The concrete steps leading into the MET were cold that Sunday morning. January had gifted New Yorkers with two dustings of snow already, but the sun was bright as the two children exhaled deeply and watched their breath in the air. They giggled and then chased each other up and down the stairs, being careful to stay inside the radius that they intuited their parents would approve of.
The eldest of the children, a seven-year-old blond-haired little boy, skidded to a stop as he saw that his little sister, who was a year younger than him, was in danger of slipping on the steps. He steadied her and made sure that she was okay before running from her again.
The girl, her own blond locks lighter than her brother’s hair, giggled her way after him until both children heard the cry of their newest sibling. They came to a halt and ran back up to their parents.
“Why is he crying?” Kate asked with a tilt of her head as she took in her little brother, wrapped snuggly in her father’s arms.
“Sometimes babies just cry,” Eric said, rocking his youngest son gently in his arms.
“I didn’t cry,” Kate insisted.
Eric laughed. “You used to—sometimes. When you were hungry or when you were tired or when you needed your diaper changed.”
“I’m a big girl,” Kate said, crinkling her nose and placing her hands on her hips. “I don’t need diapers any more. And I can’t ‘member cryin’.”
“Oh—you cried,” her big brother Johan confirmed. “But not a lot,” he added to make his sister feel better. “I’m sure I cried more.”
Eric chuckled as the baby settled down in his now-expert arms. Little Niall Benjamin, named for the two men whom his children called grandpa, was easy enough to soothe. He just liked to be rocked a little.
Sookie sat back a bit and watched her children go back to their play. She looked down at her hand, which was interlocked in her husband’s, and then she looked into his eyes, which were looking right back at her.
He squeezed her hand. Both of them were remembering a time when they thought that such a moment as the one they were now sharing was not something meant for them. However, during the last eight years many such moments had been theirs, and Eric and Sookie were thankful for all of them.
It wasn’t that the bad still didn’t come with the good, but—thankfully—their lives no longer included psychopaths hell-bent on harming them or parents anxious to continue abusing them.
Of course, they had to deal with the kinds of sorrows everyone did. Niall had been diagnosed with cancer the year before, and—although the elderly man was doing his best to fight the disease, which was in remission for the time-being—he wasn’t nearly as energetic as he used to be. They’d received another piece of difficult news earlier that week. Remy Savoy’s condition was now grave. His HIV had developed into AIDS the year before, and he was not doing well at all. Over the years, Sookie and Eric had made a point to get to know Remy and Hunter. Hunter was only about a year and a half older than Johan, and the boys got along especially well.
Remy’s parents had been helping him with Hunter since Remy’s HIV had transitioned to AIDS. However, he’d called Eric and Sookie the Tuesday before to ask them if they would consider adopting Hunter and being the child’s “second parents” once he succumbed to his disease. There had been no hesitation on their part.
Briefly, after Kate had been born, Eric and she had considered moving into the old Northman estate, which had reverted to Eric’s ownership after Grace Northman had shot herself the day before she was to be sentenced for her crimes. Given her age and status, she’d been released on bail during her trial, though she was under house arrest. When her lead attorney had told her that she was going to be found guilty and that there was nothing he could do to prevent that, she’d dressed in her finest clothes, and—in the dead of the night—she’d put a bullet in her brain.
She’d gotten off easy, but Eric was glad she was gone. A part of him would have always worried about what kinds of machinations she could had accomplished—even from prison—if she were still alive.
True to form, Grace had never properly signed or filed the paperwork which would have given her ownership of the property. In a bile-filled suicide note addressed to Eric, she’d said that she couldn’t stomach the idea of leaving HER property to Johan when she died. Of course, the effect of her action was that the property reverted to Eric anyway.
However, given the fact that so many had died in that house on that horrible day more than six years before, Sookie and Eric had opted not to move there, and—even though the house had been in the Northman family for over a hundred and thirty years—they didn’t want it for their kids either.
The property had been on the market for almost four years. Eric had considered donating the home to be used for an orphanage or a shelter; however, there were all kinds of city zoning ordinances, which had prevented those plans. He’d also considered just donating the estate to the city as a historical building and then writing off the donation and taking a huge tax break. However, just that week, they’d finally gotten an offer they could accept, though it was 12% under the property’s market value.
