I was irritated.
I’ll admit to that.
Our dealings with Jessica had been swift and uneventful, which was my preference. I meant what I said when I called her bright and tenacious. It was a highly desirable combination in our kind, and a rare one at that. I felt mostly indifference for the young vampire’s fate, but I couldn’t leave her to her own stewing, indigent devices. I was already beginning to view my kingdom as an up and coming neighborhood. If I spent any serious time on this double throne, I planned to turn the riffraff into highly-visible and respected contributors to our community. Any that preferred to stay trash would be treated accordingly; i.e. dropped in a nearby dumpster state, or burned. Their choice. That, and I had to lay down the law in a swift and brutal outline, should she actually be planning revenge on Hadley. As much as I disliked the silly Stackhouse girl, she was mine. And she was Sookie’s. If Jessica or anyone thought they could muss one single hair on her head, I’d take theirs in its entirety for the insult.
Dumb bitch was my dumb bitch, and she was trying to better herself on both of those fronts.
Also, I meant what I said in what little feeling I did have for Jessica was favorable. If she worked hard and kept her nose clean, I felt I could even come to like her in the coming years.
Time would tell. It always did.
The damning mark against her (which wasn’t her fault entirely) was when she asked Sookie about her feelings for Bill. I felt her send me assurances, but I also felt her hesitation in answering.
Did this mean she cared for him more than she was admitting to? I knew she was sad at his passing. I knew she felt betrayed by his actions. I knew she had loved him deeply, but with an emphasis on the past tense and with a serious taint because of his lies.
I had never asked myself if she’d ever actually stopped loving him.
She loved me. She wanted me. She belonged to me and me only. I knew these things without a hint of conceit. They were simply true. And yet. This other possibility angered me more than it should have. I had everything Bill could have only wished for and more. I had Sookie and she had my child growing inside her. We’d Chosen each other in a bond unprecedented in the history of both our kinds. When she looked at me, she felt nothing but devotion.
I knew these things. And yet…
Fucking Pam. Way to drag me back into the moment.
“…your cooch doctor is here,” she clipped at me.
Sookie had me by the hand. Despite all of our time together, I still found any and all other company tiresome. I wanted to talk to her about Bill. No, I didn’t. I didn’t want to hear it. Yes, I did.
Fucking Light-bearing heart. I was a warrior, goddammit. I had never given two tepid shits about women’s desires once I was done with them. Now I was this close to scribbling Sookie’s name on my math book. Trembling with fear that she might like another boy better than she liked me. What the hell had happened to me?
I looked down at her tiny hand in mine. Ivory skin against bronze. I lifted it to my lips and kissed it.
“You’re upset,” she said quietly.
“For no good reason, lover. I promise you.”
“Wanna talk about it?”
A sharp, single knock struck my door before it was opened without awaiting an answer.
Later, I projected. The doctor’s diminutive shadow lurked in my doorframe and I nodded to her by means of an invitation.
Sookie nodded, and to my surprise, brought our joined hands to her own mouth, uncurled my fist, and kissed my fingertips. “Only you,” she whispered knowingly. “Always.”
She closed her eyes in concentration. I opened my mouth to reassure her I knew she loved me, but the words died in my throat. Sweet, searing voltage shot through her lips and into my arm. The Radia pulsed hotly in my chest, massaging my still heart with firm, startling strokes. I took a sharp breath, amazed at the tight, pleasant sensation. She’d figured out a way to crack open my ribcage and give my heart a handjob.
Could she Still my internal organs? Make them vibrate and quiver with happiness, like she did everything else?
I had no time to enjoy it, or even ask her about it.
Dr. Ludwig walked into the room, her odd, hunched pace reminding me of smaller mammals. Racoons. Possums. Fast for their size, but not fast by definition. She didn’t wait for my invitation to sit, as usual. Fine with me. I was impatient for her news anyway.
Sookie’s grip on my hand became steely. Her fingers turned hot and clammy in a flash.
“Northman,” the doctor greeted shortly.
“What we all suspected. Miss Stackhouse is pregnant.” She looked at my lover. “Congratulations.”
