Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.

Suggested Listening: "The Gilded Hand" by Radical Face, "Stranger" by Katie Costello, "Skull & Bones" by A.A. Bondy, "Over The Love" by Florence + The Machine, "Wicked Games" by The Weeknd


"So, I'm glad you decided to take us up on the dinner invitation…"

Jake's voice interrupted the sound of their footsteps on the wooden porch. It was close to nine p.m. and only a few minutes earlier, after two hours of food, wine, and even a few laughs, Embry's ebony eyes had found hers from across the dining room table. One eyebrow lifting in question, he only lowered it when she finally offered him an affirming nod and a soft smile.

"S'pose we should get going," Embry had announced quietly, pushing his chair back from the table. "We all have a pretty long day tomorrow."

Leah only sighed, a part of her wondering how the next day could possibly be any longer than the day she still hadn't completely made it through.

Before they even sat down for dinner, Bella's curiosity about Leah's time in Chicago marked the end of any conversations Leah may have classified as unwelcome. She threw what little focus she had into finishing her task in the kitchen, diligently answering Bella's friendly questions about college, her job, her apartment, her friends. Leah told Bella about Autumn, and in turn, Bella talked about her job at the library in Forks, one she said she couldn't imagine giving up, even if she didn't need to work due to the success of the garage. She told Leah Jacob had mentioned once that she consider quitting after the baby was born, but Bella shut him down quickly.

"I love Jacob, and I know I'm gonna love being a mom," Bella had said with a chuckle, "but I'm not gonna be the Alpha's mate everyone seems to want me to be. I'm not gonna be the one who stays home, barefoot and pregnant, feeding the pack and popping out puppies every year."

Jacob and Embry eventually returned from the garage, walking into an elaborately set table adorned with a spread of food comparable to those Leah had seen in the expensive Chicago restaurants to which she often took clients. For the first ten minutes or so, Embry watched Leah like a hawk, and she tried to ignore it. She smiled at him, and she tried to pretend like the moment she did, Bella's words from earlier didn't immediately push to the front of her mind.

I just don't want to see him get hurt …

The smile she offered was the end of it, and overall, dinner went smoothly. Still, despite the ease of any following conversation and how comfortable it felt sitting around a table with Embry, Jacob, and Bella, Leah couldn't deny how bits and pieces of Bella's words from earlier continued to assault her mind. It didn't matter how hard she tried to focus, or how many times she smiled or nodded or offered a few words to the steady conversation or small talk flowing at the table.

A larger part of her wanted to be pissed at Bella for it — for inadvertently casting a cloud on what should have been a peaceful night, but she couldn't. She couldn't be pissed at her because even Leah knew there was no way to deny that nearly every single word Bella spoke was truth — her speculation on how hard the past six years had been on Leah, the consequences she felt at being away so long.

The potential cost of what she and Embry were doing …

Still, as hard as Leah tried not to think about it, she caught herself tuning out the conversation at the dinner table on more than one occasion. When Embry, Jacob, and Bella's voices drifted somewhere into the back of her mind, certain words — certain pieces of what Bella said earlier — resonated much closer to the front.

Maybe you needed to come back for more than just other people.

Maybe you needed to come back because you stayed away too long and the entire time you were away, you were missing a piece of yourself. You were missing what truly mattered to you …

You held them together, Leah … whether you knew it or not.

Offered a promotion …

Maybe you weren't sure you'd be around to take it ...

It was the reasons why Bella said it that Leah couldn't fucking wrap her head around.

The words the other woman spoke were foreboding in a way Leah hated. They were assuming and callous and made entirely too much sense. Even if it were the case — even if it was something Leah wanted, she didn't understand how Bella could be so sure and how she could say it with such confidence. She said it like she was certain everyone would welcome Leah back into their lives with open arms when she'd done everything in her power to keep them away. She said it like she was positive Leah's family would forgive her — like she would forgive them for practically giving up on her and doing everything short of exiling her from their lives.

She said it like she was confident Leah would come to see the reasons she never should have left, the reasons she should have come back sooner, and the reasons she should come back again.

Bella was so sure, but Leah wasn't.

She had no idea if she could ever bring herself to believe she belonged in La Push, or if anything could be done to convince her that removing herself from that life wasn't the best choice in the long run. After so many years of telling herself something completely different, Leah had no idea how she could ever believe the others needed her there … that maybe she needed them.

Or if she could find a reason to stay …

Blinking, Leah was suddenly back in front of Jacob's house, his face coming into focus. He lingered on the top stair, his hands shoved in his pockets. Leah didn't linger on him, her gaze inherently shifting behind him instead.

Her eyes traveled until eventually, she could see Embry through the screen door.

He was still inside the house, his frame accentuated by the soft light coming from the living room. He was laughing at something Bella said, her voice not far from where he stood, the two of them carrying on a conversation Leah could probably hear if she really wanted to listen.

She didn't, so she pulled her gaze away, trying not to intrude on a conversation that wasn't hers. Instead, she focused on anything besides Jacob — the tree line in the distance, which she could clearly make out despite the darkness, the first few stars dotting the early night sky, the moths circling the porch light.

Eventually, though, she ran out of things to look at. With a deep breath, she allowed her eyes to land on Jacob's pensive expression. Holding the air in her lungs, she did her best to steel herself, somehow unable to believe she was going to escape the day she was stuck in without more words.

After all, she figured maybe they could just do a little more ripping of the bandage that night — at least that way it would be over with.

"It wasn't so bad," she finally spoke, her voice low as she responded to Jacob's comment about dinner. "A lot better when I know it's gonna be you who opens the door."

Jacob smirked, releasing a hearty chuckle. "Good point," he agreed. "Still, I'm glad you did." His features were softer, more sincere, as the conversation shifted. Glancing down at the ground, he descended the last two stairs until he was level with her. "This needed to happen — not just dinner, but you coming home … even if this is the only time you come, which I hope it's not."

Chewing on the inside of her lip, Leah shrugged, offering him a halfhearted smile. She knew Jake wasn't fishing for any kind of answer, but she kept her lips pressed tightly together, silently ensuring any potential word vomit would stay where it belonged.

Even if she didn't miss how her eyes again drifted over Jacob's shoulder, landing on Embry for a single moment just before she talked herself into speaking.

Ignoring how her stomach inexplicably twisted, Leah focused determined eyes on Jacob before her brain was able to come up with something completely unassuming.

"Jury's still out on that one," she whispered, the corner of her mouth twitching against a smile.

