Teren was shaking as I hurriedly grabbed the remote and shut off the details of poor Carrie's death. I could not believe what I'd just heard. It seemed surreal, like I was in the middle of some bizarre dream I couldn't wake up from. Teren had turned back to the screen, watching it intently like the image of her face was still blazed across it. I thought that if I was having a weird dream, he was having a nightmare.
Tentatively, I touched his shaking arm. "Teren?"
Not reacting to me, his face was still glued to the television, his mouth still parted in disbelief. As his pale eyes glassed over, I knew he was moments from breaking down. Sliding my hands up and down his arms, I gently whispered his name again. "Teren?"
Nika whined that I'd shut off the pictures of the fire that she'd thought was pretty, not understanding what had happened in that fire. "Mommy, I want to watch."
She hopped off the couch and darted over to the TV, her finger extended to touch the power button. I had a warning on my lips to tell her that TV time was over, but Teren snapped out of his stupor. "No, Nika! No more TV!"
She paused at the harshess in his tone, her bottom lip trembling. Teren didn't usually raise his voice to her. Still sitting on the couch, Julian frowned, his lower lip sticking out. "Daddy, you scared Nick." Raising his chin, he added, "Inside voice, Daddy."
Teren closed his eyes and swallowed. One tear squeezed out through his lashes and he immediately wiped it away. With a forced exhale, he slapped on a perfectly realistic, fake smile. Opening his eyes, he sank to his knee and held his arms out for Nika. She grinned, instantly flying over to him.
"I'm sorry I scared you, sweetheart, but we've had enough television for today." Pulling back, he cupped her cheek. With tears still in his eyes, he brightly told her, "Why don't you and Julian go upstairs and play with your blocks? You could build Mommy a castle. She'd love to see that."
His voice warbled as he spoke and one more tear slid down his cheek. My heart broke watching him try and contain his feelings from his children. Nika saw the tear though and ran her finger over it before Teren could brush it off. "Daddy, why are you crying?"
Teren's lip trembled as he shook his head. "Daddy's not crying. Daddy's just not feeling well, baby. Why don't you go upstairs so Daddy can rest?"
"Oh, I sorry, Daddy." Nika cupped his face and kissed his tear stained cheek. "There, all better." Teren swallowed and nodded, his smile strained. Nika's smile was genuine as she believed that she'd healed her father. "Love you, Daddy!"
As she pulled away, Teren choked out, "I love you, too."
Julian hopped off of the couch, patting Spike so the lounging dog would follow them. I watched Teren watch the trio head upstairs. The moisture in his eyes got heavier with every step they took away from him. When they were finally up in their bedroom, fighting over who got the red blocks and who got the green blocks, Teren exhaled heavily.
"I need air," he whispered.
He blurred away from me right after he said it. Blinking, I stared at the open space in the seamless wall of windows where he'd opened the nearly invisible slider to get outside. Feeling where he was at the edge of our property, I looked at the TV and sighed softly. I'd never in a million years have anticipated that happening.
Giving my husband a few moments of space, I slowly walked out after him. The backyard sloped down and standing on the patio, it nearly seemed as if you were standing on the edge of a small cliff. The view of the water here was breathtaking, along with the sunsets. Teren and I had spent many nights, pre-kids and after, watching the sun slowly slink below the horizon, bathing the world in colors ranging from burnt orange to pale pink. And there was nothing quite like witnessing a sunset through vampiric eyes. I was grateful near daily that I still got to have that.
Walking to the edge of the patio, avoiding tricycles, balls, and broken chunks of sidewalk chalk, I headed to the edge of the lawn. Walking around the landmines of outdoor toys that our kids had accumulated, I followed the hill to the base, where I could feel Teren. Walking around the shed we stored our lawn care equipment in, I found him leaning against the back side of it. Hands on his knees, he was hunched over, inhaling and exhaling as deeply as his dead lungs would allow him to.
Biting my lip, I slowly stepped towards him. Without looking up at me, he shook his head. "Did I do this? Is she dead because of me?" His eyes snapped up to mine then, fresh, wet tracks trailing from them. "Is she dead because she came out to see me?"
