I own nothing; Jake owns me. Le sigh.

A/N: Thanks to my beautiful beta, AHizelm, who helps keep Jake and me in check. Love you, bb.

Apologies from me come after a few words from one Jacob Michael Black. Hope you enjoy. :)

With the way Bella was trembling and shrinking into my left side, you would have thought we were waiting for an executioner to come take us away. I knew this wouldn't exactly go over smoothly, but I was at least hoping to make them stop and listen to me before they went all irrational and blew their tops.

...Or burst into oversized wolves. You know, whatever.

I tensed the slightest bit, hoping Bella didn't notice, as I heard them approaching swiftly through the forest. I knew they were anxious to find out what my cryptic, hurried message to them from a few moments earlier had meant … and I suppose I didn't blame them for wanting answers. I hadn't exactly been acting like myself lately because of the craptastic situation with Bella, so I hoped when they saw her, they would just be happy for me and listen patiently while I explained what was going on.

Dream on, man.

Fuck you, inner-monologue. It could happen.

But when they stepped through the trees and onto the road opposite Bella and me, I knew for sure that I had been kidding myself.

The four of them stalked toward us, glaring at me intently... suspiciously, even. Once they spotted Bella clinging to my torso, however, their expressions became that of outraged disbelief, one after the other – Jared, Paul, Sam, and then Embry – and they stopped dead in their tracks.

I let go of her hand and instead draped a protective arm around her, gritting my teeth together and breathing deeply in an effort to stay calm.

This would not end well.

"What have you done, Jacob?" Sam demanded, reining in the fury I saw building beneath his carefully-controlled facade.

I opened my mouth to reply, but was interrupted by Paul's stupid ass, who pushed past Sam rather rudely to stand just a bit closer to me, emphasizing the fact that he was really fucking pissed by throwing his hands in the air like a child.

I rolled my eyes.

"Why can't you just follow the rules, Jacob?!" he shouted. "What the hell are you thinking? Is she more important than everything – than the whole tribe? Than the people getting killed?"

"She can help," I promised. I looked past Paul's trembling form to Sam, almost beseechingly, as I silently pleaded for his understanding.

"Help!" Paul barked, causing my attention – and everyone else's – to snap back to him. He was clenching his shaking fists at his side. "Oh, that's likely! I'm sure the leech-lover is just dying to help us out!"

"Don't talk about her like that!" I snapped, removing my arm from Bella's shoulders to ready myself, just in case this was going where it looked like it was going... where it always went when Paul got upset. If a tiny, innocent kitten happened to look at Paul the wrong way, he lost his cool and went wolf. That was just Paul.

As if on cue, a shudder rolled down his spine.

"Paul!" Sam cautioned, placing a firm hand on his shoulder. "Relax!"

Paul whipped his head back and forth twice, in what I assumed was an attempt to calm down and quit acting like a complete psycho.

Shock of all shocks: it didn't work.

"Jeez, Paul," Jared muttered, looking both slightly embarrassed and completely exasperated. "Get a grip."

Paul's face twisted into a snarl as he quickly glanced over at Jared, and then turned back to glare Bella, his expression only becoming more fierce.

I narrowed my eyes, stepping directly in front of her to break his eye contact. This was Paul's problem with me, not Bella. She was innocent here, and I wouldn't have him look at her with such hatred for even one second longer.

"Right, protect her!" Paul roared. An entirely irate, animalistic growl ripped viciously through his clenched teeth as he threw his head back.

Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck.

"Paul!" Sam and I yelled in unison, trying to bring him back to Earth, but it was too late.

Paul twisted and writhed where he stood, his shape blurring until the force of it looked like it was knocking him to the ground. There was the distinct sound of tearing fabric as he landed on four paws, bearing his teeth with a snarl.

I took off, sprinting toward him just as he hit the ground.

Bella screamed my name as I ran, and a distant part of my mind realized that she would actually witness me phase for the first time right here, right now, in this seemingly terrifying situation. I knew there was no danger – I was physically both bigger and stronger than Paul, and besides, I could kick his sorry ass with three paws tied behind my back – but I was sure that seeing me like this would shake her to the core.

But I did it anyway, because there was no way in hell I was going to let him get any closer to Bella.

