In that moment, Eric realized both his mistake 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.
Eric spoke to Hunter in a quiet voice. “Det är okej, min son. Jag är ledsen. Jag tänkte inte. Det kommer att bli okej, min son.” [“It’s okay, my son. I am sorry. I was not thinking. It will be okay, my son.”]
He kept rocking Hunter for a while before he spoke again, this time in English. “I am sorry, Hunter. It was not fair of me to ask you to choose.”
Hunter looked up at his father and saw a red tear slip from his eyes. Unafraid of the blood, the little boy reached up to brush it away. “Don’t cry, Daddy,” Hunter said in a tiny voice.
Eric leaned in to kiss his son on his forehead. As always, he marveled at the heart of his little boy. Eric brushed the fresh tear from his son’s eye and spoke, “I should have known that it was unfair of me and your mother to ask you to choose; your aunt Sookie tried to tell me this, but I didn’t listen to her.” He sighed deeply. “I made a mistake. I was so concerned about not influencing you that I forgot to do my job. So did your mother. We are sorry. Kan du förlåta mig, min son? [Will you please forgive me, my son?]. Will you forgive me? I am a new father, Hunter. Will you forgive me for what I have not learned yet? Will you give me the chance to keep learning?”
Hadley and Sookie looked up at Eric in confusion―as did Hunter. Claude was still holding Hadley tightly, and tears were coming from his eyes now too. Niall was riveted by Eric’s words, wondering what the vampire was going to do but trusting him nonetheless.
“Daddy?” Hunter asked, the puzzlement clear in his voice. “You didn’t do anything wrong, Daddy.”
Eric shook his head and brushed Hunter’s bangs to the side even as he wiped his son’s tears with his own T-shirt. Eric looked at Niall. “Do I have much longer here?”
Niall closed his eyes and judged the level of fairy magic remaining in Eric. “I will bring you water from the pool. That will help.”
Sookie looked at Eric and raised her wrist. The vampire shook his head. “I cannot. You are weak already, min kära. I should give you more.”
Niall returned, and Sookie dropped Eric’s hand for a moment so that he could take the cup her great-grandfather offered.
Eric looked at her gratefully, knowing that he would have found it nearly impossible to break his touch with either his son or his wife in that moment. He quickly drank the water, returned the cup to Niall, and retook Sookie’s hand.
Niall closed his eyes and smiled slightly. “That has helped.”
Eric nodded and looked back at Hunter. “Son, as I said, it was wrong of me to ask you to choose where you wished to be. You are only six years old, and it was too much to ask, even of a smár rekkr such as yourself. Plus, I have not yet told you the whole truth.”
Hunter looked at him with big eyes. “Daddy?” he questioned.
Eric smiled a little. “I told you that I would love you no matter what you chose, and that is true. I told you that your mother would love you no matter what you chose, and that is also true. But I did not tell you what I want, min son. I told you only that I would wait for your return, and I will if I must. But you need to know that I want you with me always; I want you to return with me. I do not want you to leave our home even for a day or an hour. You are my son, Hunter. And I love you very much. If you are not with me,” he paused, his voice clearly strained, “I will not be complete.”
Hadley continued to look at Eric with confusion, wondering what he was doing.
Eric’s next words did not help her to understand. “Son, your mother also wants you with her. She loves you and wants you to be happy. She wants you to stay with her here—to live with her in Faerie always. She does not want to be separated from you either. Is this correct Hadley?”
Hadley nodded and let out a sob. “Eric?” she asked with confusion. Then she spoke to Hunter. “What your Daddy says is true, Hunt. I do want you to stay with me here. I love you. I will always want you with me. But I want what is best for you even more.”
“It is the same for me,” Eric agreed.
Hunter looked from Hadley to Eric. “So no matter what, one of you will be sad.”
“And you will be sad too,” Eric added. “No matter what.”
Hunter looked heartbroken. He looked at Hadley, and then he looked at Eric. “What do I do, Daddy?”
“Well,” Eric said. “For one thing, you do not have to choose, Hunter. I will and your mother will choose.”
Hunter’s brow furrowed. “But I’m strong, Daddy—just like you. Don’t you think I’m strong enough to pick?”
Eric shook his head. “It is not that, min son. I know that you are very strong. But it is my duty to make sure that you are taken care of in all ways until you are of age. I need to do my duty better from now on, Son. And I will. This—I promise you.”
Hunter nodded a little. “So I don’t have to pick anymore, Daddy?”
