He wanted that to be the plan.

Not this.

And goddamn, how selfish was all of that? Like he wanted her to not know this older female she cared for so deeply was sick?

Another thing for him to be proud of himself for. He had quite a fucking list.

“How much farther?” she asked tightly.

“Not far.”

The subterranean clinic was hidden under acres of pine trees, and accessed through four kiosks, one of which was in a barn out behind the old farmhouse that served as a shell to the human world. The other three entries and their associated elevators were scattered through the forest, and convenient for those who could dematerialize. Needless to say, for them, it was going to have to be a park-and-ride situation, so he was going to bring them in the main road to the main driveway.

About ten minutes later, he wedged the BMW in between a minivan and a pickup truck. “You ready?”

“Yes,” she said as she opened her door the six inches she could.

The fact that he didn’t care about whether his side panels were dinged was something he tried to find virtue in. But the truth was, he didn’t care about the car all that much, in spite of how beautiful it was.

He met her in front of the BMW and escorted her into that barn. Got them cleared by the security camera and into the hidden elevator. Hit the button for lower level. During the descent, they both stared at the little numbers above the doors, even though they did not light up because things had been retrofitted to the purpose they served. L to 10, all dark. He found himself wondering what this Otis had been originally designed for. An office building, he decided. Or maybe a midsize hotel.

When the doors opened, he took her over to the registration desk and stood right behind her, in case she got dizzy.

The receptionist, who was wearing a white uniform and one of those old-fashioned nurse’s hats, looked up. “How may we help you?

He waited for his female to speak. And so did the receptionist, although on her side, she didn’t seem surprised that it was taking a while. No doubt she was used to people in shock.

His female cleared her throat. “I’m looking for Larisse, blooded daughter of Salaman? I believe she came in here a couple of nights ago. For her heart?”

The receptionist’s smile was kind as she typed on a keyboard. “All right. Yes, I have her. What is your relationship to her?” When there was a hesitation, the receptionist said softly, “I’m afraid she’s in ICU and only family can be back there.”

“I, ah…” His female cleared her throat. “I’m her daughter, Therese.”

As the name was spoken, Trez’s hearing checked out while directions were given to the room—or at least he assumed that was what was happening as the female behind the desk pointed in various directions.


Not Selena.

Therese… a name that had been given to a female who had been born on earth, and then adopted into what clearly had been a loving home. The name that had been answered to during childhood, and written in a young’s wobbly handwriting, and then, later, spoken as phones were answered. The name that had been lived with after the transition.

And was lived with now.

Not Selena.

As the walk to wherever the hospital room was commenced, Trez fell in step beside the female with the long, dark, curly hair. The female who was still wearing the server uniform from Sal’s. The female who had called herself the daughter of a mortal mahmen.

Not the Scribe Virgin.

Passing through various double doors, proceeding down various corridors, following signage with various arrows, he put his hands in the pockets of his slacks and marveled at the brain’s ability to construct reality.

With concrete and beams, Sheetrock and studs, he had built a belief that, if he were honest, had never really stood on its own. Even though the renderings had been stellar and promised a beautiful home to live in, from the beginning, there had been fault lines in the foundation, and cheap materials used, and shoddy workmanship all around.

Ultimately, that which could not hold itself up, did not.

But come on, as if this collapse was a surprise? He had vacillated the entire time, only his desperate need to believe shoring up the unsteady walls and loose, unreliable ceilings of the project he had thrown himself into.

The failure made him incredibly sad.

And he thought of something else, too.

So quick. This… hallucination of his… had come and gone so quickly. Hell, if you dismissed the prodromals, the actual tailspin had only been a matter of nights.

Abruptly, his female—

No, he stopped himself. Therese. This was not his Selena. Never had been.

Abruptly, Therese turned and looked over her shoulder. As her mouth moved, he realized she was talking to him.

“I’m sorry?” he said.

“I’m glad you’re here.” She reached out and took his hand. “Thank you.”

* * *

The intensive care unit of the very extensive facilities was located behind a set of double doors that had to be open internally from a nursing station. Fortunately, there were glass panes you could lean into, and the instant Therese put her face in one of them, a female in a uniform looked up from a computer behind a counter.

There was a buzz, and some kind of lock was released.

