A/N: And so we have reached the end of what was supposed to be a quick interlude. I thought about an epilogue, and I might post one eventually, but that will have to wait until Chest Pains is done and I have no idea when that's happening so...this is it for now. Thanks to everyone who reviewed—especially all the anonymous reviewers.
There was no one around when they got to Judy's house after school. It seemed like the time to take her hand and explain that he might not imprint, if Levi said so.
After he explained again, she asked, "You don't want to imprint?"
From Judy, it was carefully neutral. There was nervousness and excitement bubbling below the surface, but she was trying not to let that show. Not yet.
"I don't want anything that might come between us."
"An imprint doesn't have to be—I'd still be your girlfriend if you imprinted. As long as you wanted me."
"Forever, then," he said was a smile, leaning down to kiss her lightly.
"Baxter," she scolded. After she let him kiss her.
"You don't have to not imprint just for me. I don't care."
She trusted him that much—knowing that made it hard to stop smiling. He should though; this was a serious conversation after all.
"I know you don't."
"I don't want you to miss out on anything. I want you to have—you deserve everything."
"There's no guarantee it'll work."
It might even be a mistake. He'd get careless. He'd forget to keep his eyes down when the tourists passed, thinking he didn't have to. He'd catch the eye of strangers. Maybe one day he'd find one that—maybe. There was no way of knowing, really.
"If it does work, there's nothing stopping Levi from ordering you to not-not-imprint if you change your mind." Judy wrinkled her nose. "Right?"
"I guess. If I change my mind."
"Just because you don't think you will—" Since she couldn't stop smiling, she settled for growling playfully at him, until he laughed and kissed her again. "Stop being so schmoopy, pinochle."
"I blame you."
"I'm trying to think," she said, swatting his hands away. He tried not to laugh. "So you don't have to, but you kind of want to because you don't really need another girl in your life and really we've told everyone who needs to be told, so you might as well not bother and maybe even save it up for another time. And if you change your mind later, you should be able to change your mind. So it doesn't really make sense not to do it. Right?"
She narrowed her eyes. "You're not just saying it makes sense just because of me, are you?"
"It mostly makes sense," he promised. "It also just feels like the right thing."
"You and your feelings," she huffed. "You could wait a little while before you do it."
"I was thinking Levi could do it—" Was this too much? She didn't want him doing it for her and she was probably right about that. It was his future they were talking about (never mind that he couldn't imagine his future without her in it). But it was just a few weeks away and it's what he wanted to do for her. "Maybe on your birthday?"
"Uh," she said as she threw her arms around his neck. "You are so impossible."
Judy was kissing him pretty fiercely, though, so Baxter figured that meant she agreed. They were going to do this.
Since Francy had finally come home, dinner was an actual event now and not just something they did for five minutes when Brian had the time. All seven of them sat around the table, Dad at one end, Francy at the other, dishes laid out between them. Timmy entertained them with tales from school while Brian and Baxter tried not to make it too obvious they were fighting over the last of the potatoes.
"Give them to Arthur," Francy said after Brian elbowed Baxter in the stomach. "He didn't get any."
"I thought you had," Brian said as he handed them over. Baxter watched, just in case Art didn't want them. The kid didn't look that hungry.
"How was your day?" Dad asked Art.
"You must be looking forward to summer vacation," Dad prodded.
Art shrugged. Brian took pity on the kid. "Did Dinah invite you to Judy's birthday yet? That'll be fun."
"We asked Dinah if we could invite Ginger," Timmy said. Brat. "She said it was fine."
"Why do we want to invite Ginger?" Tommy asked. Francy's, "Thomas," just encouraged him to continue, "Dinah can't actually kill her, so there's no point."
The twins decided a few punches could solve their disagreement. "Boys," Dad warned and they cut it out. Only then Dad turned his attention to Baxter. "Are you sure you aren't going to get Judy something else?"
