Her legs jittering up and down with her nerves, Sookie looked around the van that was decked out like something from a detective movie.
She glanced at her watch. It was 6:32; sunset was at 8:11 p.m. that night.
What she was thinking of as the “first wave” of her group of “soldiers” had left the farmhouse about ten minutes before.
Trying to radiate confidence, she’d said goodbye to a tearful Hunter after having spent a wonderful day with him. She’d held in her tears until she could no longer see Hummingbird Lane, but then she’d let them fall freely. She’d always been affected by the tears of others—probably because people’s thoughts were also so strong when they were upset—but seeing the tears on Hunter’s little face had broken her heart.
She closed her eyes and prayed that he’d soon have no more reason to cry. Jesus, who was sitting next to her, placed a comforting hand on her knee, and she gratefully covered it with her own. She was even more grateful for the fact that no one in the van had interrupted her cry. She closed her eyes and steadied herself. If everything went according to plan, most of her little “army” would be in position near the warehouse where Eric was being held within the hour.
In addition to Jesus, she was joined in the back of the van by Amelia and Jarod―who seemed to know the most about all of the computer equipment that took up much of van’s interior space. Alcide was driving the vehicle, and Maria-Star was sitting in the front with him. There was an identical van traveling behind them. Tray was driving that one, and Tara, Diantha, Sam, and Luna were with him.
Sookie glanced toward the front of the van and looked out of the windshield as they turned north onto Highway 71. She noticed that Alcide gave Maria-Star an affectionate smile as he looked in her direction before making his turn.
She’d been glad to reconnect with Alcide and even happier to get to know his fiancé a little bit better when Hunter took her to the stables to meet his horses. Maria-Star had a peaceful―almost spiritual—vibe about her that complemented Alcide to a T.
Unapologetically, Sookie had delved a bit more into Alcide’s thoughts that afternoon. After all, the last time she’d seen him, he’d been grieving for Debbie Pelt—a woman that Sookie had killed. Plus, he’d not been a huge fan of Eric’s—or hers—at that time.
Thankfully, things had changed. She’d been able to tell from her Were friend’s thoughts that the last almost-two years had been an extremely good time for him. He had come to terms with his relationship with Debbie and his responsibility in that situation. And—Sookie was glad to find out—Alcide had also realized that his attraction for Sookie had been mostly a “rebound” for him. Sookie wasn’t offended by that thought; it actually comforted her. After all, any attraction she’d felt for him was definitely when she was on the rebound too. It wasn’t that Alcide wasn’t a great guy—and a great-looking one too. But he wasn’t the guy for her—never had been.
When they’d first met, she’d been trying to deal with the Bill situation and had been doing everything possible to deny her attraction for Eric, and Alcide had been trying to get over Debbie. They’d both clearly used each other as a distraction. Sookie was just glad that things had never gone farther than they had with Alcide.
Her friend had also settled well into his place in the area Werewolf pack, and as Tray had bestowed more and more trust onto Alcide, he’d finally felt like he truly belonged. And—as it turned out—belonging to a pack he could be proud of had made all the difference in the world with Alcide.
He’d even developed some respect for the vampires who employed him for both security and construction work, and he had seen firsthand the advantages of different groups of supernaturals working together. What had impressed Alcide the most, however, was that Eric didn’t really treat Weres as lesser beings as he’d once thought he did. In fact, Alcide had observed that Eric treated Tray Dawson as a friend—a trusted peer. So over time, Alcide had been able to put a lot of his prejudices to the side.
All-in-all, her Were friend seemed to be content―for the first time since they’d met—and, even more importantly, he was trustworthy.
She glanced at her watch. It was 6:45. In about two hours, she and Eric would be fighting for their family—for their fate. She just prayed that they would be successful—that her plan would be successful.
She looked over at Jarod, who was sitting opposite her and fiddling with one of the van’s many electronic devices.
“Where did y’all come up with these vans?” she asked her shifter friend. “They’re so James Bond.”
He grinned. “You know men and their love of gadgets?”
“Well, it apparently doesn’t stop when they become vampires!” he chuckled. “Gets worse, actually! Apparently, Eric has stock in the company that’s building these beauts for the NSA. These are the prototypes.”
