AN: Happy Halloween! I know this is a little late again...
Thanks to everyone who's reviewed! And it's great to hear from the new readers too :) WLS was rec'd on phasefics (dot) com, which looks to be an amazing site for pack fics - take a look!
We're on chapter 26 now...I never planned this story to be so long! (I didn't plan it at all, which was maybe the problem...) Thanks for sticking with me xxx :)
What'd I miss? Embry flashed into the pack mind.
Paul got laid! Jared and Quil chorused in tandem.
...And we have another newbie, Sam added dryly. Say hi to Nick.
Hi, Nick. Embry gave the new kid a quick once-over before turning to Paul. Dude, that's awesome!
Nick Moon was thirteen years old, in the same grade as Collin and Brady. If they hadn't spent so much time skipping class (their justification was that they still had control issues and were liable to turn into wolves at any time, which was not only almost reasonable but also far better than the average excuse), the two boys might have noticed how their friend was suddenly bulking up on muscle.
As it was, Nick's parents had been totally unprepared when their son exploded into a mass of fur shortly after waking him up that Sunday morning. There was no way to convince them that they hadn't seen him turn into a wolf right in front of them, so Sam was taking a different approach to them than he had with the other pack parents.
"I thought we weren't supposed to tell uninvolved people the truth," Brady muttered darkly at Emily's kitchen table, where they had gathered for lunch.
"They're not exactly uninvolved if they saw it happen, Brady," Jared snapped. Having been on patrol the night before, he wasn't in the best of moods but refused to go home to sleep in favour of pack drama – and Emily's cooking. "And the fewer people we tell, the better. How do you think your mom would react if you told her? Do you want to spend your life in therapy?"
"I could phase in front of her," the younger boy argued. "Like Jake did to show Chief Swan."
"Do you want your mom to spend her life in therapy?" Embry countered. "And before you say anything, Bella's dad's a special case."
"Two new wolves," Jared groaned. "How many more are there going to be?"
They all fell silent at that. Just where would it end? Paul wondered. Would it keep happening as long as the Cullens were nearby – new generations of kids growing up and phasing right as they struck puberty? Jake certainly didn't seem to be making any plans to move out of the area, and there was no way he'd stay if his demon baby imprint was leaving.
"Well," Emily commented lightly as she laid a full plateful of steaming muffins on the table, "I'm going to need a bigger kitchen if it carries on like this."
Embry cast a sly sideways glance at Paul. "Maybe Paul and Rachel can take that into account when they move in together."
Paul didn't say anything; he merely dropped his eyes to the table, wondering what exactly he could say to that.
"Can she make muffins as good as Emily's?" Brady demanded around a mouthful of cake. "Because if not, the deal's off."
"Yeah, because I'm sure she'd be so happy to have you hanging around all the time," Embry scoffed. "Emily has to, she's our pack mother." He grinned winningly up at Sam's mate, who just laughed and ruffled a hand affectionately through his short hair even as she absently flicked his hand away from the last muffin and pushed it towards Jeremy instead.
Jared, however, ignored their banter – his gaze was still fixed upon Paul. "Uh oh. What's that look for?"
"Shut up, Jared." But he'd already drawn the attention of the others to Paul, and they were watching him expectantly with a mixture of curiosity and wariness.
"What is it, Paul?" Emily asked with concern.
"Look," Paul began awkwardly. "There's no guarantee that if – when – I finish school and we decide to move in together, that we're..." He coughed. "We probably won't be living on the rez. Or anywhere near it."
There was silence.
"You...what? Why?" Brady choked. "Why would you do that?"
"You'd seriously consider that?" Embry asked more quietly. "Like...really?"
Paul sighed. "It's a little complicated. That's why I didn't say anything before." He shrugged. "I've been trying not to think about it, to be honest."
"Rachel wouldn't be happy staying here." For the first time, Jeremy spoke up quietly. It was also, incidentally, the first pack gathering he'd attended in human form; he'd regained enough control in the past couple of days to maintain the shape, although it was still a little dodgy and he was trying his utmost to remain calm. Paul was fairly confident of his ability to do it, though, and it was a sign of the general pack's confidence in him that he'd been allowed in Emily's kitchen. "There's nothing for her to do here."
"So she'd make Paul move away?" Embry replied angrily. "That's –"
"It's not like that," Paul snapped. "And it's my choice too."
