After Eric had taught Sookie how to float, he’d instructed her to just move in the water in the way that felt most natural to her. And—always—he’d been next to her, though he’d never had to keep her from sinking.
Sookie—as it turned out—had been able to keep her own head above the water.
After their lesson was over, Eric had triumphantly proclaimed that she had a natural frog kick. Smiling proudly, he told her that he’d teach her how to hold her breath under water and to do the basic breaststroke during their next lesson.
After they’d gotten back home, they’d sat at Eric’s laptop and ordered some goggles, a one-piece swimsuit, and a swim-cap for her. Although the bikini that Sookie already owned would be good for lying out in the sun, the one-piece would be better for swimming laps, which Sookie wanted to start doing for exercise. Eric suggested the goggles since the chlorine level in the pool was pretty high. He generally wore a pair when he was doing laps too. He also ordered her a kick board so that she could better learn various “kicking” techniques.
That done, they’d had a quick breakfast of eggs, bacon, and toast before showering and going to Eric’s office.
Now sitting on the comfortable black leather couch, Sookie watched as Eric retrieved a worn-looking folder from his desk. There were questions in her eyes, but she didn’t ask them. When he handed her a folded document, she opened it and read.
Silently, Eric sat down next to her on the couch. He had no need to look at the letter itself; he’d memorized it long ago.
Sookie’s eyebrows furrowed as she reached out automatically for him. His hand had already been waiting for hers, and he welcomed the comforting feeling of their entwined fingers.
Sookie’s skin was still a bit puckered from their time in the pool as well as their recent shower. Eric closed his eyes and let his mind drift a little—back to the water and the peace of the pool. He’d always loved the water—just for that reason. It gave him a sense of peace.
When he was in the pool watching Sookie learning to float, Eric couldn’t help but to wonder what being deaf had been like for her. She’d told him a little about it. He knew that she’d been in pain a lot, and getting water in her ears had exacerbated that pain, which was one of the reasons why she’d never learned to swim before.
But as she’d floated right above his protective arms, she’d not been in any pain. On the contrary, she’d been discovering her body’s power. The serenity in her face had been a lovely sight to behold as she’d become more and more confident.
The water had always offered Eric a similar serenity—ironically because it distorted the sounds of the world outside of it. Ever since he’d learned to swim at school, he’d loved the way that everything else would just disappear when his body was cutting through the water in long strokes. He especially loved swimming in the lake by his mormor’s home. The lake was so big that good-sized waves would lap over him and remove him completely from the world, and he would swim and swim—until his arms felt like rubber, until he would almost sink.
He opened his eyes and looked at Sookie. He realized that he no longer felt the urge to remove himself from the world—not as long as she was a part of it.
Feeling increasingly dazed, Sookie had read the letter in her hands several times. It had been written on Northman Publishing letterhead, specifically on the letterhead of Appius Northman. The script was angled and narrow; Sookie marveled at how even Appius’s handwriting seemed severe and harsh, though it was also precise.
Unable to tear her eyes from it, she reread the letter. It was dated April 30, 2007—a little more than five years before.
To: Eric Northman
From: Appius Northman
As much as I wanted otherwise, it has been proven that you are my offspring, so it seems that we must renegotiate the terms of our relationship. Your insolence when I made certain requests of you in person was intolerable. Although I would like nothing more than for you to leave Northman Publishing and New York, as you indicated you were planning to do during our last meeting, I believe that you will revise that notion upon reading this letter, which you should consider the opening of contract negotiations between you and me.
You impertinently pointed out during our last meeting that you had business acumen to survive on your own in the publishing world. For your own good, you need to put some of your so-called skills into practice and recognize that you have no other recourse besides negotiation.
First, here are the terms with which I require your compliance:
You will stay in New York and continue working at NP.
You will continue in your role as Deputy CEO until you are thirty-five. In that role, you will no longer oversee the international division. You will do whatever jobs I wish as you are groomed to be fit to run NP.
