"FANGTASIA,"SAID A bored feminine voice. "Where all your bloody dreams come true."
"Pam, it's Sookie."
"Oh, hello," she said more cheerfully. "I hear you're in even more trouble. Got your house burned. You won't live much longer if you keep that up."
"No, maybe not," I agreed. "Listen, is Eric there?"
"Yes, he's in his office."
"Can you transfer me to him?"
"I don't know how," she said disdainfully.
"Could you take the phone to him, please, ma'am?"
"Of course. Something always happens around here after you call. It's quite the break in routine." Pam was carrying the phone through the bar; I could tell by the change in the ambient noise. There was music in the background. KDED again: "The Night Has a Thousand Eyes" this time. "What's happening in Bon Temps, Sookie?" Pam asked, saying in a clear aside to some bar patron, "Step aside, you son of a misbegotten whore!
"They like that kind of talk," she said to me conversationally. "Now, what's up?"
"I got shot."
"Oh, too bad," she said. "Eric, do you know what Sookie is telling me? Someone shot her."
"Don't get so emotional, Pam," I said. "Someone might think you care."
She laughed. "Here is the man," she said.
Sounding just as matter-of-fact as Pam had, Eric said, "It can't be critical or you wouldn't be talking to me."
This was true, though I would have enjoyed a more horrified reaction. But this was no time to think of little issues. I took a deep breath. I knew, sure as shooting, what was coming, but I had to help Tara. "Eric," I said with a feeling of doom, "I need a favor."
"Really?" he said. Then, after a notable pause, "Really?"
He began to laugh.
"Gotcha," he said.
He arrived at the duplex an hour later and paused on the doorsill after I'd responded to his knock. "New building," he reminded me.
"You are welcome to come in," I said insincerely, and he stepped in, his white face practically blazing with - triumph? Excitement? Eric's hair was wet with rain and straggled over his shoulders in rattails. He was wearing a golden brown silk T-shirt and brown pleated trousers with a magnificent belt that was just barbaric: lots of leather, and gold, and dangling tassels. You can take the man out of the Viking era, but you can't take the Viking out of the man.
"Can I get you a drink?" I said. "I'm sorry, I don't have any TrueBlood, and I'm not supposed to drive, so I couldn't go get any." I knew that was a big breach of hospitality, but there was nothing I could do about it. I hadn't been about to ask anyone to bring me blood for Eric.
"Not important," he said smoothly, looking around the small room.
"Please sit down."
Eric said onto the couch, his right ankle on the knee of his left leg. His big hands were restless. "What's the favor you need, Sookie?" He was openly gleeful.
I sighed. At least I was pretty sure he'd help, since he could practically taste the leverage he'd have over me.
I perched on the edge of the lumpy armchair. I explained about Tara, about Franklin, about Mickey. Eric got serious in a hurry. "She could leave during the day and she doesn't," he pointed out.
"Why should she leave her business and her home? He's the one should leave," I argued. (Though I have to confess, I'd wondered to myself why Tara didn't just take a vacation. Surely Mickey wouldn't stick around too long if his free ride was gone?) "Tara would be looking over her shoulder for the rest of her life if she tried to shake him loose by running," I said firmly.
"I've learned more about Franklin since I met him in Mississippi," Eric said. I wondered if Eric had learned this from Bill's database. "Franklin has an outdated mind-set."
This was rich, coming from a Viking warrior whose happiest days had been spent pillaging and raping and laying waste.
"Vampires used to pass willing humans around," Eric explained. "When our existence was secret, it was convenient to have a human lover, to maintain that person... that is, not to take too much blood... and then, when there was no one left who wanted her - or him," Eric added hastily, so my feminist side would not be offended, "that person would be, ah, completely used."
I was disgusted and showed it. "You mean drained," I said.
"Sookie, you have to understand that for hundreds, thousands, of years we have considered ourselves better than humans, separate from humans." He thought for a second. "Very much in the same relationship to humans as humans have to, say, cows. Edible like cows, but cute, too."
