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From the time she was six years old, Bella Swan had had a soft spot in her heart for Embry Call. During her summer visits to Forks, her dad had dropped her off at the Blacks’ house almost every day while he was at work, and she had spent her days with Jake, Quil, and Embry, playing in the Blacks’ front yard and running through the house.

Embry had always been a skinny kid, a little tall for his age, and shyer and quieter than his two best friends. Bella was a quiet girl herself, but she was far from shy, and she refused to let the other two boys walk all over Embry like they tended to when she wasn’t around.

Bella had laid down the law with her boys from that very first summer she spent with them, and by the time they’d all hit middle school they’d grown so used to following her rules that they had stopped bickering with her about them.

The primary were as such: you didn’t hit Embry, you didn’t tease Embry, and you didn’t do anything else that Bella reserved the right at any time to decide she didn’t like you doing to Embry, and if you did do one of those things you stopped it the instant Bella told you to.

Since an annoyed Bella was a much less fun Bella (although as boring as long summer breaks were on a rez where none of their families could afford to travel, they’d still rather have her with them and annoyed than not at all), they obeyed her without too much hassle.

Over the years Jake and Quil got used to Bella talking about Embry in a different way than she did the two of them. A ten-year-old Bella could be heard telling her dad which games “Jake and Quil and my Embry” had played that day in the woods or in the backyard or on the beach.

Embry took it all in stride, a shy smile lighting up his face every time he saw Bella. He spoke about a quarter as much as Quil or Jake did on one of their quieter days, but he always talked to her. Bella joked sometimes that he was saving his words up for her.

His best friends teased him good-naturedly the rest of the year, when Bella was with her mom in Phoenix. One day Embry just rolled his eyes and said he wasn’t the one who jumped when Bella said jump, and Jake and Quil shut up about it pretty quick after that.

He looked forward to her visits every summer, maybe even more than Jake and Quil did. He liked the way her eyes were always alert on him, making sure Jake and Quil weren’t teasing him, that he’d eaten enough food at dinner, that his mom knew where he was in the evenings. (Embry’s laidback mother used to laugh when Bella would call her unprompted, Bella’s clear voice dead serious, just to let her know Embry was with her and that she was taking good care of him.)

Then, the summer before Bella would turn fifteen and Embry was a few months away from his fourteenth birthday, Charlie came to Billy’s and said Renee had convinced Bella to stay with her and her new husband over the summer, to “get to know him.”

“What about her own father?” Billy had said, sounding outraged. Embry, Jake, and Quil could hear him clearly from where they were hiding under the front porch. “Charlie, you’ve got rights--”

Charlie sighed. “You know how she is, Billy. Stubborn, but responsible. I think she’s vetting the guy, seeing if he’ll be good enough for her mother. Renee will listen to her. I told her it’s fine if she needs to skip this summer. I’m taking her to San Francisco over her winter break instead.”

Embry felt his throat tighten up. Boys who were about to be in the eighth grade didn’t cry, but he’d always been the most sensitive of his friends. No Bells for a whole year -- because there was no way his mom had money for a flight to California, even if Bella’s dad would let him come along.

Jake and Quil were disappointed, too, but all three of them knew it wasn’t the same for him. They were extra nice to Embry that entire summer.

The following May, Embry couldn’t stop himself from approaching Charlie the next time he saw him at the Blacks’ house, to ask him when Bella was coming back.

Charlie had given him a sympathetic look. “She isn’t coming this summer, either, son,” he said gently. Then, as Embry’s mouth dropped open in horror, he quickly added, “but she’ll be here in December, right after Christmas. Gonna finish high school in Forks.”

“Oh.” Embry took a minute to absorb that. No Bells for the summer, but then a year-and-a-half solid of her after that. He decided he was getting the better end of the deal and broke out into a grin.

Charlie, who’d been worriedly watching the boy who thought his daughter hung the moon, breathed a sigh of relief that Embry wasn’t going to have a nervous breakdown in front of him.

