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The Journey Itself

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WARNING: This is a trigger warning for this chapter. It depicts a child being mentally abused by a parent. Also, it depicts a child losing her parents.

"Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home."

—Matsuo Basho

[NOTE: In this story, Sookie, Bill, and Eric are all roughly the same age. This prologue occurs when Eric is ten, and Sookie & Bill are nine years old.]

Prologue: Rocks and Shoals

SATURDAY, December 2, 1989

ORANGE COUNTY CALIFORNIA

ERIC POV

"Eric!" my father yelled loudly. "Get your ass in here! Right! Now!"

I knew better than to run into my father's study. If I ran in the house, I would get the belt, and my father wasn't careful with that object. I often got more marks on my back and legs than on my bottom. Of course, if I didn't appear in the study immediately, then I might get the belt anyway.

So there was really no winning.

I hurried as fast as I could without running. My father—as I knew he would be—was waiting in the study's doorway—just to make sure I wasn't running.

He always seemed to be watching me—even when he was halfway around the globe on one of his many business trips.

"Don't make me wait all day, boy!" he yelled out.

I continued to hurry—without running—until I was in front of him standing at attention.

"Yes, Father?" I asked.

He took hold of my arm roughly and yanked me into his office, slamming the door shut behind him. Just before the door closed, however, I saw a quick view of my mother. Her beautiful face was neutral, though not cold; still, I knew she wasn't going to help me in regards to whatever I'd done wrong.

She never did.

"Sit!" my father ordered loudly.

Immediately, I did as he asked. I tried to be completely still, to sit up straight, to keep my eyes forward, to barely breathe.

To barely be human. To be a robot, like the one in a movie I saw once.

I knew that any reaction on my part would only cause my father's anger to grow.

He sat as well—behind his desk in his large leather chair. The usual chair that faced his desk—where clients or business associates normally sat—was also leather and comfortable. For the occasions when I was in trouble, however, he changed that comfortable chair out with a metal folding chair.

I knew that he did this so that I would feel uncomfortable—so that I'd be more likely to squirm or to move in my seat. His plan to make me fidget had worked before when he would just stare me down for what seemed to be hours. I also knew that—if I squirmed—I'd get the belt.

I just hoped it wouldn't be too long before he spoke to me. In the meantime, I could do nothing but try to look at him with a neutral expression.

If I showed fear—the fear I felt acutely—I knew I'd suffer some horrible punishment. The last time I'd shown what he termed "weakness," he had flushed the only pet I'd ever been allowed—a beta fish given to me by Nanny Octavia—down the toilet.

I still had some things that could be taken away, so I tried to keep my face a blank—just like I'd been practicing in the mirror.

My father—Appius Livius Ocella-Northman—was built as imposing as his name sounded. At about 6'1", he was broad-shouldered and muscular. His hair was dark and a little wavy, styled in what he called a "proper Roman cut." His energy was always intimidating—at least to me. I knew that others thought that he was "charming"—unless they crossed him.

My whole life seemed to "cross" him.

"Ocella" was the family name of my paternal grandmother, but my father had not chosen to include that important name as a part of my own last name. That name was something he said had to be earned. His mother, whose maiden name was Lodovica Ocella, was from a very important family in Italy—at least, according to my father. I'd met her only once—when she was dying of cancer. My father had taken me to Rome, where she lived. She'd taken one look at me and decided that she was not impressed.

I'd not seen her again during that short trip, with my father ordering me to stay inside of a dimly-lit room in the large, old estate we stayed in. I did as I was ordered. After that trip, my father criticized me even more harshly than before.

Worse than that, my trips to his study had become even more frequent and intense following the death of Lodovica Ocella. It all boiled down to what both of my parents called their "expectations" for me—and how I never seemed to reach them.

From the way my father was staring me down, I knew that I'd somehow failed to meet them yet again. And—even if I had done nothing wrong—he would have something to criticize me about. Sometimes it was simply the way that I looked that bothered him, and he'd never held back his opinion that I was "weak- looking."

That was probably because I did not look much like my father. We had the same eyes, but I'd inherited my mother's slender build and featuring. Freyda Northman, my mother, had been a fashion model when my father met and became enamored with her. She was also incredibly smart and ambitious—with long-term goals in mind. After marrying my father, she'd finished the law degree she'd been working on part-time. And then she'd joined his law firm.

I knew that my father had seen her as the perfect kind of woman to be the hostess of functions he organized. She was a prize—a trophy, who had been sought out by many, but won by only one. I also knew that she was a good spokesperson for the firm's international interests. She'd been especially essential in helping to secure "certain interests" following the firm's losses in the Savings and Loans scandals.

I knew all of this only because I had been told to "be seen and not heard" so often that people tended to forget I was in the room. Plus, the maid, the cook, and the gardener on our estate were prone to gossip. Indeed, I had picked up on the fact that my father had recently barely escaped prosecution for some kind of scheme he'd been in on. I also figured that would mean that he wanted to take out his anger on someone.

I was clearly that someone.

"I heard from your swimming coach that you have not met the last two goal times that were set for you," he said after being silent for almost ten minutes.

I was proud of myself for not moving in my chair for that long.

"What do you have to say for yourself?" he asked.

"I have been trying, Sir," I responded, trying not to let my fear show.

He banged his fist down on the desk. I couldn't help but to flinch.

"Trying? Trying! I can't imagine that you've been trying, boy," he said coldly, "given the fact that you are not succeeding."

"I will swim faster, Sir," I promised.

"Yes. You will," my father emphasized. "To make sure that happens, your time at practice will be increasing by two hours per day, and you will be swimming seven days per week now—not just five. Moreover, you will no longer be allowed superfluous associations and activities."

I looked at my father in question, not understanding his meaning. My vocabulary was large for a ten-year-old due to the fact that my father insisted upon my earning the best grades possible. He also spoke with me—as did my mother—as if I were an adult. Both of them always had. But there were still things I did not know. And my father seemed to recognize my deficiency immediately.

He scowled. "What I am talking about are those friends your mother insisted that would be good for you!" he spat out. "Those goddamned monthly sleepovers! That goddamned soccer team she said would make you well-rounded." He sneered. "Those are over!"

I tried to hide my disappointment. Even though my "friends" had been chosen for me by my parents, I enjoyed interacting with them. And I'd especially been enjoying soccer, for it had introduced me to many kids that were not a part of my parents' orbit.

My father stood up. "I will also be taking you out of that private school your mother picked. Private tutors were the way I was taught! Indeed, I should have gone with them from the start, not letting your mother convince me otherwise. Clearly, you are distracted, so I will simply take away your distractions," he pronounced.

I dared not let my eyes track my father as he moved to the side of the room to pour himself a drink.

"You are a disappointment to me, Eric. My mother warned me that you seemed too soft—not worthy of Ocella stock." He drained his glass and then poured another drink. "But it is not too late to mold you. You know of the plans that have been set into motion for you?"

"Yes, Sir," I responded.

"Tell me," he insisted.

"I will be in the Olympics," I answered. "Then, I will be at the top of my class at Harvard Law School and then become a lawyer at your firm, Sir," I added.

"Just be in the Olympics?" my father asked with derision.

"No, Sir!" I corrected quickly. "Win gold medals, Sir."

He took another long drink before speaking again. "Eric, do you know why it is important that you win?"

"Yes, Sir."

"And why is that?"

"You won gold medals" I responded, looking behind my father's desk at a picture of him receiving one of those medals at the Summer Olympics in 1968. He'd been an Italian citizen at the time—and, at eighteen-years-old, the youngest male fencer ever to win at the Olympics.

"And do you know why it was essential?" he asked.

"Because it helped in your career," I said.

"Not just that, Eric," my father explained, sounding almost paternal in that moment. "It helped in all aspects of my life. Learning the discipline of sport made me resolute. Understanding how to win—how to beat back an opponent and to conquer him—made me successful in all that I have attempted. And—yes—winning also helped in my career. Having that medal helped me to get into Harvard, as my mother wished. It greased the wheels of my becoming a dual citizen, which my mother knew would be important for me. It helped me to win your mother's attention. And—recently—it has even kept me and the firm from getting pulled under."

He walked back around in order to face me. "Eric, Americans—indeed, many people worldwide—revere their sports heroes. You will become one of those heroes. It will help to ensure your success in the future."

"Yes, Sir," I said when it seemed that he was looking for me to respond.

"But not if you are soft!" he emphasized, his voice losing the little bit of warmth it had had before. "God knows that I am already disappointed that you don't have the right body type or skill set to be a fencer as I was—as your grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great-grandfather were."

I could not help but to cringe a little. When I was five years old, the same teacher who'd taught my father had been brought to the United States from Italy in order to teach me how to fence, but I'd soon been declared "tutto sbagliato" or "all wrong," much to the chagrin of my father. The teacher had left, suggesting that my father make me "un pagliaccio," for I was better suited to be "a clown" than a fencer. After that, words like "disappointment" became staples in my daily life.

"Despite your inability to pursue the sport of your forebears, have I not gone above and beyond to help you progress in your swimming?" he asked.

"You have, Sir," I responded quickly.

In fact, being a swimmer was not "my" choice, though swimming did seem to come naturally to me. I could still remember being "assessed" for sports aptitude after my disastrous and short-lived attempt at fencing. Basically, a sports talent scout had conducted all sorts of tests with me in order to determine the sport that would best "fit" me. Swimming had been the choice. And—since then—everything that I'd done had seemed to revolve around the sport, with the exception of my studies.

Strangely, I did not hate swimming. In fact, I loved it. Under the water, all the noise of life went away. All the critiques from my father were obscured. And the faster I swam, the freer I felt—and the "better" my life went. Lately, however, nothing I did seemed to help me to move faster.

My father frowned at me, his disappointment clear in his eyes. "You will meet the goals set for you, boy. Do you understand me?"

"Yes, Sir," I said softly.

"I don't want to have to punish you. And you don't want that either—do you?" he asked.

"No, Sir," I responded.

"Good!" he pronounced. "You will see that I am doing you a favor by taking away the distractions from your life. Your new tutors will begin on Monday, and I'd better see you progress through your academic requirements much faster and with greater aptitude than you have been at school," he added.

"Yes, Sir," I said.

"Your Saturday and Sunday swimming practices will be from 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. As it is after 12:30 now, I suggest that you get yourself prepared and go to the pool."

"Yes, Sir," I said, standing up and moving—gratefully—toward the door.

"And, Eric?" he said.

I turned to face him.

"Yes, Father?"

"Don't continue disappointing me, or your life will become much less comfortable. You have yet to deserve your place in this family. It is time you begin earning it."

"Yes, Sir," I said before leaving.

I hurried from the study to my bedroom. That room was everything that would be expected for a room in an upper-class family—with fine mahogany furnishings and plush textiles. However, there was very little that was personal. Toys had been thought unnecessary for me since I was seven, and—even before that—I hadn't been able to "get into anything" like most kids did. I'd seen my "friends'" rooms. They all had fun things, like bunk beds or superhero themes. They had things like board games and Nintendo consoles. When I wasn't swimming or doing homework, I was allowed only the pastime of reading. The few friends I'd been able to have over had called my room "boring."

Still, I hoped that my father wouldn't take my books away from me. Like swimming, they were an escape.

"Eric," my mother greeted as she entered my room right behind me. At over six feet tall, she stood inches above my father when she had heels on, which she always did as far as I could tell. She was dressed in her "casual" weekend clothing, which consisted of tan slacks, a flowy blouse, and—of course—high heels. Her face had make-up on it. In fact, I'd never seen her without make-up.

"Mother," I responded.

"You have spoken to your father about the changes to your schedule?"

"Yes, Mother."

She sighed. "I did try to talk him out of some of it. But," she shook her head, "you know that he has a mind of his own. And—with this extended business trip I have coming up in London—there's really nothing I can do to help you to keep seeing your friends at this time. And—anyway—some of their parents have told me that their children don't particularly enjoy your company." She sighed, looking momentarily troubled. "Why can you not be friendlier, Eric? Though I suppose you've not had much practice at it," she added, almost to herself.

"I'll try to be better, Mother," I said, surprised to see any concern at all on her face. Usually, she had very little time for me. Nanny Octavia made sure that I was where I needed to be and fed the diet my parents and coach had regimented for me. In fact, Nanny Octavia was the only "friend" I had in the house. She would even let me watch cartoons on the weekend mornings when my parents were not in the house.

My mother sighed deeply, and—for a moment—she looked very unhappy. But then her facial expression became more neutral again.

"Your father is a hard man, but he will help you to meet your potential. You understand—yes?" she asked, her Swedish accent coming out a bit. I knew that she was from that country initially, but I knew very little else about her. I did not even know the names of her parents.

"Yes, Mother," I responded.

"We must all fulfill our roles, Eric," she said before leaving my room.

For a moment, I wondered if my mother was happy. I wondered if my father was happy. But then I shook my head. Wondering about things like that—or trying to seek happiness for myself—were not going to help me to swim faster.

I hurriedly changed so that I could get to the indoor pool on our estate as quickly as possible—without running, of course.

SOOKIE POV

My lungs felt like they were burning as I ran. I had been running as fast as I could for what seemed to be a long time.

I ran until I tripped and fell, skinning both of my knees and ruining the little panty hose that Gran had helped me to put on that morning. The ground was still wet from the storm the night before. But I still lay down, not caring if I ruined my dress as well.

I never wanted to wear that dress again anyway.

It was black.

And new.

It had been bought two days before—when Aunt Linda had taken me to Wal-Mart to find something to wear to a funeral.

Two funerals.

I wasn't sorry to be ruining it. So I made sure it got good and muddy! And then I made sure my black Mary Jane shoes were caked in mud, too!

"Sookie?" a gentle voice came from behind me.

"Go away, Bill Compton!" I yelled out.

He didn't say anything else, so I figured he'd done like I asked until a few minutes later when I heard a little noise behind me. I spun around in the mud.

"Why didn't you go away?" I asked loudly.

"I—uh . . . ." He shifted from one foot to the other. I noticed that he was wearing a dark blue suit, the same one he'd worn to church the Easter before.

"Your pants are too short!" I said accusingly.

"Mary couldn't let them out anymore," he said, his face flaming red.

"You look stupid," I said cruelly.

He didn't say anything for a moment. "Are you cold?" he finally asked, his voice still kind.

Now that he mentioned it, I was cold. I shivered.

"I could lend you my jacket," he offered.

I looked sharply at him, ready to say something else mean. I wanted to hurt him—to hurt anyone.

But I didn't.

"I'll just get it dirty," I said with a little sob.

He shrugged and lifted his arm. "It won't matter." He showed me how the sleeves were a little too short. "Mary couldn't let the jacket arms out anymore either. Mom and Dad said they'll have to get me a new suit for Christmas anyway, so it won't matter if you get this one dirty."

I began crying loudly, and Bill ran over to me, though he stayed on his feet, looking very uncertain. And then he went pale—as if he realized he'd just made a big mistake.

"I'm sorry about mentioning my parents," he said really softly. "And I'm real sorry about your mom and dad, Sookie."

I kept crying, not able to do much else in that moment, except to relive the minutes when Gran had woken me up and asked me to come to the living room. Jason and I had been staying with her and Grandpa since our parents had gone on a cruise for their fifteenth wedding anniversary.

Jason was already downstairs—looking still half asleep—when I got to the living room with Gran. Grandpa came into the room moments later—after I heard him hang up the phone in the kitchen.

His eyes were red—like he'd been rubbing them too hard or cutting onions.

Gran sat between Jason and me and took both of our hands. And then Grandpa told us that Momma and Daddy had drowned when they'd gone on a snorkeling trip. Grandpa didn't go into detail then, but I later overheard Gran telling Aunt Linda that my daddy, who wasn't a very good swimmer, had gotten into trouble. And my momma had tried to save him. Their guide had—apparently—been helping another couple at the time of the tragedy. So he hadn't been able to get to them quickly enough to save them.

I didn't figure it mattered much how they died. What mattered was that they were gone and never coming back!

"Here," Bill said as he draped his jacket around my shoulders.

I thought about slinging the jacket into the mud, but I didn't. I just kept crying.

A while later, I noticed that Bill was holding my hand, looking at me with sadness. I'd not even noticed when he'd sat down.

"Don't you feel sorry for me, Bill Compton!" I yelled out pridefully as I quickly stood up, my wounded and stiff knees crying out in pain.

"I'm sorry," he said softly. He looked nervous. "Would you let me walk you home, Sookie? It'll be dark soon, and it's supposed to rain again.

"So?" I yelled, even as I looked up at the sky and noticed the dark clouds coming in. The funeral had been that morning. Like everyone, I'd gone back to Gran and Grandpa's house after it was over. But I'd quickly gotten tired of people trying to get me to eat things or asking me if I was okay, so I'd snuck back to the graveyard, which was located right next to my grandparents' property. I watched from behind a tree as two cemetery workers talked about basketball as they prepared my mother's coffin to be lowered into the ground. My father's was already in the ground.

My parents, it had been decided, would share a grave and a headstone. My mom didn't have any family of her own to disagree with the idea, and Gran and Grandpa thought it would be nice for the couple to be in the same "resting place."

I knew—from listening to the workers—that they'd been frustrated at having to dig a deeper hole. But—after their sports talk—they took a minute to discuss the single grave idea. They both thought it was a sweet thought.

I didn't feel capable of having "sweet thoughts" though. I blamed my daddy for not swimming well, but still going snorkeling. I blamed my momma for letting him go and for not being able to save him.

I blamed them both for dying. Still—I watched until Momma was in the ground, and the men started to put dirt in the grave.

That's when I'd started running.

And that meant I'd been out of the house for hours.

"Gran must be worried," I said softly, putting on Bill's jacket properly.

"I reckon she is," he said, even as he stood up. "But I'm sure she's not mad at you," he added quickly.

I noticed that he took hold of my hand again as we walked back to Gran and Grandpa's house—what was now my house, too.

I'd run a long way, so the walk through the woods took a while—probably twenty minutes. By the end of those minutes, I was limping a little because of my hurt knees.

"How did you find me out there?" I asked, looking over at Bill.

I knew him, of course. I'd known him all my life since his family lived across the cemetery from my grandparents, though William and Sophie-Anne Compton were gone quite a bit since Bill's grandpa was the governor of Louisiana and Bill's dad was in the Marines. Bill was usually at home though; we were in the same grade at school.

"I saw you run out of your grandparents' house," he said simply. "And you looked sad, so I followed to make sure you were okay."

I felt my heart leap a little at his words, though I didn't fully understand why. Truth be told, I wondered how my heart could still be beating at all.

It felt broken.

"Sookie!" Gran yelled out from the porch when Bill and I were finally within sight of the old farmhouse. She rushed down the steps to me, but stopped a few feet away. "Are you alright?" she asked—almost carefully, as if worried about scaring me away.

I felt my head shaking—my whole body shaking. The next thing I knew, I felt weak and pale. And then Bill seemed to be holding me up.

"Adele?" I heard my Grandpa's voice, but I couldn't see him. My eyes were now closed, and I couldn't quite get them to open up again.

"She's fainted!" Gran yelled out.

"Here, Bill. Let me take her," I heard Grandpa say, and I felt my body being lifted up. Again, I tried to open my eyes but couldn't.

"Will she be okay?" Bill asked. He sounded sad—and concerned.

"It'll take some time," Gran responded, her own voice thick with emotion. She'd just lost her son and her daughter-in-law; it would take her time, too. I knew that.

"Can I come by tomorrow?" Bill asked.

"Come for lunch," Gran said.

"Thank you, Mrs. Stackhouse," Bill responded, even as I felt myself moving.

"She's stirring a little," Grandpa whispered.

Maybe I was. But I still didn't feel that I was moving. And I still couldn't open my eyes.

"I'll get the smelling salts," Gran said.

A few seconds—or maybe minutes—later, I felt myself being laid onto something soft. It was my bed, which had been moved from my old house just the day before. Gran and Grandpa wanted me to feel more comfortable in my new room. Jason's new room was already designed with a boy in mind—as it had been our father's room. The room where I usually stayed over at Gran and Grandpa's house had been Gran's sewing room, though it had a pull-out couch for me to sleep on.

The second floor of the farmhouse had four bedrooms. Now, Gran's sewing things were in the smallest of them. Gran and Grandpa had told me the day before that I could pick out my own paint color for the walls in my new room when I was up to it. But I wanted my old room back—the one that Daddy had strung up fairy lights in.

I wanted my parents back.

"Mitch, you okay?" Gran asked with concern. "You didn't throw your back out again carrying her—did you?" she whispered.

"No, Delly," he said, using the nickname he used only when he thought the two of them were alone. "I'm just a little tired is all."

"You missed one of your treatments today," she sighed.

"The doc says that one day's difference won't matter; I did one day before yesterday. And I'll do one tomorrow. It's not throwing the round off at all, Delly."

"I know," she sighed again. "I just worry—especially now. I don't know if I could do all this alone."

"Adele Hale Stackhouse," he said, his voice warm with affection, "you can do anything you set your beautiful mind on, and you know it. And—as for doing it without me? Well—I'm gonna do all I can to stick around for years to come. You got that, woman?" he added somewhat playfully.

"You'd better, Mitch."

I could hear them kiss sweetly—quick, as if stealing it. I felt like an intruder to their conversation, but I still couldn't open my eyes to tell them that I could hear them. My eyelids felt taped up.

"Should I let her sleep, or wake her?" Gran asked.

"Use your smelling salts, Delly," Grandpa said. "She's soaked through and will need a bath. Plus, her knees will need to be looked after. I'll put a new quilt on the bed once you have her in the bathroom."

"Get that new afghan I made too; it's a bit drafty in this room."

"Okay, Delly."

A moment later, I felt my eyes pop open as I smelled something strong. As soon as I saw Gran, I felt fresh tears clouding my vision.

"Oh, Sookie. My sweet girl," Gran sighed, lifting me a little to rock me in her arms. I knew I was messing up her outfit, but it felt so good to be in her embrace that I didn't move out of it.

I cried for a while—until I couldn't make another tear.

"You need to take a bath, dear," Gran said softly.

I nodded as she led me to the hall bathroom I'd be sharing with Jason. It was the only bathroom on the second floor.

She guided me to sit on the toilet lid as she started the water.

"Gran?" I asked.

"Yes, Sweetie?"

"Can a person die when their heart breaks?" I asked.

She turned to me and smiled softly. "Yes, Sweetie. I've heard tell of it happening, but I think it's rare."

"Am I gonna die? My heart hurts real bad," I whimpered.

"No, Sweetie. You're gonna be sad for a long time, but you'll live on and find happiness again. I promise."

"Am I cursed?" I asked next.

"Cursed?" she responded.

"Daddy took Mamma on the cruise because she's been tired and worn down. Maybe if she and Daddy had just one kid, they wouldn't have needed to go," I cried out. "She wouldn't have been so tired."

"Oh, sweetie," Gran said, turning off the water and leading me to sit next to her on the tub's edge so that she could hold me. "Your parents loved you."

"I was an accident," I whispered. "I heard them talkin' about it once."

"A happy accident," Gran said, firmly. "They were very happy to learn that you were on the way."

I shook my head a little, not really convinced by her words. "Is Grandpa gonna die of his cancer?" I asked softly.

Gran sighed deeply. "He might, sweetie. You know that he fought it off once before though. And he's fightin' it again—with everything he is."

"Aunt Linda?" I asked.

"Aunt Linda's fine," Gran lied to me.

"I know she has cancer, too," I whispered.

Gran sighed again. "How?"

I shrugged. "I have good hearing," I responded.

And I did. Because of it, I always seemed to be hearing snippets of things people had meant to keep private, even though I never intended to hear them.

She chuckled a little. "Yes, you do."

"Aunt Linda?" I asked in a squeak.

Gran pushed some hair behind my ears affectionately. "I don't know when or how anyone will die, Sookie. But Linda's got good doctors, and she's gonna fight against her cancer, too. I'm sorry I lied to you, Sweetie. But—unless it gets worse—she doesn't want Hadley to know."

I nodded in understanding. "I don't wanna love people if they're just gonna leave me," I said, feeling new tears rising where I thought I was all out.

"Sookie, you can't just turn off your heart."

"Even when it's broken?" I asked.

"Especially not then," Gran said firmly. "There is always more love to be found in the world. And—one day—you'll fall in love with a man who will be your husband. And then you'll have kids and fall in love with all of them. And you'll have friends that you love, too."

I shook my head. "I don't wanna lose anyone else, Gran. I'm scared."

"It's okay to be scared," she said. "But the heart is an amazing thing, Sookie. It can overcome fear and loss. And it can always make room for more people."

"I don't want more," I said stubbornly. "I wanna know how to keep the people I love safe so that I don't lose them."

"Death is a part of life, Honey. It's the hardest part. But—if we can get through it—we become stronger. Plus, we never lose the people we love—not really."

"Because they're in heaven—watching over us?"

"Yes. And your love for them—your memories with them—will help to repair the heartbreak you're suffering at their loss. It's those you love most that want you to be the happiest, Sookie. And they'll stay in your heart—helping you along. Your parents are there even now."

"They are?" I asked.

"Yes," she promised. "They are. And they'll be with you every step of the way through your life."

A/N: I hope you are intrigued to find out more about this Eric and Sookie. I know that this is a somber beginning; however, their backgrounds are relevant for what is to come. This story begins with tragedy; I promise it won't end that way. So-for those of you who hate angst-I'll guarantee my usual promise: I believe in a Happily Ever After for our couple.

Please leave a comment if you have the time and inclination. I hope you'll let me know what you think of the beginning!

Best,

Kat

Thanks to Kleannhouse for the beta work.

Chapter Text

Chapter 01: As You Were

FIFTEEN YEARS LATER • NOVEMBER 30, 2004 • NEAR FALLUJAH, IRAQ

"Sarge?" came the voice of Corporal Clancy Vasquez from behind me. His tone was an odd mixture of compassion and impatience. He didn't like death any more than the rest of us—didn't enjoy thinking about what could be waiting around the nearest corner, silently stalking us all.

Or not so silently. Sometimes death sounded like machine guns or land mines. Sometimes it was the loud pop of a sniper's rifle.

"Sergeant Northman?"

"Five minutes!" I told him in a tone that I figured was probably a bit too gruff, considering the fact that he was also suffering due to the losses in our Platoon. We all were. But I couldn't help my tone. I didn't want to hurry away from the casket that held my best friend—my only real friend—Lieutenant William Thomas Compton, Jr.

Bill and I had met in basic training in San Diego, where we'd both excelled: him because he was a legacy cadet and knew exactly what would be expected of him and how to go about earning achievement after achievement; and me because—well—I needed to succeed. After all, what was I? What could I be—if I couldn't be a soldier?

As in most testosterone-heavy environments, competitions arose between some of the men in basic training. Bill and I could have hated each other—since we were clearly the most physically gifted in our group. While I was long and lean, using my height and slim build to my advantage, he was shorter and a bit stockier, though by no means fat. I was faster, but he was quicker. While Bill could shoot more accurately at closer range, I could fire off rounds quicker. I was also a better shot from long distances, my eyesight being good enough to qualify me to be a pilot—if only my height hadn't disqualified me from going in that direction. Seventy-seven inches was the maximum height for an Air Force pilot. I measured in at 77.7 inches, and the Air Force isn't exactly known for breaking its rules for anyone, let alone a B average student without much else to distinguish him.

So—I'd decided to join the Marines.

In truth, part of the reason why I went to the recruitment center nearest my house in Long Beach the Monday morning after I'd graduated from high school in May of 1998 was that I was looking for structure in my life—looking for a place where I could belong.

Eight months before my graduation and just two days after my eighteenth birthday on September 15, 1997, my parents, Appius Livius Ocella-Northman and Freyda Northman, both died in a car accident—not far from our home. Legally an adult, I'd thought that I would become the guardian of my sister, Pamela. But I was torpedoed—as was Pam—when my mother's Will had named a man—a stranger—called Edward Ravenscroft to be Pam's guardian. Edward, it turned out, was Pam's biological father, a fact that our mother had never told anyone, but Edward. Even my own father hadn't suspected a thing.

I'd been dumbfounded to learn that my mother had conceived a child with another man. I'd been only ten years old at the time, but I did recall my mother's "extended business trip" to London because Nanny Octavia had lived full-time at the house for a while. I remembered that it had been nice having Nanny Octavia around all the time—since she was altogether more affectionate with me than my parents ever were. Sadly, she retired from her work not long after my mother returned from England—so that she could focus on taking care of her new grandchildren, twins. My other nannies hadn't really had much to do with me, beyond making sure I was fed and taken to where I needed to be. They focused their attention on Pam after she was born, as was natural—since she was younger.

As it turned out, my mother's three-month stint in the London branch of the international law firm that my father owned had produced a lot more than a couple of multi-million-dollar deals.

Apparently, she'd known about Pam before she'd left England. So had Pam's father. Edward Ravenscroft, however, wasn't in the position to start a family with my mother. And a scandal with a married woman wouldn't have been in his best interests, especially not when one took into account the possessiveness of Appius Livius Ocella-Northman.

Edward was something like eightieth in line for the British throne and also married at the time. Plus, the couple's dalliance had been casual, and the pregnancy had been an accident, though my mother obviously decided not to terminate it. So, at the time, Freyda and Edward had decided to go their own separate ways, and my father had never known about his wife's infidelity. My father had thought that the child was conceived during the time of his "reunion" with his wife upon her return to California.

Of course, my mother tended to overlook my father's many affairs, and I'd never seen love between my parents. So I'd not been surprised that she would seek out affection elsewhere. She hid that affair and any others she had very well, while he tended to flaunt the women he used like trophies.

Ironically, from my point of view, my parents' marriage was stronger in certain ways once my mom returned from her long work trip. And my father doted on little Pamela, whom he'd pronounced as the perfect child on the day of her birth.

Sometimes, I wondered if that pronouncement had been directed at me—to emphasize how I was not anywhere close to perfect in my father's eyes.

Funnily enough, Appius had also decided that Pam looked just like him—as well as his beloved mother. I sometimes wondered if my own mother had a secret laugh about that.

Despite the unfavorable comparison of me to my sister, I was grateful for Pam from the start. Her being born took a lot of the attention away me, for—though I was already beginning to stand out athletically—I always seemed incapable of pleasing either of my parents. At least for my father, I often wondered if any son could have measured up, for Appius's standards of perfection now seemed unobtainable. But he didn't have the same hoops in mind for his daughter to jump through; it didn't hurt that Pam was a charismatic child from the beginning—a light in our lives, really. I know I loved her from the first moment I saw her once my parents brought her home from the hospital. Even at only eleven when she was born, I vowed that I would always watch over her.

Of course, things don't always work out the way one thinks they will.

I'd never questioned the math of Pam's birth—not until I read the letter my mom left for me, of course. Given her seeming indifference to me during her life, I'd been surprised to even get a letter from her. However, I'd been grateful that she explained things in it.

She'd been unhappy with my father—and scared of him. Much too frightened to tell him the truth about Pam. She'd apologized that Edward couldn't take me away, along with Pam. She'd also been strangely prescient, writing the letter to me only a few weeks before her death. She'd not imagined that Appius would die in the same accident as she did. Her letter encouraged me to be obedient to my father and to try to do all that he asked of me so that I could, one day, have a "more peaceful life." At least—in her letter—she'd acknowledged that my life was difficult. That was something. Unfortunately, she'd not told me that she loved me in it. Likely, I wouldn't have believed the sentiment anyway, having never seen evidence of it.

By the time my mom and dad had been killed, Edward had been widowed. Unbeknownst to me—and a then six-year-old Pam—Edward had stayed in contact with Freyda and had been receiving updates about Pam.

The long and the short of the story was that Edward was flying to California to collect Pam; in fact, he was in the air even as I was reading the letter Mr. Cataliades, my parents' lawyer, had put in front of me.

That had been four days after my parents had died—and four hours since Pam and I had scattered their ashes into a garden behind our home, a garden neither of them had spent much time in. But Pam loved the garden, so there they went.

Still, in so many ways, scattering their ashes in that beautiful place was better than a body in a box.

Bill.

"Sarge?" Rasul Godwin's voice came from behind him. "Clancy said to come get you in five. It's been ten."

"Five more," I demanded, without turning around.

"The Cap says we're wheels up at 0900," Rasul sighed, almost apologetically.

"I was at the briefing," I returned brusquely, turning my icy blue eyes on him for a moment. "And I know the goddamned time. I'll take ten more—as a matter of fucking fact, Corporal!" I added in a tone that I figured made Rasul recall early morning training sessions I'd conducted with my squad. I wasn't exactly known for being easy on them during training runs. Being easy didn't keep them alive. Of course, being hard didn't always work either. I knew that all too well.

"Ten it is, Sir," Rasul said quickly before leaving me alone again.

Immediately, my thoughts went back to the day I'd had to watch as a man I'd never met introduced himself to his daughter. Pam had been wary of Edward Ravenscroft at first, but he'd seemed nice enough, and she'd taken to him within a few hours. Of course, I didn't have any say on the matter of who took in Pam. My mother's Will was clear, and my father wasn't there to protest it. Hell! Evidence of a paternity test was even included with the Will, obviously intended to counteract anything that Appius might have done had he been alive. So Pam was to go with Edward.

As for me? Well—that wasn't quite so simple. Both my mother's and father's Wills had clearly been made before I turned eighteen. Apparently, my custody would have been a "matter for the State of California"—meaning that I would have been an orphan, likely a foster kid, until I turned eighteen and gained my independence and inheritance.

I had a maternal grandfather in Sweden, apparently. But he and my mother had been estranged long before I was born. He was in bad health, too—in some kind of nursing home. And my father's family in Italy, which I knew very little about, wanted nothing to do with me either.

But I was over eighteen, so I was not considered an orphan. I inherited my freedom.

Unfortunately, I'd also inherited the financial mess my parents had left behind. I'd always thought that my parents had been incredibly wealthy; they'd certainly lived that way. But I'd soon learned from Mr. Cataliades that Appius had been supplementing his income with "help" from the Ocella family in Italy. That "help" had come in quarterly deposits to his account and had ended with his death.

According the Mr. Cataliades, it was the Ocella family that had been making sure Appius had the money he needed. However, my father was not one for saving anything for a "rainy day." The lawyer had contacted the Ocellas to see if any of them might continue to help me; however, the Ocella family told him to tell me to consider myself non desiderato. Thanks to the Internet, I learned that meant "unwanted."

At least, they told Mr. Cataliades that they would not sweep in and try to take what was left behind by my parents.

With Mr. Cataliades's help—actually his charity since there was no longer money to pay him once my parents' financial problems were discovered—I managed to settle my parents' estate. Some of their debt, thankfully, disappeared when they died; for instance, I wasn't responsible for their many credit card balances. But they had a lot of toys—expensive ones that required monthly payments that had required their large checks from my father's law firm and Ocella money.

I sold their four cars, replacing them with something used and cheap for me. I didn't know how to drive it yet, but I knew I'd need it. My parents also had a yacht that I sold. I would have sold the Long Beach house too, but Pam had cried when I'd phoned her in England to tell her that I might need to.

So I'd found a way to keep it, though I'd obviously had to let all the staff go. Mr. Cataliades had taught me how to use my own personal inheritance, a trust from my mother, to make the mortgage and tax payments on the house. The only trouble had been that my inheritance would run out before the house was paid off, but—since that was several years away—I'd decided to keep up the payments as long as possible.

In the world my father had envisioned for me, I'd been on track to be in the 2000 Olympics as a swimmer. But, after my parents died, it seemed impossible to imagine that life for anymore. Obviously, my swimming coach couldn't be paid, and he left after giving me the number of people who might be willing to help me for less money—or out of charity. I called them all, but I didn't have the means to train with them. One of them told me that—if I placed in the top three at the National Championships the next year—he might take me on. But he made no promises. Another said I would need to move to Colorado in order to train with him, but that wasn't realistic for me to do.

My private tutors also had to be let go, of course. But Mr. Cataliades helped me to transfer into a public school where I could finish my high school degree. Immediately, the swim coach there wanted me to be on the team, and I agreed, holding onto my father's aspirations for me just a little bit longer.

Then I'd sold most of what was inside the house so that I could afford food and utilities, as I waited for the life insurance policy my mother had to pay out. The beneficiary of my father's policy was only Pam, but my mother had split hers between us. When the policy finally paid out, I budgeted that money, again with the help of Mr. Cataliades. It could have gone toward household expenses. But—wanting to use it to make sure I would have more house payments—I opted to get a part-time job. Again, Mr. Cataliades helped to save the day, likely because he pitied me. Since I was good with numbers, he introduced me to his wife, who owned an accounting firm. She gave me part-time work helping with data entry.

With my pay check, I could buy food, gas, and toiletries. I was also able to pay for the house's utilities—at least, after I got rid of the cable. I had to close up a large part of the house—including the pool area, which cost a small fortune to maintain—in order to keep my utilities down. I used only the kitchen and the little bedroom and sitting room that had been the cook's. The rest of the house was empty—haunted in a way.

Despite all this, the house was more welcoming for me than it had been before. Sometimes I still dreamed that my father was yelling at me—telling me how much of a disappointment I was to him—but, in the light of the day, he wasn't there anymore.

There had been periods of my life when I'd been allowed to socialize, but none of my parentally-approved friends proved "true" following my parents' deaths. Truth be told, I didn't blame them because they didn't really know me. Plus, they had no way of knowing that my inconsistency in contacting them was due to the whims of my father, not my own preferences. Likely, they all thought that I was inconsistent and strange.

The latter of these was correct.

In addition, my father had always told me that I needed to focus on my swimming—sometimes feeling the need to physically beat that message into me—even as he warned me that any people who hung around me would only do it if they felt like they could use me for something. Having heard that warning since I was in my pre-teen years, I'd taken it to heart. After all, other than Nanny Octavia and Pam, no one had ever seemed to like me much, though Mr. Cataliades and his wife seemed kind to me.

But, again, I felt that was pity. Or it was because of the affection they seemed to have for my mother. Regardless, I didn't interact with them much outside of the estate issues and my job.

In my new school, I did try to make some friends. But I was seen as a threat to some of the swimmers on the team, so I was ostracized by them. They needn't have worried. My swimming went downhill with every race I swam, and I ultimately quit the team because the practices were interfering with my job.

And then I burned the goal chart that my father had made for me that had hung in the pool room for almost a decade. And—just like that—my swimming career was over.

In happier news, I was regarded as attractive by many of the girls at school. I was an oddity—and I was new. They flirted with me, and I did my best to flirt back because I thought they liked me. At least, I thought that about the first few that did it. Eventually, I learned that they wanted to "win" me over their friends. And some just wanted to fuck me. And I did learn how to fuck the year I was on my own in Long Beach. Eventually, I fucked just for the sake of not being so damned alone all the time. Fucking felt good, even if the girls I fucked were using me as much as I was using them.

Having fucked up my swimming career, I also managed to fuck up my grade point average. I didn't flunk out or anything, but transitioning to a public high school was difficult for me. I was used to tutors by then, and—though I was more advanced in my studies than the basic high school curricula—I found that I couldn't concentrate in class. And I couldn't motivate myself to do good work outside of it either.

I was too busy at my job. And I was also working very hard to make sure that the garden was taken care of, teaching myself how to do so along the way. I knew that Pam would be upset if everything died, and—though some things didn't make it under my care—I was able to learn to keep most things alive.

Still—I didn't do horribly in school. I earned B's and C's. It was a far cry from the perfect scores my father had always demanded, but—given the circumstances—it was the best I could accomplish.

I graduated without an audience since Edward Ravenscroft had taken Pam on a trip around Europe after her own school session had ended that year.

I kept in touch with Pam via a weekly phone call. She quickly acclimated to her new life, taking to riding horses like a natural. She also clearly loved her new father. Unlike me, she'd gotten to see a softer side of my father, who'd doted on her. Our mother hadn't really been that motherly, but she'd also taken more interest in Pam. Thus, my sister missed them, while I felt something more akin to relief without Appius around. Still—Pam soon talked more of her new life and her new parent, in contrast to the life that had included me.

Still—even now—I called her once a week, except when I literally couldn't get to a phone because of what I described to her as the "challenges of deployment."

Those "challenges" usually translated into me missing a scheduled call because I was being shot at or shooting at others, so I kept that part of my life from her.

So—yes—the Marines were something I had needed desperately after I graduated. And they took me in when I had no one else. Oh—I could have kept working for Mrs. Cataliades and applied to community colleges, but I didn't have any way to pay for a higher education. The Corps offered me a paycheck that would cover my basics and a part-time gardener for my parents' house in Long Beach. So I joined.

Bill's march to the Marine Corps was as different from mine as one could get. His father had been a Marine, ending his career as a Colonel. Moreover, being a Marine seemed to be mixed with Compton blood, as all the male members of the Compton family had joined the Corps going back five generations. The Compton family was quite prominent too—and extremely wealthy. They owned a lot of farmland in Louisiana. Bill's great-grandfather, Thomas, had been the first of the Compton's to seek public office and had been a governor of Louisiana following his own military service. Bill's grandfather, Jacob, had been a General before becoming one of President Ronald Reagan's top advisors; I knew that Jacob had passed away just a year before I'd met Bill. Bill's father Colonel William Thomas Compton, Sr. had been elected as a U.S. Senator of Louisiana just a few weeks before—on November 2. Bill had been so excited—so proud—of his father, having been on the campaign trail with him between deployments, when he'd not been at home with his wife and small son, that is.

Bill, too, had had political aspirations. Though he loved the Corps, he had always planned to stay in for only four of five years of active duty. After that, he planned to spend four more years in the Reserves. Indeed, he was due to step away from active duty in only three months. After that, he would have started earning his law degree. But mostly, he'd been anxious to build what he called a "proper home" with Sookie, the woman he'd married in July of 1998—right after she'd turned eighteen and right before basic training.

I had never met Sookie in person, though I had spoken to her on the phone. Nonetheless, I felt like I knew her—from all the stories Bill had told about her. Bill had learned about Sookie's pregnancy only a week into basic training.

During our first weekend leave from boot camp, Bill celebrated his pending fatherhood by buying drinks for several of the people in a little group of recruits that had gathered, most of whom left as soon as they found female companions. Eventually, Bill had needed someone to pick him up off the pavement outside a bar, and I had, apparently, already gained the mentality of never leaving anyone behind. I'd literally carried Bill to the motel room I'd already rented—when I'd been hoping to find a female companion of my own for some uncomplicated sex that night.

Instead, I'd found a friend.

My first.

Having gotten a second wind and another bottle of tequila, which he'd shared with me, Bill had talked and talked that night. And I'd listened, even as I'd realized how nice it was to have someone share a little bit of their life with me. And Bill had had a lot to share. As it turned out, he was insecure about becoming a father at only nineteen years old, which I felt was a very reasonable fear to have.

The child had been a surprise to both him and Sookie—as they'd practiced safe sex during their honeymoon, for which they'd waited to have sex for the first time. Bill had told me all about his wife, his hopes for being a good father, and his worries about not being around for either one of them—either because he was deployed or died in combat.

I laid my hand flat on the coffin and closed my eyes.

That long-ago drunken night, exhausted mentally and physically from exhausting training, Bill and I had somehow become friends, despite our many, many differences. Not long after that, we were like brothers.

Truth be told, I had needed Bill—needed someone that I mattered to. I had needed some kind of family, and Bill and the Corps itself gave me that.

I had met Bill's parents, William Sr. and Sophie-Anne more than once. They flew to San Diego a couple of times—as they had some friends in that city. Having a difficult pregnancy, Sookie couldn't risk flying. And, though Bill invited me to go to Louisiana with him between our basic training and our more advanced training (or AIT)—and then again during the time between our AIT and our first deployment—I'd made excuses not to do so. Given the fact that Sookie was pregnant, I wasn't about to get in the way of Bill's limited time with his wife.

That's also why I'd found excuses when he'd asked me to visit at other times of extended leave, too—when we'd been between active duty deployments. Of course, many of my excuses were good—like the two times I'd traveled to London to see Pam. Other times, I'd just gone back to Long Beach, which had felt more and more lonely to me each time I went there.

In fact, on my last visit, which was six months before (between our previous tour, which had been in Afghanistan, and our current one in Iraq), I'd decided to put the house on the market. The house had become like an albatross to me, after all, and it sat empty 95% of the time. In truth, returning there stirred up mostly bad memories for me, except for the few good ones I had involving Nanny Octavia and Pam. But those memories made me feel empty and alone.

So I'd called Pam, hoping that—with the years adding up between her California life as a Northman and her English life as a Ravenscroft—she wouldn't begrudge my selling the house. However, she had become extremely upset, even hanging up on me. When I'd tried calling her back, she didn't pick up.

Immediately, I'd called the real estate agent I was working with and cancelled all the plans I'd made to sell; then, I'd called Mr. Cataliades to see about changing the ownership of the house to Pam, though I would continue the mortgage payments, which I was still swinging because of my inheritance and my mother's life insurance. And then I'd gone to the local library to email Pam since she still wouldn't pick up my calls.

I'd begged her to forgive me, letting her know that I wouldn't sell the house—that I would give it to her as a gift.

I'd spent a very dark day in that lonely, dark house, hoping that Pam would call me back and wondering why I hadn't just left well enough alone, wondering why I'd risk losing my sister over something so insignificant as a house I hated.

A little more than twenty-four hours after she'd hung up on me, she finally called me back. Pam—who was thirteen at the time—told me that she didn't really want the house and that I should sell it. She just wanted to visit "Mom and Daddy" one last time. Again, I offered to just give her the house, but she refused. She'd been a little cold to me, but at least she'd not cut me out of her life completely.

Likely, Edward had had a lot to do with her change of heart. Before the sell went through, he brought her to Long Beach to say goodbye to the place—and to the garden. I was just grateful that—though I'd been doing some specialized training at the time of her visit—I had been able to see Pam for a couple of hours in San Diego. I'd also managed to get a few words alone with Edward—to arrange for half of the profits from the sale to go to Pam. Of course, the Ravenscrofts were well-off, and he tried to refuse the money, but I'd insisted. And he'd relented after only a few minutes of discussion. With him, I'd also double-checked—and then triple-checked—that Pam wouldn't be bitter because I'd sold the house.

He swore that she was now okay with the idea and that her initial response had been that of a young girl who "needed closure." He'd assured me that she'd gotten it.

According to Edward, Pam had been strong as she'd said goodbye to the garden. Being well-connected, Edward had even gotten permission to take some of the plant clippings from the garden (and some of the soil) back to England, where they'd use a section of his estate's garden to "keep Pam's mother and stepfather alive for her."

I'd thought that it was a nice idea, and I was certain it had been Edward's. I'd found myself envying Pam in that moment—wondering what it would have been like to have had a father that truly thought about my needs, hopes, and/or desires.

My own father had a particular plan for my life. I was to excel in school, which I'd managed to do until my parents' deaths. I was to excel in swimming and become an Olympian, which I had been trying my best to accomplish as well. After that, I would go to college and ultimately follow in his and my mother's footsteps to become a lawyer. I was to make a good marriage match and eventually be a partner in his firm—if I could, in his words, "earn the title." The firm, he always said, would be his legacy.

I'd never had any interest in the law, but I couldn't help but to think that I would have done everything Appius wanted if he'd lived. But he didn't live. My mother didn't either.

"You neither, my friend," I said to the box in front of me.

I put my hand on his casket again.

For the last time.

I knew that the casket lid would stay closed, though it would be draped with a flag when William, Sophie-Anne, Sookie and little Jason met it at Andrews Air Force base in two days' time.

I closed my eyes and thought of the calls I'd made—calls I'd felt responsible for making—both to Bill's parents and to Sookie. They'd already known, of course, that Bill had been killed in action. The military had a policy that the families would be informed "properly" and in person whenever possible. An officer and a chaplain had visited Bill's parents in Annapolis, Maryland; at roughly the same time, a similar duo had visited his wife in Bon Temps, Louisiana. My calls had been made after I'd received the all clear from my C.O.

I'd had to describe—twice—how Bill had died. But I'd gotten to tell Bill's family that he'd died a hero. And he had. I'd gotten to tell them that he'd been trying to save the life of another Marine when he'd been slain.

I'd left out the part that he'd been foolish to leave his cover to do it.

I closed my eyes and I was back where it happened.

Our platoon had been in Fallujah, as a part of Operation Phantom Fury. Our mission on November 28 had been to—in the C.O.'s words—"mop up a small pocket of suspected opposition" in the northeast sector of the city. "Heavy urban combat in Sector 5-Delta" were the words I'd used to describe the scene in my report. More appropriate would have been to describe it as hell.

Bill had been my Lieutenant—commanding three squads, one of which I had command over. Yes—Bill had been promoted faster than I had, but I'd not been surprised. When it came to written tests, he'd been better than I was, though I was no slouch. Plus, he was "legacy," and—in the Corps—it did matter that Bill was a fifth- generation Marine.

I hadn't been jealous of his faster progress, especially since he always made sure we were a part of the same Platoon. Indeed, he treated me like a co-leader in many ways.

I was actually glad he made Lieutenant before me—since it kept him a bit back from the direct line of fire at times. As a Sergeant, I was still a lot more expendable—at least, from the military's point of view. Oh—it wouldn't be long before I made Lieutenant, though the captain (thankfully) knew better than to promote me directly to Bill's place when he was killed.

"Shot to pieces," I muttered as I opened my eyes and tried to not see what Bill had looked like when I made my way to him. My squad had been in the lead that day, sweeping for insurgents building by building. The other two squads had been behind us, though slightly to our left—when they'd come across a sniper. Bill had been the one to spot him. The last time I heard Bill's voice, he was telling me the position of the sniper's nest so that I could find a kill shot. Since I was the best shot in the Platoon (at least from a distance), he often tasked me with such things.

And I did kill the sniper, but not before he killed three men in the Platoon.

The first man down—a short, rambunctious fellow from Brooklyn named Steven— had been the reason that Bill had been able to locate the sniper. Bill had seen the glint of the rifle. Quickly, he ordered the squad he was with to take cover. But a second Marine, who we all called Little Rob, though he was almost my height, was shot before he could follow that order. That was when Bill had radioed me.

However, only one of the shot Marines—Brooklyn Steve—had died immediately. Little Rob was lying injured in the open. Because Bill was who he was—sometimes brave to a fucking fault—he ordered covering fire in the direction of the sniper's nest and went to get the injured man himself!

The high-powered sniper's weapon hit him four times.

The first shot lodged in Bill's gut and would have been enough to kill him, but slowly, since an immediate evac wasn't possible.

The second bullet tore through his right shoulder almost dragging his arm off with its velocity.

That shot spun Bill around so that his back was to the sniper, and it also caused him to do something a Marine was never supposed to do—yank off his helmet. Of course, Bill couldn't be blamed for it. Pain made people do some odd things.

The third shot hit his back and left a huge exit wound where his heart was. It killed him.

Still, there had been a fourth shot. It entered through the back of his head.

The exit wound from that shot had made Bill's face hard for even me to recognize once I'd finally made my way to my friend—my brother.

Of course, I'd kept the details of Bill's wounds out of my description of the battle to Bill's family, concentrating on the hero part.

William Compton's voice had caught, but he'd behaved like I figured a man was supposed to act—at least in public—after learning someone they loved had died. I didn't fare so well when I'd found Bill. Oh—I'd managed to hold myself together well enough until the Platoon, which—as the most senior Sergeant present—I'd taken temporary command over, was safe and sound. Later, I heard people talking in hushed voices about how tears had been streaming down my face the whole time.

I didn't remember them flowing. And, luckily, they'd not affected my work. No other Marines had been lost, and we got all our men out of there. Last I knew, Little Rob even had a decent chance of surviving, though his spinal cord had been severed when he'd been shot.

After writing my report, I'd wept in the shower and then pulled myself together enough to fall into my rack and sleep for eight hours. When I woke up, I managed to eat and to make a follow-up report to the captain, who'd then given me permission to make my phone calls. But my resolute demeanor didn't last as I told William how sorry I was that I'd not protected Bill better.

Even though Bill was immediate commanding officer, I'd vowed to myself years before that—if only one of us could make it out of the Marines alive—it was damned sure going to be him!

Somehow, I'd managed to pull myself back together and hold it together during my call to Sookie, who'd wept all throughout my call to her. Her brother Jason, also a Marine, had been killed in action the year before she and Bill had married. So I couldn't even imagine her sorrow. Still—I'd promised to make sure she got everything Bill carried with him as well as the letter he'd been in the middle of writing to her. I felt the need to prepare her for that—to warn her that it was coming.

My internal clock—irrevocably and infallibly set sometime during my fourth week of basic training—told me that my ten minutes and another five on top of it were up.

I stood at full attention and saluted my friend, a man I'd never known as anything but a Marine. Then I pivoted and marched away as if a General were watching me.

Bill was more important to me than any General ever would be, after all.

And I vowed that I'd never let anyone be that important to me again. It simply hurt too much to lose people I cared about.

I'd lost Nanny Octavia.

I'd all but lost my sister.

And now I'd lost my one real friend.

I didn't want to lose anyone again. All I had to do was to stop myself from caring.

A/N: Hello all! Thanks so much to everyone who has already begun reading this work! I know that this is a tough beginning for Eric & Sookie; however, I hope you will have faith in them-and me-to get things to a good finish.

I hope that you enjoyed the above chapter. And please leave me a comment-if you have the time or the inclination.

Best,

Kat

Chapter Text

Chapter 02: Gold Star Family

NOTE: You might want to pull out the Kleenex. Possible trigger warning: a soldier's death and his family's grief are portrayed.

Annapolis, MD • December 3, 2004

Sookie POV

"I love you and William so much—you know that," I said to my mother-in-law.

"You are our daughter, and you always will be," Sophie-Anne LeClerq Compton returned firmly, even as she gripped my hand even more firmly.

"I know, and I can't thank you enough for that, but I can't stay here," I said, looking around the beautiful sitting room of the home the Comptons owned in Annapolis, Maryland. William's father, Jacob, had bought the home when he'd been an advisor to President Reagan almost two decades before, and the family had kept the townhouse, sometimes renting it to members of Congress who couldn't invest in a permanent residence in the area. In anticipation of William's win of his Senate seat in early November, William and Sophie-Anne had been preparing the Annapolis home for their own semi-permanent residence when a soldier had knocked on their door to tell them that Bill had been killed in action.

I closed my eyes as I recalled getting the news myself. I'd been helping out in Gran's garden, pulling some weeds, which were threatening her winter vegetable garden, when the black sedan had pulled up the driveway, jostling along through the rough gravel. Jase and I had been living with Gran ever since Bill had deployed for his latest—his last—tour in Iraq.

I'd known as soon as I'd seen the vehicle. And I'd realized that I'd been subconsciously looking for that nondescript vehicle—dreading its coming—for years.

Almost five years.

Almost.

Five years—that was to be how long Bill would remain on active duty. Before that, there had been thirteen weeks of boot camp, followed by more specialized training with some leave thrown in here and there.

The day of Bill's first deployment, he and I had started the countdown.

Five years and then he'd come home for good.

When we were Sophomores in high school, Bill had decided to follow in his family's footsteps and become a Marine. I had known even before then that he'd serve. And his decision to be a soldier wasn't even because of his family legacy either, though I knew that Bill was proud of that legacy. William and Sophie-Anne had never compelled him to join up; indeed—though she never said anything out loud—I thought that Sophie-Anne had been secretly hoping that Bill would make a different choice for his own life path, a choice that did not include being a soldier.

With Bill, serving in the Marines had more to do with a simple pull to serve his country—to give back to it a bit of what it had given to him and his family. I was proud of him. Despite his "pull," Bill had told me that he would change his plans if I wanted him to—after my brother Jason was killed in action.

But I hadn't told him to stay home, even though a large part of me now wished that I had.

In the end, I supported his choice to become a soldier. I accepted Bill as he was. He was a man of service—a man of tradition.

It was his adherence to traditions that helped to explain why he was always a perfect gentleman with me (except for some PG-13 make-out sessions)—even though we "officially" dated for three years before we married.

It was why he made sure I had the Southern wedding of my dreams and the perfect honeymoon to complement it.

It was why he worked so hard on little restoration projects for the home that had been in his family for hundreds of years.

It was why he learned every square inch of his family's land.

It was one of the reasons I loved him.

We'd contemplated waiting to get married until after Bill was done with his years of active service. We would be only 25, after all. At that point, he'd planned to start college and then go to law school. Meanwhile, I planned to be getting my degree while he was away serving. We both figured that would be "good timing" since I'd be able to focus on my studies and have things to occupy my mind whenever he was on active duty.

In other words, we'd hoped that my studies would keep me distracted so that I wouldn't drive myself crazy with worry.

Ultimately, we'd decided to get married the summer after we graduated—not long after my eighteenth birthday. We were both certain of each other and ready to start our lives as a married couple, even though we knew that being apart would be difficult.

And I—for one—wanted sex before I was 25. And Bill had been determined to wait for marriage.

In the end, I was glad that we had waited until we got married. Our wedding night was special in a way that would always stick to my heart. Oh—we weren't that great at sex our first time. But we were "experts" by the end of our honeymoon.

Expert enough to apparently break the odds.

The birth control pill said it was 99.7% effective.

Bill and I were part of the 0.03%.

Especially when my blood pressure went up not six weeks into the pregnancy, I decided to put off college and prepare myself to be a single mother most of the time—at least, until Bill was done with active duty. Though Bill and I planned to live in his family's Bon Temps estate when he was on leave or between deployments, he supported my decision to stay with Gran across the old Bon Temps cemetery whenever he was away from home.

It was easier all the way around, especially after William Jason Compton was born on April 20, 1999. I insisted that our child become the third Compton boy in a row to have the name William, and Bill insisted that his middle name be given in honor of my brother. I'd been more touched than I could say. Since William and Bill had already been taken (and neither of us liked "Billy" or "Will"), we opted to call our son Jason—shortening it almost immediately to Jase.

I'd just been grateful that Bill had been able to get leave from training to be at the birth of his son.

Because Bill's family was wealthy, I'd not needed to work, which was good since I had bedrest for most of my pregnancy. Moreover, though Jase was an amazing baby from the start—adapting to a schedule right away so that I could mirror his sleep cycle, it took my body a while to recover. Plus, I found myself depressed, suffering from postpartum disorder, as well as simply missing my husband. Luckily, I had Gran there to help me through the worst of it. And I had an excellent doctor that noticed the signs right away so that I could get help.

Though I probably should have told Bill about my problems, I tried to keep how hard being a single parent was from my husband, especially after Gran fell and broke her hip about eight months after Jase was born. Plus, whenever Bill was home, I didn't want to focus on how my life was difficult when he wasn't able to do anything about it.

Especially after September 11, 2001—when Bill's deployments became so much more high-stakes—I was grateful for every hour I had with Bill. Every second.

And I wanted to enjoy our time together.

And it wasn't as if Bill didn't help me—even from afar. He even arranged for a nurse to live with Gran and me when she first came home from the hospital. And Jesús still came by four times a week to work with Gran on her movement. Indeed, I felt like he—and by extension Bill—was the reason Gran was walking.

Bill. Even thinking about never having him around to help me again—to love me again—made a few tears escape my eyes—tears where I thought there were none left to shed. I couldn't help but to remember how we'd talked about expanding our family during his last time home between tours.

"Sookie? Are you okay?" Sophie-Anne asked with concern.

I nodded. "Sorry. I drifted away there—remembering. I was just thinking about the last time Bill was on leave. We talked about getting pregnant again."

"You're not—uh—are you?" Sophie-Anne asked, gesturing toward my belly with a bit of hope in her eyes.

"No," I said softly.

She shook her head as if to clear it. "No. Of course not. He left what? Five or six months ago? And you would have said something to us if you were."

I reached over and took her hand. "Your son was a wonderful father to Jase."

She nodded and brushed a tear away, the picture of a strong Southern woman in that moment.

"William and I really do wish you and Jase would stay here with us, Sookie," she entreated.

"I need to be in Bon Temps with Gran," I said softly. "And I think I'll go ahead and start school next fall—as Bill and I talked about. After all, Jase will be in kindergarten by then."

To her credit, Sophie-Anne didn't try to implore me anymore. We'd already had a longer discussion about me and Jase staying with them in Annapolis. We'd also talked a lot about what to do with the Comptons' Bon Temps home. In truth, I didn't need it—or even want such a large dwelling. I'd been willing to be "the lady of the manor"—so to speak—for Bill, but I was more comfortable as just plain-old Sookie, who lived in a slightly run-down farmhouse.

To their credit, the Comptons understood that taking over the big plantation-style house and the farm business were too much for me. So they promised to keep employing the person that was already overseeing the property. And—of course—Jase could still play on the land as he wished. The house would be his one day as well, just as it had officially passed to Bill on his 21st birthday, three years before. When in Louisiana, William and Sophie-Anne now lived in New Orleans with William's seventy-five-year-old mother, Jenny, rather than in Bon Temps. And Bill had no siblings to take the property.

The Comptons were distantly related to the Bellefleurs, but that family had land and money of their own.

I felt sad—for a moment—that Bill and I hadn't had more children, more little Comptons to help regrow the family. As it was, the Stackhouse name had only one member left: Gran.

In addition, I was sad that the big Compton house would be empty, but my idea to rent it out had been met by hesitation on the parts of William and Sophie-Anne, so I'd not pushed the issue.

"How is Gran doing?" Sophie-Anne asked kindly.

Of course, she already knew, but it was good to change the topic away from all the things that had changed because of Bill's death.

That's why I decided not to mention again just how sorry Gran was that she couldn't make it to the funeral, which would be held at Arlington National Cemetery, where Bill would be laid to rest in full regalia.

I was, of course, sad that my husband wouldn't be in Bon Temps cemetery. However, I'd had a long talk with Jase about it. Bill hadn't made his preferences known, and—ultimately—Jase and I decided that the honor of an Arlington burial was something special that couldn't be passed up. I knew that Jase would be able to visit his father's grave whenever he visited his grandparents, who I figured would be living in the Washington, D.C. area for at least the next 12 years, the timeframe of two Senate terms. And—though William didn't know if he'd go for a third term (not surprising since he'd yet to officially start his first!)—everyone knew that he'd be able to stay a U.S. Senator as long as he wanted—at least, as long as he didn't do anything too controversial, which didn't seem to be in his nature anyway.

Given that he'd won with 74% of the vote, getting bipartisan support, he'd be a hard man to beat as long as he kept wanting the job as Senator.

In the end, I realized that a grave would never be where my husband was anyway. My faith told me that he was already in Heaven. My heart told me that he was with me and Jase—always.

"Gran's good," I said, finally responding to Sophie-Anne with an apologetic look; thankfully, my mother-in-law had already forgiven me for all of my problems carrying on a conversation over the last several days. It was just too easy to get lost in my thoughts—in my grief.

"She's getting around much better again—without the walker. My friend, Tara, is staying over with her while Jase and I are here. And her nurse, Jesús, is with her too. Thanks, by the way, for makin' sure that there will be no problem keeping Jesús on."

Sophie-Anne brushed off my gratitude with a wave of her hand. She knew I was uncomfortable having any of Bill's inherited money—especially since I would be getting benefits from the military too—but she'd kindly reminded me that I could use as much or as little of Bill's money as I needed—and that the rest could go to Jase one day.

Of course, she was right. And I would use it to make sure Jase, Gran, and I were comfortable—though I did intend to have my own profession once I was done with college. Being a full-time mother had been wonderful, but I was ready to pursue some of my own career goals once Jase was in school.

Sophie-Anne sighed. "Your Gran grows the most beautiful roses in the South. Did I ever tell you that it was roses from her garden that filled my bouquet when I married William?"

"No," I smiled before gratefully listening to my mother-in-law's story.

Thirty minutes later, I climbed the stairs in order to try to sleep. I contemplated taking a sleeping pill since I'd had very little rest since learning of Bill's death, but one look into Jase's room where I saw my tossing and turning son convinced me not to do that. He didn't need a conked-out mother.

I went into Jase's room to sooth him a bit, and—as always—he settled down when I patted his back gently.

Jase, like Bill, had always suffered from the occasional nightmare, and—not surprisingly—his father's death had brought on a new round of them for our son. For that reason, I didn't close the door of the bedroom I was staying in. If he needed me, I wanted to hear.

I quickly prepared for bed, washing my face and changing into a comfortable nightgown. I lay down and cuddled a pillow close to my chest. When Bill was deployed, I used to let myself imagine such an object was my husband, but tonight the soft pillow seemed cold to me.

Still—I gripped it and prayed that I'd get through the next day—the day of my husband's funeral.

December 4, 2004

As would be expected for a five-year-old boy, Jase was fascinated—and a little intimidated—by all of the soldiers at the Arlington service. Indeed, he didn't quite understand the need for somberness, especially when there were so many "awesome soldiers" to see. Plus, Jase wasn't used to his father being around; in fact, Bill seemed like someone disconnected from him.

Oh—Jase loved his daddy a lot and had been Bill's little shadow whenever he'd been home. But I knew that Jase hadn't yet fully taken in what Bill's death meant. My son had been spared losing someone up until this time in his young life. He'd never even lost a pet, for Bill had been allergic to cats and dogs.

Speaking of pets—when Jase and I got home, I'd already decided to take two kittens that Arlene had left from her cat's litter. In all honesty, I figured that the little furry creatures would help me as much as they did my son.

I was grateful that Jase didn't know that his father was the reason we'd never gotten a pet. And I knew that a pet couldn't replace a father—not by any stretch of the imagination. But I was going to try every trick in the book to make Jase's life easier in the coming weeks, months, and years—as his father's death truly hit him.

I sighed. Sadly, the very nature of Bill's profession would help to soften Jase's experience. Since Jase was so used to Bill's being gone for long stretches of time—it might even be a while before his father's permanent absence was fully felt by my little man.

I sighed again, not knowing quite how I'd be ready for that inevitable day. Of course, I'd not really been ready to be a mother in the first place, but I wouldn't trade that role for anything else in the world.

My breath hitched a little as I looked at the beautiful pictures of my husband setting up on easels next to his coffin—one that I'd been told ought not to be opened, even when I'd asked to see my husband one last time. The captain who'd greeted us when we'd met Bill's coffin at Andrews Airforce Base had pulled William and me aside to tell us that seeing Bill would not bring us peace.

William had then convinced me that the captain was right.

