1. Gift Horse (complete)

A/N: This is my story for the Sookie’s Secret Santa gift exchange story!  It was written for the talented Suki59.

Beta: Kleannhouse, who stepped in at the last minute when I wasn’t sure I’d get the story edited in time! She was a blessing, and her input definitely improved the story! I usually don’t have a beta, but I was extremely thankful for one with this story! Thanks, Kleannhouse!

Nominated!  I am humbled to report that this story received 6 nominations and one win for You Want Blood Awards!  Thanks!

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Summary:  (drama, angst) On Christmas Eve, more than seven years after the events of Dead Ever After, Sookie gets a surprise visitor: Eric Northman. He’s brought her a present. Will she accept it? And—if she doesn’t—will she and her family make it to the New Year with their freedom intact? (SVM Canon/Spoilers for all the books)

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“Merry Christmas, Sookie,” a voice said from behind her. It was a voice she’d know anywhere, even though she’d not heard its deep timbre for more than seven years.

She turned around slowly. In the darkness of the room, she made out only his silhouette against the wall furthest away from the fireplace. And—even then—it was only his glow that enabled her to see him.

The fire, started hours before and now dying, was the room’s only source of light. She’d not dared to turn on the other lights as she played Santa Claus for her six-year-old daughter, Samantha. Sammy was a light sleeper anyway, and Sookie wanted for her to have a few more years believing in the benevolent man in red. Sookie, of course, hadn’t had that luxury, but she could ensure that her eldest child did. She wouldn’t be able to keep the secret from the son she was carrying. Automatically, she placed her hand over her heavily swollen belly as he kicked as if he’d heard her thinking about him.

Maybe he had.

“When is your child coming?” Eric asked as he stepped forward, his eyes on her belly.

“He was due yesterday,” Sookie responded.

Sookie took a ragged breath as he took another step toward her. The dim light still didn’t allow her to see him fully, but that was okay. She didn’t need to. She remembered everything about him, and—of course—vampires didn’t change.

“I was sorry to hear about the shifter,” Eric said in an emotionless tone.

“Were you?” Sookie asked, her own tone a bit biting.

“No,” the vampire returned honestly. “But I am sorry about the pain it must have caused you.”

Sookie couldn’t help but to smile ruefully. “Same old compassionate Eric,” she sighed, not quite able to add the sarcasm she felt to her voice. She was simply too tired. She moved awkwardly over to the wooden straight-backed chair she’d moved to the living room several weeks before. She’d been having too much trouble getting up from comfortable chairs by herself.

“Yes—old,” Eric replied, his voice also sounding immeasurably tired for a moment. “May I sit?”

She nodded, and he moved to sit on her old, worn couch. He didn’t relax onto it—as he’d done the last time he’d sat there—so long ago. They stared at each other silently for long minutes—neither of them quite believing that they were together in the same room again.

“Why are you here?” she asked, finally interrupting the quiet when she became concerned that she would lose herself in his beautiful eyes. “I mean—you’re not supposed to see me alone. That was part of your deal with Freyda—right?”

He nodded, but didn’t answer her. Instead, he asked a question of his own. “Is the son you carry a telepath?”

Sookie inhaled sharply, trying to discern the look on Eric’s face. “How do you know it’s a boy? And why do you want to know?”

“My queen wants the child,” Eric responded matter-of-factly.

Sookie’s other hand flew to her child protectively, and her mind went into overdrive. Was Eric following Freyda’s orders? De Castro’s? Was he there to take her unborn child?

She couldn’t bring herself to ask him any of those questions. She tried to quell her terror. “Why not ask if my daughter is a telepath?”

Eric looked at the dying embers of the fire. “I already know that she is not. The shifter passed along his ability to her, along with his name; however, she did not inherit her mother’s gift.”

“How do you know that?” Sookie asked, her voice quivering.

Eric dragged a hand through his hair. “Trusting Freyda was never an option for me. Thus, since our,” he paused and a look of disgust passed over his handsome features, “marriage began, I have looked for ways to monitor her actions—to remain a step ahead of them. Two months ago, I was able to implant a spy program into the computer of her second in command, Luther. The program allows me to monitor anything that he is viewing.” He stopped and took an unneeded breath. “Or anything he is listening to. Sadly, I cannot take control of the computer and search it at will; however, an active surveillance device would have been spotted, so I had to opt for something more,” he paused again, “passive.”

Sookie took a shaky breath.

“Your great-grandfather’s magic is strong here,” Eric smirked a little, as he looked around. “The old fairy—I think—left behind more than just a fertile garden.”

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“There’s an inhibiter spell around this place. That fact has apparently frustrated Freyda, as well as Felipe, for seven years. Both of them wish to have a nice, young telepath of their own, preferably a child of yours. Freyda wants your suffering. Felipe simply wants the asset to which he feels he’s entitled. He is bitter that you didn’t leap at the chance to come to Las Vegas and be his pet telepath after our marriage was dissolved,” he scoffed.

“He’s fucking delusional,” she muttered.

He nodded and then sighed. Sookie hated that sound coming from Eric; she always had. She knew he didn’t need to sigh. She knew that he only made that sound when something was wrong—usually something involving her.

“The magic here has made their attempts to monitor you in your home impossible. However—elsewhere—they have managed to listen in. Two days after I installed the spy program, Luther reviewed several recordings while he was on the phone with Felipe. The transcripts of them made for interesting reading,” Eric continued forebodingly.

“And what did you read?” Sookie asked with trepidation.

Eric closed his eyes. “I have never enjoyed seeing you upset, Sookie. And once I tell you what I came to tell you, you will be.”

“Tell me anyway,” Sookie said, her hands now rubbing nervously over where her child was moving.

He opened his eyes and looked into hers. “I used to avoid telling you unpleasant truths because I wanted to fix the world for you,” he paused, “without your ever knowing it was broken.”

“But you couldn’t,” she responded soberly, remembering the many times when all hell had broken lose around her.

“No—I could not,” he agreed. “And, because of that, I lost you.” He sighed again and rose to his feet, turning his back on her and looking at the fire. “May I?” he asked, gesturing toward some wood next to the hearth.

“Sure,” she said, even as she trembled. The room was getting a little cold, and it didn’t seem like Eric would be leaving anytime soon.

After he’d rebuilt the fire, he sat again onto the sofa.

“Would you like a blood?” she asked. “I still keep some for when . . . .”

“For when Compton comes by,” he finished, his features schooled, but his eyes flashing dangerously at the mention of the vampire who’d been the first—and the most recent—to have Sookie’s affection.

“Yeah,” she said in barely a whisper.

He shook his head. “No. Thank you, but I have already fed tonight.”

Sookie flinched a little at the idea of him feeding from someone—someone other than her, that is. Of course, she didn’t expect him to mainstream, not when the taste of TruBlood hadn’t been improved. Hell—not even Bill pretended to mainstream anymore—not when there was such a burgeoning donor industry.

Eric and Sookie were silent for a few moments.

“Do you hate me?” Eric asked out of nowhere.

The abruptness of his question and the subject change should have surprised Sookie, but it didn’t. “Not anymore,” she answered without thinking.

He nodded. “You always were too forgiving.”

She smiled sadly. “Not with you—I wasn’t. Though I eventually got there.”

He shrugged. “There are many who feel that they enjoy a certain level of entitlement when it comes to forgiveness. I am not one of those people. I did not ask for your forgiveness.” He paused. “If I had, you might have given it to me. But that wouldn’t have been for the best.”

“No,” she said quietly. “Instead of asking me for understanding, you did your level best to make me hate you.” Her eyes narrowed as she watched for his reaction. “You once told me that you would never lie to me, but—in the end—you did.”

“No—I did not,” he said firmly, his eyes twinkling for a moment. “I told you I might not tell you everything, but that what I would say would be true.”

“You made me think the worst of you,” she accused. “I didn’t see the truth for a long time, but,” she chuckled regretfully, “even my eyes can’t stay closed forever.”

“And what is the truth you think you see?” he asked, sitting forward with interest.

“That you lied,” she answered.

He raised an eyebrow, his expression indicating his amusement. “How so?”

“The last time we were alone, you asked me to be your mistress in Oklahoma, even though you knew damned well I would hate you for asking me to do that—to be that. You also told me you’d considered turning me against my will. And you blackmailed Sam into not pursuing me romantically.”

He smirked. “How was any of that lying on my part? The truth is that I still thirst for you: for your blood, your body . . . .”

She interrupted him with a snort and a skeptical look. “I’m a beached whale. And I’m definitely not getting any younger.”

His eyes flashed with a passion that Sookie remembered all too well.

“You are still the most beautiful woman I have ever seen,” he growled. “Your being with child may have changed your body, but it has made you no less lovely.”

She gasped. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” he said, smirking a little. “You have learned to take a compliment?”

She shrugged.

He smiled a little. “As I was saying, I still crave you and your companionship.”

“Oh.”

“Do you still crave the truth?” he asked.

She nodded.

His eyes grew darker with emotion. “The truth is that I wanted you to be my mistress—if you couldn’t be my wife. I wanted whatever part of you I could get. The truth is that I have thought about turning you—thousands of times—especially after the fairies tortured you so badly that even my blood couldn’t keep all the scars at bay. The truth is that I wanted you with me always—not just for your human lifetime. And turning you against your will would have been the most expeditious way. The truth is that I have considered doing it—and then asking for your famous forgiveness afterwards.” He smirked. “Not that I would have deserved that forgiveness.”

She scoffed.

“Do you want some more truth?” he asked rhetorically. “I loathed the thought of you in the shifter’s arms. The truth is that I hoped you would not accept his advances when they inevitably came, and I fantasized about neutering him many, many times. The truth is that I didn’t want his mangy paws anywhere near you.”

“Yes,” she said with a gasp. “I suppose all those things are true—aren’t they. At least half true.” She sighed. “It was the other half that I refused to acknowledge for so long.”

“And what’s that?” he asked, sitting back into the couch, his body taking on a more relaxed pose than it had before. Only his intense, alert eyes told her that he was anything but relaxed.

“That you may have wanted me to be your mistress—but you knew I would turn you down. You also knew that I’d hate you for asking me.” She looked at him with challenge in her eyes, daring him to deny anything she was saying.

“What else?” he asked.

“That you may have wanted to turn me,” she paused, “but you never would have—at least not against my will. That a part of you may have wanted me to pine away for you like a nun—but that you actually pushed Sam and me together.”

He growled at her last statement.

She shook her head. “And the fact that the thought of it still causes that reaction in you is all I need to know to confirm the truth. You painted yourself as a villain so that I wouldn’t pine over you—so that I could get on with my life.”

His eyes flamed like the hottest part of the fire he’d built back up, and they were silent for a moment.

“And so you did,” he said, looking at her swollen belly.

“And you? Did you get on with your life?” she asked, her voice barely perceptible.

He smirked, though his eyes were mirthless. “Ask me again in 193 years.”

“I’ll be dead then. So I’m asking now,” she said more forcefully.

Eric narrowed his gaze, but answered. “Being under my maker’s yoke was worse the first time than it has been this time—though I still resent the trap he left for me.” He shook his head. “Even truly dead, my maker continues to taunt me—to dominate me. I had thought that when he allowed me to move away from him, I would be free of him. For the many years I lived independently, I had convinced myself that I had a modicum of power over my own life. But what I thought I had was merely an illusion.”

