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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.


68. Red-Flagged

Rating 0/5   Word Count 6417   Review this Chapter

"This world will never be
What I expected
And if I don't belong
Who would have guessed it?" - Three Days Grace.

Chapter Sixty Eight

Red-Flagged Rebel

A world of white is calmer than a world of red.

Bathed in numb nothingness and suspended in a collapsed reality, I wrestle through the tangles of white, slashing my way to the surface.

Stripping the thin sheet of buzzing, empty nothingness from the surface, I push myself onto my feet in a different reality.

The world shatters, raining glass over my figure. I scan my surroundings, flexing each finger and rolling through the layer of muscle underneath my skin. My body clenches, on full alert and ready to spring into action at any moment. I brace bare, brown feet into the silky waves of snowy, empty nothing beneath them.

Raising my gaze, I peer into a tunnel of white. A flash of light blares, and as it dies, the walls of a cave curl overhead. I start, a snarl torn from my throat as I throw two quivering arms before me, my lip peeling over sharp, straight-edged teeth.

In the mouth of the cave, a few strides ahead of me, I see the fragile frame of a young girl, covered in a sheen of buzzing, street light yellow. With hair raven-black and pink lips turned up on the corners, I recognize the girl. Tension flares, contracting each trembling muscle beneath my skin. My gaze rests on the curves of the girl's thin shoulders as I take a soundless step toward her, the ends of my fingers curled.

I reach, extending a russet touch toward matching skin.

The girl giggles, sensing the breeze of near contact. Her neck twists, and with a jolt, I'm forced to see the marred hell of her face.

Her skin peels, rotting and clumping, nose crushed and lips torn to stretch across to the corners. Hollow circles, carved to a circle of empty sockets, turn up to meet blackening blues.

She screams.

Her voice pummels my core and blasts me into thin air. The world shatters, rock crumbling and dust floating. I trip, my gut somersaulting. I lurch back on my knees, roaring into the inferno unleashed around me. The world is searing, screaming, screeching white nothing. My head spins, pounding with the blood beating in my head. The air whisks away, churning flames and barreling winds clashing in the distance before fanning out to rearrange themselves in a new reality. I heave molten oxygen against this senseless, meaningless world around me before peeling open sticky lids to gaze into the settling blurs of shifting, sorting blacks and greens.

I blink, and the world clears to reveal a gentle line of trees. I rise, my feet numb to the cold mud beneath them. Towering black trees sway above my head, swathed in a coat of thick fog. A throbbing, nipping memory nags in the corner of my mind. I shake my head, ignoring the whispers of words in my head, and instead scan the fog, slanting black blues to peer through the opaque shapes of light, misty grey crowded around the wide trunks.

In the humid midst, the faint, flickering image of two people, one man and one woman, face me. A warning growl cracks the heavy, looming silence, and the pair statue themselves, becoming eeriely still. I see closed lips curved in simple smiles and the deep color of native-dark skin. Flexing twitching fingers, I advance toward the fog with the silent stealth of a hunter.

Fog spreads ahead and wraps around me. I step inside the mist, shoulders taut, wearing a mask of blazing concrete. Straightened, I stop to tower before the two figures. I assess them through a narrowed gaze, breathing steam on their light, smiling faces.

My heart stops.

The man, from his cropped cut black as his stubble and the woman, with icy blues too warm for their color, welcome my presence with a flicker of love gleaming in their irises. They pull together, a toned arm around a thin waist, and present themselves as one. The tower of me freezes, statue still. White puffs of hot breath push through the fog while burning blues glance between the man and woman.

The woman arches a brow. Her image statics for a heartbeat, and her picture-perfect smile falters. She breathes worry through her words as she eases the silence aside.

"Honey, it's us." The woman pats the back of the man at her side. No sound follows the contact. She turns her mouth up, the fear in her eyes not matching the muted sound of what should be a nerve-fluttering pulse.

