I knew that essentially nothing had changed. Okay, so Victoria had not given up, but had I ever dreamed for one moment that she had? Her reappearance had only confirmed what I'd already known. No reason for fresh panic.
In theory. Not panicking was easier said than done.
Graduation was only a few weeks away, but I wondered if it wasn't a little foolish to sit around, weak and tasty, waiting for the next disaster. It seemed too dangerous to be human - just begging for trouble. Someone like me shouldn't be human. Someone with my luck ought to be a little less helpless.
But no one would listen to me.
Carlisle had said, "There are seven of us, Bella. And with Alice on our side, I don't think Victoria's going to catch us off guard. I think it's important, for Charlie's sake, that we stick with the original plan."
Esme had said, "We'd never allow anything to happen to you, sweetheart. You know that. Please don't be anxious." And then she'd kissed my forehead.
Emmett had said, "I'm really glad Edward didn't kill you. Everything's so much more fun with you around."
Rosalie had glared at him.
Alice had rolled her eyes and said, "I'm offended. You're not honestly worried about this, are you?"
"If it's no big deal, then why did Edward drag me to Florida?" I'd demanded.
"Haven't you noticed yet, Bella, that Edward is just the teeniest bit prone to overreaction?"
Jasper had silently erased all the panic and tension in my body with his curious talent of controlling emotional atmospheres. I'd felt reassured, and let them talk me out of my desperate pleading.
Of course, that calm had worn off as soon as Edward and I had walked out of the room.
So the consensus was that I was just supposed to forget that a deranged vampire was stalking me, intent on my death. Go about my business.
I did try. And surprisingly, there were other things almost as stressful to dwell on besides my status on the endangered species list. . . .
Because Edward's response had been the most frustrating of them all.
"That's between you and Carlisle," he'd said. "Of course, you know that I'm willing to make it between you and me at any time that you wish. You know my condition." And he had smiled angelically.
Ugh. I did know his condition. Edward had promised that he would change me himself whenever I wanted . . . just as long as I was married to him first.
Sometimes I wondered if he was only pretending that he couldn't read my mind. How else had he struck upon the one condition that I would have trouble accepting? The one condition that would slow me down.
All in all, a very bad week. And today was the worst day in it.
It was always a bad day when Edward was away. Alice had foreseen nothing out of the ordinary this weekend, and so I'd insisted that he take the opportunity to go hunting with his brothers. I knew how it bored him to hunt the easy, nearby prey.
"Go have fun," I'd told him. "Bag a few mountain lions for me."
I would never admit to him how hard it was for me when he was gone - how it brought back the abandonment nightmares. If he knew that, it would make him feel horrible and he would be afraid to ever leave me, even for the most necessary reasons. It had been like that in the beginning, when he'd first returned from Italy. His golden eyes had turned black and he'd suffered from his thirst more than it was already necessary that he suffer. So I put on a brave face and all but kicked him out the door whenever Emmett and Jasper wanted to go.
I think he saw through me, though. A little. This morning there had been a note left on my pillow:
I'll be back so soon you won't have time to miss me. Look after my heart - I've left it with you.
So now I had a big empty Saturday with nothing but my morning shift at Newton's Olympic Outfitters to distract me. And, of course, the oh-so-comforting promise from Alice.
"I'm staying close to home to hunt. I'll only be fifteen minutes away if you need me. I'll keep an eye out for trouble."
Translation: don't try anything funny just because Edward is gone.
Alice was certainly just as capable of crippling my truck as Edward was.
I tried to look on the bright side. After work, I had plans to help Angela with her announcements, so that would be a distraction. And Charlie was in an excellent mood due to Edward's absence, so I might as well enjoy that while it lasted. Alice would spend the night with me if I was pathetic enough to ask her to. And then tomorrow, Edward would be home. I would survive.
Not wanting to be ridiculously early for work, I ate my breakfast slowly, one Cheerio at a time. Then, when I'd washed the dishes, I arranged the magnets on the fridge into a perfect line. Maybe I was developing obsessive-compulsive disorder.
