The next morning, Leah is in the kitchen, fighting with Billy's ancient coffee maker, when the front door creaks open and her peaceful silence is promptly shattered.
She doesn't even bother hazarding a guess as to who her visitor is: there are only two people in the world who possess the temerity to enter the Blacks' little red house unannounced before the sun has even fully risen, and they both are severely lacking in any kind of self-preservation. They also happen to be her best friends.
"Holy shit," Embry exclaims, pressing a hand to his chest. "The hell you standing in the dark for, woman? Damn near gave me a heart attack!"
A rare thing, she thinks, to be able to catch any of them off guard. Even rarer that she doesn't have a snarky retort sitting ready on the tip of her tongue when Embry flicks on the lights and all but blinds her.
After spending nearly an hour standing in the dark, the overhead fluorescents are a welcome jolt to her senses — a sudden departure from the fear that has been clenching her like a fist from the second she woke. It had taken several long minutes of listening to Jacob's steady breathing—long minutes of running her fingers over the bracelet that is as much of a part of her now as the imprint, of touching its threads that have been carefully woven with his promises to her—before she'd been able to calm herself and get out of bed.
Before her eyes can fully adjust to the sudden brightness in the room, Embry is at her side, his arm curling around her shoulders. "Hey. What's wrong?"
"Nothing," she lies with a mumble, rubbing her eye with one hand whilst frustratedly gesturing at the coffee machine with the other. "Can't get this damn thing to work, is all."
He pulls back a little, peering down at her with a searching gaze that is a little too knowing for her liking. "You look like crap."
The grunt she gives hopefully translates to something like I know, though he might mistake it for her frustration with the old contraption Billy refuses to let her replace. A relic of his marriage, of a happier time, he'd told her. A relic of the stone age, she'd told him.
"Help," is all she says to Embry.
Her best friend huffs a laugh before gently moving her aside. It takes him all of two seconds to flick a button that makes the machine begin whirring almost instantly.
"Smart ass," she mutters.
"You're not usually this stupid in the mornings," he teases lightly. "Did you miss your beauty sleep? Don't tell me Jake broke the number one horror movie rule."
She looks at him blankly. It is far too early for his nonsense.
Embry continues on, undeterred. "Only virgins make it to the end. Sam's counting on it."
She has no idea how he knows—even if he is only half-right; Jacob didn't exactly keep her up all night (certainly not in the way Embry is thinking), although he is no longer a virgin, that much is certain—and it takes great effort to keep her expression neutral, to not bury her face in her hands and groan.
Instead, she keeps her eyes on the machine, willing it to hurry, and says, "I have no idea what you're talking about."
"No point lying about it. We're all gonna know by the end of the day, so better you tell me all about it now before I hear Jake's version of events. Come on," he says, nudging her. "Was it terrible?"
She rubs her hand over her face and groans anyway. The thought of the whole pack learning that she and Jacob have finally sealed the imprint is disconcerting, if only because it is none of their damn business (or at least, it shouldn't be); the knowledge they will eventually be able to see the whole thing as it happened—through Jacob's eyes, anyway—is downright mortifying.
"That bad, huh," Embry says. The consoling pat he gives her shoulder is gentle, though she can hear the smile that is still in his voice. "Don't worry. I think there's a Planned Parenthood in Port Angeles—" (Leah knows this; she's already been) "—I can drive you there and bring you back again before Sam has to meet Bella and her bloodsucker."
"I hate you," she grumbles.
"I love you too, sis," he says sombrely, drawing her back into his warm hold and dropping a kiss on the crown of her head. The affectionate gesture is sweet but fleeting, ending the moment his stomach growls loudly, and he is soon releasing her in favour of making a beeline for the refrigerator.
Embry yanks the door open and bends low so he can ascertain its full contents, a man on the hunt for easy prey. "Where is everyone, anyway?"
"You do know how early it actually is, right?"
He hums absently by way of a reply, too focused on perusing the shelves for something that might qualify as breakfast. After a moment, he swipes the apple juice carton for what can only be an appetiser (appletiser, her too-tired brain amends)—the same carton with a sticky note taped to it that reads PAWS OFF, EMBRY—and he knocks the cap loose with a skilful flick of the finger.
Leah sighs. She should've known that her warning note wouldn't be much of a deterrent. "That's mine."
"I know," he replies. He loudly gulps down half of the juice, wiping the back of his hand over his mouth. "Cut me some slack; I've been out all night."
"Patrol?" she asks.
"Only 'til eleven. Which of course means that as soon as I got home, Mom started yelling." He ignores her sympathetic gaze. "She kicked me out. Again."
Leah sinks into one of the kitchen chairs and curls her fingers around her steaming mug, her temper flaring. (Admittedly, it is never too far out of reach wherever Tiffany Call is concerned.) "You should've come here."
"S'fine," he assures her with an easy smile that she does not quite believe. "I went to the Atearas' and ended up watching Quil play the new Resident Evil—'til all his shouting woke his grandpa up, anyway, and Old Quil threatened to smash his PlayStation to smithereens with his cane. I left pretty sharpish after that."