“He let you be free for a while so that when he imprisoned you, it would be even worse,” Sookie sighed, having come to that realization a couple of years before.

Eric nodded in confirmation. “Yes. But it is more than that. A maker can always feel the general emotions of his or her child—even from great distances. It is no coincidence that my maker arranged for my new prison when he did.”

Sookie closed her eyes. “It was my fault he came. I’m sorry, Eric.”

“Do not be sorry!” he said loudly, causing Sookie’s eyes to pop open. She glanced down the hall toward Sammy’s room and quickly read her thoughts to make sure she was still sleeping.

“Don’t ever be sorry,” Eric said in a much quieter—though no less pleading—tone, “for I am not.”

A tear streamed down Sookie’s face. “But had you not met me,” she started.

“Yes,” he interrupted. “Had I not met you, I would have kept myself closed off to my emotions. He would not have felt my happiness or the love I had for you. He would have left me alone to continue with the half-life he’d taught me to live.”

“But wouldn’t that have been better?” Sookie asked with resignation. “We were together only a little while; you were happy only a little while. It can’t be worth 200 years.”

Eric leaned forward, his eyes softening. “You never did understand your worth, Sookie Stackhouse.”

Not having a response to that, she turned her gaze to the fire.

“Do you know when my maker first called Freyda—when he decided to sell my freedom?” he asked, his tone even again.

Sookie shook her head as she looked back at him.

“The night you first took my blood.”

Her mouth gaped open. “Dallas?”

Eric nodded. “As soon as my blood was in you, my whole world changed.” It was his turn to look at the fire. “Vampire blood is supposed to give the vampire the control. But in feeling your emotions, I lost control of my own. And suddenly. . . .” He stopped midsentence.

“Suddenly?”

“Suddenly, I started to wish again—to hope again. To dream.”

“Eric,” she whispered.

The firelight danced in his blue orbs. “I dreamed of a world where I could keep you safe from all that would harm you. I dreamed of a world where I could escape with you—go somewhere where I didn’t have to waste the nights I wanted to spend with you performing mundane sheriff duties. Somewhere where no one would betray the knowledge of your gift.” He paused. “When I got my memories back—from our week together—I was stunned.”

“Stunned?” she asked in a whisper. “Why?”

“Because—in so many ways—that time was just as I’d dreamed: my heart’s desire.” He looked away from the fire and locked his gaze with hers.

Sookie wasn’t sure what to say to him; she’d spent so many nights lamenting and then resenting the fact that he didn’t come to her more often, even when she knew that he was staying away in order to keep her off the radar of his enemies. She’d not felt much like his heart’s desire when there would be months between his visits and phone calls.

After a few moments, she went back to the subject they’d been discussing. “So, it’s not as bad with Freyda—not as bad as it was with Appius?”

“I am not being commanded to give up my ass nightly to an amorous maker,” Eric said, his tone turning cold as steel. “Fucking Freyda once a year has been less,” he paused, “unpleasant. The rest of the time, she is a mere annoyance, and I ignore her presence as much as possible. It helps that I’m kept busy with work.”

Sookie gasped at the bluntness of his words. She hadn’t known everything that Appius had forced Eric to do, but she had suspected that he’d endured many years of abuse. On one of the rare occasions when Eric had truly opened up to her—the night after they’d pledged—he’d told her that having sex with Appius “took some getting used to” but that he “enjoyed” it “eventually.” The memory of that conversation—and especially the word “eventually“—always made Sookie’s blood run cold. Appius had forced Eric to comply with his every licentious desire, and, having met Appius, Sookie knew well that the Roman vampire would have had no care about Eric’s feelings or preferences. Though it likely made her a bad Christian, Sookie had been glad when the vampire she had thought of as Eric’s rapist and tormenter was dealt the true death by Colman—and not just because Colman had been trying to kill her at the time.

“What kind of work?” Sookie asked, deciding to shift the subject to somewhat safer territory. She needed to ask why he’d come. She needed to know what to do about the son she was carrying. But she still couldn’t bring herself to ask him those questions.

“Freyda needed her kingdom to be shored up—her vampires trained and her finances strengthened. I had been fulfilling my end of the bargain struck between her and my maker.”

“Had?”

“Yes—had. As soon as I read the transcripts of the recordings, my deal with Freyda became null and void in my mind.”

“Why’s that?” she asked breathlessly.

“The car wreck that killed the shifter was planned by her. She knew that you’d secured a babysitter for your daughter. She knew of your plans to go to Shreveport to celebrate your reconciliation with Merlotte, and she set up the whole thing so that it would look like an accident.”

Sookie gasped. “But it was a drunk driver.”

“A glamoured, drunk driver lying in wait for you and Merlotte until he was signaled that it was the ‘right’ time to pull out in order to hit your vehicle.”

“Signaled—how?” Sookie asked wearily.

“That—I am unsure of,” Eric said. “I know that there was a listening device in Merlotte’s truck, and that device included a GPS signal so that the vehicle could be tracked. It is likely that someone was monitoring the GPS and called the drunk when you approached his position.”

“And after he got the call, his glamour kicked in,” Sookie added dejectedly. She shook her head and wiped away a tear. “He just pulled out right in front of us—like we had a target on us.” She chuckled ruefully. “I guess we did. The officer who told me that both the drunk and Sam died said that it was a miracle the truck that hit us didn’t go up in flames. It was a tow truck, you know.”

“Yes,” Eric said in a low tone. “I know. It was no accident that it was filled with various flammable chemicals.”

Sookie went on as if she hadn’t heard him. “The passenger side took the most impact. Usually, that’s where I would have been, but Sam was really tired from working all day and the night before, so I drove so that he could nap on the way to Shreveport,” she went on as if haunted by the memory. “The tow truck just came out of nowhere, and I had no time to react. It hit us so hard, and then we seemed to be flying, and then everything went black. And Sam . . . .” Her voice trailed off with a sob.

“Was killed on impact,” Eric finished for her.

“I’ve always been thankful that he was asleep,” she choked out. “He wouldn’t have seen it coming. He wouldn’t have felt the impact.”

Eric didn’t speak for a few minutes as tears continued to stream from Sookie’s eyes. However, his own eyes conveyed his pain; seeing her cry was still something that distressed him greatly. He was glad that she could comfort herself with the fact that the shifter had been surprised by death and had slipped from life without feeling pain. Eric hazarded that Merlotte would have hated to die that way. Any fighter would. And—as a vampire—the thing that Eric had always feared most was being removed from his life while he was in his daily death-sleep. Yes, dying in battle was preferable to dying powerlessly—at least to Eric.

“Why?” Sookie asked in a strained voice. “Why did she want to kill me? Why did she have to kill Sam? I wasn’t a threat to her!”

Eric sighed. “Freyda—it seems—had become convinced that the love I still hold for you is what was preventing me from establishing a romantic relationship with her. At one time, she had been willing to wait for you to die of natural causes, but she has grown impatient. The shifter was the one to suffer for that.”

Sookie had lowered her head, and tears were falling freely from her eyes. “So I was her target? I’m the reason Sam is dead.”

“Do not say that,” Eric said, obviously upset by her tears. “Blame me—if you must place responsibility on someone other than Freyda. Blame me!” he said more forcefully.

“Why you?”

“I could have pretended to have affection for her. Hell—I may have even eventually convinced myself—just as I did regarding Appius’s attentions.” He looked back toward the fire. “Freyda is not a poor lover. I could have set aside my pride. It was my behavior—my continued preference for a woman I had no hope of having again—that caused her impatience.” He looked back at Sookie as she looked up at him. “I could have accepted her offer to be her true husband beyond the words of the contract. But I did not. And because of that, her bitterness and jealously have grown. Because of that, she has caused you pain—and wishes to continue to do so.”

Before Sookie could register that he was moving, Eric was on his knees in front of her. “So blame me, lover. Do not blame yourself—not when you almost died that night too.”

She looked up at him; he was so close to her now, so beautiful. “I don’t want to blame you,” she whimpered, “not anymore.”

He pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket. She looked at him with confusion as she took it. “Why do you have one of these?” she asked as he got up and moved quickly away from her.

He smiled sadly. “Seven years has given me a long time to analyze the things that I could have done better where you are concerned. Some of those things are small,” he answered, gesturing toward the piece of cloth he’d given her.

As she pulled herself together—no small feat, given their topic of discussion and her pregnancy hormones—they both focused on the now-crackling fire.

“Did you love him?” Eric asked.

“Sam was a good man.”

“You didn’t answer.”

“There are a lot of kinds of love.”

“And you shared one of those with him?” Eric asked, his jaw tightening a little.

“I settled down and had a family with him,” Sookie explained. “If I hadn’t loved him, I would never have done that.”

“But you didn’t marry him.”

“No,” she murmured.

“Why not?” he pushed. “I know that he asked you many times. I heard him doing it.”

“How do you know?” she asked, shivering a little under his intense gaze.

“Merlotte’s bar—the one you now run with your brother—is bugged. Felipe took great pleasure in listening to the recordings Luther shared with him.”

Sookie shook again, this time for a different reason.

“Why didn’t you marry him?” Eric asked again.

“I don’t know,” she whispered.

“I also read transcripts of the trouble you had with the shifter pack from Tuscaloosa, Alabama.”

Sookie nodded. “Shifters usually don’t form packs.”

“No,” Eric agreed, “they don’t. But—then again—that pack has some interesting notions about recruitment.”

Sookie scoffed. “Yeah—like threatening me and Sammy, who was only four at the time, if Sam didn’t breed with members of the pack.” She sighed, “I called in a favor with Alcide, and Sam swallowed his pride and joined the Longtooth pack in order to make the Tuscaloosa pack back off,” she recounted. “He hated being in a pack.”

Eric smiled ruefully. “The shifter did what I could not. He found a way to keep you.”

“I helped him find a way,” she said quietly. “I regret that I didn’t help you.”

He focused once more on the fire. “I have only one regret.”

“What’s that?”

He sighed again. “I regret that I was not clever enough to ask for your help,” he said, his lips curving into a sad smile.

“Me too.”

“I would do anything to go back to the moment when I asked you to run away with me—before the witch war. I would give anything to have been free to choose you above anything else, but I couldn’t—not without signing both of our death warrants. I wasn’t free, though I did try.”

“Try to do what?”

“Buy my freedom—from both Felipe and then, later, Freyda. I offered all that I owned—except for you.”

“You didn’t own me,” she said, a hint of the famous Stackhouse temper popping up.

He smirked. “True. No one could.”

Immediately, her anger subsided.

“What else does Freyda know about me?” she asked.

“Are you sure you want to know?”

Sookie nodded.

“What did you used to say—in for a penny, in for a pound?” he asked.

She nodded again.

Eric ran his hand through his hair. “She knows of the various lovers you had before finally settling down with Sam.”

“So you know too?” she half-asked and half-stated.

“Yes,” he said quietly. “I know that you were with Sam for six months or so—not long after I married Freyda—but that he ended things. Why?”

“Because I wouldn’t marry him—not even when I got pregnant with Sammy,” she said quietly.

“Why not?”

“I don’t know,” she said, repeating what she’d told him earlier.

Eric continued his report about her life. “Sam, of course, stayed in your life, visiting his daughter every weekend. And—of course—I know that your daughter is not a telepath.”

“How can you be sure?”

