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After a week, I felt okay enough to head back to my life. Besides, I didn't want to miss any more work. Not for unplanned absences, anyway. If I was going to get away from the office, it was going to be for that never-got-around-to vacation that Teren and I had vaguely planned together years ago. Preferably somewhere hot and muggy, since the temperature extreme would feel amazing on my cool skin.

I'd been a little nervous about what I'd chow on in the city, since cows weren't exactly walking around in most people's backyards, but I should have known better. Alanna sent me out the door with enough chilled or frozen packages of blood to last me practically until the next decade. And I was pretty sure that she'd be swinging by for the first few months to resupply me if I did get low. Alanna was just incapable of not nurturing people, and now that Teren's thirst level had tapered off, she was more than happy to make up for his independence with me.

Getting ready for work on my first Monday back from my "illness," Teren gave me some tips that he'd used when he'd gone back to work. Cocking an eyebrow at him as he dressed for work, I whispered, "Are you serious...the bathroom? You told me you never needed to eat at work."

Smiling as he buttoned up his dress shirt, hiding his glorious skin with each fastening, he shook his head. "Need, no, but it did...take the edge off. And yes, the bathroom. It's the most private place to do it, trust me."

I shook my head, my face incredulous at what he'd done, at what he was asking me to do. "So, when you got hungry at work, you took a small thermos of blood into the restroom and took a sip in a stall, where unpleasant stuff?"

Chuckling at me, his shirt completely fastened, but loose over his slacks, he sat beside where I was sprawled out on our bed. Leaning over, he brushed aside some hair from my forehead; I could smell the soap from his shower on his fingers. "It's more secluded than your car or an empty office. And people generally leave each other alone in long as you don't take too long."

He chuckled again and I sighed, not relishing the smells that would be mixing with my bloody lunch. Looking at the disgust in my face, he tapped my nose with his finger. "Don't think about it. Just do what you need to do to get through the day."

I sighed again, reaching my arms around his waist. "And you're sure the temperature thing won't be noticed?"

Shrugging, he lightly kissed me. "No one ever questioned my sudden change." Pulling back to look at me, he cupped my cheek. "The average human being isn't looking for a supernatural answer to life's little oddities. If you act completely normal, they will think you are completely normal." He smirked and shrugged. "As Great-Gran said, they're sort of like the cattle...easily herdable."

I pushed back on his chest as I grunted at him. "Please don't start quoting Halina."

Laughing softly, he kissed my head as he stood up. "I'll have my phone close all day, just text me if you're having any problems."

Exhaling nervously, I shook my head. "Yeah...okay."

He watched me lovingly as he tucked in his shirt. "You'll do great, Emma, like you always do."

I nodded and watched as he quickly finished. Giving me one last hug, he made to leave for work. Striding through the door, he suddenly stopped and looked back at me. Furrowing his brows, a serious expression washed over his face. "Most people will ignore it...but not all." His eyes flickering over my body, he shook his head. "Please try and be cautious of the not normal human beings."

I bit my lip and nodded. Yeah, the last thing Teren and I needed was another hunter on our tail.

Pulling into the lot after dropping off my kids at Mom's, I breathed in a deep, unneeded breath. I could do this. After all, I'd already handled dying, how bad could this be?

Walking in through the front doors, the smell hit me first. I'd never noticed it before, but a building full of warm-blooded humans, smelled like warm blood. It was everywhere, like it seeped from their pores.

Smiling, I listened to the thumping heartbeats around me. It was like walking through a chocolate factory - everyone just smelled so good. On the way to the elevator, I found myself lingering to talk to people that I usually didn't talk to on a regular basis. I just wanted to listen to their hearts. Recognizing that I was noticing people in a way that maybe I shouldn't, I forced myself to stop enjoying the flow of blood around me and concentrate on getting to my office.

Digging through my purse, I texted Teren as I stepped out of the elevator onto my floor. 'Everyone smells that normal? Am I okay to be here?'

I hadn't taken two steps before he responded. 'Yes, it's normal. You're more attuned to them now and you'll notice them in a way you didn't before. That will fade as you get used to it. You are still in control of your actions, though. Duck to the bathroom if you need...anything.'

Cringing and placing a hand over the conveniently sized thermos in my mammoth purse, I typed back a thank you.

Ignoring how the mailman was a little mouthwatering now, I kept my head down and hurried to my desk. It wasn't as if I suddenly wanted to chow down on my coworkers or anything, I definitely did not, but they were just about the yummiest things I could think of, all clumped together like...well, cattle.

Laughing a little, I nearly ran right into Tracey. I instinctually inhaled in surprise and her particular scent hit me. More familiar than my coworkers, since I'd spent a decent amount of time with her pre-death, it calmed me down some. Her placing her fingers on my upper arms did not. Wanting to pull away but knowing that Teren was right and casualness was the key to inconspicuousness, I remained where I was under her grasp. Her dull senses wouldn't be able to feel me under my blazer anyway.

Glancing between my eyes, she raised a pale eyebrow at me. "You alright? Back to human?"