Jacob nodded, his smile fading slightly to match hers. "I kind of figured." His words cut off, and Leah watched him, hooking her thumbs in her pockets as Jacob shifted his weight from one foot to the other, clearly buying himself some time for more words — more ripping.

Leah sighed heavily, pushing more of her weight down on the balls of her feet, almost like she was anchoring herself to the ground or bracing for some kind of imaginary impact. "What's on your mind, Jake?"

Jacob's jaw tightened before he glanced up, matched by Leah's raised, apathetic eyebrows. Finally, his lips parted and he drew in a sharp breath, pushing the words out with his exhale.

"Listen, Leah, now that you've been to the house, in the morning, I'm going to tell the entire pack that you're home."

Regardless of how Leah thought she might react, she wasn't expecting Jacob's words to knock the breath from her lungs, or to kick that imaginary anchor right out from under her. She took a step back before she could really think about it, her heart suddenly hammering inside her chest. In that moment, it didn't matter that she'd already seen many of them. A majority of them already knew — Embry, Quil, Paul, Seth, Jake. It only left Jared, the two newer wolves, Brady and Collin, and …

Leah's mouth fell open in shocked dismay, even though it took her an infinite number of moments to find any kind of words that could possibly give life to what was going on inside of her. "Jake … you … "

Still, Jacob anticipated what she was going to say before the thought could fully form, his black eyes trained intently on her dazed expression. He cut in before she could stammer out any type of response.

"Leah," he interrupted quietly, taking a step forward, the movement putting him directly in front of her. "I don't want to be the one to tell Sam, which is why I'm telling you this now and why I didn't do it at dinner. I'm going to have this conversation with the entire pack in the morning. I have to, before things happen and potentially get out of control. I'm going to tell them I knew, because I did and I think it'll help take any negativity that might come from the news away from you and put it on me instead. I'm going to explain to them that regardless of how they feel or if there's any anger or hurt feelings, they need to deal with them after Seth's wedding because that is what comes first this weekend. Still…" Jake hesitated, leaning down slightly to look Leah in the eye — to make sure she was really hearing what he had to say. "I'm also going to remind them that you are still a member of this family — just in case they've forgotten — and when you left, it was what was best for you, no matter how long it's been. And it doesn't matter who thinks who did what, you will be treated with decency and respect."

He paused, eyes widening slightly as the silence settled between them. The only sound punctuating the thickness of it washed over Leah's lips in the form of shallow, quick breaths. "Do you understand?"

Closing her eyes, Leah nodded automatically, trying to pull in a breath and ease the tightness in her chest. The words sounded so familiar, not unlike ones he'd spoken to her in a small room at a hotel so many miles away.

They were words she appreciated then.

They were words — despite how she could barely catch a breath, and despite how she could feel her focus waning — she appreciated in that moment.

"But, Leah," Jake continued, reaching up.

Leah inherently stiffened when two large hands gently squeezed her shoulders.

"I don't want to be the one to blindside Sam with this. I don't want to risk the fallout something like that might cause if that's where he finds out along with everyone else, which is why I don't think I should be the person he hears it from."

Shrugging vehemently out of Jake's grasp, Leah shook her head, crossing her arms tightly in front of her chest. "What are you saying?"

She knew what he was saying.

Jesus, she knew what he was fucking saying. She didn't have to ask …

Jacob's shoulders lifted and fell with a heavy breath. Letting his arms fall to his sides, Leah could see in his face that he was preparing to answer her anyway. "What I'm saying is...I think it should be you who tells him."

Leah's heart stuttered in her chest, the pressure enough to make what little air she held in her lungs spill over her lips in an audible groan.

The thought alone nearly made her taste bile in the back of her throat, the mere idea of it already tearing at something inside of her. She knew she would have to do it eventually, she fucking knew …

Something about it was different. Something about the possibility of it actually happening was different.

Jacob was asking her to face Sam, that night, before anything else.

She could feel it kicking in, that fucking flight-or-fight instinct she miraculously hadn't felt in weeks, at least not to the degree it was coursing through her veins in that moment. It prompted her, begging her to turn around and save what was left of her sanity following a day that had practically ripped it right out from underneath her.

Somehow, though, that anchor was back, keeping her feet on the ground and refusing to let her move.

Somehow, Bella's words chose that god damn moment to flash through her head, surfacing from the blood she could feel pulsing in her ears.

But if you can put the bad memories aside, if you can make peace with them and put it behind you, I think it might feel different …

Squeezing her eyes shut, Leah suddenly knew what Bella meant, even though it might never have been what the other woman intended.

If you can make peace with them …

If you can put it behind you …

Leah knew … there was only one way to do that.

And in turn, she knew what else Jacob was asking. He was asking her to not just speak to Sam. He was asking her to stand in front of him, to look him in the fucking eye and tell him she was back.

Fuck, she didn't know if she could …

In that moment, all she could see were flashes — flashes of the last time she stood in front of him, her body frozen and stunned as she looked down on him. All she could see was the hatred in his eyes, lined with hints of red — red fucking everywhere. All she could make out was the outline of his mouth moving, a crystal clear memory she tried for years to forget. All she could remember was the perpetual worthlessness ingrained in her because of it and everything she had done to herself — everything she allowed herself to be given — in her quest to forget exactly what that memory and all the ones that followed felt like.

It didn't matter…

The way Jacob was looking at her only reinforced what she already knew.

She would have to do it eventually, even if, in that moment, she couldn't bring herself to believe she was anywhere close to being ready.

Leah shook her head, but she didn't open her eyes, her throat dry, burning. "I don't know if I can…"

"I think you can," Jacob insisted, his affirmation barely missing a beat.

"Why?" Leah blurted, her eyes springing open, widening with an irrational insistence. She took a sudden step back from him, poised to move away. "Tell me why you think it needs to be me."

He had to say it. He had to fucking say it loud. She needed a reason — one she already knew, but one she desperately needed to hear from someone else. She needed a reason to endure what it would likely do to her.

"I think you know why," Jacob replied patiently, taking his own step and negating hers. "You ran. You ran for years, and you know better than anyone, Leah, you can't run from this now that you're here. But aside from that, he needs to hear it from you. You'll understand why once you do it, I think, but he needs to see you in front of him so you can look into his eyes and he can look into yours and maybe understand why it was you left, and hear in your voice what it did to you and why you decided to come back."

