Chapter 27: Selfish
Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.—Lao Tzu
The humidity was high in Central Park that day, but Sookie wasn’t really bothered by the saturated, warm air. After all, she’d grown up in Louisiana, which tended to be a lot more humid than New York. Gran called it “sticky.”
What was bothering her was Eric. Since that morning in the gallery—when she’d seen him looking at the prayer niche as if it were the saddest thing he’d ever seen—the light in his eyes had been dimming, though he was doing his best to hide his melancholy from her.
His apparent anguish had made her own dislike for the large Mihrab grow, giving her another reason to avoid the artifact.
Sookie closed her eyes and took several deep breaths, banishing the memories that the Mihrab had brought forth in her. Instead, she focused on what had happened since Eric and she had left Gallery 455.
Instead of walking to the Turtle Pond for their lunch, Eric had wanted to show her an old cast iron bridge—simply called Bridge No. 24. He’d pointed out where the structure had been damaged by a vehicle. The repairs to the bridge had been completed only the previous month, and Eric had talked animatedly about them, as well as about the original construction of the bridge. But Sookie had intuited that his enthusiasm for the item—though real—was a cover for his gloominess.
Once they’d settled down for a picnic on the Great Lawn, Eric had become quiet—pensive even—as they ate the sandwiches he’d gotten for them. Their food had been delivered with the order for Ben’s team, and Ben had lent them one of the many quilted blankets that the museum had; it turned out that blankets were pretty much the best forms of protection when it came to moving and preserving paintings.
Sookie smiled a little when she thought about the fact that Eric still wanted to feed the “Sunday crew.” He actually spoke of Ben and the others at the museum almost like family. He certainly seemed to have more affection for them than he did for his own father—though he clearly cared a lot for his siblings.
Sookie had very much enjoyed meeting the crew of workers that monitored the museum’s cameras on Sundays. To be honest, she’d never much thought about the fact that she was likely being watched while she was at the museum, but she was proud of herself when she realized she was okay with the fact that there were cameras all over the place. Ben and his crew had all seemed nice, and—in a strange way—she was comforted to know that they were there all the time. She somehow knew that they would watch over her because they seemed to care for Eric as much as he cared for them.
Yes—Sookie was coming to learn that the feeling of being watched over was quite different from the feeling of being watched.
However, as she watched over Eric now, she could see the tension clouding his face. Suddenly, she realized what was making him so edgy.
It was her fault.
He was apprehensive about whether she’d made her decision—her choice about them and their “now.” He was anxious about the next 5% of his life.
Sookie had promised herself that she wouldn’t make up her mind about what she wanted to do until they were in the park—until after their morning in the MET. Selfishly, she’d wanted to spend a morning with Eric exploring a gallery no matter what, so she’d put her need to make a choice out of her mind for a few hours, simply enjoying the fact that she was doing her favorite activity with her favorite person.
But—looking at Eric’s face now—she knew that she couldn’t torture him by putting off her decision any longer. No. She would either return to the MET with Eric that afternoon, or she would tell him goodbye. Either way, she’d sworn to herself that she would have no regrets.
She took a moment to think as she weighed her decision. In truth, she’d been thinking a lot about the four scenarios that Claudine had asked her to consider since the previous Tuesday.
Vivid and bright—that was what being with Eric would be like. In her bones, Sookie knew that—with him—she would experience joy like she had never known before and would likely never know again. But being with him would also cost her something. There would be that inevitable moment when they would be pulled apart—by his family and the difference in their societal positions. Eric had been brutally honest with her about that—because the truth itself was brutal. He’d promised to be faithful while they were together, but he hadn’t been able to promise her a happily ever after.
Pale, hollow, neutral—those were the adjectives that would describe her life if she didn’t seize the “now” with Eric.
Temporary happiness followed by sorrow. Or perceived self-protection followed by regret.
Sookie knew that no matter what, she wouldn’t regress to where she had been before she started having sessions with Claudine. No. She’d jumped a hurdle in her life by getting professional help. And she’d jumped another when she realized that she had the right to be content. She was determined to eke out that contentment no matter where Eric fit—or didn’t fit—into her life.
