Chapter 11 – Fortune's Folly

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There was a banging noise and it broke into Sookie's dream. It thumped in the background, then stopped, then thumped again. Sookie opened her eyes and immediately closed them. Her eyeballs felt itchy and she wondered if she'd actually scratched one, it stung so badly.

Sitting up, she carefully rubbed them and this time, her eyes opened. The banging came again. There was someone at the door. Sookie turned on the light and wasn't surprised to see the empty side of the bed. The only evidence that Eric had been there was the state of the sheets and the stickiness between her legs. "I'm coming," Sookie called out, worried the person knocking at the door would wake her neighbors, and then, for some crazy reason, Sookie wondered if it was Eric returning. Her mind told her it was day and it couldn't be, but her heart was hoping anyway.

Grabbing the hotel courtesy robe and wrapping it around her, Sookie walked to the door and carefully looked out the peephole. It wasn't Eric. It was Mr. Cataliades, and Sookie turned the knob to let him in.

"You must get dressed," the attorney said without preamble. "I have made arrangements and you will be leaving for home within the hour."

"But, I'm supposed to…."

Mr. Cataliades turned from pulling her suitcase from the closet. "I will make your excuses," he hissed. "You must be gone before any vampire rises. No one can smell you!"

"Eric sent you," Sookie said with a sinking feeling.

"How could you feed from each other?" the demon scolded. "You know he's pledged! You, of all people, should realize what this could mean for both of you!"

"Where is Eric?" Sookie asked.

"He should be in his travel coffin and on his way to Oklahoma by now," the attorney told her.

"Did you see him?" Sookie asked. When the attorney nodded once, Sookie couldn't help herself, "Did he say anything about me?" She felt pathetic the minute the words left her mouth, and she felt worse after the attorney answered her.

"I doubt you will ever see him again." Sookie couldn't stop the sound she made. It was more than a sniff but less than a moan. It was the sound of her heart stopping, and Mr. Cataliades stilled to pat her arm. "I have told you I am sorry for your situation, and I am. Still, this was extraordinarily reckless of both of you," and, turning back to her suitcase, he said, "Go shower. Wash well. I'll be putting your things in your bag. We can't delay."

Sookie stumbled to the bathroom. She realized she had pressing matters to address, although she was sure she wasn't fooling anyone. There was no pain, no stinging, and Sookie smiled. With the way they'd used each other's bodies last night, she should expect to be bruised and sore, but that was the beauty of vampire blood. She didn't have to look in the mirror to know she would be glowing. Sookie closed her eyes and reached out, and she felt him. He seemed far away, which was how he always felt during his day death, but he was there. "How did I not want this?" she asked her reflection out loud.

Sookie turned on the shower. As she waited for the water to heat, she ran her hands over her body, remembering him. In a minute, in two, the water and soap would remove all outward trace, but for this moment, she could still smell him on her and it made her throat ache.

"We must hurry!" Mr. Cataliades called through the door, and, with a sigh, Sookie stepped under the spray.

When Sookie emerged, the attorney was loading the sheets into a laundry bag. There was a human woman in the room and she was re-making the bed. "Go get your towels," he instructed Sookie.

"What are you going to do with those?" she asked, jerking her chin toward the bag.

"Burn them," Mr. Cataliades said as if that was the most natural thing to say. He must have realized how confused she was because he explained, "Anything that has his scent must be removed. There can be no evidence that he was here."

"Yeah, I guess it would be pretty embarrassing," Sookie said, "Him backsliding, sleeping with his human pet while he's on vacation."

Mr. Cataliades glanced at the woman and then at the door, "You know where to put these. Not a word!" The woman nodded and when the door closed behind her, he turned back to Sookie. "Apparently, you don't understand, so I will explain it while you dress." He glanced at his watch, "You have fifteen minutes before your driver is here, and less than two hours before your plane leaves, so you need to move."

Sookie stopped thinking. She picked some underwear from the open drawer and the jeans and shirt she'd been wearing last night, then headed for the bathroom. She left the door ajar, and as she dressed, she said, "Okay, explain it to me."

