Catalyst Ch. 04

Chapter Four: Getting to Know You

Eric’s POV

“So,” Pam crows as I walk through the back door of my house. I need to add on a proper garage instead of storing my Corvette in a shed. “How did it go?”

“Better than expected. Stackhouse caved once Carson told him how much his sister weighed,” I answer. “Sookie became much more agreeable to my offers once I explained that our “father” is forcing me to be so charitable.”

“Oh? Is she agreeable to all of your offers?” she asks me, leering and biting her tongue like a little devil.

“Her brother seems to think so,” I am grinning, and that causes Pam to stare a moment longer than she normally would. She scowls. “What?”

“I do not like how much you seem to be enjoying this,” she confesses and it makes me grin wider. “I am not jealous!” she insists with a howl.

“Of course not!” I am laughing at her expression.

“Eric!” she snaps. “This is not you! What the hell is going on?” she demands angrily.

Quickly I sober myself, but if I am forced to analyze why I am ridiculously pleased and happy, I find that the only answer is how relieved Sookie appeared. If I am honest with myself, I am excited to spend more time with her. I am also looking forward to spending more time with her brother. Seeing the two of them together or apart is always entertaining. They are an interesting pair, and their tempers are amusing to poke and prod. When Carson told me of Stackhouse’s sudden realization as to what was happening and his following tirade, I found myself having to mute the phone and laugh loudly to myself. I could actually visualize and hear the young man cursing my name.

Then Carson had laid down the situation in black and white. Stackhouse had fallen to pieces when he learned of his sister’s weight loss. Carson told me how he had cried and for the first time in my existence, a human told me that I was a good man for helping good people. I have never been called a good man before. A good employer. An honorable warrior. An amazing lover. Yes, to all of the above, but never a good man. It had stunned me into silence to hear my employee make such a claim. ‘Am I a good man?’

My first instinct is to grimace and shake off the accusation. What is so good about what I am doing? I practically blackmailed and threatened a man to accept my help, and it was entirely out of selfishness. It was easier for me to spend my required two hours helping him because I knew he was deserving of my assistance. It was easier than trying to find a new lost, probably less deserving, soul each night.

The fact that my first instinct about Stackhouse was incorrect only further proves my point about discerning who is and is not worthy of assistance. When I saw that young sister of his all alone at night with nothing more than a can of Mace and a shrill whistle, I believed her family to be neglectful or impartial to her. To learn that she had a brother who would give anything and everything for her was very grounding, eye opening. For a thousand years, I have believed only in the cruelty of humanity. In an hour, those two washed those beliefs away.

Finally, I am able to answer Pam’s concerns.

“It is not what I am made to do, but what I wish to do, Pamela,” I tell her evenly, making sure she is meeting my eyes and understands what it is I am trying to convey. “I wish to help those two. Their honor, love, or even something as simple as how they amuse me could be the culprit behind my motivations. I do not know. Regardless, it is what I wish to do with my time presently. Do you have some sort of objection as to how I find to spend my immortality?”

“Of course not, Eric,” Pam lowers her head contritely. “This is not a side I have ever seen of you. It has me unnerved,” she admits.

“It is not a side I knew I could explore,” I tell her. “Perhaps that is the real meaning behind Godric’s orders. Nothing so superficial as learning to maintain a future public image, but an opportunity to explore different facets of existence.”
Countless times I have proven my coldness and pragmatism. Never have I wandered the path of compassion. Godric’s constant repeated question of, “Why is darkness the only way for us?” rings in my mind. That is my Maker’s true motivation, seeking light within the darkness.

Right now, it is as if the Stackhouses have shed a floodlight into the night around me. Yes, the night still encompasses my body, but the steady glow their lives emit before me allows a strange sense of comfort. Suddenly I wish for more of it. More warmth, more light. In return, I will use my cold darkness to protect them from more of the cruelties and neglect that have befallen them in the past.

I want.

I can.

I will.

Sookie’s POV:

I wake covered in sweat and then have to suppress a moan as my nether regions clench. Sitting up, I look at the clock. It’s not even four in the mornin’ yet, and that means Jason isn’t back from work. At least if I made any noise in my sleep, he wouldn’t have been able to hear.

Letting out a deep breath, I flop back against my pillow, biting my lip hard as I ride out the remainder of the pulsing and throbbing goin’ on below.

I’ve never had an orgasm before. Definitely not. That was amazing!

Remembering the dream that caused it makes me clench down there again, and I turn on my side as I suck in labored breaths.

Eric’s hands all over me, suckin’ on my neck, workin’ his way down to my breasts… Oh! I throb again and decide I can’t linger on the memory any longer. It feels rude to be this turned on. Very unladylike. Gran’s probably shakin’ her head in shame at me right now. This is insanely embarrassin’!

Rather than dwell on shame, I start examining the enabler of my first orgasm. Why am I dreaming about Eric all of a sudden? Is it because last night I finally found out his real motivation? Now that my suspicions have been cleared, and they weren’t nearly as bad as I’d feared, is this my subconscious tellin’ me that it’s okay to lust after him? Lusting is very unladylike. I think of our Pastor back in Bon Temps ravin’ ’bout impure thoughts and premarital sex. But it was a dream. I can’t help that, can I?

I’ve never been a lustful person. Sure, I’ve lazed about the library perusing romance books that my brother would have flushed and yanked from my hand if he saw me readin’ ’em. I’ve never done any of the romantic stuff though.

Jason would freak if he knew I dreamed about Eric, even if it was a PG dream. Innocent or risqué, my brother wouldn’t let Eric near me with a fifty-foot pole. He practically dragged Eric out of the apartment after he saw me starin’ at him last night. Jason would say Eric’s too old for me, or I was too young in general to be thinkin’ of dating.

That was all well and good up until now because we’ve been fightin’ so hard to keep our little family together that no outsider stood a chance of penetrating our little bubble. Now that some of the direness is being relieved, both of us might finally have the chance to explore relationships outside of familial. I sure as heck know Jason needs some non-familial exploration. He practically drools when anythin’ with boobs and two legs walks by.

Poor Jason, I think sadly. College was supposed to be the time for him to have adventures and sew his wild oats. Instead he’s livin’ the life of a struggling, single dad. How do you tell a college girl that your little sister has to tag along on the forty-five-minute date you’re squeezing in between your last class of the day and your job?

Ugh, I can’t sleep now. Instead I slip out of bed, gather some clothes, leave the room, and grab a shower. I shiver when the water starts turnin’ cool before all the soap’s rinsed out of my hair. I swear this place has a ten-gallon water heater.

I stay in the standing shower and take time to shave before exiting and dryin’ my hair. There’s five or six nicks in my legs. Awesome. I need a new blade. That’s gonna be a week’s long pursuit in itself.

Wrappin’ up my damp hair in a towel, I go out to the kitchen. It’s only 5 AM. I open the fridge and look at all the fruits and vegetables. There’s real butter, cheese, eggs, and milk. Oh my GOSH! BACON!

I resist the urge to fry up the bacon. I’d rather wait to make some for me and Jason to eat together. Maybe we can have a breakfast for dinner night tonight.

Bypassin’ the breakfast staples, I grab an orange and hop on the counter to start peelin’ it. As I do, I open the cupboard to see if there’s any bread I can toast. Holy crap! The pantries are just as stocked as the fridge now. Bread, crackers, flour, sugar. I frown when I realize that the entirety of our groceries are mostly staples. Not a single thing belies Eric’s own food preferences. That’s not me being picky or wantin’ for more, but an observation that Eric was either bein’ calculating on his purchases or doesn’t grocery shop for himself very often. I consider this a moment and decide that his sister probably does most of the grocery shoppin’ for them.

I giggle at the thought of Eric behind a grocery buggy. Somethin’ about that picture doesn’t fit in my head. Strangely enough, I can’t really visualize him shoppin’ for anythin’ food-based. Not even alcohol.

Rather than dwell on my strange delusion that Eric doesn’t need to eat, I instead make myself a sack lunch to take to school. A few extra dollars saved is always a good thing, and Eric bought way too many perishables. The fruits and veggies need to get eaten.

{†}

Multitaskin’ is easy, especially when you’ve spent your entire life listenin’ to multiple conversations simultaneously. That’s why I know to refill drinks across the restaurant while gettin’ an order for a different table. It’s why I know when Carla’s spit in a mean customer’s food, and quietly call her out on it so she replaces the order. Also, it’s how I manage to swerve my rear out of the way almost every time some yahoo tries to cop a feel. Every once and awhile someone gets a pinch in, but it’s usually when I’m just too tired to jump out of the way.

“Hey, Sookie,” Jax, one of my regulars, waves merrily at me. He’s about thirty-three, single, and has a five-year-old son named Kenny whom he’s absolutely in love with. Kenny is wavin’ at me, sittin’ on his little knees in his chair, and leanin’ over the table.

“Hey, Jax. Hey, Kenny!” I grin and come over with a glass of milk for the little guy and the pot of black coffee for his daddy. “How are you two handsome men tonight?”

“Good. Mary just dropped him off a bit ago, and the first thing he wanted to do was come see you,” Jax gives me an innocent, playful wink.

“Oh! What a little flirt!” I make a kissy face at Kenny, and he blushes and covers his face with his hands.

“You gots too much make-up!” Kenny declares, and my cheeks flush when I realize he’s pointing out my bruises.

Jax clears his throat uncomfortably. “Sorry,” he mumbles.

“It’s okay. I just got jumped the other night and walked away with a few bruises. I didn’t get hurt all that bad, and a really good guy stepped in and stopped the mugger from takin’ anythin’ of mine,” I explain. Most of my patrons have worried over this, and my coworkers practically grilled me the day before.

“I’m glad you’re all right,” Jax gives me a comforting smile. ‘It’s always the good girls this shit happens to. And here’s Mary complainin’ ’bout how bad she’s got it. Should walk a day in Sookie’s shoes!’

I can tell that Jax’s ex-girlfriend, and Kenny’s mom, has really caught Jax off guard with the sudden dumping of their son on him. Of course, Jax doesn’t see his kid as an inconvenience, but now he’s tryin’ to figure out what to do with him at the auto shop.

“The usual today, boys?” I ask, taking out my pen and pad.

“With tawberries!” Kenny pipes in.

“Pancakes with strawberries?” I open my mouth in feigned surprise. “You don’t want blueberries this time?”

“Tawberries!” Kenny insists.

“Do you want whipped cream on ’em, Kenny?” I hint.

“YAY!”

“Breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It’s always pancakes,” Jax shakes his head and laughs.

“I could eat pancakes all day, too,” I tell Kenny. “You want your usual meatloaf sandwich, Jax?”

“Yeah, Sookie. Thanks.”

“All right, I’ll put those right in for ya. Be back to check on ya in a bit,” I strategically shift my weight onto my other leg and narrowly avoid a rather bold grasp for my bottom. Honestly, do these guys think just ‘cause they’re a hundred they can grab my tush?

The remainder of my shift flies by and the next thing I know, Jason’s sittin’ at the counter waitin’ for me. Once my relief is on the floor, I finish up at a couple tables, grab my tips, and go to clock out.

“Hey,” Jason kisses the top of my head in his ritual greeting. “How was work?”

“Good,” I shrug. Nothing very interesting usually happens to me.

“So, uh, Northman wants to hang out with us between your shift and mine,” he tells me uncomfortably while we walk out of the diner and toward the bus stop.

Whoa, slow down, heart! I think anxiously over the idea of Eric wanting to spend time with us. Memories of my dream last night immediately force me to turn my face from Jason’s scrutiny, “I guess he wants to see how his charity case is doin’?”

Jason snorts, ‘Yeah, sure. That’s what it is.’ “Maybe he just wants to hang with real people?” he suggests instead.

“Sure you’re okay with us bein’ his ‘real’ people’?” I ask.

Jason shrugs, “Sure, why not? He’s straightforward enough.” He gives me a sideways look and asks, “He don’t make you uncomfortable, does he?”

Only in my underpants, I think crudely and immediately chastise myself for the unladylike musing. “I don’t know him too well yet, so he makes me a little nervous,” I admit.

“Well, he’s meeting us tonight. If he still makes you nervous after tonight, I’ll tell him he needs to back off. Okay?” Jason suggests gently while we stand around waiting for the bus. A sudden shiver racks my body and I let out a forceful sneeze. “Wow, God bless you!” he laughs. “Didn’t give yourself whiplash, did ya?” he teases.

“Thanks… Does any of this make you uncomfortable, Jason?” I ask as we huddle a bit tighter together, my sneeze prompting him to try and warm me up.

“The handouts?” Jason looks at me a bit confused.

“Yeah.”

He shrugs and looks down the street to see if he can catch sight of the bus yet, “A little. Mostly ‘cause I wanna instill in you to stand on yer own feet, y’know? I don’t want you to think things get handed to you. At the same time though, it don’t bug me so much. After the past three years of just gettin’ shit on by life, it’s almost like someone’s finally throwin’ us a life raft.”

I nod in both agreement and understanding, “I guess we can take comfort in the fact that Eric’s said several times the only reason he’s doin’ this is ‘cause he knows we won’t abuse or squander his offerings.”

Jason smiles down at me, and I can hear the bus rollin’ down the street, “I’m glad someone thinks I’m doin’ right by you.”

“I always thought that,” I assure him. “Nothin’ anyone could give me would be better than havin’ you as a big brother, Jason.”

He grins down at me again, and I feel almost peaceful at his excited smile and thoughts. ‘This is the right thing. This is what she really deserves. Everything, and I am part of her everything.’

Eric’s POV:

I am again lounging on the monstrosity they call a sofa. I can practically feel every spring pressing into places I am certain would leave a human with sciatic pain or a knot in their back. I must tell Pam to choose a ‘cozy’ feel to the downstairs apartment. These two would not appreciate, nor feel comfortable in Pam’s crisp, cold “modern” ideals of furnishings. They would be much more at home in earthy brown tones and soothing blues.

As I am exploring their home, I stumble upon a work in progress hidden beneath a slew of feminine hygiene products in the bathroom cabinet. It is what appears to be a dissected window frame. I uncover it and gaze at the scribing. A smile tugs at my lips, and I shake my head at the efforts the young Ms. Stackhouse is making to give her brother a Christmas present. Crouching back down, I bury the gift once more beneath packages of feminine napkins and tampons. Admittedly, it is a good hiding spot from young men. Most are too squeamish to even look at such things. I have the feeling her brother is not one of them, but would genuinely have no interest or reason to disturb her personal products.

In their shared closet space, I find the present Jason has hidden from his sister stored on a shelf the shorter woman would need to find a ladder to access. It is folded within a spare, thin blanket one would only use in the spring. There is an inscription on this one as well and when I read it, I feel this strangely unsettling feeling in my throat.

Below I can hear the brother and sister returning home, and I safely stow away the Christmas present. I return to the living room and try to appear casual and unassuming after they enter.

“Hey, Eric,” Sookie waves at me from behind Jason while he works his key back out of the lock.

“Good evening, Ms. Stackhouse,” I rise from the sofa and meet them at the door. “How was your day?”

Sookie shrugs, and I watch her play with one of the hanging straps of her rucksack. She tries hard to keep her eyes from glancing toward her feet. Suddenly, her face scrunches up, and her entire body acts like a bullwhip as she sneezes.

