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1

Gran's radio is made of four kinds of wood with fancy diamond-shaped inlays and fins radiating out from its sides. The tuner looks like the speedometer of Sookie's first car: a Bonneville that used to be her dad's. That car sat under a tarp for years after he died, waiting for her to be old enough to drive it. It's hers, now. Everything is hers.

2

Some days it's hard to feel good about the vampire rights movement, but one thing's for sure: the vampires sure saved radio. The middle of the night used to be total dead time. Now the vampires play good music, and lots of people call in. Even the ads are interesting; DJ Danny Breaux does them live, and he's got a nice voice, smooth, like he's talking right to you. "So if you're out by Route 167, you should stop in and see the good folks at Night Tee Night, central Louisiana's only all-night golf course. Tell 'em Danny from KBTR sent you and get a free bucket of luminous balls..." His voice is familiar, soothing. Maybe late night DJs were always vampires, Sookie thinks.

3

She's got the late shift at Merlotte's, which is good and bad--more money, but also more drunks with their sad, vicious thoughts--and when she gets off work, she's too wired to sleep. Some nights, she goes out with Bill; other nights, she just goes home: does her chores, pays her bills, listens to the radio. She goes to sleep when the sun comes up, and sleeps into the early afternoon. It's gotten to be a habit.

Really, it's not that much different from how Mrs. DuPaul, her old next door neighbor, used to live: she was a night nurse at the county hospital. It turns out that there's a whole load of people who sleep during the day: emergency workers, truckers, convenience store clerks. You see them down the counter of the diner, ordering breakfast after sundown, and only some of them are eating eggs. The rest have one of the Pitt Grill's liquid lunches: screwdrivers, whole truths, tequila sunsets, tru norths.

4

Sookie's sitting in Gran's old chair, hastily sewing a button back onto her blue dress and humming along to the song on KTBR. "...her skin is cool, like lying under the trees / on a starry September night / Once bitten, never shy..." Sookie glances at the clock--nearly midnight--quickly bites the thread, and tucks her needle back into her sewing box. In the mirror, her eye catches an image of herself--a flash of white panties and her arms raised--throwing her blue dress over her head and shimmying it down.

5

The song ends just as she's tying the bow on the back: carefully, so it sits just at the rise of her ass. DJ Danny is purring, "That one was recorded in three late-night sessions in room B of the famous Sweetwater Studio, with Don Hubbard on piano, Georgie Walters on bass, and Louis Labrode on the sax--and only Labrode was a vampire." Danny Breaux chuckles, low and throaty. "Caller, go ahead..."

"I would like to hear 'Winternights,'" and Sookie stares at the radio, at the worn ivory knob, and feels the hairs on her arms stand up. She doesn't even know what she knows, and then all at once her brain slots the pieces into place: faint Eurotrash accent, that offhand sense of control. She pictures him, sitting at a table in the fluorescent light of Fangtasia's back room, counting out big piles of twenties, a thumping bass vibrating the thick metal door. Big deal: Eric Northman listens to the radio. She shakes off her paralysis and bites her lips a few times, to redden them.

6

"Sookie Stackhouse," Bill drawls drunkenly, mouth curling with the most wicked courtesy the world has ever known, "I do so enjoy keeping company with you."

Sookie rolls her eyes and laughs at him. "Oh my God," but of course she's pleased.

Bill's draped against the doorjamb. It's a little game: she lets him in, she keeps him out. Foreplay--or at least door-play. "C'mon. Let me in."

"It's four in the morning!" she protests, taking a glance at her watch. "Four-thirty!"

"My point exactly!" Bill looks hungrily at her, but he can't come in until she lets him. He can't even try. "My dear Sookie, the night is still young..."

"But you are not." They can tease like this because they both know there's nothing doing: she's got the lunch shift tomorrow. "Go to ground early," she advises, stretching over the threshold to adjust his collar. "Rest up. After all," she adds, as innocently as she can manage, "you've got a younger woman to keep up with."

He's gone in a blur, and she laughs and shuts the door.

7

She listens to KTBR as she brushes her teeth. They're playing "Born to be Wild", which is a little raucous for four-thirty in the morning, but she's had a good time tonight and she finds herself humming along. "Mmmmmm mn mn mmmmmmmMMMmmmmm..." She spits, and then, over the song's outro, DJ Danny says, "That was 'Born To Be Wild', by Steppenwolf, dedicated to Marla from Charlie. Steppenwolf began life as a band called The Sparrows; their first hit as Steppenwolf was 1968's 'A Girl I Knew.' Next caller..."

There's a buzz of chatter, laughter, and then he, Eric Northman, he--

"Stop playing that terrible werewolf shit immediately," Eric demands, and Sookie can see it like it was television instead of radio: the crowded bar, Eric with a cellphone pressed to his ear and a giggling stripper (or two) draped across his shoulders. "Play 'Bela Lugosi's Dead,'" he suggests, and screams of laughter echo down the line, "or--"

She looks at her white-foamed mouth in the mirror. He's drunk, she thinks. He has drunk. She can tell, somehow; a faint slur in the voice, an undertone of satiation.

"--or you know," Eric says, still talking, "anything by The Cure would be acceptable." Sookie quickly scoops water into her mouth and spits. "Except for 'Friday, I'm In Love,'" Eric adds, and chin still dripping, Sookie marches into the bedroom to switch off the radio.

