Sequel to Cowboys & Indians (available on this site)

August 2, 2006

Alice's office-cum-design-studio is a whirlwind of computer printouts instead of the more usual sea of discarded sketching paper -- or the heretofore ever-present wedding checklists. She looks up from the screen to see Jasper standing in the doorway, shoulder braced on the jam, arms and ankles crossed. He's amused, the cocky bastard. "What?" she asks.

He points to one of the discarded papers that has the purple and gold logo of the University of Washington splashed across the top. "U of W? You usually hate state schools."

"U of W has a fantastic program for native students and offers lots of scholarships. Plus it has one of the premiere laws schools for tribal law -- "

"This is for Leah? If you think she's going to let us pay her college tuition -- "

"No, I don't think that." Leaning over, she snags a different print-out, handing it to him. 'College ' screams at the top, and below that: Native American Scholarships. There's another with a big red header: Bureau of Indian Education.

"I'm sure she knows all about these," Jasper warns. "She and Sam were planning on college for years before the proverbial fit hit the shan. Lack of information on funding isn't what's stopping her."

"I know," Alice admits. "And Leah's nothing if not resourceful -- but I have a lot of extra time and I'm really good at digging up things." Alice hesitates, then adds, "She's had a lot on her mind too. I know she thinks her chances are gone, but they're not. She just needs some cheerleaders -- people who'll make her try. Her mom loves her, but her mom didn't go to college and this whole werewolf thing . . . well, I talked to Seth and in the old stories, the Protectors stayed with the People so everybody in the tribe just expects the same thing this time: of course the pack will stay on the rez. But it's not that world anymore. And this time, they changed in response to us, but we're not a threat -- not a real one." She's talking fast because he's looking skeptical. "It's sort of our fault Leah got caught up in this and it's not fair to take her future away from her. I want to give it back. She intended to go to college, she wanted to go to college . . . so she should go to college." She gives a firm nod of her chin. "To hell with assumptions. She made friends with a vampire after all; Leah's not the type to let assumptions rule her."

"That she's not." His lips tip up. "But you're sure? About her chances of getting in?" Meaning has she seen it.

"I can't see Leah," she reminds him. "But I can see . . . enough . . . around her. There's a whole new world waiting for her. She just needs to get out of here."

Jasper comes in finally and pulls around the second rolling chair until he's knee to knee with her, elbows resting on his thighs. The discrepancy in their heights is always less apparent when they're sitting. "I'm starting to understand how much family matters to them. For Leah to leave, even just to go across the Sound . . . it's not an easy step."

"So that's why we're going with her."

"What?" His eyes get big.

She smiles and grips his hand. "Well, I just 'graduated' so of course it's assumed I'd be going on to college, and we'll say you transferred to be with me. It's too late to start this year and it'll take time to talk Leah into it anyway, but once things with Bella and Edward settle down, we can aim for next fall." She doesn't want to talk about the visions she's been having regarding Edward and Bella. "She'll be much less inclined to run back home if she has family with her. Is she still coming to the wedding?" It's just a little over a week away.

Jasper makes a face. "You're not dumping all this on her at the wedding, hon. I'd like to have her not bite off my head. She's irritated enough about having to go at all."

"Oh, I'm not giving it to her there. Like I said, we'll let things settle down; most applications aren't due until December anyway."

One sandy eyebrow lifts. "Thank God for small favors."

Laughing, she launches herself at him.

November 2, 2006

"Well. That was all sorts of anticlimactic."

Jasper turns his whole upper body to stare at Leah. They're sitting on the side of a fallen tree in the forest a little apart from the meadow where the final confrontation with the Volturi had taken place. The vampires are still celebrating and Alice is with Edward and Bella, Jacob, the baby, and Seth. Jasper came back to be with Leah. Sam's pack is already gone, having melted away immediately after the danger ended. Seth and Leah lingered, as well as Jacob, of course. Leah transformed back, and Jasper fetched her a robe from the house. Now, he just stare at her. "Anticlimactic?"

"After all that preparation, there was no fight. We let those bullies go home."

Jasper shakes his head and leans forward again, posture relaxed. "You know what the best sort of battle is?"

"The one you win."

"No, Leah -- the one that never happens." His gold eyes are sad, and she's reminded of all the battles he's seen, both human and vampire. "Nobody died here today, except Irina."

"But they're bullies. They should be stopped. I'm tired of letting the white man come to my home and tell me what to do." She's lived with anger for so long, she thinks it would be nice to have a legitimate target for it.

"They didn't tell you what to do; they didn't come to confront your people at all. And we made them go away. We didn't lower ourselves to their level. That's important."

"They'll be back," she mutters. "Their kind always comes back."

"Probably -- but not for a good long while, according to Alice. Decades." His eyes hood slightly. "Plenty of time to get on with life."

That pulls down Leah's brows and she stares at her hands. They're dirty. In fact, she feels dirty all over and needs a shower. "I guess I should get a job, then." She really has no idea what to do next -- or for the rest of her life. All her plans went to hell in a handcart last spring, replaced by life as a Protector. But she's not needed in that role anymore. The fight ended before it began, leaving her purposeless. It seems to be the story of her life, shrugged off again and again.

"What job would you get?" Jasper asks.

She just shrugs. "Dunno. Anything that's hiring, I guess. The resort, the marina -- but I'm not much with boats. Maybe I could apply for something in the Council's office."

"Your mother's on the council, isn't she?"

"Yeah, she took dad's place. Problem is, they don't have any jobs right now that require just a high school diploma -- or not that I know of. I'll check the board tomorrow."

Jasper doesn't respond immediately, then says, "I'll ask Carlisle to look on the hospital website too."

"I type pretty fast but I've never done anything like dictation or that shit. I am a good organizer, though. And I'm tall." She shoots him a grin. "If they need somebody for the intimidation factor, I'm your girl. And I'll work nights."

That makes him laugh. "I'm not sure 'good for the intimidation factor' is on many job applications."

She smiles too and shrugs. "Probably not. But still."

December, 2, 2006

"Sir, you need to sit down."

"I've got to see my girlfriend -- !"

"No, sir, you need to let the doctors work on your girlfriend -- "

"But I can't see . . . I need to see . . . It's my fault she's in there so I've got to be with her!"

"What you've 'got' to do is get out of the hallway and stop blocking medical personnel. Somebody will come talk to you as soon as they can. Now go back to the waiting room and sit your butt down in a chair before I sit it down there for you."

The bleary-eyed, obviously-tipsy young man stares up at Leah Clearwater, who tops him by a good four inches. She wears black trousers and a bright scrub top with red, black and white Coastal Salish artwork that her mother must have sewn for her. She has keys and ID tags on a lanyard about her neck, and wears a name-tag advertizing "LEAH" with cheery stickers that doesn't fit her at all. She's let her hair grow out a little but nothing beyond chin-length.

Alice watches it all unfold from just inside the Emergency Room doors. She knows the boy will return to the waiting room because she's seen him there, even if she didn't see why. In the last year, she's learned how to work around the blind spots created by the wolves. Leah's future in particular is important to her, so she's developed strategies. Or perhaps her gift is just adapting a little; either way, watching Leah's future is a bit like using two mirrors to see one's own back. It's not always as clear a view, but it works.

"Fine, you big freaky Amazon," the boy says now, turning on his heel to exit through the doors to the waiting room. His shoulders are slumped in defeat.