"Mommy and Daddy,"the woman tries, prodding. Two silent sets of gazes train on mine, waiting while the quiet throws miles of walls between us.

Steady circles of chocolate brown measure the temperature blazing behind my eyes. A masculine hand wraps around the woman's thin hand while russet lips lower to her ear.

"She knows," they murmur. "Just wait."

I know damn well who they are, but no words roll off my tongue.

Electricity buzzes, thriving in the glass of gazes. The black of the forest towers high, and the chatter of birds in the trees, cawing and calling and going about life around them, silences. Flushed of warmth, I grit hard teeth and clench curling fingers, feeling the paling of my knuckles and the buckling of that hole burnt out in my chest.

A blush of cool, sunny warmth flourishes at first, but the rage of the wolf cuts it down. Whispers of memories tug at conscience as I peer deep into same pairs of eyes that loomed over me the day the world had been cursed with my grand entrance. I remember more than comforting strokes on the cheek and gentle hugs.

I remember the possibility of childhood-innocence dying in a twist of sheets, fading away under a roof that doesn't belong over my head.

I remember trying to breathe right with lungs full of fire blazed by tortuous years of not knowing.

I remember changing; bones stretching and temper poisoning the stream of blood beating hot under peeling skin.

I remember suffering hell alone, with a mixture of shouts and screams and empty cries that rise and fall and break, never seen or heard.

My wolf hates weakness. She gnashes angry jaws at the people before me, coiling her body in preparation for attack. I turn my head between the man and woman, disgust knotting my gut. I teeter in the blackness, deafened as a sick wave racks through my body and bends me forward.

This isn't real.

I shove the murmur yanking at my conscience, shaking my head. I circle, prowling in a steady rhythm around Bradley and Sophie Uley. They seem to hover, grayed and disconnected. I squeeze shut burning black-blues and flash them open. Static flutters and settles, and the gray evaporates.

"You don't have to say anything," Sophie whispers. She's pained, avoiding my gaze as my advance turns and comes to a stop before them.

Those few words pull the trigger.

All at once, I break.

I'm screaming. The sound pulses outward, blasting the faces of them. My lips lift in a wicked snarl, and I'm dipped in hell. The tang of rotting, boiling flesh penetrates my nostrils, as if the heat of my storm fries them alive. Bradley curves himself over his wife, turning his head away from me. Blistering, words whip through the air, cracking sharp and real.

I channel years of rage and hurt and struggle at the bodies of the man and woman who bore me, lashing out with thick words tangled among the howls and snarls. Each word releases me, drawing the rope of reality a little closer to pull me in. I crumble, the tower of burning hatred that I've become breaking, until I'm on my knees in dirty, wet soil and my shaking hands latch on to a numb nothing to hold myself upright.

Finally, after the flames blink out, I swallow against the lump of dignity, my gaze set on the dark earth beneath me as I whisper a final call for truth.

"Why?"

Opaque shapes of breath cloud the still black. Russet hands curl into leafy mulch while spasms rip through bone, blood pulsing red, spiked with surges of adrenaline. Frosted with a sudden chill, the might of the unforgiving forest closes in, stalking closer, closer, until the blackness locks sharp fingers over my eyes, sucking away the warmth of reality.

Sodden soil digs under crude nails. Digging my hands deeper, I find a solid grip and flash my eyes open to the spotted black blur before me. Fuzzy and blotched with black and purple, they murmur soft reassurance, hovering at bay of the chains of shadows gnarled around my figure, lashing across my torso and dragging me deep into damp nothing.

"Breathe," my mother whispers. "Breathe."

Holding the light blue haze of my parents' presence in my eyes, I part cracked, dry lips and pull in a shot of air riddled with gritty stabs and pangs.

"Why?" I choke on the words, snarling a stubborn wolfish refusal. The shadows clamp on my wrists, twisting and struggling my body to the ground. I tilt my head up from beneath a weight of rock, squinting against the pressure of the sky bearing down on my chest. Through threads of red, the chocolate shimmer of my father's eyes meet mine.