Both Eric and Sookie were glad to get rid of the house, which had stood empty since Grace’s death. Eric had helped Grace’s staff find other work, and he’d taken some of the things that had belonged to his grandfather. He’d also let his siblings take anything they wanted, but—other than that—he’d not returned to the home where he could have been killed.
Where Kate, Milos, and Nora had died.
Eric and Sookie planned to put the money from the sale into a trust that would one day be split between all of their children.
In addition to not wanting to deal with the ghosts of the past by living in the Northman Estate, Sookie and Eric loved their own home much too much to leave it, despite the fact that they had no yard. Happily, Riverside Park was close. The renovations to convert the two separate floors into one home had taken a long time, given all the structural changes that had to be made, but at the end of those changes, they had plenty of room—which had turned out to be a very good thing since Hunter would soon be arriving.
Sookie smiled a little as she noticed the way Eric was absentmindedly stroking her palm with his thumb as he watched over their children. He’d been heavily involved in the renovations of their home, working with the architect and basically designing the alterations, which included the adding of two major stairwells between the floors; a separate apartment for Miranda and Jarod and their two-year-old girl, Maggy; a large den area for the kids; and four new bedrooms, each with its own bathroom.
Eric had enjoyed the project immensely and had even toyed with the idea of leaving NP since it was running so smoothly now—and since he knew that Tamara and Pam could run things without him. However, he loved his work at NP too much to leave it. Like his morfar Johan, Eric was a builder with his brain and his hands. Of course, in Sookie’s opinion, his best “building” was in making sure their family was strong, and she couldn’t imagine a better husband and father.
However, given his love for architecture, Sookie had encouraged Eric with his idea of expanding Mormor’s house in Sweden, where they still spent part of their summers. When it was feasible, Eric and Sookie would spend their vacations at the lake house, giving Mormor and Niall a chance to spoil the kids, but, even then, the house was crowded, especially since Amelia and Pam or Bobby and Thalia and their children often spent part of the summers with them. Plus, Miranda and Jarod and Maggy always came along too.
Indeed, now that their family was growing—seemingly exponentially—extra room was a must.
“What are you thinking?” Eric asked, looking at Sookie with a little smile.
“About how our family’s growing,” she smiled back.
He chuckled. “Just wait until Pam and Amelia have their kids.”
Sookie shook her head and giggled a little. “Do you really think they’ll go through with their plans?”
“Yeah,” Eric said, shaking his head. “But I don’t know if I’ll want to be around them for nine months.”
Sookie nodded in agreement. Pam and Amelia had been talking about having kids for a while, and “shopping the sperm bank” had become a more serious business to Pam than shopping for shoes had ever been. However, she and Amelia hadn’t been able to decide who would be the baby’s biological mother. Both of them had wanted that honor. Just two weeks before, Bobby had made a joke that they should both get pregnant at the same time—with the same guy’s sperm—though Bobby had been quick to clarify that he wasn’t volunteering when his own very pregnant wife, Talia, had given him her patented “look.”
Not two days later, Amelia and Pam seemed to have taken the joke seriously, and as soon as Pam picked the “perfect little swimmers,” she and Amelia both planned to try to get pregnant—at the same time. Though Sookie and Eric were excited for the couple, they were both a little afraid of what Henry had dubbed the “dueling pregnancies.” Meanwhile, Niall and Mormor were in hog-heaven at the thought of all of their new grandbabies. They had little Niall, Hunter, Kate, and Johan; as well as Pam and Amelia’s potential little ones; as well as Thalia’s children, whom Bobby had adopted, and the little boy Thalia was carrying; as well as Maggy, whom they considered “theirs” too. Claudine and Rasul, who had gotten together three years before, were also expecting their first child. Niall liked to laugh about how he would soon have a baseball team of grandchildren.
Sookie couldn’t help but to be a little melancholy when she thought about Niall’s and Elsa’s advanced ages. She hoped they’d be around for a long time to come so that they could enjoy all their great-grandchildren. Plus—selfishly—Sookie didn’t want to lose them either.
