NOTE: The following chapter occurs THREE DAYS after the previous.
NOTE: In “military-speak,” “good to go,” denotes not just that the soldiers are ready to go, but that they are ready to overcome difficulties. According to my Marine friend, it means that the person (or people) saying it are “ready to kick major ass.”
Wednesday, August 3 • 0600 hours / 6:00 a.m.
I ached. There was no better word for it.
At first, being with Sookie had been remarkable—but I’d felt like it was too good to be true. When Jason had reacted to Sookie and my relationship with disapproval, it had felt like the other shoe had dropped.
In truth, I’d been expecting it to, expecting something to happen that took away the possibility of “them.” Thus, when that shoe had—indeed—dropped, I’d been able to manage a kind of separation from my emotions regarding Sookie. They were still in me, and it hurt not to have her. But I could concentrate on restoring my relationship with Jason.
And then—miraculously—he’d bravely overcome his fears, and being with Sookie had no longer meant hurting him. And—just as miraculously—Sookie had understood why I’d had to exit her life for those few long days that it had taken for Jason to change his mind.
And—then—true, unfathomable happiness had started. I’d fooled myself into believing that there were no more shoes to drop. I’d managed to all but shut down Appius’s lingering voice telling me that I didn’t deserve happiness—and that I certainly didn’t deserve Sookie and Jason. I’d let myself enjoy them. I’d let myself become a part of them.
We truly had been a family during those three blissful weeks, even living as one for all intents and purposes.
We’d cooked together, eaten together, gone to the store together, watched television together, and read together. Jason and I continued to hang out just the two of us—specifically on the nights Sookie went to Merlotte’s. We played video games or went outside and tossed the ball around. Or we just talked.
Sookie and I also had “alone time.” Of course, each night that we were at the farmhouse, we would make love. The walls of the base home were just too thin for us to feel comfortable having sex there, but that didn’t stop us from holding each other, which was just as nice in some ways. Sookie and I also went out for a few dates. With Lafayette or Amelia babysitting, we would go to a restaurant and/or a movie. My favorite times, however, were when we’d just go on a walk in the woods around the farmhouse. Jason sometimes came with us; however, he often just wanted to stay at home watching television or playing video games. And he was old enough to be on his own for a couple of hours as Sookie and I explored the woods, finding paths she and her brother Jason had made as children.
By the end of those three weeks, I’d felt like I’d “lived” more than I had ever done before. And I was looking forward to so many weeks to come.
And then a car horn had blasted, shattering the life I’d thought I’d found.
Perhaps proving that I never really deserved Sookie and Jason to begin with, I had not really given a thought to Lorena after I called her to tell her that Bill had been killed. I’d also never entertained the idea of telling Sookie about Bill’s infidelity. I had thought that Lorena was so far removed from Sookie’s orbit that nothing could bring her into it. What possible good would have telling Sookie done? She loved Bill. And I knew that Bill had loved her. Sure, I didn’t understand, especially after meeting Sookie in person, how Bill—or anyone, for that matter—could have strayed into the arms of another woman. The whole idea of that seemed unfathomable to me. But—then again—I wasn’t Bill.
He’d been my friend and my “brother,” but he’d also been something of a mystery to me—as had all people at the time. His affair with Lorena had been the biggest enigma regarding him. Another had been why he decided to be my friend in the first place.
I’d reconciled myself to the fact that there were things about Bill that I would never figure out, probably because he’d died before he worked them out for himself. I liked to think that—given time—he would have realized that Sookie deserved his full commitment.
She more than deserved it.
But now I couldn’t be sure. If Lorena was to be believed, then Bill spent a lot more time with her than I’d previously thought. He’d kept the scope of that aspect of his life from me because he’d known that I vehemently disapproved of his infidelity. Now that I knew that Lorena had planned to use her child with him to try to take Bill from Sookie permanently, I found myself hating Lorena. But I also found myself doing something I never thought I’d do: hating Bill.
Even as I still loved him.
Maybe my mixed feelings were a sign that—even years after his death—Bill had, more than ever, become my “brother.”
I closed my eyes and felt myself growl a little. Bill could have—should have—never gotten entangled with Lorena to begin with!
