The sun was still on our side when I finally turned down the long, isolated road that led to our new home, but just barely.
The road was narrow. Deliberately so. The side mirrors on my SUV barely cleared it. Tall evergreens loomed on either side, making sunset seem closer than it was. When building our new home, Herveaux’s crew has asked if I’d wanted a wide, straight driveway with two lanes and ornate street lamps to guide guests to my home. Rich, prickish show-offs must butter most of their bread to ask such questions unsolicited. I’d written back and politely refused their self-aggrandizing embellishments. No one was driving a tank up to my goddamn doorbell. Instead I confused them by asking for a mansion-come-fortress that was accessible by the thinnest sliver of cleared forest. Easily barricaded. Easily torn up to prevent convoys. Lost tourists would feel as though they’d accidentally turned onto a seldom-used and unwelcoming access road. Enemies would feel claustrophobic as their cars were forced to crawl one by one through the three-mile bottleneck I’d created.
They would not be able to turn around. They could be picked off, shooting blindly into the trees as I launched into each driver seat and turned him into curly fries. They would be forced to scatter. Running in the dark. Or now, even in the light. Back at the T junction where the road had started, I’d string their corpses upside-down like butchered hogs from my mailbox.
DO NOT FUCKING DISTURB
FUCK THE DOG. BEWARE OF VAMPIRE.
I’m sure it would clash with Sookie’s preference for country rustic, but for Adam, she might concede that a few decorations needed to send a stronger message than simply Bless This Mess.
My eyes wouldn’t stop darting to her in the seat next to me. She was far away. Her lovely profile looked pensive as she watched the darkening forest. The line of her jaw was so finely cut, I wanted to reach out and trace it from beneath her ear to her chin. Her hands rested lightly on her belly. With each turn of the wheel, her fingers tightened slightly, and only relaxed once the road straightened.
I could not tell her in words how proud I was of her soft, fierce maternal instincts. It was a maddening combination. The rounded beauty of her only served to hide the poisoned briars I felt simmering in our bond. She loved my son. She was every bit as lethal as I was to anyone wishing him harm. I shuddered, thinking of those warm little hands as they stroked and Lit me up, only to flick at the wrist and torpedo other vampires or fairies into smoking craters without even removing her lips from mine. And yet, she now moved in slow yet graceful steps around me, her eyes warm and peaceful, as if the Earth was whispering the secrets of life in her ear. Fuck, she was magnificent.
The car slowed as I let my gaze linger on her longer than was strictly safe. Even in lavender pajamas, she outshone every woman ever born.
“You keep squinting at me and your face’ll freeze that way,” she admonished without looking at me.
“I can’t help it. You are so fucking beautiful. I want you so much.”
She smiled in that serene, I-know-everything-now mien she was developing. “You talk like I’m holdin’ out on you. I couldn’t even put a number on how many times we’ve made love. Plus I’m huge and we’re in the middle of an all-or-nothing battle to save our baby. I suggest you direct your thoughts somewhere more appropriate.”
We fell into silence for a minute.
She looked at me, perplexed. “What?”
“Putting a number on it. It’s 141. Approximately.”
“Straight-up fucks where we came with my dick in your pussy. Oral brings it to 163. Anal,” I winked at her, “to 164.” I shook my head. “I must remedy that last one. It’s disgracefully low.”
Sookie said nothing, merely looked at me with scandal etched across her features, a blush rising up to her hairline. “So many?” she whispered.
Her blush deepened. “Jeez Louise.”
“You’re making it worse. Show me your breasts.”
She punched me. “People probably coming to kill us!” she reminded me in a shriek.
“Then we must gather ye rosebuds while we may. And you have so many rosebuds, Sookie. Either play with your nipples or fuck my hand. I can’t suck your clit, so I’ll settle for petting it.”
She made an odd noise of frustration, amusement and rage. She wrapped her arms around herself and huffed, throwing her face against the window.
Part of my vulgarity was in jest. I wanted to lighten the mood. But the other part was only stopping because it wasn’t practical to pull over and fuck Sookie in her condition in the tight constraints of a car.
And people were coming to kill us. She made it so easy to overlook that probability.
I sighed and used my hand for something far less enjoyable and activated my Blue Tooth.
Pam answered immediately.
“I found her,” I said.
