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Unicorns and Sh*t

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By my fifth night, the woman at the door just nodded me in. I'd nod back, pass under the arched awning and neon pink sign, and head inside without a fuss. She was the type who didn't like wasting words, time, attempts to pretend to care. . . . I liked her. She intimidated the crap out of me, but I liked her.

I was in the same outfit I'd worn every night: fitted black tank, dark jeans, and flats. I wore no accessories and carried no purse. It was lazy enough that I shouldn't look like I cared to make an effort. I'd tied my hair up in a sloppy semi-knot my first night (the unattractive sloppy kind) in at attempt to look less appealing, but it had occurred to me on the back end that lazy hairstyle or no, baring my neck was probably not the best plan, given that I wasn't here to shop. So I'd worn it down every night since then. I'd stolen an oversized red plaid button-down from Alcide, but had ditched that after the first night, too – it got too hot in here for extra layers. I hadn't figured out if the temperature was for the comfort of the vampires, or to encourage less clothing on the humans. Or both, depending on how smart the manager was. This place definitely ran on a vibe, and it wasn't one that favored modesty or subtlety.

I took a chair at the bar as close to the exit as possible and nodded to the long-haired, dusky-skinned man behind the counter. He poured me a double whiskey without being asked. If this place hadn't been such a clusterfuck of every kind of lust and loathing and pain and self-denial, I'd love it here. It was nice being somewhere no one knew me. Well, and if the bartender hadn't made me wildly uncomfortable. Unlike the woman at the door, I lost no affection on the man. But he did his job well and left me the hell alone, so I was satisfied with the arrangement.

I opened my book (Walden – I found it an ironic choice for the venue) and picked up where I'd left off the night before. All I had to do was pass the time here, and the less interested I looked in the patrons, the simpler it was for me. It hadn't stopped people from approaching me every night so far, but a book was better than accidentally making eye contact with someone who would misconstrue it as an invitation, or staring at the walls, which seemed to have been painted the precise color of deoxygenated blood. Most people who did approach ended up being polite enough; I'd nearly broken a man's fingers and nose in the parking lot my second night here – I still wasn't sure if he had been trying to grope me or take the ID and cash from my back pocket - but that had been the worst of it.

Speak of the devil. A man came up behind me. Nice enough fellow, but predatory – even for a vampire - and randy as a cat in season.

Before he had a chance to speak, I said, “No” in a clear voice, turning my head just far enough that he'd know I was talking to him. My eyes didn't leave the book.

He hovered there for a long moment. I calmly took a sip of my drink, waiting to see if he would leave on his own. He did. My very favorite kind of interested party.

I wasn't approached again until my whiskey was almost gone. A woman this time. Human. More sly and subtle than the vampire had been. Her hair was cropped short, and she was actually very pretty. She had experience of every kind under her belt, and the self-assuredness that came with it, and she felt like. . . silk, I thought. If I had been looking, she was probably the sort I'd want to go home with: passably good-natured, but with just enough of an edge to make her interesting – and less likely to get attached. And I always did like the ones with attitude.

“I'm not here for dates, honey,” I said, again without turning from my book, “but I appreciate the compliment.”

“No?” she purred, coming to sit next to me and leaning over the bar, comfortably baring a peek at her cleavage. “I've seen you turn down the boys and vamps all week. Figured maybe your tastes ran a little softer.” She grinned.

I hid a smirk and considered telling her which way my tastes actually ran, but knew it would just invite a conversation I didn't want – if she even believed me. I glanced over at her.

“You are beautiful – as you know – but unfortunately I'm not here looking to make new friends."

"What are you here for, then?" She asked, voice smooth and flirtatious.

I shrugged a shoulder. "Show's not bad, sometimes," I said, tilting my head to indicate the club as a whole and giving her a wry smile. “I hope you have a nice night, though. And happy hunting,” I said in a clear dismissal, lifting my glass to her respectfully.

She smiled salaciously and let her eyes sweep my body, thinking what a treat I would be to get home (it would be good, but probably not as good as she thought – we ran just a hair too far apart), and made her way back to the floor.

I kicked back the rest of my drink and wondered idly if it would do me any good to wear a sign on my back that said “I have Hep D,” or if that would just get attention from the sort of people I really, really didn't want to be noticed by.

I sighed and waved a hand at the bartender for a refill when I felt him turn my way. I didn't know his name – I'd never asked and he'd never offered. Much like with the woman at the door, it was an arrangement that seemed to work for us.

Some time later I put my book down to stretch. It turned more than one head, but with a quick check I saw that none of them had the intent to approach, so I went on enjoying myself, making it long and languid. I stopped abruptly when the bartender looked over. I pulled out my phone to check the time and groaned quietly. Another hour and a half to go.

I crossed my arms on the bar and plopped my forehead down on them. Eventually, I decided it would be better to take a risk and pass the time faster than to sit here and marinate in boredom – especially since I still had ten damn stupid nights to go. I twisted my chair around, leaned back comfortably, crossed my legs, and propped my elbows on the counter on either side of me as I let my eyes sweep the room. It was the same tonight as it has been the last four. Not a lot of new blood, as it were, so most people were just here to get the job done cleanly: enjoy the aperetif and the dance of finding someone to go home with for a night, or a month, or however long it took any given vampire or human to tire of a partner.

There was one girl near the far wall, though, a little heavyset. Terrible self esteem, much prettier than she realized, and a genuinely kind, good soul. She was here because something in her was hurt and restless. The world wasn't built for people like her, so she had tried to figure everything out herself. Surrounded by “normal” people as she was, the results had been predictably hapless. That was how she'd ended up here: she thought she needed to “push” herself past what other people saw as flaws, but that anyone with proper eyes would know were assets. “Too quiet, too sensitive, too introverted, too weird.”

She was in too deep for me to be of any help to her, but hopefully, she would sort it out as she grew and learn a little of what she was worth. And stop hanging out with people like the two glorified fuck-twats she'd come in with.

From what I could see, despite her best intentions she wouldn't be leaving with anyone tonight. Still, I decided to keep a loose tab on her while I was here.

I felt the blonde from the door walk in and then saw her pass by. My eyes riveted to her the moment her back was turned. Most vampires I had passed in my life, which granted were not many, tended to be under one hundred years. She was just to the other side of that line, but stronger and more self-possessed than most – human or supe – ever managed to get. It was nice having an opportunity to get a close look at her; she had a good “flavor.” I could sum her up by describing any one of the pairs of shoes I had seen on her so far: beautiful, en pointe, and readily able to puncture any organ of her choosing. But, I saw, she had a moral code. It was low and loose by human standards, but it was there. I also felt an especially dry sense of humor, and had I not found her slightly terrifying, I might have felt a swell of affection.

She walked up to the deep black dais at the back corner of the club, and unfortunately, my eyes moved away too slowly – the large blonde man who sat up there every night was looking at me, and for a split second, my eyes met his. I jerked them away as fast as I could and tried to cover the motion by pretending to scan the crowd.

Every night I had been avoiding letting any of my senses so much as brush him, and what flooded me at that split-second glimpse was why: the feel of age, a yawning chasm of differentness, otherness. A vampire like that looked human, but if you made the mistake of thinking they were. . . well, that would be a very dangerous form of naivety. Something that old would play with people like they were bugs, if they did anything with us other than feed, and would likely have no more than that amount of consideration for us. He wasn't a person; he was an alien being wearing human skin.

You couldn't miss him when you came in the club. He was huge, had shoulder-length hair, and sat on a veritable throne atop a dais, under a spotlight for god's sake. But it wasn't just all of that that. If you looked at a photo of him, you would certainly call him handsome, but you wouldn't call him an Adonis. In person, though, something about him radiated. . .gravity. The attention of every person in this place was on him to some degree at all times, whether they realized it or not.

He had eyed me every night I had come here, with varying degrees of interest. I tried to chalk it up to him taking note of everyone in his domain, but part of me knew better. I knew what attention felt like. I just stubbornly hoped that if I kept myself uninteresting, I'd be let alone.

Whatever he and the blond woman were discussing took his attention from me, at least, thank every god that ever was. I turned back around to go return to my slower, but infinitely safer occupation, a worried and keyed-up feeling niggling persistently at me.

When I felt his attention shift back to me, I knew why. My time was up.

“Mother fucker,” I cursed vehemently under my breath at no one in particular. I picked up my drink and moved to one of the sable and maroon booths nearer the entrance of the club - and out of sight of the dais. Unfortunately, even the most tentative check told me that I still had his attention, even if he couldn't see me. “Shit,” I cursed under my breath. “Shit, f*ck, shitc*ck mother-f*cking shitf*ck shit. Martin Delaney, I am going to skin you alive and use your fur as a bathmat,” I hissed viciously, so quiet it was barely audible.

In the time it took me to debate whether keeping the betting pool going would be worth whatever was about to happen, lady bouncer was at the side of my table.

I stiffened, but tried to hide it. I gave her a “No,” exactly as I had every other person who had approached me, if more chilly. I knew she could hear my heart fluttering like a caged mouse and had probably caught my enthusiastic string of expletives, and if her sense of smell was good. . . well, she'd know I wasn't exactly relaxed. I probably could have bench-pressed the bartender with the amount adrenaline that was pumping through my system, and I was not a large woman.

She hummed a chuckle. “You're cute and all, but I'm not here for me. Eric wants to see you.”

“Eric?” I asked, still managing to keep my face impassive and mulishly pretending to read.

“Eric. The shiny man on the throne. He's hard to miss,” her voice was as dry and droll as her personality. I would have liked her if she weren't currently playing the role of Terrible Omen. Inauspicious Event. Precursor to Catastrophe.

“Ah,” I said with a nod, then turned a page for good measure. “I'm good, but thank you. Or. . . thank him. Not really the throne type.”

She bent down, back ramrod straight, until her forearms rested against the table. She was as unconcerned with her display of cleavage as she was aware of its general power of persuasion and/or intimidation. “That's not a request, darlin',” she purred.

I finally glanced at her, letting my eyebrows raise a little. “I assume 'shiny' and 'throne' mean 'boss.' So if he's asking for me, have I broken some sort of rule?” I asked, then added drily, “Or am I in sovereign territory?”

She rolled her eyes. “Just get your perky ass up and come with me.”

I clenched my jaw and debated making a retreat again. Except I hadn't paid my tab, which meant I'd have to come back sooner or later, and I didn't think for a second that I'd be lucky enough to come on a night where both blondinatrix here and the 'shiny man,' were absent.

I eyeballed her a moment, then tipped the rest of my drink back and rose. She headed toward the dais, but I angled away to the bar and whistled at the bartender. When the woman reappeared behind me and opened her mouth to give the verbal version of a cattle prod, I held up a finger for her to wait, stiffly enough that it was clearly not a request. If I was boned either way, I had no reason to play nice.

In equal measure, she was immediately pissed and amused – she wasn't sure if I was suicidal or just stupid. Either way, I wouldn't have long until she hauled me away bodily. As I downed one shot and the bartender poured another, she was debating the merits of grabbing me by my waistband, the cleavage-side of my shirt's neck, or my throat.

I damn near slammed the second empty glass down onto the counter. Finally, I turned around, extending an arm with a shallow, gracious bow and an insincere smile, sweet and acrid at the same time, for her to lead the way. I had a bad – a Bad (or was it Big?) – feeling; I was likely about to be in deep shit one way or another no matter what I did. This was one of those turning points in life, and it felt like standing on the very edge of a massive cliff, looking straight down while the wind pulled and pushed you. And yet I couldn't stop my feet from moving, one after the other.

Lady bouncer walked up onto the dais without hesitation, but I stayed at the floor, figuring it was expected. Blondie moved to stand behind and to the side of the boss's chair, casually resting one forearm on its high back. She looked graceful, languid, and as deceptively placid as a big cat.

Eric lounged as if a supremely bored ruler, dressed as an even more bored teenager, and arrogant enough not to care that he looked supremely bored in either case. But this close, I could see something I hadn't before: he held a frankly dangerous intellect in his blue eyes under the impressive blasé glaze, a keen awareness, and the obvious fact that disenchanted as he was, he payed close attention to everything that happened around him. He noted the number of patrons and staff already paying attention to our exchange, for instance.

“Emma White,” Eric said, as if (boredly) greeting an old friend. His voice was low, and simultaneously rough and silken.

For a moment, I was so arrested by the relationship between him and my blonde door-woman that I didn't respond; I had never felt its like. They weren't in love, but. . .they also were. It was like parent and child, siblings, lovers, and the closest of friends all tied together and mixed up with something More.

I recovered quickly enough to arch a brow at him and languidly cross my arms under my chest. To his credit, he kept his eyes on my face. “Eric. . .” my eyes flicked up and down his frame, “Northman, I'm guessing? I'd say 'pleasure,' but where I'm from that usually involves a certain amount of free will.” I got the affirmative the moment the name was out of my mouth, which presented me with a new set of complications. Eric Northman had a reputation. More than one, in fact. It was generally agreed either that he was honorable (“for a 'fanger,'” of course), or that he was the devil incarnate.

“How do you know my name?” He asked.

“How do you know mine?” I countered.

Pam gave a little wave of the hand that was resting on the high back of Eric's chair. “That'd be me. I always remember a pretty," her eyes swept my form, ". . . face.”

Right. And she'd had four nights of looking at my ID to memorize the information on it. Thank god I'd had the foresight to use my fake one.

“And you?” Eric asked.

“Giant, blonde, cocky, position of power and or authority,” I rattled off. “Can't be too many of those in the area named Eric. Which I'm guessing means you own all,” I waved a hand vaguely in the area of the club at my back, “this.”

To my surprise, he sat up and leaned forward to rest his arms on his legs. “And how do you know all of this, little human?”

I bristled silently at being called “little” and looked at him for a moment. “How about you tell me exactly why I was extended a non-negotiable invitation to grace your 'shiny' presence before we get to the personal details. Natural progression of polite conversation, and all. We are in the south, Mr. Northman.”

A smile quirked at one corner of his lips, and I couldn't tell if it was a happy expression or a sign of a temper about to snap. With an internal sigh, I figured I'd better get it over with; I wasn't eager to step into a creature like him, but this was not a conversation I wanted to fly blind.

My eyes dropped to his boots and began slowly roving up his body. Naturally, he thought it a sign of interest, and was more than happy to let me take my time in silence. I was ok with that - better for him to be on the wrong page. As I took him in, I Took Him In, careful only to pluck to the foreground what I thought I needed to know.

He was even more intelligent and clever than I'd thought, and the bored act did a much better job than I gave it credit for at covering exactly how aware and ready to act he was. He was a dangerously good actor, a master manipulator, and was used to getting anything and anyone he wanted by dint of his wits, skills, and words alone. His confidence was earned and had the very distinct flavor of, as most people would call it, a “sex god,” which added a whole separate layer to his cockiness. He was not, despite his supreme arrogance, stupid enough to underestimate anyone who stood before him.

I knew from his name that he was the vampire Sheriff of Shreveport and the surrounding areas, and that he took his duties very, very seriously. Like blondie, he had a moral code, but it was even farther removed from a human's than his friend's, and mercurial at best unless it related to vampire law in his official capacity. And much, much more than her, this man was like a big cat: they look calm, content, relaxed. Right up until, faster than you can see, they sink their teeth into your jugular and their claws into your chest.

Basically, there was a good chance I might be fucked.

I saw myself through his eyes these last five nights: my attempt to dress down and make myself unappealing had only drawn his attention. Even – especially – the first night, when he sized me up as “exquisite” almost immediately, even through the tent of an overshirt I was wearing. The next night, he'd gotten a look at my face and I had been elevated to – I paled a little when I picked this up - “perfect.”

Had that not been enough, I'd returned every night, but kept to myself and refused all attention, even sending back drinks that were gifted to me. Each night I sat at the bar, spoke to no one and then, after a few hours, I would leave. He had ruled me out as a drainer, a drug dealer, escort, and any number of other occupations that would explain my behavior. When his eyes had met mine tonight, the way I was sitting basically spread out on display in his mind, observing me from a distance no longer held his interest.

My behavior with Pam at the bar had actually gotten a soft chuckle out of him (so a normal person's belly laugh), in an “I wonder if Pam will murder her later” sort of way. He had heard about my parking lot encounter with the handsy man and had appreciated that I wasn't entirely helpless (for a human), and he found my flippant attitude, especially when I obviously knew who he was, perversely endearing. The way a cat is endeared to a mouse as it tries to flee from under the cat's paw.

Basically, I had come upon a supremely blasé creature and presented myself as a new and interesting toy wrapped up in a “perfect” package.

Definitely probably fucked.

Then my eyes reached his chest and I was so stunned that for a moment, I froze. A lifetime of experience was all that kept the bald shock from my face, but they both still noted shifts in the muscles of my face, blood draining from it, my breath catching, and my heart speeding up.

Eric didn't know it, but underneath the most impenetrable shell I had ever felt – it could take a nuke and come away without so much as a scuff - was a pure heart. Hit with that after everything else I had learned of him so far, after the endless horror stories I had heard about him, it was almost disorienting. I snapped my eyes up to his, unwilling to look any further into the man.

I was met with an arrogant grin. He assumed I was as good as in the bag.

How adorable.

I grinned back at him, a much more chilly version of his, and for an entirely different reason. Provided I made it out of tonight alive, unmaimed, and not chained in a dungeon somewhere, this might actually be fun.

“Please,” he said, holding a hand out to the seat at his right, smaller and less ornate than his own. “Sit.”

I closed my eyes to keep from throwing them heavenward. I didn't need extra senses to know that was clearly not a request. I cast my eyes down as if watching my feet as I stepped up onto the dais, feeling his eyes sweep me greedily, and the uptick in attention from people in the club. Some weren't even bothering to pretend they weren't watching anymore.

The half-moon arm chair he'd indicated was really quite large, at least for my frame. It was smaller and shorter than his, but looked just as old-world. I managed to curl my legs under me as I sat down, then hunched over, put my elbow on the armrest farthest from him, and plopped my chin into one hand.

That amused him – it reminded him of my first night, dressed in a comically oversized shirt apparently designed to cover as much of myself as possible, hair done up as if I had just been painting or exercising.

With a silent growl I adjusted my posture and sat up properly.

“So,” he said, and the word was almost a hum. “What brings you to my club, Miss White?” His voice was low and thrumming, and he managed to sound bored and interested at the same time. “You are not our usual customer, and you're obviously no tourist.”

“You mean what as yet unidentified nefarious purpose am I secretly here for?” I asked. “You caught me. I'm trying to attract hipsters and run you out of business. I work for that other vampire bar down the street, 'Fangtasia-er.' You're cutting into their profit margins. . . . Is that why I'm up here?”

He smiled, but it was clear it was a polite gesture only. Barely polite. He said something to his arm candy in what sounded like a Nordic tongue, his eyes never leaving mine, and she replied in kind.

“Was that. . . Icelandic? Or Swedish.” I asked, canting my head despite myself.

“Swedish,” said, an undertone of approval in his bored voice. “You have a good ear. Most foreigners can't tell the Nordic languages apart.”

“I can't either. Finnish and Danish just sound. . . more German, I guess.” I shrugged. “I like languages.”

“Do you speak any?”

I shook my head. “A few words in french and German, and some Spanish, but not nearly enough to be passable. Even less Japanese. Bits and pieces of a couple others.”

“What others?”

I looked at him oddly, confused with the line of questioning. His insides gave me nothing – they were still and calm like the surface of a lake. I saw something swimming underneath, but didn't know what it was.

“Uh. . .” I said, thinking, “I spent time looking at Aramaic, Gaelic, Norse, Hindi, I know the alphabet and a grand total of two words in ASL, Greek and Latin in college because I was really into etymology, and this one tribal South American dialect whose name I still can't pronounce.”

“Not Sanskrit?” Eric asked.

Despite myself, I begrudgingly cast him an approving look. I'd listed root languages, but then Hindi, rather than its root language, Sanskrit.

I nodded. Then, when I offered no additional information, he asked yet another seemingly banal question. Was I being interviewed?

“Japanese seems a departure from French, German, and Spanish.”

I laughed drily. “That depends on your metric. I was really into their cartoons, and I like their culture. They're very polite.”

“So you dabble in languages,” he said. “But you aren't fluent in any?”

I snorted. “No, I'm not fluent in any. I wouldn't mind it, but I live in Shreveport, Louisiana for God's sake. Who am I going to speak Japanese or Hindi or French with?”

“Me,” he said with a straight face.

I was nonplussed and gaped at him like an idiot. “You speak. . . Wait, which one do you speak?”

“All three.”

“. . . Right," I said dumbly. "Because you're old. You probably speak a lot of languages, huh?”

“Yes, I do. Including Aramaic, Gaelic and Norse,” he purred. Then added, bored again, “When I spent any significant amount of time in India, there seemed to be a different language for every hundred people.”

Despite myself, I laughed. Eric and the blonde were momentarily arrested, and more than one head turned my way. I clamped down on myself with a tight reminder to keep it reigned in. I cleared my throat.

“So you, that's very. . . holy shit,” I observed casually.

He hummed an acknowledgment, and barely that. He was hung up on how he'd reacted to my laugh, and strangely peevish about all the attention on me, but simultaneously proud of it. “You didn't answer my question,” he rumbled. “And what makes you think I'm old?”

“I just answered like five of your questions," I objected. "And I have eyes and a functioning brain, that's what.”

He hummed, unsatisfied with that answer, but hiding it. “I meant my original question.”

I smiled at him acidly. “And you didn't answer mine.” Almost instantly, I regretted the words. Talk about poking a bear. Alcide – even Janice sometimes - always told me my mouth was going to get me killed, and I would sorely hate to prove him right in a vampire bar. It'd start a damn war.

“It was a bet,” I hurried to say. “That was how it started.”

He arched brow at me, clearly a “go on,” gesture.

I bit down against rolling my eyes. “At home, my. . . friends,” 'pack,' I had almost said, “and family treat me like I'm some sort of dainty flower. Like I'd cry seeing a fly get swatted, I need coats laid over puddles for me, I'll break if I carry anything more than two pounds, whatever.”

Eric's look said what I thought: that the treatment was obviously preposterous and comically unnecessary.

“We made a new friend,” I went on, “and he assumed, as would be natural I suppose, that the reputation was right on the money. So he bet me one hundred dollars that I couldn't spend two hours in here. That was my first night.”

“Why did he make this wager?”

“He's not very bright,” I replied drily. Then, when Eric clearly wanted more, I added with a shrug, “he wanted to mess with me.”

He didn't believe that to be the whole story, but only tucked it away for later. “And you enjoyed our amenities so much the first night that you decided to return?”

I turned my face slightly to the side so he couldn't see me roll my eyes and covered the motion by pretending a cough. “I have a big pack of very rowdy friends,” I snorted inwardly at the unintentional pun, “and screwing around with each other is their bread and water. So my one-night adventure turned into a betting pool. Him, and a bunch of other people who don't know better on the one side, and me and everyone else on the other. Now if I come here for three hours every night for two weeks, I get. . . well,” I said with a laugh, “considerably more than one hundred dollars.”

I shrugged one shoulder, tone turning blasé. “My apartment is shit, and I figured reading a book in a, er, fine, high-quality establishment such as this,” Pam was the only one who didn't hide her droll amusement, “was not the hardest way to earn extra money. . . .So long as I don't get caught,” I added darkly.

“Caught?”

“I have a very large, very overprotective brother,” I explained, wrinkling my nose. Janice I wasn't sure about. She'd either give me a high-five, or pull me somewhere by the hair and shout at me for an hour. “Well, and about ten very large, very overprotective surrogate brothers. . . . Then there are the smaller ones, and the women. Many of who are infinitely more terrifying than the men, actually. Not as overbearing, though, which is nice.”

He hummed, a deep noise in his chest. “Oddly I find that unsurprising.” He sounded like he meant it.

Yeah, I thought, with a weary sigh, I know. He was staving it off much better than most did, but the seed of it was already there in him. I was practically watching it bloom in Pam before my eyes.

“So,” I said with false brightness, eager to change the subject. “Which of my gauche insults would you like to murder me horribly for first?”

Eric's face broke into a huge grin. He looked genuinely amused, and exchanged more words with his gal. I quirked my ears at them this time. The tongue suited them both, but him especially. Which begged a question.

“Where are you from? Originally,” I asked him.

“The Nordic region.”

I nodded, pleased with the explanation, but more please with what he didn't say out loud: Viking. Royal line. Then I looked up at the woman. “And you? What's your name?” I asked curiously. “I've been referring to in my head mostly as 'lady bouncer' or 'blondinatrix.' . . .Which is frankly horrifying now that I've said it out loud. Dear God.” I sneered at myself.

“Pam,” she drawled, and not even she could tell if she was more amused or annoyed at the latter nickname. She believed herself to be on the fence about me. Thought I was hot as a poker, though, which pleased me, strangely. I seemed to care what she thought of me. “Charmed.” The way the word sounded coming out of her lips, I wondered if she was being ironic.

“The pleasure is mine, obviously,” I said smoothly with half a grin up at her.

She arched one flawlessly-manicured brow at me and one half of her mouth quirked up. I felt myself tip over to “amusing” in her estimation, and had to suppress a victorious smile.

Eric, virile specimen that he was, didn't have to have an opinion on me. All he needed to know was if I was a threat (obviously not), and then after that, what the most enjoyable way to get me into bed would be, and what he wanted to do with me first once he had me there. He was flipping through several graphic ideas that very moment, in fact, based on his cursory estimate of my level of experience, and before long I had to suppress a gag. The man might literally have done everything.

Curious about me, he took a sniff at the air. The first thing he smelled was the ware all over me, and had to stop his lip from curling. But he also picked up that I myself was not a shifter, and so took in my scent again, more deeply. Not a ware herself at all, he noted with surprise, and correctly guessed that my legion of “protectors” were a pack of werewolves. I felt my stomach sink as another point was added to the “interesting” column in his mind.

I understood why: outsiders simply did not get access to ware communities. If I had been born into a ware family but without the gene that would let me shift, that would be one thing. But being an outsider who essentially smelled like a member of a pack added a layer of curiosity, and I was at the extremely unsafe threshold of moving from someone he wanted to bed to something he he considered an actual curiosity. It was like he was glancing at me, but on the brink of deciding he wanted to actually look at me head-on.

That, and a heavily guarded woman – particularly such a strikingly beautiful one - presented a much more satisfying challenge.

Shreveport pack, he guessed, remembering that I'd said I live here. But which one? Then he started thinking about my dad hopefully, some sort of leverage. . . .

I went rigid with attention, but Eric's thoughts were derailed as he took my scent in a third time, and learned how comically far off his estimate of my experience had been. My stomach dropped as yet another point fell against my favor. As for my sexual status, virgins did not cause Eric Northman to pause – merely to adjust his trajectory accordingly.

Under that, though, he smelled something else, the smallest trace in the air, that made his full and rapt attention pivot to me.

“Forgive my lack of manners,” he said suddenly, his voice what he was obviously used to passing as a charming, silky purr. “I just realized I never greeted you properly.” He held a hand out to me.

I might have looked at it like it was a pissed off cobra. “I thought vampires weren't. . . you know. . . into the touchy-feely human crap.”

He shrugged one large shoulder. “We're not. But I can respect the customs of a guest now and then.”

“Uh. . . that's ok. Really. I'm. . . I'm good. And I'm not a guest anyway,” I offered. “More of a. . . cooperative kidnapee.”

“I insist,” he purred, and though it sounded honey sweet, it was obvious that, like his “invitation” to sit, it was not an offer or a request.

I swallowed thickly and slowly extended my hand, closing myself off as carefully and thoroughly as I could. No sooner had I placed my fingers into his broad palm than he had it wrapped up in his hand and lifted to his face under the auspices of pressing a polite kiss to my knuckles as I felt a jolt shoot up my arm. In reality, he used the opportunity to take a long, deep inhale of my scent up close. The action took me by surprise – nearly unheard of given the skin-to-skin contact. I yanked my hand back just in time to stop the flood of information and, thankfully, he let me.

He ignored my apparent rudeness and said, “You have an interesting scent, Emma.” Even if I hadn't been able to feel what he meant, I would have known from his voice and face that there was no longer a world in which I had a prayer of getting away cleanly.

Unlike anything I have ever come across, he thought. Even under the ware stench, perfect. Smells like power, life, home, I want more, he felt. I will have it. I must taste her. He started pouring over every way he could think of to get me to let him drink from me tonight. He had no problem glamouring it out of me – I combed furiously through my memories to see if I knew anything about what “glamouring” was, but came up dry. Legends said fairies could do something called glamouring, and that was basically when a person became so magically enamored that they'd do anything the fairy wanted. Either way, Eric preferred my mind unclouded if possible. Not for any altruistic reasons, mind, but just because he'd prefer the experience. At present, he would do almost literally anything for a taste – to a normal person, even a small percentage of the things on that list would be horrifying.

I swallowed thickly, itching to jump out of my chair, leave, and never come within a mile of this place again. Apartment upgrades be damned. Pride be damned. “I. . . will take that as a compliment,” I said uncertainly. “So why am I up here?” I asked, my voice carefully impassive, desperate to derail his train of thought. “For. . . what is that, the sixth time?”

“You're interesting, kitten," Pam said. "We like interesting.”

“Given that the vast majority of people in here either want his fangs or his. . . fang, and the rest want you. . . or possibly both of you at the same time,” I amended, tone thoughtful, “I suppose I can understand your metric. You're probably not used to much of anyone in here who doesn't have tunnel vision over blood or sex or. . ." I suppressed a shudder, “whatever else.”

I was quickly discovering what a bad idea it had been to basically down four shots in an hour.

“You are a blunt little thing,” Eric said. His wide smile was both amused and entirely not G-rated. “And remarkably unafraid,” he added, and he sounded oddly pleased by that. Surprised, but pleased. And amused. 'And yet you are obviously not stupid,' he thought curiously.

“My brother tells me often and with enthusiasm how my bluntness is going to get me killed,” I said. Then muttered, “Among other things.” At a normal volume, I went on, “Given my progress so far tonight, I'm thinking he might get the last word on that before I'm chucked into an unmarked grave.” I shifted uncomfortably in my chair. “Um. . . but really. I gather you don't entertain up here often, what with the audience and all,” my eyes swept over the people who were, some surreptitiously, some overtly, paying attention to our exchange, “especially not random bar patrons. Did I do something wrong? I haven't been wasting your space in here; I buy drinks every night. I'm polite so long as the people who come up to me are civil.”

“Oh, I know,” he purred. “Pam was telling the truth. We simply found you. . . interesting. Myself, especially. You are strikingly beautiful, and obviously intelligent,” to my horror, I felt a blush creep up my cheeks. I didn't know if it was because I was flattered or consternated. “And yet you wander unmarked into a vampire bar night after night with no apparent interest in what a vampire bar has to offer. You could be in any number of other clubs. I understand why now, of course, but all the same. . . .” he trailed off, his eyes taking in the length of me again.

“If you didn't live in this shithole of a city, I'd assume you modeled professionally,” Pam said. "You're pretty enough, but you take care of yourself, too."

I blinked up at her, unsure of what to do with that. "I. . . ." was all I could manage, dumbly. So I just turned to Eric. “Unmarked?” I asked, and had to clear my throat at how unsteady my voice was.

“No vampire has ever fed from you.”

I opened my mouth to ask how he knew that, then closed it. It would be a useless question. Some vampire sense or another, undoubtedly. “And I take it that's. . . appealing?”

“It is second only to virgin blood.” And those on top of whatever you are, which I am guessing will be better than both combined, he thought.

My brow furrowed. “But why? It can't taste any different.”

“It would be difficult to explain to a non-vampire.”

I nodded absently, rolling over what he'd said. Nobody in the pack ever wanted to talk about vampires, unless it was to verbally bash them, but if I was being honest, I found them just as interesting as I found most everything else.

When I didn't say anything, he offered to demonstrate.

I snorted. “This works for you, doesn't it?” I asked, a tinge of incredulity in my voice. “You just purr at people, make bedroom eyes, lay out a compliment or two, and boom, they're climbing you like a flagpole.”

“Blunt, unafraid, beautiful, intelligent, and crass,” he said, and this time, he seemed genuinely – if somewhat dubiously - pleased.

“Told you you'd like her,” Pam said smugly.

“Wh- Before tonight the longest conversation we had had was you saying 'ID' and me handing you my ID!”

“Oh honey, no one walks through those doors without being watched. Especially the pretty ones. I had you memorized on your first night.”

I furrowed my brows.

“I've got a good mind for good faces, like I said,” she drawled. “Photographic.” She gracefully touched a finger to the side of her head. “Selective, but photographic.”

“If you have a photographic memory, why did you keep asking for my ID when I came back?”

She smiled, a slow, feline thing. “After the first night, it wasn't your ID I was looking at.” She glanced up and down my figure pointedly.

Despite myself, I felt another blush crawl up my cheeks even as I tried to quash the mortified look on my face. “Sweet Mary, mother of God,” I uttered nearly silently.

She laughed.

Eric wondered with some amusement if I was gay. The idea did not discourage him from his plans for me in the least, however. Unsurprisingly, many, many lesbians had been convinced to give it a go, a test drive, with him over the centuries.

Chapter Text

To my surprise, despite the borderline frightening situation, I itched to ask questions. How old are you? Where have you been, what have you done, what have you seen? What does someone do with all that time? Why for the love of god are you running a glorified dive bar in Louisiana? How does vampire society work? What's it like to feed? But even if I hadn't minded making him curious (a foregone notion at that point, to be fair), I still wasn't that stupid. Just like wares, vampires liked to keep vampire business private. So I just huffed out a breath and pulled my knees up to my chest. I wrapped my arms around them and rested my chin, trying to let my mind haze out a bit. Vampires didn't seem any more tiring on my extra senses than other people, but these two had big personalities and bigger experiences. Even with the alcohol, it was like trying to stuff ten pounds of concentration into a one-pound sack.

“I never cared much for Thoreau,” Eric said idly, back to sounding bored.

“Hm?”

He nodded down at the book that was tucked halfway under my backside.

I hummed lightly in acknowledgment. I was feeling the pure-hearted woman in the corner again. She was looking up at the dais and wishing she could be like me – or at least, how she viewed me. 'A woman like her must have everything. She's so beautiful, confident, I bet she knows exactly who she is. If I could be like that I wouldn't have to doubt, to hurt. . . .'  She wanted to talk to Eric, but felt he was as far above her as God in heaven, and just as out of reach. I felt a wave of sorrow as I tasted what it was to need approval from others in order to believe that you had any worth at all. If I thought for a moment that Eric possessed an altruistic bone in his body, I'd ask him to. . . I didn't know what. Say hello to her?

“That's not surprising,” I replied absently, after a long lapse.

He wondered what caused my obvious distraction, and found it disquieting and oddly consternating. I was “obviously” interested in him, and I was too genuine to have been faking the fact that I was engaged in the conversation. He could find no source of my inattention. So he was left with something he had never really known before: failing, apparently, to hold a person's attention when he wanted it.

“And what makes you say that?” he asked impassively, hiding his thoughts flawlessly.

I glanced at him, letting my eyes dart up and down his form pointedly. “I wouldn't really peg someone like Thoreau as your school of philosophy. You're smart enough, but. . .” I canted my head at him, thinking. “I'd bet that for you, your considerable intellect mostly exists for the sole purpose of feeding the rest of you.” I nodded my head toward his body. “Getting what you want. If shit like Walden isn't going to add to your arsenal, why would you waste time with it? Not that I think you're not educated,” I added. “It's too helpful in the art of seduction and mastery of others to be overlooked by someone like you. Plus you'd get bored, I suppose,” I added as an afterthought.

“Considerable intellect?” he repeated, a wry look on his face. “'Someone like me'?”

Pam sped off somewhere without a word. My eyes couldn't follow her, but the rest of me felt her in front of the club, some sort of agitation. My hair rustled in the breeze of her passing. Eric found it oddly captivating.

I shrugged and let my eyes unfocus again. “It's in the eyes. I saw it when I stood down there.” I nodded my chin to the foot of the dais. “You pay attention. They're sharp even though the rest of you is dulled – or looks dulled, anyway.” A voice in me warned me to stop. Stop talking, stop showing how much I saw. Warned that there was a fine line to a creature like this between 'fun toy' and 'a little too clever.' It was hazy under the fog of whisky. “You have a quick wit. You sit up here like you're so bored you could die, no pun intended, though I don't doubt that you are bored, like you're off in another world, but you see everything that happens in here. And yeah, 'someone like you.' Hopefully you won't snap my neck for pointing out the obviously obvious fact that you're a grade-A man-whore.”

Amusement rolled off of him, and he actually laughed. Which is to say, it was just to the “laughter” side of a chuckle. Several vampire heads snapped up to look at the sound.

This cheeky slip of a human was utterly unafraid of him. It was not a sensation he was familiar with – not even from other vampires. His mind wandered through all sorts of fun he could have with me, games he could play.

I felt his interest soundly tip the wrong way over the edge of the blade; he was not going to let me go. Not until he had his drinks, his fun, and what frankly looked like an unhealthy amount of sex. I supposed I should be flattered, but mostly I was just stymied.

And then, abruptly, I didn't care.

Maybe it was the teenage rebellion stage I'd skipped rearing its head. Maybe I was tired of hiding and being treated like porcelain and diamonds. Maybe I just wanted to have a conversation with someone who could keep up and wouldn't pat me on the fucking head like I was a puppy who'd just done a new trick. Maybe it was the buzz, teetering dangerously close to outright drunkenness.

Whatever the reason, I suddenly found myself giving absolutely zero fucks, and it was maybe the most liberating experience of my life.

A voice in my head railed that this would be the most dangerously stupid thing I had ever done in my life. It sounded a lot like a lifetime of the pack members telling me to stay away from everyone, especially other supes, and vampires in particular. I might be concerned later over how effortless it was to ignore.

A huge, wicked grin spread across my face and I tucked my legs back under me. I leaned over, propped an elbow on the armrest closest to Eric, and rested my chin on my hand.

“I have a favor to ask,” I purred at him.

“Oh?” He assumed the conversation was now going to turn toward the inevitable slide into the bedroom. Or basement, office, nearby wall. . . . Preferably all of them, and several more. He had me sized up as someone he'd enjoy much more than once. I supposed I should be flattered. I wasn't certain that I was.

I lowered my voice to a near-silent whisper. “To your left, there's a lovely young woman with brown hair a few shades darker than mine sitting at a table with two others. She's wearing a black dress checkered heels. I'd like you to have a drink sent to her, and for the server to tell her it's from you.” And then, a little guilty over how much more the next part was to press my luck than to keep her safe, I added, “And if she comes up to thank you at some point, I'd like you to play nice. Or, well, gracious, at least. I don't imagine you do 'nice.'”

One of his brows slid up his forehead slowly as his mind pulled up the woman I was talking about without needing to look in her direction. For what felt like the tenth time tonight, he took the measure of me for a moment. He was wondering if I knew her, what sort of game or test I must be playing, what he must have missed. And he was wondering if he needed to care. He still planned on tying me to a bed for a week straight (he had done longer), either way.

“And why do you want me to do this?” His tone was playful, but even without my extra senses I'd be able to tell that there was a serious edge to it.

“Honestly? You wouldn't believe me if I told you.”

“She says to the vampire.”

I looked at him flatly. “He says to the. . . oh, wait. You don't know that part yet. Fuck. Ugh.” I rolled my eyes at myself and pinched the bridge of my nose. “She. . .look, you won't understand. And do you really need to? It's just a drink and a polite response if it's called for. That's why it's called a favor.” Then a cheshire grin slowly spread across my face. “Besides, I can promise you that the repayment I have in mind will have you coming out of this very strongly on top.”

He took only a moment to decide, then moved to lift a hand to summon the bartender, a server, I didn't know who.

“Wait,” I said. His hand stopped mid-air.

“One prerequisite. I need your word that my. . .repayment? Whatever you want to call it, come hell or high water you will never tell anyone, for any reason.”

He nodded readily enough.

I shook my head. “No. I need you to really, really mean it. Make it a vow or something formal if you have to.”

His eyes narrowed fractionally and he felt the smallest stab of annoyance, but was too interested to stop now. It struck me how surprisingly human he seemed at times. “Very well,” he rumbled. “I give you my word that whatever it is you have planned will remain between the two of us. And,” he nodded out to the club, “anyone able to overhear.”

That promise had been honest, and if he sincerely gave his word, he kept it. I could smell it on him. So I nodded for him to carry on and started to hum something tuneless, the seriousness abruptly departing from my mood now that my safety was squared away, pulled my phone out of my back pocket, and opened a notepad.

 

Two blondes, far left corner, underage, I typed out.

Man in red shirt at bar, friends waiting outside to help drain vampire he's flirting with

 

I shuddered, eminently glad I'd decided to do this. If I thought I could get away with it, I'd go punch him in the throat myself.

 

Someone doing V in men's room 

Man who's dancing with the vampire in the pink corset. . . I don't think  he's doing anything wrong, or plans to, but he feels. . . strange.  Physically, like there's something a little off. Don't know more than that.

 

I paused when I felt a surge of surprised joy from the woman in the corner, and a positively overpowering crush of it when she glanced up and Eric gave a dip of his chin to her. It was nearly a physical thing, and I found myself grinning ear to ear. I also took no small amount of satisfaction in the stabs of jealousy of her two 'friends.' I looked over at her, a warm, fond smile on my face, and turned it on Eric to find him watching me closely. It dimmed a little under his gaze, but I just shook my head, too happy and pleased to care what he might be seeing on me or what he'd want to make of it, and went back to work.

Listening again, my mood changed abruptly. I cast a dubious glance at Eric, my forehead creased. “Your club is fucking terrifying,” I said. I prayed sincerely that this wasn't a typical night for this place. It wasn't even the heavy weekend traffic. He opened his mouth to speak, but I held up a finger, eyes already back to the phone.

That I had basically just told him to shut up was very little but bewildering to him at this point. He was nearly swimming with interest, as close as he ever came to incredulous, but one question was dominating his mind at the moment: 'what the fuck are you?'

I finished typing out the last item that had so disturbed me.

 

Man and woman in booth around corner planning on drugging waitress who just brought them drinks – redhead, green eyes, very pretty. Man is in a blue plaid shirt.

 

I had my hand out to give him the phone when I picked up one more thing. I cocked my head to one side and prodded carefully first at her, and then at Eric to make sure my instinct was on the money. I found what I was looking for and a huge grin spread across my face. I added:

 

Brunette in tight white T at the bar

Waiting for me to leave to approach. You  should really take her up on her offer.

 

I held the phone out to him with a smug, self-satisfied grin. “You're welcome. Oh, and there is technically one more, but it'd really piss you off, and I don't especially want to die tonight, so. . . I left it out. Figured these were already far more than fair.” Especially given what I'm risking to give them to you, I thought. Although technically at least two of the items were nothing but a public service. All the same.

He glanced down at the phone, scanned the list, then looked back up at me, all humor gone from his face and untempered intensity in his eyes. “Pamela,” he said in a normal voice. In a gentle rush of breeze, she stood before him. Eric calmly barked something at her in Swedish, to which Pam quirked an eyebrow and replied. Eric said something else and she went over to the blondes I'd mentioned. Almost immediately, they were escorted out. I watched with a smile that was entirely too smug. It wasn't often I got to show off. Never. It was never that I got to show off.

Pam came back to the dais at a human speed, more words were exchanged. I listened to the strangely beautiful lilting sounds, enjoying the feeling of being drunk now that I had decided I didn't have to play chess with my words, face, and body language. Eric pursed his lips, much less happy-sounding words were exchanged, and she was off again.

“Who are you?” He asked flatly, voice as cool as ever, but distinctly unfriendly now. “How do you know these things?”

I shrugged, hugging my knees to my chest again. “I'm exactly who I seem like. I'm just different, like you.”

Steel and stone were rolling around in him, but the strategist was already planning ten steps ahead. He had seen too much in his life to doubt an obvious truth or waste time questioning a boon, and the obvious truth was that I seemed to have the ability to know things I should not be able to know. Even without knowing the specifics and limitations, the things he could do with an asset like me in hand were virtually limitless.

“You said there was one more.”

“I did,” I agreed.

“If you are concerned for your safety, I give you my word you will come to no harm over it.”

He didn't hesitate in his sincerity this time. He wouldn't – I was now dealing with the full attention of Eric Northman, and when he came out, it was not to fuck around. I had gone from curious, perhaps even intriguing new toy – if he would classify any human so highly - to capitol “a” asset of potentially priceless value, which meant that business now came first.

I took his measure carefully, then casually held my hand out for my phone. I put my feet on the floor and sat up straight for the first time since I'd come up here and typed out what I had heard from the bartender while compiling the first list.

 

Bartender is stealing from you. A lot. Not a new development.

 

“Hey,” I said almost absently, “you have a woman working here, real skinny, short hair, energetic, dresses skimpy, kind of. . .” I waved a hand, looking for the right word. “Ditzy? Little out of it, maybe? She's working in the back right now. Who is she?”

“Ginger.” He said immediately.

I nodded.

 

He's been using Ginger, but-

 

I turned to him. “What's 'glamouring?'”

He considered me a moment. “It is something vampires can do to take control of a human's mind. I would rather you not repeat the information.”

I nodded. “I won't, I promise. Can it make us forget things?”

He gave a dip of his chin, noting with interest that I considered myself human.

I went back to my phone, finishing the last part.

 

glamours her to forget each time.

On her own, she'd rather lose a hand than betray you.

 

I took a deep breath and held it for a moment while I looked at the screen, part of me wondering if I was really about to do this. It was a vastly different thing than pointing out kids and skeezy criminals. I puffed the air out through my lips and held the phone out without looking at him. I didn't particularly want to see his reaction. Eric was not the sort of person whose temper I wanted to witness.

Almost instantly I learned that he had a remarkably impressive amount of self control. He was livid. The bartender – Longshadow – was a partner in the club, and Eric would verify the information I had given him, but if I was right – and a part of him already assumed that I was, given my performance so far. . . . I caught a whiff of what he planned to do to the man and immediately slammed my walls down before I could catch any more. Vampire justice was very. . . corporal. Brutal and unforgiving, medieval inquisition style.

What he did next impressed me to the point of being stunned: he erased all outward signs of agitation completely as if they didn't exist, and returned to his bored master vamp guise.

“How did you know?” he asked coolly.

“Is this where I say something vague and mysterious?”

“I would not recommend it.”

There were very, very few things in the world that would make him really hurt me right now – he wanted my voluntary cooperation. It probably made me foolishly overconfident. “How about annoyingly unhelpful then? I'll skip the part where I tell you not to be greedy, since I know who I'm talking to, and I'm too drunk to think of a clever way to just say “no.” But however I did it. . . worth buying a girl a drink, wouldn't you say?”

“Indeed I would,” he replied, almost to himself.

His eyes casually swept the club, but that was mostly to disguise the fact that every other sense he had was honed in on me. His discipline was impressive; he hadn't forgotten the bartender, absolutely not. But he compartmentalized the issue and all his feelings about it so that his attention could focus on the new, and likely much greater long-term priority: me.

Some part of me knew that I should be afraid. Sick with worry. Eric was ancient and powerful, and I was now squarely in his cross hairs. But I just. . . wasn't. It was the third time tonight I had felt like there were two different people living inside my skin. One of them Knew, and the other argued very, very vocally and convincingly. But when you knew what I did about those inner voices, there was no question – not to be confused with no hesitation – about which to listen to. No matter how suicidal, lock-me-in-a-cage, treat-me-like-a-trained-monkey that voice of intuition seemed to be. I was afraid. But I was something else, too, and it was much, much stronger than the fear.

Even if it would get you murdered by a pack of overprotective werewolves like as not.

Oh, God. They would start a damn war if Eric tried to come near me.

“Mother-” I began to swear under my breath but remembered my audience and cut it off.

Luckily, Eric, The Tactician, had chosen a tack and was about to launch attempt number one at me. Unfortunately, I didn't pick up on it until it was too late. There was a very, very fine line between “just enough alcohol” and “far too much alcohol” for my purposes, and I had next to no experience walking it.

“Miss White,” he said, voice silk, and waited until I turned to look back at him. The moment my eyes met his, I felt a brush of something against my mind. It felt soft and gentle, soothing and appealing, like satin or silk or a warmed blanket on a cold day, but it was full of tiny, sticky barbs. “Thank you for your help this evening.”

“You're welcome,” I said uncertainly, holding his strange, suddenly attentive and unyielding gaze.

“I've come to enjoy your company, and would like to keep you close to me. You'd like that, wouldn't you?”

“. . . I. . . what?” I asked dumbly, nonplussed. "What are you doing?"

It was only for a fraction of a second, but shock registered in his eyes, and his recovery was flawless. “Extending you an invitation. Just for the evening, of course,” he said wryly, as if I were reading too much into what he'd said.

I rolled my eyes, and then froze halfway through when realization hit me with a jolt.

“Wait. You. . .” I sputtered. “Did you just try to-” I darted my eyes around, aware that the bar was full of vampire ears. “to do that. . .thing? Was that the thing?” I asked, furious. “Are you fucking kidding me?”

He canted his head ever so slightly. “What thing would that be?”

“Oh don't you fucking dare,” I hissed. “I get if you want to secure a. . .” again my eyes darted out to the club proper, ”cute girl, or whatever, but your first idea is mi-” mind control, I had been about to say. ”That?” In a mocking voice, I went on, “gee, thanks for the humongous favor, how about a life of,” I lowered my voice, “fucking servitude as a thank you? Poorly fucking played,” I said, launching myself up out of the chair to leave. I hadn't gone a step before Eric was standing in front of me, so close that I stumbled backward to avoid slamming into his chest. He put his hands on my arms to steady me, but I ripped away from him like I had been burned.

“Do not touch me,” I warned, deadly serious. It was the second time tonight I'd been able to stay out of him when our skin touched, and I had no idea how, but I had less than no intention of pushing my luck by trying for a third.

He let his hands fall to his sides, registering my reaction, but chalking it up to my anger, and utterly unrepentant. “You cannot blame me for wanting to see what else you can do. You're very impressive.”

“Are you-” I was so angry, words were tumbling over themselves in my brain and it took a moment to sort them out. “First of all, I am immune to flattery, so save your goddamned breath. It's insulting, and if that's the sort of shit you're used to working on people, it makes me question my assessment of your aptitude. Second, don't talk to me like I'm fucking stupid. That was not a test. You have ten fucking seconds, Northman, and then you are getting out of my way.”

Something dangerous flashed behind his eyes, but he contained it quickly, and abruptly, the coy demeanor dropped and he was all business. Perhaps he was finally done trying to lure me. “May we speak in my office?”

I snorted.

That was obviously not the answer he wanted but went on coolly. “Very well. I will pay you to come back for the nights remaining in your betting pool. Stay only for the three hours required, sit with me, and do what you did tonight. No one will approach you, and your drinks will be on the house.”

I hesitated a long moment. “. . . You know a bear trap still looks like a bear trap when you cover it in glitter and sugar, right?”

“What do you have to lose?” He leaned down until his mouth brushed against my ear. “We both know that if I wanted to, I could just take you right now.”

And there was that third skin to skin contact I hadn't wanted to risk. I froze, torn between hurting my hand by trying to injure him, yelling, and containing my anger in a quiet voice. “Purring sex voices and innuendo don't work on me either,” I said, opting for quiet anger. “And do not invade my personal space again.”

He smiled oddly. “You make a lot of demands for such a small human.”

I considered threatening him with a vague implication of what else I might be able to do, but thought better of it.

“It would be safer if we speak in my office, however,” he repeated, voice quiet but sincere. “I give you my word I will not. . . invade your space.”

I saw what he wanted to do with me in his office besides talk. He would respect my boundary – for now – but it was all still in there. “How many more ways are you planing on testing whether or not I'm a complete idiot? You're way, way over your ten seconds.”

Before he could speak, I added, “We can talk in the parking lot. But you keep to the personal fucking bubble,” I warned. If I tried to leave without hearing him out, he'd likely just find increasingly creative ways of keeping me here, and if absolutely nothing else, I had work in the morning.

He stuffed his hands in his pockets like a brooding teen, though his face was anything but, and once I was ahead of him as he followed me outside, an unrestrained smile split his face in two.

Ass. Hole.

When we got outside, I brushed past Pam without a glance. She had heard everything. Eric winked at her, and my hands balled into fists. I walked to a stranger's car, leaned back against the trunk, and gestured that he had the floor.

“I would like to know more about you,” he said smoothly.

So we were going for polite now. Ok.

“No,” I said flatly, and used an eye roll as an excuse to check for security cameras. I might have used a fake ID, but my license plate would lead them to my job, which would lead them to me. As long as it was parked outside the view of any cameras, I could leave it tonight, walk home, and just hope they didn't put two and two together if there was only one car left in the lot come dawn.

“Well now for someone who so admires the polite culture of Japan, you seem to lack a certain social grace.”

I glared at him. “First of all, you forfeit rights to social grace when you try to literally mind control someone. Second, you only want to 'get to know me,'" I said with air quotes, "so it's easier to track me down, or so you can find some kind of leverage, blackmail material, or some way to buy me. God forbid you try the honest approach first. Oh, to live in your world.”

He gave an approving hum. “You are clever.”

“Bite me,” I snapped, before it even occurred to me what I was about to say. My eyes widened at my mistake a split second before I heard a quiet snick sound and he smiled at me, fangs out.

“You know what I meant,” I said petulantly, unintentionally hunching my shoulders up around my neck.

“Yes,” he said, and his voice was husky, but he pulled his fangs back. “I do. And I would like to.” Very, very much.

“Yeah I got that with the whole 'you smell incredible' thing,” I said, and I probably couldn't have done a worse job impersonating him if I'd tried. 

“I believe the word I used was 'interesting.'”

“Whatever,” I snapped. “My time for the night is past over, hurry up.”

He grinned. “If you know where this is leading, you could always save me the time and trouble.”

“I could,” I agreed amiably. “But who likes an easy hunt? Alternatively, there's the fact that I don't fucking want to be found. If this is how you thank everyone who does you a favor, it's a wonder you haven't been assassinated.”

“You will be giving up on your wager, then? I find that surprising.”

“No you don't. You might find it surprising if the stakes were the same as they were when I went in there tonight,” I said with a jut of my chin toward the club, “but not now. Playing dumb doesn't suit you, and it sure as shit doesn't work on me.”

“Blunt,” he repeated quietly and with the breath of a chuckle.

“Sharp,” I countered with a sneer.

“Observant.”

“Arrogant.”

He paused a moment. The obvious game was fun, but it didn't tell him anything, so he was going to try a different angle and see how I reacted. “Kind.”

That brought me up short for half a beat. “I have never been so insulted in my life.”

He huffed a laugh.

As if I couldn't help myself, I said, my voice gentling, “. . .You have a good heart, you know.”

'Not so observant, perhaps.' He considered me a moment, and when he spoke I could hear yet another tactic change in his voice.

“One hundred dollars per night,” he said, cool and business-like. “The same as the prize for the first night's bet. And I will match the money in the pool for the additional nights.”

My smile was acid. “And you'll know how much that is, how?”

“I'll take your word for it,” he said straight-faced.

I blinked, nonplussed. He was writing me a blank check, and we both knew it. I knew that the point of this was to get another ten nights to try to win me over. For him, that was an eternity. I knew – I thought – that since I could see through him and wasn't quite that stupid, I'd be fine.

“. . . Four hundred and you don't match the pool,” I said carefully.

“One and I triple it.”

I swallowed thickly. It was very, very hard to keep my eyes from widening. Even if I were honest about the pool amount – which I would be either way – that would be a considerable sum of money. I took a breath and found it shaky. “Three hundred, no pool. . . and I let your barbie doll – and for the love of god don't tell her I called her that, I like my organs right where they are – dress me every night.” I rushed to go on over the salacious smile that was spreading over his face. “PG-13 at most, and I get absolute veto power.”

“I know you know I heard that,” Pam called.

“Pam if Mattel ever comes out with a Beautiful Yet Deadly and Terrifying line of Barbies, you will be their model and spokesperson,” I replied.

She vamped over and was suddenly standing next to Eric. “Oh don't worry,” she purred, a strangely disconcerting tiny little grin on her face. “I'm not going to eviscerate you. At least not yet. You're far too pretty, and I am far too excited to see what I can do with what's under that frankly borderline traumatizing outfit you've worn these past four nights.”

“This is my fifth night, Pam. And there is nothing wrong with my outfit, it's just not. . . .” I gestured up and down the length of her, with her bustier and pencil skirt and mile-high shoes.

“I am pretending that the first night was a horrible fever dream,” she replied.

Despite myself, I gave her an exasperated smile. Then I looked up to Eric, my face asking, Well? Deal?

“Four hundred, no pool since you seem to dislike the idea-”

“I'm not a lying scumbag,” I interrupted archly to clarify.

“Oh don't worry,” Pam said. “We can fix that.”

I glowered at her.

“Four hundred,” Eric tried again, “no pool, outfits. . . and you let me taste you.”

For a moment I just stared at him. “. . . Do I really smell that good?”

“Better,” Pam said. “Even under all that repulsive shifter stink.”

“Thank you Pamela,” Eric said, a knife under his cool tone. “Get back to the door.”

She smirked and was instantly back behind the red velvet rope at the foot of the awning.

“I. . . You have smelled someone like me before, though, right? Someone similar at least?”

“No.”

My mouth went dry. “. . .Oh,” I breathed.

He took a step toward me, but mindful of my “bubble,” stopped just close enough that I could have reached out and brushed his stomach with my fingertips. “This bothers you?”

Something in my chest clenched almost painfully, and the timbre of his voice sent heat straight to my gut despite myself. He knew what he was doing. I knew he knew what he was doing. But just because you know fire is hot doesn't mean it won't still burn you if you're stupid enough to sit too close.

I opened my mouth to answer, then closed it. It wasn't that it bothered me so much as the fact that, for some reason, it made me feel very alone. I had long ago grown used to what I could do. I knew the ways in which I was different. But even though this was a small thing – even a thing that made sense – it hit on an old sadness in me, one I had though I'd long since tucked away, that despite having the intimate company of every person I passed, I was alone.

I wasn't sure why – I had guesses, but was too afraid to look at them closely – but I considered his offer.

Sense took over, and I shook myself and answered, pasting an insincere smile on my face, “Not for a million dollars, Northman.”

He smiled, as polite a thing as he could manage, I supposed, even as he knew in his bones that he would get what he wanted in the end. He always did.

I looked at him, face serious. “The gag order applies indefinitely. Swear it. I won't risk my life for money.”

He nodded. “I swear it.” He did not hesitate to put his full sincerity behind it this time. “I would like to tell Pam. But as her Maker I can command her not to speak of it.”

“Her. . . wait, does that mean you're the one who turned her into a vampire?”

“I did. The Maker's command is absolute. It cannot be disobeyed.”

Magic, I felt from him. It was some kind of magic. “And that gives you two a. . . special bond?” I asked carefully, remembering what I had felt between them earlier in the night.

He suppressed a grin. “It does. It is one none but a vampire can understand.”

As someone who had felt it for herself, even just for a moment, I had no trouble believing that.

“. . . And you give me your word you'll order her to stay just as tightly clammed as you will? About everything?”

He nodded, and he meant it. He wasn't interested in risking the burgeoning arrangement, the tentative beginnings of what he hoped would end in an ironclad tie to him, or in word getting out about me.

“. . . Keep your promise about that woman, if she comes up to you. And I want payment in cash, up front at the door every night. Three hundred since you're not getting within a mile of my platelets.”

'We'll see,' he thought with a smug internal grin. Outwardly he gave a graceful dip of his head. “In exchange, I'd like you to tell me how you do what you did tonight. Since we're not playing coy, I can assure you that it is virtually impossible that the how will cause me to be any more interested that the what.”

I thought about that, and considered how difficult it might be for me to give him what he wanted without handing him anything else. I was a great verbal acrobat, but I had my limits, and I knew that the second I underestimated Eric was the second I was in very serious trouble.

In the end, I thought it would be relatively easy. He'd asked me to tell him how, after all, not for details. “. . . Deal,” I said softly. “I would have done it for $100 and no pool, by the way. Barring the outfits.”

He smirked. “I would have paid at least $600 and five times the pool without them.”

I nearly paled, but covered it with a weak huff of a laugh. “Right. Then. . . I guess I'll see you tomorrow.”

“Eight o'clock,” Pam called.

“Yeah because there's zero chance I have responsibilities other than being a vampire's dress-up toy. And doesn't the club open at nine thirty?”

“Nine on Fridays and Saturdays. I need time to get you ready.”

I growled silently – or I thought so, until I felt a flicker of amusement from Eric. “Fine,” I said, knowing she could hear me perfectly well, “but my time starts the second I set foot in that hellhole. No offense,” I added begrudgingly to Eric. “Figure of speech, or whatever.”

“I'd like your number,” Eric said. “In case something comes up.”

I actually did laugh that time. “There's that ' let's find out how gullible she is' test again.” I turned to walk away.

He vamped in front of me, but a respectable distance. “I meant it. I won't insult you by pretending you don't know at least some of what I hope to get out of the next ten nights. It would be in my best interests to be sure you're safe until then.”

I nodded sardonically. “And that you can find me in the impossible event that Eric Northman doesn't get the girl.”

To my surprise, a muscle in his jaw clenched against a wave of annoyance. I even felt it from Pam – she knew her Maker's temper. He meant what he was saying; he wanted to see that an investment was safe until he could close the deal. Through that, I felt a wave of protectiveness that I couldn't decide if I found surprising or not; Eric took care of his own. It was a key part of his very narrow, very specific sense of honor. I didn't think for a second he wouldn't use it to hunt me down too, though.

“Would a burner phone be sufficient?” He asked.

I thought that over for a moment. It was a myth that cell phones could be tracked like GPS devices. The best he could do was track me to the nearest cell tower, and in a city, that would do him next to no good. . . .But he could put a GPS chip in a burner phone with enough battery power to last ten days.

Good thing wares never did mind getting their hands dirty now and again.

I nodded. “I'll bring one with me tomorrow.”

“You can get a burner phone that quickly?” He asked, voice half wryly amused, half impressed. He hadn't pegged me for the underworld type.

“Norseman,” I said with a grin, “I can do all kinds of shit. Hadn't you noticed?”

With that, I turned and walked away.

“Emma,” he called, his low voice booming. He waited until I turned to look at him over my shoulder. “Are you really planning on walking home, alone and drunk, through downtown Shreveport?”

“Aw, come on! I'm a big, tough girl! I can carry more than two pounds without breaking and everything! And I'm only a little drunk.”

He was going to have me followed. To his credit, it was at least half to make sure I got home safe.

I rolled my eyes and pulled out my phone. I could stay well away from anyone who might want to hurt me – and knew, unlike him, that it was all but impossible for anyone to do so – but sometimes the simpler solution is the best one. I needed help with my car, anyway.

I didn't have to stretch to make sure he was paying attention – he and Pam were standing together, watching me walk away, and listening closely as I made my phone call.

Coriander picked up on the second ring. “Heya, sweetpea! You do your time for the night yet?”

“On my way out now. I have a favor to ask, though.”

“Name it,” she said without hesitation. I squeezed my eyes shut to keep from rolling them, even as I felt a swell of gratitude.

“Can you and Tank meet me at Cal's? Just up the road from the bar?”

“You mean Cal's that's a good mile from the bar? I don't want you walking alone through downtown Shreveport in the middle of the night. Neither does Tank. You should see his face.”

“Cori for the love of. . . .” I stopped walking and pinched the bridge of my nose.

“What ab-”

“No questions," I interrupted sharply. "Not until you get here. I promise I'll get there safely, ok?”

She sounded a little uncertain, but agreed readily enough once I'd made the promise. “. . . Alright. We just ate, we can be there in twenty. That ok?”

“That's perfect.”

“. . .Ag, you're not going to wait outside, right?”

“Jesus Christ Cori what did I just say about questions?” I pulled the phone away from my ear and said into the speaker, “see you in twenty, mom! And yes I just called you that.” Then I quickly whispered, “love you,” and hung up.

It was an uncomfortably long time until Eric was out of my range, and for some reason I couldn't seem to make myself shut him out. Until he faded away, he did nothing but think on how sweet this victory was going to be when he finally claimed it.

I didn't mind. It solidified in me the determination to do absolutely anything to ensure he didn't get it.

I texted Cori as I walked.

 

- Me; 12:48am

Sorry, Cor, I had ears listening. I need you or Tank to get my  car from Fangtasia

stay downwind but make it look like you're  coming from inside to the security cameras.

I don't want  them to pick up my plate number. 

I'm going to have Tommy  drop me off and pick me up the rest of the nights. This shit  just became work, he can damn well help out.

 

 - Cori; 12:48am

I was wondering.

Good thing we have a little bit of a car ride to talk on the way  home – you  obvs have some xplaining to do. :)

 

- Me; 12:49am

. . . .

Anyone ever told you you're pushy?

 

- Cori; 12:50am

Lol that made Tank laugh.

He says hell give you rides btw

 

- Me; 12:51am

I'd say tell him thank you, but I can do that shortly.

 

- Cori; 12:51am

Wait in th diner across the street. I mean it.

 

 - Cori; 12:55am

Ag, dont you ignore me.

Wait in the diner or I'll tell your brother.

 

- Me; 12:56am

. . .I thought there was supposed to be an honor code among  werewolves. Telling  my brother on me is clearly below the  belt.

I'll wait OUTSIDE OF the stupid diner.

. . .Unless they still have pie.

Oh and can you talk to Alan for me? I need a burner phone

before tomorrow night,  on the d/l obvs

 

- Cori; 12:57am

Yeah I'll phone him now.

See you in ten. :-*

 

 * * * * *

 

Much later that night and elsewhere in Shreveport:

“What do you want me to put her in?” Pam asked.

Eric took a moment to think before a wide grin spread across his face. “Something that suits her.”

Pam went down that morning with a wide, wide grin of her own. She already knew just the thing. All she'd have to do was sort out the details.

Chapter Text

I wanted to wear something nice. The impulse, or more specifically the reason for it, was troubling. If for no other reason than that, I dressed again in a black tank and jeans. To be petulant, I added a pair of chucks instead of flats.

The parking lot was deserted when Tank dropped me off. He sat, idling his motorcycle, as I climbed off, unstrapped the helmet, and held it out to him.

He was giving me a look, and his eyes said a lot. Which, for a man of his size and build was something; “Tank” was not an ironic name. When the pack shifted, he was closer to the size of a pony than a wolf. You looked at a man like him and expected his insides to match the giant, gruff exterior, but the truth was he was about as soft, shy, sweet, and kind and gentle as they came. I didn't have to read him to see the message on his face: money and pride ain't worth your safety.

I gave him a soft, grateful kiss on the cheek and told him I'd be careful.

“Promise?” He asked, his rarely-used voice gravelly.

I considered a moment. Like the rest of the pack, he knew that if I gave my word, it was ironclad. He was asking me to swear to it.

“I give you my word, Tank, I'll be reasonably safe. I'm not looking to get into trouble. I just want to redo my damn apartme- don't give me that look! Come on, I know you guys would do it for me, but that's the point. You've all been swaddling me like I was an infant since you found me. You have to understand the desire to want to do some things for yourself, right?”

His flat look said: I belong to a pack, remember?

I rolled my eyes and, with a half-playful disgusted noise, gave his arm a squeeze before heading toward the entrance to the club. “See you in three hours!” I called over my shoulder, wiggling my fingers a little to wave goodbye.

I didn't hear his engine rumble out of the parking lot until someone answered my pounding at Fangtasia's front door. It was the woman I recognized as Ginger, and I found myself glad to see that she was okay.

“Oh hey there,” she said with a big, friendly smile, “you must be Emma! Pam's expecting you.” She moved aside and ushered me in.

“That's me,” I said weakly, the nerves I had been staving off all say starting to jolt though me.

Right on cue, I felt Pam in a room behind the bar, grappling with the realization that she was actually happy I was back, and how much she had been looking forward to this. Which immediately confused, frustrated, and pissed her the hell off. Consequently, I felt I was not about to get her in her best mood.

“Oh, I almost forgot,” Ginger effused. “I was supposed to give you this before you even came inside.” She jogged behind the bar to grab an envelope with what I assumed had my night's pay inside. I saw a memory of her peeking at its contents earlier and seeing what looked to her like an impressive amount of money.

“Just this way, Emma, she's been getting ready for you in the back since she got here,” Ginger said with that same friendly smile. There was something off about her. She was kind-hearted, but almost a little air-headed. It was like a piece of her mind was foam on the sea, threatening to dissolve at the gentlest breeze.

Ginger walked us past the bar, where Longshadow was setting up. I wasn't sure if I was surprised to see him or not; Eric wasn't the type to let a serious offense stand, but neither was he the type to pounce unprepared. I feigned interest in the empty club as an excuse not to have to look in his direction. The space seemed bigger when it wasn't crammed full of hungry bodies.

Aside from Longshadow, the only person in the space was a woman sitting at a tall, round table against the far wall, sipping on a glass of something so dark that it looked black. She was small and short, and dressed in what looked like a simple, dark loose linen tunic. She had richly middle-dark skin and long black curly hair, and the sourest disposition I had ever seen. One whiff of the rest of her had me clamping down on my extra senses viciously; she made Eric look like an embryo.

I ignored the feel of her eyes on me as we walked past.

“So, between you and me, exactly how worried should I be, here?” I asked the white-blonde back of Ginger's head uncertainly. I had been oscillating all day between feeling like an idiot for agreeing to this, and feeling like a bigger idiot for being the one to have suggested it. I'd been Janice's barbie plenty of times. But Janice wasn't a pseudo-dominatrix hundred year-old incredibly lesbian vampire.

“Oh, don't be! I know they seem scary, but they're all real nice here, and Pam has a great sense of style. And you know I think she's actually excited about this,” she finished in a conspiratorial whisper.

I wondered if Ginger was always so forthcoming as my eyes darted up and down her with growing concern. She wore a short denim skirt, a top that looked like nothing more than a metallic breast band, and high platform heels. “Does she, uh. . . does she dress everyone here?” I asked as lightly as I could.

“Oh, no. There's a uniform for the human staff, and the vampires basically wear whatever they want. I get to pick out my own clothes. I don't work on the floor much anymore, I just handle daytime stuff and things behind the scenes. You know.” She was practically purring.

We went through the swinging “Employees Only” door, down a short, linoleum-tiled hall, and into a small side room. Pam stood facing the door, hands on hips, troubling smile on her face, clearly waiting for us – for me. Black metal shelves were pushed against most of the walls, crowded with what looked to be office supplies and paper goods and, in one case, shoe boxes. The lone section of empty wall had a vanity set up against it, a full-length mirror at its side. Next to that, a sable garment bag hung from a hook in the wall.