“June 6, 2011: You and the shifter had a conversation about it at Merlotte’s. He’d been worried when your daughter, who was not yet three at the time, was able to read him one of her books. He thought she was picking the words from his head before he could say them.”

“No,” Sookie said, “she was just always good at memorizing.”

Eric nodded. “Yes—both Freyda and Felipe were disappointed to hear that,” he said evenly. “That was in the report too.”

“So they were working together to monitor me?” Sookie asked.

Eric nodded. “At first, it was just Freyda, but when Felipe found out about it, he blackmailed her so that she would report everything she learned to him. That was one of Luther’s jobs.”

“What else did they learn?” Sookie asked even as she felt her anger and fear dueling. “What else do they know?”

“They know that when your daughter was two, Quinn reentered your life and your bed for about a month before you ended things completely with him. They know that fifteen months after that, Herveaux and you had a drunken night together—which you later felt guilty about because he was married at the time.”

“He told me that he and his wife were separated and getting a divorce,” Sookie said repentantly. “But that didn’t end up to be the case,” she added, shaking her head.

Eric nodded. “I know.” He paused. “They know that a couple of years after your one night stand with Alcide, Sam and you decided to retry your relationship.” He took an unneeded breath. “That’s when Freyda contacted King Frederick.”

“King Frederick?”

“Yes—the monarch of Alabama. It seems he’s the one that made sure the shifter pack contacted Merlotte.”

“Why?” Sookie gasped.

“Likely because she wanted to spread her own unhappiness around to others.”

“And because she’s a spiteful hell-hag,” Sookie muttered under her breath.

“Yes,” Eric chuckled, “that too.” His face sobered. “They know that you were unaware that you were pregnant until you were in the hospital after the car accident. They know that you learned of Sam’s death and your son’s existence within minutes of each other. They know that it was Compton’s blood that saved your life after that accident. And they know that—for the last four months—you have been seeing Compton—socially—though you are not yet sleeping with him.”

Sookie trembled a little. “We’re taking things slow,” she whispered.

Eric didn’t respond to her comment, but what he did say made her blood run cold. “They also know that Compton started up a conversation with you in your office at Merlotte’s three days ago—a conversation during which he asked if the child you now carry is a telepath.”

Sookie was shaking in earnest now.

“I listened carefully to that recording,” Eric continued. “I know that you didn’t respond to Compton verbally. However, only one hour after that conversation, Luther began to draft a contract in which Freyda and Felipe would share the responsibility for raising a telepathic child from birth. The contract was also very thorough when it came to describing how they would train and partition out the telepath.”

Large tears fell from Sookie’s eyes as Eric went on, “Freyda has negotiated for the right to name the child.” He closed his eyes. “His official name will be Ocella, though she plans to call him by the nickname of Ollie.”

Sookie gasped.

Eric opened his eyes and continued. “It seems that Felipe has already arranged for your OBGYN and all the pediatric nurses at the hospital where you are due to deliver to be glamoured. They are to make it appear as if your child is in distress when he is born. The child is to be taken from the room before you see him as nurses yell out that he has stopped breathing. Later, another child—a dead one—will be shown to you.”

As more tears streamed down Sookie’s face, Eric drew a fresh handkerchief from his pocket before handing it to her.

“But I would be able to tell that they’d been glamoured,” Sookie said.

“Maybe,” Eric responded. “It was clear that Freyda and Felipe were hoping that you would be,” he paused, “distracted by grief or by . . . .” His voice trailed off.

“Bill,” Sookie supplied with sudden realization.

Eric nodded. “Yes. Compton is highly motivated to make sure you don’t realize your child is alive. He is to be rewarded with you after the successful abduction of your son. In addition, Felipe has promised Compton that he will leave you and your daughter alone. He’s promised that no harm will come to you.”

“Felipe has promised that before,” Sookie reminded as she angrily wiped the tears off of her face.

“And better vampires than Compton have been taken in by those promises,” Eric said warily. “I should know. I am one of them.”

Sookie frowned. “But what if I deliver the baby during the daytime? What if Bill cannot be there?”

“Steps have been taken,” Eric said, his tone now low and thick with barely controlled rage.

“Steps?” she asked tiredly.

He nodded. “If you go into labor at a time when Compton cannot be present, you will be told that your son is too big and that you need a Cesarean Section, but instead of giving you only a local anesthetic, as is the usual practice, you will be given something that puts you to sleep—until it is night.”

“And when I wake up,” she said with horror, “Bill will be there, ready to tell me that my son is dead!”

“That is the plan,” Eric said, his eyes conveying the depth of his fury.

“What of Freyda?” Sookie asked.

Eric scoffed. “Oh—she still intends to kill you—though Felipe has made her promise to wait another ten years before she arranges another ‘accident.’ They want to make sure the child’s telepathy is strong enough to make you a ‘redundancy,'” he said, spitting out the last word as if it were poison.

Sookie closed her eyes. “Bill told me that it was luck that he knew of Sam and my accident. He said he’d been listening to his police monitor and heard the description of Sam’s truck. He said that he’d rushed to us, but it was too late to save Sam.”

“Police monitor, listening devise. Potato, po-tah-to,” Eric said, though his tone clearly indicated that he wasn’t trying to make a joke. “Sam’s truck had been bugged too. That was how he knew of your accident. Whether or not Sam was already dead when he arrived, I do not know.”

Sookie took in a deep breath as she took in Eric’s suggestion. “So Bill was working with Freyda and Felipe then?” she asked.

Eric shook his head. “No. At that time, he was spying only for Freyda.”

“Why?”

“They both had a common interest—to make sure your heart did not soften toward me,” the Viking said wearily. “Compton wasn’t aware of the plan to kill you. After the accident, he contacted Felipe, which brought him into the equation. Compton told him that Freyda had made an attempt on your life. He thought he was protecting you.”

“By betraying me again,” she sobbed. “By snaking his way into my life and helping those bastards steal my child?”

Eric nodded. “It seems so. Compton wants you. He always has, and I’m sure he thinks he’s doing what he can for you—by ensuring the safety of you and your daughter.”

“By making it easier for them to take my son? By making me believe that he’s dead? Why?  So I’ll turn to him in my mourning like I did when . . . ?”

“When what?”

“When Gran died,” Sookie said, sounding defeated. “And when Sam died.”

Eric didn’t say anything. He didn’t need to. Sookie was already realizing that Compton had found ways to advance his continued pursuit of her when she was at her most vulnerable. There was no reason for him to make her feel any worse than she already did.

Sookie shook her head. “Bill told them my baby is a telepath, Eric. The other day—in my office—when he asked if he was, I nodded.” Her voice grew quieter. “He’s asked other times too, but I’d always lied before, telling him I couldn’t be sure, even though I suspected almost from the very start.”

“Are you sure that the child is a telepath?”

She nodded. “I can’t hear defined thoughts from him, but I can feel his mind trying to reach out for mine. It’s similar to what I felt when Barry tried to project a thought to me when I had my shields up.”

“I see,” Eric said before getting up to add another log to the fire.

Sookie buried her face into her hands. “Why can’t I learn?” she asked in a muffled voice. Of course, Eric was able to make out what she was saying. “I mean—I tried with Sam because we were friends, and I did love him—in a way. I thought it would be safe. I thought it would be normal. And then I tried again with Quinn, but he still didn’t put me first, and I just couldn’t trust him. And those things are certainly true of Alcide too! And then—Sam and I got back together. We came to an understanding. He knew that I could never love him like he’d hoped I would, but he chose to be with me again anyway. All he asked for was my faithfulness and my friendship; we were happy. We were building a good life. And then. . . .” she stopped for a moment before continuing bitterly, “And then Bill—again.”

Sookie shook her head. “Why can’t I fucking learn?” she looked at Eric pleadingly. “It’s like I just keep spinning in the same circle over and over again. And every time I fall down, I just get up and spin some more. I mean,” Sookie laughed bitterly, “I really was seriously considering taking our relationship further after the baby was a few months old. I had even started to trust him again—really trust him,” she said, deriding herself.

“Compton’s blood is in you again. I’m surprised that you have withheld yourself from him this long,” Eric said, providing her with the little solace he could.

She looked up at him. “And here you are again—trying to protect me when all hell breaks loose.”

“How do you know that I’m here to protect you?” he asked.

“I know,” she said simply.

Unblinking, they stared at each other for a moment. And Eric saw her trust in him.

“So what’s the plan?” Sookie asked.

“How do you know there is a plan?” he returned.

“Because you’re here—breaking your contract. You wouldn’t do that unless your own ass was covered.” She took a breath. “I’m just hoping that you still think mine is worth covering too.”

Eric chuckled, his eyes shining. “Trust me—I still believe your ass is worth protecting. And—yes—there’s a plan. But how it turns out is up to you.”

“Okay,” she said tentatively. “Tell me.”

He nodded. “As I told you, I’ve been surveilling Luther’s computer for months. As soon as I learned of the car accident that had killed the shifter and,” he paused, “almost killed you, I have been busy with preparations. I have collected enough evidence to prove that Freyda has broken our arrangement. And—as soon as I tell Cataliades to set things in motion—my marriage with her will be dissolved. And—the moment that happens—she will be killed.”

“By whom?” Sookie asked.

“By me,” Eric said coldly. “She tried to take you from this world, and, though it has not been much, knowing that you lived—and that you were safe—was enough for me. It appears that I was naïve to think that giving up another hundred years of my freedom would protect you. I am sorry.”

Sookie looked at him with her mouth agape. “You extended your marriage contract with her to protect me?”

He didn’t answer her question. “I am not sure how de Castro and Freyda intended to keep your child from me,” he said instead. “I would have smelled the boy’s connection to you. Perhaps, Felipe would have kept him in Las Vegas. Or—perhaps—Freyda hoped to use his existence as collateral to make me more compliant. It does not matter.”

“Why not?” she asked with apprehension.

His eyes bore into hers. “As I said, I have been planning. After the marriage is nullified, I will be able to kill Freyda without being guilty of treason, but I haven’t been able to figure out a way to get close enough to kill de Castro. And there is another danger. Though my marriage contract with Freyda is obviously a farce, it does afford you some protection.”

“So if you break the contract and kill Freyda, I’ll—once again—be up for grabs?”

He nodded.

Sookie exhaled loudly. “So you came to warn me that Felipe will be coming for me once you kill Freyda?” she asked.

“Not really. No,” he responded.

“What does that mean?”

“It means that you have four choices tonight.” He chuckled, though the sound wasn’t mirthful. “He looked at the Christmas tree. Setting in motion the one you choose will be my Christmas present to you.”

“Choices? What are they?”

He jumped right in. “Number one: Things could stay as they are—with the exception that Dr. Ludwig will see to your child’s birth and Pam will see to your children’s protection. They will each need to have a drop of her blood so that they will be marked as hers. And she will need to have a bit of their blood too in order to complete the tie. But that should afford you all some protection—at least for the short term.”

“Pam would do that?” Sookie asked.

Eric nodded.

“Couldn’t Felipe just demand the use of my son through her?”

“When he is older, Felipe will surely try,” Eric said regretfully. “But, by then, we will have had some time to make other plans to stifle him. In the meantime, if Pam becomes aware that her protection is inadequate here, she is prepared to transfer her fealty to Russell Edgington. Part of my negotiation with Felipe was that Pam could resign her position as Sheriff of Area 5 at any time she chose, while still retaining her property in the area.”

