lights in the windows
Summary: Bitten. The forest is beautiful at night, and so are its inhabitants. One year ago, she would not have been able to see it. OneShot- Karen Morgan (Jeremy Danvers). AU. (How strange it is that Jeremy Danvers, despite everything he has lived through, everything he has seen, does not believe in second chances.)
Warning: Alternate universe/alternate ending. Dialogue-heavy, introspection-ish, some language around the end. Oh, and I really hate it when good people die. Sue me.
Disclaimer: Standards apply.
There was magic in the night.
Music floated across the grounds, softly, lively. The laughter and sound of voices mixed with the fresh breeze from the forest. The tables were full; several open bottles of wine – half of them empty already – interspersed with the bowls, pots and pans of soups, desserts, dips and salads. In between all of it: vases filled with wildflowers. The centerpiece of the table, however, incongruent and yet elegant, was a bouquet of red and white lilies; carefully arranged. Scented candles flickered around it, open and in jars. Additional illumination was granted by lampions hanging across the trees and over the trellises that were heavy with sweet, blue wisteria. And, most remarkable of all: there were a hundred lights in the windows of the ancient mansion, soft, yellow dots of brightness shining warmly into the night. Suffusing the darkness with a golden glow.
This, Karen Morgan thought, was the way Stonehaven was meant to look like.
Over by the dance floor, constructed on the wooden patio and surrounded by more glowing lanterns, Clay led Elena into a spin, dipping her low and then pulling her up again, drawing her so close there was no space left between the two of them. Hours ago, during their first dance as married couple, he had kissed her as if there was no tomorrow and all the pack around them had cheered, raucously; now, nobody took notice: they were all immersed into their own conversations and dances. It still was an almost impossible thought to her that all these people who were not related to each other in any way would be so familiar around each other, so comfortable. There was Karl Marsden, in his usual British Dandy outfit, twirling a glass of whiskey in his hand while talking to Zach Caine, who locked like an aged biker in his faded leather jacket and denims. Nick, on the dancefloor, was laughing at something his partner had said; Paige was a pretty, petite woman, willowy like a tree and with auburn, straight and long hair. Karen saw her lift her hand and sparks shot out of it, Nick laughed even more and then leaned forward to kiss her. Karen turned away tactfully and scanned the garden: they were all there. Logan and Rachel, sitting at one of the tables, Rocco between them. Jorge, talking to Joey and some of the newer pack members whose names she did not know. Savannah, far to the other side, was leaning towards Alexei and Katia, listening intently. How strange how quickly these people had become so familiar to her, so dear.
"What is on your mind?"
The voice was familiar. The way it had come, too – his undetectable arrival, the silent grace that seemed so effortless when he moved, and was impossible to copy. The manner in which he still, after a year, was able to sneak up on her like that. Karen did not flinch, and did not turn around, but the smile was there, instantly.
He sat down on the chair next to her, and, as usual, her heart shivered at his closeness.
"You're smiling. What was it you were thinking about?"
Karen let her eyes travel across the grounds again, over the dancers, across the tables that seated many more pack members, close and extended family alike.
"About family, I guess." Jeremy remained quiet, leaving her to wait for words to form from her stray thoughts. "It's amazing, what you've done here. To see all these people out there, and know that they might not be family by blood, but by something even stronger."
For a while the silence between them just was; small and round, like a pebble on the ground of a lake.
"You make it sound like a good thing, the curse that binds us."
"Do you really think it's a curse?"
He shrugged. "It doesn't exactly make life easier."
"I know it's a very simplified thing to say, but that doesn't make it less true. You wouldn't be a family without it. And family matters."
At that, he smiled. It had become familiar to her, too: the way he looked younger, the way his serious, severe face transformed. "It seems you have adopted my family fully now."
Something in his voice made her heart beat faster. "You mean, they adopted me."
"Have they?" He looked over the gardens, carefully, and it stuck her that he probably was able to see in the dark, too. Sometimes, the realization of what he – they – were capable of snuck up on her at the strangest of times. But it did not scare her, not anymore. Wolves were wild creatures; but they were gentle, too. "I believe it's the other way round."
His gaze returned to her. "Because it's not hard to like you. Getting used to us, on the other hand, especially knowing exactly what we are…"
"Who you are," she corrected him.
Jeremy looked at her, surprised, and then chuckled. "That's what I mean."
Karen leaned back in her chair slightly, not quite ready to accept his words. "You welcomed me here, let me be part of your family. It's not something anyone would have done."
"Why not? You earn your keep, you work alongside with us. Everyone likes you. Plus, your cooking's delicious."
The praise, coming from him who easily managed to feed a literal pack of wolves not only in the right quantities but with an almost shocking quality, warmed her from the inside.
She scoffed. "I had the feeling the way into this pack would be through your stomachs."
