for me to do the same. And I was glad I hadn't forgotten this. This would be my life again soon. Was Leah going to be a part of that life? A week ago, I wouldve found that idea beyond horrifying. I wouldn't've been able to stand it. But I knew her better now. And, relieved from the constant pain, she wasn't the same wolf. Not the same girl. We ate together until we both were full. Thanks, she told me later as she was cleaning her muzzle and paws against the wet grass. I didn't bother; it had just started to drizzle and we had to swim the river again on our way back. I'd get clean enough. That wasn't so bad, thinking your way. You're welcome. Seth was dragging when we hit the perimeter. I told him to get some sleep; Leah and I would take over the patrol. Seth's mind faded into unconsciousness just seconds later. You headed back to the bloodsuckers? Leah asked. Maybe. It's hard for you to be there, but hard to stay away, too. I know how that feels. You know, Leah, you might want to think a little bit about the future, about what you really want to do. My head is not going to be the happiest place on earth. And you'll have to suffer right along with me. She thought about how to answer me. Wow, this is going to sound bad. But, honestly, it will be easier to deal with your pain than face mine. Fair enough. I know it's going to be bad for you, Jacob. I understand that ——maybe better than you think. I don't like her, but... she's your Sam. She's everything you want and everything you can't have. I couldn't answer. / know it's worse for you. At least Sam is happy. At least he's alive and well. I love him enough that I want that. I want him to have what's best for him. She sighed. I just don't want to stick around to watch. Do we need to talk about this? I think we do. Because I want you to know that I won't make it worse for you. Hell, maybe I'll even help. I wasn't born a compassionless shrew. I used to be sort of nice, you know. My memory doesn't go that far back. We both laughed once. I'm sorry about this, Jacob. I'm sorry you're in pain. I'm sorry it's getting worse and not better Thanks, Leah. She thought about the things that were worse, the black pictures in my head, while I tried to tune her out without much success. She was able to look at them with some distance, some perspective, and I had to admit that this was helpful. I could imagine that maybe I would be able to see it that way, too, in a few years. She saw the funny side of the daily irritations that came from hanging out around vampires. She liked my ragging on Rosalie, chuckling internally and even running through a few blonde jokes in her mind that I might be able to work in. But then her thoughts turned serious, lingering on Rosalie's face in a way that confused me. You know what's crazy? she asked. Well, almost everything is crazy right now. But what do you mean? That blond vampire you hate so much —2—/ totally get her perspective. For a second I thought she was making a joke that was in very poor taste. And then, when I realized she was serious, the fury that ripped through me was hard to control. It was a good thing we'd spread out to run our watch. If she'd been within biting distance... Hold up! Let me explain! Don't want to hear it I'm outta here. Wait! Wait! she pleaded as I tried to calm myself enough to phase back. C'mon, Jake! Leah, this isn't really the best way to convince me that I want to spend more time with you in the future. Yeesh! What an overreaction. You don't even know what I'm talking about So what are you talking about? And then she was suddenly the pain-hardened Leah from before. I'm talking about being a genetic dead end, Jacob. The vicious edge to her words left me floundering. I hadn't expected to have my anger trumped. I don't understand. You would, if you weren't just like the rest of them. If my "female sfu/T ——she thought the words with a hard, sarcastic tone——didn't send you running for cover just like any stupid male, so you could actually pay attention to what it all means. Oh. Yeah, so none of us like to think about that stuff with her. Who would? Of course I remembered Leah's panic that first month after she joined the pack ——and I remembered cringing away from it just like everyone else. Because she couldn't be pregnant—u— not unless there was some really freaky religious immaculate crap going on. She hadn't been with anyone since Sam. And then, when the weeks dragged on and nothing turned into more nothing, she'd realized that her body wasn't following the normal patterns anymore. The horror——what was she now? Had her body changed because she'd become a werewolf? Or had she become a werewolf because her body was wrong? The only female werewolf in the history of forever. Was that because she wasn't as female as she should be? None of us had wanted to deal with that breakdown. Obviously, it wasn't like we could empathize. You know why Sam thinks we imprint, she thought, calmer now. Sure. To carry on the line. Right. To make a bunch of new little werewolves. Survival of the species, genetic override. You're drawn to the person who gives you the best chance to pass on the wolf gene. I waited for her to tell me where she was qoinq with this. If I was any good for that, Sam would have been drawn to me. Her pain was enough that I broke stride under it. But I'm not There's something wrong with me. I don't have the ability to pass on the gene, apparently, despite my stellar bloodlines. So I become a freak ——the girlie-wolf——good for nothing else. I'm a genetic dead end and we both know it. We do not, I argued with her. That's just Sam's theory. Imprinting happens, but we don't know why. Billy thinks it's something else. I know, I know. He thinks you're imprinting to make stronger wolves. Because