Disclaimer: Stephenie Meyer created it and just because I disagree with parts of it, doesn't mean I still don't admire her for it in the first place. I'm not trying to rip any one off, as evidenced by the making no money part.
Author's Note: A rather strange story in that it talks incessantly about Leah's relationship with Jacob, Sam and Embry (mostly Jacob/Leah), and it's actually about Embry's relationship with himself. Yeah, I'm not sure how that happened either.
Open the Box
Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
Act I: Alpha
"Leah's been staring at you all night."
He says it teasingly and so it's easy to ignore—I want to devour Emily's chocolate cake in peace. Unfortunately, Jacob hasn't finished thinking for the night.
"She's been doing that all week."
"Past three weeks," I correct absently.
That wasn't the smartest thing I'd ever done I think as Jacob's eyebrows disappear under his too-long hair. It would have been better to ignore my best friend and Alpha in this situation; there's no explanation I can give that won't hurt someone and I've never been the type to enjoy causing pain. But I've opened my big mouth and I don't need my super special mindreading abilities to know that he's not going to let this go now.
"She's been watching you like that for a month?"
Jacob doesn't reveal much with his clipped question, which makes me think things I probably shouldn't if I don't want our rogue pack to tear itself apart. When there's no privacy, there becomes topics that are forbidden even in the quiet my own mind.
"Would you like to know why?" I offer. It softens the unconscious scowl on his face.
"She told you why you're suddenly her favorite thing to look at?"
"Even simpler than that. She's watching me because I asked her too, Jake."
"Why would you do that?"
The puzzlement is all very natural. I've never been the most open with my feelings, but I've been very clear about my opinion of Leah. Up until a month ago, it was laughably simple.
If she made one more crack about my mother, I wouldn't hesitate to rip her miserable throat out.
Even now, I still have some lingering reservations about the female werewolf. It may have to do with all the mocking she's done in the past or the way she is growing more adept at hiding her thoughts faster than the rest of us or that she's an unapologetic bitch. It might be because she's the Beta and I understand she was part of the pack first, and that it would have been hard for Jake to pick between me or Quil, but she doesn't have to rub it in my face as often as she does. Or maybe it's because her eyes linger on things they can't have and I can't even pretend I haven't noticed—I have to forget I ever did. That's a lot of effort for someone I'm not even sure I like.
Jacob likes her. Seth loves her even though he agrees that she can be a little hard to get along with most of the time. Quil's come around, largely in part of Claire, one of the only people on the planet Leah is actually nice to. If Quil's so easily swayed by a four year old, I'm a little worried about what will happen as she grows older.
Claire is currently sitting on his lap as Quil tries to get the chocolate off her shirt before her parents notice. Quil no doubt has the expression of perfect happiness that decorates his face whenever the kid is around, though it's hard to see clearly through the packed room. All the wolves and family are crowded into Sam's house to celebrate Jared's birthday, and that's a whole lot of werewolf for any indoor space.
I lean back against the wall to try and create some room. It's a private conversation I'm going to be having.
"It's your fault," I say, "For making her apologize."
Jacob bristles and I wince internally because I haven't even gotten to the part that's guaranteed to upset him and he's on the defensive. "I didn't make her do anything." A deep breath and then he adds, "I'm just glad my suggestions finally got through that thick head of hers."
It's a point of pride with Jacob that he never orders around the rest of the pack, though no one would blame him if he did, and I admire him for it, even if it means I just insulted him. I especially respect the way he works with Leah. When they agree on something they can be scary in their determination, but that's actually common in our circle of friends. It's when they disagree that they prove over and over again that I did the right thing switching packs.
They aren't always civil, or polite, or remotely quiet when they conflict, but Jacob's never been afraid to let Leah change his mind and she'll defend his ideas wholeheartedly when he finally convinces her he's right. They're the most stubborn people I know, but neither one refuses to listen to the other about the important things. There was a little bit of that in Sam's pack, but it was more common to be told to just shut up or left alone until you came around to the Alpha's way of thinking.
