After leaving Alice, I made my way home quickly. I still had an hour or so before the council would pass judgment, as I had learned from a quick mental communication with Collin, who had taken over Paul's patrol, and I desperately needed to see my family as well as get a change of clothes.
The familiar, small house soon made its way into my enhanced vision, and I carefully checked the nearby area to make sure no humans were around before I slipped from the shadows and made my way across the lawn toward the tree beneath my bedroom window. Thankfully, our house was somewhat isolated, so I had little fear of discovery, but instinct and habit had me automatically making absolutely sure. My muscles bunched as I lept into the air, shifting mid-leap - since the branches could doubtless hold the massive weight of my panther form - just in time to grasp the thick branch beneath my window.
Leveraging myself up, I swung lithely into the open gap, landing with a soft thud on my carpeted bedroom floor. Instinctually, my body flowed into a crouch as my eyes scanned the darkness of the room, searching for any hidden threats. Seeing I was alone, I quickly made my way toward my closet, tossing on a pair of black sweat pants and a black sports bra.
I could hear the steady heartbeats of Leland - asleep in her bed - and Charlie downstairs as well as the voices of this ESPN's Sports Announcers rattling off this week's football highlights playing downstairs, but I was slightly caught off guard by the roaring of a third heartbeat. I crept slowly and silently toward my door, twisting the doorknob and easing the door open cautiously before taking a deep sniff of the air. I smiled when the familiar and welcoming scent of Jake filled my nostrils, even as I rolled my eyes.
When I had asked him to look after my family, I hadn't meant starting right that moment.
Easing into the hallway, my earlier stealth shed like a second skin, I slipped into Leland's room to place a soft kiss on her forehead and her adjust her blanket as she slept before I skipped soundlessly down the stairs and into the living room, beaming at my boys. Jake, lounging comfortably on the couch, didn't even look up as he munched at the giant bowl of popcorn resting in his lap, his eyes riveted on the TV screen; he had already been keenly aware of my presence the second I stepped foot in the house, so my appearance was no surprise.
Charlie, however, sitting in his tan leather recliner like it was a throne with a beer in one hand, was startled by my sudden presence, jerking in my direction even as his hand reached automatically for the missing gun at his side. He relaxed as soon as he realized it was me, even though his heart still thundered in his chest. Jake laughed at his reaction and I joined in.
"Jesus Christ, don't do that to me!" Charlie all but shouted, the redness in his face slowly easing.
Jake smiling widely at me while Charlie glared. "Calm down Charlie, before you give yourself a heart attack," I teased, winking at Jake as the werewolf snickered under his breath. I cleared the last few steps to the couch and plopped down next to Jake comfortably.
"Yeah, well, you shouldn't scare the shit out of me then you wouldn't have to worry about heart attacks," he muttered indignantly.
"Language," I chastised out of habit, only to hear more grumbling from my son.
"So," I commented, grabbing a handful of popcorn from the bowl in Jake's lap and popping a few kernels into my mouth, "What have I missed these last few days?" I asked, trying to keep my voice light.
Though I had only been away from her for less than an hour, I missed her like crazy. I had no idea how I was going to make it through the weekend, but I knew I had no other choice. Saying it was going to be difficult was an understatement...with a capital UNDER.
I sighed, even as my son answered me. "Nothing terribly important. What have you been up to? I see you're in a better mood," he commented nonchalantly.
"You need to tell him, Bells. He's been really worried about you," Jake whispered softly, too low for my son to hear and I sighed again.
"I know," I returned, looking at Charlie just in time to glance my direction, concern all over his expression. "Charlie, we need to talk..."
He immediately looked suspicious, but nodded nonetheless, grabbing the remote to mute the TV. I grabbed another handful of popcorn and popped it in my mouth, chewing slowly in an effort to stall the conversation I knew was inevitable and I dreaded. Finally, the silence became almost insufferable, and I had to speak.
"Charlie," I began slowly, turning to face him but keeping my eyes down casted, "do you remember the first day of school? You got the call saying that I had skipped my last three classes and had been seen running off school grounds?"
He cleared his throat, shifting slightly in his seat opposite me and nodded. "Yeah. I just assumed that your control had almost slipped and you left to try and relax."
"You're not far off base..."
His eyes narrowed slightly. "Care to explain?"
I didn't answer.
"Mom," he nearly whispered, "Is everything okay? I'm...I'm worried about you. These last few days you've been acting really off. I tried to pass it off as being so close to the full moon, but I've never seen you this...edgy before." I summoned the courage to look him in the eye, seeing nothing but concern and love there.
I fidgeted slightly under his gaze, taking a deep breath and stating as calmly as I could, "The other day at school, at lunch I kind of...I kind of Imprinted. On Alice Cullen. On a Vampire."