“Dang,” Jason frowns, “Bless you. Sooks, go grab a blanket and get warm. I’ll make ya some coffee or somethin’.”

“There is tea in the cupboard over the stove,” I tell the brother when I follow him into the kitchen while Sookie goes to retrieve the quilt that drapes across her bed.

“Fuck, that’s a lot of tea,” Stackhouse laughs after he sees almost the entire cabinet devoted to different brands and flavors.

“I understand that tea is good for the body, but I did not know what you would favor,” I explain to him as I hunt down a pot in which to warm water. I need to buy them a tea kettle. I look around again and note that they also need a microwave.

They need everything, I tell myself in exasperation as I watch Stackhouse peel an orange and throw the rind in the pot of water I have just set on the stove. When Sookie returns to the living room hidden behind the bulk of her quilt, he brings her the peeled orange.

“Eat that,” he tells her firmly once she takes a spot on the couch.

Smirking, I go over to the little blonde and sit next to her. “Do you need any medicine?” I ask.

Sookie shakes her head, “No. Jason’s just freakin’ out over a few sneezes and sniffles.”

“You have been sustaining yourself on a meager diet lately. Your brother has good reason to be concerned,” I point out. “Illness is very easy to befall those who are undernourished.”

Her body tenses at my words, but instead of addressing me, she calls to her brother, “Jason, I’m fine! Stop worrying. It’s December. Everyone gets a cold in the winter.”

“Yeah, yeah,” he grumbles back from the kitchen, and I hear the clank of pots and pans against the stove grates. Soon the smell of cooking meats and vegetables fills the air, masking the more appealing aroma of the young woman beside me.

Sookie sniffles again and I find myself tucking the blanket beneath her sides and under her legs.

“Stop it!” she snaps, wiggling against my efforts.

I grin down at her and continue the assault, amused that she tries to squirm away when my fingers graze her ribs. She is ticklish, and I can smell that she is also slightly aroused. Idly I wonder if it is a physiological response to being tickled, or if it is that I am touching her.

“Ticklish?” I taunt, finding that my fingers are moving across her body of their own accord, searching for more sensitive areas to torment. Her sexual excitement increases as my assault continues, but I have not yet confirmed what is responsible.

Sookie thrashes when I find a particularly responsive spot on her side, just above her hip. She is laughing and squirming until Jason comes with a plate of eggs, peppers, and onions. As he hands her the plate, he leans in and kisses her forehead.

“You’re warm,” he assesses, and I marvel at a human’s ability to measure body temperature in such a manner. Since I have not had an opportunity to hold Sookie at peak health, I am not as aware of what is her normal warmth. “Eat up. Got homework?”

“Yeah,” she confesses.

Jason runs his hand through his hair and goes to retrieve her bag by the front door. He brings it over to her and sets it at the foot of the couch. The next thing I know; I am looking over Sookie’s shoulder as she does a series of several complex math problems. As she struggles on one of the equations, I reach over and start pointing at the factor she has neglected.

We chat as Jason showers and prepares for work, her doing homework, me assisting. It is so normal and domestic that it is foreign to me. She is very efficient in completing her homework, and I realize suddenly that it is Friday night. Though she has all weekend to complete her assignments, she presses through them.

“Do you work tomorrow?” I ask as she closes her final book and puts it back in her bag.

“Yeah, eleven to seven,” she tells me.

I nod before turning to her brother as he comes down the hallway in nothing but a towel around his waist. My God. He is just as underweight as his sister! The definition of his musculature is pronounced, but slight. There is not an ounce of body fat to be found, and it seems that the bulk of his muscle has been sacrificed to sustain him during the fast they have both been forced under.

“Stackhouse,” I call to him once I have recovered from my observation, “what is your schedule for tomorrow?”

“I’m at the B’n’B from eight tonight ’til ten tomorrow morning. Then I’m at the stadium from eight tomorrow night ’til three Sunday morning,” he tells me as he wanders half-naked to the kitchen and starts eating the leftover eggs from the pan with his fingers.

“May I send the doctor to you around noon? That will give you time to return from taking your sister to work,” I offer.

“I don’t take Sooks to work durin’ the daytime hours,” he tells me. “I only ride with her when it’s dark.”

“Eleven then?” I suggest. “That should give you time to return from work and spend a little time with Sookie before she leaves for her shift.”

Jason nods at me agreeably, “Yeah, that sounds good. Thanks, man.”

“You are welcome.”

We spend the remainder of our time talking about Sookie’s job. I greatly dislike the allusions her brother makes about men touching her inappropriately, and it would seem he is just as irritated by this.

“Perhaps once you graduate high school, you could pick up a few hours at one of my companies?” I offer Sookie.

“What would I do?” Sookie asks.

I shrug, “I would have to look into what is available, or what would be available this June. Your plan was to work a year after high school while your brother finishes college, yes?”

Sookie nods, and though her delay in continuing her education concerns me, I know that neither she nor her brother would allow me to pay their expenses entirely so that they could both go to college at the same time.

“What do you wish to do after college?” I ask Sookie.

“Teach high school English,” she replies firmly.

“Are you not going to school to become a high school history teacher?” I ask her brother.

Jason nods and grins, “Yup! You’d think one of us would pine for a job that would make us more money, but what can I say? I guess we’re so used to havin’ nothin’ that we don’t really strive for much more than that.” He looks chagrinned at his explanation.

I rise from the couch as Stackhouse goes to make himself a thermos of instant coffee. I need to buy them a coffee maker, I think bemusedly. “Ms. Stackhouse, will you be all right by yourself in this condition?” I ask her.

Sookie rolls her eyes at me, “I’ll be fine, Eric, and can you just call me Sookie? You’re bein’ way too formal for a guy that bulldozed his way into our lives.” She is teasing me and that makes me smile at her softly.

“All right, Sookie,” I comply with her request and she lights up from beneath her quilt. “Have a good night, and feel better.”

“Thanks. You have a good night, too.”

“Ready to go, Stackhouse?” I ask of Jason while he is finishing up in the kitchen. He grabs several pieces of fruit from the refrigerator, and I smile with relief that he does so. It is good to see these two eating. Normally I do not enjoy watching humans eat, but this pair gives me a strange pleasure to see enjoying a meal.

“Man,” Jason groans as he flops into the passenger seat of my Corvette. I have the top up for the first time in a very long time in deference to the cold and my passenger’s sensitivity. “Would it bother you if I passed out for a bit?” he asks me suddenly.

“Not at all,” I assure and in an instant, the young man is asleep in my car. This ability of his to sleep so suddenly takes me by surprise. In the span of time between my assent and turning my head to look at him, he was already asleep.

Taking care to drive smoothly and not jostle the unconscious man, I decide I should find a job for Jason. I need to crunch some more numbers so that I can find a position that he could excel within, while still being active enough to warrant the amount I plan on paying him. That will be difficult, and I will only have a week and a half to accomplish it. It would be so much easier for all of us if they would permit me to put them on an allowance.

Those thoughts spur another question I have been asking myself, which is, why are they not receiving SNAP? They should more than qualify. I decide to look into that as well. Pam can always sift through my many local businesses and find something suitable for the Stackhouses while I focus on their situation with Social Services.

I need to discern whether the Stackhouses have merely fallen through the cracks of government assistance, if they have been actively resisting aid out of pride, or if someone is intentionally trying to make their lives miserable. The latter thought is particularly paranoid for me to consider, but I have seen the levels of laziness behind government-sponsored programs. Sometimes, yes, the programs are flooded with endless requests from the undeserving or lazy, and that ambush can cause those in genuine need to be overlooked. Still, it is also an occurring problem when a government employee merely ignores part of their duty to avoid the legwork. The Stackhouse’s caseworker should have made attempts to enroll them in SNAP, or at least prompted them to enroll. Since I found no paperwork showing that she made any attempts, I am curious to know whether this was due to sloth or flat-out negligence.

Pulling up along the curb of the Buy’n’Bag, I sit a few moments in silence, allowing Stackhouse a few extra minutes of sleep. He has fifteen minutes before his shift begins, and he can spend ten more of those resting.

As the clock signals it is time to wake the boy, I give him a sharp nudge in the ribs and he instantly jerks awake, looking more alert than I have yet to see him.

“Oh, man, I slept good,” He stretches awkwardly in my car before turning toward me. “Thanks again for the ride, and thanks for sendin’ your doctor over to check out my arm tomorrow. If I can get outta surgery, that would be awesome. If it means I can play out my senior year, too, well, that’s icin’ on the cake,” he laughs.

“I hope Dr. Ludwig can brew a miracle for you,” I agree and smile while he slips out of the car and into the shop. Now I must go back to my residence and speak to the good doctor about some of the options regarding Stackhouse’s shoulder. I call her from my cellphone to request her presence at my home in half an hour.

When I arrive at my home, Ludwig is already there, looking sour as ever. She is standing with her arms crossed in front of my desk and her usual scowl on her face. The good doctor always fills the usual warmth of my study with an arctic wind.

“Doctor,” I greet her with a nod.

“Vampire,” Ludwig replies tartly. “What damages have you caused now that I must repair?” She is, of course, referring to several disfigurements I have caused that were unable to be rectified by vampire blood. She has only failed me once. Restoring sight is a tricky process apparently. Luckily for her, I have not caused her any challenges since being put under my Maker’s humanitarian orders.

“Actually,” I sit at my desk and fold my hands neatly in front of me, “it has nothing to do with what I have done, but what another has done to themselves.” Ludwig’s eyebrows raise, intrigued by my uncharacteristic show of concern. “He is a college athlete who has done an alarming job of destroying his shoulder. I want to know if there is anything that can be done to repair the damage, short of feeding him blood.”

“You do not wish for the connection?” Ludwig guesses and I nod. “Well, injecting vampire blood into the joint at three points would mostly localize the healing properties of the blood, unless the subject’s body received extreme trauma, and the healing factor was crucial elsewhere. Injection would be effective without causing a link to be forged,” she offers. “Of course, I have never had the opportunity to review the effect of injecting vampire blood on that particular injury. Assuming that his joint issue is entirely stress-related and not a disease or genetic disorder, injecting blood could make his shoulder good as new.”

“Can it cause him to have excessive strength in that arm?” I ask. I do not need him throwing football field-length passes.

Ludwig shakes her head, “If the damage in his arm is so severe that you are calling me, then it might actually take two or three treatments to reverse the problem. We will do one, and then I will go over in a week, review him, and see if anything else needs to be done.”

“You are confident that you can fix his arm?” I ask.

The doctor looks at me in exasperation, “You have known me to reattach severed arms and legs that functioned the same, if not better, than before they were removed.”

“Fair point, Doctor,” I smirk at her confidence. “Will you be able to visit him at eleven tomorrow morning?”

I push a piece of paper with the Stackhouses’ address toward her. She looks at the paper and nods, “I will. I take it they are unaware of the Supernatural?” When I nod, she continues, “I will mask my otherness for the appointment.”

“Thank you.”

“May I ask why you are hiring me for someone you have not maimed, and therefore are not responsible to accept the bill of treatment?” Ludwig inquires.

“Because he deserves to keep playing,” I shrug.

The doctor looks at me as though I have grown a second head. I merely laugh at her expression because I have been earning such looks for several days now. Pam, Sookie, Carson, and now Ludwig have all bestowed that look upon me.

As the doctor departs, I leave notes for Pam on her newest project of finding a job for Stackhouse. With that complete, I begin my investigation on the Social Services situation before finally leaving to perform my duties as Area Five Sheriff.

While I am driving, my cell phone rings, and I glance at the caller I.D. to find that it is my Maker calling me.

“Good evening, Master,” I greet.

Good evening, Eric,” his voice is amused, and I feel his end of our Link open and confirm that he is, indeed, laughing at me on the inside. “I must say, these past few evenings have been quite interesting. Entertaining even.”

“How so?” I ask sharply. There has never been a time that I enjoyed being the source of Godric’s amusement.

You have not shown resentment while performing your required hours of community service. I dare say, it even feels as though you look forward to it,” Godric informs me.

“Is that right?” A frown forms on my face at his observation.

Apparently you have found a project that works with our agreement and you are enjoying it?” Godric asks.

“I suppose that is accurate,” I reply guardedly.

I am glad that your resentment has waned. It only took seven years, but I am grateful nonetheless.”

“I see,” is all I can respond.

That is why I am optimistically lifting my orders. I want to see if you continue to meet my expectations without my command forcing you.”

“Meet?” I seethe a bit. “I have been helping every slob in Shreveport and Bossier for seven years and you see that as only modest effort?” Pam abandoned me for two years because of my Maker’s orders and only recently returned!

Your efforts are not the testament of this exercise, Eric,” Godric tells me pointedly. “It was the results that I have awaited. Forced community service is not the same as compassion or empathy. These past three evenings you have genuinely empathized with another individual. That was all I have ever wanted from you.”

I bristle at my Maker’s explanation, but I keep my mouth shut. This is an opportunity to remove myself from his ridiculous command! It is my parole hearing.

So why do I feel regretful and anxious?

On to Chapter Five!

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Catalyst Ch. 03

Chapter Three: Ultimatums

Pam’s POV:

Eric looks smug as hell after he returns to the house where we are staying. It’s Eric’s house, but I only recently moved back to Shreveport, and am still looking for my own accommodations. The house is pleasant enough. Two-story farmhouse, though not Eric’s taste at all. I suppose the land is more appealing to him than the house itself. Telling by the blueprints spread out on his desk, he is either planning to level it or renovate. God, I hope he takes a wrecking ball to this hovel.

I look at the plans a bit longer and finally determine that he is renovating. There are plenty of indicators that betray the pre-existing floor plan of the farmhouse.

Ugh, this is boring! I preferred our condo in Shreveport over this place. Maybe I should have asked Eric to let me stay there? Who am I kidding? He would pitch a fit when I redecorate it, complaining how it was still his property and piss and moan for a year or two. It is not worth the annoyance.

Wandering around the house, I find a lingering correspondence with Godric. It is the outline for the rules regarding Eric’s “Humanity Bootcamp.” I spot several red ink notes in Eric’s hand, mostly notations mocking Godric’s suggestions and opinions. This exercise is ungodly in my opinion. We are vampires, for fuck’s sake!

Still, Godric has a point. Eric oversees an abundance of vampires in this Area and is regularly sought by Sophie-Anne to calm churning seas throughout all of Louisiana. Just last month he was in Baton Rouge, cleaning up a mess caused by the Bayou vampires, mostly unkempt wretches who stay in the bogs until they need to feed. Apparently they were doing a piss poor job hiding the bodies of their victims, and three had been recovered by authorities. Eric ended three vampires, stating that for every body recovered, one of them would meet their True Death. So far, no new bodies have been recovered in Baton Rouge.

“Are you ignoring me, Pamela?” Eric asks sternly as I continue floating about the house, ignoring his gloating mood without inquiring about it.

“Did you say something I was supposed to respond to?” I bat my eyelashes at him and he rolls his eyes. “Fine,” I sigh. “What did you discuss with the children?”

“Dinner was very slow for conversation,” he admits. “They were hard-pressed to keep the attention of anything once their food arrived. However, I drove them home. Stackhouse even invited me up to his apartment to warm up while he put together a thermos of coffee for work. I think it was warmer outside than in that apartment,” he grumbles.

