The song for these scenes is Amsterdam by Coldplay. An overlooked older song, but it has some powerful lyrics:

"Come on, oh, my star is fading
And I see no chance of release
I know I'm dead on the surface
But I am screaming underneath"

'

Thanks for reading, hope you enjoy.

'

'


Part VII – Pain


'

'

"What can I get ya, hun?" Madge smacked her gum in the corner of a warm smile.

"Just a diet coke for now," Bella replied. "Dad's meeting me for dinner."

" 'Kay," she put her pad away in her apron pocket. "I'll bring his usual coffee too.

"Thanks," Bella smiled leaning her elbows on the booth's table.

With a sassy wink, the lady turned on her heel.

"Noli!" she screeched across the room at 100 decibels of brash. "Get me a diet and a Joe while I get this table!"

She moved on to some students who were in the next booth, getting ready to go out on a Friday night. Since the diner was right across the street from the police station, she'd known Madge since high school days and she hadn't changed a bit. She had the same bad dye job piled up in a wilted B52s hive, cherry red lipstick, kind wrinkles and a mouth that could be heard across town.

Bella smiled, her eyes falling down to the formica table whose fake wood-grain was worn away at either place in the small booth in the corner. Friday evenings were always busy at the diner - from blue collar payday splurges to young people getting ready for another unmemorable night on a small town. Around her, the rushing murmur of conversation was punctuated by laughter while an old juke box belted out twangy old-school country over the clink of ceramic and stainless steel.

Her eyes landed on the fork wrapped up in a napkin and she grimaced. Something crusty was baked onto the tine by the dishwasher. She slid the utensil from its paper scabbard and set the fork at the end of the table with hands that shook like some kind of junky. With a humorless laugh at herself, she gripped both elbows and she leaned over her forearms, trying to relax.

Jacob's spirit had honored her wishes and hadn't returned. It was both a blessing and curse. After five nights of tossing and turning and five compulsively busy days she felt like each hour wound her tighter.

Ugh.

She hated it. It was worse than last week's Jake-drought and she wondered if it had to do with how little time they'd had together in between or the fact that she was swearing off him completely. Whatever it was… her body missed him.

The rest of her? Not so much.

Well, that wasn't exactly true.

Okay, it was a flat-out lie.

That day in the garage, sipping coke, surfing her tablet and reading him random things while she handed him tools had been one of the best of the last eight years of her life. Considering his terse one-word answers and stingy eyes, it sounded pitiful. Yet even if the shells they built around their hearts didn't exactly gel these days, she still felt like they were whispering to each other through the walls. She just liked to be with him.

But she just didn't have the energy to go down to the garage this week and pretend like she didn't care.

Because she did. Big time.

Leah might think she was ready for a nice long vacation at Club Cuckoo but she also hadn't seen that look in his eye at Lupper on Sunday. It was just a brief glimpse, gone so fast that she might have written it off like a sunset's green flash… except it was seared forever into her heart. Just like a glance at a childhood home burned to the ground. Like the memory of violent trauma. Like the last glimpse of a loved-one gone.

It made her so incredibly sad.

But she couldn't help him if he didn't want to be helped – that was one thing Leah had right. So she'd gone about her life and had done a pretty good job of it: she'd gotten a lot of work done, nurtured Jedi back to smiles, spent time with Kim, Emily, Nina, Jen, their kids.

Busy, productive, needed, competent - yeah, she was all of those things.

On the outside.

"Here you go, hon."

The bell jingled over the door at the same time Madge plopped a fountain soda down on the table in front of her and a ceramic mug of coffee at the opposite place.

"Evenin' Madge."

Bella turned at the sound of her father's voice to find him striding across the diner, rubbing his hands on his work pants and sheepishly avoiding her eye.

"Charlie," Madge smiled, turning and shifting her weight to one saucy hip. The woman had had a crush on him for years. "Hey I've got a real nice chopped steak and mashed potatoes on the specials tonight."

"Sounds good," he nodded, sliding into the seat across from Bella and keeping his eyes on the waitress.

"And your usual, hun?" She turned back to Bella and chewed a few loud popping rounds.

Bella nodded. She always got their garden burger here – it was usually a little freezer burned (because she was probably the only one who ever got it) but still it was the healthiest thing on the menu.

With smile and a wink for Charlie, Madge turned around. "Noli!" she belted like a banshee who smoked two packs a day.

Bella winced and turned back to her father. He was taking his pad, flashlight and gun off his belt and setting them beside him on the seat – basically procrastinating for as long as he could.

This was the first time she'd seen him since that disaster conversation after she'd been marked.

Bella took a deep breath, hugged her elbows harder and dove in. "Thanks for meeting me, Dad."

Her father looked up with a nod and then settled back in his seat. "I was gonna give you a call this weekend anyways," he mumbled.

Bella pulled off the paper top on her straw and took a sip of soda while he pulled the sugar pourer toward him.

"I'm sorry, Bells," he sighed quietly, looking up and meeting her eyes for the first time. "I just felt like it was the same ole crap all over again and I-…" he tore his eyes away with a shake of his head and tipped a white stream of sugar into his coffee.

"Dad, I'm an adult now," Bella told him with a smile. "You get to watch me crash and burn without feeling guilty." She tried a little humor, but her father's head snapped up with a frown.

" "Zat what's happenin'?" he asked.

Bella shook her head. "Well, no more than usual," she sniffed with a smirk. "Things are going pretty good actually. I've been spending a lot of time with Emily Uley and some other girls down on the Rez. Free babysitter," she grinned, taking another sip of soda.

Her father harrumphed and switched out the sugar for a little silver pitcher of cream.

"I've gotten a lot of work done an… I dunno. I've never had so many friends," she tipped her ear to her shoulder while she watched him stir the coffee into café au lait. "I feel useful. Like they need me. I've even been helping out this new kid who just …." she paused.

Her father looked up and she raised her brows meaningfully.

He nodded and pushed the cream away. "Who's it now?"

"His name's Jedidiah," Bella told him, her eyes falling to her bumpy red plastic cup. She absently spun it around.

"Jedi Spears?" Charlie asked, picking up his coffee and taking a sip.

Bella looked up with a nod.

"Shit," he grimaced as he set the mug down. "That kids been through enough."

"I know," she whispered on a sigh as she plucked her straw out and restlessly poked the ice cubes.

Jedi had lost his mom two years ago to cancer and his father had fallen apart. He was now MIA and Jedi was living with his mother's sister and her husband.

"Suzie told me you've been doin' real good by all of 'em. You've even got those ole codgers down at the Council talking," her father coughed a laugh out of a wry smile.

He paused then – face slipping into serious as his eyes searched hers. He set down his coffee. "She also told me I was a pigheaded ass for pushin' you away like I did."

A chuckle pounced free from an affectionate smile and Bella slithered her hand toward him. He grabbed it and brought it up to his lips, pressing a prickly mustache kiss to her knuckles.

"Sorry Bells," he murmured, setting their entwined hands down on the table.

"I know it's been-…"

Loud high laughter tumbled into the café on the heels of a violent jangle of the door's bell. A girl stumbled in like she'd been pushed, turning around with a shrieking laugh for her friends who were following her. They were all cackling like they were the only people in the world with that oblivious disregard that came with youth, alcohol and egotism.

"You guys are so wrong!" the girl giggled, turning around to the diner so her arrival could be properly announced.

Her Royal Highness Lauren Mallory.

Talk about blasts from the past – she had now become an adult parody of who she'd been in high school. Bella wasn't sure where she was going after the diner, but she was undoubtedly both over- and under-dressed. She sported a mini (micro) skirt, net stockings down to mile-high boots and a feminine swede jacket over a top that clung to new and improved boobs. Bella had heard from Angela that she'd moved away – 'guess she was back to grace Forks with her presence for a visit.

But just then the last of her three friends made her own grand entrance behind her and for a moment Bella could only stare.

Oh my God! Fate had obviously decided fucking with Bella was a new favorite hobby.

Jessica Rabbit (a.k.a Trixie) sashayed through the door, hanging on the shoulder of one of her similarly slutty friends while she tittered away with manicured fingers over her mouth. At least she was wearing a little more clothes today – a body-glove black dress hugged all her curves coming to an abrupt halt at her upper-thigh so endless legs could take the wheel. She had on a leather jacket with silver hardware that would have been bad-assed with the right context. On her, it simply advertised that that ass was for the taking – it wiggled with each step while heavy red hair swayed over it with just enough sensuality to actually make her look sexy.

Bella kind of hated her life at the moment. With a groan she collapsed her forehead on her arms and listened to the girls giggle and shriek their way across a diner that had become markedly quieter.

She heard her father snort in annoyance. "Jeziss, you'd think-…." He stopped. "Hey, what's wrong kiddo."

Bella looked up, grinding her chin into her fist while she shook her head back and forth in disbelief.

Her father frowned, just opening his mouth when Mage came bustling up to the table. With a huffing sigh, Bella sat up.

"Chop steak," Madge announced (needlessly) as she dropped the plated heart-attack in front of him. "Garden burger." She slid Bella's dish toward her.

Bella mumbled a thanks – for the distraction.

"Anything else you two?" she asked, looking at Charlie.

"No, we're good," her father glanced at her and then offered the waitress a kind smile that made his mustache buckle.

