"ARE YOU OKAY, JAKE? CHARLIE SAID YOU WERE HAVING a hard time. . . . Isn't it getting any better?"
His warm hand curled around mine. "'S not so bad," he said, but he wouldn't meet my eyes.
He walked slowly back to the driftwood bench, staring at the rainbow-colored pebbles, and pulling me along at his side. I sat back down on our tree, but he sat on the wet, rocky ground rather than next to me. I wondered if it was so that he could hide his face more easily. He kept my hand.
I started babbling to fillthe silence. "It's been so long since I was here. I've probably missed a ton of things. How are Sam and Emily? And Embry? Did Quil -?"
I broke off mid-sentence, remembering that Jacob's friend Quil had been a sensitive subject.
"Ah, Quil," Jacob sighed.
So then it must have happened - Quil must have joined the pack.
"I'm sorry," I mumbled.
To my surprise, Jacob snorted. "Don't say that to him."
"What do you mean?"
"Quil's not looking for pity. Just the opposite - he's jazzed. Totally thrilled."
This made no sense to me. All the other wolves had been so depressed at the idea of their friend sharing their fate. "Huh?"
Jacob tilted his head back to look at me. He smiled and rolled his eyes.
"Quil thinks it's the coolest thing that's ever happened to him. Part of it is finally knowing what's going on. And he's excited to have his friends back - to be part of the 'in crowd.'" Jacob snorted again. "Shouldn't be surprised, I guess. It's so Quil."
"He likes it?"
"Honestly . . . most of them do," Jacob admitted slowly. "There are definitely good sides to this - the speed, the freedom, the strength . . . the sense of - of family. . . . Sam and I are the only ones who ever felt really bitter. And Sam got past that a long time ago. So I'm the crybaby now." Jacob laughed at himself.
There were so many things I wanted to know. "Why are you and Sam different? What happened to Sam anyway? What's his problem?" The questions tumbled out without room to answer them, and Jacob laughed again.
"That's a long story."
"I told you a long story. Besides, I'm not in any hurry to get back," I said, and then I grimaced as I thought of the trouble I would be in.
He looked up at me swiftly, hearing the double edge in my words. "Will he be mad at you?"
"Yes," I admitted. "He really hates it when I do things he considers . . . risky."
"Like hanging out with werewolves."
Jacob shrugged. "So don't go back. I'll sleep on the couch."
"That's a great idea," I grumbled. "Because then he would come looking for me."
Jacob stiffened, and then smiled bleakly. "Would he?"
"If he was afraid I was hurt or something - probably."
"My idea's sounding better all the time."
"Please, Jake. That really bugs me."
"That you two are so ready to kill each other!" I complained. "It makes me crazy. Why can't you both just be civilized?"
"Is he ready to kill me?" Jacob asked with a grim smile, unconcerned by my anger.
"Not like you seem to be!" I realized I was yelling. "At least he can be a grown-up about this. He knows that hurting you would hurt me - and so he never would. You don't seem to care about that at all!"
"Yeah, right," Jacob muttered. "I'm sure he's quite the pacifist."
"Ugh!" I ripped my hand out of his and shoved his head away. Then I pulled my knees up to my chest and wrapped my arms tightly around them.
I glared out toward the horizon, fuming.
Jacob was quiet for a few minutes. Finally, he got up off the ground and sat beside me, putting his arm around my shoulders. I shook it off.
"Sorry," he said quietly. "I'll try to behave myself."
I didn't answer.
"Do you still want to hear about Sam?" he offered.
"Like I said, it's a long story. And very . . . strange. There're so many strange things about this new life. I haven't had time to tell you the half of it. And this thing with Sam - well, I don't know if I'll even be able to explain it right."
His words pricked my curiosity in spite of my irritation.
"I'm listening," I said stiffly.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the side of his face pull up in a smile.
"Sam had it so much harder than the rest of us. Because he was the first, and he was alone, and he didn't have anyone to tell him what was happening. Sam's grandfather died before he was born, and his father has never been around. There was no one there to recognize the signs. The first time it happened - the first time he phased - he thought he'd gone insane. It took him two weeks to calm down enough to change back.
"This was before you came to Forks, so you wouldn't remember. Sam's mother and Leah Clearwater had the forest rangers searching for him, the police. People thought there had been an accident or something. . . ."