you and Sam are such humongous monsters —2—bigger than our fathers. But either way, I'm still not a candidate. I'm... I'm menopausal. I'm twenty years old and I'm menopausal. Ugh. I so didn't want to have this conversation. You don't know that, Leah. It's probably just the whole frozen-in-time thing. When you quit your wolf and start getting older again, I'm sure things will... er... pick right back up. /might think that ——except that no one's imprinting on me, notwithstanding my impressive pedigree. You know, she added thoughtfully, if you weren't around, Seth would probably have the best claim to being Alpha—o—through his blood, at least. Of course, no one would ever consider me.... You really want to imprint, or be imprinted on, or whichever? I demanded. What's wrong with going out and falling in love like a normal person, Leah? Imprinting is just another way of getting your choices taken away from you. Sam, Jared, Paul, Quit... they don't seem to mind. None of them have a mind of their own. You don't want to imprint? Hell, no! That's just because you're already in love with her. That would go away, you know, if you imprinted. You wouldn't have to hurt over her anymore. Do you want to forget the way you feel about Sam? She deliberated for a moment. / think I do. I sighed. She was in a healthier place than I was. But back to my original point, Jacob. I understand why your blond vampire is so cold ——in the figurative sense. She's focused. She's got her eyes on the prize, right? Because you always want the very most what you can never, ever have. You would act like Rosalie? You would murder someone ——because that's what she's doing, making sure no one interferes with Bella's death——you would do that to have a baby? Since when are you a breeder? I just want the options I don't have, Jacob. Maybe, if there was nothing wrong with me, I would never give it a thought. You would kill for that? I demanded, not letting her escape my question. That's not what she's doing. I think it's more like she's living vicariously. And... if Bella asked me to help her with this... She paused, considering. Even though I don't think too much of her, I'd probably do the same as the bloodsucker. A loud snarl ripped through my teeth. Because, if it was turned around, I'd want Bella to do that for me. And so would Rosalie. We'd both do it her way. Ugh! You're as bad as they are! That's the funny thing about knowing you can't have something. It makes you desperate. And. .. that's my limit Right there. This conversation is over. Fine. It wasn't enough that she'd agreed to stop. I wanted a stronger termination than that. I was only about a mile from where I'd left my clothes, so I phased back to human and walked. I didn't think about our conversation. Not because there wasn't anything to think about, but because I couldn't stand it. I would not see it that way ——but it was harder to keep from doing that when Leah had put the thoughts and emotions straight into my head. Yeah, I wasn't running with her when this was finished. She could go be miserable in La Push. One little Alpha command before I left for good wasn't going to kill anybody. It was real early when I got to the house. Bella was probably still asleep. I figured I'd poke my head in, see what was going on, give 'em the green light to go hunting, and then find a patch of grass soft enough to sleep on while human. I wasn't phasing back until Leah was asleep. But there was a lot of low mumbling going on inside the house, so maybe Bella wasn't sleeping. And then I heard the machinery sound from upstairs again —u—the X-ray? Great. It looked like day four on the countdown was starting off with a bang. Alice opened the door for me before I could walk in. She nodded. "Hey, wolf." "Hey, shortie. What's going on upstairs?" The big room was empty ——all the murmurs were on the second floor. She shrugged her pointy little shoulders. "Maybe another break." She tried to say the words casually, but I could see the flames in the very back of her eyes. Edward and I weren't the only ones who were burning over this. Alice loved Bella, too. "Another rib?" I asked hoarsely. "No. Pelvis this time." Funny how it kept hitting me, like each new thing was a surprise. When was I going to stop being surprised? Each new disaster seemed kinda obvious in hindsight. Alice was staring at my hands, watching them tremble. Then we were listening to Rosalie's voice upstairs. "See, I told you I didn't hear a crack. You need your ears checked, Edward." There was no answer. Alice made a face. "Edward's going to end up ripping Rose into small pieces, I think. I'm surprised she doesn't see that. Or maybe she thinks Emmett will be able to stop him." "I'll take Emmett," I offered. "You can help Edward with the ripping part." Alice half-smiled. The procession came down the stairs then ——Edward had Bella this time. She was gripping her cup of blood in both hands, and her face was white. I could see that, though he compensated for every tiny movement of his body to keep from jostling her, she was hurting. "Jake," she whispered, and she smiled through the pain. I stared at her, saying nothing. Edward placed Bella carefully on her couch and sat on the floor by her head. I wondered briefly why they didn't leave her upstairs, and then decided at once that it must be Bella's idea. She'd want to act like things were normal, avoid the hospital setup. And he was humoring her. Naturally. Carlisle came down slowly, the last one, his face creased with worry. It made him look old enough to be a doctor for once. "Carlisle," I said. "We went halfway to Seattle. There's no sign of the pack. You're good to go." "Thank you, Jacob. This is good timing. There's much that we need." His black eyes flickered to the cup