His voice hitched as fresh tears welled in his shimmering eyes, flowing down his cheeks as they got too heavy to hold back. Rushing over to him, I grabbed his head and pulled him to my chest. His arms immediately wrapped around me, cinching me tight.
"No, Teren, she died in an accident. That could have happened to anybody, anywhere. You aren't responsible for something like that." My eyes started stinging as I held him, wishing, as he'd once wished for me, that I could take his pain, feel it for him.
Starting to cry in earnest, he shook his head. "She wouldn't have been here if it weren't for me. She wouldn't have been anywhere near here, if I had done what I was supposed to do, if I had wiped her when we were kids."
Running my hands back through his hair, I whispered, "I'm so sorry, Teren. I know what she meant to you...I'm so sorry you lost a friend."
Tears ran down my cheeks as I imagined Carrie's last moments. Fire was a horrible way to go...I knew that from experience. My own tears started in earnest now as my mind mixed my fresh grief with my old grief, scouring open the scabbed wound of my father's passing and pouring Carrie's on top of it.
We held each other in the backyard for long moments, each of us alternating from crying to comforting as one would stop and one would start. Between fits of tears, I listened to my children playing upstairs. They were so involved in the project that Teren had assigned to them, that they weren't paying any attention to the sounds of us weeping.
Kissing Teren's head as he laid it on my shoulder, I listened to them starting to tell a story with their completed project. I smiled softly; the story involved Daddy rescuing a Princess from an evil King. As they told the story, it quickly became apparent that Daddy was a superhero who could do anything, even shoot laser bolts from his eyes. My smile widened at how they saw him. He was sort of my superhero too.
Teren sniffled and raised his head, listening to them too. Looking at me, his face sad but more composed, he smiled softly. "It's funny how they see me," he whispered.
I shook my head, running my thumb across his cheek, drying his tears. "No...it's not. Kids see the truth."
He laughed once, looking down. Sighing, he shook his head. "I don't understand what she was doing in Los Angeles." His head lifted, his eyes looking south, to where L.A. lay, miles below us. His brows bunching, he shook his head. "Great-Gran told her to stay in the city and then go home." His eyes shifted to me, his confused look not leaving him. "Why would she have been down there? It doesn't make any sense."
I shook my head and shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe she decided that she wanted to see Disneyland?"
Teren shook his head again, then sighed. "I should have kept a better eye on her, made sure she got home safely. I just...with Starla showing up and your conversion...Carrie somehow slipped through the cracks." Sighing again, he met my eye. "She was supposed to be home by now, asking her boss out."
Exhaling softly, I gave him a light kiss. "I know...I'm so sorry."
"Thank you," he whispered, resting his head on my shoulder. "We should go check on the kids."
Once back in the house, Teren paced until sunset. He wanted to speak with Halina, see if there was anything they'd messed up on when they'd given memories and suggestions to Carrie. He called his great-grandmother as soon as the last rays disappeared from the sky. She was at our doorstep fifteen minutes later, Imogen and Alanna a few minutes behind her.
While Imogen and Alanna taught the children how to play Chopsticks on the piano, Teren and I talked it over with Halina in the kitchen. Leaning against the counter, her svelte body wrapped in head to toe leather, she shook her head. "I told her to stay in the city..." she frowned, "she would have been compelled to do so."
Teren sighed, running a hand through his hair. "We didn't specify which city...maybe that's why she left?"
Halina looked up at him, shaking her head. "I'm sorry, Teren, I don't have the answers you're looking for." She furrowed her brow, clearly upset that her powers hadn't worked like she'd expected them too. "I don't know how this happened."
Crossing her arms over her chest, she had a look on her face that I had never, ever seen on her before. She seemed...unsure of herself. It was unsettling to see on someone typically so confident. But she relied on her abilities to protect her family. To raise money, if needed, or wipe minds, if needed. If she wasn't as in control of them as she believed...that could lead to all sorts of problems in the future.
Looking up at the two of us, she shook her head. "I'm going to head to Gabriel's." She shrugged, sighing. "See if he knows why I couldn't..." Pausing, she bit her lip. "See if he knows why this happened."
We nodded at her as she started to leave the room. Stopping in the doorway, she looked back at Teren. "I'm very sorry, Teren. I know she meant...something to you." Her eyes were sympathetic towards her grandson as he nodded at her. I smiled at seeing the genuine feeling in her. It would seem that being in love with Gabriel was softening up the vampire somewhat.