"Yeah." Baxter took a deep breath. "I talked to Levi and we're going to do it just before the party."
"Are we going to have a conversation about it first?" Sam asked. It was polite, without the hint of anger Baxter expected, so he didn't snap.
"We just finished paying off the last renovation," Francy mentioned as she stood up to get desert. "Anyone not want pie?"
Since they all wanted desert, she stepped away from the table to get it (after a fairly effective warning glare).
"Go ahead," Baxter said. "I'm listening."
His father didn't answer, though, just picked up his glass of water and took a long sip. Brian took the opportunity to say, "You don't know what you're giving up."
The twins snickered, but shut up when Brian glared. Art protested, "Ginger's not that bad."
"Yeah, you could get stuck with someone like Levi," Tommy offered. It made the two of them howl with laughter, though they stopped when Francy threatened to take away their pie.
"Levi's going to be the Chief of this tribe someday," Sam said. It was supposed to be a rebuke, but Sam couldn't quite stop himself from adding, "When he grows up."
"He'll make a great Chief," Baxter said.
"He wouldn't shirk his responsibilities."
"I'm—" Was that part of the werewolf package, too? Fangs, claws and an imprint? Everyone but Leah had imprinted, eventually.
"He knows you wouldn't," Francy said soothingly. "He's just making sure… You won't forgive yourself, later, if you think you didn't fulfil your responsibilities."
Their father said, "I don't think it is for the tribe. It's much too personal for that. It's a gift and if you don't want it, it is your choice." Sam gave him a small smile. "However, I hope you remember that being with Judy comes with its own duties. She has a lot of responsibilities."
They had a theory, once, a long time ago, that Leah phased so that, with the pack in as much danger as it had been at the time, there would be a male and female pair to make sure the line didn't die out. A breeding pair, to ensure their survival.
But Baxter tried not to think about Judy's responsibilities (if they were even Judy's responsibilities and not his sister's). They were effectively immortal for now. They could deal with that later. Much, much, much later.
"If something should happen to her brother—"
"Nothing's going to happen to Levi," Baxter said very firmly. If it did, if something managed to get through Baxter (and the rest of them) and Levi's giant ego, well, Baxter would help her, then. Obviously. Though nothing was going to happen.
"If Levi agrees to let you do this, then listening to him isn't wrong. I just—your mother was the best thing that ever happened to me. You need to be very sure you're doing what's best for you."
"She makes me happy. I don't—maybe it's not the best reason but—"
"Aww," the twins said together. Thankfully. Baxter didn't like the lump in his throat. Even Brian laughed at him a little bit.
"Well, then," his father said stiffly. "I know your mother would be very happy to see you with Judy."
All of them fall silent.
Were his siblings doing the same thing as Baxter, wondering when was it ever going to stop hurting, thinking about all the things she was missing since she was…not there? Or were they worrying about the way Sam looked paler just then, even after all this time?
"I think she's too busy sky diving to care," Timmy blurted out.
"Sky diving?" Art dared to ask.
"Yeah. That's what I'd do if I died. So even if it didn't work, it wouldn't matter if you went kersplat because you're already dead."
"You're so stupid," Tommy said. And then the twins started to fight and Brian told them to cut it out and Baxter turned to his father and said, "Thank you."
Brian had taken Francy's room when she moved out and she said she didn't want it back (she took the couch, mostly, or bunked with the twins). It wasn't a big room (barely big enough for the bed, actually), but when they closed the door it was private.
"Last chance to talk me out of it," Baxter said to his big brother.
Brian just laughed and lay down on his bed. "I don't think anybody was ever going to talk you out of it."
"Do you think I'm making a mistake?"
Brian couldn't believe it was the right thing, maybe, but Baxter wanted to know that Brian didn't think he was being completely dumb, either.
"I think I'm not the person to ask," Brian admitted. "I was in love with the same girl forever and that didn't work out so well for me. But it doesn't mean it won't work out for you, so…I don't know, Bax. I hope it does."
