Nautical Note: There are places where rocks reach up from the ocean floor, great pinnacles that are a landmark to the fish under the water, but represent hazards to fishermen and great ships. These pinnacles are often marked with a tall buoy that has a bell so that even in the fog a sailor will know that there is something below the surface that could present a problem.
Sookie and Mustapha, disguised as Eric, left for Bon Temps. They had been on display in the corner booth at Fangtasia for over an hour being carefully watched by both vampires and humans. There was a stream of well-wishers who came close, offering condolences and assuring the couple everyone was happy they were back. For his part, “Eric” didn’t say much. He nodded and then looked away. Sookie was polite, but as the night continued, she looked more and more frazzled until they finally rose and made their way to the door.
Karin walked out with them, but then she returned to the club. Thalia was sitting on her chair at the end of the bar, and she elbowed Thierry who was standing next to her. “Watch this.”
Across the dance floor, Karin walked up to Thomas and Nabila. Rubio had been speaking with the couple but when the War Chief approached, he nodded and backed away. Thierry noticed Rubio didn’t retreat far. It seemed everyone was interested in what would be said next and since they all had vampire hearing, there was little chance of missing any part of it.
“Chief,” Thomas bowed slightly. “It is always pleasant to see you. How may I be of service?”
“What I have to say to you is personal,” Karin growled, and then shot a cold look at Nabila. Nabila smiled that Cheshire Cat smile of hers and Thierry had a moment when he thought Karin would spring at her.
Thomas glanced at Nabila. There was nothing said between them, but his look must have been enough because the former Queen shrugged and walked away, but before she left, she said, “It was nice to see you, Karin.” The words on the surface were polite, but Nabila used her slightly superior tone and Thierry could see Karin bristle. Without a backward glance, the elegant vampire glided slowly away toward the back of the club, telling all of them how unconcerned she was about Karin the Slaughterer.
“Do you think we could go outside?” Karin asked Thomas once Nabila was gone.
Thomas shook his head, “No, I think I’m done accommodating you for the moment,” and he tilted his head, letting her know he was waiting.
Thierry thought Karin was grinding her teeth. “You said when I meant it I should call you,” Karin spit out. When Thomas didn’t respond, Karin stood a little straighter, and knowing every vampire would hear her, said, “I do miss you. I didn’t want to call to tell you. I wanted to tell you to your face, and I am here. I miss you at every rising and I miss you as the sun sets. You are in my mind in all my hours and my life is dust because you are not by my side.”
A smile played at the corners of Thomas’ mouth as he watched Karin grind out the words. She seemed to bite them off and spit them out, making clear her reluctance to admit these things about herself in a crowded place. When she finished and stood before him trying to look defiant, he said, “And what do you think I should do about this?”
“I think you should accept my apology and let me come home,” Karin replied, and she held her chin a little higher.
Thomas laughed, and even Thierry could see the confusion in Karin’s eyes, “Well,” Thomas said when he finished, “When you apologize, I’ll think about it!” The Arkansas Sheriff shook his head, “You are a puzzle!” he told Karin, and then he turned on his heel and walked away, leaving the War Chief open-mouthed in the middle of Fangtasia.
From beside his elbow, Thalia said, “You pay good money to get that kind of theater in other places.”
“I suppose,” Thierry agreed. He suspected if Nabila would ever consider speaking with him again, the humiliation he would endure would be much worse.
“I will head out to the Bon Temps house tonight,” Thalia drew Thierry back from the problem of Thomas and Nabila. “I will let the North Man know you are coming with me. You should prepare. I will leave within days. It would be best if you were ready to come with me at once.”
“I have things in Lafayette that need to be put In place,” Thierry protested. “There are on-going operations that can’t be abandoned.”
“Then reach out to Jane,” Thalia snarled. “She was your counterpart when this began. She is wasting her time in a lab coat. She was a Sheriff. Convince her to be a Sheriff again.”
“That is my King’s decision,” Thierry said automatically.
“It is our job to bring our King solutions to his problems,” Thalia countered. “Jane is a perfectly acceptable substitute for you. You have twenty-four hours,” and Thierry found himself trying to recall when he had actually agreed to go with the small vampire holding her own court on the bar stool beside him. “And while you’re at it,” she continued, “Go make peace with your friend, Thomas.” When Thierry didn’t say anything, Thalia added, “It is likely you won’t return from our errand, Frenchman. This is your quest and when the time comes, I won’t hesitate to push you forward. New York is older than you. I expect to bring back a pinch of your dust for your friend.”
“Your concern is heart-warming,” Thierry allowed the sarcasm to drip from his words.
“You wish to be a King, then think like a King. Thomas is a strong vampire who will likely be made King himself someday. He could prove a valuable ally. If, by some miracle, you do survive, you will want friends in many places. You have known him a long time. He holds your secrets…don’t deny it. Make things right between you before you leave to seek your true death.” It was the longest and best speech Thalia had made to him, and Thierry found he was touched by her concern. With a stiff bow, he headed in the direction that Thomas had taken.