"She's already turned down an internship to stay here for now," Emily added softly, dropping a calming hand on Paul's shoulder. "Don't judge her, Embry, when you don't understand."
"Rachel told you about that?" Paul was stunned. Yes, he knew that his mate had been making a greater effort to like Emily, but not that she'd confided in her.
"It's easier for me to know what she's going through," Sam's mate replied simply. Paul didn't know what to say to that, so he settled for reaching up to pat her hand awkwardly where it rested on his shoulder.
"The point is that we could be losing a pack member," Brady insisted. "Another one. That would put us four down. Although, to be honest, it's Paul..."
"Shut it, asshole." But he was grinning as he swiped the other boy over the head. Brady, however, didn't know when to keep his mouth shut – one of the biggest problems, Paul had found, with the thirteen year-old pack members. And now there were three of them.
"Why couldn't Rachel have taken the internship anyway?" he insisted. "People do long-distance relationships all the time."
Paul shared an exasperated look with Jared and Emily – one that only those who had imprinted would understand – but it was Jared who jumped in to explain.
"Look, Brady," he started with mock-patience, "you don't get it. You think you do, but...Jake, much as I hate to use anything he came up with, once said it's like gravity. Gravity draws you to the earth, right? Well let's say that the imprint – Rachel, in this case – is the earth."
"Move the earth hundreds of kilometres away. To Boise," Paul continued as Brady opened his mouth to argue. "What's happened to my centre of gravity?"
Brady frowned. "I'm pretty sure that's not what a centre of gravity –"
"It's a metaphor, Brady," Jared growled.
"So you fall a really long way and then go splat? Nice, Jared."
"I didn't say it was a perfect metaphor, Embry."
Paul gave a long suffering sigh. "I've said it before and I'll say it again, Embry. I can't wait until you imprint. What's so funny, Emily?"
The woman hastily covered her smile with one hand. "Oh, nothing at all."
"Is imprinting really all that inevitable?" Jeremy asked curiously. "I mean, you all talk about it like it's definitely going to happen..."
"We don't know for certain." Emily smiled at the not-quite-newest wolf fondly. "Sam originally thought it was fairly rare – that's what the stories led us to believe, at least. But now..."
"We've had Sam, Jared, Quil, Paul and now Jake imprinting," Embry added. "That's half the pack – well, before you and Nick. You've thrown numbers off a little."
"There's plenty of time, though," Jared grinned. "We've almost given up on Embry, but – hey!" He rubbed his arm where Embry had punched him, and Paul rolled his eyes.
"Yeah, just keep an eye out for that special girl, Jer."
"Oh, don't you sound smug?" Embry smirked.
"Play nice, boys," Emily warned them. "Don't traumatize Nick."
"He's not here!" Brady protested.
She laughed. "I know what you're like. You can practice now. Besides, who knows how many more you'll get?"
"Ugh, I hope we don't. No matter what you say about losing a pack member, Brady, there are honestly too many of us." Jared shot a glance at his friend, grinned. "I think we can stand to lost Paul."
"Thanks for that, man."
"You know it's never a problem."
As September turned to October and then on into November it seemed, however, as if there was no further need for concern – about anything they'd previously been worried about. Not only did all the young teenagers on the rez appear to be remarkably stable (for teenagers, anyway), but Sam had decided that the two packs should make a greater effort to get along. In that vein, he and Emily had bitten the bullet and gone over to Forks to visit Bella, Jacob and Renesmee at Chief Swan's house. To Paul's absolute disgust, they'd seemingly taken one look at the demon spawn and decided that something so adorable couldn't possibly be evil
"What the hell?" Rachel had demanded as soon as Paul returned to her with the news, her voice at least one octave and several tones higher than normal. "They're suddenly going to be totally fine with my baby brother dating a toddler? I don't fucking believe it."
She steadfastly refused to go to Forks, despite all of Emily's implorations. The news of Renesmee's accelerated growth had only made matters worse ("She's going to be full grown at seven? Oh my god. Oh my god.") and Paul found himself caught right between the two women. Apparently, Emily was so charmed by the vampire baby that the continued rift between the Black siblings upset her, and since Sam couldn't bear to see his mate distressed he'd been not-so-subtly pressuring Paul into convincing Rachel to mend affairs.