I leapt forward, rapidly closing the distance between Paul and me. Mid-air, I felt the heat blaze down my spine, and by the time I landed I was charging Paul in wolf form.

PAUL! Back. The. Fuck. Off. NOW! I ordered, absently marking this moment as the first and only time I'd really wished I was the Alpha.

What the fuck is wrong with you, Jacob?! he yelled back. How could you bring her here?

Don't you dare move one single step closer to her!

Paul was crouched, ready to spring when I'd reached him, so I shoved my body against his to force him backward, away from Bella. I heard her scream my name again, and a small part of my brain regretted not being able to give her sufficient warning that this might happen.

The more coherent part of me, however, was focused on the snarling silver wolf that was still trying to push past me.

Paul shoved back, snapping his teeth near my mane. His thoughts were becoming less and less focused on Bella and more on his growing frustration that I was winning this fight.

Though this recognition of sorts comforted me a little bit, I refocused and snapped back, pushing him back toward the trees with my right shoulder.

He growled again and held his ground against me. What the fuck is your problem, Jacob? Why can't you ever listen to anything we tell you to do? Or, fuck, what we tell you not to do?!

I lowered my head and used the top of my muzzle to drive him backward again with a low bark, refusing to answer his stupid fucking questions. A constant stream of profanities jumbled his head as we made it into the cover of the trees. He continued to struggle against me, still growing angrier by the second that I was so much stronger than him.

You're not stronger, asshole, Paul scoffed as he listened to my thoughts. You're a weak, lovesick teenager who won't let go of a girl who will never belong to you!

Shut the fuck up! I demanded, but his voice became louder in my head as he ignored me.

And the best part? The guy she is still choosing over your pathetic ass is a motherfucking bloodsucker.

FUCK YOU! I roared, the thought translating into a growl that ripped from my throat. I pulled back on my haunches slightly and then sprung at him, taking him down when my teeth tore into his front leg, leaving a long, deep wound. He howled and snapped back at me, missing me only because we rolled into a small oak tree, effectively snapping the trunk when the force of our enormous bodies hit it.

We continued to tumble through the forest, snarling and blindly snapping through our rage, only narrowly avoiding each other's teeth each time we went bounding into another tree. Suddenly, we felt Sam's presence in our heads, and in that moment we not only heard, but felt, the Alpha's command.


The black wolf stepped through the trees just as Paul and I reluctantly put distance between us, our growls reverberating low in our chests as we eyed each other.

Are you two kidding me? Sam scolded, his head whipping back and forth between the place Paul stood and my position across from him. Paul, what the hell were you thinking, lunging at Bella like that? No matter what kind of poor decision Jacob has made –he spared me a dark look before he continued– there is absolutely no excuse to attack Bella.

Sam, Paul began, I just couldn't

Don't you dare speak until I'm finished, Sam growled, the double-timbre acting to further enhance the anger in his tone. Jacob, what on earth made you think it was okay to bring Bella into our world, to let her in on our most guarded secrets? Can't you see how dangerous this can be for her?

I tried to protest, but the Alpha's edict held my tongue.

Both of you need to take a serious look at yourselves and the choices you've been making, Sam continued. Paul. Learn how to chill the fuck out. Violence solves nothing, man; you could have just mauled and killed an innocent girl.

I flinched, audibly whimpering at the picture Sam tried not to conjure up in his head.

Jacob, you need to grow the fuck up, Sam demanded harshly. Think of Bella, the girl you care for so intensely that she invades your every thought and, in turn, our thoughts as well. You had no right to involve her in this part of your life. We agreed that you would end your relationship with her, and you betrayed that vow.

I clenched my teeth together, pawing at the ground sheepishly as Sam lapsed into silence.

Just then, I felt my tongue untie the same instant that Sam's thoughts indicated he was "finished." Paul and I began to shout at the same time, both attempting to defend ourselves while our feet remained rooted to their respective spots on the ground.

I just don't understand the hold that this girl has on you, Jacob. She's not even your girlfriend and she has you

You're such a fucking asshole, Paul. I can't believe you would actually spring at Bella

Alright you two, Sam interrupted, effectively cutting through Paul's and my voices, though not actually demanding that we stop. I think we should phase and talk about this... we'll act more civilly in human form, and we can head back to Emily's.

Really? I snorted. Because I think we should stay wolves so I can literally tear him to shreds.

