~ Chapter 48 ~

All around me are familiar faces
Worn out places, worn out faces
Bright and early for their daily races
Going nowhere, going nowhere
Their tears are filling up their glasses
No expression, no expression
Hide my head I want to drown my sorrow
No tomorrow, no tomorrow

And I find it kinda funny
I find it kinda sad
The dreams in which I'm dying
Are the best I've ever had
I find it hard to tell you
I find it hard to take
When people run in circles
It's a very, very mad world mad world

The dull heavy frame of the merry-go-round was crooked, which caused the thing to spin on its own. At dusk, with the tree's gathering shadows below them, the park seemed very foreboding. Not that the two souls passing through it gave the atmosphere of the park much concern. They were far more interested in the scents, which were overlapping and very much not human. The duo followed the trail through the park quickly, into a nearby grove of trees, and right down to the edge of the water of a creek.

It was a trail they had picked up just after sunrise, and it had taken all day to trace it back to this point... where it disappeared. Mei watched impassively as Kira shook her head and growled in disappointment. Then Kira shifted from her large feline form to that of a naked woman with long silver-white hair.

"Nothing. No vampire is that good at creating dead ends! Sorry my love, but my nose knows." Kira said, with a bit of a chuckle, standing there, completely unconcerned with her public nudity.

Mei didn't react at all to Kira making light of the situation. It was normal, and after hundreds of years together, it didn't faze Mei in the slightest. What did bother her, was that Kira had somehow lost the scent. If one were to put a list of the top five trackers in the world, Kira would have a legitimate claim at the number two spot. The top spot was taken by the vampire Demetri of the Volturi. Kira always groused that it wasn't fair that he be counted as a tracker, since he didn't track by smell, but merely had a special ability to locate people.

Despite Kira's laid back attitude, Mei knew she was taking this seriously. This was the sixth time they had picked up this particular scent, and the sixth time they had lost it. It hadn't set the record for most times managing to shake pursuit in the years that Kira and Mei had been together, but it came close. The difference was that this prey had evaded them six times in a day, the record holder only managed eight over a span of five months scattered over three continents. Also that earlier prey had two forms, and knew it was being hunted while they tracked it. This new one couldn't have known they were on its trail. So they either had a seriously cautious vampire in the area, or an outright paranoid one... neither of them was sure which was worse.

It was an anomaly, and Mei didn't like that one bit.

Mei furrowed her brow slightly as her eyes scanned the area for anything in the vain hope that something might just jump out at her. Mei took her weathered black canvas backpack off her shoulders and pulled out a set of pants and shirt, a spare set for her mate which she always kept on hand when Kira was tracking. Although Kira didn't mind walking around in the buff, Mei preferred she didn't.

It wasn't that Mei was worried that Kira would be left vulnerable, and she certainly wasn't worried about her lover's fidelity. They were for all intents and purposes one being, mated and bonded for all eternity. Their love was absolute, without a trace of doubt, and each was loyal to the other first and foremost, even above honor and coven. Though Kira's playful and irrational nature sometimes tested Mei's careful control. That sense of loyalty and connection also didn't stop them from occasionally taking other lovers too, either together or separately. It was just that Mei was modest to a fault in public, and Kira was never one to purposefully admonish her lover's idiosyncrasies, even when she didn't care about modesty herself.

Kira casually slipped into the offered clothing, breaking her gaze from Mei's as she tugged on the shirt. "Hey, don't get all scowl-y on me." Mei's eyebrow shifted a millimeter upwards in a show of curiosity. Kira was the only one who could really interpret Mei's expressions, most thought she was devoid of any emotion.

Feeling happy by Mei's reaction she continued, "I mean, one vampire in this part of the world hardly represents a threat... right? Plus, we're now friends with one of the few remaining big covens, not to mention it's freaking Isabella and Eliza's coven. No one is gonna mess with them. Well no one sane at least. It's not like there's a whole group in the area."

Mei mulled over Kira's attempt to brighten the situation, and when she finally spoke up, her usually flat and stern voice was soft enough to reaffirm that she didn't blame Kira for losing the trail. Then she made an obvious scan of her lover's form and allowed a slight curl of a smile to break her usually stony features. "True." Then she dropped her smile, "Must I remind you that a group is noisy? A group can be countered by another group. A single vampire can move unseen, and cause massive destruction before anyone even catches a scent. Even your nose isn't that powerful. A single vampire moving uninhibited through this territory is dangerous and alarming. They could be a scout for any number of enemies, the Volturi, the Romanians, or even this Joham. That alone is enough to make me want to find them, and if necessary, remove their head... after we get what information we can out of them. We can't afford anyone, outside our new ally's circle, finding out the numbers and disposition of the Swan coven. The Assassin is confident. She has a right to be. However, she may not realize it, but she is far more vulnerable than she ever was before. Conversely she is also far, far more dangerous than ever before." Saying that, Mei leaped lightly to the other side of the creek in order to determine where the vampire had come back on shore.

Kira frowned at Mei, and started to walk parallel to her lover keeping the creek between them. The ambient noise of the water didn't prevent them from conversing normally even without their heightened senses. Kira needed to talk, and although her sense of smell was nowhere near as good when she wasn't in her tiger form, it was still far better than Mei's. She was sure the vampire they were trailing did something to mask its scent, perhaps using some kind of neutralizing agent. Water wasn't nearly good enough to break the trail like this, at least not so abruptly.

Kira let her senses and instincts take over, freeing up her mind to turn over Mei's last comments. She was tempted to remind Mei that she was allowed to call them Isabella and Eliza, but it was kind of pointless. Mei almost always addressed and referred to someone formally by any applicable title or moniker they had, doubly so when there was respect there. It was something Mei had always done, from before they met. Kira attempted once to loosen her up, but in the centuries she'd known Mei she had made little headway on breaking that habit. "I'm not sure I follow, she's more vulnerable and more dangerous? What do you mean?"

Mei's eyes traced the ground in front of her for any disturbances in the grass as they walked, and didn't look up as she answered. "The Assassin is more at ease with herself now. Even more so since she bonded with her mate. That makes her vulnerable. Yet she has also nested, taken on another child and begun settle with a new coven. That makes her dangerous because she now has something to lose."

Kira smirked at that, which quickly shifted into a wide grin, "I always said she really needed to get laid, and that would loosen her up a bit."