For once in their lives the rest of the pack actually tried to keep their thoughts regarding the matter to themselves – imprints were a touchy subject, and nobody wanted to get stuck in the middle of the wolves and their mates – but occasionally a stray thought would filter through. Unsurprisingly, Embry and Quil were fascinated by their best friend's imprint and continually demanding updates on her progress. Jared was more wary, and Jeremy was similarly conflicted but leaning more towards the idea that the whole situation was way too creepy to be totally normal. Collin and Brady had, incredibly, kept quiet about the entire issue, and Nick was still too new and confused to really form an opinion. Having never really spent much time with Jacob, it didn't really affect him anyway besides what little was allowed to leak over into the pack mind.
The debate may have been greater had there not been another question overriding it. For a while now, it had been clear that the growth of the pack was affecting its dynamic more than they'd anticipated; the size of it, and residual rivalries back from Jacob's original defection, was causing tempers to fray more easily than usual. Nick and Jeremy were both struggling as a result, and Embry destroyed his first set of clothes in months after a seemingly insignificant discussion with Jared. Emily was three plates short, not even counting the two accidentally smashed as Paul and Quil had hurriedly pushed a shaking Jeremy out of the door as he started to phase.
Rather than fewer patrols thanks to the more cordial relations between packs, the older wolves were needed around even more to keep everyone in line. Even that wasn't entirely successful, as both Jared and Paul resented the time spent away from their mates and were liable to take out their frustration on the younger boys. Paul really hated spending too much time away from Rachel.
"Paul, why does Collin blush every time he sees me at the store?" Rachel demanded one day.
"Ah..." Paul desperately searched for an excuse, but there really wasn't anything he could say. "I miss you?" he tried.
Rachel cocked one eyebrow.
"When I miss you, I think about you," he continued. "And when I last saw you...and I can't help it!"
"You're such a guy," she grumbled.
"They've all seen Leah naked too," he offered, but that only earned him a dirty look from his girlfriend.
"Oh, because that makes it so much better. Leah's always been stunning."
Paul shrugged. "Not as gorgeous as you." Rachel laughed then, leaning forward quickly to kiss him.
"Cheesy, but it was a nice thought."
"Um...am I interrupting something?"
Rachel jerked back, an almost guilty expression on her face, but Paul just rolled his eyes. "Awesome timing, Brady," Paul growled with mock-ferocity. "Every time."
"Not every time," Rachel commented under her breath.
"God, don't remind me." Brady rolled his eyes. "Every damn time he phases..."
"Shut up, Brady," they snapped together.
"What's up this time?" Paul demanded. "Because if you've just dropped by to say hi..."
"Believe me, I wouldn't interrupt your Rachel-time, it makes you even less bearable. Sam's spoken to your brother, and now he wants a full pack meeting."
"I'm not responsible for Jacob's actions," Rachel replied mildly. "You're not very nice to each other, are you?"
"He's learning," Paul grinned. "Where are we going?"
"Beach. Emily says she doesn't want any more of her house destroyed today." The boy winced. "I, uh...got pissed off and broke the back door."
Rachel half-choked on her laugh as she tried to hold it in at Brady's wounded expression. "Fair enough. Hope you boys have fun."
"Oh, you're coming too," Brady informed her loftily. "And we have to pick up your dad on the way, too. Sam really means a full pack meeting."
"Oh, god, what's Jake done now?" Rachel groaned.
"He's a dick." Brady shrugged.
"Brady!" Paul glanced towards his girlfriend for her reaction.
"What? I can say it, I'm not sleeping with his sister." The thirteen year-old grinned beatifically.
"Bastard." It was hissed under Paul's breath too low for Rachel to hear, but Brady smirked wickedly as he opened his mouth to respond. "Say it and I will end you," Paul growled.
"It's not nice to whisper, boys," Rachel told them primly, but Paul could see that she was trying not to smile and threaded his fingers through hers as he grinned down at her with mock contrition.
"Sorry, babe," he apologized while Brady rolled his eyes again – the kid was doing that an awful lot.
By some miracle, the evening Sam had chosen for the pack meeting was actually dry; it didn't even look like it was going to rain. A chill wind was whipping around the base of the cliffs, however, as the four of them made their way along the beach to where a small group was already gathered about the beginnings of a bonfire. Shivering, Rachel snuggled close into Paul's side as soon as he and Brady had set down Billy's wheelchair, and he was happy to draw her close as he glanced around the circle.
