Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.
“So, are you ready for this?” Rick shook the kinks out of the coil of rope he’d just finished looping.
“It’s been a while,” George shook his head. “Let’s just take it easy up the East face.” It was still early in the morning and the rocks on the cliff they planned to climb would be slick with dew. Rick pulled out his new climbing harness and George whistled, “Wow, top of the line, or what?!”
“Guilt gift,” and Rick shook his head.
Rick and George were sitting in their room in Dickerman House. The B&B across town where Rick grew up was open, but it was Peter who now lived in the housekeeper’s apartment, handling the day the day operations with the help of his Mother, Sarah. When Rick protested his having to move into school housing when his old rooms were available, his Mother put her foot down. She told him there was no way she was letting him live, unsupervised, under the same roof with the mastermind of the Great Train Caper, regardless of how much she liked Peter.
“Heard from your Mom this week?” George asked, careful not to make eye contact. George didn’t need to be a telepath to see that in spite of what Rick might say, his friend was missing his Mom. George remembered those first few months when he’d started boarding school last year. Even with his brother and sister, and all the other kids who were in the same boat, George had been lonely. Rick hadn’t really said much about it yet, but George got the sense that in some respects, his friend was trading one kind of loneliness for another. George knew that even when Rick was in New Orleans, it hadn’t been easy. There were realities about having your Mom only awake during nighttime hours that took a while to sink Throw in a new full-time Father who happened to be a vampire King, and it was a lot of adjustments for any guy to make.
Everyone agreed that Rick remaining in New Orleans in the months immediately following his Mother’s turning would be for the best. Arrangements were made and the school agreed that Rick could be privately tutored for the remainder of the current school year. Part of the deal was that Rick would also have instruction through a larger part of the summer to make up for his unsanctioned trip.
Aside from two weeks in late July, Rick hadn’t been back to Chester at all before this Fall’s semester started and the changes were many. Form one, Rick lived with George, six other students, and the Rosens. The Rosens were the house parents at Dickerman. They were also instructors at the school and both of them were among those adults who quietly volunteered as donors for Rick.
“Yeah, she called,” Rick shrugged. “Mom’s sounding good. Better. I guess we all are.”
“That’s good,” George smiled briefly. He knew better than to probe any further.
As he seemed to do often, Rick through about his time in New Orleans. For that first few months after his Mom became a vampire, Aunt Fran had remained in New Orleans too. Every night Rick’s Aunt would go to the Palace to talk with Rick’s Mom. Mostly they talked alone, leaving Rick to hang out with Pam or even Eric from time to time. After a couple weeks, a professional counselor started coming to the Palace as well to spend time with his Mom and she traded off time with Aunt Fran. That worked out okay because Aunt Fran would insist they all play cards or games. It passed time and got everyone talking.
Aunt Fran staying was also the excuse Rick needed to not move into the Palace. Rick knew that his resistance was hurting his Mom’s feelings, but he just didn’t feel like he could stand the idea of living twenty-four/seven in Vampire Central. Aunt Fran supported Rick at first, but eventually, even she told him that he needed to make peace with whatever was gnawing at him and announced she was headed home. And so, Rick moved to a suite of rooms on the floor just below the one his parents used.
Once he was living there, Rick couldn’t avoid seeing things he wished he didn’t. For one thing, Rick could see his Mom was having some kind of nightmares. She didn’t scream, but she’d look hollow and drawn upon her rising. It was like before with the scars. When Rick asked about it, his Mother would change the subject or just ignore him. Finally, Rick got frustrated enough to start yelling about it and Eric interfered. It was as if someone poured gasoline on a fire, and Rick lost it. He blamed Eric and accused his Mother of forgetting about him because now she had someone new. They both ended up crying.
Eric came to his room later. He sat down on the chair in Rick’s room and refused to leave until Rick agreed to speak with him.
Eric explained in detail what had happened to Sookie. He held nothing back, and he confirmed what Rick already knew. His Mom was struggling with what was done to her at Compton’s hands. Eric told him that as brutal as it seemed, what his Mother experienced prior to her turning was a common practice among vampires. Like so many other things, mainstreaming was changing it, but it was the rare vampire who saw Sookie’s treatment as unusual. The difference was that, for most vampires, their Maker was there to command them, and it forced a certain acceptance from their progeny. As a result, Sookie was finding little sympathy among her own kind, and that left her feeling isolate. “Don’t push her away,” his Father asked. “Your Mother needs you more than anyone else. You make her believe,” Eric told Rick.
Eric also explained that because this was a vampire’s reality, when his Mother was tortured the first time, it hadn’t occurred to Eric that she would continue to be haunted by it. “Had I realized she was still in pain, I would have tried to find a way to make it easier for her,” Eric told Rick. “Had she developed ways to deal with her fears then, it might have helped her now. I blame myself.”
“Is that how you turned Pam?” Rick asked his Father, almost afraid to hear the answer.
“I saw no reason to alter either Karin or Pam,” Eric shrugged. “It did not earn me the respect of those vampires around me, but I have always followed my own path.” It struck Rick that Eric said it like it was no big deal, but Rick knew enough now to know that it was. But that was his Dad, and it made Rick proud to be related to him.
That night when Eric left, Rick found he couldn’t go to sleep. He kept hearing what Eric told him and it made him see vampires differently. Rick wondered what part of their sometimes-casual cruelty and more violent tendencies was because they were vampires, and what part was because of how they became vampires in the first place.
Watching his strong, laughing Mother like she was in those first months had been painful. As the days passed, though, she got better and by the time Spring was transitioning to summer heat, Sookie was laughing again.
While seeing his Mother getting better made Rick feel better, living in the Palace did not. The vampires who came and went here rarely raised their voices, preferring to speak in quick hisses that Rick could barely understand. During the day, being in the Palace was like walking around in a museum, or mausoleum, which, technically, it kind of was. At first, Rick tried to joke around with the guards or vampires who served there, but they would either defer to him or just bow and scurry away. Everyone seemed to have some purpose except Rick. He felt his loneliness as if it was an animal that stalked him.
