[A/N: Hello! Thanks for reading! Some of you asked in your notes to me last time why Sookie would feel that the skill of lip-reading was a bad thing. I certainly didn’t mean to insinuate that the ability to read lips would make someone “defective” or a “freak.” I truly hope that I didn’t offend anyone. I have deaf friends with the skill, and being offensive to them or anyone else was certainly not my aim.
Sookie’s feeling about that skill has its foundation in “how” she developed it, which has yet to be revealed. Also, some might see “supernatural Sookie’s” telepathy as a gift, but she finds it a curse because it causes her—among other things—to know information that she would rather not know—ugly things about people and humanity. However, it also protects her at times. The Sookie in this story knows similar negative things because of her ability to lip-read. While not, perhaps, aware of people’s thoughts, this Sookie “hears” things she would rather not. I hope that this explanation begins to give you some insight into Sookie’s attitude toward her skill. I am aware that many people can read lips—and for many reasons. All the mysteries around why Eric and Sookie are the way they are in this story will—hopefully—be satisfactorily unraveled as I move through the narrative. Thank you to everyone willing to travel through that narrative with me.]
Eric Northman felt the suffocating constriction of falseness closing in around him—hugging him. Everywhere he looked, there was a pair of fake breasts or an insincere smile or a handshake being shared between enemies. Not for the first time, Eric wondered if there was anything real about the world in which he lived.
He knew for certain that he was not real. And—in truth—it was the “real” that frightened him more than anything else. The “real” could be taken from him. Had been taken. The “real” would hurt him.
He’d learned during his almost 29 years that the only safety to be had was found in detachment and distance. So he stayed at arm’s length from everyone—including any “self” that tried to form within him. He counted himself lucky that he had very long arms.
The world he lived in was about only two things: wealth and power. And as he looked around Gallery 800, he saw that most of the people there were either parading around what they already had or trying to get more. What he didn’t see was anyone looking happy. Everyone was too busy pretending or scheming or networking or weaseling.
Hoping to find some respite, Eric slipped out of the larger gallery into a smaller one.
He sighed heavily. Despite the fact that he craved a break from his world, he wasn’t naïve enough to think that he was any better off than the other party-goers. He was just as fake; hell, his whole “social persona” was a careful construct. He’d spent the better part of the evening “socializing” with people he didn’t like—all while he used his natural charm and intelligence to get what he wanted from them: a new business deal, a promise of service to be rendered, the mobile phone number of the nameless socialite he intended to fuck after the party.
As always, however, his greatest performance was in pretending to be the beloved son of Appius Northman—when he was anything but loved by his father.
Hating everything about himself in that moment, Eric decided to regroup, so he took up a defensive position in the corner of Gallery 819, which was one of the Monet galleries. He made a quick assessment and saw only middle managers and support staff from Northman Publishing.
He sighed with relief, knowing that his father would never linger in a room unless someone inside of it was making it worth his while, and there was no one in the gallery who fit that bill. Of course, Eric’s presence alone wouldn’t be enough of a draw for Appius, especially since the elder Northman had already given Eric his customary castigation for the evening.
So Eric watched from the corner of the gallery. He’d learned—during his four years at NP—how to fill and dominate a room when needed, and he’d become good at it even though it didn’t come naturally to him. In fact, being larger than life and exuding confidence were merely two parts of the character that he “acted” for public consumption.
However, he felt more comfortable keeping out of the spotlight, and he was good at going unseen when he wanted. After all, he’d spent the first twenty-five years of his life keeping to the shadows. It was—decidedly—safer there.
Eric looked around the room in the methodical way which had become his habit, sweeping it like he was looking for landmines. But there was no one in that room that could hurt him, so he relaxed a little.
As soon as he did, he saw gold—saw her.
He didn’t even see the her from the front. And since she was on the other side of the gallery and there were people milling between them, he didn’t see her well either. Her back was to him, and she was studying one of the Monets that he didn’t care for, though his least favorite was the much fawned-over Haystacks, which his father liked to brag about donating to the MET.
