July 5, 2011 • 300 hours/ 3:00 a.m.
Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom!
Explosions echoed in my mind and shook the ground around me.
They shook me.
I wanted to drop to the ground—to dig myself a hole and disappear into it. But I couldn’t. If I did, what would happen to the men under my command? No! I couldn’t abandon them! I wouldn’t!
“Fall back!” I yelled loudly, even as I looked all around me for Bill. I breathed a sigh of relief that he was right behind me.
“Well, Northman, how the hell are you gonna get us out of this shit storm?”
He was smiling. I had no idea why he was smiling in the middle of hell.
Another series of explosions rattled the building we were leaning against for cover, and debris fell. I pulled Bill so that I was covering him as parts of the building landed around us.
“Fuck!” I yelled as I heard screaming from behind me. It was Rasul. A large part of the building had fallen on him, crushing both his legs. He was trapped. I yelled into my radio. “Evac! Immediate evac! I’ve got people injured here!”
“Sniper!” Bill yelled out as a bullet whizzed past us and hit a piece of the concrete that was trapping Rasul. He moved to go to Rasul.
“No!” I yelled, holding onto Bill—not letting him leave the relative safety of our current position.
“We can’t leave him there!” he insisted.
“Wait!” I shook my head in confusion. “Wait! This isn’t right.”
“War never is, Northman!” Bill yelled.
Why the fuck was he still smiling like a fool!?
“No!” I yelled. “The sniper wasn’t here when Rasul was hurt. He was hurt later in the cave—after you . . . .” I couldn’t finish my sentence—couldn’t tell Bill that he’d been dead for several years by the time Rasul was hurt.
“I’m going to get him!” Bill yelled. I held onto him even tighter.
“No, Bill! It’s all wrong! The sniper shouldn’t be here! There wasn’t a sniper when Rasul was hurt! And it wasn’t in a desert; we were in Afghanistan when it happened!”
“What the fuck are you talking about, Northman? What the fuck are you doing?” Bill asked, his voice now accusatory. Suddenly, he’d reversed our positions and had taken ahold of me; with what seemed to be supernatural strength, he pushed me roughly into the building’s rough concrete wall. “You should have killed the sniper, Northman! You should have protected me! I had a family to go home to! But you didn’t want me to go home—did you? You want them for yourself, you bastard!”
He ripped off his helmet and then mine. And then he punched me—hard.
“Please, Bill,” I begged, spitting out blood, “please put on your helmet.”
“Appius is right! You’re a fucking blight upon the earth! You’re the one who should be dead! But—no! You made sure I would die so that you could take them from me!” Bill yelled.
I shook my head in denial. “No, Bill! I wanted you to go home! I promise I did! I killed the sniper!”
“Too fucking late!” Bill sneered. “Too conveniently late. What? Now you think you can take my life from me? Take what’s rightfully mine? Sookie. Is. Mine!”
“I know! God, I know!” I said, even as Bill looked back at where Rasul was still writhing in agony.
“Please, don’t go out there!” I begged. “Please, don’t let the sniper get a shot at you, and you can go home to them, Bill. Home to Jason and Sookie.”
“Don’t say Sookie’s name as if she’s yours!”
“I won’t,” I panted. “I know she’s not mine! I won’t say her name! Please, Bill. Let me go out there. Let me die so that you can be with your family!”
Bill pushed me harder against the building, causing even more dust to flutter upon us—not that anyone could have told, since we were already covered from head to toe with it.
“You are the one who should have died, Northman! No one would have fucking missed you! Least of all me!” he said, releasing me a bit, just so that he could push me, once more, against the cold, hard wall.
And then he really did let me go—fully.
“No, Bill!” I yelled as he moved out of the cover and ran toward Rasul. “No!” I yelled again, running after him.
In the next moment, the sniper fired, and Bill’s body twisted around. There was another shot—another twist. I finally got to him as a third and a fourth shot burst through him. I threw my body on top of his—to protect him.
He was laughing below me.