“The fairy,” Pam’s voice dripped with murder and glee at the thought of Claudine or Chloe in my clutches after hunting them for a week.
“My fairy,” I specified. “Tinkerbell found a way to contact me. I have her with me now.”
My Child inhaled sharply. She never did that. “Thank God.” Whom she never acknowledged. “Where are you?”
“Aardvark,” I gave her the location of our new house in code. “Get there now.”
“I’ll leave the minute the sun sets.”
“What the fuck for?”
“For what? Varsity cheerleading?”
“She’s proven useful. Fuck her age. Everyone who ever underestimated her is dead.”
She gave a pained hiss. “Fine. Anything else? Ice cream and Amanda Bynes movies?”
“I don’t know who that is. But fuck off.” I considered a minor punishment. “And yes. Bring ice cream. For Sookie.” I looked at my lover questioningly. She merely looked at me.
“Pralines and Shut Up and Get Here Already,” she told Pam.
“Spoilsport,” I rebuked.
“Peeeeoople coming to keeeeeeell uuuuuus,” she sang sarcastically.
“Fine. Skip the ice cream, Pam.”
“Shit. I’m already agonizing in the frozen isle that they don’t have her flavour.”
No, she wasn’t. She was pacing impatiently on the cement floor of our basement, waiting for dusk.
“How are we for floral arrangements?” my Child asked.
Code for weapons. “Well stocked,” I answered. “Very.”
“Should I drive straight up?”
To the house. “Yes. You know where.” A sunken garage thirty yards from the main house.
We hung up. I called Ludwig.
“I found your patient,” I said once she’d picked up.
The doctor was quiet for a moment. “Is she well? Unchanged?”
Christ, I appreciated people who kept their conversations circumspect. “Yes. To both.”
“I’d like to see her.”
“Yes. Tonight. She doesn’t have much time.”
“Text me the address.”
No need. “Aardvark.”
During Sookie’s absence, I took the liberty of glamoring the doctor with any information she might need, then made her forget unless prompted. The word struck her sleeping memory. I heard it in the change of her breathing. “On my way.”
I deactivated the call.
I hit one final number.
“Hello?” the wolf’s deep voice answered.
The line between Herveaux and I went quiet. At last, the pre-programmed were responded to the command I had embedded several days ago. “Okay.”
The car filled with silence once again as the call ended. Sookie didn’t ask about the strangeness of my conversations.
In the final mile of the rib-thin road, she finally spoke. “He knows everything, doesn’t he?”
I didn’t need to ask whom she meant. “Probably. …Yes.”
“Is there any way to fight him? I mean really? How well protected must he be? How many soldiers can he raise with a phonecall?” She looked at me, fear rippling those dark pools. “Are we fucked, Eric?”
“We’ve been fucked before, yet here we sit. Those that did the fucking are now fertilizer.”
“Nothing like this. Massawa is…”
“Vampire. Limited. Known.”
She snorted. “In the way a bullet is limited and known. I can put one in my pocket. Doesn’t mean it can’t shoot me.”
“I simply meant that we are lucky to know what we’re up against. Yes, he’s powerful. But not unstoppable. His weaknesses are the same as mine.” I paused. “Mine, before you.”
She swallowed, thinking carefully. “I know he’s not stupid. But… could you track him in the daytime? Find where he rests? If you could just stake him in his sleep, that would tie this whole mess up nicely.”
I smiled. “I would need more time than we have. That, and I’m not leaving you alone to go sniff out the entire state. He could be anywhere.”
She turned away. “He won’t be far.”
“If he knows everything, doesn’t that mean our phones are tapped? That he’s watching every single person we love? Can’t he just follow Pam and Dr. Ludwig right to us? That’s what I’d do, and I’m no military genius,” she said.
I considered, then arranged my words carefully. “I’m assuming at this point that he is already aware of your abduction… and your return. My house is known. I’m positive he’s been watching it for weeks. He would have been stupid not to. He played along at our meetings because he knows he cannot fight me directly in order to hurt you. Just as I’m sure he knows about our new house. I was required to take a royal residence when I became king, so tracking my dealings with Herveaux would have been as easy as glamoring any of his crew. I used an alias, but the right questions would have led him to assume it’s mine. A large home quickly built in the middle of nowhere. He only needs access to satellite feeds to draw conclusions.”