I was knocked speechless. I had sensed this, of course, but to have it spelled out was just... nauseating. Food that walked and talked, that was us. McPeople.
"I'll just go to Bill. He knows Tara, and she rents her business premises from him, so I bet he'll feel obliged to help her," I said furiously.
"Yes. He'd be obliged to try to kill Salome's underling. Bill doesn't rank any higher than Mickey, so he can't order him to leave. Who do you think would survive the fight?"
The idea paralyzed me for a minute. I shuddered. What if Mickey won?
"No, I'm afraid I'm your best hope here, Sookie." Eric gave me a brilliant smile. "I'll talk to Salome and ask her to call her dog off. Franklin is not her child, but Mickey is. Since he's been poaching in my area, she'll be obliged to recall him."
He raised a blond eyebrow. "And since you're asking me to do this for you, of course, you owe me."
"Gosh, I wonder what you want in return?" I asked, maybe a little on the dry and sarcastic side.
He grinned at me broadly, giving me a flash of fang. "Tell me what happened while I was staying with you. Tell me completely, leaving out nothing. After that, I'll do what you want." He put both feet on the floor and leaned forward, focused on me.
"All right." Talk about being caught between a rock and a hard place. I looked down at my hands clasped in my lap.
"Did we have sex?" he asked directly.
For about two minutes, this might actually be fun. "Eric," I said, "we had sex in every position I could imagine, and some I couldn't. We had sex in every room in my house, and we had sex outdoors. You told me it was the best you'd ever had." (At the time he couldn't recall all the sex he'd ever had. But he'd paid me a compliment.) "Too bad you can't remember it," I concluded with a modest smile.
Eric looked like I'd hit him in the forehead with a mallet. For all of thirty seconds his reaction was completely gratifying. Then I began to be uneasy.
"Is there anything else I should know?" he said in a voice so level and even that it was simply scary.
"Then perhaps you'll enlighten me."
"You offered to give up your position as sheriff and come to live with me. And get a job."
Okay, maybe this wasn't going so well. Eric couldn't get any whiter or stiller. "Ah," he said. "Anything else?"
"Yes." I ducked my head because I'd gotten to the absolutely un-fun part. "When we came home that last night, the night we'd had the battle with the witches in Shreveport, we came in the back door, right, like I always do. And Debbie Pelt - you remember her. Alcide's - oh, whatever she was to him... Debbie was sitting at my kitchen table. And she had a gun and was gonna shoot me." I risked a glance and found Eric's brows had drawn in together in an ominous frown. "But you threw yourself in front of me." I leaned forward very quickly and patted him on the knee. Then I retreated into my own space. "And you took the bullet, which was really, really sweet of you. But she was going to shoot again, and I pulled out my brother's shotgun, and I killed her." I hadn't cried at all that night, but I felt a tear run down my cheek now. "I killed her," I said, and gasped for breath.
Eric's mouth opened as though he was going to ask a question, but I held up a hand in a wait gesture. I had to finish. "We gathered up the body and bagged it, and you took it and buried her somewhere while I cleaned the kitchen. And you found her car and you hid it. I don't know where. It took me hours to get the blood out of the kitchen. It was on everything." I grabbed desperately at my self-possession. I rubbed my eyes with the back of my wrist. My shoulder ached, and I shifted in the chair, trying to ease it.
"And now someone else has shot at you and I wasn't there to take the bullet," Eric said. "You must be living wrong. Do you think the Pelt family is trying to get revenge?"