"This hell only exists inside your head," he utters. "Now breathe."

Struck by the familiarity of the deep bass rolling from a foreign tongue, I suck another gust through flared, itching nostrils. A snake of blackness coils and knots, circling my throat and binding me to the ground. I squeeze my eyelids shut, parting my mouth in a final scream. The ground rumbles, groaning as it begins to part at the center. An identical shout booms through the haze of nonsense slicked above me.

"Come on, Jordan! Just one more! One more! You've got it now; you're almost there! Breathe!"

Thrashing, I twist my limbs, bend my spine, and slam dead weight. The shadows tighten their deadly grip, howling a hollow cry. Flames rage in my core, though the chill of the air restrains her inside the bars of her cage. My veins ignite, lit with heat that rolls like thunder. The world blazes as vicious flames lick long lines of hell on top of me. I blaze in agony, engulfed in a bitter taste of raw heat.

And all at once, the world quakes, splitting in two. My wolf howls, her powerful voice ringing clear over the deafening roar of the fire, broken loose. Reds and oranges swim overhead, bathing me in temperatures hot enough to explode and burst in my skull, peeling away my veins and melting my skin clean off white bone.

I don't want this.

Battering blows of countered struggle plant punches deep in my gut. Cracks race across the cage of the wolf buried deep in.

I don't need this.

My heart pumps frantically, beating out crimson from the punctured hole of agony sliced clean through. My body bows in the lonely black, curling on itself before my limbs lurch outwards, shoulders grinding in a backwards roll while my spine crunches and curves. The flames rage, a stampede of claws grating every nerve and picking the head of sense buried deep within my wolf apart in a frenzy of savage, relentless hunger.

But I'm. Not. Her.

Spewing liquid hatred into infinite levels of hell, I throw thundering rage from my throat, releasing one final command.

LEAVE ME!

Time speeds, and the empty free-fall into the pits of the volcano halts as the skin-melting temperatures peak and explode. The inferno shatters, gutting me dry of struggle before chucking my body upward. I somersault through the swing of death's reaching fingertips, crashing on a firm surface. The force snatches my breath away, and I press face down onto the ground, splayed in a broken shape of struggle.

I swallow thin air, taking my fill of savory, clean air. Sweating out the wolf's rage, I put together the chipped and scattered puzzle of my senses together until the blackness spreads and separates into a flock of shrinking bright-colored dots. I suck in a rush of wet, green forest, air sprinting to my lungs. It stabs my senses, stroking away the shimmer of blurry surface waters.

I'm born into a world struck white, the glean clanging bullets against my closed eyelids.

The present forms slowly. I rest flat in smooth grass, my back curved against the earth. I'm alone at first, but with every tick of a second, another splotch becomes a shape and the fuzzy sprinkle of static stills to settle in a color. I focus on the in, out of breathing, letting time drag elbow by elbow until a masculine square jaw comes into view somewhere just above, followed by the muted motion of pale lips. Circles of topaz fuzz are somewhere overhead. I inhale a light taste of foliage, and with a squeeze, break open my eyes to the rainy green-grey of forest.

Reality settles with icy clarity. I peer skyward, searching for aqua blues, mossy greens, or cloudy greys. Instead, I find the face of a man, his brows creased and his mouth fumbling around strings of muddled words. I release a breath of fire from my lungs, dropping my gaze to meet panicked yellows. The man's square jaw pauses, his eyes shocked wide. His expression falters before a gigantic grin shatters the worry and I'm brought off the ground again, crushed in a circle of a warm embrace.

At first, I'm numb, as new and foreign as a newborn. I breathe, and the scene of the forest simmers in the slow burn of my empty lungs cranking out heavy, shuddering gusts of air. Feeling sinks into my burnt out nerves, clenching my gut and popping my ears. I fill my body inch by inch, twitching fingers and wiggling toes. I hold the shape of the frozen angel on top of me in my gaze, focusing in on him during the rise from hell.

