"Guess who gets to play host to our cousins' problem," sang Tanya, sailing into Carmen and Eleazar's house.
"Our cousins?" guessed Irina, looking up from the go board she was sharing with Eleazar. He placed a stone and she looked back down.
"Would that they could," sighed Tanya dramatically. "No, they have a problem which has several bits and pieces and they sent one of the bits up here so they can deal with the others. His name's Laurent and he's not veg, but they think he may be curious."
Irina completed an eye with a new stone and looked up at Tanya again. "I suppose Kate's heard."
Tanya nodded. "Would've heard me on the phone. You need to come look at her latest drawing, by the way, it is nice. Why isn't Carmen back yet? Did she call?"
"Texted. Holdup at the DMV," Irina said.
"I didn't see that coming. We need to poach Alice," opined Tanya, crouching by the go board as Eleazar made another move. "Instead we get Laurent."
"Maybe he'll go away, when he discovers how boring we are," suggested Irina.
"Maybe," Tanya said. "Maybe he'll be interesting and we'll want to keep him around. Convert him to our hippie ways."
Irina shrugged, and placed a stone.
The Denalis were five when Laurent arrived. Irina stood with her sisters; Eleazar and Carmen were off to the left in front of their own house. Alice had dropped them a text with his estimated time of arrival and they wanted to be waiting.
Laurent came from the south, and slowed down when he saw them, approaching at a brisk walk a close-lipped smile and his hands behind his back. Not an open-armed I have no weapons posture, because nothing he could have been carrying was as dangerous as his limbs and teeth (even a flamethrower was only a serious problem for a disabled vampire), but I am not brandishing my weapons.
Tanya watched him approach through the trees, then glanced at her sisters and - she'd never found a satisfactory familiar term to apply to Carmen and Eleazar. Cousin was too distant, that was the Cullens who were her cousins; sisterhood was reserved for the trio who shared the loss of a mother. Stepsiblings, perhaps... She peered at the four faces, gauging their assessments of the stranger.
Eleazar was calm; Volterra had accustomed him to strange vampires coming and going. Carmen was drawing her equanimity from her husband but didn't have any of her own. Kate was humming with electricity, ready to strike down the visitor if he made a wrong move, but her posture was casual and people who weren't used to her wouldn't be able to tell. Irina appeared fascinated by Laurent as he drew closer.
Tanya looked back at Laurent, who was nearly to the clearing where they made their home. He was gazing at them intently out of chilly red eyes, evaluating Eleazar first, then Tanya herself, then sliding his eyes over to Irina.
Tanya watched Laurent's pupils widen, the deliberate smile soften - and then he moved on to Kate, and the expression on his face returned to where it had been, and then he sized up Carmen, and then he was in the clearing, hands still behind his back. He looked over at Irina again, who was staring down at her feet and shuffling them. Odd behavior for her.
Laurent spoke first: "Hello. You must be the Denali coven Carlisle spoke of. I am Laurent."
"We know," said Kate.
"Welcome," put in Irina, glancing up from her toes.
"Do tell me your name," said Laurent, addressing her. "Names," he added after a moment, glancing at Tanya. People tended to interpret her as the leader of the family, and she supposed if there was one, it was her, but there was rarely a situation where she needed to act in that capacity.
"I'm Irina," volunteered the sister by that name, and Laurent's gaze snapped back to her. "These are my sisters Tanya and Kate, and our friends Carmen and Eleazar."
"So pleased to meet you," murmured Laurent, eyes on Irina.
They were six.
"Come home," pleaded Irina into the phone.
"Come join me," returned Laurent's lightly accented voice from the other end, and Tanya winced. She was spreading mortar on a layer of rocks in the facade of the new, third house, building a home for Irina and her mate. She hadn't set out to overhear the conversation, but the windows weren't installed yet...
"I can't," said Irina. "I can't. I belong here. I - I'm a vegetarian - come home."
"I will come home to you," Laurent returned, "when I am done, my love."
Irina couldn't cry, but she could make a little sobbing noise, and Tanya's face twisted in anger at her new brother-in-law. She placed a stone and reminded herself that it would hurt the rock more than her head if she clonked her skull against it. What was wrong with Laurent? He had no strong affection for his coven and he'd readily given up the idea of returning to them when he'd met Irina. But he'd taken less promptly to the idea of settling down in Denali. Tanya looked at the trowel in her hand and wondered if it was even worth building the new house, if he was going to be gone. What kind of vampire stayed with his new mate for less than a day before tearing off alone? Even if he didn't want to be a vegetarian...
Tanya repressed a shudder and spread another layer of mortar.
I will not attack my sister's mate when he gets back. I will not attack my sister's mate when he gets back. I will not...
"Tanya," called Carmen from the house next door.