Rick missed the everyday background of human conversation and noisy, normal life, and he found excuses to go out into the City. When the isolation of being guarded and followed became too great, Rick figured out how to slip his guard’s leash a couple times and strike out on his own, but his Father found out. Eric took Rick to the warehouse where the local Packmaster arranged the guard’s punishment. It was brutal and left Rick feeling nauseous, but Eric grabbed the back of the boy’s arm and hissed, “Do not shame him! Stand tall and watch! At least by showing bravery you allow the others to see that you were a worthy opponent!”
On the way home, Eric explained that witnessing the punishment showed respect, but still it had been upsetting and when Rick told his Mother about it later, he knew it caused friction between his parents. One thing the experience did cure. Rick didn’t want to stage escapes any more.
One of the things that might have made everything a little easier would have been having his parents relaxed and together, but the fact was, Rick’s Mom and Dad were fighting. In the beginning, they seemed to fight a lot. It wasn’t just side looks and snarky comments, either. It was loud, strident yelling and cutting, vicious words. In Chester, people didn’t express their emotions out loud and certainly not where everyone could hear. Even when he’d been in big trouble, Rick’s fights with his Mom didn’t last long and they never got nasty. Now, the rules had changed and it made Rick long for home.
The King treated his fighting with Rick’s Mom as if it was perfectly normal. “Are you really not getting along?” Rick asked after one particularly loud shouting match. It was during that first month and Rick almost hoped that the angry words he heard meant he and his Mother would be headed back to Massachusetts.
“Your Mother is set in her ways. I am set in mine,” Eric had shrugged. “She is hard-headed!”
“And so are you,” It slipped out before Rick could stop it and Rick froze, afraid his Father would turn the temper he’d been exercising earlier with his Mother on him. But he didn’t. Instead, Eric paused, threw his head back, and laughed that deep, rolling laugh that mostly happened when Rick’s Mom was around, before agreeing with the boy.
“It is one of the things that I admire, and frankly, that I love about your Mother. She has the heart of a lion. She’s not afraid of me. She tells me the truth as she sees it, even if she knows I do not wish to hear it.” Eric glanced toward the door. Eric and Rick were downstairs and his Mother still hadn’t come down to join them. “Your Mother is very passionate in all her pursuits,” his Father observed, and his mouth turned up in that smile that told Rick that their earlier shouting had led to something else… again.
But like the nightmares, as the months passed, the shouting became less frequent. Mom explained her bickering with Eric a little differently. “Your Father and I have lived separate lives for a long time and that means we don’t always see eye to eye. You may have noticed; your Father is a little high-handed.”
“He is the King!” Rick snorted.
“He is the man I’ve bonded with,” his Mother corrected, using her bossy voice, “and that comes first. He does things that just piss me off, and I do the same to him. It’s different this time…” and Rick knew she meant being bonded with his Father. He remembered what Mr. Hermosa told him about blood bonds. While a bond might mean you were really close with a person, it also meant that your thoughts and reactions had nowhere to hide. Clearly, his parents thought differently about a lot of things, and those differences were causing them to grind against each other in noisy ways.
While nights were hard, days hours were harder to endure. Of course, there were his school lessons. They took up hours, but Rick was always done by mid-afternoon and homework, didn’t take long either. It resulted in hours of idle time during which Rick always seemed to be underfoot and in trouble. Once that became known, though, other lessons were introduced.
Uncle Desmond started showing up twice a week for sword training. Rick called it prancing lessons, and while there was some romance to it, it felt a fairly silly pursuit. Rick made the mistake of sharing his opinion with the demon, and his Uncle transformed from being a kind of prissy guy talking Rick through forms and foot placements to a dervish who moved really fast and had Rick on his back with the sword at his throat in no time. “Swords are the preferred weapon of your enemy,” Uncle Desmond had hissed. “I suggest you start paying attention!” and Rick had. He was now passable, his natural athletic ability making the difference.
On the off days, excursions suddenly appeared on the schedule. Guides, some human, some Were, would show up at the Palace to pick up Rick and his guards. Sometimes the excursions took Rick through the City and some ventured out into the countryside beyond. Rick learned about the history of this place and he came to a new appreciation for the landscape and wildlife that filled the wilder bayou country.
One this the trips did accomplish was to remind Rick how much he missed the peace that came with being able to walk down a path, exploring what nature offered on his own time, but he found little sympathy from those around him. Every jaunt beyond the Palace walls included at least two Were guards, and there was no relaxing in vigilance. It seemed the Weres had learned their lesson with Rick and they weren’t likely to let the boy forget it.
Once night fell, there were also vampire lessons. Thalia was the instructor for these, and Rick was amazed and a little appalled at the number of rules and traditions vampires were required to follow. After a particularly involved session regarding the rules surrounding Makers and their Progeny, Rick asked, “So, is my Father going to be in trouble for killing my Mother’s Maker? After all, by the rules, it was a done deal. That vampire who had her; Compton? He had already turned her, and according to the rules, my Father was in the wrong.”
“Your Father is a King,” Thalia shrugged. “There is only one tribunal that could be called to hear a complaint against him, and the Ancient One herself would have to agree to call it, but, under the circumstances, that’s unlikely.”
“Why?” Rick asked. “Because Kings get away with stuff?”
“No,” Thalia explained, “Because of the special circumstances. First, your parents are who they are. Vampires may be severe, but we appreciate when fate causes things to work out for those who toil long. Your parents toiled long to be together. Second, your Mother is a vampire now. No one objects to her being with your Father. In time, she will be his Queen, and that will be welcome as well.”
Rick rolled his eyes. Playing fair was important for him, and this didn’t sound fair at all. “So, because they made a name for themselves and they’re both vampires, they can break the law whenever they choose?”
“Don’t be stupid!” Thalia hissed. “While it is true that mainstreaming will change many things for us, some things won’t change, or they will change very slowly. Only final death will change the way most vampires see humans. Vampires have held these beliefs for hundreds of years. Until the oldest among us are gone, the traditional ways will linger.”
