Chapter 2 – When they ask me what I liked the best, I’ll tell them it was you.

The path toward midtown Manhattan has taken a large portion of the day, even as we were moving as fast as we could. But as we finally arrive at the corner of 42nd and Park, weary, exhausted, and emotionally drained, I feel a sense of frustration envelop me far stronger than that of the struggle to make it this far. Why has Alice brought us here?

I gaze up at the arched peaks of the historic Grand Central Station knowing that this place won’t accommodate seclusion or safety at all. We need a refuge, a place not so well-known and impossible to find if not immaculately defensible… and preferably underground. And if that laundry list of reasons that we can’t stay here isn’t enough, the fact that people will soon be panicking and flocking to this place like the fugitive prisoners that they are, most definitely is. No, it won’t do. I had thought that Alice understood this when she took lead, but apparently not. We need to stop wasting time, and mostly, we need rest. But now, thanks to Alice, it appears that we will have to keep moving.

I suppose that I can’t be too irritated with her, at least not in the fact that we’re tired and running out of time. It’s not her fault that it’s taken us so long to get this far, and it wasn’t the wreckage or dangerous environment that hindered our forward momentum either; it was the desperate calls for help from those still dying that we kept stumbling across that diverted us from our single-minded quest for safety.

The helpless were everywhere, they still are. I can hear their calls close by, even as I stand and seethe. And I’m certain that there are Loyalist survivors feeding nearby just like they have been all day. And it’s for those reasons that we would get roughly twenty-five yards from one such scene before another struggling life would proclaim itself fading from the ravages of the war or the ravages of the remaining enemy.

So we stopped and helped the first one, which then turned into two, and then three, and then four, and so on and so forth until we quickly found ourselves in an unending loop of save one life or destroy another. But what else could we do? Ultimately, regardless of which side we fall on in all of this insanity, the heavy burden of responsibility is an atlas-sized mantle on our shoulders.

Lilith may have had held a long standing grudge against the humans because of her mommy issues, but the reality is that this didn’t have to happen, and it shouldn’t have. The humans had nothing to do with this war, even if Lilith was affronted by their existence, and yet they have and will continue to pay a terrible price, even at the hands of their own.

Helping did little to assuage any guilt, especially now as we ignore the screams in the near distance, but we freed those that we could and healed them with our blood as much as possible. Sometimes our efforts were successful and other times we were too late, but our group moved together in a silent efficiency born of sadness and guilt, a guilt made all the worse as those unlucky enough to survive thanked us.

They didn’t even know that they owed us no such appreciation, and I doubted that they would have offered it if we’d have been able to tell them the truth. But not one of us could bear to explain what was happening, even as they kept asking that one damning question: “Is it over…?”

How could we tell them that they’re trapped – expendable fodder to be used for food or leverage in a war that was only just beginning? We couldn’t, and as a result, their thankfulness was placated with sad smiles, somber silence, and knowing glances shared amongst their would-be heroes.

It seemed that the more we helped, the heavier the melancholy that had settled over us became. But we kept going, moving through the city for more than twelve hours and getting nowhere. I knew that it would take us months if we continued to assist, but the ravages of guilt kept us wearily answering the calls, that is until Duffy’s search parties began to catch up to us.

It was at that point that we realized that we needed to leave things alone. We stopped answering, moving quickly and stiffly passed the haunting sounds to purposefully abandon them to their fate. What was worse is that even those we saved were damned to apprehension by the search parties, and so it seemed hopeless. There was no help to offer and there was no hope to hold onto. This was all a game of hide-and-seek, and there was nowhere to hide.

It became too much for Tina, doing nothing to help. After the first few we’d left to their suffering, she’d pulled us aside and pled a case in favor of taking those we found with us, but that idea was quickly squashed for what it was: impossible. I felt her compassion and it overwhelmed me. I hadn’t felt it in so long that I had almost forgotten how utterly devastating the emotion could be. But how could we care for them and give them shelter? We couldn’t and as crushing as her compassion was, I couldn’t give in to it.

While Duffy hadn’t indicated that she wouldn’t kill those who oppose her, she had made it very clear that getting in her way would have a very different result. And while I’m not afraid of Duffy or even death, I couldn’t entertain any thought that would put Tina in danger, even at her own insisting.

I had expected Tina to argue, but as she considered my thoughts, she resigned herself, causing my guilt to double as I realized that her resignation was in line with my own: she wouldn’t put me in danger either. As such, each wail that pierced the gray sky was like a spear through her chest that would then find its way through mine. Of any person I’ve ever known, her heart pays a heavy price for its over-reaching compassion, and as I’m learning, an even heavier price for loving me.

Part of me, that part that had been eroding away at my soul since Tina had been presumed dead, wanted to kill them to just make it stop. It wasn’t bloodlust. I actually loathed the idea even as I arrived at it. But this same situation was something that I had always debated within myself: is it worse to save them and release them to their misery, or is true mercy a quick death in the face of what they’re about to endure? Just like with two little tow-headed girls…

Even as the thoughts had tangled in my mind, I felt ashamed of them and of what Tina must think of me. She had forgiven me long ago, and I knew that her forgiveness would follow me through the whole of my life; that was the only certainty that I could hold onto in the midst of so much unknown. But it didn’t help. In fact, it hurt to know that for as strong as she is, as loving and compassionate, her love for me changed her. It darkened her into someone willing to do anything and sacrifice anyone to make sure that I survived. I had effectively, inadvertently, caused all of this.

But I couldn’t blame her; I still don’t, and I won’t. I understand her. In fact, I understand her so completely that I’m a hypocrite. On one hand I would have preferred she focused on the greater good regardless of my personal fate; on the other hand, I wouldn’t have done anything different were our positions reversed.

As much as our ideals of compassion are as different as night and day, as different as she and I, that is the one thing that we share, even as it is wholly opposite. She’s all that matters to me, and I am all that matters to her. And as selfish as it is, even if I could change it, I wouldn’t want it to.

The only explanation that I can come up with to help justify it is that it would seem that no choice is ever the right one or the wrong one. Nothing is ever just good or bad, evil or heroic, or black or white. The world is a patchwork of varying gray, just as the new sun and sky give frightful testament.

But is that a real excuse? Is there ever a good time to kill? Is anything worth an innocent life, even if the conviction is one of attempted mercy or heartfelt devotion? I’ve never been able to trust my moral compass, because until Tina, I never had one. And while I have learned so much from her, I can’t help but feel as if I’ve tainted her, and as such, are either of us capable of truly doing the right thing ever again?

She made her choices, and she chose me. I may not be worth it in the grand scheme of things, but she knows me better than anyone; she knows what I’ve done and what I’m capable of. And yet, by some miracle, she loves me anyway. To her, I am worth any and everything. To her, I am priceless.

No matter what philosophical determination is reached, nothing can dull the fact that she is an incredible soul, and truly the only person who can end this nightmare we’ve found ourselves so violently thrust into, so I suppose that I have my answer. Yes, we can still set this right… somehow. She seeks peace, and she bends when she should break. Those qualities are still the whole of her. I just hope that I don’t stand in the way of allowing her to accomplish that.

I’m aware that to everyone else, even myself, that I’m not any of those things, and definitely not worth all that’s transpired. When held up to the whole of humanity, a species I’m only beginning to believe that I belong to, the odds against Tina’s belief in me are staggering.

They may disagree; I may disagree, but I’ll never understand why the very people she’s been protecting, the very people she’s been setting free for so long, would turn on her so easily. Even she is allowed one mistake, one act of personal need out of a century of self-sacrifice, isn’t she? It would seem that this is not the case.

There is a both a twisted satisfaction and a disheartening mortification in the knowledge that in the end, they will regret their choices. There’s no other possible outcome. Without Tina leading there will only be more bloodshed on both sides. If there is one thing that I know for certain, it’s that no one escapes the consequences of their actions, not even Tina, and the consequences are everywhere.

It’s with tremendous resolve that we continue to ignore those in need. I watch Alice step through the doors to the station and release a bone-weary breath. It’s all so disheartening. Where can we possibly go that will allow us shelter for an indeterminate amount of time? And how are we going to get there?

At first, I had assumed that we’d only need to lay low for a few days, but our slow progress had given us the chance to inspect the technology rigged throughout the city more closely. Given how extensively the military has managed to embed the sensors in the power grid, I can only assume that they’ve been preparing for this for a very long time. Escape will be impossible at best.

After a short conversation, we determined that it would take time to find a way through, and so we decided to be prepared for a longer stay, making several stops for necessities, knowing all too well that any and everything would disappear soon enough.

