A/N: So this is the first fic I've ever published online, so please be gentle.
This story is set just over 9 years after From Dead to Worse, but please keep in mind that my copies of the SVM books are packed away in storage somewhere and I've only read a few summaries of the book online to try and remind myself of what happened in book 8. Story carries on differently from the rest of the SVM series. There may be a few little errors when discussing past events from the books, although I promise I'm trying my best!
"In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer." ― Albert Camus
The gravel crunched noisily under the tires as I pulled to a stop outside the old bar. I jerked up the handbrake, letting it creak into place, and allowed the old pickup to idle for a few seconds before switching it off. I had already decided it was okay to spend a minute gathering my thoughts before heading in, but no longer that that. I was certain if I agonised over my return for any more than a few minutes, then I'd be mightily inclined to simply turn the truck around and head back down the bumpy parish road.
From the outside, the bar didn't look as different as I thought it would. It had aged some, the paint was peeling in the corners around the front window frames, not that unusual for any building residing in humid Louisiana, but the roof looked fairly new, as did the large Merlotte's sign sitting on top.
In fact, the bawdy neon sign that once sat mounted atop the roof was gone, and in its place sat an equally large hand painted sign. It would have taken forever and a day to paint that all by hand, but the result was worth it. It was still the distinctive green and white Merlotte's logo, but bright and cheery enough to indicate it was fairly fresh, and much more elegant than the flickering neons I remembered Sam continually cursing over. Especially since he always seemed to be up on his ladder replacing them.
I hopped out, slamming the truck door behind me and leaving the keys on the pickup's floor, it would seem small town habits die hard. I cast out my mental net as I approached the bar. There were about half a dozen people in the front section and three more out back. Seemed to line up with about how many cars were parked out front. I noticed a police cruiser parked among the others.
It was mid afternoon, that blessedly quiet time in the hospitality business - the fiesta between the lunch and dinner rushes. The only stragglers that remained in the bar at this time of day were generally the consummate drunks or passersby. The air was thick with the afternoon heat, gratefully scented with sweet jasmine that I saw still ran rampant up the side of Sam's trailer. A handful of songbirds called through the surrounding woods, and I tamped down the overwhelming sense of deja vu and nostalgia that my senses were triggering. It was a strange feeling, I felt so wildly different from the girl that walked out on this small backwater town all that time ago, but everything somehow still felt the same, like it had only been yesterday.
It didn't help that the back screen door still creaked exactly as it had nearly ten years earlier, or that the bar still carried the familiar oaky scent blended with fried food, beer and the remnants of stale cigarette smoke. It sounds like it would smell awful, but just ask anyone who had worked any good length of time behind a bar, it is somehow a comforting and familiar smell.
I stood at the door of Sam's office looking in at the man himself. He was sitting deep in concentration in front of a laptop, a spreadsheet up on screen. He was absently scratching a pen against the back of his shaggy strawberry blonde hair and his forehead was wrinkled in thought.
"Well, would you look at that?" I said, in my best southern drawl. "Sam Merlotte has finally caught up to the age of technology. I never thought I'd see the day you'd give up on struggling through your paperwork by hand."
The look on his face at my surprise entrance was worth it, and he was up on his feet and wrapping me in a tight hug faster than you could say boo. I didn't fail to notice to deep sniff he took as we embraced.
"Sookie Stackhouse! I can't believe it's you."
I felt a small, cold part of my heart slowly unfurl as my dear friend hugged me. He stepped back a pace, still holding onto my arms and we grinned stupidly at each other. I let my shields down and bathed myself in his snarly whirl of emotions - gratitude, surprise, and curiosity. I was feeling pretty much the same. He still looked fantastic, scruffy and boyish in his good looks, but his smile lines had deepened since I'd seen him last, so had the worry line at the top of his forehead. The passage of time of had done him a service though, he looked better than ever.
"You look great, Sam."
"So do you, cher. In fact you've hardly changed at all. Seems like those northern winters must agree with you, your tan is as strong as ever."
"Well...I may or may not have invested in a tanning bed once I got settled in." I blushed and he chuckled along with me. "Those northern winters are brutal! The vitamin D is a must."
