"Tristan, fuck off!"
"Paul, stop swearing. How many times do I have to tell you?"
"Obviously at least once more."
"I just wanna see—"
"Stop hitting your brother—he's just curious, he's not hurting her."
"Well we wouldn't have a problem if you'd just let me take her to my room!"
"You know the rules."
"Mom! Tristan, fuck off!"
A squeal of pain pierced the air then a thud followed. I flinched a little, and then suddenly something was hovering very close to my face, though I couldn't see it with my eyes closed.
"Bella?" a soft voice whispered. I knew the voice, I also knew that it was incredibly annoying and rude… and that of a human capable of turning into a huge-ass dog.
I opened my eyes just a fraction and peered up to the face just four inches from mine.
"Get away from me," I muttered weakly.
Paul rolled his eyes and sat back in the chair next to me. I was lying on an old, dark blue couch that smelled of Febreeze and cookie crumbs in a room I didn't recognize in the slightest. I assumed I was in Paul's house—where else would I be?
"I just want to see her," the same young voice as I'd heard when I was coming to mumbled. I looked past Paul to an eight or nine year old boy that was standing behind him.
"No. She's not a museum exhibit," he growled with annoyance.
"It's fine, really," I said and sat up a bit. "Hi," I said to him.
The little boy smiled broadly and waved a little. He had to be Paul's brother—the resemblance was too strong for any other possibilities.
"There. You've said hello, now go do something else," Paul instructed.
"Are you Paul's girlfriend?" the little boy half shouted to get it out.
I immediately shook my head, while Paul lunged over towards his brother, failing to reach him when the little boy scampered out of reach then turned back and cheekily laughed. I was so preoccupied with Paul and Tristan, that I totally missed a woman I assumed to be his mother stepping forward—only noticing her when she started smacking his enormous bicep.
Paul didn't even seem like he felt it.
"Leave. Him. Alone!" she demanded, punctuating each word with a smack.
He slumped back into the chair, looking every part like the scolded child he was being treated like, and scowled petulantly. "He's so God damn annoying!" Paul huffed.
"Just like you were," she countered. "But no one screamed at you."
"That's not how I remember it," he muttered. After a long moment, he relaxed a little more and spoke again. "Mom, please, take him somewhere else."
The soft-faced woman sighed and turned to where Tristan was smirking. "There's a messy room at the end of the hall that has your name all over it. You know the rules, anything out of place after five o'clock goes in the trash since you obviously don't care about it," she recited and walked across the room to guide Tristan out.
"She didn't answer my question," Tristan whined just before being herded around the corner.
I chanced a look to Paul in the uncomfortable silence that had now fallen in the living room. He looked back out of the corner of his eye, lips pursed. He actually seemed embarrassed. That comforted me a bit, to not be the only one that was unsure of what to do.
"You passed out," he offered first. I nodded—that much was obvious. "I . . . your dad's seen you unconscious enough I think. I brought you back to my place instead, plus . . ." he paused and his face scrunched a bit as if he were struggling merely to speak. "You probably have questions . . . about what you saw."
"Just a few," I squeaked out as a lump grew in my throat. I swallowed and watched him nod.
"Are you wondering how?" he asked.
I couldn't speak now, so I just nodded.
"I'm not sure to tell you the truth. It's genetic, but I'm not sure about the physics. It just happens when I get angry, which means it happens a lot. When most people get angry they wanna yell and scream and they feel like they're gonna explode. Well I actually do," he explained, looking a little sheepish with his head dropped down and his hands fidgeting nervously in his lap.
"Does it hurt?" I asked under my breath. I could manage to get my words out if I just spoke them quietly.
Paul shook his head in response. "No, it actually feels good. It's like you're gonna burst, it just keeps building and building, and just when you're about to scream, it happens. It's like opening a pressure valve. The first time, though, I completely flipped out and started rolling around like I could somehow shake myself out of the wolf body. The way you reacted is perfectly normal—we all did it even though it was happening to us."
We all? Those other wolves were humans too . . .
