Chapter 25: Expectations

Maggie proved very displeased by the idea.

"Let me get this straight," she said indignantly, after we failed to get Gianna alone and explained to both of them at once instead. "Bella said something dumb to Aro under pressure, which means Gianna's in danger if she doesn't have Bella's kid. Nowhere in this does it say that the kid has to be Edward's too. Not if that's going to hurt my Gianna."

"Maggie," said Gianna, "they think I'll be safe - and it means I'll turn sooner, too..."

Maggie softened at once when Gianna spoke, turning to the Italian woman and carefully taking one of her hands. "Baby, I want that over with soon too, but you might not make it that far!" she said. "Nobody has before! This is an experiment they want to try. You're not a guinea pig, baby."

"I said I would help," Gianna murmured.

"You didn't know when you said so that they'd ask you this! Enough people die having normal babies - my own mother did."

"I'm sorry to hear that, but that was more than a hundred and fifty years ago," I said. "Carlisle, Edward, and Rosalie are all doctors. We can have all the advance notice we could possibly need. Every advantage that Nahuel's mother didn't have - or yours, for that matter. If things take a turn for the worse before the three-week mark we can do the C-section earlier than planned."

"I'm getting Ilario, he'll back me up," said Maggie fiercely, patting Gianna's cheek once and then rushing out of the house to look for him.

"I take it they're getting along, then?" Edward asked mildly.

"He'll leave me alone with her as of last week," Gianna said.

"And that hasn't changed since you're... kind of black and blue?" I asked. "It's not really my business, I'm sure if there were something seriously wrong it would have been noticed and addressed before now by Ilario if nobody else - although if I'm wrong please tell me. But if you're getting hurt often it would probably make a pregnancy, any pregnancy, riskier."

"Actually," Gianna said, "Ilario was the first one to give me a bruise. He was upset about something Maggie said. I don't remember exactly what it was, but he grabbed my hand and pulled me away from her. She didn't try to play tug of war or anything. He just squeezed too hard. And then she fussed over me so much that he decided she's no more likely to hurt me than he is. So he thought it would be hypocritical of him to keep spending time around me himself without letting Maggie do it. She's always more upset than I am when I get hurt, anyway."

"Still, there are a lot..." I mused.

Gianna shrugged, looking down and blushing again. "She gets carried away, but she stops whatever she's doing right away when I say "ow". The first time it happened she offered to quit touching me at all so she wouldn't get carried away anymore, but... I said she didn't have to do that." She squirmed slightly.

"Right, um," I said, having wandered into territory that was even less my business. If Gianna was covering up something serious, Edward would know about it and tell me, and he was silent. "She's obviously very concerned with your safety, so that might wind up being what happens anyway for a few weeks - or months if we have to go the human baby route."

"I could mention that to her," Gianna said lightly.

"Might help," I allowed.

I heard Maggie and Ilario's footfalls as they approached us. A few seconds later, they were there, Maggie promptly sitting back next to Gianna and carefully putting an arm over her shoulders while Ilario stood.

"Let me get this straight," Ilario said, and there ensued a conversation very similar to the one we'd had with Maggie, minus the part where Gianna was addressed as "baby" and the part where someone's mother had died in childbirth.

"I understand you're both worried about me," Gianna said when this segment of the exchange wound down, "but isn't it my decision?"

Maggie bit her lip. "Baby, you don't know what it'd do to me if you died. I don't think even I know what it'd do to me, and I already can't stand to think of it. I know it's up to you, but it affects more than just you."

Gianna patted Maggie's knee. "But I think it sounds survivable. Also, it gives more of an explanation for why I'm going to be turned. The Cullens have a history of turning dying people - but not people who've just given birth to a human baby once and are fine."

"Aren't I sufficient explanation?" protested Maggie. "Bella wasn't dying, she was just Edward's."

I said, "That'd be sufficient explanation if you had run into her all by herself a year or two ago before she met the Volturi. Now, they think she belongs to me, so I need a credible reason to turn her. If simply thinking that people ought to be vampires instead of humans when they're willing were a reason the Volturi would accept, I could have just said that in Volterra."

"You should've let me fight you for her," Maggie said. "That would be credible."

"I don't think it would have helped the situation at all if Aro found that I'd put her up as stakes on a fight," I said dryly, "since you challenged me on my home turf while you were alone and I had my whole coven present, and clearly didn't have to wager her - or lose."

"Oh," said Maggie, hanging her head.

"Maggie," I said. "I have every confidence that Gianna will be okay as long as we do a C-section at or before the three week mark, then turn her."

The Irish vampire looked up at me. "You really do believe that," she murmured.