"Eric Northman signed a contract, a marriage contract," the demon told her. "He swore his blood to Freyda. He also signed a codicil promising never to communicate with you in any way. He has broken both."

"I get it," Sookie shrugged. "He cheated…" and in that moment, Sookie realized she had become the 'other woman,' but just as quickly brushed the thought away. What had passed between them was right. She could feel it all the way to her toes.

"He did much more than that," the attorney interrupted her thoughts, "He has committed a blood offense."

"So, he has to what? Pay some kind of retribution?" Sookie was moving a little slower now, her mind racing.

Mr. Cataliades pushed open the door, "No, Sookie. There is only one punishment for this kind of blood offense. Mr. Northman would meet his final death."

Sookie's fingers stopped in their work of pulling back her hair, "Oh!" she said, but the sound that came from her was far less than she felt.

"And it would mean death for you, too," the attorney told her. "With your prior status, it would be assumed you understood the implications and you would share his end."

"But, Freyda's not here…" Sookie stumbled over the words.

"No, but every vampire here knows the law. Some would tell Freyda to curry favor. If Stan were to find out, he'd likely use that information to blackmail the Viking. He worries about Freyda's loyalty and this secret could be helpful."

"And Felipe would use it, too," Sookie added.

"Yes," Mr. Cataliades nodded. "He also wants Freyda's favor. He would likely kill you as a gift to her, promising to keep the secret if Freyda wishes. It is known that she is happy with the North Man, and until now, I thought the North Man was content with his situation." Mr. Cataliades pushed past Sookie to grab her toiletries from the bathroom vanity, "Your Viking told me one time that you were a lot of trouble, Miss Stackhouse. Today I know what he meant."

The ride to the airport was quiet. "What will you tell Felipe about why I left?" Sookie asked.

"I will tell him you became ill," Mr. Cataliades was looking out the window. "He comes from a time when humans becoming ill meant contagion and generally death. It will make it easy to convince him that you were doing the right thing."

"You don't think he'll wonder why someone who was sick wouldn't stick it out? Who wants to travel sick?" Sookie thought about driving from Louisiana to Boston, stopping every so often to throw up, her stomach in knots, and how she just wanted to stop and sleep until she felt better.

"Vampires generally take little notice of humans," the attorney assured her. "They see you as having limited uses, and, as a result, don't take the time to really understand your natures."

It was not a comforting thought, but in the next breath Sookie thought about Eric. While there had been times when there were long absences between when they saw each other, he never made her feel like she was unimportant. He got her. He made a point of understanding her nature well enough to know what was important to her. He didn't shower her with useless gifts she couldn't use. He gave her a coat when she needed one, and a driveway. "They aren't all like that," she said quietly.

"But, thank goodness, Felipe de Castro is," the attorney replied. The taxi pulled up to the airport and Mr. Cataliades handed her the ticket. "Check your bag with the counter there," and he indicated the airline baggage check on the sidewalk. "Then walk straight through to security. Your boarding pass is on your phone. Stay in the gate area. Take the train from the airport to your car and don't call. Don't travel for at least three weeks."

"Why three weeks?" Sookie asked. Mr. Cataliades glanced at the driver, then gestured that they should both get out the cab. Mr. Cataliades walked her to the bag check counter and handled her suitcase for her before pulling her toward the curb and away from others.

"If you examine your feelings, you will feel him. Do you?" and he waited for Sookie to nod. "In two weeks or so, you will stop feeling that. You didn't bond, so the effects are temporary. Once you lose that part of the connection, it's only a matter of another week or two before the rest of the effects dissipate."

"So others won't smell him," Sookie stated.

"The smell will be gone sooner," the attorney told her. "It's something else, a glow. Vampires won't know who, but they will be able to tell you were with a vampire, and if your name is known it won't take long to put two and two together. Just remain close to your home in Chester."

"When do you think Felipe will want me again?" Sookie asked.

"Probably not until the next Summit," the attorney was glancing around them. "Things between Felipe and Stan are going badly. There have been threats made, but no blood has been drawn, at least not yet. I don't think hostilities will break out before the Narayana Summit in the Winter. You probably won't be asked to travel again until December, and, if you are, we will come up with an excuse." He glanced around him and signaled for a taxi that was sitting down the curb from them. "I think things will stay quiet for awhile," he said, almost as much to himself as to her, but then he looked her directly in the eyes, "So as long as you remember what's at stake and don't draw attention to yourself, there should be plenty of time to recover from your folly."

