“What is it?” Niall asked.
“Sookie,” Eric whispered. “She needs me. She. Calls. Me.” He doubled over in pain. “Have. To. Go.”
Without a second thought, Niall quickly gripped the vampire’s hand and took them to the fairy realm. As soon as they were here, Eric’s pain was gone, and he was able to straighten up. Both Eric and Niall hurriedly took in the scene as Sookie rushed over to Eric. She looked up at him with large, concerned brown eyes; she had felt his physical pain when he’d first gotten there. He was looking at Hunter.
“You alright?” she asked.
Eric nodded and instinctively grabbed her hand. “Your pull was,” he said, still fixing his eyes on his child, “strong.”
“We needed you,” she said in a whisper.
Eric nodded again. Standing next to Hadley, Hunter was in tears, and the light was waning from his eyes. Eric’s heart clenched, and he unconsciously grappled for his wife’s strength through the bond.
Seeing his son hurting was not fucking acceptable to Eric Northman. He had to figure out a way not only to take that pain away but also to replenish his son’s light. And he needed to do it goddamned now!
“Daddy,” Hunter cried. “Mommy’s going away. She’s not gonna stay here.” He paused as if his little body were racked with physical pain. “I said I’d stay here and protect, Mommy. I said I wouldn’t leave her.” He buried his face into his little hands, causing his voice to become muffled, but Eric could still make out his words. “But she doesn’t love me. She doesn’t want me. And I don’t wanna leave you, Daddy. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what . . . .” His voice trailed off as his sobs took him over; he shook in misery.
“Kom till mig, min son,” Eric said in the gentlest tone that Sookie had ever heard from his lips. [“Come to me, my son.”]
As if released from an invisible prison by his father’s words, Hunter ran to Eric. The vampire dropped his wife’s hand and zipped to his son, meeting him halfway, bending down and catching him in a strong, comforting embrace. He picked him up, cradled him tightly to his chest, and carried him over to where Hadley was on her knees weeping.
Eric sat down cross-legged about four feet in front of Hadley. He held Hunter firmly with one arm even as the other stretched back to seek his wife. Sookie felt his need for her support through the bond and went to him immediately, settling next to him on the ground.
Eric took Sookie’s proffered hand and pulled her into his side; then he began to rock both Hunter and his wife. Truth be told, he was trying to comfort himself with the movement as well.
With her other hand, Sookie automatically reached out to pat Hunter’s back. Eric let Hunter cry for a few minutes before speaking. When he did, he spoke comforting words in what Sookie knew must be Swedish. “Det är okej, min son. Shh. Jag är här. Jag har dig.” [“It’s okay, my son. Shh. I am here. I have you.”]
As he continued to rock his family in his arms, Eric looked at Sookie. He could feel her deep concern for Hunter through the bond. He knew that his own worry was matching hers. And he could also feel her pain and flashes of insecurity. He realized that she must be reliving some of the pain she’d felt as a child through Hunter’s experience. He pulled them both closer to him.
He knew that he was holding the two most beautiful individuals he’d ever known—individuals special in every way he could fathom. Yet neither of them believed in their true worth. Sookie was well on her way to doing so, but Eric knew that she still had doubts in herself at times. And his dear son was almost breaking in his arms.
Eric didn’t care what he had to do or how long it took—but he would find a way to take away their doubts about their worth. It was a fucking travesty that the worthiest creatures he had known in a thousand years thought themselves unworthy. And he needed to fix it—was going to fix it—no matter what it took.
Sookie looked over at Hadley, whose face was buried in Claude’s chest. Her tanu was holding Hadley as if both of their lives depended on it—just as her husband was holding her and Hunter.
Sookie looked back at Eric and the little boy whose heart was being pulled in two. Hunter was still thinking about how it was all his fault that his mother didn’t want him. Also, he feared that his daddy would be sad or forget him if he stayed with his mommy. In fact, Hunter was all irrational fears and raw pain in that moment. Sookie shook her head. How could he not be? He was just a child—granted one who had been growing in confidence throughout the past year—but one who had years of negative “conditioning” by his parents before then.