On your thirty-fifth birthday, you will be given the title of CEO; however, you will be required to report all of your plans and actions to me at the end of each working day. An appointee of my choosing will act as liaison between us. Should you plan to do anything that my appointee or I do not agree with, you will adapt your plans immediately. You will hold the position of CEO for as long as I deem necessary, and you will be terminated without notice when I see fit. If you outlive me, an appointee of my choosing will determine the time of your termination.
You will be required to have quarterly meetings with me—to justify your actions at NP and receive further instructions.
You will marry whomever I choose, whenever I choose.
You will produce Northman heirs either naturally or through adoption. These children will be sent to a boarding school of my choosing and will spend their summers in my home.
Once you are married, your wife and children will be required to participate in all family functions. Your presence will not be required unless explicitly requested.
Second, here are the incentives that I will agree to if you comply:
The international division of NP will remain open, though it will be run by someone of my choosing. The Larsson Publishing employees you hired and other members of “your” team will be allowed to stay on.
You will receive a salary congruent with the average for Deputy CEOs and—once you are thirty-five—CEOs in the publishing industry. This salary will be reevaluated at the end of every two years.
You will be allowed to maintain limited contact with my other children.
Should you prove competent as CEO, the reports submitted to me will move from a daily timeframe to a weekly one. Should you continue to do adequate work, they will move to monthly reports only. The frequency of reports will be determined by my appointee or me.
At the end of your term as CEO, you will be granted full access to your trust fund; however, you must forfeit any stock you own in NP at that time.
Should you wish to offer a counter-proposal, you may do so. However, the items outlined above will be the basis of our contract—and our relationship—from this point on. If you fail to comply, I will be unable to prevent the following items from being set into motion:
All employees originally from Larsson Publishing as well as all other employees in the international division of NP will be laid off due to budgetary constraints as NP eliminates the international division. Unfortunately, the economy does not lend to the growth of the company at this time.
This cut-back will—unfortunately—result in Elsa Larsson losing her yearly income.
Pamela Northman will not be offered employment at NP after her graduation as was previously planned. Her academic record—unfortunately—does not merit a position at NP.
All contact between you and all of my children (current or future) below the age of eighteen will be prohibited, for I fear that you may try to influence them negatively.
Marnie Stonebrook—with whom you had sexual relations last month though she was only a minor of seventeen at the time—is considering whether or not to report the crime of statutory rape to the police. Miss Stonebrook, I have been told, is prepared to cooperate fully with the authorities on this matter—should she decide to pursue it. Unfortunately, photographic and video evidence of your encounter with this minor is available should it be needed to support the girl’s claims. As your father, I cannot condone your behavior with Miss Stonebrook; thus, I will be forced to do all I can to help the authorities if Miss Stonebrook chooses to press charges.
Should you decide not to accept the offer of employment at NP, you will be cut off from the Northman family and its fortune completely. Given that it was meant to aid in your running of NP, your trust fund will not come into your possession for as long as I am alive, and it will be left in the control of my appointee after my death.
Unfortunately, I’m not sure if I can prevent your dead mother from being disgraced in the Press unless I have your continued help in the matter. The evidence of her affair could be leaked to the tabloids if we do not vigilantly keep it out of the hands of those who might wish to soil her memory.
There is a lien on Peder Lang’s property in Norway. He currently has an arrangement with a bank and is paying off this lien in installments; however, as the new controlling shareholder of said bank, I feel it is fair to institute the reevaluation of all such payment arrangements.
It will be made public knowledge that Godric Burnham, recently retired Headmaster of Murray Academy, is in a homosexual relationship. Rumors of his having molested unnamed male students will be leaked to the press along with this knowledge. Your name will, unfortunately, be among those included in the leak. Of course, as a concerned father, I will have to share with authorities a tape of an encounter with Godric that I had December 24, 2000. During that meeting, Godric expressed his affection for you, demanded that I give you $40,000, and threatened me with violence. Only after that extortion did I discover that Mr. Burnham had been taking you into his private residence—without my permission—for years during school holidays. Only after that did I find out that his reports to me concerning your progress at the school had been falsified. Of course, my natural assumption—given these facts—is that Mr. Burnham insinuated himself into your life in order to victimize you.
