Chapter Twenty-Six

The pain had come to a crescendo.

Isabella Swan stumbled sluggishly and painfully through the Sea-Tac Airport, intent on reaching baggage claim. She noted several glances sent her way by the other travelers, but ignored them. She was in pain, tired, hungry, and unbearably cranky. If any of them had the nerve to address her in any way she'd be willing to bet she'd bite their heads off.

Walking past a bank of windows, their surfaces reflective, Bella glanced in at herself. She flinched inwardly and outwardly.

She looked like Hell.

Reaching up with a pale, shaking hand, she rubbed at a darkened smudge under her eyes. Instead of being 'simple' dark circles that signified lack of sleep it appeared to any onlooker that she had had a difficult time of removing dark make-up. They were incredibly dark and deep. She looked like a life-long insomniac. Behind those smudges, though, were dulled brown eyes and a fierce scowl she'd sported since the discomfort had morphed into constant pain. She'd resorted to wearing loose, drawstring pants and a baggy tank-top or sweater to keep the suddenly abrasive feeling of all kinds of fabrics from clawing at her tender skin.

She resembled a frumpy, anorexic Goth

Disgusted, she continued on. Her spine alternated from being too stiff to bend to being broken-down-baby-doll-esque. On her last day in Florida she'd spent the bulk of her time lying stomach-down on her bed with a heating pad on her lower back.

The Mark at her neck burned like fire…unendingly.

"Bella!"

She froze solid at the excited scream. Turning slowly, half expecting Alice Cullen to pounce on her with the displayed exuberance, Bella eyed the crowd swelling around her. Tipping her eyes upward she could see the faces of three men.

For the first time in some days she let a relieved smile slip into place over her lips.

"Not them," she whispered in fervent thanks.

The three towering men cleared the way straight to her, the crowd parting as if in the Exodus. Men like Caleb, Boone, and Daire exuded an air of power that most people bowed to and respected. Wherever they walked they were granted the room to maneuver on the grounds that their presence instinctually pushed others in a way that benefited them.

Funny, though, that she never felt smothered by that strength and power. Not even by her own men. She didn't feel greater than any of them, certainly, but neither did she feel beneath their attention. Equal but not.

Rushing in front of them like a jackrabbit on crack was Evy.

Once the way was cleared enough, Evy ran straight for her. Bella held up her hands fearfully, not ready to make physical contact with anyone at this point. She wanted to…desperately, but her body ached so. She hadn't even been able to give her mother more than a jerky, one-armed hug and a peck on the cheek before she'd all but run into the plane and hidden in the bathroom cubical to shudder in agony.

Evy looked at her with pity and empathy.

"I'm so sorry, honey." Evy's hands wrung tightly at her sides. Her lips were pursed, stormy eyes twinkling. She looked about as irritated as Bella felt miserable, which was a considerably large amount. "This shouldn't have had to have happened."

"But it did," she rasped back, plainly displaying her discomfort.

The three big men came up then behind their much smaller mate. Caleb stood to the middle of the group and rested his hands on the red-head's shoulders. Bella didn't miss how his great fingers kneaded gently on the sleek blades beneath his palms. Nor did she misinterpret the way Evy leaned back into his firm support and show of comfort.

"How are they?" She asked despite her resolve to not inquire after them. She'd gone all week with only speaking to her mother, Phil, and Evy, though Evy's conversations with her were over the phone. She had refused to speak with them for fear of breaking down and screaming for them to come take her home.

She felt, almost, that anything was better than the pain.

"They aren't well," Boone spoke softly. His eyes were soft and regretful as he looked her up and down. No doubt he could see how run-down she was. It wasn't something she could hide from anyone now. Make-up would have only exaggerated the problem even if she did use the cakey-stuff.

"Have they been taking care of themselves? The tribe?" Her brows drew down deeply and her teeth gritted. She would be upset if they entirely forgot about their own needs and the protection of their Tribe. Pain or not, mate or not, she had made it clear that she was going to return. She didn't spend her time away from them waiting to die, though she felt like she was on the verge of death at times, and she expected them to have taken the time she'd forced onto them all to think.

Not piss and moan and make everyone else miserable.

