An Insider's Guide

Chapter Ten


Back at the Brotherhood's mansion, Z stood at one of the windows in his and Bella's bedroom and looked down over the terrace and the back gardens. His wrist burned from where the laser had been applied, but the pain wasn't bad.
"I'm not surprised by the whole thing," he said. "Well, other than the fact that I liked the doc."
Bella came up behind him and put her arms around his waist. "He was a good guy, wasn't he."
As they stood together, there was a whole lot of what-now floating around the room. Unfortunately he didn't have any answers. He'd kind of banked on the bands being removed, like that would somehow make everything better.
Although it wasn't as if there weren't still scars on his face.
From the nursery Nalla let out a burble and then a hiccup. A cry was next.
"I just fed her and changed her," Bella said, pulling away. "I'm not sure what this is about--"
"Let me go to her," he said in a tight voice. "Let me see if I can . . ."
Bella's eyebrows lifted, but then she nodded. "Okay. I'll stay here."
"I won't drop her. I promise." "I know you won't. Just make sure you support her head."
"Right. Got it."
Z felt like he was going unarmed into a field of lessers when he walked into the nursery.
As if sensing him, Nalla let out a whiffle.
"It's your father. Dad. Papa." What would she call him?
He went over and peered down at his daughter. She was dressed in a Red Sox onesie, no doubt a gift from V and/or Butch, and her lower lip was quivering like it wanted to leap off the tip of her chin but was afraid of the drop.
"Why are you crying, little one?" he said softly.
When she lifted her arms up to him, he checked the doorway. Bella wasn't in it, and he was glad. He didn't want anyone seeing how awkward he was as he reached into the crib and . . .
Nalla fit between his hands perfectly, her butt in one of his palms, her head cradled in the other. As he straightened and brought her up, she was surprisingly sturdy and warm and--
She grabbed onto his turtleneck and pulled into him, demanding closeness . . . and obliging her seemed shockingly easy. As he held her against his chest, she settled immediately, turning herself flush into his body.
Having her in his arms was so natural. And so was heading for the rocker and sitting down and using one of his feet to make them go back and forth.
Staring at her lashes and her plump little cheeks and her death grip on his turtleneck, he realized just how much she needed him--and not just to protect her. She needed him to love her, too.
"Looks like you are getting along," Bella said quietly from the doorway.
He glanced up. "She seems to like me."
"How could she not?"
Looking back down at his daughter, he said after a while, "It would have been great to get them removed. The tats. But she'd still ask about my face."
"She's going to love you anyway. She already does."
He ran his forefinger over Nalla's arm, stroking her as she snuggled even deeper against his heart and played patty-cake on the back of his free hand.
From out of nowhere, he said, "You didn't talk to me much about your abduction."
"I . . . ah, I didn't want to upset you."
"Do you find yourself protecting me from things that might upset me a lot?"
"You sure about that?"
"Zsadist, if I do, it's because--"
"I'm not much of a male if I can't be there when you need me."
"You are always there for me. And we did talk about it some."
God, he felt like shit for all she had had to do alone, just because of his head fuck.
And yet her voice was strong and sure as she said, "When it comes to the abduction, I don't want you to know every little thing that happened. Not because you can't handle it, but because I don't want to give that bastard any more influence over my life than he's already had." She shook her head. "I'm not going to give him the power to upset you if I can avoid it. Not going to happen-- and that would be true whether or not you had been through anything traumatic."
Z made a noise to acknowledge that she'd spoken, but he didn't agree with her. He wanted to give her everything she needed. She deserved nothing less. And his past had impacted them. Still did. Christ, the way he'd been about Nalla had been--
"May I tell you something in confidence?" she said.
"Of course."
"Mary wants a baby." Z's eyes shot up. "She does? That's great--"
"A biological one."
"Yeah. She can't have one of her own, so Rhage would have to lay with a Chosen."
Z shook his head. "He would never do that. He won't be with anyone but Mary."
"That's what she says. But if he doesn't, she can't hold a piece of him in her arms."