She knew all about “conditioning.” She’d learned the term in her psychology class during her junior year of high school. Students had been required to memorize the definition, and Sookie still knew every word of it and could recite it on command. It played through her mind even then. “Conditioning is a behavioral process whereby a response becomes more frequent or more predictable in a given environment as a result of reinforcement, with reinforcement typically being a stimulus or reward for a desired response.”
When she’d memorized the words of the definition, Sookie had felt like they’d been written just for her—though instead of a “reward” as “reinforcement,” she’d almost always thought of it as being some kind of punishment. Simply put, she’d associated the term with her telepathy. If she used it—even inadvertently—then the response would be negative. Therefore, she had tried to hide it—and, by default, herself—even from Gran and those closest to her.
Hiding it had made everyone around her more comfortable. Reward. On the other hand, letting it slip out always led to some kind of punishment, even if it was simply guilt on her part.
Sure Gran, Tara, Lala, and Jason loved her and knew about her “disability,” but that didn’t mean they wanted to see it all the time. It made them feel uncomfortable, and that made her feel guilty. And—well—if she used it around others, it would trigger an even worse response: fear. Fear of her. Fear of the crazy girl. Crazy Sookie.
Yes—she knew all about “conditioning”—every single meaning of the word. She’d been conditioned for years by her mother to feel unwanted and bad. She’d been conditioned by other kids to feel weird and abnormal. She’d even been conditioned by those who loved her to keep her ability under wraps, lest it get her into trouble. She’d been conditioned to believe that no man would want her and that she would never find someone who would love her.
As an adult—specifically as Eric’s bonded—she knew with her mind that all of her conditioning was a lie; however, it still clung to her like a disease that could never be cured. Remission? Possible. Cure? No.
And then there was the related word: “conditional.” Sookie knew that one too. Love from a parent to a child should be “unconditional.” But Sookie had never felt that—especially from her mother. Only Gran had ever given her unconditional love before Eric, but even her gran’s love was inadvertently tainted by Sookie herself—because she’d always imposed conditions upon herself.
In fact, Sookie’s internal dialogue before Eric had been filled with mantras all designed to condition herself. The most common two were, “Keep your shields up so that you will seem normal—so that you won’t rock any boats,” and, “Don’t show it, and Gran won’t have to worry about you.”
Sookie continued to pat Hunter’s back, trying to soothe him. Eric was now holding them both in his arms tightly, encircling them in the safety of his love. Sookie heard from Hunter’s head that he was calming, but his mind was still full of insecurity, sorrow, guilt, and, most of all, disappointment—in himself and in the fact that he was somehow broken. In other words, his head was full of “conditioning” and “conditions.”
Sookie understood his feelings as if they were her own. They had been. When she had been Hunter’s age, her parents died.
They’d been on that low-water bridge only because her mother needed an escape from dealing with her ‘disability’―a fact which Sookie knew from both her mother’s and father’s heads. So, of course, the little girl had blamed herself.
Sookie clearly remembered the thoughts she’d had at the time. If she had only been ‘better’—not broken—her mommy would have loved her. If she had not had her disability, her parents wouldn’t have needed to take her to Gran’s that night. They wouldn’t have been driving in a thunderstorm so that they could “get away” from her.
Yes—despite everything she’d gone through since then, the little girl who blamed herself for her own parents’ death was still inside of her. And that little girl threatened to come to the surface every time a new insecurity entered her life.
Sookie recognized that her frustrations over “not being good enough” to control her fairy magic stemmed from the same little girl who was “never good enough” for her mommy. She recognized that this irrational part of herself still held on to the fear that Eric would leave her one day—that she would prove unworthy of his love too―that he would find someone better. She shook herself. Yes. Remission was possible, but a cure seemed beyond her—even after all this time. Even after being with a man like Eric.
