Twilight Fan Fiction / Twilight Fan Fiction ❯ I Know My Duty ❯ Team ( Chapter 63 )

[ T - Teen: Not suitable for readers under 13 ]

Twilight and its three and two half sequels are the creation of Stephenie Meyer. This story is fanfiction based on characters, settings and concepts from Twilight, its four sequels and the first half of Midnight Sun, all of which are the creation of Stephenie Meyer. No party other than the submitting author may alter this work in any way other than font size and other reasonable accommodations to formatting.

Okay, this definitely took a while. After NaNo I had some pretty serious RL issues to work through. They're still not worked through, and unlike the problems I had back when I started this 'fic, they're making it harder to write instead of easier. This work is not abandoned, just slow going. I am committed to finishing it, and the end is nearly in sight.




"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." -Jacob, Eclipse




To use a phrase that both Bella and Caroly had favored, things could be better.

The scent of Sitka spruces mixed with the earth and melting snow that just barely stuck to my feet as I ran, really ran, to keep up with my companion. It reminded me of hunting with Emmett and Jasper. I might even have enjoyed myself if not for the way the light angled right across the hills, leveled like a crossbow and lancing straight into the headache I'd had all day.

Black loped steadily ahead of me. His thoughts were like a ride on a commercial fight when the stranger in the next seat takes the whole armrest and yammers on as if there were no such thing as peace and quiet. Except my lucky werewolf was convinced that I was the one being intrusive. His thoughts toward Bella were less uncharitable than he was letting on out loud, but me? I could jump off a cliff into a hundred bonfires for all he cared.

Quil and the others will circle round to the vantage points, he thought clearly as he came to a stop at the base of a rise. If the vamp bolts, they'll herd him through the valley, where you and I will be waiting. We did this move a hundred times back when the pack had more guys.

"I remember," I murmured.

Don't talk. I had an image of an older Native man—Billy Black—rod and lure in hand, telling Jacob not to scare the fish.

"Then don't say things to me that require a response."

I didn't. Now shut your hole. Rude. We weren't within earshot of anything with bigger brain capacity than a badger, anyway. The only voices I could hear were Black's, Seth's and Quil's. Though it was hard to make out the details of the latter two at this distance, they were obligingly keeping me updated on my wife's continued well-being. Of course, I could also hear them through Black's mind. He heard them with a practiced ease, as if they were simply in another part of a large room.

Climbing over rocks, dodging trees as they ran up hills. Bella looked like she was having the time of her life.

We walked another few minutes, and he paused to sniff the air. Nothing yet. You?

I folded my arms, tipping my head back.

What are you, ten? NOW you can answer.

I kept up eye contact and shook my head. I couldn't hear anyone else, not for miles. I got an ache behind my eyes when I tried to push it, though. That was new. But it could have been the company.

"You might as well say it."

If you wanted to chat about personal stuff, you should have gone with Seth.

Maybe next time I would. For a werewolf, Seth was almost tolerable.

"It doesn't sound like I'm the one who wants to get personal."

He leveled me with a glare. I had time to think it was strange that I had gold eyes like a wolf while he had dark eyes like a man.

Okay, what is it?

I shrugged. "I can hear you thinking. I can tell there's something you're avoiding." The fact that he could decline to think of something on purpose was impressive. Until Rolfe had confronted me outside Anwar, I hadn't met anyone who could do that, and to my knowledge neither had Aro. But then, if what Bella had told me about the wolves' minds was correct, they'd all had a chance to practice keeping certain thoughts private.

I shook my head. In twenty years, I'd never figured out how to hide anything from Aro. How had Rolfe learned it without either of us figuring it out?

I rubbed the sides of my temples. The light out here. Or the stink of werewolf.

Hey, you all right?

"I'm fine," I said quickly, dropping my hands. The wolves might be on our side for the moment, but showing weakness still probably wasn't a good idea.

We don't need your help. Like I said before, we've held this land without you for years. That's all.

I checked my line of sight against a hillside. "Right now we're in Cullen territory. Technically, you're helping us."

Bullshit. Your guys left before Bella did. You've no land rights in absentia. His eyes flashed at me. If that look you're giving me is because of Bella and me, you can put it away. She's the girl I liked in high school. There wasn't much between us before it was over, and it's been over a long time. Sunlit days. Smiles. Something about motorcycles. It was fragmented like light through cut glass.

Thoughts could be like a net, like a chain, once enough of it spilled over the side where I could see it, its own weight pulled the rest free. There was link after link of Bella in Jacob Black. It had been a long time since he'd thought about it, but he had thought about the way his life would have gone if there were no such thing as vampires. He'd never have become a wolf, and the two of them would have had a human future together. By now, he'd be nearly forty, probably with a couple of kids. He'd even worked out what they'd look like.

"I wanted to give her those things too," I admitted.

I'm trying not to picture it in front of you. Could you at least not do anything on purpose to make this weird? This hasn't been a big deal to me since— It hasn't in a long time. I don't even know what she's like now.

"She's the same. That's how this works."

Well I'm different. Helpless and cute and crazy didn't appeal to him the way it used to. I let my lip curl. If he couldn't see how Bella was strong, that was his problem. His attention flicked northeast. What about over there?

"Nothing. Then why allow us to get involved?"

We worked our way up the next hill, and Black's thoughts were so focused on the scent and sight ahead of him that I figured he'd ignored my question.

His tail lashed. You know how in every old cop movie there was a guy right before retirement, and he's always the one who gets his brains blown out by the mob?

