I was falling to my knees because the moment I had stepped, the stretched out imprint had tightened, growing taut as if I had reached the end of a string connecting him to me, and me to him. And even as I felt and realised that the imprint would stretch no further, I was stepping, stepping and then falling because I had been yanked back so hard that my body crumpled in on itself.
I couldn't breathe. I couldn't breathe because the imprint was pushing down on me from all directions, just like it had when it had first come about, and my lungs were being smothered by the weight. I couldn't even cry out from the pain of it, couldn't make a sound as my knees hit the ground. My fingers were digging wildly into the dirt as I gasped for air, but my lungs were emptier than ever, and they were burning now, burning as I suffocated.
I needed air. I needed air, and I needed it now. My whole body was shaking from oxygen deprivation, my vision was morphing into a blurry haze, and my too fast heartbeat was thundering in my ears. And the pain; god, it was like someone had shoved a red hot poker down my throat, like there were razor blades in my lungs, because every failed attempt at breath hurt ten times worse than the last.
This wasn't like the stabbing pain I'd been remembering just moments earlier. Because something wasn't being driven into me, stabbed into me, but was instead being taken. My air was gone, taken, stolen by the imprint; but that wasn't all.
My heart. The imprint had it, had it linked to Jake by an unbreakable bond; a bond that had a limit, a limit I'd just found. And the imprint was pulling me back, pulling be back hard. I felt as if it was going to be yanked from my chest, my shaking body seizing up because my heart was being strangled, constricting and clenching and leaving me in agonising pain.
I needed to go back. I needed to go back, because it was physically impossible for me to go forward, not with the imprint an indestructible tether that could not go any further. I needed to go back because for one horrible, horrible moment Jake had been almost gone, and now he was all I could focus on, the person at the end of bond that was all but killing me. I would have thought that it really was killing me, but that was so completely against the idea of being imprinted that I didn't know if it was possible.
But whether I was dying or not, I needed to go back, and go back now.
Except when I pushed against the ground with my hands, my head spinning wildly because I still couldn't breathe, my arms crumpled under the weight. I had barely a second before my torso hit the ground, and in a last desperate effort I threw myself to the left, my shoulder slamming into the dirt. But whether I was on my side or on my front, it didn't make any difference.
Because I was now just seconds from losing consciousness, and I couldn't get back. I couldn't move, couldn't breathe, couldn't see; couldn't do anything. I couldn't get back.
The borderline was right there, but I couldn't get back.
I couldn't get back.
I would never get back.
I was just about to head back to Thea when I felt it.
I was worried, so worried about Thea, my thoughts distracted and slipping into the pack mind far more than usual. I could barely focus on my brothers voices because I was trying desperately to figure out what was wrong, because something very obviously was. She was panicked, she was scared, she was tearing herself apart, and I didn't know why. And then she had talked about leaving and dying, which were both too horrible to think about, and that had just confused me more.
I needed to know, I needed her to explain; but before she could, I had left her. She had promised to wait; and even though at first my fear had made me unsure of her agreement, I trusted her promise.
So even when I felt the sudden distance between us, so much more than it should have been if she had stayed and waited, at first it didn't sink in what it meant. She had promised to wait, so it was hard to believe that she would go back on her word. But the distance was huge now, the imprint so dilute I could barely feel her, and the terrible feeling that gave me overruled my reluctance to believe she had left.
Because the bad feeling was only growing, giving me a sick feeling me in my stomach, and I hadn't even realised I'd stopped and turned my head to look in her direction, my claws pawing at the ground with anxiety. I had tuned everything out; everything but her. I couldn't hear the pack's thoughts, though I knew they were there. I was focusing completely and entirely on her.
I felt the imprint, already stretched so thin, suddenly grow taut. The terrible feeling was even worse now, my instincts screaming at me to do something, because this was wrong, so wrong, and I needed to do something because something awful was about to happen. I took a step forward, almost without meaning to, because the wolf side of me was practically forcing me forward; but it was too late.
Because Thea had pulled at the imprint that was already stretch to its limit, and it hurt. It hurt. The imprint should never be pulled like this, never be stretched so far, because it felt like we were being torn apart, and I almost fell to the ground from the pain that was searing through my system. But I couldn't, I refused to fall, because I could feel Thea's agony, and it needed to stop, and stop now.
And so I was running, running faster than I ever had before after roaring fiercely from the pain. I wasn't focusing on where I was going, but it didn't matter because the imprint knew where to go, and was sending me practically flying the through the trees. And all I could think while I ran was that I was losing her, I was losing my imprint, and I couldn't, I couldn't, I couldn't.
I could not lose her.
But it felt like she was being ripped from me, and even though I was getting closer and closer with every second that passed, the pull wouldn't stop. It was like I was imprinting on her all over again, the weight and pull so unbelievably strong that if I hadn't be so overwhelming panic and scared of what was happening, it probably would have flattened me to the ground. But while she should have been feeling closer than ever, and even though the imprint was pulling and pulling and pulling her to me, something was wrong.
Something was very, very wrong.
I could feel her, but I couldn't. She felt close, and yet she didn't. Something was off, something had changed; and I didn't like it. Being able to feel her – her presence, her location, her emotions – that was good. But not this new… detachment. It was as if now that the imprint had been stretched, it wasn't shrinking back again; and that was so, so worrying. Even after three and a bit days I had grown accustomed to feeling her; and I had liked, more than liked, the closeness that was being imprinted to her. I didn't want to lose it; I didn't know if could stand to lose it; I didn't know if I could back to not feeling every aspect of her.
But all of those worries were shoved violently to the back of mind when I finally found her.