"As it is with the best families," Jeremy replied, his eyes twinkling.
There it was again, the silence. Not threatening, strangely familiar: an almost physical thing between them.
"Let me pay you rent."
"Now why would I do that?"
"Because I live here, so I should contribute."
"You already do."
"That's not how it works."
"It is, with us."
This was a reoccurring discussion which she always lost. At this point, one year later, Karen still could not imagine how this had happened in the first place; how she had come here and simply stayed. Her resistance was probably painted on her face clearly, because Jeremy shook his head.
"We – I – forced you into this. You were a prisoner in this house. You almost died because of us – the least I can do is let you live here for free."
"It's not like you don't repay us. Your connections and experience as the previous sheriff have proven invaluable to us. You know how to deal with the media and the bureaucrats."
"You could do that, too–"
"And, besides," he finished, pretending not to have heard anything she said, "it's not my house anymore. Talk to Elena."
Karen sighed in exasperation, her eyes turning towards the sky. "I already did. I could have as well talked to one of Clay's statues. The apple does not fall far from the tree, I guess."
Jeremy chuckled, his voice, as usual, softening when he talked about his almost-daughter. "Thank you."
She fixed a withering glare on him, but he was impervious to it. "That was not a compliment."
The music, floating softly in the background, suddenly stopped; a small commotion broke out around the DJ's stand and then a new song started up. This time, the volume was at least tripled, the first notes blaring out across the gardens and making few people jump. In the garden, the small dance floor suddenly turned into a karaoke stage as a few of the younger pack members took over. Elena and Clay fled, laughing, to watch the spectacle from a safe distance.
"I was under the impression that things like this only happened in movies," Karen commented, looking at the two groups that had suddenly formed. The first one was headed by Savannah, the youngest Coven witch, and most of the ladies plus Logan. The other side consisted of most of the male pack members, minus Clay, Zach and Jeremy.
"What? People turning into wolves?"
"No!" She laughed, rolling her eyes at him at the same time. "People actually singing at each other!"
Because that was what was happening. Karen would never have guessed, but Karl had a surprisingly steady tenor.
"Make it stop, please," Jeremy sighed, half laughing, half appalled. "Bless that boy, but his looks are a thousand times better than his singing voice!"
Karen just laughed.
For a while, they sat there, each engrossed in their own thoughts.
One year since she had first set her foot into Stonehaven, knowing what she was about to encounter – sorry, whom – and already it felt like it had been ages. Eternities, for all she cared. How had it happened that she had come to known them all, and to care for them, to this extent? Sometimes, she wondered. Sometimes, she just was glad for the kind of welcome she received from the pack: it was more of a family than she ever had had. The thought was bitter, but it made her smile, too. It had been her own fault, after all. Chrissy still didn't speak to her, but at least, she had sent her a picture. Karen's niece looked just like her little sister when she'd been that age, and something in Karen twisted at the memory. It wasn't only pain, though. Nostalgia, perhaps? Wistfulness? Hope, too, that her sister, one day, would forgive her mistake. If all these people can come together like that, we should be able to do so, as well, shouldn't we?
It felt like she needed to put it into words: right now, right here. The sky was dark and the candles flickered softly, adding their glow to the fairy lights wound through the trees. The full moon – Elena had laughed at the irony – painted the world silver, turned his face into a mask that was alien and familiar at the same time.
"Jeremy. Thank you. For all you have done." The words were hard. She was thanking him for not killing her, she knew, and she also knew he still chafed under the knowledge. But she needed to say it, nevertheless. Because, against all reason, she meant it.
He did not answer.
"I came to Bear Valley looking for something, but I didn't really know what it was until you allowed me in. I knew I probably would never have a family, though, and you've given me exactly what I had already stopped thinking of ever having."
Still, he did not reply. Her heart in her throat, inexplicably, Karen turned to him. And, looking at him, seeing his distant gaze and drawn expression, she realized he had not heard a word of what she had said.
Her first, instinctual reaction was hurt. She wanted to run, walk away from this man she had showed her heart, more than she had ever done to any other person, and who had not even listened to her. Jeremy was dangerous. Yes, he was a werewolf, and he could kill her without even turning into one. But to her, he was dangerous for a very different reason, too: he could not only hurt her body but he could hurt her heart, and she was more terrified of the latter than of the first. Had been for some time, now.
She grabbed the arm rest of her chair, her fingers clenching around it, hard, to pull herself up and leave.
And then, after a few heartbeats, realization bubbled to the surface of her mind: that this was Jeremy, that Jeremy always listened intently to what other people had to say, even if he did not agree or disliked them, that Jeremy always cared, even if it was a thing seemingly small and insignificant. If he asked for her thoughts, and then did not listen, that must mean that he had other things on his mind. And that these other things were so large, so overwhelming, that he could not focus on any other thing aside from them.