“And her property would include my children if they had a blood tie with her,” Sookie said with wide eyes.

“According to vampire law—yes.”

Sookie sighed. “I really hate vampire law sometimes.”

Eric smirked. “Me too. But other times, it is,” he paused, “useful.”

“Did you think something like this might happen? Is that why you negotiated that clause into Pam’s contract?”

“It is good to consider all eventualities,” Eric said enigmatically. “Luckily, Felipe has always been shortsighted.”

“Yeah—lucky,” Sookie muttered.

Eric gestured toward the window. “Actually, Pam is outside now—probably just past your range. Karin, too, is nearby. They are watching over you tonight.”

“How long have they been watching over me?” Sookie asked through narrowed eyes.

“Karin has never stopped, though she backed off after the first year—only checking in from time to time.” Eric’s expression clouded. “Your car accident with the shifter happened right after dusk, and by the time Karin tracked you down to heal you, Compton had already given you his blood. And Merlotte was already dead.”

Sookie exhaled and rubbed her hand over where her son lay. “Karin’s been following me for six years that I didn’t know about? But I’ve not sensed her?” she asked.

Eric smirked. “Karin spent a year studying the range of your telepathy. That was one of her directives. And—thanks to a little magic—she’s been able to cover up her scent since the first year.”

“And Pam?” Sookie asked. “I haven’t heard from her in over six years—not since she brought me a gift after she found out I was pregnant.”

Eric smiled a little, though his eyes conveyed melancholy. “Did your daughter like the gift?”

“It’s still her favorite,” Sookie said of the well-worn stuffed rabbit her daughter insisted upon dragging with her wherever she went.

Eric smiled, and his eyes took on a faraway look. “I purchased that one because it was soft. A child—I thought—would enjoy it. I chose yellow because I was not certain of the gender of the child.”

“The gift was from you?” Sookie asked.

Eric nodded. “A child was something that,” he paused, “I could not give you. It was part of that normal existence you longed for.” He shook his head and smiled a little. “I tried to ensure that you would have all that I could not offer you.”

“How?”

“By taking steps to make sure that the shifter would finally act upon his feelings for you. As you have seen—as you worked through your suitors a second time—he was the best of them,” Eric observed, though his voice held no bitterness.

Sookie closed her eyes. “How did Bill know about the deal you made with Sam? How did he know that you blackmailed Sam so that he wouldn’t pursue me?”

“How do you think?” Eric asked.

“You made sure he’d find out,” she said, opening her eyes. “You knew that he’d tell me that you’d pressured Sam not to become romantically involved with me.”

Eric nodded. “Yes. Compton is predictable. I determined that he would look for an opportune time to share that information with you.”

“And you figured that would spur Sam into action?” she asked.

He nodded. “Yes. That is what I suspected. After you used the cluviel dor on the shifter, I knew that your affection for him was strong, just as I knew that there would be no escaping the marriage with Freyda.”

“Why didn’t you ask me to use it for you—for us?” Sookie asked. “You never asked,” she added in a melancholic tone.

“Even a thousand-year-old vampire can act like a child at times.” He smiled a little. “I wanted the idea of using the cluviel dor for me to be your own. Plus,” he said resignedly, “what would it have done? It may have freed me of Freyda, but de Castro would have still been my king. And you were mine, so he could have used you through me.” He shook his head. “Ironically, once I married Freyda, you were better insulated from vampire matters—or so I thought. I was wrong, of course.”

“Where would my first option leave you?” Sookie asked even as she doubted whether Pam’s claim would be enough to deter others for the long-term. Likely, it would just put her vampire friend into more danger.

“I would continue as I am,” Eric said without emotion.

“Married to Freyda and trapped?” Sookie breathed.

“Yes. I would need to remain in a position where I could monitor both de Castro and Freyda. And my marriage contract with her would have to remain intact for that to happen.”

“You’d do that—for me?” she asked.

“The easier question to answer is what I would not do for you,” Eric said, his eyes reflecting the light of the waning fire.

“And what’s that?” Sookie asked in a whisper.

He was silent for a moment. “I cannot think of anything.”

She sighed and closed her eyes. “What’s my second option?”

“You could go to Las Vegas,” Eric offered as Sookie cringed. “If you lived in de Castro’s retinue, you could—perhaps—control your life. If you worked for him full time, he would likely allow your son to grow up safely. Then—when he came of age—he could negotiate a contract with the king as Barry has done with vampire monarchs. You could live a comfortable life.”

“In a gilded cage.”

Eric leaned forward. “Cataliades has already drawn up a contract and is ready to fax it to de Castro. You would be the king’s telepath. In exchange, you would have your own home, a good income, a guarantee of safety, and a reasonable work schedule. Neither he nor any other vampire in his retinue could take your blood or give you blood without your consent. You would be a salaried employee—not a pet. The contract would also protect your children during your lifetime—or until they were twenty-one if something happened to you.”

“And you?” she asked.

“Again, in that scenario, it would be best if I stayed as I am. If Felipe accepted the contract with you—as he would—Freyda would see it as a betrayal. Thus, I would keep watching her so that I could get word to Felipe if there was an impending threat to you or your children.”

Sookie shook her head. “What’s option three?” she asked, her voice catching.

“Take your chances with Compton,” Eric said in a whisper. “No matter what, Ludwig will now be your doctor when you deliver your child. You can claim that you became worried for your child’s health and wanted a supernatural doctor. No one will suspect anything.” He sighed. “In truth, Compton doesn’t want for de Castro and Freyda to take your son. His correspondences to both of them have attempted to argue against that plan. He believes that you are the best person to raise the child and to foster his telepathy. However—to ensure your life and the life of your daughter, who has also been threatened—he has agreed to help Felipe and Freyda until the child is delivered to them.”

Sookie shivered noticeably and placed her hands over her belly before looking toward the room where her firstborn slept.

Eric rose and put another log on the fire.

“Once your son is born safely—under Ludwig’s care—Freyda and de Castro will have to change their plans. At that point, Compton would most likely step in and offer himself as your and the children’s overseer of sorts. He will once again argue that you are the best choice to train your son.”

“Because he’s predictable,” Sookie muttered.

“Indeed.”

“Would he be able to protect us?” she asked.

He sighed. “Yes. For a while—at least, I think. Compton is still valuable to de Castro’s regime. And—if Compton made you his again and could offer your telepathic services to de Castro from time to time—it would ensure a level of safety for you.” Eric looked toward the fire and paused, steeling himself for what he had to say next. “If Compton is your choice, you will need to form a permanent bond with him. And you will need to pledge with him. Pam has the ceremonial knife and will stand witness to the pledging if need be.”

Sookie scoffed. “But, if I did that, I’d have to be with Bill. Bill the manipulator! Bill the liar!”

Eric nodded solemnly. “Yes. Your life will have come full circle—back to Compton, who is indeed a liar and a manipulator, even to himself.

“And you would stay with Freyda in that case too—wouldn’t you?”

He nodded.

“What’s option four?”

“You could take a chance on me,” Eric said, looking at her with something akin to desperation in his eyes. “But—to do so—would not be easy.”

“Tell me,” she implored.

“You’d have to leave your home tonight and go into hiding until after Freyda is no more. In fact, you would have to leave de Castro’s territories.” He paused. “And you could not return to Louisiana—at least not as long as Felipe is king.”

“What of my family? My friends?” she asked.

Eric smiled sadly. “I knew you would say that, my lover. I knew you would not want to leave them or this place.” He rose and slowly walked to the side of the room where she’d first seen him earlier that night. After retrieving a small box, he crossed the room again and put the package under the Christmas tree.

“You came here expecting me not to choose you,” Sookie said sadly as she managed to make her way to her feet and move toward him.

“I know you,” he replied quietly before turning around from the Christmas tree in order to face her. “Pam will be waiting for you to contact her tomorrow night at sundown. I have left Ludwig’s number next to your phone. As soon as you decide, you should tell Pam whether you choose her, de Castro, or Compton to be your protector.”

“And you?”

“I will return to Oklahoma before I am missed,” he said without emotion. “There is a Christmas ball tomorrow night, and I will be expected to escort my queen.”

He turned and moved toward the front door.

“Wait,” she whispered.

He turned back around.

“What if I agree to leave?”

Eric couldn’t hide his surprise. “What?” he asked faintly—almost timidly.

“What if I agree to leave?” she asked again.

He took a small step toward her. “You will travel to a safe house in Mississippi tonight. Russell respects you because of your actions in Rhodes, and he owes me a debt as well. I have called in the favor.”

“And it doesn’t hurt that he dislikes Felipe,” Sookie added.

“No. In fact, that is likely his main motivation for helping.” He paused. “The safe house has been equipped so that Ludwig can attend to you there; that way, you won’t have to go to a hospital in order to have your son. You will stay there until you and the infant are able to travel safely. And then you will fly to Sweden.”

“Sweden?”

Eric nodded. “The vampire king there is indebted to me and is a,” he paused, “friend of sorts. I respect him, and the feeling is mutual. Truth be told, I would have settled in Sweden many centuries ago, but my maker tended to stay in Europe, so—except for periods in England, which was a country that Appius loathed—I stayed mostly in Asia and then moved to this continent once I was allowed to leave my maker’s company.”

“And you? What will be happening to you while I’m in Mississippi?”

“Cataliades will send the evidence against Freyda to the council. It will be proven that she has broken our contract, and our marriage will be nullified. As soon as I am free and cannot be charged with treason for killing Freyda, I will enjoy taking her head.”

“Won’t that make you king?”

“The council will likely offer me the kingship, but I will decline.”

“Then what?”

“Then, I will come to you in Mississippi and travel with you to Sweden. There, you and your children will be as safe as I can make you.”

“But not completely safe,” she said resignedly.

“I will not lie to you. It is not within my power to foresee all threats, but I will use all the resources at my disposal to protect you and your children. Olaf has a coven of witches in his employ. They will erect protection wards around your property. We will also take some of the soil from this place. The witches believe that the magic that Niall was able to instill here might transfer—at least to a certain extent—if the soil is buried at the four compass points of your property in Sweden. But our best defense will be anonymity. We will—as humans say—lie low.”

“Wait—what do you mean my property in Sweden?” she asked.

“The property I owned in Sweden has been transferred to your name so that vampires cannot enter the home there without your invitation. Also, your great-grandfather’s magic would not transfer to my land. So it is now yours.”

“Oh,” she said. “And you already did this?” she asked incredulously.

“All four of your options have been fully prepared for,” he responded evenly.

“I need to sit down,” Sookie breathed.

Before she could even turn around to move back to her seat, Eric had lifted her up. Automatically, her arms flew around his neck and her head rested against his chest.

“Same place as before?” he asked, though he’d already been slowly moving toward her wooden chair.

“Yeah. Thanks.”

“It is nothing,” he said as he set her down gently before returning to his place on the couch.

“What about my family, Eric? What about Jason, Michelle, and their kids?”

“They would be welcome in Sweden—to live or to visit. I would pay for their trips—of course. Pam would keep a close eye on them here for a few years—to make sure they didn’t become targets—and then she would resign her post.”

Sookie was silent as she thought about the options Eric had given her.

“There is more,” he said after a while. “Since Compton has given you his blood again . . . ,” he started.

“He could track me to Mississippi and then to Sweden,” she finished with a weary shake of her head.