But Eric offered her contentment plus a whole hell of a lot more.
Sookie closed her eyes. During their week together, she had recognized something about Eric Northman; he was the only person she’d ever met—perhaps the only person she would ever meet—that she felt she could just be “Sookie” with. There was something about him that soothed and stirred something within her—that made her feel more at peace with herself and in the world than she’d ever felt before. Though she hadn’t had the chance to tell Eric everything about her life, it had felt natural—easy even—to open herself up to him. She loved being able to share who she was; she loved the automatic acceptance that came from him. She wanted more of that feeling; she felt greedy for it.
Sookie knew that her choice came down to facing extremes or living in relative “safety.” Giving Eric up now would hurt. And though that hurt would be of a different type than what she’d undergone because of her mother and then Bill, it would likely be a more profound ache. However, she wasn’t going to lie to herself; giving him up after having him for more than three years would be exponentially worse.
And the three years and eight months would—almost certainly—move much faster than any other time she’d ever experienced.
Eric took off his sunglasses to clean them. As he gazed out over the Great Lawn, Sookie could see that there was a war raging in his eyes. She saw hope and hopelessness flittering in and out of his blue orbs as if he were a Viking of old, looking onto a battlefield and wondering if he would enjoy victory or suffer defeat.
Life or death.
Now that she could see his eyes, she could tell that hopelessness was winning inside of him; she could see his beautiful blues already resigning themselves, preparing themselves for loss and rejection.
Rejection—both Eric and she had faced its cold hand before.
As far as Sookie could tell, both Eric and she could count on a single hand—with a few fingers left over—the number of people whom they could truly count on. For Eric, it was Pam and his grandmother and Bobby. For Sookie, it was Gran, Amelia, and Claudine.
But even those people would always be kept somewhat at a distance—never to be let in fully. Sookie knew that for a fact, even if she wished things could be different. She also knew that there would be no keeping Eric at arm’s length. After all, he was already inside of her.
Eric saw her looking at him and smiled at her as he put on his sunglasses. She could tell that it was a sad smile. And in that moment, Sookie knew that Eric was expecting her not to choose him. For all his charm and the confidence he exuded in a room full of business associates and socialites, the little boy that had not been loved by his father was—even at that very moment—reconciling himself to his fate of being unhappy and alone once more. He was steeling himself for another expected rejection.
He was reminding himself of what he’d always been taught—that he didn’t deserve any happiness. That he was somehow defective.
And, seeing that, Sookie knew what she had to do. She knew what she wanted to do.
From the moment Eric had introduced Sookie to Ben and his crew, he’d been reeling.
He’d felt intense pride having her on his arm. But then, almost immediately, he’d felt ashamed—not of her, but of himself. Would he have felt the same pride introducing Sookie to his father? Yes—he realized that he would. Sookie was beautiful on both the inside and the outside. And he would always be proud to be with her.
But it wouldn’t matter; he’d never be in the position to make an introduction between Sookie and his father. He’d have to hide any relationship he had with her. What if she thought that was because he was ashamed of her? What if she grew to resent him? What if she grew to hate him for being a coward?
Eric closed his eyes as tight as he could, but even behind his dark sunglasses, the sunlight still burned into him.
His father had been right about him. Here he was with a woman he could love, and he couldn’t fight for her—couldn’t give her what she deserved. He felt deflated and worthless. Afraid.
If he’d had an ounce of honor, he would have told her goodbye and left her with Ben.
Ben would have taken care of her and made sure she’d gotten home safely. Ben would have continued to watch over her at the MET as he’d done for more than a year.
Eric sighed, his breath feeling ragged in his chest. Yes. His father was right about him. He was a plague. And yes. If he had any decency, he would have already freed Sookie—freed her from the hurt and the pain that always followed him.
But he hadn’t done that. He’d tried to pretend that things were “okay.”
After they’d left the MET for lunch, he’d attempted to distract Sookie and himself from his darkening mood by showing her Bridge No. 24, which was his favorite structure in the park, but even the bridge had reminded him of his lack of courage. Making such constructions had once been his dream, but he’d given up that dream without a fight. And now—when he made something with his hands—he did it only in his morfar’s old workshop, scared to build anything in the light of day.