The last two magnets - round black utilitarian pieces that were my favorites because they could hold ten sheets of paper to the fridge without breaking a sweat - did not want to cooperate with my fixation. Their polarities were reversed; every time I tried to line the last one up, the other jumped out of place.
For some reason - impending mania, perhaps - this really irritated me. Why couldn't they just play nice? Stupid with stubbornness, I kept shoving them together as if I was expecting them to suddenly give up. I could have flipped one over, but that felt like losing. Finally, exasperated at myself more than the magnets, I pulled them from the fridge and held them together with two hands. It took a little effort - they were strong enough to put up a fight - but I forced them to coexist side-by-side.
"See," I said out loud - talking to inanimate objects, never a good sign - "That's not so horrible, is it?"
I stood there like an idiot for a second, not quite able to admit that I wasn't having any lasting effect against scientific principles. Then, with a sigh, I put the magnets back on the fridge, a foot apart.
"There's no need to be so inflexible," I muttered.
It was still too early, but I decided I'd better get out of the house before the inanimate objects started talking back.
When I got to Newton's, Mike was methodically dry mopping the aisles while his mom arranged a new counter display. I caught them in the middle of an argument, unaware that I had arrived.
"But it's the only time that Tyler can go," Mike complained. "You said after graduation -"
"You're just going to have to wait," Mrs. Newton snapped. "You and Tyler can think of something else to do. You are not going to Seattle until the police stop whatever it is that is going on there. I know Beth Crowley has told Tyler the same thing, so don't act like I'm the bad guy - oh, good morning, Bella," she said when she caught sight of me, brightening her tone quickly. "You're early."
Karen Newton was the last person I'd think to ask for help in an outdoor sports equipment store. Her perfectly highlighted blond hair was always smoothed into an elegant twist on the back of her neck, her fingernails were polished by professionals, as were her toenails - visible through the strappy high heels that didn't resemble anything Newton's offered on the long row of hiking boots.
"Light traffic," I joked as I grabbed my hideous fluorescent orange vest out from under the counter. I was surprised that Mrs. Newton was as worked up about this Seattle thing as Charlie. I'd thought he was going to extremes.
"Well, er . . ." Mrs. Newton hesitated for a moment, playing uncomfortably with a stack of flyers she was arranging by the register.
I stopped with one arm in my vest. I knew that look.
When I'd let the Newtons know that I wouldn't be working here this summer - abandoning them in their busiest season, in effect - they'd started training Katie Marshall to take my place. They couldn't really afford both of us on the payroll at the same time, so when it looked like a slow day . . .
"I was going to call," Mrs. Newton continued. "I don't think we're expecting a ton of business today. Mike and I can probably handle things. I'm sorry you got up and drove out. . . ."
On a normal day, I would be ecstatic with this turn of events. Today . . . not so much.
"Okay," I sighed. My shoulders slumped. What was I going to do now?
"That's not fair, Mom," Mike said. "If Bella wants to work -"
"No, it's okay, Mrs. Newton. Really, Mike. I've got finals to study for and stuff. . . ." I didn't want to be a source of familial discord when they were already arguing.
"Thanks, Bella. Mike, you missed aisle four. Um, Bella, do you mind throwing these flyers in a Dumpster on the way out? I told the girl who left them here that I'd put them on the counter, but I really don't have the room."
"Sure, no problem." I put my vest away, and then tucked the flyers under my arm and headed out into the misty rain.
The Dumpster was around the side of Newton's, next to where we employees were supposed to park. I shuffled along, kicking pebbles petulantly on my way. I was about to fling the stack of bright yellow papers into the trash when the heading printed in bold across the top caught my eye. One word in particular seized my attention.
I clutched the papers in both hands as I stared at the picture beneath the caption. A lump rose in my throat.
SAVE THE OLYMPIC WOLF
Under the words, there was a detailed drawing of a wolf in front of a fir tree, its head thrown back in the act of baying at the moon. It was a disconcerting picture; something about the wolf's plaintive posture made him look forlorn. Like he was howling in grief.
And then I was running to my truck, the flyers still locked in my grip.
