Thalia didn’t say anything as Sookie left Sam’s office and went to the front of the restaurant. The telepath was glad to see that Terry had already locked the doors, and even Jane Bodehouse was gone—as was her empty-bottle boyfriend.
She also noted that all her tables had been wiped down, and her last tips had been collected and put next to her purse, which had made its way from the booth occupied by her guards, where it had been most of the day, to the bar.
“Thanks, Terry—for finishin’ my clean-up,” Sookie smiled as the veteran walked past her toward the back door.
“No problem, Sook,” he said without really looking at her. The telepath could tell that Terry was having a “Xanax day.” She felt bad that it was the conflict between her and Sam the day before that had made the Vietnam veteran turn to his anti-anxiety medication.
With a sigh, Sookie collected her purse and her tips and walked toward the rear exit—with the vampiress on her trail.
“I will ride in your car,” Thalia said after Sookie had gotten into her rust bucket.
Sookie couldn’t hide her surprise. “Oh. Well—okay,” she said with a shake of her head.
Somewhat awkwardly, the telepath leaned over to unlock the passenger-side door for Thalia. The vampiress entered without sound, despite the fact that the car door generally squeaked like a drowning rat.
Sookie shook her head. Apparently, even the door was afraid enough of Thalia not to squeak!
The first few minutes of the drive were silent.
“Your private conversations will remain private,” the vampiress finally said.
“Uh—thanks,” Sookie said.
“You were quite,” Thalia paused, “diplomatic with the shifter. I’d thought that he would have to be killed before the end of the month,” she added matter-of-factly. “However, I believe that his behavior will amend now—because of how you conversed with him.”
“Uh—thanks,” Sookie said hesitantly, even as she cringed a little. She had no doubt that Thalia would have killed Sam if he’d pushed things too far.
“I had been skeptical that you would be able to safely do business with vampires,” Thalia commented.
“Oh? And—uh—now?” the telepath asked.
“You might survive after all,” Thalia smirked. “That will benefit me, so I am glad to learn that you have skills of persuasion—as well as more wisdom than I would have thought for one so young.”
“A compliment?” Sookie asked dumbfounded.
“No. A mere observation,” Thalia returned.
Sookie let out of a little snort. “Well—since we are on the topic of my skills of persuasion, I think you and I need to get some things straight about my Were guards.”
“Oh really?” the vampiress asked, clearly intrigued. “And what do we currently have,” she paused, “bent?”
Sookie rolled her eyes. “Not the rules; that’s for darned sure!”
Thalia smirked. “Then, I cannot say that I understand the complaint.”
Sookie sighed. “My Were guards wouldn’t let me eat my meal with them today—when I took my break.”
“You are upset because you did not have a meal companion?” Thalia asked with a hint of confusion.
Sookie shook her head. “No. What I’m sayin’ is that I want to work out a compromise with you—about my guards. Actually, I’ll need to work out one with Maria-Star too ’cause she might as well be a daytime version of you!”
“She is competent—for a Were,” Thalia stated. “And what kind of compromise are you proposing?”
“Look,” the telepath sighed, “I’ve accepted that I need guards. And I understand that their priority has to be to protect me from God-knows-what! But I’m friendly—dammit!”
“Clearly,” the vampiress deadpanned.
Sookie let out a frustrated grunt.
“So—your consternation is because you wish to be friends with your guards?” Thalia scoffed.
“If they want to be friends with me—and only within reason. Trust me—I don’t wanna compromise my own safety or their jobs!”
“Go on,” Thalia prompted.
The telepath took a breath. “I should be able to eat with them as long as it won’t affect their work. They should be able to have a conversation with each other as long as it won’t affect their work. They should be able to be friendly—if they want! They shouldn’t have to take their food to go after their shifts are over if they want to stay and flirt with my brother and his friend!” Sookie added loudly.
Thalia laughed at her last remark.
“Shut up!” Sookie yelled, though she was laughing at herself a little too. “Willow was into Hoyt, and Onawa would have been a much better choice for Jason than Crystal.”
“The werepanther,” Thalia snarled. “Your brother left with her this evening, but should be warned not to attach himself to her beyond the most casual of levels.”
“One of the Hotshot pack,” the vampiress said with a sneer. “Horribly inbred, most of them are not worth the space they occupy and should be put down.”
“That’s a horrible thing to say!” Sookie critiqued, though she had heard a lot of weird stories about Hotshot over the years. Truth be told, she wasn’t surprised to learn about the inbreeding thing. Or the panther thing.
“It is true,” Thalia said with a frown. “Whether it is horrible or not is immaterial.”
