Chapter 27: Lover

Siobhan didn't let up for the entire ride up to Belfast. During the two hours in the car, we established the following:

According to Addy's best and most recent information, the Denalis were communicating with the Volturi by text and e-mail, easier to keep unobtrusive in a group of vampires than voice calls. This meant that if I managed to make an entrance when Kate, Tanya, Eleazar, and Carmen were all in the same room with me, they wouldn't have a chance to contact the Volturi without being spotted trying to do so.

David was being kept in much the same way as my father: in bits most of the time, fed occasionally under Alec's supervision. (It occurred to me to wonder if David would find his susceptibility to human blood affected by what they were feeding him, since he'd never eaten it before, but wouldn't be able to taste it while Alec was keeping him senseless.) Chelsea hadn't bothered to cut his ties to his family, mostly since the promise of his safe and relatively unharmed return was helping to keep them in line, but she'd been doing some minor work to "improve his attitude" about the Volturi themselves so he wouldn't be a likely liability in the future.

The Denalis had originally agreed to help the Volturi when David was home, safe, and intact, so his return wouldn't necessarily change their minds, although it would help if we found a way to pull it off. The fact that we were more kindly disposed towards him than the Volturi was also a point in our favor... but the fact that the Volturi had proven willing to release non-threats like Peter and Charlotte was a point against.

Siobhan thought to ask if I thought David would forgive Kate; I had almost no way to figure that out, since Irina had known him only briefly before her death and all my other reads were from before he'd even turned, but based on my own childhood I hazarded the guess that he probably would.

At any rate, David was always under some guard; even if we could get into the compound undetected, we currently didn't have a way to prevent the guard from shouting to alert everyone, and then we'd be toast. It would probably have been possible to extract him, and my father, immediately after the memory blast permeated the compound, but I'd been semi-conscious, Jake hadn't thought of it, and Addy hadn't had any reason to bother.

Even if it turned out that I couldn't un-Chelsea people other than Jake - which Siobhan labeled "unlikely, but worth coming up with contingencies for" - I thought Alice would be a possible weakness in the Volturi's group cohesion. In the past she'd identified people as friends based on how she foresaw herself interacting with them - she'd turned up with Jasper at the Cullens' house in 1950 and had acted very familiar with everyone immediately.

This didn't quite match how she'd acted on the way to Denali, but I thought I had it figured out when I looked at the playful nature of her memories from sixty years ago: she'd found it fun to waltz in and toy with her future family when they didn't know who she was or what she could do. When they expected her, and there was a mismatch in their feelings about the upcoming meeting, that had just unnerved her (I guessed, anyway, since I didn't have her memories from that recently). Still, Alice's historically demonstrated ability to act like friendships that didn't exist yet were real was a potential resource, if we could make any such friendships certain enough that they'd pop up on her radar.

Even with Memory filtering through what I'd been blasted with to push forward relevant stuff and help me skim over repetitive parts, it was time-consuming to assemble all this information. By the time Maggie announced "Welcome to the site of the Meeting of the Vampires of These Isles!", that was all I'd come up with. Jake woke up with a start at her announcement.

"These isles?" he said. "Vague much?"

"Atlantic archipelago," said Liam, "UK and ROI, Anglo-Celtic Isles, Pretanic Isles -"

"Aren't they called the Bri-" Jake began.

"Ah-ah-ah," said Maggie, "it would be an inauspicious way to start your day if you provoked Siobhan into perforating your face. Trust me, I had that argument with her in 1993, and do not recommend that you repeat it."

Jake blinked, but fell silent. I said, "How many people are we expecting?"

"Cath said she'd invite the Isle of Wight coven - that's a mated pair and their creator - and also the Cardiff bint, and the London coven - one pair, two singles - and the two in Bristol, and the fellow from Oxford, and I don't think the Leeds pair will come but she said she'd ask, and she also said she thinks that the Cardiff bint will want to bring a friend from Liverpool and for some reason Cath trusts Cardiff Bint enough to let her bring a friend. Cath also said something about asking the covens from Glasgow and Edinburgh - that's four groups technically, ten vampires total, but they're all right friendly with each other and share the space - but I don't know if we expect them or not exactly. She'll ask but doesn't thinks she can bring the Newcastle bloke. And if she can manage all this without the Manchester brothers hearing and insisting on tagging along I'll eat a sandwich."

"So..." I said.

"So it could just be Cath, but assuming the likeliest folks show, probably at least ten, maybe as many as thirty apart from her. There's a bunch of vampires around over there, it's a bit close-knit, word will get 'round. Oh, especially if our dear Newcastle thinks it's news. Can't stand to share his space with a coven, but he gets lonely, he's the gossip."