Eric nodded.

“Couldn’t Pam keep him in silver or something?” she asked.

Eric shook his head. “Felipe has never fully trusted him—especially not where you are concerned. He forced Compton to bond with one of the human pets in his retinue. That human now has the ability to track him.”

“So—if Pam just imprisoned him—de Castro would still find him,” she said with resignation.

Eric nodded.

“What about magic? I could break the tie—like I did the bond.”

“Compton’s blood is in you, and your blood is in your child. Thus, Compton’s blood is in your son too. Even if you broke your tie to him, he would still be able to feel the child. And breaking a tie in an infant could be,” Eric paused, “quite dangerous, according to the leader of Olaf’s coven.”

“You want to kill Bill—don’t you?” Sookie asked, though she already knew the answer.

“Since the day he walked into Fangtasia with you for the first time,” Eric answered without hesitation. “Even more when he left your side in Dallas. Even more when he left you in my stewardship so that he could go fuck his maker. Even more when he raped you in that trunk. Even more when I found out that he pursued you in order to procure you for Sophie-Anne. There has not been a day in almost a decade that I haven’t imagined myself killing Bill Compton,” he finished, as his eyes flashed murderously.

Sookie took in a deep breath. She’d always known just how lethal Eric could be. But being confronted with that side of him still unnerved her to a certain extent.

Eric interpreted her silence as judgment and got up. He took a step in order to be further away from where she sat and lowered his eyes. “I am the monster you always thought me to be,” he said quietly. “I freely admit this. I wish to kill anyone who stands in the way of what I want. I wish to make you mine—to possess you completely—just as you have possessed me since the first moment I laid eyes on you. I wish to protect you and the children who share your blood. I wish to do this with a level of greed that would make Donald Trump cringe. I am prepared to slaughter thousands in your name, and my hands twitch to begin that slaughter with Bill Compton.”

Eric took another step back. “While we were separated, I fucked 2,164 women—approximately one per night and never the same one twice—except for Freyda, whom I fucked seven times. I took blood from all of those women, even Freyda, whose I had to take once—when we wed. However, in my bitterness, I didn’t give a single one of them—and certainly not my wife—an orgasm. Call me a selfish bastard if you like,” he continued, “but I refused to please a woman who was not you. I fed and I fucked—not to forget you, but to remember just how empty my life is and to hurt Freyda, who has always wanted more from me. I cannot tell you how much I’ve missed you in the time we’ve been apart. There are no words in any language I have learned to describe the hole that eats at me. I cannot tell you how many times I have fantasized about killing Merlotte, although I knew he cared for you—and you for him. And, as for Compton, Herveaux, and Quinn—all of whom have used you or spied on you—I have imagined countless horrific scenarios. I have spent nights hating your children because they were proof that you had made love to another man. Other nights, I have spent loving them because they are a part of you.”

He took another step back.

“I offer you a life of looking over your shoulder and praying that de Castro and those like him are not over it. I offer you a life of cold winter nights when I can be with you for upwards of twenty hours and lukewarm summers when I can be with you for only three hours a night. And—that is only if I live, Sookie.” He paused. “I will likely be able to kill Freyda, and I have an escape route, but it is contingent upon the idea that most of her people hate her.”

“And what happens to me if you don’t make it out of Oklahoma alive?” she asked.

He sighed. “Karin will be with you in Mississippi. If I meet the true death, Pam will join you there, and together, you will all travel to Sweden. They will protect you and your children.”

“But what about their lives? Surely they don’t want to spend years and years guarding me and my kids.”

Eric chuckled. “They would certainly be happier in Olaf’s court than they are here. And do not sell yourself short. They both enjoy your company and consider you a friend. I would not have asked them to protect you otherwise.”

Sookie winced and pressed her hand against her belly as a particularly hard kick came from her child. Eric was kneeling down next to her a second later.

“Are you okay, my lover?” he asked with concern.

“Yeah. Thanks,” she muttered. “This little guy just sometimes likes to make his presence known, and it’s gettin’ real crowded in there for him.”

“May I?” Eric asked, his cool hand hovering just over her swollen belly.

“Okay,” she said quietly.

He lightly placed his hand on her belly and then smiled a little.

“I have not felt a child move like this since I was a human,” he mused, closing his eyes at the sensation.

“Do you miss your human children?” she asked.

“Yes. Every day I have been undead,” he responded in a quiet voice. “But I was lucky I had them—even for the short amount of time I did. And—though I hated it at the time—I was lucky that my maker ordered me to stay away from them so that I wouldn’t accidentally harm them.”

“Could you learn to accept my children—even though they’re Sam’s too?” she asked.

“I already do,” he responded quickly. “They are a part of you.” He paused. “I do not know if I would be capable of being a father-figure to them—if that is what you are asking—but I would protect them and treat them kindly.”

“You’re capable of more than you think, Eric Northman,” she breathed.

Sookie leaned toward him, and though her belly tried to get in her way, Eric arched his body in order to meet her lips for a soft kiss, before resting his forehead against hers.

“I hated you for a while,” she sighed. “But I never stopped loving you—not even when I settled upon making a life with Sam. That’s why I didn’t marry him. In my heart, I was married already.”

He let out a long, rattling breath—as if his lungs had been fully activated for the first time in centuries.

As the baby kicked again, Sookie pulled away and grimaced a little.

“Still okay?” he asked.

She nodded and gave him a little smile before pointing to a large stocking on the coffee table. “Would you hang that for me?” she asked.

He nodded and quickly hung the bundle full of small gifts.

“There’s a bike in the guestroom closet. I managed to put it together last night. Would you bring it out here?”

He nodded again and quickly did as she bid.

Once he was done, Sookie picked up the plate of cookies Sammy had left for Santa Claus and ate them. Then she threw the plate into the fireplace, shattering it into hundreds of pieces.

Eric looked at her with curiosity until a little girl came into the living room. The child was rubbing her eyes.

“Mommy?” Sammy asked as she looked first to her mother and then to the stranger in the room.

“Hey baby. I think Santa broke the plate you left his cookies on,” Sookie said.

The child’s eyebrows furrowed as she took in the shattered glass and then the fire. “Santa came? While there was a fire? While you were awake? How come he didn’t burn up?”

Eric spoke up. “Saint Nicholas is a wily fellow; I have always believed him to be a vampire, in fact.” He winked at Sookie. “Your mother and I were in the kitchen when we heard something break in here. Given your mother’s current lack of speed, by the time we were able to make our way into the living room, we had—unfortunately—missed meeting him.”

“Who are you?” Sammy asked, now much more coherent.

“I am Eric.”

“Vampire Eric?” she asked.

“Yes.”

Sookie was looking at Sammy with surprise. “How do you know Eric’s name? How do you know he’s a vampire?”

“Daddy told me,” she said sadly, “before he died.”

“What did he say?” Sookie asked.

“That if I ever met a vampire named Eric, I should do what he says,” the little girl replied as she looked at her new bike with wide eyes and a big grin. “Mommy, can I have my stocking now too?”

“Absolutely,” Sookie said. “You should ask Eric to get it for you—since he’s tall.”

Sammy looked up at Eric. “You are tall.”

“And you are short.”

“I’m just young,” she said, as she placed her hands on her hips and glared up at him.

Eric chuckled as he took in the miniature Sookie in front of him. The little girl had blond curls, and her blue eyes—which seemed cloned from her mother’s—shone with stubbornness and resolve.

“My mistake,” Eric smirked as he took down the stocking he’d put up only minutes before.

As Sammy looked over her new treasures, Sookie whispered to Eric, “Will you pack some things for us? Can we take her bike?”

Eric’s eyes widened a little as he saw the determination in hers. “Yes and yes.”

“Where’s Bill now?” Sookie asked almost inaudibly.

“Meeting with Pam’s lieutenant—about the database,” he responded.

“In Shreveport?” she asked.

“I thought that best. I was pretty sure your emotions would be rattled tonight. I’m surprised he hasn’t called you.”

“He is used to my pregnancy hormones by now.” She kept speaking in a low tone that Sammy couldn’t hear. “I want you to know that he hasn’t gotten beyond a kiss on my cheek—not in all these months.”

Eric smiled a little. “That’s good to know.” His face sobered. “So—just to get this straight. You are choosing me—right? Option four?”

She nodded.

“And you will leave here? Tonight?” he asked, his voice still registering disbelief.

She nodded again.

Eric bent down and gave her a ghost of a kiss on the corner of her mouth.

“Eric,” she said in barely a whisper. “It’s going to take a while before we can get back to where we were.”

“Luckily, I have a long time, lover,” he said. “Plus, I do not want to get back to where we were. I want to get to where we always could have been if we had trusted and talked to each other more. And anyway, your body will need time to heal after the child is born,” Eric said waggling his eyebrows a little.

“And we’ll be together—um—living together?”

He nodded. “Yes. You will have your own room, of course, and there are rooms for your children on either side of yours. And—one day—when you are ready, you will be more than welcome in mine.”

As she blushed, Eric gave her another quick kiss and then quickly zipped to the bedroom that Sookie’s scent clung to the most—the same room where he’d remembered how to love when he’d been under the witch’s curse, the same room where he’d remembered what that love had felt like months after the curse had been lifted. He couldn’t help but to wonder if he’d ever be in that room again as he quickly pulled out the two suitcases in the closet and filled them with a variety of Sookie’s clothing and toiletries. He knew that they could purchase more when needed. Next, he went into Sookie’s daughter’s room, found another small suitcase, and packed it for her too. Eric remembered that Sookie had once kept empty boxes in her attic, so he sped up there and was happy to find three, good-sized boxes. In them, he packed things that he found in the nursery and some of Sammy’s toys, leaving room for her new stocking items. Finally, he packed the pictures he found on the walls of the hallway and in Sookie’s room, as well as a few old albums he’d found in her dresser. He was back in the living room in ten minutes.

He found Sookie speaking to Sammy.

“So we’re goin’ on a trip?” the little girl asked.

“Yep,” Sookie responded.

“But what about Christmas dinner? Uncle Jason and Aunt Michelle are comin’—and the kids.”

Sookie looked at Eric and then back at her daughter. “Honey, this is not just going to be a regular trip. We’re not safe here anymore. There are some bad vampires that want to hurt us.”

Sammy turned her blue gaze to Eric. “Are you gonna keep us safe—like Daddy said?”

The Viking nodded. “Yes.”

“Do you love my mommy?” the little girl asked with the brazen innocence that only a child could possess.

“Sammy!” Sookie cried out. “Why would you ask that?”

She shrugged. “Daddy always told me that you were thinkin’ ’bout Vampire Eric when you got that sad look on your face. He said it was ’cause you loved Vampire Eric, but that that was okay ’cause people can love lots of people,” she said nonchalantly.

Sookie was amazed by her daughter’s perception—and Sam’s.

“So do ya?” Sammy asked, looking up at Eric.

“Yes, I love her,” Eric said evenly.

“Sammy, why don’t you go pick ten of your favorite books to take with us on our trip while Eric and I finish our talk—okay?”

“Okay,” Sammy said before skipping off to her room as if she didn’t have a care in the world.

Still a little caught off guard that Sam—of all people—would have told their daughter to trust Eric, Sookie took in a deep breath as she “listened” to Sammy selecting her books. Meanwhile, Eric had silently moved back to the couch.