8

"Slow down," Bill mutters, but Sookie can't slow down: she wants to get home, she wants to clean the blood off her face, she wants this night to be over. Perversely, she stomps on the gas. "Sookie," Bill warns again, but to HELL with him, he wasn't the one who'd just decapitated a zombie with a rusty shovel. This was just the last thing she needed: she's still stiff from last month's Gorgon attack, she's had to cancel her salon appointment twice (plague of blood, plague of frogs--though at least they nipped that in the bud) and Sam is almost certainly going to ask her to pull double-shifts for the foreseeable, because Merlotte's always gets so goddamned crowded during Homecoming Week.

"Sookie..." and you know, Bill has some fine qualities, he really does, and she's recited them often enough to her so-called friends and neighbors to know them by heart, but honestly, the man just does not know when to shut up. You'd think, Sookie thinks, reaching forward to snap on the radio, that he might take a goddamned hint from the fact that she's been ignoring him for the last six miles. After all, it isn't like going 70 in a 55 mph zone is the most dangerous thing they've done all night. Bill just wants to tell her what to do, is all. Bill Compton: forever driving from the passenger seat.

Tammy Wynette is belting out "Stand By Your Man," and it's just so beautiful, and it's all Sookie can do not to burst out laughing, because good lord, what bullcrap.

9

The radio's playing softly when the fangster muscles her into Eric's office. It's been a rough ride, and he's still holding her a lot harder than he needs to, so when Eric gestures for him to take his hands off her, Sookie gives him a good, hard kick to the shins for payback. The fangster howls, eyes going red and fangs dropping, but Eric smirks and stops him from going for her throat. "Go to the school nurse if she's hurt you," Eric drawls, and the fangster scornfully turns up the collar of his leather jacket and stalks out.

"Ms. Stackhouse," Eric says, "I appreciate your stopping by," and ha, that's a laugh: Eric's goons snatched her from Merlotte's parking lot and brought her here in the trunk of a car.

Sookie's nails dig into her palms. "You monster," she begins. "How dare you--" but Eric's holding out a battered sheet of parchment covered with the ornate, curlicued writing she's come to associate with vampires, most of whom have very nice penmanship, their other flaws notwithstanding.

"Have you ever heard of the Order of St. Antoine?" Eric asks, settling back into his red leather desk chair.

"What?" Sookie asks, trying to make sense of the writing. "No."

"Well, they've heard of you," Eric says, just as her eyes pick out her name, written with S's so huge and ornate that she hadn't originally seen them as letters. It feels like a violation, having her name appear on this paper, and she looks to Eric to demand an explanation. He leans back and stretches his long legs over the desk. Sookie wants to hit him, but instead she crosses her arms and stuffs her fists into her pits.

"The Order of St. Antoine," Eric begins, "is a secret society. They think they're crusaders for justice, but as Sherriff of Area Five, I'm obliged to regard them as vigilantes." He leans back further; his chair creaks. "They band together to fight drainers and other threats to the vampire community. I've just intercepted that missive," he said, nodding at the paper in her hand. "Apparently they're planning to come through my territory. And apparently there's enough of a buzz about you that they feel obliged to investigate."

Sookie feels tired, suddenly. "Are you warning me?" she asks. "Is that it?"

Eric just looks amused. "Maybe," he says, tilting his head. "I'm also maybe a little worried about them. They're not a bad lot. I can't say I approve of their methods," he adds, eyes sparkling, "but that's only because I prefer to limit their use to myself."

"Wait, I'm sorry." She rubs her forehead with the heel of her hand. "You're saying--"

"I'm saying I'll try to see that they leave you alone," Eric says, and then his voice sharpens. "And I'll trust you to do the same," and it isn't until much later, after a sullen female vampire has driven her home and Sookie's standing in the kitchen waiting for the kettle to boil that she replays Eric's words in her mind and says, aloud, "Wait, what?"

10

"I'm not trying to patronize you," Bill pleads, hands outstretched.

Sookie slams the bottle of orange juice down harder than she means to, her nightgown--a gauzy little thing, almost see-through--fluttering around her. She'd meant this to be a romantic evening. "Well, it sure sounds like you're trying to patronize me."

"All I want is to protect you. And I can't do that if you're not honest with me. Sookie, you are so precious to me, more precious than you can ever know, and this world is full of dangers you can't even begin to--"

"Oh, for the love of Pete!" She's so angry she sloshes juice over the side of her glass, and impulsively, she picks up a bottle of vodka Tara's left there, though she's too cautious to put in more than a splash. Still, it gives her that little bit of extra recklessness that she needs right now. "You don't want honesty; you want control. I want to share my life with you, but that doesn't mean I'm obligated to give you a daily report of--"

"The Order of St. Antoine?" Bill shouts, and okay, so that's what this is about. "You're being investigated by The Order of St. Antoine and you don't think that's something--?"

"Nothing happened!" Sookie screams back. "I didn't see hide nor hair of 'em! It was a total non-event--Eric took care of it!" and the moment she spits that out, she regrets it, because Bill's face gets even more pinched than usual, and boy, that's saying something.