that Bella was holding so tight. "Honestly, I think you're safe to take more than three. I'm pretty positive that Sam is concentrating on La Push." Carlisle nodded in agreement. It surprised me how willingly he took my advice. "If you think so. Alice, Esme, Jasper, and I will go. Then Alice can take Emmett and Rosa ——" "Not a chance," Rosalie hissed. "Emmett can go with you now." "You should hunt," Carlisle said in a gentle voice. His tone didn't soften hers. "I'll hunt when he does," she growled, jerking her head toward Edward and then flipping her hair back. Carlisle sighed. Jasper and Emmett were down the stairs in a flash, and Alice joined them by the glass back door in the same second. Esme flitted to Alice's side. Carlisle put his hand on my arm. The icy touch did not feel good, but I didn't jerk away. I held still, half in surprise, and half because I didn't want to hurt his feelings. "Thank you," he said again, and then he darted out the door with the other four. My eyes followed them as they flew across the lawn and then disappeared before I took another breath. Their needs must have been more urgent than I'd imagined. There was no sound for a minute. I could feel someone glaring at me, and I knew who it would be. I'd been planning to take off and get some Z's, but the chance to ruin Rosalie's morning seemed too good to pass up. So I sauntered over to the armchair next to the one Rosalie had and settled in, sprawling out so that my head was tilted toward Bella and my left foot was near Rosalie's face. "Ew. Someone put the dog out," she murmured, wrinkling her nose. "Have you heard this one, Psycho? How do a blonde's brain cells die?" She didn't say anything. "Well?" I asked. "Do you know the punch line or not?" She looked pointedly at the TV and ignored me. "Has she heard it?" I asked Edward. There was no humor on his tense face —4—he didn't move his eyes from Bella. But he said, "No." "Awesome. So you'll enjoy this, bloodsucker ——a blonde's brain cells die alone." Rosalie still didn't look at me. "I have killed a hundred times more often than you have, you disgusting beast. Don't forget that." "Someday, Beauty Queen, you're going to get tired of just threatening me. I'm really looking forward to that." "Enough, Jacob," Bella said. I looked down, and she was scowling at me. It looked like yesterday's good mood was long gone. Well, I didn't want to bug her. "You want me to take off?" I offered. Before I could hope —4—or fear——that she'd finally gotten tired of me, she blinked, and her frown disappeared. She seemed totally shocked that I would come to that conclusion. "No! Of course not." I sighed, and I heard Edward sigh very quietly, too. I knew he wished she'd get over me, too. Too bad he'd never ask her to do anything that might make her unhappy. "You look tired," Bella commented. "Dead beat," I admitted. I'd like to beat you dead," Rosalie muttered, too low for Bella to hear. I just slumped deeper into the chair, getting comfortable. My bare foot dangled closer to Rosalie, and she stiffened. After a few minutes Bella asked Rosalie for a refill. I felt the wind as Rosalie blew upstairs to get her some more blood. It was really quiet. Might as well take a nap, I figured. And then Edward said, "Did you say something?" in a puzzled tone. Strange. Because no one had said anything, and because Edward's hearing was as good as mine, and he should have known that. He was staring at Bella, and she was staring back. They both looked confused. "Me?" she asked after a second. "I didn't say anything." He moved onto his knees, leaning forward over her, his expression suddenly intense in a whole different way. His black eyes focused on her face. "What are you thinking about right now?" She stared at him blankly. "Nothing. What's going on?" "What were you thinking about a minute ago?" he asked. "Just... Esme's island. And feathers." Sounded like total gibberish to me, but then she blushed, and I figured I was better off not knowing. "Say something else," he whispered. Tike what? Edward, what's going on?" His face changed again, and he did something that made my mouth fall open with a pop. I heard a gasp behind me, and I knew that Rosalie was back, and just as flabbergasted as I was. Edward, very lightly, put both of his hands against her huge, round stomach. 'The f ——" He swallowed. "It... the baby likes the sound of your voice." There was one short beat of total silence. I could not move a muscle, even to blink. Then —— "Holy crow, you can hear him!" Bella shouted. In the next second, she winced. Edward's hand moved to the top peak of her belly and gently rubbed the spot where it must have kicked her. "Shh," he murmured. "You startled it... him." Her eyes got all wide and full of wonder. She patted the side of her stomach. "Sorry, baby." Edward was listening hard, his head tilted toward the bulge. "What's he thinking now?" she demanded eagerly. "It... he or she, is ..." He paused and looked up into her eyes. His eyes were filled with a similar awe —2—only his were more careful and grudging. "He's happy" Edward said in an incredulous voice. Her breath caught, and it was impossible not to see the fanatical gleam in her eyes. The adoration and the devotion. Big, fat tears overflowed her eyes and ran silently down her face and over her smiling lips. As he stared at her, his face was not frightened or angry or burning or any of the other expressions he'd worn since their return. He was marveling with her. "Of course you're happy, pretty baby, of course you are," she crooned, rubbing her stomach while the tears washed her cheeks. "How could you not be, all safe and warm and loved? I love you so much, little EJ, of course you're happy." "What did you call him?" Edward asked curiously. She blushed