NOTE: This chapter is set one week after the previous.
December 10, 2010 • 2200 hours/ 10:00 p.m.
Sookie’s crying woke me up. It always did—no matter how hard she would always try to prevent Jason or me from hearing her.
And I could tell when she was crying within a nightmare versus when she was crying while she was awake.
Always—practically holding my breath—I waited for the heartbreaking sound to stop. And I prayed that she could find relief from her sadness. Whenever her cries carried on for more than a few minutes, I found myself pacing in my little room, which was almost directly above hers in the farmhouse. I longed to go to her as I had in the hospital—to hold her hand and, perhaps, to read to her.
But I did not. I had no right to venture into the room she’d shared with her late husband.
“Uncle Eric,” Jason’s tired, shaky voice called to me on the walkie talkie I’d gotten for us so that we could communicate when I was upstairs.
I’d purchased it mainly so that he could have a way to get my attention when he had a nightmare. From the sound of his voice, I could tell that—like his mother—he’d been trapped in a dream that upset him greatly.
“On my way,” I whispered into my end of the walkie talkie.
I pulled on a T-shirt over the flannel sleep pants I’d purchased to ensure that I would always be dressed modestly in Sookie’s home. Plus, being December, it was cool in the drafty old house.
Silently, I made my way down from the attic. I paused on the second floor for just a moment, as I heard another of Sookie’s whimpers. I took a step toward her room before shaking myself from the impulse and continuing down to Jason.
When I entered Jason’s room, I found that he had tears streaming down his cheeks. Immediately, I went to his bedside and crouched down next to the bed, taking his hand.
The contact wasn’t enough for him, however, and he launched himself into my arms.
It must have been one of his more horrific dreams.
“Don’t die, Uncle Eric,” he whimpered.
I sighed and patted his back lightly. Jason had been having fewer nightmares since he’d gotten off of his pain medication completely the month before. However, the ones he did have now seemed to center on his fear that either his mother or I—or both of us—would die.
I held him tight and rocked him a little.
“No one lives forever, Jason,” I said softly—truthfully. “But I promise that I will do my best to stay alive. That is all anyone can do.”
He pushed away from me as large tears fell from his eyes. “Why won’t you promise!?” he demanded.
I felt my sadness acutely—and my powerlessness. I knew that the boy in front of me would have preferred my telling him that nothing bad would ever happen to me. But I couldn’t tell him that; I couldn’t lie to him.
“I can’t,” I said, somewhat defeated.
“Will you go away to fight again? Will you get killed like my daddy?” he asked, almost accusingly.
I shook my head. “No. I’m going to be stationed at Bailey Base—training people. Remember?”
He nodded, but I could tell he wasn’t convinced. “What if a General or something says you have to go away to fight?”
I sighed. “Then I’ll have to go.”
“Then you’ll die!” he said fearfully.
I considered my words for a moment. “I hope not, Jason. I don’t want to. I want to stay alive so that I can spend time with you.”
“And my mom?” he asked timidly.
I couldn’t help but to bristle a bit. “Yes. And your mom,” I said truthfully. “I want to be able to spend time with both of you. And I don’t want you to ever have to grieve for me. But things happen every day—accidents and illnesses. I can only hope to live a long, long time, and I will do what I can to make sure that happens.”
“How?” he asked, his eyes wide with childish innocence in that moment.
“I’ll go to the doctor if I think I’m sick. If I have to go back to fight, I’ll work my hardest to keep myself and my men out of dangerous situations we can’t handle.”
“And you’ll be careful when you drive?” he asked, his bottom lip trembling.
I nodded. “I will.”
“Dad—Alcide—was careful. Both my daddies were careful. But they both died,” he said, fresh tears falling.
Jason had shared with me that he’d asked Alcide if he could call him “Dad” the very morning before the accident that killed him.
“Yes, they were careful,” I said, fibbing a little when it came to Bill. He’d not exactly been being cautious when he ran into the open to try to save one of his men from the sniper. But Jason wasn’t old enough to understand why Bill had risked himself like that. Hell—sometimes I wasn’t even old enough!
“And neither your father, Bill, nor your dad, Alcide, wanted to leave you,” I added.
“Momma says that they are both looking down on me from heaven. That Gran is too,” Jason said. “Do you believe that?”