"No," I said. I was pleased that Eric was taking all this so calmly. I don't know what I'd expected, but it wasn't this. He seemed, if anything, subdued. "They hired private detectives, and as far as I know, the private detectives didn't find any reason to suspect me any more than anyone else. The only reason I was a suspect anyway was because when Alcide and I found that body in Shreveport at Verena Rose's, we told the police we were engaged. We had to explain why we went together to a bridal shop. Since he had such an on-and-off relationship with Debbie, him saying we were getting married naturally raised a red flag when the detectives checked it out. He had a good alibi for the time she died, as it turned out. But if they ever seriously suspect me, I'll be in trouble. I can't give you as an alibi, because of course you weren't even here, as far as anyone knows. You can't give me an alibi because you don't remember that night; and of course, I'm just plain old guilty. I killed her. I had to do it." I'm sure Cain had said that when he'd killed Abel.
"You're talking too much," Eric said.
I pressed my lips together. One minute he wanted me to tell him everything; the next minute he wanted me to stop talking.
For maybe five minutes, Eric just looked at me. I wasn't always sure he was seeing me. He was lost in some deep thoughts.
"I told you I would leave everything for you?" he said at the end of all this rumination.
I snorted. Trust Eric to select that as the pertinent idea.
"And how did you respond?"
Okay, that astonished me. "You couldn't just stay with me, not remembering. That wouldn't be right."
He narrowed his eyes. I got tired of being regarded through slits of blue. "So," I said, curiously deflated. Maybe I'd expected a more emotional scene than this. Maybe I'd expected Eric to grab me and kiss me silly and tell me he still felt the same. Maybe I was too fond of daydreams. "I did your favor. Now you do mine."
Not taking his eyes off me, Eric whipped a cell phone from his pocket and dialed a number from memory. "Rose-Anne," he said. "Are you well? Yes, please, if she's free. Tell her I have information that will interest her." I couldn't hear the response on the other end, but Eric nodded, as he would if the speaker had been present. "Of course I'll hold. Briefly." In a minute, he said, "And hello to you, too, most beautiful princess. Yes, it keeps me busy. How's business at the casino? Right, right. There's one born every minute. I called to tell you something about your minion, that one named Mickey. He has some business connection with Franklin Mott?"
Then Eric's eyebrows rose, and he smiled slightly. "Is that right? I don't blame you. Mott is trying to stick to the old ways, and this is America." He listened again. "Yes, I'm giving you this information for free. If you choose not to grant me a small favor in return, of course that's of no consequence. You know in what esteem I hold you." Eric smiled charmingly at the telephone. "I did think you should know about Mott's passing on a human woman to Mickey. Mickey's keeping her under his thumb by threatening her life and property. She's quite unwilling."
After another silence, during which his smile widened, Eric said, "The small favor is removing Mickey. Yes, that's all. Just make sure he knows he should never again approach this woman, Tara Thornton. He should have nothing more to do with her, or her belongings and friends. The connection should be completely severed. Or I'll have to see about severing some part of Mickey. He's done this in my area, without the courtesy of coming to visit me. I really expected better manners of any child of yours. Have I covered all the bases?"
That Americanism sounded strange, coming from Eric Northman. I wondered if he'd ever played baseball.
"No, you don't need to thank me, Salome. I'm glad to be of service. And if you could let me know when the thing is accomplished? Thanks. Well, back to the grindstone." Eric flipped the phone shut and began tossing it in the air and catching it, over and over.
"You knew Mickey and Franklin were doing something wrong to start with," I said, shocked but oddly unsurprised. "You know their boss would be glad to find out they were breaking the rules, since her vamp was violating your territory. So this won't affect you at all."
"I only realized that when you told me what you wanted," Eric pointed out, the very essence of reason. He grinned at me. "How could I know that your heart's desire would be for me to help someone else?"
"What did you think I wanted?"
"I thought maybe you wanted me to pay for rebuilding your house, or you would ask me to help find out who's shooting the Weres. Someone who could have mistaken you for a Were," Eric told me, as if I should have known that. "Who had you been with before you were shot?"
"I'd been to visit Calvin Norris," I said, and Eric looked displeased.
"So you had his smell on you."
"Well, I gave him a hug good-bye, so yeah."
