Freedom from the imprint sharpened Sam's senses. Colors were more vivid, sounds were more distinct, foods had more complex flavor, and Sam's thoughts belonged to him again. The only person he wanted to share them with was Leah.

She still hadn't rejoined the pack, not after the fight in Seattle despite the fact that he had already started to cut ties with Emily. She hadn't even chosen to come back when he broke the imprint. He had thought that she would want to see for herself, confirm in the pack mind that it was truly and completely gone. Instead she just told him that she trusted him and seeing it was unnecessary. He was honored by her trust, but he couldn't help but miss her when he transformed into his animal body only to hear the voices of his brothers, but not his mate. He had asked her to reconsider, but she did not. He suggested to Jacob that Leah would be safer if she could communicate directly with the pack, and while Jacob agreed, he also said that Leah had earned the right to make her own decisions. So they remained psychically separate until Emily left for good.

The first time Sam woke up to the feeling of Leah's warm body cradled against his, he thought he was still dreaming. Flashes of the blissful night before slowly returned to him, which only convinced him further that the entire thing must be a figment of his imagination. Too many times he had woken blearily in the night thinking she would be there, only to reach out into empty space.

Today he inhaled deeply to breathe in their mingled scents. The light tickling on his face felt like her hair, and the smooth, soft weight filling his palm must be a phantom breast. That meant that the flesh where his hardening cock was nestled would be the cleft of her buttock. He tightened his grip, moaned unconsciously, and burrowed himself closer. If this was a dream, he never wanted to wake up. He tried to let himself sink deeper into the illusion, holding himself away from the edge of consciousness, afraid to wake alone. He only realized it was real when he heard her sigh his name and felt her guide him inside of her.

"Ohhh, god. You're really here?" he asked as he began to rock into her.

She hummed her response. "Mmmm. I sure hope so."

He finally opened his eyes to prove to himself that this was really happening. It was still early. The light was weak but more than enough to illuminate her lovely features. He carefully and deliberately kissed every patch of flesh he could reach, and he made love to her languidly and lovingly while the sun rose in the sky. He relished each sensation, every sound she made, the salt of her skin, the feminine spice of her musk, and every moment was as deeply satisfying as his climax was overwhelming.

They spent the day like that, venturing no farther than the kitchen when they required food. They prepared a simple meal together, and Sam was thrilled when Leah asked him about his plans for the upcoming freshman year in Seattle. Until then it was a topic they had danced around in conversation, he too afraid to ask for fear of abandonment, she dreading the possibility that he could not leave La Push even if he wanted to. But now nothing and no one stood in their way.

They had a normal, conventional, unremarkable discussion about student housing, financial aid, looking for jobs, and anticipated coursework, and he remembered that once upon a time, he had been more human than animal. Not so long ago, he had even been a boy. He was happy enough just to feel like a normal person again, but when Leah suggested sharing a studio apartment rather than living separately in the dormitories, he was ecstatic. He would live in a cardboard box if she was there, and he would consider himself lucky. In his excitement, he lifted her off her seat and pulled her into his lap, kissing her thoroughly, and then he ended up taking her once more on the kitchen table.

By early evening, Sam had decided that he wanted to show her off, so they grabbed their surfboards and headed to the beach. They were both a little rusty, but it wasn't long before muscle memory kicked in. They rode the waves and splashed in the surf until the sun began to set, and then they watched the sky turn fiery orange before fading into deep pink, rich purple, and inky blue.

The summer passed in such a fashion. They worked, they played, they ate meals with their families, and they threw bonfires with their friends. But life had changed, and so had they. Leah rejoined the pack with little fanfare but a warm welcome. They patrolled separately and together, but they saw no more vampires. No other teenagers were afflicted with unusual fevers, and they hoped it was a sign. Occasionally they checked on the Cullen mansion, but it remained dark and empty, and one day a for sale sign appeared in its yard. Jacob broke the news to Bella, and she surprised all of them, not the least of whom was herself, by feeling only a sense of closure and not of loss.

In fact, the most dramatic event of the season occurred on a July day which was remarkable only for its clear skies and warm weather. Leah and Sam both had to work in the morning. Leah staffed the day camp located at the community center, doing arts and crafts with a group of children. Sam was unable to rejoin Marty's roofing crew because his old boss believed him to be notoriously unreliable after the chaos of the previous year. Instead he returned to mowing lawns and landscaping. The money wasn't as good, but most days they were both done working by early afternoon. Sam stopped at the cabin for a quick shower, packed sandwiches and snacks, and headed to the Black house, where Leah and Seth were meeting Jacob, Rachel, and Bella.

