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Monster

Summary:
I'm nothing but a monster burning in a hell that only exists in my head. There's no hope left until one harmless glance chances logic and binds two eternal enemies together in a twist of fate. Can the escape from this hell be found in an infuriating dimpled grin? Or is this another dark, dirty trick of my own mind? A forbidden passion, heat, and intense anger—this is no fairytale.


Notes:
[Disclaimer: Monster is an originally plotted fic. The ideas within this fic are not to be copied in any way, shape, or form—I have not given my consent to any manner of copying. All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the intellectual property of their respective owners. All canon concepts and characters are the property of the Twilight Saga's author, Stephenie Meyer. No copyright infringement is intended. Similarities are for the sole use of fan fiction, and no profit has been or will be benefited from the posting of this fic.] Emerging Swan Award 2012, nominated into Fandom Choice Awards.


60. Breathe

Rating 0/5   Word Count 7830   Review this Chapter

[Warning: This chapter contents content that some readers might be uncomfortable with.]

"Creatures lurk below the deck
But you're a king and I'm a lion-heart.
And as the world comes to an end
I'll be here to hold your hand."
- Of Monsters and Men.

Chapter Sixty

Breathe

The world around me churns, a buttery-slick smear of white and gray. Emmett clears the stairs in three long strides, passing through the hall with a few more. He turns me upside down as I meet a scramble of sheets, and I drown in them. The chill of him disappears as he darts over to the other side of the room and hits something on the wall.

Lights out.

Emmett climbs in the bed without making a sound. He's above me, by my side, behind me, and everywhere all at once. He braces his elbows beside my head, pressing the cold skin of his hands on my face. I push against him, groaning through my teeth. The edges of my vision blur, shimmering. I claw at the air, breathing hard and heavy until I find purchase and grip tight. A shout punches my eardrums as my hands close in.

"You're—fuck. Don't do that, don't do that. You're hurting me, J. Ah, fuck!"

Knuckles pale.

I bleed heat. Rocks of tension pile in my lungs with each tainted sweet breath. My muscles spasm as the glowing world around me starts to crumble. I snap my teeth, straining my neck to connect with my target. Some part of my brain is stuck in the heat my attack, and the burn's finally catching up with me. My fingers curl in to the hard surface, digging deep. I throw my weight, crashing against the figure above me. My jaws spread as I release my fury, searching for a weak point.

Teeth click shut, empty.

I twist in the pitch black, wrestling my opponents weight into the squishy surface below. It's a one-sided effort—the body beneath me falls limp with a groan, giving in in seconds. I feel the shape of cold hands on my sides, holding me but no longer fighting. A scream splits the air, overriding the crackle of the white heat as everything becomes so fucking twisted I can't separate right from left. Every inch of the thick bone around my brain pulses, crunching into the corners of my skull before flying out in a million different directions. I strain my gaze, pausing while my senses roam. Purple fingers of color caress the edges of my vision as the floor warps, riding up against the walls of black, stretching and growing before falling in on itself.

The pieces shatter like glass, breaking to reveal the black nothingness below.

Now, there's nothing here.

Nothing but the pounding beat in my eardrums and the clouds of icy breath at the base of my throat.

He's there. I know he's there. He's a knife jammed deep in my temple and driven in deep, trying to root out something that isn't even there. I breathe, stung by the thoughts slicing through my head a billion razors. I shudder, shaking my head. This heat is different. It's not a blaze, but a blistering pressure building from my lungs, slowly suffocating. I cough, heaving dry air. The sharp ringing in my ears subsides with each release. Inhaling, I take in another breath to replace the one lost. As my lungs fill, the world rearranges itself, falling back into place.

It's dark. The bulb above my head sleeps, and the window allows only a dull gray to seep through the black glass. I start to shift, bringing my legs around to abandon the shadows for the hang of the late-night summer air. But right then, a chill rises, and with it comes a whisper of my name.

"Jordan. . ."

The words come through a gruff mumble, but the voice that pierces my ears is unmistakable. I drop my gaze, picking out the snow of his skin against the crumpled sheets. His chest is bare, and the threads of his shirt cling to one shoulder, though it doesn't cover the gashes opening his chest, knitting together beneath my stare.

Reaching out, I skim my fingers over him, from his neck to the healing marks below his collarbone. I flex my jaw, raising my gaze slowly and crushing the jolt that strikes my heart. Emmett's eyes are lit and pinched, wary. His hands cup my elbows, hovering, halfway between touching and restraining.

For a moment, his eyes flash ruby, cold and lifeless.

Heat flares, but I choke it back and hug myself to him, nuzzling the smooth skin of his neck. Every part of me is aggression, but in some strange way I manage to twist it into affection and give it to him. Eventually, Emmett relaxes beneath me, and he circles his arm around my back.

