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—ugh—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—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—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?”
“I’m 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,” 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—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 ?”
“I’m 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 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—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.”
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—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—“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.
“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?”
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—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—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—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—“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—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—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—shinier. She saw me appraising and gave me a grin.
“How’s the rib?” I asked.
“Taped up nice and tight. I don’t even feel it.”
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.
“I’ll 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.
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—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—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—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.
“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?
“Um, 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—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.