Girlish giggling wafted out the twins' bedroom window. "Tell me, Bella," Leah said. "Rachel's checking out my ass, isn't she?"

Rachel answered, "Honey, if you had my view, you'd be doing the same thing."

A slapping sound followed, and Leah shrieked. "Oh my God! You can look, but don't touch!"

"Damn, girl, you're booty's so tight! How's it so curvy and so firm all at the same time? What's your secret?"

"Hey! Get your hand off my ass!"

"Eh," Rachel said dismissively. "We're all girls here."

Leah jokingly protested, "But you're gay! That makes you practically a boy!"

Rachel snorted. "I will happily prove to you that I am not a boy."

Leah and Bella began laughing hysterically. Bella yelled, "Oh my God, put that back on! I don't need to see any of it!"

"Just straightening out a couple of misconceptions. Plus, I'm only partly gay. I still like a big, fat dick too much to change teams entirely."

"Rachel!" Bella sounded genuinely appalled. "Too much information!"

Sam couldn't help himself. He peeked in the bedroom window. Bella was wearing shorts and a beach coverup, and her face was bright red. Rachel was adjusting her bikini bottoms, and Leah was tying on the top to her string bikini.

Rachel dismissed her. "Says the girl who deflowered my baby brother. You owe me, like, some brain bleach or something after what you put me through. Can't you guys do it in his car like normal teenagers? Or at least wait until the house is empty?"

Bella stammered, "I… We…"

Sam tore himself away from the window before he was spotted and knocked on the front door. Jacob let him in. "What the heck are the girls up to?" he asked.

"Getting changed," Seth explained. "And making us as uncomfortable as humanly possible."

Jacob added, "I'd say Rachel is doing it on purpose, only she doesn't know we can hear everything she says. Okay, now that you're here, maybe you can make them stop!"

"Or I can stay and listen, and we can just see where this takes us," Sam joked. The girls' conversation was as sexy as it was entertaining.

"Yeah, I don't think so. Lee! Sam's here! Let's get going!" Seth yelled.

They ended up at the beach. Sam couldn't keep his eyes off of Leah. For so long, her lovely face was marred by pain or sadness, or he could only watch her from afar. But now she looked carefree and happy, and Sam was infinitely grateful that he was there to see it. But as grateful as he was, he was even more distracted by the tiny bikini she sported. As soon as he dropped his things on the sand, he ran into the frigid ocean to hide the evidence of his arousal and refused to get out. Rachel noticed and kept tossing him dirty looks. She still didn't know what had happened between him, Leah, and Emily, and she didn't bother to hide her disgust at his presence.

She only cracked a smile at him when he was struck in the head with a football. He had been blatantly staring at Leah's ass while she bent over the cooler for a drink.

Jacob laughed at him and picked the ball off the ground while he looked around. He saw Paul and Embry jogging toward them. "Dude, your reflexes are shit," Paul said.

"Didn't you hear Paul yelling for you?" Embry asked.

"He was, uh, preoccupied," Jacob snickered. Sam felt like an idiot. Apparently he hadn't matured at all since the last time he was hit by a football, the first time he saw Leah in a bikini when they were fourteen.

Leah took the ball from Jacob and waved the boys back. "Go long!" She sent the football in a perfect spiral, and Embry leapt to catch it. Seth and Jacob immediately went running after, arguing about who would play on each team.

Sam looked down at Bella, who was sitting under an umbrella trying to protect herself from the sun. "Want to join us?"

She shook her head. "No thanks. I'll end up with a broken ankle or a concussion or something. I'm not safe to play touch football with regular people, let alone you guys. Besides, it looks like Rachel got tired of the water."

Sam looked where she pointed, and indeed, Rachel was emerging from the sea. She raised both her arms to slick her wet hair out of her face. He answered, "Suit yourself," and he joined his pack.

Jacob had already sided with Leah and Seth, and the two teams were lining up opposite each other. Sam took his place next to Embry and directly across from Leah, who was smirking at him. Paul crouched down, ready to hike the ball to Embry, but paused when a voice rang out behind them. "Got room for one more?"

They turned to see Rachel approaching. Jacob answered, "Sorry, you're the odd man out! We've already got even teams."

Paul chimed in, "Hey now, don't be rude. The lady can play if she wants to play."