“Yes,” I responded. “I believe that.”
“Will you promise me that you will look over me if you have to die?” he asked, his voice quivering again.
“I promise,” I told him, feeling a lump in my throat.
“Why are you leaving at the end of December? Why don’t you stay here with Momma and me?”
“You and your mother will be healed enough to fend for yourselves,” I said softly. “And you know that my job starts on January 2, so I’ll need to move to the base, but it’s only in Shreveport,” I responded.
“I want you to live here,” he said stubbornly.
“You and your mother need your independence. Anyway—I’ll still visit. And you can visit me on the base.”
We sat in silence for a few minutes.
“Mommy was crying again,” Jason said softly.
“Does she have bad dreams too?” he asked.
“We all do sometimes,” I responded.
“What are yours about?” he asked.
There was no way I could tell him the truth about the carnage I sometimes relived as I slept. “I worry about losing people I care about too,” I told him truthfully.
“Like Pam?” he asked.
I nodded. “Yes. And you. And the men and women I commanded.”
He considered for a moment. “Do you dream about my dad sometimes? Um—my first one?”
“Yes,” I responded. I did not tell him that all of my worst dreams included the image of his father’s bullet-ravaged body.
“I dream about him too,” Jason confessed. “I dream I’m looking for him and can’t find him. And I can’t remember what he looks like in my dreams—even though I have pictures of him and try to remember those pictures while I’m dreaming. But I still can’t find him.”
“I’m sorry you have bad dreams, Jason,” I said, not knowing what else to say.
“I’m sorry you do too, Uncle Eric.”
I stayed with Jason for a while longer, though we did not talk anymore. I got him a glass of water and a warm washcloth so that he could clean his face, and then I sat in the little chair in his room and waited for his breath to even out and his light snoring to begin.
Though he’d already lived through more grief than many adults ever would—in a lot of ways—he was still just a little boy. But he was also having to grow up even more quickly than he’d already been doing. Having Alcide in his life had given him a reprieve from feeling the need to be “the man in the family.” And having me around had allowed him to begin coming to terms with the changes in his life. But I could already tell that he was gearing up mentally for the inevitability of my leaving.
His progress with his prosthetic had been astounding, especially during the last two weeks. As soon as the femur in his left leg had healed enough to take the pressure of his full weight, he’d begun working to move around with crutches. However, it was when he first stood on two feet again—after Dr. Lee did the last fitting of his artificial leg—that had been the true changing point for Jason. Since then, he’d been working very hard to walk around—often having to be held back a bit in his anxiousness to do too much.
I looked toward the ceiling, knowing full well where he’d inherited his stubbornness from. Sookie—too—always pushed herself.
During the last month, she’d transitioned almost fully from her walker to her cane, though she couldn’t walk long distances with either one yet. However, thanks to the new treadmill that she’d put onto the mud porch, she was getting better with her endurance.
Selfishly, I missed her needing me to carry her up and down the stairs, which hadn’t been the case for almost a week now. She still didn’t like going up and down when I wasn’t in the house, but she was gaining in confidence each day. And even Jason had begun working on stepping up and down—though with only a single block—with his prosthetic leg on.
In my unselfish moments, I knew it was good that they were both doing so well—and both well ahead of schedule. I would not have to worry about them so much when I had to take up my post at Bailey—when I had to leave the home I’d grown to love.
Silently, I stood and collected the empty water glass and the used washrag. I took both to the kitchen before going upstairs. However, just as I got to the second floor, I heard a sharp scream.
It was Sookie.
Before I even realized I was moving, I was in her room with her. I rushed to her side as she thrashed in her sleep—as if she were afraid of the devil himself.
“Sookie,” I said, hoping to help her escape from whatever hell she was in.
She continued to thrash so much that I worried she might reinjure her leg. I sat next to her. “Sookie!” I said a little more loudly even as I reached out to grab her hand—to give her a link to the waking world.
Happily, it seemed to work as her eyes popped open.
It took her a moment to get her bearings. Her breathing was erratic and seemed pained. Tears leapt to her eyes, following the path of those shed during her nightmare. And she began sobbing uncontrollably.
And—God help me—I did what I’d wanted to do for months. I moved to take her into my arms—to hold her.