Ninety-nine percent of her knew that all of her self-doubts were unfounded. Her logical side realized that it was not her deficiencies that had made her mother love her less; it was her mother’s own fears and shortcomings. Her logical side realized that it had never been possible for her to gain her full fairy power without going to Faerie itself; after all, the A.P. had told her this straight out. Her logical side told her that Eric and her love was the forever kind; their bonds attested to this fact as did all of his actions. And she trusted him completely.
It was herself that she didn’t trust.
That one percent of her that she could never fully cure was the product of rejection and pain—“conditioning.” It was the product of hearing most people she knew thinking of her as crazy or defective. It was the product of her own mother wishing that she was not defective.
She knew that Hunter had heard similar things from Hadley, and some pain was of the kind that cut so deeply that even when that pain was over, the scars would always remain.
She had the scars. Hunter, however, was feeling the cut—right then and there. And her heart broke for him.
“What happened?” Eric asked her in a low tone, even as he continued his comforting rocking.
Sookie took a deep breath, gathering herself. As some point during the last month as she’d heard about Hunter and seen him each night in the pool, she had come to think of him as her own son in some ways. No—more accurately—she wished that he was hers. She loved him like he was hers. Hunter might never come to see her in the same way, and she certainly wouldn’t insert herself into Hadley’s position as his mother, but she couldn’t help her wish and longing to be his mother—to take care of him and nurture him. He might never choose her back, but it didn’t matter—not really. It wouldn’t change her feelings for him. And this situation wasn’t about her or even about the similar situations she’d gone through as a child. This was about Hunter. She would use her past experiences to help him if she could. But right now, she needed to be strong for her husband and little boy.
She sent her support to her husband through the bond—along with a strong surge of her faith in him.
She also realized in that moment that she’d been speaking to Hunter telepathically without even knowing it. She’d been telling him that she loved him. She’d been telling him that things were going to be okay. She’d been telling him that none of this was his fault. She’d been telling him that his daddy was going to make sure that he was okay. In short, she’d been telling him all the things that would have helped her when she was in Hunter’s shoes.
She spoke to Eric in a quiet voice. “Hunter realized that Hadley isn’t staying here—in the ‘in-between place.’ He discovered that she’s gonna be going into Faerie. I thought he knew this already, but he didn’t. I think he was hoping that she’d be staying here.”
As Hunter continued his quiet sobs, Sookie leaned up and spoke into Eric’s ear in barely a whisper so that Hunter would not hear her, despite his proximity. “He thinks she is rejecting him. He thinks she doesn’t love him. He promised that he would be ‘better’—that he wouldn’t be ‘bad’ anymore. He said that he would pray to be normal so that she could love him.”
After hearing Sookie’s words, Eric pulled both of them in a little tighter. He closed his eyes and attempted to draw strength from his wife. He needed it. He knew that everything hung in the balance for his son. Eric knew that all of the confidence and peace Hunter had grown into during the past year might be lost forever if he couldn’t do something to stop his son’s wound—to heal it if he could. To make it go away forever.
Eric felt his son’s sobs stopping and lightened his hold. “Son,” Eric said in a tender voice, “I need to you listen to me and to hear me. Can you do that for me?”
Hunter looked up at his daddy. His eyes were still glistening with both shed and unshed tears, and his cheeks were stained and ruddy, but he nodded.
Eric gave his son a little smile. “I love you, my son. I do not believe that there could be a better son than you, and I know that your heart is breaking because of the choice you have faced this night. I am proud of you, Hunter. I could not be prouder.”
Eric lifted his hand to gently straighten Hunter’s bangs. This time, the gesture was not just about affection; it was meant to comfort. It was protective somehow. He kept his hand on Hunter’s shoulder. “I need you to believe the words I am about to say to you, min son. You know that I would not lie to you.”
Hunter nodded. “I know, Daddy,” he managed.