Leah notices Alice then and one eyebrow hikes. "Looking for Dr. Cullen?"

"No, I just came to hang out."

"You really must be really bored."

It's an odd thing to say about an emergency room, but Alice doesn't tell her that she came tonight because a very important conversation is going to take place -- or at least, she suspects it is. Leah has retreated behind the nursing station to resume her real job as a medical transcript data input specialist rather than occasional evening ER bouncer. The hospital is trying to go electronic and this job pays better than flipping burgers at McDonald's, or dumping tiny salmon fry into hatchery pools. Nobody has admitted to Leah that Carlisle Cullen leaned hard on hospital administration to hire her although Alice knows that Leah suspects it. But it's a job, so Leah's not complaining. And the ER staff have learned to rely on her to handle "difficult" family or other visitors. Leah is intimidating even without phasing.

Anita, the head nurse for evening rotation, smiles at Alice and asks the same thing Leah did. "Looking for your dad? I think he's finishing up some paperwork in the staff room."

"I came to hang out with Leah."

"On a Friday night? Why aren't you off with some handsome boy? For that matter, why aren't you away at college and off with some handsome boy?"

Alice grins. "My handsome boy is in Ithaca" -- not true, but it's the story they've fed the locals about Jasper, Rose and Emmett -- "and I'll probably go somewhere next year myself. But I wanted a year off to make up my mind about what to do next."

"Wise idea." Anita glances over her shoulder at Leah and thumbs towards her. "When you go, take that one too. She's got no business settling for a job like this. The girl can spell 'saccharopine dehydrogenase deficiency' without looking it up in a medical dictionary."

Alice's grin deepens. Tonight is the night, it seems. Leah's ignoring them, but Alice knows she can hear. "I would," she says. "But she thinks she can't get into college."

Leah turns her head to glare at Alice behind Anita's back, but Anita look around in time to catch her. "What? You? You're smart as a whip!"

"My grades last year weren't good," Leah responds, keeping it polite for Anita's sake, but her black eyes are not amused as they bore into Alice's.

Alice won't be cowed, however. "Leah had a four-point-oh until last year. It was a bad year."

"You lost your dad," Anita says. "I remember when your mom brought him in. Any college admissions office would surly understand that and take it into consideration. And a four-point-oh? Why am I not surprised?"

Leah's eyes flick between Alice and Anita. Her lips are thin. "It's a little late for applications now. And I don't have any essays or letters of recommendation or -- "

"Most college application deadlines aren't until December 15th," Alice interrupts. "And some not till January 1st, so they can consider half-year grades."

"What were your SATs like?" Anita asks. "And I'm sure you could get letters of rec from around here. I'd write one in a heartbeat. So would Drs. Cullen and Snowden. And some of your teachers would too, surely."

Leah's expression grows grimmer at being ganged up on, but she answers Anita's question because Anita asked, not Alice. "My SAT was a 2130."

"A 2130! Young lady, you belong in college for sure and certain! Any ol' monkey can transcribe medical records, but you could be a doctor yourself making them! I'd better have some college application rec requests on my desk Monday morning or I'll tie your tail in a knot and I don't care how big you are!" Anita is probably a full foot shorter than Leah.

Leah is blushing; Alice is beaming. Her work here is done. Getting up from her stool, she does a little two step to the exit of the nurses station. "See you later, Leah. We'll look at college applications tomorrow when you get up."

Leah just growls at her.

April, 2 2007

Four fat letters arrive in the Clearwater mailbox, three in late March and one in early April. The thinner ones, Leah tosses. Four fat letters. Four acceptances. She's still a little stunned. Her mother resists saying, "I told you so." Seth doesn't. And Charlie just grins over his coffee cup.

Alice -- damn her -- is knocking at the door the morning the last arrives. Sue Clearwater lets her in. In the wake of events last November, the treaty with the Cullens has been renegotiated. Given the fact Jacob imprinted on Renesmee, it would be hard for it to stand as it had been. All members of the Cullen clan are now welcome on Quileute land, but no other vampires, and the Cullens still don't hunt there, even for animals.

Leah has laid out the envelopes on the tabletop. University of Washington -- a yes. Washington State -- a yes. University of Puget Sound -- a yes. All have good, strong opportunities for native students, plus scholarships beyond what the BIA will give her. If not quite a free ride, it's close. U of Puget Sound is a little less forthcoming with funds, but they're more prestigious and the requirements to win aid are stiffer. Yet Leah was invited to their College Horizons workshop the summer before her senior year -- before everything had fursploded -- and there's a personal letter from the director of the Intertribal Student Council in the Puget Sound envelope, inviting Leah to visit before making final decisions. "There may be more funding available; we can discuss it when you come." Leah likes the personal touch.

The fourth acceptance -- the one that arrived today -- is the odd-man out. Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. Catholic. But they're looking for promising students who don't necessarily have stratospheric grades, and being both female and native has helped Leah a lot. Creighton is near the top of Newsweek's list of "A+ Colleges for B Students." Alice had insisted she apply even though it was private. As it's private, Leah's out-of-state status matters less in terms of tuition. "You're not really a B-student," Alice had said, "but they'll be more likely to overlook your grades from your senior year than, say, Dartmouth or Notre Dame."

Apparently so. TRiO -- a Creighton scholarship for promising high school students -- is offering her a full-ride. Government funding is a wonderful thing.

Yet Omaha is half the country away from La Push. Part of her dislikes that, but another part -- an increasingly large part these days -- finds a certain appeal in it. Leah picks up that envelope as her mother and Alice watch, standing at opposite ends of the table. Her mother's strong brown hands are gripped together tightly in front of her; Alice's are gripped together behind her back. "This one would be cheapest," she says.

"Nebraska is a long way from here," her mother points out.

"Yeah," Leah agrees.

"There are phones," Seth says, which just earns him a hard glance from both women and a kick under the table from Charlie.

"Jasper and I will be going with you," Alice reminds her and Leah's mother turns her glare on Alice instead.

"You got accepted?" Leah asks, then adds, "Stupid question -- of course you did. They were probably salivating over you."

"I'm sure they're salivating over you, too, Leah. The director of their student support services for the NAS program is native."

"I don't want to major in Native American Studies, Alice."

"So don't." Alice takes a chair without being invited. Charlie eyes her, but he likes Alice. Sue continues to glare, however. "I'm sure she could still help with advising and getting you in touch with other native students at the school." Alice pauses and appears thoughtful. "Maybe I'll major in Native American Studies. I've never done that one before. Jasper's doing theology again -- it is a Catholic school and he likes tweaking the Jesuits -- but I think he may look into native religions this time."

"You're telling me this is the one I should pick," Leah says. It's not a question.

Alice shakes her head. "It's your choice, Leah. We're just going to follow you. They're all good schools. Puget Sound is prestigious, but Creighton is ranked higher."

"Puget Sound is offering me less. But they'll have more native students, and natives from around here. I don't even know what tribes are out near Omaha."

"Maybe the Omaha?" Seth asks with a straight face.

Sue boxes his ear as Leah says, "I know the people around here."

"True," Alice says.

Leah looks at the two envelopes she's still holding. Then she looks at her mom, at Alice, at Seth. Charlie is eating his soup and not watching.

