I woke up from tonight's nightmare, my scream echoing in my mind. I wasn't surprised by it, of course. Not now. With Jacob's Sam-face hard behind my eyes, I wondered if I'd ever again have a night of peace.
I was clutching my blanket like a baby. "Ugh!" Disgusted with myself, I threw it across the room so that it landed in my old rocking chair. Edward's chair.
I managed to think his name without choking; that was something. Rolling myself up into a ball, I refused to think of the nightmare. The forest. The wet, dark greens. The endless heart-emptiness...
"No..." I heard myself whimper.
Music. I'd put on some music. But wait... I had no more music. I think I got rid of it. Something new. I'd buy something new. Some album that – that he never heard... Was there one?
I needed something to distract myself! I couldn't go back to that forest in my memory. No! I wiped my face dry and made myself get up to go to the window. Opened it. Stuck my head out into the rain-dampened air. I needed something... Something... After Edward left, I let myself drift away... Couldn't do that again; Charlie'd lock me up for sure. Send me to a hospital, maybe. He said I needed to see a shrink.
As if that'd help. No. I had to be my own shrink.
A step, quiet as a whisper, landed on the roof and I froze.
Laurent... Victoria... My jaw clamped tight against a high-pitched shriek. If it were one of them... I had to keep Charlie safe. I had to! No matter what.. No matter what!
My breathing hitched. My heart was pounding, like a drumming signal to whichever of the vampires were hunting. A strobe light that said, Here she is! Dinner time! I stayed right there by the window, fighting the instinct that said I had to flee. Fighting it! I couldn't leave my room. They'd chase me and find Charlie anyway and then –
Wait. What if I jumped from my window...? I wouldn't get anywhere after that, but at least they wouldn't be in my house...wouldn't be after Charlie... I had to hurry!
Hyperventilating, my throat dry in panic, I pushed my hair out of my face, fit myself into my window and prepared to jump. I would definitely break a bone... But that pain would be less, I was sure, than whatever either of them had planned for me. And short-lived. If Laurent were out there...
Tears in my eyes, I whispered a goodbye to my father, snoring in the next room. "I love you, Dad," I breathed before inhaling and flinging myself from the window, trying to land somewhere that wasn't on the walk. If I could make it to the grass...
Ha! My delusion found me as I leapt, and even in my terror, I had to smile. Adrenaline and stupidity, of course! But then, a nanosecond later, I felt cold arms catch me and roll with me to the ground, in a strangely familiar iron cage.
"Bella... Oh, my Bella, what were you doing?" Anger and relief and heartbreak and confusion wrapped in dark, throbbing velvet. My heart stopped. I shook my head and tried to escape the delusion, tried to jam my fists in my eyes, but I couldn't move my arms!
"Let me go!" I demanded. The cage opened instantly and I scrambled out, my breath coming in short, hard, disbelieving gasps. "Who? How? Edward? No," I muttered, turning from the far-too-real manifestation of my mental instability. "No... Maybe I died?"
"No!" The denial was vehement and almost simultaneously accompanied by his face next to mine. "You're not dead, Bella. What were you thinking?"
The anger was familiar – straight from my delusions. I turned to him, then backed away. "I was only thinking of getting away. To keep Charlie safe," I whispered. Edward... It was him. Here. After all these months... "I thought – I thought you were someone else?" It was a statement, it was a question. "What – what are you doing here?" He didn't want me anymore. I knew that. What was he doing?
One long, white hand moved slowly to my face. I flinched; I couldn't bear it. No. I had spent months... Months... Not remembering. Not thinking of his touch. Not thinking of the so-delicious aroma that wafted from his body. I couldn't bear to have to learn how to forget it all again. No. His hand dropped.
I backed farther away, my foot slipping on the damp grass so that I stumbled. He caught me, his face a grief-stricken mask of itself, before letting me go as soon as I was safely upright. "Bella... I'm so sorry." I just stared at him, still not entirely convinced I hadn't died and was now in some other place, some strange place that I didn't recognize. "I – I couldn't keep my promise to you. I tried, believe me, but – I'm not strong enough," he whispered. "I had to see you."
"Okay," I breathed, uncertain if this were truly an extension of my dream or not. "Now you have. Are you going away again?" He reacted to that by crumpling to his knees, right there on the grass. Now, I knew I was awake. "Edward? Are you all right?" Edward? On his knees? No, I couldn't conjure this up on my own.
He held up a hand, not looking at me. "Are you all right?" he rasped.