So she waited.
And, after another while, silently asked: "What is on your mind?"
A year of growing familiarity between them, perhaps, or the echo of his own question, or something else entirely compelled him to answer. His voice was rough.
"How can you thank me?"
There was not much one could say as answer to a question like that. Still, Karen tried, opening her lips, searching for an answer–
He did not let her. "You. And Elena. How can you thank me for inflicting this life on you?"
The name was a punch to the gut. At the same time, it seemed safer, so she latched on to it. "Elena?"
Jeremy's gaze was far, far away. "Today. Before she walked – before the ceremony."
It had been a beautiful ceremony. A beautiful picture, too: Elena, tall and gorgeous in a simple, white dress, walking down the rows of chairs placed in Stonehaven's garden towards the dais on which Clay was waiting, flanked by Jeremy. Her former alpha, her teacher, and – well. Karen knew Jeremy loved Elena like a daughter, had seen the distress in his eyes when he worried about her. Had witnessed him tearing out Victor Navikov's throat after the Russian alpha had made him watch the Albino torture her. She had not been able to look at him for days.
(Of course, these days, she had barely been able to look at any member of the pack.)
"I almost killed her. It is my fault that Clay bit her, my fault she suffered so much. I kept ordering her brack from Toronto. I sent her after Malcolm. I made her alpha and pushed her into Navikov's blood vendetta. And still, she forgave me. She told me she was grateful for the life I inflicted on her; that she would not want it to be any other way."
He took a deep, shuddering breath.
"To me, you and her are alike, did you know? My greatest mistakes."
Her heart stuttered out and started anew, a bit faster, a bit less reliable. She knew what he was saying. And… it hurt. It hurt so much it took her breath away. Karen folded her hands in her lap, tightly, and silently wondered whether he was able to pick up on the arrhythmic beat of her broken heart.
She knew. Elena had told her after Jeremy had brought her ho– to Stonehaven. He had carried her through the doors with a stab wound in her right leg and panic coursing through her like poison, and yet she had still clung to the person who had told her he would kill her. Elena had tried to help her out of her sweaty, blood-stained clothes but she had shied away from her, from everyone, because they were monsters–
So it had been Jeremy who had helped her clean up and dress in soft, unfamiliar clothes, had made her drink some sweet tea and then had held her hand until she had fallen asleep. He had not been there when she had woken the next day, frozen in the panicked aftermath of a nightmare that was real. But Elena had been. Elena had helped her to calm down, had checked the dressings of her wound, and then had sat her down and explained. Until today, Karen had no idea what the female werewolf had thought at that time. Maybe that it did not matter what she told the human female her pack alpha had brought in instead of killing; because she was dead either way; she was pretty certain that, at least, had been Jeremy's initial reason for telling her the truth. Maybe Elena, unlike Jeremy, had already anticipated the beginning of the end of their world and had wanted to keep her alive and functioning long enough so that she could help with the authorities and the media, as soon as the werewolf society stepped into the light of the day. It was difficult to say, with her: she certainly had the authority and foresight, and would be a great alpha. But had she really already then anticipated Jeremy's move that had made her acting alpha? Karen did not think so, but how was she supposed to know. She only knew the facts: Jeremy had not killed her when he should have, and Elena had helped him keep her alive and sane.
"He does what he has to do to protect us. He wanted to kill me, too, because he thought I saw him change."
"You're one of them, too."
"Clay bit me. Before me, no other woman survived. I'm the only one."
"Will he kill me, too?"
Elena had not answered.
In hindsight, she should have been wary. When Jeremy Danvers said he would do something, he did it, and he had told her in no uncertain terms that she needed to die. But there she was, wearing a T-shirt and washed-out sweatpants that probably belonged to Elena, drinking a fragrant tea whose scent was strangely calming, and she was not dead.
"She told you?"
Jeremy sighed. The corners of his lips twitched, minutely, and then the fond smile was gone again without a trace. His head turned and his eyes found hers; dark and deep. "I would have killed her. Clay stopped me, and she survived the change. Otherwise, she would be dead."
She could not look away. "You didn't kill her. ."
He was the one to break eye contact, looking down on his lap. When she followed his gaze, his hands were clenched so tightly his knuckles where white. These hands were capable of creating art and bringing death; it should have been incongruent, impossible. These hands had killed many, and had healed her. Karen had long ago stopped questioning the impossible antagonism of this house and this family.
"You were more useful alive than dead."
She had wondered about this, in the past. Why? Why her? There were days when she thought that, maybe… But Jeremy was always perfectly civil and treated everyone the same, including her. Nick had joked that she was the honorary pack member, unable to change but still accepted in the family, and indeed, she was. Against all reason. Against all logic.
But even now, she did not dare ask the question that separated her from the family they were and from the man sitting next to her, looking at the sky and not seeing anything. Time stretched between them – and, for the first time, it was an uncomfortable silence.