When I stepped into the room, I saw a second woman. Slight, with deep skin and long black hair. She leaned against one of the shelves as if bored.

“Emma, Satcha. Satcha, Emma. She's here to help," she said to me by way of greeting. Then, her eyes not leaving me, added "Ginger, get out and close the door.”

“Sure thing, Pam. Have fun Emma, nice to meet you!” She whispered to me.

As the door swung shut and latched into place, Pam spread the garment bag and unhooked a large swath of shimmering fabric. She turned to me and held it up, its hanger dangling from one graceful, perfectly manicured finger.

I felt my brows crawl up my forehead so far, I feared they might retreat into my hairline.

“Problem?” She purred.

“No! No, not at all,” I hurried, pleasantly surprised and mildly suspicious. “It's just. . . well, to be honest Pam I expected a lot less fabric. More patent leather, maybe a waist-cincher, a pair of bottoms that were basically glorified underwear.” No part of me had expected elegant or graceful or breathtaking. “Unsurprisingly, I underestimated you,” I said honestly.

She hummed silently with approval, and enjoyed it so much that she didn't even stop to question its uncharacteristic presence.

What she held out to me was a gown, and the most scandalous thing about it was a subtly cowled neck that would show a moderate amount of cleavage, at most. Hell, an inch less deep and I'd go to a good restaurant in something with a neckline like that. The dress's sleeves would reach past my wrists, and its bottom hem would extend to the floor. There were no cutouts, no slits up the sides that I could see. The material looked opaque; it was a blue so deep that, depending on how the fabric rippled, it seemed to be unable to decide if it was actually blue or inky black, and it gleamed as if made of fractured pieces of light every time it shifted. The night sky, full of stars, I realized. It looked like someone had taken the dark, shifting sky, sprinkled with diamonds, and woven it into fabric.

A wicked smile broke Pam's her face and she turned the dress around for me to see the back.

I felt myself pale. “. . .Oh.” There it was.

The reverse side of the gown was a cutout that would reach across the entire expanse of my back from shoulder to shoulder, and ran so low that I seriously doubted it would cover the cleft of my backside. I swallowed thickly.

“PG-13, as requested. We'll use garment tape to make sure it stays in place.” To my surprise, she returned it to its hook on the wall. “Now come here. You have surprisingly decent skill with makeup, but I'm going to touch you up a bit. And your hair is going to need work,” she said, canting her head as if studying a painting.

“Ohhh, no,” I said with a dry laugh. “The deal was for clothes. Not hair and makeup. I actually wore makeup tonight for this.”

“I noticed,” she said drily.

“I was going for 'unappealing' the other nights, Pam,” I said flatly. “You know that.”

She hummed in reply. “In that case you could have done better.”

I shot her a look.

With no warning, Pam was suddenly inches from me. She gripped my jaw in one hand, forcing me to meet her eyes. I darted a quick look at Satcha, but she seemed utterly unconcerned. “Don't ruin my fun,” Pam enunciated, and I felt a piece of her reach out and brush my mind. It was just like what Eric had done last night. She was trying to glamour me.

He had told her it wouldn't work on me and, ignoring the sharp stab of ire at her attempt, I saw no need to burst her bubble yet. Besides, if I was honest, I was more than a little curious what she had planned. I could always pull out my veto card in the end, and I could see in her that the vampy dominatrix thing she wore every night at the club with heavy makeup was not her preferred look – it was a costume. Stage makeup.

“Alright,” I acquiesced, a little hesitantly.

“Good girl,” she purred, feeling more than a little surprised. Then, suddenly businesslike, “Now, out of the shirt.”

“Wait, what?”

“I'm feeling generous so I'll let you keep the bra while I work on you, but I'm not doing all this just to have you mess it up taking that thing off later,” she said, glancing down at my top. “So out of the shirt,” she repeated.

I grumbled silently, a petulant look on my face, but did as I was told. She made absolutely no attempt to hide her detailed sweep of my half-naked form, nor her pleasure at what she found.

After everything I had lived and heard and felt in other people, I found I could still blush.

Pam covered my lips in a rich, deeply dark oxblood and made me promise to drink from a straw for the night. All she did to my eyes was subtly darken the smoky look I had on them and add more smudged liner to the top lash line.

My hair was the surprise: she had it left it down. It turned out that was Satcha's job. She loosely pleated one side, but left the other untouched and hanging down over my shoulder. “You have beautiful hair,” Pam she said absently as she stood, apparently more than content to watch Satcha work.

'Thick, soft, long, natural highlights. . . it'd look great with a fist in it.'

“Uh. . .thank you,” I said, swallowing.

She hummed an acknowledgment and when Satcha pronounced I was done, turned me to a mirror to see the result. The other woman had pulled my hair completely back from one side of my face, arranged it so it would stay entirely off my back, and had extended the braid to the side that was hanging down, where she had tightened it into more of a normal pleat. She'd added a couple more over there, too. They looked deceptively simple, rustic and rough, even, but there was intricate work in them if you looked closely enough. The effect was interesting – I looked like some sort of glammed up shield maiden or something.

I felt a pit form in my stomach when I realized what she was pulling together. A nordic-looking hairstyle. A dress like the night sky. Deep, rich, blood-red lips. She was dressing me for her boss. I had expected that. But I had not in my wildest nightmares thought to prepare myself for something classy, something so. . . frankly, intimate. Pervy clothes I could have written off easily, but this was something else. Wild discomfort was beginning to bubble up in me.

"Good?" Satcha asked in a heavy western European accent. She reminded me of a bored teenager.

"Perfect, thank you. You're free to go," Pam replied, still eyeing me.

With a jut of her chin that apparently passed as "goodbye, have a great night," Satcha let herself out.

“The makeup's. . . a little intense, isn't it?” I asked, trying to cover what I was grappling with.

She chuckled like I was a kid who'd just said something so stupid it was cute. “Wait 'till you put on the dress,” she drawled knowingly.

She held out what looked like two oddly-shaped pieces of flapping meat, each with a rigid in a line on one side. “Do you know how to wear these?”

“I don't even know what they are,” I said.

“Hmm, what a pity,” she deadpanned, “guess I'll just have to help you put them on. Now hop out of that pathetic excuse for an undergarment. I hate a charity case, but I may have to take you shopping. That thing is an insult. Especially on that body,” she said, her eyes roving the length of me again.

“Uh, look, Pam, no offense, but I wouldn't take my bra off in front of you any more than I'd take it off in front of Eric. In fact, Eric wouldn't even have gotten me out of my shirt.”

“Oh, honey,” she said, feeling a tickle of amusement at knowing - knowing for Chrissake – that Eric could and absolutely would get me out of my shirt. I felt that brush of silk against my mind again, “I'm harmless. Now take it off.”

“Can't you just tell me what to do with them or something? I'm a quick study.”

A bolt of shock lanced through her, and she was suddenly looking at me like I was a new species she was trying to classify. “He wasn't kidding,” she murmured. After a moment of this, she went to the door and cracked it open. “Ginger!” she hollered.

Not a minute later, the petite woman came in.

“Ginger is as straight as they come,” Pam drawled at me. Then to the diminutive woman, she held out the waggling pieces of whatever they were and said, “Put these on her, and make sure you do it right. I'll be outside when you're done.” Then she left without a backwards glance.

It turned out they were a bra. They had adhesive on rigid, curved bottoms, and you just pulled yourself up, stuck one on, and trusted it to stay in place. There was a little hook in the middle to pull them together, which instantly made your chest look larger and just. . . wow. Ginger yammered the whole time she was in there with me, explaining the device, complimenting her employers, complimenting me, talking me through getting any leftover adhesive off of my skin at home, reassuring me the cups would stay in place, looked great. . . .

“Ginger!” Pam snapped from outside the door. “Hurry it up.”

“Oh, right! Yeah, sorry. We're all done in here, Pam!” Then, in a normal voice and with a smile, “nice to meet you, again, Emma.”

Pam came in and looked straight at my chest, but it was assessing, not lascivious (mostly). She made a noise of approval and went to retrieve the dress.

As I slipped out of my shoes and jeans. Pam felt a wave of unsurprised disdain that my panties were as “sad” as my bra had been, but didn't say anything As she carefully helped me into the gown, I asked quietly, “what's wrong with her?”

“Who, Ginger? She's been glamoured so many times her brain's practically scrambled.”

I remembered the feeling of her barely held together.

“Is she ok?”

Pam shrugged, obviously disinterested. “More or less. Mostly less, but she still gets the job done.”

I felt a stab of annoyance at her utter lack of concern, but pushed it aside. I could hardly do anything about the situation myself. “Can all vampires do it? Glamouring?” I asked, as she begun securing the lines of the dress to my back.

“Yes. Off with the panties. Although calling them that is practically an act of charity.”

I balked, but realized that of course this wouldn't be an undergarment-friendly gown. And it would be taped in the back, so nothing would show that wasn't supposed to – though the cutout sat considerably lower than the top of my underwear. And it wasn't like she was asking me to strip naked in front of her.

“What do you have against my undergarments?” I asked as I wiggled out of them and let them drop to the floor, pulling my socks off with my toes while I was at it.

“Other than the fact that they're horrible?” She replied as she was carefully adhering the back of the dress to my skin.

“They're not horrible! They're not even that old.”

“Things like that shouldn't be made in the first place to be given the chance to see old age. And the fact that you have to specify that they're not 'that old,' should have tipped you off.”

“They're cotton! It's good for you when you have actual human biological functions. And they're a nice brand!”

Pam didn't reply out loud, but she had plenty to say inside, and none of it complementary. Apparently cotton undergarments were only for 'children, the morbidly obese, and the elderly.'

“Alright,” she said finally, and took a step back, carefully taking me in as she checked for anything that wasn't perfectly in place. She adjusted the lay of my hair over the fabric of the gown, then nodded in pleased approval. She moved to the collection of shoe boxes, opened one, and presented me with a pair of heels that had to be at least 4”.

I balked. “No. Pam I literally cannot wear those, I will fall on my ass the first step I try to take. Hell, I'll fall just trying to stand in them. I wear flats! The only heels I own are a pair of horrible 1” pumps that have about nine years of dust on them.”

She pursed her lips, but couldn't argue that an inability to walk would hinder the look she'd put together. Then an idea occurred to her, and a slow smile crept across her face. “No, you know what, it's alright. You are going to go out there barefoot.”

“Is that. . . sanitary?”

She shrugged one shoulder like she couldn't care less. “Just don't step on anything disgusting or cut your foot open and you'll be fine. But watch the hem. It'll dangle on the floor nicely like this, but it's meant to be worn with heels, so mind you don't trip on it and ruin my work,” she warned seriously. She very carefully ignored the fact that she didn't like the idea of me tripping, period. “Speaking of which, let me see your toes.”

I gathered the thin, heavy fabric of the skirt and lifted.

She gazed down and nodded with pleased surprise. “You obviously put so much effort into the rest of yourself, I find myself curious how you dress when you actually want to look good.”

“I do ok when I want to, but I basically grew up around a bunch of men. Unshaven, belching, outdoorsy manly men. If I hadn't had an older sister who was into fashion and hair and makeup, I probably would have ended up living in car harts and men's t-shirts.”

“And what's her name? This sister of yours? Maybe I'll send her a thank-you card on behalf of everyone in the world with eyes.” She asked in a suspiciously friendly tone.

“I call her 'my older sister,'” I said with a dry smile.

“Hm. Well, thank god for small miracles anyway, I suppose. Put this on.” She pulled a large velvet box out of a drawer on the vanity and opened it up. Inside was a simple necklace of what looked like semi-matte hammered silver. It lay gracefully, a wide band, widest where it would sit at the hollow of my throat, that would hug the base of my neck.

“That's not silver,” I asked, my eyebrows raising.

"Sure is," she drawled.

“That seems a little. . . counter-intuitive, doesn't it?”

“Now what would make you say that?" She asked with an insincere smile.

“I reek of, and I quote, 'shifter stink' and you wonder how I know about silver?”

She shrugged a shoulder. “It's not counter-intuitive. My job tonight was to make you look like yourself, and with this, now I have. You're in a vampire bar, dressed like vampire bait, with a big fucking 'don't touch' sign right around the most common spot a vampire will bite. I did exactly what I set out to do. Now, come here and have a look at yourself.”

I obliged, and she put her hands on my shoulders and turned me to face the mirror.

I sucked in a breath. “Jesus Christ, Pam,” I breathed. I looked wild and sleek, alluring, dark and soft and graceful, deceptively powerful underneath. I looked beautiful, I looked stunning. I looked like I belonged at a high-end event in a big city. This is how you see me? I wanted to ask. But I knew the answer. She had, as she'd said, done exactly what she'd set out to do. I couldn't speak.

“I know,” she purred. “I am good.” She was smiling behind me as she took me in.

“. . .Should I look at the back, or just pretend there's fabric there?”

“Oh you should definitely look. Turn around and stay right there.”

She left and came back a moment later with a large hand mirror. I took it from her and angled it and saw. . . well, my back.

She arched a brow. “You look underwhelmed.”

“No!” I hurried. “No, I mean, it's beautiful, it's just. . . it's my back. I've seen it before. Just not usually accented by something that's teasing with the idea of being clothing.”

She leveled me with an unamused stare. “Now I know you are intentionally oblivious, but I also know that you are not a complete idiot. Come here.” She put her hands on me and angled me just a little to the side. “Now look. Perfect skin. Smooth as glass, soft as velvet and marble, no marks, no blemishes. Line right down the center,” she traced a finger over it as she spoke, and I shivered, making her grin, “where your spine is, and the perfect curve where it meets your behind. My dear, this is a back a swimsuit model would kill for. After this and seeing the rest of you. . . well, you must work out like the devil himself is after you.”

Her eyes glinted at the unintentional joke – Eric, of course (or herself, come to it), filling in for the devil.

I couldn't argue; she would know. I could feel it on her. I felt my skin flush. It wasn't that I wasn't aware of what people thought of my appearance. It was just that I looked at myself and saw a body, same as I did with everyone else. I couldn't classify it as “good” or “bad” - it was just mine. When my “brothers” had gotten aggressively territorial as I went through puberty, I ignored thoughts about how I was one giant walking neon target. I figured they thought that way because they were all so protective of me to begin with, and frankly figured it was a werewolf thing. I was slowly realizing I may have been wrong on all counts.

I had the very surreal experience of wondering just how many things I had been willfully blind about in my life. Me, who could see into the hearts and minds of everyone around me, who knew firsthand how well people could lie to themselves. It gave me the uneasy, almost nauseating worry over whether or not my own ignorance had affected the ways I had interfered with others throughout my life.

“That was a compliment, princess. Not a death sentence,” Pam said a little uncertainly.

I sucked in a breath, coming back to the room. “No,” I said. “I just. . . got lost on a winding train of thought. Honestly I can't. . .” I shrugged and said quietly, able to think of no better compliment to pay, “I feel like I'm not even myself right now. But in the very best possible way.” I smiled at her, a small, honest, and almost vulnerable thing. I would never set foot outside this club as I was now, but I saw no reason to point that out. And in it, where this kind of clothing and look had a place, I felt miles beyond incredible.

Pam carefully hid the swell of pleasure she felt. “Well,” she said, working to cover her genuine reaction. “I've seen how you dress. Ginger could have done that much. But I am good,” she said again, casting one last look up and down the length of me, both in front of her and in the mirror. This one wasn't pretending to be even a little professional.

Turned out, Pam's mental sex playlist was just as graphic as Eric's. I suddenly wondered if, dressed like this and on display next to Eric, intentionally scanning the bar was going to be a wildly uncomfortable experience.

“This way, princess. We didn't take as long as I planned, so it'll give you and Eric time to chat.” 'Yay,' I thought flatly. “But I want to see his face when he lays eyes on you.”

“Oh, I need a-”

“Your horrific whiskey is already waiting for you.”

She leaned in and said in a low voice, “Now I know what you worked out with Eric last night. But as far as you and I are concerned, you have one job tonight.” She looked me in the eyes to make sure I was paying attention. I felt her wanting to glamour me again. “I dressed you, and you're Eric's guest. So while you are out there, you walk and you move like you own this glorious little shithole and every sad, pathetic piece of trash in it.”

“I'll make sure to tell Eric you said 'hi,'” I said, barely suppressed mirth in my voice.

She pressed her full lips together and held her hand out for mine.

I gestured for her to wait a moment and closed my eyes a moment - if I went out there like this, keyed up and nervous as I was, I'd have people working themselves into a frenzy, which would be precisely the worst possible way to get the night started. I also needed to brace myself for the kind of reaction Pam expected from Eric. I already knew how off-balance his attention could make a person feel. He was out there, seated on his chair, answering emails on his phone and trying to ignore how keyed up he was to see me again, and blaming what he couldn't ignore on his eagerness to acquire a rare and valuable tool.

I opened my eyes and Pam saw a difference in me. It must have amounted to “look like you own this shithole and everyone in it,” because I felt a pleased sort of pride run through her. She felt like the way people would see me tonight was the way I should be seen. It would bother her later. The number of ways she had already pictured getting me out of the dress at the end of the night would not.

She held her hand out to me again, a perverse sort of glint under her small smile that was half flattering and half unnerving. I placed my fingers into her palm.

We left the room, and in a few short steps, were out the staff door and into the club proper.

She held my hand high, as if she were displaying me. Which, technically, she was.
I caught a glimpse of Eric in his chair, and then suddenly, he was only a few steps away. Pam stood there, holding my hand up, smirking openly as Eric's eyes, so wide they looked unnervingly human, took me in with painful slowness. If he'd had blood pumping through his veins, it would have caught fire at the same moment an almost overpowering rush of desire crashed through him.

A lifetime of practice hiding what I thought and felt was the only thing that saved me. I felt a slight flush creep over my neck and up my cheeks, but I couldn't do anything about that. I kept my face carefully impassive, and forced my breathing to stay calm. I watched him, taking in his face as he took in what Pam had created – no, what she had revealed. He had asked her to dress me in something that would suit me, and to his mind, she had outdone herself. In his time, clans and kings would have gone to war over a woman like me.

I gritted my teeth against the observation and my eyes darted away from his face.

Finally, after taking a moment to appreciate the perfect irony of the necklace, his eyes made it back to mine, and there was something wide and wild in them. To say they were hungry would have been a gross understatement. I could have handled hunger. I had expected hunger and the way they darkened as they swept over me. I didn't expect what else I saw, and before I could process it, I shoved it aside.

“May I?” He asked, his voice low and perfectly rough, holding his hand out for mine.

“I'm not quite sure I'm ready to cut the cord,” Pam said. She was being contrary, but part of her meant it. She felt. . . protective. And she wanted me to herself – though she wouldn't argue much with sharing, so long as it was with Eric. “Besides,” she added, “you haven't seen the best part.”

I looked over at her and my eyes went mulish. “Really?”

“Don't spoil my fun. Now turn the hell around.”

I growled quietly in my throat but, with a huff, did as I was told.

Eric so badly wanted to reach out and brush his fingertips over my skin that his hands twitched and curled into fists. I heard a quiet “snick” noise behind me, and would have had no idea what it was had I not been feeling both of them. Eric's fangs had popped out. I gathered I was supposed to take it as a compliment, but it just made me feel vaguely uncomfortable. Oddly, that wasn't how my body felt about it. I shifted, wrapping my free arm around my middle and clamping down hard on the reaction, praying they wouldn't smell it.

Eric and Pam exchanged words in Swedish, but I heard their meaning through them.

“Is her skin as soft as it looks?”

“Softer.”

Something between a growl and a moan rumbled in his chest.

“The feet are a nice touch. I am impressed to say that somehow, I am still capable of underestimating you.”

She chuckled quietly. “I'd by lying if I said I wasn't proud of this.”

Something went unspoken between them: 'But look what I had to work with.'

“Quite enough?” I fairly snapped.

“Oh, not nearly,” Eric said darkly. But Pam turned me back around, brushed her thumb over my knuckles, then released me with a heated look. I have no idea why, but I acquiesced and put my hand into Eric's. His big fingers curled around mine, and to my surprise, I felt a surge of comfort, of safety, that washed away every last trace of fear and concern as if I'd slipped into a hot bath. That bothered me far more than any reservations I had had about coming back here tonight.

It did not bother me as much as the fact that I didn't have to do anything to keep myself out of Eric while our skin touched.

Like Pam, he found amid a thrumming wave of consternation that he was almost relieved to see me. I figured I should warn him and his girl, but if our business was, as I hoped, going to be up when the bet was completed, there would be no way I could justify giving away another secret. Even if it did, as always, prick at my conscience to keep it to myself.

"It ain't no different from the way people react to a pretty woman, or a baby, or an elder," I heard dad's voice reassuring me from years and years ago. "People's instincts tell them how to react to a thing, what to make of it, and that's all they're doin' with you. You're just a little somethin' extra, and that ain't nobody's fault, especially not yours. It ain't dishonest because you ain't doing it on purpose, and there ain't a manipulative bone in your little body. Besides, Aggie, we all know you wouldn't even hurt a bug for every dollar in the world. You're a good heart. Don't you ever forget that. The pack loves you the same way they love every other one of our pups. They all know you have something a little extra, even without being told why."

I was pulled out of the memory when Eric's eyes caught mine, and before I knew what had happened, his hand was leaving mine hesitantly. We were in his office, and I stiffened. I knew several (dozen) of the things he wanted to do with me in here, and talking hadn't much been on the list the night before. Even now he was fighting an urge searing through his gut and up his spine to pin me against the door at my back.

When he turned away, I looked down at my hand and flexed it experimentally, still feeling his touch and traces of the comfort I'd gotten from him flowing through my veins.

He did nothing more than walk behind a simple desk, lined with office supplies and papers, a laptop at its center, and take a seat at an office chair.

“Don't worry, pet, I remember the 'bubble' rule,” he assured me, his lips curling mockingly around the word. 'For now.' He picked up a glass of what I assumed was my whisky and held it out to me, two small red straws nested in it. He gestured to the couch pressed up against the only wall not either lined in shelving that was full of alcohol and True Blood, or covered in calendars and licenses.

I walked up to the desk slowly, holding his eyes, and very clearly said, “Don't call me 'pet.'”

I took the glass from him by the rim, careful not to let our fingers touch, and took a conservative sip through the small straws. Tonight I would try to maintain an even buzz and not go too far sideways again. That said, the faster I was not entirely sober, the better. I took another sip.

“This room is soundproofed,” Eric explained as I carefully seated myself on the edge of a bright red cushion, keeping my back straight. 'Owning it,' as Pam had advised. “I assumed you'd be more comfortable discussing what you can do in private.”

I nearly rolled my eyes. 'Yeah, that's why you brought me in here.' I drummed my fingers on the side of the glass and took another sip, much larger than the first, as I tried to ignore how very comfortable Eric was focusing on me completely in the privacy of his office. I set the drink atop another bright red cushion (they had really taken the theme and run with it in this place) and twined my fingers together on my lap.

“Telepathy and empathy,” I explained simply, getting straight to the point. “When I want to, I know what people are thinking and feeling.”

He stiffened invisibly – outwardly, he still looked almost perfectly at ease. “Including vampires?”

I only looked at him and smiled gently.

He felt panic at first – as close as he ever came to panic – at the knowledge that nothing from last night had likely been a secret from me. Not his wants, his plots, his goals or plans, observations or ideas or desires. He wasn't worried about how to manipulate someone from whom he could hide nothing so much as he was wondering how to turn that knowledge to his advantage.

Just as quickly, he realized I was likely feeling and hearing everything he was processing at that moment. The realization, the damage assessment, the reassessment of whether the risk I presented was worth the potential payout, whether or not it would be safer to kill me, carry on with the plan as-is, simply take me against my will. . . .

I sat calmly, looking around the office and taking small sips of my drink while his mind spun in a hundred different directions. He sat just as calmly at his desk, eyes on me as if he were watching me, to cover for the fact that his mind was speeding.

“It's like hearing,” I offered, as if voicing a thought absently.

His full attention snapped back to me, and he asked, his voice smooth and calm, “How so?”

I turned to him, and his eyes darted to my oxblood lips. He had to clamp down on a series of desires that welled up at the sight of them to pay attention – his fingers, twined together atop the desk, tightened around one another subtly, and his thigh muscles clenched. I kept my eyes carefully on his face, letting them rove over his long blonde hair for a moment.

“Your ears are always working, but unless you really pay attention, you don't hear what they're giving you. For all intents and purposes, you're not hearing anything – like they way your surroundings can drop away if you let your mind wander. But if there's danger, or something important or interesting, they call it to your attention. What I do is like that; the information is always there, but I've trained myself not to 'hear' it unless I want to, more or less. So when I had a look around last night, when I look around again tonight, I'll just be. . . paying attention to the background noise instead of letting it be in the background, basically.”

“And were you listening to me last night?” 'Are you listening to me right now?'

And there it was.

I smiled at him and for some reason, I made it as kind as I could. “I'd been carefully ignoring you every night before you had me summoned, if that helps. But a conversation with you was not one I had any interest in flying blind. Not when I'd already done something to get your attention just by being normal and boring.”

He reacted physically to that admission, schooling his features even as discomfited surprise rolled over them. “And yet you came back tonight. Why? And why avoid me before that?”

“You know, you're a terrible negotiator. I agreed to a very specific question last night, and you've hit me with, what, four more now?” I wasn't even a little bothered, and that bothered me. But there was something about the fact that I could talk to someone about this who was intelligent, who wasn't a werewolf, and who I hadn't known all my life that was irresistible. Hell, most of the wares in the pack didn't even know. I was twenty-six and I could count the number of people who really knew about me on one hand. That wasn't a bad thing. Sometimes it was just. . . lonely.

“Why are you here, Emma?” he asked bluntly. Then purred, as if to take the sting off, "Not that I'm complaining." Except part of him was, loudly and almost violently.

I looked down at the glass in my hands and toyed with the little red straws. There wasn't a simple answer to that. No, that wasn't true. There was a simple answer: “I chose to be,” I said. “And I was serious when I said my apartment was shitty. Besides, let's be honest. After what happened last night, you would have found me sooner or later even if I had opted to stay away. At least this way I get free booze,” I added drily.

Watching the thoughts and feelings swirl around in him as he knew I was watching the thoughts and feelings swirl around in him was like spinning around in dizzying circles or standing in an echo chamber. Eric had a quick mind – much quicker than mine.

In rapid succession, he summoned a series of vivid memories of things he thought would shock me – nothing to make me too afraid of him, but things that should certainly get a reaction out of a woman who had never had sex and seemed obviously kind.

I calmly took a sip of my drink as if waiting patiently for him to speak as doubt seeped into him about whether I was paying attention. My right ear – the only tell I couldn't always control - did twitch at an image of him feeding from a child as its mother tried to pry him away, but it wasn't enough to make him confident one way or another. He also wondered, as I would have to be utterly foolish not to be listening in on him, whether there was much more to me than he had initially assumed if I could hide my reactions so well.

I wasn't a shiny object now; I was being assessed. The possibility started creeping into his mind that I might, in fact, be something deadly, and if I was, why was I here? Something like me, trained and honed, if I was as I appeared to be, would be working for someone.

“You didn't answer my other question,” he said.

I laughed, and the mirth reached my eyes as I looked back at him. He found it utterly disarming, and instantly wondered if he was being manipulated.

I was oddly proud of him for that, and excited by it. He was the first person who had ever thought to ask.

Chapter Text

“Why were you going out of your way to ignore me?” He pressed.

I took a breath to gather my thoughts and set my drink aside again. I was downing it too fast. A reaction to nerves. “It's. . . hard to explain,” I said, reaching for words. He seemed content to wait, for which I was grateful. “People. . . 'taste' a certain way. Some people taste stronger than others. Familiar tastes are often more comfortable than unfamiliar ones, and we're naturally drawn to some flavors more than others. That girl in the corner, for instance, who I asked you to send the drink to. I found her before you had Pam come get me.”

Eric perked up internally. This, he had been wondering about.

“She was rare,” I said. “She was a genuinely good person. The kind the world isn't built for. It crushes people like her and tells them that they're wrong and broken, when really it's everyone else who's screwed up. She was strong, a fighter, but she was also convinced that she was worth next to nothing. The two utter hags she was with hardly helped.

“To a person like that, a small thing can make all the difference in the world. She looked at us, up on the dais, and she gave us the label of better with a capitol 'B.' Out of her league, in another world. For her, that dais may as well have been a mile high. So, someone in a high place acknowledges her for no apparent reason, and a little doubt starts to enter her mind: maybe I am worth something. Maybe there is something good about me.”

I looked at him as he looked back at me, and then gave a small shrug of one shoulder. Eric fought to keep his attention away from the way the motion drew attention to the soft crook of my neck.

“It was a small thing, like I said. But the world, and especially people more often than not, are built or broken on small things.”

A new doubt swirled into the mix: I was too good an actress to be acting. With extensive setup, yes. This could have all been arranged that way, but he could see no reason anyone would go to the trouble. He had power and wealth and influence, but not enough for a creature like me to be utilized. Which then begged the troubling possibility that perhaps I was exactly as I had seemed the night before. That idea made him much more uncomfortable than the possibility that I was actively and intentionally colluding against him.

“And that was worth exposing yourself?” He asked with almost comically disdainful doubt.

“That. . .” My brow wrinkled. “I can't actually explain that. I still don't understand it,” I finished, so quietly a human wouldn't have been able to hear it.

'And that bothers you,' he realized. He flicked through his memories of the previous night for any signs of what may have prompted me to act so obviously against my own self interest. I was interested in him, he “knew,” but not that interested yet. It also gratified him that he wasn't the only one knocked slightly sideways by our acquaintanceship so far.

“To answer your question, you. . . I could tell you were old,” I went on. “Ancient. It was bad enough that every person in there was sniffing after you – even without the chair or the spotlight, you have a certain gravity about you. You know that,” I said matter-of-factly. “The attention made everything muddy. Uncomfortable. But. . .” I shifted, uncertain how he would take my reason. I looked up and found him watching me with veiled curiosity. He was genuinely interested in what I thought of him. He buried it under “strategic information,” but that wasn't all there was to it.

“You're not like us,” I said finally. “It's almost unfair that vampires look human, because you're not, not even the young ones. It's honestly shocking to me how few people realize that. You, as old as you are, are in another universe. So you were. . . 'other.' Say looking into most people is like looking into a shallow hole in the ground, right? You're not only bottomless, but so vast that you have an undertow. It was uncomfortable, dangerous-”

“Dangerous?”

I took a moment to consider my words. “I've only ever caught vampires in passing, even after you all went public. They're different from humans, different from other supes. And you're different from all of them. You're too. . . big. I didn't know what would happen if I got too close. There have been people I didn't want to get inside of, but. . .” I shook my head. “Not like that.” I felt a smile quirk my lips at what I wanted to say, but wouldn't. 'Honestly, it surprised me how human you WERE.'

“And it didn't bother you?” He asked, his voice almost. . . intimate. “What you picked up from me?”

This was not something I wanted to get into. Once we acknowledged the cards that we both knew were on the table, the game would stop being a game. As long as we were still playing, I had the option to wiggle out of the restraints being looped around me.

I looked down at my lap and toyed with the fingers of one hand. After a time, I just said, “I'll answer what I can of your other questions without taking any unreasonable risks.”

'Interesting. . . .' he thought. He also found himself curious about what would constitute an “unreasonable risk.”

To my relief, he didn't press the question further. “Is anyone immune to what you do?”

I shook my head gently without looking up.

He quickly processed that and filed it away. “Does it tire you? Do you have limits you can reach?”

That I considered for a moment. “Not. . . exactly. But imagine sitting in a room where every wall, plus the floor and ceiling, is lined with televisions. How many do you think you could have on at once, all on different channels, and for how long, before it started to wear on you?”

He nodded thoughtfully.

“Have you always been able to do this?”

I shook my head. “It kicked in when I was. . . about six.” “About” being the key word.

“And before then?”

“What about before then?” I asked with a dry smile.

“Could you do anything else? Do you have any other abilities now?”

It took me a moment to find an answer that I could get past my lips. When I did, I felt a self-satisfied little smile curl my lips. “Nothing you haven't already seen. Well, except for one thing. But I doubt that will come up in the next nine nights.”

He looked at me a moment, but apparently decided to let me have that one. “And that's what you call it? 'Hearing?'”

I shrugged. “More often than not, I suppose. 'Seeing' sometimes. They don't exactly have an encyclopedia for the things I can do.”

“Who knows besides Pam, myself, and you?”

I smiled with teeth, clearly indicating a “pass” on that question.

“How accurate are your abilities?”

“Uh. . . ." His phrasing had me stymied on how to answer without specifying what I was talking about, which would lead him to more questions. "Can you rephrase the question?" I asked.

He gave me a studying look, but acquiesced. "When you read people, how accurate is your information?"

"Ah," I said as if I now understood. "One hundred percent.” I know people better than they know themselves, I wanted to add. "There can be some deductive reasoning involved in interpreting feelings, and putting words to them is sometimes more of an art than a science. But I usually specify if I'm not confident in something I'm saying. I'm anal like that," I finished with a shrug of one shoulder. Never mind the fact that while I could tell partial truths, it was almost always wildly uncomfortable to do so.

“Is there a range to them?”

“Varies depending on a number of things.”

“Such as?”

“Such as really not relevant when all I'm doing is reading your club.”

He decided that was not something he would press tonight, and I was wondering how worried I needed to be about all the questions he was choosing not to pursue. Whether it was just the patience of a man who thought he had much more than nine nights with me, or something else.

“Are physical barriers an issue?”

I canted my head at him.

“Walls, doors. . . .”

“Oh. No, nothing like that.”

“Meaning there are other things that can interfere?”

That wasn't a simple question, so I just shook my head and answered it the way he meant it: “Distance gets in the way, if there's enough of it. My own mental state can, too. Not much else.”

I looked over at my glass, planning to pick it up and take a sip, only to realize it was empty. I wondered how long we had been in here, which made me realize I didn't have my phone. Just as I thought about going to get it, I became conscious of the fact that there was noise on the other side of the office door – the club was in full swing. On a Friday night. And I hadn't noticed.

My brows drew together and I looked over at Eric. “Shouldn't we be out there?”

“You just said walls weren't an issue.”

I pursed my lips at him, and his eyes were again drawn to them. He did nothing to hide his gaze. “Well I'll tell you what,” I said. “My drink is empty, I need my phone, I need the burner you asked for, I want my book, and how about most of all, I'm tired of giving you freebies.” I finished with a sharp smile.

I picked up my glass and rose to leave. He let me, just long enough to get a good look at the skin of my back and the way it moved as I padded silently across the cool floor. Then he appeared in front of me, blocking my path, far enough that I didn't have to reel to keep from running into him but so close I had to tilt my chin up to meet his eyes.

"I would prefer you stay in here,” he said simply.

My face hardened. “Excuse me?” I asked with dangerous quiet.

“I have work I need to do, and I gave you my word you would not be harassed. I cannot ensure that if I am not with you.” 'And I don't want you out there without me, especially not looking like THIS,' some caveman-like possessive part of him felt. “You said yourself you can do your job just as well from my office. I'll have someone fetch your things, shall I?” He was moving to the door, not even waiting for a reply.

My hand twitched, and I again wished that hitting him wouldn't be like hitting a block of diamond.

“It's funny how you like to phrase things as if they're requests and offers when they're absolutely not,” I said, my voice making it clear exactly how “funny” I found it. “It's Friday night. Don't you want to be out with your slavering public?”

'I don't want them to see you,' a deep part of him growled, even as another part wanted everyone to see me, so long as they knew I was his.

I felt a pang at that, almost like an ice pick to the chest. It meant something in vampire parlance that I didn't understand, something more than the possessive way a human or ware might use it.

“And what if I don't want to be in here?” I asked coldly.

He paused for a split second, then turned around with what I assumed was supposed to be a friendly, accommodating sort of smile. “Then I'll do my work after you leave, of course.”

I rolled my eyes and made a disgusted sound, waving for him to go on having my things fetched. 'Kiss-ass,' I thought.

I occupied myself by sitting back down – though this time I sat against the cushion and tucked my legs under me, the gown draping over the edge like shimmering water – and giving a feel around the people in the club. Eric called someone to get my things and, to my surprise, really did sit back down at the desk and start working. Most of it was busywork, though; he wanted some time to think while I was still here. He kept darting glances my way, some quick, some lingering, and I wasn't sure if he realized how much he was doing it. Part of him also wanted me to himself, and if seeming busy was how he had to get that, he didn't particularly care.

“You have two undercover police officers at the bar,” I said after a time.

He didn't move, but his eyes snapped up to me, whip-fast.

“They-” I cut myself off mid-sentence when the door opened. Pam was on the other side, my things in hand. Her eyes swept me up and down, half appreciative, half assessing. “You're holding up well,” she said approvingly.

“Apparently I was in the hands of someone very skilled,” I said wryly.

”VERY skilled,” Eric said in Swedish, complementing her again. Then, in English, “Come in and close the door, Pamela. Emma was just about to tell me something very interesting.”

“What time is it?” I asked her.

“Almost ten,” she said, handing me my drink. I had been in the office with Eric for over an hour.

Pam took a seat next to me on the couch. A close seat. And her hand slid its way to my upper thigh.

I stared down at it, then looked up at her, my expression flat. She just winked at me, gave my leg a little squeeze, and stroked it with her thumb. I clenched my jaw and tipped back the entire contents of my drink in one swallow.

“Oh dear,” I rasped hoarsely, “I seem to need another refill. Pam, could I trouble you?”

“You were supposed to use the straw,” she said, unamused.

“I did on the last glass. But what can I say, I get greedy when I'm excited,” I replied acidly.

Pam thought she might actually like me.

Ginger came through the door with what had to be an octuple whisky in a collins glass at that very moment. I looked up in surprise, then looked at Eric, who was holding his phone up to me with a grin.

I nearly curled a lip at him, but accepted the drink graciously from Ginger.

Once she was gone, I began disassembling my burner phone – an old, basic flip phone - to check for any unwanted additions (it had been out of my sight for two hours, after all) as I told Eric and Pam about the police officers.

“A man and a woman posing as a couple. They're dancing right now, but are staking the place out for a raid. No date has been set, but this isn't the first time they, or others, have been here. The local PD has been trying to get something on this place for a while. It sounds like someone has a hard-on for your club, no pun intended, but you two, and congratulations on this by the way, run such a clean business that they're losing patience. They figure you must just be good at hiding whatever illicit shit you're doing, since naturally you are doing some,” I added with an eye roll (carefully working around the pang I felt when I heard that they were, in fact, doing just that, at least from time to time), “so they're about ready to call it in and do a full-on raid. Probably. . .” I paused to listen more closely, “within a few weeks, at most.”

I wondered if Danny had anything to do with it, and whether or not he'd talk to me about it if he did. Not that anything he might tell me would help Eric; spying on his patrons was one thing. The very idea of choosing him over any member of the pack made my hair stand on end.

“Do you have names?” Eric rumbled as I was checking the SD port and headphone jack on the burner. He found himself growing used to being surprised by me – I was cautious enough and knowledgeable enough to check for bugs. He wondered again how false his good-girl assessment of me the night before had been that I even needed to know to be that cautious in the first place. It was unusual sensation, and he couldn't decide if it was slightly uncomfortable, or exciting.

“I could probably get some, especially if I talked to them,” or touched them I thought but didn't say, “but I can tell you what they look like now if you want to keep an eye on them,” I shot him a sharp look, very much saying 'keep an eye on' as in 'watch and not murder in an alley somewhere.'

One corner of Eric's mouth quirked. Thankfully, he wasn't stupid enough to go killing police officers. “Please do,” he said.

I was checking the sealed seams of the phone – pieces I'd need tools to open – for signs of tampering, then began snapping the pieces back together, satisfied it was clean. “The woman is in a baseball cap with a long brown ponytail poking out the back. Tight, bright red tee-shirt, pretty. High cheekbones, nice lines. Her guy is shorter than her, stocky but not from fat, short black hair, dark green eyes, tanned skin, too much pomade in his hair. Massive arms,” I added, impressed with what I was seeing through the woman's eyes. “Jesus.”

Eric felt a swell of possessiveness too slight for him to pick up on.

“Want me to go?” Pam asked.

Eric held up a hand. “What else, Emma?” His voice was professional, but something about the way my name sounded coming from his lips made me swallow and my toes curl under the dark skirt.

I let my attention rove the club, talking as I went. “Longshadow is still a creepy sleaze, but he's getting a little nervous after what he saw happen last night – he knows I had something to do with the people you caught. One of the friends of my girl from last night is back- oh! How was the brunette, by the way?” I asked Eric, suddenly remembering the woman I'd seen at the bar.

A slow, entirely R-rated smile curled wide across his face. “Magnificent.”

I found myself grinning widely at him, oddly proud. “Is he always this spoiled?” I turned and asked Pam, as if an aside. “I got rats out of his club, saved him tens of thousands of dollars, and got him an epic lay all in one night, and all he had to do was buy a girl a drink.”

“I'd say he's definitely getting the good end of the deal, so far,” she purred. There was something she wasn't saying, but I couldn't see it without having to dig.

“And did she?” I asked, looking at Eric innocently. “The woman you got the drink for, I mean. Did she say anything?”

“She did,” he said quietly. “Toward the end of the evening, she approached to thank me.” There was an undertone in his voice that I couldn't place.

“And it went. . . alright?” I hedged.

“I was the perfect gentleman,” he said, and though he sounded a little sarcastic, he was telling the truth. He'd even kissed her hand. Gratitude swelled up in me and it was hard to hide the depth of my reaction. I smiled at him warmly – something he found puzzlingly disarming and endearing – and went back to my scan of the club.

“Eddard? I think that's his name,” I said. “Black-haired vampire, wiry, dressed in a black trenchcoat,” seriously, why was this place a magnet for every vampire stereotype ever? “He wants to take a risk with a feed tonight. Looking for someone, doesn't care what gender, to. . . uh. . . F&F, you know what I mean, don't make me say it out loud, up against some outer wall of the club or somewhere public.”

I almost missed the next one, but when I picked out why something about him bothered me, I shuddered visibly.

“How do you two feel about sexual predators?” I asked, distaste and disgust on my features.

“They're delicious,” Pam said.

“Then there's a gentleman on the floor right now who would make you an excellent dinner. Or. . . brunch? Lunch? Whatever. And. . .” I shifted, wildly uncomfortable with what I was about to say. “Look, to be honest, neither I nor any other woman woman in the world would ever shed a tear if you happened to accidentally go a little overboard,” I said darkly. Pam's only reaction was to glance at Eric, the barest hint of an unfriendly smile on her face.

“By all means,” she said, apparently getting whatever she was looking for from Eric. “Introduce us.”

I rose from the couch and opened the office door. Eric's eyes roved over my back again. He started to picture himself pressed against me, sinking his fangs into the soft part of my shoulder as he wrapped an arm around my waist to hold me in place so he could grind against me, as he snaked his other arm around, lifted up my skirt, and slid his fingers- I clamped off from him immediately and yelled into the club at the top of my lungs: “STEVEN!”

When the creep of a man caught sight of me, his pants actually tightened, and I had to choke back a swell of bile. He made his way through the crowd of bodies, eyes so greedily sweeping me up and down that he didn't see the look of hatred on my face. He came up with a wide grin, but before he could get too close, I opened the door the rest of the way to reveal Pam.

“Pam, Steve. Steve, Pam.”

Poor Steve looked a little confused, but recovered quickly; he thought perhaps he'd get us both tonight, and it took everything I had to keep from breaking his nose – I couldn't keep all the hopeful images out. Eric's eyes left my back long enough to watch my hand clench around the door until my knuckles went white and my arm started trembling.

“Hello, Steven, won't you come this way?” Pam crooned, glamouring him from the out.

“Wait,” I said. “Steve, look at me.”

“. . . You heard the nice lady,” Pam said.

Steve's eyes turned to me and regained some of their lucidity.

“If you have anyone or anything who depends on you – a pet, a kid, a sick mother, anything at all, don't think of it.”

A young boy with a mop of sandy blond hair in a bowl cut popped into his mind.

I swore under my breath.

“Now if something were to happen to you, would that little boy have somewhere safe to go? Someone who'd be at least as good a parent as you?”

“What? How the fuck-?”

Pam grabbed the man's jaw as she had done with me in the back room, but much less gently. “Answer the question, Steve,” she instructed, and I felt her mind reach out to his, taking it over and numbing it as if in a tender and trusted embrace. I wondered if hypnosis felt like this.

“His grandparents would do a hell of a lot better with him than I would,” the man grunted. “They'd take him.”

“And they'd get custody?” I asked.

He nodded dumbly. “His momma doesn't even bother pretending to go to rehab anymore.”

“And how long will it take for someone to realize you aren't there taking care of him? How long will he be alone?”

Both Eric and Pam were watching an exploitable weakness bloom right in front of them, and it would have made me furious if I hadn't been focusing on something more important.

“At least a couple weeks, probably. But he likes the neighbor kid. He'd go there if I didn't come home.”

“And the neighbor would take care of him?”

He nodded again. “Fucker always thinks I can't hear them talkin' about 'poor Bobby, poor Bobby with that useless old man.' But I do. I'm not stupid, I'm not deaf.”

I considered him carefully, then nodded, satisfied. “He's all yours, ma'am,” I said, not taking my eyes off him.

I felt Pam's anticipation uncurl. Within moments they were gone, and I had the door shut. I leaned back against it, let my head fall, and closed my eyes, trying to wash away the feel of the man.

Most people were redeemable. Everyone was, if you looked deep enough. But sometimes they were so far gone that letting them go was doing them and the rest of the world a favor. Steve did not belong here – he was broken with a capitol “b” and did nothing but spread hurt and ugliness.

I felt a slight breeze and found Eric in front of me. Too close in front of me. But I remembered how my hand in his had felt earlier in the night and found that I didn't care. That I welcomed it. Anything that would wipe away the feel of the fucking man Pam had just taken away. I only looked at Eric as he looked down at me.

“Are you alright?” he rumbled, his eyes on mine as he traced the knuckles of one hand down my cheek. My eyes slid closed and my lips parted, just barely. I felt the skin all over my body grow warm and flushed. It took me a long moment to realize that I hadn't even prepared myself for the physical contact and I still wasn't feeling any more than I did when we weren't touching.

Experimentally, as his hand slid town to cradle the side of my neck, carefully north of the silver necklace, I asked for the extra access I would normally get from touch and felt it rush into me, same as it involuntarily would with anyone else. Instantly I let it go, and came right back to where I had been. It was like a deep, relaxing sigh.

I could touch Eric. Without having to think, without having to concentrate. What that could mean would have been dizzying were I not so lost in the feel of his cool hand on my skin, against my fast pulse, his body inches from mine. I wanted him closer. I wanted more.

I was so in awe and so wrapped up in the welcome feel of him that I didn't realize what was happening until I could feel my own breath on my face, washing over his skin and coming back to me. His nose grazed mine. His lips were a millimeter away, brushing mine light as a feather and a split second away from meeting them properly. Something in my chest tugged painfully toward him.

Lightning quick, I ducked out of his grasp and went to his desk, picking up his phone as a way to cover for the departure.

I saw that he was going to come up behind me, wrap his arms around my waist, and press the bare expanse of my back against his chest, burying his nose in the spot behind my ear and sliding it down the column of my neck, so I went back to the couch and tossed him his phone as I sat. “Suppose I should have assumed the password,” I said, my face meticulously, carefully impassive. My heart was racing like the double tap of a snare drum, blood rushing behind my ears. We swapped numbers, then I pointedly looked away and let my eyes go distant to finish the sweep of the club. Eric didn't take his eyes off me.

I found nothing else noteworthy, but let myself appear to stay “zoned out” so I could think. On the one hand, I could say I wanted to go out to the club proper, which would be a buffer from Eric. On the other hand, if his and Pam's reactions were any indication, going out there would do nothing but get me a lot of the sort of attention I didn't want. Others might not be so gracious about not trying to follow me home.

I sighed inwardly at the obvious choice and simply made myself comfortable again as I opened my book without a word. Eric returned to his busywork, distracted by the way I had felt under his hands, the barest whisper of his lips against mine, my warm breath, the blood rushing under my skin-

I clamped myself off from him viciously. I was physically responding to his memories, and if he picked up on that, I did not want to know about it. Surreptitiously, I set an alarm on my phone for fifteen minutes before my due departure, so I could change back into my clothes and be ready when Tank returned.

I was even less certain than I had been the night before if I wanted to come back. No, that wasn't true. I did want to come back. But the fear that I shouldn't had only grown.

“Why did you tell that man not to think of what you wanted?” Eric asked, seeming to stop himself in the middle of typing out an email.

I arched my brows at him, very much a seriously? You expect me to believe that you, Mr. Master Manipulator, don't get it?

He only looked back at me, and my brow furrowed a little in confusion. I reminded myself that Eric was intuitively manipulative. He might be able to talk anyone into or out of anything, but that didn't mean he cared to know much about the mechanics of how he did it.

“It's basic psychology,” I said. Then, to make my point, added, “Don't think of an elephant.”

I didn't have to look into him to see that an elephant immediately popped into his head.

“In order for the mind to negate something, to avoid it, it has to summon the thing it wants to banish. Sure enough way to get someone to think of something you want is to tell them not to think of it. Works every time, like a dream.”

His gaze on me steady, Eric was struck by my intelligence. It wasn't that he hadn't noticed it before, but now it stood out to him in stark, unavoidable contrast. And that, for some reason, had images of vamping over and nearly slamming me into a wall and pinning me with the press of his body, or covering me with his weight on the couch running through his mind. I saw his eyes darken and carefully looked away, pretending to go back to my book until I calmed down enough to actually be able to read it.

My phone's alarm went off before I had even put a dent in Ginger's whisky. Figuring I was going to need it to keep from having an attack over all this once I was alone in my apartment, I put the glass to my lips and made myself down a few large swallows. My eyes were watering by the time I pulled away.

“Until tomorrow,” I said, my voice much more raspy than I would have preferred. The heavy bottom of the glass tapped quietly as I set it down on the corner of his desk, in the same place the first glass, with its tiny red straws, had waited for me when we'd come in.

Eric vamped ahead of me to open the door, then before I could even react, twined his fingers with mine in a tight grip and was escorting me straight from his office to the employee door. I tried to yank my hand back reflexively, but he did not give.

A small stir, a ripple, followed us as we moved. People stilled, stopped to stare, whispered to their neighbors or elbowed them to look. At me. At the woman in the dress. I focused carefully on the diverting feeling of my fingers twined with Eric's, and involuntarily twitched my grip in his hand, fighting the urge to wrap my fingers more tightly around his. When had I even begun holding his hand in return?

Just this small amount of simple contact was more than I had ever been able to have in my life without actively concentrating. I was staring fixedly at where our hands were joined.

My goddamned cheeks were hot by the time we made the short walk to the hallway I had come out of earlier in the night.

I let him lead me back to the door of the room my clothes were in, my eyes still fixed on our hands. He turned around and gave me a small sort of smirk before flipping my wrist over and pressing a kiss to the pulse point on its underside. He took a deep inhale of my scent, rumbling, “Until tomorrow night, Emma,” in what was frankly an unfairly low and husky voice, and vamped back to his office before I even had time to smooth the dumbfounded glaze from my face.

I went into the little room and closed the door behind me, taking a moment to collect myself. Then I went over my clothes carefully to check for trackers, hung the gown gently, and dressed, still a little taken aback at what I had come to look like under Pam's (and Satchya's) ministrations. I took off the dark lipstick so Tank wouldn't think the place was rubbing off on me, but gladly left the hair. I had almost five more minutes before my time was up, so I walked to stand just inside the employee door and gave the club another scan out of professional courtesy.

I pulled up Eric's number in my burner and texted him as I was walking out the door.

 

- Me; 10:59pm

Woman in fishnet dress wearing nothing but a red bra and panty set underneath  (seriously where do you find these people) and boyfriend  here  trying to buy V.

Currently feet from the UCCs - I'd get her away from them yesterday, she's  an aggressive shopper.

 

- Me; 11:00pm

With that, my time for the night is up.

I'd thank you for the booze, but I more than earned it.

 

- Asshole; 11:00pm 

You certainly seem to. I look forward to your next showing.

You looked stunning tonight, by the way.

 

My heart thudded in my chest.

 

- Me; 11:01pm

So I hear.

'Night, Northman.

You're horrible at personal bubbles, by the way.

 

He didn't answer, but I felt his amusement from the office.

Tank's motorcycle was just rumbling into the lot when I felt Pam return. She zipped inside, then was at my back before Tank had even come to a stop.

“Dinner was fantastic,” she said by way of greeting. “My compliments to the chef. Sadly, that particular cut has been taken off the menu,” she added with a smile that revealed how very, very predatory she truly was.

I kept my face carefully impassive. “The women of the world thank you.”

She held out one of the shoe boxes from the clothing room. “Take these. Night after tomorrow, you'll be wearing heels, so get in lots of practice, or you're liable to break something just walking from the back to the throne. Who's your friend?” She asked, eyes looking Tank up and down without even bothering to pretend at being polite. If vampires did such a thing.

“My husband slash lover slash brother slash cousin, or however it works with us rednecks. Who the hell knows?”

Tank blushed violently under his beard and helmet as I strapped in and climbed on, wedging the box between us. “For the love of god,” I muttered, knowing that Pam would be able to hear right along with Tank and not caring enough to care, “get me out of here.”

Uncharacteristically, I hugged his back the whole way home. Outside my apartment, he was giving me another careful look as I disentangled myself from the motorbike.

I huffed a gentle laugh. “Don't look at me like that,” I said. “That place, it's. . . there're a lot of people. And some of the vampires are old. It's good exercise, it's just really intense sometimes. Grade-A scumbags in there the last two nights, too.” I shuddered at the memories. “Besides, on top of the pot, you know what I'm getting now? Four hundred dollars a night,” I finished with a wide grin. “And all I have to do is use my 'powers of observation' to pick out underaged kids and shit.”

Tank gave me a look that very clearly said he knew I was lying through my teeth. I ignored it.

“I can't thank you enough for the rides, Tank,” I said, doing my best to fit my arms around his massive frame in a goodbye hug. “Tell Cori I said hi, and give her a kiss for me, ok?”

He nodded.

“Oh and not so early tomorrow. I don't want to get there until about 9:15.”

He nodded and gave me a wave and a grunt, and with that, was off.

 

* * * * *

 

“Enjoy your meal?” Eric asked blandly without looking up from his laptop as Pam sauntered into his office and closed the door.

“Immensely. The man was a grade-A fuckwad. Some of the shit he told me he's done lately was dark, even for me.”

“He suffered?”

“Of course he did. Speaking of suffering, I need your credit card. Our girl had on the saddest undergarments I have ever had the misfortune of seeing. I can't dress her over shit like that, and frankly I don't want the trauma of having to look at it again. They almost made getting an eye-full of the rest of her not worth it. Almost," she finished with a smug, self-satisfied grin.

Eric hummed in reply. "Take her with you and spend as much as you like on her. See if you can bond." He sounded distracted.

She walked to his side of the desk and leaned against it, looking at him closely. “I really doubt she'd consider it a fun trip, but I'll think of something else if you want. How goes the plan?”

“Well enough,” he answered. “I would like to say the remaining nights will be more than enough, but she is. . . surprising. You've noticed, haven't you? Each time I have her figured out, she seems to turn a corner and add something to herself that I was not expecting. I would almost feel stymied at having such a hard time with a human, were I not almost positive that she isn't human. Not entirely, at least.”

“Have you heard of anything like her?”

“Never. I've sent a message to Godric, but I will be unsurprised to hear the same from him.”

Pam nearly chuckled. “And in fucking Shreveport, Louisiana, of all fucking places. Any requests for tomorrow night?”

“Nothing more than to tone it down, just a little. I was. . . oddly uncomfortable with the amount of attention she got as I walked her through the bar tonight. I did not care for the feeling.”

“I'll be honest, once I put her together, I was glad you kept her in your office. I feel. . . fuck, I feel. Whatever the hell she is, it's almost like I care about her. It's disgusting. I feel dirty. If I didn't want to fuck her so bad, I'd drink her dry and be done with it.”

Eric got a speculative look on his face. “. . . I wondered tonight if emotional manipulation may be one of her abilities. I've had experiences similar to yours. To say that it is odd and concerning would be an understatement.”

“You think?” She replied, sarcastic and dry at the same time.

He made a thoughtful sound. “She's obviously secretive and reticent to discuss herself, or what she can do, in any detail. Not that I blame her.”

“If she could do that, though, what the hell would she want here? Never mind all the other shit.”

“That, I do not know. I was wondering the same thing earlier. If it was wealth or power or influence, I wouldn't be her target. If it was protection or sex, she need not be nearly so indirect. The more I study her, the more I get the impression that she is exactly what she seems, and I find that a much more unsettling prospect than duplicity.”

Pam made a disgusted sound. “I know what you mean. It can be easier to steer an honest person, though. Once you figure out what they care about."

"Oh, I wouldn't go so far as to say that. Not in her case. She seems honorable, but she has the awareness of someone who is not."

Pam hummed in reply. "She has an edge to her too. Peeks out sometimes. I like it.”

A grin spread across his face. “Her temper is adorable." Then, abruptly changing the subject, he asked, "Have you found anything?”

She let out a dark laugh. “Oh, I did. Something you're going to get a kick out of. I'll get you the file. Whoever the hell she is, caution is among her best attributes. Which is saying something. I might have mentioned I saw her out of her shirt and jeans tonight.”

Eric looked up with interest. “Yes, you might have. Was it everything you imagined?” He asked with a smirk.

“Much, much more. I do believe you and I have a race on our hands.”

Eric smirked. “I almost kissed her.”

“And yet I was the one who got her topless. And I got to cop a feel of her thigh.”

“Because she considers you harmless. Like an older sister,” Eric said with a wicked grin.

“Older sister my sweet ass. Don't tell me you didn't catch her smell when I was on the couch next to her.”

Eric hummed deep in his chest. “I got the same more than once. She seems quite. . . reactive.” A pleased, wicked smile curled over his lips. “When was the last time we shared one?”

She shrugged one shoulder. “Long time.”

“Perhaps we are overdue, then.”

“Maybe.”

What neither said, what neither wanted to even admit to themselves, was that they were not certain they wanted to share, not even with each other.

Not right away, at least.

 

 * * * * *

 

Some time later, sitting in my apartment in pajamas, feet propped up on the coffee table in what the internet told me were designer 4” heels, I pulled out my burner to text Eric. The envelope from earlier in the night sat next to me on the couch, its contents laid out on the coffee table near my feet.

 

- Me; 11:53pm

Why was there $2,300 in my envelope tonight?

 

- Asshole; 11:55pm

Signing bonus. Enjoy.

 

- Me; 11:57pm

. . . Right. Signing bonus. For the thing I didn't sign up for. Ok then.

I forgot to ask about the guy from last night who was dancing with the woman  in the pink corset. Anything up with him?

 

- Asshole; 11:57pm

Consider it a performance bonus then. As you like.

Not that we could find.

 

I didn't reply, my eyes roving over the thick envelope again. It was two thousand dollars. I shouldn't be complaining.

No. I wouldn't complain. I would just consider it a tiny thank you for Longshadow, and payment for all the free information I'd given him tonight. That would mean I'd earned it, which would mean I could keep it.

I figured if I kept telling myself that, I'd believe it eventually. In either case, it went into my rapidly growing stash of money, well hidden in an apartment not nearly nice enough for that kind of money to be hidden in.

Chapter Text

The next morning, in between hobbling around the apartment feeling like an idiot in Pam's godforsaken heels and getting ready for work, I texted Eric.

 

- Me; 6:03am

I'll be late tonight.

9:15

Because reasons.

Kindly tell your hot slash awesome slash terrifying woman friend  not to murder me for it.

I'd hardly be of use otherwise

 

 * * * * *

 

The sky was saturated with coral and lavender as it bedded down for the day. I stood taking it in and washing dishes in my obnoxiously small kitchen sink. In Pam's heels. I had to hunch over every time I needed to dip into the little rectangular basin, and felt a pang of sympathy for all the tall people in my life. A horrible little lace valance, stained from dust caking its way into the fibers over too many years under too many tenants who didn't bother to clean it, hung from a flimsy brass curtain rod, flecked here and there with spots of rust.

I was wrist deep in soapy water when I heard a knock at my door and felt Alcide behind it.

“Just a sec!” I called out, haphazardly wiping my hands on a dish towel and slipping out of the heels. I hid them in the cupboard under the kitchen sink, nearly cringing at what Pam would likely do to me if she ever found out.

I tossed a couple pieces of clutter into a storage bench just inside the front door before unlocking a deadbolt, a turning lock, a chain, and a bar the boys had insisted on adding when they'd found out what neighborhood I was moving into.

Alcide stood on the other side of the door, changed out of his work clothes, a pack of beer in one hand. “Hey, Ag,” he said as he brushed past me with nothing but a kiss to the temple. “Glad you're locking the door.”

I rolled my eyes but didn't say anything, just closed and locked it behind him. I looked at the beer as he set it on the coffee table and sank down against the couch, slouching into its back. He twisted the top off a bottle, took a long drink, and let his head fall against the cushion with a heavy exhale.

“. . . What's wrong, Alice?” I asked, brows drawn together.

“Debbie left me,” he said flatly, without looking away from the ceiling.

For a second, I just stared at him dumbly, unable to form words. Eventually, I managed, “Are you fucking kidding me?”

“Nope.”

I took a seat next to him on the couch, facing him. I grabbed a beer and tapped it against his big arm to get his attention. He gripped it and twisted the cap off without moving his head.

“What the fuck happened?” I asked, taking a drink.

“She's been cheating on me. With fucking Cooter.”

My jaw dropped. “Jackson Cooter? Tell me you're joking.”

He just shook his head with a huff. "How many Cooters do you know?"

“No, I know, just. . . . Cooter?" I made a face. "How long have you known?”

“A week. I waited after I found out, hoping she'd be the one to tell me. But shit just kept getting worse. It hasn't been good between us for a long time now, to be honest. I guess I just didn't realize how bad it was. Then I found out she was cheating. Yesterday I found out how long she'd been cheating, and that. . . fuck. She's been doing V, Ag.” I stiffened. “I tried to talk to her about it today and she just went off. Packed a suitcase and left. That was a couple hours ago.”

I clenched my jaw and let my face fall into one hand. It was quiet for a while before I spoke; the only sound was him taking another long drink and opening a new bottle for himself. “And you. . . want me to help with it?” I asked, trying to keep the wariness out of my voice.

He was quiet for a long time. “I won't ask you to do that, Aggie. Just. . . come here.” He held an arm out for me, and I turned and moulded myself to his side, grabbing the hand of the arm that he wrapped around me. As subtly as I could, I let a sense of calm and peace wash into him, disguising it as the comfort of being close to someone who cared. It wasn't enough that he'd know I was doing it, but it was enough that it was something.

Not for the first time, I wished I could reach into Alcide the way I reached into other people, so I'd know how wrong things were for him right now, or if I could do anything. But family was off limits - I'd learned that a long time ago. At the thought and the regret that accompanied it, I buried my face into his side and wrapped one of my arms around his big, muscled torso.

“I'm sorry, Al,” I whispered.

He tilted his head to rest it against the top of mine. "Me too," he said, and though his voice was clear, it was the most unsteady I'd heard it since we'd lost mom as kids.

I don't know how long we sat there like that. Alcide was on his fourth beer and I had polished off my first and was leaned into him with my eyes closed. I had heard him sniff wetly once, but when I reached up to brush his face, felt no tears. All the same, he and Debbie had loved each other since we were all children. If there was something to shed a tear over. . . . He'd cry eventually. He'd probably just wait until he was alone.

The burner vibrated against the glass of my coffee table where I'd dropped it this morning. I ignored it until it buzzed again.

Alcide tipped his head up and glanced at it. “You get a new phone?” His voice was rough.

I leaned forward and flipped it open with a noncommittal grunt as my only answer, carefully angling the screen away. It was a message from an unknown number.

 

- xxx-xxx-3727; 9:03pm

Shave before you come in tonight.

 

- xxx-xxx-3727; 9:05pm

This is Pam.

 

- Me; 9:10pm

For a second there, I thought Eric was being demanding,  even for Eric.

Not coming in tonight, though. Family stuff.

If you have appearance requests, you might want to convey  them  before I'd already be two blocks away.

 

Not five minutes later, the phone went off again. I had my legs bent over Alcide's, and with a quiet growl, flung a hand to the cushion behind me and groped until I found the phone. I'd thrown it carelessly after answering Pam. I flipped it open intending to shut it off - or possibly just throw it out of a window - until I saw it was Eric who had texted.

 

- Asshole; 9:13pm

You're abandoning your bet? That doesn't seem like you.

 

- Me; 9:14pm

First, you don't fucking know me.

Second, stop fucking texting me. I'm with my brother.

I'm turning the phone off now.

 

If Pam and Eric didn't know how seriously I took family, and to a scant lesser extent Pack, now was a perfect time for them to learn. I powered down the phone and stuffed it between the cushions of the couch.

Danny delivered beer and pizza some time later. I didn't tell him why I wanted it, just that I'd owe him a favor, which he refused. When he showed up, it was with extra of both and an offer to stay and help me polish it off. When I said I'd take a rain check and wouldn't let him come inside to set it all down, he took what to anyone else would have been an undetectable smell of the place through my cracked door and found Alcide inside. I had to fight the urge to sock him for being so unabashedly nosy. After that, he left easily enough though, with a bear hug and a kiss to my cheek.

Alcide and I talked a lot as the night wore on, but mostly I just stayed close and kept on touching him so I could do the only thing I could to help. I hadn't seen Debbie in months, and had no idea what might be up with her. I wanted to find out, but pushed the thoughts aside so I could be with Alcide there and then.

I talked him into staying the night, and he had just enough beer in him that he didn't mind curling up together in my small bed. I wrapped a quilt around myself and he laid on top of the blankets so he wouldn't wake up sweating later. Long after his breathing had evened out and his heartbeat under my ear had slowed, I stayed awake pouring as much peace into him as I could until I wasn't able to keep my eyes open any longer.

Chapter Text

I woke up in the morning, bleary and tired and puffy from too much salt and not enough water. I woke to the memory of a gentle kiss on the skin of my forehead and a hand stroking my hair in a goodbye. He left a short note on my coffee table and had cleaned up the mess we'd made last night. I was impressed that the clinking of glass and noises of drawers and pens hadn't woken me.

I spent the rest of the morning and into the afternoon distracted, trying to think of anything I could do for him or Debbie or, come to think of it, any of the number of people who would take their breakup hard. This could hit the pack and spread like a ripple.

 

 * * * * *

 

As the shadows of daylight grew long and the air took on a warm, rich golden hue, I finally had the presence of mind to realize I should text Eric.

 

- Me; 6:48pm

I was rude last night. I'm sorry.

I get. . . protective. And I'm black and white about my  priorities.

But I still shouldn't have been so rude.

 

- Me; 6:49pm 

To answer your question, the bet's not off.

 

I wanted to explain that Martin was in the pack and it was inherent to werewolf culture that pack came first. It seemed like a small thing to me, but wares were viciously secretive. And it wasn't really my secret to tell.

 

- Me;  6:49pm

My 'sentence' was just  extended by a day.

I'll be there tonight at 9:30.

 

 * * * * *

 

I was soaking my feet after doing housework in Pam's heels – let me repeat: doing housework in 4” heels – when my burner pinged with a message from Pam.

 

- Blondinatrix; 7:40pm

You still need to shave.

 

- Me; 7:41pm

Hi to you too, Pam.

I shave before I go in every night.

But thx for the notice this time.

 

- Blondinatrix; 7:41pm

Everywhere?

 

- Me; 7:42pm

. . . .

Is that what this has been about?

I am not shaving my [insert preposterous euphemism  here]

But how do you want my makeup?

 

- Blondinatrix; 7:45pm

Suit yourself. But I know what you're wearing.

Same as Friday. Darker eyes. Prime your lips, but no  lipstick.

 

- Me; 7:47pm

What the hell kind of PG-13 outfit requires a total lack of  shrubbery?

 

- Blondinatrix; 7:47pm

A kind you obviously haven't heard of.

You do what you want, princess. You have my “recommendation.”

Why are you coming in late?

 

- Me: 7:48pm

Oops. And/or because reasons.

I went over this yesterday morning with Eric.

 

- Blondinatrix; 7:49pm

I see.

 

- Me; 7:51pm

I'm not going to get there that far before opening again, P.

No  more  private  office time  with your boss. He's a giant lech who has  an odd lack of respect  for personal boundaries,  especially for a  vampire. 

By the time you have me ready, the club should be filling up  and  I can make myself  useful. Which  is what I'm being paid to do. Not

answer 500 personal questions that are  no one's goddamned  business.

Tonight. . . well I guess I get to be  fashionably late.

 

- Blondinatrix; 7:51pm

And avoid unpleasant questions.

Don't call me “P” or the next time Eric orders me not to murder you  horribly I might have  a very convenient lapse in hearing.

 

- Me; 7:52pm

And avoid unpleasant questions, yes.

Smart AND pretty. If you weren't so terrifying, I'd say I adore you.

Noted. So, so very noted.

 

- Blondinatrix; 7:52pm

You really know how to compliment a girl. Except that last part.

 

- Me; 7:53pm

What can I say, I was overcome.

If my ride is flexible, I'll be there at 9:15.

But only because you're terrifying and I don't want you to kill me. Not because I like you.

That would be disgusting.

 

- Blondinatrix; 7:57pm

I might not hate you.

 

- Me; 7:58pm

Jesus, Pam, stop. I'm blushing.

 

 * * * * *

 

“Wow this. . . this really leaves nothing to the imagination. What the hell is it?”

“PVC. And now you know why I told you to shave. If you hadn't. . . well.” We both looked down, picturing what would have obviously been a small furry mound under the shiny, flexible, plastic-like material. She wouldn't let me wear a bra, but assured me I'd be fine so long as I didn't get too cold. Or excited. Or nervous.

“Remind me never to ignore one of your 'recommendations.' And PVC like. . . the pipes?”

“Like latex. Except not latex. Get your drinks on ice tonight and be glad you're not up and dancing. This thing is going to turn into a sweatbox in about five minutes.”

“All the better to. . . smell me by?”

She shrugged. “If they can get over what they're seeing long enough to remember they can breathe, sure. Now,” she said, handing me a pair of heels, just as red and even more shiny than the preposterously skintight dress. She had me in very thin, very long dangling silver earrings tonight. They teased at availability, but promised a good amount of pain if you tried to take it.