"Well, it's so good to see you. How long are you in town for?"
Sam settled back down into his seat, and I perched against the edge of his wooden office desk.
"I got in late yesterday, and I'm staying indefinitely at this stage." I kept my eyes trained on the floor, scuffing my toe along the length of a small crack on the polished wooden floor.
Sam squeezed his hand over mine reassuringly, sensing my mix of feelings. "It's great to have you back, regardless of how long you decide to stay. Are you back at the farmhouse?"
I shook my head in reply. "I'm still letting it out to J.B. and Tara. I have no intentions on kicking them out, they're seem so settled there with the kids. So far they've agreed to let me stay on their couch, or bunk in with one of the kids, but Tara said you had an opening at one of your rental houses?"
His eyes widened as the pieces clicked into place for him. "You're the friend she was asking on behalf of last week? I gave her an application and all." He leant back in his chair, looking pleased. "I do have an empty house, it ain't big, but it's tidy and it's yours if you want it. Don't bother applying. I'm pretty sure there's no way for me to physically call myself for your reference check anyway," he winked.
I laughed, buoyed by his upbeat mood. "You're not wrong."
"Let me grab the keys and the rental agreement for you, then we can head out and take a look at the place if you've got time?"
He stood and opened the filing cabinet behind him, rifling through the folders.
I twisted to take a look at his desk, my eyes instantly drawn to a wooden photo frame sitting amid a pile of papers. I lifted it to take a closer look.
"That's my wife and son. Catalina and Mateo." Sam was now looking over my shoulder. Even with my shields firmly back in place, I could feel his pride and happiness brimming over. Catalina was a dark beauty, doe eyed, with long silky black hair flowing over her shoulders. She was sitting on a porch, her arms drawn around the small dark haired boy on her lap. He had a broad grin, almost exactly like Sam's.
"Oh Sam, they're both so beautiful. I'm so happy for you. How old is Mateo?" Smiling softly, I traced a finger across the young boy's hair. I tried my hardest to rein in my wistful feelings. I couldn't, no, I wouldn't, let myself re-live the pain of letting go of Gisli and Finnur. I had accepted it and was trying my best to move on.
"He will turn four in fall."
"I can't wait to meet them. I can't believe you're a daddy now."
"You'll have to come by. I'm sure Catalina would love to have you for dinner one night, we've just finished renovating our place." He puffed a little bigger with pride. I caught a flash from his thoughts that she was chomping at the bit to have just about anyone over and show off their newly renovated home.
"So, you finally moved on from the bachelor pad, huh? You've surprised me, Sam."
Sam ran a hand through his hair with abash. "Well, it took a lot of convincing from Cat to give up the trailer. I'm renting it out to Demelza now, she's the fry cook. So it's worked out well."
"Sookie Stackhouse... As I live and breathe!" The familiar perky voice came from the doorway drew my attention away from Sam.
"Hi Arlene," I looked around to smile at the redhead waitress standing in the door. Unlike Sam, time had not been so kind to Arlene. Her face had aged unprettily, her bottle-dyed red hair pulled back tightly from her head, making her angular features more pronounced. We embraced awkwardly, and I dipped into her mind.
...thought she'd be a vamp for sure by now, or rotting in a grave somewhere. I wonder what -
I snapped my shields in place and shot Sam a reproachful look. Honestly, I was surprised he'd kept her on at Merlotte's, especially after the two natured had their big reveal nearly 8 years earlier. Arlene was not known for her tolerant disposition. He only shrugged in reply. She had been a mainstay at Merlotte's for as long as I'd known her, I suppose I couldn't imagine what else she would do if she quit working. Bon Temps wasn't known for its employment opportunities.
"Good to see you too, Arlene."
The three of us went out into the bar and and I said hello to the few bar patrons that were lingering there through the afternoon. Jane Bodehouse, still somehow hanging on to her full time position as bar rat, waved to me amiably over her half empty beer glass. Some things would never change. Kevin and Kenya, both in uniform, were sharing a late lunch by the table. I noticed they now wore matching wedding rings. They welcomed me back, although I didn't have to be a mind reader to know they were wondering if I was back in town for good and bringing more trouble for the sheriff's department. I couldn't fault them. I was wondering exactly the same myself.