Squeezing her eyes closed, Leah brought her hands to her temples, rubbing them almost like it would clear the thick mess of thoughts in her head. It didn't matter, though, because everything he said made sense. It didn't change her reluctance, not like she was hoping. It didn't change the fear inside her, something she hardly ever felt. It didn't change the reality of it and the anxiety Leah couldn't help but feel, all of it lined with a simple truth — a simple knowledge of how easy something like this, something like facing Sam, could undo everything she'd worked so fucking hard to put back into place.

She didn't want to lose that.

She didn't want to go back there.

She couldn't

"Jesus, Jake, I just...I can't..."

"You can," he interrupted quietly, sensing her hesitancy, her distress reaching out for him. She couldn't hide it; it escaped her through the way she watched him and the way she couldn't seem to temper rough, shallow breaths. The way she couldn't stop her frame from trembling. "And if you do, I can talk to Jared and the pups tonight instead — then, as a pack, we can all figure out in the morning how to move forward knowing what we know."

Leah frowned, her fingernails digging into the skin of her forearms, almost like the pain could hold her back from speaking more demanding words. "Knowing what?"

Jacob heaved a deep sigh, but the corner of his mouth lifted in a smile. It was a comforting smile, a confident one, meant to instill the same kinds of feelings in her.

An Alpha trying to soothe a distressed member of his pack …

Leah tried to ignore the visceral shudder that ripped down her spine before Jacob finally spoke. "Knowing that you're here...finally, and acknowledging the fact you still have a place here," he replied. "That even if you don't stay here physically, your presence will remain because you chose to come back. You were ready for it, and that means making sure they understand that at some point, you could still step up and fill that place, should you want it. I know they do, even if it's been long enough for some of them to forget. I know they want it."

Leah grimaced, opening her eyes and shaking her head furiously. "I told you, Jake...I don't want this anymore," she muttered from between clenched teeth.

A ripple of something passed across Jacob's expression, yet she couldn't quite place it. If she didn't know any better, she would have likened it to disbelief.

Leah's fingernails dug even harder into her flesh.

"I know," he finally continued, his voice slow and steady. "I'm not asking you to want it, but you're here, and you're home...with your family and your people. With us, and I have to prepare my pack for everything that might mean, and I need you to be prepared as well. It will be better this way, Leah. You'll see."

Letting out a breath, Leah had to swallow back the overwhelming wave of red-hot anger she felt at his words. She had to bite back the urge to tell Jake to go to hell, to stop pretending like he knew what was best for her. Still, she couldn't bring herself to say a single fucking thing, peering out of the corner of her eye instead to see Embry finally approaching the screen door. Bella followed closely behind, marking the end of Jacob's time.

Giving Leah a single moment to imagine it, what the conversation would sound like if it was Embry was in Jacob's place. What he would be saying to her, and what he would be assuring her she was capable of doing.

She knew. Without question, she knew — he would be telling her the same thing.


Jacob's eyebrows arched high in anticipation, letting the silence linger like he was waiting for her to either say more or say it again, she didn't know.

Even though the moment she opened her mouth, Leah suddenly had to resist the urge to throw up all over Jacob's shoes.

"You deal with your pack in the morning, Jake," she breathed instead, closing her eyes to gather some shred of courage to finish what she planned to say. "How you handle them has nothing to do with me, but if it's so important to you for me to tell Sam I'm here … I'll do it."

Before Jake could respond — before Leah could think anymore about it — the slam of the screen door startled her, not quite doing enough to drown out her pounding heart as the noise pulled both her and Jacob's eyes behind them.

Embry was standing at the top of the stairs, the porch light spilling over his face, his eyes completely black. There was a tentative frown resting on his mouth, like he was walking in on something he wasn't supposed to see.

"Everything okay out here?" Embry asked cautiously, his eyes shifting quickly between her and Jake. The concern in his voice was enough to make Leah's breath catch in her throat, to make her stomach lurch against the sheer irony of it.

As she swallowed past the mass in her throat, a scuffle of shoes on hardwood caused Leah's gaze to falter. Her eyes dropped to Embry's right in time to see Bella step around him quietly, a similar concern in her eyes. One that mirrored the exact same glaze covering them when she and Leah were in the kitchen earlier that night.

Taking a deep breath, it required everything inside Leah to offer them both the most convincing smile she could manage and to not let the sudden war inside her show.

"Yeah," she finally replied, her voice cracking beneath the weight of it. "We're good."

Embry still looked skeptical, his wary gaze lingering a little longer on Jake, who lowered his eyes long enough to take a step back, a silent confirmation the conversation was over. Ignoring the ache in her gut, Leah tried to offer Embry another smile when he finally ripped his stare from Jake and focused softened eyes back on her.

"You ready to go?" he asked, his expression easing slightly.

Leah nodded, trying to remember how to move her feet, to remember what was required to leave the spot she was standing in. "Yeah."

After an excruciatingly long moment, Embry finally let the corner of his mouth lift in some kind of half-smile. Turning to say his goodbyes, he lifted one arm, pulling Bella closer into his body and leaving a gentle, familial kiss on the crown of her head. "Thanks for dinner, Bella," he murmured, his chin resting against her hair.

She pulled back, smiling as she peered up at him. "Anytime," she replied quietly, poking him playfully in the ribs just before he released her and she took a step back, turning her gaze on Leah when Embry descended the steps. "Thanks for coming, Leah. It was really good to see you."

"Yeah...you, too," Leah offered, not missing how the unease in her lifted just enough to notice the moment Embry stopped, his shoulder brushing hers. "Dinner was great. Thank you."

Bella nodded, worrying her bottom lip between her teeth, one hand resting lazily on the swell of her belly. "Well, you know you're welcome here any time, too. Next time, don't stay at Oceanside. You can have the guest suite above the garage if you really need the space." Releasing her lip, Bella offered Leah one last friendly smile. "See you tomorrow at the bonfire."

Goodbyes were said, and Leah knew she needed to move. Still, she couldn't convince her feet to cooperate, knowing what was going to happen when they left, the reality of it still hanging around the edges of her awareness. It didn't let up, not even when Jacob and Embry exchanged their own goodbyes and she peered up to find Jake regarding her hesitantly. Embry nudged her softly, just enough to somehow persuade her to move before she could really think about it.

As Leah turned to go, with Embry already a few steps ahead of her, she barely had time to take one of her own before Jake's voice stopped her in her tracks.

"Remember what we talked about, Leah."

Sucking in a deep breath, Leah stopped. Without turning around, she lowered her gaze to the stone walkway beneath her feet, offering the ground a half-hearted nod and hoping Jacob would see it.

"I know," she muttered.

She was still frozen in place when Jake spoke again.