Sookie shook her head. “Fine. I’ll warn Jason. Crystal did seem a little—uh—bipolar to me anyway.”
“Arguably, all of the two-natured are,” Thalia commented with a smirk. “But I agree that the woman seemed to have some kind of mental instability, though I have heard that she is about the best Hotshot has to offer these days. She is betrothed to her cousin, however. So your brother really does need a warning so that he does not meet a pack of panthers looking for retribution one night.”
Sookie cringed. “Well then—I’ll be warnin’ him tomorrow. But, in the meantime, back to my earlier point. If my guards want to socialize with me or others when they’re not on duty, they should be able to.” She glanced at Thalia. “I know that Maria-Star and you ordered them not to be friendly at all, and I just don’t like it.”
Thalia considered for a moment. “What if they don’t want to be friends with you? Not everyone would enjoy such a thing.”
Sookie let out an aggravated snort. “Well—I won’t force them!”
“Fine. If—after their duties are over—they wish to establish a friendship with you—or your promiscuous sibling—they may do so,” she stated.
“And how about reasonable friendliness while they are on duty?” Sookie asked.
Thalia frowned. “I will consider the matter.” She gave Sookie a look of disapproval. “This kind of issue is why I dislike interacting with humans. It would be better if you had little or no interaction with your guards.”
“So that they wouldn’t care about who they are protectin’?” the telepath challenged.
“They are not paid to care,” Thalia said.
Sookie shook her head. “Well—I care about them. And about you—even though I don’t wanna be your friend either!”
The vampiress looked sick at the very idea.
Sookie went on. “I do care; that’s why I’ve committed myself to making your jobs easier by bein’ cooperative.”
“You should not care about me,” Thalia frowned deeply. “It is a waste of time.”
Sookie chuckled. “Oh—I know. But I still would feel bad if you were injured protecting me.”
Thalia was silent for a moment as Sookie turned the car onto Hummingbird Lane. “The guards will be instructed that they can be,” she paused, “friendly—if they choose—after their shifts end, but will be replaced—or worse—if I feel that their judgment is becoming doubtful. They will be instructed that they can be more cordial during their shifts as well; however, they will not do things like share meals with you if such things would affect your safety.”
“Fine,” Sookie said with a half-smile.
“They will not,” she paused, “hang out in your home when they are on duty either.” Thalia sneered as she used the vernacular phrase as if it left a horrible taste in her mouth.
“Fine,” the telepath said, her smile widening a bit.
“Do not expect friendliness from me,” Thalia said, even as she zipped out of the car before Sookie had put the vehicle in park.
Sookie chuckled all the way to her front porch where Bubba was waiting with a grin and a small, beautifully-wrapped box.
“What’s this?” Sookie asked as Bubba handed her the box after accepting a hug.
“From Mister Eric,” Bubba beamed. “Well—good night!” he zipped away before zipping right back, even as Sookie took a step toward the door.
“Oops!” he cried out loudly.
It took Sookie a moment to recover from the surprise of his quick exit and return.
“Bubba!” she said loudly. “You’re gonna give me a heart attack if you do that too often,” she laughed.
“Oh! Mighty sorry, Miss Sookie. But I was supposed to give you this too,” he said, handing her a crumpled piece of paper. The box was wrapped so darned pretty that it got me startin’ thinkin’ ’bout how my momma used to take such time with presents and such.” He got a faraway look in his eyes. “Especially ’round this time of year.”
“It’s okay,” Sookie smiled at the vampire, who zipped toward the woods without another word.
Sookie shook her head at Bubba’s quick comings and goings before heading inside. She had no doubt in her mind that the gift in her hands was the “payment” she’d agreed on for her assessment of Bobby. She frowned as it occurred to her that Eric would likely pay her “for real” for her interview of Christa.
She shook her head at herself. “Get used to your own worth,” she instructed herself, even as she went toward the kitchen. “And—you can buy Christmas presents with any payment too!”
After setting her purse down on the table, the allure of the gift was too much for her, and she quickly opened the note.
Unsurprisingly, it was from Eric. Also, unsurprisingly, there was a check for five hundred dollars.
I received your text informing me that you chose to meet with Christa Larrabee. Even though we have not officially settled upon your contract, I feel bound to pay you for your assessment of my potential day-person. I look forward to your call to discuss Miss Larrabee, your frustration with the check, and—if you will honor me with the information—your day. Until then, I hope you enjoy the gift I sent in return for the information you gave me regarding Bobby.