I debated whether to tell her that I was immune to her power. I decided that she'd find out sooner or later, or at least suspect it - and it'd be a show of good faith. "I actually think I'm immune to your power," I told her sheepishly. She frowned. "Edward, you tell her," I said.

"I think Bella's right," he said confidently. Maggie scrutinized his face - I wasn't sure if this was habit, an actual way to focus her witchcraft, or just for effect.

Maggie looked over at Gianna. "You're sure you want to do it this way, Gianna?" she asked softly.

Gianna nodded, then glanced at her brother, who looked uncomfortable but didn't speak.

Maggie looked at Edward and me, fixing us with fierce glares. "If she dies," she said in a flat, cold voice very unlike her usual demeanor. She didn't finish the sentence, letting the threat trail off into thought.

"If you tried, no matter how justified you were, you'd die too," Edward said softly.

"If she dies," Maggie said, "then I wouldn't care if I did."

Permission secured, it was time to deal with the complicated technical stuff. I wasn't deeply involved in this part. I had no relevant expertise and my biological contribution was already in a freezer. It was mostly Edward, Rosalie, and Carlisle, ordering assorted equipment which trickled into the house in boxes over the next few days and then beginning work.

Meanwhile, Maggie redoubled her efforts to leave Gianna undamaged, and the bruises slowly faded. The attempt wasn't without its mistakes, but Gianna could have picked up the same level of injury by bumping into things all by herself, and was disinclined to adopt a hands-off policy with Maggie. I didn't want to risk re-igniting Maggie's opposition to the plan by requiring more of a sacrifice from her.

Edward kept me in the loop on the general shape of the process. Rosalie had taken far more eggs from me than were normally removed in a harvesting procedure, since I'd had no expectation of needing them in their original state. As a result, they had some leeway with the raw materials, and were creating several embryos, most of which would go right back in the freezer to be used later in case we found a second surrogate and wanted a second child. This also meant that we had an opportunity to pick the gender we preferred.

"Well," I said when presented with this, "if there's a bunch to choose from, why stop at gender? Let's get Alice and have her look them over, and tell us about them in detail."

So we found Alice, who pranced into the room, closed her eyes to concentrate, and promptly said, "Ow!"

"What's wrong?" asked Jasper, who'd followed close at her heels. Edward, who didn't need to ask, groaned.

"They take after you, Bella," laughed Alice weakly.

"You can't see them?" I asked. "That doesn't make sense. You could see me perfectly when I was human; they shouldn't have inherited that immunity if they inherited any of it at all."

"Not a thing," Alice said. "I can't even tell which are the girls and which are the boys. I'm sorry, I wish I could help."

"Can you see around them?" asked Edward. "If we decide on one can you look ahead a few months and see us...?"

Alice tried, but then winced. "Nothing that depends on them, either. Oh, boy, this is going to be fun."

I sucked in a nervous breath. "I guess we're flying blind, then - or rather, with what we can find from the genes alone. That's gender and what else?"

"Carlisle's already looked at one of them, but while he's fairly confident that that one was a female, she had twenty-four pairs of chromosomes - which means anything known about human genes could be completely off-base," Edward said.

"Humans have twenty-three, right?" I asked, and he nodded. "Has Carlisle ever taken a vampire cell apart and looked at it?"

"We've got twenty-five pairs," Edward said. "So it makes a bizarre kind of sense. Anyway, Carlisle could guess what the other genes on the embryos' chromosomes might mean, but it would be just that - guesswork."

"I guess it's still more choice than most parents get," I sighed. Alice and Jasper left the room, the former rubbing her temple. Jasper threw a suspicious look at me over his shoulder. We'd avoided crossing paths very much since I'd added his witchcraft to those I blocked. There hadn't been another dramatic confrontation, but when we did pass each other in a hallway or have reason to exchange information, he was definitely less friendly and more willing to assume that I was acting in bad faith.

Edward frowned at his departing brother but didn't comment on that subject. "Indeed," he said instead, turning back to me and taking my hands in his. "So, my love - son or daughter?"

"Do you have a preference?" I asked, and he shook his head. "I suppose the evidence we have available suggests that a girl will probably not be venomous," I said. "That seems like a plus." I supposed I could have covered for my existing bite mark by having a son and plausibly being bitten once thereby, but I wasn't confident I could manage the concealment for that long anyway. Emmett would be suspicious if I suddenly lost interest in sparring, and that would inevitably push my sleeve up my arm unless I made obvious and equally peculiar efforts to prevent it. I really needed to figure out how to explain it. Ran into an immortal child in Sweden while not with Edward? But then what would I have done with it after receiving the bite? Found some baby brother of Nahuel's in Finland someplace, whose mother swore me to secrecy? That could work. Got into a fight with a vampire midget?