As I indicated above, if you and I make an arrangement, I will be able to help prevent the eventualities outlined above from happening. And—given the fact that your mother was duplicitous in our relationship—my giving you the opportunity to become CEO or to have any position at NP is generous. It is my wish that establishing a binding contract will define the relationship which I feel obligated to pursue with you now that I have learned you share my DNA. Your response to this proposal is requested within one week’s time. In the meantime, you will be on paid leave from NP.
“Oh my God,” Sookie said, finally able to rip her eyes from the offending document in her hand.
Eric sighed, his eyes focusing on the paper Sookie held. “In that single letter, Appius managed to threaten everything and everyone I’d allowed myself to care about. When I received it, I wrote down the names of all the people that would be hurt if I didn’t comply with his demands.”
Eric reached into the file folder and pulled out a single sheet of paper. He handed it to Sookie. Listed in Eric’s neat script were many names—some of which she recognized. The list, which took up both sides of the sheet, had obviously been edited over the years—given the different ink colors used to compose it and the fact that some of the names had been crossed out. Beside quite a few of the names were notes, such as “He has three children” and “She takes care of an elderly parent” and “Daughter in college.”
“There were originally seventy-three names,” Eric said, his voice eerily quiet. “My mormor, Pam, Godric, Bobby, Peder, my mother, and the sixty-seven people who would have lost their jobs—from the executives in my division down to the clerks.” He inhaled and exhaled deeply. “And—as my division has grown—more and more names get added. It’s up to a hundred and four, and that doesn’t even count their families. He pointed to one of the names.”
“June Henderson,” Sookie read.
Eric nodded. “She just learned that her one-year-old is autistic. I haven’t written that down yet.”
Sookie took in the expression on Eric’s face, and she realized that the heaviness that seemed to be an inherent part of him stemmed from the fact that he felt personally responsible for every name on the list, as well as for all of those who relied upon the people on the list. But there was a name missing.
“Your name isn’t written on this piece of paper,” she whispered.
Eric shrugged, “Nor will it ever be. It doesn’t matter.”
Large teardrops escaped Sookie’s eyes, and she accepted the handkerchief that Eric pulled out of his pocket.
“You matter,” she said.
He shook his head a little, but neither of them said anything for a few minutes.
“Godric didn’t?” Sookie started and then shook her head and answered her own unfinished question. “No—of course not.”
Eric squeezed her hand. “Godric was gay. That part is true—though I didn’t find that out until after I got this letter. Bobby told me then.” Eric sighed. “Godric married Bobby’s mother when they were both young—and when he was still uncertain about his sexuality. According to Bobby, he and his wife were both miserable in the marriage. A couple of years after Bobby was born, they divorced. She remarried and moved to Montana, where she still lives. That’s why Bobby was only around for holidays—until he decided to attend college at NYU. He lived with his mom most of the time.”
“According to Bobby, Godric was in a long-term relationship with a guy named Milton. I met him a few times—when I spent Thanksgivings with Bobby and Godric—but I think he was away for work a lot, and I had no idea he and Godric were romantically involved. And he certainly didn’t live at the school with Godric. Milton was a consultant of some kind, I think. But I didn’t talk to him much.” Eric shook his head. “Of course—even when I first read this letter—I knew that Godric could never have molested anyone, but I soon realized that Appius would be able to use his power to feed rumors that would likely destroy Godric’s reputation—even if he were eventually exonerated.” Eric took a deep breath. “And Godric was fighting pancreatic cancer at the time. I didn’t want Godric’s life to be put in turmoil when it was hanging in the balance.” He ran his hand through his hair. “Godric did so much for me; protecting him was the least I could do in return.” Eric’s eyes became misty. “He died only a month after Appius gave me this letter.”
“I’m sorry,” Sookie said squeezing Eric’s hand.
He offered her a little smile that didn’t go any further than his lips. “The girl—Marnie. I had slept with her, but she looked to be in her early twenties, and she had told me that she was twenty-three and a senior at NYU. I had no idea she was just 17, but it wouldn’t have mattered much that I didn’t know. I would have still been arrested—losing all of my credibility—even if I didn’t end up in prison.”
“Your father arranged for her—didn’t he?” Sookie posited.
