“Bubba!” Sookie exclaimed as she hurried out of her car to give her vampire friend a hug. Of all the vampires she’d met, he was the only one who accepted such a greeting as if it were the natural way to do things. Actually, he was the only one to accept that kind of greeting at all—at least, as far as she knew.
“Well howdy, Miss Sookie! You sure are lookin’ mighty good!” he grinned. “And I’m awful sorry ’bout that Were-in-the-closet business. Mister Eric told me it got you into a pickle, and that sure weren’t my intention,” he said solemnly, like a contrite child who’d been caught with his hand in the cookie jar.
“It’s okay,” Sookie said, squeezing Bubba’s hand.
The simple vampire’s smile came back in full force. “Mister Eric told me I’d get to stay in your woods for a spell—maybe even permanent-like! And he’s even gonna build me a little room under the house that he’s gonna build for your day guards!” he effused. “I sure will be glad to get outta the big city for a while. I don’t even much care for Shreveport—truth be told—though there’s lots of food there for me,” he added with seriousness.
Sookie cringed a little because she knew well that Bubba’s favorite cuisine was of the feline variety. A memory of her beloved Tina jetted into her mind as she wondered if it would even be possible for her to get another cat with Bubba around.
Maybe a dog would be better, she thought. And, practically speaking, dogs typically traveled a lot better than cats. Indeed, Sookie speculated that it might be real nice to have a furry companion for the road.
“I’m real glad you’ll be around, Bubba,” Sookie smiled sincerely.
“Me too! I’ll just be gettin’ back to the woods now,” he grinned before leaving the porch abruptly.
“He will be good for tracking—if that skill is needed,” Thalia said, suddenly at Sookie’s side. The telepath hadn’t even registered her moving. “Beyond that, he is good as only back-up.”
Sookie sighed. “He’s guarded me before though.”
“When you were not in great danger and when you belonged to Compton,” Thalia returned.
The telepath shivered at the mention of her ex. “What does my havin’ been with him at the time have to do with anything?” she asked after a moment.
Thalia smirked. “It was Compton who first arranged for Bubba to look out for you—if I understand things correctly.”
“Are you sayin’ that he arranged for a,” she glanced toward the tree line and continued in a whisper, “unfit guard for me?”
The vampiress frowned. “Bubba is fine—stronger than his age would suggest even. But he is not exactly wise. But—of course—someone like Bubba is nonthreatening to someone like Bill because Bubba would not wish to use you sexually. He lacks an interest in human blood and rarely even fucks.”
Sookie blushed crimson at Thalia’s crude language.
The vampiress shrugged, clearly dismissing the telepath’s coyness. “All I am saying is that Bubba—unlike many others—is not a potential rival for your affections.”
“Uh—Bubba seemed to—uh—think that Bill and me were—uh—are, . . .” Sookie stopped for a moment to find the words she wanted. “It’s just that he seemed to have his mind set on the idea that Bill and I were a couple. And that we’d stay that way,” she finished with a trembling whisper.
“Bubba now understands that you are no longer Bill’s human, and—rest assured—he prefers Eric to Bill anyway. Otherwise, I would not have him here. Bubba is loyal to Eric—and to you it seems—but I don’t judge him fit to be your only night guard. Thus, when I am not available, you will have Padma as your main guard,” Thalia informed.
“Padma? I don’t think I know her,” Sookie said, trying to recall all the vampires she’d met at Fangtasia.
“You remember an Indian vampiress?” Thalia asked.
“Yes!” Sookie smiled.
“Well—that is not her. That is Indira,” Thalia smirked.
Sookie frowned in question.
“The one guarding you when I cannot is Indira’s vampire sister. Please invite her and Bubba into your home,” Thalia ordered.
Sookie thought about arguing with the vampiress, but then realized that the only thing she objected to was Thalia’s rude, abrupt tone. “Bubba’s got an invite already. And Padma is welcome into my home.”
Thalia nodded and went to leave the porch. “Tell the Viking I said hello,” she snorted before disappearing into the night.
Sookie rolled her eyes before going into her house. However, she did find herself hitting the speed-dial code for Eric—”conveniently” number one on her new phone—not a minute later.
“Hello?” she asked when the phone was picked up but Eric said nothing for several seconds.
“I am waiting to be,” he paused, “scolded.”