"True," he said, fortunately and maddeningly oblivious to my thought process as always. "So, a daughter, then?"

I nodded slowly. Everything was coming together very fast, and while it was still necessary and I still liked the idea, it was also intimidating. Picking a gender was much more emotionally real to me than being vaguely aware that strange pieces of medical equipment were being carried into the house. "I guess we should start thinking about names," I said, "since we won't have as long as human parents to think of them."

We left the room where the embryos that included our future daughter rested, walking together out of the house and into the yard. "I don't know anything about your opinions of baby names," Edward said.

"Likewise," I replied. "I feel like we should - one way or another - name her after somebody. I'm a little concerned that as the only half-vampire in a large coven of vampires she'll be... disconnected, somehow. A meaningful name might help her feel grounded. I'm making this up completely, of course; my parents picked my name out of a baby book because it sounded pretty and I haven't felt particularly un-grounded."

"It's still a place to start," Edward said. "I was named after my father. I don't remember a lot about him, but I have his name, which is something."

"I didn't know that," I said. "Okay, what was your mother's name?"

"Elizabeth," supplied Edward. "Actually, I think Isabella is a variant on the name Elizabeth, too, but the source I heard that from might not be reliable."

"So maybe another Elizabeth variation," I said. "Especially if that turns out to be right." I ran through the other names we might want to incorporate into our daughter's. "You know," I said, "it really seems like there should be a way to portmanteau "Renée" and "Esme". The vowels are so similar. But there's just no way to put them together in a way that sounds like a name and not a Pokémon."

Edward laughed. "I think it would mean a lot to Rosalie if her name were wedged in there somewhere. A middle name would do," he suggested.

"I think it'd also make sense to honor Gianna. She's helping us out in a really major way. "Annarose" for a middle name?"

"That's perfect."

We went to our cottage, and I pulled out my laptop and looked up names derived from "Elizabeth" on the Internet. There were a lot, including, as Edward had said, "Isabella". I pruned out those that were just different spellings of the base name or my own version, and the obvious nicknames like "Liz" that our daughter could plausibly choose to go by no matter what variant we landed on.

"Look," I said, smirking. "Buffy is a nickname for Elizabeth."

"I think we should rule that one out," Edward said seriously. "It could prompt the wrong sorts of guesses if people notice anything different about her."

I nodded, deleted it from the list of possibilities, and then started removing other names for increasingly minor reasons, mostly aesthetic. I removed "Libby" and its near cousins, which I sort of liked, at Edward's direction; he'd known someone who went by that name and had found her an unpleasant person. After a while, we had a short list: "Babette", "Bettina" and a few similar names, "Elspeth", "Ilsa", "Lisel" and other spellings thereof, and "Lilibeth".

"I'm tempted by Lisel," I said, "but I think I like Elspeth better. It's uncommon without being unpronounceable, nor so novel that it risks sounding much more out of place after a hundred years than it does now."

"Elspeth Annarose it is," said Edward.

Carlisle picked out a female embryo for us, and Rosalie did the honors of actually implanting it. The others were frozen. We were warned ahead of time that the rates of pregnancy for in vitro techniques were low, but the following day Gianna was absolutely certain that the first try had taken, and she made herself a large plate of eggs for breakfast. Puking began shortly afterwards.

Maggie insisted that Gianna shouldn't have to cook for herself in her condition, bought a large stack of cookbooks so she could make Gianna's food herself, and burned a few omelettes trying to get them right. At that point Ilario took over, rolling his eyes at Maggie as he expertly poached a new batch of eggs; he actually knew how to cook, having done some of it in his human days, and kept his sister supplied with whatever she wanted for her solid food while she ineffectively protested that she wasn't that impaired.

There was plenty of human blood in the fridge that Carlisle had purchased, too, which Gianna drank out of opaque cups with lids so she didn't have to think about it too hard. Carlisle, who was taking a lot of time off work and pretending that he was looking after a sick Esme to excuse it, fetched her these beverages and did the dishes. Maggie, Ilario, Jasper, and myself left the house for safety reasons while the scent of blood was in the air, and everyone else at least gave a wide berth.

I e-mailed Charlie and told him the whole story; Rachel got the truth too. I told Renée that I was pregnant (as of early July, moreover); I planned to take an inordinate number of baby pictures and dole them out to her at a rate that would make Elspeth appear to age normally.

