Bella only half listened as Jessica's pert, enthusiastic voice filled the auditorium. Dressed in her cap and gown, Bella couldn't help feeling she should have been more proud of her own accomplishments, that she should be looking forward to a future bright with promise, that the days to come were the beginning of a new life, a rite of passage into adulthood.
Right now, Bella couldn't fathom any of those things as the reality of her situation seemed to pound on her head with a hammer. After her conversation with Desiree she had not been able to speak to Edward or Jacob alone. Meanwhile, a future without Edward loomed in the distance like an overwhelming grey cloud.
She saw Charlie's smiling face and beside him sat Carlisle, Esme, Rosalie, and Emmett cheering, faces beaming. Bella was glad at that moment that Phil's injury had kept Renee in Florida; her mother was too intuitive, and she would have had to spend all her time convincing Renee nothing was wrong.
Which was a lie. A huge one.
While the threat of the intruder still lingered in the back of her mind, Bella was consumed with Edward's absence. He should have been here; he would have been here. If all were right with the world, Jacob would have been seated there beside Charlie. But instead Bella spied Jacob's Edward body at the end of the third row. His grin was stretched from one side of his face to the other and he seemed to barely sit still, as though he were truly graduating for the first time. Bella shook her head, holding back a smile at Jacob's childish enthusiasm, which looked out of place next to Alice and Jasper's smooth expressions. Of course, they had already done this before countless times, and Jasper and Alice threw each other curious glances, no doubt questioning their sibling's odd behavior as they both elbowed him to compose himself.
"Great party," Jacob said to her afterward back at the Cullen house, raising his voice so Bella could hear him over the loudness of the music. "Do you want some punch?"
Bella nodded as her eyes darted toward the sparkling lights that filled the room; the lower level had been cleared and transformed into a club-like setting. It appeared the whole of Forks High senior class had been invited to the Cullens' for the graduation party, and Bella was in awe of just how overboard Alice had gone. Jessica and Angela gestured to her to join them on the dance floor, but when Bella heard the familiar voice of Jacob coming from the front door, she immediately turned.
Edward. He had made it, and Quil and Embry were with him.
She tunneled through the crowd until she was standing before him. "Hi."
Their eyes locked, and time and space seemed to fade into nonexistence.
"Hey, Bella. This place is huge!" Quil burst out, ignoring their connection.
"I'm glad you came," she told them, but turned her gaze back to Edward's Jacob face. "I need to talk to you."
"Sam sent us," Embry said. "He wanted to be sure that things were okay with…." He raised his fingers and scratched the air, using them like quotation marks, "Edward."
At that moment, Alice was heading down the stairs, and she froze before reaching the bottom.
Edward, recognizing the blank stare in his sister's eyes, rushed toward her. "Alice, what's wrong? What are you seeing?" He was not used to not being able to experience her visions along with her.
She snapped out of her trance, slightly dismayed to find Jacob standing at the bottom of the steps expectantly while Edward rushed to join them. Alice's first impulse was to tell the troublesome wolf to mind his own business, but she was taken by the way Jacob and Edward quickly greeted each other. And it hadn't escaped her attention the way Edward shook hands with the other wolf boys as though it were perfectly natural.
"Let's take this upstairs," Jacob suggested, his tone grave.
Alice was beside herself as she explained the vision to the Cullens and Quileutes. "The decision has been made."
Bella was horrified as Alice went on to explain about how Bella's missing red shirt was passed around a large group of vampires. The emotions rose in the room as they reached the conclusion of a newborn army having been created by Victoria to capture Bella here in Forks. Jasper spoke of tactical plans, and Carlisle worried there would be a great risk for all involved.
"Count us in," Edward said, not allowing his voice to rise and display the panic he was feeling.
"Yes!" Jacob nearly shouted to Edward, blocking Bella's concerns as she stepped forward. "Listen I want you to tell Sam and the others that we can form an alliance. Now, I know that Paul and Leah may give you some grief about fighting alongside vampires…." His voice trailed off as he noted the thoughts and stares aimed in his direction.
Who's Paul and Leah, Edward?
Why are you giving Jacob directions?
You've been acting very strange today.