Eric eyed me skeptically. "Had Alcide Herveaux been there?
"He came by the house site," I said.
"Did he hug you, too?"
"I don't remember," I said. "It's no big deal."
"It is for someone looking for shifters and Weres to shoot. And you are hugging too many people."
"Maybe it was Claude's smell," I said thoughtfully. "Gosh, I didn't think of that. No, wait, Claude hugged me after the shooting. So I guess the fairy smell didn't matter."
"A fairy," Eric said, the pupils of his eyes actually dilating. "Come here, Sookie."
Ah-oh. I might have overplayed my hand out of sheer irritation.
"No," I said. "I told you what you wanted, you did what I asked, and now you can go back to Shreveport and let me get some sleep. Remember?" I pointed to my bandaged shoulder.
"Then I'll come to you," Eric said, and knelt in front of me. He pressed against my legs and leaned over so his head was against my neck. He inhaled, held it, exhaled. I had to choke back a nervous laugh at the similarity the process held to smoking dope. "You reek," Eric said, and I stiffened. "You smell of shifter and Were and fairy. A cocktail of other races."
I stayed completely immobile. His lips were about two millimeters from my ear. "Should I just bite you, and end it all?" he whispered. "I would never have to think about you again. Thinking about you is an annoying habit, and one I want to be rid of. Or should I start arousing you, and discover if sex with you was really the best I've ever had?"
I didn't think I was going to get a vote on this. I cleared my throat. "Eric," I said, a little hoarsely, "we need to talk about something."
"No. No. No," he said. With each "no" his lips brushed my skin.
I was looking past his shoulder at the window. "Eric," I breathed, "someone's watching us."
"Where?" His posture didn't change, but Eric had shifted from a mood that was definitely dangerous to me to one that was dangerous for someone else.
Since the eyes-at-the-window scenario was an eerie echo of the situation the night my house had burned, and that night the skulker had proved to be Bill, I hoped the watcher might be Bill again. Maybe he was jealous, or curious, or just checking up on me. If the trespasser was a human, I could have read his brain and found out who he was, or at least what he intended; but this was a vampire, as the blank hole where the brain pattern should be had informed me.
"It's a vampire," I told Eric in the tiniest whisper I could manage, and he put his arms around me and pulled me into him.
"You're so much trouble," Eric said, and yet he didn't sound exasperated. He sounded excited. Eric loved the action moments.
By then, I was sure that the lurker wasn't Bill, who would have made himself known. And Charles was presumably busy at Merlotte's, mixing daiquiris. That left one vampire in the area unaccounted for. "Mickey," I breathed, my fingers gripping Eric's shirt.
"Salome moved more quickly than I thought," Eric said in a regular voice. "He's too angry to obey her, I suppose. He's never been in here, correct?"
"Correct." Thank God.
"Then he can't come inside."
"But he can break the window," I said as glass shattered to our left. Mickey had thrown a large rock as big as my fist, and to my dismay the rock hit Eric squarely in the head. He went down like a - well, like a rock. He lay without moving. Dark blood welled from a deep cut in his temple. I leaped to my feet, completely stunned at seeing the powerful Eric apparently out cold.
"Invite me in," said Mickey, just outside the window. His face, white and angry, shone in the pelting rain. His black hair was plastered to his head.
"Of course not," I said, kneeling beside Eric, who blinked, to my relief. Not that he could be dead, of course, but still, when you see someone take a blow like that, vampire or not, it's just plain terrifying. Eric had fallen in front of the armchair, which had its back to the window, so Mickey couldn't see him.
But now I could see what Mickey was holding by one hand: Tara. She was almost as pale as he was, and she'd been beaten to a pulp. Blood was running out of the corner of her mouth. The lean vampire had a merciless grip on her arm. "I'll kill her if you don't let me in," he said, and to prove his point, he put both hands around her neck and began to squeeze. A clap of thunder and a bolt of lightning lit up Tara's desperate face as she clawed weakly at his arms. He smiled, fangs completely exposed.