“So, there will always be vampires who think humans and Weres… hell, pretty much everyone else but vampires are scum, and only vampires count?” It offended Rick, but then he looked at Thalia a little closer. “But, you don’t think that way, and you’re pretty old.”
“Your Father made me see humans differently,” she told him, “but don’t be fooled. There are still moments when the teachings of my own Master return, and I see humans as little more than cattle that feed me. You will learn as you grow older that there is no harder task than trying to change yourself.”
It was the understanding that these lessons gave Rick about vampires that helped him manage how he interacted with others. Rick could understand now why there were some who felt he was some kind of well-connected, super vampire. Those who felt that way would try to get close to him for their own purposes. Then there were others who felt Rick wasn’t vampire enough, and they were happy to see him fail or look foolish. The whole thing made Rick wary about forming friendships even when friendships were offered.
Rick figured his own half-sister, Karin, was among those who felt he wasn’t vampire enough.
Karin’s term as Sheriff of Area 5 only lasted a couple months before his Father replaced her with Rubio Hermosa. Rick never heard the full story, but he had a feeling it was Karin’s attitude toward other species that was the reason behind her failure. Pam told him, on the rare occasion when his sister wasn’t taunting Rick or using him to trick Eric, that Karin had hoped to be named Regent of Arkansas. With Karin’s removal from Area 5, she was no longer being considered for that post. Instead, Karin was traveling as Eric’s special envoy to other vampire monarchs, conducting business on the King’s behalf.
Karin came to visit them over the summer. Summer sucked in New Orleans. It was hotter than anything Rick had ever experienced, and it was so humid you felt as if you were walking under water. Vampires didn’t care. They didn’t feel temperatures, but Rick did, and he was miserable.
When his whining and complaining started to even bother him, Rick’s Mother suggested he invite a friend to come and keep him company. Rick’s first instinct was to invite George, but his best friend wasn’t available. George was still taking summer classes to make up for their adventure, and because the Hermosas didn’t have the money to hire live-in tutors, George returned to Chester to complete his requirements.
Rick had heard the same story from the Headmistress. While the school understood the special circumstances that led to the boys playing hooky, there were still standards that needed to be upheld. While on the one hand it meant George was stuck with homework, he was able to stay at the B&B with Peter and Aunt Sarah. George texted photos from Rick’s room and other pictures from around town, and it made Rick even more miserable.
“Choose someone else!” his Mother scolded, throwing her hands up when confronted with yet another night of pouting and misbehavior, and that was how Peter landed an invitation to come to the Palace.
Peter accepted right away, and in no time the two of them were galivanting all over town, playing music and exploring. Sookie and Eric had gifted Rick with a variety of musical instruments. “New stuff, thin sound,” Peter pronounced them all. It was a valid point and Rick didn’t need his friend to confirm it. They both believed that while any instrument might function out of the box, it took breaking in and years of handling to get an instrument to a place where it made music that wrapped around the night or sounded round and full.
“Next time I come down here, I’ll bring your fiddle and guitar from home,” Peter promised. Rick had acquired both instruments used from other musicians, and they both looked and sounded it.
Rick wasn’t sure when Peter met Karin, but it didn’t take long before it was clear they had met. Karin started showing up where Rick and Peter were playing music. She always seemed to know where they would be, and Peter stopped sleeping in the guest room next to Rick’s. Neither Peter nor Karin did anything to publicly acknowledge the affair, but Rick rolled his eyes and told his friend he wasn’t stupid. “Never thought you were,” Peter shrugged, but being Peter, didn’t volunteer any more.
As July started to wind down, the heat became even more oppressive. Peter headed home, making clear that melting and music were mutually exclusive activities. At first, Sookie said she was happy to see Peter gone. “I know you enjoy being around each other, but the two of you get so wrapped up in your music that you forget everything else!” But then, Pam decided she’d been ignored long enough and she manufactured something to fill the void. Her stunt was tasteless and Rick was furious. It was enough to convince Eric and Sookie that it might be a good idea to send Rick north for a few weeks.
“It’s not like I completely trust you with in the same house with Peter, but your Aunt Sarah promised me she’ll be there to keep an eye on things. Besides, if you stay here much longer, no one will be speaking with anyone,” Sookie sighed.
Pam’s pranking had started long before Rick arrived. Pam loved to trick his Father, whether it was to surprise him or embarrass him. His Father never took offense, and he was just as good at setting up tricks to pay Pam back. The first one Rick actually witnessed took place within a few weeks after Rick officially moved into the Palace. His Father and Mother were in their fighting phase and when Eric’s temper flared, he had a tendency to swear. Regardless of how often Rick told her that he had heard all those words, and a lot more, Sookie lit into Eric, accusing him of being a bad role model and indifferent Father. Eric’s way of handling it was to switch from swearing in English to swearing in Swedish. Sookie scolded that it was the same thing, but Eric challenged her to prove it, and when she couldn’t translate his words, he laughed and continued to do as he pleased.
Pam saw an opportunity. She bought Rick’s Mom the full Rosetta Stone ‘Learning a Language’ series, and within two weeks, Sookie had absorbed every disk and remembered every Swedish word and phrase perfectly. Pam supplemented what Rick’s Mom learned with some private tutoring for the more colloquial phrases, and Rick knew his Mother was now fluent. Of course, neither Pam nor Sookie informed Eric.
Rick watched his Mother rather cold-bloodedly allow his Father to hiss at her, thinking he was being clever for almost a week before she replied to him with such speed and complexity that he knew he’d been had. Rick held his breath, waiting for his Father to explode, but he didn’t. The King’s jaw hung open for a long moment, but then his eyes tilted up and he laughed loud and long. Eric told his Mother how clever she was, and he looked gleeful when she confirmed that Pam was behind it.
After that, the pranks seemed to come at regular intervals, but as the summer started to heat up, they became less funny.