And keeping his secrets might now cost me everything!
“You’s needs to get your head into the game, Captain,” Lafayette said from next to me.
I shook myself out of my fog of thoughts, embarrassed that I’d audibly indicated my feelings while I was a passenger in the vehicle Lafayette was driving.
“It will get there,” I responded truthfully.
Lafayette shook his head a little, but didn’t respond.
Sookie’s closest friends, Amelia and Tara, had been happy that Sookie and I had gotten together, as had Hadley and most of the others in Sookie’s orbit—with, perhaps, the exception of Alcide Herveaux sister, Janice, whose hesitation was understandable. However, out of all of Sookie’s—our—friends, Lafayette had been the most excited for us.
The day before, Lafayette, Colonel Flood, and I had worked to prep last-minute details of the Afghanistan trip. While we were on a break, Lafayette had probed about why I wasn’t “fully present in class”—as he put it. I’d told him about Lorena—and about why Sookie was angry at me.
I’d half expected for Lafayette to kick my ass for never telling Sookie about Lorena. Even more, I’d expected him to order me to stay away from both Sookie and Jason, but Lafayette hadn’t done either of those things. On the contrary, he’d told me that he wouldn’t have said anything about Bill’s infidelity to Sookie either—if he’d been in my situation. He’d grumbled about digging up Bill to kick his ass for cheating on Sookie! And then he’d assured me that Sookie would come around.
I knew Sookie well enough to know that—when her own feelings were at issue—she sometimes put off dealing with them. By contrast, when other people or problems were involved—such as the decision she needed to make about Madison—she held nothing back and faced problems head on.
Confirming that he agreed with my assessment of Sookie’s personality, Lafayette speculated that she likely needed to deal with the Lorena/Madison issue before she moved on to deal with the hurt my omissions had caused her. He said that, ever since he’d known Sookie, she’d been a one-step-at-a-time girl when it came to dealing with “shitstorms”—as Lafayette had aptly categorized the situation with Lorena.
I hoped to God he was right. Sookie had told me that she loved me right before I’d left the farmhouse on Sunday morning. She’d even given me a long, but chaste kiss before telling me not to get too lost in my head and that she just needed “time to process.”
However, she’d not spoken with me since then. Thankfully, Jason had been in contact with me. In fact, I’d had lunch with him on Monday when Sookie had dropped him off at the base residence for a few hours while she met with Claudine Crane and had a check-up with Dr. Ludwig to ensure that no signs of her mental trauma remained.
Jason and I had also Skyped the night before. I’d told him goodbye and that I would see him when I got back from Afghanistan. I knew that he was worried about my trip, and I had tried to reassure him, promising to call him as often as I could. But I also knew that his apprehension would stay in place until I was back in Louisiana.
I’d hoped against hope that Sookie might step into view of the webcam as Jason and I had Skyped. But she hadn’t, nor had Jason mentioned where his mother was when he called me.
Jason had told me that he and his mother had met Madison and her nanny, Kendra Jones, on Tuesday when they’d come for lunch at the farmhouse. He’d told me that Madison was shy, but liked Mac-n-cheese. He’d been glad that the “mean lady”—Lorena—hadn’t come to eat. He’d said that he and his mother still hadn’t decided what to do about Madison, but that he’d been happy to meet the girl who was assumed to be his half-sister.
Indeed, the results of the DNA testing would be known by the end of the week because of what Jason called “the mean lady’s mean lawyer.” Apparently, on Monday—after Sookie picked Jason up at the base house after lunch—they had gone to the hospital for his own appointment with Claudine, and he’d gotten blood drawn as well. The results were being “rushed.”
According to Jason, Madison resembled pictures of Sophie-Anne Compton when she was a little girl so much that Sookie had little doubt that she was Bill’s daughter.
My heart ached a bit because I’d not been with Jason and Sookie when they met little Madison. I barely could acknowledge it to myself, but I felt hurt that I wasn’t involved in Jason and Sookie’s choice.
I wanted to truly be a part of their family so much. And families made choices like that together.
But I’d forfeited that right through all of my omissions. Could I ever get it back? Did I deserve to?
