Clearly overwhelmed, Sookie looked up at Niall.
“To have another’s life in your hands is a great burden, my dear,” Niall said softly. “I know this, but to save Eric, you must hone your skills. You can hone your skills. And when you do, you and Eric will have your chance. Do not be burdened by your task; be glad that you have it. You are Eric’s chance, Sookie—just as surely as he is yours. And if he dies, he will die having received and given love in a way that most cannot imagine. And you know that he would not trade that love for anything; you would not either.”
“I know,” Sookie whispered. Another tear fell down her cheek, but she didn’t wipe it away, nor did she take the time to notice the other tears that were falling. She closed her eyes tightly, and a memory of Gran floated into her mind. She let that memory wash over her, knowing that she needed it.
Sookie had been sixteen at the time and was crying on her bed.
She had gone out on exactly six dates before she met Bill. Half of them were with a boy named Jerry. He’d moved to Bon Temps during their junior year of high school, and by then, Sookie had learned to place shields in her mind to keep out the thoughts of others. Those shields lost their strength when she was tired or when she touched someone, but she could usually get through a school day without too much trouble by that time. Jason had also—during Sookie’s freshman year—kicked the ass of a guy who’d picked on her for being what he’d termed a “retard.” Jason’s protection, though a bit tardy, had sent a clear message: no one was to mess with his kid sister. That message had stuck. So by the time Jerry had arrived, the rumors about Sookie’s ‘otherness’ had been muted to a certain extent.
Jerry Taylor was immediately liked at Bon Temps high school. He was not the star football player, but he played. He was not the star basketball player, but he played. He also ran track. Jerry was lanky and lean, but not particularly tall. He had light blond hair and green eyes that always seemed to hold a joke in them. He threatened no one’s ‘status’ and had a quick sense of humor, and he was incredibly smart. He was in all of the AP courses offered at the school.
He’d come from Atlanta, so he knew a lot about popular trends, but he was clearly still a Southern boy at heart. Thus, he fit in with pretty much every clique—whether it be composed of athletes, or nerds, or anything in between. He seemed to genuinely like everyone, so everyone liked him. In fact, he seemed able to bring different groups together.
Like many other girls, Sookie had developed a crush on him almost immediately: the very first day of school, in fact. They both had geometry with Mr. Watson, who always used an alphabetical seating chart, so Jerry had sat right behind her. Every day before class started, he’d talk to her and make her laugh. Sookie had been painfully shy at the time with everyone except for Lala and Tara, but with Jerry, she’d felt comfortable enough to talk.
Jerry asked Sookie to a movie a month into the school year. Due to her surprise, she could only nod her acceptance. With difficulty, she had waited until she’d gotten home to squeal. On the night of their date, Jerry hadn’t asked her what she wanted to see, but he’d taken notice of her love for romantic comedies during the times they’d chatted in class, and in his head, he was hoping that she would enjoy the movie, Ever After, that he’d carefully picked out for them. It wasn’t something he would generally watch, but his head told her that he was more worried about Sookie’s pleasure than his own, and if he had to sit through a sappy movie, at least he’d get to do it sitting next to the prettiest girl he knew.
Sookie had almost cried when she heard his thoughts. For the first time, she’d liked being inside someone else’s head; she’d liked hearing him thinking about her preferences. However, for his privacy, she’d worked hard to keep up her shields for the rest of the night. They’d shared a tub of popcorn. Jerry had kissed her on the cheek when he dropped her off at home. When his lips touched her skin, Sookie had heard his thoughts again. Jerry had wanted to kiss her on the lips, and Sookie would have let him. But he wanted to wait a while because he wanted to be a gentleman with Sookie.