Sam introduced me to Demelza, a large stony faced woman who seemed in complete command of the small kitchen. I don't think I'd ever seen it so clean. A dip into her mind revealed she was two natured, but Were or shifter, I didn't know. Frankly, she was more than a little intimidating and built like a nightclub bouncer. The stern features on her dark skin looked like it could have been cut into place with a chisel. I couldn't imagine what animal she changed into. A rhino, maybe? I politely complimented her kitchen and her face broke into a startlingly large smile. She pulled me into a suffocating hug that lifted me up off my toes. She laughed at my reaction and patted me on the head once I was set back down on my feet
"Why aren't you a peach? I see why Sam spoke so fondly of you over the years. Now you call me D, hon. I expect you to come back soon so you can try my specialty chili," she winked. I felt winded, but warmed by her welcome.
In the car park, Sam explained how he had brought Demelza on after the reveal. It hadn't gone down as smoothly as the vampire reveal. In fact, many Bon Temps residents didn't take kindly to Sam or his business, so she came to work partly as chef and partly as a backup if things came to blows. She was stern and pretty darn intimidating, but her larger than life persona warmed the locals, and as with all things in small towns, the hype and furor of the reveal eventually died down as people moved onto other gossip. I got the impression that while Sam was still welcome in Bon Temps, he had lost some social standing, but the people still held a grudging respect for him. I was proud of him for sticking it out.
The rental house was not far from where Dawn Green's house had once been. Set in a small leafy street on the outskirts of Bon Temps, the garden was home to a large shady oak tree and a number of small garden beds that were recently dug up and waiting to be planted. The home had neighbors either side, and while they were closer than I would have preferred, it still wasn't as imposing as if I were living in an apartment block. The last ten years had been pretty pivotal for my ability, and I'd built my shields up to be rock solid. They now only required minimal effort to be kept in place. I would manage just fine if I lived here, and even when I needed to relax my mind completely I didn't think the chatter of the minds in the area would be too overwhelming, especially since I learned to mentally turn down the volume, so to speak.
It was a cosy two bedroom cottage, in need of a new coat of paint and new carpet, but as I inspected it room by room, I began to feel the prickle of excitement at picturing it filled with the furniture I'd kept so long in storage. I'd only come back from Kópavogur with a suitcase to my name, but J.B had been kind enough to pack away almost all of my furniture into the shed at the farmhouse after they moved in. He'd even helped me that morning leaving for work to load up my pickup with the essential pieces of furniture. I'd been a little presumptuous assuming that Sam would let me rent out the small home, but my instincts hadn't been wrong. Sam and I stood at the kitchen counter as I signed the lease agreement. I had chosen six months just to start with, and Sam offered such a reasonable price I was feeling guilty enough to try negotiating the price up. He emotions revealed his determination and his desire to help me out, so I let it slide, feeling grateful that my bank balance wouldn't take such a serious hit.
Sam stayed for another hour, helping me unload the furniture and bolt together gran's wooden queen bed. I was much fitter now, so it didn't wear me like it might have once, but the heat was stifling and slowed me down a little. I was still acclimated to a colder climate after my time spent in Iceland. We toasted my return to glasses of water, the only beverage I could offer him due to the bare cupboards and fridge.
Sam stared at me thoughtfully from over the rim, his eyes filled with questions.
"You're stronger now," he commented. "You smell different too. More fae, but more of something else too."
I considered my words carefully before answering.
"I've been working and training hard these last years since leaving. I didn't go with the intention of running away from my problems, you know that. It's just that I could hardly catch my breath between being dragged from one supe problem to the next. I had to go… and make sure when I did come back I would be able to stand up for myself."
Sam laughed at that. "You never had any problems standing up for yourself, cher. Between your stubbornness and running your mouth off you seemed to get by just fine."
I huffed a little indignantly. "Don't get smart with me, Sam Merlotte. You know what I mean. I'm just lucky I survived long enough to get away. I had a chance to learn how to protect myself better, so I took it."