With a little pat of her father's shoulder Madge turned and charged the table of laughing girls at the table against the far wall.

But unfortunately, when Lauren looked up at the incoming waitress, she caught sight of Bella across the room. Recognition briefly widened her eyes before painted lips twisted in a catty smirk. She leaned into the table and all the girls moved closer like a pre-play football huddle.

"What'll it be girls," Madge belted out the demand as she stopped with an already impatient hand on her hip.

Bell turned back to her plate and picked up a French fry, considering it blindly.

"You know them?"

Blinking, she looked up to see her father putting his napkin in his lap. He picked up his fork and knife and then paused, waiting for an answer.

"Yeah," Bella sighed. "Lauren and I weren't exactly close in high school …" she sniffed a bitter laugh. The timing really was unbelievable. "And the red head's one of Jake's friends," she twisted the words into a sarcastic knot and beheaded the fry with a vicious bite.

Her father's eyes boomeranged across the room and he barked a disgusted laugh before he returned to Bella. " 'You wanna get this to go?" he asked.

It was such a sweet and supportive gesture.

But Bella shook her head while she chewed – she wasn't going to give Jacob or his escapades any more power than they already had. They were just Packmates and he could live his life like he wanted.

Charlie searched her eyes for a moment and then they dipped down to her neck where the mark was safely hidden under a flannel collar. With an uncomfortable clearing of his throat, his gaze fell to his plate and he cut a piece of steak.

"How's that going?" her father muttered to his food.

With a sigh, Bella's eyes found her burger. She plucked out each cellophane coiffed toothpick one at a time.

"It's complicated," Bella whispered. "We're just staying out of each other's way for now."

Her father looked up from under his lashes as he shoved a piece of gravy-soaked meat past his lips. "That's not what Suzie says."

Bella looked up with a bitter hitch to her lips. "What? That it's complicated or we're staying out of each other's way?"

Her father sat back, chewing while his cop-eyes assessed her expression. "Look, baby," he murmured. "I know it's real complicated. But what I don't want is you in a situation where he can take you down with him."

"Yeah, well I finally came to that same conclusion," Bella barked a humorless laugh. "So we're just… well…" her eyes automatically swept the room – it wasn't like anyone was paying attention. "Pack mates. He knows the score."

Her father nodded imperceptibly, obviously waiting for clarification.

Bella huffed out a sigh and propped her elbows on the table as she picked up half of her sandwich. "I think Billy might be right," she whispered. "I don't think Jake's coming back."

Charlie tried to hide the relief that slackened worry lines but it didn't really work. He leaned forward and returned his attention to his food, using his fork to smoosh down the mashed potatoes and drain the gravy well in the middle while Bella took a bite.

He scooped up a forkful and shishkabobbed a piece of meat. "So where does that leave you, Bells?" he asked quietly.

Bella chewed a moment. "Well-…" a crumb of bun escaped on the word and she caught it against her lips. She set the sandwich down and pulled her napkin from her lap and dabbed out her mouth.

"I guess," she swallowed her bite. "It leaves me exactly where I am." She wiped her mouth again and sat back. "Even if he stays like this, I'm not going to abandon him again."

Charlie looked up with a scowl. "You're not abandoning nobody," he grumbled. "You' got your own life to live. Just because he-…"

"Dad," she stopped him emphatically. It wouldn't be productive to try to talk to him about Jacob and it wasn't what she'd asked him here for anyway.

"I am living my life," she stressed - because she was. "And, I mean other than that particular issue, I'm happier than I've been anywhere else. I have people around me, time to do work, I feel needed. He's made a few overtures, I think things eventually will be civil enough-…"

"You deserve more than civil," he bit out, cutting his chopped steak with a little more vigor than was necessary.

"Jake doesn't owe me anything," Bella contradicted quietly. "It was my choice to come back. And you know what? It feels good when it doesn't hurt- like it's the right thing to do. He was a good friend. Hell, he's my-…" her eyes darted to the people behind her father and she leaned in. "I'm his imprint and if I can't help him, then maybe I can help his Pack."

Charlie's eyes narrowed thoughtfully. "Sethy says you already are," he father mumbled between chews.

Bella smiled sitting back again and picking up a French fry. "But that's not what I wanted to talk about," she raised a brow and dove in. "I want you to come to the bonfire tomorrow night."

Charlie froze mid-chew. As one of the highest-ranking of the Council, of course Sue Clearwater-Swan would be there.

"I was gonna skip it, Bells. I got a bunch of work that-…" he began.

"I know," Bella muttered blandly and grabbed the ketchup. "But I think you should come. Not only for Sue, but I think it's time you and Billy patched shit up." She squirted crimson onto her plate and then returned the bottle to the oily little basket, watching his face.

Charlie tossed his head back and forth, hedging. "I dunno, Bells. I think that bridge is pretty much-..."

"Dad," she huffed his name on a sigh. "Are you going to do what Jake and I did?" she arched a brow as she dragged her french-fry through the ketchup puddle. "You guys have been friends all your lives. I'm making peace with Jake- well, y'know," she snorted taking a bite of fry. She chewed leisurely while she watched her father suddenly become incredibly involved in cutting another piece of meat.

"It's time you guys tried too. Billy was really nice when I went over there," Bella added. "Forgiving. Dad, I think he misses you but he doesn't know how to reach out."

Charlie dragged the meat skewered on his fork through drifts of gravy-laced potato. "Yeah, he's not the only one," he mumbled so quietly that they could pretend he didn't say it.

Bella grinned and dunked her fry again. "Come for Sue and me," she suggested. "And just see what happens." She stuffed the rest in her mouth and sat back in the booth, pulling her feet up under her.

"You're gonna be there?" he looked up, grasping at straws and excuses.

Bella nodded and then pulled her knife aside while she covertly watched her father with an assessing eye. She idly spun the utensil like it a compass.

Suddenly, a harsh buzz made him drop his fork. His hand dove for the phone sitting beside him on the seat. He glanced at the caller ID and looked up with relief in his eyes – saved by the bell.

"I gotta take this, Bells," he told her, grabbing up his weapon and popping it absently back on his belt as he scooted out of the booth. "It'll just be a minute."

Bella nodded and watch him flip the phone open.

"Chief Swan," he said in that dull monotone he always used for work as he crossed the diner to the foyer and front door. He opened it and stepped outside as the bell tinkled behind him.

With a sigh, Bella returned her attention to her underwhelming dinner, picking up her sandwich and taking a bite. If she was reading him right, he was going to do it – she really did hope he and Billy figured things out. And not just for his sake – it would make things easier on Sue not to be so divided.

"Bella Cullen!" a pretentious voice squealed. "Oh my God, it's been such a long time!"

Bella's eyes closed for a moment as she tried to scrape together any tolerance she had left – she was down the backwash dregs. Plastering on a paper mâche smile, Bella turned to see Lauren headed her way like a vulture to a kill.

Of course, Tricksy Trixie was in stumbling tow.

You know what? Fuck you, fate and your muthafuckin' bitchy sense of humor.

Holy shit, Trixie was wasted already. However, Bella could stand to watch her ankles buckle on those high heels a few more times.

"It's Swan," Bella corrected sweetly.

Lauren pursed her lips as she stopped beside the booth. "Oh, I always wondered if things would work out with Edward."

It was literally stunning how she could take those innocuous words and pump them so full of venomous innuendo. She really was a professional bitch.

Bella's smile stayed painted in place while she raised her middle finger plainly in her eyes.

Lauren's gaze flitted condescendingly over Bella's stylish flannel, ripped jeans and chucks. "And you haven't changed a bit since high school."

"Ha!" Bella gave her wide sarcastic eyes. "I was going to say the same thing!" she claimed theatrically. With a purse of her lips she pointed from her temple to Lauren's. "Great minds."

"Thank you!" she piped, obviously ducking blithely under the inference. "So I have someone who wants to meet you…" she wound up with sick anticipatory glee quivering in her voice. "This is Trixie Carvello. And Trix this is Bella Cullen."

"Swan."

Lauren gave her an overdone grimace of sympathy. "Sorry, sweetie."

Bella's eyes rolled under her lids on their way to Trixie.

Wide green eyes were raking over her in undisguised disbelief. "You're the Bella?" her squeak went up so high Bella was glad her soda was in plastic, otherwise she would have been a wet mess.

But seriously, what does one say to that question?

Bella decided to ignore it. "Nice to meet you," she gave her a saccharine smile.

"No fucking way!" she nearly shrieked. "You're Jake's Bella?" Apparently it was hard to wrap her mind around it.

Bella felt like she kind of was lassoing a runaway train, but at this point the only thing she could do was be dragged along. "We grew up together, if that's what you mean."

The girl pulled back, swaying on her feet while wild eyes assaulted Bella's body with disgust. "But you're-… You're-…"

Okay, now Bella was getting pissed.

"I'm what, Trix?" she bit out crisply, staking that stare with a go-ahead-try-me-bitch edge.

The girl's eyes narrowed under fake lashes and ruby lips pursed as she leaned in, catching her drunk ass against the edge of the table. Her bowling ball boobs nearly fell out and rolled into Charlie's mashed potatoes.

"You're a fucking slut," she hissed venomously.

Bella nearly laughed in her face. "So you're inviting me to join you guys?" she asked brightly and then wrinkled her nose. "Shucks, I'm eating with my dad."