"I made so many mistakes," he said, finally, his voice not more than a whisper. "I was wrong so many times. But they're still here. You are still here. And you thank me for destroying your life."
She had never heard him sound this bitter before. His right hand combed through his hair, a familiar gesture. He looked at his hand, focused, as if he could read the past from the lines in his skin. Or, possibly, the future.
"You did not destroy my life."
"I almost got you killed. I almost killed you myself. I put you here, with the pack, and now you can barely walk through the village without the people whispering and threatening you."
"I got myself into this," she disagreed. "I came to Bear Valley to find peace. But after I retired I was bored to death. That was why I followed the Russians, and it was an accident that got me injured. You saved me, Jeremy, and brought me here. You gave me a place to stay in and something to live for. There is nothing you have to feel guilty for."
He laughed, short and without humor.
"And why do I still feel guilty? Elena even forgave me. It didn't change anything."
His eyes were vulnerable, and he still would not look at her. Karen looked at him, instead, fixed her eyes on him, and put all the certainty she felt into her voice.
"The world is changing, Jeremy. They know about werewolves now."
"Yes." He sighed, softly. "In a way, they always knew, but now they have proof. And you've seen how it went. How many were hunted down and killed."
"And how many were granted sanctuary, and were protected."
"Yes. In the end, the world is better this way."
So what is it, she wanted to ask. What is eating you up? But she already knew, did she not? She had always known. It was in his eyes, dark and clear as anything.
"But it is not your world anymore."
He looked surprised at that, even stunned. As if he had never expected anyone to figure it out, least of all her. Had he, really, in the entire past year they'd spent as something like if not friends then at least colleagues, or partners, her advising him and then Elena on how to deal with the institutions and the media, never thought that she might get to know him better, too? Disbelief flashed across his face, quickly followed by dread, something she couldn't read, and then: defeat.
"No," he admitted, quietly, bowing his head. "This is not my world anymore."
Karen had known.
Had read it in the defeated tilt of his shoulders, in the hooded darkness of his eyes. From the day he had offered himself up to the Russian alpha and had not been killed, the day Elena had burned down the factory and, with it, all the records of pack members and mutts in North America, from the day Sasha Antonov had stepped in front of the cameras of the news teams and had changed, and been killed: from that day on, Jeremy's world had been dead.
All the signs had been there: the signs of change, of time moving forward too quickly to change with it.
Pete and Antonio had been killed. Rachel and Logan had refused to give Rocco to him, had disappeared and kept out of the ensuing war with the Russians completely. Elena had begun questioning his rules and his authority as alpha. Even Clay had gone against him – in tiny ways, small ways, just one kept secret, so seemingly insignificant. The moment Victor Navikov had brought his blood feud to upstate New York, the moment Sasha Antonov had stepped out of his hiding to meet his daughter, the moment the albino wolf had killed on North American pack territory for the first time: all of those events had only been tiny pebbles of history falling into the clear water, one at a time. But together, they had created a tidal wave that had changed everything.
Was she really the only one who had seen it?
She swallowed, thickly. "It's not too late."
"For me to change?" Jeremy shook his head, wearily. "Old wolves don't change, don't they say that? I was born into a different time, a different way of life. Different rules to live by. I've done everything I could to protect my pack; unspeakable things. But times have changed, and so have the rules. Clay, Elena… They are young enough to accept it, to go with it. They are part of this change. I – I am not."
"The world was different back then? That's a coward's excuse."
"It's not an excuse. It's the reason, Karen."
"So what?" She asked, feeling numbness creep up her arms. Her wrist ached, echoes of an injury long healed. "You're just going to lie down, give up and die?"
He shrugged, a gesture so unconcerned it seemingly belied all the heaviness that had been weighting him down earlier. "I can't just die. But I don't need to stay, either."
Her voice jumped an octave, then broke. "You're going to wander around like a mutt, packless? You're going to leave?"
Jeremy looked over Stonehaven's front yard, catching all the pack and coven members, encompassing his family once, gently, protectively. His gaze lingered with Elena and Clay, Nick, Logan, Rachel and Rocco, seemed to caress them. There was so much love in his eyes that Karen's heart constricted, painfully.
"You're going to leave," she whispered, more to herself than to him.
"They'll be alright," he said, as if to reassure himself. "They don't need me anymore. I can leave. It's alright now."
It was not as if she had not been expecting it already. You can't teach an old wolf new tricks. And still, the realization – the thought that, maybe, tomorrow, she would get up and walk into Stonehaven's kitchen to start the breakfast and he would not be there, brewing tea, that he would not be in the library after breakfast, either, she would not be able to walk in and ask him about his books and his life and his art. The thought that, tomorrow, she would get up and he would not be anywhere anymore made her panic.