“Too fucking late, Northman! Always too fucking late!” He turned and then looked up at me. Half of his face was gone, but he was still smiling. “You should have died, not me. Even now—now that you think Jason and Sookie count on you—you’re just a second-rate stand-in for the people they really love! Me! And even Herveaux! We could have both given Sookie and Jason something you’ll never be capable of giving to anyone—love! You know why? It’s because you can’t love, and you can’t be loved either! Appius was right! You. Are. Expendable! And if you disappeared from the world, it wouldn’t fucking matter!”
I tried to ignore his words as I got my radio to work. “Goddamn it! We need that evac now! We are in the southeast corner of Zone 3 Delta! We need medics and evac now! Where is my fucking Helo!?”
Bill laughed again. “You can’t save me, Northman. You were always a failure. Appius has told me all about you. And he is right—right that no one should count on your sorry ass for anything. Look. At. Me! I don’t have a fucking face anymore! Sookie won’t even be able to see me before she puts me into the ground! And that’s your fucking fault!”
“No!” I yelled out. “Don’t talk, Bill. Help is coming.” I looked around desperately for anyone who was coming, but the only person I saw was Rasul—now unconscious.
“You should have just left him to die—like you did me,” Bill said cruelly, following my eyes to Rasul. “He shouldn’t have to be half a man. You should have let him die in that cave, but you just had to be a hero—not that that did anything for him!”
I shook my head. “No! Rasul’s fine now!”
Bill scoffed. “He’s a fucking amputee! Just another reject of war!”
“No! He’s helping Jason to cope! He’s a good man, who’s found a lot to live for! He’s got a fiancé now and a baby on the way!”
Bill was laughing again, his face grotesque with gore and blood. I realized that I was trying to hold that face together—trying to cover his gaping wounds with my hands.
“You mean to tell me that, even with his leg gone, Rasul was able to find love before you, Northman?” He cackled. “That fucking figures! I mean—who would fucking love you? I pretended to like you—only pretended—because it was fucking hilarious to find out what a fucking misfit you are! But what use have you been to me? I’ll fucking tell you! None! You killed me! You did this to me!”
“No! No!” I yelled, even as the ground shook again.
“Captain Northman!” a voice yelled out.
I shook my head. I wasn’t a Captain; I was only a Sergeant.
“Help him! Help him!” I yelled. Wrong about my rank or not, I felt instinctively that the voice could help.
“Captain! Wake up!” the voice yelled again.
I felt arms trying to pull my hands from Bill’s wounds. “No! He’ll die! He’ll die! I can’t stop it! I can’t! I can’t!”
“Eric!” the voice said, suddenly recognizable.
It dawned on me suddenly that I must be dreaming, but that didn’t mean that I could get out of the nightmare. It didn’t mean that Bill wasn’t still smiling.
“You don’t deserve her,” he said coldly, despite his now widening smile. “Nothing you ever do could change that.”
“I know!” I yelled at him. “Just don’t die. I’ll get you back to her! Just stay! Stay with me!”
“Eric! Please!” Sookie’s voice yelled out; she sounded desperate.
I had to make sure she was okay.
“You stay away from Sookie and Jase!” Bill yelled. “They aren’t yours!”
“Please! Please!” I panted, somewhere between sleep and waking.
“Please, Eric. Wake up! I’m scared!” Sookie pled.
She was scared? I had to get to her—Bill be damned! I stopped trying to hold him together and concentrated with all my might to focus on her voice and her touch. Finally, I was able to open my eyes.
And she was there.
It struck me immediately what an odd twist of fate our situation was. Months before, I’d been the one waking her up from a nightmare. Now she was returning the favor.
“I’m sorry,” I said, my voice shaking, even as I catalogued the concern in her eyes.
She likely had every right to be worried. I was panting. Sweating. Twisted in my sheet. Crying. My voice was hoarse.
“Oh, God! Did Jason hear?” I asked her, even as I registered that she still had my hand in her own.
“I don’t know,” she whispered.
“Was I loud?”
“Yeah,” she said even more quietly.
“Can you see? Make sure he’s okay?” I asked desperately. “I don’t want him to be afraid.”
I noticed her swiping some tears from her own beautiful eyes. “I’ll make sure,” she promised as she got up to leave my room.