So—since I couldn't see Bill—I looked at the pictures I'd chosen for the service. One was of him in his full uniform, smiling at the camera with a fresh high and tight haircut. I couldn't help but to smile through a tear. I'd hated that haircut so much! I liked it when Bill had a bit more hair that I could run my fingers through—nothing too long, but certainly more than a standard Marine cut.

The second picture was one of Bill holding Jase when he was about eleven months old. Again, Bill was in uniform. It was taken right after Bill arrived home from a deployment. It had been only the second time that Bill had met his son, having gotten to spend only a couple of days in Bon Temps after Jase was born.

The third picture was the only one where Bill wasn't in uniform, which was ironic since he was posing with several people from his Platoon. They were all in street clothes, however, enjoying a night out in San Diego before their first deployment.

Bill looked happy and a little excited—as if he were anticipating something. Of course, right next to him was Eric Northman, his best friend. The two had become inseparable almost as soon as Bill started basic training in San Diego. Over the years, they'd become like brothers, even competing like siblings. But Bill had progressed to Lieutenant first among his peers. I was proud of him for that, though he always insisted that Eric should have been first.

To keep the tears from spilling as I thought about the long talks I used to have with my husband—often on the phone or, more recently, using the modern miracle that was Skype—I studied Eric Northman for a few moments. Since my focus had always been on Bill when I'd looked at the picture before, I'd never really noticed that Eric's expression conveyed more worry than happiness or excitement. In fact, his expression was one of protectiveness and determination.

Bill had told me a little bit about Eric's background once, and it had made me sad. Bill said that Eric had lost his parents in a car crash and all but lost his half-sister to her biological father in London. He'd said that Eric was cut-off from his emotions in some ways, but that he felt them a lot stronger than most people—when he let them show.

Bill truly had loved Eric like a brother, and I had been looking forward to meeting him—finally—after their current tour was over, something that would have happened in only a few more months. I couldn't help but to believe that I would never meet Eric now. Doing so would likely be too hard for me anyway—especially after his call from Iraq.

Oh—don't get me wrong. I'd been grateful for that call in some ways. The men who told me that Bill was dead shared very little about the how. Eric said a lot more, though I'd been able to tell that he was holding something back—probably the horror that had necessitated that the casket lid stay closed. With a shiver, I tried to focus on the fact that Bill had died a hero. Eric had said that Bill died saving the life of one of his men.

And I wasn't surprised by that.

Eric had also said that Bill had been shot four times and would not have suffered.

Eric had apologized for not being with Bill—for not killing the sniper who killed my husband soon enough.

I could tell that Eric carried a lot of guilt over Bill's death—unfounded guilt. I'd decided to write to him to let him know he shouldn't feel that way. I would have told him that on the phone, but I'd been crying too much to make any sense.

Eric had also told me that he'd be sending me Bill's things, including a letter my husband had been in the middle of writing to me. I was already preparing myself emotionally to read it.

I was taken out of my thoughts as those in attendance were asked to rise for the Presentation of Arms, and then I jumped a little as the 21-gun salute began. I managed to smile down at Jase as he gasped and looked on with fascination. Not long after that, "Taps" began playing, a lone bugler sending the song's notes up towards the heavens. I made sure that I wasn't gripping Jase's hand too tightly, given how much sorrow careened into my body at the first note of that song. It meant that Bill's casket would soon go into the ground.

Somehow, I was sitting again as I watched as the Honor Guard folded the flag that had been on the casket. And I wept openly as one of the soldiers handed me the flag. I moved it so that Jase could hold it too as the rest of the service finished in a blur.

I was a widow.

And my child would grow up with precious few memories of his father.

A/N:

In this chapter, I really wanted to try to portray—at least a little—how much grief a young widow like Sookie would be feeling. I cannot imagine losing a spouse to war. Though there's no way I can truly understand, I hope that I did do some justice to this fictional Gold Star Family. And—if you are a member of such a family in real life—I want to tell you how sorry I am. And also how grateful.

Please leave me a comment if you have the time and the inclination.

Best,

Kat

Chapter Text

Chapter 03: The Footlocker

Near Fallujah • December 14, 2004

Eric POV

I was tired—right down to the bone—when I returned to the FOB (Forward Operating Base) after our latest mission into Fallujah.

Given the loss of my Lieutenant—the loss of my best friend—and many other deaths suffered in various Squads, my Platoon was being broken up, its members added to other Squads.

Such re-groupings happened—especially during war-time—but usually not on such a large scale. It was a sign of just how rough the last weeks had been. Among the Platoons in my Battalion, the rumor was that over 20 soldiers had been killed. And—of course—many, many others had been injured.

Almost ten times as many.

From the meeting I'd just attended, I knew that the number of dead was actually 23 since November; in fact, we were, by far, the hardest hit Battalion in Operation Phantom Fury, which I thought was a silly name—truth be told. But it was a very serious offensive. With the help of the Brits and Iraqis who'd joined our side, we'd finally taken Fallujah—albeit for a very steep price. And the clusters of enemy combatants in the city were becoming few and far between. Indeed, my squad's previous two missions had resulted in no gunfire whatsoever.

I just wish that Bill had lived long enough to enjoy the relative quiet.

Also, in the meeting I'd just been to—during which I'd been given a field commission to Lieutenant—I'd been confidentially told that one squad of Marines within our Battalion had been accused of committing war crimes against our enemies and, therefore, removed from the area for questioning.

A very small part of me empathized with those soldiers for a moment. War was hell, and becoming a demon in that hell was sometimes a tempting step to take. However, I truly hated the idea of U.S. Marines turning into monsters. Yes—there was a sense in which we had been trained to be killing machines, but that didn't mean it was okay for us to be murderers or to torture our captives.

We were fighting against that shit!

Even the man who'd killed Bill—a man whom I'd killed—would have deserved fair treatment, had capturing him been a feasible option. I don't know exactly what it said about me that I hated the man that killed Bill, but also hated the fact that I'd been the one to end his life.

Maybe it just said that I was either the perfect soldier or the least perfect. I didn't know which; I just did my job.

And—right now—my job was packing up my shit in the barracks that had housed my Platoon off and on for the last month so that I could be transferred to another Platoon. I was glad that Clancy and Rasul would be joining me. Both were getting promoted to Sergeant, and I'd known them both since Bill and my second deployment.

Altogether, Bill and I had shared four deployments, with the first being a stress-free stint in Germany. But then 9/11 had occurred. Our second deployment—in Afghanistan—had lasted almost two years. After another leave, our third tour, lasting eight months, had taken us to Iraq. Our fourth—Bill's last—had brought us to Iraq for a second time and was supposed to have lasted for nine months. However, the tour now had "TBA" as its end-date. Of course, Bill would have likely been dismissed on the date of his planned exit since his paperwork had already gone through paving the way for his transition from active duty to the Reserves.

If he'd lived.

I quickly showered and packed my belongings in my footlocker. And then I turned my attention to Bill's belongings. Since the time between his death and my subsequent missions had been so short—and that "free" time had included several meetings with a psychiatrist as well as with my C.O. to make sure that I was okay following the death of my best friend—I'd not yet gone through his things.

And no one had rushed me either. But I knew it was a chore I needed to get done before we left; I couldn't very well take the belongings of a dead Marine to our next stop, after all. Plus, I figured that Sookie was waiting for them.

It was customary, actually, for the Marine closest to a fallen brother to be the one to go through his footlocker. After all, no spouse needed to receive evidence of her husband's misdeeds among his personal effects.

Knowing Bill so well, I also knew that the contents of the footlocker wouldn't rock Sookie's world too much—at least, not at first. However, there were a few things that she might wonder about—things that she could begin to investigate, and I saw it as part of my duty to my brother to remove those things.

For his sake and for Sookie's.

Bill had promised to do the same for me—if our positions had been reversed (which I guiltily wished they had been)—so that Pam wouldn't receive anything untoward. It wouldn't do at all for my kid sister to find two worn copies of Penthouse amidst my belongings, after all.

Now—with two hours to kill and a bit of privacy, thanks to the fact that most of my Platoon had already been reshuffled elsewhere, I sat down and opened Bill's footlocker. Sending it to Sookie would mean that the last part of him that was still physically with me would be gone too, but I tried not to think about that.

First, I took out the three things Bill told me needed to go, one representing a lie and the other two signifying the only major sin that I had ever known Bill to commit. He'd already pointed out the things I needed to get rid of—just so that I'd be certain to get them all.

One was a picture of the woman Bill had lost his virginity to. This was what he called his "first lie" to the woman he'd always called "the love of his life."

I knew that Bill had told Sookie that he, too, had been a virgin on their wedding night. However, he'd been very nervous about pleasing Sookie so he'd let his father William talk him into losing his virginity with a high-end prostitute at a place called Southern Comfort. Apparently, going there to "become a man" was just as much of a Compton tradition as joining the Marines or being elected to public office. Bill had intended to forego that tradition until his nerves got the better of him one week before his wedding.

He'd kept a picture of the woman—whose name was Selah—because she'd been so kind to him, teaching him ways to make a woman "happy." Though the picture would have just looked like a random woman to Sookie, she might have wondered who it was. I put it into the trash. Bill had told me the story of Selah on the first night we'd really spoken, drunkenly using the "Selah situation" as evidence for why he was unfit to be a father and a husband. In truth, I'd disapproved of Bill's "visit to the house of ill-repute" (his phrasing, not mine), and I'd told him so. He'd had a beautiful fiancé who loved him unconditionally and who had been saving her own virginity for him—and specifically for their wedding night. I had thought he'd been a lucky bastard to have someone like Sookie.

Oh—I'd had my share of one-night-stands in high school and after it. After the first couple, I found out the hard way that the young women were with me only for my good looks—as well as for my novelty as the "new guy" in school. It likely doesn't say much about me that the kinds of girls who gravitated towards me in high school were the same kinds that casually gossiped about things like a guy's ability in the sack or his penis size. Even at eighteen, I'd felt a bit used by girls—an idea my father had certainly reinforced would be the case.

I'd spent hours trying to have conversations with the few girls I'd actually wanted something more than sex with—only to learn very little about what made them tick. Always, they seemed to be telling me what they thought I wanted to hear. I'd started to believe that I only attracted girls that had no desire to share any aspect of their "real" selves with me. But as a hormonal teenaged guy, I'd ultimately decided that any female companionship was better than none.

And sex felt good—at least while it was happening.

After high school, I'd gone almost straight into the Marines. On weekend passes or leaves, I would find women in bars or clubs, some of those women "specializing" in service men. Few of them wanted more than a casual fuck.

Again—sex felt good. But I never felt a connection beyond a brief physical one with any of the women I would "entertain" in one random motel room or another.

So—yes—I'd envied Bill for the intimacy he shared with Sookie, intimacy that went so far beyond sex that I had no idea what it must be like to experience something like that. I'd certainly never seen it modeled by my parents.

Sookie seemed so damned kind—in every story Bill told me about her! And she was certainly beautiful, lighting up every picture I'd ever seen of her. She seemed perfect—really. And it was clear that she loved him with all that she was.

She'd insisted upon "meeting me" over the phone, and she always took the time to ask Bill about me. Plus, she'd send me little things in Bill's care packages, too—baked goods mostly. In fact, for the last several years, the only birthday cards I'd received had been from Sookie and Jase.

So—yeah—I thought that Bill was an extremely lucky bastard for having someone like Sookie.

Not surprisingly, Bill had felt guilty for cheating on Sookie before they married, and—though I could sort of understand his apprehension about "performing well" on the wedding night—I'd told him that his guilt was pretty fucking justifiable.

I wondered sometimes if it was my own promiscuous behavior that led Bill to commit what I felt to be the greatest of his sins. After all, during almost every weekend pass we had, I picked up some one-night stand or another. Bill even said that he envied me, and—knowing that—I should have stopped looking for temporary relief. Meanwhile, Bill missed Sookie—and sex—so much. And a Marine could almost always find a date. I saw how Bill denied the many offers he got. I admired him for being stalwart—faithful—to his wife.

And—again—I'd envied him for having someone like Sookie at home who was definitely worthy of his faithfulness.

But then there had been a night when we were two weeks into our more advanced training when Bill had gotten drunk and not rebuffed a woman's advances; instead, he'd spent a good deal of time flirting with her. I'd foregone my own amorous pursuits that night to make sure he didn't do something stupid with the woman—Lorena.

That night, I'd made sure we made it back to the base without Bill doing anything beyond flirtation. But Bill had done something that I'd missed; he'd taken Lorena's phone number—on the very slip of paper I now held in my hand, which was the second item Bill had wanted me to throw away from his belongings.

When he'd sobered up the morning after we'd first encountered Lorena, Bill had told me how ashamed he was for flirting with Lorena, but the next time we went out to the bar we frequented when we were able, she happened to be there, and he flirted again. Again, I avoided picking up a woman so that I could make sure my best friend didn't fuck up royally!

That night, Bill and I got into a fight as I dragged his too-drunk ass from the bar after he kissed Lorena right on the fucking dance floor of the hole-in-the-wall bar.

He'd told me to stop being his fucking babysitter and that he was a "grown ass man—and a lonely one at that!" I told him he was just being an ass! And then I reminded him of his then very pregnant wife!

He threw a punch I didn't return. And, then, he threw another that laid me onto my own ass before stomping away.

The next morning, we talked things out, and he told me that I couldn't possibly understand how hard it was for him to have all the pressures that he did. He rightly pointed out that I had no people to be responsible for beyond myself. Meanwhile, he had to worry about Sookie, his unborn child, his parents, and all of their expectations of him.

I could understand the power of expectations, though I no longer had any myself.

I wanted to tell him that I would have traded all the one-night stands I ever had just to have one of the gifts he sometimes took for granted—a woman who loved him unconditionally. But I kept my mouth shut.

Indeed, in order to keep our friendship, Bill told me that I needed to "back off from being the moral police." I hated Lorena, blamed her for being beautiful, tempting, and unrelenting. She knew Bill was married and knew he had a kid on the way.

But—ultimately—the choice to cheat on his wife belonged to Bill alone. And any power Lorena had over Bill was power he let her have. As far as I knew, Bill had "hooked up" with Lorena half a dozen times or so. He knew I disapproved, but I also looked away.

A better man would have risked his friendship to do anything possible to ensure that someone like Sookie wouldn't be dishonored in any way.

But I wasn't a better man. I was a selfish one. And Bill was my only friend.

Plus, he was right in a way. What did I know about the trials involved in being faithful? After all, my own mother had gotten pregnant by another man when she was married to my father! And my father certainly wasn't faithful!

Moreover, I'd hoped that Bill would give Lorena up forever after his active duty was over. He'd promised that he would.

Still, he'd kept her number and the third item from his footlocker I needed to throw away—a picture of himself and Lorena. Someone else had taken the shot; Bill had, at least, not asked me to do it. In the picture, Lorena was sitting on Bill's lap, and his arms were wrapped around her. They were both smiling happily.

I frowned, wondering for the millionth time how Bill could seem so happy with Lorena while he claimed that Sookie was his "soulmate." He'd always told me that Lorena was just a way for him to "sow his wild oats." I thought both he and that phrase were fucking ridiculous!

After all, while Bill was "sowing," Sookie was growing and then taking care of their kid!

I sighed; I figured that the last time Bill contacted Lorena had been right before our current deployment. We'd been briefly stationed in San Diego—to do some additional training with new Platoon members. It was during that time that Bill was promoted. We'd all gone out to celebrate in our civvies. Bill had been having the waitress snap a few pictures of the group that he could email to Sookie when I'd seen Lorena enter the bar.

I shook my head. I'd never forget the look that Bill gave Lorena, and—in that moment, I'd known that Lorena had somehow gotten ahold of a piece of his heart. Honestly, the whole episode had made me doubt that real love actually existed.

After all, if a great guy like Bill—and make no mistake about it, I continued to love him like a brother, despite his indiscretion—could stray from a wonderful woman like Sookie, I figured no relationship could pass the tests of time and distance.

But brotherhood did withstand those tests, and that's why I dialed the number on the scrap of paper before throwing it into the trash.

I knew it was mid-morning in the States, but the voice that greeted me sounded like it belonged to someone who'd been asleep, nonetheless.

"Lorena?" I asked.

"Who's asking?" she returned suggestively.

I closed my eyes and pinched the bridge between them. "Eric Northman. I'm a friend of Bill Compton's."

"Yeah—I remember you!" she said, suddenly sounding more awake. "Is Bill coming to San Diego soon? You live around here—don't you?"

I took a deep breath. "Ma'am, I have some bad news for you. Bill's dead. He was killed in action."

"What? No!" I heard her gasp into the phone. And then I heard whimpering and knew she'd started to cry.

"Bill," I paused, "cared about you. He asked me to phone you—to tell you—if anything ever happened to him, Ma'am. He didn't want you to always have to wonder." I sighed deeply, hating my chore and wondering if I could just hang up as she cried a little louder.

"He's really dead?" she finally voiced.

"I'm sorry. Yes. He was killed in Fallujah at the end of November. His funeral was ten days ago at Arlington Cemetery," I informed.

Immediately, Lorena stopped crying. "I'm sure his perfect little wifey made sure it was the perfect little service," she spit out bitterly. "He loved me in a way he could never love her, you know! He just had to stay with her because of the stupid kid she trapped him with and his political future."

"He said that?" I asked, immediately regretting the question. I didn't give her a chance to answer. "Listen, Lorena, whatever he said and felt about you, he wanted you to be told if he died. And now that I've done that, I . . . ."

"Wait!" she interrupted. I could tell that she was crying again. "He didn't suffer—did he?" she asked.

I wanted to tell her what I'd refrained from telling Sookie and William—that Bill had apparently suffered for about a minute, which had been the time between the sniper's first shot at him and the time of the next three, which came in quick succession.

Apparently, the sniper had been trying to draw out more would-be rescuers.

His gut wound had brought Bill to his knees and made it impossible for him to take ample cover, though a gory blood trail had told me that he'd tried to crawl to safety. He ordered the men to not try to get to him until the all-clear had been given about the sniper—an all-clear I was too late in giving.

Likely knowing he was dying, but fighting for his life nonetheless, Bill had suffered. According to Rasul's account, Bill's ineffective crawling had ended with his resting on his knees. That was when the second shot came; it hit him hard enough to spin his kneeling body; then, the third and fourth shots finally ended his pain.

And his life.

I wanted to tell Lorena in order to punish her—to give her the burden of knowing the truth so that she would have to suffer, at least a little, for being the one woman who had successfully tempted my friend to the point that he broke his marriage vows.

But I didn't.

"No, Ma'am," I lied. "Bill didn't suffer." I found myself wondering if Bill really did intend to end things with Lorena as she continued crying.

"Thank you for calling, Eric. I loved him, and if he'd just never called again—if I never heard anything—I would have always hated him a little for abandoning me."

Truth be told, I was angry at Bill for abandoning me! Still, I kept my tone steady, not wanting to stir a hornet's nest that might lead to Sookie and Jase getting stung. Indeed, in my opinion, Lorena was just the kind of woman that might call Sookie and tell her about Bill and their "great love" just to spite Bill's widow.

I couldn't let that happen.

"I'm sure that Bill would have been happy to hear that you loved him. Look, I—uh—know that Bill really cared for you—a lot," I embellished, "and I know he'd want me to make sure you were okay—uh—financially. If you aren't, I'll do what I can for you. There wouldn't be a need for you to—uh—contact his family or anything," I added before holding my breath.

Indeed, my worst fear in calling Lorena was that it might spur her to go after Bill's money—either from his parents or Sookie.

"I wasn't with Bill for the money!" Lorena snarled angrily.

"I know," I quickly placated. "But he'd want to make sure you were okay—because he cared so much," I emphasized.

She sniffled. "You're right—of course. I'm sorry I got angry. It's just—I didn't care about his money. I wanted him," she sighed. "But that dream's gone now."

"I am sorry," I said, trying to sound sincere when I was not. I was sorry for Sookie and Jase and William and Sophie-Anne. Not Lorena.

"Thank you for telling me about him, Eric," she said before—thankfully—hanging up.

I quickly erased her number from my phone and breathed a sigh of relief before looking through the rest of Bill's footlocker. In it, I found final notes he'd written to his parents and to Sookie. I had a similar note for Pam in my footlocker. There was also a manila envelope with several letters to Jase, all meant for different times of his life. I sighed and re-closed the envelope. There was also a half-written letter to Sookie. In it, he talked about how much he missed and loved her and how anxious he was for them to start trying for another baby once he was home. I felt my sorrow building as I thought about all the things Bill would never be able to do. I folded the letter and put it with the others. And then I found Bill's stack of pictures.

I smiled at the ones of little Jase. He favored Bill, but had bright eyes like his mother. The next picture was one of Sookie. She was dressed in a pretty sun dress and was holding up a sign that said, "Happy Anniversary!" In her eyes was so much love that my heart broke a little more for her.

In that moment, I was glad I'd taken care of the uncomfortable Lorena phone call and that it seemed like Bill's mistress would stay a dirty little secret. Sookie need never know about her; that knowledge would only hurt her.

The next picture in the stack was one of Sookie when she was heavily pregnant. She was sitting on a porch swing and had a smile on her face, despite the fact that she had to have been uncomfortable. I flipped the photo over, knowing what it said already, since Bill had shown it to me when he got it. Still, I read it: "We love you, Bill!"

And we did. Me. Jase. Sookie. Bill's parents.

There were many other photos of Sookie and Jase in the stack, and after making sure that there were no other photos there shouldn't have been, I put them all to the side—all but one. I took a picture of Sookie and Jase sitting on the porch swing that had been taken quite recently—maybe two months before. Unlike most of the others, it had no writing on the back.

I don't know why I felt the urge to take it—maybe it was because I'd hoped to one day meet Bill's wife and child in person. I couldn't help but to wonder if I would get that chance now.

A/N: Well there you have it—a complication about Bill. I know that some of you were happy to see a "good Bill" in this story. I'm sorry if this ruins that for you. Bill's unfaithfulness was always a part of this plot though. Still—I hope not to paint Bill as completely bad in this story. Yes—unfaithfulness is unforgiveable, but there are some things that he does which are "good." Above all, I wanted to hand on to some threads from the SVM world, but also paint a very "human" and flawed Bill. As for one Marine "cleaning out" the footlocker of another: I have heard of this kind of thing happening, so I'm painting it as kind of the "norm" for the Platoon that Eric and Bill are in. It makes sense though that this kind of thing would be done. You'll see a continuation of this scene next time.

I hope that you will leave me a comment if you have the time and inclination.

Best,

Kat

Chapter Text

Chapter 04: Mail Call

Still December 14, 2004

Eric POV, continued

I continued going through Bill's footlocker, making sure all the clothes had nothing in the pockets and were refolded perfectly.

With Bill's death, the path of my life really had changed. I'd actually been planning to have a pretty big part in the Comptons' life in a way, having finally agreed to spend my next leave in Louisiana with Bill since my house in Long Beach had sold. Bill had even convinced me that I should consider buying a house in Bon Temps and settling down in the area, and—since I didn't have anywhere else to go that the military didn't send me to—I had decided that his idea was a good one. In fact, I'd already put in the paperwork to be stationed at Bailey Base in Shreveport once I went back Stateside.

Bill, too, would have been able to make Bailey his "home base" for his 4 years in the Reserves. Indeed, I'd also been contemplating leaving active service and transitioning to the Reserves. Bill had all but talked me into getting some kind of a degree, telling me that I could work on his large property in the meantime.

I wondered if I could get back my transfer paperwork before it went through. After all, without Bill to offer me some kind of a semblance of a family in the States, I figured that any base where the Marines sent me would be just as good as any other.

Of course, I'd have to survive my current tour in order to go anywhere—let alone Bailey. And then I'd likely volunteer for another tour and then another, for I no longer had a reason to quit. And the Marines were never shy about sending willing bodies to one warzone or another. Plus—there were many places other than combat zones that needed good Marines at them. Maybe I'd eventually end up stationed at an embassy in Mozambique or something.

Determined to call back my preference letter for Bailey and just go wherever the Marines were inclined to send me—whenever they wanted to send me there—I finished going through Bill's things. At the bottom of his footlocker, I found something I hadn't known about: a letter with my name on it. Of course, I wasn't really surprised to see it. After all, there was a similar parting note for Bill at that bottom of my own footlocker, which reminded me that I needed to take that out. It wouldn't do anyone any good anymore. I found myself wondering who I could designate to be the person to go through my footlocker—if the next sniper took me out. Maybe I'd just toss out the dirty mags so that it didn't matter if Pam got the whole thing. Or I could ask Rasul; we weren't exactly friends, but I trusted him with my life. And he'd likely enjoy the magazines.

I sighed and repacked Bill's locker as neatly as humanly possible (and the Marines taught a lot about neatness) before calling in a Corporal to make sure that the locker got sent to Sookie. Only after it was taken away did I read the letter.

I opened it gingerly, treating it like the precious artifact that it was to me.

Dear Eric,

If you're reading this, then I'm dead, which sucks. And—unless I was turned by a vampire—I'm really gone for good.

Fuck! I hate even thinking that.

If I know you, you've already done the things I've asked you to do. I know that asking you to call Lorena wasn't fair, but I appreciate that you were willing to do it, nonetheless. I really did plan to break things off with her after this tour. I just thought she deserved for me to do it in person. I also know that you disapproved of my little dalliance with her. I hated myself for it. I guess I'm just weak; I needed convenient companionship at times. I never thought I would be the kind of man to break my marriage vows; I just hope that I would have been the kind of man who would have kept them once I was home for good.

Despite my shortcomings, I love Sookie more than anything, and I'm worried about what will happen to her now. I'm leaving her to be a single mother, and I worry she won't pursue the dreams she had for herself apart from me. And—of course—there's Jase. He won't have a dad now. I'd not intended to have children until after my active duty was over, but I wouldn't trade Jase for anything. Still—I hate that I've left him.

And there's you. I worry about you, too. I still don't really know how and why we connected since we aren't a lot alike. But I wouldn't have gotten through these last years without you. And I mean that literally.

I closed my eyes for a moment as I thought back to the three times that I'd managed to save Bill's life. I'd give my own life if I would have saved him a fourth. I continued reading.

You're my brother, Eric—the one I always wanted. You're as much family to me as my own parents. And—that being said—I need you to do me a favor that goes above and beyond.

I need you to watch over Jase—to look out for him and to help him with anything he needs. I need you to make sure he has a man that he can trust and turn to in his life. Don't get me wrong, my own dad is great, but you know William; he's not exactly the father of the year.

Plus, I want the kind of man in Jase's life who would help him to overcome his fears about marriage and all it entails, rather than the kind that pays for him to get some tail. As much as I don't want to make excuses for myself, I know that cheating on Sookie with Selah before my wedding helped me to develop more relaxed morals after my wedding. And my dad encouraged—even insisted upon—the Selah thing! Not to mention that my dad hasn't exactly been faithful to my mom—though, thankfully, he's been discreet about his own dalliances. Anyway, for a lot of reasons, you're the male role model I want for Jase.

In my letter to Sookie, I've let her know that I'm asking you to do this. You don't have to do much. I do hope you'll still base yourself in Shreveport so that you can hang out with Jase every once in a while. But it'll also be fine if you just drop him the occasional letter, or exchange the occasional phone call with him. Selfishly, I want him to know the me that was a Marine, and Sookie can't tell him about that as well as you can. And I know you'll leave out the parts that make me look bad, too.

And—if you do settle down in Shreveport—check on Sookie every now and then—will you? I bet she'll continue to stay with Gran, and then—when Gran passes—I figure she'll stay on in her family's farmhouse. It's old and is always in need of some work. I'm leaving her and Jase with enough money to comfortably live on—enough so that Sookie never has to worry or even work. But—if I know Sookie—she'll be frugal with it and put most of it into savings, probably eventually giving all but what she can't spare to Jase once he grows up. Just make sure she's not trying to do too much on her own when she could easily hire people to help her.

Please do these things for me, Eric. Look after my family. And—in so doing—I hope you remember that you're already Jase's honorary uncle, at least in his and Sookie's eyes. Heck—you know Jase already calls you Uncle Eric, and he loves when you would stick your head in when we were Skyping.

In the end, other than Sookie, Jase and my mother, you're the person I love the most in this world. And, for that reason, I wish you the happiest life possible.

Always your brother,

Bill

I re-read the letter and then folded it carefully before checking my watch. Seeing that I still had a bit of time before I had to depart, I went over to the wobbly table in the room, which I'd shared with Bill and a few other Sergeants and Lieutenants, and grabbed some paper and a pen.

There, I wrote a letter to Sookie—my first. In it, I told her that I'd gotten Bill's request, and I asked her permission to write letters to Jase once or twice a month and to call him once a week when I could. I said that I'd leave it up to her. Indeed, I shared that I would completely understand if she preferred to cut ties with the military, given her loss. After all, the last thing Jase needed was to lose someone else in his life. Simply put, I couldn't guarantee that I wouldn't die.

And, of course, she didn't know me that well. She didn't know that—once I made a commitment to someone—I didn't waiver. She might believe that I wouldn't keep my commitment to Jase—that I'd eventually hurt him simply by disappearing one day, even if I did survive the battles I would face as a Marine.

I also told Sookie that any letters I sent to Jase would be placed in an envelope sent to her so that she could read them if she wished. In fact, she'd have to read them to Jase at first since he was not yet able to read more than simple books.

Next, I wrote a letter to Jase, keeping in mind that he was only five years old.

Dear Jase,

This is your dad's friend, Eric. We've talked a few times on Skype with your dad.

I wanted to write you a letter to see how you are doing. I'm getting ready to move to a new home base where I'll get to be a Lieutenant like your Daddy was.

He told me how much you like dinosaurs. I like them a lot too. Your daddy told me that you have some dinosaur toys that you enjoy having fights with. That sounds like a lot of fun.

Your Daddy also told me that you are going to preschool. How is that going? What kinds of things do you do there?

I miss your Daddy a lot because he was my best friend. Do you have one of those yet? If you do, you are really lucky. Your Daddy asked me to make sure that you are doing okay. He also wanted me to tell you that you can ask me any questions you have about your Daddy or anything else.

Your Daddy loved you very much, Jase. And I know he's very proud of you.

I hope that you will write me back whenever you can.

Love,

Uncle Eric

I looked at the letter and shrugged, not really knowing if it was the kind of thing a 5-year-old would like getting. However, it was the best I could do. I sealed both letters into an envelope, but decided not to send them until the next week—so that Sookie would get Bill's things before my letters arrived. Still, I felt better having written the letters. After all, it was hard to know if I'd find the time during the next week. And there was never any question that I'd do what Bill requested of me—as long as Sookie agreed.

And, selfishly, I was glad for the task—for the connection with Jase that Bill was giving to me. It seemed like my friend was looking out for me, even from the grave.

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Baghdad, Iraq • January 16, 2005 (about a month later)

I was a little surprised when I received the first personal letter that I'd gotten from anyone since I was deployed. Pam had no interest in letter writing, preferring to speak by phone once a week—as we had done since she moved to England.

The letter was from Sookie. I strode purposefully to my quarters, which were—thankfully—private now that I was stationed in Baghdad. My field commission had been made official, so the salutes I received on my way through the hotel that was serving as our headquarters were much crisper than they'd been the month prior. Unlike some C.O.s, Colonel de Castro was a stickler about saluting indoors; truth be told, receiving them was likely something I'd never get used to.

Of course, I returned the salutes, even as I held in my own nerves. I'd been wondering whether Sookie would accept my contacting Jase. I'd already written and sent him another letter—just in case—so that I wouldn't break the previous promise I'd made about writing once or twice a month. I figured that the worst that could happen was that Sookie threw the letters away. I also figured she'd eventually tell me if my efforts were unappreciated. My second letter to him had been along the lines of the first. However, it also included a story about his dad's first trip deep sea fishing. I happened to have a picture of Bill and me—with the yellowfin tunas we'd caught—so I'd arranged for a printed copy for Jase and sent that in the letter.

Once I was in my room, I quickly opened the large envelope, which held two smaller ones—one from Jase and one from Sookie. I opened the letter from Sookie first, knowing that it would tell me whether continuing to write was okay.

Dear Eric,

It feels a little funny writing you a letter when we haven't really met. It feels like I know you though. I was going to write even before I received your letters to me and to Jase. I wanted you to know that I appreciate the fact that you called me to tell me what had happened when Bill died. I know you left out some details, but what you said helped me. So thank you.

Also, I recall you saying that you were sorry that you couldn't save Bill that horrible day in Fallujah. Please know that I don't blame you in any way. Bill was your Lieutenant then, so it would have been him giving any orders that put your Platoon in harm's way. Of course, I'm not blaming him either. I can't imagine how horrible it is to be in a place where you could die any second—where it's your job to put yourself in harm's way. I'm sure you would have sacrificed yourself for Bill, but that's not what fate had in mind, so please don't carry any unwarranted guilt.

That being said, I did struggle with whether or not to accept your gracious offer to write to Jase. First off, I appreciate your writing to ask my permission. Bill assumed I'd say yes, but he didn't consider the fact that I need to worry about Jase's mental health. He already lost one soldier in his life. If I let him get too attached to another, it will hurt him if you die. I hate to put that so bluntly, but it's the truth.

I stopped reading for a moment, realizing for the first time just how much the possibility of being an uncle-figure to Jase had been helping me through my own grief about Bill. I closed my eyes and breathed deeply. It was something I'd learned to do in order to prepare myself for disappointment. I chastised myself for putting so much hope in a relationship with a small child—breaking my own pledge not to allow myself to get attached to anyone after Bill's death. But then I also reminded myself that I'd done it for Bill. I steadied myself with a few more deep breaths before I read on.

To be honest, Eric, I spent a long time contemplating what to do about you. Eventually, I weighed the pros and the cons of having you in Jase's life, and I decided that—as long as Jase wants it—the pros do outweigh the cons. Still, I appreciate that you will write your letters addressed to me, and I reserve the right to change my mind if the letters upset Jase. If they do, I'll write again, and maybe we can try again when he's older.

In the meantime, he really liked your first letter. He cannot write by himself yet—at least not very legibly. So he asked that I pass along some answers to your questions.

He said that it's "so cool" that you like dinosaurs. He wanted me to assure you that his dinosaurs have "big, ferocious, battles" and that his T-Rex always wins and then "eats the Brontosaurus burgers."

He also wanted me to tell you that he likes "some of preschool." He is a fan of drawing and coloring, and he likes reading. But he hates counting because it is "boring."

On a personal note, he hadn't told me those details yet, but I found them funny because Bill always hated numbers and math too—while I always liked them. I see more of Bill in him every day, and I'm grateful for that—that Bill will go on in our son.

Oh—and Jase also wanted you to know that he does have a best friend. Actually, he has two, one "cat and one human." (His wording, not mine—LOL.)

FYI: The human's name is Jessica, and she's a cute redhead who seems to have a crush on Jase. The other is one of the kittens we recently got, a boy cat Jase named "Sarge." He does not like our girl cat, "Pepper"—nor does he know why I named her that.

Well—that's all Jase had to report this time. But—like I said—he did enjoy your letter very much. He also colored you a picture (enclosed). He loves green, so get ready for a lot of it.

Keep yourself safe, Lieutenant.

Sookie

I found myself smiling as I opened the second envelope to find a page from a coloring book. The picture on the side that had been colored was of a T-Rex. Jase had, indeed, colored it green. And at the bottom in the writing of a five-year-old were the words, "To Eric."

I quickly found some tape and put the drawing up next to the three pictures on my wall. One was Pam's current school year photo. The second was a copy of the same fishing picture I'd sent to Jase. And the third was the picture I'd kept of Jase and Sookie.

I stared at the coloring and the pictures for a while, letting myself enjoy them. It was nice to have those things on my wall, things that made me feel like a person beyond the soldier.

But—of course—the soldier had work to do, so I got to it.

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A/N: I swear, whenever I work on this story, I always get a little teary-eyed. It's this Eric. He tugs at my heart. Anyway, thanks to those of you who are commenting on this story. I appreciate the feedback, especially since I know that ALL-HUMAN stories aren't a lot of people's cup of tea in the TB/SVM world. Anyway, keep those comments coming if you have the time and the inclination. Hopefully, I will be back with this week's second chapter on Friday or Saturday.

Best,

Kat

Chapter Text

Chapter 05: Detachment

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NOTE: This chapter picks up approximately 3 years after the previous.

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Baghdad, Iraq • January 25, 2008

Eric POV

Pretty much, I'd been on constant deployment for so long that I'd actually slipped up and called Iraq "home" once when I'd been on the phone with Pam. Oh—it wasn't that I wanted to stay there—not necessarily. It was just that I'd managed to keep the same room for almost a year now. And—since I didn't have a place Stateside, that room was really the closest thing I had to "home."

Pam, now seventeen and very particular about everything, especially fashion, didn't understand how an undecorated tiny room could be anyone's home. But, then again, she was used to a mansion and stables. I was proud of her; she was now competing in Equestrian events and winning pretty much any contest she entered.

In fact, according to Edward Ravenscroft, she was likely on a path to the Olympics; I couldn't help but to think it was ironic that my father, Appius, had wanted me to be on that path, though with my swimming.

It was also ironic that Baghdad was about as far away from the water as I could get. I'd not even been in a pool for more than three years!

On my last leave, I'd gone to London and had been able to catch one of Pam's Equestrian events. She really did look regal when she was riding a horse. And, other than the usual angst and "growing pains," she seemed really happy, too—though she didn't have a lot of time for her big brother. That was okay with me; I was just glad I'd had a bit of time with her.

And she had a better family now—after all. Edward Ravenscroft had married a woman named Felicia, and Pam loved her. Felicia had a daughter from a previous marriage, who was close to Pam's age, and the two got along really well. In addition, Felicia had given Pam a brother two years before, one that would be able to stay in her life.

I had to admit that I'd had moments of jealousy. And I'd been initially quite upset when Pam told me that she'd decided to change her last name from Northman to Ravenscroft, but I didn't let her hear my disappointment. After all, that disappointment was pretty fucking irrational of me. Pam wasn't really a Northman—since Appius wasn't her biological father. And her memories of both of our parents had become hazy.

At her request, we'd cut our weekly phone calls down to bimonthly. I got the feeling that even those were chores to her sometimes. Oh—I knew that she loved me, but she really did have a different life than the one we'd shared in California. She even spoke with a British accent now, having developed it over time. Truth be told, I think that Edward was the one who made sure that Pam kept me as a part of her life. Every time I had leave, in fact, he made sure to let me know that I was welcome for a visit. And Pam and I did have some fun times together during those visits, too. But she was growing up—almost grown up—and I often wondered how long she'd really have room for a brother she hardly ever saw. Still, I knew I'd keep up the communication on my end for as long as possible.

I had so few people in my life that I refused to give up one of them.

To be truthful—I actually did have a lot of people in my life—a lot of people I was responsible for. But most of them were under my command. I'd somehow made Captain, thanks mostly to my willingness to stay in Iraq past the time when my Platoon was sent home. In fact, the Marines had made Baghdad my official duty station, and I worked to train each new Platoon that arrived in-country. In addition, I helped to oversee the training of Iraqi soldiers so that—theoretically—the Coalition forces would be able to completely withdraw and leave the Iraqis to govern themselves sooner rather than later.

Of course, I knew that would be easier said than done. There was still a lot of unrest in the area as various groups tried to fill the power vacuums left behind by years of dictatorship followed by years of conflict. Regardless, I liked my current position, and I excelled in it—thus the promotion.

I looked at my wall, which was now full of colorings and drawings from Jase, to whom I still wrote twice a month and phoned once a week (when possible). He was doing really well in school. At eight, he already had a huge vocabulary, and his writing was quite advanced. Since he tended to write notes on the pictures his sent, I could easily see how his handwriting was changing as quickly as he was growing.

Being his uncle truly was the most important role I'd ever been given. And I appreciated Sookie for never taking away that connection, despite the fact that she'd moved on to have a serious relationship with another man, a contractor named Alcide Herveaux. I rarely spoke with Sookie, though she wrote me an occasional note included with one of Jase's letters, usually just telling me to be safe. From speaking with Jase, however, I knew that he was beginning to see Alcide as his new father figure.

In my more selfish moments, that thought troubled me, for I wondered how long it would be before Jase realized that—with a "new dad" around all the time with whom to do more tangible things than talk on the phone or exchange letters—he no longer needed an "Uncle Eric."

As with Pam, though, I had determined to take advantage of whatever connection I could get with Jase.

For as long as I could get it.

I guess a big part of me really did believe that I was just destined to lose those whom I loved. And I found myself wondering if there would ever be more for me.

Since Bill's death, I had been seeing a psychologist who'd been stationed in Baghdad. Mainly, he helped soldiers to deal with milder forms of PTSD. And I know I dealt with that too; indeed, I often woke up from nightmares in which I was trying to put Bill back together again so that his family could open the fucking casket at his funeral! I never succeeded.

Nightmares about Rasul had been added as well. He'd been seriously injured in Afghanistan—two tours ago. I'd been happy to be serving with him again—as I'd not served with anyone from my old Platoon for a long time. But then we'd gotten the assignment to clear a particularly complex cave system. He'd lost one of his legs and had spent a long time at Walter Reed. I closed my eyes, trying to shut out the image of him bleeding out from a land mine explosion. I was using anything I could to make tourniquets to slow down the bleeding while we waited for helicopter evac. And—when he stopped breathing—I gave him CPR. My C.O. later told me that I'd saved his life. But I knew that any Marine would have done what I did for his brother.

So—yes—there was plenty to fuel my nightmares.

In addition to my mild PTSD, I also found myself dealing more and more with issues of abandonment—issues I'm sure I first developed as a child. It wasn't even so much my parents' deaths that had screwed me up either. It was that they'd never seemed to love me at all. It was losing my sister. And it was losing Bill.

It was the fear of losing Pam yet again—and irrevocably. It was the fear of Jase no longer wanting me in his life.

In therapy, I'd learned that a lot of my insecurities stemmed from my knowledge that my parents left me to no one when they died.

Knowing that I was saved from an orphanage only because I'd turned eighteen only days before my parents' death—because there was literally no one in the whole fucking world who would have wanted me—had fucked me up. And, of course, it was hard for me to trust anyone because I knew that a simple letter could yank a person away—just as the letter my mother had left for me took Pam away.

A letter could, ironically, give me a lot too—as Bill's letter had "given" me Jase in a way.

And a letter could offer a lot of comfort too—as did Jase's letters to me. He didn't write twice a month, as I did, but I could count on a new letter at least once every other month. The phone calls were made once a week though, and—as it was Saturday at the "usual time"—I set up my computer for Skyping.

"Hi, Uncle Eric!" Jase said excitedly as soon as the call connected.

"Hey, big man," I smiled. "What's been happening this week?" I asked. It was my usual opening, and Jase generally took the question and ran with it.

That day was no exception. His biggest topics related to a fishing trip he'd taken with Alcide and Alcide's dad Jackson, his cats' antics, and Jessica's attempt to kiss him—with her "cooties on her mouth and everything!"

He'd outrun her, apparently. And she'd promised not to try it again.

As usual, I let him do most of the talking, only asking questions to get more details about his life. Plus, I figured Jase would like getting asked questions; they showed him that I was really listening—really valuing what he had to say.

My own father had not been an emotionally available person. But I remembered vividly one occasion when he actually asked me about things I liked. And he seemed to do so sincerely. As I looked back, I couldn't recall getting any real outward affection from my father, but that one conversation—I'd been about twelve when we'd had it—was the best memory I had of Appius Livius Ocella-Northman. Sadly, nothing had really come out of it. By the time I was twelve, it had been drilled and beaten into me that my priorities were swimming and studying. Everything else was superfluous and punishable. So I'd had nothing to tell me father about what I liked, other than liking when I met my swimming goals and that I hoped to teach Pam how to swim one day.

Despite not having much to tell my father, I had longed for more such talks, but they'd never occurred, nor would they now. It made my heart ache to know that Jase wouldn't get to have that kind of thing with his daddy—not even once. So I tried my best to help him know that someone was listening.

Eventually, Jase asked me how my own week had been.

I always told him child-appropriate versions of the things I'd done—focusing on little tidbits about the training I was helping to conduct or the language that I was learning. Though Jase had never met Pam, of course, I would also share stories about what she'd been up to since I really didn't have much of a personal life of my own.

And, finally, I would always tell him a story about his father. Often, I would spend the entire week thinking of the perfect one to relay.

Jase was just getting ready to end the call when he seemed to remember something.

"Hey, Uncle Eric! Momma said that she wanted to talk to you real quick."

"Oh—uh—sure, Jase," I said, a little surprised. Sookie rarely appeared during Jase and my phone calls. She did so right when we were first beginning to Skype, so that she could make sure all the technical things were working right. And she would sometimes "pop by" around holidays, like Thanksgiving and Christmas to wish me well. She and Jase still sent me a birthday card as well.

I always enjoyed seeing her. But it was a surprise when she sat down a couple of minutes later with Jase not in sight.

"Hello Lieutenant Northman," she greeted with a courteous smile.

"It's Captain now, Ma'am," I said with a little nod of my head.

"Congratulations," she said, her smile widening until there were little crinkles next to her eyes. Having studied facial expressions so that I'd be a better interrogator when called upon, I'd learned that those crinkles meant that she was truly happy for me.

"Thank you," I smiled back.

She was silent for a moment, her smile fading as she looked at me more closely than I think she ever had before. Though as beautiful as always, she looked apprehensive and sad. I couldn't help but to wonder if seeing me reminded her of the husband she'd lost.

I felt my worry growing as she still didn't speak.

"Jase said you needed to speak with me, Ma'am?" I prompted.

"Yeah," she sighed. "I—uh—well, I've become engaged."

I smiled and nodded. "Congratulations, Ma'am. Jase likes Mr. Herveaux very much. I hope you and he will be very happy together."

"That's nice of you to say. Moving on—after Bill—well, it's been hard. I hope you don't think this means I love Bill any less," she stammered a little.

"Of course not," I assured. "He would have wanted you to be happy."

"I am," she said, her face conveying that happiness for a moment. "Alcide's a good man—stable and kind. And he thinks the world of Jase. He knows he can't replace Bill in his life, but—uh—he does want Jase to—uh—count on him for things. To come to him with his issues. And—uh . . . ." Her voice caught a bit. "I feel horrible for doing this," she said almost to herself, looking down. "I mean—you're the reason why Jase had an easier time after Bill died," she added softly, "but—uh . . . ." This time, when her voice caught, she stopped talking.

I hated seeing her so unsure of herself—so sad when moments earlier her happiness had been shining through.

Bill had asked me to help her with whatever she needed. So I would help her get through what she was doing, and then I'd let myself feel the pain of it.

"Ma'am, do you need me to back off of my contact, or stop altogether? I would prefer not doing the latter—since it might hurt Jase. But I understand that you need for Mr. Herveaux to step into the father role," I said, not being able to prevent the emotion of loss seeping into my tone just a little.

"I can't help but to think it's not fair to ask you to do either, but Alcide really wants Jase to look at him like he's a," she paused, "dad. And right now, that's how Jase looks at you."

"Jase is a good kid. He deserves a good dad, and I'm sure Mr. Herveaux will be one."

Sookie shook her head. "I really can't thank you enough for understanding. If it were up to just me, I'd let things go on as they are. But Alcide doesn't want things to get weird—like a competition between you two. And I don't want Jase to get confused."

"Understood, Ma'am," I said assuredly. "Just let me know what you need and the logistics." I paused for a moment. "I'll need to know how often I can write to him and/or call him. If at all, Ma'am."

"I don't think it'd be good for either of you to cut ties completely; I'm not sayin' that," Sookie declared quickly. "Jase is going to his grandparents' house in Annapolis for a couple of weeks, and that might be a good reason for y'all not to Skype then. I don't want Jase to feel like you've abandoned him or anything, but maybe try to taper off until you are Skyping only once a month or so? And—maybe do the same with the letters? I told Alcide I thought that a little less over time would be best, and he's agreed with that. And—uh—I know you won't mention the 'why' of things."

"No, Ma'am," I assured. "Mr. Herveaux's request is only natural, and I wouldn't want Jase being upset with him at all. I'll tell Jase that my duties have increased." I tried to give her a reassuring smile. "They have since I've been promoted, after all."

Sookie looked at me, her eyes showing both concern and pity.

"Ma'am, I'll start cutting back a little at a time until everyone's comfortable with the situation."

"What about you?" Sookie asked, her eyes brimming with what must have been tears.

I didn't want to see her cry.

I answered honestly, though I was hoping to make her feel better with my words. "I began to contact Jase because Bill asked it of me. However, despite that obligation and duty to Bill, I really do love your son as if he were my true nephew. I want what's best for him. And it has been an honor to be a part of his life—his uncle. As I understand your and Mr. Herveaux's wishes, Ma'am, I will get to retain that role, which I am extremely grateful for. However, Mr. Herveaux is right. Jase will no longer need for me to have such a prominent place in his world since he'll have a father-figure with him all the time. That will be better for Jase anyway—since letters and Skyping are the only things I can give. I just hope it's made a difference for Jase."

"It has," Sookie assured. "And I know that—because of you—he's been able to deal with a lot of his grief about Bill. You've also helped him with a lot of little things too. He's a good kid, Captain Northman, and some of what made him that way was talking things out with you. I'm sorry that's got to change."

"Don't be sorry that you've found happiness, Ma'am. It'll make Jase happier too," I said confidently. After all, I did believe my words. As much as they pained me, I knew they were true.

"I still feel really bad about all this," Sookie apologized.

"Don't feel bad," I said, mustering a little smile. "It's never been a burden for me to be involved in Jase's life, and I appreciate the opportunity to continue, even if it is in a smaller role."

Just then, the door opened and Jase poked his head in. "You done, Momma? Gran says we need to get goin' if we're gonna get to Merlotte's in time to meet Alcide at noon."

"Yeah, baby. I'll be right there," she said, looking back at me.

"Goodbye, Captain Northman. Stay safe—okay?" she said.

"Goodbye, Ma'am," I returned before hanging up the call.

I logged out of Skype and was glad that I'd invested in my own computer so that I could spend the next few moments in private. I got up and opened my window. It was a nice night, and—since the day had been so damned hot—everyone else was outside enjoying a bit of desert breeze. I could hear many of the men playing soccer. It sounded like they were having a good game.

I sat down heavily onto my rack and looked at the wall that boasted the only tangible signs that I had any family.

In truth, I'd always expected this kind of thing to happen. Sookie was young, after all. And no man would want to compete with her dead husband's best friend when it came to being Jase's father-figure.

I took out my phone and sent a quick text to the psychologist I'd been seeing. I knew I'd need an appointment before expected.

Going once more to my window, I watched the men and women in my Company playing. When Bill was alive, I would have joined in. Even after his death, I'd done similar things occasionally—when my old Platoon was still in Iraq. But—I didn't really know any of the men and women I served with on a personal level anymore. When there had been more troops stationed in Iraq, there would have been opportunities to meet up with others of my rank. But there was now only one Company where I was located, and I was its only Captain. That separated me from the others already.

And, of course, I held them all at arm's length, too.

I lay back on my rack, knowing that I needed to get some sleep while I could. It would be a long day of training the next day, and it would start at 0400. And—to protect those in my command as well as the Iraqis I worked with—I needed to be at my best.

Despite the huge lump I felt in my chest.

Being whatever I'd been to Jase for so long had been extremely important to me. My shrink had warned that allowing myself to "play a father's role" with Jase could come back to bite me. Like me, he'd also worried that I might be taken out of that role at any time.

Still, it had been worth it.

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Three Hours Later

Sookie POV

"I can't help but to feel bad, Alcide," I sighed, even as he took me in his arms.

"I know. And I feel bad that you did it for me," he returned.

"You have every right not to want to compete with Captain Northman," I said. "It's just a tough situation all the way around. Jase loves the captain. But he loves you, too," I said, smiling up at him. "Bill died when Jase was so young that his memories of him are now mostly from things Captain Northman's told him."

"And you're stuck between wanting to make sure that Jase knows about his father and wanting him to have a new one," Alcide said perceptively.

His perceptiveness was one of the many reasons I loved him.

I'd met Alcide only a few months after Bill had died. The roof had started leaking—on a Friday night no less! I'd gotten Alcide's dad's name from my father-in-law, William, ironically enough. Of course, nothing had happened with Alcide for a long time. I'd been beaten up about Bill—mourning him at night when Jase was asleep and I didn't have to be so strong.

Herveaux and Son Contracting Company—with Alcide leading the team—had fixed the roof quickly. In truth, I hadn't even been in the frame of mind to notice how attractive Alcide was at the time.

It wasn't until a pipe burst in the upstairs bathroom a year later that I noticed. And boy did I notice! It was as if he had turned back on my heart—and my smile.

In a lot of ways, Alcide was my first "grown-up" relationship. Bill and I got together when we were quite young. We dreamed together, and we did live together as grown-ups for a while, but—with Bill being gone so often—it wasn't the same as a "normal" couple. For example, I had always hidden some of the harder parts of life from Bill so that he didn't have to worry while he was deployed. And—when he was home—the last thing I wanted to do was have a disagreement over something like the toilet seat being left up!

On the other hand, Alcide and I disagreed often, but not seriously. He made me feel safe and secure. And I knew he loved me. I loved him too—differently from Bill, to be sure, but it was love. In fact, my love for Alcide was more honest in some ways than my love for Bill had been.

I'd been surprised to realize that I could love two men at once on the day that I knew for certain that I loved Alcide and still loved Bill. But I'd gotten used to the feeling.

I guess Gran was right—as she was about so many things—about a heart always having room to love just one more person.

And Alcide was ready, willing, and excited to be Jase's father. He was great with him, in fact! Of course, things were complicated a bit by the fact that Alcide couldn't father children of his own, due to an accident he'd had as a child. I'd worried for a time that Alcide was so interested in me because he saw the situation as an opportunity to be a father.

Gran had been the one to set me straight about that insecurity. She'd told me that—given Alcide's situation—he really was perfect for both me and Jase. She advised that his situation was actually a sign that he and I were meant to be together. Alcide would always appreciate Jase in a profound way. But that didn't mean he didn't love me. Jase and I were both lucky to have found him.

Of course, Jase had found a father-figure in Eric Northman long before I began dating Alcide. In truth, I'd been quite surprised when Lieutenant—I mean, Captain—Northman turned out to be so solid and dependable a presence in Jase's life. In fact, though I'd never shared the thought out loud with anyone, Eric Northman had been a better communicator with Jase than Bill had ever been when he'd been deployed.

Eric's letters came like clockwork, always thoughtfully written and seemingly just what Jase needed at any given time. At first, Jase had needed me to read them to him, but—after a while—Jase had pushed himself with his own reading skills, just so that he'd be able to read the letters himself.

Who was I to complain that an added bonus of Captain Northman's contact was that my son dove headfirst into his schooling, outpacing his class members by leaps and bounds without any prodding from me?

Not long after I'd offered the captain my formal permission to contact Jase, he'd begun Skyping him, too—once a week, again like clockwork, unless he was on a mission of some kind. I mostly left them to what my son called "man talk," but I'd heard them from time to time.

I knew, for example, that Captain Northman had been the one to encourage Jase not to complain about doing his chores when Jase had had one of his little "rebellions" about cleaning out the litter box. And Captain Northman had talked to my son in a crafty way too; he'd asked Jase to make a list of all the chores that I had and then to compare them to the list of chores that I'd asked for him to perform.

And then Captain had helped Jase to add things to my list, too. After that conversation, my little man rarely complained about raking leaves, drying dishes, or scooping out the litter box again.

On another occasion, Jase had been having trouble tying a special kind of knot for Boy Scouts. However—by the time a Skype session with Captain Northman was over—Jase had been an expert.

In so many ways, I'd counted on Captain Northman as almost a co-parent at times. And now I felt like I was dismissing him for an in-the-flesh man. No—it didn't seem fair, but looking at Alcide as he concentrated on fixing a hinge that was damaged in a cabinet in the shed, I knew that it wouldn't be fair to Alcide if Captain Northman remained such a dominant presence in Jase's life. And it wouldn't be fair to Jase either. Already, Jase seemed to be struggling with guilt over the fact that he was beginning to love Alcide like he loved Captain Northman. And I knew that guilt would grow stronger once Jase began to love Alcide more than Captain Northman, which I figured would inevitably happen. After all, Alcide was around all the time and could take Jase fishing or to the water park. He could throw a ball around with Jase.

Alcide finished up his task. "You know I'm jealous as hell of what Northman has with Jase. For all intents and purposes, he's Jase's father, which is a role I want," he admitted with a sigh. "But you know I'm willing to keep things going like they are—right? In the end, I just want what's best for Jase."

I shook my head. "I know. But you were right about it being wrong to put Jase in a position where he'll be torn between you and Captain Northman. Did you know that he felt the need to hold back about how much fun he had with you at the football game—just because Captain Northman couldn't go?" I sighed loudly. "I'll never make Jase cut ties with the captain. After all, it's what Bill wanted, and Captain Northman will make sure that Jase really gets to know about his father, but lowering the amount of contact will help Jase to not get confused."

Alcide nodded in agreement. "I feel sorry for Northman," he said. "From what I can see, he loves Jase."

"That's why I feel like crap," I grumbled.

"Maybe this way, Northman will be more likely to start a family of his own?" Alcide suggested.

"I really hope so," I said sincerely. "Of course, it seems like the captain might be one of those guys that's really married to the Marine Corps."

"It does seem like it—given the fact that he's never left Iraq—not in all the time we've been together, at least."

I shrugged. "I think he has left—to visit his sister in England. But I do know that he's gone straight from one tour to the next, hardly ever taking leave. It's kind of sad that he doesn't have a life beyond the military," I added.

"He doesn't know what he's missing," Alcide smile softly before bending down to kiss me. It was a sweet kiss with just the right amount of passion promised in it.

When we broke apart, I turned the topic to Jase's reaction to Alcide and me getting engaged.

"I'm so glad Jase is so into us getting married," I grinned.

"Me too," Alcide returned. "And I'm really happy he's excited to be a groomsman."

"It was sweet of you to ask him that," I commented, rubbing his shoulder a bit.

"It's what I wanted," Alcide said sincerely.

As it was, Jase would be walking me down the aisle and then standing next to Alcide's best man during the service. I thought the arrangement was perfect for us. And I was glad that we weren't waiting long either.

I'd also been glad to have William and Sophie-Anne's support. They were both happy for me, and they continued to be a big presence in Jase's life, even traveling from Annapolis to Bon Temps every few months just to see him. This year would be the first that he would be spending several weeks without me in Maryland, and Jase was looking forward to having "just grandparents time" very much.

I'd been to Maryland only three times since Bill's funeral; Jase and I had gone for about a week at a time so that he'd get plenty of time with the Comptons. Jase and I would always go to Bill's grave to put flowers on it. And we'd also done a lot of sightseeing in Washington, D.C.—mostly with just Sophie-Anne since William was always working.

"What are you thinking?" Alcide asked when he noted the faraway look on my face.

"Just about William and Sophie-Anne—and how nice our phone call was. I was a little nervous telling them about our getting married, but they're bein' so supportive. Did I tell you that they really want to be here for it?"

"No," Alcide smiled, "but I'm not surprised. They treated me like family almost as soon as they met me a few months ago. It was," he paused, "unexpected. They could have resented me for stepping in to their son's life."

I sighed. "They know I'll always love Bill. Nothing could replace him. I'm thankful you never felt the need to try."

Alcide nodded and took me into his comforting arms. "I knew I couldn't—even if I wanted to."

As I nestled against Alcide's strong frame, I found myself once again thinking of Captain Northman. Wasn't I replacing him with Alcide—at least where Jase was concerned? Again, I felt immense guilt, but I didn't know what to do about it—except to put one foot in front of the next.

Just as I'd done every day since Bill had been killed.

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A/N: So—there was a 3-year time leap, and Sookie's found a new love. I hope you all aren't too mad at Sookie for her request to limit Eric and Jase's contact to keep her son from being torn. I tried to put myself in her shoes. I also tried to put myself into Alcide's shoes—already having to "compete" with the memory of Jase's father and also this idealized solider whom Jase admires so much. Yeah—I imagine this would be a hard situation all the way around. Still—the character I found most empathy with as I wrote was Eric, and my heart was still breaking for him at this time. This story is going to have these long time leaps occasionally. For one, the narrative needs to advance. Also, there are things that I didn't really feel the need to linger on for long—like Alcide and Sookie's courtship or Eric's continuous string of deployments. By the way, I don't fault Sookie in the least for moving on. And Eric isn't an immediate factor in her life at this time, so it's not like he's a viable choice for her. Alcide likely seems like a good partner for her. Of course, eventually this will be an E/S story. And there will be another time leap in the next chapter to get us closer to that occurrence. Anyway, thank you all so much for your support and comments on this story. I've been so pleasantly surprised by all the positive reactions!

Please keep them coming if you have the time and inclination to do so.

Best,

Kat

Chapter Text

Chapter 06: Surge

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NOTE: This chapter begins approximately two and a half years after the previous scene.

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Near Kabul, Afghanistan • Monday, June 7, 2010

Eric POV

"At ease," I told the group of assembled men as I entered the room. I would likely never get used to so many people standing at attention on account of me, but I supposed I'd earned their respect, just as I'd earned my rank. Immediately, the Marines sat down almost as one and focused their attention on the front of the room.

I carefully went over our next mission, spending most of my time showing the men and women under my command several maps of the cave systems north of Kandahar as we knew them—not that we knew enough. Hopefully, we knew just enough, however—to keep them alive.

I also walked them through how in-person searches of the seemingly endless caverns were fraught with peril. I showed them slides that depicted the kinds of booby traps we'd seen in the past, including the kind that took one of Rasul's legs from him.

I was known for my thorough planning sessions, and I knew that—if they had dared—a few of the greener Marines might have yawned through the litany of my reminders. But I didn't give a fuck what they thought. Those who'd been in Afghanistan for more than a couple of missions understood well that thoroughness saved lives and limbs.

When possible.

Those that didn't know that yet would know within the next couple of days, for our current mission was extremely dangerous and intricate.

A group of Taliban fighters had destroyed a school and threatened to do the same with any other that opened its doors to girls. Of course, I knew that such things were done to bring terror to the people in the towns the Taliban had controlled before "The Surge."

Afghanistan had been all but forgotten back in the States before President Obama and his advisors decided to up the ante with "The Surge." Personally, I'd been all for it—though the fighting in Kandahar the month before had been almost as bad as the fighting in Fallujah had been. The Marines, however, were still riding high from a string of small victories. So the losses we'd suffered had seemed worth it in a way.

To the others, at least.

I'd been calling Afghanistan "home" for almost eleven months. After my duties in Iraq were deemed over, I'd taken a month-long leave in London in order to spend part of the previous summer with Pam. I still hadn't returned to the States, and a part of me wondered if I ever would. In fact, I'd been thinking about—perhaps—asking to be permanently stationed at a U.S. Embassy in Europe somewhere. England, of course, would be ideal. However, I'd held off thus far because I didn't want to encroach upon Pam's life. She was an independent nineteen-year-old woman, after all.

I took a few questions from the men and women in front of me.

Like most of the missions I'd overseen in Afghanistan, the one in front of the Marines under my command would be fraught with danger, but I knew they'd be able to handle it. They always did.

After I was certain everyone was up to speed, I coordinated our drone support and then went to speak with our newest Afghani liaison. As had become my practice, I'd used what spare time I had to learn the most common dialects of the region I was stationed in. However, I still took a translator with me to speak with the liaison. Until I trusted him 110%, I would keep my own knowledge of the native languages close to my vest.

God knew that I'd "overheard" enough shady shit from so-called "local allies" before to know that their motives weren't always what they seemed. Of course, most of our local contacts were good people, but it was part of my job to know the few that weren't.

Once everything was in place for the mission, I retired to my quarters. My room was smaller than the one I'd enjoyed for my last tour in Iraq, but I had my own bathroom, which was nice. I glanced at my clock and waited to see if Jase would initiate a Skype call. As Sookie had asked, I'd cut back on communication with Bill's son, but we still spoke once a month or so—generally the first Saturday of each month, always at around 0900 his time. At eleven years old, Jase had been given the responsibility of initiating our phone calls. Much to my disappointment, he'd missed a couple during the last year. I just hoped that wasn't a harbinger of what was to come.

Usually, Jase would make up for a missed call by emailing and arranging for another time, but I couldn't help but to hope that he would call that day.

Some missions just gave me a bad feeling, and the upcoming one was doing just that. Not only would speaking with Jase settle my nerves a bit, but also I didn't like to think that I might get killed without speaking to him just one more time.

Always—just one more time.

I was happy when my computer let me know I had a call.

"Hi Jase," I smiled as I connected.

"I'm thinkin' about goin' by Jason. What do you think?" he asked excitedly—by way of a greeting. "I haven't talked to Momma about it yet, but I'm growin' up, and I think I might like 'Jason' more than 'Jase.' I'm just not 100% sure yet!"

I chuckled. "I think you should do what you want. But what brought this decision on?" I asked.

At that point, Jase—or "Jason" as I began to put my head around—launched into an explanation that included his wanting to have a more "grown-up name" and Jessica's preference for "Jason" over "Jase."

I listened intently, as always. Though Jason would have certainly denied it—since girls still had "cooties" to him—I knew that his "friend" Jessica was a powerful voice in his life.

He asked me to call him "Jason"—as a sort of trial. He wanted to see if he liked it before he talked to his mom and Mr. Herveaux about it. I agreed, of course. Jason always amused—and impressed—me with the processes he went through when he made an important decision.

"So—are you looking forward to your trip to see your grandparents?" I asked him after his explanation was over. He'd talked about the upcoming week-long vacation in Annapolis, Maryland the last time we'd spoken.

Immediately, his little face grew a worried expression. "I can't go now. Grandma had a stroke," he said sadly.

"I'm sorry to hear that, Jason. Is she gonna be okay?" I asked with concern. I'd always liked Bill's mother, Sophie-Anne, and she'd always seemed very healthy and vibrant.

He looked down. I could tell that he was sad and a little scared. "She had it four days ago, but she's still in the hospital. Momma says she'll be okay, but she started cryin' after she talked to Grandpa on the phone. She said somethin' about Grandma bein' paralyzed on one of her sides."