The straw that broke the camel’s back and led to Rick’s return to Chester started with Rick feeding. He was comfortable using the donors’ room downstairs now, but for whatever reason, the woman he chose that night had appealed to him more than usual. She was cute and she smiled at him and then moved against him in what could only have been interpreted as an invitation. Rick blushed, and he blushed harder when Pam caught up with him and openly stared at the tent in his pants.
“Why didn’t you bring her back to your room?” Pam teased. “I can see that you wanted to,” and she stared at his crotch again.
“I’m a kid,” Rick rolled his eyes. “I’m not going to go sexing up some stranger.”
“Well, obviously, your body is ready,” Pam shrugged. “You really should give it a try.”
“I’m not even sure where I’d start,” Rick mumbled, and then, realizing he’d said it out loud, added, “Not that I want to! No way!”
Rick thought it was over, but he should have known better. Later that night, Eric knocked at his bedroom door and came in, followed by another young woman. It was awkward. Eric was explaining how, as a young man, his Father had given him a bed slave to teach him what a man needed to know about women. Rick realized the woman was in his room to have sex with him, and not just to have sex, but to teach him things. Rick was just stumbling through how to get out of this, when his Mother appeared at the door.
Rick almost felt sorry for his Father. The Viking looked genuinely confused as his Mother raged. The woman was dismissed and the result was two days of his parents not speaking.
“Not cool!” Rick hissed at Pam, but she was completely unapologetic.
Rick explained Pam’s part to both his parents separately, and the outcome was their agreement that Rick spending time with Peter in Chester was better than his remaining in New Orleans as Pam’s patsy.
When Rick arrived in Chester, the theater people were already in residence for their summer workshops and that was always a fun time for everyone. There were dances and impromptu parties. Rick stayed at the B&B. Aunt Lora was in Boston with Aunt Fran, but Peter and Sarah, Peter’s Mom, were there, and were just as good at running things as Sookie had been. It was an amazing time and within a day, Rick fell back into the rhythm of his home. He met up with childhood friends and ran the woods. They pulled out their boats and played in the lake. George was there the first two days after Rick’s arrival and they spent time together with the other young people.
Within a short time, Rick realized that if he really wanted to be happy, he needed to come back home to Chester for school. While they’d talked about the possibility, his parents hadn’t exactly agreed, but they hadn’t exactly disagreed either. That night Rick talked with Peter and Aunt Sarah about things and they made plans about how it might work.
“You don’t think your Mom needs you down there?” Sarah asked.
“I wish she could be up here,” Rick answered honestly, “but she can’t. She needs what she’s getting there. It was her home all her life. This wasn’t. And besides,” and Rick shrugged, “my Father needs to be there, and I don’t think Mom ever really wants to leave him again. I’m a kid. I’m supposed to leave someday. That’s how it works.”
“But you’re very young,” Sarah told him.
“Take a look around,” Rick told her. “All the kids who come here to go to school are very young. Doesn’t look to me like they’re hurting too much.”
Rick heard his Aunt Sarah thinking Rick was wrong. She’d lived here a long time and as much as there were boarding kids who adjusted to being apart from their parents, she remembered the faces of those kids who hadn’t flourished, too. In the end, she’d just said, “It’s really up to your parents.”
Things were further complicated when Aunt Lora announced she wouldn’t be returning to Chester. During the months she’d spent in Boston, she and Sean Bailey, their old friend and Sookie’s one-time beau, had become reacquainted. Between running errands for Aunt Fran and managing the Back Bay house, Lora and Sean discovered that cooking wasn’t their only mutual interest. A winter wedding was planned, and Rick worried that this would be the end of his scheme to come home.
“Where there’s a will there’s a way,” Aunt Fran told him when he called her to bemoan his circumstances, and Aunt Fran found the way.
It wasn’t what Rick really wanted, but he realized that it was a compromise that would work. Rick would live in school housing just like any other kid until he graduated from high school. Aunt Fran prepaid his entire tuition, and she told him he had money in a trust fund that would send him to whatever college he wanted to attend.
Then Aunt Fran called his Mother and told her what she’d done. When Sookie argued, Aunt Fran explained in hard words why this was so important to Rick.
“Things are different,” his Mother protested to Fran. “Rick is known as the King’s son now. You don’t understand the kind of trouble that can follow him.”
“And those kids in Chester are any different? You know the deal there. Everyone will look out for him, and his life will be normal again. You owe Rick that, even if it’s hard for you.” In the end, Fran won. She always did.
Fran officially hired Peter to run the B&B. It seemed a bold move, but Fran must have had some insight. Peter quickly settled into the role and while guests missed Susan Hale’s Southern cooking, they warmed to meals that featured local produce and Peter’s homemade breads and beers. The music he provided in the evenings was an added draw, and soon it was more than just school parents who wanted to book a room at the B&B.
“It still feels like my home,” Rick confessed to his Aunt Fran one night. “It’s just kind of hard to think I can’t go back there.”
“It will always be your home,” Fran assured him. “I’ve made arrangements and when you turn eighteen, the ownership of the Chester house will go to you. You belong there, Rick. Never you worry.”
“But, what about my Mom?” Rick asked.
“Your Mom will take care of herself. She’ll find some work down there in New Orleans that appeals to her, and she’ll do it. I can’t ever see her hanging around in fuzzy slippers, eating bon bons.”
“Not to mention, they’d make her sick,” Rick chuckled.
“Fine, sipping bon bons! Anyway, I’ve set up a bank account, so she has ‘fuck off’ money whenever she needs it.” Rick knew what Aunt Fran meant. He’d heard her tell more than one woman over the years that it didn’t matter how much someone loved you, every person needed a pile of cash that would let her pick up and leave if she wanted. Fran believed it was knowing that freedom was possible that kept things between consenting adults healthy. “But you should know, Kiddo, I’m leaving you everything. The house here will be sold, and the cash will go to you. I want you to use it to buy up as much land as you can around Chester. Folks there know the value of open land now, but that might change over the years. If you buy it up and keep it safe, Chester will stay the way it is for a long, long time.”