I quickly grabbed the T-shirt I’d discarded when I’d gotten into bed and put it on. Then, I got up—despite my shaking legs—and hurried to my old bathroom, taking a drink out of the faucet before splashing my face and using one of the fresh towels Sookie must have put into place for me. After taking another drink, I went back into my bedroom and hastily worked to straighten the sheets. My flailing had toppled over the lamp; thankfully it hadn’t broken. I reset it and picked up the book that had fallen onto the floor from the nightstand.
“Wuthering Heights,” Sookie said as she returned into the room.
I nodded as I placed the book next to the lamp.
“Is he okay? Jason?” I asked.
“Yes. He’s asleep.”
I nodded in acknowledgment.
“We never finished it—the book. Is that the copy from the hospital?” she asked, her voice sounding almost preternatural.
I nodded again.
“Can I sit?” she asked.
Again, I nodded. She tentatively sat down on the end of the full-sized bed I’d gotten for my room at the farmhouse. She’d agreed to keep it when I moved out because my base residence already had a bed I could use, and Jason’s room there was only big enough for a twin-sized bed.
I sat too, keeping my distance from her.
“Was it bad?” she asked. “The dream?”
I nodded. “The fireworks likely brought it on,” I responded softly. “The ones set off here weren’t bad, but the ones in the town’s show,” I looked down and then toward the wall, “well—they were loud.”
“I should have thought about that,” she sighed.
“Ma’am, you shouldn’t have to think of things like that,” I soothed.
“Why do you still call me Ma’am?” she asked.
“Because you still call me Captain,” I responded honestly—gently. “I was following your lead.”
She sighed. “I think you do that a lot.”
I didn’t answer; I didn’t need to.
“Why did you keep the book?” she asked.
I looked from the wall to the book, avoiding her gaze as I did so. “We never finished it, and—then—the day you left the hospital, you’d forgotten one of your work files, so I went back to your room to get it. The book was there next to the bed. I don’t know why I took it. Why I keep it with me.”
“Don’t you?” she challenged me.
“I do know,” I responded truthfully.
“Will you tell me why?”
“Having it made me feel close to you. It helped me remember the nights when I held your hand and read to you.” I continued to look at the book. “I’d never felt closer to another human being than I felt to you on those nights.”
“Oh, Eric,” she sighed. I caught a movement from her, and my eyes shifted to her hands, which were held together, twisting and turning—wringing—in her lap.
I closed my eyes tightly. “I like it when you call me that,” I confessed. “I’ve called you Sookie in my head for so many months.”
“Why don’t you say it out loud?” she probed quietly.
I shook my head. “If I say it, I’ll have failed.”
“Failed?” she asked.
“Yes. I promised you—and myself—that I’d keep my distance after we kissed that night. I reconciled myself to fill only the role I currently enjoy in your and Jason’s lives. I vowed I wouldn’t do anything to jeopardize that role. And,” I paused, “I didn’t want to betray Bill’s trust in me.”
“Bill’s trust?” she asked.
“He wanted me to make sure Jason was okay. And you. He would have never wanted me to do anything untoward, Ma’am.”
“Eric,” she whispered. “Will you call me Sookie? Please?”
Her voice seemed desperate—wild.
Indeed, in that moment, her whole being seemed wild. And between us on the bed seemed to be a dam—and she a rushing river being held back by it.
Or maybe I was the river.
I shook my head. “I can’t, Ma’am. Not without . . . ,” I began as I looked up and into her eyes. My breath caught.
“Not without what, Eric?” she asked.
I shook my head again.
“Not without what?” she repeated insistently.
Her eyes seemed to see into my very soul. No—they seemed to be finding it. And I could not stop myself from speaking.
“Not without telling you that I love you,” I answered her in a whisper. “Not without telling you that—ever since the first time I saw you in the hospital—I thought you were the most beautiful thing in the world. Not without telling you that touching your hand has been the most,” I paused, “intimate thing I’ve ever done.” I laughed at myself judgmentally.
“Oh, Eric,” she sighed.
“Don’t pity me, Ma’am,” I said quickly. “I don’t exactly inspire much warmth from people.”
