I dreamt of my children as I slept, of what their future might be like. I imagined the partners that they'd meet and fall in love with. I imagined Gabriel supplying them with as much life-suspending juice as was necessary for them to live as mostly humans for as long as they wanted. Unlike us, our children could take their time having their own kids. It delighted me endlessly that there were no biological alarm clocks hovering over their heads. They could have children whenever they wanted, or never at all. I was fine with that too. Just so long as they were happy...and safe.
I was just picturing an adult Julian standing beside an adult Nika, on what looked like her wedding day, when a harsh scraping along my neck started bringing me back to awareness. Groaning as my body fought against stirring, I brushed the irritant away.
Teren laughed in my ear. "Wake up, Emma. Time to start your day."
I flung an arm over my head, sort of hating my husband at the moment, even though he was nicer to wake up to than an alarm clock. He laughed again at my displeasure, the back of his finger running down my cheek. "You're going to be late, sweetheart."
I peeked an eye open, cringing at the bathroom light he'd left on for me. "Tell me again, why I went back to work?"
He smiled and shook his head. "Glutton for punishment?" He shrugged. I twisted my lips at him and narrowed my eyes. Chuckling, he shook his head again. "Because you are an intelligent, beautiful, confident business woman, who loves her job and loves to feel good at it." He raised an eyebrow at me, waiting for me to object to his summation. When I didn't, he added, "And you like turning me on in those amazingly hot, little lacy camisole things you wear."
I moved to smack his chest but he'd already blurred away from me. Smartass. At least that was one thing that hadn't changed since the very beginning. Teren was still a playful little tease.
Sighing, I tossed off the covers and stood up. As I still wasn't wearing anything, having fallen sleep immediately after our session last night, his eyes widened and he stopped smiling. Loving that my body still affected him, even after carrying and passing two children through me, I sashayed in front of him. Loving that he wasn't even bothering to pretend that he was interested in my face, I huskily said, "Fine, I'm up."
He peeked up at me then, the grin on his mouth devilish. "I think I'd prefer it if you were back down."
His hands ran over my flat stomach and for a moment, I felt worshipped by his caress. I'd worked hard after the twins to get my regular body shape back, hitting the gym every chance I got. And having vampiric speed and strength, let me tell you, getting in shape is harder than it seems. I had to constantly remind myself to run at a normal pace. And since weights did nothing for my enhanced muscles, I'd had to do yoga and Pilates to firm myself back up. But eventually, all of the effort had paid off and my curves were even tighter than before. I loved knowing that if and when I ever decided to stop taking Gabriel's shot, my body would be fit for eternity, much like Teren's.
As his hand on my stomach delved lower, I blurred into the bathroom. Turning the water on, I clearly heard, "Hey, I wasn't done!"
Laughing, I muttered, "Yes, you were. I don't want to be late, remember?"
Hearing that, even over the forceful flow of water beside me, he stepped into the room, leaning on the doorframe. "I believe I've told you this before...but, I can be really fast."
I threw him a smirk and shook my head again. Men. Even though Teren was more romantic than most, he'd still chuck it all out the window for a quickie, a super quickie, no less.
"Tempting...but no." I opened the door and quickly stepped into it before he decided to throw the charm back on. If he really wanted to, he could have me laid across our mammoth bed with just a few whispers of devotion, both of our jobs be damned. He grinned as he watched me through the glass, like he was well aware of the power he held.
Shaking his head, he sighed dramatically. "Fine. I'll see you tonight. Tuesday dinner, right?" He cocked an eyebrow and I paused in wetting my hair. It was so sexy when he did that. Clearing my head, I nodded. "Yep. Mom will bring the kids."
He nodded and waved goodbye, then headed downstairs. I tracked him while I went about washing my hair. Long ago ditching the too fragrant shampoos, I'd gotten one that was technically considered unscented, by human standards anyway. To me, it just smelled like a fresh sea breeze. It was a soothing scent, having lived near the ocean my whole life, so I'd readily adapted to it.