Fifteen minutes - that's all I had. But it should be long enough. It was only fifteen minutes to La Push, and surely I would cross the boundary line a few minutes before I hit the town.
My truck roared to life without any difficulty.
Alice couldn't have seen me doing this, because I hadn't been planning it. A snap decision, that was the key! And as long as I moved fast enough, I should be able to capitalize on it.
I'd thrown the damp flyers in my haste and they were scattered in a bright mess across the passenger seat - a hundred bolded captions, a hundred dark howling wolves outlined against the yellow background.
I barreled down the wet highway, turning the windshield wipers on high and ignoring the groan of the ancient engine. Fifty-five was the most I could coax out of my truck, and I prayed it would be enough.
I had no clue where the boundary line was, but I began to feel safer as I passed the first houses outside La Push. This must be beyond where Alice was allowed to follow.
I'd call her when I got to Angela's this afternoon, I reasoned, so that she'd know I was fine. There was no reason for her to get worked up. She didn't need to be mad at me - Edward would be angry enough for two when he got back.
My truck was positively wheezing by the time it grated to a stop in front of the familiar faded red house. The lump came back to my throat as I stared at the little place that had once been my refuge. It had been so long since I'd been here.
Before I could cut the engine, Jacob was standing in the door, his face blank with shock.
In the sudden silence when the truck-roar died, I heard him gasp.
"Bella!" he yelled back, and the smile I'd been waiting for stretched across his face like the sun breaking free of the clouds. His teeth gleamed bright against his russet skin. "I can't believe it!"
He ran to the truck and half-yanked me through the open door, and then we were both jumping up and down like kids.
"How did you get here?"
"I snuck out!"
"Hey, Bella!" Billy had rolled himself into the doorway to see what all the commotion was about.
"Hey, Bil -!"
Just then my air choked off - Jacob grabbed me up in a bear hug too tight to breathe and swung me around in a circle.
"Wow, it's good to see you here!"
"Can't . . . breathe," I gasped.
He laughed and put me down.
"Welcome back, Bella," he said, grinning. And the way he said the words made it sound like welcome home.
We started walking, too keyed up to sit still in the house. Jacob was practically bouncing as he moved, and I had to remind him a few times that my legs weren't ten feet long.
As we walked, I felt myself settling into another version of myself, the self I had been with Jacob. A little younger, a little less responsible. Someone who might, on occasion, do something really stupid for no good reason.
Our exuberance lasted through the first few topics of conversation: how we were doing, what we were up to, how long I had, and what had brought me here. When I hesitantly told him about the wolf flyer, his bellowing laugh echoed back from the trees.
But then, as we ambled past the back of the store and shoved through the thick scrub that ringed the far edge of First Beach, we got to the hard parts. All too soon we had to talk about the reasons behind our long separation, and I watched as the face of my friend hardened into the bitter mask that was already too familiar.
"So what's the story, anyway?" Jacob asked me, kicking a piece of driftwood out of his way with too much force. It sailed over the sand and then clattered against the rocks. "I mean, since the last time we . . . well, before, you know . . ." He struggled for the words. He took a deep breath and tried again. "What I'm asking is . . . everything is just back to the way it was before he left? You forgave him for all of that?"
I took a deep breath. "There was nothing to forgive."
I wanted to skip past this part, the betrayals, the accusations, but I knew that we had to talk it through before we'd be able to move on to anything else.
Jacob's face puckered up like he'd just licked a lemon. "I wish Sam had taken a picture when he found you that night last September. It would be exhibit A."
"Nobody's on trial."
"Maybe somebody should be."
"Not even you would blame him for leaving, if you knew the reason why."
He glared at me for a few seconds. "Okay," he challenged acidly. "Amaze me."
His hostility was wearing on me - chafing against the raw; it hurt to have him angry with me. It reminded me of the bleak afternoon, long ago, when - under orders from Sam - he'd told me we couldn't be friends. I took a second to compose myself.
"Edward left me last fall because he didn't think I should be hanging out with vampires. He thought it would be healthier for me if he left."