"Don't get me wrong, Sook. You made the right choice by leaving. You were gone longer than I thought you would have. I had begun to think you wouldn't come back."
She would have been safer if she hadn't.
"I had a nice life there while it lasted." I shot him a tight smile, choosing to ignore his stray thought. He noticed my change in mood, and shifted the conversation to the last ten years of gossip in Bon Temps. There was a lot to catch up on.
After a trip to the market to buy just enough food and supplies to tide me over until next day when I could make a big trip out to Walmart, I spent the remainder of the afternoon pottering around the small house trying to make it feel more like home. I unpacked the kitchen items, wrote out a list of things I would need to purchase for my shopping trip the following day, and even started sketching some ideas for the garden beds. At this point I figured I'd only plant annuals, I figured cheap and cheery potted colors would do a lot to brighten the front garden and wouldn't break the bank.
I had a simple dinner, grilled cheese and a tinned tomato soup. I balanced my plate and mug on my knees as I sat out on the white wooden bench on the back porch. Afterwards I remained, watching across the small grassy garden as the sky changed from swirling hues of pink and orange down to the turbid grays and dark blues of twilight. My dinner sat like a leadened lump in my belly, and I waited there quietly as night took, anxiously palming my cellphone - waiting for the right time to call. My body thrummed with nervousness, anticipation, even a little fear.
It was a few minutes after nine when I closed my eyes and sought out the bond inside of me. It was there far back in the recesses of my mind, but never forgotten. After nearly a decade it had weakened some, but forever a constant. It felt like a buzz at the edges of my awareness, a persistent reminder of my link back home here in Northern Louisiana, and my link to Mr Tall, Blond and Undead. Those first few months staying with Gisli at his seaside home in Kópavogur, he'd worked hard with me to shore up my shields, and at my request pull up a strong wall in my bond between Eric and I.
It was necessary, for the both of us really. Eric would always know that I was alive and safe, but not much more than that. He wouldn't know my exact location at any given time, especially due to the distance halfway across the world. No that anyone would be able to glean that information from him anyway, although I figured he would have used his contacts to work out where I was living. It also meant I would never be privy to his feelings or emotions, never be tempted to come back before I was ready. In fact, for most of the years I'd lived away I was sure I'd never come back at all. I had surprised myself at how happily I had settled into my quiet life in Iceland. I'd even come to enjoy their blistering winters.
There were, of course, a few times that the wall limiting our bond had slipped, but never for very long. A few of those times had been when I was in pain, and if it happened when it was night time in Louisiana then I would almost always contact Eric. Although, only through short texts to let him know I was alright. He never replied.
The shield I'd built blocking off the bond felt like a rusted old door. I could lean all my effort against it and it still wouldn't give. I guessed it was stuck shut so tightly because keeping it closed had become second nature to me. I took a deep breath to calm myself, done with my mental pussyfooting and exerted my will against it.
It took quite a bit of mental tugging to release the block and I tried my best to do it slowly so as not to feel overwhelmed, but unfortunately the best of intentions don't always lead to the desired outcomes. The shield collapsed with a startling velocity and at once I was hit by waves of lust, need and hunger. I rocked back on the bench, the phone slipping to the ground as I gripped the edges of my seat. Ew. I guess Eric was starting his night with a meal and a dalliance. His feelings quickly morphed into surprise, shock, and finally a strange mix of annoyance and anger. I probed the bond, sending what I hoped would be a ping of apology. His side of the bond snapped shut immediately.
I let out a huff and picked up my dropped phone, dialing Fangtasia. I keyed my way through the automated menu selecting the option that would ring through to the bar. It rang only once before the line was picked up.
"Welcome to Fangtasia, where you are what we eat."
"Hello Pam, glad to hear your puns are getting better."
"Well, if it isn't my favorite breather. I don't suppose you'd have anything to do with Eric throwing his office door off it's hinges and storming out?
My breath caught in my throat , and Pam laughed throatily.
"I hope you're back for good, Sookie. It's been far too boring without you." She disconnected the call and I stared at the phone in my hand worrying just what I had gotten myself into by coming home.