What the hell?
Uh oh. You're blowing it.
Clearing his throat, he looked to Edward. "Well, I mean that we could work together…you know?"
Carlisle observed the expressions around the room, noting that the only ones not confused were Edward, Jacob, Bella, and the wolves. "Is there something going on that we should all be aware of?"
"No," Jacob answered quickly.
"Yes," Edward replied.
Clenching his teeth, Jacob glared at Edward. "What are you doing?"
"You are a weakness to them, just like I am to the wolves. They deserve to know."
Esme looked from Jacob to Edward. "A weakness? What is going on?"
Shaking his head, Jacob pulled his brows together as his eyes pleaded with Edward.
"Something is definitely going on," Emmett said. "I've been watching you two…and it's weird – I never really thought about it before, but it's like you two are…acting like each other."
"They're not acting," Bella put in.
Jasper nodded, confirming the truth of emotions he felt in the room.
Jacob covered his face with his palm. He felt useless to stop them.
"What does that mean, Bella?" Esme asked her.
Bella considered the words to explain but nothing came out. Quil and Embry remained quiet, as though they were afraid of being kicked out.
"What she means is…we don't have a choice," Edward explained.
Carlisle spoke up, looking to Jacob. "Does this have something to do with this new understanding you two have that you mentioned last week? Like role playing?"
"It's more than role playing," Bella said. "They…." She shook her head. "Edward…Jacob…." She sighed in frustration of the words she was not allowed to speak.
"What is it?" Jasper asked, and the Cullens all wore the same mask of confusion when Emmett finally spoke.
"It's like they've… become each other," he observed. "Edward's never beat me at Halo." The two had spent tireless hours playing Xbox.
"Yes! They've become each other somehow!" Alice shrieked, her golden eyes wide with a mixture of excitement and relief. "That has to be it! My visions are blinded whenever it has anything to do with Edward." She turned to Carlisle. "Do you remember how a week ago I saw Edward going to Bella's but couldn't see him anymore after that?"
There was a rumble of affirmations from the group as they compared the differences in Edward's actions over the past week.
"Well, that would explain it," Esme said, also considering Edward's odd behavior. She looked to Jacob and Edward. "But, is that possible?"
Edward nodded. "It's hard to believe, but it is." Released from the restriction of speaking of the curse, he pulled the necklace from his pocket. His dark fingers held up the chain, and the turquoise stone dangled back and forth for all to see as he explained their predicament and Desiree's solution.
Alice was fuming and moved beside Jacob. "Why didn't you try to tell us before?" she hissed. "This blindness has been killing me!"
"I tried to tell you, but I couldn't do it alone," Bella said.
Jacob shrugged. "We weren't really allowed to speak of it."
"And Jake thought you all wouldn't like him anymore," Bella added, receiving a glare from Jacob's Edward face.
Esme appeared at Jacob's other side. "That's not true, is it?"
Keeping his eyes averted, Jacob became as still as a statue. "Maybe."
Recalling their conversations this past week, Esme realized the emotions behind his words were completely true, and she was sure Jasper could confirm it. Whether he was Edward or not, she felt a deep affection toward him. "Jacob, were you pretending to like us?"
"Well, then other than the fact that we now know you are Jacob, I feel nothing has changed," Esme told him and then reached her arms around his shoulders to hug him.
"But I'm a werewolf," he tried to argue, but couldn't fend off the motherly power of Esme's embrace.
"No, you are one of us right now. And we care for you."
"Thank you, Mother Esme," he said, realizing that after they changed back he would miss her most of all.
"Don't we?" she asked, pulling away from him and meeting the eyes of Jasper, Alice, Rosalie, Emmett, and Carlisle. She had observed the interactions between Jacob and the rest of the group firsthand.
Rosalie was the first to speak up. "You do know a lot about cars," she said, her eyes downward.
"And it's fun to shop with you," Alice added.
Jasper was too self-conscious to say the words aloud. I didn't feel so alone dealing with my thirst.
Emmett extended his hand out to Jacob, and he shook it gratefully. "And you kick ass at video games!"
