Once Nika had her reunion, the rest of the family loved on Julian. As he noisily slurped down a steaming cup of cocoa, Mom and Ash alternated in planting him with kisses. Jack had tears in his eyes as he clapped Teren on the back.
I could see the rings of exhaustion in Teren's eyes as he smiled back at Jack. I imagined from the look on his face that when Teren did finally succumb to sleep, he was going to stay in it for awhile. As my hands never strayed far from Julian, I wondered if I'd be able to relax enough to sleep. I didn't want to lose a second with him. I'd lost too many all ready.
Jack beamed down at Teren. "You did it, son." He shook his head, weariness in his eyes too. "I'm sure I don't want to know all the details of what went down tonight...but I am so very proud of you."
Teren swallowed and looked away, towards his son. "Thank you," he whispered to his dad.
I smiled at the three generations of amazing men in my life, then wrapped my arms around Teren's waist. He smiled at me, his gaze not leaving Julian. I had a feeling that those watchful eyes that I loved wouldn't be straying long from our son for awhile. "Are you alright?" he asked, darting a quick glance at me from the corner of his eye.
Laying my head on his shoulder, I waited for the aches and pains that would have come with my human body after a night like tonight. I should have had a bruised hip, a cracked skull and an aching jugular. I felt fine though. Not even trace of pain lingered in my recently brutalized body. Thank god for super healing. Definitely my favorite new ability.
Nuzzling my head in his neck, I murmured, "I'm great...I'm perfect."
"I know," he whispered, smiling into my hair as he planted a kiss on my head.
Clutching him tighter, I felt the emotional drain of the past few days leeching strength from my body. That was one thing that super healing didn't fix. A body needing rest wasn't broken, even if it felt that way. I yawned, covering my mouth at the last second.
A chain reaction of yawns went around the room, my kids the last to give into it. I laughed lightly and smiled at the warmth and peace I felt. Chuckling himself, Teren went over to pick up Julian. Removing the mug that he was now licking clean, Teren propped him over his shoulder. Julian giggled, the long-absent sound tightening my stomach.
Nika laughed too, feeling joy from her brother instead of the constant state of terror that he had been in. Clapping her hands, she raised them to Teren. "Me too, Daddy."
Grinning ear to ear, Teren leaned down and lifted her, easily plopping her over his other shoulder.
"Alright," he laughed, twisting the kids around in a half circle, "It's time for munchkins to go to bed. Give everybody goodnight kisses." He started to parade them around the room but Julian squirmed and sat up straight.
Teren adjusted his hold on him, careful to not drop Nika in the process. His son's pale eyes widened and glistened as his arms went around Teren's neck. I stepped forward and rubbed his back, my brow furrowed. He was obviously upset about something, more than just being told it was bedtime. He nearly looked terrified.
Nika, sensing it, raised herself up and put a hand on his shoulder.
His eyes locked on Teren, Julian whispered, "Monsters come when you lay down, Daddy."
He started to breathe heavier, his heart starting to race. My arms were around him instantly, my fingers soothingly stroking through his hair as I suddenly understood. He'd been taken from his bed while he'd been sleeping. Then he'd largely been left alone, terrified, and now, now that he was back, he was petrified to go back to bed, afraid he'd be snatched again. Kids were resilient, but they weren't impervious. My dead heart wanted to break in two. A little bit of his innocence had just been lost, and he wasn't even four yet.
Teren quickly shushed him as Julian lightly started crying. "It's okay, it's okay, Julian. Mommy and Daddy are going to lie down with you."
Julian's little face relaxed, the terror in his eyes fading. "All night?" he whispered. Teren nodded, tears in his eyes.
I ran soft circles into Julian's back, the way that Nika told me he liked. He looked down at me just when I felt a tear spill from my eye. Quickly brushing it off, I smiled. "All night, baby. All night, every night...as long as you need us."
Nodding and relaxing, he slumped into Teren's shoulder. Nika put her head on his arm supportively. I heard vague sniffles around the room but my eyes were locked on Teren's. Leaning his head against his son's, his eyes were glossy as he held gazes with me. "As long as you need us, Julian. We're always here for you. You won't ever be alone again...I promise."