“Did you get a chance to look at the bunk beds I picked out for Hunter and Johan?” Eric asked quietly so that the kids wouldn’t hear them. Though their children knew that Hunter would be living with them soon, Eric and Sookie wanted to surprise Johan and Hunter with the fact that they’d be sharing a room as they had the spring before when they’d all vacationed together in New Orleans. In a few years, they figured that the boys would want their own rooms, and there was plenty of space for that, but both Eric and Sookie intuited that Hunter’s integration into their family might be easier for him if he shared a room with Johan for the time-being.
“Yeah,” Sookie smiled. “But don’t you think a rope swing and a slide is a bit much?” she asked with a little smirk.
“What?” Eric asked innocently. “They’re boys.”
“You know that your daughter is going to want to stay in there too.”
Eric chuckled. “They make a version with three beds.”
“And let me guess. That’s the one you ordered?” Sookie asked with a chuckle.
“Better safe than sorry,” he said, bending down to kiss her on her nose.
She shook her head indulgently. “You know, Hunter’s already nine; he’ll probably outgrow something like that soon.”
Eric nodded. “Yeah. But Claudine cautioned us that he might regress a little.” He sighed. “Plus, he’ll be able to move into his own room as soon as he wants, and the other kids can use the bunk beds until they outgrow them too. And by then,” he added, his eyebrows waggling, “we might have another who would like to use it with Niall.”
Sookie arched a brow. “Really? Are you making plans without me, Mr. Northman?”
“Absolutely not,” he vowed. “But it is January, and you know how we are.”
She giggled. “Yeah. I do.” All three of their children had been conceived in that month, and all three had been conceived while they were using birth control. Of course, they’d always been joyous when they’d learned about them. Sookie had carried Kate and Niall to term, so their birthdays were both in early October, while Johan’s was in September since he was born premature. But their estimated conception dates were all during the middle of January—though in different years, of course.
Sookie touched her belly with her free hand. I’d probably better get a test—just in case,” she joked.
He arched a brow. “Yep—you probably should. Remember the NP party was just last weekend, and you know what that means?”
Sookie laughed. “Super sperm,” she whispered so that the kids wouldn’t hear.
Eric shrugged playfully. “I’m just saying.” His face grew a little more serious. “And I kind of have that feeling I got with Kate and Niall.”
Sookie looked at Eric with a little surprise. “Really?” she whispered.
“Yeah,” he said. “Remember the other day—when Henry and Bobby took Kate and Johan to the movies?”
Sookie blushed. “The shower?”
“Or the kitchen counter,” he smirked.
Sookie nodded, remembering how they’d taken complete advantage of the fact that Niall had napped for several hours while their other kids were with their godfathers.
“I’ll make an appointment before we go to Louisiana,” Sookie said seriously. Her husband’s sixth sense was not to be ignored—especially not when it came to their kids.
Eric frowned a little. “I’m worried about Hunter. When I spoke with him on the phone yesterday, it was clear that Remy’s illness has affected him greatly.”
“I know,” Sookie said in an even lower voice. “And Remy’s mom told me that she doesn’t think Remy will last much longer. He’s very weak now.”
Eric nodded sadly. “Now that Remy’s doctor is suggesting hospice care, I think that’s a foregone conclusion.”
“We’ll be there in four days,” Sookie said, squeezing Eric’s hand.
“I think we should go tomorrow,” Eric said quietly. “Pam—along with her little shadow—can take my meetings.”
“Gracie,” Sookie smiled a little. Gracie, now a lovely young woman, was attending college at NYU and had been working as Pam’s “intern” at NP. She had an eye for graphic art, and Pam had begun letting her make many of the decisions when it came to cover art for books.
“Yeah,” Eric said with a little smile before his expression fell again. “I just think Hunter needs us sooner rather than later. And Johan would cheer him up.”
“Okay—then let’s go tomorrow morning. I’m sure Niall will let us use the jet.”
Eric kissed Sookie’s hand and looked back at their kids. In turn, Sookie leaned up to give him a little kiss on the cheek. Eric and she were planning to stay in Louisiana until Remy passed away. It was a sobering thought, but—as Eric had said—Remy was losing his battle, and his doctor had already told him to get his affairs in order. Quickly.
