“One life is all we have and we live it as we believe in living it. But to sacrifice what you are and to live without belief, that is a fate more terrible than dying.”—Joan of Arc
Eric walked slowly into the room and took in the scene before him. Sookie was tied to the chair in the corner of the room and gagged with ripped sheets. Appius was sitting in the rocking chair, holding a sleeping Johan cradled in one arm, even as he held a gun in his other hand.
“Your son sleeps like the dead,” Appius said ominously, looking down at the child, though Eric could tell that Appius was also looking at him. “Close the door.”
Eric did as he was commanded.
“Take off you jacket,” Appius said.
“Now, toss it on the bed and empty your pants pockets so that I can see. We wouldn’t want you to have anything foolish like a gun—now would we?”
Again, Eric did as ordered.
“Now unbutton,” Appius intoned. “Let’s make sure there’s not a bulletproof vest under that shirt.”
Eric nodded and unbuttoned his shirt.
“Very well,” Appius said once he’d seen Eric’s bare chest. “You can button back up.”
“He’s been asleep since I got here.” Appius chuckled darkly when he was satisfied that Eric carried no weapon and had on no body armor. “I finally got tired of waiting for him to awaken, so I picked him up, but he’s still asleep. You were the same as an infant. Once your belly was full, you were out like a light.”
“Please,” Eric said, automatically taken a step toward Appius.
“Stay where you are, or I will kill both your son and your wife,” Appius said casually, as if he were speaking of the weather. He stroked the boy’s face with the barrel of the gun.
Eric stopped in his tracks. “I’ll do anything,” he said breathlessly—desperately, “anything you want. Just don’t hurt them.”
“I will already be taking what I want from you today, boy,” Appius said cruelly. “Your pain is my goal, and I will have it. It will live on after I am gone. It will be my greatest legacy,” he added madly.
Eric shook his head. “You don’t have to do this. I’ll walk away from Northman Publishing completely. It can all be yours. Just don’t hurt my family,” he said in an agonized tone, looking over at Sookie, whose cheeks were stained by old tears, even as new ones fell.
“Unfortunately,” Appius said, “that is impossible. You can thank your grandfather for that. According to that fucking codicil, there is no way for me not to make you CEO.”
“Then we pretend,” Eric said, grasping at straws. “I’ll be CEO in name only. You don’t have to pay me. You don’t have to see me. I’ll take my family and leave New York forever. I’ll say that everything here has been a misunderstanding. We won’t press charges, and even if the police or the FBI does, we won’t testify. You can spin it however you want—a breakdown. Whatever you say, I’ll back up your story. Whatever you want, I’ll do. Please, think of Nora and Pam and Alexei and Gracie and Appius, Jr. They all love you. Please, Appius, anything you want—anything. I’ll do it.”
Appius looked at Eric coldly, and the silence between them stretched out to a minute, filling Eric with cold terror.
“Had you done what I wanted already, you wouldn’t be in this mess, Eric,” Appius said evenly. “You have gone behind my back for months, even marrying without my knowledge. But you didn’t stop there. You undermined me with Edgington and Brigant. Hell—you even got Copley, my closest fucking friend for years, to turn on me.” He sat forward a little and Johan stirred, causing both Eric and Sookie to hold their breaths.
“You have,” Appius continued with a snarl, “threatened to take everything from me.”
“No,” Eric said, praying to God that his son would stay asleep, even though the infant had begun to struggle against his wrapping. “I swear that’s not what I wanted to do. I was just going to run the company,” Eric sounded defeated. “I was going to make sure it grew—for Appius Jr. and . . . ,” he paused as a tear slipped from his eye.
“And?” Appius asked.
“And I also wanted to make it grow for you,” Eric said in a quiet voice. “I wanted you to be pleased with the results of what I had done, even if you hated me. I thought . . . .” He stopped again.
“I thought it would be something—even if it wasn’t your love,” Eric finished in a whisper.