"Probably the only guy who'd be seen with you," she spat and Bella was taken aback by the sheer venom.

"So what is it?" she asked, leaning more over the table while Lauren watched like she had money in the game. " 'You got something on him? Cause you're not rich, you're not…" she grimaced, her eyes flitting up and down her body. "You're not anything."

Bella leaned in so close she could smell the pot and vodka on her breath. "Trixie?" she whispered and then licked her lips to extend the dramatic pause. "I'm more than you'll ever be."

Sitting back, Bella watched the girl's face turn red.

"And," she said in a stage whisper, her gaze darting down to her popping cleavage. "I think you've got a..." she mimed a little circle with a finger. "A little nipple showing there."

The woman bolted up and she swayed on her feet as her eyes fell to her chest.

"Made you look," Bella hummed victoriously, flicking her eyes up to the ceiling. Because, really, what good was a fucking ridiculous situation without a little dorky humor?

"You bitch!" she shrieked, giving Madge a run for her money.

The entire diner was now paying Superbowl-grade attention to the scene and Lauren finally smelled disaster.

"Trixie," she hissed, trying to turn her around.

Trixie continued shrieking like a banshee over her shoulder. "You're just a fucking Rez whore!"

Bella's nails were bending, she was gripping the table so hard. If she got up, it wasn't going to be pretty. That bitch had only about 30 seconds before she was covered in diet coke.

"Because you can't get any other guy to even look at you!"

That's it. Bella stood up at the same time the door opened with a cheery jingle.

"What seems to be the problem here?" Charlie's voice was brusque and pissed as hell.

Lauren tried to drag the staggering girl back to their table. "She's just had a few too many, Sir," she cooed, batting her eyes in a blatant attempt to sway judgment.

Oh it swayed it alright.

"I think you need to come down to the station with me, Miss," Charlie boomed, putting hand on Trixie's arm and pulling her around.

"Wha-what? No!" Trixie gasped, instantly a hell of a lot more sober.

Charlie scowled at her while the girl tried to pull herself together and paint on a seductive smile. It looked ludicrous in context.

"Well then you'll need to get a hold of yourself," he growled.

"Y-Yes, sir," she piped solicitously.

"I want you ladies to find another place to sober up," he spoke to all four of them as diners turned around and back to their conversations and food. "Who's driving?"

"I am," a girl piped up in the corner who looked to be the most reasonable of the bunch.

"You been drinkin'?"

"No sir," she shook her head, scooting out her chair.

"Alrighty. Take these girls home."

She nodded again and they all started toward the door.

"Not so fast," he blocked Trixie with a long arm as she tried to shimmy by him. "I've got to finish your ticket."

"What?" she spat.

"Drunk an' Disorderly Conduct." A smile crouched under his mustache.

"You can't do that!" she snapped.

Charlie raised a brow as his fingers slipped up to finger his Chief's badge. "Oh I think I can," he countered sternly. "Or I could arrest you too – there's an empty cell across the street."

Trixie's eyes ballooned and Charlie gave her humorless smile. "Let me get my tablet."

He pushed by her and sauntered casually to the booth like he was whistling a tune in his head. Leaning over his seat he grabbed his pad, tossing a little wink over the table at Bella's broad smile.

She had a cool dad.

Flipping the sheets up one by one with a grim frown and a professional tactic to ratchet up their dread, he made his way back to where all four girls were standing wide-eyed and freaked-out by the door – it was a good look on them. Her father pulled Trixie aside into the foyer casting warning glances to the others.

Bella decided that as much as part of her wanted to film the whole thing on her phone and post it on Youtube, that it was a little too uncomfortable to sit at the booth and pretend to either eat or not watch. She scooted out of the seat and set a course for the bathrooms at the back of the diner.

Like a rat from a sinking ship, Lauren was trying to distance herself from her friend and she intercepted her path.

"Sorry about that Bella," she told her with overstated chagrin. "I didn't know she'd lose it like that." Apparently she was trying to ingratiate herself with the Police Chief's daughter, just in case.

Bella gave her an annoyed frown. "I don't know what her problem is," she scoffed.

"She just got dumped by Todd," Lauren whispered dramatically, like Bella was supposed to have a clue in hell who that was. "On top of that, I think she couldn't take this thing with Jake. You're not together?" the question was a combination of surprise and reconnaissance.

"Me and Trixie?" Bella goaded snidely – she just couldn't resist.

"No, Jacob Black," she answered, either too drunk or too interested to get the humor.

Bella huffed out a breath with a flick of her eyes. "For the record, we're not," she bit out crisply. "He was with her last weekend so she should know." She twisted her lips in a sarcastic sneer and then carried on her way.

"Last weekend he turned her down," Lauren contradicted and Bella paused, glancing over her shoulder. "He was her go-to hook-up between guys, y'know," she leaned in with a wild gossipy look to her eye. "But…" she licked her lips breathlessly. "When she hit him up last weekend he kept it in his pants, bought her a few drinks, and told her he was off the market."

Bella frowned to cover the confused fireworks going off in her brain.

"I mean, she thought if she could depend on anyone it'd be him- he never turns it down," she continued, like surely Bella wasn't understanding otherwise she'd be just as shocked. "Apparently he even ditched Dee Mason too and's been MIA since. So who the hell's he with?"

Bella watched in disgust as her eyes widened in lurid anticipation.

"No clue," she told her with a crocodile smile. "Doubt he does either."

'

'

"Honey, don't worry," Bella murmured, placing a hand over the big brown hand on a knee that was bouncing like a jackhammer. The ocean echoed her words, curling with foaming violence that was hushed into a lover's whisper by the impact. So much like falling in love.

A seagull streaked the late afternoon sky with squeaky calls like chalk on a blackboard while Bella watched the man beside her hunch over his lap. She scooted a little closer on the log – one of the half dozen or so that had been pulled down from where they were stored in the beach grass to loosely circle what would soon be the bonfire pit.

"You know her," Bella ventured a smile. "It's just the same right? Only more?"

The big news in the Pack this week was Joey Whitehorse's next door neighbor and childhood friend Kammie Park had moved back last week before school started. Her Quileute mother had met her Korean-American father at college and they'd been back east for a few years to help her father's family get through a tough time.

Joey had gone over to their house on assignment with a casserole to have 15-year old Kammie answer the door…

Joey had imprinted.

He looked up at Bella with the big brown eyes of a clearly terrified 17-year old peering through that twenty-something mask. His forehead wrinkled as his head bowed to where his feet were digging frenetic holes in the sand.

"Think about Seth – he started from ground zero," Bella bumped him gently with her shoulder, using the most recent example that he'd been around to watch. Apparently the ominous and terrifying 'imprint curse' was moving in on the younger generation now. "You're already ahead of the game."

He leaned into her like a little boy while he squeezed his eyes closed. "But I was so stupid," he made a little anxious grunt. "I mean… ugh! What happens if this ruins everything?"

Apparently Joe had broken his mother's favorite pyrex on the Parks' front step and then wordlessly run away as fast as he could.

"It won't, Joey," Bella she assured him –though she, of all people, didn't have the right. "Just take each step, one at a time. You already know she's special, and apparently the great wolf god agrees," she wiggled her brows humorously. "She's your imprint – as long as you're honest about what you need, things will work out."

She hoped. That was the lesson, here right?

Cutting his eyes over at her, Joe grimaced. "But what if she freaks out about all the wolfy stuff?"

"You said she always loved the old stories, right?" Bella raised her brow. "She'll think it's cool." At least, Bella had.

"When she was little," he dismissed.

"Well it's perfect timing for a refresher," Bella squeezed his hand. At the end-of-the-summer bonfire, Billy always told the best wolf stories. "Are you going to tell her tonight?"

Joe threw his head back and groaned to a late summer sky. Fluffy clouds were starting to tinge with pink as the sun dipped toward the ocean horizon. A full moon was in the forecast, but no rain, so it was the perfect Saturday night for a bonfire.

"Jake says I hafta," he croaked.

Bella arched a brow; did he now? Maybe he'd learned something after all…

A Frisbee flew into the log with a thunk.

"C'mon loverboy!" Nebi laughed.

"Quit with the emo," Elan rejoined. "Come play!"

Bella picked up the Frisbee with a humorous frown for the benevolently obnoxious Brothers. In the distance Jedi was waving. "Go long Bella!" he yelled.

He was doing so much better.

Bella glanced at Joe with a raised brow and a small smile ventured out to play. "This is going to make you laugh," she snorted, standing and dusting off her shorts. "Watch this."

With a running start, Bella let it fly, putting her whole body into it. It actually looked like it might make it halfway to where Jedi was sprinting the difference but it was intercepted by a roaring Seth. The younger wolves all howled at the crasher.

And so a raucous game of Ultimate Frisbee began.

Soon Bella was peeling her flannel off down to a shameless tank top – they were all used to the mark by now, or rather, Bella was used to the stares. Catcalls and cheers were volleyed now and then by an incidental audience as wolves ferried things down from cars to the tables under the tents and mates built sand castles or herded kids away from the fray. Bella had spent the whole morning in the kitchen with Emily, so she didn't feel guilty.

In fact, it was awesome to get physical and just play – even if she unequivocally sucked – leaving worries and yearning and sadness on the sidelines.