Sookie was nervous on the long ride on the plane. She was seated against the window and she screened every passenger and flight attendant twice before she allowed her exhaustion to take over, falling asleep against the bulkhead. She dreamed of Eric. His hands moved over her and his lips outlined her ear and traced her mouth. She woke up moaning, earning an irritated look from the man sitting in the aisle. "Sorry," she mumbled, and reached for the magazine in the seat pocket in front of her. 'Forgot those dreams,' Sookie thought. Her face burning, she turned to the crossword puzzle and tried to lose herself in the mental exercise.

They transferred planes in Baltimore, and Sookie barely had time to buy a bottle of water and she was making the short flight to La Guardia. Baggage collected, she followed the signs, paid her fee, and settled back on the train. There would be more transfers, more waiting. The need for sleep was hammering at her, one yawn following another and her eyes were burning. When she settled on the last train, the one that would take her to the small station where her car was parked, she figured she could risk giving into sleep again. She leaned against the window of the railcar and closed her eyes, but sleep didn't come.

Instead, Sookie thought about being the 'other woman.' All her life, Sookie had watched and heard the dramas that played out when spouses cheated. Sometimes the reasons boiled down to the carelessness of people who were ill-suited to each other. Maybe they'd married too young or for the wrong reasons. In her hometown, a rushed wedding usually meant pregnancy, and most of those ended in divorce. What had always struck Sookie was that cheating seemed to carry some element of desperation. Cheating was usually running away from some unhappiness to try and find that thing that would allow a person to be happy. Mostly it was an illusion, though. Cheating led to drama and guilt, and Sookie had promised herself long ago she would never be a woman who stole another woman's man, but here she was.

'I'm what I never wanted to be,' she thought. She tried to feel bad about it, then realized she couldn't. Sookie wasn't sorry she'd made love with Eric Northman. She wasn't sorry about it one little bit. She could feel him, thrumming through her. His blood would allow her to dream of him, sharing moments in her head if not sharing her body. She had stolen a moment and she knew he didn't regret it. She couldn't think that he did. If he regretted or really thought it was a mistake, he never would have loved her as he did. He wouldn't have held her and told her she was perfect. Sookie knew what they shared was profound and she couldn't gloss it with the tarnish of calling it cheating. 'It's what was meant to be!' she declared to herself.

Sighing, Sookie looked out the window, watching the first hints of Fall in the trees they passed. If there was any sense of cheating, Sookie felt it was that fate had cheated them of the ending they deserved, and a single tear slipped down Sookie's cheek. She knew if circumstances presented again, she'd take him into her bed all over again. Even if she knew it meant she could be killed, she would risk it! Her thighs clenched as she remembered the way she felt as she reached completion and he held her close, having his own happy moment, pulsing deep within her, growling out her name over and over, like a prayer.

Then she thought of Rick.

What would have happened if they had been caught? What would happen to her son if she was killed? It was a cold thought and Sookie's rational mind kicked back in. She remembered Fran squeezing her hand so hard it hurt, challenging her to put her child before herself and, suddenly, the determination to find another way to Eric was gone. She wouldn't move toward Oklahoma, offering him access to her, an offer she had once rejected when he suggested it. She wouldn't seek intermediaries to carry messages.

"I had you again, and that was more than I could have expected," she told the reflection of the sad woman she saw in the window. "It will be enough. I will guard our son and keep him safe for both of us," and Sookie spent the remaining hours thinking about what awaited her and the things she would need to do. As the miles clicked past with the sound of the rails, Sookie Stackhouse, telepath and lover receded, and Susan Hale, mother, B&B owner, and member of the Parent Teachers Association returned.

xxxXXXxxx

Sookie hadn't made it through the door of the house before Rick was asking what was up with her perfume. His nose literally twitched. Sookie couldn't smell Eric within her, but realized her son could. He didn't understand what it was, but he processed it as an unpleasant smell. He kept remarking on it the next day until Sookie lost her patience, "Look, I don't smell whatever it is that you do, but you are hurting my feelings! I've showered. I've changed my clothes. Maybe it's where I was staying, but just give it a few days, I'm sure it will wear off!" Rick continued to give her sideways looks, but he didn't bring it up again.