“Are their accommodations just as meager as their grocery list?” I ask amusedly. Eric’s lip curls with frustration and I raise my eyebrows at the response. “That bad?”

“It is obviously a better neighborhood than they could normally afford to live in, but it is a duplex from the twenties and they are on the upper level. Definitely the short end of the stick. I plan to purchase it, kick out the main floor tenant, and give it to the Stackhouses at a lower rent with “utilities included.” I will need to hire someone to oversee it and live in their old space. I can use them to keep an eye on things,” he explains this with a bit of excitement.

I stare at him blankly before my brows scrunch together and I am almost glaring, “Are you actually enjoying this?” I demand.

Eric stops in his tracks. He already has his phone out to start making the contacts he needs to acquire the building and put his plans in motion, “You know that I enjoy my chess games. These two are making it far more enjoyable because they do not want help.”

“And that little girl has nothing to do with it?” I ask almost snidely.

“What would she have to do with anything?” he sounds almost baffled by my accusation.

“She is very pretty,” I shrug.

“She is a child,” Eric insists.

“Only a year and a half younger than I was when you turned me,” I point out. “I am not jealous, Eric. I just wish you would be honest with yourself about her.”

“I am being honest,” he continues to assert, but I can see the cogs in his head grind to a halt. “She is very beautiful.”

“And she struck a few nerves being so suspicious about you. Also, didn’t you say that she seemed to always know when you were watching her last night?” I remind him.

“Yes, it was almost as if she could sense my every move. Her body seemed to move with mine,” Eric sits on the couch, and then he is distracted again. “I should clean, repaint, and furnish the bottom level of the duplex. The new “landlord” could tell them the previous tenants left their furniture after an abrupt move.”

I groan and leave the den so Eric can start his newest project. I suppose this is good for him. With all the restrictions Godric has put on my Maker, he needed something to occupy his time. Far too many Shreveport women have been walking bowlegged since Eric was put on this regimen.

A sudden idea strikes me, and I run back to the den and stare at Eric intently until he is off the phone. He looks up at me while he continues talking to the current duplex owner. When I hear how much Eric is offering to pay for the building, I roll my eyes. He is definitely overpaying for that piece of shit I haven’t even seen yet. Eric has more money than sense sometimes, but I won’t complain because it keeps me in all my designer clothes and accessories.

“What is it, Pam?” Eric asks as he snaps his phone shut and lobs it onto the sofa cushion.

“I want to update the area the Stackhouses will be living in,” I proclaim in the way only I can demand things of Eric.

“Fine,” he shrugs disinterestedly. “I was going to hire Adriana Metcalf, but if you wish to do it I will not object.”

“Yes!” Another excuse to run up Eric’s credit cards! Plus, I have been having the retail itch for days and I still have not found a place I would wish to hang my tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of clothing. “When will the duplex be in your possession?” I am already aching to look the place over and begin the refurbishing process.

“Next week. Money greases the wheels,” Eric laughs. “Of course, it is in total disrepair, so I believe the owner thinks he is robbing me blind. If it were not for the modest expense of the building’s rent, I am certain his tenants would have been complaining about the abysmal situation they reside in. I will pay off the downstairs resident to get them out.”

“Can you have the owner send pictures of the interior so I can start planning?” I request nicely to keep getting my way.

“Of course. The entire building will need to be gutted. I am certain the plumbing and electricity is no longer up to code. I will call my contractor and you two can discuss floor plans. That will be difficult, however, because we cannot be there when the Stackhouses are present.”

“Well the boy works every minute of the day. I am sure you could lure the girl out on a whim,” I point out.

Eric laughs darkly at that, “I doubt it. She is very suspicious of me. Surprisingly so. I do believe she finds me underhanded.”

“Good instincts,” I smirk.

“Apparently so,” he chuckles again, but more amused this time.

We scheme the remainder of the evening, and Eric makes a call to his dayman, Jeffery, regarding approaching Jason Stackhouse the next day as the new owner of the building.

Jason’s POV:

God, shut up! Shut UP! I shuffle to the door as someone is knockin’ like a damn woodpecker while I’m tryin’ to catch a couple hours sleep before pickin’ Sooks up at the restaurant. I fuckin’ hate winter. It’s dark by the time she gets off this time of year.

“Yeah?” I fling the door open, and there’s a guy with sandy blond hair and small gray eyes grinning at me.

“Hello,” he holds out his hand to shake mine. I sneak my hand out of the quilt and take his offered hand. It’s cold as balls in the apartment because the downstairs tenant is gone for the day and turned off the thermostat. I’ve been tempted to turn our heat up to 65º, but the dumbass who lives downstairs will be home in an hour and then we’ll be cookin’ up here. “My name is Jeff Carson. I just bought this building.”

My eyes widen. Shit! He’s gonna raise our rent! Fuck me!

“I’ll be taking ownership at the end of the week and thought it would be nice to meet the tenants while the paperwork is being processed.”
“Uh, come on in,” I step aside to let Jeff in and tug the quilt tighter. “I’m Jason Stackhouse. I live here with my lil sis, Sookie.”

“Ah,” Jeff nods, takin’ in the apartment. Fuck, fuck, fuck!

“So, uh, what are you planning to do with the duplex?” I ask.

“Oh, well,” Jeff looks around and I can see he’s less than impressed with the apartment, “you see, the building is going to need several updates. I’ve already enlisted a contractor to come and gut the building. New plumping, electricity. Updated water heater and HVAC. The whole works.”

And that costs a fuck ton of money, I think miserably. I don’t wanna put Sooks in Hollywood, but it’s the only place I can afford if we have to move. Shit, she’ll have to switch schools for her last fuckin’ semester! What’ll happen to all her A.P. credits!?

“You see, I love restoring and updating old buildings,” Jeff continues. “You know, keeping the old town alive but livable,” he laughs at crushin’ my world.

“So, uh, how much is rent gonna go up with all the reno?” I ask. No use beatin’ ’round the bush. With football lettin’ out maybe I can swing it if it’s only a hundred more?

“Up?” Jeff looks at me in surprise, “Oh! Heavens no!” he starts laughing. “I would never screw over someone already living here just because I have expensive hobbies. No, actually, your rent will probably go down because I will be installing more energy efficient fixtures, insulation, and appliances. Top quality in energy efficiency. Nothing less.”

“Then how do you get your money back?” I ask, super confused, but real relieved.

Jeff leans in and whispers, “This is really a project for my son-in-law. He needs the money, and I actually hired another guy to pretend he owns this place. This recession is killing him, and I figured a big reno project is enough to keep him afloat. He’s a good, honest man, but he won’t accept my money. My daughter begs him over and over, but he won’t live off his father-in-law. I respect that, and I figure a job is a job. Right?” It’s like he’s asking me permission to help his son-in-law on the slide.

“Well, Mr. Carson, I can’t say I’d appreciate bein’ mislead that way,” I confess. “But, family is family, so I can see where you’re comin’ from. You got a right to make sure your daughter ain’t miserable. They got any kids?”

“I’m afraid I might have to inconvenience you a bit,” he quickly changes the subject. “However, I might have a work around for it.” Jeff frowns. “You see; your neighbor below is actually moving into a condo near Cross Lake. Since I would hate to push you out for the renovations, I thought perhaps we could work from the bottom up. We can get the utilities room updated first, then the first floor, while you and your sister move down to the first floor, we can finish off the top floor.”

“Oh, me and Sooks could never afford the main floor,” I protest.

“Nonsense!” Jeff laughs. “I’ll throw you a price on the rent once I’ve looked over the finances. At the very least you can stay on the main floor while this area is renovated. You don’t want to be living out of a hotel for six to eight weeks, do you?”

“Sure as hell couldn’t afford that,” I laugh and shake his hand. “Well, I look forward to seeing the new numbers.” A sudden, unsettlin’ thought comes to me when Jeff takes my hand and I frown. “You’re fuckin’ with me, aren’t ya?” I accuse, shakin’ my head. “You work for Eric Northman, don’t you?”

“Excuse me?” His expression is all innocent and shit, but his voice cracked a bit when I called him out.

“Eric bought the fucking duplex, didn’t he? Fuck,” I swear and start pacin’. “Seriously? Did he really think he could pull some shit like this the day after he fuckin’ met us and we wouldn’t notice?” I demand. He knew I wouldn’t take his fuckin’ charity and now he went and bought my buildin’, knowin’ I couldn’t stop him and couldn’t move without screwin’ over Sooks! Son of a BITCH!

Jeff’s expression changes quickly to a scowl. He crosses his arms over his chest and practically glares at me. “Listen, Stackhouse,” he barks at me, “the point is, this property has a new owner. What that owner decides to do with his property is none of your fucking business! If you want to pitch a fit, fine. Move to Mooretown or Cedar Grove, and you can hold your sister’s hand all day while you lose hours for work. Northman flat out told me if you figured us out to tell you this; you’re an honorable person, I’m giving you nothing. You still owe rent. You still owe utilities. Get the fuck over it or leave!”

My eyebrows must have shot to my hair. Eric wasn’t so crass last night. Maybe this dude’s paraphrasin’?

“I’m like this close,” I raise my hand and hold my index finger and thumb an eighth an inch apart, “from gettin’ a fuckin’ restrainin’ order on this guy.”

Jeff laughs at me, “Listen, you don’t want charity. I get it. You’re a proud guy, but you know what? Northman’s got just about everyone who counts in his pocket. He’s seen your Social Services reports. If they don’t see improvements by February, they’re removing Sookie. Do you really want her to spend almost four months in foster care just so she can come back to this shit hole after God knows what happens to her in the foster system? I’ll guaran-fucking-tee you that pretty teenage girls her age don’t come out the same they went in.”

My shoulders tense at that, “They wouldn’t go through all that bullshit for a girl ’bout to turn 18 in less than six months. You’re tryin’ t’bully me.”

“Jason, your sister weighs a buck and change,” Jeff tells me bluntly. “So, can you swallow your pride so she can swallow some God damn food?” His eyes soften a bit after he’s startled me into silence. “It’s an extra hundred and fifty dollars you can put toward your grocery bill a month, better living conditions, and a place you could actually call a home. Can you accept that for your sister’s sake? There’s pride, and then there’s flat out bullheadedness.”

I lean against the kitchen counter and hear it creak against my weight. That sound makes my heart lurch. The counter never makes a sound when Sookie leans against it. “My sister’s only just barely a hundred pounds?”

“According to the measurements they took at the ER the other night, she’s 102,” Jeff tells me.

I put my hands against my face, push them hard against my eyes, trying to make ’em hurt so it gives them an excuse to water. It’s a stupid move though ‘cause fuckin’ bitch sobs are workin’ at my throat. I’m fuckin’ cryin’ in front of a complete stranger ‘cause I just found out I’m starvin’ my baby sister. How did Social Services not take her? What’s their fuckin’ problem!? I’m killin’ the one person I got left and they ain’t savin’ her!

“Jason,” Jeff’s got me by the shoulders and is shakin’ me a bit, but I’m bawlin’ like a toddler now, “she wants to stay with you. So, can you do it? Can you just accept that someone sees that you guys are good people and wants to help?”

I’m sobbin’. I’m noddin’. Fuck, I’m huggin’ on Jeff like he’s a saint deliverin’ me from Hell.

“Finish school, get a job, and you can pay Northman back. Okay? He’s good at keeping a tab open for people.”

“Okay,” I’m gaspin’ for air while tryin’ my damnedest to stop cryin’. I’m such a little bitch.

“I’m going to go now,” Jeff tells me.

“Okay,” I choke.

“You going to be okay?”

“Okay,” I reply on autopilot.

“Jason?”

“I’ll be okay,” I tell him.

“You have to let me go now, Jason,” he nudges me in the ribs and that’s when I realize I’m still huggin’ him.

“Sorry,” I mumble, embarrassed that not only have I been cryin’ like a little girl, but I’ve been huggin’ on a guy, a guy I don’t even know. “I gotta go pick up Sooks from work now anyway,” I look down at my tore up jeans and the hoody I think I’ve been wearin’ the last three days now without a wash.

“Can I drop you off?” Jeff offers. I look at my watch. I’m runnin’ behind and know I’ll miss the bus if I don’t take his offer.

“Sure, thanks,” I go to my shoes, or where I thought I left my shoes. The fuck are they!? I finally find them halfway under the couch, slide them on, and grab my keys and wallet.
Jeff’s car is one of those cozy little Subarus. It’s a nice car, not over the top like Eric’s Corvette, but still pretty sweet. I’m more of a truck guy myself.

We’re quiet in the car. I think Jeff knows I’m embarrassed about my breakdown. It’s weird. I’ve never been much for cryin’ and shit like that, but the last three years really upped the waterworks from the old water supply plant. Pretty much anythin’ involving Sooks makes me cry. When she’s happy, when she’s sad, when she’s hurt… These past couple nights have really kicked me in the balls though. My baby sis gettin’ mugged, gettin’ hurt like that. Then findin’ out she’s practically disappeared beneath my clothes undid me. How didn’t I see she’d lost so much weight? No wonder Sarah was on Sook’s ass at the hospital night before last. She probably got a look at Sook’s weight and freaked the fuck out!

The car pulls up to the curb and I hop out, thank Jeff again, and turn toward the Rochester Café. I can see Sookie weavin’ ’round the tables, sweepin’ up tips, and refillin’ glasses.

“Hey, Sooks,” I wave at her and she freezes a moment, lookin’ me over like I’m tattooed with the story of the day.

“I’m almost done, Jason,” she finally says after she’s made her assessment. “Darla’s about ready to take over.”

“Okay,” I sit at the counter and order a cup of coffee. After the last few days I’ve had, I think I can swing a dollar for myself and get a real cup of coffee instead of the instant shit we have at home. “Can you get a slice of that peach pie for Sookie?” I ask Juan while he fills my mug. Juan’s eyebrows go up a bit at my request, but he looks super excited that I’m gettin’ Sookie some food.

“Hey,” Sookie sits next to me, “you’re sittin’ down!” she teases. I take a sip of my coffee and Juan slides the plate of pie to her. She looks at me puzzled. “What’s this?” she asks.

“That,” I point to the pie, “is going into the belly of my one hundred and two fucking pound sister.” Her eyes widen at my tone. “Why didn’t you tell me you was so starved?”

“I’m not starved!” she insists in a low hiss.

“Oh yeah?” I grab the tail of her shirt and twist it around my fist until it cinches against her sides. Fuck me! 102 on a 5’6” girl is terrifying! “Oh my God,” I utter and let go of her shirt. Next, I put my hands on either side of her waist and my fingertips are almost touchin’. I know in the back of my head that if I just squeeze a lil more, I could touch my fingers together. Only… If I did, I think I would throw up. My fingers touchin’ is the ultimate sign of my failure as her brother. “Oh my God,” I repeat like a prayer for forgiveness.

“Jason, I’m fine!” she tells me desperately, pushin’ my hands away and billowin’ her shirt back out so she looks more filled out than she is… ‘cause her worthless shit of a brother ain’t feedin’ her.

“No, Sooks, you ain’t fine,” I shake my head before restin’ it on the counter. “Sarah could and shoulda yanked you outta my custody night before last.”

“Jason,” she’s panickin’ now. She can tell I could kill myself right now.