"I'll get Bella to join. Then it'll be four on four. I mean, how are you going to get a football game going with only six people anyway?" Rachel added.

Jacob sounded skeptical. "Bella would get snapped in half. Plus I don't think you could pay her to play football with us."

Rachel placed her hand on her hip, striking a cocky pose. She grinned. "I can be very persuasive, actually."

"I'll bet you can," Paul murmured and licked his lips as he eyed Rachel's body.

"Great!" Rachel replied brightly. "Just give me a second to get on my shorts on and grab Bella."

"Oh, but you look so good in that!" Paul commented.

Jacob saw Paul's expression and smacked him upside the head. "Hey, you get your…"

But he didn't finish his sentence before Rachel frowned and pointed at her face. "Lahote, my eyes are up here, buddy!"

"And what beautiful eyes they…" Paul trailed off as he looked up. His jaw dropped open, and he stopped breathing.

They all stared at him, one by one realizing what had just happened. Rachel just rolled her eyes and turned her back on him, saying, "Yeah, whatever." She walked back to Bella and tried in futility to get her to join them while Paul stared after her.

Jacob grabbed Paul's elbow and yanked him around. Paul's only response was to twist so he could keep Rachel in his line of sight. Jacob growled, "Tell me that you're just being your usual horndog self before I completely lose it."

"Huh?" was Paul's only response.

Leah waved her hand in front of Paul's face, but he stared right through it at Rachel. "Fuck. He's gone," she said. "Paul?"

Jacob's voice lowered to a deadly level. "Paul, tell me that you didn't just imprint on my sister."

Paul still said nothing, but he started to shake his head back and forth. Leah touched his arm. "Paul? You okay?"

"He's not okay," Sam sighed. "He just lost his ties to everyone and everything he's ever known."

"Shit," Jacob cursed. "It was bad enough the way he was checking her out. But now I'm going to have to gouge his eyes out. And his balls."

Sam urged, "Don't panic. We can fix this."

Embry agreed. "Yeah. Two of the three imprints are already broken. Convincing Claire was like nothing at all. Kim's got her claws sunk deep into Jared, but even she's having second thoughts. Rachel won't do that to Paul."

Leah added, "Yeah. She's got a girlfriend, remember? She spent the last two hours gushing about how awesome she is."

"When she wasn't hitting on you, you mean," Sam clarified.

"Yeah, yeah. You're right." Jacob ran his hands through his hair. "We can stop it before anything even happens."

Leah continued, "She isn't going to be another Kim. There's no reason she'd feel that way." In the aftermath of the broken imprints, Kim began to have doubts, but she had not freed Jared. It left him reeling, because as Kim began to second-guess imprinting, he began to have doubts of his own. But she still wasn't about to let him go.

"Leah and I will talk to Rachel, okay?" Sam offered. "We'll explain everything before it goes too far."

"Everything..." Paul whispered.

"What's that, man?" Embry asked.

"She's everything," Paul answered in a flat voice.

Jacob glared at Paul. "I'm gonna stay with him and make sure he doesn't do anything stupid."

Embry glanced between them. "I'm gonna stay here and make sure Jake doesn't murder Paul."

Rachel was approaching them, peeking over her shoulder at Bella, who had indeed refused to play. Leah intercepted her before she got any closer. "Hey, Rach? We gotta talk."

The conversation was as challenging as expected. Rachel thought they had lost their minds until Leah phased in front of her, and then she was convinced she was hallucinating. When she was finally calm enough, she asked, "So if I stick around here, is that going to happen to me? Am I going to turn into that?"

"Probably not," Sam answered, "but we can't say for sure. Before Leah there were no female protectors. We didn't think it was possible. I guess you could be an imprint and a protector, but we've never heard of anything like that."

"For now," Leah added, "maybe we can focus on what to do about Paul. But tell your dad if you get a weird fever."

Rachel squeezed her eyes shut and grimaced in frustration. "Why Paul, of all people? Why me? I remember that kid. He's a punk."

Leah said, "He's not so bad when you get to know him. Not that I think you should accept this imprint, mind you. But he's got a lot of good qualities."

Rachel asked, "So you know him pretty well now, huh?"

Leah nodded. "The pack shares a telepathic connection when we're phased. We can see into each other's minds. And yeah, some of what you think is going on up there is maybe just as bad as you're worried about, and probably even worse. But all the same, he's been a really good friend to me over the past few months. Ultimately he is a good guy, and if somebody had to imprint on you, you could have had it worse." Sam involuntarily clenched his fists. Leah was his, and it still made him a little crazy to know that if he hadn't managed to rid himself of Emily, Leah might well have ended up with Paul.