"Eric took care of it," Bill repeats savagely. "Eric Northman, who's repeatedly used you like some sort of freak, who would suck you dry, given half a chance--"

"He's had half a chance. He's had a whole chance," Sookie replies, but there's no heat in it: maybe because it's so obviously true. "Plenty of chances," she muses, thinking it over, because the thing is, Eric's never made her feel like a freak. Feeling a little sick, she flips the idea over: it isn't Eric who makes her feel like a freak.

"Sookie?" Bill says in a voice that says: pay attention.

"Bill?" Sookie replies, and then: "You know, I think you should go now," and relief washes over her immediately, erasing all her doubts. She gets a glimpse of his shocked face and elaborates, "I do hereby rescind my invitation," and after he's gone, she laughs and puts a teensy bit more vodka into her OJ, just a drop.

11

They barricade as many of the larger windows as they can, using tables, chairs, barstools, everything that isn't nailed down. Sam is racing around in a jangle of keys, locking everything that will lock, and Terry appears unexpectedly with a charcoal-blackened face and a machine gun and announces he's going up to the roof. Eric takes up a position just inside the splintered front door. He's got a smear of brown blood on his cheek, and the axe he's carrying is matted with blood and hair. He looks really happy.

"I told you," Eric says, twisting around, "guns don't work very well."

"They work for me," Sookie says firmly, and fires both barrels of a shotgun through a broken window and into the chest of a zombie staggering across the parking lot. "Arrr," the zombie says, sounding more disappointed than anything. It looks down sadly at the hole in its chest, then staggers forward again, reaching for Sookie through the window.

In a flash Eric is there, hacking away at the zombie's torso while Sookie falls back and reloads. Eric swings like a major league hitter, and one of the zombie's arms thumps to the floorboards, still in its tattered blue dress shirt: his funeral shirt, Sookie guesses. The zombie's stump oozes brown blood. It roars and snatches wildly at Eric's face with its other arm, looking like a confused Nazi frantically trying to salute.

Eric stops only to toss the hair out his eyes. "Yeah, fuck you," he says, and then snarls, "Lefty." Another good swing of the axe, and the zombie's other arm falls to the floor. A piece of bone protrudes from its sleeve, just below the elbow. The zombie totters, then leans forward through the broken glass, snapping at them with rotted yellow teeth. "At least aim for the head," Eric says, gesticulating, and Sookie blows its head off.

Then she wheels on him. "Okay, what the hell is the gameplan, here?" but of course that isn't fair. They wouldn't have had any idea that Merlotte's was about to be under zombie attack if Eric hadn't come to warn them, and more important still, he'd stayed to fight alongside them.

12

They jump at a sudden burst of machine gun fire--geez, good thing Terry's on their side. "Did you kill a couple of zombies near Buxtown a few weeks ago?" Eric asks, after dispatching a young guy with a half-rotted face wearing an LSU jersey: Go Tigers!

"Yes?" Sookie screws the heel of one hand into her eye, trying to staveoff a headache. She can still hear the shuffle, shuffle, arr! of the approaching zombie horde. "It was an accident. Sort of," she adds, hating her own need for accuracy. "The first one was." It takes a moment to catch his drift. "Why, do you think they're out for revenge?"

"Doubtful," Eric says, as the next wave of zombies converge at the door. "Zombies aren't very good at planning. Terrible organizational skills: can't run a meeting for shit."

"But you think it's me they want?" Sookie presses, and Eric cuts a sideways glance at her.

"A not unreasonable conclusion, in my experience," he says, and raises his axe.

13

She's exhausted by the time they mow down the next group. "Look, I think there's more of them," she says, seeing another ring of shadows. "Where do they all come from?"

Eric sighs. "The dead are numberless. It's one of the worst things about them. That and their incredible lack of hygiene," he adds.

"Can't you guys feed off them?" asks Sookie desperately. "I mean, it's the perfect solution: an all-night, 24 hour, All-You-Can-Eat buffet of--"

"--rancid potato salad and moldy--" but thankfully Tara interrupts, running up to them excitedly with a can of gasoline and a length of rubber hose.

"I'm telling you," Tara says somewhat breathlessly, "we need to automate this shit. You!" she says, shoving the gas can at Eric, "Mr. Speedy Guy! Go drench those crazy motherfuckers," and Eric considers this for a moment, eyebrow lifted, before jerking a nod and zipping out the door. "A-WAY FROM THE BAR!" Tara booms after him, both hands raised to her mouth. "SPRAY THAT SHIT A-WAY FROM THE BAR or you're gonna light the WHOLE FUCKING PLACE up!" she says, and then, to Sookie, "Does that asshole listen? That asshole had better be listening to me. Because if all vampires listen like Bill listens I'll make sure to have a bucket ready for when my ass catches fire." She crosses her arms and taps her foot impatiently, and Sookie's peering out the broken window into the darkness, looking for movement or flames or--

Eric blurs back into Merlotte's, and Tara's on him before Sookie can even open her mouth. "Where's the fire?" she demands. "I don't see a fucking fire out there, do you?"

"Do you have a light?" Eric asks, and while Tara's standing on tip-toes, yelling up at Eric's implacable face, Sookie hurries to the bar and grabs a pack of matches out of an ashtray. She hands them to Eric. "Thank you," Eric says and ducks out just as another zombie comes crashing through the window and makes a grab for Tara's face. Sookie raises her gun and fires--and with a whoosh, the entire parking lot goes up.