She lays down the Puget Sound envelope. "It might be good to go somewhere new," she says. Not very native, but then, she's always defied stereotypes.

September 2, 2007

Leah thinks the guy in the second row, second seat must be president of the Indian Men's Hair Club. His hair beats Sam's. It even beats Jacob Black's back when he still had it all. One long braid falls all the way to his waist, which means, unbound, it would probably pass his ass.

His name is Michael. Michael Rasmussen. She makes note of it when the professor reads it aloud during role check. He's tall and skinny, and wears glasses. His shoulders hunch and he keeps his head down, focused on his notebook and pen, as if he's shy -- unlike the other native students who sprawl in their seats or talk to friends, confident of their place in this course about Indians. Leah feels Alice's elbow knock hers. "You're staring," Alice whispers.

"Fuck you," Leah whispers back.

"He's cute," Alice adds, and something in her tone alerts Leah, who turns her head and narrows her eyes.

"He's why you suggested we enroll in this class."

"Well, 'The Native American World' does fill Core B non-Western history requirements. And it's got other Indians in it. You wanted to meet other Indians."

"You don't fool me, you meddling leech." But the epithet is spoken with fondness and Alice just smiles, wiggling in her seat. "I thought you couldn't see my future?"

"I can't," Alice confesses. "But I can see his. Well, sort of. I can see where it intersects ours."

Michael Rasmussen either feels eyes on him or hears them whispering because he turns his head to glance over a shoulder. Catching Leah watching him, he blushes and turns back quickly.

October 2, 2007

"So you only found out you were Lakota ten years ago?"

"That's right. I still haven't found my birth parents' families, though." Michael (definitively not 'Mike') pushes up his glasses as he and Leah amble toward the library. They're almost exactly the same height, making Leah thankful he is Lakota as she tends to top the heads of the (non-wolf) boys among her own. These plains kids are giants. "When I was ten, I finally worked up the courage to ask my mom and dad if I could find my tribe. Make no mistake," he's quick to add, "I love my adoptive parents. They've been nothing but great, but it's been . . . hard. Not knowing what I was. Like I said in class, I guess most adoptive kids have the same questions about their birth family, why they were given up -- all that. I just got dealt the 'whole different race' card on top of it."

Leah nods, and Michael goes on after a moment, "You don't feel like you really belong anywhere, and nobody ever assumes you're your parents' kid. I mean, it's pretty obvious. My parents' parents were Danish immigrants."

"That must've been weird" -- which, Leah thinks, is probably stating the obvious, but she wants to keep him talking. She's been working at becoming an 'active listener,' as Jasper terms it. White people expect it, and however native Michael's face, his body language is white and his speech lacks the easy lilt of Red English that she grew up hearing from the pack and other rez-born natives. "I'd wondered about the name. You don't look like a part-blood."

He laughs. "I don't think I am, although I'm actually not sure. But yeah, I'm a walking, breathing example of where ICWA" -- he says it 'ick-wah' -- "doesn't apply. I'm an E-I-F baby." This second acronym is said with pointed sarcasm.

ICWA is the Indian Child Welfare Act and an EIF baby is an infant without an "existing Indian family." ICWA had been the topic of debate in their class that day -- and why she and Michael are talking now. Their professor -- who already knew of Michael's struggle to find his tribe -- had invited him to talk about his experiences, and that gave Leah an excuse to talk to him beyond the 'hello' and 'how are you' and 'did you study for the test?' banalities that normally pass for class conversation. She knows he often goes in the same direction as her after, headed for the library, so today she left behind Alice to catch him up, asking if she could walk with him. Now she says, "So because you were abandoned at birth and your parents are unknown, -- "

" -- then no tribal affiliation could be established. I wasn't abandoned on tribal land either. Ergo I'm not being removed from my culture. It's a loophole."

ICWA was enacted in 1978 to prevent child service agencies from swooping in to decide poor Indian families couldn't raise their children 'properly' -- 'properly' being defined by the white man -- then removing them to white families. That isn't to say Indian kids never suffered from bad homes; Leah knows a few on La Push. Alcoholism and abuse are not a myth. But forced child removal before 1978 had been just one of several strategies the U.S. government had utilized against natives. "Kill the Indian, Save the Man," had been their motto. It had begun with the infamous Indian boarding schools of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries where children had been carted across the country against their will, ordered to speak English, wear white-man clothes, memorize Bible verses -- and were forbidden to practice native customs on pain of being beaten. Forced removal for white adoption had been another method, and even unauthorized sterilization of native women as if they were animals in need of population control had been a third. Leah has heard about these things all her life, but the white students in class were so shocked, some wouldn't believe it without statistics and pictures. Even then, some had continued to protest, 'It couldn't have been that bad!' Leah, however, has quit doubting human genocidal tendencies whether towards blacks, Jews, gypsies, or indigenous populations -- or Croates in the former Yugoslav Republic or non-Arabs in Darfur . . . the list goes on. It's not just historical. People haven't outgrown their capacity for cruelty towards any group sufficiently "different" -- and who hold natural resources desired by the majority. Leah is a pragmatic cynic -- Jasper laughingly calls her his little Marxist -- and firmly believes economics hide behind most instances of ethnic cleansing, whatever the ethnocentric, political, or religious propaganda.

Michael's next words are just so sad, however, they shock Leah out of her musings. "I wasn't a victim of somebody's misplaced good intentions. I was just another unwanted baby." He shrugs. "At least my birth mother left me at Des Moines Lutheran Services instead of in a dumpster.

Spontaneously, Leah reaches out to grip his elbow although she doesn't really know him. "She probably had a reason." Yet this sounds automatic and hollow even to her ears, so she adds, "You're not human trash."

He shrugs again, disengaging subtly. He seems to wear personal space like plate armor. "That's what I've always told myself. She went to the trouble of leaving me where I'd be found and wrapped me in a shirt so I wouldn't get cold." He stops; they've reached the library but don't go in. He just stares at the doors, standing on the mall sidewalk while students part and pass them as if they were two dark rocks in a river of humanity. "I'd like to think she was watching from a distance somewhere, to be sure somebody did find me."

Heart-pierced, Leah has no idea how to respond and wishes Jasper were here. He'd know what to say. But if she's hearing this story for the first time, it happened years ago for him and he looks only a little down now, not on the verge of tears or rage. "I'm sorry," she says finally.

It seems to be enough because he smiles at her; she likes the way he smiles. "That's okay. Like I said, I wound up with good adoptive parents. They've been terrific through this whole little odyssey of finding my tribe of origin. Father John Scott helped a lot, too. I wouldn't even be at Creighton if not for him. He talked me into going here."

"You're Catholic?" She's surprised. She'd assumed him either protestant or nothing, given that he was left at Lutheran family services.

Half-smiling, he shakes his head. "No -- but it didn't matter. I wish you could've met him, Leah. He was an amazing person -- kind, respectful of native culture, funny, and he really liked to help people. He made me want to major in the sciences. That's how I met him; he came to judge a science fair because he used to teach physics, and we got to talking. He found out my story and helped our family get the DNA tests and other stuff. He also told me we need more native scientists. There are few enough natives who make it through college at all, much less go to grad school. Of those who do, only a handful major in the hard sciences. I intend to be one of those few -- disprove the stereotype." He pushes up his glasses; it's adorably geeky. "Indians do do science, just like girls do math."

"What is your major?" she asks.