She barely recognized her own voice.
"No. Jeremy, you can't go."
His shoulders relaxed, as if her protest had settled his conflict. "I have to."
Karen was not aware she had clenched her hands into fists. But she felt her nails dig into her palms, held on to the pain because it grounded her, because it distracted her from the pain that was threatening to tear her chest apart.
"They still need you, Jeremy. They always will. Elena always said she only survived because she had you to guide her. They will need you in the future. She is capable, she will lead the pack well. But there are things she has never encountered, experiences she never made before. You need to help her get through this."
"She has Logan, Nick and Clay, Karen. And Marsden, all the new pack members that already have sworn allegiance to her. She doesn't need me for this."
"But still." Her voice must sound pleading, by now, but she could not bring herself to care. "Just because you have lost something doesn't mean you have to leave everything behind."
"Lost something?" He laughed, drily. "You make it seem so small."
"No," Karen said, belatedly realizing her mistake, growing more desperate with every second. "No, I don't mean to make this sound insignificant. What you've given for them – what you've lived through, the decisions you made – they weren't small, not at all. Nobody knows that better than they do."
She lifted her hand, swept through the garden with one gesture. He needed to see. He needed to understand–
"I'm sure they'd tell you the same thing, Jeremy. Don't just leave. We all need some time to adjust."
"I'm not just running away." He sounded slightly surprised that she would put up such a resistance. "Someone needs to have an eye on the mutts, make sure they understand the situation. Tell them about their choices. They need to know."
"Elena and Clay are already taking care of that!" Her voice was growing louder with each argument, and she hated how childish she sounded. Hated it, and did not care, because this was so freakin' important. "They've been tracking the mutts and letting them know. How many do you think are out there who have no idea what's going on? Every mutt in North America owns a smartphone and has access to the internet. And even then, Sasha's been through all the news channels. They'd even know from the newspaper." She was running out of arguments, she knew, and he was running out of patience with her. A desperate thought struck her, suddenly, and she put everything into one last, crazy ploy.
"Do you really think you're the only one who can sort this out? Are you so arrogant that you still believe all wolves will just roll over and submit if they see you? Have you learned nothing from all this?"
For a tiny, tiny second – a heartbeat – it worked. She could see the darkness coalesce in his eyes, almost feel the weight of his anger focus on her, concentrate and get ready to burn her, incinerate her within seconds. All his instincts as the previous alpha, every reflex he had trained on himself in years and years as pack leader, reared their ugly head; tore at the iron restraints he had placed on his temper and made him snap.
His hand shot out, grasping her one she had been using to gesticulate with.
Hard, sinewy fingers pressed into her wrist painfully, clenching it so hard she felt the pain radiate all up into her shoulder – and then felt less, as he started cutting off her nerve system.
"This is my responsibility," he growled. "This is my fault!"
Karen did her best to ignore the pain in her hand and just looked at him, saw his silver-streaked hair, the dark eyes under the thick brows, the painfully familiar features.
"Maybe it is," she said slowly, deliberately. "Maybe it isn't. But you won't make it right by going off by yourself and get yourself killed at the first possible moment."
When he did not react, just continued glaring at her, she shot a pointed look at her wrist.
Jeremy followed her gaze. It took him several seconds to realize what it was he was seeing, and then he dropped his own hand as if her skin was coated with acid and poison. Blood rushed back into her limb, prickling painfully, she murmured a curse and rubbed her wrist. Jeremy was still staring at her. The expression on his face ranged from murderous to stricken, and then he saw her cradle her right hand with her left and anger turned to worry and guilt in an instant.
"I hurt you. I'm so sorry."
He caught her wrist again, took it into his own hands and began inspecting it carefully. Where his fingers had wrapped around her hand, blood was only now beginning to flow back, leaving ugly, purple marks on her skin. As usual, the sensation of his skin on hers caused her heart to kick into overdrive. Taking a deep breath, she tried to calm herself.
"Don't worry," she said, when he did not say anything. "I'm not going to break."
Jeremy was still looking at her hand. "No, I suppose not," he said, finally. "Not that easily. But you're only human. You need to live. Karen, you need to live, otherwise there is no point to all of this anymore."
It was this. Moments like these, words like the ones just spoken. Those were the things that made her think that maybe, despite all their initial misunderstandings, despite the more than rocky first part of their relationship, despite all their differences. Made her think that maybe– But then, it was useless, was it not it? Because Jeremy was unfailingly kind to anyone, and Karen was no exception. She was no different to him than any other member of his pack, perhaps Elena and Clay excluded. She had always known, and it still hurt. She fought herself, her hands opening and closing involuntarily. She held on to the words that were threatening to spill out, and fought them back with everything she had.
And Jeremy still saw it.