The B&B was full as it always was these days. Sookie's reputation for large breakfasts and charming rooms had her listed on Trip Advisor. She started offering dinners for an additional fee. She cooked the recipes her Gran taught her. She introduced visitors to collard greens and black-eyed peas. She demonstrated the beauty of true buttermilk biscuits. There was no menu, and she restricted dinner nights to Thursdays and Saturdays. Guests got first priority in the small dining room, but soon word traveled and the three extra tables were reserved months in advance by others. If there were guests who chose not to eat, calls would be made to the wait list, and Sookie's dinners became a highlight in Chester.

"You could join the cook crew for our Fourth of July Barbecue," Warren, the town mayor, suggested one night. "Your fried chicken is the best I've ever had!"

Being part of the town cook crew for either the Fourth or Memorial Day parades was an honor. Only those who truly belonged to Chester were considered, and Sookie felt it, but she also knew that as a relative new-comer in a New England town, those on the crews wouldn't exactly welcome her. "I sure appreciate it," Sookie smiled, "but with the summer folks who stay here and Rick, I have both hands full. Tell you what, though, I can offer to bring some and add it if that will help." By that, Sookie meant that she'd make chicken for the Mayor, and Warren knew it.

And so life continued. Rick settled into school and Sookie came to know George Hermosa who was a frequent visitor. Rick still spent time with his childhood friends, but as often happened, the 'townies' broke apart, forming friendships with those who came just for the schools. Often these friendships were lifelong, and the children of Chester found opportunities in the wide world that might not have been open otherwise. During the summer, childhood friendships reasserted for those who weren't traveling with their more fortunate friends. It was an odd culture, but one that was accepted here.

Sookie didn't question Rick's choice of George. She could tell her son honestly liked the young man, and Sookie came to like him as well. He was smart and had an acid sense of humor that complimented her son's. George was not quite as fearless as Rick, but he rarely backed down. Together, they spent weekends climbing either trees or rock walls. Sookie would find them, helmets and harnesses on, happily coiling rope as they planned where to climb next. It felt natural, this turning from her as Rick became more a part of his world and less her little boy.

Still, there were moments that Rick would get an odd expression, or he would say something that let Sookie know there was something changing about him that wasn't quite natural, and Sookie resolved to get in touch with Doctor Ludwig and have him examined during the holidays.

As the weeks passed, Sookie could feel Eric slipping further from her. She spent every evening before she went to bed examining and caressing what she felt of him through the tendril that was their disappearing bond. When Lora asked if she was feeling okay, Sookie realized the gradual receding of Eric had put her in a state of near-mourning, and Sookie resolved to project a happier face. In reality, Sookie was struggling with it, the loss of her connection. It was as if she had been thrown back to the first time she lost him, and the pain of living through it again almost overwhelmed her.

Fay Miller told her to pull her head out of her ass and get on with things. "Lora tells me you're moping around when you think no one's looking," her friend snapped at her. "You're not fooling anyone, and you are worrying the people who love you. You fucked him. It was glorious. Get a vibrator and get over it!" Sookie could hear how thin her friend's voice sounded.

"How are you doing?" Sookie asked. "It's been forever since I've been to see you in Boston. I think I should come out for a visit."

"Well, not before the holidays," Fran replied. "I have too much going on and I don't need any of you underfoot before then." There was something in the way Fran said it that let Sookie know the witch was thinking more of Sookie than she was of herself. Still, Sookie worried. The last time she'd seen Fran, the woman looked frail.

Fran was now in her eighties. She finally gave into the need to use a cane and she had broken into her bank account to install an elevator in the central hallway of the house, so she could more easily move up and down the floors. Any mention of her health was dismissed with a snort and an insult, but aging was a reality that none of them could wish away, and Sookie dreaded the day they would lose the witch.