He's on his knees, blue jeans ripped and covered with the wet green smears of nature stains. A ragged white shirt clings to his build, wrinkled over smooth, diamond skin and rounded muscle. A head of midnight hair sticks to his forehead, highlighting honey-sweet love trapped in the brilliant gleam of his irises.

The longer I watch him, the closer the man gets. He leans forward carefully, his knuckles pushed into the dirt beside my head. His mouth parts, and he blows out a soft breath, a tickle of cool relief across my skin. Flat against the damp earth, I do nothing but study every inch of him until he closes off everything around us and presses his mouth to mine, a fragile touch of careful intimacy.

The sensation of his kiss is exploding bursts of fireworks in my gut.

It's the sun breaking through the gloom through the tree tops.

It's the sparkle of a cold lake showing peeks of blue at the first breath of spring warmth.

It's a revival to a withering tree, strong and sure as the hand that untangles the roots of a gnarled tree and throws the trunk to its might, proudly towering high after double-struck lightning.

Some part of my brain reminds me of my hands. I spread my fingers, running dirty brown hands over ribs and spine to grip in the collar circled around a thick neck, drawing the body of love ever closer. We're nothing but touches and kisses, bodies molded together on a muddy bed of conquered death.

My heart whispers a passion-heavy murmur, Emmett, as he knits the final pieces of my sanity together and uproots the white flag of defeat, burning it away with the blaze of unexpected victory.

Beneath the hood of our separate reality, I melt into the ice of Emmett. He cools my flame and grounds me with the long, savored strokes of his silken mouth against mine. I breathe again, releasing woodsy air through parted lips. Although still blazing in their sockets, my eyes drift to a close, and I absorb the moment, allowing myself to feel.

Behind a shade of black, a livid red flame coughs, and in its spark, releases a blow of magma-hot memories.

Crackling tongues of orange rack through the pack link, coursing through pounding veins and crashing the sense of sanity in every system.

The solidly formed group of lupine strength surging through the sea of open green, crying to the sky and gutting the somber quiet of the dusk with their panic, breaking apart as the heart leading the point of them stumbles.

My heart fumbling in mid-sprint, choked by the strangling claws of the wolf grating against my human flesh, screaming through the voice of instinct and commanding my form to reverse and finish what I've started.

I fall, sinking into hell while the battle chained in my deepest, darkest corners breaks loose, flooding every fiber of my being and bringing me down cold.

Fingers threaded in the silk at the nape of Emmett's neck clench. I snap back to reality, petrified by the shock of frigid air clamping around my throat. I nearly lose my form in the split-second it takes for my head to catch up with me, but I set my jaw and buckle down on impulse, pacing my gaze across the grey sky before they pause into the hardened honey beneath Emmett's furrowed brow.

I hold his silent question, my voice tangled in my throat. I relax each finger, one by one. A hand slips over Emmett's neck and curls against the side of his throat. It's then that I take notice to the sticky-wet crimson painted across my fingertips and scored down my arms in jagged gauges.

Reflex tears Emmett away from me as I burst onto my feet, throwing my arms stretched away from my sides. My breathing speeds with heat as I take in the seat of angry-red bumps travelling in clawed lines across my torso where I'd undoubtedly been attempting to open myself wide while the wolf turned me from the inside out. I tick my lip over a canine, bending beneath a crushing punch of adrenaline, my brain shifting against the roar of the wolf shouting defiance from her banished bed of chains.

Before I explode into oblivion, two soft hands clamp around my hipbones. I'm crushed against a stone chest and covered in a bowed embrace. Two smooth lips press against my ear, moving around satin words.

"Jordan, you need to calm down," Emmett breathes. His right hand glides relief over my exposed skin, touching the rim of the bra tugged unevenly across my chest before travelling back toward my hip. "Breathe."