Sookie could hear Hunter’s relief from his tone as well as his thoughts. “No,” she said firmly, surprising herself by the ferocity of her voice. In that moment, she felt the overwhelming urge to make sure Hunter and Eric were protected.
“Hunter,” Sookie assured. “You daddy and mommy are gonna pick what’s best for you, Honey. You don’t have to do that by yourself now. All you need to worry about is being happy—no matter where you live. And you need to know that lots of people love you—no matter what happens, Sweetie.”
Hunter looked at Sookie and gave her a little smile. Into her head, he projected, “Thanks, Aunt Sookie. Thanks for loving me no matter what.”
A tear swept down Sookie’s cheek. “I’ll always love you, little man,” she said tenderly. “No matter what—okay?”
Hunter nodded and looked back at Eric.
The vampire sighed, “I am your father, and I am still figuring out how to be the one that you deserve, smár rekkr.” Eric pulled Hunter and Sookie closer. “And I am going to find a way to make you happy. I am going to find a way to fix this. I should have been thinking of a way all along.”
Eric considered all of his plan’s contingencies for a moment and then looked at Niall. “Time is slippery, especially in this place—is it not?”
“It can be,” Niall agreed, though the confusion was clear on his face.
Eric narrowed his eyes. “I can be just as slippery as time.” He looked at Niall with resolve. “Hunter is a fairy and his blood will allow him to travel to this place whenever he chooses—correct? He will not need an escort. Sookie—too—could come as she wished?”
Beginning to understand Eric’s plan, Niall nodded. The simplicity and the genius of it were not lost on Niall. He looked at Eric with paternal pride. “Yes. Once they learn how to travel here, they will be able to come whenever they wish—on their own power. They will not have to rely upon us.”
Eric nodded. “You once said that Sookie would be able to teach Hunter to travel here once she returns home to us?”
“Yes,” Niall confirmed. The word “us” in Eric’s sentence was not lost on the elder fairy, though he was not certain that Eric realized he’d said it. Niall made no comment on it, however. He felt it was right that Eric felt that Hunter and Sookie―along with Eric himself―made up an “us.” Looking at the way in which the three curled into each other comfortably and naturally, Niall agreed. He felt a twinge of sorrow for Hadley’s sake, but he still agreed. He smiled at the vampire and continued to listen to his plan.
“And one of them will be able to invite me here as well—to bring me with them?” Eric asked.
Niall nodded. “Indeed—if you have had the blood.”
“Good,” Eric said. “Then,” he looked at Hunter, “you will be coming home with me—just as you decided to do earlier—but after Sookie teaches you how to come here, you will be visiting your mother once a week—every week you want to. You will not lose either of us, Hunter. It is true that to have a life with me—to keep the life you love now—you will have to see your mother less, but you WILL see her often.”
“But,” Hadley stammered. “What about the time differences. Minutes will go by in Faerie, but weeks, months, and years will go by in the human realm. The only way that time wouldn’t be lost is if I stayed here, and I need to make a life for myself and my other child.” She shook her head powerlessly as fresh tears slipped from her eyes. “I want Hunter to be with me, but if he comes, he will lose everything he has there—his whole life. It’ll be gone in a day.”
Eric held Hunter tighter. “You’re right.” He looked at Sookie, whose confusion was now turning into understanding.
Sookie muttered, “Everyone has his or her own sheet of paper.”
Eric nodded. “And we’re all going to use Hunter’s sheet when it comes to this place.”
Hadley and Hunter looked at Eric with confusion.
“Daddy?” Hunter asked.
Eric ruffled Hunter’s bangs, this time in the way he usually did—with unconscious affection and playfulness. “This is what we will do, Son. For now, you will come home with me, and your mother will take the time she needs to settle into her life in Faerie. Sookie will finish her training and then come home to us. And then she will help you learn how to come here, and she will come here with you—and sometimes I will join you here too when you want for us all to be together as a family. You will come one time a week, during the day so that you and I don’t have to lose time together. Or you may come on Sundays when I work if you wish to spend the night with your mother here.”
“But what about the time?” Hadley asked, still confused.
Niall smiled. “I should have thought of this before. We will simply use Hunter’s timeline, and he will come here to see you each time. As long as you never initiate the visits here or to the human realm—as long as you never look into the pool again—Hunter’s time will dictate yours in relationship to this place. Hunter can also hone his fairy gifts here, and I’m sure other abilities will rise in him over time.” Niall clapped his hands together. “It is an excellent plan, young Eric!”