"There are only fourteen in Denali," I whistled. "Total. Counting the... you know... spies. What's Carlisle doing wrong?"

"Well, for one thing, Carlisle's made everybody travel a lot farther," Maggie said. "For another, he told them what his meeting was about first. I just asked Cath to call a meeting, I didn't mention the mutiny thing. Guarantee you at least half of them will hie home when that bomb gets dropped. Maybe we can get rid of Cardiff Bint that way."

"What," I asked, "did the vampire from Cardiff ever do to you?"

"She's a pathological liar. I can't stand to listen to her talk, and it's not just the accent which I know for a fact she plays up on purpose, it's the little alarm bell in my head ringing and ringing and ringing and ringing," said Maggie, shuddering. "Every time she says anything! Don't believe a word out of the Cardiff Bint."

"Okay," I said. Maggie found a good place for us to park and stopped the car.

"All," said Maggie, addressing the car, "this goes against some of my principles, but... don't tell any of our visitors about Molly. Not even Cath. Cath knows I'm a vegetarian living with my mate and brother-in-law in a permanent residence. She doesn't know about my daughter. And I love Cath and she's my friend and I wouldn't trust her anywhere near Molly and that goes double for everyone she brings with her today... so don't go advertising it, right?"

"Uh," I said.

"They're getting here at night, Elspeth. If you're still awake for any of it, and if your wolf lets you talk to any of them, I think you can manage to keep the topic away from my child for half an hour or so, can't you?" She was trying to sound withering, it sounded like, but she mostly succeeded at seeming insecure.

"It'll itch," I said.

"They don't know you, they won't think you're acting unusual," Maggie said. "Just avoid them if you can't deal with it. Also, us sparkly people oughtn't risk getting out of the car this close to humans while it's sunny, but I don't really want to smell wolf all day long in an enclosed space. Maybe he could go... do... something. Elsewhere. And come back later."

"I'm not going to leave Elspeth here," said Jake.

"Take her," said Maggie.

"Just a minute, I'm not done -" Siobhan began.

"Give the girl a break!" said Maggie. "Honestly, I've met you, Siobhan, it's not like without Elspeth you are going to have an empty brain for the next eight hours. You're going to be thinking and strategizing and concocting and all that whether she's here or not, and then later as soon as you say the word, just to top it all off, she's going to share with you literally everything she knows. Do you want to inhale this smell until dark? Wolf, take Elspeth, go wander around sunny Belfast, I'll loan you another hundred euros if you want."

"I have some left from yesterday, thanks," Jake said, opening the door and scooping me up from off his lap. "Back around sunset."

"Later," said Maggie.

"No," said Siobhan, "wait. Take somebody with you, at least - Ilario, you go with them, just cover up. Some of the other vampires might come in early, dressed to daywalk, and I'd rather you not risk trouble with them just on account of being unfamiliar species. They might not stop long enough to let Elspeth explain."

Ilario reached into the glove compartment, obtained and put on a pair of gloves and a sun-shielding hat to prevent him from giving himself away outside, and slid out of the car, shrugging. "Bye," Jake said, and slammed the door after Ilario had emerged.

"Do you know your way around here?" Jake asked Ilario, setting me down on the ground. We started walking away from the park, towards the nearest buildings.

"Not really," Ilario said. "I spent a grand total of thirty-eight days wandering around Ireland as a nomad before Carlisle gave us the money to buy fake documents and a house. Didn't get to Belfast in that time. I've looked at a map before, but that will only tell me what streets we can expect to find, not what's on them."

"Did you ask him for the money?" I asked Ilario.

"No, actually," Ilario said. "He offered. And a good thing, too. It didn't seem to work very well having all five of us in a coven. Probably something to do with Carlisle's theory that vegetarians form large groups more easily."

"Irina thought that was why Laurent wanted to spend so much time away from Denali," I murmured. "Because it was already a five-person coven without him."

"Could be," Ilario said. "Anyway, Carlisle offered us the money, and we said sure, and we bought a place. The Wexford house you saw is our second, actually; we moved right after Molly was born."

"Why'd he give you money?" Jake asked, peering into the pocket of his jeans where the leftover cash from Maggie rustled.

"I'm not sure," Ilario said. "It seems like odd timing. Alice was their primary generator of income and she'd left them quite recently - in fact, we all thought she was dead by that point. But they had a lot left, I suppose, and they're generous people."

"And they thought my parents were dead," I said.

"Yes, they did," Ilario said. "You think that had something to do with it?"

