Chapter 25: Q & A
Sookie and Claudine were just finishing up their dinner, during which they’d enjoyed their casual chat, just as much as their grilled salmon.
A few months before, the two women had begun sharing a meal after each Tuesday session. The bistro they were now sitting in had quickly become their favorite place to go. It was never overly crowded on weeknights, the prices were reasonable, and the food was a nice mixture of hearty and healthy.
Claudine took the last drink of the wine she’d ordered with her dinner. She understood well that a therapist was generally better off if he or she didn’t develop a friendship with a patient. The psychiatrist with whom Claudine had interned always told her that she should “punt” her patients to another therapist if she ever “got attached.” Claudine believed in the soundness of his advice, but she couldn’t help herself with Sookie, and—frankly—she didn’t want to either. There was just something about the blonde in front of her that tugged at Claudine’s heart. It wasn’t that she pitied her either. It was more like a connection that one might feel toward a family member, and Claudine was happy that their friendship was growing more and more with each passing week.
Claudine’s phone chirped and she looked down at the message she’d been left by Charlie, whom she’d been dating for about three months. She smiled as she read the text.
“Good news?” Sookie asked before taking the last drink of her own wine.
“Yes—Charlie got us tickets for the symphony for our three-month anniversary,” Claudine smiled.
“You like him,” Sookie smiled back.
“Yes,” Claudine confirmed. Whereas Claudette had married and divorced three times and Claude was always proclaiming that he would never settle down with anyone, Claudine was still looking for the right person to share her life with. Her relationship with Charlie had grown more serious during the last several weeks, and, though she wasn’t sure he was Mr. Right, Claudine was hopeful that he might be.
“This one might even be a keeper,” Claudine said with a wink.
“Well, from what you’ve told me, he sounds like a nice guy,” Sookie observed.
“He is,” Claudine smiled a little wider.
The waitress came around to ask the women if they wanted dessert. They both ordered a piece of cheesecake and a coffee as Sookie texted Eric to let him know to pick her up at the bistro in half an hour.
Once the dessert was delivered, Claudine asked her friend the question that had been nagging in the back of her mind since they’d left her office.
“Sookie,” she gently nudged, “you were right earlier tonight when you said that you shouldn’t question why Eric is interested in you. You were right to accept that his reasons are his own. And you are definitely right to trust that you are worthy of his affection. But—you also have to consider what happened to you before. Is there any possibility at all that Eric could be trying to use you for your ability—as Bill was?”
Sookie took a deep breath and considered Claudine’s question. After all, it was a valid query and something she’d asked herself many times during the last several days.
Could Eric be wooing her in order to use her lip-reading ability? After all, it had already been of use to him once; it had helped him to know that de Castro had put spies into NP.
Even if he’d not known about her ability in January, he certainly knew now. And the truth was that he’d not approached her again until after he’d known.
Did he want to use her? Was he like Bill—even in the slightest?
Sookie sighed. Eric certainly didn’t need her for sex—not by any stretch of the imagination. He had women who would line up for him—actresses and models, socialites and debutants, executives and CEOs. Hell—he probably had a fan club of nuns who cut out his pictures from Page Six!
And it wasn’t like he needed her for a relationship either. Sookie figured that there were scores of women—women from the “proper class” no less—that would kill for someone like Eric.
Her mother’s voice had crept into her head many times during the last several days—mostly when she’d not been with Eric. She could hear that voice stirring within her again: “Why would Eric Northman—or ANY man for that matter—want someone abnormal like you? You are NOTHING! That means that he must want you ONLY for what he can get from you. And then he will toss you away like the trash you are. And if you think he really cares about you, then you are as stupid as you are defective!”
Sookie took a few deep, steadying breaths as Claudine had taught her to do when she needed to banish her mother’s voice from her thoughts. Claudine had trained Sookie to think of an acronym—R.E.D.—when the “ghost” of her mother tried to torment her. The first step was for Sookie to “Recognize” that she had control over her mother’s voice. The second step was for her to “Eradicate” that voice like the vermin it was. The third step was to “re-Define” herself as the one who was in charge of her thoughts. Sookie took several more breaths. She closed her eyes and imagined her mother’s words as a rat trying to invade her, a sewer rat that could be expunged by a simple extermination. That image brought a little smile to her face.
