Niall approached with Claude, who was looking at Hadley with worried eyes. Seeing his expression, Sookie wondered if the fairies had ‘overheard’ their conversation by using their telepathy. She quickly tapped into Claude’s head, but found that he was concerned only because of the stricken look on Hadley’s face, not because he’d been listening in on their private conversation.
Niall was smiling at Sookie. “You are a natural at projecting your thoughts, my dear.”
Sookie rolled her eyes, but smiled, “Whatever.” Her tone turned more serious, “Hadley wants to see Hunter. Is that okay?”
“Of course,” Niall said kindly, reaching out for Hadley’s hand and leading her to the pool’s edge.
Sookie walked over with them. She looked at Hadley’s other hand. “Can I look too, Had?”
Hadley smiled at her and then extended her hand. Sookie looked into the pool and grinned widely when she saw Hunter in the middle of her living room, jumping up and down happily as he saw a bicycle with a huge bow on it. Sookie caught a glimpse of Jason sitting off to the side and of Miranda on the couch holding a little baby who was bouncing and waving his little arms excitedly in Hunter’s direction. There was a big Christmas tree set up, and Sookie could see a lot of presents underneath it. Lafayette came into view and put a stack of pancakes shaped like snowmen onto the coffee table in front of a now even more animated Hunter. She clearly saw Hunter’s mouth saying the words, “Santa came!” and “new bike.”
There was sunlight streaming into the windows, so Sookie knew that Eric was sleeping; she couldn’t be sad about not seeing her husband, however. The smile lighting Hunter’s face was contagious, and Sookie could see a smile on Hadley’s face too. Sookie’s own cheeks burned with her grin, even as her eyes burned with tears at seeing her family so happy.
“Niall,” Hadley asked, “how long have we been gone from there?”
“A little more than thirteen of your months, child,” Niall said sympathetically.
Sookie looked up at Niall with some confusion. She’d found out about the time lapse the night before, but now that she thought about it, it didn’t seem right—especially compared to her last experience in the fairy realm. She asked Niall, “How can that be? I mean―don’t get me wrong―I’m glad it’s not longer. But when I was here before, it seemed like I spent a lot less time here—I mean in the actual fairy realm—but about the same amount of time has gone by there.”
Niall looked up from the image in the pool and smiled at Sookie. “The difference between the time there and the time here is not always constant. There have been events throughout our history which have slowed down our world a bit to bring it closer to the scale of time in the human realm. The same has been true of Faerie’s connections to other realms as well. This plane is like an ocean in some ways. It ebbs and flows as it hits the ‘land’ of other realms. However, Faerie has always been connected to the human realm more tightly than to any other. Therefore, there is more potential for the time differences to become less significant.”
“What kinds of things alter the time differences?” Sookie asked curiously.
“Connections,” Niall answered.
“Like what?” Sookie pushed.
“Well, one such instance occurred when a silly old fairy found the love of his life with a beautiful human woman named Viola Stackhouse and bonded with her. That bond and our child formed connections between our two realms, which pulled them slightly more into alignment.” Niall winked at Sookie. “Even when I left the human realm after her death, my heart was still there with her and with our child. Imagine that connection being like a string linking the two places and pulling. That string may slow time down in one or speed it up in the other―at least a little, and a little can make a big difference. Of course, there were still major variances in time―at least from your perspective.” He winked at her again. “However―recently―I have seen the alignment of time between the two worlds at its closest in recorded history.”
“How?” Sookie asked.
“There have been more connections made and stronger ones as well,” the fairy answered.
“What do you mean?” Sookie asked.
Niall smiled tolerantly as he explained. “Well―first Mab had been bringing many hybrids to the fairy realm, despite my efforts to stop her. They all had strings holding them to their realm―at least until they ate the light fruit.”
“Oh,” Sookie said. “That makes sense.”
“Yes. But the major change has happened since you arrived, Sookie dear.” He continued teasingly, “I wonder what could have been causing that!”
Sookie raised her free hand to rest over her fairy bond with Eric. It buzzed with their shared essences. She smiled at Niall, “I hope that I’m not breakin’ apart the space-time continuum thingy like happens on Star Trek or somethin’.”
