Hi all. Thanks for the reviews everybody. Today's chapter is long, and a bit of a mishmash. I hope you enjoy it.


Out of the Woods and on to the Summit


The night after my satyr-spiked tonic, Goro and I met with the private investigator to discuss his preliminary findings on Sally Lindenberg. The meeting was disappointingly short; progress was slow. We returned to the house and I strode into the lobby to find an unexpected guest waiting on one of Pam's royal couches.

The grizzled wolf got to his feet, pale blue eyes taking in my worn jeans and my faded Fangtasia t-shirt. He glanced down at his own neatly pressed jeans and button-down shirt and grinned.

"And I thought I'd be under-dressed. Good evening, your majesty."

"Jephson." I was surprised to see him. "What brings you to Louisiana?"

Turning to pick up a laptop bag from the couch, he said, "I've got something to show you. Got somewhere we can talk?"

I gestured to the stairs as Goro came in. Jephson nodded to him. "Your second will want to see this too."

Up in the office, he set his laptop up on my desk and cued a media file.

"You aren't gonna like this," he warned gruffly.

We didn't. It was a file of photos taken around the grounds, inside the walls, one even inside the house. All date stamped in the last week, Jephson in every one. Then there were the bugs he'd planted: in two of my cars, and the kitchen when he sneaked in with a delivery. That he hadn't got anywhere above the first floor was small comfort. If he had I might have caught his scent amongst all the other wolves.

There was a weighty silence. Goro was as still as stone, furious.

Jephson cleared his throat. "You got holes in your daytime security big enough for a whale to swim through. That dumb bear you got running things couldn't find his asshole with both hands and a mirror. Half the wolves are slacking off, and he turns a blind eye."

"So I see," I said grimly. It was a wonder nobody had taken advantage. Yet. Maybe they were biding their time. I knew my reputation wasn't enough to deter them – my ego wasn't that big. "Did Isabel send you?"

"No. This is my pitch. Kick the bear out and hire me."

I sat back, folding my hands over my stomach. "I heard you handed Isabel's security over to your protégé."

"Yeah. Ralph was ready. I retired, planned to do some consultancy work. Hell, even bought a cabin. Spent a month fishing."

"And?"

"It was boring as fuck."

"Why not stay in Oklahoma?"

"Didn't want to rain on Ralph's parade. He needs the post, after what happened to his wife." He shrugged. "I got no real ties there. Fancied a change of scene."

He did have ties. Friends, Ralph included. "There is more to it. Explain."

Shrugging, he humoured me. "I get on fine with Jean-Luc. Isabel is okay, better than Freyda. But she's a cold one. No sense of humour. We didn't hit it off."

"Texas or Arkansas are nearer. Why here?"

"Worried I've got a crush on you?" he joked, flashing a grin. "Jean-Luc said you were looking. We've got history. I know I can work with you. That simple."

I thought it over. He was competent, and had proven loyal. He destroyed Nadia's torture porn, kept quiet about me spying on Yasmin. I owed him, no matter what he had said about us being even. The only downside: he was another reminder of Oklahoma. But what was one more reminder? This place already reeked of them.

"Terms?"

"I get to take out the trash. We can discuss the rest later. I know you pay well. Wanna watch me work?"

I smirked. "Oh, yes."

Goro came too, intrigued. On the way to the dojo, I quietly filled him in Jephson's expertise. As Goro commented, he was a vast improvement on what we had, even if he was a potential spy for Isabel or Stan.

I didn't believe Stan would use a wolf, or that Jephson would agree to it. Giving me a bug to spy on a spy was one thing, spying on an employer was a different kettle of fish. As far as I could tell, that ran contrary to his personal code. That was the line with Jephson: he did what he was hired to do.

Rounding Yuri and most of the Weres up didn't take long. Jephson insulted the bear the second he set foot in the dojo, challenging his authority in front of his men. Yuri was furious, red-faced, the veins in his neck popping. He was an arrogant fucker too: I watched him weigh Jephson up, decide the wolf's age and smaller size would go against him.

The fight was short. And impressive.

Yuri shifted back to human form curled up on the floor, hacking up blood, ribs gored and oozing, one eye swelling shut from the vicious punch Jephson got in before he shifted. Jephson crouched over him in wolf form and howled his triumph at the watching Weres.

Once he was human, he kicked Yuri in the ribs for good measure. "You're fired, you fat motherfucker. Clear out, unless you want me to wipe the floor with your ass again."

He stepped back from the gasping Yuri. I gestured to the two vampires waiting to escort the defeated bear off the premises and they dragged him roughly outside.

Jephson glared at the circle of restless, excited werewolves. "As for you dipshits, I'm gonna ride your asses so hard you'll forget there was ever a time when you weren't my bitches. Anyone got a problem with that?"

There was some uneasy shuffling and a few mutters but no-one stepped forward.

"You, Madison! Up front, now!" Jephson barked, pointed at a large sullen wolf. He rattled off a string of names, calling five more out of the mass. He'd certainly done his homework. Dragging their feet, they formed an untidy line in front of him. He got in their faces, yelling and cussing. These were the slackers he'd gotten past. He wasn't thrilled with their work ethic. Or their mother's morals. It was an entertaining tirade.

"One week," he snarled. "And if you haven't improved, you'll be out. Are we clear?"

They muttered.

"I said, are we clear?"