"You're okay," he mumbles. His lips draw soft patterns on my skin, comforting.

I breathe fire, my fingertips twitching against the sheets. I try to strangle the words in my throat, but they make it past my lips before I get the chance. "I almost tore the life out of a kid. A fucking kid. Is that okay to you?"

Emmett's breath blows across my face, a sweet, cool poison. He shakes his head, running his fingers up and down my forearms. "Almost is different than—"

"And I almost killed you too, damn it!"

The flare explodes, boiling over. White-hot memories sear in my mind as the crunch of his snapped neck echoes through my eardrums again, and again, and again, gushing through me in surges. They tear me open, turning me inside out. I squeeze my eyes shut, whistling heat.

"But you didn't." Emmett speaks surely with a firm determination that only pushes me closer to the edge.

His calm rubs against my control like sandpaper. I seethe, throwing my fist into the headboard above his head. It cracks, but he doesn't flinch.

"I damn well could have! I could've torn out your throat before this even started. I could have then, and hell, I could right now! Is that okay, Emmett? Is it okay that I might string you inside out and burn you to hell if you give me the wrong look at the wrong fucking time? Look at me. Look me right in the fucking eyes and tell me that's okay."

Emmett looks at me, but he doesn't say anything. His expression hardens as he stares, his silence a stab to the heart. I shake my head and swallow my voice back as if I could inhale the words right out of our memories. My hands curl and my teeth grind. The scream's on the inside, and there's no place for it to go but out.

I move away from him quickly enough that gravity misses the chance to draw me back to him. I push my hands deep into my hair, throwing my head back. I bend my knees and drop my forehead onto the tops of them, breathing hard and heavy in the space between my thighs. Each breath becomes a shove rammed roughly into my ribs, coaxing my voice until finally, I find it.

I speak carefully this time, allowing my jaw to flex around the words as they roll off my tongue.

"You wouldn't go to hell," I tell him surely. "You're trying to save me and you can't ever go to hell for that. You're a. . ." I suck in a deep breath through my nose. "You're trying. You're trying so fucking hard and I can't even. . ."

My ears ring, buzzing through my skull. The piercing pitch scatters my thoughts, washing my vision red. I exhale lightly, letting one of my hands rest over his—neutral territory. I try to breathe in his scent, but the air stiffens around my nostrils, too heavy and thick. Emmett's golden eyes rest on the side of my face, patient.

"You're a part of me." I'm choking on the words, rasping them out in wheezes, but I don't give a shit how they come. I need to get them out. "You're a part of me now, because I'm nothing. I'm just a wolf in this fake fucking skin. You're the only one who can give a damn back. But I can't breathe—" I snarl over another wheeze. "Emmett, I can't breathe. I can't catch my breath."

Emmett cracks a smile against the tension wedged between us. Ignoring my curled position, he wraps an arm around me and pulls my body back above his. There's a long stretch of silence before finally, I drop my hands and gaze down at him through the hair thrown over my face. Emmett smiles gently, leaning up to push my hair away as he brings my face closer to his.

"Then trust me," he murmurs into the base of my throat. His icy knuckles run across my shoulder, brushing away stray stands. "All you have to do is trust me."

I pause for a moment, turning the lock on my control, before I lean down to meet his lips.

The second our lips touch, everything speeds up, flying by in fast-forward.

Emmett grabs my mouth with his. The kiss is sudden, but I take it. Hands run across my scalp as I curl my hands into his sides, tugging off the remains of his shirt. Warm desire flourishes out from the pits of my stomach and heads south as our mouths work together. I crush my body against his, urging him further; dragging us down into deeper depths. My legs open to fit his hips, and he doesn't hesitate to close in. My breath catches despite myself as he turns the world upside down and shields me from it in a mass of raw ice and muscle.

I want him to take over. I want him to be the one to take both the reins and my clothes. I won't tear them from my skin—I want him to do it; I want him to slowly peel reality away and lead the way into oblivion.

But I can't. I won't.

Because control is mine, and he's stealing it.

Lips and teeth drag down my neck; sharp edges and hard curves.

"Go on. Trust him," the flames hiss. "Trust is letting him burn you alive and spit on your ashes."

I breathe in the fumes of my rising heat as I start to slip, nearing the free-fall into the hell opening beneath me.

Emmett hovers above me, trailing kisses along my neck as our bodies try to move together in ways clothes won't allow, pushing the headboard to its breaking point. I growl as he breaks our kiss and runs his nose along my jaw line, stopping just below my ear. His teeth press against the skin there, venom searing against the heat. Emmett slows his hips before stopping completely, only breathing. I bend my knees in, drawing him close again. Flashes spark in my core as the edges of my vision glow. I start to say his name, but it never leaves my tongue.

"You have to go."