"Leah?" I asked, surprised. Leah was Harry's daughter. Hearing her name sent an automatic surge of pity through me. Harry Clearwater, Charlie's life-long friend, had died of a heart attack this past spring.
His voice changed, became heavier. "Yeah. Leah and Sam were high school sweethearts. They started dating when she was just a freshman. She was frantic when he disappeared."
"But he and Emily -"
"I'll get to that - it's part of the story," he said. He inhaled slowly, and then exhaled in a gust.
I supposed it was silly for me to imagine that Sam had never loved anyone before Emily. Most people fall in and out of love many times in their lives. It was just that I'd seen Sam with Emily, and I couldn't imagine him with someone else. The way he looked at her . . . well, it reminded me of a look I'd seen sometimes in Edward's eyes - when he was looking at me.
"Sam came back," Jacob said, "but he wouldn't talk to anyone about where he'd been. Rumors flew - that he was up to no good, mostly. And then Sam happened to run in to Quil's grandfather one afternoon when Old Quil Ateara came to visit Mrs. Uley. Sam shook his hand. Old Quil just about had a stroke." Jacob paused to laugh.
Jacob put his hand on my cheek and pulled my face around to look at him - he was leaning toward me, his face was just a few inches away. His palm burned my skin, like he had a fever.
"Oh, right," I said. It was uncomfortable, having my face so close to his with his hand hot against my skin. "Sam was running a temperature."
Jacob laughed again. "Sam's hand felt like he'd left it sitting on a hot stovetop."
He was so close, I could feel his warm breath. I reached up casually, to take his hand away and free my face, but wound my fingers through his so that I wouldn't hurt his feelings. He smiled and leaned back, undeceived by my attempt at nonchalance.
"So Mr. Ateara went straight to the other elders," Jacob went on. "They were the only ones left who still knew, who remembered. Mr. Ateara, Billy, and Harry had actually seen their grandfathers make the change.
When Old Quil told them, they met with Sam secretly and explained. "It was easier when he understood - when he wasn't alone anymore. They knew he wouldn't be the only
one affected by the Cullens' return" - he pronounced the name with unconscious bitterness - "but no one else was old enough. So Sam waited for the rest of us to join him. . . ."
"The Cullens had no idea," I said in a whisper. "They didn't think that werewolves still existed here. They didn't know that coming here would change you."
"It doesn't change the fact that it did."
"Remind me not to get on your bad side."
"You think I should be as forgiving as you are? We can't all be saints and martyrs."
"Grow up, Jacob."
"I wish I could," he murmured quietly.
I stared at him, trying to make sense of his response. "What?"
Jacob chuckled. "One of those many strange things I mentioned."
"You . . . can't . . . grow up?" I said blankly. "You're what? Not . . . aging? Is that a joke?"
"Nope." He popped his lips on the P.
I felt blood flood my face. Tears - tears of rage - filled my eyes. My teeth mashed together with an audible grinding sound.
"Bella? What did I say?"
I was on my feet again, my hands balled up into fists, my whole frame shaking.
"You. Are. Not. Aging," I growled through my teeth.
Jacob tugged my arm gently, trying to make me sit. "None of us are. What's wrong with you?"
"Am I the only one who has to get old? I get older every stinking day!" I nearly shrieked, throwing my hands in the air. Some little part of me recognized that I was throwing a Charlie-esque fit, but that rational part was greatly overshadowed by the irrational part. "Damn it! What kind of world is this? Where's the justice?"
"Take it easy, Bella."
"Shut up, Jacob. Just shut up! This is so unfair!"
"Did you seriously just stamp your foot? I thought girls only did that on TV."
I growled unimpressively.
"It's not as bad as you seem to think it is. Sit down and I'll explain."
He rolled his eyes. "Okay. Whatever you want. But listen, I will get older . . . someday."
He patted the tree. I glowered for a second, but then sat; my temper had burned out as suddenly as it had flared and I'd calmed down enough to realize that I was making a fool of myself.
"When we get enough control to quit . . . ," Jacob said. "When we stop phasing for a solid length of time, we age again. It's not easy." He shook his head, abruptly doubtful. "It's gonna take a really long time to learn that kind of restraint, I think. Even Sam's not there yet. 'Course it doesn't help that there's a huge coven of vampires right down the road. We can't even think about quitting when the tribe needs protectors. But you shouldn't get all bent out of shape about it, anyway, because I'm already older than you, physically at least."