After I'd reminded the wolves of my existence with this e-mail, Leah sent a conversational sort of note, sounding me out for ongoing correspondence. She was an irregular pen pal and had poor spelling, but I wrote her anyway, telling her what had my attention in a newsy sort of way and making polite inquiries about her. I was informed that Sue's turning, adjustment period, and assumption of her share of the duties of infant care had gone without significant hiccup. Cody was growing as fast as expected and was already talking in complete sentences (his first words had been "Seth, can I have a wolf ride?", which request Seth had obliged). Relations between halves of the pack were cordial, but sadly distant.

Gianna did not lack for attention during the ensuing weeks. Maggie fussed over her, obsessed; she rearranged her hair several times a day for lack of much else helpful to do, and sang constantly. Ilario mostly stood in the corner of Gianna's room, looking stoic, when he wasn't cooking something. Edward and I, plus Rosalie, were mostly interested for Elspeth's sake rather than in Gianna herself, who didn't lack for caretakers anyway. This still had us hovering around the bed where she spent most of her time resting, trying to make sure she had everything she needed.

The one problem it turned out we were least prepared to handle was Gianna's fluctuating temperature. It had never occurred to me to read anything into it when Sue instructed her children to hug her; now I wondered if she'd been using them as sources of warmth. When Gianna felt too warm - which did happen, although less often - Maggie could snuggle up to her and that worked fine. When she was cold, though, turning up the heater or giving her blankets worked too slowly for comfort. Electric blankets were purchased, but Gianna seemed to find them vaguely unsatisfying. Eventually we settled for keeping the house warmer all the time, and Maggie's cuddling efforts were called on more frequently.

All told, Gianna held up better under Elspeth than Sue had under Cody. Probably, this was because twenty-three was a more convenient age at which to be violently pregnant than forty-two. In spite of that favorable comparison, and Gianna's better care, Elspeth started doing damage a couple of weeks in. Several ribs were casualties, and Gianna went on painkillers - taping them up, I learned, was not actually a treatment for them, which made me feel better about Sue's neglected fractures. Gianna did not lose consciousness except when properly sleeping.

Without giving this comparison away, though, I could only do so much to soothe Maggie and Ilario. Both were in states of constant worry by the end of the first week and wanted Elspeth's birthday to be as early as possible. They were agreed that far, but could not so readily come to an agreement on who was to turn her, each preferring to do that task themselves.

Gianna was prevailed upon to settle their argument - which consisted mostly of Maggie gesturing wildly and ranting (half in Gaelic) while Ilario regarded her impassively and occasionally uttered a monosyllabic denial. It was an odd role for Gianna to have fallen into, since she hated confrontation and would obviously have rathered it if Maggie and Ilario invariably agreed on everything. Still, she ultimately came up with a compromise they both accepted - Ilario would administer the venom, but it would be Maggie's.

We planned to deliver Elspeth on October twenty-first, if nothing required us to operate earlier. It was exactly three weeks after the implantation date, when I knew and everyone else suspected that this would be safe enough for Gianna and Elspeth both. I suggested the tooth-ripping-out plan so no one had to risk tasting Gianna's blood, and volunteered a canine of my own which Edward could use to open the shell. He was leery of trying to do delicate surgery while distracted by my discomfort, though, and Rosalie readily offered to loan a tooth in my place. My role would instead be to lift Elspeth out.

On October thirteenth, Edward remarked that my birthday had been a month prior, and I hadn't mentioned anything about it. He asked if I was just not counting birthdays anymore. I'd been in La Push on the thirteenth of September - but in all the excitement even Charlie had forgotten the significance of the day, and he (and my permanently scatterbrained mother) had both sent me belated e-mails of well wishes. I'd noted the date when it had passed, but not seen fit to announce it to anyone. "What's the point of counting them?" I said. "So I'm chronologically eighteen now - but I'm going to be physically seventeen for all time, and I'll use mostly forged documents to demonstrate my legal status anyway, and I no longer find birthday cake appetizing."

"That was my guess," he said. "No presents, either?"

"You can get me presents if you want, but there's no need to use my birthday as an excuse," I replied. I smiled. "Or as a restriction."

"So acknowledged," he laughed. "I've been thinking we'll need to celebrate birthdays and half-birthdays for Elspeth, while she's growing still - it still won't be as many as most people get, over the course of a childhood, but..."

I nodded. Elspeth had become the primary topic of conversation between Edward and me; soon we would be parents. If everything went according to plan.

In the next room over, Gianna failed to keep her juice down.

A little over a week before Elspeth's artificial due date, Tanya called Carlisle again.

