“But part of our delight is measuring
rewards against our merit, and we see
that our rewards are neither less nor more.”
—Dante Alighieri Paradiso (Canto VI, 121-123)
“You’re late!” I reprimanded breathlessly when Eric zipped into the room and ended up right in front of me.
He looked at his wrist, though there was no watch there. I couldn’t help my smile or the tears that immediately welled up in my eyes.
“Really?” he asked.
“Well—I started hoping you’d get back around thirty minutes ago,” I said, my lip quivering a little.
He smiled softly. “Well then—sorry I’m late.”
“You won’t let it happen again?” I asked, aware that all the anxiety I had been feeling was suddenly catching up with me now that he was back and in one piece.
“I’ll try to always be on time from now on, min kära,” he said in probably the gentlest tone I’d ever heard from him—including the time he’d had no memories. His words promised so much more than what I’d been asking for that they made my heart ache with happiness and my tears start falling.
For more than three hours, I’d mostly been pacing, biting my nails to the nub, and praying. The only thing that had helped me not to go completely insane was that Alcide and I had had a few more “tasks” to complete while Eric was gone. We’d picked up a couple of light-tight vans and had placed them where our group would need them. We’d also found a day-time hiding place for Eric and me, which was closer to the TruBlood factory, but still safe. And, as Alcide had monitored a police scanner to make sure that Eric’s jamming device was effectively cutting off the isolated TruBlood factory and the Vamp Camp from the outside world, I’d typed up a report outlining everything I’d heard that day from the sick and twisted minds of the employees at those locations and had sent it to Eric’s lawyer, Desmond Cataliades.
But those tasks had done little to curb the tide of fear that had continuously rolled through me from the moment Eric left my side. I’d never experienced that level of anxiety before—not when Rene was hunting me, not when Bill almost drained me, not when the fairies kidnapped me, not even when Bill rose from bloody muck to become Billith.
The only other times I’d felt fear approaching that level had been when Eric was on his knees outside of the witch’s emporium and when the fire was stalking him as he was chained to the stake with Bill. But those episodes had been over within minutes. I’d fought through the prolonged anxiety of Eric’s mission to the Vamp Camp only by getting things done—checking them off of my mental list one at a time. But now that he was back, I felt myself shaking—coming down from the adrenaline high that had been keeping me on my feet.
“Your emotions are all over the place,” he said, looking at me as if I were a kind of puzzle box. “Love, elation, relief, anxiety, guilt, exhaustion.”
I couldn’t speak for a moment as the feelings he’d listed mixed through me like I was a blender for them. The love was easy to explain; it was for Eric, and since I’d let myself be free to feel it, that love had become the foundation of everything else inside of me. The elation and the relief were easy to understand too. They had rocketed into me—making me dizzy—as soon as he was in the room.
The anxiety was because I was still worried about the others: Jason, Tara, Jessica, Willa. Even Pam.
The guilt was because I knew I could survive the loss of any of those others. As bad of a person as it may have made me, I recognized that the loss of my friends or even my brother would be survivable. I’d grieve—as I’d done for Gran. And I’d miss them every day of the rest of my life—as I still missed Gran.
But losing Eric would have been different. My heart would have left with him. My soul would have left with him.
Eric brought his hand up to cradle my face. I didn’t care that his skin was stained with blood as I leaned into his touch.
Despite his clothes being black, I could tell that they were also covered with blood. “Any of that blood yours?” I asked in a whisper.
“The only blood I lost tonight was given to your brother.”
“Is he okay?” I asked worriedly.
“And the others?” I realized I was holding my breath.
“All fine,” he assured.
With those comforting words, I felt my knees buckle. Eric caught me, picked me up into his strong arms, and sat us on a large crate. I couldn’t help laying my head on his chest even though his jacket was soaked with blood. I couldn’t help gripping his arms with both hands to assure myself that he was really back.
“It’s okay, min kära,” he said soothingly. “It’s going to be okay now.”
I could only cling to him tighter as more tears fell.
Alcide stepped forward from the other side of the room. I could tell that he was concerned about the fact that the dam holding my emotions at bay had obviously burst, but—to his credit—he seemed to understand that Eric was the only one who could mop up the emotional mess that I’d become.