I felt my head go light again, but I took a deep breath and held onto reality. Now was not the time to break down and pass out.
"Aw fuck, you're gonna pass out again," he muttered under his breath.
I swallowed with a little difficulty and shook my head. "I'm fine."
He eyed me critically, and then seemed to decide I was telling the truth when he exhaled a little and looked away. "This is so fucking weird," he mumbled to himself.
My eyebrows pulled together a little. Wasn't I supposed to be the one saying that?
Just as I was about to question his under-breath mumbling, Paul whipped around and glared at the door. "Worm, I hear you out there!" he shouted.
Tristan cackled and raced back off down the hall, clearly taking great delight in annoying his big brother. I couldn't decide who the antagonist was out of the two. The bait waver, or the boy twice his age who actually took it. It was kind of funny to watch.
It reminded me how Jacob and I would argue about who was more middle aged; once upon a time when he would return my calls, or speak to me at all. This was probably the longest amount of time I'd spent not thinking about him in days.
Apparently all it took for me to stop obsessing about his behavior was a pack of bear-sized wolves to have a giant death match two feet from me.
"You said we all," I reminded him, trying to take my mind of Jacob.
Paul looked back to me abruptly and his face fell from shock to confliction again.
"The other wolves are humans, too, aren't they?"
He nodded. "Yeah."
"Why is it so hard for you to talk about?" I asked.
His muscles twitched even tighter—even that seemed like a hard question. "It's . . . there's lingering effects of the gag order," he stammered.
I didn't question the gag order. It would likely just turn into another twenty vaguely answered questions.
"Bella," I corrected instantly without even needing to consciously process his mistake.
"What's the difference? It's your name," he asked.
"Isabella sounds like a pretentious, French call girl . . . or a cat," I muttered spitefully. How I'd ended up with such a frilly name was beyond me. It had to have been Charlie's idea; Renee never called me by my full name.
Paul chuckled softly in the chair across from me, drawing my attention away from the memories of first arriving in Forks to find that everyone knew me by my full name. Clearly Charlie's doing.
"Okay, Bella," he amended. "Yes, there are other people . . . like me."
I brought my trembling hand to my face and pushed my hair back from my forehead, pulling on the front section as I did so. It helped a little with the tension building in my scalp.
Something brown on my arm caught my attention suddenly. Iodine. I inspected my arms more thoroughly and found I had little lines of brown all over. Painstakingly applied to each of the scratches I'd received from the bushes.
I pulled up the side of my shirt and examined the cuts on my waist as well. They were all marked with iodine.
"I didn't look at anything," Paul said pre-emptively. "My mom was here; you can ask her."
"I believe you," I said quietly.
He'd been so furious at me in the forest, then oddly protective of me with his little brother, and now he'd taken the time to individually clean each of my wounds. Somehow, that didn't seem half as weird as it should have. It made absolutely no sense for him to care about me, let alone the risk of an infection from a cut.
He and the other human-wolves had killed Laurent; they'd saved my life—more than enough of a favor for me to be indebted to them for the rest of my days—whoever they were. But he didn't stop at that.
Flash memories of the events in the forest came to mind, particularly, the fight after Laurent was dead. They'd turned on each other. One of the other wolves had turned on Paul to be precise.
"Why were you fighting with one of the other wolves?" I asked.
He exhaled roughly and his jaw visibly clenched. "Jake's such a possessive fucker; you'd think you were his imprint. He really doesn't like that you're not." A half disguised smirk twitched at his lips.
"Jacob!" I gasped, horrified. That was Jacob fighting with Paul? No.
"You can't honestly say that it's that shocking now you think about it. One second he's living in your pocket, the next he won't even return your phone calls."
"How do you know about that?" I demanded. If everything else was crazy enough, now Jacob had been blabbing my activities around town.
"That's one of the love-hate things of being in the pack. We can hear each other's thoughts. Didn't you notice how I knew small details about you that strangers don't? I see them in Jake's head," Paul explained, seemingly on edge.
"You can read each other's minds?" I asked, seeking confirmation.