Thalia pulled out her phone and texted Eric Northman. She thought about texting Sookie, then decided against it. The telepath had been angry last night and Thalia recognized her own feelings of guilt in the annoyance she felt toward the Viking’s wife.
Thalia glanced again in the direction the French Sheriff had taken. He wouldn’t be a bad traveling companion. In the time it took her to reach into her pocket for her phone, a group of humans had wandered too close, edging around her, and trying to act nonchalant. They were attempting to take selfies that would feature her in the photograph. Thalia supposed it was an attempt to make it appear they were all friends and ‘hanging out’ together. With a snap, Thalia’s fangs descended, and hopping from the bar stool, she snarled, shoved, and moved in one swift progression. She heard the distinct sound a phone screen made when it shattered. It was very satisfying.
“I thought it went well,” Sookie told Eric. Mustapha was once more himself and he was nursing a tumbler of their finest Scotch over ice. “Well, aside from a couple things,” and she turned toward the Packmaster. “You can’t leave them bowing so long. You have to leave them just long enough to remind them of their place, but not so long that it feels as if they’ve done something wrong.”
Mustapha chuckled, “I’ll remember that. It just felt so good to see those smug sons of bitches with their asses in the air, groveling.”
“They are my smug bitches,” Eric’s lip lifted on one side, “Treat them accordingly.”
“I know we’re in mourning,” Sookie continued, “but Eric still interacts with people. The silent treatment and eye tracking from side to side is not something I can easily cover.”
“Do you think anyone noticed?” Warren asked. It was the first time Sookie had seen Mustapha’s mate in a long time. He had been waiting for them when they pulled up in front of the house in Bon Temps.
“They’re vampires,” Sookie shrugged. “They notice everything.”
“And forget nothing,” Eric added. “The Assizes is next week. It may be that I will be ready to assume my place by then.” Eric could feel Sookie’s concern heavily laced with skepticism. His physical injuries were healing quickly, but there was a lingering weakness from the silver that made his moving around difficult. They both knew that Sookie could cover a limp, but if he staggered or fell it would be seen.
Warren reached over and poked Mustapha, which prompted the Packmaster to say, “I’m sure that’s probably how it’s going to happen, but maybe I should practice with you just in case.”
There was a sound and Eric retrieved his phone. He was using his uninjured hand, but since it was not the hand he used most often, he fumbled it. Sookie leaned forward, and Eric stopped her with a swift look. She was trying hard, too hard, and it was starting to annoy him. “Thalia is coming,” he told them.
“Well, that’s our cue to leave,” Mustapha announced. “I’m serious, Eric. I’ll come out here tomorrow night and we can go over your list of small talk topics. You’re a pain in the ass, but you’re the pain in the ass I know. I’d miss you if anything happened to you.”
Warren stood as well and then, unexpectedly, hugged the vampire. Sookie could feel Eric’s astonishment and if she hadn’t been so surprised, she would have laughed out loud. “I’m very sorry for your loss,” he told Eric, and then he nodded to Sookie as well.
Sookie walked them out and when she returned, said, “Well, I think I’ll head upstairs and straighten up some things. We could use some clean sheets and the bathroom looks like a hurricane hit it.”
“Why are you avoiding Thalia, Lover?” Eric lifted his eyebrow, letting Sookie know she could tell him, or he’d just step into her head and take the answer for himself.
“I know I told you you’re welcome to stroll through my thoughts anytime, but you were really hurt at the time and I think it’s pretty low of you to hold me to that promise now,” Sookie snarled.
“A promise is a promise, Älskade,” he replied.
“Fine!” and Sookie crossed her arms over her chest. “She should have been with us, Eric! She has watched over you and guarded you as long as I’ve known you and when you most needed her, she took off with no explanation. I can’t help thinking that if she’d been here where she belonged…”
“Thalia owes me nothing, Sookie,” Eric held up his hand to interrupt her. “I owe her everything. She is with me because it pleases her. I have no claim on her. None.” Eric looked away and then sat up a little straighter, holding his hand out to Sookie, and bringing her into his lap when she stepped close. “I don’t know what Thalia saw in me. I was not a promising vampire when Appius first took me. I… I wept a great deal. I had been a chief’s son. My life did not seem the life I wished at the time, but when I realized what had been lost to me, before I understood the gift that this life is, I wished for final death often.”
Sookie could feel her husband settle beneath her in that way he did when he told stories of his life long ago. “Appius knew this, of course, and he used it to try and break me. He was a hard master. There was nothing too humiliating, too painful as he punished me for my lack of gratitude. Sometimes he believed I was using my grief to resist him and that attracted him. When that happened it was worse, but eventually I learned to enjoy the process, and that made him enjoy it less.” Sookie didn’t want to imagine what Eric was telling her and she bit her lips, trying not to think of the hell his life must have been.
“But you are so happy as a vampire now,” she whispered.