“You hired Alcide to build our house?” she smiled kindly.
“Fuck aw. He builds a decent house.”
“You loooove him. I should have known you’d leave me for a brunette. Prettier than me, too, that bitch.”
I looked at her warningly. Sookie chuckled.
“So,” she continued, “You’re saying all this stuff like you know about it, but aren’t planning for it.”
“Really? Pop quiz, hot shot. The Custos of War knows where our house is. Instead of bothering with soldiers and a messy siege, he simply rents a fighter jet and RPGs the shit out of it. Boom goes Sookie, Eric, Adam, and the whole Coming. Your plan?”
A small smile played on my lips. “You’ve been gone a week. I managed to keep myself busy.”
“Not an answer.”
“All military and small aerial craft within one thousand miles have been disabled.”
“Shut. The fuck. Up.”
She snorted. “That’s not even possible. The U.S. military would have had a shit! And fixed them immediately! And that would have taken hundreds of people to do! There’s no way!”
I shrugged again. “We didn’t rip out the wiring, darling. Such sabotage would have drawn attention. Most of them fly perfectly fine, though all of them now have trackers on them. I can watch them all from my phone, if I want.”
“There’s an app for that?”
“There’s an app for everything. And no plane anywhere near us is capable of launching missiles. The pilots won’t know until they try, however, which is almost never. All civilian craft have been hindered in equally stealthy ways, with eyes watching in case our tampering is discovered. An air assault of that kind won’t be possible for about a week.” I looked at her belly. That was all the time we needed.
“What if he just used a regular plane and aims its nose at our kitchen window?”
“The house has radar and ground-to-air defences. I’ll see him coming. I’ll light him up long before he gets to us.”
She gestured through the window. “And if he brings a helicopter and a rocket launcher?”
“I can catch a helicopter.”
“What about the rocket? Can you catch a rocket?”
“Even if I miss, it will only take out the house above ground.”
She gave me a look. “Sooooo… there’s another house under the house?”
“No, lover. There’s a citadel under the house. One that Massawa knows nothing about.”
“One that can withstand bombs?”
I give her a look. She stroked her belly, craning into the windshield as the treeline cleared and the house broke on the horizon. We saw it at the same time. Sookie let out a soft murmur of surprise as the sunset illuminated its warm, cream-colored paint.
It was an imposing, beautiful mansion in the style of a grand plantation home.
Graceful pillars. Double front door. Long, slithering ivy climbing the outer walls (which I’m sure had been trained with wire ties until it took to the façade naturally). Fully mature fruit trees along the last hundred yards of the driveway (I thought Sookie might enjoy canning, or at the very least, let the children pick their own food).
A small hand snaked over and covered mine on the wheel. It squeezed.
“You show me the most beautiful house in the whole world, then tell me some asshole is going to level it?” Her voice was breathless with wonder.
I was pleased. The house was nothing to me, I’d build her twenty just like it, but her happiness tipped into my indifference and made me see the mansion with her eyes. It was very pretty. I looked forward to making a life with her there.
“I promise to protect it as best I can. Otherwise, I’ll rebuild it exactly the same.”
I hit a pale blue button in the steering wheel console. Just to the side of the house, the ground rumbled and came alive, dropping open to reveal the entrance to the underground parking structure, which in turn led to the aforementioned citadel, deep in the hillside.
“Jesus Christ in Heaven,” Sookie muttered as she watched.
“What were you imagining? A couple of pistols in our belts and our mattresses plugging the windows?”
“I certainly wasn’t expecting a Bond villain’s lair.”
I maneuvered the car onto the underground ramp, hitting the button again once I cleared it. The ground swallowed us up. Visual detection from outside was impossible. Once inside the massive, well-lit cavern, I parked in my circular array of other vehicles, each selected for a specific reason: speed, power, armor, offence, inconspicuousness, etc. Sookie looked over the collection with a blank eye. She noticed a large command center against the wall, its monitors flickering dozens of live feeds while other machines I knew she wouldn’t recognize buzzed and churned out endless information about local ground and air traffic, hits on local stores’ inventory and purchases (certain combinations of items triggered an alert), hacked security footage from all airports, car rentals, vampire establishments, etc., and of course my own security systems input as well as my armory and munitions network.