“Do you know how to work all that?” she asked him as she gestured toward one of the control panels.
“I know a bit, but Molly is the real pro. I’m just setting things up now so that we’ll be able to find any signals being transmitted from the building.”
“And that’s like sonar—right?” Sookie asked. “They’re not gonna be able to detect that you’ve found their signal—are they?”
“No worries,” Jarod assured. “We’re not gonna try to fiddle with things until Molly is there. I’ll just get what I can set up for her. I’ll find the signal, and if it’s not encrypted, we’ll be able to monitor it, but that’s all I’ll do.”
Sookie nodded. “Okay.”
Jarod chuckled. “You know—Eric put these things in your name so that the protection spell would cover them.”
“So I own this?” Sookie asked with a laugh.
“Sook, I’m pretty sure you own just about everything we drive around. Easier that way,” he grinned. “Safer too.”
She shook her head even as she accepted her husband’s logic. At least the vans could be a safe haven in the midst of the fight if needed. That made her feel better about her friends’ safety.
“We’ll be in Shreveport in about half an hour,” Alcide said with a glance over his shoulder.
“Sookie, Scott Cusmano just texted Tray,” Maria-Star reported as she read a message from Alcide’s phone. “They’re already waiting for us. And he has the equipment you asked for.”
Nervously, Sookie nodded and then grasped hold of Jesus’s hand in the close quarters of the back of the van.
The brujo squeezed her hand back and spoke to her quietly. “You’re gonna get him, Sook. You have to―you know.” He smiled. “Otherwise, how am I gonna be able to ask him to stand up with me when I finally marry Laf?”
Sookie sniffed as she tried to keep her tears from falling again and then gratefully accepted a handkerchief from Jesus. In that moment she loved her friend even more because of the fact that he was the kind of man who carried handkerchiefs. “I’ll do my best,” she managed.
“Your best will do just fine,” Jesus was quick to respond. “And then you’ll both be home, and things will be like they should be.”
Sookie smiled. “Eric may not say it, but he loves you too, you know.”
Jesus chuckled. “Oh—I know. He agreed to be my brother―after all. And—even more—he didn’t kill me when I basically told him to get his shit together.” The brujo grinned.
Sookie smiled and leaned into Jesus. “Do me a favor?” she asked.
“Anything I can,” Jesus responded.
“Tell Eric to get some of these?” she requested as she held up the handkerchief. “I’m always messing up his shirts when I cry on him.”
Jesus chuckled, “Now that I can do.”
Sookie could feel Jesus’s mood turn melancholy, and she heard from his head that he was sorry that Amelia, Niall, Diantha, and he hadn’t come up with a spell that could breach iron. He wished that he could have done that for her.
She offered him comfort this time. “You did your best, Jesus. And what you’re doin’ is gonna make a difference. Like you said—we’re gonna get Eric out of there.”
Jesus gave her a half smile.
“Plus,” Sookie said. “I can’t wait to see what kind of outfit Lala will dress him in for your wedding.”
Jesus snorted out a little laugh. “Do you think Eric would agree to blue velvet?”
She looked up at him sincerely. “I think he’d agree to hot pink spandex in order to stand with you.”
Jesus’s smile reached his eyes this time, and he pulled Sookie to lean on him again, both of them thankful for the comfort they could give to each other.
Sookie listened into Amelia’s thoughts for a moment. The witch was being uncharacteristically quiet—at least in the traditional sense—but her thoughts were as loud as always. She was going through a checklist in her mind as she thought about the spell that they’d already begun so that they could counter the exclusion spell which would bar others from entering the basement. If Yvetta—or whatever witch had made the spell—was at the warehouse, then Amelia was confident that she could bring down the spell; however, if the witch wasn’t, then Amelia had confirmed with Octavia that the counter-spell would take a week to mature. Amelia feared that this would be too late to do any good.
Sookie knew that her new witch friend was right.
For another option—Sookie’s Plan C—Scott Cusmano was bringing some machinery that could cut through iron. Of course, it would be useless until the exclusion spell was down or until they could find someone else who had permission to go into that basement―someone who could be influenced by Sookie’s Jedi mind-trick to use the machinery. But she feared that Russell was too paranoid to allow the admittance of even his own Weres. Sookie couldn’t blame him. In their V-addled state, they might drain him in his day-rest! Too bad it wasn’t that easy.