After a brief goodbye to the children and her daughter, Halina streaked away towards her boyfriend. I didn't know what Gabriel could possibly tell her about this, but I hoped the mixed genius knew something.
Not long after Halina's exit, Imogen and Teren's mother gave him compassionate hugs and soft condolences, then helped me tuck the children in before they darted back home. After they left, Teren called Hot Ben. Clearly hearing that his friend was distressed, Ben showed up at our house too.
Arriving with one bottled beer, the gorgeous man frowned. "I thought you'd want to share a drink, but I didn't have any blood, sorry."
Teren laughed once, smiling at the sentiment. He nodded him into the house, swinging the door open wide. Hot Ben stepped inside and gave his friend a brief hug. Pulling apart from him, he turned and gave me a hug too. Shivering as he pulled away, Ben gave me a lopsided grin. "Brrr, Em. I'm still not used to feeling that with you."
He shook his head a little, seeming like the entire concept of me dying recently was hard to wrap his head around. I understood; it was hard for me sometimes too. Aside from no longer having a heartbeat, I felt fine.
Giving Teren a warm hug goodnight, I left the men to their bonding. Upstairs, I listened to Teren warm up some blood; the smell hit me from all the way in our bedroom. Sitting down at the table, Hot Ben sighed and popped open his beer. "I'm so sorry, man. I don't really know what to say. I've never had anyone that I know die. Well, no one but you and Emma, I guess."
I smiled at Ben's comment as I got ready for bed, then frowned. Carrie's death wasn't really funny. A chair squeaked as Teren sat down. "It's alright. Thanks for coming over. It's surreal...like I'm having a bad dream. I keep waiting to wake up."
Ben sighed and shifted in his seat. "How about a toast? To Carrie Davids, a life lost too soon."
Teren sighed. "Yeah."
Hearing them clink glasses, I closed my eyes for a moment, giving her my own moment of silence. After a couple of long gulps, Ben swallowed and smacked his lip. "So, tell me about you guys. How long were you together? First time you hooked up? The good times you had. Stuff like that."
Teren paused, and I knew he was considering what hearing all of the details about his life with another woman would do to me. Smiling at his thoughtfulness, I whispered, "Go ahead, I'll give you your privacy."
I heard him exhale, then mumble, "Thank you, I love you."
"I love you too, goodnight."
Closing my soundproof door, I sighed softly as I laid my head against it. The absence of every external noise wasn't as comforting to me as it had been when Teren was in here with me, but I knew he needed this. He needed to talk about the woman he'd just lost, and in ways that he couldn't talk about her with me, ways I wouldn't want to hear about. But I knew where his heart was, and I felt no jealousy over the stories that were now flowing downstairs. Just a sadness was in me, a sadness that a part of his life had been tragically removed, and right after he'd cut her loose too. The universe had a cruel sense of humor sometimes.
Teren was pretty quiet for the next few days, mourning the passing of a friend, hoping her death didn't have anything to do with her coming out to see him. I knew he felt responsible anyway, no matter how many times I tried to reassure him that people got caught in horrible situations all the time. Something similar to this could have easily happened to her at home. Sometimes, it was just your time to go.
Gabriel came out one evening, to give Teren his condolences. Teren grilled him over and over for information on how a compulsion could go wrong. Sighing as he sat at our kitchen table with a cooling mug of blood, Gabriel shook his head. "I have never heard of such a thing. Once a suggestion is implanted, it stays until it is completed or removed."
For the hundredth time, Teren leaned back in his chair and sighed, running a hand down his face. "Maybe it was removed, then? Maybe another vampire compelled her to go down there?"
Gabriel shrugged, his emerald eyes appraising as he looked over Teren's grief, almost as if he was cataloging the effects that trauma had on a person. "It is possible that another vampire superseded Halina's orders, but there haven't been any purebloods in the city for awhile."
He raised an edge of his lip and a chill went through my dead body. Teren's past experiences with questioning reluctant vampires in the bay area had pretty much cleared out the city. Gabriel kept a tab on any that had lingered behind, just in case they thought to start something with us. Hopefully those people were more cautious over angering Gabriel than they were about getting back at Teren.