“You sure you want to make that decision? You could always think about it later,” Rick told her. His throat was tight and his eyes were watering. His Aunt Fran was better, but lately she’d been dropping hints that she was ready to pass, and he worried she’d take care of it, the same way she took care of everything else.
“You’re the son I never had,” Fran told him. “Would have been better if you’d been a girl, of course,” and she laughed, “but you turned out okay. I want you to have it.”
Fran’s latest battle was a long-distance war of words with the Chester Town Meeting. Fran wanted a construction permit to convert the rooms at the B&B so they could be light tight. While everyone had been fairly accepting of Rick, he could hear the undercurrent of concern when news of his Mother’s change started circulating, and so the permit had run into one snag after another. Fran sent presents, then Sarah, then Mr. Cataliades, but all to no avail.
It was Peter who finally turned the tide. He stood up in the center of the Assembly and spoke. He used words and gestures in an outpouring that was so rare, it took everyone by surprise. He told them the story of who Sookie was before she was turned, and who she had been among them. Then he told the Assembly about the violence that had been perpetrated on her, and how had this been a human man who had done this, they all would have rallied around her. The support wasn’t universal, but the permit was granted. The construction wouldn’t be completed until Christmas, but it would be done, and next Spring, when Rick turned fourteen, his parents would have a place to stay in town to help him celebrate.
The climb up the cliffs was satisfying for both boys. It felt irksome to have to file their plan and schedule with Mr. Rosen before they left, but when Rick was thinking clearly, he knew it was only prudent and doing it made him almost feel grown up.
As Rick and George sat on the rock lip on the mountain’s summit, looking across the valleys that stacked one in back of the other, painted in their best fall colors, Rick said, “I can’t see living anywhere else. I think this is it for me.”
“That’s going to disappoint Maddie,” George teased him. When Rick looked puzzled, George cocked his hand on his hip, rolled his eyes, and said in Maddie’s Southern accent, “You’ll see, George! When Ricky and I grow up, we’re getting married and we are going to be the most amazing couple in all of Louisiana.”
“Your little sister is crazy,” Rick scoffed. Maddie Hermosa would be coming to their school next year as she’d made a point of telling Rick already. Last week, she’d handed Rick a swatch of pink cloth and told him that when the time came, he should make sure that he matched that color. Later, in their room, Rick showed George the fabric and asked him if he knew what it was about. George had to stop laughing before he could tell Rick that Maddie had already picked out the dress she intended to wear as Rick’s date to his eighth-grade graduation dance next year.
“I don’t even know if I’m asking her,” Rick snorted. “And why would I take a sixth grader? Jeez! She’s just a kid.”
“Yeah, I think Mom dropped Maddie on her head a few too many times,” George giggled, but deep down they both knew Rick would take her rather than crush her feelings.
“How’s your Mom handling being ‘Mrs. Sheriff’ of Area 5?” Rick asked, happy to move the conversation to any topic other than Maddie ‘Pushy Pants’ Hermosa.
Rick had heard Thalia tell Eric that Mr. Hermosa was doing well as the new Sheriff, but Rick also remembered Mrs. Hermosa saying she worried about her husband taking a more powerful position. She worried that climbing higher in the vampire hierarchy made Mr. Hermosa and her family targets.
“Mom said it’s better than she expected. Most days it’s pretty normal, not so many late nights, but I think there’s folks down there who still give them a hard time because she’s human,” George said, checking the bindings on his vest again. “She told me she likes Mustapha Khan, though. She told me she’s hoping he tries for Packmaster when Alcide Herveaux steps down.
“I kind of thought that Packmaster changes required a fight,” Rick looked out across the landscape, remembering the night he’d spent with the Were and his mate, Warren.
“I’m not sure,” George shrugged. “With all your Supe lessons, you probably know way more about it than I do.”
“Hey, if you’re interested, I’ll tell you everything I find out,” Rick offered. Together, they stood and stretched, getting ready for the descent. Going down was easier. This climb had set pitons over the trickier places on the rock face, so there was no having to remove their own anchors as they went lower. Still, it was nearing sunset by the time they stumbled back to their house and hit the showers. In two days’ time, it would be Parent’s Weekend and they would be seeing their families again.
It was the first time Rick had ever attended the official Parent’s Weekend events at one of the schools. It wasn’t that he and his Mother objected to them when they lived here. It was more that townies had their circle, and the schools had theirs. While it was true the town kids attended the boarding schools, during Parent’s Weekend, the town had other events for their own, and everyone was okay with that.
The wealthy and famous parents who sent their children to school had started their weekend earlier with a formal tea held in the afternoon on the school lawn. This evening, there was a fancy, official dance complete with suits and ties. Everything was spruced up and party manners were on full display, but it didn’t need saying that those attending exemplified that easy arrogance that said, “I belong.”
The town people of Chester understood that in many ways, this world of boarding schools and old money would never be their world. So on the night of the fancy dance, the town held their annual Fall Ball. It was casual. People brought dishes for potluck and the band set up on the stage of the Town Hall basement. After drinking and eating, the lines formed and they danced. The foxtrots and electric slides that were being played on the other side of town were not for them. The people of Chester danced contra dances and old time waltzes, the music provided by the townspeople themselves.
But this year, Rick wasn’t going to the Fall Ball. When he’d asked, his Mother had told him of course they would be attending Parents’ Weekend. It was the way she said it that kept Rick from protesting. He didn’t want his Mom to think he was embarrassed by her, and so, here he was, shuffling nervously near the front entrance of the school assembly hall, waiting for his parents to arrive.
Rick knew Eric and Sookie flew up last night from Louisiana with the Hermosas and they were all staying a few towns over at a special inn that had vampire accommodations. Rick checked his watch again. He couldn’t help worrying. It was the first time his Mother was coming back to Chester now that she was a vampire, and Rick had been hearing speculation from the thoughts of those around him all day.
The people who ran the schools knew that Susan Hale was now Sookie Stackhouse and they were looking forward to seeing her again, but most of those here, adults and kids alike, didn’t really know her. What they did know was that Rick’s parents were vampires, and there was a rumor that Rick was too. For those adults who had heard of Susan Hale, Rick didn’t hear any particular negative impression. He even heard some adults who had stayed with her when she ran the B&B and they were wondering whether she’d been a vampire even then.