First was the blood bank. We killed several Loyalists and found much of the blood gone, but we were able to retrieve roughly three bags a piece. Alice reassured us that this hiding place, while not convenient, would provide us with access to electricity so that we could keep it fresh and ration it. But even if we are able to refrigerate the blood, it won’t last long, and the only supply is in the hands of those whom we cannot align ourselves.

We left the blood bank with worried minds and heavy hearts and continued to a sporting goods store for durable clothing and a few creature comforts like soap and bedding. From there, a quick stop at a Radioshack provided some tech and tools that I’m not sure will actually help, but we picked up some satellite phones and a touchpad computer just in case. Information will be essential to our survival, as well as blood and staying a step ahead of all enemies. But somewhere safe to hide will be our biggest asset.

Again, I’m forced to recognize that hiding in one of the most widely-used transportation hubs in this city is foolhardy. I exhale a heavy breath and force my thoughts on the too recent past to fade into a muted tapestry hanging heavily in the background of my mind. It’s the only way that I know to preserve my sanity at this point.

Alice, Dana, and the others in our entourage have moved inside as my thoughts have meandered, and as I finally refocus, I realize that Tina’s been waiting patiently for me to snap out of it. I glance over at her as she moves to the front doors, her arm extending from its hold on mine to pull me along with her.

We step in to find that it’s at least still deserted. It’s mostly intact, aside from a large portion of the ceiling now piled on the floor, and the scattered mess of shockwaves and panic littering the open space. I’ll admit that this is one of my favorite buildings in Manhattan, and under different circumstances I might enjoy a rare moment of stillness in the notoriously overcrowded station.

It’s tall, arching ceilings and natural skylights give it an otherworldly feel, and that feeling is only further punctuated by the streams of oddly silver evening light that spill in through them. Even still, the ornate architectural stylings from eras passed that have been absorbed into modern day functionality are comforting for a soul as old as mine.

Given that Alice obviously has every intention of stationing us here, I decide to speak up before we go any further. “Alice, you don’t expect us to actually try to hide in Grand Central Station, do you?”

She turns to me, her voice bubbly as she says, “Yu-p,” over-exaggerating the pop of the ‘p’ sound before turning and continuing to the circular ticket booth and forcing open a door with a sign that reads, ‘Authorized Personnel Only.’

We enter the cylindrical enclosure, the center walls of highly polished brass and nearly soundproof silence providing us with an eerie feeling of normalcy as we shut out the destruction. The cracked bits of glass in the windows are the only indication of what’s happened just beyond them.

Alice approaches her distorted reflection in the brass, using her fingers to probe around until she finds what she’s searching for and giving a hard tug. There’s a slight groan until the metal panel gives way to reveal a tight, spiral staircase beyond.

She smiles at us over her shoulder before descending into what I’m just beginning to realize is the massive underbelly. The staircase is steep and worn, though the signs of constant care are evident, and I listen to the hollow sounds of the proceeding steps as they clunk down into darkness.

I make sure that all of the doors we’ve used are secured before following Tina into the pitch maw beneath. We land in a labyrinth of offices and tight passageways that lead to more stairs which push us deeper and deeper into the sub-basement below. As we follow Alice, I realize that if not for my extremely photographic memory, I’d never again find my way out of this place, and hope that all of this isn’t for nothing.

My confidence isn’t bolstered as Alice checks every door on the way, as if she’s searching for something and she doesn’t even know what it is. Eventually we come to a heavy steel door, and with great effort, Alice pries it open. One last steep, concrete staircase and we land in a long, tall tunnel.

To the left, it seems to go on forever around a distant bend, but the right side shows that this was the end of the line at the time when the tracks were operational. The tunnel is littered with debris, the steel rails rusted and warped, and the train car is skewed and lopsided off of the long disused rails.

I gaze at it curiously and Alice explains. “Roosevelt used this tunnel to get around in the city so that no one would know that he had polio.”

She gestures to the train-car. “He’d actually bring his convertible with him in the train car, and take it straight up in an elevator at the Waldorf on the other end. No one knew that he couldn’t walk.”

I remember reading something about this in history books, but not in this kind of detail. “How do you know about all of this?”

She gives me an impatient expression. “I’m more than five hundred years old, Bette…”

This is almost a good reason, but she was with Tina in England during the 1940’s. That’s where they saved Dana.

Alice smiles smugly at my perplexity. “A girl’s entitled to her secrets…”

I glance at Tina for the explanation, but she just shrugs. I run a hand through my hair, my frustration about to become impossible to contain, and Tina puts her hand on my back to soothe me.

It might have worked, but Alice decides to start being a little more forthcoming. “Let’s just say that Eleanor was pretty big on the pillow talk…”

Tina snorts and I gaze at her incredulously. She just smiles at me. It makes sense that, given Tina’s efforts for human rights, she would have known one of the most powerful and productive female figureheads to the movement at that time. And, it makes sense that she might have met up with her later after Roosevelt died. But Al slept with her? Did Tina?

I look over at Tina and she turns her face away so that I won’t see her struggling not to chuckle. It doesn’t work and I want to cringe. I mean, it’s not a surprise that Tina’s been with other women. I already knew that and I’m not upset by it. But that would mean that she and Alice… I don’t know, shared?

The chuckle escapes her as she shakes her head and she finally puts my troubled mind to rest. ‘No, Bette. I didn’t sleep with her; that was all Alice.’

She makes a distasteful face. ‘But, we knew her and helped to further her cause as often as we could before she died.’

Oh thank God or the Goddess… or whatever. I wouldn’t want to be linked to Alice sexually in any way. ‘Did you know about this place?’

She shakes her head again. ‘Not a clue.’

I nod satisfied and look around. Even as deep as we are, this is still too open. The tunnel at the opposite end has to let out somewhere, and then, while it’s not probable, it’s possible that someone could find us down here, more specifically the military.

As my eyes track over the area, I realize that Tina and I have been left standing alone yet again. The others are further down the tunnel and Alice appears to be looking for something once more. Tina and I catch up to them just as Alice hauls herself up over the low, concrete retaining wall into the hallway beyond.

We follow her into what I can only assume is a maintenance tunnel, and she gives us a satisfied look, though I can’t understand why. There’s a small closet with an old broom and a few other supplies that give testament to their age and disuse, unless I count rodents and spiders.

The back wall has a water main shut off valve and large pipes run across the ceiling before disappearing up into the structure. There’s a small spout below the main with a valve and a drain sunk into the floor, the cover missing. Nestled against the right wall is a backup generator that appears to operate off of the subsequent pressure in the water main.

Most of the small bulbs lining the tunnel walls are still lit with a weak light, and I now see how Alice meant to tap into the electricity down here. At the sporting goods store, she picked up a bulb socket. It will plug into one of these and we can plug in a small refrigerator.

This set up is efficient, and there seems to be a countermeasure for any occurrence. I guess it would make sense to find something reserved for a president. Their lives and needs seem to supersede all others.

I still don’t like how open this is, and I say as much. “Al, it’s still too open in the tunnel.”

I glance back at it, and another idea comes to me. “And couldn’t we just escape from the city via these tunnels?”

She shakes her head. “No, this tunnel leads directly to the Waldorf-Astoria and back. It’s not something that you can just access from anywhere and it doesn’t just go anywhere. We’re actually below some of the public subways. It’s not meant to lead out of the city, just connect A to B. Grand Central would provide a more permanent escape if it was needed. That’s why I chose it…”

She holds up her hand and starts ticking off items with her fingers. “It’s deep underground, the entrances have been well guarded secrets for a long time, and it has what we’ll need to be mostly comfortable if we can’t find a way out of the city soon.”

She drops her hand and continues. “I already considered the subway for escape. I doubt the military has left them uncontained if they truly plan to hold us in, and I think the people puzzles near the East River make that pretty clear.”

There’s a long moment of silence as we absorb her words. She has thought this through, but we still need to do something.

Her voice is bright as she continues. “Anyway, come on. We’re all going to have to help.”

I frown. “Help with what?”

She grins and drops her duffel to the floor before moving back down the tunnel, a haughty spring to her step. I exhale wearily, resigned to the lack of answers, at least for now, and drop my own bag to again follow her. She heads right back for the train car, goes to the far end, and reaches under the bumper to grip the front axle of the enormous thing.

It shifts with a groan and we just stare at her until she finally says, “A little help?”

I glance back at the opening, realizing what she plans to do, and then back at the car. “Al, we could just stay in the maintenance tunnel. It would be more secure.”

She rolls her eyes and stares at me in quiet exasperation. After a moment, I throw my hands up in surrender before doing as she says. In for a penny, in for a pound. I do have to admit that the car would be a more comfortable accommodation.