Hadley was still shaking her head. “Okay—stop for a second. Maybe I’m being extra blonde or extra dense, but I don’t get it.”
Sookie spoke up. “Hadley, if Hunter is the one to come here—where time is in a kind of stasis, and then if you visit him here and only here, then time won’t be lost—as long as all the contact is initiated by Hunter, and you come here only once he’s come here first. It’s like y’all will be out of time here—get it?”
“Will that work?” Hadley asked, still confused.
Niall nodded. “Yes—Hadley you will come here to meet Hunter each time he visits. There is always someone posted here, and you will be informed when Hunter arrives each time. You can have your time together, and then he can go home and so can you. The only sacrifice will be that you can never again watch over him in the pool. If you did that after you went into Faerie, your timeline might become dominant.”
“So,” Eric said, looking at his son with a smile, “it is not ideal, but human families often must do such things as this. And, Hunter, when you get older—when you come of age—you may choose to alter this arrangement. But I will not tell you that you must choose again—not ever. You will always have your choices, my son, but you will decide when you ought to make them. And I will make sure that you are ready for them from now on. I asked you to make a choice that was unfair to ask of you. It is for that that I need your forgiveness, min son.”
Hunter scrunched up his brow. “So I get to see Mommy here every week?”
“Yes, after Sookie comes home and teaches you how to come. That will be a while—just like before—but it will eventually happen.” Eric looked at Niall, “The journey would always have to be initiated on our end for this to work, right?”
“Correct,” the fairy said with a grin. “Or by someone who stayed in this place always.”
Eric nodded and looked back at Hunter. “So—son, the hardest part will be right at first, but once your aunt Sookie gets back home, you can start your weekly visits here with your mother.”
“And I don’t have to leave home?” Hunter asked with uncertainty and hope.
“No,” Eric shook his head. “You will soon have two homes, in fact. The one you have now and this one—one day each week.”
Hunter raised himself so that he could put his little arms around his daddy’s neck. This time, the little boy’s tears fell due to his joy and relief.
Eric held his son tightly for a moment and then looked at Hunter seriously, “So will you forgive me, min son?”
Hunter laughed happily through his tears, “Daddy! It’s okay. You figured out everything!” He pulled himself away from Eric and went to hug Hadley. “I won’t have to say goodbye for so long, Mommy!”
Hadley smiled as tears fell from her eyes. “No—no you won’t. We can just say, ‘See you later,’ like we used to when I lived with Sophie-Anne.”
Hunter nodded. He looked at his daddy as if he were gathering his courage and then looked at his mother with large eyes, “Mommy, why can’t I hear you good here? I can’t hear most of what you’re thinkin’. Is it ‘cause I’m not supposed to be listenin’ to heads? Is it ‘cause that’s bad?”
Hadley kissed Hunter’s head. “No, honey. That’s not it at all. In fact, that is what I need to be forgiven for, honey. I thought if you could hear how sad I’d be if you didn’t stay with me here that you wouldn’t go home with your daddy and be happy. I wanted you to be able to not be so sad. So I need your forgiveness too.”
Hunter nodded and looked thoughtful. “Will you let me hear you now, Mommy?”
Hadley looked at Sookie and then Eric with some trepidation.
Both members of the pair immediately went into action.
Sookie tapped onto both Niall’s and Claude’s heads. “Can Hunter be allowed to hear some things—without hearing anything that might hurt him?”
Niall answered into her head. “I tried something like this. At first, I closed him off from Hadley’s thoughts completely, but this caused the boy to believe that his use of telepathy was bad. I convinced him to listen again—as I shielded him from all but Hadley’s surface thoughts—but he sensed that he was still being excluded from her mind for the most part, and that upset him just as much. It may be possible to shield him from only those things that could hurt him, but I am not sure that I could anticipate Hunter’s speed in accessing Hadley’s mind. He is skilled and very quick, despite his youth.”
Sookie couldn’t help the pride she felt for Hunter in that moment. She sensed it echoing in Eric and gave his hand a squeeze.
Claude spoke into their heads. “Maybe if we both work to anticipate Hunter’s track through Hadley’s mind, we could keep him only from that which he should not see—that which would hurt him.” Claude seemed to sigh into their heads. “But I agree that he is skillful and adept in seeking knowledge. I was trying to keep him sheltered by myself earlier, and that is what led to all this,” he said contritely.
“This isn’t your fault, Tanu,” Sookie insisted telepathically.
Niall looked at her. “You must help us too, Sookie.”
“But I don’t know how,” she insisted.