again. "I sort of named him. I didn't think you would want... well, you know." "EJ?" "Your father's name was Edward, too." "Yes, it was. What —2—?" He paused and then said, "Hmm." "What?" "He likes my voice, too." "Of course he does." Her tone was almost gloating now. "You have the most beautiful voice in the universe. Who wouldn't love it?" "Do you have a backup plan?" Rosalie asked then, leaning over the back of the sofa with the same wondering, gloating look on her face that was on Bella's. "What if he's a she?" Bella wiped the back of her hand under her wet eyes. "I kicked a few things around. Playing with Renee and Esme. I was thinking... Ruh-nez-may." "Ruhnezmay?" "R-e-n-e-s-m-e-e. Too weird?" "No, I like it," Rosalie assured her. Their heads were close together, gold and mahogany. "It's beautiful. And one of a kind, so that fits" "I still think he's an Edward." Edward was staring off into space, his face blank as he listened. "What?" Bella asked, her face just glowing away. "What's he thinking now?" At first he didn't answer, and then ——shocking all the rest of us again, three distinct and separate gasps—2—he laid his ear tenderly against her belly. "He loves you," Edward whispered, sounding dazed. "He absolutely adores you." In that moment, I knew that I was alone. All alone. I wanted to kick myself when I realized how much I'd been counting on that loathsome vampire. How stupid ——as if you could ever trust a leech! Of course he would betray me in the end. I'd counted on him to be on my side. I'd counted on him to suffer more than I suffered. And, most of all, I'd counted on him to hate that revolting thing killing Bella more than I hated it. I'd trusted him with that. Yet now they were together, the two of them bent over the budding, invisible monster with their eyes lit up like a happy family. And I was all alone with my hatred and the pain that was so bad it was like being tortured. Like being dragged slowly across a bed of razor blades. Pain so bad you'd take death with a smile just to get away from it. The heat unlocked my frozen muscles, and I was on my feet. All three of their heads snapped up, and I watched my pain ripple across Edward's face as he trespassed in my head again. "Ahh," he choked. I didn't know what I was doing; I stood there, trembling, ready to bolt for the very first escape that I could think of. Moving like the strike of a snake, Edward darted to a small end table and ripped something from the drawer there. He tossed it at me, and I caught the object reflexively. "Go, Jacob. Get away from here." He didn't say it harshly ——he threw the words at me like they were a life preserver. He was helping me find the escape I was dying for. The object in my hand was a set of car keys.

17. WHAT DO I LOOK LIKE? THE WIZARD OF OZ? YOU NEED A BRAIN? YOU NEED A HEART? GO AHEAD. TAKE MINE. TAKE EVERYTHING I HAVE. I sort of had a plan as I ran to the Cullens' garage. The second part of it was totaling the bloodsucker's car on my way back. So I was at a loss when I mashed the button on the keyless remote, and it was not his Volvo that beeped and flashed its lights for me. It was another car —u—a standout even in the long line of vehicles that were mostly all drool-worthy in their own ways. Did he actually mean to give me the keys to an Aston Martin Vanquish, or was that an accident? I didn't pause to think about it, or if this would change that second part of my plan. I just threw myself into the silky leather seat and cranked the engine while my knees were still crunched up under the steering wheel. The sound of the motor's purr might have made me moan another day, but right now it was all I could do to concentrate enough to put it in drive. I found the seat release and shoved myself back as my foot rammed the pedal down. The car felt almost airborne as it leaped forward. It only took seconds to race through the tight, winding drive. The car responded to me like my thoughts were steering rather than my hands. As I blew out of the green tunnel and onto the highway, I caught a fleeting glimpse of Leah's gray face peering uneasily through the ferns. For half a second, I wondered what she'd think, and then I realized that I didn't care. I turned south, because I had no patience today for ferries or traffic or anything else that meant I might have to lift my foot off the pedal. In a sick way, it was my lucky day. If by lucky you meant taking a well-traveled highway at two hundred without so much as seeing one cop, even in the thirty-mile-an-hour speed-trap towns. What a letdown. A little chase action might have been nice, not to mention that the license plate info would bring the heat down on the leech. Sure, he'd buy his way out of it, but it might have been just a little inconvenient for him. The only sign of surveillance i came across was just a hint of dark brown fur flitting through the woods, running parallel to me for a few miles on the south side of Forks. Quil, it looked like. He must have seen me, too, because he disappeared after a minute without raising an alarm. Again, I almost wondered what his story would be before I remembered that I didn't care. I raced around the long U-shaped highway, heading for the biggest city I could find. That was the first part of my plan. It seemed to take forever, probably because I was still on the razor blades, but it actually didn't even take two hours before I was driving north into the undefined sprawl that was part Tacoma and part Seattle. I slowed down then, because I really wasn't trying to kill any innocent bystanders. This was a stupid plan. It wasn't going to work. But, as I'd searched my head for any way at all to get away from the pain, what Leah'd said today had popped in there. That would go away, you know, if you