14

"Damn!" Tara says, impressed, and then: "Oh, shit, my car! I forgot to tell him to watch out for my fucking--" but then Eric is grinning at her, his face grimy with ash and smoke. Behind him, a zombie lit up like a Roman candle bats at the flames in its hair. It staggers past the bar and crashes onto the pool table. And then Sookie's jumping up and down and hugging Tara and Sam and throwing her arms around Eric and tasting soot as she kisses his cold cheek. She's hard up against him. She can't feel the floor.

"Um. Let me go." Sookie wiggles a little but immediately stops, because that's--oh. But Eric's come to his senses and he lowers her back to the ground. She slides down and down, and down, and oh my God.

She leaps back from him the moment she finds her feet, so fast she nearly loses her balance. "Well--yay!" she says, trying to put this all on saner footing. "We did it! Good work everybody!" Eric shifts in his clothes and turns down his collar. Sam looks distracted and unhappy. Tara just stares at her, black eyes boring in.

They all jump at the burst of machine gun fire from overhead, and Tara says, "Someone ought to get that fool off the roof." Sookie's about to volunteer, but then Tara looks defiantly at Eric and says, "How 'bout you, Sparky?" and Eric lunges at her and snaps, fangs out. Tara shrieks a little but stands her ground.

"You'd better watch it." Eric's voice is terrifying. "My patience for this sort of thing is limited," and then he's gone, without even a goodbye or a second look.

"That isn't a person," Tara says angrily, voice shaking. "That's a--beast."

"Nah," Sookie sighs, "he's just a garden-variety a-hole," and then the fire department finally shows up.

15

A couple of weeks later, near to 4 am, she's wiping down the bar one last time while Lafayette sweeps up. Sam's in the back counting the cash. Behind her, the radio's playing softly, and she doesn't realize she's listening until DJ Danny says, "Next caller?" and a voice answers, "Play 'Dead and Gone.'"

Sookie glances at Lafayette to see if he's paying attention. But Lafayette's focused on the floor, on his broom. Danny Breaux's voice goes gentle, the way it does when someone requests, "Here Comes The Sun."

"Sure thing, caller. Do you want to make a dedication?" There's an unbearable stretch of dead air. "No," Eric replies finally, and Sookie has the crazy impulse to get into the car and drive to Shreveport right now.

But DJ Danny takes it in stride. "All righty. Here's 'Dead and Gone' for--what's your name, caller?" Another too-long hesitation. "Jeff," Eric says. "Jeff from Vanceville," and then a baritone begins to sing. "Dead and gone/ And I'm so sad to be alone..."

In her mind, she sees Eric crying shamelessly, pleading with Godric to come inside. She remembers how the sky changed, how it went from black to blue to grey, and how only then had Eric gone inside. Then the light went pink and gold, and Godric burned.

16

The thought drives her out the fire exit and into the parking lot, fumbling for her cell phone. She's never let herself add Eric's number to her address book, but she's pretty sure its still in her backlog of received calls. She thumbs back and back and back, and yes, there it is. She hesitates for a moment before hitting send, hangs up, hits send again.

It rings six times before Eric picks up. "Yes, what?" he asks, and Sookie's flummoxed.

"I, um. It's Sookie Stackhouse." She debates hanging up, but decides the truth's ultimately less embarrassing. "I just called to make sure you were all right," she says and gulps.

The line's so quiet that Sookie wonders if they've been disconnected. She stares across the dark parking lot into the trees. "All right?" Eric says cautiously.

"Yeah," Sookie says, then it occurs to her: "Or were you just saying that you're all right? I mean, were you just repeating what I just said or are you--" and now she feels stupid, but at the same time, she can hear the faint strains of "Dead and Gone" behind the silence on Eric's end. So she blurts, "Look, Godric asked me to keep an eye on you, okay?"

Eric's answer comes swiftly this time. "Did he?"

"Yes."

"Well," Eric says, and now he's got something of the old arrogance back in his voice. "Well, then. I guess you'd better."

"I didn't tell him I would," she retorts. "I told him you were--too much like you."

"Still. It sounds halfway to a promise," Eric muses. "You could be here in 35 minutes if you--" and that's when she snaps the phone shut.

17

She's going to ask for the day shift. She's not going to truck with any more vampires: she's going to rejoin the living. What's that they say: sunlight's the best disinfectant?

18

It doesn't work out that way.

19

She's curled up in her bathrobe with The Devil Wears Prada and a mug of hot chocolate when Eric appears outside her window, scaring the bejeezus out of her. "Let me in," he says, his face blurry and distorted through the glass. "Come now, be quick--"

"No way!" she replies, starting up from the rocking chair and cursing as hot cocoa sloshes over the lip of the mug and splatters brown on her nightgown.

"I know it may be difficult to believe," Eric says through gritted teeth, "but this is not a social call. You've been infested."

Sookie crosses her arms. "Not yet I haven't."

"With spiders," Eric says.

"I'll call an exterminator," Sookie replies.

"Giant spiders."