“She is taking my presence here well,” Eric observed quietly.

“I don’t understand why Sam told her what he did. I mean—we talked about what I thought you’d done for me—after I’d figured stuff out. However, I know that my love for you hurt him. It was the kind of love that he always wanted from me.” She sighed wearily. “But I couldn’t give it.”

Eric smiled at Sookie’s words.

“What?” Sookie asked before rolling her eyes. “Yes—you won. I was never able to give my heart to Sam—or anyone else.”

He smirked a little before his mouth relaxed back into a smile. “Lover, I will not lie and tell you that I’m not glad about that. I am. You know of my possessive nature. But that is not why I smiled.”

“Then why?”

Eric furrowed his brow a little as he thought of his response. “It’s difficult to explain. I have spent the last seven years of nights blaming myself for not finding a way to thwart the plans of Appius, Freyda, and—to a lesser extent—Felipe. I have spent seven years of nights torturing myself with the thought that you were better off without me—that you no longer thought of me at all.”

“Eric,” she whispered as he moved to kneel down next to where she was sitting and placed one large hand onto her cheek.

“I have spent seven years of nights tormented by the notion that you loved Compton or Merlotte or Quinn or Herveaux more than you ever loved me.”

“But couldn’t you feel my love for you when we were bonded?”

He nodded, though his eyes lost a little bit of their light. “Yes. I felt your emotions. But that was, perhaps, the problem.”

“What do you mean?”

“It is not important now,” he hedged.

“Tell me,” she said forcefully. “I need to know about all the water so that we can build a big enough bridge to get over it.”

He raised an eyebrow. “I always did love how you could twist a saying, lover.”

“And I always hated when you’d change the subject.”

Eric sighed and dragged his hand through his hair before returning once more to his seat. “You did love me, Sookie. I could feel that, but your love was always tempered with suspicion—with one exception.”

“When?” Sookie asked in a whisper, even as she began to understand how the bond might have affected Eric just as much as it had her.

“When I didn’t know who I was,” he said. “When Hallow cast her spell. The last night we were together, I felt your unequivocal love for me.” He paused and looked at the fire. “As myself, I was never able to elicit that same feeling from you—though I got close a few times.”

A tear slipped down Sookie’s cheek. “Eric,” she whispered, “I’m sorry that I hurt you like that.”

“Do not be sorry, Sookie,” he said, looking back at her. “Our bond was new to you, and it was forced on you. I wish I could have spoken with you about it before it was done. You should have had the chance to choose.”

“But Andre forced the issue,” she said bitterly.

He nodded. “Your emotions were all over the place that day. First, you felt fear and disgust when Andre and you were alone. Then—when I got there, you felt hope. But then—once you knew that we would have to bond—that hope went away, and I felt only resignation from you.”

He closed his eyes. “After that blood exchange, our bond was fully formed, and I could feel your emotions even more clearly. Before I remembered our week together, I wanted to come to you many times, but feeling your ambivalence was difficult enough from a distance; feeling it when you were in the same room was,” he paused, “more problematic. I could sense your love when you were around me, but it didn’t quite feel like it was for me. And then—when I did remember—I knew that it wasn’t. It was for the amnesiac me. And, of course, by then you were already convincing yourself that the bond was affecting your feelings for me—causing them.”

He sighed. “When we finally did come together again, I once more felt your resignation—as if you saw our being together as an inevitability that you couldn’t avoid, but weren’t really choosing. But I took what I could get. I’d hoped that—if I gave you enough time and space—you would learn to love me in the same way that you loved ‘your Eric.'”

Sookie wiped away a tear. “Eric, I’m sorry that you had to feel all that from me. I was just so confused—after everything that had happened. I was scared. I worried that if I loved you too much, it would hurt even more when you went away again. I never trusted that I could hold onto you for long.” She wiped a tear away. “As it turned out, I was right.”

“So we were both guilty of hurting each other unintentionally.” Eric laughed ruefully. “It is ironic that it took you breaking the bond in order for you to realize that you truly loved me. And—without the bond—I could not continue to hope to feel your true love again.” He shrugged. “Perhaps, we were both fools.”

She chuckled. “Definitely.”

There was a pause in their conversation as the fire crackled noisily.

“Can I ask you something?” she finally asked.

“Apparently so,” he smirked.

“Huh?”

“You just did. Actually, you’ve asked me two things if ‘huh’ counts as a question,” he winked.

She rolled her eyes and chuckled a little.

“Can I ask you something first?” he asked with mischief in his eyes.

“Apparently so,” she returned.

He smirked. “How was I able to get in here tonight? The last time I was here, you rescinded my invitation. I’d lingered outside that night, and I heard you myself.”

“Then, why didn’t you knock tonight?” she returned.

He raised an eyebrow. “I don’t know. I was going to, but then something told me to just try the door. I still had a key.”

She smiled a little. “When I realized that I didn’t hate you, something told me that it would be better if you could get in here—if need be. So I invited you in again.”

“How prescient of you, lover,” he said with a grin.

“Prescient: an adjective meaning to have knowledge of things or events before they exist or happen; to have foresight,” she recited.

“Still getting your word of the day calendars?” he chuckled.

“Of course.”

“Some things never change,” he observed.

“Some things do,” she retorted.

“Yes,” he said, taking her in. “Some things do change—for the better. So,” he asked a moment later, “what was your question.”

“I want to know why you withheld your emotions from me most of the time—when we had our bond. Maybe if I would have felt how my own feelings were hurting you, I could have done things differently.”

“Sookie, why did you initially like to be around Compton?” he asked, sitting forward.

She looked a little confused at the subject change, but still answered. “I couldn’t hear his thoughts. And he helped me to better block out others’ thoughts too.”

“Do you still like the silence of the vampire mind? Does it still give you respite to be around Compton?”

“Yes,” she admitted. “Sam was more difficult for me to hear for a while, but eventually, it was as if my brain ‘learned’ to hear him—against my will,” she said bitterly. “Luckily, Sam’s thoughts were mostly kind. It was difficult to hear how he wished that I would have loved him more, but I knew that already.”

She scoffed. “When I allowed Quinn back into my life—which was a big mistake, by the way—I quickly ‘learned’ his brain too.” She shook her head. “All he could think about was how silly I was being for wanting to wait to sleep with him. He thought that I should just automatically trust him because he said he was sorry. And—even when I asked him to stop calling me ‘babe’ out loud—he still did it in his head.” She rolled her eyes. “In the end, the best thing I can say about Quinn is that he didn’t mean to be that much of an asshole.”

Eric chuckled. “He just couldn’t help himself?”

Sookie nodded. “Exactly! But—of course—by not hearing vampires, I run the risk of trusting them when I shouldn’t.”

“Do not blame yourself for trusting Compton. You always did worry about the effects of vampire blood in you, and you were right to do so. Having his blood again after your accident would have softened your heart to him.”

“I know that,” she said with clarity. “I knew that all along, but I was just so tired after Sam died, so I. . . .”

“So you just went with it,” Eric finished for her.

“Yeah. It was nice to spend more time with him again; it was nice to not have to keep his thoughts out.”

Eric nodded in understanding. “To answer your question, I didn’t want you to have to feel my emotions, Sookie, because I wanted you to have that kind of respite when we were together. If I’d allowed you to feel what I felt all the time, it would have been similar to hearing my thoughts—no?”

“So you didn’t let me ‘feel’ you because you wanted me to have peace?” she asked, with sudden realization.

“Yes—but that was not my only motivation. I am a selfish creature, and I didn’t want you to think badly of me.” He chuckled somewhat darkly. “Had I kept my emotions open to you, you would have known how much I loathed Compton, for example. You would have felt my murderous inclinations when the Tiger was near. Plus, you and I never really checked your ‘range.’ Before we came together again as a couple, you may have been able to feel my lust when I was with others—even when you were many miles away from me.”

She cringed.

“See?” he observed. “You would not have liked that. It would have made you uncomfortable, and I didn’t want to risk it.”

She nodded. “You’re right. It would have made me uncomfortable.”

“Unfortunately, I could not prevent you from feeling some of my emotions—especially those that pertained to you directly,” he said sadly. “And—in the end—the things that I couldn’t stop myself from feeling or projecting were the things that you were most suspicious of.”

“What do you mean?”

“You tell me,” he challenged. “Tell me the things you distrusted most about our bond.”

She sighed. “No matter what, when I was with you—especially when I would first see you—I felt happy. Even when I wanted to be angry at your highhanded ways, I couldn’t quite bring myself to ripping you a new one. I mean—there were times when I was genuinely very happy to see you, but other times, it felt like that emotion was being forced into me—especially when all hell was breaking lose around us.”

Eric nodded. “I know. I would feel your initial elation at seeing me, but it would almost always be followed immediately by your suspicion, and I hated that. But—no matter how much I tried—I could not help myself. When I sensed that you were near, I couldn’t prevent some of my own anticipation at seeing you from seeping through our bond. And when we were together—especially when we made love or were talking of easy things—I found it difficult to stifle all of my contentment.”

She looked at him in surprise. “So those happy feelings? They were yours?”

“I hope that some were from you too. But—yes. A vampire will crave the presence of his or her bonded one. However, even before we were bonded, I was always,” he paused, “happiest when I was with you.”

“I’m such an idiot!” Sookie said contritely. “I should have realized that the things that didn’t feel like me were actually your feelings. I always recognized the difference.” She sighed. “I thought that the bond was trying to change my real feelings about you. Maybe I just didn’t think that you could feel those things about me.”

“Then I should have told you how I felt more directly,” he returned. “Neither one of us was particularly good at saying what needed to be said—when it needed to be said.”

“Too stubborn,” she observed.

He nodded in agreement. “And you were not the only one who wanted to avoid rejection,” he admitted.

“What else were you wary of when it came to the bond?” Eric asked after a few moments of silence had passed between them.

She sighed. “I didn’t like how you’d try to change my moods—to force your comfort or calm into me.”

His eyebrow lifted. “Is it not your instinct to comfort someone you love when he or she is in pain?”

“Of course, it is,” she responded. “But I wouldn’t try to manipulate someone’s feelings.” She shook her head. “And that’s what it felt like to me. It felt like you had the power to do that. It felt like you were just tryin’ to be highhanded.”

“And you were almost always angry when I did push comfort to you.”

“Yeah—I was.”

“Comforting you was my instinct, Sookie. It still is. And—I would find myself doing it however I could—before I would even realize it. That, too, I tried—but failed—to control. I did not want your anger and your misgivings.”

She exhaled loudly. “So the things that made me doubt my feelings and become mistrustful of the bond were the feelings and instincts that you just couldn’t hide from me?”

He nodded. “It is ironic how you and I seemed destined to hurt each other—when hurting you was the last thing I wanted.”

“I didn’t want to hurt you either.”

“Good,” he said with decisiveness. “Then let’s stop,” he added with a twinkle in his eye.

“Good plan,” she chuckled.

Just then, Sammy ran back into the room. “Mommy, can I take eleven books?”

Sookie smiled at her daughter. “Sure.” She looked up at Eric. “How long do we have here?”

“It is a little more than six hours until dawn. The drive from here to the safe house I’ve set up in Mississippi will take the better part of four of them. You should wait an hour before you leave. Pam has her minivan outside, and it should hold your suitcases, the bike, and the other items I’ve packed for you. If there is anything else you want to bring—keepsakes or items I overlooked that you need for the baby—just tell Pam or Karin. Of course, we can get more things when you are safe. But Karin has her car and will be following you, so she can transport some things too.”