His words strike me square in the gut. My breath rushes out of my lungs as my hands go slack in his curls. He smiles slightly as he pulls away slightly, his darkened gaze centered on the throb of my pulse. I start to catch my breath, slapping together thoughts to form words, but then I hear it.

A howl peaks, carrying over the treetops before slowly fading away, the sound left to linger.

Shit.

The call tears me away from him and drags me on my feet. I push a hand through my hair, shaking the anchors from my ankles as I leave him there, moving without choice. I pause for a moment as I reach the window, my hands reaching for the ledge, and take a final look at him over my shoulder.

The burning coals of his eyes haven't moved. They brighten slightly as they catch a glimpse of my face, lit with his dimpled smile. He nods, a wordless encouragement, though his hands are balled into the sheets.

I flash a smile in my goodbye, my heart slamming into my ribs in rebuttal.

It's not easy to ignore, but the wolf tosses all reasons to stay behind in the gutters as my hands brush smooth glass.

Knocking the window out of my way and ignoring the complaint of the screeching glass, I hurl myself into the open air. The world rushes past in a sharp whistle before I hit the ground on all fours, in motion before the ground is formed beneath me. There aren't any expectant minds—the forest is empty other than a stale musk of wolf mingling in the bramble. I pass over the scent, letting it spin through my head. Finding no threat in the smell, I reject the memory of it and push forward.

Clearing the river, I land lightly on the bank of the other side, welcomed by the breathable space of home. I lean my weight off my paws as I go, perked and alert. Silence hovers above the forest, broken only by the gentle breaths of the blowing wind. Deep in the bark of a rotting tree, the thundering thuds of half a dozen tiny heartbeats grows audible. The stuffy scent of a mouse nest tickles my nostrils, followed by a series of faint squeaks and shuffles. I snuff as I breeze by the tree, drawing in the leafy scents of the damp forest. My senses roam again, searching for any sign of company, but instantly become distracted by a sudden motion a short distance ahead of me.

The scent of a deer hits my nostrils, injecting images into my trail of thought. A shaggy coat, darting legs, kicking hooves. The buck's a stray, bolting as I near. The sound of its wet, heavy heart and the challenge of a chase invades every nerve in my body. For a second, I forget what I'm doing and give in, snapping my teeth as I twist sharply and take off after the crackle of hooves trampling brush.

It's a short game. The exhilaration of the effortless stretch of my body and rake of the wind through my fur only lasts seconds before I round a large tree and jump the ravine. My timing's set perfectly, and I collide into the body of my prey with a crunch and bring it down. The buck reeks of fear, but puts up a short fight, kicking and crying out. I lean over my kill, watching it twitch as it weakens in its feeble struggle.

In my prey's final movements, I hover above it, my breath hot on the side of its face. The buck's black eyes roll to gaze upward, glassy and distant. Their center catches a shade of dark blue; two circles a shade lighter than the black, piercing and dangerous and whispering of a diseased mind.

I clamp my jaws firmly behind the buck's skull with a nice crunch.

With a final twitch, its body stills, and the black circle fades out of focus.

I work my way down, tearing and chewing. Every swallow slides down slowly, thick and wet. Blood stains the white of my fur. I make a muddy mess as I wear away at my kill, but I'm far past the point of giving a damn. I brace my paws against the deer's middle, my neck bent as I rip into fresh meat. While stripping off a slab, my hackles stiffen.

The lingering sense of another's presence rests against my flanks, even after the figure freezes in the brush behind me. I snort against the mangled flesh caught in my jaws, grinding through a wide bone. The presence hovers for a long moment before creeping away, coming around my side. I crunch through the final bits of the bone just as the faint snap and crackle of the brush cuts off. Lifting my head, I glance up to the sight of two muddy brown paws.

And stare evenly into the watchful gaze of a brown wolf.

Jared positions himself in the green brush, blending in naturally. His dark eyes appraise me warily before he greets me with a stiff nod. I curl my lip back and rumble a low warning, hovering over my kill. He shakes his head with a whine, prancing back a few paces. Jared huffs as I return to my kill, poking and prodding at the edge of my thoughts. A snarl slips through my jaws as I crack open my mind.

The pack link floods with Jared's thoughts, a one-lane route latched between the two of us. He scrambles to catch them for a moment, pulling back the jabber of recent conversations. He takes the time to form full sentences before throwing them at me, not taking any shortcuts.

We're all on First Beach. Jared rolls his shoulders, his neck straight as he holds my gaze. No patrol tonight. Jake wanted me to come and see if you were. . .

He stutters over 'bitten' before collecting himself, hacking to clear his throat. Interested. Mhmm, yeah. That's what I meant.

I bark a dry laugh, snapping my teeth and leaning over to lower my head down to a small puddle. What is it this time? Hunting party for his lost little dick?