“You really are pathetic,” Appius said, shaking his head.
“I know,” Eric said. “I’m sorry.”
“You should be,” Appius sighed. “And you will be even sorrier very soon.”
Johan was wiggling even more now. Appius spoke with awe as he saw the little boy kicking against his covers. “He really is just like you. You did this. No matter what your mother and I did, we could not keep you covered for long.”
The little boy continued to fuss in his grandfather’s arms—a stranger’s arms—until his blue eyes popped open, and then he began to cry in earnest as if sensing danger. He continued to try to wiggle out of the blanket and out of Appius’s arms.
“Come!” Appius ordered. “Take him, but if you try anything, I will kill him. The trigger is already pulled.”
Eric nodded. He’d already noticed that the gun was cocked.
Slowly, Eric approached and reached out for his crying child, who had broken his hands out of his blanket and was reaching upward now that his senses recognized that his father was near. Appius let go of the tiny infant as Eric picked him up; Eric backed away a few steps, instinctively turning his body so that he was between Johan and the gun.
For his part, Johan immediately quieted when he felt himself against his father’s chest.
“He loves you,” Appius said emotionlessly, gesturing with the gun so that Eric knew he was to sit on the bed. Eric did just that, keeping Johan tucked against his body and turned from Appius as much as possible.
“Yes,” Eric said.
“It will be your curse to eventually hate him,” Appius said with an evil grin.
“What do you mean?” Eric asked, though he was afraid of the answer.
Appius was silent for another minute, his dark eyes drilling into Eric’s.
“You have a choice to make, Eric,” Appius said, pulling his gaze from the uncanny double stare of his son and grandson. Of course, all he could see was Stella looking at him—through her descendants’ eyes. She was judging him; she feared him.
“Choice?” Eric’s voice squeaked as he looked at Sookie. Her eyes betrayed her terror and her resolution. They also declared something else that scared him beyond belief: forgiveness. And suddenly he understood that all of the ways Appius had toyed with and hurt him during his life were just child’s play compared to what he planned now.
“I kept you,” Appius said, “not that I wanted you after I learned of your mother’s duplicity. But, for the first five years of your life, I wanted you very much.” He sighed as he leveled the gun in Eric’s direction—Johan’s direction. “It was not just Stella who chose to wait to fight her cancer until after you had been born,” he said quietly. “We agreed together. We chose you over her. It was,” his voice caught, “the most difficult choice I have ever made. But your mother and I made the decision together. She gave me the strength to do what was necessary. And you—you—were necessary to us.” A tear fell from his eye. “Stella was so strong, and I thanked God when she was able to fight back the cancer after you were born—even though I still wonder if it would have stayed away forever if she’d gotten aggressive treatment when we first learned of it. Of course,” he sighed, “she couldn’t do that without harming you. And she loved you so goddamned much that she would have never done that.”
Appius continued in an almost haunted tone, “Still—I never resented you for her cancer, not until she was gone and I knew the truth about her affair.” He closed his eyes. “And then all I could think about was that another man’s bastard child had kept her from getting the treatment that may have—should have—kept her with me.” He opened his eyes when he heard Eric move a little on the bed. “Don’t even think about it,” Appius said, moving the gun to point at Sookie.
“I’m not thinking of doing anything,” Eric said immediately.
Appius nodded a little. “Good.”
The room was silent for a minute.
“I would have stayed in blissful ignorance if the cancer hadn’t taken Stella from me,” Appius relayed almost wistfully. “I had no idea about her and Peder—none. I wish,” he paused, “that I had never known.”
The little bit of humanity that had been on Appius’s face disappeared as he looked over at Sookie, at whom his gun was still pointed. “Women are not to be trusted, Eric. If I take her from you now, I will be doing you a favor. She will never have the chance to hurt you—to destroy you.”
“Please,” Eric said as more tears trailed down his face. “Don’t.”