Niall tilted his head, “I am not familiar with this Star Trek, but don’t fret. Our realm has always been tied to the human realm. As I said, the threads connecting our worlds are like the waves in your oceans. They may be higher or lower, but the ocean remains, and the basic currents continue to flow underneath those waves no matter what is happening on the surface. So what should have been more than three of your years turned into much less because of your strong connection with your mate, my dear.”
Sookie smiled gratefully, “Well, at least that’s somethin’. Could our worlds ever line up completely with their times?”
Niall shrugged. “I do not know for sure. However, since you have come to the ‘in-between place’ again, the time alignment is once again drifting further apart between Faerie and your world. Thus, I do not think our worlds are meant to stay aligned fully.”
Sookie nodded. She looked back in the pool at Hunter and couldn’t help but to be immediately transfixed by him. He was so happy, and the light inside of him was beautiful.
Niall spoke inside of her head this time, “You are sensing the child’s spark.”
Sookie nodded and chuckled as she followed Hunter’s image. He was sneaking a bite of his bacon to a cute little dog parked right next to him. She could tell that Lafayette was admonishing him, but then she saw her friend sneak a bite to the cat not a minute later. Everyone was smiling and talking excitedly.
Sookie giggled as a little dollop of whipped cream from his snowman pancakes stuck onto Hunter’s nose. Her free hand lifted unconsciously as if to wipe it away.
“He looks so happy,” Hadley spoke from beside her. “Your vampire has made him a real home, Sook. I never thought Hunter would be so,” she stopped for a moment. “With his disability, he was always so withdrawn, and I told him he had to be careful not to let anyone know. I never saw him smile like that before.”
“Well,” Sookie said comfortingly, “you had to be careful not to let people know, Had. And none of the people with him now would tell anyone or care if he made a slip up, so he can be comfortable around them. I remember always feelin’ more comfortable when it was just Gran or Jason or Tara or Lafayette with me. They all knew about me and kept what I could do to themselves, and after a while, they didn’t even think that I was weird or different at all—well, except maybe Jason.” Sookie chuckled, “But brothers always think their little sisters are weird, so that was normal too. I could be just me with them. And that’s why Hunter’s so happy, Had. He’s able to be just himself without worrying.”
Hadley nodded a little sadly. Sookie could hear from her head that she was sorry that she’d never helped her child to smile like that. Hadley looked at Niall, “Thank you for showing him to me.”
Niall looked at her kindheartedly, “Any time, my dear.”
“Merry Christmas, Sookie,” Hadley whispered after a few moments of silence.
“Merry Christmas,” Sookie answered back.
In the time that they had been watching Hunter in the pool, Claude had obviously been busy. The clothing they had discarded had been taken away, and a feast of food had been spread out on the ground.
Niall gestured toward it, “I cannot accommodate you here as I could at my own dwelling in Faerie, but it is best you stay in this place for now.”
“Damned straight,” Sookie mumbled, eliciting a chuckle from Niall.
“Is it―um―safe to eat this food?” Hadley asked with trepidation.
Niall smiled, “Yes, my dear. None of this nourishment will hurt you―or tie you irrevocably to this land,” he added for Sookie’s benefit.
Seeing the food, Sookie suddenly felt famished, and she sank down to the ground. She noticed that Claude was looking at Hadley with a mixture of anxiety and concern.
Niall projected into Sookie’s head, “He’s concerned that he may have chosen foodstuffs that she will not enjoy.” She felt his ticklish chuckle in her brain again. “It appears that he has brought all of his own favorites, hoping that she will like something.”
Sookie nodded and then looked at Claude warily. Sookie herself had been the victim of an uncle’s sexual abuse, and Claude was Hadley’s uncle―or half-great-uncle, she supposed. She shook her head. No—this wasn’t the same as Uncle Bartlett. Nothing about Claude’s demeanor or actions was equivalent to Bartlett Hale’s. Still, it freaked Sookie out a little bit.
Niall projected again, “I have spoken to Claude. I assure you that he will do nothing to initiate a relationship with Hadley. It will have to be her choice if anything comes to pass. I also told him of the human taboo against familial relationships—even distant ones—and he understands that this alone may prevent Hadley’s affections. We live long lives here, Sookie, and if Hadley decides to stay, then she also will have a longer lifespan. Maybe―one day―she will look upon him and see someone she desires, but Claude knows that may never occur. For now, he hopes only to help look out for her and the child―if she chooses to have her.”