Jared hesitates, grabbing another thought before it can form completely. No, he's, uh, fine. Jacob just . . . he wanted you to come to this. I dunno. His dark gaze jumps between my muzzle and the bloody smears in the grass a few yards back. With a sigh, he shifts his stance. Look, I've done what I gotta do, said what I gotta say, yada yada. You can come on up if you want. Oh, and he wanted me to tell you nobody's forcing you. Forgot that part.

I huff, sending a circle of ripples across the surface of the shallow puddle. The water sloshes around my muzzle, snatching droplets of scarlet. They spread through the muddy water below me, coloring the dull brown. I run through the list of shit that either the King or Queen could be after, along with hopes for battle plans and a little action. By the time I turn back, there's nothing left of Jared but his large prints in the moist soil.

Something deep inside—maybe common sense, or some other bitching voice thrown to exile in the senseless part of my head—mutters warnings. I shake them off as I jump into a sprint, my temperature already climbing.

()()()

Sound.

Sound and smoke.

Sound and smoke and shots of hard liquor.

Music pounding out of speakers.

Fire eating away at stumps of chopped wood.

People slurping, laughing, constantly in motion.

This sure as hell isn't the kind of action I'm here for.

I duck through the trees step on to the beach, drawing in the scene before me.

Sam's the closest. He carries boxes of fireworks wrapped in one arm, the other circled around Emily's waist. Jared's already made his way here—he rushes through the waves, bent over as he splashes Kim, who squeals and hops back before giggling and sending a slap of water back at him. Embry and Seth tinker with a dusty radio while a few runts kick a sandy soccer ball into a fire, angering the elders seated in lawn chairs around it. Billy chuckles as Old Quil waves a stick threateningly, chasing them off.

My feet turn through the sand as I approach, keeping a good distance. I'm an outsider, better left to the edge of the wall they've created—a wall between what's natural and what shouldn't be here.

I wear their skin, but not their name.

They're protectors.

I'm a killer.

And it burns.

Currents swell from my core, igniting my veins and spreading like wildfire. The tiny hairs on my neck prick as the weight of another's gaze presses in. I work my jaw, studying the white foam rushing onto the shore before I glance over my shore and find a waiting glare.

Quil sits with his body slumped against a tree, resting inches from the shadows. He holds little Claire to his chest, stroking the knotted wave of her hair. She babbles on, even when Quil's thick hand freezes on the back of her head. I shield my expression with indifference. Quil stiffens, as rigid as I am motionless. His skin darkens to crimson, and sweat shines beneath the tiny curls matted to his forehead. A vein throbs in his temple, green and pulsing.

We stand off, Quil a statue of buzzing nerves and me a tower of aggressive force stacked high. Quil's eyes jump to the side after a few heartbeats, breaking the glare. I start to curl my lip at his weak will, but I stop short as my gaze follows his.

Off to the side of the group, Leah leans against a tree, her expression masked with shadows. She's waiting for a good escape, seemingly calm and patient, but the gleam in her eyes as they connect with mine are nothing but furious.

I combust.

The world around me shimmers as I move forward. Leah and Quil warp and twist, blurring into shapes and sounds. Claire vanishes, evaporating into the air as I throw the first punch. Quil shouts, but the sound is drowned out by the crunch of his jaw. Two thick arms swing at me. I deflect the strike with a shove and close my grip around his ribs, crushing him between my weight and the tree. My shoulder digs deep into his ribs as his body falls in, and he hangs like a rag doll.

Quil melts into the bark of the tree, disappearing just as another form charges me from behind with a cry like roaring thunder.

I twist, duck, and pivot at the same time, sending the charging figure flying past me. I rage, fixing my focus on the back of my opponent as she skids to a stop. Leah's head snaps back as she lunges again, but it's too late. I come down on her, hard, dragging her to the ground with me. Her head slams into a boulder, splitting her skull clean down the middle. She bucks and flails, desperate for escape. I hold her tight as I pick her apart, tear by slow, beautiful tear.

Ribbons of flesh flap into my palm while my fingers curve deep into her throat. Leah's infuriated screams fade to gurgles as her eyes bulge and then roll from their sockets. I quake, shaking her in my grip until her teeth rattle and spill from her torn lips.

But she won't fucking die.

In the middle of Leah's screams, I hear another voice. It's hot, burning into my eardrums. I ignore it, my hands sticky and my body locked in the heat of the kill. The feminine shape below me starts to glow, and the squirming slows. I lean heavy against the rock, blowing ragged breaths through my teeth. The burn inside my head multiplies as the voice becomes clear and the faceless body below me cracks like ice.

"This is a shell. This is your grave. This is your future. This is what you're meant to do. This is—this is all inside your head, damn it!"