She giggled as she toed off her shoes. “And what do you think I should be scolding you for.”
“Dirty, dirty thoughts,” he flirted, managing to sound suggestive without being creepy.
She realized in that moment that his flirting had become much more understated since Jackson—since the trunk incident. Whether he was being conscientious of that ordeal or simply felt like he could dial back on the leering now that they’d decided to pursue a relationship—both working and personal—she smiled in appreciation for his restraint.
“I’m afraid they don’t actually make brain bleach to clean away dirty thoughts,” she flirted back. “I know; I’ve looked for it because of the things people around me have thought,” she added with a grunt.
“Probably for the best,” he said with a smile in his tone. “Some of my thoughts about you are the good kind of dirty.”
She couldn’t help but to giggle as she turned on the Christmas tree lights before practically sinking down onto the couch. “So—what have you been up to so far tonight?”
“No good,” came his chuckled response.
“Well that’s a lie,” she smiled.
“How so?” he asked.
“Turns out that it was a good thing that you sent Thalia into Merlotte’s, though I imagine she’s already told you all about that,” Sookie sighed.
“Just a few bullet points,” Eric said back casually. “I’ve asked her to make sure that all of your guards understand that your privacy—even from me—is not to be taken lightly.”
Sookie felt a little lump in her throat at Eric’s thoughtfulness. “See—there you go again. Proving that the whole ‘no good’ thing is a bunch of bull-hockey.”
“What exactly does that colloquialism mean? Of course, I know what a bull is. And I am aware of the human sport, hockey. But I do not know how the two fit together in that idiomatic phrase,” he mused.
Sookie laughed. The things the vampire knew always astounded her. But—almost invariably—the things he didn’t know amused her.
“Malarkey,” she grinned. “Do you know that word?”
He laughed. “Indeed. Of course, now I am wondering why people don’t simply say ‘bullshit?’ The gods know that Pam has enjoyed that word much more since its connotation became more,” he paused, “festive than literal.”
“She seems like she would like all the festive words,” Sookie returned.
“I believe she collects them—sometimes just to annoy me,” Eric chuckled. “She has a webpage—an online dictionary of sorts.”
The telepath laughed. “It figures. And I think people say ‘bull-hockey’ because it helps them to avoid cussing, and because hockey pucks kinda look like . . . .”
“Bullshit!” he finished, his voice full of mirth.
“Yeah!” she giggled.
They were silent for a moment, but the lack of noise didn’t make Sookie uneasy. On the contrary, it was oddly comforting. Still, she broke that silence as a comment occurred to her. “I know you and Pam are maker and child and all, but you sometimes seem like siblings to me. I mean—y’all act like me and Jason at times.”
“Your relationship with him is going better now?” he asked. “I smelled him at your home last night, and Thalia did make a note that he was ready to defend you at the shifter’s bar earlier.”
“Yeah,” Sookie smiled. “We had a rough patch after Gran died. Part of him blamed me, and then there was the whole Bartlett thing,” she added wearily.
“What happened concerning that man?” Eric asked, the anger clear in his tone as he recalled what Sookie had told him about her “funny uncle.”
Or, Sookie contemplated, maybe it wasn’t anger so much as it was protectiveness.
“Jason invited him to Gran’s funeral. You see—Jase didn’t know about what Uncle Bartlett did to me and Hadley. And—uh—then Bill killed him not long after, and Jason was upset with me because I wasn’t more upset that he was dead. And—of course—a part of him blamed me for Gran’s death,” she finished sadly.
“He was wrong to blame you for that,” Eric said firmly.
Sookie sighed. “I blamed myself for her dying too,” she admitted, “for a lot longer than he blamed me. I still blame myself to a certain extent. After all, it was me who brought Bill into our lives.”
“It was the queen. It was Hadley. It was Bill’s blood,” Eric listed quickly.
“Yeah,” Sookie relented, “but I was a part of it too. The consequences were unintentional—to be sure. But things happened; there’s just no denyin’ that.”
They were silent for a few moments.
“Are you okay? After tonight? What happened?” Eric asked.
“What all did Thalia tell you?” Sookie asked wearily.
“I felt your upset—your unease—at times throughout the night, but then I was feeling much more relaxation and comfort. And then—suddenly—it was as if the air was let out of your emotions.”