You wouldn't stand a goddamn chance, Jacob Black, Paul snarled.

Jesus Christ, Sam sighed. Phase back. Now.

I cursed the Alpha's order and the weight of the strings that pulled at my muscles as I was forced back on my haunches. Within the same second, I was standing, stark-ass naked, on my two human feet. I blinked twice, rapidly, in an attempt to refocus in my new form. I regretted this decision immediately as Paul shifted back to human, naked as the day he was born.

"Ugh," I groaned, shielding my eyes.

"You're not exactly a sight for sore eyes yourself, dickhead," Paul scoffed.

"Will you two give it a rest?" Sam sighed, pulling on the shorts he'd apparently stashed in the trees.

"Man, look what you did to my forearm," Paul complained, extending his arm to show Sam and I the gash that was fading rapidly.

"I barely touched you," I spat, rolling my eyes at his theatrics. The cut already looked as though it was days old.

"Let's get a move on," Sam suggested, ignoring our bickering as usual. "I told the guys to take Bella to Emily's." He grabbed each of us by the arm and gave us a rather unnecessary shove in the right direction.

I fell silent at the mention of Bella, my thoughts tied up in the horror that I knew she must have felt after seeing what had just unfolded in front of her.

...What had unfolded at her, I suppose, would more accurate. I suppressed a shudder at the thought of what could have been.

"I just don't get it," Paul mumbled once we began walking. Sam fell into stride between us, probably not just because he happened to be right there to begin with. "What's with you and this girl, man? She doesn't even want you–"

I clenched my hands into fists just as Sam swatted Paul's arm. "You don't have to be cruel, Paul."

"Iloveher," I blurted out in one quick breath. Paul abruptly stopped walking, causing both Sam and I to do the same. I inhaled deeply before repeating myself more clearly. "I love her."

The puzzled look on Paul's face probably would have made me laugh if I hadn't just tried to kill him moments earlier.

"You... what? You love the vampire girl?" he asked, his face still screwed up in an expression of utter confusion.

"Yes," I said simply. "I love the vampire girl."

"Paul..." Sam began, then stopped to take a breath himself. "Dude, did you seriously not realize this? I mean, you're in his head just as much as the rest of us."

"And, as always, I can't express enough just how much I enjoy that," I mumbled in annoyance.

"Nobody likes it; don't act like you're the only one," Sam retorted. He turned back to Paul, who still looked entirely baffled.

"Well, I guess it makes sense..." he conceded after a few beats of silence. "I obviously knew how you felt, I just... never really put a label on it or anything."

I barked a bitter laugh. "That's probably because the only things you love are Doritos and picking fights with anyone who dares to look at you."

Paul's mouth set in a hard line for a few seconds, during which I stood my ground, half-hoping he would lunge at me again. With Sam between us, though, I knew he wouldn't...

Still, you can imagine my surprise when Paul actually burst out laughing.

"Dude, it's not my fault there's no chicks in La Push that are worthy of all this," he chuckled, gesturing to his unclothed torso.

"Jesus, we have got to get you some clothes," I laughed, shielding my eyes again.

"Yeah, because you're God's Gift yourself, right?" Paul snorted.

"Seriously, guys," Sam said, "nobody would appreciate you two being clothed more than me right now. Let's get a move on."

The three of us started off through the trees again, all clearly happy that the tension had broken between Paul and me.

"Man, you need to imprint," I told Paul. "Maybe then you'd be more chill. You need a woman to crack the whip and put an end to your shenanigans."

"Please," he scoffed. "There isn't a girl in the world who could tame me – especially one from around here."

Sam chuckled, and I just shook my head, staring at my feet as we continued through the forest.

"Not like there are any girls around here, anyway," Paul continued. He snickered. "Hey, speaking of which, when are your sisters coming home, Jake?"

"Oh, HELL NO!" I shouted, glaring at Paul. Sam laughed and put a preventative hand on my chest.

Paul, however, was laughing his ass off.

"Dude, last time I saw Rachel, she was hot as hell," he said. "And that was, what? Four years ago? I'll bet she looks even better now."

I narrowed my eyes at him, a human translation of a growl rumbling in my chest.

"Rachel and Rebecca are twins," Sam pointed out. "If one looks good, the other generally will, too."