"What is it?" His hand – warm, large, scarred – descended onto hers again, this time covering it carefully, almost fearfully, and then cradled it softly in his so she could pull away any second. His eyes were worried, his skin warm, and the words slipped through her closed lips like mist through the forest.
"You feel like you have no place left, like Stonehaven is too different to ever get used to. Like you are the last piece of old furniture in a new house, and you don't have a place anymore."
His forehead creased as he thought about it. "I probably should be offended that you compare me to an old desk."
"I thought of an old armchair, to be honest."
The look he shot her carried both amusement and defeat. "You are right. All these changes – I've carried the responsibility of the pack's safety and wellbeing for so many years that I can't imagine living without it, I guess. Something has been taken from me, and I don't think I can continue on without it. Staying here, living with the pack – the new ways remind me how much they suffered with the old ways. I never regretted my life, you know. I was happy here, being alpha, protecting the others. I never felt the urge to leave, like Elena, and I never fell in love like Clay and Logan. In a way, Nick is most like me – was, before Paige. Content in my own, old ways, shutting out the world, killing what could not be shut out. Staying here when everything that I knew turns out to be wrong – it doesn't feel right."
"You're feeling guilty."
"We've been over this. Yes."
She got what he was trying to say, in a way. If everything was better now, it meant that he had made mistakes in the past. Had forced his pack into a life that would have not been necessary. All the pain, all the sacrifices they had made – it had been unnecessary, meaningless. How was he supposed to look his family in the eyes, knowing that he had made such grave errors?
He had killed, and lied. He had broken the law. He had people executed, and had others disappear completely. He had drilled his pack – his sons in all but blood – in the art of fighting and killing, had limited their choices, had forced them into a life they might not had chosen for themselves. He had done unspeakable things: to humans, to his pack. To himself. But, at the same time, he was kind, and loyal. He was fiercely protective of his pack. Everything he had done, it had been for them, and he would have given his life to save them.
How strange that Jeremy Danvers, despite everything he had lived through; everything he had seen, still did not believe in second chances.
His hand, underneath hers, was almost unnaturally still. He did not say anything else, so she looked at him. And, because he was looking at his family still celebrating on the lawns in front of the dark stone villa and not at her, she took her time. Every feature, every irregularity of his face, the lines of laughter and sorrow around his eyes, was dear to her. His silver hair, combed back almost uncaring; the simple vest he wore over a black shirt: trying to commit it to memory, Karen blinked and swallowed, hard.
"I don't want you to go."
In the aftermath of her words, both of them blinked, frozen, both equally surprised. Karen felt herself go cold, all over, and then hot with shame. She jumped up like bitten by a snake and brought even more space between them, turned her back on him.
"Sorry. That sounded really stupid."
Behind her, Jeremy shifted, and any other day she would have been surprised that she could actually hear him move since he always seemed so effortlessly silent and graceful. The silence between them stretched until it surpassed painful and turned outright agonizing, and Karen plastered on a smile and turned to him again.
"Anyway. Is it time for the fireworks, already, what do you think? I will bring them out."
His hand shot forward, grasping her hand again; this time, however, unerringly careful.
"Karen," he said, softly. "Don't go."
It was the echo of her words she could hear – and the sound of his voice, the way his lips shaped her name – that made her stop, rooted to the spot. Her eyes found his and held, and he looked back at her, unwaveringly.
"Why did you say that?" He asked, softly, and despite the calm in his voice the question made her blush in mortification all over again.
"It's nothing," she mumbled, desperately. "I get why you want to leave. It's just…"
When she dared to look at him his eyes were watching her, still calm and dark. Karen looked back at her own hands, her right one almost dwarfed by his.
"What is it?" He insisted, still unendingly careful, and it felt like he was talking to a wild animal, careful not to spook it. How endlessly amusing the irony of their situation could have been, had she not felt so terrified.
"I-" she swallowed, began again, miserably, because there was nothing she could say but the truth. "I'll miss you."
His hand tightened around hers, momentarily, and then relaxed again.
"It is better that way."
It was out before she could stop herself. "How very noble of you."
"Pardon me?" There was disbelief in his voice, utter surprise. This time, he let go of her hand. She missed the contact instantly.
"How noble," she repeated, finally lifting her gaze to look at him. All her disdain, all her desperation, she put into her voice. "And how very selfish. Just because you fear the change, you're going to leave. Just because this is something you have no control over. You know what? For most people, that's the way life is. Always. Every day. We have no control over what happens next. We have to face whatever the future brings. If we run away, we are called cowards. If one of you runs away, you're called loners. But where's the difference, really? Hiding from reality, from responsibility, from being part of society – it's always the easy way out, isn't it?"
"I don't…." Oh, another thing why she loved him: he thought about things, instead of immediately getting angry. "I don't think that's what it is."