"I think it's fair to say that everyone has a felt a connection with you, Jacob," Carlisle added. "And I think that once you and Edward figure out how to change back, I doubt any of us will feel any different. And, Bella, I'm sure everything will work out. " Bella nodded to him half-heartedly. "And, now that that's settled, we have bigger worries."
The conversation returned to the threat of Victoria's army, and with the knowledge that Jacob was not skilled or practiced as the rest of the family, they devised a meeting place for the following day to train. Edward left with Quil and Embry that night, happy that his family knew the truth. The trio left to report back to Sam to initiate this unusual alliance between the two.
Sticking by Jacob's side, Bella was disappointed that Edward had not allowed a single moment alone with her during or after the meeting. Now that she understood the nature of the sacrifice, she also realized how delicate the situation was and dared not broach it with Jacob. The impending attack terrified Bella, and because so many now were risking their lives because of her, she was tempted to run away. Alice had already foreseen that disastrous outcome and advised her that too many other innocent lives would be lost if they didn't proceed with their plan. Even though Carlisle was going to enlist the help of their cousins from Alaska, Bella didn't feel as confident as the Cullens.
The next day at the appointed spot in a clearing, Bella waited with the Cullens for the Quileutes to arrive, sucking in an awed breath at the line of humongous werewolves as they emerged on the other side of a bank. The group of oversized beasts stood there, and Bella was impressed by the number of them, trying to pick out their individual identities.
There were two new additions to the pack, Seth and Leah, one with a coat of grey, slightly small and lean, the other slightly larger with a sandy coat. And of course, Bella felt a stab to her heart as her eyes locked onto the reddish brown wolf and remained there. With so little time as a wolf, did Edward stand a chance against the frightening strength that Jasper now warned them of?
It was hard for her to watch Jacob as he continued to be tackled down by Carlisle and then by Emmett as they sparred. Though he had Edward's speed and could read their thoughts, he lacked the tactical maneuvers and reactions that many of them had been previously exposed to. By the end of the day, he had shown improvement, but Edward's earlier concern had burrowed a hole inside her head. He was a weakness, and Edward, in turn, was a weakness to the wolves. And Bella felt like there was nothing she could do.
"I don't want you to fight. I want you to stay with me," Bella told Jacob later as she lay in bed. It had been decided between the wolves and vampires that since Bella would be tucked away in a tent far away from where the battle would take place, Seth would be there to protect her and at the same time be able to communicate with the pack.
Jacob smiled as he sat beside her. "C'mon, Bells. I'll be fine."
She shook her head. "I'm going to ask him, too. I can't stand the thought of you or Edward getting hurt."
"Edward has duty as second in command. Sam won't allow it."
Bella already suspected that Edward would try to keep his distance because of their breakup, and since he was playing Jacob's role, he now had a solid reason for staying away…and the fear shook her from the inside out. Tears formed in her eyes as she considered losing the two people who meant the most to her.
"Please, Jake. You have to stay with me."
"The Cullens need me."
She reached out her hand to his and squeezed it, feeling the familiar coolness mold to her palm and fingers. "I need you more."
He watched in anguish as a tear trailed down her cheek and reached out with his thumb to wipe it away. "Please don't ask me to do this," he whispered.
Her lips began to quiver. "You promised…that you wouldn't leave me, Jake. And I believed you. Please."
It was late, and they had a long day ahead of them. Everyone had their parts to play. Alice had arranged with Charlie for Bella to be at a slumber party at the Cullens. Meanwhile, they were to meet the following morning at the rendezvous point to leave her scent which would lead the newborns to the Cullens and wolves.
With the upcoming battle less than 48 hours away, the future was uncertain. Jacob couldn't help wondering what would happen if either he or Edward was hurt. Would that one cease to exist? Or would the one left alive remain stuck as that person? And at that moment he was not feeling very confident, especially since Carlisle confirmed that their cousins from Denali would not be joining them.
Jacob nodded and gently squeezed Bella's hand. "I'll stay with you, Bella."
Alice warned them to pack heavy as she foretold of an arctic front headed their way. Bella was consumed with fear as Jasper went over the plans with them, and her breath caught in her throat, relieved to see Edward as he appeared in human Jacob form.