imprinted. You wouldn't have to hurt over her anymore. Seemed like maybe getting your choices taken away from you wasn't the very worst thing in the world. Maybe feeling like this was the very worst thing in the world. But I'd seen all the girls in La Push and up on the Makah rez and in Forks. I needed a wider hunting range. So how do you look for a random soul mate in a crowd? Well, first, I needed a crowd. So I tooled around, looking for a likely spot. I passed a couple of malls, which probably would've been pretty good places to find girls my age, but I couldn't make myself stop. Did I want to imprint on some girl who hung out in a mall all day? I kept going north, and it got more and more crowded. Eventually, I found a big park full of kids and families and skateboards and bikes and kites and picnics and the whole bit. I hadn't noticed till now —2—it was a nice day. Sun and all that. People were out celebrating the blue sky. I parked across two handicapped spots —2—just begging for a ticket——and joined the crowd. I walked around for what felt like hours. Long enough that the sun changed sides in the sky. I stared into the face of every girl who passed anywhere near me, making myself really look, noticing who was pretty and who had blue eyes and who looked good in braces and who had way too much makeup on. I tried to find something interesting about each face, so that I would know for sure that I'd really tried. Things like: This one had a really straight nose; that one should pull her hair out of her eyes; this one could do lipstick ads if the rest of her face was as perfect as her mouth___ Sometimes they stared back. Sometimes they looked scared —2—like they were thinking, Who is this big freak glaring at me? Sometimes I thought they looked kind of interested, but maybe that was just my ego running wild. Either way, nothing. Even when I met the eyes of the girl who was ——no contest——the hottest girl in the park and probably in the city, and she stared right back with a speculation that looked like interest, I felt nothing. Just the same desperate drive to find a way out of the pain. As time went on, I started noticing all the wrong things. Bella things. This one's hair was the same color. That one's eyes were sort of shaped the same. This one's cheekbones cut across her face in just the same way. That one had the same little crease between her eyes ——which made me wonder what she was worrying about___ That was when I gave up. Because it was beyond stupid to think that I had picked exactly the right place and time and I was going to simply walk into my soul mate just because I was so desperate to. It wouldn't make sense to find her here, anyway. If Sam was right, the best place to find my genetic match would be in La Push. And, clearly, no one there fit the bill. If Billy was right, then who knew? What made for a stronger wolf? I wandered back to the car and then slumped against the hood and played with the keys. Maybe I was what Leah thought she was. Some kind of dead end that shouldn't be passed on to another generation. Or maybe it was just that my life was a big, cruel joke, and there was no escape from the punch line. "Hey, you okay? Hello? You there, with the stolen car." It took me a second to realize that the voice was talking to me, and then another second to decide to raise my head. A familiar-looking girl was staring at me, her expression kind of anxious. I knew why I recognized her face ——I'd already catalogued this one. Light red-gold hair, fair skin, a few gold-colored freckles sprinkled across her cheeks and nose, and eyes the color of cinnamon. "If you're feeling that remorseful over boosting the car," she said, smiling so that a dimple popped out in her chin, "you could always turn yourself in." "It's borrowed, not stolen," I snapped. My voice sounded horrible ——like I'd been crying or something. Embarrassing. "Sure, thatW hold up in court." I glowered. "You need something?" "Not really. I was kidding about the car, you know. It's just that... you look really upset about something. Oh, hey, I'm Lizzie." She held out her hand. I looked at it until she let it fall. "Anyway...," she said awkwardly, "I was just wondering if I could help. Seemed like you were looking for someone before." She gestured toward the park and shrugged. "Yeah." She waited. I sighed. "I don't need any help. She's not here." "Oh. Sorry." "Me, too," I muttered. I looked at the girl again. Lizzie. She was pretty. Nice enough to try to help a grouchy stranger who must seem nuts. Why couldn't she be the one? Why did everything have to be so freaking complicated? Nice girl, pretty, and sort of funny. Why not? "This is a beautiful car," she said. "It's really a shame they're not making them anymore. I mean, the Vantage's body styling is gorgeous, too, but there's just something about the Vanquish___" Nice girl who knew cars. Wow. I stared at her face harder, wishing I knew how to make it work. C'mon, Jake ——imprint already. "How's it drive?" she asked. "Like you wouldn't believe," I told her. She grinned her one-dimple smile, clearly pleased to have dragged a halfway civil response out of me, and I gave her a reluctant smile back. But her smile did nothing about the sharp, cutting blades that raked up and down my body. No matter how much I wanted it to, my life was not going to come together like that. I wasn't in that healthier place where Leah was headed. I wasn't going to be able to fall in love like a normal person. Not when I was bleeding over someone else. Maybe —2—if it was ten years from now and Bella's heart was long dead and I'd hauled myself through the whole grieving process and come out in one piece again—4—maybe then I could offer Lizzie a ride in a fast car and talk makes and models and