“Yes, that is true,” he told her. “Thalia didn’t teach me that joy, but she showed me that not all vampires were monsters. She took pity on me. She gambled with Appius and she forced him to make my treatment one of the stakes. She won me for jobs, and then she won me for training. She cheated. She is a skilled cheater,” and Eric laughed. “The first time she found me too damaged to fulfill the wager Appius owed her, she took it out of the Old Roman. She crippled him for weeks. I was never so grateful.”
“Why did she do that?” Sookie asked.
“She decided she liked me,” Eric shrugged. “Over time, she decided she liked me more. I’ve asked her, but she’s never given me a better explanation.”
“You’ve been together a long time,” Sookie said.
“Yes, long enough that I trust that Thalia has a reason for her actions. Don’t forget, Lover, she is the one who took you to Russell Edgington. She saved your life. It is one more thing on the long bill that I owe her.” Eric squeezed her a little, “You are my wife, Sookie. My debts are your debts.”
“What are you asking, Eric?” Sookie could feel it. He was working up to something he thought would make her mad.
“I am asking you to apologize to her, Lover,” he held her tight, anticipating she would try to break from his arms.
Sookie felt the quick spike of temper and then she thought of what Eric had told her. She thought of her own experience with the small vampire, everything Thalia had done and allowed. “Of course I will,” Sookie nodded.
When Thalia pulled up at the house, she found Sookie waiting for her on the front porch, and her mouth thinned to a flat line. Thalia didn’t want to have to hurt the telepath, but she was not going to be denied access to the North Man. She opened her mouth to tell Sookie to move aside, but then Sookie did the unexpected. The telepath bowed, her hands at her side, and from her position facing the floor, she said, “I ask your pardon, Thalia. I had no right to question you. I can only say that my grief and the strain of the past few days… well… I’m ashamed of myself and I hope you can forgive me.”
It seemed so out of character that it took Thalia a half a minute to respond. She was on the porch by then. “I understand,” she told Sookie. “There is no need to bow to me. You’re a Queen, his Queen. Just take me to him.” To give her credit, Sookie straightened up and didn’t try any of her human touching. She turned and led the way to the large room that ran along the back of the house. Eric was sitting in a large armchair near the fireplace. Thalia could see his weakness they all recognized the moment she realized the vampire she’d seen a few hours ago at Fangtasia was not this man. She turned back to Sookie, who had stopped at the door, “You’re using all your Fae tricks these days, I see.”
“I guess so,” Sookie nodded. “Can I get you anything? Blood?”
When Thalia declined, the telepath turned as if to leave, but Thalia said, “You should stay. You are standing at his side now. What I have to say are things you need to hear, too.” Once Sookie settled on the couch nearest Eric, Thalia announced her plans to leave again.
“But why?” Sookie couldn’t help the outburst. She glanced at Eric, then moderating her voice, she said, “I am so worried that others will figure out what we’re doing, just like you did. If we can’t fool people, Eric will be in danger, and there are so few of us to watch out for him.”
Thalia leveled a cold look in Sookie’s direction, and Eric said, “Sometimes the best defense is a strong offense, Lover.” He turned back to Thalia, “What do you know?”
Thalia brought out the photograph of Carlos, “I know this is the New York King’s second. He was in Jackson days ago. The guards there allowed him to get into the compound. He was in Bill Compton’s room, although I can’t tell why.”
“Compton was the bomber,” Eric said.
“You’re sure?” Thalia hissed, “The investigation is pointing toward the Vampires First movement.”
“I was there,” Eric reminded her. “He had the trigger in his pocket. He meant to kill me.” Sookie made a noise. Thalia knew he was sending his mate comfort, but his expression didn’t change. “He has had any number of opportunities to end me in the past. I don’t understand why he chose this place and this way, unless I wasn’t his only target. I am sure he was waiting for me.”
“You have seen the news stories,” Thalia said. It wasn’t a question.
“No one will believe me without proof,” Eric nodded. “Compton has become the people’s vampire. Even Edgington and Crowe seem willing to make him untouchable.”
“Someone should know the truth!” Sookie said.
“Sometimes truth is what others say it is,” Eric answered. He glanced again at the photo on the table. “Why is New York involved? I know Bill did it, and he,” and Eric pointed toward Carlos, “it would seem he knows, too. How?”
“The only way I can see is that New York was involved,” Thalia nodded. “Carlos was only there for a few hours and then he headed north. There are too many things that seem to have a whiff of New York. I wanted to tell Pam…”
“She’s left,” Eric interrupted. “She will be returning to him, to Misha, tomorrow.” When Thalia’s eyebrows pulled together, he said, “She is now his companion.”
“Surely she would not betray you!” Thalia hissed.
“No, I do not believe she will,” Eric replied, “But she believes herself attached to him. She spoke of bonding. She carries his blood, I smelled it in her. I have to assume he carries hers as well.”
Sookie sat up straighter and her mouth turned down. Eric could hear her thoughts and answered them, “I do not believe she would say or do anything to cause us harm, but if she has a blood tie, it will be difficult for her. Misha will know if she’s hiding secrets. If he is not as she believes, he will use that against her.”