The earth slices, parting around the grating drag of my bare feet. I ball my hands with a pop of knuckles, curving my neck to meet the down-turned attentive gaze centered on my face. I shudder, my heart drumming along with the pound of the wolf's second round of rebellion.

I shove sound through my teeth, forcing spluttered words into the mangle of spat heat.

"Pack. Where the fuck is pack?"

"Home." The answer is immediate, laced with an urgent sense of calm. "Your pack left for the rez; they took care of everything. Everything and everyone is safe." An iron grip circles my waist while Emmett presses the back of his hand against my chest. My heart leaps, beating frantically against his touch. I feel the race, and the sensation of it dizzies me, teetering the trees, tilting the sky and tipping the earth.

The firm bass of Emmett's words echo into my ear, dragging focus in crystal clear. "Breathe. You can't stop on me now."

Fresh, rainy fuel seeps into my lungs. The storm booms a spasm of thunder, quaking my muscles. I curl burning hands over Emmett's arm, sinking against his torso while I falter just long enough to recover. I squeeze my eyelids and crack them open, drawing in a breath through flared nostrils. Reality stills once more, and my pulse slacks off ever so slightly before beginning a steady fall back into its normal thrum.

Swallowing against a sandpaper dry, I find the sense to force out another word. "How?"

Emmett shakes his head slightly, cocking his head to the left. After a moment, the pressure of his hand on my chest disappears, and a second arm loops over the first. With a gentle sigh, Emmett collapses against the solid trunk of a mossy tree, resting my back across his chest. I glance up at his falling eyes while his expression sobers with pure relief.

"I had to find you." His deep voice hums through my ears, like a silk blanket spread over a bed of brittle spikes. "My family needed to take time to repair the tent, and I couldn't distract Jasper-he had to keep Edward calm. I found you here, without your pack."

I scan the flattened shape of my body in the grass, only listening. Emmett inhales deeply, straightening his hands in an attempt to hide the quiver in them, even though I've felt it minutes ago when it began against the skin of my waist. A tick-tock of silence passes before the low whisper of Emmett's words resume.

"I. . . I thought you were dead."

The firestorm wreaking havoc in my veins spews liquid electricity through my veins. I twist my head, prying off Emmett's grip from my waist, stepping forward to stand alone in the grass. His words ring in my ears, punching spiked fists into my skull.

Dead.

Lost.

Defeated.

From beneath leagues of water, I separate from the present and stare into the face of memory. The wolf howls, singing through the marrow of my bones. I feel her raw power coursing through every fiber of my being, the peak-point of my strength, yet the greatest of all threats.

She has grabbed my heart when I turned my back to instinct, choosing to defend purpose over dismembering earnest demons.

She is there inside me, always wrestling my conscience in a never-ending claw and tooth struggle for control.

The wolf operates from my core, but she lurks in every corner, coiled to strike whenever humanity grinds her gears the wrong way.

But that won't happen any fucking more.

The curling fingers of fog have blinded my eyes to the wolf's true intentions. The spirits of my parents dwell somewhere in the shadows of my head, carrying me forward with gentle words and a sense of ease. Opening the inferno buried inside my head burned out the poison, and now, with my vision cleared

I see.

Lifting my head, I fix my stare on the straight tower of moss-covered trees. Reality settles in place, stone-set and unmoving. A little curve turns the corner of my lips. Emmett's presence looms a few paces behind my back, there and strong, the grounded anchor holding me to earth.

We've made it.

I twist around to peer over my shoulder, but there isn't a waiting gaze. Tense, Emmett's narrowed eyes drift deep into the forest, his posture bent into a defensive crouch and his nostrils flared. Every muscle bunches beneath my skin while I throw my senses out into the open, but the thunderous beat of heated paws rocketing toward us hits my ears a second too late.

A grey hulk of muscle and predatory savagery tears through the trees, whites of eyes rolling with uncontrolled rage welled up from deep down and spittle-dripping jaws reaching for the bared side of Emmett's porcelain neck.

