Even as Eric met with several members of his retinue and easily settled a few minor Area 5 disputes, he was thinking about his conversation with Hunter. Eric wished that he had the power to so easily take away all of the bad thoughts that Hunter had ever been forced to hear in the past.
But he knew he did not have that power.
He couldn’t even keep his son from hearing hurtful thoughts now. An off-hand thought from Coby about something he’d seen on television had obviously caused Hunter to form new fears and to relive many sad memories involving his mother and Remy Savoy.
Eric couldn’t imagine the pain that Hunter had gone through as he’d “heard” that his parents believed he was broken. Eric knew that Hadley had tried to give Hunter her love, but he was still angry that his son had felt shame and guilt because of the two people that should have been the first to accept him: his biological parents.
With a slight shake of his head, he imagined Hunter as a three or four-year-old sitting in a church pew and listening to the prayers of everyone around him―minds that Hunter would have perceived as screaming out wishes and hopes and sins. It wasn’t right that Hunter had had to face that situation. From Sookie, Eric knew that being around a lot of people—especially before her shields developed—had been physically painful and mentally taxing.
Eric envisioned his young son tucked into his bed each night and having to say prayers that his parents wanted him to learn because they did—after all—want to love him. But even as Hunter had been obediently saying those prayers, he’d heard his parents’ interior prayers telling him that he was broken—as if his wonderful, beautiful son had one fucking thing wrong with him!
Eric wanted to split his goddamned desk in half at the thought of it. Instead, he kept the impassive look on his face and waited for the two vampires in front of him to finish speaking.
Once they’d presented their petition, Eric dismissed them so that he could consider their request. He sighed as he imagined some of the so-called prayers that Hunter would have heard. “Please fix him, God. Why is he like this? It’s my fault he’s like this. Make him normal. Why can’t he just be like other boys?”
Eric cringed at the thought of his son feeling desolate and unworthy because of those prayers.
“You okay?” Claude asked. The fairy had been waiting for the other vampires to leave before emerging from the little room off to the side of Eric’s office, which was little more than a small closet/bathroom—without the toilet since Eric didn’t need one.
“Yes—fine,” Eric responded. He looked up at Claude. “Maybe,” he amended with a little smile.
“Sookie would want me to ask if you needed to ‘talk,’” he commented, using air quotes around the last word of his sentence.
Eric chuckled, “Yes—she would like the thought of us ‘sharing.’” He too used air quotes.
Claude also laughed. “That she would. Shall we?”
Eric nodded and put his finger up to pause them as he called Pam to him. As soon as the vampiress came in, he spoke. “Tell Mr. Locke and Ms. Cardinale that I have accepted their petition; they may form a new nest in my area. Make it clear, however, that I will not tolerate their having humans as nest-mates unless I first confirm that no glamour has been used. I know that things were different in Phoenix, so they need to understand what I will and will not tolerate. Make sure that they do.”
Pam smirked. “Understood.”
Eric added, “I’m forwarding the paperwork to Jessica so that she can finish it. They will be official residents of Area 5 by tomorrow at sunset.”
Pam nodded. “I’ll tell them. Anything else?”
“Yes,” Eric said contemplatively. “Ms. Cardinale was a party planner in Arizona. She did a few small events for the Sheriff of Area 2 there. If her references check out, place her in contact with Mr. Quinn.”
Pam nodded and turned.
“When is my next appointment?” Eric asked.
As always, the vampiress eyed Claude a little suspiciously as she turned back around. “You have only one more tonight—in half an hour. Clancy is coming with a report from his area in Mississippi. He also wants your advice on a few matters. Apparently,” she grinned, “he’s worried that Thalia will silver his balls if he bothers her with the mundane.”
Eric smiled. “He is right to worry. Text me when he gets here. Claude and I will be,” he paused, “sharing.”
Pam smirked. “Dear Abby believes that sharing is the key to any budding relationship. You aren’t trading Sookie in for this one are you?” She gave Claude a sideways glance.
Eric deadpanned. “Not today.”
Pam snickered. “‘Cause he tastes good, and if he were yours, I bet you’d be willing to share him, and you won’t let me have any Sookie,” she pouted.
Knowing his vampire child was joking and feeling her mirth through their bond, Eric just rolled his eyes. “That will be all, Pam.”
“Too bad,” Pam said, smacking her lips in Claude’s direction.