"Just each others; I can't read yours. I can't even read theirs if we're not phased," he said in a tone that indicated he was trying to calm me.
That was impossible given the current circumstances.
Although I was holding onto my outward composure shockingly well, inside I could barely breathe.
"Deep breaths, Bella," Paul coached.
I complied, sucking in some much needed oxygen.
This was getting to be too much. I had to leave, go home, and process all of this without something else adding to the already overwhelming amount of information I'd been told.
I slid my feet out from under the blanket I was half covered in and sat up without a word. Not thinking that it would be a big deal.
"Fuck, fuck, fuck!" Paul hissed under his breath, leaping to his feet faster than I could see. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to scare you; I figured you'd want to know the truth."
I paused and looked up to his face. He actually seemed frantic for some reason.
"Bella, I'm sorry," he repeated in a fast but soft tone.
"What for?" I asked. "You saved my life; you don't have to apologize for anything. I just need to go home. I don't feel well."
His face tightened even further and he looked away from my eyes to the floor. He looked so pained for no apparent reason.
Maybe Sam had ordered him to keep me here or something and he was going to get in trouble if I left.
"Why don't you feel well?" he murmured, interrupting my speculation. Once more, his eyes settled intently on mine. It made me a little uncomfortable the way he stared, but not enough to ask him to stop.
I looked away myself before replying. "I haven't eaten in hours and I think I'm in shock. My brain's going into overload," I explained truthfully.
"I'll get you something to eat," he immediately offered.
"Paul, I need to be away from you," I confessed at last. Once again, his face changed—I'd hurt his feelings. "Being around you is just making things harder for me to wrap my head around everything that happened in the forest. I really just need to be alone."
"I'll drive you," he whispered under his breath sounding defeated.
A pang of guilt shot through me. I hadn't meant to offend him.
"Are you even old enough to drive?" I asked as nicely as I could.
He chuckled dryly and nodded. "Yeah."
"Okay," I agreed, relenting.
He held out his hand to me, offering to help me out. I didn't want to insult him any further, so I took it without argument.
Just like before, his skin was warm and inviting. His palms were callused and rough, but I didn't care. He pulled me to my feet and waited until he—and I—were sure I was balanced, then let go gently.
And again, just like before, I missed the contact once it was over. My hand itched to close the small distance and touch his again. We stood in silence, just inches apart, looking at each other in the grey light coming from the clouded sun outside the windows.
God, he looked so tense.
"Are you ready?" he asked.
He gestured for me to walk ahead of him—in case I fell most likely. I didn't argue like I wanted to, I just walked a little ahead of him towards the door then outside to the cracking ground that served as their front yard. There was too much rain for grass to successfully grow, so when it was dry like today the ground just broke on the surface like a smashed piece of glass.
"You really don't have to do this. I can drive myself," I told Paul one last time before he reached the driver's side door.
He exhaled loudly and pulled the door open without a word in response.
"How are you going to get home?" I continued as I opened the passenger's side.
"I'll phase and run. I'm five times faster than this car could ever have been . . . and that's when I'm walking," he replied, ever so smug.
I rolled my eyes childishly. There was nothing wrong with my truck; it had served me well these past few months. I didn't argue with him though.
Smug Paul was definitely better than conflicted and worried Paul.
He drove my truck with more respect than . . . previous people had. He knew it wouldn't go over fifty, and he didn't push it any harder. It was the first time in a long time that I wasn't fearful of someone else's driving.
It was kind of funny how controlled he was being now. After how I'd seen him behaving earlier, I would have bet big money on him having terrifying road rage.
Before I knew it, we were parked in front of my house without so much as a 'fuck' or 'shit' spoken from either of us.
. . . well, from Paul.
"How did you know—?" I started to ask when I realized I hadn't said my address, and then I remembered the mind-reading thing.
"Jake," he answered quietly.
I nodded, having already come to that conclusion. "Well thanks," I said, smiling as appreciatively as I could muster right now.
He smiled back in much the same manner. "You're welcome."