Their second date—the very next weekend—was bowling. Jerry asked her to come out with a group of his friends, mostly guys on the football team and their girlfriends. But everyone was nice to Sookie—at least outwardly—and she’d had a good time. The thoughts of the group had come through sometimes—especially in the crowded bowling alley. It hurt her a little to hear that they wondered why someone cool like Jerry would spend time with someone like ‘crazy Sookie,’ a name they still used in their heads. However, the fun she had with Jerry negated all those thoughts. That night, he’d given her a lingering kiss on the cheek, and she heard only affection from his head.
For their third date, Jerry had asked Sookie to go with him to the football homecoming dance, which was bigger than the prom in her school. She’d gotten a pretty silver dress to change into for the dance. Jerry had given her his extra football jersey to wear to the game. It was a clear signal that he considered her to be his girlfriend, and Sookie had been over the moon with happiness. She’d sat in the stands with Tara and Lafayette for the whole game, and she’d managed to keep her shields up. She cheered loudly when Jerry caught a pass even though he gained only five yards. She’d felt like a girlfriend. She’d felt normal.
But all those hopeful feelings changed in a moment. Jerry and she had been in the middle of the dance floor in the high school gym. Though it was a fast dance, he had his hand on her arm. She’d caught a stray question that floated into his mind. She couldn’t even remember what the question was—something unimportant—but she’d caught it, and without thinking, she’d answered it. He froze and looked at her with wide green eyes. Sookie hadn’t known what to say, so she just let her eyes fall to the floor.
Jerry had pulled back his touch and walked to their table. Not knowing what else to do, Sookie had followed. Once at the table, Jerry told a few of his friends that Sookie wasn’t feeling well, and he needed to drive her home. He said he’d join them later at the after-party, which Sookie had thought she would be attending with him. Jerry had pulled on his jacket, but unlike before, he’d not helped her into hers. He simply led her to his car, and she opened her own car door for the first time with him. Suddenly, she’d felt ridiculous in her shimmery dress and the two-inch heels that made her totter a little. She’d felt out of place sitting in that car with probably the nicest guy she’d ever met up to that point.
She dropped her shields and listened to him. He was frightened of her. He truly liked her, but he was scared. He’d been told by friends about the rumors that Sookie could read minds, but he’d thought those rumors were idiotic and hadn’t believed them for a moment. But after she’d proven what she was, he didn’t know how to process that information.
Yes—Jerry Taylor was a normal, wonderful guy. He’d wanted to take things slow with her because he thought she was ‘great’—until he realized she was different. The other guys she’d gone out with—the ones whose thoughts were all about easy sex and who made her feel cheap—were nothing like Jerry. He’d made her feel happy. But his thoughts told her that as pretty or as funny as he thought she was, he wanted no part of her weirdness. His thoughts told her that he just wanted to get away from her, and he was glad that he’d never kissed her for real—just in case her disease was catching.
The bag that held Sookie’s change of clothes and wallet rested in the back seat, and Sookie reached for it during the short trip to her house. As she did, she saw Jerry flinch and pull back a bit, afraid she might touch him. She had sighed, gripped the bag, and brought it to the front seat. She pulled out the football uniform that Jerry had given her to wear—the one that had told people that she was with him. She held it in her lap for a moment and said quietly. “It’s not catchin’; I promise. I’m sorry.”
“Me too,” Jerry said sincerely as he kept his eyes on the darkness in front of him. And he was. She could tell that from his thoughts.
Jerry had liked her, but he couldn’t deal with what she was. He was—more than anything—afraid. And he was young. He was a normal teenaged boy, and he’d given her a taste of the normal teenaged life. And he was—despite his fears—a nice guy. In that moment, Sookie faced a truth that she’d known before―during all those afternoons she’d spent with Lafayette imagining what would never be. She’d faced the fact that even the nicest of human guys would not be able to deal with what she was.
Jerry had needed to take a deep breath and muster his courage in order to take the jersey from her hands, but he’d done it. And Sookie had said goodbye, knowing that she would likely never say another word to him. She had watched as he drove away. Then she’d climbed the stairs and collapsed onto her bed in a weeping mess. Gran had let her stay that way for one hour exactly before coming in to her.