Rachel folded her arms over her chest. "So what, are you saying I should give him a chance? What about my girlfriend?"

Leah held out her hands. "No, not at all. Don't give him a chance, not as far as the imprint is concerned, anyway. I like you both well enough to want the best for both of you, and imprinting isn't it. Then again, I guess I am basically the most biased person you could be talking to here. You should probably talk to your dad before you actually decide anything."

Sam chimed in. "Go ahead and talk to your dad, but take it from someone who's been on the other side. Imprinting is slavery. It's brainwashing. If you don't get rid of it, you choose to have some kind of a relationship with him and you've left that bond intact, you'll never know if any of it is real, even if you just choose to be friends. You won't know if he's just saying what you want to hear, or telling you the truth. You'll end up living a lie, and his choices will be taken away."

"So I just cut all ties with him? Just nip this thing in the bud before it spirals totally out of control?" Rachel asked.

Leah and Sam glanced at each other. Leah answered, "As far as the imprint itself goes? Yeah. I think that is what you should do. If you want to get to know him after that, well then I think that's fine. He is a good guy, and he is worth getting to know. But not like this. If it's meant to be, you won't need the imprint to force it."

Sam added, "Yeah. I've known Emily for years. Jared's known Kim nearly his whole life. Neither of us thought anything of either of them because there just wasn't anything there, no chemistry, no attraction, no nothing. The only reason we paid any attention to them was because the imprints made us. If we really cared about them, we wouldn't need imprinting to tell us. And you know there's no way Quil would have attached himself to a toddler if he had a choice. Imprinting is a way to force us into relationships that we don't want, that make no sense."

"So what's it for, then?" Rachel wanted to know.

"We don't honestly know," Leah admitted.

"Yes we do," Sam said somberly. "It's a trap."

Rachel soon left, wanting to talk to her father before she did anything else. Leah and Sam returned to the cabin, where Embry and Seth were trying to keep Jake from assaulting Paul, and Paul from chasing after Rachel. Sam half expected that the cabin would have been destroyed by the wolves, but everything was intact. Leah kneeled in front of Paul where he sat on the couch, staring into space. "You okay?"

He blinked and slowly realized she was there. "I… I don't know. I have no idea."

"What do you mean?" Embry asked. "Do you feel like you need to see her? Are you happy about it? Pissed off?"

Blankly, Paul shook his head and said, "I don't know."

"He's just trying not to piss me off any more than he already has," Jacob seethed.

Sam examined Paul closely. His eyes were glassy. "No, he really means it. He doesn't know what to think, because Rachel doesn't know what to think, and that's driving him."

At his imprint's name, Paul perked up. "How is she? Is she okay? Is she mad at me? Does she want to see me?"

Leah told him, "I think she just needs a little bit of space. She's going to go talk to Billy."

Jacob said, "I should be there. She's my sister. I shouldn't leave her alone."

"Sure," Embry nodded. "We'll stick with Paul, make sure he's okay."

Eventually Seth went home and Embry left for a date. Paul didn't move. He just sat on the couch staring at the opposite wall. He let Leah lead him into the kitchen for dinner, but other than a trip to the bathroom, he just sat on the couch again. He would answer questions when asked, but he was nothing like his usual self. His usual biting humor and arrogant flirtatiousness were gone. Leah was worried enough that she sat with him, saying nothing when he drifted off while leaning on her. She lowered his head to her lap and let him rest. Sam hated the intimacy of their position, but he knew what Paul was going through. His human connections were gone, and depriving him of the physical comfort that she provided would have been cruel. But when she slipped out from underneath Paul and crawled into bed with him, the scent of the other man on her skin made him a little crazy. He kissed her possessively, readied her frantically with his fingers, and turned her onto her hands and knees and took her from behind. He felt supreme satisfaction making her moan his name and rebranding her with his teeth, and by the time they were done, his scent obliterated Paul's.

Paul startled himself awake early the next morning. Sam checked on him before Leah awoke. No longer was Paul staring into nothing. He was watching the front door. Sure enough, Rachel knocked on it 15 minutes later. She wanted to talk to Paul alone. It made Sam nervous, but he had no justification for stopping them, so he simply waited anxiously while Paul and Rachel went on a walk.

Sam expected them to be gone for hours, but they returned in only a few minutes. He barely had time to wonder what they were talking about. Paul opened the front door without knocking and stuck his head in. "We're all good. Want to go get some breakfast?"