My eyes shot to the floor, almost fearing his reaction and I unknowingly held my breath. Jake shifted nervously, no doubt waiting for the same thing I was; Charlie to explode. But his breathing remained steady and his pulse never faltered. Slightly confused, I looked back up to see my son smiling widely.
Well, consider me thrown for a fucking loop. Glancing at Jake, I saw confusion likewise etched into his tribal features.
"...What?" I asked Charlie hesitantly.
He laughed, his body shaking with soft chuckles. "That's pretty ironic, don't you think Ma?"
Roaring laughter met both our ears, and I winced from the close proximity. "That's what I said!" Jake roared between gasping breaths and Charlie chuckled again.
I rolled my eyes. Figures, the two men in my life would be on the exact same wavelength. They both laughed, and they both rubbed it in my face how ironic the whole damn situation was. In that order. Now, all I was waiting for was for Sue to do the exact same thing in about an hour, and my life would be blissfully complete.
"So...you're not going to freak out?" I asked my son cautiously once Jake had gotten his laughter under control.
Charlie shrugged. "I'm a little surprised...I thought you always said you couldn't Imprint."
"I didn't think I would. I mean, it's been almost two-hundred years, Charlie. I just thought it was a trait of my father's I didn't inherit. Besides, I never wanted to imprint, so it didn't bother me." Charlie raised an eyebrow.
"I never understood that about you..." he muttered.
"Why you never wanted to Imprint," he answered.
I sighed. "You know why, Charlie. I've always felt like it took away my choice. I wouldn't get to choose the one I was to spend the rest of my eternity with...It was forced on me."
"But you've seen the relationships between Imprinted couples. Your parents, Tia and Dona, Sam and Emily...they're all perfect for each other. Why wouldn't you want that?" He seemed genuinely curious and confused.
Jake all but stopped breathing as he awaited my answer. I had never explained to him just why I hated the idea of Imprinting, and he had never asked, but I knew he wanted to know.
"I've always been a very independent person," I explained, my eyes on Charlie even though I spoke to them both. "You know this...It's just who I am. I follow my own rules; I do what I want when I want. So the idea of having the choice of who I love, of who I'm meant to be with taken from me never sat well with me," I explained gently, as best I could. Of course, it wasn't just about that.
I didn't just want to instantly fall in love with someone, as I had done to Alice. I wanted to get to know them, fall in love with them slowly. I wanted to learn every little aspect of their life and every flaw - large and small - and fall in love with them anyway. I wanted the whirlwind romance, complete with shy touches and small smiles and dates. I wanted that one moment - be it a kiss or something she said to me or just a random moment curled up on the couch watching a movie - that would make me realize 'I'm falling in love with this person' and be completely and absolutely okay with that. All with the person of my choosing.
And, after having the one I loved taken from me because of Imprinting, it had only made me hate it all the more.
"And now?" Charlie asked.
"And now..." That was the question, wasn't it? Sure, I had never wanted to Imprint, and I had wanted them with the person of my choosing. But my choice had been taken from me.
And knowing her now, I didn't resent it anymore. I didn't choose to love Alice. I hadn't wanted to look into her eyes and be bound to her in every way inhumanly possible. But I had, and now that I had her, now that I had accepted what had happened, I was surprised to find that I was actually happy it had happened and especially happy it had happened with Alice. I didn't necessarily like that she was a vampire, but I had accepted it as being a part of who she was.
Besides, we had the rest of eternity for shy touches and small smiles, moments to snuggle in front of the TV and soft kisses. We had time to discover everything about each other and I was sure that, with everything new I learned I would only love her more.
"And now, I realize what I've been missing."
Charlie beamed. Jake released his held breath in a huff. I rolled my eyes at them both.
"This is gonna be so weird, though."
"What is?" I asked curiously.
"Well, my future step-mom is an immortal teenager, for one."
I just sat there, silently, more than a little surprised at how well he was taking this.
In all truth, though, I expected Charlie's reaction to be way worse. I expected thrown dishware, yelling, screaming and a good firm grounding for my son for said yelling, screaming and throwing of dishware. He seemed to easily read the expression on my face, and chuckled softly.
"Mom," Charlie said, amusement thick in his voice, "relax. Unlike you, I haven't condemned every vampire in existence to a painful death just because of what a few did. And hey, look on the bright side - your craziness the last few days finally makes sense to me now."
"I know, and I'm sorry about that. I just...had a lot to figure out and a lot on my mind. I was confused and angry and my control was completely shattered. I didn't want you or Lee to see me like that," I explained, leaning slightly against Jake.
Charlie nodded. "I get it. No worries." Jake and I remained silent, allowing Charlie a few moments to process everything. "So how long did it take you to stop fighting it?"