The real surprise for Rick was how many people were thinking about Eric Northman. Rick knew his Father was a businessman and that he had connections, but it never occurred to Rick that his Father’s reputation would be so widespread or so well known among these people.
Of course, many of the parents here tonight had met Rubio and Lily Hermosa last year during school gatherings. Their impressions of vampires were based on the Hermosas. They thought about Mr. Hermosa’s courtly way and Mrs. Hermosa’s relentlessly matching dresses and accessories. Rick thought of his own parents who were relentless in their own way, wearing casual clothes to most occasions and bickering at the drop of a dime, and Rick’s anxiety level ratcheted again.
Rick even caught a few people talking about how they welcomed the idea of the school fostering diversity, but worried that hosting a second vampire couple was perhaps overdoing it more than a bit. It was the kind of remark that set Rick’s teeth on edge and had him turning to confront the snobs, when one said, “Of course, we are talking about Eric Northman. While I may not like his religion, or whatever that whole thing is, I can’t argue with him. He is, after all, a cut above in any crowd,” and the conversation had concluded. It left Rick feeling an odd mix of pride and uneasiness.
“Stop fidgeting,” George elbowed Rick. “You’re making my pits sweat!”
“I can’t help it,” Rick sighed. He glanced inside at the paneled room and the well-heeled people squiring their well-heeled children. “Even when we were living here we never came to these things! I mean, I don’t think Mom even owns a dress like that.” Rick glanced down at his own white shirt and tie. Rick hadn’t checked until too late to discover his suit didn’t fit, and he’d left the jacket behind, feeling good about rebelling against the establishment, but now standing among his suited fellow students, he didn’t feel so brave. “I feel like an imposter!” he told his friend.
“What’s your problem? You think your parents are going to show up here in black leather and denim?” George laughed, but when Rick didn’t laugh in return, George quickly sobered and said, “Even if they did, they’re your parents. They’re coming because they miss you. What does it matter what other people think?”
“Yeah, I guess,” Rick growled, and then he stopped. His parents were walking through the door and the sight of them made his jaw drop. His father was wearing some kind of expensive black suit that fit him like it was custom-made and his Mom just sparkled.
“Were you waiting for us?” Sookie smiled, gliding toward him in black patent leather pumps. She was still shorter than him even in heels, and she reached up to push back the hair that fell over his forehead. “I think you’ve grown another inch,” she sighed, and she pulled him down so she could kiss his cheek as she hugged him. “Please tell me you’re happy,” she whispered in his ear. “It’s the only thing that makes missing you this much okay.”
“You look really good,” Rick said in a rush. She did. His Mom was wearing a black dress that looked like all the other black dresses in attendance tonight, and her hair was swept up in a fashionable twist. She was wearing a gold chain that had stones set at intervals and Rick wondered if they were diamonds.
“We do clean up pretty well,” Sookie grinned and turned her head to glance up at Eric. Rick couldn’t help noticing the long, black clip that held her hair. It was studded with sparkling stones, too.
“Do you need a suit?” Eric asked. Rick glanced down at his shirt. The way his Father said it made Rick wish he hadn’t been so stubborn and tried on his clothes when his Mother asked him. He was able to get into the matching pants, but only because Mrs. Rosen had spent her afternoon letting the hems down.
“It’s okay. I’m good,” Rick shrugged to cover his embarrassment, and when his Father continued to stare at him, his eyebrow raised, Rick sighed, “Okay. Maybe I was too stubborn about things. Now we know, so I’ll have the right clothes for next time. Anyway, welcome to Chester,” and Rick automatically held his hand out, then, catching himself, brought it back to his side, and bowed.
“We’re not in vampire territory,” Eric smiled. “I think a hug would do,” and the Viking opened his arms.
Rick hesitated. He and his Father were on better terms, and most times he even thought of him as ‘Father’ in his head, but it had been a couple months since he’d seen him and Rick felt his old awkwardness return. He glanced at his Mom, and then, suddenly, everything was okay. He stepped into his Father’s embrace and it felt good to feel the strength of those arms around him. He glanced to the side to see Mrs. Hermosa wiping her lipstick from George’s cheek, and somehow Rick knew that tonight was going to be just fine.
When Eric released him, his Mother asked, “Well, Kiddo, are you ready for this?”
“I guess I could ask you the same question.” Rick looked carefully at his Mom’s face. The anxiety she had worn in those first months in Louisiana really did seem like a thing of the past.
“You think I’m afraid of some old bunch of stuffed shirts?” she teased, and Rick saw his sassy, take no prisoners Mom really was back. Sookie leaned in and took Rick’s arm. Together, they all walked into the hall and got into the line of those waiting to officially greet the Headmaster. It was a ceremonial kind of thing. Each student was expected to introduce his parents to the Headmaster and there was usually some hand shaking and a photograph. For most, it was this same portrait over the years that tracked a child’s growth.
Rick watched George do the honors for this parents, and he stepped up and managed to walk through his lines without stammering or having his voice break.
“It’s so lovely to have you back, Susan,” the Headmaster said, and then immediately apologized, “I mean Sookie!” He turned to Rick, “You did a creditable job, young man, and I managed to hear only what I wished.”
“You’ve know me for years as Susan,” Sookie smiled, “Of course, I understand!”
“And now you are reunited with Rick’s Father,” the Headmaster continued. Heads turned and eyes fastened on Eric. “The resemblance is remarkable!”
“We are very fortunate,” Eric said smoothly, and he lifted Sookie’s hand to his lips.
After they completed their meet and greet and posed for their portrait, the family walked toward where the Hermosas were standing. On the way they were intercepted by a man Eric knew from his days in Oklahoma. He seemed sincere as he told Eric how sad he was to hear about the passing of Eric’s wife, Freyda. Rick held his breath. Someone had brought Freyda up in New Orleans and his Mother had just about blown a gasket, but tonight, his Mom just smiled. The way Eric answered told Rick this was something he and his Mother had worked out in advance, and it was smoothly delivered, “Freyda’s passing was a tragedy, but some good came from it. I was freed to reunite with my first love, and at long last she has consented to become my wife.”