Sookie sighed. Her instincts told her that it would be up to Eric to bring down the iron doors. He was her Plan A, after all.
However, Jesus and Amelia had come up with a spell to conceal Sookie’s presence from the senses—well, except for the sight—of others. Sookie had two vials in her jacket—one marked #1 and one marked #2. The first would conceal her, and the second would counteract the first.
Sookie took a long, steadying breath and then touched her pendant, the interlocked initials that Eric had carved for her as a token of his love. She then moved her fingers to lovingly touch the ring he’d given her the night they’d pledged and then the new ring on her right index finger. Hunter had given this one to her that afternoon. He’d gotten it for her the Christmas before. It was a simple ring made of pewter, which she knew from Eric had been Hunter’s material of choice the previous Christmas. It had an engraved series of hearts around the band, and Sookie had loved it and put it on immediately, much to the delight of the little boy.
Sookie sighed and wondered how it was possible to fall so much in love with a child whom she’d spent so little time with. In the end, she reckoned the “how” didn’t much matter. It was the feelings that did.
Sookie had felt Hunter’s telepathy humming against hers all day as he exerted an effort to keep out of people’s heads regarding Eric’s captivity—just as he’d promised her he would.
However, she hadn’t wanted him to think that his telepathy was a bad thing, nor did she want him to feel any anxiety about it. So for most of the day, she’d opened her mind to Hunter, keeping locked up only the things she knew would hurt him—the torture Eric had faced and the mixed feelings of his own mother. However, she’d wanted for Hunter to know how much she loved him. She wanted for him to feel her pride in him. She wanted for him to know that he was not alone. She wanted for him to feel how much she treasured him. And she wanted for him to learn from her—to see how she’d constructed her own shields and how she protected the thoughts that she wanted to keep private.
Sookie took in a deep breath as she thought about her boys.
She was so proud―both of Hunter and of Eric. Hunter had been surrounded by people ready and willing to accept him no matter what, and he was so much more advanced in his telepathic skill and in his adjustment to being different than she’d been at his age.
At seven years old, Sookie had just lost her parents. She prayed that Hunter’s experience during his seventh year would not parallel hers in that way. It had been the most miserable year of her life.
Sookie had felt tremendous guilt and responsibility for her mom’s and dad’s deaths. After all, they were only on that low-water bridge because of her—because they were afraid to take her to a babysitter due to her “disability.” They had, therefore, needed to drive Jason and her to Gran’s house on the stormy evening of their death. Moreover, if it hadn’t been for her, her parents wouldn’t have needed their weekend “away” in the first place; the weekend’s purpose—according to her dad’s head—was to give her mom a much needed break from “dealing with” Sookie.
Sookie also knew a secret. That weekend, her mom had planned to once more raise the topic of having Sookie committed to an institution until she was “fixed.” She was going to promise to stop drinking if they “did what was best for Sookie.”
The night of her parents’ deaths, Sookie had wished that something—anything—would happen so that she could always just stay with Gran where she’d felt herself welcomed. Not ten minutes after she’d had that thought, Bud Dearborn had knocked on Gran’s door. Not a soul had known about Sookie’s wish until she told it to Eric during one of their shared dreams together, but it had plagued her—especially right after her parents had died.
It was her guilt over her wish that had made her easy prey for Uncle Bartlett. And it was her feelings of worthlessness and fear of abandonment that had kept her from immediately speaking to Gran about his inappropriate behavior. She didn’t want to be a burden to Gran―as she’d been to her mom and dad. She was trying to act perfect—normal. And how would she be able to read her uncle’s mind and tell Gran about it if she were normal? So Sookie had kept silent and had used her gift to try to avoid Uncle Bartlett as much as possible.
She remembered that time well. All she had wanted was to cause no trouble—to be so small and so quiet that no one would notice her and so that there would be no reason for anyone to send her away. She’d kept her room immaculate—as if it were unlived in. She’d made sure that the bathroom she and Jason shared was always clean too. She used her telepathy to avoid others and to clean rooms where she knew no one would be—all with the purpose of not being seen but being helpful all the same.