Putting a hand on my husband's thigh, I said, "Don't forget that what happened to her doesn't have to be supernatural. Humans outnumber vampires, by a lot, and we're not exactly a docile species either. Maybe she just found herself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Maybe she was taken down there against her will, against her compulsion?"
Teren lowered his head, nodding as he considered that possibility. Gabriel tapped his finger to his lips, his emerald eyes contemplative. Hating that everything bad in our lives always seemed to revolve around some psychotic person, I added, "You know what, maybe it wasn't even as bad as what we're thinking? Maybe she met someone and went to L.A. to spend time with him? Surely she'd be allowed to alter her plans if she wanted it badly enough? Then maybe she got trapped in the woods, hiking, just like the news said. Not everything that happens in life involves foul play."
Teren gave me a humoring smile, clearly not believing my cheerier version of events. Squeezing my hand on his leg, he exhaled sadly. "Either way, I did this to her. She was here because of me."
"No, she wasn't."
Teren and I both looked over to Gabriel, a small, sad smile on his beautiful face. "She was here because I had her entranced to be here." He raised a perfectly arched eyebrow. "She was here because of me, so I am responsible for this." He lowered his eyes, respectfully. "And I am very sorry, Teren. I never meant for any harm to come to your friend."
Looking unsure of what to say, Teren only nodded.
Teren was lost in thought, studying the table when Gabriel stood to excuse himself. Teren briefly looked up at him, nodded, then went back to studying the rings of color in his cold cup of blood. Biting my lip at my husband's mood, I stood with Gabriel.
"I'll see you out, Gabriel."
He nodded, smiling at me politely. Hearing him leaving, my children blurred down to say goodbye to their pseudo-grandfather. "Walking feet, children," I automatically reminded them.
Gabriel bent down to scoop them up, both twins' arms lacing around his neck. "Bye, Grandpa Gabby," they both exclaimed together.
Gabriel smiled at them in turn. "Goodbye, Nika, Julian." He gave each one a kiss on the head, then set them down. The emerald eyes tracked every movement they made as they shifted their attention to the family dog. When Nika rubbed a spot on Spike's back that made his leg twitch, Julian got a face full of tongue. Nika was the one that giggled though.
Shaking his head at the shared emotions, I could practically see Gabriel's mind logging the information. Placing myself between his vision and my children brought his attention back to me. Stepping towards him, I lowered my voice to near inaudible. "Are you studying them?"
I tried to keep the question polite, casual. Our family owed Gabriel too much for me to risk offending him. He smiled at me though, his head tilting as he answered. "Studying...watching, it's all one and the same to me."
A frown crept into my features that I couldn't stop. "Teren and I don't want them examined like rats in a lab."
Gabriel blinked at my answer. "I'm sorry if it bothers you. It was never my intention to upset you." Looking around me at them playing with Spike, he stepped forward. His voice laced with excitement, he murmured, "I can't help my interest though. Their bond is such a fascinating one. I've never seen anything like it. They feel what the other feels." He shook his head, his eyes wondrous. "Will that bond fade, or be passed to their children?" His deep green eyes swung back to mine. "It could completely change the nature of vampirism. Aren't you the least bit curious about that?"
I was about to answer him when Teren stepped into the room. "We don't want them examined," he whispered. "They are children, not experiments."
Gabriel straightened as he looked over at Teren. Sighing, his face clearly disappointed, he nodded. "Of course. They are your offspring...I will honor your wishes regarding them."
Teren walked over to me and slung his arm around my waist. Gabriel's eyes flicked between the two of us, then down at the twins starting a game of fetch with the dog. "Have a good evening, Emma, Teren. Again, I'm sorry for your loss." His tone was polite and respectful, but detached too. I had no idea how he really felt about our denying him access to our children. But some things we would just have to risk his disapproval on.
As my husband silently healed from his emotional wounds, I filled in my sister on everything that had happened. She shared my feeling that it wasn't necessarily something bad that had been done to Carrie. Of course, my sister understood horrible accidents all too well.