“Captain!” Lafayette said, once more breaking me from my reverie.
“Yes, Sergeant?” I asked, looking at him. When he was in uniform, I always called him Sergeant, just as he always called me Captain, though he’d finally switched to “Eric” when we were at the farmhouse.
“We’s here,” he stated with a shake of the head. I had no idea how long we’d been parked. “Head? Game? Now?” he added.
I nodded in return.
Lafayette had picked me up from my base residence at 0550 hours, and we’d driven together to the little airfield on the base. We’d be going over the mission details with Colonel Flood one last time to make any corrections or additions to our plans and were due to fly out at 0930. It would take more than a full day to get to Kabul—with a short stop in San Diego and a slightly longer one at Clark Air Force Base in Manilla.
From Kabul, Lafayette and I would meet up with Colonel Edgington at the Salerno FOB (“Forward Operating Base”) in the Khost Province, somewhat near the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and go from there. Roughly half of our time would be spent running training sessions with several platoons in some of the cave systems that the Corps had already cleared out. The other half of our time would be spent working with Colonel Edgington to develop strategies for future operations in the region. From wheels up in Louisiana to wheels back down there, Lafayette and I would be gone 23 days.
“Ready?” Lafayette asked, gesturing toward the hangar where we were to meet Colonel Flood. There was a small office and meeting room inside of it.
“Sorry, Sergeant. My mind has been . . . .”
“On Sookie,” he finished for me. “Look, I knows that you’ll get your shit together when you needs to. So I ain’t worried ’bout you puttin’ this fine ass of mine in danger. But I’s still worried ’bout you.”
I sighed. “I’m fine,” I lied.
He looked at me skeptically.
“Okay. I feel like shit, but I’m ready to do the briefing,” I corrected.
“Now, that I believe, Sir,” he chuckled as we got out of the car.
Approximately Ninety Minutes Later • 0830 hours / 8:30 a.m.
Eric POV, continued
“I think this will be a productive trip,” Colonel Flood said as he looked down at the briefing materials that I’d spread out onto the table in the conference room. “I think we’re well on our way to being one of the most respected training facilities in the country!” he added proudly.
“Yes, Sir,” I agreed. Thanks to Colonel Flood’s vision, I had no doubt that the reputation of Bailey would continue to rise.
A car horn went off outside, and I cringed a little. The memory of a car horn the previous Sunday morning was still too fresh.
Colonel Flood smiled broadly. “That’ll be the Missus. And her signal to me that we need to put away the Top-Secret shit,” he winked.
Lafayette’s face lit up. “She bring breakfast?”
“Doesn’t she always when folks stationed here are goin’ overseas?” the colonel asked with a glint in his eyes as he moved to gather the maps and other materials from the table. “You gentlemen are lucky. When she cooks for fifty, she can’t do as much variety. But—since there are only two of you goin’ this time, she pulled out her grandmother’s recipe book.” He chuckled. “Hell! Even I’m excited when she does that, and that woman isn’t shy about spoilin’ me when it comes to her cookin’!”
Lafayette practically squealed. “You’s is in for a big treat, Captain!” he enthused. “Mrs. Flood is a legend ’round here for the meals she brings to send Marines off into the big wide world!”
Just then, Mrs. Flood, whom I’d met a few times before, came into the conference room carrying a large dish, the metal kind that caterers used.
Even as Lafayette exclaimed, “Grits!”—I saw who was following Mrs. Flood. She was also carrying a large serving dish.
“Sookie,” I whispered, despite my breath having caught in my throat.
Her eyes were locked onto mine as Jason hurried into the room after the women. He put down a dish onto the table and ran over to me, hugging me tightly.
“We decided to see you off before you flew out!” he said enthusiastically. “Momma and me drove up when Mrs. Flood did and helped her out!”
“They sure did! Good thing, too! I don’t have enough hands on a normal day!” Mrs. Flood said with a smile in her tone. I recalled that she’d met Jason at one of the barbeques I’d hosted at the base residence so that Jason could meet the neighborhood kids. The Colonel and his wife had brought two of their grandsons, both of whom were close to Jason’s age.