"Yes," I said cautiously. Felix had loved those films. And he'd had more influence over the entertainment schedule than I'd have liked. Marjane skipped a cloak rank around the same time she gave him his first iPhone. It had unlimited streaming and access to all six Lethal Weapon movies.

Well Quil's our guy. He's got kids. He's got a good job that could become a better job. He's going to quit. I'd have asked him to check out already if that wouldn't leave just Seth and me. If Seth had been stronger or more cautious, Black might have tried a two-wolf pack. And Seth by himself would drive me nuts. And get himself killed. If putting up with you for a couple hours makes them more likely to stay in one piece, then I'll go with it.

My feet stopped on the chill ground. Why did that sound so...

He turned around and sat on his haunches, giving me what he probably thought was a smug look. You're just some tool that helps me do my job better. Like a socket wrench.

My shoulders drifted down. Demetri probably would have gone through his first post-Anwar feast by now. If Volterra was still Volterra, he'd left it hungry. Or maybe Caroly had made sure he got enough.

Okay, I insult him and then he starts looking at me like I'm his dead gramma. I didn't think I'd been meant to hear that.

"What then?" I said, hoping to change the subject back. "Once Quil retires?"

If we get enough vamps through here, some of the boys will change, the kids, he thought. And that meant missed classes and missed sleep. Diplomas, jobs and girlfriends all got tabled for a thankless and dangerous job—and did the girlfriends ever get screwed if the guy imprinted, on someone else or on them. But at least it would be new guys taking their turn rather than too much sacrifice from the same people over and over. And if we don't get a lot of vamps, what does it matter? Unless the pack got too small and then a large coven showed up. The worry kept him up at night.

Black's tail lashed. I don't know why I'm letting you hear this shit.

I exhaled. "Because in a matter of days I'll be leaving and I probably won't come back during your lifetime, so even if you told me something you regretted it's highly unlikely I'd be able to repeat it to anyone whose opinion you actually care about. Talking to me has no consequences."

He stopped in the snow, turning his deep brown head over his shoulder at me.

"What? I wasn't supposed to answer that either?"

We kept moving, slow enough not to miss anything. I was glad I didn't have to admit it, but it was easier when we didn't have to look at each other.

You're not the only one who passed first-level Psych. I got my benefits. I did some semesters in college.

"You did?" I could have sprinted over the rocks but preferred to feel the muscles in my legs pound against them like the pounding in my head. "Enlighten me."

He turned, graceful as his own prey on the uneven ground. If we're doing this, I'm changing back.

I frowned. "But I can understand you perfectly as you are."

Black's attention shifted, showing me the other side of the mountain—and Bella—through two other sets of eyes.

"Ah," I said.

The wolf glared at me, and suddenly he wasn't a wolf any more. I blinked. Either my headache was worse than I thought or Black was very very in touch with his gifts.

The habit of twenty years wasn't magically put aside when Bells' old boyfriend showed up. As soon as he was walking on two legs, his thoughts became less guarded and disciplined. I could tell he was surprised at the way his emotions were creeping up on him. He really had thought that he was over Bella Swan.

I could see images of campfires, of Quil's grandfather telling a story about Taha Aki, the first of his people to become a wolf, but I saw it through the impressions that it had left in the younger Jacob's mind: The heroine of the legend had been his third wife, the one on whom he'd imprinted. But nothing said he hadn't loved the first one. Nothing said that he and his first wife hadn't worked like two gears interconnecting, that she hadn't been the first person to make him realize he could be wiser and stronger than anyone ever thought.

No wonder he and Bella had connected so closely. She'd said more than once that that was how she felt about me.

Well that wasn't how Black thought about me. Not remotely.

"I had you figured out a long time ago," he said.

"I'm sure you had; I'm very simple," I answered, just patronizing enough. Psych 101? I'd earned a master's back in the seventies, and I'd kept up with research in the field. Aro's interest in science had its benefits.

"I mean I figured out why she liked you so much," he said. I could see him sitting in a classroom., maybe the peninsula community college but maybe a four-year further inland. Basic psychology had fit into his work schedule, so he took it.

"So did I," I said, allowing myself a smile.

"Hey, you asked me to talk about this. Don't make it weirder than it has to be."

"You're right," I admitted. "I apologize. Go on."

"There's this bird called the herring gull." It was a common example in neuroscience classes. Jacob repeated the same explanation I'd heard all six times I'd gone to college. The mother gull has a red spot on the underside of her bill. The herring gull nestlings would peck at the spot, and the mother would regurgitate food into their mouths. Disgusting but interesting. Scientists had found that it really was the spot and not the mother's beak or any sounds she made that made the chicks peck. In fact, it worked with a red spot painted on a fake beak or even just a piece of paper.

"But if you paint three straight red lines on the strip of paper," Jacob came to the end of the story, "the baby herring gulls go crazy, pecking three times as hard. That's you."

I made the chicks go wild? Not in my experience, Adrienne notwithstanding. "Me," I repeated.

"You don't exist in nature. There's nothing real that's like you. But something about you triple-flipped her switch, and she ran after you even though you're not the real thing." I saw him fight the urge to give a fake shrug. "Or at least that's what I used to think."