Karen was tired. She dropped back into her chair heavily and closed her eyes. It had the calming side effect that she could not see Jeremy's gaze anymore, but she could still feel his eyes on her so she was no sure it actually changed anything.
"Why are you telling yourself you cannot do any good in Stonehaven anymore? You're not the alpha, but you still have more experience. You still know the world, and the people, and the way life works. You can still protect Elena and Clay, and all the others. And Rachel and Logan did not agree to let you raise Rocco all by yourself, but you can still be there for him, like a grandfather. You can still teach him things. They don't hate you. I'm sure they wouldn't mind. You could still live here. You could still paint."
Jeremy had started to shake his head halfway through her words, and it made her stop, cold and numb.
"It doesn't work that–"
He stopped abruptly. Stared at her, twisted to look at the gardens, at Elena and Clay, laughing with Nick and Alexei. Whirled around to look at her, again.
"…way," he finished, suddenly hoarse. "Or does it?"
She stared back, transfixed at the expression in his eyes. "I don't know, how should I know, I'm not you! I just know that I don't want you to go, and neither do the others, you are part of us, how could you ever think otherwise?"
The next thing she knew, he was laughing.
Karen stared at him, fearing he had lost his mind. He sensed it, of course he did, but it took him some time to stop.
"It doesn't work that way," he repeated, looking at her intently. "A defeated alpha doesn't stay with the pack. But – we're not a pack anymore, are we? At least not in the traditional sense. In the old sense."
The way he said it – the way he looked at her – made her heart beat pick up speed. She shook her head, not believing what he was implying – not believing he was implying what she thought he was.
"Are you kidding me?"
She glared at him, too emotionally drained to be angry, but very close to it. "It can't be this easy."
He laughed again, warm and deep. "We're not a pack anymore, not according to the rules of old. It's not like I am forced to leave."
"Of course not! But–"
"You've been contradicting me this entire time," he said, carefully tugging at her hand that he still was, inexplicably, holding in his. "And now that I am considering staying here, you're again questioning my motives?"
Karen looked at her hand, back at him, at a loss. "So you're not leaving?"
His gaze went back to the gardens, a constant reminder that his entire thoughts still were for the pack, that he – whatever he said, whatever he himself believed – would always live for them, first and foremost.
"You're right. It's the selfish way out. Just because everything is changing–" He swallowed, started again. "Just because I am afraid of this change does not mean that there is no place for me left here, does it? I'm not the only one dealing with change. I'm just the least flexible one."
She felt dizzy. "You are an old, stubborn, inflexible–"
"Stupid, idiotic, fatalistic, over-protective–"
"I beg to differ–"
"idiot, like, a really, really old and stuffy armchair–"
He was laughing now, his shoulders shaking. His entire face transformed when he laughed, became softer, younger. The kindness in his eyes was too much for her.
"God, I hate you!"
Once again, he stopped her from jumping up and rushing away.
"Why do you care so much, Karen?"
"Because they need you," she threw at him. "Because they love you. All of them. You're family. And don't tell me you don't know how heartbroken they'll be if you leave. It's the reason why you haven't left yet: because you know how much it will hurt them. And you, too. Why, instead of worrying and obsessing, can't you just look forward and try to go on, like all of us are trying? It's not easy for anyone of us, you know!"
"Anyone of us?" He echoed.
She was out of words, out of patience, out of control. "Fuck you, Danvers, if you don't want to listen then stop nagging me-"
He was still holding on to her by her hand. Now, his other hand came up, shifted slightly and touched her cheek. Karen froze, a rabbit cornered by a wolf.
Both of his hand cupped her cheek, carefully, tucked a strand of hair back behind her ear. His thumb caressed her lips, gently, his touch so soft she barely felt it. And yet all her senses jumped into overdrive, as if her body had been struck by lightning. She stared at him, unable to move, unable to think. Just one thing she could remember–
"What are you doing?"
He looked back, calm and collected. "I couldn't."
"I made the pack rules. In order to enforce them, I have to obey them. But with you – I couldn't."
She lost all her breath in one instant, her heart slamming against her ribcage painfully.
"I knew I had to, I had to protect my family, I couldn't make exceptions, I have always prided myself in keeping the rules. But there you were, smiling at me, telling me about your retirement and looking so incredibly alive, and I just couldn't–"
She held his gaze. "I'm glad you didn't. I'd rather be hated by the whole world than unable to stay here, with you and the others."
His eyes were so dark they were black, and his lips, when they touched hers, were soft. Sweet and gentle and impossibly warm.
When he moved away again, after mere seconds, the bastard looked concerned. "Karen –"
She ripped her hand away from him, leaned away as far as possible and crossed her arms over her chest. Something flickered over his face, too fast gone to tell, but she had other things on her mind right now than debating with herself whether she'd just seen a hint of insecurity cross Jeremy Danver's expression.
"What the hell took you so long?"