Mei just rolled her eyes momentarily at Kira's casual irreverence. "Of course you focus on that detail alone. Yes, I believe you were right about that, and I'm well aware of your opinion, since you've expressed it multiple times so there's no need to gloat."

Kira huffed good-naturedly. "I... fine. You're right though, she does have more to lose now."

Mei's nodded once, and continued with a dry and factual voice. "My point is, the Assassin is used to fighting. That is... was her life. What she's not used to fighting with, is the stress and worry of leading and protecting so many people. That's a struggle that I don't know if she's ready for. I trust her battle prowess, and her knowledge of tactics and warfare. As a leader of a coven... no. She will have a hard road to travel before she's confident in her role. I believe she is more than worthy, but I wonder if she's ready to lead a coven, much less a family."

Kira stopped and looked over at her partner with a curious look, and Mei stopped with her giving her a strained look of her own. Mei sighed and continued, "You know I would never speak ill of an ally unless I had legitimate concerns. Yet her vulnerability is compounded by her affection for her new family as well."

Kira shook her head at that, then took a sniff at the air before continuing forward. "What do you mean? Isabella and Eliza are peerless fighters, how would they be vulnerable because of a couple of additions?"

Mei's voice was thoughtful as she ghosted over the ground. "The Assassin is used to fighting alongside her daughter. She trained her, and trusts her competence. Even then, her effectiveness is muted slightly when she fights with the Executioner."

Kira frowned, that comment made her want to stop and argue again, but they were on the hunt, and they couldn't delay more anymore than they already had. "You've seen them fight together, they're insanely effective. How is that muting their effectiveness?"

Mei frowned, and moved silently along the creek bank while trying to figure out how to put her meaning into words that formed a coherent thought. Which took longer than she liked. Eventually she figured it out and responded. "Agreed, together they are more effective than either of them apart. However, in a fight the Assassin always makes sure she is able to get to her daughter if needed. That compassion, however marginal, will now be far more diffused. Extending to her new daughter and her mate at the very least, and probably to the rest her coven as well. That diminishes her abilities and focus. A competent fighter might be able to exploit that. I know either of us could, however successful or not we might be in the attempt."

Kira frowned again, and nodded slowly but said nothing as it was clear that Mei wasn't finished.

Mei continued, her voice shifting to a more thoughtful tone. "She is also more vulnerable in the sense that she no longer has the backing of the Volturi." Mei glanced over and saw Kira's frown as she puzzled that out, so she continued. "The Assassin and Executioner have been their enforcers for nearly a century. The Assassin has made very few, if any, friends. The Volturi would have no hesitation to allow any perceived enemies to take their vengeance upon her."

Kira scowled at that, her mouth contorting into a sneer, "Like us."

Mei's jaw clenched. A powerful show of anger for her. "Some exactly like us. Where the Volturi manufacture an enemy for them. Others not. Some, would never dream of taking on the Volturi. However, attacking one or two former Volturi with the blessing of the Volturi council would be an entirely different matter. I would say that would normally make her far more vulnerable, however given the current upheaval that seems to be sweeping through our world, I'm not sure which side groups or individuals will fall on."

Kira nodded a little bit at that. "Our world doesn't often change like this."

Mei nodded in agreement. "An unavoidable danger when the natural culling process of death is taken out of the equation. Things naturally stagnate. Yet that's not entirely why I think she's vulnerable. Before she only cared about whether she would live or die, because of how it might affect her daughter. She had only the thread of her daughter's life and safety keeping her from being completely apathetic to her own existence. She now has something even more tangible that she will fight for."

Kira nodded slowly. "Something to lose, like I said. So it's this coven she's created?"

Mei shook her head slightly. "Family more like it. Though she might be loath to admit it, the Assassin is starting to forge strong ties of familial loyalty and fidelity. What's frightening is that is also partly what makes her truly perilous."

Kira tilted her head, inviting Mei to continue her explanation. She had to take several quick steps to catch up since Mei hadn't broken stride. This time when Mei spoke her voice was grave. "The Assassin has always had a great darkness inside of her. She has always fought a constant battle against that darkness. Now that darkness is much closer to the surface."

Kira's voice was solemn in reply, "She's close to losing herself?"

Mei quickly shook her head, "Worse, she is close to knowing herself. She is close to accepting that part of herself. When she stops fighting against the internal darkness, and turns her full and complete attentions to her enemies… she will be a tempest unlike anything we've ever seen. She could shake the world down to its very foundations."

Any reply Kira would have made to that was cut off when Mei suddenly stopped and crouched, taking a deep breath. "Here. The scent begins again here."

Kira nodded once, then took a step to gather momentum and then leapt over the creek to land next to Mei. In the next instant she took in the residual scent deeply. "Yup, that's our little Mosquito."

Mei nodded, then paused and gave Kira a curious look. "Mosquito?"

"You know, a bloodsucker who likes water... a Mosquito." Mei shook her head and rolled her eyes at the joke. "Sometimes it's like you have no sense of humor." Kira continued with a slight pout.

"I liked that movie you dragged me to last year." Mei replied with almost no emotion, though Kira could tell she was a bit miffed by the casually repeated insult.

"I know, you actually smiled a few times. Though would it kill you to do the same for one of my jokes?" Kira said as she shed the shirt and pants she had just put on.

"Not at all, as long as they are funny." Mei said with a touch of playful sarcasm, which would've sounded cold to anyone else. Kira sighed theatrically, then jumped slightly with a squeak of surprise from the sudden impact of a swat on her exposed ass. Mei gave her a knowing smile, then raised eyebrow in warning.

Knowing better than to push back any farther, Kira nodded. "Okay okay, I'm changing, but you're definitely getting me a frozen hot chocolate when we're done with this." She was already halfway through her phasing as she spoke so the last few syllables came out as bizarre sounding growls. As soon as she shifted into her tiger form, she turned her attention to the air. Pulling in the scents of everything around her to see if she could find a pattern in the residue left from the vampire's trail.

Mei said nothing in reply, though she made a note of the request. A happy Kira was a good thing, and nothing made her happier than chocolate. The irony of it being a poison to most species of feline made Kira relish it even more. Mei thoughtlessly shoved the discarded clothes back into the bag and slung it over shoulders as she started to follow her companion. They followed the trail for about five minutes before they lost it again. This time in the middle of the forest with no water nearby. It took Kira a minute before she was able to figure it out, and when she found it, she almost punched a tree down.