"What are you talking about?"
"Look at me, Bells. Do I look sixteen?"
I glanced up and down his mammoth frame, trying to be unbiased. "Not exactly, I guess."
"Not at all. Because we reach full growth inside of a few months when the werewolf gene gets triggered. It's one hell of a growth spurt." He made a face. "Physically, I'm probably twenty-five or something. So there's no need for you to freak out about being too old for me for at least another seven years."
Twenty-five or something. The idea messed with my head. But I remembered that growth spurt - I remembered watching him shoot up and fill out right before my eyes. I remembered how he would look different from one day to the next. . . . I shook my head, feeling dizzy.
"So, did you want to hear about Sam, or did you want to scream at me some more for things that are out of my control?"
I took a deep breath. "Sorry. Age is a touchy subject for me. That hit a nerve."
Jacob's eyes tightened, and he looked as if he were trying to decide how to word something.
Since I didn't want to talk about the truly touchy stuff - my plans for the future, or treaties that might be broken by said plans, I prompted him. "So once Sam understood what was going on, once he had Billy and Harry and Mr. Ateara, you said it wasn't so hard anymore. And, like you also said, there are the cool parts. . . ." I hesitated briefly. "Why does Sam hate them so much? Why does he wish I would hate them?"
Jacob sighed. "This is the really weird part."
"I'm a pro at weird."
"Yeah, I know." He grinned before he continued. "So, you're right. Sam knew what was going on, and everything was almost okay. In most ways, his life was back to, well, not normal. But better." Then Jacob's expression tightened, like something painful was coming. "Sam couldn't tell Leah. We aren't supposed to tell anyone who doesn't have to know. And it wasn't really safe for him to be around her - but he cheated, just like I did with you. Leah was furious that he wouldn't tell her what was going on - where he'd been, where he went at night, why he was always so exhausted - but they were working it out. They were trying. They really loved each other."
"Did she find out? Is that what happened?"
He shook his head. "No, that wasn't the problem. Her cousin, Emily Young, came down from the Makah reservation to visit her one weekend."
I gasped. "Emily is Leah's cousin?"
"Second cousins. They're close, though. They were like sisters when they were kids."
"That's . . . horrible. How could Sam . . . ?" I trailed off, shaking my head.
"Don't judge him just yet. Did anyone ever tell you . . . Have you ever heard of imprinting?"
"Imprinting?" I repeated the unfamiliar word. "No. What's that mean?"
"It's one of those bizarre things we have to deal with. It doesn't happen to everyone. In fact, it's the rare exception, not the rule. Sam had heard all the stories by then, the stories we all used to think were legends. He'd heard of imprinting, but he never dreamed . . ."
"What is it?" I prodded.
Jacob's eyes strayed to the ocean. "Sam did love Leah. But when he saw Emily, that didn't matter anymore. Sometimes . . . we don't exactly know why . . . we find our mates that way." His eyes flashed back to me, his face reddening. "I mean . . . our soul mates."
"What way? Love at first sight?" I snickered.
Jacob wasn't smiling. His dark eyes were critical of my reaction. "It's a little bit more powerful than that. More absolute."
"Sorry," I muttered. "You're serious, aren't you?"
"Yeah, I am."
"Love at first sight? But more powerful?" My voice still sounded dubious, and he could hear that.
"It's not easy to explain. It doesn't matter, anyway." He shrugged indifferently. "You wanted to know what happened to Sam to make him hate the vampires for changing him, to make him hate himself. And that's what happened. He broke Leah's heart. He went back on every promise he'd ever made her. Every day he has to see the accusation in her eyes, and know that she's right."
He stopped talking abruptly, as if he'd said something he hadn't meant to.
"How did Emily deal with this? If she was so close to Leah . . . ?" Sam and Emily were utterly right together, two puzzle pieces, shaped for each other exactly. Still . . . how had Emily gotten past the fact that he'd belonged to someone else? Her sister, almost.
"She was real angry, in the beginning. But it's hard to resist that level of commitment and adoration." Jacob sighed. "And then, Sam could tell her everything. There are no rules that can bind you when you find your other half. You know how she got hurt?"