It was almost – almost – like old times. There was Sam with Emily, Kim tucked tightly against Jared (he and Paul exchanged grins), Embry, Quil and Old Quil next to Billy and Sue Clearwater. Paul wished that Rachel could have been around before, could have seen the pack when everything was new and exciting, with Billy about to tell one of his old stories of the Cold Ones around the bonfire on a cool evening with the sound of the ocean in the background. For a moment it was like it had been then, save for the soft warmth of Rachel's head on his shoulder and her fingers around his, but Paul looked again and there was so much different.
It was different in who was there – Collin, Brady, Jeremy and Nick – and also in who wasn't, with Jake and the Clearwater kids absent. The mood, too, was nothing like it would have been once, but Paul had no use for nostalgia. What they'd seen – what they'd done – couldn't be taken back, and they'd all changed so much (well, all of them except Embry, maybe) that trying to go back to how it had been before was completely pointless.
It wasn't like all the changes were bad, anyway. Jacob was gone, after all – and then there was Rachel. Both of those were huge positives as far as Paul was concerned.
He was jerked from his thoughts when Rachel nudged her elbow into his side. "Hey, what're you looking at me like that for?"
"Like what?" He couldn't resist the opportunity to kiss her upturned face.
"Paul!" she hissed, pulling back quickly. "My dad's watching!"
"Oh. Oh. Sorry." The boy glanced hastily up, managed to catch Billy's eye as the elder's face was set in an expression of disapproval. His gaze skittered on, only to see Jared laughing at him.
"You're actually blushing." Rachel tried to smother her grin with one hand, failing miserably as her laughter bubbled out around it.
"He's adorable," Quil deadpanned.
"Completely," Kim agreed with a giggle, grinning at Rachel.
"Kim!" Jared protested.
"Children, no fighting," Sue interrupted, hiding her smile not altogether successfully. "Sam, if everyone's here should we get on with the meeting?" The pack leader nodded, taking to his feet and glancing around the circle sternly until everyone settled down – Brady and Collin continuing to snicker until Old Quil clipped them none-too-gently around the head.
When the boys had finally stilled, there was an eerie silence broken only by the crackle of the fire. It was as if, now that Sam had them all gathered together, he didn't quite know what to say; suddenly uneasy, the hair on the back of Paul's neck prickled.
"The pack's not working," the Alpha blurted at last. "We can't carry on like this."
"We know that," Brady frowned. "I don't –"
"Be quiet, Brady," Billy growled.
"We can't carry on, all of us, like this," Sam repeated. "I spoke to Jacob. He..." The pack leader took a breath, and Paul was almost certain he sure the man's eyes flicker to Emily as if for reassurance. "He's willing to accept you if you want to leave."
It took a moment for the words to register.
"He what?" Jared demanded at last.
Paul's mouth had dropped open in shock. "Is this a joke?"
Sam shook his head slowly. "It's not."
"It's a reasonable decision." Billy's words were thoughtful, spoken carefully. "To have two packs of manageable size. I'm sure –"
"Jake didn't even want Seth," Collin interrupted with incredulity. "And he definitely didn't want Leah around. Sorry, Mrs Clearwater," he added with an apologetic glance at the rogue wolves' mother. "But seriously, why would he suddenly want a bigger pack now?"
"Yeah, we're not fighting each other anymore," Brady agreed. "Just because there are so many of us..."
"There's no precedent for it, certainly," Billy told them. "But that's hardly surprising, as there have never been two packs before, and there haven't been this many wolves before either – not even the last time the Cullens settled here."
"It's just come down to the fact that we can't have a pack this big any more – not with everything that's happened already," Sam continued. "You don't have to go, any of you, and we'll think of something else. But..."
The point was left hanging there. In the silence, Paul knew that he would never leave Sam's pack for Jacob's, couldn't see how any of them would now. What did Sam mean, after everything that's happened already? As if sensing his bewilderment, Rachel tightened her grip on his hand, her eyes seeking out his as he turned to her and filled with as much confusion as he felt himself.
"I don't understand." Jeremy spoke up. "Why would we want to leave this pack for another? I don't want a new Alpha."
"I don't know Jacob," Nick added.
"I'm not leaving." Jared's tone was flat.
"No way," Paul agreed.
Everybody looked at Embry and Quil.
"To be honest, this was mostly aimed at you two anyway," Sam told them quietly. "I've heard how you feel."
The two boys exchanged a glance. "Look," Quil began. "It's not you, it's –"
"Dude, are you breaking up with us?"
The question was real, genuinely meant – trust Brady – but it was as if a bubble had burst. It didn't matter who had laughed first, or that there was a slightly hysterical note to it, but the awkwardness was gone.