I opened my mouth to protest the shoes, but she beat me to it. “I don't have anything else the rustic look will work with. You're going to walk out, sit down, and then put these on. Better yet, let one of the vermin put them on for you.”

“Vermin?”

“You'd call them 'customers,'” she said as she applied false lashes to my lids.

“. . . Jesus Christ they probably like that, don't they? The whole, 'fuck you, we're vampires and you're nothing' thing.”

“They eat that shit up with a spoon and barbecue sauce. Have you met Thalia? Tiny little black-haired woman, loathes humans. And she's their favorite. They even have a fan club for her. Every time she throws one of the idiots across the bar you'd think it was the second coming of Jesus. We'd host meetings of masochists r' us if we gave a shit.”

“And I should let one of them. . . put shoes on me?”

“Please, they would trip over themselves to kiss your feet.”

“How would I even. . . what, is there a sign that says 'I require your shoe-placing services' stashed in the back I'm supposed to set out?”

“First of all, when you are a guest of Eric up on that dais, you don't do shit, other people do it for you. Second, all you'll need to do is sit your perfect little behind in that chair,” her fingertips brushed, feather light, over said behind as she mentioned it, and I jumped, causing her to grin, “and watch them line up.” She did one last check of my hair – a classic, flawless french roll – as she spoke. “Just wait until one you like offers themselves up. They slip your shoes on, and thank you so profusely for the privilege of being within five feet of you that they'll bow halfway to the floor. At least.”

“. . . And this is the actual world that you live in every night, isn't it?”

“Oh, no,” she said. “This is nothing.” She grinned, then changed the subject. “How's it coming at home with the shoes?”

“Uh. . .painful and ungainly, mostly. There's a lot of swearing. I'm not entirely sure why I'm putting in this much work except for a morbid preoccupation with not doing anything I commit to halfway, but they're basically on my feet every minute I'm in my apartment. I wondered this evening if I should buy the stuff for a foot soak in bulk.”

“Perfect. If your feet hurt like hell, it means you're right on track. Make sure you get some practice in a hallway so you get the feel for taking longer strides. In rooms all you can really do is shuffle around. Here, you're gonna strut.”

“Am I though?”

She smiled wickedly. “You most certainly are.”

“. . . People tell you often how frightening you are, right?”

“All the time, but I will never tire of hearing it. Now shut up, I need to do your lips.”

She painted them, as with the shoes, to perfectly match the dress: bright, livid red.

“Not shiny?” I remarked when she was done.

“Matte lips are very in right now.”

“Oh my God I know. I've been blowing so much money buying lipstick to try and get as much as I can while it's still popular. Lip gloss can bite my ass.”

I saw her arch a brow in the mirror and look down, apparently taken with the idea.

I fanned myself to distract her. “You were right. They should hand this stuff out in subarctic regions. I'm glad I own good antiperspirant.”

“That shit's bad for you, you know.”

“And yet wearing it keeps me from staining my shirts like a lumberjack. Right now I'm just wishing that I'd thought to apply it to my face and chest and. . . other places.”

I could feel her amusement. “Just be glad I put you in the short sleeveless one with the nice plunging neckline.”

I looked up as her finger traced the edge of the wide, square neck where it met my flesh. I had to suppress a shiver at the soft touch and bit the inside of my cheek. When she didn't stop, I shot her a look.

She leaned in and gently brushed her lips along my shoulder, up my neck, taking in my scent with an entirely inappropriate sound of appreciation. She stopped once they were hovering over my ear. “You're ready,” she whispered.

For a moment, I was certain she meant something other than tonight's debut in the club.

She began trailing kisses down my neck and my breath hitched. I was frozen, nerve endings instantly ablaze from a lifetime of nearly militant celibacy.

Just as an ache surged to life between my thighs and raced its way up into my belly, my walls collapsed and Pam rushed in. I jerked away from her with a cry, one hand going to my head as I whirled and my back crashed against the adjoining wall.

Time disappeared. When it came back, I was on the floor, my legs curled under me. Eric was crouching at my front and Pam stood next to him. They were speaking to one another in Swedish – apparently they had tried to talk to me, but I'd been unresponsive.

Eric's hand was on my chin holding my face toward him; raw as I still was, the contact was painful. When I felt it, I hissed and pushed has fingers away, jerking my head to the side reflexively.

“I'm ok,” I assured them, my voice breathy and unsteady. “I'm ok.” I was breathing fast.

“So what the fuck happened?” Pam asked. She sounded mad.

I swallowed thickly. “Um. . . that's not. . . I'm not. . . .” I put the heels of both hands to my head with a muffled groan and shoved the pieces of her down that I hadn't been able to stop from coming in. It was disorienting when this happened, and it had been a long time since I'd last had to deal with it. I took a deep breath and let my head drop back against the wall, closing my eyes.

“That's not an easy question for me to answer. Just. . . don't touch me for a while. Keep the contact G-rated and it won't happen again. Which obviously I would prefer.” My voice sounded feeble even to my ears.

In a bond that could only be forged over lifetimes of inhuman closeness, Pam and Eric seemed to exchange a look without either actually turning away from me.

“Explain,” Eric said. Then, as if thinking better of it, added a nearly flippant “Please.”

I pursed my lips and shook my head where it was still leaning back against the wall.

“Emma,” he said. He waited until I cracked my eyes open and tilted my chin to look at him.

“I know you were listening to me two nights ago. I assume you were listening to me last night. You know that I want you to work with me.” 'I want you to be mine,' some part of him, half-buried, growled out. “When you agree, you will be under my protection. In a way, you already are.

"Now Pam and I can put together what happened here well enough on our own, but it will leave us with theories that need testing. Wouldn't it be better for you in the long run to just tell us now?”

A muscle in my jaw twitched. “'Tell us or we'll hurt you?' Is that how you start all your business relationships?”

“It isn't a threat-”

“'It's a promise?' Or wait, let me guess, 'I'll do whatever I have to do to protect you, whether you like it or not.' Don't think I missed the fact that you said 'when' I agree, not 'if,'” I finished testily.

Eric sorely wished he could glamour me.

Pam bent over next to Eric and grabbed my chin to force me to look at her. My face screwed up in pain and I tried to jerk away, but she wouldn't let me loose. “Look at me,” she said sharply.

A high-pitched, strangled noise of pain came from my throat. I felt cold and hot.

”Look at me.”

I forced my eyes open and her face swam into view.

She let go of my jaw and I practically collapsed into myself in relief.

“You don't like Eric's reasons, that's fine. So how about this: we don't actually want to hurt you.” She arched a brow as if saying 'and isn't that fucking backwards.' “Hard to avoid if we don't know exactly what makes you fall into a pile on the floor. It'd be a bad idea to have that happen in the club, don't you think?”

I shook my head. “It won't, I just have to-”

“Are accidents something that don't ever happen in your little fairy tail world, princess?” Her voice was hard, and the name was not an endearment.

I looked down, wanting to deny what she said, but I knew she was right. It just felt like I was falling deeper into a bog, one trip, one tumble at a time, and any moment I was going to look up and realize I was far, far too deep to have any hope of getting out again.

I sighed and let my head thud back against a wall. Lowering my voice to a near whisper to – hopefully – avoid being overheard, I said, “Unless I'm concentrating, skin to skin contact is like turning what I do so far past eleven that it moves onto an entirely new dial altogether. If I let my walls down or I'm too badly distracted, all it takes is an instant and I know everything about the person I'm touching. Past, present, everything. For a moment that goes on forever, I am that person. And I carry them with me after they're gone.”

I looked at Pam, feeling her worry keenly as tuned to her as I still was. “I pulled back before I got too much out of you, and I've pushed the rest down. I should be able to forget, yo stay out of you. I don't mean to encroach like that. I hate the experience, but it's worse with someone I actually. . .uh, 'don't hate,' as you put it.” I closed my eyes wearily. “Sometimes after it happens, I forget where I stop and they start. I'll see a memory and think it's mine when it's not, or something will remind me of an experience I never had. My personality changes. The pack knows not to, you know. . . get fresh with me. I stay far enough away from everyone else that it's not a problem. But everything about this place is a fucking challenge.” And I was the idiot who was still wading neck-deep into it.

Pam and Eric were silent a moment, letting it sink in, minds already spinning. I answered the next question I knew they'd ask before they had the chance to think of it. It was always the next question people asked.

“I'm not bad looking." Pam snorted silently. "Both of you have wondered why I've never had sex. This is why. A kiss is all it takes and my walls are shattered,” involuntarily, my eyes darted to Eric, “and it hurts. Too much touch, too much. . . well, you know. 'Excitement.' It plows over my concentration. So no sex. I've had a brief kiss here and there, first when I didn't know any better, then when I was desperate enough to make myself try again. But I haven't since I was in college. No kissing, no. . . anything. Ever.”

“. . . Nothing,” I said when they didn't speak, my voice small and eyes downcast, far away in a field of jagged memories and denied needs.

“. . . Well shit,” Pam said. “You sure you don't want us to just kill you now and save you the misery?”

Despite myself, I laughed a little. “Tell you what, Pam. If I ever decide to throw in the towel, you can do the honors.”

She shrugged one shoulder elegantly. “Long as I get to drink you first, princess, sign me up.”

I sighed again and let my head fall one last time, trying to get myself back so I could do what I'd come here for. “I'll uh. . . I won't count the last fifteen minutes toward my quota. Not much good to anyone in a pile on the floor.”

“Well. . . .” Pam started. I chuckled wearily.

Eric had been watching this exchange with a careful, veiled look.

“So,” I began, cautiously pulling myself to rise, “how do I do the whole grand entrance thing with a club full of people?”

“Eric will walk you out, same as he did last time. Lets everybody know up front that you're not on the menu. Then you walk like you're the hottest thing within a hundred miles and literally pretend that no one else is in the room. It's how they know you're far, far too good for them. In case they're too dumb to figure it out just by looking. Most of them probably are. The inbreds in this city, I swear to god.”

I wondered, come to think of it, why they were here at all and not somewhere more metropolitan or liberal.

“Why were you staring at my hand?” Eric asked as we exited the little room toward the club proper.

“What?”

“The last night you were here. When I took your hand and walked you through the club,” he said with suspicious lightness, “you were staring at our hands.”

". . . Never held hands with a zombie before," I said. I kept my voice cool.

He shook his head and stopped, turning to face me. “No. No evasiveness, not when it comes to your safety.” He meant it. But mostly he was toying with the button Pam had just revealed that might actually get him something he wanted out of me. He had no compunctions about pushing it, fair or kind or no. Eric did not do fair or kind unless it suited him.

I crossed my arms under my chest and met his stare. But I already knew he'd won - I didn't have anything for this kind of argument. I could at least look like I was considering it, though.

I was going to regret this. It had only been a few nights, but I felt I should be more used to the feeling by now.

“I don't have to concentrate,” I told him begrudgingly, averting my eyes.

A flash shot through him – he knew what I meant. But he wanted to hear it from me. “What do you mean?”

“You know exactly what I mean,” I snapped. “I've never met anyone who. . . when I. . . .” I growled, exasperated with myself. “When we touch, I don't have to concentrate to keep you out. I didn't think it was even possible. Thousands of people I've touched in my life, and never. . . .” I trailed off. “No one. Ever. Not before you. Not since it kicked in when I was about ten.”

“You said you gained your powers when you were six.”

“I did. But the shit with touching people didn't happen until I was around ten. For more than seven months that year, no one could touch me, not even a brush of skin in passing, or it was agonizing. I'd start screaming and crying and just. . . black out.”

“And now. . . .” He prompted.

“And now. . . .” I sighed heavily and gripped the back of my neck with one hand. “Another first.”

Before I could blink, Eric had an arm wrapped around the small of my back and his cool lips were slated against mine.

He ate my surprised noise as I tried to jerk back reflexively, but his arm was like a band of iron, and he had no interest in letting me go. I couldn't get a good hit in this close, and he wouldn't feel a hit to the instep or head, so I shoved against him and opened my mouth to protest. He took the opportunity to slip his tongue past my lips. I jerked against him at the feeling. His teeth teased my bottom lip and a long, involuntary groan escaped me. My lids fluttered closed.

'She likes biting....' his insides purred, pleased and oddly approving.

Without my permission, my body went fluid in his arms, and very suddenly I was pressing into him like a hungry, needy cat. My hands went to his neck and I crushed him harder to me, holding him as tightly as I could, unwilling to let this ever, ever end. My nails dug mercilessly into the nape of his neck.

Pam's amusement and growing appreciation for the scene we were making swelled loudly enough that it caught my attention, pulling me from the haze I was under. I sucked in a breath like I was coming up from underwater and shoved myself away from Eric. This time, he let me.

I darted a glance up to him. That was a mistake; his pupils were beautifully wide, lips parted, and if he'd had blood pumping through his veins, they would have been swollen and reddened. I squeezed my eyes shut.

'Interesting. . . .' he was practically purring. “Well I suppose that answers that question,” he said, his voice low and rough and cocky and casual all at the same time.

"Don't be a dick," I snapped, my voice embarrassingly husky.

Pam nearly snorted a laugh behind me. She probably would have if it wouldn't have been so inelegant a sound.

Eric gave me a smile bourne and bred of arrogant male pride.

At the look, my temper snapped. So I hauled off and punched him in the face. Then I loosed a long, loud string of expletives, because I was fairly certain I might have just broken my hand. I was practically dancing around the hall bare-footed, clutching my hand to my chest, and swearing so creatively that some of the pack would have been proud.

Someone held a bag of ice out to me, and I wanted to take it and throw it right back at them, but my hand hurt too damn much to pass up the offer. I snatched it away and gingerly pressed it to my knuckles with a groan.

"I almost felt that," I heard Eric say, mockingly appreciative.

"I'll make sure you almost feel it in your balls next time, then," I snapped. “Just because I can touch you doesn't mean I will. Which at this point is pretty much a fucking promise."

"Look at me," Pam said from beside me. She was clearly hiding amusement.

"What?" I replied, much more sharply than I meant to.

"Unless you want to go out there in circus makeup, look at me. I need to fix your lips."

"You wouldn't have to fix my lips if your boss wasn't such a lecherous asshole," I hissed.

"Don't care, cupcake. Now shut up and look at me."

At her tone, I growled but did as I was told.

"I can heal you," Eric said in a strange voice. I wasn't sure if it was pensive, subdued, calculating, or something else.

Pam's hand stilled on my face. It was a fraction of a second, but it was enough. I felt her clamp down on shock, but then couldn't get anything about it from her. Or from Eric, except that he knew why she'd reacted as she had. Whatever it was, they were both burying it. I could find out easily enough, but after the episode earlier, the cost would be too high. Pam's reaction told me the important thing I needed to know, anyway.

I waited until she was finished with my mouth and turned to Eric with a sickeningly sweet smile. "I'd rather choke. I don't care if I'm on death's door and you're the only one who can save me." I leaned in and whispered. "I would literally rather die."

Without giving him a chance to respond, I brushed past him and pushed open the swinging employee door.

As he had the night before, he waited just long enough to get a good view of my backside before speeding forward, catching my hand with his, and leading me. Again I tried to yank away, and again he acted as if he didn't even feel the motion. I gritted my teeth and almost literally dug my heels in when his thumb began gently stroking my wrist.

It wasn't hard to pretend no one else was in the club. I was so angry and frustrated - mostly with myself - and, if I was being honest, flustered underneath, that nothing else existed but our joined hands and the form of the colossal asshole in front of me. With his stupid broad shoulders, and his stupid height, and his stupid swagger and God would I have given anything to just break a board over his head right then. The worst part, the very worst part, was that despite what I'd said a moment ago, I'd also give just about anything to finish what he'd started in the hall.

As soon as he moved to release my hand on the dais after seeing me to my chair, I yanked it out of his, hard as I could.

Pam was there, right behind us, and holding my things out to me before Eric had even properly seated himself.

I took them from her sullenly, trying my best to ignore her smirk, and immediately tucked the shoes behind leg of the chair so I wouldn't have to deal with them yet. I curled my legs under me as I had the two previous nights and set about icing my knuckles again.

And then I noticed how many people were staring at me.

I swore silently at myself, which for a moment only made it worse. Carefully, methodically, I made myself dull the sharp edges of my emotions, calm and settle. Surreptitiously, and with a small stab of sadness that I hadn't felt in years at having to live in such a way, I closed my eyes and gentled the feelings back into the benign sort of space I had to occupy around others.

When I looked back up, heads were turning away and conversations resuming, my apt audience returning to their drinks and dancing, chatting and verbal foreplay. I let out a quiet breath, and I wasn't sure what I was more: relieved, or mournful.

Eric, of course, had noticed everything.

“Not one goddamned word,” I uttered near-silently.

Automatically, I moved to pick up the drink waiting on my arm rest, intending to get a head start on the night. I frowned down at it with a little sigh, remembering Pam's advice. The ice was helping, but I was already far too warm. “I need ice in this,” I said, speaking to Eric, but before he even had a chance to reply, Longshadow was there with a fresh glass, over ice, eyes riveted to me.

So quietly that I only heard it because I was listening in on Eric, he rumbled an inhuman growl at the man. Longshadow's eyes darted to him, and then the bartender was gone.

'Mine.'

My heart thumped in my chest. Carefully ignoring that thought echoing through Eric, I heaved a quiet sigh and picked up the burner. I wanted to ask, 'Possessiveness part of that protection you said I was under?' But I wasn't sure to what degree he'd consciously acknowledged the impulse. I hardly wanted to call attention to it if he didn't know yet. Instead, I sent:

 

- Me; 10:07pm

Thanks. Man gave me the creeps even before I knew anything about him.

 

Eric looked at the message when it was delivered, and the corner of his mouth quirked. It pleased him that I liked his protection. It felt right.

With that, I realized we had moved into the territory where every single thing that happened between us was now likely to take on meaning. I felt the quicksand pull me further under. And yet when I looked inside, I found that no part of me seemed willing to fight it. I felt a thrum of panic as I realized the chains were almost painfully tight now, but I couldn't escape the fact that somehow I needed to be here. Frustrated tears pricked at my eyes, and it took effort to shove them down before they fell.

I realized I was turning heads again. That almost made it worse. But I had been through more challenging situations, and I clung to that knowledge as I forced myself back into the tight little box that I needed to wear.

I prayed the reason for all of this would be really, truly worth it.

I don't know how much time passed in silence. Eric seemed content to let me sit and drink and ice my knuckles. He let me alone for so long that I had to set the bag aside to let my hand warm back up.

“You lied,” he finally said.

“And something vague and insulting to you, too,” I replied, still a little wary. I downing a shot of my drink - suddenly I felt I was going to need it. Longshadow had brought me a triple, otherwise I would have had to go slower on the off chance that he would be the one to bring me a refill. " . . .What?” I asked at the look on his face. “I assumed that was some sort of vampire secret handshake or something. Normally when a person insults you out of the blue like that, there's a reason that follows it up.”

He sat motionless for a moment, then his eyes slid down to the glass in my hand. “I have better in the back, if you'd like it.”

I arched a brow at him. “I'll live in the world where your reason for offering is altruistic for a moment and thank you, but no. Honestly, anything better would just be lost on me. I only drink because a buzz makes it easier to handle all my. . .” I gestured vaguely, “when I'm around a lot of people. Otherwise it's like trying to keep a fist clenched as tight as you can for hours on end. It gets tiring.”

I saw what he was doing. First, there was the "play nice" approach, which he hadn't opted to discard despite his earlier bullshit. But he had also decided to pull back for the night. The attraction was a given, as was the interest that he wasn't owning up to. But tonight he was assessing, and he came ready to do so. It was an intimidating feeling. I wasn't dumb – in fact I was just smart enough to understand what a completely different level Eric was on. He'd be the guy in a game of chess who knew what move you were going to make ten rounds before you did.

With a silent thank-you to Pam, I decided it was time for my shoes. I sat up properly in the chair, placing the balls of my feet on the floor and moving the shiny red heels out where they could be seen. Almost immediately, a male vampire appeared before me as only a vampire can, and gave a sweeping bow. His hair was so richly, deeply auburn that I thought it must be dyed. His ears were just slightly pointed and his face had the delicate, masculine features of some sort of fae warrior. “Allow me,” he said, eyes locked on mine.

Wait until one you like offers themselves up, I heard Pam say in my mind.

I liked him well enough - he certainly had an intriguing appearance - but knew immediately that he wasn't the one. I smiled kindly at him and shook my head.

A frown flickered over his face, but he only bowed his head and retreated back into the crowd as quickly as he had come.

“Pam has been coaching you, I see,” Eric noted.

“Oh we have all kinds of girl talk back there while she's working on me,” I said. Then added under my breath, “especially when she's not getting handsy.”

I felt Eric suppress a grin.

“Do you like Trivia?” He asked suddenly, his voice suspiciously casual.

A number of glib replies passed through my mind as I braced myself for attack number one. He reminded me of an animal, testing fences. “From someone as old as you must be? I'm all ears.”

“I had someone look into you. The nearest Emma White lives two states away in Derby, Kansas, and just celebrated her third birthday. There were balloon animals.”

“I'd say I'm flattered that you stalked me, but. . . well this is where I would say I don't tend to lie, but I think that sentiment might be lost on you under the circumstances.”

“It is a federal offense to use a fake ID.”

I smiled at him acidly. “Then turn me in.”

When he didn't reply readily, I went on. “You're full of it. And I know that because I do my homework, because I'm not an idiot. It's not illegal to use a fake ID in Louisiana in and of itself, and it's only a federal offense to use one in some states,” I enunciated, “if it's used in conjunction with something that's already a felony. I'm not underage and all I've done is walk into a bar and buy overpriced drinks, so legally speaking I haven't done anything wrong.

". . .To be honest, that was a little sloppy for you. We are on a clock, so I might recommend skipping any more transparent and or ham-handed scare tactics,” I finished, face impassive but swirling the ice around in my glass smugly before tipping the rest back.

Eric regarded me under the guise of a decidedly adult smile as he adjusted his approach in the face of my reply. Testing the fences.

He gestured and almost immediately, I had a fresh glass of whisky in my hand. I blinked down at it. If it was Longshadow who had brought it, he'd come and gone too fast for me to see, and I wasn't going to complain. I set the new glass on my armrest, though, determined to leave it alone for now. I'd just as good as downed three shots, and I couldn't have been out here for half an hour yet.

“That's a nice trick,” I uttered. “You must be a hit at parties.”

He decided to try speaking to me in my language next - blunt. “I'd like to know who you are,” he said.

“I know.” I replied, dry and completely unsympathetic. I looked out over the crowd, unseeing, just as I had pretended to do with my book every night until dress-up had started.

A human man cautiously walked up and bowed before me. All I could see was a neat blond hair peppered through with gray over a dark dress shirt. He stayed bent over for so long that I cast an unsure glance at Eric.

“Um, are you ok there?” I asked.

“Yes, Mistress." His voice was oranges and sand, and I blinked at the address. "I hoped I might help you with your shoes.”

Another glance at Eric. On the outside, he seemed utterly disinterested.

“Stand up,” I told the man. Before you snap your spine, I didn't add.

When he rose, I saw a face that was handsome enough, but tired. He looked like a middle-class soccer dad from an ad trying to sell insurance or home security. There was something soft and shifting in him that I wasn't certain of, so I shook my head at him with a gentle smile. He bowed at the waist and backed away, not rising until he was embraced by the crowd.

“Have we re-entered the middle ages?” I asked Eric quietly, voice edged in disbelief.

“Some of them like their games,” he said, and I saw a glimpse of that supremely bored man who I had all but forgotten. I was reminded how very turned off he seemed to be with everyone and everything. I wanted to think he only behaved any differently around me because he wanted me to drink the punch, but I didn't think it was just that. And it made me uncomfortable.

“The reasons for faking an ID are few," he said, smoothly returning to our conversation and edging into a yet another approach. "Are you in trouble, Emma? Whatever it is, I can offer you protection.”

I snorted. “You mean I don't radiate pure and unscrupulous?”

“Perhaps you're hiding from someone? I can ensure your safety.”

Almost begrudgingly, I noted that he meant it. Granted, his motivations were ultimately selfish, but I saw that an integral part of his honor code was that he took care of what was his. He wanted me. Badly. He wanted to bed me (man had a graphic mind, and it multitasked well. Talking to him sometimes was like trying to have a conversation with someone while ignoring a loud porno playing in the next room). But I was also someone he wanted with him as an asset. A resource, a weapon. I, or more specifically what I could do – and he was positive now that there were abilities I was hiding from him - was a gleaming gem in his mind, priceless if wielded properly. And there were few who would be able to wield me better than himself. In his hands, I would be guarded, protected, and I would not be "wasted."

I sighed heavily. “You know it's really no fun when you're so obvious. I was expecting some tactical ninjitsu or something. I don't meet someone as good at verbal fencing as you are every day, and I was kind of hoping to see it in action. That is,” I added with a wide, brattish grin, “assuming you haven't just gotten lazy in your old age and this isn't your your A-game?”

He wanted to make a joke about my assumption that I was worth his A-game, but decided not to bother – it would be a lie, and I would know it.

I shrugged and looked away. “It's not some big mystery,” I admitted. “You'd get a fake ID if your name was Agnes, too. Agnes,” I scoffed. “I must have been mistaken for a 90 year-old woman with a basket of yarn clutched in my chubby fists when they found me.”

“Found you?”

I nodded. “In the woods. You and Pam smelled ware on me, right? A pack found me as a toddler when they were out hunting one night. Naked and just sitting there on a patch of green and flowers by a clear pond, apparently not worried that I was surrounded by a bunch of hungry wolves. They took me home intending to hand me over to the police, but just. . . never got around to it. Twenty-four or so years later, and here we are.”

“A family of wares came across you in the woods and adopted you.” It wasn't even a question, the skepticism was so obvious. I didn't blame him.

I wondered again if it was time to explain the draw he felt to me. “One born every generation, I suppose,” I muttered instead.

“Wait, you're. . .” a grin slowly began to spread over his face. “Are you a member of the Longtooth pack?” He sounded almost delighted.

I nodded, unease blooming in me at how delighted the news made him and remembering the thoughts he'd had about my father. He knew something I didn't. “Only pack in Shreveport, really. A few members of the pack down south live in the city, but they run well outside of it. Packmaster took me in. Herveaux. You're sheriff, I assume you know who I'm talking about. I grew up right alongside Alcide and Janice.”

“The overprotective brother,” he said half to himself, watching several missing pieces snap into place. “You're Jackson's second daughter.” His face stretched at how large the smile on it grew. It was impossible to ignore the predatory light in it.

“Yes,” I said uncertainly. “. . .You know, you look an awful lot like a shark who just smelled blood.”

He didn't answer, just stared at me with that “I know something you don't know” face. I tried to find out what, but he was covering it from me, and I wasn't ready to be obvious enough to dig it out by force.

I shifted nervously in my chair. “So. . . yeah. I work with dad and Alcide at the construction company. I assume you know they own that, too? I do accounting, office work, consults, whatever they need, really. I've covered for short-handed crews a couple times. I'm not a carpenter or anything, but I can use a nail gun as well as the next guy. I work at Janice's shop sometimes, too. She mostly has me balance her books.

“You asked why I don't have a better job? The truth is I just never felt pulled to anything. And there are worse lives than a steady paycheck and people you can count on.” I chuckled darkly. “But I've been having to shower with sandpaper and boiling water every morning to get the smell of this place off. I put on so much scented shit that they walk around me with their noses buried in their shirts all day and I spend half of it sneezing. Alcide would go through the roof if he knew I was here. Martin and the boys took their lives into their hands when they started this bet.” Then a grin spread across my face. “But I won't lie, it has not been a chore watching the arrogant little twit sweat more and more after every night I come here. Poor bastard is new, but it's still his own damn fault. Alcide wouldn't really hurt him, just. . . you know.”

“What do you mean?”

"What do you mean what do I mean? Like you've never scared the crap out of anyone to make a point?"

"No," he said. "The rest. About 'Martin.'"

I hummed thoughtfully. Eric's eyes swept the club as I spoke. “It's hard to explain. Around the pack, I'm different than I am here. Martin came in, saw me like that, stuck it together with what he picked up elsewhere and assumed I was just sugar and sunshine and delicate rose petals. He was a little taken with me, and not too fond of vampires himself, so he ribbed at me a bit, and one night, bet me I couldn't hang out here. I did, and then I held it over his head, so he upped the ante. Figured I was just being brave and he'd call my bluff.”

“Different how?”

I shook my head, not sure how to quantify it. “Different. Softer, I guess?” I pressed on before he could ask more about it. “The men and women in the pack, the ones who watched me grow up? They joke, they hover, they look after me, but they also know I'm the little girl who would do shit the boys wouldn't go near when we were kids.” I shook my head again. “They spend all this energy protecting me, but not a one of them would screw with me if you gave them a million dollars. I have teeth, they just almost never come out. Martin? Martin was dead in the water before he even started. He just didn't know it. He got a bunch of other idiots to side with him against everyone who knew better, so now that he's starting to figure out I really might not back down, he eyes my brother every time he sees him, sweating a little more and just waiting for the beating he knows has to be coming. Alcide will find out. It's just a matter of when.”

“And what happens to you when he does?”

I pressed my lips together in annoyance. “He becomes even more of a pain in my ass,” I grumbled. I looked down at my drink for a long moment before going on in a quiet voice. “I'm not complaining, but. . . if there was ever a reason I'd actually think about leaving, it would be so I could just be free.”

Eric didn't realize how much of his attention had swung onto me. The rest of the club had almost vanished to his mind.

I took a breath, and when I spoke, my voice was soft. Sometimes it was nice knowing I didn't have to work to be heard. “I-” I halted, realizing there was no way I could explain without giving something away. Abruptly, I said in a clear voice, “a story for another time,” and gave him a tight but polite smile.

He let me get away with that. I wasn't sure why.

Chapter Text

We sat together in silence for a long time after that. He turned things over in his mind, and I let myself drift. The bar was as hungry as ever, but much less dark than it had been the last night I'd been here.

Brow scrunching, I flipped the burner open.

 

- Me; 10:28pm

There's a well-dressed man in front of you, clean cut, looks like he doesn't quite belong here.

There's something in him about a vampire willing to turn people for money.

Black man, long dreadlocks. The guy sees him in all black with a black trench coat over top. . . .And a top hat, of all things.

 

Eric looked down at the message. I felt him become livid, angry as a white-hot star even as he kept his face and body perfectly impassive. I leaned away from him slightly toward the other side of my chair despite myself.

“Longshadow,” he said quietly.

Through Eric, I heard the quiet reply. “What?”

“There is a man at your two, large and well-dressed. See to it that he samples our long-term accommodations.”

The bartender nodded without looking up.

I tried hard not to gape over the fact that Eric had just had a conversation with a man who was clear across a noisy club, as softly as if he were speaking softly to me.

“What are you going to do to him?” I asked quietly.

“The man? Nothing.” 'Much.'

He offered no more, and I didn't dare ask.

The next person chose that moment to approach me, and to my great surprise, it was the woman with the short-cropped hair from the night Eric had first brought me up here. Her pixie-like locks were bright maroon tonight, and she wore a thick cuff on one wrist. She walked up, jutted out a hip, and gave me a slightly akimbo tip of her head. A grin on her lips accented high cheekbones, and her large, vibrant sky-blue eyes were trained on mine. She tilted her chin back by the barest inch, showing off a graceful neck that looked like it belonged to a ballet dancer. Come to it, her whole figure spoke of someone who knew how to move every inch of themselves.

She nodded to the red shoes. “Is that an offer, or are you just enjoying the feel of the lush grass under those pretty toes?”

She was more soft than most people would consider “hot,” but to me she was perfect: shapely, but without being angular. She had an hourglass figure, a classic figure, and wore, of all things, jeans and a fitted tanktop, just low enough to show a flirtatious amount of cleavage. She wore a small button down open over the tank.

"I suppose it would be rude to turn you down twice in a row," I said, unable to help grinning at her.

She glanced at Eric, and after he gave a shallow dip of his chin, climbed the steps to the dais and knelt in front of me. She slid her fingertips slowly down the back of one of my calves before reaching my foot and lifting it gently off the ground. I had to grit my teeth to keep even that simple touch from pushing me over the edge. I felt Eric's eyes flick up to the twitching in my jaw muscle, and his satisfaction in even that small response. He had a very gratifying series of mental images about what I'd be like once I gave in.

The woman slipped the heel on easily, then trailed her fingers lightly back up past my ankles, and my breath caught. In a flash, I was leaned over, my hand cupping her chin. I looked deeply into her eyes and gently said, "behave." Once I was sure she got the message, I gave her a slight smile to take the sting off, then sat back and tried not to shiver as I still felt the touch of her hands. She didn't rove again, but she did take her sweet time lifting my other foot and slipping the shoe on.

Vaguely, I became aware of Pam watching from somewhere near the bar, humming with silent approval.

Once the woman got the second shoe on, she let her gaze hold mine for a long moment, eyes heated, then gave a quirk of her lips, followed by another dip of her chin. She rose and sashayed back into the crowd without a word.

My mouth felt oddly dry.

“You know you could have stretched that out all night," Eric said. "If you were any less aware I'd feel the need to point out how many pairs of eyes have been on you since we came out here. Not that I can blame them. You look. . .” his eyes swept me up and down hungrily, ”mouthwatering.”

“. . . I'll be honest, I don't really know how to take that from someone who literally wants to-” 'eat me,' I had been about to say. I had to suppress a blush. “Who considers me food,” I said instead.

He looked at me a moment, then reached for his phone with a slight smile.

 

- Lecherous Asshole; 10:34pm

You're the one who can read people. What do they think of you?

 

“Not something I care to look into,” I said. “Doesn't matter, anyway.”

“You don't think so?”

“I don't operate the way you do,” I pointed out. “So no.”

“It is a skill anyone could benefit from.”

I huffed a laugh. “I said 'don't,' Eric, not 'can't. I just don't want to be that person.”

“Who is it you'd like to be, then?”

I looked over at him and gave a small but sincere smile, gesturing at myself. Then a small frown settled on my face. “Well,” I amended, “minus the rubber dress and deadly footwear. I like who I am, for the most part. Most people can't say that. I've been a lot of people. I could be most of them again any time I want. I like this one; I'm just. . . me.”

“And you don't want to be anything more?”

“'More' is not as simple as people think it is, and it's usually the opposite of what they think it is. I can play your game if I have to. Not as well as you, but I can play. I just don't like to, it annoys me.”

“Too much subtlety?” He asked with a twitch of his lips.

“Yes, frankly.”

He hummed as if to himself. “All the same, Emma, I get the feeling you'd be fun to play with.”

“I wouldn't mind verbal chess from time to time myself, to be honest," I said, completely ignoring his double meaning. "Even if I know you'd hand me my ass on a platter. The people I'm used to spending time with. . . well.” I said, shaking my head to dismiss the thought.

“What?”

“I think I'm more of a novelty than a person to them," I said. "Like a caricature. I mean, they care about me. I know that. They've taken care of me my whole life, they took me in, they consider me one of their own even though I'm not, and they didn't have to do any of that. It's just. . . I say something biting or clever to you, and you respond in kind. I say something biting or clever to them, and they act like I'm a toddler who just figured out how to say 'apricot.' I think I will always, always be the adorable little sister who they just pat on the head.”

“Is that why you took the bet? You wanted to prove something?”

I snorted. “First of all, I don't have anything to prove. Second, I told you why I took the bet: my apartment is shit. Well, and I really wanted to screw with Martin. He's adorable, but for some reason I love proving people wrong when they think I'm all cute fluff.”

Hey eyed me. He had a hard time believing anyone who bothered to take a good look at me would consider me harmless. Even he hadn't thought that of me my first night up here. Then he remembered how stupid other people were.

“You dislike your apartment, but you said you went to college. Did you not graduate?”

“I did.”

“You weren't able to find a good job, then?” 'With your skills?'

“No,” I said carefully, “it wasn't that. I just. . . made another choice.”

“What other choice?”

“One that falls under 'not in my contract,'” I said with a smile meant to take the sting off of the denial. Which occurred to me as odd – the idea that I could hurt his feelings was preposterous. Beginning to feel the knife edge of the pleasant haze of alcohol, I finished off my drink to keep it going, then sat back in the chair, crossing my legs and put my arms up on the arm rests.

I gave Eric a shake of my head when he moved to have my glass refreshed again. Part of me wanted to thank him, but I knew he was trying to encourage me to drink too much even as it allowed him to play the good host. Besides, he probably had little respect for human ideas of politeness. Which to be honest, I kind of liked.

“Hey,” I said, “I've been meaning to ask. How did Pam know my dress size?”

“She has a good eye,” he said. “But in this case, she knows because I gave her your measurements,” he said without looking up.

“My. . .measurements,” I repeated dumbly. “As in my exact measurements, not just my dress size?”

“Your exact measurements, yes,” he said, casting a glance at me, a poorly suppressed grin in his voice. “She has a good eye, as I said. I have a better one.”

I heard through Eric Pam's reply from outside. “You are a lying bastard.”

He suppressed a chuckle.

“You're much more forthcoming about yourself this evening,” he remarked as if none of that had just happened. Then his usual purr resurfaced. “I like it.”

“I'm sure you do,” I said, still a little taken aback. “I figured you'd get there eventually so I might as well save us both the headache. Besides, it's not like I really gave anything away. You can find me now, but you won't. Not with a bunch of testosterone-driven gorillas set around me like linebackers. I don't imagine starting a blood feud with a large pack of werewolves over a woman who's a nobody as far as the rest of the world is concerned would be smiled on by whoever you report to. . . .Well, assuming you report to anyone.”

He did, I saw as wondered idly if that explained my lack of sexual experience. At the same time, my value went up yet another notch; a well-guarded woman was an especially rewarding prize. But there was something else. I had to dig for it and it took me almost a full minute, but when I finally picked it out and heard enough of the details, I tensed and cursed under my breath. Eric looked over, but I ignored him, fighting to control the fury uncurling in my stomach even as I felt a few people in the club starting to tense inwardly.

Dad had taken out a loan for the company a few years back. He'd never admitted to the fact that paying my tuition had something to do with it, but I was positive it did. No one outside the family knew about it, and they wouldn't discuss it – certainly not enough for me to have found out that the money had come from a vampire. From Eric. Dad owed him a small fortune. I kept the books at the office half the time, I knew how tight we were.

Eric had a very generous offer in mind that would forgive all of dad's debt and give him access to me without interference from the pack.

I looked down at my phone, anger threatening to boil over. My time was hardly half up. I began to tap my foot impatiently, and wondered if whatever bizarre thing was happening here was worth the money anymore.

It didn't matter whether I left or not now – Eric was going to go after dad, and if Jackson didn't take the offer, Eric wasn't going to hesitate to play dirty. He'd twist dad's arm until it snapped off if he had to. If it wasn't someone I cared about standing between me and him, if he didn't care about staying in my good graces, he'd do a lot worse. On top of that, dad, Alcide, and Janice were now all just pawns he could tuck away now to use against me if I decided to be too uncooperative in the future.

Abruptly I came to feel what a very, very bad idea this had all been, instinct or no. I had known it wasn't a game, but I had been playing anyway. Eric hadn't.

I stood and swept off the dais with a hasty, “Excuse me, I need to get some air.” The room tilted from too much alcohol as I moved, and too many sets of eyes followed me.

I left the club through the employee entrance and started pacing in the small side lot, chewing on my thumb nail. Eric suspected the reason for my departure and his senses were straining to keep track of me through the noise and stink of the club, but so long as I didn't leave he was willing enough to give me space. It was my heartbeat of all things that he focused on.

I paced, stopping after a few steps to slip out of the heels before carrying on. The cold of the pavement, the occasional prod on my sole from a lose piece of pavement, was grounding.

“You look pissed.” Pam said from behind me.

I jumped a little – I hadn't felt her come up. “Your boss is an asshole,” I remarked flatly.

“I know. Isn't he wonderful?”

'Yeah, Pam,' I thought. 'He's a fucking peach.' I backed up and crouched against the wall so I could rest my back against it.

To my great surprise, Pam didn't leave.

“What has your feathers ruffled?” She asked.

“. . . Family shit,” I said carefully. And with that thought, I found the decision of what to do had suddenly made itself. It wasn't a decision, really, I just hated that I'd walked right into the box and let him lock it behind me. I had seen to it with my own stupidity.

Wearily, I pushed up from the wall, brushed myself off, slipped back into the heels, and headed back inside with a muttered “Excuse me.”

I reclaimed my seat on the dais without looking at Eric. I wanted to confront him here and now, but operating in the “is she or isn't she listening to me?” space was too valuable to give up. If I confronted him, there went any pretense of wiggle room, and at the moment that was all I had left to me. So I held my temper and allowed the haze of alcohol to help melt it away as I sipped at my drink and the night ticked on with a curious amount of silence between us.

The only other eventful thing I found that night was a woman I caught for solicitation, which I opted to mention only because I noticed something off about her. I dug around and found she had Hep D.

I recognized the feeling I got from her as the same one I'd felt on the man dancing with the corseted woman on my first night up here. I let Eric know in case the man came by again. He supposed – and I couldn't argue, though I tucked it away to look at later – that if I had picked it up on a man who hadn't known he had it, that must be yet another thing I could do in addition to 'hearing.'

When my time was over, I inspected my clothes and changed, then poked my head out of the employee door to get Eric's attention. I didn't want to be alone with him in his office again, so I asked him to follow me outside to the employee lot. He said nothing as we went, just kept his eyes riveted to me and waited for me to speak.

I kept my voice just quiet enough to go unnoticed, but not quiet enough to make it sound like that's what I was trying to do. I leaned up against the side of the building and stuffed my hands in my pockets. “It's safe to say you're satisfied with my services, yes?”

A grin quirked at one corner of his mouth. “Yes.”

I bit back a glower, but he still saw the muscle in my jaw move. “I hate wasting time, so I have a proposition for you: keep me on retainer. Pay me a flat rate every month, and in exchange, I'm available to you when you need me. I work for family, so if there's an emergency, an actual emergency," I clarified with a look, "I'll almost always be able to duck out at a moment's notice. If you need my help during regular human business hours, that is.”

He let his features slip into a flawless poker face. “And what about non-emergencies?”

I shrugged. “We can figure that out. There'll be a lot of details in the lurch at first, obviously, but since we both know where this is going, and both of us know that the other person knows, I'd really rather knock off the verbal foreplay because as you've probably picked up by now, I hate games just as much as I hate wasting time. So even though we're only on night two of your grand plan to seduce me into fealty or whatever, I'd prefer to get this out of the way so it's not hanging over my head.

“I gave myself away two nights ago. I know that. What I can do, in front of a man like you? I might as well have dangled a dead rabbit out in the swamp and expect not to get my hand bitten off by a gator. I know I'm not getting away from this clean. At least this way I can pretend it's on my terms and have a say in what I get out of it.” Stupidity always has a price.

Underneath the waves of victory and satisfaction rolling through him, Eric felt what a normal person might have called an odd swell of respect, though he was now positive I'd picked up on his plan for dad. I didn't have to care about that right now.

“How much do you propose?”

I shrugged. "I wasn't going to put effort into specifics until I knew whether or not you'd agree.”

He paused just long enough to pretend he was thinking it over. “I find your idea quite. . . satisfactory. I'll have everything drafted into a contract when we agree on specifics. Would you like to come by early tomorrow to discuss them?”

I shot him a look that would have melted the flesh from a lesser man. It only amused him.

“There is one thing, however.”

I fought to keep from rolling my eyes, because of course there was, and just indicated for him to go on.

Instantly, he was in front of me, body inches from mine, hands pressing against the wall between my arms and my waist. I stopped breathing, then cursed silently and fought to control my body's immediate response. The man had all but threatened my family for fuck's sake. Even if he hadn't, I'd long ago come to grips with the fact that I'd never be able to have sex. My body, however, very much seemed eager to make up for lost time.

Eric smelled the change, of course, and kept it out of my features, and it was only through his head that I realized I had clenched my thighs together. No, he wanted something else right now.

“I would like to taste you,” he said. His low voice was quiet so close to me, and his eyes were liquid, like hands of satin and steel slipping around me, stroking my skin.

“Taste, as in. . . .” I prompted, my voice pathetically weak. I cleared my throat quietly.

A grin slid over his face, telling me in no uncertain terms that he wanted everything, before his voice told me, “Your blood. I ask only for a taste." 'For now.' "As a token of our agreement, perhaps?”

I laughed breathlessly, but realized my lips had parted and pressed them shut as I fought to slow my heart. I'd need to add some sort of boundary clause to the contract, or I was going to go at his clothing with a knife, and there was no scenario in which that would end well. Even if I hadn't known sex with this man would end up being the worst idea in the world, I still wouldn't go through with it. It wouldn't be right, not with the affect I had.

“You'll find I can be very generous, Emma,” he purred, and his voice took on an edge like salt water wearing down rocks.

I swallowed thickly and slipped my eyes closed despite myself, a bruising sort of ache flaring to life between my thighs and a painful wave of arousal blooming in my chest and belly. I had to clamp down on a noise that wanted to dislodge itself, relieve some of the pressure.

Eric took a step forward, just resting his hips against mine with the barest little roll of them, and that desperate sort of whimper freed itself from my throat. He brushed my hair aside and trailed his nose up the column of my neck.

He hummed, a low sound deep in his chest, and of its own accord my back arched into him. My hands were balled into tight fists in my pockets. 'So hungry,' he thought with pleasured approval.

“St-” I breathed, unable at first to form words. “Please. Please, Eirc. Stop.”

He ran his nose along the bottom edge of my jaw and my head tipped back, eyelids fluttering. He was passing his lips over mine as he murmured, “I'm getting mixed messages, Emma. Perhaps you could clarify?” His hands went to my hips and pulled them against his, angling them just enough so that his arousal brushed the place where I was screaming for touch. His breath fanned over my skin and when I arched against him this time, he slipped an arm around my waist to hold me to him.

It felt like someone had lit a fire in me that somehow came with knives and razors under my skin, but instead of pain, it was the most intense, hungry sort of electricity I could imagine. I was drunk, but not drunk, shutting down as I watched my body move itself, crave and hunger and dance to any rhythm he set. I had felt this before. It was rare anyone carried the memory of a desire this hot, but I had felt it. Experiencing it firsthand was entirely different, and with every passing second, the part of me that could understand why this shouldn't be happening slipped further away.

Eric's mouth moved to my ear, where he whispered, “You said you want me to stop. Are you sure?” And then took my earlobe into his mouth with a nibble.

A keening sort of quaver came from me. “Please,” I breathed, I begged, and it was nearly a sob. “Please.”

He began trailing kisses down along the sensitive side of my neck, just under my ear. “Please what?” He whispered.

“I can't, I. . . . P-” I moaned a sort of desperate, begging plea as without my permission, my hands came from my pockets and gripped his sides. I dug my nails in as hard as I could and pulled him tighter against me, body pulling and demanding where words pushed and asked, and it was my hips that moved against his this time.

He hummed deep in his chest, and somehow I could hear a smile in it. At a speed too fast for me to follow, his lips were on mine, both hands snaking around my waist, securing me against him, and it was like jumping from a cliff into the water below. The tipping point had been passed.

Ambrosia, he thought when he tasted me. Earlier tonight had been more of a test than anything. This, he was savoring.

Suddenly, abruptly, I wanted everything I had always believed I could never have, and I wanted it now.

As if in some sort of time lapse, I suddenly found myself hoisted up against the wall, thighs spread and squeezing around him, both hands fisted in his hair. My pelvis was canted forward to get as much friction as I could and I ground against him almost angrily, fists clenching so hard in his hair that if he had been a human, I would have hurt him. It wasn't until Eric removed his lips and replaced them with a hand over my mouth that I realized noises I didn't mean to make were slipping from me, raw and ragged, moaning and mewling. I felt his own excitement every time my hips inched low enough.

He clung to me with bruising force and pressed harder, rocking against me where I was wrapped around him. Then he shifted me lower and pressed his arousal into my core. My head flung back and I let out a cry, muffled by his hand.

Distantly, I heard him breathe a hushing sound into my ear even as he ground himself into me rhythmically and the pit in my stomach grew.

With effort, I quieted my cries to pants to whimpers and strangled groans and he took my mouth again. I could tell distantly that he was very, very good with his tongue, and I met it furiously, feeling the hard lines of his fangs through his lips. But mostly all I knew was that every touch, every stroke, every crushing squeeze and warm sweep of the hand and every part of him pressed against me was utterly perfect and I never, never wanted it to stop. I wrapped my arms around his neck as his lips moved from mine, digging my fingers into his shoulders, and buried my nose against his nape. Then suddenly I had his flesh in my teeth and he moaned almost as loudly as I had.

“Harder,” he groaned against my skin, burying his nose against my neck, just under my ear.

I released his flesh, teased it with nips, and then bit down savagely.

”Harder," he growled, shoving himself against my core in demand.

The flash of his desire mixed with some instinctual need to do as he said and suddenly my teeth sank into his skin like it was soft butter. Liquid pooled into my mouth as if I had bitten into an over-ripe peach. I tried to yank myself back, but his hand was on the back of my neck, clamped down on it, holding my head in place.

“Drink.” The ragged command was lust-driven, half order and half desire, and again I felt it flow through me as if his need were my own. I drew my teeth back and replaced them with lips and took his blood, thick and cool, into my mouth.

It wasn't metallic or repulsive; it tasted like. . . life. Like the cool safety of shadow, the brightness of stars seen through a night sky. It was the urgent pleasure of water after running, food at the end of the day, a need met. It was love and the ache of want and the promise of anticipation. It was heat and the culmination of every desire, every pleasure I had ever known and never known, and when I tasted it, I knew nothing else but wanting more.

Eric was crushing his mouth against my skin to muffle the sound of his moaning as I drank, as he ground against me, fast and fluid and powerful. My blood seared and sang and almost without warning, a climax exploded in me, ripping through my veins. I bit down again, even harder than before as I cried out, and distantly heard Eric hiss. But I couldn't feel anything or think of anything or acknowledge anything beyond the sparking whiteness and clenching of muscle as pleasure ran through me like tiny licks of an electrical charge.

He kept up his pace and pressure as the peak roiled through me, riding it out and drawing it on. As it crashed through me and slowly began to ebb, his strokes gentled in time with the aftershocks in my core. I could feel through my jeans and his how hard he was. Like metal. My hands twitched to wrap around it. His heat was written in every tight line of his body, in the deep breaths he took to inhale my scent, in the way his lips grazed the skin of my neck. The tips of his fangs trailed over it and I shivered, already arching into him again, if weakly. I heard soft whimpering and only distantly realized it was coming from me. My head lolled back against the wall, limbs and flesh limp and boneless as Eric held me up like I weighed nothing. One after the other, he pulled my swollen lips between his and sucked his own blood off of them. He licked and kissed a trail of it off of my chin. Something in him was purring in a satisfaction so deep I couldn't see the other side.

Before sense could return, Eric began rocking against me again, and I let out a helpless little sort of moan, hunger stirring my blood as if I hadn't just come. He put an arm under my backside and wrapped the other around my back and I felt cool air replace the cold hardness of the wall. His body shifted against mine, between my thighs. He was walking somewhere and I couldn't care less, as long as it meant this didn't stop. My hips moved to replace the motion of his. I was utterly lost to the world, and no part of me wanted to return.

I hadn't even heard the motorcycle pull up and come to a stop around the corner. But Tank's rage crashed over me like a wave in a storm and my eyes snapped open. I shoved my hands against Eric's chest to push myself back and whip my head around. Other voices registered in the back of my head like whispers, but for Pam just around the corner, so turned on and pleased that I had a hard time pushing her back.

The massive ware stood at the corner of the building where the public lot met the few employee spaces around the side of the building. His teeth were bared in fury and his eyes glowed the golden yellow of a werewolf about to shift.

“Don't!” I cried, writhing and shoving against Eric until he let me down. I hastily moved to stand between the two men. “He didn't hurt me, Tank, I promise.”

His eyes took in my clothing, rumpled but in place, the lack of bite marks on my skin, the absence of the smell of fear or anger or my blood. The light faded abruptly from his eyes, but his face did not soften. Aside from a darting glance at me, his gaze stayed locked on Eric.

The vampire, for his part, only turned and came to stand just behind and to the side of me, but didn't interfere. He wanted to. He wanted to literally rip Tank's throat out.

I huffed a loud breath, trying to get it under control. “I'll explain, ok? Just. . . can we go for now. Please?” I asked, face tight and pleading.

For the first time, his eyes met mine. The thick black beard at his jaw twitched as a muscle jumped underneath, but he turned slightly to the side, a gesture inviting me to leave. Now. His fists were clenched. I had never seen him more than mildly frustrated before.

I paused for a moment, but couldn't make myself so much as acknowledge Eric. I was embarrassed, scared, furious with myself over what I'd let happen. I wanted to cry. I wanted to hit him until I bled. I wanted to shove him back up against the wall and take out my anger in a way we'd both end up enjoying. Instead, I just left.

Tank and I walked to his bike in silence, and I felt Eric's eyes on me until we were out of sight around the wall. Then I felt Pam's eyes on me, and shut her out completely.

Tank went to the bike and held the extra helmet out to me without a word.

The night wasn't cold as I strapped it on, but I heard the rustle of his thick leather jacket before he placed it over my bare shoulders and realized I'd been shivering or shaking. I wasn't sure if I thought I deserved it, but I felt comforted by the big, warm garment, and wrapped it around myself.

The silence of the short ride home, broken only by the low, rumbling growl of the motorcycle, was the sort that made you want to do almost anything to shatter it. It was a breath in before words that I knew were going to hurt, to change something somehow. I felt miserable.

Tank parked against the curb just outside the door to my apartment building and turned his bike off. He wasn't planning on going anywhere, then. With a quiet sigh, I got off the bike and unstrapped my helmet as I walked to the dirty steps outside the dirty glass door and took a seat. Tank lowered himself next to me, close, but not quite touching. I hugged the helmet in my lap.

“. . .I don't have to concentrate when he touches me, Tank,” I nearly whispered.

I felt shock bowl through him, but he gave almost no outward sign of it. He just stayed calm and receptive.

“I didn't mean for that to happen, out there. And I wasn't going to let him bite me, I made that clear. It just. . . one minute we were talking, and the next. . . we weren't. He's. . . .” I growled in frustration. “I know, I know to stay away from him. He's a goddamned man whore. He's selfish and self-centered and manipulative and doesn't give a damn about anyone else unless he has to or wants to. But he's been pushing me in inches, and he's so good and it, and I'm not stupid, I know what lust does to people. I've felt it a thousand times. I know it shuts your brain off, turns you into a hormone-driven idiot. I know. I've just never had to deal with it myself, and thinking just a few nights ago that I'd never even have the option, and then having it shoved in my face, I just. . . . I know I know better.

"I accepted that I couldn't be with anyone, and I thought I'd more or less made my peace with it. But he touches me, he pushes me, and it's like everything in me goes feral with this stupid need to make up for lost time, and suddenly I'm angry about everything I could never have and I want it all." I took a deep breath.

". . . This whole fucking thing has been confusing. Half of me telling me to walk away, more of me telling me not to, to show him my throat for fuck's sake and I don't understand it," I practically snarled in frustration, "and I've never. . . I've never been confused like this. Or angry, or frustrated, not about this sort of thing. You know - I'm the person who knows. Who listens. And now, two nights around that asshole and I'm practically one giant angry black knot."

We were both quiet for so long that I wondered if he even had any idea what to say. I felt oddly exposed.

“I can't tell you what to do, Agnes,” Tank rumbled quietly, deep and rough like his motorcycle and the pavement under its wheels. “None of us know what it's like to be you. To do what you can and to pay the prices you pay for it. We all love you, but we know we can't understand, too." He paused. "I ain't going to talk to you like you're stupid, 'cause you're not. You're the smartest person I know. You know all the ways this would probably go south, so I don't have to tell you that. I also can't tell you not to take the only chance you might ever have, even knowing what it'd probably do to you in the end. A guy like that isn't a long-term bet, and I don't know if it'd be worse to have what you've missed out on all these years and then lose it, or to turn it down alltogether and just never have it.

“. . .But I will tell you that you worry too much about the pull.”

I looked up at him in surprise.

He shrugged one massive shoulder. “I know how much it bothers you, and I know it'd stop you from saying yes even if you decided you want to. I feel it just like everybody else. The affect you have on us. And I know the difference between what I'm feeling, and what it pulls out of me. I always have. And I ain't the only one. We ain't all so helpless and dumb that we can't tell the difference. You're too hard on yourself about it, you always are. But you're the best person I've ever known. Cori, too. And your dad, your brother and sister. . . . It ain't because you have to be, and I ain't tricked into thinking that - it's just because you are.

"Even when you were tiny, you were this little bag of. . . of sunshine, and everybody felt better just being near you. It wasn't the pull either, Aggie, I'd swear on it. It was your smile and your laugh and the way you scolded us for stepping on an ant or swatting a spider or being crabby at someone. You'd stop us and make us look at a leaf you found, or a flower we would have walked by, or the way there was a rainbow in oil on the street. You always helped, you held people up even when they were ten times bigger than you, and you saw the best in everything. That ain't magic, it's you. Just you.

“So you don't make the decision one way or the other because you're afraid. And don't keep going back there because you think you're out of options, either. Martin's a stupid kid, but he ain't a shit. Whatever this started out as, its gone way past anything it was supposed to be. You want me to cover for you so he thinks you've done your part, I will, and it ain't a lie. Far as I'm concerned, you've more than put in your time. You can get your money fair and square. Nobody with half a brain would argue that you ain't earned it.

“I know shit's been happening in that place that you ain't telling anybody about, and I bet what I saw tonight is the least of it. You know I don't care who you are or what you do, and you know I don't hate the fangers as much as the others. You've got a good heart and an old soul. I'm with you whatever you decide. But I really hope you decide to get the fuck up out of there. Whatever you need, whatever you're really looking for, we can find it somewhere else. Northman is not someone you fuck around with.”

He paused, and the only sounds were the distant grumble of an engine on a far away street and the hum of the stars. “Just tell me what you decide either way, ok? I know you're sick to death of everybody hoverin' over you all the time, and I don't blame you. Anybody else in the pack would have taken faces off over it by now. Just don't be so annoyed about it that you forget how many people would do just about anything to help you, or just plain refuse on principal. And Aggie, whatever your fear tells you, it ain't because of what you are that we feel the way we do.” For the first time, he turned his big head and looked at me. “I know it makes it worse for some people, but it ain't why. It's who you are. I ain't the only one who knows that, either.”

I looked back at him, taking in his steady, dark gray-brown eyes, the warm copper ringing the pupils. “. . .You know, I think that's more words than I've heard you speak in my life combined,” I said with a weak grin. 'Talk about an old soul,' I didn't say.

One corner of his mouth twitched at me under the full beard.

I leaned my head against his shoulder, and after a while, he put a massive arm around me.

“What should I do?” I whispered, ware-quiet.

I felt him searching for an answer, and was happy to wait silently while he did. Then I felt his displeasure at the answer he found.

“. . .Follow your gut. It ain't never steered you wrong. Just make sure that's what you're listening to, though, and that you ain't confusing it for something else. I don't have to tell you how much the shit you feel around him will screw with your head.”

“No." I paused. ". . . I'm really glad I know you, Tank,” I said softly.

He huffed out a quiet breath and rested his head atop mine for a brief moment, then pulled his arm back and rose to his feet with a light ruffle of my hair. I stood with him and stripped out of his coat, holding it out. He shrugged it back on, planted a scratchy kiss on my forehead, rumpled my hair again, and turned to his bike to get ready to leave.

As he always did, he waited until I was inside to give me a final wave and drive off, motorcycle rumbling in my ears long after he was gone from sight.

His advice was good. Perfect, actually. The problem was, I already knew what my gut was telling me, and it was the exact answer I didn't want to hear. It was the answer everything else in me screamed to ignore.

With a tight sigh, I made it into my apartment at a weary pace.

For the rest of the night, I pretended that tomorrow simply wouldn't come. It helped.

 

* * * * *

 

"You picked up on what happened?" Eric asked, too coolly to be called smug.

"With no small amount of envy, thank you," Pam replied drily.

An uncharacteristic smile pulled at his mouth. "Be sure to act as if nothing has changed tomorrow night. Pay her no extra attention."

"I'll be the only one not glued to her then," Pam replied wryly. "Everyone else'll be panting after her like she's in heat."

The smile widened. "For all intents and purposes, she will be." He sobered. "So long as no one touches her, there will not be any problems."

"Do we know if it worked?" She asked, nodding upward to indicate her brain.

"No, but I doubt we will for some time. She guards herself too closely. Keep it up for now, though. Especially after what happened tonight. Better she think it is her own desires she is feeling."

". . . You know, this might literally be the first time I have ever been jealous of you."

"I will dedicate one of my many times with her to you, then, Pamela. After the first month or so. I have a feeling my attention will be fully occupied until then." He smirked, brattish. "If you are good, perhaps I will even let you watch."

"No one likes a braggart, Eric." She said drily.

He hummed, amused. "Or a sore loser."

She scoffed. "This doesn't count."

"Let me know if that makes you feel better the first time- oh, pardon me. The second time you hear me make her scream."

"Careful. I still have all that silver shit she's been wearing."

His face lost every hint of amusement. "Do not joke about that."

Pam suppressed the closest thing to a genuine smile that ever crossed her lips.

Chapter Text

Something woke me out of a deep sleep. I didn't know what it was, only that it was inside the apartment. A noise? A smell? A feeling? I listened for a moment but heard nothing. The stillness outside my window told me that it was the hours of predawn. I felt outward, but sensed no one, either.

I folded my blankets back and slipped from the bed on silent feet, ignoring the completely unnecessary silver-plated bat Alcide and Janice insisted I keep at my bedside. “Best to cover all bases, Aggie,” they’d pressed.

I stepped carefully out of my bedroom and over the square of floor between rooms that functioned as a hallway. When I caught sight of the living room, I stopped short. Someone was sitting on my couch. Someone large. I tensed and pressed out with my senses again, then finally caught a whiff of the person and nearly sagged in relief.

“Goddamnit Eric, what the fuck are you doing in my apartment?” My voice was rough from my abrupt and early waking.

I flicked on a light to see him sitting, nay, lounging on my couch, arms splayed over the back on either side of him.

“You mean is this business or pleasure?” He answered smoothly. “I should think that would be obvious after what we enjoyed earlier tonight.” He cast a glance at me, and his eyes turned appreciative as he took in what I used for sleepwear: a fitted, low-cut tank top and shorts so sparse they nearly qualified as underwear. His eyes lingered on the length of bare leg and exposed stripe of stomach.

I petulantly refused to pull my top down to cover it, though I felt a flush spread over my chest.

“. . .How the actual shit did you get in here?” I asked, grabbing my robe from the bathroom door and slipping it on. “And how did I not feel you?”

“Are you the only one allowed to have tricks?” he answered evasively.

He was doing that thing again where his insides were still water, hiding something large moving under the surface; I wasn’t going to get an answer out of him. “So how'd you get inside, then?” I asked tightly.

He nodded toward the front door.

I gave him a look. “I didn't invite you in, is my point,” I said drily. “Ass.”

“A loophole,” he said. “I found the owner of the complex. She was kind enough to extend me an invitation.”

“But this is my apartment,” I pointed out.

“A loophole, like I said,” he replied lazily, pushing off of the couch and stalking toward me. His eyes were steady on mine and I did not care for the dark look in them.

We would be having this talk early, then.

“Listen, Eric-”

He cut me off by vamping to me and crushing his mouth to mine.

I sorely wished I had grabbed the bat.

I managed to pry him off of me, glaring bloody murder, but slightly breathless despite myself. “No,” I said sharply. “No no no no no, Jesus Christ no, Eric. My hormones aren't in charge of me and I am not stupid enough to have anything to do with you in that. . . way. Tonight was a mistake, and it is not one I will be making again,” I said firmly.

“You've been inside of others. You know that good sex is rare, and I suspect you know how very good it can feel. Now, take the best sex you've lived through another person and multiply it by a hundred, and you will have some idea of what I plan on giving you.”

“Yeah, you're a regular philanthropist,” I said, unable to hide the catch in my voice. “I'm not sleeping with you, Eric.”

“Why?”

“Because you're an ass and as soon as you get tired of me, you'll drop me like I'm plated in silver and move on to the next shiny object with boobs. Supermodels or actresses or whoever it is you boink.”

“'Boink?'” He asked, and he almost sounded wry.

I pinched the bridge of my nose and took a deep breath, trying to focus on the parts of me that existed outside of the fire in my gut and the ache in my center so sharp that it radiated down the insides of my thighs. “My point is,” I said sharply, then looked up at him, “you will move on. That's fine. I, however, literally will not be able to. So yeah. Yeah, let's have the best sex in the universe, and then have you rip it away from me whenever you get bored, which could be in five minutes or five weeks, and then I'm relegated to nothing but the collection I keep in my sock drawer. Which, I might add, I find completely satisfying at my current level of inexperience, thank you.”

“Who says I would get tired of you?” He purred, and on another person, I might have called part of his tone innocent. A grin crossed his lips, and it was an oddly sincere expression.

I gave him a flat look. “Ok, I'll play along for a second. How many women have you failed to grow tired of in your long, long life, Mr. Northman?”

He took a step toward me, moving closer by just an inch, but as near as he already had been it was not a small difference. “That’s not relevant. You aren't like any woman I've met in my long, long life, Emma. I want to have sex with you, yes. Passionate, primal, animal sex. I want to be inside you until you can't remember up from down or how to move even a single muscle in your exquisite body. I want to lock you in a light tight room and keep you so busy that you won't leave it for a month. But you've been inside of me, I've felt it. And to my great surprise, I’ve come to find that I enjoy the feeling. I’ve grown tired of pretending that sex is all I want from you. Tonight showed me that.”

His gaze on me was intense and so sincere that I couldn’t even pretend to think he was lying.

“Something in you feels like home, and it is something I intend to have. Something I intend to keep. And it has everything to do with who you are, and nothing with what you can do.” A grin spread over his face. “Though there are infinitely worse fringe benefits to have.”

“. . . You're full of shit,” I said, voice so pathetically weak it almost didn't come out.

“Am I?”

“History is on my side.”

He shook his head and reached for my hand and placed it flat against his chest. “Am I?” he repeated. “I don't want you for five days. I don't want you for five weeks or even five years. You are mine,” he declared fiercely, and there again was that strange possessiveness of the word that went beyond human or ware. “I will se it written in blood and bone. Why else do you think I am the only person you have ever been able to touch? I have waited for you for centuries. You are fierce, you are strong, you are clever and biting, you are fearless, you are my match,” he enunciated, “as I am yours. I feel it like you feel the people around you. I won’t be letting you go, Emma. Ever,” he said, his voice certain and silken and almost growling.

Worse than knowing he meant it was being able to feel the sense of rightness that he was talking about. Feeling the many, many centuries of experience that let him make such a claim and recognize such a feeling with certainty.

“You can't-” My voice cut out and I swallowed. “You don't know what you're talking about,” I said despite what I felt in him. “You don't know what you want, not really.”

He pressed my hand more firmly to his chest, eyes boring into mine. “I will protect you. I will provide for you, I will honor you. I will take your horrible family as my own if that is what you want. I will buy drinks for sad women in bars,” he added wryly. Then slowly, he leaned in until his mouth hovered next to my ear. In a husky whisper, he murmured, “How difficult is it lying to yourself when you have spent your life seeing through others' lies? It looks absolutely exhausting.” He nuzzled his nose under my earlobe so softly that it sent fire over every inch of me.

I shivered, and when he pressed a kiss to my neck, I didn't fight him. I had nothing left with which to fight him. So I let him rest another on my skin, and another. His desire flowed through me like a river, washing away the debris that I had built up over a lifetime to block my own. His was mine and mine was his and I couldn't tell where one stopped and the other began. I felt alive.

I melted into his tall form. I let him kiss me, and I kissed back. I pressed myself against him, arched as he untied my robe and slipped his hands inside, as he traced fingertips under the hem of my shirt, bringing it up with them until it barely covered my breasts. I gasped and cried into his mouth when he pressed a leg against the apex of my thighs, just at the right angle to put pressure where it was wanted, needed, and I begged without words for more.

He obliged. He slipped my robe over my shoulders, tracing them with his fingertips as he went. Then at inhuman speeds, he had his shirt off and mine literally ripped away. Before I had a chance to feel self conscious, he pulled my chest to his and I was drowned in the feel of so much skin on skin, and god but no memory through another could do it justice; there was no room for anything but the feel of him.

I was hoisted up as though no more substantial than the pieces of clothing we were leaving to mark our progress, and his hands guided my legs to wrap around his hips. I pulled back enough to lever myself against him and get desperately needed friction. He walked us to my room, nipping at my collar bones and the soft sides of my neck, and dropped me to the bed, following me straight down. Then with a tearing sound and the most wonderful sense of pressure as the fabric strained for barely a fraction of a second, my bottoms and underwear were gone. His joined them immediately. He lowered himself back over me and I felt the impossible softness of him against my thigh, and the equally impossible hardness underneath. My hips twitched and angled up toward him without my say so, begging as I tried to pull him closer with my legs.

He chuckled against my neck. “You're so hungry,” he said, and I could feel the smile on his lips. Another flush of arousal hit at how rough his voice was, at the proof that he was getting just as lost in this as I was. “Always so hungry.” The last words were barely intelligible. “I will never tire of it.”

Hand tracing its way up my thigh, he promised, “I know what I'm doing; you won't be hurt by this. I promise you.” His fingers brushed upward between the center of my legs and I gasped, fingernails digging into his shoulders. I almost didn't hear him say, “Just let me in, Emma. Let me in.”

I bit my lip hard, but made myself calm just enough to force the words, “I've never had sex, Eric.” A wry smile spread over my lips, though my eyes were still closed as his fingers continued to move over my skin – though not where I wanted them most. “That doesn't mean I've never had anything inside me. I hardly felt the need to wait for something I'd never have.”

He hummed an approving laugh, and between his mouth on my skin and chest over mine I felt it vibrate down to my bones.

“Look I'm glad you're happy,” I said, “and I'm not complaining about the service so far. But Eric if you keep me waiting much longer, I may kick you out just to be spiteful.”

“You'd have to get up to do that,” he said darkly. “That isn't something you're going to be doing for the rest of the night. Nor most of tomorrow by the time I'm done,” he growled low in my ear. “You aren't a virgin.” His fingers dipped experimentally right into my core and I cried out. He groaned, long and deep and nearly desperate, wildly happy with how ready he found me.