"Yeah." The story in Forks was that she was mauled by a bear, but I was in on the secret.
Werewolves are unstable, Edward had said. The people near them get hurt.
"Well, weirdly enough, that was sort of how they resolved things. Sam was so horrified, so sickened by himself, so full of hate for what he'd done. . . . He would have thrown himself under a bus if it would have made her feel better. He might have anyway, just to escape what he'd done. He was shattered. . . . Then, somehow, she was the one comforting him, and after that. . . ."
Jacob didn't finish his thought, and I sensed the story had gotten too personal to share.
"Poor Emily," I whispered. "Poor Sam. Poor Leah. . . ."
"Yeah, Leah got the worst end of the stick," he agreed. "She puts on a brave face. She's going to be a bridesmaid."
I gazed away, toward the jagged rocks that rose from the ocean like stubby broken-off fingers on the south rim of the harbor, while I tried to make sense of it all. I could feel his eyes on my face, waiting for me to say something.
"Did it happen to you?" I finally asked, still looking away. "This love-at-first-sight thing?"
"No," he answered briskly. "Sam and Jared are the only ones."
"Hmm," I said, trying to sound only politely interested. I was relieved, and I tried to explain my reaction to myself. I decided I was just glad he didn't claim there was some mystical, wolfy connection between the two of us. Our relationship was confusing enough as it was. I didn't need any more of the supernatural than I already had to deal with.
He was quiet, too, and the silence felt a little awkward. My intuition told me that I didn't want to hear what he was thinking.
"How did that work out for Jared?" I asked to break the silence.
"No drama there. It was just a girl he'd sat next to in school every day for a year and never looked at twice. And then, after he changed, he saw her again and never looked away. Kim was thrilled. She'd had a huge crush on him. She'd had his last name tacked on to the end of hers all over in her diary." He laughed mockingly.
I frowned. "Did Jared tell you that? He shouldn't have."
Jacob bit his lip. "I guess I shouldn't laugh. It was funny, though."
"Some soul mate."
He sighed. "Jared didn't tell us anything on purpose. I already told you this part, remember?"
"Oh, yeah. You can hear each other's thoughts, but only when you're wolves, right?"
"Right. Just like your bloodsucker." He glowered.
"Edward," I corrected.
"Sure, sure. That's how come I know so much about how Sam felt. It's not like he would have told us all that if he'd had a choice. Actually, that's something we all hate." The bitterness was abruptly harsh in his voice. "It's awful. No privacy, no secrets. Everything you're ashamed of, laid out for everyone to see." He shuddered.
"It sounds horrible," I whispered.
"It is sometimes helpful when we need to coordinate," he said grudgingly. "Once in a blue moon, when some bloodsucker crosses into our territory. Laurent was fun. And if the Cullens hadn't gotten in our way last Saturday . . . ugh!" he groaned. "We could have had her!" His fists clenched into angry balls.
I flinched. As much as I worried about Jasper or Emmett getting hurt, it was nothing like the panic I felt at the idea of Jacob going up against Victoria. Emmett and Jasper were the closest thing to indestructible I could imagine. Jacob was still warm, still comparatively human. Mortal. I thought of Jacob facing Victoria, her brilliant hair blowing around her oddly feline face . . . and shuddered.
Jacob looked up at me with a curious expression. "But isn't it like that for you all the time? Having him in your head?"
"Oh, no. Edward's never in my head. He only wishes."
Jacob's expression became confused.
"He can't hear me," I explained, my voice a tiny bit smug from old habit. "I'm the only one like that, for him. We don't know why he can't."
"Weird," Jacob said.
"Yeah." The smugness faded. "It probably means there's something wrong with my brain," I admitted.
"I already knew there was something wrong with your brain," Jacob muttered.
The sun broke through the clouds suddenly, a surprise I hadn't been expecting, and I had to narrow my eyes against the glare off the water. Everything changed color - the waves turned from gray to blue, the trees from dull olive to brilliant jade, and the rainbow-hued pebbles glittered like jewels.
We squinted for a moment, letting our eyes adjust. There were no sounds besides the hollow roar of the waves that echoed from every side of the sheltered harbor, the soft grinding of the stones against each other under the water's movement, and the cry of gulls high overhead. It was very peaceful.