“Probably,” Eric said with a shrug. “I’m almost certain that he put Marnie in my path and instructed her to seduce me, but it would have been impossible to prove that. And there had been so many other young women in my life that I became worried that Appius had set me up other times too. I was more careful after that—of course—but the damage was already done.”
Sookie shook her head. “And Appius would have let you go to prison without remorse.”
Eric nodded. “Yes. But I was more worried about Pam, Mormor, and all those employees. And Godric and Peder, of course. And Bobby.”
“So you obviously went back to Appius with a counter-proposal,” Sookie observed. “I mean—you run the international division, and Appius’s initial intention was obviously to take it away from you.”
“Yeah—Appius knew that I would make a counter-offer,” Eric stated. “Ironically, he recognized that I was too good at business not to. That’s why he started his proposal at the extreme—knowing that I would have to accept much of what he wanted, but also wanting to see what I’d be willing to give up in order to change the conditions he set out with.” He chuckled cheerlessly. “The negotiations were likely quite amusing for him.
“Why did Appius want you to stay in New York if he hated you so much?” Sookie asked.
Eric shrugged. “I may never know everything that drives him. But I think the main thing is to keep control over me—to keep me from being happy. To make me suffer.”
Sookie wiped another surge of tears from her eyes. “Appius makes my mother look like Mother Theresa.”
Eric shook his head. “No. I think they’re basically the same. The only difference between them is that my father has more money and power to make my pain last longer. But, other than that, they are two of a kind.”
“I have never wanted to kill anyone before—not even my mother, but,” Sookie stopped.
“I know,” Eric said softly. “Sometimes I wish it were in me to kill him, but it’s not.” He sighed. “It was hard enough to keep Bobby from arranging Appius’s death after he learned of this letter. But—God help me—a part of me still wants my father’s acceptance. A part of me still thinks that if I just prove myself enough times, then he’ll at least learn not to despise me.”
Sookie closed her eyes. “I think about that too sometimes—with my mom.”
“We’re so fucked up,” he said with a little laugh that sounded half like a sob.
“We really are,” she agreed.
“The actual contract didn’t end up being this bad,” Eric said as he took the letter and folded it up, placing it back into the file with the list of names. “I thought about trying to take the letter to the cops. After all, it is blackmail, but the wording of everything is crafty—just as one would expect from Appius. And there is no evidence that he intended to do anything illegal. There is just evidence that he knew about certain things—or that he would refrain from offering his help with certain things.”
Eric sighed. “Taking the letter to the press was the better option—to prove what a bastard Appius is—but I knew that I’d drag Godric and my mother down with me. And then there were the people at NP to consider. Plus, I knew that Neave and Lochlan would twist things however my father wanted. After all, the only actual crime explicitly referred to in that letter was oneI did commit against Marnie Stonebrook—unintentional though it was. And—as I said—it would have been impossible to prove that Appius set that up.”
Sookie sighed. “So—what did you do after you got this letter?”
Eric ran his hand through his hair. “I moved out of the apartment at Northman Tower that I’d been staying at. I took what few possessions I had and went to a hotel—in a not-so-good part of the city. However, since there was a liquor store next door, I thought it was perfect. I bought copious amounts of alcohol. And, for several days, I buried myself in a bottle. I didn’t leave the hotel room and only ordered food when I was forced to put something into my stomach other than bourbon. Bobby got worried about me when I didn’t meet up with him and Godric—as I had been doing for Godric’s weekly chemotherapy treatments. Somehow—I never asked precisely how—Bobby found out where I was staying and bribed the maid to let him into my room. He found me passed out with Appius’s letter in my hand.”
He sighed. “I woke up in the shower with Bobby dousing me off. He’d ordered coffee and food. He’d read the letter.”
“What did he do?” Sookie asked.
Eric closed his eyes. “Even before he saw the letter, Bobby had guessed that Appius wasn’t father of the year, but the letter gave him an insight into my and Appius’s relationship that no one else had ever gotten before.” He opened his eyes and looked out the window. The air was clear and the sky bright with early morning light. He sighed. “As I may have suggested before, Bobby’s got some questionable connections. When I was sober and had eaten, he outlined how he planned to get one of them to kill Appius.”