By the time we got the kids upstairs, taking them into our room here at the ranch, they were already asleep. I took Nika from Teren and he gently laid Julian down. Julian whimpered and reached out for him. Teren sat beside him, putting his arm around him and Julian nestled into his chest, his body stilling into peace. As I laid Nika on Julian's other side, her arm protectively wrapping around her brother, Teren looked up at me.
Running a hand over his mouth, he shook his head. "Em..." He shrugged, not able to say anything else.
Nodding at Teren, I laid beside my daughter and stared down at Julian. How much damage had been done in the few days he was gone? Treated like royalty or not, he'd still been ripped from his home, he'd still been terrified. Could we erase that memory by immersing him in love and affection?
Reaching out to rub his back, I watched a smile creep into his sleeping face. His eyes fluttered, like he was dreaming. I glanced at my daughter and she smiled too, dreaming as well. Looking between the two of them, I saw the same peace and contentment.
Maybe it wasn't too late. Maybe we could erase the one dark spot in an otherwise idyllic youth. Leaning over, I kissed his head. That would be my goal, every day.
We all stayed in that bed for a solid day, arms wrapped around each other for comfort. I knew we'd eventually get back to our regular routine, but I also knew that it would take some time. Julian needed to feel safe again and getting him to that point was my priority. But I didn't really mind. I needed to feel safe again too. And all of us being together...felt safe. We took the healing in stages. We stayed out at the ranch for a few more days until Julian asked to go home. Then we all dispersed from the ranch, my mother grudgingly going back to her empty nest, my sister anxiously bounding out of there to be with Christian.
When we got back to our place by the bay, Julian looked around. Nika grabbed his hand in the entryway when he seemed frozen in place. "Let's go play, Julie," she said softly, pulling his arm. He nodded and smiled at her and the two of them dashed up to their bedroom, Spike barking merrily and dashing after them, eager to play again with the tiny version of his master.
I exhaled in relief that he was okay enough to go back in there. He wouldn't sleep there though. Every night, he insisted on staying with us. We always let him. Burying himself in-between Teren and I, he conked out pretty fast each evening. Usually his dreams were quiet ones, but occasionally he'd start thrashing and whining. I rubbed his back while Nika sleepily patted him, and he'd relax.
I prayed every night he had a bad dream that it was the last one he'd ever have. I knew that was an impossible prayer, since even I still had the occasional nightmare about my abduction, but I still made the prayer for him. For the first time ever, I wished he wasn't part vampire. Then Halina could wipe him, give him a fresh start.
Him and Nika both.
While she didn't have the same haunted look that Julian would get at times, when it was getting late, getting close to bedtime, I could still see a fear in her that wasn't there before. She watched Julian extra close. She hovered protectively by his side. She almost seemed like she was watch guarding him, like she would never let anything bad happen to him again. She reminded me of Teren. He often had that look of determination in his face when it came to helping his loved ones. Even though I hated the situation, it did make me smile that the father and daughter were so much alike.
Eventually though, through lots of love, patience and encouragement, Julian asked to sleep in his and Nika's room. Biting my lip, I tucked him into his separate bed. Nika immediately reached out for his hand in the space between their beds. Looking over at her, he clasped it tight. His wide eyes drifted up to the window and I instantly wondered if that was where Malcolm had come in. It had to be. He'd crawled up the wall and into our house like the fictional monster he was. I was so glad he was no longer an issue.
Patting Julian's head, I leaned over and kissed the soft blackness of it. His eyes came back to mine. "Love you, Mommy."
Smiling, I cupped his cheek. "I love you too, baby. Mommy and Daddy are right down the hall if you need anything."
He nodded, his face serious. "I okay, Mommy."
I sighed, giving him silent strength, and absorbing the sensation of him in my head. It was once again a comfort, something that I clung to throughout my day. That knowledge of where he was, that I could always find him if I needed to.
I kissed him one last time, then leaned over to kiss my daughter. Her eyes were all on Julian. "Goodnight, sweetheart," I whispered.
She finally looked up at me. "Goodnight, Mommy." I wrapped my finger around a strand of her hair, listening to the silky strands slide against my skin as I pulled away.