Whoever it was, they had gone up. Leaping into a nearby tree, and then used the height to double back along the creek they had just come down. Frustrated by the tactics, both women flew up the nearest tree trunk and started the tedious task of tracking the scent along the random non-linier path the scout chose to take. Progress was hampered slightly by Kira's size, so she had to constantly shift back to a human to navigate the jumps, then again back into a tiger to catch the next scent, and so on and so on. However, the lead did seem to head in a general direction. This new trail led them back towards the wilderness, straight towards the Cullen house.

They followed the scent as it circled around the property at a safe distance before disappearing again. This time Kira was ready, and they quickly found the new trail. That one lead due west, in nearly a straight line. At the coast they lost it again, because it disappeared into the ocean. After checking for miles up and down the coast, with no hint of the scent emerging from the water, they both realized the trail was totally cold. Eventually Mei called a halt to the search, and tried hard not to let her frustration show to Kira.

Mei was uncertain what this unknown threat meant. The hard to follow path this vampire took didn't really tell them anything, nor did their behavior. Although it was probably just a rogue vampire that reacted upon finding a large coven in the area, with the Volturi's looming threat, she was uncomfortable leaving such a presence as an unknown. So they returned to the last point they had the scent, and Kira spent a while memorizing it just in case they came across it again.

Mei with little else to do, surveyed the grey ocean in the hopes that she might spot someone watching them from the crest of a wave or on top of one of the large rocks jutting up out of the surf along the coast. It might've been a pointless endeavor, but Mei hated sitting around being idle.

By wordless agreement, they decided to make a long detour so that they could investigate La Push. In part so that they could observe the shifters in their natural habitat, and in part to get a better feel for the area that they had avoided as much as they could since they arrived and began scouting the area. Although Isabella had convinced them they weren't the same creatures responsible for their coven's demise, she wasn't entirely sure she trusted the wolves.

It wasn't exactly easy getting close enough to see or hear anything, since the pack patrolled regularly, and their security was fairly tight. That was until something drew the attention of pretty much every pack member. The gaps formed by this distraction were more than large enough for the two of them to slip through. Although timing their exit would prove difficult without causing injury, both felt it was important to understand the differences between the false wolf shifters and these natural ones.

Behind an old faded red house stood what Mei assumed was most of the pack, some in human form, and some still phased. Though they had seen a good number of them gathered the other night at the 'council meeting', it still struck them with awe at the sheer number of shifters in one area, let alone in one pack. In their homeland that never would have happened, especially after the purges. Most of those in human form were staring at a small group in the center of the gathering, and specifically at two that were arguing rather loudly. The rest, all in animal form, were halfheartedly guarding the perimeter but stole long glances at the conflict whenever they could.

Mei and Kira managed to find a perch close enough to view, but not quite close enough to fully eavesdrop, since they had to stay far enough away not to spread their scent and draw the attention of the distracted sentries. Though Kira idly wondered if setting off a bomb would be enough to pull focus away from away from the two people that were the center attraction.

"Not a chance Michele! We're done with this, there is no way you're going to let them just walk around here and that's final!" Jacob was standing face to face with a woman that looked remarkably like him. Mei watched him with interest, because his restraint as an alpha was curious. Mei supposed the conflict was a personal one since the resemblance to the stranger was very likely familial. Kira's focus was almost entirely on the woman, who struck her as beautiful and strong. She could almost sense the power of an alpha in her, and it made her even more intriguing than the century old shifter elder that she was fighting with.

Despite the fact that the girl was tall, probably right at six feet, Jacob had seven inches on her and loomed over her with his arms crossed as she tried to get in his face. He spoke with authority, and Mei had to concede he had a presence about him that was intimidating. Though the young woman clearly thought the discussion was anything but final, and despite his size and presence wasn't inducing her to back down at all.

"No, it's not final! They are my pack, and if you don't accept them, you don't accept me. I don't care if you don't like it. I don't give a flying fuck if they aren't 'pure' wolves. They don't have anywhere to go, and I've taken them in. So it's either all of us, or none of us. I have no problem finding another place to crash at this point if you're going to act like a self-righteous inflexible dictator." Michele knew she had said too much, but didn't let it show on her face. She was shouting at her father with a level of disrespect he had rarely ever heard from her, even when they weren't getting along during some of her teenage years.

For the first time since she got back he lost it and got angry with her, he couldn't believe she was being so naïve. "You don't have to be a brat about it, call me names all you want. That doesn't change the fact that they kidnapped you. Then injected you with something that caused you to forcibly transform, and now they're part of your 'pack'? Have you lost your fucking mind? I know we didn't drop you on your head when you were a baby." Jacob shot an exasperated look at his wife, though Tekali was remaining quiet at the moment. If anything Tekali seemed amused by the whole situation, and that just irritated Jacob even more.

"Of course, let's blame them because they had to obey instincts they were never prepared for! Remember, they were only human before, they had no idea the supernatural world even existed. Do you think they knew the rules? They had to obey, they didn't know any better. And yes, ignorance in this case is perfectly acceptable." Michele let her sarcasm and anger drip from every word.

"Hardly. Ignorance is something you don't take on faith. You ask questions, you figure it out. They had over a year right? In all that time they never once questioned their Alpha? I call bullshit, they must've known better." Jacob said with more hostility then he intended. But he held his ground and refused to back down from his position.

"Um... no we didn't. Asking questions got you beaten, so I had to learn the hard way to simply obey, no matter what he asked of me. It was that or I'd end up as just another corpse on the pile." Amy said meekly. Michele felt a surge of anger for Amy's plight, but instead forced a smile and nod of encouragement at her pack mate for speaking up for herself.

"That's... fine. But you can't tell me that he was cowed by threats?" Jacob motioned towards Tommy with brisk wave of his hand.