"I can see her, you know…"

Lips parting silently, Leah peered up from the ground, noticing for the first time Embry had also stopped in front of her. He had turned around, facing both her and Jacob, a tangible curiosity and concern once again clouding those ebony eyes.

Closing her eyes to shut out what that look did to her insides, Leah's hands clenched into fists at her sides as she tipped her head toward the sky. "See who?"

Jake's low chuckle was clear in Leah's ears.

"That person … the one you told me you left behind when you left here. I can see her when I look at you, even more now than I could when I saw you in Chicago. I don't think that's a coincidence, Leah."

Leah kept her eyes closed, letting the words sink in. She didn't argue — she couldn't argue, because as much as she hated Jake for pointing it out, she knew there was absolutely no point in denying it. She knew she wasn't the same person she was two months earlier. She wasn't the person she was before she decided to come home.

And she definitely was no longer the person Embry found that night in a bar she used to call home, the one who had been so good at running but was never quite able to lose the things that chased her.

It felt good to hear it, even though, coming from Jacob's mouth, she wasn't sure what to do with it — or how it would help her get through what she was about to do.

Opening her eyes, Leah lowered her gaze, immediately finding Embry's from where he stood a few feet away. His features were hard, contemplative eyebrows lowered as they watched her, the darkness casting shadows across his face. Leah lingered, knowing the words had resonated somewhere inside him, too, realizing they had piqued a curiosity she would have to put to rest.

First, she had to tell herself to move … one last time. She had to tell herself to turn her head, to peer over her shoulder and afford Jake a small, reserved smile — to use it as a simple, silent way to tell him she was thankful for the support he'd given her, even if she couldn't find the right words in that moment to tell him.

The last thing she saw before she turned and her feet finally moved was Jacob's own smile, a subdued gesture that crept across his expression. Laced with a barely tangible pride, it closely resembled one she'd seen somewhere else.

It was a smile she never felt she deserved, but one she had to count on now more than ever.

She had to believe Jake's words. She had to believe everything Embry had told her up until that point — everything she had told herself — in order to do what Jacob asked of her.

The silence inside the truck was nearly deafening once it was out on the road, the vehicle slowly heading back toward the heart of La Push. Taking a deep breath, Leah leaned her head against the cool window. Closing her eyes, she wished Embry would say something. She wished he would ask what she and Jake talked about so she could say it out loud and tell him what she had to do. She wished he would so he could tell her she needed to do it, and so he could tell her it was a good idea.

A handful of minutes passed before Embry shifted next to her, his soft exhale the only noise Leah could hear besides the road rushing beneath the truck's tires.

"You okay?"

Leah didn't respond; instead, she slowly lifted her head from the glass, a response to some sense of inexplicable urgency inside of her. Eyes opening, she scanned the dark land around them. Focusing, she needed to see where they were, because if she was going to do this she had to do it now. She didn't have much time. She had to do it before she forgot why she needed to and before she could let her head get the better of her.

She had to do it before she could talk herself out of it, because she knew she would, and it wouldn't take that much.

Leah's mouth was dry, the words heavy, when she finally spoke. "Can you turn up here?"

She refused to look at Embry, but it didn't matter — she could feel his eyes burning holes through her anyway. Holding her breath, she waited for his response, his stare weighing her down because she had no doubt he knew exactly where they were.

He knew whose driveway rested several yards away.

"Leah … " His voice was low, uncertain.

"Embry," she interrupted, still focusing on the road ahead of them — on the approaching mailbox rather than her pounding heart. His reluctance wasn't lost on her or how Embry slowed the truck anyway, something in her voice compelling him to listen and do what she asked. Leah swallowed thickly, blinking wildly to get some kind of grasp on her focus. "I just … need you to do this for me, okay?"

Embry made a choked noise in his throat, the simple sound of it stabbing at something inside Leah. Holding her breath, she heard him shift uncomfortably in place. "Did Jake ask you to do this?"

Leah closed her eyes, forcing herself to fucking breathe when she heard the montone ticking of the truck's blinker.

She swallowed again. "Yes … "

Embry's exhale was rough and labored, the action inadvertently pushing a distressed noise from his chest. "Leah," her name slipped from his throat in a hurry and there were traces of palpable unease in his voice, "don't do this for Jake. This isn't something you should do for anyone but you."

Wincing, Leah opened her eyes just in time to see Embry turn into the driveway, the truck moving at a glacial pace. She wanted to tell him it wasn't just for Jake — that even if, in that moment, she failed to understand why, she was hoping like hell she would once it was all over.

"This doesn't have anything to do with Jacob, Em. I need to do this," she whispered, her fingers curling tightly around the door handle, the words intended just as much for her as they were for Embry. "I need to get it over with."

Leah swore she heard Embry growl, and it took everything inside her not to look at him.

"I'm going with you."

She shook her head forcefully, keeping her eyes focused on the mailbox as they passed it. "No, you're not."

"Leah … " The pitch of his voice reeked with an irrational persistence, and it wasn't lost on Leah how the steadiness in it faltered … or how a desperation she couldn't comprehend lay not too far beneath the words.

She ignored it.

"Stop!" Leah exclaimed, just as they approached the crest in the driveway. She couldn't see the house from where they were, and a larger part of her was thankful for it. "Just stop here. I'll go the rest of the way."

She knew better. She fucking knew better, but she chose that moment — the moment the truck came to a complete stop, and the one when Embry let a frustrated growl rip from his chest — to look at him anyway.

It was enough to make her stop. It was enough to make her see.

And even though he refused to look directly at her, what she could see in the corner of his eye — a heavy cloud of dread and a frenzied, irrational worry — was almost enough to make her change her mind, to tell him to forget about it and turn the truck around. It was almost enough to make her think she should simply let Jake do things the way he planned without her help, if it meant she could take that look out of Embry's eyes.

He shook his head, wildly, like he was fighting something from within.

Swallowing down the panic she could feel rising in her throat, Leah's eyes widened slightly, ignoring how each one suddenly burned. Craning her neck, she searched his face, not missing how his fingers trembled when he unwrapped them from around the steering wheel.

She wished he would just fucking look at her.

The intensity of the longing she felt — the hope she suddenly held for that strength and confidence she could always count on from Embry — swept away anything Bella had said to her earlier. Anything Leah had thought as a result of it was long gone in that moment, because she knew …

There was no way she could get through what was about to happen without Embry. There was no way she could do it if she wasn't positive he would be waiting for her when it was over.

Which meant whatever was happening in front of her, she needed to fix it. She needed to do her best to make it better before she could move.

