"I think I already knew," said Selene, staring out into the snow.
Eve let the eddies in the air ruffle the edges of her hood. Her time in the lab had been full of long silences. She'd expected Selene to look smaller or less powerful than she remembered. But she'd spent the past years among humans.
"If Michael had still been alive, he would have been trying to come to us," she said.
"You mean come to you," added Eve.
Selene exhaled slowly.
Eve wondered what it must have felt like for Selene to watch it happen, and through an enemy. She'd never seen Marius, so she pictured Dr. Lane with the vial his fingers. That bright blood could have been a last memory, a last message. Instead it had been burned for a few minutes of power by a man who had to have known he'd already lost.
"They told him," she said. "Marius thought Michael might know where I'd taken you, so he told him. Your father did know about you before the end."
That was something she remembered thinking, during those terrifying few weeks when she'd had a mother. If us all being together would be so wonderful, why isn't he looking for us? A parent finding out you existed didn't mean they were going to love you. It didn't even mean they were going to come back.
They turned to walk down the shattered battlement, ice and broken glass crunching underfoot. There were repairs to make before the coven stronghold was light-safe again. In the meantime, everyone was waiting out the light in the lower levels, far beyond hearing.
"What was in the sacred world?" Eve asked. "Did you see him there?"
"It wasn't the afterlife, Eve." Selene's brow creased. "It was... It's like looking at this world from underneath. The connections and patterns were clear, like the roots of a tree."
Eve considered this. "It reminded me of looking up from under the ice."
Selene turned toward her. "You saw that?"
"Only a little," Eve said carefully. "I usually can't see through your eyes from that distance." And learning not to have another person in her head had been a difference. "There is something special about that place."
"Is that how you knew I was at the northern coven?"
She nodded, then looked back at the keep behind them. "If you're their elder now, does that mean you can try to stop the war with the lycans?"
Selene exhaled. "I don't expect it will be that simple, but that's what I want, yes. The people who live here all lost friends tonight. The lycans invaded their home, used sunlight against them. They won't forgive that easily."
"But you're going to forgive them for killing Michael," Eve asked.
Selene's lower lip moved. "Yes," she said. "Yes I am. At least enough to put a stop to a war that he never wanted any part of."
"Did the sacred world tell you that?"
"No," said Selene. "Michael did. Long ago."
The wind whipped up, stinging with frost.
"Truly, I don't know what I saw in the sacred world. It may be some chemical in the water or some trick of our biology that built scenarios out of my own memory," she almost smiled. "Whether it was real or not, what I saw there gave me peace. I've been torturing myself wondering what would have happened if I'd made a different decision or avoided a mistake." She nodded, staring out into the snow. "Now that I know, I can move forward."
"You saw what would have happened?" she asked.
"Yes," said Selene.
"Did you—" Eve checked.
She breathed out. "Did you see ...what happened if you and Michael hadn't been captured before I was born?"
Selene felt a sad smile. "Yes."
Selene stared straight at the light coming through the blinds, crossing her arms to relieve the tightness in her chest. In the first few years following Alexander Corvinus's death, daylight had meant a certain kind of safety. The purge had changed that. Humans could come at any time.
She didn't turn when she heard the footfalls on the gravel outside or the screen door creak open. She knew the stride.
"Okay," Michael stepped over the threshold, some papers rustling in his hand. "I got the new IDs. We're Martin and Sara Aldrich, at least until the microchip updates in six months. I'd have to check the numbers, but if we stay here for..." he trailed off, probably looking at the duffel bag that held most of their ammunition supply, the one she'd said she would unpack and check when he left the cabin to meet their contact.
"What's wrong?" he asked, reading the tightness in the way she gripped her arms.
"I think I know why I wanted to leave the city," she said.
"You mean there's something other than an anti-immortal inquisition?" he prompted. She closed her eyes and felt him step closer. She took in a shaky breath. His hands closed gently around her upper arms. "What is it?" he asked.
"I thought it wasn't possible."
"So did I," she said.
"You said it happens maybe once every few hundred—"
"I know what I said," she snapped.
There were a dozen things to do in a new safehouse. They had to scout the area and confirm sources of food. They had to build a cache for the weapons, clear the sight lines from the building, work out contingency plans, develop escape routes. Instead the sun got higher and higher over the empty gravel road.