"Well, maybe," I said, shuffling through Carlisle's memories about Esme happily restoring an old manor house and intending to give it to Rosalie and Emmett after their wedding, and a few more recent examples of my grandparents talking about how they'd set up my parents in the event that they wanted to live on their own for a while. "You and Gianna and Maggie were almost their family for a while... and they were expecting to buy my parents a house at some point, so they could have a place of their own. That didn't wind up happening. I mean, there was the cottage near the Norway house but that wasn't as private as they had in mind for the long term, and then I came along, and then... Well, I think maybe they gave you money to buy a house with because of that. But I'm not sure."

"It's plausible," said Ilario. "I didn't ask. Gift horses and all that."

"Hey, Elspeth," Jacob said, "does that look like lunch to you?" He pointed at a restaurant.

"That looks like a building to me," I replied, "but it probably contains something that looks like lunch."

"I'll wait for you out here," Ilario said, parking himself on a bench. "I don't think any of our visitors are going to find you inside a restaurant."

"See you," said Jake, leading me by the hand into what turned out to be a buffet. He portioned out some of the money from his pocket to pay our way, and we filled up plates and bowls.

"Jake," I said, "does it bother you that people keep calling you..." I glanced around, and judged that I wasn't going to be inaudible to the nearest humans if I made sure Jake would be able to hear me. My wolf? I finished, expecting to sound like I'd trailed off.

"Not really," he replied. "I mean, I guess they could use my name, but failing that it makes sense. There's worse things they could call me. There's no word for the opposite of "imprint", right?"

"Well, no, I don't think so. I guess "imprinter" or something like that..."

He shrugged. "Not a very good word."

There was a silence. I nibbled on my salad. Then I said, "Can I show you something?"

"Always," he said, setting his fork down.

- "I've grown up around imprinted wolves, I know pretty well how they tick. You don't need to be scared of him, Elspeth. He'll look out for you, first of everything. He can't not."

"That's what my mama does, is look out for me first of everything," I say. "I don't think Jacob wants to be my parent."

"Well... no," says Cody. "That would... not be likely."

"I'm five," I say again.

"You kissed me, too," Cody points out. "Do you want to be five or do you want to be sixteen?"

"Even normal sixteen-year-olds aren't deciding things for all eternity," I say. "I'm not my mama. I don't think I want to let an older man sweep me off my feet and then never look twice at anybody else until the stars burn out. Just the other day I was asking Mama for permission to let a boy take me out for ice cream when I expected to leave town in less than a month and never think about him again. I don't want to be done yet."

"Oh," says Cody softly. "And now, whatever you do, even if you go out for ice cream five thousand times with five thousand people... it'll all constitute "keeping Jacob waiting". Because he'll wait, forever..." -

Jacob looked nonplussed; after a moment his eyes focused again. "Did I do something that made you feel -"

"No," I said at once, and he relaxed. "Nothing at all. But I'm sort of confused about what you are doing, and thinking, so I thought I'd ask." I'm chronologically younger than Claire, but I look sixteen. Does the imprint magic know that I'm five? Does it care? We both know it's magic, why would magic care how old I am?

"Also," he said, "Cody kissed you? Were you okay with that?"

I blinked. "I had mixed feelings about it at the time but eventually decided it was okay. About how old I am and..."

"Well... believe it or not," said Jacob, keeping his voice down so the people at the next table wouldn't hear, "I never even thought about it being romantic at all, even though all the others except Quil do. It's weird... it's hard to think about, my brain keeps wanting to do something else. So I don't know if that's like the imprint "caring" about how old you are, or something else."

"You never thought about it at all?" I asked.

"Nope," he said. "Quil's kind of the same, come to think of it. Claire got the idea pretty early that she was going to grow up and marry him, and she'd say stuff like "when I grow up and marry Quil" and he'd look at her like she said "when I grow up and move to Mars", like, it's not an actual physical impossibility, but he wasn't going to start packing for Martian weather anytime soon. That's about what his thoughts sounded like, when she'd say things like that while he was a wolf, too."

"That's weird," I said.

"I guess. Did you get any of this pasta thing? It's really good," he said, picking up his fork again and indicating a dollop on his plate.

I stared at him.

"What?" he said.

Why would that happen with me? I asked. It's not about whether the imprint wants to be the wolf's girlfriend beforehand, or Sam couldn't have fallen in love with his fiancée's cousin when she wasn't in favor of that. Actually, I think that would have ruled out all the imprints except Jared and Kim. And it's not about physical age, because Thea was fifteen when Darren imprinted on her, right? Younger-looking than I am now. And -

"This is really, really hard to think about," said Jake, scrunching his eyebrows together. "I'm sorry, but can we have the conversation in smaller chunks or something? Is it urgent? I thought we were comfortable."

"We are," I said, and that was true. "I'm just trying to figure out what we are."

"You're my imprint," he said, "and I'm your wolf. It doesn't have to be patterned after anything else, does it?"