“You can read her mind?” Thalia smiled. “Another talent!” and for a minute Sookie saw a look on Thalia’s face that reminded her of Gran every time Sookie managed to bring home a good report card and in that moment, the relationship between her husband and Thalia made sense. Thalia nodded, “I believe the answers we seek are outside our kingdom. I will track this Carlos, and then I want to finish my work in tracking the source of the rogues. I believe I will find a common thread. There is more,” and she waited for Eric to nod. “I am taking Thierry with me.”
“It leaves my western frontier open,” Eric told her.
“Jane can step in. There are those who know I stayed in Lafayette. Jane has had experience working the energy business. It is plausible. No one doubts my loyalty to you. We will say we are working at your request to track down Vampires First and purge them from our ranks. We will say your grief at the loss of your mate’s child is behind your enthusiasm for our hunt.”
“Only a healthy vampire, a vengeful vampire, would send out hunting parties,” Eric nodded. “It could help cement the illusion.”
“I don’t like it,” Sookie worried.
“We are telling people it is business as usual here,” Eric assured her. “It must appear that way as soon as possible. There are those who know I had a disagreement with Thierry,” and Eric could feel Sookie’s question. He hadn’t told her of his discussion and subsequent punishment of his Sheriff. “It was a matter of discipline,” he told her. “That, along with my inviting his estranged lover into my territory, would provide a plausible explanation for his seeking ways to win my approval.” Eric nodded toward Thalia, “When will you leave?”
“At tomorrow’s rising we will travel to Lafayette. It would be best if Jane was with us. I know she is not technically yours anymore but…”
“I will call her,” Eric nodded. Jane was one of the handful who knew the truth and Eric was certain she would do what he asked.
“Will you be able to reinforce the wards here?” Thalia asked Sookie. “They are strong, but it would best if they were refreshed.”
“Of course,” Sookie mumbled. Eric could feel his wife’s sadness. He could see the image of their lost child float through her thoughts, and he also felt her brutal suppression in the next moment. It was difficult, this sorrow. It intruded on their thoughts at odd moments, and the Viking found that sharing Sookie’s thoughts made it both more painful and more comforting at the same time.
“I am sorry for your loss, North Man,” Thalia startled him from his reverie. Eric found he couldn’t say the words so he nodded. As Thalia left, she thought about the pain she had seen on both their faces, how even their posture seemed to reflect the heavy weight they carried. ‘I might have changed that,’ Thalia thought and she felt guilty again at having been persuaded by Niall. ‘I will have to kill that Fae someday,’ she thought and the words felt as if they had the ring of prophecy.
Karin recognized Thomas’ car. She wasn’t sure where he was, but she knew that now she had a plan. Indira made a point of sidling up earlier to let her know Nabila would be staying with her this evening. “She asked if I had room for her. She didn’t mention Thomas, and I didn’t extend my invitation to include him.” Karin had stood woodenly until Indira pushed at her a little, “Go find him!” she hissed.
Karin felt ridiculous. She faced danger on a regular basis. She tracked and killed creatures for a living. She was often in places and among people who meant her harm, but the thought of confronting this vampire made her hands shake. The thought of telling him her feelings and accepting what would follow terrified her. She wasn’t sure what it was that was so frightening. She didn’t think he’d reject her, not really. She knew she was happy to be with him, but still she found she looked longingly at the door, thinking of all the errands and small jobs she could be doing instead.
Wrapping her fingers into tight fists, Karin forced herself to walk toward his car and then, with a quick nod, she positioned herself near the driver’s door and went into downtime, determined to wait him out.
As it turned out, several hours passed before she heard him say, “Are you waiting to mug me and steal my car?” Thomas was walking toward her from the opposite side of the parking lot. She wasn’t sure where he’d been all this time, but she knew it wasn’t Fangtasia.
“No,” Karin snapped, then rolled her eyes as she pulled in her temper. “No,” she repeated in a nicer tone, “I’ve come to apologize.”
“Oh,” Thomas looked bored. He reached into his pocket for his key fob. “Well, apology accepted. There, now you’ve finished your chore. You can go back to Bon Temps or wherever you’re staying.”
Karin could see this wasn’t going well. He wasn’t going to cut her any consideration, and so she did the only thing she could think to do. It was silly, but she hoped it would impress him with her sincerity. Keeping her eyes on his, she sank to her knees in front of him. He initially looked annoyed, but when she persisted, silently begging him with her eyes, he started to look uncomfortable. “Look, Karin, you don’t need to…” and Karin leaned over to place her forehead on his foot.
“I’m sorry,” she said again. She was happy she couldn’t see his expression. She closed her eyes and started talking. “I am sorry for everything I said. I’m sorry for running. I’m sorry for leaving you not knowing where you stood with me. I’m sorry for being a coward, because that’s what I am when it comes to you. You scare me more than anything in all my existence, because I have no defense against you.”
“You don’t need to be afraid of me…” his voice was softer now.
“But I am. What I feel for you is too much. I know if I let myself do this, I will never be the same again. I will want you to have everything.”