Appius looked back at Eric. “You’re right. It must be your choice—the same choice I had to make so many years ago.”
Eric shook his head and cradled his tiny child. “No,” he whispered.
“Your son or your wife?” Appius asked. “One of them will die today.” He leaned forward. “And you will decide which,” he added sinisterly.
“I can’t,” Eric whimpered.
“Then both will die,” Appius assured.
Sookie groaned loudly from the corner, drawing Eric’s eyes to hers. She was shaking her head and looking desperately at him and then Johan. Eric already knew her choice. And he already knew his.
He couldn’t lose either of them.
“Well?” Appius asked. “I do not have all day. I can’t imagine your FBI friends will be patient for long.”
Eric gave Sookie a little nod and then looked at Appius. “They will kill you.”
“Or I will kill myself first,” Appius said evenly. “But—either way—I am done with this life.”
Eric let out a desperate sob. “Please! What of the children you do love? What of Appius Jr.?” Eric asked.
Appius chuckled. “You will take care of them. That is the irony in all of this. I wouldn’t even be surprised if you found a way to cover all of this up.” He laughed evilly. “And you will be forced to take the responsibility for Freyda’s child too.”
“I’ll have the company,” Eric tried. “I’ll get NP. You don’t want me to get it. But if you kill me and not them, I won’t be able to touch it!”
Appius shrugged. “You have already taken my company from me,” he said aloofly. “I am reconciled to that. And, once I’m dead, I will no longer give a fuck, and that is what I really want—to no longer care. Plus,” Appius chuckled darkly, “you’ll leave the company to Appius, Jr.—just as I’ve always wanted. You are too honorable not to.”
“Will you let me say goodbye to her—to Sookie?” Eric asked.
“So you have chosen?” Appius asked in return.
Eric nodded. There was never a choice.
Agent Batanya was extremely good at her job. She’d had her first command at age 24. Though the Bureau had pegged her as what they called a “natural profiler,” she had shrugged off the lucrative research assignment she’d been offered. She’d been made for the field, able to discern the inner workings of a situation quickly and accurately.
And—in the end—she didn’t care about “the book” if she got the results she wanted. Her specialty was hostage negotiations. The Northmans were just lucky she’d pissed off her superiors enough to get her saddled with taking Compton’s statement about Warren Daniels and Lorena Krasiki; otherwise, she wouldn’t have been in the area when Appius Northman had taken his son’s wife and child as hostages. Or—more accurately—as prisoners.
She intuited that Appius’s single demand—the presence of his son—would precipitate violence on the part of the obviously unhinged man. But she also figured that not giving him what he wanted would lead to even more bloodshed.
Agent Batanya looked around her as she readied herself. She aimed to be the first one through the door when Eric Northman gave the signal, and she chose people to follow who wouldn’t hesitate.
One of the things that always got her into trouble with her superiors was that she worked “too closely” with local law enforcement. However, she often found that they were more useful than the agents assigned to her. Case in point—Compton was about as field ready as a fucking lamp-post. Moreover, she just didn’t trust him.
She’d chosen the two SWAT team members that seemed the most competent to follow her into the room.
Also, she had immediately liked Maxwell Lee. Maxwell and his staff were authorized to carry weapons, so he was nearby as well. She had also liked Detective Blake Walsh, and thanks to the local sheriff’s department, which—mercifully—didn’t adhere to strict procedure, he was right behind Maxwell. Likely, they wouldn’t get into the room in time to get a round off before everything was over, but she was glad to have them as part of her immediate team. However, Bill Compton was, sadly, there too—though a bit further back. Her gut told her that something about him was “off.” And Kate listened to her intuition about such things, so she was keeping an eye on him. She could tell that Bobby Burnham was too.
She also had a group positioned in the room next door to Mrs. Northman’s. They’d placed charges that would blow a hole in the wall between the two rooms, but Kate really didn’t want to use that option. There were too many variables with that option.