A flimsy slip of paper that couldn't sustain her solid body or allow her spirit to grow. Actually, it was fairly apt. That was how I'd felt about myself in those years. But if Jacob Black wanted to taunt me with it, he was two decades too late. I hadn't turned Bella because I'd wanted her for myself; I'd done it because my master would have had someone else do it, and someone else would have killed her. I'd left her, however foolishly, in the hope that she'd live a full human life. I'd done right by her in every way available to me.

"But now she's not the real thing either," I countered.

He ignored my baiting. "Love has a purpose," he said.

"Reproduction." It was the common Church explanation. My kind defied it pretty cleanly. Whether or not one had a partner had no bearing on whether one could make a new vampire. In fact, the new vampire often became the partner. My Caroly was more exception than rule.

"Survival," Jacob corrected. He stepped toward me, tilting his head over those folded arms. "If you have a partner, you live longer," he said. Unless you're a wolf, he added.

With his thoughts on that mien, he asked, "Why'd she let you come out with me?"

I smiled. "Because she actually wants to help you and this is the best way to do it. She doesn't need to read your mind to know that you have no intention of killing me," I told him. "She hasn't known you since you were a boy, but you haven't changed nearly as much as you think."

"She didn't deserve to end up like that," he said.

"I know," I answered.

"I don't mean your Volterra. I mean being a vampire at all."

"I know," I repeated.

He looked at me in confusion.

"I never wanted this for her," I explained. "Being strong the way we're strong is a good thing, I'll grant, but we are so much less free than ordinary humans. We can't even make our own bodies and wills obey." He looked to the left, the black wolf rising in his thoughts again. "It's like giving someone an addiction on purpose," I said. "I loved her. Of course I didn't want her to become one of us."

"Then why didn't you—" he stopped, head tilting back as his eyes got ever so slightly wider. "Wait a second. Is that—"

"Why I left. Yes," I confirmed. I didn't want to talk about those days, but the thought of someone of whom Bella thought so highly pacing this forest and thinking ill of me... I didn't like it.

"Then what the hell was all that with telling her that she was stupid and boring and you were tired of her?"

"I didn't—" I shut my mouth. It didn't matter that that wasn't exactly what I'd said. "That was a mistake," I said. "I thought she'd get over me faster if she thought I never... It was a mistake."

The images rose in his mind, Sam Uley returning from the woods with a figure far too small to be Bella. Then long, gray months of a girl shambling around like a zombie, and the surprise in his mind when she'd so much as spoken to him, and about motorcycles, no less. As jealous as I might have been of Bella's regard for the Black, I couldn't argue that he hadn't earned it. He'd looked out for her after the mess I'd made of things.

"I won't pretend it was a small mistake," I said.

"She was a wreck," he said.

"I know."

"You left other people to clean up your mess."

"I know."

He looked at me for a long time. And she took you back after that?

"Not right away."

Did she at least make you grovel?

"No," I said. No, I'd had to grovel, all right, but not for Bella.

He took a step forward, "So what were you going to do? Just stay with her while she got old?"

"Yes," I said.

"Right now she'd be thirty-seven, old enough to be your mother."

"Old enough to be my great-granddaughter," I corrected.

His eyes narrowed. In his mind, I had a baby face. Had he never really seen how young I looked? I didn't feel like arguing. I'd often wished I looked older.

I didn't want to admit it, but he had more of a point than he realized. What if she had stayed with me as a human? I knew how women's minds matured as they their youth wore away; I could see the mirror of it in Black. I knew I'd still love her, but would a middle-aged Bella have tired of me?

I exhaled. "The Volturi would not have let her leave alive," I said. "They would not have let her leave at all."

"No matter how it happened, you managed to turn her, make her your mate."

"Wife," I corrected, holding his eyes when I said it. "She's also my mate, but I don't care for the term."

"Sure, whatever, so if you think some vampire imprinting thing makes her your—"

"No, I think she's my wife because we got married. As in a ceremony. There were vows. There was a church. There were friends there bearing witness. As in married." I held up my hand so that he could see my ring. I usually kept it in my pocket where it wouldn't break if I got into a fight, but for some reason I'd remembered to put it on as we approached werewolf territory. "And no, she didn't do that subconsciously."

Really? He didn't say it out loud, but near.

"Yes really."

"She actually married your ass?"

"And the rest of me, but yes." If Bella were here, she'd say my ass had definitely been involved, so I was almost glad she wasn't here.

Pressured her into it.

"No," I said. Technically, I'd already surrendered in our little duel of wills, so the pressure had been off.

Their weird Italian vampire thing. Maybe she had to be married because they stone girls to death.

"The masters didn't approve of human customs, actually. We got in a bit of trouble." Until Demetri had spoken up for me.

Black shook his head.

"Is it so hard for you to picture?"

"The two of you arguing over caterers and whose cousin has to sit at the kids' table? Hell yes."

Again, something nagged at me. Why hadn't he known anything about our situation? Hadn't I sent something from Volterra? I'd done it the first day. I remembered walking to the edge of the city—

"You keep rubbing your eyes like that."

"I have a headache," he said.

Carlisle... When Carlisle had come to see me after that first mission to Hungary. Carlisle had said something. Something about a ...something arriving safely. My message? But if that was it, then why hadn't Black received it?

"Is that ...normal for you?"


"I mean do vampires get headaches?"

I looked up, "What?"

Do vampires get headaches? he wondered. Well, our cure for that is usually ripping the headache right off at the neck, but I don't know if that works for you, he thought archly.