He shifted and his fingers hooked under her chin to lift her face toward him. Thomas sank to his knees, too, and his lips curved up in that way that showed just the hint of cruel self-satisfaction that she found so sexy. “Would that be so bad, Scary Monster? Trusting me?”
In spite of herself, Karin smiled. It had been a long time since he had used his pet name for her. “Not bad,” she stammered. “Terrifying…” and Thomas grabbed her hair and pulled her forward, capturing her lips. It was a punishing kiss, a demanding kiss. He slanted his head and forced her to open to him. He used his grip on her hair to pull her into him, but as the kiss progressed, his movements softened. He loosened his fist, and allowed his fingers to drift over her cheek, and then her jawline and Karin leaned in then, opening her eyes so she could watch him watching her.
He backed away, and when she swayed toward him, he placed his hand on her shoulder to hold her in place, not touching him. Keeping his eyes on hers, he rose to his feet. “It’s time to make a decision, Karin.”
Karin knew this was it, her moment, so she held up her hand, “I have,” she told him, and when he walked her around to the passenger side of the car and opened the door, she shut down the voice that screamed at her to run. This was Thomas. If he shattered her into a million pieces, it would be worth it.
“Where are we going?” she asked him.
“Arkansas,” he told her.
“I can’t!” she exclaimed.
Thomas’ face twisted into an angry mask and he pulled over, “Get out!” he snarled.
“No!” Karin snarled back, “There’s a reason!”
“There always is with you,” he said, and his voice was sad now. “Really, Karin. I don’t think this is going to work. It would be best if you just got out. I’m so far north we won’t see each other often. When things are more settled, I’ll see about going back to Kentucky. I don’t know what I was thinking, this was always impossible.”
“Don’t say that!” she cried out, “Please!” She looked at the woods that surrounded them and the moonlight streaming through the trees. “Just do me one favor, just one. Walk with me. Let me tell you what’s going on.”
Whether it was the tone of her pleading or the tear that fell down her cheek, Thomas nodded. Karin took his hand and led him into the woods. She stopped in a clearing where the moon shone all around them, and she stepped toward him. “I can’t tell you with words what you are asking,” she said. “It’s not my secret to tell, but I can let you feel what I feel for you,” and she wrapped her arms around him, pulling him close. “Bond with me,” she said.
She felt him stiffen within her embrace, “Karin, that is a great deal to ask. You’re sure? There is no going back.”
“I should have said yes when you asked me before. I was a fool,” she told him. Watching him, she extended her fangs and pierced her tongue with them. Thomas’ eyes darkened. The smell of her blood was sharp and coppery and with a growl, Thomas stepped forward and claimed her mouth, drawing on her tongue. When she pierced his tongue as well, he groaned. He pulled his head back and opened his mouth, drawing in the scent of the air, his fangs displayed for her. Keeping her eyes on his, she pulled her hair to the side, and tilted her head.
“Karin,” he groaned, and his voice sounded like a prayer as he struck. They couldn’t rip the clothes from each other fast enough. He was on her, and she knew she scratched him, ripping the cloth of his pants when fumbling with the button took too long. He almost fucked her through her panties, then figured out what was in his way. When they recovered themselves, their bodies streaked with dirt and the rags of their clothing hanging haphazardly from arms and legs, they started to laugh. “That had all the finesse of a back alley brawl,” he laughed quietly, licking her neck.
“I know we can do better,” she told him, and she drew her fingernail across her shoulder blade, causing a bright flow to run down her body toward her breast. “Ready for round two?”
Sookie sat on the hay bale watching Owen sprinkle more straw on the barn floor. Sookie had texted Jason and Michele the first day she woke in Bon Temps, telling them that the boys shouldn’t come out to care for the horses anymore. It was now over a week since either horse had been ridden, but Sookie was in no shape to do it. With the reduced number of guards, they couldn’t spare any of them either. Sookie reconciled herself to tethering the animals out near the cemetery. There was good grass and shade, and although it wasn’t real exercise, it got the horses out of their stalls. “I don’t know why I agreed to take horses on,” she moaned.
“You might have thought the old Prince would give you a magic barn with self-cleaning stalls and automatic feeders,” Owen teased.
“Grandfather doesn’t seem to know the meaning of the word ‘practical,’” Sookie smiled back.
It was near lunch. Owen headed to the guest house to take a shower and Sookie reminded him she’d have lunch ready for both he and Charles.
Charles was across the way at Bill Compton’s house. While technically they had no business being there, it made all of them uneasy, having the vacant dwelling so close. So far, no one official had been around, opening doors over there, and Sookie didn’t feel right asking the Bellefleurs or Vicks about it. She had mentioned to Eric that if the heirs decided to sell, she would be interested in buying the place. “I can’t imagine any of them would want to move out here. They have big, nice houses right in town and their kids’ friends are all there. They’ll want fair value, but, to tell you the truth, I just want to tear the place down and know I don’t have to worry about any more neighbors.”
Eric agreed, but then said, “When Mr. Cataliades comes, we should ask him to monitor any legal interest in the property.” There was something in the way Eric said it that gave Sookie the impression there was something he wasn’t saying.