Therese gave Trez’s hand a squeeze, and then she released him pushed her way in. The instant she took a breath, she hated the antiseptic smell. And then her hearing checked in, and she was unnerved by the hush. Finally, as her eyes traveled around, she was disconcerted by the total lack of decoration.

This was the all-business part of the healthcare operation, and you were only here because you were either a seriously ill patient or a seriously trained professional.

Or a seriously worried family member.

She went up to the nurse at the counter. “I’m Therese. I’m here—”

“You’re Larisse’s daughter.” The female in the uniform smiled. “The front desk called. She’s in room thirteen thirteen. You and your mate are more than welcome to go down there.”

Oh, God. Bad-luck number. Very bad luck.

And… um, Trez wasn’t her mate. But like she was going to correct that if it allowed him to be in the unit?

“Thank you.”

As she went to walk in the direction the nurse pointed her in, she glanced back at Trez. When he didn’t seem to want to follow, she looked at the nurse, who nodded in support of his presence.

But he still stayed where he was, and in the awkward silence, Therese fiddled with the hem of her parka nervously. “You don’t have to wait out here.”

He looked over at a little arrangement of chairs and side tables just inside the ICU. Obviously, they had been provided as a break area of sorts for family members, the TV showing sports scores, a couple of half-finished coffees in Styrofoam cups left behind.

“Unless you’d rather?” she said.

“I think I better give you a chance to reconnect first.”

As she considered the particulars, she saw the logic to that. Her showing up here with a “mate”? Yeah, that was one more layer of complication this “reunion” didn’t need.

“I’ll come back and get you.”

“Perfect.” There was a pause. Then he came in for a quick hug. “You’ve got this. You can do this.”

Holding on to his strong body, she was struck by how important it was for her to have him with her. Trez was like a bridge between what had gone before and where she was now. So even though she hadn’t known him for long, he seemed more permanent than a friend, more intimate than a lover.

Family, in a way.

“Thank you for being here.” She’d told him that before. But she needed to say it again. “I won’t be long.”

Probably because her brother was going to toss her out on her ass.

Breaking off from him, she walked down the hall and refused to allow herself to look back. She was liable to lose her nerve.

The corridor was wide enough for two emergency gurneys with associated medical staff and monitoring equipment to race into surgery side by side. Or something like that. As she went along, it was impossible for her to think in any other terms than Marcus Welby, M.D. scenarios involving life-or-death rushes. Or maybe she needed to be more current. ER. Wait, that was like a decade ago.

Fine, Grey’s Anatomy.

The TV Guide debate was what was on her mind as she walked by so many rooms, all of which had glass doors that were shut, most of which had drapes pulled closed for privacy. From time to time, however, she was able to see inside to family members at a bedside, cloistered around a very sick patient, holding hands. Holding each other.

Inevitably, the ill or dying were hooked up to a lot of machines.

What did she expect, though. This wasn’t even a general floor. You were not here unless you were really, really sick.

Room 1313 was down at the end, on the left.

And she had to stop at 1311 for a minute and catch her breath.

Thank God she had taken Trez’s vein. She wouldn’t have had the strength for this otherwise.

Clearing her throat in anticipation of saying something coherent, she walked forward… and looked in through parted drapes.

Therese covered her mouth with her hand as her eyes filled with tears.

Her mahmen was lying so small and pale in a bed that was surrounded by equipment. The males of the family, son and hellren, were sitting on either side of her, each cradling one of her hands in their palm. The arrangement of them all, the pervasive sadness, the obvious sickness… they formed a tableau of grief and suffering, the emotions and dying process eternal even in the face of so much technology and medical advancement.

Standing on the outside looking in, Therese greeted the three people she knew best in the world by reacquainting herself with their appearances, overlaying the present sight of them across the composite memory of the decades she’d known them. Her father looked older, much older. His hair, once salt-and-pepper gray, was now fully white, and his face was lined deeply, not wrinkles any longer but gouges around his mouth and at the corners of both his eyes. He had lost a great deal of weight, his plaid shirt hanging off his shoulders, his khaki pants pooling at his feet, and maybe that was part of the aging thing. But he was also exhausted, great bags under his eyes, his skin sallow and pasty.