I wasn't near enough to hear the call on this occasion - I was with Edward in our cottage - but the subsequent morning I heard the news. Laurent had been gone for seventeen days - more than double his previous record excursion length. He wasn't answering his phone, hadn't been for the past week, hadn't called to check in with Irina once in that time. While the very fact that he didn't bring Irina on his trips meant that he didn't want to be witnessed partaking of his unethical food, or doing whatever else it was that made him take so long, she was out of her mind with worry and wanted to prevail on Alice again.

When Carlisle had passed on the message, though, Alice had come up completely blank.

"No," she said when I asked her about it, "not like you - it's subtly different."

"What are the different kinds of blank you can get?" I asked.

"There's four," Alice said. "There's you, there's Elspeth, there's Gianna-while-pregnant-with-Elspeth, and there's Laurent - all different. Your future looks like Swiss cheese. Sometimes it veers off into patches I can see, sometimes when you're in the middle of a hole I can't see anything about you, but a lot of your futures are normally visible. Elspeth per se is just not there. I can't see her at all and that casts shadows on everything she affects, so I can only see the big obvious regularities that she can't change. Gianna's mostly in a shadow like that, but I can see around Elspeth in a limited way and get possible futures of Gianna's that don't directly involve Elspeth. But it gives me a killer headache to try, so I've been doing it only when Maggie or Ilario badgers me into checking that I can still see Gianna alive in some futures. And Laurent is..." Alice bit her lip. "He's not there to see. It's not like trying to look for someone invisible like Elspeth, because he doesn't cast any shadows. It's like trying to look for a person who doesn't exist in the first place. I think he's dead."

Irina had heard this suspicion before I had, of course - "How's Irina taken it?" I asked Alice quietly.

The little vampire shook her head. "I can't even imagine what she's going through. She's insane with grief, of course, but she's still got a sliver of hope that Laurent isn't really dead and something else is interfering with my vision. She does have a point that a lot of things seem to be foiling me lately."

"Have you tried looking for people who turned out to be dead before?" I asked.

"Several times," Alice replied. "They were all humans, though, so... But I still think that Laurent's somehow died."

"What exactly does it take to kill a vampire?" I asked, pacing. "Is it the sort of thing that could remotely happen by accident?"

"Not likely," said Alice. "Possible, but not at all likely - he'd have to be caught in a very serious explosion, to be unable to escape or put himself back together."

"Has anything like that happened in a plausible radius of Denali?"

"He's been gone long enough that "plausible radius" means "anywhere on the globe"," Alice pointed out. "If he was in Gaza and got in the way of a missile, or near that volcano in El Salvador, for instance, and he wasn't paying enough attention to get to safety, he could have been killed that way. Or taken apart thoroughly enough that he's still incapacitated, but then I'd expect to see him put back together and going home."

"But you don't think that's what happened."

Alice shook her head. "It's way more likely that he got into a fight with another vampire, and lost. I've never heard of any vampire dying in a natural disaster, I just know it's theoretically possible."

"How densely populated by vampires is North America?" I asked. "I realize he could have gone anywhere, but at least we know he started in Alaska."

"Mmm... since the Volturi cleaned out the newborn armies in the South, not all that densely, but you can definitely find us in population centers and roaming around."

"Ballpark population on the continent?"

Alice thought. "More than a hundred, fewer than a thousand, if I had to narrow it down I'd say something like three or four hundred. Mostly in big population centers, because you need more territory to be inconspicuous if the area's rural."

"How territorial and inclined to fight are average vampires?" I asked. "I've only met the Volturi, friends of the family, and Huilen, who was alone when Edward and I showed up. Plus Laurent's old coven, but I was human then, and don't remember them too well."

"Laurent's old coven is the closest to normal you've met, considering that Huilen's in contact with her nephew..." Alice trailed off, closed her eyes, and then opened them with a small gasp. "Oh, how strange," she exclaimed. "Elspeth doesn't take after you - or perhaps she does, but that isn't why I can't see her. I can't see Nahuel either, any more than I can see Elspeth."

My eyes flew open very wide. "It's a species thing."

She nodded emphatically. "I can see Huilen... but only about as much as I can see you. It's Swiss cheese. Huh, I wonder why your immunity works that way."

Because I'm only invisible to you when I'm being acted on by another invisible species. "Maybe only a bit of my brain has the hang of being invisible and you see me when other bits are in charge," I said, affecting uncuriosity with a shrug.

Alice frowned, her brow furrowed. But she didn't pursue that topic. "Anyway, your standard vampire wanders around - or lurks in a big city where a lot of people can go missing without it being big news. Eats every three, four days, one or two people at a time, or lies low for as long as a couple of weeks if one of their meals gets too much attention. They usually steal stuff; maintaining legitimate funds is too much of a hassle under those limitations. About a third of them travel alone, another third in mated pairs, last third in covens of two or three, rarely four or more, which may or may not include mates."

