The sounds of descendants and Keepers battling Mr. Williams's loyalists faded away, only to be replaced by the voices of two angry women deep into an argument.
My soul rose out of the shell of my body, the two parts that made me who I was staying tethered by a thin silver cord that stretched between my soul's navel and my body's. Here in the between world, the Circle was peaceful and quiet, the sounds of all the living muff led as if heard underwater.
I looked around and spotted my mother's soul hovering several yards away from her body, the silver cord that connected them thinned out almost to the point of breaking.
The only thing apparently stopping her from continuing on to the other side was Nanna's spirit, who had gotten right into her daughter's soul's face and was jabbing a finger at her. Mom's soul f linched every time the tip of Nanna's finger poked through her.
"Mom!" I cried out as I pushed my soul to f loat over to them. Since my soul had no real physical presence, my feet had nothing to make contact with in order to make walking effective. It must have been the will that counted toward actually moving around.
"I am trying to talk some sense into my daughter," Nanna hissed.
"Mom, you can't go yet."
"That's what I've been trying to tell her. Joan, stop being so hardheaded and listen to me for a change. I'm not kidding around here. Take two more steps and that thing's gonna break." She waved a hand at the overstretched cord between Mom's body and her soul. "Once it breaks, there's no going back."
Mom scowled. "That's what I'm trying to tell you. I don't want to go back!"
"Mom, you can't mean that," I whispered as too much emotion filled my chest. If I had been in my physical body, it would have been hard to breathe.
Mom turned to me with a sad smile. "I do, honey. I'm tired of living."
Nanna growled out a sigh. "Everyone gets tired of living at some point. But I did not raise you to be a quitter. And that's exactly what you're trying to do're trying to give up on life just because it's a little hard right now."
"A little hard?" Mom turned to her mother with wide eyes that quickly narrowed. "I've lost everything! My job, my dog, my home. My life's a freaking country song."
"You're going to get your life back now," I said. "The war's over. We won."
"So what if we won for now? The Clann and the vamps hate each other too much for peace to really last. Vampires and descendants will never be able to safely live together for long."
"Oh, so that's what this is about," Nanna said, her chin lifting. "You're giving up because of a little heartbreak and lost love."
Mom closed her eyes and shook her head, her shoulders slumping as if the weight of the world had just been dropped onto her back. "I'm so tired, Mom. I just want to be done with it all. Can't you see? It is time for me to go. What do I have to go back for? A failed marriage? My stellar parenting of my daughter?"
"Mom, we all make mistakes," I said. "Look at how my sneaking around with Tristan ended up costing Nanna her life."
"Oh, child," Nanna murmured, her eyes soft with love. "You know I forgave you for that a long time ago."
I shrugged one shoulder. "Still, it was a choice with some huge consequences for others, consequences I didn't even take the time to consider, and I should have. And I'm sorry."
Mom's eyebrows pinched together as she looked from me to Nanna and back. "That was one mistake, Savannah. I've made hundreds as your mother. I've been a horrible parent, and everyone knows it. I practically walked out on my own daughter just when you needed me the most."
"No, you tried to save me," I said. "If you'd been around, it might have triggered the bloodlust-"
"That's a copout and we all know it. You were fine around your Nanna, weren't you?" Mom took a deep breath. "The truth is, I was running away from my past, from my thousand and one screw-ups. I've been a coward, and you deserve a lot better. If not for your father-"
"He helped me with the vamp stuff, sure," I said. "But what does he know about being a girl or a teen or dating or boys? You were the one who helped me with all of that."
"From a hundred miles away while constantly on the road?"
"Sure. I always knew you were only a phone call away. And besides, when you left, you didn't just walk away. You made sure to leave me with the best person who could help me at the time." I smiled at Nanna, who gave me a small smile in return. "I always knew you loved me, Mom. And that's way more than a lot of people can say about even parents who are around all the time. What's more important... having a parent be physically there but who never bothers to say 'I love you' to their kid? Or one who always takes time to listen, really listen, and always makes sure I know I'm loved?"