There was a sharper chorus of yes sirs. Satisfied, Jephson turned his back and strolled casually over to pull on his jeans. A bold move, exposing himself, but none of the wolves moved. He'd asserted his dominance completely, all while he was buck-naked.

Back in the office, Geraldine came around her desk when she saw his ripped shirt and swollen knuckles, her eyes fixed on his hand. "That needs icing."

Looking down, he flexed it gingerly, and hissed. "Fucking ace," he growled. "Stupid cocksucker had a thick skull."

Geraldine coughed and he looked up into her pointed stare. Rubbing the back of his neck with his good hand, he mumbled sheepishly, "Sorry, ma'am. Didn't mean to cuss. Still buzzed from the fight."

"Ex-military by any chance?"

"Yes," he said, surprised. "How d'you–?"

"Married to a navy SEAL for damn near thirty years. I can smell spit and polish at sixty paces."

"He's a lucky guy," he said, giving her a winsome smile.

She lost hers. "Was. Died three years ago. Cancer."

He winced. "Got any hot-sauce to go with my size nines?"

She almost smiled. Almost.

Enjoyable as it was to watch her toy with him, I cut in. "Geraldine, this is our new head of daytime security. Forgive the rough edges, he's a werewolf."

"Yuri's gone?" she asked.

I nodded.

"Good. Never liked him." She held out her hand to Jephson. "Geraldine Hamilton, Mr Northman's daytime PA. Mr Gupta over there is my night-time counterpart."

He nodded to Sanjay, and held his swollen paw out to her. "Pleased to meet you. David Jephson, owner of the size nines. Be gentle."

She took his hand gently. "This needs splinting."

"Ice will do for now. I've got to haggle with the boss."

"Yes, let's get on with that," I said. "Sanjay, bring a standard contract, two bloods and a whisky for the wolf."

Once we were settled in the office, I gestured at his hand, buried in an ice bucket. "How long?"

He shrugged. "A week or two."

"Too long." One of the idiots might take a shot at him before he'd entrenched himself as top wolf. I could do without the drama. I pulled out my phone and hit speed-dial.

"Taking blood is not on the table," he said firmly.

"Not blood," I said as Rory answered. "You free?"

"I'm at work, but it's slow. What's up?" she asked, her voice hovering towards concern.

Jephson pricked up his ears.

"I have wolf who broke his paw. On Yuri's face."

"Tell me that obnoxious bear came off worst." She disliked Yuri, with good reason. He looked at her like she was raw steak.

I chuckled. "Oh, yes. Yuri is definitely worse for wear."

"Good." I heard the smile in her voice. "I can slip out early. Be there in half an hour." She hung up.

"Gentlemen," I said, leaning back in my chair, "let's talk dollars and cents."

Negotiations went smoothly. Anticipating our headaches with the wolves were over, I offered Jephson a generous package, including a cottage on site, rent free. He was grumbling about fumigating it to get rid of the stench of bear when the door opened. He stared over his shoulder as Rory came in.

"I knew I recognised that voice." He turned to me and said in an impressed tone, "Still got the fairy on tap, eh?"

"Roll that tongue in or lose it," Rory said, clipping the back of his head on the way past. He yelped in shock.

"Miss Kingfisher has free run of the house. Treat her as you would Pam," I ordered, smirking at his stunned expression until she leaned over the desk to kiss my cheek, startling me too.

"Eric," she said warmly. "So what's the wise-guy's problem with..." She trailed off as she turned round and saw him properly. Her hand went to her hip. "Isn't this one Isabel's wolf? What's he doing here?"

"Was. Meet Yuri's replacement, Jephson."

She frowned. "He came to you? Offered himself?"

"Yes."

She cocked her head to one side and looked him over. Honey-sweet she asked, "May I see your injury?"

Jephson set the ice bucket down and held out his hand. She bent over to examine it. Dropping her hands onto his thighs, she pinned him down and brought her face close to his. The air took on that dry, static quality that precedes lightening. His heartbeat picked up, but sensibly he sat stock still. Goro, who could see Rory's face from his seat beside the wolf, slowly leaned away from them.

"I don't trust mercenaries who change sides," Rory said with quiet menace. "If Eric comes to harm through you, I will skin your hide and wear it. Understood?"

He swallowed and nodded. She stood up and the charge in the air began to dissipate. Jephson, wide-eyed, ran a hand over his sparse hair.

"That was unnecessary," I said sharply, having waited for the scene to play out before I expressed my annoyance.

She rounded on me and snarled, "What? I can't be protective of you?"

Her eyes were dark, furious. Dumbfounded by her reaction, I growled softly in warning. "Calm down, woman. Who stole your goat?"

She blinked in confusion. "What goat?"

"Never mind." She was coming out of whatever the fuck that was. "You are feisty tonight."

She shook herself and rubbed her face. "Sorry. Long day."

"You said work was quiet."

"Work's fine. Home..." She gave a rueful grin, and then groaned. "And I spent yesterday with Elva."

"Elva? Is she particularly annoying?"

"Oh, no." She coughed. "Fairy thing. Hormones."

Jephson and Goro, who had been watching our conversation with more interest than was strictly polite, exchanged a look. The wolf grimaced. "PMS."

"That a problem with your bitches?" Goro asked him curiously.

Jephson held up his hands. "Oh no. I'm not fool enough to dive on that grenade."

"Wrong time of the month entirely," Rory said drily. Goro stared at her blankly.