“Use your instincts and—most of all—your love for the child,” Niall said. “And if he seems to be coming up to a thought that will harm him, then project a shield—similar to one of the shields that you use in your own mind—to cover her memory. Claude and I will try to ‘stay ahead’ of him—so to speak.”
Sookie looked uncertain.
“It is just like projecting a thought—like you are doing with Niall and me right now—Tanah,” Claude said. “It takes more skill, but it is the same principle. And I know you can do it.”
“But what if I can’t?” Sookie asked nervously.
“At the very least, my dear, you can talk Hunter through what is happening if he senses Claude and myself keeping him from one of Hadley’s memories,” Niall said into her mind softly. “If he is expelled from a thought, he must be made to understand that it is not because he has done something wrong. Plus, you are equipped to protect this child, Sookie. You have been doing it instinctively throughout the night as you have sent comforting words into his head.”
“But I didn’t even know that I was doin’ that until just a little while ago,” she said. “How will I know how to . . . ?”
Claude cut her off. “Intuition, Tanah. You have been using it. Just continue to use it now.”
Sookie nodded to him almost imperceptibly.
Meanwhile, Eric had also responded to Hadley’s apprehensive look. Instinctively, Hunter had gravitated back to Eric and resumed his spot on his father’s lap.
Even as Sookie, Niall, and Claude were making their own preparations to give Hunter what he needed, Eric spoke to his son in an even voice, “Just because you have been shut out of your mother’s thoughts does not mean that she feels your ability is bad, min son.” He looked at Hadley. “Is that correct?”
“That’s right, Hunt,” Hadley said in almost a whisper. “Hunter, I just . . . ,” her voice trailed off. “You’re not bad—not at all,” her voice strained with her emotion.
“I’m not, Mommy?” Hunter asked, his voice shaking.
“No,” Hadley said with a little sob as she shook her head vehemently. Eric could see that she was trying to sink even more into Claude’s arms for comfort.
Eric’s voice was soft. “Do you remember what we have talked about concerning how people like to have their privacy, smár rekkr?”
“Uh-huh,” Hunter looked up at Eric with big eyes.
“I’m s’posed to be polite and not dig into people’s heads when they don’t want me to,” Hunter said, reciting the rule that he and his daddy had decided on a long time ago. Hunter screwed up his forehead. His voice dropped a little. “Daddy, I kinda went diggin’ in Grandpa and Uncle Claude’s heads a little.”
Eric chuckled. “Did they ask you not to?”
Hunter shook his head no.
Eric smiled at his son. “Well—they both know that you have telepathy, and both of them know how to shield their thoughts if they want to, so it’s okay.” He ruffled Hunter’s bangs.
“Can you shield your thoughts too, Mommy?” Hunter asked.
Hadley looked apprehensive and shook her head. “No, Hunter.”
“I was shielding them from you, child,” Niall spoke up.
“Why?” Hunter asked, looking at his grandpa with hurt in his eyes.
“Hunter,” Sookie said gently, “some thoughts that your momma has aren’t for you to hear.”
“Grown-up thoughts?” Hunter asked, looking at Sookie with curiosity.
“Yes,” Eric said. “Remember—we have talked about this before.”
Sookie smiled at Hunter, “When I was young—right about your age—Gran told me that everyone has a right to their private thoughts and that I should try to keep them out of my head when I could. She said that it was okay when I couldn’t—that that wasn’t my fault. But she also said I should try to keep myself out of,” she paused, “grown-up thoughts.”
Hunter nodded. “Daddy says that too.”
Sookie smiled. “Your daddy is very smart, Sweetie. And Gran always told me that if people’s thoughts didn’t relate to me or the safety of our family, then I should keep out of them. Plus, hearing everyone’s thoughts all the time was,” she paused, “hard.”
Hunter nodded and glanced quickly at Hadley.
“That’s why I learned to put shields around my thoughts, Honey,” Sookie said. “First, I learned not to hear other people’s thoughts all the time; then, I learned to keep others from gettin’ into my head.”
Hunter tilted his head. “Do you have them ‘round your head now, Aunt Sookie?” Hunter asked.
Sookie smiled, “A little.”
“But I can still hear you, Aunt Sookie,” Hunter said. “I don’t feel like you’re—um—makin’ me leave.” Again, he glanced at Hadley before looking back at Sookie.
“Well—Hunt,” Sookie said. “I’m able to let you listen to some things and keep you from hearing other things.”
“Like grown-up things?” Hunter asked.