Tanya paused her movie and flitted to the window to more easily talk. "What is it?" she asked, leaning out on the windowsill to see Carmen doing the same.
"We're getting another... tenant," Carmen said heavily.
"What, another?" said Tanya. "So soon? Laurent arrived just the day before yesterday."
"This one's a newborn. Laurent's old covenmate James made three, and two of them were impossible to control at all - Carlisle's beating himself up about having to kill them, but the risk was too much, they'd have exposed themselves and gotten everyone killed. This one's the best of the group, but they think he'd do better away from their town," Carmen said. "Jasper and Emmett are driving him up."
"What's his name?" Tanya asked tiredly.
"David Baxter," recited Carmen. "Do you think you or Kate will like him?"
"I hope I don't," said Tanya. "I have a date on Saturday."
Carmen half-laughed, half-sighed. "They'll be here with him in about a day. Jasper'll call you when they're getting close."
Tanya nodded, and both of the women closed their windows.
"David! Calm down!" ordered Kate, brandishing her right arm threateningly. "For the love of God, it's a television, you know what a television is, you know perfectly well that nothing in it is going to attack you. Stand up and stop snarling."
David hissed at her and backed up several feet without getting up from his crouch, and Kate groaned, lunged forward, and wallopped him across the cheek. He jerked convulsively and rolled over on the carpet, then sprang to his feet and hissed again.
Tanya shook her head and put down the remote. She might have to switch to watching her films in one of the other houses as long as David was around, if he was going to react like that to every fictional growling creature. At least Kate could handle him easily. When Kate was gone, hunting or picking up men or running errands, Tanya and at least one helper were required to keep the newborn in line. A helper other than Laurent, who didn't stop hitting until his opponent was down, too disabled to resist a lit match, and it wasn't necessary to be that harsh on David.
"Come on, David," cooed Kate. "David. Stand all the way up. Arms at your sides, David..." Using his name repeatedly helped; the newborn gradually relaxed. "That's it, David, good. Can I get a smile?" she encouraged.
David managed a grimace. "Thirsty," he muttered.
"Okay, David, we'll go hunting," said Kate. "But first Tanya will go make sure there are only animals around. We don't want you to make a mistake, David."
"Thirsty," he hissed again, impatient, flexing his hands.
"Wait," insisted Kate, holding up her open hand again. It hummed with force. Tanya sighed and went out to scout for humans, and heard the crack of another blow as Kate subdued David once more.
"This would probably be easier if one of us was his mate," muttered Tanya under her breath to herself, sniffing the air for any scents too delicious as she hurtled through the forest. Finding none, she doubled back to where the seven lived. "All clear in the northeast quadrant," she reported when she was within earshot of the house she shared with Kate and now David but no longer Irina.
"David, see, that didn't take so long, did it?" soothed Kate. "Now let's go get some blood into you. Come along now, David." They passed Tanya on their way out, and although David growled at her he didn't attempt an attack.
"Edward, this is getting ridiculous," cried Tanya. "How many problem nomads and hissing newborns do we have to house before you'll find somewhere else to put them?"
"We didn't plan it this way," he said. "We would take him - there's a newborn at our house now too, you understand, we're not sending you everyone - but there's no way to get the man Bella's turned there safely. We're only on this continent because Gianna needs -"
"I know," Tanya sighed. "I understand. When are we expecting our new resident?"
She got off the phone with Edward a few minutes later and relayed the news.
"Joy," said Kate, looking at David out of the corner of her eye. He was sitting against a wall, which was better than crouching, at least. They'd just had to replace a banister that he tore off in frustration. "Plural newborns."
"Roughly my reaction, yes," Tanya said. "Bella's newborn is still turning as of now."
"Bah. We're putting this one in a different house. I don't want him near David too often," said Kate.
Harry made eight. He was more controlled than David by a long shot. Kate smacked him around preemptively when he paced too energetically or growled - often at his computer, which Carmen had given him as a hand-me-down and which he was using to keep in touch with... someone. It wasn't clear who, but he swore that he wasn't endangering the secret of vampire existence, so they let him have his privacy.
Harry got along well enough with Carmen and Eleazar, who were less prone to attacking him whenever he made a nonverbal noise, but Tanya rubbed him the wrong way somehow, Kate was too trigger-happy, Laurent's diet made him uncomfortable, and Irina had nothing in common with him at all. Once he was proven capable of being around humans he started going for long hikes through the park alone. He texted confirmations that he hadn't killed anyone every few hours, but was often gone for days at a time.
Then, he didn't come back, and the texts stopped.
Tanya waited until it had been almost three days, with Harry not answering his phone once, before she became worried enough to call Carlisle. Carlisle consulted Alice and Alice foresaw Harry running south, almost to Washington. At least he was safe, but Tanya wondered if he'd eaten someone and was running out of shame... but then surely he didn't think they'd reject him over that? They put up with Laurent when he was home. On Irina's behalf, but still.