"Holy Crow!" Bella shrieked (reviving a curse from more innocent days for the benefit of the cubs). She made a reckless leap for the disc and caught it in an elated hand, only to remember about gravity a second later. She landed flat on her back in the sand with an oof and an actual bounce.

Nearby little peanuts burst into pealing giggles from their gallery and wolvish hoots and jeers were snatched by the wind.

With a grin Bella proudly held up her prize. "Woo hoo!" she whooped.

She wasn't even sure, come to think of it, if it was any kind of win, but just having caught the damn thing was a victory worthy of celebration.

Sitting up, she turned to where the little ones were still laughing by their fancy blob of sand claimed to be combination castle, race car and unicorn (that was Raven) depending on who you asked. But it only took a second to realize the real reason she'd tuned that way.

Jacob had arrived.

He was carrying his father's chair in one hand and several bags of food in the other.

While his gaze stayed locked on her.

It felt like the clouds had raced over the sun – suddenly the world felt very different. Spider chills crept over her skin with a wash of hormones, emotion and adrenaline that made every neuron start firing at the same time.

She didn't want to deal with this right now.

Standing up, she didn't even bother to try to dust off yet another layer of sand but returned her attention to roughhousing boys jostling to get in the clear for her throw.

"Bella!" Seth yelled, pushing Nebi back with an outstretched arm.

She did her best to plunge back into the game with a throw that actually came close enough to its target that he could leap to intercept it. Playing with supernatural beings made things a whole hell of a lot easier in the aiming department for sure.

Jogging after them, she could feel Jacob's eyes follow her like a shadow.

Just like Joe, she wasn't ready to face this this afternoon. After a week of surviving on CPR logic and willpower to keep a heart going that was chronically damaged and starving for his touch, she'd had to hear Lauren's revelation last night. It just made that rogue twisting vine of hope constrict tighter.

And it didn't matter.

It shouldn't matter. Whether he'd slept with the slut last weekend or a different girl every night for the last two months, it didn't change a thing. It was only hearsay she wasn't supposed to know scrounged to feed her addiction - like loose change from between couch cushions to buy another drink.

Except that it did.

And it was confusing.

Bella hated herself for it.

She pushed one of the Brothers out of the way as she screamed at Jedi to throw it to her. With a graceful leap, he rolled over Joe's tackle and then chucked it on a low whizzing course parallel to the ground. Bella threw herself into a devil-may-care dive for it, but both her catch and face-plant was intercepted by a thick arm around her waist. One of the twins caught her blithely, straightening as he casually angled her away to thwart her shrieking swipes for the Frisbee.

"ELAN!" she screamed in kicking in frustration. He chucked it toward Quil with a snap of his wrist and turned to her with a silk chocolate grin.

"Shit," she spat. "NEBI! Put me down!"

He complied, setting her on her feet with a snickering pat on her head. She slapped his hand away crossly. Again instinct made her turn before she'd had a chance to think about it.

Jacob was now carrying his father down the dune like he weighed as much as a kitten. He was still staring without a single expression on his face – Billy Black too for that matter. She lifted her hand in a casual greeting for his father before she turned her back.

Watching Jacob carrying the man onto the beach with both strength and tenderness was unsettling. It was a physical metaphor for what he'd been doing for so long. Billy was tall and a big man too – she'd never really seen how they'd managed it back in the days before superman strength.

Because she hadn't paid attention.

She used to give lip-service to how hard it must have been for Jacob to care for his father at the ripe old age of eleven, but she'd never really thought about how much weight he had born.

Suddenly some mysterious turn of events made her team erupt in cheers while the other team groaned and shouted insults. Whatever it was, it looked like they'd won.

Seth came galloping her way at full speed and she turned tail to sprint away in pure adrenaline-laced reflex.

He caught her, throwing her effortlessly up into the air while she squealed and then caught her in steady hands. Tossing her over his shoulder, he made a beeline for the waves.

"A celebratory dunk!" he whooped. "Don't Swans love to swim!" he teased, loping and splashing through the shallows while she shrieked and slapped teasing hands on his back.

"NO! SETH!" she wailed over her jostled laughter.

Abruptly he stopped short. "Shit," he hissed, turning and glancing over his shoulder.

"What?" she whispered fearfully, trying to crane around his ribcage.

He pulled her over his shoulder into a much more sedate bridal style as he tromped back up toward the shore.

"Jake's here," he breathed out of the side of his mouth as a wave rolled in, washing behind him and getting him wet from the hips down. He ignored it, trudging on like a funeral march.

"Yeah, so?" she frowned up at him as she looped her arms around his neck.

"He's pissed," he whispered.

"Nothing new," she snorted, glancing out at where Jacob was indeed glaring daggers their way beside his seated father.

He leaned in. "No, his wolf's pissed at me," he breathed.

Bella frowned up at him. "How do you know?"

He looked down at her with that sparkling smile and wiggled his ear.

Bella laughed. "How do you do that?!" she marveled (it wasn't the first time he'd showed off such a prodigious skill).

"Secret," he told her with a wink.

"A nerdy month in front of your bathroom mirror?" she surmised slyly as he set her down on dry land.

"Damn," Seth tossed his eyes like he'd been caught. Then he frowned and dusted off his hands. "You're sandy," he wrinkled his nose.

"It's the price you pay for such athleticism," she arched a pompous brow.

He coughed a distracted laugh, his eyes nervously darting up the beach.

"His wolf's the more reasonable of the two by far," she soothed lightly. "I'll go talk to him." With an absent sooth over her stepbrother's arm, she turned toward where Jacob now had his head bowed.

She watched him clench his fists and then stalk over to the coolers.

Bella nervously dusted herself off. She was fairly breaded in sand, which was certainly no uncommon occurrence for her on a beach. It also never really bothered her… until today. Rat-nest hair caked with salt and flying in the wind out of her messy ponytail. Dressed in a camisole over beat up jeans rolled up to knees, she felt like Trixie had claimed: nothing. Funny how barbed words even spat over petty lips still work their way under the skin.

Walking backwards, she turned into the wind and pulled the rubber band out of her hair. She swept her locks back and into a knot then continued on.

Pack mate. Pack mate. Pack mate.

She silently chanted the words like mantra while she watched Jacob straighten from the cooler with that savage grace, muscles rippling down his sides. She idly wondered whether he wore the black tee shirt and those jeans because he knew it got such a rise out of her. A veiled question had yielded lewd answers from Leah – apparently arousal was very easy to scent.

He prowled back to his father with a Rainier beer in one hand and bottle in the other, fluently stepping over a log on the way.

Come to think of it, that was a good idea. She'd been dry the whole week, she could afford one beer tonight, right? Absently grabbing up her flannel shirt from the log where she'd left it, Bella made a detour at the herd of ice chests and dug out an amber bottle and twisted off the cap. Pocketing it, she tipped it back before the cooler lid had thumped closed.

It was cool and yeasty and the alcohol felt awesome going down. She relaxed a little from what felt like a permanent high-alert and turned to find Jacob watching her while he tipped back a sip.

Billy was turned, saying something to Rachel who was sitting on one of the foldup chairs while she nursed a canned juice and Paul lounged against a log at her feet, chugging a beer. He was surreptitiously watching the interplay between Bella and his Alpha.

Taking another long gulp of beer, Bella made her way toward them with an attempt at a casual smile.

"Hey, Bella," Billy called, resting his beer can on his thigh and holding out his other hand.

Bella's smile grew warmer as she hastened to lean down and give him a one-armed hug. She could feel the prickle of Jacob's nearness from where he stood behind his father.

Straightening, she glanced up at him. "Hey Jake," she offered casually.

Hematite eyes locked with hers, he nodded subtly and then tipped the beer up to his lips. His Adam's apple bobbed with the swallow, making Bella want to climb up that body and bury her face in his neck.

Being this close to him without touching was physically painful. Every molecule in her body felt like it was jittering in agitated demand that she throw her arms around him right this very instant and drown in his scent. She wondered if he felt the same.

She tore her eyes away, and it felt like she'd ripped off a limb. They burned, threatening to bleed as she blinked to find Billy staring at her shoulder. Tucking her chin, Bella angled herself away as she fumbled to shove her hand into the sleeve of her shirt.

"I'll hold that," Billy offered quietly.

With an incriminating sniffle, she looked up to find him extending a weathered hand… and Jacob turning on his heel. She absently handed the bottle to his father while she watched him stalk away to the tents. Apparently he didn't feel the same way… or did and hated it.

Hated her?

Oh, God… she just couldn't keep her balance when he was around. Squeezing her eyes closed, she blindly shrugged on her shirt and tried to reset, swallowing down the bitter sadness whose taste was always in the back of her mouth these days.

She took her beer with a wan smile and thanks from Billy. He was watching her with worried eyes.

"How you holdin' up, honey?" he asked in that soothing dusky voice.

In rebellious contrast to the way her eyes were now watering she nodded, taking another long drink of beer. She didn't have the words.

"You still don't know how to play UF, do you Swan?"

Bella turned to where Paul was staring up at her with a smirk that didn't reach his eyes. He jerked his chin out to where the boys were back to Ultimate Frisbee. "When you get it you just throw it to whoever's closest," he chuckled.

Swallowing her beer, Bella gave him a watery smile and wiped her mouth (and covertly her nose) on her sleeve. "Hey, I know who's on my team at least," she sniffed.