If I let him in, he'd kill all of us. If I left him out there, I would have to watch him kill Tara. I felt Eric's hands take hold of my arm. "Do it," I said, not moving my gaze from Mickey. Eric bit, and it hurt like hell. He wasn't finessing this at all. He was desperate to heal in a hurry.
I'd just have to swallow the pain. I tried hard to keep my face still, but then I realized I had a great reason to look upset. "Let her go!" I yelled at Mickey, trying to buy a few seconds. I wondered if any of the neighbors were up, if they could hear the ruckus, and I prayed they wouldn't come searching to find out what was going on. I was even afraid for the police, if they came. We didn't have any vampire cops to handle vampire lawbreakers, like the cities did.
"I'll let her go when you let me in," Mickey yelled. He looked like a demon out there in the rain. "How's your tame vamp doing?"
"He's still out," I lied. "You hurt him bad." It didn't take any effort at all to make my voice crack as if I were on the verge of tears. "I can see his skull," I wailed, looking down at Eric to see that he was still feeding as greedily as a hungry baby. His head was mending as I watched. I'd seen vamps heal before, but it was still amazing. "He can't even open his eyes," I added in a heartbroken way, and just then Eric's blue eyes blazed up at me. I didn't know if he was in fighting trim yet, but I could not watch Tara being choked. "Not yet," Eric said urgently, but I had already told Mickey to come in.
"Oops," I said, and then Mickey slithered through the window in an oddly boneless movement. He knocked the broken glass out of the way carelessly, like it didn't hurt him to get cut. He dragged Tara through after him, though at least he'd switched his grip from her neck to her arm. Then he dropped her on the floor, and the rain coming in the window pelted down on her, though she couldn't be any wetter than she already was. I wasn't even sure she was conscious. Her eyes were closed in her bloody face, and her bruises were turning dark. I stood, swaying with the blood loss, but keeping my wrist concealed by resting it on the back of the armchair. I'd felt Eric lick it, but it would take a few minutes to heal.
"What do you want?" I asked Mickey. As if I didn't know.
"Your head, bitch," he said, his narrow features twisted with hatred, his fangs completely out. They were white and glistening and sharp in the bright overhead light. "Get down on your knees to your betters!" Before I could react in any way - in fact before I could blink - the vampire backhanded me, and I stumbled across the small room, landing half on the couch before I slid to the floor. The air went out of me in a big whoosh, and I simply couldn't move, couldn't even gasp for air, for an agonizingly long minute. In the meantime, Mickey was on top of me, his intentions completely clear when he reached down to unzip his pants. "This is all you're good for!" he said, contempt making him even uglier. He tried to push his way into my head, too, forcing the fear of him into my brain to cow me.
And my lungs inflated. The relief of breathing was exquisite, even under the circumstances. With air came rage, as if I'd inhaled it along with oxygen. This was the trump card male bullies played, always. I was sick of it - sick of being scared of the bogeyman's dick.
"No!" I screamed up at him. "No!" And finally I could think again; finally the fear let loose of me. "Your invitation is rescinded!" I yelled, and it was his turn to panic. He reared up off of me, looking ridiculous with his pants open, and he went backward out of the window, stepping on poor Tara as he went. He tried to bend, to grip her so he could yank her with him, but I lunged across the little room to grab her ankles, and her arms were too slick with rain to give him purchase, and the magic that had hold of him was too strong. In a second, he was outside looking in, screaming with rage. Then he looked east, as if he heard someone calling, and he vanished into the darkness.
Eric pushed himself to his feat, looking almost as startled as Mickey. "That was clearer thinking than most humans can manage," he said mildly into the sudden silence. "How are you, Sookie?" He reached down a hand and pulled me to my feet. "I myself am feeling much better. I've had your blood without having to talk you into it, and I didn't have to fight Mickey. You did all the work."