Fall moved forward and before she knew it, Sookie was placing pumpkins on the front porch and putting the final touches on the graveyard decorations in the front yard. Rick had stopped trick or treating last year, so this year he'd be dressing up as a prop for the graveyard. He chose a grim reaper and he and George planned to stand among the gravestones that dotted the lawn to scare the kids who came up the sidewalk for candy.

The weekend before Hallowe'en was traditionally Parent's Weekend for the schools and Sookie had been racking her brain to come up with excuses. Rick agreed to help his Mother dodge the Hermosas, and they had worked out signals and plans. Then word came that Rubio, Mr. Hermosa, would be unable to come after all. Sookie offered to host a dinner for George, his two siblings, and Lily Hermosa, their Mother. Since Sookie had never met Lily, she figured as long as she could avoid getting caught in any photos, all would turn out well.

When the weekend arrived, Rick gave up his room on the third floor, so that Mrs. Hermosa could be closer to the schools. Lily Hermosa was dark-haired and tiny. She was originally from Mississippi and, in no time, Sookie found herself fighting the natural urge to fall back into her deep South accent. When she lapsed, she covered it by inventing an aunt she had visited during summer vacations in Louisiana. She used her own Aunt Linda as the model. Soon Sookie and Lily were exchanging recipes for biscuits and red beans and rice. Sookie could see the Hermosas felt as if Rick was one of them. Lily had heard stories about Rick from George, but it was more than that. While the two younger children, Maddie and Frank, had their own friends, it was Rick whom they adored. Over dinner, Sookie heard stories about how her son had squired Maddie, who was only a year younger, to a couple school events, making all her girlfriends jealous. Frank, who was only in third grade, worshipped Rick and his older brother, and he pestered them about taking him on their adventures. "He taught me to fish!" Frank told Sookie, his eyes shining as he looked at her son.

Lily insisted on helping with the dishes after dinner. Lora was there and the three women were soon swinging around the kitchen, straightening and cleaning in the way women do. As they finished wiping down counters, Lily said, "I guess you figure I'm some kind of mother, sending my babies so far from home."

"No such thing!" Sookie answered.

"In case you haven't noticed, there are three schools here, all with children living far from home. They get a first class education and they are surrounded by people who care for them," Lora added.

Lily nodded, but then she said, "I guess you know I'm married to a vampire." She paused as if she was waiting for them to say something, but neither did. "I wanted… well, we wanted the children to have a normal childhood," Lily told them. "We figured if they were in private schools where no one knew who we were, they could grow up like everyone else."

"Supernatural lives can be difficult," Sookie said. She knew she shouldn't have said anything, but she couldn't miss the grateful look on Lily's face.

"Yes, they can be. They are hard on adults, but confusing, maybe even terrifying for children," and Lily looked away.

Sookie wanted to say more, but Lora threw her a warning look. "You do for them what you can," Lora told Lily, "but never underestimate them. George tells Rick about living with vampires all the time. George seems to take it all in stride. I'd say you've done a pretty good job helping him to accept things."

"Thank you!" Lily said gratefully, and then there was a noise from the children in the dining room. They were cheering and the three women walked out of the kitchen.

"Rubio!" Lily exclaimed, and she practically ran across the floor to wrap her arms around the vampire's neck. His arms were already full. He had Frank balanced against his hip and his other arm around Maddie. George was beaming, but Sookie could see his expression as he looked at Rick, and it was more than interested. His head lifted, and she found herself locking eyes.

"You must be Rubio," Sookie stuttered. "I'm Susan Hale." She wasn't sure what Rubio would say, but he seemed to use his time hugging his wife to process things.

Lily blushed as she released her husband, "Oh, I am sorry! I'm being rude!" She took Frank from her husband and detached his daughter as she said, "This is Rick's Mom, Susan Hale, and Lora. She works here with Susan."

"Of course," Rubio replied smoothly. He stepped forward, but Sookie automatically bowed, and Rubio returned the gesture.

"You really do seem familiar with Supernaturals," Lily complimented, but Sookie could hear there were questions forming in the woman's head.