Sookie would never forget their conversation.
“What happened?” Gran had asked as she sat beside Sookie on the bed and took her hand. Sookie was still flopped onto her belly, so she had to turn a bit to look up at Gran.
“I slipped up. And Jerry realized what I was,” she sobbed.
“And he couldn’t accept it,” Gran said softly and with regret. “I was hoping that he would. He seemed like a nice boy.”
“He is,” Sookie had defended him.
Gran had let Sookie cry and had held her hand for another half an hour. Then she had said words that Sookie would never forget. “I have hope that you will one day find a man that will love you for all that you are and see the special woman you are becoming.” She’d sighed deeply. “But it will be hard to find one, and until you do, you will need to put on and keep on your big-girl panties, Sookie. If you don’t, you will be crushed by fear and rejection.”
Gran had gotten up. “Cry all you need to tonight, Sookie. But get up in the mornin’ remembering that you’ll always be enough in and of yourself. You may not believe me now, but you are. Stackhouse women always are. I was enough, and I have lived many years without my Earl. And I’ve had a good life too. Earl is my soul mate and my other half, but I have never forgotten that we worked so well together because we both brought so much in to our relationship. And that is why I am still here waitin’ for him, and why I will wait for him in heaven when I die. If you have to settle for anything else, I’d rather just see you without a man in your life. Jerry was a guy boy, but he was obviously not worthy of you.”
Sookie had let Gran’s words absorb into her during the long hours of that night, and she’d eventually put on her big-girl panties—just as Gran had said. The next Monday, she’d gone to her geometry class with her emotions in check and Gran’s words flowing through her head on a loop. To his credit—or maybe his discredit—Jerry had never told a soul about his evidence of her telepathy.
The next semester, he’d transferred to trigonometry, and they never had another class together. Jerry had waited several months before he started dating another girl, whom he’d dated steady through graduation. Sookie caught him looking at her a few times with shame in his eyes.
On the day he’d left Bon Temps to go to LSU, Jerry had stopped by the Sonic, where Sookie had managed to keep a job for a little while. He’d ordered a chili cheese Coney and a cherry limeade, and he’d apologized to her. He’d told her that he wished that he was braver. He’d wished her luck. His mind had matched his words, but it had also told her that he was glad that he’d found a normal girlfriend. Sookie’s eighteen-year-old self had realized that she was glad for Jerry too—glad that he’d found his normal.
But now that she had Eric, Sookie realized just how inadequate normal could be. No—that wasn’t quite right. What she had realized was just how many definitions of normal there could be. Her normal was waiting for her in Bon Temps in the form of a 6’4” Viking vampire and a six-year-old boy, whom she loved more and more with every story of him that Eric told. Yes—normal could be pretty damned spectacular.
All these memories flooded through Sookie in a few minutes of silence—minutes which both Niall and Claude intuited she needed. She looked at them both gratefully.
And in that moment, Sookie gave a figurative yank-up to her big-girl panties. If she was to be Eric’s only hope, then she would need to keep them on. She took a deep breath and looked at Niall. “Okay then. I’m gonna stay here until I can’t improve here anymore, and I want you to tell me the second that happens. And if I can’t pull it together here, then I’ll go to Faerie with you. I’ll do anything it takes to defend Eric’s life, Niall.”
“I know,” Niall said proudly.
Claude had taken her hand again and was squeezing it. Sookie saw pride in his eyes too.
Sookie nodded. “Okay, I’m ready to try again.”
Niall smiled. “I think a bit of a break is needed—for Claude and myself―if not for you, Sookie.”
Sookie started to argue, but Niall stopped her with a chuckle. “I will not set you up for failure by testing you before you are ready again. It would be a waste.”
Sookie nodded again, though it was reluctant one.
Niall found a speck of dirt he’d missed from his trousers and brushed it off. “And I—for one—could use some food.” He turned and began walking toward where Hadley and Katherine had been working.