“You’ll bring her over here as soon as she gets here?” Embry asked, and it was something he would normally never have been able to bring himself to ask, but for Bells it was important enough to.

Charlie raised his eyebrows in surprise, but then he smiled. “I’ll do you one better, son. You can come to the airport with me.”

Two and a half years had turned the girl Embry’s world revolved around into the woman his world revolved around. She was seventeen and he was a couple months shy of sixteen and he mentally added a whole new section of less innocent items to the list of things he wanted to do with Bells now that she was back where she belonged.

Charlie hadn’t let Jake or Quil come, saying he’d only had room for two extras and Embry had asked first and he wasn’t going to have Jake and Quil throwing a hissy fit over which one of them could come.

Bella was wearing jeans and a t-shirt, because anything else wouldn’t be his Bells, but there were ample curves under her clothes now. Embry tried not to stare at her ass as she hugged her dad.

Then she turned to him, and a bright smile lit up her porcelain complexion and bright brown eyes. “Embry!”

Her long hair tickled the back of his hands as she hugged him tightly, and he rested his chin on  top of her head. He’d always been a little taller than her, but now he was a lot taller.

He’d been growing a lot recently. Sometimes Billy Black or Harry Clearwater gave him odd looks when he ran into them.

Bella pulled away and frowned up at him. She had a hoodie resting on top of her rolling luggage, while he was in shorts and a t-shirt. He was hot all the time now.

“You’re going to catch a cold,” she informed him, frowning as she touched the thin fabric of his shirt. “It’s a good thing I’m back to take care of you.” Then she wrapped her hand around his arm like it hadn’t been over two years since they’d last seen each other, and Charlie followed them out of the tiny airport, shaking his head in bemusement.

The rest of Bella’s winter break with the boys was like old times, only in some ways even better. Now that they were older, they didn’t have to constantly check in with anyone’s parents to let them know where they were and what they were doing.

There were also changes in how Bella interacted with the other kids on the rez.

Bella had only ever really cared about her three boys, though she’d met other kids in passing, like Leah Clearwater, who was a year older than her, and Jared Cameron, who was a year below her, and a handful of others.

She’d staked her claim on her boys from an early age. Most of the kids had learned quickly not to try to play with Jake, Quil, or Embry during the summer months, and even more woe betide anyone who did anything to Embry Call except smile at him and move along.

But it seemed like the force of her threats had faded over two years of her not being there to enforce them. She would just have to reclaim her territory.

Jake and Quil claimed that she was cockblocking them when she instituted a no-hanging-out-without-Bella’s-approval rule, and she’d retorted that she hadn’t had any requests from girls, so no, she wasn’t harshing their no doubt considerable game.

All three of them still found that they still liked Bella’s company enough to obey her rules, even when she was in her bossiest moods.

And it turned out she wasn’t entirely cockblocking them, anyway. A few weeks later two girls they recognized by face if not by name came down with beach chairs and a cooler and sat down not far from the four of them. The younger girl, about their age, caught Quil’s eye a couple of times, looking away from him each time and blushing.

The third time it happened, Bella stood up and marched directly over to the girl.

“No, Bells,” Quil said weakly, clearly hoping the sweet-looking girl wasn’t about to get chewed out.

Ignoring him, Bella said something to the girl, who rose hesitantly and followed her out of sight and into the trees. All three of the boys shared an uneasy glance about what Bella could be doing to her in there.

Both girls returned ten minutes later. There was nothing on Bella’s face to hint at what had happened, but the other girl followed her toward the rough circle the four of them had formed on a few old blankets.

“Boys, this is Claire,” Bella said matter-of-factly. “She’s more than good enough for you, Quil, and I know you’ll do your very best to be good enough for her.”

The girl blushed and looked at Bella, who pointed her to the open spot on the blanket next to Quil.