“So, what I’m gonna tell you is how it’s gonna be. No whinin’, no arguin’, no nothin’. Got it?”

“Jason-”
“Eric Northman bought our buildin’. He’s movin’ us into the main floor, lowerin’ our rent, and updatin’ the building. We are gonna be appreciative, accommodating, and ass kissing. We will be the fuckin’ Triple A of hospitality toward him. Got it?”

“What the heck-”

“Shut it!” I snap and Darla looks at me in surprise. I don’t think no one’s ever heard me raise my voice to Sookie in her entire life. “Listen, I don’t wanna lose you. I will suck Northman’s dick if it’s what I gotta do to keep you, and to keep you healthy,” I turn in my seat and grasp at her face. I stare her dead in the eyes and say, “You are the only fuckin’ thing that matters to me, and if I gotta accept a little charity right now to keep you healthy, I’m gonna fuckin’ do it. Understand?”

Sookie looks at me, all contrite, and I pull her into my chest and kiss the top of her head. “Sooks,” I start again after a minute, “last time they weighed you, you was 117. What happened since November?”

My sis takes a fork and starts playin’ with the pie piece. “I-I was gettin’ terrible tips all month,” she whispers after a minute. “I didn’t want you to cut out your own food, so I cut my lunch money outta the budget and didn’t tell ya,” she finally confesses. “I only just started gettin’ my tips back up again the other day.”

I know my eyes is big as the moon when she tells me this. She’s been keepin’ the same portions for us at home this whole month and a half, and I only let her do that on the weekdays ‘cause they feed her so good at school. “You stupid, beautiful, stupid girl!” I’m kissin’ on her head all over again. “Juan, can you get her a burger, fries, and a Coke, too?” I call out.

“Jason!” she looks at me in surprise.

“Nah, this is just a kick start. Football season’s over and done with. I can cut back for now. Social Services can’t take me away, right?” I point out to her.

“Jason,” she’s got ‘Boycott” written all over her face.

“Sookie,” I stare her down and she finally concedes. She starts eatin’ her pie and is just finishin’ up when her burger and fries come. Sis is practically force feedin’ me French fries and makes me take a couple big bites of her burger, but I know her stomach’s probably so shrunk up she’d make herself sick t’eat all that food in one go.

“I love you, Jason,” she says as we grab our stuff up and go to catch the bus.

“I love you, too, Sooks,” I tell her and wrap my arm over her shoulders. How didn’t I notice how bony her shoulders feel against my arm?

When we get back to the apartment, Eric Northman is sittin’ on our lumpy couch, my lumpy bed. I groan internally. I wasn’t prepared for ass kissin’ so soon.

“Good evening,” Eric stands up and shakes mine and Sookie’s hands. “My assistant told me that you called him out on our ruse. You Stackhouses are very astute.”

“Yeah, well, he almost got me,” I admit ruefully. “All the sudden I realized me and Sooks don’t usually get showered with good luck. Then you was practically tryin’ to shove hundred dollar bills in my pants. Thought I was a male stripper for a minute last night.”

Okay, so I don’t kiss ass too good.

Eric actually laughs, “Yes, I am not a very discrete individual.” Sookie’s bein’ super quiet. I don’t think she trusts herself to be nice. “And that one,” he points at Sookie, “already has me in her crosshairs, so I tried to walk the line carefully.” He smiles at her in a way I don’t like. He’s got a ‘come sit on my knee’ look in his eyes. “You have more color in your cheeks,” he says to Sookie. “Have you eaten?”

“Yeah, we ate at my work,” Sookie spits out.

“I am glad,” Eric actually sounds sincere. He looks at me now and points to the kitchen counter. There’s a black, leather binder sittin’ there. “That is the ledger with which I will be keeping track of your debts. Whatever way you wish to proceed from here is fine by me. I will record the expenses you incur and the debts you erase. Whenever you wish to pay me back is fine by me. If you wish for me to destroy it, I will do that as well. It is up to you.”

“I just wanna know why you’re doin’ this?” Sookie pleads suddenly. “I don’t get it. I don’t like not gettin’ it!”

“I have told you my reasons. If you cannot accept them as the truth, then all that remains are lies,” Eric tells her, and I have to admit, that’s a pretty smooth line.

“I get why us, but why at all,” she insists.

Eric’s lip twitches, like he’s so excited she phrased it like that or somethin’, “Because I was ordered to.”

That makes me and Sookie frown. Ordered by who? What is he talkin’ ’bout?

“You see, my father,” he smirks thinkin’ of his dad? “insisted that I learn how to be more philanthropic. Therefore, I must spend two hours every evening helping others. It is tedious, boring, and I do not like it at all. However, he never said how many people I had to help, only how much time I had to devote to it.

“I like you. I like your brother. So I spend my two hours finding ways to help you because I know you will not squander it. You will be appreciative, although reluctant, and somewhat hostile in your case, Ms. Stackhouse,” He flashes a weirdly excited smile at my sister when he makes that point. “It is fun. I never thought this little social experiment of my father’s would be fun, but it is. You two are challenging, and I challenge you to challenge me to keep our game going. Draw lines in the sand. Make me work hard to help you. Which, by the way, I still had a half an hour to kill on my quota this evening,” He points again at the kitchen, and I realize he’s pointing at the fridge. I go over, open it, and the fucker’s packed full of food. “So, I went grocery shopping to fill the required thirty minutes.”

I look at Sookie with wide eyes, but she’s starin’ at Northman as though she’s seein’ him in a whole new light. All that distrust and anger seems to evaporate now that she understands why he’s doin’ what he’s doin’. The fact he’s admitted that he’s not doin’ this outta the kindness of his heart seems to settle her in some ass-backward way. She knew there was somethin’ he was holdin’ back and now that she understands what it was, she’s a lot more acceptin’ of him. I could do without the oglin’ she’s got toward him though.

I clear my throat to get Sook’s attention, and she fuckin’ blushes and looks at her feet. Shit.

“Well, thanks for spendin’ your quota on us tonight, Mr. Northman,” she mumbles, embarrassed that I caught her starin’. I guess she could do worse than Northman if he’s interested, but at the same time, he looks older than me. I don’t know how I feel about that.

Eric nods at her, and he’s got a cocky grin on his face I’d like to punch for some reason. You ain’t fuckin’ my baby sister, I think angrily.

“I’ll grab a thermos and walk you out,” I can hear the pissy tone in my voice and try and recover my earlier attitude while makin’ myself a cup of instant coffee. Fuck it, I decide to just make it with tap water and drink it cold. Instant coffee is shit anyway. I can always nuke it at the Buy’n’Bag if it’s terrible.

Once I got my “coffee,” I kiss Sookie on the head, tell her goodnight, and walk out with Northman.

“My sister likes you now,” I grumble as we walk down the stairs.

“Is that so?” He looks amused.

“Yeah, it’s so,” I snap. “How old are you?”

“Do you think my interests align with hers?” he asks me with that same laughter in his eyes. I wanna slap him upside the head. Don’t matter if he likes her. A girl likes a guy, and that’s all they need to try and get in their panties whether they like the girl back or not.

“How old are you?” I demand again.

He smirks, “Twenty-four.”

Seven years. Almost four years older than me. Does that bug me?

“Look, you’re playin’ it cool right now, but if your interest in her changes, you fuckin’ tell me before you tell her. Got it?” I warn him with a cold glare. “You ain’t fuckin’ my sister. Got it? She deserves love, and it’d be her first time with any shit you pull. She don’t know men. She sure as hell don’t know rich men. She’s hearts and flowers, not champagne and caviar. Hear me?”

“Loud and clear, Stackhouse,” he assures me. “I believe your warnings are monumentally premature, however. She has only just thawed to me.” We are standing in front of his car now and I’m starin’ at him, waitin’ to make sure he leaves before I do. “Would you like a ride to work?”

“I’d like you to not be here when I ain’t,” I tell him honestly.

Eric nods at me and points to the passenger seat, “Get in. I see that we have a bit more to discuss now that you think your sister is a different concern than resistance.”

I walk around his car and slip into the seat while he climbs behind the wheel. He pulls out of the parkin’ space smoothly and takes off toward the Buy’n’Bag. I like his driving a helluva lot more than his sister’s. “I promise that I will not make any advances toward your sister, Stackhouse. If anything were to change in regard to my relationship with her, she would be the one to initiate it. I further promise that if she were to do so, you would be the second to know,” he tells me, but I could do without that confident look in his eyes. I don’t like to think that my baby sis would make the moves on a guy. She’s a lady. She wasn’t raised to put the moves on nobody.

“She won’t make a move on ya. She doesn’t even know how,” I laugh.

Eric shakes his head, “Nuances, Stackhouse. A man knows when he is wanted. I would appreciate finding out if I am wanted…?”

“Listen,” I groan at his implying that he wants to spend more time with the two of us, “we both work. We both go to school. We ain’t got time to be wined and dined by a millionaire.”

Eric actually laughs at that. “What if we were to do as we did tonight? You will pick up Sookie as you usually do on evenings you work at the convenience store, I will meet up with you afterward, we will converse, get to know each other, and then I will drive you to work?”

“I guess I can live with that,” I concede begrudgingly.

“Would you also be able to live with having my physician take a look at that arm? She is very revered for her specialized treatments,” he tells me. “I fear that your school’s physician will prescribe rotator cuff surgery, and my physician might have a better plan for you. It could mean staying on the football team for your fourth year, and then you will not need the alternate scholarship.”

“What? She bottle miracle juice or somethin’?” I joke. I know my shoulder’s trashed, but despite how draining football is, I’d hate to abandon my team my last year.

“If she were not such a pain in the ass, she could have been deemed a saint for the miracles she has performed,” he jokes back. “I warn you, Dr. Ludwig is crass, bossy, and very no nonsense. Do what she tells you, be grateful, and do not complain.”

“Oh, so, she’s like a woman version of you?” I jibe.

Eric laughs again, “I cannot remember the last time I laughed this much,” he admits. “You know, you and your sister make me laugh… In a surprisingly good way.”

“I guess all the money in the world don’t buy happiness, huh?” I frown now ‘cause I’m realizing this guy seems to have had a pretty empty life. “Are you and your sister real close? What about you and your dad?”

“We are all very tight knit,” he assures me. “Our father lives in Texas. Pam recently moved back down here several weeks ago and is staying with me until she finds a place she deems suitable. We are not overly social with one another, but our affections run deep. Not nearly as demonstrative as you and your sister are, but we are very much a close family.”

“Anything bad ever happen to your sister?” I ask, thinkin’ ’bout the other night and how I thought my world ended. Thinking about today and findin’ out how bad I was failing my own sister.

“She was severely injured in a scuffle a while back,” Northman tells me, his voice darkens a bit, and I know that it still bothers him. “I picked her up and ran very far with her… Another man wanted her, and she did not want him. He tried to beat her into submission.”

My eyes are huge when Eric tells me this, “Was she okay?”

“She recovered. It was a long time ago, and I have since taught her how not to be put in such a scenario again.”

“What about the guy who hurt her?” I ask.

“He was dealt with,” is all he offers, and it makes a shiver go down my spine. Northman’s rich, and he’s said he loves his sister a lot. I wonder if he had the guy killed or something. Hell, maybe he killed the bastard himself. As a big brother, I can’t say I wouldn’t do the same. Plenty of gators in Louisiana to clean things up, after all.

Eric pulls up to the Buy’n’Bag and I climb outta the car. Before he can leave, I tell him I’ll give his doc a shot at my arm. He nods and says he’ll send her over sometime when I’m home.

Once his car’s drivin’ away, I turn toward the store. Mine and Sookie’s life has changed a lot in forty-eight hours.

On To Chapter Four!

Catalyst Ch.02

Chapter Two: Opportunity

Eric’s POV:

Damn.

I have just finished reading the information Pam has scrounged up on the Stackhouse siblings. Their parents died in a flash flood several years ago, and their grandmother raised them until the older Stackhouse was a freshman in college. Then the grandmother up and died, and Jason Stackhouse has been struggling to keep Social Services from taking his sister into foster care. I look again at their class records and find that these Stackhouse kids do not fuck around. 4.0 GPA for Jason all through high school and college. Sookie is currently holding a 7.4 GPA, and taking four different advanced placement classes. Jason is looking at the possibility of graduating as Endene University Valedictorian if he does not fuck it up. His sister is quite possibly going to follow in his footsteps.

They both work hard outside of school as well. Sookie Stackhouse works part-time at Rochester Café, earning just over two hundred dollars a month after taxes. Jason Stackhouse works at Booker Stadium as a security guard part-time, and as a graveyard shift worker at the Buy’n’Bag part-time as well. His monthly income is nearly nine hundred after taxes. Throw school and football into the equation as well as the hours he is working makes me wonder when the boy has time to sleep.

Sookie’s SAT scores are impressive, and I note that she is registered to take them again in April. She shows signs of being a perfectionist. She probably believes she could have prepared more and done better.

I review their Social Services file. There are several citations for inadequacies for food. Then again, they live in a very modest apartment, but I would not call it a slum. Apparently Jason tightened his belt to keep Sookie in a better part of Shreveport, and their food expenses suffered on account of that. Why are they not receiving more assistance from the State? They obviously take care of one another and love each other deeply. Should that not be encouraged and rewarded? How is it their fault that life dealt them an abysmal hand?

I look at the photos of Jason Stackhouse his freshmen year, and then the photo from his junior year. He has lost a significant amount of weight, and his eyes… That is a thousand-yard-stare if I ever saw one. I click on an email from the Head Coach of the Saints. I have a decent relationship with the man, and he happened to have Stackhouse’s footage. In his replying email, he commented that the kid’s abilities were those of a natural, but there are obvious signs that Stackhouse has either been injured or has lost focus in the last year. I review the materials and must agree. However, I can tell that the decline in his ability comes from an injury, not aloofness.

Reviewing again, I find that Stackhouse is at Endene University on a football scholarship. If word got out that his shoulder was failing, he would not receive his fourth year scholarship and be forced to drop out.

No sleep. No food. Constant work. Constant stress. Of course the man’s body is failing.

What the hell do I care?

I am looking at Sookie’s photos now. She is so small for her age, and I detest the thought of starving children. Even though Stackhouse is a man, in today’s society I would still consider him a child, a very strong, honorable child. If this were the time of my age, he would have been a comrade in arms, a brother to me.

Big blue eyes are staring up at me from my desk. His. Hers. Damn.

I start remembering the early evening as I stare at Sookie’s photo.

JACOB, YOU JERK!” I watched the pretty little blonde shriek at the bus that stuttered right past where she had stood the last three minutes, waiting for it to rumble to a stop. Apparently she knew the driver as she cursed his name.

It was nine-thirty. The library was an ‘Out Door’ only at this point, and I observed the young woman looking around anxiously for a pay phone. Would she call a cab?

At first I had no interest in the little morsel as I scanned the library for an appetizer. I enjoy this particular hunting ground due to its size to occupancy ratio. Though the selection is meager, it is easy to pick a meal, seclude it, feed, and glamour quite effortlessly. Tall book cases, deep alcoves, and minimal security cameras. I was not in a hunting mood this evening, and the library is my primary feeding spot when I am bored, but uninterested in a chase. Which is rare.