"I'm sorry about everything," I apologized; he'd been stressed out today as well, because of me. "If I hadn't have been in the forest I wouldn't have gotten in your way and—"
"And we never would have met," he interjected. We both went quiet for a few seconds, and then he continued in a whisper I strained to hear. "I'm not sorry, Bella."
His head dropped forward a little and I saw his hands starting to toy with the steering wheel. What could I say in response to that? I couldn't honestly say that knowing Paul for the past couple of hours—during which I was unconscious for half the time—was particularly pleasant. Mostly it was just confusing.
"Do you remember me saying anything about imprinting?" he asked tenuously.
I nodded slowly. "Yeah, a couple of times."
"You're my imprint," he told me, mumbling like it was a confession.
"What does that mean?" I asked.
"It means I'm psychotic," he answered promptly, not even slightly playful or sarcastic.
"What?" I frowned.
He drew in a big breath and sat back straight on the seat, trying to be open and serious I guess. I didn't copy his action, instead staying half curled in on myself, but still looking him in the face.
"Imprinting is something that affects me, not so much you. It's an instinct to find and stay with our most appropriate partner. Depending on how you feel about me, that's either a good or a bad thing for you. I don't really have a choice; the instinct has attached me to you, so even if you hate the fact that I'm breathing the same air, I'm 'stuck' feeling like this.
"When I say it means I'm psychotic, that's how I'm feeling right now. I can sense your feelings, your presence, even a little of your bodily pain. When you feel scared or upset it sort of hurts me too. I feel like I'm going crazy because the only thing I really care about right now is that you're okay. Normally I wouldn't give a fuck if it wasn't bothering me, but . . . " His voice trailed off then and I could tell he probably wasn't going to continue with whatever it was he was going to say.
I didn't say it out loud, but I was definitely having weird impulses towards him too. I accepted strange things from him—one being that he could transform into a massive wolf—without question. I felt a senseless and non-stop urge to touch him, to keep bodily contact. I regretted it if I upset him, even with due cause, or by accident.
Even now, he was telling me about something completely ludicrous, yet I didn't find it that strange.
"This is the first time in years that I've used the words 'my feelings' or 'I'm feeling'. The fact that I'm saying it now must tell you something, even though you don't know me," he murmured, breaking the silence that had been growing around us in the cabin of my truck.
I wanted to touch him, hold his hand maybe, and tell him I understood. As impossible as it sounded, I could feel it. I knew he was telling the truth.
If he was, he'd be feeling my urge for contact too. He wouldn't find it uncomfortable if I went with it and touched him. I took a deep breath and decided to at least try it.
Tentatively, I reached across to the steering wheel and curved my left hand over Paul's right. A tingling sensation shivered down my body and my hand tightened instantly over his.
He glanced between my hand and my face a few times, looking uncertain. I wanted to pull away, but didn't want to at the same time. We just stayed still for a few seconds, feeling our skin against the others.
"I understand the imprinting part, but the rest is still making my head spin," I told him softly. "It's so peculiar to just instantly know what you're feeling."
He smiled sympathetically as he turned his hand over it in mine bit by bit, watching to see if I was going to take it away if he tried to physically hold on. Of course, I didn't. His fingers gently wrapped around the outside of my hand with our palms together and we let them fall to his lap below the wheel. His four fingers sat along the skin between my forefinger and thumb, his thumb curved around from the outside of mine and all five digits pressed in firmly. He was really holding on tight.
"Can I see you again tomorrow?" he asked, attempting to sound casual, but I could tell he was nervous about my response.
My impulses were telling me to agree, but my head was telling me I needed to sort myself out first. There was so much outside of Paul that was ridiculously surreal, and I know if I didn't think it through I'd end up in the same position as I'd been in when he came into my life. I wouldn't allow that to happen again.
"How about next week?" I suggested. His hand squeezed tighter on mine and I squeaked in pain.
He loosened his hold instantaneously.
"Why so long?" He was clearly disconcerted by my answer.