As Pam left and closed the door behind her, Claude looked up at Eric. “She scares me sometimes,” he half-joked, half-stated.
“Me too,” Eric laughed, “especially when she has my credit card.” Of course, the vampire knew that Pam was still not completely comfortable with the fairy being around as much as he was, but she was—at least—starting to tolerate his presence. The blood that Claude had offered to “buy her off” each year hadn’t hurt Pam’s disposition, and Eric knew that his vampire child kept a special countdown going on her phone. Apparently, there was an App for that, but he decided not to mention it to Claude.
“So the tiger is working out?” Claude asked with curiosity.
Eric nodded as he finished his email to Jessica and sent it off. “Yes. Once away from de Castro, he has been no problem.”
“Funny,” Claude said.
Eric raised a brow.
Claude explained. “It is just that both you and Sookie seem to have a talent for seeing the best in people—from getting the best from them too.”
“Hmm,” Eric sounded. “Except I think about it in terms of how it will benefit me or mine, and Sookie’s motives are unselfish,” Eric observed.
Claude shook his head a bit. “I think you are both in the middle of that spectrum―actually.”
Eric shrugged. “Maybe. More likely, we are just complements—extremes so that it seems we balance out.”
Both he and Claude chuckled at that remark.
Claude followed up. “So the Weretiger has been no trouble?”
“The opposite actually,” Eric said. “In Nevada, de Castro had kept Quinn’s mother and his sister Frannie under constant surveillance. In fact, Duncan was barely on time when he collected them.”
Claude raised a brow in question.
“De Castro had just ordered his watch dogs to eliminate Quinn’s family, but Duncan killed them first and secured Quinn’s family. When Quinn learned of this and when he saw that his family would be under his own care for as long as he remained in Area 5, he pledged his fealty to me.”
“I thought the mother was unstable,” Claude said. “That is what Jesus told me.”
“She is broken,” Eric confirmed. “But Ludwig suggested a mental health physician, who is helping her as much as possible, and I arranged for a live-in nurse to care for her. That has freed up the sister to work with Quinn in his business. In the last five months, their company has expanded quite a bit since the Quinns are now able to take on more work. Apparently, de Castro limited the time he could spend on his company because of his almost-constant demands of Quinn’s services. And—the tribute required by de Castro also limited the tiger’s ability to grow his business.”
“So his situation is much better,” Claude observed. “That will make him loyal.”
Eric responded, “Yes. In fact, recently, I hired Quinn as a consultant for my security teams in the two casinos I now own on the Mississippi River, which is why I think that he could likely use the help of Ms. Cardinale.”
Eric shrugged. “I still don’t like Quinn personally, but his first few tribute checks have been good for the area, and he seems competent enough when it comes to basic security.” He paused. “Of course, it helps greatly that I don’t really have to deal with him. Pam keeps tabs on him where Area 5 business is concerned, and Chow oversees his work at the casinos. But having the tiger here does increase the strength of the state overall—or at least our perceived strength.”
“And de Castro?” Claude asked. “A while back, Jesus said he wasn’t being much of a problem.”
Eric chuckled. “In the last month, he tried to stir things up, but two things happened to stop his,” Eric paused, “stirring.”
“What were they?” Claude sat forward in his chair as he caught the mischief in Eric’s eyes.
“Well,” Eric began, “in early July, Felipe moved the base of his operations as well as the location where he rested—supposedly to top-secret strongholds.”
“And?” Claude asked curiously.
“And two days later—after Thalia had disappeared for about twenty hours,” Eric smirked, “his new and very secretive resting place went ‘bang.’” The air quotes were back.
“I assume he was not in it?” Claude asked.
“No,” Eric responded with a little regret. “It blew up exactly one hour after sundown. It was empty at the time, but de Castro had literally just left.” He sighed. “Thalia sincerely doesn’t want Nevada. It’s a fucking mess, and de Castro hasn’t done anything against us lately—well, nothing too bad anyway.”
Claude chuckled. “I am liking your queen more and more.”
“Me too,” Eric agreed. “The best part is that his new office went ‘boom’ at the same time. No wait!” Eric corrected himself. “The best part was the flowers.”
“Flowers?” Claude asked with a smirk.
“Yes. Thalia sent him a dozen black roses with the message that she preferred his previous living quarters and office.”