“You’re a good man, Eric,” she said with surety.
“Thank you, Ma’am,” I responded rather stiffly.
“Call me Sookie.”
Our eyes still locked together, I felt my head shake; no—I felt my whole body shaking.
“Please,” she whispered. “I want you to, Eric. I need you to.” She paused. “I thought I could fight it, but I can’t. I love you, too.”
The dam broke with my resolve.
“Sookie,” I whispered, my voice strained with passion and emotion, as I moved across the bed to take her into my arms. “Sookie,” I repeated. We were kissing in the next second.
Her lips felt perfect against mine—soft, yielding, and warm. I felt her tongue seeking out mine, and I was quick to let her find it. And then our lips and mouths danced—as if we’d been kissing each other for decades.
For a millennium.
Her small hands trailed down my chest to the bottom of my shirt, and she pulled at it—pulled upward. I helped her take it off of me, our lips separating for only a split second as the fabric passed between them.
And then we were kissing again, and her hands seemed to be all over my upper body. I’d imagined that her touch would be like, but my imagination had let me down. In actuality, her hands were questing and purposeful—as if she could truly know me only through touch. I didn’t know if that was true or not; all I knew was that her fingers left behind a trail of gooseflesh. She moaned into me and then broke our kiss, moving her mouth to my chin and then my neck.
“Touch me, Eric. Touch me more,” she whispered. I realized, then, that my own hands had been cupping her cheeks, except for their brief task of removing my shirt. I moved them to her shoulders and down her arms before they landed near her hips. I squeezed there a little, and then trailed them up her back.
Her skin was hot, through the light cotton of her gown.
Not to be outdone by her lips, my own found hers again—before kissing her breathless and then trekking toward her ear and down to the nape of her neck.
“Eric,” she sighed as my hands made their way forward until I was cupping her breasts. I found myself marveling at how perfect they felt in my hands, even as I thanked God that Sookie didn’t wear a bra to bed.
With a grunt, she moved her own hands to lift up on her light cotton nightgown, and within a second, it had joined my shirt somewhere on the floor.
For a moment, our mouths pulled away from each other and we looked where we’d been touching. Her breasts truly were magnificent—large enough so that the dip between them was an enticing valley of heaven, but not so large that they drooped or seemed uncomfortable to her. My eyes trailed downwards. I smiled slightly when I saw just the tiniest of stretch marks over her flat tummy. Those marks had been made when Jason was inside of her.
I looked back up and into her eyes. Her own were focused on my upper right chest. Her hands shook as she raised her fingers to trace the scars there.
“Shrapnel,” I whispered.
“Did it hurt?” she asked.
I shook my head. “Not until later.”
She looked up at me, her eyes sad. I knew that she was wavering, weighing the pros and the cons of doing what we were doing. I knew that I ought to stop us—to tell her that she was better off not getting involved with me, to admit that I had little to give her. But I said nothing. I respected her enough to give her a moment to make her own choice. And I was just selfish enough not to push her away.
After all, I was looking at everything I’d always wanted, and—suddenly—I knew that I could make her happy. Her and Jason. As unworthy as I might be, as emotionally stifled as I was sometimes. As strong as my nightmares might be—it didn’t matter. I could be worthy for her. I could show her anything she wanted to see in me.
Only her. Only Sookie.
If she chose me.
She bit her lip, and—for a moment—she moved away a little. I felt my heart drop, but I stayed still, waiting—as her fingers continued to trace the only physical scars I’d gotten during my long years as a Marine. I’d been lucky in that way.
Would I be lucky in the way that mattered most?
A/N: Well? I hope you enjoyed this chapter. Sorry for being a bit late getting it to you. It’s been crazy busy on my end. Anyway, I was ultimately happy with this chapter. I wanted to echo the earlier scene with Sookie’s dream. Of course, these two needed a push to get together. I knew that seeing Eric in distress would do it for Sookie. Finally, they’re admitting their feelings aloud. Will Sookie let Eric’s scars and her fears of what they represent take her over again? You’ll see in the next chapter.
Please leave me a comment if you have the time/inclination.