I thanked Jacob for the babysitting, and we hastily changed clothes and dashed outside and through the woods to our familiar playing grounds, Emmett digging out the balls and bats on his way by. The thunder moved closer, and was sounding loudly by the time we reached our field, a light drizzle falling and casting a haze over the area.
The excitement of moving on to a new place, and the fun of spontaneously playing hooky from the day's task, gave more zest to the game than usual. We played boisterously, rooting each other on and sliding dramatically into base even when it was unnecessary. Even I could play a respectable game of baseball by this time, and I leapt and cheered shamelessly when I got Emmett out with a difficult catch in our expanded outfield.
Alice was winding up to pitch when she suddenly stopped short, holding up her hand for us to remain still. A minute later, we all smelled, then heard it: vampires approaching. The first strangers that had been in the area since my junior year in high school.
What is it about baseball that draws vampires like a magnet?
Everyone's eyes immediately went to me. Not that I was any more vulnerable to attack than the others, not now; but the situation was all too reminiscent of the first Cullen family baseball game I'd attended.
We moved closer together, facing south, the direction from which the strangers were approaching.
"How many?" Carlisle asked quietly.
"Two," Alice told him.
He turned to Edward. "Are they a couple?"
Edward concentrated on the still distant figures. "No. Two males, and not particularly close friends."
That was good news. Not that two vampires would be a serious threat against the eight of us, even if they were foolish enough to start a fight; but if a confrontation did take place, bonded mates, driven by the need to protect each other, would fight much more fiercely than unattached individuals.
We gathered closer still as they reached us, standing shoulder to shoulder and facing the pair of nomads. They stopped a few yards from us, and we stood and looked each other over. Like most nomads, they appeared uncivilized compared to the Cullens, wearing dirty, torn and mismatched clothing. Both were barefoot. Their eyes, naturally, were crimson, and growing dark; they were a little thirsty. One of the males was big, almost as big as Emmett, and strongly built. The other was significantly smaller, but had a confident look about him that suggested he was better at defending himself than he appeared. The smaller one had thick, wiry hair which had been torn or burned off on one side of his head, leaving a patch of stubble and uneven tufts, giving him a slightly demented look. I'd been given some helpful information on vampire hair restoration by Alice, but I suspected our visitors were not interested in sharing beauty tips.
Predictably, they stiffened and fell into a defensive posture when their eyes fell on Jasper, standing calmly and with no sign of aggression, but bearing the visible marks of having survived thousands of attacks. Both males shifted somewhat to their right, away from where Jasper stood at one end of our line.
The smaller one spoke first. "So many of you!" His eyes moved along our line, searching out the leader. He focused on Emmett a moment, then faced Jasper. "Is there a mass hunt going on? But I don't smell any prey nearby. A fight?" His companion tensed.
"No, no hunt, and certainly no fight." They both turned in surprise to Carlisle. "We were just playing baseball."
The larger male huffed an incredulous laugh. "Baseball?"
"Yes. I'm Carlisle; this is my family." The pair looked at each other in mild surprise at the word family, but they did not introduce themselves in turn. "Are you merely passing through?"
"That's our business," the small one snapped.
"Indeed, but you should be aware that the immediate area is protected."
"Is that right?" The smaller male's voice took on a mocking tone.
"It is. It would not be a prudent place to hunt."
Obviously they took this as a challenge rather than a friendly warning, but before Carlisle could explain further, things began to change.
I became aware of a slight disturbance within the family, some restless movement. Jasper, who had stood quietly with his hands behind his back, began to glance down our line, his manner suggesting Yellow Alert. Edward, catching his eye, moved slightly to place me just behind his left shoulder. Even Emmett's cheerfully confident manner was gone. He looked agitated, even - completely unheard of for Emmett - frightened. The others were stirring in an uneasy way I couldn't understand. And all the while, the nomads watched us, smiling.
It took me a minute, but I finally realized what was going on. The smaller one was gifted. His confidence was based on his ability to disarm his opponent, probably by causing fear, weakness, or confusion. I was glad to find my defensive training hadn't become rusty since the last time I'd used it. With a nearly effortless push, I threw my shield outward to cover my entire family.
They calmed instantly, and understanding of what had just occurred swept almost visibly through them. "Thank you," Carlisle murmured quietly, without looking in my direction.