Sam always snapped at Leah to apologize to me when her comments about my illegitimacy got really biting, but he never cared if she was sincere or not. Jacob hardly rebukes her, but he's spent months teasing, lecturing, taunting and arguing with Leah about her treatment of me until I slowly but surely noticed she was being just a little bit nicer. When she finally, haltingly, apologized on the patrol a month ago, I didn't need to hear her thoughts to know she meant it.
"She must listen when you talk. I don't think she knew how to say 'I'm sorry' before."
Jacob laughs and I glance at the topic of conversation out of the corner of my eye. Leah is currently trying to convince Emily to halt the cooking despite the protests of some of the nearby werewolves. The conversation is passionate but her eyes are constantly darting in my direction. In the direction of myself and Jacob, I correct—she's probably doing a side by side comparison. I wonder what she sees.
"I still don't understand how her apologizing leads to her staring."
"It's sort of a strange story."
"Sounds exciting," he says in such a way that I know he's going to make me tell him somehow.
It's not that I don't want to explain it to him, but I don't want to be selfish enough to want Jacob involved, no matter how much easier it'll be for me. Being friends forever has made me sort of protective of the guy.
If he could hear my thoughts right now, he'd probably be laughing because he's the best fighter the two of us know, and that's saying a lot—though I'm glad he can't hear anything because I need to organize my thoughts so that no one gets hurt. There are some things that can hurt the toughest of people. There must be a little bit of irony in the fact that the people who can hurt us the most are the ones we turn to for protection.
Not that Jacob has anything to blame Billy for just yet. Just as easily, it could be Quil or Sam's father who wounds his son. Their father's might harm them, but I never will.
Even if my mother did tell me who my father is (was? I'm not exactly sure what the shadowy masculine figure in her past qualifies as) nothing would change the fact that Jacob, Quil and Sam are my brothers. They are my family. Forever. I just wish none of them were genetic relatives.
But that's wishful thinking. If there wasn't any shared blood, I would be outside this beautiful celebration, wondering how my old high school friends had gotten so tall. In a way, I'm glad that eighteen years ago my parents made a huge mistake.
Jacob, Quil and Sam probably think the same way. That doesn't mean they wouldn't be partially devastated to learn I was their actual brother.
There's no way to figure it out for sure, of course. Paternity tests are out of the question what with my unnatural mystical blood and my mother's sworn to take her secret to the grave. Normally I would respect her decision, I do about everything else, but this time it's different.
I've been the bastard my whole life and the disgrace isn't something I think about a lot, mostly because I couldn't really face feeling that ashamed all that time, but also because I hate when my mother gets that closed off look in her face—and she always knows when I'm feeling down about my parentage. But there are times when I can't help but let the whispered comments—and the not-so-whispered insults—get to me. It makes me sick and I want it to stop.
Not that knowing exactly who's to blame will make it that much better, but it's one of the only things I can think of that might help. There's no blaming my mother, I love her too much and she wasn't much older than me at the time, anyways. There's an old, married man out there who should have known better—and who continues not to acknowledge his mistake. I've never liked hypocrisy, and I really don't like it when it's denying me closure.
Leah thinks I'm being stupid—she said so outright. Multiple times. Loudly. In various terms that I wouldn't dare repeat within a hundred yards of my mother. There is no crystal clear enough to illustrate how obvious she made her opinion known. That's what she does.
Maybe I am being stupid wanting to know something that will only harm those I call brothers. But the not knowing is the worst of all, makes everything just a little bit bitter, and I think Leah must have understood this because she has been staring the past month despite her initial protests.
Sam Uley disappeared for three hundred and forty-seven hours when he first phased. Leah can still tell the minute she found out he came back. Jacob's the only one who's head she won't bite off for stating that information. That's part of why she's the one I asked for help, despite my opinion of her.
"When she apologized, she said she wanted to make it up to me somehow. I think she was just trying to get more patrols, but she offered."
"So you asked her to stare at you?" Jacob laughs again. "Embry, do you have a self-esteem problem you want to tell me about? Or are you just that desperate to have a girl look at you?"