I looked at him in shock as he nonchalantly took a sip from his beer. How the hell did he know that I had fought against the Imprint?
Taking one look at my face, he scoffed. "Oh please, Ma, don't look at me like I just told you baby Jesus could shit gold." Jake scoffed and tried to hide his guffaws. "You're my mother, I know you pretty damn well. I'm guessing that, as soon as you realized you had Imprinted on a vampire, you went completely batshit crazy and refused to believe and accept it."
Jake snorted and muttered under his breath, "I'll say. Pretty much cleared an entire section of woods and Bambi's practically extinct in La Push."
"Jake, shut up!" I growled in annoyance at his incessant commentary, earning a confused glance from Charlie and a laugh from my best friend.
"What's he saying?" my son asked, his brow furrowed as he glanced between me the wolf boy, obviously confused.
"Nothing," I grumbled. Charlie looked skeptical, but didn't press the issue. "So anyway," I continued, answering his previous question, "I stopped fighting it earlier tonight. Alice was taking a walk and drifted a little too close to the treaty like. Paul was on patrol, saw her, assumed the worst and attacked. I showed up just as he was about to attack her again and...I don't know, something snapped. I went crazy, beat the shit out of him and...And I knew I couldn't fight it anymore. I didn't want to fight it anymore.
Charlie nodded solemnly. He knew the pack's laws concerning Imprints, and he knew what it meant for Paul. "Are you going to kill him?"
I sighed heavily, fighting back my anger just thinking about that bastard and how he had attacked my mate. "I want to...I really, really want to, but I won't. Alice made me promise not to kill him," he raised his eyebrows and smirked, "besides, he's being judged by the council. It will be passed tonight."
"Speaking of," Jake announced, taking a glance toward the clock resting on the mantle of the fire place, "It's time to go, Bells. We have to be there soon."
I nodded, standing from my seat. Jake followed, and we both looked at my son.
"I'm going into the mountains for a few days. " Charlie raised an eyebrow in silent question, and I indulged him. "I need to get out of town for a while. I can't risk being so close to Alice when Lykenia takes over. She's very...possessive." He nodded, understanding the need for more distance. I typically stuck to myself on the full moon, avoiding all civilization. When Lyklenia had control, I became, for all intents and purposes, a wild animal and like a wild animal, I avoided humans like the plague. "I'll be back by Monday, so you won't have to lie to the school anymore."
He grumbled, Jake chuckled, and I smiled. During the last few days, thanks to my mostly MIA status, Charlie had been forced to call the school and tell them I was sick, which he wasn't happy about, especially since I wouldn't tell him exactly why I was skipping.
At least now he knew. Life's all about those little victories, right?
I skipped over to him over-exuberantly, kissing him on the cheek. "I'll see you Monday sweetie!" My voice was overly-cheeful and bubbly and he rolled his eyes at my playfulness...which he obviously didn't find funny. However, a smirk curled his lips and the smile fell from mine.
"I wouldn't be so happy, if I was you."
"And why not?" I asked, raising an eyebrow, "I'm about to go to the, for all intents and purposes, trial of the man that attacked my mate to witness the sweet joy that will be his punishment. What don't I have to be happy about?
"Three words," he began, holding up three fingers to illustrate his purpose, "Vampire. Imprint. Sue."
It didn't take Jake and I long to reach La Push. We headed directly toward the beach, taking only a moment to shift and slip into our clothes before we broke past the tree line. Everyone was present, as expected. The Elders sat on one side of the fire, gathered around Billy. Sue's eyes immediatly found mine and, though her face remained stoic and impassive, the twinkle in her eyes told me I was in for it.
The pack was gathered around the opposite side of the flames, Sam and Paul a step ahead of the rest. I noticed Leah was missing, but the rest were present. Collin and Brady, the pack's youngest members at the age of 13, stood nervously behind Quill, Embry, Jared and Seth and I felt a pang of sympathy for them as they fidgeted nervously.
The breeze shifted, alerting the wolves to mine and Jake's presence, and they all turned to watch us approach. Paul glared venomously and I couldn't resist smirking back, even as we joined the ranks. Jake moved to Sam's right side and I moved to neutral middle ground, standing off to one side between the two groups.
Billy cleared his throat, gaining our attention. "Now that we're all here, let's begin." He paused a moment, no doubt to grow suspense and it was not helping my temper. "From Sam's accounting of tonight's events, the Council and I have devised a suitable punishment. Not only is Paul to be held accountable for attacking Isabella's Imprint, which is punishable by death according to our laws, but he put the peace between the Cullens and the Tribe at risk. Before we pass judgment, though, a question must be asked."
