Chapter 41: Timer

Cowed somewhat by the many ways we could still be slaughtered even with Pera's help, I excused myself meekly and ran back to the mountain where Jake was recuperating.

When I got close enough, my mother shielded me again, which I noticed because I was abruptly able to notice that Allirea was perched on the mountainside eating an orange. I wasn't sure why she'd do that in favor of hunting an animal, even if my mother wasn't permitting her to eat humans the way she normally would. It could have been sheer laziness, I supposed, since fading didn't work on animals and they would run from her if chased.

My mother still had her phone out, sitting open on the rock next to her, so I assumed she'd heard everything, and I just waved at her in acknowledgement before settling beside Jake again. He was sleeping, albeit more fitfully than before; I touched his cheek and attempted to calm him with another blank sending, to decent effect.

"Will you let me braid your hair?" my mother asked in a low voice.

"It's still braided from when I did it on the plane ride," I said. Since I'd gotten it cut I'd been able to braid it myself, although it was threatening to get too long for that again.

"There are wisps coming out all over the place," she said, sounding like she was fighting to keep her voice even, "and the strands are mismatched..."

"Fine," I said, shrugging, and turned away from her. She knelt behind me and undid and re-plaited my hair, more slowly than I remembered, but it was easy enough to ignore since she was pretty good at not pulling it.

She twisted the elastic around the end of the braid when she'd finished. "I don't dare try to parent you," she murmured, quietly enough that I wasn't sure if she meant me to hear at all. "I don't dare claim any closeness, because of what she did to you, and because I don't dare do anything that might drive you away more... but I can't forget that you're my daughter, I can't pretend that you're some arbitrary girl who's signed onto the cause... and I don't know what that leaves me."

"Well, you get Dad back, if we win," I said. I didn't have much of anything against my mother. I didn't want her to feel bad. But making her not feel bad in the way she wanted would involve some form of subterfuge. While her shield's current state meant that I might be able to pull it off without Magic being able to give me away, it still wasn't my strong suit or something I wanted very much to practice.

I didn't know how to undo Chelsea's work the other way around. It didn't feel like the sort of thing that fell under my bailiwick. There was nothing particularly untrue about her destructive tendencies - I didn't think I could make myself love my mother again just because I once had any more than I should expect to bring people back from the dead just by pointing out that they had previously lived.

She ran her palm across my hair, once, and then let her hand drop to her side. "That's something," she muttered ruefully.

"He's your mate," I pointed out, unnecessarily. "Isn't that supposed to make it more than just something?"

She took a step back from me, and I turned my head to look at her; she was staring skyward. "Maybe it'll be different when I see him," she said finally. "You're right here."

"Well," I said, "you can kill Chelsea."

"Believe me, that's my intention. Somehow I doubt it's going to be like fairy tales in which slaying an evil witch causes all of her ongoing effects to evaporate, though."

"Yeah," I said uncomfortably. "Probably not. Chelsea's cousin had a power sort of like hers except she dealt more with negative relationships, and what she'd done didn't go away that Chelsea could detect when she died."

Still looking up at the sky, my mother said, "Maybe we're wrong and her work does depend on her continuing to live. Maybe you'll learn to undo it..."

"Maybe," I said dubiously.

My magic itched, but I didn't tell her anyway, that I wasn't sure if I would exercise that ability that way given the chance.

After a silence, my mother said, "Am I going to need to kill Afton too, do you think?"

"Probably not you personally," I told her. "He's too good in a fight and you've only been a vampire for six years and change, I don't think you could kill him if you tried. But yeah, if Chelsea dies he won't exactly stand for it, and if you're going to kill her he'll probably need to be out of the way first. Actually, killing him might make her somewhat Marcus-like and make it a lot easier to do."

"The variation in how vampires cope with the loss of mates is... strange," she observed.

"I think you had it about right when you conjectured that it was connected to witchcraft," I said. "Marcus is practically a zombie mostly because he can still see his half of the mate bond. It looks like a torn white ribbon, but he knows it means his mate is dead. And he has to stare at it twenty-four hours a day. The few times he's managed to look away from it for a second, he's been much more typical in his reaction - which would be sort of like Irina. She was focused on revenge above everything else but she was able to be basically sane about it. I mean, up until the point where her plan backfired and the people she wanted dead were instead collected by the Volturi except for the ones who escaped altogether. Then she did something very stupid, running at the contingent of Volturi who were in La Push all by herself, but up until that point she was mostly functional."

"And Jasper felt Alice dying, for all that this was apparently a fake by Addy..." my mother said.