My eyes widened at her implication, then I realized that she was referencing the flu I'd supposedly been getting over. "Yeah, much better, thank you." I coughed a little, hoping for space. It worked like a charm; she dropped her fingers and took a step back.

Grinning at me, she shook her head. "Well, glad you're better."

Merrily ducking into my old cubicle, she absentmindedly admired her engagement ring as she sat down. Murmuring at a level she wouldn't hear, I wryly let out, "Yeah, all back to normal."

Hearing Clarice grunt in disapproval as I stood outside our joint office talking to someone she considered a subordinate, I sighed and shook my head at Tracey. "Duty calls." Tracey blinked at me. She had a lot of things going for her - great job, great fiancee, amazing looks - but she didn't have my super hearing.

With no one else coming anywhere near as close to me as Tracey had earlier, my Monday morning went by pretty uneventfully. But around lunchtime I did start to feel a little peckish. My throat drying up and my stomach tightening, I figured it would be prudent to stay on top of this, less I cave and take a bite out of Clarice's pudgy, judgmental ass.

Waiting for Clarice to leave for her standard forty-three minute lunch break and faking that I was swamped with work when Tracey asked if I wanted a bite with her, I felt real hunger pangs by the time I carefully pulled the container out of my bag. Still not thrilled over drinking where people peed, I wished I could down the plasma treat right there in the office. But, it wasn't worth the risk of someone seeing me.

Sighing, I texted Teren a quick message. 'Going in, wish me luck.'

His reply was immediate. 'You'll be fine. Wash your hands afterwards...bathrooms are disgusting.'

Laughing, I put the phone away and tucked the warm mug under my blazer. It heated the side of me and I almost growled at just the thought of that warmth sliding down my starting-to-ache throat. I had more control than that though.

Walking down the hall with something that I knew would freak out every person in the building made my nerves spike. By the time I was in the bathroom, triple checking under every stall door, my hands were shaking. As I closed a stall door, I knew my alive heart would have been pounding. Even without it, my icy veins felt even icier. I nearly felt like I was doing something nefarious; spying or embezzling, or stealing office supplies.

Then I took the lid off my drink and inhaled. Unhindered by bone, flesh, skin and clothing, the direct smell of blood was nearly overwhelming. I let my fangs crash down to where they wanted to be and immediately tilted the cup back. Euphoria flooded through me. I had to put my hand against the door to steady myself, the taste was so amazing. Sweet, tangy, heady, it was better than any martini lunch I'd ever had; worth every damn germ in this place, not that germs really mattered to me now anyway.

Feeling proud of myself, I contained the satisfied growl that I wanted to make. I also saved half the drink. Having several more hours of sitting in a room with Clarice, I was pretty sure I'd need a pick-me-up later. Especially when her last comment to me before lunch had been to ask if I'd had all my shots for the rest of the year, like I was a dog or something.

Feeling full and warmed from the liquid in my belly, I nearly skipped back to my office. Excited to tell someone that I'd pulled it off, I texted Teren. 'That was so incredibly amazing! I should have been doing this ages ago. I'm so satisfied right now...'

His response was quick, as usual. ''re turning me on.'

Giggling in my joy, my phone beeped at me before I could type back. 'I'm glad you got something to eat. I was a little worried.'

Shaking my head, I reassured him that I was great and that I loved him very much.

By the end of the week, I felt like I'd successfully adjusted to the undead life. Eventually the newness of being deceased wore off, and I truly began to enjoy how alive the world was to me. Colors, sounds, textures, everything was more distinct, clearer. It was like Teren had said once, the senses seemed to swap around with each other. I could hear color in music, I could feel silkiness in sound. It was something unexplainable that only other vampires understood. It was a world I wished I could have shared with my family, but it wasn't a fate I'd wish on them. The constant worry, the never-ending charade. There were sacrifices to being what I dealing with people eating food all the time.

I'd never realized how much eating and drinking is a part of our society until I'd been taken out of the part. It seemed like nearly everything humans did, centered around food somehow. Movies equaled popcorn. Baseball games equaled beer and hotdogs. Even walking through the park involved a stop at the churros stand. It was everywhere. It churned my stomach at first, the sight and smell of so much food, but after awhile the reaction faded. It was like watching people eat dog food. I had to forcefully make myself not cringe.

And I had to come up with ways to not eat myself. Being a girl, I had the "I'm on a diet" thing going for me, and it worked for most places where food wasn't the main attraction. But going out to eat was something else entirely. I avoided it with my friends, but my family and I still got together once a week for meals.

Thankfully I didn't have to hide from them, but the staff had known me for years and brought me my Panini sandwich without me even asking. I discretely gave pieces to my kids and made my sister eat the rest. Because she was the most awesome person in the world, she did, doggy bagging the half of her own meal that she couldn't finish.

While Teren's excuse that he was severely allergic had worked well enough for him that he could sit with nothing and our longtime waitress left him alone, I couldn't exactly develop the same rare problem that he'd suddenly developed. That would have just been weird. So with my family's help, I got through our weekly meals with a sham.