She blinked rapidly before looking down at her own lap. “Thanks.”
The old woman cocked her head. “I see you’ve come to accept it already. That’s good.” She looked at me. “You’re still upholding our agreement from last time?”
“I already told you the child was safe with me. And from me. Did you glean anything remotely useful from your tests aside from a positive?”
The loose leather around her lips crinkled as she pursed her mouth. She pulled out a small blood vial from her pocket, shaking it slightly. “You’ve always been generous with your donations of your people’s blood for my patients.” She stopped, considering for a moment, then said, “Tell me, vampire, what would happen if I took this vial of Sookie’s blood and cracked it open on your dance floor?”
I felt my head slowly pull to one side as I regarded her and her question, which could be so easily miscontrued as a threat against my wife.
The smug look on her face told me that she already had a very good idea of what would happen if she chummed a vampire bar with that particular sample. It was on the tip of my tongue to lie to her, inform her that spilling blood, no matter whose, was always a stupid idea in a room filled with my kind. She was eyeing our held hands. Did she suspect correctly? Did she already know? I wanted to look at Sookie, to silently comb through her thoughts, but I resisted.
I was torn.
This crone was the only one I wanted to oversee Sookie’s pregnancy. For several reasons. She understood our supernatural world, unlike any OBGYN we might pull from the phone book. She’d proven professional in the past. She was easily compensated. There was no one else who answered this description. But did I trust her? Did I have any choice? What if Sookie fell ill? Or there were complications? She was already too far along for it to be a normal forty-week cycle. Any number of things could go sideways and I would have no idea how to help her. I had about as much midwifing ability as Jason Stackhouse and a hell of a lot less of an excuse for that ignorance. Jason was thirty, stupid, and believed women’s reproductive systems began and ended as jizz receptacles. I was elderly and brilliant, but useless nonetheless.
The doctor was waiting.
I gave her my most menacing glare as I graced her with a bullshit-free fact. “It would cause a frenzy the likes of which you’ve never seen.”
Her expression smoothed, pleased at my honesty. She immediately pocketed the vial again and patted it reassuringly.
“How did you find out?”
“Blood doesn’t lie,” she replied.
“It doesn’t do anything. It sat on a glass slide and coagulated. What specifically identified her?” We had yet to say the word ‘fairy’. I suppose I was waiting for her to show her hand before I did.
She ignored the question and gestured to Sookie instead. “Stand up, Miss Stackhouse.”
Sookie pulled her hand from mine and used it to tug her skirt down further over her knees. “Why?”
“There’s no need to hide from me. I want to conduct another physical and I need you to stand up and remove your dress.” She paused and decided to break our silent dance. “I’ve never seen a fairy pregnancy before and I’d like to see how you’re progressing.”
Sookie gave a startled little gulp, even though she knew this had been inevitable. I felt her mind swimming around the same certainty that we needed a doctor, our secret be damned. Still, this was the first human who figured it out. Who spoke of it openly. My instinct was to kill her. Silence her. My mate was in danger with every extra person who knew.
Sookie looked to me, feeling my indecision, then lifted her head high and made the decision for both of us. Without another word, she unzipped the side of her lovely pink dress, pulled it down to her hips, then shimmied out of it. She stepped out of the puddle of fabric, removing her shoes as she did so.
She stood next to me in her skimpy, cream-colored underwear set, nervously cupping the small, astonishing bump below her navel.
My fangs fell out of my gums. I wanted her. I ached at the very sight of her. She was so juicy and ripe; the animal in me wanted to kill the intruder sitting across from me before I drove my dick into my angel, anywhere I could fit. The lift of her eyes, so unsure of her own beauty, made it all the worse.
The doctor let out a very uncharacteristic breath of wonder. “Incredible,” she rasped softly. “I just saw you over a week ago.” She lifted out of her seat slightly, leaning forward as if to stand and reach for Sookie.
She jumped when I slapped the desk hard enough to crack the wood. “Answer me. How did you know?”