"Not at first," Daire admitted warily. His right hand sought out Evy's as if in security. Was he afraid of her? She didn't think so, but she couldn't be positive. None of them revealed their emotions outwardly in public.

Well, not the ones that matter, anyway.

"They were being dumb shits," Evy interjected bluntly, her lips frowning up at her men. All three winced and seemed to shrink back from the tiny female. The two women connected eyes after a moment. "They were fighting. Ruined a nice patch of land near the Cabin's property. When they weren't fighting they were moping."

Bella ignored the clenching in her chest and the screaming pain in her back. It wasn't easy, but she'd been doing it for a week. Her exasperation was at the forefront at the moment.

"They were acting like children?" She asked with carefully controlled calm. The three men eyed her with some trepidation while Evy smirked. "Who watched over the Tribe? Who was helping the Pups? Did they not even think about why I left?!" The last of it was hissed out between her clenched teeth.

Fucking figures! The inner her roared. Flames practically danced around her subconscious self. I leave because of what they did, how far out of hand they took things, and they don't even bother to try and reason why I felt I had to go? They don't even try to see things from my point of view and just wallow in their own self-pity?!

She hadn't felt this kind of leashed anger for a long while. She'd been mad, certainly, when they'd first humiliated her. She had felt stirrings of it all during her stay with her mother. Now, however, she was cracked. Sure, she hadn't explained everything before she left, but she hadn't understood everything herself at the time. She couldn't explain anything to them on which she was heated over or unsure of. It would have only made things worse.

"They did." Caleb interrupted her grinding and grating with clear apprehension in his voice. Outwardly he looked unphased, but in his tone she could tell that he was unnerved by her. Was it because she was Induja?

"When?" She demanded hotly.

"When I told them off," Evy grinned triumphantly. She waved behind her towards baggage claim. "Let's go get your things, okay? We'll get them while they're still on the belt."

Bella nodded, charging behind her friend. The men hung back a short ways from them both, though they kept guard. Daire even snatched up her arm when she swayed on her feet from a wave of pain sweeping from her upper back to lower. Her knees shook for a short time, but Daire kept her on her feet. Out of her peripheral she could see Evy nibbling at her lips with tears shimmering in her eyes.

"I'm fine," she shrugged the man off gently and restored her footing. Evy nodded jerkily before leading them again at a much slower pace.

Airline patrons carefully kept their distance as they made their way through the terminal. Bella knew immediate relief that people weren't accidently bumping into her as they had been at the Jacksonville Airport. The contact had been unwanted and uncomfortable. It would have been unbearable as bad-off as she was currently.

At the claim-belt for her flight there were only a few bags left. Boone darted forward as they hung back to collect her duffel. She smirked knowing what he'd find right with it.

Three.

"Did you have fun with your mother while you were gone, Bella?" Evy inquired conversationally. She in-turn nodded, slow though it was.

Two.

"Oh yeah. We talked better than we have in years. I think I might need your help with something, though." Evy gave her a funny look, but assented with a single bob of her head. Bella beamed genuinely. "I've got a surprise for the guys."

One.

The corner of the red-head's lips tipped upward in a mischievous smirk. "What kind of surprise?"

"What the fuck is this?!"

KABOOM! The inner her chortled with mirth.

XxXxX

Jacob paced the graveled drive between the Cabin and the road. His fur was bristled and his lips quivered over his maw in aggravation.

He'd been unable to shift back to human fully since their mate had left. It was by sheer force of will alone that he was able to manage to maintain the form of the Wolfen creature of that in-between stage. His brothers had been the same. None of them were calm enough to stay human. Bella was their link to that humanity and without her they had no hope of being 'normal' again.

Where the fuck is she?! Paul snarled near their mate's parked truck. She hadn't taken it when Evy and her men had taken her to the SeaTac airport. His silvered fur rippled as his desire to shift back to full-wolf grew. What if there was an accident? It shouldn't take this long to get back from Seattle.

Maybe the flight was delayed. Seth inserted pathetically. His own maw ground with irritation and betrayed his calmer thoughts for what they really were. Excuses.

Bull shit. Sam snapped. Black claws flexed. If the flight was late they would have called. We'd have known.

