Okay, author's note here. You'll notice in this chapter that I basically skimmed over the battle scene at Fangtasia. This might disappoint some people, but I had two reasons – one good and one not-so-good – for doing so. The not-so-good reason is that, frankly, I didn't feel like writing it. Absolutely zero motivation or inspiration, which is one of the reasons this chapter took me so long to post. I kept thinking that I had to continue the story, and I kept dreading writing the battle scene. The good reason is that I don't really think it was necessary. It's right there in the book, and like all the battle scenes, there's not a lot of thinking involved. Just doing. Writing it from Eric's POV basically would have been just rewriting Charlaine's scene with different words, and I've tried so, so hard not to do that in this story, sometimes successfully (I hope) and sometimes unsuccessfully (I know). Besides, the "meat" of this scene for Eric is the infamous bite. So anyway, rambling over.

Victor's bodyguards, Luis and Antonio, preceded their master and his entourage into the club to inspect the layout. Apart from taking Maxwell's gun, they appeared to be satisfied with what they found. Victor's people all streamed in before he did. Eric bit back a smirk as Victor approached him, dressed as if he were a pimp from the era of disco.

Eric stepped forward. "Victor, welcome to Fangtasia. We're glad to have the chance to entertain you." He bowed slightly, just enough to show respect without coming across as obsequious.

Victor nodded and then cocked his head towards the Asian vampire in his entourage. "Sheriff, I present my new right hand, Akiro. Akiro recently agreed to relocate from Nevada to Louisiana."

Eric knew Akiro by name, though he hadn't yet met him in person. "I welcome such a well-known vampire as Akiro to Louisiana," he said smoothly. "I'm sure you'll be a great addition to the regent's staff." At least until we kill you both.

Eric motioned for Pam to come forward as he stepped back, beginning the line of vampires who had to formally greet their regent. With that out of the way, Victor strode to the large chair that had been set up for him in the middle of the room, facing the makeshift stage. The "best seat in the house," as the humans put it.

"Jock," Eric said, motioning with his fingers, "bring the drinks."

He took his seat to Victor's right, and Pam came to stand behind his chair just as the servers arrived with the drinks. After Luis had tested his glass for poisoning, Victor and the other vampires drank freely. Victor raised one eyebrow when he took his first sip, no doubt a little surprised that real blood had not been provided.

"You stick to the letter of the law here at Fangtasia," he said. Eric did not miss the condescending tone.

"Yes, Regent," Eric replied. Unless you count premeditated murder.

"Your beautiful wife…?" Victor asked.

"Is present, of course. What would the evening be without her?" He gave Victor his most genuine smile as he motioned for Sookie to join him.

Sookie walked over to them, her fake smile looking less fake than it usually did. She was working hard on this performance. "Victor, we're so glad you could come tonight," she said. She sat in the empty chair to Eric's right, carefully setting her purse down between them, and Heidi immediately took her position at Sookie's feet, as Eric had instructed her to do. Victor would not find it suspicious; it was to be expected that the sheriff's wife – a human, no less – would have protection.

"Bill, we're ready!" Eric called out, seeing that everything was in order. The pieces had been placed, and now all that remained was to play the game. And to win it.

Bill stepped out, followed by Bubba, whose look and costume were everything a nostalgic fan could have wanted. He grinned and waved as he made his way to the stage they had made for him.

"Thank ya," he said in his familiar drawl. "Thank ya very much." On cue, Bill started the music.

Victor was enraptured and lost to his surroundings from the very first note. Even Sookie's face had taken on a wistful, dreamy look.

"I've loved you much too long, my love's too strong to let you go, never knowing what went wrong…" Bubba crooned.

Eric scanned the room as well as he could without turning his head and making himself obvious. It would be difficult, he acknowledged to himself, but they could pull this off.

Bubba finished his first song to enthusiastic applause from his audience, and Eric had never seen him look as happy as he did when he bowed to them. The music for his next song started up without delay.

There was a light tap on Eric's shoulder from Pam, the signal that Thalia had done her job and silently taken down one of the entourage. Eric brushed his fingers against Sookie's in their agreed-upon signal. She laid her head on his shoulder as if it were a gesture of affection between them, while her hand slid down into her purse and brought up a stake, which she carefully tucked into his hand. He concealed it by holding it against the arm of the chair with his hand and arm. Once it was safely hidden, Sookie raised her head.

By this time, Bubba had launched into one of his earlier songs, a fast number that didn't bewitch the audience in the same way his ballads had. Pam tapped Eric's shoulder again to signal that everyone was in place and ready.

He gripped the stake and summoned all of his speed and agility to strike at Victor. But Akiro had earned his reputation, and he was faster than Eric had bargained for. He swung his sword down at Eric's arm, but what he caught instead was the shoulder of Victor's human woman.

There was no turning back now. The battle had begun. In the sea of blood and ash, Eric relished being in his element. He was operating on his most instinctual level now: protecting himself while killing his enemy.

But then he saw Sookie, who was supposed to be safely out of the way at this point, slip into the fray to grab Akiro's dropped sword. Victor took advantage of Eric's distraction and flung him against the wall. Eric felt his skull fracture, and he groaned as he slid to the floor. Through his swimming vision, he watched Victor slam Pam to the floor with his body. He sank his fangs into her neck like a lion felling an antelope. Lion and antelope, Eric's brain thought hazily, and he flashed to himself and Sookie in front of her fire. Get up, he told himself. Get up. He could feel his skull healing itself, but not fast enough.