"Actually yes. Even if he could fight against Tully's power, he knew that if he did anything against him, I'd be hurt in his place. Plus, Kevin was capable of incredible violence, and hated Tommy. So he was looking for any excuse to kill him. As for me, I was Tully's bitch. He forced me to do things that I can never forget. Things that I would've never done with my fiancé, who was also one of Tully's recruits. Only he wasn't as physically compatible as I was, so I had to watch die from that fucking serum. Then Tully reduced me to nothing, he made me a whore. So, maybe Tommy might've been big and strong enough to fight, but he's not vicious. How could he fight against someone who would break an arm simply to make a point? Someone who was eager to kill anyone and anything that crossed him? We both hung onto our lives by a thread, and obeyed his commands so that we weren't next on the list." Amy looked around at the rest the crowd of unfamiliar faces and nearly lost it. Until Tommy wrapped his hand in hers and gave it a gentle squeeze.

Amy looked up into his eyes and gave him a fearful smile. She hadn't told anyone about some of her earlier abuses, from before Tommy became a part of Tully's pack. When he spoke it was with a kindness and compassion that gave his baritone voice an extremely calming quality. "I knew... and you aren't nothing. Never forget it." She felt warm tears fill her eyes and quickly raised his overly large hand to her lips and kissed the back of it tenderly. Tommy grinned widely and squared his shoulders proudly. Then Amy brought Tommy's arm around her shoulders and snuggled up under his arm against his chest. It had taken her a while to realize how she felt about her gentle friend, but he was the one she cared about most in the world. Jacob stared at the both of them for a long moment, and Michele beamed pride at both of them. Amy was starting to grow in strength and confidence, and that was something Michele hadn't expected to see so soon.

"Look, based on what I've seen, I think the voice of their Alpha, if you can call him that, was absolute. Even if it wasn't, you know how it works. An Alpha's command must be obeyed. It doesn't matter whether you agree or not. If you're not an Alpha by birth, and you're told by your Alpha to do something, you have no real choice, you are physically forced to do it. Unless you are incredibly strong willed, or the order is something like having them kill or rape their own mother, it's a level of control that is nearly impossible to fight. The only other way to rebel is to leave the pack, and do you honestly think they had that choice? They were threatened with death on a daily basis." Michele spoke impassionedly, but calmly. She needed her father to understand. Although remembering what her pack members had been subjected to, and what she had almost been subjected to, filled her with a disgust and revulsion.

"I don't know what to say." Jacob said after a long silence. He was staring at Michele, and back towards her new pack, and then back at his daughter feeling the weight of the horrors they were subjected to weigh heavily on his mind.

Michele examined her father's expression carefully, before she finally spoke again. "When I killed their Alpha I replaced him. I will not subject them to any more humiliation. I will trust them because they deserve that chance. Because that's how you taught me to be. I couldn't just leave them to fend for themselves, or kill them for being victims of an atrocity. I couldn't live with myself if had, and I know I couldn't look you in the eye ever again if I had abandoned them like so much discarded garbage."

Jacob looked down at his hands for a moment, as if he were trying to figure out how use them. "The more I learn about this monster, the more I can feel his throat in my hands." He closed his eyes then, and nodded once. "Fine, I accept your terms. Just keep them close, and know you are responsible for them. If they step out of line, that's it. This is their second chance." Jacob clenched his jaw a couple of times then looked around at the pack as if he were about to speak. Michele didn't let him get the final word in, especially one with implied judgment.

"No. I'm fully aware that their actions are my responsibility. However, I will not let you hurt them... ever. If they cross a line. If they break a rule, you bring it to me. I am their Alpha, not you." Michele stood tall and strong, and her expression was such that not even the toughest in the pack thought to challenge her declaration.

Jacob's eyes locked on hers, and felt the anger that had started to build in his stomach again at her open hostility, quickly shift into a feeling of undiluted pride. She had grown up, and had taken her place as the leader he always knew she was meant to be. Then there was a snort from the group, and a voice that sounded suspiciously like Paul's said, "Yeah, she's definitely got the stubbornness of a Black alright." The comment was quickly followed by what was definitely Paul going 'oof!' as Rachel jabbed him in the ribs with her elbow.

Jacob almost laughed as Paul started to rub his ribs to work out the pain, then as his attention refocused on his daughter he took a deep breath. Michele had become as much of an alpha as he was, and as he gazed into her unyielding eyes he realized that the full weight of that role meant as much to her as it did to him. She had accepted them into her pack, regardless of the fact that they were the product of some deranged experiment.

He let that absorb for a moment as he glanced over at the big one who was enough to make Jacob tilt his head back to look into his eyes; a very alien experience for him. Then his eyes fell on the girl that was huddled protectively under the giant's arm. And thought about her miserable and horrific story. Finally he looked back towards his daughter, and after several moments he nodded. "Agreed. They are welcome as long as you claim responsibility for them. From this point forward, no one from my pack will harm your pack, as long as the reverse is honored as well."

Michele nodded once in agreement. Then he turned towards his pack in a sweeping gaze, and spoke up at a volume everyone could hear clearly. "So it is law, as long as I am Alpha of this pack."

Michele blinked a couple of time in mild disbelief, and couldn't suppress a slight twitch of a smile from pulling up the right side of her mouth. She couldn't quite believe she had actually won an argument with her father. She was quite literally going to put this on her calendar. She couldn't help but shoot her mother a grin, only to find the same half pleased half proud expression on her mother's face.

"However!" Jacob's voice rose and Michele turned her attention back to him with narrowed eyes. Jacob held up his hands placating, clearly wanting to make it clear that his intention was not to argue with her. "No no, I said that they're welcome and I meant it. However, there are some things going on that you obviously need brought to speed on. We've had… an exciting few weeks."

Mei could see the tension settle, even if the context of the argument was extremely difficult to make out from the distance needed to remain invisible. Mei looked at her lover and motioned towards Michele with a raised eyebrow. Even without Kira's enhanced sense of smell, she could detect that same unnaturalness to his scent that Isabella had warned her about before. She wondered momentarily if Jacob's daughter was consorting with the enemy? It certainly didn't seem that way. But if she wasn't one of the ones that attacked their coven, it was possible that she had information that might lead to the killers of the Oyabun. They'd have to get much closer to determine if Michele or either of her compatriots had one of the scents present in the attack on their coven.

Only any further investigation or introspection was interrupted as Kira took a big sniff, and her eyes immediately narrowed. She growled, and before Mei could stop her she leapt from the tree and shifted. Her massive frame barreling towards Michele with all the subtlety of a locomotive. The presence of Kira took the entire gathering by total surprise. It isn't exactly every day that a six-foot at the shoulder tiger leaps from the forest. So the slow reactions of all the perimeter guards was understandable.