However, when I spotted the slim, little woman, she abruptly stopped her typing, began turning her head toward me, stopped, and then went back to focusing on her paper. She looked too young to be a college student, but age is getting harder and harder for me to distinguish with every century.

Her scent was delectable, almost luring me in like bait on a hook. However, it is more than just alluring. She smells of comfort. She smells of ‘Home.’ That is the only explanation I am able to make for my later actions.

I watched her rise shortly after nine, remove her USB from the computer, and pack up her bag. As she shouldered the strap, it pulled the tail of her hooded sweatshirt, revealing a sickeningly thin abdomen.

Honestly, this “skinny” fad is tiresome. These anorexic young women and their vile attitudes as they focus on vanity rather than vitality makes it difficult to enjoy fucking them. They also offer very little nourishment for me, and despite the young woman’s intoxicating aroma, she is what humans would call “empty calories.”

The blonde’s shoulders were tensed and I noticed once again that her head was beginning to tilt in my direction. She must have felt my eyes on her. Instead of looking at me, she glanced back at the library, down the street, back at the library, and seemed conflicted over what to do.

With how skinny she is, she would not make a very filling meal. It would probably kill her if I am honest with myself. She adjusted her bag again and I realized that she was wearing men’s jeans. They were crudely cut at the hem, and rested very low on her hips. The belt she wore was also a man’s belt, and judging by the fact that I could see the tail of it from my vantage point, it apparently had new holes punched in it. Her hooded sweatshirt was oversized. I realized then that she might not be so slight by choice.

I did not like that thought. For whatever reason, it unsettles me to think of hungry children, and judging by the fact I could see the high school I.D. badge on her bag, she is certainly a child. Hmm, Stackhouse. I know that name… I will have to ask Pam where I know that name. She is my own personal rolodex.

There was a temptation to sail past her and hide a twenty-dollar bill in her bag as I passed by, but she began to move before I could do just that. She unclipped something from her bag and held it tightly to her chest. What do you have there, Little Girl? I had thought. I was curious, and flew up and over her to the opposite roof top. She was clutching a can of Mace and one of those annoying rape whistles. Those fucking things can make a vampire’s ears bleed, they are so shrill.

Suddenly the girl went rigid, turned swiftly, and was off like a shot down the sidewalk. I began leaping toward the next rooftop when a man came darting from across the street and tackled the little girl into an alley. She was stumbling to her feet, trying to get the whistle to her mouth, and aim her Mace at her attacker. Before she could stutter out a single blow into the whistle, the man backhanded her, and her head slammed into the wall of the building.

I was on the street, across the road, and in the alley before the violator had made another move. His wrist was in my hand and I crushed it so that he might be found more easily through hospital records. With that sort of damage, he would not be able to avoid medical treatment for very long. I gave him an hour before the swelling and pain forced him to the hospital.

Tilting my head down, I flung the scum out of the alley, and told him to run for his life. He was still sobbing over his arm, but he took off into the night.

Finally, I crouched down and checked on the girl. She was crying quietly. Her face was reddening from being smashed into the bricks, and the opposite cheek was flushed as well from the initial strike. She might have broken a cheekbone by the swelling already occurring.

I’m sorry, Jason,” she panted around her tears as her hands fumbled in the darkness, probably looking for her Mace. When her efforts were fruitless, she stumbled to her feet, and her big eyes looked at me desperately. Those big blue pools swam as her hands raised in a meek defensive stance. I could tell this girl had never thrown a punch in her life.

Once I was looking at her directly, I realized who she was. She had said the name Jason, and her last name is Stackhouse. ‘She must be the little sister of the Endene quarterback,‘ I had thought in that moment. I could see the resemblance.

I realized she was holding her arms like a boxer because I was blocking her exit. She believed that she was unlucky enough to have two attackers come after her this evening.

Stay,” I told her as I took out my burner phone for situations where I must contact someone only once. I pressed 911. “A young woman was just attacked at Texas and Edward Street, half a block East of the public library,” I told the dispatcher before hanging up. “Stay here. The police will be by in a moment.”

Don’t leave me,” she whispered when she realized I was not a threat.

“I will not be far,” I assured, walking across the street where I could keep her in my line of sight and then disappear once the police arrived. I called Pam quickly and told her to hunt down Jason Stackhouse, starting at Booker Stadium, for which she had a peculiar security pass. Discretely, I wanted to know what sort of asshole brother allowed their young, beautiful sister to walk home in the dark of the city.

When the flashing red and blue barreled down the street, I ascended atop the building.

I groan as I put the Stackhouses’ photos back in the envelope. Their lives will take me a month to sort out if I venture into assisting them discretely. Then again, Godric ordered that I must help humans. He never gave me a quota. Also, this pair has genuinely sparked my interest, so why not use them as a sort of parole hearing? If Godric sees how much I assisted them, perhaps he will shave the remaining years off my sentence.

First, I need to see if Pam is agreeable to having that Stackhouse boy in her system. His shoulder will not make it another season from the footage I have seen. I would be surprised if he managed to make it through Spring semester without his team mates noticing that he is favoring it still.

He will need a bit of blood once a month for the next year and a half. If we keep the dose just right, it will make the damage to his shoulder manageable without causing him worse injury when her blood leaves his system.

Pam will hate that. She has been leaning more toward women again lately, but she appears his age, is beautiful, and the poor boy will probably be ruined for all other women after she beds him. Pam will especially hate that she must feel what the boy feels for six to seven weeks after his last dosing.

Now, what to do about the girl? I rub my thumb over my chin as I consider possibilities. I could proposition her to be my lover; take care of her that way. Being a master of seduction has its practical uses, but that might cause the brother to go into a tailspin. I do not wish to cause a rift between them as I try to bail water from their sinking ship.

I need to find a means of supplementing their income without them becoming suspicious. There is the option of going to this Rochester Café and glamouring its regulars to leave better tips for Sookie, but that would be tedious. I could get Jason a raise by glamouring his bosses, but looking at his hourly wages, I can already see that both places of employment have him almost capped out. If they pay him much more, he will see the charity behind it.

There had been a security pass on Ms. Stackhouse’s bag as well as her school I.D. It was peculiar because the families of players do not usually get such passes, only employees. That is why I had sent Pam toward Booker Stadium to begin her hunt for the brother. It is also why after I left the hospital, I went straight to the stadium to begin my own investigations.

When I glamoured the man at the guard station, I discovered that Jason did indeed work there as well as play. I spoke to all of his coworkers who were present, discovering a great deal about the quarterback. Mostly I found that this young man would die for his sister if it came to that.

Perhaps that is why I actually want to help these siblings? At first, I wanted to help the girl. It was ingrained in me that strong, beautiful, honorable women should be looked after and respected. When I believed her family was neglecting or hurting her, I wanted to protect her. Then, after I found this strong, honorable brother killing himself every day to give her the simplest of necessities to survive, I found that he deserved my help as well. The truly respectful thing to do is not charity, but opportunity.

Reviewing the boy’s schedule, I find that he has a final football practice tomorrow into the early evening. Odd since their school’s season is over, but I dismiss my curiosity for now. The security guards told me that Sookie usually attends his practices on Wednesdays since it is her day off. She sits on the sidelines and does her homework like a good girl. She yells, praises, and cheers her brother on during practices when she can make it, and she has never missed a game.

Apparently the team has made many allowances for the siblings as far as protocol and regulations go. Sookie is allowed on the field, outside the locker rooms, and has even been allowed to travel with the team to games. It is obvious that the two of them have managed to worm their way into people’s consciousness’s. I should not feel so disgusted with myself for allowing the same to happen to me.

Regardless, the sun will rise soon and I need to slip into my cache before that happens. I will infiltrate Booker Stadium again the following evening with Pam and see if we cannot create some opportunities for the Stackhouses.

Sookie’s POV:

My hair is down, and my eyes are on the floor. Please, no one look at me.

‘Jeez, when is Jake gonna ask me out again?’

‘Someone’s gonna notice I always got a freakin’ book in front of me. Why won’t it just stay down?!’

‘Trig, why do you hate me?’

‘Wonder if I made the cut-‘

I shake my head and shake loose the thoughts. No one is paying attention to me. Good.

Being a telepath has a lot of advantages. I can see danger comin’ from a mile away. I know when my brother really needs some encouragement. I have a chance to prepare my defense before accusations fly. Most importantly, it is my ultimate defense against being discovered.

Ever since I can remember I have been able to hear the thoughts of everyone around me. Honestly, I don’t know how or why I kept it from Jason or my family, but something inside me has told me all my life that they are safer and happier without the burden. I know Jason would still love me if he knew. I know my parents and Gran would have, too, but there was always this voice in my head… not someone else’s, but almost the voice of a more mature and grown up me. Grown up Sookie stated over and over and over that to really be happy, and for everyone around me to be happy, I had to hide this side of myself for now.

Sometimes I think I’m crazy. I mean, it’s a lot more likely that I’m hearing voices, not thoughts. I’ve agonized over that possibility since I was twelve and learned about schizophrenia. However, there has always been one element that has assured me I am not actually insane, and that is the accuracy of the voices.

I can say exactly the right thing, at exactly the right time. It makes me pretty popular, but in the way I like. Almost everyone likes me just enough to leave me alone and be amicable. That’s all I really want. I’ve lost too many loved ones, and being close to anyone other than my brother is scary. Sometimes I considered telling him that I hated him and he should just dump me into the foster system so I don’t have to look at him anymore. It would have been a ruse to make a clean break and be forever alone, but in a way he needs me too much.

He doesn’t need me in the financially cripplin’ way that I’ve provided, but blood is way thicker than water when it comes to Jason. If he let me go, he’d feel like the worst brother in the whole world. He’d never get over it and he would just fall apart.

I know he loses sleep over it, which is terrible because he hardly gets enough sleep as it is. Poor Jason, he’s gonna kill himself doing all this. If you add work, school, and football, he’s working over ninety hours a week. I’ve seen in the other team members’ heads that they’ve caught him sleeping in the quad, on the sidelines, and one memorable moment, standing, leaning against a pillar still holding his books.

The lunch lady shovels extra meat onto my sloppy joe. She gives me a wink and sad smile as she also heaps on a little extra green beans. I pay for my lunch and sit quietly at my lunch table with some of the kids in Drama club. They are all so exuberant and demonstrative that they hardly notice I don’t really talk. It’s fun to watch them bein’ silly and just havin’ fun.

“Hey, Sookie, what happened to your face?” Jenna asks suddenly and my mouth stops chewin’ to give her my wide-eyed look. “Both of your cheeks are bruised!”

Dang, I couldn’t keep my face hidden behind my hair while I ate. It’s too long to keep outta my mouth.

“I got mugged last night on the way home from the library,” I tell them quietly.

“Oh my God, are you okay?” Meredith asks shrilly.

“I’m fine, just a couple bruises,” I assure them. “Some guy came by and chased him off, so he didn’t get my wallet or anythin’.”

‘Ha, wallet. You mean your plastic baggy of bus fair and lunch money?’ Joe thinks uncharitably, but I hear his following guilt as he thinks that. How can I be mad at fleetin’ thoughts? He’s in high school, for goodness sake! I should be grateful he has the discipline not to say that out loud.

“Oh, that’s terrible! I’m glad someone stepped in and helped you. Was he older?” Meredith asks as she starts to anxiously finger comb her light brown hair. Her hazel eyes are big and curious.

“I guess. Maybe a few years older than my brother?” I guess. I don’t want to think about the guy who saved me. I couldn’t hear his thoughts and those little malfunctions in my telepathy freak me out. I’ve noticed them quite a few times since moving to Shreveport with Jason. There are just mental voids that pop up from time to time. It’s comforting in a way because if there are people I can’t hear, maybe I won’t be alone my whole life. I could have a perfectly normal relationship with someone whose thoughts I couldn’t hear. The only reason Jason doesn’t notice is because he loves me so much, he overlooks a lot of my weirdness.

Unfortunately, one of those voids popped up last night, and I was so focused on the strange movements of that mind that I got blitzed by the real threat. Who would have thought that the silent mind was going to become my savior?

He was beautiful. Tall. Built. Shoulder-length blond hair, and so authoritative. Not in a condescending way, more like a cop. Taking into action, swooping in, and handling the situation with a calm disposition and reassurance. He was so beautiful…

“Earth to Sookie,” Jenna is waving her hand in front of my face.

“Huh?” I look at her curiously and she stops flapping her fingers at me.

“I asked if they caught the guy that mugged you?” Jenna repeats.

“Oh, no, not yet. The guy who stepped in broke the mugger’s wrist, and the cops are screenin’ all the hospitals to see who comes in, but I won’t know if they caught him until I get home and check the answerin’ machine.”

Joe rolls his eyes, “When are you gonna get a freakin’ cell phone?”

“We can’t afford it. I know Jason really wants me to have one, but right now it’s not in the cards. When we can afford it, it’s gonna be for emergencies only. He said I can’t give the number out to anyone because we’ll only be able to get the cheapest plan.”

“That’s so lame,” Jenna grouches. “You’re a teenager. You deserve a phone! He has a serious Rapunzel Syndrome over you!”

I don’t think that’s true. Sure, he worries a lot about me, but he doesn’t stop me from workin’. I think his restrictions are reasonable. We live in the city. We’re all alone in the world. I don’t think he’s bein’ unreasonable ’bout not wantin’ me to go out after dark. We rely on public transportation, and that means standin’ ’round alone at bus stops a lot of the time. That’s dangerous at night.

“Maybe if you lost people you love the ways we did you would understand,” I snap instead.

Jenna’s eyes widen at my comment and she mumbles an apology. The rest of the table is quiet for a long time before they return to ignorin’ me and focusin’ on their latest antics. Good.

{†}

I run up to the guard station at Booker Stadium and wave at Chuck who scans my access pass. “Hey, Chuck, how are you today?” I ask politely.

“I’m good. I heard about last night from Larry and I got you something,” he grins down at me. I love Chuck. He’s about forty-five and has a couple girls about my age, but they go to a different school. “Here you go!” He hands me a can of peaches and disposable fork. I know my eyes light up. “Want me to open it for you? I got a can opener in here somewhere.”

“Sure, thanks,” I grin and hand him back the can. He opens and closes several drawers before he finds the can opener and then cuts off the top before handing me back the container.

“Now, those are for you. Hear me? Don’t go givin’ your brother the whole thing,” he warns with a playful grin. He knows Jason will end up with half anyway, but he also knows that I tend to give him the lion’s share. To be fair, the lunch ladies take pity on me at school, and Jason has a much more physically taxing life than me. He deserves more of the food.

“Thanks, Chuck,” I wave goodbye and head into the stadium. The guys are already on the field practicing when I come onto the sidelines. Coach Murphy sees me, smiles, and jogs over. “Hi, Coach,” I smile.

“Hey, Sooks,” He gives me a quick hug that I steel myself against. I hate being touched by broadcasters, but the coach is nice, so I don’t flinch away. “Got homework?”

“A ton,” I admit.

“I’ll find you some gloves for those baby hands of yours,” he teases and runs back to the benches to find the smallest pair of gloves he can scrounge up. They’re enormous on my small hands, but I should still be able to hold a pen or pencil.