My eyes were still on Sookie as she set down her own dish and came over to me.
“Can we talk for a minute?” she asked me.
I simply nodded.
Lafayette gave me a significant look and quickly corralled Jason to the table. “Jase, you gotta try some of Mrs. Flood’s grits! They’ll make you say ‘amen’ after every bite!”
“Y’all hurry back before Sergeant Reynolds eats everything!” Mrs. Flood said. Seeing the size of the dishes she’d brought, I didn’t think that would be possible for the small number of people in the room. However, I wouldn’t have been able to eat at that moment anyway. My stomach was in knots.
I led Sookie out of the meeting room and into the larger hangar, which generally housed some of the smaller planes kept on the base. Then, I led her outside into the humid Louisiana morning and over to a small table that some of the base mechanics had set up under the largest tree on base, a white oak tree that had been planted by the very first base commander of Bailey—more than eighty years before.
For a moment after we sat, Sookie didn’t say anything.
“I’m still upset,” she finally said, my heart sinking with her words.
“You’ve a right to be,” I responded honestly.
“I’ll get over it,” she said with certainty. “The love I have for you isn’t something I’m willing to sacrifice, Eric. I won’t lie and say that something in me hasn’t taken a big hit. But it isn’t the love I feel for you. And—when I woke up this morning—I realized that it isn’t the trust I have for you either.”
She brushed away a tear. “I couldn’t let you leave without you knowing that—or without seeing you.”
In the next moment she was in my arms. In the one after that, our mouths found each other. We kissed until we were breathless.
“I’m sorry,” she panted. “I’m sorry I sent you away from us. It killed me to do it! And I know it killed you to have it done! I told you—after Jase’s blow-up—that we needed to solve our problems together, but I sent you away. I was a hypocrite.” She raised her hand to my cheek and cupped it gently. “Please forgive me, Eric. Please.”
I shook my head. “There’s nothing to forgive. You needed time,” I assured her. “I’m just grateful—so grateful—you’re here. Thank you, Sookie. Thank you for coming.”
We kissed again, this time slower.
Again breathless, we pulled away from one another, resting our foreheads together.
“I love you so much, Sookie,” I sighed.
“I know,” she returned. “I really am sorry that I laid all the anger I was feeling for Bill at your feet. It wasn’t fair.”
“I deserved it. I should have told you,” I returned.
“No,” she said decisively. “You shouldn’t have. Initially, you were keeping Bill’s confidence. You did everything right—everything anyone could have expected you to do. You even tried to get Bill not to start up the affair. It was his choice to be with Lorena.”
“But once I loved you, I should have been honest—about everything.”
“No,” she reiterated. “If it wasn’t for Madison, I would have been happier—better off even—never to have known about Bill’s infidelity to me.” She sighed deeply. “Knowing the truth has tainted everything I ever felt about Bill. And it has shaken my confidence.” She looked down. “I think that’s why I sent you away. I just spent the last two days analyzing everything about myself—and I mean everything. What did I do so wrong that caused Bill to stray? Did Alcide ever stray—or think about it? Will you stray? What’s so goddamned lacking about me that Bill couldn’t be faithful for even six months?!”
“Nothing!” I said passionately.
She chuckled a little. “I’m starting to believe that. But it took me a couple of days of beating myself up and questioning myself to arrive at that answer.” She shook her head. “God only knows how finding out about Bill’s infidelity would have broken me when I was nineteen or twenty. I hate that Bill’s dead, and this may be selfish of me to say—but losing him to war was easier than losing him a little more every single day to Lorena would have been.”
“He would have given her up. He promised he would after his time on active duty was over,” I explained.
Sookie shook her head in disagreement. “Not with Lorena having his baby. He would have kept seeing her, kept giving her a part of himself that he kept from me. Meanwhile, I would have continued giving him my whole heart. I would have morphed into the perfect politician’s wife, blind to anything but Bill’s good qualities. He turned me into a fool.”
“You’re not a fool!” I said passionately.