Sookie chuckled as she realized that she wasn’t too upset about the check. It had been a long time since she’d been able to afford nice Christmas gifts. Actually—come to think of it—she’d never been able to afford them! Mentally, she compiled her list: Jason, Tara, Arlene, and Sam (now that he was being nice again). And then there were certain vampires in her life that she wanted to get gifts for: Bubba and even Pam. And, of course, there was Eric.
She sighed and re-read his short note, lingering on his closing word. “Yours,” she said aloud.
“Mine,” she smiled as she ripped into the small package. What was inside made her smile even more.
Indeed, she smiled all the way through her shower and then her midnight snack.
Thalia flew to the stand of trees where Eric said he would be waiting for her.
“Why not just ask the telepath about her day,” the vampiress asked with a smirk.
Eric chuckled. “I am not in Bon Temps to do that, though I expect that I will hear about Sookie’s day soon enough.”
“Then why are you here? And why are we meeting here?” she asked as she looked at Jason Stackhouse’s home with curiosity. Both vampires could hear the loud sex that was occurring inside the house.
“Does Padma know that she will be Sookie’s primary guard while we are meeting?” Eric asked.
“Of course. She is in place now. Bubba is at the telepath’s home too, as I’m sure you know.”
She lifted her eyebrow, a clear indication that she had caught his recent scent at the residence. “When I left, Bubba was waiting to greet the telepath at her door—with your gift.”
The Viking smiled slightly. “Good.” He gestured toward Jason’s house. “I sincerely wish that those Sookie loves would stop making bad choices about their bed companions. First, her friend Tara was almost bartered to Mickey by Franklin Mott. Now, her brother is fucking the princess of Hotshot and is being stalked.” He gestured again—this time toward the opposite side of the property.
Thalia’s fangs came down as she looked toward the darkness and inhaled deeply.
“I smell nothing,” she said.
“Neither do I,” Eric returned, his smirk more prominent. “But I hear three panthers.”
Thalia looked at him with some surprise. “Your range is impressive.”
He nodded in agreement. “Many believe that flight is my vampire gift; few understand the scope of my hearing, a fact which serves me well.”
“Yet, again, you have trusted me with your secrets,” Thalia mused.
“I’ve trusted you with something much more precious,” he replied.
“And you mean to protect all whom Miss Stackhouse cares about?” Thalia asked.
“Yes. They are paths to get to her—to harm her. In fact, I came here tonight to assess what would be needed to set up protection for the brother and Miss Thornton if the need arises. Unfortunately, it already has,” he sighed.
Thalia grinned, her fangs showing. “What will we do?”
“Hopefully, we can avoid doing much of anything. I’ve called Calvin Norris, who will be arriving soon.”
Thalia frowned immediately. “You think his can still control his people?”
Eric sighed. “I don’t know. The female werepanther Jason returned with clearly knew that she was being tracked by the others.” He sneered. “She was performing for them, likely trying to incite her fiancé’s jealousy and, perhaps, his violence. Whether the three werepanthers intend to do actual harm to Sookie’s brother tonight is immaterial. Norris will deal with them to my satisfaction, or we will!”
“So—if we aren’t going to kill them—yet—what are you going to do with them?” she asked, her fangs retracting.
“You know,” the Viking said with a smirk, “I told you about my vampire gift only because I am aware of one of yours.”
“Oh? Which one?” the vampiress asked evenly.
Eric chuckled. “Is it true that your ability to glamour the two-natured is as strong as a normal vampire’s ability to glamour humans?”
“Surely you are old enough to glamour Weres,” she responded with a non-answer.
“Weres? Yes,” Eric responded. “Felines have always given me trouble, however.”
“More of a dog person then?” she asked with a chuckle.
He shrugged. “Sometimes. And—given the situation—I want the glamour to hold. If you want, Norris can believe I am the one responsible for the glamouring—so that the power of your ability remains unknown.”
“And it won’t hurt the mythology of Eric Northman for you to seem stronger than you are in that area?” Thalia commented sagely.
“Not in the least,” Eric chuckled.
“Then—yes—I would prefer it if Norris does not understand the depth of my ability. So I will glamour Norris as well. Now, why are we not just killing them all again?” she asked seriously.
Eric smirked. “I don’t want to have to decimate the panthers—even if most of them are worthless. And killing the three—and Crystal—would start a war. However, they cannot be left with a grudge against Stackhouse. After the woman is done with Jason, we will collect all four, and you will glamour them to forget they know Jason. Beyond that, Norris will need to control them.”
“Why call Norris at all then?” Thalia asked.
“To cover the bases. And to make sure he understands that anyone with the Stackhouse name is under my protection.” Eric shrugged. “Given Jason’s reputation and Crystal’s behavior, it is not beyond the realm to hypothesize that this night could play out again in two-months’ time—even if everyone involved were glamoured.”