When she opened her eyes again, Claudine was looking at her knowingly.
“Did you kill the vermin?” the therapist asked with a little smirk on her face. Sookie had told her weeks ago what image she thought of when she utilized the R.E.D. technique.
“Just call me the Orkin man,” Sookie smirked back.
Claudine smiled at her patient. “Good.”
Sookie nodded and returned to Claudine’s question, this time with only her own thoughts rattling around in her head. Rationally, she knew that she had to consider whether Eric was trying to manipulate her. So—once more—she asked herself the difficult question: Had he approached her again because he wanted to use her lip-reading ability?
Because Michelle Stackhouse had viewed Sookie’s lip-reading only as a sign of her so-called “defect,” Sookie had never considered what a valuable skill it could be until she’d gotten an abrupt education—from a woman named Lorena Krasiki.
In many government agencies, a lip-reader was a highly sought-after commodity because—after all—secrets were highly sought-after commodities. Spies trained for a long time to accurately read lips. Heck—Lorena had told Sookie of a lip-reader who had infiltrated an organized crime syndicate in Philadelphia and who had eventually provided the authorities with the information they needed to bring the syndicate down. Other lip-readers had been involved in thwarting terrorist plots.
However, even the most talented lip-readers had their limitations, and that’s what made Sookie so distinctive—so “singular.” Her own ability was so deep-rooted in her that she was almost 100% accurate.
Of course, Lorena hadn’t given Sookie this information so that she could see value in her skill. No—she had done it out of malice.
It had turned out that Bill was a “talent scout” for the FBI, and Lorena had greatly enjoyed telling Sookie that she was “just an assignment to Bill”—that he saw her only as a means to increasing his own value within the Bureau.
According to Lorena, Sookie’s situation was “unique,” which was why someone of “Bill’s talents” had been sent in. Sookie had been reading lips since she was very young, and though a deaf person might be suspected of having the skill, Sookie was now a “fully functioning hearing person.” At least that was the clinical way Bill had described her in the file that Lorena had shown her—a file which had contained over 150 pages of Bill’s various “assessments” of her. Many of the words he’d written had frozen themselves into her brain.
The file had included Bill’s appraisal of Sookie’s potential to work for the agency he’d been sent by. He’d determined that she “showed great potential,” though her “lack of social intelligence made substantial training and oversight necessary.” He warned against “using a direct approach in securing her skills” because she was “too simple and meek to handle such a request as a normal person would.”
He’d suggested that Sookie’s introduction to the FBI be “subtle” so that she wouldn’t become “skittish.” And his idea to “procure Miss Stackhouse’s talent by initiating a relationship with her” had been approved by his supervisor, someone named Nan Flanagan.
In his reports, Bill had also indicated that Sookie was the most skilled lip-reader he’d ever come across. He’d written about how he’d personally witnessed her “reading” people when there was only faint light. In fact, his first report, which had outlined the first time they’d met, talked about how she’d “read” the police after her attack even though they were thirty feet away and stood under dim street lights. He’d been even more “impressed” that she’d been able to “read” them under great distress.
Other reports he’d written delineated various tests he’d used to ascertain whether she could read him if he mumbled or barely moved his lips while speaking. During their first and only real date, he had set up other assessments—one to see if she could accurately report on things she’d “read” from the waitress who had mumbled out the restaurant’s specials in French. Bill had been “pleased to testify” that even though Sookie didn’t know French, she’d been able to tell him—with “proficiency”— the names of the various dishes the waitress had intentionally slurred.
He’d also set up scenarios to see if she could cover up her distress if she “read unpleasant things.” One such experiment had been conducted when he’d accompanied her to Bon Temps. He’d paid some people in town to ridicule her because of her past deafness; of course, he’d put her into a position where she could “overhear” them.