A whistle blows and the guys come over to the sidelines. I hand Jason “half” of the can of peaches. He grins down at me, kisses the top of my head, and gobbles them down. ‘She gave me practically the whole fuckin’ thing. Shit, Sooks. You know you need to eat more!’

While the team goes over plays on the sideline, I scoot onto the bench, curl my legs Indian style, and take out my homework. I don’t like watching full contact practices. They make me nervous. Jason’s the only one that doesn’t get tackled, but there have been instances where one of the other team members got over excited and tackled him anyway. I’d rather not watch. I’m always livin’ in fear that one good tackle will make his shoulder finally explode or somethin’.

When the sun is low, the stadium lights come on brightly and I have to look away from my book for a moment because it seems fluorescent against my eyes with the new lighting. I blink several times and watch the guys on the field. They are running laps, and the coach comes over to me again and throws a coat over my shoulders. I hate that the team babies me, but at the same time Jason finds it comforting, so I don’t fuss about it. He needs to know that he can trust others with me, especially after last night.

I finish up my homework and it’s getting dark. Practice will end in an hour, and then Jason will walk me to the bus stop, make sure I get on safely, and then walk back to the stadium for his night shift. He’ll be at the Buy’n’Bag tomorrow.

When the whistle blows for the last time, I get up and stretch, shirk off my borrowed coat, and shiver a bit at the chill. The guys head to the locker room and I start pacing in front of the long hallway, waiting for my brother.

As I wait I see two people bisecting the forty-yard line, heading to the entrance of the locker room. My back straightens as I realize I can’t hear their thoughts, and I watch them carefully as they approach. I quickly recognize the tall blond and my heart stutters.

That’s the guy who saved me last night, I think in wonder as he comes up to me, looks down, and smiles tentatively.

“H-hi,” I stammer. He’s even more gorgeous in the light.

“Hello, Ms. Stackhouse,” he returns my greeting.

“How did you know my name?” I ask apprehensively.

“Your school I.D.” He points at the tag on my book bag nonchalantly. “I saw it last night. I kept wondering where I knew the name ‘Stackhouse’ and then I remembered your brother,” He gestures to the girl next to him. She’s beautiful, maybe a few years older than me, but she seems even older somehow. Old souls or something. “This is my sister Pam, and I am Eric.”

“Hi, Pam,” I greet politely.

“Hello,” She only nods. Her voice is enchanting! She’s like a real lady or something!

I note that I can’t hear either of their minds and wonder if it’s a genetic thing since they’re brother and sister.

“As Serendipity would have it, Pam ended up giving your brother a ride to the hospital last night. She was on her way to bring me my car and saw him running like a mad man to get to you,” Eric explains. I find a flaw in that coincidence, but choose to ignore it.

“I never got a chance to thank you for last night,” I blurt out. “So, umm, thanks for stepping in and helping me.”

“You are very welcome,” He’s smiling at me and his teeth are surprisingly less than perfect. Not in a disgusting or unappealing way, but given the nice clothes, I thought he might have a perfect, unrealistic smile. I find myself liking his teeth. They make him appear normal.

“So, did you come to see Jason?” I ask curiously, looking at Pam and wondering if she dragged her brother down here to see if she could catch Jason’s eye. I wouldn’t hold it against her. A lot of girls try to chase Jason.

“My brother wanted to meet him,” Pam replies, but she is smirking, and I can’t make heads or tails over what that smile is about.

“I admit after our chance meetings last night, I became overly curious about you and your brother,” Eric tells me, and I tilt my head curiously. “I see that you two are struggling, and I wondered if I might talk to him about that.”

I frown now and shake my head, “We don’t take charity, Sir.”

“I would not consider it “charity,” I would call it an opportunity,” Eric assures.

I shrug, “Well, I guess that depends on how Jason sees it.”

Before we can talk any more, Jason comes out of the locker room and practically freezes when he sees Pam. ‘Holy shit! How did she find me?’

“Jason, this is Eric and Pam. I guess you met Pam last night?”

“Yeah,” Jason holds out his hand to shake Eric’s. Their hands squeeze tightly and then Jason looks back at Pam. “So, are you her brother?”

“I am,” Eric is smirking the same way that Pam was, and I find it frustrating as heck.

“Well, you might want to press upon her the dangers of lettin’ a strange man get in her car with her. Don’t get me wrong, I’m extremely grateful, but if she were my sister, I’d flip my shit!” He glares at Pam with disapproval.

“Believe me, Pam was reprimanded accordingly.” Again with the dang smirk!

“I promise; she just gave me a ride. Nothin’ happened,” Jason is getting nervous, and I squeeze his hand comfortingly. They wouldn’t have carried on such a calm conversation with me if Pam had told her brother that Jason had been untoward with her.

“Oh, she told me you were quite the gentleman while she drove you to the hospital,” Eric assures him. “Actually, I was just telling your sister that I looked into your family after all the events of last evening.”

“Jason,” I whisper, “this is the good Samaritan that stopped the guy from muggin’ me.”

My brother’s eyes widen as I tell him this and his hand suddenly releases mine. Before any of us can react, Jason has his arms wrapped around Eric and he is nearly sobbin’ as he just keeps repeatin’, “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you, so fuckin’ much.” My eyes prickle with tears. Jason isn’t usually so emotional, but when it comes to me, sometimes the waterworks kick in.

“It was a very lucky circumstance and I merely did what any man should,” Eric disengages Jason from his grateful embrace, lookin’ more than a bit uncomfortable. Jason returns to my side and starts kissin’ the top of my head. The mention of the events from last night seem to make him want to kiss on me over and over. “You see, Jason, Pam and I are very well off. You probably knew this when you saw her driving my car last night.” Jason nods and I see him visualizin’ the cherry red Corvette. Even I know that’s a real nice car, and I don’t know anythin’ ’bout cars. “I have many connections and affiliations. To be blunt, nothing happens in Shreveport or Bossier without my knowledge.”

Jason’s back tightens under my hand. “Listen, I think I know where this is goin’,” Jason tries to ward him off. “We don’t take charity.”

Eric chuckles under his breath and shakes his head, “Yes, your sister said the same thing. However, I was actually hoping to talk to you about football.” Jason cocks his head curiously, and Eric leans in and whispers, “I was watching footage from your previous games last night, and I am aware that your shoulder is going to give well before your fourth year scholarship is renewed.” My brother’s eyes widen and he glances back toward the locker room nervously. I rub his back to try and sooth his anxiety. “My question is, does playing mean all that much to you, or do you merely need the scholarship?”

Jason fumbles with his words a moment before explainin’ in a rush, “I love playin’, Sir, but it’s not my future. I got everythin’ set to do my student teaching next Fall… Well, mostly set. I have to take a couple classes over the summer, but I’m already linin’ up for them. I can survive the preseason, but I just need to play long enough to get my scholarship locked in for that first semester. After that, I’ll have to admit defeat. If it turns out I need surgery, I can’t let the school know ’til after they renew my scholarship.”

“I see, so if I gave you the opportunity to receive a different scholarship and you could focus entirely on work and school, that would be appealing to you?” Eric asks, and my eyes narrow. What does this guy want from my brother?

“I guess… Football is twenty or more hours out of my week, but at the same time, if I weren’t hurtin’ so bad, I’d rather put up with it and finish my last season. It’s kinda pointless though. I couldn’t qualify-”

“I can push an application through anything, Stackhouse,” Eric smiles, and I can’t understand why I feel like my brother’s makin’ a deal with the devil. “You could spend more time with your sister, or work more to provide her more.”

“Jason, Jason, don’t do it,” I find myself tuggin’ at his sleeve like a small child.

“What are you sayin’, Sooks?” Jason looks at me as if I’ve lost my mind.

“They’re not right,” I tell him. “There’s somethin’ wrong with them!”

Pam is lookin’ at me like I’m crazy now, too.

“Stackhouse, may I speak privately with your sister?” Eric asks, and my eyes widen in terror.

“Er,” Jason looks at my fearful eyes and puts his arm over my shoulder. “Nah, she’s got good instincts.”

“I would believe that. I saw her run from her attacker before I even knew he was there,” Eric nods. “However, I think her instincts about me might be about something else entirely.”

I look at him suspiciously.

“Look, I’ll just stand over by the tunnel outta earshot. He says anythin’ to you makes you uncomfortable, you come runnin’ back to me, all right?” Jason looks up at Eric and tells him firmly, “Do not touch my sister.”

“I will keep my hands in my pockets,” Eric tells him.

“You keep your damn hands away from your junk, too,” he snaps, and Eric actually booms with a laugh while Pam chuckles.

“Hands in the air it is,” Eric concedes, raisin’ his arms above his head.

“Put your hands down,” I grumble at how ridiculous he’s bein’.

Naturally crossin’ his arms over his chest, Eric leans away slightly as he looks down at me. I think he’s about a foot taller than me and I have to crane my neck to look at his eyes.

“Ms. Stackhouse, to be frank, you have every right to distrust me. I have earned that suspicion from many,” he tells me candidly. “However, I am not, nor have I ever been, a snake oil salesman. I am not offering your brother money, nor asking him for favors in return. To be perfectly honest, he is more than likely going to qualify for the Injured Athlete’s Scholarship once his shoulder is permanently destroyed by this sport. I guarantee you that under the circumstances he is currently living in, you can expect permanent and excruciating damages by this summer if he continues to hide the problem. That shoulder needs to be immobilized, and he needs to see a physician before he is being subjected to rotator cuff surgery by the time he turns twenty-one. Do you understand what I am telling you?”

My eyes are wide and I can feel my lip tremble at Eric’s assessment. “What’s in it for you then?” I ask quietly.

“You do not accept charity. This is what I can offer,” he tells me with a shrug.

“You don’t strike me as the type to do favors without gettin’ somethin’ in return,” I tell him.

“And you would be correct. It is not my usual operating procedure,” he confesses. “But,” he stresses, “I am an admirer of honorable people. That is something for which those who have worked with or for me can vouch. You and your brother are honorable people. You work hard, struggle, never complain, and press on. In this vain, mediocre era, I want to encourage your family’s tenacity and strength. I want it to flourish and see more people strive toward becoming what you and your brother are. Honorable.”

For a moment, I actually believe he’s bein’ genuine, but I can’t let go of a lingerin’ suspicion. Maybe it’s the silence of his mind that unsettles me. Maybe it’s the fact that last night he seemed to have a radiant aura about him that is obscured in the stadium floodlights. There’s even a chance that it’s because I find him attractive and I’ve never really found anyone attractive before, at least not people I’ve met in real life. Usually their thoughts turn me right off.

“If you hurt, betray, or manipulate my brother, I will kill you,” I tell him in warning. “He’s all I got left, you hear me?”

“Loud and clear, Ms. Stackhouse,” He nods in understanding before gesturin’ for my brother and his sister to come back to us. Jason stares at Eric sternly and Eric smiles at him. “Your sister and I have talked, and she is no longer against you accepting my offer now that she has made her concerns known to me.”

“So, what does that mean?” Jason asks nervously.

“I will get you a form for the scholarship I know you to be a perfect applicant for and bring it to you. I will give you my card if you have any questions about it between now and then,” He hands Jason a real, honest to goodness, business card and my brother puts it in my back pocket ’til we get back to the apartment. “This was your final practice of the year, yes?” Eric asks curiously.

Jason shrugs in that lopsided way he’s adopted the past month or so, “Yeah, pretty much just an end of the semester thing for the guys. That’s why we practiced full contact. Coach is tryin’ to get the guys pumped for next season.”

Eric nods and I bounce anxiously from foot to foot. “Then I will bring you the application, you fill it out, and I will shove it right under Sandra’s nose until she sends you an acceptance letter… I do not wish to push my luck, but may I suggest a physician for that arm?”

Jason’s jaw tightens, but he manages a mostly sincere smile, “Nah, I’ll finally give up and let the team’s doc take an honest whack at it once I get a new scholarship confirmed. I think he’s suspectin’ me now when I say it feels fine. It’s been grindin’.”

“I see,” Eric nods again and we stand in silence a moment. “Well, it is still early and the guard at the gate told me you do not start your rounds until eight. May I take you two to dinner?”

‘Is he tryin’ to feed us without makin’ it look like charity?’ Jason wonders worriedly. ‘Damn, I’d kill to get a real meal in Sooks for a change…’

“That would be nice,” I smile as sweetly as I can muster. I want to put a good meal in Jason just as desperately. Half a can of peaches does not a dinner make. Jason sighs in relief next to me.

“Well,” Pam interrupts our negotiations, “I have places to be. I will see you at home, Eric,” She nods to her brother.

“Goodnight, Pamela,” Eric responds, and she leaves as Jason and I gather the remainder of our things before going down the street to the bus stop and getting a meal at the corner diner.

Jason and I eye the menus, lookin’ for somethin’ cheap, but filling. There’s broccoli and cheddar soup, which is pretty inexpensive, and when Eric hears us both order the same thing his eyebrows raise in curiosity.

“Miss, could you please get their drinks? I believe you caught them unprepared,” Eric tells the waitress as he picks up a menu. “Tsk, tsk, both of you picking the cheapest thing on the menu. I suppose if I said I would buy dinner tonight you would still pick the same thing?” Jason and I look at each other, and then bow our heads like we’ve been chastised or somethin’. “If I were to hold onto the receipt for this meal, would you feel better about ordering what you really want and paying me back for it later?” he offers.

Chicken strips! I think excitedly, longin’ for honey mustard and fried chicken. French fries, coleslaw! Oh my gosh, is that chicken fried steak!?

Jason is thinkin’ just as enthusiastically about the bacon cheddar burger.

“It is more than obvious that there are other things on the menu you would prefer,” Eric tempts us further. “You can ask the waitress for something other than water as well,” he suggests, and it is like Lucifer whisperin’ seductively in my ear.

We meekly order our desires and when the food comes, I think Eric can see the passion in our eyes and the hesitation in our mouths. We want nothin’ more than to smash the food in our faces, but we hold back to savor.

Halfway through my chicken strips, I look across from me and see Eric starin’ at me with curiosity. It’s then that I notice my face is cold. I reach up with one hand and find my face damp with tears.

“I’m sorry!” I say in surprise, not realizin’ I had started to cry. “I don’t know why!” I’m shocked at my body’s response to the food. It’s not like we’ve been starvin’. I shouldn’t be feelin’ this sort of emotional relief when I had a perfectly filling meal at lunch, thanks to the generous lunch lady.

“You have not had good food in a while I take it?” Eric asks softly.

I wipe away another stray tear as Jason stops eatin’ to look at me with fear and failure in his eyes. “I-it reminded me of Gran’s fried chicken I think,” I offer him consolation for my reaction.

When we finish eating, Eric pays the bill, and I wonder that he didn’t eat anythin’ at all. Maybe he ate already or has dinner plans later?

Eric takes the receipt, writes “Due per Jason Stackhouse” on the back, and puts it in his wallet. My brother nods appreciatively at the action and we all rise to leave.

“May I drive you home, Ms. Stackhouse? Mr. Stackhouse, I will gladly take you with us, and then back to the stadium once your sister is home safely,” he adds at the end, settin’ my brother at ease.

“Yeah, that’d be great,” Jason shakes his hand.

Good. Shall we?” Eric gestures toward the door and we file out into the December night.

On To Chapter Three!