I gasped; surely he was joking. "Hardly. But don't worry; I'm not blaming you. It isn't your fault that I'm probably mental." Probably? No. Surely. Quantifiably. "You?"
His breath came out in a ragged sound that compelled me to draw nearer to him, against my reason and judgment. "Actually, I am. Better, anyway, than I have been." He inhaled deeply. "Still the same." At last, he lifted his eyes – dark, anxious wells of emotion – to meet mine. "I'm blaming myself," he whispered. "Please don't send me away."
I knelt beside him, worried about him. He appeared... incapacitated, which was completely impossible. "All right. I won't," I said, hoping he'd snap out of whatever it was that had him hunched in on himself like this. He did relax, then. Relax and shake himself a little before sitting more naturally on the wet grass. I did not join him, preferring not to get wet. I saw something fly across the sky, casting a vague shadow over us, and I shuddered.
Edward was on his feet in a moment. "Wait. You were jumping. You were trying to keep Charlie safe, you said." He scanned the sky, the treeline, and then eyed my window narrowly. "What is it?" After inhaling deeply of the air, he stiffened and pulled me against himself. "How? No..." His whispered denial was sharp. "Bella..."
"Do you smell them?" I gasped, suddenly terrified since he seemed to see – smell – the danger, too.
"I had no idea they'd returned," he murmured, clutching at me as if he would sweep me away. "Bella, love, I'm so sorry. How could I leave you open to the dangers of those... Those..."
"Well, some giant wolves chased Laurent away, the last time," I told him. "I guess my luck changed on that one day, anyway." I shivered, though. "I just didn't want to count on it again, you know? What with him and Victoria still out there..."
"What?" He spun me around and gripped my shoulders almost but not quite painfully. "Wolves? You know about the werewolves?" he whispered harshly. "Their scent is all over your yard. Surrounds the house, Bella..."
"Huh?" Confused and feeling the grip of his fingers, now, I shrugged his hands off my shoulders. "No. I only know about the damn vampires. Victoria wants me. And Laurent..." I shuddered, remembering his face and voice in Edward's meadow. "Laurent was in your meadow, and he was thirsty..."
Edward's groan etched itself into my marrow. "What have I done?" he asked the sky. "I only wanted you to be safe," he told me, sounding broken. "Apparently, I can't do anything right where you're concerned."
Belatedly, a word struck me. "Werewolves? What?"
He wrapped an arm around me in a swift motion that was too familiar and too heartbreaking. "You didn't know?"
"No, I said I didn't. What are you...?"
"Dangerous creatures. They – they must have taken advantage of our absence to be here... I wonder why..."
I took advantage of his distraction to tear myself from his stony embrace. Oh, my body craved it, but my mind couldn't allow itself to become accustomed to it, and my heart wasn't anywhere near ready to stand another assault on its loosely-stitched pieces. I turned to a distraction of my own. "So you didn't catch any, um, scent of Victoria or Laurent?"
"No! But I swear to you, Bella, I'll –"
"No!" I half-shouted, my hands up as if to protect my face. "No. I can't take any promises from you." He turned suddenly focused eyes on me fully, their power no less than it had ever been as he stepped nearer to me, hand outstretched as if to plead with me. I shook my head and closed my eyes; I had never been able to resist that gaze. "Edward," I whispered, "please. Just tell me why you're here and go, so I can try to pull myself back together again."
His silence was heavy, roiling, and I had to open my eyes and look at him. Too long, I'd managed to live – well, to exist, anyway – without the vision of that perfect face in front of me. And now, that perfection was... not marred, really, but made painful and poignant with his own obvious internal struggle.
"It didn't help you at all, did it? My leaving."
"Help me? That's not why you left, Edward." Disappointed, I turned to go back to the house. It was obvious that neither of my vampire stalkers were there, and I felt strangely vulnerable in front of the house in my pajamas.
The two words stopped me on the mist-wet grass, compelling me to turn slowly around to see his face, see his outstretched hand, see him, halted too, mid-step. "Lied?"
He took another step toward me, slowly, as if afraid I'd panic. "Bella, I'm so sorry," he whispered – the sound broken, like my heart. "I love you. I only wanted you to be – to be able to be safe. Your well-being, preserving your life, is all that could keep me from you."