Well we'd sure as fuck know if she was injured! Embry erupted, his meaty, clawed fist striking a nearby tree. A large mass of trunk and stem were pounded from the stalk with that single hit. I'm tense as fuck, man. Stop making me think even worse is happening. I don't know how much more I can take.

They were all on the brink. Not a single one of them doubted the reality that without Bella, for even one more day, they would be broken. They would succumb to their wolves entirely. Come Hell or high water, they would track her down and drag her back home where they'd stand guard over her for the rest of their lives. It didn't matter who or what got in the way. Nothing and no one would prevent them from having their mate with them again.

Never again, he swore fervently in his own mind.

He understood now what the trio of wolves had meant by saying a wolf went insane without its mate. His sanity had ebbed away to nearly nothing with each day that passed. His every thought was consumed with her. His body ached for her both physically and mentally. He needed to be able to feel her again in every way.

He needed to make things right.

The start, Jared growled while clenching his claws reflexively at his sides, is begging her forgiveness.

Jacob whirled and snarled at his brother. Jared crouched and growled back, his muscles coiled. It'd been like this for so long. They were all turning on each other like thieves looking for an escape from a bad heist. Every wolf for himself. The pack mentality, their togetherness, was shattered without the tie that held them all together so completely…Bella.

Fucking calm down! Sam roared, smashing balled-up fists into both of their faces in their distraction. Jacob cupped his claws over his snout, sending waves of fury at his Beta. Jared shook his head like a wet dog, dispelling the pain as easily as if it was water. His yellowed eyes glared at the higher-ranked wolf. She can't see us like this. We need to be ready for her, dammit!

I won't ask forgiveness for punishing my mate for something she did wrong. Jacob intoned harshly, ignoring the 'calming' technique of the black wolf.

She didn't do anything wrong enough to deserve what we did!

All of their heads snapped around to see Seth seething beside one of the frost-covered gardens. The season was growing late and the air was growing colder yet. Before long they could expect snow.

She deserved to be scolded, not beaten. Seth's entire form shuddered. That's what we did. We fucking beat her. She nearly died that day. She was drowning. There was no way she could have known for sure that she saw that leech. …And Charlie…she's so close to him. She was aching over what happened. Even without us you know she was blaming herself. We just helped to reaffirm to her, purposely or not, that it was her fault that her father nearly died.

It makes me damn sick to know that I ignored her begging us to listen. Can you tell me you can't hear her screaming still in your minds? You can't, can you? I can hear it in your heads, too! Seth gripped his canine-like head between his paws. I can't forget her pain. I can't forget the way she looked at me afterwards. She was dead! We scared her away. We refused to be the mates she needed and she ran away!

The young wolf howled then. The sound rent the air, so horrid and sorrowful Jacob found himself howling in chorus with him. Just as swiftly his brothers had joined in, a piteous wailing echoing throughout the entire Peninsula.

By the time the Call had died, all of them stood stalk-still. Their eyes settled on the ground beneath their inhuman feet, unable to do anything in that moment besides drown in the somber silence left in the howls' wake.

Finally, after several minutes, Jake released a shaky sigh. His stomach felt like it was pressed just beneath his heart. He was sick with hatred in himself.

Seth had spoken the full truth. They all shared the same thoughts, all but lived within the same mind, since they'd first Shifted. It'd only grown more intense since mating Bella. They were as close to being a single entity as they could be while still occupying separate bodies. Every piece of sense one of them made to the incident so many nights ago when they'd ruined everything was shared instantly. The pieces molded together to solve a rather simplistic puzzle they'd been too ignorant to erect.

They were responsible for the fact that their beloved mate no longer wished to be with them.

She's coming back, Quil spoke softly. They all looked to him. His medium-brown fur billowed a little in the wind. His eyes glowed as he looked back at them all. We're all bound. We're mates. She's ours. She can't leave and neither can we. Evy said it…we have time. We'll make it up to her. We have to.

If they didn't was left unsaid.

For almost a half an hour more they paced like caged animals. Every twig that snapped, every odd scent that blew past their noses, had them stiffening and ready to pounce. They were on high-alert. No one and nothing would get between them all.

Especially not some bitch-leech. They all huffed in agreement at Paul's flat statement.