As abruptly as he had inserted his fingers, he pulled them out, ignoring my cry of protest in favor of moving to position his knees between my legs and spread them wide. I could feel my own wetness where he gripped underneath one of my legs. “So I'm not going to treat you like one,” he growled.

One hand gripping under each of my thighs, he lifted, angling my hips toward him. In dangerous quiet, he added, “Now let me show you what you've been missing.” He entered me and buried himself up to the hilt in one swift motion, leaving me to cry out at the sensation. It was not like a toy. It was not like a memory from another person.

Despite his words, he gave me a moment to adjust, making only the tiniest, shallowest of movements as he kissed and nipped and scraped with his nails. I was grateful; it was true that I was only a virgin in the most technical sense. It was also true that I'd never felt compelled to buy a toy anywhere near as big as he felt. This, too, was not the same as living it through someone else, no matter how good it had been. I felt full, I felt alive, I felt. . . whole. Something in my chest clenched painfully, wonderfully at the feeling of rightness.

One of Eric’s hands dug into my hip roughly and I felt him glide out, only to push back into me with barely restrained force and immediately take up a steady, demanding rhythm. It was so far beyond words that I felt halfway to brainless just with that one-

 

* * * * *

 

I shot up in my bed, panting, hair plastered to my face and neck and an ache so severe between my thighs that I felt bruised.

“. . . Mother fucker!” I swore when I realized I had been dreaming. A dream unlike any I had ever had, or 'heard.' If this was my punishment for having crossed a line with Eric, I needed no further motivation to avoid letting it happen again. Ever.

Under the painful arousal, I felt keyed up, like I'd had far too much coffee. Or like I'd taken a big hit of cocaine (I knew the feel of a great many things, vicariously). I knew sleep wouldn't return, and I was already sweaty so, refusing to give Eric even the satisfaction of being thought about during masturbation, I swapped my bedclothes out for a sporadically used running outfit.

The dark of the night sky was still prevalent when I got outside, but baby pink and white-blue were just starting to break through its depths on the horizon. It was so early that even the flowers that pushed up from between the cracks of the sidewalk outside my apartment were still curled against themselves in sleep.

I took one long look at the horizon, a deep breath of the cool air, and I ran.

I kept a steady pace until the sky had lightened fully and I noticed an odd number of cars and people passing – it couldn't be six-thirty yet. I came to a stop and breathlessly asked a passing man for the time.

“Uh, yeah.” He pulled a cell phone from his pocket. “Eight oh four.”

I gawped at him, mouth agape. “Are you sure your phone is right?”

He gave a laugh. “It better be, or I'm late for work.”

After an awkward pause, I nodded my thanks and, bemused, turned to go home.

8:04. I had been running for probably two and a half hours.

Worried, I pressed two fingers to the pulse point in my neck, but my heart was beating just as it should be for a normal run. I was breathing hard, but not hard enough for a half-marathon. My legs weren't shaking.

I tried to make myself walk back to my apartment to cool down, long as it would take, but that frenetic, bottomless energy was still buzzing under my skin, and without even deciding to, I took off jogging again. After a few blocks, I broke into a run, and didn’t stop until I got home.

 

* * * * *

 

My vitality did not abate as the day wore on. I found that it wasn't just my body that felt energized, either; I was remarkably clear-headed, and I would have sworn that I’d gained a few I.Q. points overnight. The odd part was that I wasn't feverish or jittery or anything else I'd expect from having so much excess energy. It was like I was operating in my natural state, but my natural state was just more.

At work, I cleaned out our email databases, finished backlogged invoices, and reorganized our entire filing system. Each of those projects should have taken a day, at least. The hours melted into one another; I only ate lunch, a late lunch, because dad noticed I hadn't taken any real breaks and flat-out made me. In the evening, I only left because Alcide had stopped by hours after closing and found me there on the floor, surrounded by stacks of files, going through them discarding things we didn't need, and had indelicately kicked me out.

I wasn't complaining. It was just so far past confusing that I could hardly process it.

It wasn't all enjoyable; I had been driven to distraction the entire day by the most aggressive, pervasive arousal I had ever experienced. I assumed it was just lingering feelings from the dream, but that idea flew out the window after I had been forced to shut myself in the bathroom of the coffee shop across the street, then wash five times to get the smell off me, and not five minutes later I was as keyed up as if I hadn’t done it at all. For the first time in a long, long time, I wondered if I really wasn't human, because this was almost what being in heat felt like.

When I got home in the evening I just paced through my small kitchen and living room. Then I looked at deep-cleaning projects I had lined up month by month and knocked out a quarter of the year in advance, made easier by the fact that everything suddenly smelled and looked filthy. But working myself into a sweat only aggravated my libido, so I holed up in my room to sate it.

Ten. Times. And despite the fact that I was so spent that I felt full of lead, it still wasn't enough.

I only tore myself out of bed when someone wouldn't stop knocking on the door. I'd ignored it the first three times before I pushed myself up on shaking legs. I splashed my face with water in the bathroom, finger-combed my hair into some sort of order (if they’d waited this long, they could damn well wait another minute), put on my robe, and wobbled my way to the door.

A man in slacks and a pressed button-down was on the other side, holding a large box. When he took me in, his eyebrows arched just enough to still be polite, but he said nothing other than, “Agnes Herveaux?”

I nodded, not confident in my ability to speak. I had buried my face in my pillow to muffle the screams, but that hadn't saved my throat.

“Sign, please.” He held out a tablet then handed me a stylus, and when I signed the on-screen line, he gave me the box. With a polite dip of his head, he left, but only after he'd shot a sideways glance at me as he turned. I knew what I looked like, and I was smart enough to have stayed cleanly out of him through the exchange.

I closed the door and fell back against it with a sharp exhale, wanting nothing more than to crumple to the floor. After fumbling the locks closed behind me, I dropped the surprisingly light box onto my couch and cut the tape with a kitchen knife.

It was full of small, expensive-looking boxes, and bags filled with artfully arranged crepe paper. When I opened the topmost box I found matching paper folded over something inside.

It was a bra and panty set. Even to my untrained eye, it looked expensive.

Dread pooling in my stomach, I tried one of the bags next. Another bra and panty set, this one made of nothing but fine black mesh, the bra with a simple front and an intricate design on a full back. I unloaded every bag and box, and they were all the same. Styles and colors, though, varied widely from neutral and lounge-worthy, to classic red, black, and white, to neon and garters. In the bottom was lingerie that I was guessing was meant to be worn around the house in the evenings and very, very nice pyjamas.

My stomach clenched a little as I involuntarily substituted one of the outfits for what dream-Eric had so appreciated.

Only once I was done and had packed everything back into the box did I notice the note tucked into the first parcel I had opened.

 

Your undergarments are unacceptable. Burn them or I will do it for you.
These will do a decent job of replacing them for now. Wear the matted metallic red tonight.
- Pam

 

“For now”?
Under that was a P.S.:

 

Note I wasn't kidding about burning your underclothes.
I may not be able to get into your apartment, but I can pay someone to do it for me.
Someone lacking my sunny disposition and rigid moral compass.

 

. . . Deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole.

 

* * * * *

 

It was dubiously that I dressed in a rather interesting bra and panty set: a deep true red that was neither shiny nor matte but somewhere in between – it had just enough shine to catch the eye, but not so much that it was garish or loud. It was a whispered possibility rather than a shouted invitation.

I saw why she'd had me put it on when I got to the club and she presented my top for the evening as Satcha went to work on my hair.

The blonde handed me a high-collared, long-sleeved shirt of nothing but black fishnet. My entire top was a red bra under black fishnet. She gave me silver cuff bracelets to wear over each sleeve, at least. Around my neck she had me put on a paper-thin rope necklace that hooked through itself and left two long strands to dangle down my front past my belly button.

To my delight, I got to wear actual pants. With the way Pam had been going, I'd almost expected shorts so high they'd show the curve of my backside. But I should have known better; anyone could put together a “slutty” outfit. Pam put together outfits that worked. The pants were black jeans, all torn up and worn in places down the front and slung so low that if I moved the wrong way (virtually any way, in other words), the gently shining top of my underwear was just visible on my hips. I was less delighted with the pants once they were properly on and I discovered how tight and impractical they were. They were jeans lying about being jeans. Heels would be debuted tonight, too: black patent leather studded with a row of silvery metal spikes down the center from the floor to the opening on both the front and the back.

Pam kept my eye makeup impressively low-key, at least compared to the other nights so far. When she was done, I saw why: she used some sort of glue to attach what was basically a strip of thin black lace over my eyes like a tall blindfold. It went from hairline to hairline, perfectly hidden under whatever Satcha was doing. I could still see well enough not to trip over my own feet, and I thought I would still be able to read if I held still and angled my book just so, but I hated anything that stifled my senses as a general rule - a product of being raised by wares, I assumed. I complained to Pam about the diminished of visibility, but she had just said something about mystery and Eric looking out for me and then ended further protest by telling me to shut my mouth before she had Eric come do it for me. I was predictably unamused.

Satcha was still working on my hair by the time Pam was finished with the rest of me. The impersonal woman arranged it in a number of pleats, loose at the top and tight against my skull along the sides, all interwoven together.

“She was right,” Satcha said in her heavy accent at one point. “You have good hair.”

Pam hummed in acknowledgment and her mind drifted, as it had that first night, to what she could do with a fist in it.

“Uh. . . thanks, Satcha,” I said, distracted. Up to that point, literally the only thing on Pam's mind had been shoes, although a hint of determination had pierced her normally placid emotional pool once. She had thought about new designer collections, old favorites, stores she remembered fondly, looks she could put together. . . .

Shoes. And nothing else. It reminded me of something Danny had once done to try to keep me out of his head, except he had basically been muttering to himself and fervently reciting song lyrics. Pam's thought patterns weren't unusual or stressed or strained. They were just oddly specific and suspiciously occupied. She also seemed to “slip” and brush casual touches against my skin more than usual. An arm, a side, my stomach, neck. . ..

The worst of my frenetic energy had calmed considerably and my mind had begun to settle by that point, but there was almost no change in the sex drive, and with her prodding, I thought I was going to climb a damn wall before we were halfway through. I actually snapped at her to quit once, but that only seemed to amuse her far more deeply than was called for.

When Pam was done and Satcha had left, I got a look at the result of their work: the European woman had created something of a fauxhawk on the top of my head, and the pleats along the sides wove together and followed the lines of my face. The parts that had looked messy were actually intricate and calculated to play against the parts that were smooth and sleek, and it all hung nicely over my back and shoulders, leaving me looking like some sort of glammed up shield maiden. Or, with the outfit, a well-dressed extra from a Mad Max movie.

 

* * * * *

 

I lounged sideways in my chair on the dais, my back to Eric and my legs kicked over the opposite armrest. I had a big hardback open on my lap, and for the first time in three nights was actually able to get lost in it.

For some reason, I had been allowed to make the walk to the dais on my own tonight. The moment I had passed through the employee door and seen Eric, my dream had come crashing in like a wrecking ball through concrete, and for the first time, I had no idea how to respond to the clear blue eyes that were riveted to me. Meeting them or looking away from them, both felt like the wrong thing to do.

There had been something unsettlingly symbolic about the short walk, about approaching him in his seat of my own volition. Worse was that the arrogant bastard probably thought I was worked up because of what had happened in the parking lot the night before. To be fair, the memory of his body tight against mine did no favors for my calm. Heads turned to follow me as I passed.

I say he “probably” thought that because his inner expanse was oddly blank, even more than it had been the night before. I was reminded of Pam and her obsessive thoughts of shoes and wondered if they were working to keep me out of themselves. It stood to reason that they might be better at it than the wares - more refined.

I assumed they just wanted their privacy back, but something about it made the hairs on the back of my neck prick up. Either way, I decided not to question an unexpected blessing, no matter how suspect. Not yet, anyway.

To my surprise, Eric either chose to honor the message my seating position conveyed - unlikely - or was content for whatever reason to let me alone. The latter prospect was unnerving, to say the least, but I couldn’t help being grateful. My body’s awareness of him was a palpable thing tonight, as if every cell, every nerve had been tuned to his specific frequency. As I went out of my way to avoid awareness of him, every part of myself I didn’t have conscious control over was practically straining for any contact, any touch. It was infuriating.

For a while, I read in peaceable silence. I even managed to balance well on the buzzed/drunk line for the first time since the night he'd “summoned” me. But about two chapters through my book, the curiosity that had been gnawing at the back of my mind became too loud to ignore. Why was he leaving me alone, and on top of what couldn't be anything other than him either trying to keep me out or throw me off track? He’d gotten a concession out of me last night, intentional or no. Was he playing cat and mouse now, acting contrary and distant in an attempt to get me to go to him?

It was frustratingly difficult not to just reach over and touch him to find out for myself. An instant was all I would need, but I was oddly mulish about the idea of giving him the satisfaction. Or touching him, period.

I diverted some of my attention to watching him as I went about my night. Which lead me to a curious discovery.

He was oddly placid inside, yes. But whatever thought or attention he had other than occasional scans of his club seemed to be focused entirely on me. Riveted to me. An image of a big cat trailing an animal it had wounded, waiting for it to collapse came vividly to mind. The scent of predatory anticipation, though faint and buried, wove through him.

I looked up from my book and tensed at the image and feel. I took a breath as if to speak, though I had nothing to say.

“I've been curious,” he droned from behind me.

His timing set an alarm off in me, but I couldn’t identify it. It sent something niggling in the back of my mind, too, and pieces of a picture started to become just solid enough to want to come together like puzzle pieces.

“What is it like?” He asked when I said nothing.

I twisted to look at him over my shoulder, brow furrowed despite myself.

“What you do,” he clarified, gesturing to the burner that rested near my thigh.

All I saw in his face was curiosity, subdued as ever his expressions were. His G-rated expressions, anyway.

I studied him, feeling the puzzle pieces slip away despite my attempt to hold onto them. I turned back around with a shrug. “What's it like to see or hear? It’s just something I do.”

He was obviously dissatisfied with that answer, and I had the odd impulse to give him a better answer.

I turned and leaned in to speak quietly. “See that big guy at the bar? Looks like a biker, someone a human would consider scary, right? He's got a song from the radio stuck in his head about bubblegum that sounds like it's being sung by a twelve year-old girl. Woman who looks like a soccer mom against the farthest wall from him, by the souvenir kiosk? Same one is running through her head.

I turned my gaze and nodded toward someone else. “The skinny guy by the employee door with over-gelled black hair who looks like he wants to kill himself and everyone in here? All he's thinking about is the woman he's here with and how he plans to propose next week. He's been head over heels for her since he was seventeen and wants nothing more than to make her happy for the rest of his life. In fact he's a pretty decent guy, he just has a face that's scary as shit.

“That man with the shaved head over there was raped and molested so many times by so many people growing up that he thinks love is a pretty lie people tell themselves or that, at best, it's something that people like him just aren't built for. He can't understand sex or intimacy if it doesn't hurt and isn't laced with hate. But something in him feels lost and he can't figure out why.

“Two people over from him is a woman who was stopped from killing herself last night by a stray cat. About ten feet from her in our direction? She's trying to figure out why sex doesn't make all her problems go away anymore. The kid with his back to her is thinking how he should really be back in his dorm doing his linear algebra homework, but he'll be goddamned if he bails on his friends one more time to study. That one there found out six hours ago that he'll never be able to have children and can't figure out if he's more relieved, saddened and crushed, or ashamed. He's here so he doesn't have to think about how to tell his wife.”

I began pointing people out while my gaze stayed unfocused on the floor of the dais. “Buddhist, dental assistant, aspiring heavy metal star, loves playing the cello but is crap at it, kid who would give literally anything to kick his drug habit, nihilist, collects vintage Barbies. Those two are curious about vampires the way people who go backpacking abroad are curious about foreign countries and customs. She's praying she's not pregnant, she wishes she could get pregnant.

I let my mind really open up for the first time since I'd come here, strangely excited to have someone to share all of this with and a reason to listen more closely than I had in a long while. I continued pointing surreptitiously and murmuring quietly near Eric's ear. “The guy who looks like a greasy trucker is, in fact, nothing more than a greasy trucker. She is so angry at the entire world that she may literally murder someone some day. He would give anything to be human again. She's thinking about the dinner she just had and how she wishes she'd gone for the slice of cake; she's hoping to get the shit beat out of her during sex tonight; she's counting the calories in every sip of her drink.

“That one wishes he could go back to being 13 when he lived with his grandmother on a farm and had a mutt dog named Roxie.” I ticked more off: “Misses high school; couldn't be more thrilled to be out of high school; alcoholic who's trying to convince herself she can stop after just one drink tonight; trying to figure out how he's going to survive when his father dies of the cancer that's eating him; getting so drunk he's probably going to go home and hit his family tonight. Again.”

I tried not to look too closely at how comfortable – no, how safe I felt whispering these things to him in a room full of creatures that could easily overhear. I trusted him to stop me if I was in danger of being overheard, and that trust was the distressing part.

I carried on. “Depressed; man-child; philosophical; arrogant; severely wants to come up and offer himself to you; saw you get a drink for our girl the other night and wonders how good she must have been at. . . oral activities, to get that sort of attention from you of all people, and assuring herself that she could do better. And then of course most of them want to fuck one or the other of us. Or both. You because you're you and me because. . . . well you have kind of been putting me on display.” 'Which didn't create the attraction, but didn't help it either.' “Thank you for that, by the way. And sex is only the nice fantasies. Even the rough sex.”

I'd only gone through a small portion of the people in the club, but I figured it was enough to make my point. “I live in a sea of rich inner worlds. Well. . . some of them are rich. Some of them are shallow as a puddle and others just make me want to laugh. Like that woman over there who is utterly convinced that she's god's gift. She’s pretty convincing up front, by the way, but do not take her up on her offer.” I shuddered.

“You see a good deal of darkness. It doesn’t bother you?” There were notes in his voice I couldn't pick out, but I thought I caught an edge of either approval, or dark hopefulness. I was reminded of some of the things he had “shown” me that first night to try and shock me into showing I was in his head. I had known he was holding back at the time, and that had been much more frightening than what he chose to let me see, because those things had been far from gentle or clean. I was reminded that I was talking to a creature who only looked human.

I took a breath, considering how to answer. “You know. . . some of the most irreverent, crass people you'll come across are those who are in charge of saving lives. Rescue workers, firefighters, paramedics. They have all kinds of horrible nicknames they give to injuries and especially to dead bodies. People would be horrified and start some kind of protest if they knew half the shit that comes out of those peoples' mouths when they're talking to each other. But that's how they cope. If they took what the did as seriously as an average person would, if they were appalled by every gruesome sight, if every life lost mattered, they'd lose their damn minds. So they normalize it. They make jokes out of it. They cluster into a private culture where it doesn't have to mean as much as it does to everyone on the outside.

“Do I want to go beat the shit out of that guy who's almost definitely going to hit his wife, and maybe his little boy? Abso-fucking-lutely. Do I want to follow him home and talk her into leaving him, help her realize that she doesn't have to put up with shit like that? Yes. I want to go help that kid get over his addiction or help that woman see the truth of her addiction. I want to help the abused man understand that love is not only possible, but very real and available to him, to help him forget the shit that has so twisted and hurt him. But for all I know, if the abusive man's wife left him, she'd die, her kids would end up somewhere worse because she's painfully codependent, or the man would end up with someone who he'd do even more damage to. Maybe the woman he'd end up with was supposed to do something with her life, but now she won't because she's tied down to his damaged ass.

“Maybe the alcoholic is learning some powerful life lesson from her experiences. Maybe she'll become a famous poet later in life, fueled by what she's going through now. Maybe the addict will meet someone and they'll help each other, but if I fix it for him then that other person will never get better.

“When you know what I do, it's really easy to want to mess with peoples' lives. To 'help.' I don't know what things look like from your eyes, either as a non-human or as someone who's been alive as long as you have, but from my perspective, help, at least in the big ways, doesn't usually look like what people think it does. In fact most of the time, it’s the exact opposite, and following the outline of what most people would consider help is the surest way to screw things up.

“The universe doesn't see in human morals and values and needs, and it operates on a scale inexpressibly larger than ours. Humans, supes - all mortals, for the most part - they’re like kids who are running a mile a second and need everything right now. They need everything to make sense but only if it fits in their own framework, and they will lose their shit any time something outside of that gets too close, too real. Values are arbitrary. So are most morals. What was sin a hundred years ago is innocent enough for a child today, and what is taboo in one culture is expected in another.”

Eric had the strangest look or feel, I wasn't honestly sure which, like he finally might be seeing someone with whom he could have an adult conversation in a world where he had long stopped expecting one, and he felt oddly. . . proud. Excited. I understood the feeling. I handled it well, but the truth was I had long since grown accustomed to the knowledge that I was alone in the things I knew and the views I had. He was wrong, though, if he thought I was as morally ambiguous as he was. I, after all, was still human.

Chapter Text

“Since we're going to be working together for the foreseeable future,” I said, “there's no real reason to keep hiding some of the more. . . interesting parts of what I can do.” His countenance stayed bored and impassive, but internally I could feel him go rigid with attention even under the veneer of thick, bland calm he was still keeping at the surface. It made the feel of his attempt to hide himself from me a little more obvious.

“I read people, you know that much. I also read relationships. That gets interesting when I point out that people don't just have relationships with one another; they also have relationships with the world around them. I see. . .” I paused, bit my lip. Took a surprisingly shaky breath. This was something no one but Alcide knew. A few others had suspicions that I could do it, and more beyond it – some of which were downright ridiculous - but I'd never said the words to anyone but my brother.

“Like I have a connection to other people,” I said slowly, “I have a connection to. . .” I waved a hand, looking for the right word, “the world. It talks to me. Almost like any other person, but I just have the equipment to hear it, and sometimes even make sense of what it says. It weaves through people just like they weave through each other, through the air, the water, through things that don't have names. So I see. . . strands. Ropes. Ties. Lines of probability, of cause and effect. To put it in the crassest, most imprecise way possible, “fate.” I see things that might happen, things that could happen, and sometimes things that will happen.”

If it could be said that a vampire could go cold, I would have thought that was what had happened to Eric's insides. It was as though he just. . . stopped, if only for a moment.

“I'm telling you this not just so you know, but so you understand why I don't screw with people's lives whenever I feel like it. And to pre-empt the explanation you’re going to want sooner or later about why I refuse to do something you ask. Unless the world tells me I should move on something like that asshole or the empty woman or the grieving son, I need to leave it alone. Sometimes, sometimes I can press the issue, but I can count the times that has worked on a couple fingers.

“If I don't listen, I'll make a mess that is infinitely worse than any that was already there, and the consequences aren't worth it. Going against that. . . boundary, I guess you can call it, is counter to my nature, like a physical barrier that would be similar to asking you to walk out into the sun. You could do it with enough force of will, but it wouldn't end well. In my case it wouldn't just be me that caught fire, it'd be countless other people, too. Every breath we take ripples through the world, and if I change even one of those. . . .” I let him finish the thought himself. He was a smart guy, and I was hardly being vague.

I cast my eyes over the people before us, still leaned in and speaking in a low voice. “We, people I mean, we look around and see all these horrible things happening. We think the world is one massive shit storm that gets worse every year, but the truth that no one wants to accept is that in reality, everything is perfectly in hand. The pattern is flawless, most of the pain self-inflicted or imagined. A world exists outside of good and bad, desire and aversion, and that is the world that is real. That's the world I live in. . . . Usually, anyway.”

Eric leaned forward in his chair, turning just enough to the side that I felt his breath over my ear and the brush of his fingertips as he swept my hair out of the way. I couldn’t have stopped the shudder it elicited if I’d had a full minute to brace myself. He muttered an almost inaudible, “You’re telling me that you see the future?” His voice was oddly tight and almost dark.

And it didn't make me feel the least bit afraid, or even wary.

He angled his head so I could put my lips by his ear again. I was studiously not breathing through my nose and thanking any god that ever was that he didn't have enough body heat for me to feel it emanating outward. “You can put it that way, sure,” I murmured. “It's as crass as saying I see strands of fate, but in the loosest sense yes, it's technically true. I don't do it on command, though,” I warned. “I might work for you from time to time, but I don't take orders from anyone or anything other than that deep place. That's just about the only law I operate under. I usually only see what I'm shown when it comes to the future, anyway. It's not really an on-demand service,” I added, wry.

He was annoyed by that boundary, but not worried. He could work around almost anything, after all. And once he had me in hand--

He cut that thought off sharply, and the niggling sense of unease came back. Before I could chase after it, after whatever he was hiding, he was speaking again.

“So were you instructed to have me to get your ‘good person’ a drink that first night? Or to show me what you could do?” He sounded entirely too satisfied at the idea, though I wasn't sure if I was imagining the note of it in his voice.

I shifted uncomfortably, hoping he wouldn't notice. He did. “Not exactly. And I'm not 'instructed' to do anything. It's. . . what happened that night, it's. . . complicated. And no, it didn't nudge me in her direction, any more than I was inclined by my nature to be. I just wanted something good to happen to her. She needed it.”

“You said you only interfere when you're told to.”

“Ehh that's true,” I hedged, “but sometimes I also do it when it doesn't tell me not to.”

He paused and nodded slightly, accepting that answer, and returned to the string of his other question. “I'm very good with complicated, Emma.”

“Oh, I don't doubt that at all,” I said with a dark chuckle. “But I'm not interested in handing you all the cards at this point in the game, sheriff.”

“Is there more you can do?”

I felt my right ear twitch. “Yes,” I began uneasily. “But,” I added wryly, “I hardly want to overwhelm you.”

Apparently I had given him enough to think about that he didn’t feel the need to argue. Yet.

 

* * * * *

 

Eric left me alone after that, and aside from occasional scans of the club, I used the time to read. To live in a wonderful dreamland where I could pretend that there was anything even remotely normal left in my nights for the foreseeable future. It didn’t work well.

I did my job, but the club was unusually clean, for which I was grateful; the more time passed, the more Eric’s placid state was picking at me like an errant tag on the back of a shirt making your skin itch.

Nothing at all happened, in fact, until the man I'd pointed out earlier who had wanted to approach him – a sweet balding man safely in his middle years – begun doing just that.
He approached the dais and dropped to his knees several long paces away. In a process that took at least five minutes, he shuffled his way toward Eric, eyes averted deferentially. Neither of us really paid the man any mind, though I kept a fraction of passive attention on him, as I could feel Eric aware of him the way a human would be aware of a fly about to show interest in sweat-dampened skin.

Until he made it to the foot of Eric's chair and slowly reached toward the big man's knee with trembling fingertips, desperately wanting to touch him. “I really wouldn't do that, sir,” I warned in a voice loud enough for him to hear, though I didn't look up.

The poor man heard me and knew I was talking to him, but ignored my words to reverently brush his fingertips against Eric's knee-- and was immediately kicked so hard in return that he flew backwards, landed on a table, then hit the ground as it snapped under the force of his landing. He was dazed and would have some truly impressive bruises in the morning, but didn’t appear seriously hurt.

I sighed peevishly. “Was that really necessary? He was harmless and you know it.”

“You have far too much respect for the vermin. Besides,” he added, blasé, “the blood bags like a show.”

I remembered what Pam had said about that very thing, and how the most violent and anti-human vampire here, Thalia, was also the most popular.

I snorted. “Yeah, because that's why you did it. If he gets a concussion and dies, you're supporting his bereaved family. And don't forget, just a few days ago, I was one of those vermin.”

“Oh no,” he purred, “you were not. I simply hadn't yet had the pleasure of meeting you.”

I made a disgusted sound. “You're so charming it makes me want to puke. And how do you know he wasn't one of them, if I wasn't? How do you know any one of these people aren't?”

“I have eyes and common sense,” he said simply. Then added, almost as if annoyed by the idea, “Do not compare yourself to them.”

I found myself resentfully flattered.

Pam sashayed up to Eric at human speed and whispered in his ear. I felt a jab of interest and vicious anticipation come through the blanket he had himself cloaked in. It was the feeling of a hunter with prey in its sights. It was oddly satisfying to feel anything from him after how lifeless and placid he had been keeping himself. As if I had missed the flavor of him.

Pam took up her perch behind his throne, utterly self-satisfied and itching for whatever was about to happen, as predatory and graceful as a cat. She rested a forearm on the high back of his chair (I refused to call it a “throne”) as she had the night she'd first brought me up here.

I cast a curious gaze back at her, but her eyes were locked on someone in the crowd.

I returned to reading as I felt Eric crook his fingers at that same someone. Moments later, two people approached the dais. I pulled enough of my attention from my book to give them a read, and before they had finished climbing the steps, I went rigid at what brushed against me from them.

“Bill Compton,” Eric greeted the male vampire in front of him, his voice a bored, silken drawl. Eric held an almost overpowering amount of disdain for this man, all mixed up with disgust, humor – like looking at him was tantamount to watching a kitten trying to take down an unconcerned napping great dane - and the desire to do nothing more than put a stake in the man's heart. “It has been a while.”

The blonde human woman with Bill was Sookie Stackhouse, and Eric was immediately honed in on her like she was in heat. He would have taken notice of her even if she hadn't been dressed as innocent sin wrapped in vampire bait and robed in sex, as he had taken notice of me when I'd been swimming in my brother's shirt. I shoved down a ridiculous stab of jealousy - I had set him up with someone not four nights ago, for Chrissake. I felt around the newcomers more closely.

A puff of air, almost silent but shaped like someone had punched me in the gut, whooshed from my lips at what I found, what screamed at me the moment I reached out properly.

Instantly, Eric's attention was on me. I closed my book and turned to sit upright in my chair, eyes distant and head cocked slightly. I shook my head minutely at Eric’s attention – I needed time to make sense of what was coming at me like neck-high waves in the ocean.

My eyes flicked up to the two guests just long enough to get a proper look.

The vampire, Bill, was pale with black hair and eyes, and dressed in a respectable but understated way. Sookie, the human, looked. . . well, like some stereotype of an innocent southern belle, all perfect tanned skin and golden blonde hair, with the features and a body that likely turned heads and had necks craning everywhere she went. She wore a crisp white sundress that managed to be both innocent and anything but, scattered all over with blood red flowers.

I wondered idly if she had a fucking death wish, because there was no way she had slapped on that sort of symbolism, that kind of hint, on accident right before heading out to a goddamned vampire bar.

As Eric reveled in what was obviously a verbal boxing match with the other vampire, my inspection was interrupted and I picked up my burner.

 

- Me; 12:15am
Remember that nice man from before who you were kind enough to cut open in a club full of vampires who came here looking for a meal?
Pixie-like vamp woman with dark short-cropped hair is taking him to the restroom to see to his wounds.
So altruistic, you people.

 

Eric glanced down at his phone when it vibrated. Lazily and barely raising his voice said “Taryn.” He put his eyes back on Sookie and waited until the pixie woman paused and looked back at him from the doorway that lead to the restrooms. “You will respect the rules of this establishment or you will leave it,” he said in that bored, commanding way he had.

Bill's gaze flicked curiously to me, and I carefully ignored it.

Taryn turned right around, exchanged a few words with the bleeding man, and they headed toward the exit together. I said nothing; the man's reasons for wanting to be bitten were not among the healthiest, but he was an adult, he was eager, and Taryn was old enough to control herself.

Following their progress through the club I picked up on something else.

 

- Me; 12:18am
Another trip down memory lane.
Remember that couple I pointed out in your office?
Apparently when I said 'within a few weeks'
I actually meant 'three days.'
Straight ahead, guy in the baseball cap, black t with black fishnet sleeves underneath
Expecting backup soon. 15 minutes at most, if I had to guess.
Apparently a lot happened after my last check.
Like these two yahoos. Who the fuck are they?
Given your disdain for the guy, I assume they're not age-old friends of yours, so you're going to demand a blood price for my insult.
And no, that wasn't me offering my blood.
Opportunistic lech.

 

The moment Eric's phone buzzed again, he held a finger up, stopping Bill mid-sentence, and followed the incoming messages. I saw on his face – though I felt that no one besides me with my insight, or perhaps Pam, would have caught it – a play of emotions as he read, but what he ended on was amusement.

“The answer to your question remains to be seen. As for the other matter, we should be fine, unless you think otherwise.”

Bill was now watching me far too closely for my liking. I was a human. I smelled horribly of ware, but I was a human, and Eric was practically treating me like another vampire. A vampire he respected. Eric Northman did not respect any human.

I felt an odd swell in my chest at that and tried to shove it down. The last thing I needed was soft feelings toward Eric.

Outwardly appearing as if nothing had happened, I hummed and felt out around the room again just to be safe, careful to make it look only like I was considering my answer. “I don't think so. Everything was clean last I checked.” When I checked just now, he would know I meant. “It'll probably be annoying, though.”

“You don't 'think' so?”

“Circumstances are not exactly ideal, Eric,” I observed drily.

A twitch of his lips and he cast a droll but amused look at me, entirely unconcerned with how he appeared in front of Bill. “Perhaps you could do me the courtesy of making them ideal.” He said, half mocking.

Bill looked at Eric like he had never seen the man before, and wondered what the hell had happened to him since they'd last met.

I made a disgusted sound. “Fine,” I said petulantly. “Give me a minute.”

I got up and moved to the employee door, walking down the hall and to my changing room so anyone listening would hear my footsteps and could safely assume I was running an errand for Eric - and so I could concentrate.

When I was done I made my way toward the dais, then stopped when a thought occurred to me and walked backwards the few steps to the bar. I had yet to look into Bill and Sookie, and I had the feeling it was not going to be a gentle experience.

After I'd downed a shot, I made my way back up to my seat. Eric looked to me for an answer, and as I sat I said “everything's clean as a virgin spring. Well,” I huffed a laugh, “for your purposes, anyway.”

He went back to his conversation without properly acknowledging my answer, and I decided that I hoped to work with him in an official vampire capacity as little as possible, because 'official vampire capacity' Eric was a real asshole. The only thing I felt from him was an insignificant prick of annoyance that he would have to cut his time with the blonde short.

With an oddly annoyed sigh, I took my lounging position again and opened my book, resigned to whatever was about to hit me and not looking forward to it in the least. It took a long moment to let go of the feeling of urgency that came with the pending raid so that I didn’t feel rushed. Once I was in the right head space, I started with the curious one, Bill, plucking almost gingerly at the strings I wanted to try to avoid being drowned.

I was glad I'd stopped at the bar for the shot, because he was not a small picture to take in.

The strongest scent on Bill, so strong it sat atop everything else, was self-hatred. He resented his nature and ever having been turned. He knew the hate of a man who had done everything to run from his pain only to find, in the end, that the only thing eating him was himself. At that discovery, he had given up and moved on – as much as anyone can move on when they're practically worshiping a mortal wound. He was so wrapped up in it he could barely move.

Underneath the abhorrence was an anger simmering dangerously close to the point of combustion - the defense of the wounded, its intensity keeping pace with his hatred and resentment.

There was a history between he and Eric from early in his vampire life that left him fearing the older vampire – as he should – but as far as he would admit to himself, he felt only disdain for Eric. How could he not? Eric not only embodied everything that Bill loathed, but embraced it, gloried in it. He'd love to stake Eric even more than Eric would love to stake him. But he knew the rules of his world, and he wasn't an idiot; he had no plans to harm my “boss.”

I snorted a laugh at the very idea of calling him that, feeling and ignoring a flicker of curiosity from all four people on the dais.

I dug deeper, trying to find what exactly was bothering me, what was tugging at me like a tiny hook in my skin.

My face went slack when I found it.

“Shut up,” I ordered, my voice firm but quiet and distracted. Bill had been speaking, snarling really, about Sookie's personal availability, but he stopped out of nothing more than shock. There was a mess in him, and suddenly it was very important that I get a close look at it.

“I beg your pardon,” he managed, polite but affronted.

“Do as you're told, Bill,” Eric said, entirely too happy to press the insult. Inside, he was amused, intrigued, pleased at my cheek and rudeness toward the other vampire. . . .

The silence, at least on the part of Bill and Sookie - who tried to speak but was immediately silenced by her vampire companion - quickly grew awkward, but I was aware of it only as a person is aware of background noise while having a conversation they are intent on.

I shook my head in confusion and actually turned to physically look at Bill, tensing immediately. It took everything I had to keep my eyebrows from shooting up; there was Destiny about this man. Tendrils of it snaked from him, silvery and lit white, far thicker and more solid than any I had ever seen.

I looked just slightly away from him and let my eyes unfocus, and I saw the name of what had been bothering me: lies. Layers of them.

Here to hunt, not to live in peace.

Masks, pretenses.

Lies from his mouth like water.

Lies to Eric, lies to everyone around him, lies to Sookie.

Queen Sophie-Anne.

I saw what he had already done to Sookie in their short acquaintance, how he had tricked and manipulated her, forced his blood into her, and fury rose up in me so intense that I clenched my fists and had a hard time keeping it off my face. Only Eric and Pam consciously noticed - Bill was too busy trying to figure out what the actual fuck was going on and what alternate universe he had stepped into.

Eric would do worse than kill him when he found out.

Tendrils coming out of him were snaked around Sookie, who met them with her own; they were knotted around each other in a great tangled snarl. And Bill was falling in love with her. With his job, his target. He just didn’t know it yet.

“Go ahead, Eric,” I uttered as I allowed those lines to move my attention to Sookie.

I faintly heard Eric deflect a question about me as I leaned forward to look at the woman and found her staring at me with open curiosity.

When our eyes met, I was flooded with something else that I had never seen, not even in the collective memories of everyone I'd ever felt. My lips parted in surprise. This woman shone like a star, like a light in a dark room. She wasn't human, not entirely, but she didn't know that. She had gifts she was unaware of and a blessing that she considered a curse. I felt her reaching out to my mind trying to read it, but it was like watching someone in the shower try to pick up a bar of wet soap. She couldn't get ahold of me, and the pieces with which she tried were raw and inflamed.

And she was utterly enchanted by me. To her, I was the one who shone like a star.

“Nice to meet you,” she offered over Bill and Eric's conversation. The two men paused.

“You too,” I said, a little dazed. I was watching tethers of light snake out of her in every direction as if she were pulling at the whole world. I had never seen anything like her. And I wondered how the hell she was still alive.

People felt they liked me, sometimes immediately. They felt the drive to be kind to me, to help and support me, to be close to me if I would have them. But Sookie pulled everything toward her indiscriminately like she had her own gravitational field, and more than anyone I had ever seen, what she got back was what she already felt she had. Pain hung around her like a gathering storm.

Something had started her life off in a bad way, and as she had suffered that, she had unknowingly begun pulling more badness toward herself, which made the belief that the world was full of that badness stronger and the whole thing turned into a self-perpetuating cycle. She was in a tiny concrete cell. But she had a fighter's spirit and it hadn't been broken. I saw, in fact, that that was the very thing that had brought her here, pursuing answers to stop a murderer and free her falsely-accused brother. Sookie took care of her own.

The light in her was behind these tendrils, fueling them and driving them outward, and it drew the supernatural in particular, the same my own pull did. That was why Bill was knotted around her. And she was knotted around him because of the rest he gave her from her “curse” and how that unexpected reprieve clouded her judgment, and because something in his own nature, a part of vampires that anyone but me would call a void, played like a counter note to her light. But it was wrong, off; it was like someone being drawn toward poison oak no matter how many times it blistered them.

More concerning than any of that, however, was the piece of her that was reaching toward Eric, hesitant and halting but sure as a salmon fighting the current to get upstream. And just as she and Bill were drawn to one another, a piece of Eric was reaching back, testing the air around her. It was like the pull people felt toward me, but. . . malformed.

I pulled the lace from my eyes roughly and turned my head just enough so that I could see Sookie and Eric out of the corner of my eye. Delicately, carefully, I picked at the pieces of them that wanted to moor in one another.

The tie between them was so convoluted that it was like trying to untangle the chain of a necklace, where pulling on one piece was just as likely to tighten the knot as it was to get you a step closer to unbinding it. “Mess” could not do it justice. I had to push hard, as though breaking my way through a padlock and prying open a steel box, but when I found the root of my search it hit my like a physical force, and no practice, no skill could have stopped the razored breath I sucked in or the way I jerked as if I'd been shocked.

I squeezed my eyes shut and clenched a fist against the reaction, the lace eye-covering crumpling in my hand. My whole body had gone tight. I clamped a hand over my mouth in an attempt to still myself and fight the urge to get up and leave just to be away from the consuming intensity of the feeling.

It was an illness there, a fever that would wear the face of destiny, of fate, and while Sookie would get out more or less unscathed, Eric. . . .

It would destroy the only part of him that, at the moment, I knew in my bones I would do anything to protect: his buried heart. I had lived most of my life in a sea of intuition, but instinct was something I had never truly felt until that moment, and I could now say with authority that it was one of the most powerful forces a person could experience.

Everyone on the dais was watching me. The heads of anyone in the club who had encountered me before tonight were watching me: repeat patrons, Longshadow, the force of gravity that was the diminutive Thalia.

“Get,” I panted, “get them ou-”

“Bill,” Sookie interrupted, her head snapping up, “we have to get out of here!” She turned to me, an urgent plea on her face, “Come with us!”

“Sookie,” Bill warned, at the same moment as Eric warned sharply:

“She is not going anywhere.” Any pretense of friendliness was stripped from his voice like moisture from the air in the dead of an arctic winter.

I shook my head. “Go,” I said weakly to Sookie. When she didn't move, I raised my voice. “Go!” I turned to Eric, voice pointlessly reduced to a whisper, “They're here.”

He looked at me and I saw plainly that he wanted to hold Bill and Sookie, but I narrowed my eyes at him, trying to convey a silent message, and shook my head minutely.

Without hesitation and with a calm made for the frenzy of battle and the speed of crisis, Eric ordered them to follow Pam out through the side door. Shock registered on Bill's face, but he wasted no time in sweeping Sookie up into his arms and speeding away as only a vampire can, casting one last glance at me over his shoulder as he went.

Uniformed bodies were already shoving in through the front entrance, clad in black armor and wielding riot shields, clubs, and the adrenaline that whispered of a longing for ancestral battles. Deep, commanding shouting accompanied them.

Eric paid them no mind and ignored the chaos and shouting and shattering of glass erupting at our feet. He leaned in toward me, his face intense. “Are you alright?”

“We need to talk about those two,” I said grimly. “Tonight, before I leave.”

His look was carefully probing, his concern over my state almost worn on his face, but after a moment he nodded in acknowledgment. “Make yourself comfortable until then, but stay with me.” It wasn't a request. With that, he rose to stand in front of his chair and calmly wait for whoever was in charge to approach him.

I turned to the side, heavily put my legs back over the arm of the chair and curled in on myself, shutting out the chaos as best I could. I'd have to trust that there was nothing I needed to see, because I didn't have it in me to let this mess in as raw as I felt. I let the side of my head rest on the back of the chair and huffed a tired breath.

“I want a raise,” I grumbled.

I felt his chuckle.

 

* * * * *

 

I had retreated enough into myself that any sense of time had gone. I knew my three hours was more than up, but I didn't want to move, and couldn't have made myself if I had. Aside from the fact that I probably wouldn't be allowed to leave before I was processed, and if I was processed. . . .

Danny came to mind and I suppressed a groan and just continued shutting out everything around me.

Until I heard a low, confused, and intimately familiar voice say my name from the foot of the dais. The name that only one pack of Shreveport werewolves, the DMV, the office of Social Security and birth records, and exactly two vampires knew.

“Ag?”

My senses caught him a split second before I could raise my head to look, and I felt the blood drain from my face as a horrified expression spread over it.

In front of me stood a tall, broad, policeman with black hair and stubble who was built like a bull. Just like his childhood friend, his best friend. He was in plainclothes, dressed a lot like his best friend, too.

His best friend - my brother.

The man's – Danny's - face went white to match mine, then red.

“Oh, fuck me,” I breathed.

His face contorted in anger and he stomped his way up the dais with a roar of “What the fuck are you wearing?”

In another life, I would have laughed that that was the first question out of his mouth.

Eric was in front of me in a blur of motion, fangs down, blocking his path. I jumped up and shoved myself between the two men before words or blows could make this much, much worse.

“It's ok,” I said to Eric, my gaze intent. I held a hand out to Danny and another to Eric, fingertips just touching his chest, though I doubted he felt it. “I know him. He's. . . .” I heaved a breath and slid my eyes closed. “He's my brother's best friend,” I said weakly. “And he's here with his co-workers. On duty,” I added, giving him a pointed look. I was cursing the timing of all this bullshit, the fact that the two idiots from before had to show up on the night of the goddamned raid, and for not realizing that of course Danny would be here for this. There was no universe in which a ware cop would miss a raid on vampires.

Rage both possessive and protective was simmering in Eric to the point that his conscious mind had begun to retreat into the background. He was cursing himself for leaving me out here for this, exposed and weakened. He wanted to rip a hole through Danny if for nothing else than the way he was disrespecting me. For looking at me the way he was, for speaking to me the way he was, for charging toward me like he was going to hurt me, for thinking he had any right of authority over me.

I had uncomfortably mixed feelings about all of that, but only blamed it on the confused swamp my emotions were still in.

”I won't hurt you?” Danny yelled. “What the fuck, Ag? What are you doing here? With this asshole? Do you have any idea who he is?” He hissed, gesticulating at Eric. Suddenly he paled again. “Aggie, tell me you're not-”

“Ok you can stop right there,” I warned, voice cracking anger. “Who the hell do you think you're talking to, Daniel? I am 26 goddamned years old, decidedly not a moron, and if I want to sit in a weird old chair in a glorified Halloween costume next to a damn vampire, then I'm going to sit in a weird old chair in a glorified Halloween costume next to a goddamned vampire!” I yelled back. “Nobody's biting me, nobody's hurting me, and that's all you really need to know!”

He shook his head incredulously and looked from me to Eric, back to me. “Alcide's gonna blow his top. You know that.”

I clenched my jaw. “Not if you don't tell him.”

He gave me a look. “Don't ask me to lie to him. It's bad enough that you are. Jesus, Ag, how many years I known you, and you're coming to a place like this? For how long? I grew up with you for fuck's sake. And what the fuck did you do to even sit with this asshole?” He leaned in, his face pinching with worry. “You have to know who this is, right? Right?” He gave me a look that clearly referred to my ability to “listen.” “This fanger has a reputation. You should hear some of the shit I have about him. The things girls do to get up here with him-”

“'Ag,'” Eric interrupted, voice twisting around the word as if it tasted foul, “has conducted herself with more self-respect than I have known from nearly any human in my thousand years,” Eric interrupted, a sharp edge under the cool of his voice. It was a warning tone that I hadn't heard yet. His temper was crackling under the surface as I was trying not to go numb at hearing exactly how old he was. “She is seated with me as a matter of respect and nothing more. How is it that you have apparently grown up with her, and yet I, who have spent a matter of hours in her company, am the one who would not even consider that she may do something to debase herself?”

I watched as Danny froze up for a moment, his temper gathering like the inhalation before an ear-shattering cry.

Before it could explode outward I rushed forward, grabbed him by the arm, and dragged him bodily outside. Then I stood there for a full ten minutes while he yelled at the top of his lungs, and bit my tongue so hard that I thought it would bleed. Better he get it out on me than go back in there primed like a powder keg.

When he finally stood, hands on his hips, breathing hard, red in his face starting to subside, I asked in a calm, placating voice, “Feel better?”

“Not even a little bit.”

“. . .Honestly I'm surprised you didn't know.”

He huffed a laugh, and it was not a happy sound. “I ought to weld a damn tracker around your ankle.”

I smiled at him, all teeth. “Try it.”

For a moment, we just stood there, faced off against one another. Finally, I broke the silence with a resigned sigh. “It was a bet,” I said.

He blinked, surprised.

“It started as a one-night thing, then Martin got his ego bruised when I took his money, so it turned into a pool. Three hours a night for two weeks and I win. Eric took an interest, and before I really had a chance to think about backing out, I was up there on that stupid platform with him. People don't bother me there.”

Vivid images of the things he now wanted to do to Martin flashed through Danny's head. “And that has what to do with this shit you're wearing?” He asked, his voice stony.

I rolled my eyes. “It's a goddamned costume, Danny. His girl dresses me every night, with restrictions, and I get free booze. No one touches me. They know they'll lose an arm if they do. That's part of the reason I agreed to start sitting up there with him.”

That just made him worry more. 'No one like Northman gives favors or protection for free.'

I bristled at the protective and furious – and inappropriate - images flashing through his head of the things he knew people did for that kind of favor. The things he knew from experience on the force that women got up to to get a vampire to look their way, never mind one like Eric. He knew me better than that. He was just too riled up to remember it.

“It isn't like that!” I insisted. “It doesn't have anything to do with my. . .body.” I squirmed just having to say it to him. “Jesus. It's. . . I. . .” I squirmed again, hesitated, and then tapped a finger to the side of my head.

“Aggie,” he said, horrified. “Agnes. Please, please tell me you are not that stupid.”

“He gave me his word and I trust him at it, you great hulking ass! And don't you give me that look, I'm not the one dumb enough to hate someone on principal. Or are you gonna tell me that you think I'm a bad judge of character?” I put my hands on my hips, daring him to say the words.

He knew he couldn't, and enough of his anger fell away that all I could see was the worry and care that had been hiding behind it, fueling it.

I deflated with a puff of air. “You know I know how to be careful. I survived college boys for six years without you there glaring over my shoulder, didn’t I? You know I'm smart enough to be careful.” Usually, I thought, remembering how I'd basically offered what I could do up on a platter a few nights ago. “Jesus, Danny,” I breathed. “I've tried to tell you. I've tried to tell all of you. I'm not made of glass.”

I walked forward to put my hand in his. “I love you guys, you know that. But what did you think was going to happen with all of you keeping me in a gilded cage all these years? Nothing inappropriate has happened in there,” I said firmly, feeling filthy for the careful lie. “Nothing. I give you my word on that. Jesus, I got worse from a guy in the parking lot than I've gotten from anybody inside that door,” I said with a nod to the club.

“They're just. . . they're interesting,” I effused, lighting up despite myself. “I'd never really gotten a chance to look at them before this,” I nodded my head toward the club. “And honestly most of them are pretty normal,” I said with a shrug of one shoulder. “Like, weirdly normal. They're just like people, except. . . different. They have instincts like other supes do, just with their own set of rules. But the flavors in there, I can't. . . .” I struggled to find words, practically radiating my excitement.

I was getting so passionate trying to explain it that a smile cracked his lips.

'Contagious as ever,' he thought with rueful affection. He pulled me into a hug, his grip tight.

“Danny,” I choked. “I appreciate the front row seat to the gun show, but you're going to crush me to death with those pythons. Or is that the plan? Mash me into paste so Alcide doesn't have to find out?”

That sobered him right up, and he pulled back, arms still around me.

I ignored the desire that whispered through him. He'd accepted a long time ago that nothing could happen between us, same as I had.

I heaved a resigned sigh. “Can't I just finish out the bet, Danny? I'm over halfway. Cutting now will mean all this shit so far was for nothing, and frankly that would be a kick right to the balls. And it. . . Danny it's five thousand dollars,” I pled, voice low and tight.

“Christ, how did that kid find so many people stupid enough to bet against you?”

I shrugged. “He didn't want to get caught, so he mostly went to the younger ones who don't know me well. He took it outside the pack, too. I don't know what his pitch was, but he got damn near thirty people in on it by the end.

“I'll tell Alcide. If I have to. I know he'll find out eventually anyway. Just let me finish this out. I won't tell him you saw me. I mean technically. . . ” I gestured down to myself. It would have been easy to mistake me for someone else, I didn't have to say.

Danny scrubbed a big hand over the stubble on his chin and let his head fall backwards. Old feelings bubbled up and, helped in no small way by the part of me that was practically feverish with want, I had the odd urge to lean into him and press my nose to the skin of his neck to take in his smell. It wasn't the first such urge, nor would it be the last. But I knew better just like he did.

“Ag. . . I can't make that call. I can't. If I did and your brother found out, he'd take me out into the woods and shoot me. And I'd probably deserve it.”

“You people and your selfish refusal to lie to each other,” I muttered. “You don't know how good you have it.”

He barked a laugh. “Please! You're the best damn liar I ever met! I've known card sharks and con men you could take to school.”

“That's insulting. And genderist.”

“And true.”

“And honestly just a really wonderful compliment, and I'd be beaming if I didn't want to club you over the head so goddamned bad.” I wanted to put my arms around him again, but mindful of the fact that that wasn't all I'd end up wanting to do, I kept my distance. It was an old ache with him, a habit that I never had quite broken.

“You have the foulest mouth,” he said, and he couldn't help the grin on his face.

I shrugged. “I had good teachers, right? Now tell me you don't like it.”

“No ma'am,” he said, putting an arm around my shoulders as we walked back toward the parking lot. “But we're not done talking about this. And you are waiting right here, and I am taking you home.” He kissed the top of my head, threw a jacket and his keys at me, and turned to head back inside.

“Danny, you jackass, did I not just give you a speech about not coddling me?” I said to his retreating back. “And I need my stuff!”

“I'll ask your boyfriend to get it together for me,” he said, and though his tone was joking, something hot and angry writhed underneath the words. Eric wasn't the only one who had been made to feel territorial by their exchange. I was grossly uncomfortable with the idea of letting him go back in there alone with how primed up both men were, but I had to trust that Danny would be smart enough to just stay the hell away from the vampire. Eric I trusted to at least hold his temper.

I doubted adding myself back into the pot would help anything, either, so I settled for carefully listening in on both men. Eric, I noted with odd relief, was back to being as transparent as he ever was, and was talking to a captain. To my relief, Danny busied himself taking statements.

I slipped into his jacket, allowing myself to enjoy the warmth and familiar scent despite how I wanted to hit the source of both, and perched on the trunk of his car, feet on the bumper, plunking my chin in one hand to wait god knew how long for him to finish what was going to be an entirely fruitless raid.

I wondered if he'd bring me my things soon enough that I could cancel my ride with Tank, then realized the big man should have been here already. I figured he must have come, then been sent away by Danny. I cringed for Tank at how awkward that meeting must have been, and made a note to wring a promise from Danny not to give the older man any trouble over it.

I felt Danny trying to hurry and finish so I wouldn’t have to wait, despite the urge to do the opposite just to be difficult. I could have amused myself easily enough paying attention to the people coming and going from the club in the aftermath of the raid, but I didn’t need that to keep myself occupied. I had more than enough to process after my encounter with Eric’s new wonder twins.

Chapter Text

"Have you heard from her yet?" Eric asked blandly. He didn’t look up from the paperwork on his desk, reports and claims from the raid he wanted to get out of the way before sunrise.

Pam shook her head. "Not since her boyfriend got done yelling at her in the parking lot. He's cute. In a disgusting sort of way."

"Do not even joke,” he said flatly.

She grinned lopsidedly. "Jealous?"

He arched an eyebrow at her.

She shrugged. "A little jealous."

"You know I do not do jealous, Pamela."

"You don't do giving anyone your blood either," she pointed out.

"She is a special case. And I believe she will be worth the investment. But speaking of jealous," he went on, a grin pulling his lips upward, "she did not care for my interest in Miss Stackhouse."

"I was too busy paying attention to her to notice. I couldn’t figure out if she dressed like that on purpose, or if she was just stupid. Given that she came with Bill. . . ." ‘You can’t be too sure,’ she didn’t have to add.

"I had the same thoughts." He made a considering noise in his throat. "I was much more interested in what she felt at the end,” he said, returning the conversation to Emma. “Watching her emotions as she read them was. . . interesting, to say the least. If it is always as intense as it was tonight, I can see why she drinks. She hated Bill, too,” he said, as close to delighted as he ever got. “For a moment I was positive she was going to attack him. That would have been entertaining."

"I knew she wasn't a complete moron. Now are you going to tell me what happened at the end, or are you just baiting me?"

"Protective,” Eric said slowly. “Violently so."

"Of what?" Pam asked as though she couldn't imagine. “Not Bill’s arm candy.”

Eric shook his head. "I was hoping to find out after the raid. She said we needed to speak about Bill and his human before the night was over. I am curious to know what had Miss Stackhouse rushing out mere moments before the police kicked in our door, though.

“With regard to Emma, my concern now is what comes next. She made it clear that discovery of her activities here would make her presence difficult to maintain."

"What, you don't think you have enough leverage over daddy?"

"I think wares are nothing if not hard-headed, stubborn, stupid, and territorial,” he said, unamused. “I think you and I are not the only ones to see her value, and I think there is something in her that inspires loyalty. In short, I think her pack would go to war to keep her if it came to it. I do not want that headache if it can be avoided, not with the Authority and not with her. I’ve done some digging into the Longtooth pack. They are reported to be the largest in the country. And it seems the unusual prosperity they have enjoyed began roughly twenty five years ago - a coincidence I find curious to say the least.”

Pam went even more still than was most vampire’s norm.

Eric paused, eyes going distant for a moment. “She is fiercely loyal, and I am still uncertain why she cooperated with me to begin with. There are too many unknowns. The apparent randomness with which she decides to show off and dig her heels in are two of them. If she were anyone else I might enjoy the challenge, but whatever she may be, she is no vampire; her life will be short in the end. I have no desire to delay acquiring making use of her while I can. As it is, her nights here are likely over."

"Maybe,” she said carefully. “But I know that look. What are you planning?”

Eric looked distant only for a moment. “Nothing yet.”

Pam was clearly unhappy with this answer, but Eric wouldn’t say more and she knew it. “Sounded like tall dark and misogynistic was going to keep her secret."

"Probably. But she has the annoying habit of wanting to do the right thing in the end, and is obviously willing to harm herself in order to avoid harming others. It is something that will need to be changed.

“She will likely fall on her own sword just to avoid further trouble. For all her talk, I get the impression she spends most of her time humouring her captors."

"Captors?”

Eric’s voice took on a distasteful note. "They coddle and cloister her when she obviously does not need it." He gathered the papers before him into a stack and tapped the edge on his desk to even it, then set it aside and opened his laptop. "She has no business being so restrained. I am eager to find out what she will be like free of them."

"You always did like a hard prize," Pam said, dry but amused.

One corner of his mouth twitched. "Not always."

"No. But what's the fun in junk food if it's all you eat?”

“Any comment on your gifts?” Anyone else would have thought Eric had ignored her reply. Pam knew he only filed it away because he had nothing to say to it. Her Maker wasn’t one to humor anyone. Unless she really pouted just so, anyway. And he was in the right mood.

“Not a one. I'm choosing to interpret that as a good sign.”

“Either that or she dumped the whole collection into a trash can on her way here.”

“Haven’t you ever heard of the power of positive thinking?”

Eric looked up long enough to arch a brow at her.

”My point is,” she said with a look, “I’m having much more fun picturing them on her then in a dumpster somewhere, and when she didn’t come in tonight throwing a fit. . . well, I see no reason not to be hopeful. I didn’t start her with anything irreplaceable, anyway. The custom goods come when she earns them.”

One corner of Eric’s mouth twitched, but he didn’t look up and gave no reply. If he was enjoying his own mental slideshow involving a few of the undergarments Pamela had shown him. . . well, even if anyone did want to blame him for that, they could fuck off.

Chapter Text

I heard from Eric the next night.

 

- Lecherous Asshole; 11:59pm

You aren’t at the club.

 

- Me;12:03am

And you’re observant

 

- Lecherous Asshole; 12:03am

If your family is making it difficult for you to attend, I can take care of it.

 

- Me; 12:04am

Fuck right off.

:)

 

- Lecherous Asshole; 12:04am

So many possible replies to that.

You should take me up on the offer.

Consider it a perk of our soon-to-be partnership.

 

- Me;12:05am

Do they not teach reading comprehension in older-than-dirt vampire school?

And how are you replying so fast?

Also, what partnership?  I thought I was your pack unicorn.

 

- Lecherous Asshole;12:05am

Reading between the lines is an art.

You're adorable when you argue.

Fast fingers ;)

Pack unicorn?

 

- Me; 12:07am

. . . . . .

Ew.

Don’t call me adorable.

Magical creature, only responsibility is. . . well I was going to say the heavy lifting or grunt work, but that wouldn’t be true.  I’m too valuable for that, right? :D  I mean, unless no one else is around.
. . . I’m depressing myself thinking about where I live on your list of priorities.  I’m basically a cherished mop.  Ugh.

. . . Spy unicorn, then?  Whatever.  Magical beast of burden.  I’d be an idiot if I thought for a second I was anything other than hired help.

No.

Actually

“Idiot” isn’t a strong enough word.

You don't do adorable. Now go away. I'm working.

 

Looking down at the phone, I realized I had a wide grin on my face, even despite the subject. I immediately turned it off and tossed it across the desk.  Eric had grown on me.  Not unlike a fungus or an infectious disease. I wasn’t sure when it had happened, but without knowing it I’d let him get one tiny splinter under my skin, and now I seemed as good as gone.  It was infuriating.  He was like a damned komodo dragon: one little nip, then all he has to do is follow you around at his leisure and wait for you to keel over from the venom.

The phone pinged back with a reply immediately, and unfortunately, I found I couldn’t work knowing it was just sitting there waiting for an answer.  I kept glancing at it without realizing until I finally lost patience with myself and picked it back up.

 

- Lecherous Asshole; 12:07am

I do everything that's worth doing. Well, everyone, at least.

 

I snorted.  Of course.  Of course that had been the text I’d been fighting not to look at.

 

- Me;12:13am

Manwhore.

 

- Lecherous Asshole; 12:13am

That seems an awfully dull reply for a six minute wait.

So you’re working in the middle of the night?  You could be doing that here.  Much more fun.

And texting on the job?  That's not very responsible.

If you get fired, let me know. There's a bar in town that's hiring. The clientele would eat you up.

 

- Me;12:15am

. . .I hate you.

 

- Lecherous Asshole; 12:15am

No, you don’t.

 

- Me; 12:15am

And you're not funny.

And don't pretend like the people who populate your glorified rat hole (no offense :D) are high-class enough to be referred to as 'clientele.' You basically run a pick-up service for people with borderline death-wishes.

I couldn’t sleep.  Needed something to distract me.

 

- Lecherous Asshole; 12:16am

It's a very under-represented market. We make a killing.

I know several things you could do to help you sleep.

Most of them require a partner.  I can free up my schedule.

All would be infinitely more distracting than whatever you’re doing.

And wonderfully exhausting.

 

Just that little bit was enough to send a flush all over my body.

 

- Me; 12:17am

Oh my god I literally want to die.

Not literally.

At least now I don't have to stay up at night wondering who came up with the club name. *groan*

I cannot tell you how hard I laughed when I first heard it.

It was not a good laugh.

 

- Lecherous Asshole; 12:17am

Difficult to forget the name, though, no?

I'm too charming to hate.

 

- Me;12:18am

Tell that to the hundreds of people who hate you.

 

- Lecherous Asshole;12:19am

Those numbers should be well into the thousands, but its been a slow few centuries.  I fear I’ve gotten lazy.

Stay on my good side and you won't find out why the number is usually higher.

 

- Me;12:20am

I see no universe in which a “who’s more stubborn” standoff between us would end well.

You’re immortal, amoral, stupidly powerful.

I’m. . . well whatever the fuck I am.  And apparently invaluable to an immortal, amoral, stupidly powerful jarl’s son.

You know me well by now, right? You’re good enough at reading people.

I'd lose my arms and legs out of spite just to prove a point.

 

- Lecherous Asshole; 12:20am

That's ridiculous, of course I know you.

Which is why I would go for the arms and legs of your loved ones.

 

- Me; 12:21am

Hahaha you totally almost asked me how I knew you were a jarl’s son, didn’t you? xD

On another note, would you like to know what your contact name is in my phone?

It features the word “asshole.”

I'd be sure to prepare very apologetic eulogies for their families before inciting a blood feud against you.

Wait, no. Not that last part.

I'm stubborn, not stupid.

 

-  Lecherous Asshole; 12:21am

One could argue they're often the same thing.

 

- Me; 12:22am

Nice to meet you, kettle. I was wondering when I'd see you next. (you just called yourself stupid)

 

- Lecherous Asshole; 12:22am

Yes I picked up on your implication.

You would allow those you care for to be hurt in your place?

 

- Me; 12:26am

That depends.

I was raised by wares, so I tend to go primordial pissed off mama grizzly bear if you hurt someone I care about.

But I don't handle manipulation well.

Even if that weren't true, someone who would hurt one person I care about to get something out of me wouldn't hesitate to do it again.

Caving would cause more harm in the long run, no?

If I gave in, more of my pack gets hurt.

It’s much harder to watch someone you care for suffer than it is to suffer yourself.

I'm not weak enough or selfish enough to sacrifice other people just so that I don't have to hurt

Instant gratification is almost never worth it

(not one fucking word.  There were extenuating circumstances that night and you know it)

I'll just pray that's not a line I ever have to test, and leave it at that.

Besides, I have strong loved ones. ;)

 

- Lecherous Asshole; 12:27am

A few things:

1- You continue to impress me with your lack of utter stupidity. It’s very refreshing.

And surprising.

It’s rare that a breather impresses me

Rarer still that one surprises me

. . .Except by how stupid they are. Somehow, I am still surprised by that.

Perhaps 'amazed' is a better word.

2- “Weak” is one thing I would not call you. Even for a human.

3- You would be a truly formidable vampire.

With the right Maker.

4- It's wise to know what you're capable of.

5- I hate it when you talk like a ware.

6- You still haven’t told me why you can’t sleep

 

- Me; 12:33am

5 - I'll have to do it more often, then! :D Keep you on your toes. It's not good for you to be surrounded by people who do nothing but kiss the ground you walk on and dream ceaselessly of getting into your pants.

 

I felt an unpleasant twist at the realization that I was exactly one of those people.

 

And please, PLEASE, spare me the incoming joke.

4 - When you have eternity before you, I don't doubt that's true. We short-lived flesh-bags can afford to be more lax. Fruit-flies don't have a lot of time to really screw things up.

3 - This is me pointedly pretending you didn't say that.

Don't joke about it.

Ever.

 

I had to think about the next one for a moment before slowly pecking out an answer.

 

6 - Weird dreams.

And I’m all keyed up.  Too much energy.  Went running, my apartment is the cleanest its probably been since the complex was built, and now here I am at the office.

I’m like a damn machine.

Guess I should appreciate it while I have it?

Well

Most of it.  It’s not all fun.

>_<

 

- Lecherous Asshole; 12:33am

Most can afford to be lax, yes. You are not most.

What if it wasn't a joke?

What isn’t fun?

 

- Me; 12:33am

There’d be somewhere around forty-five pissed off werewolves lined up to tear your throat out, that’s what.

Give or take an undisclosed number.

And that’d be before the extended family got here.

 

- Lecherous Asshole; 12:33am

That would be more of an inconvenience than a threat.

3- Perhaps it’s something you should think about.

 

- Me; 12:34am

I'm sorry, what? Your last text message seems to have not come through.

How mysterious.

 

- Lecherous Asshole; 12:34am

If you are having trouble with your phone, I would be happy to provide a new one.

 

- Me; 12:36am

Pre-loaded with nsfw photos, right?

You and Pam, or just you?

And is this before or after Pam sends me more likely-designer clothes?

Or you get me a new car?

Or is it before or after you pry me out of my “shitty” apartment?

Shall I go on?

 

- Lecherous Asshole;12:36am

People who eavesdrop shouldn’t complain about what they hear.

What is your aversion to not living like a pauper?

You still haven’t told me what’s unpleasant.

You haven’t mentioned Sookie and Bill, either - can I assume what you needed to tell me wasn’t as urgent as it seemed?

 

- Me; 12:39am

I’m not complaining.  Just pointing out.

I don’t hate that you take good care of what’s yours.

I especially don’t hate that it’s a point of pride for you.

Trouble is, I’m not fucking yours.

Trouble is too, no matter how many times I say that, it’s going to go in one ear and right out the other.

I’ve been dealing with people who don’t want my feet to touch the ground without a carpet of petals under them my entire life.

My aversion is to things I haven't earned.

On my own.

. . . Basically I’m a rebellious sixteen year-old on the inside.  *shrugs*

The unpleasant part is. . . personal.

Some of the B/S stuff is very important.  

I need to talk to you about Bill ASAP, and please don’t see Sookie again until we talk.

Or even talk to her

Or about her

Basically just pretend she doesn’t exist or she’s a disgusting leper or something.

Which granted probably only makes you want to see/think/whatever about her MORE

But I’m hoping I’ve earned a little faith by this point.

 

- Lecherous Asshole; 12:40am

One moment.

 

- Lecherous Asshole; 1:03am

Your problem, dearest Emma, is that you have a very rigid definition of “earned.”

Come over tonight.  We need to get the contract set up, anyway.  We’ll talk then.

 

The peace I’d started to feel at the unexpected break from the conversation was shattered by my libido clawing up, feral and ravenous at the very mention of seeing him, and my throat pressed itself closed at the idea.

 

- Me; 1:03am

NO

Not tonight

I’m working.

Anyway your problem is that after 1,200 years (picked that out while you were talking to Danny #sorrynotsorry  

And holy fuck, by the way) you still think the world operates under pillagers' rights.

 

- Lecherous Asshole; 1:04am

It does.

People just pretend otherwise.

Ask the oldest vampire in the world and she will tell you that the one thing that has never changed in all of history is human nature.

The modern world just coddles the weak.

Most human adults are glorified infants.

They feel they are entitled to far more than they are just because they exist

An existence which most of them do nothing to earn

Or deserve.

And the idiot species is killing their own environment to sustain them.

 

- Me; 1:08am

. . . Is there a particular reason you’re not lumping me in with “them” and “they?”

Ok look

While I can agree with everything after the infant part. . .

I swear to god, sometimes it's like I'm talking to a stone wall with you.

If this is what all men used to be like, it’s a wonder your gender survived so long without being murdered by the women

Earning implies effort, doing. Not just existing.  Like you said.

I don't want to encourage the idea you are mule-headedly clinging to that if you just treat me like I AM yours, then eventually I'll cave and give in.

Much as I’m absolutely positive that’s worked for you in the past.

And much as I’m all for positive thinking

There’s a line

You like the idea that part of me will feel beholden to you

Grateful, right?

That I'll look to you as a provider or someone I can trust and rely on? You like the idea of the hold that would give you

Except I might be the one person in the world who can't be bought.

I'm sorry if that puts a burr in your sock, Eric.

#SorryStillNotSorry

 

- Lecherous Asshole; 1:11am

You’re overcomplicating this

You no longer get to argue with me about how much you deserve to be paid for jobs.

Yes, “their” not “your”

Do you honestly believe you’re a human?

 

It wasn’t that I’d never asked myself that question.  It wasn’t that I hadn’t asked myself that question too many times to count.  It was how often I’d found cause to ask it since I’d met Pam and Eric.  And now I was thinking about it again.  But same as always, in the end I didn’t have an answer.