With a duck and pivot, Emmett dodges the points of snapping, gnashing teeth and deflects the lunge of spread jaws with his balled fist. The giant form of blazing wolf strikes his paws into the earth, wheeling, ripping sod from the earth as he comes around again. Emmett bounces back on his heels, baring teeth glistening with a sheet of venom at the attacker. His eyes darken over, burning with instinct. He crouches low, his hands hovering over the earth and his body lowered before he pushes off the earth and sprints into the come-around of the wolf to meet him head-on.

Wolf and man meet, teeth grating diamond skin to pull apart and hands slashing through pelt to batter breaks on bones. They grapple in the dirt, a tornado of angel white and grey wolf mixed in the churn of earth and the storm of snarls, spits, and snaps thrown at the other.

In the half second it takes for the attack to begin, my heart lurches, and I tear across the earth. With a duck of my body, I bend myself between the firey flesh of wolf and the hard winter of Emmett and rise between them, striking a wedge between the attackers. They fall back with a start, blinking away the haze of heat while they thud on their asses, dazed eyes squinting at the woman heaving angered heat between them.

I turn to Emmett first, skimming his body for any sign of damage. His shirt hangs in loose tatters over his torso, and scrapes of teeth cut across his collar, but he bears no injury. He tips his head back to peer up at me while the confusion fades, and an apologetic half-smirk hesitantly creeps across his mouth.

"Don't look at me. He started it."

Emmett's gaze directs my attention to the wolf rising from the ground on my other side. I roll quivering shoulders, demanding his attention. Shaking clumps of muddy grass fall from his pelt, the wolf lifts his head and meets my steady, waiting stare with the dark browns of Paul.

His body freezes, and he jolts with surprise. The threatened curve of his lip drops as the wolf jerks backward as if faced with a breath of plague, a shocked yelp spilling from his mouth. I raise a brow, catching the barely visible trembles in his muscle. Panicked, the wolf bows toward the ground, baring his throat in a wary statement of lupine submission.

Chuckling under his breath, Emmett finds his feet behind me, resting a gentle hand on my hip. I hold my ground tall in front of him, setting my jaw while my head carefully collects words from the tangle of nonsense tearing my skull to bits. Paul risks glances up at the pair of us towering above him, blinking under the strain of holding my temper-heated stare.

Finally, I find words through an inhale of Emmett's scent.

"If you plan on laying a single look on him again," I hiss, seething at near breaking point. "I'll rearrange your fucking skeleton."

The sound of my voice passes through my lips in a low tone, whipped across the air and wound into Paul's brain with order that can't be defied. My heart thuds against my ribs, pulsing a slip of temper into my veins. The cooling ease of Emmett's chest pressed against my back holds me in.

Reluctant, the grey wolf scrambles to his paws and retreats pace by pace, stride by stride. His gaze flickers between the two of his, reflecting the toffee-plaster contrast of our skin. Backed into the trees, the wolf tilts his head, eyeing my chest where my pulse beats, unmistakably alive, even if altered.

I speak again through authority's voice, unwavering. "I'll get to you later." I jerk my chin to the brush. "Go."

Snuffing through his muzzle, Paul twists around and slinks into the forest with panther-like stealth, the weight of his watching eyes evaporating as he disappears into the night-cast shadows.

In Paul's absence, I center my attention on the man pressed against my back. His honey gaze already rests on my face, admiring the spark of heat fading from my expression. He beams down at me, keeping his hold wound firmly around my middle.

"What's my sentence?"

Twisting in Emmett's muscular arms, I steady myself flush against his hard torso and wind a steady hand through the short cut of silk on the back of his head. Place a warm kiss to his chin, I breathe. "You're off the hook. Consider that my 'thank you.'"

Cold lips press against my forehead. Emmett's hands grip my hips, checking my balance before he runs icy fingers along the trench of my spine. I soak in the comfort, allowing him to loosen the frustration clenching my twitching muscles. He breathes in my scent, running his hands toward my shoulders.