“I’ll just go and do that thing we talked about earlier,” Alcide said quietly, giving me a little smile.
“What thing?” Eric asked after he’d gone.
“It’s a surprise,” I answered weakly.
“And I’ll like it?” he asked.
I nodded. “Plus, I think Alcide realized I wanted to be alone with you for a minute.”
“He’s not bad for a mutt,” Eric said jokingly.
“Eric,” I chided feebly.
“Eric,” I said, feeling the smile move onto my lips.
“Eric!” I answered more strongly, this time with mock warning in my tone.
I giggled and leaned up to kiss him. It was slow and soft—medicinal even. It was exactly what I needed.
We both sighed as our lips parted.
“Better?” he asked.
“Much. Thanks. I got a little overwhelmed there for a minute.”
“You’re allowed,” he said gently.
“Still—thanks for catching me,” I said.
“Luckily, you aren’t that heavy,” he intoned with a sparkle in his eyes.
I giggled. “Watch out!” I said warningly. “Once we get settled and I’m not bein’ chased by supernaturals all the time, I plan to become a couch potato and eat ice cream and bonbons until I get back a few of the curves I’ve lost lately.”
He closed his eyes. “Mmmmm.”
“I am just imagining you with a little more meat on your bones.” He opened his eyes; they were full of mischief.
Sometimes he took my breath away—like at just that moment.
“It’s too bad—really,” he observed playfully.
“What’s too bad?” I asked, panting a little.
“That you won’t actually be in a place where you aren’t being chased by supernaturals. I know one in particular who’s never going to give you rest,” he grinned rakishly as he nipped at my neck with his blunt teeth.
I giggled and then sighed. “Where are the others?”
“I flew ahead,” he said.
“You wanted some alone time with me too,” I observed with a little smile.
“Needed it,” Eric corrected.
I smiled a little wider.
“Pam drove the others here,” he reported. “I can hear that Alcide has met them in the street and seems to be stalling them with a list of tasks I supposedly gave him.” He grinned. “I might just have to become a dog person after tonight.”
I giggled, closed my eyes, and “listened.” Though Alcide’s thoughts were still a little fuzzy to me, my second blood exchange with Eric had made “hearing” him much easier. Also—as always—I was able to pick up Jason’s thoughts clear as a bell.
“You’re right,” I told Eric. “Alcide has asked Willa and Tara to help him wipe all the fingerprints from Sarah Newlin’s car. Once the others come up, he’s gonna drive it to our next destination so that it will get blown up—and cover the real reason for that explosion.”
“Clever,” Eric said.
“Definitely.” I chuckled. “Meanwhile, Jason and Pam are squabbling about how best to tie up the Newlins. Jason’s wondering how anyone can roll their eyes as much as Pam does.”
“Years of practice—I assure you,” Eric joked.
As soon as my mind touched Sarah Newlin’s, my smile faded and I raised my shields. “Gross!”
“What?” Eric asked.
“Sarah Newlin is wondering if she can trade sex with you or Jason—preferably both of you at once—for her freedom. She’s also thinking about how she likes bein’ in handcuffs and hopes that Jason and Pam will continue to be a little rough with her.” I shook my head to try to remove her thoughts from it.
Eric looked at me searchingly—as if he were waiting for something.
“What are you gonna do with the Newlins?” I asked, not making him wait for long.
“Do you really want to know?” Eric responded.
“Give them to Pam,” he said.
I took a deep breath.
“And what will she do with them?” I asked.
“Extract any remaining information they have.”
Eric sighed. “I’ll leave it to her discretion, but if I had to guess, I would say that she’d either glamour Sarah so that she confesses her crimes and rots in a human jail or . . . ,” his voice trailed off.
“Or she’ll make her death extremely painful.”
I took a breath. “And Steve?”
“He provided the humans running the Vamp Camp with a great deal of information about us. He was the reason they knew that Pam was my child. He was the reason they knew that Nora was my sister.” Eric’s jaw stiffened. “After that information could not be used to get me to murder my own child, Burrell used it to hurt my sister.”
I raised my hand gently to his cheek and put any doubts I had regarding the Newlins’ fates to rest. They were both horrible people; it didn’t matter if they were humans or vampires. They were the proof that sometimes someone’s nature was just rotten to the core.