It was nearly a day later when Harry called Eleazar and announced belatedly that he was reducing their number to seven, and disconfirmed her theory about his dietary strictness. Tanya couldn't manage to regret the eventuality. Harry would be fine on his own, and he hadn't fit in well with their household, and this way he was happier and so were they without anyone having to actually evict him.
David calmed down considerably when there wasn't another newborn around. Harry's power had made him effective at avoiding direct contact with David, but David still knew he was there.
Tanya decided to risk turning on her own television again, as a test of David's improvement, and was able to watch forty-five minutes of a movie before he freaked out and needed Kate to swat him down.
Tanya wondered why Harry had been so unusually controlled. Bella was odd, and the even newer member of the Cullen family, Ilario, also odd, but from what Tanya understood they'd both known about vampires ahead of time. Surely Harry hadn't? Maybe Bella had talked to him while he turned, and that was enough?
She shrugged and took her movie to Carmen and Eleazar's house.
"You have to call Carlisle," shrieked Irina, hands clenched around Tanya's shoulders and shaking her sister. "Call him, call him, tell him to tell Alice to find Laurent, he's never, ever been gone this long, I'll be incoherent on the phone or I'd do it Tanya you have to call Carlisle."
"Laurent's gone all the time, Irina..." soothed Tanya. "I'm sure he's fine."
"You called after three days when it was Harry!" Irina wailed. "Laurent's been gone for almost three weeks and he's never gone that long! He's not answering his phone! Call Carlisle!"
"Fine," said Tanya placatingly, peeling Irina's hand away from her shoulder and pulling out her phone. "Fine. I'm calling him." She dialed, and her cousin picked up. "Carlisle?"
"Tanya! It's good to hear from you," Carlisle said.
"Not a social call. I need to borrow Alice's sight again. Laurent has been away for sixteen days now, hasn't checked in, it's twice his previous record length of excursion. The phone thing isn't uncommon - it runs out of charge and he's not good at passing for human so he can get the use of an outlet - but the length of time is, and Irina's hysterical."
"Of course. I'll fetch Alice," said Carlisle. "Just a moment."
There was a pause, and Alice's voice came on the phone. "I'm looking, but... I can't see him..."
"What does that mean?!" cried Irina. "He can't be dead. He can't, we were supposed to have forever, he can't be dead, Alice..."
"I think he is, Irina. I'm so sorry," said Alice gently. If she was right, they summed to six...
"No," Irina yowled, twisting her hands in her hair. "No - no - Alice, you're not working so well lately, you're full of gaps, there's gaps, he's just got to have fallen in one of those, he's got to be alive!"
"I'm sorry," said Alice.
"Laurent," sobbed Irina. "My Laurent."
"There, there," said Tanya uselessly, hanging up on Alice. She pulled Irina into a hug. "There, there..." It was a worthless enough phrase of comfort for lesser grief than this, but Tanya didn't have anything else to give.
"I miss her," murmured Kate. "Already."
"We could hardly have stopped her from looking for him, after Alice proved to be a dead end," said Tanya. "I just don't know how she's planning to find him. Sure, she knew he was going south, but the trail will be cold by now, he could have changed direction..."
"She's not here. You don't have to go on pretending that he's not dead," said Kate darkly. "She's not going to find him. She might find a pile of ashes. She might find whoever killed him, and die trying to get revenge." Kate shook her head ruefully. "I should have gone with her."
"David needs you."
"You and Carmen and Eleazar could handle him without me for a few weeks. I should have gone. She'll do something stupid. Maybe I should follow her now..."
"You're not hardly a tracker," said Tanya. "Where would you look for her?"
"I don't know. Where do you suppose Harry's living now? He never calls, never writes," asked Kate abruptly. "We barely even got to know him - I think we all underestimated him, he was more stable than we gave him credit for. We should have tried to draw him out more while he was here."
"He'd tell us if he was interested in us visiting," said Tanya, looking out the window, pensive. "It's been a high-turnover year, hasn't it?"
"Irina will come back," said Kate.
"Who knows when, though?" Tanya replied.
"Mother told us to stick together," said Kate resolutely. "Irina will come home."
They waited, the five of them.
David wasn't happy about four new vampires - well, he'd met them, but four vampires he wasn't well-acquainted with - moving into Irina and Laurent's old house. However, he was instantly taken with Elspeth, who made a round ten residents. He had an unprecedented run of good behavior, trying to prove to an overprotective Rosalie that it was safe to let him hold the baby. Rosalie wouldn't go so far as to leave the room Elspeth was in, whether it was David or anyone else playing with her, but she did eventually let David pick the child up and talk to her.