The rest of us scatter around to the edges and we all lift together. It’s heavy, even for our combined strength, and as I study the hull in front of me, I realize that it’s fully armored. Even the glass is bulletproof.

I start a gentle, fumbling, backwards trek. There are a few close calls on the way, but we get it to the maintenance hallway and set it back down, making sure that it’s supported, steady, and level. I stand back and dust off my hands.

She turns and gives me a smug expression. “If you want to sleep in the maintenance tunnel, no one here will stop you.”

I narrow my eyes a little before gesturing down the main tunnel. “It’s still too exposed.”

She rolls her eyes and I hear her mumble something about being ungrateful, and sigh as I touch her shoulder to stop her. I can’t help but gloat a little at her pouting expression but decide to say, “Thanks, Al. This will be better if we can secure the area.”

It’s not perfect praise but she brightens considerably. However, I can’t leave well enough alone. “You’re still an irritating blonde.”

She snorts indelicately before adopting a casual demeanor and shrugging. “Whatever you say…”

She makes her way over to the front entrance on the car, and I hear a low but intentional murmur of, “Grump…”

I can’t help the soft chuckle that escapes me. She’s called me that many times over the years, and I can still remember her use of the word the very first time that we met. At least this time I don’t have the urge to tear her arm off and beat her with it. When that happened… I’m not sure. Not wanting to strangle her is a new development.

We file into the car behind her and have a look around. The interior is surprisingly spacious. It’s narrow but long so as to not feel entirely claustrophobic. The back end where we entered is empty and open, and I assume that it was used to house Roosevelt’s convertible.

This space leads into a tight hallway beyond where two are only just able to squeeze past one another. Along the corridor are six doors. Upon further inspection, five of them are small but cozy sleeping compartments with two cots that fold out from the walls.

The mattresses are surprisingly thick, twice that of a normal cot, and in decent condition having been hidden away from the ravages of time and vermin. The sixth door has a cramped but utilitarian toilet and sink but we won’t need those particular facilities.

I don’t miss the need to sweat and I certainly don’t miss the nagging call to expel waste. There’s just nothing to expel. I’ve not studied vampyr biology in a clinical sense, but I’ve tortured enough vampyrs to understand how our bodies work. We absorb blood and oxygen. That’s really all there is to it. How we turn those materials into sheer strength, I don’t know. Maybe someday someone will have the opportunity and resources to study it, but that time is most definitely not now. And even if it does happen, our biology is very different than it used to be.

Being the last to look in this room, I shut the door and follow the others into the last section. The front portion is a thick, panoramic window where the long unused train controls are housed beneath. The rest of this area is lined with tables and long sofas that, all in all, sit roughly ten people. Against the wall to the hallway, there’s a small kitchenette in the corner with a tiny icebox underneath the counter and sink.

Everything inside is warm, rich woods and plush, albeit gaudy, carpet and upholsteries. If not for the two inch layer of dust, water damage, and obvious rat nesting, it would seem the taxpayers had spared no expense in not only keeping the President safe in his travels, but happily curled in the lap of luxury while entertaining the artifice that was his physical health.

The air is stale and laced with a sour tinge, but this will be a decent hiding spot until we’re able to find a way out of the city. We stop and take a moment to rest. There’s a chorus of groans from amidst the plumes of stale dust roused from long untouched seat cushions as we each find a spot.

I glance over at Tina next to me. She’s leaning forward, elbows resting on her knees, and her thoughts are a whir of activity. I mirror her position and lean in close to her, snaking my hand through the opening between her arm and leg. She smiles as she collects my hand in both of her own, stroking the back of it with her thumbs. She’s thankful for the distraction as the silence in the room seems oppressive. Or maybe it’s the thoughts that are oppressive, and only made worse by the silence.

For once, I’m grateful to Alice for breaking it. “So… what’s next?”

They all seem to be looking to Tina for guidance only to find her at a loss. It’s like now that she’s found me, she hadn’t considered anything past that.

I fumble a little as I try to focus on what we need and help her. “Well, we need to cut off access to this tunnel. People are going to flock to any hotels and large apartment buildings left standing, either for a place to hide or to loot once they find that there’s no way out of the city. I’m surprised we didn’t see anyone at Grand Central looking for a way out of the city. I can only guess that no one’s had a change to get organized with the way things are yet. We got lucky.”

Another thought occurs to me. “The Waldorf is probably our biggest threat though. It would be an ideal place for Duffy to set up.”

Helena breaks in. “So we may have a door right into the enemy’s camp?”

I nod. “Sure, if she chooses the Waldorf. There are other locations just as appropriate, but midtown seems to be less damaged and it’s more central to the island. Also, the Waldorf is one of the bigger hotels, so there’s more room to house her hostages and her troops. It would make sense.”

Helena speaks up again. “But that also means that they have a backdoor that leads straight to us.”

I nod again and Alice speaks up. “I hadn’t considered that.”

It’s quiet again and I can tell that we’re all deciding whether we need to move to somewhere else when Dana chimes in. “Well, we don’t know if the Waldorf is where Duffy will station, but we could always collapse both ends of the tunnel…”

We all look up at her and I grin. “That would be an excellent way to ensure that there’s no way in, but then there’s also no way out.”

There’s a collective nod and we’re silent again. Tina squeezes my hand and leans in to kiss me sweetly before resting her head on my shoulder. I feel contented sitting with her like this, but it’s terrible at the same time. I could easily just claim one of the compartments and curl up with her. I sigh as I realize that we haven’t even discussed anything yet. I still have so many questions…

This time it’s Shane to speak up. “Well, we have to have some way in and out of here, but if we collapse the ceiling on both ends and then clear a small path and hide it, I doubt that anyone would try to get through it.”

I nod. “No, they’d just think that the whole thing caved in during the assault.”

Carmen chimes in. “You guys, what if you do collapse it… on us…”

I shake my head. “No, tunnels like these are pieced together in sections. We’ll break the supports on either side of the section we want to collapse before we pull it down and…”

Dana grins. “Presto… instant walls and a way out.”

I sigh. It’s a good feeling knowing that we can stay here and we’re that much closer to a bed. But as weary as I am, there are things that I don’t believe will wait. “Does anyone want to fill me in on the last… however many months I was being held?”

Tina sits up as if she’s been shocked, her shoulders rigid with tension and her eyes staring at the floor. I tighten my hold on her hand. I don’t know the whole of what happened yet, but she shouldn’t be ashamed.

No one speaks for several moments before Dana’s voice cuts through. “What’s the last thing you remember?”

That’s easy. “We were ambushed at the courtyard and reinforcements arrived. I saw Tina, but I thought it was…”

I glance at Shane, Carmen, Helena, and the newcomer that I heard her call Dylan, and bite off my words. Alice and Dana already know, but I don’t feel like revealing my insanity to total strangers. This time, it’s Tina who squeezes my hand in support.

“Um…” I continue. “My neck was snapped and when I woke, I was in Canada, and Lilith was…”

Again, I don’t want to go there, and I can tell that Tina doesn’t either. It’s just too much. “Let’s just say that she’s not all that hospitable.”

Tina stokes my hand absentmindedly, her thoughts detached as she relates, ‘It took us a little over two months to get to you there.’

I nod and she continues. ‘I wanted to take the Canadian outpost to save you. Duffy was against it. Some were loyal to me, and others to her. I’d say that our army was split down the middle, but both sides were torn and just trying to find the right thing to do. So we kept hashing it out. I wouldn’t stop, and there was someone willing to help, Tim. Without a vote, with telling anyone, I asked him to go into the stronghold pretending to be a Loyalist. He was going to get close to you and free you if he could. If he couldn’t he was supposed to get out and tell me your location.’

She’s been delivering all of this so clinically that I can hardly recognize who I’m talking to. Her next words are a struggle, though she manages to pull her emotions away to get them out. ‘But I made a mistake, a huge mistake. He was a progeny of yours and Lilith found out about him. I assume that she heard his thoughts through your thoughts.’

I recall hearing someone’s thoughts but I was in so much pain and shock that I didn’t trust what I was hearing. Either way, it all makes sense now, at least for me. Tina though, she can’t make sense of it. She hates that he died but can’t hate that she’d sent him.

She’s struggling with her emotions, shoving them all down deep and I’m having a harder time picking up on the crux of the issue, so she continues. ‘He came stumbling back into camp and told me that she’d given him a message before snapping his neck. He woke in the forest in a tremendous amount of pain. Something was wrong with him, with his stomach, but before I was willing to let him get help, he told me what she’d said. Boom… that was her message.’

I don’t get it but it’s terrifying what this memory is doing to her. I try to pull my hand away so that I can wrap my arms around her for comfort, but she won’t release me. She finally looks at me, her eyes so void that it sends a chill down my spine, as they plead with me to just let her get it out.