"You and Dinah seem good, though. Right?"
"We're still friends. She wouldn't let us not be friends," Brian said with a loving grin. "It's just..."
"Not the same?"
"We can't go back."
Baxter thought about what it had been like before Dinah got hurt. Before he'd fallen for Judy. Before he was a werewolf. Before his mother died. Before she got sick. All of it seemed like so long ago.
"I've been using Ginger as an excuse not to..." Brian said softly. "If Levi thinks it's a stand about imprinting he won't push."
Just help Brian hook up with random girls in Seattle. His brother hadn't protested that (he was heartbroken, not dead). Baxter understood there was a difference.
"I didn't think you were pretending it was about imprinting. I thought it was."
"As your older brother, if you repeat this—"
"You will pound me into the ground. It's been eighteen years, Brian. I figured out how this brother thing works." Not that Brian would ever really hurt him (even now that they were wolves). But this would stay between them.
"I really did think that I would stay single until—no. Not even then. I decided I was just going to stay single forever. And having everyone say it was for Ginger, well, I can't help feeling everything should be about Ginger so it wasn't like I was lying. It felt true. Only..." Brain ran his hand through his hair. "Ever since Kara dumped him Levi's been..."
"Bitchy? Whiny? Annoying? Sexually frustrated?"
"Words I never really wanted to think about Levi, thank you." Since Baxter agreed, he let Brian continue: "And there's you and Judy and I'm happy for you guys, I really am, but I just—"
"Being a miserable, lonely hermit with Will for the rest of eternity doesn't seem like so much fun?"
"Bert has a plan for Will."
Being a miserable hermit all by yourself was even worse.
"Do I want to know what this plan is?" Baxter wondered, slowly. Bert was a good friend but sometimes his plots were a little funny.
Bert and Brian had always been a little awkward around each other, because of Dinah. But since Dinah had...well, they'd be getting along a lot better now. But Baxter wasn't surprised when all Brian could do was shrug.
"I just know there's a plan and I got to thinking..."
"You kind of wish someone had a plan for you?"
"Not a plan. I didn't know how to balance Dinah and Ginger. It's not fair to whoever I'd be dating. I just..."
"It's better when you're not alone."
"That's what the pack is for," he reminded Brian. Not gently, or anything, just plainly. It was the truth.
Brian grinned, showing off his teeth. "You wanna go for a run?"
There were worse things to do.
"You don't have to do this," Levi said as they leaned against the trees. Judy's sixteenth birthday was being held at the Black's, but Brian was off helping Dinah set up. Judy was, too. Her mother had insisted, so Levi made sure that Judy had other things to do. Supervising the food was distraction enough for his girlfriend, once she was sure he was okay doing this without her. Baxter was fine not having her there (as long as it worked, he didn't care how it happened).
"My father may have mentioned that. Your father may have mentioned that. Lots of people have mentioned that."
"I'm going to be the last one," Levi reminded him. "So, for the record, you are aware that you don't have to do this. Judy would be fine if you had an imprint."
"It's not so bad," Bert said. "Except where she almost dies. And hates your guts. But aside from that, it's pretty nice. It makes things less confusing. Sort of. I mean, not really, but sort of."
"That wasn't helpful," Levi said. "Frankly, I use imprinting as an excuse to oogle your sister. But it has some other benefits. If Bert hadn't imprinted, it might have been all weird and awkward with Judy. And imprinting increases our pathetically limited social circle and—"
"Occasionally, saves your life," Will said as he finally arrived. It wasn't open for conversation, of course, but imprinting had been good for him. "Don't do drugs, kids. Let's do this thing."
The four werewolves slipped into the trees, shedding clothing as they went, phasing as they headed deeper into the forest.
Where do we want to do this? Levi asked. Glee cackled through him. That was no surprise. Levi loved ordering people around.