None of his pieces had ever been signed. And no one—except for Mormor—knew that they were his.
In truth, Eric had given up every dream he’d ever had for himself—and then he’d stopped dreaming altogether—as he’d followed his father’s prescription for his life like a dog begging to be patted on the back.
But the dog had been kicked instead of petted.
Instead of giving him acceptance, Appius had used a litany of other words to describe Eric; worthless, “good-for-nothing,” “useless,” “inadequate,” “burdensome,” and “pathetic” were just a few. All of those words flowed through Eric’s brain like lava as he watched the sea of people on the Great Lawn. They all looked happy, basking in the warm New York sunshine.
He felt unworthy to be in the same place as they were—and especially undeserving to be sitting next to Sookie.
He closed his eyes even tighter, letting his memories take him away from the smiling people around him. He felt five years old again—frightened and confused. Learning what it felt like to be unloved for the first time.
On August 19, 1987—just two months after his mother had died—he’d been shipped to the Murray Academy near Gloucester, Massachusetts; there he’d stayed from kindergarten to eighth grade. His father had had to pay more—a lot more—so that Eric could live at the school from kindergarten to second grade since Murray accepted boarders only from the third grade up.
But Appius’s money could—apparently—accomplish anything. And Appius was insistent that Eric be sent away and stay away. Eric couldn’t remember many specifics from that time, but he did recall how it felt to be sitting in the back of a limousine on his way to the school.
He’d wet his pants because of both fear and the fact that the driver had been told not to stop until they were at Murray. He’d received a three page, typed written reprimand from his father because of it. It had taken him months to be able to read and understand it all. He still had it.
Predictably, Eric had felt isolated at Murray from the start. He was only five when he moved there, compared to the other boarders at Murray, the youngest of whom were eight. To make his isolation even more acute, he’d been given a room at the end of a hall, and unlike the others at school, Eric didn’t have a roommate. He eventually discovered that Appius had insisted upon this, claiming that it was because Eric was younger than the other boarders. Later, Appius had paid extra to make sure that Eric was never given a roommate.
At Murray, Eric had worked very hard to excel in both academics and athletics because he’d been afraid not to—afraid of causing his father further disappointment. He was moved to Exeter Academy for ninth to twelfth grade, and he continued to excel there.
He joined every club his father told him to join. And—again without questioning or fight—he gave up anything that his father didn’t like, which included anything that Eric truly enjoyed doing. Eventually, Eric had stopped letting himself enjoy things. He would numb himself to what could have been a good experience for fear that it would be the next thing to be taken.
It was always a given to Appius Northman that Eric would go into business, even though Eric’s aptitudes and interests had leaned more toward mathematics and architecture. However, Eric put his preferences to the side and worked twice as hard to shine in the things his father approved of—not that Eric himself ever received any of that approval.
Eric had dared to mention his own interests to Appius only once. During his junior year as an undergraduate at Harvard, Appius had noticed that Eric had taken a few classes that were “not part of the plan.” Eric had tried to calmly tell Appius that he was getting a double major in Business and Architecture. Needless to say, Appius had not approved of Eric’s “waste of time.”
That conversation had taken place on Christmas day during their annual meeting.
At first, Appius had laughed off Eric’s “little hobby” and had ordered him to drop the second major. About to turn 21, which was when he would gain access to his inheritance from his grandfather John Northman, Eric had tried to stand up for himself. He’d promised his father that the second major wouldn’t interfere with his grades or the timeline Appius had laid out for Eric to get his business degree. When the young man had persisted, Appius had moved on to coercion.
One thing that Eric had learned that day was that Appius knew just what to threaten in order to make him comply. He’d started with Pam.
At 18 at the time, Pam was still in prep school; she was going to be going to Stanford the next year, and it was all that she’d been able to talk about in her letters for months. Appius threatened to cut her off without a penny—to leave her on Eric’s doorstep to deal with. And—though Eric would have been able to afford to pay for Pam’s education with his inheritance—Appius had made it crystal clear that he had friends on the board of trustees at Stanford and that Pam would never set foot on that campus if Eric didn’t do what was expected of him.