Then, finally, after so much time, they felt the bonds that they shared with Bella snap so solidly back into place that it was narrowly orgasmic. Three of them, Seth, Jared, and Embry, even fell to their knees with the feeling of their mate returning to their protective circle.

She's back! Was the chorus.

Jacob forced himself still. He made himself not run to her. Instead he concentrated on the emotions, bleak as they were, transferring to him via his mate for the first time in a week. They were glorious in comparison to the nothingness he'd felt before. They'd been aware of her existence, or rather her absence, acutely. They had been slowly torn asunder during her time away. Now, however, she was back in his mind and his awareness. She was a part of him again!

With the awareness, though, came power.

Oh Spirits!

His body shook and trembled with the surge of pure, raw energy that slammed over him like a great wave. He found himself howling again, unable to control himself. Arousal zinged through his crotch while adrenalin kicked his muscles into a state of rigidity unsurpassable by man or Supe. The energy swirled around inside of him, in all of them, before settling in their every pore. The power hugged around him like another skin.

Shit, he gasped, drawing in unsteady breaths of air.

Dude, that was fucking intense. Brady broke into their minds from a distance.

They all growled. Back to Patrol, Pup!

Brady and Collin snickered. Sure thing, Boss.

Fucking kids, he thought to himself, knowing they'd all overhear it. His immediate brothers snorted agreement to that statement. They'd all be better once they could reclaim Bella and get back to their 'normal' lives. The pups were learning their duty as Protectors, but they were still new to the whole Shifter world and were trying, unsuccessfully, to woo their own mate.

They were all a sorry lot.

They remained immobile as the truck Evy and her mates took to retrieve Bella rolled up the drive minutes later. He saw his brothers restrain themselves. They wanted to rush to her, but they wouldn't. They felt something through the bond…

Boone and Daire leapt from the bed of the truck with tense faces. Caleb removed himself from the driver's side and shot them all a pensive look. Evy, Jacob could see, was giggling like a mad-woman as Daire aided her out of the driver's side of the truck. Truthfully, the joyful sound was closer to a cackle than a giggle.

"You're gonna get it," she chanted lightly as she all but skipped around to the passenger side door. Their jaws clenched. Had Evy not been a mate and Bella's closest friend Jacob had a feeling he would have gladly shaken some sense into her fool head. Didn't she know it wasn't wise to antagonize predators?

Evy quickly changed persona, however, when Boone opened the passenger door to allow Bella out. Her face showed complete and sincere empathy as Bella made her slow, agonizing way out of the truck. His mate's pale hands shook as she set them into Evangeline's for balance. He could see the strain in her face and feel both exhaustion, despair, and dulling pain radiating off of her.

He couldn't remain still any longer.

Jacob charged forward and carefully, yet quickly, collected Bella into his arms before her feet had made complete contact with the stone drive.

"Ohh," Bella moaned as he drew her up into his arms and cuddled her close to his chest. A rumbling purr dribbled from his chest when she snuggled into him. His brothers gathered around him, all of them petting and rubbing up into her body. They couldn't contain themselves. They couldn't be away from her. Not now.

Not ever again, they barked at him inwardly echoing his earlier thoughts.

"I'm still mad at you," she slurred into his chest. Sleep was coming over her rapidly.

He rubbed the underside of his chin into her scalp.

She yawned. "Bed, please. I wanna talk when I wake up." They all eagerly bobbed their heads and purred which was the only verbal response they could make that she would understand in this form. Her eyes were already closed.

She was sleeping almost instantly.

Worried, Jacob began to carry her back to the Cabin where they'd settle her into her bed, safe and warm, and then curl up around her either on the bed or the floor. They wouldn't let her out of their sights for the foreseeable future.

"Yoo-hoo!" Evy sang from behind them. Jacob stiffened imperceptibly, but turned. It would be best not to ignore her. The smile splitting her face in two was nothing but pure evil. "Don't forget this!"

Jake glared at what was in her hands and felt his nose twitch.

No fucking way!

XxXxX

Bella snuggled into the ultra-soft fur cuddled up in front of her face. Her hand reached up automatically to caress her fingers through the plush softness. A purr resounded through her ears in response. A smile ticked her lips upwards. It sounded like an old boat motor with how close her ear was to the source.

