“And yet…” She hesitated a moment. “Caleb and Bethany tell me that you saved them on Eden. Saved them from that horrible vampire who wanted to kill everyone. Who killed my husband and son…” She broke off with a sob, wiping her eyes, before composing herself. Zeke peeked up, his eyes cautiously hopeful, but the woman didn’t see.
“If that is true,” she went on, “if you saved the other half of my family, then I can’t hate you, Zeke. Even if you are a vampire. But…I do fear you. I’m afraid of what you might do to my children. They think so highly of you. They don’t understand what could really happen.”
“I would never hurt them,” Zeke said huskily.
“I know you believe that.” She nodded, looking defeated.
“They want to see you,” she went on, and Zeke jerked up.
“Caleb…is quite insistent. They were both devastated when you left, and I don’t feel right, keeping them away from the boy who brought them to Eden, who looked after them their whole life. You were their family before I was. I can’t keep them from you.”
She sniffled and looked behind her, to where a female soldier stood a little ways away, holding the hands of two familiar faces. Caleb beamed and waved wildly to us, and his mother gave Zeke a pleading, teary look.
“Please, don’t hurt my children, Ezekiel,” she whispered, and moved back as the soldier released the kids. Bethany hesitated, but Caleb pelted forward at full speed, coming right at us. Zeke stiffened, and I quickly moved behind him, placing a hand on his back.
“You’re okay,” I breathed so that only he could hear me.
“I’m right here.”
And then I had to move aside, as Caleb crashed into Zeke, wrapping both arms around his legs and rocking him back a step. “Whoa! Hey, easy there, rug rat.” He steadied them both, though I could see his shoulders were tight, his face carefully controlled. “Man, you’ve gotten big. What’ve you been eating lately?”
“You left!” Caleb accused, peering up at him, his jaw set and angry, and Zeke blinked in surprise. “You left me,” the boy went on, though he still didn’t release his grip on Zeke’s legs. “Just like Ruth. Just like Allison.” He spared me the glare of an indignant six-year-old, before turning on Zeke again. “You promised we’d all live together in Eden. Why did you go?”
Zeke sighed. Gently freeing himself, he knelt so that he was face-to-face with Caleb. Bethany, coming up behind him, waved shyly, and Zeke smiled at her, holding out an arm to draw her close.
“I had to,” he explained to them both. “I had to go find Allison and bring her back. You understand that, right? I wasn’t going to leave forever.”
They nodded, though Caleb’s bottom lip still jutted out stubbornly. “You guys have a family now,” Zeke continued.
“You have parents, and goats, and a house, and everything.
Allie didn’t have any of that. That’s why I wanted to bring her to Eden. She needed a home, just like you.”
I smiled wistfully. Home and family. Zeke had known, even before I did, how important that was. That I’d longed for both; a family that wouldn’t leave me, and a place to belong. I’d found them, with Zeke, Kanin, even Jackal. I was a vampire, and I belonged in the darkness, but that was all right. I wasn’t alone anymore. And my path, as my sire always told me, was my own.
Bethany nodded silently, accepting Zeke’s explanation, but Caleb looked thoughtful. “Are you a vampire now?” he asked simply, gazing up at Zeke with wide, innocent eyes. “Like Allison?”
Zeke flinched, but nodded. “Yes,” he said softly. “So, that means I can’t be around you guys as much anymore, okay?
You might not see me for a long time, but that doesn’t mean I left, or that I don’t care about you anymore. It just means… that I’m a vampire. I don’t want to hurt you.”
Caleb chewed his lip for a moment, pondering this. Bethany looked a little frightened at the mention of vampires, but with everything she’d been through, you couldn’t blame her.
Even if this was Zeke.
“Do you have fangs?” Caleb asked suddenly. Zeke blinked, gave him a wary look.
“I wanna see.”
Now he did pull back, stiffening. “Caleb…”
“I wanna see!” Caleb pressed forward, his face earnest.
“The pastor says vampires are bad and evil, but I don’t believe him. Allison is a vampire, and she’s not bad. But everyone is scared of you now, even Mom.” His lip stuck out defiantly.
“Show me, Zeke. I wanna see if it makes you different.”
Caleb’s mother had come forward, her face tight with fear, but Zeke held up a hand. “It’s all right,” he said, glancing at her. “Let me show him. Maybe he’ll understand better, then.”
Her face turned white, but she gave a stiff nod. Zeke sighed, bowing his head, then raised it again, curling his lips back. His fangs gleamed in the darkness, bright and lethal, and Bethany skittered back with a shriek.
Caleb didn’t move. He faced Zeke calmly, regarding the fangs bared in his direction with a furrowed brow, as if searching for something.
Slowly, one small hand rose, touching Zeke’s jaw, and Zeke jerked back, his eyes going wide with astonishment. Caleb held his gaze, frowning, then shook his head.
“No,” he said simply, as if this was something he’d known all along. “You’re still the same.”
Zeke’s eyes closed. With a short breath, he pulled Caleb against him, bowing his head. After a moment, Bethany stepped up to join them, leaning against his shoulder, and he wrapped an arm around her, as well. I blinked red from my eyes and stepped back to give them space.
A dark, lean shadow moved across the trees, away from the crowds, heading in the direction of the lake, and I frowned.
It was Jackal. I hadn’t seen my blood brother since he’d been injected with my blood, and I’d been intending to check how he was doing once I caught up to Zeke. I was less worried about him than I had been; even wounded in a city of unsuspecting mortals, he’d proven he knew how to control himself, sometimes even better than me. The only question was his willingness to behave, to not give in to the monster.
Where was he going now?
Curious, I followed, pausing only once to glance back at Zeke and the children. He was on his feet again, talking to Caleb’s mother, the two kids pressed close. He met my gaze over her shoulder, smiled and nodded for me to go on. He’d be all right. The monster had no hold on him, at least not right now.