The gifted male frowned, recognizing that his efforts had been thwarted somehow. "No," Edward said to him, answering his thoughts. "It's not going to work." The nomads' eyes went to him immediately, astonished. "And the town isn't protected only by us. Trust me, looking at this as a challenge would not be in your best interests. You should move on."
The smaller one smiled grimly, and I could see that he did, in fact, regard this situation as an irresistible challenge. Jasper tensed, reading the male's reaction, and clenched his hands in readiness. The nomad looked at his larger companion, jerking his head toward Edward. "That's the one," he said. "Take him out, fast, and I've got the rest covered." Evidently he assumed that Edward's awareness of his thoughts meant Edward must also be the one protecting us from his gift. He didn't realize what a multi-talented group he was dealing with.
After that, things happened very fast. The big male stepped forward. Without realizing what I was doing, I also moved forward, directly in front of Edward. My shield seemed to grow denser, flex itself powerfully in response to my emotions, and my body reacted in much the same way. My feelings were so strong I could hardly understand them, but I saw the huge nomad heading directly for Edward, and I acted on instinct. Even as I took in Edward's gasp of surprise as I stepped in front of him, the nomad took another step forward. I crouched, bared my teeth, and released a snarl that lasted a good ten seconds and echoed off the surrounding hills. Even I recognized that my reaction was completely over the top; I'd never heard such a noise in my life.
The nomad froze where he stood. I stared him in the eyes, growling quietly but intensely, seeing the impact of my rage in his expression. Just try moving in his direction again, buddy, my attitude clearly expressed. Make my day. I was no fighter, and I should have been afraid, but standing between him and Edward felt deeply satisfying. The rest of the family seemed to be immobile, alert but waiting.
The big male flashed a brief look down the row of Cullens, and immediately back to me. Then, still holding my gaze, he took a slow, cautious step back, then another, until he stood beside his companion in the place he'd started. The small nomad gave him a look of irritation, but seemed to be rethinking his strategy.
"This cannot end well for you," Carlisle said calmly. "Please consider just going your way."
The smaller nomad looked us over, gave the other a final glare, and with a hiss he turned and stalked away without another word. The larger male followed. I could feel a faint trembling from Edward, as if from muffled laughter. A moment later, seeing the visitors were really gone, I straightened and moved back to his side.
I realized that all eyes were on me. They didn't seem angry. In fact, I had the oddest impression that they were all about to laugh.
"Well," I said, horribly embarrassed by the attention, "that went better than last time, don't you think?"
Dawn was starting to break when we arrived back at the house. The family had barely stopped laughing the entire way home, and on returning, time had to be taken to recount the entire adventure to Jacob. Alice outlined the way I'd 'foiled' the gifted vampire with my shield, embellishing a little bit, in my opinion. Jacob found the rest of the story as hilarious as everyone else did. He especially liked Jasper's vivid description of the huge nomad slowly backing away from my impressive wrath. Edward laughed the hardest of all, but he also took the time to thank me for protecting him so ferociously.
"I'm never going to call her tame again," Emmett declared. "She might look harmless, but make a move at Edward, and she turns into one scary little hell-hound."
"Perhaps you would have made a good pirate after all," Carlisle suggested.
Emmett laughed at my expression. "Aw! I miss the blushing."
We changed out of our damp baseball clothes as the sun began to show itself, and when I returned to the living room, Nessie was just waking up. We promised her breakfast in the car, packed her bed and the baseball equipment back into the van and bolted it once more.
We arranged ourselves in our respective vehicles, Emmett in the lead at the wheel of the moving van. He was followed by Rosalie in her red convertible, Carlisle and Esme in Emmett's Jeep, Jacob driving my Ferrari with Nessie in the back seat holding a granola bar, Edward in his stupid, shiny Volvo, me trying out his Aston Martin for the first time, and Alice and Jasper in the yellow Porsche. Quite a display of automotive excellence.
We heard Emmett call out Convoy, ho! This was answered by derisive laughs and groans, and we all headed out behind him, down our long private road and onto the highway. We would soon be separated as we each adopted our own speed and made stops as we liked, but we would find each other at the end of the journey. We drove east, directly into the rising sun, taking our home with us as we went.