Sookie shook her head. “Man! It must be crazy to feel what I feel all the time! And annoying.”
“Not really,” Eric said sincerely—contemplatively. “I’m sure it’s not as invasive as hearing the thoughts of others. Indeed, your feelings are generally simply in the background of my being. But the sudden change in them,” he paused, “jolted me.”
She sighed. “Sam was bein’ difficult earlier in my shift—but passive aggressively so.”
“He wasn’t filling my beer orders like he usually does for the waitresses,” she returned. “And I was getting the silent treatment from him—along with some negative thoughts thrown in about my choices in life. So—yeah—’unease’ is a good word for what I was feelin’. But I was dealing with it all okay. Then I took my break and had a bite to eat with Tara and Jason.” She sighed loudly. “Let’s just say that Sam decided to spew some of his anger, and Tara and my brother didn’t take it well.”
“Your emotions indicated that you didn’t exactly take it well either,” he said softly, clearly not willing to buy her deflation of the situation.
“And your reaction? Sending Thalia in?” Sookie asked just as softly.
“Clearly, I don’t take your emotional pain well either, Sookie. And I don’t take your safety lightly. If it was highhanded of me to send in your guard, then I will own to it.”
Sookie chuckled softly. “I’ve decided that that particular kind of highhandedness is okay.” She chuckled a little louder. “A week ago, I would have thrown a fit! But tonight, I let myself acknowledge that Thalia’s presence was actually comforting to me before I flew off the handle.”
“I’m glad,” he paused dramatically, “about both your comfort level and the fact that I am not in trouble.”
“Oh—you are in trouble about the phone!” she grinned into the receiver. “But I’m willing to accept it as a—uh—business-warming present!”
“Business-warming?” Eric asked.
“Humans get each other ‘house-warming’ gifts when they get a new place. I don’t know what someone calls it when a new business starts, but ‘business-warming’ works.”
Speaking of ‘warming,’ his voice seemed a lot warmer—and, perhaps, relieved—when he responded. “So you have decided to go into the telepathy business then?”
“Yes,” Sookie said with a deep exhalation. “I was 99% sure last night, but I wanted to be 100% sure. Sam’s behavior today crystalized things.”
“I am sorry that the shifter is not demonstrating that he deserves your friendship,” Eric shared honestly. “But I am quite glad that you are going to be utilizing your telepathy for your own financial benefit and—more importantly—to increase your safety, Sookie. I’ll have a business plan messengered to you tomorrow so that you can look it over and make revisions.”
“A business plan? Already? Wait! How long have you had this business plan at the ready?” she finished suspiciously.
“Why? Is my presumption highhanded?” Eric asked playfully.
“Very!” the telepath exclaimed, though her tone was not one of anger. Indeed, she was surprised more than anything else—and excited. “So? How long?”
“I began entertaining the idea of your starting your own business after you discovered that Longshadow was behind the theft from Fangtasia, mainly because I wanted to have a more solid arrangement with you than the verbal contract we formed that night. However, I didn’t act upon my idea because—back then—it would have been Compton managing your career. And—his other faults notwithstanding—he is too young and weak to keep you safe in such a project. However, following the Maenad attack, I realized you were already well into the supernatural world—whether you or I wanted that or not.” He continued softly, “I developed a business outline the night you were hurt—while we were waiting for you to regain consciousness.” He paused. “I needed something to do so that I would not rattle apart or do something foolish—like hunt the Maenad.”
Sookie took a moment to absorb what he’d said. “Even then? You cared for me then?”
“I would have denied it then—but yes. My concern for you was already more than what would have been usual for an asset. However, when I gave the outline to Bill, he refused to consider the plan. Indeed, he was so vehemently against it, that I began digging into his background and motives that very night.”
“He never mentioned the idea to me,” Sookie said softly.
“We have already established that he’s a prick,” Eric said with an odd mixture of frankness, comfort, and reassurance.
“And adding nails to his coffin really is overkill now,” Sookie responded firmly, proud of herself for the fact that Bill’s latest omission had not caused her to fall into a crying fit.
“Ah . . . ,” Eric started and then stopped.
“What?” Sookie asked.
“I was intending to make a comment in poor taste,” he admitted.
“Tell me,” Sookie requested. “I think I’d like to hear one right about now.”