"That thing is not staying here," a husky baritone she was all too familiar with broke through the fog clouding her mind so pleasantly.

"She's not a thing," she slurred huffily. Peeking her eyes open, she set them onto the grey and black-striped ball of fluff pressed against her cheek. The smile arose again. "Her name's Lily and she is mine."

Groaning, Bella lifted her body upwards. She winced as she went. The aching misery she'd felt since leaving them was diminishing, but slowly. Two scorching hot hands came to aid her, one to her back between her shoulders and the other pressed into her flat stomach. Despite everything they'd gone through, she felt her body reacting in the positive to the physical contact being given to her.

With a half-disgruntled sigh she glanced down at the bit of fluff that had taken its chance to maneuver over her lap and into the apex of her blanket-covered thighs. The several growls in the room that followed the movement of the creature went entirely ignored by both she and her new pet.

"Mom got me a kitten," she informed them unnecessarily. Their grunts and moans of displeasure fueled a kind of sadistic humor inside of her which had the inner Bella doing a jig of superiority.

Her eyes trailed over the frail, lithe form of her new kitten. She was an adorable little thing barely twice the size of her fist, which was dainty anyway. Her coloring was a mid-grey base with pitch-black striping all over. The only bit of white on her entire body was her whiskered mouth and chin. Her long tail currently flicked casually against Bella's thighs as she stared up at her new Mistress with shining gold eyes. A rather loud purr suffused the air and made Bella chuckle when it was replied to with a growl from one of her men.

"She's staying here. With me." Her eyes glared at the completely naked men in the bedroom that was hers at the Cabin. Under normal circumstances she had no doubt that she'd be blushing like a virgin at their lack of self-consciousness, but she was still very upset with them over what they'd done and what they seemed to think they would do now if she gave even an inch. She was about to wipe the idea right out of their heads. "Lily is my kitten and y'all will respect her in this house. She isn't going anywhere. Ever. If any of you even think of scaring her I'll gladly find a way to retrofit a shock-collar around your necks!"

Their looks were a mixture of disbelief and slight irritation. Deciding to make the proverbial hit below the belt, Bella allowed her voice to go flat and nearly emotionless.

"After all you've done to me and all we've been through, you're going to fight over this?" Jacob, the one nearest to her, widened his eyes almost comically.

Needing physical comfort, a thing she didn't dare ask for from them, Bella reached down and picked Lily up to cuddle her into her upper chest where her downy-soft fur could caress the underside of her chin. The kitten's purrs ratcheted up higher as she scratched her nails into the fur of her neck and side.

"Bella," Jacob began only to be cut off by Seth forcefully tossing the bigger male out of his way. Bella gaped as Seth's right arm swung, his fist having been closed around the cuff of Jake's neck, and then released. Jacob literally tumbled across the room.

"Don't start, Alpha," the youngest of her mates spat with pure venom in his husky voice. Jake snarled, but surprisingly stayed down on the ground where he'd been tossed. Seth stood facing his Prime and the others, his back quivering with rage. She could feel it radiating off of him and taste it through their bond.

"We were wrong," Seth snarled. She watched avidly as his fingers sharpened into claws and his size grew ever so slightly, but remained closer to human than the wolfman form would allow. She knew if she were to see his face that his eyes would be glowing yellow. "I was wrong."

Unable to control her body's urges, she stretched her hand out, still keeping Lily tucked to her chest, and slid it along Seth's knuckles. He hardened and stilled his stance, but didn't look at her. He did, however, allow the hand she was soothing to open so that her fingers could trail across his palm and finger-pads, cautious of the vicious claws there.

"I know that, dammit!" Jake barked as he stood to his bare feet. To her eye they all looked more like animals than ever before. Evy'd told her they weren't themselves and all that had been happening with them since she'd left, but she understood now that she'd had to see it to believe it. She was seeing it now.

"No you don't!" She half expected Seth to snap his jaws at his leader. He was feral and completely unlike himself. "None of you fuckin' do!" His brothers snarled loudly, scaring Lily and her. Lily's tail fluffed and her own hackles rose at the back of her neck. Seth's fingers squeezed hers in comfort.

"All this time I've been thinking while you all have bitched and whined and fought each other. I missed Bella. I wanted her back."