Of course, Gran had been concerned about her and had intuited that there was something wrong. She’d tried to show Sookie that she was loved and wanted, but the mind of a seven-year-old who thought that her own wishes had caused the deaths of her parents was not a rational thing. And she’d been afraid—afraid that if she did one little thing wrong, then Gran would decide that it would be better just to send her away. So—she’d said nothing about Uncle Bartlett for many weeks―until she’d finally become more afraid of him than she was of her Gran rejecting her as her mother had. Yes—the age of seven years old had not been a good one for Sookie.
She closed her eyes and then closed out those thoughts. Nothing like that could ever happen to Hunter. Eric had made sure that he knew he was loved and that he was sheltered from all the Uncle Bartletts of the world. Sookie sighed in relief at the thought of what Batanya would do to someone like Uncle Bartlett. Yes—Hunter would be safe. And—most importantly—there would be many people around him to make sure that guilt did not become a part of Hunter’s grief if the worst did happen.
Sookie decided that she wasn’t going to think about the worst case scenario for her family, nor was she going to dwell on her past sorrows. There was too much to live for and to fight for.
That resolution made her think about Hunter and her day with him. She didn’t really have a word for how special it had been to her, and she definitely didn’t have a word for the way that being with Hunter had made her feel stronger and even more motivated to succeed.
She sunk comfortably into her memory, letting it—at least for the time being—soothe her nerves as they moved closer and closer to Shreveport.
After Hunter and Sookie had left the “war meeting” in the living room, the little boy had proudly shown Sookie his bedroom.
The room, especially the bed that Eric had made him, was pretty darned terrific—though Sookie knew that she was biased when it came to her boys. Hunter excitedly showed off all of the furniture that he and his daddy had made together. He told her all about the nightstand and the fairy wood. He then look her to the corner of the room, where he pointed to two beautiful mounted shelves which Hunter had constructed all by himself—though his daddy had sawed the wood for him, of course. The shelves were full of pictures of his “family.”
Sookie was touched when the first picture he picked up was of herself and Eric—one that had been taken of them dancing the night of their pledging. Hunter told her that Uncle Lala had taken it with his phone and had made him a copy. He also talked about how his daddy always looked at it every night before he told his stories. Sookie had needed to hold in her tears at that information.
Then, he showed her a myriad of what Hunter called “my people.” Sookie once again smiled at his usage of the possessive pronoun. The images included Miranda and Jarod with a smiling Godric held up between them; Pam posing full-fang as if she were about to bite into Claude’s neck, a picture that elicited a barrage of giggles from Hunter so that Sookie was assured that it was a “joke pose;” Lafayette and Jesus holding hands; Sam and Luna at their wedding; little Emma in a cute flower girl dress, which an enthralled Hunter said made her look like a princess; Jason and a gushing Jessica, who were now apparently engaged; a beaming Bubba with a very sour-looking Thalia; a contented-looking Tara sitting in a lounge chair next to the pool with a big law book in her hands; a school picture of Emma; a smiling Amelia and a proud-looking Tray next to an outside fire; and a mischievous-looking Batanya, standing next to Duncan, who was looking at her with what could only be called devotion in his eyes. Hunter said that the pictures from Sam and Luna’s wedding—which included the one of Batanya and Duncan—were the newest to his collection. Then he added telepathically—confidentially to Sookie—that he was pretty sure that Duncan and Batanya would soon start holding hands and kissing, so he’d be able to get a better picture of them.
Sookie had needed to stifle her giggle.
There were also several pictures of Eric and Hunter. One found them sitting together in their rocking chair, another showed them next to a fire outside, and a third pictured them riding a horse—with Hunter placed in front of Eric. Hunter informed her that the last one had been taken last Halloween before he’d gotten his own horses. Finally, there was a picture of Hunter posing with Odin and the cat.
Of course, Sookie had already seen the picture of Hunter and Eric by the pool that was displayed on the little boy’s nightstand. Featured next to that picture was one of Hadley and Hunter taken when they were both brunettes.
Hunter showed Sookie every picture like it was a treasure, and from his mind, she picked up a burst of love as he described each. He was, in a word, “full” of love.
