X-x-x-x-X

They were gone for three days, and late in the afternoon on the third day, Leah walked up the drive alone. Sam was gone at the council building, Max was at football practice, and Audrey was at a friend's house. So Emily was alone when she opened the front door. She had spent the past few days alternating between worry and relief, with a dash of jealousy tossed in. She tried to push it down, but the one thing she thought she would never have to compete for, the mothering of her own children, had suddenly become a point of contention.

She had spent their entire childhood wistfully wishing for Leah's vibrancy, fearlessness, and beauty. But she couldn't help but love her cousin. Leah was a wonderful friend. She pulled Emily into groups when she was shy, buoyed her up when her spirits were low, talked her out of bad relationships when her low self-esteem made her underestimate her own worth, and generally made the world a brighter place. Leah's magnetic qualities pulled her in just as inexorably as they pulled Sam Uley in.

Leah was right: Emily had harbored a hopeless and unrequited crush on the boy from the very first time she met him. He was everything she had ever wanted in a boyfriend: kind, devoted, respectful, affectionate, and handsome. It was an innocent thing until he imprinted; not once had she thought to try to steal him away, and even if she had, she knew it would have been a futile effort. She would have had to have been blind not to see how madly in love Sam was with Leah.

Which was why she was nothing short of bewildered when he said he had dumped Leah to be with her. She had told him to go away, of course, but he refused. And when he pressed her, and pressed her, and pressed her, her heart gave way long before her mind. His accidental mauling of her was the last straw. She had been in love with him for years, he claimed to love her back, and her will to fight for her best friend crumbled under the force of her pain.

And Sam was the perfect partner, or so she thought. He was, indeed, just as kind as she believed him to be, more devoted than she could have imagined, as respectful as a boy scout, his affection made her feel like a princess, and phasing had sharpened his features from handsome to positively irresistible. Their life together was everything she wanted: engagement, marriage, children. If only the spectre of his lost love didn't hang over everything. At first, every time she stepped out of her house, she could feel the stares of the residents of La Push and knew they were whispering about what a homewrecker she was, and how she deserved her scars. Even when she locked herself in the sanctuary of their home, she was reminded. Leah had pointed out the cabin to her on a previous visit. It had stood abandoned for years, and Sam had meant to buy it once they came home from college. He had even decided which of their children would have each room. He intended it for Leah, not for Emily, and no matter how much she decorated or rearranged, she could never quite forget that fact. And just when she thought that enough time had passed that they were all moving on, that the whispering had died down, and that Sam had fully turned his back on Leah, she phased, and Emily's perfect happiness was marred just like her skin.

She would never admit it, but she was relieved when Leah left Sam's pack for Jacob's, and she felt free when Leah disappeared.

But Sam didn't forget. It was hard to tell, since the imprint made him perfectly attuned to her wishes. But she felt him climb from their bed, night after night, when she was mostly asleep, and she knew that it wasn't his wife that he thought of as he gazed at the moon or the clouds blocking the stars. And even Sam did not know that in his dreams, he still called out to his lost love. It broke Emily's heart, but what could she do?

It only got worse once Leah's image began cropping up in the most unexpected places. When Sam spotted Leah's billboard on their honeymoon, it was like a blow to the gut. Upon returning home, she suspended their cable television, citing the astronomical bill, but it was a pointless endeavour. She was in too many places to be avoided, even though she appeared in person less than once a year, and avoided them like the plague. And Emily knew that when she wasn't around, Sam went looking. She knew it was petty, but she couldn't help but be frustrated that year after year, Leah continued to look as flawless and youthful as she had the last time they saw her. She hoped Sam's pining would end with the birth of their children, but when it did not, she had to accept that he would not stop unless she asked him to, and she didn't have the stomach to ask. Because although she knew he would obey her to the best of his abilities, she wanted him to fall out of love with Leah on his own.

Twenty years later, she was still waiting.

Leah greeted her, "Hi. I wanted to let you know we're back."

Emily peered behind her. "Where's Katy? Is she okay?"

"She's great. It's done. She couldn't wait to see a certain someone."

"Ah," Emily relaxed. "Matty's house."

"That's right. She's got some groveling to do. I just wanted to let you know so you wouldn't panic. I'm going to get going." She pointed her thumb over her shoulder. "Stop in and see my mom before I have to go, drop in on Rach."

"No, don't!" Emily stopped her. "Please, come in for a bit? Your mom won't be off her shift for a couple more hours. Then I've got a red eye into LaGuardia."