I squeeze her hand and nod, and she again looks away, her next thoughts nearly impossible to get through. ‘I remember the confusion in his eyes after he’d delivered the message. That’s when we heard a small click from his stomach, like a switch had been flipped. We both realized too late what was going to happen and to save me, he took off running. I was frozen, standing there and just watching as he exploded and took a huge number of others with him, none of them me like it should have been, but all of them my responsibility.’

I can’t even begin to wrap my head around what she’s saying, and for once I’m thankful that she’s keeping her thoughts and emotions at bay.

But then, there’s more. ‘That didn’t stop me from pushing us to the outpost or making the deal with the military and pushing yet again. I was relentless, and I just couldn’t stop. And then I got to you, and again, she took you. We found out that you were in New York. We tried and tried to get to you for nearly three months, but we couldn’t. More and more of us kept dying and finally, the people were ready to stop following me. That’s when I made the deal with the humans, to force them to help me. It worked, but at a heavy cost. And what’s worse is that I’d do it again.’

I lean over to kiss her temple and stop as she reproaches me. I’m shaking with the resolve to stay away from her, but if she won’t allow me to comfort her, it wouldn’t work anyway.

‘I’m sorry, Bette…’

Her apology is almost cold, but I understand. We can’t afford for either of us to break down right now.

I wearily haul myself to my feet and address the group. “How about Shane, Dana, and I go and take care of the cave-in while the rest of you get this place cleaned up and get that tiny icebox working? We don’t want the blood to spoil. Then we’ll all clean up and rest before we try to find a way out of the city.”

They’re all blinking at me and I realize that Tina and I both zoned out for a while, and now I’ve interrupted them rather abruptly. Either way, I have to do something to shake this feeling that I’m getting from Tina. “Now… please.”

Alice smirks. “We’d thought you two had gone catatonic over there.”

If I had laser beams in my eyes, I would cut her in half right now.

She seems to sense this. “Sheesh, fine… fucking grumpy today…”

There’s a chorus of groans as everyone moves, but at least they’re being productive. They drag themselves up to start rummaging through our supplies and I look to Tina, realizing that this is the first time she’ll be out of my sight, even if it is just as far as the tunnel. And worse, I feel so disconnected from her right now.

She stands as well, clinging to her cold demeanor as she bends down to my duffel and retrieves four of the satellite phones we snagged, handing one to each of us and keeping one for herself.

Shane stares down at hers. “Won’t the military pick up the signal?”

I tear mine open and check the battery level as I respond. “Sure, but with prepaid phones like these, it’s nearly impossible to trace them. That’s why terrorists use them.”

Carmen stops what she’s doing, setting the spray cleaner she just pulled from one of the duffels down on the tiny counter in front of her and bracing her arms against the surface. Given that we found her in Tel Aviv, I can only imagine what the connotations of what that word holds for her.

Her voice is quiet. “Is that what we are… terrorists?”

I release a heavy breath. This is one of those gray areas life is so adept at morphing into. What is a terrorist but someone standing up for what they believe is right? All that can really be said is that whatever the cause, they only meant well in some regard, at least at first. For whatever reason, they thought what they were doing what was best, usually for those that they care about. They could be completely wrong, and they usually are, but that doesn’t change the conviction with which they fight and even die.

I’m no different; Tina’s no different. None of us are any different when faced with impossible options. We just do the best that we can to preserve what we hold dear, no matter the expense. Is it right? Well, what is right?

Either way, there’s only one answer to that question. “Everyone is, Carmen, one way or the other…”

It’s quiet and pensive and I’m too tired to wax philosophical anymore. Besides, we need to get moving. The battery on my phone is good and I check to be sure that we all have the appropriate numbers saved in our contact lists.

We move to the door and I turn as Dana and Shane exit to try and find something of the woman that I love as reassurance. She seems to be losing some of her rigidity, but what’s been buried there is like a bomb waiting to go off.

‘Just… hurry back,’ she says.

I nod. ‘I still love you, T. No matter what.’

She bends again to the duffel and starts pulling things out almost frantically to distract herself. ‘I love you, too.’

I leave her and step out into the tunnel. We’ve only just touched on things and it’s already a monumental task. I take a page from Tina’s book, pushing all of the emotions away and focusing. I run to catch up with Shane and Dana who are making their way towards the Waldorf, and look forward to the impending destruction that is at hand. Maybe I’ll be able to bleed off some of my anxiety.

We get back to the train car that is to be our home for the unforeseeable future a little over two hours later, tired, filthy, and exhausted. We wound up pulling down two sections of tunnel on each side to be sure that the avalanche completely filled the tall space. It was hard, dirty work, and there was a close call when we were trying to create a crawlspace where Dana was nearly crushed, but we were able to get her out of the way in time.

We wound up making a thin gap between the inside wall-line and the debris so that we could squeeze through quickly should we find ourselves in an urgent way. And in doing so, we found that it was both more reliable and more easily disguisable than tunneling. The rocks that we then used to cover the space only further hid our presence from the inside, and the only way to get through without knowing where to look would require a massive amount of determination, strength, and work… or just plain blind luck.

I feel much more secure, at least in this aspect, but as we approach the car, I’m nervous about Tina. Of all the mountains left to tunnel though, this will be the most difficult. We have to find a way; I’m just not sure what that is yet. I hate not having a plan. It’s so… unsafe. It’s one thing to take risks with my own life, but with Tina’s life is hanging in the balance, there’s no room for even precarious teetering.

Steeling my nerves with a deep lung-full of air, I step inside and find that the car’s been scrubbed topped to bottom, the sour smell dissipated to give way to the harsher odors of citrus and synthetic chemical. It’s a vast improvement to say the least. Everything’s been put away and the carpet’s been torn out leaving the metal hull scrubbed clean beneath our feet.

I notice that one of the side windows has been cracked open and a thick cord is snaking through the new gap. From the inside, it connects to one of the surge protectors that we snagged at the sporting goods store and it’s been tucked up snug against the wall on the counter, an old fashioned plug seated securely into one of its sockets.

I open the icebox to see that it’s working, and release a bittersweet breath of relief. The meager collection of blood is safely stored, but that’s just it, it’s meager. It buys us some time, maybe a month, but it won’t be enough, and I don’t relish the idea of having to find donors.

Unfortunately, animals aren’t an option. Just like in all things, a balance is required. Where we are absorbing life, someone must be giving it, and it must be an equivalent exchange. I shut the door. I have a month, I remind myself. I’ll know something by then. I have to.

Dana and Shane nearly collapse onto the couches behind me, and I make my way toward the back where I can hear movement. Each door in the hall is open to reveal someone inside cleaning or unpacking but obviously having bathed and changed. It’s behind the furthest door that I finally find Tina, and I can’t help but watch as she spreads a double sleeping bag over the cots that she’s managed to pull out of the wall and rig together on the floor.

I could stand here and just gaze on her doing something so domestic, so… achingly familiar, for ages. I can almost pretend that nothing’s changed, that nothing’s wrong. I miss that feeling of normalcy that we indulged for so many years, and long to know what it means to just come home to her, or share a book together, or sit in front of our movie player and while away the hours.

I allow myself to remember, unconsciously leaning against the narrow doorframe to take that moment that I’ve been waiting for. It finally starts to settle in that she’s here, she’s alive, and despite all that’s happened, in so many ways, we’ve beat truly insurmountable odds. Yes, it was costly, but I can’t find it within myself to feel guilty. I’m not like Tina in that way, and for once, I want to curse that compassion that I so love about her.

A wave of nostalgia-laced pain washes through me as she puts two pillows against the wall at the head of the bed and absently strokes the pillowcase to smooth out the wrinkles in an almost worshipful manner. That used to be my side of the bed, and a throbbing ache starts to radiate in my chest.

It’s so strange how the mind works. Why now? Maybe it’s exhaustion, or maybe it’s just that this is the first moment that I’ve been able to allow myself to recognize what’s been festering in the dark corners of my own mind, but it’s like a raging storm on the cusp of the ocean and it’s lapping waves threaten to pull me under.

Tina seems to have frozen in place just staring at the pillow, her hand still resting on the crisp linen. Or maybe my mind is playing tricks on me and forcing time to stop so that I can drown in the memories of something that we’ll never have again. There’s no way to undo what’s been done or how those actions have changed us both. But as she slumps heavily on the edge of the cots and wraps her arms around her middle in a futile attempt to hold her chest together, none of that matters. I refuse to stand by and watch her suffer.