"You got hit in the head with a rock," I pointed out, content just to stand for a minute, though I knew I had to call an ambulance for Tara. I was feeling a little on the weak side myself.
"A small price to pay," Eric told me. He brought out his cell phone, flipped it open, and pressed the REDIAL button. "Salome," Eric said, "glad you answered the phone. He's trying to run...."
I heard the gleeful laughter coming from the other end of the phone. It was chilling. I couldn't feel the least bit sorry for Mickey, but I was glad I wouldn't have to witness his punishment.
"Salome'll catch him?" I asked.
Eric nodded happily as he returned his phone to his pocket. "And she can do things to him more painful than anything I could imagine," he said. "Though I can imagine plenty right now."
"She's that, ah, creative?"
"He's hers. She's his sire. She can do with him what she wishes. He can't disobey her and go unpunished. He has to go to her when she calls him, and she's calling."
"Not on the phone, I take it," I ventured.
His eyes glinted down at me. "No, she won't need a phone. He's trying to run away, but he'll go to her eventually. The longer he holds out, the more severe his torture will be. Of course," he added, in case I missed the point, "that's as it should be."
"Pam is yours, right?" I asked, falling to my knees and putting my fingers to Tara's cold neck. I didn't want to look at her.
"Yes," Eric said. "She's free to leave when she wants, but she comes back when I let her know I need her help."
I didn't know how I felt about that, but it didn't really make a hell of a lot of difference. Tara gasped and moaned. "Wake up, girl," I said. "Tara! I'm gonna call an ambulance for you.
"No," she said sharply. "No." There was a lot of that word going around tonight.
"But you're bad hurt."
"I can't go to the hospital. Everyone will know."
"Everyone will know someone beat the shit out of you when you can't go to work for a couple of weeks, you idiot."
"You can have some of my blood," Eric offered. He was looking down at Tara without any obvious emotion.
"No," she said. "I'd rather die."
"You might," I said, looking her over. "Oh, but you've had blood from Franklin or Mickey." I was assuming some tit-for-tat in their lovemaking.
"Of course not," she said, shocked. The horror in her voice took me aback. I'd had vampire blood when I'd needed it. The first time, I'd have died without it.
"Then you have to go to the hospital." I was really concerned that Tara might have internal injuries. "I'm scared for you to move," I protested, when she tried to push herself to a seated position. Mr. Super Strength didn't help, which irritated me, since he could have shifted her easily.
But at last Tara managed to sit with her back against the wall, the empty window allowing the chilly wind to gust in and blow the curtains to and fro. The rain had abated until only a drop or two was coming in. The linoleum in front of the window was wet with water and blood, and the glass lay in glittering sharp fragments, some stuck to Tara's damp clothes and skin.
"Tara, listen to me," Eric said. She looked up at him. Since he was close to the fluorescent light, she had to squint. I thought she looked pitiful, but Eric didn't seem to see the same person I was seeing. "Your greed and selfishness put my - my friend Sookie in danger. You say you're her friend, too, but you don't act like it."
Hadn't Tara loaned me a suit when I needed one? Hadn't she loaned me her car when mine burned? Hadn't she helped me on other occasions when I needed it? "Eric, this isn't any of your business," I said.
"You called me and asked me for my help. That makes it my business. I called Salome and told her what her child was doing, and she's taken him away and to punish him for it. Isn't that what you wanted?"
"Yes," I said, and I'm ashamed to say I sounded sullen.
"Then I'm going to make my point with Tara." He looked back down at her. "Do you understand me?"
Tara nodded painfully. The bruises on her face and throat seemed to be darkening more every minute.
"I'm getting some ice for your throat," I told her, and ran into the kitchen to dump ice from the plastic trays into a Ziploc bag. I didn't want to listen to Eric scold her; she seemed so pitiful.