The rest, well most were still distracted by the argument, so even though they shifted as soon as the danger presented itself, Kira managed to get within twenty yards of Michele before the pack managed to head her off. Mei had moved just quickly enough to stay at her mate's side, though short of hurting her there was no way to stop Kira when she was feeling aggressive. Still Mei kept her sword sheaved, she didn't want to further exasperate the situation, especially with potential allies. Not when the Volturi, and this unknown Joham had immeasurably large forces at their disposal.

Jacob and Michele had stayed in their human forms, being surrounded by the pack made the need for diplomacy even more important, despite the obvious temperament of their unexpected intruders. Leah and Seth also remained unshifted, although both were more than surprised at Mei's sudden appearance. Even though they had spent a bit more time around Mei and Kira after the rest of the pack had left the night before, neither of them had really interacted with the duo very much either.

Michele choose to remain in her human form as well, but mostly out of shock at seeing such a beautiful and unusual animal looming so large and immediate. Even the fact that it was coming towards her didn't detract from the awe of its impressive frame and stature. The thick bands of muscle could be seen moving beneath the animal's black fur, which made its white stripes ripple almost like a natural optical illusion. Michele's own control was almost an afterthought, until the aggression in the beast's growl sent her own senses into overdrive.

Jacob managed to ease the tension from his shoulders as he tried to reason out why the enigmatic couple had come to their home without invitation or clear purpose. He had extended the terms of alliance to Bella's friends and new coven members on a temporary basis, but as far as he knew these two were not much more than guests of the Swan Coven. He hoped that relations didn't break down, forcing him to take these two new allies... down.

Leah and Seth on the other hand felt a totally different kind of conflict. On one hand they couldn't betray their pack, but on the other their loyalties were very much tied to their imprints. Mei was at least a friend to the Swan's, and neither Seth nor Leah felt that they could let a fight break out. So reluctantly they moved to intercept Kira and Mei in as unthreatening a way as possible, clearly trying to communicate lack of hostile intent. The nature of their approach softened Kira's continuous growls a bit, and she also eased up on her defensive posture.

That was enough, and Jacob motioned for everyone to back off. After another moment Jacob looked at Mei with an expression that spoke volumes about his position. None of which were lost on Mei. She immediately placed a careful hand on Kira's flank, and the massive beast relaxed even more, though she did give Mei a curious and unpleased look with her giant expressive eyes. Mei sighed slightly, and motioned towards Jacob with look that stated simply that they needed to listen to him. Kira growled slightly, but turned towards Jacob anyway. Then she pushed up on her front paws slightly, raising up to her full height which made her tower even over Jacob's impressive height.

Jacob looked up at Kira then back towards Mei with a displeased frown. "And here I thought we didn't need to watch our backs. I hope Isabella didn't send you down here to spy on us." Jacob said, without any humor. Despite the pride he felt for Michele, he was in a very bad mood. Someone had kidnapped and assaulted his only child, and the bastard directly responsible was already dead so there was nothing he could do about it.

"You must always watch your back, but not because of any danger from us. And no, we were not spying, nor were we sent by Isabella. We are not a part of her Coven. I must apologize for the intrusion though, curiosity got the better of us." Mei said through thin lips. Her voice was clipped and formal. She was forcing herself to be civil, being surrounded by such a large pack stretched her patience to its limits.

"So... the giant tiger?" Jacob said motioning towards Kira, he had finally managed to ease up most of his muscles despite the fact that his instincts were trying to ball them up. Kira for the most part seemed almost relaxed, even though she was still puffed up in the most intimidating manner possible, her tail swishing in agitation. He didn't know much about cats, but he'd been around them enough to know that when they moved their tails like that, they weren't about to rub up against you and purr.

Mei frowned momentarily, "May I ask that you allow Kira a moment... to examine?"

Jacob frowned and paused briefly, before he nodded slowly. The wolves backed up slightly from around her as Kira approached first Tommy, and then Amy sniffing deeply.

Michele tensed up and was prepared to shift in defense of her pack as she watched the giant shifter examine her pack mates. She wasn't sure how, but there was no way she wasn't going to let this tiger hurt them. After a moment, Kira turned from them and made her way over to Michele, again sniffing deeply, before she backed away and abruptly shifted back to her human form. Michele was a little startled by her sudden transformation, and then she found herself captivated by Kira beauty, and especially with her long silver-white hair.

Kira turned to look at Mei, and pointed at Tommy and Amy who were still watching warily. "They may be the same sort of creature that attacked us, but they're not the same ones that slaughtered our coven. As far as I can tell, neither of them have stepped foot on our homeland, or have been around anyone else who has either." She jerked her thumb over her shoulder at Michele. "That one is altogether different. If pressed, I might call her... 'unique'. But she wasn't there either."

Mei seemed to relax at that, her posture becoming slightly less stiff, despite the fact that Kira was strutting to her side, naked as the day she was born.

Michele didn't hesitate, despite the distraction Kira caused, before responding. "That's what this is about? You think we killed your people? What the fuck is going on? Who the hell are you two, and why aren't we killing you?" She added the last part directed at may, almost as an afterthought.

Jacob couldn't help but smirk wryly, "I told you there was some things you needed to know. Though I need a better explanation of why you're here Mei."

"We were tracking a vampire trail that disappeared into the ocean. We were acquainting ourselves with the area, and decided to observe your pack to get a better feel for your people. Then we moved closer when we heard the sounds of a very… heated argument. I will apologize for rudely eavesdropping, but when we caught their scent." Mei pointed to Tommy and Amy. "Kira lost her control for a moment, can you blame her? Their kind wiped out our coven. We wanted to make sure it wasn't actually them that did so." Mei again motioned towards Tommy with a flick of one impatient hand.

"They are members of my pack. They never had a choice or a chance. As I was explaining to my fa-" Michele stepped up to explain, and then stopped in her tracks when she caught Mei's scent. A low growl settled in her throat as she turned towards her father with a stunned expression, "She's a vampire."

Jacob looked surprised, and then pleased that his daughter was able to pick up on a scent she had never smelled before, from occasional descriptions alone. Then he shrugged sheepishly, an almost amused smile coming to his face. "Yeah, like I said. A lot to talk about."

Michele regarded him steadily for several long moments before she turned back to Mei, her voice slightly unsteady. "Like I said, they weren't in control of anything."