"You've known about this longer than me," I pointed out. "I'm sure you weren't immediately okay with it. I need time to adjust."
"Fuck," he whispered. "I know I shouldn't be mad at you, just, fuck." His hand was now trembling around mine, loosening rather than tightening. He was still aware of my presence. "I'm gonna miss you. I don't even know what I'm going to miss, I just know I will," he muttered, taking on a rambling tone.
"Fuck?" I offered.
His lip twitched and he nodded jerkily. "Fuck."
I slowly rubbed my thumb over the back of his hand, trying to sooth his sullen expression. If I was barely getting any of the imprinting effects, I could only imagine what he felt like.
"So when next week? I'd like an end point in mind," Paul continued.
I thought about it for a few seconds, but decided to go with the easiest option. "Seven days from now."
The lines on his forehead etched deeper as his face twisted into a full out scowl. "Maybe if you got to know me before exiling me for a week you mightn't feel the need to do it at all," he grumbled.
I sighed. "This isn't about you. Contrary to what you might believe, there's a whole world of issues out there that don't include or form around you."
He cocked his eyebrow at me, surprised, and smirked. "You can tell you're the imprint. Picking on your imprinter is so mean."
For the first time in a while, I wanted to smile. I almost did, but didn't quite form. Regardless of the lack of physical expression I was definitely feeling a little better. I looked down to where my hand sat in Paul's and squeezed it tighter. He squeezed back and then let go.
"I'll see you next Saturday," he promised.
I nodded and watched him open the screechy driver's side door. "Okay," I agreed.
"And Bella . . ." He turned back right after his feet hit the ground. ". . . there is nothing in the forest for you. Stay the fuck out of it."
"Fine," I muttered, rolling my eyes petulantly.
"Don't roll your eyes at me," he chastised.
This time, I lifted my eyebrow at him. He was telling me what to do already?
"That's better. Now do you understand me? Stay in the town." His face was stern and his eyes fixed on mine. It was like I was already in trouble for something I hadn't done yet.
"Will you be in the forest?" I shot back.
His eyes narrowed. "It's different for me. If I can't trust you I'm going to spend all my fucking time running around trying to keep tabs on you. Are you capable of staying alive without someone waiting in the shadows for you to find danger?"
Why did everyone in this world think I needed protection? I'd made it this long without being hit by a car or some falling space debris.
"I've lived for eighteen years now. I think I can manage seven more days," I said matter-of-factly.
He lingered for a few seconds, regarding me as if looking for a tell that I was lying. Once he was apparently satisfied, he stepped a little and took hold of the door in preparation to close it.
"Try," he requested one last time.
"I'll try not to die in the next seven days," I promised with a sarcastic edge to my voice.
He shook his head with amusement, smiling in a light-hearted way I hadn't seen before. I wanted to smile too, but it didn't quite form once again.
"Yeah, okay. I'll see you next week," he said, almost laughing.
I nodded smoothly. "See you next fucking week."
He burst out laughing instantly, grinning at me broadly. "Don't swear, Bella," he chuckled.
"You do," I replied simply. On the inside, I was laughing with him.
"I also turn into a massive wolf; does that mean you can too?"
"Touché," I conceded.
"Be good," he instructed. "Bye."
"Bye," I echoed. He closed the door a second later and started walking towards the forest.
I could still see him shaking with laughter.
When I looked away I caught sight of my reflection in the rear vision mirror—particularly, the lightness in my eyes I hadn't seen in five months.
"Bella?" Charlie asked from the kitchen when I shut the front door.
"Yeah, it's me," I answered and turned around to face him when he appeared in the doorway with an ominous expression.
"Where have you been?"
I hesitated, I was supposed have been with Jessica. He'd probably called the Stanley's, judging by his tone anyway. He knew I hadn't been where I said I would be.
I'd better stick to the truth.
"I was hiking," I admitted.
His eyes were tight. "What happened to going to Jessica's?"
"I didn't feel like Calculus today."
Charlie folded his arms across his chest. "I thought I asked you to stay out of the forest."