"Physics. I may not have been raised on a reservation, but I want to teach on one -- teach science like Fr. John. I want to show native kids what an amazing job the Creator did with our Mother. Science can be really spiritual, you know."

Leah bites the inside of a cheek to suppress laughter. Hearing Michael attempt to talk native is more amusing than convincing, but she wouldn't dream of telling him that. He's trying so hard to fit in; she's watched him struggle for a month in class. He just wants his True Blue Indian card, and that, she thinks, is the real tragedy of his adoption. He's not white. He'll always be the token PoC in any white group. In fact, he mentioned during his class talk that he'd been one of only three non-white students at his little Iowa town high school, and the only Indian for miles around. But he's also not Red. Being Indian isn't about brown skin, black hair, and a census number. It's culture, it's belonging, it's family. Charlie Swan is more native than poor Michael, who has no idea how to navigate the sometimes cliquish, thorny, insider nature of tribal life and politics. She can't imagine him teaching at La Push High School without being eaten alive by the Rez Dogs. (And not the furry kind. The super-hyped-on-testosterone adolescent kind.)

"You're serious?" she says now. "You want to teach on the rez?"

"Yes, absolutely. I want to make science a course students want to take."

Grinning, Leah makes an abrupt decision and slings an arm around his shoulders even though it makes him flinch. "Come on then, White Red Boy, I need to ed-u-ma-cate you a little."

And thus Leah Clearwater becomes inseparable from Michael Rasmussen for the next three-and-a-half years. Since his family lives much closer to Omaha than hers (Alice and Jasper aside), Leah finds herself on a rural Iowa wind-and-corn farm at least three times a year, or dragged out to dinner when the Rasmussens come to Omaha. Michael's mother, Sonja, reminds Leah a little of her own mother. She's quiet but strong. His father is a sun-browned, boom-voiced bear of a man with bright blond hair and a full beard. Both adore their much-wanted-but-not-biological son, and watching them, Leah gains a little insight into the Cullens' family-by-choice dynamics. The Rasmussens accept Leah with enthusiasm -- not because she's native, but because she makes Michael happy.

And he makes her happy. Ridiculously happy. Impossibly happy. Indecently happy. At some point, her friendship with him morphs into dating and they fit together like overgrown bookends with their love of reading and fishing and serious political discussions filling the space between. Leah typically wears a grin now instead of a scowl. She laughs easily. She's stopped flinching when she hears the name Sam -- or Jacob. And she hasn't phased since that battle-that-wasn't in Forks. She's rediscovered the joyful girl she used to be and she's in love with a good-hearted boy.

But she hasn't imprinted.

She worries about that sometimes. She keeps waiting for the other shoe to drop because in Leah's life, good things always seem to be followed by bad things.

February 2, 2010

It's Jasper, of course, who senses Leah's increasing dis-ease and mentions it to Alice. "And you want me to talk to her about it?" Alice asks, bemused. It's not that Alice fears broaching a potentially uncomfortable topic -- she does so on a regular basis -- but with most she's also able to foresee how different conversational tactics will be received and avoid putting her foot in her mouth. In fact, it's so natural for her to sift futures this way, she feels virtually paralyzed when faced by someone for whom she can't do that -- like Leah. Backing Leah into a conversational corner about college had been possible only because she'd been able to see Carlisle, the nurse Anita, and Charlie Swan all writing Leah letters of recommendation. In a straightforward one-on-one, Alice has little advantage -- and she's not really comfortable with that. It's one of several reasons why, when it comes to the deep-down things, it's usually Jasper who talks to Leah.

"You and Edward -- you're both so busy looking at futures or looking into thoughts that you don't hear what a body's actually saying," Jasper tells her sometimes. Alice knows that a valid critique -- one she works at overcoming more than her stubborn brother -- but it's a bit like telling somebody who can see to close her eyes all the time when walking around the house just because she doesn't need to see in order to know where the furniture is. Alice can do it; she just doesn't like doing it. And sometimes, no matter how well she knows the furniture, she trips over a rucked up rug. Leah Clearwater trips her a lot.

Yet the longer they've known each other, the less that happens. Alice supposes that's like any normal human friendship. Now, Jasper says only, "I think . . . well, call it a hunch, but I think for this, Leah might rather talk to another woman."

So Alice puzzles over when and how to try drawing it out of her. Leah still lives with them, but she spends most days and some nights at Michael's. Still a bit old fashioned, Jasper isn't terribly thrilled about the latter, but Leah had no problem rebuking him. "Michael actually, you know, sleeps. No matter how quiet you and Alice try to be, you still wake me up sometimes." Michael also eats human food, so Leah tends to take her meals with him unless it's a bite on the way. That leaves Alice with fewer casual venues for broaching the topic without the dreaded, "We need to talk . . . " She can attempt to drag Leah out shopping ('attempt' being the operative word there), or she can try to talk to her on the way to and from classes. But these are public, and Leah may not want to talk in public.

For the next week, Alice is so busy strategizing, she's taken by surprise when she comes home one afternoon after three hours in Creighton's library to find Leah stretched out on Jasper's Ethan Allen leather couch, feet up on one arm and back against the other as she glowers out the sliding glass door of their apartment balcony. Alice insisted on renting one of the charming flats in a building off Omaha's historic Old Market. The rent is outrageous -- at least by Leah's standards -- but it didn't take much convincing to talk her into paying the cable bill and a few other things as her share and calling it even. Leah has pride, but unlike Bella, she's more sweetly reasonable when she wants to be. Their balcony overlooks the Old Market buildings west and the setting sun glares in angry oranges and reds over roofs. Leah's arms are crossed on her chest and she glares back.

"Hi," Alice says, modulating her voice so that it sounds soft. Leah doesn't move. "Have you eaten dinner?"

"Not hungry," Leah replies. She sounds like a petulant five-year-old, and if, once, that might have been par for the Leah-course, it isn't any longer.

Now or never, Alice tells herself and makes her way over to a lounge chair placed between the couch and the windows. "What's wrong?" With Leah, straightforward is sometimes best.

"Michael wants me to move in with him."

Alice blinks. She's seen that he's been thinking about it. She's also seen him in an apartment (one rather less fancy) with both his stuff and Leah's. But of course, she hasn't been able to see when it would happen -- nor that Leah would react with apparent upset rather than elation. "You don't want to move in with him?"

"Hell, yes, I want to move in with him! But it's not that simple." Leah sits up abruptly, arms still crossed. She glares at Alice, who tries to resist flinching. "I haven't imprinted on him. And I won't do to him what Sam did to me. This whole thing has gone on long enough. I kept thinking maybe in another . . . but no. That's not how it works. It happens immediately, or it won't happen at all."

Alice suspects she might understand, but isn't entirely sure she's right. "I thought not all wolves imprinted?"

"Theoretically. But we've discovered the old stories aren't always accurate. No woman's ever been a wolf, either -- but here I am. In the old stories, most wolves didn't imprint -- but every wolf in both packs has this time around except for Collin, and he's barely sixteen. And me -- but I'm twenty-four. Gee, I just love being the odd one out!"