Sookie, meanwhile, had stepped over Pam and Victor with Akiro's bloodied sword, like an angel of death. Pam was holding Victor to herself, telling Sookie to swing the sword.

No, Eric thought. There was no way that Sookie could have the momentum to sever Victor's head and then stop the sword from killing Pam. And he would not lose Pam. No, he told himself. He forced himself to his feet, ignoring the colored spots that danced in his eyes, and willed his body in their direction.

He watched as Pam turned her head to look at him. She smiled and closed her eyes. No! he thought wildly.

Sookie raised the sword over her head, winced, and brought it down. But she had been too afraid of hurting Pam, and never had Eric been so blindly grateful for human weakness. Akiro's sword was lodged in Victor's unsevered spine. Sookie staggered back, looking horrified. Eric's own body was healing now, and he was able to watch, perfectly lucid and tremendously satisfied, as Pam freed the sword and ended Victor Madden with one clean swing.

He went to Akiro, who was clutching at his wounded throat, and ordered him to surrender. The swordsman refused, as proud in defeat as he was in life. "All right, then," Eric sighed. He broke Akiro's neck and staked him with something like regret; it was a waste to lose such a skilled warrior.

What followed was the eerie quiet that marked the end of every battle. Not silence, of course, because there were moans of pain and words of celebration. But relative quiet that set itself apart from the clamor.

Pam dropped Akiro's sword as she turned to face Eric. They closed the space between them and reached for each other, clasping their hands so tightly it was almost painful. The blood and gore on Pam's face was streaked with happy tears. They were beyond words, beyond holding hands. They fell against each other, and Pam's body shook in his arms, half-laughing, half-sobbing.

"It's done!" she cried. "It's done. We're free!"

"I wasn't ready to lose you," he whispered. Their embrace tightened.

It seemed that they held each other for a long time, but it was probably not a full minute. There was still work to do.

He began by dismissing the vampires from the Monroe nest, promising them the proper reward for their service. Then he walked around the bar, surveying the damage to both subjects and property. The cleaning crew would have to be paid extra for this.

With that done, he could go at last to Sookie. It was her idea that had given them this victory. That was not something he would ever forget. If they were still connected by the blood bond, she would feel his immense joy and relief and pride, but his face would have to convey all of it for him.

He went to her and swept her into his arms, relishing the warm feel of her against him. He kissed her passionately, but he quickly noticed her less than pliant lips, the stiff feel of her body. He raised his head and looked down at her. Had she been hurt in some way he couldn't see?

"Sookie? You're not rejoicing?" he asked, sliding his hands down her arms.

"Eric, I'm glad we don't have to worry about Victor anymore," she sighed. "And I know this was what we planned. But surrounded by dead people and body parts is not my idea of a good place for a celebration." She took a step back from him. "And I've never been less horny in my life." They stared at each other for a moment; he found himself unable to shape his thoughts into coherent sentences. She pulled her hair back and draped it over one shoulder. "You need some blood. I really am sorry you were wounded, and you go ahead and take some," she said. She tilted her head to the side.

The reality of her own plan was distasteful to her, was it? She didn't mind plotting deaths as long as she didn't have to witness them? They had fought for their freedom and won it, and she found it disgusting? Found him disgusting? Sookie could not live in a dreamy, false world where reality ceased to exist because she chose to ignore it.

"You are being a hypocrite," he said in a low voice, swallowing his anger and something else… disappointment in her. A bitter, unsettling thing. "And I will take blood."

He bit down into the offered curve of her neck, and he didn't block the pain. Sookie inhaled sharply and swayed slightly. He put his arm around her waist to support her as he drank.

This is the reality and the truth about me. This is what I am. Is this what you want, or isn't it?

He waited for her to tell him to stop. It only fed his anger that she didn't. It was as if she were punishing both herself and him for something that they should have celebrated together. It was a rejection of everything he was. How could she feel that way, truly, and still claim to love him?

Bill joined them, watching Eric with dark, hungry eyes. "Sheriff," he said. Bill, the king of lying about who he truly was. Bill, who loved ripping out throats and then acting as if it pained him. Bill wouldn't understand the importance of raw honesty if it sliced through him like Akiro's sword.

Finally, Sookie reached up and pinched Eric's ear. He immediately released her, breathing heavily with the empowering gift of her blood. Though they shone with tears, her eyes were dark and fierce – the eyes not of a victim, but of a bold woman who knew what had transpired between them. Honesty. Unvarnished reality. She understood him. He had needed this moment, and so had she.

"Bill's gonna take me home," she said without looking at Bill or asking him. "We'll talk tomorrow night… maybe."

He couldn't let her doubt his love for her. That, too, was unvarnished truth. He moved to kiss her, but she recoiled. Then he remembered that his mouth was covered with her blood.

"Tomorrow," he promised, trying to communicate with his eyes everything that he could no longer communicate with his blood. She responded with a curt nod, and they turned away from each other.

There was a mess to clean up.