"Lately," I said as sourly as I could manage. I let my head lean back. No... No I didn't remember getting a headache before Volterra. In all my medical talks with Carlisle, I'd never really questioned it. I'd never heard of anyone else in the coven mentioning having a headache either. Not Carlisle or Esme or Jasper or Rose or Emmett ....but Esme had complained of them. Well not complained. Esme said she got them.

No. It wasn't Esme. It was—

I pulled air in and out of my lungs, cool with the scent of thawing earth.

"You all right?" Black asked again.

My stomach heaved like I'd eaten human food. "We should get moving," I said.

Black didn't bother changing back. He seemed very comfortable in the woods, even with limited wardrobe. I didn't see any gooseflesh on his arms, but I had to wonder whether his feet got cold. Half the ground was frozen. "We'll check up here," he muttered. I followed.

A flash, but not here. Color and movement, but not her.

"What is that?" I asked. Seth's and the other werewolf's minds were unfamiliar to me. At this distance, I was only getting scraps of consciousness, but Bella was walking slowly up a rise. There was a vivid scent in their minds. "Change back," I said. "They've found something."

There was a new voice, fierce and feral. There had been no other thinking minds nearby the last time I'd checked. The poor wretch must have run straight into the area at top speed ...but then why hadn't Bella and her wolves heard his feet pounding the earth? Even for us, it was hard to be quiet at that speed.

Jacob inhaled and frowned, shifting back into a wolf as smoothly as a flicker of the light. Years ago, Bella had described the wolves to me, exploding with fur and energy. That had jibed with what I remembered of Ephraim Black, but he'd been a young man, new to his power, and Jacob Black wasn't. He was on four feet by the time I'd turned my own to sprint over the hills. It was only a few miles. I could be there in minutes and Black could catch up.


He held up a thought like a finger warning me to wait, an acrid, stabbing scent on the breeze. Other direction.

"Must be old," I said.

It's fresh.

"We would have seen him running past us." And I'd go myself if he wouldn't. I didn't have my master's hand on my shoulder ordering me not to be where she was.

There's more than one vamp out here, you dipshit!

A coven? Not just an individual letting blood go to waste in such a daring way, but a whole coven of criminals? Caroly, Demetri and I had hunted down stranger things, but it was still close to ridiculous.

Don't worry. Quil and Seth can handle one vampire just the two of them. If Bella's pissed off, then it's probably already in scraps.

"Black," I said, "I don't hear anyone else. There might be more of them somewhere, but here with us in these woods, there isn't another thinking soul. Just let me get over there. I'll see the memories of the murders in its thoughts and we can close this whole matter."

You can't hear Bella.

"She's unique."

He jerked his head east. The trail goes that way. Come on. And keep your ears on.

"No. I'm going to help."

The breath left Jacob's body in a guttural, lupine sigh. Do they need help?

I looked over the ridge to the left. Through Seth and Quil, I could see a dark-haired vampire already in pieces. He had no face that I recognized. Soon he'd have no face at all. Bella was all right. I looked at Black, who was listening to the same thoughts.

I told you they could handle it.

Faintly at this distance, and again through Jacob's mind, I could hear a response.

Wait, did vampire dude think one guy could take us out?

Seth, change back and tell Bella that Jake and her boyfriend're fine.

You change back!

I had to be naked in the snow last time. It's your turn.

GUYS. Jacob's thoughts cut through the knuckleheadedness in a practiced deadpan. I found another trail. Tie the vamp's bits to two different trees and then grab Bells and get over here.

Werewolves in stereo. No wonder I had a headache. It was probably feedback.

The guys can hear me thinking. They'll follow us.

"There's no one here," I said.

He turned tail and headed up without me.

Fine. If he wanted to go, I'd play along and go. I'd had to do harder things when Felix or Corin got their hoodclasps in a twist.

I looked around, pushing cold air out through my nose. "The more familiar someone's voice is, the further away I can be and still hear them," I said. "A stranger would have to be at least a mile or two away to hide entirely. There's a pass between two hills northeast of here," I pointed, remembering a time that Emmett had cornered a bull elk. Its shadow had looked so long next to his tiny one. My head throbbed. "That's the closest place I could think of where someone could be hiding from other vampires and still leave a scent trail."

Black glared at me. It's too fresh.

"Maybe the weather patterns shifted the air currents." Global climate change hadn't stopped when I'd become a prisoner and the planet hadn't jumped back twenty years now that I wasn't one. "Do you have a better idea?"

Yes. He was turning left and right, searching for his imaginary vampire. You shut up and help me kill things.

Sometimes I felt a little indignant that Bella had forbidden me from calling this man a brute.

Black tossed his head to the left. This way. There was a rock washout a few years ago. Nothing I need to worry about. Nothing the vamps we chased had any trouble with, but they did seem to like fleeing for their lives more in this direction more than the other way.

I shrugged again, following. I knew how to look obedient when some squad leader wanted to put the freakish vegetarian in his place.

He turned and we headed uphill. Through the bare trees, I could see something dark ahead, a strange rock formation.

The vamps never had any trouble climbing this thing, he said. I guess they did it because they thought we couldn't follow them up there. Stupid things didn't know there's a way around. I had an image of Sam Uley's voice, loud inside Black's skull, telling Embry and Paul that the vampire was headed for the cliff. They were to circle the far side and be waiting for it at the top.

The wind was slow but blowing steadily in our faces. I could hear the frustration in Black's thoughts. He didn't smell anything ahead of us, and neither did I. I'd try not to be too smug when he admitted I was right.

Any ideas on who it might be? Bella said that this Aro person might send someone after you.