Pissed by my aggression, she stared at me with those steely, little button eyes before replying. “As I said. Her blood. Aside from it having no type, it behaved as all blood does… until I took it outside in the sunlight. Suddenly the red blood cells pulsed. The white blood cells flourished and multiplied. The hemoglobin turned redder. Healthier. Even though I’d taken it days before, her blood revitalized in the light. Not only did it reanimate. It danced.”
“What the fuck possessed you to take it outside in the first place?” For a man who wanted help from this woman, I certainly liked throwing gasoline on our already tenuous bridge.
Luckily, she ignored my tone. “I consulted a text. A blood with no type is incredibly rare. So rare, in fact, that only one species exhibits it. Her blood seemed perfectly ordinary in my lab, so to confirm Miss Stackhouse was of Fae origin, I took my equipment outside and examined it again. If I’d had a maypole, her blood cells would have braided ribbon around it.”
Sookie grew impatient standing in her underthings. As she reached behind me to pluck my leather coat from the back of my chair, she asked, “What kind of text? I didn’t think any humans knew about fairies.” She covered herself up, removing the impetus of my snarly attitude. I immediately felt calmer, her pregnancy once again concealed. My killer instincts resettled into cooler rationality.
“Galen wrote several books on the subject.”
“The Roman physician?” My voice sounded far more civil.
“The vampire medical genius. I can’t speak to him being Roman. He probably predated that time period. But yes, we’re talking about the same person.”
Now she had my attention. Vampire name-dropping was an amusing pasttime to us older alumni. Nearly every human of note in history has been purported to be a vampire, depending on the vampire telling the story and how it bolstered their own importance by association of that person. Galen, however, was a new one to me.
She saw my quizzical brow. “He had a brilliant mind for anatomy. No doubt because of his visceral explorations of his victims. He simply took the trouble to write them down. But he was also a member for a very elite community. Galen, more than simply a vampire, was a Custos.”
Correction, now she had my attention.
“A knowledge custodian, ordained by the fabled Keep.” I had heard this particular story. From a time immemorial even when I was human, there had been tales of a group of supernatural creatures, tired of constant and never-ending wars between their peoples, uniting under the pledge to live more peaceably alongside each other. Accounts varied on how successful they were, and over time their agreement fell into myth and our peoples went back to beating the shit out of each other, but what they did manage to accomplish was our collective concealement from humans.
Many of the species brethren were now extinct: Aatxe, kijos, adaros, mandis, korrigans, minotaurs, rongs. Some were simply too big, like the latter two, and seemed monsterous to humans. Bull-men and giant Vietnamese dragons were easy enough to find and kill by panicked villagers convinced of the creatures’ malevolence. The rest of us – vampires, weres, demons, Fae, maenads, demigods, sprites, ghosts – were faster, smaller, unvisible, humanoid, or just plain luckier.
As the Keep’s numbers thinned and precious histories and information became lost, the need for archivists emerged.
The Custos, as lengend went, were chosen from among the Keep. They answered to three descriptions: vampire, demon, fairy. Shifters and weres were excluded, but for practical reasons. Those chosen were not thought to be superior. They were simply immortal. Their job was to learn. To learn and to record the magical histories and discoveries as and when they happened. A Custos was chosen for every major category of achievement. War. Art. Philosophy. Literature. Mathematics.
And apparently, medicine.
Of course, most people thought the whole story was about as factual as unicorn shit.
“You are privy to the teachings of a Custos,” I surmised gently. “That is no small thing.”
“I can hear your skepticism. But it’s true. Galen chronicled the physiology of any creature he could get his hands on. According to the Caduceus text, Galen noted that when he left fairy blood out in the daytime before he died, the blood seemed even livelier when he examined it at dusk. It had spent all day percolating in the sun. His vampiric gifts included microscopic eyesight. He literally could see its joy.”
She looked back at Sookie, her expression almost soft. “His description was perfect.”
Sookie actually smiled at her. “Sounds pretty.”
I leaned forward slowly. “And if I wanted to see this Caduceus text for myself?”
“Sure,” she drew out condescendingly. “All you have to do is go to medical school, get your degree, then take the Hippocratic Oath. The text is nothing but a book of blank pages until the reader makes an unbreakable vow to do no harm.” She looked at me blandly. “Planning to swear off killing, Nurse Nightingale?”