"Sam!" I exclaimed. "Whose side are you on, man?"

"I'm just saying," Sam said with a laugh.

"Rebecca's married," Paul said. "I'm not that big of a scumbag, man. Plus Hawaii's considerably farther away than Seattle – Rachel has to come home at some point."

"Ugh." I made a face. "What the fuck makes you think Rachel would go for you, anyway? First of all, she has much better taste than that. Second of all, I'd probably consider suicide on a pretty consistent basis if I knew I had to be stuck with you as a potential brother-in-law. And third... well, I think I mentioned the fact that she has better taste than that, but I feel like I should reiterate that point."

Paul snickered again. "Whatever, asshole."

We walked silently through the woods, keeping an even pace with each other. I was never one for tranquility, so of course I broke the silence after just a few short minutes.

"Hey, I wasn't lying earlier when I said Bella could help us. She really does want to... and not just because she's my best friend. She's got a pretty freaking solid reason, too."

I recounted the conversation Bella and I'd had on the beach earlier, making absolutely sure that I didn't leave anything out. I explained that this Victoria was really after Bella, and that she'd been heading for Forks the entire time. I told them about the bloodsucker's thirst for revenge, that she thought a mate-for-mate deal was better than just killing Edward himself.

By the time I finished, my hands were shaking so violently that I laced my fingers together in an attempt to still them.

"Christ," Sam breathed. Paul's jaw was set tight, and he was shaking his head slowly back and forth, as though he couldn't believe what he'd just heard.

"I know," I growled disgustedly, releasing my clasped hands and flexing them repeatedly. "So, you got a plan, Boss?"

Sam nodded seriously, turning to look at me. "Actually, before we talk about Bella, could we maybe address that specific, er... title?"

I quirked an eyebrow at him, swinging my arms at my sides as we continued through the brush. "What are you talking about?"

He expelled a heavy sigh before speaking. "Jacob... you are the rightful Alpha of this pack."

I rolled my eyes. "Not this crap again..."

I had sensed this topic in his thoughts for weeks now, ever since he'd mentioned it the last time. He had been trying to figure out a way to approach the subject without causing me to vehemently deny what he considered to be my "destiny."

Doesn't he know yet how damn stubborn I am? Jesus...

Sam sighed again. "Jake, this is about our lineage. Your grandfather, Ephraim Black, was the last Alpha of the Quileute wolfpack. He was the last chief of our tribe."

"Why does it matter who my grandfather was, anyway?" I muttered. "I don't want that kind of responsibility. I don't even want to be a part of this life, Sam, let alone the leader of our pack."

"But you're the true–"

"Look," I said sternly, interrupting him. "I don't care about bloodlines. I don't care about what heredity says I should or shouldn't be. You should be the Alpha, Sam. You were the first in our generation to phase; you're the oldest. And you're actually good at this leader business. Can you imagine the guys listening to a damn thing I said?"

"Not freaking likely," Paul coughed.

I chuckled, not offended in the least. "See? You should remain Alpha, Sam."

Sam groaned. "You're sure? I don't want to take this away from you."

"Dude, it's like you're doing me a favor," I assured him, waving my hand nonchalantly.

"Alright," he surrendered. "But you will still be the Second. Nothing you say can change that, at least."

"Fantastic," I sighed.

"Okay, now that we've gotten past that," Sam continued, clearly relieved to have that off his chest, "let's talk about the next steps to take in the hunt for this bloodsucker."

Sam, Paul and I bounced ideas back and forth as we walked, focusing on the best ways to avoid leaving accidental holes in our trails that would enable the leech to slip through. We decided that we'd leave deliberate holes instead in order to test her, to see if she would take the metaphorical bait that our "weakness" would provide, thereby leading her right into our trap. We discussed pattern changes and even the idea of splitting up into two groups – that way, we could cover more ground but remain consistently secure in our defenses.

"I like that idea," I approved with a quick nod.

"Yeah, I think that would be a good way to go at it," Paul agreed.

"We'll also up our patrols, go out on runs more often, things like that," Sam concluded.

"One more thing," I said. "I'd really like Bella to stay in La Push while we get this all figured out."

"Yeah, I'm sure that was a real difficult decision to come by," Paul snorted.