Claire obediently sat down, glanced at Quil from the corner of her eye, and looked away again with a tiny smile. Quil’s expression turned from shock to a pleased grin the next time the girl met his eyes.

Embry and Jake shared an incredulous glance. Had Bella really just handed Quil a girlfriend?

Quil and Claire were still dating a month after Bella had introduced them, and Jake begged her every time she came over to work her magic on him next.

“I’m not compromising my standards, Jake,” she just said firmly. “You’ll just have to be patient until I find someone good enough for you.”

It was a testament to his ten years of training under Bella’s rule that it didn’t even occur to Jake to protest this declaration. It was also kind of flattering that Bella didn’t think just any old girl would do for him.

“And then Embry?” he asked her. Said boy, who was usually as close to Bella as it was possible to be without sitting on her, was unusually absent, home with a fever.

“No,” Bella said absently, staring over the ocean. “Embry’s mine.”

When Bella called to check on Embry the next day, his mom informed her that Embry was still sick, so Bella spent the morning making three different kinds of soup and baking two loaves of bread. Mrs. Call was a lovely woman, but Bella had always been doubtful of her ability to take care of Embry properly.

Bella pulled up to Embry’s house that afternoon and saw that Embry’s mom’s car was gone from the driveway, but Sam Uley and Jared Cameron were standing at the front door like they were guarding it.

Bella watched them warily as she approached. The boys were bigger than she remembered, but she also remembered pushing Jared into the sand when she was eight for saying that Embry didn’t have a daddy (that it was true hadn’t been the point; he’d been acting like a little bitch, and Bella didn’t regret shoving his face into the dirt one bit).

Jared seemed to be experiencing similar memories, so it was Sam Uley, whom she’d never spoken to before, who looked like he was going to be the true barrier to her getting into Embry’s house.

“I need to take care of Embry,” she told Sam, once it was clear the other boy wasn’t going to speak.

Sam crossed his arms across his impressive chest. “Embry’s sick,” he informed her.

She nodded toward her grocery bag. “I know.” Nothing else. She knew how powerful silence could be.

“This is tribal business,” Sam said finally, once it was clear she wasn’t going to leave.

Bella raised an eyebrow at him incredulously. “Embry being sick is tribal business?”

Sam looked vaguely uncomfortable at the doubt in her voice; Jared looked like he was trying not to laugh.

“Tell you what,” Sam said finally. “I’ll have Embry call you as soon as he’s better. His fever’s about to break. I’ve already got what’s going around. You don’t need to get sick, too.”

Bella considered this. She’d never met anyone she resonated so strongly with, two alpha personalities negotiating terms. And over her Embry, at that.

The realization wasn’t unpleasant, exactly, but she needed to be careful. As much as she hated it, she was technically an outsider, and she didn’t know what strings Sam could pull.

“As soon as his fever breaks, I expect to see him,” Bella said. “Not just a phone call.”

Sam frowned. He didn’t seem to be used to anyone arguing with him. “Fine. When he’s… healthy again, you can come over here,” he said.

Bella nodded. She could tell that was probably as good as she was going to get. For now, at least.

“You need to take care of him properly, then,” she said, holding out the bag. “These are all his favorites. Make sure he eats. He loses his appetite when he’s sick.”

Jared, who’d been silently watching their interaction, took it from her. “Thanks, Bella,” he murmured.

She nodded at him and turned back to Sam. “The second he’s better,” she repeated.

Sam inclined his head. “I said I would. Bye, Bella.”

A few days later, Bella was sitting in the living room at Jake’s house, Jake beside her and Quil and Claire stuffed into the loveseat together, barely paying attention to the movie they were watching.

When her cellphone rang with Embry’s distinctive ring tone, Bella rose immediately. “Embry. I’m coming over,” she said as soon as she accepted the call.

“’kay, Bells.” He sounded exhausted. “Um, can you bring food?”