"I know it looks a million miles away from anything, but we do have special folks through here from time to time," Sookie finessed. Sookie looked at Rick. There was something about how he was watching Rubio. There was something going on with her son, so she turned to Lily, and said, "Well, Rick and I have a couple things to get done. Lora? Would you mind setting up breakfast for tomorrow? Lily, why don't we give you and your family some privacy?" Sookie grabbed Rick's arm and steered him toward the kitchen and their family apartments.

"What is it?" she asked once they were behind closed doors.

"I can't explain it," Rick stammered. "It's like there's a glow around him. I could feel him before he even walked in the door. It was like a pull or something. I couldn't have ignored him if I'd wanted to."

"Have you ever felt anything like this before?" Sookie asked. She stroked his arm as he shook his head.

There was a knock on the door and Rick said, "It's Mr. Hermosa."

"I guess I'd better get this over with," Sookie sighed.

"Should I go?" Rick asked.

"Nope," Sookie told him. "You're going to need to hear this, too."

When Sookie opened the door, she gestured toward the small table, "Come on in, Rubio, you might as well take a seat."

"I wondered," he told her. "When I met Rick the first time, I thought his Mother must be a Supe. It never occurred to me it would be you. Sookie Stackhouse!"

Sookie sat down on a chair. Rick sat, too. Rubio looked at him again, "What is he, exactly?" he asked.

"A hybrid," Sookie answered, "and my son."

"Did you tell him?" Rubio asked.

"He knows what he is," Sookie replied before Rick could say anything.

"Not Rick," Rubio smirked, "The Viking. In Denver. Did you tell him about…" and Rubio stopped. His head cocked again and he appeared unable to not turn toward her son. "There is something about you," he said, staring at Rick. "Something that makes me uneasy."

"He could sense you before you arrived," Sookie told Rubio. "We're going to see Amy Ludwig during winter break. Rick's changing, and I'm hoping she can explain what's happening to him." Taking Rick's hand, Sookie said, more for her son than her guest, "What he can expect."

"Doctor Ludwig is wise," Rubio agreed, then shaking his head, turned back to Sookie. "I understand your secrecy now. Getting you to talk about where you had been was like pulling teeth in Denver. This explains it."

"Are you going to tell anyone about us? About our being here?" Sookie asked.

"Anyone, like Felipe?" Rubio asked, "No. For all I'm his vassal, I see no need to tell him something the King seems happy leaving a mystery."

"How about anyone else?" Sookie challenged, and it occurred to her that Rubio was someone's spy. Eric told her that all vampires had spies and while Sookie knew Rubio worked for Felipe, she was now equally sure he was really someone else's man.

Rubio stared at Rick again. It took a long moment before he said, "No, I won't tell anyone about this, but you!" and he gave Sookie a hard look. "You should! He deserves to know!"

"And he will," Sookie nodded. She glanced at her son, "We agreed that Rick will find Eric when he's fourteen. That's in two years, and hopefully by then, this war that's brewing will be over."

Rubio nodded. "When the time comes," he told Rick, "have your Mother contact me. I can present you to the North Man. He knows me and it will make the news, well… easier to hear."

"Thank you," Sookie swallowed, "I know Eric trusts you."

"Well, you'll be coming, too, right?" Rick asked his Mother.

"I don't think that would be a good idea," Sookie shrugged, and when Rick looked like he'd protest, Sookie added, "and I think we've had enough excitement for one day. Why don't you head out and see your friends before they leave for the night?" Rick looked as if he'd protest, but then he nodded. He stood up and stalked out the door, a miniature version of his Father.

"George is very fond of him," Rubio said, his eyes watching the door Rick had used.

"Rick and I feel the same way about George," Sookie replied. "Look, I don't have any light-tight rooms here, but I could cobble something together in the basement…"

"Ever the hostess! It's not a problem," Rubio chuckled. "I have already arranged a room in the next town that will suit my needs. Lily is upstairs packing, so I will be stealing away one of your guests." They rose to rejoin their families when Rubio said, "Don't worry, Sookie. Your secret is safe," and somehow, Sookie knew that it was.

xxxXXXxxx

When Eric emerged from his coffin following Denver, it was in the lodge he maintained in the farthest end of the Oklahoma Panhandle. This was the first residence he'd purchased after coming to the state and its distance from the Queen's capital had been purposeful. In those early days, he had resented his situation, and blamed Freyda.

