The living room was packed. Eric sat in his usual rocker with Hunter on the floor below. Miranda, Jarod and the almost-always happy Godric were sitting on the couch. Jason and Jessica were sitting on the floor over by the fire, and Jesus and Lafayette were sitting in the chairs opposite the couch. Tara and Amelia had pulled in chairs from the dining room to sit in, and Tray stood behind Amelia, who had recently moved in with him.
Eric had noticed Tray’s periodic tender touches for the little witch in front of him. From the look that came across Tray’s face every time Amelia entered a room, Eric knew that his Were friend had found a lifelong mate at last. At first, Eric had been worried about whether the witch could commit to Tray. After all, when she’d moved to Bon Temps, she had been in a romantic relationship with Tara.
But he no longer questioned the forces that might bring two beings together. The room was full of couples that seemed unlikely: the flamboyant medium and the steady demon-human brujo, the small-town playboy and the young vampiress, the Werelioness and the shifter. He touched his own chest. And then there was Sookie and him: the telepathic human-fairy spitfire and the thousand-year-old Viking vampire. He smirked in Tray’s direction. Indeed, a witch and Werewolf match seemed like it would fit in just fine; heck it seemed a little mundane in that room.
Eric looked in the direction of Tara, who actually gave him a little nod before returning her gaze to Hunter, who was opening yet another present. Eric had been surprised when Tara decided to continue living in the trailer on the property after Amelia had left, instead of taking up residence at Lafayette and Jesus’s home as they had offered. However, Tara and Miranda had become fast friends, and Lafayette and Jesus were over so much anyway that Tara decided that the trailer suited her just fine. Unbeknownst to Tara, Eric had already asked Scott to draw up plans for another guesthouse. He chuckled. Before long, they’d have their own zip code if their little family kept on growing like it had been. Eric was just glad that Sookie had quite a few acres to work with.
Eric had come to respect Tara’s loyalty to Sookie very much, and he’d learned a bit more about Tara’s background from Jason one night as they had been doing some night fishing with Terry. Tara’d had to face a lot in her life: a physically abusive, alcoholic mother with a string of men in and out of her life, some of whom abused Tara too; a procession of low-paying, going-nowhere jobs that obviously did nothing to challenge the intelligence that so often hid behind the girl’s tough exterior; a string of mostly empty relationships; the violent killing of the one person she’d really loved within that string―by one of her best friends, no less; Franklin Mott’s insane obsession over her; and, of course, a parade of other Supernaturals that she was in no position to deal with, including a Maenad and a necromancer. Fucked up, indeed.
Eric didn’t so much feel sorry for Tara as he’d decided to help her for Sookie’s sake. After all, Eric had also learned―both from Jason and from Sookie herself―that Tara had been one of the few people who had accepted his wife and had tried to protect her. That made Eric predisposed to accept her into their circle.
He chuckled to himself. Tara had been willing to lift a fire iron against a vampire in order to protect her friend. That meant something in his book. And Eric also prided himself in seeing the potential in people. After hearing a heated discussion between Tara and Miranda over a point of law one day, he began to understand the depth of her intelligence. And beginning in the spring, she’d start full time at the same community college that Sookie had looked into.
Eric had encouraged Tara when she wanted to seek a degree in law. He had told her that if she agreed to help Miranda with the marriage legislation, which was now languishing in a series of state congressional debates and sub-committees, he would pay for her education. Tara had initially turned down his offer flat and had gone back to work for Merlotte’s. Tara’s plan had been to work, pay for her own education, and go to school part-time. However, seemingly inexplicably, she’d agreed to accept his help two weeks before.
Eric later found out from Sam that Tara had had a run-in with her mother at Merlotte’s two days before she’d accepted his help. According to Sam, it had been ugly and had included statements by the mother about Tara being a failure and being on her way to hell if she continued accepting abominations like homosexuals and vampires into her life―or as the mother had put it so charmingly, “cozying up to fags and fangs.”
Pam―also inexplicably―had rushed to Tara’s aid that night. She had offered to―according to Sam’s description―“introduce” the mother to a “fag with fangs” up close, and then Lettie Mae had left in a huff of statements concerning “God’s wrath” and “demonic plagues.”
It seems that the confrontation with her mother had spurred something in Tara. The very next day, she had gone to take her placement tests at the community college and had scored very high on both of them. Because of this, she would have fewer classes to take at the pre-requisite level. Tara had also come home with a plan for getting an Associate’s Degree in three semesters. And she had a stack of brochures for four-year colleges and universities where she could transfer after that. Tara had presented Eric with her plan that very evening, along with a monetary figure that she would need to borrow and a repayment plan for when she was finished with her schoolwork. Without a word, he’d written her a check for the entire amount. Then he’d had Cataliades draw up a work contract for the part-time help Tara would give to Miranda concerning the legislation. Tara had signed without reading a word of it.
