Sookie woke up today in the bed she now thought of as her own. Not her own in a permanent way. She felt the bed was her own in a way that made it okay to fall into the pillow and pillow top and from there to fall further into untroubled, deep sleep. Some nights she still woke up shaking and covered in cold sweat. She could almost catch pictures from those times; pictures of pain and screaming. But mostly she just remembered the fear. Those nights were fewer now.
Sookie still wasn’t completely certain where she was. She knew there were guards. She knew that the household probably belonged to vampires. As she grew stronger; more present, she found herself tentatively reaching out with her mind to find who was around her. She could sense the voids that meant vampire. They weren’t next door but they were close. There were humans too. Not many and they did not seem to actually live here. They came and they left. Sookie could only capture snippets of thought. She could tell that the owners had only recently returned. She could tell that the woman, Lydia, who sat with her and spoke with her, was also a visitor here. She could tell that there were Weres who did live here. Some of the patterns seemed familiar somehow.
Every day things had become a little better for her. Sookie found herself feeling stronger. She could pull herself up now and handle the utensils that came with her trays of food. She had noticed that nothing she was served needed to be cut. That was good because her trays never included knives. When Sookie had made that connection, she had felt a grim smile overtake her face. Seems someone knew something about her.
Thalia had come to visit her at first. Once Sookie had demonstrated she wasn’t going to die right away, the small vampire had become a less frequent presence at her bedside. Sookie wondered if her own inability to talk much had driven Thalia away. For some reason, she couldn’t bring herself to ask.
She could tell by the slanting light through the windows at the foot of the bed that it would be dark soon. Lydia had been with her earlier and they had talked about Sookie’s improving anxiety and general health. Sookie had assured the older woman that she had no intention of ending her own life. Sookie wasn’t sure when she had made that decision, but when she said it; she had realized it was so.
Soon the guard/nurse would come with her dinner tray. She would have company through the evening. There would be an opportunity to read. There were several novels on the table beside her bed. In past, she would have preferred stories of romance and adventure and fated love. But the thought of reading about that kind of happiness filled her with an overwhelming feeling of despair. The despair always seemed to be followed by guilt.
Sookie knew now that Sam had never loved her. It had been like scales falling from her eyes. The way he looked at her; the way he held her at night. All of it had been a lie. The worst part was that the largest part of the lie was not what Sam had said to her; the largest part of the lie had been what she had said to herself. Every demand Sam had made; every wedge he had driven between herself and everyone she loved; Sookie knew she had helped him as sure as she had done each of those things all on her own. When she thought about all she’d lost she was so angry with herself she wondered if it was an endless well or if she would finally find an end.
It was in this state that Bill Compton found her. He had been following her progress. There was simply no way in a household of this size that the identity of the guest in the carriage house would go unreported.
Bill had found himself on Russell and Bartlett’s doorstep shortly after Sookie’s marriage. Sam had made Bill aware how the continued presence of the vampire right across from their house was making Sookie uncomfortable. Sam had been quite explicit in his remarks, and direct in his request that Bill should find somewhere else to live, preferably far away. Bill had presented himself to Pam asking to be allowed to leave the area. Bill argued that the database was no longer the money maker it had been. There just were not that many new vampires and those that did exist seemed to have already purchased the directory. Of course Bill sold updates but demand seemed to shrink with every passing month. Bill told Pam he wanted to try his hand at writing and felt he would benefit from new landscapes to make that possible. Pam had passed the petition to Felipe de Castro through Sandy Seacrest and the request had been approved.
Russell in particular was happy to welcome Bill as a sort of caretaker/artist in residence to the Jackson home. Bill had a southern sensibility and was spending some time researching and then acquiring items to continue the furnishing of the antebellum property. Even during the strained time when Lorena had brought him there as a captive Bill had shown a flair for interesting conversation. Bartlett and Russell frequently invited him to share evenings chatting. When the kings traveled to Indiana or to meetings, Bill would stay behind keeping the weres in line and safeguarding their home. Bill would never be strong enough to be a second in command but he was welcome nonetheless.
Sookie noticed that Bill looked relaxed. He smiled at her and brought the tray to her bed. He placed it and then stepped back.