"Yep," he nodded sitting up a little more. "You do alright, Swan."

It was pretty much the nicest thing he'd ever said to her and it made her want to break down and cry even more.

"Is it time to wrap weenies in bacon, yet?" Rachel pried herself out of the chair, using Paul's head like a brace.

"Babe, you'd better be starting with mine," Paul held his neck stiff as he steadied her with a hand and looked up at her with that adorable affection sparkling under the snark.

"Oh, then I can move on to the rest?" She tried to smother her smile. They really were the cutest thing when they weren't trying to kill each other.

"You won't have time," he purred, congealing to his feet and capturing her lips on the way up.

Billy cleared his throat theatrically and Paul spun around with splayed palms and slapstick innocence. "Just helping your daughter up Chief Black," he told him solemnly around a roguish smile.

Rachel slapped his ass hard and he yelped.

"C'mere, boy," Billy frowned sternly.

Paul took the few steps while uncertainty seeped into his face.

When he got close enough Billy Black wacked him good on the thigh. "Get outta here!" he groused.

Paul howled melodramatically as he jogged off to join the game while Rachel snickered. She bent down and placed a kiss on her father's cheek. "Want us to push you under the tent Papa?"

"I'm good," he murmured and then met Bella's gaze. "Bella'll catch up with you in a minute."

Bella tossed Rachel a smile and then sat obediently on the log in front of him. Even though she hadn't seen him since the marking, she was comfortable with Billy.

Billy watched his daughter tromp over the sand to the tents where they were preparing the food. He turned back around to Bella with serious eyes and she rearranged her collar uncomfortably.

"How are you really doing, honey?" he asked quietly.

Bella shoved both arms down between her knees, hunching her shoulders. "All-in-all, pretty good," she whispered. "It's just hard to be around him."

He nodded absently while he searched her face and then took an unhurried sip of his beer. "He's been doing lil' better," he murmured. "But the Pack's a whole hell of a lot better – I ain't never seen them this -…" he pursed his lips, leaving the predicate hanging with a bunch of different adjectives while his gaze swept the beach.

Bella turned and did the same. Most of the Pack – including Jedi - were splashing through the shallows and horsing around in a loose game of Frisbee. Jared and Kim had come as "honorary pack" and he was sitting with the kids along with Embry and Jose. The girls were setting up the food and using the Brothers for grunt work.

Jacob was nowhere to be seen.

But every one was... happy. That deep kind.

"As Chief of this tribe..."

Bella's gaze darted back to Billy's steady eyes.

"I wanted to thank you," he murmured, reaching out for her hand. "But as father, it's impossible to repay the debt."

Bella's gaze slid to her knees uncomfortably. "I just did what I thought was right," she mumbled.

"Exactly."

She looked up to his smile. It was somber, troubled. "But I also can't imagine what it's cost you, honey."

"Nothing I don't already owe," she sniffed bitterly.

"Now it ain't like that and you know it," he huffed, squeezing her hand.

"I know," she groaned, closing her eyes as she flopped over her knees and shimmied her hand free. "God, I can't keep my head."

"Don't know many that could, Bella."

Suddenly weary, she picked up her head and rubbed her salty face.

"Intimacy strengthens the imprint," he murmured while his eyes darted between hers. "That's how Quil and Claire can spend so much time apart but just a few days bout near kills my daughter and Paul."

"Them being together might be worse," Bella added dryly.

Billy's face broke out into an appreciative grin that looked suspiciously like a sunset version of Jacob's smiles. It slowly faded back into seriousness.

The crunch of gravel up the hill along with the telltale police blue made Bella's gaze dart up to where a police cruiser was pulling into the lot.

Her father had come, but she knew he would. After the flock of skanks had squawked off in formation into the sunset, he'd offered her a high five and told her he "was in for Friday." Having her father on her team again loosened the noose a little.

Billy glanced up at where Charile was opening the passenger door for Sue with old-school charm. "But Bella," he turned back to her with intensity simmering in his eyes. "If you need anything. Anything, anytime at all I want you to ask. Even if it's for the Council to step in."

Bella blinked in surprise – not really at the offer but at the way he said it. Almost like she was…

"You have the same rights and privileges as Alpha," he spoke each word passionately. "No different from Jake."

Both taken aback and overwhelmed, Bella sat up slowly while everything tumbled inside her. She didn't know if she could handle another layer of pressure… she felt like she was barely able to keep taking one step at a time with the weight on her heart.

But the confidence and gratitude that sparkled in Billy's eyes kept her from crumbling; she nodded once. "Thanks," she rasped softly and then took another long draw of beer.

He nodded himself and did the same.

But Bella was becoming and expert at silos. Stuffing away this newest revelation into her bulging pandora's box, she eyed her father, helping Sue down the dune while carrying a box covered with tinfoil.

"Actually there is something I need," she began, taking another quick swig of beer and then turning to meet his curious eyes.

He nodded her on.

"I need you to keep my dad out of trouble tonight," Bella smothered her smile. "And maybe to take him fishing next week."

A slow grin spread over his face while his eyes twinkled. "Done," he held up his beer can.

She clicked her bottle against it with a tin crinkle. Raising their drinks they then both drank through smiles.

It was the last true smile of the night.

Bella was drained dry before the storytelling had even begun. She was so exhausted, in fact, that she didn't think she could keep her head up much longer.

First it was about getting the food ready to cook over the fire and soon potluck dishes were arriving that needed to be laid out. In addition to the general level of manners and attention that meeting new people required, each one of the Council had sought her out to greet and pull her into polite conversations like she was some kind of host.

Or the Alpha's mate.

Between those polite nods and smiles were others as the Pack dragged her off to introduce to family and friends, some in the know, other blissfully ignorant. Bella Swan - the Police Chief's daughter became her title for the night because really, she couldn't be introduced as anything else without cringe-worthy follow-up questions. Luckily because it was a beach party, it was mostly about a friendly wave and making sure her mark was demurely covered.

Out of the corner of her eye, she watched Jacob go through the same gauntlet – a little differently because he knew everyone already. It was odd (when had it not been recently?) but she felt like they were wordlessly orbiting one another – separate but somehow together all the same.

All in all, it was a lot more than she had bargained for and she should have seen it coming. But these days she kept her eyes on the next baby step with no bandwidth for distant horizons. She was glad Billy had inadvertently warned her.

To top that, Bella finally was sitting down to something to eat beside Claire, Jedi, and Brady when Joey Whitehorse's imprint came on the scene.

Kammie Park arrived with doe-eyed worry teetering on tears and her friends volleying flaming arrows at poor deer-in-headlights Joe. It was like a train-wreck, so instead of watching, Bella stepped in and got everyone back on track.

While her two friends were easily entertained by the handsome and humorous Brothers, Joe and Kammie slipped off down the beach. It went better than any reveal had gone (except Bella – as Sam had whispered in her ear). With a father who'd majored in folklore and a mother who was a tribal rights activist, Kammie was used to thinking out of the box.

Jacob had come back with the couple a good while later and then had sent Kammie off for the next stage of her initiation with Emily and Bella. In silent agreement they kept the talk brief and invited her over for Lupper the next day for more.

With missions accomplished – at least for now –Bella munched idly on a chip (she still hadn't eaten) up at the food tent while she stared out over the field of people gathered around the fire on logs and chairs. Adults were either chatting or cuddling in the dark and the kids who weren't asleep on blankets were toasting marshmallows.

Suddenly Bella felt very alone.

"You look worn to the bone, girl," Emily worried quietly.

Bella nodded numbly.

"C'mon, eat," she urged.

Bella took a little macaroni salad, and some kind of lentil thing brought by Sue while Emily compulsively tidied up the tent lit by a generator chugging away over the sounds of night surf. Truthfully she wasn't very hungry… but she could use another drink even though she was already at her two-beer limit.

Her eyes automatically gravitated to Jacob, his huge shape lounging on a log and sipping on a beer with that careful indolence that made it look like it was resting against the starting blocks for whatever came next. His face was stoic and focused intently on whatever his patrolling Packmate was reporting.

Like holding apart two magnets, it took a lot of fucking energy to stay away from him. Bella found herself wandering back to that first conversation she'd had with Billy today. There was no doubt that part of her had been pulled back home this year but over the last two months – especially after the marking – it had just gotten worse.

It made sense, but it… well, sucked.

She tried not to pine away for the friendship they lost and just take things as they were, but it was painful to pretend not to care. Just like she'd done with Jedi, she was drawn to nurture and fix pain. It was a big reason why she'd gotten sucked into Edward's world – she wondered if he'd played the victim card especially for her. He'd had Jasper on his team, after all.

A gentle hand on her shoulder pulled her from her thoughts with a hiss of surprise.

Emily was watching her with worry furrowing her brow.

"I need to get out of here for a while," Bella's subconscious blurted out the words and Bella was left wondering where they'd come from.

Nodding, Emily jerked her chin. "Go."

"No, not tonight," Bella set down her plate. With the Council and families and a new imprint, she wouldn't be that selfish.

"But I think I'll go up to Seattle this week. Visit my friend Angela," she wrinkled her nose. "Decompress, y'know?" What she didn't say was maybe a little distance from Jacob would help.

Emily heard the words anyway as she pushed her windblown hair behind her ear. "That sounds like a good idea, sweetie."