"Oh," Jephson said. "Oh, that can be... Yeah." He smirked at Goro. "We should give these two some alone time."

Goro leaned in conspiratorially to reply, "They're not fucking. She's seeing his lawyer. Half-demon, very handsome." He leered.

"Oh really?" Rory said, putting her hands on her hips and turning to me. "Whoever told you that?"

Whoops. "Was it supposed to be a secret?" I said coolly in the face of her glare.

"Too late now." She gestured at Goro. "Tell the fish wife, tell the whole village."

Goro feigned a hurt look. "Fish wife?"

"Oh, please. You all gossip worse than fae men." Rory rolled her eyes at him and grabbed Jephson hand, making him wince. "Big baby," she muttered, covering the swelling with both hands. "This will hurt. Don't scream."

He jerked as the healing hit him, biting back another yelp. I saw Rory sway in time to blur behind her, catching her shoulders. Before she could protest, I swept her up and carried her to my chair.

"Sit still, woman," I told her sternly when she tried to get up.

Jephson gave a low whistle, flexing his hand. "That's some amazing shit."

Rory brushed my hands off her shoulders. "I need..." Her gaze landed on my hardly touched glass of blood. She snatched it off the desk and, to my amazement, downed it all. Wiping her lips on the back of her hand she said, "That'll do nicely."

"Better?" I asked, ignoring the ping of bloodlust I felt. Her mouth was red. There was a snick behind me.

"That's my cue to leave," she said, her eyes flicking to my second and back to me. "I'll deal with you later, blabbermouth." Flashing me a wicked grin that promised later would be no fun at all, she pressed her bloody lips to mine. Before I could react, she was gone.

"Frustrating woman," I growled, licking my lips clean. Goro was staring at my mouth.

"You missed a spot," he practically sighed round his fangs.

Somewhere Rory was laughing her ass off. She knew how sensual bloody kisses were to vampires.

"Takahashi," I said harshly. "Snap out of it."

He shook himself. "My apologies, Kitajin-san." He stared at my empty chair and then glanced at Jephson's mended hand. "That is some fairy."

"She is," I said smugly. Mine, my sister. "Show Jephson the parts of the house he didn't break into last week, I've got work to do."

Another ghost from Oklahoma manifested at the end of the week. This time, Goro, on his night off, called unexpectedly to ask if I could meet him at the dojo, which meant he anticipate a mess. I hated the inconvenience of clearing up blood spilt in my office.

I walked in to find Goro kneeling in the centre of the floor, in full kimono, his favourite katana sheathed and loosely balanced on his thighs. The vampire at his side, in contrast, wore a black turtleneck and jeans. Whip-thin, with thick, short black hair. His forehead was pressed to the floor so his face was hidden. I recognised him from his scent.

Salvatore.

Vittorio's twin, the Sicilian knife-thrower.

Intrigued enough to play along, I sat opposite them, cross-legged.

"Kitajin-san. This cur came to me. He is a worthless worm, still reeking of grave dirt. No maker. No skills to speak of. He wishes to be my apprentice."

"I see," I said, getting an idea of the purpose behind this pantomime. "What answer did you give?"

"None. I thought to end him for his impertinence, but I know of his past transgression against you. The kill is yours, Dono." He bowed his head.

Salvatore didn't twitch a muscle.

"Do with him as you will, Kikugoro. A reward for your loyalty."

"Thank you, Dono." His hand drifted towards the katana and settled on the tsuka, the hilt. He drew the blade out an inch, the soft hiss the only sound in the still dojo.

Salvatore stayed frozen.

Goro winked at me, but kept his tone cold. "He is a pathetic waste of blood. It would take many, many nights to make anything of this lumpen clay. Maybe fifty years."

Goro had signed on as my second for fifty years. "Barely worth your time, Kikugoro."

"Yes," he said slowly. "But he has some potential. It is a long time since I had an apprentice, worthy or not."

He had a child, somewhere in Europe, but had made none since. He wanted to teach the Sicilian. As long as I didn't want to end him, as long as he passed this test. Salvatore must have impressed him, with his knives or with the way he carried himself.

"If it pleases you Takahashi, keep the dog and whip him into shape."

"Dono is generous to his humble servant." I rolled my eyes. He was laying it on thick. "But he attacked you once. How can I trust him here, in your house?"

"Vouch for him."

"I would. If there was a way I could be sure of his obedience, Dono."

There was only one. I nodded minutely, giving my permission.

Goro ordered sharply, "Worm, get up."

Salvatore sat up, carefully keeping his head down. Gold and ivory flashed from behind his dark curls, swinging from his right ear. Jewellery I knew the providence of immediately, but I kept the grin off my face.

The fang he was wearing as an earring was Nadia's. I'd given it to him for the loss of his brother. Goro would have asked whose it was. Excellent strategy from the Sicilian: proof we shared an enemy, and I favoured him.

Very deliberately Goro opened his wrist on the exposed katana. He held it out. "Drink now and you rise tomorrow."

Salvatore latched on without hesitation. They must have discussed an exchange prior to my arrival. Goro, eyes closing in pleasure, bit down on his bottom lip as the Sicilian drank. I watched silently, feeling an unexpected thrill of lust as I watched Salvatore's throat move, the blood muffling his moans.

Emmett's blood or the erotic scene, either way it was a welcome sign that I was... mending.

