Sookie and Eric quickly went inside so that Sookie could take care of her human needs, pack their toothbrushes, and grab their bag. Meanwhile, Eric made her a sandwich and grabbed her a can of Dr. Pepper so that she would have food during their flight to Santa Fe. Both were pleased to see Jessica speaking contritely to Tray about his nephew when they came back outside.
The large Were was looking down at Jessica sternly, but when he gave Sookie a subtle wink full of amusement, she was again amazed by the quality of Tray’s acting skills.
Eric followed her eyes and whispered to her, “Believe it or not, I saw him play Mark Antony in his high school’s production of Julius Caesar. He wasn’t that bad, though the overall production was,” he paused, “difficult to get through.”
Hearing Eric, Tray shot a dark glance at him as Sookie giggled a bit.
Jason and Jarod were in the middle of building a fire—seemingly being supervised by Miranda.
Sookie quickly hugged everyone goodbye except for Thalia and Pam, whom she nodded to. She looked at Miranda, “Feed kitty while we’re gone, okay? I think he’ll still eat from you, right?”
The Werelioness nodded and chuckled, “Barely, but yes. He must recognize his comparative position in the feline family.”
Sookie grinned at Miranda.
Just as Eric was about to pick up Sookie to fly her to the private airport, Thalia approached them. The look on her face caused Eric to pause.
The elder vampiress had said nothing all evening, but now she addressed Eric and Sookie in a clear voice, “I would not allow one as young and unpleasant as Compton to be so openly insipid, Eric. Why do you not just take the throne from him? All vampires in this state would support you. And I do not think that the AVL or the Authority would offer much resistance.”
Eric looked at Sookie and then at Thalia, “I do not want to be king. It is a burden that I want for neither myself nor Sookie.”
Thalia nodded slowly, taking in the couple before her. “You became pledged in my presence, and my sword is yours, Eric.” She looked at him fiercely. “It has been at your service since that March night in 1317.”
Eric bowed formally, “As mine has been at your service, Thalia—since before even then.”
She narrowed her eyes, “Why not just have Isabel or Rasul take the throne?”
“They are too young and haven’t been in the state long enough to become amply established.” Eric gave Pam a look.
Pam looked at Jessica, “My child, your loyalties are with me now—and to the people here, in this circle. Anything you hear must not be told to Bill. In fact, I command you not to speak of anything that has or will be said here—ever―to anyone other than those present”
Jessica responded to her maker’s command with a nod and wide eyes.
Eric continued speaking to Thalia, “In addition, there are others who have shown interest in this state and would make a move if they found the monarch to be weak. Bill, though pathetic in many ways, is beloved by the AVL, and that currency will hold the others at bay—now that he has powerful sheriffs to back him, that is. It is true that if I were to become king, the AVL and the Authority would likely not act against me, but―again―I do not want the job. I never have and cannot foresee that changing. Ideally, Sookie and I want for Bill to grow the fuck up and become a good king—at least, for as long as it takes for Isabel to become more established.”
Thalia tilted her head slightly and scrutinized Sookie and Eric before speaking in a low voice. “I was born a slave in Greece five hundred years before you were a glint in your human father’s eye, Norseman.” She snarled, “The fucking Greeks and their belittling of women! I was as fierce in battle as any Trojan or Spartan—even as a human―but I was looked down upon and discounted as inferior because of my sex and my size.” She paused. “I have been many things in my many years, but I have never been a queen.” Again, she paused for a few moments. “I find that I can tolerate you―almost all of you,” she took in the group. “And I find that I quite like being in control of Area 2, Viking. No one fucks with me there. Everyone does as I say—when I say. A bigger area might not be so bad.”
“Is that an offer, Thalia?” Eric asked, the surprise clear in his voice.
The ancient vampiress cocked her head to the other side. “It is if it comes to that, Norseman. Besides,” she said, glancing at Bubba, “I already have a suitable king.” She laughed out loud, which caused everyone except for Bubba and Eric to shiver apprehensively at the strangeness of the sound. Bubba simply looked at her with intense devotion. Fortunately, Eric had had more practice in schooling his own emotions, but Sookie felt a slight twinge of discomfort from him in the bond.