"Embry …"

Her voice was a whisper. Unbuckling her seat belt, she edged closer to him. She tried to catch his eyes, hating how they darted back and forth, looking anywhere but her. "Tell me this is a good idea."

Embry's lips parted, and Leah didn't miss how his hand curled tighter around the steering wheel, muscles taut beneath the flesh of his forearm. A noise escaped his throat — a sound that was meant to be words, but wasn't able to make it past whatever was plaguing his insides.

"I don't think it's something you should do by yourself."

The fear — the anxiety — was even more prominent in the unsteady timbre of his voice.

Leah shifted until she faced him. One hand reaching out for the dashboard, she gripped it tightly. "I have to…" she insisted, her voice cracking beneath the weight of what she said.

Pushing out a heavy breath, Embry peered out the window, glaring at nothing in particular. One hand released its hold on the steering wheel. He curled it into a fist instead, bringing it to his mouth for a single moment before he finally — finally — turned his head, letting his gaze meet Leah's pleading eyes.

Seeing the moment of fire in those ebony eyes — a carnal, unwavering promise — she suddenly understood.

"If he hurts you at all, Leah. If he says anything, I fucking swear to god … "

The words stopped before he could finish, and Embry pressed his lips into a thin line. The fire in his eyes was gone, but his jaw tightened and his chest heaved with restrained breaths. Inhaling deeply, Leah gave in to everything inside her, letting her body do what it wanted. Inherently leaning in, she released her grip on the dashboard and reached for Embry, her fingertips lightly tracing his jaw.

She tried to smile, especially when he met her eyes one final time, even though she was unsure of how she ended up comforting Embry or how the overwhelming need to do it obscured everything else. Still, she knew she had to do it, because she couldn't leave him the way he was.

Doing what she could, she held those eyes until they softened. She left her fingers where they were until his breaths were less strained. She tried to soothe the fear he no doubt possessed inside him, one that was entirely too similar to her own. It was a fear stemming from a belief that one wrong word from Sam could undo everything she — everything they — had worked for.

"Give me five minutes," she breathed, inexplicably able to offer him a placating smile.

Embry's jaw twitched beneath the strain, and he held her eyes for several more infinite moments before he finally spoke. "Five minutes," he agreed, his voice steady but still strained. "Any longer, and I'm not staying in this god damn truck, Leah."

Her fingers instinctively reached up, pushing gently through the strands of hair just above his ear. "I know. Five minutes. I'll … be okay," she promised, even though she didn't entirely believe it herself.

Still, it gave her the time she needed. It convinced Embry enough to finally nod, to reach up and take her hand in his, holding it a moment before he finally pulled it away from his face. Placing it in her lap, he only released it after a handful of excruciating seconds, the action a silent affirmation that she was free to go and he would be waiting when she was done.

It was enough. Before she could lose what little nerve she had, Leah turned, opening the door and climbing from the truck without another word. Closing the door behind her, it allowed her feet to move with a purpose she didn't anticipate and one she didn't completely understand. Climbing the crest in the driveway, it allowed her to keep her eyes trained ahead of her with an unsettling focus.

She could do this…

She could fucking do this.

She repeated it to herself, over and over. Letting the sounds of the forest around her fill her ears, the loudest noise came from the gravel beneath her feet. She focused on it all until she saw it, until her determined gaze landed on a house she hadn't seen since six years earlier, when it all happened.

Since that night …

It was enough to send her reeling as every ounce of breath Leah held in her lungs disappeared. Her entire body turned to lead and she stopped walking, every single shred of fortitude disintegrating. Her pulse pounded in her ears and she frantically searched her mind, suddenly unable to remember why she was there, what she was doing. It was all gone.

Now that she could see it, she had no idea what she had been thinking. She saw everything — the warm light pouring through the kitchen window, the wisps of smoke curling from the chimney, the potted plants on the porch steps, and the planters of herbs lining the railing. She saw the seasonal wreath hanging on the door.

Everything about it was picture fucking perfect.

She had to swallow bile in the back of her throat, and she hadn't even set foot on the front porch.

The door ...

Her gaze traveled over the wood. It was the only thing protecting her in that moment, the only thing keeping her from the reason she was there in the first place.

It was the only thing protecting her from the two people who resided at the root of every mistake and every fucking stupid decision she'd ever made, from every bit of pain Leah had taken on herself in order to escape facing the worst of it.

Fuck, she wasn't sure if she could do this …

She had to, though, no matter how badly she trembled, no matter how hard her heart pounded, and no matter how much the sight of it all had her wanting to lean forward to wretch the dinner Bella had made for them into the dirt.

She needed to do it … because she could hear Jacob's words in her head.

You ran for years, and you know better than anyone, Leah, you can't run from this, now that you're here …

She heard Bella's words.

If you can make peace with them …

If you can put it behind you …

Fuck, she knew they were right. She knew she needed to listen to them. She knew it, because she had known it herself all along. She had seen — experienced — what running did, and the person it turned her into.

She needed to face this head on.

He needed to know she was there.

It was about so much more than the weekend, so much more than Seth's wedding, and so much more than what Jacob and Bella had told her. If there was one thing Leah knew better than she ever had before, the only way to move forward was to face the things holding her back.

The only way to move forward was to stop running, to prove to herself she was capable of it, and do it for herself before for anyone else.

She needed to face him - the other one, the one who told her to leave, the person who had told her to stay away, and the first person who made her believe she wasn't wanted.

The first person who ever made her feel completely worthless.

Still, she couldn't get rid of that lone, single thought from earlier — the one that feared how seeing Sam again could erase every single step that led her to his door. She couldn't help but remember what she saw pass through Embry's eyes moments earlier and how she understood it in that moment better than she had before.

She knew what she had to do, but that fear … it was so fucking strong, so consuming, in a way that turned Leah's blood ice cold.

It wanted to cripple her...

Breath catching in her throat, Leah's chest heaved against the strain. The tightness was back, becoming worse with each passing second, making it nearly impossible to breathe.

Closing her eyes, Leah brought her hands to her face, trying to fight everything inside her. Resisting the urge to dig her fingernails into her forehead out of sheer frustration, she tried to control the violent tremors rolling off her fingers. Pulling them back, she curled her hands into fists before lowering them, keeping them at her sides where they belonged.

She couldn't help the thought as it passed through her head. It was a flash before it was gone, causing her to remember all the times Embry had offered to be there and all the times he'd wanted to go with her. She remembered the one from moments earlier, and how every single time he asked, she'd turned him down.