She was already walking toward the kitchen, where she had prepared several more dishes with his favorite foods. “Yes, of course. I hope Sam told you that the only reason I wasn’t there to take care of you was because he wouldn’t let me inside the house.”

She was still annoyed about that. Embry was her responsibility, not Sam Uley’s.

Embry just chuckled. “Yeah, he told me. See you soon, Bells.”

Bella finished pulling the pans out of the fridge and hurried out the front door, not bothering to say goodbye to her other boys (and Claire, whom she considered her girl now). She knew they would understand.

Embry’s house was only about a mile away, and she made it there twice as fast as usual, pushing open the front door without knocking.

Embry was lying on the couch, his eyes closed. Bella noted with shock that he’d grown at least two or three inches. And somehow seemed more muscular despite being bedridden for a week.

He opened his eyes when she shut the door and sat up, blinking at her. After a second, a blinding smile crossed his face. “Bells,” he breathed.

Bella knelt in front of him, setting her grocery bag on the floor as she held his face between her hands. She smoothed his cheeks, a little coarse with stubble, and ran a hand through his hair, examining him closely.

His eyes were a little red-rimmed, probably from exhaustion, but other than that, and the fact that he’d visibly grown in seven days, he looked healthy. Sam could have done worse with him, she supposed.

“You’re feeling okay now?” she asked him.

He wrapped his hands around her wrists where she was still touching his cheeks. “Much better,” he whispered.

Bella pressed her forehead to his, making him breathe out shakily. “Good.”

Then she kissed him forcefully, half to make a point about who he belonged to, and half just because she wanted to.

Embry’s lips were soft and hot under hers, his skin almost vibrating with desire, and she traced his lips with her tongue before biting his lower lip until he opened his mouth to her.

She grabbed his wrists when he tried to pull away to touch her hair and forced his hands down to his sides.

“No,” she murmured against his mouth. “Not yet. Just feel this.”

He gasped when she bit his lower lip again, and his head fell back against the couch when Bella finally pulled away from his lips and begin to kiss her way down his firm jawline.

She slid one hand through his hair to hold him still while she sucked and licked at the crook of his neck, marking him so the whole world would know exactly who he belonged to.

He groaned and shifted under her, but he kept his hands clenched at his sides.

“You’re mine,” Bella said, pulling away and sliding forward so that she was straddling his lap, feeling him hard between her legs. She’d never thought it had needed saying before now, but she wanted to be very clear, in case Sam Uley or anyone else ever tried to interfere again. “And I’m never letting you go.”

Embry gasped out what almost sounded like a sob. He raised one hand and waited for her to nod before he softly pressed his palm to her cheek.

“Bells,” he said wonderingly. “That’s all I ever wanted.”

Within a few weeks, the pack had killed the last of the nomad leeches who’d been hunting close enough to La Push to trigger the phase, and Sam hoped none of the pack would ever have to deal with leeches again, beyond the occasional border patrols.

Especially not Embry, who was currently sitting in Sam’s living room with the rest of the pack  while Bella and Emily prepared dinner in the kitchen.

The side of Embry’s neck was, as usual, red from bite marks, and Sam could see small finger-shaped bruises around his wrists. Sam was honestly impressed that Bella marked him often enough to keep pace with the wolf’s accelerated healing.

He had never been so relieved when he’d realized he wouldn’t have to act as Embry’s alpha again beyond basic patrol scheduling. And even those he excluded Embry from whenever possible, and he always checked with Bella first.

Sam had been surprised at first that he didn’t resent this arrangement. As alpha, he wanted every member of the pack to be his in mind and spirit, but the simple truth was that Embry never could be. He’d been claimed long before Sam had even begun dreaming of wolves.

“So what changed, when you imprinted?” Sam heard Jared, who had brought a wide-eyed Kim over the day before, ask as he sat down beside Embry.

Embry just smiled. “Not a thing.”