 

- Me; 1:24am

Don’t know.

People are born who can do weird stuff all the time.  Impossible stuff.

There’s a guy in China who can boil water just by holding it in his hands

another guy can survive freeeeezing temperatures for long periods (he climbed kilimanjaro in nothing but a pair of shorts and ran a marathon in the snow barefoot)

A guy who can slice through moving bullets with a sword, people who can see with echolocation

I’m sure there are people who can do way more

They probably just try to stay out of the public eye.

I don’t know what I am

But I don’t think it matters.

So. . . “Let me pay you more, magical, one-of-a-kind person whose talents I have been aggressively coveting since we met, or I won't hire you anymore”?

Have you been drinking?

Wait, can vampires get drunk?

 

- Lecherous Asshole; 1:25am

Yes, actually, I have. A very tasty Romanian.

 

I felt a gloriously, perfectly unreasonable stab of jealous possessiveness wondering if that had been the reason he’d taken a break from our conversation earlier.  Especially knowing what vampires so often liked to do with the people they were feeding from.

I dearly wished I could cut ties and be done with him then and there.  I’d been jealous before, sure.  But not for a long time, and <i>never</i> over some idiot player’s player like Eric.  I had the surreal feeling that I had walked into an alternate universe or been drugged over the last couple days.  I was so unlike myself that it felt like someone else had begun taking up residence in my skin.

I read on.

 

No, we can’t get drunk.

Remind me to burn our phones.

And the phone company's servers.

If these texts ever got out, I'd have to go on a bloody rampage across the globe to restore my good name.

 

My stomach twisted oddly, but I decided to play along.  I was unsettlingly close to disturbed by my behaviour, and that was a hand I would keep to myself.

 

- Me; 1:27am

Are you. . . are you being ADORABLE?

Hold up

I think I might have literally entered another dimension

But yeah.  You're a real fluffy bunny.  Deadly as a kitten.

*sarcasm*

Don't worry. I have it on good authority that I'm boss at keeping secrets.

 

- Lecherous Asshole; 1:27am

Your sarcasm is obvious over text.

When will you be returning?  We need to discuss your contract, and I want to know what you got from my visitors.  

I have your first assignment ready.

 

- Me; 1:28am

Goody -_-

I don’t know.  I haven’t told Alcide, but idk how much longer I can get away with that

Not long

And that’s when shit will really hit the fan

Having me tailed would not be beneath him

Or no

Excuse me

“Looked after”

Anyway, yeah, I have to tell him.  Lot more people he’s a lot more likely to murder than me will get it if I don’t.

Need to concentrate.  Talk later.

 

“Need to not even be near enough to text you because I feel like I’m about to literally tear the office to pieces in an effort to shove down whatever wild, in-heat creature has taken over my insides”  would technically have been more accurate.

It was a near thing.

 

 

* * * * *

 

It was Alcide that did it.

“You do something to your hair?”  He asked when I saw him in the office the next day.

“No,” I said with a befuddled look.  “And since when do you even notice things like that?  You’re like a walking volume of ‘How To Be A Man’s Man For Dummies.’  I mean, a totally awesome man’s man, but still.  And if you tell anyone I said that I will punch you.”

“I don’t know,” he said with a dismissive shrug, completely ignoring the promise of violence.  “You just look different.  Nice.  You’re welcome for the compliment,” he added sarcastically.  He hung his jacket up, and when he turned back toward me he froze.  “Jesus, Aggie, you ok?  What the hell’s wrong?”

I felt like all the blood in my body had drained right out of me, and I also felt like an unsalvageable moron for not having put it together before then.

More energy.  Increased sex drive.  Heightened senses.  I had missed the increased attractiveness because I was just so used to everyone taking notice of me, but honestly I shouldn’t have needed it.  I wasn’t an idiot, and I’d been taught about shit like V from a young age.  I honestly could kick myself.  I almost wanted to ask Alcide to do it for me.

But. . . to be fair, I’d had a lot of shit to deal with lately that was about level ten distracting.  And once I got past being flabbergasted, all I felt was <i>relieved.</i>  I’d half thought I was going crazy, half worried that the arousal would just plain never fade.  But now I knew it would, and I could have cried for the relief of it.  I felt a piece of sanity restored, too - of course it’d been Eric who’d occupied my thoughts.  I’d never been able to do anything with anyone before him.  And there was that night up against the wall of the club-

I shook my head, banishing those thoughts before they could do more than send a slice of heat into my belly.  I supposed the strength and duration of everything else could be explained by his age and the fact that I’d had it. . .I shuddered at the thought, ‘fresh from the source.’  Ew.

“Uh, I’m fine,” I said a little unsteadily.  “Just. . . uh, yeah.  It’s. . . I’m fine.  Just thought of something.”  I made myself smile brightly up at him.  “Everything’s just fine, though, Alice.”

He looked at me a moment, then, completely unconvinced, gave a grunt and walked off toward the back.

I distracted myself with thoughts of the conversation I’d resolved to have with Eric before the end of the day.

 

* * * * *

 

That night, I waited for sunset and, feeling oddly uncomfortable, texted Eric.  I was surprised to get an immediate answer.

I knew he was just being attentive to get me on the hook.  Disastrously, it was starting to work.

 

- Me; 7:50pm

Hey there. You alive?

(haha)

(I’m hilarious)

I'd like your help with something.

 

- Lecherous Asshole; 7:51pm

Will you be paying me the exorbitant rate of $67/hour?

 

- Me; 7:53pm

What?

Oh
Jesus

Is that all you were paying me?

Highway

fucking

robbery.

It's only exorbitant if it's not worth it. Since I saved you 60k my first night alone, I'm fairly sure you can cram it where the fangs don't reach.

 

- Lecherous Asshole; 7:54pm

You would be surprised at their reach.

 

I caught myself grinning. I could just see the arrogant, cocky smile on his face.

 

- Me; 7:54pm

Ew.

Alternatively, how much do you suspect can actually surprise me, Mr. Northman?

 

- Lecherous Asshole; 7:54pm

Something I never expected to have in common with a breather.

 

- Me; 8:01pm

Give me a minute, I have a lot to say.

So, I put a lot of time into exercising what I can do

To avoid shit like what happened the last night I was there.

Granted, I couldn’t have prepared for your two twit visitors (the woman wasn’t so bad . . . at least not next to the guy)

All the same, I don’t like being caught off guard.

Danny shouldn’t have surprised me. I should have ‘smelled’ him a mile off.

Literally.

A mile is my limit if I concentrate, or if it’s someone I know well.

But I can’t feel everyone that far off, just to warn you.  And I haven’t been near brave enough to try taking in everyone in a mile radius.

Anyway, I put myself in crowds on purpose, places where people get riled up.  Sports events, wrestling matches, strip clubs, supe bars, God help me I’ve even done a couple of Black Fridays

But those places, what everyone thinks and feels are almost always in the same wheelhouse.

I’ve never been in a situation like that night.

I might not care, except I don’t see my work with you being peaceful all of the time.

Problem is, I don’t know how to find anything like what happened so I can get used to it.  A. . . battle, basically?  An ambush?  Chaos.

On top of that, now I know I need to see what I can do when I’m exhausted and all I want is to shut everything out

I need to know how much I can take when I HAVE to

(You want my help and you want me to do a good job, so you get to help with my homework)

So. . . do you know any place like that?

Even better if it's a mix of humans and supes. Or even just different kinds of supes.

. . . I don't like being unprepared.  It's not a feeling I'm used to.

And to be frank, I don’t fucking care for it.

 

- Lecherous Asshole; 8:02pm

I would imagine not.

I'll look into it.

My line is secure, by the way.  You can say “police raid.”

You didn’t tell me last night, were you in much trouble? You disappeared after dragging your friend out.

 

- Me; 8:03pm

Yeah but my line isn’t.

. . .

I talked to Alcide today.

I won't be stopping by for a while.

 

- Lecherous Asshole; 8:03pm

A pity. Anything I can do?

Yes, your line is secure.

 

Dad came to mind, and I shuddered at what Eric might do to “help.”

 

- Me; 8:05pm

*mutters something about high-handed assholes*

Yes, there’s something you can do.

You can make it worse.

I’ve been dealing with this since I was a kid.  They just need time to cool off.
You know wares, right?  They’re all hot temper up front, but they calm down after they get it out.

I swear to god sometimes I feel like I'm eight instead of almost thirty.

She says to the millennial.

 

- Lecherous Asshole; 8:06pm

As you pointed out, we’re working together. It wouldn’t make sense to be unable to talk freely.

I will be covering your bill from now on

No argument

You mentioned you have “older brothers.” I’m assuming I met one of them.  Are they all so. . . .

 

I gritted my teeth, but decided to forego that particular battle.  I’d just have a clause added to the contract that would protect me in the event he decided he didn’t feel like paying for the phone and whatever else he decided to take over anymore.  I knew working with him would bring up plenty of opportunity for arguments.  Better to start saving my chips for when I really needed them.  In the meantime. . . I’d just have to deal with the feeling of getting something I hadn’t earned.  I was hesitant to think about how much money I might be able to put away while I had a. . . no.  Lord, I would not even think the phrase “sugar daddy.”  Sugar-free notwithstanding.  Part of me objected vehemently to the “sugar-free” piece, and I gave that part a swift kick in the ass.

 

- Me; 8:07pm

Yes.

Yes they are.

Every one of them.

 

- Lecherous Asshole; 8:07pm

I do not envy you.

If you ever want to assume a new identity, let me know.

 

- Me; 8:09pm

Eric Northman doesn't envy a human? (Not) shocking.  I am (not) shocked.

While I appreciate the thought, I’d also have to relocate halfway around the world to get away.  And keep moving.

You must know they’re born trackers.  That’s a “duh” thing, right?

I wouldn’t leave them, anyway.

They’re a pain in the ass, but I think that’s the definition of family.  You pay that price to know someone will always look out for you if you need it.

I know how many people don’t have that.

 

- Lecherous Asshole; 8:09pm

You are not nearly as funny as you think you are.

 

- Me; 8:10pm

Yes I am. I'm hilarious.

Don't be jealous.

Green's not your color. Ask Pam, she'll tell you.

 

- Me; 8:11pm

I miss you two.

 

A shrieking sort of dramatic inhale followed the text the moment it had hit “send” and I slapped a hand over my mouth.  It reminded me of the sound a pterodactyl might make. I had typed the message without thinking, like someone else was driving my fingers.  I wanted to thump my head against a wall repeatedly and move to the arctic circle where I could never be found.  Saints alive, but I was not stupid enough to say something like that.  

Just. . . I hadn’t been able to stop thinking about him since I’d seen him last.  I was lucky if he was off my mind for even a few minutes.  And I did, God help me I <i>missed</i> him.  It was distressing, to say the least.  Oddly, it was also worse since I’d realized I had been feeling the effects of his blood, like I had some sort of new. . . connection with him.  That was beyond a dangerous line of thought with a man like him, to think you were anything special short of what he wanted out of you until he got tired of you.

To my utter shock (and relief), he didn’t make a big deal out of the slip.

 

- Lecherous Asshole; 8:12pm

I can assure you, you have been missed as well.

 

My heart gave an odd sort of thump that I refused to even acknowledge.

 

- Me; 8:13pm

. . . Yeah, no doubt. I'm sure things are positively boring without all the extra baddies to kick out.

 

- Lecherous Asshole; 8:13pm

Oddly, it does not seem to be only your usefulness that we have been enjoying.

 

I felt a searing sort of flutter in my stomach, and didn’t reply.

 

* * * * *

 

When I had looked into Sookie at Fangtasia, I had seen why she had come and what had been happening in her town.  Unlike her, I had seen a pattern that wasn’t going to stop, and had resolved - getting no objection from “the universe” - to go out there and see if I could find whoever was responsible.  She herself hadn’t tried, and as much of a torment as she saw her abilities, most of me couldn’t blame her.  The rest couldn’t understand having such a big problem for all of her life and not having tried to do anything about it after “ignore it” and “force it to go away” failed to work.  

I supposed maybe she just hadn’t known what else to try, but that hardly seemed like an excuse.  She wasn’t stupid - all that really left was that she’d given up, and the very idea of it made me uncomfortable.  “Giving up” was not something I had ever been prone to, and I couldn’t truly understand anyone who’d roll over and accept something that made their life hell.

When I had texted Eric earlier, I had planned on asking him to take me to Bon Temps.  Against my better judgement.  I wanted to ask for almost anyone else, but, I told myself, I knew I could trust him to look out for me since he wanted so badly to use me, and that not much was likely to be able to top a thousand year-old vampire warrior, should some sort of trouble arise.

That was what I told myself.  And while it was true, I would have been a liar if I’d said he wasn’t the one who I <i>wanted</i> to spend the time with.  Which was distressing and, frankly, was starting to get dead confusing.

An idea trickled into the back of my mind, but I set it aside for the time being.

 

- Me; 11:01pm

How would you like me to owe you a favor?

 

- Lecherous Asshole; 11:10pm

I'm all ears.

 

- Me; 11:12pm

Shocking, that

I need to go to Bon Temps

The errand I have to run might be. . . dicey.

I’d feel a lot better with a savvy, OP bodyguard.

Honestly it should all be pretty straightforward, but it's the kind of straightforward that could bend into a hook and impale me without a moment's notice.

 

-Me; 11:13pm

I trust you are not QUITE crass enough to make a joke out of the impaling part.

 

- Me; 11:15pm

Eric?

 

- Lecherous Asshole; 11:24pm

Apologies, I am tending to something

When would you like to go?

 

- Me; 11:25pm

*pointedly doesn’t ask what*

ASAP. It's going to get messy out there pretty soon otherwise.

Well. . .messyER.

 

- Lecherous Asshole; 11:27pm

?

I can do tomorrow night at sundown.

 

- Me; 11:29pm

“?”

Seriously?

Ugh

 

I paused a moment, wondering which side Eric would land on if I told him up front why I wanted to go: ‘No, I won’t risk my asset,’ or ‘No, I won’t risk making my asset truculent yet by denying her request.’  And honestly he’d have to know that if he said no I’d just go anyway.  Which meant that I’d get my way in either case, but only one approach might give me an insight into his general leanings.

 

It’s Sookie.  She came by asking about those women, right?

There’s. . . well I really want to say “there’s murder afoot,” but I think that would be grossly disrespectful since people are literally being murdered.

Meet you there at. . .9?  I’ve only been there once, when I was little, but it’s about an hour drive, right?

 

- Lecherous Asshole; 11:30pm

Only if you drive like an old person.

And you are taking it upon yourself to solve this problem?

I will pick you up at 8

 

- Me; 11:32pm

Does “old person” to you mean “follows the speed limit at night because they don’t want to hit a deer and get into a fiery wreck as a result?”

Sounds like that’s what I’m doing, yeah.

You said you can pick up on my sarcasm over text, right?  

Does that apply to SCATHING sarcasm, too?

Yes, do that. Because the best thing in the world right now would be for a bunch of superpowered, testosterone-addled gorillas to smell vampire around my apartment.

 

- Lecherous Asshole; 11:33pm

So the “hook” you mentioned is the risk of you being murdered.

Speed limits are for humans and people with shitty cars.

I am not the only vampire in Shreveport. There are quite a few of us.

 

- Me; 11:33pm

Hence the OP bodyguard interview.

Yeah. But the gorillaiest of them all knows you.

 

I already knew him well enough to know that part of him would now be grumbling over me taking a stupid risk that I didn’t have to take, a stupid risk for no better reason than trying to help people I didn’t even know (an inexcusably asinine reason, to him), and would be resolving to get me over such idiot impulses once he had me properly in hand.

I nearly grinned at the pleasure I got from the idea of disabusing him of the idea that he could.

 

- Lecherous Asshole; 11:34pm

Very well, I will have Pam pick you up. We can leave from the club.

 

- Me; 11:34pm

Is there a particular reason I can’t drive myself?  It’s 2017 and everything.

 

- Lecherous Asshole; 11:34pm

Better for the environment this way.

You’re free to drive, but we won’t be going in your car.

I have one I think you’d like, actually.

 

- Me; 11:35pm

. . .You ARE just talking about loaning me a car for the trip, right?
LOANING me a car?  Just for the trip?

- Lecherous Asshole; 11:35pm

Signing bonus

 

- Me; 11:37pm

Again, I haven’t signed anything

Againx2, I really feel like I’m talking to a brick wall, what with that whole “I don’t like things I haven’t earned” bit that I’ve made pretty clear

 

- Pamela; 11:41pm

You are an idiot

 

My brows shot up my forehead and I grinned despite the insult.  Or maybe because of it.  Pam didn’t hold much of anything back, and as much as I marinated in the fact that holding back was all most people did, there was something beyond refreshing about her honesty.  As a consequence of it, she knew herself far better than most, which was as soothing as an ice pack on a sunburn.

 

- Me; 11:42pm

Hi to you too, Pam

What the hell are you guys doing?  Eric keeps disappearing.

 

- Pamela; 11:43

Playing with Longshadow

Eric finally got everything he needed on him

It’s fun

Eric’s taking his turn

 

- Me; 11:44pm

. . . . .

I am now morbidly curious what you would consider a ‘girl’s night out’

I take it I’m an idiot for not taking the free car?

 

- Pam; 11:44pm

Correct

Girls nights out are different

Though they usually end with someone getting pinned to a flat surface or twelve

You’re overcompensating for all your nannies

 

- Me; 11:45pm

. . . Twelve?  Oh, right.  Vampire stamina.  I’m surprised all you manage is twelve, in that case.

Nannies?  Come again?

 

- Pam; 11:46pm

You got coddled

So the fuck what

You’re trying to make up for it by making everything harder than it needs to be

You think you’re not going to earn a car?

You’re a smart enough girl

Imagine what Eric’s going to do with you

Hell, imagine what he’s going to do with you in the first MONTH

My point is, you’ll earn a fucking car

You’ll earn clothes

You’ll earn a small island

You’ll earn a damn zoo to put your people in if that’s what you want

You aren’t trying to earn things

You’re trying to piece them together from the nastiest bits of dirt you can get your hands on, and if you can’t do that, then you don’t want them

You want shitty, not earned

Which means you’re being an idiot.

Earning is earning

And being humble when you don’t have to be doesn’t make you a good person either

It makes you stupid.

If you think the reward is too shiny, then your problem likely isn’t with getting free shit

It’s with self-worth

Which is entirely too close to some sort of touchy feely therapy crap, so from there, you’re on your own

Twelve was a human.  Just last week, actually.  

It would have been more, but I had shit to do.

 

- Me; 11:47pm

. . . You’re oddly good at that

Er, the stuff before the sex, I mean

I imagine you’re good at the sex, too

Uh, anyway

I’m not saying I agree

(I’m not saying I don’t, I just have to think about it)

But you make a good point

Do you usually go out of your way to tell people when they’re being stupid?

 

- Pam; 11:48pm

No

Usually I just break something or open an artery

But I don’t hate you

If you like arbitrary insults, I could be persuaded

 

- Me; 11:50pm

When I deserve it, yes, actually

You’re blunt

I really like blunt

Most people talk too much without saying anything at all

And then don’t say anything when something needs saying

Most people either don’t know or don’t care or don’t have the stones to do anything different

You and Eric are fun to spend time with

Jesus don’t fucking tell him I said that

He’s already bad enough

 

- Pam; 11:51pm

I know we are

You tend to stop giving a shit when you die

 

- Me; 11:51pm

I’ll have to try that some day

. . . You’re totally going to tell him, aren’t you?

 

- Pam; 11:51pm

Try it now if you want.  Wait and all it’ll get you is stuck with wrinkles for eternity.

Eric wasn’t joking

Yes

 

- Me; 11:52pm

About. . . turning. . . ?

 

- Pam; 11:52pm

Duh.

 

- Me; 11:55pm

. . . .

. . . . . . . . .

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

 

- Eric; 11:58pm

Pam will pick you up at 8:00

 

- Me; 11:59pm

...Right.  

I’ll be here.

Uh. . .have. . .fun?  With your torture and what have you?

>_>

Ugh is this how it feels to watch humans do decidedly human stuff?  I feel weird.

 

- Eric; 12:00am

We are.

Humans are much worse.  What we do makes sense.

See you tomorrow night ;)

 

I felt oddly nauseated.

At least when I woke up that night from yet another impossibly real sex dream featuring Eric, I was able to get back to sleep.  After I. . . you know.   Not twelve times, at least.  I would take what I could get at that point.

Chapter Text

I lay against Eric’s side on the couch. He was working on his laptop, one long arm wrapped around me. My chin rested on his forearm, and it was jostled and twitched a little every time he had to type. I was supposed to be reading a book, but I kept closing my eyes, reveling in the feeling of having someone so close and doing something so simple as sitting together on a shitty couch in my shitty apartment while we were each in our own worlds.

This was some kind of heaven. It was some kind of Home.

Something niggled at the back of my mind, but I brushed it away.

“You’ve never done this before, have you?” He rumbled quietly, not turning from the screen.

“Hmm?”

“This,” he said, nudging where I was resting against him.

I smiled. “Nope.”

He was getting used to language without language around me; he just sat, knowing I could feel that he wanted more.

I didn’t have anything to say. I was too happy, too soft, too warm.

“. . . I feel like I belong with you,” I eventually murmured.

“I’ve felt the same. I didn’t care for it at first, but now that I have you, now that I know you. . . there is no going back to the way things were before. You have changed everything.” He buried his nose in my hair.

I tipped my head back to find him looking at me. I smiled, and quite suddenly, my back was on the couch and he was on top of me.

“I love you,” he said, and it stole my breath for a moment, because I expected to see the price of saying it on his face, but there was no such thing. All I saw was that the words were as natural and right to him as breathing was to me. That this - we - fit. Inside he was as smooth and halcyon as a stream. He had been like crystal before: pure and clear, but unyielding. Now he was like the ocean, and it was a heady thing to feel. He was a hundred times bigger inside than I had ever felt him.

I was seeing that heart he kept behind layers of vaults. They were cracked. It was tiny, a hairline really, but it was there. And what was inside was exquisite.

Overtaken, I shoved upward and pressed my lips to his. He met my force and welcomed it, slipping a hand under my head to hold me in place. I let him take all its weight.

In the next instant, our clothes were gone and we were both painfully ready, and he was sliding into me and I had never felt anything so right in my life. It was home and belonging and welcome and I never wanted to be apart from this man again.

He rocked against me, fluid and sinuous and steady. Sweat built and stuck to my limbs, cooled by the soothing touch of his skin and the press of his mouth against my neck and shoulders and chest. When he kissed wetness from my face, I realized I had been crying and uttering those three deadly, beautiful words over and over like a chant, a plea: I love you.

I love you, Eric. I love you.

I got only acceptance and a sense of rightness in return.

He rode me and guided me until my mind was gone and I was nothing but electrified nerve endings and puffs of heavy breath and instincts and responsiveness. Eric owned me as we first made love and then, as the stars crossed the sky, fucked. And all I knew was that it was perfect. Every second of it was perfect, and I could trust him. It went on until time stopped holding meaning.

 

* * * * *

 

One moment I was laying in Eric’s arms atop the blankets of my bed, coming down and feeling full and whole and warm, and the next I was opening my eyes from underneath them. I felt a pervasive sense of happiness and contentment, a kind I had never felt before, a kind that only came from the sort of love I could never. . . .

I couldn’t finish the thought.

But that wasn’t all I felt. I was uneasy about how simple and sure it had felt to give myself over to him like that. To ownership, to control, to. . . Eric. I nearly shuddered. It had been like being drugged and drunk at the same time. I shifted and found I was hypersensitive between my legs, and I knew immediately that I’d climaxed in my sleep. But my fingers were clean - I’d done it without even touching myself.

It was uncanny, these dreams. This wasn’t the first time I’d woken to find myself. . . satisfied. But it wasn’t just that, and it wasn’t just the impossibility of how real they were, in sensation, in feeling. . . . I dreamed often, but there was always a pattern to them. My subconscious was just as roundabout as anyone else’s and whether it was giving me a happy departure from reality or bringing something to my attention or, on rare occasion a nightmare, nothing was ever what it looked like at first glance. More often it was what it felt like that mattered; everything in my dreams was something else in disguise.

These dreams with Eric weren’t anything like that. There was no message, there was nothing to interpret. They weren’t even simple sex dreams. It was like someone had customized. . . .

It was like they were tailored to. . . .

I froze.

It was like they were tailored to appeal to me. To give me exactly what I wanted to--

To draw me in.

“Mother fucker!”

I hoped to god I was wrong, because if I wasn’t. . . I would kill him. I would fucking kill him.

The trick was figuring out who to ask about this. Anyone in the pack who might know would also know by now that I’d been spending time at a vampire bar. I figured the internet would be useless. That left. . . the vampire bar.

It should be easy enough. Stupid and borderline suicidal, but easy.

I really needed to start making better life choices.

 

* * * * *

 

Janice insisted that every woman needed something that made her look sexy. I’d never seen the point (for obvious reasons), but I wasn’t complaining now.

I put on a black dress: fitted and classy, teasing but not overspoken, with just a touch of simple elegance. I put on the patent cream heels Pam had lent me and painted my lips full, blood red. Everything else I left undone; I didn’t want to risk missing the crowd at Fangtasia.

I parked two blocks from the club, upwind, and walked to the back wall of the building next door, half around the corner and deep in shadow. It wouldn’t be anything to vampire sight, but every little bit, as they say.

Deep into the night as it was, there was a crowd and a line outside of the club, so I could lure someone away without much notice. I waited for an older vampire, and when I caught one, I loosed my tether and a tendril of that appeal, that draw I had, shot out and wrapped around her.

She was alert immediately and her eyes went right to mine. I let her get a good look at me, and that was all she needed - with a light rush of wind, she was in right front of me.

“Carry me somewhere no one can hear us? Not even a vampire,” I whispered to her.

I was in her arms and in a matter of seconds we were in at least a mile from the club. She set me down gently, and it took a moment for me to get my bearings. It had been like a Gravitron wrapped up in speeds so fast it literally took the breath from you.

I straightened my hair awkwardly and cleared my throat.

“Uhm,” I said, giving my head a shake, “um. Right. Vampire. . . vampire blood. When someone drinks from a vampire, how is it different than taking V?”

A spark of mistrust entered her eyes.

“I won’t tell anyone, you have my word,” I assured her. “It’s just that I might be in trouble, and the answer could help me. Save me, even. You can trust me.”

Just like that, the suspicion left her. I had stopped finding it dizzying years ago. I just hoped to god there were no dishonest people in the world who could do what I did.

“Is the vampire willing?” Her voice had a sophisticated cadence that I didn’t imagine you heard in this century. Her rich brunette hair was done up in an elegant roll and, apparently ignorant of the laws of physics and unforgiving wind speeds, not a lock was out of place.

“Yes,” I said flatly.

“Then it will have all the effects of V,” her voice fairly sneered around the letter, “but stronger and with greater duration. Particularly the increased libido. It will be directed solely at the vampire whose blood was had, and you will have extraordinarily explicit dreams of them. You will also feel drawn to them, pulled and compelled. You will want their company, and you will want to please them. That vampire will also be able to sense your emotions and find you wherever you are.”

If she hadn’t been a vampire, the silence that stretched between us then would have gone well beyond awkward.

I. Was. Livid.

“And if he wasn’t willing?” I asked, just to say something. My voice sounded strangely detached from me.

The woman shrugged, a graceful tilt to her head as she openly studied me, wondering what was wrong and battling with the strange urge to fix it, whatever it was. “No different from the drug, but stronger, and longer-lasting.”

“And how long does all of this last?” My voice was stony.

“That depends upon the age of the vampire. However, the physical enhancements will fade first, followed by the desires. The connection that vampire has to you will fade over time, but never vanish.”

My hands and face felt oddly tingly. “Is there a way to get rid of it? Sever it?”

“The death of the vampire or the one who drank. There is no other way to break the bond.”

The bond.

My stomach turned. “I. . . huh,” I said numbly. “Ok. I. . . I’m going to walk from here. You can go back.”

Discomfort at the idea swelled in her. So did confusion at her reaction.

“Listen,” I said, “I. . . I need some time to think. I’ll be fine, I promise. And please, please don’t tell anyone about this. Don’t even tell anyone you saw me. I. . . might get into trouble, otherwise. The kind it’s hard to get out of.” Yeah. Because I wasn’t already eye-deep in that kind.

“. . .You. . . are certain you will be alright? I can follow at a distance, if you would like.”

I smiled at her. “No one will hurt me. Thank you so much for your help, though. Really.”

She gave a slow dip of her chin, eyes never leaving me. Then, just like that, she was gone.

I sat down on the curb and I thought.

 

* * * * *

 

The manipulation was no different than what I did, not really. Desire to please. Desire to be near. The rest was just fringe around the outsides. The difference was that I had spent my life apologizing for that draw and compensating for it and policing other people against it and feeling like a manipulative asshole, and Eric, double-fucking Eric fucking Northman, had intentionally planted it in me and waited, counting on it taking my mind from me and making it his.

I was pacing and chewing on the pad of my thumb, but I stopped long enough to hit a wall. Then I threw one of Pam’s stupid, painful shoes. I’d been taught how to hit properly, so I didn’t break my hand on the pebbled concrete, but I’d have a very ugly bruise later. The throbbing pain at least gave me something to focus on other than manic rage.

My first instinct was to confront him. It would feel good.

It would also get me nowhere.

The fact was that I couldn’t cut ties, because Eric would still play dirty if he had to - I had proof of that now, as if I’d needed it - and my dad would only be his first target. And he wouldn’t be remorseful in the least if I told him I knew, or apologetic.

As before, I gained nothing and lost everything if I put all the cards on the table. As long as I could pretend to be a willing participant, I had the option of asking when I wanted something and was likely to get leeway in the name of keeping me cooperative. If I took that incentive away. . . . I didn’t want to think about what that might look like. Maybe it wouldn’t be any different. Maybe it would be catastrophically worse. For all I knew it would depend on his mood when I laid it out.

So. I wrapped up my anger, my fury and outrage and my indignance in a clean little package and I put it in a box and I pushed it all down. It would be there if airing it would ever be to my advantage.

I hated myself a little for being the type to play the long game. It meant I didn’t get to hit him with a brick.

I comforted myself with the knowledge that being around him would no longer be confusing. Sexually charged? Yes. My body didn’t care that he was an inexcusable asshole. But the rest of me was welded away behind titanium.

. . . I so desperately wanted to hit him with that brick.

 

* * * * *

 

Sitting in a car with Eric for two hours was the last thing I wanted to do.

There was every chance I’d be safe without him. Once, when I’d pressed Danny for an explanation, he’d said that just the thought of hurting me was like kicking a puppy in the face. But I’d never met a serial killer, and for all I knew he (it’s almost always a he) would be immune to whatever it was that kept me off-limits. I was inclined to play it safe.

I could take a ware, but the fact was. . . I didn’t want any one of them around Sookie. People had enough problems without some sort of supernatural magnet pulling them toward someone they probably had no business with.

I would know.

With wares out, only vampires were left, and every vampire I knew well enough to ask (Pam. It was just Pam.) would defer to Eric, then I’d be back at square one and owing an explanation for trying to avoid him that I wasn’t inclined to give. I was a good verbal acrobat, but this shit was getting exhausting.

So when Pam came to pick me up at 8:00, I was ready. Her car surprised me a little - it wasn’t flashy, but it was nice. I didn’t believe for a second that Fangtasia brought in enough to cover her taste in clothing and something like this car, which made me wonder all over again what the hell they were doing running a glorified dive bar in Shreveport when they obviously didn’t need the money. At least Eric wasn’t the only one who had questions.

I could smell her disdain the moment she saw me.

As she vamped around and opened my door for me, I said drily, “Pam we’re in the south.” I slid in and clicked my seatbelt into place, and we were off. She was a surprisingly lawful driver. “This is how people dress. I’m not old money or high society and I’m going to look into a serial killer in a backwater little town for god’s sake. What did you expect to see me in, a ball gown? A bustier?” I looked fine; I was in jeans and a fitted plaid button-down. I turned to her, “And I swear to god if you send someone into my apartment to make my clothes disappear, retribution will be hell.”

I had no idea what that would look like, but I was locked into it now.

“Hello to you too, sunshine. I’m pretty sure I heard Eric tell you that you don’t get to complain about what you hear when you eavesdrop.”

“I’m pretty sure I can’t help it when you scream it at me like that,” I said churlishly. I wanted to stick my tongue out at her. I didn’t.

 

* * * * *

 

“Wait here,” Pam said in her flat voice as she sashayed off without a backwards glance.

I sat down on one of the ridiculous, shiny, crimson-topped bar stools and failed spectacularly to relax. On the inside, anyway. My mind was offering examples of how seeing Eric could go horribly, spectacularly wrong. And about how being trapped in a car with Eric could go horribly, spectacularly wrong.

I was distracted by the soft tap of glass on the bar top next to me. I looked up to find a vampire looking at me casually - the new bartender, I supposed, or at least a fill-in. He’d been in the back when I’d come in, and had just poured me a shot of what I knew would be whiskey.

He’d probably been told to do it - have to take good care of the new pet, after all. If I even ranked high enough to be considered a pet. I didn’t care. The man had a good enough feel to him, so I smiled in thanks and let it slide over my tongue. “No more, though,” I said with a polite smile. That had been for nerves; I shouldn’t need any more tonight.

He nodded and removed himself to the back again. He had lovely warm skin with a rich yellow undertone, large eyes, a lithe, muscular build, and hair long enough to pull back into a low ponytail. So many vampires were attractive. It was true that they forever looked like they did on the day they were killed (haircuts were possible with an obscene amount of upkeep), but an uncommon number of them were attractive. I supposed it made sense; vampires liked pretty things, same as the rest of us, so it’d stand to reason that they’d be more likely to pick someone pretty to look at for the next several hundred years.

The new bartender didn’t feel especially old, but I wasn’t sad about that. Particularly because Thalia was sitting at her table near the back wall, as black hair on black clothes on warm honey-almond skin as ever. . . .But if you never sweated and your skin didn’t slough or produce oil, there probably wasn’t much need to change outfits very often.

I felt something near her and cocked my head to the side. There was a whisper. . . .

Without stopping to think I was up and walking toward it, eyes unfocused as my other senses took all my attention. I moved to the wall adjacent to Eric’s platform and brushed aside a massive, artfully draped organ-red curtain. Thalia’s eyes followed me, but she didn’t move.

There was a short hallway, concrete and bare, with a heavy metal door at the end. On it was a large padlock. I moved to go toward it, still hearing the presence whispering to me, but a hand gripped my arm, firmly stopping me.

“Back this way, Emma,” Eric said. “We wouldn’t want to be late.”

But my attention was behind that heavy, thick metal door. There were people in there. Three of them.

. . . People who were chained. Starving and filthy and held against their will. Tortured, afraid for their lives.

My face snapped up to Eric's. I wasn't sure what was on it exactly, but whatever it was, it made stone shutter down over his.

“This is not your concern,” he warned. “Leave it.”

I pulled against his grip experimentally, asking more than demanding. It was fine if they deserved to be down there. Eric protected his area as Sheriff. But one of them needed me.

His fingers didn't loosen.

“Eric. . . .” I tried.

“Back this way,” he repeated, his voice calm and cool, but a warning edge was underneath that was impossible to mistake.

“He needs me.”

In a fraction of a second, surprise came and was concealed. “Who?”

“I don't know. One of the people in there.” I nodded my head toward the door and put a gentle plea onto my face. This was what I was, what I did. Suddenly I very much needed him to understand that, and to respect it.

He looked at me, almost pausing, then only shook his head, a tight, small movement that conveyed utter dominance in this, and inarguable refusal.

Something in me hardened to granite and my walls dropped like lead through water.

“Let me go, and get out of my way, Eric,” I said, my voice hard and heavy. “Now.” It was an order, and he had no choice but to comply.

I hated doing this to people, but when I was led, I was led. There would be consequences for this, but right now consequences could be fucked.

Eric let me go and he took a step back, utterly bewildered but helpless to do anything else. It was my draw turned outward and wielded like a sword and shield.

I walked to the end of the hall and pulled two bobby pins out of my hair. I always wore them for this exact reason; I snapped one in half and bent each to the proper shape. The lock on the door was big, but it was a brand that only made simple four-tumblers. I was through it in seven seconds. Pam was standing next to Eric by then, having sensed the upset in him, but she didn’t move to stop me. I wasn’t sure why.

I yanked the door open and trotted down the short, cornered flight of steps. When my eyes adjusted, I found myself in a cold, mostly empty basement room. The floors, walls, and ceilings were all bare concrete, except for a large, odd, rusted metal ring that looked like a gear or wheel mounted on the ceiling with poles jutting straight down out of it at even intervals. It smelled of fear and sweat and excrement.

The people in the room were all in heavy metal collars that were linked to the poles by thick chains. They all cringed as far away from me as they could, two whimpering and one trying to hide behind a large concrete support. They were filthy, and none of them had managed to keep their shirts on, though the woman had kept what was now a hopelessly filthy silk undershirt. I carefully kept myself out of all of them.

The man closest to me was the one who had called - it was the man I’d pointed out to Eric who knew of the vampire selling ascension into the ranks of the undead. He shouldn’t be here - he had Things he needed to be doing elsewhere, and besides, he really hadn’t done anything wrong, not really. I saw it in him - his crime was in not knowing how serious other vampires would consider his employer’s activity.

“Let this one go,” I said quietly. Instantly, Eric was in the room.

“This is not your business.” He was angry. How angry, he was hiding well. At least on the outside.

“Yes it is. I told you, I listen and I work when I’m told to. He shouldn’t be here. He needs to be somewhere else, and you’re keeping him from it.”

“Where?”

“I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter.”

He didn’t have to scoff out loud for me to hear it.

“I don’t have to know, Eric, because I know. He shouldn’t be here. And he didn’t do anything wrong.” I finally turned to look back at him. “You know he didn’t. I know you need to set an example, but he didn’t know any better. He didn’t know he was doing anything wrong. And I can promise you he’ll never have anything to do with your kind again. Let him go. Please.”

Eric considered me a moment, then, cat-like and proud, took his time walking down the steps to stand before the man. He didn’t look at me, he only stared down.

One of the other prisoners silently wet themselves.

“Is she right?” He asked the man.

He couldn’t agree fast enough. He gave an almost hysterical burble of laughter at the very idea and said “She’s right, she’s right. I don’t ever want to see another vampire as long as I live. No offense.”

“You will owe me another favor,” Eric said to me without looking away from the man.

“Fine.” The agreement was as much a compulsion as following the pull down here had been.

Eric unlocked the man’s collar. He stood up shakily, warily, as if certain this was a trick. The skin on his neck where the large manacle had sat was so abraded that it was rubbed bloody in places. I felt sick.

“Get out,” Eric ordered with a snap of fang coming down, baring them at the man.

He ran. Up the stairs, out the door, panicked when he saw Pam at the end of the hall. She arched a brow at him but stepped aside. He could not run from the club fast enough, bruised, half-naked, weak and dehydrated and starved and barefoot.

The woman didn’t need to be down here. The other man shouldn’t be anywhere else. But her need was not urgent like the man’s had been, and though it made something in me writhe to leave her here, I had to be done sticking my neck out for the night. Not everyone could be saved - I chose carefully by necessity and learned to let the rest go.

I looked away from them and turned to leave. “Let’s take a drive, shall we?” I said over my shoulder, voice calm and carefully neutral.

Inside, the core of me had gone hard and cold.

Chapter Text

The drive had been silent. I didn’t know why, and I didn’t want to care. I was just grateful to have something to think about other than his manipulation and how hard I was trying not to see if I could light someone on fire with my mind. I was almost half-serious about it, too.

Nothing would be simple again. But I’d had the idiot belief that I could somehow get through this without feeling trapped, really, truly trapped. That pretending I had a choice could look the same as actually having one. What it would always come down to, though, was the fact that I was a good person and Eric was not. He wasn’t human. His honor didn’t look like human honor. He would always be willing to go farther than I was, and he would always want more than I wanted to give. I no longer had the illusion that any part of this might be fun.

He pulled up into a dark parking lot amid a wet forest choked with green, lit by a single street-style light. The name of the place, “Merlotte’s,” was lit from below, and warm light could be seen through large windows in the simple, faded wooden facade.

“Wait here, if you would,” I said when we came to a stop and I unbuckled myself. The phrasing was only to be polite - it was obviously not an actual request.

“That will make it difficult to protect you, don't you think?” He said blandly. I figured he was pulled back for the evening to give me space so I’d be less pissed. Or he was pissed. Or he was re-evaluating if I’d be worth it given that I could now apparently force him to do what I wanted when the mood struck. He’d driven within the speed limit the entire way, which made guessing his motive more difficult. I didn’t know; I didn’t want to know. I had walled myself off from him completely after the basement.

“I don't expect any trouble tonight,” I said, distant. “This is recon. The real fun will be trip number two. If it all goes horribly wrong, you might get to murder someone.”

“How often are you planning on coming here?” Eric cast a disdainful look at the facade of the little bar and grill.

I shrugged. “Hopefully just twice. If I get it right this time, I can take care of everything on the next trip. But if you come in tonight, you'll just scare people off.”

“Very well.”

I pulled a book out of my purse and dropped it on the seat. “Trashy romance novel,” I said. “Help yourself.”

I felt his eyes on my back as I closed the car door and my back was to him. I might have allowed myself the smallest of grins.

Loose gravel crunched under my feet as I made my way inside. The place was about half full, populated mostly with very stereotypical small-southern-town people: they tended to be nice enough, if you fit their idea of “should” and “shouldn’t.” They were rigid and prejudiced out the wazoo, but like anywhere else, you found good people if you looked.

Something about these places just watered humanity down to its most basic elements, and you saw more of its extremes. More people were genuinely good, moral, and Christian the way Jesus would have wanted them to be, and more people were crass, dirty, and lived in a dark shade of moral gray area. There were a lot of people in the middle, of course, but you wouldn't see the dichotomy anywhere better than in a small town with old blood like this. Age and history were just another way to be better than everyone else, if you were so inclined.

I opened the door to the gentle ring of a bell overhead and was almost immediately met by a waitress who had the brightest natural red hair I had ever seen. “Good evenin' and welcome to Merlotte's,” she twanged in her accent. “You all here alone?”

“Oh, uh, no.” I hadn't anticipated that this would be a “wait to be seated” kind of place. The inside was rustic, clean, and surprisingly large. “I'm not here to eat, actually. Can you tell me if Sookie is working tonight?” Hardly a need to provide a surname when she had a first name like that. I had a spurt of internal laughter.

“Oh, you a friend of hers?” she asked in a very any-friend-of-Sookie's sort of way. Mentally, though, she was sizing me up.

“No, actually, we met in Shreveport not long ago. She was there looking into something, and I think I can help her with it.”

“Arlene,” a tenor, male voice interrupted, its owner walking up. “I've got this.” I had to hide surprise on my face when I felt what he was: a true shifter. No one in the pack would like me phrasing it that way, but that was what he was: this man didn’t just turn into one animal, he could turn into any animal. I had never met one before; they were supposed to be very rare. I took an interest in him immediately.

“Sure thing, Sam,” Arlene said with barely-concealed curiosity. She listened as close as she could as she walked off. So did most of the patrons.

Sam invited me to have a seat at the bar, and after I turned down a drink, got right to the point. He was friendly enough, but much moreso than Arlene, Sam was sizing me up. “So,” he said, “you know Sookie?” Why the hell do you smell like ware AND vampire?

I suppressed a smile. “I was working the night she came into one of the bars out there, asking questions about two women here in town. And the thing is, I think I might be able to help her.”

He was instantly suspicious, but underneath was hope. Sam was a supe, and hopelessly wrapped in whatever it was that drew his kind to Sookie. I was eminently glad I’d decided to put up with Eric tonight instead of asking one of the pack to come.

Sam didn’t think much of Sookie’s brother, but he’d be happy if she didn’t have to fret over what was going on any more. The fact that I hadn’t out-and-out said Sookie had been to a vampire bar didn’t lose me any points, either.

“That's great!” he said. “She’s not workin' tonight, though. I can give her a message, if you want.”

I shook my head. “I live out in Shreveport and I made a special trip to talk to her. Can you maybe give her a call from the bar for me? I know you don’t know me from Eve,” I said in a sweetly apologetic voice, “and that way I can talk to her but you don’t have to give me her number or anything,” I said with a guileless, warm smile, letting that “this lady is good people” feeling touch him.

The ice around him cracked, if only a little. “Sure, sure I can do that. It's mighty good of you to come all the way out here to help a stranger.” So why did you? What do you want?

I shrugged. “I get guff for it a lot, but I've got sort of a small tribe mentality; you help out when you can. That’s the kind of world I want to live in. It's a pretty drive out here for the most part, anyway, even in the dark. I figured, girl like her, playing P.I. in the place where I work. . . . Must be safe to assume it was pretty important.”

He noted again that I went out of my way to avoid mentioning where she’d gone, and a little piece of the ice chipped away.

He rang Sookie up, had a quiet word with her, then turned to me, tucking the receiver against his chest. “Do you mind waiting here? She said she wants to talk to you in person. She's only about fifteen minutes away.”

“Uh. . .” I wondered how patient Eric was feeling. I doubted Sookie would be very forthcoming with him sitting next to me if he decided he was bored and came inside. “That should be just fine,” I said. “I can do that. I could use a meal, actually, is the stuff here any good?”

He held a finger up, exchanged a few words with Sookie, and hung up the phone. “She’s on her way. I'm a little biased,” he said, turning back to me with a smile, “but yeah I think the food's pretty good.”

“Biased?” I asked, long-practiced at flawlessly playing dumb. Sam owned this place, and cared a good deal for it.

“Sam Merlotte,” he said, extending his hand.

“No kidding!” I effused. “Well it's nice to meat you, Mr. Merlotte. And I like the place you have here. It's got a comfortable feel to it, you know? Like a person could just sort of feel at home here. And that bell over the door is damned adorable. Reminds me of a nice old-timey place.”

My apparent genuineness was winning him over, and he started registering details about me under the entirely sensible caution. Even if he hadn't been protective of Sookie, I smelled like a supe, and you take affairs related to supes seriously or you tended to find your way out of the world too early.

’Seems like a sweet woman. Kind, real beautiful. Why the hell does she work at Fangtasia? Doesn't seem like the type to get mixed up with them. Wonder if she'll get along with Sookie. Might mean she'd spend more time here, I think I might like that. Something about her makes me feel kind of warm. A wash of emotion about the home he'd never, not once in his life, truly known swirled around in him, making my heart squeeze. It was hard not to reach out to him, but he wasn't just some stranger on the street I'd never see again. I had a rapport to keep up.

I gave him a kind smile, and there it was. The ice was as good as gone.

“I appreciate that,” he said. “I've put a lot of years into the place. We've got good folks around here for the most part. They tend to pick a place and stick with it, so we get a lot of regulars.”

’I like you,’ I realized with a slight quirk of my head. He had a good heart and a good feel to him. Strong, steady, and sure, but much, much more pain than anyone should have to carry. Not the sort I could help with, though, I noted with a pang of regret.

“So it's nice, living in a small town?” I asked.

“Oh, you know,” he hedged. “It's like living anywhere else, there are good parts and bad. I like it, though. Opened this place near on ten years ago, now.”

“So you really do alright for yourself! I'm glad to hear that,” I said sincerely.

I needed to text Eric, so I jumped as if surprised, pretending to feel my phone buzz, and pulled it out of my pocket.

“If you'll excuse me for one minute Mr. Merlotte, I think my ride might be getting antsy,” I said with a laugh as I pulled it out of my back pocket.

“Invite 'em in. You all can spend as much time here as you like, you're more than welcome.”

I laughed nervously. “That is awfully generous, but I don't think folks would appreciate him too much. He's not really the warm fuzzy type.”

Sam nodded with a polite smile and a fold of curiosity and turned away to tend bar, questions working through his mind.

I texted Eric.

 

- Me; 9:27pm
I assume you can hear everything in here?

Lecherous Asshole; 9:27pm
Yes.
You are being disgustingly sweet.
If I were human, I would be vomiting.

- Me; 9:29pm
Charming as ever.
Critique my people-managing skills later. Sweet gets the job done.
“Huge and menacing” is more your wheelhouse.
And be glad you’re not human then, I guess. I bet blood is a bitch to get out of leather upholstery.
So you heard she's on her way, and I’ll be in here a bit longer?

- Lecherous Asshole; 9:29pm
That's because of you're uncommonly beautiful.
When you're nice, it makes them think they can get into your pants.

I scowled at my phone before more texts came in.

I heard.
I almost regret not being 'warm and fuzzy’

- Me; 9:31pm
Don’t.
I’m doing you a favor keeping you away from her.

- Lecherous Asshole; 9:31pm
Do tell.

 

A shout from a boisterous and painfully gay voice pulled my attention around the corner of the bar. I leaned over to peek down a short hallway with what looked like a waitress workstation. At its end was the kitchen’s order/pick-up window, and behind it was a man who was. . . something more than ordinary. It was latent, though, and he had no idea it was there.

 

- Lecherous Asshole; 9:33pm
That’s either a “no” or you’re writing me a small book

- Me; 9:33pm
No
There’s
Hold one
On

 

Eyes glued on the man like I was in a trance, I walked back to the order window.

I wondered what the hell was up with this town that so many supernaturals took up residence in it. Three in the same tiny restaurant was far past strange and well into “pattern,” but I didn’t feel anything special here.

“Excuse me,” I said in a soft, polite voice.

He looked up at me from under fake lashes, arm moving ceaselessly at the grill. He was dressed in shades of gold: a long, gold scarf wrapped around his shaven skull and draped down his back, and the most beautiful metallic gold lining his upper lid. He should have looked like a clown; he looked like someone from fashion week. “Who you is?”

“. . . Call me a fan,” I said. “Or at least someone who appreciates your sense of style.”

“Uh,” he half-laughed, half-scoffed, “I appreciate that, but I ain't never seen you before, and you ain't supposed to be back here. There's a sign,” he said, his eyes darting up behind me pointedly to where the “Employees Only” notice I'd ignored was.

“I've been known to be afflicted with selective blindness. Tell you what, though. Let me shake your hand to say hello properly, and I'll be on my way, back out with the rest of the civilians.” I smiled disarmingly at him and let a whisper of that extra something brush up against him gently. I didn’t know what he was, and for all I knew, he’d be the first person ever to react poorly to it, so less was best.

He didn’t react strangely; he just thought I was a little short in the head. But he walked forward, a confused and dubious look on his face, and extended his hand reluctantly. Even Pam would have appreciated how well-manicured it was. Neat black polish was on his short nails.

I slipped my hand into his softly and flung my doors wide. In an instant, I knew everything I wanted to about him, and he yanked his hand back like my skin was a brand.

“What the fuck are you?” He half yelled, the tone and timbre of his voice completely different than it had been a moment ago.

Instantly, Eric was at my side, fangs out, a very, very unfriendly look on his face. He had a hand on my back while I recovered while he stared Lafayette down.

If someone with skin as beautifully dark as Lafayette's could be said to go white in the face, he would have. “What the fuck!” he cried.

“Hey is there a problem back here?” Sam asked loudly and authoritatively from behind us.
“False alarm,” I murmured quickly. “Back to the car, please,” I added, keeping my voice down. “Preferably with as little visibility as your entrance.”

His gaze lingered on Lafayette a moment longer while he felt a surge of annoyance at me, then he retracted his fangs and was gone. I huffed a relieved breath.

“I’m sorry, Sam,” I said sincerely. “That was my fault. Apparently in addition to being moody, my ride is also quick to react to raised voices.”

Between whatever Lafayette had felt from me, the terrifying bodyguard I seemed to have, and the way that terrifying bodyguard appeared to so readily “take orders” from me, he was now more than a little afraid of me. The fact that a random chick who apparently hung out with vampires sought him out, given the nature of one of his side businesses didn’t help.

Before Sam could reply, I walked up to the counter, saying to Lafayette, “I’m sorry about that. I asked him to watch out for me tonight, which probably made him overcautious. He didn’t care for the yelling, I guess. I don't think he really has a 'slightly less than terrifying' switch.” I could feel Sam watching our exchange. “ . . . Unless he's trying to get into your pants,” I added as if thoughtfully. “But to answer your question, I’m. . .” I considered for a moment. “A new friend, I think,” I said softly. “Tall, blonde, and terrifying back there doesn't come as part of the package, so no need to worry about that.” I gave him as disarming a smile as I could manage. “Do you have a pen I can borrow?”

Still looking like a deer in the headlights and eyes never leaving mine, Lafayette reached down, groping blindly on the counter until his fingers found what he wanted, and held a pen out to me. I picked one of the order tickets off the spike on the counter and jotted down my name and number.

“If you need help, like really need help, call this number. And call me Emma. I'm really sorry I scared you,” I said sincerely.

I turned and left him in peace, and took up my seat at the front counter.

Sam followed after a quick and unsatisfying glance at Lafayette. “That’s your friend, huh?”

“I use the term loosely,” I replied drily. If it was louder than it needed to be to make sure Eric could hear it. . . well. I shrugged. “He’s the scariest thing I know.”

“And you thought you needed to bring a bodyguard to my bar?”

“No, actually. But I’m a ‘better safe than sorry gal,’ and I brought him as a precaution for. . . well, I’ll explain when Sookie gets here, and I’ll answer any questions I can.”

He gave me a long look, but the warm fuzzies for me were already embedded under his skin, so rather than dangerously suspicious about what had happened, he was mostly curious. Mostly; he wasn’t an idiot. I had a vampire looking out for me – was I with him? He had heard my exchange with Lafayette – was I like Sookie? At least he understood what I meant when I said my ride wasn't very friendly, now, and he was grateful I'd thought not to invite him in.

Experimentally, he shouted something in his head at me that he thought it would be impossible for me to ignore. Unfortunately for him, growing up with the pack had me inoculated against any and every sort of depraved, filthy, shocking, horrifying, or insulting thing a person could possibly think. And, I gathered, it also had me a much better actress than Sookie. So I just interrupted his thought with a polite smile and asked if I could have a glass of ice water with lemon.

His brow furrowed fractionally at my lack of response as he said “sure thing.”

The hard plastic cup tapped softly against the counter when he set it in front of me and I was taking a long pull from the straw just as I felt her arrive.

“Thank you,” I said with a smile.

He nodded.

I heard the door open and waited for her to walk up to the bar so I could pretend to notice her.

“Hey, Sam,” she said, “where is-”

“Sookie,” I said with a smile, careful not to extend my hand. What she was already rang so loud and so alien that I had no idea how I'd handle an unimpeded connection. “Or, I'm sorry, do you prefer Miss Stackhouse? I'm afraid my manners can be a little rough, I grew up around a lot of boys.”

She laughed. “No, Sookie's fine. I never caught your name, I’m sorry.”

“Call me Emma,” I replied with a friendly smile. She was as fixed on me as a bug to a bright light in the dark. “I was never really a part of the package at the bar in Shreveport, I just sort of got roped into sitting up there and looking pretty for a few nights.”

’Bull pucky,’ she thought. “Eric sure seemed to care what you had to say. Bill, the man I went there with, he said Eric’s pretty important in the vampire world around here.”

So she made no secret of her involvement with them. To the distaste of literally every person within earshot.

Sam could not have been listening in any harder if his hearing had been twice as good.

“Ohh,” I hedged with a nervous laugh, “something like that. You know men, right? Anything for a woman whose pants they want to get into.”

Sam nearly choked as both he and Sookie wondered if that was exactly my relationship to Eric. Sookie felt oddly protective.

“It’s real good to see you again anyway,” Sookie said, steering the conversation in a better direction like the good southern woman she was. “I was worried after the way the other night ended. Did you get into any trouble? You didn’t seem like you were doing anything wrong.” ’You wouldn’t, I can just tell.’ If the woman could have had literal stars in her eyes every time she looked at me, she would have. It was like what she did to other supes but in reverse and with the dial turned way up. It was work to keep my brows from knitting together at her.

“Oh,” I laughed darkly, “I did, but not because of the raid. My brother’s best friend found out I was there and blew a gasket. Which led to my brother blowing a gasket and it all just snowballed from there. I’m fine, though. The guys I grew up with are comically overprotective. Or. . . it would be comical, if I didn’t want to cold-cock them for it half the time.”

She felt gratified that I had what sounded like so many guardians. Sam wasn’t too upset about it either.

“I’m not sorry to hear you have people lookin’ out for you, at least,” Sookie said.

She canted her head at me. She looked so goddamned innocent when she did it that I wanted to puke - it came off somehow as a vapid sort of innocence, but the girl wasn’t vapid, just unusually sheltered in her way. “I don't know if this is rude, but do you mind if I ask. . . are you a vampire? Because you. . .” she paused tellingly, “seem like a vampire. But also not like a vampire, if that makes sense? I don't know if it's ok to ask that, I'm new to all of this. We just got our first vampire here in town not two weeks ago.”

’Are you a supe?’ Sam wondered. ’Don't smell like anything I know. . . .’

I swiveled on my stool to face her. “Not a vampire, nope.” And thank god for that. “And I don't know about the etiquette, either, I just met my first one officially not two weeks ago, myself. I was just sort of a mascot at Fangtasia for a few nights. Go in, sit in the fancy chair and read a book for a few hours, go home. Interesting people they have in there,” I added drily.

Sam felt a flood of relief he couldn't entirely understand that I wasn't with Eric. He mistook it for jealousy, which confused him.

Sookie laughed. “I know, right? I thought I was just about going to keel over.” ’At least you didn't have to hear what was in their heads,’ she thought with a mental shudder.

I suppressed a smile.

“Do you want to get a booth?” She asked.

“I'm ok up here, if you don’t mind. I was going to get some food, but I don’t think this will take very long and I should be getting back. I’ve got work in the morning.”

“Oh sure, of course! You're doing me a huge favor, we can sit wherever you want,” she said, parking on the stool next to mine. “Can I have a Coke, Sam?” she asked.

“Sure thing, Sook.”

It almost hurt how much he cared for her, and how very one-sided it was. I understood her latching on to Bill - he felt like an oasis in a continent-sized desert, but the relief of it was blinding the hell out of her.

“So, Sam said you might know something about Maudette or Dawn?” She prompted conversationally.

I shook my head as Sam put Sookie's drink in front of her, and she gave him a flash of a grateful smile, all her attention on me. “Yes and no. But before I tell you anymore, I need the word of both of you that come hell or high water, life or death and so forth, you will never, ever pass on anything I'm about to tell you, or my role in anything that might come as a result.”

Sam gave up working and turned back to us, putting his hands on the counter on either side of him. “Alright,” he said readily enough. “You've got it.”

Sookie took notice of my oddly specific wording, but she didn’t chalk it up to anything. She just dipped her head, curious and intrigued and a little confused.

“Now might be a good time to tell you both that I can tell when someone is being insincere. See, there are promises, and then there are promises,” I said, looking at her. “I need the latter.”

They both eyed me for a long, quiet moment, but gave me their word. Sam I was sure of. Sookie less so – her morals were rock solid, sure, but more than anything they were situational; she'd make you a promise and mean it – until it seemed like she had a good reason to break that promise.

I looked her deep in the eye. “I need you to understand that I am risking my life to help you with this. You are holding it in your hands with the information I'm about to give you, and if anybody finds out, be it a week from now or fifty years from now. . . it could go very, very badly for me.”

That did it, connected it to her own “disability” and the urgency she felt to protect herself from other people over it. The security I needed to feel from her snapped into place, she nodded, and I lowered my voice so only these two could hear.

“Like you,” I said to Sookie, “I have an unusual skill set.”

Surprise and gratification moved over her face. She had “known” there was something special about me.

“People are dying in this town, and it's going to get worse before it gets better. So we need to stop it. Now I’m not keen on driving up and down every street here looking for whoever’s doing this, so is there anything coming up that will draw a big crowd, get a lot of folks from around town together in one place? Or could we fake something like that, a big party or something?”

“There's a football game coming up this Friday,” Sam offered in a near-whisper, leaning in to be heard.

Sookie agreed. “Everyone gets real worked up over ‘em, and then after, they come here. If you want a big group, that's your time. All the waitresses will be here, too. It won’t be everybody on Bon Temps, but it’ll be a lot.”

“We probably see half, three quarters of the town over the course of the night,” Sam said. “They'll start trickling in around nine-thirty or so.”

I chewed on a thumbnail, thinking. Then I pulled out my phone, with a murmured “one sec, please.”

 

- Me; 9:48pm
How’s that strike you? Friday?
That’ll be hook-and-impale night. We'd need to leave right at sundown, I don’t want to risk missing anybody.

- Lecherous Asshole; 9:48pm
Will you owe me another favor?

 

I narrowed my eyes at the screen.

 

- Me; 9:50pm
Christ on a tapdancing cracker
Forget it
I'll just come alone!
You won’t mind if I die, right?
It won't hurt your plans for world domination or whatever
I'm easily replaceable!
And really it’ll just save you pain
I’m hard to deal with, horrible to look at, unpleasant to spend time around. . . .

- Lecherous Asshole; 9:51m
You ARE hard to deal with.
And obnoxious.

- Me; 9:52pm
KETLLE
I need an answer. I’ve got people waiting in here.
And since I doubt you give two shits about that
The mystery of why you’re supposed to stay away from this chick awaits.

- Lecherous Asshole; 9:52pm
You realize in that adage I would be the pot
Friday is fine. I'll put it on your tab.

- Me; 9:53pm
Eric…..
if we're on a tab system?
you're fucked.
And yes, but calling you “pot” without context would just sound like I was asking for weed
(I don’t want weed)

 

Sorry about that,” I said with a strained chuckle. “I was checking with my ride.”

“No problem,” Sookie assured me.

I nodded in thanks. “I can do Friday.” My phone buzzed, I assumed with a reply from Eric, and I ignored it. “I'll be here at eight-thirty to be safe, but I don't want to be out here if that’s ok. Is there a staff lounge or something I can hang out in?”

“My office'll work,” Sam said. He was taking to me much faster than most supes did, and had all the dedication and loyalty and trust, even, of his favorite animal form. Which might explain why I liked him so much in return. So might the fact that I’d always thought it would be cool to be able to turn into any animal. “I'll just tell the waitresses you're my niece or something.”

Sookie hid a look of surprise and wondered if Sam was sweet on me. When she looked back to me, it was with a critical eye.

I couldn't help but rib at her. “Why not just tell them I'm your girlfriend?” I asked with a smooth grin.

“That. . .uh. . .that could work, too.”

I shook my head with a laugh. “I was just joking, Sam, sorry. But how about friend? Easier back story.”

“Oh, don’t worry about it,” he said with an only slightly flustered chuckle. He found he did not entirely hate the idea of telling people I held a thing for him.

I did not hate the simmer of temper my offer put under Sookie's skin.

I turned back to her. “Honestly the biggest reason I asked you here tonight, aside from the fact that it’s your brother under fire over all this and that you’ll understand my uh. . . ‘special skillset,’ is that I need you to bring Bill with you.”

“Oh, Bill and I aren't really-”

I shook my head, interrupting her. “It's important, or I wouldn’t ask. He has to be here. Even if you have him come separately. I need to talk to the two of you together at the end of the night. I mean, tell him whatever you want to get him to come here, but it’s important.”

She bit back the argument she would have given if I was just about anyone else – I was here to help her in a big way, after all - and hid wild discomfort behind what she referred to as her 'crazy smile.' “Sure. Sure I’ll make sure he comes.”

Sookie reached past me to get a napkin, and her arm brushed mine, just barely enough to tickle the hairs on my skin.

She hit me like a falling mountain.

I sucked in a gulp of air and collapsed in on myself. “Eri- Eric,” I managed to force out.

In an instant he was with me, a hand on my back. “What's wrong?” he asked seriously.

I opened my mouth to speak, over and over, but couldn't make any words come out. I clung to his shirt like my hands were talons.

He felt my panic and picked me up and vamped out of the bar and to the tree line.

I gestured to the woods. “That way. Water,” I gasped, fighting to breathe.

In but a moment and the dizzying feel of motion in my gut, we were near a small creek. He set me down next to it. Mindless, I plunged my hands into the water and dug my fingers into the riverbed. I bent over until my forehead brushed the soil.

All I felt was the cool of the water and the touch of the earth and the openness of the air and then I was just. . . gone.

 

* * * * *

 

There was no sense of time when I came back.

A glow was fading all around me. The creek glowed cerulian, the plants green from leaves and brown from bark and stems. The earth shone, and luminous flowers had sprung from the soil and the trees. What must have been every animal for a mile seemed to be awake and singing. Fireflies winked all around us. The air felt like a living thing, and it was holding me, cradling me, supporting me. What must have been a blinding light from my own skin, white and amethyst and light blue, the whole spectrum of color and some I didn’t have names for, was rapidly falling away.

Slowly, carefully, I sat up and pulled my hands from the water. The life faded from the air, but not completely – pieces of it were there, like a whisper, sleeping. I felt connected to it and to the earth and plants under me and the water before me and the animals, the bugs. . . .

“What are you?” Eric breathed from behind me.

I looked down at my upturned palms, then turned over my shoulder to look at him, shock on my slack face.

“. . . I have no idea.”

 

* * * * *

 

“What was that? What did you do?” 'I have never felt so strong, so alive.'

“I. . . . One, one at a time, please.” I felt renewed but fuzzy, similar to hypnopompia. And every time I looked at him, it was like I could see through him. He was the same as the air, the trees, everything.

I held out a hand for his help. “Get me back to the bar,” I said firmly.

He hesitated a moment, but took my hand and helped me to my feet. His thumb stroked the skin of my hand, and he didn’t realize it.

As I walked carefully and slowly through the undergrowth – the night seemed brighter than it had before the creek – Eric hovered inches from me, ready in case I stumbled. He was as careful with me, as concerned over me as a human would be with a newborn.

I tried to piece together my thoughts, to figure out in my haze how to explain without giving him more information than he needed.

“Sometimes,” I said carefully, “I get overwhelmed. What happened back there happened once before, when I was a kid. I got. . . too upset at school, felt too much, and I ran away. When the pack found me hours later, I was sitting in the water of what had been an old fountain, filthy and slimy and stagnant, and it looked clear and pure as crystal. It was winter, but the plants all around the fountain in a wide circle were green and full and blooming.

“I blacked out, same as just now. Didn’t remember anything after finding that spot, a secluded, run-down little park. But I felt better after, like it had never happened. I touched the water and I just sort of. . . went away.”

“I have never seen anything like it,” he said. “Or heard of anything. It was like everything around you, living or not, was called to you and tried to comfort you. You glowed like a star. I smelled the water in the stream change, purified as if it flowed from a mountain glacier. The same with the air. Plants grew, sprung from the ground and blossomed.

“. . .It was like life itself was cradling you.”

’What. Are. You?’

I thought again of the feeling in the air when I had come to.

“I don't know what it was, or what I did. I don't know what I am,” I said, my voice breaking in tired frustration on the last word.

Eric reached out from behind me as if to offer comfort, but clenched his fist before it reached me and put it back at his side.

“Something in the bar was just. . . too much.”

“Do you know what it was?”

“. . .Yes and no,” I said, and Eric recognized the note in my voice that meant he would not get a better answer.

“Should you be walking?”

I turned over my shoulder to smile at him, and if he had had breath, it would have hitched. I saw myself through his eyes – it was as if I glowed with light and life. “Honestly. . . I have so much energy I feel like I could run for a week. I’m I feel alive,” I effused, stretching my arms into the air and turning my face to the sky. “Alive,” I whispered.

Eric looked down, remembering the feeling by the creek.

’Alive. . . .’ he mused silently.

 

* * * * *

 

When we made it back to the bar, I didn't ask Eric to wait outside, and he didn't offer. Sam practically sagged with relief when I came back in. Sookie had gone (over an hour had passed, as it turned out), so he dialed her number and handed me the phone.

“Stackhouse residence,” Adele answered. I knew her now as well as Sookie did.

“Goo-” I sputtered to a stop. I could feel her over the phone. I gripped the bar until my knuckles turned white. “Uhm. . .good evening, ma'am,” I choked out. “May I speak with Sookie?”

“Who’s calling, please?”

“You can tell her it’s Emma, ma’am,” I said carefully.

“Just a moment, please, Emma.”

There was some scuffling on the other end of the phone, a few moments passed, and Sookie came on the line. “Emma?” She breathed. “Cheese and crackers, are you ok? You looked like death warmed over, and the way Eric rushed you out of there. . . .”
Sam felt a jolt of surprise that this was Eric. He knew the vampire’s reputation. Everyone did, it seemed.

“It was. . .” I paused uncomfortably. I could feel her, too. My abilities hadn't made me this uncomfortable since I'd first developed them. I summoned more self-control than I’d had to in a long, long time, lowered my voice to a whisper, and kept talking. “I'm not entirely sure what happened, but listen, you need to get Adele out of the house. First thing in the morning, and I mean first thing, you send her to a hotel, to a friend's house, I don't care what, but just keep her off that property until we catch whoever is doing this.”

“Why would I do that?” She asked uncertainly. “Is she in some kind of danger?”

I rolled my eyes. ’Jesus, woman, why else would I have said all that?’ “Why should people take your insider advice when you give it to them?” I asked peevishly. “If you want her alive, you need to go on living there like normal, but get Adele off that property,” I said, then handed the phone to hang up without so much as waiting for a reply. I didn't like the way Sookie “felt.” She was too young and too hurt and too angry, and she felt like a victim who didn’t know how to stop being a victim.

“Sam,” I said, surprised when my voice cracked. I turned to the him, my head sagging and both hands on the bar, supporting me. “Three shots straight up, please. All in a line. I don’t give a shit what you pour me as long as it’ll strip tar.”

He nodded, face somber and concerned, and pulled three shot glasses out. “Sure thing, Emma.” His voice was warm and soft and gentle.

I was downing the first almost before he’d started pouring the second, and went on that down the line, one after the other. Eric tried to take care of the tab quietly while I drank, but Sam murmured that they were on the house, quiet like he would interrupt someone if he spoke too loud.

I set the last shot glass down hard, hands on the bar and head bent over it. “Ok,” I breathed. I looked up at the shifter. “Ok. Sam, it was a pleasure meeting you, thank you so much for your generosity, I will see you on Friday, and for now, not one lick of offense intended but I am getting the fuck out of your town.”

“Yeah-- oh hey, hold up.” He grabbed a napkin and pen and started writing. “I know we just met and all, but I have the weirdest feeling, like I know you or something,” he shot me a half-friendly, half-apologetic grin that I figured got most women into bed inside of about ten seconds. “If you ever need anything, you feel free to give me a call, ok? I mean it.”