And then I was skidding to a stop, because seeing her sprawled across the ground was terrible, and I howled at the pain I got from seeing her there. This wasn't like watching her sleeping; which I liked, because she looked so small and delicate when she did. But even though she looked like she was sleeping, stretched out on her side with her eyes closed, I felt no comfort whatsoever knowing that the imprint had forced her unconscious. In fact, comfort was the opposite of what I was feeling as I struggled to imagine how painful it all must have been that she had passed out because of it.
But all of the worry I had about the imprint paled in comparison to the sudden and consuming fear that flared to life when I realised that Thea wasn't breathing.
No. Oh god, no.
I didn't remember phasing and pulling on my jeans; it seemed as if one moment I was reeling from finding her unconscious on the forest floor, and the next I was on my knees beside her, my slightly trembling hands pulling her towards me. She didn't move at all at my touch, her body light and limp as pulled her into my arms, which made my concern soar to new heights; part of me had been hoping that if just touched her, that would reverse things. But her eyes didn't open, her chest remained still, and as I held her tightly to my chest, I wondered if I'd underestimated just how much of an impact the imprint had had.
Her heartbeat was so fast; faster than it should be, even for a half-vampire. It was both simultaneously worrying and not; because while it should be slower, at least it was there, one of the only signs there was to indicate she was still living. I shook my head then; that was not a train of thought I wanted to follow.
She would be fine. She would be fine, she just needed to time to recover. I kept repeating the words, trying to convince myself; it wasn't working. It wasn't working, because even though I was holding her, she still didn't feel right; and I didn't know how to fix it.
I needed to fix it, but I didn't know how.
I didn't know how.
I didn't know how.
But then Thea was suddenly sucking in the quietest breath, and I heaved an enormous sigh of relief as I gripped her tighter. She was breathing. Thank the heavens, she was breathing. Breathing softly, so softly, but it was vast improvement from nothing at all. I tried to focus on that; tried to focus on her breaths. But the panic wouldn't go away, wouldn't be shoved to the back of my mind, and I was once again left scared because she felt wrong.
She felt wrong; and it needed to stop.
And so I found myself standing, lifting her with me, her head turning inwards so that her cheek was against my chest. I could feel the lightest wash of air across my skin every time she exhaled, her breaths not changing in beat as I began to walk. Her slow breathing was the only thing keeping me walking instead of running, the soft sighs calming, forcing me to remind myself that she was breathing, that she would be fine, and that she just needed time.
But time was going to be hard, so hard, because I didn't want to wait. Didn't want to wait with my heart in my throat, struggling to keep calm. Usually I could do patience; usually, I was good at waiting; but not today. Not today, because I wanted her to be better now, wanted to feel her again now, because I needed it so badly it felt like I was going to explode from the pressure. But even though I knew waiting was going to be torture, waiting was what I would have to do.
And I would stay by her side for every second it took, because nothing was going to be strong enough to force me away.
When we reached her house, nothing had changed; she was as still as ever as I slipped into her bedroom. It wasn't unexpected, but I had hoped; even though my gut feeling was telling me that this was not something you just got up and walked away from easily.
That was what Jared had said when he had met me halfway here, wondering what the hell was going on and why I'd suddenly disappeared with such a burst of anger and pain that the whole pack had felt it. His mildly horrified expression when he'd caught sight of me with an unconscious Thea in my arms hadn't helped me at all in my goal to stay calm, and nor had his stunned disbelief when I explained what had happened. Still, once he'd recovered, he had agreed that time was what was best for her, and it had been more relieving than I would have thought to know that he too believed it would work.
But that didn't change the fact that as I ever so gently laid her on the bed, she was as motionless as ever, my concern fiery and strong as I stretched out next to her. I didn't even think as I pulled her into me, my arm snaking around her waist, shifting her so that her head was leaning against my chest. Just days ago I had been torn with wanting to do this; wanting to know what it would be like to have her pressed against me. Now though; now I could muster only the smallest sliver of enjoyment from it. Because even though it was wonderful to be able to run my fingers through her hair as she breathed against me, my gaze was concerned, not affectionate, as I watched her.
Watched her, and began to think.
Began to think about why she was currently passed out in my arms. It was something that hadn't registered, not when I'd felt the bond almost tearing, not when I'd found her unconscious on the ground. But now though; now I had to think about it.
I had to think about the fact that I'd found her on the borderline of La Push, and the reason the imprint had burned with agony was because she had tried to leave. Tried, and failed, to leave. Failed, because the imprint hadn't let her. The imprint had a limit that neither of us had known about, and she had found it.
She couldn't leave. It wasn't possible for her anymore; the imprint was too strong. She couldn't leave; or rather, she couldn't unless I was with her. Because we had left, barely two days ago; zooming down the highway and flying down the road on my motorbike without even a hint of a problem. She had left then, but she hadn't been able to leave today; and the only thing that had changed was me. She needed me; and god knew I needed her. And the need was so strong that neither of us could stand to be apart; which was both good and bad.
Bad, because I felt terrible that because of the imprint, because of me, she had been hurt. And good, because I didn't want to be apart. I felt guilty for being glad that she was like this, but I couldn't help but be relieved that something, at least, had stopped her from leaving. I couldn't stand it if she left; I had told her that I couldn't let her leave. And now, I didn't have to stop her.
She had to stay. And while it kind of seemed like the imprint was keeping her here against her will, I knew that she wanted to be here. She had told me so, cryptically and confusingly, saying that she wanted to stay, but couldn't. Well, now she had to, and whatever she was running from, she didn't have to worry about, because I would keep her safe. Even though she thought it was impossible, I would keep her safe.
I would keep her safe, and I would keep her with me. I would keep her with me, not just because the imprint wouldn't have it any other way, or because she couldn't leave.
But because I was more than fine with her staying right by my side.