Sitting on my back patio, I enjoyed the views of the water with Ashley as Nika and Julian played tag on the lawn. A gust of wind blew across the yard, the smell of salt water strongly apparent to me. My sister too as she inhaled a deep breath. Looking over at her, I saw the slight frown on her lips as she absorbed the situation Teren was dealing with. But seeing her as well as I could, I saw a sparkle of happiness in her eyes that in no way matched her mouth.
Anxious to talk about anything other than death for awhile, I twisted my lips into a wry smile. "Seriously, what is up with you lately? I know you love your job and all, but it has to be more than that, right?"
Blushing furiously, she glanced up to the slight overhang of the patio above us. The much smaller deck was accessible through a bookcase lined hallway that led to Teren's office, a loft over the kitchen that looked down into the vaulted living room. The spiral staircase in the corner of the living room that led up there was a constant source of amusement to my children, who loved tossing bouncy balls down them.
Teren was in our home, working on an article for work, so my sister assumed that he was upstairs in his office. He wasn't though. Teren had taken to writing in our soundproof bedroom. He'd started doing that more and more lately, claiming that the quiet helped him think. I couldn't help but wonder though, if it was more his way of blocking out the world so he could grieve. Either way, I gave him whatever space he needed.
Curious over what she was going to say that she didn't want Teren to hear, I assured her, "He's in the soundproof room, he won't hear you."
She blushed even more and swung her eyes to the kids giggling in the far corner of the yard. "I can't believe you guys had a sex room built."
I smacked her shoulder and she laughed, taking a sip of her wine. "Quit calling it that. You make it sound like we had chains installed in the walls or something." I rolled my eyes as she laughed harder, coughing on her wine a bit. "It's just for privacy," I muttered sullenly.
Still blushing furiously, she whispered, "Well, I get it now, why you would want the...privacy."
I scrunched my brow, taking a sip of my version of wine. Drinking was a little tricky to do outside, since the act of blood on my tongue naturally dropped my teeth down. I had to forcefully pull them back up after each sip. Wouldn't want the neighbors to accidentally catch a peek of those.
Ashley looked at my confusion and smiled softly. Glancing at my kids in the yard, she whispered, "I finally tried that...intimate thing that you and Teren do so much, and I have to say...it's pretty incredible."
I had to slap a hand over my mouth to not spit blood all over her pretty white blouse. She meant sex, but didn't want to say it again in front of my super hearing kids. Swallowing and sputtering, I finally got the liquid down. "What? When? How?" I wasn't even aware that my sister was seeing someone, let alone sleeping with someone.
Ashley laughed as I wiped droplets of blood off my chin. "Well, I'm pretty sure you know the how part. As to when, a couple of nights ago."
I smiled at her, shaking my head. "I didn't even know you were seeing somebody. Who's the guy?"
Smiling as she looked down into her glass, the embarrassment in her cheeks shifted to the rosy flush of love; my eyes could easily tell the difference. "This guy at work, Christian. I've been seeing him for awhile now. We've been taking things really slow, but the other night it just felt so right, so..."
She shrugged and looked up at me, slight tears in her eyes. They were in mine too as I set my blood down and hopped out of my seat to give her a hug. It wasn't that my sister had finally had sex, really, if that was all she cared about then she could have easily found someone, somewhere. It was that my sister a finally found love. That was infinitely more important.
Squeezing her as tight as I could without breaking her, I whispered, "I'm so happy for you. Why didn't you tell me about him?"
As I pulled away from her, finally letting her breathe, she sighed. "Well, I wasn't sure where it was going and then..." She bit her scared lip as her eyes darted over my face. Shaking her head, she shrugged. "I wanted to make sure he was in love with me before I introduced him to you."
Sitting back down, my eyes went to my glass of deep red blood on the table. My finger absently reached up to stroke a retracted fang. Suddenly I wondered just how freakish my sister saw me. But even if I wasn't a monster in her eyes, she would have to be careful with anyone she brought into our family. Just like with Tracey, that person would probably never be allowed to know the truth.
Seeing my contemplative expression, she chuckled. "No, not because of the fangs, Emma." I looked up at her and she shrugged again. Shaking the head that would only half grow hair, she whispered, "Because you're...beautiful."
Guilt flooded through me. "Oh, Ash..."