Sookie remembered the words of those people very well. They’d been in her grade at school, and the things that they’d said had hurt her—had made her feel like she was a social pariah once more. Bill’s report had indicated his “satisfaction” that her face could “remain perfectly neutral” even when she heard “hostile things.”
He’d conducted another experiment while they had been in the middle of sex. Wanting to see if Sookie could concentrate “while occupied with another activity,” he’d moved his lips to ask her to make him an apple pie the next night that he was over. He’d been “pleased to report” that an apple pie had been waiting for him at their “next appointment” even though he’d “never voiced” his request out loud.
Apparently, the only “reservation” that Bill had had about her involved her “various personality defects.” However, in his report dated the week before Sookie had seen the file, Bill had indicated that if he “generated enough dependence in Sookie”—so that she “looked only to him for guidance”—then he was certain that she could be used by the agency as long as he functioned as her “handler.”
Lorena had taken extra “care” to let Sookie know that being the handler of such a “fine asset” would “make Bill’s career.”
Sookie cringed at the memory of what she’d seen in that file; Bill’s duplicity had almost crippled her psychologically, and that’s why she had to carefully consider Claudine’s question.
Did Eric want her to spy on his business adversaries—just as she’d inadvertently done with de Castro and Madden? Was he going to try to get her to fall in love with him—just as Bill had done—in order to manipulate her?
Yes. The questions were hard. But—in the end—the answers were easy.
“Eric’s not like Bill,” Sookie said after at least five minutes of silence had passed between her and Claudine. “With Eric, things feel different than they did with Bill. I don’t know everything about Eric, but I do know that what he’s said to me is the truth. And there’s something,” she paused, “good between us. I trust it—trust him.”
Claudine sighed and nodded. “I don’t think he’s manipulating you either, Sookie, but I need you to promise to keep using your ability. Keep looking for microexpressions that he cannot hide. Keep using your lip-reading skill and don’t ignore anything that seems off—as you did with Bill. Can you promise me that?”
Sookie nodded. “I have already promised myself the same thing, though I think Eric’s eyes would give him away before anything else.” She paused for a moment. “His eyes tell me everything I need to know about him. Claudine, I think that Eric,” she paused again, “feels something strong for me.”
Claudine reached out and took her friend’s slightly shaking hand. “And I can tell that you already feel something strong for him too, Sookie.”
Sookie spoke a bit wistfully. “It’s strange. With Eric, I feel safe—like I can just be who I am. I feel like I can talk to him—like I can tell him things that I can’t even tell you yet. And there’s more to it. I feel like I want to tell him those things.”
Claudine leaned forward a little. “That’s good, Sookie,” the therapist said truthfully. She understood just how rare it was—especially for a survivor of abuse—to find someone that he or she didn’t want to “hide from.”
Sookie smiled. “The best part is that Eric seems to feel the same things about me that I do for him. It’s like he’s counting on me—like he’s trusting in me too. I never felt anything even remotely close to that from Bill. And now that I can look back objectively, I recognize that Bill hardly told me anything about himself—at least beyond the surface things. Sure—his job made him hide a lot, but he could have told me some true things that wouldn’t have compromised his work.”
“Yes. He could have,” Claudine agreed.
Sookie inhaled and exhaled deeply. “Eric has opened up to me as much as I have to him so far. And—although I can’t be one hundred percent sure—I don’t believe he would have done that if he only wanted to use me for my skill.” She paused. “I’m certain enough to want to bet my heart on him—on us,” she finished in a whisper.
Claudine nodded. “Yes. It’s clear to me that you want to be with Eric and that you trust him. But you also have to consider what he can give you—and what he can’t. If the time he’s offering you is not enough, then you have to let him go—and the sooner, the better—for both of your sakes.”
Sookie said nothing but nodded in understanding.
