Leah didn't need to hear it again.
"Lee-lee," pleaded Sam.
"Do not fucking call me that," snarled Leah. She was biting the inside of her cheek so hard she tasted blood, and pressing half-moons into her palms as she fought to hold her shape. "Do not, not now." Her ring was filmed over with dust from where she'd thrown it to the ground, glinting halfheartedly in the sun. She'd already shredded the calendar with November 8 circled in red. She didn't need to destroy herself, too.
"I didn't do it on purpose. I never," Sam said, and the terrible thing was that she believed him, she remembered the sea-change that had twisted his brain beyond recognition as though it had happened to her, and it made her want to hurl. She knew he hadn't chosen to imprint on her cousin. Practically her sister, close enough to be, but every memory of a summer alongside Emily when they were little was sour now.
"I know," she growled, struggling with the rage that had come with the touch of Bella's cold hand. Not like this. Not like this. Control. Turning into a wolf will not help, just like it didn't help Dad... But her anger had nowhere else to go. It seethed and roiled and burned and she just wanted to explode out of herself and run nowhere, kill something, scream it all through sharp teeth into the world that did this to her.
Sam was mercifully quiet while she pummeled the instinct down, kept her limbs smooth and her nails blunt and her ears round.
Then he ruined everything.
"Don't blame Emily," he begged her.
Of course it was all about Emily and Emily's feelings now. Of course. He could have said "forgive me" like it mattered if she did, or "I'll try again to change it" like it was worth the attempt, or "it's my fault, I should never have looked at any girls besides you knowing this could happen", like he could make anything different by admitting that. But no. "Don't blame Emily."
Leah burst out of her skin and bolted out of the village as fast as gray paws and the fuel of raw wrath could take her, and Sam didn't try to follow.
Marcus didn't need to be told.
He could see it. He'd been looking right at the ribbon when she (couldn't think it). He'd been looking, and it - snapped. He'd never seen it happen before, but the meaning was (unthinkable) unmistakable.
By the time Aro returned to the group to tell the particulars, the life had drained out of Marcus like the ribbon's injury was his, like he was bleeding from it (like he could). He heard the story Aro delivered, and pulled out of his stupor long enough to deliver violence to the perpetrators, and then - stared at the ribbon again as it wavered in the air, torn edges interesecting the flames of the murderers. It didn't catch. It wouldn't burn.
It was going to be there as long as he was.
"Brother," Aro said in low tones, fingers a vise around Marcus's wrist. Marcus had barely noticed his own hand extending towards the fire where her murderers burned.
Marcus didn't turn to even look at Aro. "You lost her too. If anyone could understand -" he whispered, but no one could understand. Aro's connection to his sister had been a lovely thing, glossy purple twined with orange and gold, but it wasn't the same and it would be gone with her (don't think it) anyway. Only the ribbon remained.
"I understand," said Aro, gesturing at where his hand clutched Marcus's arm. "But this isn't the way. Let Chelsea help you."
Marcus knew that, the day before, this suggestion would have merited some derisive comment.
This fact, compared to other facts about yesterday he could dwell on, was not interesting.
He didn't answer Aro, and at length the mindreader pulled him away from the flames and towards the witch who made the light her plaything.
As expected, she could do nothing about the ribbon. So what she could do was not important.
Pera didn't need Brady.
That was the expert opinion of the Volturi who'd investigated, and so they killed him, right in front of her while he howled her name, and Chelsea played cat's-cradle with the air and Pera felt nothing except repulsed by the smell.
She'd liked the way he smelled, before.
Then Heidi came by the hallway, leading mesmerized humans behind her, and Pera crept towards the vision of loveliness even though she was drenched in the beige of unhidden things. But while Pera felt compelled to approach, she didn't need to unhide, or listen to Heidi's question, so she drew near Heidi, and then shot a hand forward to grab and enfold the nearest human in white and drink down the red. And another. And another.
She brought them back out, when they were dead and drained, and then hid herself again.
Heidi left. Pera followed her (hidden) and watched everyone else take their meals, and then Heidi released the mesmerizing power when the last human was gone, and Pera was free to go where she liked.
She found Aro, and touched his hand. His power was one that did work from sepia to white (at least on her), and he noticed her presence at once, and told her where to find the room she'd been given.