Appius had also claimed that he knew people at Harvard—people who could make sure that Eric got thrown out of the college. He said that it wouldn’t be difficult at all to “produce” evidence indicating that Eric had cheated on his SATs to get into the prestigious university.
Appius’s next threat had been to take away Eric’s ability to see his siblings. He reminded Eric that he was only in the house that day—Christmas Day—because of Appius’s “tolerance.” He reminded Eric that he didn’t have to let him have access to his siblings at all.
And finally Appius had taken advantage of the one thing that Eric had always wanted most—his father’s love. Appius swore that he would never see or speak to Eric again if he went forward with his “juvenile” plans. He placed guilt on the 19-year-old’s shoulders by speaking of family legacies and his mother’s dying wishes that both of her children be a part of Northman Publishing. He reminded Eric that he was the only one who could bring together Northman Publishing and Larsson Publishing, which had been his morfar’s company.
Eric had tried one last time to argue that his having a second major wouldn’t affect any of Appius’s plans for him. But Appius had dismissed Eric’s reasoning and had insisted that “distractions” would only make Eric “weaker than he already was.”
Eric had caved. In the end, his interest in architecture just wasn’t worth Pam being hurt. Architecture wasn’t—after all—something that Eric could pursue outside of college anyway.
The biggest secret he’d ever kept from his father was that he hadn’t given up his interest in architecture and construction altogether. He would sit in on the larger architecture lectures at Harvard, and then—later—he found a couple of professors who let him audit their classes off the record.
Eric couldn’t help but to wish that his 20-year-old self would have just told his father to fuck off—to call his bluff. Surely Appius wouldn’t have cut off Pam—would he have? And even if Appius’s influence at Harvard was as great as he claimed, surely Eric could have gotten into another school, maybe even in Sweden. But Eric had been frightened by his father’s threats. Plus, he had wanted Appius’s approval so badly that he’d never really questioned him again—not until the Freyda situation, at least. And—if Eric was being honest with himself—the only thing that had given him the courage to go against his father then had been the contract between them, the same contract that had now become his bane.
Eric sighed. After that tiny “rebellion” regarding his interest in architecture, he had fallen back into line and had stayed there for the most part. And now his future seemed locked because of the contract. He simply didn’t have it in him to fight against Appius Northman. Plus—as loathe as Eric was to admit it—he still craved his father’s approbation.
Eric’s thoughts were stopped short as he saw a father—a man about his own age, maybe younger—playing catch with two children, a boy and a girl. As Eric looked at the smiling family, he realized once more that he didn’t deserve Sookie—that he would just hold her back from finding a man like the one he was looking at.
And—for the life of him—Eric couldn’t think of a single reason why Sookie would want him—why she’d choose to be with him, even for a day.
He had money, but she wasn’t interested in that. He was good-looking, but she wasn’t concerned with that either—at least not beyond normal attraction. He had nothing to offer her other than his heart. But what was that worth? He was offering her only a fifth of a life with a man that was so unworthy that his own father despised him.
She deserved more.
Eric shook his head a little. He was a good business man, and nothing about the “deal” he was offering Sookie seemed appealing in the least.
He thought back to the words that his father had spoken to him just that Friday when they were finishing up a meeting: “I don’t know how I even tolerate you,” Appius had said as he’d looked at Eric with judgment in his eyes. “The only thing you’ve never failed at is being a disappointment to me.”
Eric glanced at Sookie and saw that she was looking at him, though he couldn’t see her eyes behind her sunglasses. Suddenly, he feared that her eyes were judging him—that they were disappointed in the man that he was and in the lackluster offer he’d made to her. His own sunglasses were in his hand, as he’d been absentmindedly cleaning them.
He managed to give Sookie a little smile as he put them back on. If he were a good man—if he were a selfless man—he’d get up and leave Sookie Stackhouse in peace. He would do what was best for her and not himself.
He had to do what was best for her.