"No," I said. I shook my head. "Bella is right in one way; Aro is a force to be reckoned with, but if he were going to come after us, he would have set his plan in motion soon after we left. It's been weeks. Mast—" I checked. "I mean Aro and Caius—"

What did you just say?

Did you just say "Master"? Did he make you call him that? His rear foot twitched in what I recognized as disgust, and there was a slight memory of a jet-black werewolf. Sam Uley again. He'd done a number on the man.

"That word didn't always refer to someone who..." I shook my head, which made my headache worse. "Even in the 2010s, Princeton called its department heads 'Masters' as their official job title. Before the nineteenth century it just meant the head of a household. Volterra was old—" I realized what I'd said right after the words left my mouth. "—old-fashioned."

Yeah, he wasn't your master, but he was going to kill you twenty years ago, and now you think he's going to hunt you down and take you back. That's fucked up.

"It wasn't—" I stopped. If Bella were here, she'd tell me that I didn't have to defend the master any more. But a way I wanted to. Volterra had done wrong in keeping me against my will, but Aro wasn't ...he was petty and selfish but that didn't make him an evil man.

I'd called myself a slave in front of Bella but I didn't want to show weakness in front of Black. And... well...

Damn it. All right, technically yes, I was a worker who wasn't compensated or free to leave, so that made me a slave. I didn't personally know if the Quileutes had suffered the same Spanish predations as other tribes, but in this century, it still was a loaded word for a white man to use, no matter his circumstances.

Black stopped by a thinning in the trees. I think our vamp's on the other side, Jacob Black nodded toward a break in the rocks ahead, black with basalt. There was a sheer face on one sides going up a good twenty feet and a rise nearly as steep on the other. The space between was wide enough for a man to spread his arms but not much wider. The bottom was flat in places, where dirt and gravel had been washed into the crevice. Well, it was flat side to side. The crack itself ascended steeply, twisting at a slight angle until I couldn't see the end. I looked at Black, who seemed to nod. If I were being hunted by what I thought were the Children of the Moon, I'd seek a narrow place too small for them to follow. If I were being hunted by anything faster than myself, I'd seek close quarters where their speed couldn't help them. No wonder Black's victims had gone this way.

We've used it to corner them. Don't want to get stuck in there.

"I told you, there's no one nearby."

I'm going around.

I rolled my eyes and followed, just in case. Bella would be cross with me if he got a rock flake in his paw or something. I tried to think of seeing the wolves the way I'd thought of seeing her parents. This was something she had to do. She needed some closure with her old life or she'd never settle. After all, Black didn't love her any more, not really. He certainly wasn't planning to woo her away from me. If she had some connection to him that I didn't fully understand, then I could learn to live with it. After all, soon we'd be back with the Cullens, and she'd have to share me with other people I loved. And Jasper had accepted the tight rapport I'd had with...

I blinked hard. It was as if the inside of my skull was scraping against my brain. This damned light.

Demetri. Bella had lived with the bond I'd had with Demetri. I could forgive Black for making me share this one tiny part of her.

"Technically," I said, "I'd been convicted of a crime and service was my sentence. We had some rights that he couldn't violate."

What about her?

The snow got loud underneath my feet.

"Legally, she was there voluntarily." She just wouldn't leave me.

Then why didn't she come home?

I looked him in the eye, suddenly tired. "You don't leave Volterra if the Masters don't want you to." Then I turned back up the ridge and left him.

For years, I thought that Bella had stayed solely because she loved me, but it turned out she'd been using her gift to protect me from Chelsea, so that I would at least have the freedom of my own will. Which she'd done because she loved me. At least I knew why I'd never been able to convince her to leave and go to Carlisle without me.

Careful. When we chase vamps through here, they tend to grab onto the rocks and jump down—

His entire body tensed.

Shit. Black's tail lashed as he turned his head toward the wind. Over there!

"What?" I asked. There wasn't anything in that direction. I rubbed my hand across one temple. Damn, I was regretting not having fed earlier.

Guys, get down here. Bring Bella, Black was saying.

"For the fifth time," I interrupted, "there's no one within a half a mile of—"

I heard what sounded like footfalls behind me. On reflex, I looked over my shoulder, but it couldn't be anything—

GodDAMMIT, Cullen! Jacob Black bared his teeth and lunged, scraping past his target as he knocked me sideways. I felt the edge of the wet rock crunch underneath my cheek before we tumbled down the ridge, hitting the ground flat. My mind was on autopilot as I sprung to my feet: It had to have been a falling log or boulder because it made no sense for there to be a male vampire, thick-bodied and dark-haired, snarling bloody murder as he scrambled upright. Torn jacket, growing-out hair lying thick on his neck.

The space between the rocks was wider here, patched with lichen and dormant moss. No wonder the wolves liked to set up their ambushes. Unfortunately, our new friend was blocking one of the exits, and climbing out would leave him free to strike again from below. And his mind was completely blank. For a span of seconds, I watched him advance at a crouch before slipping my body sideways and looking for a weakness. Surely it was just my headache. Surely I'd just missed something.

I could hear Black dithering for a split second before he leapt and landed behind the vampire, springing around in one motion that should have torn its throat from its body, but the vampire sprang up, gripping the cracks in the rock face and bounding back down, blocking the clearest path out of the rock formation. I spun just in time to see three more bodies drop off the rise, before and behind. This was not a good position, the enemy on both sides. There was no way to turn so that there was not an opponent at my back.