But what hurt Sookie’s heart was the fact that Hunter—even after all this time—was almost afraid of how happy he was, as if something might happen to steal all his happiness away and to take his life back to the way it was before he came to live with his daddy. Sookie sensed the scared boy under Hunter’s exterior confidence and happiness, but she understood “both” boys. Even after almost 20 years, the scared little girl inside her lingered and always would, but she was a teacher to Sookie now—a touchstone that showed Sookie how far she’d come and a guide that Sookie could use to help the little boy in front of her.
She knew that the thought of losing his daddy was what scared Hunter the most, for the child felt truly “safe” only when Eric was near. Sookie hoped that Hunter would one day feel that level of safety with her. But her greatest hope for him was that he would learn to feel safe on his own. It had taken her years to do that—first with Gran’s help and then with Eric’s. She prayed that Hunter’s sense of inner peace would not take as long to craft as hers had. With Eric by his side, he seemed well on his way.
After the tour of Hunter’s bedroom, Sookie decided that she was in dire need of a bathroom break, a quick shower and a “human” change of clothing, so she took Hunter down to investigate the heavenly smell emanating from the kitchen and then told him that she’d be back in a little while.
Not wanting to waste too much time that she could be spending with the child, Sookie hurriedly took care of her human needs and then indulged in a quick but heavenly five-minute shower. She made a mental note to find and personally thank whoever had created the perfect arrangement of shower jets, which not only cut down on rinsing time, but also massaged her muscles in all the right places. After promising herself a much longer shower in the future—preferably with a 6’4” Viking as company—she jumped out, quickly dried off, and luxuriated in the feeling of jeans and a T-shirt for the first time in a long time.
After running a quick brush through her hair, she rejoined Hunter, who was telling Niall all about how Uncle Claude and he worked in the garden every week as they both munched on fresh peanut butter cookies. The strange―yet completely “normal”―sight warmed Sookie’s heart.
Hunter’s face brightened as soon as he saw that Sookie was back, and her heart literally leapt as the little boy grabbed her hand so that he could show her the third floor. Once they were up there, he explained that it was mostly used as his and Daddy’s “trainin’ room,” but that Jesus and Amelia practiced their magic there too sometimes.
Hunter suddenly stopped his explanation and looked at her strangely. From his loud surface thoughts, Sookie knew that Hunter was processing how things were going to change now that she was home. He seemed to be inserting her into the equation of his life and evaluating how she was going to fit. Quickly, she put up a shield between his loud thoughts and her mind so that he could have his privacy as he sorted out what he needed to.
She held her breath. In truth, she was apprehensive about where she would “fit” in with Eric and Hunter; they seemed so perfect on their own—so crystallized as a team. The last thing she wanted to do was to take anything away from the boy’s life. She wanted to add to it—if she could. But she was determined that Hunter’s feelings had to come first as she reintegrated herself into the household.
After Hunter had thought for a moment, he seemed to come to some kind of internal decision. His eyes smiled, and her heart melted. Then—as if the decision had been an easy one—Hunter told her all about how the third floor was her reading room too. He showed her the sky light as well as the special window seats that had been put in just for her. And—in that moment—Sookie realized that Eric had been making sure that she was an integral part of their lives all along. And Hunter had accepted that she was always a piece of his daddy and himself.
Once more, Sookie had to hold back her tears—though she was certain that her eyes were shining.
Throughout her relationship with Eric, she’d often wondered how her heart could possibly hold any more love for her mate, and then he would do something to fill it more. She felt close to bursting as her love for Hunter and for Eric overflowed within her. Of course, the amazing thing was that Sookie knew—just as certain as she was standing there—that her love for her boys would soon find another reason to grow.
It wasn’t thirty more seconds before it did grow again.
She grinned as Hunter demonstrated how she could sit in one of her window seats and read. And then when he invited her to watch him practice swords with his daddy, she sat next to him and gave him a tight hug.
She then understood—for the first time—the look that Gran would get on her face any time Sookie or Jason had accomplished even the smallest of things—or, for that matter, even when they hadn’t really done anything special. Her Gran had always said that her “cup runneth over” when she’d spoken of her grandchildren. And now Sookie understood why she always said it. Gran was just being a mother.