Though they were officially cousins, Hunter called Sookie and Eric his aunt and uncle, and “Uncle Eric” was Hunter’s particular favorite. Of course, all the kids in the family still gravitated toward Eric. Sookie smiled.
“What?” Eric asked her, again wanting to know her thoughts.
“Maybe—if I’m pregnant, this one will finally be a momma’s girl or boy, oh great ‘baby whisperer,'” she giggled.
He chuckled. He’d gotten the nickname ‘baby whisperer’ from Bobby right after Johan was born, and it had become a running joke among everyone that if a baby was crying, it should just be handed to Eric. Truth be told, more often than not, the baby did calm down in his arms.
“We both know that Kate always preferred you when she was fussy,” he reminded her quietly.
She looked at him skeptically. “I think it was more of a tie. Remember when she was colicky?”
He chuckled again and kissed her forehead. “I’ll never forget that,” he whispered. “That’s when I realized she was going to be high-maintenance,” he added fondly.
Both parents turned their focus to their kids immediately when they saw Kate almost trip over her too-quickly moving legs.
“Not too fast, Katy!” came Johan’s protective voice. Only he could get away with calling her by that nickname. “Remember how you fell last time and skinned your knee.”
Sookie and Eric smiled at their dare-devil daughter and their more cautious eldest son. They were as different as two children could be, but they had complemented each other from the start.
“I know that I falled last time,” Kate said with her hands on her hips again and a stubborn look in her eyes. “But I got up, and Mommy gave me a froggie,” she said, referring to the animal that had been on the Band-Aid that Sookie had put onto her scraped knee. Band-Aids were a must for any adult’s pockets when he or she spent time around Kate.
Sookie and Eric looked at each other and chuckled when they saw Johan’s skeptical look. Though he was older than his sister, he looked younger in that moment. In fact, Kate was on the verge of out-growing him, though Johan had Eric’s slim build and would likely be just as tall as his father one day. Even if he looked young for his age, however, he was quite advanced both socially and intellectually according to his teachers, and he took his job as big brother very seriously.
On the other hand, school bored Kate to tears, though she did like recess. She, too, was smart, however. It was just that she preferred to do “different” things than her teachers wanted. Yes—she was a handful!
Sookie took a long drink of her coffee, enjoying the fact that she could have it once more now that her youngest boy had stopped nursing.
She sighed and a contented smile eased across her face.
“What this time?” Eric asked her with a smirk.
She squeezed his hand. “I was just thinking about how important it is to get up after we fall.”
“Or when we get pushed,” Eric added, with just a pang of melancholy in his voice.
“Yes,” Sookie said, her tone matching his.
They looked back at their children, both internally vowing that no force on earth would ever “push” Johan, Kate, Niall, or Hunter down if they could help it. Their little ones might fall, but Eric and Sookie would always be there to offer them a hand up.
Sookie felt her smile drift back to her face. For the first year of Johan’s life, she and Eric had always brought their quiet eldest son with them to the MET for their usual Sunday visits, but, after the rambunctious and, indeed, high-maintenance Kate was born, they could no longer bring the kids with them—if they wanted to have any peace. However, every Sunday, she and Eric still made their visits—thanks to Henry and Blake, who always babysat the kids on Sundays. Not counting the special exhibits that moved in and out of the MET, which Eric and Sookie always tried to catch, there were around 440 galleries. Together, they’d seen almost 300 of them. Their Sundays at the MET remained some of their favorite times together, and no matter how busy life got, those times helped her and Eric just relax with each other.
However, the MET was still a big part of the kids’ lives too. Ever since Johan was three and Kate was two, Eric and Sookie had brought them to the MET one or two Saturdays a month so that they could enjoy the many activities for children. The “Start with Art” program was Johan’s favorite since he and his daddy could draw while listening to stories about the art. Kate liked that program too, though the very active girl enjoyed “Art Trek” even more.
Going to the MET also allowed the kids to see one of their favorite people, Ben, more often. In fact, he was Grandpa Ben to the children, and his wife Maria was Grandma Maria.