"So we're actually getting rid of them at last?" Jared grinned. "Hey, with Jake and Quil in the pack it'll practically be the babysitter's club."
"Leah's gonna love this," Paul added. "I mean, really. She'll be your beta."
"Oh, shit!" Embry swore. "Seriously?" He glanced up at Sue. "Sorry, Mrs Clearwater."
Billy shot the boy a withering look before turning his attention to the rest gathered around the fire. "So I'm getting the general consensus to this is...?"
"It's good," Jared replied instantly.
"It'll work," Quil agreed.
"Pretty much what I expected," Sam admitted. He flashed a quick, uncharacteristic grin. "Thank god."
"Hey!" Embry protested. "If you wanted us to go that badly..."
Sam jostled his friend with one elbow, still grinning. "It took you long enough to get the idea."
"You wanted to keep us!" he argued.
"Hey, don't turn it around like that," Paul teased. "We had some good times, didn't we?"
"Man, now it really does sound like we're breaking up," Quil grinned.
"Yeah? Well, we so dumped you."
"Nice, boys." Emily smiled fondly at them. "You two had better be careful, all right? And be nice to Leah. Yes, you do have to," she added.
Embry closed his mouth with a snap, mimed locking it and throwing away the key.
"Like that'll last long," Brady sniggered. He paused. "So...how is it supposed to work?"
Every one of them turned to look at Sam. "Jacob's coming down to the beach," he told them. "I don't know how he wants to do it."
"You don't need all of us then, do you?" Jared asked, half-rising to his feet in anticipation of the answer. "This is the first free evening I've had for ages..." His hand dropped to Kim's shoulder and she blushed furiously; Paul couldn't suppress a grin at his friend, for which Rachel's elbow dug sharply into his ribs.
"Sure, you can go. But don't forget patrol tomorrow!" Sam raised his voice above the flurry of movement around the fire, boys jumping up to leave. Paul glanced up as Rachel rose too, one hand on her arm to still her for a moment.
"Don't you want –"
"You can stay if you like, Paul." Her voice was suddenly flat, eyes dark enough that he couldn't read them. He knew, however, that she was standing firm on this one – she wasn't going to stay and talk to her brother – and just nodded.
"I'm not going to stay, Rach." She bent, quickly, to kiss his cheek, firelight flickering into her eyes as she moved enough for him to see the gratitude in them.
Billy, however, was watching with a scowl. "Rachel –"
"I'll see you later, Dad." Chin lifted high, she stared him down until her father at last conceded a stiff nod, his eyes filled with a sadness which made Paul uncomfortable to see. "Come on, Paul."
"Don't, Dad!" She spun back around, hair flaring out around her face. "I talked to him, okay? I said some things...he said some things...and I called to apologise, afterwards. He knows where to find me if he wants, but it's not going to be here. Come on, Paul."
The boy wished, so much, that he knew what to say to either of them; seeing Billy so lost was unnerving, and Rachel's pain was almost palpable to him, but he felt younger than ever in that moment as he followed his mate a few steps away from the fire. "Rach..."
"I'm okay." The woman turned, offered him a shaky smile. "Thank you, Paul."
"You could have told me, if you wanted." Sure, he knew she didn't have to tell him everything, but he hated knowing that she'd been hurt and hadn't told him so he could at least have tried to help.
Rachel's smile this time was more genuine. "I might be arguing with Jake, but I do still want him alive." Fair point.
"Paul?" Quil stood awkwardly behind him with Embry at his side. "We were just...yeah." He huffed out a breath. "This is weird."
He became abruptly aware that by having the boys transfer to Jacob's pack, it wasn't just as simple as Quil and Embry swapping allegiance to a new Alpha. They were leaving the pack, and the full import of that suddenly crashed down on Paul's head. "It's weird," he agreed.
A few seconds of silence passed as they each searched for something to say, but a wolf's howl sounded from the forest at the edge of the beach before any of them spoke again. It was a howl they all recognised.
"Jake's here," Embry muttered unnecessarily.
"Well...I guess I'll see you around."
"I guess." The awkward shoulder-punch Quil gave him as he passed said more than words ever could – because how could they really express so many months' worth of living in one another's heads, of patrolling and fighting alongside them?
"See you around, Paul."
Another howl sounded as Rachel silently took Paul's hand in hers, and to him it sounded oddly mournful as they turned their backs and walked away.