Relieved, Sookie nodded.
Niall continued, this time more somberly, “I am trying to stay out of your thoughts, dear child, but the image of the horror you faced with your Uncle Bartlett is too strong to miss. I understand why you might not be able to help comparing the two situations. But you were a small child, and your uncle was a predator trying to take advantage of your weakness. His actions were those of a mental degenerate. Please, do not think Claude to be of that ilk.”
Sookie couldn’t help the thought she next sent to Niall, “Why didn’t you help me when that happened to me?”
Niall spoke into her mind with sadness and regret, “It was impossible―because of the war in Faerie―for me to monitor you at all times. After your parents were killed, the battles increased, and your human uncle’s actions were missed by me at the time. But Sookie, I would have acted. When I did check on you again, I learned about your uncle’s actions from your head.
The one good thing I ever did for Hadley before this point was to cause your uncle to have his accident right before a visit he was to make to your Aunt Linda and the girl’s home.”
“You put him in that wheelchair?” Sookie asked, almost forgetting not to speak out loud.
“I had hoped the accident would kill him, as a matter of fact,” Niall said casually into Sookie’s head.
Sookie was momentarily aghast.
Niall continued talking to her telepathically, “Do not waste a moment feeling sorry for that man, dear Sookie. I saw his thoughts—just as you did. He intended far worse for you and Hadley than he had already done. However, his accident stopped such behaviors from occurring and gave him a life of intense pain and suffering, which is what he deserved in my estimation.”
Sookie calmed herself and thought for a moment. To defend herself and Hadley, she had just killed many fairies, one of whom had raped her cousin and another who had tried to do the same to her. Who was she to condemn her great-grandfather for preventing that sick bastard from molesting Hadley? Sookie took a deep breath and nodded to Niall.
She looked at Hadley and projected to Niall, “Do you know if he ever had a chance to hurt Had too?”
Niall looked down at the ground sadly. “Unfortunately, his visit on the day of his accident was not his first.” Niall shook his head. “By that time, my granddaughter Linda had developed the human disease cancer for the first time, and the monster had visited a few times before to offer his help taking care of Hadley and fixing things around their home.”
Sookie saw her great-grandfather’s normally calm demeanor cloud over with rage for a moment. He continued into her head. “He had not yet stolen the child’s innocence; however, he’d done all but that. Hadley has suppressed these memories, but I believe they will soon come to the surface because of her recent ordeal.”
Sookie sniffed and inconspicuously wiped a tear from the corner of her eye. “Can you help them to stay suppressed?” Sookie asked.
Niall nodded slightly. “I could, but I would prefer to help Hadley move past her nightmares and overcome the hurt that has driven her to hurt herself so much in her life. I believe that this is the key to her unlocking the light within her.”
Sookie sighed and projected, “You’re right.”
Niall looked at Hadley. A kind smile graced his features as he continued speaking only to Sookie. “Hadley may not have been born with a prominent spark as you were, my dear, but she still carries the imprint of Fae magic in her blood. The light fruit has already worked to begin the process of ferreting out that magic. Her continued presence here and the child within her would certainly act as catalysts for her own Fae abilities to progress. The magic within her might never be powerful; however, it is lovely and quiet. It will give her much peace if she learns to embrace it.”
Sookie brushed another tear away and said a prayer that Hadley would indeed learn to do just that.
After they were done eating, Niall gestured for Claude to sit next to him. “Sookie,” Niall began, “it is time for you to begin the training that you will need for what is to come.”
“I don’t suppose you’ll tell me what that is, will you?” Sookie asked hopefully.
Niall smiled and shook his head, “That would―I am told―lead only to your destruction, and I will not have that. However, now that you have found a way to heal your own bond―which was truly remarkable, by the way―it is time that you also learned to control your power better. You have already moved from just thinking your thoughts so that I can hear them to actually projecting them into my head, my dear. So I have hope that you will be a quick study.”
Claude spoke up, “I will help you with your telepathy first, Sookie. And then we will practice with your light power.”
Sookie looked at Niall with confusion. “Why not you?”