get to know something about her and see if I liked her as a person. But that wasn't going to happen now. Magic wasn't going to save me. I was just going to have to take the torture like a man. Suck it up. Lizzie waited, maybe hoping I was going to offer her that ride. Or maybe not. "I'd better get this car back to the guy I borrowed it from," I muttered. She smiled again. "Glad to hear you're going straight." "Yeah, you convinced me." She watched me get in the car, still sort of concerned. I probably looked like someone who was about to drive off a cliff. Which maybe I would've, if that kind of move'd work for a werewolf. She waved once, her eyes trailing after the car. At first, I drove more sanely on the way back. I wasn't in a rush. I didn't want to go where I was going. Back to that house, back to that forest. Back to the pain I'd run from. Back to being absolutely alone with it. Okay, that was melodramatic. I wouldn't be all alone, but that was a bad thing. Leah and Seth would have to suffer with me. I was glad Seth wouldn't have to suffer long. Kid didn't deserve to have his peace of mind ruined. Leah didn't, either, but at least it was something she understood. Nothing new about pain for Leah. I sighed big as I thought about what Leah wanted from me, because I knew now that she was going to get it. I was still pissed at her, but I couldn't ignore the fact that i could make her life easier. And ——now that I knew her better——I thought she would probably do this for me, if our positions were reversed. It would be interesting, at the very least, and strange, too, to have Leah as a companion ——as a friend. We were going to get under each other's skin a lot, that was for sure. She wouldn't be one to let me wallow, but I thought that was a good thing. I'd probably need someone to kick my butt now and then. But when it came right down to it, she was really the only friend who had any chance of understanding what I was going through now. I thought of the hunt this morning, and how close our minds had been for that one moment in time. It hadn't been a bad thing. Different. A little scary, a little awkward. But also nice in a weird way. I didn't have to be all alone. And I knew Leah was strong enough to face with me the months that were coming. Months and years. It made me tired to think about it. I felt like I was staring out across an ocean that I was going to have to swim from shore to shore before I could rest again. So much time coming, and then so little time before it started. Before I was flung into that ocean. Three and a half more days, and here I was, wasting that little bit of time I had. I started driving too fast again. I saw Sam and Jared, one on either side of the road like sentinels, as I raced up the road toward Forks. They were well hidden in the thick branches, but I was expecting them, and I knew what to look for. I nodded as I blew past them, not bothering to wonder what they made of my day trip. I nodded to Leah and Seth, too, as I cruised up the Cullens' driveway. It was starting to get dark, and the clouds were thick on this side of the sound, but I saw their eyes glitter in the glow of the headlights. I would explain to them later. There'd be plenty of time for that. It was a surprise to find Edward waiting for me in the garage. I hadn't seen him away from Bella in days. I could tell from his face that nothing bad had happened to her. In fact, he looked more peaceful than before. My stomach tightened as I remembered where that peace came from. It was too bad that ——with all my brooding—2—I'd forgotten to wreck the car. Oh well. I probably wouldn't have been able to stand hurting this car, anyway. Maybe he'd guessed as much, and that's why he'd lent it to me in the first place. "A few things, Jacob," he said as soon as I cut the engine. I took a deep breath and held it for a minute. Then, slowly, I got out of the car and threw the keys to him. "Thanks for the loan," I said sourly. Apparently, it would have to be repaid. "What do you want now?" "Firstly... I know how averse you are to using your authority with your pack, but..." I blinked, astonished that he would even dream of starting in on this one. "What?" "If you can't or won't control Leah, then I —2—" "Leah?" I interrupted, speaking through my teeth. "What happened?" Edward's face was hard. "She came up to see why you'd left so abruptly. I tried to explain. I suppose it might not have come out right." "What did she do?" "She phased to her human form and ——" "Really?" I interrupted again, shocked this time. I couldn't process that. Leah letting her guard down right in the mouth of the enemy's lair? "She wanted to... speak to Bella." "To Bella?" Edward got all hissy then. "I won't let Bella be upset like that again. I don't care how justified Leah thinks she is! I didn't hurt her ——of course I wouldn't——but I'll throw her out of the house if it happens again. I'll launch her right across the river——" "Hold on. What did she say?" None of this was making any sense. Edward took a deep breath, composing himself. "Leah was unnecessarily harsh. I'm not going to pretend that I understand why Bella is unable to let go of you, but I do know that she does not behave this way to hurt you. She suffers a great deal over the pain she's inflicting on you, and on me, by asking you to stay. What Leah said was uncalled for. Bella's been crying ——" "Wait ——Leah was yelling at Bella about me?" He nodded one sharp nod. "You were quite vehemently championed." Whoa. "I didn't ask her to do that." "I know." I rolled my eyes. Of course he knew. He knew everything. But that was really something about Leah. Who would have believed it? Leah walking into the bloodsuckers' place human to complain about how /was being treated. "I can't