Claudine leaned back and took a sip of her coffee before continuing, “Sookie if you begin a relationship with Eric, you can’t let the time factor hang over your head—or his. You can’t keep your eye constantly on the hourglass. If you do that, I fear that you’ll both be miserable.”
“I know,” Sookie responded softly.
“You would have to live in the moment,” Claudine said kindly. “And you’d have to try to help him to do the same. Could you do that?”
Sookie bit her lip a little. “I don’t know.”
Claudine sighed. “So that is what you will have to strive to find out then—before you can give Eric your answer.”
To give Sookie a moment to consider what she’d said, the therapist called the waitress over to refill their coffees. After she left, Claudine smiled at her friend warmly. “Sookie, I know that we are officially done with our session for today, but will you let me go back into doctor mode for a little while?”
Sookie chuckled. “Are you ever out of doctor mode?”
Claudine smiled a little wider. “I guess not—at least not fully, but I want to do a little exercise with you—if you’ll let me. It’ll only take a few minutes, and we can go back to the office if you want.”
Sookie looked around. The restaurant was almost empty, and no one was paying any attention to Claudine and her. “Here is fine,” she said.
Claudine smiled and reached out to pat Sookie’s hand. “Okay. Let me repeat some of the things that you told me at the beginning of our session today,” Claudine said. “And as I repeat each one, I want you to consider what your feelings are and why you have those feelings. I’ll pause one minute after each question, and then I want you to try to put your feelings into words, but limit those words to a sentence or two—got it?”
“Okay,” Sookie said tentatively, stirring some milk into her drink.
“Okay,” Claudine smiled encouragingly. “Let’s begin. Eric told you that he had been watching you at the museum. How did you feel when he told you about that?”
After a minute, Claudine gestured toward Sookie to speak.
“I didn’t like it,” Sookie answered honestly. “I don’t like being watched when I don’t know it.”
Claudine nodded. “That feeling is understandable based on what you have told me about your past and about the times your mother made you face the corner of your room. But I want you to know that I wouldn’t like being spied on either. Your reaction is quite normal.” She paused. “Now, I want you to think about this question: Why did Eric watch you like that? And how does that make you feel?”
Again Sookie considered her response for a minute. “I think he watched because he was interested in me and wanted to get to know me, but he didn’t know how. And I feel good and bad about that.”
“How so?” Claudine asked. “And you can answer that right away.”
“Well,” Sookie smiled, “I admit that I like the idea of being the object of his interest, even though I wish he’d gone about it in a different way.”
“Okay—that’s the good. What about the bad?”
“I feel bad for him. On the outside, he seems to have everything. But on the inside,” she paused.
“On the inside?” Claudine prompted.
“He’s just as fucked up as I am,” Sookie smiled ruefully.
Claudine chuckled at Sookie’s choice of words, especially since Sookie didn’t normally curse. However, the therapist quickly became serious again. “Sookie—you know that you cannot be the one who saves Eric—right?”
“I know,” Sookie replied with a sigh, “just as I know that he can’t fix me either. But if I can make him feel even a little better—just like he does for me—then maybe he’ll feel safe enough to save himself. Maybe he’ll find the strength in himself—just like he helps me to see the strength in myself.”
Claudine smiled approvingly and patted Sookie’s hand again. She often had clients who wanted “to fix” another or “to be fixed by” another. But that never worked—at least not for long—and it often led to codependence and the loss of self.
“Okay, Sookie. Just one more question that I want you to answer.”
“Eric has offered you honesty. He’s offered you fidelity during your time together. But he isn’t in the position to offer you a future in the traditional sense. Can you accept that?”
Again, Sookie took her minute in silence as she contemplated her answer.
“I don’t know,” Sookie responded after the time had elapsed.
Claudine nodded. “Alright. In that case, I have a task for you to do.”
“Yes,” the therapist said. “I want you to think about four different scenarios. I want you to ponder each one very carefully. And when you are done, I think you will know how to answer the question I just asked.”
“Good. In each of these scenarios, I want you to imagine that it is four years from now, which would mean that Eric will be married—to someone else.”