"Shut up. That's not what I asked her for."
"So what did you...?"
"I asked for her honest opinion."
"Like Leah knows how to give it any other way." It doesn't disturb Jacob like it does everyone else; he just seems amused by that insufferable characteristic. "What about? Your fashion sense?"
I asked her if I looked more like Sam Uley or Jacob Black—my own observation has led me to conclude that despite the werewolf gene that makes all the pack members virtually indistinguishable from one another to an outsider, I look nothing like Quil. He's stocky where I'm tall and broad where I'm lean—and it's not just the physical distinctions. The instinctive, purely physical way Quil travels through life is a far cry from my more thoughtful approach, most similar to Sam's, but not unlike Jacob's. I'm fairly sure Quil is my brother only in name.
Deciding between Sam and Jacob is harder, which is why I need an outside opinion. Leah was terrified when I asked for hers.
I don't mention that to Jake, the way she froze and her thoughts swirled in panic, though even then she was trying desperately to keep her reasons to herself. How would I know who your mommy screwed? Leah demanded.
It was a careful balancing act, what I did, letting her know I knew something neither of us could admit to knowing while never allowing myself to fully realize there was something to know while at the same time fully knowing if I did know what I knew, Leah would never forgive me. There was only one unfortunate second where I may have implied her observations of our illustrious leader were a little more extensive than my own, but we both just ignored the thought and let it fade into oblivion where it couldn't do any damage.
Do no harm is my new unofficial motto and I think about it while I try and figure out what to tell Jacob. The truth is bad; lying is worse. Giving Jake ideas is the last thing I want to do, but he's my best friend and I'm not going to lie—I was never very good at it anyway. I settle for half the truth.
"I asked if she thought I looked like Sam."
Jacob thinks it over for a second and tries to hide his surprise behind a bland smile. "It's taking her a month? I guess her memory isn't as good as it used to be."
"She's getting old," I agree, hoping to change the flow of the conversation.
Jacob has gotten smarter since taking charge of the pack and I don't doubt he's figured out my plans and Leah's part in it all. Does he wonder why I asked her? Or does he know?
If I open my mouth and spill my suspicious all over him, what would he do? Figuring out the answer shouldn't be too hard, what with knowing him inside and out thanks to my werewolf powers and all those years of living at each other's homes. If I tell him why I trust Leah's judgment about him more than my own, I know what will happen.
Jacob will shrug awkwardly and make a joke, purposely misunderstanding me, pretending he thinks I'm just trying to be funny. His eyes will harden until they are unreadable and his lips will purse and I will feel a stab of guilt at making it impossible for him to ignore. And then a smile will burst forth as he remembers he has to go call Nessie.
It's annoying, his inability to pull away from the leech for any length of time, and I suspect that it bugs him too sometimes, though he wouldn't have it any other way. Quil accepts everything that comes from being a werewolf easily and happily. Jake and I always had a few more reservations—even imprinting doesn't make that hesitancy disappear.
I'm not against imprinting, far from it. I love Emily and Claire and Rachel and all the other girls who have been adopted into our world and I long for someone of my own. But Nessie is half-vampire and instead of bringing her into the fold, we've been forced to watch as she tries to take Jacob away. If she would just share my best friend, I would be okay. I've had lots of practice. But she doesn't want to—this annoys me, and stranger, sometimes it even bothers Jacob.
Where Leah fits in all this I don't let myself think about, and if I haven't thought about it, I can pretty much guarantee that Jacob won't admit to even that.
Back when we were all still human, Leah was merely Harry Clearwater's pretty daughter who was much too old (three whole years!) for me to have any sort of chance with. I hadn't talked to her enough to get to know her, but Jacob thought she was okay and obviously really hot, if a bit stubborn and bossy and completely in love with the perfect Sam Uley and if she didn't shut up about him, Jacob would not be responsible for what happened to her phone. If we were still all human, would it still be like that? Emily Young's face would still be intact, so the point is really moot.