All the elders looked at me, and the pack followed their lead. Steely composure and pride kept me from fidgeting under their gaze. Instead, I stood tall, my eyes meeting Billy's without hesitation. "Isabella," he spoke up, "do you wish the right to challenge Paul to the death for his offense against your Imprint?"
I didn't answer immediatly, instead turning cold eyes to Paul. He paled slightly at Billy's question and I smirked at his obvious fear. Lykenia purred as his inner wolf shrugged away in recognition at the greater predator. There was a pregnant silence, thick with tension.
"No." A sharp gasp passed from more than one mouth, but my eyes never strayed from Paul's, letting him see just how much I wanted to say yes.
Damn Alice and her promise.
"Very well..." Billy said hesitantly, as if he didn't expect such an answer from me. His eyes lingered on me for a moment before turning back to Sam, nodding to the Alpha to proceed.
"Paul Lahote, you have been found guilty of the crimes of attacking Isabella's Imprint as well as threatening the peace between the Tribe and the Cullens by both the Elders and the pack. Your punishment will be as follows, as commanded by the Alpha." Sam's voice quaked with the power of his Alpha Voice, and Paul stiffened, having no choice but to obey. "You are to be stripped of your rank completely. You are forbidden to shift for any reason until the Full Moon two months hence, and you will be receiving twenty lashes delivered by my hand. Furthermore, you must personally apologies both to the Cullens and to Isabella, and you are forbidden to attack any of the Cullens or Isabella again for any reason whatsoever."
I smirked in satisfaction. The loss of his rank, which was third-in-command, and having to apologize to both myself, Alice and her family would no doubt be worse in Paul's mind than the lashes he was to receive and being unable to shift. Paul was a very proud man, and the blow to that pride would be worse than any physical punishment. The lashes would hurt, I knew from experience, but his enhanced healing would heal the gashes in a few days. Still, the scars would remain. It wasn't a suitable replacement for death, but it would do.
Billy looked at me, his eyes meeting mine. "Isabella, is Paul's punishment satisfactory?"
I nodded, "It will do." Mine and Paul's eyes clashed, the disdain clear in his gaze and I couldn't help but let a small smirk curl my lips.
"Very well," the Elder said, turning back to Paul. "Do you have anything you wish to say?" he asked the wolf.
Paul sneered. "When I attacked the leech, I didn't know she was Isabella's Imprint." He practically spat my name, and it only made my smirk widen. "I shouldn't be held accountable for committing a crime I had no idea I was even committing."
"It doesn't matter," Sam spoke, his voice thick with certainty. "Alice Cullen had not breached the Treaty Line, but you attacked her anyway without cause."
His objection quelled, Paul's jaw locked in defiance, but he didn't speak again. Billy glanced to the rest of the pack, taking a second to look at each individual before he addressed them as well. "Will any of the pack step forward in Paul's defense?" Each boy remained silent, avoiding Paul's eyes. "Very well. Sam?"
The Alpha nodded, stepping away from the pack and around the fire to grab the lash the Elder held in his outstretched hand. Sam's face was stoic, expressionless, but I could see in his eyes that it hurt him to do what he was about to do. Everything in him, in all the wolves, went against hurting a brother, but past that pain, I could also see determination. He knew what needed to be done. Paul had to be made an example of, just as I had tried to explain to Alice. Attacking another's Imprint was forbidden, and Paul was lucky to be getting off so easy. If it had been anyone else, if it had been a pack member who's Imprint he had attacked, he would be dead and the only reason he wasn't already was because of my mate's bleeding heart.
"Jacob, Jared," The Alpha commanded, nodding toward his Beta and the newly appointed Third-in-Command. The two boys stepped forward wordlessly, each grabbing one of Paul's forearms to keep him from trying to run. As I looked toward the law-breaker, his eyes met mine and I could see the defiance in them. He just didn't understand, so I would make him.
"Wait, Sam," I requested. The Alpha paused, confused, as I cleared the distance between me and Paul. "Let me ask you this, Paul. What if it had been Rachel?" His eyes flashed and lowered to the ground, his jaw clenching. "It might not have been my choice to Imprint on Alice, but I couldn't help it any more than you could. So, what if it had been Rachel? You may not have known, Paul, but you threatened the most important person in the world to me. You might not like Alice or the fact that she's a vampire - hell, I don't like it much either - but in killing her, you would have killed me*. You're a good man. You're not a murderer, Paul, and even though we've never seen eye to eye, I know you wouldn't wish me dead. Besides, even if she hadn't been my Imprint, attacking her would have broken the treaty, and the pack would have a war on their hands...a war I'm sure we would win, but at what cost? You might not die, but what of your brothers? What about Seth, or Brady, or Collin? Their just children. Could you really live with yourself if your actions cost them their lives? "
When his eyes met my own again, I found what I was looking for; acceptance. He was accepting the consequences for committing an unspeakable act and he understood now the gravity of his crime. Not only that, he was genuinely remorseful, which was more than just a lashing would have made him. That would have only fueled his fire, made him all the more angry and unstable.