As I scrubbed up some bubbles, I felt Teren leave the house. A slight pull of sadness swept through me as he engaged the tension in our bond. As creator and child, although I hated thinking of myself as Teren's child, we had a bond that was unique to us. In the beginning, it had been a nearly primal need to be together. Embarrassingly strong, and at times, inappropriately graphic, it was designed to keep sires near their newly created vampires. The intensity of it varied, depending on what the connection was before the turning, and since Teren and I had been married...well, it was like a four alarm fire being kindled every time we started coming towards each other.
Luckily for us, the bond had eased up considerably over the years. Now, it was more a feeling of warmth and love, and less a feeling of, 'oh God, I need in your pants right now.'
I smiled as I rinsed away the lightly scented suds. I did sort of miss the passion, but I definitely didn't miss ripping off my shirt in front of Hot Ben. On my top ten list of the most embarrassing moments in my life, that one was right up there.
It had happened not too long after the twins had been born, when Teren had been spending the day with Ben. They'd gone fishing together and when Teren had tried to return Ben to his car, our bodies had had other plans. We'd ended up having sex in the front of Ben's SUV. He'd barely run out of there in time to not accidentally witness the whole show. He had not been happy with us, although, months later he'd confessed, to my horror, that he had liked the peep show.
Shaking my head at how crazy that intense pull had been, I stepped away from the shower and turned the water off. I heard each lingering drop fall as I wrapped a warm, plush towel around me. I also heard the beginnings of rustling, as the other two members of the house also started stirring.
After drying and curling my hair, I dressed in my favorite work outfit, and apparently Teren's as well. Adjusting my trim pantsuit and the clingy, plunging camisole underneath my jacket, I felt my husband's presence stop its movement away from me. He was at work, probably sitting down at his desk to pop out another fantastic article on the highs and lows of city life in beautiful San Francisco. If only Gate Magazine was aware of how undead their life and style writer was. The irony of it always brought a smile to my face.
After I fixed my shoes and made last minute adjustments to my hair, I put on the locket that I always wore to work with me. Teren had gotten it for me for my birthday, right after we'd learned that I'd survive long enough for the twins to be born. The gold heart folded out into four pictures, the two of us and our two children. I loved having the reminder of my family around my neck during the times when we were apart. A visual reminder to go with the physical reminder constantly binging their position to me in my head.
As I smiled at the tiny, sleeping infants in the locket, I heard Nika yawn and say to her twin, "Morning, Julie."
He in turn, yawned as well. "Morning, Nick."
I smiled at the nicknames they'd given each other. They'd started doing that nearly from the first time they'd started speaking. It was such a personal thing between the two of them, that no one else in the family used the shortened names. That was something just between them.
Standing in my empty room, I said, "Good morning, children. Hurry and get up so we can go to Grandma's."
There were excited squeals and a flurry of movement as they rushed to do what I'd asked. They loved visiting my mom and she insisted on having them. Since a traditional daycare was sort of out for us, since they were still learning to hamper their abilities, my mom had completely stepped up. Teren and I both told her repeatedly that Alanna and the girls would watch them, but she'd bristled at the idea of us driving so far each day out to the ranch, when she was right here in town. And since she'd retired, just so she could be available to watch them, it sort of made it hard to say no to her offer.
But she was so great with them that mainly, it was a relief. Someone I loved and trusted was taking care of them every day. It was such a burden lifted from my shoulders that I thanked her every time I saw her. Teren did too, although, I think he was also compensating her monetarily for her time. I was pretty sure of that when I noticed her brand new flat screen TV. But I didn't say anything about it. Teren's family had money and if he wanted to share some of that with mine, as a thank you for protecting and caring for our brood, I wasn't about to question him about it.
Feeling the pressure of a time clock ticking away in my head, I blurred down the stairs to get the children's breakfasts ready. When I blurred back up the stairs, grateful that I'd perfected speed movement enough that I no longer tripped on my lightning fast feet, I dashed to the kids' room.
I smiled as I watched Julian attempt to get a shoe on Nika's foot. They'd been practicing dressing themselves and were sort of getting good at it. Nika had chosen a bright pink and yellow striped dress with a pair of teal and orange, polka-dotted pants underneath it. The dress was on backwards. Julian had gone for a button-up shirt, but he'd only gotten one of the buttons to close - the bottom one to the top one.