I was shaking, threatening to shatter into a million pieces, my heart vibrating wildly in some strange flurry of emotion that I couldn't comprehend. "Safe?" I thought of my descent into catatonia, the cloud of depression, the vampires... "Epic fail, Edward Cullen," I managed to whisper. "You really need to check your definitions again, you know? I've got a dictionary you could use." I stood there, standing with my jaw hanging ridiculously open. "Safe? My life? How many times has my life been threatened since you left? Did you think I fell off the Victoria's radar because you weren't here? Laurent thought your family kept me as a pet, Edward. A pet!" He flinched. "You know, in Phoenix, we had snowbirds. People who lived their winters in the desert. They'd have pets, too. And sometimes, when they left Phoenix to go back to their homes in the north, they'd leave their pets behind. I guess Laurent just understood that better than I did."
"Bella, no!" he protested, anguish accenting out his vowels. "It wasn't like that. You have to know that. Stop it, please, Bella!"
"No. I'm not a pet. I'm human, remember? And I belong to no one." I managed to get that out with only a couple of breaks in my voice, but I was proud of myself for saying it at all. Proud and realizing that I could do this. I stood up straighter, ignoring how cold it was. Ignoring my state of near-undress. "I belong to no one," I said again.
"I do," he rasped. "I belong to you."
I snorted. "Sure. That's why you left me, right? Sure. That's why you didn't stay when you promised. When I needed you. You don't know how to belong to anyone, Edward."
From somewhere, I found the will to turn my back on him. To start walking away. But doing so...hurt. Like the holes in myself multiplied. My body would fall apart, right here in the yard. Instead of wet grass, my feet felt like they were stepping on shards of glass, the pain echoing within me. Pain. Fear. Distrust. But still... That need for him. That yearning.
And the shaft of joy I felt when I realized I wasn't dreaming.
"Bella... Please don't leave me."
And then, I remembered the delusions. That voice...
That voice was pleading with me now, and I held absolutely still for a moment.
"Bella," he said, his voice tense and anxious as he took another slow step closer to me. "I love you," he told me again, the honeyed voice cracking with emotion. "I've always loved you. I always will."
Could I dare believe it? Could I dare believe him? I felt light-headed. Over-oxygenated. Something. He held still, his hand yet extended to me. Tentatively, I reached for it. Slowly. Almost but not quite afraid.
Not quite, for I loved him. I had never stopped loving him.
I could hear his breath, when he caught my fingers in his. Could hear the catch in it, the small moan in the back of his throat. A desperate sound. Something I had never thought to hear. Ever. Not from him. It sounded far too much like me... I took another step nearer to him, my fingers sliding more surely into his cold, diamond-hard hand.
He was bringing his other hand up to me, was moving slowly, so slowly, and then we heard it – a many-throated growl that ripped the air! It could have mown down trees with its edges. Edward grabbed me and threw me behind himself, spreading his arms in a defensive posture as an enormous wolf ran by us.
But that didn't help much. Behind me there were two more wolves. And one man. A young man who'd had a growth spurt.
"I got ya, Bells."
"Jake! What on earth –?"
He was running, having scooped me up in his arms. "Hang on, honey, you're fine, now."
"Put me DOWN, Jacob Black!" I was furious. Started hitting his shoulders with everything I had. And then, I screamed –
And then, I heard the most horrific sound. Worse than the tree-mowing roar, there was a rippling, burning, furious grinding growl that seemed to make the air shiver.
"Let. Her. Go."
Edward was surrounded by three enormous wolves. He crouched like something vaguely feline; menace rippled around him and I was fixated. Fascinated. Freaked out. I stopped struggling in Jacob's arms, too, because I had the feeling that anything I did would cause this intensely volatile situation to escalate.
Jake didn't seem afraid at all. His arms were heated iron bands of restraint, making sure I stayed next to him.
I was terrified by the wolves. My mouth was dry with the strength of it. "Jake?" I finally rasped, because he was my friend, even if he was holding me prisoner. "What are they? And what are they doing here?"
Before Jacob said anything, Edward growled again. "You really don't want to start this, Jacob Black." The wolves growled and crouched, as if they'd were going to pounce.
"Stop it!" I shouted. "Just stop. I don't know what the hell is going on, but it has to stop. Now!"
Jacob still held me. I wanted to squirm out of his arms, but I couldn't; he was too strong. Edward kept his eyes on me. Finally, Jacob relented.
"All right, guys. Back off. Can't screw with the treaty."
"Treaty?" I twisted and tried to get out of Jake's way-too-hot arms. Besides, I was still in my pajamas, for Pete's sake, and against Jacob's half-naked body, I felt really, really uncomfortable.
Edward had been used to seeing me in this state, so I didn't mind that so much that he could see me. Still, my camisole hitched up as I struggled and the waistband of my shorts slipped down and I finally quit. I'd struggle myself naked if I didn't stop.