"Maybe Monday," Bella mused, picking up another chip and munching thoughtfully. "After we school Kam," she winked, trying to lighten things up. Her Pack had lives to live, they didn't need to be tuned in 24/7 to the Jake and Bella-a-thon.

"Bring your plate," Emily squeezed her arm. "Let's go sit by the fire."

Bella nodded and picked up the food and they headed out under the harvest moon. "I'm going to grab a drink," she murmured, nodding Emily on. "Want something?"

Emily wrinkled her nose with a shake of her head.

Bella watched her head off to where Sam sat beside their sleeping little one, smiling in anticipation at his imprint's approach. Raven was entertaining the crowd down by the fire. They deserved a little quiet time.

Bella munched on another chip as she picked her way to the coolers, gathered around each other like a trailer park. She could have one more drink and still be safe to drive or maybe a few and sleep at Emily's. Old coping mechanisms quickly snuck in on the backs of fatigue and heartache.

With a resolute jut of her chin, she set her plate down on a nearby cooler and opened the one with the soda and dug out a coke. Releasing some of the pressure in a sigh, Bella sat down heavily on the cooler and lifted the soda to numb lips.

It was sweet and sharp and bubbly - a restorative tonic to get her through the rest of the night. She felt like her body weighed a million pounds as she picked herself up and trudged toward the circle of the fire.

Billy was now talking in those dramatic dulcet tones, his voice reverberating in the wide open spaces he left for the imagination to play. She picked her way around couples and families, young people and old. Most looked up at her with a bright smile of recognition or whispered, almost reverent, greeting like they were catching a shooting star.

It was hard to explain: she kind of felt like Santa Claus. People looked at her like an icon or a role model (when she was certainly neither) instead of a regular plain-jane girl two steps away from the edge of a bottomless abyss. They recognized her for what she did for them and was for them, more than who she was as a person. In some ways it shored up some of the hemorrhaging – it was always easier to be what people wanted you to be.

But the epiphany was like a slap, stinging and ringing long past impact: Jacob probably felt like this too, only many more times over.

She drifted back into present in Billy's sharp black eyes, locked with hers like he was reading her private thoughts. His voice didn't waver but that subtle tip of his chin was just the crutch she needed to help her hobble through overwhelm. Her gaze scanned welcoming faces as she stepped into the inner circle of the bonfire. Most of them were Pack and Council members… along with her father.

Charlie was seated against a log, legs stretched out toward the raging fire while his arm draped contentedly around Sue. She was nestled into his shoulder –the two of them radiating such peace that middle age melted away from emotional prime.

Smiling softly, Bella skirted the large fire toward Charlie who looked up with a grin that made his mustache asymmetrical. He patted the space next to him and Bella lowered herself to the ground with a smiling glance Councilmember Joe Whitehorse Sr. and his family sprawled behind her.

She situated herself against the log and her father pulled her into his side while Billy continued weaving pictures in every minds' eye.

Bella listened absently to stories she hadn't heard since she was a girl while her gaze scanned the faces around the flames. In the far corner, Joey Whitehorse Jr. was sitting beside his new imprint and they radiated a light that easily rivaled the fire.

Kammie was a soulful little thing who gave thought and attention to each moment like someone three times her age. Leaning against the log, she was curled up under his arm, knees leaning against Joe's thigh. She was turned and gazing up into his face with the same melting awe and wide-eyed wonder that was being showered back over her a million times over.

They were young, so they were going to go slow as they'd been counseled, but right now, hands and gazes joined, they looked content to stay like that forever. It was a young love so pure and sweet that it was impossible to glance their way and not be deeply moved.

And jealous.

Bella squeezed her eyes closed, disgusted with herself. She knew it was a natural emotion, but when had she allowed her own despair to interfere with her appreciation of others' happiness?

She cleared her mental palate and opened her eyes again. Joe reached up and pushed a tendril of Kammie's jaw-length bob behind an ear, then covering their entwined hands resting on his thigh.

It made her teeth hurt just looking at it.

She turned over her shoulder and caught Mrs. Whitehorse watching the same scene. She met Bella's gaze with a mother's tender smile of joy that was almost as beautiful.

Bella turned back around just in time to see a huge man lower himself down to the free space on the other side of the fire that had been vacated because the wind blew the heat that way.

Jacob Black didn't seem to mind. Beer in hand, he poured like mercury over the log, sprawling over the ground and stretching jeans-covered legs perilously close to the flame. Propping an elbow back against the wood, he took a sip of his beer. Then slowwwly looked up, drawing his swords from their scabbards, and skewering her straight through her heart with a lancing stare.

For a several seconds, Bella couldn't breathe, move, or … anything.

It must have been obvious, because her father looked down with a murmured. "Y'okay?"

She fecklessly tried to wiggle free to answer, but she was impaled on those eyes - dark, empty, hard. Such a shocking contrast from the warmth of the fire.

Charlie followed her gaze and then sat up a bit more pulling her closer. It was just enough distraction to tear her eyes away. She turned into her father's smoky shirt and found her face was wet and oozing with unheeded tears.

A cool hand brushed one away from her cheek and Bella looked up to see Sue watching her with concern. It was the last thing she wanted to do: ruin everyone's peace on this last night of summer's symbolic freedom.

With a sniffle, she force a smile and sat up a little more, ignoring her father and Sue's lingering stares while she turned her attention to Billy. Apparently he was watching her too out of the corner of his eye.

It was almost too much.

In fact it was.

Memories of her youth came to life in words she'd heard in that same stirring baritone on one side, on the other she watched love blossom between two childhood friends – as easy as breathing.

And the boy she'd loved and the man she didn't recognize stared back at her with stone cold eyes through the flames roaring between them.

"I'm going to take a walk," she whispered to her dad and Sue, standing up without waiting for validation.

They generously gifted her with worried eyes but silence.

Wrapping her arms around herself, Bella picked herself blindly through the throng of people, and burst out into the solitary sand.

And then she ran.

Her sprint slowed to a jog, her jog to a stumble - down to the water's edge and down the beach, fleeing her heart, the immutable past and untenable present… it was cathartic, but not very effective.

Gradually the ocean's low steady percussion hypnotized her heartbeat to swim along. Bella took a long deep breath as she turned to jostling waves, now shimmering under an icy blue moon that was climbing the sky.

By all accounts, their imprint should have gone like the one showcased tonight – a joyful, lovesome thing that was as natural and needed as the next heartbeat.

But it hadn't.

And she couldn't get those days back. All she was left with lonely moments that seemed to slip so easily in the next like sand in an hour glass – a doomsday countdown to insanity.

Bella bowed her head for a moment, under the moon and stars at the altar of the sea. She flung desperate prayers like a messages in a bottle out into the unknown – for strength, for guidance, for some glimpse of distant resolution.

For hope.

No matter how successfully she'd logically navigated the situation, or grown into realizations and understanding, or come to own her past… she didn't know if she could live much into the future without Jacob in some shape or form.

With a sigh, she turned and continued along the reach of the waves where the sand was cold and damp like morning oatmeal after noon. Bending down, she rolled up her jeans a little tighter over her knees and veered down closer to where the waves stroked the sand and the ground was firmer.

She'd come down to First Beach several times this summer with the girls and kids in tow and taken moments like this one to walk along the shore. Toward the end of this beach and the rising rocky bluffs, was the old tree that Jacob and she had called theirs. It had long since rotted, only a craggy rock left to mark its place like a gravestone. She'd go pay her respects to that cemetery of memories.

She walked slowly, leisurely, letting the icy fingers of water, resuscitate her nerves. There was something anodyne about the sound of the ocean, it had always formed a barrier like white noise between her and the world at large.

Stooping to pick up a shining shell she bolted upright again, with a stumbling list as a mischievous wave stole in and sloshed up her calf. With a soft laugh, she trudged farther up the beach to avoid the larger set rolling in.

She turned the shell idly in cold fingers as she listened to the soft clopping splash of her feet in the pouncing wave. On its retreat it suckled and tugged at her ankles and she tossed the shell on its back.

Turning up to the shore, she froze.

Sketched like chalk on velvet, Jacob was sitting in the darkness on the stone that marked their shared grave. Still and silent, he looked like a specter – clinging to the veil between worlds as he watched her from shadowed eyes.

For a moment, she didn't have the first clue what to do – wasn't that always the case when prayers were answered? She really wouldn't know – this was a first.

Drawing in a deep breath, Bella decided to do exactly what she'd do if he was an unfriendly and slightly frightening member of her Pack.

Raising her hand in a casual greeting, she continued on her path along the shore. If he wanted something, he'd have to ask.

The vigorous set, shrunk back into the sea and Bella trailed down closer to the water where a wave promptly poured up the sand, splashing up her legs and soaking her pants. With a snort, she paused, rolling them up over her knees.

When she straightened, a hulking shape made her jumped clear out of the water with a splash. Jacob was standing silently beside her not a foot away.

She glowered up at him through the rush of adrenaline. "You need to make more noise," she spat hotly.

A smirk swam through the shadows. "You need to pay more attention," he replied, deep and sultry like the sea.

It was unnerving.

His moods, his voice, the way her body reacted any time he was near – all of it. Luckily the wind was racing off the ocean so she wasn't bombarded by his scent or she'd have simply crumpled at his feet like a woman without an ounce of self-respect.