What caught his attention about the woman was her hair. It looked like spun gold, but it had way too many hues to be out of a bottle. Eric let his eyes trail down the part of the girl’s body he could see and was happy when he discerned some actual curves there.
However, even though Eric tried to order her with his mind, the girl didn’t turn around to give him a look at her face. Instead, she left the gallery.
Sookie made her way from Gallery 819 to Gallery 800, even as she felt the probing eyes of Eric Northman trailing her. However, the last thing that she wanted to do was to come to the attention of any of the high-ups in the company. She worried that if any of them looked too hard at her résumé, they would determine that a mistake had been made in hiring her.
Even worse, she feared what kind of look she’d get from a man like Eric Northman.
Would he look at her with pity or scorn? Would he look at her like she was defective? With disgust? With indifference? Those were the looks that most everyone gave her after a while. Even Gran found it impossible to keep the pity from her eyes much of the time.
And for some reason, the way that Eric Northman—if that was, indeed, the man she’d seen—looked at her mattered to Sookie. She’d seen the intelligence and the self-preservation that had guided his blue eyes around the gallery. His were eyes that would be able to read her own defenses and deficiencies easily, and she didn’t know if she could take someone truly seeing her—not now. Not so close to the time that Bill’s duplicity had crushed what little self-confidence she’d been building over the last several years while she’d been in college.
However, to escape the proverbial lion’s den—the gaze of Eric Northman—she had stepped into the fire.
Immediately upon entering Gallery 800—which was very long, though not much wider than the room she’d just come from—Sookie caught the eye of Arlene, the redhead who was pretty much the “Queen Bee” of the copy editors. And like good drones, Dawn and Maudette were right next to her. Despite the nasty looks on their faces, Sookie had to admit that all three women looked good in their cocktail dresses. All of their dresses were black, which was the most common color of the garments at the party, and they were also all much more appropriate for the occasion than Sookie’s faded dress.
Though Sookie had been at NP for only a week, she’d already been labeled a “freak” and a “weirdo” by Arlene and her cohort. And because of the redhead’s influence and Sookie’s own ingrained self-doubt, the blonde hadn’t made any friends in her department—not that she’d ever been good at making friends.
At first, Sookie had been hopeful that things would be different in New York where not a soul knew her, but she’d quickly realized that her hope had been nothing but a pipe dream.
So at the office, Sookie had quickly developed a strategy. She tried to keep her head down—to keep focused on her work and to do a good job. But sometimes she caught herself watching the people around her in a similar way to how Eric had been watching the people in the gallery. Out of deep-rooted habit, she watched others as a defense mechanism and with the hope that doing so would give her the knowledge that she needed to survive. Sadly, she was not nearly as good as Eric at being inconspicuous when she became lost in her watching; thus, her predilection to “stare like some retard,” which was how Maudette had so charitably put it, had certainly done nothing to prompt the others in the office to befriend her.
Sookie saw Arlene’s lips move to tell her followers to take a look at “what the cat had dragged in.” And Sookie was immediately being scanned from head to toe by all three women. For her part, Sookie had already looked away slightly. She could still see the little group in her periphery—her perfect peripheral vision good at targeting what she didn’t want others to know she was looking at. Sookie—again for the sake of self-preservation—had, through much practice, mastered this kind of half-looking.
It was Dawn who spoke first. “Do you see what she’s wearing?”
“It looks like it came off the rack at Wal-Mart. The clearance rack. A decade ago,” Arlene chortled in the way that only a true gossip could do.
The women continued their insults, but Sookie was able to detach herself from those. Insults—she was used to.
Instead, she tried to focus on one of the many bronze sculptures in the long room as she slowly moved farther away from the women. Unfortunately—or fortunately in this case—Sookie could still see the women’s lips moving, so she could still “hear” them speaking.
“If Pam sees her, she’ll likely be fired on the spot just for shaming the company,” Maudette giggled.