Totally didn't need that. I still had a vampire, my feverish friend, and a yard of wolves to contend with.
It was too much. I blacked out.
I woke up.
Bitter whispers. Biting edges of half-heard accusations.
"You decided to come back?"
"You didn't tell her?"
"Leave her the hell alone!" That last was said by both of them and it was when I finally had enough.
"Yes! Leave me the hell alone! Both of you!" My shout wasn't as powerful as it could have been, since I was intimidated by our current circumstances, but at least they shut up. I glared at them both.
Jacob still held me, his arms sheltering but too much so. Edward sat facing him, all of us on the damp grass. I could feel the chill in the air and was glad, just then, that it was Jacob who had his arms around me; his body was so warm. Almost too warm. And then I became uneasy, because whereas he did hold me, there was far too much of my bare skin in contact with his. Skin that only Edward had touched before.
"Explain," I demanded of either of them. They both just glared at one another. I squirmed in Jacob's quasi-embrace. "Explain. Now. Or I'm going right back inside and checking myself into a hospital and then no one has any secrets. Not anymore."
It was an idle threat, but neither of them knew that. I hoped.
It may have been idle. But it worked. Under the freshening light of the moon, Edward's face was stern. "Please believe me, Bella, that I had no idea that the, the werewolves had returned. If I had known..." A growl rumbled in his otherwise silent chest. "If I had known, I could not have left. I wouldn't have left you."
Jacob's rebuttal was immediate. "We're not the ones who left her unprotected, leech. We took care of that bloodsucker in the clearing. We did. And we'll take care of you, too, if you even think –"
"Wait!" I turned in Jake's arms to get his attention. "You got Laurent? You, you took care of him? What?"
The hard lines of his face briefly relaxed and he touched his forehead to mine. "Yeah, Bells. We got him. It's what we're made for. Me and my brothers."
Why hadn't I understood before? How could I possibly have missed it? "You're... You're one of them...? One of the werewolves?" Terror had me leaping out of his arms and skidding again on the wet grass. Edward caught me this time, but I flinched from him as well.
"Bella!" they both called. Then they glared at each other and all of a sudden, my brain had had it.
I started laughing. Gasping for breath and bending over and all but convulsing in sheer excess of disbelief.
"How. Did. I. Wind. Up. In. A FAIRY TALE!"
Edward and Jacob hopped up simultaneously, their movements so eerily in synch that I tossed up my hands. They weren't looking at me, though. They were looking at the house.
"Damn," I muttered. Just when Edward and Jacob did.
The giggles consumed me again and I knew that the padded hospital room wasn't far away.
"Isabella Swan!" Charlie hissed out my open window. "You will get yourself inside and you will explain yourself right the hell now. Or you will be on the next flight to Jacksonville!" The sound of a slug sliding into his rifle came next. An ominously smooth sound. Businesslike. Dangerous.
"I guess," I muttered loudly enough that I knew vampire ears could hear me – and probably werewolf ears, too – "I guess it's a good thing two of us are supernatural, huh? When do I get to be in this gig? When is it my turn?"
"I heard you, Ch - Dad. I'm coming."
"Jacob? Is that you?"
Jake had stood motionless while my dad had his small tirade. "Yeah, Charlie. It's me."
Charlie lowered the barrel of the rifle. "Does Billy know you're here?"
Both Jake and Edward snorted. "Yeah, he does." It was probably even true, come to think of it. Billy had been weird about Edward and he was a tribal elder.
Ignoring my dad for a moment, I turned and faced the werewolf and vampire in my yard. "This is so not over," I told them in a decisive hiss.
Edward made a slight movement forward, even under Charlie's watchful gaze and aimed shotgun. "Bella... Please..."
"I believe you," I muttered. "But that doesn't make it okay. You just remember that. And Jake? That is the last time you manhandle me without my permission."
"Isabella Marie Swan!"
Jake chuckled softly. "Better go, Bells. You've been middle-named!"
"I'm coming, Dad. Just telling the guys goodnight." I glared at each of them, wrapped my arms around myself, and stomped through the grass to the door. "Good. Night!"
"What the hell was all that about, Bells?" Charlie called from the landing.
"Boys are idiots, Dad. All of them."
He safetied the shotgun. "Yeah, well, you just keep thinking that Bells. I'll sleep better."
I could have sworn I'd be too wound up to possibly sleep that night, but I was wrong. One hot shower and the understood presence of two angry guardians were enough, at last, to keep the nightmares away.