Jaw snapping shut, Leah stops talking to stare at the carpet. The westering sun is dropping below the buildings now and shadows creep across the carpet towards Leah but sunlight still streaks her black hair with red and blue highlights. It's longer now, down to her shoulders but trimmed away from her face to fall in layers, granting her a softer look these days. Alice isn't sure what to say. Or rather, she has several ideas, but isn't sure which will help and which will only anger Leah. It's at moments like this that the lack of her gift paralyzes and chokes her. A full minute passes before she asks, "Why do you think you haven't imprinted? Are you afraid you'll meet someone better for you and imprint on him?"

"There is nobody better for me than Michael." The words are immediate but not heated; it's a statement of fact for Leah. "I don't want anybody else. That's the problem. Like I said, I wouldn't -- can't -- do to him what Sam did to me. I know how it feels. Besides, don't I have a better idea of what I really need in a mate -- a husband -- than some" -- she makes fluttering motions with her fingers -- "some archaic biological imperative? Imprinting is stupid."

Imprinting, Alice thinks, takes away what Leah values most -- her independence. "Well, maybe that's why you haven't imprinted. You don't feel a need to. Or maybe girl wolves just don't imprint. If you're the first one, who knows what's normal? I mean, look at vampire haflings. The girls aren't venomous, but the boys are." She grins faintly. "Maybe boy wolves need a little help in picking a mate that we women don't."

And finally, finally, she wins a smile from Leah. It's faint, but it's a smile and she managed it all on her own without help from her Sight. That gives Alice a little confidence. But then the smile falls off Leah's face. "I'm afraid the reason I've never imprinted -- the reason I phased in the first place -- is that I'm barren. That . . . it's something Michael needs to know, but I have no idea how to explain it to him without telling him everything . . . and if I haven't imprinted on him, I can't tell him." Her lips twist with her frustration. "I can just imagine what he'd say, too. He's a science major whose girlfriend turns into a mythical creature."

Alice's mind races at vampire speed. Leah's presented her with two puzzles. "Why do you assume you're barren?"

"Well, I'm no longer getting my period, for one reason. It stopped when I first phased and it's never come back. I think that's a pretty big clue."

Alice can only nod.

"But I have a theory on why, too. Imprinting is -- supposedly -- there to give the best chance of continuing the wolf gene. It forces us to mate with our ideal biological match. I guess like . . . advanced pheromones. There's a reason people think their lover smells good. Chemistry makes us attractive to good matches. I learned that in Human Biology."

Alice nods again. She's read that before.

"So imprinting is an extreme form of chemistry. I think the fact that I haven't imprinted and the fact I phase at all suggests I can't have children. If I were carrying a baby when I phased, I'd probably kill it."

"Leah, you haven't phased in, what, four years now? I think you'd be perfectly fine carrying a baby. Plus, you do change into a girl wolf. Last I checked, they had wombs too. It might be an issue if you were heavily pregnant, but for at least the first months, I don't think it would matter."

Leah appears thoughtful at that. "Maybe. But I think if I could have a baby, one of the pack would've imprinted on me instead of me becoming a wolf." She swallows. "Sam might have. I carry the gene, and he was already emotionally attached to me. But our bodies knew I couldn't conceive so he imprinted on Emily instead because she's my closest female relative."

Once, she'd have sounded angry and bitter. Now, she just sounds wistful. That more than anything tells Alice she really is over her first boyfriend. Unfortunately, what she says is also logical. "It would be easy enough to find out for sure," Alice tells her. "I'm sure Carlisle could run tests if you wanted him to."

Leah nods slowly. "I didn't want to know for sure before, but I think . . . I think now I do. If I'm right, then I'll know I'll probably never imprint, and feel easier about saying 'yes' to Michael. I'll still have to tell him I'm barren at some point, but the whole wolf thing . . ."

"That might be easy to get around," Alice says. While they'd discussed Leah's fertility, Alice's multitasking mind has been considering the matter of Leah's secret. "There are two possibilities. The first is to do something like Jacob did with Bella. He knew she knew the basics of the secret already, so he dropped some pointed hints and let her work it out on her own since he wasn't allowed to tell her directly . . ."

Leah shakes her head. "Bella already knew vampires were real; that made her more inclined to believe in shape changers. If one part of the legend was true, why not all of it? Michael doesn't know about vampires and it seems round-about to tell him about you, tell him the legend, then let him work backwards."

"True. So let's go straight to plan B. It's simpler, assuming I understand the details right. Sam told Jacob he couldn't tell Bella, right? A direct order about Bella, and Jacob couldn't break the command of his Alpha?" Leah nods. "Well, Jacob hasn't told you that you can't tell Michael, has he? You've not been given a direct order."

Leah's dark eyes narrow thoughtfully and just the corners of her mouth curl. "That's true. Of course, it's also because I'm out here, and Jacob assumes he doesn't have to tell me."

"If you imprinted on Michael, you could tell him automatically, right?"

"That's right. All the adult mates know."

"Well you may as well have imprinted on Michael. Technicalities. And if you're moving in with him -- if you've reached that level of seriousness -- he needs to know." She frowns, using her Sight to look ahead around the blank spot that is Leah. After four years, she's grown adept at this trick. "Right now, he'll be understanding, once he gets over the shock. I can't see how he'll take the actual revelation, of course, but I can see he accepts it. If you wait too much longer though, he'll feel deceived and be angry."

"What about you and Jasper?" Leah asks. "If I explain the wolves to him, I'll have to explain why we started phasing."

Alice just nods. "I think you need to treat Michael the same way you'd treat a mate. And if Jacob has a problem with that . . . well, he can think back to how badly he wanted to tell Bella. And you can tell him I see that it'll be all right. Michael can be trusted."

"Should I worry about Michael and these Volturi guys -- ?"

"As your mate, Michael would count as part of the pack, wouldn't he? And the Volturi aren't concerned with your people anyway. They might be at some future point, but only if they decide you're a threat. As long as you don't start attacking vampires everywhere, they'll leave you alone."

"They damn well better," Leah says. "Or I'll have to chew some marble vampire ass."

Alice bursts out laughing and so does Leah. Any remaining tension flows away.

She did it. Alice managed to navigate this conversation without mishap, but without her Sight. It makes her giddy -- and it suddenly occurs to her why Jasper, the sneaky strategist, suggested she talk to Leah. The topic really hadn't been anything he couldn't have broached himself, he just knows Alice lets him tackle the "tough stuff" with Leah, so he twisted her arm.

And she did just fine. For the first time in four years, she thinks maybe she and Leah could one day be as close as Jasper and Leah.

"You and Jasper," Leah asks now, looking nervous, "you'll be there when I tell Michael?"

"If you want. But it might be best if you start by talking to him on your own. We can be there whenever you're ready for us."

Leah nods, looking down, then up again. "And you did see that he'll be okay with it?" She's nervous; she loves this boy. And on this matter, Alice can give her definitive reassurance.

"Yes. He's going to be fine with it."

"I hear an unspoken 'eventually' tacked onto that."

Shrugging, Alice admits, "You know I can't see the actual confession, I can only see that he'll accept it. He'll become part of this family. Well, larger family, I mean -- the wolf pack."

"Smaller family, too," Leah adds, smiling widely for the first time since Alice came home.

August 2, 2010

Alice and Jasper make their way between unpacked boxes towards the apartment door where Leah bends down to hug Alice very tightly. "Thank you," she whispers, "for everything."

"You're very welcome," Alice whispers back.

Michael is shaking Jasper's hand. "We appreciated the heavy-lifting help," he says. "Moving's pretty hellacious."