“I couldn’t make that promise hold for a month.”
“The spell protecting the book’s secrets knows that. All the Custos texts are bound this way. I can’t read the others pertaining to art and music, etc. I wouldn’t even know where to find them. But it wouldn’t matter if I bought the whole set at a flea market for ten bucks. The contents would never reveal itself and I’d be stuck with an empty bunch of shelf hogs.”
We were silent for a moment.
Sookie modestly dropped her eyes as she slid out of my coat, baring herself to us once again. “Where do you want me?”
The doctor gestured to the side of her chair. Sookie walked to her, trying to keep her body relaxed as Ludwig raised her hands to the precious little bump. Sookie hestitated, then let her touch it. I stiffened, watching the interaction with even more vigilance than her first examination. The doctor might have been awed by our miracle, but her hands were all business, placing soft, exploratory fingers across the expanse of her belly in a task they had performed a thousand times.
“Any morning sickness?”
“Cravings? Bloated feelings? Lethargy?”
“Have you felt any fluttering movements? Like fish in a pond?” she asked.
Sookie shood her head. “I don’t think so.”
“They’ll come soon enough. The fetus’ formation is already pronounced. Arms,” she used her middle finger to rub a small spot in her pelvis. “Head. Legs. Abdomen. She’s impossibly advanced for a one-month human gestation. I’m quite pleased. I would have been concerned if your bloodwork was conclusively fairy, but your pregnancy was not.”
Sookie gave a small puff of incredulity. “She?”
The doctor waved her hand. “Pick your pronoun. I detest using ‘it’ when examining an undetermined baby, and ‘he’ is overused. The sex can’t be known until an ultrasound is administered.” She looked up from her ministrations. “Would you like to have one?”
Sookie, in turn, looked to me. “Uh… sweetie? Would we like to have one?”
I stared at them blankly.
She. A girl.
If it were possible, an even larger wave of protectiveness surged up in me. A little Sookie, two angels stacked inside each other like precious nesting dolls. I was well and truly fucked. If it was a girl and she had her mother’s eyes, I would surely die of an exploded heart. What would I do with a girl child? Abdicate my throne and conduct all essential business around playing with plastic dolls and building her a little, wooden house to put them in, that’s what. I could show her how to braid their hair. Teach her how to fish on a riverbank while Sookie laid out a picnic in the grass… in the daytime. I would devote every waking hour to her. And when she turned thirteen, she would forgive me when I locked her away for the rest of her life, unwilling to let any boy into her life and steal her love away from me.
The women were watching me.
“Yes,” was all I allowed myself to say.
Ludwig gave her a few more prods before seeming satisfied. She took out a pad of paper from inside her bag and began scribbling notes.
My phone beeped from my coat pocket with a text. I ignored it.
“No,” I said.
Ludwig looked up.
“No notes. Destroy that page. Anything you need to remember, either commit to memory or simply tell me. I cannot forget. There will be no record of this pregnancy anywhere.”
She huffed. “I have to document this. I can’t commit a fairy pregnancy to memory. There are too many variables. I need notes for reference.”
“Too bad. Remember what you need, or write it down now and give it to me. I’ll memorize it, then burn the pages.”
She made a noise of displeasure. “Is this about saving face? Yours isn’t the first companion to have another man’s child, Northman. I’ll make no mention of faires, and my files are well guarded at my office. Since we’re dealing with a human-fairy conception, people are going to see that she’s pregnant in a matter of days. You won’t be able to hide it.”
Of course. She was still under the impression that Sookie had mated with a human. It hadn’t seemed prudent to correct her at the time. Now, it felt unwise to let her attend Sookie without every single fact. There might have never been a union like ours, but someone with access to a Custos text might be able to anticipate problems I had yet to think of.
One cat was already out of the bag. Might as well inform her about the pride of lions coming out behind it.
“Sookie has never been with a human man, doctor. The child is mine.” I grit my teeth and plunged. “Biologically mine.”