Catalyst Ch. 01

Chapter One: December 2000

Jason’s POV

One more year, Stackhouse, I tell myself as my shoulder throbs. My little sister brings a bag of ice over and silently puts it against my upper arm without a request. It’s almost like she knows I’m hurtin’.

Sookie’s been a real gem these past three years. When our Gran died suddenly when she was only fifteen, I freaked! The State wanted to take her. I’ll be damned if my baby sis gets thrown in the fuckin’ foster system while I’m livin’ it up in college! FUCK THAT!

She curls up against my good side on our shitty couch, in our shitty livin’ room, in our shitty apartment. We don’t say nothin’, but I can almost feel her wantin’ to say, “It’s okay. You don’t have to do this anymore.”

“I got this, Baby Sis,” I grunt, leaning back into the couch, grimacing as a spring digs and adjust. “I ain’t lettin’ the State take ya.”

“You work too much,” Sookie whispers and I feel my heart break.

“If it didn’t mean so much to ya, I’d quit school and then I wouldn’t have to work so hard,” I point out and her face drops. “Aw, Sooks, I didn’t mean it like that.”

“I know,” she touches my shirt, rubbing my chest. “I can start workin’ more hours in a couple weeks when school lets out for Christmas. It’s only a week and a half, but you should take the time off and recover.”

“Forget it, Little Girl,” I nudge her. “This is when we should be workin’ our asses off so we got some money saved up. I hate you workin’ at that restaurant. Don’t think I din’ see that asshole grab your butt.”

“It’s no big deal,” she tells me with a shrug. “We need the money.”

“Your job is gettin’ that scholarship, Sooks. You’re so close!” I tell her.

“Don’t quit school,” she murmurs. “You’re almost done. One more year.”

“I’ll do it, Sooks,” I reassure her. “Then it’s all about you, okay? I’ll go to work, even if I can’t find a job for my degree. I’ll get a job diggin’ ditches and get you through school. All right?”

Sookie turns eighteen in May. Fuck me! Six months and two weeks and the State can’t do shit to her! If she weren’t my baby sis, I’d be tellin’ her to find a man who can actually support her. Seein’ as she is my baby sis and smarter than hell, I’m inclined to tell her men can wait ’til she’s thirty and has a solid career.

Smiling at me, Sookie asks if I want any dinner and I nod slowly while she gets up and goes to the fridge. There’s hardly anything in there. Just enough that Social Services don’t freak out on us. I do my best to help keep the place clean, but I got a football scholarship at Endene University, two part-time jobs, and school. There needs to be more than twenty-four hours in a day.

Sookie comes back with a bowl of generic Cheerios for me and I watch as she heads back to the kitchen and fries some eggs for us. I’m surprised neither of us has scurvy or some shit disease from malnutrition. The only time there’s fruits or veggies in the house is when we start getting paranoid about another visit from Social Services. A couple Granny Smiths, some celery, the cheapest healthy food we can afford. Sookie pines for peaches. Every time we go to the store for our measly grocery shopping, I see her eyes stray to the pre-made peach pies. Instead, I throw a bag of Wonder Bread in the cart, and we nickel and dime our way through the rest of the list.

“Sooks,” I call to her as she cracks a couple eggs in the skillet and starts scrambling them, “you get that report done?”

“It’s on my bed,” she calls back.

I stand up, holdin’ the ice to my shoulder and walk gingerly toward the only bedroom. Though she’s the only one that sleeps in here, both our belongings are kept in the single room. There’s a dresser with both our clothes. Two drawers on the top are for me, two drawers on the bottom are for her. I feel like shit, especially when I know that all that’s in our closet is four pairs of blue jeans, a couple of belts, two pairs of shoes, and a buncha second hand t-shirts with pinholes all over them.

Am I being selfish? Am I being stupid? Would she have been better in foster care? I wonder this as I pick up her history report on Pope Clement II. Bringing it back to the livin’ room, I carefully sit back on the lumpy couch that also serves as my bed and start goin’ over her paper. Shit. She ain’t gonna like all these red marks.

Sookie sits next to me and hands me the plate with more eggs. Neither one of us wants more dishes to wash, so we eat with our fingers when we can. I shrug when I leave a grease stain on her paper. She’s gonna have to rewrite all these errors out anyway.

“Ninety-Five, Sooks,” I hand her back her report and she huffs before reviewing my scoring. “I gotta go to work, Baby Sis.”

“I gotta go back to the library and retype this,” she tells me when she takes our dishes, and using the smallest bit of soap as possible, washes, rinses, then dries, and puts them away.

I groan and look at my watch. I don’t like Sookie being out of the apartment after dark without me. “When’s your report due?”
“Two days,” she tells me, and I scratch the back of my head.

“Can you go before school tomorrow and just catch the bus from there?” I ask.

“It’s on our USB drive. You need that for school tomorrow,” she reminds me and I frown.

Shit, I can’t even ask her to just fix it at school if it’s on the USB ‘cause her school don’t allow students to use USBs on their computers, I think in frustration.

“What if I retype it for you at the campus library? You did all the work anyway. Not a big deal if I just retype it. Besides, they don’t charge us nothin’ to print. They do at the public library.”

“You know I don’t like that,” Sookie frowns with an annoyed look on her face. “It’s my paper. I need to do the footwork.”

“You did the footwork,” I plead.

“Jason, I’m seventeen. I think I can handle taking the bus a few blocks and coming home from the library,” she argues.

“And I told ya, you ain’t goin’ nowhere after dark!” I holler back.

“I’m a big girl, Jason. Trust me, okay?” she’s adamant, and she’s got the same Stackhouse stubbornness as me.

I run my hands through my hair and I know I don’t have the time to argue. There’s a good chance she’ll just go after I leave anyway. At least I can get her to call me at work when she’s leaving the library and again when she gets home safe if I just let her go.

“Fine, but you call me before you leave and then when you get home with the door locked. Okay?” I lay down the law.

She smiles at me sweetly, comes over, and kisses my cheek. “You got it!”

“Don’t lose the USB, okay? This is my last project before next semester. If I fuck this up, it’ll put me behind for starting my student teaching next Fall. Got it?”

“Yes, Sir!” she giggles and it makes me smile.

She’s happier with me than any fucking foster parent. Even if we’re struggling, this is better for her. I’m doing the right thing.

“I love you,” Sookie tells me suddenly, and it makes me tilt my head in confusion. “I just want you to know that I’m happy. Okay? I love you.”

My shoulders sag and I scratch my head, a bit rueful. “It’s like you read my mind sometimes, Baby Sis,” I tell her before planting a kiss on her head. “Hey, tell you what? Grab your shit. At least I can make sure you get to the library all right.”

She nods and runs to grab her book bag. She puts her marked up report in her bag, shoulders it, and follows me out of the apartment. Before we leave the building, I double check that she’s got her keys, money for the bus, money for copies, her rape whistle, and Mace. Fuck, I wish I could afford to get us some cell phones!

We walk to the bus stop together, me with my good arm over her shoulder, and her with her head against my chest. It might seem weird that siblings are walking like that, but she don’t get harassed nearly as much when people think I’m her boyfriend. This might sound fucked up, but my sister’s beautiful. She needs as many male deterrents as she can fuckin’ get. Walkin’ like this don’t bother me none though. It’s December and it’s fuckin’ cold at night for two people who only got a hoody over a t-shirt and a pair of jeans.

When the bus stops at the library, I stand up with her, kiss the top of her head, and nudge her toward the door. She smiles at me and I watch from the window to make sure she gets in the library doors safely. When they shut behind her, I sit back in my seat and try to grab a quick nap before my 8-3 shift working security at the stadium.

That gig, three nights a week, pays a pretty penny. I usually manage to catch three to four hours of sleep and then go to classes afterward. The part-time job at the Bag’n’Buy is nearly worthless, but it’s easy money workin’ 11 PM to 7 AM four nights a week and doing all my school work. Sookie’s a gem, typing up all my reports that I write longhand at work, savin’ them to our USB, and then I print them out when I get to school. It would be so much easier if we had a laptop or somethin’.

Sooks only gets about sixteen or twenty hours a week at the restaurant, but it covers our household expenses each month while my jobs cover our rent and utilities. We even managed to save a couple grand over the past three years when we suddenly found ourselves homeless.

We lost our parents’ house after they died. There was just no way Gran could afford the mortgage. Then after Gran passed away three years ago, Sookie and I couldn’t afford to stay in Bon Temps or pay the property tax on the house while we scrounged around for money to survive. The fact that Gran owed so much in back taxes that the government reclaimed the house didn’t work in our favor none either.

“Hey, Stackhouse, wake up! It’s your stop!” the bus driver yells at me and I jerk out of my catnap.

“Thanks, Hank,” I mumble with a smile as I clamber out of my seat and make my way to the door.

“No problem, kid. Hey, you takin’ us to a bowl next year?” he teases me.

I rotate my sore shoulder, but manage a bemused grin, “Sugar, Man. Sugar.” Hank gives me a sad smile. He knows I’m strugglin’ with my shoulder. He tells me I work too hard and my body just can’t recover. Durin’ a bus stop confessional one night, I admitted that I don’t even give a shit about football, except that it’s payin’ my way through college. I plan on being a high school history teacher after I graduate. Won’t need a good shoulder for that.

“Don’t work too hard tonight, Stackhouse,” he tells me as I leave the bus and head to the guard station.

“Hey, Stackhouse,” Larry at the post waves at me. “How’s Sookie?”

“Workin’ on her report at the library. Will you radio me when she calls? She’s s’pose to call me when she leaves the library and then when she gets home.”

“’Course,” Larry nods. “How long you think she’ll be?”

I look at my watch. Shit! I gotta clock in.

“She should probably call the first time at nine or nine-thirty. Again a half hour after the first. She knows to let me know if she misses the bus.”

“All right, Jason, I’ll keep you posted.

“Thanks, Larry!” I call as I run to the security room to clock in, grab my radio, and put on my Batman Belt as I like to call it.

There ain’t really shit to do on this job. Mostly walkin’ around, sometimes there’s a disturbance, but it’s usually some drunk idiots tryin’ t’ break in. We zip tie ’em up and call the real police. Nothin’ to it.

I watch Mallory from Ticket Sales walkin’ down one of the corridors. The fast clank of her heels makes me think she’s ready to get the hell outta here. Probably been crunchin’ numbers on sales in prep for the upcoming tax season. She’s a redhead, smokin’ hot, long legs and great tits. Shit. When’s the last time I got laid?

Four months, twenty-eight days, and fourteen hours ago, I recall miserably. To be fair, I’m so exhausted all the time, I don’t even think I could get it up anymore. Plus, I sleep on a shitty little couch, I work over forty hours a week, and go to school full-time while being on a college football team. How are there really only twenty-four hours in a fuckin’ day?

I glance at my watch. It’s going on 9:15 and I still haven’t gotten a radio buzz from Larry about my sister. I’m gettin’ real nervous. The bus at that stop usually comes ten minutes early. Unless Jacob is driving. If that prick blows past her ‘cause she’s the only one at the stop again, I’m gonna beat the livin’ hell outta him!

If Sooks doesn’t call within the next five minutes, that means she’ll have missed the bus and have to wait until 9:40. If she misses that bus, she’ll be waiting until 10:15. Shit.

As if God decided my heart couldn’t take the anxiety, I hear Larry’s voice over the radio.

Stackhouse, Sookie called and said she’s running to the stop now. She’ll call at 9:50 when she gets home.”

“Thanks, Larry,” I reply.

Unfortunately, my anxiety isn’t relieved. Now I have to wait a damned half-hour to know she got home all right. God, bein’ a brother and dad at the same time is a heart attack waitin’ to happen. That’s the thing though; not just knowin’, but experiencin’ how sudden and cruel life can be. Ma and Dad killed in an instant durin’ that flash flood. Gran missin’ a step on the stairs, breakin’ a rib and piercing her lung. Fuck, that memory hurts real bad. Sookie had been at school when it happened. She came home and found our Gran at the bottom of the stairs with blood pourin’ out her mouth, already dead.

I wish I could un-see that for her. She’s been quiet ever since she saw our Gran dead like that. Not, like, silent, just real quiet… What a fucked up thing to happen though. Next thing I know, Sookie’s not just my sister, but my daughter in a way. I became her legal guardian. God knows I wasn’t about to let her go live with Aunt Linda and her heroine junky daughter.

I get that our Great Uncle did some fucked up shit to Hadley when she was a kid, but Sookie put a stop to it. Sooks was only four and she called the police on Bartlett. I guess she found some pictures of Bartlett’s that scared the piss outta her and she called the cops. I wish I was older then so I could’ve appreciated what she done. I woulda kissed her head over and over and told her how brave, smart, and good she was for doin’ that.

Instead, I’m pissed at Hadley. Her little cousin stopped the abuse and instead of recoverin’, she sunk into a deep depression. When she was thirteen, she started smokin’ pot and by fifteen, she was fuckin’ shootin’ up heroine. I don’t really know what Bartlett did to Hadley, but Sookie gave her a real great gift and it feels like our cousin threw it away because she couldn’t let go of the past.

Maybe I’m being a dick. I don’t know nothin’ ’bout how shit like that fucks with you, or how long it hurts. Maybe it always hurts? That thought makes me shudder. It can’t be raw as all that, right? Can’t feel new and painful every day, right?

I mean, Ma and Dad dyin’ took me a couple years to come to grips with, and man, that hurt so bad. Sooks was still young enough that she actually took Gran’s death harder than our parents’. I was the opposite.

I look at my watch. It’s 9:51. I swallow hard and try to ease the racin’ of my heart. One minute ain’t a big deal. 9:52.

FUCK.

“Larry, my sister called?” I bark into my radio.

Sorry, Jason. Not yet. No calls since the first one.”

I swallow the lump in my throat, but keep on my rounds. I shouldn’t have thought about Hadley. I probably just put bad juju in the air. C’mon, Sooks. Call me. I need to know you’re okay!

9:53

9:54

9:55

Would screamin’ make me feel better? Sookie knows the first thing she’s s’pose to do after lockin’ the front door is fuckin’ call me!

It’s a couple minutes after ten when the radio crackles, “Stackhouse.”

Oh, thank Christ! She finally fucking called! I think with relief.

You need to come to the guard station. The police are calling for you.”

My heart plummets into my stomach and is devoured. I can’t feel my legs even as I’m runnin’. There is this sound, like white noise or waterfalls in my ears. WHOOSH, WHOOSH, WHOOSH, over and over as I run from damn near the other side of the stadium to Larry at the guard station. His face is white, his eyes are wide, and he’s holdin’ the phone out at me like he’s apologetically offerin’ me poison.

“SOOKIE!?” I yell into the phone.

This is Patrol Officer Thompson,” A guy’s voice comes over. “Are you Sookie Stackhouse’s guardian?” He sounds pissed.

“Yes! God, is she okay? Where is she? Is she okay? What happened? Is she okay!?”

She’s a little beaten up,” Thompson tells me and I can’t stop the sob that cracks my voice. “We think it was an attempted mugging, but a good Samaritan stepped in, chased the guy off, and called the police. Your sister says he broke the guy’s wrist and we’re already checking hospitals for people coming in with that injury. She’s at the hospital right now, and I’m still with her. She got hit pretty hard and they’re taking x-rays to make sure she didn’t break anything.”