"Vampire muscles are good for something," Jasper agrees, grinning.

Alice and Jasper exit, Michael following after kissing Leah on the cheek. "Off to return the truck," he tells her. "I'll be back with dinner."

"Good. Because if you think I'm cooking, you've got another think coming." Leah collapses melodramatically on the couch. She's not as tired as she pretends. Only Michael had to suffer today under human limitations. In fact, Leah had offered to take back the U-Haul, but he'd quickly refused -- and Alice had backed him up.

There's something he has to do today, and he can't in front of Leah.

Turning in the truck is uneventful, but Michael is nervous and Jasper is puzzled by the boy's mood. Alice can sense his growing confusion as they drive Michael back, stopping on the way to pick up sandwiches and some groceries from Hy-Vee. When they reach the little apartment complex not far from the Cathedral, Jasper puts the car in park to let Michael out. The young man takes a deep breath and looks at Jasper. "Could, uh, could I talk to you for a minute?"

Jasper shoots Alice a glance; she just grins back. She knows he can sense her excitement as well as Michael's nerves, and she makes shooing motions. Jasper follows Michael out while Alice stays inside to give the men at least the illusion of privacy. She doesn't have to be outside to hear perfectly.

"So -- " Michael begins, looking down at asphalt, his hands shoved in the pockets of his shorts.

"So?" Jasper echoes.

"I, ah . . . well, Leah's dad's dead. And you're . . . I guess you're, um -- I could have asked Seth, but, well, she looks up to you like a father. And Seth is younger. You're, um, not."

Jasper only smirks at this. It took Michael a few months, but he's come to terms with the fact Jasper is much closer to two-hundred than the twenty-four he pretends.

"So -- " Michael says again.

"Spit it out, son," Jasper tells him.

"I'm asking you, ah, as her, um, father-sorta . . . Iwanttomarryyourdaughter."

In the car, Alice squeals under her breath. Michael can't hear, but Jasper shoots her a frown. He's annoyed with her for not forewarning him, but he'll forgive her by tomorrow. This is an important moment for him and she didn't want to ruin the surprise . . . and it's not the request for Leah's hand that's a surprise. It's Michael treating him as her father.

Now, Jasper waits just long enough to make the boy sweat harder in the humid Midwestern summer heat. "After what Sam did to her, you understand that if you hurt her, I will kill you."

"Jasper!" Alice says inside the car, even though she knows it will be all right.

Michael's chin has gone up. "If I hurt her like Sam did, then you have my permission to kill me."

Jasper cracks a grin; Alice knows he can feel Michael's sincerity. "All right," he says after another moment and offers his hand at last. Michael grasps it, wrist to wrist in native fashion. "Welcome to our rather convoluted family," Jasper tells him.

March 2, 2011

"You can't ask a Cullen!"

"I already did."

"Well . . . UNask him! Pronto!"

Leah knows the pack -- both packs -- are put out with her. Everybody seems to think he should be the one to walk her down the aisle in lieu of her father. Or at least, Jacob and Seth both argued for the honor, and even Quil and Embry got in on the quarrel. Sam had the common sense to keep his mouth shut. But all of them (even Sam) thinks himself a better choice than the one who will walk with her and Leah is starting to wish she'd kept her mouth shut as she didn't come home for spring break just to do battle with a bunch of stubborn man-boys.

"Leah, what on earth possessed you to ask a blood-sucker to do it!"

This comes from Paul, ever the diplomat. Hands on hips, Leah confronts all of them. It's just like Old Times, except Michael stands at her back today. His arms are crossed and he doesn't seem too worried about the fact all but Brady top him by inches and outweigh him by at least thirty pounds. "I wasn't aware," Leah says now, glaring at Paul, "that I needed your permission about who I'm having in my wedding."

"Maybe you don't need Paul's, but you might at least have asked for mine," Jacob says. His voice is soft and his eyes are on the well-worn carpet. Five years have taught him how to be secure in his authority, and even Sam defers to him these days. He doesn't sound angry now, more disappointed, but Leah won't let him guilt her into doing what he wants.

"This isn't tribal business. It's MY business, and you, of all people, haven't got a leg to stand on while objecting to a Cullen, Jake."

"It's just . . . your dad . . . I don't think he'd have wanted -- "

Leah's temper blows. "Don't you DARE tell me what you think my dad would have wanted!"

Behind her, Michael sets both hands on her shoulders and just his touch calms her.

"I like Jasper," Jacob continues as if she hadn't interrupted. "But still -- this . . . I'm just not sure it's appropriate, Leah."

"Fuck 'appropriate' -- " Leah begins, but Michael's soft voice interrupts.

"I'm okay with it." This earns scowls from a couple of the boys who aren't too keen on him knowing their secret. But after a brief protest, Jacob took Leah's side on that matter, and they aren't going to argue (much) with Jacob. "Like Leah said," Michael continues now, "this is our wedding. It's personal, not pack business. We could have decided to do it in Iowa, you know. Mom and Dad and a lot of my relatives are flying out here just so we can get married on Leah's rez."

Paul sneers. "That's because you've got no real family, apple."

Jacob stands up so fast it startles Paul. "Shut your mouth, breed."

Sam steps between. "Ugly words have no place here. Go outside, Paul." Paul hesitates and Sam turns it into an order. "Now." Paul departs, muttering under his breath. Sam shoots Jake a glare too, although he treads more carefully with a separate pack leader. "That was unbecoming."

"Well, it's pretty rich that he has the gall to attack Michael for being an apple. It's not like Mike had any say in who raised him."

"Nor did Paul have any say in who fathered him." Sam makes the point gently and even if he's not a direct descendant of Ephraim Black, he speaks with wisdom and Jacob backs down. Sam glances at Michael. "There's no need for provocation here, Lakota boy." He's acknowledging Michael's native status but also reminding him that this isn't his tribe. "We're giving you our Sister. It's right for the brave to come to her family's house to receive her."

Michael glares back -- he doesn't like Sam -- but has the good sense to keep his mouth shut . . . maybe because Leah has stepped backwards onto his foot. "We're in 2010, Sam," Leah says. "Not 1910. NOBODY is giving me to anybody else. You might own your family fishing rites, but you don't own me -- which brings us back to the matter at hand." Her eyes turn from Sam to Jacob. "Jake, you're my Alpha. But in this, I'm just Leah, not your Second. And I think Dad'll be watching in approval, and walking with Jasper in spirit." She glances around at all of them. "That's my decision, guys. And Michael's. Jasper is going to present me. But I'm giving me away." Reaching behind her, she grips Michael's hand hard. He squeezes back. "Now, Mom and Alice want to discuss plans for May. We'll see you later."

Michael follows her out. His face is pinched and thoughtful. "They don't really accept me," he says. It's not a question.

She sighs. "Ignore Paul, hon. He's always felt . . . not Indian enough."

"He thinks I'm even less Indian," Michael says grimly.

"It doesn't matter," Leah tells him because she can say that safely without lying. It doesn't matter to her.

Alice is waiting back at Charlie and Sue's. Charlie waylays Michael on the way in, handing him a tackle box and fishing pole. "Wanna go catch us some salmon, son?"