"Yeah, I know. Don't worry, I won't do it again," I promised.
Charlie seemed to really look at me for the first time. I remembered that I had spent some time on the forest floor today; I must be a mess.
"What happened?" Charlie demanded.
I couldn't tell him what I'd seen. He'd either institutionalize me—which he had already considered—or he'd send out a hunting party and someone could get hurt.
"I fell over into a bush. Nothing major. You know me; accident prone." I shrugged a little to hopefully brush off some of his concern.
At the end of the day, I was okay.
"Where did you get iodine from?" he asked next, gesturing to the brown spots on my arms.
I looked at them for a moment before replying, "I keep some in my truck. In case this sort of thing happens."
He seemed convinced, but still upset with me for being in the forest in the first place.
"No more hiking," he ordered.
"Not a problem," I promised again.
Charlie nodded, finally satisfied, and uncrossed his arms. "Are you hungry?"
I was starving now. I hadn't eaten all day. "Yeah, starving," I agreed and followed him into the kitchen.
In the kitchen I found some of the fish he and Harry must have caught today sizzling away in a frying pan. This was probably the only thing Charlie could cook that wasn't made in the microwave or by adding boiled water—he did it well too. I was grateful I didn't have to cook after today.
I took a seat at the table and waited in a comfortable silence for the last few minutes of cooking. Once the batter was golden he took each piece out and dried the oil off them with some paper towel before dividing the plate in half for each of us.
"Hey," Charlie said to get my attention as he sat down across from me. I looked up to find his face a little suspicious. "Didn't you say Jacob was gone for the day?"
"That's what Billy said," I told him. I wondered quickly if Billy knew about Jacob, or if he was being lied to like I had been.
"Why?" I asked, trying to sound innocently curious.
"Well, it's just that when I went to pick up Harry, I saw Jacob out the front of the store down there with some of his friends. I waved hi, but he . . . well, I guess I don't know if he saw me. I think maybe he was arguing with his friends. He looked strange, like he was upset about something. And . . . different. It's like you can watch that kid growing! He gets bigger every time I see him."
Charlie had no idea just how big Jacob could be. I shuddered as I remembered him and Paul fighting when they were wolves. His foot was almost as big as my whole leg when he stepped back and almost stood on me. Not to mention when they toppled to the ground—nearly crushing me in the process.
"Billy said Jake and his friends were going up to Port Angeles to see some movies," I relayed the information I'd been given this morning. "They were probably just waiting for someone to meet them," I added.
"Oh," Charlie nodded and looked back to his plate.
Nothing more was said. We ate in silence and after washing off our plates quickly and thanking Charlie; I headed for the stairs and closed myself up in my room.
I didn't even bother turning on the lamp. The second I sat on the bed and started thinking about everything that had happened today, tears started filling my eyes.
I'd found the meadow. It was the place I had the highest hope for. It had been special, and now it was nothing. It meant nothing without . . . him.
My lungs were barely functioning anymore. I gasped for air, but it only seemed to go straight out the hole in my chest again. It wasn't working. I rolled onto my side and wrapped my arms around my chest.
The shock I'd avoided all day had finally started ravaging my system. In a matter of seconds it was all coming out. My body trembled furiously and didn't stop even though I'd laid down on the bed.
Laurent had been there. He was going to kill me. But those enormous wolves stopped him. Those boys stopped him from killing me. Jacob, and Paul, I was even concerned for Sam's well being. And the others—whomever they were.
I pressed my shaking hand to my mouth to stop the sounds of my loud breaths from alerting Charlie when I heard his footsteps clunking up the stairs.
Tears ran down my face and into the pillow as I silently broke down in my dark room. Once Charlie's door closed I allowed a few sobs free, but muffled them as best I could in my pillow.
I'd been so close to death today, and had been saved by the last thing I ever would have thought of. Despite it all, I was still alive.
I pressed my hand to my chest and felt my heart beating rampantly. I'm still alive, I told myself soothingly. My breathing settled and my tears slowed a bit. That knowledge calmed me.