“Or—even better—Nora could see her,” Dawn returned.
“Good idea,” Arlene commented. “Susan’s so damned weird that it’d be better not to be forced to work with her every day. I still don’t know why Sam hired such a retard.”
“I heard that she blew him for the job,” Dawn said conspiratorially.
Sookie could tell that Dawn had whispered her words, barely moving her lips, but the blonde could still understand everything she had said.
Sookie tried not to show any reaction as all three women studied and judged her like predators. Sookie had been looked at like that before. Arlene and her cronies were the kind of people that cultivated the position of Alpha so that they would feel better about themselves; thus, they needed someone weaker to beat down—someone like her.
Being the target of a bully was not new for Sookie. After all, she’d been bullied by the master—her own mother—for most of her life.
“I see Pam and Nora at the other end of the gallery. Let’s ‘help out’ our new co-worker by introducing little Susan to the big, bad wolves,” Dawn said sarcastically.
Arlene cackled pitilessly. “Oh yes—that would be fun.”
Quickly, though subtly, Sookie looked toward the opposite end of the long room and did—indeed—see Pam there. She was standing with a beautiful brunette woman, who had a scowl on her face and a drink practically tipping from her hand. Obviously Nora.
Immediately, Sookie knew two things. First, there was no way in hell that she wanted to be introduced to them. Second, since Sam had seen her there already, she could safely escape the party early, hopefully without getting into any trouble.
After all, it wasn’t as if anyone would care if she was gone. No one ever had before.
Luckily, she was closer to the large door at the end of the room than Arlene, Dawn, and Maudette were, so Sookie—as inconspicuously as she could—began moving toward it.
She thanked her lucky stars that she made it out of the room without the other women getting to her first. There were restrooms right beyond the door, and Sookie hoped that Arlene and her little “court” would think that she was going there.
But that wasn’t where she was going.
Finding herself alone in the long hallway, Sookie practically ran to the nearest elevator and quickly punched the button to call the conveyance. She thanked God when the metal doors opened immediately so that she could move inside of the box. Luckily, the elevator was empty and the doors closed quickly behind her.
Out of immediate danger, Sookie took a deep breath and looked at her image in the mirrored wall of the elevator; as expected, she saw her fears and insecurities moving onto her face. She had become good at hiding all of her emotions—never letting them come to the surface until she was safe, but she reminded herself that she wasn’t yet safe. Not really. She wouldn’t be safe until she was locked into her room for the night.
Despite wanting to, Sookie couldn’t seem to tear her eyes from her image. She saw all her flaws magnified. She’d known that she wouldn’t belong at that party—not with so many confident and important people there. But she’d attended because she couldn’t afford to do anything to risk her job.
She sighed heavily—shakily. She’d hoped that her new job would somehow make her new. But it hadn’t. Just as inevitably as she’d been judged as “odd” or “a misfit” by the people in her hometown and then by those in her college classes, she’d been deemed as “defective” at her new job. Already, most of the people in her department didn’t like her; even Sam, who was nice to everyone, seemed to be uncomfortable around her—perhaps because of the rumors about how she’d gotten her job.
Sookie forced her eyes to close and her skin to thicken. “You need to accept the fact that you will never fit in—not anywhere,” she said to herself, hoping that the woman in the mirror was listening too.
Sookie had already resolved to do whatever she could to keep her job. She couldn’t run back to Bon Temps, and there was no way that she’d go crawling back to Bill. No. She would just have to suck it up and try harder to make herself invisible.
Realizing that she had forgotten to press the button to go down, she opened her eyes, but kept them on the button pad. When the elevator doors opened, she hurried out of the conveyance and toward the main entrance of the museum. As she waited for the attendant to bring her the only coat that she owned, she kept her promise to herself and picked up a few of the free brochures at the desk.
“Making an early night of it, Miss?” a kind-eyed guard asked as she put on her threadbare and too-small coat.
