Sunset. Through the window of her grandmother's kitchen, Sookie watches the sky turn orange and pink. There's a haze in the air; even in the evenings, the humidity is so high that sitting on her front porch is like soaking to the neck in a tub of warm bathwater.

The kitchen's not her favorite spot in the house anymore. It's not completely to do with Gran being murdered there-just, it shouldn't be empty. It was built for a family, three generations of Stackhouses all crowded together, swatting each other's hands to get at the last biscuit in the bowl. She finds herself wondering how it happens, how a family diminishes over time. She wonders if Gran ever thought about her own grandmother, matriarch of a clan that boasted fifteen at the time of her death. Had she thought her old age would be different than it was? Had she lived all those years, only to come to the end of her life, a disappointed woman?

The wedding clock in the living room strikes seven. Eric will be here soon. She hasn't seen anyone all day. She hasn't seen anyone in several days. Sookie shuts her eyes and prays to God for strength, though maybe she ought to pray for mercy instead. She gropes around in the darkness behind her eyes like she's in an attic with the bulb burned out. She's trying to find some trace of what she's lost, the splinters of a wall that's been knocked down. But she comes up empty, like always, and when her eyes open again there are tears running down her face.

She's scared to death. But she's had a couple of years of regular doses of terror to teach her mind how to cope with it. Sookie's way is to go over all the things that can't go wrong, no matter how bad things get. Like, if she dies, she won't leave behind grieving children to be raised by strangers. Better than nothing, right?

A swell of laughter bursts from her throat, followed by a choked sob. What kind of life am I fighting for here? she asks herself. And the answer comes, trotting on the heels of the thought like an obedient dog answering its master's call: The only one you've got.

As the last of the light fades in the western sky, she looks across the empty table and pictures Eric in the seat opposite her. He'd been here a week ago, before the worst happened, before the levees broke inside her. He'd been-kind.

She'll have to remember that tonight, that there's kindness in him. It might help, even if it won't save her life.

a week ago

"May I enter?" he'd said when he arrived on her doorstep, as though it were the first time.

On auto-pilot, and too weary to care why he'd come, Sookie stepped back to let him pass. "Please do."

She felt his eyes on her face as he walked in. She knew what he was seeing-a week of sleeplessness, regular shifts at work that all felt like doubles. She was tired, and her brain was leaking. It showed in her face.

"I see now why the shifter called me," said Eric, after she led him into the kitchen to sit down.

"Sam called you?" she said. She knew her voice sounded hoarse and flat, like she was less interested in the answer than she really was. "What for?"

A frown deepened on Eric's face. He hadn't blinked since he first clapped eyes on her. He hadn't even looked once at her breasts. "He was concerned," he said. "He's afraid that you are ill, or that something is troubling you. He said there have been-incidents at the bar."

Sookie ignored the question buried in the statement. "So he called you," she said. "'Cause it went so well last time you two got together to cheer me up."

Eric's nostrils flared, and his mouth tightened. "We were well intentioned," he said. "I cannot help finding him annoying."

"There's not a day of my life goes by I don't want to knock someone over the head with a full mug of beer, but at least I know how to show restraint."

"You don't need to tell me that." Eric smiled for the first time since walking into the house. "Your self-denial borders on masochism, or you would not have resisted me for this long."

"I've done harder things," said Sookie, not even a little bit tempted to rise to the bait. "Believe me."

A mixed series of emotions flit lightly over Eric's features, but none come to settle. "I know this is true." His voice took on an ironic tinge. "I am not sure I can say the same."

"Then I guess you just need to pull up your big-vamp panties and learn to deal with it."

Eric's mouth twisted, whether with humor or irritation she couldn't tell. "I am here for no other purpose."

"Excuse me?"

"I wish to settle the questions that remain to be answered between us."

Sookie shut her eyes. She wasn't prepared for this conversation. She wasn't prepared for any conversation, tonight. "What questions are those?"

"You love me," said Eric.

Her chest constricted, like she'd been laced into a corset. She shut her eyes; when that wasn't enough, she turned her whole head.

"That's not a question," she said when could speak again.

"You did love me," said Eric, in a tone of amendement. His voice is strangely free of challenge, of bravado. "Do you love me still?"

"I don't have an answer for that." Her reply came automatically, a defense mechanism as instinctive as throwing up her hands to shield her face from a blow.

Eric leaned over the table. "You do not know, or you will not say?"

"Both," said Sookie. "I'm not going to tell you what I'm thinking just so you can use my uncertainty to try and talk me into seeing things your way."

"Do you not trust me, Sookie?" She had heard Eric assume a tone of injury before, when he was trying to guilt her into something, but the stiffness in his voice now was much more likely to be the real thing. "You once said that you did."