Insuppressible, I felt all of my love for the woman in my arms as I marveled at how she fit against my body. Carrying her up and down the stairs had enabled me to speculate that her body and mine might be puzzle pieces. Now I knew that they did match together—perfectly.
It almost hurt it was so perfect.
Having woken up enough to know that she’d been having a nightmare and that I was with her, Sookie said a single word, “Eric,” as she twined her own arms tightly around me.
My name. She’d said my name.
Moving on instinct, I bent down to kiss her hair as she nestled into me. For a moment, she stopped crying.
“I’m sorry,” she said softly.
“Don’t be,” I responded my voice sounding deep and rough.
“I promised myself I wouldn’t count on you—not like this. Not after I left the ICU,” she whispered.
“I can go then,” I said, even as my head lowered to kiss her hair again and the rest of my body agonized over the idea of letting her loose.
“No. Please!” she pled. “No yet. I’m tired of being strong. I’m tired of crying alone.”
“Then fall apart for a while, Sookie,” I whispered, saying her name aloud as she’d said mine. “I have you; you’re not alone.”
I felt her head nod and then sobs shook her again. As I’d done with Jason half an hour before, I rocked her gently; however, the touches that she and I were exchanging were so much more intimate than my embrace of Jason.
I refused, however, to completely give in to my own feelings. Sookie needed me to be there for her—to be strong for her.
“Tell me everything’s going to be okay,” she said after a while. “Lie to me.”
“Everything will be fine,” I told her, wanting to believe my words more than anything, lying to her as I couldn’t do with Jason.
“Tell me I won’t lose Jase,” she pled. “I can’t lose him. He’s all I have left.”
“You won’t lose him. I won’t let it happen!” I vowed.
“Tell me I won’t be alone—that I won’t die alone,” she cried.
“Never!” I promised. “Never, Sookie.”
She looked up at me, her eyes brimming with tears yet to spill down her already saturated cheeks. Her eyes were wide and full of fear and longing. And, in the next moment, she was kissing me.
At first, I didn’t react; I was too surprised to react. But as her tongue sought entrance into my mouth, I opened myself for her. And then I was kissing her back. Our mouths fit like our bodies did—perfectly. She moaned as her hands moved to grip my shoulders. My own hands moved to cradle her face—to feel her flesh under my fingers. I found myself telling her all of my feelings in that kiss—all of my impossible hopes and my fears. My heart was beating wildly; my mind was soaring.
It was a perfect moment.
My perfect moment.
And then she pushed me away.
“Oh God!” she exclaimed, her hands flying up to hide her lips. Her look shifted from passion, to sorrow, to guilt, to regret in moments. “Eric—Captain Northman—I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean . . . . I didn’t want . . . .” She stammered as more tears fell from her eyes.
And just like that, I realized the mistake I’d made in coming into her room. I realized the damage I’d done.
Slowly, as if she were a wild animal that I didn’t want to frighten, I moved away from her and then off the bed until I was standing.
“I’m sorry, Ma’am,” I said. “I think we both got lost for a moment.”
She looked at me wide-eyed, clearly not knowing what to say.
I decided to take a moment, walking into the bathroom to find and wet a cloth. There was also a glass next to the sink. I filled it with water and returned to Sookie’s bedside.
Keeping as much physical distance between us as possible, I handed her the items I’d brought.
Looking anywhere but at me, she took a long drink and then wiped her eyes. She was clearly experiencing confusion. But it was the guilt and pain in her eyes—in her whole being—that affected me the most.
I backed up and then sat on the bench that was against the wall.
“Emotions can run high in combat, Ma’am,” I said softly. “And you were fighting something in your dream, something worse than any combatant I’ve ever faced, I’d imagine.” She let out a little sob, but I went on. “I wanted to help you through it, but I fear I’ve made things worse for you.”
“Captain, I’m sorry. I just can’t . . . .”
“I know, Ma’am,” I said comfortingly. “And you don’t have to say or do anything. You’re a beautiful woman, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I like being here with you and Jason. However, I know that what just happened between us cannot happen again. You are still grieving, and it’s only natural that you’d turn to the person most available to you for comfort. Like I said, combat can bring out unexpected emotions. But a good soldier knows when that kind of thing can get other people hurt. I should have been more careful, Ma’am. It is I who must apologize.”