Goro pulled Salvatore up by his hair and sucked his wrist clean with a soft moan of his own. He lunged at full speed, grabbing the Sicilian and biting into his neck. He drew a quick mouthful and pulled away, leaving Salvatore swaying and bloody, eyes black with bloodlust, fangs down. The Sicilian heaved a shuddering breath.

"Why did you come here, Salvatore?" I asked, once he seemed coherent enough to answer. Last I heard, Stan had returned him to Isabel in Oklahoma.

He turned his head slowly to me and began to answer in Sicilian, caught himself and switched to English. "Isabel released me last week."

"Why?" I would be calling her, and he knew it.

"A fight. With that cornuto, Henri."

Ah. I remembered Henri. One of the guards I wouldn't have been sorry to lose. Vicious temper. "A woman?"

"Si." He descended into a torrent of angry Sicilian, gesticulating and repeating a name, Helena, several times.

I held up a hand and he stuttered to a halt. "Isabel will fill me in. There will be no fighting over humans here."

"Si, your majesty." He dipped his head respectfully.

"There is something else," Goro said, eyes closed as he read his blood in the Sicilian. "A sadness."

"His brother," I said. Goro nodded.

"And excitement. Anticipation."

Salvatore grinned wolfishly, the same grin Vittorio wore before the fight that ended him. "To learn from the best. I heard Jean-Luc whining that you beat him."

"Sweet words, dog," Goro chuckled, wiping the katana clean before sliding it back into its saya. "Swear fealty to your new king, then I will find you a room."

When I called Isabel, she confirmed Salvatore's story. I asked if he'd caused any other trouble.

"None, apart from this incident." She paused. "Which wasn't like him. He stole the woman blatantly, provoked Henri. There may have been an earlier squabble that precipitated this one, but neither admitted it. I was sorry to lose Salvatore, but the girl was Henri's. He broke the rules."

There were rumours she'd recently refused to release her sheriff in Lawson and I knew she was short of quality vampires. Perhaps Salvatore decided it was time to move on and had manipulated Isabel into letting him go. If so, forcing her hand showed cunning.

And recklessness; Isabel could have ruled for his final death.

Cunning was useful, if it was tempered with caution. If Goro could put up with his sharp tongue, Salvatore would make a good addition to the house. He fought as well as Vittorio had. Much better than the guard I lost over that accidental turning.

Taking Emmett's blood marked a turning point.

Whether it was the blood itself or my bloody-minded determination not to backslide – Rory and Pam standing over me while I fed as if I was a recalcitrant child refusing to eat his vegetables was not an experience I wished to repeat – things improved steadily as the year drew to a close.

Drinking from the source became less of a chore as my hunger and libido returned in fits and starts. Rory and Pam badgered me into snatching every opportunity to let off steam, which gradually alleviated my mental weariness. However irritated I appeared with them, underneath I was profoundly grateful.

Amazingly, even with Jephson and Salvatore at the house, that echo of Oklahoma, that claustrophobic dread plagued me less and less often. While I was alert, anyway. My subconscious was still throwing the occasional sucker punch during downtime.

I was almost home free. But there were a few… moments in December.

Attending a 'Winter Holiday' celebration in my continued quest to win over the mayor, I was cornered by a particularly belligerent local politician, known for his ultra-conservative brand of Christianity. Fielding his not so subtle questions about my personal beliefs set my blood boiling. Foolishly, I let him draw me into an argument over whether vampires had souls. It ended with me stalking off, fangs barely hidden, leaving him smug and gloating. A mistake, to lose my cool in a room of politicians, but a smaller one than acting on the impulse to dismember him.

It wasn't just humans who got under my skin.

The week before Christmas I was a hairsbreadth from ripping Becker limb from limb. He smiled a fraction too smugly when I turned up at the Mausoleum, soaked to the skin after flying through a storm to make a meeting on time. The Brick had a flat, and I'd abandoned the limo on the interstate with Goro, who was cursing it soundly.

It was the latest in a series of punctures, snapped fan belts and misfiring cylinders. An increasingly suspicious run of bad luck. I had dismissed a hex as paranoia, given my mental state lately, but it was time to revisit the idea.

Becker's knowing smirk at my bedraggled appearance provided an instant suspect. Later that night, sitting in Oskar's office in borrowed clothes, I asked if Becker was consorting with witches.

Oskar frowned. "I haven't heard. Would he waste gold to hex you?"

"He's pissed. I bruised his dignity."

"You reap what you sow, Eric. What did he do, flirt with you?" he asked sarcastically.

"He whined about a ruling. I, ah, lost my temper."

He sat forward. "You laid hands on him?"

"Yes. Nothing... damaging." Except to Becker's ego.

"Wish I had. He's an irritating gobshite." He snorted. "Hexing your limo is minor. It doesn't give you cause to end him. If that's all he's done."

"As far as I know." Despite his association with de Castro's pretty boy spy, I didn't think Becker was up to anything treasonous. "And I have no proof to connect him to this."

"You'd need the witch for that," Oskar said thoughtfully.

"He'll have a scapegoat lined up to take the blame."

"Have you pissed any off lately? Witches?"

"Not since Hallow."

"The one who cursed you."

"Pam tell you about that?" I said sharply.

He shrugged. "She didn't say much. Just warned me not to mess with any two-natured witches I came across. But I already knew that. Met one in Portugal once. Friend of Raisa."

"She had a lot of friends. Isabel Beaumont included. They were close."

"Lovers?"

"So Goro says."