"A real big exterminator," Sookie says, and then: "My God, Eric Northman: I'd look outside if you told me it was raining."

"Fine," Eric says, throwing up his hands and bobbing a little; he's apparently floating in mid-air. "I was just trying to help. For the record, you know, I was at a pretty good party. It had an '80s theme. A Smiths cover band and all the blow you could--"

"Oh, for God's sake," Sookie says, and opens the window.

20

"So tell me about these spiders." She's trying to ignore the fact that Eric Northman's there, in her bedroom, looking....incongruous. That's the word she wants.

"They are no ordinary spiders," Eric warns.

Sookie rolls her eyes. "Well, I could have guessed that."

"They prey on humanity. They colonize a house and use it as a base to lure in their victims. They have destroyed entire towns: have you ever heard of Wiscatoa?"

"No."

"Exactly."

21

"So." Eric's looking around her bedroom and pretending not to. "I brought some insecticide, and we'll need a hose, and maybe a baseball bat or a shovel--"

"Wait, aren't there, like, more natural treatments? I hear that eucalyptus leaves--"

Eric raises a hand. "We are obviously not communicating. I'm talking about spiders the size of dinner plates. I'm telling you that group of supernatural bloodsuckers--"

She doesn't say it. Damn it to blazes, she doesn't say a thing, but he hears it anyway. He keeps talking but casually averts his eyes. Sookie debates apologizing anyway.

"-- is building a nest in your house. And we have to get rid of them before they spawn." Eric still isn't looking at her. "So let's arm ourselves and go down to the basement."

Sookie shakes her head. "No. "

All at once he loses his patience. "For fuck's sake, I'm not here to rip your throat out. And if I was, I wouldn't come here with a cock-and-bull story about spiders: I'd be just as happy doing you on the hearth rug in front of that picture of your grandmother as--"

"We don't have a basement," Sookie interrupts.

"Oh. I see," Eric says.

22

"Though there is a root cellar," Sookie adds, after a moment.

The way Eric snarls at her makes her gasp.

23

When they reach the kitchen, Sookie screams, because holy crap: spiders the size of dinner plates! They immediately scuttle off in different directions: too big to vanish into the holes in the baseboards, but just able somehow to squeeze under doors.

She does a rapid about-face, but Eric seizes her by the arm. "Where are you going?"

"Out of here! They can have it--the whole house! I'm leaving!"

For a moment, Eric looks like he's going to argue. Then he lets her arm drop. "Fine," he says, and begins searching the kitchen for supplies. He puts on Sookie's dishwashing gloves, tucks a huge can of insecticide into his belt, and picks up Gran's biggest spade. Sookie drifts back and forth, unable to make herself leave. When Eric finally opens the door to the root cellar, filling the kitchen with the smell of earth, Sookie groans and snatches a flashlight off the counter.

24

Eric prowls down the rickety wooden staircase. Sookie pulls on the twine hanging from the bare bulb on the side of the stairwell, but the light doesn't come on, so she aims the flashlight down, over his shoulder. The cellar is cramped and the oak shelves and roughhewn bins are empty; unlike Gran, Sookie can't be bothered to sort vegetables and can fruit. The cellar's dirt floor looks black in the dim light. And strangely shiny. And moving. Spiders the size of dinner plates, scuttling back and forth on hairy legs.

It takes everything she's got not to drop the flashlight and bolt. But Eric is on the first step, and just beyond him, she can see the nest. It's huge--a tan and papery egg in the center of a funnel of white gauzy silk hanging from the far corners of the ceiling.

25.

"Oh my God," Sookie says, hopping in revulsion. "Kill it, get rid of it--" but when Eric pulls out insecticide and a lighter she shrieks, "No, wait, you'll burn down my house!"

"Possibly," Eric admits, considering this. "But--"

"No buts! There's got to be some other way!" and with a sigh, Eric hefts the shovel and steps down onto the scuttling black floor. Somehow the spiders immediately know he's a threat, and they converge on him, cramming themselves around his boots, pushing themselves up into piles. Eric slams the spade down on them but keeps going, hauling his legs like he's trudging through swamp at Martin Lake. Sookie stuffs her hands into her mouth to stop herself from screaming: Jesus, this is so repulsive, but Eric is at the nest now and quite manfully ignoring the spiders screeching and waving their huge hairy legs at him. Sookie steels herself to creep down to the bottom step and aims her flashlight. The papery shell goes translucent and she can see black shadows moving within.

"Hurry," Sookie yells, trying to fight her panic. "Destroy it before--" but Eric's already swinging the spade, lifting it high overhead and slamming it down--wham!--and: nothing. The spade hits the egg squarely but nothing happens, not a crack, though the black shadows are now moving around furiously. Undaunted, Eric swings again, brow furrowed, the tendons in his neck standing out. He hits the egg bang-on, breaking off the spade's metal head and leaving him holding the splintered wooden handle.

Eric bares his fangs but adapts instantly, changing his grip on the handle and beating down on the egg savagely. Bam. Bam. Bam, bam bambambambambam and Eric's a pale blur in the beam of her flashlight and still nothing: it's like the egg's made of titanium.