I blink. Reality's sucked back into focus, retracting from the bloody scene before me. My hands, dry and still, ball at my sides as the tree line falls together, settled in seconds. A copper shape stalks past my side—Leah, shaking her head and muttering every word in the book as she forces herself into the middle of the storm of motion behind. I tighten my jaw and glance at Quil. He sits motionless, his eyes glazed with a mixture of worry and anger.

A little hand stretches from his lap and pats his face. "Hewwo? Qwil otay?"

Quil sucks in a sharp breath. He glances into his lap and softens his expression with a gentle smile. "Sorry Claire, I was just. . . We can play patty cake now. Over there."

Claire frowns, turning her head, revealing the mess of bandage and casts covering her right side. "Wha? Why?"

Collecting Claire's body into his arms, Quil shakes his head. "It's more fun over there. Come on."

Quil hurries towards the water at an angle, avoiding my steady stare. I trail my gaze after him, the rest of the heat lingering in my skin. The taunting whispers gradually quiet in my ears until they're gone completely. I breathe in, drawing in the defined scents of activity on the beach. My senses bunch around a familiar musk coming up behind me at an unsteady jog.

"Jord! What do you think you're doin' way out here, huh?"

I turn, raising one brow, then the other. Paul staggers toward me, his shoulders hunched. He waves, his hand closed around the necks of a couple dark bottles. He grins lazily as he stops, remembering to keep his distance.

"Aw, c'mon, Jord," he whines, blowing the sweet smell of alcohol with every breath. "Don't tell me you forgot how to party around, you partyer-er."

I watch him, motionless, my eyes those of a burning corpse.

Paul snickers hard enough to shake his shoulders. "Shit, you're too funny, Jord." He waves an arm behind him, gesturing to the mass of bodies spread across the shore. "Rach, she's . . . she's Rach and she's over there. Yeah, there somewhere. Rach and her daddy-o are over there, and he's chattin' it up with her and shit. I think she's with her dad anyway. Can't tell sometimes. She sure is a horny little thing, so sometimes when it's not light outside, I. . ."

Tuning out Paul's drunken rambles, my ears roam the beach. Conversations vary from slurs of nonsense to casual talk about the warmth of the weather or the shirts and shoes littering the sand. Most of the pack stays in pairs and groups, other than Leah, who stays with her mother to help gather the elder's belongings. Only one conversation captures my ears, quiet and meant to be whispered below the radar. I follow my ears to the source of the sound, sharpening my senses.

Jacob and Nicole sit squeezed in beside each other on a rotting slab of driftwood. Their heads are bent in to conceal their conversation. I narrow my gaze, my mind blocking Paul's slurs as I hone in on the hushed words whispered from Nicole and Jacob's mouths.

"Bella again?" Nicole sighs softly. "She isn't our concern anymore. You know that."

Echoing Nicole's sigh, Jacob releases his frustration in a hot breath. "I don't know. I'm just putting out suspects. This all seems like a big distraction." He turns his head ever so slightly, leaning closer. "Something bigger than the Cullen's problems is out there. I know you, Nic, and I know you feel it too."

Minutes of shared breaths pass. Finally, Nicole reaches up to place her hand on Jacob's cheek. "One thing at a time. We can lead everyone through whatever it is—I know we can."

I drag myself into reality as Jacob presses his lips to hers, narrowly escaping the torture of their disgusting lovely-dovey act's finale.

A bottle's slapped into my palm. I stare blankly at Paul as he slurs and chuckles, holding conversation with himself. I pop open the bottle and drink it down, nodding my head without much notice. My ears pulse with the fading each of rings. The alcohol rushes through my system, racing my metabolism. It jerks my thoughts into focus, but doesn't have a chance to do much.

Paul laughs. The beach flickers, black and white with smears of grey stuck in between. Rachel approaches, wrapping around Paul. I see her looking in the corner of my eye, but don't react to her, even as my name finds its way into Paul's sentence.

I don't know what's tugging for my attention until Paul leans down to whisper in Rachel's ear. Over his neck, I pick out a group of three boys in a circle with what has to be Brady and Collin. They're all runts, roughly the same age, sporting freshly painted tattoos on their arms and wearing their hair in the same black crop. They grin and joke with awkward laughter and bowed heads.

As I study them, Collin's eyes wander my way. I can see his body lock up as the blood rushes from his face. He hurriedly hides his face in the circle, waving his hands for silence. Moments later, four other heads pop up and look my way, reddening simultaneously. Collin slaps his hand to his forehead with a groan.

A grin spreads my lips, nowhere near friendly. Amusement lightens my chest as I approach them, leaving Paul to suck on Rachel's neck, too wrapped up in her to notice. My strides are even as I close in, cornering them against a cluster of boulders.

"This is all your fault, man!" Collin snaps. He casts an irritated glance at Brady as he retreats.

"What the hell? You were the one that said something! It's your fault!"