"I don't understand. Nor am I privy to your business. I just find it curious that supposed allies of the Swan's would associate with abominations that were made by one of their most hated enemies. Hence our curiosity." Mei spoke as tactfully as she could.

"Allies of the Swans? What the hell does that mean?" Michele asked

Jacob ignored Michele's question for a moment, and turned to meet Mei's eyes unflinchingly. "I don't care what you find curious. They are under my pack's protection. You hurt them, you hurt my daughter. You hurt my daughter, I hurt you. Get it?" Jacob said without trying to sound too hostile, and succeeded although he found difficult to pull off. Tekali was proud of him, but repressed the impulse to tell him right then. She made a mental note to show her pride later on that night.

"Fuck that, you hurt my pack, I'll hurt you. This bastard Joham is making people into shifters, I don't know how he does it, but it's a horrible and irreversible experience. I killed the jackass who was their 'alpha', if such a pathetic little shit stain could be called that. I don't know if killing shifted his power over to me, or if I just happened bond with them, but it doesn't matter now... I'm their Alpha. They are as much victims of Joham, as I was. I don't give a flip what you think, but if I run into any more of them, I'm gonna do everything in my power to give them a second chance." Michele spoke passionately, and the explanation, although incomplete, satisfied Mei enough that she was willing to back off. It also filled in a lot of the details that Mei missed during Michele's argument with her father.

Mei's expression softened before she responded, "Admirable, and I'll show any you manage to redeem the same respect I'll now show you." Mei then bowed formally to Michele. "For one so young to take on the responsibility of those whose lives have become corrupted is an honorable endeavor. I wish you much luck and good fortune young one." Then without another word she turned to head back into the forest, and back towards the Swan's territory.

"Thanks... I think." Michele said with a half smile. She wasn't entirely sure if it was condescending or insulting, or genuinely intended. Either way, she didn't really care. Jacob seemed to have some connection to this vampire, and that was enough for her.

Then Kira stepped up to her and stared into her eyes. "You are very interesting. You could be a lot of fun." Without warning Kira grabbed both sides of Michele's jaw and kissed her firmly for several seconds before letting go and sauntering away with an amused trill of laughter in her voice at Michele's reaction, and the rest of the groups slack jawed expression.

Michele stood there with a totally stunned expression on her face. Her brain had temporarily short circuited the moment Kira kissed her. She had never even looked at a woman before, but for some reason it took every bit of her willpower not to chase after Kira as she strode away. Michele did watch as she shifted back into tiger, and let herself admire the gracefulness of her movements before she vanished into the forest. Michele was certain there would have been smirks and chuckles, or possibly even outright laughter from most of Jacob's pack if they were all back in their human forms. As it was, both Seth and Leah seemed amused. The fact that Leah was smiling at all was something she would have to investigate, because Leah never smiled. Ever.

Jacob muttered under his breath as he turned towards his wife. "Number seven on the list of things I could have gone my whole life without seeing; a naked woman kissing my daughter." Tekeli smiled wryly at him and put an arm around his waist.

"It could've been worse. It could've been number six." Tekali whispered in Jacob's ear with a smirk on her face, making his eyes momentarily bulge out of their sockets slightly.

"Right. All right, everyone back to their duties. Nothing more here to see." He waved at the pack with his free hand, and kissed his wife once before heading for the house. He looked over at Michele who was still staring into the shadows of the forest before whistling once to get her attention.

Michele sighed, and then shook off her shock before she turned towards her father and shouted almost accusingly. "Okay, I think it's time you start explaining."

Jacob stopped in mid-step and sighed exaggeratedly, then he looked skyward with a "why me?" expression before he ran a hand through his hair, and said with mild exasperation. "I swear. Life will never be normal or quiet as long as Isabella is around."


Carlisle was only partially aware of the world around him, his eyes fixed on the remains of one of the paintings that had once been hanging on the wall directly across from him. He was seated on the smooth cool hardwood floor, with his back leaned up against the equally smooth cherry wood wainscoting that stretched up to the ledge where the rest of the paintings in the room hung above it. He hadn't carefully sat down, instead he sprawled in a moment of total mental defeat. His right leg was stretched out in front of him, the left was crossed and crushed underneath his right thigh.

Time had lost most of its meaning as he sat unmoving and unchanging for hours on end. He was sure several people had come in to try and talk to him, mostly Tanya. Not that he responded to them at all, even when they continued talking at him in an attempt to engage him. Kate had even started insulting him and his family just to get a rise out of him. He honestly didn't care, nor did he really hear a word they said.

Deep within the tattered remains of the canvas piled up in tiny strips on the floor was a singular eye. It might've just been a painting, but the detail was so lifelike it was almost like he was staring into the eye of his son again. It haunted him. Though it wasn't his death that lingered on his mind and caused it to spin. It was Esme's anger.

Her rage had been so clear but somehow he had refused to believe it. Up until a few days ago, he would have said that his family was the model for sanity and harmony. A benchmark that all covens should strive for. His adopted children, his wife, all of them humane and non-violent. All of them had lived as a family, not a coven, for almost two centuries without the infighting that seemed to inevitably come to other vampire covens. If Carlisle had been honest, it always made him a trifle smug that he had succeeded where so many others had failed.

Esme had dashed all of that in an instant. She had killed Edward without so much as a hint of regret, or at the very least a sign of inner struggle. Then she just left, with Isabella and the rest of the family that had abandoned him.

He had been trying to conjure up a reason for her actions. Sure Edward had acted reprehensively, but to do something so final went against everything she said she believed in. Or... had she actually said she believed as he did? He remembered the friendly arguments he had had with Aro, all those years ago. Their debates in which Aro insisted that the static nature of vampires inevitably fractured relationships unless the mating was true. That violence was always the end result, because a vampire's nature is one of constant restraint. The pull to feed, when resisted sears at the soul and eventually comes to the surface redirected towards those closest to them.

Carlisle argued that the very nature of vampires taking mates spoke to an underlying potential for muchmore. That forming a family could placate those urges, and eventually subvert them. At the time it had only been theory, but after two hundred years with his own family, Carlisle had become convinced he was right. When Edward was first turned they had endless talks, and arguments about vampiric instincts and nature, until Esme had joined them, and those lively debates grew further and further apart. She had never once shown an interest in drinking human blood, and had only succumbed to the impulse once as far as he knew. Only... he had also never really had those arguments about vampire nature with Esme either.