"You're a good man, Paul," I repeated, setting a slight hand on his shoulder, "but you need to learn how to control yourself. You're too hot headed and unstable, and you lose your temper way too easily." Instead of berating, my voice was uncommonly gentle, at least uncommon when it came to talking to Paul. "You need to learn to control yourself before you end up hurting someone innocent or, God forbid, Rachel."
His eyes once more fell to the ground, this time to hide the tears gathering in the corners as the simple thought of hurting his Imprint tore a hole in his chest. When he spoke, his voice was thick with emotion and cracked hoarsely, "I'm sorry."
It was barely whispered but I heard it clear as day. I gave a very small smile and nodded, "I know."
"Will you...will you help me?" I could tell it was hard for him to ask me for help but, in all honesty, I never respected Paul more than in that moment. He was putting aside his own dislike in order to help better himself.
I nodded. "I will." Turning away from the wolf-man, I instead focused my attention to Sam, who was standing a few yards away, lash in hand, looking at Paul proudly. Our eyes met, and he tipped his head in thanks for giving Paul the wake-up call he so desperately needed. "I don't think that's needed, Sam," I said, nodding toward the lash.
The pack and the Elders looked at me with surprise, as if they didn't expect those words from my mouth and, truthfully, I didn't either. But I was oddly satisfied with Paul's remorse. Yes, a part of me still wanted to revel in watching the lash fly, cleaving patterns in the flesh of his back as his blood wet the sand, but I couldn't bring myself to allow it.
And it had nothing to do with the pleading golden eyes of a little pixie vampire. Nope, no Siree!
"Bella," Billy began, but I cut him off with a wave of my hand.
"I've been on the reviewing end of a lash, Billy, and I wouldn't wish it on anyone, no matter how fast they heal. Paul knows the gravity of his actions, and I believe that his own conscience will cut him worse than any whip will. But know this," I said, addressing the law-breaker now, my voice cold and hard, "attempt another attack on my mate, and I will kill you."
"I won't," Paul said earnestly, "I swear." His eyes, when they met mine, were sincere and grateful, and I nodded solemnly.
"I believe we are done here?" I questioned, turning toward Billy. The elder nodded, turning toward the pack.
"You are free to go, but go with a warning. Harm done to another's Imprint will not be tolerated, and neither will threaten the peace between the Tribe and the Cullens. Heed Isabella's words. She has lived much longer than any of us and is far wiser."
With that, the Council head gave a nod and the wolves dispersed. The Elders stood as well, while Jacob jogged around the fire to assist his father. Jared trotted into the woods, no doubt to take the next patrol shift and Paul, surprisingly, didn't move from his place in front of me. Sam approached his friend, laying a heavy hand on his shoulder and giving him an approving nod before he, too, turned toward the trees and disappeared into its shadows.
"Bella," Paul began softly, "I...Thanks. I know I don't deserve what you did for me, but thanks."
"Don't mention it. I won't say it's not your fault, because you really do need to get a hold of your temper, but I will help you...just as I helped Sam and Jared. Believe me when I say, I know what you're dealing with. I was a hot-head just like you when I first shifted, but I had to learn to grow up and control myself, and so do you."
He nodded, holding out one hand in a peace offering. I clasped it with my own, our hands grasping one another's forearms. "I look forward to it. I-I wouldn't be able to live with myself if I ever hurt Rachel."
"I'll see you after school Monday afternoon, then."
Surprise colored his dark features and tinted his voice, "That soon?"
I smirked. "No. I believe you owe an apology to the Cullen Coven and Monday after school is as good a place to start as any."
He grimaced slightly, but nodded. "Alright. Monday then."
With a glance toward the dispersing Elders, he turned and trotted down the beach. I watched him go for a moment before looking toward Sue, who lingered behind, a smirk in place and an eyebrow raised.
I groaned, "Alright. Go ahead. I know you're just dying to say it."
Her smirk widened. "I wasn't going to say a thing, Isabella Swan."
"Suuuuure you weren't," I said with a roll of my eyes.
Sue laughed, a rich, throaty sound and pulled me into a strong embrace. "I really wasn't...other than I'm happy for you...Well, that and 'talk about the irony', but I'll let you slide with that one."
"God, you sound just like Jake and Charlie. 'It's sooo ironic, let's laugh at the Hunter than Imprinted on a leech! Hardy har har!' Yeah, love you guys too." Sue chuckled, pulling back to sway me playfully on the shoulder. "Just wait until Jake Imprints. You just wait. I'm gonna point and laugh at her. Point and laugh," I grumbled with a scowl.