“May I stay for a bit?” He watched her carefully. Sookie nodded. She wasn’t sure why she was agreeing. It was hard for her to see Bill without remembering the glee on his face when he had told her about Eric and Sam; about the deal that Eric had made as a condition to giving the money needed to have Sookie released from jail. She would never forget the satisfaction on his face as he put his need for revenge above the pain that his words inflicted on her. Bill had presented it as doing her a favor, but Sookie wished she had never heard the story. She had thought afterwards and believed still that sometimes it is best in this life to not know certain things; that there is a truth to the saying that ignorance is bliss.
Bill settled in the chair in the corner; the chair Lydia used. He straightened his pants legs in a fussy sort of motion. Sookie found herself snorting a little. When Bill looked at her in surprise, Sookie said, “Sorry,” and picked up her spoon. The offering tonight was a chicken and shrimp gumbo over rice. It was fragrant and Sookie was sure she could smell sassafras. She spooned a little into her mouth. In place of the spicy heat she was expecting she tasted a warm, full richness. She closed her eyes and savored the way the flavor rolled across her tongue. Then she opened her eyes and looked at Bill. “You sure you don’t mind?”
Bill looked at her in a way that made her feel like an exhibit. “Mind what?”
Sookie licked her lips. “Mind me eating in front of you. You never liked it.”
Bill looked to the side, and then looked back, meeting her eye to eye. “I may have been a little selfish in that regard.” Bill shifted a little on the chair. “Even though I do find the smell disgusting you can eat in front of me if you like.”
Sookie set her spoon down as she stared at Bill in surprise. From somewhere deep inside her she felt all the anger that she had felt a few minutes ago coming to the surface. She felt like fire was coming up from her feet all the way up her body until it was rushing over her face. She felt her mouth turning down at the corners and her fingers clenching. “Well, that is just really kind of you, Vampire Bill.” Sookie could hear the edge to her voice. She knew she was being unkind, and suddenly she just didn’t care. “So nice of you to say it’s okay for me to be human.” Then Sookie picked up her spoon and started to eat again.
Bill looked shocked. Then he looked away. When she was done, he picked up her tray and carried it out with him.
Bill turned as he reached the door. “I will always love you, Sookie. I will always try to do the right thing by you.”
“I know you believe that, Bill,” Sookie said. “You never treated me right. You may have tried but you didn’t. There’s nothing you can say that will change that now.” She turned her eyes back to the window so she wouldn’t have to see him leave.
Lydia returned the next morning and Sookie noticed that something was different. Sookie couldn’t put her finger on it. She didn’t have to wait long.
“I hear you told Bill Compton what is what.”
Sookie stared. She bit her lip, not quite sure what to say. Lydia continued. “Well? Did you give him to believe that you were not happy with him?”
Sookie shifted her eyes so she didn’t have to look directly at the older woman. “Yeah. I guess.”
Lydia stood up and walked over to the bed. “You guess? Did you or did you not shut down Bill Compton?”
Sookie couldn’t help herself. She felt a sudden urge of anger. Her mouth turned down. “Yes!” she stated. She swung her eyes to lock with Lydia’s. “Yes, I did. And I’m not sorry.”
“Well,” said Lydia, “That’s the best news I’ve had all day.” And then she laughed. She sat down on the side of the bed and looked straight at the telepath. “Frankly young lady, I was starting to despair of you. I told you I need to return to Sanctum. If you hadn’t found your backbone, I would have left you here.”
Sookie took a deep breath. “What do you mean?”
“I mean,” Lydia continued, “that the world we live in is not an easy one. It has no place for quitters or whiners.” Lydia waited for Sookie to absorb it. “Tell me who you are, Sookie Stackhouse.”
Sookie drew a shaky breath and then let it out. “I’m a waitress. I’m a Christian woman. I’m a telepath…”
Lydia shook her head and interrupted. “You start off by telling me your professional like that defines you. Your job is something you do. You can define it. But it shouldn’t define you. Start again.”
“Okay.” Sookie took a minute. Who was she really? “I’m a southern woman. I’m a Christian woman. I’m a telepath. I’m…” and she stopped. There were things that ran through her head; things she didn’t want to say out loud. Some of those things shamed her. Some of those things she wanted to be true, but she just wasn’t sure.