"This changes everything," Michael said.
Selene exhaled, nodding mechanically. "Yes. The remaining covens still hold the doctrine of blood purity. Even some who've seen you don't believe you're not an ordinary lycan. The existence of a true hybrid child would discredit a great deal of what Viktor and Amelia have maintained over the years."
Michael turned partway toward her on the step. "I mean it changes everything for us."
Selene pressed her fingers over her eyes.
"I didn't think I could get pregnant."
Michael breathed out, tipping his head back. "It makes sense," he said. "You've never run away from anything in your life and suddenly you want us to leave the city. You think maybe you were trying to protect it?"
The thought of this creature controlling her mind galled her. She stood up, pacing back across the unfurnished room. She'd managed Viktor's affairs for two centuries once. In that time, three women had children, and only one of them a live birth. Fulvia had practically been crippled for months. Selene ran her fingers through her hair. If they were attacked and she couldn't fight. If something went wrong. She chilled. If "abomination" hadn't merely been Viktor trying to justify himself.
Michael was standing in front of her, taking both her hands. "Hey," he said softly.
She swallowed, nodding her head.
"Do you want to do this?" he asked.
She looked him in the eye. "What do you mean?"
He breathed out. "You know what I mean. Forget about the covens. Forget about the purges. Do you want to be somebody's mom?"
Forget the reality of the situation? It was impossible.
"I want this," he said. "I've always wanted this. I know we can make it work."
"I haven't thought about it since I was human," she admitted. "I just assumed..." That raising her sister's children was practice. Then she'd found six years of life ripped open for the taste inside. Forget that there were teams of people no less bloodthirsty and much better armed who'd do the same thing in a heartbeat?
He had his arms around her; she touched her forehead to his shoulder.
"We can do this," he whispered into her hair. "Think about it. We've never tried to just disappear before. Maybe no one's even looking for us. We can do this."
You could do something to make someone stop loving you. She knew because she'd loved Viktor once. But what if doing what Michael wanted got him killed?
"All right," she said, two unspoken words hanging in the air between them.
Michael nodded. "For now," he said them out loud.
"If something goes wrong—"
"I love you," he said. "I want this. I love you."
It was any other crisis, Selene told herself. Emotion is the enemy of reason. Long-term, this was a good decision, she thought. Nine months was next to nothing. Twenty years wasn't much longer. Then there would be three adults. Whole worlds of strategic possibility opened up between two and three. Just twenty years. An investment.
If it lived. If it was normal.
Michael was watching with cautious eyes. The Corvinus eyes. She tried not to think of Marcus, of William, of what might be waiting in the Corvinus blood.
He leaned forward to put his arms around her. She answered, hard, trying not to think of what she'd told Alexander.
Your children are monsters.
It was better, knowing that she could change her mind, that Michael had forgiven her in advance. As far as they knew, this was only the second hybrid child ever conceived and would be the first actually born. There was no telling what could happen.
The weeks stretched into months and life didn't stop because part of her body wasn't her own for the duration. There was still the matter of moving from place to place, finding funds or stealing them, blending in or keeping to themselves, but adding a new element changed the entire equation. They had to rip up every single plan. Too many safehouses in the chain only worked with two adults in fighting form. Sometimes she didn't know why they hadn't been caught. Sometimes she thought Michael was right, that it really was as simple as going quiet.
Sometimes she thought of Sonja, and how Viktor had sent her to be turned to ash while Lucian watched.
Sometimes she dreamed about her nieces, twin girls with ten fingers and toes each.
Sometimes she dreamed of a creature red and wriggling with night-black eyes, all head and all mouth to feed the life out of the world.
"Honey, are you placing explosives?" Michael asked.
"Yes," she said, turning around on the chilly earth. "We discussed this."
"Selene, we can't do this now."
"Michael, it's not even kicking yet. As I found in those books you insisted we both read, the baby is the size of a grape with no limbs and only the rudiments of a nervous system. The only thing it does is pull nutrients out of my body like a parasite. I don't think we need to worry about it getting into the minefield."
"...I meant because the deer fence isn't up yet."