She nodded at the man as she stuffed the brochures into her pockets. She didn’t really know how to operate when strangers were kind to her. She glanced at the guard’s nametag and read, “Ben.” It was a nice name for an obviously nice man, but “nice” was difficult for her to deal with. It always had been.
She took a deep breath to steady herself. What she needed was to be alone in her room so that she could decompress from the anxiety-filled night.
“Can I hail a taxi for you, Miss, or call your driver?” Ben asked.
“No thank you,” Sookie managed as she moved to go out into the bitter night. January in New York was much colder than anything she’d ever experienced, but Sookie welcomed the frigid temperature, compared to the discomfort she’d felt at the party. She turned up the street and began walking toward the subway station.
Eric was still contemplating the golden hair of the blonde he’d seen earlier when his sister, Pam, and his stepsister, Nora, entered Gallery 819. Eric could tell immediately that Nora was drunk.
“Fuck,” he muttered to himself.
Pam had a fake smile on her face as she led Nora over to Eric. His sister’s eyes were screaming at him for help.
“Oh, Eric,” Nora purred as she ran a finger down his lapel. “You look good enough to eat. It’s such a pity that you and I didn’t work out.”
Eric cringed a little bit as he thought about his and his stepsister’s ill-fated attempt at sex less than a year before. It was not a memory his enjoyed recalling.
“Shhh,” Eric ordered Nora softly as he put his arm around her swaying body.
“Roman kept bringing her liquor,” Pam hissed. “And I’m afraid we’ll have a repeat of last year if we don’t step in.”
Eric nodded. Last year had consisted of Nora getting drunk to the point that she loudly propositioned Copley Carmichael, one of Appius Northman’s oldest associates. The fact that Copley was old enough to be Nora’s father wasn’t the problem. May-December marriages were not uncommon among the elite of New York society. Hell—his own father was almost four decades older than his current stepmother!
The problem was that Copley had been a widower for less than a month at the time of last January’s party. Even worse, Nora hadn’t dropped the matter, although Copley was clearly uninterested and obviously upset by Nora’s behavior. It had taken Eric stepping in to remove Nora, who had—by the time—draped herself all over the clearly uncomfortable widower like a fucking fungus. Eric would never forget the look of horror and anguish on Copley’s face when Nora had promised—in an inappropriately loud voice—that she could help him “to forget all about his dead wife.”
As far as Eric knew, Copley hadn’t spoken to Appius since then—despite the fact that one of Copley’s real estate developments was partly owned by Appius.
“Goddamned Roman,” Eric muttered of his stepsister’s newest paramour. Nora’s men generally lasted about a month before they’d had their fill of Eric’s beautiful, though erratic, stepsister. Of course, Appius, who favored Nora well above his other children, chose to ignore her antics. Still, Eric couldn’t help but to feel sorry for Nora. Her predisposition was to cope with the emptiness in her own life by drinking until she felt full, and people like Roman were certainly not a help to her.
“Where is Roman?” Eric whispered, now supporting more of Nora’s weight as she teetered on her four-inch heels.
“I don’t know,” Pam answered.
“Find him and then come back here,” Eric said evenly.
“Yes—find Roman,” Nora said in an increasingly slurred, pouty, and loud voice. “He’s much more fun than either of you. Oh,” she added as if struck by an idea, “and bring me another glass of champagne—will you, Pammy?”
“Sure,” Pam humored her stepsister as she stepped out of the room through a door leading to another small gallery. Almost immediately, she stepped back in and gave Eric a significant look, which told him that she’d already spotted Roman.
Eric sighed with relief when Nora didn’t resist his leading her into the next gallery.
The tall blonde spotted Nora’s current lover easily. The married business mogul was flirting with one of the girls from NP. Roman’s wife, as always, was in Europe somewhere, no doubt being just as promiscuous as her husband. The girl he was flirting with—whose name was Dawn or Dusk or Twilight or something along those lines—was looking at Roman with lust, and he was leaning down to whisper something to her. The woman immediately burst into fake-sounding laughter. Eric rolled his eyes. He’d had sex with the woman before, and she’d not been a bad fuck—though she’d been the kind of woman who moaned a little too loud—the entire goddamned time—for it to seem real. Eric had not sought out a repeat performance with her.