26

When Eric stops, he's sweating. He looks at her and his face changes. "Sookie," he says, looking down, and when she looks down she sees it too: she's standing on the first step, but there's a semicircle of spider-free dirt at the bottom of the staircase. For whatever reason, the spiders are keeping their distance. Sookie glances up at Eric, and then, biting her lip and screwing up her courage, she steps down onto the dirt floor.

The spiders scuttle back. She takes another step and the spiders back away even further, crawling over each other, opening a path of packed earth between her and the nest.

But they're getting agitated, now, hopping and fearful and making an unpleasant skritching sound with their legs. Eric's wearing an expression Sookie's never seen before. "Sookie," he says, offering her the spade, and immediately the skritching grows louder, the spiders are fighting and hissing as if they know.

Eric is offering her a weapon, and he seems completely confident that--

For some reason, he seems to think she can--

And she can, actually. She doesn't even need the spade.

27

Her hands blaze. The flashlight thunks onto the packed dirt floor; she doesn't need that either. The room brightens, gets warmer. She aims her light at the egg and glances at--

Eric stands there, looking almost ghostly in the bright light. He stares down at his pale hands, then pushes up his sleeves and watches her light play on his arms. He pushes his hair away from his face and opens the top two buttons of his shirt. "All I need--" He stops, clears his throat. "All I need is a pina colada. Little umbrella." He holds his thumb and forefinger two inches apart and grins. His eyes are blue and full of sun.

She can't stop looking at him. She can't catch her breath. "What on--" and she has to stop and clear her throat, too. "What on earth can a Viking know about pina coladas?"

"It's been a long thousand years." Eric closes his eyes and soaks up the light for another few seconds. "OK, do it," he says hoarsely. "Do it now."

28

Blood rushes in her ears. "Come on!" Eric yells, and the fireball rolls up, surges through her veins and out through her fingers. She hurls it at the nest, and it hits with a boom and a blast of light big enough to blind her. Beside her, Eric yells his lungs out in triumph. Around them, there are tiny bursts of flame: the spiders, going up like sparklers. They leave little round scorch marks in the dirt. The egg is in tatters, an exploded firework.

"Sookie," and the way he says her name stops her, because nobody's ever said her name like that before, not ever: like it means wow. "Sookie," he says again, and his face is streaked with cobwebs and bits of egg, but she doesn't care: she doesn't. She launches herself at him, slinging her arms round his neck, and he lifts her up, and up, and up.

29

He swings her in a circle. His arms are strong around her, and when he begins to relax them, to let her slide down again, she guides his face to hers, and takes his mouth. It's softer than she expects, slack with surprise, because then his mouth firms up against hers, and he's kissing her: kissing the hell out of her.

It takes her a moment to realize that she's the source of the noises she's hearing: she's groaning softly into his mouth, her knees sliding for purchase around his hips. She pulls away, breathless and struggling for composure, and to her surprise he doesn't fight her. Her nightgown is rucked up around her thighs, and she tugs it down with one hand as she drops back to her feet. She smoothes down her nightgown and tucks loose strands of hair behind her ears. Eric's just standing there, a monument to silence and self-control, though she can read naked longing in every line of his body, every faint twitch.

She tries to make her voice sound as casual as possible. "Would," she says, tilting her head to the side, "would you like to come upstairs and take a shower?"

She only sees the faintest lip-curl of a smile, and then they're moving so fast they're almost flying, up through the house like Eric's put the world on fast-forward.

30

It's so weird to have Eric Northman in the bathroom. Her pink daisy shower curtain rattles faintly and she turns away fast, drawing an arm across her bare chest as if she's cold. He steps into the tub behind her and draws the curtain. She glances over her shoulder and sees an acre of pale chest; her eyes slide up over the bump of his collarbone. He moves past her, his body sliding against hers, until he's standing under the spray of warm water. His blond hair darkens as the water hits it. He closes his eyes.

She's too embarrassed to turn fully toward him--she's all twisted up with panic and desire--but Eric makes everything easy by picking up her loofah and washing her back. It feels wonderful, and she groans and lets her head fall forward. He slides his palms up her spine and digs his thumbs into the pressure points at the base of her neck. So good: the warmth of her blood coursing through her, making her fingers tingle, the hot water steaming her skin. Her head lolls, all the stress dripping out of her, so that she hardly thinks about it when Eric's hands skim up over her shoulders and down over her breasts. She just breathes in the steamy air as Eric cups her, rubbing up and circling down. Finally his sliding fingers bump her raised, hard nipples, and she gasps. He buries his face in her hair and pulls her hard against him, his erection gliding up her lower back.

"Oh," she breathes, and pushes back against him, feeling his cock nudging up against her skin. "Oh. Yes--" and she's about to twist around to kiss him when his hand slides down over her belly and between her legs, pushing in and melting her spine. She almost loses her footing in the tub, but he's got her: one arm curved round her waist and his head bent so their cheeks touch. She presses back into his cool, smooth skin and turns her face to his. His lips brush her cheek. His fingers are moving over her, then in her, stroking deep. She can't help but try to open her legs more, one foot losing touch with the ground.