"Doesn't quite answer my question," I said.

"Lone vampires are more likely to avoid confrontations," Alice said. "But if we assume Laurent was alone too, he'd run some risk of provoking one if they just didn't like the look of him or felt like getting into a fight... some think of combat, even lethal combat, as recreational. Pairs and covens will stake out territories and are pretty likely to attack anyone who won't clear off when told to. Less likely to attack an individual for fun, though, because without the individual being a witch, the odds are in the group's favor to the point of being unsporting. And I don't understand why Laurent wouldn't just get out of other vampires' way if he ran afoul of one - but I'm not sure why he'd have to leave home for so long to begin with anyway."

"He was eating people," I reminded her. That information had filtered through to everyone in the family.

"Even so. Denali's remote, but it's not that remote," mused Alice. "I'm sure he could get to enough potential feeding grounds that there'd be no reason for him to spend more than twenty-four hours round trip each time."

"He might have eaten a few people each time he went out, and needed to spread it out," I said, and with a sinking feeling it occurred to me that there was one exceptionally dangerous location that was a twenty-four hour round trip from Denali.

But if Laurent had gone there, he wouldn't have made the return journey.

"Bah," said Alice. "You wandered into one of the holes in the cheese that is your future again."

"Huh," I said, feigning surprise. "Anyway, I guess there's no way to find out what happened to Laurent, is there?"

"Not really," Alice said regretfully. "I see the future, not the past."

I patted her shoulder, pursing my lips sympathetically, and excused myself.

I had an awkward question for Rachel.

Rachel was actually not sure if wolves had killed Laurent.

I know it wasn't anyone in my pack, she wrote back. I checked. But things are rocky enough between me and Becky that I haven't communicated with her much - mostly about practical things like who's on duty doing lookout where so the packs don't have to run into each other. We've been tending to fight, which really sucks. Turns out the non-alphas can move between packs however they want, and she's collecting the hardcore anti-vampire wolves and they're just barely not going after Harry and Sue and Cody. If you know where he would have been I can tell you if my guys were there then.

But I didn't know - it was only a wild guess. Can you ask her directly? I wrote back, and attached a description of Laurent.

She didn't get back to me for two days after that, and I occupied my free time hovering near Gianna, discussing parenting with Edward, and wondering what I would even do if I learned that Becky's pack had killed Laurent.

I still didn't have the answer to that question when I got Rachel's reply. Promise me you won't hurt my sister for killing your friend, was all she wrote.

He wasn't my friend, I wrote back. If he was near you guys, he was probably going to kill somebody in La Push or Forks, maybe even Charlie - I just wish they'd been able to capture him instead of killing, because if Irina ever finds out, then there's a potential small war on your hands. I explained the relationship between Irina and Laurent and the reason the other Denalis had tolerated his lifestyle. If Irina figures out what happened to her Laurent...

I didn't really know Irina well. The only vampire I'd ever met in my life who'd lost a mate was Marcus, who I had never seen utter a word or do anything but wander around, touch Aro's hand, and stare into space. I didn't know how long ago his mate had died, or what he'd done when the grief had been fresh. The next most available source of information I had was to imagine Edward dead.

Every fragment of my self refused to let me imagine this in any detail. It was the only intolerable concept in the world. I could imagine being flung back into the agony I'd felt when turning, though it had been incomprehsibly torturous. I could imagine my own death, though I loved life and hoped to cling to it for all time. I could imagine Gianna miscarrying, little Elspeth failing to survive, though I felt more attached to my daughter-to-be with every passing hour.

But Edward had to exist, or something was fundamentally wrong with the universe.

Filled with unreasonable panic, I restored the original names in my mental scenario and gradually forced my rebellious mind to calm. If Irina found out who had killed Laurent. That was the hypothetical at hand. My husband was safe, my mate had not been killed by a pack of anti-vampire wolves, my Edward was mine for all eternity.

I wrote, If Irina figures out what happened to her Laurent, she will kill whoever killed him or die trying. The rest of her coven might help her.

I sent the e-mail, and I went to soothe the ruffles in my thoughts by finding Edward.

"What happened to Marcus's mate?" I asked Edward, some time later.

"Didyme? She died," Edward replied. "Less than a year after Aro turned her - Marcus met her right after she became a vampire. Marcus wasn't with her at the time of her death, so he didn't see the specifics, but Aro found the coven of vampires who'd killed her, and he and Marcus destroyed them together. She was Aro's sister," Edward added, as an afterthought.