Sam peered outside where Rachel sat on the porch waving at him. "Aren't you guys hungry? I am," she said. He blinked at her in surprise before returning to rouse Leah.

It turned out that Rachel had only needed to think about her decision overnight. She had thought over what they told her, and Sam's experience had moved her. She hadn't even bothered to ask Paul what he wanted, because she knew that she couldn't trust his answer to be honest. She had immediately broken the imprint. Directly afterward, she asked if she could buy him breakfast. She said that she still wanted to get to know him "the old-fashioned way," if it was alright with him. He accepted, and that was that.

X-x-x-x-X

One week later, Sam and Leah loaded their surfboards and camping gear into the back of Sam's truck and said goodbye to their families and friends, embarking on the road trip they had been planning for years. They headed south on the 101. Sam kept his left hand on the wheel but held Leah's hand tightly with his right. She flashed him her dimpled smile and said, "I can't believe we're really doing this. I didn't think it was going to happen. There are so many things I thought would never happen."

"Really? Because I don't think there's a power on earth that could stop us."

"Thanks to you. You started a revolution. It's unbelievable."

He brought her hand to his lips and kissed it. "How could I have done anything else? Maybe if I was like Jared, if I'd never experienced real love, I might not have known any better. I probably would have just gone along with it. But there's no way that imprinting could compare to what we've got. To you. There was never an option without you."

"That's not true." At his startled look, she clarified, "No, no. What I mean is, a whole different future was totally possible. It might not have been right for either of us, but it was possible. Hell, it felt inevitable. It felt like fate. I know it took everything in you to resist. You did that all on your own. Everyone said it was impossible, that it couldn't be done. But you fought for us. No matter what happens, I'm always going to know how hard you fought for us. Even if you hadn't succeeded, just the fact that you tried, it meant the world to me. Because I know what you did, how painful it was for you, how much you struggled, and how much easier it would have been to just give in. I can't thank you enough for doing that for us. I'm sorry I ever doubted you."

Sam almost blushed. "You make it sound like such a big deal. It was just what I had to do, that's all."

"You're not giving yourself enough credit. You took on the entire coven by yourself! You were being crushed, and you still managed to kill Victoria all by yourself! What you did, it's legendary. Literally. Who do you think all those stories are about? They'll be telling your story by the bonfire for generations."

"Our story, LeeLee. There have been protectors, chiefs, epic battles. But there's never been a female wolf before, and most of the protectors didn't kill half the leeches that you did. You're the bravest of all of us."

"We may have to agree to disagree on that point. One thing I know for sure, though, is that I am the luckiest girl on the planet."

He squeezed her hand. "Not half as lucky as me, though."

They leisurely made their way down the coast, stopping at many of the quirky tourist traps that Leah had long ago wished to see. The world's largest oyster wasn't too far away, just over three hours away in South Bend, nor was what was once the world's largest frying pan in Long Beach. The objects made them feel small for once, but when they visited a tiny replica of the Golden Gate Bridge in Ridgefield, they looked like giants. They saw a deteriorating shipwreck beached in the sand in Oregon, and sat on a bench shaped like a cow in Tilamook while getting lost on their way to Portland, where they managed to see none of the city as they holed up in their own little private paradise of a California king sized bed.

Sam took ridiculous pictures of Leah kissing a sculpture of a giant tuna in Charleston, climbing on the back of a T-Rex replica in Port Orford, and pretending to be caught on the line of an enormous fishing pole mounted on a sporting goods store in Hebo. They phased into their wolves and chased each other like puppies through the Siskiyou wilderness. They climbed Mount Ashland and went whitewater rafting on the Rogue River. They camped when they could, sprung for a fancy hotel just for the experience, and sometimes they even slept in the forest in their wolf forms. At night when the beaches were deserted, they dove off cliffs and raced each other along the sand by the Pacific Ocean in their animal bodies. He couldn't remember the last time he was so happy.

When Sam decided he wanted to see California, since he had never ventured so far from home, they headed south. In Crescent City they visited an aquarium, where Leah snapped a shot of Sam pretending to get eaten by a sculpture of a shark, and she climbed onto the roof of a hair salon that had a huge pair of scissors mounted on top, where Sam took a picture of her pretending to be impaled before the owner of the shop chased them away. They drove Sam's pickup through the base of an enormous redwood, and Leah scaled a 49 foot tall statue of Paul Bunyan. Then they drove to San Francisco.