She smiled again, tears in her eyes but joy in her expression. "Don't, it's fine, Em." Beaming, she sighed happily. "Besides, I'm great, and he adores me...for me. He doesn't even see the scars." Smirking, she tilted her head. "Well, that's not true. It's sort of why he first noticed me."
I blinked, scrunching my brow again. "Huh?"
She laughed then took a sip of her wine. "Christian's a doctor in the burn unit. He's one of the doctor's working on the artificially grown skin I told you about." She smiled softly, thinking about her man. "He's pretty confident that he can someday even out my scar lines, make my face less...noticeable." Shaking her head, her tears got even more evident. "But he says it doesn't matter to him. He says it doesn't bother him. He says I'm beautiful," she whispered.
Holding her hand across the table, I felt my own eyes water. "Ash...you scored yourself a doctor?"
Laughing, she wiped away a stray tear. "I did." We both chuckled for a moment, turning to watch my kids toss clumps of grass on each other. With their laughter bouncing around the yard, Ashley quietly said, "I know you worry about me, Em, but I'm happy...really happy." She paused for a long moment, then added, "Even being just a human."
The way she said it brought my attention back to her. With the way her lip was twisted into a wry grin and the remnant of her eyebrow was arched, I knew that she knew what I'd asked Teren to do to her, so very long ago, when I'd been very naive. "Oh...you know about..."
Both her eyebrows rose as she nodded. "Yeah, I know that you asked Teren to change me. He told me awhile ago."
My eyes flicked up to where my usually secretive husband was hiding away. Vowing to speak to him later about the unspoken agreement that things between a husband and wife were sacred, and not repeatable, even if they happened before marriage, I grimaced. "Ash..."
Her hot hand in my cold one squeezed it tight. "No, I get it. You wanted me to be beautiful, like you." She shook her head, the hair swirling around her one shoulder identical in color to mine. "I'm touched by the offer, Emma, but I don't need it." Smiling, she looked towards where the ranch was, where I could feel the rest of Teren's family. "As much as I like Halina, I don't want her life." Her matching brown eyes came back to me. "I like mine. I like the work I'm doing. I like the man I'm seeing. I love my mutant sister-"
I straightened, my mouth dropping open. "Hey."
Ashley laughed and squeezed my hand. "I love her undead family." Her eyes shifted to the yard, where my tired children were laughing and panting, covered in tiny blades of grass. "And I absolutely adore my niece and nephew." Looking as satisfied as her words made her seem, she shrugged. "My life is wonderful, Emma."
Smiling at her, I again wished for her wisdom, patience, and acceptance. "Yeah, yeah it is."
Feeling my husband reemerge from his cave, Ashley and I raised our glasses in a toast. "To wonderful lives," I said softly. She nodded, touching her glass to mine.
Teren stepped on the patio right as we finished with our sip. His face tired, his expression worn, he looked between the two of us. Smiling softly, he shook his head. "What are we celebrating?"
I was about to tell him that my sister had a boyfriend, but Ashley beat me to it. Maybe seeing that Teren needed a pick-me-up, her answer was more...descriptive than usual. Smiling brightly, she exclaimed, "I lost my virginity."
Teren smiled genuinely and looked away. I grinned at seeing a natural smile on him again and mentally thanked my sister for forgoing her own embarrassment and saying it that bluntly. Chuckling softly, he swung his eyes back to her. "Well...congratulations."
Laughing softly as he seemed embarrassed himself, he gave her a warm hug. Well, warm in sentiment. To her, he was actually quite cold, cold as me. Exhaling like a weight was releasing from his shoulders, he sat down next to me. "Tell me all about him," he said encouragingly, like he also wanted to talk about something that had nothing to do with death.
Ashley nodded and started going over how she'd first met him. Feeling Teren's melancholy finally starting to lift, I stood up and shifted over to his lap. His arms wrapped around me as he laid his head on my shoulder. Threading my fingers through his hair, I closed my eyes and listened to my sister's voice. My sister's and my children's.
In a whisper that only Teren and I could hear, I heard Nika ask Julian, "What's vir..gen..ty?"
Biting my lip, I tried not to laugh. Teren couldn't stop himself. He laughed so hard he made everyone else around him laugh too. Feeling the stress release in his merriment, I loved my sister all the more.