Forgetting where they were headed, Collin stumbles into the group of boulders and topples over, his flailing hands unable to catch his weight. Brady crosses his arms over his chest with a huff. "Told ya so."

I come to a stop before the group of them. Brady glances over his shoulders and wipes the content grin from his expression. Collin clambers out of the boulders, but slows his movements. They glance at each other, then at the same time shove the three runts cowering ahead of them toward me, ducking behind their backs.

I have to tilt my head to look down at them. They gaze up at me, their eyes moonlit and sparked with fear. The runt in the middle's dark eyes pull a memory forward—a yellowish-white wolf trembling in the leaves beneath me, waiting for death to come down on him.

Cracking an amused sort of smile, I shift closer. "Gonna say something, or shit yourselves?"

The taller of the three shies with a sheepish bow of his head. The second snorts, puffing out his chest and speaking for the other runt. "I'm Daniel. I just joined the pack, phased a couple days ago." He jerks his chin behind him. "That's Grant. He phased after me."

"And I'm Jackson. Still." The last runt nods proudly, even though he refuses to meet my gaze and instead takes a long look at my chest. It takes every ounce of the little bits of my willpower to pretend like I don't notice.

I nod once, meeting their uneasy stares. "Curious little things, aren't you?"

They exchange a look, their expression puzzling. Grant frowns, and Jackson's brow furrows. "Huh?"

Impatience creeps higher. I exhale sharply. "What do you want? Or do you gawk at women for fun all the time?"

Jackson blushes beat red and swallows hard. He opens his mouth to stutter, but no words come out. Grant hangs his head with a loud breath, and Daniel just smiles stupidly like he has no idea what I'm saying. I grind my teeth, waiting.

Brady pops up from behind Grant's shoulder. "They want advice!" he whispers.

"Yeah!" Collin echoes. "They want you to show them how you gave Embry them big huge scars!"

I should laugh, but no sound comes out. Brady and Collin make their escape in the heartbeat of silence, hurrying through the rocks with shirts tugged on backwards, tags flying and fabric bulging with the concealed shapes hidden in their covered arms. I turn my gaze back to the runts, slowly starting to gather my thoughts. Everything's shiny again, shiny and hot. I work my jaw as the words start to come to me.

Just then, Paul strolls with Rachel under his arm, snorting as he gloats, shouting for the whole damn beach to hear.

"Yeah, I kicked that 'sucker's ass! Just last morning. Almost cracked my tooth, but I got it right in the throat and sent that bitch to hell!"

I snort, muttering under my breath, "Dumbass."

The runts are deaf to my comment. Grant widens his eyes, gawking in disbelief, while Jackson and Daniel whisper excitedly to each other, suddenly animated. Paul finally finds the perfect time to take notice and stops beside the runts, radiating pride and smugness.

"So if you want some real advice," he continues, pulling himself up tall. "You ask the pro!"

"You're freakin' awesome!" Jackson grins brightly at Paul, in awe of every lie in his act.

Daniel nudges Jackson, nodding to the empty bottle clenched in Paul's hand. "Dude, we should get some of that."

Jackson shoves Daniel back with a huff. "That's illegal!"

Daniel throws his arms out to catch himself, landing on his palms. He picks himself up, brushing pebbles from his arm. "So?"

As an argument breaks out, I'm fading again, abstract and unreachable. Even Sam's call can't rein me in, even as it gives way to another flurry of motion.

"Over here, guys. We're gonna start up."

Jacob and Nicole stand together, plastering smiles on their faces. Jackson and Daniel grin at each other, shouting an identical 'Sweet!' before sprinting toward the group of chattering pack mates, leaving a kickback of sand behind them.

Paul growls after them. "C'mere, you lil' snots! I'm gonna show ya how it's done right!"

With a heavy laugh, he takes off after them. Rachel smiles, amused, and joins Kim by the fire. I edge toward the trees as Sam and Jared set up the fireworks. Only Leah looks my way, though she averts her gaze and settles in the sand beside Sue. I exhale sharply and pull myself together, tilting my head to the sky as the show begins.

Rockets of color release searing whistles as they shoot into the inky-black sky, puncturing the black with their brilliant colors—crimson, purple, gold, and green. The bursts of colors explode in bursts of raining sparks, lighting up the night sky. Masculine hoots and hollers rate each display while the girls giggle and gasp behind them. I study a line of yellow as it rises before opening with a boom. The sprinkle of its heat scatters across the sky before fading to black.

Taking advantage of the moment of darkness, I slip into the forest, unnoticed by the group of half-naked people shouting drunkenly to the sky as another round starts.

I start at a jog. One, two. One, two. Two, one. One, two. The air, stuffy weight in my lungs, enters and exits my body in a steady rhythm. It's not long before the voices mute and the bass pounding from the radio fades into nothing.