She couldn't answer for a long moment. This was, after all, the heart of the matter. "Not enough to expose everything that's most vulnerable in me," she said at last. "I did that once, and I paid for it."

"You are speaking of Bill."

"Not just him." Bill, Quinn, Calvin, Alcide, Jason, Renee, Arlene, every person she'd ever trusted only to be disappointed in later. Everyone she knew was on that list, just about. Except for Eric. She wanted to keep it that way.

"Have I not proven that I would risk my life for yours?" Eric looked proud, and angry. "Believe me, Sookie, as rare as such a thing is in a human, it is even rarer in vampires."

"You've done a lot for me, I don't deny that."

Eric's tone became eager, pleading. Before she could snatch her hand away, he reached across the table and caught it in his larger one. "I wish to do more."

"You're generous." Sookie knew she didn't sound enthusiastic. She hoped she didn't sound insulting.

"I offered to bring you to my side, once." Eric grasped her hand more tightly. "I would offer that again."

Sookie shut her eyes again. Gently, she pulled her hand away, and Eric let her go. With a human man, some of them at least, she might manage to throw off their grip even if they didn't want to release her. With Eric, her freedom was always his choice.

"Do you know any stories from the Bible?" she heard herself say.

Eric sat back in his chair, brow hunkered low over his eyes. "I am over a thousand years old, Sookie, it is safe to say that I am familiar with the tenets of Christianity."

"I was just thinking about Esther."

"Esther." Eric turns the name over in his mouth. "She was a queen of Babylon?"

Sookie nodded. "The king married her because she won a sort of beauty contest." In her head, she can see the opulent illustrations from the children's Bible she'd had as a gift from Gran on her fifth birthday. "She didn't tell anyone she was a Jew, but when the king's advisor persuaded him to kill all the Jews in his kingdom, she went to the king and asked him to save her people."

"Did he?" Eric's face betrayed something like professional curiosity.

"Yes," said Sookie. "When she told him she had a request to make, he told her he'd give her anything-'up to half my kingdom', it says in the scripture."

Eric nodded, as though he approved. "He valued her."

"I guess so." Sookie began twisting the edge of the cloth placemat between her fingers. "But the point of the story is that she risked her life just by asking him. He might have said no, and then everyone would know she was Jewish, and she'd die with the rest of her people. Or he might have had her killed just for coming into his presence uninvited."

She heard her voice rising and falling as she edged closer and closer to tears. She risked a glance up at Eric and found him frowning, a look of baffled displeasure on his face.

"Sookie," he said, not ungently. "Is there a point to this?"

She had to force herself to breathe in order to speak. "You don't know everything about me," she said.

"I never supposed that I did," said Eric immediately.

"If I let you in-the way I'd want to, if we were really together-I'd be taking my life in my hands."

Eric reached over the table and laid both hands over hers, forcing them to still their fretful picking at the placemat.

"On my life," he said, "I would never harm you."

"People change. Even vampires." She was surprised that she wasn't crying. She was probably too dehydrated by now.

Eric didn't let her go. His thumb traced circles on the back of her wrist. It reminded her of the way her father had rubbed her back over her shirt to help her fall asleep at night.

"Do you think," he said, in a careful voice, "that if you married a mortal man, you would be safe?"

"Not necessarily," she said. "But we would be equal in a way you and I could never be. All these things you want to give me-they can't make me your equal. You could take them away again in a heartbeat."

Eric squeezed her wrist, and sat back in his chair again. "You are wise, Sookie," he said, surprising her. "You do understand the nature of gifts, especially the gifts of the powerful. But do you not see that no two people, human or vampire, can be perfectly equal? And do you not see that I would be vulnerable to you as well? Your gift, your fae blood, even your simple humanity-you know where I sleep, you can walk in the day, you might have killed me any number of times when I was powerless to stop you."

It had crossed her mind before. "I doubt I would have lived for long afterwards."

"But I would be no less dead. I trust you, Sookie, as I have trusted no one else for as long as I can remember."

Sookie lifted a hand to cover her mouth. It would have betrayed her, otherwise.

"But you cannot say the same," he said a moment later, in a voice of resignation.

Sookie shook her head. "I'm sorry," she managed to say.

Her eyes were on the table when she heard the scrape of chair legs. A second later he was bending over her, planting a kiss on the top of her head.

"Do not cry," he said. "You have not dismayed me. You have set me a challenge. I will prove myself, in time."

And then she heard the thought that followed, clear as a bell. I should have killed you the day I met you.

Sookie sat frozen at the table until she heard the front door swing shut behind her. Then she walked into the living room, covered her face with a cushion from the couch, and screamed.