"Sure," Michael says. He took to Charlie immediately upon meeting him last summer. There's a lot of similarity between Charlie Swan and Michael's own father, but Leah thinks he might do just about anything to avoid being present for the next few hours of planning torture. For that matter, so would Leah. Sighing, she accepts his kiss on the cheek and his unsuccessful attempt not to look gleeful as he follows Charlie to his cruiser. Leah enters the house where her mother, Alice and Jasper are waiting -- but it's not just the three of them. The whole five-person Tribal Council is there and baffled, Leah stops dead in the kitchen door. Billy Black, current Council Chair, motions her forward and she approaches. On the table is a tissue-covered bundle.

Her mother reaches out to part the paper, revealing what's folded inside.

"Oh . . . my," is all Leah can say. Sue lifts up a white woven vest that's so long, it'll fall to her knees. Red, black and yellow make bright, banded patterns around the chest and at the hem. "That's . . . where did you get that? It's beautiful!"

"The council voted," Billy says. "It was unanimous. You've served as one of our Protectors. Now, we Honor you. We commissioned this for your wedding, to wear over your dress."

Leah is crying. The tears run hot down her cheeks and a sob breaks free. "I don't deserve -- "

"When an Honoring comes to you, it comes to you," Sue interrupts. "You don't seek it out, but you don't turn it down." She shakes out the vest gently. "You've sacrificed a lot for the People. Now it's our turn to recognize that."

Leah turns to look at Alice and Jasper, who've been suspiciously silent; she wonders how much they contributed to the cost. Her people aren't as poor as some reservations, but a hand-woven dog-hair vest of this size costs a couple thousand dollars. Of course, so can a good wedding dress but Leah already bought something simple in turquoise because Michael likes her in that shade. Now, her mother and Alice lift the vest and settle it over her shoulders. Then Sue hugs her. "You look beautiful, baby girl."

March 2 - May 2, 2011

"So how much was your and Jasper's contribution?" Leah asks Alice later, patting the box containing her vest.

"Nothing," Alice tells her. Leah glances around sharply to see if she's fibbing. "The tribe wanted to do this for you, Leah. It wouldn't have been right for Jasper or me to try to usurp that by offering to pay for the potlatch."

Leah grins. "You're starting to think like an Indian."

"Thank you," Alice says sincerely. It might have been a tossed-off comment from Leah, but it means a lot to Alice. Chief among what she's learned as a NAS major is how to appreciate native culture without trying to appropriate it. When Alice discovers something she likes, she has a bad habit of "acquiring" it. This isn't materialism, or not in the usual sense. She just wants to have it near her -- both things and people -- because she lost her human life. She understands why she does it; she's majored in psychology before. But knowing the root cause doesn't necessarily mean it's easy to stop a habitual behavior. Yet this deep-seated need of hers lets her better understand the deep-seated need of native communities for self-determination and sovereignty -- not to have "the white man" step in to save the day.

Besides, Alice has her own gift to Honor Leah. It takes her the rest of March and all of April to finish it, even without a need for sleep. It's ready only two days ahead of time.

The whole family has come to Omaha to see Leah (and Michael) graduate -- Alice and Jasper, too, but this is just another piece of sheepskin added to their collection. It matters less. Charlie and Sue, Carlisle and Esme invite Michael's parents over to their hotel off the Old Market near Alice and Jasper's flat. They serve tea in a little conference chamber beside Esme and Carlisle's room, which Carlisle reserved for the evening. Embassy Suites is a conference-center hotel with both large meeting rooms and banquet halls downstairs and, on each floor, smaller rooms for more intimate settings -- like a family party. Alice hates when circumstances demand that she consume human food or beverages, but the vampires must take a few sips for appearances. Michael might know their secret but his family doesn't. At least tea is better than a whole dinner.

Finally, they bid the Rasmussens good-bye. They'll see them again at graduation, and in two weeks at the wedding. Once they're gone, everybody relaxes and a more substantial meal is ordered for the humans, and Nessie, but the vampires don't have to pretend to eat it. There's a congratulatory cake, which they cut afterwards, and the gifts come out. Michael is a little shy; this is the first time he's met some of the Cullens. Edward, Bella and Nessie live in Vancouver now, while Rose and Emmett were overseas in March when he was out there for spring break. Leahs' family is here as well, including Seth, and Jacob too -- perhaps as much because Nessie is here as because his Second is graduating from a prestigious private university.

Most of the presents are typical and straightforward, with the most dramatic being a fancy laptop for Leah from Charlie and Sue, something she can make good use of when she starts her CPA program in the fall. Given the cost of grad school and the competition for scholarships at Creighton, both she and Michael will enroll "down the road" at the state university because they can now claim residency (and in-state fees), and both the business and education colleges there have excellent master's level programs. They're buying a little house near the Cathedral not far from their current apartment. Michael's parents gave them $10,000 for a down payment, and Charlie and Sue have promised to cover closing costs. These extras taken care of, their monthly mortgage payment will actually be less than their current rent.

Alice and Jasper could have bought the house outright, just like they could have paid for both their master's degrees at Creighton -- but they won't. It's important to the kids to make it on their own. Alice understands, and Jasper insisted.

But they'll be there if they're needed.

They wait to give their gifts last. They've forewarned everybody about the first as they don't want anyone, especially Leah's mom, to feel upstaged by it. As for the second, Sue (and Michael) already know because they were involved.

Jasper rises from the small nondescript loveseat tucked away in a corner. He approaches Leah and Michael where they sit on one side at the table center, and sets down an envelope in front of them. "This is a combination graduation present and wedding present."

Eying him with suspicion, Leah picks it up to unfold the top, pulling out a pair of airplane tickets and a stack of itinerary printouts. While she and Michael study them, Jasper explains, "We thought it might be appropriate -- or at least amusing -- to let you two play Columbus in reverse. So we're flying you to Italy for your honeymoon -- Venice, Genoa, Florence and Rome." Leah and Michael are gape-mouthed now. "There's just one catch."

Leah looks around at Jasper again. He's grinning like a cat into cream. "Catch?"

"Yes. You have to promise me you'll wear your 'Columbus Was Lost' t-shirt in Genoa -- and take a picture."

Leah bursts out laughing and offers her hand to Jasper, who shakes it. "Deal, Old Man."

Emmett makes a sudden noise of victory and leans back in his chair, holding out his hand to Edward. "Pay up, sucker."

Leah gapes. "You bet on whether or not I'd wear a t-shirt?"

"I didn't think you'd be so -- "

"'Crass' was the word he used, I believe," Emmett finishes, eyes twinkling.

Leah picks up her remaining piece of cake and throws it at Edward -- who ducks in plenty of time to avoid it. Sue smacks the back of her daughter's head. "Well?" Leah defends. "How dare he call it crass!"

"Genoa is Columbus's hometown!" Edward objects. "It's a little rude to make fun of him in his own hometown, don't you think?"

"Never bet against me," Alice reminds them all.

"You can't see what Leah is going to do!" Edward says.

"I didn't have to see it," Alice says. "I just . . ." she glances at Leah fondly, ". . . know her pretty well by now. I forewarned you . . ."

Everybody has a good laugh at Edward's expense -- even Bella and Nessie. He accepts it with grace. He's less uptight these days.

Now it's Alice's turn. While the rest of them are settling down, she reaches under a coffee table tucked away in a corner and pulls out a very large box. Sue has risen to help. Alice undoes the top and says, "Leah, please rise."