I felt Eric suppress a warning growl.

I smiled as I took the rough paper. “Thanks, Sam. I'll send you a text so you have mine, and I'll agree to call on you only if you'll call on me too, if you ever need me. Otherwise no dice. It's always good to see an ‘uncle.’” I said with a wink. I turned and left before I’d have to hear or say another syllable.

Eric’s eyes narrowed fractionally and he noted with no small flash of chagrin how easily I gave my number up to this apparent stranger. His eyes didn’t leave my back until he moved to open every door in my path.

It annoyed me. He knew it annoyed me, he could feel it annoying me, but he didn’t stop doing it.

 

* * * * *

 

We were both distracted most of the car ride back. Eric was lost combing through memories of legends picked up over the centuries, finding nothing more than vagaries that might or might not have referred to what he'd seen or the things I could do. He found himself wanting to know what else I might be able to do, not so he could figure out how else to use me, but because he was suddenly hungry for it, the same way he was hungry to get me into bed and, suddenly, to keep me close. He was thinking of contacting someone named Godric to ask him. I felt him, heard him clear as if I was him, even under the haze off the shots I'd taken. My walls were almost utterly useless, like a wrecking ball had gone through them.

“What would you do to someone if you caught them selling V?” I asked at one point.

“Torture and likely kill them,” he said as if I'd just asked for the time. Thankfully it didn’t occur to him that the timing of my question was anything other than random.

I hummed acknowledgement through a half-drunken blanket. “And if they used to sell V, but don't anymore?”

I must have sounded more off than I thought, because instead of answering, he said, “You have a remarkably low alcohol tolerance for someone who drinks as much as you do.”

“I don't, actually. Almost never. You've just seen me drinking like a fish because I've been in your club. Not exactly a diet-friendly place.”

“Diet-friendly?”

I sighed drunkenly and let my head fall back against the seat. “People go there for sex and blood, but the reasons they're after those things. . . .” My expression sobered. “More often than not, they're hard to feel. So,” I said, brightening my tone, “I hit the whiskey because it protects me from them, and I can do a better job for you at the same time.” In a mock-serious tone, I added “I have a very strong work ethic.”

“Why whiskey?” He was enjoying how easily I was answering questions. Not because it meant he was getting information, but because he liked the feeling of simply having me cooperate, of trusting him, even a little bit. He liked the feeling of something being easy between us. It was almost endearing. Almost. The fact that I wanted to stick glass in his eye didn’t help.

I made a rude noise with my lips. “Whiskey is badass, right? Puts hair on your chest!” I shrugged. “That's what the boys say, anyway. To me, alcohol is just alcohol. The subtle undertones of the paint thinner don't make it taste any less like paint thinner.”

“Then why do you drink hard alcohol? We serve mixed drinks.”

“Because I am not a sissy, man. Or. . . because they have more calories? That’s the answer I’m supposed to give, right? Because of the boobs and whatnot.” That was supposed to translate to ‘because I’m a woman.’ “So?” I prompted, returning to my question. “What would you do with someone who had given up selling V?”

He glanced at me, curious. “That would depend.”

“On?”

He wanted to ask me about Sookie, but was loathe to ruin whatever mood I was in. “How long ago they stopped selling, how much they sold and for how long, and how likely it is they would pick it up again in the future. And my mood.”

I nodded, chewing on the pad of my thumb.

“Why do you ask?”

I turned toward him to answer, then just shook my head and went back to chewing on my thumb.

Eric was watching the motion with too much interest, so I turned toward the window.

“Antifreeze,” I muttered.

“What?”

“You’re a cat, and Sookie is antifreeze.”

He knew what I meant, but he wanted more. Because I wasn’t sure that was enough to get him to stay away, I acquiesced.

“To a cat, antifreeze smells delicious, right? It’s like cat heroine and cat crack and cat meth all in one. But even a little taste is deadly.

“As far as you, Pam, my pack, and any other supernatural either of us may care about are concerned, Sookie is a beautiful, alluring tropical flower that will turn out to be the most virulent, insidious poison in the world long after it’s far too late to save yourself from it. She seems harmless. Tiny, pretty, sweet. An innocent little human with a valuable skill who smells goddamned delicious, especially to vampires.

“You know how there’s something extra about me, right? Well there’s something extra about her, too, and part of it is that she will decimate you if you get close, Eric.” I needed to make sure he Heard this, so I went on. “Remember how I told you I see strands of fate sometimes?”

He looked over at me silently and waited for me to go on. His face was serious. Good.

“I looked at you and Sookie, because I felt something that worried me. I looked in detail. There is no other possible outcome if you get involved with her. Please. Please stay away from her.”

Eric took his eyes off me long enough to slow and stop the car on the side of the road, then he turned back and stared, his face unreadable. The inside of him was mostly unreadable too, like it was an ocean and he was waiting for something to surface so he’d know what it was he was feeling.

“You’re worried about me.”

“And you’re an asshole,” I said, testy. “So what? My advice is my advice. I gave it. Now take me home.”

Eric didn’t want to take me home. Eric wanted to pull me into his lap and run his hands up my back and along my thighs. Eric wanted my skin and my blood and my core and every inch and piece of me. He wanted me the way he hadn’t wanted a woman for a long, long time.

He stared at me while I looked out my window, tensed as I waited to see what he was going to do, and swearing bloody murder if he touched me.

He turned the car on and pulled back out onto the road.

I huffed a silent sigh of relief. Eventually I let my mind wander again, and it landed on Lafayette.

He wasn't a bad person. He just did a lot of stupid things. He did them for good reasons, which I thought had to count for something; he was very much a “moral gray area” person, which I related to. But there was such a spark of life in him, a resiliency, a specialness, that I wanted to look out for him.

I could warn him away and hope Eric didn't find out he'd been selling. I could try to find him a job that would pay better, or a way to get him the money he needed. As a last resort, I was certain I could bargain for leniency on his behalf, but that was a very last resort. I was done owing stupid blonde handsome assface over there, and I would owe him big for something like that.

Lafayette needed nine hundred dollars each month to cover his mom’s care costs, which was what was making him so stupid in his pursuit of money. I knew I could ask Eric for at least that much, but what he wanted from me was worth more than that, and I didn’t know how to figure out how much. What was a fair price for keeping something like me on retainer?

“$1,500,” I said, throwing out the first decent number that came to mind.

“For?”

“My retainer. $1,500 a month. We can hash out what that includes and what will cost you extra. But I’m fairly certain that’s a comical lowball.”

“Then why not ask for more?”

I shrugged. “I’m not greedy. That’ll be more than enough for me. Everybody at home is doing well for themselves and I wouldn’t know what to do with that much extra cash. Besides,” I said and suppressed a smile, an idea occurring to me, “that’s not including my signing bonus.”

He arched a brow. “And that would be?”

I grinned like a cheshire without looking at him. “You’re giving me $10,000 in cash,” because Uncle Sam could keep his hands to himself. “And you're paying off my student loans.”

Chapter Text

Eric parked around the side of Fangtasia in the employee lot. It was darker than the lot at the front of the building, but still plenty bright to keep humans from tripping in the dark and to make sure they couldn't be snuck up on. Well, by other humans.

He sped around to my side and opened the door before I could do more than brush my fingertips against the handle. He held a hand out to help me up, which I ignored without the courtesy of so much as a chuckle. The door had barely closed when he had my back pressed against the car, arms on either side of me, caging me in.

“I was worried about you tonight,” he said quiet and low. “I didn't care for the feeling.”

“. . . I imagine you wouldn’t care much for any feeling.”

“That almost hurts. Almost.”

“I’ll try harder next time. It’s good to know you’re not impervious.”

“Oh," he said slowly, gaze intense "I'm not." He held me there, then murmured, "What are you?”

I sighed heavily. “Lot of people have been trying to figure that out for twenty-two years, now,” I said, my voice more weak than I would have liked. “The answer isn’t going to change no matter how many times you ask. I've never even passed anyone on the street who's heard of something like me. As far as I know, I'm a human. Just. . . an odd human. I was convinced I could fly when I was a kid. Broke my arm. Hospital took an x-ray, didn't say anything about magic fairy bones or unicorn blood.”

“No human can do what you can. No human could do what I saw tonight. There is nothing human about you.”

"Gee," I said flatly, "thanks."

"You're welcome. You shouldn't want to be human. Humans are weak and frail. You are neither of those."

He was being sincere, and I honestly did not know what to do with that. He was also standing very, very close. I could feel the fabric of his jacket against my shirt with each breath. I swallowed loudly. “Look, I uh, I get that this has been a weird night for you and all. Actually,” I said with a dry, nervous laugh, “I can kind of relate to the feeling. And not to give you an opening but. . . is there some particular reason you need to stand so close while you're talking to me about it?”

“I am standing close to you,” he murmured, his voice low and rough and barely audible, “because I would very much like to kiss you, Emma.” He was inches from my face.

My breath hitched. I cleared my throat in a useless attempt to cover it. “Ah.. That’s. . .” I swallowed thickly, refusing to look at him. “Go figure.” I couldn't get my brain to form any longer words. I couldn't care that I was furious with him, but that fury was getting muffled and muzzled by my god damned libido.

He hummed, deep in his chest, and at a speed too fast for me to follow, his lips were on mine, hands snaking around my waist, pulling me flush against him.

I made a noise of protest and pushed against him as hard as I could and it did me zero good. All he did was take my hands off his chest and pin both of my wrists in the air with one hand. And then it was a mix of my desire, him feeling my desire, his desire, and every one of them multiplying the others until he didn’t have to hold me back anymore. His hands were snaking up under the fabric of my shirt, and my breaths in between savage meetings of lips and tongue almost sounded inhuman.

I arched my pelvis against him involuntarily and he yanked me closer and held me there. I could feel the restraint he was using to keep from really hurting me.

“Let me take you inside,” he breathed against my mouth. 'Let me take you home,' a voice he refused to listen to whispered in him.

I made a noise, part want, part plea, part conviction and part protest because I followed it by worming my way out from between him and the car and jogging back a few steps. I bent over and put my hands on my knees, chest heaving, trying desperately to cool the white-hot fire in me and keep myself from jumping straight back at him.

He stood watching me, pupils dilated, eyes hooded, and the lust on his face--

I backed up against the car and looked over at him, begging him to listen. “You don’t want this,” I panted emphatically.

“Oh, I disagree,” he said through a half-incredulous laugh.

His voice was so rough and aroused that it had me unconsciously clenching my thighs together.

He breathed in and groaned, a deep rumble, and then he was in front of me again and almost without his permission, it seemed, his eyes slid closed and he leaned forward, touching the tip of his nose to the skin just under my ear and inhaling.

Perfect, he thought, as he skimmed his nose down my neck.

“Eric, you have to listen to me,” I said, my voice pleading for him to be the one of us who had self control, because I didn't know how much longer I could keep mine from snapping. I had literally never had to use it like this before.

A rumble in his throat was my only answer. His nose moved up the front of my throat, his lips and the barest tips of his fangs scraping against my windpipe on the way up.

I whimpered. It was music to him.

When his nose skimmed up over my chin, his lips brushing the skin to replace it, I shoved him back roughly. It was like trying to push a building, of course, but this time he let me. Barely - he moved back all of three inches. I let my head fall back against the top of the car and tried to focus on the cool of the night air on my heated skin.

Eric was taking in the long, perfect column of my neck, the racing pulse just under the surface, the heaving of my chest, what each breath did to the plane of my stomach. The things he wanted to do to me. . . he could taste them. He could taste how sweet it would be when I gave in, and how glad I would be that I had. He could taste the satisfaction of days, weeks locked in a bedroom, of months of pleasure and showing me what I had missed, assuring me I didn't need to miss it ever again and, distantly, of eternity. . . .

I sank to a crouch and bent my head, wrapping my arms over it with a sob. Frustrated, desperate, conflicted, and most dangerously, I couldn't fucking remember why I was supposed to be fighting. Why didn't I want to be with him? Why was letting him have me a bad thing? Why was being his a bad thing? Why was giving him whatever he wanted a bad thing, letting him please me, pleasure me, keep me, even have that irrevocable bond of Maker and Progeny a bad thing?

My life vanished, the pack vanished, everything vanished but the bruising, swollen heat, skin that screamed to be touched, and the man in front of me who I knew would take care of all of it, who would take care of me.

He felt all of this pass through me, and the triumph in him watching me step out to let myself walk off that cliff was a deafening thing. It was just enough to remind me why I felt this way. His blood. His fucking blood, it was all his blood.

Part of me knew that was a lie. But because of that blood, I would never be able to know for sure.

And that did it, that hesitation, that rally, because he smelled the unshed tears and the overpowering arousal and the want and the need and he felt the desperate pain. He knew I needed to belong, and he thought I felt I didn't because I surrounded myself with weak creatures and people who weren't worthy of me. He thought he could show me everything I had been depriving myself of. I felt the confusion and protectiveness and his own want and need rolling off him in waves. There was a problem here. I wanted what he did, he knew that, and at the moment he was almost at his wit's end about why exactly I was so stubborn about fighting it so hard. Mixed in with that was the confusing need to fix whatever was wrong for me, his goals and plans for me aside. To help me.

Sure as if he had just dumped ice water over me, that was enough.

Heartbreaking pain spread across my face and I clamped down on it and pushed to my feet. I couldn’t do this for myself. That was obvious. But I could do it because it was the right thing. I could do it to protect him, from me.

I let my face go cold and hard.

“Let me make something perfectly clear.” My voice was the smallest bit unsteady, but it was iron. “I may want this, but it is never. Going. To happen. If you want me to work for you under any conditions or pretenses, if you want anything from me, you will never. Touch me. Again.” My voice quavered at the end, but my expression didn’t.

I looked at him just long enough to make sure he really heard me, then brushed past him before he could see my face crumple. He felt it all the same, the sharp wash of pain, the vice in my chest that felt like it was at once crushing everything and expanding so that it was too much to hold. But at least I didn’t let him see it. I was two blocks away before I let the tears stream down my face. It was a good six miles to my apartment, but I could use the time to cool down.

I felt the vampire he had sent to follow me trailing at a distance. It wasn’t him and it wasn’t Pam, so I was too gutted to argue.

I wondered for the first time, really wondered, if I could survive what this was doing to me. Eric was the ocean: steady, ancient, and powerful. Give it enough time, and nothing stood against it, not shores or mountains or cities or whole civilizations.

After over an hour, I remembered with a groan that I'd forgotten to tell Eric about Bill. I pulled my phone out of my pocket with a heavy, resigned sigh. Then I reconsidered. It was probably best to hold off until I got the second trip to Bon Temps out of the way. That was too important to risk, and Bill? Bill wasn’t likely to strike any time soon.

I hoped.

 

* * * * *

 

The next day, to my overwhelming relief, I woke to find my abilities calming back down to normal.

The night after that, I had a strangely real dream. It wasn't like the blood dreams, and it wasn't like a lucid dream. It was only me in the dark with a controlling sense that something was very, very important, and voices saying "We can't find you," then a word I didn't recognize, and "Where are you? Tell us where you are." The voices begged, pled, but I couldn't speak, and I had no idea what I'd say even if I could. The world felt sideways.

By Thursday, the day before Eric and I were to go back to Bon Temps, all my senses were as calm and "limited" as I was used to.

 

* * * * *

 

I didn’t remember how I got there, but against all logic and reason, I was sitting with my legs on either side of Eric’s thighs. He was in Sam's office chair running his fingers and hands up and down the expanse of my back and pushing my hair away from my face - I was slumped over with my forehead on his wide shoulder.

People had begun trickling in and I had lost myself to an ocean of spirits that weren’t my own. Dozens of personalities, of souls, of hopes and secrets and pains, rages and fears and insecurities and banalities. I disappeared. Everything disappeared but the people outside the door.

And then there I was, in Eric’s lap, given a moor in the tropical storm, and I knew it that here, it would be easier to find my way back.

Sam got a pause in drink requests and thought it was about time to check on me. He grabbed a bottle to pour me a shot, and I forced myself back into my body with a deep, centering breath. A reminder of life and place and the fact that I had a body of my own.

I climbed off Eric's lap, half boneless, and backed up to lean against Sam’s desk. I avoided looking at Eric by keeping my eyes closed. I had to continue to remind myself what was real and what was in my head, anyway. In a moment, I’d be expected to physically listen and speak. There had been a time when it had taken me days to come back from something like tonight.

Eric was watching me. He didn’t stop even when Sam let himself in and closed the door. Before he had a chance to offer me the shot, I felt something like I had never felt in my life walk into the front door of Merlotte's. I went tight as a bowstring, horror creeping over my face.

“Emma?” Sam asked uncertainly.

Before he got the word out, Eric was up and standing before me, towering height bent over to watch my face. “Quiet,” he ordered Sam, eyes rapt on me.

A man had walked into the bar, a human, with two children in tow. I saw him clearly; he had the same feelings and urges and thoughts as any other man, but underneath that and swathed around it, threaded through it, was a snarl of black rage, and hatred so alive and powerful that it was like a feral animal, backed into a corner and watchful and liable to take your head off if you came too close.

I had to follow him for a few minutes to make sure he was the one I was looking for and not just something dark that I had never seen before, but when I knew, I brought myself back into the room with a gasp. My hands hurt from gripping the edge of the desk too tightly.

As soon as I saw the shot in Sam's hand, I grabbed it and threw it back. I realized I was breathing heavily.

“You found them?” Eric asked quietly.

I nodded, staring at nothing and trying to remember who I was, to separate myself from that horrible black snarl. I dug my fingernails into the underside of Sam's desk.

I gathered myself up, rolled my shoulders, took a deep breath, and looked at Sam. “Time to introduce folks to your cousin,” I said. “And come up with an airtight backstory soon, because ‘Friend’ won’t be a good enough excuse, and I need to shake his hand. If there are holes in the story he’ll see them, and if they bother him enough he’ll either get violent or he’ll run, but only if killing won’t solve the problem.”

“He's out there?” Sam asked, shocked and tight. He had hoped that this could work, but hadn't really let himself believe it would. It was also hard to believe that the son of a bitch who had done what Sookie's brother was being blamed for actually lived in Bon Temps.

I nodded. “I don't know his name, but he's decent-looking, mid-dark hair, has a cajun accent.”

“. . . Renee?” Sam asked incredulously. His brain sort of stalled. “No, I know him. He's a good man.”

“She just said she doesn't know his name,” Eric fairly snapped.

“Sam, most serial killers are the best, nicest people you could hope to meet, right up until you fit their profile. He came in with two kids. Redheads, a boy and a girl, both on the far side of puberty. They're. . . Arlene's, I think her name was? That waitress who wanted to seat me the night we met.”

Sam reeled on his feet. “Fuck,” he breathed. “Fuck!” He whirled around and kicked a wall so hard that it rattled.

“Keep your voice down,” Eric said tightly. I will not have her go through this only to have you give it away.

I looked to Sam. “Listen, what I do gets stronger with touch, similar to Sookie, so if you have any hope that I’m wrong, I have got to shake his hand.” The reality was that I could hardly go to the police and tell them I found a murderer and that my only proof was 'a feeling.' I needed to know more to be able to get at him.

Eric's hand wrapped around my upper arm. “No.”

“This is what I came here to do,” I said coldly, looking at him for the first time.

“You came here to find the killer, which was not your responsibility. You have. I will deal with him myself if you like, but,” he lowered his voice and leaned in, “you told me what happens when you touch someone.” He was thinking of the rapist I had picked out at Fangtasia, and how much it had hurt me just to dig around in his head. He was thinking about how it had literally knocked me on my ass when Pam had gotten in. He had an idea of what this would do to me.

“It. . . will be a lot worse than that,” I admitted. He’d be the one hauling me out of here afterwards. Better he be prepared. Which reminded me, and fuck but there went the only trump card I liked to pretend I had. “You need to be ready, too. I don’t know how much is going to pass to you.” I said in an undertone.

Shock, actual shock, spread over his face.

I smiled, small and wry. “You and Pam have done an impressive job keeping yourselves to yourselves,” I whispered as quietly as I could, “but come on, did you really think I wouldn’t put it together? I grew up having the dangers of V and every other narcotic preached to me. This wasn’t that different. Honestly I was pissed it took me so long.”

A question pulsed through him.

“Yes,” I said in answer. “I know everthing, it does,” a knife entered my gaze, “and believe me when I say that we are going to have words with you about it.” I smiled darkly. “But I was hardly going to surrender my only leverage when you're holding so much and I wasn’t likely to get more any time soon. I can control my temper if the reason is good enough.”

Eric, true to form, put the pieces together and knew with a one day margin of error when I had found out. Asshole practically got a hard-on at how much dirt I'd been hiding - not just this, but that I knew who he was ready to threaten if he needed to.

Sam shot a confused look between the two of us. “Uh. . . should I step outside?”

“No,” I said at a normal volume, not taking my eyes off Eric’s probing ones. “We’re done. I apologize for the poor manners.” To Eric, I said, “Much as murdering the murderer would be a clean and appropriate solution, we can't just kill him. He's in a committed relationship with a woman and her two kids,” I said. “It’d kill them if he just vanished and never came back.”

Eric took a step closer until he wasn’t three inches away, which left Sam with all kinds of new questions. Eric loomed over me and said in a low voice, “I don't give a fuck. You’re here when you don’t have to be, finding him when it is not your responsibility. You don’t owe anything to this shithole or anyone in it.

“You take too much on yourself, and it is going to stop. Now you want to risk yourself further by going out there and potentially giving yourself away to a serial killer. It's idiocy. And you are not an idiot.” He gaze on me was intense and lined with controlled anger and the dominant presence of someone who was used to getting his way when he put his foot down.

A firestorm lit behind my eyes. “I really wouldn’t recommend pushing your hand right now, Northman.” My voice was lake ice cracking underfoot. “I told you that sometimes I had to do things-”

“That is a lie,” he said, viciously glad he didn’t have to hide that I wasn’t the only one with insider information anymore.

“Fine,” I snapped, not bothering to lower my voice any longer. “In this case, I don't have to. But this entire town is that woman who you bought a drink for, Eric. It's every woman that fucker from your bar ever hurt. This is not a small thing, and that man is a fucking psychotic serial killer - sorry, Sam - and he is not done. Sookie’s grandmother was the next I know of, but she would not have been the last. He targets women who give vampires the time of day, did you you know that? Any woman who's been with one, he finds them, and he chokes the life out of the in the bright of day.”

He knew what I was implying, and the rage that threatened in his face at the very idea--

“Wait,” Sam interrupted. “Wait. Adele?” Sam interrupted. “Adele Stackhouse? Rene was going to--”

“I told you to shut up,” Eric snapped, which caused Sam to bristle, and I had to step in between them.

“Don’t you snap at him,” I barked right back. “You’re here to help, not get in my goddamned way.”

“No,” he said in a tightly controlled voice, and he was dangerously close to losing his temper. I had never seen him so out of his own control; dominating his emotions was a law to him. “I am here to keep you safe--”

“Stop,” I snapped, letting my anger flood me. It cowed him, but not nearly enough. “Just fucking stop. If I didn’t make this clear before, sometimes there are things I’m going to have to do. And before you argue,” I said loudly, cutting over an argument that was about to come from his mouth, “this is the first time I have ever been in a situation like this,” again he thought of the rapist at Fangtasia, “and in all my life I have never come across something like him. If you want to push this, I will fucking come out here during the day while you can't do anything about it and take care of it without your protection, alone because of the antifreeze I told you about. So you make the fucking choice, and then shut the hell up about it!” My voice was furious, volume barely controlled.

Eric was seething, images of literally locking me up or having me followed rolling through his mind.

I leaned in. “Try it,” I said in a cold, deadly voice.

Eric met the challenge in my eyes, just as furious and stubborn as I was, but he knew, he knew how many times I had surprised him, he remembered how I influenced people, how I had made him act against his will not four nights ago. He could also feel how determined I was, and now that wasn’t his secret any more.

He spun, picked up Sam’s chair in one hand and flung it against the far wall, shattering it and making a sizeable dent in the stained wood.

“He’ll pay for that,” I assured Sam calmly, and it took everything I had to keep the shit-eating grin off my face. My eyes finally turned back to the shifter. “This time I apologize for his poor manners,” I said with a tight smile.

Eric growled an audible warning. I noted it, but pretended to ignore it.

“Here's how this is going to work,” I went on, now businesslike. “Sam, you’re going to introduce me to a few people, ending with Rene, so there's nothing he’ll be able to clamp his suspicious little teeth into. He pays attention, he's incredibly observant, and if something unusual happens he will make a note of it.

“Eric, please have Sookie and Bill out back through the staff door and waiting for me.”

“No,” he said bluntly.

“. . .Really?” I said with a feline-like cant of my head.

“I will wait in the hall around the corner, and I will leave when you do. I'll fetch the two idiots when you're done.”

Sam wondered what the actual fuck was going on between us. He feared the worst, but I still wasn’t marked and we didn’t smell like we were all over each other.

I looked from Eric to Sam, gave a nod, and headed out the door.

Eric stopped just outside the kitchen. Had he been a human, his arms would have been crossed in temper and posturing. He didn’t need any display to affect both. For someone so in control and so impossible to read, his face and the way he held himself could convey volumes. The waitresses, who at first couldn't seem to get enough of an eyefull of him as they passed, were suddenly going out of their way to give him a wide berth. His eyes were riveted to me the whole time. It was like he was trying to tell me something, but his insides were quiet.

“You sure about this?” Sam asked in a low voice as we made our way out to the restaurant area. “I can't stand vampires, but the one you brought is right: you’ve already done more than anyone here has any right to ask.”

I nodded. “Just give me a heads up when you’re taking us over to him. I need to brace myself.”

“. . . Alright,” he said reluctantly. He was starting to dislike this idea almost as much as Eric was. “But if you need to stop, I want you to tell me, alright?”

I smiled. Not a chance, I answered silently.

We approached a heavyset man with an upturned nose and a mostly bald head. He was regaling a group of people with a story in a gravely voice when we stopped next to him.

“Andy, Bud,” Sam greeted, “how you all doing tonight?”

“Fine, Sam," the balding one - Andy - replied. "What do you want?” He asked gruffly. Man was a peach, obviously.

“My cousin Emma is visiting, I wanted to introduce her to some of the regulars. This is Emma White. Emma, this is Andy Bellefleur. He works with the Sheriff's office out here.”

”Detective Andy Bellefleur, Sam,” he corrected peevishly, like it was the hundredth time he’d had to say it.

I offered my hand. “It's a pleasure to meet you, Detective Bellefleur,” I said with a friendly smile, and he grunted something in reply, a blush working its way up his cheeks. “You know, I've got a good friend on the police force where I'm from. It can be a real hard job, but it sure is important work you folks do. Place like Bon Temps, I can see why Sam would introduce me to you first. I bet you're a regular celebrity,” I said with a wider smile.

“Uh. . . yeah. You too, thanks,” he rumbled, getting flustered.

“Alright well we’ll let you all get back to your food, ” Sam said, ushering me to one of the booths on the other side of the restaurant.

“Laying it on a little thick, don’t you think?” Sam mumbled in my ear.

I grinned. "Just playing to the audience, cous'."

He introduced me to a small-minded woman named Maxine Fortenberry, her son Hoyt – another special sort of soul hiding in this odd little town – and an assorted mix of other women around Maxine's age. Excluding Hoyt, this was the beating heart of the town's gossip mill.

“If I'm back in town some time, maybe you and I could get together, Hoyt?” I asked with a smile, then listened to his mother hiss and spit like a cat on the inside.

“Uh. . . yeah,” he said with a surprised but endearing, goofy sort of laugh. “I'd like that. You live far away? I just ask ‘cause we ain’t never seen you before, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard Sam talk about his family.” ’I’d remember someone as pretty as you, you look like you’re made of magic and sunshine.’

I fought hard to suppress a laugh.

“We just reconnected, actually. Found Emma here on the internet.”

“That’s so great,” Hoyt said, with a genuine smile. “Findin’ each other like that after all those years. It’s like. . . a TV show or something.”

God but I could eat this boy with a spoon. I could see why his mother would be so protective. Not that her motivations were anything so selfless.

“You seem like a real pure spirit, Hoyt,” I said on impulse, letting the sincerity of the words wash over him. “You know what I mean? A genuinely good person. One of those ‘one in a million’ sorts.”

The insults rolling through Maxine's head toward me just then might have even made some of the younger members of the pack blush.

“Ah, naw,” he said bashfully, “I'm just like anybody else. But it’s real sweet of you to say that.”

I stopped, the smile loosening on my face. I bent down and put a hand on his shoulder (watching his mother stiffen off to the side). I looked him dead in the eye and put all of myself behind the words so they would sink down to his bones, if any part of him would let them. He could walk two roads, and the best by far required he know the truth about himself. “You're not, Hoyt,” I said quietly. “You're really not.”

I stayed there until I saw it take root, until I felt the idea bloom and start to spread through him like air in a stagnant room. Then I gave him a small, warm smile, squeezed his shoulder, and we moved away. Sam figured I must be sweet on him.

Next was a group of young men headed by a dark blonde named Jason – Sookie's brother, as it turned out. Sam did not want to introduce me to him, but he had made a polite pass-by impossible. He flirted openly; he reminded me of Eric, in that he was used to getting his way and used to getting any woman he wanted. Unlike Eric, he didn't really earn any of it. He was something distantly similar to Sookie, and it dazzled people. Consequently, he was spoiled and oblivious. If I had some time with him, I could probably help him start to sort himself out at least a little, but it wouldn’t happen. He didn't want to, and his road was nowhere near mine right now, anyway.

We stepped away from them. Sam stopped me between a few tables and gave me a look and a small nod.

I tensed internally and felt Eric echo it. I leaned in. “Stay close,” I said quietly, “and if it looks like something is wrong, just get me out of here and around the corner to Eric, ok?”

He nodded, giving me a look of assurance and a gentle squeeze to one hand before before brushing past and leading me again. He introduced me to Arlene's two kids, Coby and Lisa, and her fiance Rene.

“It's a pleasure to meet you,” Rene rambled in what would otherwise have been a beautiful voice with a clear cajun accent. He was sincere in the sentiment. “Any family of Sam's is family of ours.”

Coby's mouth was hanging open; a french fry fell from his lips back to his plate as he gaped at me.

“You're beautiful,” Lisa breathed dramatically. “I never seen anybody so pretty.”

Kids tended to be much more sensitive to me than anyone else, and sometimes it was harder to keep from affecting them; this was not the first time I had gotten such a reaction. I had a cult-like following among the young members of the pack. The girls were all my best friends and the boys were all going to marry me when they grew up. I hadn’t given up fighting it until I was nineteen.

Time slowed and the world dropped away as my hand reached to meet Rene's outstretched one. It rapidly condensed on itself as everything that he was and had ever been came flooding in all at once with a rush like a deafening roar. It took strength I didn’t know I had to hold on just long enough to be polite, and then smoothly return my hand to my side. When I couldn’t stop it shaking, I subtly moved it out of his sight. I clenched it tightly, containing every bit of pain and horror in it until I wouldn’t be surprised to find bruises later. I held my careful smile in place as if I were posing for a photo.

“You alright, there?” Rene asked, genuinely concerned. I saw through him that I had gone unnaturally pale.

I let a hand flutter up to my face. “Oh, yeah,” as if an embarrassed dismissal. “Happens sometimes, nothing to worry too much about. Sam told me there was a big game tonight? Did y’all win?” I asked in a friendly voice, looking at “Rene” only often enough to not be outright rude.

“We killed 'em!” Lisa fairly growled.

“Ah, hey now,” Rene scolded half-heartedly. “Manners yeah? What would your mama say?” Then turning back to me, fond grin still on his face from looking at the kids, “We won, yeah. Pretty good game too. You should have brought her, Sam.”

“Yeah, that would’ve been nice,” he said, “but I was showing her around the bar. She hasn't been here long, but maybe next time. Speaking of which, I gotta get back to the bar, and Emma, you must be starved half to death. You mind if we cut it a little short?”

“Why don’t you join us?” Rene offered in a friendly way. Lisa and Coby nearly shouted their agreement.

“That’s so kind of you to offer,” I said, “but I’ve actually got to be going, too. Been hiding in the back for a little while now taking care of some work. Sam came and said hi when he could.”

“Another time, then, yeah?” Renee smiled. “Nice to meet you, though. Kids, what do you say?”

They parroted his sentiment and watched us leave with baleful faces.

As soon as we turned around and Sam was in front of me, I took his belt in an iron grip.

We made it back through the tables, past the bar, and around the corner without anything at all looking amiss, but as soon as I was out of sight of the restaurant I collapsed against a wall. My knees buckled. Eric's hands were on me immediately, careful to avoid my skin, and I was supported and steered to Sam's office and sat down in the large chair, my eyes glued closed. Sam tried to help, tried to talk to me, but Eric warned him off sharply.

“She alright?” Sam asked quietly. He hadn't gotten an answer out of me.

“I don't know,” Eric said, and though I doubted Sam would have heard it, there was an undercurrent of worry in his voice.

“I'm ok,” I forced out, voice cracking at the end like I was going to cry. “I just. . . I need a minute.”

I couldn’t take the full force of both men’s worry and scrutiny, so I said, weakly, “Eric, Sookie just pulled up. Bill’s right behind her. Please have them ready around back. I want to get out of here as fast as we can.”

“The bartender can do it,” he said without looking away from me.

I gritted my teeth and let him feel my exhausted annoyance. “No, he can’t, because I need to talk to him about what I found, again so I can get the actual, god-loving fuck out of here, which is why I asked you,” I finished sharply, cracking my eyes open to glare at him.

He hesitated. Sam had raised himself to his full height, but promised he'd take care of me, which only made Eric want to stay more. Eventually, though, he left, silent as still air.

I sat. I breathed. I don’t know for how long.

When I finally got myself under control, pieced back together enough of my frayed edges to hold on, tenuously, to where I stopped and Drew, Rene started, I told Sam I needed something to write on. He opened a drawer in his desk and set a legal pad on my lap with a pen on top. I wrote down anything he’d need to know to get Rene locked up.

When I was done, I leaned back in the chair, tipped my head back, and closed my eyes again. “He's two different people,” I said with a breath.

“Rene?”

I nodded. “He's normal, he's a good man, he loves Arlene and her kids, he's an upstanding citizen. But there's just this knot in him that gets riled up and it takes over and he. . . .” I couldn't finish.

Eric was outside with Bill and Sookie, and growing impatient. Outwardly, he was only bored and happy to inconvenience Bill. He would be happy to eyeball Sookie to help pass the time, but for my warning. His open ignoring of her was riling her temper up.

“Are the kids safe with him out there?” Sam asked, tight and doubtful.

I nodded. “He wouldn’t hurt them for anything. Not now, anyway, not while they’re kids.”

“. . . Can I touch you?” Sam asked hesitantly.

I nodded again. “Just not skin to skin. Not after that.”

There was a rustling noise, and I felt Sam slip his hand into mine, one sleeve of his shirt rolled down and lowered to extend past his fingers. I looked down at it and huffed a laugh, then closed my eyes again and squeezed it appreciatively.

We stayed like that for a good minute or two before I tipped my chin back down with a sigh, took my hand back to tear off the paper, and handed it to him. “Memorize it,” I said, voice serious, “then burn it, and stay until you've seen for yourself that there's nothing left but ash. That's his real name, where he's from, and some other things. His sister was the first person he killed, and if you have your PD contact theirs, they should get everything they need. But Sam, like I told you, Rene is sharp. He puts pieces together fast. You have to do this the right way, and you have to be careful.”

He nodded. “I understand. . . . But listen, I’m worried about you. Are you gonna be ok? You sure you should be going back with Eric?”

I nodded and pushed myself up out of the chair. “I'm good as red diamonds to that man," I said with a dark, breathy laugh. "Explanation’s too long for right now, but I should be just fine. And please. . . I’m sorry to harp, but please follow what I told you to the letter, don’t tell anyone, and don’t take chances.

“Oh, and. . . .” I paused, sadness at what they were about to go through washing through me, “if Arlene has a hard time accepting all this when it comes out, you know, believing it? Tell her to look for a yellow tool chest hidden in the garage. But not when the kids are home.”

He nodded haltingly. "Alright."

“Thank you for your help, Sam,” I said with a weary smile.

He shook his head. “Don't. I mean I appreciate it, but don't. This was all you. I may not understand why you want anything to do with someone like Eric, and I’m sure as hell not gonna pretend to like it, but he was right: You didn't have to do any of this. You came out here, you took all this on, you hurt yourself to help us. You saved lives tonight. I’m not going to forget that, or the debt this town owes you.”

Gathering myself carefully, I put a hand to the side of his face, just briefly. This had needed to be done. It had been like wind blowing through a place, or rain coming down when it's dry. But all I said was a light, exhausted and weary, “Thanks. And hey. . . keep an eye on Lafayette for me?”

New questions were in his face, but he just nodded again and said, "sure thing." 'I would anyway. I look out for everyone who works here.'

I turned and left, and just as I was swinging around the corner, said, “You call me if you need me, Sam. I like you.”

I made my way with pitiful slowness down the hall toward the employee exit, stopping twice to rest against the wall. Only the screen of the back entrance was closed, and I heard Bill peevishly asking how much longer they were expected to stand around waiting for Eric’s 'friend.'

“As long as I tell you to, Bill,” Eric replied in that light, bored voice of his, even though I knew he heard I was coming. When I heard that bored tone, though, I realized with a start how little I heard it anymore.

“But no longer, fortunately,” I said, coming through the loud screen door, and was surprised how weary I sounded. When I moved to stand next to Eric, it was a force of will not to lean into his side for support. As it was, I stood close enough to surreptitiously tuck my fingers into the waist of his pants, sheathed in his long black shirt, just in case I got dizzy. It was a force of will on

his

part not to move even closer knowing how much it was costing me to stand upright.

I opened my mouth and took a breath to speak, then stopped and closed it. I realized I had no idea what to say, so I stared dumbly at Bill and Sookie for so long it grew uncomfortable. But better to start with anything than continue on like this. I needed to go home.

I took a weary breath. “I know things aren't great between you two right now. I also know,” I said carefully, looking to Bill, “that you never intended to feel anything about this job.” He stiffened visibly. Eric stilled. Inside, at least. Outside he was already a statue. “Certainly not what you've come to.”

I moved my eyes between Bill and Sookie as I said, “The two of you have a chance to be something to one another that lasts. You really do.” It was fucked up, but neither of them were exactly clean, pure slates, and for the most part, I didn’t tend to judge. “Having said that,” I turned my gaze back to Bill and my eyes went hard, “you don't get to keep these things from her anymore.”

I saw shock, carefully and quickly suppressed, pass over Bill's eyes. Inside he was raising up like a snarling cat, and there was a warning of murder in his eyes. He put the pieces together quickly; he figured I was like Sookie. Which was how I learned that he believed her to be part fairy. Eric felt the shock of surprise go through me and turned to look at me. I glanced at Sookie, but kept my face relaxed and neutral.

“You’re going to tell her the truth. The truth about why you came back to Bon Temps, the truth about the night you gave her your blood, the truth about everything,” I enunciated each syllable. “And you are going to do it tonight, or I will do it for you when the sun comes up, and I can’t promise that I’ll be charitable.”

“Bill,” Sookie began, her eyes darting from me to him uncertainly, “what i-”

“I don't know who you are, miss, but I believe you have me confused with someone else," he said. And he did a decent job of acting the gentleman. Or he might have, had I not heard the warning of anger in his voice.

I huffed a laugh, too tired to do any more. “Really? It seems like an awfully random bit of vague shit to say to someone then, don’t you think? I’ve had a long fucking night, Compton, and if you want to play a risky game of stupid I can prove my side easily enough.” My humor was all but gone. He had no idea how close I was to losing it entirely.

Bill took a step forward and his fangs dropped with a snick. He wanted nothing more than to rip my jugular out. “Who do you think you are?” He snapped, his voice dangerous.

“Bill-” Sookie objected, aghast at his sudden aggression, but she was cut off by Eric.

“Someone who is under my protection,” he said smoothly, his cool voice making it clear that there was no argument to be made.

Bill's eyes darted to Eric, and I felt something so dangerous brewing behind them that, nearly without my permission, I declared certainly, “I'm his.” I said it as if for the fiftieth time.

Sookie's eyes widened and her mouth popped open delicately.

Eric betrayed no outward reaction whatsoever, playing right along with my game, and my estimation of his skill would have climbed for that fact alone, even had I not felt the cocktail of shock and other sharp, hungry things rocking through him.

Bill scoffed. “Please. Eric Northman does not claim humans, and if ever he did he would certainly not own a virgin.” He spat as if it was the most ludicrous thing he’d ever heard.

“Bill Compton!” Sookie hollered in outrage, appalled at his behavior.

He kept going like she hadn’t spoken. “You haven’t even been bitten,” he spat, scathing.

“Careful, Bill,” Eric warned in a voice that nearly made me shiver, the cold predator in him coming out in two seemingly calm words.

The younger vampire fairly snarled, but reluctantly retracted his fangs.

I narrowed my eyes at him imperceptibly, concerned by what I had felt a moment before. I took a step forward and held my hand out for his, my face flat.

He looked down at it like he'd rather tear it off than touch it.

“Take her hand, Bill,” Eric ordered in that same calm, cold, voice he managed that sounded on the verge of amused and threatening at the same time. He loved how much spine I was showing – not faking, but showing. He hated that I was doing this so soon after what I'd gone through inside. He halfway hoped Bill would misstep so he'd have an excuse to kill him. And it would only mostly be for his benefit.

Bill looked scary-pissed, but did as he was told. The moment his fingers grazed my hand, I yanked it back, having gotten everything I needed, trying and failing to suppress a shiver. I looked at him a moment, my face a mask, then stepped backwards until I was at Eric's side and just behind him, my eyes never leaving Bill's. It was a deferential position in appearance. In reality, I wanted the shield.

Hidden behind Eric's back, I let my hand clench into a fist in the hem of my shirt. Had we been alone, he would have taken me into his arms, and at least for a minute, I might not even have argued. He could feel the tension rattling through me, and was impatient to find out what I had seen.

“What you've heard about me,” I began calmly, forcing silk into my voice, “what happened here tonight, and what's going to happen because of me,” I tipped my head toward the restaurant at his back, “is nothing,” I promised. “If you tell her about me,” emphasizing the word so he'd be clear that I wasn't talking about Sookie, “if you tell anyone at all, and if you so much as breathe a word of my existence to her, it will be your end.”

I said it like I was the deadliest creature on the planet. For all Bill knew, I was, because he only knew that I was more than I appeared, that the powerful Eric Northman valued me, and the paltry information his background check of me had provided. Danny and one of his friends had seen to it long ago that pickings on that front would be slim. It was standard for most of the pack.

Eric? Eric had gotten so aroused by my little speech that I was surprised Sookie wasn’t staring at his crotch.

Fury and something like hatred burned behind Bill’s eyes, but I understood it. When you loathed your very existence the way he did, those emotions needed somewhere to go. It was so much easier to turn the anger and hatred outward any time you got the excuse, and here I was, a little slip of a human, destroying the job he'd been sent to do, risking his standing with his Queen, and now probably ending the one thing he would have given anything to protect – his burgeoning relationship with Sookie.

“Sookie,” I said, pulling the now disused burner from my pocket, “what's your number, please? So I can check that he's told you.”

I felt Bill clench, holding himself back physically from lunging at me. Eric took a step between us, half hiding me from sight, his eyes locked on Bill as Sookie and I exchanged information. "Now Bill," he purred in a higher-than-normal voice, "I know you consider harming something that is mine."

"Of course not, Sheriff," he allowed tightly. Any idiot would know he wanted to to exactly that.

I sent Sookie a text to be sure she got it, and told her that if she didn't let me know about the talk, I'd be at her house early tomorrow. “And I'm sorry, I know you're not going to be in the mood, but I'm going to ask you a personal question to make sure it's you I'm talking to. After that I promise I'll leave you be.”

"Can't you just tell me what's gion' on now?" She asked, darting a glance toward Bill.

I shook my head. "Not my right. Only if he doesn't."

Surprise lanced briefly through the hatred and rage in Bill.

Eric and I waited for Bill and Sookie to leave before turning toward Eric's car, but just before Sookie went inside, I stopped her.

“You're smart enough to know that what he has to tell you isn't going to be good,” I said gently. “One thing I want you to remember, and give some thought to once he's done: there are a lot of shapes of people out there, and what something starts out as isn’t always what it ends up as. Some feelings can change people. Some people can change once they have something worth feeling for. And honor comes in a lot of forms. Some of them aren't as clear cut or black and white as we'd like them to be. Just. . . hear him out. Hate him after, if you like, but hear him out first.”

Sookie looked at me like I was a little crazy, but said “Alright.” As if an afterthought, she added in a low voice, "Thanks again. For. . ." her eyes darted to Eric, then she subtly leaned her head back toward the bar, "you know." She headed inside for her shift, the screen shutting behind her with a loud creak of hinges.

Bill, having heard every word I said, was now begrudgingly confused at me just as much as he was full of violent hatred.

Eric made sure I got to the car without falling, and I didn’t argue the hand that was on the small of my back all the way. Apparently I looked about ready to keel over. I sure as hell felt it.

Chapter Text

The first question Eric asked me in the car wasn’t “What did you find out?” or “Why did you tell him you’re mine?”

It was, “Are you alright?”

I was sitting, barefooted, with my knees pulled up against my chest.  I didn't know how to answer, so I just said, “I'll be fine.”

“That isn't what I asked.”

I almost smiled. There was something satisfying every time someone called me on an omission. But I was bone-deep tired, so I just sighed, so quiet a human wouldn't have heard it. “I don't. . . yes.”

A hand extended and he placed fingers on the top of my head – not wanting to risk the chance that my 'immunity' to him would be weakened by what I'd been through tonight – and turned my head to look at him. “You don't seem alright,” he said flatly.

Any other time, I would have laughed. Eric Northman, fussing over a human. Fussing over anyone or anything, come to it.

I rested my chin on one knee, face half hidden by my arm. “You asked if I was ok, not if I was good. Drew was. . . .” I couldn't finish the thought. I didn't have words for what Drew had been. I shook my head to banish the thought.

“Drew?”

“Rene. His real name was Drew. And Drew was Drew, and Bill was Bill, and Sookie was Sookie. I didn't expect touching Bill to be neat, but he had something I needed to know,” 'And some things you need to know, too,' I thought warily, “and I couldn’t pick it out of his head.”

To my surprise, he didn't take the prompt and ask the next logical question. Instead he asked, “Why did you tell him you were mine?”

“I needed something stronger than being under your protection. He needed to hear it, or I would have ‘disappeared.’” Cold, calm fury rose up in him with a dare for Bill to so much as try. “What does it mean?” I asked. “Saying that I'm yours? I know it's more than ‘I’m with this guy.’”

“To any vampire, it means you belong to me. It means I can feed from you and fuck you whenever I please, and if another vampire touches you without my permission, it's within my right to do something about it.  Legally speaking.”

My stomach dropped through the bottom of the car and we left it behind on the highway. “So you'd have permission to do what you would have done anyway,” I said weakly, eyes far away as I tried to calculate exactly how completely, entirely fucked I was.

“It is a protection under our law. Any slight against you would be a slight against me. And you have seen how we enforce our laws.”

I closed my eyes and as exhausted and drained as I was, I had to fight back tears.

“The human has no say in this?” I asked, and my voice wavered under the heel of self control.

Now he was concerned. “Emma, why are you so upset?”

“I didn’t plan on ending the night this way.”

“What way?”

Ah.  Of course. He didn’t know.

“I’ll answer your question if you answer mine.”

“. . . There is always a choice. The arrangement is voluntarily entered into. There are vampires who will force it and those who refuse to release a human until it pleases them, but they aren’t the majority.”

“No, I mean in. . . the specifics. Of the ‘arrangement.’”

He was quiet. He watched. His mind processed the clues of what was happening.  “Explain,” he said.

My voice got very, very small.  “I can’t lie, Eric.”

There was a beat of silence followed by the closest thing to a real laugh I had ever heard from him.

“Think about it,” I said calmly. This wasn’t my first time having this talk. “I’ve omitted, I’ve misled and misdirected, but can you think of a single instance where I flat-out lied to you?”

He went still, then pulled off to the side of the road and braked so quickly that I was thrown forward into my seat belt.  His gaze was boring into the side of my head, and I sat, still looking forward, tight as stone.

He combed through every interaction we’d had. Every word, every exchange, every story swapped with Pam, every overheard conversation. Every oddly-worded or evasive answer, every distracting joke.  He remembered my phrasing when I introduced myself to others: 'Call me Emma,' never 'My name is Emma.' He realized with a feeling remarkably close to shock that I hadn't really lied. Not once. He saw the times I had taken the long and awkward way around a question rather than lie.

There were a dozen things he wanted to ask. ‘What the fuck are you’ was chief among them, but we’d been over that.

“So because you told Bill that you’re mine. . . .” He trailed off. He wanted me to finish it. He wanted to hear the words from me, see my lips shape them.

“I’m yours, Eric.” I stared at the dashboard in the utter silence.

Victory crashed through him like the shattering of a thousand panes of glass.

He wanted - needed - to take me, right then and there, to lay claim in a way no one - not even me - could argue. It was such an overpowering thing that my own skin flushed in response.

He misinterpreted the reason for my heat, but held himself back. He cracked the steering wheel gripping it so hard. Not tonight. Not when I was so drawn. If I had only been physically tired, it would have been all bets off, but not like this. Not the first time, not when he wanted to show me I could trust him. It was vital that I know I could trust him, as if three words had switched me over to a different operating system in his head.

Still, it was a very near thing.

Images of what he wanted to do were too much for me to keep out, like he was screaming them at me. Yanking me into his lap and taking me like that before either of us were even undressed, while he finally tasted what my scent promised. He reigned himself in when he felt the strain they were putting on me. I could have kissed him just out of gratitude.

A hundred questions he wanted to ask me, but all he did was turn his eyes forward, start the car, and pull back onto the forested country highway.

He said nothing, mind in overdrive. He knew now that he'd have me in his bed as early as tomorrow. It hadn’t even occurred to him to care that my agreement wasn't voluntary.  He had what he wanted, I'd be glad it had happened in the end, so why care?

When I grew tired of his excitement, I said “I need to tell you about Bill.”

His attention snapped back to the present. “Go ahead.”

I paused, wondering how much this was going to hurt. “He was sent here by Sophie Anne to investigate Sookie. Depending on what he found, he was to deliver her to the Queen.”

It hurt a fair bit, as it turned out. His emotions came at once dulled and too strong, like being pelted with sand in a high wind. A surge of anger flared in him - he should have been the first person informed of Bill’s business. That he wasn't meant this was something he needed to be very concerned about.

“Why?” He asked tightly.

“You remember the antifreeze metaphor, right?”

“Yes.”

“Good. She’s a telepath. And he thinks she’s part faerie.”

It was like a snuffer putting out a candle flame. Anger was replaced by greedy curiosity like an instinct, until he recalled my warning.

“Exactly how is she dangerous to my kind?”

I had to think about that for a long time.  What was I supposed to say, ‘everyone falls in love with her but she doesn’t return the sentiment so she leaves gaping hollows of molten pain in her wake’? Because Eric would completely believe that he could ever feel that.

“I don’t know how to explain,” I said.  "And it's all supernaturals as far as I can tell.  I've only run into four kinds."

He remembered my restriction on lying and looked at the words for any holes. “Would anyone else?” He asked carefully.

“I doubt it,” I muttered. Then I went on, and this time I really braced myself. “The more pressing thing about Bill is that he knows what you've been doing for Sophie Anne.”

I saw only his formidable self-control. He clamped down on his emotions and his mind went to work. “How long have you known?” he sounded pissed.

“How long has it been since I shook his hand?”

“Direct answers only, Emma.”

I growled silently. “I’ve known since I shook his hand. Asshole.” Not that I could fault him his caution.

“. . . Explain.”

“Can you phrase that less like an order, please?” I asked, testy. It was clearly not a request.

I heard his own quiet growl, a very human sound of exasperation. ”Please explain.”

“He put it together on his own because he’s been doing a lot of digging and spying in preparation to go after her. And listen, I know you're smart and if you could have found a reasonable way out of it by now, you would have, but it's time for you to start looking into unreasonable ways. Because that woman is a bitch. And neither she nor Bill will show the slightest hesitation in throwing you under the bus.

"This feeling. . . I think a lot of shit is getting ready to go down, Eric, and you’re going to want to be clean as a baptised newborn when it does. And I don't. . . .” I made an uncomfortable sound in my throat, declining to finish the thought.

“You don't what?”

“Nothing,” I muttered.

“Emma.”

“What?”

He pressed me to tell him.

I growled. “I don't want anything to happen to you, ok? Jesus,” I snapped. “It’s your fucking blood.  That a--”  My throat closed, choking off the words.  'That's all it is,' I had tried to say.  I paled.

"What's wrong?"

I shook my head.  "It's personal."

He was quiet for after that, and I was as careful as I could be to stay out of his thoughts.

“. . . To put it more into terms you’ll appreciate," I said eventually, "I saw some of the shit he would have done to me tonight if you hadn't been there, and the best case scenario was me becoming Sophie’s sex toy and work slave for the rest of my life.” I suppressed nausea. I had never felt fear for my safety because of what I could do. Suddenly I appreciated how overprotective the pack was, and wanted nothing more to be in the middle of them.

“He started looking into me the night we met, but the pack makes sure there’s not much to be found, and they sure as shit won’t talk to anyone who comes asking.  He thinks that at the very least, I must be a telepath like Sookie, but stronger.”

“And are you? Are you fae?”

I shook my head fractionally against its perch on my knees. “Whatever I am, it’s not what she is. And I think that what she and I can do are like. . . cousins. She’s been fighting and hating hers her whole life, too, so it’s more stunted than it could be. She’s just. . . .” I sighed. “She’s kind of a mess.”

He wanted to think I was being possessive, even without consciously meaning to be. Maybe I was, I didn’t know. But all he knew for sure was that I was telling the truth. My revelation had made him as close to happy as he got, and made him appreciate my ability to bend the truth. 

“How positive are you that you’re not at risk from him?” He asked seriously.

I considered it. “At least 80%, but that’s being conservative. My safety net is pretty comprehensive. And proactive. Aggressively so. I’ll tell them about him.”

For the first time, he was glad for the pack’s interference. But he was also considering adding his own sort of security. We would have words if he tried.

“That won’t make being with me more difficult?”

“Phrasing, Eric,” I begged. “And I don’t know, it depends on how well I can figure out how to make them feel like they’ve gotten an explanation without really giving one. And how to somehow make it not relate to you or Pam or your bar. All without technically lying. So. . . probably, yes.

“Anyway, I know that Sophie,” Eric was amused thinking how she’d react to hearing a little slip of a human so casually call her that, “could find a way to take me from you if she really wanted to, according to your laws, but I don’t think she’ll go out of her way.”

“Why?”

“Same reason you’d come up with, probably. She's an insect next to you in every way but hierarchical authority. A wingless, legless one. I feel like there's more to all of this, but that might just be the feeling that something’s coming.”

He sobered. “What do you mean? How soon?”

“I have no idea and. . .” I paused to think. “I don’t know. Soon. But not immediately," I parsed, feeling out loud. "I think the timeframe is in months, but I couldn’t tell you how many. Probably within the year.”

He was away again, flicking through every possible thing he could think might go bad soon.

“Things would get ugly if she took me,” I warned seriously. “The pack would start a war.”

He hummed acknowledgment. 'So would I.'

And that thought scared me more than anything else. I'd stepped in it by declaring myself Eric's, but I hadn't had a real choice. If I hadn’t said I belonged to him, Bill might have come for me tonight. And now that I had, I was as good as outed as something special, and painted with a glowing neon target.

It was like it had been from that first night: circumstance maneuvered me into a no-win situation, and now, on every side death was starting to become a best-case scenario.

So long as it took.

 

* * * * *

 

“I’m taking you home tonight.”

I opened my mouth to argue, but closed it right back up when I felt how intractable he was about it.

“I just need to take care of something in the office.” We passed from the back hall into the noisy, full front space of Fangtasia. “Help yourself to anything you like. You won’t be paying here anymore.”

I pursed my lips together. ‘Pick your battles,’ I thought. I’d save the fights for when he actually did try to get me a new car. “Actually, can I talk to you while you do?”

He looked straight at me and gave me what seemed like a loaded nod.

He closed (and quietly locked) the office door behind me, and I took the same spot on the blaring red couch I had what felt like so many nights ago.

I immediately felt something off.

He felt it through me and looked up. “Emma?”

I shook my head, eyes unfocused as I concentrated. It was like an itch, muscle-deep. It was coming from his direction.

I stood and paced toward him, head canted as I “listened.”

No, it wasn’t him. It was his desk.

I opened my mouth to tell him, but my throat closed around the words, so instead I looked at him, twitched my head to the side and mouthed “move.” He slid back from the desk, watching like only a vampire could.

I stood where he had been sitting.

Left.

Turned my head left.

Down.

It wasn’t anything I could see. Slow and quiet, I got on my knees and bent to the side so I could look under the desk. Tucked in the back left corner against the wall of the drawer was a tiny object that looked a little like a flat computer chip. I went still. I hardly breathed.

As silently as I’d settled to my knees, I got up and nodded for him to return to what he was doing. He gave me a look, and I just shook my head, gesturing for him to roll back up to the desk.

When he did, I moved behind him and leaned in, so close my breasts grazed his back. I put my hands on either side of him on the armrests to hold myself up, and leaned in until my lips were brushing his ear. My position went straight to his groin.  In a whisper so quiet it was hardly a breath, I told him, “You have a bug under your desk, just off your left knee, in the corner. I don’t think it was here last time I was, but I can’t promise that.”  

His hair was soft against my cheek.  He nodded fractionally and went back to work like nothing was wrong. Eric had a mind for the long game.

“You wanted to talk about something?” He asked when I had seated myself. “Are you hungry? I can have food delivered.”  His arousal rippled through me, echoing back into him through our stolen connection, and it was a game of keeping it down.

I arched a brow at him at his first question as I said “That depends on how long this is going to take.”

“It can take as long as you like,” he said in normal, flirtatious Eric’s voice. Otherwise, he gave me a nod in answer.

“What I’d like is to sleep for a week.”

“And here we haven’t even started,” he hummed.

“. . . Jackass. I wanted to ask you about the thing we talked about in the car, the whole. . . provisions and rights and expectations of this ‘ownership’ nonsense.”

“What about them?” He was still typing, eyes on his computer screen. Now and again he would pause to find something on one of the papers on his desk.

“You said starting it is optional. You said ending it is usually optional.” He had a flare of denial, of preemptive refusal, at what he felt certain must be coming next. “What about everything in between?”

His surprise - and relief - was set aside quickly. “Such as?”

“Well the whole ‘food and sex whenever I want’ part. How much of a say do I get in that?”

A cocky, feral smile spread over his face. “I won’t do anything you don’t want, Emma.”

“Yeah, define ‘want,’” I retorted flatly. “Because I was pretty clear last time I was here, and you seem selectively deaf to words like ‘stop.’”

“You were more clear than I think you realize.”

. . . That was reassuring.

“So in other words,” I said peevishly, “your plan is to get me turned on until I literally can’t say no anymore.”

“‘Can’t’ is a very strong word.  You don't want to say no.” He was speaking casually and still focused on his work. “We both know it.  But you force yourself to.  Whatever concerns you have that are causing that are out of your hands now, and into mine.”

'You are mine to care for.'

“. . . Your misogynistic viking is showing, Eric.”

“Actually, vikings were very progressive, more so than many modern cultures. Daughters inherited just like sons, women fought alongside men, and in some ways had more marital rights than men. No one who wanted to keep his cock attached would be foolish enough to cross one of our women. They were fearless.”

I reminded him of them.

God but this was getting complicated. I almost laughed. “Getting” complicated.

“Let’s be clear about something. If I say ‘no,’ you stop. You stop.”

A near-invisible smile twitched at his lips. I wanted to punch him. He felt it, which widened the grin.

“God I fucking hate you sometimes.”

“I get that a lot from women. Usually just before they beg me to fuck them.”

I clenched my fists hard. Closed my eyes. Breathed.

“You’re going to listen to me about sex, Eric, and I’ll tell you why." I paused. "If you do, I’ll cooperate with the feeding.”

He stilled and slowly looked over at me.

“Provided,” I added firmly, “you leave no marks without my express permission, and we do a test run first.”

“A test run?”

“My smell. . . .” I looked toward the bug. “The things about me that are weird-- I’d just feel better with a test before you really dig in.  You said you’d never, you know, smelled. . . “ I hedged and gestured to myself, wanting to know if I should say it while we were being listened to. He shook his head, a small, tight movement.

“I remember what I said.”

“Right. So you take a taste. A drop. We see how it goes. Just give me something to prick my finger with.”

His fangs snapped down helpfully.

“Something else.” I gave him a wildly unamused look.

He vamped over to the door and had it open before I could blink. “Does anyone have a sharp knife?” He barked in his bored throne-Eric voice.

In but a moment he was back in the office, door locked without the pretense off doing it behind my back, pocket knife in hand. He pulled a lighter from his drawer and held the tip of the blade in its flame.

“May I?” he asked when he was done.

I snorted and grabbed the blade from him. He didn’t let it go, making me look up at him. The look in his eyes went beyond intense, beyond hungry.

We had met a matter of days ago, really. I wasn’t the only one who thought it had seemed like much, much longer. Eric was humming with anticipation and excitement so strong, I could feel it echo over the connection between he and Pam, and her own feeling in response.  Curious.  Smug.  A little jealous.

He let the blade go, eyes welded to my face, and then to the pad of my middle finger as I pressed the point of the knife into it.

A slight pop of tension giving way - the blade was sharp - and a drop of crimson bloomed into the grooves of my fingerprint.

Eric looked like a man possessed when I held it out and he moved forward, nostrils flared. He swallowed. The scent was me, magnified a hundred times, a thousand. He took my hand, eyes flashing up to mine once as he lifted it to his lips. He took the whole length of my finger in his mouth and closed his eyes as he sucked, slowly pulling it back out. A tremor shook through me.

He didn’t pull on the wound, but he didn’t need to. The moment the blood had touched the roof of his mouth, he felt like white light and electricity and life boiled down into physical form shot through his every dead vein like a shock. He pulsed with it, and the flavor was rich and light and full and beyond any description.  He would kill for me, to protect me, to keep me. I was life. There was no going back from this.

It summoned memories in him. Salt spray and the ocean, girls with honey-colored hair and high laughs, walking through a field of wheat, tanned and in the sun. Lovers came back to him, family and comrades, Pamela, Godric: his own Maker, and oh, but he <i>loved</i> the man, young and powerful and perfect.  Favorite victories, kills and blood, old battles hundreds of years buried. All of it was in one small drop of blood. It was like he was a human who had just taken the most potent V in the world.

He wanted more.

His eyes snapped open and up to my face. His pupils were swollen pools of black, and they reminded me of shark’s eyes. Distantly, I felt a trill of fear.

I pulled my hand back, but he wouldn’t let it go. He twined his fingers in mine and held it tightly, pulling it around his back like an embrace.

In a rush of air I was against the wall, gently, pinned between it and the broad, hard bulk of his chest. His mouth was moving at my neck, slow and languid and so, so thorough. He licked up its length and groaned. He sucked. he nipped, he teased my skin with the points of his fangs, as he seemed to love.  They were so sensitive they could feel my blood racing under the surface of my skin.

He was going to bite me.

“Eric--”

“Shhhh,” he cut over me, as if reassuring. He took my mouth to emphasize it and I pushed like hell against him, but when his tongue ran over the roof of my mouth, I melted with a frustrated, angry, hungry groan. By the time he returned to my neck, I felt boneless. The only reason I was still upright was because he was holding me up with his hands on my waist.

This wasn’t how lust was for other people. And it didn’t matter.

“You don’t--” My chest was heaving, the words breathless. I tried again. “Please, please Eric, you have to listen to me. You don’t really want to do this. You know there’s more I can d--”

He hummed, skimmed his tongue lightly up over my lips. The noise vibrated straight through his chest and into me, sending a shiver down my spine and straight to my pelvis. “I really do,” he rumbled.

“No,” I insisted, I pled, “you don't.”

His mouth was working its way up and down the column of my neck expertly as he took in great lungfulls of my scent. He could pick it out better under everything that buried it now that he’d had my blood. He was getting lost in what it stirred up and brought out in him.

Half-spoken words choked off in my throat. Under his mouth, his hands, his voice, and the huge bulge pressed into me, I was teetering on the edge of not caring whether or not I did the right thing. He certainly wouldn't thank me if I did.

He rolled his hips into mine. It felt like something was cutting through my stomach, hot and tingling and painful, but I didn't want it to stop.  A whimper clawed free of my throat. His responding sound of approval, of pleasure, of encouragement nearly shut my brain off right there. Without meaning to, I felt myself arching my spine, pressing into him. My hands wound their way into his hair, and it was like he knew where every one of my buttons was – buttons I didn't know I had.  Soft pressure mixed with hard, slow and savoring interrupted with scalding and hungry, noises, breaths, rumbles-

Something thudded against the door and angry voices shouted, glass broke, and thank every god that ever was, it was like getting thrown into a pool.

I ducked out from under his arms and held my hands out in a restraining gesture. “Just. . . listen to me,” I said, chest working like a bellows. “There’s something you need to know.”

He turned toward me, head down, and there was nothing of the man in his face anymore.

I dipped into him and immediately yanked back out like he was white-hot. This wasn't the Eric who sat on the throne, this wasn't the Eric who schemed and lusted and ruled, this wasn't the man who was calculating and sharp.  This was a body and brain turned to nothing but primal, animal lusts.

It didn’t matter what I might say. Eric was gone.

I bolted for the door. It was stupid and pointless but it was literally the only thing I could think of in a locked, soundless room with a creature who couldn't be hurt.  In a flash, he had me whipped around, one hand curled around my wrists, holding them above my head as his hips pinned me to the door.  His other hand forced my head far to the side.

He pressed his fangs into the skin of my neck as he pushed himself even tighter against me.  They felt like the pinching of two needles.  Fear, genuine fear, crashed through me.

“Eric stop!” I cried, panic leaking into my voice.

He paused, just long enough for me to get a hand free.  Some piece of him had heard me, but it was nothing, gone in an instant.

He sank his fangs deep into the artery in my neck. I cried out involuntarily, my hand shoved deep into my pocket.

He nearly came when the swell of blood touched his tongue, but instead ground his erection against me hard with a low growl.

I had thought I was safe enough with Eric. But I still wasn’t stupid; I yanked the bundle of fine silver chain I carried with me, long marinated in Alcide's dirty laundry to hide its smell, and slammed it into his face.

He recoiled with a roar and his face was rage. He bolted forward in a blink and wrapped a hand dangerously tight around my neck, using it to slam me back against the wall, cracking my head against it. I lost myself to stars and black spots and the rush of the ocean in my ears as my face grew cold.

I swam in nothing, fighting to get back to myself, and suddenly slumped to the ground.  His hand was gone.

My eyes rolled in my head until the room started to come back into focus.  Eric stood on the other side of the room, as far as he could get from me, white shock spread over his face.  He was trying to process a feeling he didn't know what to do with, couldn't even identify at first.  Horror.

He hadn't lost himself like that since he had been a newborn.

Slowly and with infinite care, he retracted his fangs, flesh still burned away from his cheek and the side of his neck in a steaming red tangle.

I pressed hard to my wound, and blood leaked out from between my fingers, spilling down to soak the neck of my shirt.

His face was stunned as I pushed myself up and started groping blindly for the doorknob.

“Emma. . . .” he said, his voice breaking slightly around the word.

My hand found the knob, and when the door wouldn’t open, I remembered it had been locked.  I clicked it open, too afraid to take my eyes off of Eric, watching his face for any sign that he was about to lose it again.

I moved slowly, afraid to trigger another predatory episode, and he didn’t stop me when I opened the door, not even bloody as I was.  The moment there was enough room, I squeezed through and  bolted.

The scent of my blood went through the room like a ripple the moment I broke the seal on the door of the office, but no one tried to touch me. They moved out of my way to make a path, in fact. The humans tried to help, reached out, asked if I was ok, but no one stopped me.

Like every vampire in the bar, Pam’s fangs dropped of their own accord when she caught my scent. She started to say something before I even had the outer door opened all the way, but I yelled at her, “Stay the fuck back!”

Blood was down to my breasts now, and spilling further.

I hurried. Once I had made it two blocks away I let myself sink against the quiet side of a building while my phone was connecting to 9-1-1. I was dizzy. My face felt cold and tingly.

“Blood loss,” I panted the instant operator answered. My voice sounded like metal and breeze through leaves. I gave him the street names and told him to hurry, and then my hand dropped. I couldn’t hold it up anymore. I laid down. I was so tired. . . .

 

* * * * *

 

Quiet voices. Two of them were annoyed. Women.

A man spoke. A beat later I recognized it as Eric’s voice and shot upright. Hands tried to restrain me, but I fought, and felt something sharp in the crook of my arm, then a wetness.

Eric was gone instantly, so was the second woman - Pam. I couldn’t even feel them.

“Lay the fuck down and stop flailing around!” the third woman ordered, her voice a high, strange combination of oatmeal and birdsong and thistles. “You’re getting blood everywhere!”

I stopped long enough to look at her, panting, my eyes wide. She was the shortest woman I had ever seen, the size of a child, old, with tight parchment skin and deep lines in her face. She was dressed in full scrubs and had rectangular glasses low on her nose. Improbably smooth gray hair was tied back low.

I looked around, felt around, but save for Ginger way in the back, we were alone - strangely so.

“I don’t know what you are,” the woman said curtly, “but with the way you apparently smell to the vampires and what just happened to you, I get your panic. But if you don’t lay back down and let me reattach your IV, you’re going to have to go to the hospital and explain to them why you don’t have a blood type before you die on one of their tables because they can’t help you.”

“. . . I don’t have a blood type?” I asked dumbly.

“No. Now lay the hell down, missy.”

I looked at her, bewildered, but did as I was told, my senses wide for any sign of Eric or another vampire the whole time.

“What happened?” I asked quietly as she worked at my elbow, swiping the blood away, disinfecting, finding the vein, then taping the needle down. Whatever she was, she was ancient, and felt like a thousand lifetimes lived, all in the medical profession.

“You were bleeding out on the street. You also had a moderate concussion and a good deal of bruising. Northman found you, cleared the place out, brought you back, and called me. You’ve only been out about fifteen minutes. It’d be best if you stayed here for a while so--”

“No,” I interrupted sharply.