Jacob did a double take. He had to scramble for a minute. Whatever he'd been planning to say, it clearly no longer applied. I was glad he didn't know the catalyst behind Edward's decision. I could only imagine what he'd think if he knew Jasper had tried to kill me.
"He came back, though, didn't he?" Jacob muttered. "Too bad he can't stick to a decision."
"If you remember, I went and got him."Jacob stared at me for a moment, and then he backed off. His face relaxed, and his voice was calmer when he spoke.
"That's true. So I never did get the story. What happened?"
I hesitated, biting my lip.
"Is it a secret?" His voice took on a taunting edge. "Are you not allowed to tell me?"
"No," I snapped. "It's just a really long story."
Jacob smiled, arrogant, and turned to walk up the beach, expecting me to follow.
It was no fun being with Jacob if he was going to act like this. I trailed behind him automatically, not sure if I shouldn't turn around and leave. I was going to have to face Alice, though, when I got home. . . . I supposed I wasn't in any rush.
Jacob walked to a huge, familiar piece of driftwood - an entire tree, roots and all, bleached white and beached deep in the sand; it was our tree, in a way.
Jacob sat down on the natural bench, and patted the space next to him.
"I don't mind long stories. Is there any action?"
I rolled my eyes as I sat next to him. "There's some action," I allowed.
"It wouldn't be real horror without action."
"Horror!" I scoffed. "Can you listen, or will you be interrupting me with rude comments about my friends? "
He pretended to lock his lips and then threw the invisible key over his shoulder. I tried not to smile, and failed.
"I'll have to start with the stuff you were already there for," I decided, working to organize the stories in my head before I began.
Jacob raised his hand.
"That's good," he said. "I didn't understand much that was going on at the time."
"Yeah, well, it gets complicated, so pay attention. You know how Alice sees things?"
I took his scowl - the wolves weren't thrilled that the legends of vampires possessing supernatural gifts were true - for a yes, and proceeded with the account of my race through Italy to rescue Edward.
I kept it as succinct as possible - leaving out anything that wasn't essential. I tried to read Jacob's reactions, but his face was enigmatic as I explained how Alice had seen Edward plan to kill himself when he'd heard that I was dead. Sometimes Jacob seemed so deep in thought, I wasn't sure if he was listening. He only interrupted one time.
"The fortune-telling bloodsucker can't see us?" he echoed, his face both fierce and gleeful. "Seriously? That's excellent!"
I clenched my teeth together, and we sat in silence, his face expectant as he waited for me to continue. I glared at him until he realized his mistake.
"Oops!" he said. "Sorry." He locked his lips again.
His response was easier to read when I got to the part about the Volturi. His teeth clenched together, goose bumps rose on his arms, and his nostrils flared. I didn't go into specifics, I just told him that Edward had talked us out of trouble, without revealing the promise we'd had to make, or the visit we were anticipating. Jacob didn't need to have my nightmares.
"Now you know the whole story," I concluded. "So it's your turn to talk. What happened while I was with my mom this weekend?" I knew Jacob would give me more details than Edward had. He wasn't afraid of scaring me.
Jacob leaned forward, instantly animated. "So Embry and Quil and I were running patrol on Saturday night, just routine stuff, when out of nowhere - bam!" He threw his arms out, impersonating an explosion. "There it is - a fresh trail, not fifteen minutes old. Sam wanted us to wait for him, but I didn't know you were gone, and I didn't know if your bloodsuckers were keeping an eye on you or not. So we took off after her at full speed, but she'd crossed the treaty line before we caught up. We spread out along the line, hoping she'd cross back over. It was frustrating, let me tell you." He wagged his head and his hair - growing out from the short crop he'd adopted when he'd joined the pack - flopped into his eyes. "We ended up too far south. The Cullens chased her back to our side just a few miles north of us. Would have been the perfect ambush if we'd known where to wait."
He shook his head, grimacing now. "That's when it got dicey. Sam and the others caught up to her before we did, but she was dancing right along the line, and the whole coven was right there on the other side. The big one, what's-his-name -"
"Yeah, him. He made a lunge for her, but that redhead is fast! He flew right behind her and almost rammed into Paul. So, Paul . . . well, you know Paul."