I decided that made sense, and stole some of his pasta. Jake laughed and took my fruit salad.

After we were done abusing the buffet, we went and rejoined Ilario, who had waited quite patiently. He conducted us on an impromptu tour of the city according to his map-derived knowledge of the layout, which included most of the major landmarks. When it was close to evening, we started heading back towards the park.

I rode on Jake's shoulders for the last few blocks. Only one new vampire had arrived by the time we got there, equipped with a parasol and a sweater with extra-long sleeves which would have let her get to the park unidentified as a vampire. "This is Cath," Maggie announced brightly, gesturing. I'd never heard Maggie refer to Cath as her mother, just her creator, but actual family relation would be visually plausible. Cath was a few inches taller, a little willowier, and her ponytail of auburn ringlets a few shades darker than Maggie's bright orange, but they were somewhat similar in their faces - smiling, at least, they had the same round cheeks and happy eyes. Same eyes apart from the color, anyway.

Cath waved politely, wrinkling her nose only the slightest bit when a breeze carried Jake's scent in her direction. She seemed curious about me, but didn't try to engage me in conversation, and then she looked at Ilario.

"Hello," she said, sounding surprised by him for some reason. Maggie blinked, and glanced over at Ilario; I did too.

Ilario appeared quite transfixed. "Hello," he replied, shifting his weight and taking a step forward.

"Fuck," said Maggie loudly.

Cath looked at her, perplexed. "What're you on about?"

"Brilliant timing, Cath, just brilliant," growled Maggie. "Couldn't have gotten this out of the way early on, could you..."

"Gotten what out of the way?" asked Ilario, still looking at Cath like he was hypnotized.

"Aah, was I this bad?" Maggie asked rhetorically.

"Yes," I remembered aloud.

"What?" demanded Cath.

"Oh, just drag my brother-in-law off somewhere where you can be by yourselves until the others show up," Maggie grumbled, "and have a shag and talk about your futures and see if you can't solve the bloody Rubik's cube that is the mystery here, just come back with all your clothes on when you hear us welcoming the rest of the gang."

"Do you know," Cath asked Ilario, "what she's on about?"

"No," Ilario said.

There was a pause, and then Cath said, "Do you want to go -"

"Yes," blurted Ilario, and a couple of seconds later they were not within visual range anymore.

Jake blinked. "That was weird," he said. "Is it customary for vampires to be caught so off guard? I knew what had happened when I imprinted. And it was obvious about them just by looking; can't they tell?"

"I knew what was going on when I met Liam," said Siobhan, ambling up to our cluster from the car. "Well, I say "met". It was more like "noticed in the middle of setting his covenmate on fire". But in any event I recognized the phenomenon."

"I was roughly that confused," Liam said. "But Siobhan had planned for it, you see..." He nudged her affectionately with his elbow.

Siobhan laughed. "Maybe that was it. Anyway, Maggie, you have no basis to complain about the timing. You could have introduced Cath to your new family any time."

"I did bring Gianna over to meet her!" Maggie whined. "But Ilario took work shifts that weekend so he didn't come along! That's his own fault he didn't meet her then."

"Is it likely there'll be other pairs today?" I asked, folding my arms on top of Jake's head. "Or have the others who are visiting all met each other already?"

"Second thing," said Maggie. "Everybody there has run into everybody else at least once. Specifically to check for mating, actually - whenever somebody turns a newborn on the island who's not their own mate, it's the unofficial custom to introduce them to everyone within the next decade or so, to avoid badly timed mishaps - like, no offense Siobhan, what happened with Liam."

"No offense taken," said Siobhan. "Ah, look, there are the three from the Isle of Wight..."

"Ilario Trafeli," Maggie hollered, "get your pants on and be hospitable on behalf of Ireland -"

"Shush!" called Cath from far away, but in a few seconds she and Ilario were presentable and back in the main part of the park to welcome the three newcomers.

I was just barely awake through the entire trickle of British vampires into the park. After Cath and the three-person Isle of Wight coven, we received a single representative from the four allied Glasgow/Edinburgh covens; the "brothers" Maggie had mentioned from Manchester; the "Cardiff Bint" and her Liverpudlian friend; a pair and two singles from London; sisters from Bristol; a lone vampire from Oxford; and a fellow from the Isle of Man who had not been invited, only heard about the proceedings from the Newcastle gossip (who declined to attend). It was when consensus was reached that this would be the sum total of attendees that I slumped over Jake's head in an undignified flop and slept.

When I woke up (curled up on the backseat of the car, with my head in a sleeping Jake's lap), most of the same British vampires were still hanging around in the park, but there were two other vampire visitors who had not been expected at all.