Chapter 23: The Flame
Last Time: Appius sneered. “Remember to have her out by February 1. Consider these next two weeks to get your shit together to be my birthday gift to you.”
With those words, Appius left the gallery, and Eric sank to his knees. His eyes traveled to the camera that he knew was trailing him, and he uttered words that he knew Sookie would read from his lips: “I’m sorry.”
The “child” he had been—so beaten by his circumstances but still hanging on by a thread of hope—was finally grown up and was now completely gone. And all the dreams and hopes that Eric had recently allowed himself to imagine were gone along with that “child.”
All that remained was a simple truth. His father was right; he had now failed every single person that he had ever dared to love, especially the one he loved the most.
From his knees, Eric looked from the painting of Pandora, which had been done by Odilon Redon, to The Chariot of Apollo, which had been crafted by the same artist.
Sookie had had a cold one Sunday in late August, and she’d insisted that he go to the MET on his own—since their museum visits had, by then, become just as healing for him as for her. While Sookie always took a notebook and wrote down descriptions of and ideas about her favorite pieces, Eric had begun taking a small sketchbook. He had gotten to the point—several years before—that he’d fully embraced what he did for a living, but Sookie had encouraged him to begin drawing again, and Eric was often inspired by the art.
That Sunday in August, Sookie had suggested that he begin where she had begun. Her very first Sunday visit to the MET had—coincidentally enough—been to Gallery 826. But it had not been the painting of Pandora that had struck Eric during his visit, nor had it been any of the several famous Van Goghs in the room. It had been The Chariot of Apollo.
Eric had been fascinated by that fucking chariot and had stared at the painting for a long time, trying to figure out if the one driving it in the painting was Apollo or Phaëton.
Apollo was the Greco-Roman god of the sun. According to myth, every day, Apollo would drive his chariot across the sky to give the world light. In one story about the god, Apollo had a son with a human woman. That son, Phaëton, asked to drive Apollo’s chariot as proof that Apollo was indeed his father. Apollo allowed it, but Phaëton lost control of the horses and the earth was soon in danger of being burned by the sun.
One of the passages of poetry that Eric had memorized when he was younger was from Ovid; however, even as a young boy, Eric had understood its meaning more than most people ever could. He’d lived it.
Of Phaëton’s “adventure,” Ovid had written:
The youth was light, nor cou’d he fill the seat,
Or poise the chariot with its wonted weight:
But as at sea th’ unballass’d vessel rides,
Cast to and fro, the sport of winds and tides;
So in the bounding chariot toss’d on high,
The youth is hurry’d headlong through the sky.
Soon as the steeds perceive it, they forsake
Their stated course, and leave the beaten track.
The youth was in a maze, nor did he know
Which way to turn the reins, or where to go;
Nor wou’d the horses, had he known, obey.
So fares the pilot, when his ship is tost
In troubled seas, and all its steerage lost,
He gives her to the winds, and in despair
Seeks his last refuge in the Gods and pray’r.
What cou’d he do? his eyes, if backward cast,
Find a long path he had already past;
If forward, still a longer path they find:
Both he compares, and measures in his mind;
And sometimes casts an eye upon the east,
And sometimes looks on the forbidden west,
The horses’ names he knew not in the fright,
Nor wou’d he loose the reins, nor cou’d he hold ’em right.
After a valiant, though fruitless attempt to maneuver the chariot, Phaëton had lost control of the reigns completely, and the horses had run through the sky erratically, sometimes too far from the earth so that it became as ice and sometimes too close so that it was scalded. Finally, Zeus—having no other choice if the earth was to be spared—had to destroy the chariot, which killed the boy, his grandson, as well.
Eric recited out loud the last two lines that he’d memorized as he looked up at the painting.
At once from life and from the chariot driv’n,
Th’ ambitious boy fell thunder-struck from Heav’n.
The story had always struck Eric for a variety of reasons. The first was because Appius had seemed as a god to Eric when he’d first read Ovid—which was when Eric was eleven years old. Phaëton had sought out his father, and Apollo—trying to prove his affection for his son—had promised him anything. The son, arrogant and unwise, asked to drive the chariot—to control the sun.
As a young child who knew only his father’s dismissal and distaste, Eric had imagined that he was Phaëton and that his father would offer him the sun one day. But he’d vowed that he would never overreach and never allow himself to get arrogant if he was ever given such a gift by his father.
After reading Ovid—no, after understanding it—Eric began to imagine his life as a kind of perpetual test that he had to pass in humility and silence, lest he be struck down by the gods. Or the “god” in his case.