“It’s not fair!” she had exclaimed. “I know you’re not telling the whole truth, but I have no way of finding out. Meanwhile, my brain is naked as a jaybird around you and there’s not a darned thing I can do about it!” Eric had teased her about getting her other kinds of naked and they laughed. It was a small gift, this ability to laugh around each other again. Sookie glanced up the stairs toward their bed chamber. Every day that passed showed more improvement, but it wasn’t fast enough.
The telepath was in the kitchen when Owen opened the front door. “Company coming,” he announced.
Sookie wiped her hands and walked out onto the front porch. “Jason!” she said out loud. She could recognize her brother’s pickup from across town. Jason might be a respectable family man, but he still had Southern male flare. The magenta flames detailed over the hood and sides of every vehicle he owned made sure he was recognized wherever he went. Michele, his wife, just smiled about it, and Sookie figured, in the end, it wasn’t really her business. For all their relationship was good, Sookie was sure this visit was not going to be pleasant. It was in the way the truck barreled down the road and the hard way he cut the wheel into the driveway. When he swung out of the truck door, the set of his mouth told her she was right.
“What the fuck, Sook?” he growled. He stopped at the edge of the driveway and stood with his hands on his hips, a mirror image of her own stance. “Folks said you were out here! I told them if you were really here you’d call us, let us know you were all right. And here you stand, bold as brass!” He shook his head, “Guess that’s all kin means to you. Leave us worrying, not knowing. Michele’s been wracking her brain, trying to figure out what she did that made you decide to cut us off!”
Sookie’s posture softened, “It ain’t like that, Jason. It ain’t like that at all. Come on in out of the dust. I just made some lunch. Charles and Owen are here, and as soon as I get them set up, we can talk.” When her brother didn’t move right away, Sookie said, “I’m sorry. I should have called you myself, it’s just…” and a tear spilled down her cheek.
Jason’s expression softened, too, and he walked up and onto the porch. He looked at her for a moment, then opened his arms. Sookie stepped into his embrace and it felt so good, the comfort of her brother’s arms. “I’m sorry about the baby, Sis,” he said above her.
“Me, too,” Sookie whispered. It took a moment to pull herself together, but, when she did, she stepped back and led the way into the house. As they walked toward the back of the house, Sookie started to think through what she could tell Jason and what she couldn’t. She thought about Eric upstairs and the dangers they faced, and how being human made Jason and his family both vulnerable and a vulnerability.
Owen met them. He must have heard their conversation because he had a bag with wrapped food in hand. “Charles and I will eat over at the guesthouse. Don’t forget, Mr. C is supposed to be here today,” and he nodded at Jason, “Nice to see you, Jason. Horses are missing your boys.”
“Guess that duty’s falling your way,” Jason nodded back. Sookie shook her head, once more impressed with the shorthand of male conversation.
Once in the kitchen, she poured them both glasses of sweet tea. Jason sat up at the island and Sookie made chicken salad sandwiches with fruit salad on the side. Jason waited until she climbed into the seat next to him before saying, “Why didn’t you call, Sook?”
Sookie pushed fruit around the plate with her fork, “I’m not sure how to explain,” she said. “There’s things I want to tell you, but there’s things I can’t.”
“Things about what happened up there in Rhodes?” Jason asked. When she nodded, he asked, “Is Eric still, well, you know, living?”
“Yes,” and Sookie smiled. “He’s good. He’s fine.”
“Folks are saying he’s finally dead and the fella showing up around town is a look-alike. Folks are saying there’s no way Eric could have been in Rhodes and then disappeared like that if he wasn’t finally dead.” Jason gave Sookie a hard look. “If he’s really gone and you’re in danger, Sis, you know I’ll do anything in my power to help you.”
Sookie leaned over and laid her head against Jason’s shoulder, and he wrapped his arm around her. It was like when they were children and she’d had a bad day at school. He’d wrap an arm around her and the world seemed better. “I brought him here,” she told her brother. “It was a Fae thing. I wished him here and he was.”
“No shit?” he whistled beside her. “Guess those fucking fairies were good for something after all, huh?” Then, after a minute, he said, “So, that dude showing up at Fangtasia is really Eric?”
Sookie thought about how she was about to lie to her brother, but there was too much at stake, so she said, “Yes, it’s really him,” and then she added, “We were the lucky ones. Most of the other vampires there were not.”
Sookie sat up and smiled up at Jason, watching his face, and feeling both relieved and guilty that he so easily accepted what she told him. “So you were there, too?” he asked, putting the pieces together. “Is that what happened to the baby?”
Sookie nodded, “The impact was too much. I buried her near Gran. I hope you don’t mind.”
“Of course I don’t,” Jason smiled a little, “I think Gran would be happy to have her great-grandbaby real close,” and with his words Sookie’s eyes welled up. Jason wrapped her up again and they just sat there in silence for a while. When Sookie nodded, Jason sat back again. “Now, I may be a simple country boy, but I can tell there’s something more going on here. You in trouble?”