She looked over her glasses at me like she wanted to hit me with something. ”So I can keep an eye on you. Northman and his progeny will stay away until I tell them it’s safe to come back. What are you? I’ve seen a lot of weird shit, but nothing like you.”

I finally started to relax back into. . . whatever I was on. It seemed like a low massage table, and it was set up right in front of the bar. I let my eyes close.

“No idea, ma’am,” I said, tired.

“Huh. You smell like a werewolf.”

“Yeah. Been getting that a lot lately. I grew up with them.”

“And they don’t know what you are either?”

“No. Thank you for helping me.”

“I’m getting paid,” she said bluntly.

God forbid a patient should be appreciative.

She moved away from me and slid a piece of glass under a microscope that was set up at a nearby table.

“What were you and Pam arguing about?” I asked.

“Me and the blonde? Nothing. We were having a nice chat, actually.”

I almost laughed. I wanted to ask her what besides my blood type made me different, but I was too god-forsaken tired.

Then again, I might literally never get another chance like this, so I did.

“Your physiology is all normal - or at least it seems that way until you bother to look past the surface. I poked around a little bit while you were out, nothing invasive of course, but I get the impression that half your organs don’t even do anything. It’s like most of you is just there for show. You’re not a shifter or a changeling, and you don’t seem like anything that preys on humans, which I’d expect if you were going to go through the trouble of pretending to look like one. How long you been like this?”

“Like what?” I asked, feeling detached from myself.

“Like a human,” she said, eye welded to the lense of the microscope while she made adjustments to the focus below. “Shit, even your blood isn’t blood.”

“What?” My voice was not calm that time.

She leaned back and looked at me from under her brows again. “No platelets. No white blood cells, no antibodies, nothing I’d expect to find in the blood of any species. Magical creatures are different, but the basics of biology don’t change much from species to species. Whatever you have flowing in those veins, it’s not blood.”

I looked down at my elbow. “Then what are you putting into me?” And what was it Eric had taken?

She shrugged. “I ran out of options in the end, so I just mixed together a bunch of different kinds of True Blood and hoped for the best.”

“Isn’t that. . . couldn’t that have killed me?”

“You were already dyin’,” she replied blithely.

“. . . Right,” I said, dazed. “Right.” Then, “Does Eric or Pam know any of this?”

“Sure. They were the ones who had to get me the True Blood.”

“Great,” I muttered.

She peered at me. “I’ve worked with Northman before. He’s a shithead like most vampires, but he always pays on time. I’ve never seen him look like he did tonight.”

I looked over at her, but she just stared back and didn’t elaborate.

“. . . If it’s not blood you’re pumping the synthetic blood into, how is it helping me not die?”

“No idea. I’ve never seen anything like you before, like I said.”

“Join the club,” I muttered ungraciously.

She was every bit as curious about me as I would expect any scientist to be in the face of an unexpected puzzle.

She could get in line.

“I know this is rude, ma’am, but when exactly can I leave? Vampires or no, I’d rather not be here any longer than I have to. Or ever again, if we’re being honest.”

’So you might not be totally stupid,’ she thought. “Technically you can probably leave as soon as you can stand up without feeling like you’re going to fall over. If you can get a ride home. If you need to drive yourself, you should wait at least a couple of hours. There’s food for you if you get hungry, and either way, I’m going to give you my card. If anything feels weird in the next few days, you should call me. The bill’s taken care of either way.”

“He told you what happened, then?” I asked, darkened and quiet.

“No, and I didn’t ask outside of the relevant information. That’s how you stay alive when you deal with as many supernaturals as I do.”

’Smart lady,’ I thought, echoing her sentiment from earlier.

“Doctor Ludwig, by the way,” she said, taking her medical gloves off with a snap and dropping them into a container on the table with the microscope.

“Call me Emma,” I said absently.

“Mmhm,” she said, eyeing me like she knew that was bullshit. Or like she knew something was bullshit. Or like she was looking at something she had never seen before.

Ludwig went back to work at the microscope, then started making and taking calls in languages I couldn’t pretend to recognize. Some of them were medical calls. Others were calls about me. I tried to ignore them, and when I felt a little more like myself, sat up, then carefully got to my feet and wheeled my IV over to the booth where the covered plate of food she had indicated was.

Inside there was a fruit salad of citrus and berries, a dark green salad with lentils and avocado, a piece of fish, a dish of yogurt with nuts and more berries, and a large glass of water. All food good for replenishing blood supply. Which made me wonder how much Ludwig had told Eric after all, or if he had just opted to err on the side of careful. Well. . . Pam. I doubted Eric had done this personally. . . .Then again, Pam wouldn’t either.

As if on cue, I felt Ginger get a call, get flustered over the call, then make her way out to the front.

“Emma?” She said, poking her head out of the employee door.  She talked gently, as if I was a terminal patient about to pass on. “Eric wants to know if you’re ok, sweetie," she said very much in a 'isn't he just the best' tone.

I looked at the phone in her hand and said around a mouthful of greens, “is that him?”

When she smiled and nodded, I held my hand out for it.  Smile widening, she obliged and came out to give it to me.

I swallowed, took a sip of water to clear my mouth out, then held the mouthpiece up in front of my lips. ”FUCK OFF,” I said, then ended the call, opened the back of the phone, popped the battery out, and put it on the other side of my plate. I snapped the casing back together and returned the phone back to the petite, platinum blonde with a sugary smile. “Thanks, Ginger.”

If I heard from him again before I left, I be too tempted to burn this place to the ground.

Chapter Text

I had a strange dream that night. A beautiful young woman with dark hair was laying in bed. I told her she had to kill herself, as if I was telling her she would have a good day tomorrow. I said “make him think he did it.”

It had been a long time since I’d had such a disturbing dream.

 

* * * * *

 

Bill told Sookie everything. Making her verify every single thing so I could be certain felt like a cruelty, like pulling out someone’s fingernails, but I needed to know it was done. I could tell she wanted company, but she was too proud to come out and ask someone she’d only just met. She wasn’t without people who cared about her; she’d be ok.

I wrote an anonymous letter to Lafayette the next day and put it in a blank envelope:

 

They’re going to find out you’re selling.

They will worse than kill you. You know that.

Stop now, get rid of your stock, never use or deal again. Never so much as be in the same building as the stuff, and they won’t come after you.

So long as you do all of that, your mother’s care bills will be paid indefinitely.

 

I waited as long as I felt was safe to try and give myself time to recover from what had happened at the club, then invited Sam for lunch in Shreveport. The small doctor at Fangtasia had used a superficial dab of vampire blood to make the raw bite in my neck vanish, so there would be no obvious sign, at least. She assured me there would be no connection to the vampire who had given the blood. “It only works that way when they give it to you and will the bond,” she said. I felt white-hot anger when she said it.

I gave Sam the letter and asked him to pass it to Lafayette and to never, ever tell him who it was from. I also made him swear not to look inside - I knew he wanted to. I asked him to get in touch with me if Lafayette ever needed the sender of the letter - in case the cost of his mom's care went up, for instance, though I didn’t tell Sam that.

I felt a little bad asking, but he seemed relieved to be able to do something for me. It wasn't just Rene - he had of course found out about Sookie kicking Bill to the curb and had put together that I was responsible for it. Part of him couldn't help but feel he owed me, and it was a feeling he had long ago learned not to like.

The new month came and went. It wasn’t until the end that I noticed my bank balance was too high.

$25,000 too high. I had to go into the bank personally and argue with a manager to get the money returned.

The next month, it was back. When I got an overpayment check from my student loan provider hours after getting back from another near-argument at the bank, I crumpled it in my hand in anger. It took three hours on the phone with the creditor to convince them that the payment was erroneous. When they told me they would still have to contact the payer to verify the refund, I lost my temper and told them to forget it.

I almost wished Eric had given me a car so I could drive it into a canyon and watch it break into ruin. Instead, I closed my bank account. Most of my savings was in cash, but what had been in the bank got hidden inside empty tampon containers and fake canisters of cleaning products. I told dad I wanted to start getting payed in cash.

 

* * * * *

 

Late afternoon sun was casting long shadows through the front windows of the office when I felt Alcide approaching like a thunderhead. He pulled up outside, threw the front door open, and damn near ran straight back to dad's office, slamming the door behind him. He hadn't so much as glanced in my direction.

The emotions in there were like the first time you break a seal on a carbonated drink. There was a little build-up of confusion and then the world in there exploded like a firework. Dad was ecstatic. Alcide was wary, but dad’s feelings proved contagious pretty quick. I shoved away from the desk and let myself into the office. The two of them were standing there, a piece of paper in dad's hand.

“What the hell is going on in here?” I asked, brow wrinkled and half a smile on my face at the feeling coming off of him.

“The. . . bank,” dad said, wonder in his voice. “I-- They forgave the loan.”

Time slowed as the meaning of that sank in, and my face slackened. I strode forward with my hand out. “Give me the letter,” I demanded.

Dad yanked it away before I even got close. “Naw, honey, there's no reason for that. It's just a lot of legal crap. I kinda want to frame it, anyway,” he lied with a goofy grin.

I rolled my eyes in exasperation. “I know the loan was from Eric Northman, dad. Now just give me the damn letter.”

Some combination of panic and shock broke over Alcide and dad's faces, settling quickly into consternation - so much that dad didn’t scold me for cussing.

“Ag, you're not supposed to be poking around--” Alcide accused, indignant.

“I didn't get it out of your heads, dummy,” I snapped back. “How'd you think that was supposed to work when I gave you my word?”

His face said very clearly ‘how do you lie without lying all the damn time?’

I shot him a look and then, with a shudder, added, “I haven't been inside your head since you hit puberty.”

Had Alcide been younger, he might have blushed. As it was, he just looked ticked. The two men exchanged a look and then, resigned, dad held the letter out. I practically ripped it from his hand, my eyes quickly skimming over the page.

 

. . .Investment in local business. . . 

. . .Benefit of the community. . .

. . .Special grant. . . 

 

Eric had signed his name at the bottom in a smooth black scrawl.

It was horseshit. It was manipulation. He was testing the fence again; the direct approach had backfired, and for all he now knew, I was afraid of him, maybe even hated him. So on top of throwing around almost $100,000 in the last two months, he forgives a massive amount of family debt to show me that he's really a good guy underneath it all, that he can be trusted, probably to show how well he would take care of me and the people I care about. Horse. Shit.

I was furious. It was a force of will not to crumple the paper in my hand. Instead, I tightly passed it to Alcide to put somewhere safe. “Has he contacted either of you recently?” I asked, my tone clipped and my face hard. “Any of his people?”

They knew the look on my face and didn't bother asking any questions. It was the look I got when I knew something they didn't.

Dad shook his head, “No.” Alcide darted a glance at his reaction and agreed. “Why?  What's wrong?”

I snorted. “Looks like something's right, I'd say.” I jutted my chin angrily at the letter he'd set on he and dad's desk. “Just. . . if he reaches out to either of you, for anything, let me know, ok? Don’t talk to him, don’t agree to anything, don’t accept anything else. This is fine, but nothing else,” I said seriously.

They agreed, and I left early to run until I couldn’t feel the anger in my veins anymore.

 

* * * * *

 

The burble of water, clear and clean and pure. Gentle, furious, devastating, nurturing, unyielding. It seeps into boulders and cracks them open with the freeze. It brings down mountains.

Rainfall. Marshes, the sounds of life.

 

”Where are you?”

 

Flashes of light. Fire, the heart of the earth. Dancing bodies around bonfires, tossing themselves into the air in ecstasy. The crying of a baby.

 

“We can’t find you.”

“Please. Let us help.”

 

Sunlight. A clear blue sky seen from the top of a mountain. Clouds like worlds, like beings. Roots of earth below those mountains, stretching deep, unknown to humans. Mystery they would never see. Massive plates jutting up, birthing and destroying. Crops in fertile soil, flowers, green life everywhere, bugs in loam. Dry, cracked brown plateaus, devoid of any moisture.

 

“Please. We have missed you. We mourned you.”

“Please, હોવા.”

 

I woke with a full-body jerk.

These dreams had started the first night I'd gone to Bon Temps, and every time I had one, floating around in the dark, voices echoing and more real than sound in my ears, I always shot awake right in the middle. Like they wanted to make sure they got stuck in my brain.

The hairs on my arms pulled upward.

 

* * * * *

 

As well as I did with my budget and as low as I kept my living expenses, shelling out an extra $900 every month for Lafayette’s mom - which I had no intention of stopping - was quickly proving untenable. So at the end of the third month, weeks after the letter Alcide had brought into the office, I moved in with him. I had planned on moving back home, but Alcide insisted. He wanted to give me my own place, in fact - he owned the building - but he’d known the attempt was fruitless before he started. He said that with Debbie moved out, he could use the company, anyway. Danny wasn't exactly heartbroken about the new arrangement, either, and started coming over at least once a week.

It shouldn’t have been an especially high point for me. And it wasn’t. But I had learned to be such an island to myself that it didn’t bother me what other people might think. My community knew me well enough to know that I still had my life in hand. I didn’t need to impress prospective romantic interests or have a space to bring them home, and Alcide was easy company. Comfortable, fun, and he mostly kept to himself. Budgeting was easier with split expenses, and chores always went faster.

He made extra food when he cooked and made sure there was always cold beer. We split errands, and stole each other’s if a list was left lying anywhere. I gave him massages when he got tight from work sometimes, moaned at him to pick up after himself (then ended up doing most of it, anyway, though sometimes I got revenge later), and helped him get rid of all the overt stuff that reminded him of Debbie. Which was basically everything. What little she’d left, anyway. The first thing I did was take him out and make him buy a couch, cookware, and an actual bed frame. Bastard had been sleeping on a bare mattress on the floor.

We looked out for each other.

So life stayed life. It carried on, as it does. After I dumped my phone and got a new number, after the dreams of Eric finally started to abate, I was even able to pretend that everything with him and Pam had been a bizarre sort of fever dream. It was a relief.

Sometimes, nights and evenings when my heart wandered, I missed something in the space they had occupied. In the space Eric had occupied, if I was being honest. But it was something that never would have been mine to have, anyway. Not really.

 

* * * * *

 

Unknown; 9:03pm

Why aren’t you answering your door?

 

Me; 9:03pm

No one’s knocking at it

I’m guessing you have a wrong number. :)

 

Unknown; 9:04pm

No, I don’t.

I’ve been knocking for five minutes.

This is the third night I’ve stopped by personally.

 

A weight dropped in my stomach.

My fingers were sluggish when they pecked out a reply, because I was afraid I already knew the answer, and I was in no hurry to get it confirmed.

 

Unknown; 9:05pm

Who is this?

 

Unknown; 9:05pm

Eric.

 

I went cold.

With unusual calm, I turned off my phone’s screen, set it down, and left the room. No matter where I went in the house, I could hear it buzzing. I wanted to take a walk, but I had the unreasonable paranoia that he’d magically turn up the second I stepped outside.

I paced. I chewed on a finger. Mentally, I went away for a while. But eventually, like he was magnetic fucking north, I returned to my phone. I ignored the small book he’d written in my absence. There were two missed calls from him in the mix.

 

Me; 9:15pm

Are you at my apartment?

 

Unknown; 9:15pm

You didn’t read my texts

 

Me; 9:16pm

Still sharp, I see.

What the actual fuck do you want?

Track my number again and I’ll go underground and move out of state

Ask me if I mean it.

 

Unknown; 9:16pm

I know you do.

I’m only contacting you like this because it’s urgent

I had Pamela try first. She came here several times.

You’re hard to get ahold of.

 

Me; 9:17pm

Only when I don’t want to be found.

Again, and last time I’m asking. What the fuck do you want.

 

Unknown; 9:17pm

I need your help.

 

Me; 9:18pm

No

It was easy, at least

Have a nice life

“Life”

 

Unknown; 9:18pm

I will pay anything you want

 

I narrowed my eyes at the screen. When I texted a reply, my fingers pecked at the screen so hard it rattled up into the bones.

 

Me; 9:20pm

Did you not get that money wasn’t the issue when I returned your payment twice and closed my bank account? IDK wouldn’t refund the loan payment without contacting you or you would have gotten that back too. The shit you pulled with my dad and Alcide wasn’t for me to turn down.

 

Unknown; 9:20pm

Difficult as it will be for you to believe, that wasn’t a manipulation.

It was an apology.

Nothing more.

 

My mouth fell open. He went on.

 

Do you think I would be asking you if I had another option?

I have left you alone these past months

You know I didn’t have to.

 

Me; 9:21pm

Are you looking for a thank you?

I have two words. The last one is ‘you,’ but the first one is not thank

 

Unknown; 9:21pm

Come to the door. Talk to me, hear me out. Five minutes. If you refuse, I won't contact you again. You have my word.

 

I chewed on my lip as I looked down at the screen. Eric kept his word if he gave it. Usually. At least 99% of the time, anyway. What the hell was going on?

 

Me; 9:23pm

That would be hard.

I don’t live there anymore.

 

Unknown; 9:23pm

Where are you?

 

Me; 9:24pm

None of your fucking business.

I’m not suicidal, so no I won’t fucking meet you.

 

Unknown; 9:24pm

Bring as much silver as you like. Bring bodyguards if you want. Bring your entire pack.

I am asking you to meet me, Emma.

 

That sounded very much like another ‘you know I don’t have to be nice about it.’

 

Me; 9:25pm

I’m going to be really generous and assume that was your geriatric head-up-your-ass arrogant way of saying please

 

Before I could send the next message, he pinged in a reply.

 

Unknown; 9:25pm

Please.

 

My fingers froze. I had literally thought him incapable of the word. Or of an apology. If Eric was dicking around, he was bringing out the big guns, and this wasn’t his style, his usual way of trying to get what he wanted. And for it to come out of the blue like this. . . . Unease settled in me like a shiver. Gooseflesh rose on my arms and the back of my neck.

 

Me; 9:27pm

What’s wrong?

Is Pam ok?

What happened?

 

Unknown; 9:27pm

Pamela is fine. If I wanted to discuss this over the phone, I would have called.

Where can we meet?

 

I gritted my jaw at his presumption, but it was hardly wrong.

 

Me; 9:28pm

There’s a park on Alabaster and 3rd.

 

Unknown; 9:28pm

I’ll be there in two minutes.

 

Me; 9:28pm

...

I won’t.

 

He didn’t reply. I stared at the screen for a minute, brows drawn together.

My old apartment was twenty minutes from here. At least ten if you drove like a lunatic. How the hell did he figure he could get to the park in two minutes? He could already be nearby, but if he was tracking me using his blood, he would just be outside Alcide’s apartment.

With a tight sigh through pursed lips, I grabbed one of Alcide’s jackets and called over my shoulder “I’m going for a walk” as I was closing the door behind me. If he said anything in reply, it was muffled by the wood.

The park came into sight in about ten minutes. We lived closer to it than that, but I had circled around to come at it from a different direction. Eric could track me, sure. Maybe by nothing but scent. Still, no reason to hand my location to him in a bow.

My brows rose when I saw him. He was sitting on a bench underneath a sad, yellow-lighted lamp.

“What the actual hell are you wearing?” I asked from across the expansive lawn. In an instant he was in front of me. If I hadn’t been reading him, I would have jumped.

He stood at a respectful distance, but his gaze on me went beyond intense. It reminded me of how we had parted ways and I took an involuntary step back, though I kept my spine straight and my shoulders back.

He noticed, of course. He looked away. “A track suit. Apparently they’re in fashion now.”

“. . . It’s uh. . . huh,” I said. It was the most diplomatic thing I could think of. He looked like a frat boy. Except too old to be a frat boy. Not that anyone would ever say it to his face. “I don’t hate the hair,” I offered. It was cropped short.

I felt bad for him. I could not begin to guess why, or how absolutely out of my mind I had to be to feel that way.

“Pam had to cut it. Someone ruined a dye job she was doing.”

A tiny twitch of my lips was the most I could tamp down on my amusement at the picture. She was a droll, tremendous bitch. I hadn’t realized how much I missed her.

“You know you can call her Pamela in front of me. For all those conversations we won’t be having in the future.”

I sighed. I should feel terrified. The awareness of how dangerous he was was there. The memory of what he’d done was there. But aside from a little more tension, I just felt the same way I always had around him, at least after the beginning. Calm. Annoyed. Impatient. Curious.

Interested.

I wanted to blame it on the blood, but I knew myself too well to get away with a lie like that. I liked the fucker. Or I had. He had given me a taste of a world outside my own. College had been similar, but nothing like it had been around him. He didn’t baby me. He didn’t give into the urge to coddle me. And he knew what I was and what I could do. Mostly.  

But liking him wasn’t really a safe option anymore.

“Are you well?” His voice was oddly subdued. Something really was wrong, yes, but more than that, he hadn’t been prepared for how he’d feel seeing me again. It made something twist in my chest. Everything from before was there: lust, desire, want. But it was buried under more caution than he had probably felt in hundreds of years. Nothing, nothing made him lose control as badly as he had with me.

I arched a brow at him. “You can’t tell?”

“I have been staying out of your business.”

“. . . Ah.”

He actually meant it. He had the string that connected us clamped down in a vice. If it had been an artery, tissue would be long-dead from lack of blood.

It answered a question for me, too: how hadn’t he known I’d moved out of my apartment? The smell coming from it should have been stale at best, or covered with the new tenant’s.

He and Pam had held their breath every time they had visited.

“I’ve been well enough,” I said. It was practically a whisper. I couldn’t take my eyes off his face. ‘What’s wrong?’ I wanted to ask. “What do you want?”

Eric pulled himself awake and became almost businesslike. “A sheriff in Texas has gone missing. I would like your help finding him.”

I canted my head at him with a subtle narrowing of my eyes. No way this was so simple.

“What is he, your boyfriend?”

“He is incredibly powerful,” he said, voice gone sharp and warning. “Twice my age and ten times the vampire I will ever be.” The sincerity in him rang clear and pure as a golden bell. “We believe humans may have taken him. If they could take one such as Godric--”

“Godric?” I interrupted sharply.

He looked up, surprised. “How do you know that name?”

“I. . . I heard it in your head. That last night at the club, when you. . . .” I didn’t want to finish. I didn’t have to.

“A lot of things passed through you. Your connection to him was one of them.  . . . You have a lot of. . . well, ‘respect’ isn’t a strong enough word, but whatever it is, you have it for him. He’s either absolutely remarkable or just about the most terrifying creature in the world.” I gave a breath of a weak laugh. “I’m guessing some combination of both.”

He looked down again, and I saw a muscle in his jaw convulse.

“. . .I never intended to hurt you.”

Was that an apology? And was it supposed to make it better or worse?

“Not like that,” was all I said. My soft tone more said, 'I know.' I realized I had missed him. How could I miss him? Anger washed up to cover the surprised and chagrined hurt and loneliness.

I felt an answer of shock in him, but wisely, he kept it to himself.

“You know something of the bond between a vampire and their Maker, then. But what I said about his importance and the potential consequences of his disappearance are true. He is one of the three oldest vampires in North America.

“I would like you to come to Dallas with me. I will agree to whatever terms and conditions you deem necessary. Your skills would be invaluable in finding out what happened and in tracking him down. As I said on the phone, I’ll pay you whatever you want.”

“. . .Eric--”

“You owe me a favor,” he cut in, hearing and feeling my reticence.

My eyes snapped up to him, cold and furious.

He took a step toward me and lowered his head and his voice. “I need your help, Emma.” ‘If I have to take it by force, I will.’ He wasn’t stupid enough to say that out loud, at least.

I wanted to yell at him. I wanted to hit him with a baseball bat. I wanted to tell him where to shove a wooden stake or five. But there was something in him, something he wasn’t saying, something he was hiding, and he was working very hard to keep it from me, and it became more consuming than my anger. He buried it under focus on the conversation, under disciplined thoughts of his plan, and under what sounded like a rehearsed babble of what I assumed was Old Norse. He had prepared for this meeting.

It only made me dig. I found the cracks, hairlines in his focus, and pushed into them relentlessly until they had no choice but to give way.

What I saw made the muscles around my eyes go slack. Every other inch of me was held in tight control to keep from showing how unbalanced it made me.

It was the heart, the glowing, beautiful thing that he hid behind bunkers and vaults and chains and walls and spikes. The thing I had seen in him, secret and unknown, the night we’d met.  

I had been wrong; he knew it was there. He didn’t know the size or scope of it, he buried it, he didn’t even know what it really was, but he knew it was there.

I had been wrong about him. Eric was cold and calculating and detached, even something close to psychopathic sometimes - though that emotional detachment was something that seemed to be a trait in any vampire over a certain age. He was all those things, but for the first time, I Realized that Eric felt things, too. Deeply. It was only that most things didn’t have an impact on him because most things didn’t matter - why would they when they were so fleeting, so small?  

But Eric. . . cared. No, Eric Cared.

It was terrifying.

He couldn’t understand what was causing the feeling in me. He cast his senses out, but there were no threats, and nothing I got from him should actually frighten me. It made him tense. Twitchy.

For a moment, I couldn’t breathe. He looked at me and took another step forward, this one in concern, as he felt the storm rolling through me.

Worried about his secrets, he compressed everything he was into a tight ball of iron, distant and miniscule.

“I’ll help you,” my lips said, absent the rest of me. The cadence was fluid and quiet and pulled tight. I looked so hard into his blue eyes that I could see through him as if he were nothing more than a breeze over a mountain. “But not for a favor.”

He looked at me, the question obvious.

“. . . I’ll help you because you need it.”

It wasn’t my decision, not really, and it didn’t matter how I felt about it. It was as sure as needing air and water and food, and I followed it. The difference from the times I had felt something “other” steer me, though, was that this didn’t come from the universe, or god, or whatever it was. It came from me.

It was a new feeling. I hated it.

 

* * * * *

 

We left that night. I went home and packed, promising to meet him as soon as I could. He told me anything I needed could be ordered on the way and would be waiting when we got to the hotel - and he meant anything: clothes, toiletries, whatever. Money was like air to him, and I couldn’t even feel bitter about it, old as he was. I threw everything I would need in a suitcase anyway, because come on.

As soon as Alcide was well and truly asleep, I wrote him a note with a flimsy excuse, telling him I’d be back in a few days. He’d want to strangle me, but if I was already gone, he couldn’t stop me.

I drove to Fangtasia and parked around the side. Immediately he was there, taking my small suitcase, and we went to the airport in a black car driven by a man I wasn’t introduced to.

Apparently he had chartered a private jet on Anubis, the airline that catered to vampires - I wasn’t sure how that worked, since even they had to file flight plans, which tended to require departure times. I supposed anything must be possible with enough money.

The inside of the jet was small, but opulent. It reminded me of rooms in five star hotels I had seen in other people’s heads, all polish and clean lines and simple, rich furnishings. Our flight attendant was a ridiculously attractive brunette contracted to feed both the humans and the vampires as requested. She didn’t think she’d mind in Eric’s case. He, however, didn’t have an inch of attention to spare for her.

I sat across the aisle from him - it was either that or sit at his small table - and he made no objection. He ignored me as well as he had ignored the flight attendant - externally, anyway. He was trying not to focus on me, and failing. Dozens of things he wanted to ask me were flying through his head: Where was I living? With who? Why? Was I well? Questions about the night everything had gone wrong. Questions about things the doctor had told him. Questions about things he’d heard, things he’d tracked down from my past. He had questions he didn’t even know how to put words to. And he desperately wanted to touch me. To his credit and my shock, most of it wasn’t even pornographic. It was like he wanted to reassure himself that I was there, that I was real and that I was there.

It wasn’t as hard as it might have otherwise been for him to put his mind on something else, though. It dipping almost obsessively back to Godric. He had absolute confidence in his Maker. He loved the man, and it was Eric’s faith - but he was deeply worried.

I looked out the window. We had leveled off over a solid floor of clouds. It graduated seamlessly into a dense field of stars that was absolutely breathtaking.

Distantly, I felt him file away the reaction. Why?

We didn’t talk, except  for two things. The second one was him letting me know there was a bed in the back if I wanted to sleep. I thanked him, but stayed where I was. If I was going to help him, that would involve nighttime work. Better to get a head start on the weird sleep schedule now.

The first one was pretty much just him saying one word: "Ēostre."

"What?"

He repeated the word. "Agnes Herveaux has a paper trail, no matter how carefully it has been buried." He was looking out his window as he spoke, his tone detached. He sounded like the Eric I had met the first time. Far away. Bored. Except he didn't sound like he was above the conversation, just distant. "Emma White's is negligible, but it does exist. While you're in Dallas, I wouldn't recommend telling anyone your name. I introduced you to the people we'll be meeting as Ēostre."

". . .Ok, and what does 'Ohstreya' mean?"

"Close," he said of the pronunciation. "A little less at the end, and you'll have it."

"Ah, well, you know, that Swedish lilt doesn't come naturally."

"It's Old Norse."

"My mistake," I said. My volume had been falling through the conversation in response to how withdrawn he was. By the end it was nearly a whisper.

I wanted to prompt him again for the meaning of the word, but I felt like that would be, if not inviting a conversation, then taking a chip out of whatever wall he had erected between us.

Part of me rebelled against the idea of leaving it in place.

He felt the stir in me, but lacked the context to place it.

Eventually I was served a light meal, and as dawn neared, Eric left to go down for the day. I opted to get a couple hours’ sleep.

 

* * * * *

 

I smelled it on him before I was even off the plane. He was so nervous he was probably half steeping in his own sweat.

I smiled broadly as I stepped down the portable stairs to the tarmac and he came into view, tucked neatly into his uniform. He immediately moved to open the door of the limousine for me. The car choice was overkill, I thought.

I had no intention of going with him. Until an idea occurred to me. Unfortunately, given the affect I had on people, it wouldn’t work, but--

My breath caught in my chest as I felt something I had never felt before. It slid down from me like a blanket, leaving me exposed to cold, crisp air. For an instant, the world was sharper and brighter, almost too much, and then like a tremor in the ground, abruptly everything stilled and returned to normal as if it had never been. But it left something different. How could I not notice when I had felt it every moment of my life?

My influence was gone. And I saw it through his eyes - when I had stepped off the plane, I had shone, and he had almost panicked, thinking he couldn’t go through with the plan. And then suddenly, I was just another person. A beautiful person, but otherwise completely unremarkable.

I almost wept.

“Are you alright, Miss?” he asked as I neared. His brow wrinkled in worry. Not worry for me, but still.

“Oh,” I said, eyes too bright and face contorted into a smile that was almost a grimace. “Just happy to be here.” Waiting to be ‘here’ for 26 years, to be exact.

“Can I take your bag?”

I almost snorted. He wanted to separate me from my ID, my money, and my phone.

“No, thank you,” I said with a more normal smile as I ducked into the back seat.

He closed the door and my heart felt like a hummingbird. I was an idiot. A colossal idiot, and I was going to get myself killed.

But I was already in the car. Which of course meant it was literally impossible to back out now. If I hadn’t been so keyed up, I would have rolled my eyes.

The driver was so nervous he hadn’t even gotten my suitcase. I pretended not to notice. It’d probably just get thrown away if he took it, anyway.

I recognized that I was thinking about frivolous things, that I was breathing too fast. I was afraid.

I felt Eric feel it. I felt Eric wake up enough to feel it. He was not happy about being locked away and unable to speed to me. I could see him, being wheeled away in a sleek, shining black coffin.

I closed my eyes and leaned my head back against the seat as the driver slowly pulled away from the small plane. The morning light was blocked by the heavily tinted windows. I made my muscles relax. I made my breaths deep and long and low. I stayed in the shell of my body until I felt a little more calm. It had happened. I had decided it. I was probably an idiot. Technically, I could just jump out of the limo at any point and run to someone for help, so I had an out.

I wouldn’t.

Alcide was going to murder me, and I’d deserve it.

I felt for the piece of Eric that was inside of me like webbing, all through my blood. From my arteries, to my veins, down into every muscle and organ. I felt the tether connecting me to him, and I pushed calm and confidence across that line.

After a few minutes, I pulled my phone out and texted him.

 

Me; 7:56am

Hey

So

I hope you don’t have your phone with you right now, if you’re still awake

I’m fine

I’ve just sort of done something that might be a little stupid

Or brilliant. We’ll see how it turns out.

Maybe don’t go on a rampage

And for fuck’s sake don’t tell Alcide.

I kind of wrote him a BS note last night, and when I don’t answer, he’s going to start looking for me. He’s crafty. He’ll probably call you at some point.

Anyway. . .

So. . . .

 

I stopped and took another deep breath before going on, making a passable amount of calm settle back into the fore.

 

I kind of. . . let myself get kidnapped

See it’s really smart

Maybe

I hope

Because this guy, the driver? He was supposed to get ‘the human traveling on this flight’

Didn’t even know that I’d be a woman

Doesn’t know who he’s working for.

Lic. XTU-088, black limo, standard Lincoln Town Car

Don’t kill him unless he’s a bad person. Consider it my hazard pay.

His instruction is just to take me to a drop spot

See I figure. . .

 

Another breath. I saw a bottle of water along with some sodas, wine, nuts, and fruit. I cracked the top and took a long drink.

 

I figure yowl have a mole

*y’all

I’m here to help you find Godric. Someone knows that. I’m betting not a lot of someones.

No way this guy being sent to pick up the human who’s supposed to help find him is a fucking coincidence.

 

Oddly, swearing, which was normally just a hobby, made me feel a little less afraid and. . .rabbit-like.

 

So going with this guy is, I’m betting, going to end me up exactly where Godric is. At the very least, I should learn something about who took him.

I mean,

 

I laughed to myself as I typed this, almost a little unbalanced.

 

If they were just supposed to kill me, we’ve passed plenty of creepy deserted buildings already. And - yeah, there’s an open field.

Anyway.

I’m rambling. I know I’m rambling. I might be a little nervous.

I’ll find a way to get a message to you ASAP once I know what’s going on
Can I “call” you? Because I don’t really want you busting up the joint until I get what want

Whatever I’ll figure it out.

Anyway yeah. Like. . . go sightseeing. Catch a show. Buy Pam some nice shoes or something.

Be Zen. No rampages. Please.

Also, stop growling at my texts.

:D

And don't crush your phone in your hand or throw any furniture.

Or people (unless they really deserve it).

Or animals (not even if they deserve it).

Have I mentioned I might be a little nervous?

Because I might be a little nervous.

First kidnapping.

And don't you dare fucking yell at me when this is over or I swear to God.  

I'm doing you a favor, so don't be a dick.

So. .  there’s this thing where people won’t hurt me. Had it my whole life.

It was something I meant to tell you about. You know, before.

It got shut off when I stepped out of the plane. He wouldn’t take me otherwise, right?

I know you’re not stupid, so I’m really just saying this to make myself feel better but don’t text me back. I’m assuming my phone will be taken and combed through, so I’ll delete all my convos with you, Pam, etc when I’m done, you know, rambling like an idiot.

I mean, I still hope you’re sleeping, and since my phone hasn’t started exploding with threats of bodily harm, I figure I must be right. But I feel better texting you

Distraction maybe

*sighs*

I’m going to shut the hell up now

Next time I see you, I’ll be able to tell you about an adventure :D

Which will probably be a snoozefest to you, because fuck you, Mr. I’m-a-fancy-viking-vampire-and-so-badass-and-whatever

You’ll humor me anyway.

Because you don’t hate me

Mostly

A little?

. . .I’m going to stop now before I REALLY embarrass myself.

You know, more.

God help you if you ever show these to anyone.

Or speak of them. Ever. Even to me.

. . . See you soon, Eric. Wish me luck.

Chapter Text

I felt them long before the end of our trip. Five men, all anxious and keyed up. They were young, and excited to be trusted with an important task. I took a moment to listen.

They were recruits of a large, secret, and rapidly expanding militant wing of a church that had been everywhere in the news lately for its aggressive anti-vampire stances: The Fellowship of the Sun. Their place in the organization gave these men a feeling of purpose. There were few things in the world that could be more powerful, or inspire more loyalty.

I had erased my texts to Eric, an old conversation with Pam, and everything with members of the pack. I couldn’t erase everything without tipping someone off, so I left up all the conversations I’d had with acquaintances, after scanning through them to delete anything I didn’t want someone else seeing.

The transition was smooth, at first. The limo stopped in an industrial area. It was all but abandoned; late enough that everyone had started their shifts, but not so much that anyone would be on break yet. I didn’t bother asking why we had stopped or what was going on. I just got out of the car, left my stuff in the back seat - and wished I’d had the foresight to stash all my cards in the plane before getting into the limo - shut the door, and leaned against it, taking in the five men standing next to a van with no side windows in the back. It wasn’t too new, it wasn’t too old, and it was in decent repair - nothing that would stand out.

They were all in their early twenties, dressed casually but cleanly, wore identical, large rings on their right hands, and were eager to prove themselves. One, a shorter man with sandy blonde hair, approached me with what was supposed to be a reassuring smile on his face. It was not, in fact, reassuring. He seemed to be the de facto leader of the group, and was by far the most ballsy. I saw what he was going to do, the needle he was hiding behind his back as he held out his hand in friendly greeting, and weighed my options.

Whatever he had was was only meant to put me to sleep. I could fight him off, but not five other men at the same time. Syringes weren’t easy to break. And if I just outed myself by suggesting the drug wasn’t necessary, that took a major card out of my hand. Unfortunately he didn’t know what was actually in the needle - he’d just been told to use it. But I wasn’t allergic to anything, as far as I knew.

I’d already let myself get taken. What was a little mystery drugging?

If Alcide or Eric didn’t kill me after this, I’d do it myself.

I didn’t shake the blond’s hand. I just tipped up off the car and regarded him coolly. He leaned in, again as if to greet me, and used the motion to jab the needle into the side of my neck, lightning-quick. His friends were jogging forward. The last things I felt were excitement, the guilt and fear of the limo driver, and the disquiet of the man with sandy blonde hair as I didn’t react to his attack, and did nothing but stare him calmly in the eye until everything went hazy and black.

 

* * * * *

 

I woke to a strange motion. Up and down, up and down, short and jerky and in a rhythm. There was a weight on my pelvis. Hot, wet breath on my neck. Panting? Some sort of scuffling nearby, and the sound of cars on a road.

Movement inside me, between my thighs. Movement I had only really felt in blood dreams.

Then he broke into me like a flash flood over a levee and I screamed, fighting to get away, to break the contact.

“What the fuck!” one of them cried.

“She ain’t supposed to be awake yet, the fuck you do, Ben?” Another shouted. There was scrambling.

A backhanded child, crosses, a bible. A brunette woman. A sister. Wrongness and anger. Boxed up, everything had to be boxed up and put away. Laughing and confusion, mirth at suffering, pain and smallness. Fear, so much fear. Hunger. Touches a woman doesn’t want, more confusion and anger, time, disappointment, bitterness. Longing and ache. A heart, mangled and confused.

And then, in a flash, the last hour or so. They had gotten me into the van and paid the limo driver. Unconscious, I had looked to them like the most beautiful thing they had ever seen - my draw without the piece of it that protected me.

Coop drags her hands above her head before Landon even starts the ignition, then tears her shirt clean through with a pocket knife. I can’t blame him for being so impatient, I want to see her tits. I’ve already got a semi as it is.

Ben’s going first, he’s down between her legs while Coop slashes her bra open, fuck, I was right, her tits are perfect. Ben yanks a boot off and her pants and panties get pulled down the leg. He’s in a hurry; I laugh at him and make a joke. Micah’s already out of his pants while he watches.

Fucking Ben’s already hard. He spits on himself and goes right in, and shit his face when he gets inside her.

“I ain’t never had anything like this, fuck,” he says, and suddenly it’s like some chick’s been teasing him for an hour the way he’s going at it. When her tits start bouncing, I do like Micah and start tugging myself. I was already rubbing my cock through my pants, I didn’t even realize it.

I yell at Landon more than once to keep his eyes on the damn road, he’s swerving like he’s drunk, he knows we can’t get pulled over.

Cooper’s been rubbing up between her tits. He goes next, then Micah, thank god. He’s been cheering them on and I just want him to shut up. He flips her over and I wonder if he wants to do her in the backside, but he won’t, not in front of us. The bible’s pretty clear on ‘no sodomy,’ and we are righteous men. I feel a twist of something in my chest, but it's gone with another stroke of my cock.

Landon’s pissing and moaning in the front seat, saying he can’t concentrate, so he goes next. I have to take my hand off myself or I’ll blow before I even get to have her. Her hair, her lips, her skin, everything about her, I ain’t never seen anyone so perfect. Fuck, anything so perfect.

Fucking finally it’s my turn, her pants are still on one leg but I hardly notice, and suddenly I’m glad I’m last because shit she’s wet, and Ben was right she’s incredible, FUCK, I’m gonna be done about as soon as I start fuck fuck she’s waking up, FUCK, that shit was supposed to last like hours, she can’t--

My protection shuttered and slammed back down, and suddenly Mason, who had gripped my arms hard to hold me still the second I started waking up, recoiled as abject horror spread through him, and he could not pull out of me fast enough. He threw himself back and was sick in the corner of the van.

I scrabbled up against the wall, pulling my sweater together and curling my legs, trying to feel even the smallest bit less exposed.

Mason’s personality and vocabulary and dreams and whole life were rattling through me and I closed my eyes tight, trying to take myself away. Away from the van, away from the men and their shouting, away from the stink of their horror and the smell of sex and sweat and the horrible, nauseating slick feeling between my legs. I tried to let it all go so I could push Mason into a box and chain it closed.

Someone gently laid a scratchy blanket over my lower half, then pulled back again immediately. It helped. It also made me realize that I was keening softly, trembling, and clutching my light sweater so hard that my hands hurt.

I breathed. Distantly, I was aware they were arguing about whether or not to turn me in as planned, and I pulled back, just enough so that they’d do the job they were sent to do.

Eventually the van slowed to a stop and one of the men said quietly, as if talking to a scared animal, “Uh. . . Miss? We--” He swallowed thickly, and I heard him run sweaty palms down his jeans. “We gotta take you somewhere, and we’re almost there. You wanna to take a minute to. . . um, to get dressed?” He was dampened with cold sweat, and questioning everything he had ever done in his life. “We got some, uh, some like. . . wet naps, if you--” His voice broke. He didn’t go on.

They were the kind with alcohol. He didn't even know I couldn't use them. “Just give me a cloth,” I said quietly. “Something clean.” None of them had used protection. A problem for later.

They didn’t have a cloth, as it turned out, but one of the men - Landon, I saw when I opened my eyes - took his t-shirt off and was holding it out to me. “Here,” he said softly. “It's clean.” He wasn’t as sick with what he’d done as the others. He felt he understood what he was looking at, what I must be, with how I seemed now. He felt he knew what that meant, and the resignation in him dulled the edge of horror.

“You’re not going to hell, Landon,” I said, still quiet, correcting the thought in his head. “That’s not how it works. None of you are. Just. . . turn around. Give me some privacy.”

They did, stunned, every one of them, but none more than Landon - his thoughts were panicked. I wiped myself clean as best I could, and I felt sick and repulsed with every touch.

I’d felt rape before. It happened to far, far more women than most people thought. It happened to most women if you included any violation, not just the most carnal. I knew what was happening. I know what I was feeling. I knew that all of it was normal and to be expected and that none of it was my fault, at least not in the normal sense. It helped, but it didn’t take away the feelings. The illness.

Worse was knowing that five men had just committed rape, and they would have to live with it for the rest of their lives. One of them had done it before. One more very well could have at some point in the future. But the other three - Landon at the very least - never, never would have.

This was going to hit me hard later. But I knew myself; I could hold it in until it was safe for me to fall apart. Right then, I needed to stay in charge.

I stood and, hunched over, returned my undergarments and pants to my hips, fastening everything with shaking hands. Then I sat back down, blanket to one side like it was infected with something, and slipped the remnants of my bra off. I put my shoe back on, tying it slowly, using it as an excuse for even an instant more relative privacy.

In a back corner of my mind, I was thinking that no one had ever been able to hurt me before, and that despite what I’d always thought, there had to be a conscious component to my affect on people, because otherwise what these boys did never would have happened. It had turned off when I was awake. It had turned back on when I was awake.

I had no intention of ever turning it off again. For me, and for every single person around me.

I told them I was done, and the van started back up. They were all utterly still and silent for the short ride, not even glancing at one another. I could see where we were in Landon’s head - his was the easiest to look into.

We had driven down a private country road and were pulling into a massive parking lot, up to a cathedral-like church of ornate, pale wood. I had Landon’s shirt bundled tightly around my bra, all the mess carefully rolled to the inside.

“Stop somewhere near a trash can, please,” I said quietly.

“Ok, sure,” the driver, Micah, agreed, hasty and subdued.

We pulled to a stop and despite my numbness, I felt apprehensive fear. I knew, I knew I wouldn’t get hurt again, not as badly as this. But emotions never did listen to logic.

I waited calmly while they got out, and I saw a quiet conversation with two new men through Landon. One was in his late twenties and as white bread as they come: Reverend Steve Newlin, the head of the military and religious organization. I got one whiff of him and pulled back out. He had information, but I didn’t have the stomach to get it right then. Besides, I got the sense that I’d have time. The other man was perhaps in his forties. Large, muscular, a shaved head, an ill-humored, no-nonsense face. “Gabe.” He was ex-military if ever I saw one, and the young men who had taken me practically worshipped him; he headed the “Soldiers of the Sun,” as they called themselves. I stayed carefully out of his head, too, though he was the one who would be taking me.

“We did like you said, gave her the drug,” Micah told Steve. I saw that the driver had texted them after he'd picked me up, and they'd contacted Gabe. Micah turned to the big man. “Right in the neck. Ben did it himself. But. . . she woke up. On the way here. ‘Bout fifteen minutes out.”

“That ain’t possible,” Gabe said gruffly. “Not if you did it right.”

“No, sir,” Micah agreed.

“We got an empty syringe and a conscious woman,” Coop said. “You can still see the mark on her neck from where the needle went in. She didn’t move or nothin’ when Ben--” ‘Put it in her,’ he had been about to say.

“She just stared at me. Right in the eye,” Ben added, sounding haunted.

“Well, good thing it’s daytime or I’d think we grabbed the wrong one,” Steve said. “Maybe she just. . . has a natural immunity or something. That happens, right?” He looked at Gabe.

“. . .Not really. It’s not impossible though, I guess. Bring her out, let’s see what she looks like.”

That made every one of the young men grossly uncomfortable, but none of them argued. That was authority, for you. That was following.

When they came for me - just Landon and Ben - they carefully but surreptitiously steered me toward a trash can before delivering me, and I dumped the shirt and bra inside. I wished I could set them on fire.

“Just some trash from the ride over,” Ben assured Gabe when the man looked like he was going to bark something.

“Why isn’t she restrained?” Steve asked with some disapproval in his chipper voice. I wanted to hit him immediately. I had the fleeting hope that Eric would, but then, if he did, he’d also kill the man. I wasn’t sure I wanted that yet.

Neither of them asked about my shirt. Gabe assumed correctly what had happened, and Steve didn’t want to see.

“You won’t get any trouble from her,” Ben was quick to say. “I don’t know what the vamps brought her here for, but she’s a good person,” he said firmly. “They must be forcin’ her, somehow.” ‘I think she’s an angel, God forgive me, oh please, I’m so sorry, I didn’t know--’

‘She got peach-flavored tits or what? Jeez.’ Gabe wondered. A muscle in my jaw twitched.

Gabe and Steve eyed me. Gabe was too well trained to let his feelings steer his opinions and observations, and I was too suppressed for his instincts to tell him to be kind to me. Steve was so embroiled in hatred that I was nothing but unclean by association, no matter what his instincts told him.

They wouldn’t seriously hurt me, but they weren’t going to go easy on me, either, which was exactly what I needed.

Gabe grunted in acknowledgement, and Steve extended an arm as if in invitation. I went as directed, my face closed off. Walking was. . . I was sore.

As we neared a simple back door with a heavy padlock, I turned my head just to the side and calmly said, “I meant what I said about hell.” ‘It wasn’t your fault,’ I wanted to say. But that wasn’t strictly true for all of them.

Steve looked at me curiously, Gabe looked back curiously, and I thought that more than one of the young men were going to weep the moment they were alone.

 

* * * * *

 

I was led by Steve and followed by Gabe through back hallways, all polished and carpeted and either extremely new, or obsessively well cared for. I imagined that with Steve’s hardline views and his willingness to act on them, he had no shortage of wealthy supporters. Not regarding vampires. Not in the south.

A door opened in front of us and a blonde, meticulously groomed woman matching Steve for gratingly superficial cheeriness came out

“Sweetheart, Gabe,” she greeted brightly. “So good to see you two. And who is this?” She took in my state and hid her reaction with the practice of a proper southern lady.

“Just a new member of the flock, sweetie,” Steve said. He was so patronizing under the Leave It To Beaver tone that it even had me gritting my teeth, and I wasn’t married to the idiot. “We’re showing her around. Had a little wardrobe malfunction, as you can see.” He thought his wife was an idiot. Not fit for the more “tough” parts of what it took to wage what he considered a war.

A look passed between the husband and wife. Sarah wasn’t stupid. She shared Steve’s cause, but her resistance to me wasn’t nearly what the mens’ were.

“Well of course you were just about see to that.” She paused a beat, then extended her hand to me. “Sarah Newlin, I’m Steve’s wife. We’re so glad to have you here.”

Gabe tensed, but I just glanced down and said “No offense intended, ma’am, but I kind of need my hands where they are. I apologize for being rude.”

‘Well-trained pet they have,’ Steve thought condescendingly.

“Oh, no, not at all!” She assured. “I should have known better. I can’t imagine what put you in such a state in the first place,” there was a tightness around her eyes, “but we’ve got plenty of Fellowship shirts if you’d like to--”

“Actually, honey, we should get pressing on,” Steve said pointedly. “Lots to do before tonight! We’ll take care of her, I promise.”

“Well now,” she joked, “With Gabe looking so darn. . . Gabe-like, she must be scared half to death. And if you’re tight for time and all, why don’t you just let me take over? We can have some girl time, and if you have any questions for her, seeing as she’s new and all,” I smiled just enough to pass as confirmation of the lie, “well I’m sure I can ask her for you.” There was an edge buried under her tone.

“We’re pretty much done anyway. Just taking her downstairs to finish the tour.”

Fear passed quickly over Sarah’s eyes. “Are you sure you don’t want to save that for another time?” she asked carefully. “We’re having a lock-in tonight,” she said brightly to me. “Ever been to one? Maybe you’d like to stay and get a better feel of the place . . . .?” She trailed off, looking for my name.

I smiled just to the right side of tight. “I haven’t been to one since before college,” I said, to Sarah’s satisfaction and Steve’s disdain and disbelief. “Call me Ēostre,” I said, remembering Eric’s warning.

“Ohstraya,” Sarah repeated carefully. “That sure is an interesting name! Where are your people from?” She was stalling for time. It wasn’t going to work much longer, and she had no out in mind, anyway.

“I was adopted, actually. I think the name is Old Norse. Never did find out what it meant.”

“Well, I like it,” she said, smiling at Steve. She was desperately trying to draw him into the conversation, but he was having none of it. “Not just another ‘Sarah,’” she joked.

“Unfortunately, Ostrich can’t make it to the lock-in, honey," Steve said. "She’s got plans. Isn’t that right?” he asked me brightly, threat clear under his tone.

Gabe jabbed a gun into my back.

“Pre-planned and everything,” I confirmed levelly.

‘You’re no civilian,’ Gabe thought darkly.

“Steve,” anyone could have heard the edge in her voice now, “I really don’t think--”

“Honey, we can talk about this later,” he said just as sharply. He gripped my arm hard and pulled me along past Sarah. She watched from behind us, worried enough to make me uneasy, and intending to have one hell of a conversation with her husband next time she got him alone.

 

* * * * *

 

I was, as it turned out, taken to the basement. It was down a surprisingly long set of stairs, and when we got down there, I saw why.

It had to be almost as large as the church above it. It opened to a quiet sitting room, something you might retire to for a bible study group, but off of that, through a well-disguised and heavily-secured door, was a concrete space with high ceilings that could have passed for a small warehouse. It was full of men and women, many of whom stopped to stare as we passed. Just as many, disciplined, stayed at their tasks. Some were working at stations, others at drafting tables, many with weapons of some sort.

Wooden bullets, UV bullets, silver bullets. Modified infrared. Silver pepper spray, contacts that made glamoring impossible, ways to add silver to the blood stream, grenades of wood, silver, and garlic. V that would provide the physical and mental enhancements without any of the side effects, UV piping that could be sewn onto clothes, put into flashlights, headlights, floodlights. Flexible silver fine-mesh netting meant to be worn as full- or partial-body suits, blackened silver body paints. On and on the list went. Most of it was theoretical or in research and development, but the simpler things, mostly the more offensive ones, were already in Production. Specialized ammunition was being stockpiled.

I caught a whiff of something familiar and looked up to find, to my surprise and his, Jason fucking Stackhouse. I didn’t have time to do more than stare open-mouthed at him as I was pushed by at a fast clip. Gabe still had his gun out, and if I moved too slowly, it got jabbed into my spine, less gently each time. Jason was tight and worried - what the hell was I doing here, there was no way I was some ‘vamp-lover.’ I saw through him that my hair and face were a mess - I didn’t remember crying, but there were black streaks running down from my eyes - and did my best to clean them up a bit. I couldn’t do anything about my shirt.

As soon as I lifted my hand, I froze. Jason had opened me up, and when I felt it, I was shocked that I had managed to be so closed off; I should have felt it from miles away. It was like a vampire, but. . . if most vampires were houses, this was a goddamned metropolitan office building. It reminded me of what had once made me clamp off from feeling Thalia at the bar. But I wasn’t clamped off now.

It was massive, a swirling vortex of the nothingness that is at the heart of all creation, and in the center was a tiny, dim white light. I was so distracted by it that Gabe had to use his hands to shove me - I hadn’t heard his orders or felt the jabbing of his gun. He pushed so hard I stumbled forward before I could get moving again. Jason, far away now, took a step forward as if to intervene, but was stopped by another man.

We passed doors, some full of innocuous church supplies, too many full of weapons. Guns, bombs, grenades, crossbows, specialized lights. I barely managed to spare enough attention to get what would likely prove to be vital information. And with every step, the void of what had to be Godric - and god help me if it wasn’t, because I didn’t want to think about what else might be able to create a feeling like this - growing closer and larger and more present. He felt like he was asleep; it was still daytime, though only just. It had been a much longer drive in the van than I would have guessed. I pushed down a wave of nausea at the thought.

Finally, I was brought into a much, much smaller room, bare concrete on all sides, divided into other, even smaller “rooms” by chain link metal fencing. White file boxes were stacked six or more high, and they all looked to be full of papers or manilla folders. They were everywhere, creating thick cardboard walls inside the fence ones.

Steve opened the nearest room - cage, really - and ushered me inside. I looked into it, then up at him, pausing just short enough to avoid another jab into what was likely going to end up a back spotted with muzzle-sized bruises. There was a single, plain wooden chair sitting in the middle of the space.

As soon as I was inside, Steve smiled at my back and told me to “enjoy my stay.” He and Gabe left. But Gabe would be back soon.

The heavy metal door to the room at large slammed shut, and I heard a heavy-duty lock slide into place.

Everything was worse when I was alone.

I pushed the chair into a back corner with my foot and crouched down in the other one. I wouldn’t have long. I didn’t know how far Gabe was willing to go to get information, or what he had done in the military, but I knew how a standard interrogation went. Step one was typically leaving the prisoner alone for a long, undetermined period of time. The mind can come up with all sorts of scary shit when it’s trying to figure out what’s going to happen, and uncertainty is not a good friend of calm or security. So you get yourself rattled up, and since they’re in charge of the only change in your environment and the only contact you get with other people, leaving you to stew gives them power right off the bat.

I would have been fine with that. I liked being alone, because I never really was alone, not like most people were. Unfortunately, Gabe didn’t intend to start things that way. I had been too worried and keyed up to look into why.

So I used the time to try and calm myself down, rather than just the emergency pushing down I had done. I tasted just enough of my sorrow to take the edge off, to let the worst of the pressure vent.

I had hurt them. They had hurt me. It fucking sucked. It was over. I had learned a Lesson.

Not for the first time, I wished I could leech pain away from myself like I could from others.

Trauma was like the swelling of tissue around a wound, and if you were practiced and really, really knew what you were doing, you could ease away some of that protective pain, get a head start on healing, and reduce the extent of the eventual scar tissue. What the men had done had happened to me before, through other people. I knew the pain; it was not a new kind of horrifying. I used that.

By some grace of god, I managed to just barely get one foot under myself before Gabe was outside the door again. But someone stopped him before he could come in. Jason.

He tried to argue a case for me. Told Gabe he knew me, I was a friend of his sister’s. That he didn’t know me well - he had just as much faith in Gabe as the men in the van had - but that I was a good person.

Gabe told him that since he knew me, maybe he wanted to try talking to me. He wanted to see how far Jason was willing to go for the cause.

Jason jumped at the chance, thinking to straighten out some misunderstanding.

I pushed the chair back to the center of the room and put myself in it, affecting calm and relaxed, like I was waiting on a refill of tea rather than interrogation. When they came in, I calmly locked eyes with Gabe.

Jason immediately slipped his overshirt off. “Shit,” he breathed. “Uh, hey, there. Emma, right?” he began, stepping forward and holding the shirt out to me.

It was a force of will not to let my eyes close at his slip.

Gabe held an arm out, stopping Jason. “Emma? Now that ain’t what you told my boys, is it?”

“Emma isn’t my real name.”

Jason looked from Gabe back to me with an uncertain smile. There was something different about him than there had been when we met. He was. . . older. In the good way. Softer. His wounds were closer to the surface.

“Yeah, just a nickname, right?” he said peaceably. He was half stammering, convinced this was all a huge misunderstanding. “I don’t know if you remember me? I’m--”

“Jason Stackhouse.” I looked over and afforded him a small smile, little more than a twitch of lips. “Of course I remember you. Sookie’s brother. We met the night of the football game, you were sitting with your friends.”

He lit up, but covered it quickly, trying to act professional. “Right. Right. Well uh, see, Gabe here, he thinks you came here workin’ for vampires. Now I told him that can’t be right--”

“No, it is,” I said conversationally.

A muscle in Gabe’s jaw jumped.

“You. . . what?” Jason was stymied.

“Your earthbound Jesus here kidnapped a vampire and intends to burn him alive.” I saw a picture in Jason’s head of him and the man who’d held him back out in the workspace building the platform for that very thing. “. . . But you already knew that.”

He paled a little. “They didn’t kidnap nobody,” he defended, voice going sharp underneath. “Ain’t that right, Gabe?”

“Yes it is, Jason.”

. . . They weren’t lying. Godric had offered himself. I felt a sick twist. Outwardly, I only arched an eyebrow at the men.

“You. . . you’re tellin’ me you’re mixed up with vampires?” Jason asked me, incredulous. “You ain’t. . . I mean, you ain’t. . . .” He gave me a comically obvious prompting look.

“I was a complete virgin until an hour or two ago, Jason,” I said flatly. “So no. I ‘ain’t.’”

Now he paled, his eyes darting back down to my shirt, remembering the way I had looked as I was paraded through the warehouse.

He swallowed thickly. “N-- No,” he said with half a laugh. “No, that ain’t. . . Gabe, what’s she talkin’ about?” he asked haltingly.

“Some of the boys had a little fun with her on the way over,” he said calmly. Like he was talking about a kid knocking a cup over because it was too busy playing to pay attention.

Godric was waking. The sun must be going down.

“Bitch is a race traitor,” Gabe went on. “She’s no better than one of them. She sold herself to the devil. Now she’s getting what she deserves.” He walked forward and bent down over me. “Aren’t you?”

I just looked up at him, calm and unflappable. “I always find it interesting when people think morals only apply to certain groups. Not a terribly Christian concept.”

Temper flared over Gabe’s face, mostly at my unnerving calm; he stood and backhanded me so hard that the chair and I both toppled over sideways and fell to the floor with a clatter. It was a good few seconds before I could feel anything other than black disorientation and push up onto my hip. Before I knew what was happening, Jason was gently helping me up and righting the chair for me. His mind was scrambling for some way to combine “vampires and their supporters are evil” with “Emma is not evil.” Realities were clashing in him, and it was its own kind of disorienting. I didn’t envy him.

“Eddie,” I said quietly, looking up into his eyes.

“What-- What the fuck,” he barked, shoving himself backwards as if burned. “How do you--!” He stopped himself, looking from me to Gabe and trying to school his features.

“Amy was the human,” I said. “I know you loved her. But which one of them was the monster in the end, Jason?” My voice was soft. Gentle.

“. . . The fuck are you?” he barked, eyes wide.

I shook my head. “The point I’m making is the point, not who’s saying it.

"This isn’t a misunderstanding. I’m acquainted with a vampire. He asked me to come here and find someone who was taken.” I thought it unwise to make Godric even more appealing by pointing out that he was an authority. The idea of bringing down the wrath of the vampire community would give most people pause. Gabe would just adapt to the idea and change the plan against vampires from stealth to aggression. Hit them first.

I went on. “Whether he came along voluntarily is probably beside the point when you take into account that your friends here plan to burn him alive. Wrong is wrong, it doesn’t matter what species you are. So I came. That’s why I’m locked in a cage in the basement of the militant wing of a fanatical church.”

‘I fucking knew it, you’re no civilian,’ Gabe growled silently.

“And no matter what you think,” I said, “even if I cooperate with everything they want, they have no intention of letting me out of here alive. You heard him. I’m a race traitor, as ‘bad’ as the vampires.

“You don’t belong here,” I finished, looking him dead in the eye. “Not with them.”

Smack! I didn’t hit to floor that time, but I grunted and felt blood start to trickle down the side of my face. For a moment, I couldn’t see; I could only try to tug myself back to consciousness. He’d hit me with the hand that bore the same ring the young men had worn. Jason had one, too.

“Get out, Stackhouse,” Gabe said gruffly. “You ain’t gonna like what happens next.”

“No, Emma look, just tell him what he wants to know, alright?” He actually believed I’d be ok if I did. “He just wants to know who hired you. Just tell him, and this’ll all be fine.”

I smiled at him wryly. “You don’t really believe that. You’re smarter than people give you credit for.”

”Out, Stackhouse. I ain’t gonna ask you again,” Gabe barked.

“Gabe--”

”Out!”

Jason looked from the older man to me, horrified. Thinking to find Steve and get him to step in, he did as he was told and left in a hurry.

“Now,” Gabe said, calm and cold. “I don’t know who you are or who you work for, but you sure as shit ain’t no civilian. And I don’t buy that bullshit virgin story you sold Stackhouse on for a second, just like I don’t buy that you ain’t some fangbanger. My boys didn’t look too happy when they handed you over; maybe you just need more practice with a human, huh? That it?”

My mouth pooled with nervous saliva, but I didn’t let myself swallow.

Attention stirred in the cage next door.

Gabe leaned over me again, face not two inches from mine, his breath hot on my face. I kept my own breathing slow and my gaze cool.

“Unless you want to find out,” he rumbled, quiet and low, “I suggest you tell me what I want to know, ‘cause I can promise you that whatever my boys did, I’m gonna be a whole lot more thorough,” he finished darkly. He meant every word.

“I told you who hired me.”

“I want a name.”

I said the first thing that popped into my head. “Samson.”

“Samson who?”

“Is this a knock knock joke?”

He grabbed my by the throat and he squeezed. I gurgled involuntarily and closed my eyes. I put everything I was into staying calm while my heart raced, faster and faster, trying to pump oxygen that wasn’t there. Coughing when he finally let me go wasn’t something I could will my way out of.

“Who do you work for?”

“The devil incarnate, according to you.”

Smack!

“What’s this Samson’s last name?”

“Don’t know.”

Smack!

That time turned my head and blood flew out of my mouth. I had to spit to clean out the rest. “Is your hand getting tired yet? Because my face could really use a break.”

He remedied that by punching me in the stomach. I doubled over.

I laughed dryly. “Funny thing about pain,” I croaked, “it doesn’t make someone magically know something they don’t know. And I’m starting to feel like maybe I don’t want to tell you anything. It’s almost like beating on people makes them dislike you.”

“You don’t have to like me,” he said with a cold smile. “You seemed to know a lot about Stackhouse. He said he hardly knew you.”

“That would be accurate.” I managed to sit up, but my voice was far from strong; my gut was too tender to speak properly. My right eye was starting to swell shut. “We met once, where his sister works. Cute place. Had a little bell over the door. Never did get to try the food.”

Gabe chuckled darkly and leaned over me again, resting his hands on the side of the chair. He brushed his thumbs over the sides of my thighs for good measure. “Who trained you? You ex military?”

I snorted a laugh. “I’m flattered, but I’ve got about forty-five people lined up to kill me if I ever even think about joining the military.”

“CIA? FBI? Who trained you? You a mercenary?”

“Oh you know, the usual. TV dramas, personal experience, an often unhelpful amount of confidence. Isn’t CIA only for international matters? Outside of wiretapping phones and tracking which porn sites you visit, that is. I bet your history is interesting. Not that I wouldn’t rather gouge my own eyes out than see for myself. I’d put money on it involving vampires, personally.”

He smiled. “No, you’re right. You ain’t military. They’d have beat the sarcastic right out of you.”

“Or maybe I would have beaten it into them,” I rasped brightly. “I can be very determined.”

Gabe took a deep breath, his hands moving to my legs and sliding upwards, fingers dipping down to follow my inner thighs. He was doing it to unnerve me. It was working, and an involuntary, tiny tremor in my jaw gave that away. Unfortunately, it was also sending his mind places I didn’t want it to go.

“So,” he said, his voice roughening in a horrifying way, “This Samson sent you here to get Godric, and you claim you don’t work for any government agency. That about right so far?”

“More or less. Although, come to think of it, I probably should have told you I was FBI. Gives you a little more pause to murder one of them than it does some nameless girl in ratty clothing.”

His mouth quirked at my use of the word “girl,” and I had to fight not to swallow again.

“How does Samson know Godric? He someone important in their world?”

“You know, you ask a lot of leading questions. You’d be a terrible interviewer.”

He hummed. “You want to know what else I’m terrible at?”

Before I could answer, he had me up by the throat and slammed so hard against the wall of boxes that some of them caved in. Cardboard can be surprisingly strong if you don’t hit it flat-on; it didn’t feel good. And this time, I’d be shocked as shit if my neck didn’t bruise vividly in the shape of bulky fingers.

“Keeping my patience with useless, piece of shit bitch race traitors.”

“That wasn’t very eloquent, Gabe,” I rasped. “Can’t you do better?”

He tightened his hand so much that my eyes bulged and I whined. He shoved his forearm up against my crotch, using it to hoist my weight higher. I couldn’t keep a choked whimper from getting out.

“What’s the matter, little girl?” He hissed. “You sore?” On the last word, he jabbed up with his arm and I cried out.

“Oh, you are,” he crooned. “Maybe my boys had more fun with you than I thought, hm? You gonna scream for me?”

There was a surge of something from the other cage, and even if there hadn’t been I couldn’t do this, I couldn’t. I let loose just enough of myself to wipe away the place his mind was headed, to make it an impossibility. I wasn't going to get anything useful out of him as shallowly as I could dig right now, and I'd pissed him off enough for him to take me to Godric - the idea was fully formed in his mind.

He stepped back and I fell hard to the concrete floor. I didn’t try to get up, just half laid there, trying to work the barking cough away.

“It doesn’t matter, anyway,” Gabe said eventually. He was breathing hard, and trying to reconcile the direction he had been heading with the part of himself that had made him stop. It confused him, and that was not a feeling he was familiar with.

He walked forward and yanked me up by the hair. His face was inches from mine. “You’re both gonna be dead by the time the sun comes up.”

He kicked the cage door open and pulled me out - I only just managed to stay on my feet with his grip as low and tight as it was.

He yanked me the few steps to the door of the other cage, and I felt that presence, that gravitational field, standing just on the other side of the chain link door, looking at us.

“Godric,” Gabe said. His voice was much more civil than I had yet heard it. He unlocked the cage with one hand and unwound the chain from its posts as he talked. “Got a present for you, thought you might like a last meal. She's mouthy, but I didn't figure you'd mind.”

I wasn’t sure why they bothered with security measures that even a young vampire could blow through like soft cheese. False senses of security were comforting in any setting, I supposed. So was show.

Godric stepped back and let Gabe open the door. The big man shoved me inside so forcefully that I fell hard against the floor with a thud and a slap of flesh. I didn’t move as he locked us in.

Chapter Text

“You two have fun,” Gabe said coldly. Then he left.

I laid on the floor, panting, hands curled against myself, periodic tremors running over me.

Godric was standing by the back wall, observing me with a curiosity that barely registered in him. I imagined it must be similar to me watching a gnat crawl across a windowpane because I had nothing better to do. I didn’t dare go any deeper into him to find out more.

For a while, I didn’t move. I didn’t try to move. No one here was going to hurt me; I didn’t need to play a game or wear a mask.

The floor was frigid. I let it sink in, stinging. The sharp of it helped and God, but the distraction was beautiful. For a while, I didn’t ask any more of myself than to breathe and exist. It was all I could do. My face and neck and stomach and groin and scalp were throbbing, and I doubted I could have physically pried my right eye open.

Eventually I pushed myself up, barely horizontal, my sweater hanging open toward the floor. When I could, I pulled the chest together with one hand and sat up heavily. Godric stood just feet from me, but there was no lust in him, so I don’t bother finding the energy to cover more of myself. I managed no more than to push my back against the fence.

With a thick sigh, I let my head fall back. The chainlink rattled quietly.

He was watching me. Studying me. He took a tiny, sampling breath, and my scent was more powerful to him than it ever was to Eric. For an instant, I tensed, but though he recognized the smell as appetizing, to him it was more a fragrance or perfume than a trigger to feed. Like the smell of a flower rather than a dripping steak. Which was odd, because there was something dried out and hollow in him, and it left me with the impression that he was starving, literally. But I was in no danger from him. At least not for now.

I was too spent to find any more, and I wouldn’t have even if I could. I was using everything I had to try and regain my feet, even a little. I couldn’t be lost now. Not until I got what I needed, got out, and got to safety. So I breathed. I felt my body, my skin, and myself inside of them, until I started to feel solid again.

“You are not afraid of me,” he eventually said. It was an observation, a curiosity, not a question. The strange accent in his voice paired with the lilt of it was calming.