She wished with everything she was worth that just this one time, she'd said yes.

He wasn't there, though.

He wasn't, but she was … and she couldn't just fucking stand there. She couldn't because each excruciating second that passed only made it worse — the heat in her veins, the shaking in her bones, the infuriating knot in her stomach.

Somehow, she convinced her feet to move.

Somehow, she crossed the distance separating her from the front porch, ascending the steps in two swift strides. The sound of her shoes moving across the wooden porch boards kept time to the heavy, foreboding noise in her ears — the only explanation for it the way her heart pounded inside her chest.

Somehow, she stopped, just inches from the same door she'd been staring at moments earlier.

Somehow, her arm raised from her side, fingers curling into a fist and lifting to the aged wood.

Every single fucking thing in her body stopped — ceasing, falling silent — the moment she rapped it against the sturdy wood.

Lips parting, Leah closed her eyes, taking a self-preserving step back. Putting what distance she could between her and the door, she drew in a breath when she heard the sound of someone moving behind it, knowing it would be the last one she'd take for a handful of agonizing moments.

Every bit of blood in her body turned to ice the second she heard the door handle turn.

Her eyes were still closed when when a warm rush of air washed across her face, spilling from the open door, pushing out with it the strong scent of cinnamon, cherries, and rose petals.

There was more …

It hit her like a fucking brick wall. She didn't need to open her eyes to know who stood in front of her. Every part of her that once recognized every nuanced layer of his presence crawled its way from some recess in her mind. Every bit of his scent — a strong musk laced with hints of leather — worked its way past the rest, filtering unforgivingly into her nostrils.

In that moment, all she could remember was the last time she smelled it.

The sound he made — a subtle, choked noise of shock — was the thing that pulled her back. It was the only sound that could make her remember where she stood and that she had to open her eyes. She had to face this, more so than anything else, and opening her eyes in that particular instant would be the hardest fucking part.

Still, Leah knew if she could get through what awaited her when she opened them, it might be possible to get through everything else.

Ignoring how the rest of her was paralyzed, Leah drew on every ounce of strength she held in her body. Every conquered fear, every test she'd passed, every fucking step she'd taken — she used it all, every last bit of it, the moment she opened her eyes.

Grasping for it, she hung on for dear life as the sight of the man in front of her literally knocked the breath from her lungs.

He looked exactly like she remembered.

Sam hadn't changed. He was still broad and tall, his features gruff and hard and kind all at the same time.

He hadn't changed one fucking bit, but Leah didn't let her eyes linger. She didn't let her gaze explore or take it in. She didn't take the time she knew would unhinge her and make her second-guess the fact she was standing there. She ignored what those forlorn, deep brown eyes did to her insides as they gaped at her in disbelief. Hand curling tightly around the edge of the door, his lips parted, his head rocked back and forth ever so slightly. It was a gesture she'd seen a lot of in the twenty-four hours leading up to that moment, and a product of the same skepticism she'd heard slip from his throat earlier.

Still, she waited. She didn't speak, because a part of her — an instinct she couldn't seem to shake — kept waiting for him to say it.

It kept waiting for the word to fall from his lips, to see that cold steel return to his eyes. It held out, anchoring her — preparing her for the moment he remembered what he'd said before, even as Leah found herself unable to shed the feeling he didn't want her there as much as she didn't want to be there.

She waited … for him to remind her she wasn't welcome.

For him to tell her to leave.

His lips parted, eyes widening slightly. Releasing a breath, one word tumbled out with it.

It was a word she hadn't counted on, one she hadn't expected.

"Leah … "

She didn't want to close her eyes, but she couldn't fucking help it, the sound of him speaking her name hitting her like a punch to the stomach. She could feel it again — that urge to run, to turn around and leave before he could tell her to, before he could give her a new, legitimate reason to feel how she was feeling, and before he could bring up all the old ones that kept her away.

She couldn't … because she had to speak. She had to face him, even if it was only for that moment.

Leah managed to open her eyes, ignoring how his pierced straight through her. Squaring her shoulders, her fingers curled into fists at her sides — concealing how her hands trembled — and she planted both feet on the porch, keeping her where she was.

She focused just long enough to keep her from backing down, to allow her to remember what she went there to do and to remember she was strong enough to do it.

She was strong enough …

Leah couldn't explain why Jacob's words chose that moment to resonate somewhere inside her frazzled, anxiety-ridden brain — why they chose to emerge from somewhere inside her pounding heart, picking that second to come front and center.

"Why does it need to be me?"

"I think you know why, Leah … "

She knew …

Because she was fucking strong enough.

"I'm here…"

Her voice was choked and barely a whisper, but it didn't matter. She knew he could hear her.

"For Seth's wedding … " she whispered, watching how his eyes slowly blinked at her words, not missing how he hung onto them or how everything seemed to be happening in slow motion.

Holding her breath, she also held his gaze, ignoring the wild disbelief in Sam's eyes. She refused to look away, letting him know — somehow, even if she didn't know how — that this time, it wasn't up to him whether she stayed or went. It didn't matter what he thought about her being there in front of him. It didn't matter if she was in La Push.

Because her life wasn't fucking up to him …

"I'm home," she said again, her voice rising that time, the words more firm, "and I just thought you should know."

Sam didn't say a word. He allowed one foot to step forward, and slowly, he opened his mouth to speak.

Leah wasn't interested in that. She didn't want to hear what he had to say. She didn't wait to see what look would bleed across his features next.

Instead, her body suddenly turned the opposite direction, feet moving purposefully across the porch and down the steps, across the grass and onto the sparse gravel.

Her blood was raging through her veins, but she didn't want to fucking hear it. Leah said what she needed to say. She said it, she turned around, and she walked away. It wasn't because he told her to. It wasn't because she was running.

She walked away because she could.

From the moment Leah climbed out of the truck and crossed the street to his apartment, Embry remained a few steps behind her.

Sitting in the truck at the end of Sam's driveway, he'd given her longer than five minutes. He'd allowed her more time, and it nearly killed him as he watched the clock, his breaths coming harder as each minute went by. His pounding heart ticked off any remaining seconds and he just fucking sat there, waiting, somehow putting aside what he made Leah promise him.

But he didn't forget

Embry ignored the thrumming in his veins and how the blood pulsing through each one threatened to incinerate every fiber inside him. At one point, he was pretty sure the wolf inside him would go ballistic if he didn't get out of the fucking truck, if he didn't phase, or if he didn't go after her.