"That can happen with a stroke," I said softly. "But a lot of the time, the person that has a stroke can get a little better. It just takes some time."

"That's what Alcide said too," Jason sighed.

"Uncle Eric?" he said my name as a question.

"Yeah, Jason?"

"Speakin' of names and stuff, I've been kinda wantin' to ask Alcide if I can call him Dad? Do you think he'd let me?"

In that moment, I felt a stab of jealousy, but I was happy for Jason too. It was clear that he already thought of Alcide as his dad. It was also clear that he had a lot of love for the man.

"I'm sure he'd love it," I said, my throat tight.

Jason smiled brightly. "I think I'll ask him today or maybe this weekend. I'm goin' with him to one of his construction sites this afternoon, and he's gonna show me how to mix cement."

"That sounds like a lot of fun," I smiled back, trying to restrain my jealousy and focus on how glad I was that Jason had such a good man in his life.

His face fell a little again. "Do you think it's okay to have fun with Alcide when Grandma Sophie-Anne is so sick?"

"I'm sure she'd be glad that you're having fun," I reassured.

"That's what Alcide said," Jason returned with a nod.

"Well—Alcide is right," I reinforced. Whenever Jason brought up something Herveaux had told him, I always tried to bolster the thought. The last thing I wanted was to cause any waves by seeming to go against Jason's new father. I enjoyed the relationship I still maintained with Jason too much to do anything that might put it at risk.

Plus, I liked Alcide Herveaux himself. He'd made it a point to step into Skype calls now and then to chat with me, though he'd never stayed long, nor had he tried to monopolize them. It seemed that he was simply concerned about Jason's wellbeing and wanted to know the man who was providing a monthly influence over his stepson. Mr. Herveaux had not had the benefit of the many years of reading my letters to Jason that Sookie had had. Indeed, I didn't mind Mr. Herveaux's carefulness at all; I thought that it spoke to his overall competence as a father for Jason.

I think that, in getting to know me a bit, Mr. Herveaux felt more secure about his own position in Jase's life. And I felt more secure about my own, for—though my communication with Jase had been lowered—it had never been disrupted by Mr. Herveaux. In fact, during the couple of times that he and I had spoken when Jason had left the room for whatever reason, he'd been man enough to admit his own insecurities to me, which I felt was pretty damned brave on his part. Those insecurities seemed to have been brought on partly by the fact that he was unable to father children of his own. He'd also made sure that I knew that he wouldn't ever encourage Jason to stop communicating with me. I'd appreciated the assurances, and I'd believed the man who had made them.

With Sookie herself, our communication had remained quite limited. Adele Stackhouse had stepped into Skype calls quite a few times over the last several years, even initiating one with me without Jason being there. During that call, she'd told me how grateful she was for me being in Jason's life—and how grateful Sookie was too, though neither of them had done a good enough job of showing that. Adele shared with me that Sookie was truly scared of me on an emotional level that she'd never openly acknowledged—not even to her own grandmother. According to Mrs. Stackhouse, I reminded Sookie of Bill and her brother Jason because I wore a uniform that put me in danger on a daily basis. Seeing me brought her losses into the forefront of her mind. Still, Adele wanted me to know that Sookie often spoke of the contributions I made to Jason's life.

I'd thanked Mrs. Stackhouse for her kind words and explanations, but—truth be told—I hadn't needed them. On an intrinsic level that I couldn't quite explain, I understood Sookie, and I felt that she "got" me in a fundamental way, too. First and foremost, she seemed to understand instinctively that I would never do anything to harm her son. Maybe that was because she trusted Bill's assessment of me. Maybe it was because of the few times she and I had spoken on the phone during and right after Bill's life. Maybe it was the fact that she'd understood my motives from my first letter to her following Bill's death—and my many letters to Jason.

Indeed, during the first few years of my interactions with Jase, I intuited that Sookie had come to know everything she needed to know about me from my letters to her son. Given my relative inexperience with relationships, it had comforted me to know that—if she'd thought them to be even a little damaging to Jase—she would have simply stopped reading them to him. Moreover, during those early years, she had needed to write Jason's responses to me—at least, until his writing grew strong enough. In Sookie's letters on Jason's behalf, there had been a lot to read between the lines. In the subtext, she'd made clear that she valued me in her child's life, but could never allow herself to become too "friendly" with me because she couldn't withstand the constant worry that she would endure for a soldier if she did come to care about me, beyond a casual level. Up to that time in her life, she'd had a soldier to worry about for years: first her brother Jason and then Bill. And her worry had been—unfortunately—well-founded. They'd both been killed in action.

I was well aware that I could be killed in action.

Plus, in one of her letters written for Jason—one where she'd let quite a bit of herself slip in by the end—she'd "joked" that she was somehow a jinx. The joke had been of the variety that conveyed more guilt than mirth. I couldn't imagine why she would feel that her love or friendship could jinx anyone, but I couldn't begrudge her feelings either, for I wasn't in her shoes. During her young life, I knew of four people she'd lost—losses that had occurred when those people had been far away from her. Her parents, as I understood from Bill, had drowned while on a vacation in the Caribbean. Her brother had died in Kosovo, one of the few U.S. soldiers to suffer that fate in that warzone in the late 90's. And, of course, Bill had died in Iraq. I figured that Sookie must have felt powerless each time—far away from those whom she'd lost and unable to tell them goodbye.

Thus, Sookie just couldn't afford to invest her heart into the wellbeing of another person halfway around the earth from her.

I never blamed her for that. After all, I was like her in a way. My own reticence about investing my heart in relationships was likely what made me hold back my true affection from the soldiers around me. Losing Bill had made me keenly aware of what it felt like to have one's heart gutted with grief. Could I blame Sookie for not wanting to know me better—for sparing herself more potential grief? For wanting—at least, on a subconscious level—to spare her child from becoming too dependent upon and attached to someone at such risk?

No—I couldn't.

Because—yes—I "got" her. I recognized that we were the same in the sense that we knew the value in guarding the heart, though I envied her for being brave enough to put herself out there with Alcide.

And I "missed" her—what little I'd gotten of her—from when she would insert herself, though in a limited way, into Jason's letters. Jason's learning to write well so that he could take up the task of writing to me had been great, but I did sometimes pull out the ones Sookie had written, just to enjoy them again.

Jason, who had been in silent thought—just like myself—for a while, recaptured my attention. "Since I'm not goin' to see Grandma and Grandpa, Alcide's takin' me campin' with Aunt Hadley's kid either this weekend or the one after that," he reported. "Hey, maybe I'll wait to ask Alcide if I can call him 'Dad" until then," he mused.

Again, I felt a quick jab of emotional pain, but I covered it up. The last thing Jason needed was to feel guilty for his own feelings.

"Hadley's son is named Hunter—right?" I asked. I knew that Hadley was actually Sookie's cousin, but that Jason called her his aunt. Jason had also talked about Hunter from time to time; the boy was almost exactly two years older than Jason was, and Jason looked up to him a bit.

"Yeah. We're goin' to Gramps's cabin at the lake."

I nodded. Gramps was Alcide Herveaux's father, Jackson. And I knew that the lake being referred to was Cross Lake.

I listened as Jason told me the other things that had been going on in his life. Then, as usual, I offered him a bit about my own comings and goings before ending with a story about Bill. The one I chose related to something Bill had once told me about fishing at Cross Lake and seeing an alligator there. Jason listened excitedly.

We hung up 52 minutes after the call began. But I found myself already looking forward to the next one.

My newest shrink, Dr. Avery, had floated the idea that I should have close relationships beyond the ones I shared with my sister and Jason, which—I couldn't deny—were mostly phone relationships. I had been trying. Indeed, I'd developed some casual friendships over time with fellow soldiers beyond Rasul and Clancy, with whom I still kept in touch via letters. Clancy, now living in Philadelphia, worked as a mechanic, and his wife was due to have their first child in November. Rasul, because he spoke Arabic, was currently stationed at the Pentagon as a translator. He was doing well, considering the loss of his leg; he'd reconnected with his high school sweetheart, and the two were living together in D.C.

In addition to trying to develop casual friendships where I could, I'd had romantic encounters too—even having a brief "relationship" with a woman in London for most of the month I was there. And there had been a woman in Iraq too—Thalia—a reporter for the Associated Press who was assigned to Baghdad for an extended period of time. I'd enjoyed spending time with her; she was smart and knew a lot more about certain places in the world than I did. And she was fearless, sometimes wanting to go to places that weren't quite stable enough to afford guaranteed security. And I couldn't lie and say that I didn't enjoy the sexual intimacy I'd shared with her.

I had not loved her though—just as she'd not loved me. So, when she'd gotten reassigned, we'd parted amicably, agreeing to move on.

Or—at least—move elsewhere.

Of course, it was somewhat difficult to really be friends with men and women of a lower rank than myself. I was in a position of power over them, and—for better or for worse—that meant that I could never fully be myself with them, just as my superiors couldn't be themselves with me. So—yeah—I recognized myself as being a lonely man. But I knew other Marines who had very little beyond the Corps, too.

I lay down on my rack, knowing I likely wouldn't be getting any more decent shuteye until the upcoming mission was over. I looked over at my nightstand. The picture I'd taken from Bill's things—the one of Sookie and Jason—was now framed and sitting on the little table, along with Jason's most recent school picture and a picture of Pam and me that had been taken the previous summer. She'd grown into a beautiful young woman, and there was an air of confidence and ease about her that she might never have developed if she'd spent all of her childhood years with our mother and Appius. Through my counseling sessions, I'd come to acknowledge that they were cold—closed off.

Shitty parents, really.

I was glad they'd been better to Pam, but I knew her life with Edward Ravenscroft included something Freyda and Appius Northman couldn't have possibly offered her: love and real acceptance.

A part of me wanted—perhaps desperately—to believe that my mother, at least, had loved me. She'd left me a letter of explanation with her Will, after all. And she'd been sorry that Ravenscroft couldn't take me in as well. Plus, she'd left me some life insurance money, which had helped me to hold on to the Long Beach house for as long as I chose to.

As for Appius? Well—I suspected he'd never quite grown the ability to love anything beyond himself.

Yes—Pam was lucky. Edward Ravenscroft was a good father, and he'd encouraged my sister to express herself and pursue the things she enjoyed.

Jason, too, was extremely lucky. I could tell that Sookie fostered his interests. And Alcide Herveaux had clearly been an excellent influence and role model.

As for me? Well—I'd been lucky enough to make it through more than a decade of intense military service. And that was nothing to take for granted.

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Wednesday, June 23, 2010 • 18:30 Hours / 7:30 p.m. (approximately 2 weeks later)

I was tired—dog tired. The initial mission, to take out a group of Taliban who were hiding in caves north of Kandahar had almost resulted in the loss of most of my Marines, not to mention me. It seemed I'd been right to doubt our new liaison, whom I'd discovered trying to convey information about our position to the very people we were trying to capture or kill. At the last minute, we'd had to scrap our specific plans since we didn't know how much our so-called guide had already shared with the Taliban. However, we were still ordered to take the caves.

Had it been up to me, I would have waited a while—since the enemy pretty much knew that we were on our way. But I was overruled by those above me. Hell—even my current C.O., Colonel Russell Edgington, had been overruled by one General or another! In executing our quickly-put-together revised plan of attack, three of my men were separated from the rest of their Squad, and—I feared—captured. Inconveniently, the enemy had set up equipment around the cave systems that fucked with our communications.

In the end, the lost men were recovered, just a bit worse for wear, but one member of the Platoon, a redhead that looked about sixteen years old named Jetson O'Malley had been killed in action. Two others were badly injured by a trip wire.

My superiors were pleased, however, because the mission goals had been accomplished with what they deemed to be "minimal losses."

I scoffed. I'd spoken to O'Malley's dad in Boston. Minimal loss my ass!

Still—I knew it could have been worse. Hell! I'd been in worse situations more times than I wanted to count.

Finally, after about eight hours of debriefing and taking care of the call to the O'Malleys, I had time to go back to my room.

However, I was caught on my way there by an out-of-breath Corporal, whom I'd never seen before.

"Captain Northman?" she panted out.

"Yes," I confirmed.

She nodded. "I've been looking for you since you've been back, Sir."

"I've been debriefing," I responded. I didn't tell her that I had been with the CIA in an undisclosed location. After all, most of the soldiers had no idea that there were U.S. spies all over the fucking war zone, feeding us information and—in turn—getting fed information back.

Having a good eye for detail, I'd been able to map out a good deal of the caves and tunnel systems we'd just cleared, as well as point out some passages that we'd not had the opportunity to explore once we'd rounded up everyone we'd been sent to capture or kill.

"Sir, it's your family. There's been an emergency, and I've been asked to give you this," she said, handing me a folded piece of paper.

My heart dropped as I took the sheet and opened it. Could life be so fucking cruel as to allow harm to come to my sister—even as she was "safe" in London and I was traipsing through caves with trip wires all over the fucking place?

When I looked at the note, it had only a name and a phone number on it: Amelia Broadway 555-318-1674. I looked up at the Corporal, "This is a Stateside number. My sister is in London."

"I'm sorry, Sir. I was just told to give you that and tell you that it was a matter of great importance that you contact that person ASAP. Sorry I don't know more."

I gave her a brief salute to signal that she could leave and then hurried the rest of the way to my room, wondering who the hell Amelia Broadway was.

And then it hit me. 555 was Jason and Sookie's area code too!

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A/N: Well—another long time leap! And a cliffhanger. Are you as worried as Eric is?

Many of you commented last time about how you were miffed at Sookie and/or Alcide for their treatment of Eric. I very much enjoyed your comments! I definitely wanted to show the flaws in all of the characters in this story. It makes things more "human." Also, I wanted to carry on some of the character traits we see in the books: Alcide's territorial behavior and Sookie's propensity for not dealing with matters that involve Eric. In my heart of hearts, I think that she is somewhat attracted to him (even in the "now" of this story)—from his pictures (we know that Bill sent her at least one with Eric in it from her focusing on it for a minute at Bill's funeral) and/or letters and/or brief phone/Skype interactions. And I think she wouldn't have wanted to acknowledge any "care/attraction" she had for him. Also, a lot of you gave Sookie a really hard time for letting Jase interact with Eric without really monitoring that. This is where—I'm afraid—the time leap might have undermined my intentions. To, perhaps, clarify—when Jase was younger—for the years right after Bill died—Sookie both read and responded (for Jase) to Eric's letters. And I imagine that she would have monitored phone calls and shared a few words with Eric during phone calls, especially when Jase was 5-7ish years old. And—of course—we know from her thoughts a few chapters ago—that she monitored Jase's Skype calls with Eric enough to know that he'd taught her son certain things (a lesson about chores, for example). Anyway, I wanted to make clear that Sookie did (and does) monitor Jase's interactions with Eric—at least enough to be sure that Eric wasn't/isn't some kind of creep. Gran and Alcide, too, did this. And, of course, Jase never showed any signs of negative effects from his interactions with Eric. Anyway, I wanted to clear that up. As far at the criticism of Sookie for cutting down Eric's interactions with Jase to one call a month (rather than one call a week) and just one letter a month, I understand—and, to a certain extent, agree with you, especially since she acknowledged that she'd absorbed Gran's lesson—that the heart always had room for more love. However, one of Sookie's major flaws in the books (show) was that she could NEVER seem to apply her positive life beliefs in Eric's direction. Of course, in the above chapter, Eric acknowledges that—and attributes it to her fear, which I think also motivated her in the books/show (until CH seemed to scrap both her and Eric's previous characterizations in the last several books). Anyway, this long note is meant to be a big THANK YOU for reading, reacting, and (hopefully) responding.
All my best,

Kat

Chapter Text

Chapter 07: The Line of Duty

Near Shreveport, Louisiana • Wednesday, June 23, 2010 • 7:50 a.m./0750 hours

Amelia POV

Tara and I had been silent as we drove the first twenty minutes from Bon Temps to Shreveport. It was early, not yet 8:00 a.m., and I knew that she was as tired as I was. We'd both pretty much put our lives on hold since the previous Friday night.

The days since then had been horrible—unthinkable.

From what the police said, the SUV that Alcide was driving was first hit from behind, but at an angle—not far away from where we were driving on the Interstate that very second. The impact of the rear collision, propelled the SUV out of its lane, where a stone divider was present. The SUV had hit the divider and then somehow spun around before careening back into the other lanes of traffic.

There had been an eighteen-wheeler waiting.

The tire marks had told the Louisiana Highway Patrol that Alcide had made a valiant effort trying to keep the SUV under control as well as to avoid the Semi, but even a professional stunt driver wouldn't have survived the situation. Ultimately, the SUV had taken a full-frontal impact from the Semi-truck. Though the airbags had deployed in the SUV, the vehicle's front end was crushed before it flipped onto its side and then was partially sandwiched between the Semi and—ironically enough—a tow truck that had been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The SUV became a pretzel of twisted metal.

In a split second, Alcide and his father, Jackson, who'd been in the front seat, were killed, both of them basically crushed as the SUV was forced somewhat under the front of the Semi. Sookie and Adele were in the middle seat. Adele died before the jaws of life could open the shell of the vehicle to pull her out—the victim of massive internal injuries that would have killed her anyway. According to the officer I'd talked to, she'd been—thankfully—unconscious the whole time.

Sookie's right leg had broken badly. And her back, too, was fractured though the doctors didn't think she was paralyzed. She'd also had a severe head injury and some internal injuries. She'd already undergone three surgeries and was still in a coma. The doctors now gave her about a 50-50 chance of pulling through.

The boys, Jase and Hunter, had been in the back seat, likely talking about their upcoming camping adventure at Cross Lake with the Herveaux men. They were planning to start that adventure the next day. When the accident happened, the family had been on the way to Shreveport to enjoy dinner and a movie.

Hunter was the least injured in the car, having not been on the side of the initial hit and being in the back of the car so that he avoided the direct frontal hit. Still—he had gotten a concussion, whiplash, and a badly broken arm.

Jase had been roughed up much worse. His severe concussion had precipitated the doctors having to relieve pressure on his brain through surgery. He'd also suffered a broken left femur, four broken ribs, a collapsed lung, and what the doctors called a minor bruise to the heart. Arguably, his worst injury had been to his right leg, which had been basically twisted around metal as the SUV had turned onto its side and skidded on the pavement. The doctors hadn't been able to save all of that leg, needing to amputate it from right below the knee. But against all odds, Jase was stable, even waking up the previous day—scared, confused, and extremely groggy.

I sighed. The driver who'd caused the initial accident had been drunk. He'd stumbled out of his truck without a fucking scratch, though he'd been marched away in handcuffs, having killed three people! I, for one, hoped that the devil had his way with the man one day! The Semi driver who hit Alcide's SUV head-on had been pulling a heavy load that had been difficult to maneuver. In trying to avoid the SUV, his truck had jack-knifed. He'd suffered a minor concussion and some serious lacerations as he'd tried to personally get into the SUV to help the family he'd inadvertently hit.

The tow-truck driver ended up with a bad bang to the head and some broken ribs, but he'd be okay.

I had met the Semi trunk driver before he'd been released from the hospital the day before; I'd been able to tell that his unfounded guilt and the horror of the scene would eat at him for a while—maybe for the rest of his life.

In rushing to the hospital the night of the accident—after being the first person in Sookie's phone's contact list who'd answered when the police were trying to locate next of kin—I had passed the mangled remains of the SUV at the side of the road. Had the vehicle been a sedan like the one I had been driving—or the one I was riding in at the current moment—no one in the car would have survived. That thought caused me to shiver.

"You okay?" Tara asked.

I nodded, not being able to talk at that moment without crying.

I had called Tara as soon as I'd arrived at the hospital and learned how bad everything was. My husband, Tray Dawson (I'd chosen not to take his last name since it had been such a pain to change my name from Carmichael to Broadway several years before), wasn't in the state at the time. Tray was in the Air Force Reserves and had been in Oklahoma City for some training. I'd called Tara because I couldn't wait at the hospital alone without going crazy. And, of course, I'd told the police to call Hadley, too. But she and Remy were—rightly—focused on Hunter once they arrived at the hospital.

I needed help dealing with what was going on with Sookie and Jase, who were both in the surgical part of the intensive care wing, while Hunter was in a regular room. Plus, I needed someone to help hold me up and to cry with over Alcide and Jackson.

And Sookie and Jase.

And Gran.

Feeling my throat burning, I stifled my tears as I thought about the woman who'd practically been my grandmother, too.

Between Tara and me, there had already been a lot of tears.

Of course, right after I'd called her the night of the accident, Tara had immediately come to the hospital with her husband JB—not that I was surprised. For as long as I could remember, Sookie, Tara, and I had been close friends. Gran had called us the Three Musketeers.

"Actually, no. I'm not okay," I chuckled ruefully as soon as I found the ability to speak.

"Me neither," Tara said, shaking her head and then taking my hand for a moment before putting hers firmly back onto the steering wheel.

We'd all been a little afraid of driving—and a lot more careful—since the accident.

Tara and I had been coming to Shreveport General Hospital to sit with Jase and Sookie as much as possible since the accident—which pretty much translated into the beginning of visiting hours until we got kicked out at night. Things were more complicated for Tara since she was six months pregnant and had a store—Tara's Togs—to run. I had more free time—since I was a freelance editor—but I couldn't be in two rooms at once, and they couldn't put Jase and Sookie into the same room yet. Simply put, Sookie was in too bad of shape, and her life still hung in the balance.

I closed my eyes, trying to shut out the memories of Sookie's heart monitor flatlining two days earlier when I'd been sitting with her. Thankfully, the skilled doctors and nurses had brought her back with only a single burst of energy to her heart. But I was still traumatized, though certainly not as much as Sookie's broken and battered body had been.

Tara and I had been taking turns, one of us sitting with Jase and the other sitting with Sookie—at least when we could. There were times when one or the other was in surgery and also times when Sookie's condition got a bit worse and no visitors were allowed.

Hadley, Sookie's cousin, had been allowed to stay overnight at the hospital, but she'd only felt comfortable leaving her son for short periods of time—just long enough to get updates on her other two surviving family members. The only good news was that Hunter was due to be released soon, but the kid had a long road of healing and rehabilitation ahead with his arm.

Of course, Tara and I had called William and Sophie-Anne Compton—to let them know about the accident. But they couldn't come to Louisiana for the foreseeable future, not with Sophie-Anne still in the hospital following her recent stroke.

Alcide's sister, Janice, was in pieces, trying to deal with funeral arrangements for her brother and her father—even as she tried to postpone those events just in case Sookie woke up.

So—yeah—it fell to Tara and me to be with Sookie and Jase, not that we felt the role was a burden. It was just one we wished wasn't necessary.

We'd also been working with Mike Spencer, who ran the funeral home in Bon Temps, to make plans for Adele's funeral. Thankfully, Adele had already made most of her own funeral arrangements with Mike, and her other wishes were in documents that Sid-Matt Lancaster, her lawyer, had readily available. I was grateful that there wasn't much to do on that end, and—similar to Janice regarding Alcide and Jackson—I prayed that we wouldn't have to bury Gran before Sookie woke up.

Or worse—bury Sookie next to Gran.

Tara and I both remained silent for the rest of the drive and then made our way to the ICU after purchasing some coffee for me and herbal tea for Tara. As soon as we got up to the desk, one of the nurses, Indira, who—of course—recognized us, told us that Sookie had been rushed into surgery about a half an hour before.

Having been bruised in the accident, her spleen had now ruptured and needed to be taken out!

Our hearts heavy, Tara and I made our way to Jase's room, holding each other's hand tightly. I know I was praying for my friend, and I figured Tara was too.

"Does he know about his mom yet?" I whispered to a nurse who was just getting ready to leave Jase's room. I think her name was Holly.

"No," she shook her head. "He's so groggy right now from all the medicine he's getting that he still doesn't know any of what's going on. But he's a fighter," she added, looking over her shoulder. "His vitals have been strong all night, and the swelling in his head is all but gone. But the doctors aren't gonna start weaning him off of the stronger pain meds yet because he's still got a couple of surgeries he needs to get through. Until then, it's probably best that he doesn't know his mom's in such a bad way," she said, her voice even lower. "Or that his daddy and grandparents are gone."

I looked over to see Tara nodding in agreement, even as I felt myself doing the same.

Jase was better off if he could just sleep through the worst of his mother's fight; hopefully, when he was ready to wake up more fully, he'd be greeted by good news about at least one parent.

"When he has been awake a little, he's been asking for his mommy and his Uncle Eric," the nurse shared, "just like yesterday."

I nodded. "I swear it took an act of Congress to get a message to Captain Northman," I muttered. "Or at least an act by a Senator."

The nurse looked at me, a little confused.

"Uncle Eric is Captain Eric Northman," I shared. Of course, I'd known about Bill's best friend from the Marines. Sookie had spoken of him occasionally, usually in the context of his interactions with Jase and how awesome he was for the little boy. Jase talked about him quite a bit, but Eric Northman's number hadn't been in Sookie's phone, and calling the Marine Corp's general phone number had gotten me nowhere fast.

Ultimately, I'd called William Compton to see if he could help, and I'd awoken to a text message that relayed that Eric would be instructed to call me as soon as he returned from his current mission—though the exact time of that return was uncertain.

"Eric's in the Marines," Tara furthered my explanation to the nurse. "I think he's in Iraq."

I shook my head. "No. According to Jase, he moved on to Afghanistan about a year ago."

"Oh," the nurse sighed. "Too bad he's not around—what with little Jase asking for him and all."

"They Skype a lot," I relayed. "Um—would I be able to set that up in the hospital once Jase is less groggy? I know it would probably help him to talk to Captain Northman—especially since he's lost a second dad now," I said, before breaking down in tears.

"Second?" the nurse asked.

Tara nodded sadly as she dug through her purse and handed me a tissue. "Yeah. Jase's dad was Sookie's first husband, Bill; he was also a Marine. He was killed in action about five years ago now."

"God! That's horrible!" the nurse exclaimed, looking back at her patient. "That poor little boy."

"Yeah," I sighed before progressing into the room with Tara. There wasn't much more that we could do but sit with Jase—just in case he woke up enough to be aware of what was going on.

I found myself praying again that Sookie would be okay and that Jase wouldn't lose three parents within five years.

Tara and I had been in Jase's room for about ten minutes when my mobile phone vibrated in my pocket. Seeing a number that looked like it could be foreign, I quickly left the room so that I could answer the call.

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Eric POV

I'd been bone tired when I'd returned from my mission. However, my call to Amelia Broadway had woken me up to the point that I wondered if I could ever sleep again.

Amelia had cried through half of the call before handing the phone to someone named Tara du Rone, who'd also broken down crying. But between the two of them, I'd learned what was happening—and the gravity of it. And I knew what I needed to do.

I was lucky in that I was based in the same location as my C.O., Colonel Russell Edgington. Otherwise, I would have had to call him for permission to take emergency leave, and I wasn't sure I'd get my way via a phone call. But I knew that—in person—I could be convincing.

Permission wasn't a done deal, however. In truth, I was valuable to the Corps right where I was. My experience and my ability to get to know the language and customs of a new place—to adapt, but remain distant from, any world I found myself in—was something my C.O.s often wrote about in their reports about my job performance. My previous C.O., Colonel de Castro, had argued for me to stay in Iraq since he found me valuable to his operations. But troop demands in Afghanistan had overruled de Castro's desires.

It had been nice to be viewed as significant in the war effort—to feel needed. But—right now—I needed for Colonel Edgington to see me as easily replaceable.

I didn't pause as I knocked on Colonel Edgington's door. Given the time of day—just past 1900 hours—he normally wouldn't have been asleep. But he'd been awake for at least the last 24 hours, just like I had been.

I heard him curse and grumble—and then curse some more—as I knocked again.

"Barbarians better be storming the fucking gates at this very fucking moment—I kid you not!" he yelled as he opened the door. Despite his bleary eyes, he "checked me out" as he sometimes did in his less guarded moments. Unlike most people, I intuited that Colonel Edgington was gay, but I didn't give a fuck; he was an excellent leader of men, and his sexual preference had zero effect on that. Truth be told—I admired him for being so committed to the service that he was willing to hide who he was. There were rumors that Obama was looking into getting rid of what I felt to be the ridiculous "Don't ask, don't tell" policy. I hoped so; I didn't know if Colonel Edgington and others would "come out," but I felt that they should be able to if they wanted.

"Captain Northman!" he said with surprise, looking carefully at my expression. "You look like you've seen a fuckin' ghost," he added, his thick Mississippi accent coming through prominently.

"Not quite, sir," I responded.

He frowned. "Give me five minutes to get some damned pants on, and then I'll give you ten to tell me what has you knocking on my door when I saw you dead on your feet not thirty minutes ago. I'll meet you in Meeting Room B."

"Yes, sir," I said, knowing that—if I didn't give him those five minutes—there was no way I'd be getting ten. And that would mean that I wouldn't get what I needed.

I was in Meeting Room B with fresh coffee for my C.O. by the time he arrived.

I stood at attention when he entered.

"Let's sit," he said, his eyes showing the kind of concern he only ever conveyed when a mission was in deep shit.

"Yes, sir," I said, sitting as straight as possible in the uncomfortable wooden chair.

He took his coffee, even as he seemed to be noting that I'd brought none for myself.

"Well—what is it, Captain?" he asked.

"I need to leave—to go Stateside indefinitely and right away," I said.

He blinked several times. And then he laughed loudly.

"Are you forgettin' how the Corps works, Son? You can't just leave whenever you want—not unless you're dead, hurt, insane, or a traitor. And none of those would likely take you wherever you seem to want to go."

"It's a family emergency," I said quickly.

"Your sister?" he asked, sitting forward.

"No," I frowned. "Pamela is fine."

"Forgive me, Son, but I'm familiar with your file. You have no other family."

"It's not," I paused, "a traditional family."

He frowned. "You don't strike me as the kind to have an illegitimate kid runnin' around, Captain."

"I don't," I said. "About five years ago—during a tour in Iraq—my Lieutenant, Bill Compton, was killed. He was also my closest friend," I paused, "the closest I've ever had in my life. When he died, he left a letter, asking me to watch over his son. I did. I've been speaking with Jase—Jason—for years. He calls me Uncle Eric, and—despite not being related by blood—he is my family, Sir," I emphasized. "A few days ago, he, his mother, his grandmother, his stepfather, his step-grandfather, and his cousin were all in a car accident. His stepfather, step-grandfather, and grandmother all died at the scene, and his mother is currently hanging on by a thread. The cousin is banged up, and Jason is in the hospital with several broken bones, a bruised heart, a collapsed lung, and a bad head wound." I paused and took a deep breath, composing myself. "In addition, his right leg needed to be amputated—just below the knee."

The Colonel was shaking his head. "I'm real sorry to hear all this, Captain, but there's nothing I can do for you."

"There is!" I sat forward. "If there were such a thing as owed leave, I'd have a ton of it stored up. I've served eight tours—straight. And there are situations when Marines have been allowed to go home if their families have great need."

"I'm not without sympathy, Captain, but there's no denyin' the truth: you aren't this boy's family," he said quietly.

"Jason is as much of a son to me as I will probably ever have," I said passionately, swiping at some tears I couldn't control. "I promised his father that I'd take care of him and his mother—who might not even survive, based on the phone call I just had. As we speak, she's in emergency surgery because of a ruptured spleen and internal bleeding. I can't leave Jason alone! I won't!" I said loudly. "I won't let him think—not for a moment—that no one wants him! That no one is there for him!"

The Colonel shook his head and went to speak again, but I kept going, "And he's asking for me!" I added fervently. "The kid's just been through a horror as bad as any battle, his losses more profound than any Marine I've ever known. And he's asking for me, Colonel! Me!" I reiterated.

Colonel Edgington sighed loudly. "You're damned near irreplaceable to what we have going on here right now, Captain Northman. Do you know how valuable your language skills are? Do you know how coveted your ability to read people and to gauge a soldier's talents are? Do you know how hard I had to fight to get you moved to my Battalion? Hell! I thought I'd have to duel de Castro for you!" He shook his head while I sat silent. "Most importantly, do you know how much respect your troops have for you and how much harder they work for you than for any other Captain I've ever worked with? Are you fucking aware of what it's going to take to find a replacement for you? Of how many Marines that's going to take?" he asked, seemingly getting angrier with each question.

"It's good to be needed, sir, but . . . ," I started.

The Colonel put up his hand. "Don't talk!" he ordered, before taking a sip of his coffee. He studied me in silence for a good three minutes.

"Goddammit, Northman! I would need to break three regulations and lie my ass off in order to give you want you want tonight!" he finally said.

"I'm sorry, Sir," I returned, not knowing what else to say.

"Don't be sorry. Say thank you!"

"Thank you?" I asked hopefully.

He nodded. "I'm going to approve your extended leave and your ticket to the States because you've already given this Corps more than any man, woman, or child should be expected to give. As of right now, I'm putting you on medical leave."

My eyebrow rose.

"I know you've been in counseling for years," the Colonel shared. "Hell! I wish more men would see that damned shrink, Captain Avery, voluntarily—despite the fact that he can be an annoying little fuck!"

My eyebrow rose in question again. "He's been nagging at me to reconcile with my kids. My divorce wasn't exactly amicable," Colonel Edgington shared.

I looked at him in surprise, not having known that he'd been married at any point.

"Anyway, Captain Avery owes me about twelve favors, and I'm going to collect one to get you out of here on the next flight Stateside. As of tonight, Captain Northman, you have severe PTSD!"

I shook my head. "I don't want lying done on my behalf—not when a lot of Marines really should be sent home because of PTSD."

The Colonel shook his head fondly. "Once you're back Stateside and the world slows down for you, I'm ordering that you to continue counseling. What you've seen and done during the last decade will catch up with you, Captain. PTSD might not be the reason you're leaving, but it's probably a reason why you should have been ordered to take more time between your tours," he added. "There's a cargo plane for Okinawa at 0530. From there, I'll arrange for you to return to wherever you need to be. I just need to know where to get you to, Son."

"Shreveport," I said.

He seemed to be remembering something.

"You put in to base out of Bailey at some point—right?" he asked.

"When Bill was alive," I returned. "He was like a brother to me, so putting down roots in Louisiana when I had no others made sense at the time."

He sighed. "I suppose it makes sense again. I know the C.O. at Bailey Base—well. His name's Colonel James Flood, and we went through basic training together back in the long ago dinosaur-times day. He's been workin' on some cutting-edge training programs at Bailey, focused on what he calls "adaptive tactics." And you're just the Marine to help him, Captain."

I looked at him wide-eyed.

"Consider yourself on leave for two months, and then report to Colonel Flood. Meanwhile, I'll push the right paperwork through and make sure you get assigned quarters on the base; you might not end up livin' on Bailey permanently, but it'll be a good place to start."

I frowned. "I'm not asking to leave Afghanistan or the Battalion permanently, Colonel Edgington."

"If you find yourself in the position of wanting back in the fray, get in touch," he said. "But, honestly, Son, it seems that fate is dealing you a different hand that's well away from this shitstorm. You should play that hand out till the end. Anyway, that little boy's gonna need someone in his life that understands how to live through hell! And I know you've been around enough amputees to help him with that, too." He looked at me pointedly. "Hell! I know you're in contact with at least ten amputees that you've commanded."

I looked at him in question.

He stood up. "Like I said, Captain, the way you take care of your men—both when they're here and when they're pickin' up the pieces back home—is legendary."

I stood as well. "Thank you, Sir. I don't know what I would have . . . ." My voice trailed off.

He shrugged. "I know what you'd have done, Son. You would have finished out your tour like the good Marine you are. However, you would have come to hate the Corps for keeping you from that little boy that you so clearly love like your own blood. At first opportunity, you would have resigned, carrying that bitterness with you for the rest of your life, rather than being able to focus on all that you have accomplished while on active duty—and all that you still could at Bailey. And that would have been a damned crime!" he emphasized.

I nodded, knowing that he was probably right. "It's been a pleasure serving with you, Colonel."

"The pleasure's been all mine, Son," he said sincerely. "Flood will take good care of you. Now—you'd better get yourself packed. It appears you have a family to see to."

I nodded again, feeling a little dazed.

I guess I did have a family of sorts—at least for as long as I was needed. After that—well—I wasn't sure about anything, except that Colonel Edgington was assigning me to Bailey Base in Shreveport, Louisiana, where I might find a home of my own—someplace I could still serve the Corps.

And remain close to Jason and—if God spared her—Sookie.

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A/N:

The scene at the end of this chapter—between Eric and Russell—was the first thing I drafted for this story. I was at the doctor's office; he's usually fast at getting people in, but—that day—he was running behind. I found myself with no papers to grade—for once. I did have my little notebook and a pen though. The rest is—as they say—history, and the story grew backwards and then forwards from this scene. Anyway—just wanted to give you a little tidbit.

So—I really put Sookie and little Jase through the wringer. I wanted the accident to feel abrupt to you. I also tried to describe it almost like a battle. I wanted to put this right after Eric's dangerous mission in the previous chapter to point out the idea that no life is guaranteed past the moment that we find ourselves in. Also, one of my friends (in the Air Force reserves now) told me about a friend of his who served several tours—only to be in a traffic accident one week after he got home. He was paralyzed from the waist down. Anyway, let me know what you think of the chapter if you have the time and/or inclination.

Best,
Kat

Chapter Text

Chapter 08: Embed

Shreveport, Louisiana • June 24, 2010 • 1500 hours/3:00 p.m.

Eric POV

I landed in Shreveport, Louisiana sixty-eight hours after I left Kabul. I'd managed to gain a little more than half a day's worth of time, compared to Afghanistan, but it felt like I'd been losing time since my first call with Amelia Broadway.

Losing some kind of race for Jason and Sookie's lives.

I sighed deeply.

My initial flight had taken me to Okinawa, but I'd had to wait a while before there was something that could get me to the United States. Of course, it got me only as far as Honolulu. Another flight had gotten me to San Diego, where I had a 7-hour wait before my flight to Shreveport, which was convenient in a way, for I'd been able to go to the old storage facility I'd rented after my parents' home had sold. Using the hot metal enclosure as a dressing room, I had found out that most of the civilian clothing I'd kept was too small. Still, I'd packed the few things that still fit—some T-shirts and sweatpants. There was also some useable furniture in the storage facility, items I'd taken from the cook's old rooms where I'd stayed after my parents' deaths.

The base commander at San Diego had ordered two wet-behind-the-ears Marines, who were—and I quote—"deep and dirty on his shit list" to pack up my meagre belongings into a large vehicle owned by the Corps. Furthermore, he'd ordered them to drive that vehicle to Louisiana to deliver my items to quarters that had already been arranged for me on Bailey Base. Finally, they were to move in my belongings as if they were "precious antiques belonging to the base commander's own sainted grandmother" before driving the vehicle back.

They had two days to accomplish their mission—without getting a "fucking scratch on Marine property"—if they ever wanted a chance to find their way off the Commander's "shit list."

Had I not been distracted by my desire to get to Jason's side, I would have likely listened more carefully to what the Marines had done to piss off their Commander to such a great extent. The way he'd laughed when they weren't present indicated that the story was a funny one, but I'd zoned out in the middle of his tale when I'd seen a Marine jogging by with a prosthetic leg.

I couldn't help but to think about Jason. Serving in the middle of combat zones for more than a decade had exposed me to more than my fair share of amputees. I almost always saw them in their worst states—sometimes barely stable enough for transport to Berlin or Okinawa for greater care. Colonel Edgington was right. I'd kept up with the amputees that had served under me, a list of twelve men and one woman.

Land mines and trip wires were both little bitches.

I knew from letters I'd gotten back from the Marines I wrote to that life without a limb was difficult, even for the strongest of spirits. I knew that Jason was strong—a resilient little boy with so much light in him that a person couldn't help but to love him. But he was also just eleven years old. To be facing a whole life without his leg would be

hard for him to come to terms with.

And—from a call I'd exchanged with Amelia while I was waiting for my flight from Okinawa to Hawaii—I'd learned that Jason wouldn't even be able to start working with a prosthetic for his right leg until the femur in his left leg had healed. Indeed, his rehab would start with that remaining leg and then move on from there. And the speed of recovery would be up to both Jason's healing time and his attitude about walking again.

And—of course—the little boy was bound to be crushed when he became aware enough to know that his stepfather and step-grandfather and Gran were all dead. I couldn't even begin to guess how he'd react if his mother died too!

I just knew one thing. Jason would not be orphaned!

No matter what, I would be there for him. I knew that his paternal grandparents, too, would be there for him, and Amelia and Tara—both friends of Sookie—were there even as I couldn't be. I didn't know what my role would be in what was to come. But I knew one thing for fucking sure—Jason would never be put in a position of believing no one wanted him!

Not as long as I lived.

Even if no one else could take him, I would fight for custody of him to my dying breath!

"Captain Northman," a young Marine greeted to me as I deplaned. "My name's Lafayette Reynolds, and Colonel Flood told me that you needed a ride to Shreveport General."

I nodded. "I do, Corporal."

"I also have the keys to your new place on the base. I's been whipping the yard into shape too," he shared. "I's also been told your furnishings and whatnot will be gettin' here sometime tomorrow. I'll be makin' sure all's in order when your belongings gets here," he informed as we walked briskly toward his vehicle.

"Thank you, Corporal," I said.

"You's—uh—want to go to your quarters before the hospital? There ain't much to it yet, but you could 'least shower and whatnot," he said.

"Unless you can smell me from there, I'll go right to the hospital. Could you take my belongings over to my house though? And—at some point—when visiting hours are over at the hospital, I'd imagine—I'll need a ride from the hospital to my quarters."

The Corporal nodded. "No problem, Captain. I've been told to make sure you have everything you need."

We got into the car and buckled up. Corporal Reynolds wasted no time starting the engine and getting us moving. I appreciated that.

"Bailey Base ain't that big, Captain," he said after about a minute of driving silently. I sensed that he was not one for long silences. "And Colonel Edgington was my C.O. during my last tour in Afghanistan. You should know that he called me personally—since he knows I'm stationed at Bailey—so that I could help you out till you gets settled."

"The Colonel is a good man," I said sincerely.

"I's his personal assistant for a stretch of time," Corporal Reynolds shared. "I'd been banged up during a battle, but not enough to come home. Mostly, I was too fuckin' scared to get back into the field for a while," he said, pointing to his head. "The Colonel—well—he'd already taken me under his wing a bit since I'm," he paused for a moment. "Put it this way," he said his thick Southern accent somewhat difficult to decipher," no one asks, and I don't tell."

"Understood," I said, realizing that Lafayette was telling me that he was gay.

He chuckled as he made a turn onto the Interstate. "Colonel Edgington said you's was cool like that. 'Course he had no idea when he told me a bit about your situation that I'd know the people involved."

I looked at him with some confusion.

"Tara Thornton—du Rone now—is my cousin," he informed. "And I's known Sookie since she was knee-high to a grasshopper." He sighed loudly. "I went to school in Bon Temps—graduated the year after Sookie's brother, Jason. That was the year before Bill and Sook. I was friends with Bill. And it was after I heard that he died that I got my shit together." He shook his head. "At the time, I was barely hangin' on to a job washin' dishes at a dive. And I was spendin' what little money I did make on drugs, which I also sold for a spell." He looked at me sideways. "After Bill died, I took a look in the mirror. And I didn't like what I seen there. I went to a recruiter the next day. But he didn't take my black ass." He chuckled a little.

"You told him about the drug use?" I asked.

He nodded. "I told him everything—except about that thang you ain't 'sposed to ask and tell 'bout. The recruiter told me he should reject me outright—seeings as how I'd done so much stupid shit in the past. Instead, he told me that, if I came back every month for a year, gave a urine test, and told him three things I'd done to improve myself in the time since he'd seen me last, he'd let me in."

"And you did," I said, smiling slightly.

"I think I shocked the hell outta him!" the Corporal laughed. "But I made it, and I did okay for myself—until I was banged up. I refused the meds—you see? And that included the ones they tried givin' me when I couldn't sleep after I was hurt." He shook his head. "I didn't wanna risk it—you know? Plenty of soldiers start havin' problems once they start countin' on meds for pain and," he paused, "to keep themselves goin'. I wasn't sure I'd be able to resist gettin' hooked, given my history of addiction."

"It's admirable that you didn't take the meds," I said sincerely.

"Self-fucking-preservation is what it was," Corporal Reynolds laughed. "Trust me. I almost did—you know? I almost took 'em. That's when the Colonel stepped in and made me his assistant. He kept me outta combat for about six months—held me back till I was ready. He made me see a shrink, who taught me how to deal with pain without the aid of chemicals. And—when my tour was over—Colonel Edge helped me get stationed here so I'd be close to home."

I nodded, smiling a little at the nickname Colonel Russell Edgington had earned over the years—mostly because there was always an "edge" to his planning—a calculated risk that was difficult to accomplish but led to disproportionately big results. Even in the short time I'd served under him, I'd learned a lot.

I took a deep breath and asked a question I'd been holding my tongue not to ask for the last several minutes. "Corporal, have you seen Mrs. Herveaux? Or Jason?"

He shook his head. "No, Sir. But I's been gettin' news from Tara. I woulda gone to see 'em both, but—according to Tara—Jase is still out of it most of the time, and he don't know me well anyhow. I don't get to Bon Temps that much, even though it's close. My life is at Bailey."

I nodded in understanding.

"Sook has only been able to have visitors off and on," he sighed. "I've tried to visit a couple of times when I wasn't on duty, but she's either been in surgery or in the more critical part of ICU that don't allow visitors that ain't family to go in there."

I frowned. "Mrs. Herveaux doesn't have family here though."

He nodded. "Other than her Cousin Hadley, who's focused on her own little boy, Hunter, Sook really don't have any family left—'cept for Jase, of course. The hospital's makin' exceptions for Amelia and Tara. But—uh—well Tara told me that they sort of implied to the doctors that you really are Jase's uncle—as in Bill's actual brother. So—uh—you won't have any issues seein' Jase or Sookie."

"I see," I said. Generally speaking, I wasn't a fan of lies, though this was the second one that had been told to get me to Jason's side in the last several days.

I sighed. In the Corps, there simply wasn't time for lies, and—thankfully—I'd never been in a position where I had to tell the men and women under my command a lie. Of course, I had needed to hold back the complete truth much of the time. Some of these omissions made following orders easier for the troops. Some of these omissions even kept them alive.

In fact, my most recent omission of the truth had culminated in me catching the Taliban spy who'd been posing as our local liaison. I'd hidden my knowledge of both Dari and Pashto, the two most common languages in Afghanistan, and I'd been able to hear the bastard in the act of transmitting unauthorized information.

The Corporal was looking a little pensive. "Tara thought you ought to know about the uncle thing before you got to the ICU."

"I appreciate that," I said as we pulled up to the hospital and he parked in a drop-off zone. For the first time, I looked down and thought about what I was wearing. "I'll need some civvies," I observed. I was wearing my camos and knew I'd stand out in the civilian hospital. The last time I'd worn civvies had been during my visit in London, and the Ravenscrofts had kindly allowed me to keep those clothes in the room where I'd stayed in the guesthouse on their estate since I didn't need them in Afghanistan.

"You have a brand preference?" Corporal Reynolds asked.

I shook my head.

"I can pick you up some jeans and casual shirts—if you like," he offered.

"I'd appreciate that, Corporal. And some things to sleep in—flannel pants and plain T-shirts would do. And tennis shoes," I said before rattling off the sizes of my latest uniforms as Corporal Reynolds tapped out some notes on his phone. "And I'm going to need to buy a vehicle, too," I added.

The Corporal nodded again. "I've gotta friend named Hoyt Fortenberry that owns a Chevy dealership. You tell me the time you want to go, and I'll have him waiting for you so that you can get the errand done quickly—unless you have a preference for a different brand."

"I'll need a van—something easy for Jason," I mused. "A lot of cargo room since he'll likely be in a wheelchair for a while. And who knows what Mrs. Herveaux will need. So I should plan on room for two people that are in need of wheelchair room."

The Corporal gave me a look like he was trying to figure me out. "I'll make sure Hoyt's got some choices for you, or I'll have him tell me somewhere else."

I nodded. "I'll let you know when I'll be available to meet with Mr. Fortenberry after I assess the situation."

"Understood," he said as he handed me a card. "My number's on the back. Visiting hours is over at 1900 hours, but you might be able to stay past then, or you might wanna leave early. Just call whenever you's ready to head out. It takes me round about 15 minutes to get here from the base, so keep that in mind."

I grabbed my small knapsack. My larger duffle was in the trunk. "Thank you, Corporal. I'll see you this evening," I said, exiting the vehicle.

I took a moment to look up at the modest-sized hospital and took another to take a deep breath. And then I went in.

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I'd been directed from the front reception area to the fourth floor, where critical care patients were kept. Once there, I entered into a relatively large waiting area with a small play zone for children in the corner. The ICU entrance was kept locked, so I had to check in with a nurse behind a glass window.

She was on the phone and didn't really look at me as she lifted a finger to indicate that I should wait for a moment.

I couldn't help but to look around a bit as I did so. Five people were in the waiting area, all of them with pensive, frightened looks on their faces. Clearly, the waiting room wasn't a happy place to be.

I turned back to the nurse as she put the phone down. Her name tag read Indira.

She looked up at me and gave me the reaction that I was used to encountering when I was wearing my uniform around civilians: a mixture of awe and surprise—as if seeing a soldier was somehow unexpected.

Almost immediately, her expression changed to one of recognition. "You're Eric Northman, aren't you?" she asked.

In truth, it felt strange not to be addressed as Captain, but I still nodded. "Yes, Ma'am. I'm here to visit Jason Compton."

She nodded vigorously and called back over her shoulder for another nurse—Maggie—before looking at me. "Maggie will take you back."

I heard a buzzing noise, and the glass doors next to the window opened. Taking my cue, I walked into the ward and was met by a kind-looking nurse who looked to be in her fifties, though I wasn't that great at judging ages.

"We sure are glad you're here, Captain," she said after glancing at my insignia. I figured that she had a Marine in her family or maybe she'd heard my rank from Amelia or Tara. We started walking further into the ward, and I noticed that there were several different hallways with a staffed nurses' station in the middle of each.

"Now—you need to prepare yourself," Maggie said softly, but firmly. "That little boy was really put through the ringer, and he's still on some heavy medication to get him through the pain. He's confused, but he's been askin' for both you and his momma whenever he's awake, which hasn't been that often."

"Ms. Broadway prepared me," I said.

She looked up at me. "Sookie's doin' better today," she sighed. "She's still in a coma, but her prognosis is better than it was yesterday. Her latest surgery went well, and her temperature is now at the high end of normal."

I nodded, even as I let out a sigh of relief.

"Both Sookie and Jase have the same team of doctors, and Amelia's told 'em to expect you. They'll be around to give you an update soon."

"Thank you, Nurse Butler," I said, looking at her nametag.

"Call me Nurse Maggie if you like," she smiled at me. "Around here, we nurses tend to go by our first names—since we're with you for long stretches of time."

I figured my eyebrow must have risen in question because she explained further.

"We do twelve-hour shifts here—3 or 4 of them a week. But I'm sure you're used to long days," she commented.

"Yes, Ma'am," I replied as we approached a door that was propped open.

A tired-looking woman was dozing off in a chair near the bed, but I took only a moment to notice her before taking in Jason.

Of course, I'd never actually met him in person, but I'd seen him so many times via Skype that I could tell right away that he hardly looked like himself. While he was usually quite tan, he was as pale as the white sheet that covered him. He had some bandaging around his head and several abrasions on his little face, and his left cheek was quite swollen. His arms, one of which had an I.V. attached to it, were both out from under the covers and were covered with bruises, scrapes, and bandages.

Yes—I had seen grown men with injuries similar to Jason's. But seeing a child so broken caused me to gasp.

"Because of his leg injury, he needed a lot of blood," Maggie said in a whisper. "And he's still very weak. It's hard to find AB-negative, and the doctors would prefer not to have to give him more O-neg blood, though I'm betting they'll give him more before and/or during his next surgery."

"I'm AB-negative," I shared. It was one of those odd things that Bill and I had had in common.

"Really?" Maggie asked, excitedly. "Would you be willing to donate?"

"Of course," I said. "You can have as much as I can give him," I emphasized.

She nodded.

"When is his next surgery?" I asked.

"Hopefully, it'll be his last—poor guy," Maggie sighed. "It's scheduled for tomorrow morning. The doctors need to go in and put some pins in his left femur. They did the bare minimum they needed to do with it when he first got here. Other priorities came first," she sighed unhappily. "Plus, there were some swelling issues, and—during his last surgery—his little heart had some arrhythmias. And—given the bruising around it—the doctors didn't want to push it by keeping Jase on the O.R. table for too long."

I nodded. I knew all about priorities when a person had suffered multiple injuries. I also knew that—often—many surgeries were needed to put someone together again.

"His leg, of course, is stabilized and immobilized, so don't worry about him injuring it further. But Doctor Brigant—that's our best orthopedic surgeon—wants to get some pins in there so that the bone is sure to heal quickly and like it needs to."

I nodded again, even as the woman in the chair woke up. It took her a moment to get her bearings, and when she did, she gave me a weary smile. "Eric—I mean Captain Northman," she said, standing up and walking over to Nurse Maggie and me.

"Eric is fine," I said. "Ms. Broadway?"

"Yes. But call me Amelia," she instructed, even as Nurse Maggie went over to Jason's bed and checked his machines and then his pulse points on his neck and then wrists. She grabbed his chart and wrote down a few notes before patting Amelia's arm on her way out the door.

"Has he been awake at all today?" I asked quietly.

"He came around a couple of hours ago, but I don't think he really registered what was going on. He asked for his mom," she said, tearing up. "And then he asked for you again."

I nodded and approached the bed, taking Jason's hand.

"Hello, Jason," I said softly. "I'm here now. And I'm going to take care of you," I said, my voice sounding as emotional as I'd ever heard it.

Little Jason moaned a bit and then opened his eyes, though he spent a while focusing.

"Uncle Eric?" he asked with a mixture of surprise and grogginess.

"Hi, Jason," I said, smiling down at him.

"Where's Mommy?" he asked, his voice sounding as child-like as it had when he'd been five years old.

"You're in the hospital, Jason," I told him. "You and your mother were in a car accident, and she's in a different room."

He frowned. "Will you get her?"

"I can't, Jason. But I'll check on her for you—okay?" I promised.

"Okay. Do you have to go away to fight today, Daddy?" he asked, though his eyes had closed, and he seemed to be fading away again. I knew that his naming of me as "Daddy" was happening due to the drugs he was on and his association of me with Bill, but the word still made my heart beat quickly.

"No, Jason. I'm not going anywhere."

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A/N: Well—Eric and Jase are finally meeting in person for the first time. Horrible circumstances—I know. Many of you remarked about the last chapter, and I very much appreciated your comments! Thanks so much for your comments.

I decided to bring Lafayette into the mix in this story because I love his character. Of course, every time I write him, I feel so sad that Nelsan Ellis died so young. So sad. He brought Lala to life, and in the show and in writing, he'll always be with us. But still so sad he's gone.

Please respond if you have the time/inclination.

Best,

Kat

Chapter Text

Chapter 09: All Hands on Deck

Shreveport, Louisiana • June 24, 2010 • 1600 hours/4:00 p.m.

Amelia POV

Captain Eric Northman was a fine specimen of a man. I'd never let on to Tray, but the captain was probably the most handsome man I'd ever seen in person.

It wasn't, however, Captain Northman's looks that made me feel better as soon as I woke up and saw him in Jase's room.

No—it was something else about him.

His aura.

It was the sense of calm pragmatism with which he took in Jase's appearance, even though I could tell that seeing the broken little boy was tearing him up inside.

It was the determination in his eyes—fighting with and then overcoming the sadness in only seconds.

It was the way he held his body, as if he were ready to face the worst hand that fate might deal, yet stay standing through the playing of that hand.

It was the sense of understanding in his expression—as if he'd been through horrible times before and would drag everyone around him, as well as himself, through any hardships in front of them.

It was the hope in his eyes that indicated that—even in the worst situations—survival was possible.

I found myself wondering what kinds of things he'd had to survive.

His strength was clear and compelling—and intimidating.

In truth, I knew next to nothing about Captain Northman—beyond the little tidbits I'd learned from Sookie and Jase—yet I also knew immediately that I could trust him to be strong in the uphill situation that faced Jase and Sookie. He was there to take command, and I felt an immense and immediate sense of relief.

Though I felt almost like I was intruding, I watched as Captain Northman went over to Jase's bedside and took his hand. My heart caught in my throat when Jase—almost immediately—opened his eyes and actually made the effort to focus them onto the man talking to him.

That was something I'd not seen him do up until then.

I watched the exchange between Captain Northman and Jase and felt better by the second as Jase seemed to relax into the strength of the captain's voice. Hell—I was doing the same! Only when Jase called Captain Northman, "Daddy," did the man's stance change. Impossibly, that one word—misspoken by the heavily drugged boy—seemed to make the tall Marine stand even straighter than he'd been standing.

Probably straighter than he'd ever stood—even in front of a General.

I wiped away a tear when Captain Northman assured the little boy that he wasn't going anywhere.

Yes—there was now a weight off of my shoulders.

I'd been so worried about taking care of Sookie and Jase—wondering how I could help them through all the therapy—both physical and mental—that lay ahead of them. I'd been agonizing over the logistics, wondering if I could convince Tray to put our own plans for a family on hold for a while so that we could help Sookie and Jase—quite literally—get back onto their feet by moving into the old Stackhouse farmhouse for a few months or maybe even longer.

As I stood watching Captain Northman and Jase, I knew I'd still be helping my best friend and her son through what lay ahead of them, and I didn't mind doing that. But now I also knew that I didn't have to be the main one burdening the responsibility.

Captain Northman had them.

"Well—aren't you just what the doctor ordered," came the acerbic voice of the neurologist on both Jase's and Sookie's cases. Though her line might have been interpreted as suggestive, it was clear that she'd not meant it to be. She'd meant it to be factual.

Dr. Ludwig's height made everyone have to look down to see her, but it was her eerie stealth that had caused me to miss her coming into the room. I swore—every time I interacted with her—it seemed as if she just materialized out of thin air!

Like a troll of some kind!

The captain turned around to face her.

It was almost comical how far he had to look down—and how far she had to look up. But if Captain Northman noticed the height difference, he didn't let on. After tenderly placing Jase's hand back onto the bed and then tucking it under the blanket, he approached the short doctor with his hand outstretched.

"Ma'am, I'm Eric Northman," he greeted.

"And I'm Dr. Amy Ludwig, Captain," she said, showing that she could tell his rank from his uniform. Despite having a husband in the Air Force, I couldn't have done the same.

As they shook hands, two more doctors came into the room.

"This is Dr. Fintan Brigant, the Orthopedic surgeon, and Dr. Maxwell Lee, our best rehab specialist and prosthetics designer here at Shreveport General. In fact, we're all the best that the state of Louisiana has to offer," Dr. Ludwig added unapologetically.

"But not the humblest," Dr. Lee chuckled, even as he reached out his hand to shake Captain Northman's. Dr. Brigant then stepped forward to do the same.

"Northman?" he asked. "I thought you were the boy's uncle—Jase's father's brother."

"We were brothers," Captain Northman said firmly. And I could tell that is exactly how he thought of them.

"They had different fathers," I piped in. It wasn't a lie, after all.

Dr. Brigant nodded and—thankfully—didn't ask for any proof that the captain was a blood relation. God knows the hospital had already bent quite a few rules to let Tara and I have access to Sookie and Jase, probably because most of the rest of their family had died in the crash. And the one adult who wasn't—Hadley—was understandably focused on her own little boy.

"Well, let's get on with the update," Dr. Ludwig said, somewhat impatiently. "I've got patients to check, including this one."

Dr. Lee and Dr. Brigant shared an amused look as Dr. Ludwig took charge; they were used to it.

"I'm the lead doctor on Mrs. Herveaux's case—since her head trauma is her most serious injury."

Captain Northman nodded in understanding. "How is she?"

"Honestly, she's still fighting for her life, but she's starting to win that fight," Dr. Ludwig smirked. "The swelling in her brain has finally begun to subside—thanks to a procedure I did yesterday—during which we relieved some more of the pressure. Her body is still dealing with trying to recover from six surgeries in less than a week, however, so she's weak. We'll have to wait until she wakes up to know for sure whether she's suffered any lasting brain damage."

That statement hung in the air for a moment before Dr. Brigant picked up, "She has a compound fracture in her right leg. However, the break should heal just fine, given a bit of time."

"And her back?" the captain asked. "That was broken too—right?"

Dr. Brigant nodded. "Yes. But there are no signs of paralysis. Hopefully, the fracture will heal with limited long-term effects. However, in the worst-case scenario, she might suffer chronic pain and end up with a slight limp."

"Not if I can help it," Dr. Lee said with a smile. "With the right program, we'll do all we can to limit her long-term pain. But she'll have to manage it for the rest of her life to a certain extent."

Dr. Ludwig picked up the narrative. "From the impact of the crash, she suffered some internal bruising. That's what led to her spleen rupturing. However, she's stabilized. We're keeping an eye on some bruising around her ribs, which was causing her to breathe irregularly. Medicine is currently helping with that, however."

Captain Northman took in that information with a nod.

"Jase's road to walking again will take even longer than Sookie's," Dr. Brigant sighed. "And he'll need at least one more surgery. Right now—if he holds stable—we'll do it tomorrow morning."

"The femur repair?" the captain asked.

"Yes, Sir," Dr. Lee said.

"Call me Eric," the captain instructed.

Dr. Lee acknowledged him with a nod. "Given how clean his femur break is, we'll be able to do some light rehab on it within a couple of weeks—as long as his ribs are healing nicely, and we'll start trying to build up his strength in his arms, too."

Captain Northman nodded in understanding.

"During his surgery tomorrow, I'm also going to clean up his right leg a bit and check some nerves—to make sure they're still functional—near his knee. If they aren't viable, it would be better to bring the amputation higher—to go ahead and amputate his leg up to here," he informed, gesturing to mid-thigh on his own leg.

I cringed and teared up, while Captain Northman stood steady.

Dr. Lee continued, "I'm hoping Jase will be able to keep his knee joint in order to help him to walk—and to run—more normally. But—either way—he's young enough to be able to adapt quickly to whatever prosthetic he needs. It took the emergency workers almost two hours to get him out of the vehicle and get him here, so at the time of the initial amputation, there was so much swelling that it was hard to discern the status of the knee. Plus, he had other medical priorities."

Again, the captain nodded in understanding.

"If everything looks good with the current status of the amputation, I'll get started on his prosthetic, and we'll be able to start teaching Jase how to walk with it in about four to five months—as long as his left femur heals as expected."

"Good," Captain Northman commented. "And his heart? What's the bruising like?"

"It doesn't seem too severe—though we're keeping a close eye on it," Dr. Brigant informed. "My father, Dr. Niall Brigant, is the Chief of Staff and the Head Cardiologist at the hospital. He's been consulting on the case."

The captain took in that information with yet another nod. "What about Jason's head wound?"

"Heavy swelling at first," said Dr. Ludwig, "but, once it was relieved, he regained consciousness pretty fast."

"But he's not keeping it for long," the captain commented. Though his voice was neutral, it was clear that he was expecting an explanation.

"Frankly," responded Dr. Brigant, "he is still being heavily sedated. Letting Jase regain complete consciousness right now would cause him to have to experience a lot of pain. We could give him milder drugs to help that pain, but there is no way to completely eliminate his discomfort without the use of heavy narcotics like morphine."

"That's what he's on now?" Captain Northman asked.

"Yes," Dr. Brigant responded.

"Won't he have to experience discomfort eventually? Sooner or later, he will need to be awake for longer than thirty seconds at a time," the captain pointed out.

"We want to wait until after his femur is repaired to cut back on the meds," Dr. Ludwig said definitively. "And it's best to keep his heart going a bit slower as long as the bruising remains," she added. "Heavier sedation will limit his potential agitation."

"And—of course—there's his mental health to consider," Dr. Lee said, with a concerned expression. He looked at Jase and then lowered his voice. "When he finally wakes up fully, he's going to be dealing with the deaths of three close family members. Honestly, we are hoping the news about his mother will be more positive before he truly understands what's going on around him. In fact, if all goes well, we'll be able to put them in the same room after he is out of recovery tomorrow."

"For now, she's still in worse shape than he is," Dr. Ludwig said soberly, though she continued with a twinkle in her eye, "but the brain is a remarkable thing. We think that—if they are together—they'll both be better able to heal more quickly."

Captain Northman seemed to be considering something for a moment. "Yes. People heal better when they aren't alone," he said, as if he could recall a thousand examples of just that. "And Jason will have the trauma of his amputation to deal with as well."

"We'll get him started with a therapist, Dr. Claudine Crane, as soon as he's more aware," Dr. Lee assured. "Her two specialties are working with those who have suffered life-altering physical trauma and counseling those who have lost a loved one due to trauma. In other words, she'll be a perfect counselor for both Sookie and Jase."

"Honestly, even if Sookie doesn't improve to the point that we feel comfortable putting them in a room together right away, we'll start lowering Jase's morphine dosage the day after tomorrow—if his surgery goes well. Now that you're here, I think he can handle what he'll need to," Dr. Ludwig said in a knowing tone.

"Wait," I piped in. "You think you might not be able to move them into the same room?" I asked. "Honestly, I figured you would have already done it by now—since Jase and Sookie are both on the same floor. I mean—I know that Sookie's in a more monitored area, but couldn't Jase just go there?"

"They don't want to risk Jason being in the same room with her yet," Captain Northman said insightfully. "To be in the same room if she goes into cardiac arrest would bring him even more trauma, even if he seems to be sleeping through it all. A part of him might hear his mother die."

"Oh," I said, wiping away a tear and feeling stupid for not figuring that out on my own.

"That's right," Dr. Lee confirmed softly.

Just then, Tara came in. She'd been with Sookie in her room for the last several hours, while I'd sat with Jase. "Hey," she greeted, looking at the doctors and then at Captain Northman. "Nurse Indira said you'd gotten here. I'm Tara."

The captain nodded and shook Tara's offered hand. "I'm Eric. I met your cousin, Corporal Reynolds. Make sure he knows he's been helpful."

She smiled and nodded. "I'll tell Lafayette. Uh—I was just heading down to the cafeteria for some food." She looked at Captain Northman and then at me. "Either of you wanna come?"