On the third week of faking it, my mom sighed and set her fork down. "This is ridiculous. Half of the table isn't eating?" She indicated where Teren and I were sitting, watching everyone else eat.

I shook my head, holding Teren's hand under the table. "It's fine, Mom. We'll eat later." Since I really didn't want her to think about how we ate, I usually left that topic pretty vague. Mom didn't ask about it either.

"Well, we could do something else when we all get together, something everyone would enjoy?" She tilted her head, looking between Teren, me, Ashley and the twins.

Nika grinned when Mom's eyes swept over her, a chunk of my sandwich hanging out of her mouth. Mom smiled, but then frowned when she looked back at me. "You guys shouldn't have to be bored, just sitting there."

I laughed, leaning into Teren's side. "We're not, Mom. We're here for the conversation...if not the food."

Mom shook her head, picking up her fork again. "Alright, well, if it's okay with you guys, who am I to complain, I guess?"

My sister giggled as she ate my sandwich for me. Glancing over at her, I could see creases in her scars that hadn't been there a few months ago, or maybe my poor form of vision before just hadn't noticed them. Either way, I noticed them now, and smiled at what they were - laugh lines. Crinkles of happiness. The skin so used to the act of smiling that the body had permanently etched the shape of that joy into her young skin. I instantly wondered what the source of her joy was.

Pulling apart the last remaining segments of the meal I didn't eat with my fingers, I tilted my head at her. "Ash?" She looked from Mom to me, her face curious. "What have you been up to lately, Sis?"

She flushed a little as she looked around the table. "Nothing much," she muttered, digging back into the food with a gusto.

Raising an eyebrow, I leaned in "Really? Because I know you're holding something back, I can smell it." I couldn't really, but Ash didn't know that. Her eyes widened as she looked me up and down.

Teren chuckled beside me, shaking his head. Ashley's eyes went to his face, then back to mine. "You cannot, Emma. " She rolled her eyes while I frowned at my fib-busting husband. He shrugged, laughing harder.

Sulking at him destroying my ploy, I dropped his fingers, playing with my meal scraps with both hands. Rolling up a piece of my bread, I handed it to Julian. "Then what's going on? Really?"

Mom looked over at her, eyes curious now too. Ashley looked between us, then sighed. "Okay, but you can't say anything." I smiled and nodded; secrets were sort of my specialty.

Looking around, Ashley leaned in. "Some of the doctors that I know have been doing a lot of work with cultured skin." I gave her a blank look and she smiled. "Skin that's been grown in a lab. Anyway, they've been letting me assist them in my free time, and I just watched them successfully grow skin with hair follicles." Her eyes widened as her face lit up. "It had sebaceous glands and everything! Do you know what that means, Emma?"

I shook my head. "Not really. They grew hairy skin? It sounds kind of creepy."

My sister giggled and shook her head. "It means that they could potentially do skin graphs for patients on areas of the body that grow hair." She pointed to her bare head, as if to emphasize what had just been made startlingly clear to me. "Baldness, burns, cancer? It's a breakthrough."

Growing skin in labs had been too new of a thing to help Ashley, but she'd told me once before that it was being practiced more and more as the science was perfected. Since her accident, numerous patients had avoided having healthy skin sliced off their own bodies and painfully relocated to cover damaged areas. Ashley had had more than a few of those kinds of surgeries. Now she was telling me that they were on the cusp of graphs that could help patients regain their natural head of hair. My eyes watered at just the thought.

Ashley's did too. "Can you imagine what this could do for people? The normalcy, the hope?" Her eyes got dangerously close to overflowing as her smile widened as far as it could go.

My mom threw an arm around her as Teren placed his hand over hers. They each offered support and praise but my senses focused on my sister. Everything about her defied the odds. Her living through the blaze that took our father. Her fighting through the painful battle of recovery. Her ability to ignore the taunts and jabs directed her way, to be able to walk proudly in her own skin. Her desire to turn her setbacks into inspiration, to help others like herself. And even now, hearing of a treatment that could potentially help her too one day, her first thought was how it could help others. Once again, I wanted to be my sister when I grew up.

Sniffling, I could only nod, amazed beyond words.

I was still thinking of my sister's revelation the next day. Sipping my bathroom beverage, trying to ignore the toilet flushing going on around me, I contemplated what her life could be like if her mentors were successful. Having a full set of hair wouldn't make her completely normal looking, but it would cut back the instant stares she received. If just that small thing could be changed, she, and others like her, wouldn't be the instant elephant in the room. Something everyone notices, but most try to ignore talking about.

I wanted that for her, but I'd come to realize that my sister wanted life on her own terms, and hiding her disfigurement had never been something she'd desired. If it were just a matter of hiding herself, she'd have purchased a wig years ago. But she hadn't. While gracious and patient with most people, she sort of had an 'I'm here, deal with it,' approach. Sort of like Halina actually, just on a much, much nicer level.

Teren was all smiles when he greeted me in our driveway when I got home. I felt the lingering joy of our connection completing as he squeezed me into a hug, but I didn't think that was really the cause of his smile. Pulling back to look over his features, I tilted my head. "Something up? Besides being happy to see me?"


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