After showing off the third floor, Hunter had then led Sookie back to the second floor. The huge office and library that she and Eric had planned had been scaled back because Hunter’s room had also been placed on their floor. Instead of separate rooms for the office and library, there was now one room, but it was still quite large. Two desks, both of which Eric—with the help of a proud Hunter—had made from black walnut, took up the space in the middle of the room. All of the walls of the windowless room were covered from floor to ceiling with books, housed in matching black walnut bookcases. As Hunter told her all about black walnut wood—knowledge he’d obviously soaked up from his daddy—Sookie listened with rapt attention. She’d loved the space immediately, but it couldn’t compare to the excitement of the little boy within it.
After seeing the rest of the changes in the house, each one given narration by Hunter, he showed her the beautiful pool area and the workshop, where all of her new bedroom furniture was covered and still waiting. Hunter got a huge smile on his face when he talked about all the help he’d given his daddy in making everything and how Daddy had wanted to keep it “all safe and special” until she got home.
Next, Hunter led her to the new stables, and he took great pride in showing her the two horses he’d gotten for his birthday, Freya and Loki. He chatted about Loki―and to Loki―who was obviously his favorite. He giggled that Loki was kind of silly because he liked only sour apples as treats. Sookie smiled as he nuzzled with his horse, a gentle gray gelding that was apparently quite fond of Hunter too. He talked about how Maria-Star took care of the horses and how he and his daddy had lessons most nights—unless it was raining. Freya had gotten a carrot, and Loki had gotten an apple—a green one, of course. Then Hunter introduced Sookie to the other horses that they’d gotten, including Thor, a spirited reddish stallion that was “Daddy’s horse,” and Sif, who Hunter said was meant for Sookie.
Sookie smiled as she met the sweet honey-colored mare, which was stabled with the somewhat arrogant-looking—if horses could be arrogant-looking—Thor. It did not escape her notice that Sif was Thor’s wife’s name. With a wink, Maria-Star confirmed that Thor and Sif were indeed a pair when Eric bought them in April and that they were expecting a foal the following May. No wonder Thor looked so proud of himself. Sookie couldn’t help but to giggle.
On the way back to the house, Hunter showed Sookie the peach trees that his daddy had planted. Sookie had trouble holding in her tears when she saw them. Somehow, she’d learned about them from dream-Eric, but she was still amazed by their beauty and the scent of the ripening fruit on the trees.
After the tour was over, Sookie and Hunter changed into their bathing suits and grabbed some sandwiches. Sookie could tell that Jarod was on guard duty outside. And Tray and Miranda—and little Godric—were still in the living room planning for the night. Amelia, Jesus, Niall and Diantha had migrated to the third floor to work on the magic that would be needed for that night.
However, when Sookie and Hunter went out to enjoy the pool, most everyone else came to join them. Tara, Jason, Lafayette, and even Claude swam and played with Hunter and her. Before long, a grinning Godric—having been placed into a special inflatable ring and slathered with sunscreen—was floating by with Jarod close behind. Alcide, it seemed, had agreed to take over primary guard duty so that Jarod could play with his son. Of course, Alcide spent much of his time watching Maria-Star, who joined them in the pool as well.
But Sookie didn’t think Alcide’s distraction was a problem. With the protection spell firmly in place—a fact that she could somehow now “sense”—she wasn’t worried that an attack would catch them off-guard. And, of course, Sookie knew that Batanya was always there just in case.
At about 3:30, Sookie saw that Hunter was tired and got him settled on one of the loungers that Eric had built. She made sure an umbrella was shielding him from the sun. Then, she relaxed into a lounger next to him and enjoyed the hot Louisiana sunshine as she told Hunter a story that Gran always used to tell her as the little boy drifted into his nap.
After Hunter fell asleep, Sookie luxuriated in the feeling of the intense sun on her skin. Of course, the fairy realm had constant sunlight, but it was never too strong. Sookie flipped over several times, her tan getting darker and darker with each turn. But more than the tan, she was counting on her sunny scent coming in handy later. She had a three-thousand-year-old vampire to entice, after all.
Sookie’s musings were broken by Alcide’s voice. “We’re here,” he relayed.