"Quil has a cane?" she asks tiredly, only vaguely aware that her question should sound more like where did you go? Where did you sleep?
The eyeroll Embry gives is a little too theatrical. "Mr Ateara's cane, dummy."
"Sorry." Leah drops her head, stifling a yawn in the crook of her elbow. "I didn't sleep well, either. And before you say anything—no, it wasn't what you're thinking."
The answering snort she receives is disbelieving, almost offensive in its dismissiveness.
"It wasn't," she insists feebly. She lifts her gaze just enough to see his face looking down at her, amusement written all over his broad features. "How did you know, anyway?"
He pointedly taps his nose, and she groans again.
"I'm going to shower," she declares suddenly, pushing herself back from the table and standing, feeling more alert than she has for the past hour.
"Probably a good idea," Embry agrees, nodding sagely as he reaches for her abandoned coffee and claims it for his own. "While you do that, can I get in bed with your boyfriend? I'm exhausted."
It's pure instinct that has her reaching out to run a hand over his unruly hair—as much of a sympathetic gesture as she knows he'll allow her to show—and all at once, she feels a myriad of emotions that threaten to overwhelm her: guilt for being so wrapped up in herself last night, in Jacob, that she did not notice her friend's suffering; fury towards his mother; affection, love.
"Be my guest," she says, smiling when his eyelids begin to droop underneath her touch. She would offer him the twins' old room, only it's become something of a storage unit in their absence—mainly for Billy's fishing gear. "Don't wake him up and gossip too much without Quil, though, will you? You know how much he hates missing out."
Despite his problems, Embry still manages to make a show of giving her words some serious thought. He is as good at burying his emotions as she is, a skill he has undoubtedly learned from looking after his awful mother for all these years.
"You're right," he agrees after his pensive moment. "I better call him first."
An image hits her of the trio in Jacob's bedroom, reenacting a scene straight out of a chick flick as they press him for the finer details of last night, and she almost laughs. Only she's too tired, too distracted—too many things that are making it hard to look Embry in the eye without wondering how she will cope if she loses him tomorrow. If she loses any of them.
"If you need me," she says, heading towards the hallway, "I'll be in the bathroom, drowning myself."
"I'll send Jake in to save you," he vows. "You can teach him some new tricks."
She takes care to flip him off before she shuts the door.
It does little to muffle Embry's laughter.
When she emerges from the bathroom some thirty minutes later, ten of which she spent staring at her reflection in the mirror, it is with her emotions firmly under control and her priorities back in order.
Still, the thought of all that is to come tomorrow follows her every step towards the bedroom, but she has long since taught herself how to face the world even when she would prefer to hide and wait for the worst to pass—or, in this particular instance, to crawl back underneath the bed covers and hold on to Jacob as if she might be able to keep him there.
It's a tempting thought—one she almost gives in to when she pokes her head around the door and finds him exactly where she left him—the only change is that he's wide awake, staring up at the ceiling with his hands behind his head and a bemused expression on his face, though whether that's because he's woken to the sound of Embry snoring beside him or because of something else is unclear.
(Fortunately for her, Quil is nowhere in sight. It seems she'll survive their teasing for another few hours yet.)
Jacob turns his head to look at her, his smile faint and still a little dazed. Stunned, even. Half of the tightness in her heart eases at the sight of him, and she returns his smile with one of her own, knowing exactly what it is that's put that stupidly adorable look on his face.
On both their faces.
"Hi," she whispers back.
"What are you doing?"
Leah pulls a face that she hopes translates to minor distress. In her haste to escape Embry's preternatural senses—and to avoid remarks from any other unexpected visitors—she hadn't thought much past the actual shower itself, and the towel around her body is the only thing covering her ass.
"I, uh—I need to get dressed."
She is entirely aware that her sudden diffidence is rather ridiculous, considering . . . well, considering that, and the lazy smirk on Jacob's face suggests that he is thinking exactly the same thing.
If not for his brother asleep on the bed, she imagines that, by now, she would have forced herself to suck it up and walk straight into the bedroom, towelled figure be damned, ideally making a beeline straight for the dresser where she has kept a small selection of clothes ever since a drawer was cleared for her.
As it happens, she does nothing of the sort.
It takes a long moment of staring at one another, but finally, Jacob concedes—likely because he knows that she won't, and they'd still be in their stand-off when Embry eventually wakes. Jacob takes care not to jostle his sleeping brother as he wordlessly pulls the sheets back and slowly gets to his feet, crossing the tiny space of his bedroom in two strides. He cracks the door open wider, slipping through, and then quietly shuts it behind him.
That he is entirely nude seems to be the last thing on his mind, even if it's the first thing that springs to hers.
Despite the gleam in his eyes (maybe he is thinking about it), she clutches her towel a little tighter and stands her ground.
"There's fresh coffee in the kitchen," she tells him, offering both of them an out—before she can think too deeply about the way he is looking at her, about the way he tracks her every movement. "You'd better hurry before Embry wakes up."