Mom slowly shook her head. "Even still, no child should have to call or text her mother just to talk to her every day. I should have been there for you, but I wasn't."
"Fine, so you ran away," Nanna snapped. "So why don't you do something new and try not running away for a change? Or are you so selfish that you don't even care about the heartbreak you'd be leaving behind?"
Mom winced and looked away. "It's too late. I can't change anything I've done. I deserve to lose everything."
I had to speak up on that one. "Mom, what are you talking about? You haven't lost me."
"Yes, I have. You've got your dad and Tristan now. Neither will ever get sick or old and die on you. What more do you need? Certainly not a pathetic excuse for a mother like me who's never around and can't even help you learn to do magic."
"I don't want you around to help me with the magic," I said. "I can figure that out on my own, and Tristan can help. I want you there to be my mom, because I love you."
"I don't think you've quite lost your love, either." Nanna pointedly looked past us at something.
We all turned and looked at Dad as he continued to rock Mom's body, his eyes closed, tears slipping down his cheeks. He'd never looked less like a vampire or more like a regular guy.
Mom's eyes rounded. " could he possibly still love me when I drive him nuts all the time? We fight constantly. And there's the whole bloodlust problem. Not to mention the tiny fact that I'm getting older and more wrinkly and gray-haired by the second. Pretty soon I'll look old enough to be his grandmother. And look at him. He could have anyone!"
"You two only argue so much because of that infernal pride of yours," Nanna said. "Girl, how many times do I have to tell you you've got to let it go? What does it matter who pays for what as long as you're together?"
Mom sighed. "Well, maybe I could ease up about some of that stuff. But he just drives me so insane all the time! Why can't he ever, just once, let me pay for something?"
I thought about what Tristan said earlier tonight. "You know, maybe he can't help it. Maybe it was just how he was raised. Maybe somebody taught him that being a real man meant taking care of the woman he loved in every way possible, including financially."
One of Mom's eyebrows arched. "That is so incredibly old-fashioned."
"True." I fought a smile. "But it also comes from a place of love."
I couldn't tell whether the sound she made was a thoughtful one or an irritated, dismissive one. She kept staring and frowning at Dad, rocking her empty body, and on this side of the afterlife I had no ability to read her mind.
She also wasn't making any move to get back into her body and return to life.
I blew out a long, slow breath. Maybe Dad was right. Was I being selfish by begging my mother to live when she didn't want to? "You know what? If you really don't want to come back, then-" I took a deep breath and made myself say it "-then maybe you shouldn't."
"What?" Nanna croaked.
"No. We're being selfish, Nanna. Mom should make up her own mind. It's her life and her choice to make, not ours. If Dad and I aren't good enough reasons for her to want to live, if she'll be happier here than back there, then we should love her enough to let her go."
Mom's eyes widened as she stared at me.
I walked over to my mother. "I wish I could at least hug you goodbye." I thought of all the things I would miss about her...the smell of her Wind Song perfume and her frizzy blond curls tickling my face when we hugged, the sound of her voice as she rambled on about her day, the way she could make me laugh just by telling me some workplace gossip. "You do what you think is right for you, and I'll love you either way, okay?"
Then I made myself turn and walk back to my body, carefully sitting down into it.
Just as I started to lie back, Mom sighed. "When did she get so dang grown up on us?"
Nanna just chuckled.
"All right, I'm coming back with you." Mom started to hug her mother goodbye, but her arms passed right through her. She gave Nanna a rueful smile. "See you later?"
"In your dreams, kiddo."
I smiled, knowing Nanna meant that literally since she'd shown up in Mom's dreams before to boss her around.
Mom walked over to her body. "So I just sit down in it?"
"Yep," I said. "It's easy. Just sit down in your body, then lay back and relax and when you wake up you'll be alive again."
"As easy as dying," Nanna joked.
Mom sat down in her body and frowned. "It feels weird. Kind of...tingly." She started to lie back, then hesitated and her face lit up with a huge grin. "Hey, at least I get my dog and my job and my house back to myself now, right? It'll be like playing a country song backward!"