Eric cocked an eyebrow, “Thalia, I will keep your offer in mind.”
“You may, Norseman,” she said before turning around and heading toward the woods.
Bubba spoke up, “Well, Mr. Eric, if you and Miss Sookie are gonna be goin’ to your cabin this evenin’, I might take the night to do a little huntin’ and spend some time with Miss Thalia. She sure is somethin’ else, ain’t she?”
“Indeed,” Eric said. “She is worthy of many honors, Bubba.”
The Rock and Roll legend grinned widely, “I’ll be headin’ out then. Miss Sookie, you have yourself a good evenin’.”
With that, Bubba joined Thalia in the darkness.
“Did she just offer what I think she did, Eric?” Sookie asked in a whisper.
“Yes,” he said, his happiness surging through the bond. “Thalia just gave me a way to avoid being king—a way for us to stay as we are—even if Bill comes after us and must be finally dealt with.”
“Wait,” Jessica said, looking at first Eric and then Sookie. “Bill is gonna come after y’all? But, Sookie, he told me that you’d picked Eric and that he was gonna live with that. He seemed real upset and sad about it, and he wanted me to tell you that he would always be there if you needed, but he told me he’d accepted your choice.” She paused, “I think he even has a new vampire girlfriend, though he’s tried to hide her from me.” She grinned, “I’ve smelled her around the mansion, even though Bill doesn’t think I can track as good as I can, and I’ve also smelled her at Fangtasia. Her name is Lillith.”
Pam looked at Jessica closely, “Child, remind me never to underestimate you as your previous maker did. We’ll talk about all this later, but meanwhile, you remember to keep your mouth shut―especially to Bill—about everything that happens here.”
Jessica nodded but looked a little confused. Sookie looked around her circle of friends and noticed that Jason had the same confused look on his face as Jessica. She couldn’t help but to giggle at the fact that the two were a matching pair in that moment.
Once again, Sookie said a quick goodbye, and then Eric slung their bag over his shoulder before Sookie wrapped herself in the afghan she’d brought with her. The night was quite mild and much warmer than the one before, but she knew that Eric wanted to fly quickly to the airfield, and she was anxious to get to Santa Fe as well. He picked her up bridal style, and with a final nod to the others, he lifted them into the night sky.
Eric chuckled as Sookie closed her eyes tightly. She’d been nervous when they’d taken off and had done her very best to cause lasting damage to his knee as she’d gripped it. Now as he approached the private airfield just outside of Santa Fe, she was once again holding onto his knee, afraid to take his hand because―in her words―he “needed two darned hands to fly the F-in plane.”
He tried to send her calm, but she glared at him. “Hey, Mister Vampire, I told you before that I get to be scared of flyin’.”
He chuckled again, “But you are no longer afraid to fly with me.”
“Yeah but that’s different. It’s you who is flyin’ then.”
“But, min kära,” Eric reasoned as he gestured toward the controls of the plane. “I am flying now as well.”
She glared at him, “It’s not the same.”
He tried a different tactic. “I am an excellent pilot, Sookie,” he winked at her. “I have been flying these contraptions since the 1960’s.”
“Hey!” she squealed. “Keep both eyes on the―um―sky.”
Giving up on comforting her, he laughed. “We will land in a minute or two, my love. Until then, you should feel free to damage me as you see fit.”
She looked down at his knee, which she was squeezing with all her might. She chuckled a bit, but—still—she didn’t let go.
Eric tried distracting her, “Okay. When we land, it will be 12:43 a.m. local time. According to Conway, your cousin is not working this evening, so we will go directly to her home when we arrive.”
“Okay,” Sookie said nervously as she saw the runway getting closer. She closed her eyes tightly.
Eric once again sent comfort through the bond, and this time Sookie took it—though she kept her eyes tightly shut. He landed smoothly and slowed the plane down, turning it toward the hangar that had been designated for his use. Once they were going only a few miles per hour, Sookie opened her eyes with relief and smiled at Eric.