That titbit didn't distract him for long. "There is one witch in New Orleans who might hex your limo. For the right price."

I was puzzled for a moment. "Ah. Amelia Broadway. Has she been giving you trouble?"

"No. I didn't give her chance." His lip curled in disgust. "I don't employ witches with no respect for our blood."

"I'm touched," I said sarcastically. He wasn't acting on any sympathy for me. Oskar had strong opinions on witches knowing their place. As tools for his use. "You don't employ her coven?"

He shook his head.

"Tut, tut, Sheriff. Cutting your nose off to spite your face. Sophie Ann found them reliable."

"They're not the only circus in town. I expect discretion. Broadway has a mouth as big as the Mississippi's and the attitude of an entitled New Yorker."

I laughed. "You have her nailed."

Whether that attitude meant she'd risk my wrath over a petty hex, especially while she was pregnant, was another matter. But Oskar had that glint in his eye, the one he got on a hunt. If it was Amelia, she was in trouble.

I watched Mithradates packing away his laptop. It was just before the holidays, our second meeting in as many weeks to prepare for the Amun summit at the end of January. The tall, lithe half-demon could pass for Arab or Persian. He had thick dark brown hair, coffee-coloured skin and quick hazel eyes that hinted at the razor-sharp intellect behind them.

He looked up, catching me watching. "Is there something else, Eric?"

"There is. Off the clock. Miss Kingfisher."

He straightened up warily. "You indicated you had no interest in her."

"My exact words back in October were that there were no obstacles in your way as far as I was concerned. Which is not the same as having no interest in what happens to her."

He raised an eyebrow. "I had it from Rory herself that she was a free agent."

"She is. I have no claim on her that way." I put down the pen I was toying with and spoke slowly so he wouldn't mistake me. "If you hurt her, I will revenge her. Tenfold."

We sized each other up. I imagined the sounds of elk locking horns in the silence until he frowned, looking almost as puzzled as he had two months ago when I'd all but ordered him to make a move on her. He said cautiously, "You and Rory are close."

Apparently she hadn't told him quite what we meant to each other since the ritual, which pleased me. I wondered smugly if he even knew her real name, but the feeling faded when I realised he probably did. She only hid who she was from her enemies amongst the fae. She'd spent far too long in the demon realm for him not to know something of her true identity.

"We are," I agreed. "Very close."

Sebastian nodded to himself. "That's good."

It was? I cocked an eyebrow.

"You have her back," he explained. "Fairies fear you more than me, don't you think?"

"Has she been threatened?"

"Not directly, as far as I know. It concerns me, though, how guarded she is around fae she doesn't know."

It was my turn to frown. For obvious reasons, I didn't know which fae were currently frequenting Area 5. "Anyone in particular?"

"No-one I can't handle. Except her son. She made me swear to leave him alone. A pity. He needs a lesson in respect beaten into him." The solemn, studious lawyer disappeared behind a wicked grin. Quite a transformation: he was a handsome bastard.

An equally mischievous smirk tugged at my own lips. "No such promise has been extracted from me. What exactly did her charming offspring do?"

He pulled a face. "You want a list? He berates her in front of others for treating patients who aren't fae, for her personal life, for her dealings with you, with me… In short, he behaves like a spoilt adolescent."

"He's fae. Arrogant and self-centred runs in their veins."

"Not all of them."

"No." Not Rory. She was different.

"She deserves better."

"Yes." Clearly singed eyebrows weren't cutting it as an incentive for Connal to honour his remaining parent. Perhaps a run in with the sheriff of Area 5 would kick his ass into gear. Rory would be pissed, though. I'd have to be careful. Speaking of which... "This conversation never happened." She'd flambé both of us if she knew.

He grinned again. "What conversation?

And I thought he was too serious for her. I was beginning to see what she saw in him.

His smile vanished, his expression hardening as he stood to leave. "Connal is distressing her. That is the only reason I am going behind her back. That, and she trusts you. Don't break that trust, or it will go ill for you."

My smirk widened. Oh, he'd do. Definitely. He had the balls to threaten a king for her.

I was invited to Rory's right after Christmas, not that either of us celebrated the holiday. She led me to the hothouse this time, where an ambush waited in the candlelight.

Two drinks ready on the table, two bottles waiting besides them in anticipation of a long night.

A long night of talking.

Fuck.

She sat, patting the couch next to her. I joined her, picked up the goblet and downed a gulp of blood.

"Dutch courage?" she joked, taking up her wine. "Good idea."

I shot her a warning look, defiantly swallowing another mouthful. She drained half her wine and licked her lips, stained dark by the grapes. Setting the glass down, she waited for me to speak, an open look on her face.

I gestured with my drink. "My thirst for blood is back. And... other things."

She nodded. "Emmett should feed you again. Before the summit."

"There is no need."

"It's been less than a month. You're not out of the woods," she insisted. "Not quite. We worry. Humour us."

"Us?"

"Pam. Me. Your family."

"Vampires don't have family," I grumbled, taking a sip of blood to hide my smile. "And I don't need more Prozac."

"You can't heal yourself by sheer force of will."

"I can try," I muttered.

"Even you aren't stubborn enough for that. Please, Eric."

"Once," I conceded. "Once more, but only for the summit."

"Thank you." She paused expectantly. When I didn't speak she prompted: "How's it been?"

I groaned, dropping my head back against the couch.

"Come on, Eric. Don't make it like pulling teeth."