Teren immediately took my place, leaning in to give her a big hug and a kiss and then Julian. He held Julian for an extra second, murmuring that he loved him very much, and that he was very proud of him for wanting to sleep in his own room.
Julian beamed up at him, seemingly proud of himself too.
I smiled genuinely. I didn't really need to worry about my children's psyches. With Teren as their father, my kids were going to be just fine.
Standing and backing towards the door, Teren grabbed my hand. I clenched his, almost not wanting to leave. My kids may be a little stronger than me. As Nika and Julian settled into their beds, Teren twisted and pulled me out of the door. "Come on," he whispered, "they need this."
Sighing, I followed him out.
Leaving their door open, we slowly walked back to our room. On the way, I heard the sound that reminded me that Julian was never alone, not really. Even if she hadn't been in the room with him, holding his hand, even if they'd been forced apart for a time, he shared a bond with his sister that was eternal. It had probably brought him a great deal of comfort, when he'd needed it most. He was never alone...Nika was always with him, and he was always with her.
"Goodnight, Julie, love you."
"Goodnight, Nick, love you too."
Teren and I looked over at each other as we reached our door, smiling. Hearing that lifted my heart, made me feel light again. Kissing the back of my hand, Teren whispered, "It's going to be okay, Emma. Everything is going to be okay."
On the other side of our door, I reached up and grabbed his cheek. His glow enveloped me as warmly as his heart. Silent or not, it was the most giving heart I'd ever met. "I know," I whispered, smiling as I leaned my lips up to his.
His kiss was soft, tentative. We hadn't had any sort of intimate connection since the night Julian was taken. I often wondered if Teren felt the same guilt over that night as I did. We'd both made a mistake. If one of us had opened the door, we surely would have heard Malcolm entering our home. But then again, maybe not. You never know how things might go down...until they do.
I pressed my lips to his harder, needing the residual guilt I felt over being with my husband gone too. That would be the final point of healing for us, feeling safe enough to reconnect. And if Julian was brave enough to sleep in his own bed again, surely we could be brave enough to let our guard down for a moment.
Neither one of us moving to shut the door of our soundproof room, I pulled him backwards to the bed. That had been an unspoken agreeance; we wouldn't use the soundproofing. Not yet anyway. I needed to hear my children at all times, even if that meant that they had to hear us too. Teren had gotten through his childhood that way just fine. Surely they would too?
Sliding my fingers down the front of his dress shirt, I slowly popped open each button. Teren had finally gone back to work, waiting until after me, so one of us was with the kids at all times. Mom had been nearly jumping up and down when we brought them out to her to watch again. She loved it so much, taking care of them.
Sliding the shirt off his shoulders, I ran my eyes over the smooth planes of his chest, highlighted in the light from my eyes. He was beautiful, and perfect, and eternally mine. His lips came back to me, hungry for more, but still holding back. As our breaths increased, his hand on my back slid over my bottom, squeezing gently. I smiled and locked gazes with him. He didn't smile back, his face looked serious, almost too serious.
"I've missed you, Emma."
His eyes glanced over my face, then down my body. My hands left the comfortingly similar warmth of his chest, and cupped his cheeks. Tilting his head, I made him look at me. "I've missed you too...are you okay?"
He shrugged. "I feel...like I...can't protect you, you or the kids. I'm...afraid to let go," he whispered.
I shook my head, my eyes misting. "Everything is okay now, Teren. He's gone...he's not ever coming back. We're safe...because of you, we're safe." Peppering him with light kisses, I murmured between our lips, "You saved me, you saved Julian..." I kissed his jaw, down his neck. "You do protect us. You do whatever you have to do to keep us from harm."
My hands ran back down his chest as my nose ran up his throat; he growled a little, deep in his body. "You could have killed me during your conversion...you didn't. You could have let me die when I was attacked, you didn't. You did the impossible...you found other mixed and saved my life. Mine and the kids."
My mouth trailed down the other side of his neck, lightly sucking the skin as I worked my way down. His chest was moving harder as his breath increased. Igniting his body, easing his mind, I shook my head, rubbing my lips over his collar bone. "You could have given up on trying to find Julian...you never did." Wandering over to the other side of his chest, I placed a soft kiss over where his heart should have been thumping fiercely. He sucked in a quick breath, his hands resting on my hips tightening.