I rolled my eyes, pointedly ignoring him. "It's safer for her here, where we can keep an eye on her. I mean, the bloodsucker's looking for her, specifically. Why wouldn't we want to keep her close?"

"That's true," Sam allowed.

I kept going. "I think we should get Charlie down here, too. I mean, this psycho is stalking Bella – I don't think she'd hesitate to harm Bella's father if she stood the chance. He likes to watch basketball with Billy, so it shouldn't be too hard to convince him to stick around the res while we get this mess cleaned up."

"I agree," Sam said. "We'll need to discuss this with Bella, though... see what she thinks. We can't make her decisions for her."

"I know," I muttered, internally at war with myself over the two sides of Bella that I saw earlier at the beach – my strong, independent, stubborn girl, and the Bella who was scared out of her wits every second of the day. Would she decide that she could handle this on her own, or would she give in and let us protect her?

At this point, even with knowing Bella the way I did, I honestly had no idea which way she'd go.

"Not to bring this up again, but I honestly don't understand her affinity for vampires," Paul said. I shot him a look, and he raised his hands in defense. "Seriously, man, I'm not trying to be a dick."

"It just comes so naturally to you, though," I replied.

"Let's not start this again," Sam pleaded, sounding thoroughly exhausted.

"No, no, I don't want to start a fight again," Paul promised.

I gaped at him in exaggerated shock. "Whoa, write that shit down!"

"Fuck you, I'm serious," he said. His face twisted into a mask of disgust. "I mean, vampires are... dead. That's gross. Did she kiss him and stuff?"

"I don't fucking know," I moaned. "I don't want to know."

Who are you kidding? my morbidly-curious subconsciousmocked. Of course you want to know.

"That's kind of like necrophilia," Paul joked, though he still had the disgusted look plastered on his face.

"Gross," Sam laughed.

"Can we not talk about this?" I begged. Of course, no one listened.

"Well, if she sleeps with Jake," Paul started, already cracking up at his own joke, "isn't that kind of like bestiality?"

Sam had actually stopped walking, and was now bent over with the force of his laughter. "You sick son of a bitch," he said, literally struggling to breathe.

"Oh, fuck you both," I snapped, throwing my hands in the air and stomping ahead of them. "We're almost to Emily's; don't make me kick both of your asses in her backyard and embarrass you in front of everyone."

"You couldn't if you tried," Sam teased, clapping me on the shoulder as he caught up to me. Paul jogged up on Sam's left side again, and we broke through the trees into the clearing behind Emily's small house.

I shoved Sam into Paul, and they both only laughed harder. "I could take you both out, you fucking assholes."

"Hey, hey, watch your language," Sam scolded, wiping the tears from his eyes on the back of his hand. "We're approaching the womenfolk. Have some respect, or I'll have Emily wash your mouths out with soap."

We continued to laugh and shove each other like seven-year-olds until we reached the small shack that was set about 100 yards back from Emily's house. Paul opened the little door and reached in, grabbing a handful of black cloth and tossing it my way. He fisted another bunch of cloth in his other hand and closed the door.

"Good thing we thought to stash some spare sweats in here," I said, pulling the cut-offs on and adjusting them on my hips. "Too bad we don't have any extra shoes in there, though... Billy said he wouldn't buy me another pair if I destroyed the last ones."

"You shouldn't lose your temper so easily," Paul chuckled, pulling on his own pair of sweats. "You wouldn't shred your shoes if you just stayed on two feet."

"Very funny," I grumbled, knocking into his shoulder with my own. Sam had already walked around the house and was through the front door by the time Paul and I rounded the side of the house. We watched him make a beeline through the kitchen and over to Emily just as Paul and I stepped inside.

After giving Paul one last half-hearted shove into the doorway, my eyes immediately searched for Bella among the small expanse of space within the kitchen. She was leaning against the counter across the room, looking as though she felt a bit out of place. I plucked two muffins out of the bowl on the table as I passed it, popping one in my mouth and swallowing it before I even reached Bella. Emily's muffins were the best.

"Hey, Bells." I grinned as I approached her, settling at her side. I leaned my muffin-free hand on the countertop behind her, happily taking in the air of contentment that always filled Emily's house. Even when my brothers and I were bickering with each other, as was the case often, Emily's place always felt safe and comfortable, like a second home to us.