Chuckling at them, I kneeled down by Nika and pulled off the outrageously clashing pants. Twisting her dress around, I finished putting on the little black Mary Janes that Julian had been trying to mash on her foot.
Julian frowned at me as I fixed his shirt. "Nick liked the dot pants, Mommy."
I looked back at Nika and she did have a slightly sullen look on her face. As she watched me watch her, a genuine pout graced her lip. It was one of those pouts that only toddlers could make adorable. Containing a smile that Julian had stood up for her feelings, having felt them himself, I tilted my head at her. "Do you want to wear those today, honey?"
She nodded, her pout getting bigger. Shaking my head, I put the pants back on her. Sometimes, you just had to let children feel like they were in control of their own lives; it was good for their self esteem. I'd read that somewhere.
Finished with the dressing portion of the morning routine, I quickly got them to eat their breakfast, and then we were out the door. Strapping them into the back of my cheery little, bright yellow VW bug, I pulled out of the drive. Smiling as our warm, comfortable home faded from my view in the mirror, I listened to my children sing a Russian nursery song. Halina had taught it to them and they loved practicing the strange enunciation.
I found myself humming along to the song, which I believe was about a boy drinking vodka, no joke, but I ignored that as best I could since even English nursery rhymes weren't exactly innocent. Jack and Jill falling down a hill? Humpty Dumpty breaking beyond repair? Ring Around the Rosie was said to be about the plague for goodness sake! But the Russian tune was catchy, and completely stuck in my head by the time I stopped the car.
Staring up at my mom's place, a cute little one story rambler that she used to share with my sister, Ashley, before Ash had moved into my old place, a surge of homecoming hit me. Even though the place wasn't technically my childhood home, that one having burned down when I was young, this place had memories of me and Mom and Ash, and now memories of my children. That firmly cemented the building into my heart.
Unfastening the kids, I popped Julian on my hip and grabbed Nika's hand. At times like these, I was grateful for my enhanced strength. Without breaking a sweat, I could have held both of them, the bag of all their stuff, my overloaded purse, and probably, if I had another arm, the family dog. That sort of strength was a little suspicious though, so I kept it to one child at a time.
Mom greeted us at the door, her plump face alive with joy at seeing her two favorite little people in all the world. I handed her Julian as I picked up Nika. Nika squirmed to be in Grandma's arms too, but I knew Mom could definitely only handle one at a time. "Morning, Mom," I said brightly as I stepped inside.
"Morning, honey," she said back, nuzzling Julian's face. He smiled and Nika giggled, feeling how much her brother liked that. I set her down and she blurred to her grandma's side. I looked behind me, but I'd luckily shut the door automatically. Squatting down a little, I looked her in the eye. "Not so fast, Nika."
She looked down, guiltily. Teren and I urged them to use human speed all the time, so she knew better and felt bad for it. Julian reached down to pat her shoulder sympathetically, feeling her guilt. "I sorry," she said softly.
My mom harrumphed at me. "It's just me here, Emma. It's fine."
I sighed and rolled my eyes at her. Once she had accepted the oddness of me and my family, she'd fully embraced my children's gifts. While she understood the importance of secrecy, she was also a proud grandma, and wanted her grandchildren to exalt in what made them unique.
"Mom, you know they need to be careful about stuff like that. Please don't let them do it."
She sighed and placed a kiss on Julian's head before setting him down and picking up Nika. With a little effort, she lifted and squeezed the beaming girl. "I know. I just hate that they can't be as...special as they are."
I tilted my head as I watched her cuddling with vampires. "I know...but it's for their safety." I bit my lip, thinking of the assortment of different people out there that would harm these two beautiful specks of sunshine if they could, just because of what they were.
Seeing Mom struggle with Nika's weight, eventually setting her down, I frowned. "Your leg still bothering you?" She'd been having problems off and on with her leg going out on her. She swore it was nothing more than the aging process, but it worried me anyway.