“Mommy?” Johan said, coming up to her. “What are we doin’ today?”
Sookie smiled. “Today we are going to story time.”
“What’s that?” Kate asked.
“Well—someone will read us a story, and then we will be going on a treasure hunt to find all the art in it,” she said.
“I’m on Mommy’s team!” Kate pronounced.
Eric chuckled. “What is Daddy—chopped liver?”
“I don’t like liver,” the blunt Kate explained. “And Mommy knows where everything is!”
Eric chuckled again. It was true. While he was familiar with a lot of the art in the museum, he tended to remember only a few pieces from each gallery. He always recalled the piece Sookie chose as her favorite each week. And if a different piece stood out to him, he always remembered that one too, but Sookie’s knack for recollecting things was uncanny.
“Why don’t we all be on the same team today and find all the art together?” Eric suggested.
Kate thought for a minute. “Okay. Can Grandpa Ben play?”
“I’m sure he’ll come spend an hour or so with us,” Eric smiled, “but remember that he has to work too.”
Kate’s little eyebrows furrowed. “Why would anyone work when they could play with me instead?”
“I have no idea, Little One,” Eric chuckled, pulling his little ray of sunshine to him with a long arm and giving her a quick kiss on her head before launching her back at her brother.
Eric and Sookie both laughed as Kate immediately went back to running after Johan. Indeed, she did trip a little on the wide steps, but she laughed through it and continued her chase.
Little Niall had settled into sleep against Eric’s chest, and Eric made sure that he was still covered thoroughly by his thick blanket, though the bright sun and lack of wind made the January morning unseasonably warm.
He nodded to Jarod who was watching over his family from about ten feet away. He and Sookie had thought about whether they should keep their guards, but they’d decided to err on the side of caution, even though they had no overt enemies left.
Eric’s thoughts went back to his wife as she scooted a little closer to him and leaned against him. He readjusted them so that one of his arms was around her and the other one was under little Niall even though the baby carrier he was wearing was enough to keep the infant cradled to him. Sookie was quick to thread her fingers back into his as soon as they were repositioned.
Eric spoke in a faraway voice as he glanced at his two oldest children, playing gleefully on the MET’s steps. “I once had a fantasy of a moment just like this one, but when I opened my eyes, my hand was empty.” He looked at their entwined hands.
Sookie nestled into him a little more—closer. “It’s not empty now,” she whispered as she squeezed his hand.
“No,” he whispered, so that she could barely hear him, “it’s full now.” He sighed contently. “And it gets fuller every day.”
Though the museum had opened fifteen minutes before, Eric and Sookie weren’t in a hurry to go inside. Kate and Johan were having too much fun playing on the steps to interrupt them. Plus, the family had all day to enjoy the museum and the rest of their lives to enjoy each other.
There was no hurry at all.
A/N: Well—that’s it! I have to tell you that I’m spent—both physically and emotionally. I couldn’t stop working on this today because I was so looking forward to what you all would think of it now that it’s done. I hope that the end didn’t disappoint!
If there is anyone whom I didn’t cover in the epilogue (whom you’d like to know the fate of), just ask me, and I’ll tell you.
Many, many, many thanks for all of you who have followed this all-human story. I will admit to having this epilogue in mind from almost the beginning. And I knew that I wanted to feature the MET at the end.
I really hope you enjoyed the angsty ride of this story, and—now that it’s done—I hope you will let me know if you liked how it ended. I will miss this world. I started Comfortably Numb around two years ago (and started posting it in April 2013). As I was with Come Back to Me, I am sad and exhilarated to be able to label this one as “complete.”
I’m taking the day tomorrow off to decompress and to go wine tasting.
I’ll be back soon with more Uncharted or Who’s Your Daddy?
I would be remiss not to thank Sephrenia one last time for all the wonderful Character Banners and the Title Banner for this story and the other stories of the Comfortably Numb trilogy! You’re the best! She created a special banner to celebrate the Northman family!
Here are the names of the child actors I would have cast for Johan and Kate:
To see all of Seph’s banners for my stories, click the pic.