I exited the car and zipped to her side, offering my arms to support her weight as she gingerly extracted herself. She took my help, her eyes never leaving the nerve center of the entire property.
“I take it back. This isn’t a lair, it’s a bat cave. You gonna tell me Alcide built that, too?”
I shook my head. “Lockheed Martin. Herveaux’s crew built ten feet above it. They never had a clue.”
“Lockheed Martin? Are they moving out of space programs and Pentagon securities and into gentrified residences?”
“If I visit the company’s president and glamor her, and she then authorizes the construction from their engineers who will never remember, yes.”
“All inside a month?”
I held her to me, even as she angled her head around me to continue to stare. “And you laughed when I only packed money. It’s the most versatile tool known to man.”
She finally looked back up at me. “Food?”
“Enough to feed you for eight months.”
“Three separately-operating wells.”
“Everything short of an H bomb.”
She inhaled slowly, then noticed as her lungs inflated. “Oxygen? Can they access the ventilation?”
“There’s an air-independent system, much like those aboard nuclear submarines. You cannot be smothered, poisoned or gassed.”
“Generators. Even deeper underground than we are. Impossible to knock out without another kicking in.”
She was right to ask these things and I enjoyed answering them. Not only did I get to watch the razor edge of her mind slice into every problem and peer into its innards, looking for still more problems, but I had the additional pleasure of allaying her fears. I was already used to protecting every last inch of my own ass and had been doing so with all technologies available for a very long time, but now I had the honor of considering my living, breathing family’s needs as well. Lockheed’s people covered most of it, having planned for human frailty from the inception of their company, but I kept my mind sharp and added my own measures, knowing our foe wasn’t something as quaint as an Iraqi rebel army.
Sookie turned slowly, taking in the space, noting silently that there must be other rooms, living quarters and storage areas, that she wasn’t seeing. She sighed wistfully. “Maybe Claudine was right. This already feels like The Seam, except there’s no sky and Massawa knows exactly where we are. Maybe I should have just stayed there until this whole thing was over.”
Her words stung.
I took her chin between my fingers. She was already looking at me, feeling my pain. “You want to go back?” I asked, appalled.
She did not answer immediately, which shattered my heart and made all of my hard work to keep her safe feel like a piss-poor offering, completely inadequate. She preferred her prison to my fortress.
She sighed. “No,” she replied softly. “I wouldn’t survive it if I lost you again. I know you’ll protect me and I know we’ll get through this somehow, I just hate this guy. I don’t want to live in an underground steel box, anymore than I want to live in Claudine’s bookcase. I want to live in the house above us. I want to sit on the porch with you, and drive a car without a gun turret on the roof, and have babies without people trying to kill them.”
She couldn’t hug me head-on anymore, so she cuddled into my side, her head gently rubbing into my ribs, her belly bumping against my groin, soft as a balloon. “I want to be with you, no matter what. But I want to be with you alone. Why can’t everyone else just go away?”
I clutched her to me tighter than necessary. “I will kill him for you. And then I will forever kneel at your side like a dog and tear the throat out of the next, and the next, until no one dare even look our way. I will give you the life you want. I promise you.”
She hummed in amusement. “We’ll get a real dog. You can just stay my husband.”
“You own me. Surely that makes me a pet of some sort.”
At that, she snorted. “I dunno. Is it legal to own a T. Rex?”
“Perhaps. If you register me as a seeing-eye T. Rex.”
“Great. I’ll have to rename you though, since I already have a pet named Eric.”
“Sadly, you don’t. Your former Eric is now Cheeseburger, thanks to his new owner. I approved it. I’m now your one and only Eric.”
Her arms tightened around me. “You always were.”
We stood silently. I let my lips wander over her hair and my hands over her back.
Muffled against my shirt, she muttered, “Aardvark? Mesopotamia? What the hell is going on? You’ve obviously thought of everything, so how will our people be safe?”
I took her hand, intent on giving her a brief tour. The topside house would have to wait until morning, as sunset was already upon us and I would not risk her until the sun banished some of our enemies into the ground. And after I showed her our comfy bed, our sunken bathtub, and where she could make herself over two hundred different combinations of meals, I was going to sit her down, massage her swollen feet, and tell her about the plan.