The man asked permission to call over his family. “I’ve told my wife and kids about you for years,” he told Eric. “I wouldn’t survive if I didn’t give them a chance to meet you.”
A lovely brunette woman glided toward them, and behind her trailed the man’s daughter, and Rick realized with a jolt that he knew her. Her name was Jessica and she was in the class just behind his. Rick had noticed Jessica in the halls and in the past week, he’d found himself starting to look for her on the lawns. As introductions were made all around, Rick could hear that this man saw his Father as someone who was successful and he wished to know Eric Northman and his family better. Just knowing that the man thought so well of his family gave Rick the courage to openly smile at Jessica, and for some reason, she smiled right back at him. Rick felt as if his chest would explode. Jessica was pretty much perfect with her long blond hair and pretty brown eyes.
“Hi, Rick!” The greeting was so sudden and so loud that Rick jumped before turning to see Maddie Hermosa. She was standing right at his side and she slipped her hand through his arm, smiling up at him before turning to Jessica. “Oh, is this someone you know from school?”
Rick felt panic overtake his former, happy glow. His smile froze and he could see George standing well behind Jessica, pulling faces.
“You don’t go to our school, do you?” Jessica replied. Her smile had also taken on a frosty quality and there was a hint of waspishness in her voice. Rick felt a strange, prickly heat start to gather just under his collar. The daggers that were flying between the girls, wreathed in their smiles was uncharted territory, and Rick desperately wanted to get away from it.
The DJ started the music, and Lily Hermosa was suddenly beside George, pulling him to the dance floor and out of eye contact with Rick. Mr. Hermosa approached them as well, claiming Maddie. “Promise me you’ll save me a dance, too!” Maddie simpered before taking her Father’s hand.
“Good grief,” Sookie laughed as she circled Rick’s waist with her arm, “She’s ten going on twenty!”
“Yeah,” Rick sighed, looking around and realizing Jessica had walked away, “Maddie’s kind of like lint.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Sookie squeezed her son a little closer, “sometimes lint is kind of nice.”
“On tape. In the garbage,” Rick grumbled, and then looked at his Mother’s hand. She was wearing a ring that seemed to spark every time she moved. “So, that’s the ring, huh?”
“I’m finally wearing it,” his Mom grinned. They looked to where Eric was still speaking with Jessica’s father. While his Mother beamed at his Father, Rick scanned the dance floor. His heart dropped a little when he saw Jessica dancing with another of his classmates. When he looked at his Mother, it was to find her looking right back at him.
“So, you going to tell people you’re married this time?” Rick couldn’t help asking the question. During the time he’d spent in Louisiana, he’d heard all kinds of stories about his Mother and her refusal to acknowledge her vampire marriage to his Father.
“I am!” his Mother cuffed Rick’s arm. “I’ll even live with him!” she laughed, then nudged her son again. “Smartie! We haven’t talked about dates yet. It’s not like there’s any rush. I know he’s going to talk with you about it. I don’t think he wants to give me any outs this time.”
Rick could see her happiness, but there were still questions he had about his parents’ relationship. “Why didn’t you want to tell people you were married the first time?” Rick asked.
“I don’t know,” Sookie sighed, and this time when she looked at Eric, he looked right back at her. Rick couldn’t help staring. The look that passed between his parents was like a solid line. His Mother and the Viking could have been at opposite ends of the room and you would still see the connection between them.
With a sigh, Sookie turned back to her son, “I suppose I wasn’t ready to be married, not really. And your Father never really asked. He showed up in a hallway and offered himself like the best of bad choices, and then he had Pam hand me a knife with no explanation. He was so cocksure of himself, or,” and his Mother looked away, “or it could have been that he was a little afraid that if he really told me what he wanted, I’d say no.”
“Pam swears it was love at first sight for Dad,” Rick told his Mom.
Sookie’s eyes took on a sudden shine and she quickly reached up to touch a corner of her eye with her finger, “I guess I didn’t think of that. What I will tell you is your Father had a helluva way of showing it!”
“So, what do Pam and Karin have to say about you getting married again?” Rick asked. Rick still wasn’t really speaking with either of his step-sisters.
His Mother laughed, “Well, Pam is delighted. She’s planning the whole thing. I know you two got into a rocky place, but she really does miss you. She sent you a gift, by the way. We’ll give it to you later.”
“Is it going to explode?” Rick snarked.
Eric chuckled as he rejoined them. “Pamela is learning, as am I, that how you tease those who are younger is different.” Rick wasn’t surprised that his Father overheard their conversation. Hyper-sensitive hearing was something vampires seemed to have and it was still an adjustment for Rick.
“Guess Karin’s still holding out, though,” Rick said, nodding to some classmates as they walked past.
“Karin asked about coming up here for an extended visit,” his Mother replied. “Do you know anything about that?”
Rick immediately thought about Peter and wondered if the two had kept in touch. It seemed unlikely, but he couldn’t come up with any other explanation. “Maybe she’s doing some research,” he offered.
The DJ queued up the music for a line dance that was popular at weddings. Although Rick knew the steps, it wasn’t the kind of dancing he really enjoyed. Sookie leaned into him and said, “Do you think the Fall Ball is still going on?”
“You know it is!” Rick exclaimed, but then glanced down at himself and added, “Are you sure? I mean, we’re kind of overdressed.”
“I don’t think anyone would mind,” his Mom laughed, “Not really. Well, except Maddie, and I think you wouldn’t mind being rescued from her!”
They sneaked out the front doors and into the parking lot. It didn’t take long to drive across town and in that time, Sookie slipped out of her pumps and into flat shoes. She let her hair down and tugged at Rick’s tie, “You don’t need to wear that anymore!”