“So he is back in them?” Claude asked with amusement.
“Oh yes,” Eric chucked.
“What was the other thing that happened?” Claude asked.
“De Castro contacted his maker, who—if she had agreed to help him—might have tipped the scales his way a bit. She is almost as old as Thalia and is very well-connected in Europe.”
“If?” Claude asked.
“Yes,” Eric smiled. “It seems that after a phone call to Isabel, whom de Castro’s maker has known for a very long time, she told her spawn to get the fuck over it and to stop making trouble,” Eric laughed. “Apparently, she ‘bought’ him the kingship in Nevada years ago to get him out of her hair. He has kept his tail between his legs since then.”
“You are sure he is no longer a danger?” Claude asked.
Eric considered for a moment and then nodded. “Yes—Thalia is convinced, so I am too.”
Claude smiled. “That seems reasonable. So,” he paused, “if it was not about your potential enemies, tanu, then what was troubling you earlier?”
Eric sighed. “Hunter.”
“He’s okay?” Claude asked with immediate concern.
“Fine,” Eric assured, “but he was worried over a thought he heard from one of his friends, who had watched a television program that suggested vampires had no souls and, therefore, could not go to heaven. He was also concerned about the act of praying. It seems that he was,” Eric paused and looked at Claude meaningfully, “hurt very much by the prayers he was forced to hear in the past, especially those of his biological father and,” he paused again, “Hadley.”
Claude let out a sigh and nodded. “Her thoughts about Hunter—especially when I first knew her—would have certainly hurt the little one. They were not meant to be cruel, but they were hurtful nonetheless.”
Eric nodded. “Yes.”
Claude narrowed his eyes a bit and took in the vampire before him—his tanah’s mate. He had grown to genuinely care for the vampire in the last several months. “It is difficult to hear the negative thoughts of one’s parents—very difficult,” Claude said quietly.
“Mab?” Eric asked, intuiting that the fairy was speaking from experience.
It was Claude’s turn to nod.
A few moments of silence passed between them.
Eric finally spoke. “I admit to being a bit out of my depth sometimes. I want to do right by my son, but it is hard to know what to say in situations with which I have no experience.”
“Yes,” Claude said. “My own father struggled when he attempted to comfort my sisters and me after we heard things from our mother’s mind, especially when we were children.”
Eric’s eyes took on a faraway quality. “I remember feeling intimidated by my own father, who had towering expectations, but I understood that at the base of those expectations, my father wanted only for me to be my best because he cared for me. My father was glad that he had a son who was becoming strong, even if I could not quite meet the high standards he set for me―not every time, at least.”
Claude smiled. “He sounds like Niall.”
Eric contemplated. “Yes. I can see similarities.”
“It is hard to live with such expectations, but it would have been harder to live with none,” Claude remarked.
Eric nodded and then went on. “Hunter’s experience with his own father was much, much worse, and I am angered that I cannot take his pain away. I am angered that I cannot simply kill Remy Savoy to make things better, but that would achieve nothing.”
“No,” Claude agreed, “that would do nothing to help.” He paused. “May I be frank?” he asked.
Eric smirked. “When are you not?”
Claude chuckled. “Fine.” His tone became serious. “I am not a father yet, but I believe that you are doing the best thing for Hunter. Yes—he has had pain and will likely face more. All you can do is let Hunter feel your love for him, and he does. And as long as he does, I believe that he will overcome his pain and fears. He will sense you by his side. And that will make the difference. I believe this is why he feared for your soul so much. Many humans—Hadley included—believe in an afterlife where a God chooses to exclude those he wishes. Hunter is learning his own worth, and the thought of you being expelled from where he is—of you NOT being by his side—most likely frightens him like nothing else could. His other parents each left him and rejected him in their thoughts. He trusts you, but it is difficult for him to trust that nothing will take you from him.”
Eric contemplated Claude’s words and nodded.
The vampire confided, “Sometimes, I wish that Hunter could hear my thoughts. I wonder if he would be comforted to know—tangibly know—how much he means to me. The fact that Hunter trusts my words at all—after all he had to go through—is a small miracle.”
Claude smiled. “On the other hand, faith is more precious than empirical knowledge―to a telepath, at least; it is our most precious commodity—our miracle.”
“You are wrong, Claude,” Eric observed.
The fairy’s eyebrow raised in question.