Something had also shifted between Pam and Tara after the confrontation with Lettie Mae.
Eric wondered for a while if Pam and Tara might―against all seeming reason―develop a romantic relationship. The two had reached a kind of comfortable peace months before, but in the last two weeks that peace had turned into a kind of tepid friendship.
However, Eric had felt nothing from his bond with his child other than some admiration for the girl. Of course, looking around the room, Eric wouldn’t be surprised if something did eventually happen between them. However, both women seemed set in their independent ways, and neither seemed to be looking for romance.
By all accounts, Tara and Amelia’s break-up had been amicable and without any drama whatsoever, and Eric had not sensed any awkwardness between the two women. In fact, they’d lived together in the trailer for quite a while even after their break-up, and Eric had never heard so much as a raised voice between them.
Tara had been single since then. And Pam seemed as content as ever with her romantic philosophy of “bang ‘em and fang ‘em.”
His vampire child was standing off to the side of the room, watching Hunter open the present she’d gotten him―designer clothing that probably cost more than all the other presents in the room combined. Hunter, as he did with all his present-givers, immediately rushed over to Pam after opening the gift and hugged her tightly. The only thing he really cared about was the fact that Sissy had gotten him a new green shirt!
Eric next watched as his son raced under the tree to retrieve his present for Pam. Lafayette, this year, had aided Hunter, who had done all of his Christmas shopping online.
The boy had gotten Pam a pewter bracelet that was inscribed with the word, “Sissy.” Eric watched as Pam opened the gift, ignored its cheap material, and took in the word on the piece of jewelry. He could see and feel her emotional response, and then she actually initiated another hug with Hunter. The corner of Pam’s eye obviously held a tear she was squeezing back as she hugged her little human brother. Soon thereafter, Pam looked over at Eric and signaled to him that she was going to leave. The bracelet was already secured to her wrist.
Eric nodded, knowing that Pam had planned to leave after the presents were opened anyway and also knowing that she needed a moment to recover from Hunter’s gift. For all Pam’s hardness, Eric had come to understand that Hunter could melt her in moments.
Plus, he was anxious for Pam to get to Hotshot. Stackhouse had told him to have a girl named Becky glamoured; apparently, the girl had helped him in the past. Becky―Jason said―often kept to herself but also knew everything that was going on at the same time. Thus, she’d be the perfect source for their information about the group. Jason had asked only that she not be hurt. So Pam’s task was to glamour her to ‘disappear’ for a while―once the group was called to perform whatever assignment Quinn was planning for them―so that she could contact Jason and then stay out of the line of fire.
Eric turned his attention back to Hunter, who was opening a present from Jason and Jessica. A sea of wrapping paper surrounded him as he happily ripped into some kind of Nerf dart-gun game that Jason seemed just as excited to play as Hunter was. Eric smiled at his son as the boy unconsciously leaned against one of his long legs and talked to Jason and Jessica. Just as unconsciously, Eric brushed Hunter’s bangs from his eyes.
The vampire sighed. He’d been contemplating what to tell everyone about his dream regarding Sookie. There were some things that he wanted to keep from Hunter. He didn’t want his boy to know that his mother had been raped. Until things were more certain, he didn’t want him to know that she might be stuck in the fairy realm forever. And he didn’t even want to consider the idea that Hadley might wish to permanently take Hunter to that world as well. Eric brushed aside the boy’s bangs again, this time consciously.
Sookie had assured him that things would work out and that he wouldn’t lose Hunter. As he’d lain in her warm arms and looked into the browns of her eyes, he’d believed her and had been comforted. But now, he worried that his days as a father to Hunter might come to a swift and sudden end. His mental strength had been tested and tormented for the last several years, and he knew that the loss of Hunter would break something that had been growing inside of him since the boy had come into his life.
Eric put that thought to the side for the moment, however. He was an individual who had to deal with the here and now, and in the here and now, he had decided to tell very few details of what he knew regarding Hadley and Sookie’s continual presence in the fairy realm to anyone except for Pam. Otherwise, Hunter might pick up things from people’s minds that Eric did not want him to know. However, given the fact that Sookie could pull him into a dream at any moment and because he wanted to give Hunter renewed hope about the safety of his mother, he had decided to say something to everyone.
Hunter returned to the tree to get his last present, the sword from Eric. Before he opened it, however, he happily bounced up and down like a top as he handed Eric a wrapped package.
“Open it, Daddy,” the excited child begged.
Eric kissed his son on the forehead and then ripped into his present. Inside was a framed picture of Eric and Hunter, which had been taken by Luna the summer before during a barbeque they’d had for the Fourth of July. Hunter had very much enjoyed setting off fireworks that night.