"I will," I said, figuring it would be good to leave the captain and Jase alone, given the strong bond they clearly already had.

"Could they bring me something here?" Captain Northman asked, looking at the doctors. "May I have food here?"

"Yes," Dr. Ludwig shared. "You can have food in here, but not in Mrs. Herveaux's part of the ward. I'll arrange for a tray to be brought up."

"Thank you, Ma'am," the captain said with a nod.

"I hear we need to thank you," said Dr. Brigant. "You're AB-Negative?"
Captain Northman nodded.

"Well—it'll be nice to have more typed and crossed blood on hand. I'll ask Nurse Maggie to take your donation in here—so that you don't have to leave," Dr. Brigant said.

"May I stay here overnight?" the captain asked. "I know I am not Jason's parent, but I'd prefer not to go anywhere until after he and his mother are in the same room. And—even then—I'd like to be able to stay overnight and then be relieved when Amelia and Mrs. du Rone can be here."

"Tara," my friend piped up. "Please, call me Tara."

"Since it's against policy for any non-parent to stay the night, we'll have to ask the Chief for an exception," Dr. Brigant said somewhat cautiously, as if trying not to get Captain Northman's hopes up.

"But he'll cave," Dr. Ludwig said confidently before turning and striding toward Jase to begin her exam. "Even if his own son's too afraid to ask him to. I'll ask, and he'll say 'yes'."

Dr. Brigant chuckled. "You know my dad likes you more than me," he said to the unpleasant doctor.

She rolled her eyes before focusing on Jase.

Captain Northman moved so that he could observe the doctor. Given the intentness of his gaze, he didn't even seem to notice as I grabbed my purse and left with Tara.

We made it as far as the elevator before she commented. "I had no idea that Captain Northman was a freakin' Adonis!"

I chuckled. "Me neither. But the important thing is that he obviously thinks the world of Jase!"

"Yeah—I got that from his protective stance when we were leaving," Tara chuckled.

As soon as the elevator doors closed, I grabbed her hand. "I'm so glad he's here." I wiped away a tear. "And it's not just because he's like this big, strong man either. I know we could have done this without him. But—uh—he just has this aura about him that makes me know that everything's going to work out—you know?"

"You and your auras," Tara chuckled. "One might think you're a witch or something."

I shrugged.

"But—for the record—I hope you're right," Tara emphasized, squeezing my hand.

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Eric POV

I called Corporal Reynolds to let him know that I likely wouldn't need a ride to my new home until sometime the next day. He asked if I wanted him to bring me some of the civvies he'd already managed to get for me, but I declined.

Until I had official permission to stay overnight at the hospital with Jason, I wasn't about to change out of my uniform, and I had a fresh one in my knapsack. I knew I'd be able to get more accomplished if I was dressed in uniform; I'd experienced firsthand how civilians would bend the rules a bit for military personnel. And—to stay with Jason—I was willing to use any advantage I had, even though I hated the idea of manipulating others in any way.

Nurse Indira, who'd brought me in a hospital tray not ten minutes after the doctors had exited, apologized up and down, promising that dinner would be better. Apparently, the main lunch dish, Salisbury steak, was not one of the Indian-American nurse's favorites. And—since it was so late in the afternoon—my lunch had likely been reheated, according to the contrite nurse.

I didn't bother letting her know that it tasted like a gourmet meal to me. Though MREs had been getting better and better over the years—no longer tasting like sandpaper—those were saved mostly for when we were on patrol. Marines were offered "cooked" meals when they were on a base of some kind, even if it was a pretty rudimentary one. Regardless, food during deployments got redundant as hell—unless a soldier happened to be stationed with a cook who was able to get some fresh ingredients, a feat that wasn't easy, given the fact that food security was essential to a base of soldiers. Yes—as frightening as it might sound—I'd led enough briefings about the dangers of eating unapproved food to have become reticent about buying even an apple from a local marketplace. And even the best chef in the world could only do so much with the mostly nonperishables that the Marine Corps had to offer to its soldiers in the rougher parts of the world.

Moreover, due to my previous mission and my hurried trip, that Salisbury steak was my first hot food for almost two weeks! It was an even bigger bonus to have vegetables that weren't out of a can on my plate!

After eating, I stood up to stretch a bit. Although becoming a Captain had meant more time behind a desk, sitting for long stretches of time still made me a bit antsy. I walked over to check on Jason. Nurse Indira had been kind enough to explain what the various monitors meant, so I studied them for a moment to ensure that Jason's vitals were within the expected range.

Assured of that, I took my laptop out of my knapsack. Although I didn't know if I could access the Internet from the hospital, I knew that I could draft some emails to people I kept in touch with. First and foremost, I needed to let Pam know about my changed situation. Also, I needed to contact my old counselor, Dr. Avery, to have him send my files to Bailey Base, where I figured I'd need a new psychologist sooner rather than later. Alternatively, I planned to look into seeing Dr. Crane so that I wouldn't have to leave the hospital to get my counseling.

Clearly designed for long-term stay in mind, Jason's room had a small desk, which I settled at. It wasn't much later that Nurse Maggie entered, pushing a small cart with the equipment needed to draw my blood.

"Well—I've got good news and I've got bad news," she grinned.

I stood and raised my eyebrow in question.

"That little blood sample we took from you earlier came back clean as a whistle, so I'm here to be your own personal vampire."

"That's the bad news?" I asked.

"No," she chuckled. "The bad news is that I've been told to beg and coerce you to become a regular blood and plasma donor."

I frowned. "What's the difference?"

She smiled and gestured for me to sit and put my arm onto the top of the cart she'd brought in; then, with an alcohol swab, she cleaned the site where she intended to draw my blood. "Well—regular old blood has everything, including red blood cells, white blood cells, platelets, and plasma—the whole shebang, so to speak. But it takes a while for red blood cells to replenish, so we let people donate that only once every three months. We can take plasma in between those times though."

"How?" I asked curiously.

"You do like to learn—don't you, Captain?" she chuckled. "Basically, we hook you up to a machine that draws your blood; separates the blood cells from the plasma; and then re-injects your red and white blood cells back into you, along with saline."

I considered for a moment. "Would I be weaker—in between. I'll need to be at my best for Jason and his mother," I said, glancing at the child.

"Plasma donation might be a bit much then; in my experience, most people who donate it feel some fatigue, especially if they do it often. So I'd suggest just regular donations," she whispered conspiratorially. "Plasma works opposite of blood, so you're actually a universal donor of plasma, which can be really helpful for certain kinds of treatments, but you've got other priorities right now. A once-every-three-months donation of blood, though, wouldn't affect your overall energy level. And we could always call you in if there's a special need for plasma."

"I'll do that," I agreed quickly. It really was the least I could do, given that the hospital was helping to keep Jason and Sookie alive.

Nurse Maggie smiled widely. "Thanks. I'll let the lab know. Just be aware that they will call with reminders if you forget to come in for your donation. And I might joke about bein' a vampire, but those folks really are!" she winked and shuddered in an exaggerated way.

I mustered a smile for her as she got me situated to take my blood.

She'd injected the needle, and I was already filling the pint-sized bag when she said, "Oh yeah! I almost forgot the good news. The Chief of Staff, Dr. Brigant—not Fintan, but Niall—has upped you to honorary parent status for as long as Jase is here."

"That's good," I said with a smile.

"Yeah—it'll be good for Jase. That's for sure!" she enthused as she went over to the partition that had been dividing Jason's half of the room from an unused half. Once moved, it revealed a similar set-up to the one on Jason's side.

"You can use the other hospital bed in here for tonight and until Mrs. Herveaux can be moved in. After that, we'll bring in a cot for you on the nights you stay. It won't be that comfortable, I'm afraid, but it is padded, and it'll be much better than that old thing for someone of your size," she said, pointing to a chair next to Jason's bed.

It was clear that the chair reclined, but it would have likely been more uncomfortable than throwing a couple of blankets onto the tile floor and sleeping there.

"I'm sure it'll be fine," I assured as Nurse Maggie checked the bag.

She grinned. "You're a fast giver. The boys and girls in the lab will absolutely love you, though I bet the girls will love you more," she added with a wink as she disengaged the bag and then covered my small needle wound with a piece of cotton before securing it to my arm with a bandage. "That can come off in a couple of hours." She took out one of two orange juice containers she'd brought and opened one. "These will help you not to suffer any tiredness."

I nodded in understanding and obediently drank as Nurse Maggie shed one pair of gloves for another and then checked Jason's vitals and head bandages.

"Everything look good?" I asked as she completed her work.

"Yes. He's really doing great—all things considered. Oh—and we do have an ethernet line you can use to access the Internet in here; it's a little slow, but it gets the job done. I'll bring you an access code and the cord you'll need if you like."

"Thanks. That would be useful," I said with a nod.

"Well—we'll see you in a bit," she smiled as she collected her equipment and my blood and left.

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A/N: In this chapter, I wanted to offer a different view of Eric—from someone watching him. A reader of the previous chapter pointed out that he is dealing with the situation of Jase and Sookie's injuries and the tragedy surrounding them in a very soldierly way: assessing the situation and then jumping into action to deal with it practically. I think that the thing I find most admirable about soldiers is their ability to stay calm in the face of horrible situations. In this story, I'm trying to present Eric as "a soldier's soldier"—meaning he fulfills all the best kinds of stereotypes we understand about soldiers, even as he deals with the fall-out of facing and living through wars. I wanted to use Amelia's point of view to help paint this picture of Eric, and I hope that I succeeded in making him relatable to soldiers you know.

Please leave a comment if you have the time and/or inclination.

Best,

Kat

Chapter Text

Chapter 10: Above My Pay Grade

Shreveport, Louisiana • June 25, 2010 • 0530 hours/5:30 a.m.

Eric POV

All things considered, I'd slept well in the hospital room. Of course, there's no way that I could have slept through the nurses doing their bi-hourly checks on Jason. After all, as a Marine, I'd been sleeping with one eye open for a very long time, and any noise I wasn't used to would rouse me. Plus, I'd needed to know that Jason was still doing well—from one of those checks to the next. Placating that need, the nurses had humored me by speaking aloud Jason's vitals as they'd taken them—just so that I could know he was well without needing to get up to spy through his chart every couple of hours.

At 0400, I'd risen and stood next to Jason, holding his little hand and offering words of encouragement and strength for his upcoming surgery. He'd woken up for only a few seconds, but he had remembered that I would be there, and he'd seemed comforted because of it.

That alone made me know that I'd made the right choice by coming to Louisiana.

Jason had been wheeled out of his room at 0445. I'd taken the opportunity to shower and change into my fresh uniform. And then I'd found myself pacing until Nurse Halleigh—not to be confused with Holly, another of the current shift's nurses—suggested that I go in and wait with Sookie.

Not that she would be conscious for the visit. Nurse Halleigh had just figured that we'd be better off "waiting together."

Since Sookie was in a more "germ-sensitive" part of the ward, I was required to do what Nurse Halleigh called a "light scrub in," which meant that I had to put on gloves and a gown over my clothing before I visited Sookie's room. My boots were also covered with little booties that barely stretched to fit. However, my high and tight haircut wasn't deemed in need of a cap to cover it.

I found myself wondering if Colonel James Flood was a stickler about haircuts. Honestly, I was ready to grow mine out a bit—nothing too long, but enough to be able to style it a bit. Don't get me wrong—the high and tight was something I was used to, something easy to deal with in a combat zone. But I preferred letting my blonde hair get to the point that its color could actually be seen! Of course, it was quite possible that—when I finally got to grow it out—it would be gray.

Nurse Halleigh showed me how to get myself ready and then led me to Sookie's room.

I knew I'd never—not as long as I lived (even if I managed to make it to 100)—forget my first "in-person" look at Sookie Herveaux.

For lack of a better word, I was "shell-shocked."

Unlike Jason, she had a tube down her throat helping her to breathe due to her collapsed lung. Her right leg—the one that had suffered the compound fracture—was raised up and in traction. And she still had a neck brace in place, likely to help keep her broken back relatively immobile. I could tell that part of her usually lustrous blond hair had been shaved, and she was sporting a large bandage on her head. Like Jason, she also had various bruises and abrasions covering the flesh I could see. She was pale, even though I knew her to keep a tan from the times I'd seen her on Skype.

But my shock had not come from her serious condition.

It was her beauty—bursting forth through all the bandaging—that struck me, creating an unexpected feeling I'd never experienced during my life. I'd seen pictures of Sookie from Bill. Hell! I'd held on to one of those pictures ever since I'd packed up Bill's footlocker to send his belongings home to his widow! I'd also seen Sookie on Skype, of course.

But—in person—she was breathtaking to me, even in her current battered condition.

Feeling rattled, I considered leaving the room. I could not—would not—entertain ideas about Bill's wife! It didn't matter that he was dead and gone or that she had married again. Sookie was Bill's girl. She was his: the love of his life, the mother of his child.

"She's in bad shape, huh?" Nurse Halleigh said from behind me as she walked around me to go to the bed to check Sookie's vitals.

"Getting better though—right?" I asked, my voice barely seeming my own as it roughly conveyed the question. I swallowed hard.

She turned briefly to smile at me. "It was real rough going for a while there, but her vitals are stronger and more consistent today, so I think she's gonna get to see her little boy—or, at least, be moved to his room."

I nodded, not wanting to test my voice again.

Finishing up her checks, Nurse Halleigh scooted a chair closer to the bed. "I'll come by with updates about Jase's surgery. I think Dr. Brigant told you it was gonna take about five hours—right?"

I nodded. "Yes, Ma'am," I managed.

"How about I bring you some coffee. The stuff from the machines is like tar, and what the cafeteria offers isn't much better, but we keep our own maker in our breakroom." She grinned and whispered conspiratorially. "In fact, if you bring in a couple of bags of ground and promise to make a fresh pot whenever you empty one, I'll show you where the maker is."

"I thought food wasn't allowed in here, Ma'am," I said, my eyes still fixed on Sookie.

"Coffee or water is okay, Captain—as long as you keep the drink away from all the machines. How do you take yours?"

"Thank you, Ma'am," I conveyed. "I just take it black."

She blushed. "It's the Ma'am stuff," she giggled to explain her reddened face. "And probably the uniform," she added fanning herself like a schoolgirl.

"Regardless, I appreciate the kindness," I said sincerely. "You and the others have gone above and beyond."

"So have you," she said just as sincerely, "and all the others like you. You were in Afghanistan?"

I nodded. "I've had several tours—some there and some in Iraq. My latest was in Afghanistan."

"I have a brother that serves—Army," she shared and then chuckled. "He never was one to do well in school, but he's a real good soldier. He makes our parents real proud."

"Yes, Ma'am," I said with a nod.

"Well—I'll get you that coffee. It'll have to be in a Styrofoam cup, but if you bring your own travel cup, you can start using that."

"It really is very kind of you and the other nurses to offer," I reiterated.

"You're gonna be here for a while," she sighed. "Even once they stabilize, they'll likely stay on this floor for several weeks so that they can be monitored more closely. And—from what I hear—you're planning to be here just about every night—right?"

I nodded.

"Best to make yourself a little at home then," she grinned, patting my arm on her way out of the room.

Without the conversation to distract me, I again focused my attention onto Sookie. I still hadn't moved closer to the bed, and a part of me desperately wanted to bolt away from the room.

Of course, the feeling was illogical, and it disconcerted me like nothing else ever had. I'd never run from anything before—not even when I knew someone would be shooting at me if I moved forward!

And—of course—Sookie wasn't a threat.

She felt like something greater to me.

But I was a Marine. And Bill was my brother, the closest friend I'd ever had in my life. "You're Bill's," I said softly, but firmly, even as I recognized the ridiculousness of my statement. Of course, a person couldn't belong to another, at least not in the way I was thinking. And—from Jason—I knew that Sookie was an independent woman, having gotten her business degree in just three years. I knew that she'd also used Bill's life insurance from the Corps to buy Merlotte's, a bar and grill in Bon Temps that the previous owner had needed to sell after his aging mother had asked him to move home to Texas in order to help her out.

According to Jason, in addition to managing Merlotte's and getting her degree, Sookie also did the bookkeeping for her husband's construction company. I'd often wondered how she found the time to do all that she did, and I determined to ask Tara and Amelia if things were being taken care of in respect to Sookie's business and bills. I was an adept bookkeeper—having first gotten some experience in Mrs. Cataliades's accounting firm during my senior year of high school. And—even after that—I'd often been the go-to person my C.O.s would turn to for filling out paperwork, which included making inventories and filling out requisition requests for essentials like food, hygiene products, clothing, weapons, and ammunition. I was also used to making duty schedules. Of course, I'd never managed a restaurant, but I figured I might be able to help.

I had hoped that thinking through all these practical matters might have caused my feet to move, but they hadn't—not one step closer to Sookie's bed.

I was interrupted from my frozenness by Nurse Holly, who arrived holding a large travel mug.

"Hello, Captain! Halleigh said that she'd lassoed you into our coffee ring," she winked.

"Coffee ring?" I asked.

She chuckled. "We rope a lot of our long-term visitors in. Basically, they supply us with free coffee in exchange for a little of their own. It's always a better deal for us," she grinned as she handed me the cup. "A past visitor left his travel mug behind when his wife was released. Trust me—this works a lot better than Styrofoam," she said, wrinkling her nose in disgust.

I didn't bother to tell her that I'd had a disproportionately large amount of coffee from Styrofoam cups. Of course, I agreed with her negative assessment of them. It just didn't seem healthy to drink coffee from a cup that always warped and melted a bit around the hot beverage.

"Thanks, Ma'am," I said with a nod.

"You know, we do the glove and the gown thing in here just to be sure, but you shouldn't worry about the germ thing too much. You can sit next to her," she emphasized, gesturing toward the chair closest to Sookie's bed. Clearly, she'd taken the fact that I'd stayed hovering around the door as reticence to approach Sookie out of fear for her health status.

"Yes, Ma'am," I said, finally getting my feet to move and going over to the chair to sit down. "Thank you," I added again, raising the coffee cup.

"You're welcome, Captain," she smiled before leaving the room.

I took a drink of the hot coffee; it was really good. I'd have to ask Corporal Reynolds to shop for some more. The Marines bought in bulk, of course. And the coffee they got couldn't be defined as high end by any stretch of the imagination, so I had no idea what would constitute a good coffee brand anymore. And I didn't want to buy the nurses crappy Joe.

Carefully, I put the beverage onto a little table behind me and looked at Sookie's monitors. Her numbers didn't seem as strong as Jason's had been, but they were steady. I knew that for sure; indeed, I studied them for at least 20 minutes, my eyes focused on the machines only.

After I'd distracted myself with the medical equipment for as long as I could—and, truthfully, once the pull of looking at Sookie again impaled my discipline—I followed one of the lines from the IV machine to Sookie's pale arm. Following an impulse that I couldn't quite stop, I reached out and touched that arm with the lightest of contact humanly possible.

Even through the gloves, that touch was enough to determine that her skin was soft and smooth; however, I did not let my touch linger. Instead, I stood and took a step away from the bed.

"Hello, Mrs. Herveaux," I said formally; I'd learned to call her by her new husband's name not long after her marriage to Alcide Herveaux, though it had been difficult to not think of her as Mrs. Compton. She'd asked me to address her as Sookie once, but it had been difficult for me to do so—even in my head. And during the few times I'd spoken with her via Skype, I tended to address her as Ma'am.

"Mrs. Herveaux," I repeated, "I don't know if Tara or Amelia told you that they called me in Afghanistan. They did, but it took me some time to get here; I apologize for that. You might be wondering why I'm here at all." I took a deep breath. "Jason asked for me—you see? So they called me, and I came." I was at a loss of words for a moment. "I came here to make sure you and Jason are squared away, Ma'am," I explained, not knowing if she could hear me. "I arrived yesterday and will be here until you and Jason are on your feet again," I clarified, even as I thought of Jason's amputation. He would get on his feet again—just one of them wouldn't be made of flesh and blood. "I know you'd prefer that Mr. Herveaux was here with you—or Bill's parents. But I promise I'll do my best. Jason's in surgery now, getting some pins in his left leg to set his broken femur." I checked my watch. "He's been in there for 90 minutes now, and they say the procedure should take about five hours, so he's well on his way, Ma'am."

I stopped speaking, not exactly sure what to say or do next. "Your friends, Amelia and Tara will likely be here at about 0800—I mean 8:00 a.m. That's when visiting hours begin. It's about 90 minutes from now."

Again, I stopped speaking, trying to think of something else to tell her—other than that she was beautiful and made me feel things that were extremely inappropriate, given the situation.

Obviously, it would be wrong to tell her that she was the most captivating creature I'd ever seen or that my entire body seemed to gravitate toward her. It would be wrong to convey that my heart was swelling, just being in the same room with her. It would be wrong to let her know that I longed to take her hand and to hold it—to beg that she wake up so that I could see her eyes up close. It would be wrong to tell her that I wanted to climb into her bed next to her, just to hold her in my arms and tell her that everything would be okay.

It was wrong to even think those things! It was impossible to contemplate saying them.

But thoughts like those were the ones my tongue seemed to want to speak out, so I kept my mouth shut.

Happily, my eyes fell upon a little table in the opposite corner of the room. On it were several books, including the bible and a couple of well-worn, hard-bound classics. I'd never been one for religion, though I did believe in a higher power. Soldiers tended to go in one of two directions when it came to God while they were in the middle of a combat zone. Some came to doubt his existence because of the horrors they saw and experienced firsthand. Others found themselves saying prayers to themselves before they went into an active warzone and even more of them while they were in the thick of things.

All I knew was that I was the prayer kind of soldier. And—yes—I'd seen horrors enough to justify doubting that there was a God. Hell! The sight of Sookie's broken body might have made me doubt. Not to mention the tragedy that had put her into that bed and Jason onto an operating table on the floor above us. But—instead of doubting God—I found myself saying a little prayer, asking Him to look over Sookie, just as I'd prayed earlier that Jason would be looked over during his surgery. Ultimately, I'd seen a lot more miracles—times when people should have died, but didn't—than I'd seen horrors.

So I guess I was religious enough, though I'd never even picked up a bible. Of course, I knew enough about one to know that I wouldn't have the vaguest idea about where to find a good story for Sookie to listen to. And I also knew that some of the bible wasn't that pleasant. I'd seen The Ten Commandments once—shown to the troops around Easter during one of my years in Iraq—so I knew that some stories had a lot of death and plagues. I didn't want to risk reading one of those, so I picked up the other two volumes. One was The Great Gatsby and one was Jane Eyre. Though I'd read neither one, I chose the latter, thinking it might be more appealing to Sookie.

I returned to the seat, feeling much better for having a task to perform, and took a drink of coffee before opening to the first page of the novel. And then I read.

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A/N: Hello all! I hope that you enjoyed this chapter. It's a bit shorter than the usual for this particular story; however, this is where the natural ending came.

If you have a moment and a kind word about this story, I hope you'll leave it. Your comments always help, and I'd be especially grateful to them.

Best,

Kat

Chapter Text

Chapter 11: Take Cover

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NOTE: This chapter begins about thirty minutes after the last.

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Shreveport, Louisiana • June 25, 2010 • 0710 hours/7:10 a.m.

Eric POV, continued

I was second guessing my choice of books. Jane Eyre was damned depressing from the onset; it depicted a little orphaned girl, bullied by all those around her—unwanted. In truth, the story hit me pretty damned close to home, but I kept reading nonetheless, hoping things would get better for little Jane.

I was interrupted by a concerned-looking Nurse Halleigh.

"Captain, there's some news from Jase's surgery," she said.

I stood up, putting the book onto the seat as I did so; I'd learned that it was best if I took bad news when I was on my feet.

"What's wrong?" I asked. I knew from the nurse's face that things weren't going well.

"Jase's little body's been through so much trauma that his little heart stopped on the table."

My heart stopped, too.

"They have it going again," she continued quickly, and he's stabilized—for now. They were in the middle of the surgery on his femur when it happened, and they've decided to continue it. They think it'll be okay to go on with the surgery, but it's gonna take a while longer than they thought it would."

I nodded and—feeling a little light-headed—breathed again.

"Dr. Brigant called in the other Dr. Brigant to stay for the rest of the surgery, and—between you and me—Dr. Niall Brigant's got a bit of a magical touch when it comes to the heart."

I nodded again.

Nurse Halleigh approached me and laid her hand on my arm for a moment. "I'll be sure to keep you up to speed, Captain."

I nodded yet again, not being able to express any words—not even the 'thank you' I wanted to say. The nurse quickly checked Sookie's vitals and then left the room.

I felt warmth sliding down my right cheek and knew it was a tear. The last I'd shed had been when Bill died. I turned to look at Sookie. Again, seeing her tore at my heart in many complicated ways and also tore a few more tears from me. I reached down and took her hand—the hand of a stranger, the hand of one of the three most important people in my world.

"He won't die!" I promised her vehemently, even as I softly squeezed her hand; despite the glove I wore, I could feel her warmth. Of course, her hand lay motionless in mine, yet having the physical connection to her—even through the thin piece of latex—mattered to me in a profound way.

When was the last time I'd held a woman's hand? Had I ever?

I'd wanted to hold Pam's hand when I'd walked with her into the airport to catch the plane that would take her to England for the first time. However, she'd been holding her new father's hand.

I'd wanted to hold it when we'd scattered our parents' ashes in the garden, but I'd been holding the urns.

I couldn't remember ever holding my mother's hand. Perhaps, I'd held it when I was too young to remember—when she needed to wrangle me to go with her some place. But I couldn't remember ever going anywhere with my mother when I was a child. Or maybe I'd held one of the nannies' hands. I didn't know. I couldn't remember.

I'd never held the hands of any of the women with whom I'd had sex. Even with Thalia, my longest relationship up to that moment, hand-holding wasn't something we did. She was the kind of woman that was upfront about liking sex—and liking it regularly with someone who could keep up his part of a conversation. And that was the kind of relationship we had: uncomplicated companionship and physical pleasure—without feelings beyond generally liking each other.

Certainly without little intimacies like hand-holding.

And—even if I'd held a woman's hand that I couldn't remember—I'd never felt anything like I felt in that moment. Like a spark was working its way through me.

All from a simple—almost touch.

Of course, these thoughts and revelations were secondary to me in that moment. Jason was my primary focus—my current mission's main objective.

"Even if I have to give Jason every ounce of the blood in my body, he won't die," I promised again, though I knew it was a promise I didn't have the power to keep. So I prayed to God that he would help me to keep it.

Sookie simply lay there, having no idea what was happening around her—at least, I hoped she didn't. I squeezed her hand gently and closed my eyes, feeling another tear grazing a fresh path along my cheek.

And I continued to pray, knowing that somehow—someway—praying with Sookie's hand in mine was making my prayers more powerful.

Knowing that—feeling it—I kept praying.

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Tara POV

"Captain?" I voiced as I came into Sookie's hospital room. Amelia had broken down crying when Nurse Halleigh told us that Jase might be in trouble. She'd gone to the bathroom to pull herself together.

Truth be known, I would likely need some time in one of the bathroom stalls in the ICU before the day was over; such an "errand" was becoming an almost daily habit. But currently, it seemed that it was "my turn" to be strong.

His back turned to the door, Captain Northman placed Sookie's hand down onto the bed slowly—gently—and then took a moment to slide his gloved hands over his face. I wasn't about to comment on the tears he was likely wiping away.

"I'll be a moment, Ma'am," he said as he turned and walked out of the room, perhaps heading to Jason's room—where there was an ensuite bathroom—so that he could collect himself.

I went over and picked up Sookie's hand. "I'm here for the day, hon," I greeted. "So is Ames, but you know how she is about havin' to go to the bathroom 20 times a day. How she can be worse than pregnant me is one of life's great mysteries," I chuckled, though I didn't hear any mirth in my voice. "Anyway, Nurse Halleigh just told us that Jase had a bit of a scare during his operation, but he's holding his own now. And you know how brave and strong that little boy of yours is," I added quickly. "He'll be okay."

I went over to sit in the chair beside the bed, ready to get off of my swollen feet—even if it was only because of an uncomfortable chair. There was a book on the seat. I used the book sleeve to mark the spot in Jane Eyre, which Captain Northman must have been reading, before putting it onto the little table next to the bed.

A few minutes later, the captain walked back in.

"I apologize for not greeting you properly, Ma'am," he said with a little bow of the head.

I waved off his apology with a wave of my hand. "Don't worry about it. I think we're all a little raw right now. Did you sleep okay?"

"Yes. I was able to use the extra bed in Jason's room."

"You call him Jason and not Jase. Why's that?" I asked, having been curious about it since the day before.

Eric looked a bit confused for a moment.

"I mean—the nurses and doctors called him Jason at first because it's on his records, though they call him Jase now—even Dr. Ludwig most of the time. And—uh—I know you're important to Jase." I shook my head. "I was just curious is all. And I'm rambling to keep my mind off of things," I added, for some reason wanting to explain myself to the somewhat imposing man.

"The last time we talked via Skype," Eric shared after a moment, "he told me he was thinking about going by Jason. He ran the idea past me and wondered if I thought it would upset his mother if he did."

"Why would it?" I asked curiously.

"He thought it might make her sad to think of her brother if he went by his full name," the captain conveyed. "He was thinking it through, Ma'am; he asked me to call him 'Jason'—as a kind of test."

"Oh." I shook my head a little and chuckled. "You know, Sookie told me more than once that Jase's thoughtfulness came from you."

"I don't see how that could be, Ma'am," he said humbly. "I'm sure it's his mother that has taught him thoughtfulness. He often tells me stories about her kind acts."

I smiled up at him even as I put a hand over my kicking child.

"Don't get me wrong. Sookie's real thoughtful. But Jase is a different kind of thoughtful. He tends to be kind and compassionate—like his mom—puttin' others above himself. But he's also really thoughtful as he goes about it—meaning that he seems to think things through quite thoroughly before he does something. That's the part Sookie says comes from his talks with you."

He looked down at Sookie, his eyes softening. "It's an honor she thinks I've been a good influence," he conveyed, still looking at Sookie. The look he was giving her screamed that he was a man who was in love with the woman he was looking at.

But how could that be?

Still, looking at him—the mixture of care and passion so clearly in his eyes, despite his air of formality—I couldn't help but to wonder if I was right.

Did Captain Northman love Sookie?

"Had you really not met Sookie and Jase in person until now?" I asked after making sure a nurse wasn't lingering around the door. After all, we'd told them that Eric was Bill's actual brother.

He shook his head. "Bill used to invite me to Louisiana when we had leave, but he was a newlywed and then a new father. I figured his attention during leave should be 100% on his family since we didn't get a whole lot of leave between our training periods and deployments, Ma'am."

"See?" I said with a little smile. "Thoughtful."

He glanced at me and then back at Sookie, but he didn't say anything.

"Lafayette dropped some things off for you at my house last night—knowing I'd be coming here this morning. I think it's clothes and stuff, but—knowing Laf—he put other goodies in there too." I chuckled. "We left the bag in the car. My pregnancy seems to be messing with my memory, and Ames is a disaster at remembering anything. You can borrow my keys if you want to go get the bag."

"Thanks. I'll go after Jason is safely out of surgery," he said.

"Of course," I smiled at him.

At that point, Amelia came in with Nurse Halleigh, who had an update.

"Everything's still looking good," the nurse smiled. "There have been no more problems since Jase had that one episode. They've almost got all the pins in his leg, and then they'll close him up."

"Did they already do what they'd been planning with cleaning up the amputation?" Amelia asked, her voice catching with emotion.

"Yes," the nurse confirmed. "Dr. Lee had already finished doing his part before Jase's cardiac issue. Indeed, he quickly scrubbed back in and helped to revive him. That's when they called in Dr. Niall Brigant, too. Both Dr. Brigants and Dr. Lee are still in the O.R.—just in case. I think Dr. Lee just stayed so that he could make sure that he could give me detailed updates to pass on to y'all."

"Now, that's a doctor I could really have a crush on if I weren't married," I sighed.

Amelia and Nurse Halleigh chuckled; as expected, Eric remained stoic.

"Jase should be heading to recovery in half an hour," the nurse conveyed.

"Can I see him then?" Eric asked.

"Now—how did I know you'd ask that?" Nurse Halleigh said with a warm smile. "You'll have to change into scrubs and get completely scrubbed in in order to go into recovery, but I've already been given permission to take you back. And I've already pulled some scrubs for you if you want to come with me so that you can get ready. I don't know if they'll be long enough, but they'll do."

Eric left with the nurse after a sincere, "Thank you, Ma'am," and a final lingering glance at Sookie.

Meanwhile, Amelia went over to Sookie and took her hand. "I don't think I could take it if something more happened to that sweet kid."

"Me neither," I sighed.

"Speaking of sweet kids, how's yours?" she asked, gesturing toward my tummy.

"Practicing soccer moves," I chuckled. "J.B. is insisting that I take tomorrow off from all of this," I gestured around the room. "As long as that's okay for you—and things look good when we leave tonight," I added tiredly.

I'd not wanted to say anything, but being at the hospital all day, every day for so many days in a row was taking a toll on my body and my business. Of course, Sookie and Jase were a priority, but I wouldn't endanger my baby—not even for them. Unbeknownst to Amelia, Nurse Maggie, who used to work in the O.B. Department, had been checking my blood pressure regularly, concerned about the stress on my mind and body. So far, everything was still in the normal range, but my blood pressure readings were edging higher and higher by the day.

"Yeah," Amelia said, her eyes flashing concern. "You should take it easy. Anyway, I get the feeling that Captain Northman's gonna be here most of the time—day and night," she added with a little grin.

"I have the same feeling," I agreed, looking at Sookie, lying so frail in her bed.

"He wasn't looking at her like she was broken," I commented quietly.

"Huh?" Amelia asked, pulling a second chair—a much smaller and even more uncomfortable one—over to where mine sat.

"The captain." I shook my head a little, trying to put to words what I saw in his eyes. "When I came in, his back was to me, and he was looking at her—holding her hand."

"That's not unusual for someone to do when someone's in the hospital. And he certainly doesn't seem like a creep or anything to me," Amelia said, looking confused at my bringing up the topic.

"Oh—I'm not sayin' that at all!" I laughed. "Far from it. He'd been crying. I think he'd been," I paused, "sharing the moment with her, trying to be strong for her and get strength from her, given Jase's problems in the O.R."

"Well—that makes sense," Amelia stated.

"Yeah, but when he finally turned around, I swear I saw," I paused again and shook my head, "love in his eyes—for Sookie. And I thought I saw it again—when he was in the room just now."

Amelia frowned. "But he's never even met her before—at least not in person."

"I know," I said in a hushed voice. "And maybe I misinterpreted what I saw. I mean—I'm seein' everything through pregnancy hormones these days."

"Well—stranger things have happened than love at first sight—you know," Amelia whispered, leaning toward me conspiratorially.

"Yeah—but Sookie just lost her second husband," I emphasized.

"But has she ever found the love of her life?" Amelia asked even more quietly as if Sookie herself might be trying to overhear her. "I mean—I loved Bill. We grew up with him, and Sook and he just seemed meant to be in a lot of ways."

"But looking back, it seems like puppy love now," I sighed.

Amelia nodded in agreement. "And there was always something a little shady about him—like that time when we'd all drunk a bit too much at that bonfire and he tried to," she paused, glanced at Sookie, and lowered her voice even more, "kiss me. I mean—he and I laughed about it later. And he told me he thought I was Sookie till I opened my mouth and yelled at him."

I shook my head. "I remember. But I'm more focused on how he never seemed to put her first. I sometimes got the idea that he picked her because she fit some kind of cookie-cutter Southern Belle image that he wanted by his side when he ran for office," I commented. "But—you know—I do think he loved her."

"Me too. Alcide loved her too, and I don't mean to talk ill of the dead, but even Sookie would agree that he had that possessive thing going on sometimes," Amelia commented with a shake of her head.

"And the ability to talk her into his way of thinking about things," I added, though I, too, felt a little ashamed for critiquing the newly departed.

Amelia nodded in agreement. "Like when he convinced her to limit Captain Northman and Jase's interaction."

"I thought that was Sookie's idea," I commented with a frown. "Wasn't she worried that Jase was getting confused about which male role model he needed to look to first in his life?"

"Alcide planted that seed," Amelia said knowingly. "And you know as well as I do that Sookie would have run with that idea—since she was so concerned about making sure Alcide and Jase got along. And since she had her hang-ups about interacting with the captain too much because of what happened to Bill and Jason." She paused and took a deep breath. "Don't get me wrong. I think Alcide was a fine man and a good husband and father, but he wanted to be the center of Sookie's world, and—if any man even looked Sook's way—it was like he became all growly or something."

I nodded, remembering how Alcide and Sookie had gone through a rough patch around the time she bought Merlotte's from Sam. Alcide had believed that Sam was romantically interested in Sookie, and—if he'd been around several years before—he might have been right. But Sam had—long before—gotten over any attraction he'd felt for Sookie. And—even if he hadn't—she'd made it clear to him that being friends was all she was interested in, and he'd respected that.

Moreover, by the time Alcide and Sookie had become a couple, Sam was with his eventual wife Jannalynn, who attended pretty much every business meeting Sam and Sookie had before the sale.

And, of course, none of that should have mattered. Alcide should have trusted Sookie when she'd told him that Sam wasn't interested.

"But she was happy with both Alcide and Bill—at least most of the time," I commented. It was true, after all.

"Yeah—but I'm hoping she doesn't close herself off to the possibility of bein' happy again," Amelia responded fervently. "Eventually."

"True—but she shouldn't rush into anything either, and she's gonna be real vulnerable," I offered.

"Or she might turn away from the possibility of love altogether," Amelia said with a heavy sigh. "Hell—if I lost two husbands in less than a decade, I might too."

"Yeah. Me too," I agreed with a sigh of my own. I still remembered how Sookie had almost fought off her attraction for Alcide because she'd felt guilty about having feelings for anyone other than Bill. I knew that her grief for a second husband might leave her a shell of her former self—for a long time to come.

"We'll watch out for her," Amelia declared.

I nodded in agreement. We would.

I found myself wondering if anyone would watch out for Captain Northman. Or if he'd watch out for himself.

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A/N: Well—I hope that you enjoyed this chapter. I recall that writing the first draft of this one was hard, but I hope that I got Tara's voice pretty well. Remember, this is more book Tara, and she's more mellow than her show counterpart.

Thanks so much for all of your support—both for the story and for me personally. It means so much to me. And your kind words always lift my spirits.

Kat

Chapter Text

Chapter 12: I Got Your Six

Eric POV

I had been waiting in the recovery area for about thirty minutes when Jason's hospital bed was wheeled in by two orderlies. Dr. Lee, Dr. Fintan Brigant, and an older doctor followed—along with a male nurse I hadn't met.

I stood.

"You could definitely pass for a doctor in that," Dr. Lee chuckled.

I simply nodded, before moving to Jason's side.

"He's okay?" I asked.

Dr. Brigant came to stand next to me and put his hand onto my shoulder briefly—in a comforting motion. I wondered how many people—though most of them had probably been the fathers of his patients—that he'd comforted in such a way.

"He's a little weaker than we'd hoped he'd be when he came out of surgery, but we don't think it will set back his overall recovery time by too much," he assured.

"What happened? Why did his heart stop?" I asked.

The older doctor stepped forward a little; he had an air of authority that I usually noted in generals.

"His little heart got overwhelmed by everything he's been through," he responded. "Based on a study of Jase's cardiac rhythms yesterday, I'd thought that the bruising around his heart would not affect the surgery, but sometimes those things are difficult to predict. We'll keep an extra eye on him for a while, and I've already ordered constant cardiac studies to ensure that there's not an underlying issue with his heart that the bruising is exacerbating—or masking."

I noted that the doctor had an accent—not the same as I'd heard so much of in the London area when I'd gone to visit Pam, but similar—Welsh maybe?

"Dr. Brigant?" I asked.

"Yes. Where are my manners?" the distinguished-looking man stated. "I am Dr. Niall Brigant." He nodded at me, and I nodded back.

"Thank you. Thank you for making sure he didn't die," I found myself saying to the doctors.

All three nodded their acknowledgment.

"The procedure to set his broken femur went perfectly," Dr. Fintan Brigant shared. "Despite the severity of the break, I think he'll have very limited issues with it once it's healed."

"And the area around his amputation?" I asked gesturing toward the leg that was not in traction.

"The wound is really clean. As I'd hoped, he'll be able to keep his knee, and the nerves I worked on the day he was brought in are reactive. That will make adapting to his prosthetic that much easier when the time comes. With this kind of amputation, he really should be able to walk very soon after he can put weight on his broken leg."

"That's good," I said, looking back as Jason.

"We're going to keep him in here for about 24 hours just in case he needs to go back into surgery and because there is constant monitoring here," Dr. Niall Brigant said. He pointed to the male nurse, "Ben will keep an eye on him."

I nodded at the man, who looked to be about 35 years old. He had a kind look in his eyes—as if he'd take it personally if anything bad happened to Jason. I liked that.

"And my intern Karen will be checking on him every half hour," Dr. Niall Brigant assured.

"Should I remove my things from his other room?" I asked.

"No. Dr. Ludwig is planning to move Mrs. Herveaux in there this afternoon if her vitals hold," Dr. Lee informed. "And—though we made an exception and let you be in here now—you won't be able to stay in here after 5:00 p.m."

"What if he wakes up?" I asked, suddenly pensive.

"He won't, given his current level of sedation," Dr. Niall Brigant assured. "Karen will stay with him whenever possible, but after a certain time, we don't allow visitors to stay in recovery. And I don't make exceptions for that policy—not even for a brave Marine, Captain."

I nodded. "Yes, Sir," I said, accepting that his word was final. I didn't like that particular policy, but I also knew that a lot of rules were already being broken for me, and I wasn't going to push my luck.

Dr. Fintan Brigant patted my shoulder again, and then he and Dr. Lee left while Dr. Niall Brigant checked Jason over.

I couldn't help but to look on in concern.

"He should have already died—about three times over," Dr. Niall Brigant said once he was done. "You should find comfort—and strength—in the fact that he has not."

I looked at him. "Yes—when Ms. Broadway told me about his condition—and his mother's—I realized how lucky they were to be alive."

Dr. Brigant nodded. "I'm sure that you have seen a lot of injuries, Son—maybe even more catastrophic trauma than I've seen during my whole career."

"Yes, Sir," I responded, knowing that he was likely accurate.

"Well—then you know that sometimes it's not about the injury. It's about the person underneath it. The strength of the heart—the reason why I became a doctor in the first place. The heart is what determines life or death—and not just its beating either."

"Yes, Sir," I repeated in agreement.

"This child and his mother are both made up of sturdy stock, Captain. Rest in that knowledge."

"Thank you, Sir," I said, feeling a little choked up, though my emotion did not come through in my tone. The doctor gave me a nod and then left.

Ben came over a few minutes later to offer me a chair and to apologize that I couldn't have food or drinks in the recovery area. He also explained the process I'd need to follow if I left to use the restroom or to get some food; basically, I'd have to "scrub in" again.

As he went about checking the two other patients in the recovery area, logging information into their charts as he did so, I sat down next to Jason. Having nothing else to do, I thought about how much he resembled his father and what a good friend Bill Compton had been to me. I couldn't help but to feel an almost overwhelming sense of thankfulness as I contemplated the gift Bill had given to me—the honor of looking over the little boy in front of me. I wondered if Bill, too, was looking out for him from the afterlife. I hoped so; Jason would need all the help he could get, adapting to the changes that were heading his way.

If he survived.

"You will," I whispered to Jason.

My thoughts turned next toward whether or not Bill was looking over Sookie. And that led to the inevitable—reexamining what being in the same room with Sookie had made me feel.

One thing was for certain: I'd never felt such a thing before—as if my heart were beating for another person, as if some sort of thread was attaching me to her.

Pulling me to her.

Some bond that seemed beyond anything real-life had ever taught me existed.

It was wrong to feel such a thing for her. I knew it was very wrong.

Once again, I listed off the reasons for that in my head.

She was in a vulnerable condition.

As soon as she woke up and learned about her husband's death, she would be in an even more vulnerable state.

In addition to her husband, she'd also just lost her grandmother, whom I knew had raised her from the time that her parents had died. And she'd lost Jackson Herveaux, whom I knew—from Jason—that she'd started calling "Dad."

She had a long road of recovery ahead, and so did her son.

She would likely not want to have anything to do with a man for a long time—after having been widowed for a second time.

Even if she did ever seek out another, she likely wouldn't want a Marine.

And—even if she could stand facing the risk of another husband dying in combat—I didn't have much at all that I could offer her.

Materially, I had some money in the bank from the sale of my parents' Long Beach home, though I'd used a chunk of my half of the profits to cover the real estate agent's fees. Indeed, by the time the remaining debt on the house had been put against the profit, there hadn't been very much for Pam or me at all. Thankfully, my sister's natural father was very wealthy. Of course, my Captain's pay was good and I'd not had many expenses, so I'd saved a fair amount of my salary over the years, but I knew—having once heard Bill talking to his father, William, about it myself—just how much wealth Bill had left for Sookie and Jason. It was a lot more money than they'd ever need. Moreover, given Sookie's independence, I doubted any money I had would impress her at all.

As for security—I couldn't offer her much there either. I was a Marine. As long as I was that, I would have to go where they sent me, for even the most stable of duty stations could be disrupted by the outbreak of a new conflict.

That left me with only myself to offer. And who was I? Beyond what I did for the Marine Corps, I didn't feel like I had much of a "me" worked out. Oh—I tried to be a good brother to Pam. And I'd always tried to be exactly what Jason needed at the time: whether it be a friend, a father figure, or a more "distant" uncle. However—when it came down to brass tacks—there just wasn't much to me, beyond the pretty package I knew that some women appreciated. Indeed, if anything, a smart woman should stay away from me. My therapists had determined that I was "prone to emotional disconnection," a wonderful "asset" for a Marine.

A horrible one for a man looking to be more than just a warm body to a woman in need of a fuck.

And—anyway—even if Sookie could overcome all of my shortcomings, I had to consider the main reason why I could never be with her.

Bill.

He'd asked me to watch over his son and his wife.

Not to be a father or husband.

I shook my head. If Bill was watching, he'd likely be disgusted by my thoughts about Sookie.

Moreover, both Jason and Sookie needed me to be strong for them as a caretaker. That was where my focus had to be—not on sentimental thoughts or ideas.

"I'll be strong for you and your mother, buddy," I said, using an endearment I'd heard a couple Marines call their sons—when I'd happened to overhear them on the phone. The word coming out of my mouth surprised me a little, making me feel a warmth I'd not experienced.

I sighed, wondering if I ought to try to avoid such endearments—and then deciding to do just that. Jason had asked me to call him "Jason"—after all.

My thoughts were interrupted when a striking-looking woman entered the area, nodding to Ben as she walked into Jason's little cubicle.

"Hi, Captain Northman. I'm Dr. Karen Newton, Dr. Brigant's intern," she introduced herself. Even behind her mask, I could tell that she was smiling, and I would almost guarantee that it was a lovely one.

In fact, she really was lovely all over. She was slim, but not too slim. Her eyes were large and bluish-green, and I could tell that her hair was a vibrant red because of a few wisps that were defying her scrub cap. I couldn't help but to appreciate how she looked, having not been around many women who were not under my command.

Despite that appreciation, however, I found myself comparing her unfavorably to Sookie.

"Dr. Newton," I said, even as she took her own moment to assess my physique.

Her eyes sparkled with appreciation. "I see you're wearing one of our uniforms. I really hope to see you in one of yours soon. I just love a man in uniform," she added flirtingly.

"I was told this is the proper attire for this area of the hospital, Ma'am," I said, making sure that my tone was respectful, but not encouraging.

Her eyes showed a moment's disappointment before she nodded. Then she took a few minutes to look over Jason, checking the readings on the machines as well as the output in his urine bag before writing some information down.

"I'll be the one conducting the study of Jase's heart—just to make sure there is nothing wrong with it beyond the bruising from the accident. Dr. Brigant was thinking that Jase might have a slight heart murmur, based on some of his initial assessment, but that could be from the bruising, too."

"What would that mean?" I asked.

"Usually nothing. Murmurs are generally asymptomatic, but they can indicate a valve problem. It's not unheard of to develop a valve issue because of trauma. Or—it's possible that Jase's developed with his last growth spurt. Usually, when that's the case, the issue resolves on its own. But we want to make sure there's not a more serious valve problem—either caused or exacerbated by the accident."

I nodded and went to sit down so that Dr. Newton could finish up her work.

"He's doing well—following the surgery," she assured when she was finished.

"Thank you, Ma'am," I returned.

She gave me a little nod, and I could tell that she was smiling again. "I'll see you in about half an hour, Captain," she said before she leaving Jason's area and passing the desk occupied by Ben. She stopped for a few minutes and used the computer. I didn't show any reaction as Ben quietly teased her for being "shot down" when she'd tried to get with "the Marine."

It wasn't their faults that my hearing was better than average—despite my many years of being underneath water and then way too close to exploding bombs. I was just glad that Dr. Newton wasn't planning to try flirting again. Indeed, she felt awkward for flirting at all when she was supposed to be focusing on Jason.

"Jason," I said to myself as I looked at the boy.

I couldn't fault Karen since I'd been focusing too much time thinking about Sookie and how beautiful she was, instead of keeping my focus where it belonged: on the little boy in front of me.

"I'll try to do better, Jason," I promised.

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Ten Hours Later

Sookie POV

I heard a muffled beeping sound—as if I were lying in a tub with my ears below water and the beeping was coming from overhead somewhere.

It was getting louder though.

My alarm clock?

The first thing I recognized after the beeping was that every inch of my body felt heavy. I tried moving, but I seemed trapped in one of those odd dreams a person can get entangled in when they are right between being awake and falling asleep.

The scary kind where it feels like you'll be attacked or die if you don't wake up.

But I couldn't wake up.

Yet I was aware. And I really, really wanted to wake up.

I knew that I needed to for some reason.

"Mrs. Herveaux?" came a voice from above me. "You moved your fingers, Mrs. Herveaux," the male voice spoke again. It sounded familiar somehow, but I couldn't place it with my head still underwater.

"Mrs. Herveaux? Sookie!" the voice said a little more urgently. "Please," the man seemed to beg, though more quietly. "Please be okay."

"Okay?" I thought to myself. What did the man mean? Why wouldn't I be okay?

"Can you squeeze my hand again?" the voice asked.

I think I tried, but I couldn't tell if I'd done as requested.

"It's okay if you can't," the voice soothed. "I've got you."

I felt him squeezing my hand; the feeling was comforting.

It was like one of those lifesaver rings that was thrown from a boat to a drowning victim. Did those things even have a name? I couldn't think of it as I seemed to be drifting away again.

"I have you and Jason both."

The mention of my child brought me back toward the voice; I was swimming against the current now. I wanted to ask the voice what it meant. What was wrong with Jase?

But I couldn't open my eyes.

And then I couldn't even try.

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A/N:

I have to say that I love this Eric. I identify with him. It took me a long time—and I still struggle—to find my own self-worth. This Eric has been put through the ringer in life, but he's survived. He just needs some help learning the thrive. But that will come.

Anyway, thanks for continuing to read my work. I still take a lot of pleasure in writing. Please leave a comment if you have the time and the inclination.

All the best,

Kat

Chapter Text

Chapter 13: Fire Watch

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NOTE 1: This chapter occurs four days after the previous.

NOTE 2: "Fire watch"—in the military—refers to a sentry in a non-combat area, usually guarding something or someone of some importance.

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June 29, 2010 • 7:00 p.m./1900 hours

Sookie POV

When I became aware again, I heard the voice again.

It was reading to me.

I tried to awaken, but my eyes still wouldn't open. After a few moments, I stopped fighting them. And I just listened instead, hoping that my ears, at least, could tell me what the hell was going on since my eyes weren't cooperative.

The reading continued.

What was the book again? I knew that I knew it, but my mind couldn't quite click to the title. The word "Air" popped into my mind. And I recalled magic—or something like it.

Air. Magic. Flight. I still could not place the words within a book, so I tried to place the voice.

It was so familiar—as if I'd heard it speaking for years, but speaking to someone else. But that didn't make sense.

I thought of Bill. I hadn't done that in a while. Oh, at times I would look at my son—at Jase—and see only Bill looking back at me. I'd loved Bill so much—but he'd died.

Was I dead?

Did angels just read through the classics in heaven? Gran would love that.

Gran.

There was something about Gran. I tried peeling my eyes open to see her. I imagined them cracking open a bit, though I knew they'd not really moved. Still, I could see her. She was stooped forward, her body in an impossible position. She was dressed in a light yellow dress for our outing to the movies and dinner. She'd been intensely happy not to have to be using her cane on the outing.

My squinting eyes told me that she'd be very upset that she'd stained her dress; it had been new—a purchase made at Tara's store just the month before.

But how had she stained it?

I could hear Gran's voice teaching me about how to get stains out of clothing. I was ten. "For ink, you should try rubbing alcohol. For grass, a little dish soap. For chewing gum—which your brother always manages to get on his clothing—you have to warm up some white vinegar. For blood, soak in ice cold water and rub the stain out gently with your fingers. And don't let it set; if it does, blood will likely never come out!"

Gum and blood—very different kinds of stains. But they both led me to think about my brother Jason. He'd been so handsome in his uniform, and Gran had been so proud of him. She'd made him spit out his gum before taking pictures on the day he left for his last tour of duty. His last month of life.

He'd died in a uniform. Had anyone tried to remove its stains as Gran had always successfully removed the gum from his jeans, shorts, and shirts? Even a pair of socks once!

Yes—Gran was a miracle worker when it came to getting a stain out!

I felt my eyes closing to Gran, but I tried to keep my senses open. The reading became drowned out—at first with a whirring noise. And then with a scream. Was that me screaming?

"Alcide!" I yelled, though my mouth didn't move. I heard scraping metal—bending, breaking, tearing.

I felt pain and a sense of hotness before cold.

So cold. So cold. So cold.

"Mommy! Mommy!" came a weeping child.

My child!

"Jase!" I tried yelling, but nothing came.

Crying. Was I crying? No—the crying was from behind me.

So cold. So cold. So cold.

Jason? Hunter?

No—both of them.

"Boys!" I tried to yell. I couldn't.

I was shaking, but not moving.

So cold. So cold. So cold.

The voice was still reading somewhere in the distance, and I tried to return to it—to get away from the cries and the scraping metal.

And the pain.

And the cold.

I couldn't move.

I was frozen.

I couldn't hear the voice anymore.

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8:00 p.m./2100 hours (one hour later)

Eric POV

"I'll sit with her for a while," Nurse Indira said gently.

I shook my head.

"Your voice is raspy from all the reading, Captain," she said.

"It's all I can do for her," I said, sounding rather helpless, even to my own ears.

"You should sleep a bit," she replied. "I haven't seen your head touch a pillow since my shift started, and that was twelve hours ago. Halleigh said you hadn't done much better during her shift."

"I'm used to limited sleep, Ma'am," I assured.

She sighed. "At least take a little walk. Maybe a shower? My shift's over, but I'm gonna stay right here till you take twenty minutes for yourself. No arguments! And—keep in mind, Captain, that my kids won't be happy if I'm too late to tuck them in," she added, her voice just a bit more forceful, but still steeped with compassion and the good humor she always seemed to have.

I looked away from Sookie and up at her.

"How's Jason?" I asked.

She sighed. "Better—thank goodness. He's still on track to get brought back to this room tomorrow morning."

I nodded, praying that nothing else would go wrong with the little boy. Four days before, I'd heard basically the same words from Dr. Niall Brigant—that Jason would be strong enough to be moved out of recovery and into the room I was in within a few hours.

But that hadn't happened.

I pinched the bridge of my nose.

"Okay. Twenty minutes. Thank you, Ma'am," I agreed, rising to my feet. It took me a few extra seconds to get my hand to disengage from Sookie's. It and my arm were a little numb, having stayed pretty much in the same spot for several hours—for a large part of several days and nights really—as I'd learned how to turn the pages of the book that I was reading with one hand.

That was better than trying to keep myself from holding her hand at all! That seemed an impossibility at this point, even though a part of me still knew that doing so was wrong. But she'd squeezed my hand before—when I'd gone to see her, following Jason's leg surgery, to tell her that I'd been with Jason in the recovery room. I knew that she had!

Twelve hours later, she'd had a setback, and Dr. Ludwig had worried that Sookie might need to go back to surgery to relieve more pressure on her brain. But—thankfully—medicine had worked to get Sookie back on track.

Jason, however, had suffered an even bigger setback than his mother had.

I sighed. It had been while Jason was in emergency surgery that Sookie's setback occurred. I'd thought for a while—too long—that I would lose them both.

I gave Sookie one more glance before getting up to grab my knapsack from the little desk. I'd thought, several times, about trying to write some correspondence over the past several days, but I couldn't concentrate. After Jason took his turn for the worse, I'd been loath to do anything other than to watch either him or his mother constantly, fearing that—if I didn't—one of them might slip away from me.

I knew I wouldn't rest easily until they were both with me—at the same time.

I hurried into the small attached bathroom and turned on the shower. Being clean would be nice. Corporal Reynolds had been something of a godsend, making sure I had fresh clothing each day. After a day in civvies, I'd asked him to arrange for my camos to get washed. In truth, I was used to the way they felt on my body, and getting used to jeans again as I sat in hospital chairs wasn't ideal. I'd try again once I felt like I could leave the hospital for more than the ten-minute walk I'd allowed myself each morning once Amelia arrived.

Tara had needed to eliminate her time at the hospital for the time being; unfortunately, Sookie's and Jason's setbacks had caused her blood pressure to spike. And she had her own child to worry about.

I stepped under the hot spray and felt myself and my body sighing with relief.

Of course, that feeling made me feel a little guilty.

But I tried to concentrate on the positives.

Yes—it had been a hard four days for Jason. In some ways, his hardest yet. The results of the heart study that Dr. Karen Newton had been conducting caused her to call in Dr. Niall Brigant at 0300 hours on the night after his leg surgery. I'd been sleeping at that time—waiting for Jason's return to his room and waiting for his mother to be moved there as well. Sadly, neither of them had made it in there that day, though Sookie had been moved to the room about twenty-four hours after expected.

Ironically, Sookie was now in Jason's old room, while Jason was in Sookie's old room in the more heavily monitored section of the ICU.

"Of course, that's better than the alternative," I muttered as I scrubbed my blond hair—at least, what there was of it.

When I closed my eyes to rinse out the shampoo, my mind drifted back to four nights before. Because Dr. Newton called in Dr. Niall Brigant as soon as she noticed something amiss with Jason's tests, he was at the hospital when one of the valves in Jason's heart stopped letting blood through. In fact, according to Nurse Ben, Dr. Brigant had already been prepping Jason for surgery when it happened.

Things went quickly after that. Jason was rushed into surgery at 0358. Nurse Indira woke me up not long after. I'd been pacing a hole into the hospital floor during hour two of Jason's valve-repair surgery, when Nurse Indira came in to tell me about Sookie's setback.

For an hour, I'd felt glued to the floor, unable to move or think. Breathing even seemed hard.

I'd stayed in that zombie-like state until Dr. Ludwig came in and ordered me to "sit" because she was "too damned tired to look up at me." She'd told me that the medicine she'd administered to Sookie already seemed to be helping a little, but that—if need be—they would take Sookie back to surgery to relieve the pressure on her brain faster. Dr. Ludwig had made it very clear to me that she'd never lost a patient on her operating table and that she didn't intend to start that night. I'd felt marginally better, but was still worried about both Sookie and Jason.

And then the doctor had told me to get to my feet and to follow her. She'd taken me to Sookie's room and instructed me to keep her company while the medicine did its job and Dr. Brigant did his.

I'd immediately taken Sookie's hand—no longer capable of wondering if it was appropriate for me to do so or not.

And—just like that—I'd felt able to breathe again, able to wait for news about Jason without suffering a cardiac arrest of my own.

Jason's heart had been difficult to restart after his surgery, according to Dr. Niall Brigant. But it had proven resilient. The valve repaired, Jason had been taken back to recovery, where I'd been able to see him again. I'd stayed with him until 1700 hours—when I was kicked out. And then I'd gone to Sookie's room to sit with her. Thankfully, by then, she'd been declared "better" from her setback; moreover, by 2100 hours, she was deemed ready to be moved to Jason's old room—despite not having woken up yet. Dr. Ludwig had told me that she'd wake up "when she was damned good and ready."

It had been nice not having to leave Sookie that night—to stay in the room with her. I'd continued reading to her, holding her hand while I'd done so. And then I'd slept—only to be woken up by a nurse again, this time Nurse Maggie telling me that Jason had been rushed back to surgery again because his lung had collapsed!

Again, I'd taken up Sookie's hand. Again, her touch had kept me sane.

That surgery had taken almost three hours. And—again—Jason had been moved to recovery, where I'd stayed with him until he was moved into the wing for more serious patients in the ICU—into his mother's old room. Having no patients in recovery at the time, Nurse Ben had been so kind as to constantly monitor Jason for the first few hours after he was moved. And Dr. Newton had been in and out, still conducting studies of Jason's heart.

I could tell that both of them had taken a shine to the little boy who just wouldn't give up fighting for his life.

That night, I'd stayed with Jason until 2100 hours—before being shuffled out to Sookie's room. Although I'd been afraid to sleep, I'd done so—but not on the bed. I'd kept hold of Sookie's hand as I'd laid my head down to rest it next to her uninjured leg.

Nothing bad had happened that night, and—when Amelia arrived the next morning—I'd actually taken a short walk after checking on Jason. Amelia had stuck with Sookie during regular visiting hours, and I'd been content to stay with Jason. Once Amelia left and I was kicked out of Jason's room again, I returned to Sookie, again reading aloud for a while before sleeping as I'd done the night before.

And that brought me back to today.

I was woken up at 0230 hours by news that Jase's urine output was abnormal; unable to return to sleep, I stayed alert and pensive for the rest of the overnight hours—though I read to Sookie, hoping that my nerves wouldn't transfer onto her.

At around 0400 hours, I'd thought that I felt her hand move again. I'd spoken to her—begging her to open her eyes. But she'd remained still, so I wasn't sure if I'd felt anything or not. At 0700, Jason's problem seemed to resolve, and I was allowed to go to his room at 0900, leaving Sookie under Amelia's watch.

A few hours before, I'd returned to Sookie's room—once again—after I'd needed to leave Jason's room for the night. Amelia had left not long after that, and I'd picked up Jane Eyre and Sookie's hand once more.

An hour before, I'd imagined that her hand had fluttered slightly when I'd loosened my grip a bit. But there had been nothing since then, and part of me worried that all of my sensing of "movement" from Sookie—at least after that initial strong hand squeeze—was just wishful thinking. The other part of me sensed—somehow—that Sookie was fighting hard to open her eyes.

Now, I was apprehensive about not being by her side if she was trying, but it wasn't like she'd wake up at my prompting anyway. And Nurse Indira was right. I had needed a shower—badly—as I'd been leaving Jason's or Sookie's sides only long enough to go to the bathroom, refill my coffee cup, and occasionally eat a quick bite.

After I was done with my shower, I dressed and then returned to Sookie's bedside—where Nurse Indira was writing in Sookie's chart.

"Everything okay?" I asked.

"Yes. And your twenty minutes isn't even half over, Captain," she said a little playfully.

I nodded in reluctant agreement and grabbed the travel coffee cup I'd asked Corporal Reynolds to get for me. After refilling the cup and making a fresh pot of coffee, I walked down the hall toward the stairs, but instead of opening that door, I went to the door that led to a small patio that the nurses used, mostly for smoking.

Though a lot of military men did pick up smoking, I never had. But I didn't mind the residual smell. I was just grateful to be out in the night air. The warm breeze was the opposite of what Iraq had been like at night. While Iraq's heat always quelled quite a bit as night fell, Louisiana's air had a way of getting heavier at night—the heat refusing to leave with the sun.

The humidity would take some getting used to.

I sipped my coffee and looked at the stars to get my bearings.

And I prayed.

If all went well, Jason would return to his room in the "regular" ICU ward the next day. And he and Sookie would finally be together. I truly believed that would make a difference for them both, but I understood the rationale of not having them in the same room until the doctors were confident both would survive.

After another sip, I put the code into the door panel, returned inside, and then went back to Sookie's room.

"Well. Eighteen minutes is better than none. Thanks for indulging me, Captain," the kind nurse said.

"Thank you for making me," I returned sincerely.

Nurse Indira patted my arm and then left. I picked the book back up and found where I'd left off. We'd need another before long.

I let out a little sigh, took Sookie's hand into mine, and then read.

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9:20 p.m./2220 hours (one hour later)

Sookie POV

I'd been listening for the reader's voice for a while, hoping he'd return. But he hadn't. He could have been gone for a day or a year, but time didn't matter once the voice was back.

Air. Magic. Flight.

These words went through my head again as he read.

Still, I couldn't figure out the book.

It had something to do with love.

Lost love. Love delayed. Love restored.

I couldn't remember, so I listened, concentrating on the voice more than the words.

The voice's timbre was strong; it comforted me. I couldn't help but to believe that—no matter how difficult a situation was—that voice could keep a person steady.

The voice was deep, but not too deep. Alcide's voice was a bass—low and almost growly at times. I wondered where that voice was, but I couldn't muster the strength to ask.

The voice speaking was richer than Alcide's. It was a Baritone. The voice was smooth and seemed to caress the air.

The voice was expressive, moving over the words in a way that brought their meaning to life.

That brought the people within them—though I couldn't quite catch their names—to life.

To life.

I tried to follow their example—to bring myself out of my sleep.

To life.

But I couldn't. And then I heard a familiar passage:

"Jane, be still; don't struggle so, like a wild frantic bird that is rending its own plumage in its desperation."

"I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will, which I now exert to leave you."

Another effort set me at liberty, and I stood erect before him.

"And your will shall decide your destiny," he said: "I offer you my hand, my heart, and a share of all my possessions."

"You play a farce, which I merely laugh at."

"I ask you to pass through life at my side—to be my second self, and best earthly companion."

"For that fate you have already made your choice, and must abide by it."

"Jane, be still a few moments: you are over-excited: I will be still too."

Air. Magic. Flight.