I had an idea and rolled my head to look at her. "Quid pro quo, sister. Tell me what's going on with you first."

"Then you will talk," she said warningly.

"Yes," I said and blatantly switched topics. "How's Sebastian?"

"Wonderful. Except his new boss keeps him busy, so it's crazy finding time together. We're going away for a week." She laughed when my face fell. "After the summit. I wouldn't dream of taking your lawyer from you."

I sat up, turning towards her. She mirrored the movement. There was a glow in her eyes, a happy glow. "You are in love. Is he?"

"Perhaps," she said coyly.

"He treats you well?" Because that didn't necessarily follow.

"Very. I'm content," she said, smiling broadly.

She looked it. Whatever was bothering her was something else. "The night you healed Jephson. Was it really hormones that shortened your fuse?"

"Oh. That. I was hoping you'd forgotten."

"Now, Sorcha, don't make it like pulling teeth," I teased. She swung a cushion at my head but I snatched from her, smirking.

"Arsehole." She sighed. "Fine. It's Connal. He's… his father's son. Exactly like Cadogan. Pig-headed. Passionate. Thinks he's right all the frigging time."

"And you're the one in the wrong."

"Oh so, so wrong. He's..." She sucked in a long breath, hissing over her teeth. "He's very fae. Bigotted. It's painful, finding out who he is."

"His grandmother's attitudes?"

"No, no. Not Rosheen. Cad was half fae; she never believed in racial purity. But her second husband... And the fae Connal ran with... Breandan made a lot of promises, ones that won over the younger earth fae. Connal picked up their beliefs."

"What has he done?"

She shook her head, eyes wet, and said softly, "Oh, just spouted nonsense. I'm a traitor to the fae. He wishes I wasn't his mother."

I growled. Ungrateful brat.

"I won't change who I am. Not even for Connal. Never again." She blinked, and a tear glistened on her lashes. "Cadogan would be heartbroken to hear him. That's what hurts the most. He's all that's left of Cad and me."

"You regret leaving him in fae."

"Yes. Cad thought twelve was old enough to resist the hatred. But I was older my uncle manipulated me. I should have known, insisted Connal leave with us."

"Could you have taken him to Dae with you, when you retreated there?"

"No," she admitted. "He was too fae."

"Leaving him in Fae was best, then. He is still alive. And alive he can change."

She wiped her face. "I doubt that's going to happen."

That was pain talking. It wasn't like her to sound so defeated. I wanted to wring his ungrateful neck, but that wasn't going to fix this. "He is still around, yes?"

She frowned. "Yes. Keeps turning up like a bad penny."

"He is drawn to you. If he hated you, he would leave."

"Like Fionna," she said bitterly.

I took her hand. "Yes, like Fionna. But this one is not yet lost. I imagine it is hard discovering other races can knock the fae off that pedestal they think they deserve. Harder still to find them rivals for your mother's affection."

"Oh," she breathed, her eyes widening. "He's jealous."

"Who is the empath here?" I teased, hoping to lighten the mood.

"He found a way to block me," she said grimly.

He didn't trust her. "That… sucks."

"Uh-huh. He hated it as a child. I could always tell when he'd done something wrong, the guilt gave him away. He came prepared."

"Ah. He doesn't want you to know he cares."

"You would say that." She smirked. "It drove you crazy, didn't it? Not being able to hide your feelings around me."

I stuck my tongue out at her, and was pleased when she laughed. "Give him some time, Sorcha." If he didn't come round, I'd give him a hard shove in the right direction.

"I will. Thank you. Now, your turn. How is the crown sitting?"

"Easier. Not that things are running completely smoothly…"

"But you're handling it better."

"Mostly." I sighed, looking down at our hands. "I'm sick of needing support."

"Is it so bad? Even from me or Pam?"

"Yes," I said heatedly. I hated it. It was weak. Pathetic.

"The fae don't have a monopoly on pride, do they? Let go of it," she said fiercely.

I snorted.

"You're the strongest person I know," she insisted.

"Bullshit." I let go of her hand and got up to pace, remembering the respect in her eyes after she relived Nadia's torture with me. Her astonishment at my 'strength'. How could she respect me now, after this mental weakness, this ... depression I'd fallen into? How could I respect myself?

How could Sookie?

I slapped that errant thought away and laughed hollowly. "I survived Ocella. I survived Nadia. Now I have what every vampire desires – power, influence, a fucking throne – that brings me to my knees. Everything I could ever want."

"Not everything," she said softly. "Not Sookie."

Not ready for that conversation, I snatched up the goblet and drained it, refilling it hastily from the bottle and downing more while she watched. I forced myself to sit down, holding the goblet like a shield.

"I don't get fucking depressed, Sorcha. I get over it and move on."

"You've never despaired? We all have our moments. Describe one."

I almost denied it, but admitted reluctantly, "The night Ocella died… After he left me behind, injured. But my feelings weren't my own. I had given Alexei blood."

Her lip curled. "At your maker's command."

"Yes. I was swamped. Ocella's despair, Alexei's bloodlust, Pam's pain. I was... paralysed." Helpless. That, I hated above everything.

"What brought you out of it?"

"Sookie," I whispered. She raised her eyebrows and I explained. "She yelled. Made me angry. But that was fleeting. Not like this. I have not felt… like myself for some time."

"After you destroyed your room, you locked your anger up," she said thoughtfully.