Jacob settled closer to me, so that he was leaning against my arm. He was so warm. After a minute of this, I shrugged out of my rain jacket. He made a little sound of contentment in the back of his throat, and rested his cheek on the top of my head. I could feel the sun heat my skin - thought it was not quite as warm as Jacob - and I wondered idly how long it would take me to burn.
Absentmindedly, I twisted my right hand to the side, and watched the sunlight glitter subtly off the scar James had left there.
"What are you thinking about?" he murmured.
"Mmm. It's nice."
"What are you thinking about?" I asked.
He chuckled to himself. "I was remembering that moronic movie you took me to. And Mike Newton puking all over everything."
I laughed, too, surprised by how time had changed the memory. It used to be one of stress, of confusion. So much had changed that night. . . . And now I could laugh. It was the last night Jacob and I had had before he'd learned the truth about his heritage. The last human memory. An oddly pleasant memory now.
"I miss that," Jacob said. "The way it used to be so easy . . . uncomplicated. I'm glad I've got a good memory." He sighed.
He felt the sudden tension in my body as his words triggered a memory of my own.
"What is it?" he asked.
"About that good memory of yours . . ." I pulled away from him so that I could read his face. At the moment, it was confused. "Do you mind telling me what you were doing Monday morning? You were thinking something that bothered Edward." Bothered wasn't quite the word for it, but I wanted an answer, so I thought it was best not to start out too severely.
Jacob's face brightened with understanding, and he laughed. "I was just thinking about you. Didn't like that much, did he?"
"Me? What about me?"
Jacob laughed, with a harder edge this time. "I was remembering the way you looked that night Sam found you - I've seen it in his head, and it's like I was there; that memory has always haunted Sam, you know. And then I remembered how you looked the first time you came to my place. I bet you don't even realize what a mess you were then, Bella. It was weeks before you started to look human again. And I remembered how you always used to have your arms wrapped around yourself, trying to hold yourself together. . . ." Jacob winced, and then shook his head. "It's hard for me to remember how sad you were, and it wasn't my fault. So I figured it would be harder for him. And I thought he ought to get a look at what he'd done."
I smacked his shoulder. It hurt my hand. "Jacob Black, don't you ever do that again! Promise me you won't."
"No way. I haven't had that much fun in months."
"So help me, Jake -"
"Oh, get a grip, Bella. When am I ever going to see him again? Don't worry about it."
I got to my feet, and he caught my hand as I started to walk away. I tried to tug free.
"I'm leaving, Jacob."
"No, don't go yet," he protested, his hand tightening around mine. "I'm sorry. And . . . okay, I won't do it again. Promise."
I sighed. "Thanks, Jake."
"Come on, we'll go back to my house," he said eagerly.
"Actually, I think I really do need to go. Angela Weber is expecting me, and I know Alice is worried. I don't want to upset her too much."
"But you just got here!"
"It feels that way," I agreed. I glared up at the sun, somehow already directly overhead. How had the time passed so quickly?
His eyebrows pulled down over his eyes. "I don't know when I'll see you again," he said in a hurt voice.
"I'll come back the next time he's away," I promised impulsively.
"Away?" Jacob rolled his eyes. "That's a nice way to describe what he's doing. Disgusting parasites."
"If you can't be nice, I won't come back at all!" I threatened, trying to pull my hand free. He refused to let go.
"Aw, don't be mad," he said, grinning. "Knee-jerk reaction."
"If I'm going to try to come back again, you're going to have to get something straight, okay?"
"See," I explained. "I don't care who's a vampire and who's a werewolf. That's irrelevant. You are Jacob, and he is Edward, and I am Bella. And nothing else matters."
His eyes narrowed slightly. "But I am a werewolf," he said unwillingly. "And he is a vampire," he added with obvious revulsion.
"And I'm a Virgo!" I shouted, exasperated.
He raised his eyebrows, measuring my expression with curious eyes. Finally, he shrugged.
"If you can really see it that way . . ."
"I can. I do."
"Okay. Just Bella and Jacob. None of those freaky Virgos here." He smiled at me, the warm, familiar smile that I had missed so much. I felt the answering smile spread across my face.
"I've really missed you, Jake," I admitted impulsively.
"Me, too," his smile widened. His eyes were happy and clear, free for once of the angry bitterness. "More than you know. Will you come back soon?"
"As soon as I can," I promised.