She went there.
It had some minimal furniture in it, and a new computer, which she booted up. She reset all the preferences and chose a password and found a more attractive desktop background and then she didn't know what to do.
So she stood, and waited.
It was easy to do nothing.
Eventually some people visited her room and she was told to hide them, and she did, and they came back some days later and she was told to unhide them, and she did.
She didn't exactly have anything else to do.
Leah didn't know how to ask.
In the end she didn't need to formulate a sentence. She just went up to Chelsea, head bowed, hands clasped behind her back, and said, "Chelsea - could you -"
"Oh, I was wondering if you were going to ask," Chelsea said, and her thumb sliced down through the air. "There you are. Better?"
Leah held her breath and gave Chelsea a hug, and then barely restrained herself from dancing out of the amphitheater, because it was better. It didn't hurt anymore. Sam was with Emily, of course Sam was with Emily, and it didn't hurt.
Leah's lingering problems with uncontrolled phasing evaporated overnight. She stopped picking fights with her brother, stopped goading her alpha into ordering her down, stopped bullying the puppies. Sam wasn't even there - he'd run off with Jacob - but if he had been, she could have been phased at the same time as him, and she wouldn't even have twitched when he thought of Emily.
Sam did show up, and Emily, and their baby, later on, and Leah welcomed her cousin-slash-sister like she always should have and didn't bat an eye when Sam called her Lee-lee. It was only a nickname. It didn't hurt.
Marcus didn't know how it happened.
But it had.
The ribbon was proof enough, and the way she looked at him.
"Didyme," he said, and she beamed and stepped into his embrace.
Pera didn't know how to start over.
She didn't know how to do anything, anymore; all her initiative was drained away, a casualty of Chelsea's relentless, extended manipulations, so careful, layer upon layer of redundancy and reinforcement to make sure she didn't leave because they had no other way to hold her. There was nothing real left; it was all paper-mache Chelsea had built up over the ruins of what she'd had before.
But there he was (all of a sudden, materializing like a bright light in a dark cellar, looking around desperately, but not speaking, staying silent).
And all Pera could think was, what if they kill him too?
She didn't know if she'd make this more likely, or less, by reaching out and touching him and hiding him with her power.
She'd done that with Brady too, and she'd had a few years and then they'd killed him, and she didn't care - she didn't, no matter how numb and wrong the place where caring should have been felt. She didn't care, except that she didn't know what to do after he'd died (did they have to do it in front of her?) and it was easy to do nothing. If she started over again, and they killed this one too... then... what?
She hid him anyway.
Razi knew her name, and he said he loved her, and he told her what was next, and she followed him away from Volterra without a second thought.
"So you're, what, the Imperial Matchmaker?" Leah asked the half-vampire bouncing in the chair across from her.
"Oh, oh no, it's not an imperial title. I just do this for fun!" Iseul replied.
"Fun," echoed Leah with a frown, glancing around at the office space. It wasn't really in the Florida capital, but it was close, not far from what was supposedly a vibrant community of hybrids. Leah'd never been before. She'd been in a holding pattern in La Push: Do what Becky says and play the strong, competent, experienced beta wolf. Don't neglect Seth or Cody. Visit Mom and Dad once in a while and try not to gag on the smell. Go see Emily and Sam and Paige and the boys once a week for brunch. Get up in the morning, find something to do, do it, go to bed.
Finally Emily, who thought everything wrong with any single person was the direct result of singlehood, had shoved a pamphlet in Leah's face (why was it always pamphlets?) and an airline ticket with it.
"Yes, it's so much fun," enthused Iseul obliviously. "I've been doing it for years and I'm really good at it! So. Tell me something about what you're looking for."
And Leah sighed and rambled about what she'd loved about Sam, and how it'd hurt when he'd left, and the fact that she hadn't even really wanted to go consult a matchmaker imperial or otherwise but her cousin had just about forced her, and how she didn't dare look twice at a wolf or a vampire and all the humans she knew were trying like mad to become vampires...
"Sounds like you need a hybrid boyfriend!" said Iseul. "Like me! Only a boy!"
Someone who was like Iseul, only a boy, didn't sound that appealing, but Leah said, "Hybrid works, I guess. You guys don't imprint or mate or anything?"