“See,” he said, taking her hand that was still gripping his knee into his, “safe and sound just as I promised.”
She smiled. Once they were parked in the hangar, Eric exited the cockpit and opened the door of the plane. The car that he’d arranged for was there, as was a ground crew ready to refuel the plane for the return trip. Eric grabbed their bag and put down the steps, helping Sookie down them.
“Good evening, Mr. Johnson,” a man said to Eric as the vampire exited. “I’m Hugh Litner, and I will see to all your needs while you are in Santa Fe.”
“Mr. Litner,” Eric said with a curt nod of the head.
Mr. Litner was all business. “Your plane will be refueled and ready when you get back as you requested. And your return flight plan is also ready to be filed; all that it is lacking is the time of your departure, but with half an hour’s notice, I will be able to fit you onto the schedule whenever you should wish to go—so long as you stay within the twenty-four hour window your associate discussed with me earlier.” He handed Eric his card. “Call this number when you know your departure plans.”
Sookie quickly scanned the man’s thoughts and found that he was delighted that he’d been paid so much to see to all of Mr. Johnson’s desires. Litner truly believed that the person in front of him was named Eric Johnson, and he didn’t even seem to notice that Eric was a vampire. He also didn’t care at all what her name was.
Eric nodded to the man and led Sookie toward the car. Once they were inside and had pulled out of the hangar, Eric spoke up. “Sookie, I can now feel your cousin through our blood connection. She is eight and three-quarters miles west, southwest of this location.”
Sookie nodded, happy that Eric could confirm that Hadley was okay using the blood connection. Still, part of her didn’t like the fact that Eric had a blood tie with Hadley at all. He felt her mixed feelings and took her hand in his.
“I took her blood once, Sookie. And I took it before I had yours. I took it to find out what the queen knew about you so that I could protect you. I do not want it again. And I gave her mine so that she would not die and so that I could compel her to deliver a warning to you. The tie is very weak now. In a few months, I will likely not feel her at all.”
Sookie nodded, “I know it sounds dumb, but I don’t like to think of any part of you―not even a tiny bit of your blood―floating around in anyone else other than me.”
Eric smiled at her and raised her hand to his lips to kiss it gently, “It is not dumb at all. I feel the same way. And I do not like feeling her.”
Sookie sighed as Eric’s phone rang. She dropped his hand so that he could answer it and still keep one hand on the wheel.
“Speak,” he said. He listened for a few moments as Sookie heard a masculine voice on the other end.
Eric responded, “I see. Did the man make a move?” He paused for a few moments. “Good. Try to confirm whether it was the other P.I. and make sure he’s gone. We will be there in less than ten minutes.” Eric paused, “And, Conway, if the man returns and makes a move, then break your cover and protect the woman and her child.”
Sookie looked at Eric nervously as he hung up the phone. “It seems that Bill’s P.I. may have found Hadley. Conway reported that she was being watched a little earlier. However, there has been no movement made to contact or to take your cousin or the boy. And I feel no anxiety from Hadley through the bond. Conway says that the man who’d been watching her has left the area—at least for the moment.”
Sookie sighed with relief. “And we’ll be there in ten minutes?”
Eric nodded and pushed on the accelerator a bit harder. “Less.”
Sookie tried to calm herself as Eric sped them toward Hadley and Hunter; she prayed for their safety. She looked at Eric, “If you feel an eminent threat, promise me that you will pull over and fly the rest of the way. I’ll come behind you in the car, but you have to get to them.
Eric glanced at her. “I promise, min kära, to fly to them, but I will take you with me. The car could be picked up later. I will not separate from you.”
Sookie smiled at her husband. “Okay.”
A couple of minutes later, Eric’s phone rang again. “Report,” he ordered by way of an answer.
He listened for a few moments before speaking. “Keep monitoring. I’ll find you when we arrive.”
Eric looked at Sookie as he hung up. “Conway has completed his sweep, and there is no further sign of the man.”
Once again, Sookie sighed with relief. She counted the minutes as she and Eric approached Hadley’s home.