I could tell that Eric was looking for a reaction from me—looking for me to argue for the Newlins’ lives.
But I wasn’t going to.
Oh—it wasn’t as if I wasn’t having a crisis of conscience. Of course, I was!
People were dying!
I didn’t quite know how to feel about the fact that the person I loved most in the world had enjoyed—very much—killing a lot of humans. Then again, I recognized that Eric had been killing humans in a Concentration Camp for vampires, a place where warped experimentation and the systematized murdering of a race of people were occurring with ever-increasing frequency.
I sighed as I thought about what I’d heard that day as I’d helped Alcide plant the explosives around the camp and factory.
The experiment du jour—according to the thoughts of several of the doctors inside the Vamp Camp—had been Sarah Newlin’s brainchild. Bottles of tainted TruBlood were being given to some of the vampires, while perfectly good TruBlood was being dispensed to others. One out of every three bottles in the experiment was laced with Hep-V. The experimenters’ goal was to see if the vampires in the Gen-Pop rooms could detect the difference between the poisoned and un-poisoned bottles.
A secondary experiment was to see whether the vampires would kill each other in order to take the un-poisoned bottles if they were detected. As it turned out, the oldest vampires—the three in the facility who were known to be over 700 years old—could smell traces of the Hep-V.
I’d learned about what had happened in the Gen-Pop rooms housing two of those three older vampires from the thoughts of some gossiping guards before Alcide and I were finished planting the bombs. In one of the rooms, the older vampire had stopped the others from drinking. Before the guards could react, she had ordered every vampire to break her bottle of blood, whether the bottle was tainted or not. The older vampiress was then put into solitary confinement and wrapped in silver.
What happened to another older vampire was far more tragic. He too had detected that some of the TruBlood smelled “off.” The guards in that room, however, were prepped and threatened to kill everyone if all the bloods were not fully consumed. According to the rumor going around, that elder vampire had found a way to drink all the tainted bottles himself, thereby saving the others in Gen-Pop 1 from the poison. Of course, he’d had to sacrifice himself to do it.
In the end, the scientists were dismayed that the Hep-V could be detected by the oldest noses. Their minds had been determined to “go back to the drawing board.” Sarah’s Newlin’s thoughts conveyed her hope that the initial shipments would at least take out the young and the desperate among the vampire population—before the older vampires could step in to protect the others.
The first piece of information that I’d typed to send to Eric’s lawyer that night had been that older vampires could tell the difference between the good and bad blood. I just hoped that they could be mobilized in some way to help prevent more deaths from occurring.
The second piece of information I’d typed was not good news. The scientists were now certain that drinking even one bottle of the poisoned blood would lead to a vampire’s death within a week.
I sighed. As if Eric knew that I needed a moment to process everything that had happened and come to grips with my own part in the deaths of so many, he didn’t speak to me for several minutes.
Instead, he rested his forehead against mine, inhaling my scent in deep humanlike breaths that I knew he didn’t need to take. I now recognized that this action was a sign that he needed to be close—needed to be comforted just as much as I did.
I took a deep breath—coming to grips once and for all with which side I was on. I was on my vampire’s side—pure and simple. There was no question—no doubt. I could feel bad about the fact that humans had to die, but I wouldn’t argue with why they’d needed to go.
“Did everything go as planned?” I asked Eric after another deep breath.
He seemed to sigh with relief as he felt my emotions settle. “Exactly as planned. Your idea to let the other vampires take care of most of the dirty work was inspired.”
“Did you—um—get to take care of enough dirty work?”
He tensed a little. I just hoped that he could feel my acceptance of him. I tried to “send” it to him, along with a big dose of my love.
He gasped a little and kissed my forehead. I guess he felt it.
“Yes, I got to take care of enough to satisfy my need for immediate vengeance,” he answered softly. “And I am satisfied that justice will be served to the other architects of that hell-hole and Hep-V.” He paused. “Dr. Overlark’s computer was a goldmine. It contained the Hep-V formula as well as descriptions of all the experiments done in the camp.”
“You sent it to your lawyer?” I asked.