Jacob takes a step forward, crowding her in the narrow hallway. "He's out for the count."
"Your dad, then."
"Dead to the world," he says.
She stares up at him, craning her neck farther back with every step he takes until he's all but pressed up against her—until her back is pressed against the wall. "It'll go cold."
Honestly, at this point, she knows her protests are feeble. But she has a reputation to maintain, a stubborn streak that flares every time Jacob gives her a challenging look.
"So let it," he says lowly, carding his fingers through her hair. "I'm not interested in the coffee."
He studies her for a long moment, eyes roving over the tightly wrapped towel, her wet hair that undoubtedly smells of his shampoo. Then, after what feels like a lifetime, he takes a minute step back, the heat of his body quickly fading from her skin.
"I suppose I should go shower, then," he says, a teasing smirk on his lips. "I'll leave the door open. In case you change your mind."
"Throw the damn ball, Lahote!" Jared bellows, lunging wildly to avoid Jacob's impossibly accurate aim. "I'm getting murdered over here!"
Quil cackles wickedly, his childish delight evident as he watches Jared sweat it out, struggling to dodge a follow-up throw from Embry.
There is only six of them left: Jacob, Quil, Embry, as inseparable as ever; Paul, Jared, and Seth, the latter of who is beyond thrilled that he has been included on the boys' team in Sam's absence.
Leah lounges lazily on the grass, alternating between splitting the long blades of grass into perfect halves and watching the game. It took a mere five minutes for Collin to be hit, and only another three minutes for Brady to fall with a bruise the size of a fist blooming on the back of his thigh. Still, the game rages on, their whoops and jeers ringing out across the yard, surely loud enough for Sam and Emily's distant neighbours to hear.
Sam, who is God-knows-where in the mountains, far away and out of sight, and who is probably pissed that his superior status as Alpha didn't automatically exclude him from having to pick a straw and play piggy-in-the-middle for Bella and her bloodsuckers.
Sadly the same cannot be said for Emily, who is close by after having inserted herself into the evening. She seems a little lost without Sam to fill in her shadow whilst he fulfils his duties and seems to have chosen Kim to attach herself to instead—though the younger girl has never been one for idle chit-chat, regardless of who she's with (unless it's Jared); Kim flips slowly through a thick paperback, dog-earing countless pages until the tome looks ragged beyond repair. It'll be a cheesy romance book, probably, some Nicholas Sparks nonsense that Leah knows she will have to feign interest in once her closest girlfriend has cried her way through the final pages, but even that is preferable to holding conversation at the moment.
Not that Leah finds anything offensive about Kim, who is ever-placid and kind, but they are polar opposites; Kim is soft where she is tough, compassionate where she is rigid, and it feels like an insurmountable effort to speak without malice in front of Emily.
Not when the threat of tomorrow is hanging over them. Not when they are all doing their damnedest to pretend otherwise, to enjoy one free evening together.
Paul lets out a delighted shout when the ball finally strikes Quil's shoulder, and then Seth's—honestly, the boys are hardy enough to take headshots, playing without the bevy of rules they have to abide by in gym class.
As Paul slaps Jared good-naturedly on his back, Quil scowls at being caught. But it lasts for only a moment before he's jogging over to join Brady and Collin, who have taken to sparring, already having lost their shirts. Knowing them, they will probably be duking it out as wolves in minutes, especially with Quil's goading, but Leah can't help but smile.
Of course, her moment of peace and joy is swiftly stolen.
"I'm sorry," Emily says quietly, looking across at her. "I know I've said it before, and I'll say it again, probably, but I miss you. I love being here, I love this, but I miss how things were."
Leah's face contorts into a frown of its own will, the puckered skin on her cheek rippling with the motion, and she shouldn't let herself get caught up in the memory, she really shouldn't, but how can she think about Sam without thinking about that?
('I didn't want to leave.')
('I love you, too.')
('The man — he would have chosen differently.')
"I don't know if I'll ever forgive you," Leah replies eventually. It's not said to hurt Emily—though the set of her cousin's jaw indicates the words have clearly landed—but instead because it is true; she may have Jacob now, may know exactly how it felt when Sam first set eyes on Emily, but it doesn't make the healing wound ache any less. Because Emily could have said no. She could have, should have, fought a little more than she did.
"I know," Emily whispers, eyes drifting back to the scrum. Embry has been caught. "But I wanted to say it anyway. We'll get through tomorrow, and then you can go back to hating me, and maybe things will be different. One day."
"I don't hate you."
To her credit, Kim doesn't look up from her book at the admission, as tempting as it might be from where she is sitting between them.
Emily, however, considers her words; Leah meets her cousin's silver-lined eyes that are fixed on her and in apparent danger of spilling over.
"I wouldn't blame you if you did."
"I know," Leah says, just as Jacob finally manages to hit Paul, the ball ricocheting off his back and onto Jared.
And just like that, things are over.
Leah hops to her feet, making a beeline for a very smug and triumphant Jacob, and the night continues on.
Emily doesn't try and speak to her again.