“Exactly,” Sookie said. “But your momma doesn’t have shields like I do—or like your uncle Claude and grandpa do.”
“So Grandpa was keepin’ me from hearing?” Hunter asked.
“So I wasn’t bein’ bad?” Hunter bit his lip a little.
“No, Hunter,” Hadley said.
“Would you like to be able to hear your momma’s thoughts—like you hear mine, Hunt?” Sookie asked.
“Can I, Mommy?” Hunter asked.
Sookie could feel Eric’s nervousness, and she quickly sent him comfort through the bond.
Hadley shared a look with Niall, who gave her a reassuring nod. She felt Claude squeezing her hand.
“Sure,” Hadley said in a shaky voice as Niall lifted the magical barrier he’d set to separate Hunter’s telepathy from most of his mother’s thoughts.
Hunter looked at Sookie. “It’s okay?” he asked her. “It’s not bad?”
“You have been invited, Sweetie,” Sookie said. “And your gift is not bad at all. You just use your shields when you wanna keep other people’s thoughts out of your head, or when other people want their privacy. But it’s okay now. Since your momma doesn’t have shields—though—your grandpa, your uncle Claude, and I are gonna help her keep her grown-up thoughts private—okay?”
Hunter nodded and then looked up at Eric.
“Det är okej, smár rekkr,” Eric smiled, though Sookie could still feel her husband’s nervousness through the bond. “Go ahead, min son.” [“It’s okay, little warrior.”]
With a little prompting from Niall’s head, Sookie placed a soothing touch onto Hunter’s arm as the little boy looked at his mother and then closed his eyes as if to concentrate.
With her other hand, Sookie grasped Eric’s hand nervously and prayed even as she monitored Hunter and Hadley’s thoughts. She prayed that she’d be able to protect Hunter from anything that he shouldn’t hear.
As if sensing what Sookie was trying to do, Eric began sending her strength and confidence. In that moment her self-doubt faded, and she just concentrated on the love that she had for her husband and the little boy that she was holding on to.
Sookie found herself throwing up mental barriers around Hadley’s thoughts when Hunter would get too close to something that would hurt him. She was thankful that Niall and Claude had already thrown up their own barriers around most of the same thoughts, but she wanted to make sure.
However, there were plenty of good thoughts inside her cousin’s head—thoughts about how she loved Hunter, thoughts about her growing acceptance of his telepathy as something ‘natural’ for fairies, and thoughts about her affection for Claude and her new friends. Sookie was somewhat surprised when she realized that Hunter was digging mostly for things that would show him that his mother was indeed “okay” and “happy,” and this realization helped her to anticipate his track through Hadley’s mind in order to keep him protected.
Sookie almost cried again when she came to understand that Hunter never really wanted to go into his mother’s mind to find out if she loved him. He had wanted to go in there to make sure that she was feeling better since she had been “sick” for a long time. The precious little man was worried about his mommy—not himself. He loved her and wanted to be able to do anything he could to make her feel better—to protect her.
In that moment, Sookie felt her love for Hunter increase. Eric had been telling her for a month how special he was, but to experience his good heart firsthand was revelatory.
Sookie also felt intense pride in Hunter—not just because of his inherent goodness—but also because of the strength of his ability. He searched his mother’s mind with skill—much more than she’d had even in her early 20’s. She sent love and thankfulness to Eric through the bond, knowing that it was his care of the child which had encouraged the growth of his abilities.
Sookie could also feel Niall and Claude working in Hadley’s mind as well. They were working fast to try to anticipate Hunter’s moves and get to them first. Some thoughts―they would illuminate for the child so that he could see them clearly and openly. Others―they would close a door on, and then Sookie would telepathically explain to Hunter why the door needed to be closed in ways that he could understand.
A few times, Niall and Claude didn’t anticipate Hunter’s track, but Sookie was able to “hold him back” when necessary and throw up quick shields of her own—as if she were leading him by the hand down a dark street at night. His concern for his mother brought him very close to Hadley’s memories of Joren and her rape at one point, but Sookie was able to close that door herself.
Even as she was vigilantly trying to protect Hunter with her conscious mind, her unconscious mind was praying that Hunter would find only love and acceptance in his mother’s thoughts—praying that Hunter would be protected. Always.
After several minutes, Hunter exited his mother’s mind of his own accord and opened his eyes. The smile on his face was sincere. “I love you too, Mommy,” Hunter said with a sigh of relief that almost made Sookie’s heard break.
Hunter then turned and looked at Eric. “I’m ready to go home now, Daddy.”