"Lost his focus. Can't say that I blame him - the big bloodsucker was right on top of him. He sprang - hey, don't give me that look. The vampire was on our land."
I tried to compose my face so that he would go on. My nails were digging into my palms with the stress of the story, even though I knew it had turned out fine.
"Anyway, Paul missed, and the big one got back on his side. But by then the, er, well the, uh, blonde . . ." Jacob's expression was a comical mix of disgust and unwilling admiration as he tried to come up with a word to describe Edward's sister.
"Whatever. She got real territorial, so Sam and I fell back to get Paul's flanks. Then their leader and the other blond male -"
"Carlisle and Jasper."
He gave me an exasperated look. "You know I don't really care. Anyway, so Carlisle spoke to Sam, trying to calm things down. Then it was weird, because everyone got really calm really fast. It was that other one you told me about, messing with our heads. But even though we knew what he was doing, we couldn't not be calm."
"Yeah, I know how it feels."
"Really annoying, that's how it feels. Only you can't be annoyed until afterwards." He shook his head angrily. "So Sam and the head vamp agreed that Victoria was the priority, and we started after her again. Carlisle gave us the line, so that we could follow the scent properly, but then she hit the cliffs just north of Makah country, right where the line hugs the coast for a few miles. She took off into the water again. The big one and the calm one wanted permission to cross the line to go after her, but of course we said no."
"Good. I mean, you were being stupid, but I'm glad. Emmett's never cautious enough. He could have gotten hurt."
Jacob snorted. "So did your vampire tell you we attacked for no reason and his totally innocent coven -"
"No," I interrupted. "Edward told me the same story, just without quite as many details."
"Huh," Jacob said under his breath, and he bent over to pick up a rock from among the millions of pebbles at our feet. With a casual flick, he sent it flying a good hundred meters out into the bay. "Well, she'll be back, I guess. We'll get another shot at her."
I shuddered; of course she would be back. Would Edward really tell me next time? I wasn't sure. I'd have to keep an eye on Alice, to look for the signs that the pattern was about to repeat. . . .
Jacob didn't seem to notice my reaction. He was staring across the waves with a thoughtful expression on his face, his broad lips pursed.
"What are you thinking about?" I asked after a long, quiet time.
"I'm thinking about what you told me. About when the fortune-teller saw you cliff jumping and thought you'd committed suicide, and how it all got out of control. . . . Do you realize that if you had just waited for me like you were supposed to, then the bl - Alice wouldn't have been able to see you jump? Nothing would have changed. We'd probably be in my garage right now, like any other Saturday. There wouldn't be any vampires in Forks, and you and me . . ." He trailed off, deep in thought.
It was disconcerting the way he said this, like it would be a good thing to have no vampires in Forks. My heart thumped unevenly at the emptiness of the picture he painted.
"Edward would have come back anyway."
"Are you sure about that?" he asked, belligerent again as soon as I spoke Edward's name.
"Being apart . . . It didn't work out so well for either of us."
He started to say something, something angry from his expression, but he stopped himself, took a breath, and began again.
"Did you know Sam is mad at you?"
"Me?" It took me a second. "Oh. I see. He thinks they would have stayed away if I wasn't here."
"No. That's not it."
"What's his problem then?"
Jacob leaned down to scoop up another rock. He turned it over and over in his fingers; his eyes were riveted on the black stone while he spoke in a low voice.
"When Sam saw . . . how you were in the beginning, when Billy told them how Charlie worried when you didn't get better, and then when you started jumping off cliffs . . ."
I made a face. No one was ever going to let me forget that.
Jacob's eyes flashed up to mine. "He thought you were the one person in the world with as much reason to hate the Cullens as he does. Sam feels sort of . . . betrayed that you would just let them back into your life like they never hurt you."
I didn't believe for a second that Sam was the only one who felt that way. And the acid in my voice now was for both of them.
"You can tell Sam to go right to -"
"Look at that," Jacob interrupted me, pointing to an eagle in the act of plummeting down toward the ocean from an incredible height. It checked itself at the last minute, only its talons breaking the surface of the waves, just for an instant. Then it flapped away, its wings straining against the load of the huge fish it had snagged.