I took a quick glance around the kitchen. Paul had settled into a chair near me at the kitchen table, opposite Embry and Jared. He began stuffing his big mouth with muffins, while Emily and Sam talked quietly at the stove, their heads tilted close together. It looked like Emily was still making food – sometimes I wondered if she ever actually stopped – and that had my stomach growling in an instant.

I turned back to Bella. "Sorry about before," I said sheepishly, flashing her a lopsided grin. Honestly, I felt a bit embarrassed that she'd seen me act like that in my hairier state, all snarling and ferocious while knocking the shit out of Paul's bitch ass. "How are you holding up?"

"Don't worry, I'm okay," she assured me. "Good muffins."

I nodded, about to tell her that I wholeheartedly agreed, but Jared interrupted us with a lamenting groan.

"Oh, maaan!"

Bella and I both glanced over to see Embry and Jared squinting at Paul's left forearm, their heads close together and their noses merely inches away from a light pink, linear blemish that ran across his skin – a habitual formality, since one of the few perks of being a werewolf was impeccable eyesight, even in human form.

Embry straightened up and grinned from ear to ear, clearly delighted with himself about whatever Jared was now brooding over. "Fifteen dollars!" he announced, extending his hand towards Jared.

I snorted, realizing quickly that Embry had bet Jared that I'd win the fight. I knew the kid was my best friend for a reason.

Bella leaned closer to me, her voice barely above a whisper. "Did you do that?"

I shrugged. "I barely touched him. He'll be perfect by sundown."

She looked up at me incredulously, before turning her eyes back to my handiwork on Paul's arm. "By sundown?"

"Wolf thing," I explained. She nodded, her eyes still slightly wider than normal.

"You okay?" She tore her eyes from Paul to appraise me, her gaze lingering on the exposed skin on my torso.

I grinned smugly, extending my arms toward her so that she could inspect them. "Not a scratch on me."

"Hey, guys," Sam called, effectively ending the bits of conversation that were floating around the room. "Jacob has information for us."

I cleared my throat and looked at Jared and Embry. "I know what the redhead wants. That's what I was trying to tell you before." I snapped my leg out to lightly kick Paul's chair. He paid me no attention.

"And?" Jared prompted.

"She is trying to avenge her mate – only it wasn't the black-haired leech we killed. The Cullens got her mate last year... and she's after Bella now." I swallowed the lump that had risen in my throat. I paused for a minute to regain the composure that had begun to slip at the thought of the female bloodsucker getting what she wanted – my Bella. Visions of the black-haired vampire we'd killed flashed through my head and mixed with the fiery hair and shifty eyes that the female possessed.

This Laurent had come far too close to getting what he wanted, and there was no way in hell that I'd let the redheaded leech succeed, either.

Emily turned from the stove to face Bella and me, her mouth hanging open in surprise. Embry and Jared were also gaping slightly, and Embry's eyes flickered to Bella and then back to me in an instant.

"She's just a girl," he protested.

"I didn't say it made sense," I countered. "But that's why the bloodsucker's been trying to get past us. She's been heading for Forks."

Bella shrunk back into me slightly under the still-shocked gazes of Emily and my brothers. I wished they would stop staring at her – she had to be uncomfortable already anyway, what with a crazy bloodsucker after her and all.

Jared seemed to snap out of it first, but when he opened his mouth again to speak, I found myself wishing he'd kept it shut.

"Excellent," he muttered, perking up a bit. "We have bait."

That last word had barely tumbled out of his stupid mouth before I grabbed the nearest object on the counter – a can opener – and hurled it at his head. He caught it almost lazily, about two inches from his face.

My jaw was tight, my eyes narrowed at him as I growled, "Bella is not bait."

He rolled his eyes at me. "You know what I mean."

I leaned back against the countertop again, instinctively settling closer to Bella. I shot Jared one last dirty look – one that clearly said, "if you mention anything like that again, I will happily rip your head off" – and then refocused my attention on Sam.

Sam continued as if Emily's kitchenware hadn't just been used as a weapon. "So we'll be changing our patterns. We'll try leaving a few holes, and see if she falls for it. We'll have to split up, and I don't like that... but if she's really after Bella, she probably won't try to take advantage of our divided numbers."

"Quil's got to be close to joining us," Embry pointed out softly. "Then we'll be able to split evenly."