Jane. The name struck a chord. "Eyre"—not "air!" my mind exclaimed. "Jane Eyre!"

The voice was reading one of my favorite books, Jane Eyre, to me.

And the portion he'd just read was my favorite part. Jane was no bird—no magical creature. She was simply a human—a woman—who wanted to be free. She was prepared to leave behind the man she loved in order to preserve the "self" she'd developed. I'd always admired her for that.

Meanwhile, Mr. Rochester was tortured. He seemed so solitary in ways, but craved a family and love. He'd made some bad choices and was suffering. However, in knowing Jane, he recognized—right from the start—his other half.

Yes—it was a love story. The mysterious Jane had captivated Rochester at first sight. And he'd equated her with something magical in order to explain his captivation. But she wouldn't allow him to think of her like that. She was flesh and bone—strong, but breakable. Unwilling to be broken.

Unwilling to be broken.

Strong.

Breakable.

But not broken.

Not yet.

"Mrs. Herveaux?" the voice stopped reading. "Can you move your hand again?" it asked.

I couldn't.

"Sookie! Please!" the voice changed, pleading with me.

Though I was certain I'd never heard the voice saying my name, it became even more familiar when it repeated, "Sookie."

I squeezed the hand holding mine with all of my might—and accomplished what likely amounted to a twitch.

But it was something.

"Sookie!" the voice said excitedly.

I opened my eyes to that voice, needing to solve the riddle of whom it belonged to.

At first, I couldn't focus—nor could I think clearly.

I'd expected brown eyes to greet me for some reason. Bill's brown eyes with green flecks? Alcide's chocolate eyes with hints of gold, especially when he was emotional.

But I saw blue. Sky and sea. Calm and comforting.

I focused a little more. The face I saw was so familiar. It was handsome, almost impossibly so. I thought momentarily of those movies where people lose their memories and awaken to husbands or lovers they didn't expect—or something equally unrealistic.

The beauty I saw before me almost made me hope for such an outlandish thing. However, my brain cleared a bit of its unfocused fog, and I recognized the person in the room with me—the person holding my hand.

Captain Eric Northman?

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A/N: Okay—so this chapter was hard to write, and I've spent a while even right before posting adding a bit. Thus, don't blame Kleannhouse if you see obvious editing errors. I was trying to keep it clean through tears at one point as I added some stuff about Jason (Sookie's brother). Anyway, in addition to wanting this chapter to pull at your heart and convey Sookie's sense of frustration and questions, I wanted to skip ahead a few days without throwing things off kilter. And I'm obviously not a medical doctor, so with a lot of things, I'm in uncharted territory. I hope that I kept things pretty clear. Here's a breakdown of the last few days Eric narrates—just in case it was confusing:

June 25, 2010—early morning Jason is taken into surgery for his femur repair (Chapter 10) / Eric sees Sookie in-person for the first time and begins reading to her / Jase has some trouble with his heart in surgery / Tara and Amelia arrive (and Tara gives her POV—Chapter 11) / Eric goes to the recovery room to sit with Jason (Chapter 12) / After he has to leave the recovery room that evening he goes to see Sookie; she squeezes his hand as she fights for consciousness

June 26, 2010—early morning: Dr. Karen Newton notices that Jason's heartbeat is irregular and thinks there's a valve problem; she calls in Niall. Within an hour, Jason is in emergency surgery / Eric is told / While Jason is in surgery, Eric is told that pressure is building in Sookie's brain; he worries he'll lose them both / Dr. Ludwig assures Eric that medicine is helping Sookie, and he is taken to her room to sit with her as Jason's surgery continues / After Jason's surgery, Eric goes to the recovery room until he has to go for the night

June 27, 2010—While Sookie is finally able to be moved into the less severe wing of the ICU, Jason suffers another setback, a collapsed lung. There is another emergency surgery. / When possible, Eric is with Jason. / When he can't be with Jason (due to visiting restrictions), he is with Sookie. He spends his first night "with her." He's afraid to sleep, but finally does by putting his head next to her uninjured leg on the bed.

June 28, 2010—Jason is moved into Sookie's old ICU room in the more severe wing. Eric spends the day with him as Amelia is with Sookie. Eric returns to Sookie's room after he has to leave Jason's. Again, he reads to her and tries to sleep by Laying his head onto her bed.

June 29, 2010—in the predawn hours, Eric is awoken to find out that Jason's urine output isn't normal. He cannot sleep, so continues his reading until Amelia arrives to sit with her as he goes to Jason's room as soon as he is able. Jason's problem, thankfully, seems to resolve itself. / After Eric is once again kicked out of Jason's room that evening, he goes to Sookie's, as is his habit now. Once Amelia is gone, he takes her hand and reads to her, sensing that she might be trying to move. / Indira makes Eric take a break. / Eric recommences his reading; this time, Sookie hears him again. She finally wakes up.

Okay—so I hope this little chronology helps you out. I initially wrote a chapter (sometimes two) per day (this was my first rough draft), but the story wasn't flowing, so I scrapped about thirty pages at one point, opting to write a new chapter (this one) to move forward the timeline but convey the needed information.

I hope you enjoyed it and will leave a comment if you have the time and/or inclination.

Best,

Kat

Chapter Text

Chapter 14: Cannon Fodder

Sookie POV, continued

I shook my head and tried to speak. But something was stopping me. I fought against it.

"It's okay, Mrs. Herveaux," the voice—Eric—said. Despite my continued fog, I noticed that he'd gone from addressing me as 'Sookie' back to a more formal naming. "You have a tube in your throat that's been helping you to breathe."

My eyes widened in surprise.

"Let me get the nurse," he said, dropping my hand. Immediately, I missed it. And then I missed his face as he left. And his voice.

I felt myself drifting back towards sleep, rudderless now that he was gone.

Only the questions swirling in my head kept me awake. Why was Captain Northman here? What had happened to me? Where was Jase? Where was Alcide? Where was Gran? Where was Hunter? Where was Jackson? And then I felt my throat constrict as a harsh memory slammed into my mind: I was sitting in the middle row of Alcide's SUV, which was the only vehicle we had that could fit six people comfortably. Gran and I were talking about building a greenhouse, as we'd just watched a documentary about them; we were excited about having a garden and fresh vegetables all year-round. Hunter and Jase were behind me, discussing fish bait. I'd been amused since they were basically parroting a disagreement that I'd heard between Alcide and Jackson earlier that day. Kids really were little sponges.

Jackson and Alcide were in front of me, having a low-volume conversation about Janice, Alcide's kid sister. They were both a little worried about her. She'd recently opened a hair salon and was working over sixty hours a week—trying to get her new business to take off. They both thought that she'd married too young and didn't think her new husband was offering enough support, and they were frustrated that she'd been too prideful to take any monetary help from them.

I'd just been wondering how I might build a bridge between the Herveaux men and Janice when I felt it. A grinding crash behind me. I felt my head try to jerk back—as I relived my memory—but something stopped me. I fought to turn around—to make sure Jase was okay. The crash was on his side! My boy! My sweet boy!

I fought to see him.

"Mrs. Herveaux! Sookie!" a firm voice said above me. That voice pulled me from my memory and caused my eyes to reopen.

"There you are," the voice—Captain Northman—said. "Don't fight the tube, and try to stay still. The nurse is going to get the doctor, and once she gives the okay, they'll take the tube out. Okay?"

Focusing on Eric's blue eyes, I nodded as much as I could, wondering how a tube could keep me so immobilized.

"There's also a neck brace, making it hard for you to move too much," Eric explained as if he'd read my mind.

I flexed my fingers, missing his hand.

But—wait! Where was Alcide's hand? Where was my husband? His warmth always made me feel protected. I moved my eyes around the room a little.

But I didn't see anyone else, so I looked again at Captain Northman—Eric.

Were we even on a first-name basis? He seemed confused about that as well.

He was looking back at me—looking a little unsure and a little frightened. Before that moment, I would have doubted that he was capable of looking like that.

He'd always seemed to project such strength and confidence—when I'd seen him through Skype.

"Mrs. Herveaux," came a female voice from the other side of Eric. I shifted my eyes and saw the top of a woman's head before I heard a scraping sound against the floor. Then the woman suddenly got a little higher.

"I'm Doctor Ludwig," the woman said curtly. "And you're lucky that I had a surgery that kept me here late tonight. I'm one of your doctors here at Shreveport General."

One of them?! My eyes widened in my surprise.

"I'm Dr. Claudine Crane, and I'm always here late," said another woman with a bell-like voice who stepped behind Dr. Ludwig. My mind told me that the scraping noise must have been a stepping stool scooted into place for Dr. Ludwig to stand on. Yet Dr. Crane was still taller than Dr. Ludwig—by at least a foot!

"I haven't met you," came Captain Northman's voice.

"I'm the head of our psychology department," she explained.

"Oh," Captain Northman said, the short interjection seeming to hold so much meaning.

Too much.

I wondered why I would need a psychologist.

"Mrs. Herveaux, your vitals are strong enough for me to take this tube out of your throat. Blink if you understand," Dr. Ludwig said, her voice terse. Even in my still-groggy state, I could tell the woman was as no-nonsense as they came.

I blinked.

"Excellent. And even when this tube is out, you won't be able to move much, so I don't want you trying. We have your neck immobilized for now. Got it?"

I blinked again.

"Good. Now—I'm going to count to three and then pull the tube. When I do, you need to blow out. Understand?"

I blinked, even as I felt a warm, comforting hand take mine.

"1 – 2 – 3," Dr. Ludwig counted before pulling.

I blew as much as I could, which wasn't much. Somehow, though, the hand holding mine—applying just the right amount of pressure—inspired me to keep blowing. The tube exiting my throat was unpleasant to say the least. It didn't exactly hurt, but my body seemed to hate the foreign object's presence all the same.

As soon as the tube was gone, I couldn't control my coughing. Immediately, a straw appeared. "Have a drink," came Captain Northman's voice.

I did. The cool water helped.

"Mrs. Herveaux, may I call you Sookie?" Dr. Crane asked.

I nodded, but only slightly, as I focused on her.

She smiled at me. "Thank you. Dr. Ludwig is going to tell you about your condition. And then I'm going to give you some information about your family members. Okay?"

Though I felt tremendous dread, I nodded—again only slightly due to the neck brace. "Okay," I managed to get out, my voice rough and low as if I hadn't used it in years.

Dr. Ludwig spoke. "You were in an automobile accident, Sookie," she began. "Your injuries were severe. Your neck is being stabilized because you suffered a broken back."

My eyes widened, and I gripped the hand I was holding—Captain Northman's hand.

"We'll run more tests soon, but your back injury isn't the kind that leads to any major loss of movement or feeling, so you were lucky. However, it will need time to heal. In addition to your back, you also broke your right leg."

I shifted my focus downward and saw that it was, indeed, in traction.

"The break was bad, but the repairs look good. You'll be mostly off your feet for about four months, however. You also had a severe head injury, which has kept you unconscious for a little more than a week."

I could feel my eyes widening in surprise again.

"You had some internal injuries as well, but we think you'll make an almost-full recovery, Sookie," Dr. Ludwig finished.

"Almost?" she croaked out.

"You will likely suffer some level of chronic pain," the doctor. stated. "We can talk more about the details of your therapy and recovery once you are feeling a bit better. And another doctor—Dr. Lee—will be starting your rehab program as soon as you are able."

"Jase? Alcide? Gran? Others?" I managed to ask the questions that had been plaguing me since I'd become more aware of my situation.

The hand gripping mine held onto me just a touch firmer. I was grateful for the hand in that moment, as Dr. Crane stepped forward.

"Sookie, what I need to tell you isn't going to be easy to hear. But we are here for you—okay?"

I found the strength to blink in understanding, for my throat was too tight to speak.

"Nurse? Are you ready with the sedative—just in case?" Dr. Crane asked someone I couldn't see.

"Sedative?" I managed to squeak out.

"It's just in case you start to move too much, Sookie. I need you to try to stay still for me—okay? Can you do that?" Dr. Crane asked, her voice warm and concerned.

"Try," I managed.

Dr. Crane's eyes filled with a mixture of sorrow and resolve. I braced myself. "Sookie, the car accident was extremely bad. You husband and father-in-law were killed on impact."

I felt hot tears welling into and then spilling from my eyes right away. My sore throat seemed to close on me.

"Breathe through your nose, little girl," came Dr. Ludwig's commanding voice.

Somehow, I managed to obey.

"Gran died too," I managed to say, having a flash of a memory. She was slumped over, twisted in a way she couldn't have managed in her older age. Her yellow dress was stained—with blood that would never come out.

"Yes," Dr. Crane confirmed. "She died on the scene."

I let out some sobs. "Suffer?" I asked, praying that the woman who had raised me did not languish in agony before her death.

"No!" Dr. Ludwig said firmly. "According to the driver of the truck that hit your vehicle and the paramedics, your grandmother was unconscious until she passed."

I felt myself breathing a sigh of relief for that small mercy.

"Jase?" I asked, my voice trembling with fear.

"He was hurt pretty bad, but we believe he will recover as well," Dr. Crane said.

More tears fell, these from relief.

"Where is he?" I managed.

"In the ICU—on this floor," Dr. Crane said.

"He's due to be moved in here with you in a few hours," came Captain Northman's voice. I looked over at him.

"You've seen him?" I asked him.

"Every moment I've been able to—since I got here from Afghanistan," he assured.

"How is he?" I coughed out.

Eric's hand that wasn't holding mine put the water back up for me to drink.

Once he was satisfied that I had taken what I could, he spoke. "Jason has a broken left femur, which has already been repaired with pins. He had a bad concussion that caused some swelling in his brain, but Dr. Ludwig took care of that. His body was beat up in the accident, Ma'am, and his heart was bruised. He had some problems with a valve in it, and it was touch and go for a while, but another doctor, Dr. Niall Brigant, patched up his heart. That'll be fine too. His lung collapsed from all the trauma, but they got that re-inflated, and he's better now."

He paused, his eyes narrowing a bit, his lips tracing downward into a deep frown.

"What else?" I asked.

"His right leg, Ma'am. It couldn't be saved. It's been amputated from right below the knee."

I gasped and cried some more—for my losses and for my child.

"How will I take care of him . . . like this?" I asked desperately, choking out the last part of my question. The water was there immediately.

"I'm here for you, Ma'am," Captain Northman vowed. "For as long as you and Jase need me, I'll be here."

His words made me feel surprised, but immeasurably better—made me feel able to let myself go in my grief. And so I did—crying for several minutes. Or maybe several hours. I had no idea. All I knew was that my throat was so raw that it hurt to breathe.

When I composed myself again, the straw and water were waiting for me.

"Hunter?" I asked, ashamed I'd fallen apart before I knew what happened to that sweet boy.

"He's already been discharged," Dr. Crane said. I looked back over in her direction to see that Dr. Ludwig was gone. In her place, I saw an Indian woman dressed in scrubs with puppies on them.

"I'm Nurse Indira," she said kindly, when she saw that I was looking at her.

"Was Hunter hurt?" I asked.

"He had a broken arm as well as a concussion and some minor abrasions. But he'll be fine," Dr. Crane assured. "Sookie, I'm on your case because my expertise is in grief counselling. I'll be seeing you once a day, five days a week until you are discharged, but you can ask the nurse to call me whenever you need—24-7. Okay?"

I nodded. And then my grief caught me again. And then it sent me into a nightmare of crushing metal and shattering glass. "Jase!" I yelled, trying to turn to look at him after I felt the initial collision.

I closed my eyes tightly.

"Fuck! Hang on!" Alcide called out, even as I felt the SUV start to spin.

"Mom!" Jase yelled, even as Hunter screamed. I looked at Gran; her eyes were full of terror as she looked forward. I was angled by then so that I couldn't see well out of the windshield. But I could see Jackson. His eyes were targeted toward the front of the car, as Gran's were.

He said nothing before I felt the crash from the front. But I saw him all but disappear into whatever had hit us. "Alcide!" I yelled as hot, searing pain ripped into me. "Alcide!" He didn't answer. I looked toward Gran; she was slumped both forward and to the side—impossibly twisted. "Gran!" I yelled. "Jase! Alcide!" I heard cries from behind me, but I couldn't move. Pain—crippling pain—beat suddenly from my head. And then the world went blank.

"Where's Alcide?" my addled brain compelled me to ask, even as I imagined that he was still in the SUV, trapped on the interstate—somewhere inside of a coffin of twisted metal. "Alcide!" I yelled again.

"Sookie, you need to be still," Captain Northman said, his voice close to my head.

"Alcide!" I yelled again, my throat constricting against what I was doing to it. "Jase! Gran! Oh God! No!"

"Sedative," ordered Dr. Crane.

Immediately, my body felt warm, but I continued to fight. I needed to see them. They were in the car with me, trapped with me!

Dying with me!

"Alcide!" I sputtered, my body feeling so heavy. "Jase. Gran."

"Sleep, Sookie. I'm here with you and Jason," Eric said.

My eyes locked onto his, though my mind seemed unable to lock onto anything tangible. "Save them," I begged him—thinking hazily about Gran and Alcide. "Don't let them die. Why did you let Bill die?" I added mindlessly.

I saw tears falling down his cheeks as my own eyes closed.

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Eric POV
Nothing had been more difficult for me than watching Sookie have to deal with a lifetime's worth of grief in only a few minutes, even as her own body was almost immobile and taxed with physical injury.

"Captain Northman?" Dr. Crane asked me.

I looked at her and then took the Kleenex she held out to me. I wiped Sookie's cheeks before wiping my own.

"Who's Bill?" she asked.

I looked around and noted that Nurse Indira had left the room.

"Mrs. Herveaux's first husband."

"Oh—your brother?" she asked.

I sighed deeply. "No, Ma'am," I said, "not by blood—at least. We met in the Marines. He was my friend—my best friend. And when he died in combat, he asked me to watch over Jason—and Mrs. Herveaux if she needed it. I'm not Jason's real uncle, Ma'am. I'm sorry I've been breaking the rules, but I needed to be with Jason. And with Mrs. Herveaux."

Dr. Crane smiled softly. "I believe you do need to be with them. Don't worry. Your secret's safe with me," she whispered conspiratorially. "And—if your actual relationship with Jason and Sookie comes out, I'll run interference with my Grandfather."

"Grandfather?" I asked.

"Niall Brigant is one hell of a doctor," she responded with a little chuckle. "Medicine runs in his blood. My mother, Raena, and her much younger half-brother, Fintan, both followed in Niall's footsteps. My mom stopped practicing medicine only long enough to have me and my twin, Claude, who is the only one in the family who is not a doctor of some sort. He's a stripper—believe it or not. My grandpa has a joke though."

"Oh?" I asked, picking up on the fact that Dr. Crane was stalling by using her story in order to allow me to get myself back together. I was grateful to her.

"He says that Claude's routine is enough to cause heart attacks, so he makes sure that the club he owns has his number on speed dial. Meanwhile, Claude claims to be a healer, too—just of an unusual kind," she said with a little chuckle. "My mother and my father, who's also a doctor, moved to New York several years ago in order to run Bellevue Hospital's emergency department. But Finn and I like working here with Grandpa."

"It's nice to have family close," I said.

"It is," Dr. Crane returned. "Captain Northman, are you okay?"

I found myself shaking my head, even as Dr. Crane handed me another Kleenex. My tears seemed unable to stop flowing.

"No. I'm not okay. I know that Mrs. Herveaux is not in her right mind, but she's right about Bill. I didn't protect him like I should have," I found myself confessing to the virtual stranger.

"He died in combat?" she asked.

"Yes. Sniper. It was my job in our platoon to deal with sniper threats, but I didn't do it in time," I shared, speaking aloud the guilty thought that had plagued me for years.

"Does Sookie blame you for her first husband's death?" Dr. Crane asked.

"I didn't think so," I said somewhat meekly.

"Was it truly your fault?" she asked. "Did you do anything wrong the day he died?"

I thought back. I'd yet to look at Dr. Crane, keeping my eyes on Sookie's now-sleeping form. I let my mind drift back to that horrible day when Bill was killed, almost eight years before. It was still so vivid to me. I hadn't done anything wrong. I knew that in my head. I'd discussed it with other therapists.

"I didn't do more," I finally told Dr. Crane.

"Have you talked to anyone about all this?" she asked gently.

"Yeah," I informed. "Ever since Bill died, I've been cognizant that I needed help with the mental things. So I've sought it out."

"Do you have someone here yet? Maybe at Bailey?" she asked.

I shook my head. "I'm not officially stationed there yet. I'm on leave. I'm sure I'll see the company shrink when I start there though. No offense, Ma'am," I said as I realized my wording could have been better chosen.

"None taken," she said with a little laugh. "Until you can begin with someone at Bailey, would you like to speak with me sometimes?"

I finally looked at her, my eyes—no doubt—registering my surprise.

"Why?" I asked.

"I'm good at reading people, Captain. It doesn't matter that Sookie didn't mean to blame you for Bill's death. And it doesn't matter that she was clearly comforted that you are here with her. What struck me was the way your body shook when she did blame you. And you cannot be suffering from that guilt while you need to be strong for Sookie and Jase. Nor should you suppress that guilt. That would do nobody any good."

I gave her a little nod.

"From what my uncle, Fintan, has told me, you are going to be the one helping Sookie to pick up the pieces of her life and get through her and Jase's rehabilitation. Don't neglect yourself, Captain."

"Thank you, Ma'am," I said after a few moments. "I would be grateful to see you until I can make arrangements at Bailey."

"Good. I'll have Nurse Indira arrange for the paperwork, but I've consulted with the 'shrink' on Bailey before," Dr. Crane said with a wink, "so it shouldn't be a problem. I will also, of course, be counseling Jase, too. There are many changes happening in all of your lives right now. Don't be afraid to reach out if you see Jase or Sookie teetering."

"I won't," I promised.

"Or if you are in trouble," she added.

I nodded in agreement.

Dr. Crane nodded in return and then looked at Sookie. "The shock of all of this will wear off. When it does, it will make the physical impact of the accident seem like child's play. She'll have a lot to deal with then. She'll have a lot of questions—many of them related to how she is going to help her son and what has become of her loved ones. She'll need your help with the first of those concerns. Do you know about the details surrounding the funeral arrangements made for her family members?"

I nodded. "Her friends Tara and Amelia would know more though. Amelia will be here at 0900 tomorrow morning."

"Good," Dr. Crane sighed. "Call me if you need, but Sookie will likely wish to hear about things from her friends—including you—whenever possible. And she won't want her counsellor around when she has her initial reaction to them either. The nurse will, of course, keep a sedative at the standby—in case she needs another."

Again, I nodded. She handed me another Kleenex before telling me that our first appointment together would be the next day at 1500 hours (3:00 p.m.) and reminding me to call her if I needed anything. And then she left the room.

I kept hold of Sookie's hand, though I knew that the sedative would keep her out for a while.

I'd heard everything that Dr. Crane had said. Indeed, 90% of me no longer blamed myself for Bill's death. But hearing Sookie do it had shaken me. And—of course—both she and Jason were in injured states, despite the fact that Bill had asked me to watch over them.

As irrational as it may have seemed, I felt guilty for their conditions. I'd failed to keep them safe.

I heard my father's voice in my head, telling me that I was a failure whenever I wasn't perfect. When I was a kid, I didn't realize that no one could be perfect. As an adult, I knew better; however, that didn't stop me from doing all that I could to be perfect.

In my job, if I wasn't perfect, then people died.

In my personal life, if I wasn't perfect, I knew I might alienate Pam. And, of course, I'd been walking a tightrope with the woman whose hand I was currently holding. Always, I worried that Sookie might tell me that I was no longer a positive addition in Jason's life.

Now, Sookie and Jason lay broken, and they had only me to help them through it.

Not Bill.

Not Alcide.

Not how they wanted.

Not who they wanted.

Just me.

Not perfect.

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A/N: Hello all! I hope that you liked this chapter. Again, this subject matter was difficult to bring to life, but I hope I did a serviceable job. I imagined what it would be like for someone coming out of heavy sedation and having to experience all the news about her own condition and the status of her family. I hope I pulled it off.

Please leave a comment if you have the time and inclination.

Best,

Kat

Chapter Text

Chapter 15: General Orders

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NOTE: This chapter is set three months after the previous.

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Tuesday, September 28, 2010 • 1210 hours/12:10 p.m.

Eric POV

"Captain! How goes it?" Corporal Reynolds yelled out from his open driver's side window, even as he parked his truck at the front of Sookie's farmhouse—a place she and Jason continued to call "Gran's house."

"Lafayette, when we're not on the base, it's just Eric," I said to him—probably for the twentieth time.

"Sure, Sir," he smiled.

I sighed. I knew he'd be back to Captain sooner rather than later. And I'd yet to hear "Eric" from him; the closest I'd gotten was "Sir."

With Dr. Claudine Crane, I'd had a long discussion about names. I'd called my father, "Sir." And—when I was fifteen and he heard me refer to him as "my father" to Pam's nanny—he'd told me to call him Appius when speaking of him to others. I'd never called him "Dad" or even "Father" in his presence. I'd called my mother, "Ma'am," when I'd addressed her and "Mother" when I talked about her. In turn, she had addressed me as "Eric," though it was rare that she had occasion to speak with me, and I could not remember her saying my name with any warmth attached to it. Nanny Octavia had also called me "Eric"—even affectionately at times, though she'd not stayed in my life for long.

My father's pronouncement of my name had always been accompanied by a stern tone, or my name was yelled in anger. Mostly, I recalled him calling me "boy."

I called my sister—"Pam." I was still the only one who called Jason by his full first name and not his nickname. I'd learned that—before the accident—he'd never gotten around to making his request for the name change with his family. He'd asked that I keep calling him "Jason," however. So I had; others continued to call him "Jase."

Calling Sookie by her first name had become easy in my mind, but it still seemed impossible for me to say her first name aloud. I found myself saying "Ma'am" to her most of the time. She'd called me "Eric" only once during our months together—when she'd awoken from a nightmare and was still groggy. Other than that, she still called me "Captain." So did Amelia and Tara, as well as everyone else who had visited Jason and Sookie in the hospital. The nurses, doctors, and custodial staff at the hospital also addressed me as Captain.

Ultimately, I wondered if I put off a kind of aura that made it impossible for anyone to want to know me well enough to address me by my first name. I wondered if I projected a coldness to others. Or—maybe like my father had told me many times—I was "worthless."

Even Bill had called me "Northman."

But Pam addressed me as Eric. And Jason called me Uncle Eric. And hearing my name from them—my name spoken with affection—always had an affect on me. It gave me hope.

Hope that at least two human beings wanted to know me on a human level.

To facilitate adults warming to me, I was trying to practice using first names so that others might feel able to do the same. It was something Dr. Crane—Claudine—had been practicing with me. Corporal Reynolds was good to practice with as well.

"Thank you for agreeing to help, Lafayette," I said, moving to begin unloading the wood.

"When are Sook and Jase comin' home?" he asked. "This week—right?"

"Day after tomorrow," I responded.

He nodded and then moved to help me with the longer planks. That done, we walked over to the porch, even as another truck came down the driveway.

"Hey, Captain! Lafayette!" Calvin Norris greeted.

Mr. Norris—Cal—was the man Sookie and Janice Herveaux had decided to sell Herveaux and Son Construction Company to. Cal, who'd been the same age as Alcide Herveaux, had been the chief foreman under Jackson Herveaux for about a decade and had been Alcide's best friend. While Alcide had gone to college for his business degree, Cal had begun working with Jackson right after high school.

Cal hadn't had the money to buy the company outright, but Sookie and Janice decided that they would take a nominal fee upfront and then a percentage of profits each year until the agreed upon price for the company was reached.

Janice—at Sookie's insistence—received seventy-five percent of the money associated with the sale. Sookie agreed to 25%, but only because Janice had been upset when Sookie didn't want to take anything.

Cal grabbed a large toolbox and some sketches from his truck and approached Lafayette and me. After making sure the Corporal had gotten all the materials needed, Cal went over the sketches with us. Building a ramp to accommodate Sookie's and Jason's wheelchairs was the goal for the day, and we all jumped into the task, working quickly and efficiently.

Lafayette, as it turned out, had done some work for Herveaux and Son in the past; indeed, Cal had promised him a job as soon as he got out of the Marines—if he ever did. I'd not had any formal training in carpentry; however, I'd picked up quite a bit in the Corps. It seemed that something always needed to be fixed in the buildings, shacks, and tents I'd called my homes.

When we took a break for lunch, I texted Jason. He was due to have physical therapy with Dr. Lee that afternoon, and I hated not being there for it. But I also knew that I couldn't always be there. Thanks to Colonel Edgington and Colonel Flood, my leave from the Corps had been extended to a six-month period, so I still had three months until I returned to a full-time duty schedule, but Jason would be doing physical therapy for much longer than that.

My leave after month two had been unpaid, but that was okay. I'd been able to retain my residence on the base at no cost other than a scanty utilities bill. And I had my savings.

Jason and Sookie had been moved to the general medicine floor of the hospital about a month prior, and my nights of staying with them had ended then. Still, I spent most of my days with them, doing what I could for them.

Without being too intrusive.

It was a fine line sometimes.

"How's the therapy goin'?" Cal asked, his eyes showing some sadness. He, like everyone else in Sookie's circle, had felt his own grief after the accident. He'd not known Adele Stackhouse well, but Jackson Herveaux had been like a second father to him, and Alcide had been like a brother. Indeed, Cal had been the best man at Alcide and Sookie's wedding.

"Mrs. Herveaux is now able to go short distances with just her walker," I informed. "That was the benchmark for her returning home," I added.

"You still gonna be stayin' here, Captain?" Lafayette asked.

I nodded. "I've got three months left on my leave. Hopefully, Mrs. Herveaux will be more mobile by then. At that point, we'll reassess," I said, my stomach dropping a little. I didn't like to think about that "reassessment" time at all, though I knew it was inevitable. I knew that it would mean a lot less of what I'd become used to: time with Sookie and Jason.

"How's Jase?" Cal asked.

"Still having a hard time," I sighed. "His left leg isn't altogether healed, so he's not been able to do much with the prosthetic on his right yet. And he's impatient. He's just learned to get from his bed to his wheelchair by himself, but it's still a struggle for him. He's able to get himself from his wheelchair to the toilet or the special shower seat pretty easily. And his upper body strength has developed well."

I got a text and chuckled a bit as I read it.

"And, as he's reminding me in his latest text, he hates the whole hospital schooling thing Sookie is doing with him. Apparently, his regular schooling wasn't that challenging for him, though he earned straight A's. Now that Sookie has found out that he's about two grade levels above the standard, she's pushing him." I chuckled even louder as I got another text. "He's worried because she's started talking about continuing homeschooling even after he's able to walk."

"I'm sure you'll make the peace between them," Lafayette remarked.

He was right. I had become good at building bridges between mother and son. Being in the hospital had been taxing on them, especially given that they were in the same room.

Moreover, they'd both had to come to terms with not being mobile. They'd both had to grieve for Gran and Alcide and Jackson Herveaux. And they'd both had to live with each other 24 hours a day, seven days a week for a long chunk of time.

Actually, after their first week in the same room in the ICU, the doctors had offered to separate them, but—despite their squabbling—they'd decided to stay together, though the partition between the rooms stayed closed for several hours a day. When they were moved to the regular floor, they kept up that practice of several hours of separation a day.

In truth, though the two of them weren't keen to spend all their time together, I knew that they were both afraid to lose contact as well. They'd lost so much.

The three of us had established a comfortable routine together. While they were in ICU, I stayed with them overnight, sleeping on a cot on the other side of Jason's bed. I'd leave for a few hours in the morning. I'd drive to my home on the base, go for a run, take a shower, and then complete any errands I had. I'd then return to the hospital by 1400 hours (2:00 p.m.), which was when Jason's physical therapy appointments always started.

Once Sookie was able to get herself into her wheelchair on her own, she and Jase were moved to the regular ward. It was then that Sookie asked that I no longer spend the night; she was anxious to reestablish a bit of independence—something that I could not blame her for.

Still, I would spend a good deal of the day with them—with Sookie's "okay" of the schedule, of course. I would arrive at 0900—right when visiting hours began in the regular ward. I'd bring a breakfast for myself, which—inevitably—either Sookie or Jason would trade me for. The hospital's food was surprisingly good, according to both patients. But that didn't mean they wouldn't want to swap with me.

I got used to it. I wasn't lying when I reiterated to them again and again that the hospital breakfast was my preference anyway; they just didn't know that I preferred that because of my desire for them to eat whatever they favored. Indeed, I would have simply bought them both breakfast each morning if they would have let me. Meanwhile, I really had little partiality at all when it came to chow, now that I was back in the United States. Everything tasted pretty damned good to me.

After breakfast—at 1030 hours—Sookie would leave for her physical therapy; from there, she went straight to her therapy sessions with Claudine during the weekdays.

During the stretch of time when she was out of the room, Jason and I would "hang out." I taught him how to play some card games, so we would do that or play one of the other board games people had brought him. Other times, we'd work on his "homework" together. Or he'd ask me to tell him a story about his father. On occasion, he'd want to talk about his life now that he was an amputee. I hadn't known it, but—before the accident—he'd already begun thinking about becoming a Marine after he graduated from high school. That wouldn't happen now. But we talked a lot about how his life wouldn't have to be too limited. And there were jobs related to the military that he could still do.

With Sookie's permission, I arranged for Jason to Skype with some of the men who'd been under my command who had lost limbs. Speaking with them, especially with Rasul, had been very beneficial to him. In fact, Rasul had even come to visit him at the hospital, showing Jason that it was very possible to move and to walk without people noticing he was missing part of his leg.

After "man time"—as Jason called it—Sookie would return to the room; they would have lunch, and I would go eat in the cafeteria in order to give them some alone time. After that, it was Jason's turn for physical therapy, and I would go with him most days. Afterwards, he would meet with Claudine, but that was only three days per week. Most of the time, he'd go right back to his and Sookie's room, where they'd begin "school" for the day. Once a week, I would leave for my own appointment with Claudine. Other times, I'd work on my correspondence or help Sookie with the accounting books for Merlotte's or Herveaux and Son Construction Company, which she still took care of for Cal. I found that the work I'd done for Mrs. Cataliades when I was eighteen and the bookkeeping that I'd done in the Marines had sufficiently trained me to take care of many of the businesses' small accounting tasks.

Of course, Sookie helped me to learn what I did not know, and she did much of the work when Jason was in physical therapy. However, I enjoyed helping as needed.

After their "school," they'd nap for a while. During this time, I usually went to pick up some dinner; depending on what was on the hospital's menu for the evening, I might be tasked with getting some for Jason and/or Sookie as well. Then, we'd share dinner and, perhaps, watch a bit of television, though sometimes Sookie and Jason would need to finish a lesson.

At 1900 hours (7:00 p.m.), I'd have to say my goodnights.

I knew that Jason would work on his homework after I left, but according to Sookie, he would drift off to sleep soon after. He still took some mild pain medication, and it made him drowsy. As for Sookie, I wasn't a hundred percent certain what she did with her evenings, beyond reading. Every other day, she'd ask for a book from her home library—or she'd download books onto her Kindle.

She and I didn't talk a lot, at least not on a personal level. I'd decided that—given my strong and immediate attraction to her—it was best if I kept an emotional distance from her, and she'd clearly decided to do the same. I still couldn't stop myself from feeling many powerful things, especially when I was near her. But I understood well the inappropriateness of such notions.

Sookie was dealing with intense grief; she didn't need some lovestruck—love inept—idiot in her life. She needed a helper.

So I helped.

After leaving the hospital each evening, I would go to Merlotte's all but one night a week (Sundays—when the bar and grill was closed). At Merlotte's, I would check in with Arlene Fowler and Terry Bellefleur, who were running the place in Sookie's absence. Neither had been good with the books for the week and a half they had to do them before Sookie asked that the paperwork be brought to her in the hospital. However, despite their issues with math, ordering, and scheduling, Terry and Arlene were both competent managers of the business's day-to-day operations. And—most importantly to Sookie—they'd kept the place running, even when her life had been in the balance.

Terry was ex-military—army. He and I had experienced similar hells in Iraq, though his had come during the first Gulf War. I could tell that he was still dealing with PTSD, and I recommended that he see someone at Bailey—or Claudine.

The last I checked, he was still thinking about it. I wasn't about to push him.

At Merlotte's, I'd do quick inventories, learn how to bartend from Terry, and help close the place for the night. Then I'd gather the materials for that day's books and take a night deposit to the bank if need be.

At around midnight, I'd go to the place where I'd been staying—Sookie's farmhouse. It had been decided that I'd stay with Sookie and Jason when they returned from the hospital, so it made sense that I should begin sleeping there, especially since it was close to Merlotte's.

Plus, Jason and Sookie worried about me driving back to Shreveport late at night.

I certainly didn't push that issue, given their fears about being on the road. Indeed, Sookie always wanted me to text her as soon as I arrived at Merlotte's and again when I got to the farmhouse. I saw no harm in doing so, given what Sookie had lost in a car accident.

At Sookie's behest, I used the third floor of the farmhouse as a little apartment of sorts. Smaller than the other floors of the house, there were three small rooms on that floor, as well as a small bathroom. I had to crouch under the showerhead, but guaranteed hot water was not something I balked at! I made one of the rooms a bedroom, purchasing a bed, a nightstand, and a dresser for the space.

The second room, I made into a kind of living area—complete with a couch, a small television that Sookie had had in storage, and a desk. I also got Sookie's permission to arrange for internet and cable connections up in my temporary living quarters.

The third small room up there was unfinished and used for storage.

She apologized more than once for the smallness of the space, but I reminded her that I was used to much smaller. Of course, I had the home that had been arranged for me at Bailey, but it was mostly empty, waiting for the day when I'd occupy it. In the meantime, I'd swing by Bailey occasionally to pick up the meagre mail I received—a monthly bank statement, some correspondence from soldiers I'd served with, a couple of bills, and a few circulars—and to mow the lawn.

Most nights, I found myself tired enough to go to sleep almost immediately after I arrived at the farmhouse. But several times a week, I'd awaken with nightmares—or with the nagging sensation that I was supposed to be somewhere else. In truth, I'd been spoiled when Sookie and Jason had been in the ICU.

For one thing, I'd slept better when I'd been staying at the hospital, knowing that Jason and Sookie were right there; I knew that—if anything happened to either of them—I could help them immediately. If Jason woke up with a nightmare, I was there to sit next to him. I could get him water or juice. Or I could help him into his chair if he needed the bathroom.

Some nights, it wasn't Jason who woke up with nightmares. It was Sookie. In many ways, those nights were my favorites—though I was ashamed to admit that—given the reason for them. However, on those nights, I would always go over to Sookie and wake her from her dream. She would take my hand and hold onto it, which I loved, though sometimes she would cry a bit, which I hated. Other times, she would simply remain quiet, her hand enclosed by mine, until she could fall back to sleep. Occasionally, when she knew she couldn't go back to sleep, she would ask me to read quietly to her, which I loved doing.

And when they both slept well, so would I. Indeed, sleeping with them in the hospital was the best sleep I'd had in years, oddly enough.

But that time had ended with Sookie and Jason's improvement. I knew that Sookie was now able to help Jason through his nightmares. As for who helped Sookie through hers? Well—she had clearly become able to do that herself.

At first, trying to sleep at all in the farmhouse had been hard for me, mostly because it was so damned quiet. I'd not lived in such a quiet place since my mother and Appius had died and Pam had left to go to England. And—of course—since Sookie and Jason were not there, I worried about them.

Despite this worry, I had eventually learned to sleep in the quiet.

At least sometimes.

At least for a few hours at a time.

During the nights when I could not sleep for very long, I prepared the house for Sookie and Jason's inevitable return. At Sookie's request, I'd packed up Alcide's clothing and had taken most of it to Goodwill. She'd wanted me to keep a few things for herself, some flannel shirts that she associated with her husband and his work boots, as well as a few other things. His wedding ring had been brought to her by a policeman, and she now wore that on a chain around her neck.

She'd spoken with me during her last night in ICU—our last night all together. In the dark, she'd cried as she'd asked me to "pack up" her husband for her. Understandably, she'd felt like that was a task she should do. However, practicality had demanded that she get it done before she returned home. The dresser with Alcide's things in it needed to be taken out of the master bedroom and stored so that there would be room for Sookie's wheelchair to navigate around the room.

Then there was Jason's space to see to. The farmhouse had one bedroom downstairs. In addition, the first floor had a small bathroom, a spacious living room, a small den, a kitchen with a small dining area attached, and a mud porch out back—where the washer and dryer were located. The bedroom on the ground floor had belonged to Adele Stackhouse.

According to Sookie, there had originally been four small bedrooms and two bathrooms on the second floor. She and Alcide had renovated when they'd married and decided to stay in the farmhouse. They'd turned two of the bedrooms into a larger master bedroom for them—with a larger bathroom. Jason's room was also on that floor, along with an office, which Sookie and Alcide had shared.

And—of course—there was the attic, two-thirds of which was the apartment I occupied.

As I did with Alcide's things, I packed up Adele Stackhouse's clothing, most of which also went to Goodwill. Sookie gave me a list of a few things to keep. I put those items into a box to store in the attic. It was most difficult to go through Mrs. Stackhouse's personal knickknacks. Sookie eventually asked me to take pictures of everything with my phone so that she could decide what to do with the items. Many went to charity; a few were stored in the attic. And some things were moved into Sookie's bedroom. Ultimately, I got everything emptied from Adele's old room, gave the walls a fresh coat of paint, polished the wooden floors, and then moved Jason's things down there. Because he would be in his wheelchair for a relatively long time, it was decided he'd stay in the downstairs room until he was confident enough with his prosthetic leg to climb the stairs by himself.

As for Sookie, she decided to stay upstairs, though she debated making the living room her bedroom. Ultimately, however, she nixed that idea. She wanted the motivation to walk. So—putting aside her pride—she asked me if I'd be willing to carry her upstairs each night and then downstairs each morning. She planned to have a wheelchair for both floors of her home, though I told her that taking the chair up and down would be no bother. She wanted the two chairs, however, so that was the plan. One of them was already in her room. It was narrower than the standard chair, so it was an easier fit through the doorways. I'd already taken it around the upper floor, making sure she could easily navigate around in the bedroom and her office. I'd had to rearrange the furniture a bit, but Sookie had agreed to the changes before I made them. Luckily, the whole house had wooden floors, and I'd stored all the area rugs in the attic for the time being—to make for easier navigation.

In addition, I'd been busy getting the bathrooms ready for Sookie and Jason's needs. This included special bath seats and some handrails for gripping. Though I'd needed Cal to help me to install the items into the tile, I'd managed to get the rest set up myself.

Using Sookie's extra wheelchair as my guide, I'd made the downstairs as accessible as possible. The coffee table, I'd decided, needed to go into storage for the foreseeable future. And the dining table was too big to navigate wheelchairs around, especially since Jason needed to keep his left leg elevated when possible. With Sookie's permission, I'd arranged to store the large dinette set in their storage shed and temporarily replace it with a smaller table and chairs. Sookie agreed to let me pay for that furniture only when I told her that I'd move it with me to my base house in Shreveport—once I took up residence there.

"So—what about you, Captain? You like huntin' and fishin'?" Lafayette asked me, breaking me from my reverie, though I had been paying enough attention to him and Cal to know they'd been talking about the pastime for several minutes.

I sighed that I was still "Captain." But I didn't show my frustration with my continuing inability to get people to see me as Eric. "I've never had the opportunity to go hunting, and I've only been fishing a couple of times—with Bill when we were in San Diego. We went out in a Pacific to deep sea fish," I responded.

"You should consider coming trout fishing with us some weekend," Cal suggested, "that is, if you think you'd enjoy it."

I thought for a moment. "Maybe after Mrs. Herveaux and Jason don't need me here," I said. "For the foreseeable, Mrs. Herveaux will need help with the stairs."

"That's right," Cal said. "Well—the offer stands—anytime we go."

"Thank you," I said sincerely. "I'd like to try my hand at fresh-water fishing." As for hunting, I didn't think I'd ever want to kill anything else with a gun for as long as I drew breath.

"Well—should we get back to it?" Cal asked.

"Sure," I said, trying to sound friendly and warm.

Neither of the men managed to call me Eric that afternoon though.

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A/N: So I know that many of you will be disappointed by the long time jump, but I didn't want to dwell on Sookie and Jase's time in the hospital for too many chapters. Eric's POV shows that he's adapted to his time with them as he would to any "duty station." It's important to note that he's still keeping himself a bit distant, especially from Sookie. As for the "name" theme in this piece, I just became fascinated by the thought that no adult in Eric's life actually called him "Eric." I think his dwelling on that thought is a key to understanding him. Of course, even as he "practices" using first names with others, he still cannot call Sookie by her first name. This is a theme I'll return to again before the end.

As for the time jump, I saw this story as a series of time jumps in a way—where "pauses" would be made now and then as key moments occurred. I hope you are enjoying this plotting strategy I'm experimenting with.

Please comment if you have the time and inclination.

Best,

Kat

Chapter Text

Chapter 16: Say Again Your Last

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NOTE 1: In the military, "say again your last" is a request for something—usually an order—to be repeated. In this chapter, I use this phrase to emphasize the swirling and sometimes repetitive nature of Sookie's thoughts.

NOTE 2: Sookie's slip-ups in thinking of Eric as "Eric," versus "Captain Northman" come at significant times.

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Thursday, September 30, 2010 • 3:00 a.m./0300 Hours)

Sookie POV

I looked on with discomfort as Jase struggled to move from his hospital bed to his wheelchair so that he could go to the bathroom. It was always a struggle for me to watch him fight for every little scrap of progress he made. His arms—though certainly stronger from his work with Dr. Lee—still trembled under his full weight as he maneuvered his bottom from the bed to the chair. I sighed with relief. That was the hardest part for him. He then got his remaining whole, but injured leg in place. What remained of his right leg—what my positive boy had nicknamed "Stumpy"—simply "followed along," though its lack of symmetry with his left leg always seemed to surprise Jase or to throw off his balance a little.

The mother in me wanted to jump up from the bed and help him.

Likely, I would have—if I could have.

However, there would be no "jumping" of any kind for me for a long time.

I sighed lightly as Jase finally got settled into his chair and then began his groggy, middle-of-the night journey to the bathroom. I knew from experience that it would take him about ten minutes to pee, wash his hands, make his way back to his bed, and then hoist himself back into his hospital bed. I also knew from experience that the last part would be the hardest to watch without "help."

Still, I feigned sleep, determined not to smother my son with my help and thereby take away his own need to do things for himself. I didn't want him to become overly dependent, unable to function on his own.

Of course, I had given him the tools that I could so that he could be successful. For example, Dr. Lee had suggested a special kind of wheelchair that was more maneuverable than the standard and that would be easier for Jase, and I leapt (figuratively) at ordering one, despite the expense. Notwithstanding his difficulties, Jase was getting pretty good at navigating around in it—with the transition from the bed to the chair and back again being his newest (and still most difficult) accomplishment.

Still—it was hard for me to helplessly (and wordlessly) watch any struggle Jase had to endure.

Captain Northman was so much better at simply observing Jase as he worked to move around. When Jase was first learning to move with one broken and one amputated leg—before he had the upper body strength to do much and when his pain level was higher—the captain would help him to a certain extent. But now, he simply watched (whenever he was at the hospital), always there to make sure Jase didn't fall, but never invasive about his presence.

I was a little jealous that the captain was in a better position to physically help Jase if needed; I was even more jealous that he could observe his difficulties with steel, rather than the trepidation that always threatened to overtake me.

I sighed a little more loudly now that Jase had closed the bathroom door behind him.

Despite my jealousy, I was more grateful for Captain Northman—Eric—than I could express. I laughed at myself for continuing to not be certain about what to call the man—even in my head. Not long after I'd woken up, I told the captain that he need not call me Mrs. Herveaux—that Sookie was fine. In turn, he'd offered that I call him Eric. However, we'd never transitioned to our first names, despite this permission.

I couldn't really put my finger on why that was in my case, except to say that there was something almost other-worldly about him that seemed to set him apart from everyone else who had ever been in my orbit.

Maybe it was his command over his emotions in any situation he found himself in.

Maybe it was the way he made me feel safe—like he was some kind of guardian.

Maybe it was the formal way in which he carried himself.

Maybe it was the almost-professional way with which he addressed me most of the time.

Maybe it was the way he'd seemingly appeared out of nowhere—some kind of knight in shining armor. Tara had told me that Jase asked for him after the accident—when my little boy was barely conscious enough to say anything. He asked for me, and he asked for Captain Northman.

Tara confessed that she'd been worried that I wouldn't make it; that, more than anything, had been why she and Ames had worked so hard to get a message to Captain Northman, eventually asking William Compton for help. My Senator and first father-in-law had come through for Jase.

And Captain Northman had seemingly moved heaven and earth to get to Jase's side as soon as he could. So—yeah—to me, he seemed to be some kind of knight or angel or superhero or supernatural creature—my own personal Jane Eyre in some ways. He had clearly become an extremely important part of my world, even as he seemed separate from the world at large in most ways.

And that made addressing him by his first name practically impossible for me.

Only with Jase did Captain Northman become warmer, as if he were truly in the world with us. I closed my eyes as I thought of the captain; I'd never met anyone like him. Bill had told me some information about him, but even he'd said that the captain was a bit peculiar. Indeed, after telling me his full name only once, Bill had referred to Eric Northman as just "Northman."

I'd always been able to tell that Bill had loved him though; indeed, he'd looked up to Captain Northman in a way. Bill had thought that he was a perfect complement to have as a friend, and now I could see why. While Bill was excellent at making people feel comfortable, the captain was undeniably—but likely unintentionally—intimidating. Even I'd known that Bill could be a bit "flighty"; on the other hand, the captain was unquestionably steady and solid. Bill was also prone to thoughtlessness; actually, it was more like he had a tendency to think first of himself—though I knew firsthand that he had worked hard to change that element of his personality. By contrast, I found myself wondering if the captain was even capable of thinking about himself before others. And—because he did not think about himself—it seemed hard to know what to think about him. I did not think he was cold as much as he was wary—reticent about putting himself out there.

With anyone other than Jase, that is.

I felt myself sighing deeply as I thought about how Captain Northman's demeanor seemed to change at night—a change that I had been able to witness firsthand when the captain was staying overnight with Jase and me in the ICU. Whenever Jase had a nightmare, the captain would be up and at his side immediately. If Jase cried, the captain was there, a steady presence of comfort. The two would sometimes speak softly about the dreams, though I'm sure that they thought I was asleep and did not hear. And during those discussions, the captain's voice had always been warm, calm, and reassuring—the complete opposite of distant.

From their nighttime talks, I knew that Jase had stayed conscious throughout most of the aftermath of the accident. After a while, he'd been the only one awake, for Hunter had passed out from his pain, and I'd stay conscious for only a moment after the impact.

Jase talked about the pain and the coldness he'd felt. He talked about seeing a lot of blood toward the front of the vehicle. He talked about yelling out to Alcide, me, Jackson, Hunter and Gran—but having none of us answer him. He recalled with shame that he'd wet himself. He talked about crying and hearing Hunter crying until he went to sleep. He talked about being scared that everyone in the car had died but him. He talked about how he was scared that he was dying, too. He talked about the reactions of the people who'd come to help them get out of the SUV. He recalled in great detail their words as they'd seen the crushed Jackson. One of the rescue workers had said, "He's crushed. Don't waste your time; just help the ones in the back." Another had asked of Alcide, "Where's this one's head?"

I cringed and closed my eyes tightly for a moment, trying to keep my tears and the gruesome images my son had recalled at bay.

With the captain, Jase also talked about his continued worry that everyone he loved would die and leave him—just like Gran, Jackson, Alcide, and Bill had.

Sometimes Jase's dreams weren't about the accident itself, but about his amputated leg. He worried that he'd be rejected by others because of it. He worried that Jessica, the little girl he felt certain he was going to marry one day (not that I was supposed to know that), would reject him, though—to the girl's credit—she'd visited Jase and hadn't seemed to be upset at all that he was missing a leg. They'd talked mostly about how her and her mother, Alice Hamby, had been stopping by the farmhouse once a day to take care of our cats, Sarge and Pepper. Apparently, Jessica had "told" the cats all about what had happened and had made sure they were petted enough. She'd also made sure to instruct the captain about how to properly feed and pet Sarge and Pepper when he'd taken over their care.

"Captain Northman," I whispered to myself, shaking my head a little.

Through all of Jase's bad dreams, the captain had known exactly what to say—exactly what to do. I'd listened to him speaking, and I'd taken mental notes.

Once Jase and I were moved from the ICU, I'd made the difficult decision that the captain ought to go home at night, for I'd needed to reinstate some of my independence. Also, I longed to become, once again, the main person that my son turned to whenever something troubled him. Was that selfish of me? Yeah; I could admit that. But I needed to begin being Jase's mommy again, not just another "broken human" who shared his room.

Plus, I had found myself feeling too dependent upon the captain. I'd found myself drawn to him in a way that made me feel incredibly guilty.

Thankfully, by the time Jase and I were moved to a regular hospital room, I could maneuver myself from the bed to my wheelchair to Jase's bedside pretty quickly, so I was able to comfort my son through his nightmares, which now occurred only about once a week.

However, after the captain no longer stayed the night, my own nightmares had no salve, and they would occur almost nightly. Thankfully, I would generally wake myself up from them before I'd make enough noise to wake up Jase. But there was no one there when I woke up to comfort me.

I sighed again—again very deeply. Counting on the captain for relief during my own toughest times was what I felt guiltiest about. I'd felt bad about taking any comfort—when so many people in my life were now dead. And I'd felt embarrassed about using him.

But—to be frank—I'd needed someone during those long, difficult nights in the ICU, and he'd been there. Unlike with Jase, he'd never spoken with me about my dreams when I'd awoken from them. He'd simply held my hand and sometimes brought a wet rag to mop my brow when I had sweat a lot.

In the dark, especially at first when I'd been more heavily medicated, I'd almost been able to imagine that he was Alcide—or even Bill—offering me comfort. But Eric's—the captain's—hand was different from theirs. Bill's hand was always a little cold—sometimes even clammy. Alcide ran hot, and holding his hand for too long was actually not that pleasant because his palm would sweat. He and I had laughed about it.

At the risk of sounding like Goldilocks, I found that the captain's hand-holding was "just right."

Except that he wasn't the right person. And it had felt wrong for me to think of his hand as so right.

Still I had been grateful to have him there.

But I missed Alcide and felt like I was cheating on him for just allowing the captain to stand next to me in the dark.

My thoughts were interrupted as I heard Jase open the bathroom door and begin his short trek back to his bed. He grunted lightly as he lifted himself from his chair to his bed. I counted the seconds as he ungracefully moved around so he was lying down.

I focused on Dr. Crane's words: "Everything will get easier for him in time."

The whirring of the bed as it rose in height allowed me a soft sigh of relief, knowing that my son would quickly drift back to sleep. He always did after his nighttime bathroom visits. For a while, after his catheter had been taken out, he'd peed in a little container the nurses would bring him. But I knew that being able to take care of his own "human needs" was just as important to my independent son as it had been for me.

As he'd said so eloquently, "Bed pans and pee jugs are nasty, Momma!"

I listened carefully until I heard his breathing even out and his slight snoring begin, and I felt my body relax a bit. And then my mind began drifting again.

I sometimes wondered if I were cursed, destined to never keep love for long—only long enough so that my whole heart would be invested before the loss. In my worst nightmares, Bill and Alcide both taunted me—telling me that I wasn't worth sticking around for.

Dr. Crane and I talked a lot about survivor's guilt and how I definitely had it. She also told me that the mild pain meds I still needed (but was—thankfully—tapering off of) were notorious for causing vivid dreams. But—in the moment of waking from them—nothing had helped, except for a hand that felt "just right."

It had been so dark in the room that I'd never really seen the captain's face when he was standing there—sentry—as I fell back to sleep.

Or—if falling back to sleep wasn't possible, the captain would somehow know exactly when to "give up." He would, then, let go of my hand, turn on the little light next to my bed, and read to me. My eyes could then close as I listened to his strong, steady voice. I might eventually drift away to sleep—floating on the cloud of his voice and the story, rather than remaining trapped inside of my remembered nightmare—or (if I couldn't sleep) the captain would keep reading until it was time for Jase to wake up.

I sighed as I thought about Captain Eric Northman; he'd become such a constant presence in Jase and my days—a new root to cling to. Or maybe he'd been in the ground of our lives all along—at least in Jase's life. Indeed, I'd never asked him why he'd left Afghanistan without a thought. I guess I hadn't needed to. I knew it was for Jase. And for Bill.

I also knew that not many people would simply drop everything to come halfway across the globe to take care of a little boy who wasn't his own. But Captain Northman wasn't like just anyone. I sometimes wondered how he got the Marines to simply let him leave whatever post he'd occupied in that faraway war. I knew on a personal level how hard it was for a Marine to get leave when the Corps didn't find it convenient for him to; after all, Bill had barely made it to Jase's birth and hadn't been able to stay long at all—and he'd only been in training in San Diego at the time, not halfway around the globe!

I also didn't ask how the captain's month-long leave had turned into two and then three and then six months. But I'd been grateful for his extended presence, even as I'd refused to become too dependent upon it. For his part, he seemed to understand when I needed him to back off. And he seemed to understand when Jase needed space, too.

Years before, I'd found it odd just how much—and how quickly—Jase had bonded with the captain following Bill's death, especially before Skype, since their relationship occurred solely through letters and phone calls. For a while, I thought it was because Jase needed someone—anyone—to help him deal with his grief for his deceased father. Alternatively, I speculated that Jase might have clung to the captain because he was a Marine, just like Bill had been.

However, as soon as I saw Captain Northman and Jase interact in person, I realized why they'd connected. They were a lot alike—personality wise. They were both quiet—contemplative and thoughtful. I remembered back to when Jase was a tiny child; he was quiet then too, only really fussing when he was sick. And—even then—he'd fuss only long enough for me to come to him. As soon as I did—no matter how sick he had been—he quieted. It was as if he trusted me—once I was there—to take care of whatever was wrong. He'd been a Godsend child—at least, that's what Gran had always said about him. She'd pegged him as unselfish from the start; he'd slept well and eaten well—as if he knew that I'd had a difficult pregnancy and delivery. As if he knew that I was suffering from postpartum disease (albeit a relatively minor case). Of course, I was also dealing with Bill being at training and then on his first deployment when Jase was in his first year of life. He seemed to know that, too.

I recognized the same kind of contemplative sensitivity in Eric Northman. And I could easily imagine why Bill had pursued a friendship with him. Bill was the kind of man who loved to have an audience—an audience that cared. And Captain Northman was certainly that.

Indeed, it was sometimes amazing to watch Jase and the captain coexist in the same space as they played a game or worked on Jase's homework. They would speak with each other warmly, but there were also long periods of time when they did not speak at all.

Fighting against his natural personality, Jase had been more boisterous with Alcide—clearly trying to please his stepfather. However, when it was up to him, Jase—though not shy—preferred more low-key interactions. He always had.

Captain Northman, too, was low-key. Despite being a soldier, it seemed clear that he was non-confrontational, and he'd quelled any building tension between my son and me more than once. I continuously worried that I was taking advantage of the captain's giving nature, but he seemed always eager to take on another task, though he was extremely careful to make sure I still felt in control.

For example, he'd waited until after I'd asked how long he'd be staying in Louisiana before telling me about his extended leave and new duty station in Shreveport.

Later, he'd presented me with options regarding what could be done once Jase and I were ready to go home. Ultimately, the option I chose had him living with Jase and me—simply because I couldn't ask anyone else to do it. Tara was about to pop out a baby, and Amelia was still a relative newlywed! And William and Sophie-Anne Compton had obligations in Washington, D.C., not to mention the fact that Sophie-Anne was learning to walk again as well—after her stroke. The Comptons had offered to have Jase and me come to live with them, promising us the best physical therapy and nurse care that money could buy. And, of course, they had maids and a cook who could take care of us.

I knew it wasn't the right move for my son and me before William had even finished the offer, though I'd appreciated the gesture. The farmhouse was Jase and my home, and I knew we'd heal better and faster there.

According to Dr. Lee, I would likely be able to transition from the wheelchair to a walker or crutches fulltime within a month of returning home. Another month would see me using a cane most of the time. My goal at that point was to be able to get up and down the stairs before the captain had to move to Shreveport to commence his duties at Bailey. Based on my progress so far, Dr. Lee was confident that I'd be able to walk almost normally—without using the cane at all—within another six months or so.

However, at first, maneuvering myself and Jase around our home in wheelchairs was going to require help. I'd considered hiring Jesús fulltime. He'd done such a wonderful job helping Gran after her hip replacement that I knew he'd do a wonderful job with Jase and me. However, Jesús had already picked up several new patients, so fulltime care wasn't something he'd be able to start right away, though he would be coming by the farmhouse four times a week to continue both my and Jase's physical therapy—in consultation with Dr. Lee, of course.

Hiring a stranger was always a possibility. But I knew that Jase would prefer Captain Northman, and—honestly—so did I. Indeed, I found it incredibly difficult not to lean on the captain. And it was clear that he wanted to stay with Jase, too.

After putting aside my guilty feelings that I was taking advantage of the captain—as well as determining (with Dr. Crane's help) that my own warm feelings about the captain shouldn't be considered "cheating" on Alcide—I asked Captain Northman to stay with us at the farmhouse for the rest of his leave.

He'd immediately agreed.

After that, he'd taken on one difficult task after the next: first cleaning and furnishing the attic that hadn't been used as an apartment since my father and Grandpa Mitchell had initially finished the space for my dad when he was fifteen. According to Gran, my dad had an independent streak—one which she said I'd inherited. My own brother Jason hadn't inherited the same inclination; indeed, he'd never opted to use the little "apartment."

Thus, I couldn't imagine all of the dust and junk that had collected up there!

And then Captain Northman had taken on even more onerous tasks—and more personal ones.

I closed my eyes, pained by the thought that I'd not been a very good wife or granddaughter in the end. By the time I'd woken up, Janice had already made all of the funeral arrangements for both Alcide and Jackson. Of course, both Herveaux men had been so healthy that neither had gotten around to putting any final wishes down on paper. I'd asked Alcide what he wanted once, and he'd shrugged me off. Given the fact that I'd lost my first husband so young, I was hyper-aware of the need to let others know my own final wishes. Still, I'd not pushed Alcide to tell me his—or even to think about them; after all, he'd bristled at the subject of death. And I'd let myself believe that we'd have time to deal with things like that as we grew old together.

Alcide and his dad were buried the day after I woke up; of course, I could not be at the funeral. Janice visited and told me about the service, and we'd agreed to visit their graves together as soon as Jase and I were able. They'd been buried on either side of Alcide's mother. I made sure to tell Janice that I thought both men would have liked that very much.

I'd cried for a while after Janice had told me that neither casket could be opened. And the nightmares that came from that revelation had haunted me many times.

I was now a two-time widow, and both of my husbands had died brutally enough that their caskets couldn't even be opened. Yes—"haunted" was a good word for what I felt.

In addition to not being able to take care of Alcide's funeral—or even attend it—I'd not been the one to pack up his belongings either. With Bill, I'd taken my time, going through every one of his belongings with care and letting myself remember him—grieve for him—as I did.

With Alcide's belongings, that simply wasn't possible. My bedroom needed to be adapted to accommodate my wheelchair, and that meant removing Alcide's dresser from the room. And just thinking about all of his things in the closet—things I wouldn't be physically capable of packing up for months—made me feel a sorrow I just wasn't strong enough to deal with—not if I wanted to be strong for my little boy.

So I'd asked for the captain's help. Of course, I could have had him store everything that belonged to Alcide. But—ultimately—after making sure that Janice didn't want anything, I'd asked Captain Northman to pack up most of my late husband's clothing to give to charity. I kept some things that I would always associate with him—his favorite flannel shirts and his well-worn work boots. The captain had boxed up those things and all of Alcide's non-clothing items; he'd put them into the remaining storage area in the attic. I knew that going through them would be difficult. And—of course—there were many things of Alcide's that would be found as I reestablished my life at home. But most were of the less personal variety—like the ledgers he kept in our shared office space or the DVDs he'd brought into our marriage.

Despite it not being possible, I couldn't help but to feel shamefaced that I'd not been able to take care of my husband after his death. The same held true for Gran. Tara and Amelia had made the funeral arrangements for her, which were easier to do since she'd left detailed instructions with Mike Spenser and Sid Matt Lancaster. She'd been buried two days before I woke up. Tara told me that the whole town had come.

Except for me, of course.

I sighed and pinched the bridge of my nose.

Captain Northman had also packed up Gran's things in preparation of our homecoming, for Jase would need to occupy her old room for the foreseeable future. The captain had packed up her clothing—at least most of it—and taken it to Goodwill. He'd taken pictures of Gran's personal things so that I could decide what to do with them. Most were in boxes waiting next to Alcide's things

"Two lives boxed up in the attic," I whispered to myself.

I glanced at the clock on the wall—illuminated by the lamp I had asked to be left on in the corner of the room since Jase had become a little afraid of the dark since the accident. I sighed. It was hours before my son would awaken for the day.

Ninety minutes before, I'd been woken up by a nightmare that was actually a memory of the crash. And I'd not been able to go back to sleep, as I'd thought about going home the next day. And then, of course, Jason's bathroom journeys always left me a bit pensive. I sighed. I was anxious to be leaving the hospital—though both Jase and I had been well taken care of there.

But I needed to be independent again—at least, as much as possible. I needed to be home again.

According to Captain Northman, everything was ready at the farmhouse. Ramps had been built over the porch stairs; furniture had been replaced or moved to accommodate our wheelchairs; rugs had been taken up to allow for easier movement; and rods, handles, and seats had been put into the bathtubs. And when I'd asked how we'd get home—only thinking about transportation the week before—the captain had assured me that he had a van that would fit both Jase's and my needs.

I was grateful for all he was doing. At the same time, I longed for a time when I wouldn't need him. Again, I longed for my independence—stubbornly so. Maintaining my independence had been Alcide and my biggest point of struggle during our marriage—with him being quite old-fashioned in some ways. However, we'd compromised and worked things out, and eventually he'd come to respect that I needed a life that didn't fully revolve around him. So—yes—I was looking forward to taking care of myself and Jase again. It was the logistics that I'd have to learn how to deal with. And the captain would help me to transition.