"Yeah. Well, and part of the craziness you saw was because Alice was sharing visions with him and he didn't know how to handle them or what they were, but a good chunk of it was Addy's stunt," I said. "And since she can only share visions while she's having them, and what she was primarily trying to communicate was that she was alive, this involved a lot of images of her lying on the floor of the dungeon under Alec's power staring blankly into space. Or in little bits. So there's that. But I'm pretty sure that what Addy did had an effect too. You just heard what you thought was Dad dying is all - I mean, I'm sure it was horrible, but it wasn't like feeling it directly, or staring at evidence of it all the time forever."

"Right," she murmured. "And you think Chelsea's power will make her react with unusual intensity if Afton dies?"

"Like a combination of regular mate death, and the worst kind of drug withdrawal," I said.

"Drug withdrawal," my mother mused. "How does that work?"

"I'd offer to show you, but..."

"Right," she sighed. "Right. I am working on it."

We lapsed into silence, and I thought about Chelsea and her addiction -

- He's almost ready. His heart is speeding up. Soon it will stop and he will look at me with new eyes.

He must love me. There has been no change in the twist of leathery-feeling admiration that I spun out of the original seed since I bit him. That's not enough. I want him to adore me. I want him to need me. This isn't enough. I figured out yesterday that he must be my mate or I wouldn't want him so much. That means that I'm supposed to be his mate, too, doesn't it? He's supposed to be mine. But there's no impenetrable diamond, not yet. There's nothing particularly durable about this string. I could cut it if I wanted, leave him with nothing at all - his other connections have stopped trying to grow back.

I don't want to do that. It's inadequate, this thin little tendril of rope, even though I've poured more work into it than anything else I've ever crafted and don't know how to pull it any tauter or force it to grow any bigger. It's still not enough. He must love me. More than this. Where is my diamond link to my mate...? I can't feel the half of it extending out from myself. I can't feel any of my own relationships. It must be there, I suppose Marcus would see it if he looked, but I ought to be able to feel Afton's, but I can't tell and I don't know what to do to make sure everything is as it ought to be when Afton doesn't feel diamond-ly towards me - he must love me, why hasn't it happened yet...?

Did I - no, it's impossible, but - did I ruin something, interfering with the relationship before he turned - no, that can't happen, that's not how it works, it must simply not kick in until his heart stops. That's what it must be. I haven't ruined everything. This must be normal, is all. Why would a vampire mate bond exist before he's completely a vampire? I shouldn't worry.

I'm worried.

I'm terrified.

I wish one of the others had needed to turn their own mate, so I would know what happens. Then I would know this is normal, and only to be expected, and that Afton will love me properly when he's through changing...

I do know that. He must love me, that's all. He must.

His heart beats faster, louder, it's humming so fast and there is still no diamond love coiling itself around me -!

And then where the next beat would have been is silence and there's still nothing -

This morning I caught him a couple of humans to relieve the thirst that will come with his newness. They're tied up nearby. He attacks them instinctively without even looking at me. He didn't even look at me, and there's still nothing out of the ordinary between us when my fingers twitch impotently through the air, this is as much as I know how to do and it's not enough and he must love me!

And then the humans are both dead and drained and he does look at me.

He stares at me.

He gazes at me and it snaps into place, all at once, a sudden rightness in the universe.

"Chelsea," he says, like my name is a prayer, and I can feel it, I can feel it all around me like an embrace, he loves me, he loves me, he loves me, he loves me, the air is singing with it...

Everything I created before, every thread I poured myself into bolstering, was a faint squeak of a prelude to this. He's mine. It worked after all. Mine mine mine mine. I needed him all along and didn't know it and now he's mine, properly mine, and he loves me he loves me he loves me.

"Afton," I say, beaming at him and holding out my arms -

"Bella," said Siobhan's voice through my mother's phone, still lying open on the ground. My mother snatched it up and held it to her ear.

"What?" she asked.

"Razi dropped by for about four seconds. He and Pera are going to get on a plane to join us here so she can hide everybody and get us to Europe safely," Siobhan said. "They should be here tomorrow afternoon, by which time it should be reasonably safe to move Jacob. Bella, Pera still doesn't like you due to the thing where she was your singer and you almost ate her, so don't antagonize her."

"Noted," my mother replied. "Should I apologize to her, or just avoid interacting with her as much as possible?"

"You're going to have to get a bead on her preferences on the matter yourself when she shows up," Siobhan said. "Four seconds wasn't long enough for Razi to go into a lot of detail about Pera's current attitudes towards you. Anyway, Pera's iffy on actually participating in the fight after we finish traveling, but she's willing to hear us out en route to Europe, and Razi says he's still trying to talk her around."

"Sure, they're talking," I heard Tanya say skeptically. "That's sure what I'd do if I'd just found my mate and we were invisible to everyone around us and had more than half a day of an airplane ride ahead of us during which there was nothing in particular we had to do."