“There’s always trouble with vampires,” Sookie shrugged. “We’re kind of waiting for me to heal up, truth be told. Once I’m better, we’ll be heading to New Orleans and hope the rumors of Eric being gone quiet down.”
“You think other vampires are going to come and try to take over?” Jason asked.
“Jeez, I don’t know why I assume you don’t know about this stuff!” Sookie grinned. “Yeah, this kind of thing can get takeovers started. So far we haven’t seen or heard anything. We’re out and about a little, as much as I can be, and hoping that takes care of it. Pictures of us are showing up on Internet and we’ll both be at the upcoming Assizes, but you know how rumors are. I guess it’ll just take time.”
“What can I do?” Jason asked.
“Well, tell Michele that I miss her, for one thing,” Sookie smiled. “It’s nothing to do with you. We’re just sad and laying low. We’ll get more social soon, really,” and then Sookie added, “and if you do see or hear of anything strange, let us know.”
“You got it,” Jason assured her, and he gave her that crazy, confident wink that said everything was right with the world.
As they walked back outside, Sookie said, “Something else. I’m going to have money transferred into your account, enough to take you and the whole family away somewhere.” Jason came up short and opened his mouth, but Sookie tugged on his shirt, “It’s run away money, Jason. Folks know who you are. If someone does come for Eric and me, it could get ugly. I want you to have the ability to drop everything and get out of town. These folks aren’t like some drug cartel, they won’t chase you. Stuff like this happens fast and it’ll all blow over in a week. The trick is not being here when it happens.”
The look Jason gave her was long and hard. Without saying a word, he pulled her against him and kissed her forehead, “I love you, Sis.”
“Love you, too, Jase,” she answered, and she kept the smile on her face until he was well down the driveway, wheeling toward his family and home.
“So, she looks good, then?” Michele asked.
“She’s tired and pretty sad, but yeah. She looks better than I expected,” Jason handed over the cash to the woman at the register. The family had just finished eating at Maxine’s. The place was jumping and the food had been good.
Michael Eric squirmed in Michele’s arms and Bit headed for the door. “I’ll wait by the truck!” he called.
“Go keep an eye on your brother,” Michele huffed at JC, their oldest. With an eye roll, the teenager headed outside. “You think I should give her a call?” Michele asked.
The bill was settled and Jason held the door for his wife, “Don’t see it would do any harm,” he looked over at her, then stopped. Michele was standing stock still, looking toward the parking lot. Jason turned and he felt his heart stutter.
There were two vampires Jason had never seen before standing in the open space between the cars. One was squatting and he had Bit sitting awkwardly on his knee. The vampire was saying something to Bit, his face very close to the child’s. JC was standing a few feet away, and Jason didn’t need to be told that both his boys were afraid. Pasting a smile on his face, Jason walked down the stairs, hoping he didn’t look as frightened as he felt, “Hey there, that’s my boy you have your hands on!” he called out.
With a fluid movement, the vampire rose, releasing Bit who ran to JC. Both boys turned and walked quickly toward their parents. Jason kept walking until he was past his sons and close enough to speak politely. “I don’t recognize you fellas,” he said. “You new around here?”
“Yes,” the one who had been holding Bit smiled coldly, “We are friends of the Northmans. You know them, don’t you?”
“Sure I do!” Jason smiled his best cracker smile, “Most folks here do. They live over yonder,” and he gave a vague wave of the hand. “I’m sorry, though,” he continued, keeping his polite going, “I didn’t catch your names.”
“I’m Luca,” the lead one replied, “and this,” he gestured at the second vampire behind him, “is Juan. We heard about Bon Temps when we saw the Northmans at Fangtasia and thought we’d come to check it out.” Jason smiled broadly as if this made all kinds of sense. It was a warm night, and both vampires were wearing suits and ties. Even if they didn’t react to temperature, there was no way these two were interested in ‘checking out’ a backwoods Louisiana town.
“Well, if I see them I’ll tell them I saw you!” Jason said, pasting his most gap-toothed, open-faced, slightly stupid look in place. They stood there for a long moment, the vampires looking at him, and Jason just grinning back. Jason wondered if they knew who he was and how far he’d get if he tried to run, but then the one named Luca bowed, and they disappeared into the trees. Jason let go the breath he didn’t know he was holding, and he bustled toward his truck. Michele had already managed to get everyone inside and the engine was running. “Holy Shit!” Jason exclaimed.
“Holy shit!” Bit echoed from the backseat, and it was a sign of the shock they all felt that no one reprimanded him.
Jason glanced at Michele, and then reached over to take her hand. The feel of her skin against his helped to slow the gallop of his blood. “Can you do me a favor?” he asked, “Can you text Sookie while I drive us home?”
“It’s no doubt they’re scouts,” Eric nodded. “It doesn’t mean anything. It just means they are checking things out for themselves.”
“They approached my family!” Sookie reminded him.