My most immediate worry, however—one that hit me like a steam engine the day before—stemmed from the idea of riding in a vehicle.

Dr. Crane had assured me that such anxiety was common after a serious car accident, and she'd prescribed both Jase and me anti-anxiety medication to take in cases of emergency.

It was one of those, "I hope I don't need it, but I'm glad I have it," things.

I closed my eyes, though I didn't expect to sleep. My mind was racing too fast, spinning around topics again and again in quick succession.

I was looking forward to getting back to Merlotte's. The captain had been bringing me the books each day, as well as taking care of the money counts and deposits, but Merlotte's had been my baby, and I often enjoyed filling in as bartender or waiting tables when someone got sick. Of course, I couldn't help but to be grateful that being a waitress wasn't my main livelihood. I hated to think about how far into debt I would have been by this point if it were. As it was, both Jase and I had excellent medical insurance. Jase's was through the military—survivor's benefits because of Bill. Mine was through Alcide and Jackson's company. I offered medical insurance to my three full-time people at Merlotte's, but—frankly—getting it through Alcide's company had been much cheaper for me—since they covered more employees and their families and got better rates than I did at Merlotte's. Now that Cal had bought the business, I would still be able to retain the benefits—since I'd agreed to keep doing the books for him. We'd negotiated a modest monthly salary for the work; however, given the fact that the insurance was the main reason I wanted to keep working there—along with a desire to stay attached to something that had been so important to my husband—I felt that the salary was more than fair. I was just glad that I'd transferred everything related to Herveaux and Son Construction Company to a computerized system two years before. It had enabled me to do most of the ordering and payments from my hospital bed, at least once I felt up to it.

Indeed, I'd already been doing most of the paperwork for the contracting company at home even before the accident.

Thinking of my husband and father-in-law's business, I couldn't help but to be sad. I knew that Calvin Norris was already thinking about changing the name of the company, and that thought—though it made sense—broke my heart a little. Still, I was glad that I'd be helping to make sure that the business survived, even if it didn't bear the Herveaux name anymore.

I felt my thoughts spinning back around again to Captain Northman as I looked at my bedside table. On it was the book he'd been reading to me before Jase and I were moved from the ICU. He'd finished Jane Eyre, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, and F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. He'd been about halfway through with Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights; that book—which, like the others, had been borrowed from somewhere within the hospital—had been moved with me and Jase and put on my bedside table. I'd not picked it up, despite having read many other books during my stay in the hospital. It didn't seem right somehow to finish it without the captain though.

I sighed. Captain Northman was a good reader—more expressive telling a story than in everyday speech—and I still missed his voice keeping me company those many long nights when I could not go back to sleep after a nightmare.

I couldn't help but to wish he was there even then. And—of course—that thought led me to feel guilty again. I continued to feel bad for taking advantage of him. And, despite Dr. Crane's logic, a part of me continued to feel that—in counting on the captain—I was somehow betraying Alcide. Oh—it wasn't that I was thinking romantic thoughts about Captain Northman, though I'd come to recognize just what a handsome man he was. It was that I'd let another man into my life in any capacity! Of course, I knew that Alcide wouldn't begrudge my getting help. But I also know that—given his possessive nature—Alcide wouldn't have loved the idea that that help was coming from an attractive man.

Especially the man that he'd been a bit intimidated of—at least in regards to his relationship with Jase—before he died.

And that thought did nothing to ease my conscience.

I knew, of course, where my guilt stemmed from. It was from the nights when I would welcome the feeling of Eric holding my hand or the intimacy of his reading to me. It was from the fact that I missed those things—even now—with almost the same ache that I missed my dead husband.

Yes—no matter what Dr. Crane, Amelia, or Tara told me—I felt that I'd betrayed Alcide on an emotional level because I'd let myself draw comfort from Captain Northman. However, I was determined to avoid such a thing in the future! Being honest, that determination had been one of the main reasons why I'd asked him to quit staying overnight at the hospital—and why I'd endured many nights of restless wakefulness since then.

I would always be grateful to Captain Northman for his help. However, I was determined to focus that gratefulness on what he was doing for Jase, who was grieving for Alcide, Gran, and Jackson as much as I was. He was also grieving for something I wasn't—his leg. Oh, he was being quite brave about everything. But he was still hurting. Captain Northman had been there for him in ways that even I hadn't been able to be.

Jase needed him. And he clearly had him.

I, on the other hand, was resolute not to allow myself to need anything else from Captain Northman—beyond the practical help he would offer to me until I was on my feet.

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A/N: Many apologies for this being a day late; however, right before posting yesterday, I noticed a major flaw in the chapter that I needed to fix. Basically, I had started the chapter with the idea that Sookie was watching Jase struggle out of bed, but then I forgot that he was out of bed, and the next mention of him was that he was sound asleep. In other words—a big, illogical plot-hole! Anyway, I have only just now had time to deal with it.

I hope you enjoyed this chapter. And I really hope that you will comment if you have the time.

Best,

Kat

Chapter Text

Chapter 17: Military Cadence

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NOTE: This chapter is set one month after the previous.

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October 30, 2010 • 0800 hours/ 8:00 a.m.

Eric POV

I was in love with her—with Sookie.

However, I allowed myself to think that thought—to feel that emotion—only when I was not in her home. Specifically, I permitted the weakness only during my morning runs—but only after I'd run far enough to no longer see the dwelling where I'd felt more at peace than at any other time during my life.

As wrong as it was to feel my love for her, as much as I knew that nothing could ever come of it, as devastated as I knew I would be when I was no longer really a part of her life—I could not help myself.

A part of me hated having feelings. They always led to pain, to rejection, to loss.

But—again—I couldn't help myself.

Still, I'd thought that I'd "handled" my more romantics notions; I'd thought that I'd successfully stifled that initial overwhelming attraction I'd had for Sookie. I'd talked myself out of the belief that we could ever share a connection. I'd determined that it was best if I kept Sookie at arm's length.

It had been the first time I'd carried her up the stairs of her home and to her bedroom that I knew I had failed at stifling anything; I was lost to her. For a very long time, I'd doubted if I was even capable of feeling romantic love.

But feel it I did—for her.

Every morning, I carried her from the second floor to the first. Every evening, I would carry her up again.

And—every time—my feelings threatened to explode from my very chest. But I didn't let them. I kept myself neutral. I waited for my run.

Yes—when I carried her in my arms, I tried to ignore how her proximity engulfed all of my senses. Her scent—like a lavender field in the sun. Her warmth—like what I imagined being wrapped up in a warm quilt in front of a fireplace would be like. Her heartbeat—reminding me that she was almost lost from the world before I'd even been in the same room with her. Her gaze—always meeting mine for a moment as she thanked me and apologized for my trouble all at once. Her touch—as her arms twined around my neck. My touch—as my arms kept her safe and secure as I walked her up and down the stairs.

I both liked and disliked Jesús Velásquez, the nurse/physical therapist who was helping Sookie to transition from her walker to her cane. She was ahead of schedule with that transition and could already make it up the stairs—as long as her wheelchair was waiting for her to sit in immediately and someone walked behind her. She could not yet walk down the stairs, and—at night—when she was worn out, she still needed me to carry her up.

She still needed me.

But I knew that my days of being needed by Sookie Herveaux were numbered to even fewer than I'd once hoped for.

"It's better that way," I huffed to myself as I sped up my pace. Of course, I knew that running myself far and fast would do nothing to resolve my emotions, nor would it make them go away. But I ran anyway, always putting myself through the torture of both love and loss during every run.

I always embraced all of the reasons that I loved Sookie during the first half of my run.

They went through my head like a military cadence.

First and foremost, I could not imagine a better mother. I knew that Sookie found it almost impossible not to baby Jason—not to over-help him as he struggled with his first attempts to stand up using his crutches. Yet she found a way to support him without hovering or smothering him.

And she wasn't easy on him when it came to chores and schoolwork either! At first, Jason was under the false perception that he wouldn't have to do things like clean his room or make his own bed. That changed his second day home when Sookie told him to find a way.

As he'd grumbled about being in a wheelchair and still having to do chores, she'd cried softly in the living room. In a whisper, she'd asked me if I thought that she was being too hard on him. Having never been a parent before, I could tell her only that it seemed like a good idea for Jason to learn to have the same amount of independence he'd had before. She'd smiled at me beautifully and then blushed as I'd handed her a handkerchief so that she could wipe away her tears.

Thirty minutes later, Jason had managed to make his bed; it wouldn't pass a military inspection, but it was good enough to show that he'd made a good-faith effort in completing the task.

Another reason why I'd fallen in love with Sookie was her strength in the face of a situation that would emotionally cripple many people. She was just over thirty years old, and she'd lost two husbands. She'd lost her grandmother, whom I'd learned had been Sookie's touchstone in life. She'd lost her father-in-law as well. Yet she maintained her positive attitude and was more focused on helping Jason deal with his grief than she was dealing with her own.

She was also driven and courageous—sometimes stubbornly so. She was determined to help Calvin Norris implement some of the growth plans she'd helped to dream up with Alcide. Moreover, she'd managed to hire and train two new part-time servers and one new bartender at Merlotte's.

And I'd seen her bussing tables in her wheelchair!

I figured that some of her drive came from the need to keep busy so that she wouldn't have to dwell on her grief; in truth, I thought her strategy was a sound one. It was what I'd done when Pam had moved to London and then what I'd done again when Bill was killed.

Oh—I knew that she was still dealing with her grief. But she was incredibly strong, not letting that grief paralyze her.

She still laughed, and she helped Jason laugh. She still planned and dreamed, and she encouraged her son's dreams as well.

She accepted visits from friends and acquaintances with graciousness. She insisted that I drive her over to Tara's so that she could help with her newborn, when the infant became colicky.

And she was incredibly kind and gracious with me. She gave me the immeasurable gift of a home and made sure that I knew that I was "part of the family"—that I really was "Uncle Eric" and that I'd always have as much of a role in Jason's life as he and I decided I should have. She apologized—I thought unnecessarily—for asking me to limit my time with Jason when she'd married Alcide. I'd assured her that I'd understood her decision. But she'd still apologized again for ever believing that my relationship with Jason should be deprioritized—that I should feel deprioritized.

Yet she did so much more for me than simply apologize. She gave me an idea of what I might do if I ever stopped being a Marine. I now knew that I could run a place—a bar—and I contemplated what it might be like to open one in Shreveport—near the base—if I ever quit the Corps.

She gave me smiles, too. In turn, I found myself smiling more when I was around her. I felt lighter—better. I could feel myself relaxing around her, talking about my sister and some of the people I'd met in the Marines.

She wanted to know me. And—in turn—I wanted to be known by her.

I felt myself becoming something I'd never been before—happy.

Of course, I knew that Jason was a part of that happiness—a big part. I loved him too—as I imagined a father might love a son. Indeed, I wanted to be something like a father to Jason—in whatever ways he needed, even if that was never the word that he thought of when he interacted with me.

"Uncle" was enough.

And Sookie allowed that in a way that I now knew would be permanent. And—for the first time in my life—I knew what it felt like to enjoy a relationship that was "safe."

Even Pam had commented that I looked more content when we'd Skyped the week before. She figured it was because I was no longer in combat. But I knew better.

I was happy because I had Jason and Sookie in my life. But, of course, I knew that only one of those people would actually stay that way in the same way.

My bubble would burst in two months' time.

But I'd determined that having that bubble at all—for any length of time—was enough. I'd already realized that resisting the urge to be in orbit around Sookie was impossible. So I let myself enjoy it—like a spectator. And—during my runs—I let myself enjoy it like a man in love with a woman.

And I felt joy.

At least until I turned around to make the return run to the old farmhouse.

It was on the run back that I repacked my feelings of love for Sookie.

I could allow myself to enjoy being with her and Jason. I could savor the happy moments that now came to me multiple times a day. I could collect them. I could write them down. And I would always remember them.

But—after my runs—I would not let myself dwell on my love for her. Despite her brave front, I knew that she was grieving, and I would not burden her with my feelings or take advantage of her vulnerability.

I always made a point to run back via Bill's family's estate. Remembering him always helped me to keep my priorities where they needed to be. He'd tasked me with looking out for Jason and his mother. And that is what I would always do.

And that would be enough for me—because it was what they needed of me.

And because I was a good soldier.

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November 30, 2010 (one month later) • 9:00 a.m./0900 hours

Sookie POV

"Damn," I huffed under my breath as I found that I had to sit down before I fell down. I'd replaced my wheelchair with a walker that had a seat that I would utilize if I became unsteady. I was also using my cane more, but I still relied on my walker/seat when I was going to be standing in one place, such as at the kitchen counter, for more than a minute or so.

Unlike Jase, I'd never used crutches—as Dr. Lee thought that the walker and the cane were better fits for the kind of bone break that I'd had. Seeing Jase mastering his crutches quickly (despite having only one leg), as soon as his left femur healed adequately, made me a bit jealous sometimes—though Dr. Lee made it clear that my leg was healing just fine. And apparently on its own timeline.

Also apparent was that trying to chop up the butternut squash I needed for a crockpot meal was asking too much of my still unsteady leg.

I was almost thankful I was sitting down, however, when Eric came in through the back door from his morning run. I knew that he ran about five miles a day, and his perfect body reflected every damned foot he had traveled.

I chastised myself for my attraction to Captain Eric Northman. As usual, I felt my guilt spike as he toweled off; of course, he had no idea that I was objectifying him in my mind. And, of course, he had no idea that he had become the star of a fantasy life that was reemerging as if coming out of hibernation.

But it was too soon! At least, I told myself that again and again.

And—to make matters even more confusing—I was still grieving for Alcide, crying and aching for him almost every night, even as my body couldn't help but to be attracted to Eric every day.

So—yes—I was confused and swimming in guilt as I looked away from the captain and compelled myself to stand and return to my task.

One thing I knew for certain was that—no matter how attractive sweaty Captain Northman was—I would never act on that attraction. To do so wouldn't be fair to anyone involved! For myself, I didn't want to succumb to a rebound relationship that would lead only to my increased guilt and shame. Plus, I knew that Eric couldn't replace Alcide—that trying to replace my deceased husband would only leave me emptier inside.

Moreover, I'd sworn off men because—simply put—I wasn't prepared to grieve for another husband. I'd lost enough already.

I sighed as I chopped through the tough gourd.

Maybe one day I'd try a casual relationship, but I didn't think I could ever let myself fall in love again. There was a saying that a lot of people used with me after Bill's death—a cliché really: "'Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all." I'd looked up that saying and found it was actually from a poem called "In Memoriam" by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. It was a very long poem, but I read it again and again, looking for consolation within its stanzas and lines.

As time passed after Bill died, I'd had fewer and fewer sad days, and eventually, I'd decided to take a leap of love again—when I'd fallen for Alcide. It was funny how no one had said that famous Tennyson line to me since my second husband died. It was as if they knew I wouldn't be in a state of mind to believe them.

Or even to receive those words—without falling apart, that is.

In fact, I'm not sure I ever would believe that line again. Loving someone and losing them hurt so badly. Too badly.

And—yes—using Captain Northman might give me momentary pleasure. However, I knew that a casual relationship with someone like him wouldn't be possible.

Plus, I'd grown to like him too much to screw up our friendship—though, oddly, neither of us had ever brought ourselves to use our first names, at least not out loud.

Moreover, I didn't want to hurt him. If he came to care for me romantically, he'd only be harmed when I inevitably broke things off. I knew that rebound relationships begun too closely to a tragedy were more likely to fail than not.

Most importantly, I didn't want any fleeting and doomed relationship that he and I might have to negatively affect the long-lasting and true relationship that he and Jase had.

I smiled a little to myself as I thought of Eric and Jase's love for each other.

I didn't want to say the word "dad" out loud, but that was exactly what the captain was to Jase now.

Of course, I did worry that Jase might begin to feel like he was betraying Alcide or Bill because he clearly loved Eric more than either of them. So far, he'd not had such a dilemma. And I wanted to keep it that way, which meant that complicating things with Eric by acting on my attraction was not a wise idea.

But I couldn't help enjoying Eric from afar—appreciating his undeniable beauty. I even let myself luxuriate in his comforting, strong arms when he was carrying me up and down the stairs. But I only let myself do that for as long as it took for him to put me down.

I also enjoyed simply spending time with Eric—as friends. He was, as it turned out, extremely intelligent and well-read. It seemed that being a Marine offered him ample time to sink into books, and I learned that his genres of preference were nonfiction and biographies. Because of those preferences, he was quite knowledgeable about many subjects and people he'd taken an interest in over the years. And Jase often used him as a fount of historical data when he was doing his homework.

Eric, it seemed, was also excellent at picking up languages. Indeed, part of Jase's studies involved learning Spanish. Eric was learning right along with Jase. I smiled to myself as I recalled them powering through a lesson with the Rosetta Stone just the night before. They also practiced beyond their lessons. Eric had even thought to have Jesús speak only Spanish during Jase's physical therapy exercises so that Jase could get the benefit of practice with a native speaker of the language.

Maybe it was his time being in the Marines—having to lead men and women—that made the captain so resourceful. But I also felt that it was something just about him too. I imagined that he could live a thousand lifetimes and never tire of learning new things, and that meant that he was the kind of man who could admit to not knowing everything.

And that kind wasn't so common.

Yes—Captain Northman seemed to have unlimited attributes, qualities that ran so deep that it was hard to recognize them at first. But—little by little, he opened himself up. I'd noticed that he was smiling more—that his posture had relaxed around not just Jase but me.

It seemed an honor that he would feel comfortable enough to show more of himself in my presence.

But that didn't mean I could allow myself to think anything more of him beyond a friend. So I wouldn't.

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A/N: This chapter shows two more leaps forward for the story's timeline. I wanted to offer little flashbulb moments of Eric and Sookie from their life living under the same roof. The first time jump is one month after Sookie and Jase are home; Eric has acknowledged his feelings for Sookie, but only in a way that he thinks will enable him to remain in control. He honestly doesn't think he's a worthy candidate for Sookie, and he has a lot of honor, so he won't risk taking advantage of her vulnerability and grief. In the next leap (another month), I wanted to show Sookie's POV. Many of you were worried that she'd push Eric away completely—not even allowing a friendship to build—but she hasn't. She and Eric have become good friends in the two months, and it's clear that he's opened up a lot as a person. I tried to imagine myself in Sookie's shoes: dealing with so much loss, but being attracted (on a physical level) to this hot guy that's living with her. I mean—her ovaries must burst daily as she sees him with Jase—being a "dad" to him when he needs it most. But then the overwhelming guilt takes over. Plus, she truly loved/loves Alcide. Losing Bill devastated her. Losing Alcide devastates her previous hope that she could find lasting happiness after such a profound loss. I hope that I have adequately shown how scared she is to see Eric as anything other than a friend, and I think that her concerns are reasonable ones, especially because she doesn't want to risk hurting Jase by any of her actions. This chapter was meant to paint this almost impossible position that I imagined Eric and Sookie in. I hope you enjoyed it.

Please comment if you have the time and inclination.

Best,

Kat

Chapter Text

Chapter 18: Friendly Fire

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NOTE: This chapter is set one week after the previous.

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December 10, 2010 • 2200 hours/ 10:00 p.m.

Eric POV

Sookie's crying woke me up. It always did—no matter how hard she would always try to prevent Jason or me from hearing her.

And I could tell when she was crying within a nightmare versus when she was crying while she was awake.

Always—practically holding my breath—I waited for the heartbreaking sound to stop. And I prayed that she could find relief from her sadness. Whenever her cries carried on for more than a few minutes, I found myself pacing in my little room, which was almost directly above hers in the farmhouse. I longed to go to her as I had in the hospital—to hold her hand and, perhaps, to read to her.

But I did not. I had no right to venture into the room she'd shared with her late husband.

"Uncle Eric," Jason's tired, shaky voice called to me on the walkie talkie I'd gotten for us so that we could communicate when I was upstairs.

I'd purchased it mainly so that he could have a way to get my attention when he had a nightmare. From the sound of his voice, I could tell that—like his mother—he'd been trapped in a dream that upset him greatly.

"On my way," I whispered into my end of the walkie talkie.

I pulled on a T-shirt over the flannel sleep pants I'd purchased to ensure that I would always be dressed modestly in Sookie's home. Plus, being December, it was cool in the drafty old house.

Silently, I made my way down from the attic. I paused on the second floor for just a moment, as I heard another of Sookie's whimpers. I took a step toward her room before shaking myself from the impulse and continuing down to Jason.

When I entered Jason's room, I found that he had tears streaming down his cheeks. Immediately, I went to his bedside and crouched down next to the bed, taking his hand.

The contact wasn't enough for him, however, and he launched himself into my arms.

It must have been one of his more horrific dreams.

"Don't die, Uncle Eric," he whimpered.

I sighed and patted his back lightly. Jason had been having fewer nightmares since he'd gotten off of his pain medication completely the month before. However, the ones he did have now seemed to center on his fear that either his mother or I—or both of us—would die.

I held him tight and rocked him a little.

"No one lives forever, Jason," I said softly—truthfully. "But I promise that I will do my best to stay alive. That is all anyone can do."

He pushed away from me as large tears fell from his eyes. "Why won't you promise!?" he demanded.

I felt my sadness acutely—and my powerlessness. I knew that the boy in front of me would have preferred my telling him that nothing bad would ever happen to me. But I couldn't tell him that; I couldn't lie to him.

"I can't," I said, somewhat defeated.

"Will you go away to fight again? Will you get killed like my daddy?" he asked, almost accusingly.

I shook my head. "No. I'm going to be stationed at Bailey Base—training people. Remember?"

He nodded, but I could tell he wasn't convinced. "What if a General or something says you have to go away to fight?"

I sighed. "Then I'll have to go."

"Then you'll die!" he said fearfully.

I considered my words for a moment. "I hope not, Jason. I don't want to. I want to stay alive so that I can spend time with you."

"And my mom?" he asked timidly.

I couldn't help but to bristle a bit. "Yes. And your mom," I said truthfully. "I want to be able to spend time with both of you. And I don't want you to ever have to grieve for me. But things happen every day—accidents and illnesses. I can only hope to live a long, long time, and I will do what I can to make sure that happens."

"How?" he asked, his eyes wide with childish innocence in that moment.

"I'll go to the doctor if I think I'm sick. If I have to go back to fight, I'll work my hardest to keep myself and my men out of dangerous situations we can't handle."

"And you'll be careful when you drive?" he asked, his bottom lip trembling.

I nodded. "I will."

"Dad—Alcide—was careful. Both my daddies were careful. But they both died," he said, fresh tears falling.

Jason had shared with me that he'd asked Alcide if he could call him "Dad" the very morning before the accident that killed him.

"Yes, they were careful," I said, fibbing a little when it came to Bill. He'd not exactly been being cautious when he ran into the open to try to save one of his men from the sniper. But Jason wasn't old enough to understand why Bill had risked himself like that. Hell—sometimes I wasn't even old enough!

"And neither your father, Bill, nor your dad, Alcide, wanted to leave you," I added.

"Momma says that they are both looking down on me from heaven. That Gran is too," Jason said. "Do you believe that?"

"Yes," I responded. "I believe that."

"Will you promise me that you will look over me if you have to die?" he asked, his voice quivering again.

"I promise," I told him, feeling a lump in my throat.

"Why are you leaving at the end of December? Why don't you stay here with Momma and me?"

"You and your mother will be healed enough to fend for yourselves," I said softly. "And you know that my job starts on January 2, so I'll need to move to the base, but it's only in Shreveport," I responded.

"I want you to live here," he said stubbornly.

"You and your mother need your independence. Anyway—I'll still visit. And you can visit me on the base."

We sat in silence for a few minutes.

"Mommy was crying again," Jason said softly.

I nodded.

"Does she have bad dreams too?" he asked.

"We all do sometimes," I responded.

"What are yours about?" he asked.

There was no way I could tell him the truth about the carnage I sometimes relived as I slept. "I worry about losing people I care about too," I told him truthfully.

"Like Pam?" he asked.

I nodded. "Yes. And you. And the men and women I commanded."

He considered for a moment. "Do you dream about my dad sometimes? Um—my first one?"

"Yes," I responded. I did not tell him that all of my worst dreams included the image of his father's bullet-ravaged body.

"I dream about him too," Jason confessed. "I dream I'm looking for him and can't find him. And I can't remember what he looks like in my dreams—even though I have pictures of him and try to remember those pictures while I'm dreaming. But I still can't find him."

"I'm sorry you have bad dreams, Jason," I said, not knowing what else to say.

"I'm sorry you do too, Uncle Eric."

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I stayed with Jason for a while longer, though we did not talk anymore. I got him a glass of water and a warm washcloth so that he could clean his face, and then I sat in the little chair in his room and waited for his breath to even out and his light snoring to begin.

Though he'd already lived through more grief than many adults ever would—in a lot of ways—he was still just a little boy. But he was also having to grow up even more quickly than he'd already been doing. Having Alcide in his life had given him a reprieve from feeling the need to be "the man in the family." And having me around had allowed him to begin coming to terms with the changes in his life. But I could already tell that he was gearing up mentally for the inevitability of my leaving.

His progress with his prosthetic had been astounding, especially during the last two weeks. As soon as the femur in his left leg had healed enough to take the pressure of his full weight, he'd begun working to move around with crutches. However, it was when he first stood on two feet again—after Dr. Lee did the last fitting of his artificial leg—that had been the true changing point for Jason. Since then, he'd been working very hard to walk around—often having to be held back a bit in his anxiousness to do too much.

I looked toward the ceiling, knowing full well where he'd inherited his stubbornness from. Sookie—too—always pushed herself.

During the last month, she'd transitioned almost fully from her walker to her cane, though she couldn't walk long distances with either one yet. However, thanks to the new treadmill that she'd put onto the mud porch, she was getting better with her endurance.

Selfishly, I missed her needing me to carry her up and down the stairs, which hadn't been the case for almost a week now. She still didn't like going up and down when I wasn't in the house, but she was gaining in confidence each day. And even Jason had begun working on stepping up and down—though with only a single block—with his prosthetic leg on.

In my unselfish moments, I knew it was good that they were both doing so well—and both well ahead of schedule. I would not have to worry about them so much when I had to take up my post at Bailey—when I had to leave the home I'd grown to love.

Silently, I stood and collected the empty water glass and the used washrag. I took both to the kitchen before going upstairs. However, just as I got to the second floor, I heard a sharp scream.

It was Sookie.

Before I even realized I was moving, I was in her room with her. I rushed to her side as she thrashed in her sleep—as if she were afraid of the devil himself.

"Sookie," I said, hoping to help her escape from whatever hell she was in.

She continued to thrash so much that I worried she might reinjure her leg. I sat next to her. "Sookie!" I said a little more loudly even as I reached out to grab her hand—to give her a link to the waking world.

Happily, it seemed to work as her eyes popped open.

It took her a moment to get her bearings. Her breathing was erratic and seemed pained. Tears leapt to her eyes, following the path of those shed during her nightmare. And she began sobbing uncontrollably.

And—God help me—I did what I'd wanted to do for months. I moved to take her into my arms—to hold her.

Insuppressible, I felt all of my love for the woman in my arms as I marveled at how she fit against my body. Carrying her up and down the stairs had enabled me to speculate that her body and mine might be puzzle pieces. Now I knew that they did match together—perfectly.

It almost hurt it was so perfect.

Having woken up enough to know that she'd been having a nightmare and that I was with her, Sookie said a single word, "Eric," as she twined her own arms tightly around me.

My name. She'd said my name.

Moving on instinct, I bent down to kiss her hair as she nestled into me. For a moment, she stopped crying.

"I'm sorry," she said softly.

"Don't be," I responded my voice sounding deep and rough.

"I promised myself I wouldn't count on you—not like this. Not after I left the ICU," she whispered.

"I can go then," I said, even as my head lowered to kiss her hair again and the rest of my body agonized over the idea of letting her loose.

"No. Please!" she pled. "No yet. I'm tired of being strong. I'm tired of crying alone."

"Then fall apart for a while, Sookie," I whispered, saying her name aloud as she'd said mine. "I have you; you're not alone."

I felt her head nod and then sobs shook her again. As I'd done with Jason half an hour before, I rocked her gently; however, the touches that she and I were exchanging were so much more intimate than my embrace of Jason.

I refused, however, to completely give in to my own feelings. Sookie needed me to be there for her—to be strong for her.

"Tell me everything's going to be okay," she said after a while. "Lie to me."

"Everything will be fine," I told her, wanting to believe my words more than anything, lying to her as I couldn't do with Jason.

"Tell me I won't lose Jase," she pled. "I can't lose him. He's all I have left."

"You won't lose him. I won't let it happen!" I vowed.

"Tell me I won't be alone—that I won't die alone," she cried.

"Never!" I promised. "Never, Sookie."

She looked up at me, her eyes brimming with tears yet to spill down her already saturated cheeks. Her eyes were wide and full of fear and longing. And, in the next moment, she was kissing me.

At first, I didn't react; I was too surprised to react. But as her tongue sought entrance into my mouth, I opened myself for her. And then I was kissing her back. Our mouths fit like our bodies did—perfectly. She moaned as her hands moved to grip my shoulders. My own hands moved to cradle her face—to feel her flesh under my fingers. I found myself telling her all of my feelings in that kiss—all of my impossible hopes and my fears. My heart was beating wildly; my mind was soaring.

It was a perfect moment.

My perfect moment.

And then she pushed me away.

"Oh God!" she exclaimed, her hands flying up to hide her lips. Her look shifted from passion, to sorrow, to guilt, to regret in moments. "Eric—Captain Northman—I'm so sorry! I didn't mean . . . . I didn't want . . . ." She stammered as more tears fell from her eyes.

And just like that, I realized the mistake I'd made in coming into her room. I realized the damage I'd done.

Slowly, as if she were a wild animal that I didn't want to frighten, I moved away from her and then off the bed until I was standing.

"I'm sorry, Ma'am," I said. "I think we both got lost for a moment."

She looked at me wide-eyed, clearly not knowing what to say.

I decided to take a moment, walking into the bathroom to find and wet a cloth. There was also a glass next to the sink. I filled it with water and returned to Sookie's bedside.

Keeping as much physical distance between us as possible, I handed her the items I'd brought.

Looking anywhere but at me, she took a long drink and then wiped her eyes. She was clearly experiencing confusion. But it was the guilt and pain in her eyes—in her whole being—that affected me the most.

I backed up and then sat on the bench that was against the wall.

"Emotions can run high in combat, Ma'am," I said softly. "And you were fighting something in your dream, something worse than any combatant I've ever faced, I'd imagine." She let out a little sob, but I went on. "I wanted to help you through it, but I fear I've made things worse for you."

"Captain, I'm sorry. I just can't . . . ."

"I know, Ma'am," I said comfortingly. "And you don't have to say or do anything. You're a beautiful woman, and I'd be lying if I didn't say that I like being here with you and Jason. However, I know that what just happened between us cannot happen again. You are still grieving, and it's only natural that you'd turn to the person most available to you for comfort. Like I said, combat can bring out unexpected emotions. But a good soldier knows when that kind of thing can get other people hurt. I should have been more careful, Ma'am. It is I who must apologize."

"Captain, I—uh—it's not that I didn't want to kiss you," she blushed. "You're great! A good man. I mean—I've come to like you and to," she paused, "depend on you. But I also feel bad about doin' what we did, too. I loved my husband, Captain. I love him," she correctly quickly.

"I know you do, Mrs. Herveaux," I eased, "and you've done nothing to betray him tonight. You had a nightmare, and you were too tired and emotionally drained to be fully in control. Your husband would understand that the moment we shared was fueled by pain and sorrow on your part."

"I don't think he would understand," she sighed.

"Maybe not. But I do understand," I said. "And—if he were here—he would be justified to kick my ass to remind me that I needed to be more careful with you—with your feelings."

"What about your feelings?" she asked me—her eyes finally moving to mine and seeming to find all of my feelings in my own eyes in that moment.

I smiled a little and shrugged. "I'll say it again, Ma'am. In combat, emotions can run high and seem overwhelming. They can be unexpected; they can be crippling. They can also add to a soldier's strength." I sighed loudly. "On the day I carried Bill from the battlefield, the men and women in my squad told me that I was crying the entire time—that my tears didn't stop even as I barked out orders and got my remaining squad and Bill onto the evac chopper."

"It was bad?" she asked, wiping her eyes with the rag again.

"The worst day I've ever faced," I said truthfully. "But—later, during debriefing—I was told that there were other insurgents in the area, and that—even as I wept for my best friend and got him out of there so that he could come home to you—I was probably the best commander I've ever been." I chuckled ruefully. "It sucks that I can't remember any of it. But my emotions didn't make me weak, Ma'am. They made me strong. And I went on autopilot so that I could get out of hell. And that's what you just did."

"You shouldn't still blame yourself for Bill—you know," she said softly. "I've come to know you well enough to know that you still do."

"I probably always will—a little. I'd happily trade my life if only Bill was sitting here—where I am now, Ma'am. Jason would have had his father and you your husband. A lot of your pain would have never happened."

She sighed. "It's hard to tell what life would have been like if Bill had come home safely," she said softly. "I used to imagine that a lot. But—if he had—I wouldn't have had Alcide, and I love him too."

"Your life might be better though," I said.

She shrugged. "Or it might be worse. Gran always said that things work out according to God's plans—not ours."

I nodded, accepting her words, even though I would still go back in time to save Bill if I could.

We gazed at each other for a few moments, probably trying to figure out if "we'd" be okay.

Finally, I spoke. "You asked me about my feelings. The important ones right now are the love I have for Jason and the concern I have for you. You are a good woman, and you shouldn't have to feel guilt or pain because of a kiss you gave in a moment of vulnerability. I will go to Bailey right away if you want me to go," I said softly. "However, I would rather stay as planned—through the month."

"I need to count on you less," she said softly. "And I can't count on you for this," she said gesturing around the room, "again."

I nodded. "This is your space, Ma'am. I won't come into it again. And just let me know what I can do to be less," I paused, "counted on."

She sighed. "It's been nice going with you and Jason to Merlotte's when I needed to work. But—now that I'm able to drive—I think it's best that I do that on my own. I also need to do things like grocery shopping on my own again."

I nodded. "You can call me if you are in need, but since you can drive again, it does make sense that you do those things on your own. And, perhaps, it might be a good idea for both you and Jason if I begin spending some more time in Shreveport. I could use the opportunity to get my house on the base set up as well as meet with my C.O. about his expectations and plans."

As I spoke, I kept my head up and my eyes forward. And I kept my feelings inside. With Appius, I had learned to stay at attention and suppress; the military had honed those abilities. I simply kept it inside that spending time away from the farmhouse was the last thing I wanted to do. But it was better than the alternative—having Sookie kick me out for my lack of control that very minute.

"Thank you, Captain," she said softly. "I didn't mean for all of this to get complicated."

"We don't have to be complicated, Mrs. Herveaux," I said sincerely as I stood up. "Good night," I added before leaving her room.

I made it all the way up to my room before my hands started shaking. I looked at them and marveled at the fact that they didn't seem to be mine in that moment; I certainly couldn't control them. The world seemed to spin for a moment, and my chest hurt. Had I not known the cause of my symptoms, I might have worried that I was dying of a heart attack.

But I knew better. I knew that my pain was from allowing myself to "have" Sookie and then acknowledging the loss of her. I chastised myself for my weakness. I'd been telling her the truth when I said that emotions were difficult to control in combat situations. And I truly believed that she'd been in one when I'd woken her up from her nightmare. However, I had not been in one. I'd held her closer than I should have. I'd kissed her forehead—twice. I'd lost control of myself when she'd allowed herself to need someone for support.

I'd betrayed her.

I wouldn't do it again. My eyes closed in concentration, I sat on my bed until my heartrate came down a little—until my hands quit shaking. My lips still tingled from Sookie and my kiss, so I got up to go and wash my face before deciding that a complete shower would be needed so that I would not smell her scent on me. I couldn't allow myself to luxuriate in her—not if I was to be her friend and nothing more.

Not if I was to avoid complications that would force her to cut me from her life.

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SOOKIE POV

I sat up in bed, knowing I wouldn't be able to go back to sleep. I brought my fingers to my lips and felt them tingling below my touch.

Closing my eyes, I allowed myself to truly examine how I'd felt when I'd been kissing Eric.

He wasn't wrong; our kiss wasn't complicated. It was beautiful—perfect.

It was the moment after I'd broken it that things became so complicated.

I'd longed for that kiss to go on and on and on. I'd wished that the kiss could have led to much more. I'd seen the desire in his eyes that must have matched mine. And then I'd been hit with a very complicating wave of shame and guilt.

"How could I?" I asked Alcide's picture, which sat on the nightstand. He'd been dead for five months—only five. And I'd spent the first week or so of that asleep. How could I have let myself betray my husband, for that is exactly what that kiss had felt like.

As I touched my lips, I knew it felt like betrayal—and not just a mistake. Not just "friendly fire."

It was because Alcide's kisses had never affected me like that one from Captain Northman had. Bill's kisses hadn't sent me into the stratosphere either. Bill and Alcide kissed me quite differently, but comparatively.

What I'd just experienced with the captain was incomparable. It was like he'd been perfecting his kissing skills for a thousand years!

Of course, that kiss was also a betrayal to myself. I had decided that it was safer not to love. And falling for someone like Captain Northman was the opposite of safe. He was a damned Marine, after all! I shook my head. I couldn't do that—couldn't be with a soldier again. I was proud I'd been a Marine's—Bill's—wife. I was proud that he was a soldier and that he sacrificed for his country. I was proud of my brother, Jason, too. He, also, had given his life for the country he loved. And—when Jase had been talking about being a soldier before the accident—I'd found a way to deal with that possibility too.

However, I couldn't let myself be in love with another soldier. I couldn't withstand the tours while he was away. I couldn't endure the sleepless nights, wondering if he was alive or dead.

I couldn't have a panic attack every time a car came up the driveway!

Moreover, I didn't want to be involved with ANYONE! I simply wasn't sure I could survive another loss.

But that choice hadn't been anywhere in my mind as I'd taken comfort in the captain—as he'd held me tight. For the first time in months—maybe years—my world had felt "just right" again. When he'd kissed my hair, I'd felt cherished again. I'd felt safe and warm in a way that I'd never felt in my entire life.

At least, not since I'd first been introduced to death—the night I'd learned that my parents had drowned.

It was a nightmare inspired by my parents' drowning amassed with the car accident which had plagued me earlier. I'd been driving with all my family members in a large van. Jase was in the passenger seat. However, the van also held my parents, Gran, Grandpa Mitchell, Jason, Bill, Alcide, and Jackson. I'd been driving so carefully in my dream—determined to get us all home safely. I felt that—if I could just drive slowly enough—I could protect the people I loved. But—suddenly—I drove off a low-water bridge, and we were underwater! And—one by one—everyone in the car drowned and disappeared, blaming me for not being able to hold on to them. Jase was the last one left alive, and I was holding his little body up so that he would take advantage of the one tiny air pocket left in the vehicle.

But I couldn't hold my breath anymore. I was screaming out into the water—screaming with fear and pain and failure. I couldn't breathe. I had just lost my grip on Jase when I felt a solid hand in my own.

I'd awoken to see Eric there, his eyes so full of concern—and something more—some emotion just for me.

I sighed. No matter how good Captain Northman was as hiding his feelings, I couldn't help but to see the affection he held for me in his eyes. However, I'd tried not to encourage it. I'd even talked myself into believing that he saw me only as a friend. But that wasn't true; the kiss told me that. I'd felt his love for me as he'd kissed me—felt it as if his emotions were transferring to me through some kind of magical bond.

It had been that overwhelming feeling that had caused me to push him away. And then he'd managed to say all the right words to make me feel better—to make me know that he and I would be okay.

I'd asked him about his feelings because I'd been trying to get a handle of my own. And—as often happened when he spoke with Jase—he said the thing I'd needed to hear most. And he'd left unsaid the things that might be damaging. It had been clear to me that he felt many things.

Many complicated things.

But the feelings he was choosing to focus upon were his love for Jase and his care for me. And I knew that I could do the same: focus on my love for my son and my care for the man who'd been there for us for the last five months.

And if I felt more—if he did—it didn't have to be our focus.

Still—a part of me had been tempted to ask Captain Northman to leave the farmhouse the next day. However, I didn't want to disappoint my son in that way, especially not with Christmas so close.

No—we had a plan, and we'd stick to it. The captain would stay through the end of the month and move out on the first of the new year.

A new year. A new start for my son and me.

Meanwhile, I was determined to concentrate on what I needed to do to get myself truly able to care for my child as a single mother. Even when Bill had died, I'd always had Gran. Now, I'd be alone in raising my son.

Yes. I needed to get mentally prepared for that—not think about Captain Northman, his feelings for me, or my rogue feelings about him.

I sighed even as I acknowledged that I wouldn't actually be alone in raising Jase. The captain would be there, too. When Jase had begun to get worried about whether he'd be able to see his Uncle Eric after he moved to Shreveport, we'd all three sat around the table to discuss the future.

It had been clear that the captain had been just as anxious as my son to hammer out a visit schedule. The captain already knew that his training duty schedule would be Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays from 8:00-5:00. He'd also have to spend quite a few hours doing paperwork and meeting with the C.O. each week, though many of those tasks could be done whenever he wanted. Thus, it was determined that Eric would come and pick up Jase each Friday at around noon to take him to his session with Dr. Crane and his once-a-week at-hospital physical therapy appointment with Dr. Lee. Then, Jase would spend Friday nights with the captain on base. They would hang out on Saturday for part of the day, and the captain would have Jase home in time for Saturday's dinner, which the captain could share with us if he wasn't busy with other things.

I was, admittedly, a bit nervous about being without Jase overnight, but I knew it would be good for the both of us. It wouldn't be long before Jase wanted to stay overnight with his friends again. And I needed to learn how to be truly on my own for the first time in my life.

Plus, to be frank, I felt that the captain deserved his time with Jase. I hated to make the comparison, but—in my mind—his rights were now comparable to a divorced father's rights. Oh—the captain was extremely respectful about the fact that I made the ultimate decisions regarding my child, but he had become a co-parent to Jase. That was just a fact.

I knew that—at this point—anything less would be unfair to Captain Northman, who'd given so much of himself to us without asking for anything in return.

Most importantly, however, Jase needed his time with his Uncle Eric. Truth be told, they would likely Skype every day. And I was okay with that.

I'd heard Captain Northman taking a shower on the floor above me, and I decided that was a good idea. As crazy as it sounded, his scent was lingering all around me, and every time I caught it, I couldn't help but to remember kissing him.

And him kissing me back.

And dwelling on that would make things very complicated.

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A/N: Well—there's their first kiss. Of course, it couldn't be easy for these two. Eric blames himself for taking advantage of her, and Sookie is feeling guilty about her attraction for Eric. Sigh. It's gonna take time for these two, and I admit that I was a bit impatient with them as I was writing them. Still, I understood that they were both trying to protect themselves and each other "from themselves." I hope you will tell me what you think of their first kiss and their reactions.

Best,

Kat

Chapter Text

Chapter 19: Back on the Block

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NOTE: This chapter is set approximately SIX MONTHS after the previous.

NOTE 2: In military-speak, "back on the block" means "behaving like a civilian" or, more generally, just "civilian life."

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Sunday, July 3, 2011 • 1900 hours/ 7:00 p.m.

Eric POV

"You still coming over tomorrow? And spending the night?" Jason asked me excitedly.

"Yes," I assured the twelve-year-old before we said our goodnights and hung up our Skype call.

I sighed and leaned back on my couch after closing the lid of my laptop. I'd not spent the night with Sookie and Jason since I'd officially moved out on January 1, more than five months before.

Since then, my life had fallen into yet another routine.

I was good at those.

It wasn't a routine that made me as happy as the one I'd been privileged to maintain for the six months I'd spent my life with Jason and his mother—as they'd begun the healing from their accident.

However, I really couldn't complain about my now.

Indeed, my current routine was so much better than the one I'd had before I'd come to Louisiana. If I had to compare it to any other time, it would be the period when Pam was three years old. A nanny named Jane had taken care of Pam during that period of time, and she'd allowed me to spend quite a bit of time with my sister.

My parents tended to restrict Pam and my time together. Appius decided that I would be a bad influence on my sister if I interacted with her too much; plus—as he liked to remind me—I had other priorities and goals to meet. My mother simply went along with Appius because it was easier to do so.

Nanny Jane thought my parents were idiots. Sometimes, especially when my parents were out of town, Nanny Jane would allow me to play with Pam for hours. Those had been treasured times for me—as I came to understand what it might be like to be a part of a family. Plus, my little sister was an interesting human being, even as I child, and I liked talking with her and learning about her—even if I had to play dolls with her.

Unfortunately, Nanny Jane was replaced by Nanny Hilde, who followed every mandate of my father to the letter. And those mandates included keeping me at arm's length from my sister. Of course, anything Pam wanted, Pam got. So—when she asked for me specifically—I was allowed to spend snippets of time with her.

Sadly, Pam was not always the most thoughtful of human beings, so she didn't ask for my company often.

Jason was her opposite when it came to thoughtfulness. And spending time with him had given me a greater purpose than I'd ever thought I would have—at least on a personal level. I knew that I would do anything for him, and I found myself incredibly grateful that I got to share his world in ways that I'd not gotten to with my own sister.

I finally had memories worth storing: a Thanksgiving meal with people who cared for me, a Christmas with gifts thoughtfully chosen and given, Jason's birthday party the previous April.

And there were more than just big events. Jason's first step with his prosthetic leg. The first time he left his home without his crutches. Throwing a baseball with him (after, helpfully, Lafayette had taught me how to throw one).

All these memories were mine now, and—better yet—they were all an aspect of my routine. There were always large events to look forward to—like the Fourth of July gathering the next day or Sookie's birthday party, which had been just a few days before. (She and Tara had celebrated their birthdays together since they were only three weeks apart in age.) Sookie's circle of friends—at least most of them—had begun to take for granted that I belonged at such events.

"I belong," I whispered aloud, feeling the slight smile on my lips and a lightness in my body.

Of course, there were "smaller" routine elements, too—like Jason telling me about something Jessica had done or going on and on about Iron Man, who'd become—not surprisingly—an icon for him.

And—even beyond my time with Jason—my routine was good. I found my role at Bailey Base fulfilling. Colonel Flood was a good C.O., and he encouraged innovation and independent thought (though he, of course, made all final decisions about his base). The Corps had taken notice of the new training program that the Colonel and I had developed for preparing soldiers for the kinds of cave exploration they were called upon to do in Afghanistan. Already, in military circles, it was being reported that the troops who trained at Bailey were so much better prepared compared to others; in fact, some soldiers were being sent from Afghanistan back to the States just to pick up the training. Indeed, Colonel Russell Edgington cycled through several of his Platoons a month! The Marines got a bit of R & R in the States, and they returned to Afghanistan better prepared for the shit they would face; Colonel Edgington called it a "win-win" and had proclaimed himself a "genius" for assigning me to work with Colonel Flood. Moreover, groups of Seals and Army Special Forces had started to cycle through the training as well.

The success of the program and the recognition we'd already received was a compliment; however, most of the time, I was simply implementing Colonel Flood's ideas—with just a few additions based upon my own experience. Corporal Reynolds—now Sergeant Reynolds, actually—had become my right-hand man, and he was invaluable in the training program as well, seeing to all the logistics involved in the training program.

It was nice to be a part of a strong team—one that wasn't being shot at with live ammo rounds.

However, it took me a while to get used to a job that was basically forty hours a week—and a consistent 40 at that. I needed to go into work only four days a week—the three that I led training exercises and conducted classroom lessons and then one during which I would have meetings with my C.O.; with Sergeant Reynolds; and/or with any captains, lieutenants, and sergeants who needed additional training beyond what the other soldiers going through our program received.

When stationed in Iraq or Afghanistan, it seemed like there had always been something to do; indeed, it often felt like I worked all of my waking hours. Now, I had a lot of downtime. I'd considered getting a dog to keep me company during my long nights, but I'd held off, given the fact that I would have to travel on occasion, and I didn't want to burden another with the dog's care.

During my free nights, I generally read or watched sports. Lafayette also suggested various television shows to me. I liked some of them. And between them and the sporting events, I had topics to converse with others about.

My Fridays and Saturdays were my favorite days—as I got to spend them with Jason. On Saturday mornings, he'd been teaching me the nuances of fishing. Indeed, almost every week, we'd go fishing with some combination of Lafayette, Calvin Norris, J.B. DuRone, Remy Savoy, Hunter, and Tray Dawson. Colonel Flood had even joined us a couple of times.

Jason loved to be on the base, and he had made friends with a few boys around his age, whose parents lived in the small housing unit where I had my small home. At first, most people assumed that Jason was my child—that Sookie and I were divorced parents. However, after hearing Jason call me "Uncle Eric" a couple of times, that misperception was corrected.

Neither Jason nor I had felt the need to explain that we weren't blood kin.

Jason was doing incredibly well with his prosthetic limb, too. Sergeant Rasul Godwin and a couple of other amputees that I knew had flown in to Bailey to meet Jason and to help him with some of the mental hurdles he still faced. Talking with them always seemed to help Jason, as they understood what he was going through and could—quite literally—show him what he was moving toward. In fact, Rasul was going to be running in a marathon the next year! And his example always heartened Jason.

Indeed, meeting with Jason had given Rasul a new purpose. Though he was still working as a translator at the Pentagon part-time, he had decided to go back to school so that he could become a counselor for amputees.

Speaking of school, I'd started taking some classes on Tuesday and Thursday nights—to help fill in my free time—at the Shreveport annex of Louisiana State University. During the Spring Semester, I'd managed to get into a couple of general education classes on campus and one online class that didn't interfere with my work schedule. It was interesting to compare being a student at thirty-one to my only year in public high school. To be honest, most of my assignments seemed quite easy to me, and I remembered a lot of things from the private tutors who had been so demanding of me—at Appius's request. Still, I'd never minded my lessons. And I found my current classes interesting, even if there was a lot of review involved for me.

I'd also made some decisions regarding my future in the military. I knew one thing for sure: I did not want to be in the middle of combat zones anymore—not if I could help it. It was quite rare that someone served as many active-duty tours as I had anyway—at least not back-to-back—so it wasn't as if I was shirking my duty. Plus, both Colonel Flood and Colonel Edgington were prepared to help me stay in positions where I could train others. They thought I was doing a lot of good where I was at.

Indeed, remaining at Bailey made a lot of sense for me. I would be close to Jason—and to Sookie. I could continue working in a program that I truly believed saved lives. And I could continue to cultivate the friendships I'd made.

Another possibility was that I could retire from the military altogether.

However, at the moment, I was leaning toward staying in. If I did so for at least another nine years, I could retire with twenty years of service and quite a few benefits. The only drawback to keeping my current duty position was that I would have to go out-of-country once or twice a year in order to learn new information about whatever battlefield Marines were being required to "conquer" or to "protect." After all, training techniques needed to evolve just as much as battle zones did. Moreover, technology always seemed to be changing, and I was good at figuring out how to use it to best effect. But—to do that—I would need to visit the field at times. In addition to my out-of-country time, Colonel Flood also expected me to travel in-country for various events and meetings. The previous month, I'd had to go to Washington, DC, to meet with some Pentagon officials about the new training programs at Bailey. The three-day-long trip had been full of briefings, but I'd made time to visit Bill's grave. Jason had asked me to take Bill a letter from him. I'd placed it and some flowers onto the piece of earth under which I knew lay a casket that held my friend.

I'd found that I couldn't speak with him, however. In truth, I'd felt guilty even standing next to his grave, given the way that I felt about his widow.

I shook myself from that thought as I recalled my full Skype conversation with Jason earlier. He was concerned that something might happen to me during my first trip out-of-country, which was due to begin in early August.

I'd assured him that I wouldn't be leading men into battle, nor would I be in a particularly "hot" zone. I'd be in the field only as a consultant. And I'd be gone for only three to four weeks.

Sookie had met the news of my first consulting trip abroad with a frown and then a nod. She'd had no words for me on the topic—beyond assuring me that I could spend extra time with Jason leading up to the trip if I wanted to. I appreciated that and knew I'd need it as much as Jason.

Sookie and my interactions had been consistent, of course, since I picked up and brought home Jason on a specific schedule each week. She'd also been to the base twice—once to see the room Jason and I had put together for his overnight stays with me and once to attend a barbeque for the on-base families so that she could meet Jason's new friends and Colonel Flood. Other than that, I'd seen her only on Friday mornings when I would pick Jason up and Saturday nights when I would drop him off.

Our Friday morning interactions were usually simple small talk as Jason gathered his belongings for the weekend. Our Saturday interactions were longer—since I generally stayed for dinner, opting not to do so only a couple of times—when Sookie had seemed less than enthusiastic about my staying.

As always, I took my cues from her.

It wasn't as if Sookie was cold toward me; on the contrary, during Saturday dinners, she was always quite talkative and asked me about the goings-on in my own life as well. Those dinners reminded me of my time at the farmhouse.

Jason was doing really well with home schooling, and he and his mother had even decided to do it again for at least another year since he was now enjoying being so challenged by his studies. His main issue with homeschooling had been not having the chance to hang out with his friends; however, Sookie had solved that dilemma by making sure he had plenty of chances to spend time with his Bon Temps friends on Sundays and also during the week—especially now that school wasn't in session. Moreover, Jason had his new friends on the base, too.

Sookie had honored me by asking for my opinion about Jason's schooling; I'd agreed with her evaluation and actions wholeheartedly. To me, Jason seemed happy. And he was adjusting well to his new body, as well as the angst that I imagined was a part of most preteen boys' experience. Sookie had honored me again by asking me to give Jason the "sex talk" since she'd overheard Jason and Jessica talking about the topic. Oh—their discussion had been innocent; however, Sookie didn't want to take any chances with her twelve-year-old son. And—in her defense—a thirteen-year-old girl had recently gotten pregnant in Bon Temps by a boy only three years older than Jason.

I could admit that "the talk" was a bit awkward, but Sookie had looked monumentally comforted when I'd agreed to fulfill the role that Bill had once set for me: to help his son in any way needed.

During the "sex talk," Jason had laughed at me for telling him mostly about things he'd heard about already. However, he promised to talk with me before he had sex for the first time—whenever that happened—so that we could make sure he had protection. It seemed clear that he wouldn't be interested in having sex for a while, but Sookie was right that Jason should be comfortable with the subject and have a "safe" sounding board for his inevitable questions. It made me feel good that I was that sounding board.

Of course, what Jason was truly interested in was not sex; it was when he should kiss Jessica. The little girl had suggested that they do it on her thirteenth birthday, which was coming up in November, and had already laid down quite a few rules about it—including "absolutely no tongue" and a two-second time limit. Oh—and she'd ordered Jason to practice on his pillow.

I'd had to hide my chuckling when Jason had told me about her rules. Apparently, he had already been holding Jessica's hand when they hung out in his room and at church. And he called her his "girlfriend" to his friends on Bailey Base.

As a matter of fact, I liked Jessica. To her credit, she'd not been put off at all by Jason's amputation, and watching them interact when I was still living at the farmhouse had been entertaining to say the least.

Beyond our few talks about Jason, however, Sookie and I didn't speak much about personal information.

After our kiss—but before I'd moved out on January 1—I'd stuck to my promise to be around less. And—when I was at the farmhouse—I stayed more in my room or did chores outdoors unless I was hanging out with Jason. During those three weeks, I chopped a lot of firewood and fixed little things around the property. I'd also made a point to drive to Shreveport a few days a week.

Plus, during that period, I tried out the base psychiatrist, and—though I didn't like him as much as Claudine—I appreciated the fact that he better understood what I'd been through when deployed since he'd served three tours himself. Now, I saw them both in rotating weeks. My visits with Claudine came out of pocket—since I was also seeing the base shrink—but I didn't mind paying.

I still longed for Sookie; I figured I always would. I speculated that was what happened when one person really loved another. Distance had certainly not quelled my feelings; indeed, my love for her was now stronger in some ways than it had been when I lived in the farmhouse, for I appreciated more and more—every time I was with her—the wonderful woman that she was.

I missed her—seeing her—every single minute of every single day.

Sookie's own recovery was now pretty much complete—at least on a physical level. Jason had told me that she was still working with Jesus on some physical therapy, but—to see her walk—one wouldn't guess at all the trauma her body had gone through.

She still did the accounting for Herveaux and Son, which had been renamed Norris Contractors—with Sookie and Janice Herveaux's blessing. Merlotte's was her true "baby," however. The bar & grill was busier than ever. And, of course, she also did Jason's homeschooling four days a week. And she kept her house and yard spotless. Yes—I found her to be astounding!

Acknowledging that she and I were never going to happen, I'd tried dating someone a couple of months earlier. It had been nice in some ways. I'd asked out Dr. Karen Newton, who'd been Dr. Niall Brigant's intern. Karen was now a resident at Shreveport General and didn't have much time for a social life. That suited us both for a while. Trying to approximate the "norm," I took her to a couple of restaurants and movies. And we did become intimate after our third date. Sex with her was nice, though kissing her had just reminded me that no one would likely ever compare to Sookie in the kissing department. Still, my body had been glad for sex.

After date number 4, Karen and I decided that physical release was all either one of us was really looking for. She didn't have the time for a "real" relationship, and I was more in love with Sookie than ever. Deciding upon practicality over going through the motions of "dating," Karen and I had become a "booty call" for one another. She knew that my Fridays and Saturdays were always booked. Other than that, we would hook up for sex every other week or so. I let her instigate our hookups, however, since her schedule was both more packed and erratic than mine—given the fact that she spent a good deal of time on call at the hospital. Indeed, I'd had to finish myself off a couple of times because she'd been called in during sex. For that reason, I always made sure I quickly got her off orally before we moved on to intercourse.

The sex had little warmth, and I found myself waking up often in the middle of the night, listening for crying—listening for Sookie—all the way from Shreveport to Bon Temps.

But she wasn't there.

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A/N: Okay—well that was another long time-leap. But—as many of you have rightly noticed—both Eric and Sookie needed time. This is especially true for Sookie, who we will catch up with in the next chapter. You likely noticed that this chapter is set approximately one year after the accident. At this point, a lot of the physical healing will be done for Sookie and Jase. However, you'll have to stay tuned to see what the mental fall-out will be like. For Eric, I imagined the time from January (when he moved out of the farmhouse) to July being all about the establishment of a routine. I thought about not putting him into a sexual/dating relationship, but then I realized I didn't want to leave him "stuck." He thinks that he's got no chance with Sookie and has accepted that—though he's in no way denying his own feelings for her (at least, to himself). A bootie call buddy seemed the kind of thing that this Eric would have in his life. But is he right? Is Sookie really out of his reach? From here on out—since a lot of time has passed—things may begin to happen more quickly for Eric and Sookie. Stay tuned!

Please leave a comment about the chapter if you have the time and inclination.

Best,

Kat

Chapter Text

Chapter 20: Belay that Order

July 4, 2011 • 1200 hours/ 12:00 p.m.

Sookie POV

"Slow down, boys!" I laughed as Jase and Hunter seemed to jet into the kitchen, grab snacks and drinks, and then zoom back into the yard.

Hadley shook her head. "I can't believe how well Jase is doing. I mean—he went from walking to running in the blink of an eye!"

"I know," I said, hearing the relief in my own voice. "I'll never forget hearing he'd lost his leg—after hearing the news about everything else we lost that horrible night," I whispered as I looked out the window.

Hadley came to stand next to me and put her arm around my shoulder. "But we didn't lose them."

I nodded and wiped away a tear as I watched Hunter and Jase get some of their snacks stolen by Remy. In turn, they chased him, looking—for all the world—like two happy, healthy boys.

The opposite of what they'd been in the mangled back seat of Alcide's SUV.

Shaking myself from that thought, I gave Hadley a quick hug and then went back to chopping vegetables for the potato salad and coleslaw I was putting together. It was nice to have Hadley hanging out with me more often again. For several months after the accident, she'd kept her distance. Oh—I understood why. Her focus had been on Hunter's rehab.

Plus, for a while, it was difficult for people to be around Jase and me and not feel overwhelming sorrow and/or pity for us. Hadley had intuited that those were the last things we needed.

However, Jase had missed Hunter, whom he'd always looked up to. It had been Captain Northman who'd taken Jase to visit his cousin in Monroe during one of his Saturdays with Jase. Without me there, it had been easier for Hadley to interact with Jase, too.

She just didn't know how to deal with me at the time. Later I learned that she'd felt guilt for only visiting Jase and me once in the hospital. She'd not wanted to see—quite literally—what could have been if Remy had been in the vehicle, which he very well may have been if she'd not convinced him to forgo a fishing trip with the boys in order to spend a romantic weekend with her in New Orleans. And—of course—she'd felt guilty about that too—the fact that she and Remy had been initially "out of touch" when the police called them. To put it crassly, they'd been having sex at the time—the kind that was loud enough to cover up the sound of her phone, which was set on vibrate and was located in a different part of their suite. Indeed, Hadley and Remy's newborn daughter, Katie, had been conceived that very night.

When Hadley had finally shared the origins of her guilt with me, she'd also shared how off-kilter her thoughts had been during the early months of her pregnancy—when she worried constantly that something might happen to Hunter because she'd gotten pregnant. Now—she could look back on that time and understand that her fears were fueling her irrational thoughts, but I knew that she'd gotten some counseling to work through her issues.

I looked over at the tiny sleeping bundle—named Katie after Remy's mother. She was not known to be a good sleeper; however, she was currently napping peacefully in her little bouncy chair. Given her lung capacity (and her propensity to cry-scream), I think that everyone in the house (and the yard) was thankful for that.

"So—who all is coming?" my cousin asked.

"Tara, J.B., and Dora; Amelia and Tray; Calvin Norris and his new wife, Amy; Janice and Mike; and Lafayette and Jesús."

"So, Lala finally decided to ask out Jesús?" Hadley asked, popping a carrot into her mouth.

I nodded. "They've been together for about a month now; of course, Laf's being in the Marines makes things difficult."

"Speaking of Marines, you didn't say that Captain Northman was coming. Is he working or something?"

I felt my skin tingle with warmth. "No. He is actually coming—I think. I know Jase asked him to," I added, trying to sound casual.

Hadley shook her head and chuckled, even as Tara and Amelia came into the kitchen.

"So you're still in denial about Captain Hunkman?" Amelia asked, having clearly heard what Hadley and I were talking about.

"Shh!" I sounded sharply, both to encourage her to keep her voice down around Katie and to warn her that the topic of Captain Northman wasn't one I wanted to address. In so many ways, he'd become the elephant in the many rooms of my house.

The elephant in my heart.

Amelia's face took on some concern as she put down the dish she was carrying and came over to hug me.

"I'm sorry, sweetie," she whispered to me. "I know why you don't wanna let him get close to you."

I broke our embrace in time to brush a tear from my eye.

I noticed Tara and Amelia sharing a concerned look before Tara pulled me into a hug. "But that doesn't mean we don't think you should be happy," she said, demonstrating—for about the millionth time in my life—that my two best friends enjoyed tag-teaming against me.

I shook my head. I'd talked to all the women in the room before about my decision not to pursue anything with any man for the foreseeable future, let alone with a soldier.

Still—they'd all been trying—and in Amelia's case that trying had not been subtle—to get me to "hook up" with "Captain Hunkman" (Amelia's labeling, not mine) in order to see what happened.

"The captain and I are just friends," I said assuredly.

"That's not what a room says when you two are both in it," Amelia intoned.

"What are you talking about?" I asked defensively.

"Chemistry," Hadley said. "We've all noticed—whenever he's around."

I shook my head. "I'm not going to open that door with him."

"Then consider a window," Amelia sassed.

I shook my head more forcefully. "No!" I said firmly, but kept my voice down. "Alcide's only been gone for just over a year, and I'm not gonna put myself into a position where I could lose someone else."

"Surely you don't plan to be alone for the rest of your life. You—quite literally like three days ago—just turned thirty-one!" Tara said.

I shrugged. "My thoughts may eventually change, but they're not going to where Captain Northman's concerned. Did I tell you that he's goin' back to Afghanistan in early August?"

"I thought he ran that training program at Bailey with Lala," Tara observed.

"He does," I responded. "But apparently he needs to go overseas to do field research in order to stay up-to-date. He's told Jase that he probably won't be where the fighting is. But he'll be in a combat zone and also going through those damned caves over there!" I shook my head and angrily wiped away a tear. "We all know that he could get killed. One of those amputees that visited Jase last month lost his leg because of a mine in one of those caves!" I shook my head. "I won't do it; I won't spend my days and nights agonizing over what could be happening over there! I've done my time as a Marine's wife, and I'm done with all that!" I added fervently.

Just then, Amelia and Tara's eyes widened as they looked toward the doorway between the foyer and the dining room. I turned to follow their gaze and saw Captain Northman standing there—looking a little pale, despite the tan he'd gotten from so much outdoor training.

I gulped, not knowing exactly how much he'd heard, but knowing he'd heard enough to make me want to disappear for a few weeks.

"Captain Northman," Hadley greeted with an awkward smile. "How are you?"

"Fine, Ma'am," he said with a nod, after seeming to take several seconds to unlock his eyes from mine. "And you?"

"Good. Thanks," my cousin said. "Remy, Jase, and Hunter are outside."

"Tray, J.B., and Dora too," Tara added.

The captain nodded. "I passed them on my way in. I was tasked with getting a supply of beer, and I wanted to drop these off."

"What do you have here?" Amelia asked, taking a large box from the captain's hands.

"Pies, Ma'am," he said.

For my part, I still couldn't say anything; my skin felt hot from a blush I was certain was quite visible—and maybe permanent.

"Pies?" Amelia asked as she peeked in the box. "They look homemade."

"I've learned to bake, Ma'am," the captain said. "I—uh—developed a taste for homemade when I was here and copied some recipes from Adele's book. Was that okay?" he asked me rather awkwardly.

"Sure! And thanks. I'd been worried that we wouldn't have enough desserts," I said, trying to compose myself.

"Jason mentioned it," he offered quietly. "They're apple—like he likes. Well—uh—I'll just grab those beers, if it's okay, Ma'am."