She brushed aside my concern with her hand. "Completely normal getting old stuff." She looked at me oddly for a second. "Nothing you'll have to worry about, I suppose?"
Mom and I had never talked about all of the side effects of what Teren had done to me. She generally didn't talk about it at all, and we'd never sat down to have the 'my heart is going to stop, but I'll be fine' speech. That day wasn't here yet anyway, and I was in no way ready to have that conversation with her. I'd become much more sympathetic to how hard that conversation must have been for Teren to have had with me, ages ago.
I looked away at her comment, down to my children darting off to watch cartoons. "Yeah, well, let me know if they start to be too much." I looked back at her, concern in my voice. "I know they can be...challenging, because of what they can do..."
She shook her head and smiled. "I'm happy to do it, and I'll keep at it as long as I can." She smiled wider. "As long as I can still chase after them, I want to be the one watching them."
I gave her a tight hug. She inhaled a bit and I relaxed my super strong grip. "Well, thank you, so much. It means the world to Teren and me that they have somewhere safe to go."
I pulled back from her as she shook her head at me. "The two of you are so wonderful with them. You are doing such a great job." Putting a hand on my cheek, her brown eyes slightly moister, she softly said, "I'm so proud of you, Emma. Both of you."
I nodded, my matching eyes equally moist now. "Thank you." I sniffled, then flicked a glance at my children laughing at Count Dracula on Sesame Street. He was naturally their favorite character. "I should get to work."
Mom hugged me again, then with one last quick hug for my kids, I walked back to my car and left them for the day.
That had been a hard thing to do when I'd first gone back to work, but I'd wanted some part of my old life back. Work, while at times exceedingly boring and monotonous, was also my final connection to normalcy. There, I wasn't Emma, the mixed vampire married to an undead vampire, raising two partially vampiric children. No, there I was just Emma, super employee.
And that's what I had become. One thing I'd discovered early on was how beneficial my new skills were at my job. No one in the office could type faster than me. No one in the office could pull reports faster than me. No one in the office could do anything faster than me...literally. To them, since returning from my maternity leave, I'd become this indispensible person that everyone relied on to get things done.
As I pulled into the parking lot of Neilson, Sampson and Peterson, the prosperous accounting firm that I worked for, I smiled at remembering my first day back after the twins. As my old boss, Clarice, had warned me, she'd filled my position and I'd had to start again at the bottom. Grudgingly, I had gone to my new spot...in the mail room. I hadn't been there two months before my reputation for quickness started to precede me, and I was quickly promoted out of there.
Of course, my super hearing also played an invaluable role. I'd sort of become known as the "psychic" one, since I had an uncanny knack for bringing people what they needed, before they'd even asked for it. It was one of the few benefits of being able to hear nearly every conversation going on in the building.
Once I'd learned how to shut out the pockets of conversations that I didn't need, I found that I could hone in on the conversations that I did need. Say, Mr. Peterson muttering to himself that he needed a tax statement on an important client. I could then walk in and hand it to him, explaining that I knew he had a meeting with that client later and I figured that he would need it. Moves like that tended to impress bosses, and within the year, I was back to my old job.
Well, no, that wasn't exactly true. What with my super efficiency and my uncanny "psychic" abilities, I was no longer the secretary's secretary. I was no longer underneath Clarice. I was Mr. Peterson's second executive administrative assistant. I was her equal.
She hated that.
Smiling as I walked down the corridor to my new office, an actual room instead of a life-draining cubicle, I waved at my friends and coworkers. Pausing beside one of the cubicles, I looked down at my assistant. Yeah, I had my very own assistant.
"Good morning, Tracey," I told my friend brightly.
She smiled over at me as she stuffed her purse in the tight desk drawers. I smiled wider, happy that I now had a closet for my behemoth of a bag. "Morning, Emma. How are those adorable kids of yours?"
I sighed contently, taking a second to mark where I felt their presence in my mind. Picturing them climbing all over my mother, I shook my head. "They are wonderful, perfect little angels."
Tracey scrunched her beautiful pixie face. "I miss them. Ben and I need to come over soon and spoil them rotten."