“Captain, I—uh—it’s not that I didn’t want to kiss you,” she blushed. “You’re great! A good man. I mean—I’ve come to like you and to,” she paused, “depend on you. But I also feel bad about doin’ what we did, too. I loved my husband, Captain. I love him,” she correctly quickly.
“I know you do, Mrs. Herveaux,” I eased, “and you’ve done nothing to betray him tonight. You had a nightmare, and you were too tired and emotionally drained to be fully in control. Your husband would understand that the moment we shared was fueled by pain and sorrow on your part.”
“I don’t think he would understand,” she sighed.
“Maybe not. But I do understand,” I said. “And—if he were here—he would be justified to kick my ass to remind me that I needed to be more careful with you—with your feelings.”
“What about your feelings?” she asked me—her eyes finally moving to mine and seeming to find all of my feelings in my own eyes in that moment.
I smiled a little and shrugged. “I’ll say it again, Ma’am. In combat, emotions can run high and seem overwhelming. They can be unexpected; they can be crippling. They can also add to a soldier’s strength.” I sighed loudly. “On the day I carried Bill from the battlefield, the men and women in my squad told me that I was crying the entire time—that my tears didn’t stop even as I barked out orders and got my remaining squad and Bill onto the evac chopper.”
“It was bad?” she asked, wiping her eyes with the rag again.
“The worst day I’ve ever faced,” I said truthfully. “But—later, during debriefing—I was told that there were other insurgents in the area, and that—even as I wept for my best friend and got him out of there so that he could come home to you—I was probably the best commander I’ve ever been.” I chuckled ruefully. “It sucks that I can’t remember any of it. But my emotions didn’t make me weak, Ma’am. They made me strong. And I went on autopilot so that I could get out of hell. And that’s what you just did.”
“You shouldn’t still blame yourself for Bill—you know,” she said softly. “I’ve come to know you well enough to know that you still do.”
“I probably always will—a little. I’d happily trade my life if only Bill was sitting here—where I am now, Ma’am. Jason would have had his father and you your husband. A lot of your pain would have never happened.”
She sighed. “It’s hard to tell what life would have been like if Bill had come home safely,” she said softly. “I used to imagine that a lot. But—if he had—I wouldn’t have had Alcide, and I love him too.”
“Your life might be better though,” I said.
She shrugged. “Or it might be worse. Gran always said that things work out according to God’s plans—not ours.”
I nodded, accepting her words, even though I would still go back in time to save Bill if I could.
We gazed at each other for a few moments, probably trying to figure out if “we’d” be okay.
Finally, I spoke. “You asked me about my feelings. The important ones right now are the love I have for Jason and the concern I have for you. You are a good woman, and you shouldn’t have to feel guilt or pain because of a kiss you gave in a moment of vulnerability. I will go to Bailey right away if you want me to go,” I said softly. “However, I would rather stay as planned—through the month.”
“I need to count on you less,” she said softly. “And I can’t count on you for this,” she said gesturing around the room, “again.”
I nodded. “This is your space, Ma’am. I won’t come into it again. And just let me know what I can do to be less,” I paused, “counted on.”
She sighed. “It’s been nice going with you and Jason to Merlotte’s when I needed to work. But—now that I’m able to drive—I think it’s best that I do that on my own. I also need to do things like grocery shopping on my own again.”
I nodded. “You can call me if you are in need, but since you can drive again, it does make sense that you do those things on your own. And, perhaps, it might be a good idea for both you and Jason if I begin spending some more time in Shreveport. I could use the opportunity to get my house on the base set up as well as meet with my C.O. about his expectations and plans.”
As I spoke, I kept my head up and my eyes forward. And I kept my feelings inside. With Appius, I had learned to stay at attention and suppress; the military had honed those abilities. I simply kept it inside that spending time away from the farmhouse was the last thing I wanted to do. But it was better than the alternative—having Sookie kick me out for my lack of control that very minute.
“Thank you, Captain,” she said softly. “I didn’t mean for all of this to get complicated.”
“We don’t have to be complicated, Mrs. Herveaux,” I said sincerely as I stood up. “Good night,” I added before leaving her room.