Eric gave him a half-smile, half-smirk. “You are wrong about not yet being a father. You have always talked of the child Hadley carries just as I speak of Hunter.”
The two sat in silence for several minutes as Eric thought about Claude’s words and about his son and the difficulties he had faced during his short life.
And then there was Sookie. Eric knew that Sookie had gone through a lot of pain as a child because of her telepathy, but seeing the effects firsthand with his own child made Eric even more amazed by Sookie’s resilience.
He knew that his wife had heard similar thoughts as Hunter from her own mother. Michelle Stackhouse had thought that Sookie was broken—had wished that she could just be normal. Her mother had, according to Sookie, actively tried to love her, and Sookie—being the unselfish person that she was—gave her mother a lot of credit for that, but Eric would not be giving Michelle Stackhouse any credit at all, not only because he loved Sookie more than life itself but also because he knew with Hunter that true love for a child did not really require trying. It just was.
Certainly, the rational vampire knew that love did have an element of work involved. He knew from his own experiences that feeling and thought and action all needed to be put into love. But Sookie’s mother, Hunter’s biological father, and even Hadley to a great extent had loved their children only out of a sense of obligation—and loved them only up to a point.
Eric also thought about Sookie’s terror at the hands of the fairy Ivan. During one of their shared dreams, Sookie had described Ivan’s thoughts—the atrocities that the fairy was looking forward to committing against his bonded’s body and spirit. It was the fact that Ivan had been so excited about the idea of raping her that had paralyzed Sookie with fear—that had reminded her of her uncle Bartlett. She’d frozen and become the little girl who felt powerless.
Eric cringed again, but this time—sensing that Eric needed a moment of quiet—Claude said nothing.
Eric had thanked Sookie and Hunter’s God and many, many others that he’d been in the “in-between place” as Sookie had been inside of Mab’s palace that early morning. He’d been able to send her his strength, and it had woken her up to herself—to the fighter within her―and she had been able to fight against Ivan and the other fairies magnificently.
“Do you think she is succeeding?” Eric asked.
“Yes,” Claude answered without hesitation, knowing that Eric was talking about Sookie.
“Me too,” Eric said.
“My father,” Claude began, “believes that the key to unleashing the greatest potential of power in Sookie is awakening the latent magic that still resides in my tanah and then directing that magic through the vampire bond.”
“Like a lava conduit,” Eric commented almost to himself.
Claude nodded. “Yes. We have something equivalent to your volcanos in Faerie. It is a good analogy.”
Eric nodded for Claude to continue.
“Think of Sookie’s latent fairy magic—at least most of it—as being a large magma pool, deep inside your earth. Part of that magic—her telepathy—bubbled to the surface even in her youth, but most stayed buried until you came along. Your blood was the catalyst for more of her abilities to come forth. At least, that is Niall’s theory.”
“Then, my blood is the conduit, which is allowing her magic to travel to the surface,” Eric observed.
“Yes—you, your blood, and the vampire bond.”
“And the fairy bond?” Eric inquired.
Claude contemplated. “Think of it as the mountain itself—the space which allows for the magma—the lava—to gain force and heat as it is propelled toward the surface.”
“Hmm,” Eric sounded. “I once used an analogy similar to this for Sookie, but this one might be more apt.”
“Yes,” Claude said. “The pipes of a house. That did help her.”
“So it is the magma that is missing from the Sookie equation?” Eric asked with a half-smile.
“Most of the time,” Claude said honestly. “It is there, but it is kept from coming out with force except when Sookie loses control of her emotions, and then she cannot control the eruptions.” He sighed.
“Then Sookie is the one keeping it from coming out,” Eric aptly stated.
“Yes,” Claude said. “In a volcano, the magna often begins its trek to the surface―only to be stopped and trapped.”
“Yes,” Eric said, “into what are called dikes and sills.”
Claude nodded. “Sookie fears her own power, so she unconsciously shuts it down.”
Eric closed his eyes and tented his fingers in front of him. “I have heard of several volcanic eruptions in my years. And I have seen many now-dormant volcanos. When the blast is too massive—when it is not controlled—it can take the whole goddamned mountain with it.”
Claude sighed and closed his own eyes. “I admit that is my fear. Without control, all of the pressure and all of the fissures that have formed from Sookie trying to stifle her magic for so long could lead to much damage.”