"It started before then," I said, keen to avoid that subject.

She gave me an irritated look. "As I was saying, you couldn't use anger to snap yourself out of it."

I waved the goblet, equally irritated. "I am vampire. We control our anger lest it control us." Those of us that wanted to survive, anyway.

"But with everything–"

"Yes, yes. I get it. I made it worse. A perfect storm." I slumped back against the couch. "And I crumpled."

"Stop beating yourself up. That's part of it, you realise."

I rubbed my face. "I did not even notice I was. As I said, I am not myself." It was an odd sensation, feeling like a stranger in my own skin.

Frowning, she added doubtfully, "That could be part of it too."

"Unless…" I couldn't pinpoint when it began. A year ago? Around the time Sookie left for England. When I met Sorcha. I hesitated, sending her a pulse of affection before I continued. "Could it be your soothing? You described it as addictive."

"To the fae. It's essential for them." She wrinkled her nose. "I know it feels good, but it can't alter your personality."

"It alters mood."

"Temporarily," she insisted gently. "You're clutching at straws, looking for something to blame outside yourself."

I didn't want to give up on the idea. "What if absorbing fae magic makes vampire more like the fae, more…" I wanted to say needy but I settled on: "Emotional."

She cocked her head. "The fae are more open to expressing emotion, true. But vampires are no different in private." She looked pointedly down at our hands.

Good point.

"Maybe we're looking at this backwards," she said slowly. She bit her lip, and I sensed her wariness. "You don't feel like yourself, but maybe you are yourself."

"I don't follow."

"Yourself for the first time in centuries."

Oh. That. I let go of her hand.

"Whatever Ocella did, it would be ingrained after so long," Sorcha said softly, eyes full of concern. "Once his influence was gone…"

I would feel unsteady. Off balance. Like riding a longboat in a storm, the wood shivering under my feet like a living being, uneven, shifting. Shaking the image from my head, I ran a hand through my hair and growled in frustration.

The worst thing: I'd never know what the fuck he glamoured into me. It could have been anything. Anything at all.

Shit. My appetite had begun to wane as far back as Oklahoma. I blamed reminders of Sookie, the situation… but with all the upheaval and danger I could easily have missed the unsettling feeling. And if it had started earlier, she could be right.

"Sorry," she said quietly.

"Not your fault." I drained my drink. Rory poured herself more wine, sipping it slowly in the silence. I sensed caution from her before she spoke.

"So... Sookie is in Bon Temps. No plans to visit?"

I looked up from my hands. "Not a good idea." Sookie was visiting family, friends. I would be an unwelcome intruder. We would argue. Again.

"You don't feel ready?"

"We did not part well. She was … angry." Rory arched an eyebrow and I admitted, "I promised her Freyda wouldn't win."

She narrowed her eyes. "That wasn't your fault."

"I could have handled it better."

"So could she. You should see her. Before she goes back to Memphis."

Her voice was neutral, but my blood rang with her determination. Why was she so insistent? Ah.

"You spoke to her. At Sanctum."

She nodded. She wasn't smiling, and she had waited six months to bring it up. That couldn't be good.

"About me."

"Yes. She was… jealous."

When I cocked an eyebrow, she gestured between us. "Really?" I said nonchalantly, ignoring a small flare of hope. "Did you set her straight?"

"No. I was testing her."

I stiffened. "Testing her? For what purpose?"

"To see if she was worthy."

I hissed. "That is not your place."

"Isn't it?" she said coolly. "Didn't you do the same to Sebastian, brother?"

I blinked. "He told you."

"No." She grinned. "Lucky guess. We are very alike."

She had me there. "Touché," I said. "What did you say to her, Sorcha?"

"I wanted to know how she could do it. Let that happen to you. If I cared about someone, let alone..." She grimaced. "You know how I feel about forced marriage. I pushed her. Hard."

"And?"

"She pushed back."

"She does that." My lips twitched, and I allowed the memories to warm me briefly. Then I remembered Sorcha was surprised that Sookie left the state. "What did you feel–?"

"Don't get excited," she warned.

How the fuck did she read me like an open book? Oh, yes. Empath. Ruthlessly suppressing my expectations, I gestured for her to continue.

"Sookie was all over the place. Confused. Defensive. Rude. I," she coughed, "may have lost my temper with her."

She was regretful. "She didn't leave because of anything you said, Sorcha," I assured her, remembering the things Sookie said to me. And the things I didn't say to her. "What did you sense from her?"

"There was… something. But not enough to be sure."

That was it? "But you think I should see her."

"Yes. Even if nothing comes of it. You need to resolve this."

"Whatever you felt, that was six months ago." I sighed heavily. I hadn't sought Sookie out once she was free of the shifter. I hadn't made a move either time I ran into her. I had missed my chance, if I ever had one. Sookie wanted a warm breather, children, a life that I couldn't give her.

"You're giving up?"

I forced the words out evenly. "It is too late. She is happy with the tiger."

"Are you sure?" she asked gently.

No. But I didn't want to hear Sookie confirm it.

January was almost peaceful. Poppy cleansed the limo, so no more breakdowns. Oskar's witch-hunt went slowly, much to his annoyance, but his leads pointed to de Castro's spy, Eddie. I was certain he was Becker's fall-guy, so we held off accusing him. I didn't want Felipe switching to another spy. He might actually find something out while we worked out who it was and I didn't want Felipe getting any bright ideas. Attacks during a summit were banned, otherwise monarchs would never attend, but Felipe might be tempted. Tit for tat, as I took Louisiana during a sheriff's conference. There was no truce for those, merely an easily sidestepped gentleman's agreement.