“But Jason confirmed they didn’t seem to recognize his connection to you,” Mr. Cataliades was using his reasonable voice. The demon attorney showed up this afternoon. He apologized for his absence and offered condolences, and the condolences of all those in Nebraska. He explained he had been tied up, arranging the transition of several of the Prince’s research facilities from start-up operations into established ventures, and he apologized for the suitcase full of papers he carried that would need Sookie’s attention. At first, Sookie was angry at the intrusion of these regular world matters into their lives, but, after the first hour, she found she had missed the feeling of normalcy she gained when examining balance sheets and talking over projections.
When Eric started to rise, she left the attorney with tea and a plate of cookies, and headed upstairs. Eric looked even better and his fangs had grown to a point that he could use them to feed from her. The other part of their rising still wasn’t working and, while he was more than willing to make her feel wonderful, Sookie wasn’t sure she was ready yet. Sookie couldn’t explain it, but she worried that if she felt good it would betray the memory of their lost child. It was foolish and Eric told her as much, but she insisted. “I’ll tell you what,” she shrugged, “When you’re ready, I’ll be ready too,” and he had stroked her face and nodded, his eyes sad.
Once they were downstairs, Mr. Cataliades pulled out the larger part of the business documents. When the attorney and Sookie took a break to eat dinner, Eric excused himself. There was a computer set up in the family room so Eric didn’t have to go up any stairs to access his terminal.
Sookie knew what he’d find there since she’d read the reports earlier. There was news from Thalia. She and Thierry would be leaving the territory to travel north later tonight. There was also a message from Karin. She and Thomas had returned north to Arkansas together. The way Eric’s progeny explained things made sense. If trouble was coming, the relatively wide-open borders of Arkansas were a good approach. If the two of them worked hard, they could get better patrols in place, but they needed to be there to make sure it happened. It left Sookie feeling strangely vulnerable.
When Eric returned to the table, his face was solemn. There was more news from New Orleans. Maxwell Lee emailed to let them know the number of Witnesses around the palace had increased. What was more, the FBI had come calling again and there was renewed talk of a warrant. Emil Touissant, the New Orleans Packmaster, sent word that there were strangers in town asking questions, including vampires whom no one recognized. It was Max’s feeling that the palace was now under constant surveillance. Eric no sooner finished recounting this information than they received the text from Michele.
“I don’t like this, Eric,” Sookie shook her head. “We hardly have anyone around here right now. If we need to fight, who can we call? Sure, there are local vampires, folks who owe their Sheriffs loyalty, but at the end of the day, what warriors can you call to your side?”
“It may not come to that, Lover,” he smiled. “Assizes is in a few days. It is another opportunity for people to see me,” and he glanced down. “Perhaps I should attend myself? Mustapha has done well, but he is not me. If I were to show myself…”
“I can hide a lot, Eric,” Sookie gave him a stern look. “but I’m not a magician. Your legs are better, you’re stronger, but the only thing that will restore your ability to move is time. You know what Amy said. The silver took its toll and, for whatever reason, it’s your ability to walk where the weakness focused.”
“Sookie is right,” the attorney nodded. “Your subterfuge will work or not. You have made some progress in changing minds, but all it will take is one mistake to lose everything you’ve gained. An Assizes is by definition an emotional setting. There will be a great deal of attention focused on the judges. It is better to keep to the plan.”
“Which brings us back to who we have around us,” Sookie nodded. “Karin and Thomas have headed north. Thalia and Thierry are gone, and Jane is getting ready to head out the Lafayette. Pam is in New York, which leaves us Bubba, Heidi, and the folks at Fangtasia.”
Eric nodded before glancing over, “And Nabila,” he added.
“Oh,” Sookie answered. “Oh, I guess.”
Eric chuckled, “You don’t think she’ll fight for us?” he asked.
“I don’t think she has any particular loyalty, no,” Sookie replied. “And I don’t blame her.”
Mr. Cataliades gave Sookie a stern look, “The former Queen would surely have faced final death or worse. You offered her sanctuary. She owes you both a blood debt. I believe it is customary to ask her, but it would be unthinkable if she declined.”
Sookie found she didn’t like the sound of it, but, after a moment, nodded, “Fine. Nabila, too. But who else?”
“We have many allies now,” Eric reminded her. “The Packs owe us allegiance and we have the support of the witches.”
“It’s one thing to say they’ll show up. It’s another to actually do it,” Sookie said dryly. “I’d feel a heck of a lot better if I knew the Fae were around, ready to ride in and save the day.”
Mr. Cataliades shook his head, “I am sorry to say that I don’t believe that will be the case. The Prince may intervene to save you, Sookie, but he would see a takeover as a vampire matter. There is no compelling reason for his becoming involved.”
“But Eric is my husband!” Sookie protested.
“The contract between us is clear, Min Hustru,” Eric’s laugh was not happy. “Without a blood tie between our families the alliance will not be triggered.”
Sookie looked at Eric. She couldn’t say the words. The ripples in their lives caused by the death of their child seemed to never end. “We’ll be all right,” she said instead.
“Yes, Älskade,” Eric smiled, taking her hand. “All will be right.”