For a second, he gaped at her, at a loss. And then he began to laugh. He laughed so hard he had to lean forward, his hands on his knees, and she glowered at him, trying very hard to pretend that it was not the most beautiful sound she had ever heard.
"It's a valid question."
His hands came up to cup her face again, tangled in her hair, and her breath caught in her throat. "It really is."
When he kissed her this time, she let herself fall.
"Woah," Nick said, skidding to halt in front of them. "Woah! Jeremy, what the fuck!?"
Karen's eyes flew open and she looked into Jeremy's, dark and beautiful and – was that annoyance? But when he turned away from her to fix his glance on the son of his former second-in-command, there was nothing but mildness in his voice.
"I don't believe this. I don't fucking believe this! Clay!" Nick hollered. "You need to see this!"
Clay and Elena ambled over, hand in hand. "What is it?"
"Did you know about this?" Nick waved at them.
Karen glowered at him. Jeremy's hand slid down her arm, took her hand; her fingers folded into his effortlessly. He was not looking at her but she could feel his warmth, his closeness. It made her dizzy.
Elena's glance met hers, knowing, and warm and understanding. Not for the first time, Karen knew why she would be a good alpha. Her inner strength and dedication, her absolute loyalty – it shone from her eyes. She smiled at Karen, conspiratorially, and Karen could not help it – she smiled back.
Clay, on the other hand, was frowning. "Know about what?"
Nick pointed at their hands. Karen instinctively tried to pull hers back – but Jeremy held on, determined and unspeakably careful.
Clay's face – priceless.
"Isn't it time for the fireworks, already?" Jeremy asked, his now-amused voice carrying the edge of something she had heard in it often, when he still had been alpha. She had not yet known, then, never had realized how compelling his voice was, how it carried the undertone of expected, absolute obedience. It still did, in a way. But he did not expect it anymore. Maybe that was the difference – he, too, deferred to Elena when it came to matters of the pack these days.
(He, maybe, most of all.)
Elena grinned at her and mouthed something – give them some time – and herded the guys away. They followed, still pole-axed, Clay glaring openly threatening, Nick throwing incredulous glances back at them. Karen exchanged a last, grateful look with Elena and watched the kids – or something – go.
Jeremy leaned back, sighing softly, and waited until she had found the courage to look at him again.
"Are you alright with this?"
Karen snorted, both touched and amused; terrified and determined. "Are you?"
He chuckled, again, and then turned sober. His voice was so soft it felt like it wrapped around her heart and held it, carefully, and his warmth enveloped her completely.
"We should take this slowly."
She swallowed, looked at him. Followed his features with her eyes, committing it to memory. There was both sharpness and softness in the lines of his face, darkness and light. Strength and vulnerability. The words came, unbidden, and she hated them the moment they left her mouth because they sounded so weak, so needy.
"Are you going to leave?"
"Do you want me to?" He asked back.
She shook her head, the words dying in her throat. His eyes were–
He was the one to break their gaze, looking down on their intertwined hands.
"I will need some time to figure this out."
Karen nodded, still mute. But she pressed his hand, and from the relief flashing over his features, he understood. He pulled her hand up to his lips and kissed her knuckles, warm and steady and so much like him, and Karen shivered.
The bastard smiled.
Alexei – the sweet boy, Karen felt like he had adopted her as a somewhat-mother, and did not mind at all – waved at them from the patio.
"Come on, they're starting the fireworks!"
Jeremy stood in one, fluid motion, pulling her up with him. She followed, feeling his hand around hers: warm, steady, strong. In the garden, the whole pack was mixing. Elena laughed at something her sister said and hid her face in Clay's shirt. Rachel and Logan stood there, arm in arm, talking softly with Julian and Karl. Alexei, Savannah and Nick crowed as they lit the first fireworks, and then they were all watching the velvet night sky, their heads tilted backwards.
When they were all occupied, Karen blinked at the sky and then looked back at Jeremy.
His expression was soft, surrounded by his family like this, almost child-like. The sparks of gold and red danced in his eyes. Against the backdrop of the old house and its garden he looked like a picture from a different time – and yet completely right. Karen swallowed against the sudden urge to burst into tears – you are forty years old, what are you, a stupid teenager? – and was acutely aware of the fact that their shoulders were brushing. It made her smile.
And then, another thought hit her.
This was what it felt like, was it not? She had never had this before, not like this. Not since she had been a child. And yet she knew exactly what it meant, what it was. Knew it from the faces of the people around her, from the way they smiled at her, accepting her so wholeheartedly as one of their own. Knew it from the way Jeremy's hand was still curled around hers, steady like a promise, from the way his eyes found her gaze, again and again, roamed her face, from the way his lips curled into a smile that was only for her. Knew what it was, simple and clear:
From Stonehaven's windows the lights blinked into the night, soft and warm and familiar.