"No, you won't. You'll be the supportive, loving best friend you are," my friend pointed out.
"Fine," I huffed, "I probably will, but that's not the point."
Sue smiled a motherly smile. "I can't wait to meet her, sweetheart."
I smiled back, giving Sue another swift, fond hug. "Thank you, Sue. I can't wait for you to meet her either. She's...amazing."
The Elder studied me knowingly for a moment. "I'm sure she is, Bella. Now, I believe there is someone else you have to talk to before you go into the mountains?"
My heart sank, the joy I felt when thinking of Alice melting away. "Do you know where she is?"
Sue nodded. "She's at the house. Seth is spending the night at Collin's, so she should be alone. I'll dilly dally for a bit, maybe head over to Billy's and give you two a chance to talk." She must have recognized my crest-fallen expression, because she placed a soft hand on my forearm. "Just explain it to her, Bella. She'll understand. Besides, she knew it would happen one day...she just expected herself to be the one that Imprinted, not you. That's why she tried not to get so...invested. She didn't want to do to you what Sam did to her."
Instead of making me feel better, Sue's words just made me feel worse. "But Instead, I did to her what Sam did to her, which is even worse."
"No, Bella. She knew you two wouldn't last. She knew it last year when you first started seeing one another, she knew when you left for Scotland, and she knew when you came back. She's been preparing herself for it."
"Doesn't make it any better."
"No," Sue smiled sadly, "It doesn't...but she's strong. She'll get through it. Just be there for her, even if it is only as a friend. You two started out that way, so just go back to the beginning."
Right. Easier said than done.
"Leah?" I called as I entered the house, searching the immediate proximity. The buzz of the TV met my ears as well as the wolf's racing heartbeat and I automatically steered myself in the direction it was coming from, walking into the living room to spot Leah sprawled out on the couch, a beer in one hand and the remote in the other.
Talk about channeling your inner Charlie, right?
Heaving a soft sigh, I padded lightly across the distance to the couch, taking the only empty spot on the end near her feet. "You got one of those for me?" I asked with attempted casualty, pointing to the beer in her hand.
She didn't answer, her eyes remained riveted on the screen. My shoulder slumped, but I attempted again, "We missed you at the bonfire." I missed you at the bonfire. Still nothing. Sighing again, I leaned back against the plush cushions. "Come on, Lee. Give me something here."
When still no answer was forthcoming, I gave up and turned toward the television as well. I don't know exactly what I was hoping for, but this wasn't it. I wanted her to yell at me, scream at me and curse my name. This...non reaction worried me. She hadn't been like this after Sam had imprinted on Emily. She had been on fire, full of rightouse passion and emotion. This Leah was...empty.
Many minutes passed in complete silence on our part, me just sitting there starring at the TV - which was playing an old episode of Friends - stupidly and her doing the same while occasionally taking a sip from her beer. It was only after the end credits rolled that she spoke, her voice dead and devoid of any emotion.
"You told me you couldn't imprint."
I sighed softly. "I didn't think I would, Lee."
"But you did. On a fuckin' leech, nonetheless," she spat. At least she was showing some emotion.
"Watch what you say about her," I hissed, bearing my elongated and sharpened teeth. When I realized my slip in control, I took a deep breath and reigned in my emotions. "Yeah, Leah, I did. I didn't choose to. It just happened, and I couldn't help it any more than you can help what the weather is like."
She was silent, taking another long draught from her beer bottle. I sighed, wiping my face with one hand. "Look, I know you're upset with me, and I can't blame you. But you should know by now that I wouldn't do anything to purposely hurt you. I won't be sorry for what happened, but I am sorry that I hurt you."
"You didn't," she snapped, turning to glare at me. Ah, there was the fire I knew so well. I couldn't help but smile, and it only made her angrier. Angry I could deal with. "What the fuck are you smiling at?" She hissed angrily.
I smiled wider, "There's the Leah I know."
"You don't know me." She leapt from the couch, hovering over me in a threatening manner, but I was anything but. Leah was an imposing figure for a woman, I would give her that, and if I were human, I might be afraid of her, but I wasn't.
"I know you better than you know yourself, Leah. I was you, once upon a time," I replied calmly, raising an eyebrow at her aggression but otherwise remaining unphased.
"I'm nothing like you!" She screeched, pointing an accusing finger at me. "I'm nothing like you! I hate you! I hate you and I hate Sam and I hate those fucking leeches!"
"Why, Leah?" I asked in the same monotone voice, only provoking her further. Inwardly, I congratulated myself for shrugging off her insult to my mate.