Sure she had heard it all from him, and had smiled and nodded in agreement, but he was suddenly unsure if she been simply humoring his beliefs, or was she truly committed to his values too? In the hours he spent staring into his son's faux eye, he turned those things over in his head again and again. And the one thing that kept coming back up was the idea that she couldn't have shared in his values. Otherwise the idea of taking another life, especially one of her own kin, would've been as impossible for her, like the Sun setting in the East.

If that were true, if she didn't really hold the same beliefs as him, that meant she wasn't his true mate. Which felt like an impossibility. For nearly two hundred years she had been by his side. She had been his friend and lover, his confidant and most trusted advisor. Yet back hundreds of years ago, Aro's argument hinged on a strange and esoteric idea. That for all animals, even humans, mating was instinctual, and anything beyond physical and emotional love wasn't possible because they were natural beings. Aro argued that for a vampire, a mate was the other half of your soul. Literally a soul mate.

The idea that when a vampire truly mates, it wasn't just a series of physical and emotional reactions, but something deeper. That true mates almost became one, and that melding would only become more tightly intertwined as the years went on. Carlisle had always scoffed at the concept. As a scientist he couldn't fully grasp the point. Even Aro admitted is was a romantic notion, and felt like he was waxing poetic when he described it to others. But after nearly two millennia with Sulpicia, he was convinced that his ties with her were far deeper than any mortal love.

He had even used Marcus as an example. Given the sheer amount of time that he'd been alive, Marcus had never recovered from Didyme's death. He was mostly just a vacant shell, devoid of emotion and humor, and capable of only the most rudimentary expressions of interest beyond his love of literature, art, and science, and of course when he tended Didyme's garden. Even those few pursuits were not much more than distractions for him. The heart of the man was gone with her.

Carlisle was never quite convinced of Aro's claims, but after he had been with Esme for almost two centuries, he came to understand a bit of what Aro described. He couldn't imagine life without Esme in it. She complimented him... completed him in a way that had become intrinsic to his nature. Yet no matter how much he loved her, could he truly claim that she was a part of his soul? He had never felt that sort of metaphysical connection. Then again, Aro had also insisted that all vampires lose control of their thirst at some point, and he never had. So Aro was clearly not always right.

When they argued over the nature of vampires, Aro had claimed that to hold things together a leader required force, or fear, or other even more vile methods to keep a group of vampires larger than two intact. Carlisle had been horrified at the capabilities of the vampire Chelsea, who was able to bond people to a group to such a degree that loyalty was the only possibility. It was a kind of power that contributed heavily to how the Volturi council kept their coven intact. To Carlisle, who valued choice as one of his most cherished values, it felt like an abhorrent form of mind control.

It was as much that idea of lost of free will, as it was their diet that had made Carlisle leave the Volturi all those centuries ago, to forge his own way. He set out determined to prove Aro wrong, and he thought he had. His family had been proof that vampires didn't have to give into their baser urges, that they could be better than mere animals. His family had been bound together by love, and stayed together by choice instead through some form of coercion.

Hadn't they?

Carlisle's mind spun at the possibilities. Had he created vampires that felt indebted to him? Had he spent his entire life fooling himself. Did Esme feel obligated to indulge his feeding habits? Did she feel she had no choice? The thought made him feel ill, almost as much as the idea that she might deep down want to let loose and kill. So he sat there on the floor and looked at the shred of canvas that was all that remained of both the woman he loved, and the son that had been a part of him for over two centuries.

Then he looked up and glanced around the room. The paintings loomed over him. The smiling faces of his family, captured in perfect snapshots in time. Alice in the 1980's with her bizarre hairstyle and even more disturbing wardrobe. She had lobbied Esme to do another one for decades, but Esme said it was perfect and refused. Next to her was Jasper, painted in an impeccable Italian suit. The background depicted a vague battlefield with the suggestion of a canon that would've been contemporary during his tenure in the Civil War.

Adara sat to his right, and her eyes were cast towards Jasper's painting. Her long hair and luxurious gown accentuated her elegance and beauty so that she rivaled even Rosalie. Rosalie and Emmett were next to her. Rosalie first, done just after her transformation. Her crimson eyes making her stand out even more than her extreme appearance among the rest of the family with their amber irises Esme had once explained the choice, that to her the eyes gave Rosalie an air of fierceness, despite the smile, that hinted at the person buried beneath the vapid ice queen veneer that she had transformed into over the years.. Emmett was the only one positioned sitting down, his goofy smile conveyed the joy of life and general humor that he exuded on a daily basis.

Carlisle almost smiled looking at his youngest son's face. He missed them all, more than he realized. He had thought their departure was temporary... it no longer felt that way. They felt like they were gone. He glanced at the empty spot where Edward's painting had once hung, and immediately closed his eyes and looked away. The missing painting felt too much like a deep wound that he had just intentionally picked at.

Edward's betrayal made everything so much worse. Because it meant Carlisle couldn't really grieve. He was angry, and had no way to resolve or dissipate that anger. He couldn't fix his son. He couldn't do anything. So he was left grappling for answers. Not only was he starting to spiral emotionally, he felt betrayed and abandoned. His entire life seemed to have been yanked out of his control with the fury of an F5 tornado.

To make it sting even more, he could date the beginning of the problem. It wasn't just when Bella had come back into their lives, it had started a long time before that... when Edward had forced them to leave her behind. So he couldn't even blame her, no how much he wanted to. Edward's deception had pretty much stolen away any possible impetus to blame her for anything.

In a way she was just a victim of Edward's actions. Someone who had been so wronged by Edward, and to a degree the rest of the family, that she came back twisted and dark. He had no idea what truly warped Bella into the monster she had become, but he knew he had played a part in her life. He had known... he knew exactly what Edward was doing all those years ago. He knew his son better than anyone. He knew Edward wouldn't have ever really give her a choice, no matter what she had said. His mind had been set on a course of action, and when that happened no one, not even Carlisle, could alter it.

He had told himself again and again that Bella was better off having a human life. That Edward had made the right call. But to be confronted with that utter failure face to face... to know that the choice to leave was the absolute wrong one, was nearly impossible to process. Carlisle had already been struggling with that. Yet in her revenge, Bella had inadvertently hurt him more than she could possibly understand.