I found a clearing, Bert offered. I'd think we'd all fit.
Once they were in the clearing, though, even Levi calmed down.
So how do we do this?
Baxter, I order you not to imprint, Baxter offered in his best imitation of Levi's high and mighty tone. Something like that.
Brian's probably right, Will said. We need to find a way to test it, otherwise, we have no idea if it can work.
And like you said, there's no way to do that, Levi said. Brian and Will had gone in circles, avoiding the obvious answer, trying to find a way to determine if whatever picked their imprints trusted their Alpha more than itself.
Sure there is, Bert said quietly. Brian's not here and Marley's dead, but you could practice on me.
Or not, Will said with a bit of snarl. The kid would offer, but he wasn't doing it eagerly and Will was a big fan of keeping Bert happy.
Kid, you know my dad didn't come up with this, right? Levi said. It never occurred to the old timers that I could do this. You know who it did occur to? Dinah. And she didn't say anything about you doing it. Bert hadn't known that; Levi was unhappy by how surprised he was. She doesn't hate you that much.
Even if she did, Will said, because he was lousy at the comforting thing, You stop imprinting on her without her permission and you're going to be very sorry. She gave you a pass when you imprinted because you couldn't help it. This—this she will kick your ass for.
I could go back to the party and ask her, Bert said because Will was right. I'm sure she'd say yes.
I don't know, Levi said. Anyway, I have a better idea. Baxter, smash your head into that tree.
Levi didn't often use Alpha orders. His father had hated them—more than that, his father hadn't needed Alpha orders to keep his pack in line. Levi knew a real leader didn't need them, so he did his best without them. So Baxter wasn't used to the feeling that came over him just then, the compulsion in his legs, watching them move when he didn't want them to, struggling against Levi's insane commands the way he had for months when he first phased.
All that practice was for nothing. Levi said to smash his head into a tree—so Baxter smashed his head into a tree.
Baxter, bark, Levi said.
Baxter barked. His eyes were watering from the pain and he was pretty sure his brain was damaged, but Baxter barked.
Baxter, bark out happy birthday.
The unholy glee that Levi had when he ordered Baxter around pissed Baxter off. They should have been past this.
Baxter, don't ever imprint.
Baxter stared, head still ringing, mouth still open to bark something else. Levi barked happily.
Baxter, bark the national anthem.
Baxter did. Enough, Will said lightly and Levi stopped. Their Alpha was still far too amused with himself, but Baxter was too grateful that he hadn't had to smash his head on anything again to care. Stockholm syndrome—it was a thing.
Felt like the other times did, Levi said. I think that's the best we can do.
Baxter shook his head, trying to clear it. He didn't feel different—well, he wouldn't. Levi said it should have worked. If it could work, Levi thought it had. It would be enough.
Then let's get to my sister's sixteenth birthday, if you don't mind, Levi said. Baxter, you good to go back? There was nothing else they could do. Witnesses?
Don't call them that, Baxter said. Will and Bert had already started heading back. Even if they had come so they could watch...it's why Leah had put her foot down about Judy coming. Baxter could still hear her grumbling about how Judy had only just turned sixteen. Baxter picked up the pace; she might not have been in the forest, but he was eager to see her now. It was a day for celebration—and Judy loved playing with balloons.
They dressed quickly. Even Levi had a shirt; Dinah had insisted and it wasn't worth the effort to fight her. Judy's school friends were coming. Most of the rez was coming, actually, because the invitation had been pretty open-ended and the weather was great. Lots of food had been ordered, an extra barbeque or two had been brought over, and the werewolves knew all about throwing big parties. Even his father was coming—Baxter thought Embry had organized a poker night for the retired werewolves.
"Smells good," Levi said as they stepped out of the forest. The four werewolves surveyed the bustling backyard, trying to spot the birthday girl. Brian waved, then disappeared inside the house—to get Judy, hopefully. Levi turned to Will, "You sure you can't stay?"