"Because! They took you from me! They took you and they took Sam, and I hate them for it!" Her voice cracked, her eyes glossing over as she fought against the raw emotion welling inside of her. I stood slowly, arms hanging uselessly by my side, watching her closely and waiting for my moment. "I hate them! They've taken everything from me! Sam, Emily, You...Why? Why does everyone I love have to abandon me, huh? Why can't I just have someone to myself? Why do I have to watch everyone I love Imprint and be happy while I'm stuck being alone? I'm so sick of it, I'm so sick of everything."
Tears welled in her eyes and spilled down her cheeks. Her voice grew hoarse and shaky and her brown eyes boarded into mine, pleading me. "Who said you were alone?"
"I am," she whispered dejectedly.
"No, Leah, you're not. I love you." I took a step closer, holding out my hands in a gesture of surrender.
A broken sob broke free from her throat, and she roughly pushed me away from her, but I stood solid. "No! You don't get to say that to me!"
"I love you, Leah." Her fists balled as the tears flowed freely now, and she lifted her hands to pound against my chest. I winced slightly but accepted her blows, knowing the bruises they caused would be gone in a few short hours.
"I love you." Another blow landed and her knees began to weaken.
"NO! Shut up!" She accentuated each word with another punch, but I could feel her strength weakening.
"I love you." As her legs gave way and she collapsed, my arms wrapped around her and we sank to the carpet, her attacks weakening with each one she landed as the will to fight gave way to her sorrow. She was sobbing full-out now, taking gasping breaths to make up for each wail she gave.
"Please...please stop," she whimpered against my chest. I gently stroked her hair, rocking our bodies back and forth, murmuring soft 'I love you's into her hair.
Gradually, her crying calmed but I never stopped whispering my assurances into her ear or stroking her hair. Her hands fisted in my baggy shirt, holding me to her. The fabric, wet from her tears, clung to my skin and her occasional sniffing drowned out the droning of the TV. Though her breathing was even, it was slightly raspy and if it weren't for the irregular pattern of her heart, I would think she was asleep.
"I wish," she whispered before hesitating. I pulled her closer to me, placing a soft kiss on the top of her head.
"What do you wish," I encouraged.
"I just wish everything was different...that there were no vampires or werewolves or any of that shit. I wish I could go back to the way I was before all this happened. I was happy and everything was perfect and there was no drama. I wish we could just be normal people living normal lives."
I chuckled softly, "In a perfect world, Lee. But, do you wanna know something?" She lifted her head from my chest, her swollen red eyes meeting my own and slowly nodded. "I wouldn't change anything." Her brow scrunched in confusion and I gently ran the pad of my thumb across her cheek. "If I wasn't who I am, I would have never met your mother or Billy or Seth. I wouldn't have my family. I wouldn't have the Pack in my life. I wouldn't have Jake in my life, or you either, and none of you would have me in yours. I know things are hard right now, Lee, but I wouldn't change any of it because having you in my life has made me a better person. You're so strong and brave and confident. Anyone would be lucky to be with you."
She scoffed disbelievingly. "Guess you and Sam have shitty luck then, huh?"
I chuckled and shook my head. "Terribly."
She scoffed. "Yeah, you're the unlucky one."
I pulled away slightly, lifting her chin so that her eyes met mine. "This isn't about luck, Leah. Besides, if you really want to have the luck argument, I haven't necessarily been the luckiest person on the face of the earth. My family was slaughtered before my eyes. The person I loved the most imprinted on another after being together for over fifty years. I don't even want to think about what that fucking bastard did-" My eyes squeezed shut, forcing the memories just speaking those words brought up in me. When I quelled the thoughts successfully enough, I forced myself to continue. "But that's not the point. I have Charlie and Leland. I have the pack, and Sue and Jake and you...Yeah, I've had some pretty shitty luck, but at least I'm not letting all the fucked up shit that happened to me years ago fuck up my life now. I have so many things to be grateful for, and so do you.
"Besides, Leah, who were we trying to kid, huh? We both knew when we started sleeping together that it wouldn't last. At best, we were just friends with benefits. Sooner or later, it would have ended because, even though I thought I couldn't Imprint, you can. I knew you would eventually, and where would that leave us?"
She looked away, avoiding my eyes as the truth of my words bitch slapped her. She might want to blame everything on bad luck or the Cullens, but we both knew the truth of the matter. The 'us' was never meant to last. We were just a temporary comfort for one another, a temporary cure to loneliness.
"Leah," I said, my voice softening, "you know I love you. And you know I would never deliberately hurt you...but we were doomed from the start."