They both deserved better.

Face tipped down to her puny height, it was unreadable as usual and veiled by shadow. Narrowing her eyes with defensive temper, she turned away from him and continued walking down the beach. He wordlessly fell into step, his movements so fluid that the water swirled around his stride with the same swish and eddy it did without him there.

While Bella splashed along like Bigfoot.

It was unnerving. His grace, his strength, his presence – all of it.

She closed her eyes for a moment.

"Did you need something?" she asked with imitation flip as she kept her eyes trained ahead at the bluffs being battered by waves.

"Yes," Jacob replied, his voice creamy and low. "I don't want you to go to Seattle this week."

Bella didn't look up but pursed her lips with a slow nod, trying to let the words fall over some bare patch of sanity instead of her racing heart. It didn't surprise her that he'd heard her conversation with Emily. Nothing did anymore when it came to him.

"Why?" she asked calmly – it was a definitive coup.

"Because we're still dealing with this leech and we don't know what we're up against," he chiseled the words in obsidian, slick and hard. "Except that she seems to come from the north. Maybe Seattle."

Part of her was crushed that it wasn't something more… personal; it was merely a strategic request. The other half, however, was pulled along in the riptide of conjecture and memory.

"She?" she asked, a shiver shimmying down her spine at the thought of another rabid bitch like Victoria.

When he didn't answer, she looked up and he nodded, glancing at her out of the corner of his eye. "We killed two on our lands a little over a month ago and I'm assuming she's in the same coven."

"One's her mate?" Bella asked, stopping and turning around.

Jacob's mouth hitched up bitterly on one side. "We have no way of knowing that shit."

Shoving her lip out, her gaze drifted to the sea. She'd never really thought about that - how was it to fight those things blind?

"So…?"

Bella's gaze returned to where - hands behind his back and shoulders squared - apparently he was waiting for her answer.

"I'll think about it," she told him flatly.

Lips flashed up from a snap of teeth. "That's not the right answer," he growled.

The sudden about-face was sobering. Fear tickled its reminder in her belly: Jacob was volatile now.

"You carry my scent. If you go I'll have to send two older wolves to cover 24/7 because I'm needed here," he bit the words out in a monotone whose edges were gritty. "With imprints, cubs, a new Phase… it's spreading the Pack too thin if there's war."

Bella blinked up at him with a kind of awe. On top of everything he had to think about this? Well, she'd told him she had his back, so the answer was easy:

"Okay, I'll stay," she said simply. "Tell me when it's safe to go."

She watched his shoulders subtly relax and she then turned and continued on her way.

After a moment, he appeared again beside her. Bella looked up at him curiously.

Hands still clasped behind his back, his gaze was trained thoughtfully on the rocks ahead like he was on a casual stroll down the beach.

Bella took his cue and did the same. She turned her attention to the sea, the sand and shells, stopping to pick up one and examine it now and then. Jacob would continue steadily ahead but somehow whenever she started walking again he'd fall magically back into step in only several strides.

The bluffs and the beach's end were looming close now. Their walk was taking them into the curving grotto where the water eddied and sand stretched out smooth in a long shallow runway for the sea.

With a little cry, Bella jogged forward and dove her hand into the receding wave to catch the moon. She returned triumphantly with a sand dollar clutched in her fist. Straightening, she gazed at it happily – they were hard to find, but she and Jacob used to walk all the way down here because it had always been the most reliable spot.

A string of little splashes hemming a path across the sheet of water made her turn with a smile to where Jacob was picking up the next stone to skip. Settling it between forefinger and thumb, he tossed it with casual precision and it bounced a hundred gazillion times across the ebbing wave. Bella couldn't even make it skip once.

A deafening crash made her gaze snap reflexively out to where a particularly large wave had buffeted the rocks, moon-iced foam mounting the bluffs in seaming slow motion. It was beautiful and wild.

"The sea is so frighteningly beautiful," she mused under her breath, watching the spray dissolve into moonlight.

"I always thought it would be a great way to die," Jacob murmured behind her.

Her brow furrowing, Bella turned to see him throw his body like a bowler into skipping another stone. He didn't so much as glance at her as he straightened, watching it bounce across the water toward the endless ocean stretching out as far as the eye could see.

"I'd swim out to the horizon as far as I could," he breathed, the words wistful and stolen by the wind. "And then Phase." He bit his lip thoughtfully, then flicked it through his teeth and stooped for another stone.

Bella's heart had stopped dead in her chest and the shell slipped from nerveless fingers. She could feel a million emotions tick across her face as she tried to process the magnitude of what he was revealing.

"No mess left behind," he jogged a step and hurled the stone across the shining film of water.

Her heart had restarted and was beating its way up her throat, desperately trying to get to him. Her feet finally got on board and took slow steps toward where Jacob was crouched down, searching for another rock.

His stoic mask fell into place and he straightened as Bella came near.

Tipping her head back she stopped less than two feet from him, searching that cold stare. Jacob towered over her head and shoulders, muscles engaged and taut, black shirt matching that darkness. The shadow twin of a boy she'd once known.

The suffocating pressure of tears was ignored because whatever she was feeling was nothing in comparison to this pain.

"Don't give up," she whispered.

His eyes paced between hers, the ticking whites the only way to track them in the shadow of that heavy brow. Then his face calcified into a sneer. "Why?"

Mouth dry, Bella's mind was desperately scrabbling for traction in the rushing rapids of the way both of them were bleeding out. "There are people who care about you," she whispered.

"Yeah, know all about 'em," he rasped, the words contracting to a hiss of pain. "I tried. Gave them everything I wanted to get so bad. 'Got back nothin'. Less than nothing ..."

His brow furrowed as his eyes blindly raked over her face, chasing memories. "Mom left when I was nine," he murmured under his breath like it wasn't meant for her ear. "Then Rache and Reebs while Dad lied all along…" he coughed a bitter laugh while his eyes raked the sky. "And finally even you."

He barked another dark hopeless sound to the sky as he spun on his heel and stalked a few steps down the beach. Tucking his head, his hands raked over his hair. They were shaking, minute tremors like he was crumbling inside.

Bella's heart was bleeding through her eyes and silent tears streamed down her cheeks while the waves lapped around her ankles, burying her feet in sand. Paralyzed by the suffering of her best friend, she felt useless and lost.

"Don't give up?" he spat, spinning around on her as his hands slapped down to his thighs. "I don't even get that option."

He scooped up another stone in a smooth sweeping motion and tossed it idly up in the air while he turned to the waves crashed violently against the rocks.

Her gaze slipped over that profile, strong, sensitive, regal… it shouldn't be like this.

"Emb's too soft, Paul's too fucked up, Sam's been through hell," he caught the stone in his fist and squeezed. "No, Jared was my second and finally he was ready …" he laughed darkly, sighting down his arm before he jogged into a throw. "Then he quit."

He watched the stone skip blithely over the water before diving into the deep with a soft splash. Shaking his head wearily, he turned around.

"They keep Phasing," he sniffed, pinning her with hollow eyes. "It's way too late. I gave up a long time ago, I've just been waiting to cash out."

Jacob took slow slinking strides toward her as his eyes darted down to her shoulder. "It was gonna be my lucky year..." his murmur evaporated as he stopped barely a foot away.

Bella watched that expressionless face as his hand rose to her shirt. Gentle fingers tugged back the collar... and he stared.

"And then you do this," he breathed. His eyes fluttered closed in defeat as he released her and his hand fell to his side.

Bella felt like she was struggling to swallow a knot of sobs. A hurricane was ripping through her body, but strangely she felt like she was in the eye of the storm. Detached. It had been almost a week since she'd touched him. Without a thought she reached out and took his hand.

They gasped in unison.

Jacob's eyes popped open, the pupils yawning wide as they locked on hers.

Her hand felt like it fused greedily to every millimeter where it touched his heated skin. A languid lazy heat siphoned up her arm and spread through her body, each cell soaking it up like a sponge. She felt like she'd been injected with some wildly addictive substance and it filled every hunger that she had in an instant, but still made her crave more.

Her eyes swam under heavy lids and she blinked them soundly to focus on where Jacob stared at her with a tempest churning behind those dark eyes.

"What do you need, Jake?" she asked him softly.

The words seemed to jar him back to the present and he yanked his hand from hers, taking a brisk step back. Every molecule withered and mourned the loss.

"Do you know?" she whispered.

He frowned at her, looking confused... lost. He started to turn away.

"Why did you get into that car with her?"

The question seemed to throw him… for a second. She heard his squirting swallow as he turned back to her.

He sniffed, the corner of his mouth kicking up. "It's what I do."

Bella searched his face keeping hers carefully neutral. This part of the puzzle was pretty clear, but he didn't seem to see it.

"Why?" she cocked her head.

He coughed a laugh, as his eyes flicked up to the sky. "They take what they want," he chuckled darkly and his face tipped back down etched with a wooden leer. "I get what I need,"

Bella searched that mask for a moment while she flicked the seam of her lip with her tongue. "See, I think it's just a substitute, Jake," she whispered. "Just like drinking and smoking for me. I think you really need love."

That mask abruptly crumpled into a hideous scowl, frightening in its emptiness. "You think you fucking know?" he ground the words between his molars like broken glass.