Batanya sighed from her position near the door. Something about Eric Northman had immediately told her that he could be trusted to bring the situation to a resolution she could live with. And that was why she’d let him walk through that door. She’d already heard enough to put Appius Northman away for years for kidnapping. Now all she needed was Eric’s signal.
“You have chosen to save your son,” Appius said, nodding with almost approval in his eyes. “That is what I knew you would do.”
“I can’t let you hurt him,” Eric whispered.
“I felt the same way once,” Appius said. “It is too bad that you will one day come to resent him.”
“I won’t,” Eric averred.
“It is inevitable,” Appius said sadly. “You will not really be resenting him either; that is the worst part. You will be resenting yourself—hating yourself for the fact that you couldn’t hold on to her.” He motioned toward Sookie. “But a star was never meant to be tethered—after all.”
Appius sighed and brushed a tear from his own eye. “Regardless—you will blame yourself, and your son will think that you are blaming him.”
With a nod, Eric acknowledged the truth in at least some of Appius’s words. He would hate himself if anything happened to Sookie or Johan.
“Can I say goodbye to her?” Eric asked—begged.
Appius shook his head gruffly. “Why should I let you do that?” he asked waving the gun toward Sookie again.
“Because,” Eric begged, “you got to say goodbye to my mother. Before your life fell to pieces, you got to tell her goodbye.” Eric took a deep breath. “And you like symmetry. You like tragedy.”
Appius smiled a little. “You are my son, Eric. If I didn’t despise you, I might even be proud of you.” He motioned with the gun. “Go ahead. Tell your Pandora goodbye before she takes the world from you.”
Very carefully, Eric rose from the bed with Johan. The child was still awake, but was still and quiet—as if studying the chess match going on between the other males in the room. Or—perhaps—he intuited that his father aimed to make a sacrifice, so he was doing all he could to help him.
Eric had managed to wrap Johan back up into his blanket—tightly. He went over to Sookie and bent down before her where she sat.
“May I?” he asked, over his shoulder toward Appius.
“The gag—not the ties,” Appius warned.
Eric nodded and used his free hand to remove Sookie’s gag.
“I’m sorry,” he said in an agonized tone.
“I know,” she gasped. “But don’t be. It’s okay.”
“I love you,” he said.
“I love you,” she wept openly as he leaned in and kissed her.
“I’ll always love you,” he said to her, fresh tears falling from his eyes as well.
“I know,” she returned. “And we will always love you,” she whispered. “Always.”
He smiled, almost imperceptivity and nodded. And then he yelled the words that would signal Agent Batanya’s breach, “No, Father, no!”
In the next moment many things happened at once. The first was that Eric managed to knock over Sookie’s chair and to cover her and Johan with his own body.
After that, several shots rang out quickly in the hospital room.
Eric felt a searing pain. And then another. And then a third. Right before he lost consciousness, he saw a drop of blood flow from the side of Sookie’s head.
He’d failed. She’d been hit too.
“I have one fatality, two critically injured, and at least two others have been hit too!” Agent Batanya yelled into her earpiece less than a minute later. She sighed deeply as she looked at the bodies strewn out on the floor.
One was obviously past saving.
The annoying little doctor was already in the room—working on Eric Northman, trying to keep him alive by administering CPR. Given the amount of blood flowing from his body from what looked to be multiple gun-shot wounds—including one in the chest and one in the head—Agent Batanya figured it was a lost cause.
She was sad about that.
Other doctors and nurses were working on the others who had been hit.
“No,” she said into the earpiece, answering the question of her superior. “The infant is fine. And the suspect is down. I’ll call you back when I know more.”
A/N: Ducking and hiding. Yes—I am cruel enough to leave this here as I move back to Uncharted for a bit. Remember to PM me on ff.net if you need a spoiler in order to “make it.”
Until next time,
P.S. ONLY one more day to read the stories and vote in Seph’s fantastic contest. I hope you will do it!