I made it all the way up to my room before my hands started shaking. I looked at them and marveled at the fact that they didn’t seem to be mine in that moment; I certainly couldn’t control them. The world seemed to spin for a moment, and my chest hurt. Had I not known the cause of my symptoms, I might have worried that I was dying of a heart attack.
But I knew better. I knew that my pain was from allowing myself to “have” Sookie and then acknowledging the loss of her. I chastised myself for my weakness. I’d been telling her the truth when I said that emotions were difficult to control in combat situations. And I truly believed that she’d been in one when I’d woken her up from her nightmare. However, I had not been in one. I’d held her closer than I should have. I’d kissed her forehead—twice. I’d lost control of myself when she’d allowed herself to need someone for support.
I’d betrayed her.
I wouldn’t do it again. My eyes closed in concentration, I sat on my bed until my heartrate came down a little—until my hands quit shaking. My lips still tingled from Sookie and my kiss, so I got up to go and wash my face before deciding that a complete shower would be needed so that I would not smell her scent on me. I couldn’t allow myself to luxuriate in her—not if I was to be her friend and nothing more.
Not if I was to avoid complications that would force her to cut me from her life.
I sat up in bed, knowing I wouldn’t be able to go back to sleep. I brought my fingers to my lips and felt them tingling below my touch.
Closing my eyes, I allowed myself to truly examine how I’d felt when I’d been kissing Eric.
He wasn’t wrong; our kiss wasn’t complicated. It was beautiful—perfect.
It was the moment after I’d broken it that things became so complicated.
I’d longed for that kiss to go on and on and on. I’d wished that the kiss could have led to much more. I’d seen the desire in his eyes that must have matched mine. And then I’d been hit with a very complicating wave of shame and guilt.
“How could I?” I asked Alcide’s picture, which sat on the nightstand. He’d been dead for five months—only five. And I’d spent the first week or so of that asleep. How could I have let myself betray my husband, for that is exactly what that kiss had felt like.
As I touched my lips, I knew it felt like betrayal—and not just a mistake. Not just “friendly fire.”
It was because Alcide’s kisses had never affected me like that one from Captain Northman had. Bill’s kisses hadn’t sent me into the stratosphere either. Bill and Alcide kissed me quite differently, but comparatively.
What I’d just experienced with the captain was incomparable. It was like he’d been perfecting his kissing skills for a thousand years!
Of course, that kiss was also a betrayal to myself. I had decided that it was safer not to love. And falling for someone like Captain Northman was the opposite of safe. He was a damned Marine, after all! I shook my head. I couldn’t do that—couldn’t be with a soldier again. I was proud I’d been a Marine’s—Bill’s—wife. I was proud that he was a soldier and that he sacrificed for his country. I was proud of my brother, Jason, too. He, also, had given his life for the country he loved. And—when Jase had been talking about being a soldier before the accident—I’d found a way to deal with that possibility too.
However, I couldn’t let myself be in love with another soldier. I couldn’t withstand the tours while he was away. I couldn’t endure the sleepless nights, wondering if he was alive or dead.
I couldn’t have a panic attack every time a car came up the driveway!
Moreover, I didn’t want to be involved with ANYONE! I simply wasn’t sure I could survive another loss.
But that choice hadn’t been anywhere in my mind as I’d taken comfort in the captain—as he’d held me tight. For the first time in months—maybe years—my world had felt “just right” again. When he’d kissed my hair, I’d felt cherished again. I’d felt safe and warm in a way that I’d never felt in my entire life.
At least, not since I’d first been introduced to death—the night I’d learned that my parents had drowned.
It was a nightmare inspired by my parents’ drowning amassed with the car accident which had plagued me earlier. I’d been driving with all my family members in a large van. Jase was in the passenger seat. However, the van also held my parents, Gran, Grandpa Mitchell, Jason, Bill, Alcide, and Jackson. I’d been driving so carefully in my dream—determined to get us all home safely. I felt that—if I could just drive slowly enough—I could protect the people I loved. But—suddenly—I drove off a low-water bridge, and we were underwater! And—one by one—everyone in the car drowned and disappeared, blaming me for not being able to hold on to them. Jase was the last one left alive, and I was holding his little body up so that he would take advantage of the one tiny air pocket left in the vehicle.