"Nope, we sure don't. And neither do wolf girls so this should work! Now hmm," said Iseul, tapping her chin and appearing to go through a mental filing cabinet of prospects.
"Just so you know, it's going to really hurt your limited aura of legitimacy if you try to set me up with someone who's related to you," Leah said, smirking.
"Really? Okay, I can cross out Nahuel and Joey then I guess," Iseul said, miming drawing lines through the air. "How much do you care about age?"
"Uh, I'm going to be really spooked by the idea of dating anybody less than half my age," Leah told the matchmaker. "I'm 42, I guess you can't tell."
Iseul frowned. "Except for people related to me - and your brother, who you probably don't want to date anyway and if you did you wouldn't need my help - I don't think there are any hybrid boys that old! Oh dear."
Leah ran her fingers through her hair and sighed. "I was mostly joking. If all the non-jailbait are -"
"They're not jailbait," corrected Isuel, wagging a finger. "Her Majesty worked it out that hybrids count as grownups when we stop growing, in the hidden laws."
Leah didn't like that term for clandestine amendments to human governments' regulations (she usually called them "leech loopholes" even though plenty of them applied to wolves), but she shrugged, conceding the point. "If all the hybrids ages 21 and up are on your family tree I guess I might as well meet them anyway."
"Great!" crowed Iseul. "Now, let's see. Kanimir's taken. Joey's too young. But there's my brother Nahuel, and my nephew Orlán." The half-vampire gave the werewolf a considering look, and said, "Nahuel was married before."
"What happened?" asked Leah, as Iseul obviously meant for her to do.
"They had a baby boy - Marco is grown up now and he lives near here - but his mommy almost died having him and they had to turn her," Iseul said gravely, "and she and Nahuel stayed married for a little while, but then she mated."
"Oh," said Leah softly.
Iseul perked up, solemnity falling off her instantly, and said, "So I'll call my brother and tell him he should come have lunch with you! It'll be so cute!"
Leah rolled her eyes, but gave Iseul a nod.
"So you're going to have a kid?" Rino asked his sister, alternating between looking at his laptop's camera and looking at the display on its screen. "How does that work?"
"Well, we can only do it with help," Didyme explained. "We've lodged a request with the Golden Coven that they connect us with anyone who might be willing to carry a baby for us."
"Oh, okay," said Rino. "Well, you need to bring him -"
"Her," interrupted Marcus.
"Huh?" Rino asked.
"We can choose, and have chosen to have a girl," Marcus said, looking steadily into the camera on his end, and Rino considered turning off his monitor; he still wasn't comfortable with his brother-in-law, even at a distance.
"Right, her, you need to bring her over here to meet the family in person," Rino said. "At least once."
"Of course we will," said Didyme.
"So you have a gender picked out, do you have a name?" Rino asked.
"Pleione," intoned Marcus.
"So you're going to hide her mate too, once they've tracked her down and she's been brought in. There's no telling when that will be - she's running from us and she's got herself shadowed from Alice, one way or another," Razi said. "We might just wait until she can't stand being unhidden while her mate's hidden and turns herself in. If that doesn't happen, I'll be called out to take her down when they've figured out where to send me, but we have until then." He nuzzled Pera's throat.
Pera's life was surprisingly little changed in its basic content. She moved around more, following the Golden Coven. She ate animals instead of humans, and later, she ate synthetics. But she still waited in her room (wherever that was at any given time), and hid and unhid people as she was directed.
Razi himself was all the difference in the world.
He worked irregular hours, going on quick missions for the Coven all over the world, but when he was done with one - or sometimes when he felt like a break in the middle of one - he came back to her. He brought her things - shells from every beach on Earth, a diamond he'd stolen centuries previous and stashed in Antarctica, photographs of everywhere. He sometimes reported the Coven's instructions to her, because this was generally preferable to hearing them from the Empress or whoever else might have delivered them, but he didn't expect anything of her. He only loved her, and she loved him back.
It was easy to be with him, and no one was planning to kill him, and if someone did try - well, they'd have a hard time of it, with her talented mate.
This time was better. (Sometimes the imperial wolves gave her nasty looks when she went about unhidden, like it was her fault she didn't miss Brady, or her fault that he'd died, but she ignored them.) This time it was safe.
A second chance.