“Or Stackhouse might try to pursue Crystal Norris in Hotshot,” Thalia observed. “Do you want him glamoured as well?”
Eric thought about it for a moment. “I will discuss it with Sookie.”
“I already told her to warn her brother not to pursue anything beyond a fuck with the werepanther,” Thalia informed.
Eric nodded, “Good. After the problem is taken care of here, I want you to arrange for around-the-clock Were protection for Jason. Had I not happened to be here tonight, he may well have been damaged.”
The vampiress nodded.
“If you feel that a vampire guard is called for as well, let me know,” the Viking added.
Eric lowered his voice, though he’d not been talking very loudly. “I need to discuss something else with you tonight as well.”
Thalia nodded for him to continue.
“Within the next days or weeks, you may pick up the scent of a vampire when I am near. She excels in stealth, so she might be able to avoid your discovering her for a while. But—I doubt she will stay off your radar indefinitely.”
“A guard? For you?” Thalia asked.
“Something like that. More of a failsafe,” he responded enigmatically.
“You doubt my abilities?” the vampiress asked, though she did not seem offended.
He shook his head. “Not at all. I doubt my maker.”
Thalia’s eyes widened for a moment. “Explain.”
“It is simple if you know my maker, and I believe you have encountered him.”
Thalia frowned. “Yes. Is your shadow going to kill him?”
Eric shrugged. “If it comes to that, she will be killing Appius or myself.”
Again, the ancient vampiress’s eyes widened as realization hit her. “You would give up your existence for Sookie Stackhouse?”
“To protect her? Especially from myself?” He raised an eyebrow. “Do you really need to ask that question of me?”
Her piercing eyes studied him for a moment. “No,” she responded simply. “When will your shadow arrive?”
“Soon,” the Viking said simply.
“How will I know she’s not a threat?” Thalia asked.
“Her scent will contain magic. I doubt Padma or Bubba will pick up on that, but you will.”
For a third time, Thalia’s eyes widened. “You’ve hired the Slaughterer.”
Eric looked at her with careful eyes. “Why do you say that?”
“I came upon a beautiful piece of work she’d done in Brisbane,” Thalia responded. “The assassin’s scent contained a small trace of magic, clearly meant to conceal her true scent.”
Eric shrugged. “I have heard that she uses all kinds of tricks as she tracks her prey.”
“And you have hired her to make you her prey!”
“Only if need be,” the Viking responded. “Trust me when I tell you that I would prefer it if Appius never came within a hundred miles of me again. My shadow is—as I said—just a failsafe.”
“One I doubt Miss Stackhouse will learn about.”
“Perhaps not,” Eric responded. “I know that I do not need to ask you for your discretion in this matter.”
Thalia nodded. “And I will try to ensure that your shadow is not stumbled upon by anyone in my team, though I will enjoy trying to find her myself now.” She grinned in anticipation. “It will be a true test of my mettle—a rare occurrence these days.”
Eric chuckled, but his countenance quickly changed as he tilted his head toward Jason’s house.
Thalia’s body tensed, waiting for any directions her sheriff had for her—even if three pathetic excuses for werepanthers would not be a true test of her mettle.
“They have shifted and are moving toward the house,” the Viking said, his fangs extending.
“Please tell me that I can have a little fun with them before Norris arrives,” Thalia growled, having picked up their scents since they’d moved closer.
“Do you believe you can limit yourself to what Norris would find,” he paused, “an acceptable thrashing?”
Thalia nodded. “Of course.”
The two vampires rolled their eyes as the sounds Crystal was making raised to a higher and louder decibel-level. Clearly, she’d picked up that her “pursuers” were drawing nearer.
“I cannot believe that is the best breeding female that Hotshot has to offer,” Thalia scoffed.
Eric chuckled and moved his hand, a gentlemanly gesture for Thalia to go first.
The vampiress didn’t need further invitation to have a little fun.
A/N: I have a feeling some of you are ready to kick my ass after this chapter. Remember—I promised only that Eric and Sookie would both be in it. I never said they’d be together. So—as you can see, I’m taking some of the narratives of the books (following the trip to Mississippi) and changing them to reflect the changes in Eric and Sookie themselves. I figured that the werepanthers needed to be dealt with, so that’s what’s happening. I hope you are still enjoying this—despite the “tease” of Eric and Sookie in the same chapter (but ultimately not together). Eric really is going to wait until Friday night—just as he said he would. Of course, that won’t stop Sookie from calling him . . . . Stay tuned.