"Does this mean the damage is done?" he murmurs.

"I'd be damned." I rest my cheek on the curve of his neck, shutting my eyes against the chill of his skin. "I sure as hell shut her up for a good while."

Emmett rests his head over mine, bringing me into an iron-tight hug, leaving no curious space between our bodies. Engulfed in his embrace, I shut off my guard, dropping the walls of focus. Emmett's hands glide past my spine while my fingers catch in his hair. His touch hesitates at the small of my back while my eyes fall shut. With a soft breath, I contract my senses and free-fall into the warmth expanding in my chest.

A lazy summer haze drifts over our heads, bringing us away from reality as we connect at the core. Color flashes behind my lids, shaping to form a memory of us, together, in the most intimate of moments. I feel ourselves bonding, the rope yanked to a knot. My heart skips quadruple beats while my breath catches in my throat.

There, in those trees, folded together with our heads bent and our hearts singing to the soaring sensation called love, we evolve and connect on a new level. The empty hole in my chest seals with Emmett, banishing the wolf to retreat tail-tucked in her cage while the warmth expands in my heart and head.

There in those trees, I'm no longer alone; there in those trees, the wolf reluctance shatters as she's forced to accept that this war has become two to one.

While the memory runs its course, my hands find Emmett's, curled between our chests. I allow the final moments of the memory to fade before I open my eyes and stare straight into love.

Emmett's expression eases, his lips touched up with a gentle smile. Unrestrained love swims in the honey-liquid of his eyes. His cool breath skims my face as he collects himself enough to speak.

"We could leave," he whispers. Something new ignites beneath his tone. "We could be that."

Loyalty tenses in the center of my heart. I've shed the chains, but the scars of them seal with a branding need to serve my wolf's duty. I smile slightly, speaking lowly for his ears only.

"I have to go, Emmett."

I wait for a flash of disappointment, but the same sheen of understanding lays on Emmett's expression. He ducks his head, placing a fragile kiss to my mouth, lingering for nothing longer than a moment. I exhale warmth as he pulls away, prying my eyes open to meet his look once more.

"I love you," I say. And this time, those three words fall like a hammer, rooted through my being with certain meaning and not a single ounce of question.

Before temptation can lure us into games of oblivion, I draw out of Emmett's hold and head toward the bramble cut by Paul's retreat. Steady eyes follow my exit, until I push back the tangle of brush and lower my head to duck through.

"Jordan?"

Glancing over my shoulder, Emmett finds my eyes one last time. He demonstrates a smile, a trace of light gleaming in his eyes.

"See you at sundown."

Reflecting the love in the curve of his mouth, I laugh under my breath and nod my agreement. "It's a date."

And with the line of my departure spoken, I dip into the forest and put trust in awaiting love.

Emerging onto the muddy browns of the riverbank, I step in beside Paul. His body relaxes ever so slightly, though his dark eyes remain fixed on the churn of bubbly rush separating the world of two enemies. I study him, taking note of the shaggy length of black locks reaching down the nape of his neck and the aged hardness resting over his stone expression. Wrinkles cover his forehead, and his brows pull over drooping eyelids.

He's doing a sorry-ass job of pretending that he isn't tired as hell, but nobody would call him out on it.

I release a brittle breath of heat and break the quiet with a tone of business. "Damage report?"

Paul's throat expands with a rough swallow. His hands clench at his sides, and the reflection of the current expands in his fury-swollen pupils.

"The village . . . it went up in flames. We dragged out the bodies. There were a few dozen of them limp, eyes open and burnt to a crisp. The rest were banged up pretty damn good. There's not a whole lot left other than the ash."

Feeling my pressing stare, Paul rakes a hand through the crop of black on his head, blowing frustration through his nostrils. "It was the royal 'suckers who did it. Jake and Nicole sent Sam and Embry out after we cleaned up, but they were just . . . gone. Not a single fucking scent left. They fried our people and took a run for it."