Yeah, because IVF didn't work on vampires. "Shit."
"She hasn't talked to Rhage about it yet because she's sorting her own feelings out first. She talks to me so she can ride the peaks and valleys of her emotions without putting him through the wringer. Some days she wants a young so badly, she thinks she can handle it. Other days she simply can't bear the idea on any level and considers adoption. My point is, you can't work out all your stuff with your partner. And you shouldn't. You were there for me afterward. You're there for me now. I never question that. But that doesn't mean I have to drag you into the nitty-gritty. Healing is a multifaceted kind of thing."
He tried to picture himself telling Bella all the ins and outs of the abuse he'd been subjected to. . . . No. . . . no way would he want her to break her heart over the fucked up nightmare he'd been put through.
"Did you talk to someone?" he asked.
"Yes, at Havers's. And I talked to Mary." There was a pause. "And I went back . . . to where I'd been held."
His eyes flipped up and bored into hers. "You did?"
She nodded. "I had to."
"You never told me." Fuck, she'd been back there? Without him?
"I needed to go. For me. And I needed to go alone and I didn't want to argue. I made sure Wrath knew when I was leaving and I told him right when I got back."
"Damn . . . I wish I'd known. Makes me feel like a shitty hellren."
"You're anything but that. Especially now that you're holding your daughter like you are."
There was a long silence.
"Look," she said, "if it helps any, I've never felt like I couldn't tell you something. I've never doubted that you would man up and support me. But just because we're mated doesn't mean I'm not my own person."
"I know. . . ." He thought for a minute. "I didn't want to go back to where I . . . To that castle. If it hadn't been for the fact that she'd imprisoned another male down in that cell . . . I never would have gone back."
And he couldn't now. The place where he'd been held in the Old Country had long ago been sold to humans, eventually ending up in England's National Trust.
"Did you feel better?" he asked abruptly. "After you went to see where you'd been?"
"Yes, because Vishous had ashed the place. The closure was more complete that way."
Z rubbed Nalla's little round belly absently while staring across at his shellan. "I wonder why we haven't talked about it before now."
Bella smiled and nodded at the young. "We've had something else get our attention."
"Can I be honest? The steakhead in me needs to believe that if you'd wanted me to go with you to that place, you know I would have done it in a heartbeat and stayed tight for you."
"I absolutely know that. But I still wanted to go alone. I can't explain it . . . it was just something I needed to do. A courage thing."
Nalla glanced in the direction of her mother and made a squirming reach that was accompanied by a little burble of demand.
"I think she wants something only you can give her," Z said with a smile as he got up from the rocker.
He and Bella met in the middle of the room. As they made the handoff, he kissed his shellan and lingered a bit, with both of them holding on to their daughter.
"I'm going out, okay?" he said. "I won't be long."
"Be safe." "I promise. I've got to take care of my girls."
Zsadist armed himself and dematerialized out west of the city, to a stretch of forest dead in the thick of farm country.
The bald clearing was fifty feet ahead, right by a stream, but instead of seeing an empty stretch among the pines, he pictured a single-room building with a plywood exterior and a tin roof.
What was in his mind was clear as the trees around him and the stars in the night sky up above: The facility had been constructed by the Lessening Society quickly and with an eye toward the temporary. What had been done inside, though, had been the stuff of permanence.
He walked over to the clearing, the twigs of the forest floor cracking under his boots, reminding him of a quiet fire in the fireplace.
His thoughts were anything but calming and homey.
When you went through the place's door, there had been a stall shower and a drywall bucket with a toilet seat on it. For six weeks Bella had washed in the four-by-four-foot cubicle, and he knew she hadn't been alone. That bastard lesser had watched her. Had probably helped.
Shit, the idea of anything like that happening made him want to hunt the fucker down all over again. But Bella had taken care of the slayer's death, hadn't she. She'd been the one who had shot him in the head while the bastard had stood before her, captivated by his sick love for her. . . .