No-one considered me a gentleman anyway.

I had gambled on Amun overlooking the timing in their desire to have Louisiana back in the fold. A few absent sheriffs shouldn't weaken a competently run state, but Felipe, who hadn't put a foot in Louisiana since he was injured, had concentrated his strength in Nevada to guard his own neck.

Which was why his head was still attached.

The summit was in Kentucky. I was taking Oskar, Goro and some guards. And Neb instead of Rasul as planned, which left the state a little bare for my tastes, but Neb had convinced me de Castro had taken losing Louisiana personally. Assassinating me at the summit would be just Felipe's style. All it took was an arrow thrown across a crowded room, and Neb was the fastest bodyguard available.

Salome was watching Neb's Area, and some of the cartel behind the Seven Veils happened to be passing through while we were away. Oskar fretted that Neb was planning a coup himself, but my instincts told me to trust the Egyptian. It would served him better to stay behind if that was the case, take the state while I was too far away to prevent it.

We travelled in the best steel coffins. Coffins that would be stuck in the hotel's holding area until sunset as they couldn't be X-rayed. We would be vulnerable: Neb and Goro did not trust the hotel staff with my safety. So Jephson and his team oversaw our delivery to another location: an empty house with a basement.

When Oskar and I cautiously emerged from our coffins, intact, no stakes in the back, Neb had already risen.

"Jephson left already," he said, frowning at his laptop.

The hotel was close, but clearing security was a bitch. We used the front entrance, the queue was shorter than the one in the parking garage. Ripples from Rhodes: all luggage had to arrive with its owner and be scanned.

Initial fears of the Fellowship dissipated somewhat when another bombing failed to materialise, but there was still paranoia that one of our own might take advantage while our royal eggs were in one basket. After all, Felipe had netted Louisiana because LeClerq was injured, and it wasn't as if vampires were averse to fucking each other over. But I'd demonstrated it was impossible to hold two widely separated states and the clans were cautious, so approval to attack a summit to gain territory was unlikely.

Not that vampires always waited for approval, so we endured the wait. Once we were cleared into the lobby Oskar murmured appreciatively, "Sewn up tighter than a duck's arse."

"What quaint and vulgar sayings you have, Oskar," Neb said quietly.

"He's a Saxon barbarian. What do you expect?" I said, knowing it would annoy Oskar.

"Anglo-Saxon barbarian," he corrected with a scowl.

Too easy.

The Grand Lobby lived up to its name, ceiling redolent with plasterwork. A row of marble columns divided the long room into two. To the left, wooden floors and reception desks, colour-coded to speed up check-in. Oskar headed to the blue one to deal with that. To the right, windows and a waiting area with plush chairs and thick carpeting. Goro had staked out seats in the far corner, with a commanding view. I strode towards him, Neb stuck to me like glue.

Halfway across the lobby, a woman stepped out from behind a pillar into my path, intent on the clipboard in her hands. When she looked up at me, her apology died on her lips.

My blood churned with an unpleasant mix of thrill and dread. I kept my face blank and nodded to her. "Sookie Stackhouse."

She looked… good. Fantastic, in fact. Her hair was pulled back elegantly, her make-up was subtle. Every inch the sophisticated city woman in a smart blue suit that set off her eyes. Memphis agreed with her. Or the tiger does, I thought.

"Louisiana," she said, bobbing in that awkward yet defiant way of hers. I found it reassuring. She was still there underneath the changes.

"Are you here with Tennessee?" I asked calmly. Better find out now, before Hugh found me to gloat.

"I'm no-one's asset," she said sharply.

As it should be. "I am surprised to see you here, then."

"I'm consulting. Hotel security." She tapped a badge on her lapel that I'd overlooked.

"Ah. Impressive." I cursed internally, recognising the Special Events logo. She was here with Quinn. Aware of the ears around us, I settled for asking cautiously, "Your grandfather allowed this?"

"He wasn't exactly thrilled," she said drily. "Not that he had a say."

I smirked. Nice to know she heeled for Niall as well as she had for the rest of us. Her mouth pursed briefly, but she relaxed and tried to look… pleasant.

"I guess I have you to thank for his presence in my life."

Was she thanking me for ensuring her protection? "He would have turned up on his own," I answered lightly. "Eventually."

"Thanks all the same," she said, hugging the clipboard to her.

That was a definite thank you. Before I could respond the unexpected gratitude, I noticed her hand. Her left hand. Forcing my face to stay smooth I said, "I see congratulations are in order."

Her hand twitched minutely and she looked down at her clipboard, mumbling her thanks without meeting my eyes. What was that about? Knowing it would annoy her, I couldn't resist adding pointedly, "Nice rock. Third time lucky, as they say."

"Second actually," she snapped, blue fire in her eyes.

Ouch. I walked into that.

"If you'll excuse me, your majesty," she said bitingly, cutting our conversation short. I watched her cross to the desk, heels rapping smartly on the wooden floor, before I carried on towards Goro.

"She didn't say hello," Neb said. "Three times your age and I was invisible next to you."

"Anger blinds," I said drily. Just as easily as love.

...

Footnote: The hotel is very loosely based on the Brown Hotel, Louisville. It looks lovely.