"You see it everywhere," Jacob said, his voice suddenly distant. "Nature taking its course - hunter and prey, the endless cycle of life and death."
I didn't understand the point of the nature lecture; I guessed that he was just trying to change the subject. But then he looked down at me with dark humor in his eyes.
"And yet, you don't see the fish trying to plant a kiss on the eagle. You never see that." He grinned a mocking grin.
I grinned back tightly, though the acid taste was still in my mouth. "Maybe the fish was trying," I suggested. "It's hard to tell what a fish is thinking. Eagles are good-looking birds, you know."
"Is that what it comes down to?" His voice was abruptly sharper. "Good looks?"
"Don't be stupid, Jacob."
"Is it the money, then?" he persisted.
"That's nice," I muttered, getting up from the tree. "I'm flattered that you think so much of me." I turned my back on him and paced away.
"Aw, don't get mad." He was right behind me; he caught my wrist and spun me around. "I'm serious! I'm trying to understand here, and I'm coming up blank."
His eyebrows pushed together angrily, and his eyes were black in their deep shadow.
"I love him. Not because he's beautiful or because he's rich!" I spat the word at Jacob. "I'd much rather he weren't either one. It would even out the gap between us just a little bit - because he'd still be the most loving and unselfish and brilliant and decent person I've ever met. Of course I love him. How hard is that to understand?"
"It's impossible to understand."
"Please enlighten me, then, Jacob." I let the sarcasm flow thick. "What is a valid reason for someone to love someone else? Since apparently I'm doing it wrong."
"I think the best place to start would be to look within your own species. That usually works."
"Well, that just sucks!" I snapped. "I guess I'm stuck with Mike Newton after all."
Jacob flinched back and bit his lip. I could see that my words had hurt him, but I was too mad to feel bad about that yet. He dropped my wrist and folded his arms across his chest, turning from me to glare toward the ocean.
"I'm human," he muttered, his voice almost inaudible.
"You're not as human as Mike," I continued ruthlessly. "Do you still think that's the most important consideration?"
"It's not the same thing." Jacob didn't look away from the gray waves. "I didn't choose this."
I laughed once in disbelief. "Do you think Edward did? He didn't know what was happening to him any more than you did. He didn't exactly sign up for this."
Jacob was shaking his head back and forth with a small, quick movement.
"You know, Jacob, you're awfully self-righteous - considering that you're a werewolf and all."
"It's not the same," Jacob repeated, glowering at me.
"I don't see why not. You could be a bit more understanding about the Cullens. You have no idea how truly good they are - to the core, Jacob."
He frowned more deeply. "They shouldn't exist. Their existence goes against nature."
I stared at him for a long moment with one eyebrow raised incredulously. It was a while before he noticed.
"Speaking of unnatural . . . ," I hinted.
"Bella," he said, his voice slow and different. Aged. I realized that he sounded suddenly older than me - like a parent or a teacher. "What I am was born in me. It's a part of who I am, who my family is, who we all are as a tribe - it's the reason why we're still here.
"Besides that" - he looked down at me, his black eyes unreadable - "I am stillhuman."
He picked up my hand and pressed it to his fever-warm chest. Through his t-shirt, I could feel the steady beating of his heart under my palm.
"Normal humans can't throw motorcycles around the way you can."
He smiled a faint, half-smile. "Normal humans run away from monsters, Bella. And I never claimed to be normal. Just human."
Staying angry with Jacob was too much work. I started to smile as I pulled my hand away from his chest.
"You look plenty human to me," I allowed. "At the moment."
"I feel human." He stared past me, his face far away. His lower lip trembled, and he bit down on it hard.
"Oh, Jake," I whispered, reaching for his hand.
This was why I was here. This was why I would take whatever reception waited for me when I got back. Because, underneath all the anger and the sarcasm, Jacob was in pain. Right now, it was very clear in his eyes. I didn't know how to help him, but I knew I had to try. It was more than that I owed him. It was because his pain hurt me, too. Jacob had become a part of me, and there was no changing that now.