Bella didn't back down. "Well," she wet her lips, trying to keep her voice steady. "Why did you walk away from Trixie last weekend?" she challenged quietly. "I mean, if that's what you need."

For a moment she seemed to catch him off guard. Taking an inadvertent step back, his eyes subtly ballooned with surprise while his face battened down the hatches with shuttering steel.

"Is it to get me back?" she wondered, her brow earnest, not condemning. "To make me pay? Because I get it-…"

Like she'd hurled a rock through a window, that scowl shattered violently into razor sharp shards.

"This has nothing to do with you!" he stumbled back, eyes instantly wide and wild as his voice climbed with agitation. "You were fucking never supposed to see me like this!"

Breath rapid and shallow, Bella was trying not to cower under the igneous energy that was rolling off him in waves.

He shook his head as his gaze gouged the sky.

"I mean, fucking look at me!" he yelled as his eyes snapped back down to lock on her like heat seeking missiles. "I can't live with who I am anymore!" his voice splintered on the last syllable, while muscles slithered and jumped under his skin like the fires of hell were trying to break through.

"And you tied yourself to this?" he coughed a maniacal laugh, as his hand flew to claw over his chest. "I've got nothing to give! I've got fucking negative nothing! A big. Fat. Fucking. Black hole!" he barked hoarsely.

"Jake, I swear," she begged, her voice cracking in desperation. She wanted to hold him so badly, and she didn't know how. "I don't want to take. I just want to be here for you."

He shook his head so vigorously it blurred as he continued to back away. "I can't give you what you need," the words broke up into a growl, like an animal feral from pain.

"I just need you to forgive yourself," Bella wept. "And start living!"

Jacob froze, his expression congealing into a smirk that was as frighteningly desolate as those eyes. He hacked a caustic laugh as he turned his back on her.

"Exactly."

Spitting the word like poison over his shoulder, he then turned and ran down the beach.

Under the pregnant moon, tears leaked over an empty shell of a girl as she watched him sprint away.

Bella watched what happened next like she was floating through a dream. Stumbling down the beach she took the next access path up to the road and then walked numbly along on the asphalt in bare feet until she got to where her car was parked along the dirt shoulder. Opening the door and slipping into the seat, she leaned over and opened the glove box, pulling out her key and cell.

Somehow she drove home.

In the driveway she picked up the phone off the seat and mechanically typed out a text to Emily and her dad saying… something.

Then she threw the phone in the footwell of the car.

It wasn't until she was pushing open the front door that she started waking up in her body.

And it hurt like a bitch.

Clutching her stomach, she dropped her keys in the foyer and stumbled into her house, clawing the rubber band out of her hair and leaving her flannel shirt and damp jeans along with sand and salt in her wake.

She went straight for the kitchen.

Climbing clumsily up on the counter in camisole and underwear, Bella pulled that bottle of Jack from behind the rum and slithered back down to the floor. She picked up a dirty glass in the sink with numb fingers while the other hand unscrewed the cap and let it drop to the floor.

She poured a full glass over the sink and hunched over it as she sloppily slurped down as much as she could before she had to draw a breath. Gasping, she absently slapped at the cool liquor that had drizzled down over her collar bone and soaked her camisole, she then turned around to her silent empty house.

The burn of alcohol spread out with a blessed synthetic heat as she took slow steps into her dark living room. Outside the moon danced in a placid lake and frogs and crickets chirped on blissfully oblivious to the pain of this world.

Jacob had given up.

That warm giving heart had warped under the pressure, turning him into someone bitter and cynical and lost. All he'd ever wanted was attention, caring and love – things he'd given freely until he had nothing left. His mother had left, his sisters had abandoned him to care for a father who'd betrayed him with skeletons in his closet: an inauspicious supernatural heritage and a human indiscretion.

Bella sat down heavily on the couch, sloshing drink over her hand. She lapped it off and then took another sip before she set it down on the table. When Bella had married a corpse she'd simply handed over the coffin and nails to hurry things already started along.

"Oh my God," she sighed, falling over her thighs and catching her head in her hands. Life was so cruel, fate so unkind.

It would have been hard enough for Jacob to survive such a deep-drill heartbreak, but adding the weight of a ponderous duty, the pressure of instinct and a supernatural straightjacket curse being laced tighter and tighter, it was no wonder he'd had bled out so long ago.

If only Bella had come back sooner.

There was always an excuse to be had – school terms, being fucked up, jobs, unanswered emails… the list had taken on a life of its own. But what it had really been about was fear. She'd never in a million years guessed it was so well-founded: what was left of the both of them was a monstrous and tortuous thing to behold.

Still, she'd forgiven herself, she'd forgiven him… but how could she live with this pain? But one thing was certain: it was a precious gift that he'd shared it.

In an attempt at self-preservation (or maybe it was rush of an alcohol high) her mind proffered flimsy hope. No matter how painful and disastrous, he'd spoken to her about what had blistered his heart, surely that was progress (or was it simply the bottoming out of despair?). Maybe he'd just need to drain his wounds before he could start to heal (or was her really just pushing her away like he'd been doing all along?).

Her mind fought with itself groggily while her head pounded.

Maybe tomorrow things would look different, but for now, she just needed not to feel.

Leaning forward she picked up the drink and sat back down with another analgesic down payment on eventual oblivion. Sitting back, she rested the glass on her knee.

And then she heard it.

The quiet shoop of the sliding glass door.

Bella closed her eyes as her head bowed slowly down to her chest while the festering tears in an infected soul oozed over her cheeks in hot streaks.

Thank God, he'd come.

Bella waited.

Outside, the peaceful staccato of animal life set a soothing backdrop while the wind whispered over the lake and trees.

Her hair was gathered slowly off her neck and chills spilled over her skin along with another sluice of tears. Her breath hitched as she tried to hold it inside and her stiff tanged locks were let down over one shoulder.

Cold marble stroked down her neck.

Like a lightning strike, suddenly she realized it was a touch she knew too well. With a shriek, Bella tried to lunge off the couch but was yanked violently back by her hair, her drink jettisoning across the room.

"Shh," a serpentine hiss slithered over the sound of the glass rolling lazily over the hardwood floor.

That fist tightened in her hair with merciless strength, pulling out scattered hairs with a sound like Velcro. Her neck was pulled roughly to the side, leaving her no choice but to submit and a rancid puff of cold air was released over her pulse. Bella gagged.

"You smell like him," a woman's crystal voice mused in a light Irish lilt. Air was drawn over her skin along with a frigid tip of her nose, making it try to desperately crawl away. "How's that, luv?"

Bella whimpered as the woman yanked her head back and she leaned around with a cold smile that Bella could just see her from the corner of her eye. Flawless alabaster skin and black gypsy hair, her eyes were heartless and blood red like a rat's.

"He's ridden you, yet not for a few days now," she cocked her head with a sing-song croon like she was murmuring a lullaby to a child. "But such a fine little thing. Are we not good in bed, pet?" Her lips spread in a chilling smile that showed stained razor teeth.

"But this scent is different," the leech mused under her breath while those sinister eyes traced Bella's profile.

Disappearing behind her, Bella heard her draw in a luxuriant breath, as the vampire brushed her nose almost sensually over her shoulder. Bella's breath hitched raggedly over her hummingbird heart as the tears continued to fall, but whether it was her adrenal cortex had tapped out or something else, she felt oddly calm.

Accepting.

Maybe this was the answer to her prayers.

Bella didn't lie to herself anymore and she knew she was as good as dead. And maybe that's what he needed after all. It was a gift to them both that he'd gotten to share some of his torment with her before their ends. She'd die, and – after he'd rained vengeance down on this bitch – Jacob would finally be set free.

Bella could live with that.

Or, in this case, die. There might the tears racing over her cheeks, but there would be no blubbering sobs or wussy pleas.

"Here we are!" the woman laughed like a wind chime as she jerked her head brutally to the other side, by wrapping her hair in a fist.

With absent strength and those quick leechy movements, she tore her up over the back of the couch like a ragdoll, while Bella's feet scrabbled to find purchase to ease the biting pressure of being dragged by her hair.

The leech was taller than Bella and held her up on struggling tip toes as she leaned over Jacob's mark.

"You're quiet, luv," she murmured distractedly. "I appreciate that 'bout you."

Bella closed her eyes gasping with the sharp prickle.

But she didn't know the first thing about pain until a second later.

The vampire raised a curious long nail and scraped it over the mark and Bella's world contracted to nothing but mind numbing-agony. Every neuron in her body was connected to that scar and while Jacob's touch lit the fires of pleasure …

The leech's brought nothing but excruciating pain.

Every cell blistering and popping, her veins were suddenly carrying a rushing river of flame through every last millimeter of her body. A blood-curdling scream ripped from her lungs as her body went limp and vision blackened around the edges. But unconsciousness would have been too kind.

That rough touch withdrew but the echo of agony lingered. Eyes rolling in her head, Bella wretched, her body desperately trying to rid itself of the sensory overload and she vomited.

With a disgusted noise, the vampire lowered her limp frame to the floor while Bella wretched and choked on acid. Finally the convulsions stopped and, breath heaving, she clumsily wiped her mouth on the back her a hand.

"Oh, my lovely," the vampire cooed, a finger tipping Bella's chin up to maniacally gleeful eyes.

"We're going to have so much fun."

'


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