I laughed at that. She and Hot Ben had made a real go of their relationship. Tracey even had a full carat sparkler on her ring finger to prove it. I'd had to feign ignorance when she'd told me that he'd proposed. As he'd been talking with Teren about it for over a month, I'd known exactly where, when, and how it was going to happen. I'd even been the one to suggest the place - the diner where they'd gotten back together after momentarily splitting up, for the second time.
The separation had been brutal on both of them, and was sort of Teren's and my fault. Ben had walked in on an....intimate moment and had discovered what Teren was. It had eaten Ben up inside, the constant fear, and he'd distanced himself from the love of his life. At that diner, he'd opened up to her and they'd gotten back together. Sure, he'd been lying his ass off to her about why he'd been distant, but she didn't need to know the real reason for his turn around.
But, regardless of the reasons behind the split and make up, the memory of that afternoon was a big one to her, a wonderful one, one that she still brought up to this day. I knew that him proposing to her there...would be perfect.
I sighed at her comment. "Yeah, we'll have to arrange something really soon." To her, I only smiled widely, but in my head, I was remembering all of the preparations that had to happen before someone not in the loop, like Tracey, could come over.
The kids would be sat down individually and warned about what they could and could not do, what they could and could not say. It was exhausting for them, it was exhausting for us. When they were younger, we didn't let anyone come around unless Halina was there. Since she could do adjustments to people's memories, one perk of full vampirism that Teren and I didn't have, she eased a lot of the tension in the air. If something weird did happen, she could evaporate the memory in the blink of an eye.
But Hot Ben was actually handy too when it came to distracting Tracey. When she'd commented on something weird she'd seen once, he'd expertly shifted the conversation around to their upcoming nuptials. Any memory of the kids doing something sort of odd was immediately lost on the bride to be. After that moment, we'd all sort of agreed that Ben would come with Tracey whenever a visit with the twins was in order.
Waving goodbye to Tracey, I headed over to my office, eager to start my day. As my office was situated directly in front of Mr. Peterson's office, I shared it with his other assistant, Clarice. She was there, of course, as I breezed through the door. Maybe wanting to feel secure in her own job, she had started coming in fifteen minutes before me, and leaving fifteen minutes after me. It still didn't help; I got way more done in a day.
As I waved at the sour, rotund woman, I felt a little bad for her. I did have a supernatural advantage that she'd never, ever, have. But then I remembered all of the years of abuse I had suffered under her scowling, disapproving eyes, and I let the guilt slide right off me. What was that that they say? Karma is a bitch.
She adjusted her June Cleaver pearls as I tucked my satchel into my closet. "Good morning, Clarice. How are you on this fine day?" I tried to keep the smirk out of my voice but it was just so hard not to tease her.
"I don't have time to chit-chat with you, Emma." She raised a penciled-in eyebrow at me. "Some of us have work to do around here."
Nodding my agreement as I sat down at my wide-open, spacious desk, I watched her grab a stack of papers from her inbox and march them out to the cubicles, where I knew her assistant was about to be loaded down with copying and collating in triplicate. Poor thing. The woman who had my old job was a slip of a girl, not really cut out for the harshness of this environment, especially under Clarice's dictatorship. I gave her another six months before she cracked, tops.
Smiling that I no longer had to fake my cheeriness at being here, I listened for my boss through his door as I rapid-fire read through my emails. When I heard him muttering that he was dying for some coffee, and he really needed to be looking at the Johnson's report, I chuckled lightly and went about getting both for him.
Yes, sometimes being a vampire was exceedingly handy.
Feeling a prideful sense of accomplishment as I completed my work day, I hopped in my car to meet up with my family. The Tuesday night dinners had kept going on after the twins' births. If anything, they had sort of felt even more important after that event. We were all so busy now, and it was a good way to put the brakes on the world and reconnect with each other, if only for an hour or two.
Driving over, I popped in a CD that I couldn't listen to if I had the kids in the car. Not that the music was dirty or anything, but the song did have a couple of F-bombs in it, and I didn't need three-year-olds repeating that kind of stuff. I mean, at least until they were petulant teenagers and truly understood the swears that they were spouting at their overprotective parents. God, I was not ready for that day. I didn't think I'd ever be ready for that day.