promise to control Leah," I told him. "I won't do that. But I'll talk to her, okay? And I don't think there'll be a repeat. Leah's not one to hold back, so she probably got it all off her chest today." "I would say so." "Anyway, I'll talk to Bella about it, too. She doesn't need to feel bad. This one's on me." "I already told her that." "Of course you did. Is she okay?" "She's sleeping now. Rose is with her." So the psycho was "Rose" now. He'd completely crossed over to the dark side. He ignored that thought, continuing with a more complete answer to my question. "She's... better in some ways. Aside from Leah's tirade and the resulting guilt." Better. Because Edward was hearing the monster and everything was all lovey-dovey now. Fantastic. "It's a bit more than that," he murmured. "Now that I can make out the child's thoughts, it's apparent that he or she has remarkably developed mental facilities. He can understand us, to an extent." My mouth fell open. "Are you serious?" "Yes. He seems to have a vague sense of what hurts her now. He's trying to avoid that, as much as possible. He... loves her. Already." I stared at Edward, feeling sort of like my eyes might pop out of their sockets. Underneath that disbelief, I could see right away that this was the critical factor. This was what had changed Edward ——that the monster had convinced him of this love. He couldn't hate what loved Bella. It was probably why he couldn't hate me, either. There was a big difference, though. I wasn't killing her. Edward went on, acting like he hadn't heard all that. "The progress, I believe, is more than we'd judged. When Carlisle returns ——" "They're not back?" I cut in sharply. I thought of Sam and Jared, watching the road. Would they get curious as to what was going on? "Alice and Jasper are. Carlisle sent all the blood he was able to acquire, but it wasn't as much as he was hoping for ——Bella will use up this supply in another day the way her appetite has grown. Carlisle stayed to try another source. I don't think that's necessary now, but he wants to be covered for any eventuality." "Why isn't it necessary? If she needs more?" I could tell he was watching and listening to my reaction carefully as he explained. Tm trying to persuade Carlisle to deliver the baby as soon as he is back." "What?" "The child seems to be attempting to avoid rough movements, but it's difficult. He's become too big. It's madness to wait, when he's clearly developed beyond what Carlisle had guessed. Bella's too fragile to delay." I kept getting my legs knocked out from under me. First, counting on Edward's hatred of the thing so much. Now, I'd realized that I thought of those four days as a sure thing. I'd banked on them. The endless ocean of grief that waited stretched out before me. I tried to catch my breath. Edward waited. I stared at his face while I recovered, recognizing another change there. "You think she's going to make it," I whispered. "Yes. That was the other thing I wanted to talk to you about." I couldn't say anything. After a minute, he went on. "Yes," he said again. "Waiting, as we have been, for the child to be ready, that was insanely dangerous. At any moment it could have been too late. But if we're proactive about this, if we act quickly, I see no reason why it should not go well. Knowing the child's mind is unbelievably helpful. Thankfully, Bella and Rose agree with me. Now that I've convinced them it's safe for the child if we proceed, there's nothing to keep this from working." "When will Carlisle be back?" I asked, still whispering. I hadn't got my breath back yet. "By noon tomorrow." My knees buckled. I had to grab the car to hold myself up. Edward reached out like he was offering support, but then he thought better of it and dropped his hands. "I'm sorry," he whispered. "I am truly sorry for the pain this causes you, Jacob. Though you hate me, I must admit that I don't feel the same about you. I think of you as a... a brother in many ways. A comrade in arms, at the very least. I regret your suffering more than you realize. But Bella is going to survive" ——when he said that his voice was fierce, even violent——"and I know that's what really matters to you." He was probably right. It was hard to tell. My head was spinning. "So I hate to do this now, while you're already dealing with too much, but, clearly, there is little time. I have to ask you for something ——to beg, if I must." "I don't have anything left," I choked out. He lifted his hand again, as if to put it on my shoulder, but then let it drop like before and sighed. "I know how much you have given," he said quietly. "But this is something you do have, and only you. I'm asking this of the true Alpha, Jacob. I'm asking this of Ephraim's heir." I was way past being able to respond. "I want your permission to deviate from what we agreed to in our treaty with Ephraim. I want you to grant us an exception. I want your permission to save her life. You know 111 do it anyway, but I don't want to break faith with you if there is any way to avoid it. We never intended to go back on our word, and we don't do it lightly now. I want your understanding, Jacob, because you know exactly why we do this. I want the alliance between our families to survive when this is over." I tried to swallow. Sam, I thought. It's Sam you want. "No. Sam's authority is assumed. It belongs to you. You'll never take it from him, but no one can rightfully agree to what I'm asking except for you" It's not my decision. "It is, Jacob, and you know it. Your word on this will condemn us or absolve us. Only you can give this to me." / can't think. I don't know. "We don't have much time." He glanced back toward the house. No, there was no time. My few days had become a few hours. / don't know. Let