"Sure. Help yourself!" I said before turning back to my task of chopping. Quickly, he gathered what he needed and left through the mud porch.

As soon as he was gone, I groaned a little. "See? I'm a freaking disaster where he's concerned!" I shook my head. "And the last thing I wanted to do was to make him feel bad about his job. It's not his fault that I'm broken."

"You're not broken," Tara comforted.

"I'm too broken to handle someone like Captain Northman," I said with a sigh as I wiped another tear from my eye. I blamed the onion I'd chopped earlier.

"Hon," Tara sighed, "I get why you want to protect your heart—why you're afraid of losing another good man to a war halfway around the globe—but I think you need to be honest with yourself."

"I am being honest with myself," I insisted.

I noticed a look exchanged between the other three women in the kitchen.

"Won't you already be in agony with worry when he goes?" Tara asked softly, even as Hadley went to lift up a stirring Katie.

I shook my head in denial.

"You already love him" Amelia stated, matter-of-factly. "You've been holding your feelings and him at arm's length for months. I just think that you should let yourself embrace your feelings—since they're there anyway."

"Ames!" Tara said in a chastising tone. "Sookie needs to do what she needs to do. And we need to respect her decisions."

"I do," Amelia said to me. "I do respect your choices, Sookie. And I was the first to be concerned that this thing with Captain Northman and you wasn't healthy—that it was a rebound thing or an obligation thing for all he did for you and Jase after the accident. Hell! I even worried that he might be taking advantage of your vulnerability until I came to know him better. That man loves you! And I think you love him. I just want you to be happy!"

A throat cleared from the entrance to the kitchen. I sighed heavily as I turned to see Alcide's sister, Janice, standing there, looking none too pleased.

I closed my eyes tightly, wishing that Eric hadn't been so damned efficient at fixing every squeaky floorboard in the whole damned house when he lived with us!

"Hi, Janice," I greeted somewhat sheepishly.

"Is she right? Are you already moving on from my brother with that soldier?" she asked bitterly.

"No!" I responded emphatically.

"And so what if she is?" Amelia asked at the same time as I replied.

"It's too soon," Janice said loudly to Amelia.

I could tell that Amelia and Janice were about to get into a verbal fight. The two had never really gotten along. Janice didn't really like Captain Northman either, always worried that he was trying to take her brother's place—no matter what assurances I'd given her.

I quickly went over to Janice, effectively blocking her view of Amelia. "Listen, Jan, I've got no intentions of starting up anything with anyone. And—even if I ever did—that person could never replace your brother in my heart." I noticed her lower lip quivering and remembered how young she was. She'd been only sixteen when Alcide and I had started dating. And she still retained the idea that everyone had a soulmate. She thought Alcide was my soulmate—and that I was his. "I loved Alcide so much," I assured her.

"No one said you needed to stop doin' that in order to find new love," Amelia said stubbornly.

"Come on, Ames!" Hadley said. She was always the peacekeeper. "I don't think Tray's seen little Katie in more than a month—since he couldn't be at Sookie's birthday dinner. Why don't we go find him?"

Amelia huffed, but left with Hadley.

I turned back to Janice. "Try not to let her bother you, sweetie," I said hugging her.

"I'm sorry," Janice said in a small voice. "It's just that I still think of you as my brother's wife."

I nodded in understanding. "Listen, Captain Northman is here, but I don't want you to be uncomfortable—okay? No matter what anyone says," I commented, glancing at Tara, "I'm not going to be pursuing any relationships. So it's not something you need to worry about—okay?"

"Okay," she said rather meekly—all of her earlier anger gone. "You could though, Sook. You know that—right?" She paused. "You do deserve to be happy. And—if not with my brother—then with someone that will treat you right. Maybe that is Captain Northman. I know I said some things about not likin' him here and all, but he's a good person. Anyone could see that. You'll always be my sister, and you deserve a good person to love, Sookie."

I brought her close for another embrace. "That's nice of you to say, Jan. But it's not something to worry about right now."

She nodded and then excused herself so that she could go help her husband, Mike, set up some fireworks they brought. We'd all be going to the town's show at the football field that night. But—in the meantime—there were a lot of little fireworks to set up for the kids.

As long as the kids were properly supervised and nothing too powerful had been bought, I was fine with it. Goodness knows—Jason and I had set off a lot more dangerous fireworks—in the woods, by ourselves, and without Gran knowing about it—back when we were Jase and Hunter's ages.

Four words: Unsanctioned Roman Candle fights.

Now that Captain Northman had arrived, I had to admit that I was no longer worried about anyone being hurt. I sighed. He just did that for me—made me confident that we'd all be safe in his presence.

Tara approached and put her arm around me, drawing me close to her for a moment. I was happy she didn't say anything more about Captain Northman or my anti-love life. Instead, she just picked up some cabbage and began chopping.

In turn, I picked up another onion; it gave me a good excuse for the tears that continued to linger in my eyes as I thought about how Hadley, Tara, and Amelia were right. I really was likely already too far gone when it came to my feelings for the captain—for Eric.

Specifically, for my Eric—the man who'd shown himself to me for the first two months he'd lived with Jase and me. Before our kiss.

After that, he'd backed off and become careful around me, limiting the amount of time we spent together to the point that we were never alone. I knew he'd done that to make me feel more comfortable after our kiss, but I'd missed the lighter, freer man he'd been transforming into before I asked him to give me space. I missed his easy smiles and the sound of his laugh. He still offered them to Jase, of course, but—in pushing him away after we'd kissed—I'd lost the easy friendship we'd been enjoying.

The more than friendship—if I were being honest with myself.

I pushed that thought away. It was not the time for me to do anything about Captain Eric Northman or any feelings I'd let myself develop for him.

For Jase's sake—as much as for the sake of my own heart—I needed to keep going on as we had been.

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Eric POV

I concentrated on making sure that Hunter and Jason were playing with the fireworks responsibly. Honestly, I was more worried about Cal and J.B., who were a bit haphazard when it came to setting off black cats. Lafayette just rolled his eyes as the two grown men acted less mature than the actual children in the group.

As for me? Well—I'd seen too many large explosives to get any pleasure out of setting off fireworks. However, I did enjoy seeing Jason having so much fun, and some of the items were actually quite pretty when they were set off.

Still—for a supposedly patriotic holiday—the Fourth of July had been quite stressful for me. After walking into Sookie's kitchen only to find her scoffing about the idea of caring about a soldier and making it clear that worrying about me when I was overseas was the last thing she wanted to do, I'd thought about just making an excuse and leaving.

Indeed, my body had twitched to run from the house—to replay one of the routes that had become so familiar to me when I'd lived there. On a run, I knew that I could allow myself to experience my feelings—both the good and the bad.

Yes—I'd wanted to leave. To run.

But one look at Jason's excited face had helped me to reestablish my priorities. And—then—once the fireworks had been pulled out, I knew that I couldn't leave. If I did, I would have worried about the boys being hurt.

I sighed as I thought about the night ahead and the next day, even as I tried to follow and participate in some small talk with Tray and Mike, Janice's husband. They were talking about baseball, a sport I'd never really followed before moving to Louisiana, but that I was becoming more interested in because Jason wanted to continue Little League. I'd been researching how to help him adjust to playing the sport with his prosthetic and had already asked Rasul to make another visit since he lived a very athletic life with his.

I knew that Jason was also speaking with his mother about getting a special prosthetic for running. The only concern seemed to be that Jason's body was due to go through some growth spurts, so regulating his activity-level would be of paramount importance. Still, baseball had been deemed something safe for him to do—as had swimming.

When Jason had learned (from Pam—since he and she had begun talking via Skype when he was at my base residence) that I used to be an Olympic-caliber swimmer, he looked me up on the Internet and found some of the articles that had been written about me before my parents died in the car wreck. He'd been impressed to find out that many people had once thought that I was a sure thing for the 2000 Olympics.

To me, my swimming seemed like a lifetime ago. To Jason, it sparked an idea. Dr. Lee had been doing a little bit of aqua-therapy with him during their physical therapy sessions and had encouraged Jason to work on swimming. Not only would the activity be good for his overall strength, but also it would put no undo strain on his body—and would even ease him through his growth spurts.

Indeed, one of the reasons why I was staying over that night was because Sookie had arranged for the pool at the Compton house to be cleaned for Jason's use. In turn, the Comptons had arranged for a private swim coach/therapist to help Jason, and she would be starting the next day and then giving him a lesson every other day; however, she'd only be working with him for a couple of months. I'd taken off the next week and a half so that I could attend his first several lessons with him—mainly so that I could learn how to help him train once the coach was gone. I planned to drive up each day he had a lesson; however, I was staying that night since it would be so late following the fireworks show, and Jason still became a little nervous when people had to drive long distances at night. For him, I'd agreed to stay over—once he'd gotten his mother's permission, of course.

"I think Sookie's done lost her mind with the mountain of food she's got!" Lafayette said as he brought out yet another platter of hotdogs and hamburgers to grill.

"There are many people here," I said, though I agreed with him that there would likely be excess food. As a hostess, Sookie always went above and beyond. I'd learned that at each gathering she'd insisted I come to: Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's Eve, Jason's birthday, Easter, and various other birthdays—including her own birthday dinner just the weekend before. I had enjoyed all the gatherings, always appreciating the grace with which Sookie put them together, even when she was still—quite literally—getting back on her feet. My favorites had been the ones held when I was still living in the farmhouse. For those, I'd been tasked to help with a variety of preparations—from stringing lights to cutting vegetables. It had been pleasant to do those things for—and with—Sookie and Jason. As a guest, my role had changed, but I still enjoyed my time among the people who gravitated around Sookie and Jason. I supposed I was one of them now.

"Can you do the dogs while I go get my flirt on?" Lafayette asked as he leered at Jesús, who was participating in a skins and shirts football game that had broken out about five minutes before. Jesús was on the "skins" side, and it seemed they were short a member.

"Sure," I said as I took over grill duties. I'd not run a grill until I lived at the farmhouse. However, I'd quickly learned that both Jason and Sookie very much enjoyed grilled meat and vegetables. It hadn't taken me long to master simple things—thanks to Sookie's guidance and the Internet. And nothing was simpler than hot dogs.

I watched proudly as Jason played with the others. He had come so far in such a short time.

"Wow!" I heard Sookie whisper from next to me. I glanced at her and saw her taking in the same sight I had been. Her gaze was just as astonished—and proud—as mine was as Jason scurried around as if his "new" leg were just a normal part of himself.

It had been only about a year since he'd been lying near death in a hospital bed.

For a moment, we exchanged a look, and she smiled at me a little.

It was a smile that filled my heart—even as it stopped it for a second.

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A/N: I hope you enjoyed this chapter. I'm still not 100% happy with it, but I got it to where I think it's okay. I really wanted to bring Amelia and Tara back into the picture in order to show their perspectives about how Sookie and Eric seem from the outside looking in. Sookie's doing a bit better recognizing how Eric makes her feel, but she's still scared to act. Sigh. As I was writing this part of the story, I "understood" why the story was speaking to me this way, and I went with it, but—damn—if I wasn't a bit frustrated and impatient with her. Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this little glance into Sookie's head and her life. Plus, I wanted to show Jase's recovery here. I will say that I took a lot of inspiration concerning recovery rates from the survivors of the horrible Boston Marathon bombing victims. Many of them were amputees, but one of them ran the marathon just two years after losing her leg! I always admired that perseverance. So—yeah—stories like that and stories I have heard about amputee soldiers were definitely my inspiration.

I hope you will comment on the chapter is you have the time and the inclination.

Best,

Kat

Chapter Text

Chapter 21: Zero Dark Thirty

July 5, 2011 • 300 hours/ 3:00 a.m.

Eric POV

Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom!

Explosions echoed in my mind and shook the ground around me.

They shook me.

I wanted to drop to the ground—to dig myself a hole and disappear into it. But I couldn't. If I did, what would happen to the men under my command? No! I couldn't abandon them! I wouldn't!

"Fall back!" I yelled loudly, even as I looked all around me for Bill. I breathed a sigh of relief that he was right behind me.

"Well, Northman, how the hell are you gonna get us out of this shit storm?"

He was smiling. I had no idea why he was smiling in the middle of hell.

Another series of explosions rattled the building we were leaning against for cover, and debris fell. I pulled Bill so that I was covering him as parts of the building landed around us.

"Fuck!" I yelled as I heard screaming from behind me. It was Rasul. A large part of the building had fallen on him, crushing both his legs. He was trapped. I yelled into my radio. "Evac! Immediate evac! I've got people injured here!"

"Sniper!" Bill yelled out as a bullet whizzed past us and hit a piece of the concrete that was trapping Rasul. He moved to go to Rasul.

"No!" I yelled, holding onto Bill—not letting him leave the relative safety of our current position.

"We can't leave him there!" he insisted.

"Wait!" I shook my head in confusion. "Wait! This isn't right."

"War never is, Northman!" Bill yelled.

Why the fuck was he still smiling like a fool!?

"No!" I yelled. "The sniper wasn't here when Rasul was hurt. He was hurt later in the cave—after you . . . ." I couldn't finish my sentence—couldn't tell Bill that he'd been dead for several years by the time Rasul was hurt.

"I'm going to get him!" Bill yelled. I held onto him even tighter.

"No, Bill! It's all wrong! The sniper shouldn't be here! There wasn't a sniper when Rasul was hurt! And it wasn't in a desert; we were in Afghanistan when it happened!"

"What the fuck are you talking about, Northman? What the fuck are you doing?" Bill asked, his voice now accusatory. Suddenly, he'd reversed our positions and had taken ahold of me; with what seemed to be supernatural strength, he pushed me roughly into the building's rough concrete wall. "You should have killed the sniper, Northman! You should have protected me! I had a family to go home to! But you didn't want me to go home—did you? You want them for yourself, you bastard!"

He ripped off his helmet and then mine. And then he punched me—hard.

"Please, Bill," I begged, spitting out blood, "please put on your helmet."

"Appius is right! You're a fucking blight upon the earth! You're the one who should be dead! But—no! You made sure I would die so that you could take them from me!" Bill yelled.

I shook my head in denial. "No, Bill! I wanted you to go home! I promise I did! I killed the sniper!"

"Too fucking late!" Bill sneered. "Too conveniently late. What? Now you think you can take my life from me? Take what's rightfully mine? Sookie. Is. Mine!"

"I know! God, I know!" I said, even as Bill looked back at where Rasul was still writhing in agony.

"Please, don't go out there!" I begged. "Please, don't let the sniper get a shot at you, and you can go home to them, Bill. Home to Jason and Sookie."

"Don't say Sookie's name as if she's yours!"

"I won't," I panted. "I know she's not mine! I won't say her name! Please, Bill. Let me go out there. Let me die so that you can be with your family!"

Bill pushed me harder against the building, causing even more dust to flutter upon us—not that anyone could have told, since we were already covered from head to toe with it.

"You are the one who should have died, Northman! No one would have fucking missed you! Least of all me!" he said, releasing me a bit, just so that he could push me, once more, against the cold, hard wall.

And then he really did let me go—fully.

"No, Bill!" I yelled as he moved out of the cover and ran toward Rasul. "No!" I yelled again, running after him.

In the next moment, the sniper fired, and Bill's body twisted around. There was another shot—another twist. I finally got to him as a third and a fourth shot burst through him. I threw my body on top of his—to protect him.

He was laughing below me.

"Too fucking late, Northman! Always too fucking late!" He turned and then looked up at me. Half of his face was gone, but he was still smiling. "You should have died, not me. Even now—now that you think Jason and Sookie count on you—you're just a second-rate stand-in for the people they really love! Me! And even Herveaux! We could have both given Sookie and Jason something you'll never be capable of giving to anyone—love! You know why? It's because you can't love, and you can't be loved either! Appius was right! You. Are. Expendable! And if you disappeared from the world, it wouldn't fucking matter!"

I tried to ignore his words as I got my radio to work. "Goddamn it! We need that evac now! We are in the southeast corner of Zone 3 Delta! We need medics and evac now! Where is my fucking Helo!?"

Bill laughed again. "You can't save me, Northman. You were always a failure. Appius has told me all about you. And he is right—right that no one should count on your sorry ass for anything. Look. At. Me! I don't have a fucking face anymore! Sookie won't even be able to see me before she puts me into the ground! And that's your fucking fault!"

"No!" I yelled out. "Don't talk, Bill. Help is coming." I looked around desperately for anyone who was coming, but the only person I saw was Rasul—now unconscious.

"You should have just left him to die—like you did me," Bill said cruelly, following my eyes to Rasul. "He shouldn't have to be half a man. You should have let him die in that cave, but you just had to be a hero—not that that did anything for him!"

I shook my head. "No! Rasul's fine now!"

Bill scoffed. "He's a fucking amputee! Just another reject of war!"

"No! He's helping Jason to cope! He's a good man, who's found a lot to live for! He's got a fiancé now and a baby on the way!"

Bill was laughing again, his face grotesque with gore and blood. I realized that I was trying to hold that face together—trying to cover his gaping wounds with my hands.

"You mean to tell me that, even with his leg gone, Rasul was able to find love before you, Northman?" He cackled. "That fucking figures! I mean—who would fucking love you? I pretended to like you—only pretended—because it was fucking hilarious to find out what a fucking misfit you are! But what use have you been to me? I'll fucking tell you! None! You killed me! You did this to me!"

"No! No!" I yelled, even as the ground shook again.

"Captain Northman!" a voice yelled out.

I shook my head. I wasn't a Captain; I was only a Sergeant.

"Help him! Help him!" I yelled. Wrong about my rank or not, I felt instinctively that the voice could help.

"Captain! Wake up!" the voice yelled again.

I felt arms trying to pull my hands from Bill's wounds. "No! He'll die! He'll die! I can't stop it! I can't! I can't!"

"Eric!" the voice said, suddenly recognizable.

It dawned on me suddenly that I must be dreaming, but that didn't mean that I could get out of the nightmare. It didn't mean that Bill wasn't still smiling.

"You don't deserve her," he said coldly, despite his now widening smile. "Nothing you ever do could change that."

"I know!" I yelled at him. "Just don't die. I'll get you back to her! Just stay! Stay with me!"

"Eric! Please!" Sookie's voice yelled out; she sounded desperate.

I had to make sure she was okay.

"You stay away from Sookie and Jase!" Bill yelled. "They aren't yours!"

"Please! Please!" I panted, somewhere between sleep and waking.

"Please, Eric. Wake up! I'm scared!" Sookie pled.

She was scared? I had to get to her—Bill be damned! I stopped trying to hold him together and concentrated with all my might to focus on her voice and her touch. Finally, I was able to open my eyes.

And she was there.

It struck me immediately what an odd twist of fate our situation was. Months before, I'd been the one waking her up from a nightmare. Now she was returning the favor.

"I'm sorry," I said, my voice shaking, even as I catalogued the concern in her eyes.

She likely had every right to be worried. I was panting. Sweating. Twisted in my sheet. Crying. My voice was hoarse.

"Oh, God! Did Jason hear?" I asked her, even as I registered that she still had my hand in her own.

"I don't know," she whispered.

"Was I loud?"

"Yeah," she said even more quietly.

"Can you see? Make sure he's okay?" I asked desperately. "I don't want him to be afraid."

I noticed her swiping some tears from her own beautiful eyes. "I'll make sure," she promised as she got up to leave my room.

I quickly grabbed the T-shirt I'd discarded when I'd gotten into bed and put it on. Then, I got up—despite my shaking legs—and hurried to my old bathroom, taking a drink out of the faucet before splashing my face and using one of the fresh towels Sookie must have put into place for me. After taking another drink, I went back into my bedroom and hastily worked to straighten the sheets. My flailing had toppled over the lamp; thankfully it hadn't broken. I reset it and picked up the book that had fallen onto the floor from the nightstand.

"Wuthering Heights," Sookie said as she returned into the room.

I nodded as I placed the book next to the lamp.

"Is he okay? Jason?" I asked.

"Yes. He's asleep."

I nodded in acknowledgment.

"We never finished it—the book. Is that the copy from the hospital?" she asked, her voice sounding almost preternatural.

I nodded again.

"Can I sit?" she asked.

Again, I nodded. She tentatively sat down on the end of the full-sized bed I'd gotten for my room at the farmhouse. She'd agreed to keep it when I moved out because my base residence already had a bed I could use, and Jason's room there was only big enough for a twin-sized bed.

I sat too, keeping my distance from her.

"Was it bad?" she asked. "The dream?"

I nodded. "The fireworks likely brought it on," I responded softly. "The ones set off here weren't bad, but the ones in the town's show," I looked down and then toward the wall, "well—they were loud."

"I should have thought about that," she sighed.

"Ma'am, you shouldn't have to think of things like that," I soothed.

"Why do you still call me Ma'am?" she asked.

"Because you still call me Captain," I responded honestly—gently. "I was following your lead."

She sighed. "I think you do that a lot."

I didn't answer; I didn't need to.

"Why did you keep the book?" she asked.

I looked from the wall to the book, avoiding her gaze as I did so. "We never finished it, and—then—the day you left the hospital, you'd forgotten one of your work files, so I went back to your room to get it. The book was there next to the bed. I don't know why I took it. Why I keep it with me."

"Don't you?" she challenged me.

"I do know," I responded truthfully.

"Will you tell me why?"

"Having it made me feel close to you. It helped me remember the nights when I held your hand and read to you." I continued to look at the book. "I'd never felt closer to another human being than I felt to you on those nights."

"Oh, Eric," she sighed. I caught a movement from her, and my eyes shifted to her hands, which were held together, twisting and turning—wringing—in her lap.

I closed my eyes tightly. "I like it when you call me that," I confessed. "I've called you Sookie in my head for so many months."

"Why don't you say it out loud?" she probed quietly.

I shook my head. "If I say it, I'll have failed."

"Failed?" she asked.

"Yes. I promised you—and myself—that I'd keep my distance after we kissed that night. I reconciled myself to fill only the role I currently enjoy in your and Jason's lives. I vowed I wouldn't do anything to jeopardize that role. And," I paused, "I didn't want to betray Bill's trust in me."

"Bill's trust?" she asked.

"He wanted me to make sure Jason was okay. And you. He would have never wanted me to do anything untoward, Ma'am."

"Eric," she whispered. "Will you call me Sookie? Please?"

Her voice seemed desperate—wild.

Indeed, in that moment, her whole being seemed wild. And between us on the bed seemed to be a dam—and she a rushing river being held back by it.

Or maybe I was the river.

I shook my head. "I can't, Ma'am. Not without . . . ," I began as I looked up and into her eyes. My breath caught.

"Not without what, Eric?" she asked.

I shook my head again.

"Not without what?" she repeated insistently.

Her eyes seemed to see into my very soul. No—they seemed to be finding it. And I could not stop myself from speaking.

"Not without telling you that I love you," I answered her in a whisper. "Not without telling you that—ever since the first time I saw you in the hospital—I thought you were the most beautiful thing in the world. Not without telling you that touching your hand has been the most," I paused, "intimate thing I've ever done." I laughed at myself judgmentally.

"Oh, Eric," she sighed.

"Don't pity me, Ma'am," I said quickly. "I don't exactly inspire much warmth from people."

"You're a good man, Eric," she said with surety.

"Thank you, Ma'am," I responded rather stiffly.

"Call me Sookie."

Our eyes still locked together, I felt my head shake; no—I felt my whole body shaking.

"Please," she whispered. "I want you to, Eric. I need you to." She paused. "I thought I could fight it, but I can't. I love you, too."

The dam broke with my resolve.

"Sookie," I whispered, my voice strained with passion and emotion, as I moved across the bed to take her into my arms. "Sookie," I repeated. We were kissing in the next second.

Her lips felt perfect against mine—soft, yielding, and warm. I felt her tongue seeking out mine, and I was quick to let her find it. And then our lips and mouths danced—as if we'd been kissing each other for decades.

For a millennium.

Her small hands trailed down my chest to the bottom of my shirt, and she pulled at it—pulled upward. I helped her take it off of me, our lips separating for only a split second as the fabric passed between them.

And then we were kissing again, and her hands seemed to be all over my upper body. I'd imagined that her touch would be like, but my imagination had let me down. In actuality, her hands were questing and purposeful—as if she could truly know me only through touch. I didn't know if that was true or not; all I knew was that her fingers left behind a trail of gooseflesh. She moaned into me and then broke our kiss, moving her mouth to my chin and then my neck.

"Touch me, Eric. Touch me more," she whispered. I realized, then, that my own hands had been cupping her cheeks, except for their brief task of removing my shirt. I moved them to her shoulders and down her arms before they landed near her hips. I squeezed there a little, and then trailed them up her back.

Her skin was hot, through the light cotton of her gown.

Not to be outdone by her lips, my own found hers again—before kissing her breathless and then trekking toward her ear and down to the nape of her neck.

"Eric," she sighed as my hands made their way forward until I was cupping her breasts. I found myself marveling at how perfect they felt in my hands, even as I thanked God that Sookie didn't wear a bra to bed.

With a grunt, she moved her own hands to lift up on her light cotton nightgown, and within a second, it had joined my shirt somewhere on the floor.

For a moment, our mouths pulled away from each other and we looked where we'd been touching. Her breasts truly were magnificent—large enough so that the dip between them was an enticing valley of heaven, but not so large that they drooped or seemed uncomfortable to her. My eyes trailed downwards. I smiled slightly when I saw just the tiniest of stretch marks over her flat tummy. Those marks had been made when Jason was inside of her.

I looked back up and into her eyes. Her own were focused on my upper right chest. Her hands shook as she raised her fingers to trace the scars there.

"Shrapnel," I whispered.

"Did it hurt?" she asked.

I shook my head. "Not until later."

She looked up at me, her eyes sad. I knew that she was wavering, weighing the pros and the cons of doing what we were doing. I knew that I ought to stop us—to tell her that she was better off not getting involved with me, to admit that I had little to give her. But I said nothing. I respected her enough to give her a moment to make her own choice. And I was just selfish enough not to push her away.

After all, I was looking at everything I'd always wanted, and—suddenly—I knew that I could make her happy. Her and Jason. As unworthy as I might be, as emotionally stifled as I was sometimes. As strong as my nightmares might be—it didn't matter. I could be worthy for her. I could show her anything she wanted to see in me.

Only her. Only Sookie.

If she chose me.

She bit her lip, and—for a moment—she moved away a little. I felt my heart drop, but I stayed still, waiting—as her fingers continued to trace the only physical scars I'd gotten during my long years as a Marine. I'd been lucky in that way.

Would I be lucky in the way that mattered most?

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A/N: Well? I hope you enjoyed this chapter. Sorry for being a bit late getting it to you. It's been crazy busy on my end. Anyway, I was ultimately happy with this chapter. I wanted to echo the earlier scene with Sookie's dream. Of course, these two needed a push to get together. I knew that seeing Eric in distress would do it for Sookie. Finally, they're admitting their feelings aloud. Will Sookie let Eric's scars and her fears of what they represent take her over again? You'll see in the next chapter.

Please leave me a comment if you have the time/inclination.

Best,

Kat

Chapter Text

Chapter 22: Fully Mission Capable

Sookie POV

The skin around where Eric said shrapnel hit him was rough, contrasting the smooth Adonis-like physique that made up the rest of him.

I'd been with only two men in my life—both of them my husbands (though Alcide hadn't been that yet—when we were first intimate).

That being said, I'd been lucky when it came to those men. Bill was handsome in an old-fashioned way; his body hadn't been a sculpted piece of art, but it was nice—to be sure. Alcide was rugged—built like a solid rock. He was a larger man than Eric, except in two ways. For one, Eric seemed to be about an inch taller. For another, Eric was "packing" a bit more in the "below-the-belt" territory—if the story that his tented shorts were telling me was even mostly accurate.

Tara liked to tease me that I'd never had to endure a "fugly" man.

And that statement was never truer than with the man in front of me. His body was—in a word—"beautiful." But there was so much more to him than met the eye—with his heart and soul and mind being even more breathtaking than his body. I couldn't have put an "X" on the calendar of the date that I'd fallen in love with Captain Eric Northman. But in love with him I was.

Still . . . .

Seeing the shrapnel scars was sobering. I'd lost one husband in war, and Eric would be heading back to a warzone in less than a month.

"What am I doing?" I heard myself ask.

Eric shook his head a little. "I don't know."

"I can't lose anyone else," I said faintly.

"I've never really had anyone to lose—not like this. Not like you," he said just as faintly.

And it was those words that helped me to decide. If I pushed him away now, I'd be losing him by choice. And wouldn't that hurt just as much as losing him to war?

"I promised myself I'd never let myself fall in love again," I said to him. His eyes were watching me earnestly.

"After Bill died, I swore I'd never get close to anyone—at least not close enough to suffer if I lost them," he confessed.

"But you didn't follow your own advice?" I asked.

"I couldn't. I love Pam and Jason, but—even with them—I could keep my feelings at arm's length, at least to a certain extent. But I couldn't stop them from overtaking me with you," he confessed.

I nodded and then leaned toward him.

"You're sure?" he asked right before my lips touched his.

"Yes, Eric. I am."

He leaned in to meet my lips; again, we began in an unhurried way, exploring and nurturing—more than demanding and conquering.

His hands slowly caressed up my sides before he—once again—took my breasts into his hands. His thumbs tweaked my already hardened nipples, and I moaned into our kiss, even as he eased me down upon his bed. Once we were both lying down, he moved his kisses downward, tracing my cheek, chin, neck, and then collarbone before his mouth found a nipple. He sucked lightly, and then a little harder once I'd squeaked out my pleasure, even as he massaged my other breast with his large, surprisingly gentle hand.

My own hands were busy too as my impatience grew. I wanted him—wanted him badly—and my body, which had been an ember, suddenly felt like a flame. I found his cock through his shorts and gasped. He was—indeed—bigger than anyone I'd been with before. Unsatisfied by feeling him through fabric, I worked my hand under the elastic waist and immediately encountered what I wanted to touch. His penis was both incredibly hard and incredibly smooth, and I literally couldn't wait to have it inside of me; however, after I'd stroked him for a few moments, Eric seemed to have different ideas. He moved so that he was lower, his lips leaving my chest and traveling downward, nipping at my rib cage, before softly kissing the stretch marks I'd kept from my pregnancy. Next, he placed his thumbs around the waistband of my panties before drawing them off of my body.

I was almost embarrassingly wet, but Eric didn't seem to mind at all as he growled a little and gazed at my center like it was a tasty buffet. Before I could tell him to "taste away," he was doing just that, kissing my lower lips, as he'd been kissing my upper ones minutes before.

"Eric," I sighed, as he began licking and gently spread me open using his fingers.

"So beautiful," he breathed, seemingly to himself as he took a good, up-close look at me. In the past, I will admit to having been a little self-conscious about receiving oral sex. Both of my former partners had unwittingly added to my self-consciousness—with Bill once sharing his belief that "oral sex should be something just for special occasions" and Alcide asking casually if I'd ever considered waxing my lady-parts area fully, rather than just getting my customary bikini wax. Since he'd preferred it, I'd done that. But—since the accident—I'd not seen a reason for it, though I'd restarted my bikini wax. Looking at Eric as he—quite literally—gave me the best oral sex I think any woman had ever received, I couldn't help but to feel completely comfortable. He wasn't tentative as Bill had been—like he was completing some kind of obligation. And I didn't think he was judging my hair count down there either.

Thus, I could let myself stop thinking and just enjoy what he was doing to me.

And that's exactly what I did.

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Eric POV

She tasted sweeter than anyone I'd ever gone down on before, and I'd made a point to offer oral sex to all the partners I'd ever had. When I was seventeen, I'd overheard my parents' cook and maid talking about how common it was for them not to orgasm—and how easy it was to "fake it."

Their conversation stuck to me. I guess I didn't want to disappoint any woman who ever agreed to have sex with me, and—though I always tried to bring a woman to completion through "regular sex"—oral sex was the only way I could be sure.

Moreover, I'd enjoyed giving it—and getting it back when the women I was with were inclined to "return the favor."

I took my time as I licked, sucked, and kissed with my mouth and stroked, rubbed, and teased with my fingers. She was incredibly responsive, her moves encouraging the things that she clearly liked the most. I had already figured out that her body stayed still when something was "just fine." And she tensed and held her breath when something was really pleasurable. As I learned those things, I did more of them. I brought her to the edge a few times, enjoying getting to know her body.

"Eric, please. Let me cum," she grunted when I backed off again.

Her wish would always be my command. So I redoubled my efforts, finding her g-spot with two fingers, even as I used my tongue to stimulate her sensitive nub.

"Eric!" she cried out my name as she came, her walls throbbing around my fingers, more of her sweet honey flowing from her opening. I lapped it up, even as I celebrated the way my name sounded from her lips.

When I looked up at her, I noticed her eyes were closed in ecstasy.

"You're so beautiful," I said.

Her eyes opened slowly, a smile tugging at her lips. "I bet I look like a melted ice cream cone."

I chuckled. "Well, it was an honor to melt you, Ma'am. And a treat to taste the sweets."

Immediately, she blushed bright red, but then looked horrified.

"I'm sorry!" I said immediately, fearing that my teasing comment had been taken the wrong way. I didn't mean . . . ." I stopped. "I'm sorry if I hurt you—or disappointed you—in any way, Ma'am," I added, looking down, reverting to the soldier who tried to be detached. I was ready for rejection.

"What? No, Eric!" Sookie cried out, sitting up and immediately cupping my face with her hands. "And you forgot to call me Sookie," she added, her eyes boring into mine as if she understood all of my fears—yet still loved me.

"You're upset," I reminded.

"Not at you. Not at this," she smiled softly. "Not at us."

"Then what?" I asked, feeling protective.

"I don't have any condoms in the house," she practically whispered. "And I haven't bothered with the pill for a long time."

"Oh!" I said before looking down again, shame overtaking me.

"What is it?" she asked, her voice rich with concern.

"I have some condoms," I answered apologetically.

"Oh," she responded with realization. "You're seeing someone?"

"Not seeing. Not in a relationship," I returned quickly. "I'm sorry. If I'd thought we were possible, I wouldn't have pursued anything with anyone else."

"So you aren't," she paused, "cheating on anyone?"

"No!" I replied forcefully. "In fact, I told her to see other people if she wanted. She told me the same."

"Are you—um—seeing more than one person?"

I shook my head. "No. I was just seeing her sometimes—for . . . ."

"Sex?" she asked, her voice quivering a little.

"Yes," I admitted.

"Will you end it?"

"Yes!" I spoke immediately. "Of course!"

She closed her eyes for a moment. "Okay then," she said with resolution. She opened her eyes and smiled a little. "As long as you aren't in a relationship, then it's really not a big deal who you were with before tonight. And," she added coyly, "I'm glad you practiced safe sex—glad you didn't use up all your condoms."

She leaned in and took me by surprise as she kissed me. It didn't take long before the kiss deepened, and her hand, once again, snaked into my shorts. I gasped and then groaned as she stroked me.

"Oh, God! Sookie," I sighed as she repositioned herself and then me so that she could take off my shorts.

"You're big," she whispered, her blush returning to her lovely face.

"I'll be careful with you. I promise," I said sincerely, cupping her face with my hands and kissing her softly.

"Always careful," she whispered, "with me."

"Yes," I agreed, "careful with you."

For a while, we were lost again in our kisses, taking our time exploring one another, even as she continued to stroke me slowly.

"I want you," she finally whispered, her hand tightening to the perfect pressure around me.

In wordless agreement, I got up and went over to the dresser. I took both condoms from my wallet, knowing that even two wouldn't be enough for what I wanted to do with her that night.

I placed one on the nightstand and watched her as she moved to the middle of the bed. She lay on her back—waiting for me. I spent a moment simply taking in the beauty before me.

Her golden hair fanned out around her. Her eyes were trained on mine before they ventured lower. I smiled a little, knowing she would see my expression as she roved her gaze down my body. My eyes were roving too—down past her swollen lips, which had a smile of their own; her tempting collar bone; her even more tempting breasts; her flat belly; her pregnancy marks; and then the paradise waiting between her legs.

"I don't deserve you," I said honestly.

"Yes, you do," she responded fervently.

My eyes met hers again, and—suddenly—it was as if every moment of my life had led to this one. All of the days and nights that I'd wondered if anyone could ever truly love me had led to the most amazing women looking at me with love.

"I need you, Eric. Please," she whispered, reaching out a hand to me. I took it and then knelt on the bed, trapped in her gaze, wanting to be nowhere but where I was.

"Make love to me," she implored.

Unable to speak, I simply nodded, and took my hand from hers only long enough to tear into the little foil packet and put on the condom. Then I took her hand again, and she led me until I was hovering over her. She wrapped her legs around my back, and I snaked my hand between us—to make sure that she was still wet. She was.

Sookie gasped as I rubbed a few circles around her clit with my cockhead before lining myself up with her. I moved into her slowly, watching for any sign that she wasn't comfortable. At one point—when I was halfway in—she grunted a bit.

"Okay?" I asked, halting my movements.

"Yes. Keep going, Eric. Please," she assured.

I went in a bit further, relishing the warmth of her body. I groaned out my pleasure.

"Okay?" she asked me.

"Amazing," I panted.

"Then keep going," she begged, gripping my shoulders hard.

I did—until I was all the way inside of her. I'm sure my eyes registered my surprise.

"What is it?" she asked.

"I fit," I whispered.

"Yeah, you do." She sighed and raised a hand up to my face to softly stroke my cheek.

"Now move, Eric. I need you to move!"

I needed it too.

I set a rhythm—slow at first, until I knew that she was used to my size and enjoying herself.

And then I went faster.

Her legs wrapped tighter around me, and I gripped them, relishing the feeling of being as deep inside of her as I could go. I'd never fit into a woman, and Sookie was one of the most petite I'd ever had sex with; still—her body was perfect for mine.

And my cock seemed to know exactly what to do in order to maximize her pleasure.

"Right there! More!" she begged as I found her g-spot.

My own pleasure was mounting with hers—as she rose to meet me stroke for blissful stroke.

"Sookie!" I cried out as my orgasm snuck up on me. Quickly, I lowered my thumb to her clit and stroked her there so that she could join me. It didn't take much. Her first wave of pleasure corresponded with my third ejaculation. Indeed, it didn't feel as if the throbbing of my cock would ever stop, as her walls gripped me, milked me.

"Eric," she sighed when our orgasms had both finally subsided.

She raised her hand to my cheek as I slipped out of her and then collapsed next to her. Automatically, my body turned toward hers, and hers seemed to meet me.

Holding her in my arms—too physically and emotionally spent to even remove my condom—I fell asleep.

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A/N: I always have a lot of nervousness when I post the first sex scene for any story I write. I guess I just always hope that the build-up was worth it. And—of course—all human sex scenes are different from the vampire ones, so I don't have as much experiences writing them. LOL.

I hope you liked this one. Some of you were surprised that "it" was happening so quickly after Sookie seemed to reject the idea. All I can say is that she was in denial, and all it took was her seeing Eric vulnerable to given in to her feelings. I hope it doesn't seem too quick for these two. Up next: the morning after. Will there be any regrets? Stay tuned.

Best,

Kat

Chapter Text

Chapter 23: Field Experiment

July 5, 2011 • 6:00 a.m. / 0600 hours

Sookie POV

I woke up with a sigh—already feeling a smile.

It took me a moment to realize where I was and why I'd woken up so happy.

"Eric," I whispered, as I focused on the man next to me.

His breathing was steady and quiet, and I chuckled to myself that—though he was lying on his back with me lying on his chest and with no pillow under his head—he was not snoring.

Bill had snored softly—with the main noise coming at his exhalation, which was more like a puff of blown air than a breath. Alcide had been like a freight train if he lay on his back. Indeed, if he didn't lie on his side, it was impossible for me to get any sleep next to him. Luckily, he didn't mind my waking him up if he accidentally turned over in his sleep. Even on his side, however, he'd snored, but I could—thankfully—sleep through it.

It seemed like—even in sleep—Eric was a contrast to the other men I'd shared a bed with.

I sighed to myself. When I was young and idealistic, I couldn't imagine ever being intimate with more than one man during my entire lifetime! I'd viewed myself as "Bill's woman." I thought we'd grow old together—ending up in matching rocking chairs. But—now—thirteen years (at least, as of July 11) after my wedding to Bill, I could be honest enough with myself to know that Bill and the "me" that I now found myself to be were not actually that compatible.

Of course, I had known that he wanted to be a politician, and I thought I was fine with being a politician's wife. And I would have been—for Bill. However, I knew myself enough—now—to know that I wouldn't have been as happy hosting a fund-raising dinner as I was balancing the books at Merlotte's at the end of a long shift or planting a vegetable garden in the spring.

I frowned. I'd once admired Sophie-Anne and William Compton's marriage. Indeed, I set them up as a kind of model for Bill and me to follow. But, after Sophie-Anne's stroke, William hadn't lived up to that ideal. Oh—he'd done everything "right"—staying by her bedside for what he deemed an "appropriate" amount of time each day until she could come home from the hospital. He'd made sure she had the best live-in nurse money could buy. And she was almost fully recovered now—at least, as much as she ever would be. Most of her feeling on her left side had returned, though she still needed a cane to walk, and her smile was slightly crooked. But—even after her recovery from her stroke—the two had opted to keep the separate rooms they'd taken when she'd first returned from the hospital. And he certainly had never demonstrated a desire to take a step back from his career for her. In fact, if anything, he spent more hours in D.C. than ever before. It was as if—because Sophie-Anne had needed to slow down—she was no longer as much of an asset to his career.

I couldn't help but to wonder if Bill had viewed me in the same way—as an asset, someone to help him establish and maintain a particular image. After all, at least outwardly, it seemed as if a cookie cutter for a politician's wife had pressed into me perfectly. I was the "girl next door" that Bill had loved all of his life. A phrase like "childhood sweethearts" would have been perfect in a stump speech. I'd grown up with a grandmother who believed in instilling me with "old Southern manners," so I knew well how to perform the duties of a hostess. Bill and I had made what Sophie-Anne had once called the "perfect picture." William had once jokingly said that I was a perfect "accessory" for Bill. Looking back, I wondered if he had really been joking; I also wondered if Bill thought of me as an accessory, something even less flattering than an "asset."

A big part of me speculated that he would have eventually seen me in that way. In truth, a part of him already had. He was ambitious, serving in the Marines—at least in part—to increase his worth and electability once he had practiced law for a few years and finally ran for office. And he would have won, too—because of his family and his way of charming people. And I would have been the dutiful wife, looking nice and proper, but always standing off in the background a bit. I would have raised our children, hosted fundraisers, and helped run charities. And I would have been happy doing all of it—at least, that's what I hope. However, I would have needed to give up a part of myself for Bill's life.

Don't get me wrong, I still loved Bill very much, but thirty-one-year-old Sookie sometimes wondered why I'd thought that Bill and I were perfect together.

The love I had for Alcide was different—a more grown-up kind of love. I hadn't settled for him as much as I'd settled in with him. Yes—he and I sometimes butted heads over my more independent inclinations. But he understood what kind of woman I was when we became engaged, and—before we'd set a wedding date—I'd made sure that we thoroughly hashed out the fact that I would be keeping my own interests and my independence.

Of course, at times, Alcide had tried to go a bit caveman on me. But he had been man enough to recognize that and to try to change it—for me. Moreover, his more cavemannish inclinations had become less prominent after about a year of marriage. Some might say I wore him down a bit. But I just believed that he was a good man, who wanted to be "the man" in our marriage in a way that was just a bit too patriarchal for my liking. He would have likely been better off with a woman who'd not been married before—one who hadn't been a single mother running her own household for so long. With him, I'd never imagined sitting in matching rocking chairs and enjoying old age—mostly because Alcide had never been one to sit still. But I had thought that he would be the last man I made love to in my life. And I had been fine with that—more than fine.

But now I'd taken a third man into my bed—and into my heart. And, in many ways—no, in most ways—Eric's residence in my beating organ felt the most "right."

In a way I'd never be able to explain fully, Eric seemed to "get" me—to know me. And he loved me. I couldn't imagine his wishing that I was anything other than myself—unlike Bill and even Alcide, who I knew wished—at least, in part—that I could personify their perfect vision of "wife."

But I wasn't perfect.

More importantly, I was no longer naïve enough to think that I could be "perfect" for someone else if I wasn't—first and foremost—true to myself. Years and strife had taught me that hard lesson.

I already knew that Eric appreciated my independence; in fact, he'd spent months encouraging it as I'd learned to walk on my own again. I somehow knew he'd never try to hold me back. If anything, I knew that he would willingly reshape his life to fit mine, though I would never let him reshape himself.

Though I knew he wouldn't believe it, I felt as if he was perfect as he was.

Perfect for me.

I closed my eyes and smiled. I could imagine us in matching rocking chairs as we grew older. But—unlike my teenaged imaginings of Bill and me—I saw Eric and me holding hands as we rocked, our chairs close to each other and indicating a kind of intimacy that I knew was rare.

"You're rare," I whispered to the sleeping man next to me.

I could have stayed resting with him for hours; however, the clock on the nightstand told me that I needed to get up and rouse my son if he was to have breakfast in time for it to settle before the expert swimming instructor/therapist the Comptons had hired arrived. I smiled as I thought about how excited my son was to learn to swim again. He was also excited to have Eric sharing in the activity. And I knew that Eric was spending the day partly so that he could learn how to safely instruct Jase.

The love he had for Jase made my heart swell even more for the man in front of me.

God—I loved him! I'd tried to push away that feeling for months. But it was there. Maybe it wouldn't be easy for people like Janice to adapt to Eric and me being together. But I knew that I could not live my life for others.

Unless it was for Jase and Eric.

That felt "right."

So as not to disturb him, I got out of bed. I cringed a bit at the fact that Eric hadn't taken off the condom before he fell asleep, and I made a mental note to see my GYN and get back on the pill. I blushed as my eyes roved up his body—his truly amazing body. No one had ever given me the kind of pleasure he had the night before. I blushed even more as I looked at the unused condom on the bedside table.

A big part of me wanted to jump back into the bed with him and put it to good use.

Later—I promised myself.

In fact, after Jase had his swimming lesson, Hadley was planning to pick him up to spend a couple of days with Hunter—as the two boys had begged for more time together. Hadley and I were both aware that she and I had not been as close since the accident. I also knew that a part of her blamed herself for putting Hunter into Alcide's and my care that horrible day. But she was getting over that, which was good for the boys.

And—with Jase out of the house—I would have Eric all to myself for as long as he could stay.

I made a mental note to go to the store and get both something nice for dinner and more condoms while Jase and Eric were over at the Comptons' pool.

I smiled as Eric seemed to be reaching for me in his sleep and bent down to cover him more fully and to kiss his forehead. Immediately, he stilled again, and a small smile tugged on his handsome face, though he didn't wake up.

I'd never seen him looking more beautiful—or more at peace.

And I marveled at the fact that I had something to do with that look. I wanted to give him thousands of them before I was done.

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Eric POV

I woke up and immediately reached out—for her. My eyes popped open when I realized that Sookie wasn't there. Had I dreamed her coming to my room?

I shook my head. No. I was naked and a bit of a mess.

I glanced at the clock and knew that I needed to get up. Jason's swimming instructor would be meeting us at the Compton estate at 0930, and it was already 0750. The Marines had taught me how to take a quick shower, and that's what I did. Just as quickly, I brushed my teeth, put on my swim trunks and a T-shirt, stripped the bed so that I could wash my sheets, and slipped my flip flops onto my feet.

I felt unsure of myself as I slowly went down the stairs.

Did Sookie regret what had happened? Should I worry that she'd left my bed? When had she left?

I shook my head, remembering us falling asleep together after making love. Or—maybe she hadn't fallen asleep. Maybe she'd made her exit as soon as she could.

I heard voices—Sookie's and Jason's.

"Get yourself together, Captain," I whispered, trying to offer myself a pep-talk that all was well. After all, hadn't Sookie told me that she loved me? Hadn't we made love?

Or maybe she'd mistaken love for pity.

I entered the dining room tentatively.

"Mornin', Uncle Eric!" Jason enthused. "You ready for swimmin'?"

"Sure, Jason," I said in greeting, smiling at the boy—even as I tried to see Sookie in my peripheral vision.

"Do you want some breakfast?" she asked me. "I'll get you some," she answered for me immediately.

I looked at her in time to see her blush and turn toward the counter—away from me.

"Have a seat!" she said over her shoulder.

I did as she instructed, though—during the time I had lived in the house—I would have joined her in the kitchen to pour my own coffee and help as needed.

I tried to follow along with Jason as he talked through his excitement about the upcoming lesson as well as the previous night's fireworks. I responded to him as necessary and kept one eye on Sookie, though her own eyes were lowered as she came to the table, carrying a plate filled with eggs, bacon, and toast—as well as a cup of coffee. She put it down without a glance into my eyes and then turned away.

"You want more orange juice?" she asked Jason.

"Sure!" the child answered before remembering to add a "please."

Sookie returned to the table with a pitcher of juice and an empty glass. After filling Jason's cup, she finally looked at me. "Do you want some juice—um—Captain?"

"Yes. Thank you," I paused, "Ma'am."

For a moment, she frowned, but then glanced at Jason.

"You're welcome," she said.

"Momma, ain't you gonna eat?" Jason asked, munching on some bacon.

"No. I had something a little earlier."

I hadn't budged to eat yet. In fact, I felt like an idiot sitting at Sookie's table with the wadded-up set of sheets from my bed sitting on my lap.

In truth, I'd forgotten I'd had them when I'd sat down. Now, the fact that I still did made for an awkward moment.

Sookie noticed them. "Oh—do you want me to start those in the wash for you?" she asked.

"No thanks, Ma'am," I said standing quickly. "I'll do it really quick and then have breakfast."

I was halfway to the laundry room on the mud-porch when I heard Sookie behind me. "Oh—let me show you the new detergent I got. You use a different amount of it than the old kind."

After entering the mud porch, I quickly lifted the lid of the washing machine to put in the sheets.

"Eric?" Sookie whispered from next to me.

I looked at her and saw her looking up at me with pensiveness in her eyes. But there was also something else in them—love.

"Sookie," I whispered, reaching out to push the strand of hair that had fallen from her ponytail behind her ear.

In the next moment, our bodies were leaning toward each other—hers upward and mine downward. And then we were kissing passionately. I sighed with a mixture of passion, joy, and relief. Maybe Sookie didn't regret what had happened between us, after all. She certainly didn't seem to.

"I'm sorry," she whispered, after breaking our kiss. "I just don't know how or when to tell Jase about us."

I nodded, too overcome to speak, as she lifted up to kiss me again.

We were both out of breath by the time we heard Jason from the table. "Uncle Eric? Can I have one of your bacons?"

With difficulty, I pulled away from the kiss. "Sure, Jason!" I responded, loud enough for him to hear. I cupped Sookie's face and noticed the small smile on her slightly swollen lips.

"No regrets?" I couldn't help but to ask her in a whisper.

She shook her head. "No, Eric. None."

I closed my eyes for just a moment, reveling in the sound of my name on her lips.

"We'll tell him soon," she whispered. "We can talk after the swimming lesson; he's going to Hunter's house. You don't have to get right back to the base—do you?"

I shook my head. "No. I can be here. I want to be here."

Always.

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A/N:

Did you like this one? I felt that it would be very much in Eric's characters to be worried the morning after, especially when Sookie wasn't there when he woke up. But I also wanted to create a bit of dramatic irony because you—as readers—know that Sookie is having no doubts about being with Eric. For her, I imagined a kind of switch being turned on—as soon as she couldn't push aside her feelings for Eric anymore. Of course, now they will need to tell Jase.

Please comment if you have the time and inclination. I've said it before, but it's worth repeating, that your comments help to bolster me—during good days and bad.

Best,

Kat

Chapter Text

Chapter 24: Liberty

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NOTE: This chapter is set approximately THREE HOURS after the previous.

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Eric POV

Jason was just finishing up his explanation of his one-hour lesson from Jade Flower, the coach the Comptons had arranged for him—for the fourth time that I'd heard. He'd told me about it—though I'd been there for it—on our way back to the farmhouse from the Compton estate.

Then he'd told his mother about it—twice.

And now he was telling Hunter and Hadley, who had listened carefully (and enthusiastically, in Hunter's case) as Jason had explained how he had learned to float and to swim a kind of side-stroke so that he could better keep his head above water. Of course, Jason had known how to swim before, which had certainly helped his lesson. But he was learning again—with a "new" body. Ms. Flower had spent a lot of time helping Jason with his floating—so that he could "rest" in the water whenever he got tired, which he would definitely be doing for a while, as his arms would be the main things keeping him afloat. Indeed, the hardest part for Jason had been not kicking his remaining complete leg as he'd been used to doing. Kicking just the one left him off-kilter and, therefore, underwater more than once. However, Ms. Flower assured Jason that he would eventually learn a new kind of kicking so that both his complete leg and his partial one would act in concert to both propel him through the water and help him keep afloat. Plus, new kinds of prosthetics were being developed all the time—some of them waterproof.

In the meantime, it was clear to me just how much Jason loved to be swimming again; moreover, he thrived upon learning new things. I was proud of him.

I, too, was learning a lot about helping Jason by watching Ms. Flower, a beautiful Asian woman, who had given me more than a few interested looks during the lesson. Thankfully, she kept her main focus on Jason, but—if it became an issue—I would have to pull her aside to let her know that I was in a relationship.

Or was I?

Although I loved hanging out with Jason, a big part of me was anxious for Hadley to leave with the boys. I'd hazarded a few furtive glances at Sookie when I knew no one else was looking. Sometimes she was looking back. I was grateful to see that she seemed just as anxious as I was to be alone.

"So—I'll have him back day after tomorrow at 8:30 a.m. so that he can be here for his next swimming lesson?" Hadley asked.

"Thanks," Sookie said with a smile. "That's so early though. Are you sure you don't want me to pick him up?"

Hadley waved her hand. "Nah. I have to work at 9:00 anyway, and your house is between mine and work."

"It's a little out of the way though," Sookie said worriedly.

"Don't fret, Cuz. It'll give me and Jase some time to chat when this one isn't around," she said, playfully nudging Hunter.

Her son rolled his eyes.

"Come on, Mom," he practically begged. "Jase and I wanna play my new game!"

Hadley ruffled her child's hair affectionately and then came over to hug Sookie, even as Jason rushed over to give me a quick hug.

"Later, Captain!" yelled Hunter as he ran out of the house.

"See you at my swim practice day after tomorrow, Uncle Eric?" Jason asked me.

"Of course," I promised.

"Cool. See yah soon!" he said before chasing after Hunter.

Hadley and Sookie sighed. "I'll remind them that they shouldn't run in the house—again!" Hadley emphasized, grabbing Jason's little bag from the table.

"And remind Jase of his manners—makin' you take his stuff for him," Sookie said with a disapproving shake of her head. "And I guess I didn't merit a goodbye either," she chuckled.

Just then, Jason ran back into the kitchen, his eyes wide. "Sorry, Mom!" he said, taking his bag from Hadley.

"Sorry for running in the house?" Sookie asked, stifling her smile.

"Oh! That too!" he said before "hurrying" over to her to give her a big hug. "Love you! See you day after tomorrow."

"Text when you get there—okay?" Sookie asked.

Jason nodded. After the accident, they both always called or texted one another when they had to travel by car. I couldn't really blame them.

"Love you, Jase," Sookie said, bending down to kiss her son's forehead. "Mind your aunt," she added. Though Hadley was Sookie's cousin, Jason still referred to her as Aunt Hadley, even as Hunter called Sookie—Aunt Sookie.

"See you soon, Cuz," Hadley grinned as she and Jason left the room—at a walk this time.

As soon as we heard the door close, Sookie's eyes locked with mine. However, we stayed where we were for what seemed like several minutes—even after we heard Hadley's minivan drive away.

"You want some tea?" Sookie finally asked.

I shook my head even as I stood from where I'd been sitting at the dining room table.

With purpose, I walked to her and took her into my arms before kissing her—hard. The kiss deepened almost immediately, our tongues joining and massaging.

When I had to take a breath, I started a trail kisses toward her ear.

Sookie groaned a bit as I nibbled on the tender skin between her ear and her neck.

"Take me to bed?" she half-asked and half-begged.

I picked her up, and her legs wrapped around me. I'd not forgotten all of the times I'd carried her up the stairs, but this time was different. This time she was placing tempting kisses along my face, chin, and neck.

I stopped at the landing on the second floor. "My bed," I panted a little. "There are no sheets."

"Take me to my bed," she said meaningfully.

"Are you sure?" I asked. It wasn't lost upon me that Sookie's bed had also been her and Alcide's bed.

"Yeah," she said, still trailing kisses along my jaw.

"I need to go upstairs for the condom," I panted.

"No need," she purred. "I got us some more."

"We'll need them," I felt myself growling as she took my earlobe between her teeth and bit a little.

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Sookie POV

I thought I was going to burst as I waited for Hadley to collect Jase and leave. Don't get me wrong; I love my son—so much! But my body was craving Eric's in a way I'd never craved another before. As soon as he got us to the bedroom, he set me onto my feet.

I couldn't wait. Feeling animalistic, I pushed him back onto the bed, and I ripped my shirt over my head before joining him there—straddling him.

"Oh, God, Sookie!" he said—in that growly voice that I already knew would make my body tingle everywhere—every time I heard it. Impatient to feel all of him against all of me, I snapped off my bra before helping him off with his shirt. I unsnapped my shorts and shimmied out of them (and my panties), even as Eric seemed to read my mind and took off his swim trunks.

God! Of course, he was wearing no underwear.

I think I whimpered as I reached toward my nightstand and produced one of the condoms I'd purchased. I ripped open the package and placed the condom on his very ready "package."

"Sookie," he moaned as I stroked him a little. His own fingers sought out my center to test my readiness. He need not have bothered. I was dripping for him. Still impatient, I lined him up and then sank down upon him, sighing as I did so.

"No one," I whispered. "No one has ever filled me like you do."

"You feel so fucking good," he said with emotion as he gripped my hips.

I rolled them, moving my body back and forth, rather than up and down for a moment, tickling my own clit against the rough patch of pubic hair above his cock.

"Ah," I sighed, sinking into my pleasure as he rose into me.

Moving my hands to his strong, broad chest, I pressed down and then began to ride him. He helped—by moving my hips up and down with his hands.

We seemed to be in a race in that moment—racing to reach our orgasms; racing to see if we could fuck just a little faster, just a little harder.

I threw my head back as he shifted his angle from below me so that he was stroking that special place that Bill had never found and that Alcide had needed a lot of "help" to find. Eric's cock seemed drawn to that spot.

"Oh yes! Yes!" I cried out, thankful that I could be as loud as I wanted to be in that moment.

"Yes!" Eric seemed to be agreeing with everything I was affirming in that moment.

One of his big hands moving to stroke my clit put me over the edge, and my body shuddered and throbbed as my orgasm hit me. He grunted and then came with me.

It was a perfect moment, and I had a lot more condoms! I managed to smile through my heaving breaths as I moved to lie down on top of him.

We stayed still for a couple of minutes, our only movements related to our re-regulating breathing and his gentle stroking of my back.

"Let me get rid of this thing this time," he said gently.

"Thing?" I asked, not yet capable of figuring out what he was talking about.

"The condom," he responded. "I don't want to make a mess in your bed."

"Oh," I said with understanding as I shifted to the side to let him up. He quickly got out of bed and went into my bathroom. A moment later, I heard the water turn on, and about thirty seconds after that, he returned to bed with a glass of water and a wet washrag.

"A man who knows exactly what I need right now," I smiled, as I sat up to take the water.

He chuckled and moved to clean my lady bits with the washrag. I noted that he was gentle in the task. I quickly gulped down about half of the water as he took the spent rag back into the bathroom. After he'd climbed back into bed, I handed him the remaining water. After taking a few drinks, he handed me the glass again.

He'd settled onto his back, so after I finished the water and put the glass onto the nightstand, I cuddled into him, my head on his chest.

"I like this," he said after about five minutes of silence, during which I'd almost drifted asleep.

"I do too," I sighed, propping myself up a bit to look into his beautiful blue eyes.

He seemed to be studying me for a moment.

"I love you, Sookie," he said softly as he ran his fingers through my hair.

"I love you too, Eric," I responded with a kiss to his chest.

He closed his eyes and sighed contentedly.

"I don't know how to be in a relationship," he admitted after a few moments. "I don't know if you want to be in one with me."

"I do want that," I assured him, waiting for his eyes to open again. I wasn't disappointed, though I did frown a bit at the surprise and doubt within his orbs.

"How—uh—will this work?" he asked.

I giggled a little. "It's already working very well—don't you think?"

I was surprised to see him blush a little. "Yes. This works very well," he said squeezing me a little.

"You mean the rest of it?" I asked him.

"Yeah," he nodded.

"Well," I began, "we'll need to tell Jase."

Eric nodded, though he looked nervous.

"Don't worry. He loves you," I comforted.

He took a breath and then nodded. "Okay. When should we tell him?"

"How about Thursday, after his swimming practice? I'll make us all lunch, and we'll tell him."

"Okay," he agreed. "And—uh—how will we work?"

"Well," I shrugged, "we'll spend time together. We'll go out on dates, and—uh—sometimes, you can spend the night here."

"Will that confuse Jason?" he asked.

"We'll have to make sure he's okay with it," I said after a moment. "He's a smart kid, and I think honesty is the best policy with him. Alcide and I snuck around for a while—at least, we thought we did."

"But he knew," Eric said confidently.

"He told you?" I asked him; now I was blushing. "During one of your calls?"

Eric nodded. "Yes. Well—he didn't go into detail, but he said that Alcide was spending the night sometimes, but that he wasn't supposed to know."

I sighed. "That kid has always been a bit too perceptive for his own good."

We both chuckled.

"I have the next nine days off," he ventured.

"Good," I said as I rose up to kiss his chest. "I want as much of you as I can get, especially since . . . ." My voice trailed off.

"Since I'm going to Afghanistan in a few weeks?" he asked softly.

I nodded.

"Should I quit the Marines? Get a discharge? I can, you know. I've served long enough to be able to do that."

His words—the abruptness of them—took me off-guard. I changed position so that I was lying on my side next to him. He turned onto his side as well. His hand came to rest in the curve of my hip.

"Do you want to quit?" I asked him.

He seemed to be in deep thought for a moment. "I've thought about it. And you know I've been taking some college classes. And—until I have a more set plan—I think I could work construction or maybe as a bartender."

"You could run Merlotte's with me," I offered.

He smiled and leaned over to kiss me. "No. But thank you. Merlotte's is your place. But I did like helping with your books. I could maybe start my own bar—close to the base or something." He dragged his hand through his hair. I could see the uncertainty in his eyes.

"I have some money—from the sale of my parents' house and my military pay. I never spent much—never really had much to spend it on after I got out from under that house. It would probably be enough to buy a place and renovate it into a decent bar," he added.

"But that's not what you want," I said, deciphering the uncertainty in Eric's eyes.

"No. At least, not yet," he whispered. "I like what I've been doing at Bailey. I'm good at it." He shook his head. "I'm a good soldier, Sookie. It's something that," he paused, "came naturally. I was worried that—after I had to quit swimming competitively—nothing else ever would." He shook his head again. "Don't get me wrong. A lot of my time in the Marines was hell. But I won't have to be in combat anymore. I have—uh—well—there's a Colonel in Afghanistan. He's the one that helped me get to you and Jason so quickly after the accident. He also helped me get my assignment at Bailey. And I know he'll help me keep it."

"How did you get to us so fast?" I asked, having never asked him before.

"The Colonel—his name is Russell Edgington—fudged some paperwork. He said I had PTSD."

"Did you?" I asked him softly. "Do you? I mean—the dreams. Last night's was the worst I've seen, but—when you lived here—I heard you sometimes."

"I'm sorry you had to hear that," he frowned.

"It's nothing to be sorry about," I assured.

He sighed. "I do have PTSD—though it's classified as a milder case than most; still, I've been working with therapists since," he paused, "not long after Bill died. But it was never as bad as some guys suffer from it. I hate that Colonel Edgington lied for me, but . . . ."

"But?" I asked.

"If the accident had happened to my child—my wife," he said gruffly, "then I would have been able to take an emergency leave. And, even before I loved you, I loved Jason like he was my son."

"But the Marines wouldn't have let you come because he wasn't your son by blood," I guessed.

"No. They wouldn't have. It does make me feel a little less guilty about leaving now that I've been working with the base psychologist. He says that—if he had been my therapist in the field—he would have, at the very least, ordered some extended leave for me several tours ago. And he would have suggested a stateside duty station, too." He sighed. "And that's what I have now."

"But they're sending you to the field," I reminded softly, trying to hide my anxiety and fear over that prospect.

"Yes. But it'll be different."

"There's no such thing as safe in a warzone," I said.

"I know," he responded gently. "But it's as safe as possible. I won't be leading anyone into battle anymore."

"No matter how good you are at it?" I asked.

"No more," he whispered, his tone—though soft—seeming to echo through every battle he'd ever seen.

"Will you miss it—leading your men?" I asked after a few moments of silence.

He thought for a moment. "I'll miss protecting the people under my command. I always saw that as my main objective. But I got over the idea that I could protect every Marine in the Corps a long time ago. And the training I do now might just protect more of them than I ever could as the captain of just one company."

I sighed as I looked at the man who'd found his way into my heart. He was such a good man—so honorable and caring. He just didn't seem to recognize that about himself sometimes.

"I won't miss combat," he continued. "I won't miss worrying over the soldiers. I like what I'm doing now more." He let out a long breath. "I'd planned to stay in for at least another ten years. As a Captain, I have a good living as a Marine. I was going to pick up my degree and start my bar after I leave the Corps. If I retire after putting in 20 years—the benefits would be good, and I'd get to keep them throughout my life."

It was my turn to take a long breath. Could I live with the fact that I was with another Marine?

Yes—as long as it was this Marine.

"I don't want you to quit," I said softly.

"I don't want you to ever worry," he responded.

I shook my head. "I'll worry more if you change who you are for me, Eric. I love who you are. Plus—I know better than anyone—that it doesn't take a war to lose someone you love."

"Will we get married one day?" he asked after a few minutes of silence had added up between us.

I gasped, but then chuckled. "Don't you think it's too soon for that kind of talk?"

"Is it?" he asked, truly not knowing.

"Well—we've only just gotten together. So—yeah—the marriage talk is a bit premature."