Bemused, Leah does so, watching while Alice and her mother unpack what's in the box to unfold it between them until it reaches eight feet -- almost three-quarters of the breadth of the room -- and hangs down six, dragging the ground on Alice's side. She's not quite tall enough. Jasper stands to take her end, lifting it high.

Turning, Alice sees Leah's mouth hanging open. "A star quilt," Leah whispers. Beside her, Michael is looking smug. This was his idea -- or rather his suggestion when Alice had asked.

"The morning star," Alice explains for the sake of her family, and Jake too, who don't necessarily know Lakota ways, "is the symbol of new beginnings, new birth. The Lakota called the Milky Way the path of souls, and believed that, at death, the soul walked the Western Road into the sky. That's why, today, Star Quilts are an important part of Lakota burial traditions. They've also become Honoring blankets for the living at important milestones in their lives. The old life is over and a new life is dawning."

Turning, Alice runs her hand down the quilt, over the bright sunrise colors of the pieced star in the center. "I wanted to do something for you for graduation," she tells Leah a little nervously, because Leah is just standing there, stunned. "It was for your own tribe to present you with a traditional weaving -- not my place. I mulled over a lot of things, but wanted something that recognized who you are -- not some European thing. So I talked to Michael and he suggested this. I know it's not Quileute, but it is Lakota and you're marrying a Lakota man, so it's not completely out of left field."

"And you've been doing things in plains style most of the time out here," Michael adds. "Pow-wow, sweat-lodge, stick game . . . "

"Only because nobody out here is doing things in northwestern style, buffalo-boy."

"Get used to it, salmon-girl."

Leah swats at him. It's an old joke between them. Michael likes to tweak her about being the only northwestern Indian for miles around.

"Be that as it may," Alice breaks in, fingers fluttering like butterflies, "I wanted to make something to honor you."

"She's been working on it for months," Sue adds, and Alice doesn't miss that it's Leah's mother who emphasizes the effort Alice put in. A lot has changed in the five years since that final confrontation with the Volturi. Alice may still not like the way Leah smells, but she's learned to ignore it. And the wolves no longer consider Alice's family enemies at all, traditional or otherwise. There's no tension here today. "This room holds vampires, shape changers, and humans -- and Nessie, a category unto herself," Alice blurts, inspired suddenly by her own unfolding thoughts. "And we sit in a circle -- the sacred hoop."

"There is no beginning and no ending," Sue adds, "no head or foot. In the hoop, everyone has a place from the oldest" -- she glances at Carlisle -- "to the youngest" -- her gaze turns to Nessie.

"And we've come together to honor Leah," Alice says. "She's been through a lot, more than most of us, and most of that not of her own choosing. She lost her boyfriend, her future, her progeny, and her father all inside a year. And people wondered why she might be a little tetchy."

"Bitchy is more like it," Seth says. Jake smacks him, but without much heat.

Leah ignores them both to say, "I got something better, at least for part of it." She looks down at Michael and runs a fond hand down his braid. If she's not quite crying, her eyes are suspiciously red now. He just smiles up at her.

"You got your happy ending," Alice tells her.

"I did," she agrees and her smile is sweet. There's no anger there, only joy.

"Come here," Alice says, motioning her to step around the table. Leah does so and Alice turns her to face her gathered family while Jasper and Sue drape the quilt over her shoulders, engulfing her even as tall as she is.

Sue brings out a double-feather tie that she's brought -- shiny blue-black and black-brown with a white tip: Raven and Eagle. "You're clever, like Raven, and brave, like Eagle," Sue says as she fixes the feathers in her daughter's hair. As an Elder, she can give them. Not being native, Alice can't. Sue hugs Leah then, as does Jasper, who playfully lifts her off the ground to spin her around while the rest of them clap -- or give war-whoops in the case of Jacob and Seth. Nessie makes the ululating brave-heart cry; Jacob must have taught her how. Edward and Esme look slightly scandalized, which amuses Alice.

Finally, Leah turns to Alice and, leaning down -- way down -- hugs her with full wolf strength. Alice hugs back, and for once, the smell of dog isn't unpleasant at all. Leah's warmth is like the sun on Alice's skin. "Thank you," Leah says.

Alice lets her go and pushes her back up, reaching to touch the feathers in her hair. "Fly, Leah. Fly free." Turning her gently, Alice pushes her toward Michael who stands at the edge of the table. He takes her hand.


Now for you there is no rain, for one is shelter to the other.
Now for you the sun shall not burn, for one is shelter to the other.
Now for you nothing is hard or bad, for the hardness and badness is taken by one for the other.
Now for you there is no night, for one is light to the other,
Now for you the snow has ended always, for one is protection for the other.
It is that way, from now on, from now on. And now there is comfort.
Now there is no loneliness. Now forever, forever, there is no loneliness.

The Indie Awards: Three of my Twilight stories have been nominated for the Indie Twific Awards (theindietwificawards-dot-com), including Cowboys & Indians, this story's prequel. C&I is up for B This first round is to weed-down the list of nominees due to the high number -- which can be problematic for stories nominated in multiple areas because votes are typically split. Personally, I think C&I works best for either of the non-E/B categories, but that's simply my opinion. Vote as you see fit -- including for other stories if you prefer them. ;

End Notes: The wedding prayer at the end is a traditional Salish prayer, and Leah's vest is made in the beautiful style of Northwest coastal weaving. Information on the Lakota Star Quilt and on Indian Boarding Schools can be found online via a quick Google search. If the Omaha and Creighton buildings are all real, the names of people have been changed, of course, with one exception -- Fr. John Scott, now deceased, was a real member of the Creighton Jesuit community and known to be an encourager who did, in fact, teach on a Lakota rez. He appears here only as a side mention.

Some minor points where this story diverges slightly from Breaking Dawn: Leah attended the wedding (she doesn't appear to have in the book), and she did accept the Cullen hospitality after she'd joined Jacob. Neither of those points are terribly important to this tale, but just for the sake of clarity.

Brief Glossary (things not always defined in-text):

BIA -- Bureau of Indian Affairs. Federal agency chiefly assigned to relations between tribal nations and the US gov't. Unfortunately, the BIA often can't find its collective ass with a map and a flashlight, even though it (now) has native appointees. In general, it doesn't have the best rep with native people.

PoC -- Person of Color. Semi-sorta-"PC" term for anybody not part of the white majority in the US and Canada. CoC = "character of color" (used for fiction, obviously).

NAS -- Native American Studies. Used in many US colleges to denote the program that involves study of American Indian history, politics, law, religion, and culture.

apple & breed -- insulting terms; an apple is "red on the outside, white on the inside" (somebody who's not culturally Indian however native s/he might look) and "breed" is short for half-breed -- a not-nice term for a partblood.

enrollment & census numbers -- American Indians are the only minority in the US who must "prove it." An individual must be able to show descent from a previously enrolled member. In many cases, it's not an issue and babies are enrolled by their tribe at birth, but there are exceptions -- like our character Michael. Enrolled natives get a little census card (looks like a driver's license) with tribe, name, and census number. Enrollment began as a way for the US gov't to keep track of those 'wild bunch of Indians,' but now, it restricts services to enrolled members of federally recognized tribes. The need to limit services is understandable (there's never enough money), but enrollment creates interesting (and problematic) dynamics in the native community, used sometimes as a shorthand to being accepted as a "genuine" Indian.