“Wh-which hospital?” I ask, trying to send a rescue line to my heart.

St. Mary’s,” he answers sympathetically. I don’t know if he’s dropped the pissy attitude ‘cause he can hear how distressed I am, or ‘cause he thought he was being unprofessional.

Shit, how am I going to afford this? I wonder before shaking my head and dispelling the unwanted concern. Medicaid will cover the hospital shit, but we can’t afford for me to lose five hours of work. Sookie will feel so guilty if we got to dip into our savings, but I’ll just have to remind her that’s exactly why it’s there.

“Larry,” I look at my coworker and he’s on his personal phone noddin’. “LARRY!”

“Hold on,” he mumbles into the phone. “Hey, I got Ross on the line, he’s gonna hurry over here as fast as he can and cover the time you’re gone. Don’t worry, you can come right back here with her and finish your shift. You go. Hurry!”

I nod, “I’ll be there as soon as I can!” I holler into the phone and throw it at Larry before runnin’ down the street.

Shit, which bus goes to St. Mary’s?

A sweet red Corvette is driving past as I bolt down the street. It comes to a stop at the light, several cars down, and practically in front of me as I pant in front of the bus schedule. Apparently being in great shape don’t mean you can run full speed for three blocks when your heart was already goin’ a mile a minute before you bolt.

“Is something wrong?” I hear called to me and I lean around the schedule at the driver of the Corvette. It’s a beautiful blonde chick, like “National Lampoon” blonde in the Ferrari hot. This girl could be the Ferrari chick’s cuter, younger, Corvette sister!

I shake my head from the distraction and go back to lookin’ at the times for the line to the hospital.

“Are you sure? You look like you are in a hurry.”

“I have to get to St. Mary’s,” I tell her as I realize that the next bus on that circuit doesn’t come for another twenty minutes.

“Baby on the way?” she guesses.

“My sister got hurt,” I tell her.

“Do you want a ride?”

I eye the blonde suspiciously. She’s maybe 5’5”, and not built. Hell, she looks the same age as my sister! What the hell is she doin’ givin’ rides to strangers? I’m desperate. Just be grateful!

“Yes, please. Thank you,” I tell her, running to the car just as the light is turnin’ green. The cars ahead of her begin to creep forward and then she’s drivin’ like a bat out of hell! “I-I’m Jason,” I tell her as I grip the side of the car for dear life.

“Pam,” she replies as her hair banners behind her. It’s fuckin’ December. Why is the top down?

“Nice wheels, Pam,” I compliment, clenching my jaw against the cold and the fact that she just took that right turn at forty miles an hour.

“It is my brother’s car,” she tells me, but she has a strange smirk on her face when she says this. I want to ask if she stole the car, but again, I’m desperate and decide not to say a word. I start wipin’ down the surfaces of the car that I’ve touched with my hands just to be safe though. “He had to leave suddenly with someone, and he requested I bring him his car.”

After all of the anxiety tonight and the fact that I’m still tryin’ to tow my heart out of my stomach, I remain quietly tense as Pam begins quizzin’ me about Sookie.

“How did your sister become injured?” she asks me.

Shit! I can feel my eyes prickle with tears, and it’s gonna be hard to blame it on the cold wind. Why did I let her talk me into goin’ by herself? “She had a report to finish. I took the bus with her to the library, but I work the-the 8-3,” Shit, my voice is breakin’ up. “She called and told me she was catchin’ the bus, but she never called and said she got home,” I’m beginning to babble and I turn my head away fast as I can ‘cause I feel these fat, pussy ass tears drippin’ down my cheeks. “I didn’t have anyone to send lookin’ for her. God,” fuck I can’t stop crying, “all I can think is the cop din’ tell me everythin’. What if there’s more to it that they din’ wanna say on the phone? What if they found her somewhere she wasn’t s’pose to be? What if a little beat up means more than a bump on the head and a black eye?”

I can see out the corner of my eye that Pam is lookin’ at me in alarm, or maybe she’s looking at me like I’m the most paranoid fucker she’s ever met. Hell, maybe she thinks me and my sister are some real redneck trash and we’re, like, datin’ or somethin’.

“You sound like a father, not a brother,” Pam comments after a moment.

“We’re all we got,” I reply roughly and try clearin’ all the emotion out of my throat. The action catches and I involuntarily hiccup on another sob. “They said they had to take x-rays,” I shake my head suddenly. “Sorry, you didn’t ask about any of this. Fuck. I don’t even think I answered your actual question. She got mugged. That’s how she got hurt. She was waitin’ for the bus and she got mugged.”

Pam takes pity on me and we are silent the remainder of the way to St. Mary’s. When Pam pulls up to the ER entrance, I hop out and thank her again.

“It was my pleasure,” Pam is frowning and that confuses the hell out of me.

Pam’s POV:

“Eric,” I find my Maker waiting in the parking lot of St. Mary’s hospital.

“What did you find out about that girl’s useless brother?” he snaps in irritation. “What was he doing instead of keeping her safe?”

“I think we have much more pressing concerns than worrying about a pair of human siblings,” I tell him, particularly when Sophie-Anne is planning to raise Eric’s tribute expense by nearly fifty percent more than all of her other Sheriff in her Queendom. My Maker is not bothered by the fact he is being ripped off. His official response is that he can afford it, and it keeps the cost of living in his Area down. This is causing more vampires to take up residence in Area Five, however, which is another reason his annual tithe has become obscenely expensive.

“She is skin and bones,” he snarls very low in his throat, disrupting me from my internal pouting. I do not like my Maker allowing others to take advantage of him. “I want her family’s address. Someone is abusing that girl!”

My eyebrows raise at Eric’s adamant tone. I have never seen him so frustrated or persistent, especially over a human. During the past five years, he has managed to become even more disgruntled with humans. Mostly because of Godric.

Fucking Godric and his human sympathizing ideals, I think uncharitably. Normally I find my Maker’s Master a hoot to be around. It’s always fun to see Eric chastised. Unless, of course, Godric tries to push the envelope of attempting to instill empathy in a thousand-year-old Viking.

That is the crevice that divides Godric and Eric on several topics. Empathy.

Godric, though abused and tortured in his human adolescence and vampire infancy, eventually developed the ability to identify with mortals. After a little over a millennium, Godric turned rather philanthropic where humans were concerned and attempted to socialize and improve many mortal lives.

Now with the Great Revelation on the horizon, Godric has commanded Eric to do something that goes against the warrior’s very nature. Help. Godric wishes for Eric to spend ten years helping humans wherever he can. Eric had talked back, saying he would rather rob a blood bank and go into hiding for ten years than to go out of his way to help humans. Thus, Godric extended his order so that Eric would wander every night in public, assisting those in need for no less than two hours if he had not already done so before midnight.

You do not understand, Young One,” Godric had smiled sadly at us. “With our existences on the precipice of exposure, we must learn to adapt. These cruel and cold ways cannot last forever. Eric, you have been a promising progeny from your first rising, but we are part of a culture that needs more than just warriors and tacticians. You must learn other means than threats and violence to make your point.”

Did I also mention that Eric is supposed to avoid killing humans unless his own existence is seriously threatened and that he is only to use glamour to prevent exposure of his supernatural affiliation?

It has been like living with an addict going through withdrawal! The frustration reached the point where I had to run away to Minnesota for two years just to have a few moments of peace, and we still have another three years left of this crap!

“By the sounds of it, they are the only family they have, Eric,” I tell him with a shrug. “He made it sound as if they do not have any other living relatives. They apparently do not have a car because I had to drive him here. He was panicking at the bus stop.” It is lucky I recognized him from a brief post-game interview he gave at his final game of the season. Otherwise, I would not have known to offer a ride. It is also lucky he was at work and not out gallivanting. Eric had sent me to the stadium to question employees after seeing a security pass for the building on the sister’s bag. I had not expected to see the boy come charging out as I pulled around the corner.

Eric’s arms fold over his chest. He appears almost frustrated with my assessment. Apparently he was hoping that the brother was out fucking or partying. Instead, he discovers the kid was working a graveyard shift while going to school full-time and supporting his little sister.

“She is a teenage girl, Eric. She convinced her brother she would be safe and he took a risk that all families eventually take,” I point out to him and Eric’s arms tighten over his chest. “Why do you care so much? It is just another human.”

He is eyeing me speculatively, as if gaging how much he wishes to tell me, if anything at all. “You would not understand. You would, in fact, reject my explanation if I shared it with you.”

I shrug, “You are probably right. I already reject this response to a human no matter the feeling or explanation.”

“Would you back off if I merely told you that she is different and that my curiosity is getting the better of me?” he offers.

“That I will accept,” Eric can’t resist a good mystery. He has more dirt on every creature, living, dead, or living dead than anyone else I know. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Council occasionally tapped him for information.

“Find out more about the Stackhouse siblings,” he tells me. “I want to know where they live, their annual income, Social Services reports, anything you can find. If he truly is her guardian, I want to see what the State has to say about his parenting.”

I nod, making a mental list. I also decide to see how both of them are doing in school, wondering how bright these Stackhouses are.

Eric drops me at the police station and I quickly hop out of the car, find a filing clerk, and glamour a few commands into her head before leaving just as swiftly as I arrived. Next, I am walking down the street with my cell phone, calling Eric’s hacker, and giving him the information I have on the Stackhouse siblings and demanding more. With any luck, Eric will have all the information he needs to satisfy his curiosity, and we can move on to the next poor, helpless victim whom we have been drafted to assist.

I roll my eyes. This is going to be the longest three years of my existence.

Jason’s POV:

“Please,” I hear my sister’s voice as I head to the room the tired woman at the nurse’s station gave me, “let’s not make a big deal out of this! It could happen to anyone, and I’m going to be eighteen in less than half a year.”

“That may be, Ms. Stackhouse,” Shit, it’s Social Services! “but the reality is that you are still a minor, and you are under very tight observation with the situation in which you and your brother are living.” I lean against the wall next to the door and listen rather than enter. I want to know what SS has really been sayin’ to my sister. I’ve already talked to the cops, and I know the extent of her injuries from them and one of the docs. I’m so grateful all it was was a good knock to the noggin’ and nothin’ worse. “You are barely meeting the minimal food requirements. The living conditions are on the cusp of removing you. His annual income is barely living paycheck to paycheck.”

“We have money saved up for emergencies,” Sookie argues. “And just because we can’t afford a nice lookin’ place doesn’t mean it’s not clean!”

“Which is why we haven’t placed you somewhere else,” the social worker explains patiently. “We know you and your brother love each other, Sookie. There’s not a doubt in anyone’s head about that, but this incident just proves that you have no real supervision.”

“I was out for all the right reasons!” Sookie protests. “I was working on my report at a public library! I had a can of Mace and everything. I wasn’t even out past curfew until I was brought to the ER!”

I’ve heard enough at this point. Sarah’s gettin’ my sister all worked up and we’ve both had a shitty night already. I push open the door, wave at Sarah, our caseworker, and go straight to Sookie where she’s sittin’ on her hospital bed lookin’ livid.

“Baby Sis,” I mumble as I look at her bruised up face. I cup her unblemished chin and kiss the top of her head over and over. “What’d the x-rays show?”

“No breaks,” she assures me and leans her face carefully against my chest as I keep plantin’ kisses all on top her head.

“That’s good,” I tell her with a sigh of relief. Looking at Sarah, I raise my eyebrows and ask, “You got anythin’ to say to me?”

Sarah bristles at my attitude, but her prissy ass is makin’ me see red. Privileged Yankee bitch who thinks she’s givin’ back ‘cause she’s taken a public service job. Instead of takin’ defenseless babies from their crack whore moms, she’s scarin’ the shit outta my little sis for who I work my ass off and give everything I possibly can. I’d quit school and work even more if Sookie would let me. That’s right, Ms. Angora Sweater, my sister won’t let me drop out.

Maybe I’m bein’ harsh with Sarah, but I can’t help it. No matter how the State sees it, I really am doin’ my best, and Sooks is just grown up enough that she can handle all this bullshit if it means stayin’ with me. She ain’t a little kid. She can tilt her head up and overcome, just like me. We’re Stackhouses, damn it! We can muscle through anythin’!

“C’mon, Sooks,” I tug at Sookie’s arm and she follows me out of the room. I know she’s only been in here a couple minutes ‘cause they don’t like to have these shit interviews with only a privacy screen. Sookie’s holdin’ her discharge papers, and I quickly pay her bill with her Medicaid card, and tuck her under my arm to head back to the stadium.

Larry waves at us, comes out, and gives Sooks a big hug when he sees her face. “Aw, Kid, that looks painful. Want my pudding cup?” Larry has a four-year-old, and right now everythin’ is fixed with a puddin’ cup.

“Thanks, Larry,” Sookie smiles at him sweetly and takes the offered snack. I’m relieved to see her get something with some fat in it. I don’t care if its crap food. If she gets any skinnier, Sarah’s not gonna turn a blind eye anymore to the fact Sookie’s almost twelve pounds too light.

I’m no good for her. I’m no good at this at all, I think miserably as I look at her beat up face and the way her eyes light up at the chocolate Snack Pack. My heart’s an achin’ mess at the face she’s wearin’ for somethin’ as easy to obtain as a cup of chocolate goo.

“I love you, Jason,” she smiles at me, and I can’t help it. I break down and sob. I fall to my knees, bury my face in her lap, and sob. “We’re okay. I’m fine.”

“He coulda killed ya,” I hug her tightly around the hips as I let my tears soak into her jeans. I ignore the brief thought in my head that she feels even bonier than I remembered. Her hand is in my hair, soothing it back and forth like she’s scratching a dog’s belly.

“It’s okay, Jason,” she reassures me again. “Get back to work. I’ll sleep here tonight. Okay? You can check on me between circuits.”

I nod, but can’t pull my face up just yet. I hate when I get these weak moments. I hate her seein’ me like this. If I wasn’t such a fuckin’ selfish loser, she could have the world.

“Go on,” she encourages me to get up and I finally stumble to my feet. I radio back up and wait for Ross to finish his circuit.

Ross waves to me as he rounds up, and I shake his hand gratefully, “I’m so sorry, Ross. You came all the way out here just to cover me for ninety minutes. Thank you. Thank you.”

“It’s cool. I know you can’t afford to lose the whole rest of your shift. Is Sookie okay?” I nod and assure him she’s fine, and he pats me on the back, heads to the security office to drop off his gear, and clock back out.

I start the next set of rounds, and like my sister suggested, I pop my head into the security office to check on her. She’s raided my locker and has made herself a little nest out of the blanket and pillow I usually use for my 4-7 nap before classes. I check on her every ninety minutes until it’s time to clock out. The morning security shift is just arriving, and I manage to catch the guys before they get in the office.

Both Mike and Ryan nod and offer their condolences, askin’ if Sookie’s all right, but I tell them I just didn’t want her home alone after the night she had. They promise not to tell the boss that she spent the night in the office. The boss makes allowances for me because he knows I have classes starting at 8:00 AM, but he would blow a gasket if he found out Sookie had slept here.

After Mike and Ryan have gotten ready in the locker room, I change into my street clothes, curl up next to my sister, and manage to squeeze in a three-hour nap before Professor Kenji picks me up to head for campus.

On to Chapter Two!