"Some of us have to work. And I hear Kara's coming. I don't really want to watch you be that pathetic."
"She probably won't show," Levi muttered. "Though it's for Judy so—what the hell is she wearing?"
Despite the strappy heels, Judy ran down the back porch and was hurrying through the grass towards them. The dress...Baxter wasn't sure where she'd gotten that since they weren't allowed new clothes, but he had never seen her in the sparkling red dress before (of course it was shiny). It was a tad low in the front, though Judy didn't look like she would fall out of it, so there shouldn't have been a problem.
Levi probably objected to how short it was. It was pretty short—better than that, it was semi-translucent, so that he could see the outline of her legs through the shiny, red material. Baxter briefly wondered if you could see through all of it. Or maybe Levi objected to the way it clung to her. She did have the body of a werewolf, after all. It was a very nice body. Baxter heartily approved of her body.
"How did it go?" Judy asked, stopping in front of him. Her arm came out for balance; he decided to be a helpful boyfriend and wrap his arms around her. "You missed me?"
"You look very nice," he managed to say, even with his dry mouth.
Her eyes glittered. Someone was very pleased with herself. Judy slowly wrapped her arms around his neck, smirk on her face just daring him to...well, he hadn't kissed her hours. That wasn't very polite of him.
She was tugging on his shirt, parting her lips, inviting him in. He didn't mean for the kisses to be quite so hard, quite so eager, but she looked edible tonight and he just wanted to—
"We're right here," Levi announced. From the other side, Will snapped, "Don't mind us."
They weren't the sort of people who liked being ignored.
"Hmm?" Judy glanced around, back and forth, back and forth. Bert waved and she remembered. She tried to take a step back, but Baxter didn't let her. In a minute, he'd let go. Soon. "How did it go?"
"We have no idea," Baxter admitted, trying not to stare at her exposed neck. "Levi may have given me brain damage."
She giggled. So much for love.
"Clearly not enough," Levi muttered.
Judy untangled herself from his arms and walked over to her brother. Placing a gentle kiss on his cheek, she smiled up at him until he stopped glaring at Baxter. "Thank you so, so much."
"Happy Birthday, Jubes," Levi said before he hugged her.
Then she turned to her cousin and stamped her foot. "I can't believe you're not staying—and now the stupid heel is stuck and it's all your fault."
While Will promised he would send her happy birthday thoughts even as he worked (and went to clean her shoe), Levi stepped over to Baxter. "You can stop staring at her anytime."
Levi laughed. "Hey, Bert. You thirsty?"
The two of them walked off; they'd be by the cooler if Baxter wanted to find them later. He took in the scenery while Judy said goodbye to her cousin. They had put balloons in the trees and set up a few tables with sparkling table clothes. There were party hats, too, and party favours (like they needed an excuse to make noise) scattered on top of the tables. There were chairs scattered across the yard and some old picnic blankets around, in case people didn't want to bother with sitting on furniture (sitting on the ground was actively encouraged). Most people hadn't started arriving yet, but they would, soon.
"Like it?" Judy asked, coming up beside him, making her way under his arm.
"I like it. I like you."
"I think you really do have brain damage."
"I think you need to wear that dress more often."
She blushed, but pressed closer just the same. "Mom and I went shopping in Port Angeles; she said I could get whatever I wanted."
"Your mom let you buy that?"
"I had to beg a bit." Judy bit her lip. "Okay, a lot. But it sparkles."
"You've said that already." But she didn't seem to mind. "Come on. I'm starving."
She grabbed his hand and he let her tug him along after her.
Baxter Uley turned into a werewolf. Regularly.
The superpowers were appreciated, but that didn't mean he understood. Why him? What could he do? What was he supposed to do? The questions, he was beginning to think, were never going to stop.
But he had the pack.
Baxter figured he'd be okay.