Eric nodded silently. “I cannot let that happen,” he whispered.
“That is why I am thankful for you, my tanu,” Claude said quietly.
Eric opened his eyes and looked at him in question.
“You are the conduit. You are the vent. You are that which allows for her greater force but also that which will prevent her collapse. You—along with both of your bonds—will keep her from inadvertently harming herself when she comes into the fullness of her magic.”
“Faith,” Eric whispered.
Claude nodded and the two were quiet for a minute.
Eric smiled a little. “I admit that I like the idea that it was the magic of my own blood that stirred Sookie’s magic. I can also admit that I like being,” he paused, “integral.”
Claude chuckled. “You—who have wielded fairy magic—have doubts?”
“I have only the knowledge that the A.P. has given me. It is I who will be in danger―who will be in the position of defeat―and she will have to save me.” Eric sighed. “The thought that I will be powerless is difficult for me to accept.”
“It does not follow that you will stay powerless, Eric,” Claude observed. “I am certain that you have been in battles where you were able to change disadvantage to advantage. Perhaps, Sookie’s role will be to allow you the time to do that.”
Eric contemplated for a moment. “I have been in such situations, and it is my experience in using all of my assets—including the magic within me—to their fullest extent that has saved me before. On the other hand, Sookie’s source of magic—her magma, so to speak—is new to her. I wielded her magic because I have had a thousand years to learn how to use such things. Sookie does not have that,” he finished with a sigh.
“You’re right,” Claude commented. “That is what Niall is going to try to do—I think. He will attempt to give her the experience of a thousand years—or more—in a short period of time.”
“What do you mean?” Eric asked.
Claude’s mouth quirked. “I am not certain of my theory, Eric, and even if I was, I could not tell you.”
Eric could see that the fairy was not going to budge beyond the hint he’d given already.
“Not even if I sic Pam on you?” Eric joked.
“Not even,” Claude chuckled.
Eric turned serious again. “Sookie has always been governed mostly by her emotions, but in battle, they will get one only so far.” He paused. “I fear that her emotions for me will put her into a situation where her life will be at risk. I need her to be able to act logically in that kind of situation—to protect herself. I cannot have an eruption of her power causing her harm.”
Claude sighed. “I too need her safe, Eric, but you know how she is. And her emotions could be her strongest ally.”
“If they are controlled,” Eric said.
“But not stifled.”
Eric nodded in agreement.
“She will succeed,” Claude said.
“Faith,” Eric said again.
“It is not just a precious commodity for telepaths then?” Claude teased a bit.
“No,” Eric relented. “But it is,” he paused, “difficult.”
“It is supposed to be,” Claude said wisely. “But I have faith in Sookie as well.”
A smile widened on Eric’s lips. “Yes—I do too.”
Claude smiled, “My tanah will move heaven and earth to see you safe.”
Eric chuckled. “Correction—she will move heaven and earth again. I sometimes wonder how many times and how many ways she will save me.” He paused and thought about his wife.
She’d saved him from Russell. She’d saved him from the necromancer’s curse. She’d saved him from the sun. Hell—she’d given the sun back to him! She’d saved him from the fairies. Her magic in him had saved him from the attack by de Castro’s forces and Hallow’s spells. But most importantly, she’d saved him from the tedium of a thousand-year life in which he’d never been able to love freely and openly.
And she’d saved him from a thousand more years of the same.
She’d resurrected his heart—his very soul. She’d given him a life the likes of which he’d never known how to ask for, especially not since becoming a vampire. She’d given him a life that he didn’t even think he merited—at least until he was basking in that life with her.
Godric—or at least his vision of Godric during his amnesia—was right: Sookie couldn’t redeem him. However, she’d showed him the fucking path and lit it up with her own bright light. And now—miraculously—Eric felt redeemed; his life had more purpose and more happiness than it had ever had. Despite the physical pain that he was in every moment because of his bonded one being so far away, he was almost embarrassingly happy and knew that it would only get better once Sookie was back by his side.
“Yes,” Eric said with finality to his tone, “I have faith.” And he knew his feeling was true too. He had faith that Sookie would master whatever skills Niall asked her to master. He had faith that the bonds between them would only get stronger over time. He had faith that they could face down any challenges that came—together. The bottom line was that he had faith—because two such souls as Sookie and Hunter loved him.