I peeked up at him as I rested my cheek against his chest. "You cut out a heart for god's sake. All for us, all for them." I started placing kisses straight up his throat, forcing his head back. His mouth dropped open a little as another soft growl rumbled around the room. "We're safe, Teren. We're all safe...because of you."
At the top of his chin, I quickly swiped my tongue out, stroking the harsh stubble. His head snapped down, his eyes burning with desire now. "And you aren't in this alone, Teren. You protect me, I protect you. That's how a marriage works," I whispered huskily, my breath washing over his mouth. "That's how a family works. We're in this together, Teren...'til death."
His fangs crashed down as he stared at me lustfully... and lovingly too, always lovingly. Then his mouth was on mine and any tentativeness he'd had flew out the window.
Just like with other dark spots in our history, we'd get passed this and come out stronger...together...forever.
By the end of the next week, all traces of the recent hardships that my family had gone through were faded scars in the background. Still there, deep under the surface, but not noticeable to the naked eye. But I knew that over time they'd be faded completely and we'd be the joyous unit that we were before. It was already starting.
My children were laughing and playing, running up and down the dual staircase of the ranch, chasing Spike, blurring with speed until I reminded them not to, since a not-in-the-know human was in the house. But they were especially giddy today. We were all especially giddy today. Today was the twins' fourth birthday.
Not only was it their birthday, which to them meant tons of cake and tons of presents, but Teren had broken down and gotten them that pony. Not to keep though, just for the day, but they were still bouncing off the walls, waiting for it to get here.
When the screech of tires on gravel announced its arrival, my children bolted to the front door. Teren rustled their hair, chuckling as I held them back. We didn't need to freak out the poor man who was in charge of the animal by our excited children moving faster than humanly possible. I even had to remind Julian to pop his teeth back up, and I rarely had to do that anymore.
Alanna and Imogen tickled their bellies, making them giggle, while Teren, Hot Ben and Jack stepped out to help unload the shaggy little pony he'd lined up. Mom and Ashley were giggling with Tracey in the kitchen, busy decorating two horse themed cakes for the twins; a blue one for Julian, a red one for Nika. Ashley was sighing that Christian had really wanted to come today, but he'd gotten called into work after an explosion at a warehouse had left two firefighters badly burned. Yes, her hero helped other heroes. My sister had found a man nearly as wonderful as mine. I was over the moon for her, as was Tracey, when she finally heard that he was doctor.
In the rooms deep below the earth, I could feel Halina's silent presence sleeping the day away. I couldn't feel him or hear him, but I knew that Gabriel was down there with her. His darkly tinted sedan parked outside was one giveaway that he was at the ranch. The other two giveaways were busy with the task that I'd assigned to them - Starla and Jacen were currently stringing up streamers, banners, and other birthday decorations around every surface possible. No balloons though, nothing that would frighten Julian.
It was a pointless assignment, since Alanna had already dressed the house accordingly, but whatever I could do to try and keep Starla and Jacen from mauling each other was a good thing. I swear, since giving in to the feelings they had, the two of them were so much worse than Teren and me.
Listening to them in the living room as Starla smacked on her gum and commented on Jacen's cute ass as he tacked streamers to the wall, I rolled my eyes and smiled. Obnoxious as they could be, they were sweet too. I hoped that Gabriel could someday help the doomed mixed vampire, so Starla could have a long life with her beau. From the longing in Jacen's eyes when he stared at her, I knew he was hoping for that too.
Once the sound of a horse snorting and hooves on cement hit my ears, my kids became uncontainable. Squirming away from me and the other vampiric women, they scrambled out the front door to take a peek. I smiled and followed, happy for their happiness. I may not share in their empathic bond, but their joy today was contagious; we all had smiles on our faces.
Jack and Teren set up a small area in the closest field and the man led the horse that way. He was going to stake the animal to a pole and have the kids walk it in an endless circle, but Teren convinced him to let the animal be free. The field was fenced, so it wasn't really an issue, so the man agreed. Personally, I think Teren just didn't want Julian to see anything contained in a small space. That's all he would tell us about where he'd been held. It was small and cold. He wouldn't say anything more and we never pressed him to.