Selene was quiet.
"Because if a deer set off a mine then—"
"I know what you mean," she clipped. Selene exhaled sharply. "So when you said 'can't do this now' you meant..."
She settled the sweater over her shoulders, feeling it too tight around the middle again. Her corset was packed away until God knew when.
"No," she said, looking at the bird's nest of nails and splinters.
"It's only a first try," said Michael.
"Carpentry is not your talent, my love."
"Fine," he said, tossing the awl back into the toolbox. "We'll buy a crib."
It wasn't the day she first felt the kicking. He'd have been too happy. It wasn't that he was in denial. He'd brought in every book and medical text about pregnancy and childbirth, constantly talking about how they were all written for humans and if not for the purge fostering anti-vampire hysteria, there might actually be some resources out there.
"Michael," she said, but not on the day she'd told him about the kicks.
"Michael we need to have a plan. In case it goes wrong."
He nodded. She could practically see words behind his eyes, but they were the wrong ones. Eclampsia. Breech birth.
"I mean if it isn't normal," she said, finally putting words to it. "If it's like William. A monster."
She wasn't sure how long he stood there. Staring as if into space.
Had it really not occurred to him?
Eventually, he ran one set of fingers through his hair.
She didn't hear him speak two words in a row for days.
"I'm sorry," he said.
He'd have to wrap his head around it. His slowness could be infuriating.
"I had no idea you were worried about that," said Michael. He breathed out. "On one hand, you're right. We can't let there be another lycan plague, but—"
But she'd thought of it.
"I know I should be past this," he said. "It's been ten years since I didn't have to go a day without thinking about how to kill someone, but it's too much, Selene. We'd have to just contain it."
"We can't be like Alexander," she said. "He never—"
"He wouldn't have had any idea until it was at least a year old," he said. "Babies do almost nothing but eat Children are indistinguishable from psychopaths until they grow out of it. Could you raise a child until it was six or seven and then kill it, even if you found out it was a monster?"
"I don't think I could," she answered. "That's why we need a plan."
"At least I know why you've been..." he looked away. "At least I know why you're not happy about having a baby with me."
"Michael," she said, putting a hand to the side of his face. He didn't push it away. "Michael, in a world where our kind aren't hunted by humans, where the vampires wouldn't execute us for killing Viktor, where the lycans won't take their revenge for Lucian and his men, where the blood war is over or never happened, then I could be happy to bring a child into that world."
The rest of it hovered, the paradox of the past nine years.
"But in that world, you and I never meet."
The night before it happened, she dreamed of a thing with ten times as many teeth as eyes. When she woke, she told herself it was nothing. Nothing would go wrong. What happened to Nyssa wasn't going to happen to her, leaving two girls in the arms of their grandfather and spinster aunt.
The time came and it was red. The time came and it burned. Someone who didn't know Michael wouldn't have known he was panicking. Selene didn't realize until later. She was preoccupied.
A creature red and pale and wriggling and small, all head and all mouth and all kicking moving limbs. All tiny fingers and heartbeat and lungs screaming out the tiny will inside it. All an uncanny amount of weight in her arms.
"Oh," she said.
It wasn't like it had been with Michael.
At first, a baby hadn't seemed much different from an animal, just a new set of variables in miniature. Feed it. Keep it clean. Make sure it sleeps. All weapons either secured or in hand at all times. Wait for the rest.
With Michael there had been one look full of sense long before she'd tasted the memory in his blood. Then the eerie way he made something inside her feel at peace, enough to even tell him about the night Viktor had found her. Even Kahn never knew she'd had nieces.
She'd been ready for it to end, to wake up one night and find out that they'd only ever been two people with the same problems. For him to say, calm and serious like always, that it would make sense to part ways. Night after night, it hadn't happened. The pieces had fallen into place instead of apart.
The past didn't have to be all-consuming when you could see a future. She hadn't known it then, but Michael was her future.
Any day now it would happen again, she'd see it again in another pair of eyes.
"Normal time," Michael had called it. The things that hadn't come naturally. Finding food, blending in, living quietly in the stretches between enemies. He'd said he'd learned the details of how to love her. Normal time rubbed away the rough edges. Anything they didn't like about each other, they'd gotten used to.