A tear immediately rose to Sookie’s eye, but she brushed it away and nodded.
Claudine took her friend’s hand. “I know this will be hard.”
Sookie nodded again. “But I’ll do it.”
Claudine smiled at her friend. “I know you will.” She took a deep breath. “First, I want you to imagine the best thing that could happen if you chose to pursue a relationship with Eric—in other words, the best case scenario. Second, I want you to imagine the worst thing that could happen if you chose Eric—the worst case scenario. Third, I want you to imagine the best thing that could happen if you didn’t choose him. And—finally—I want you to imagine the worst thing that could happen if you didn’t choose him.”
“Okay,” Sookie said, determination and trepidation mixing in her eyes.
“You’ll find your answers, Sookie,” Claudine said confidently. “And when you do, I know that they will be the right ones.”
Sookie closed her eyes for a moment. “I know that too.”
Ten minutes later, Claudine was waiting with Sookie outside the bistro; she saw her friend’s face light up as soon as a taxi pulled over to the curb. Eric Northman got out of that vehicle. He was wearing a navy T-shirt and jeans, and his hair was unstyled as if he’d recently showered. He looked nothing like he did in Page Six photographs or at parties.
A soft, happy smile lifted his lips and crinkled at the corners of his eyes as he leaned down to kiss Sookie’s forehead. Claudine couldn’t help but to notice the way Sookie sighed and leaned into that kiss. She also couldn’t help but to see the way his left hand had already taken her right.
“Eric, this is Claudine Crane,” Sookie said smiling up at him. “She wanted to meet you.”
Eric’s ease changed momentarily to uncertainty before his face became more neutral again. He held out his right hand for Claudine to take, offering her a smile that was a little less enthusiastic than the one he’d given Sookie, but still genuine. “It’s nice to meet you. Sookie has spoken of you quite a bit,” he said.
Claudine nodded, but refrained from telling him that Sookie had also spoken about him. “It’s nice to meet you,” the therapist said sincerely. “My cousin Bobby speaks highly of you.”
Eric nodded in acknowledgement.
Claudine leaned in and gave Sookie a one-arm hug since she didn’t seem like she’d be giving up Eric’s hand anytime soon. “Well—Charlie’s waiting for me, so I’d better get going.”
“Can we drop you somewhere?” Eric asked, gesturing toward the taxi.
“Do you mind?” Claudine asked, happy for the opportunity for observe the couple for a few more minutes. “I’m just in Gramercy.”
“No problem,” Eric said, leading them both to the taxi.
Since Claudine would be the first to be dropped off, Eric got in first. Once Sookie was settled into the middle of the seat, their hands seemed to fly back together. Claudine smiled a little as she got in after Sookie and relayed her address to the driver.
Claudine’s house was a little more than ten minutes away, and along the way, the conversation was light between the three. Claudine and Eric both shared short anecdotes about Bobby’s propensity for choosing crappy places to live, and Sookie giggled throughout Claudine’s story about Bobby once living in a loft that had a hole in the wall. Eric added that Bobby had made that hole bigger so that he could more easily “visit” his next door neighbor, who happened to be a beautiful aspiring actress.
By the time Claudine was dropped off at her home, she knew one thing for certain: Eric Northman and Sookie Stackhouse were very much in love. And—for once—the pragmatic therapist prayed against logic and reality; she prayed for Eric and Sookie’s tale to find its way to a happy ending. She prayed for just a little bit of magic.
A/N: Hello all! Thanks so much to those of you who reviewed the last chapter.
So—what do you think about the reveal that Bill is a recruiter for the FBI? I hope it’s not too far-fetched for you. (Although if you’ve ever watched Alias, then you know that it could have been much more far-fetched.) I’m trying to create an “all-human” world that has some cross-over to the SVM universe, so I hope you will give me the benefit of the doubt when it comes to things like this. However, consider this if you are skeptical: Would the government hire people to do underhanded and manipulative things to get its hands on an asset?
Anyway, as always, I appreciate your reading!