The tiny brown and white horse shook its mane, seemingly happy to have a little more freedom too. Barely coming up to Teren's waist, the creature was beyond adorable and I knew we'd be hearing about getting one every day after today from both of the kids. Who knows? Maybe we would get one for the ranch for them. While Halina had a thing for horses, she loved these kids more, and wouldn't harm anything they adored, tempted or not.
Smiling widely, Hot Ben plopped Julian onto the beast's saddle, Teren placing Nika right behind him. Jack took the reins, urging the pony into a small walk. Both kids were instantly laughing. As Teren walked beside the animal, just in case a kid fell off, I walked over to Ben.
Hands crossed over his chest, he watched Julian and Nika laugh together. When he noticed me next to him, he slung an arm over my shoulder in a brotherly way. He shivered a bit as my chill seeped into his skin. Where our bare skin touched on our arms, his even pricked with goose bumps. The reaction always surprised me a little, since I didn't feel cold. But he sure felt warm and I leaned into his side.
He smiled down at me, his face perfectly healed from the vicious blow Malcolm had given him. Luckily he'd only been bruised, not broken. Not being able to hide his appearance from his fiancee, he'd told Tracey that he'd been mugged. She'd been appropriately terrified for him, marching him to the police station and making him fill out a report. He'd hated doing it, hated lying to her and the law, but really, what else could he say? I was knocked out by a vampire in a crazy attempt to rescue the kidnapped child of my undead best friend? That wouldn't have exactly gone over well, with Tracey or the police.
"I'm glad everything worked out, Emma." He shook his perfectly highlighted head. "I can't imagine if..." He didn't finish, biting his lip and shrugging instead.
I nodded, my eyes misting. "I know...I can't either." We looked back at my pony-riding children, Teren laughing as he walked beside them. "Thank you, Ben...for everything," I whispered.
He sniffed, squeezing my shoulder. "Don't thank me, Emma. I'd do anything for you guys. You're family...and that's what family does."
Smiling, I rested my head against his shoulder. For the hundred millionth time, I could've kissed Ben.
After hours of pony enjoyment, the kids were finally shepherded into the house for way too much sugar and way too many presents. They zipped around, playing with toy cars and plastic ponies until well after the sun went down. When it did, the pureblood in the house finally emerged.
Silently slinking into the living room while we all laughed, watching the kids play, Halina came up behind Tracey and me. I knew she was there and didn't think much about it, but Tracey had no idea, and nearly jumped through the roof when Halina leaned in-between us.
"Good evening, Emma...Tracey."
She smirked at Tracey as the beautiful girl squealed and pulled back a little. Halina just loved to mess with people. I glared at her a little while she chuckled at my face. Gabriel behind her raised a corner of his lip in amusement. He seemed to find her sultry, playful ways humorous. I could only imagine what the two of them did when they were alone.
Tracey found the teenage vixen less humorous and frowned at her, her eyes darting to Ben. While we may have wiped away some of her memories, she still didn't like the provocative woman being around her man. Especially when Ben stood up and walked over to her.
Halina and Ben had come to a level of mutual respect for one another. I think they even considered each other friends. While Ben only looked like he was going to shake her hand in greeting, Halina wasn't really a...hand-shaker, and engulfed him in an embrace that made even Gabriel lift an eyebrow. Not the jealous type though, that's all the reaction that Gabriel gave. Tracey however, looked about ready to rip Halina a new one.
Starla across the room laughed at the display and popped a bubble. Below human level, she laughed out, "Nice, Grams, going for the younger boys now? I always knew you were a cougar at heart." Her arms casually flung around Jacen, she didn't look intimidated by Halina in the slightest.
Halina didn't like not intimidating people. She released Hot Ben and started to move towards the mixed that irritated her to no end, but Gabriel's arms slinked around her waist, drawing her tightly leather-wrapped hips back into his. "Let it go, love," he whispered. Halina melted into his body and did actually let it go.
Of course the twins darting over to her probably helped. Gabriel released her hips when they attached to her legs. "Grammy Lina!" they both yelled together. Teren, sitting on the other couch with my mother and sister, locked eyes with me, smiling contently at everyone being together again.