He sent Freyda word that he was dealing with some unfortunate business reversals. He assured her that all was well and that he would be in the capital in two weeks. "I have something in particular I wish to discuss with you," he told her over the phone. When she asked for more details, he teased her about surprises.

Each night he called her, talking sometimes for hours. He forced himself to think about all the things he liked about the Queen before he dialed the phone, her qualities, her intelligence, her humor.

When he wasn't speaking with his Queen, Eric spent time standing on the porch of his house, staring out into the night, remembering the lessons Appius Livius Ocella had, sometimes cruelly, sought to teach him. His Maker spent over a hundred years beating and punishing emotions from his progeny. He told Eric that forming connections with others was weakness. He taught Eric that only strategy and thought without the distraction of feelings mattered.

Eric had learned. The Viking had learned to disassociate himself from his surroundings. He had learned to lock away his pain and humiliation to focus on other things. He learned how to think under pressure. He learned how to puzzle his way through when things seemed most bleak. He learned to embrace the cold, clear truth of reality and to turn away from disappointment, and he sought that same clarity now.

It was hard.

The first night he locked himself in the smallest room in the house and waited as the scent of Sookie Stackhouse that emanated from him filled the space. After an hour, he flung himself from the room, disgusted with his own weakness.

He resisted the temptation the second night, but the third, he was in the room again, filtering the palette of scents, distilling his senses to just her. He closed his eyes. He remembered each second, what she said, what she didn't say. He thought of her body.

Eric had heard Sookie remained with Sam Merlotte until she didn't. He saw the unmistakable evidence that told him she had borne at least one child. He wondered if she kept it, but, knowing her, he was sure she did. He wondered if, even now, she was sitting beside some human mate, telling him and her children about her adventures in Denver, adventures that would not include the story of how she fucked Eric Northman.

Each day he fed from bagged blood and, more carefully, from those who lived around his lodge. He used glamour, working hard to remain under the human's radar, and he considered his situation.

Eric Northman prided himself on being pragmatic. He prided himself on being able to change with his environment. Of all the vampires in the United States, he was oldest. You didn't become that unless you were able to manipulate events and people to your benefit. Even in this time of mainstreaming, there were dangers, and vampires became finally dead with regularity. Sometimes humans would trap them, draining them for their blood. Sometimes it was fights with rivals or other supernaturals. Eric never doubted that he owed his long existence to the teachings of Appius, and, slowly, inexorably, he pushed Sookie Stackhouse to the back of his mind and used his logic to dictate what he needed to do to save himself.

Eric thought about his previous attractions. Karin he had turned because, in her misery, she reminded him of himself in those first years with Appius. In turning her, and seeing her happiness, he had saved some younger version of himself as no one had done for him. With Pam, he had been lonely. He admired her independent spirit and she was so grateful to be a vampire, he never doubted the wisdom of his choice.

But Sookie? It wasn't seemly to label his attraction to her as love, but he did love her; he could feel the ache of it in every part of him and it only added to his unhappiness.

For the first time, the only time, he had asked instead of simply taking her as he had taken his other daughters, and she rejected him. She told him many times she had no desire to continue with him. She would fade and turn to dust, a moment in the long river of his existence, leaving nothing behind to comfort him.

"How is that love?" Eric asked aloud. It was something he shared with Sookie, the love of reading. Over and over the message the greatest writers provided was the same: If both partners did not put the other first above themselves, it was not love. If only one partner was willing to do all for the other, it was obsession, and obsession never ended well.

For the first time in a long time, Eric thought ahead to when Sookie would be gone. He had no need to swallow or breath, but his chest constricted anyway. He could see how easily he could fall into despair, allowing his existence to slip from him. He had seen it before, vampires who became obsessed with their mates. When their mate failed or was killed, they stopped feeding. It had never made sense to him, until now.

"Is this what you've come to? Someone willing to throw away your existence on an obsession?" he asked the night, and he resolved again to build the wall within himself that would block off the inexplicable disaster that was Sookie Stackhouse and find some way to move forward.