"Aro seems to have borne up under the loss a lot better than Marcus," I observed.

Edward nodded. "I've never heard Aro thinking about Didyme at all. Marcus thinks of almost nothing else, so I picked it all up from him. Aro did love her, but... it's not the same. It's like Ilario and Gianna, as opposed to Maggie and Gianna. Ilario is her brother, and that's a very human sort of relationship. He loves her, he'll do everything in his power to protect her, but he could eventually move on if she died. Maggie's in a different position."

"Irina must be going through hell," I said, pulling Edward a little closer. Mine, mine, mine - I knew my brain was being taken over by spooky mate bond magic. I'd signed up for exactly that when I'd said I was ready to turn. And if I hadn't, then I would have eventually died of the disease of mortality, and then Edward would have lost me, and then he would have gone through hell and I would be dead and have no Edward, and that would not be satisfactory at all. Much better for us to be both immortal and together. Albeit a little nerve-wracking when I considered the chinks in our undeath.

"She's still not convinced that Laurent is dead," he said, stroking my hair. "She has some hope."

"How long can she go on hoping that? If he doesn't come home, and doesn't come home, and goes on not coming home..."

"Not forever," admitted Edward. "Maybe longer than you'd think, though."

Because anything, even throwing oneself into an increasingly crumbly and obvious lie, would feel better than that sickening black hole of grief that I could not bear to contemplate. But Irina was living it. Whatever she thought, her worst nightmare - or close enough as to make no difference - was reality. I was concealing that all-important information from her.

Because if I didn't, she'd die and might take a wolf or two with her.

Would Irina rather die, if she found out what had happened to Laurent? Probably she'd rather kill Becky's entire pack first - maybe Rachel's too, maybe the whole Quileute tribe, who knew how widely she'd assign the blame - but after. If she wreaked all the vengeance she wanted, somehow picked off wolves one at a time until they were gone without losing her own life, what would she want to happen next?

I was sure I knew the corresponding answer for Edward. I'd been able to figure that much out even before I'd turned. He had the tragic self-sacrificing streak; he wouldn't want to live in a world that didn't contain me. Irina, though, I wasn't sure. Would she consider her life worth living anymore? Could she even consider the question?

I wondered suddenly what would happen to wolves whose imprints died. Their human, mortal imprints, afforded no special lifespan or unusual resilience. Maybe that was why the tribe didn't contain any hundred-year-old holdovers from the last pack; maybe they'd all imprinted and quit their anti-aging regimen of periodically turning into giant wolves, so they wouldn't have to outlive their loves by long. When little Claire caught up to Quil, would he abandon his other form, turning physically thirty and forty and fifty with her, so he wouldn't have to be young while she was old, alive while she was dead? Was Jared already trying to get himself under control so his age-matched girlfriend wouldn't rush by him?

How could I make sure that this disaster never, ever befell me?

I decided that I was not going to continue flying off to La Push whenever there was a hiccup with the pack. Rachel was a smart cookie and could handle her stuff, with long-distance consultation and funding handled via the Internet. I didn't need to be physically present, especially not with Harry and Sue and Cody nearby to be resident venom sources if they wanted someone turned. (Rachel had mentioned, in a pre-Laurent-revelation e-mail, that in order to keep the peace with Becky's pack, Harry and Sue and Cody were living in the shack full-time. Harry was fixing the place up to be a fit home. Leah and Seth still lived in the family's house on the reservation. But they were still within spitting distance.)

But simply being present wasn't necessarily enough to fend off the specter threatening my peace of mind. I would need to be present and effective. I had some advantages against some of the foes I might have to face eventually. But these were known to those very foes, and if I were the only one left standing while Alec caused my family to fall senselessly to the ground around me, then I'd just be one vampire, not very good at fighting, to be targeted separately by some non-mental attack while my helpless brothers and sisters and in-laws and Edward were unable to defend me.

And then they - he - could be destroyed. That hurt. It hurt to think about it so much that I wanted to think about anything else, or not to think at all - just to snuggle closer to my gloriously alive Edward and pretend that our "immortality" was invulnerability. But it wasn't. Neglecting that fact wouldn't make it less factual. Edward could be taken from me. I couldn't defend him against every threat the world might throw at us.

Not okay.

I wondered about the limits of my shield. What might I eventually be able to add to it? Becoming immune to Jasper had been easy. I'd practically just repeated a mantra to myself. The first mantra I'd even tried. Was that a coincidence, just a feature of Jasper's power existing close to the line between what I did and didn't block? Or was my witchcraft very extensible?