Shaking himself, Z imagined he was standing once again in the main room of the place. To the left there had been a wall of shelving with tools of the torture trade laid out on flimsy wooden boards held aloft by crude brackets. Chisels, knives, handsaws . . . he could remember how shiny they had been.
There had been a fireproof closet as well, one that he'd ripped the doors off of.
And a stainless-steel autopsy table with fresh blood on it.
Which he'd tossed into the corner like litter.
He could totally remember busting into the facility. He'd been looking for Bella for weeks after that lesser had broken into her house and taken her. Everyone thought she was dead, but he'd refused to believe it. He'd been tortured by the need to get her free . . . a need he hadn't then understood but couldn't deny.
The break had come when a civilian vampire had escaped from this "persuasion center," as the Lessening Society called them, and tracked his location by dematerializing out from the clearing at hundred-yard clips through the forest. From the map he'd drawn for the Brotherhood, Z had come here looking for his female.
The first thing he'd found had been a scorched circle of earth right outside the door, and he'd thought it had been Bella, left for the sun. He'd bent at the knees and put his hand to the ashed circle, and when his sight had gone blurry he hadn't known why.
Tears. There had been tears in his eyes. And it had been so long since he'd cried, he hadn't recognized what they were.
Coming back to the present, Z braced himself and stepped forward, his boots crossing over low-napped, weedy grass. Usually, after Vishous used his hand on a place, there was nothing left but ash and small bits of metal, and that was true here. With the forest undergrowth already grabbing hold, soon the clearing would be filled in again.
The three pipes that were set in the ground had survived, though. And would continue to exist no matter how many sapling pines sprang up.
Kneeling down, Z took out his Maglite and angled the beam into the hole Bella had been in. Pine needles and water had filled it in part of the way.
It had been December when he'd found her in the earth, and he could only imagine the cold that had surrounded her down there . . . the cold and the darkness and the tight squeeze of the ribbed metal.
He'd almost missed these earthbound prisons. After he'd thrown the autopsy table across the room, he'd heard a whimper, and that was what had brought him over here, to these three pipes. As he'd popped the mesh cover off the one the noise came from, he'd known he'd found her.
Except he hadn't. When he'd pulled on the ropes that had led into the hole, a civilian male had emerged, a male who was shivering like a child.
Bella had been unconscious in the one she'd been in. Z had gotten shot in the leg as he'd worked to get her free, thanks to a security system that Rhage had only partially disarmed. Even with the bullet tearing into his leg, though, he hadn't felt a thing as he'd bent down and grabbed onto the ropes and slowly pulled. He'd seen his love's mahogany-colored hair first, and the dizzying relief had been like getting blanketed by a warm cloud. But then her face had become visible.
Her eyes had been sewn shut.
Z got to his feet, his body revolting against that memory, his stomach churning, his throat getting tight. He'd nursed her afterward. Bathed her. Let her feed from him even though giving her the corroded shit in his veins had brought him to the edge of hysteria.
And he'd serviced her in her needing as well. Which was how Nalla had come to be.
In return? Bella had given him back the world.
Zsadist took a last look around, seeing not the landscape but the truth. Bella might be smaller than him and might weigh a hundred pounds less and might be untrained in the martial arts and might not know how to shoot guns . . . but she was stronger than he was.
She had gotten through what had been done to her.
Could the past be like this, he wondered, looking around at the empty clearing. A structure in your mind that you could burn down and get free of?
He moved his foot back and forth over the forest floor. The weeds that had poked up through the skin of the earth were like green whiskers, and they were concentrated in the area that got the most sunlight.
From the ashes came new life.
Z took out his phone and composed a text that he never thought he'd write.
It took him four tries to get it right. And when he hit send, he knew on some level he changed the course of his life.
And you could do that, couldn't you, he thought as he put the RAZR back in his pocket. You could choose some paths and not others. Not always, of course. At times destiny just drove you to a destination and dropped your ass off and that was that.
But on occaision you were able to pick the address. And if you had half a brain, no matter how hard it was or how weird it felt, you went into the house.
And found yourself.