"Reminds me of my niece," he explained to Tanya, once, when she asked, not meeting her eyes. He shrank away from Tanya, slunk up to his room; he'd long recognized that while she didn't have Kate's unfair advantage, she was still his better if he turned it into a confrontation. But around Elspeth he didn't act like a newborn at all. She was in a third category apart from vampires, who were threats, and humans, who were prey, and he didn't have any instincts installed to deal with her.
Tanya herself was only a little interested in Elspeth. The girl started walking - toddling around everywhere with Rosalie trailing her tirelessly, and when she pestered Tanya instead of one of the nine other adults at her disposal, Tanya hid things and sent her to find them, deploying increasingly complex clues as Elspeth got smarter.
But Tanya spent more of her time commiserating somberly with Kate and Carlisle and Esme. They were pretty sure Irina was dead. They'd lost Edward and Bella. And the sisters - the remaining sisters - had Sasha's death in their memories too. Carmen and Eleazar did mourn Irina, but... as a stepsister. Rosalie and Emmett had lost a brother and a sister too, but... there was Elspeth, at least for Rosalie, compensating.
Alice and Jasper, of course, were gone, off on their own somewhere undisclosed, although Tennessee with old friends of Jasper's was suspected.
The comfort of sharing grief old and new wore off fast, and the Cullens wore out their welcome, and eventually they were nudged away from Denali and into one of their own homes, and then the coven was five.
Tanya and Kate, Carmen and Eleazar, and David. Five.
Tanya spent a fair amount of time out in the wilderness, climbing as high as she could go and staring out into the sky, and wishing.
The Denalis were still five when visitors began to pour in again, half a decade later.
Tanya felt sick at heart about the betrayal they were committing - of their cousins, of David even because Kate didn't yet feel sure of his loyalties and they did need one person with clear thoughts. And she wasn't going to soothe herself with beribboned words for it other than betrayal. But she was trapped, they were all trapped. The Volturi were too powerful to be opposed. There was no hope for Carlisle or anyone who followed his madly idealistic scheme.
It stung, like nothing else, that of all the people they learned were alive after having thought them dead, Irina wasn't among them. Why Edward, and not Irina? Why Alice, and not Irina? Why Elspeth, and not Irina...?
Tanya had moved Irina's things back into her old room in the middle house when the Cullens came to stay so the third house, built for Irina and Laurent, could be used for the guests. Apart from this relocation, nothing had been touched. Not one possession of Irina's had been discarded. Tanya dusted every day, except when Kate did.
Then Santiago and her wolves took David, who had stayed, who had become part of the family, who was her brother - stepbrother? - and she was only more trapped, and she often sat in Irina's room instead of her own. They were four, but surrounded, hemmed in by too many others, riddled with missing pieces that the intruders couldn't begin to replace.
Even as vampires of Carlisle's acquaintance poured in, taking up space, Tanya didn't let them spill into Irina's... storage room. The third house was open; let them use that. There were truly spare rooms in her and Kate and David's house, and in Carmen and Eleazar's, they could use those.
Tanya didn't realize Kate had mated to visiting nomad Garrett (and that made five again, while David was gone) until she caught the pair of them in Irina's room. They weren't in flagrante delicto, but that Kate had brought him there at all meant there was something more serious going on than her deciding to try the chillier end of the temperature spectrum in her choice of partners.
Kate apologized, not very sincerely. Tanya waved it off. Garrett seemed a tolerable sort. It could have been worse. It could have been someone who was going to go off on long, dangerous adventures, get himself torn to bits by wolves, and lead Kate after him and her sister both into death.
Garrett distracted Kate from worrying about David, which was good. There was no benefit to worrying about David, and Tanya's bad luck at having no mate to divert her didn't need to extend to her remaining sister. David would be returned to them once things... settled down. Then they would be six.
David was released after Bella took over, after far, far too long, after being kept in a pile of fragments in Volterra - he took a long time to forgive them. Kate tore off into the woods, refusing to talk to him, the first time he got home and opened his mouth, so he ranted to Tanya.
"I know you're sorry, but what possessed you to tip them off?" he demanded. "Isn't our family worth more to you than that? Or am I even in your family? I know you didn't really volunteer to take me in, but I thought since then I'd -"
"You're our brother," said Tanya softly. "We're sorry, David."
"I know you're sorry," he repeated. "I just don't understand why. Even without knowing that Sasha was framed... didn't you blame them for killing her? For killing Irina?"
"We agreed not to get into trouble after Mother died," Tanya said tightly. "We thought they were enforcing the law, that even if the law hurt one of our own it was necessary, that as long as we cooperated we would be spared. We didn't know they were making it up as they went."
"You knew they were merciless, murderous tyrants," spat David.
Tanya bowed her head. "I won't defend them to you."
David stalked away, and Tanya was alone.
They were six.
For a while, anyway.