If Jacob hadn't imprinted, but we were all still wolves, where would we all be right now? The intimacy between Alpha and Beta is hard to ignore—even Quil blurts things out on occasion, though Seth has taken my ostrich in the sand approach—but that could be anything, really. Jared and Sam are close. Not quite as close as Jake and Leah, but still close. They don't argue with the same force or hunt with the same skill or defend each other as blindly despite their profound knowledge of each other's flaws, but Sam still leans on Jared in a somewhat similar manner.
Two years ago, I would have said no way. Back then Jacob liked his girls doe eyed and named Bella Swan. Leah's athletic build and sharp tongue wouldn't have earned her a second glance. Even when she should ask for help, Leah refuses to take helping hands and Jacob is nothing if not generous when it comes to giving assistance to those who need it. He is a supportive kind of guy and Leah is not the sort who would let him indulge that.
Even if I have noticed that she tends to take advice when Jacob's the one who offers it.
Leah loved Sam, had thought he was the hardest working, kindest, gentlest man she had ever met. Jacob is growing into that type of man, only one with more open mind, a better sense of humor and a harder bite. No wonder she—no wonder they are friends.
The old Jacob wouldn't have appreciated Leah, but that old Jacob is gone. Bella made sure of that. The new Jacob is more responsible, more determined and yet more flexible, and a hundred times more fair than the old one. He's also sharper and fiercer and stronger. This Jacob instinctively takes Leah on patrols with him, discusses every major decision with her, tries to make her smile when she's upset. This Jacob...this Jacob would be jealous of the attention it seems like she's showing me, if he could.
But he can't. So why am I wasting my time?
"She agreed to give you an answer?"
"No. She refused. Called me a bunch of unflattering names. But I think she's going to tell me anyway."
"What could she see anyway? She's not that observant."
"No," I agreed. "But no one else in our pack knows Sam as well. And a female perspective never hurt."
"Enter the mind of the bitch at your own peril," he mutters.
"Bitch? You talking about me?"
Leah's carrying a tray of muffins. I don't need to see the annoyance in her expression to know that she's only doing this to help Emily. Cooking and Leah should be kept apart of safety reasons at all times. Jacob and I each help ourselves to two muffins even as I try and think of an answer.
"Who else?" Jacob says, somehow managing to sound almost normal despite the pound of baked goods in his mouth. "Why the hell are you carrying the food?"
"So I can hit Paul in the face when he tries to make a joke about it."
"Can I help?" Jacob asks eagerly.
"Yeah. Defend my honor. We might be able to give everyone a heart attack."
"You could try being nice. That would work just as well."
"Go choke on your muffin, Jake," Leah chirps before Emily motions for her to move along. A flash of her finger and Leah goes to shove muffins down Colin's throat.
"Hey," I say as I knock Jacob's hand away right before he manages to filch some of my muffin. "You should have taken three."
"Leah might have hit me with the tray. Listen, Embry, maybe you shouldn't do this."
I've never been very good at lying to Jacob. I've never been very good at lying, period. Games of pretend only work if you have someone to show you how and my someone was never mine in the first place.
"Chances are she's not going to be able to say anything for sure," Jacob begins. "But if she can? If she says you do look like him and she's a hundred percent certain? Does it even matter that much? It won't change anything."
"So it can't hurt to know."
"All it'll do is hurt."
"Jake...remember when Bella got pregnant? Now imagine you never found out what was inside her. Everything you did for the rest of your life, you would have no idea what was going on with her. There are just some things you need to know."
"Finding your father is not the same as me finding my imprint." That's not really what I meant, but he takes my botched comparison and runs with it. "Nessie completes my life. Your dad isn't going to do anything other than let you figure out more about your DNA. And since I'm the one you skipped most of Bio with, I know you don't give a shit about nucleo-whatevers."
"Nucleotides. The structural units of DNA."