Leah checked the clock and nodded. "This is gonna sound weird, but I can I use your shower, then? I'm foul. In absolutely no condition in which to foist myself on anyone, yourself included."

Emily disagreed silently and in frustration; Leah was nothing short of glowing. But she decided that that was too odd to say, and would not be appreciated even if she could keep the bitterness out of her voice, which she didn't think she could. They hadn't been close enough to make casual comments like that in a long time, so she simply retrieved towels for Leah and waited at the kitchen table. While they were gone, she had asked Sam what Katy and Leah talked about. He didn't really want to tell her, figuring that Leah would tell Emily what she wanted her to know, but couldn't resist her request. So he told her what he had heard through the wall.

Between exhaustion, anxiety, fear, gratitude, and now relief, by the time Leah emerged from the steamy bathroom drying her hair with a soft towel, Emily had started to cry in her kitchen chair. She had spent the past twenty years fooling herself into thinking that she had no choice but to be with Sam. That Leah was an unavoidable casualty. So she ultimately held herself blameless despite holding a token amount of guilt close to her chest, since she had once loved Leah like a sister. When Claire had decided not to be Quil's romantic partner when she came of age, Emily had had an internal crisis. But she, as well as everyone else, Quil in particular, was much more comfortable with the idea of the couple as siblings than lovers, and it was not that difficult to convince herself that she and Sam were simply meant to be together in a way that Quil and Claire were not, and certainly in a way that Sam and Leah were not.

With Leah's return, the illusion had dissolved like mist.

Leah misunderstood her tears and said softly, "It's been hard, I know. Thankfully, Matt never quite figured out what went on between her and Jeremy. Katy's a wonderful girl, Em, and she's gonna be fine."

Emily sniffed, "I know. Sam told me what you were doing, what you've done for her. I know she's going to be okay."

"But it's not what you wanted for your child. I'm sure you didn't want her to phase at all, and once that happened, you hoped for a different sort of imprint for her."

"I did," Emily admitted. "I wanted her to imprint on Matty, but when she didn't, I consoled myself with the thought that there was this perfect match out there that was going to pull everything together into a fairytale ending. But it broke my heart that she may or may not ever meet him."

"And between now and then, was she just going to have to wait and wonder? You had to feel so bad for your little girl. If it's any consolation, that creep she imprinted on has gone back to just being a creep again. We actually went to see him earlier today. She told him in no uncertain terms not to speak to her, not to call her, not to look at her the wrong way." Leah smirked. "She's a fierce one."

Emily smiled, but it didn't reach her eyes. "She is. She's got a lot more of Sam in her than she does me."

Leah actually looked amused. "I'm not sure fierce is exactly the word I'd use to describe Sam."

"I guess I don't know where her stubbornness comes from," Emily admitted. Certainly not from Sam, which she supposed she should be grateful for. Because if he had had that streak in him, he might well have fought for Leah, and Katy, Max, and Audrey might not exist at all. Emily crumpled again.

Leah still didn't understand what upset her, and reassured her. "You know, she doesn't need a fairytale to just sweep her up. She's a good girl, strong, smart, and beautiful, and she'll make her own happy ending."

Emily couldn't hold it in anymore. "That's not why I'm upset! I didn't need her to have an imprint settle her life out for her. I'm glad she gets to choose. I'm glad you gave her that choice. It's you! All this time, I thought Sam and I were... I thought we were..." She couldn't complete the thought out loud, but Leah knew what she meant anyway. It was why she hadn't come back as soon as she broke her imprint. Leah didn't want to be responsible for breaking either of their hearts, and knew one or both might shatter at her news. Emily choked out, "But it all worked out the way it was supposed to in the end. Look at you, look at your life and where you are and what you've done. This is what you were meant for! And that baby, that's the one you were meant to have!"

Leah shook her head slowly and explained to Emily what she had explained to her daughter. "Things don't work out because it's the way fate or destiny predetermined, Em. If I believed that, my life would look completely different. I'd have a different child than this one. And although I'd love that baby every bit as much as I'll love this one, its father would have just used me for what he wanted, and I'd have forgotten my own will," she said, her hand low on her pelvis. "There are a hundred different lives I could have led. This is the one I've chosen. Things turn out the way they do because of chance, and because of the choices we make, and the choices of those around us."

"I didn't think we had any other choices," Emily whispered.

Leah knew this wasn't true. All along, Emily could have chosen Sam as her friend or her brother, but she did not. But now, twenty years later, throwing that back in Emily's face would only have been spiteful. Instead, she said, "You have a beautiful family because it's what you chose to do, and it's what you put all your time and energy and focus into. Give yourself the credit for that, and give credit to Sam for being the man he is and making this family with you, and credit to your kids for being the people they are. It isn't fate, Em, it's what you all have built. With some luck thrown in."