"I know," she whispered, "you think I didn't know that? I knew we would never last...either I would Imprint or you would leave or find someone else...whatever the reason, I knew. And, as much as I didn't want to hurt you or I didn't want to get hurt, I didn't want to stop. You..." She paused, turning to face me and taking my hand in her own, "you took away the pain and the sadness that Sam left behind. You filled up the hole he left in me. God, I never wanted to fall for you, Belle, and I didn't expect to, but after what happened with Sam, you were there for me in a way no one else was, and I don't just mean the sex. You knew what I was going through, you understood."
"I'm still here for you, Lee. That will never change," I reassured her, squeezing her hand to enforce my promise.
She smiled softly. "I know."
We spent the next few minutes in silence, gradually shifting until my arm was slung across her shoulders and her head was resting mine. I squeezed her closer to me, resting my chin on the top of her head. "I love you Lee, you know that, right?"
"I know, Bella. That's what makes this the hardest."
"You'll find your own Imprint, eventually."
"I hope so. It'll make things easier. At least then I won't be lonely anymore." I could tell she tried to sound hopeful, but I could see through her front easily.
"You'll never be lonely as long as I live, Lee. You might be a little horny, yeah, but lonely? Not a chance."
She chuckled. "Yeah, well, it's the horny part that sucks the most."
I returned her amusement with a chuckle of my own, "Please. I've managed to live well enough without any for years before you."
Silence once more fell, only broken by the buzzing of the voices coming from the television. My thumb idly stroked the exposed skin of Leah's shoulder. Leah softly sighed, burying her face in the crook of my neck.
"I want to be happy for you, Bella, but I can't. And it's not because you imprinted, it's because you imprinted on one of them. If it was anyone else, it might be easier, but..."
"I know, Lee," I cut her off. "I'm not asking you to just accept it outright. One day, I hope you'll be able to."
"How did you do it?" She asked me after a few moments of solid silence. I adjusted my grasp slightly, pressing my cheek to the crown of her head.
"It was very hard, at first. I needed her to breathe and, though I know it killed her to do what she did to me, I hated her. I couldn't even bear to talk to her or look at her...I just ran away. I could barely function, but I managed. She tried to track me at first. I avoided her, quite successfully for many years...until I got pregnant with Charlie." I paused for a second, giving a sharp bark of laughter. "I was so fucking terrified, and I didn't have anyone else. As much as it killed me to be anywhere near her, I couldn't go through my pregnancy alone. So, I sought her out. When I finally found her, I remember being so scared of how she would react. I remember knocking on her door and waiting and waiting and waiting...when she finally answered, we just looked at each other for what seemed like forever and then she was hugging me so hard I couldn't breathe.
"It was hard, for a while, being around them and seeing them so happy. But once I got to know her Imprint, it was easier. I could see how well they fit together, how perfect they were together. I still loved her, God knows I still do, but I accepted it because she was happy. At first, I didn't care if she was happy or not. I just wanted her to be with me...I was selfish and wanted her to myself. But the more I saw them together, when I saw how happy she was. I realized that her being happy was all I ever wanted, and Dona made her much happier than I ever could. After that, it got a hell of a lot easier and now, I know that we were never meant to be together. Yeah, I loved her with every piece of my beating heart but being around Alice...it's like a part of me I never knew was missing was returned to me. She'll always be a very big part of me, but I've learned to love her in a different way, and so will you."
Leah sighed wistfully. I patted her head comfortingly. She yawned widely, nuzzling closer to me and fighting uselessly against sleep. I smiled fondly, rubbing her back soothingly in an effort to coach her to sleep. No doubt she was emotionally exhausted, as was I.
"It gets easier, I promise." I murmured reassuringly.
"I hope so," she whispered against my shoulder, her voice showing her exhaustion. I chuckled softly, watching her eyelids slowly droop.
"Go to sleep, Lee." I placed a soft kiss on the top of her head and, within minutes, she was snoring gently and out like a light. Standing fluidly, I hefted her easily in my arms and moved quickly toward the stairs, climbing them with little effort. Her bedroom door was already open, making my job easier and I gently placed her bed. The covers were pulled around her shoulders and she snuggled deeper into the warm cocoon the heat from her body created. I couldn't help but smile, placing a soft kiss on her forehead before quietly sneaking out of the room and back down the stairs.
* 1. Okay, so I wanted to explain my version of imprinting a little bit more. Personally, I don't think Stephanie Meyer put enough emphasis on Shifter/Imprint relationships, so I'm kinda adding my own twist to it. Basically, after a shifter imprints, he or she quite literally needs their Imprint to live. If they were to die, so would the shifter. Without their Imprint, they simply lack the desire to live and basically waste away. It would be like taking away half of your soul...you just don't want to breathe anymore. Think of Edward's reaction to Bella's 'cliff diving' incident in New Moon. When he thought Bella was dead, he couldn't live in a world where she wasn't alive, so he was willing to force the Volturi to kill him. My version of Imprinting is the same way.