When the kids were nearly comatose from their sugar high, I got up to put them to bed. Teren stood with me, but put his hand over mine as I went to reach for Julian. Scrunching my brows, I looked up at him. He smiled at me softly, then lifted his eyes to Tracey. I followed his line of sight, even more confused. The perky blonde met his eyes, waiting expectantly with a slight furrow in her brow, seeming to not know what he wanted either.
Looking back at Teren, I watched as he smiled wider at her, tilting his head adorably. "Tracey, would you like to put the kids to bed?"
Tracey's eyes widened as her mouth burst into a huge grin. Standing, she nodded. "Yeah, if you don't mind." She shrugged while Teren shook his head and helped the sleepy kids stand up. Sneaking a peek at Ben, Tracey murmured, "I love kids."
Ben's eyes widened as that sunk in. Containing a smile, I was sure that a baby was soon to follow their wedding night...about nine months after their wedding night. Maybe sooner, if Tracey had her way. Squatting down to Julian and Nika, she ruffled their hair. "What do you say kiddos, can Auntie Tracey put the birthday boy and girl to bed?"
They both grinned and nodded and Teren and I gave them warm hugs and kisses. The scent of birthday cake lingered around them and the faintest trace of frosting lined their mouths. It still churned my stomach a little, but not as bad as before. Giving their cheeks dozens of kisses, I reminded Tracey to help them brush well. Hopefully they remembered to keep their teeth up in their tiredness. Well, if not, Halina was right on hand to mentally rewind Tracey if necessary.
Once the kids were loved on and sent out of the room, Teren twisted to face the people left behind. He smiled at each friend and family member and I sat in his spot by Mom, snuggling into her side as I waited for him to say what was obviously on his mind, something he didn't seem to want Tracey in on. I figured it was vampiric then, since everyone in the room now knew the family secret.
Mom wrapped her arm around me as Teren cleared his throat. Running a hand back through his hair, he smiled nervously. "Um, well, I wanted to talk to all of you about something...and now seems as good a time as any."
Ashley looked over to me and I shrugged, not knowing where his head was at. Teren smiled over at me, relaxing as he met my gaze. "We've been through a lot together, and one thing I've learned through all of it...is we work better together. That's how family works," he whispered to me and I smiled, remembering my words to him.
His eyes swept over the rest of the room slowly. "I really don't think we'd have gotten Julian back if..." he choked up and swallowed, trying again, "if we hadn't all been on the same page." Smiling at his parents, then Ben, then Halina and Gabriel, he shook his head. "You were all so amazing. I'm so...grateful...to each of you."
His eyes drifted to Mom and Ashley and he sighed, a little sadly. "My family doesn't stay in one spot for too long...and it's getting close to the time when we should leave here." His brow furrowed as he shook his head. "Emma and I have talked about what to do, whether to stay...or go..."
Mom and Ash both looked at me and I dropped my head. I still didn't know what to do about that one. I'd sort of forgotten, with everything that had been happening to us lately. I wasn't sure why Teren was bringing it up now, when the actual move was still a ways away. Maybe he was going to plead his case for us to leave in front of everyone. That wasn't really his style though.
"Emma wants to be with her family...I do too, I love you all, but I need my family too." He sighed softly, "But ultimately the choice isn't only ours, which is why I'm bringing this up today." I peeked up at him. He was smiling at me, shaking his head. "This affects everyone, so everyone should get a say." He looked around the room. "Do you want to stay here in San Francisco...or do you want to leave with my parents to Utah?"
I blinked as I stared at him. I hadn't considered giving everyone the option to stay or go. It had just seemed like a decision only for us. I wanted to smile, considering everyone leaving the area together...but I didn't know what the others would choose. Listening raptly, I looked around the room.
Everyone looked at everyone else, no one saying anything right away. Teren shrugged. "I guess I'll go first...I want to go to Utah." He said that directly at me, his eyes apologetic.
I nodded at him. I already knew that was how he was leaning. I was about to speak when my sister surprisingly beat me to it. "I want to stay," she whispered. My eyes watered as I looked across my mother to her. She smiled softly and shook her head. "I know you want me to go, Emma, but my life is here. My work is here. Christian is here. I think he's going to ask me to marry him and I want to say yes. I want a life here with him. I'm happy...and I want to stay."