"I'm glad you're here… Edward," Jasper said, still somewhat thrown off by Edward in Jacob's body. "The newborns will detect our scent with Bella, and we need to be sure they have no lead to her campsite. But with you…."
"They won't be able to smell me?"
"More than likely not, but I want you to carry Bella and try it."
Before moving to Bella, Edward approached Jacob. "I want you to keep this safe." He handed him the talisman, relieved to see Jacob tuck it into the safety of his pocket. With having to phase back and forth, the probability of the necklace being lost was too great. Edward then picked up Bella, silently cherishing the feel of her against his body as he cradled her, inhaling the fresh lilac scent of her hair.
He was silent as he carried her over the rocky terrain. After having missed her terribly, holding her again was like oxygen to deprived lungs. Speaking to her would be difficult because he feared saying the wrong thing, and it would be too easy to give in after the resolve he'd made.
"I'm so scared for you, Edward. For you and Jacob. And I think you've made a mistake," she said after they were well over two miles away, wanting to be out of Jacob's earshot. "It didn't work," she said. "Why do you think that is? Because breaking up with me wasn't what you're supposed to do!"
Still, he didn't speak.
"Edward, please. I've figured it out," she told him as they headed east to meet the group. "The sacrifice isn't about giving me up. What you have to sacrifice is your own life."
He stopped his pace and stared down into the watery brown depths of her eyes.
"Maybe sacrifice isn't the right word," she continued. "I mean, you're still sacrificing your own life, but accepting having to remain in his body. Do you understand?"
Again he said nothing as he nodded, and she could see by his glossy tears that he understood. It was a huge sacrifice to give up his family, to give up his life, his self. And she wondered if Edward would be able to convince Jacob to accept it.
"Aren't you going to say anything, Edward? Anything?"
"This is too much to deal with right now, Bella. I think what we need to focus on is keeping you safe."
Somberly, she followed the plan, leaving her scent by rubbing the fabric of her sleeve and even leaving small dots of blood on tree trunks, rocks, and bushes. Since Edward's Jacob scent had successfully proved to mask hers, she would meet Edward later where he would then carry her to a safe location to remain for the night.
After rushing back to meet his pack, Edward phased and joined in the sparring session with the others. He had been pitted against Leah and Seth separately, since their levels of fighting were similar to Edwards. Too distracted by Bella's revelation, Edward had allowed Seth's attack from behind to injure his front leg, leaving it twisted and aching. Similarly, Leah's claws had torn deeply into his shoulder. Fortunately, Sam called for a break, telling them to go home and eat, see their families, and power up for tonight.
Sam stopped Edward, leaving the rest to run southwest toward home.
A little sore, but yeah. He was already feeling the accelerated power of the wolf healing taking place, numbing the pain.
Edward. I know you've had a lot on your mind, and I know it's a hard thing to do, but I need you to put that all aside. You're one of us right now, and we got your back. But we need to know that you got ours. Alright?
He pushed his doubts and fears away, knowing the whole pack could hear them, and as he neared Jacob's home, he phased back into human form.
Billy had prepared a large meal, aware of the upcoming battle. He told him how proud he was of him as Jacob ate two T bone steaks and a plate-sized helping of potatoes. While he had every confidence in his son, he had a nagging feeling about this alliance, though he kept his concerns to himself. He gave his son a big hug before he watched him walk out the door.
"So, Edward, do you think you can do it?"
Edward tore his attention from the looming clouds overhead and looked at the young boy quizzically as he and his sister caught up with him on the way back to the meeting place. He could smell the must of heavy rain in the air, possibly snow. It was sure to be cold. "Do what?"
"You know…accept being in Jacob's body…forever?"
Leah nudged her brother. "We're not supposed to talk about that. Those are his private thoughts," she told him, informing Seth about the unspoken rule of wolf etiquette.
"I'm sorry," Seth said, and tucked his chin down in shame, but only for a second. "But can you?"
Edward really liked Seth. He was friendly and the embodiment of everything good in the world. Since he joined the pack a few days before, Seth had never shown any type of hesitance toward him for being a vampire, neither in thoughts or actions. He put his arm around the young boy's shoulders. "You know, Seth, I believe that I already have."