But I couldn’t hold my breath anymore. I was screaming out into the water—screaming with fear and pain and failure. I couldn’t breathe. I had just lost my grip on Jase when I felt a solid hand in my own.
I’d awoken to see Eric there, his eyes so full of concern—and something more—some emotion just for me.
I sighed. No matter how good Captain Northman was as hiding his feelings, I couldn’t help but to see the affection he held for me in his eyes. However, I’d tried not to encourage it. I’d even talked myself into believing that he saw me only as a friend. But that wasn’t true; the kiss told me that. I’d felt his love for me as he’d kissed me—felt it as if his emotions were transferring to me through some kind of magical bond.
It had been that overwhelming feeling that had caused me to push him away. And then he’d managed to say all the right words to make me feel better—to make me know that he and I would be okay.
I’d asked him about his feelings because I’d been trying to get a handle of my own. And—as often happened when he spoke with Jase—he said the thing I’d needed to hear most. And he’d left unsaid the things that might be damaging. It had been clear to me that he felt many things.
Many complicated things.
But the feelings he was choosing to focus upon were his love for Jase and his care for me. And I knew that I could do the same: focus on my love for my son and my care for the man who’d been there for us for the last five months.
And if I felt more—if he did—it didn’t have to be our focus.
Still—a part of me had been tempted to ask Captain Northman to leave the farmhouse the next day. However, I didn’t want to disappoint my son in that way, especially not with Christmas so close.
No—we had a plan, and we’d stick to it. The captain would stay through the end of the month and move out on the first of the new year.
A new year. A new start for my son and me.
Meanwhile, I was determined to concentrate on what I needed to do to get myself truly able to care for my child as a single mother. Even when Bill had died, I’d always had Gran. Now, I’d be alone in raising my son.
Yes. I needed to get mentally prepared for that—not think about Captain Northman, his feelings for me, or my rogue feelings about him.
I sighed even as I acknowledged that I wouldn’t actually be alone in raising Jase. The captain would be there, too. When Jase had begun to get worried about whether he’d be able to see his Uncle Eric after he moved to Shreveport, we’d all three sat around the table to discuss the future.
It had been clear that the captain had been just as anxious as my son to hammer out a visit schedule. The captain already knew that his training duty schedule would be Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays from 8:00-5:00. He’d also have to spend quite a few hours doing paperwork and meeting with the C.O. each week, though many of those tasks could be done whenever he wanted. Thus, it was determined that Eric would come and pick up Jase each Friday at around noon to take him to his session with Dr. Crane and his once-a-week at-hospital physical therapy appointment with Dr. Lee. Then, Jase would spend Friday nights with the captain on base. They would hang out on Saturday for part of the day, and the captain would have Jase home in time for Saturday’s dinner, which the captain could share with us if he wasn’t busy with other things.
I was, admittedly, a bit nervous about being without Jase overnight, but I knew it would be good for the both of us. It wouldn’t be long before Jase wanted to stay overnight with his friends again. And I needed to learn how to be truly on my own for the first time in my life.
Plus, to be frank, I felt that the captain deserved his time with Jase. I hated to make the comparison, but—in my mind—his rights were now comparable to a divorced father’s rights. Oh—the captain was extremely respectful about the fact that I made the ultimate decisions regarding my child, but he had become a co-parent to Jase. That was just a fact.
I knew that—at this point—anything less would be unfair to Captain Northman, who’d given so much of himself to us without asking for anything in return.
Most importantly, however, Jase needed his time with his Uncle Eric. Truth be told, they would likely Skype every day. And I was okay with that.
I’d heard Captain Northman taking a shower on the floor above me, and I decided that was a good idea. As crazy as it sounded, his scent was lingering all around me, and every time I caught it, I couldn’t help but to remember kissing him.
And him kissing me back.
And dwelling on that would make things very complicated.
A/N: Well—there’s their first kiss. Of course, it couldn’t be easy for these two. Eric blames himself for taking advantage of her, and Sookie is feeling guilty about her attraction for Eric. Sigh. It’s gonna take time for these two, and I admit that I was a bit impatient with them as I was writing them. Still, I understood that they were both trying to protect themselves and each other “from themselves.” Thanks for all the comments on the last chapter. I hope you will tell me what you think of their first kiss and their reactions.