So she'd fed it, kept it clean, gotten up when it cried and then one day the baby'd opened her eyes and looked at the world as if she actually saw it.
It wasn't love, and it wasn't like it had been with Michael. It was that place just outside. She'd known she was going to love Viktor before it had really happened. The little weed was putting its roots down in her life. She decided to let it. Any day now she'd love her.
"Are you going to let me hold her?" asked Michael.
"Of course," Selene said, shifting her weight from foot to foot. She started crying if she stopped moving.
Michael was quiet for a minute.
"I meant ...soon?"
"Of course," she answered. This shouldn't be hard to figure out. Did she blink or was it her imagination?
There was a sound behind her.
"What's so funny?" she asked, shooting Michael a look.
"Babygirl, you make your daddy so happy."
"Use her name," clipped Selene.
One day, right after she'd hit two months, Selene had been watching Michael with the baby and it was like seeing them through water or glass. He'd met her eyes from across the room, and he'd smiled, but it had made her feel cold instead of warm.
For once, Michael had caught on to something before she had. He loved the baby, and she was still waiting.
Michael had been almost right. Not everything changed.
"There's something out there," Michael said quickly, closing the door behind him.
"Something?" she said. It had been his turn to get food. They didn't hunt together any more, not until she was old enough to be left alone.
"I think it was a lycan."
"You think?" she said, shifting the baby to the other arm. "You didn't get a good look?"
"No, I did," Michael shook his head. "It was ...small?"
"Human form? It could be a female."
Michael shook his head. "No, not human form."
Selene was quiet. They didn't need to say the rest out loud. If this had happened a year earlier, they'd have gone out together, two-man recon. Found the trail. Found the lair. Found out how many there were, whether they were hostile. Killed them if they were. The baby meant that everything had to be done one-handed.
By midnight, everything was packed, burned or buried, down to the last blood pack.
It could have been anything. They'd skipped across three states by the time she was six months old. She was cautious. The newer generation of lycans had attempted an uprising in Montana, and the crackdown hadn't ended. They could have just stayed in one place too long. A local human might have figured out their interest in deer blood. The creature from the last site could have followed them.
"She doesn't understand what you're saying," Selene said.
Michael didn't look up from where he was holding both the baby's hands. "The books say you're supposed to look at them and talk to them. They understand words before we think they do. This helps them learn tone and facial expressions."
It was just like Michael to be playing with his daughter when they should be setting up the new safehouse.
"I don't think her eyes focus yet."
"It's important for brain development," he said. "There were these kids in orphanages in Romania. They could spend years in one room. No one talked to them. The way they turned out..." he held the baby's hands together for a minute. "Look, I just don't want our daughter ending up as a cautionary tale in someone's required abnormal psych class, okay?"
Michael picked the baby up out of her carrier and walked toward Selene.
"What?" she asked.
"Make eye contact," he said, putting the baby in her arms. "Think about sighting down your wrist with a Beretta." He turned to the baby. "Your mother's going to have to smile, Babygirl," he said, "on purpose."
She looked at Michael to the baby and back. "What do I say?"
"Doesn't matter," he said. "Like you said, she can't tell."
Selene looked at the baby. "Your father is too amused."
Michael rolled his eyes. "Great. Keep going."
"We should be setting up the security cameras."
"Fine, I'll get that," said Michael. He leaned into her temple and let his voice drop. "And I get that this doesn't come naturally. It'll be easier when she's old enough to do things. I love you."
The baby made a noise. Probably hungry again.
Michael stepped backward toward the door. "Just think about teaching her to fire a—"
The flash-bang broke through the window.
She felt more than saw Michael move toward her, parts of her mind coming alive with a mental map of their surroundings. The likely approach. How many voices and sets of footfalls she could hear, blocked out by the way her mind focused on the sound of the baby screaming.
She could see Michael's eyes bleed black, the gentle, tame partner and father of the past year melting away like mist. "I'll stall them. Get her out of the house."
Old reflexes kicked into high gear, but new ones got in the way. A year earlier, Selene would have gone for her weapon, figured out how many there were, picked one of their carefully crafted escape plans and signaled to Michael. New reflexes got in the way. She looked down, just for a second before her hand found its way to the empty holster at her hip.