She seems distracted as I approach, and startles when I sit next to her. I force away my trepidation and rest my forehead against her shaking shoulders. She scrubs at her eyes as if she’s done something wrong and wants to hide the evidence, the gentle voice of her mind timid and soft as she says, ‘I’m sorry.’

I pull her into my arms and hold her, trying to reassure her. ‘It’s okay, T…’

She doesn’t have anything to apologize for, at least not to me. I know that I’m a hypocrite in this situation. No, I wouldn’t have sent that boy after me, but after her… no doubt. I’d have done no less and I refuse crucify her for following her heart. She needs to confront that.

She sits up and trains her eyes on me. They’re fathomless, the color of deep forest shade flecked with wet moss, and the brokenness of two years spent lost glosses them with bittersweet sorrow that I recognize only too well. There’s more than just what happened while I was held captive. There’s more than guilt. There’s more than that moment of realization that the other is alive. It’s a maelstrom of everything crashing down around us.

When I’d broken free of the ocean, I’d spent so much time in my grief forcing myself to confront the reality of her death, that when it finally took root, those roots became thorns that dug into my soul and strangled it.

As I peer into her, as I see her humanity, the raw wounds that only something flesh and blood can know, I realize that she had done the same. Our souls are just now waking up to all of the negative stimulation that’s been surrounding us for so long and that’s only compounded by this incredibly positive source of joy. Something as innocuous as making a bed for two gave her pause, gave me pause, and traumatized us both with a cavalcade of unbidden comprehension.

It’s wonderful, this understanding that it was all a lie. But that comprehension is swelling, snapping the thorns around our souls apart to give freedom to starving lungs and leave us gaping at the air, as everything rushes out with each ragged exhale.

I feel the sharp pang of that anguish bubble up inside of me to find release over the dark ridge of my lashes, and without meaning to, we’re both clinging to each other and mourning. It’s deep, the well from which we try to empty ourselves, and each breath feels like a dull spoon is scraping out my insides.

It all becomes so desperate the more time that passes. My hands roam her body of their own accord, searching for proof, for signs of life. They find warm skin, pale and smooth, and the blossom of a flush along delicate collarbones; they find the full swell of breasts heaving out all that’s been locked inside, and touch the gentle slope of a delicate ear; they find softly cushioned protrusions that give testament to the bones that frame this truly corporeal form. But most importantly, they find the surging pulse-point of a heart that defies death. They just find life.

My hands – they find, they test, and they convince me of the truth, but when my breath is swallowed up in her mouth, my gasps receding into that heady buzz of being all encompassed by her, I know that she’s here, and that she’s mine, and I don’t care what it took to make that happen. I just don’t. I just want to know how it’s possible and cling to that hope that I should have had all this time.

She pulls away and shallows thickly, kissing me again before burying her face in my neck and pulling me into her lungs. ‘After Lilith took me from our home, she had me sent to the stronghold in Peru. They healed me and just shut me up in a cell to wait. Shane was in the cell next to me. Lilith found out about her betrayal. I have no idea how long we waited there, several weeks… at least, before she finally came back.’

She starts to sob again and I don’t need any further explanation. I can see it, all of it, vivid and grotesque, as she relives the torture Lilith subjected her to. There’s no way for her to hold it in, not anymore. I can feel each snapping bone, each violent strike, the blood-letting, my own blood being forced down her throat, the forced consumption of what she believed to be my heart, the removal of her fangs…

I close my eyes against it, but the soul knows no such boundary. It’s all there, each interspersed with the spiteful explanation of what Lilith had done to me to procure such items. I want to be sick as I feel each and every violation Lilith subjected Tina to, leaving her despondent and impotent. And while I had moved past my hate before, there was no way that I could move past it now. If I had the opportunity to kill her all over again, there would be no doubt or progeny ridden guilt; I’d tear her apart in ways never before thought of.

Everything Lilith said to Tina while she tortured her was true, expect for one thing and maybe even the most important: Lilith didn’t kill me. No, she’s not kind enough for that. She sunk me in the ocean to drown over and over and over again…

Tina digs her fingers into my shirt to hold onto me as my own secrets are revealed to her and as a result, we start to share with each other without even meaning to, our thoughts painting a ghastly tapestry of two years of pain and suffering in the blink of an eye and with no way to filter it.

One of the guards at the outpost collecting both Tina and Shane for execution, only to exchange them with other condemned because of his devotion to his general, Shane…

The two of them running and hiding, finding no refuge or way of escape for nearly two months, long after they’d supposedly been executed…

A vampyr called Adele finding and helping them get out of Peru to a remote area in the mountains of Colorado

Adele telling Tina that Alice and Dana were executed in her and Shane’s places…

Tina filling with a darkness and despondency that makes her callous towards the cause…

Adele helping them to rebuild the rebellion from the ground up under aliases…

Tina dreaming of me… the interlude with her children… the stolen moments together…

Tina suffering waking visions of me that I don’t remember…

Tina sinking further into darkness, now believing herself to be insane…

Tina watching Lilith kidnap me from the courtyard…

Tina finding Alice and Dana at the courtyard and learning that we’re all alive…

Tina going to confront Adele for her lie and finding her missing…

Tina risking the rebellion multiple times in vain efforts to rescue me, and resulting in countless human and rebellion deaths…

Tina’s leadership waning because of her choices and obsession with saving me…

Tina’s arguments with Duffy escalating and causing civil unrest…

Tina offering the human military Lilith’s body and full vampyr cooperation in one last desperate attempt to save me…

It’s too much for either of us to bear, and every feeling and thought is infinitely compounded by our connection. It’s as if we’re one person with two sets of nerves all singing out their anguish. Our hearts are overflowing and bleeding out from our minds and into our guts, and I don’t know if there’s a way to get it under control, not with her mind and heart so very near to my own. I need… a minute, space, just something to pull us out of this cycle we’ve unwittingly trapped ourselves in.

She pulls away from me, unable to stop her own weeping long enough to even think let alone speak. She points to the door, ‘Go… just go… please…’

I loathe to leave her, but the emotions are crippling, somehow stronger than even before. I stagger from the room, pushing past a wide-eyed Alice in the hallway, through the back area, and down the maintenance tunnel to the water main. I turn the lever on the spout beneath quickly, not even understanding why, and wind up falling to my knees and dry heaving blood into the drain below.

Dana comes rushing up to me and rubs soothing circles on my back until it abates, leaving me raw and turned inside out. I start to calm and that’s when I realize that my distance from Tina is increasing. I start to panic, fumbling to my feet to go to her.

Dana forces me back down, but she doesn’t understand. “Let me up… I need to get to Tina. She’s leaving…”

She brushes the curls from my face. “Bette, it’s okay. Alice isn’t taking her far. Just try to relax…”

I gulp at the air and slump against the wall, trying to do as Dana says. She strokes my hair, a deep furrow in her brow as she continues to try and console me. I feel completely wrecked, unraveled, and unnerved as I focus on her. “What’s happening us, Dane…?”

She frowns and exhales in helpless exasperation before turning off the water. “I can’t be sure, but I’ve seen you both sort of… losing your minds without each other, seeing each other…”

Her expression is apologetic but she’s not wrong. I did. I tried to kiss her, for fuck’s sake. She exhales heavily. “It’s like… you two are somehow different… special. It’s almost like something or someone bigger gave you both this incredible gift that’s also this incredible curse, but I think there’s a reason. I think…”

Her frown deepens. “No, I know that there’s a reason, and I think that maybe this has to happen. Maybe you’re going to need it somehow. I mean… you saw what happened to the sun… the sky…?”

I nod mutely. “Everything’s evolving, Bette. We just have to get through it to find out why and hopefully use it to end all of this.”

I capture her hand and squeeze it, feeling much more grounded. “Thank you.”

She smiles. “For what? Nothing I just said made any fucking sense.”

I can’t help but laugh, the sound of it so weary and desperate that it’s almost hysterical. She waits for me to calm down and asks, “What happened in there?”

I blow out a breath and force myself to say it without thinking about it. “I just lived the last two years of both mine and Tina’s life in the span of a heartbeat.”

Dana winces. “Well, I’d say it can’t get much worse but I’m not brave enough to tempt the fates.”

I shake my head. “Please don’t. I don’t know how much more I can take.”

She grins before her expression turns serious. “I really mean it, Bette. Whatever’s going on with the two of you, with this war, just… with all of it… we’ll figure it out. I believe in you both… we all do.”

I sigh, not knowing if I believe her but hoping that she’s right. She gets to her feet and extends a hand down to me to help me up, and I accept it.

Her voice is kind as she says, “Look, why don’t you get cleaned up and get some sleep. I think you’ll both be less overwhelmed once you’ve rested.”