Just how much could I immunize myself to, if I tried?

There was probably some limit, and I'd need to be able to cover for that with some competence in physical combat. I'd avoided sparring since getting my scar. I didn't have any clothes that I normally wore which could cover my wrist in even the most casual mock fight - sleeves were mobile sorts of things. I still didn't have a good story to explain it. But it was possible that Elspeth would be venomous, and then I could claim she bit me. The sample of half-vampires numbered five, so far - four of whom were half-siblings. It wasn't guaranteed that my daughter would be like the other female hybrids before her.

In less than a week, I'd find out if that was a viable cover story. Until then I wore long sleeves when around anyone other than Edward.

And then I'd have motherhood to take up a huge chunk of my time.

At least Elspeth would sleep nights.

The sheer ferventness Maggie applied to her anxious writhing over Gianna's condition was impressive. It made Elspeth's birth nearly anticlimactic. While Maggie held her breath and Gianna's hand, and Ilario fidgeted nearby, Carlisle administered some heavy-duty anaesthesia and a sedative. Edward cut down to the shell; Rosalie handed over a tooth and he cut through the shell with that and gave it back to her. While she rinsed the blood off it and let it re-adhere to her mouth, I pried the shell open, and there was Elspeth.

My baby.

I grinned from ear to ear and thrust my hands into the liquid to retrieve her. She opened her mouth, and I had a sudden idea - I leaned my arm in such a way as to present the inside of my left wrist for biting, and obligingly, she fastened her teeth onto the correct location. She wasn't venomous, but the fluid my arm was immersed in was like venom - it could explain the scar, and I didn't expect anyone to experiment with the stuff to check my story. "Ow," I muttered as I picked her up, because she did break my skin. But I felt the wound healing smooth, and she apparently didn't think I tasted good, because she didn't bite me again when I cradled her close. Carlisle handed me a blanket and patted me on the back, and I wrapped her up.

Gianna had held up so well through the procedure that Carlisle was able to put her in a coma before Ilario administered Maggie's venom. Maggie's release of tension was palpable - Gianna was out of the woods, and after some unconsciousness and some mindboggling torment, she would be fine. Unbreathing, Maggie assumed a protective position, holding her turning mate like she was made of glass. Ilario discarded the syringes and started pacing while Carlisle cleaned up the blood.

And I was a mother.

Elspeth had my eyes. Not my amber vampire eyes, gradually lightening with every meal I had - the brown ones I'd sported when human. The shade exactly matched the photographs I had from my first seventeen years.

This didn't escape Edward's notice. As we left the room where Gianna lay, he remarked on it. "I admit I missed your eyes," he said. "I'm glad they weren't lost completely."

"She has your hair, though," I told him, once we'd gotten far enough away. She did: the same bronze-red-brown. Just a little fuzz of it. A question occurred to me while I stared raptly at our daughter. "Can you hear anything from her?"

"Not yet. I've never been able to hear a baby less than two months old, and usually it takes six - I'm sure she'll be far faster than that, unless she's got her mother's brain, too," he said wryly.

"The bit where Alice couldn't see her turned out to be a fluke," I said. I touched Elspeth's nose and she expelled a small puff of air with a pah sound.

"But as you pointed out, that wasn't something you had while human," he replied, grinning involuntarily at the baby.

I nodded. "Oh," I said, when we were out of earshot of the main house, "if anybody asks..." I shifted Elspeth in my arms and pointed at the torn sleeve that revealed part of the scar on my wrist. "I got this when Elspeth bit me. She's not venomous but the amniotic fluid was close enough."

"Understood," he said. "If Maggie asks?"

I considered what he could say to her. "I don't know the really fine points of what she'll notice and what she won't. Can you just say, "Elspeth bit her"? She did, after all."

"Not in response to a direct question about your scar," he said, "not when I know the scar predates Elspeth. The statement has to be something I believe to be true in context, not just in isolation."

I exhaled a breath through my teeth, petting Elspeth's hair as I did so. She was very warm. "She'll never buy that you don't know where it's from. Ugh. If Maggie asks you... a baby half-vampire bit me. I trust she can be allowed to extrapolate incorrectly."

Edward's eyes widened, but he nodded. "Can I hold her?" he asked after a moment. I handed Elspeth over, missing the heat and the vital thrum of her heart immediately.

The look on Edward's face was indescribably paternal as he cradled our child. "She's perfect," he murmured.

"I know," I said, gloatingly.

"Oooh," said Elspeth, with an uncannily toothy smile for a newborn infant, and we arrived at our fairytale home in the woods to try to interest her in non-blood comestibles.