She rose to go. She said her piece, she had done her best, and she had helped Emily's daughter. She didn't have anything left to offer her.

Emily stared after her. "Wait," she called out. Leah couldn't leave yet. She needed her friend's forgiveness almost as much as she needed Sam. "We never meant to hurt you," she choked.

Leah sighed, her back still facing her cousin. It wasn't the first time she had heard this from Emily, but the other woman seemed still not to understand what it meant. Without malice, Leah answered, "You chose this life over my heart, but as much as it hurt me, the choice was a valid one. It's up to you to stand behind your decisions, Em."

When Leah paused but didn't turn back, Emily said softly, "Just... Thank you. For everything."

"You're welcome," Leah answered simply.

She stepped out the door, and she found Sam waiting for her, standing by her car. For a second, he looked just like he had so many years ago, when she had been so very much in love with him. Dark eyes, soft expression, nervous set of his beautiful mouth. She blinked, and the illusion cleared. "Oh! I didn't think I'd see you before I left."

He sounded heartbroken at this, and his face fell. "Honestly?"

"Not after everything I said the other day."

"Through the wall?"

She smiled a little and looked at the ground, and his heart lurched toward her. "It was easier telling her, I'll be honest."

"I'm sorry I didn't make it easier for you to talk with me, to stay in touch."

She chuckled. "Hm. I think that was my fault, not yours. I'm the one who ran off without a word to anyone."

"But it was my fault that by then, you weren't comfortable enough to talk to me anyway."

Her expression was gentle. "There's no point in placing blame, Sam. Not now. That was a long time ago."

He sensed she was about to end the conversation and go, so he stopped her before she had the chance. "Can I ask you something? About what you told Katy?"

"Yeah." She blinked at him. "But you should also know that I'll make sure to make some time, the next time I'm home, to sit down with the council and tell you guys everything I know. I told Katy a lot, but there's a lot of knowledge we lost over the years, and I understand more of it now. We all need to know it."

Sam was impatient, a trait he thought he had given up a long time ago. Something about Leah brought it out in him. He didn't want to wait for answers, and moreover, he didn't want her to go. Not when she was finally speaking with him again. "Can't you stay a little longer?"

"Sorry," she shook her head. "I'm filming a commercial in two days, and I was supposed to meet a new supplier today. I promise, though, I won't be such a stranger from now on. Oh," she exclaimed before unclasping her necklace. "Can you give this to Katy? I remember how I just didn't feel feminine after I phased. Maybe a little jewelry will help her feel like a girl again."

"It's too much. You've done so much already," he declined, using the excuse to touch her hand as he gently pushed her extended offering back toward her, still startled at the lack of heat on her skin. Without it, and without the guarded mask she wore to protect herself from him, she looked just like his high school sweetheart.

"It isn't, and you know it. Please? If you don't take it now, I'll have to sneak it on her somehow next time I see her, and then she'll have it anyway," she grinned.

He nodded as he accepted it, staring at her smile. He couldn't remember the last time her face was so open in front of him. It made her even more beautiful than she already was. He was glad that this time, he would have a clue as to the next time he would see her again. But he also knew that he was not likely to have any more time alone with her, so he needed to take advantage while he had her. He pocketed the token. "Thank you. I think maybe a lot of things are going to change."

"Hopefully good changes," she agreed. "Was there something in particular you wanted to know? Before I go?" She pointed to her car.

He licked his lips nervously and looked at hers. They looked ripe and lush, just like the rest of her. He finally spoke just to interrupt his own blatant staring. "You spoke about the spirits, our ancestors."

"I did."

"Speaking with them, was it... specific?" he said slowly, not certain how to approach the subject. He still thought about Harry Clearwater from time to time. About how the older man had felt to him like more of a father than his own, about how Harry seemed almost as heartbroken as Sam himself when Sam did not imprint on Leah, how conflicted he obviously felt when he asked Sam to break up with Leah before he imprinted on someone else, how relieved he was when Sam refused, and how simultaneously sympathetic and angry he was when Emily arrived, and everything else fell apart.

And despite his inability to voice his question, and the years that had passed since they were close, she knew him well enough to know what he was asking. Her expression softened again. "It was. My father apologized to me, and to you. We were able to be together for a very long time, and he was the one who broke my imprint."

Sam was relieved until Leah continued, "But he refused to forgive me for killing him, because he insisted that I didn't."