I nod, eternally grateful for even the notion that sleep will provide a reprieve. “You’re a good friend, Dana. So is Alice…”

She crosses her arms over her chest and cocks her head at me with a smug smile, and I hasten to add, “But don’t tell her that I said that.”

She laughs and makes her way back into the car, “I make no promises. Now hurry up, I want a bath too.”

She disappears into the car and I run a hand through my hair, cringing at the concrete dust that tangles it around my fingers. It was worth it though. We’ll be safe here and mostly comfortable until we figure out what the next move is, that is so long as we can survive that long. We have to figure this out before the blood is gone, and Tina… I don’t know how to make things okay…

I shake my head to force my mind to just shut up, and hesitantly, I move back towards the car.

Alice hasn’t brought Tina back, and I’m both relieved and worried. Whatever that was can’t happen again. I’ve never felt anything like it before, but Tina has…? I recall an instant in the onslaught of crippling memories when Tina almost died and she saw me. When she sat up, we connected and it was this intense joy mixed with urgency, almost as if she was receiving an affirmation of… something.

I collect a towel, some clothes, and the soap and make my way back out to the water main, all the more puzzled for the new information that I have. Tina was coming to me in that way, but she doesn’t remember it either. If it is even possible by some… force… as Dana says, then why don’t either of us remember the others visitations? And more importantly, what does it mean?

Bathing isn’t an easy task with the low spout, but it works well enough. I can feel Tina drawing closer as I start to dry off, and I wait to see if any of the paralyzing pain comes with her. It doesn’t and I release an anxious breath, choosing to dress in just a tank top and underwear.

Ultimately, we should probably sleep in street clothes just in case something happens, but I just don’t care. Masters obviously isn’t going to make any overt moves for destruction yet. He wants something, something that is keeping us alive, though only he and his superiors know what that is. Either way, we’re far enough underground that if they did decide to nuke the city, we’re safe from the explosions. Well, as safe as possible, though I have no idea how radiation affects a vampyr’s biology.

I walk back into the car to find Helena, Carmen, and Dylan glancing at each other apprehensively as Shane holds up a small paper sack.

I stop and watch them curiously as they reach in, one after the other, and pull out their closed fist. “What are you guys doing?”

Shane glances at me, her expression annoyed. “We’re drawing to see which two of us have to share a room and which two get their own.”

“Ah.” I smirk at Shane. “Good luck.”

She squints her eyes at me and I shake my head as I continue to mine and Tina’s room. Just as I reach the door, I hear both Shane and Carmen squawk in protest while the other two high-five each other in victory. This should be interesting. I can’t see Shane sharing private space with anyone, let alone someone as stubborn as Carmen.

My levity is lost as I see Tina sitting on the edge of the bed. It looks like she was dressing down to sleep and then just stopped, her jeans pooled at her ankles. For a moment, I wonder if I should just bunk with one of the others. Everything is so disconcerting. Is it unsafe to be this close to her? Does she even want me here?

There’s an immediate warmth in her response as she looks up at me. ‘Of course I do.’

I step inside and shut the sliding pocket-door behind me, leaving it unlocked. I make quick work of storing away my toiletries in one of the duffels on the floor. By the time I’m done. I realize that Tina still hasn’t moved, and I crawl onto our conjoined cot behind her and settle onto my back.

This entire situation has only begun to take its toll on her, on us. She wants to feel bad for all that’s happened and assume that guilt, but the only guilt she can assume is the guilt of not feeling guilty.

I shake my head and smooth my hand down her back with more confidence than I feel. ‘It’s okay, T.’

She glances at me over her shoulder and I smile at her, tugging on her shirt. ‘Come here…?’

She doesn’t hesitate to kick off her jeans and crawl up against my side to bury her face in my neck. I hate that I’ve done this to her. I hate anything that troubles her in any way.

‘It’s not your fault, Bette. I just have to learn to live with what I’ve done. I’m just glad that you’re here.’

Our arms and legs tangle together effortlessly, an instinctual knowledge of how to best lock our bodies together. And for a moment, it’s like time and pain have no reign here, like nothing’s really changed. We’re merely back in our bedroom, her above me demanding that I ask her to marry me. Is that still my biggest regret? Now more than ever. I banish the thought of that future from my thoughts, my very heart.

‘Are you okay,’ I ask.

She places a tender kiss to my jaw before tucking her nose behind my ear and releasing a gentle breath. ‘Yeah, I think so. Are you?’

I glide my fingers through the honey-hued hair splayed across my arm, fascinated by the way the strands manage to capture the dull lighting from the bulbs along the outside corridor, and kiss the crown of her head.

‘I feel much better.’

And it’s true. She sighs contentedly and I find my eyes sliding shut, my breath evening out, and my arms tightening instinctively to anchor myself to her as we fall into an exhausted slumber.

I blink a few times as I adjust to wakefulness and find that I haven’t moved an inch since I fell asleep, and apparently neither has Tina. I breathe in deeply at the crown of her head, her heart thrumming a low, soothing rhythm that reassures me. For once, this isn’t a dream or a hallucination.

I hear Shane relieve Alice and Dana from watch and sigh as I realize that I don’t have to move yet. We’ll rotate in four hour shifts. If I had any doubts about bringing them with us before, I don’t now. It could have been a very different scenario without them, one that I don’t think I want to imagine.

Tina stirs slightly and I smile reflexively as she stretches in my arms, sweet, girlish sighs escaping her before she resettles. We lay this way for long minutes, just basking in the feel of one another, luxuriating in the olfactory senses that call up the comfort of memories that made life worth living.

All of this might have been lost, but it’s not. No matter what’s happened or what’s changed, or even what may come, none of it can ruin this feeling and there is so much to be thankful for. Memory, confusion, and uncertainty hold no sway in the face of how much I love her.

She glides her hand up under my shirt and presses her palm to my breast just above my heart. ‘First, last, and forever.’

I bury my nose in her hair again. No, this isn’t a dream; it’s better, but I still can’t help but wonder at the changes that have taken place. The heartbeat, the sky, what our visions and dreams meant, and mostly, how this most recent sleep was blissfully empty. Was it just exhaustion? Will we have them again? Then another thought surfaces: will I still… hallucinate? Were they even hallucinations?

I can feel her brow furrow against my chin as she ponders my thoughts with me. ‘I was in Hinsdale County, high in the mountains of Colorado, when I first saw you while I was awake. It was the evening after the dream with the twins.’

I remember it vividly and so does Tina. It’s bizarre seeing it from the exact opposite viewpoint, but everything is precisely as I remember it from my own point of view. And the emotions… for a moment, I want stop our momentum down this path. We could find ourselves seeking distance again.

Her hand runs circles on my stomach and we take a moment to reign in the feelings brought on by the shared memory to find that we’re not overwhelmed. Maybe it was just the unfiltered outpouring that did us in before. And combined with everything else, who wouldn’t break?

Tina turns and kisses my shoulder before continuing. ‘Later that day, just as I was preparing for bed, you just… appeared. You seemed so confused… Every time I saw you, it was like it was the first time for you, but somehow not… like some things were retained and others forgotten, but mostly you were just desperate to see me. We’d talk about everything and nothing really, and then you’d get this look on your face and you’d disappear.’

I nod. I saw this in her mind, but it still doesn’t illuminate anything for me. My own experiences with her were the same. For the first few minutes of Tina’s arrival, she’d be… observant, like she was trying to cope with something, her thoughts not as clear. But then she’d just… go with it until she was stolen away.

‘Bette, why do you suppose that we can’t remember our own side of it?’

I stare up at the ceiling and release a heavy breath. ‘T, do you remember anything specific the first time that you saw me?’

Of course she does; she’s a vampyr.  And if the evolution of her mind wasn’t enough, the sheer shock of my appearance etched everything about that moment into her memory. ‘It was the day after the dream with the twins, just after eight pm. I was preparing for bed and we’d just received word that another rebel faction was taking down Loyalist strongholds.’

She smirks against my neck and I squeeze her. ‘Duffy was preparing her team to leave in the morning to investigate.’

In Cairo that would have been around five am, just before sunrise. That was the day of the downpour and the worst of the attacks that we experienced in the desert. They had started early and continued to be relentless. We only barely survived the night. I’d been knocked unconscious by three Loyalist who had me pinned. I thought that I was done for. But when I woke, the sun was just coming up and Liam had saved my life… again.

I feel my chest tighten as he comes to mind. He frustrated me with the Zihao nonsense, but mostly he just made me laugh. I don’t want to miss him, so I focus on the topic at hand.

‘The first time that I saw you, it was early morning in Tel Aviv. It would have been roughly nine pm in Colorado.’

‘What day?’