We were all silent for a few moments, contemplating this somberly. None of us wanted Quil to be sucked into a life like ours – filled with responsibilities far beyond what a sixteen-year-old boy should have on his plate.

Of course, no normal sixteen-year-old would have a sadistic vampire sitting pretty on said plate to begin with, but that was neither here nor there.

"Well, we won't count on that," Sam mumbled, then went on to reiterate the plans we'd discussed on the way to Emily's. "Paul, Jared, and Embry will take the outer perimeter, and Jacob and I will take the inner. We'll collapse in when we've got her trapped."

Bella looked up at me through her long lashes, her eyes filled with concern. It was obvious that she didn't like the fact that Sam and I would be the ones included in the smaller group. I placed my hand on the small of her back and smiled lightly, confidently, to try and comfort her. She trembled a bit at my warm touch, but relaxed back into me quickly, accepting my reassuring gesture.

Sam addressed Bella then, explaining what I had discussed with him on the walk over – that she should spend all her free time here in La Push, where she could be easily protected. Bella expressed her worry for Charlie, but I squashed that quickly, reminding her that it was March Madness, which meant endless basketball games for Billy and Charlie to watch. Since my father was disabled, Charlie usually settled on watching the games at our house, which worked out perfectly for our current situation.

Once we had made those simple arrangements, Sam had to go and make things uncomfortable again.

"That's what Jacob thinks is best," he said, referring to our plans for her in La Push, "but you need to decide for yourself."

His gaze lingered delicately on Emily. Then his eyes skipped more grimly over to Paul, who was studying the muffin he held in his palm very intently, and then back to me.

"You should weigh the risks of both options very seriously," Sam continued. "You saw this morning how easily things can get... dangerous here, how quickly they get out of hand. If you choose to stay with us, I can't make any guarantees about your safety."

My fingers splayed more firmly across the small of Bella's back, shaking slightly at the mere thought of...

"I won't hurt her," I vowed, my voice low yet certain.

Sam went on, ignoring the fact that I'd just said anything at all. "If there was somewhere else you felt safe…"

Bella had everyone's attention again – Paul even took a break from shoveling muffins into his mouth to refocus his attention along with the rest of us. I looked down at Bella, who was chewing on her lip anxiously as she internally weighed her options. I made myself a promise not to feel hurt or throw a shit-fit if she decided to go stay in Florida with her mother, even though I knew that La Push was the safest place for her. This was not just because I wanted her near me, but because you really couldn't make any better precautionary arrangements than having a pack of werewolves around for protection, especially if the predator was a crazy-ass vampire.

Hell, this game of hide-and-seek the leech had begun with us was going to be fun.

"I don't want to lead Victoria anywhere else," Bella finally said. She'd made a good point, and we all nodded our agreement.

"That's true," Sam allowed. "It's better to have her here, where we can end this."

At his words, Bella tensed, recoiling slightly into my body again. She looked up at me, panicked concern swimming in her beautiful brown eyes. I tightened my hand on her waist and smiled lightly, trying again to wordlessly reassure her.

"You'll be careful, right?" Her voice broke on the last word of her sentence, her eyes tightening with her need for affirmation.

The tension of our conversation ruptured almost tangibly as we all broke into fits of laughter. I hugged her body to my own as I chuckled and shook my head, watching as Paul, Jared, and Sam laughed loudly, and Embry nearly fell off his chair.

Honestly, I just couldn't imagine worrying about something as trivial as the pack's well-being while I was entertaining visions of this deadly chase-and-catch game in my head. My earlier thought had snowballed, and now I was really looking forward to this fight. Ripping the last leech limb-from-limb had been fucking fantastic; the sense of elation I felt – that we all felt – after every audible shred of his diamond-hard body was like a high. Besides, this is what we were made for; this is why we existed. We were the protectors, the "hall monitors," as Embry had called us in our more innocent past lives. We would protect Bella – I would protect Bella – no matter what.

"Food's ready," Emily declared, clearing her throat. Our laughter dissipated as we crowded around the table, diving head-first into the enormous bowl of eggs and, of course, muffins.