Sam's first view of the city on the bay was so shrouded in fog that he might have missed it entirely were it not for the top of the Golden Gate Bridge peeking above the clouds. When the mist cleared, a vibrant metropolis lay before him. He reached for the hand of the girl beside him and asked her to explore it with him. She gladly said yes, and they set out together. They rode the cable cars around town and drove his truck down winding Lombard Street. Sam bought Leah gelato in Ghirardelli Square, dim sum in Chinatown, and loose leaf tea in Golden Gate Park. They absorbed the view from Coit Tower and took the ferry to Alcatraz. They strolled the streets hand in hand, poked around quirky shops, surfed Ocean Beach, and slept in the Muir Woods as their wolves. It made them long for more rugged terrain, so they went east to Yosemite, detouring to the small town of Felton on the way. It was a silly side trip; when they were fifteen years old, Leah had added the Bigfoot Discovery Project to the itinerary, and Sam had told her they could go. He wasn't breaking any more promises, so off they went.

The director of the museum was a friendly man who looked suspiciously like Santa Claus. He gave them a personal tour of his museum and told them more than they ever wanted to know about Sasquatch. A year ago they would have been amused by his loony tales, but after learning about their own true natures and killing bloodthirsty vampires, they figured every fairy tale was probably rooted in truth. After they left the museum, they climbed Mt. Hermon and descended it on a zip line tour, keeping an eye out below for the monster but finding nothing. The next day, they arrived at the national park.

The scenery was stunning. Some of the landscape reminded them of home, but it was exponentially larger. This is what their world might have looked like had they been born in a time before white settlers came: vast, dramatic, and beautiful. They started in the popular Yosemite Valley, where they took in the views of the high granite summits of El Capitan and Half Dome and hiked to towering waterfalls. Their wolves itched to run free though, and there were far too many travellers here, so they moved south to Glacier Point, and then on to Mariposa Grove, where they lost themselves among giant sequoias. After that they left the trails and designated campgrounds entirely. They embraced their animal natures and lost themselves in the wilderness. They raced down mountains, tumbled through meadows, bathed in clear streams, and made love indiscriminately under the bright yellow sun, forest canopies, or by the light of the moon and the glittering stars.

He wasn't sure which he preferred: the energy of the city or the rugged beauty of the wilderness. He was so lucky that he did not have to choose. Leah was equally comfortable in either setting, happily stripping down into shorts and a tank top to go hiking or slipping on a slinky dress and deadly stilettos to go clubbing. He could as easily envision making a life with her in a row house in San Francisco as he could in their little cabin in La Push. The future was filled with possibility.

The road trip was meant to be an fling before they settled into college life, a year late but all the more precious for the delay, but the journey became much more. It was just the two of them, no interruptions, no interferences, reconnecting, rebuilding, and making new, happy memories to outshine the dark ones of the past year. Sam spent his time looking at her more than he looked at the sights, but she directed his attention outward again. She didn't want him to miss a single thing. She reminded him to call his mother and grandmother, and they regularly spoke to their friends. Paul told them that he and Rachel had become good friends. She had even introduced him to her girlfriend, who liked him so much that the pair had invited him to spend the rest of his summer in Pullman with them. He crowed that he was "drowning in college chicks". They learned that in the wake of the broken imprints, Kim had abruptly left La Push. She moved to Spokane with Emily and had cut off contact with nearly everyone else. Jared felt like he had surfaced after drowning.

While Sam and Leah travelled, she pointed out places he would never think to explore, people he would never have met, and experiences he had never considered. Slowly he realized that she was not the only girl in the world, as he had felt when she was his childhood refuge from fear, and when he clung to her against the drag of the imprint. It had tried to narrow his vision down to only one person, and in the breaking of it, he understood that the world was indeed full of other unique, wonderful human beings. Emily was most definitely not the center of the universe. Leah wasn't even the center of the universe. The universe was vast, incomprehensibly so, and Leah was his partner in his small corner of his small world. She was his best friend, his lover, his savior, and without her he would have been lost. But being with her did not necessitate the exclusion of everyone else in his life. They could love each other, love their families, their mothers and their absent fathers, their brothers by blood and their brothers of the pack, and it did nothing to diminish their love for each other. She showed him that her heart was infinitely large, and that his was as well.