Eric had never seen the picture before, though he’d known that Luna had been snapping away that night. The picture caught Eric and Hunter in an un-posed moment. They were sitting next to each other by the pool with their feet dangling into the water. They were looking at each other and obviously caught in a moment of silence in their conversation. Eric recalled that they’d discussed many topics as they’d sat by the pool that night: the fireworks, the upcoming arrival of Miranda and Jarod’s baby, and the fishing he’d done with Uncle Jason that day. All told they’d chatted about dozens of random subjects that had flowed between them like the water they’d been sloshing with their feet. Eric noticed that they were both wearing brick red swim shorts. And he noticed how their damp bangs were covering both of their foreheads in similar fashions. Hunter’s hair was slightly lighter than Eric’s, but Eric noticed that Hunter’s lanky frame looked very much like his own. In the photo, which didn’t clearly show their different eye colors, they looked like they really could be father and son.
The picture had been set in a pewter frame, a material which had been a running theme in Hunter’s gifts that year, but Eric was looking at the inscription, not the frame. It read, “Min Fader.” Eric smiled down at his son and brought him up on his lap so that they could look at the picture together. Hunter’s little fingers brushed the image.
“I like this picture, Daddy. I have one too, but I’ve been takin’ it out only in day time, so you didn’t see before now.”
Eric smiled. “That was very clever of you, Son. I like this picture too. This is,” Eric paused as he reigned in his emotions, “one of the best gifts I have ever received. Thank you very much.” Eric hugged his son tightly for a moment and then looked at him. “I am very proud to have a gift such as this, and it will sit next to my resting place.”
“Next to Aunt Sookie and Gran?” Hunter asked excitedly.
“Yep―right there,” Eric nodded, ruffling Hunter’s bangs. “And I will put a copy in the cubby too—for when I must stay there as well.”
Hunter smiled even more widely.
“Now,” Eric reminded, “you’d better open your gift.”
Hunter jumped down and reclaimed the long package. He ripped into the paper and had the box uncovered in moments. When he opened the lid to the box, his eyes opened widely with it. “Daddy!” he exclaimed. “You made me a wooden sword!” The boy traced the carving of his name. “What does it say?”
“Well,” Eric said, as he got up and kneeled onto the floor next to his son, “this side says ‘Hunter.’” He turned the sword over to show the other side of the hilt, which had been face down in the box. Then he turned the sword back over. “This word, ‘Jägare,’ is ‘Hunter’ in Swedish.”
Hunter looked up at Eric like he’d won a prize, “You never taught me that one, Daddy.”
“No,” Eric smiled. “I’ve been saving it. And now that you have this practice weapon, you will begin following my moves with it as I show you with my father’s sword. And when you have learned the movements and are stronger, we will begin to spar with the swords Batanya gave you.”
Hunter launched into Eric arms, “Thank you for making my present, Daddy.”
Eric smiled and ruffled Hunter’s hair yet again, “It was my pleasure, min son.”
Eric looked around at the people in the room and spoke up in the commanding tone he used when he wanted to get people’s attention. “I received one other Christmas gift last night that I want everyone, especially Hunter, to know of.”
All eyes in the room turned to him as Eric retook his seat with Hunter still in his arms. He settled his son into his customary position on his lap.
“Last night, after you went to sleep,” Eric said, addressing only Hunter at first, “your Aunt Sookie healed the bond between us. She also called me into her dream, so I was able to see her.” Eric looked at Jason and then back at Hunter. “Sookie is in that ‘in between’ place that I told you all about before.”
Jason spoke, “So is she comin’ home?”
Eric ignored Jason’s question for the moment. “Hunter,” he said gently as his son looked at him with big eyes. ‘Your mother is there with Sookie.”
Hunter’s face broke out into a mixture of surprise, happiness, and insecurity. Eric hugged his son to him.
Eric looked at Jason then, “Sookie and Hadley cannot come home just yet.” He looked back at Hunter, “Your mother got a little hurt, but she will be fine. Niall―remember, your great-great grandfather―is helping her to get better. And Aunt Sookie is helping too. Hunter, do you remember what I said about the ‘in between’ place?”
“Yeah,” the boy said. “It means that time isn’t different anymore, right?”
“That’s right, Son. Soon, we will have more news about your mother, but you may rest in the knowledge that she is going to be fine. She also sent a message to you through Aunt Sookie.”
“She did?” Hunter asked.
Eric was aware that he was about to tell his son a white lie, but he also felt certain that Hadley would tell Hunter what he was about to if she could. He also knew that it was something that Hunter needed to hear after more than thirteen months of no contact with his mother. It was something he himself had needed from Sookie.
“Hunter,” Eric began, “your mother wanted you to know that she loves you and that she misses you.”