Eric sighed deeply as he looked at the painting. He remembered spending hours and hours memorizing the Ovid passages. He’d found the book that contained the myth of the overreaching Phaëton in his school’s library—his sanctuary at the time. Certainly, Ovid wasn’t the usual fare for an eleven-year-old, but Eric was not the usual preteen. Metamorphoses had been one of the books he’d had with him during his hellish winter break stay at Appius’s home that year.
That year would always stand out to Eric, for his “greeting” with Appius had been particularly bad. Eric had left his father’s office feeling as if it would be best if he’d never been born to burden Appius. Until the very moment he was currently experiencing in Gallery 826, that day had been the lowest point of his life.
After that meeting, Eric had carefully packed his lone suitcase even though he’d just unpacked his meagre belongings earlier that day. He was determined, however, not to leave a mess. Not a trace.
He thought about his room at school and the almost-empty drawers in his dresser there. He thought about his desk. The top drawer contained five pencils; he’d used up the other five that he’d been allotted at the beginning of the school year on drawing. He thought about the old shoebox under his bed at school, which was filled with drawings he’d done on any scrap piece of paper he could find since he dared not to use the few school notebooks he was given for drawing. He thought about everything he had left behind in that room, everything that would have to be removed. Those items would not even fill another suitcase the size of the small one he’d brought with him to his father’s house. He imagined his father ordering that all of his belongings be burned so that nothing was left. Not a trace. Not even a memory.
He would simply disappear.
Eric had spent the hours between his meeting with his father and the dead of night thinking of the best way to end his own life. At eleven years old, however, his options were limited. Going outside and waiting for the cold to consume him would have taken too long, and he would have likely been found before dying. He considered stabbing himself, but the thought of ruining one of Margaret’s kitchen knives and creating a huge mess with his blood hindered that plan. In the end, drowning himself seemed to be the best option, but the bathroom in his room had only a little shower. So he’d quietly gone to the pool room at 3:00 a.m. Eric was an excellent swimmer, but he also knew how to sink, and even at eleven years old, the weight on his shoulders was crushing. Plus, Phaëthon’s fate had been to plunge lifelessly into the Eridanos River. Yes—drowning had seemed like a fitting end to Eric.
Eric had walked slowly into the water—until the depth was too high for him to touch bottom. Then, he had tried to let the water take him to his mother. But his legs kicked and he came to the surface.
He tried again, but—again—his legs kicked.
He tried for hours, his salty tears mixing with the pool water and his quiet sobs the only sound in the room. He tried until his little body was exhausted, but—still—he couldn’t stop his legs from kicking before the water filled his lungs.
Finally—when he heard Margaret in the kitchen, he climbed out of the pool and retreated to the room he’d been assigned for his stay. That had been the only time that Eric had ever attempted to take his own life, though he’d thought about it other times—before that day when he was eleven.
After his failure that day, he’d realized that there was something inside of him that wouldn’t allow him to take his own life. But he wasn’t thankful for it.
He reread the story of Apollo’s chariot, and he vowed never to try to drive the sun as the foolish boy Phaëton had done. He vowed that if Apollo had been his father, he would have asked for nothing more than what the god had already freely given to Phaëton: acceptance. Phaëton had been selfish to ask for more than that.
So Eric lived and he memorized the passage from Ovid about the foolish Phaëton. And he tried to be as obedient as he could to the god who had the power to smite him.
Eric laughed ruefully as he rose from his knees. It turned out that he was just as foolish as Phaëton, after all. He’d attempted to best Appius, but he’d never been in control of the fucking chariot. He was always destined to be struck down low by Appius. However, Appius was not content to kill him; he wanted him to live in perpetual flame.
Oh—Eric knew that he could give the tape of the gallery confrontation to the Press. Hell—Sookie could even transcribe it! But what would it prove other than the fact that Appius was a bastard. Eric also knew that trying to get Appius arrested for blackmail was a fool’s errand. Blake had told him as much. And, if Appius had the evidence he said he did, it would be those whom Eric loved that would ultimately pay.
After all, the god of the sun didn’t get burned—just the foolish child.
Eric fixed his suit and straightened his tie—the very same tie that Sookie had straightened for him earlier. He closed his eyes and thought about how she’d been biting her lower lip a little with the effort; she couldn’t tie a tie, but he always enjoyed it when she would determine that he’d left it crooked. Her brow would wrinkle a little and she’d crook her finger to get him to come to her. She’d make him bend down a bit as she “fixed him” to her satisfaction. Eric loved it and sometimes left his tie a bit askew just so that she would go through the process. It was such a small thing—that fussing that she did over his tie—but each time she did something like that, a little more of his darkness had gone away.
