And I couldn't even make fun of him for it - I envied him too much.

Though I did think it sucked that he had a good fourteen years of monkitude ahead of him until Claire was his age - for Quil, at least, it was a good thing werewolves didn't get older. But even all that time didn't seem to bother him much.

"Quil, you ever think about dating?" I asked.

"Huh?"

"No, no yewwo!" Claire crowed.

"You know. A real girl. I mean, just for now, right? On your nights off babysitting duty."

Quil stared at me, his mouth hanging open.

"Pity wock! Pity wock!" Claire screamed when he didn't offer her another choice. She smacked him on the head with her little fist.

"Sorry, Claire-bear. How about this pretty purple one?"

"No," she giggled. "No poopoh."

"Give me a clue. I'm begging, kid."

Claire thought it over. "Gween," she finally said.

Quil stared at the rocks, studying them. He picked four rocks in different shades of green, and offered them to her.

"Did I get it?'7

"Yay!"

"Which one?"

Vlaaaaw/obdem!!"

She cupped her hands and he poured the small rocks into them. She laughed and immediately clunked him on the head with them. He winced theatrically and then got to his feet and started walking back up toward the parking lot. Probably worried about her getting cold in her wet clothes. He was worse than any paranoid, overprotective mother.

"Sorry if I was being pushy before, man, about the girl thing," I said.

"Naw, that's cool," Quil said. "It kind of took me by surprise is all. I hadn't thought about it."

"I bet she'd understand. You know, when she's grown up. She wouldn't get mad that you had a life while she was in diapers."

"No, I know. I'm sure she'd understand that."

He didn't say anything else.

"But you won't do that, will you?" I guessed.

"I can't see it," he said in a low voice. "I can't imagine. I just don't... see anyone that way. I don't notice girls anymore, you know. I don't see their faces."

"Put that together with the tiara and makeup, and maybe Claire will have a different kind of competition to worry about."

Quil laughed and made kissing noises at me. "You available this Friday, Jacob?"

"You wish," I said, and then I made a face. "Yeah, guess I am, though."

He hesitated a second and then said, "You ever think about dating?"

I sighed. Guess I'd opened myself up for that one.

"You know, Jake, maybe you should think about getting a life."

He didn't say it like a joke. His voice was sympathetic. That made it worse.

"I don't see them, either, Quil. I don't see their faces."

Quil sighed, too.

Far away, too low for anyone but just us two to hear it over the waves, a howl rose out of the forest.

"Dang, that's Sam," Quil said. His hands flew up to touch Claire, as if making sure she was still there. "I don't know where her mom's at!"

Til see what it is. If we need you, HI let you know." I raced through the words. They came out all slurred together. "Hey, why don't you take her up to the Clearwaters'? Sue and Billy can keep an eye on her if they need to. They might know what's going on, anyway."

"Okay - get outta here, Jake!"

I took off running, not for the dirt path through the weedy hedge, but in the shortest line toward the forest. I hurdled the first line of driftwood and then ripped my way through the briars, still running. I felt the little tears as the thorns cut into my skin, but I ignored them. Their sting would be healed before I made the trees.

I cut behind the store and darted across the highway. Somebody honked at me. Once in the safety of the trees, I ran faster, taking longer strides. People would stare if I was out in the open. Normal people couldn't run like this. Sometimes I thought it might be fun to enter a race - you know, like the Olympic trials or something. It would be cool to watch the expressions on those star athletes' faces when I blew by them. Only I was pretty sure the testing they did to make sure you weren't on steroids would probably turn up some really freaky crap in my blood.

As soon as I was in the true forest, unbound by roads or houses, I skidded to a stop and kicked my shorts off. With quick, practiced moves, I rolled them up and tied them to the leather cord around my ankle. As I was still pulling the ends tight, I started shifting. The fire trembled down my spine, throwing tight spasms out along my arms and legs. It only took a second. The heat flooded through me, and I felt the silent shimmer that made me something else. I threw my heavy paws against the matted earth and stretched my back in one long, rolling extension.

Phasing was very easy when I was centered like this. I didn't have issues with my temper anymore. Except when it got in the way.

For one half second, I remembered the awful moment at that unspeakable joke of a wedding. I'd been so insane with fury that I couldn't make my body work right. I'd been trapped, shaking and burning, unable to make the change and kill the monster just a few feet away from me. It had been so confusing. Dying to kill him. Afraid to hurt her. My friends in the way. And then, when I was finally able to take the form I wanted, the order from my leader. The edict from the Alpha. If it had been just Embry and Quil there that night without Sam... would I have been able to kill the murderer, then?

I hated it when Sam laid down the law like that. I hated the feeling of having no choice. Of having to obey.

And then I was conscious of an audience. I was not alone in my thoughts.

So self-absorbed all the time,Leah thought.

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