When I came back less than a minute later, Eric had finished whatever he was going to say to Tara. She was touching her neck gingerly, and she took the bag from me and held it to her throat. While I was leaning over her, anxious and scared, Eric was back on his cell phone.
I twitched with worry. "You need a doctor," I urged her.
"No," she said.
I looked up at Eric, who was just finishing his phone call. He was the injury expert.
"She'll heal without going to the hospital," he said briefly. His indifference made a chill run down my spine. Just when I thought I was used to them, vampires would show me their true face, and I would have to remind myself all over again that they were a different race. Or maybe it was centuries of conditioning that made the difference; decades of disposing of people as they chose, taking what they wanted, enduring the dichotomy of being the most powerful beings on earth in the darkness, and yet completely helpless and vulnerable during the hours of light.
"But will she have some permanent damage? Something doctors could fix if she got to them quick?"
"I'm fairly certain that her throat is only badly bruised. She has some broken ribs from the beating, possibly some loose teeth. Mickey could have broken her jaw and her neck very easily, you know. He probably wanted her to be able to talk to you when he brought her here, so he held back a little. He counted on you panicking and letting him in. He didn't think you could gather your thoughts so quickly. If I'd been him, my first move would have been to damage your mouth or neck so you couldn't rescind my entrance."
That possibility hadn't occurred to me, and I blanched.
"When he backhanded you, I think that was what he was aiming for," Eric continued dispassionately.
I'd heard enough. I thrust a broom and dustpan into his hands. He looked at them as if they were ancient artifacts and he could not fathom their use.
"Sweep up," I said, using a wet washcloth to clean the blood and dirt off my friend. I didn't know how much of this conversation Tara was absorbing, but her eyes were open and her mouth was shut, so maybe she was listening. Maybe she was just working through the pain.
Eric moved the broom experimentally and made an attempt to sweep the glass into the pan while it lay in the middle of the floor. Of course, the pan slid away. Eric scowled.
I'd finally found something Eric did poorly.
"Can you stand?" I asked Tara. She focused on my face and nodded very slightly. I squatted and took her hands. Slowly and painfully, she drew her knees up, and then she pushed as I pulled. Though the window had broken mostly in big pieces, a few bits of glass fell from her as she rose, and I flicked an eye at Eric to make sure he understood he should clean them up. He had a truculent set to his mouth.
I tried to put my arm around Tara to help her into my bedroom, but my wounded shoulder gave a throb of pain so unexpected that I flinched. Eric tossed down the dustpan. He picked up Tara in one smooth gesture and put her on the couch instead of my bed. I opened my mouth to protest and he looked at me. I shut my mouth. I went into the kitchen and fetched one of my pain pills, and I got Tara to swallow one, which took some coaxing. The medicine seemed to knock her out, or maybe she just didn't want to acknowledge Eric anymore. Anyway, she kept her eyes closed and her body slack, and gradually her breathing grew even and deep.
Eric handed me the broom with a triumphant smile. Since he'd lifted Tara, clearly I was stuck with his task. I was awkward because of my bad shoulder, but I finished sweeping up the glass and disposing of it in a garbage bag. Eric turned toward the door. I hadn't heard anyone arrive, but Eric opened the door to Bill before Bill even knocked. Eric's earlier phone conversation must have been with Bill. In a way, that made sense; Bill lived in Eric's fiefdom, or whatever they called it. Eric needed help, so Bill was obliged to supply it. My ex was burdened with a large piece of plywood, a hammer, and a box of nails.
"Come in," I said when Bill halted in the doorway, and without speaking a word to each other, the two vampires nailed the wood across the window. To say I felt awkward would be an understatement, though thanks to the events of the evening I wasn't as sensitive as I would've been at another time. I was mostly preoccupied with the pain in my shoulder, and Tara's recovery, and the current whereabouts of Mickey. In the extra space I had left over after worrying about those items, I crammed in some anxiety about replacing Sam's window, and whether the neighbors had heard enough of this fracas to call the police. On the whole, I thought they hadn't; someone would be here by now.