Eric’s eyes were filled with love for his little boy; they blazed with the fire of his sincerity. “You are not broken, dear one. There is nothing bad or wrong or damaged about you. There is nothing that needs to be fixed. Just because you are not like humans does not make you broken. Think about Emma. She is not like human children, but there is nothing ‘wrong’ about her being able to shift one day—is there?”
Hunter shook his head. “No—Emma’s perfect.”
Eric smiled a little. “Yes—she is. And Jesus and Uncle Lala and Miranda and Jarod and baby Godric and Pam and Jessica—they are all different than normal humans, but they are not broken.”
“I know,” he said in a whisper.
“And your aunt Sookie is like you. And Claude and Niall are like you too. You inherited your gift from your family, Hunter. They may be different compared to humans, but they are normal fairies—as are you. Neither you or they are broken—are you?”
“No,” Eric heard both Hunter and Sookie whisper simultaneously. He sent his wife comfort through their bond even as he continued to hold his son’s gaze.
He continued, “And being different from others is not bad, Hunter. I know that you have heard things in your mind—things that have made you think that something was wrong with you.” He glanced at Hadley, who was looking at Eric with a mixture of guilt and enthrallment. From what Eric knew of Hunter’s mother from Sookie, he figured that she likely felt broken herself, but he was not concerned with her in that moment.
Only his son and mate were in his mind and heart. He needed them to heal—needed it more than he had ever needed anything.
He once more locked eyes with his son. “I know that you heard some of these things from your mother’s mind in the past.” Eric felt Hunter tensing and saw his tears beginning to spill again, but he held his gaze steadfastly. “Son, she thought them when she did not know better. She made a mistake, my son. Anyone who has ever thought things that have made you feel broken or bad is wrong. There is nothing wrong with you. Nothing.”
“But,” Hunter stammered, “why doesn’t Mommy want me? Why didn’t my first daddy want me? If I were better, they would want me. So I need to be better, Daddy.”
Eric leaned over to kiss Hunter’s forehead. “You are already perfect as you are, min son. You have inherited the best things about being human. You are kind-hearted. You care for others more than yourself. You are brave. You are intelligent.” He paused. “And you have inherited the best things about being fairy too. You have the ability to see the thoughts of others and to speak to others with your thoughts. This is a normal thing for fairies to be able to do. And you are clever and good at seeing things from all sides. You will likely develop other fairy gifts as you grow up as well—just as your aunt Sookie did. But those will be good things too, Hunter.”
He ruffled the boy’s bangs again―this time with just a hint of playfulness in the gesture. Hunter gave him a tiny smile.
“As I said before, what you are is perfect. Already perfect. Anyone who thinks differently is wrong.” He paused. “Will you make me a promise, Son?”
Eric smiled. “I know there will be times when you may think there is something wrong with you because of your differences from others, but I need you to promise me that you will remember what I have said and try to believe my words more and more every time you remember them. It will not always be easy, and it will take time, but will you try to do this for me?”
Hunter nodded again.
“Thank you,” Eric said lovingly. He looked around at the little group. Hadley was still cradled in Claude’s arms. Niall sat a little farther back, his face etched with concern and seeming to show many years of toil. Batanya was keeping guard around them, but looking at Hunter with worry.
Sookie and Hunter were right where they needed to be—right where they belonged. They were in his arms. And his wife was literally pounding him with her faith and her love through the bond.
All were looking at him expectantly, and it was time for him to live up to his son’s and wife’s faith in him.
“Now,” Eric said, “we must fix things.” He looked at Hadley. “You wish to go into Faerie so that you can build a life for yourself and Hunter’s sister—correct?”
She spoke softly, “Yes.”
He felt his son shake in his arms a little and begin to cry anew, and Eric pulled him closer and resumed his rocking.
In that moment, Eric realized both the grave mistake he’d made concerning Hunter and a way to fix it.
He kept one strong hand on Hunter’s back and grasped his wife’s hand with his other. He would need her strength for what was to come.