Why didn't you hear them? Jacob Black lashed out over the more subliminal I fucking told you so with some choice added sentiments about racist snobs not listening to people who actually knew their own behind from a hole in the ground.

"I don't know," I said out loud. For the next second and a half, I had the luxury of wondering if I was hallucinating. The one in the back had close-cropped dark hair, maybe black or Hispanic or both. By his eyes, he might be newborn but I couldn't tell if he was calm. The only woman had wild hair like a nomad, but her hiking clothes looked new. The other man, almost my height with growing-out dirty blond lying thick on his neck, stepped past her with a dull growl. The woman and the smaller man kept looking at Black and plastering fierce looks on their faces. They knew what he was and feared him.

Before I could react—and I should have been faster—the first vampire, the one who'd tackled me, gripped the narrow space between the rocks and propelled himself backward over my head, landing next to the boy. Two on one side, two on the other.

I shoved my alarm back down into my feet. Whatever had gone wrong, whatever had made me blind, I could deal with my mistakes later. At least with a group this size, it was likely to be their entire coven.

I couldn't read their thoughts but I was still faster than most vampires, and I'd fought this fight before. I jumped forward and grasped the youngest one's right arm at the elbow, then leaped sideways up the steeper of the two rock faces, pulling my whole body into a fulcrum as I spun upward, focusing all of my weight on that one little joint, tearing it the way I wished I could tear the scabs off his mind and hear the thoughts underneath clearly. He barely had time to shout.

The severed arm flexed in my hands before my feet hit the ground. I wished I were Chelsea and could rip him apart inside. However he'd managed to fight nature, however he'd hidden his thoughts to try to make me weak, I would overcome it. I'd slaughtered his fool kind on five continents.

My inertia took me backward, and I landed heavily beside Black while the vampire was still staring at the stump. I forced my breathing to slow as I lifted the forearm so the others could see it and then tossed it out high of the crevice and into the brush beyond.

"I can see that you know who I am," I said in my best Demetri imitation.

HOLY SHIT MY FUCKING HAND, his voice rang in my head like a hundred bells.

There you are, I thought, barely holding back the smirk. I didn't turn, keeping my eyes on their leader, but I could hear him regain himself. Then his mind blinked out, as if a pixel at a time, and was silent.

The female was the shortest but not by much, hair in curls around her neck. Her eyes kept shifting to the currently one-armed boy, his mop of dark hair twitching as he clutched at the stump. A mate? I didn't think so, but that was odd. A coven this size would need mating bonds to keep from dissolving, but none of these here seemed to be hers. Again, I wondered if they were still underage. The one who'd hit me looked Chinese or Filipino, maybe Hispanic, but the one in front was definitely white, and he was the only vampire here who didn't look like he could be new-turned. So he and the one Bella had just defeated had ...turned three newborns within a year of each other? Highly irregular, the sort of thing we'd have sent a team to investigate.

Of course, if they were a normal coven, they wouldn't have been slicing up humans without making a meal of them. I could wonder about their murders later, preferably after they were in pieces.

I drew myself up to my full height, missing the weight of a cloak on my back almost as much as I missed my two other halves. "State your purpose in this place, nomads," I said coldly. "The law has been broken, and not far from here or long ago."

"What's it to you, nomad?" asked the largest male, tilting his head to the side in mockery, dull red eyes standing out like blood mold on rock. "You left your little tower. Welcome to the real world."

Speaking seemed to affect his concentration. I couldn't hear thoughts, but it was a ...rippling. His mind was like a pond when the sun hit the surface so that it showed only glare. I forced my teeth not to clench. I'd seen more and worse of the real world than he ever would. I'd find the right angle. I'd outwit his little trick.

Seth and Quil are coming. Bella's with them. Black was still growling, raised hackles making him look the size of a bear, but his thoughts were calm. Stall him. I don't like these numbers.

"You'll pay for your sins, Edward Cullen," he snarled. All of a sudden, his thoughts burst into color as he imagined jumping toward me, arms out.

I raised an eyebrow.

His lip curled up over one canine. Images flickered in what I could see of his mind. He'd been hoping to trick me, impress his friends. Impress ...someone. He slipped away again.

He gave the imaginary attack another try. I tipped my head to the side, "That wasn't too bad," I said in the tone I reserved for Bella's students. "Why don't you try again?"

He snarled. But that left the question of why he'd tried it. The nature of my gift was no secret in the vampire world, but only Felix had ever been any good at fooling me like that. Felix and Rolfe.

"My sins?" I asked. "I'm not the one letting food go to waste," I strolled a step to the side, watching the others out of the corner of my eye. The woman shifted her feet as I moved, but the others didn't. Not all of them had trained for this, then. The others really were new.

Get ready, thought Black. Keep him talking if you can, but get ready.

"So what sins have I committed, nomad?" I said. "Or are you going to be so boorish as to deny me your name?"

His lower eyelids twitched up with the corners of his mouth. "What's the trouble? You don't already know?"

Shit. They know you can't hear them. I'd have thought Black would have figured that out by now. So that means they're doing something on purpose.

"Don't care to talk about me?" I said to the lead vampire. "That's fine. We can talk about the human you laid out this morning." I gestured to the others. "Or was it one of them? Such things are not tolerated in this place."

He smiled again. "Doesn't compare to the banquets of Volterra?"

"Hardly. Things are less wasteful there."

Black growled like an approaching thunderbolt. Shit. He might be on my side for now, but he did not like the casual way I was talking about human deaths.