I swallowed several times, not sure how to feel. She reached across Mom to lay her hand on my knee. "I'll be fine, Emma." She raised her half brows at me. "It's okay for you to let me go." Smirking she added, "I'm a big girl now. I don't need my older sister looking out for me anymore."
I chuckled, swiping my fingers under my eyes. "I know you are."
As I clenched Ashley's hand, my mother suddenly exclaimed, "Well, I've always wanted to see Utah...no better time than now. When are we leaving?"
I focused my eyes to her, my mouth dropping. I really hadn't expected her to say that. I'd really expected her to stick by Ashley. Her warm, pudgy face smiled and laughed softly, the lines of happiness around her eyes and mouth deepening as she did. "I want to be where I'm needed most, Emma." She twisted back to Ashley, patting her thigh. "I love both you girls, and I'm so proud," she looked back to me, "but out of the two of you, you could still use my help, I think." Sighing, she added, "And I'm not getting any younger, Emma. I think I could use your help too."
Smiling, she looked up at the ceiling, where I could hear Tracey starting to read a bedtime story to my tired kids. "Besides, I can't be that far away from my grandchildren." The tears flowing freely now, I held her tight to me. Maybe I wouldn't have to completely choose after all. Maybe I could leave and keep a part of my family close. I hadn't considered that before.
As a light chuckling went around the room, Hot Ben stepped forward. Resting his hand on Teren's shoulder, he shook his head. "I'm sorry, man. You know I love you guys, but my life is here...with Tracey." He looked up at the ceiling like my mom had. I could hear the oblivious blonde beauty still reading the twins their favorite story; their yawns more frequent now.
"I'd love to move with you, Teren, but Tracey wants a life with me...marriage, a big house filled with lots of kids." He shrugged. "I need to put her first. I need to stop lying to her. I need to give her the life she deserves, a normal one."
Teren smiled sadly, clapping his back. "I know." He nodded his head, his eyes serious. "It's been an honor knowing you, Ben."
Ben smiled, equally as sad. "No, Teren. The honor was mine. You, your family, you're the most amazing people I've ever met and if you need anything, anything, I'm only a phone call away."
Teren smiled, tears glistening in his beautiful eyes. "Thank you. You don't know what that means to me."
Ben extended his hand to Teren. "Yeah, actually, I do." While they nodded at each other, shaking hands in brotherly friendship, I think I started crying harder than when Mom had agreed to go with us. Ben was everything to Teren. But it wasn't like they'd be completely separated. If my sister was staying, then we'd be down all the time visiting. At least, that's what I hoped.
Letting go of Teren's hand, Ben seemed to wonder the same thing. He pointed at Ashley as he looked back at Halina. "Will we get to remember you?" he asked quietly.
Ashley perked up as she seemed to consider this for the first time. Halina looked between the both of them, then at Teren and I. Tilting her dark head, she nodded in acquiescence. "You have both earned our trust. We will never wipe you, not unless you ask. Your memories will be left intact, you have my word." She shook her head. "You will be the only ones left behind, that entirely remember us."
Ben exhaled and nodded at the pureblood, looking relieved. Teren looked relieved too. He'd sort of bucked the family system when he'd fought for Ben to remember. I was so grateful that Ben had turned out to be the man he was. Teren deserved no less in a friend. Thinking of my friend staying behind, I raised an eyebrow at Halina. "Tracey?" I asked softly.
Halina frowned at me and slowly shook her head. "I'm sorry, Emma, but no. I'll let her vaguely remember, but not really. You'll be a coworker she had once. Teren will be an old acquaintance of Ben's. She won't remember much more, even your names will be hazy. Everything specific about you, and us, will be blurred away." She shrugged, looking genuinely apologetic. "I'm sorry, this is the way it must be."
I swallowed several times and tried to be okay with it. Tracey and I had gone through a lot together. Her not remembering any of it was going to...suck, but that's just the fact of my life now. I was immortal. I was a vampire. Tracey was neither of those things. And she had a chance at a normal, happy life with Ben. I smiled as I looked up at him. They both deserved that.