Eventually they knew they had to leave. The University of Washington awaited them. He briefly entertained the thought of continuing south instead of turning around. There were more beaches to surf, more oddities to discover, more forests to explore, more towns to see. They could go to Los Angeles, on to Mexico, and maybe even see South America. They could explore the world. They didn't need much, not when they could camp or even live off the land as their wolves. It would be an adventure, and as long as she was by his side, he would always be home.

But college would be an adventure too. His first impressions of Seattle were not nearly as good as that of San Francisco, but that was because he was hunting vampires in the underbelly of the city. This would be completely different. This would be academia, nightlife, new friendships, and excitement, the love of his life by his side. He was ready. There was just one thing he needed to do first.

One August evening he led her to a crystalline lake far off the beaten path. It was inaccessible to most travelers due to the rugged terrain that surrounded it, and tales of an overprotective female mountain lion defending her cubs drove away any other cautious hikers. But two shifters had nothing to fear from such animals. They had the picturesque area to themselves. By the time they reached the shoreline, the skies had faded to a deep navy blue. Stars winked on one by one. Their supernatural vision allowed them to see more celestial lights than a normal human could, and on this clear night, with no lights from buildings or streetlamps to pollute the atmosphere, they felt as if they could see a million suns in a million galaxies. They sat on the edge of the lake with their toes dipped into the clear water, and Leah pointed out constellations from classical mythology and several of her own imagination. Sam watched her, enthralled by the serene expression on her face, and he thumbed the little box in his pocket.

Eventually, she fell silent and looked at him. "You're awfully quiet tonight."

He kissed her sweetly and explained, "I like listening to you, that's all. But since you mentioned it, I was wondering if you'd phase with me. A couple miles back, I saw what I think was an abandoned trail. I want to see where it goes, but I think it'll be easier as wolves."

It was just an excuse. He had so much to tell her, and he did not have know how to say any of them in either English or in Quileute, but he could show her. He could show her exactly how he felt about her. By the expression on her face, she expected nothing. But she readily agreed, and they transformed.

She instinctively headed toward the cover of the woods, but he stopped her. LeeLee?

Yes? She turned to face him, wagging her tail happily.

Sam opened his mind. He showed her his first memories of her, of the way her childish smile gave him joy. Of the way he loved to watch the dimples in her cheek wink at him, and how badly he had wanted to kiss them. He showed her how the cookies she baked for him were quite literally the best thing he ever tasted, even when they melted together in the oven into shapeless blobs. He showed her how, in his deepest and darkest moments, during the times when he was the most frightened or the most afraid, when he felt as if the world was coming apart at the seams, she was not just his friend, not just his strength, not just his refuge, not just his happiness, but his home. He showed her how he couldn't keep his eyes off her even when they were children, that she was his own personal definition of pretty until she became his standard for beauty itself, and he let her see the pure and unadulterated lust that her body had inspired in him when they got a little older. He showed her that she was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen, but that the beauty of her spirit eclipsed her superficial beauty entirely. He replayed in exquisite detail the sensations that overwhelmed him when they made love, and that even those ecstatic feelings paled in comparison to his joy when she first agreed to marry him, and he showed her the imagined future he thought they would share.

He revealed everything: everything that happened in the moment he had imprinted on another woman. He showed her how he had been systematically cut off from every other important thing in his life one by one as the imprint sliced lifelong bonds away like they were nothing. He felt her pain and sorrow, but it was their truth, and he would not run from it. Because then he showed her exactly how he had fought it. He showed her how, with every ounce of strength he had in him, he desperately struggled to hold onto the bonds they had forged together. He held fast to her, not only because if he lost her, he would lose himself, but because he knew that she was the most precious being in the universe to him, and he simply refused to let her go.

Then he allowed her to see exactly what the months of separation had been like for him. He wanted there to be no secrets, no lies, no misconceptions. He owed her nothing less than the truth, and the truth was that in their time apart, she only become more important, more valuable. In their separation, he learned to love her as a sister and pack mate, while never letting go of his romantic devotion. He learned to admire her in deeper and stronger ways than he ever had before, because she showed him exactly who she was. And she turned out to be even stronger, more loyal, more passionate, and more loving than he had known. And so he loved her even more, and more, and more, in a manner even more complex and rich than he always had, though it took him decades to find the words to tell her.

I'm so sorry, LeeLee. I should have told you how much I've loved you every day for our entire lives. Because I have. I don't remember a time when I didn't love you, or a time when I couldn't feel your love for me in every word you spoke, every touch you gave, every action you made. I promise I won't go another day without telling you how much I love you.