Eric breathes a soft, guttural-sounding word into her hair. All at once she's writhing, rocking her clit against his hand and trying to force his fingers deeper inside her. He whispers soft, comforting-sounding nonsense to her in a language she doesn't understand, but there's no mistaking his meaning: her orgasm's building fast, blurring her vision, making her thighs quiver. Eric's arm tightens around her midriff, he's kissing her face, her neck, her shoulder--and then she feels his blunt teeth pressing into her, worrying her skin but not breaking it. He's moaning softly, cock moving against her as he clamps down, gnawing but not biting, rocking against her--and then she's there, shaking with it. Eric gasps right along with her as she convulses around his fingers, hard inside her. Come splashes the small of her back, and he curls around her, almost draped over her. They stand there together, panting and holding each other up.

31

She's surprised when he touches her face and kisses her. If she were maybe worried about smugness--well, now she isn't. Even though she can still smell herself on his fingers, there's nothing in this kiss that says gotcha. Just his soft mouth against hers.

She has a quick, vivid fantasy of him going down on her, and tingles with aftershocks.

She's a little worried about what comes next, but Eric just snags a towels off the table besides the sink and drapes one around her shoulders. He towels himself briskly, then swathes the towel around his pale, narrow hips. She watches him as he steps out of the tub and goes over to the medicine cabinet. He surveys the shelves, then looks at her.

"Your choice of product is horrifying," he says.

32

He's in front of the mirror for almost 15 minutes, which might have bothered Sookie if he hadn't also decided to style her hair, rubbing some concoction made out of three or four different products into her ends and roots before grabbing the blowdryer. Even then, she might have been pissed off if he hadn't done a really good job of it. She shakes her hair: it bounces, it shines. Eric blows smugly across the muzzle of the dryer.

"You know, if you ever want to stop being sheriff," Sookie says admiringly, still watching herself in the mirror, "Fangtasia would be a great name for a salon."

He arches an eyebrow at her. "Nice of you to say."

She's embarrassed suddenly. "I didn't mean--"

Eric touches a lock of her shiny, shiny hair. "I know what you mean."

33

They end up sprawled together on her pink and white bedspread, listening to the radio and waiting for the sun to come up. "You can stay if you want." She wants to seem casual, so she doesn't show Eric the long, low cargo box she keeps under the bed for emergency sleepovers. Still, she's already thinking about redecorating the root cellar.

"I can't," Eric says with what seems like genuine regret. "Not today--" and then he squeezes her fingers and murmurs, "Mm, I like this one." Sookie turns her attention to the radio, tuning in to the woman with the rough, sad voice. She sings about climbing out of the gutter / to the top of a spire and then about the first glimpse of the new-rising sun. The song isn't sad at all as it turns out.

"It reminds me of--" Sookie begins, and then stops to check Eric's reaction. But Eric's relaxed, and her first, relieved, thought--he doesn't mind thinking about him--is rapidly replaced by another: he's already thinking about him. Maybe he always is.

"Yes, it does," Eric muses. "Though Godric had terrible taste in music: John Denver, the Carpenters, Eric Carman." He shudders theatrically. "For such an old soul, he had very little soul in him. He liked Yanni, for fuck's sake." He rolls onto his side and grins at Sookie. "Do you know what happens when vampires play country music backwards?" She smiles and shakes her head. "You get your life back," Eric replies.

34

A few weeks later, Sookie's about to go to bed when the doorbell rings. Eric's working late, so she isn't expecting him, but she can't help hoping anyway.

She flips on the porch light before opening the door; outside, there's a bored-looking vampire holding a box. Sookie recognizes him from Fangtasia. "Good evening, Ms. Stackhouse," the vampire grits out; Eric makes his minions treat her with respect, though its mostly grudging. "Mr. Northman asked me to deliver this to you personally."

The handwriting on the box is clearly Eric's. She opens it and finds it contains a lethal-looking dagger made of what must be pure gold. There's an inscription on the hilt, but it's not in English or anything like it. There's a note: the dagger was made for a 12th century Spanish monk named Juan de Valaria, who left the monastery to fight evil. His dagger is reputed to have the ability to kill demons, three of the worst of which, according to Eric's sources, apparently just checked into the Shreveport Hilton.

She sighs; it's a thoughtful gift, but she feels like she only just got the burnt spider bits out of Gran's carpets. She sighs and takes the dagger upstairs with her, just in case.

35

She's brushing her teeth and absently listening to KBTR when the call comes in--and then she's frantically washing foam out of her mouth. She's wiping her lips on her arm and dialing Eric's cell before the song even starts.

"Hello, this is Eric Northman," his voicemail says. "I'm not available to--"

She hangs up and dials Fantgasia's main number, which rings and rings. Pam's cell goes straight to voicemail. She shimmies into jeans and grabs her car keys.

36.

She opens her front door and screams: Bill Compton, coming up the porch steps, scares the living crap out of her. "Sookie," he says, sounding surprised. "I was just coming to--"

"What?" Sookie demands.

He looks taken aback and a little hurt; or in other words, totally normal for Bill. "I just wanted to talk," he says, and Sookie rolls her eyes so hard she nearly falls over.

"Oh my God: not now!" she yells, and then, twisting to call over her shoulder: "Not ever!"

In the rear view mirror, she sees him standing in the little yellow circle of porch light.

37

There's only two cars in Fangtasia's parking lot when Sookie pulls in, though one of them is Eric's. The parking lot is gray and brightening fast in the encroaching dawn, and Sookie hopes to find the cleaning crew in charge and all good vampires in their beds.