Lydia waited. Then she leaned forward. “How about a battered woman?” Sookie quickly drew in a breath. She felt her chest get tight and her eyes get round.
Lydia took Sookie’s hand. “How about a wife? Or divorced? How about Angel of Rhodes? How about vampire killer? Sister? Aunt? Friend?” Lydia waited for a minute. “Does any of this also sound like you?”
Sookie nodded. Then she raised her chin. “What about you? What are you?” she asked Lydia.
Lydia leaned back, smiling. “Why Sookie! I’m like you. I’m a Fae hybrid making my way in a supernatural world. That makes me first and foremost a survivor.”
Sookie turned her head a little, maintaining eye contact. “Really? I thought I sensed something about you.”
“Yes. There is a bit of Fae in my blood but far less than you.” The older woman got up and returned to her chair. “It’s probably hard for you to believe but once I looked very much like you. I was young and pretty and sweet smelling. Real vampire bait!”
“Well, it was a different time. This was pre-Revelation. I met my Robert and fell in love with him. Of course I could sense that something was different about him. But he was courtly and kind.“ Lydia smiled broadly. “I’m sure that he had no intention of ever getting truly involved with me. It would have been just too dangerous. But for some reason he just kept coming to find me.”
“What happened?” Sookie had a sinking feeling that the story was going to become all too familiar.
“One night people came to my apartment looking for Robert. They had found out that he had an attachment and they intended to use me to trap him.” Lydia waited.
“What did you do?”
“What do you think I did?”
“I would imagine you were frightened.” Lydia nodded in agreement. “Did they tie you up?”
“Yes,” Lydia said quietly. “But they beat me first.”
“You fought them?”
“Yes. Turned out they were werewolves. Lucky for me. If they had been vampires they probably would have killed me.” Sookie nodded her head. “Does this sound familiar, Sookie?”
Sookie nodded. It did sound familiar. Sookie could see so many things flashing in front of her eyes. She could see the Rattrays kicking and stomping her as she lay on the ground. She could see Rene Lanier beating her head against the grave marker. She could see the Maenad stabbing her and Gabe trying to rape her in the cellar of the Fellowship Church. And the orgy and biker that beat her; the one Bubba killed. “Yes,” she heard Lydia say. “Yes, I can see by the look in your eyes that it does.”
“Does it ever stop?” Sookie asked. “Does it ever just become normal?”
Lydia smiled. “Sookie Stackhouse, it depends on your definition of normal. I will tell you that what happened that night changed me. It set my feet on the path that led me here. I made a choice and it was a good one for me and for others like me. For people like you.”
“What did you do?”
Lydia fixed here with her eyes. “I managed to free my hands and I killed all three of those Weres. I killed them before my Robert opened the door. I used a knife and my speed and my knowledge of my own apartment.” Sookie gasped. “Have you made those kinds of choices, Sookie?” Sookie nodded. “And how do you feel about them?”
Sookie bit her lip. “Terrible; like I’m a bad Christian.; like I’m a bad person.”
“Well Sookie, you are neither of those things. You are a good person with strong religious convictions.” Sookie couldn’t keep the skepticism off her face. “Oh? You don’t believe me? Did you just walk up to some random person and kill them because you thought it would be fun?”
“No, of course not!”
“Did you ever have a choice? A real choice as to whether or not you killed any of those people?”
Sookie took a breath and exhaled it sharply through her nose. “Well not really. And some of the time it really was just an accident; my killing someone I mean. But sometimes I just didn’t feel real sorry either.”
Lydia smiled again. “Sometimes, Sookie, you’re not supposed to. If you come with me, you need to understand that my goal is going to be to help you be okay with the world that we live in – the supernatural world. Because that is what we are. I don’t care what lies you tell yourself, you are different; you are not wholly human and the longer you deny your heritage the more bad decisions you are going to make that are going to lead to bad situations for you. You can’t live a lie and hope it will turn out. Life is just not like that.” Lydia stood up. “And one more thing. If you do come, I will not accept you waffling or backing down from embracing your heritage and everything that entails. If you don’t think you can live with that, then you need to make that decision now.” Lydia waited a minute. “Well Sookie? Will you be coming with me?”