“What about you?” Sookie asked as Sammy studied the adults with interest.

Eric winked at the little girl. Though she was not a telepath, he had been able to tell immediately that there was something supernatural about the child, and it wasn’t just that she was a shifter either, though that fact did a good job of masking any sweet scent that she may have inherited from her mother. Eric hoped that the shifter blood in the boy would do the same for him. It would make both of the children easier to protect if they smelled like shifters and not fairies.

“Yeah—what about you, Vampire Eric?” Sammy asked. “Aren’t you coming with us?”

Eric shook his head. “I must take care of a matter in Shreveport, and I will have to do that before you can begin your trip, so I’ll be leaving in about fifteen minutes.”

“Bill?” Sookie asked quietly as Sammy turned her attention to the presents beneath the tree.

Thankful that Sammy’s shifter senses, such as enhanced hearing, wouldn’t kick in until she hit puberty, Eric nodded and moved closer so that the child couldn’t overhear them. “Compton will be able to sense it when you leave here, so he will need to be handled before then. I don’t want to risk him calling Freyda or Felipe and telling them that you are on the move in the opposite direction from your hospital in the dead of the night.”

Sookie took in a shaky breath and closed her eyes. She needed a minute to process things.

Bill had managed—once again—to worm his way into her life. And, little by little, he’d been finding his way back into her heart as well. She wanted to slap herself for her own stupidity, as well as for her bad habit of repeating past mistakes. She was determined to learn her lesson this time!

Bill had been the prototype of a good friend after Sam had died; he wasn’t even the one who’d brought up the possibility of them dating again. That had been her! But—true to form—he’d betrayed her by spying on her and by telling Felipe and Freyda that the child she was carrying was a telepath. And then there was the fact that Bill was going along with the monarchs’ scheme to make her think that her son was dead!

Bill could have made so many different choices! Originally, he could have told her he’d been sent by Queen Sophie-Anne after he’d supposedly fallen in love with her. And—more recently—he could have put aside his petty jealousy of Eric and refused to aid Freyda with her spying. Sookie fumed! Her instincts told her that Bill—since he was a computer guru and all—had been the one to plant the listening devices in Sam’s truck and at Merlotte’s.

Eric had indicated that Niall’s magic had somehow stifled Freyda and Felipe’s ability to spy on her at home. How did they know that they couldn’t spy on her there? Obviously, they’d tried! It stood to reason, then, that they would have employed Bill to plant similar devices in the place that was supposed to be her safe haven. She shook her head, thinking about all the times she’d allowed Bill into her home; she wondered how many of those times he’d waited for her to leave the room before planting a bug. Hell! She was just happy that Niall’s magic had managed to frustrate Bill’s attempts!

And—when it came to protecting her and her children—there were a lot of other choices Bill could have made. For one—he could have told her the fucking truth for a change! She could have gone to Mr. Cataliades for help since he was her “sponsor.” And—maybe—he could have gotten a message to Niall, through the portals that never seemed to stay permanently sealed, no matter what her great-great grandfather tried to tell her! And then there was Russell; had Bill just told her the truth, they could have asked for his help. Sookie wasn’t fond of the idea of being indebted to any vampire monarch, but owing her allegiance to Russell was certainly the lesser evil compared to thinking her son was dead. And it was infinitely better than her son being raised as a pet telepath by Felipe and Freyda!

But—no! Bill didn’t do any of those things for one reason and one reason only. Bill was—at root—self-serving. He claimed to love her, but—when push came to shove—he was more concerned about what he wanted versus what she needed. And he—as always—wanted her. And—as before—the way he went about getting her was downright mercenary! He waited until she was at her most vulnerable—even helping others to make her that way—and then he swooped in like some kind of fairy tale prince. No! Actually, he slithered in like the devil himself.

“Do you want me to try to find another way?” Eric asked in a gentle voice.

Still lost in her thoughts, Sookie didn’t answer for a moment. She recognized that Eric was asking her if she wanted Bill’s life to be spared. But how could it be? He’d given her his blood after the car accident—an accident that he might not have been personally responsible for, but which he unintentionally aided in setting up.

Even if she painted the most flattering picture of Bill that was possible, it was still downright ugly. At best, Bill had been biding his time—all these years—just waiting for the perfect opportunity to pursue her again! And he’d taken it—after she’d lost someone she loved!

As soon as she was vulnerable!

Sookie thought back to all the times that Bill had mentioned Eric in the past seven years. None of the mentions had been kind. She remembered the look of triumph in his eyes as he’d told her that Eric had forbidden Sam from pursuing her romantically as a condition of giving him money for her bail. She remembered Bill telling her about how he’d seen Eric and Freyda at various vampire summits they’d attended over the years. Bill had always made sure to mention how content Eric seemed with his new position. And he’d always managed to fit in a dig or two about how Eric was back to his old ways—”seducing and feeding from anything with a pulse and a pretty face.”

Bill had, of course, told her all those things as if he were a concerned friend. Or, at least, that was how he always tried to spin it. Even as he was telling her, however, Sookie knew that Bill’s motives weren’t exactly pure. But—as with everything else—she always offered Bill her forgiveness. She’d rationalized that Bill had good reasons to dislike Eric. She’d excused him since it was “only human” for him to be a little bitter where Eric was concerned.

But—faced with having Bill Compton’s life in her hands—she wondered if he was still human at all. In her head, she could almost hear how Bill would try to excuse everything he’d done and everything he was about to do. He’d tell her that her son had to be taken from her so that she and Sammy would be safe. He’d tell her that Felipe and Freyda would take good care of her son and that he’d have a good life. He’d tell her that his actions were done out of love and that he was doing all he could in the face of immense pressure from his monarch. He would paint himself as the hero. And he’d believe every word he said!

But Bill Compton wasn’t a hero. He never had been. And, though it had taken her way too long to realize that, at least she’d done it before it was too late—thanks to Eric.

She looked at her daughter. “Honey, go ahead and open your presents so we can take them with us.”

The little girl squealed with delight and immediately grabbed a package from under the tree.

When Sookie looked back at Eric, she saw that he was waiting pensively. Her silence had obviously convinced him that she was going to plead for Bill’s life.

He crouched down on the floor next to where she sat. “I will find a way to keep Compton detained; I will figure out a way to keep him alive,” he said quietly.

“But de Castro would use his human to track Bill,” she said, also in a quiet tone, despite the fact that Sammy was quite distracted by her presents.

“I have a well-placed spy in de Castro’s court,” Eric said. “Perhaps, the human could be killed,” he said grasping at straws.

“No!” Sookie returned firmly.

“Then—I’ll make sure that Compton is kept moving until Freyda is dead and I can join you.”

“But de Castro will eventually find him, and then Bill will lead him to us. We won’t be safe.”

“I will protect you and the children from them,” Eric vowed. “And—perhaps—we could even remove de Castro from the equation if he came after us personally. He would be away from his stronghold, and Olaf would help us.”

Sookie closed her eyes again. “Even if that did happen, Bill would still have my blood—and the baby’s. And—even though I could undergo the spell in order to eliminate it, I wouldn’t endanger my child.” She opened her eyes. “Eric, I’ve finally learned that a leopard can’t change his spots. Or—in Bill’s case—he won’t change his spots!” She took a deep breath. “Bill has been digging his final grave for years.”

“Yes—he has,” Eric agreed.

“Then it’s time for you to put him in it,” she said resolutely.

Surprised by Sookie’s declaration, Eric’s mouth fell open a little. “I will,” he promised after a few seconds.

“Promise me one thing—okay?” she asked.

“Anything within my power.”

“Will you make it quick?”

Eric nodded in agreement. As much as he would have liked to torture Bill Compton mercilessly, he’d always intended to kill him quickly—for Sookie’s sake.

“I should go,” he said regretfully.

“Kiss me first,” she whispered. “Kiss me goodbye.”

After glancing in Sammy’s direction and seeing that she was occupied with a doll she’d gotten, Eric moved toward the woman whom he hoped to bond and pledge with again, but—this time—when they made that choice together.

At first, their kiss was tender, but it deepened a little as the two past lovers allowed the chemistry that had always existed between them to reignite.

“Did you bring mistletoe?” Sammy asked loudly.

Reluctantly, Sookie and Eric broke their kiss.

Eric stood up. “I’m afraid not, Samantha,” he said to the little copy of Sookie, who was looking up at him expectantly. “But I will remember to bring it the next time I see you and your mother,” he winked.

“My friends call me Sammy; I guess you can call me that too,” the little girl said.

“Thank you, Sammy,” Eric responded, smiling sincerely at the child. He looked back at Sookie and wondered if the longing—and the love—was as clear in his eyes as it was in hers.

For once, he hoped that his true emotions were showing clearly on his face. It was only with her that he didn’t wish to conceal anything. It had only ever been her.

“How long until we see you?” Sookie asked, her now slightly swollen lips quivering.

“If all goes well, I’ll be with you in two nights.”

She nodded and wiped away a tear before Sammy could see it.

“I love you,” she whispered. “I always have.”

“And I you,” he replied. “I always will.”

She wiped away another errant tear as he zipped out of the room.


“So?” Pam asked hopefully.

Despite her maker’s ability to stifle his bond with his progeny, she’d felt some of Eric’s emotions as he’d talked with Sookie: enough of them to know that he’d been in turmoil since she’d last seen him. She’d felt a moment of hopeless resignation from him, but since then, his emotions had been more positive. Now, he seemed surprised, but eager. And, minutes before, she’d felt a surge of lust from him.

“You’re a nosy bitch. You know that—right?” Karin asked her vampire sister.

“And I thought you two were getting along better,” Eric smirked.

Pam rolled her eyes.

“So?” Karin asked her maker, earning her a glare from her younger vampire sibling.

“I hope you’ve packed for a Scandinavian winter,” he said with a mischievous glint in his eyes.

“Thank God!” Pam intoned.

“You owe me a thousand dollars,” Karin said.

“You bet?” Eric asked somewhat angrily. “You bet on what she would do?”

Karin nodded and spoke without apology. “Yeah. I bet she’d finally do the smart thing and get the hell out of Dodge—with you, of course. Pam’s the one that bet against you.”

Pam stuck out her tongue at Karin.

“How old are you again?” Karin asked mockingly.

Pam turned her focus to Eric. “Well—it pleases me that I lost. And I wanted to win either way.”

“What did you think she’d do?” Eric asked, his anger now replaced with amusement.

“I figured she’d pick me,” Pam said with a smirk. “But I was already trying to work out a plan for when she finally stopped being stubborn and realized the error of her ways,” she added.

Eric chuckled at his vampire daughters before his gaze turned cold—deadly. “Where’s Mr. Compton?”

“Still with Thalia at Fangtasia,” Pam answered with a deadly smile of her own.

“Good,” Eric said. “It will be nice to see the old place again.”

“So she agreed that Bill had to go?” Karin asked without emotion. While it was true that she’d fucked Bill a few times after she’d come to Louisiana, she’d soon tired of having a vampire lover. She’d always preferred humans, and, though Bill had been a nice change of pace for a little while, she’d developed no feelings for him. In fact, after Eric had told her of Bill’s complicity in Freyda and de Castro’s scheme, the only thing she’d felt was the desire to torture the Civil War veteran.