me think. Just give me a minute here, okay? "Yes." I started walking to the house, and he followed. Crazy how easy it was, walking through the dark with a vampire right beside me. It didn't feel unsafe, or even uncomfortable, really. It felt like walking next to anybody. Well, anybody who smelled bad. There was a movement in the brush at the edge of the big lawn, and then a low whimper. Seth shrugged through the ferns and loped over to us. "Hey, kid," I muttered. He dipped his head, and I patted his shoulder. "S'all cool," I lied. "I'll tell you about it later. Sorry to take off on you like that." He grinned at me. "Hey, tell your sister to back off now, okay? Enough." Seth nodded once. I shoved against his shoulder this time. "Get back to work. I'll spell you in a bit." Seth leaned against me, shoving back, and then he galloped into the trees. "He has one of the purest, sincerest, kindest minds I've ever heard," Edward murmured when he was out of sight. "You're lucky to have his thoughts to share." "I know that,"! grunted. We started toward the house, and both of our heads snapped up when we heard the sound of someone sucking through a straw. Edward was in a hurry then. He darted up the porch stairs and was gone. "Bella, love, I thought you were sleeping," I heard him say. "I'm sorry, I wouldn't have left." "Don't worry. I just got so thirsty ——it woke me up. It's a good thing Carlisle is bringing more. This kid is going to need it when he gets out of me." "True. That's a good point." "I wonder if he'll want anything else," she mused. "I suppose we'll find out." I walked through the door. Alice said, "Finally," and Bella's eyes flashed to me. That infuriating, irresistible smile broke across her face for one second. Then it faltered, and her face fell. Her lips puckered, like she was trying not to cry. I wanted to punch Leah right in her stupid mouth. "Hey, Bells," I said quickly. "How ya doing?" "I'm fine," she said. "Big day today, huh? Lots of new stuff." "You don't have to do that, Jacob." "Don't know what you're talking about," I said, going to sit on the arm of the sofa by her head. Edward had the floor there already. She gave me a reproachful look. "I'm so s —2—" she started to say. I pinched her lips together between my thumb and finger. "Jake," she mumbled, trying to pull my hand away. Her attempt was so weak it was hard to believe that she was really trying. I shook my head. "You can talk when you're not being stupid." "Fine, I won't say it," it sounded like she mumbled. I pulled my hand away. "Sorry!" she finished quickly, and then grinned. I rolled my eyes and then smiled back at her. When I stared into her eyes, I saw everything that I'd been looking for in the park. Tomorrow, she'd be someone else. But hopefully alive, and that was what counted, right? She'd look at me with the same eyes, sort of. Smile with the same lips, almost. She'd still know me better than anyone who didn't have full access to the inside of my head. Leah might be an interesting companion, maybe even a true friend —p—someone who would stand up for me. But she wasn't my best friend the way that Bella was. Aside from the impossible love I felt for Bella, there was also that other bond, and it ran bone deep. Tomorrow, she'd be my enemy. Or she'd be my ally. And, apparently, that distinction was up to me. I sighed. Fine! I thought, giving up the very last thing i had to give. It made me feel hollow. Go ahead. Save her. As Ephraim's heir, you have my permission, my word, that this will not violate the treaty. The others will just have to blame me. You were right —p—they can't deny that it's my right to agree to this. 'Thank you." Edward's whisper was low enough that Bella didn't hear anything. But the words were so fervent that, from the corner of my eye, I saw the other vampires turning to stare. "So," Bella asked, working to be casual. "How was your day?" "Great. Went for a drive. Hung out in the park." "Sounds nice." "Sure, sure." Suddenly, she made a face. "Rose?" she asked. I heard Blondie chuckle. "Again?" "I think I've drunk two gallons in the last hour," Bella explained. Edward and I both got out of the way while Rosalie came to lift Bella from the couch and take her to the bathroom. "Can I walk?" Bella asked. "My legs are so stiff." "Are you sure?" Edward asked. "Rose'll catch me if I trip over my feet. Which could happen pretty easily, since I can't see them." Rosalie set Bella carefully on her feet, keeping her hands right at Bella's shoulders. Bella stretched her arms out in front of her, wincing a little. "That feels good," she sighed. "Ugh, but I'm huge." She really was. Her stomach was its own continent. "One more day," she said, and patted her stomach. I couldn't help the pain that shot through me in a sudden, stabbing burst, but I tried to keep it off my face. I could hide it for one more day, right? "All righty, then. Whoops ——oh, no!" The cup Bella had left on the sofa tumbled to one side, the dark red blood spilling out onto the pale fabric. Automatically, though three other hands beat her there, Bella bent over, reaching out to catch it. There was the strangest, muffled ripping sound from the center of her body. "Oh!" she gasped. And then she went totally limp, slumping toward the floor. Rosalie caught her in the same instant, before she could fall. Edward was there, too, hands out, the mess on the sofa forgotten. "Bella?" he asked, and then his eyes unfocused, and panic shot across his features. A half second later, Bella screamed. It was not just a scream, it was a blood-curdling shriek of agony. The horrifying sound cut off with a gurgle, and her eyes rolled back into her head. Her body twitched, arched in Rosalie's arms, and then Bella vomited a fountain of blood.

** PAGE 7 **