‘I’m not sure what day that was. Sorry, time tends to bleed together in the desert and I wasn’t exactly in my right mind.’

She nods knowingly and I continue. ‘There was the night of Anna and Liam’s wedding though.’

I chuckle. ‘You were so pissed when that woman propositioned me, at least until you told me that I should move on and try to be happy with someone else.’

I shake my head. ‘How could you even think that were possible?’

She glances up at me. ‘Considering I can’t even remember saying that, I can’t really offer any explanations.’

She exhales heavily. But…’

‘T, stop…’

‘No, you stop. It’s true, Bette. I-‘

I sigh and consider singing Henry the Eighth to just tune her out, but a sharp pinch at my ribs removes that option, so I try reasoning with her. This is yet another way that I’m a hypocrite. ‘You don’t have to say it, T. You already have, and I’m fully aware that you’re thinking it. It’s just not going to happen. If we’re unlucky enough to be split up again, nothing short of the second death will stop me from finding you.’

I reach my free hand up to stroke the arm across my stomach. ‘And maybe not even that would stop me. We’re never going through this again.’

She twines our fingers together and nods once, and I try to steer us back on topic. ‘Anyway, Anna and Liam’s wedding…’

She plays with my fingers absentmindedly. ‘I remember that day because we had been mobilizing factions to converge on your location and we were trying to get as many people there as we could before morning. Shane and I were in Spain to get the last group, and Duffy had sent word on which factions had already arrived. When we finished, we considered just heading that way as well, but chose not to. Traveling at night had become extremely dangerous.’

‘So we were in the same time zone and we didn’t even know it.’

She takes a deep breath. ‘Unfortunately. I had no idea. I went to sleep early, exhausted but none the wiser. It wasn’t until the next day, after we arrived, that Liam told me that he’d been looking for me and that no one knew that Shane and I were alive. I got Alice and Dana back, but you had already been taken.’

So Liam’s secret was Tina. Zihao had put a bug in his ear and he wanted to find her for me to confirm it. He should have just told me, but then his words make sense now.

“Not until I’m certain, Bette. That would be… too cruel.”

It saddens me further to think that I was so angry with him. He was just trying to help me and Tina. He was a good man, and an even better friend. And he was right when he said that I’d have made the same deal with Zihao. If I’d have known, I’d have done it without even a thought. More than that, I’d have abandoned everything else to find her. But Liam didn’t find her. If that had been me… I shudder to think of how devastating that would have been. I might not have survived the loss of that hope a second time.

I close my eyes and send out my thanks to him. Maybe, as I’m beginning to believe, his spirit is still aware and he can hear me.

I feel a gentle kiss to my fingers and something else occurs to me. ‘T, you said you went to bed early?’

‘Yes… why?’

‘The wedding was around seven pm. That early?’

She thinks for a moment and slowly nods against my shoulder. ‘That sounds right.’

So these… what are they… out-of-body experiences? They happened when only one of us was unconscious in those two instances. I search my mind for any scrap of knowledge that I might have absorbed on the metaphysical. I’ve read hundreds books on the occult and spiritual phenomena during my studies, always writing them off as ignorant minds trying to make sense of scientific phenomena that they didn’t understand. Lilith had garnered an impressive library when we stayed in New York. Most of them were old texts and first editions no less.

The Displaying of Supposed Witchcraft had mentioned something of this kind. ‘T, what if it’s astral projection?’

She lifts up and looks at me, her eyes bright with mischief and her tone playful. ‘Why, Bette Porter, do you believe in something greater than logic?’


She grins. ‘Next you’re going to tell me that you believe in Santa Claus, and I don’t think that I’ll survive the shock.’

I glare at her, part of me still clinging to the possibility that science explains the universe, but to my own surprise, I find that I have… for lack of a better word, faith… where I once had only logic. This is a new development indeed.

She chuckles and I brush the loose strands from her eyes so that I can confirm that her mirth has reached them, finding satisfaction that it has.

Despite my indignity at her laughter, a warmth steals over me at the uplifting sound. However, this blow to my ego and, more to the point, my sensibilities, just won’t do. ‘T…?’

She adopts a very poor facsimile of a serious face as she rests her head on her arms against my chest to give me her full attention. ‘It sounds crazy, but look around you. Lilith hated humans because of a… mother… a creator… a Goddess.’

She starts to laugh a little more and I’m quick to add, ‘Okay, so she wasn’t not the most reliable source, but-‘

‘Bette, she was batshit crazy…’

‘Still, her death changed the entire planet, and we now have beating hearts though we still aren’t really human. Not to mention that the two of us share dreams, and we have memories of hallucinations with each other that appear to have happened when one or the other was unconscious.’

She’s quiet now, and I add one last thing, ‘And… we’re vampyrs… as in biologically dead in every sense of the word, or at least we used to be, but still walking around and drinking blood, which is not conducive to human anatomy in any way, shape, or form. Every single one of these things defies biology and science, but we know them to be fact.’

Well, that wiped the smirk off of her face. If not for the fact that this is serious, I’d take it all back just to see her smile again. The truth is though, at this point, anything just really is possible.

‘Huh…,’ is all she says.

I gaze at her incredulously. ‘That’s all you have to say?’

‘Well, I hadn’t really thought about it. I’ve always just figured that nature was the creator and science can explain it, but we’ve never studied ourselves biologically and you’re right, things that defy reason are happening left and right. Either way, that’s really the best explanation that there is.’

She shrugs indifferently, the mischief returning, and I have the most intense urge to… I don’t know… do something completely undignified to teach her a lesson. She laughs again as she leans up, her arms braced on either side of me as she leans in to kiss me. It’s tender and it’s gentle, but decidedly sensual.

I sigh into the contact, which deepens the kiss, and I feel something inside of me tug, urging me to find greater contact with her. Of course, she moves away, her face hovering low over my body and lit with a predatory grin as she slowly moves down my length, her eyes never leaving mine. She gets to the bottom edge of my tank top, and lifts the black material to scald the skin beneath with full, open-mouth kisses that cause things to flutter inside my ribcage.

My libido suddenly makes an appearance, announcing itself with a sharp twitch at the juncture of my thighs as her hands snake into the top of my underwear and pull them low over my hips. She wields her tongue with devilish precision, and I find myself breathing heavily, my heart stammering to keep up with the rush of blood that’s gathering in my nerves to prepare them for release, though she’s not even exposed me yet.

I jump and my heart leaps into my throat when her last kiss becomes an assault. I feel my eyes bulge and I sit up to look down at her incredulously. She takes one look at my face and fucking laughs. I feel my eyes narrow, and that only makes her laugh harder. I wait for her to calm down and smirk at her. There’s a moment of intense stillness that follows as she finally realizes the folly of her actions.

She pulls away slowly, hoping that it will give her the leverage that she’ll need to avoid my impending attack, but there’s little that can help her now. I lunge forward and she squeals girlishly as I grip her, flop her back on the other side of the mattress, and straddle her hips. Two can play at this game.

I grip her wrists and pin them above her head with one hand, using the other to lift her shirt and trail my fingers over her ribs in a feather-light touch meant to tickle and excite at the same time. She struggles and pleads through her laughter, only stopping when my knuckles graze the smooth area between her breasts in a soft but proprietary manner.

I watch her eyes darken as my little finger just barely skims across one of the small, round bits of pebbled flesh in the center of the right peak. It’s a start, but I’m not nearly satisfied, and I lean in to open my mouth around the tortured flesh. I can feel how much she desires full contact, but choose instead to let my breath and the almost imperceptible touch of my lips distress it further. She inhales sharply at the sensation and I release her hands, confident that even if she can fight, she won’t want to.

I feel hands tangle in my hair to lift my face. Her expression is one of devotion and seriousness and I sit back, concern coloring my thoughts. She presses upwards and strokes the length of my face before pulling my hair back to focus on me.

Her eyes are bottomless as she says, ‘I just don’t want us to become so emotional that we have another one of those episodes. You know how overwhelming our lovemaking can be.’

She’s right, but I refuse to be worried. If anything, I’m desperate to feel that intimacy with her. And if by some cruel twist of fate I can’t be near her, or make love to her without becoming overwhelmed, then I’m just going to have to learn how to handle more.

Her eyes gloss over and she smiles adoringly. My devotion for her coalesces with my desire and morphs into something stronger than any barrier that might stand between us. Her motions are heavy with intent as she lifts her shirt from her shoulders and leans back to pull her knees up and remove the last veil to her nakedness.

It’s incredible to me how weakness can be something that emboldens, and how impossibility only makes victory that much more essential. She’s uncovered, exposed, and vulnerable, but somehow that act of confidence, that lack of shame, it’s a righteous defiance that gives us both infinite strength. And it’s that very strength that will see us through this and anything else doomed to try and tear us asunder.