Pulling into the cozy little cafe that was an extended home for me and my family, I smiled at seeing Teren's Prius already there. I wasn't surprised, since I knew with absolute certainty that he was in the far corner of the building, not moving, and that our children were about a mile away, closing fast. No, what had me smiling was the peace that had started spreading through my body when I'd started moving towards his direction.
It was like stepping down into a hot tub for the first time, that warmth soaking into every muscle, down to the bone, relaxing every part of me, parts that I hadn't even realized were sore. It was a warm fire after being out in the cold all day and no matter where it happened, our reconnection was always like...coming home.
I sighed happily, feeling Teren's direction shifting towards me, to meet me at the door most likely. The languid warmth seeped throughout my body as I walked towards him. Slow and soothing, I felt only utter contentment and joy. We usually met now with a mellow kiss and whispered words of affection, and I was grateful that the dial had been turned from boiling hot to simmer. While the smoking hot connection had been electrifying when we could ride it's coattails to multiple satisfying releases, it had, more often than not, been annoying.
The very first time we'd all attempted to get back together for our dinners, Teren had been running late, having had a meeting with his editor. Everyone at the diner that had gotten to know my family over the years, had oohed and aahed at the babies when I'd brought them in, virtually ignoring me and any oddities that I might have had, like, a fang slightly elongating as I cooed at my son, having accidently relaxed my hold on them for a micro-second.
We'd gotten the twins' car seats safely propped up on wooden high chairs, and were all watching them stare at the toys dangling almost in their faces. I was watching Julian's pale eyes track a black and white ball when I'd felt my husband draw near.
Knowing that I could not lose control in the middle of the restaurant, I'd begged my sister to start talking about something. Noticing and understanding my condition, she'd started rambling about her schoolwork and how she was inching her way up to the top of her class. I'd struggled to ask intelligent questions, but I'd had to sit on my hands to stop myself from tearing apart the table top.
Breathing noticeably heavier, my mom had eventually asked me what was wrong. Since I couldn't talk long enough to explain, and since Mom knew what I was anyway, Ashley started filling her in on my situation. Mom thought it was weird. I agreed.
I'd whimpered and bit my lip when I felt him in the parking lot. Ashley had held my arm as I sat beside her, looking like she was afraid I was going to blur out of the room to rush to him. Honestly, I'd wanted to, and as I was sitting on the edge of the bench seat, I could have. I can clearly still remember imagining the chaos that would have created, the diners seeing a streak of a person rushing by them. I'd shifted my gaze to my children then, to distract my growing desire. I would not risk them by exposing myself. Not for this. I was stronger than that.
When I'd finally felt him walk into the cafe...that's when things had gotten embarrassing. He'd sped walked over to me and I'd dashed out of my seat to crash into his arms, like we were lovers reuniting in some sappy home-from-the-war movie. Then we'd started ravishing each other right there beside the tables, while shocked patrons surely gawked at our fondling hands and eager mouths. My mom had sputtered reprimands, and my sister had had a serious attack of the giggles, but it was eventually our longtime waitress, Debby, who had pried us apart and threatened to kick us both out of there if we ever did that again.
Laughing at the memory, I watched him gallantly swing open the door for me right as I approached it. His timing would have seemed miraculous, if anyone had noticed. "Thank you, sir," I told him huskily, pausing to place a light kiss on him before sweeping past.
"You're welcome, my lady," he laughed back, grasping my hand as he led us to a corner table in the back.
The memory of our embarrassing encounter fresh in my head, I flushed a little when Debby popped over to say hello. The waitress had probably forgotten the odd greeting, but my vampiric mind held onto stuff like that. Teren tilted his head at the rush of blood in my face, but didn't say anything. I shoved down the lingering uncomfortable emotion and greeted her warmly. We really had done the best we could with that intense connection.
Squishing close together in the semi-circle bench seat, I leaned against Teren's cool side and focused on the feeling of my children approaching me. Teren kissed my head, whispering that he missed me. I clenched his hand, whispering that I missed him too.