I brought Bella back to my house around two o'clock because I had to run patrols for a bit. The plan for the pack that day was for each of us to run both with the pack as a whole and within the two groups that Sam had decided on earlier that morning. When we ran together, we mostly strategized, and when we split into two, we tried some new formations and running patterns that would cover the most ground, while still being thorough enough so that Victoria wouldn't be able to slip through our defenses.

This bitch stood no chance.

I arrived back at home after an hour or so, and I found Bella fast asleep on the couch. I knelt down next to her and brushed the hair from her cheek, studying the lines of her face and the little pinch between her eyebrows that always meant she was stressed about something. I sighed, wishing there was some way to quash her worries and make her see that there was absolutely nothing to be afraid of. I shook her as gently as I could manage, but she still nearly jumped out of her skin.

"Easy, Bells. I didn't mean to startle you."

She took a deep, shaky breath. "Sorry, Jake. I didn't realize I had fallen asleep."

"No worries," I shrugged. "I stopped by the Clearwaters' on the way back here, though, and Billy told me that he's invited Charlie over for dinner. Said something about leaving him a message at both your house and the station, so I'm sure he'll get them and head down after work."

"Sounds great." She smiled faintly, her eyes still slightly wider than normal. I sighed again, settling into the couch next to her and pulling her against my side.

We remained that way, watching television and just relaxing for once, until my father arrived home around four. Bella and I chatted with him as we helped him straighten up the house a bit before Charlie arrived at five, carrying two large boxes from Pacific Pizza.

Charlie kept glancing at me as I wolfed down an entire large pizza in what had to be record time.

"Well, that has to be a record," Billy said with a chuckle, reading my mind like he was becoming so very good at doing. "Congratulations, son."

"A little hungry, Jake?" Charlie finally asked, his eyebrows nearly disappearing into his hairline at the same time the last piece disappeared into my mouth.

"A little bit, yeah," I allowed with a grin.

Charlie nodded seriously, his gaze now ping-ponging between me and Bella, who was sitting close to me on the couch.

His eyes finally settled back on me. "You cut your hair," he said, and it wasn't a question.


"How come?"

Because I spend half my time running around on four legs, and long fur dragging in the dirt is really freaking annoying.

"It's more convenient," I admitted, which was really the truth.

I walked Bella out to her truck when she and Charlie decided it was time to go home. As I closed the door after she climbed in, I leaned on the window, hoping Charlie would drive away first and I could talk to her, ease her fears, without him lingering nearby.

"Don't be afraid tonight," I pleaded seriously. "We'll be out there, watching."

"I won't worry about myself," she mumbled, her forehead doing that little pinch thing again.

"You're silly," I grinned. "Hunting vampires is fun. It's the best part of this whole mess."

She sighed exasperatedly. "If I'm silly, then you're dangerously unbalanced."

I laughed. That was neither here nor there. "Get some rest, Bella, honey. You look exhausted."

"I'll try," she promised.

Charlie honked his horn, apparently tired of waiting for our conversation to end.

"See you tomorrow," I said. "Come down first thing."

"I will."

As soon as their headlights disappeared down the road, I sprinted toward the treeline, allowing my father a quick wave as he peered through the window. With a rush of heat, I was northbound on four legs, ready to catch up with my brothers. I sensed Sam and Embry immediately.

Hey-o, anything new?

Nope, nothing yet, Sam answered.

Jared and Paul phased back to grab some quick food, Embry supplied, answering the question just as it formed in my head. I acknowledged it with a nod.

Alright, boys, I huffed, nearing the spot where they had stopped to wait for me. Let the games begin.

A/N: So... I suck, right?

Truth is, real life gets in the way of the things you'd rather be doing sometimes, which, in my case, means fanfic. But I promise, I will never give up on this story, no matter what so thank you for the PMs and reviews wondering where the heck I've been all this time. It means a lot to me! :)

Aside from apologizing, the other thing I wanted to tell y'all about is that I'm going to be writing a series of JCMS outtakes that focuses on the things the canon timeline doesn't allow me to elaborate much on like Jake adjusting to becoming a wolf (phasing spontaneously after becoming only mildly upset, etc), Emily's relationship with all of them, more memories and discussions regarding imprinting... stuff like that. These outtakes will be considerably shorter than my chapters, meant just to give you some extra fun with the boys. :)

I'll start writing these soon, and in the meantime, if anyone has any suggestions of things they'd like to see, feel free to PM me or leave it in a review!