After a good half-mile, the trees flicker. A massive oak stutters before me, diving into a crooked lean before snapping back into place in the blink of an eye. My breaths are thick and dry in my throat. My bare feet whisper across the brittle ground below as I start to build speed. A knot clenches in my stomach, tight and solid.

And then, out of nowhere, the world's engulfed in flames. I go into a frenzy, breaking into a sprint as I tear my way through. My strides grow as I push my legs to their limits, forcing my body to strain towards that burn of being on that edge between flying and crashing. The brush warps as the forest teeters before my eyes.

I don't know when it starts, but eventually, I lose my human skin. One second, my hands tear out a patch of gnarled brambles, and the next they're paws, pushing me harder than ever before. I inhale, rounding a corner and soaring over a small dip in the forest, before I shed the wolf and find myself bare to the charging winds with a hurricane of voices bombarding my thrumming eardrums.

"I can't help but think it's a distraction."

"Two days is enough time to come to an agreement, is it not?"

"Jordan . . . you don't want to do this."

I'm a blur, twisting and exploding with every thunderous slam of my heart in my ribs. My hair, thrown over my shoulders with my speed, slaps the side of my face as I pivot back to escape the salt of another beach nearby. The split second my vision disappears triggers an injection of raw, infuriating buzzes into every nerve in my body, ripping me into the wolf once again.

The monster howls within me. I want to do this—I want to put her in her rightful place. I snarl through the curves of my teeth, throwing myself forward with each pressured lunge. This is a distraction.

The one, two; one, two; one, two has sped into a furious mix of uncontrolled screams and sounds. I ram my weight into a tree, finding myself coming full-force against a wide trunk. I flash my teeth, tearing deep furrows into its base while my body connects with the trunk, over and over and over, until there's chunks of damp wood and shaken leaves covered over my coat. I spit, emptying my jaws and glancing up, tensed and convulsing. Instead of striking again, I watch as the oak gives in, groaning as it topples down, flattening out a line of smaller trees before meeting the ground with a bang.

All at once I'm crouched, my fingers dug deep into the sodden earth as my body heaves each hot, shuddering breath. My gaze freezes on the cracked trunk of the fallen tree as my mind reels in reverse, heading farther and farther away. Just as I'm about to release the line and fall in, my muscles bunch, and I pick up on a scuffle in the near distance.

My mind tries to reject the sound, but instinct tells me different. I curl my lip, straightening my stance as I turn and stand in one fluid movement, leaning forward into the empty forest. Pricked and ready, I narrow my gaze as I wait, silent.

Just a second later, the scuffle comes again, and I watch as Jacob steps around a tree, his eyes cast toward the sky as he approaches. His pace is slow and careful, uneasy over the brittle ground. He holds crumpled clothing in his extended hand.

After a few paces, Jacob pauses, keeping a good few feet of distance between us. Lifting his hand, he squeezes his eyes shut and gestures to the clothing. "Nicole thought you could use these."

I hook a finger around the clothes, pulling them from his grip and over my skin in seconds. I hold his gaze even as he avoids my own, stiff and indifferent. Jacob blows out a breath, shoving his hands deep in the pockets of his cutoffs as he swallows, bobbing his head for a few moments before speaking.

"And uh, I guess I wanted to say that if you need help, we're here. . . You know, like me and Nicole, Sam and Emily, Billy. . ."

Jacob's words, tossed into the frigid air between us, never reach my ears. I don't blink as I assess his features, searching for any signs of an oncoming bitch-out. Instead, I find the loss of his youth. There are lines on his face that shouldn't be there. His face is hardened and his hair shaggier than I remember. Hell, if I can remember—there's not much to see through the blur of imprint block covering his face. His gaze is dark

Breathing a short sigh, Jacob scratches the back of his head. "Really, I just came to ask you to come back. We're having a pack meeting and we need everyone there, no matter what."

Because the wolf still thrashes inside me, I know better than to say much of anything. I end up clenching my hands to stop the quivering. My gaze doesn't waver. "No matter how fast I can bring hell rising out of the ground?"

Jacob lifts his thick brows. He stares at me for a long moment before shaking his head and retreating, his bare feet crunching on the ground. "Yeah, so . . . never mind. Don't be too long."

Once his footfalls are replaced by the tickle of a breeze in the treetops, I find myself still in the same exact place, my gaze fixed on the place he left. He hasn't suffocated me this time—the chain's dropped at my feet. I could run loose, exercise the monster, even with the chance of no return. But the longer I stare, the larger the chain grows, and eventually I move forward, muttering bitter nonsense under my breath.

To hell with it.

The air has teeth. It snaps at me as I step onto the pebbly surface of the beach, moving toward the scattered circle of the back. My ears tune in to sort out the whispers from the drunken snickers of those still stumbling in the sand with trembling hands and bloodshot eyes. I hone in on the uttered words, throwing up walls as my hearing strengthens.