“Yes—she has agreed to all of it,” Eric said with relief. He looked toward the house. “Unless she calls for you to go in sooner, give her twenty minutes to say goodbye to her home before knocking. Then pack her belongings into your vehicles,” he instructed. “And make sure Sookie is as comfortable as possible during the trip. It will not be long before her son is born, and she has difficulty getting comfortable right now. You should take pillows and blankets.”

He got a faraway look in his eyes. “There is a hideous afghan in the living room. That would do well.”

“She’d better not decide to have that baby in my van,” Pam said.

Eric smirked impishly and looked at Karin. “A thousand bucks that her water breaks all over Pam’s custom-made leather interior.”

“I’ll take that bet,” Karin replied immediately.

“Assholes,” Pam muttered.

Eric looked at the house one more time and then launched himself into the sky. He had a visit to make to an “old friend” before he returned to Oklahoma. He smiled as he thumbed the stake in his jacket.

Sookie’s choosing him was certainly going to remain the highlight of his night. But killing Bill Compton—finally—wouldn’t be half bad either.


“Mommy, who’s this for?” Sammy asked Sookie as the little girl picked up the gift that Eric had left under the tree.

“Eric brought it,” Sookie answered.

“For me?” Sammy asked.

“I don’t know,” Sookie said with curiosity. “Bring it over to me.”

She took the package and looked at the small card. It read, “For your son.”

“It’s for the baby,” Sookie said as she untied the ribbon and lifted the box’s lid.

“It’s like my bunny—but blue!” Sammy said of the soft toy inside the box.

Sookie sniffled a little. “Yes. It is.”

“Did Eric bring you a present, Mommy?” the little girl asked.

“Yes.”

“Where is it?”

“It’s too big to see,” Sookie answered.

Sammy looked at her mother with some confusion before bouncing out of the room to get her own bunny from her bed.

Sookie looked at the fire and sighed. Eric’s Christmas gift to her was too big to see. But she felt it. He was giving her himself—had already given her himself many years before. And she wasn’t about to look a gift-horse in the mouth—not this time. And not ever again.

End.


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A/N: Participating in the Sookie’s Secret Santa exchange was so fun! If you haven’t checked out all the fics, you should do so.  Just click the picture below.  And be sure to follow the blog so that you can get alerts next year!

The story written for me, “You’ve Got Dead Mail,” was an awesome Christmas gift, written by Suki59!  And there were many other “naughty” and “nice” stories in the bunch. A special thanks to Jan of Arc (a wonderful author in her own right!) for running things!

I hope that you enjoyed this story!  There will be sequel short stories to this series!    

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Cast:

Sookie

Eric

samantha

Pam

Karin


 

The first follow-up story to “Gift Horse” is called “Scrooged.”  Click the picture to check it out!

Scrooged1


 

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63 thoughts on “1. Gift Horse (complete)

  1. Great Job…. you already know my feelings about following up with this story …
    you have to Kill Bill (always my favorite part) …. she has to have the baby and then settle in Sweden
    Felipe has to have a meltdown
    Eric has people to see and a queen to kill ….
    you just CAN”T stop it there 🙂

    1. LOL–Thanks for letting me know what you’d like to see. I’m starting a list. But you know how much is on my writing plate right now, so you know it might take a bit. I’m glad you liked the story, and THANKS AGAIN for the perfect banner.
      XOXO,
      Kat

  2. Adored this story! It made me teary and angry yet again at CH for the shoddy, shoddy way she treated Eric…and the awful end to the series. You made a major contribution to healing that hurt….THANK YOU!
    Pat

  3. OMG, I love this story so much, and I would love to see some follow-ups! I want to know what happens with them and with Sookie’s baby boy!

    Fantastic job!!!

  4. what a wonderful way to tie up the mess of DEA and bring some closure for them. I loved this, the 4 options Eric gave her, and finally she chooses correctly. And I would be thrilled if you wrote more about them, even if it is one shots. I think he will make an amazing father for her children too.

  5. MY dear what can I say that hasn’t already been said above or in my Beta notes. I love this story and would like follow up on Bill’s little torture, the killing of Freyda, Russell being a great Uncle/Aunt because I know they didn’t leave right away like was planned, How Russell and Bart help out with the offing of Felipe’s head once he crosses into Mississippi without the King’s knowledge to steal what thinks is rightfully his…and Karin and Pam becoming attached to the babie’s even without a bond or tie… and of course Olaf and how he is willing to help out, gotta know what he has to do with all this and how close of tie he has to Eric and now Eric’s family…. Plus we have to see the reunion of Sookie and Eric after he kills off the evil bitch…. and last but not least Eric being the daddy he never thought he would be because he doesn’t know how to be a father figure (yeah right he raised our Pammy)… so again I say PESTER, PESTER, PESTER…. Hugs Kristie(kleannhouse)

  6. This was absolutely fantastic! And i am begging for a continuation! just a few chapters related to all the things kleannhouse mentioned, another 50 chapters or so would be good. 🙂
    Thank you so much for this, it was awesome!

  7. I loved this and I don’t even know how many times I cried while reading it! I know this is suppose to be a one shot but I would love for you to continue this. Even if it’s just a few more chapter or forty. 🙂 This is a great ending to DEA and I can totally see Eric coming up with all these options for Sookie and she picked the right option.

  8. I read this story yesterday and at the time didn’t know who wrote it. I already left a note over on the other site saying how much I loved this story – every word of it. I actually found myself thinking about it several times today as I went back to work…many many times…and still thinking of it!

    I’ve flipped back and forth so many times -one minute I’m like most folks wanting to read more of their story…the next minute I think ‘no no no’ because it ended so perfectly, giving the perfect setup to allow each of us to use our imaginations to build our own Sookie and Eric HEA’s. (Like I had hoped a certain author *cough CH cough* could’ve done). Either way – I’ll be happy with whatever you gift us with. If this stays a one-shot, it’s one hell of a damn fine one-shot. Happy Holidays 😉

    1. Thanks for such a nice comment! I’m glad that it’s sticking with you. I’m still not sure about the continuation b/c I have lots of other things I wanna get to. But I do have some ideas peculating. Happy Holidays to you too!
      Kat

  9. I’m kind of a masochist. I read “Enduring” whenever I need a good cry. I’m going to pretend this is a continuation of “Enduring,” so that story isn’t as heartbreaking anymore. I really owe you a ten-image reaction gif spam showing my relief at the ending, but that really wouldn’t cover all the emotions I felt reading this. I don’t usually like one-shots unless they’re really, really poignant (and very, very well-written), and this was. I have yet to dive into Comfortably Numb, but I look forward to reading more of your excellent writing.

    1. I hear masochism is the “new black.” 😉
      I have to admit that this story is “sort of” a continuation of Enduing, though the timing is a bit off. I actually started a companion to that story from Sookie’s POV, but it fizzled a little and I’m not sure what to do with it. Sigh. I hope that you eventually jump into Comfortably Numb. It’s very close to my heart, but doesn’t have as many readers as my other stories. I think that “all human” plus “angst” is not people’s favorite. However, the Eris in that story tugs at my heart like no other Eric I’ve ever written.

      Thanks again for commenting.
      Best,
      Kat

  10. Another awesome story. You managed to tie up loose ends from the book that will not be named, kill Compton, and come up with a way for the two of the to start new. Not too mention bringing everything together from other books in the series too. Though it would be awesome to see how it all worked out, you left it at a great place. We had a bit of humor and a lot of hope with Sookie and her daughter’s exchange at the end.

    1. Thanks. I’m glad you liked the story and thought I left it in a good place. I have so much on my plate that it’s hard to imagine where I’d fit in a continuation of this, but who knows! If the inspiration strikes, I must follow.
      Kat

  11. Love, Love LOVE IT!! Like everyone else I am hoping this is continued! Your writting always manages to pull me in and leave me wanting more.

  12. I loved it!!!! I would also love to see you post a few more one shots to continue this. Definitely want to join Eric when he finally gets to end Bill and Freyda. And seeing them all settled in Sweden would be good. But what I really want to find out is if Eric wins the bet w/Karin! LOL

  13. I absolutely loved this. Such an amazing story. I’m so happy that Sookie chose option four. The girl finally smarten up. I would love, love, love a sequel to this. I want to see Bill, Freyda, and Felipe get there comeuppance. What they were planning on doing to Sookie was beyond despicable.

  14. Ok, as anti-angst as I am, I caved. I read it. I loved it – and I didn’t even skip any parts, either. Very good story – very solid, very well structured, very moving.

    1. Caver. 🙂
      LOL @ “I didn’t even skip any parts, either.” I won’t ask if you usual do. After all–if you–uh–skip parts, there could be hygiene issues. (I’ll get another box of wet naps out to you straight away–just in case.) And–remember–be thorough! You don’t want to be finding sawdust in your hair weeks after it gets in there–yuck! And ears (and other things with a–ahem–channel inward) should be CAREFULLY cleaned. I’m just saying…..be careful!
      😉
      Kat
      wet-nap

      1. LMAO!!! No worries – thorough showers are thoroughly taken afterwards…thoroughly… Although all wet-naps are definitely appreciated… Thoroughly…and they’re thoroughly portable, too! 😀 😀 😀 Ya just can’t be too careful these days…damn sawdust gets everyfreakin’where… *checks behind desk*…….*shit*………

  15. I’m so happy that SSS is still going on. This story is amazing! I just love it. It goes to show that there are still ways to write about Eric and Sookie being together again. I’d like to see what everyone else has mentioned. Just so long as it continues.

  16. Great story! I enjoyed the quite convoluted plot between Felipe, Freyda and Compton to mess up Sookie’s life… If finding out about this all, didn’t put her off Bill forever, I don’t know what would… As it is, she made some rather poor choices in these 7 years Bill’s being the very worst (yep, you do not seem to learn Sookie…) but honestly Quinn again too? Oh well, at least she now made the correct decision risks notwithstanding… And in the midst of all this romantic debacle, Sam was indeed the best choice… Your story (and Sammy’s cuteness) have made me a fan of Sam Merlotte after all… I loved the banter between Eric and his unruly children… I think it says a lot about his character that he’d choose such strong minded women as his children… I hope you can add more Eric-Sammy interaction in the future, she seems adorable but smarty pants too… Just like all of Eric’s ‘girls’ so he is in luck that the baby will be a boy…

  17. I’m late reading this one, but I really enjoyed it. I’m always on board with stories that can chase away the clusterfuck of DEA. This was a believable explanation of what could have happened. I join with the others in saying that I would love as many additional one-shots/chapters that you want to give us. I see lots of potential here for enjoyable reading.

  18. I loved this one every single word Yes Eric and Sookie finally are talking about your mutual feelings it was about time! This was the reason I hated the books CH never made them talk to each other(at least about your future or their problems) and CH made Sookie never trust their blood bond and Sookie never learnt from her mistakes(Bill) Loved that they all go to Sweden Take care!!

  19. I’d forgotten how good this was! I’m finally getting round to reading the series, so thought I’d refresh. I loved the cameraderie between Eric, Pam and Karin. And I’m impressed with your casting of Karin, Stana Katic is perfect!

  20. I’ve never read this before and I loved it! I stupidly read your newest installment in this series first but at least I’ve discovered a whole new series on stories to read!

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