"Don't start that shit, you runt," Paul growled, stalking forward several steps. Bella looked him over, not surprised to see the wolf in him showing. He'd shifted a little more than Seth that she could see by the 'fur' sprouting on his chest and the jagged canines that had overtaken his mouth of once perfectly straight, white, blunt teeth.

"Fuck you, man." Seth was raging now. "I wanted her back because I wanted to earn her forgiveness…because I wanted her to be happy again with us. You all just wanted her back because she made you feel better. You all are mother-fuckin' assholes! She deserves better than anything we've given her!"

"Why you…" Jared began to move forward, his eyes flashing.

She'd had enough.

"Enough!" Bella trumpeted. The syllables reverberated in the room as well as any sound would off the walls in a cavern. It was like they'd all hit a wall when they heard it. The men became as mobile as Greek statues and the only sound remaining was that of her harsh breathing. She wrenched her hand from Seth's, studiously ignoring his whimper of pain as she did so.

"I don't think any of you have a clue why I left." She looked each of them in the eye, her jaw set in a hard line. Lily reclaimed her spot in her lap as Bella firmed herself. This confrontation was a long time in coming. It needed to be had for them to have any hope of moving past what had happened. She'd never forget it and she knew she would never forgive it, but they were tied together. They had the rest of their lives together. She'd make them understand, make them see what they had done to her and keep them, she prayed, from doing it again.

Or anything else, she swore to herself.

"You took advantage of me." She began with steel lacing her tone. Her hands were gentle as they petted Lily's fur, but she felt the strain everywhere else in her body. Tears threatened, but she forced them back. She'd let them out later when it wasn't so vital to everything to keep her 'calm'.

"I know you were upset. That's not the problem. The problem was that you took your anger out on me. You knew I wanted to say something…that I wanted to explain. You refused to listen. You just snapped and snarled at me, made me a fool, and terrified me. Do you know that I can't even look at you anymore without wondering if I do something you don't like you'll haul me over your laps and beat on me? You humiliated me." The last bit of that was hissed out between clenched teeth.

Seth made a move towards her, regret clear in his eyes. She could see it in the way he looked at her that he, at least, understood what had been done wrong. The others were sorrowful to see her in so much emotional pain, yes, and most likely comprehended to a degree that they'd taken things out of hand, but they were still thinking about themselves. In a relationship you thought about your other half first…always. She shouldn't have to play second-fiddle to their Alpha-superiority complex. She should have been on the winning side of their internal battle that day.

But their anger had won.

It wasn't something she'd permit them to let beat her again.

She sent Seth a hard look which stopped him dead in his tracks, his hands still stretched out towards her helplessly. He looked like she had that day…broken.

"I don't trust any of you anymore." She whispered sorrowfully. Clenching her jaw, she forced strength she didn't really feel back into her voice. "I have no choice but to accept you all in my life physically, but I'll be damned if I let any of you have my heart again. I can't trust you with it. I can't trust you not to hurt and break me again. My heart is all I have and you've made it abundantly clear that you can't protect it.

"So, from now on, I'm enforcing that rule you gave me when I first came here. This is my room. I don't want any of you in it. None. For better or worse, I am bound to you all, but know right now that if I had the choice I'd have walked away. I'd have turned away from all of you for what you did."

"But," Jake began only to have her cut him off.

"No!" She shouted hoarsely. "No more. If I want to speak I will speak and not a single one of you has a right to tell me no. Do you know why I let all of you have the control you did? Why I let Paul feed me on his lap? Why I let you all put me down for naps? Why I never turned a single one of you down in public despite all the shit I was going to get for being the town slut?! It's because I loved and trusted you all implicitly.

"Well, you've shown me that you were capable of only pretty promises of forever and happiness. You disillusioned me. No more. Ask for my forgiveness if you want, but you'll not get it. You're going to have to prove to me that you're not the beasts I think you are now. Harsh or not, it's the truth. Words only go so far and we're beyond petty vows."

Wringing her hands through Lily's fur just hard enough to elicit a meow from her, an apology dropping from her lips automatically, Bella leaned back into the pillows which had been erected behind her by Jake when he'd first propped her up. A deep sigh dribbled past her lips.