If he didn't protect what was his

He didn't know what he was supposed to do with that feeling. It wasn't that he didn't trust Leah — it had nothing to do with that.

It had everything to do with not trusting the others.

It had to do with not trusting Sam

Embry hadn't counted on how different it would be, on what it would mean the moment they were out of Chicago and Leah came back to La Push. It was all he fucking wanted, but he hadn't realized just how much he would have to trust his pack brothers. He hadn't counted on how much he would have to trust Bella, or how much he would have to trust Leah's family to protect those fragile pieces of her he knew still existed. He had no choice but to fucking trust they'd play their part in strengthening those pieces if they wanted her to see how much she was missed, how much she was wanted, and how much they needed her there.

He had so little control over all of it, but he trusted them. He had to.

It also meant he had to trust Emily, a person Leah had yet to face.

He had to trust Sam

He didn't, though, and he couldn't deny it. He didn't trust Sam — not with her. He didn't trust what he might say or what he might do. Embry didn't trust him to know, to recognize what he'd done so many years ago, and he couldn't be sure similar words wouldn't come as easy to Sam as they did then. He couldn't be sure Leah wouldn't be just as easy to cast aside as she was before.

He didn't fucking trust him …

Somehow, the man reined in the beast. Somehow, the man won that battle for dominance, his faith in Leah and what she needed to do — trusting her to know what was best in that moment — overpowering a more feral, inherent desire to keep any harm from coming to her, one he'd never felt so strongly until that moment.

Still, it didn't stop the war inside him. It didn't stop the way his blood boiled just beneath his skin, and it didn't stop him from imagining the things he'd do to Sam if he did anything to undo, to take away, what Leah had fought so fucking hard to find.

When he saw Leah come up the crest of the driveway, her arms tucked tightly across her chest and her eyes trained on the ground, Embry thought the burning inside him would ease. He thought it would go away as soon as he could see her again.

It didn't … not even when she climbed into the truck, lips pressed together tightly as she pulled the door closed behind her. Not when she refused to look at him, despite how long he watched her, counting her breaths, each one a little too even as she concentrated a little too hard on the action.

Embry finally took a deep, drawn-out breath through his nose, and it took him a second to realize it was a mistake, a scent he knew entirely too well filling him in a single moment.

It was a scent that belonged to one of his brothers … and it was all over her.

He fucking hated it … in a way he never had before.

Mixed with a thick unease radiating from her body, it reignited the fire inside him. As Embry clenched his fist tightly around the steering wheel, he managed to push three small words from his throat. They were words that begged her to talk to him, to tell him something to ease any part of the upheaval inside him, because Embry knew.

The two intense, parallel reactions — the potency of both, animal and man — were only making the making the other worse.

"Are you okay?"

Leah closed her eyes, but she still refused to look at him.

Three agonizing seconds later, she finally nodded.

Embry was able to turn the key in the truck's ignition. Somehow, he was able to get the truck on the road and head toward home without wrapping the vehicle around a tree in the process. He was concentrating, but he wasn't. Every piece of concentration that was worth a shit in that moment went toward watching Leah out of the corner of his eye. He watched her face for anything, for any sign of how it went or what Sam said.

All he fucking wanted to know was if she really was okay, because her simple, wordless gesture wasn't enough to comfort him.

Her silence, the way she gripped herself, only further agitated the wolf. It only heightened the man's worry. It only made the wolf push harder, adamant in a way that had less to do with anger and more to do with a consuming desperation Embry couldn't push down, strong in a way he thought might cause his heart to pound straight from his chest.

She gave him nothing.

All the way back to his apartment, she didn't speak a word and while the man in Embry knew she was probably only processing what happened, it wasn't enough.

It wasn't fucking enough …

He needed her to speak. He needed her to say somethingdo something, just to show him Sam hadn't taken anything from her. He needed to know she wouldn't run the moment he turned his back.

He needed it to prove to the wolf she was safe.

To prove she was still his

Because mixed with the tangible unease, the anxiety seeping off her in thick waves, was that scent

Trying to ignore how the blood still buzzed through his veins, the heat tore at his muscles. A shudder rocked Embry's frame as he followed her across the street and toward the stairs, his heavy gaze clinging to the outline of her form in the darkness. He held on to it for dear life, unable to understand why she was walking so fast.

It didn't matter. He couldn't wait … not another fucking second, because he suddenly wasn't sure if he could follow her up to his apartment. He wasn't sure if he could go inside where the silence would no doubt be smothering, or if he could pretend every part of him in that moment wasn't needy and despondent in a way he suddenly couldn't get a grip on.

He didn't recognize the reaction he was having to it all, but he needed her to speak. He needed to touch her and look into her eyes, because only then would he know.

He needed her to touch him

Embry barely noticed how his steps lengthened or how easily he closed the gap between them. One hand curled into a fist while the other ran through his disheveled hair, fingers digging into the strands. Gripping them tightly as he pulled, he thought maybe a jolt of pain from something else could bring him back to Earth.

It didn't, and she was closer now. Her posture shifted, her head turning just slightly, almost like she was anticipating something. For a moment, he thought she might look over her shoulder, and Embry could've sworn her steps slowed as he felt his fist uncurl at his side, as he slowly lifted his arm, trembling fingers reaching for her in the damp, night air.

He could've sworn she stopped walking completely just as his hand wrapped around her wrist.

A surprised noise slipped from Leah's throat anyway as Embry pulled, yanking her back from where she stood. Her body twisted, facing him as it crashed roughly into his. Before she could protest, Embry's feet moved beneath him. His other hand curled around her shoulder, the sounds of night drowned by the rhythm of her pounding heart as he pushed her against the building.

Trapping her, it forced her to stop. It forced her to fucking look at him.

And she did … finally.

Embry's breath caught in his throat, lungs burning as he released his grip on her wrist, that same hand lifting as he struggled with the wolf inside, restraining him as he leaned toward her. Bracing himself, his fingers splayed wide against the smooth wood at Leah's back, just beside her head, his other hand rising from her shoulder. His fingernails traced the skin along the column of her neck as he searched those eyes, the man looking for any sign of the same things he saw that first night he ran into her back in some classless bar in Chicago. He searched for traces of the same worthlessness from that night in her kitchen after the concert, for the same desperation that held him in place in a dark bar bathroom, when she realized she couldn't keep running.

That's what he saw — shadows of a similar desperation, although for some reason, he knew it didn't mean the same thing. He saw something else, a liquid gaze peering up at him, filled with something else from that night. It was a welcome helplessness, mixed with an undeniable resolve. It was something he'd seen many times after, when she finally understood he wasn't going to fucking give up, that he was never going to stop caring — that he was never going to stop protecting her.