Then he gave her a vision of what he had been trying to hide for the duration of their mental conversation. He showed her what he was carrying in the pocket of the shorts he had tied to his ankle. He showed her grandma Uley's ring, the same ring he had given her during the happiest moment of his life, the same ring that she had returned to him during one of their darkest moments.

Then he was kneeling on the ground, naked and human, and so was she, joyful tears shining in her eyes. He took her left hand in his.

"You want to know why I didn't tell you I love you for so long? It's because it was never enough. There isn't a word for what I feel for you. People throw around the word, and they don't mean it, or they mean something silly and small. The way I love you, there's nothing small or casual or temporary about it. You're everything to me. You know why I don't tell you you're beautiful? It's because you aren't just beautiful. You. Are. Beauty. You want to know why I don't tell you how sexy you are? It's because you're not just sexy, your body... it's... it's... it's heaven itself." He grabbed her tightly around her waist and overwhelmed her with a kiss that said more than words ever could. But just when she had almost forgotten what they were talking about, he separated his lips just far enough to murmur, "You don't just make me happy. Happy's not big enough. The word doesn't say enough. You are my joy. You are my peace. You aren't just kind. You're all heart. My heart." He pulled their joined hands in between them to press them to his chest. "Leah, honey, you're all the words. All the good ones, anyway. You are love."

"Oh, Sammy." Her voice trembled. She was overwhelmed.

"I love you in a way I didn't know was possible. I love you like I didn't know any person could ever love any other person. And I promise that no matter what, for the rest of our lives, I'll only ever love you more. Every day, forever, if you'll have me."

He tried to take the ring out of his pocket, but his pocket was on the inside of the little roll attached to his ankle, and he got stuck trying to untangle the little knot. He snorted, and then she laughed openly. He loved the sound, and it reminded him of his fumbling during his first proposal. He wouldn't drop the ring again, not this time. When her laugh faded into soundless chuckles deep in her chest, and he finally had the ring in his hand, he pressed his lips to hers softly, in stark contrast to the passionate one he had given her moments ago. And against her mouth he murmured, "LeeLee, my sweetest girl, my best friend, my heart, my soul, my love, my everything, please say you'll still marry me."

The next moment was everything he hoped for and more. She couldn't speak, so she nodded as he slipped the ring onto her finger. Tears streaked down her cheeks, so he thumbed them away and kissed her until her lips were swollen and bruised, laying her back along the soft grass that lined the lake. He tasted her throat, her breasts, and her belly as she shivered and whimpered. She was impatient, and she dragged him up and guided him inside her, and he was overcome by the sheer pleasure of her body. He kept his eyes open as he made love to her, memorizing every movement she made, every blissful expression on her face, every sigh, and every moan. He tried to calm himself, wanting to extend her pleasure as much as possible, but she was simply too much. When she shook with climax and sank her teeth into his clavicle, her body and her soul pulled him over the edge with her, and they locked themselves together. His mate belonged completely, fully, and wholly to him once more, and he to her.

He took her back to the campsite, where he made love to her again and again until exhaustion overtook her, and she fell asleep in his arms. He didn't want the night to end, so he traced the words "I love you" onto the soft skin of her back over and over, and he repeated his nighttime ritual of examining the lovely picture she made. He would hold the image in his heart with all the others. Looking at her, he saw her through the prism of their entire lives. Just as he could see the tiny girl who had sheltered him as easily as he could see the beautiful woman who saved him, he knew he would always see her this way, just like this. Sheer perfection. They would fall asleep this way in a decade, in two, in a half century. He would watch her eyes flutter behind her lids, and her long eyelashes would brush her cheeks whether they were flushed and smooth or wrinkled and lined. Her hair would turn white, but when he saw the way it rested against her neck, it would bring him back to this moment and a thousand others just like it. Her posture would stoop, but she would curl against him in her rest just like this. Her hand would cool once she stopped phasing, but he would hold it just as tightly, and her finger would still bear his ring. And through it all, her heart would remain the same: generous, brave, kind, and loving. It had always been his, just as his had always belonged to her.

Sam kissed Leah gently and rested his nose against hers, tucking their hands under his chin. He fell asleep inhaling her breath, and that night he dreamt of spending the rest of his life loving her.

And then his dream came true.

X-x-x-x-X

A/N: A final, huge thanks to my beta, Babs81410. This was the last chapter of Found and Lost, the story I would have liked to see for Leah and Sam. For anyone who wanted more Leah and Paul, take a peek at "A Fine Line", the short story I'm writing for Tricky Raven's Silent Auction.