After Bill and Eric finished their temporary repair, they both watched me mopping up the water and blood on the linoleum. The silence began to weigh heavily on all three of us: at least, on my third of the three of us. Bill's tenderness in caring for me the night before had touched me. But Eric's just acquired knowledge of our intimacy raised my self-consciousness to a whole new level. I was in the same room with two guys who both knew I'd slept with the other.
I wanted to dig a hole and lie down in it and pull the opening inside with me, like a character in a cartoon. I couldn't look either of them in the face.
If I rescinded both their invitations, they'd have to walk outside without a word; but in view of the fact that they'd both just helped me, such a procedure would be rude. I'd solved my problems with them before in exactly that way. Though I was tempted to repeat it to ease my personal embarrassment, I simply couldn't. So what did we do next?
Should I pick a fight? Yelling at one another might clear the air. Or maybe a frank acknowledgment of the situation... no.
I had a sudden mental picture of us all three climbing in the double bed in the little bedroom. Instead of duking out our conflicts, or talking out our problems, we could... no. I could feel my face flame red, as I was torn between semihysterical amusement and a big dash of shame at even thinking the thought. Jason and his buddy Hoyt had often discussed (in my hearing) that every male's fantasy was to be in bed with two women. And men who came into the bar echoed that idea, as I knew from checking Jason's theory by reading a random sample of male minds. Surely I was allowed to entertain the same kind of fantasy? I gave a hysterical kind of giggle, which definitely startled both vampires.
"This is amusing?" Bill asked. He gestured from the plywood, to the recumbent Tara, to the bandage on my shoulder. He omitted pointing from Eric to himself. I laughed out loud.
Eric cocked a blond eyebrow. "We are amusing?"
I nodded wordlessly. I thought, Instead of a cook-off, we could have a cock-off. Instead of a fishing derby, we could have a...
At least in part because I was tired, and strained, and blood depleted, I went way into the silly zone. I laughed even harder when I looked at Eric's and Bill's faces. They wore almost identical expressions of exasperation.
Eric said, "Sookie, we haven't finished our discussion."
"Oh yes, we have," I said, though I was still smiling. "I asked you for a favor: releasing Tara from her bondage to Mickey. You asked me for payment for that favor: telling you what happened when you lost your memory. You performed your side of the bargain, and so did I. Bought and paid for. The end."
Bill looked from Eric to me. Now he knew that Eric knew what I knew.... I giggled again. Then the giddiness just poofed out of me. I was a deflated balloon, for sure. "Good night, both of you," I said. "Thanks, Eric, for taking that rock in the head, and for sticking to your phone throughout the evening. Thanks, Bill, for turning out so late with window-repair supplies. I appreciate it, even if you got volunteered by Eric." Under ordinary circumstances - if there were such things as ordinary circumstances with vampires around - I would've given them each a hug, but that just seemed too weird. "Shoo," I said. "I have to go to bed. I'm all worn out."
"Shouldn't one of us stay here with you tonight?" Bill asked.
If I'd had to say yes to that, had to pick one of them to stay with me that night, it would have been Bill - if I could have counted on him to be as undemanding and gentle as he'd been the night before. When you're down and hurting, the most wonderful thing in the world is to feel cherished. But that was too big a bunch of if's for tonight.
"I think I'll be fine," I said. "Eric assures me that Salome will scoop up Mickey in no time, and I need sleep more than anything. I appreciate both of you coming out tonight."
For a long moment I thought they might just say "No" and try to outwait each other. But Eric kissed me on the forehead and left, and Bill, not to be outdone, brushed my lips with his and took his leave. When the two vampires had departed, I was delighted to be by myself.
Of course, I wasn't exactly alone. Tara was passed out on the couch. I made sure she was comfortable - took off her shoes, got the blanket off my bed to cover her - and then I fell into my own bed.
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