That same look let him know to him she understood — he would never let her walk away, not until she knew …

Embry wasn't sure who moved first, if it was him or her. It didn't fucking matter though as Leah's warm hands were suddenly framing his face, her fingers burning into his skin. It was all he could feel as he let himself be pulled to her, the sudden pressure of her hot, pliant lips moving desperately against his enough to extinguish the agonizing fire inside of him, igniting an entirely different kind.

Bringing the wolf closer to the surface.

It was easy to lose himself — and it wasn't the first time he had, not with her. The way her body pressed against his, it was all he could do not to let the beast take over completely. Everything about the way she moved only encouraged him. Every curve of her frame, grinding unforgivingly against his, was amplified by the unyielding wall at her back.

He was losing himself in her, but it wasn't quite enough to shadow what else he needed. There were words he still wanted to hear, a part of him needing to know this was still different. He needed to know Samhadn't taken her back to that place, that she wasn't using her movements — her mouth against his, her hands gripping his face — as a way to mask something else.

That she wasn't trying to forget the same way she used to.

Fuck, a part of him didn't want to care. In that moment, the beast inside Embry only wanted one thing … to eliminate that scent from her flesh, to massage the sweat he could already feel collecting on her body back into her skin, replacing it with his scent. It was the same part of him that pushed again, pinning her against the wall, causing the breath to spill from her lungs and wash across his lips. It was the same part that pulled his fingers down her neck, each one tracing rough, pressured patterns along her shoulder and clavicle as her mouth fell open against his. It was the same part that wanted to fucking drown in the heady sweetness of her breath.

It was the same part that coaxed his hand lower, one blazing palm disappearing beneath the hem of her shirt, the feel of her smooth, supple flesh under his enough to drive him mad.

And fuck if the man didn't want that, too …

Still, he did care … about her, about all of it, and the man needed to know. Embry searched, trying to find some semblance of control beneath the fire in his veins. He had to find the will to let her go — to pull his hand away from the swell of her breast, to stop his mouth from moving against the line of her jaw, to stop himself from responding to the whispered gasps leaving her lips, to stop his lungs from breathing in every fucking bit of her scent.

He needed to stop …

He couldn't stop …

Embry — every part of him — wanted too much in that moment. He needed it … too many different things … but he couldn't fucking stop.

Because after everything that happened to Leah that day — after all the words and conversations that took place — this was something he could control, and it meant too much to him to be able to prove it to her. He needed to show her, just in case she'd forgotten somewhere along the way.

Just in case Sam did anything that might take her from him … again.

He let his hand fall, digging into her waist, but he didn't pull away. He closed his eyes, reveling in the way she fucking trembled against him. Brushing his lips against her cheek, he didn't miss how her nails dug roughly into his biceps — how even if he wanted to move, even if the beast inside would allow it, there was no way he could because she was keeping him there.

She wasn't letting him go either.

His other hand lifted, pushing through her hair, twisting through the strands, his breath suddenly coming in muted pants.

He couldn't move. He couldn't stop, but he still needed to know.

Lips parting, Embry sucked in a lungful of air, fisting Leah's hair in between thick fingers. He pulled, just hard enough to illicit a low, intoxicating moan from Leah's throat as he tilted her head back to allow it. Eyes still closed, he traced his nose down the slant of her neck, stopping when it reached her pulse. Breathing in, he pressed his lips to the spot, drinking in the undiluted scent that was impossibly and undeniably her. Letting his mouth linger there, he didn't miss how her arms wrapped around his neck, how tightly she held him, or how she was trying with everything inside her to keep him where he was.

Drawing in one last solitary breath, he whispered the words against her skin.

"I need … tell me … "

He didn't miss how her breath caught when he spoke. He didn't miss how desperate his words sounded, each pair pushed out on the wave of a labored exhale, a product of disjointed thoughts he couldn't quite form against everything else going on inside him.

Her sigh was gentle compared to how her fingers twisted through the short hairs at the nape of his neck, compared to how she tugged, pulling a growl from somewhere deep in Embry's chest. The noise buzzed against her skin, a visceral shudder rocking Leah's body in response.

Embry's breaths were harder, more strained as he waited for what felt like an infinite number of moments. As he tried to hold the warring parts of himself back, he knew he was failing miserably when his lips parted, placing another hot, open-mouthed kiss to her pulse, his tongue tracing along the flushed skin. Tasting her, his head swam with the shift in her scent — how nearly all traces of anxiety were gone, replaced by a palpable veil of safety and need.

A need she only carried for him.

Still, he needed her to say it. She needed to acknowledge it … before it could go any farther.

Leah shifted and her grip on Embry tightened, her lips tenderly brushing against his temple in a way he could only describe as soothing, in a way that silently reassured him just how much she understood — that she knew what part of it was about, and what was required of her.

"I saw him," she murmured, the words barely loud enough even though Embry heard every single one. "I'm okay… "

There was truth in the way she said it. The words were not broken … and it had to be enough.

Embry needed it to be enough, in a way he still didn't fucking understand.

He pulled himself away from her, just long enough for his frame to straighten, not missing how Leah's wide, pleading eyes followed him. Combined with her words, her eyes finally held everything he needed to see in their depths, and it really was enough in that moment and she really didn't need to say anymore as Embry felt the war inside him ease. It freed him just enough to capture her face between large hands, just enough to lean down until his lips were moving despondently — frantically, thankfully — over hers.

It was enough, but there was more.

Her hands clasped his waist and she pulled away, just enough for Embry to pause. Opening his eyes, he found her already watching him, the warmth of her breath still heating his lips. He held her gaze long enough for more words to spill from her mouth, more proof that he didn't really need but words he was just as grateful for, They were words she no doubt needed to say out loud, words spoken for her benefit as much as his.

"It's over," she murmured, her lips ghosting against his, prompting Embry to again close his eyes. He savored the way it felt, allowing it to somehow wrap around his veins and extinguish the last bit of fire that remained.

"And I'm still here."

AN: Holy emotional chapter, but yes ... THAT just happened. :\

As always, thanks to bkhchica and niamhg (who recently jumped back into this little party) for making sure this chapter hit all the right notes, and an EXTRA LARGE thank-you to ChrissiHR, who rose to the challenge of not telling me to take a hike as she works on breaking me of some very bad - and, er, excessive - style habits. You rock, lady! :)

Anyway ... thoughts?