The words mix with the flare shot through my skull like water and oil, processing slowly. I inhale the scent of petrichor on my burning skin, speaking through the release of dry heat. "And our numbers?"

Paul's eyes drop to the water skimming the line of the bank, letting the chance to tease with sarcastic offence pass. "Jared hit the ground when he saw the flames, but Kim's got him all taken care of. The rest of us don't have a single mark."

The reassurance settles the skipping rhythm in my veins. I stand beside my pack mate in mute silence, the two of us pillars of unspoken exhaustion beneath the grey break of dawn. The soft sounds of morning tinkle through the quiet forest. The whipping whirl of the wind declines to a steady spin, allowing a sober peace to filter through our kingdom.

After a significant pass of time, Paul shifts his weight and mutters through his teeth. "I s'pose you're gonna run off with him now."

Amusement turns up on the edges of my mouth. I scan the trickling water inches from my bare toes, absorbing the natural calm of it. "I have work to do."

My words ease the final knots of tension from Paul's body. The reluctance evaporates, and Paul cracks a grin, his gaze jumping to the side of my face. "Like what?"

"Business." I glance to the side, meeting his gaze, bright with a gleam of harmless curiosity. "We have a village to build up. Asses to kick. Hell to bring down. The usual."

Paul chuckles. "Guess that 'we' is an open invitation for a badass sidekick?"

"Like hell I need a fucking sidekick on my ass." I snort, leaning back to peer straight into Paul's eyes. "That's what a badass friend is for."

Paul's grin spreads wide over his face, erasing all signs of previous tension and exhaustion. His chest puffs slightly. "Betcha this badass friend can empty Sam's kitchen ten times faster than—"

Before the rest of his sentence leaves his bragging lips, Paul crashes into the mucky of the river, exploding to the surface nearly simultaneously in the skin of his wolf. Spluttering murky liquid from his lips, his head snaps up to the sleek face of a white she-wolf peering down at him, the clear gleam in her eyes lit with playful challenge.

Bring it - everything you got and then some. And I'll still kick your ass.

Together, the howling beasts lunge into a sprint through the vast, open expanse of their home without a flame of temper disturbing the cool sense of long-awaited peace above their heads.

This sounds like a sort of happy ever after. Something to smile at. I smile now as I head into the forest, unable to stop myself. But the two of us know better than to think this is really the end.

And to hell with doubts. I might carry a monster in the depths of my eroded soul, but I am not the monster. I am Jordan Uley. I have proven that in this life, it is possible to beat out nature. It is possible to fight through the darkness of this world. Even those who lose themselves still can fight to find themselves because the world is only full of obstacles; obstacles thrown out to be passed over.

After years of dead ends and upside down reality, clarity rings as true as the solid sense of near-freedom in my veins.

The fears we can't conquer, the pain we can't erase, and the battles we can't win are made up inside our heads.

Love is Emmett experiencing the heat, bearing the struggle, and feeling the rancid breath of demons down exposed necks. Love isn't in the clenched buckle of frustration and invisible sweat on marble skin. The love thrives in the warmth of adoring eyes and the guidance of a steady hand through the battle of surviving my hell for another hour longer with nothing but enough strength for one more step on his tongue.

And finally, hell is pretty damn hot. But there's always some kind of angel out there ready to turn worlds upside down, for better and for worse, through the sickness twisting minds and the struggle to find the person buried somewhere deep down there. In the end, the angel makes the monster's burn bearable, taking a step back from that edge, bringing reality another pull into focus.

As the pieces come together, the scarlet-stained future of a killer blurs out of focus, fading into the swirls of lights and darks, changing, folding and opening with every twist and turn. A rebel's flag rises, firm and steady alongside each step of the path that lies ahead.

I am Jordan Uley.

And this is how my battle begins.

{ The End }