When they pulled into the Town Hall parking lot, Eric stood beside the car, pulling off his suit jacket and removing his tie. He unbuttoned his shirt and rolled up his shirt sleeves. Rick looked from one parent to the other. His Mom and Eric were smiling like kids playing hooky, and Rick couldn’t help grinning along with them.
Aunt Sarah was near the double doors and she yelled, “Susan!” As they walked into the foyer, those clustered around the potluck tables turned too. Most of the faces were those Sookie and Rick knew, neighbors for over ten years. There was hesitation from some, but most advanced on them, arms open, intent on hugging their returned friend. “Oh, you are chilly!” Sarah giggled.
“Yup, no hot flashes for me,” Sookie joked.
“Lucky girl,” the Mayor’s wife laughed, and then she turned to Eric, who was standing to the side.
Rick couldn’t help noticing that the Mayor’s wife wasn’t the only one staring at his Father. The other women were staring and there were people walking out into the foyer, and they were staring too.
“This is Eric Northman, my fiancé,” Sookie told the Mayor’s wife.
Aunt Sarah said what Rick could hear some of them thinking, “So, you really ended up with Rick’s Father? Guess it’s kind of nice that you are making an honest man out of him, even if it is thirteen years too late!”
Rick could tell that most of his friends were thinking he looked exactly like his Father. It made him stare at the Viking again. He just couldn’t see it.
“She did keep me waiting a very long time,” his Father said, smiling in that easy, charming way he had. “I can’t believe she took pity on me at long last!”
“And you’re still on a trial basis,” Sookie snapped, her eyes teasing, “and don’t you forget it!”
“Well, Eric,” Aunt Sarah exclaimed, “If you ever get tired of chasing Sookie, you have my number!” Sookie laughed, but she was cut short when Eric grabbed her to him and kissed her well enough that she just about melted into him.
When he released her, he teased, “I’m going to make sure you don’t think about trading me in, Lover!”
“Wow!” Aunt Sarah exclaimed, “He’s got the looks, Sookie. Now, we’ll have to see if he can dance,” and Rick was suddenly worried. Contra dancing was line dancing, but it was a series of movements involving turns and forms. If a dancer couldn’t remember the sequence, they could throw the whole line of dancers off. Sometimes there’d be a quick session at the beginning of a dance when there were newcomers, but tonight, there’d be no lessons. There were rarely newcomers at the Fall Ball. Most just knew the steps.
“You better get yourself inside!” Sarah motioned to Rick. “Peter is already getting tuned. He brought along his extra fiddle. He was hoping you’d show up!” Rick glanced at his parents, and then, setting aside his nervousness, made his way to the basement. First, Rick unfastened his shirtsleeves and then he rolled his cuffs. He lifted the extra fiddle and tucked it under his chin. Peter laid down his own fiddle and picked up his mandolin. Chuck, the man who ran the hardware store, was strumming through a few chords on his guitar and Chuck’s wife was leaning on the stand-up bass.
By the time Rick finished tuning and taking a couple test draws across the strings, people were already taking their places to begin. Rick saw his Mom and Dad walking into the hall, and he saw his Mother walk them to the far side where the chairs were set. He figured his Mom shared his worry, and decided to sit the dance out rather than risk stepping on feet and throwing people into confusion.
“You ready?” Peter asked everyone, and he counted out. They launched into a favorite and the couples snaked around each other, working up and down the columns, handing each other across, swinging away. Rick focused on Peter’s fingers, and then Chuck’s, keeping time and changing keys. When they segued into the next song, the dancers continuing their progress, Rick lifted his eyes and he saw his Father, towering over the others, stepping gracefully through the patterns, steering his Mother who laughed up at him with the clear, open expression of a girl much younger than herself. As they neared the stage, Rick found himself watching them, their dancing so perfect, their happiness so apparent.
“Of course,” he sighed, “they’re vampires! All they needed to do was see the steps once!”
“What?” Peter asked him, leaning low.
“I’m the luckiest guy I know,” Rick told him.
Rick played until his fingers felt numb, and when he took a break, he took his Mom around the dance floor, spinning her to the strains of the Tennessee Waltz. “Do you miss it?” he asked her.
“I miss you,” she replied, and then, almost unconsciously, she looked around and Rick knew she was searching for his Father.
One of the outcomes of her turning was this his mother, the famous Sookie Stackhouse, was no longer telepathic. Most times it didn’t seem to bother her, but Rick suspected that his Father helped to bolster her confidence through their bond. Times like this when Rick was sure she was a little tired, he could see her trepidation more clearly. Rick looked around too, but couldn’t see his Father. “Where’d he go?” he asked, but he was really just asking himself.
“I don’t know,” his Mother answered. “We were talking about the decorations.” The room was draped in corn shocks and pumpkins. There were baskets of gourds and colored leaves.
“Maybe he doesn’t like Fall,” Rick shrugged.
“Well, I do!” his Mother exclaimed, and taking Rick’s arm, she said, “Let’s go down to the dock! I love the pond. I may not be able to see it with the sun glittering on it, but I bet with the moon out tonight, it’s just as pretty.”
“You bet!” Rick agreed. His Mom didn’t bring it up often, her losing the light, but he figured it had to weigh on her from time to time.
The dock was a short walk from Town Hall, and they passed the B&B along the way. The lights were on, but they knew it was quiet inside. The residents were at one party or another, and Rick felt drawn to head up the path, his Mom and him, just like old times. His Mom must have known, because she drew him toward him and hugged him.
They got to the pond and Rick stepped aside. “Nature calls,” he laughed. “I’ll meet you on the dock!”
Rick stepped into the trees, and when he’d finished, he swung back to the path. He saw his Father descending to stand right in front of his Mother, and he handed her something. It looked like flowers, but it wasn’t. As Rick got closer, he realized his Father had handed his Mom a bouquet of leaves, each one a different color.
“He brought me Fall,” his Mom told him, her voice tight with emotion.
“You brought me everything,” Eric smiled in return, and then lifting his arm, inviting Rick into their embrace.
It was a perfect moment, their arms around each other, bathed in moonlight. They were one family: Together.