"I want you all to leave. I'm here and I'm not going anywhere."

"Bella, please, let us…" Embry began only for her to glare at him.

"Let you explain?" She arched a brow. "Like you let me explain?" They all flinched as she pelted resentment at them through their bond. She let her unhampered pain, disgust, and gut-clenching sadness bombard them all. It was making their bodies shake, though from anger or grief she didn't know. She was blocking them from sending anything back to her at the moment.

"Evy told me my dad is staying with Harry and Sue, which is probably best. He doesn't need to see this between us. I could tell him; you know that, right? I could tell him about how your raised your hands to me. I could make it so that our lives are even more strenuous than they are now. I could have told my mother.

"But I didn't."

"Why?" Seth asked softly, dropping to his knees beside the side of the enormous bed she was perched on. His hand hesitated for a moment before he set it down begrudgingly on her pet's back. Lily eyed him haughtily, but huffed and returned to nestling on her lap. "Why didn't you tell them, Bella?"

"Because," she began cautiously, "I still love you all and believe that you can make this better. If I told them there would never be a chance of them forgiving you. They would never accept any of you again. I don't want that. Make no mistake, though, that that will change if you even think of hurting me like this again. If you hurt me again…I'm done. I'll be a prisoner to Fate, but I'll be damned if I'm a prisoner to you."

She looked away from their torn faces. She didn't need so see their distress written over their now-human faces. Her own emotions in those regards eclipsed theirs.

"Until you can prove to me you understand what you did, I want you all out of my room. I won't hide in here…you won't take away my life…and I won't run away, but I need to be alone. Please respect that."

Seth's head dropped down to her side, his demeanor defeated. She was so tempted to place her hand on his scalp, to knead out the tension she knew to be in him, identical to the tension in her. She couldn't, though. Not now…not when so many things were wrong between them.

"Bella, we didn't mean to…"

"That's right," she whispered suddenly. Her eyes snapped to them, glaring ferociously. "Evy told me…you all were so busy pissing on each other that you forgot about Collin and Brady. You left it to them…them! They're still new to this!"

Raging, Bella tore her body away from them to the other side of the bed. Lily hissed and jettisoned herself onto the nightstand where she eyed all of them balefully.

"You knew I was coming back and you still wallowed in your own self-pity! You put the entire Tribe at risk by fighting each other. Did you even think?! My God! Didn't you beat me for the same damn reason…for putting myself at risk with Victoria? And you leave it to the Pups and the Trio to do the patrolling? Innocent people could have been killed!"

"Bella," Jake cried worriedly, his eyes frantic. He looked more than half-ready to pounce at the chance to console her in a way that would have been wholly welcome not so long ago. Bella practically snarled at him.

"Get out!" She screamed for all she was worth. All the pain she'd felt over the past week, all the energy that had swelled up inside of her during her separation from them which she'd thought she'd passed back into their keeping, swirled in her mind and gut like a whirlwind. It propelled her to the side where she snatched the lamp mere inches from where her kitten perched.

"Get out!" she repeated, hurling the lamp at the wall beside the largest grouping of her mates.

Solemn and unspeaking, they all glanced down at her for an indefinite amount of time before walking out of her sanctum. Their sorrow and guilt bombarded her nearly as viciously through the bond as her own anger did.

Seth was the last to leave, silent tears trailing down his cheeks. She stared resolutely back at him, her hands shaking where she'd fisted them into the blankets beneath her. Nodding to her once, his bearing nothing more than bedraggled-despair, he left her alone.

The sound of the door shutting behind him was louder than anything she'd ever heard in her life and feared she would ever hear again. Like a gunshot…and its bullet travelling straight into her heart.

Lily padded on silent feet back to her lap, her tiny head brushing up under her breast. Unclenching one fist, Bella stroked the tiger-cat's fur with as much gentility as she could muster. She glanced unseeingly on the shattered lamp, knew in the back of her mind that she would have to clean it up eventually, before curling up onto her side with the kitten in the weak shelter of her arms.

She cried as silently as she could, praying beyond all hope that this would be the last night she cried herself to sleep.

…In the other room her men stared at her door with fathomless eyes, desperate to win back their mate and be the men she deserved.