She shrugged. “I don’t know about that. But I do know that I’m not a fool to love you, Eric Northman. And I wasn’t a fool to put my trust in Alcide either. Over the last few days, I’ve realized that my love for Bill was just as naïve as my blind trust in him. And—even if he had given up Lorena—it would have been just a matter of time until he cheated again. Whether I like it or not, Bill didn’t find me to be enough. But that doesn’t have to be my problem. It was his. Moreover, I shouldn’t have made it ours,” she emphasized.
“I understand. You needed time,” I reassured her.
She leaned in to give me a brief kiss on the lips. “I was too hurt by Bill to see that what I needed was you,” she emphasized. Part of me will always love him, Eric. He was my first love. But a part of me now hates him. I thought he was a good man.”
“He was,” I defended, but then shook my head. “He was some of the time.”
Sookie nodded. “Yes. Some of the time. When he was with me, he made me happy. But I’ll never be able to look back at our time together without questioning things. Even our wedding night no longer holds the same meaning to me. It’s hard not to remember the lies more than the truths he told. It’s hard to tell the difference.”
“I’m sorry,” I said sincerely.
“I know. And I have a feeling that—if Bill were sitting right here next to us—you’d be sorrier than he would be. And that’s Bill’s greatest sin—as far as I’m concerned.”
I embraced her tightly, holding her to me to comfort her the only way I knew how in that moment. Maybe—one day—I’d figure out the perfect words I could use to help her deal with Bill’s infidelity. But—in that moment—I didn’t have them. All I had was myself. I prayed that would help her—even if in only a small way.
She sighed deeply. “I met with Lorena again.”
“What?” I asked. “Why? Have you made your choice about Madison?”
“No,” she said with a shake of her head. “I met with her to learn everything there was to know about her and Bill.”
“Why would you do that to yourself?” I asked, taking her even more firmly into my arms as she sobbed for a few moments.
“I was a glutton for punishment,” she laughed ruefully, swiping at her eyes. “I needed to try to understand why he was with her.”
“He was an idiot,” I said fervently.
“Yeah,” she chuckled. “On the drive over here this morning, I started to believe that too, though—at first—what he did made me feel like I was the one who was lacking in some way.” She shook her head.
“Bill was the one lacking,” I argued.
“Yet we both loved him,” she sighed. “You as a brother and me as a girl that put him up on a pedestal. Well—he sure toppled off of that.” She looked up at me, and I was grateful to see that she’d stopped crying for the moment.
“Did I ever tell you about the day of my parents’ funeral?” she asked.
I shook my head. “No.”
“It’s the day I fell in love with Bill—though I didn’t realize it at the time. I was nine years old, and I felt that my heart had broken. I left the farmhouse, where I’d just moved in to live with Gran and Grandpa. I ran away from the gathering that happened after the funeral. Ultimately, I ran into the woods—farther than I’d ever run before. I fell down, and I curled up in the mud. I was lost—in more ways than one. Lost in the woods. Lost in my pain. Lost in my head.”
I held her as her body shook because of her memories.
“Bill followed me. He gave me his jacket because it was November and rainy. I ruined that jacket,” she chuckled a little. “He sat with me for a long time in the woods. In fact, I lost track of time; we were probably outside for at least six hours though. Finally, Bill walked me home, holding my hand the whole way. He knew the way home when I didn’t.” She paused and sighed. “He came over to lunch the next day, which was a Sunday. I didn’t go back to school until after the Christmas holiday, but he came over every day after school until I went back—and for lunch every weekend.” She shook her head and chuckled fondly. “Sometimes I treated him like crap; other times, I didn’t say a word to him. But he was persistent. He could be such a good person.”
“Yes. He could,” I said, recalling how he’d helped me to understand what it was like to both have and be a friend.
“That’s what I’ll always focus on when I talk to Jase about him,” Sookie said determinedly. “And I’ll try to think about the good in him, too. But the bad in him is now a part of his and my story.” She sighed and looked up at me. “I won’t doubt Bill’s love for me though. I will never doubt it again because I’ve realized that he gave me two gifts that are priceless—that make up for any lies his told me. They even make up for his infidelity.
“Jason,” I smiled down at her.