Eric began rocking Hunter and himself a bit. “And Aunt Sookie hopes to pull me into her dreams again, so if you have a message you want to send back to your mother, you can tell me—okay, Son?”
Hunter smiled widely. “Cool!” He thought for a minute as the others in the room bustled with energy at the news of Sookie and Hadley. Finally, Hunter said, “I wanna tell Mommy that I love her too. And Merry Christmas.”
Eric looked at his boy proudly. “Your mother will be happy to receive such a message, Son.” Eric scanned the people in the room. “Like I said, Sookie will be attempting to call me into the next dream she has. I do not know what I will look like when I am with her in her dreams, but I imagine it is similar to downtime. If this happens, try not to stir me unless there is an emergency.”
Everyone nodded and continued to talk excitedly amongst themselves for a few minutes except for Tara, who was giving Eric a searching look. She got up and announced, “Eric, can I have a minute. It’s―uh―about my schoolin’.”
Eric chuckled and stood Hunter up near Jason, whom he’d been talking to. He spoke to Hunter, “Son, ask your Uncle Jason to get you all bundled up to go outside. You have, I believe, a new bicycle that needs to be ridden.”
Hunter giggled and bounced over to Jason. “Did you hear that? Daddy’s gonna teach me to ride my bike, and you can help if you want, Uncle Jason. We gotta get my coat and gloves and hat.”
Still gripping the picture Hunter had given him, Eric left the room with a wide smile on his face.
Before he was even all the way into the kitchen Tara, who’d been joined by Lafayette, was speaking to him. “Okay, what aren’t you tellin’ us about Sook? I know that if she could, she’d be comin’ home yesterday.”
Eric sighed and shook his head as he used his sense of smell to make sure Hunter was out of hearing range. “I cannot say much.”
Even as Tara went to protest, Eric shook his head, “I do not want Hunter to be able to read your thoughts. Hadley has been hurt. Sookie needs to stay in the fairy realm because of that and because her great-grandfather deems it necessary to help her learn to better use her fairy gifts. She will become stronger there and will be able to protect herself better here. If I didn’t see a necessary purpose for her staying, I would beg on hand and knee for her to return immediately. You should believe me in this.”
He continued, “As it is, I am contented to know that she is at the ‘in-between’ place and that huge chunks of time will no longer pass. And—I can see her in the dreams,” he paused, “though I still cannot feel her through the vampire bond.” As he finished his statement, the sadness was clear in his voice.
Lafayette unconsciously reached out and touched Eric’s forearm in comfort. Eric looked down in surprise as did Lafayette.
Lafayette removed his hand quickly and then laughed. “Listen, Hooker,” he said to Eric, “I gets that you’s a vampire and all big and bad and shit. But―despite the fact that you’s ass once had me chained up in a motha fuckin’ dungeon and the fact that you once scared the livin’ shit outta me just about daily, you’re sorta my peeps now, so don’t fuckin’ bite me―seriously, don’t fuckin’ bite me!―if I’s just wanna say, ‘I’m sorry dude―the shit that’s goin’ down ‘round you just ain’t right,” or if I wanna pat your arm in sympathy or some shit.”
Eric chuckled at Lafayette’s ramble. “I will not bite you. You do not taste that good―to be honest.”
Lafayette laughed a bit, “Thanks―I think.”
Tara looked back and forth at the two men in front of her. She asked sarcastically, “Y’all wanna hug it out, or can I ask another question?”
Eric looked at Lafayette, “I do not need a hug. Do you Lafayette?”
“I’s good, motha fucka.”
Tara rolled her eyes. “Well―now that we got the bromance all settled, I want you to tell me one thing.”
Eric nodded, “If I can.”
“Sookie is okay―right? She still hasn’t eaten that fuckin’ fairy fruit has she? She is comin’ back, right?”
Eric nodded, “Yes. She is not injured. She’s not eaten the,” he paused and chuckled, “‘fuckin fairy fruit.’ And even if I have to fuckin’ go there and get her, I will have her back. I am,” he paused again, “happy at the prospect of her pulling me into her dreams. However, it still hurts me―pains me―every moment she is not by my side.” Eric’s voice caught a bit, and it was Tara who almost reached out to him this time, but she stopped herself.
“We ain’t that good yet,” she quipped, when he looked at her retreating hand with amusement. “I’m holdin’ off my judgment ‘til I’ve seen and talked to Sook ‘bout your dead ass.”
Eric smirked, “My wife is quite fond of my dead ass―as a matter of fact.”
Tara rolled her eyes again.
Eric’s smirk changed to a smile. “Now, if that’s all, I have to see a boy about a bike.”
Lafayette chuckled and took off his apron, thrusting it at Tara. “This I fuckin’ gotta see. Hooker, stir the shit on the stove and pull the Turkey out when the timer goes off. I gots some money to win from a Werelioness.”