Sam's heart ached for her all over again, at the fact that she still believed she was responsible for Harry's death. "Lee-Lee," he pleaded. "You can't carry that burden forever. It wasn't your fault. I was there that night too, remember? I was there, and I know it wasn't anyone's fault."

She quirked her brow. "As if I could forget." But unlike the same words she might have spoken years ago, her voice held only memory and sadness, not anger, hostility, or betrayal.

It also didn't escape his notice that she didn't bristle at his use of her nickname. "It wasn't your fault," he insisted.

She just shrugged. "We'll just have to agree to disagree on that one." Because whatever other dark places her life had sunk into when she phased, or when Sam phased, she could rise above all of them, save one. Harry was simply irreplaceable. But she had still achieved some measure of peace over his loss, because she was able to speak with him one more time when she asked him to break her imprint. And whether or not she was forgiven, she was loved, and she gave her love back to her father in equal measure, and it was enough.

Either way, she didn't want to dwell on the subject with Sam any longer. "Anyway, I am sorry I didn't say anything sooner. It wouldn't have been so hard on Katy, and that's my fault. I swear I wasn't going to just keep it all a secret forever. I always meant to tell the whole pack everything I've learned before the next pack phased. I just thought I had more time. I should have known better." The regret in her voice hurt him more than he expected it would.

He couldn't help himself. He approached her until she was in reach, and he took her hand. She started down at his grip in surprise, giving him the chance to answer. "Don't you dare apologize. Not for that, and not for anything. I just... I wish you had told me when it happened. Before it was too late." He wasn't sure why he was able to admit or speak the truth, especially with Emily so close. Perhaps she, too, knew it was time.

She looked up from their hands, startled. "Too late for what?"

He couldn't stop his movement. He raised his free hand and gently ran the backs of his fingers down her cheek. "For us." He wanted to kiss her, but he knew he didn't have the right.

Her expression softened. "It was already too late for us, Sam."

"It wasn't!" he insisted. Now that his daughter's free will had been returned to her, his mind swirled with the implications for himself. Now that Leah had given them that gift.

She pressed her hand over his on her cheek as she shook her head. "You loved her by then," she explained.

"Not like I loved you, Lee-Lee," he whispered. It might have been different had he met Emily first, if she had switched places with Leah from birth. But she hadn't, and he had loved Leah before he even knew of Emily, and he had loved her in a pure and innocent way that he could never feel for another human being. She had taken all of his heart, and when imprinting yanked it away and tried to give it to another, a piece had stayed with her, and she couldn't give it back to him even if she tried.

She tugged his fingers away from her face and squeezed them tightly. "You can't tell me you regret this life."

"That's not what I meant." He swallowed thickly. "Of course I don't regret my family. But it's like you said yourself. I'd have loved our family every bit as much. You remember that that's all I wanted, before. And you know that I never thought I had any other choice. If I did..."

"Did you really want to have to make that choice? When she was in so deep? When you loved her so much?"

"When I loved you more!" he insisted, his jaw tight. "Lee-Lee, if I had known, I would have done it in a heartbeat. I would never have looked back!"

She shook her head and gently reminded him, "You forget. I thought I had no choice either, but I still found another way." She took his other hand and brought it to her lips, kissing it gently. "But maybe that's just because I'm so stubborn," she chuckled. "Besides. I knew what making that choice would do to you, and to her, and I didn't want that for either of you. Because I loved you both too."

She tugged him close and wrapped her arms around him. He froze in surprise, but after a beat crushed her tightly and buried his face in her neck. He breathed her in, his lost love, and memorized the sensation of her body against his.

He held her for as long as she allowed, until her skin was wet with his tears. But when she separated from him and turned back to her car, he stopped her before she could shut the door. His voice was rough and low. "You were wrong, you know, about one thing you told Katy."

She looked at him expectantly, appearing exactly as he remembered her so many years ago, before he phased, before she phased, before their hearts were broken.

He knew that even though he would see her again, that this was not a final goodbye, he would never again get a chance to open his heart to her in this fashion. The next time she came home, she would have her child in her arms and her husband at her side, and his own family would surround them as well. And though she had had the ability to see into his mind after they phased, she was no longer able to see into his heart. And he needed her to know. "She told you that I still love you, and you denied it. You said I'm in love with the girl you once were. It's not true. I love the woman you are, and I always will."

She blessed him with his favorite smile before she drove away.

X-x-x-x-X

A/N: Thanks again to Niamh, who should take all the credit for the heart of this story, and to Babs81410, who should take the credit for it being readable. All mistakes are mine.