Claude once more squeezed Sookie’s hand. He knocked and then spoke to her telepathically, “It will be okay. I too have faith in you, Tanah.”
Sookie smiled at him.
Claude winked. “And thank you for the gift.”
Sookie looked at him in question.
“Seeing my father launched into the air like that was quite—gratifying.”
Sookie giggled and continued their silent conversation, “That was pretty funny to see—now that I’m thinkin’ about it.”
Claude chuckled. “Definitely ruffled.”
Katherine was talking to Niall when Claude and Sookie approached. “Your great-granddaughter is a quick study.” Katherine giggled. “Actually—both of them are.” She gestured toward Hadley and then to Sookie. “Hadley works with this material in ways that I’ve never seen before. It is I who have become the student this morning.”
Sookie almost laughed aloud at the mental somersaults Claude was doing in his head. His mind was still open to her after their mental conversation, and he was swelling with pride as well as attraction for Hadley. In Claude’s mind, Hadley looked like an angel as she finished a stitch and looked up at them. His breath hitched, and Sookie gave him a subtle pat on the back so that he’d remember he needed to breathe.
Hadley smiled proudly. “It’s how Gran taught us.” She held up her work. “See Sook—just like Gran, right?”
Sookie laughed, “You know that I was never able to do that like you could, Had. You were Gran’s only pride and joy when it came to knittin,’ I’m afraid.” She laughed a bit harder. “Even when she tried to help me by counting out the stitches in her head so that I could listen, my work always came out crooked. Eventually, we both just gave up.”
Hadley smiled a little brighter. Sookie could tell that her cousin felt good about not only her work but also the pride that Gran had felt for her. Hadley took a deep breath. “I’m makin’ a baby blanket with this stuff that’s like yarn. And Katherine’s gonna try to find me pink so that I can mix it in with this cream color.”
Sookie smiled, “That’s gonna be real pretty.”
Hadley nodded. “Katherine’s also been tellin’ me more about some of the things that fairies do—like their jobs and stuff. Did you know that there are fairies that just make clothes and blankets and other things like this?” Hadley sighed, holding up her work again. “I loved doin’ this stuff with Gran when I was younger. It always made me feel so,” she stopped for a moment and got a dreamy look in her eyes. “I don’t know how to describe it. I just felt happy makin’ stuff—you know? I don’t know why I ever stopped doin’ it, but I did—after we moved away from Bon Temps and didn’t see y’all so much anymore.” Hadley shrugged.
Sookie was happy that her vivacious and lively cousin was slowly working her way back to herself; actually, maybe Hadley was working her way to a better version of who she’d been before.
Sookie helped Claude arrange their meal as Niall spoke to Katherine about how the other hybrids were acclimating to their new lives. She saw Hadley reach over and take Claude’s hand for a moment.
“Are you okay—after gettin’ blasted all those times by Niall?” Hadley asked him.
Sookie could see a happy smile spread onto Claude’s face. “I am uninjured,” he assured as Hadley looked down at their locked hands with something akin to surprise on her face before dropping her hold and putting her hand into her lap. Sookie noted a ruddy blush come into Hadley’s cheek.
“You’re sure?” Hadley asked again. “Niall kept on aiming his magic at you, and I was a little worried.”
Claude’s smile expanded. “He was not intending to harm me, and the first blast just stunned me a bit. The magic within me prevented my getting hurt.”
Hadley gave him a smile and looked down at her hand as if she were uncertain of a discovery she was making. Claude gently placed a perfectly ripe nata into her other hand, and then he continued helping Sookie finish preparing their meal.
“Smooth move,” Sookie knocked and then said into his head. She could tell that Claude was ready to do a happy dance.
He gave her a little smile. Sookie looked back at Hadley, who was still looking at her hand in wonder.
Sookie understood Hadley’s look. She felt something like it every time she touched Eric. From the look of joy on Claude’s face, he also understood what that look might eventually mean.