Resting my eyes, I let the sound of the world flow through me. But for low, even, faked breaths, Teren was silent as he rested beside me, but the others around were not. Clangs and curses streamed from the kitchen, laughter and whispered conversations echoed from the customers, and the hostess that had greeted Teren and I at the door, was commenting to her friend about how nicely shaped Teren's backside was. Teren chuckled at the same time I did, clearly having heard that as well. I lifted my head to smirk at him. He only smiled back at me, shrugging his shoulders.
Then the conversations shifted to hushed mutterings of, "Oh, wow, look at that," and, "Ugh, grab a bag, I'm eating." A low growl rumbled from my chest before Teren jerked my hand, shaking his head. I forcefully stopped the reaction, but I knew who the comments were about and it boiled my blood.
My sister had just entered the cafe, and she always garnered a reaction from people. Having been caught in the fire that had destroyed our childhood home, Ashley was horribly scarred, head to foot. The burns had been so bad that she'd had to have several painful surgeries to heal properly. As a result, her body was blanketed with overlapping skin graft lines. She was a patchwork of imperfection, and in a society that placed more emphasis on external beauty than internal beauty, she stood out.
Of course, not everyone who saw her reacted with vitriol. In fact, most people's comments were sympathetic or encouraging, commending her for her bravery in the face of adversity. But the negative ones were the ones that I picked up on, since they greatly bothered me. I was tired of my sister being considered different, being noticed just for her appearance. It had bothered me so much at one point that I had asked Teren to change her, just to heal her. I knew how stupid and dangerous that request was now, having gone through a change myself, but at the time, I'd just wanted her to walk down the street without a thousand stares following her.
But as Teren had told me once, she was happy, and as she bounded to the table, a slight spring in her hobbled walk, I thought she looked happier than usual. Tilting my head as she carefully sat down and scooted around to sit beside me, I asked, "You seem extra chipper, something up?"
Ashley shook her head, the half of it that could grow hair swishing around her shoulder. "Just had a good day at work. You should see the way this little girl there idolizes me." Ashley's eyes teared up as she shook her head again. "I give her hope."
That made my eyes tear up too. Ashley had finished school, and being in the top of her class, had gotten the dream job she'd wanted in the burn unit ICU at San Francisco General Hospital. She was more than just another nurse there, she was a living, breathing example of what the patients there could be, if they just plowed through the horrible fate that they'd been given. I could not have been any prouder of my sister, and once again, I wished to be just like her when I grew up.
"That's amazing, Ash. You're amazing." I reached around her body, hugging her to me, and felt Teren wrap an arm around her too. He adored her as well, completely understanding what it was like to feel different.
Ashley laughed and flushed under my praise. "Yeah, well..." Her brown eyes perked up as she spotted what I'd already felt. "No...they are the amazing ones."
I released her and looked over at the two boisterous toddlers clutching my mom's hands as they came up the aisle. The trio were a happy sight, Nika still in her mismatched outfit, Julian's mouth covered in some sort of chocolate treat. I shook my head at the spoiling grandmother that my mom had become, then smiled when my children let go of her to get to me.
"Mommy! Daddy!" they both exclaimed in unison. Teren chuckled as they hopped up on the seat to crash into his side. Nika squirmed over his lap to sit in mine, throwing her arms around me and showering me with kisses. I laughed and kissed her back, loving how kids could make you feel like you'd been away from each for decades, instead of just a few hours.
"Oh, I missed you guys," I said, giving them each sloppy kisses. Teren tickled Julian with one hand as he wiped off his mouth with the other; Nika laughed at Julian's joy. "Any problems today?" I asked my mom as she sat down next to Ashley.
Smiling broadly, she tucked her chin-length hair behind her ears. "Of course not, those two are perfect."
"Perfect little monsters," Teren chuckled, tickling Julian even more, until he squirmed and tried to get away from him. I elbowed Teren in the ribs for his comment, but everyone at the table laughed, entertained by the fact that technically, in the eyes of most people, they really were monsters.