“Hello, Eric,” the woman purred as he approached with Nora.
“Do you know the captivating Miss Green?” Roman asked with a wink.
Eric’s stomach turned. “Yes. Will you excuse us?” he asked her. “Roman was just going to take Nora home,” he said, his tone allowing for no argument.
Thankfully, Roman didn’t try to disagree. Instead, he looked back at Dawn with a leer. “Would you care to join Nora and me for a nightcap, Dawn? The penthouse apartment in Northman Tower has a tremendous view.”
“Oh goody,” Nora grinned, “a party.”
Dawn looked at Eric lasciviously. “Sounds good, Roman,” she said, trying to sound seductive. “Will Eric be joining us too?”
Nora hiccupped out a laugh, but Eric gave her a harsh look so that she would keep her mouth closed.
“I’m afraid I can’t,” Eric answered stiffly. He handed Nora over to Roman. “But you all have a nice evening.”
Eric watched as Roman led Dawn and a now-stumbling Nora through two smaller galleries and then into the larger one. Inconspicuously and nervously, he followed them at a distance in order to make sure they got away from the party and onto the elevator without incident. Pam, who had stayed back when Eric took Nora to Roman, joined him, and they both let out sighs of relief when the elevator doors closed.
Eric looked around them. Fortunately, no one seemed to have noticed Nora’s stumbling. His stepsister—though beloved of Appius—was not well thought of by others in the publishing world, and he didn’t want anything she did to undermine NP. Plus, though Nora certainly wasn’t his favorite person, he did care about what happened to her, and he didn’t want to see her make a fool out of herself—again. Moreover, Eric knew that if she did do something asinine, he would be the one blamed for her actions—just as Appius had blamed him the previous year.
“Did Father see her like that?” Eric asked, hoping to confirm the containment of Nora’s condition.
Pam shook her head. “No. Since he spoke to you earlier, Father and Andre have been too busy catering to Sophie-Anne to notice much of anything.”
Eric nodded and relaxed a little. The twenty-year-old Sophie-Anne was Appius’s newest wife, and she was eight months pregnant with their first child.
Pam cackled. “It looks like—after tonight—Dawn will have worked her way through half of the Northman children.”
Eric rolled his eyes. It was only after he’d slept with Dawn that he learned that Pam had had a short dalliance with her as well. Dawn—it seemed—was the “office bike,” so to speak. And she didn’t discriminate between the genders.
Eric sighed. As usual, he felt a little disgusted with himself for having so little pickiness when it came to the women he fucked. However, they were a release for him—nothing more. The last thing he wanted to do was to get attached to one—not when he knew what attachments would inevitably lead to: loss.
Oh, he knew that he’d have to eventually get married—to someone his father approved of. Eric had no illusions about how Appius saw him. To Appius, he was nothing but a hated—though necessary—studhorse, ready to be matched with someone who could increase the Northman wealth or enhance their status. At least—almost three years before—Eric had found out why his father had always despised him so much.
Of course, knowing was only good in that it took away any hope that Eric might have had to one day earn his father’s affection. Unfortunately, that knowledge had not been liberating for the young man; it had simply stolen one of the few things he’d always held on to.
Eric shook himself out of his unproductive thoughts and touched the card in his pants pocket. On it was the number of the beautiful raven-haired woman who had approached him earlier in the evening. He’d known what she wanted as soon as she’d walked up to him.
She was probably 23 or 24 years old, and her expression had bespoken of her sense of entitlement. And—obviously—she felt entitled to him that night. Eric was no fool; he knew that he had a “reputation” among the daughters of the elite. They all wanted to have “a go” with him. And all of them secretly hoped to outdo their competitors and land such a prize as Appius Northman’s eldest son. But Eric still had several years before he would be forced to choose a socialite with whom to begin what would most likely be a loveless and empty marriage.