But there's no one behind the bar and--Sookie shrieks and reaches for her dagger as she sees the gigantic dead thing in front of the stage. It's huge--ten or eleven feet at least--and covered with coarse brown hair, like a bear. Its claws must be a foot long. Its abdomen has been cut open, pink slimy guts spilling out everywhere. Sookie backs away, hyperventilating, and only then notices something far more terrifying.

The fire door is open, a gradually brightening rectangle of-- She breaks into a run.

Past the crates of empties, past the payphones and the bleachy smell of the washrooms, and there's Eric: sprawled face forward on the concrete out back. She falls to her knees and shoves him, hard, rolling him over. He groans and opens his eyes.

"Oh my God," she says breathlessly.

Eric's singeing fast, smoke rising from his face and neck, but he manages a wry smile. The bloody gashes on his chest were obviously made by the same claws that slashed his shirt to ribbons. "You should see the other monster," he says.

38

"I have," she says, already tugging on his arm; the sky's still mostly gray, but there's orange on the horizon. "I saw him; he's horrible. Come on," she says, trying to sound normal, like she hadn't heard Eric calling into KBTR sounding fully a thousand years dead. "Come inside," she says, as if she hadn't heard him say, in a low scrape of a voice:

39

"This road is too long."

"Oh, that takes me back, caller. What's your name?"

"Too long..." and then, after an audible sigh: "Jeff. Jeff from Shreveport."

"Well, here you go, Jeff. 'This Road Is Too Long', an oldie but goodie from--"

40

"Eric," Sookie repeats softly, her hand tightening; he's really smoking, now. "Come on inside," but when he looks away from her, she realizes that the time for softness has passed. "All right, fine," she says abruptly, and grabs him by one long, blue-jeaned leg. He yelps as she gets to her feet and begins to drag him, ineffectively, toward the door. He looks ridiculous, one cowboy-booted foot up in the air. Good. Good. Because--

"--there's nothing noble about this, you dumb-ass vampire!" Sookie shouts, and then she turns and kicks him right in his dumb ass with the toe of her sneaker. "Get your stupid Swedish ass back in that club or I'll--" She kicks him in the thigh, the side, the arm, and he looks up at her, startled. "I'll--" but she can't follow through. "I'll do something really bad!" she concludes tearfully, crossing her arms over her chest. "I'll tell people embarrassing and nasty things about you and make you seem really uncool."

Eric's half-rolled over and crouching to protect his dick, and then he starts to crawl toward the door. "Right! That's it!" Sookie yells, following; she's hugging herself and bobbing up and down: literally hopping mad. "Get inside before I kick your ass inside"--and then something bursts inside of her and she runs to him, half-dragging and half-hugging him over the threshold. She awkwardly bats the door closed with her leg and sprawls on the floor with him, hugging him hard. And he's hugging her back, and he's massive and foul-smelling and shaking. His nose is nearly burnt off and he's laughing.

"You crack me up," he says. "You really do."

41

"Here," she says, thrusting her wrist at him; she wants him to get better so that she can hurt him, just a little. Eric gently takes her hand in his blackened one, but he doesn't bite; instead he looks at her and says, "That's not an insult," and bends to kiss her.

His lips taste like ashes, but she doesn't care. She surges into his arms and doesn't care.

Finally she pushes him away and offers him her wrist...and then, upon reflection, her neck. She tugs her hair to one side and tilts her head invitingly. His pale eyes flash desperately in his blackened face. He kisses her cheek, her ear, and then bites.

She sits there, gasping and shaking. She can feel her pulse everywhere.

42

When he finishes, she strokes his cheek with her fingertips. "Mmm. Like freshly dead," she says and laughs. "Please tell me you have a moisturizer called that."

"I don't. But I like it: Freshly Dead: Wake Up Every Evening--"

"--fresh as a daisy," Sookie finishes.

"--dead as a doornail," Eric finishes and frowns. "We should open an ad agency."

"A better career than fighting demons," Sookie agrees, but she's said the wrong thing. Eric's forgot about the demons, but now he looks over in the direction of the dead bear and his face hardens. "It's okay," Sookie tells him quickly. "We can handle this; we've handled much, much worse. There's just two more--"

She hasn't felt this sort of coldness in Eric for a long time--not since the first time they met, in fact. She thinks maybe she's beginning to understand it. "Two more now, but more will come. There will always be more," and there's something tight and awful in this voice. "It doesn't end," he says flatly, and she thinks she understands, now, how being sheriff could drive a person to a rooftop.

43

Eric's eyes are hard, but she can feel his despondency: a thousand years, a pit of endless evil. But then whatever's real in her asserts itself. "You got something else to do?" she chides, tilting her head. "Appointment TV? Mani-pedi?"

His eyebrow twitches, then the corner of his lip. "There is an Iron Chef marathon on The Food Network..."

"Tivo it," she says, and draws the dagger he gave her. "We'll watch it over the weekend. Right now we've got to get to the Hilton before those demons give new meaning to 'room service.' Then," she adds, pressing the dagger into his palm, "once we've won, I'll take you home and make you a pitcher of Bloody Marys. And fresh hushpuppies," she adds, and when Eric grins fangs, she knows he's on her wavelength.