"What business do you have with me?" I repeated. Ordinarily, this would bring an immediate answer. Almost no one could avoid thinking of the answer to question put to them. Over the years, I'd hardly needed to use my needles. This mind stayed blank as the gray sheets of snow on the hill behind him.

"Murder," said the smaller male. It would have been more impressive if he hadn't been clutching the stub of his elbow. He kept looking over to where I'd tossed the hand, which I could hear creeping, softly through the mud, though not in the right direction.

I kept my face calm. "That is not a crime among our kind."

Black blinked at that.

"No," said the leader, "but neither is revenge."

The taller male came toward me. I caught a flicker of his hand, a gesture to the others. Their faces tightened. It was a signal for something, but it was maddening not to know what.

Get ready, thought Black.

"Get on with it!" snarled the woman. —attack him myself if they—doesn't look so scary. Her concentration was breaking. I could tell that she was looking at Black. He did look scary to her.

The leader snarled again. He ducked to the right, bracing his foot off the far wall as he came at me. The others followed.

He aimed his jump too high—I could only assume his target was me; he was looking at me—but reaching up to get a grip on his leg would have left me wide open for when the female went straight for my throat—which might have been their plan the whole time for all I knew. I stepped forward, crossing my arms to block her, leaving him at my back.

I'd been a thousand fights like this, but nine hundred and ninety of them had been with Demetri at my elbow and my enemy's plans in my ears. Not even a wolf king could make up for my brother's absence. I could still see through Black's eyes, but I was used to different angles and taller partners. And two of them.

I felt the female's arms bend under mine as I locked her wrist; she was just a little thing. I saw the stockier man start to run up from behind her, dropped my right hand to her waistband and, hefting, threw her toward him with all the reflexivity in my spine.

The leader tried to get his arms around me, but I slid under his grip. Black's jaws closed on his left arm, but he sent a kick to the werewolf's ribs that made him huff just enough to let go. Meanwhile, the female and the smaller male had me dodging. The smallness of the space was helping, slightly. I couldn't use my speed advantage, but they couldn't use their numbers.

I'd hunted rogue covens with Caroly enough times to tell a weak link when I saw one. I'd already taken a piece of him.

"What's your name?" I called to the dark-haired vampire malingering in the back.

"Roy," answered the vampire just as the leader barked, "Don't talk to him!"

But he was already cracking. His thoughts were showing skim-white like the quivering flesh of an Easter egg when the colored shell began to flake away.

"Don't you want to go and look for your hand, Roy?" I asked, not quite gently, as if his state of dismemberment was rude of him. "Go ahead. I won't stop you." I punctuated my words with a lunge at the female, knocking her flat on her back. I bent to get her joint in a lock, then practically had to flatten myself against her chest as Black jumped through the space where my head had been. I let go on reflex.

To Roy's mind, I looked just like—someone—had described me—sometime. I saw a flash of his eyes looking at the top of the cliff. "Just go, Roy," I said.

"Coward!" called the female as Roy scrambled, one armed, up the ridge. "They'll punish you, Roy!"

Damn straight we will, thought Black. I know you Cullens like to play it merciful, but MY guys aren't going to let him go. He helped kill half a dozen people.

"Maybe he did and maybe he didn't," I murmured. Long talks about the Quileutes' right to kill vampires in of Cullen territory could wait for some other time.

Flank! Black thought sharply, snapping jaws just missing the other male's throat.

I was distracted enough for the female to punch me square in the jaw. "What?" I risked calling out loud.

Guard my f—shit! Black missed his mark as the leader tried to get his arms around him from the side. I managed to lift the female by her neck and leg and swing her at him, but her squirming threw off my aim.

Hey! Black snarled as he was hit with a hundred and twenty pounds of angry scavenger.

I tried to grab her again, get her positioned so Black could take her throat, but the physics was all wrong. I had her pitched too high. The leader came at me from behind shoving me hard enough that I lost my grip. The female spiraled into black, who was suddenly all random fangs and limbs like a spider dropped in water. I heard her cry out as I turned around before the leader could gouge my neck.

I looked up. Roy was nowhere to be seen, or heard. Maybe he'd taken my advice and run off.

Stall him. Black's thoughts were full of vampire flesh tearing, the metallic warping that felt like nothing else under his teeth, but I couldn't tell if it was real. The guys are coming. Stall.

"Your tricks won't help you," snapped the one in front. "We know our way around you, and you'll pay for what you've done."

I let my contempt show. I'd done violent things, yes, but they had been necessary, and I wasn't going to feel guilty about them. I'd save that for leaving Demetri to shame and starving in that lion's den of a coven.

The fight became a thick, awkward blur. One minute I'd seem to have the female in an armlock, only to be buffeted like a log in rough surf from the sides by the other two—or by Black trying to kill the other two. I could hear Black's thoughts clearly enough, but the angles from his line of sight were so strange to me that I couldn't figure out how to use them in time, and by God, he was fast.

The female stumbled into my reach. I jumped to get hold of her throat but had to pull back as Black's jaws closed where my hand had been. He hesitated half a second too long and she jumped back out of reach.

It wasn't just that they were blocking my gift. I'd been spoiled in Volterra. In every fight on every mission I'd fought alongside people I knew, whose moves I'd learned during my first weeks there. Hazing hadn't been pleasant, but I knew how fast Felix could move and the reach of his arm, not to mention how much my own body could take before it broke. For every fight after that, I'd either had the mate who trusted me utterly or two partners who felt like extensions of my own body. Or Bella's students, who knew me as Aro's left hand.