"All right," said Siobhan, and I suspected she was rolling her eyes, "so he's probably only intermittently trying to talk her around, but he did have verbal information to convey about her when he dropped in, so there is at least some conversation happening."

"Speaking of mates," my mother said, "there should probably be some contingency plan for if someone on our side winds up mated to someone on theirs. I assume not everybody we're calling an ally has already personally met every member of the Volturi guard."

"You assume correctly," Siobhan said. "I don't think we should wait to find that out until we launch an offensive. I think Elspeth should show everyone working with us a slideshow of the current guard - since we know from our experiment with Razi and Pera that her method works as well as Alice's, and more comfortably - once we're all massed in London. Then we can use those pairings, if applicable, to pry off a few more opponents from the guard the way we just did with Pera. As long as we're ready for the possibility and they aren't thinking about it, we should be able to avoid having it go the other way."

"Such as how?" my mother asked. "Nobody else we're working with can teleport in, and nobody else with the Volturi can get privacy right away so effectively."

"I'm aware of that," Siobhan said. "The obvious thing would be to have the half of the pair we've got to stand in some easily recognizable place, like under the Eiffel Tower, and get Alice to send their mate an image of that. At some time when they aren't about to touch Aro, moreover. We can give our half a sign to hold - "come here alone and don't tell them where you're going" or something. Then Elspeth can be hiding nearby and deprogram the Volturi in question when he or she shows up."

"Presumably I'd have to be well away from the Eiffel Tower when Alice did the shared vision?" I said.

"Yes," Siobhan said. "You and Jacob both. How is he doing, by the way? Do you anticipate any issues with getting him onto a plane?"

"I think he'll be okay to get picked up and moved tomorrow afternoon," I reported. "I wouldn't want to make him walk anywhere, but I can carry him."

"Good," said Siobhan. "And he should be fine by the time we land in Heathrow. Let's go back to the question of what we're going to do in Volterra itself - operating under the pessimistic assumption that we don't succeed in doing any further matchmaking."

"When Alice says that everyone who should be in the compound is, me and Allirea and a vampire who Allirea fades go into the wolf village, by breaking a skylight or something," I said, "and I deprogram everybody while Allirea and whoever make sure they don't trap me or pass a message to the compound. Right?"

"Right," Siobhan said. "Pessimistically, let's assume that deprogrammed wolves etcetera want nothing to do with our fight, and either evacuate entirely or hole up in the village. They won't be able to attack anyone in your contingent between your imprint status and Allirea's fading, so if they were hostile you could get a message to us, so we don't need to be concerned about the possibility that they'll turn on us anyway - we can just steer clear if going to the village would be liable to provoke a fight."

"If I'm the third person in that group," my mother said, "then Allirea and I could start the attack - without a nail-varnishing break - and see how much we could get done before my shield snapped, or without going anywhere that Marcus's eyes are pointing."

"How are we supposed to know when that happens and you need reinforcements?" Siobhan asked. "Alice can't see anything Allirea's near, even if you left Elspeth behind in the village."

"If the wolves help," I said, "they could have Rachel or Becky wait nearby - not doing anything suspicious to the Volturi, just standing within earshot - and she could phase and tell Jake as soon as she realized what was going on. But Allirea would have to unfade briefly to let her know to do that."

"That's not a terrible idea," Siobhan said, "but assumes wolf cooperation beyond just Jacob, which we aren't assuming for the moment."

"Wait one moment," said my mother suddenly. "Aro is wearing Marcus's eye to use it as a prosthetic vision device. What makes us think he doesn't have some part of - of Edward on his person? Isn't he keeping Edward as a mindreading antenna? Wouldn't that be the best way to do it?"

"That's possible," Siobhan allowed. "Unlike the eye, which needs line of sight to be useful, it wouldn't matter if he were wearing such a piece of Edward under his sleeve or something, so Alice might not have seen... what's your point?"

"My point is that just like Demetri could notice Allirea whether she faded or not," my mother said, "Edward can probably notice me whether or not Allirea is fading me. If Aro is constantly reading him, that means he might be able to notice thoughts about me - even if it's only Edward reading Allirea thinking about me, since he can't hear my thoughts directly. And unlike with Marcus's eye, we can't prevent that just by avoiding line of sight. If my shield slips, then no matter where we are in Edward's range, this is a risk."

There was a silence, and Siobhan said, "Alice? Can you have a look at that?"

"Only if I spy on Aro changing clothes in the future to see if he's got any Edward-bits on him tucked under the cloak," Alice said.

"This is somewhat important," Siobhan said tightly. "Your sense of propriety is somewhat less so."

After a pause, Alice said, "Yeah. Half a thumb, tied to his forearm."