Jacob rolls his eyes, mutters dork under his breath. I am. It's why I'm the one who still misses high school, why I'm off at college now even though I can't really afford it. But I did skip science as often as Jacob did; it's not the sort of subject that appeals to me. There are thousands of questions in science, but you have to sit around and figure out the one answer that goes with each. Even before we blew all accepted beliefs about the world out of the water, I didn't like the absolute certainty that scientists fool themselves into believing they have.
"The point is that it doesn't matter who your dad is. Knowing won't help."
"Easy for you to say. You have a father. Maybe you just don't want to share him."
That he doesn't hit me is almost a bit of a disappointment. Instead, Jacob just stands straighter and his dark eyes burn into me, until I'm a little surprised that I haven't become a pile of smoldering ash on Sam's new carpet. Then I remember that Jacob isn't just the kid who's garage I used to practically live in—he's the Alpha now. A good one at that. He's just trying to look out for me.
"Embry, we've known each other since forever. I let you have my red Hot Wheels car. If you want something of mine, it's yours."
"I know." I do. If I needed a kidney, Jacob and Quil would probably fight to the death for the opportunity to give me theirs. There's no denying I have the best friends on the planet. But this isn't just about friendship, even if Jacob doesn't think that. He's still begging me to reconsider.
"Don't do this. There are some things you can't un-know. If you find out, you can't pretend everything's all right anymore." His face darkens as he voice drops. "Everything will be different, no matter how much you don't want it to be. Everyone you love, everything you've worked so hard for...it'll all be destroyed. And for no reason. It's not like anything can be allowed to change."
He's not talking about me anymore.
"It could," I mutter.
"No." Jacob doesn't give orders, but this sure as hell sounds like one. Maybe that's just the sound of defeat. "There's the way things are and there's nothing we can know or do that will change that."
"I don't believe that."
The funniest thing is that I used to, back when it was just me and Mom and never quite enough money. I thought that nothing changed, that I was stuck with what life had given me. And then one day I met this boy who grew up and became my best friend and he taught me that I didn't have to accept the shit life threw at me. I could fight back. I could make things better. I could get what I wanted.
So what the hell happened to Jacob Black?
There are rules. There always are. Lots of rules, written or oral or instinctive, but if you want to be in charge than you have to know them all. You have to follow them. All of them. And there are too many of them to count. Rules about imprinting, rules about werewolves, rules about vampires, rules about hybrids, rules about treaties, rules about promises and even rules about dating your friend's older sister. There are rules. And Jacob would break all of them in a heartbeat just to show he could except there's the very real chance that there are some rules that are etched so far into the stone that nothing can erase them.
It's not the failing that would kill him. Jacob hates failing, but he's never let that stop him before. We heal fast and he's up even faster than that, ready to try again.
But sometimes what you think is a door is really a wall and nothing anyone does is going to break it down. Ever. He couldn't survive knowing he had no options, so he has to pretend that this is a choice. This is what he wants. Which means that any information that might make that decision harder to live with is information he never needs to know. And we all get that, especially LeahhisBeta, and so we say nothing at all.
Doing nothing is gradually killing him, of course, but at least it's a slow death. It's not the impotence that could strike him dead where he stands.
It's the hoping.
So we don't do that anymore.
"I wish I was wrong. But I don't think I am." Out of the corner of my eye I can see Paul and Leah engaging in the beginning of a heated argument. Jacob's already judging how long before it turns violent, even as he speaks to me. "I won't stop you, you know that. I just think it's not a good idea."
"I agree. Still going to do it. Twenty bucks says Leah throws the first punch."
"You're on. She won't do that to Emily."
It doesn't surprise me in the least that he turns out to be right. Paul's says she provoked him enough to justify the punch he threw, but Sam isn't standing for that. Seth is trying to patch Leah up in the bathroom when I find her. I don't say much—her split lip will heal in a few more minutes and I'm down twenty bucks because of her—but I ask her if I can come over the next day.
When she agrees I can't help but feel terrified.
Maybe Jacob is right and this is only going to make things worse. Maybe I'm just going to hurt everyone around me and still not be able to find what I want. How can I find something if I don't even know what I'm looking for?
But what if he's wrong?