I opened my good eye and finally looked at him. I was too tired to be as surprised as I would have any other time; he was a young man, possibly very young, but I couldn’t tell. There was an indecipherable mix of youth and age in his face and body, traces of the fat of a young man mixed with the facial lines and the muscle and structure of an older one, but it was his eyes, his aura, that confused things the most. Whatever his body was, inside was a thing so ancient that no human could fathom it. He was like Eric, but ten times over.

He had lowered himself to sit comfortably against the wall to my left, one knee up, with an arm resting on it. He was dressed in a loose tunic and trousers, cut in a middle-eastern fashion and made of what looked like a barely-off-white linen. It reminded me of what I had seen Thalia in at the bar.

I shook my head minutely in answer. “I’ve had a long day,” I croaked, then cleared my throat uselessly. I let my gaze linger, then returned to my resting position, though this time I looked up at the ceiling.

I felt him move and my eye snapped to him.

He was sliding his shirt up and over his shoulders. Adding to my confusion about his age, his form was surprisingly muscled.

He’d smelled it long before I’d come in, long before Gabe had blabbed about it, even before he was awake. He knew what had happened to me, so it was a courtesy when he moved at a slow human speed as he pushed up to stand on bare feet and walked over to me. He held out his shirt, balled up in one hand.

I looked from it to him in surprise.

He extended his hand further. “Take it. I don’t get cold.” It was an attempt at a joke.

I looked at him for another moment, then took the shirt and whispered a thank-you.

He didn’t care for modesty - likely it hadn’t existed in his time the way it did today - and I was so far beyond tired that I just stood up, leveraging myself with fingers in the chain link, and slipped off the scraps of my old shirt. I threw it to the far corner of our cage and tried not to shiver at the relief of being rid of it. I wished I could set the thing on fire.

He was watching me. He thought I was beautiful, but it was an abstract observation, like he was looking at a painting or a sculpture, or the edge of the galaxy in a night sky.

I slipped his shirt on and found it softer than I had expected. It was slightly cool from his skin, which was surprisingly soothing. More than that, though, was the affect the trace of scent in it had on me: it was almost tranquilizing, like when I had been little and something had upset me, then dad, or Janice, or Alcide or Danny would take me into their arms and I’d feel like I was safe from anything and everything in the world.

"Are you alright?" His tone managed aloof and concerned at the same time.

I swallowed, opened my mouth to answer, but I found I couldn't think of anything to say to brush off the question that was close enough to the truth to get past my lips. I just gave him a twitch of a smile in reply.

The shirt almost went to mid-thigh on me, so I shucked out of the rest of my clothes and threw them into the far corner with my shirt. I eased back down and gathered my knees to my chest, then rested my arms on them and buried my face into the sleeves. It was just an excuse to close my eyes and take as much of the smell in as I could; and it would only look like I was resting. I could see a shadow of my nipples through his shirt, but only barely. I was past the point of caring, and since Godric certainly didn’t, I saw no problem.

He had no idea what I was doing as I nestled into the fabric. I heard with surprise that to humans, vampires have no scent at all. Par for the course, I supposed.

“Who did this to you?” His voice was kind, and free of pity. It was the only reason the question didn’t hurt; it was almost clinical, and that was a relief. Pained empathy would sting too much right now.

For some reason, I smiled against an unexpected urge to laugh. “. . . Which part?” I asked wryly, turning to look at him.

He looked back, unhurried and unembarrassed by the eye contact. Why would he be? He had only the most vague, hazy memory of what it was like to be human, and the pieces that were there. . . I got the impression that his short life had not been what a person’s should be.

‘What an interesting human,’ he thought absently. Like, ‘Oh, that cloud looks a little like a rabbit. Huh.’ He seemed to look at us all like we were children, full of wonder and potential. ‘Strong,’ he thought.

Eventually, I said with a shallow, blithe shrug, “. . .It wasn’t their fault.” My voice was just as calm and detached as his. It hurt to say, even though I knew it was true. There was no way they could have prepared for what I was. “Not really. I’m. . . well. Gabe, though. . . . He’s the scary one.”

“How do you mean?” He was like a marble statue, as little as he moved. It made me think of the way Eric sat on his dais sometimes. Motionless and far away.

I sighed thickly. “They were acting on instinct.”

“And you do not hold them accountable for that? For giving in to the base aspects of their natures?” He cut in.

The question was oddly personal to him. I shook my head, more in denial of the question than in answer to it. “Not in this case. I’m. . . I bring things out in people, sometimes. They responded to that. And what they did. . . .” ‘It’s going to hurt them.’ “But Gabe, he knows what he’s doing, and he does it anyway. He chooses to. The worst atrocities are committed by people like him, people who are shallow and small and weak and afraid on the inside, and deal with it by pretending to be big on the outside. If it wasn’t for what I am. . . .” I paused. Godric waited patiently. “Well. It would have been six instead of five. And it also wouldn't have been any."

Displeasure rippled through him like a dim shadow, and it was probably the closest thing to a recognizable human emotion I’d felt from him. It was displeasure at Gabe, disappointment, and disdain.

‘And smart,’ he thought, adding to his opinion of me. 'Self-possessed for a human. We could learn much from her.' It was a thought tinged with melancholy and sorrow.

It was as though I’d been black and white when Gabe had thrown me in here, but the barest hints of color were starting to leech into my form. They were washed out, hazy and translucent and sepia, but they were there.

“You heard most of that?” I asked, nodding to the space next door.

He dipped his chin. “I was not awake when you were brought in, but I was aware of it. I’m afraid I don’t know any Samson who would have gone to the trouble of searching for me, however. Let alone endangering another to that end.”

I quirked a smile. “I made it up. Gabe had asked for a name, not the name of the person who sent me here." Rookie mistake. “Samson was just the first one that popped into my head. I did come here to find you, though.” I paused, then quipped, “Guess I’m good at my job.”

His brow furrowed. “Who sent you?”

“Your kid. Eric.”

“. . .Then I am just as much to blame for what has happened to you. I am sorry,” he said with more sincerity than I thought necessary. “You should not have come.”

I saw a flash of something in him that I’d never seen in Eric: he and Godric were not strangers to rape. Godric had a past like an animal - he had taken what he wanted, when he wanted it, without remorse. Right and wrong had been concepts that hadn’t existed for him, and he had taught Eric the same ways. It explained a lot, but created just as many questions. What had changed? What had incited that change? Godric had more compassion than Eric, but it was a far-away compassion, like a mountain caring for a pebble at its foot.

“. . .You’re very bad at apologies, sir,” I said respectfully. I shifted, then added quietly, “And I don’t do blame.”

I was trying to fit into my own skin. I was swollen with the smallest glimpse of how much there was to see in Godric. Eric had never been like this - he seemed like a normal human next to Godric, base and present and insistent. I huffed a laugh. “You and I must see responsibility differently. It was my choice to come. I left. I got on the plane, I got in the car when we landed. I let them put a needle in my neck and knock me out. I didn’t have to do any of that. I sure as shit didn’t have to insist on doing it for free.” I paused. “I might not be too bright, come to it,” I added thoughtfully, a crease between my brows.

Something like surprise and disquiet lanced through the space inside Godric. He assessed people like Eric did. Why else would I come but for money? I didn’t seem foolish enough to think myself in love with his progeny.

“It’s done,” I said with quiet finality. Let it be done so it could be over, too. “I have a more urgent problem now, anyway,” I sighed.

“What is that?”

“You don’t want to be rescued,” I said bluntly. “Which creates kind of a pickle for me, because I didn’t really take this job prepared to die. I asked Eric to hold off any daring rescues until I contacted him, but I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that he pretty much does whatever he wants."

'She does not speak as if she is in love with him. . . .' Godric wasn’t used to much of anything that made him have to guess anymore.

“Assuming he comes for me tonight, he’s not going to do it alone once he finds out where I am, and I don’t have to tell you how that story will end. If he doesn’t, the most popular plan at the moment seems to be to tie me to the cross with you and let us both burn. I’ll be honest, burning alive is in the top two on my list of ways I really don’t want to die.

“I would say we just break out of here together, because wouldn’t that be a laugh, but I’m not really in the business of trying to. . . well. I’m not an especially selfish person, and with the way I view death. . . I’m not going to ask someone to carry on living in agony because the alternative makes me sad. And you should be able to go how you want to.”

“How do you know all of this?” ‘I have been careful. I told no one.’

“. . . I’m observant,” I reply drily.

He was regarding me closely. “How do you view death? Do you believe there is a heaven or a hell?”

I almost snorted. “Hell is something we go through while we’re alive, and the worst of it is almost always what we make for ourselves. All that exists after death is peace, no matter who you are or what you’ve done.”

“Why would that be so?”

This was the most human thing I had felt from him. Hope. Fear. Sadness and longing and a broken heart.

“Why wouldn’t it?” I asked simply, turning to look back up at the bare gray ceiling. Casual disinterest in a topic tended to make people listen more receptively than if they thought you were trying to convince them of something. I didn’t really know if the trick would work on an ancient creature, but he had technically been human at one point, and everything more or less tended toward its roots. It was a starting point for me, if nothing else.

“You don’t believe people should pay for their crimes? Their sins against others or the world?”

“I believe revenge, or ‘justice’ if you prefer, is a human concept. I believe I can look at a bad person and understand why they’re bad. That if you go back far enough and peel away enough layers, or damages and pains and misconceptions, the ways we try to deal with it all, there’s no such thing as a bad person. Just wounded people.

“If I can believe that, and I’m sure as shit no god, and there is a God? Well, that creature is going to be infinitely more wise and compassionate and loving and understanding than the very best of us. So why would he or she or it, whatever, punish people for having shitty lives and, being the children that we all are whether we live for twenty years or twenty thousand, stumbling around in the dark, doing no more or less than what we can with what we have and who we are?

“A lot of our character is genetics, did you know that? Just like height, eye color, intelligence. Never mind the abuses we’re subjected to, especially when we’re young - the poisons we soak up from others when we’re nothing more than human-shaped sponges. So in addition to punishing people for the crappy things they do because they just don’t understand the way things really work, God would be punishing them for the way it made them. Which sounds kind of psychotic. Another human concept,” I added with false brightness.

“What’s happened to me today hurts like fucking hell. It’s the worst thing that has happened to me personally in my very protected, very sheltered life. I’m pissed at the people who did it. I’d love nothing more than to kick four out of five of them in the balls, shatter their goddamned noses, and cut their dicks off so they can’t do it again. Because I’m a human. Someone hurt me, so I want to hurt them back. But I won’t. I won’t, because I could trace the lives of every one of them and see why they are the way they are and every horrible step that led them to do what they did today. And that would be if it had been a conscious choice and not a response to something they couldn’t have been prepared for.

“You could take a perfectly good man off the street. Moral, upstanding, kind, honorable. You take him back to his infancy and put him in the place of Gabe. Subject him to the same home, the exact same people and experiences, and you know what you’d get nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine times out of a million? Gabe.

“So no. I don’t think bad people deserve punishment, Godric. I think bad people deserve compassion, because they are worse the fuck off than the rest of us.”

He looked at me for a long time, but I just kept looking up. Something almost excruciating was stirring in his chest, shifting in long slumber. I imagined immortality made you unhurried in the conversation department after a certain point. When his focus became too intense, I pulled back into myself.

"You sound very certain."

"I've had unique experiences," I replied drily.

"If left to you, then, these men would go unpunished?"

I sighed. ". . .Not that I don't love a good philosophical discussion, but can we really, really not talk about this right now? I'll cling to the futile and utterly ridiculous hope that we'll both live to see tomorrow night. Ask me then."

"Of course. I apologize."

I shook my head, dismissing it.

“You have interesting ideas. What is your name?”

It was an understatement. I shrugged a shoulder, wincing and hissing quietly when it tugged at a rib I hadn’t known was hurt. “Not original, though. You should look into eastern philosophy, especially some of the Buddhist teachers who advocate compassion. I think you’d like some of their ideas.” I paused. “At least that’s what I’d say if we were locked in a room with a comprehensive library.” I sighed and let my eyes close. I hurt everywhere. "It might be our last night, Godric. Call me whatever the hell you want. I've had three different names in the last twenty-four hours alone."

“. . .If I leave, they will take another in my place.” He said it as if nothing more need be said. “But now if I stay, you will be put to death. An innocent. I will ask for your release. The people here are surprisingly reasonable. For the most part,” he added, remembering what he had heard of my exchange with Gabe.

I snorted, then winced. “No offense, mostly because I know you could kill me before I could blink, but I know you are not nearly that stupid. They’re not letting me out of here alive. And you don’t really think they’re just going to stop with you, do you? All this is going to do is make them hungry for more. It will escalate. I appreciate what you’re trying to do, and I understand it better than you might guess, but this is not the way to spare innocent lives. This is not the way to make this stop.” I looked him in the eye and I brought all that I was to bear. Not to influence him, but to make this moment heavy, to make words impossible to ignore. As I did, as I looked at him, I was struck by him. Like Eric, he wasn’t textbook handsome. But there was something about him. . . .

I thought he was the most beautiful person I had ever seen, and suddenly, the thought of his death, of a world without him when I had only just discovered him, sent lancing pain through me. My eyes tingled with the threat of tears, and I quickly blinked them away.

He smelled them.

“What would you do in my place?” He was genuinely curious. Coming from someone who had two thousand years on me, it was humbling.

“. . . I’m not really in the game of religious fanaticism. Or diffusing terrorist cells. Not a lot of practice. And honestly, I really didn’t know I’d need to think that far ahead when I took this job. You want to understand why these idiots are doing what they’re doing? I’m your girl. But magically ridding a huge group of people of frothing, murderous intent is currently above of my pay grade.

“What I can tell you is that people like a scapegoat. Normally anything superficial will do. Which I don’t have to tell you, you’ve seen that shit first hand for like. . . eighty generations. I don’t actually know how long a generation is. But then here you all went and handed us another species to blame everything on. Shittheads must feel like it’s Christmas. If they only knew." Weres, shifters, fairies, whatever Ludwig was, god knew what else. I'd passed a roc in human form on the street once. I'd been dazed for two full days.

“All I know is that I’m in a room with a good person," I went on, "and I generally like to see those not die. They’re a rare species all on their own.” I sighed, weighty, weary. “The situation here is obviously a little more complicated than that, though,” I finished in a near-whisper and scrubbed a hand down my face.

I’d accepted the fact that he was not going to reply, when he did. “I have no wish to fight them.” His voice was so tired, to the very bone, a kind of tired that few humans could ever understand. Something about it put a crack in my heart.

We were quiet then, until I couldn’t help myself any longer.

“How long has it been?” I whispered.

“Since you were brought here?”

“No. How long has it been since you felt anything?” It was the same tone he used when asking who’d hurt me. I turned my head to look at him.

He regarded me for a long while in silence. To my surprise, a tiny smile quirked his lips. “I feel things. Perhaps not as you would recognize them, but they are there. I feel a good deal, in fact. I am just at a loss for what to do with it all. Many are new.” ‘Most are sad.’ He answered because he had no reason not to. A dead man doesn’t need to guard his secrets.

So a long time, then. A long time since he felt anything that made living worthwhile.

“What are you?” he asked curiously.

I laughed, and regretted it instantly. Pain lanced through my torso. “I have no idea,” I managed. “I used to think I was human. That idea got shot through with holes a few months back. Apparently most of me is just for show. So now. . . .” I shrugged. “I’m me. That’s about the best I’ve got.”

Godric realized I was the creature Eric had contacted him about months ago. The elder man had never heard of anything like me, either, and his study of me took on a new layer of interest. He took another sniff at the air, that same pleasing aroma - the aroma of blood - filling him.

“For show?” He asked. “What do you mean? If you don’t mind the question,” he added, as if an afterthought.

For some reason, the idea of him asking permission for anything was almost hilarious. “Godric, you can ask me anything you want.” I was surprised to find that I really meant it. I looked down at his shirt on my arms. “I got hurt a few months ago, so a doctor had a look at me. Your son - Progeny? - he hired her. She was something other than human, which turned out to be a good thing, because a hospital would have been lost for what to do with me, and I’d probably be dead. If I'd gone to a hospital and hadn’t died. . . well. It’d have been time for a new identity and a life far, far away from my home.

“The doctor said that at least half of my organs didn’t do anything and that my blood wasn’t even really blood. No blood type, no platelets, no antibodies, nothing. Just. . . mysterious red goop, I guess.”

He digested that for a while before asking, “How do you know so much about me?”

“I listen,” I said mulishly.

“And you're observant,” he said. Without dipping into his head, I honestly couldn’t tell whether or not he was trying to be funny. He knew there was more to it, obviously, and that I wasn’t saying something, but was content to respect my privacy. A dead man had no need for the secrets of others, either. The world could keep its mysteries.

“You catch on quick. I can see where Eric gets it,” I joked.

As I had done the very first night when I sat on the dais with Eric, I made a decision, snap and out of the blue and not entirely like myself, and I didn’t spare a single thought for the consequences.

I sniffed. “Godric?”

“Yes?”

“I’d like to apologize in advance. And for the sake of being polite, if the comical impossibility of you not being able to do what you want comes to pass but you still want to die, I give you my word I will make it happen in whatever way you want, either alone or with whoever you want.”

There was a hint of a crease between his brows, but my eyes were already closed. “What are you apologizing for?” he asked.

I didn't answer, already on my way.

I had felt Eric stir with sunset and reach out for me through the connection between us formed of his blood. Shortly after, there had been a flare of absolute rage when, I assumed, he had seen my texts. I had choked the tether between us off then, so much that he’d know I was alive, but not anything I was feeling - I hoped, anyway. Given that he hadn’t come charging in here yet, I figured I must have done it right, because I wouldn’t put money on him just doing what I asked and staying away if he thought I was in trouble.

Now I threw that connection wide and felt my way along it toward him. He recognized me, my presence, and I felt his shock.

This wasn’t like what I did. I couldn’t read his thoughts, but it was somehow intimate, like I was inside of him, like I was him. I wondered if this was what it felt like for vampires when they gave a person their blood. If it was, I could understand why they did it so rarely.

I pulled at him, tugging him toward me, pushing my want for him to come get me across the line. I knew it worked instantly - I felt a hum of comprehension and assent. I felt at him, “danger,” and pushed over an impression of him coming with a good number of reinforcements. Had he been anyone other than Eric, I would have said he was dazed. Lastly, I reached out and felt Godric’s essence, his spirit. I couldn’t push it along the connection, but Eric understood perfectly anyway: I was with his Maker.

Just like that, Eric was in motion. If I could pin a guess down from his. . . they weren’t quite feelings, weren’t quite instincts. But I would put his arrival at around a half hour out.

I broke off and pulled back, and found Godric’s full attention on me, focused and intent. “What did you just do?” he asked.

I smiled at him apologetically. “Called in the cavalry. Wait. How do you know I did anything?”

“I felt something. A tug toward you.”

My eyes widened and I blinked at him owlishly. “That isn’t possible.”

Words I could not believe had just come out of my mouth.

To be fair, a lot that wasn’t possible had already happened in the last twelve hours or so.

I swallowed, my mouth suddenly dry. “Eric’s on his way,” I managed. “I didn’t mean to pull at you, I was just trying to tell him you were here,” I said, dazed. I stopped myself from apologizing again.

“Much blood will be spilled if this happens."

I shook my head. “I’ll feel him before he gets here, and we can head it off.”

“. . .I have many questions for you.”

“I have that effect on people,” I said wryly. “I have no idea how accurate this guess is, but I think we have about a half hour before he’s here. “Given that I’ve just hijacked your life twice in one day, I’m pretty sure I can humor you.”

The way he was looking at me, taking me in, reminded me of Eric the first time he realized I was much more than I seemed. That rather than a curiosity, a tool, I might be dangerous. It wasn’t that Godric worried I was dangerous, but that I might be something he had never seen or heard of before.

“How did you contact him?” The strange lilt to his voice was still like music, and almost painful in how calming it was. It was utterly - and maybe unforgivably, given his pain - selfish, but I wanted to keep him talking.

Oddly, as I was feeling this strange draw toward him, this familiarity, more and more of that “color” was seeping into my form.

“He. . .” I exhaled tightly, annoyed at the memory, “tricked me into taking his blood a few months ago. I just sort of felt along the connection and said ‘I’m here, come help.’”

”That is not possible.”

“Not for a human, you mean?”

His lips thinned fractionally. “Is that how you will know when he's approaching?”

I shook my head again. “I’m. . . .” 'A telepath. An empath.' I felt suddenly sheepish, as if I didn’t want Godric to know exactly how bizarre I was.

On impulse, I changed the subject and prayed he would let me. I had the oddest sense that everything was about to change, and I hadn’t felt anything like him in. . . ever. “What does Ēostre mean?” I asked.

He raised a brow. It was the fullest expression I had seen from him yet - his forehead actually wrinkled, and he canted his head slightly. “She was the Norse goddess of Spring.”

I laughed quietly to myself. Of course.

“Eric,” I explained. “He suggested I not use my real name while I was here. He said he’d already introduced me to some people as Ēostre. I didn’t ask him what it meant. And never really got a second chance.” I looked at my hands.

“Eric gave you the name?” Apparently that was an especially odd thing for his child to have done.

I nodded. “I can’t lie. So yes.”

“You cannot lie?” Now he almost sounded incredulous. I felt a mix of admiration and sadness on my behalf from him.

I had to stop myself from chuckling. “Not a word. My throat closes up if I try. That’s how I ended up. . . well, technically I guess I belong to Eric? I have no idea how that’s supposed to work when I refuse to talk to him or see him. Er, no offense,” I added hastily.

Godric glanced down as pieces came together in his mind. “You told Gabe that Samson sent you, then pointed out that he had only asked you for a name.”

I couldn’t help a small smile as I nodded. “My family has learned to ask me painfully specific questions when they care about the answer. And to demand simple and uninterpretable replies. I don’t know how surprised you’d be at how much latitude you still have when you can’t technically lie. There are a lot of lies that aren’t actually lies if you look at them the right way. Plus there’s suggestion, misdirection, being vague, talking about one thing but referring to another. That one’s tricky sometimes, but I still keep it in my tool belt.”

I might have felt the least bit cocky. It was like I wanted to show off. I never wanted to show off. “I could talk circles around a person all day with both hands behind my back, so to speak. I can make them think they’re getting what they want from me without actually giving them anything. And without being an annoying shit like I was to Gabe. That was mostly just for spite.

“I’m probably not telling you anything you didn’t already know,” I said apologetically, “with the verbal dancing and everything. Listening to me must be like humoring an overenthusiastic toddler.”

“Quite the contrary,” he corrected softly. “I do not believe I have ever met a creature like you. And that is saying something.”

‘Creature,’ he said. I looked down to mask a rueful smile.

“I’d tell you that you’d be surprised at how easy it is to trick people, but at your age, and with as clever as you must be for Eric to think so highly of you. . . well.

“I don’t always talk this much. Just. . . I like your voice. I don’t know why.”

‘Oddly. . . I feel the same.’ “When a human has been through something as difficult as you have today, even a small distraction can be helpful. You seem like a good person; I am not sorry to help you in this.”

I looked over to him, a knowing grin on my face. “But that’s not it. Which you know.” I pulled my legs tighter against myself and hunched over them.

He studied me, then looked down. He was trying to remember everything Eric had told him I could do. He remembered “telepath and empath” and pulled in toward himself like a turtle seeking its shell. I gaped, looking down at the floor rather than at him. In only a moment, Godric’s inner canvas had all but vanished. It made what Eric did to mask himself from me at his best look absolutely fumbling.

“Holy shit,” I mouthed silently.

“You said you belong to Eric,” Godric said curiously. Some splinter of his hunter had taken notice of me now, and though there wasn't any ill intent in him, for the first time I wondered if I should be concerned. “But you didn't sound pleased by it. How did it come to be?”

I hummed a laugh, breathy and weak. “A bet landed me in his bar. He noticed me, I took a temporary and innocuous job," I felt a jab realizing that I wanted him to know it hadn't been anything lascivious, "for obscenely good pay, shit got complicated, I had to tell another vampire I belonged to Eric so said vampire wouldn’t eviscerate me before the night was over because I made him come clean about some things to his girlfriend, and since I can’t lie. . . well. Here we are.”

"Made another vampire?"

"Well, 'you tell her now or I will tomorrow.' Turned out to be pretty motivating."

He regarded me. “So you are Eric's. Yet you said you refuse to speak to him.”

“He almost killed me. That was a back-breaking straw sort of situation. I'd mostly been humoring him up until that point because he had leverage over my family.”

'Yes, that sounds like Eric.' He sighed internally.

“. . . Are you well now?” He was what I might call, for him, genuinely concerned.

“Sure. That was the doctor I told you about. I left his club and bled out on the sidewalk a couple blocks away. I called for an ambulance before I passed out, but when I woke up I was in his bar and she was working over me. She said she just. . . threw together a bunch of different types of True Blood and pumped it into me. It was her last idea.”

“Eric does not leave humans wounded. Not unless he wishes them to suffer.” He said it with sadness, which would have barely been discernible to a normal person. 

“There were. . . extenuating circumstances. Probably you should talk to him about it. I don’t think it’s for me to tell.”

“It happened to you,” he pointed out.

“Yes, but the. . . what went wrong. With what I can do, I have a healthy respect for privacy, and I don’t think he’d appreciate me telling you.” I paused. “It wasn’t his best moment.” 'And he wasn't too happy about it, either,' I wanted to say, but that would give  Godric a clue and make my 'you should talk to him about it' more or less lip service.

“Was he injured as well, then?”

My laugh was almost immediately broken off by a hiss, then chased with a long string of expletives. “No,” I said unsteadily. “No, he was not injured. Well, he did get a chunk of silver to the face, but he more than made up for it.” I had to stop from putting a hand to my head at the memory. “It was after he asked you about me.”

Godric understood perfectly the appeal I had for Eric. He hoped his Progeny treated me well, feared he knew better, and almost couldn’t blame him for wanting to secure such a resource. More than that, though, such a creature. Such a woman. He felt a jab of displeasure at the idea.

“He can be difficult. I must apologize for that; it was I who taught him how to be vampire.”

I snorted, gently enough that it didn't upset the muscles Gabe had sacked. “No disrespect intended, honestly, but. . . are you out of your damn mind? That man probably came out of the womb grabbing asses, plotting for his self-interest, and with a skull made of titanium. I’m not sure how much credit you should really take for that. Shit, you probably gave him his best qualities." A quiet stir of denial and self-deprecation from him. "I wouldn’t want to see what that man looked like without so much self-control and such a sense of consequences and long-term planning.” I almost shuddered remembering what he had looked like when nothing but a hungry animal had been home in his face.

Godric huffed a dry laugh. “He was willful,” he allowed.

“Good God, man, is that less than ninety-five percent gross understatement?”

“. . . You truly are not afraid of me.” He almost sounded amazed. Almost.

I looked at him calmly. “Should I be?” I asked levelly.

He wanted to answer. I felt different versions of “yes” and “no” claiming the fore in his mind until eventually, he just looked away.

I nestled back into his shirt and let myself soak in the feel of him. As long as I stayed back a little, it was like floating in a cordoned-off part of the ocean. I could forget. I could let the water sway and steer and I could just go away. So long as that divider stayed in place so I wouldn’t get carried out to sea, it was a heaven.

It felt like only a moment later when Eric charged into my field of awareness, intent and focused and furious as a gale-force wind as it bowled through houses without so much as slowing. And all of it, as only Eric could manage, perfectly in hand and controlled.

I jumped to my feet, one hand in the chainlink, and stared in the direction I felt him coming. Up through the floor, through concrete and steel and wood, plaster and paint, and finally, the dark air of night.

“. . . Fuck,” I cursed under my breath.

Godric was up without having moved. “What is it?”

“Eric." Godric felt a jab of shock - how could I feel Eric before he could? "And he brought almost fifty vampires with him. But they're behind - he’s flying like a bullet, nothing can move that fast. He’s-- Fuck,” I said again, blanching. I looked over at Godric, finding to my surprise that he couldn't be any taller than I was, and I was not a large woman. My eyes were wide and my face slack. “He’s already here.”

“Stay here,” Godric ordered. And then he was just gone, the only sign of his passing the cage door ripped off its hinges and a scream and grate as the anchors of the room’s steel door were pulled out of the concrete. I looked around the corner and saw the metal of the door bent like a wrinkle in a sheet of paper.

That was when the screaming started. Not long after came shouting and gunfire as an army mobilized.

Chapter Text

Vampires aren’t humans. They aren’t some hybrid of once-human and now-other. They look like us. They have detached memories of once having been something less, under, small and slow and distant, like a dream half remembered.

One of very few fundamental similarities we share with them - like we share grooming rituals with apes or social structure with wolves or rape with just about everything - is that some vampires are more predisposed to see reason and think of things in the long term, and others are more feral and reactive less concerned with any sense of consequence. When I made it upstairs and to the chapel, I saw that concept in stark practice.

The Fellowship was not faring well. Some of them were only unconscious, but they were not the majority. Near the exit to the hallway where I stood was a man without a larynx. On the other side of the room, someone had had the barrel of his machine gun jammed through his face. One man was trying to pull himself toward an exit on one arm, because the other had been ripped off at the shoulder. I saw a spine on one of the pews, a femur snapped over the back of another.

The vampires were in better shape, but I could see the viscous, bloody remains of at least four of them. There were still at least fifteen in their numbers, and the Fellowship had not quite twice that much. They were done pouring in, though - whatever was left of those who had been here was barred downstairs with their research.

I went intentionally unnoticed, as I had all through the basement fortress. Shouts were breaking the air, snarls, the pop of machine guns and pistols, wild shrieks of panic and agony. I had asked Eric for practice with chaotic situations once, but I was not going to leave this any more educated than I had come in. I was skiing over the water, not swimming in it.

That was when Godric arrived - what had taken him so long I didn’t know - and perched on the railing of the balcony over the back of the massive room. He stopped his people with one word: ”Enough.” His voice was raised, but it wasn’t a shout, and somehow it still carried over bloodlust and rage and gunfire. The vampires stopped. For a moment, so did the humans.

I had made my way just onto the edge of the dais at the front of the room, backed by shining, floor to ceiling windows, and when “my” people became restless, when trigger fingers itched and muscles primed to move, I brought everything I was to bear and snapped, “You will do as he says.”

Heads whipped around, alerted of my presence. Eric was across the room from me. His eyes went wide, riveted to me, an instant before he picked out the scent of what had happened on the way to the church - and the matching scents of three of the five men who had been in the van here with us in the chapel. He snarled wordlessly, and before “Eric, don’t!” could leave me, Landon’s head was gone from his neck and thrown across the room so hard that I heard its bones crack when it hit the wall. I squeezed my eyes shut and couldn't stop a cold whimper, though it didn't leave my throat.

Landon had been the best of them, a genuinely good spirit. I felt his soul go, all the potentials and paths and myriad waterways tied to him, erased from existence. The only one of them who had unequivocally been worth something.

Then I saw Gabe, crouched in the tactical safety of a corner under the balcony, start to raise his gun, and everything slowed to a funeral’s pace, like I was walking through a movie.

He aimed at Eric. A bullet pushed out of the barrel, a small fireball ignited and then extinguished as the bullet passed through it. I could see the grain of wood in its tip, the dull silver of its body.

Eric heard the gun. Eric was fast, smart, a survivor. But Eric was distracted.

My weight leaned forward, my bare feet pushed off the carpet, and I sprinted forward and rammed into him, shouldering him out of the way like a lemur shoving aside a gorilla. He had barely moved when he registered the danger and was turning in the air toward me, arms reaching out to bring me with him out of the path of the bullet.

We were both just a little too slow. The world sped back up and Eric was lowering me to the ground with infinite care. The chapel was quiet as a grave. Horror went through the room like a cloud as both sides realized what had happened. In a beat, Gabe’s own soldiers were turning on him and taking his gun.

Every breath I took was getting more difficult, more shallow, more quick. It felt like there were knives in my chest, my back, my shoulder. I coughed, a dry, barking thing, and felt liquid ejected up into my mouth. I wasn’t sure I’d ever been in more pain. Eric was guiding my head to the side.

“Spit it out,” he said, his voice controlled, but tightly.

I did, and warm, thick liquid passed over my lips, dribbling down past the corner of my mouth. I tried to talk, but I couldn’t make my voice work, I couldn’t get enough air, I couldn’t concentrate.

Something cool and soft and solid was pressed to my bottom lip, warm wetness near its center. “Drink.” I realized it was Eric’s wrist and turned my head away, sputtering and spitting to ensure none of what was on my lip got into my mouth. He leaned over me. “Your lung is collapsed,” he said, calm and severe and intense all at once. Worried. “If you don't drink, you’re going to die.” He lowered his voice, and an angry edge entered it. “I will not let that happen.”

I felt objections around the room. I felt them overshadowed by the idea of me ceasing to exist.

“Eric.” I recognized Godric’s cool voice, his presence suddenly off my side. It felt so good to have him there. I wanted him nearer. “It is her choice.”

“She doesn’t know what she’s talking about, Godric, she’s dying.”

“Let ‘im help,” a tight, twanging voice said loudly. It was Jason. “If she don’t die, his blood won’t turn her, right?”

“It is her choice,” Godric repeated, voice firm. Yet I felt worry from him, too, deep down, like a fish nearing the surface of deep, black lake and causing a ripple.

“Go--” I tried to say his name, but it only sent me into another coughing fit. A cool, gentle hand was placed over my windpipe. It helped.

“Shh,” he said. He had knelt down. He was closer. I was in pain, I was dying, but it was suddenly ok, because he was here.

He and Eric exchanged words in another language. I wasn’t cognizant enough to even try to follow it. Jackets were laid over me from head to foot, another bunched under my head, still more under my knees and feet to elevate them. I was going into shock, and someone in the group was a paramedic. I heard him utter low words to Eric and Godric. He was a Soldier of the Sun, but in that moment, any animosity between human and vampire was wiped clean, drowned out by the greater need of helping me survive.

More foreign words, then in an undertone, Eric said, “You are hungry, Godric.”

“She is in no danger from me, my child.”

Eric’s lips were by my ear and he was whispering, barely loud enough for me to hear. “If you will not drink, we can heal you by putting blood into the wound. It is a secret we guard closely.”

I managed a pathetic moan of protest.

“It will not enter your system, it will only heal you. But we will have to get the bullet out first. That will mean widening the point of entry. It will hurt. I can glamour the pain away, if. . . If you can. . . .” ‘If you can allow me,’ he didn’t have to say.

He leaned back and looked for my answer. I shook my head minutely. I opened my mouth to speak, my throat working futilely, but he put fingers over my lips. His eyes were suddenly intense as they met mine, and he had the overwhelming need to kiss me, even if just one the forehead. He felt something dire. Something he had not felt in a very long time. All he did was lean in close and say, “Godric will take care of you. Be safe.”

Then he was gone. My brow furrowed and I tried to turn my head to look for him, but gentle hands restrained it.

“If you are not human, leave immediately,” Godric ordered calmly. “Take the one called Gabe with you.” He did not specify that the man shouldn’t be harmed. It was intentional, and not one human argued. He was set upon the moment the vampires were outside and the doors closed.

When everyone was gone, Godric leaned down and whispered so only I could hear. There was a tear of fabric. “Open your mouth and bite down on this. It will help with the pain.”

“Wa-- wait,” I rasped. “My bloo--” I was interrupted by another bout of throat-shredding coughing and wet gagging. The pain in my chest was incredible.

“I have been warned, little Ēostre,” he murmured. “You are safe with me. Open your mouth, we must do this now, or you will suffocate.”

I swallowed and did as I was told. Either I would suffocate, as he said, or he’d drain me. At least if he tried, there was a chance I'd live. A thick roll of what felt like denim was place between my teeth.

“Give her your hands,” he said, and I felt him move to my side. Other people walked up to surround me, and someone kneeled down on either side of me and took my hands into theirs. One was Jason. I twined my fingers with theirs and braced myself even as I tried to relax. Tense pain hurt more than loose pain. I prayed that at this level, staying relaxed could still make a difference.

The jacket over my chest was pushed up, then a quiet tear of fabric and the snick of fangs. “Keep her still,” Godric said. He was a practical man; he knew it was likely cruel, given what had been done to me, but that could not be a concern when weighed against the greater issue. Hands and forearms braced and tensed over my upper chest, around my head, on my hips and legs and shoulders. It did nothing to put me at east about how much this was going to hurt.

I closed my eyes and struggled for even labored breaths as Godric leaned over me. My fingers dug into the hands holding mine.

He went to work. I strained only slightly against the people holding me down, and there was a muffled, wavering cry from my throat, but shortly it wasn’t an issue - I couldn’t stop coughing. Involuntary tears came out wet between barking hacks.

The pain stopped and the backs of cool fingers touched my face. “I am in, little one, but you must stop coughing. I cannot get to the bullet.”

I wanted to growl and him that I wasn’t exactly doing it on purpose, but I put all my energy into trying to stop. I turned my head to the side to spit more fluid out, and the restraining hands let me. It was a force of will and it took at least a full minute, maybe two, one of my hands resting over my throat, but I managed to slow and eventually stop the coughing.

“Hold her,” Godric said again, his voice fractionally more tight than it had been. It was more for my benefit than anyone else’s, to warn me that it was starting again, and he moved with more haste this time. “Put the light here,” he said to someone else.

Jason reclaimed my hand just as Godric went in. That time I could not hold myself still, I could not avoid screaming through the denim, a raw, shredding sound as I bucked against the people holding me.

Almost as soon as it had begun, Godric put his hand over my hair and stroked me once with his thumb saying, “It is done. You did well.” Warmth trickled over the wound and it immediately began feeling better. I closed my eyes in relief.

“Thanks, mom,” I rhasped, weak and exhausted. There was only a tickle in my throat, even so soon after he’d given me is blood, and that much I was to keep from turning into another fit of hacking.

When I opened them blearily, I found him, hand still half on my face, half over my hair, looking down at me. “No offense, Godric," I said roughly, "but your town sucks.”

His lips twitched on his pale face.

 

* * * * *

 

I wanted to do so much at the church. I wanted to help people see where their hate came from. I wanted to help them understand that vampires were just people. Different people, yes, but not demons, not evil forces actively plotting their demise and enslavement. No more or less monstrous than any of them. I wanted to remind them what their religion, their faith, was supposed to be about. But I was just too goddamned tired. Godric’s blood healed me quickly, but I was left weak and utterly spent. I had to remind myself that today had been longer than one single day in the relativity of time.

Once his blood had had a moment to work, Godric quietly asked, "May I pick you up? We need to leave." I was too spent to even consider declining, and just nodded. He made his way out of the chapel and through the entryway. Hands brushed me as we passed, soft and light as feathers. I heard whispered prayers and murmurs. I had to reassure them once that I was safe with Godric, but with sincerity behind my words, once was all it took and they gave him their trust as my guardian. Some, not many but some, followed us out.

The moment we were outside, Eric was there. The other vampires all waited respectfully in sloppily clustered lines.

“We can take one of the fellowship cars if you all want a lift somewhere,” I heard Jason offer. "I'd be happy to drive." Godric accepted with a thank you, then told Eric to “Go ahead and ensure everything is ready.”

Eric literally launched into the air faster than a rocket, and it was enough to get my eyes to open. I turned my head to look after him and caught only a speck in the sky before even that was gone. "Is-- Did he--" I gaped upward. ". . .You know, actually that explains a couple things.”

I let my head fall back against Godric’s cool, bare chest and closed my eyes. When we settled into the back of a car, a large jacket was arranged over my bare legs and another over my torso. Godric didn’t sit me down or buckle me in, he just kept me held against him. It was unusual, but he was hardly human, hardly bound to the same rules of "normal," so I just decided not to care. The motion, the comfort, and the quiet, steady sound of the engine had me asleep before we had even picked up speed on the highway.

Chapter Text

My return to consciousness was gentle as a pane of shattering glass. It felt like an earthquake - the walls shook, something clattered to the floor. I registered that I was in a large, soft, well-appointed bed in a room far more expensive than I had ever seen before Dallas, clean and crisp and simple and masculine.

I held consciousness for only an instant before I was knocked windless by panic and horror and rage from over four dozen people on the other side of the wall in front of me. Only a few were human. A tremor ran over me like I’d been hit with frigid air, and I was shoving the blankets off and tearing away from the bed. Blood. I saw it just before my hand made it to a matte iron knob. Remains, ooze and meat and-- I yanked the door open. My hair, loose, and the linen shirt I was still in were ruffled by the breeze of it.

The walls were red. Everything was red. There were. . . chunks. Without willing it, my mind reached out and found both Eric and Godric, safe and mostly whole - Eric had a bad wound in his right arm.

The world was all instinct and reaction - few peoples’ higher functions were intact, and those that were were being shouted over by instinct. I heard Jason calling out orders from a wall-partitioned room to my right. I couldn’t do anything for anyone out here that wasn’t already being done, so I moved on silent feet, stumbling more than once on the slippery floor, my hand going out to catch myself on a table and coming away red. I didn’t realize it until I pushed hair out of my face and felt wetness left behind.

The air was wails and cries, moans, curses. It was rage and confusion, frustration, hatred. . . . I had never been in a disaster before. I hoped to never be in one again. The world was simple, but it was screaming.

I was hardly aware as I made my way across the large room and around a corner at the far wall, so intense was the noise. Eric was seated on the floor, debris littering his hair and shirt, the outside of his whole upper arm bloody. He was trying to assess the damage. The moment he realized I was there, he was up and inches away.

“Are you alright?” He asked. He was something I had not seen before, and I grokked for the first time how he could have made it to his age. How he could have the confidence he did. Eric was more calm and focused than I had ever seen him. “Are you bleeding?” His concern was more immediately about keeping other vampires off of me than it was an injury. Apparently he had stopped breathing around me. He took in just enough air to speak, and then only through his mouth, slowly and carefully.

Rather than answering, I leaned forward and put a hand on the back of his wounded shoulder, angling it so I could see. It looked shredded, it looked like muscle was gone, but there was too much blood for me to tell any more. I looked up at him sharply. “What do you need?” I asked. “Blood?”

He spared enough attention only to note that I kept my head in a crisis. To remember. He was pleased and unsurprised. “No. It’s silver,” he said. “A suicide bomb from the Fellowship.”

I pursed my lips. Fucking fanaticism. “It’s not great out there,” I nodded my head toward the other rooms. “Godric’s lieutenants are gone, Jason is ok. I don’t know who anyone else is.”

His attention went sharp. “Jason?”

“Hardly the time,” I half-snapped.

“Emma,” he said under his breath. ”Are you ok?”

“Do I seem hurt?” I snapped. “Now will you tell me what the fuck to do for your arm?”

He regarded me with an assessing look. “There is silver imbedded in the wound. It will push itself out eventually, but it will take time, and the process will be painful.”

“Get to the point.”

“Get it out.”

I couldn’t help a huff of a smile, satisfied. I nearly called out to see if anyone had medical supplies, tweezers. But all that would do was add to the cacophony of similar needs and cries, though they were rapidly decreasing under Godric’s direction. Someone was on the phone with emergency services, someone else was making arrangements at a hotel. The wounded were being seen to and the missing accounted for.

But Godric. . . it felt like something in him was breaking. No. Not breaking. Falling away. Dissolving. I literally trembled from the fear it struck in me.

“Do you have a preferred method?” I asked tightly. “I know humans come here, is there a first aid kit someone might not have--”

“Sucking it out would be the fastest, and the least painful.”

I stilled. My eyes slowly slid up to his. “You are not serious. That is the most disgusting thing I have ever seen. And no offense, but I never want to have another sex dream about you as long as I live.”

He hummed, arrogant and amused. “Did you have a hard time resisting?”

“So help me I will find a piece of jagged glass and shove it into your open wound.”

His smile only broadened to show teeth.

I rolled my eyes. “Bathroom?” Naturally he had no idea what I was getting at. “Kitchen? I need water so I can rinse this and get an idea of what I’m working with.”

“You really wouldn’t take a little blood to help me? After everything we’ve been through, I’m hurt.”

“Are you dying?” I asked flatly.

“Silver is very deadly to vampires.”

“That isn’t what I asked,” I said with a venomous smile.

It was the feeling he had, underneath the game we were playing now that things were calming down. The feeling of relief that I could do this so soon. . . after. That I could be like this.

My face shuttered and I stepped away. “I’ll be right back,” I said brusquely. He didn’t stop me. Which was smart of him. . . . And kind. I didn’t much care which.

 

* * * * *

 

Godric was speaking to Eric when I made my way back. A stock pot had been the largest thing I could find to fill with water, so I carried that, a cup inside it, and a miraculous surprise I’d found in a drawer: a pair of culinary tweezers.

Godric swept every inch of me with his senses before I had stepped fully into the room, then asked, “Are you alright, Emma?” Oddly, his voice sent whoosh of air out of me behind a tremor deep in my chest. He was keeping what he had felt earlier well-contained.

I recovered quickly. “Someone’s been talking about me,” I replied with a little grin. Then to Eric, “Don’t take this the way you’ll want to, but get down on your knees. You’re a goddamned giant.”

With a wry grin, he gracefully lowered himself first to one knee, then both. In as much as he could feel anything, Godric found the dynamic between us interesting. How Eric was behaving, what he was not only allowing, but clearly enjoying. From me, a human. Something his progeny would consider a tiny thing. A meal. A toy, useful abilities aside.

“Hold your arm out,” I said clinically, eyes already studying the wound. I set the water down and held an unnecessary hand out as if to help support the limb, put the back end of the tweezers between my teeth, and peeled fabric away from the area. It was. . . grizzly.

The two ancient creatures watched me with the same sort of study and attention that I kept on the wound as I slowly poured water over it. Eric didn’t twitch, but I felt the pain through him. It wasn’t what a human would feel, nowhere near that, but it was there.

“Bend your elbow,” I said absently around the tweezers. When he did, I reclaimed my other hand and moved in closer, using it to help wipe some of the blood away from his skin.

When it was clean it looked. . . well it looked like raw hamburger. It was meat. It was pink, and it was bloodless. It was just that it was living meat that made it a little offsetting. Fortunately, werewolves tend to go through a lot of grizzly injuries, sometimes literally, and I was as desensitized as they came.

“Here,” I said without looking up. I held up the cup of water, intending for Eric to take it. Instead, it was Godric’s hand, cool and pale, that slipped around the container. I darted a surprised glance up to him. “Every few seconds, pour a little on,” I said, removing the tweezers from my teeth and pulling at the edges of the wound with gentle fingers so I could better see inside. I almost shook my head, but apparently some of my reaction showed.

“What?” Eric asked.

I angled his arm to get better light on it and said, “Most of your deltoid is gone. It’s just kind of amazing that you’re conscious and not” - I split my attention to stepping into his pain enough to find the shards, “-unconscious or in horrifying agony. I mean,” I went after the first shard, closest to the surface but still almost an inch buried, “I know you’re a vampire and all, but seeing something weird in action is always. . . well, weirder than just knowing about it.” I had to ease out of him a bit - the pain was making me nauseous.

At a frustrated twitch of muscle in my face, barely perceptible to a human, Godric asked, “Do you require more light?”

“I wouldn’t say require, but--” In the same shift of air, he was gone and back, a flashlight on and lighting up the injury, jug still in the other hand. I huffed a laugh. “Like I said,” I muttered.

The second piece was easily the size of an almond in its shell, and was so bent and twisted I was honestly afraid to take it out. When I got a good grip on it, I had to close my eyes and pull on the exhale - Eric wasn’t quiet on that one. It plunked to the floor audibly. Someone tried to get Godric’s attention, but he said only, “Handle it yourself, please.” It was clearly not a request. I had never encountered anything so inherently, well, alpha. And god help me if any of the pack heard me say something like that.

The third piece of silver came out easily, but the last one frightened me. It looked like a very tiny, edgeless knife - “There was silverware strapped to The Idiot,” Eric was kind enough to supply. But it was lodged in his bone.

I hesitated. Glanced up at him. “This last one. . . it’s not going to feel good,” I said seriously.

He gave a crisp nod and was, for all outward appearances, unconcerned.

Culinary tweezers were not made to pull fork tines out of humeri. They kept slipping off. Again I hesitated, again I looked up at Eric. “. . .I think I need to use my fingers.”

“I would prefer your teeth.”

“Now I’m going to put salt in it before the shard of glass.” But I was already tugging as gently as I could at one side of the gaping wound. Godric mirrored me on the other side, and I could have kissed him for the help he was giving, the calm, the steady presence. When I could see the top of bit of metal more or less clearly, I gave a measured exhale and went in. No matter how I angled, how I tried to dry it, my fingers couldn’t grab hold either.

I knew what I had to do, but I was so pissed about it that for a long moment, all I could do was stare down at that stupid, dull little glint like it had just murdered a van full of puppies.

“Godric,” I said levelly, “steady stream of water, if you would. Eric. . . god in heaven, but you fucking owe me,” I said, voice my drying than an arctic wind.

I took a steadying breath, tried not to dry heave, forced my mind elsewhere, and gently bent down and took the fork tine between my teeth.

It wasn’t fast, and it wasn’t easy. I had to wiggle it, rock it back and forth until it came loose enough to remove. I stayed half inside of Eric’s senses the whole time, pausing when there was a spike of pain, giving him a chance to adjust. Changing my angle if it hit something too painful.

“You must give absolutely phenomenal massages,” he said. I dug a nail into his arm vindictively. Confusingly, his mind didn’t even stray to the zip code of the obvious direction.

With Godric’s help, I was mostly able to keep my face from touching flesh, and I was fairly sure I’d escape with no new blood in my system.

“I do,” I said absently as I stood up and thoroughly wiped my face on my soiled borrowed shirt, features scrunched up with distaste.

The smallest piece I removed - the first piece - was no bigger than a flake of fish food, broken and balled up. When I was done and Eric’s flesh knitting - I made him let me watch for as long as he could tolerate it. Not long under the circumstances - I pocketed it. I wasn’t entirely sure why.

 

* * * * *

 

I rode with Eric and Godric in a polished black SUV. I had been given a blanket to wrap around myself for modesty. We were going with the others to a hotel that, I got the impression, was a five-star or similar. Under other circumstances I would have been elated. Mostly, though, I was distracted. Godric had gone distant, like he had been in the cage below the “church.”

I knew what suicide felt like. Thoughts of it were much more common than most people understood. I also knew the peace, the utter and blissful peace that came with the decision to do it. Godric was ready. Godric was settling himself. He was afraid, but he was also Done. It wasn’t a decision anymore, it was the road of fate laid out before him and beckoning.

Eric knew something was wrong. But he had no idea how wrong. I got the impression that Godric was literally the last creature in the world Eric would think capable of - prone to - such a thing. And so his attention was split. He was trying incredibly hard to keep his thoughts away from where they wanted, more urgently, to be. To keep his feelings pressed down and hidden from me. But Eric knew how to master his emotions. Not how to not feel them. And Eric was hellfire furious.

“You are staying in a suite with Godric and I,” he told me - told, not asked - when we were on our way to the elevators. The lobby was the size of a small cathedral. “There is a separate room you can use with an en suite. Fresh clothing will have been delivered when you wake, and food is waiting for you now.” It was not a discussion, and I was too tired to care.

He was too distant. Too controlled, too businesslike.

I waited until the shining doors closed and it was just us, Godric, and the young man who was running the elevators. Apparently the very rich didn’t need to push buttons. “Leave them alone, Eric.” My voice was cool, but quiet with warning.

He went cold and hard. He had no intention of ‘leaving them alone.’

“It happened to me. It is my decision, and I am begging you not to make me talk about this right now enough to explain why. I have a reason. You need to wait for me to give it to you, or the pit of knives I feel in my stomach and chest right now are going to destroy something I can’t get back.”

He seethed.

“You will do as she says.”

I looked at Godric in open surprise. Eric. . . Eric worshipped this man, because as incensed as he was, and as much as I could feel he was going to argue the point later, when Godric told him to leave it be, that was that.

I had felt the bond between Eric and Pam, that thing that went beyond human conception. This. . . this was a thousand years of that, nurtured between a connection like two souls who belonged together. I stepped to the back of the elevator as if not physically standing between them would lessen the feel of it. It was crushing, like the deep ocean.

For my sake, Eric kept his mouth shut. It would last exactly as long as it took for him to be alone with Godric. He trusted me to stay out of their heads if I didn’t want to hear it.

 

* * * * *

 

“Palatial” came to mind when one of the carved double doors was opened for me. So did “Presidential.”

How much money you must accrue over two thousand years, I supposed. Without a word or a look, I went straight to the first bathroom I could find, shucked out of Godric’s soiled shirt, kicked the door closed behind me, and scrubbed myself under water that was too hot until every millimeter of my skin was raw and red. Then I scrubbed more.

I needed to be calm. I knew that. Time dulls things. Time would dull this. But time wasn’t immediately available. All that was available was the knowledge that I couldn’t wash this off, because it wasn’t my skin, it wasn’t on me, it was in me, and because I hadn’t chosen it, because I hadn’t put it there, I wasn’t sure how to make it leave. How to get on top instead of be crushed underneath. In any other situation my answer would be to make peace with it, with whatever it was I couldn’t exercise. I was not in a place to even conceive of doing something like that.

I came out of the bathroom in a robe. Long, thick, soft, and perfectly made to hide behind. I saw trays of food on a dining room table that sat twelve. I knew I should eat. I recognized that I was hungry. But it was as appealing to me as ash, and if I forced myself to eat, that was exactly what it would taste like.

A slip of paper was affixed to one of the bedroom doors, a note written on it. That made it my room, I supposed.

 

Eat.

Godric and I have business to tend to. We’re still in the hotel and will be back before dawn. Pamela is on her way, she should arrive before we’re back.

EAT.

There is a pill on your nightstand - take it. It will help you sleep.

You’re safe here.

- Eric

 

My jaw worked side to side. My eyes narrowed. I was tired, I really was, but instead of climbing into what promised to be the most comfortable bed I’d ever felt, I went to find a pen. Overtop his note, I scribbled out in bold, giant letters:

 

BOSSY.

ASS.

HOLE.

 

If he’d asked, if he’d offered, I would absolutely take the stupid pill. A good sleep would be some kind of heaven right now. But he hadn’t asked, and he hadn’t offered, so I picked up the little pale blue oval, set it on the dining table, and smashed it to powder with the heel of a shoe. I plunked the shoe down on the wood next to the remains of what probably passed for good intentions in his neanderthal-wired mind, went to my room, slammed the door closed behind me, and clicked the lock into place.

What was really in my craw was the words “You’re safe here.” I knew how he intended the reassurance. I knew why he had written it. But the words only made this worse. Because he, Eric “callous fucking bastard” Northman of all people, thought they were words I needed to hear.

Something had changed in him over our time apart. It was small, but it was there. And just then, I hated it, because all I wanted to do was pretend tonight was no different from any other night, not really.

 

* * * * *

 

I managed to sleep, wrapped in the thick robe and nested deep under the covers of a bed five of me could have comfortably fit in.

 

* * * * *

 

Waking that time was much more gentle than what had happened in Godric’s “nest.” A multipurpose word, apparently, because it was my understanding that nests turned vampires into crazy people who took leading roles in slasher films.

It wasn’t an explosion, it wasn’t terror or danger. But something was wrong. A discordant feeling to the air, grating and almost screeching in warning. That was all I felt, though. An unidentifiable sense that something was. . .ah. It was a warning. Something was about to happen.

There were two quiet raps on my door. “It’s me, Princess,” Pam’s drawl announced before the deadbolt clicked and the wood swung open. She leaned against the frame. She was dressed like some sort of perky, upscale suburban housewife. There was a lot of pastel. I wondered if it was some kind of practical joke. “The boys are still out, and you,” here her voice turned pointed, “need to eat somethin’.”

I made a disgusted noise and rolled over in bed. “Witch,” I ground out. “Lock-picking witch,” I added under my breath.

“I told the front desk we were staying here with an unruly toddler. They gave me a key.” She came in - I heard her come in. She was taking care to make sure I knew where she was. At first it sent hot anger flushing to the surface of my skin until the piece of her that was in me rose up to meet the piece of her I could feel, and I understood. She had been through. . . what too many women go through. Compassion dictated I couldn’t be angry at her for that, which only made me angry in a new way because now, now of all fucking times, I couldn’t just feel what I wanted to feel and have it that simple.

“I’m on a diet,” I said flatly. I tried, so hard did I try, to add ‘Eric said I was fat.’

“This hotel is superb. Great kitchen, lots of low-calorie options.”

“I ate before I went to sleep.”

“No you didn’t.”

“I thought Eric would have told you I can’t lie.”

“He did.”

“Then why are you calling me a liar?”

“Because there are plenty of ways around your little quirk.”

“You’re a harpy and I hate you.”

“No use trying to flatter me, I’m immune.” It was nothing quantifiable; her tone was exactly, precisely the same as ever. But whether or not I could identify how, the roughest edges were covered, the sharpest corners sanded down. “Come on. Up. Unless you want to find out what I’m like when I put ‘nice Pam’ down for the night.”

“You’re telling me I’ve been seeing nice you all this time?” I asked as I turned my head over my shoulder to cast her a perturbed look. She meant it. So with an utterly spectacular noise of protest, I did as I was told. I found I felt heavy. Stiff and sore and stinging. I supposed vampire blood didn’t heal everything if it was only put to a wound.

“You cut yourself, by the way,” she said.

I looked at her in surprise. “What?”

“In the shower, I’m guessing. Scrubbed a little too hard, maybe? Take off one too many layers of skin and the blood comes out. Like road rash.”

“. . .Why aren’t you trying to kill me?”

“The thought has crossed my mind.” It had, but something in her bucked and protested the very suggestion that she’d ever seriously consider it. “But I usually like to keep Eric happy, and he’d be pissed if I drained you. Potent little thing that you are, I got a whiff before I was in the lobby.”

I blanched.

“Oh, don’t worry, it was only because I already knew what you smelled like. Any other vampire would just assume there was an especially tasty donor on staff. You’re all healed up now.”

I loosed a relieved breath as I left the room, turned a corner, and saw the dining table, more full of food than it had been when I’d gone to sleep. The shoe was still there, along with the powdered remains of Eric’s good intention. I glanced over my shoulder to find his defaced note still taped to my door. God love Pam, she probably wanted to see his reaction.

“Funny,” I said, “when the boys leave food out at home, it usually takes longer to start multiplying. And goes less fresh.”

“You’re hilarious,” she said, dry and droll and flat. “A riot. I had everything brought up fresh. A full tasting menu.” She leaned forward and started taking covers off of trays. “That way,” she went on brightly, “you’ve got no excuse.”

“. . . Yeah, I know its been awhile since you were human, but we don’t eat this much. And I hate throwing food out. They have these things called menus,” I said as I sat in the vicinity of a simple breakfast plate, “I’m pretty sure you know what they are since hotel donors are a thing now. You just have a look, make a call, and within minutes, boom!” I picked up a dry piece of white toast and didn’t succeed in not curling my lip at it. I took a bite and, oh, yes, there it was. Tasted like ash. “Food,” I said around the bite, entirely unamused.

“If you eat this time,” she purred, managing to be patronizing at the same time as falsely bright, “that’s a little bit less we have to throw out again, isn’t i--”

A jolt went through me as if I’d touched an exposed wire. My eyes went wide and the toast fell back to the plate with a quiet clatter. The warning in the air changed to something immediate.

When the first sound left her mouth, I said, quiet but urgent, “Shut up.” Slowly, I got out of my chair, fingertips resting on the dark, polished wood of the table.

There aren’t words for some things, sort of like you couldn’t figure out a way to describe a color no one had ever seen. At twenty-six, I had had to accept a while ago that some of the things my extra senses told me, how I got the information, how I made sense of any of it, went beyond what I could make someone else understand. Like eyesight - it would take a good minute or two to explain how your brain makes a picture out of the world around you, while it only takes your eye an instant to do it, impossible and complicated and miraculous as it was.

That was how, a bare moment later, I barked at Pam, a note of panic under my voice, “Take me to the roof! Now!”

She hesitated only an instant, then I was squeezing my eyes against I didn’t know what G-force. We were already on the top floor, so not two seconds later, the controlled, recycled air and bright light of the room was replaced with the heavy, damp pre-dawn air and midnight-blue sky of the outside. Pam set me down at the top of the flight of stairs that exited the hotel door and ascended to the roof. She was staring in shock.

Godric stood at the edge facing the skyline, half turned back toward the roof.. Eric faced his back, shoulders forward and desperate, confused anger coming off of him.

“But we are here!” he said, vehement.

“It's not right,” Godric’s quiet voice replied. It was sad, gentle. “We're not right.”

“You taught me there is no right and wrong,” Eric nearly said over top of him. “Only survival. . .or death.”

“I told a lie, as it turns out,” Godric said, weary and sad and remorseful all at once.

Eric stepped toward Godric and leaned in further. “I will keep you alive by force,” he hissed.

“Even if you could,” Godric replied calmly, “why would you be so cruel?” I saw that weariness I had felt from him the moment I’d been thrown into his cage. It was the saddest thing I had ever felt, but the strange thing was, it wasn’t just the knowledge of how much pain fueled it. The hurt was something personal. I felt something in me start to crack around the edges.

Eric said something in another language. It was hurt and almost pleading. It was broken. Godric replied with the gentleness of a parent and friend. The tie between them was iron and sky, the snow of a mountain aeons old.

Eric's head bowed. He said something garbled and it was. . .it felt like my heart stopped. It was the most heartbroken sound I had ever heard, forced out through a sob. Then I watched as the large man, the man who seemed so indestructible, like a damned force of nature, seemed to collapse in on himself as he half sank, half fell to his knees before his Maker. His pain echoed into Pan and radiated out from her. Bloody tear tracks spilled down her face and she put a hand over her mouth. I moved closer to her, just enough to lean into her side. It was the most overt sign of comfort I thought she might tolerate.

At the sound of what he said next - begging, pleading in some dead language - I felt tears well up in my own eyes. He was folded over, smaller than I ever would imagine he could be. It was all I could do not to keep my reaction silent.

Godric said something then - “Father, brother, son.” I didn’t know what it meant, but it echoed over a thousand years, more, and a gasping sob loosed from Eric.

“Let me go,” Godric said, a hint of roughness in his voice.

Slowly, Eric straightened. His voice had the stubborn, matter-of-fact tone that I had come to loathe. “I won't let you die alone.”

“Yes you will.”

Eric bent over and I heard another sob escape. This time, Godric put a hand to his head and stroked his hair. He was so small, and Eric so large, but their beings were the polar opposite. I saw both at once, and it was almost disorienting.

Eric lifted his face to look up at Godric. The older vampire said gently, in a voice full of the authority of one who had known what it was to have earned the right long ago to have their orders followed without question, “as your Maker. . .I command you.”

I couldn’t help the gasp - I had never felt anything like the compulsion that overtook Eric, and it tightened every muscle in my body as it took a sledgehammer to my chest. Dad had been the Alpha of the Longtooth pack for a long time, and he exerted will over its members. It was a primal force, a biological and instinctual one, powerful and crushing. It was nothing to this.

Slowly, eyes never leaving Godric, Eric rose to his feet and took several steps back before turning and walking toward the stairwell. There were two bloody, ragged tear tracks down his face. At the top step, he paused and looked back at Godric until the older man turned again to the city. He was peaceful. He was ready.

“Stop him,” Eric said to me in an undertone, his voice broken and fixed. Angry, desperate. “Force him if you have to. He isn’t thinking clearly.” His eyes bored into mine, pressing need and urgency. His entire structure was built around that diminutive, young-looking man, and he was about to take himself away forever. I buried my fingernails in my palms against the impossibility of it, against the way my chest felt like it was caving in.

“Pamela,” Eric added, calling her with him as he descended the steps. She cast a broken look at Godric - a look I would never even have been able to imagine on her face - and followed without a sound.

The sky was lightening dangerously where it met the earth, deepest blue giving way to cobalt. Quietly, I walked up to stand next to Godric.

“You must truly be remarkable For Eric to believe you can force me to stay my hand.”

“I’ve surprised him,” I reply quietly.

“And me.” His voice sounds almost wry. “At my age, that is truly something.”

“It’s light, isn’t it?” I asked conversationally. “At the end.”

He looked over at me. “You know the feeling?”

“I know just about every feeling, Godric.” The anticipation of peace like that after so much agony was unmatched. With a nervous twitch of my fingers, I reached over and twined them with his. I didn’t want to be presumptuous. It was selfish. But it felt like the sun was about to extinguish. The life to leave the world. And it was rooted in that diminutive, ancient man, as though everything worth knowing was anchored in the center of his chest. I’d felt this before, but not like this. It felt like my blood, my cells were vibrating.

To my relief - and the surprise of both of us - he didn’t mind the contact. He was as surprised by its comfort as I was the way it felt like the ground was crumbling away under my feet.

“It won't take long,” he said, his eyes on the distant horizon. “Not at my age.” He turned to look at me. “. . .Do you believe in God?”

I considered my answer, and carefully told him the truth. “I believe in something. I don’t think it’s what most people would call God, but I think it amounts to the same. And no, Godric. There’s no punishment waiting for you. You don’t see yourself right. You’re stuck in a world that doesn’t exist anymore. This man,” I gave his hand the gentlest of squeezes, “. . .he’s going to leave a hole in the world when he goes.”

“. . .It’s a beautiful thought. I wish I could believe it. But I hardly deserve forgiveness.”

I sighed quietly. Now was not the time to argue such a thing, and a longer conversation than we could have just then. Distantly, I felt something crack at the thought.

“. . .You will care for him? Eric,” he asked tilting his head toward the stairwell.

I gave a derisive sort of laugh. “I’m sorry, are we talking about the same Eric? That man has a titanium battering ram for a skull and plugs welded into his ear canals. It’s a nice thought, but you’re talking about oil and water having offspring.”

“I can take the blame for that, too,” he said, but there was a fond smile on his face that warmed something in me even as it prised something open.

“I have a feeling you’re the best things in him, Godric. No matter what else he learned from you. A force of nature isn’t good or bad so much as it is just. . . titanic.”

His fingers curled more closely around mine. “What would you do? To stop me.” He asked curiously.

“I wouldn’t.” The light at the horizon looked almost white now. Panic was curling in my chest, tightly bound. “I don’t want you to die.” I paused, and added in a near whisper, “The thought is killing something in me. I don’t know why. But whatever you’ve been feeling that lead you up to this roof this morning, it’s no one’s decision to make but yours. No matter how anyone else feels about it.”

He was thoughtful for a moment. “I can see why he cares for you,” he said quietly.

I snorted under my breath. But the thought of Eric, his tear-streaked face, pain like I’d never felt before, threatened to snap something, to knock down a wall I was using everything I had to hold up.

“Will it hurt?” I asked, and my voice was no longer entirely steady.

“Yes,” he said. He turned back to me with the happiest, lightest expression I had seen on any vampire's face. “But I am full of joy. I want to burn,” he added, as if he knew it sounded crazy, but that it was the most beautiful thing he could imagine.

Suddenly it was real - the sun going out, the heart of the world being extinguished, and I couldn’t. . . . I couldn’t. . . .

I took my hand from his and turned to face him. “Can I show you something?” I asked, fighting for everything I was to hold my tears in. “Before. . .?”

He looked with open curiosity, and a smile that barely touched his lips creased the corners of eyes that looked too young to be lined. He nodded. He didn’t want anything to detract from the moment, from his freedom, from his goodbye. But he felt, as confusingly but undeniably as what was working my insides like a painter’s hand making a picture, that it was right to do what I asked.

Peach was washing the sky from below now, the warm colors of dawn breaking apart the cool of night. It almost made me feel frantic.

“Turn toward me,” I said. “I’ll make it fast, I promise.” When he did, I stepped closer, lifted my hands and gently, carefully, framed his face. I let myself look into eyes that were the most beautiful I had ever seen. They were the color of mud, but it may as well have been polished, cut emerald. I let my thumbs stroke his cheeks once, then leaned in to rest my forehead against his. It felt. . . .

It felt like coming home.

“Close your eyes,” I said, near-silent. Wisps of smoke were beginning to curl from his exposed skin, and I had to fight to hold onto a thread of concentration, but I found him, there on the roof with me.

I had only ever done something like this once before, and like so much else I could do, it came when it wanted, not when it was asked.

I showed Godric the future. It was one of many, but it was a possibility that belonged to him, that was as owned by him as his own skin, as every breath he’d taken when alive. Months and years I poured into his mind, of what it could be to feel whole again, not as he had been in the past, but as this him, as the man who had questioned and pained and concluded that death was all that waited for him. That it was the right choice, the only one truly left. I showed him evolution. Awakening. What his weariness could look like healed and washed away, the flesh under so much scar tissue. I showed him a Godric that had bloomed.

In a single instant, he felt the joy of this other him, lived over decades, centuries. He felt possibility and hope, and he had not thought anything so possible. He believed himself damned, to his very core. What I showed him was another path. What Isaw.

Godric needed peace more than he needed “air.” I showed him that death could not grant him a shadow of what he could feel if he lived, if he found what he was looking for, what he hadn’t known to look for.

In that one instant, he knew what it was to be Whole. And he knew it was possible to get there.

I opened my eyes and pulled back to see galaxies looking back at me. Birth. Possibility. Two thin, red tear tracks ran down his ghostly pale cheeks, and I found my own were wet, too.

“The sun’s going to come up again tomorrow, Godric.” My voice was little more than a breath, and steady despite the tears. “Your way out isn’t going anywhere. But I can show you another way. I can show you something else. If you’ll let me try.”

Please don’t leave.

He shook his head, a slow pendulum back and forth, wonder etched into every line of his face. “What are you?” he breathed.

I smiled lopsidedly and shrugged a shoulder.

I could feel my features distorted with emotion that I couldn’t suppress, even as I fought to keep desperation and plea off of my face. This had to be his decision. It already felt made, but he had to choose it, consciously, purposely. And much as I now knew his loss would break something in me, I would lend him nothing but support if this was the end he chose. He deserved it. He had earned it, thousands of times over.

His skin was beginning to blister. A blue light was gathering at the edges of his form, as if it was eating away at the reality of him.

“Godric?” I breathed, and this time I could not keep my voice steady, could not keep a splinter of fear from it.

There was a tug of sudden movement in my gut and a wind on my skin, and very suddenly, my eyes had to adjust to darkness. We were back inside the hotel, behind the safety of a heavy metal door. I stared at him for a moment, struck dumb, before a sob tore from my throat and I threw my arms around his neck in an iron grip.

“Thank you,” I said, wept, my voice shuddering with the tears that were clogging my throat. “Thank you so much.” His arms slipped gently around me and held me to him.

His skin burned and stung where the sun had eaten away at it. Neither of us paid it any mind. Life was a heady drug.

Eric found us like that, clinging to one another, I don’t know how much later.