My mother shuddered, and Siobhan swore quietly. "That's a lot of ifs, but we can't rule any of them out," she said. "If Bella slips... If Edward can notice Allirea's thoughts even when Allirea is faded, should they concern Bella... if Aro can notice Edward's noticing, even when they concern a faded Bella via a faded Allirea... but we can't rule it out."

"Can we ask Pera to go in and get Edward - in his entirety - out first?" my mother asked. "I'm aware we can't wait for his reassembly before proceeding with the attack from there, since his disappearance will certainly be noticed, but at least he could be taken away as a weapon from the enemy."

"If Pera helps beyond getting us onto an airplane," Siobhan said tiredly, "we can ask her. If she doesn't -"

"Maybe we should wait until we know if we have her help before trying to come up with something clever to do on the contingency that we don't," said my mother.

"Now that Pera is absent without leave, we should step up our timeline a bit," Siobhan said. "The Volturi are not stupid, and if they decide to put some kind of plan into motion, they don't have to wait for a day and a half until an airplane has departed from Italy, flown to Alaska, and then flown back again before they can get started. Okay. Supposing we have no Pera and no wolves other than Jacob, what do we do?"

"Alistair is a tracker, right?" I asked. "He can tell where various people are. If he were the third person, he could go in with Allirea, keep his sense on the lookout for Aro, not be particularly inclined to think about my mother, and let Allirea kill a bunch of people before running into anyone who can notice her." I didn't remember a great deal about Alistair, in spite of him styling himself Carlisle's friend, but I was familiar with the basics of how his power (mostly deployed to let him stay far away from his fellow persons) worked. His power was a lot like Harry Clearwater's had been.

There was a pause while my mother and Siobhan thought that over, and then Siobhan said, "Okay, that's our current default steps one and two. Elspeth, Alistair, and Allirea, latter two faded, break into the village, deprogram the wolves and imprints and pups, and then Alistair and Allirea go into the compound together with Alistair executing a planned pattern of announcing Aro's location even though he won't be able to remember that Allirea is there. However, I'm somewhat concerned about Alistair's reliability. Do we have any other ideas for the case where he absconds in the night rather than follow through with anything so risky?"

"I resent that," snapped Alistair's voice in the background.

"If you resent it, feel free to prove my suspicions unjustified," retorted Siobhan. "I invite you to do so. I'd like nothing more. In the meantime, I'm the one with magical planning powers, so if I feel inclined to plan for you running off, I'm not going to ignore the impulse just to spare your feelings. Elspeth, Bella - more ideas?"

"Nathan might have some valuable ability," I said. "But I don't know how to plan for that when he won't tell us what it is."

"Hang on," Siobhan said, "I have another call. Liam, love, you call Bella to keep the line open -" Various beeping noises later, I could hear Siobhan answer the new call through Liam's phone and my mother's, and patched into the conversation myself to be able to hear. "Hello."

"Siobhan!" said Nathan's voice cheerfully. "I have the notion that this is a good time to tell you what it is that I do. What d'you think?"

"The only way to improve on this moment would be via the irresponsible use of time travel, Nathan," Siobhan deadpanned. "Is your power that, by any chance?"

"Nah, I wish, that would be keen," he replied. "Close, though!"

"Well," Siobhan growled, "out with it."

"Supernaturally good timing," he said cheerfully. "If I'm considering doing a thing, I know when would be the best moment to do it."

There was a moment of quiet, and then Siobhan said, "And what, pray tell, made this rather than a week ago Wednesday the best moment to share this information?"

"Haven't a bloody clue," he said, still cheerful. "I don't get reasons. Just times. But I'm always right. I know when would be best to come visit your island and when would be best to swim home again. I know when's best to dodge, when's best to strike, when's best to do anything I set my mind to really. Couple awkward limits to it, though. F'rinstance, doesn't help me think of especially clever things to time brilliantly. If I want to know the best time to set myself on fire, my power will oblige, but that wouldn't make it any less liable to kill me."

"How could there be a best time to set yourself on fire?" I asked.

"Not rightly sure," he told me. "Told you - I don't get reasons, just times. The other limit is that I need to have roughly the right time scale in mind to get the most useful answer. If I'm thinking that I want to visit Bath sometime this week, I'll know the best time this week, but if I'm thinking I want to go sometime this decade, I'll know the best time this decade, which isn't likely to be this week. That's gotten me into trouble once or twice. Anyway," he said, "maybe you lot can tell me - why was this the best time for me to share my secret with the group?"

"Well, we'll be there with Eleazar anyway in a little over a day," I said.

"And we're currently trying to figure out who gets to be in the team that first enters the compound," said Siobhan, "and Nathan, I think you get the job."