She leans back, unfolding herself outward, and I have to take a moment to breathe in, hold it, and remind myself to calm down. As much as I’m beholding her in the physical, I’m holding a heart here in my hands, a heart that can’t be measured but it’s been tested and found true.

It’s my own work of art, something tangible that can be shaped or destroyed with one deft flex of my fingers. What becomes of it will tell a tale for all to see, whether here and now when it’s needed or later when it will actually be received. But its message will always be the same: no force in heaven or earth can destroy that which is founded in love.

I know that I have to give in and let all of those barriers down in this moment, find the will to boast in my weakness just like my beloved, and shape this masterpiece with the skillful hand of the faithful. But it’s so hard to start living. And when I do, what will I be? I feel as if I’m turning myself into somebody else, and I have no control of the outcome. Will I be human? Is that possible?

I feel the rush of blood in my veins pressed on by a heart that shouldn’t beat, but it does, and I realize that truly anything is possible. This one organ will give witness to the fact that we are all human if we choose to be. It’s so much more than biology; I am more than carbon and bacteria; I am more than anything any power could create because I am my beloved’s, and she is mine.

I glance down at the tank at my waist and grip the edge of the thin material to lift it, to free myself and give myself over to her. I long to give myself to her, and it’s not because I owe her no less, though that is as true as the air in my lungs or the love in my heart. No, it’s because I just want to.

There is no certainty, not physical or metaphysical. I may know how I live, but that will never explain why I’m alive. That is immeasurable; it defies logic. It’s faith. Yes, I have faith and the reason is laid open in front of me like a divine feast for a starving soul, beckoning me to come and be fulfilled.

She’s immaculate before my eyes, but I choose to close them and seek the truth of her. Is she real because I can hold her in my hands or is it because I can feel her with my heart? I have faith that it’s the latter because I can see her with my eyes, even in the dark. I can see the truth, and I long to touch her heart, her very essence.

Why are people so ashamed to be uncovered and be honest? If they could only know what I know, see what I see, even as I close my eyes, then maybe they would find peace in the fact that skin and bruises only give testament to what lies beneath. And with that kind of power… all things are useless against it.

I divest myself of all other useless obstacles and focus on the gentle hum of her thoughts as they fill me with that life, that light. It’s pure and unadulterated, and sends goose flesh skittering through my nerves. My heart gallops and I’ve not even touched her yet, but I’m already inside of her, surrounded by her, filled with her to the point of bursting.

It’s like an electric pulse; it’s like free-falling and knowing that I’ll have a soft place to land. A whoosh of breath leaves my lungs as I tap into the core of her. It’s a pulse that starts low and heavy, and then rolls outwards until it’s touched the very tips of my hair. I’m no longer tapped into her, but I’m part of that very current.

Part of me wants to know what’s happening, to open my eyes and rely on lesser things, but even as that part poses the question it seems to know the answer. I feel so light, suspended in the stratosphere as I let it all happen. I have no idea if I even have a body anchoring me to a world that will never compare to this place that I share with Tina.

The light grows brighter, where it should burn it only excites. It envelops us; the pulse quickening, building gradually. All sound falls away, time has no meaning, and there is no space, inside or out, left wanting. It peaks and recedes only to suck us back in and wind us tighter. It’s benediction and rapture, forcing away any conception of natural law until it grows so large, holds us so tightly, that it bursts and snaps and sends us tumbling from its embrace.

There’s a ringing in my ears and I slowly open my eyes, a gentle breeze soothing across my skin in a very pleasant way. I sigh contentedly, my hand reaching out, searching the cool grass beneath it until it finds its goal, somehow innately aware that it will be there. And it is.

Tina’s smaller hand links with my own and I turn to gaze at her over the green blanket beneath us. The soft blades are smooth against my cheek, and I smile as Tina turns and wrinkles her nose against their delicate tickle. Her face is somewhat fuller than usual, her skin glowing in the pre-twilight sun with health and vibrancy. The whites of her eyes are clear and the hazel irises vibrant.

‘What is this,’ she asks.

I look around us. We’re surrounded by rolling hills and blue sky, a tree the only break in the horizon. I glance back at Tina, knowing where we are but having no words to give this place meaning in reality. I should feel nervous or apprehensive, but I don’t and I’m not. This is right, more right than anything I’ve ever experienced in my life.

I roll to my side. ‘Our place.’

I move close to her and rest my head on my bent arm to gaze at her, feeling like the humble devout gazing up into a vision from the heavens. I reach over to run my hands through the lush strands of spun gold that fan out against the grass. Her smile is tender and I lean in to capture full lips for a taste of the decadent pleasures that lie within.

She tastes of joy and life, the promise of a future only dreamt of. Her breath blossoms warm and sweet in my mouth and radiates through me until, momentarily satisfied, I release her. Her skin is smooth like porcelain but soft like silk and every inch radiates vitality. I can’t stop myself from stroking the tender patch of skin beneath her ear with my thumb just to revel in the impossibility of the act, of this place that is singularly ours. She kisses me one last time before struggling to sit forward.

I frown. It’s not the struggling of one broken or injured, but reminiscent of a turtle turned onto its back. She gives me a scathing look in response to that thought and I grin at her, joy curling in my chest as I sit up easily and help her. She releases a heavy breath, her other arm curling around her stomach, and it’s at this moment that I realize the reason for her struggle.

Her middle is swollen, her breasts pert and resting heavily on the blessed protrusion that’s captured my attention. I feel something in my soul take flight and reach forward to smooth my hand across it. It’s hard, but still incredibly soft as its meaning finally pulls my soul back from the heavens.

My fingers interlace with hers over this… miracle, gift, satisfaction, joy… and she grins at me as she runs our hands protectively across the swell. Tears sting my eyes as I focus in and listen, the strong thrum of life beating out its existence from within with the light and rapid staccato of a hummingbird’s wings. I feel impossibly lighter, even as I feel the first drops of indecipherable emotions leave wet trails on my cheeks.

Tina’s eyes shine with her own surprise and joy, and she leans into the comfort of my arms for support. I press my lips to her temple and wonder how this happened. Tina’s a vampyr and even still, there wouldn’t be a father, would there?

She leans back and gazes into my eyes, her own confusion over this situation swirling around within her. Of course she’d never be unfaithful to me, but that still doesn’t explain how this could happen. How…

And then it happens, the spark of knowing gratification ignites in each of us at the same moment and I pull her to me, kissing her deeply before moving to kiss this child… our-

My eyes snap open; my heart thrums wildly, and my lungs can’t keep up with the overanxious need for oxygen as intense orgasm washes through the both of us. Tina’s legs and arms are gripping me so tightly that I fear that I might break. But it’s the deeper disparity of my soul at being so violently and abruptly banished from hers that leaves me wanting to tighten that embrace.

It takes long moments, but the sensations start to ebb, and I begin to fear that I’m crushing her. Her grip doesn’t relent and I bury my face in her neck, gulping and gasping to regain any sense of composure. But I fail… miserably so, and I can’t help but shake and cry into her hair. It’s not the violent sobbing that tears apart soul-deep wounds to allow for healing like it was before, but the calm mourning for something I’ll never know.

We lay this way for long minutes, helpless in this outpouring against one another. Everything aches as I grieve. My limbs protest as I push myself up off of Tina, feeling physically sated and emotionally torn asunder. She’s crying quiet tears and she reaches up to brush away the wet trails beneath my own eyes.

I roll off of her and gather her in my arms. That vision was probably the worst yet and by far the most torturous. I don’t know what creator would give us this connection only to abuse it by afflicting us with vivid dreams of what’s most deeply desired and wholly unattainable, but it’s an utterly crushing feeling.

My soul is weary and writhing within me as if it’s been completely displaced, skinned raw, and left without shelter. I feel so helpless in the face of everything’s that’s happened and happening. All I can do is burrow in closer to Tina, forcing through her thoughts to comfort and console her as I try to find my own safe harbor, try to reclaim that place where I was whole within her.

Almost immediately I feel better and we both start to relax, our tears drying up and our breathing evening out as our heartbeats synchronize. It’s relief like no other, and something inside of me snaps together, even as I can’t put my finger on what it means.

She kisses the hollow of my throat, and I sigh into her hair. The heavy call of sleep is not something that will be denied. We’re both quivering and weak, our minds filled with the blurry and convoluted, and innately, my soul seeks her out to find rest. We’ll get through this… whatever it is, and somehow, we’ll do it together.

Continued in Chapter 3 – To touch you… and to feel you, to be able to hold your hand right now, do you know what that means to me? Do you? Do you know how much I love you?

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