Smiling back at me, Ben shrugged. "It's okay, Emma. I'll take good care of her." He nodded his head at Ashley, "Her and Ashley both. I'll make sure they stay out of trouble." Ashley smirked at him and a soft laughter went around the room again.
Nearly as one, every eye shifted to where Gabriel was standing. He smiled at all the attention shifting his way. "You haven't already guessed my decision?" he asked softly, meeting every eye.
Halina stepped into his side, grabbing his hand. "You have a nest...I understand." She swallowed and her lip quivered, his eyes shimmering bright red.
Tilting his head, he palmed her cheek as he spoke over her shoulder. "Jacen, I've already informed Jordan of this, but I want you to know as well, that he'll be taking over the nest in L.A." His gaze shifted from Halina's startled face to Jacen's startled face. "I'll be relocating to Utah."
I think every mouth dropped open. Everyone's but mine. I'd been pretty sure Gabriel wouldn't let Halina go that easily. I'd been hoping anyway. She'd been alone for too long. Him too.
Jacen adjusted in his seat. "Father? Do you think that's wise?"
Gabriel lifted an eyebrow at him and Jacen stared at the floor. Starla stood and walked over to Gabriel, hands on her hips. "Well, I'm going too. You're not ditching me, Father."
Gabriel smiled and put a hand on her shoulder. "I wasn't going to. The choice is yours, Starla, yours and Jacen's both. If you wish to stay in L.A., then I will leave Jordan with instructions to give you all the medication you need. But, if you wish to go with me...you may."
I frowned at this development but didn't say anything. Starla's eyes moistened as she looked between Gabriel and Jacen. She seemed to be choosing between the two men and it seemed to be killing her. The short, blonde male went to stand by his girl, encircling his arms around her. "I'm with you Starla, wherever you want us," Jacen whispered.
She swallowed and looked back at Gabriel. "You saved me. You took me in when I had nobody. You cared for me." A tear dropped to her cheek. "I'm with you, Father."
Smiling, Gabriel brought her in for a hug. Halina sighed but kept her arm around Gabriel as well. I sniffled, my emotions still on overdrive. Gabriel kissed Starla's hair as he closed his eyes for a second. Pulling back from her, he looked between her and Jacen. "I only have one request if you choose to stay by my side. "
They both immediately said, "Yes, Father?"
Gabriel frowned and shook his head. "That must stop. I am not your father and you don't owe me obedience." Sighing, he shrugged. "Please, call me Gabriel."
Jacen shifted his stance but smiled. Looking down he muttered, "Alright...Gabriel." The way he said it was awkward, like he'd clearly been calling him Father for dozens of years, maybe a hundred or more, and it was completely unnatural to call him anything different.
Starla snorted and pulled back from his embrace. "No, I won't call you that."
Gabriel narrowed his eyes at her in a way that used to make her lower her head submissively. Making me very proud, she raised her chin defiantly. "My mother is dead. My sister is dead. Even my natural father is dead. You're my family and I love you." Rolling her eyes, she snarked, "I'm calling you Father whether you like it or not, so you may as well get used to it."
Chuckling, Gabriel shook his head and held her tight. "Alright then."
Releasing Starla after a moment, he twisted back to Halina, cupping her cheek again. She shook her head at him. "You're staying with me?" she asked, seemingly dazed that he would.
A blood red tear ran over Gabriel's knuckles and he placed his forehead against hers. "I have been surrounded by people for centuries, Halina, but I have been completely alone until you. I have no wish to go back to a life of loneliness." He pulled back to stare into her eyes. His green ones deep and soulful, he intently whispered, "I love you...do you love me?"
Halina swallowed and started to shake her head before she stopped herself and nodded. "Yes, yes I do love you...so much."
Gabriel smiled and kissed her softly as another bloody tear rolled over his fingers. "Then we're agreed," he murmured against her lips.
A small sob escaping me brought everyone's attentions back to me. Darn emotional vampires. Teren laughed lightly at me as I glared at him before laughing myself. Throwing my hands into the air, I shrugged. "Alright, Teren, you win. I want us to go to Utah."