She had destroyed his life in every conceivable way.

The way Esme left with Bella made everything seem suddenly so clear. Esme loved her family, loved even Bella more than him. Carlisle wasn't sure what to think or how to react in that moment they walked away together. Then they were gone, and he was too late. He had just needed a little while to understand Esme's actions.

"Ha!" He heard himself laugh out loud, because he knew that was a lie. A nice lie told to make him feel better. He wasn't going to forgive Esme that night, or the next... maybe not even for a decade or a century. The noise prompted Tanya to poke her head into the gallery, he glared at her and stood up to face her.

"All lies. All of them. Aro was right all those years ago. Everything I tried to do has been utterly futile. It explains everything. Our nature. He was right. How else can I make sense of the failure, of how my family completely shattered?!" Carlisle's voice was manic, half crazed and half furious. He waved his arms at his adopted sister frantically, over emphasizing every word.

"They're still together Carlisle. They're still a family. They're just not with you..." Tanya shut her mouth quickly as she realized what she said, then looked away from Carlisle's frightening eyes. "... for now. They'll come back to you. I'm sure of it."

"Bullshit!" Carlisle spit at her. Then turned towards the paintings. He stared at them for a split second, and started to move. He tore them down one by one, until he had gotten around the room to Esme's latest creation before Tanya could intervene. Not that she needed to. When he came face to face with the newest version of Bella... no Isabella, and stopped cold. Esme had captured her completely, and it sent a calming chill down Carlisle's spine.

"It's not your fault. Edward..." Tanya started, but Carlisle held up a hand to stop her sentiment.

"No... it's my fault. I'm to blame for this. I need to be alone for a while." He looked at Tanya pleadingly, and she nodded once before she left the room in the next instant.

"If it's true, then Edward was a monster. I just can't believe it." He spoke to Bella's painting half expecting her to answer.

"Believe it." The image of Isabella replied back to him. He blinked, and realized it was just a projection of his perfect memory. Or maybe it was a hallucination. Either way it was what he needed so he didn't care.

"I don't understand. He did horrible things, but I can't believe that meant he deserved to die." Carlisle said to the painting earnestly, almost begging the image of his wayward daughter to give him the answers he was searching for.

"You feel betrayed huh? Join the club. How do you think I felt when you left without a word. I got Edward telling me you all didn't want me, and that's it. I thought I was a worthless bug to you, a plaything that had been used up and tossed away. The pitiful human, I imagined you laughing at how desperate I was. Mocking me with the idea that I was actually going to be a part of your family. Ha! As if that was going to happen. Edward made sure of that." The smirk on her darkly shadowed face was menacing, and more than a little taunting.

"I thought you were. Truly. I thought he loved you. I thought we were leaving to protect you." Carlisle said the words but knew his voice betrayed him.

"Liar!" Isabella's image shouted at him.

"I... " Carlisle balked for a moment, and nodded once guiltily. Then he finally worked up the courage to response. He wanted to apologize, instead he just let his questions flow out. "I just don't understand. My own wife, turning on a member of the family. How could she actually kill him? I mean it wasn't a slip of self control, she didn't give in to her thirst as she came across a human. It wasn't momentary, that I could understand. What Esme did was something else entirely. It was calculated and planned, it wasn't a heat of the moment thing, she made a conscious choice to track him down and destroy him. And… then she did it. SHE MURDERED MY SON!" The rage that came out was so powerful that his voice literally knocked over the easel holding the painting. Isabella's image went head over heels, and the delusion shattered in an instant.

Suddenly Carlisle was glad that Esme had never had the interest in painting a self portrait. He wasn't sure he could look her in the face anymore. He knew his reaction would be violent, or even worse... pathetic. He'd always been her protector. The one who had rescued her from death, and her horrible life of abuse both mental and physical. He couldn't let her see him weak.

He was caught between two impossible futures. One with Esme in it, where he would have to adjust to her being the person that killed his own son in cold blood. Or one without her and the rest of the family.

Neither sounded like a world he wanted to live in.

He just couldn't understand how she could go against two hundred years of history, against the values she had claimed to believe in. He couldn't quite comprehend that his wife had been the one that did it. He could understand her anger, even her rage at Edward and the situation he put them all in. Hell he was still angry over Edward's betrayal. But to kill him for making bad decisions? He hadn't really admitted the impulse out loud, but he had been convinced that Edward simply needed rehabilitation. He needed to understand and face the consequences of his actions. In the end the only tangible thing Edward had done was contributed to the death of a single human. Even Isabella had recovered from being in the explosion.

Yes, Carlisle was upset with him. Perhaps even furious, but that would've been addressed in time. They had time. They could've used their endless existence to heal his mind. Which had probably become twisted by his gift. But to actually kill Edward? Even Bella who had had almost a century of anger built up, and multiple provocations by Edward, including Edward actually trying to kill her, hadn't crossed that line. If anyone could claim a right to kill Edward it should have been Bella.

Not his wife. He just didn't understand.

He found himself shaking on the floor again, his body racked with tearless sobs as turned things over again and again. He was broken by the loss of his son, and absolutely destroyed at the actions of his wife, who had been torn down his carefully crafted life, and shattered all of his hopes and dreams.



2) This was a glimpse at other character's we've introduced. No it didn't have Alice or Bella. we've had alot of them the past few chapters.

3) Samantha Minuet's Co-Author's Note: I think all of you are tired of hearing our explanations for our long posting delays, suffice it to say life got in the way. I hope everyone liked this one, it didn't focus on our primary characters, but a good divergent scene or two filling in what's happening with a cast this large is an absolute necessity. Don't worry the next chapter will switch back to the Swan Coven... and we haven't forgotten about Charlie and Angela, in fact their entrance back into the story might be just around the corner. Until next time... please R&R!

4) Yes it's been awhile. My bad. Unfortunately, I do go to college. And as neither I nor Samantha make money off of this, that has to come first. Also, I'm sure some reviewers will hate that it doesn't have Bella and Alice. *shrugs* Honestly, I've said it enough. We write a story with romance intertwined.

5) Chapter 2 has been redone by Samantha! Go take a look! The snow flake chapter has been made wonderful! Giving Alice better depth at the start. Shouldn't be TOO long before another update. That chapter is already in the editing phase.

6) Feel free to check out my other story I'm Still Here!

As always please read and review!