The first dart hit her leg and was turned by the bodysuit.
She twisted, the weight of the baby throwing off her balance, half an inch too far to the right. The second hit the flesh of her neck, and she felt the sickening cold of nightshade.
A black ring closed from the outside of her eyes, vision narrowing down on the baby's hand, fingers curling as Selene's vision tunneled and went black.
She could hear voices long after she lost feeling in her fingers.
"How is it still alive?"
The sounds faded to echoes at the end of a long tunnel.
"She's not the one we need."
"So... you and Father were still captured," said Eve. "I don't mean to—" her fingers spread against the stone. "I would have still grown up in the laboratory. I wouldn't have remembered." Her brow creased. "It didn't make any difference."
Selene breathed in. "It did not end there."
The world still dissolved into ice. The ice still broke. There was still an empty awakening to the scent of disinfectant.
"What is this place?" she glassed. "Where is Michael? Where is my daughter?"
There was the same flight from the building. The same metal-finish calculus that said she couldn't find either of them if she were recaptured herself. Except this time she didn't run for the docks and the boat. These strange captors had brought her back to the city, but it was strange, had changed more than it ought to in only a year and a half...
"There were two more with me, both hybrids."
She felt the scientist's throat flex underneath the meat of her hands.
"Only one," he choked. "Subject Two."
"Was it the man or the little girl?"
Her nails drew blood.
"When... you were close together. Like you were seeing through each other's eyes."
Michael, then. There had been ...something like that. Times when she'd thought she could hear his voice. So when she saw an image of a subway sign, clearly from height, clearly from someone who could walk, she didn't hesitate.
He'd let her go. She returned the favor.
David still found her. So did the ghost-white lycans who haunted the city's underground. So did the images from eyes not her own.
"Do you know her?" David asked.
The creature huddled against the wall, hugging its knees, looking at her with a pair of eyes that she knew twice over...
Selene stared, slowly lowering her weapon. She could feel the rasp of the air going in and out of her lungs.
"Selene," David insisted. "Death Dealer, do you know her?"
Her thoughts slowed to a stop like footsteps at a dead-end tunnel.
There had only been one hybrid, and here she was.
"Yes," said Selene. David looked at her and the child and back.
The girl swallowed. "I'm subject two. They called you subject one. I freed you." She put her hand back against the tunnel wall, as if she couldn't get to her feet unsupported. "They said— They said I was no longer a child, they didn't have to wait," she said. "They'd said that I had no mother, that she died when I was born. But sometimes... Sometimes I thought I could see you."
"They lied," answered Selene. "And your father, did you see anything about him?"
The girl shook her head.
Only one then.
Their welcome at David's coven was not warm. But neither was she. As cold as one dead.
"I dreamed of the day we'd meet, like a silly little girl. I thought you'd be happy."
Selene breathed out, carefully. She'd been expecting this. She'd been thinking of what to say.
"Yesterday, I was with your father," and the words dripped down like moisture down the rocks. "He was no further away from me than you are now. And there was a baby. And we talked and argued about what we'd name her and how we'd keep her safe. Only we didn't. And I am ashamed."
The girl looked back, no tears on a sad face.
"He loved you," Selene said, "more than he loved me. And there isn't any way on earth that you would have spent your entire life in one room—" she made the words leave her mouth "—if he were still alive."
They were both quiet a long time.
"What did..." the girl swallowed. "What did you call me?"
"My name. You didn't call me subject two. What was I?"
Selene smiled, sadly, but the first time the girl had seen her do it. Something seemed to flash, something with a face and a voice. She couldn't remember what it had said, but it didn't feel like that mattered.
"We named you after my sister," she said. "You were Nyssa."
And she remembered.
"That's all I saw," said Selene. "I don't know what happened after that along that... scenario, timeline. I'm still not sure what to call it."
"What does it mean?"
"I don't know," said Selene. "Even the ones who've taken many trips under the ice don't know. It could have been my brain building a dream from my memories and lack of oxygen. It could mean nothing."
Eve shook her head. "I don't think it did." She rolled her shoulders, unsettled. "Do you think you will go back to—" She stopped.
"Mother, you said there was no more of that timeline?"