"She just needs to talk to someone. God, I swear, all she wants to do is walk around, all pissed off and snappy."

"She's worse than Leah was! I mean, is."

"Shh! She could hear us!" There's a huffed sigh. "I agree. She has Sam and Nicole who care about her, why doesn't she tell them what's wrong and get over it?"

"I— Crap. Never mind, we can talk about this later."

I shoulder through Brady and Collin. They jump with a start, stammering through a slur of apologies. I leave them behind, hiking through the sand to the other end. A few of the runts shuffle aside as I brush through them and finally find my place in a small rise close to the tree line. I fold my arms loosely to my chest and wait.

Almost as if on cue, the pack's talking fades into silence. I look down as Jacob and Nicole appraise the pack, approving the ring of bodies formed around them. The couples scoot closer and the runts straighten their posture and Jacob's step forward. Orange flames flicker on his russet skin as he clears his throat, speaking lowly.

"It's official." Jacob rolls his shoulders, swallowing. "Tomorrow, the army of vampires from Seattle will have made their way here."

"Aw, shit, Jake," Paul groans, interrupting whatever Jacob tries to say next. He shakes his head, rocking on his heels as he sways, nearly pulling Rachel over. "C'mon. They're fucking babies. We'll crush 'em before they even know what's coming!"

The echo of Paul's comment leads into a series of hushed arguments. I trail my gaze over the rest of them, tasting the growing tension on my tongue. Hesitation is clear in many worried expressions, lit by the flickering orange glow of the fading flames. My ears pop as the tension crackles above our heads.

Paul swings his fist through the empty air, his voice ringing down the beach. "That it, huh?" he taunts, releasing fumes. "You're all hotshot alpha Jacob, but you won't let us take out the little baby leeches either? What a fucking pussy!"

A smirk twitches on my lips as I hang back, letting the scene unfold before me. Rachel grips Paul's arm with both her hands, desperately trying to stop the raging heave to each of his breaths.

"Paul, please. . ."

Biting her lip, Rachel glances over her shoulder, her gaze shining with something that adds a tint of color to her cheeks. Her dark eyes pass right over me, landing on a figure before me.

Nicole shakes her head, pinching her nose to calm herself. Jacob gawks at her, his mouth opening and closing wordlessly. She shoots a risky glare my way before stepping back to stand beside Jacob. I fix her with my complete attention, focused and razor-sharp. She flinches slightly before clearing her throat and releasing an aggravated sigh.

"Please," she begins. Her voice rises above the others, abruptly ending all other conversations at once. "Jacob isn't finished yet."

"Whatever," Paul mumbles. He drapes an arm over Rachel's shoulder, drawing her into his side as she relaxes.

Jacob scans the loose circle around him, his nostrils flexing as he fills his lungs. In the short moment of silence, he changes. His shoulders broaden and his head raises. The dark brown of his eyes intensifies as he turns to meet every gaze at once.

"Tomorrow, we'll be faced with a battle. I've already went over and spoken with the leader of the Cullens themselves to make sure there wasn't any loopholes. It's all set, but there is a possibility that some of us might not return." He nods to himself, his knuckles paling around Nicole's hand. "And I just wanted to make it clear that no matter what happens, we're all doing this to protect the tribe. We're made for this."

And that's why there's no reason to shit yourselves.

I clench my jaw as Jacob finishes. The circle tightens, huddling in together. I lean back on the outside, taking in the uneasy tension written across the backs of the pack. I barely hear Jacob order the pack to Sam's—the words don't process through until everyone is suddenly in motion around me. They all brush by, though nobody comes too close.

The leashes around their necks are almost visible. I glance over my shoulder, not masking my disgust as they march along, one by one, prisoner to Jacob's will. My teeth click then as I shake my head, muttering under my breath.

"You could stay back, you know."

Pivoting, I face the tree line with narrowed eyes. Nicole slips around a wide tree, her hands full of bits of plastic wrappers and forgotten lighters. I squint my gaze further and flex my jaw as her icy gaze settles.

"Hell no." I laugh bitterly, curling my fingers into my palm. "You don't count leech graves by the one who slaughtered their sorry asses, fucked up or not."

Nicole shrugs indifferently, though she makes a point to promptly turn her head. "If you say so."

She nods, and without a second thought, turns back into the shadows.

I study the shake in her long, brisk stride as she goes. Her hair shivers in the light breeze, quivering above her shoulders. I wait until she's gone before drawing in a slow breath and tasting the flavor.

Bitter. It's bitter, sour with the stench of fear. I curl my lip, letting the scent slip through the clenched wall of my teeth and burn in my throat. Fear.

I set forward with the idea of it hot in my chest, blazing as hot as the fuel lit in my lungs.