“Yes. And Jason has the hard drive from Overlark’s computer. He’ll give it to Pam as a back-up.”
“Do you think the scientist Bill’s keeping will figure out a cure?” I asked.
Eric nodded. “It is likely—but Cataliades will pass the formula along to other scientists too.”
“I just pray that the scandal that is created will stop other people from thinking that they can get away with this kind of,” I paused, “genocide.”
“Me too,” he responded, moving his hands up and down my back—as if both comforting me and assuring himself that I was really there with him.
“So—no one was hurt, except for Jason?” I asked, leaning into him and entwining my arms around his neck. I didn’t care at all that my clothes were now bloody too. I had others. “Everyone’s okay now?”
He nodded. “Willa and Tara were both very hungry, as was Jessica, but they were fine otherwise. For younglings, they all showed good control. I was especially proud of Willa.”
I smiled. “And—uh—Pam’s okay?”
“Pam always has her ways of getting food,” he remarked enigmatically.
“You said you had to give Jason blood?” I asked.
“He’d been fed on quite a bit, but I was in time,” Eric answered. “Other than having some dreams about me that he’d probably rather not have, he’s going to be fine. He was actually,” Eric paused, “good to have along—useful and entertaining.”
I laughed a little at the thought of my brother operating as Eric’s sidekick. “You should warn Jason about the dreams—and let him know that he can’t really control them. That’d probably make him feel better. After Warlow gave him blood, I’m pretty sure that he had a dream that made him worry that he was suddenly turning gay.”
Eric chuckled a little. “That explains some things. Don’t worry. I will make sure he doesn’t have an additional crisis of identity.”
“So—uh—when we bond, the tie you made with Jason tonight will break—right?” I asked. “Just like our bonding will break my ties to Warlow and Bill?”
“Yes,” Eric confirmed. “It will override all ties; in fact, as far as I know, it will destroy all the blood belonging to others that is in us.”
“But not our blood in them?” I asked—just to clarify.
“Not immediately, but that blood will disappear quickly since the ties will have died.”
“So bonding should get rid of Warlow’s Fae blood in us too—right?” I asked.
“I think so,” he responded. “But—as you know—I’m not a hundred percent sure how Warlow’s Fae blood will respond to a bond forming. If it is like other supernatural blood, it will be burned from us.”
I nodded. I knew that that was one of the reasons why Eric had taken Warlow’s blood earlier. He’d wanted to find out what the Fae blood did in his body so that he could better tell what it was doing in mine.
For the thousandth time, I kicked myself for drinking from Warlow.
“Don’t,” Eric said, as if he could read my thoughts; he had obviously felt my regret. And he knew me well enough to know why it was there.
I sighed. Deserve him or not—I was glad I had Eric Northman.
“Do you think you’ll be able to use the Fae blood from one of the vials in order to be protected from the sun after we bond?” I asked.
“That—is the million dollar question,” he answered. “I should be able to drink one of the vials and move in the sun after we bond, but remember we have Plan B if that doesn’t work.”
I smiled a little. With Eric, there was always a Plan B.
Eric seemed to be considering something. “As I told you last night, humans who bond reject ties and bonds with others,” he said. “But after talking to Dr. Takahashi earlier, I’m not sure how you will react, given the fact that you are a hybrid.” He paused. “Sookie, I think that you will likely die if another vampire tries to give you blood after we bond,” he finished in almost a whisper.
I nodded. “That makes sense. After all, I tried to reject Bill’s blood after I was shot—even though you and I had only made one exchange at that point.”
“Yes,” Eric said softly. “So you must be sure. Once we bond, it cannot be undone.”
“I am sure,” I said immediately. “I wouldn’t want anyone else’s blood—not even to heal me.”
“But your body would also reject human blood transfusions,” he said. “If you were hurt during the day,” he started.
“When Bill almost drained me, I was taken to a hospital. The doctors there discovered that I don’t even have a blood type. Not even Jason’s blood could be given to me. So I’m pretty much screwed when it comes to blood transfusions from humans anyway. And,” I paused and looked into his eyes so that he would see my sincerity as well as feel it, “I have chosen you, Eric Northman, and I know that we’ll keep each other safe.”
“Or die trying,” he whispered.
“Or die tryin’,” I agreed.