“And you,” she emphasized, leaning up to kiss me softly. “He asked you to take care of us—especially Jase. I think that a part of him might have known that you were meant for us, Eric Northman.” She smiled. “The good part of Bill that sat with me in the woods and spent time with me when I was at my lowest point put you into my path. And into Jase’s.” She shrugged. “So I can’t hate him, even though I hate what he did to our marriage and our family. How could I hate him when he’s the reason I’m so happy—in this moment? Right now.”
“Sookie,” I whispered, not knowing exactly what to say.
“I’m sorry I pushed you away these last two days. I know how much it must have hurt you.” She looked down. “I just hope that you can trust me to never do it again, Eric. Because I won’t! I swear! I’m done doing any sort of runnin’, or walkin’, or canterin’, or junebuggin’ away from you.” Her eyes bright with sincerity, she smiled.
“I love you,” I said. Those words were really all that was needed.
We kissed again, and I found myself wishing—terribly—that we were alone with several hours—or days—to work with.
But we didn’t have that time.
Finally, when we broke our kiss, she looked up at me. “Can you call me—when you get to Afghanistan? Or do you have any layovers when you could call me?”
I nodded. “I’ll have a few hours free in the Philippines.”
“Call me then?” she asked. “I don’t care what time it is.”
“Sure,” I promised.
“In the meantime, I need you to think about something so that we can talk about it then,” she said.
“Think about what?”
“Whether or not we’re gonna bring a six-year-old girl into our household,” she emphasized.
“You and Jason should decide that,” I said, though I felt my heart quickening.
“I can’t obey that order, Captain Northman,” she said softly, but with a twinkle in her eye and slight teasing in her tone. “From now on, all the big decisions we make need to be made as a family.”
“As a family,” I whispered before kissing her again.
It took Lafayette clearing his throat to bring us up for air.
“I hates to do this, but we’s wheels up in fifteen, Captain,” he said. “I gots you some food for the plane. And more for me, too. But Jase is askin’ for you two. And I knows that the Colonel needs a couple of minutes.”
Sookie looked at me and smiled. “Go on in. I’ll be there as soon as I drag a brush through my hair so the Colonel doesn’t know we’ve been making out,” she giggled.
I nodded and leaned in to give her one more lingering kiss before running toward the hangar.
I’d never felt lighter—or happier—in my life.
The other shoe—all the shoes—had dropped.
Yet Sookie and I had survived their impact.
“I’m glad you’s came to your senses before we left,” Lafayette said as Eric entered the hangar.
I was digging through my purse for my brush.
“Me too,” I sighed.
Lafayette touched my shoulder affectionately. “The first day I met Captain Northman—Eric—I had a feeling that he was the man for you. You know I loved that hunk of man that Alcide was. And Bill was my friend even longer than you have been. But that man,” he said, gesturing toward the hangar, “is yours.”
“And I’m his,” I said with certainty.
Lafayette nodded in affirmation.
“You’ll look after him while you’re away—right?” I asked him.
“Honey, I’d step in the way of a bullet for the captain,” he winked. “But since I likes my body bullet-free, I’ll make sure that neither of us gets anywhere near one that’s comin’ at us.”
I nodded, grateful for his words, though I knew that he couldn’t really make me any guarantees.
There were some things in life that just couldn’t be guaranteed.
But Eric’s love was not one of them, nor was my love for him.
I thanked God that I’d woken up in time to send that love with him to Afghanistan.
A/N: I know that many of you were upset with Sookie pushing Eric away at the end of the last chapter, but—once I let her “speak to me”—I really did understand why she did it. In learning that Bill had betrayed her so much, her main doubts were focused on herself—not Eric, and not even Bill. I’ve been there myself—wondering why I wasn’t good enough when someone I loved decided to move on (and not with me). In this case, Bill’s betrayal made Sookie doubt if she was capable of holding on to anyone. Couple that with all the loss she’d faced because of death—and you get the mistake she made in sending Eric away. Lucky for her, if there is anyone that understands the damage that self-doubt can cause, it’s Eric.
Just one more chapter and an epilogue to go. Thanks for everyone who continues to read (and, hopefully, enjoy) this story.
Please comment if you have the time and inclination.