He looked back at the father with his two children and followed the progress of the little boy as he ran to a woman who was sitting on a blanket and reading a book. The woman smiled at that boy and gave him a drink of what looked like juice before sending him back out to play.
“Sookie,” Eric said quietly, “I can’t do this to you.” He looked back at her. “I can’t hurt you like this. You deserve a man who will give you a whole life. You deserve a good man.” He paused. “I’m not that man.”
He went to stand up, but her hand stopped him. “You are a good man, Eric Northman.”
“No,” he said in a sob, though his sunglasses hid the moisture in his eyes. “I’m a selfish bastard. I should have never spoken to you, Sookie. If I were a good man, I would have stayed away from you.”
He tried to get up again, but was surprised once more when her grip kept him from rising. Or maybe he hadn’t wanted to get up. Either way, he stayed on his knees.
“I didn’t want you to stay away,” she said as she pulled him so that he was sitting again. “And I don’t want you to go away now.”
“You don’t?” he asked as a tear dripped past the perimeter of his sunglasses.
“Eric,” she said quietly, but with certainty in her voice as she brought her hand up to his cheek, “I want to be with you for as long as I can be.”
“It’s not enough. I’m not enough,” he said with resignation, shaking his head even as he leaned into her touch.
“People usually don’t know when a relationship will end when it starts, but you and I do. And that does suck, but it’s not just unfair to me. It’s not fair to you either.”
“Sookie, I can’t,” he started.
“Eric,” she interrupted with a hand over his mouth, “Having something is better than having nothing—isn’t it?” she asked.
“Yes,” he answered in a tortured voice as she moved her hand back to his cheek.
“So you and I will hold onto each other for as long as we can,” she said matter-of-factly. “Maybe we can fit a lifetime of happiness into just a few years. Eric, I want to try; we both need to try.”
“It’s not fair to you,” Eric said again, shaking his head.
“It’s not fair to you either,” she repeated, taking his hand.
“Don’t you see?” he whispered with desperation in his voice. “I’m like poison, and being with me will only hurt you.”
“No,” she said fiercely. “No, Eric. I don’t know why you feel that way yet. But you aren’t poison. And—even if you were—you’d be a poison that I want.”
“I’ll hurt you,” Eric said sadly. “I’ve already hurt you.”
“You’ll never hurt me,” she said, caressing his cheek even as she squeezed his hand. “A situation may hurt me. You. Never. Will.”
“Sookie,” he said shaking his head. Words wouldn’t quite come to his lips as two parts of him warred: the part that desperately wanted to find a measure of happiness and the part that didn’t think he deserved to find any.
“You don’t get to decide for me, Eric,” Sookie said. “I deserve happiness too—you know.”
Another tear dropped past his sunglasses.
“You are my happiness, Eric Northman. And I won’t let you take it away from me. I want you,” she added staunchly—stubbornly even.
“You want me?” he asked in a whimper.
“Of course I do,” she said, a tear falling past her sunglasses too. “From the first moment I saw you, I’ve wanted you.”
The two stared at each other quietly for a moment, each coming to terms with the words she’d spoken. Her expression was one of certainty. His was one of shock.
“Sookie,” he said finally, “I need to see your eyes.”
She nodded and took her sunglasses off, wiping away an errant tear as she did. He gasped when he saw the conviction and faith in her eyes.
He stared at her in disbelief. “You’re really going to do this with me?”
“Yes,” she said sincerely before her lips turned up a bit playfully. “Who knows? I might get tired of you after a week? Or you might get tired of being with only one woman?”
“I won’t get tired of you, Sookie Stackhouse,” he said genuinely, sliding toward her on the blanket and kissing her gently—chastely.
“I’m glad,” she said, taking off his sunglasses so that she could make sure his eyes were no longer holding the kind of heartache she’d seen in them minutes before. They weren’t.
Now, there was a lightness in them, and Sookie knew that it was because of her. She liked that she’d put it there.
This time, she leaned in and initiated their kiss. It was soft and unheated. In it was acceptance of what they hoped to find together—for as long as they could.
A/N: Well—I hope that you liked it!
Next up: Is anyone else in the mood for an awkward sex talk?