“But you didn’t let him,” she observed.
Eric shook his head. “I told Bobby that it wouldn’t do any good—that Appius had most likely set things up so that hell would be unleashed if he died. I was positive that—if something happened to him—his lawyers would leak any ‘so-called’ evidence against Godric, as well as the video evidence of me and Marnie Stonebrook.” He sighed. “I knew that there was nothing to be done—except what Appius wanted. I knew that I’d have to make the deal with him. To be honest, I felt so low—so hopeless—that I almost agreed to all of my father’s conditions as he’d originally made them.”
“But Bobby stopped you.”
“Yes. It was the part about my future children that he used to convince me to fight—at least for something.”
Sookie squeezed Eric’s hand, and the two were quiet for a few minutes.
Eric finally spoke again. “As would be expected, Bobby was furious after he read the letter, especially the part threatening his dad. He told me that Godric would be the first one to tell Appius to go fuck himself. Bobby tried to convince me to fight Appius—to take the letter to anyone who would read it—come what may.”
“But you didn’t.”
“No,” he shook his head. “I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t have a lot of fight in me at the time. I didn’t want to see other people get hurt. And—once Bobby and I talked about it for a while—he agreed that I wouldn’t be able to prevent most of my father’s threats from coming to fruition. So,” Eric sighed, “I decided that I needed to try to make the best of things.”
“And Bobby helped.”
“Yes. He’s a lawyer—though he doesn’t have a practice. He helped me to draft a contract that would be more palatable than what Appius had outlined in the letter.” He inhaled deeply. “And on the last day that Appius gave me to respond to his letter, I met with him with the counterproposal. Bobby insisted upon going with me.”
“What did you propose?” Sookie asked.
“First, although I agreed to stay on at NP, I refused to give up the international division. In fact, I demanded full autonomy over it. I also refused to be a dog on a leash to Appius—someone in need of ‘grooming,'” Eric said bitterly.
“Second, I agreed to take over as CEO when I turned 35, but I refused to submit reports to Appius more often than quarterly. And I refused to accept any appointee of Appius’s looking over my shoulder all the time—unless the profit margins at NP dropped substantially. I agreed that Appius could terminate me any time he wanted—as long as I had six months’ notice and he agreed to do nothing to tarnish my reputation or to undermine my operation of the company while I was CEO. I agreed that I would sell the NP stock after my tenure in exchange for the trust fund.
“Of my marriage and children, I told him to fuck himself,” Eric said resentfully.
“I agreed to his salary provisions. I also promised not to challenge his Will, which I could do since I’m his child and will most certainly be left out of it.
“I agreed to be in his presence only once a year, but—again—I made clear that any wife and children I had would be none of his concern and that his interaction with them would be unwelcome.
“I asked for all the evidence he had—both the real and the manufactured stuff—that pertained to Marnie Stonebrook, Godric, and my mother.
“I asked that my mormor’s yearly allowance be moved to a trust in my name. After her death, I agreed that anything left over in the trust would revert to Appius, but I insisted that her income not be threatened again during her lifetime.
“Finally, I asked for assurances that the international division be kept salient and that my team and the original Larsson employees would not be laid off due to downsizing.”
“Appius obviously didn’t accept all of that,” Sookie observed.
Eric shook his head. “No. But we eventually got to this.” He pulled out one more document from the file folder—this one thicker and obviously an official contract.
He handed it to Sookie. “This is the contract. The terms begin on the third page.”
A/N: Hello all. Sorry that this chapter took a bit longer than I’d intended. My hands are still quite sore from my carpal tunnel, but they’re better. The main reason for the delay is that I was literally shocked out of writing when I heard about the death of a dear member of the fanfiction world. If you are interested in hearing my thoughts on this wonderful individual, please read the post called “In Memoriam.” I hope that you will leave your thoughts about this extraordinary writer.
We may not know each other by “real” name. And we might not be able to recognize each other’s faces, but I feel like we are a tight-knit community. And I appreciate and value you all. I know that you will join me in mourning the loss of one of our own—one of our best.