Niall looked at Sookie and then Hadley. “Two reasons actually. First, I would like to spend more time with Hadley. There is much for us to discuss. Second, Claude is not as powerful as I am. Practicing with him will be a good way to start. And I will help you later—I assure you.”
Sookie nodded and looked worriedly at Hadley.
Niall once again spoke into Sookie’s head, “Do not worry, dear. I will not pressure her, but if the child in her is to be removed, it must be done relatively quickly or not at all. I would already suffer at the loss of my great-great-granddaughter’s spark, and it grows brighter all the time. I will remove the child from Hadley’s womb because of the nature of her conception; however, soon the girl will become self-aware and will try to communicate with others if she is a telepath as I predict. That is the way of Fae children. And once the child tries to communicate, I will not take her life.”
“How soon?” Sookie asked in Niall’s head.
“A month of your time, perhaps,” Niall returned. “It depends on the strength of the child’s spark. Since we are not in the fairy realm proper, it will take a bit longer than normal, but the sooner Hadley decides, the better. I wish for her to understand all of her options, but I will not try to sway her in them.”
“Options?” Sookie asked in her great-grandfather’s head.
“Yes,” Niall said. “I want her to learn what kind of fulfilling life she could have in Faerie if she stays here. I want her to understand what she will be giving up in the human realm if she doesn’t return there. I want her to know how long she has to decide about the child in her womb. I want to her begin to understand that she is more Fae than she thinks and that the ‘weirdness’ in Hunter is actually ‘normal’ and magical. Whatever happens in the future with her relationships with her children, I want Hadley to come to recognize that a fairy quality is not a ‘defect’ or a ‘disability’ as your own human mother once called it. These are our gifts, and they are beautiful.”
Sookie smiled and once again brushed a tear from her eye. “I wish you had been around to tell me that when I was a little girl,” Sookie projected.
Niall smiled. “I do too. I am happy that your mate is allowing Hunter to understand this now.” Niall paused, “I have made a vow to your Eric and to Hunter―which you may tell your vampire about in your next dream.”
Sookie looked at Niall with curiosity.
He continued speaking telepathically. “I will not bring Hunter here until I am certain that Hadley no longer sees any reason whatsoever to ‘fix’ him. I could keep the child from hearing her thoughts, but I couldn’t keep unintentional, though hurtful words from falling from her lips. And I will not allow the child to be hurt by her ignorance in this matter. I love Hadley, and I will protect her, but part of that protection will be helping her to understand her own misperceptions about her child. You have heard her words about him, and I know you have been checking her thoughts for Hunter’s sake.” Niall gave Sookie a wry smile. “Do not deny it.”
Sookie sighed. “Fine. I did want to figure out what she was really thinkin’ about Hunter because he’s so important to Eric.”
“Just to Eric?” Niall asked, his wry smile now imprinted deeper into his face.
Sookie ignored his question. “Hadley does love Hunter.”
“Of course she does,” Niall agreed. “But she still wishes to change him; she wishes that he was ‘normal.’ She must learn to reconceive her definitions of normalcy. I know that you probably feel that it is ‘high-handed’ of me to keep Hunter from her until she does,” he began.
“No,” Sookie said interrupting his thought. “I mean—yes—it is high-handed, but it’s also the right thing to do. I don’t want Hunter to be hurt—not now that he’s so happy.”
Niall nodded and smiled. “Sookie, I believe strongly that Hadley will change her opinions as she learns to overcome the pain that she has endured. Claude is right about her; she has a good heart.”
“I know,” Sookie agreed.
Sookie looked at Hadley, who was talking to Claude about the food he had brought. The fairy was asking what she’d liked best. Sookie sighed. Hadley did have a good heart, but she was glad that Hunter wouldn’t be coming to visit before her cousin had come to terms with his ‘so-called defects.’ She didn’t want the child to be hurt—not ever again.
“Ready?” Claude asked her.
Sookie nodded, bit her lip, stood up, and then followed Claude to a clearing about twenty feet from the pool. Both of them were looking back at Hadley with anxiety.
“Sookie?” a voice came from a distance.
“Barry?” Sookie asked as she took in the familiar face of the bellhop she’d met in Dallas and again in the light fruit orchard.