With her in his life, he hadn’t needed to worry about the chariot and the wild horses. He didn’t have to worry about being too close to or too far from the sun. No. She lit his world and kept him safe from the flame at the same time.
However, despite the way she had invigorated his heart, he knew now that he would have to let her go. In the blink of an eye after Appius had left the room, Eric had known what he had to do. He wouldn’t allow Sookie’s light to be controlled by Appius; he couldn’t allow it to be snuffed out—not after she had so recently found the strength in herself to turn that light on.
As selfish as he was and as much he wanted to have her in any capacity he could, he wouldn’t hurt her like that.
“No,” he said out loud to the empty room.
Sookie would be no one’s mistress. And she would not be used like a commodity—not by Appius or Bill or Michelle or anyone else. Certainly not by him.
And even if Eric had to die to see it happen, he was determined that she would live on and shine on.
It would only be he who burned up in the dark.
Sookie had “read” the whole conversation from Eric’s and Appius’s lips. Tony’s expert guidance of the new cameras had allowed her to see almost every word spoken. And she’d watched powerlessly—helplessly—as the man she loved went from strength and hope to defeat and defenselessness. Watching him sink to his knees after Appius’s parting words had almost brought her to her own.
But she stayed upright even as the others in the control room gasped at the sight of Eric crumbling. They had awkwardly gone about their work, while Sookie’s eyes followed the video feeds which followed Appius—even though her heart stayed with Eric. Soon enough, Appius had found Andre and Sophie-Anne. The fact that the three of them had a little laugh about what Appius called Eric’s “pathetic attempt to best him” was enough to make Sookie’s blood boil; however, it soon became apparent that Appius had played his entire hand. Of course, with a royal flush, there was no need to be shy about winning.
“Can you keep watching Appius? Recording him?” Sookie asked.
Tony nodded, but said nothing. The whole room had fallen silent after watching the confrontation between Appius and Eric. And though the others had not been able to “listen” in as Sookie had, it was not difficult to discern that Eric Northman had been chopped down—a piece at a time—by his father.
Sookie looked at the monitor which still showed Eric. He was rising to his feet.
“What should we do?” Ben asked in a quiet voice. His eyes showed concern—protectiveness.
“Just keep recording Appius,” Sookie answered in a shaky voice. She watched Eric as he straightened his suit and his tie. She saw his despair and his resolution mixing in his eyes. She realized in that moment that he wasn’t even going to ask her to stay to become a puppet in whatever game Appius wanted her to play.
He was going to let her go—force her to go if necessary.
And she was going to let him. She had to let him—for both of their sakes.
“I need to get up there,” she said.
Ben nodded and began to lead Sookie down the hall towards the main entrance.
“No,” Sookie said. “I still need to go back the way I came in and then go in the main entrance in case Appius’s people are monitoring.”
Ben nodded and turned back toward the northeast entrance.
“What’s happened, Sookie?” Ben asked, his voice laced with concern. “Is he okay? Are you okay?”
Sookie looked at Ben and shook her head. “No.”
“I wish we could hear what they’re saying,” Sophie-Anne said as if she were watching a suspenseful movie.
Appius chuckled. “Too bad we don’t have another lip-reader who can tell us.” He was already thinking of all the scenarios where Sookie would come in handy.
“Oh—she’ll have to come with me to Maryann’s party,” Sophie-Anne said gleefully. “She will be able to tell me all the juicy gossip!”
“Now, dearest,” Appius said, “we must use her sparingly in order to keep others from knowing about the wonderful talent she possesses.”
Sophie-Anne pouted. “Will I not get to play with her at all?” She tilted her head and looked at the woman in question. Actually, she was not the frumpy girl that Nora had described her as at all. In fact, her curves made her designer dress come to life in a delicious way that made Sophie-Anne salivate a little. She was always looking for a new toy to play with. “Please, Darling. You really must share her.”
Appius chuckled. “Fine. You may take her with you the Maryann’s party, but you’ll have to keep her little quirk a secret, so you will have to be discreet.”
Sophie-Anne immediately brightened. “You know that I’m the queen of discretion.”
Appius turned slightly to smile down at his petite wife. She looked perfect, and her ambition and natural grace made her the perfect public partner for him. “You are the queen of all of New York.”
Sophie-Anne smiled. “That is because I married the king,” she said with sincerity as she looked up at him.
Appius’s chest puffed out a bit as he looked back at his son, who was talking to an obviously upset Sookie Stackhouse. Indeed—Appius did think of himself as the fucking king, and Eric was just a jester in the court. Unfortunately, that jester had too much potential power, and Appius needed to stamp that out.