“It related to the phrase ‘overkill’ and how it is the closest word humans had for the ‘true-death’ before vampires became known to them,” Eric returned. “I intended to ask you if you were finally ready for Bill to experience real overkill, but then I realized the joke intended to make you laugh might cause you pain.”
“Yet you’re telling me now,” she observed. “Without the comic timing—I might add.”
“A risk—to be sure,” he said softly. “But you asked, and I’ve determined that telling you the truth when I am able to do so is preferable to lying to you. I have asked for your trust, and you have given it to me. I will not jeopardize that by keeping from you my dislike of Bill or my propensity toward indecorous humor.”
“Indecorous?” Sookie asked.
“Off-color. Risqué. Rude.”
“You’re better than my Word-of-the-Day Calendar,” she chuckled. “I suppose I’ll have to keep you around. In addition to the fact that we’ll be working together, you’ll be a walking thesaurus.”
He chuckled. “When we travel, I could teach you many things other than English vocabulary. History? Other languages? Art? Architecture? Or—my favorite—sexual education.”
Sookie snorted out a laugh. “Risqué and rude—for sure! That being said, I wouldn’t mind knowing what you think about things. I’ve always loved reading. It might be fun to read a book and then talk to you about it—maybe learn more about the history around it—um—if you know about it.”
“I’d like that very much,” Eric said with a smile in his tone.
She took a deep breath. “I’m gonna use some of my earnings to take online classes too—and maybe even some at the LSU campus in Shreveport.”
“What kind of classes?” Eric asked curiously.
She chuckled. “I don’t know—really. I guess I’ll have to pretty much start at the beginning with stuff like math.” She sighed. “Anything I managed to learn about things like algebra in high school didn’t exactly stick with me.”
“Vampires make excellent math tutors,” he said with a smile in his voice. “It’s easy for us to memorize and apply formulas.”
“I bet,” Sookie chuckled. “I suppose I could take classes like psychology so I can better decipher some of the things that go through people’s heads.”
“Given your ability, I doubt a basic psychology class could teach you much—other than technical terminology,” Eric observed. “But—who knows—you might be intrigued by the more advanced theory. Freud is hilarious!”
Sookie chuckled. “He’s the sex guy—right?”
“All psychologists ultimately are,” Eric deadpanned.
The telepath chuckled a little louder. “Well—they’re right to be, given how often that topic really does float into people’s minds.” She shivered a little. “And—trust me—delving too deep into people’s sexual stuff is not hilarious!”
“I continue to be amazed that you retained your sanity before you learned to build your shields,” the vampire said sincerely.
“You and me both,” she returned. “So,” she said, switching back to the previous topic, “about school—I have no idea what classes I’ll end up liking. But I think it’ll be fun trying to find out,” she added with excitement.
“I enjoyed my studies very much,” Eric shared. “Indeed, I still indulge in a class in a new or evolving subject now and then.”
“Night school?” she asked.
“Occasionally,” he responded. “More often, I just glamour a professor I admire to offer private lessons in his or her field of study. That is how I originally got my education—you know.”
“Where did you get it?” Sookie asked curiously.
“I started in Paris in the early 1300s,” he responded. “But I’ve studied in many European universities.”
“Wow!” she enthused. “I bet that was something!”
“It was,” he agreed.
“Well—I think I’ll be startin’ my own studies on my couch—with that business plan,” she said determinedly.
He chuckled. “You’d better watch out; you’re only enabling my highhandedness if you accept the plan without an argument.”
“I’m trusting you to know when enough is enough,” she corrected. “And, Eric—truly—you’ve done enough.”
“Then I shall endeavor to continue doing enough,” he responded somewhat mischievously. “Just enough.”
She chuckled. “There’s no winning with you—is there?”
“You’ve already won,” he said with a combination of seriousness and playfulness.
A/N: Hello all! Many of you were anxious to “see” Eric again. Sorry that he and Sookie aren’t actually together yet. However, he promised her that he’d give her as much space as she wanted—though he was clear that any interaction she initiated would be welcome. Our crafty vampire has been “up to no good,” knowing that she wouldn’t be able to resist calling him about (calling him on) it. He’s opportunistic, but he’s letting her take the lead. Anyway, the conversation will continue in the next chapter.