And he planned to be single and miserable—rather than married and miserable—for as long as he could.
For the night, however, he would use the young woman, whom he now recalled had introduced herself as Freyda, Felipe de Castro’s daughter. However, she would use him as well. In New York society, it would be deemed as a “successful transaction.” Hell—he might even find her tolerable enough to take to a few social functions or charity galas if she wasn’t the clingy type.
Still—as he began to maneuver through the galleries that were housing his father’s party, he was not looking for the dark-haired beauty whom he was scheduled to fuck later that night. Eric found himself looking for a certain head of golden hair.
Of course, he didn’t admit to himself that he was also afraid of finding the owner of that hair. What if the woman was just as fake as everyone else? Or—even more disconcerting—what if she wasn’t?
He chastised himself, wondering why he even cared about the girl at all! After all, he hadn’t even seen her properly. Likely, she was just the date or the daughter of an NP employee, and that glimpse would be all he would ever see of her.
Eric tried to put the golden hair out of his mind and to focus on talking to everyone he was expected to talk to. He laughed at their recycled jokes and stories. He promised the appropriate people that they would “have lunch at the club soon.” However, he kept finding himself looking for gold among the wealthy.
He found none.
After an hour of performing as he was expected to perform, Eric snuck into Gallery 823.
Although Gallery 823 and Gallery 826 were two of the Northman Galleries, they were never used for the January Northman Publishing parties since the Van Gogh paintings inside of them were impossible to insure for such a gathering. They were roped off, but the guard let Eric pass because of who he was.
As Eric looked around the gallery, he once again saw the golden color of the woman’s hair. However, this time the hues were in a swirling field of wheat. Eric walked closer to that wheat.
He hadn’t been to the MET often—only coming for the yearly NP party where he was required. However, each of the years that he’d attended, he’d always found himself in this particular gallery, staring at this particular painting, which had once again caught his eye—but this time for a different reason.
Since he’d first seen the work, he’d been captivated by the thick paint, which created a scene that jumped off of the canvas with its energy. He’d always been acutely aware that the painting teemed with more life than he did.
Generally, when Eric thought of wheat fields, he thought of vast, lonely places—miles and miles of endless crops on the flat plain—in Oklahoma maybe. But Van Gogh’s wheat field was different. There were rolling hills in the background and a thicket of trees in the middle of the crop. And on one side of the canvas, there were two cypress trees leaning into each other. One was tall and mature, while the other was much smaller. Eric had always thought about his mother when he saw the painting.
He couldn’t remember much about his mother, Stella, since she’d died when he was only five years old; however, he could recall a woman’s smile and the smell of jasmine. He remembered her voice, telling him a story. And he remembered feeling warm—maybe even loved.
He recalled that fleeting feeling every time he looked at the painting, which was why he always found his way to it during his visits to the museum. However, this time, he didn’t focus on the Cyprus trees as he usually did. He was studying the wheat and wondering about the woman whose hair—just like the painting—seemed to hold every shade of gold.
“Beautiful,” he whispered into the empty room.
The Northman Galleries at the MET
A/N: I’d like to once more thank everyone who has taken the time to read and/or review this story so far.
++++VERY VAGUE SPOILER ALERT FOR BOOKS…UPCOMING / STOP READING HERE IF YOU DON’T WANNA KNOW ANYTHING!++++
Okay, I will admit that the spoilers about the final book have made me a little melancholy. I couldn’t find it in me to write at all yesterday. Sigh. However, I promise to continue to try to write Eric & Sookie stories that do justice to the wonderful characters that Charlaine Harris introduced to us. Those characters captivated me with their inherent tragedy and their endless potential. It is that which I will always try to tap for myself and for my readers. Thank you for being one of them.
New Character Banners by Sephrenia