Thankfully, Eric had no idea that he had any power in the equation. In truth, Eric could affect Appius greatly—injure him—even more than he did by his very existence. If Eric didn’t take the role of CEO, Appius would lose his stock in NP on his sixtieth birthday.
He’d lose his goddamned company to the court jester!
But—thankfully—Eric didn’t know about the terms of John Northman’s Will. Once more, Appius lamented the fact that he was too weak to just have the boy killed. Appius had contemplated killing Eric so many times over the years; he knew of people—like Franklin Mott—who would do it without blinking, who could make it seem like an accident. Then again, his father’s goddamned Will probably had a secret “fuck you” provision if Eric didn’t survive to take on the role of CEO, so Appius would have to content himself with his eldest son’s suffering.
Appius smiled at Eric’s slumped shoulders. Sadly, he couldn’t see his son’s face as he told his woman the way that the world was going to be from then on. Appius couldn’t help but to wonder how resistant Sookie Stackhouse would be to her new job as lip-reader and her new position as mistress. Obviously, Eric had been planning to make her his wife. Mott had gotten confirmation of that from both Michelle Stackhouse and Tara Thornton. And Eric had said as much earlier.
The Northman patriarch shook his head. He didn’t understand Eric. How could he pick someone like Sookie Stackhouse as his bride? She was a redneck—a hick. And she was peculiar—completely anti-social, according to Nora. Moreover, her quirk was not the kind of thing that would be seen as “quaint” by New York society. In fact, Appius hoped that her quirk stayed a secret so that he could use the girl for his benefit.
Sookie looked at him over Eric’s shoulder. Appius could clearly see the look of heartbreak in her eyes, and he triumphed. His son was—he hoped—sharing in that look.
Appius could admit—after seeing Sookie—that she came in a decent-looking package, but a person so clearly inferior to the Northmans was good for a fuck—not the fucking Northman name! Of course, Eric was inferior as well, his genes seemingly more Larsson than Northman. He sighed. He still had hope for Pamela, though her siding with Eric had depleted his trust in her. He hadn’t been deceiving Eric when he threatened Pam’s job at NP. He would have cut her loose without a second thought. Yes—she had a lot to atone for.
Appius’s focus was drawn back to Sookie when he noticed tears on the woman’s cheeks. He savored them almost as much as he’d savored the tears on Eric’s face, a face that reminded him so much of Stella’s. Appius knew his son; Sookie’s tears would hurt him much more than anything Appius could do.
Appius had already decided that he would make sure Michelle Stackhouse finished the book about her daughter. He’d talked to the woman only once on the phone, but he’d already been impressed by the vehement hatred she had for her daughter. And she was greedy. It was a wonderful combination.
Appius smirked. He’d already sent Jade Flower to compose Michelle’s story. Jade was particularly good at twisting the truth in a way that skirted the “ethics” line without totally crossing it. Indeed, by the end of it all, Michelle would look like a victim of a cruel and ungrateful daughter. Appius looked forward to Jade’s first report as he saw another tear travel down Miss Stackhouse’s pretty cheek.
Again, he celebrated inwardly. His son that broken down at just the thought of having to hurt the woman that he was now so obviously wounding!
For more than two decades, Appius had looked for that thing which would finally take the last part of Eric’s spirit from him—the thing which would make the light in his eyes disappear forever. Appius wanted that light gone—desired it gone more than anything. It was Stella’s light, the power of a star able to shine brightly in the sky despite being billions of miles from the earth. He needed it to die so that he could have his revenge—finally.
And now he knew how to rid his son of that light forever. All he had to do was to cause Sookie Stackhouse pain and make sure that Eric was right there to see it.
A/N: Hi! Thanks so much for all of the positive and supportive comments on the last chapter! Remember—if you need to know spoilers about the end, just ask. I’ve told you that I read the last page of a book too, so I will spill.
I am going to be dragging our lovers through the ringer (because it’s an angst story, after all). We are about 1/3 of the way through this sequel, and there’s still a lot of drama to come. I love this “little” story about two adult children trying to overcome the abuse they received from parents. Such things are not quick and they’re not easy. I hope you will stick with me.
Up next: We are back at the beginning. Chapter one of Comfortably Numb gives us a “break-up” scene. Now that you know this Eric and Sookie, that scene will—hopefully—have even more resonance. The next chapter will be the opening of CN; however, the perspectives will change just a bit, so—hopefully—it won’t be too repetitive and will offer you new stuff to sink your teeth into.