I swung beneath the leader's arms and my fingertips touched the smaller male's throat. I could actually feel my individual muscle fibers tensing for the knockout strike when he slid down and backwards away from me, an almost comically surprised look on his face. He twisted onto his back, shouting at the bear-brown wolf dragging him backward by the ankle. I made it! Quil mentally shouted. He shook his head violently side to side, and I could hear the joints strain. But the vampire rallied and kicked him hard between the eyes, getting loose.

Wow, this is a slippery one. I shot him the filthiest look I could manage before the leader behind me tried to get me in a half-Nelson.

I had a second of panic wondering where Bella was. All I registered was that Quil's thoughts didn't sound alarmed. I put it together: He was faster than Seth and knew the woods better than Bella did. He'd shown up first because Jake had told them to break formation and get here as fast as possible.

I listened for Black's thoughts to see if he'd taken the other male apart yet, when a kick from the blond leader knocked me flat on my back in the uneven ground. I could hear Black and Quil squabbling with the other two behind us. By the screams, they might have disabled one. I would hate to admit it, but they worked together better without me in the way.

I locked eyes with the leader. Dull red apples just starting to rot.

"If you mean to punish me for executing my duty, this is a poor way of doing it," I said, not trying to get up. "There's really no excuse for this kind of sloppiness."

The leader put his boot on my chest. "That's not what's getting executed here."

He leaned forward, shifting his weight. Just another inch...

Smirk. He thought he'd won. Poor bastard.

"Where's your girl?" he snarled.

"Volterra," I answered.

"You lie. We can smell her on you," he leered. "We're here to burn her, Cullen. You're going to—"

I struck him fast in the throat, clamping both hands on his shoulders and rolling backward, flipping him into the rocks. A high-pitched yelp said that my aim could have been better.

I had my feet under me before another second passed, my hands on my enemy. I couldn't reach his head, so I caught his foot at the knee, twisting fast. But he was strong, grasping the rocks with two wide hands and pulling away.

Behind us, the smaller male had been roughly sectioned, a sole arm still attached to his squirming torso. But the job had been interrupted. The leader's eyes widened, a hand moving halfway to his mouth. Quil was still shaking his head, and for a second I thought the shadow behind him was his own. Did you have to pitch him right into m—

Black's hackles raised with the pitch of his voice. Look out, you fucking—

Black and I leaped for the leader at the same time. I think either one of us alone could have made it. As it was, I stumbled over one of his legs, and his jaws fell short of the steel-strong arm. Quil's scream seemed to stretch for hours over the sick crunch of bone.

The leader was throbbing with anger as his hands worked like a hatchet. Damn you, moon-worshipping bastards. Do you know what he—

The thought dissolved into screaming as cable-thick fangs tore his throat. I got my hands around his temples. Another wrench and his head was off him.

And that was what broke him. Help me Carlisle, but I enjoyed it. I did. He'd tried to blind me, and I'd cut his lids away.

This... the wolves. The wolves were supposed to kill them. Have to tell. Have to...

"Tell who?" I demanded. "Who is your master?"

The rolling eyes locked with mine, and his mind went silent. I didn't hold in the snarl. I could break him. If my gift was muzzled, my hands weren't. Even without my needles, I knew every way to inflict pain.

A hand landed on my shoulder from behind, like it had so many times.

"I can get it out of him, Brother."

"I'm not your brother," came a voice as bitter as acid, "and I don't care what you get."

I shook myself, nearly dropping the head. Black. Of course it was Black.

"I apologize," I said. "I was confused."

"I don't care. Go."

I could see the other wolf, brown like wet earth, lying on the ground next to the bodies, ribs moving in and out like a worn-out bellows. The female vampire was gone.

"How bad is he hurt?"

"What do you care?"

"I can set bones. I—"

"Get out. Get off our land," Black's voice was a snarl, but it his anger was a man's anger. "This was a mistake."

I took half a step forward, breath in my mouth to tell him that we had a deal, a treaty.

I don't care if this is Cullen land, not today. They were after you. They were waiting for you. You brought them on us when you weren't even here.

He knelt down next to Quil. I could see the flesh of the wolf's leg swelling. Who knew how many times it had been broken?

"I can make this right."

"You don't get to."

We'll let you leave, but leave. Go now. Seth will tell Bella. She'll meet you at your car. I raised my head, listening. I didn't know Seth's voice well, but I could see his point of view rise up, hear him think the snow was cold under his bare feet. I could see Bella's face go dark with concern. Ingrates.

Quil made a noise. Quil's thoughts went to his leg, to how he was going to get to work, to his children.

I looked at Black and nodded.

He whispered back into the forest. I'll wait for Seth but then I'm going to call in the others, the reserves. We'll sweep the whole forest like we should have after we found the first body. I could feel the bile in his throat at the thought. He was admitting failure, that he couldn't get the job done without ripping other men away from their lives and families. I am not going to tell them to stop and check for yellow eyes. If there is any vampire on or near our land by morning, they'll be killed. I won't care who they used to be or what agreements we used to have.

I let my hands fall to my sides.

At least you'll know no one's following you.




It's a little hard to crack out a chapter while working on NaNo. In fact, it usually makes my NaNo suck. Or my NaNo would suck anyway. Yeah, probably the second of those.

drf24 (at) columbia (dot) edu