Sookie looked at her. “Does this mean that I would have to give up my home? My friends?”
“No, of course not. But it would mean that you can’t hide what you are or accept others making you feel that your being supernatural is a disability or somehow less. You have a proud heritage and a tremendous gift. You also live in a world where violence happens. I’m not going to say that you shouldn’t be affected by that, or that you shouldn’t feel some regret. But you do need to understand when you have control, and when things are not your fault.
When the sun set Lydia went to the main house. She was shown into the study. The two monarchs had been listening to blues recordings. There was something about the pull of the melody and the unvarnished reality of the lines that appealed to them. Bartlett turned off the sound system as Lydia settled herself.
“Well,” said Russell. “How is our guest getting on?”
“She’s better. She’s able to manage the panic better. She has amazing resilience. I would have expected someone raised among humans in a sheltered environment to have been far more damaged. I’m not minimizing her issues. She has plenty. But I believe she is stable enough for transport and I would like to make arrangements to take her north, if that is agreeable.”
“That is wonderful news. Of course, once she is cured, she is welcome to stay in our kingdoms indefinitely. She will be under our formal protection.” Bartlett nodded, signaling his agreement with Russell’s words.
‘Thank you both.” Lydia took a sip from the tea that had been set beside her. “I have to admit that I am curious. Neither of you has ever sought a place for anyone at my facility before. Why now? Why her?”
The monarchs looked at each other. “Well,” said Russell, “We do have some history with Ms. Stackhouse. She was a guest here some time back. Is it so surprising that we would want to help someone who finds themselves in an untenable situation? She clearly needed a safe harbor. I won’t say that I don’t have some hope that she might consider helping us with her telepathic ability from time to time in future. But we wouldn’t expect it of her.”
Bartlett turned to Lydia. “You know she is the Angel of Rhodes. She saved many of our friends.”
Lydia looked at both of them. As she raised her tea, she said, “And I’m sure that helping her could ingratiate you to Eric Northman. “ She sipped, then fixed them both with a look. “They say it is good to have a favor owed by the Viking. Good enough to risk the wrath of the Nevada king.”
Russell flashed a smile. “Well, while I would like to think that might be a factor. I would like to point out that Northman is married to someone else – a vampire someone else. And from what I can gather, Ms. Stackhouse cares nothing for him.”
Lydia smiled again. “We both know you don’t believe that. When the time is right I will need you to engineer a visit from the Viking. We will leave for Sanctum in a couple days.”
“Sandy, have you pulled together the numbers on the Oklahoma holdings?” The thin woman leaned forward, and handed her monarch a folder with reports and financial spreadsheets. Felipe smiled. “Wonderful. Your opinion?”
Sandy watched her king with a guarded gaze. “I’m not sure I’d recommend it at the moment. The Queen did nothing to develop or maintain her investments. She abandoned their stewardship to what appears to be a corrupt and incompetent collection of lawyers, so-called accountants and thieves. If she had been smart she would have ordered the Viking to take over, but she couldn’t see past his role as prize stud. It could take years to push her balance sheet back to black.”
Felipe gave the figures a cursory look. This is why he had people like Sandy; dull plodders who were honest and loyal. “And if we give the Viking the opportunity? Do you think he is that talented financially?”
Sandy thought about it. She respected and liked Eric Northman. She had found him to be pragmatic, flexible and most importantly, lucky. “If anyone can pull this out within a reasonable time I’d put my money on Northman.”
“Thank you Sandy. I value your business opinion.” Felipe turned to Horst. “Are arrangements made to meet with Narayana Council?” Horst nodded. “When?”
“They will meet with you first thing in the morning?”
“Good. If they don’t agree how long does that give us to persuade them?”
“You are due in Oklahoma in a week, majesty.” Horst looked down. Felipe smiled to himself. He knew that Horst was hoping this newest move would see him named regent. Felipe also knew he had no intention of fulfilling that wish. De Castro had learned his lesson with Victor Madden. Disappoint them first. See how they react. If they remain loyal then reward them. He would watch Horst carefully.