"Right," I said with a laugh that came from more than a little relief. Everything would be fine now. Maybe even better than fine.
Mom lay back in her body. Then her real eyes f luttered open on the other side. Dad froze, whispered her name, then hugged her even harder.
And that's when I remembered what I'd forgotten to warn Mom about. "Uh-oh."
"You didn't tell her you gave her your blood, did you?" Nanna snickered. "Well, there's more than one way to die as a vampire."
I sighed. "She's going to stake me."
"Maybe when she gets her memory back. But that'll be months from now. In the meantime, why don't you leave that to me and your dad?"
"Thanks, Nanna." When it came to dealing with the Evans women's temper, I could use all the help I could get.
Then I lay back in my body and closed my eyes.
When I woke up, Tristan was holding me so hard he would have crushed me if I'd been human. As it was, I still couldn't move my arms enough to touch his face. So I settled for whispering his name, not wanting to startle him.
Those long golden-tipped eyelashes rose. He looked down at me with the most haunted eyes I'd ever seen. Then he stared at me as if afraid to blink. "You're back?"
I nodded.
"Thank God."
"Don't forget Nanna, too."
"Huh?" He shook his head. "Never mind. Just swear to me you will never do that to me again." Then he pulled me up to him for a lip-crushing kiss that was more about sharing our relief to be together and alive than for the joy of the actual kiss itself. It was only minutes later when he finally relaxed and his lips softened against mine that I truly forgot everything else.
Till Dad cleared his throat. "Ah, Savannah? You did not give your mother your blood, did you? She...smells and sounds and feels decidedly...not human."
His voice was more than a little strained.
I sat up and twisted around to look at him and Mom. She was looking all around her with the bright-eyed wonder of a small child. Oh, boy. I knew that empty-eyed look all too well.
I cleared my throat. "I, um, might have tried to turn her in order to save her."
Dad groaned. "You could not have picked a worse f ledgling to make. She will be all but impossible to train. Just look at her. She is already feeling the beginnings of the bloodlust. We will be lucky if we do not wind up on that Arkansas mountain for another year!" Then he looked at his ex-wife and a slow smile spread across his face.
I didn't have to read his mind to know what he was thinking. "I don't suppose you'd be willing to train her for me? You know, so I could maybe actually finish high school sometime this century?"
Tristan nudged me. She doesn't remember all the fights they've had.
Nope, I told him, watching as my mother turned to look at Dad and her eyes lit up even more with the beginnings of a shy smile.
But you know her memory will eventually come back. And when it does...
I sighed. "When she gets her memory back, she's going to kill both of us."
Dad's smile instantly became an openmouthed look of shock. "I would never take advantage of your mother in the absence of her memory. I would simply endeavor to keep her safe and away from all humans and train her just as I helped you train Tristan. I am sure by the time her memory returns, she will feel nothing but love and gratitude toward both of us."
Oh, yeah. He was headed for heartbreak city. "Fine. But no romantic stuff at all until she gets her memory back. Or else."
"Agreed." He murmured the word as he stared into Mom's eyes.
I couldn't stand it. I had to warn him. "Dad, when she does get her memory back...what if she breaks your heart again? What if you two just aren't meant to be together, and it has nothing to do with your being from enemy races?"
Dad smiled, and I'd never seen his face light up like that. "Have you not figured it out yet? Love is always worth the risk."
Suddenly the Circle's relative quiet was pierced by the distant wailing of a baby.
"What the..." Tristan jumped and pressed his hands to the ground as if ready to leap to his feet.
I grabbed his wrist to stop him and smiled. "That would be your nephew."
His eyes widened even further. "Emily went into labor? I thought she said it was false labor pains earlier."
"Apparently not," Dad murmured with a smile. "We took her to the house for the delivery. Dr. Faulkner has been assisting her."
We all sat very still, listening, waiting to hear if Emily was okay, as well.
Finally she made a strange sound that was half sobbing and half laughter, followed by the strangest sound of all coming from her...soft cooing to her newborn child.