He seemed disappointed.

"But maybe," I said to comfort him. Then, I shook my head and really considered the idea. "Probably," I corrected. "I mean—I can see myself with you for a very long time. And I don't want to be with anyone else."

"I feel the same," he affirmed, a smile tugging at his lips.

We were quiet again—this time for quite a while, though we did not fall asleep. We simply looked at each other.

"Would you want kids?" I finally asked, feeling hypocritical since I, too, had raised a topic that was generally saved for a lot later in a relationship. Indeed, Alcide and I had talked about kids relatively early because he wasn't able to father them; however, even we had waited until about two months into our dating.

Eric's eyes opened in surprise; obviously, he'd not anticipated that topic. I felt even more self-conscious.

"More than Jason?" he asked.

I laughed a little—nervously. "Yeah."

He thought for a moment. "I never thought I'd get to be a father."

"You are already—you know," I said softly. "To Jase. You've been like a father to him since Bill passed."

He shook his head a little. "No. I just tried to be someone . . . ." He stopped for a moment. "Someone he had in his life that he could ask about things. Someone who'd be there for him."

I brought my hand up to his cheek and stroked it. "However you sell yourself short, Eric, Jase has never had a more constant and more loving male figure in his life than you."

He looked down, clearly abashed by my words, so I didn't push that particular topic.

"So—kids?" I asked again. I couldn't help myself.

He looked at me for a moment. "I'd let you lead on that."

"What would you like?" I pushed.

He bit his lip a little—as if he worried about giving his answer and wanted to keep it in.

"It'll be fine—either way you answer," I assured. "I just want to know where your head and heart are on the matter."

"My head," he said softly. "Like I said, I've never thought about it before. I didn't imagine myself in a," he paused, "relationship with someone like you. But . . . ." His voice trailed off.

"But?" I asked.

"My heart," he sighed. "When you mentioned them—just now." He gulped. "My heart skipped and felt fuller. So—yeah—I'd like more kids—if it's what you want, too. If I had children, I'd want no other mother for them, Sookie. Just you."

I couldn't help but to smile at his words. "I thought I was done having kids—since Alcide couldn't father them. And I was fine with that. But my heart is also skippin' when I imagine us having a child—of you being that child's father. I like the thought of it."

He placed his hand gently over my tummy. "I want so many things with you, Sookie."

He leaned forward to kiss me; it was soft and slow—deliberate even—as if he were memorizing and savoring me.

I'd never felt more cherished.

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Please let me know what you think about this chapter if you have the time and inclination.

Best,

Kat

Chapter Text

Chapter 25: Liberty Risk

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NOTE: The following chapter occurs TWO DAYS after the previous.

NOTE 2: A "Liberty Risk" is a Marine with a high probability of getting into trouble when on leave.

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Thursday, July 7, 2011 • 0815 hours/ 8:15 a.m.

Eric POV

I smiled to myself as I poured cereal into my bowl. I was thinking about how—just the night before—Sookie and I had enjoyed sex in the very spot where I was now standing. I closed my eyes and pictured Sookie's wide, welcoming legs, drawing me to her.

Into her.

I felt my cock stirring. For the last two days, it had gotten quite a work out, but it—like me—still craved more. And there were more condoms.

A few more—at least.

Unfortunately, Sookie and I were out of time for the moment.

Sookie was on the phone with Hadley. From Sookie's end of the conversation, I could tell that Hadley was just getting ready to leave her house with Jason, which meant that they were running about fifteen or twenty minutes behind schedule; they'd be at the farmhouse at about 8:45 a.m.

"Don't worry about it," Sookie said, even as she rolled her eyes at Hadley, who was known for always being late. "Jade's already pushed Jase's swimming lesson back until 10:30 a.m. anyway. There's plenty of time."

There was a pause as Hadley obviously kept on apologizing.

"No. It's really fine that Jase has had only cereal this morning—really it is. That's all we're having anyway."

A moment later, Sookie blushed bright red. "Yeah—uh—the 'we' is Eric and me—um Captain Northman and me."

"Shh," Sookie sounded a moment later. "I don't need Jase findin' out anything from you."

She looked at me worriedly. "Let's just say that he and I are . . . ." She paused for a moment. "We talked things out, and we're in a relationship now," she finally settled upon.

Again, she went beet red. "That part's none of your business, Had. I'll see you in about thirty minutes!" she said quickly before hanging up.

"Damned pronouns," she muttered.

"What?" I chuckled.

"I said 'we,' so Hadley was able to guess that I was talkin' about more than one person."

"Do you mind her knowing about us?" I asked a bit pensively. Yes—Sookie and I had shared a lot during the last two days, only leaving the bed to eat and then to check on things at Merlotte's the night before. Terry and Arlene had looked at us like they were suspicious about what we were doing with—and to—each other, but they'd not said anything.

Sookie and I hadn't said anything either; I'd thought that was so we could make sure Jason was the first to know about "us." Now—I felt some of my insecurities coming back, and I couldn't help but to wonder if she was ready for us to "go public."

"No. I don't mind her knowing. Of course not!" Sookie assured before my thoughts could get too far afield. She sighed. "It's just that she already knew that I," she paused and blushed, "liked you—mostly thanks to Amelia's and Tara's big mouths."

I gulped. "You talked about me—like that?"

She chuckled, probably at the petrified look on my face. "They guessed."

Sookie came over to me and stroked my cheek. "I guess I couldn't really hide how I felt about you as well as I thought I could."

I bent down to kiss her.

She gave me a coy smile once we pulled away from each other.

"You know, Captain," she said teasingly, "Hadley is still probably twenty minutes away."

"Challenge accepted, Ma'am," I said as I forgot about my cereal and picked her up in a fireman's carry. I quickly got us to her bedroom, which looked like it had been ransacked, given how much sex had been had in there for the last 48 hours. I felt a little proud of the mess, but I didn't dwell on that pride.

There was another condom to get through and only twenty minutes to do it in.

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1230 hours / 12:30 p.m. • approximately four hours later

Sookie and I had decided to tell Jason that we were in a "dating relationship." And we planned to keep our relationship at what she called a "somewhat casual" level, at least until I got back from Afghanistan.

I'd been worried by the word "casual," until Sookie explained what she meant by that term. Basically, we were going to be "sneaking around" when it came to sex, but open about everything else. She wanted Jason to see us as just "dating" for a while; she figured that would be a better example for him. And we'd already decided that we'd have what Sookie called "proper dates" at least once a week. These would entail getting a babysitter for Jason or simply dropping him off to spend some time with Jessica; Sookie and I would go out for food and a movie or another activity. I had a feeling that sex would be involved in all of those outings, too.

I couldn't say that I minded that.

To help Jason transition, Sookie and I had also decided that we'd keep up the routine of him coming to spend Friday nights and Saturdays with me. However, I'd also be spending the night with them on Saturdays and going to church with them on Sunday mornings, as well as spending the day with them.

Sookie had chuckled about sneaking up to my room every Saturday night in order to make sure that we both had plenty to confess about the next morning at church. Of course, she and Jason weren't Catholic. Neither was I.

Sookie seemed so certain that Jason would handle the changes to our status well. But I still worried as we finished up the lunch Sookie had made for us—BLTs.

"Hey, Uncle Eric! Can you stay and play a game or something?" Jason asked.

"I—uh—well, Jason," I stammered.

"Captain Northman and I have something we need to talk to you about," Sookie said, taking the reins. I was very happy to follow her lead.

"Okay," Jason said with some curiosity. "What is it? Oh, Wait! Are you puttin' in a pool over here?"

Sookie frowned. "No. I mean—I'm still thinking about that one, Jase. We actually have something else—something important—to say to you."

Jason looked a little disappointed about the non-pool, but also eager to hear what his mother had to say.

Sookie looked a little nervous, but I knew that I was more nervous. She took a breath, even as I held my own.

"Jase, I wanted to start off by telling you how much I loved your stepdad and your dad. I still love them. And I hate that I—that we—lost them."

Immediately, Jason frowned, the sorrow of both of his losses bubbling up to the surface.

"I hate it too, Mom," Jason said softly.

He looked down, but then wide-eyed as he looked at me. "You're not leaving—are you, Uncle Eric?" A huge tear formed and immediately fell from his eye.

"No!" I said quickly. "I mean—you know I have to go away for a while to work. But I'm not leaving."

"You're not?" Jason asked, his lips trembling.

"No, sweetie," Sookie soothed, reaching out to take her son's hand. "It's sort of the opposite. Uh—Captain Northman—Eric—is gonna be around more now because—uh—he and I have decided to start dating."

"Dating?" Jason asked, looking confused. "Dating?" he repeated.

"Yes," I responded. "Jason, I care about your mother very much, and she has agreed to be in a relationship with me—a—uh—dating relationship."

"Like she's your girlfriend?" Jason asked, looking from me to his mother. "And he's your boyfriend?"

"Yes," Sookie said with something akin to relief as Jason clearly grasped what we were telling him.

For about ten seconds, Jason smiled softly, seemingly happy with the news. I felt myself beginning to relax. But then he frowned deeply.

So did I.

"But you can't date her!" he yelled out, looking at me. "You can't!"

"Jason . . . ," I started, not knowing what to say.

"You can't date!" he yelled, turning to his mother, his voice still raised and now angry. He was gesturing a little wildly—as if he were scared.

"Jason Compton! You will not take that tone with me—with us."

"You'll ruin everything!" the boy accused, rising up to his feet so quickly and haphazardly that he didn't get a solid position with his prosthetic. Before I could get to the other side of the table to help him, he stumbled and fell, hitting his chin and lower lip on the table. Immediately, blood began to gush from the lip wound.

Sookie was on her feet moments later. I helped Jason back into his seat as Sookie tried to look at the wound. Having seen a lot of busted lips before—and knowing that they could bleed a lot—I ran to the kitchen sink to wet a clean washcloth. I also grabbed a clean, dry dish towel and hurried back to Jason. By that time, he was crying, probably both out of fear at seeing so much blood and pain.

"Oh God," Sookie said, her own eyes filling with tears.

"Can I see?" I asked Jason before sinking to my knees in front of him.

He didn't look at me, but nodded. I quickly dabbed the wet rag onto the wound to see the size of the gash. He had a large bump forming on his chin, and there was a substantial cut on his lower lip.

I quickly covered the wound with the wet rag and then held the dry one over it.

"It will need stiches," I said gently.

"Okay," Sookie said, seeming to rally a little. "It's okay, Jase. Stiches will fix you right up."

"Eric," she said, looking at me, "I'll get my purse. Will you get him out to the van? And then drive us? I'm a little shaky."

"Sure," I quickly agreed, moving to pick up Jason.

"I can walk," he muttered out, despite his wound.

The bitterness and anger in his voice—coming through clearly even though the rags that muffled it—hit me in the core. But it was a quick look that he gave me—one full of betrayal and disdain—that truly gutted me.

"Okay," I told him, though I made sure that I was close in case he fell again or needed me to stabilize him. He didn't.

We were quickly in the vehicle. Sookie sat in the middle seat with Jason so that she could help him hold the rags tightly against his wound, and I was left alone in the front to drive.

I made sure to be careful, even as I felt a great pit forming in my stomach. Jason's lip wound was not bad; I guessed that three to five stitches would be all that were needed. And he might need to get an X-ray to see if he had sustained whiplash—due to the force of his head whipping back when he'd hit the table. But he didn't seem to be in any current pain because of that. What worried me more was his strong reaction against me and Sookie being together.

Was he angry at me? Did he worry that I would no longer have room in my heart for him if I was in a relationship with his mother? Did he worry about Sookie focusing less upon him if she and I were in a relationship? Or—did he just not wish for me to be with his mother? Perhaps, he deemed me unworthy for her.

God knows, I didn't feel like I deserved either Sookie or Jason. Maybe he'd finally come to see that, too. Maybe he realized—in the moment right after his mother had mentioned the losses of his two dads—that I just didn't measure up to them.

Maybe he was trying to protect his mother from me.

Maybe he was right to do so.

I'd been in a beautiful fantasy for the last two days, one in which anything was possible and where Sookie had talked me into believing that Jason would take the news of "us" with happiness. It had been the best two days of my life.

But all that possibility seemed to be over now—done.

I'd been revealed for being the fraud that I was. I wasn't suited for them. I wasn't suitable for anyone.

I shook my head, trying to put aside all my questions and worries and self-doubts. Clearly, it was the time to make sure that Jason was okay—not me. Indeed, I chastised myself for spending even a moment on my own selfish needs.

And I drove on.

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1600 hours / 4:00 p.m. • approximately three and a half hours later

Sookie POV

I just couldn't figure out Jase's reaction to finding out that Eric and I were a couple. I'd thought—with everything inside of me—that my son would be happy.

After all, he already loved Eric so much. And he'd loved it when we'd all lived together. He'd asked—more than once—if Eric could just keep living with us even after he had to report for duty at Bailey. Indeed, I knew that Jase had been a little angry at me when I'd told him that wasn't possible.

In fact, one of the reasons why I'd suggested that he spend part of his Fridays and Saturdays with Eric each week was because of how attached he'd become to the captain. And he'd mentioned—many times—that he wished that Eric could spend more time at the farmhouse than just the Saturday dinners we all shared.

Now—as I watched Jase sleeping in his bed, after fighting to stay awake against the pain medicine for about half an hour—I found myself not quite knowing what to do.

Although Eric had driven us to the hospital and then waited with us in the waiting area, Jase had hardly looked at him. Indeed, most of the time, he'd not acknowledged him in any way. And the toll that had immediately taken upon Eric was a harsh one.

But I'd not been able to comfort the man that I loved; I had to focus on Jase. My son had cried a little as he'd been stitched up, and he'd cried a little more when the doctor said he couldn't swim in the pool until a week after the stitches were fully dissolved. Through the ordeal, he'd let me hold his hand. However, he'd barely said ten words to me. But at least those ten were something—even if they were mostly just answers to my questions about how he felt.

Except for the one sentence he had clearly spoken, "I don't want him there."

Those words had been said when Eric tried to go with us into a curtained off area in the Emergency Room.

So Eric had waited for us in the waiting room.

He'd looked worried—tortured even—as we came out of the E.R. Still, Jase had said nothing to him. If anything, he'd ignored him even more fully. And he'd asked me to sit with him in the middle seat again.

On the trip to the hospital, Jase had been bleeding and had wanted me by his side because he was scared. On the trip back, I knew that he just wanted me away from Eric. God knows—I'd almost denied my son. But, seeing his swollen lip and pale face, I just couldn't do it.

Sensing Jase's mood, Eric had said nothing as he'd driven us home. Once there, Jase was exhausted, so he and I had just gone straight to his bedroom.

It was clear he didn't want Eric in there either. And once Jase had settled in bed, he'd grabbed my hand, looking sad and a little scared that I might leave his room. So I'd stayed with him, grabbing the book we'd been reading together off the shelf. We usually took turns reading a chapter each at night, but I did all the reading as he simply looked at me.

Though he was clearly sleepy, his expression seemed to scream that I'd betrayed him in some way. I tried to keep my expression from showing my confusion and frustration with him, at least until he'd drifted off to sleep.

I softly shut the door on my way out of Jase's room. I looked around for Eric and worried that he'd gone until I saw his van—the very one he'd purchased so that he could transport Jase and me when we were both wheelchair-bound—in the driveway. I breathed a sigh of relief and went upstairs. I stopped in my room first, but he wasn't there.

When I got up to the third floor, I found him sitting on his bed with his face in his hands. His bag was sitting next to him.

I looked quickly around the room to see that everything of his had been packed. In fact, the room looked spotless—as if no one had stayed in it for months. The only things left behind were the copy of Wuthering Heights on the nightstand and the child monitor he'd gotten in order to listen for Jase's nightmares when he lived with us.

He looked up at me, his eyes speaking of sorrows I couldn't even imagine.

"I think I have to go," he said with an odd mixture of firmness and uncertainty in his voice.

"Eric, I don't understand why Jase is behaving as he is, but I don't want you to go. I think we need to all talk together—as a family—once Jase gets a little sleep."

A large tear seeped from Eric's eye. "I don't deserve a family."

"Eric, how can you say that?" I asked him. "Why would you think even that?"
"It's what my father told me—when I was around Jase's age."

"Your father was wrong."

"Jason looked at me tonight in a way that made me certain that he does not want me to be with you," he whispered.

"We need to figure out why that is, Eric. We need to talk with him."

"I can't live with it if he hates me," he said, another tear slipping from his eye. "I can't hurt him. I love him so much."

"I know," I said, moving closer to him.

"And I love you," he said.

"I know." I was standing right in front of him now, between his slightly open legs.

"I feel like I have to choose," he whispered. "I feel like—no matter who I choose—my heart will break, and I will hurt one of you."

I put my hands onto his shoulders, rubbing them a little. "You won't have to choose. We'll talk to him again, and he'll either tell us why he's so upset, or he'll just be told that he has to get used to us being together."

"I can't make him unhappy, Sookie. I can't force myself into his life this way—if he doesn't want me to be there. I should go."

"Please, Eric, I need you to stay, and so does Jase—even if he doesn't know it right now. We need to learn what's going on so that we can understand how to fix it."

He shook his head in denial, even as I moved my hands to cup his face and raise it up so that he was looking at me. "Eric, I love Jase, but he is not going to dictate who else I love."

Again, he shook his head, and his voice shook too as he spoke. "He looked at me like he hated me tonight, Sookie. He looked at me like I always wanted to look at my father, but was afraid to. My father always punished me—whenever I did anything he didn't like. I won't punish Jason by forcing myself to be more to him than he wants. I can't have him hate me." Another tear fell from his eye. "Even as I've gotten older—even after my father died—I couldn't feel any love for him, Sookie. I don't even feel enough for him to hate him. I feel nothing but indifference for him. And I resent my mother for never putting me first. I don't want Jason to ever feel resentment for you or for me. It would," he paused, "break me in two."

"And giving us up? That wouldn't break you in two?" I snapped back, taking a step away from him and feeling hurt over the fact that he seemed so quick to be giving up on us. "Because it would break me, Eric, and I'm fucking tired of losing the people I love, especially when I don't have to!" I added angrily.

He looked up at me, clearly confused and torn. In fact, he looked to be in agony. And—suddenly—I felt very selfish.

"I don't know what to do," he whispered. "I can't do anything without hurting you or him. If I could only hurt myself, I would do that. Please believe me that I would! But I just can't see a way to just do that. Can't you see? This is all my fault. I'm not meant to be here. I'm not meant to do this. I don't know how to do it without you or him hating me."

I went to speak—to try to find something to say that could make either of us feel better—but I was interrupted by Jase's yell over the child monitor.

I looked at Eric uncertainly. "You should go," I told him.

He shook his head. "He doesn't want me, Ma'am. Not right now."

The use of "ma'am" hit me like a blow to the stomach, just as another yell from Jase hit me like a blow to the heart. I turned and hurried down to my little boy's room, not knowing at all what to do beyond that.

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A/N: I have a feeling that some of you will have been surprised by Jase's reaction here. Any speculations about why he had such an extreme response? I promise that there is method to my madness. In the meantime, I just feel bad for everyone involved.

I hope you will leave me a comment if you have the time & inclination.

Best,

Kat

Chapter Text

Chapter 26: MOPP

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NOTE: MOPP is the military abbreviation for "Mission Oriented Protective Posture."

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Thursday, July 7, 2011 • 1615 hours/ 4:15 p.m.

Eric POV

My mind was racing, replaying my father's voice telling me about my unworthiness over and over again.

Claudine had once told me that every human being had a "default setting"—an attitude about himself or herself that was the first place an individual "went" whenever anything went wrong in his or her life. For most people, that "default setting" was formed due to parental behavior. If a child felt loved and cherished, he or she would generally feel an initial sense of positivity—of hope—when met with a problem. My own "default setting" was to feel unworthy and to blame myself for any problems. Claudine said that, through his mental cruelty, my father had put that sense into me—that sense that I was "nothing" or that the world would somehow be better off without me. She said that my challenge would always be fighting against this negative notion. I would have to, in other words, recognize my "default setting" when I was hit with its bile so that I could slowly, but surely, change the narrative of a situation.

Sadly, there wasn't really a cure for my "default setting"—nothing to make it go away entirely—because it had been so thoroughly ingrained into me as a child. There would only ever be learning to confront it each time it occurred.

This time, however, I couldn't find my way out of the feeling that I wasn't worthy—the feeling that I didn't deserve happiness. I'd also found that I couldn't simply go "cold" to that feeling as I had successfully done in the past. Even when Pam was taken by her father or when Bill died, I'd been able to push my emotions away. Appius had told me that they made me weak anyway.

Claudine had helped me to begin to understand that emotion wasn't a weakness. It could be a great strength, in fact. And she'd helped me to understand a lot about myself and my father's role in forming me the way that I was. I had felt that I was beginning to "change the narrative" a little—as Claudine called it.

But sitting on the bed, wondering what I should do, I could only hear Appius.

"You don't deserve love."

"You are a disappointment."

"You are unworthy."

"The world would have been a better place if you'd never been born."

"Get out of my sight."

I knew I had to leave the farmhouse—leave Sookie and Jason to themselves. I knew I needed to stop hurting them. But I just didn't know how to get to my feet and do it.

So I continued to sit as I heard Sookie enter Jason's room and begin to comfort her child in the aftermath of his nightmare. I should have turned off the child monitor, but I couldn't stop myself from listening to them.

I'd listened before—while I'd been packing my things and putting clean sheets onto the bed in what had once been my room. I'd listened as Sookie read to Jason from the book they were working through together. It was A Swiss Family Robinson, a classic by Johann David Wyss, which I had read when I was a child. Indeed, I'd read it more than once.

It was about a family—a couple and their four sons—that became shipwrecked on a deserted island. I'd been fascinated by the behavior of the father. Like my father might have done, he'd been quick to gather all of his potential assets from the wreck of the ship. But—unlike my father—he'd always seen his sons as his greatest assets. Oh—he'd been hard on them at times as he'd taught them how to survive. But he'd also recognized the importance of them developing their own interests—their own identities. He'd loved them.

Their default settings would not have been to think of themselves as useless.

They wouldn't have thought of themselves as unwanted—as a curse on others.

On the contrary, they'd each seen themselves as strong and loved.

I wanted that so much for Jason that my heart ached for it. I wanted his "default setting" to be full of hope and the certain knowledge that he was loved—no matter what.

If I hurt him now, would I take that away from him?

I heard Sookie humming lightly as she soothed Jason. My eyes went to the monitor as if I could see them through it.

Jason whimpered a little.

"Shhh, baby," Sookie soothed. "You remember how the pain medication can give you bad dreams. You took it for your lip—remember? But you're awake now, and you're okay."

Jason let out a little sob.

"Was it real bad?" Sookie asked.

I heard nothing, but in my mind's eye, I could imagine Jason nodding.

"Wanna tell me about it, Sweetie?" Sookie asked.

For a moment, there was silence, and I found myself holding my breath.

"Was it one of your old nightmares?" she asked, clearly trying to encourage him to speak.

Jason's "old nightmares" generally included being trapped in the car, reliving little pieces of the accident. They often included Sookie dying. Sometimes, he dreamed that it was Bill in the vehicle with them—dying in it instead of Alcide. Sometimes, he dreamed that his grandparents, William and Sophie-Anne Compton, had died—just like Jackson Herveaux and Gran had.

Finally, Jason spoke. "Uncle Eric died," he whimpered.

I frowned as I looked at the monitor.

"Oh, sweetie," Sookie comforted. "He's fine. He's right upstairs."

"In my dream, he died like Daddy did. Like both of them did."

"Are you afraid because he'll be going away for a while?" Sookie asked. "You know that he's gonna try to stay in safe places—right? He's not going to do any fighting."

"I know," Jason said so softly that I could barely hear him. "But—in my dream—he didn't die in a battle. He died because of you," he added, his voice louder and taking on some anger toward his mother.

"Because of me?" Sookie asked, clearly confused and upset.

"You love him," Jason accused.

"Yes, Sweetie. I do love him," Sookie confirmed.

"And you're gonna make him my dad!" he said.

"Oh—Jase, we just decided to have a relationship. It's way too early for talk of anything else."

"No!" Jason said harshly. "I can tell. You're gonna wanna marry him—just like you married Alcide. Then, Uncle Eric will be my dad—just like Alcide! And dads die! Uncle Erics don't die! But dads do! You're gonna make him my dad, and then he's gonna die!" Jason was breathing loudly and erratically, and I worried that he might hyperventilate, even as his words left me frozen.

"Oh, Sweetie. Is that what has you upset?" Sookie asked him softly after helping him calm down for a minute.

"Yes! Why can't you just let him stay Uncle Eric?" he whimpered. "He'd be safe!"

"Sweetie, even if he and I are together, nothing has to change with you and him. He'll always be Uncle Eric to you—if that's what you want."

"No!" Jason denied. "I already made a mistake a few weeks ago. I accidentally called him 'Dad' when I was talking to Jessica! And then—the next day—he said he was goin' to Afghanistan. Don't you see, Mommy? If he's my daddy, he'll be taken away! He'll die—just like my other dads!"

"Honey, that's not true."

"It is true!" Jason insisted. "And—if you are with him and he dies—I'll never forgive you. I hate you!"

Hearing Jason say that to his mother and hearing her sob a response, I couldn't simply sit there any longer. I reached out to turn off the monitor.

I finally understood Jason's concern, but I couldn't think of a way to stop it. However, I could make sure that he and Sookie's relationship remained intact. I quickly took out the little notebook that I kept in my knapsack and wrote out one note to Jason and another to Sookie.

And then I picked up my belongings, quietly went downstairs, left the notes on the kitchen table, and slipped out the door, making sure that it was locked behind me.

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1700 hours / 5:00 p.m.

Sookie POV

I hadn't heard Eric leaving, but I somehow knew that he was gone when I finally left Jason asleep. The house was just different—less—without him.

Eric was too considerate of a man to leave without a word, so I wasn't surprised to find the two notes on the kitchen table.

In Eric's neat script, I saw "Jason" written on one note and "Sookie" on the other. I picked up mine and then carried it with me to the couch. I couldn't face my room yet, not when I knew that the evidence of Eric and my lovemaking would be there in the presence of a tussle of sheets we'd not had time to fix before Jase had come home. I'd intended to do it while they were at swimming practice, but I'd gotten caught up in a problem with a delivery to Merlotte's that Arlene called me about that morning.

And then I'd had to begin lunch right after I'd finished troubleshooting.

And then Eric and I had talked to Jase about us.

And then all hell had broken loose, breaking what seemed to be three hearts with it.

And I couldn't help but to wonder why any of them had needed to break.

"Probably because we're all scared shitless," I muttered to myself.

I opened my letter, taking a deep breath before I read it.

Dearest Sookie,

It was wrong of me, but I listened as you were in with Jason just now. I heard what he said, and I cannot allow myself to be the cause of problems between you and him. I don't know what is best to do, but I will always regret entering your life and causing pain. That was never my intention.

The last two days have been the best of my life. I will treasure them always and hope that Jason will, one day, have a change of heart about us being together. And—if he does—I hope that you can give me another chance to live up to you—even though I now feel certain that you would be better off with someone else.

As for now, I can only pray that Jason will allow me to continue having some interaction with him and that you will forgive me for not having the tools required to fix what is happening.

In Jason's letter, I have asked him to let me know if it is acceptable for me to pick him up Friday at 11:00 a.m.—tomorrow—as usual. I will understand if he chooses not to have me in his life for the time being or permanently.

Earlier, I heard you comforting him about not being able to swim in the pool for a while. However, when he is able, I want you to be comforted that his instructor, Jade Flower, is very competent. I know that, given how your parents died, you were concerned about him swimming safely. Miss Flower will not allow anything to happen to him. And—if you wish to have an extra safety net—I have learned that Jeff, the Comptons' new gardener, used to be a lifeguard. I have already asked him to be an extra set of eyes during Jason's lessons—especially if I am not in attendance.

I will also understand if you decide—once and for all—that it is best that I am no longer in your life or his life. If that is your decision, you need not give him my note. Just know that I will always treasure you both and I am sorry for being too little in this big moment.

I find that I don't know what else to say to you, beyond 'I love you.' I have since the moment I saw you in the hospital—the moment I was in your presence for the first time. And I will love you until my last moment—no matter what occurs.

Always yours,

Eric

Despite knowing it might be wrong to do so, I went to the kitchen to read Jase's letter. Somehow, I knew that Eric wouldn't mind.

Dear Jason,

It saddens me that I have hurt you today. I did not intend to do that. I love you, and I love your mother too. But now I understand why you don't want your mother and me to be together.

Please do not blame your mother for having feelings for me. Her love would never be the cause of harm to anyone. Her love is not what killed your father or Alcide. I'm sure it only made them better people.

Being your father is also not what caused them to die, Jason. Being your dad was the greatest thing to your father. I know this because he told me once. And I'm sure Alcide felt the same way.

I have been honored to have a place as your friend—as your uncle Eric. For many years, being your uncle has been the most important and wonderful thing in my life. I hope that you will let me continue to be that. I will pick you up as usual tomorrow morning—if you still want me to. You need only text to confirm. Indeed, I will be there for you whenever you need me.

Love,

Uncle Eric

I brushed away a tear. I knew that Eric was willing to give up his own happiness for Jase. And I also knew that he was trying to do the best thing for me.

And—yes—hearing Jase tell me that he hated me had been difficult.

But I wasn't willing to give up Eric. I knew that Jase would come around. I sighed as I put Jase's letter back onto the table where Eric had left it.

And then I went to lie down on the couch, already missing the man who'd truly shared my home for the last couple of days.

Bill had never really been comfortable in the old farmhouse. He'd called it "creaky and quaint" more than once. I'd not really blamed him. After all, he was used to much nicer things, and he had a lot of them. In fact, even as a kid, he seemed to be able to get anything he wanted, from toys to games to computers. One time, when Bill and I were thirteen, he'd even gone through a phase when he'd wanted to learn how to ride a horse. So Sophie-Anne had arranged for the old stables on the property to be fixed up. Several horses were bought, and a professional riding instructor and grooms were hired. Bill had asked me if I wanted to learn with him, and I'd jumped at the chance. I'd loved riding. Bill had not. After only five months, he'd told his mother that he wasn't really "into riding." The horses had been sold not long after.

The next summer, the pool, which had been another thing that Bill had wanted, had been put in.

It was no wonder that Bill's attitude was that he wanted to "take me away" from what he called my "more modest upbringing." But, though I'd loved Bill, I'd never thought that I needed to be taken away from the life I'd lived.

Gran's purse strings weren't long, but we'd never suffered for the essentials—or for love—in the old farmhouse, despite the fact that it sometimes went a little too long without things like fresh coats of paint or a new roof.

Alcide had liked the farmhouse well enough, but he'd always planned for us to move to Shreveport as soon as Gran passed away. Oh—he'd never said that out loud, but I'd known it. Alcide had kept his Shreveport home, after all, renting it on only short-term leases. I'd been upset about that at first. But Gran had talked me down.

She'd reminded me that Alcide treated her like a queen and clearly wasn't anxious for her to "keel over"—as Gran put it. Plus, he had moved into the farmhouse with no complaint at all. Some men wouldn't have agreed to help look after the aging grandparent of his bride-to-be by moving into her home, especially given the fact that it gave him a much longer commute to work each day.

Still—Alcide had never really treated the farmhouse like it was his permanent home, despite the fact that he'd been responsible for most of the updates on the second floor of the dwelling. I understood that the changes—including making Alcide and me a larger master bedroom and bathroom—were made to increase the short-term comfort and long-term salability of the property.

And—God help me—I would have sold the place and moved to Shreveport for Alcide, even though it would have broken my heart a little.

Speaking of broken hearts, I thought of the man who was responsible for my currently bruised organ. Of course, Eric didn't want to hurt me. In fact, a part of me already knew that things would work out—despite the sorrow in his letter to me.

Still, I would ache for him until we could get things figured out with Jase.

And the house would ache for Eric too, for it, too, seemed to have chosen him to "belong there," just as Jase and I had chosen him—each of us in our own way.

I found myself wishing that I'd just acknowledged that I loved Eric months before. I shook my head. No. It was best that things had worked out on their current timeline. After all, though I'd been giving my heart to Eric for a while, I'd still been mourning for Alcide.

Part of me always would be. But, as Gran had taught me after my parents had died—when I'd thought that it would be best never to love again—the heart always seemed able to fit in more love, even when it seemed to have been broken.

I'd just forgotten that lesson for a while—or I'd been too scared to think about it.

Sadly, no one had ever taught Eric that lesson. Indeed, no one had ever made him feel like he deserved to belong in someone else's heart to begin with. I had done my best to teach him that he did, but I knew that it would have to be Jase that helped Eric to understand that love—once real and true—didn't simply go away.

Not even when there was conflict.

I closed my eyes and said a quick prayer that my child would come around quickly—for the sake of us all.

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A/N: A funny story about this chapter is the amount of frustration I felt towards Sookie, Jase, and Eric as I was writing it. I wanted Eric to see his worth, to run into Jase's room, and to help him to understand that changing him to "dad" wasn't going to be a bad thing. But then I remembered that Jase is only 11, and he likely has PTSD as well as issues with the loss of his leg. Because of Sookie and Eric, he is very well-adjusted, but—then again—this is the first thing to "go wrong" for him since Eric has been in the day-to-day picture. So—yeah—he gets a pass. I'm giving Eric a pass too—poor guy. He thinks that—if Jason resents Sookie—then he will grow up with a bad "default setting." Eric cannot even fathom that it's Eric's care for him that is helping Jason to be so well-adjusted (despite everything). As for Sookie, I wanted her to do something at the end of this chapter—something other than wait for Jase to come around. Ultimately, though, I see the wisdom of her not forcing either of the males in her life to see the whole picture. And—of course—as she says, they are all "scared shitless."

I hope you enjoyed this chapter. Please comment if you have the time and inclination.

Kat

Chapter Text

Chapter 27: O-Course

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NOTE: The following takes place TWO DAYS after the previous chapter.

NOTE 2: "O-Course" refers to an obstacle course in "military speak."

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Saturday, July 9, 2011 • 1915 hours/ 7:15 p.m.

Sookie POV

"Momma?" Jase asked, even as he pushed food around his plate with his fork. He'd been doing that for the last several minutes, though I knew that he usually liked the dish—lasagna.

"Yes?" I asked, putting down my own fork. When Jase got my attention with the tone of voice he had just used—not to mention the fact that he'd lost his usually large appetite—I knew that he wanted to discuss something serious.

"You seem sad," he said softly, his eyes on his plate.

"I am sad," I responded, unwilling to lie to my twelve-year-old child.

"Is it because Uncle Eric didn't wanna have dinner tonight?" he asked.

It was the first Saturday night that Eric hadn't had a meal with us in a long time. His empty chair was made even worse by the fact that I'd thought—just two days before—that Eric would be at my table much more often. Now, I just hoped that he'd eventually return to it—where he belonged.

After reading his note from Eric on Thursday evening—when my groggy child had woken up from his pain medication hungry and somewhat less angry at the world—Jase had texted Eric to tell him that he did want to spend Friday and Saturday at Bailey, as usual.

In truth, I thought about not letting Jase go. My son was getting exactly what he wanted, which seemed to be—for the moment, at least—Eric and me not together. I didn't think he should be "rewarded" with life going on as usual, which was—again—exactly what he'd wanted. I loved my child, but I wasn't about to let him stop Eric and me from being together, but I did want to be patient with him. After Jase's nightmare, he'd told me why he'd acted out. The situation was complicated—to say the least.

Still—despite empathizing with both of the males in my life—I'd been upset at my child for throwing his fit and at Eric for leaving before the situation could be hashed out. But I'd ultimately agreed that Jase could go to Bailey for two reasons. First, I knew that Eric would need him; I knew that—if Jase did not go—Eric would fear that he'd "lost" Jase, even more than he already feared that. Second—to be honest—I was ready for some "alone time." I needed a good, ugly cry, and—as most moms learned early into "mom-hood"—luxuriating in one of those wasn't always possible or practical. Plus, I had been so frustrated at Jase that it was good for him to spend some time away.

Call me a bad mom, but I prefer to think of myself as human.

Eric had arrived the day before—Friday—at the usual time: 11:00 a.m. on the dot. But he'd not come inside the house—as he usually did—to wait for Jase to gather his things. And he'd not come inside when he dropped him off earlier in the evening either; he'd told Jase that he had to decline dinner due to some work.

I'd looked outside the window at Eric both times he'd driven into the driveway the past two days. I'd not been able to help myself, nor had I gone out to him. Maybe we were all a little stubborn; maybe I was just too weary to have another blow-up with Jase right away. Eric's eyes had been forward as he'd sat in his van—forward and almost unseeing. He'd sent me a text both mornings since our "break up." It read simply, "I'm sorry."

I was too.

"I miss him," I told my son, again being completely honest.

"He's sad, too," Jase said quietly. "He pretended not to be, but I can tell. And it's all my fault."

I sighed as Jase's stitched and swollen lip quivered a little. It was a sign that he was near tears.

"Jase," I said, reaching out to take his little hand. He was so grown up in some ways, having overcome so many hardships, but he was still my little boy in others. "You shouldn't feel guilty for feeling how you feel."

"I'm the reason you're unhappy, Momma. But I don't want you to be unhappy." He frowned deeply, and a tear slipped from his eye. "But I'm afraid."

"I know, Sweetie."

He shook his head. "I lied to you about why, Momma. I said that it was your fault because you were gonna make Uncle Eric be my Daddy. But I don't believe that. It's not your fault. It's mine!"

He was crying in earnest now, so I got up to get him a Kleenex. "What do you mean, Sweetie?"

"I'm the one that makes daddies die. When I'm their son, they die."

"That's not true, baby," I said, fighting my own sudden tears.

"Alcide—he and I had a talk the morning of the accident. I asked him if I could start callin' him Dad."

"He told me," I said, choking up a little. "He was really happy about it, Jase."

"And then he died," he returned quickly. "When someone's my daddy, they die."

I sighed deeply. "Oh, Sweetie. I can understand why you think that might be true, but you need to believe me when I tell you that it's not. Alcide died because of an accident—a horrible accident that had nothing to do with you. He did not die because you loved him enough to want to call him 'Dad.'"

"What about Daddy? He got shot, and Uncle Eric could too," Jase said before blowing his nose in the haphazard way most boys seemed to do.

"I know," I said. "And I'm scared for Eric, too. But he's promised to try to be safer from now on, and he has a safer job. All we can do is to pray for him when he's not with us."

"But what if he dies, Momma?" More large tears fell from his eyes. "What if he dies just because I want him to be my Dad—because I—I love him even more than I loved either of my other dads?" he confessed in a soft voice.

Grateful I'd brought the box of tissues to the table with me, I grabbed a Kleenex so that I could wipe my own eyes. "Did I ever tell you the story of when my mom and dad died?" I asked him.

He shrugged. "A little."

"I was ten years old when it happened," I started. I took a deep breath to compose myself. "Your grandmother and grandfather had gone on a cruise."

"And they drowned," Jase said, already knowing that part of the story.

"Yes. Daddy wasn't a good swimmer, but Momma was. When he got into trouble, she tried to help him, but they both drowned."

"That's why you're afraid of me swimmin' by myself—isn't it?" he asked.

"Yes," I said. I'd made sure that he learned to swim when he was young, but—even before the accident—I forbid him from swimming on his own. In fact, the only time I'd ever yelled at him had been when he'd snuck off to swim at the Compton house three years before.

"I was mad at my daddy for not learning how to swim better before he tried to do something like diving underwater. And I was mad at my momma for trying to help him. If she hadn't, she would have lived. So I'd have lost only one of them. Most of all, I was sad. I thought it would be better if I never loved another person in my life because—if I didn't—I wouldn't have to feel that sad again."

"Did you love other people?" my son asked innocently.

"Of course, silly," I smiled at him through more tears. "But I've lost a lot of people, too. After my parents died, we lost Grandpa Mitchell only six months later—because of cancer. And Aunt Linda, your Aunt Hadley's momma, died only a few months after that—also from cancer. And then—when I was only seventeen—your Uncle Jason died."

"Like my daddy? In a battle?" Jase asked of his namesake.

"Yes," I said. "And your daddy helped me to get through that."

"But then he died," Jase said sadly.

"He did, and—at first—I thought my heart would surely break forever. But it didn't. I had you to love, so it kept right on beating. And then I found Alcide to love, too."

"But he died too, Momma!" Jase said, a little agitated. "And so did Gran and Grandpa Jackson!"

"Yes," I sighed. "And my heart felt like it might break again. But I still had you."

"And then you loved Uncle Eric, too?"

"Yes. I fell in love with Eric." I smiled at him.

"What if he dies too, Momma?" Jase asked fearfully.

"Then my heart will hurt really bad, again," I said, wiping away another tear. "But that's not gonna stop me from loving him."

"Are you afraid?" he asked solemnly.

"I was," I admitted. "After Alcide died, I was afraid to love again—except for loving you. But I couldn't help myself. Gran told me once that—when it came to love—a heart could never be full enough. I guess that's true. I am afraid that we'll lose Eric. I've lost two husbands already, and it makes me sad to imagine losing another. But—if I'm never with him, then I've already lost him. Do you understand?"

Jase looked a little confused, but nodded nonetheless.

"I'm sorry, Momma. I don't wanna make you sad anymore. Or Uncle Eric. I think it's okay if you are together."

"You know that we'd just be dating for a while," I said with a sniffle.

Jase shrugged. "I'm a kid, but I've seen love movies, so I know what happens," he said.

I will admit to being a little confused. "What happens?" I asked.

"The cool girl gets together with the good guy, and they get married and stuff." He rolled his eyes. "Jessica thinks those are the best kind of movies. But I like Iron Man."

I couldn't help my chuckle. "What do you think of love movies?"

He shrugged again. "I think you're tied with Jessica as the coolest girl I know. And Uncle Eric is like the best good guy ever. I bet he could even slay a dragon if they were real!" he enthused. "Jessica thinks I need to find one to kill for her, but I've told her a million times that they're not real!" he added with some exasperation. "But then she admits they aren't real, but that I should find one anyway. I don't get women!"

I giggled. I couldn't help myself.

Jase glared at me a little. "Uncle Eric told me that what Jessica really wants is for me to be there for her whenever anything bad happens—just like she was there for me after the accident."

"Eric is pretty smart," I said. "I think he's right."

Jase nodded and looked outside. "Can we—uh—drive to Shreveport and talk to him? I wanna tell him that it's okay if you and he date."

"But it's dark, Sweetie," I said, "and I know you don't really like it when we go to Shreveport at night. What if we called him?"

"Okay," Jase agreed. "He could come home!"

I took out my cellphone and dialed Eric's number, feeling my heart beating wildly. But it just rang and rang and rang.

And Eric never didn't answer his phone.

A cold feeling of dread took me over as I contemplated my child's worst fears—and my own. What if he'd been in an accident? I tried to hold myself together as I disconnected the call.

"What's wrong?" Jase asked.

"On second thought, why don't we drive to Shreveport? It'd be a surprise for Eric."

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Twenty minutes earlier

Eric POV

I parked my van under the car port next to my base residence. As was my habit, I sent a quick text to Jason, telling him that I was home.

I spent a moment just sitting in the car, the engine still running. I considered going somewhere. But where?

It was Saturday night, and I was not due to work again until Thursday. Jason's Monday and Wednesday morning swimming lessons had been cancelled—due to his stitches—so I felt listless, not knowing what I would do with my remaining time off.

In truth, I struggled to think of a time when I had days stretching in front of me that I had no clear plans for. I'd not had them when my father was alive. My life, then, had been extremely structured: swim practice, weight training, tutor lessons, meals, study, sleep, repeat. When I was lucky, I got an hour or two of "free time" to read something I chose.

I'd certainly not found much free time during the year after my parents' deaths. I'd gone to public school, worked for Mrs. Cataliades, cooked for myself, figured out how to pay necessary bills, and learned how to keep a garden alive.

And then I'd joined the Marines. Between training sessions and deployments, I'd initially returned to Long Beach to see to the house and to help the gardener I'd hired make sure that the living things remaining on the estate didn't die. During two-day leaves—when going to Long Beach would have been impractical—I'd hung out with Bill or sometimes found a random woman to fuck.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, I'd had very little free time, especially once I rose in the ranks. Often, when I did have a couple of days off here and there, I would write to men who'd been injured under my command. Or I'd get caught up on the endless mounds of paperwork the Marines seemed to love to dump upon Lieutenants and Captains. Or I'd amp up my study of the area's language.

The only time I could remember having free time was when I'd taken a month-long leave between deployments to visit Pam in London. But Pam had actually wanted to spend some time together. And I'd also met a woman to share some time and some casual sex with. Plus, there had been a lot to see in London when I'd been on my own.

And—of course—my time in Louisiana had begun with taking care of Jason and Sookie. And it had transitioned into developing the training program, taking classes, and spending time with Jason.

I couldn't imagine how I would fill my next four days and nights—before I could return to work.

Not thinking of anywhere to go, I turned off the ignition. I waited until the last little clicks of the newly-turned-off engine stopped and then stepped out of the vehicle before trudging wearily inside the house. I walked mechanically into the kitchen, sat in one of the chairs at the table, and took off my boots and socks. In a combat zone, I tended to leave on my boots, except in the shower. Hell! Depending on my situation, I rarely even slept without them! So it still felt like a luxury to walk around without shoes.

After washing my hands, I made myself a sandwich. Then I popped open a beer and took my dinner to the sparsely-furnished living room.

For Jason, I'd purchased a television set and a DVD player, though I'd gotten only the most basic cable service available. Though Lafayette had called my lack of television channels "scandalous," it was plenty for me. I turned on the television, ate my sandwich, and sipped my beer.

I couldn't have told anyone what was on the television. But the noise was nice.

The last two days had been difficult for me.

I sighed. On Thursday, after I'd left the farmhouse—left Sookie—I'd arrived in Shreveport at around 1815 hours (6:15 p.m.) Despite the lateness in the day, I'd gone into work; I thought I could begin prepping for the trip to Afghanistan, and I needed to do something to keep from rattling apart. But Colonel Flood had made a late day of it. And—as soon as he saw me—I was ordered to "get the fuck out and enjoy my vacation." It seemed the colonel was a great believer in R & R.

Once home, I'd called Karen to break things off officially. I'd told Sookie I would do so, and even though Sookie and I would not be continuing our relationship after all, I didn't feel right about—or even capable of—keeping things going with Karen.

Moreover, I knew that my body would not want another woman for a long time—if ever. My whole physical being had luxuriated in Sookie, and it still craved her. Likely, it always would.

Karen hadn't been that upset, though she had told me that she'd "be available" if I changed my mind. I knew that I wouldn't.

Beyond completing that task, I had nothing to do but "haunt" my base residence.

I considered planting something in my little yard, but it wasn't planting season; plus, I was about to be gone for the better part of a month. So I'd cleaned the little dwelling from stem to stern. And then—not able to sleep—I'd put a fresh coat of paint on one the walls. And then I scrubbed and re-stained the kitchen cabinets.

And that had just been Thursday.

There had been one bright spot to my night, however—a text from Jase at around 10:00 p.m., asking me if he could still come to Bailey the next morning. My body had shaken with relief.

He didn't hate me! I'd not fucked up irrevocably with him.

Despite my nervousness about seeing Jason the next morning, I was grateful he'd still wanted to see me at all—that he still wanted to have anything to do with me.

Our interaction had been a bit awkward, especially at first. However, I'd tried to keep my demeanor light. And focusing on the drive and discussing weekend plans had helped us both to overcome the initial weirdness.

The only time Jason and I had mentioned the issue was when he asked if I was mad at him. I'd told him the truth—that I was not angry and that I understood and respected his wishes when it came to his mother. After that, he'd seemed to be less anxious, at least.

Beyond that, we'd talked mostly about his swimming (and his disappointment that his lessons had to be put on hold for a while due to his stitches), books we'd read, and movies we'd watched. Yesterday evening, I'd made sure that I arranged a little barbeque so that he could hang out with his base friends. Today, we'd gone to a diner we both liked for lunch, and then we'd seen Thor at the theater. After that, I'd taken Jason home, making an excuse about needing to do something on base when he'd wondered if I would be having dinner with his mother and him that night.

I found that I could act like everything was normal—at least as long as we kept busy. But I knew that I wouldn't be able to do so if I interacted with Sookie. The guilt I felt over hurting her was too profound.

And I hated myself for it.

Still, even without the hope of being with Sookie, I found that I continued to breathe. I continued to eat, though I was not hungry and nothing tasted good. I continued to bathe. I continued to sleep, though not well and not for long periods.

But I did continue.

What else could I do? One week before, I'd been living well enough. It was only a few days that I got to taste what a perfect life could be like. I would have thought that I would give up anything for that life—but I would have been wrong. As it turned out, I couldn't give up Jason's trust and love. And I couldn't be responsible for problems between Jason and Sookie; I wouldn't come between them.

I just wished that I could go back in a time machine so that I could figure out a way to ensure that Sookie never thought twice about me. That way, I would have never had to hurt her. Of course, if I really ran across a time machine, I'd find a way to save Bill's life. That way, I would have never had a reason to interact much with either Jason or Sookie. It would have been only my loss. On the other hand, Sookie would have never been a widow. And Jason would have never known the loss of a father.

That version of the world would have been better for them.

But time machines were as mythical as the thought of my own father telling me that he loved me. Both were impossibilities.

After a while, I took my half-eaten meal to the kitchen and grabbed another beer. Despite feeling like shit, two would be the most I'd drink; I'd seen enough alcoholics in the service to make me wary of using alcohol as a salve. Still—I knew that the second would help me to feel less.

And—though it wasn't the bravest thing—I needed to feel less for a little while.

After hitting the head and washing my hands, I took my beer to the living room and resumed my place in front of the couch. This time, I tried to concentrate upon what was on television. It was an episode of some crime drama; I tried to get caught up on the story, but my mind wouldn't let me as my thoughts continued returning again and again to my days and nights with Sookie.

I could recall every detail of them, but now they seemed to belong to a different Eric, one that I almost wished that I could not remember.

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A/N: Hello all! I hope that you liked this chapter. Jase is starting to figure things out, but my heart breaks for him. He thinks he's a kind of curse. Poor kid. Meanwhile, Eric breaks my heart because he actually thinks that he doesn't deserve to be happy. And he thinks that he's bad for Sookie. Sigh. I promise there will be interaction between the three next time.

Please leave a comment if you have the time and/or inclination.

Kat

Chapter Text

Chapter 28: PCS

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NOTE: The following chapter occurs THIRTY MINUTES after the previous.

NOTE 2: "PCS" is a military abbreviation for "Permanent Change of Station."

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Eric POV

I blinked and noticed that the police show that had been on—Law & Order, maybe?—had been replaced by the news. I wouldn't have been able to tell when that happened—not even if someone offered me a million dollars to do it.

My beer was barely touched, so I picked it up to take a long drink. At least it was still relatively cool.

Wondering if Jason had, perhaps, texted me back, I went to take my phone out of my pocket, but it wasn't there.

I sighed; I must have left it in my van. I shook my head. "Pull it together, Northman," I said—affecting my "Captain's tone," as Lafayette called it.

At least I'd already texted Jase; otherwise, he would have worried. And it wasn't as if I got many calls anyway.

I trudged outside barefoot and took several deep breaths. The Louisiana night was muggy and thick. Though it had been hotter in Iraq as a whole, the weight of the heat in Louisiana was still something I was getting used to. I found myself hoping that it would rain—just to offer some relief from the weight of the air.

The heaviness all around me.

I tried to take my time going to my van, though the walk still took only thirty seconds. Immediately when I opened the van door, I noticed that the light on my phone was flashing, indicating that I'd missed a call or a text. I quickly looked to see if Jason had texted me back, but it wasn't his number that I saw; it was Sookie's.

I checked to see if she'd left me a message. There was none.

And then I just stood there looking at my phone. Should I call her back? Surely if there was an emergency, she would have left a message. Had she called, but then changed her mind about wishing to speak with me?

And what good would talking do us anyway? Wouldn't it ultimately cause her more pain to rehash something that couldn't be?

Or—maybe she wanted to tell me that she was better off without me. Maybe she'd finally realized the truth—that I wasn't worth the trouble.

My mind felt jumbled, and the hand with which I was holding my phone shook with energy and indecisiveness. Only with Sookie had I ever felt so damned uncertain of myself. A part of me wanted to never interact with her again—because of that uncertainty.

My father would have called it weakness.

But, in truth, I could not imagine never seeing Sookie again, never talking to her again.

Even if it hurt.

So I started dialing her number; if she didn't pick up, I would know she'd changed her mind about speaking with me. However, before I could type in the last digit of her number, a pair of headlights turned into my driveway. I immediately recognized the car.

It was Sookie and Jason!

Surprised to see them, I felt locked in place. My eyes met Sookie's, and I could see that she felt relief about something.

In a flash, she exited her car and closed her door, though she didn't move toward me.

"You're okay," she said, just loud enough for me to hear her. Still in the car, Jason wouldn't have been able to.

"Yes," I responded a little awkwardly.

"I called and you didn't answer; I worried," she said, just before Jason opened his door.

"I texted Jason to say I was home," I clarified.

"Yeah. He did," Jason agreed, also looking nervous.

"Why didn't you say?" Sookie asked, glancing at her son.

"I figured you knew," Jason shrugged. "Uncle Eric always texts when he gets home."

"You came because you were worried about me?" I asked Sookie, still trying to process her and Jason's sudden, unexpected appearance.

"Yes. And no," she responded enigmatically.

We stood there—all of us awkwardly—for a moment.

"Would you like to come in?" I finally asked her and Jason.

"Yes. Please," Sookie said, looking very edgy and wringing her hands.

"Okay," I said, gesturing that I would follow them. Jason and Sookie went into the small dwelling.

"Would either of you like anything? Something to drink?" I asked.

"Not right now," Sookie said. "Jase and I want to talk to you about something."

"Sure," I managed to get out, gesturing for Sookie and Jason to take the couch, which was the only place to sit other than the beanbag that I had bought for Jason. But I would have felt even more awkward if I sat on that, so I fetched a chair from the kitchen table.

Neither of them spoke. Sookie seemed uncertain about something, while Jason was looking down at the floor, his expression somber. Having sat my chair close to the television, I reached out to turn it off, which only added to the silence.

And—in that moment—I worried that this was it: The moment when Sookie and/or Jason finally told me that I was no longer needed in their lives.

I braced myself for the worst.

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Sookie POV

I felt a little foolish for not simply asking Jase if Eric had texted him to tell him he'd arrived home safely. After all, Eric was always so conscientious about doing that kind of thing.

Instead, I'd spent the forty-five-minute drive from Bon Temps to Bailey Base anxiety-filled and trying to hide it from Jase. Oh—I'd not been worried to the point of not being a safe driver. But I had been anxious.

In my defense, the excitement that I could now be with Eric without Jase overtly fighting against our relationships had clearly affected my ability to think things through fully! And it seemed to be muddling my ability to speak intelligently, too!

Of course, as foolish as I felt for worrying about why Eric hadn't answered his phone when I'd called him earlier, I felt even more ridiculous sitting in front of him and trying to figure out how to tell him about Jase's revelations.

I wanted to simply "jump" him—for lack of a better word—to cover him with kisses. But my twelve-year-old son was right there.

I wanted to tell him that we were "a go" for the relationship. My mind went through several statements to that effect, but they all sounded inadequate.

Indeed, I wanted to tell him everything in that moment—to tell him that I loved him and that everything would be okay. But I was stuck on how to begin.

In the end, it was Eric who broke the silence. "Are you two okay?"

"Yes," I said simply, my tongue still tied otherwise. Why the hell was it so difficult to tell the man that I loved that we could be together now? Maybe I was still hurt that he'd left—that he hadn't waited Jase out by my side.

But, of course, a part of me did truly understand why he hadn't. During the two days we spent together, Eric had opened up a little about his childhood. It was clear to me that he hadn't been shown much love as a child—and no discernable love from either parent.

Whether he or Jase wanted to say it out loud, Eric had become a parent to my son over the months. Truth be told—he'd been in that role for years—ever since Bill died. It didn't matter that he was labeled "Uncle" by Jase. Eric was his father in every way that mattered.

And Eric seemed to need to prove that he was nothing like Appius Livius Ocella- Northman had been. So—when Jase had wanted something from him—Eric had given it, even though that meant Eric had to give up something he wanted: Me.

Yes. I could understand. No parent had ever put Eric first—or anywhere on his or her list of priorities, it seemed. Yet Eric had instinctively put Jase first in order to prove his love.

I knew that Eric had already proven his love for both Jase and me a thousand times over, but—putting myself into Eric's shoes—I recognized why he'd made his choices. And that was why I'd not called him after he left the farmhouse.

Instead, I'd opted to let things play out—to let Jase figure things out on his own. But—seeing how uncertain Eric looked now—I wondered if I'd done the right thing in waiting.

"You sure you don't want anything to drink? Water? A Coke?" Eric asked, again breaking the silence that had grown in the room. He looked ready to rattle apart, despite his polite offer.

I shook my head and looked at Jase, who was looking down. I could tell that Jase still felt guilty about his actions from two days before.

I took a deep breath. It was time for me to put on my big girl panties and put us all out of our misery, even if I'd yet to stumble upon the perfect words to use.

"Eric, Jase and I had a talk after you dropped him off earlier this evening. And we—uh . . . ." I stopped midsentence, again trying to find the right words.

"Would you rather me not come around the house anymore? Or not have Jason stay over?" he supplied, his tone a disconcerting mixture of resignation and steadiness.

I looked at him. He'd already given us up. No—that wasn't it. He'd given up on himself. He thought we didn't want him.

My heart ached.

"No!" I said firmly, even as Jase echoed the same.

"Uncle Eric, I'm sorry," Jase said, looking up at the man he loved like a father.

"What for?" Eric asked guardedly.

"I was wrong for tellin' you not to be with Momma. I was scared because my daddies all die, and I didn't want you to die." He shook his little head. "I thought I was cursed."

"You aren't cursed," Eric said with concern, moving so that he was on his knees in front of Jase.

"They always leave me," he said, his eyes filling with tears. "Daddies leave me."

"I won't leave," Eric said quickly, embracing Jase.

"You promise you won't die?" Jase asked, my twelve-year-old sounding very childlike in that moment.

Eric tensed up and moved away a little so that he could look at Jase. "Everyone dies, Jason," he sighed. "The only thing that I can promise is that I love you. And I will be with you as long as I can be. And—even if something did happen to me—it would not be your fault. I would never, ever regret having you in my life."

"I love you, too, Uncle Eric," Jase said, hugging Eric tightly again.

I brushed away a tear as I watched them.

"I want you and Momma to be happy. I want you to be together," Jase emphasized after a few moments. "I want us to be a family."

Eric's eyes moved to me, and I smiled through more tears. He looked at me in question and with a little shame.

I knew that he was wordlessly asking me to forgive him for the choice he'd made to put Jase above the two of us. I knew that he was imploring me to give him another chance.

Of course, I did. Of course, I would.

I nodded, and he reached one of his long arms toward me, beckoning me to join their hug, and I did.

We stayed that way—all three of us holding each other—for a long time. Jase was the one to finally become restless.

"Can I get juice and go to bed?" he asked.

I immediately felt myself blush. "Honey, we haven't even asked Eric if we can stay over."

"Stay over?" he asked, pulling away from us and standing to his feet.

"It's late, Uncle Eric," Jase said as if the topic was needless to even raise. "I asked Momma if we could stay here tonight, and she said we had to ask you, but I knew it would be okay."

Eric glanced at me, and I just shrugged. "It is getting late, but I'm not tired. I could still drive home safely. But Jase could stay—if you want to—uh—bring him home tomorrow. We could have lunch together?"

"You stay too, Momma!" Jase said impatiently. Clearly, he didn't understand the awkward little "dances" adults made around topics like spending the night together—especially when there were children in the equation. And it wasn't as if there was a guestroom in the tiny base residence.

I looked at Eric uncertainly. He was offering me a small smile.

"I want you both to stay," he said sincerely, his eyes telling me that—indeed—there was nothing he would like more.

"Then, we'll both stay," I said softly.

In that moment, I didn't care that I had no clean clothing to wear the next day. At least, Jase had things at Eric's house, and it wasn't as if my T-shirt and jeans couldn't be worn home.

No—what I cared about was not my comfort, but the look of comfort in Eric's eyes. It was as if they'd been lit up again—after losing almost all of their light.

Their life.

"I'm tired," Jase announced with a yawn that stretched his mouth to the point that he winced because of his stiches, which wouldn't fully dissolve for another five weeks or so.

Eric looked at Jase and then at me. "We usually read a bit."

"You could both read with me," Jase implored, looking at us with a hopeful glint in his eyes.

I shook my head a little. Now that my son was "over" his hesitations regarding Eric and me, he seemed ready to fully embrace the notion of us as a couple.

No—of us all as a family.

"Would that be okay?" I asked Eric.

"That would be nice," he responded, his voice cracking a little.

Jase was already moving back to his room to get changed into pajamas before Eric's response. Alone, the man I loved and I looked at each other.

"Is this a dream?" he asked, his voice still cracking.

"No," I assured, rising from my seat and stepping toward him. I leaned up onto my tip-toes—balancing myself by placing my hands onto his shoulder—and kissed his lips lightly.

"I'm sorry that I hurt you by leaving," he said softly once our kiss was done. He leaned down so that we were forehead to forehead.

"I understood as soon as I read your letter," I comforted him. "I didn't like it, and I wished you'd stayed, but I understood."

I felt him nod. "We're okay?" he asked.

"Yes," I affirmed. "You put Jase first, and I can't blame you for that. But I want us to learn to work together—even through the hard things. Can you do that?"

"Yes. I want that," he whispered, even as he bent down to kiss me again. Again, it was a brief kiss, though full of affection.

"I'll bring two kitchen chairs to Jason's room so that we can sit comfortably—or, at least, as comfortably as these allow," he said, gesturing toward the basic wooden chair he'd brought into the living room.

"Okay," I responded, smiling up at him.

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Eric POV

I couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe that Sookie and Jason were here.

In my base residence.

With me.

And they'd magically brought "home" with them.

Jason had clearly changed his mind about me being a romantic prospect for his mother. He was overcoming his fears, and I was proud of him.

And Sookie had clearly forgiven me for leaving after Jason had his blow-up and his trip to the E.R.

Suddenly—I wasn't alone! I was an integral part of a domestic scene that I'd only ever imagined before. Living with Jason and Sookie for months had given me glimpses of what it would be like to be a part of their family, but I'd always kept my distance—both physically and emotionally when they'd had their time together.

Of course, I'd spent a lot of time with Jason, but I'd held back from situations that involved all three of us—except for meals and occasional nights in front of the television. Those situations had been wonderful for me, but I'd still felt like an intruder into their world to a certain extent.

However, now—as Sookie and I sat together next to Jason's bed, taking turns reading a chapter of The Hobbit to him—I felt my heart aching, as if with overuse. I was trying to stay calm, but it was difficult for me not to burst from all that I was feeling.

Love—for both Jason and Sookie.

Relief—that I'd not lost them.

Shock—that they both seemed to want me.

Gratefulness—again, because they seemed to want me.

But most of all, I felt myself bristling with excitement.

I'd always tried to keep my emotions in check. As a child, I'd learned that emotions would displease my father—that they were something that I would receive punishment for. As a soldier, I'd learned that not controlling them could risk lives.

I'd seen men killed because they froze in fear.

I'd seen them killed because they let their anger or aggression run amuck to the point that they literally ran into a situation that would mean their certain deaths.

I'd seen others lose themselves to the guilt of taking lives.

Successful soldiers, for better or for worse, had to find a way to disconnect from their emotions when they were in the middle of battle.

And, at least to a certain extent, between battles.

I supposed that I had always felt myself inside of a battle. As Appius Livius Ocella-Northman's son. As a Marine.

My wars had simply evolved over time.

But now, I felt at peace. And there was no need to suppress my feelings. So I didn't.

Jason hated it when people carried on reading after he'd fallen asleep, so he tended to ask a reader to stop if he was becoming too tired. Most of the time, he stayed awake for a whole chapter and then was happy to stop the story for the night and simply lie in bed until he drifted off. He'd once told me that he liked to re-imagine the story, between the reading of it and his sleep.

However, that night—perhaps because of the emotion of the day—he drifted to sleep pretty quickly. And both Sookie and I knew to stop the story right then, even though we'd never read to Jason together. We'd done it separately.

But now, we were not separate.

Sookie stood, and quietly we took our chairs back to the kitchen.

"Can I borrow a T-shirt to sleep in?" she asked me, her voice hushed and a little shy.

I nodded. "Of course, and feel free to use anything in the bathroom. I got Jason a toothbrush for here, and it was in a two-pack. The extra's in the drawer."

She gave me a little smile, a shy one. And she blushed a little. "Okay. Thanks."

I went over to the cabinet next to the kitchen sink and took out a glass before filling it with water. And then I leaned against the sink as I listened to the pipes in the house telling me that Sookie was running the sink in the dwelling's only bathroom.

And, in that moment, I felt overwhelmed by the feeling of both her and Jason in my house. I turned back toward the sink and put the glass down carefully, noticing that my hand was shaking again. I propped myself up over the sink—my head drooping, my shoulders slumping. I felt almost a choking sensation and then warm tears in the corners of my eyes. My body shook, wracked with a silent sob. And then there were more tears, more sobs. And I was crying in earnest.

I couldn't help myself.

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Sookie POV

It didn't take me long to find a T-shirt in Eric's room, nor did it take me long to wash my face or brush my teeth with the extra toothbrush Eric had told me about. I noticed that the one Jason was using had Batman on it. Mine had Superman. I chuckled a little and placed my newly used toothbrush into the holder, next to my son's and Eric's.

Seeing them all there—together—was surreal to me. After Bill, I'd thought I would never love a man again. After Alcide, I'd been certain of it.

But here I was: getting ready to get into Eric's bed. In so many ways, it felt like our relationship was happening too fast. But—in other ways—nothing felt more right than going to a bed that held Eric, even as my son was asleep down the hall.

We'd become a family in the blink of an eye. But—then again—we'd already been one in certain ways.

Important ways.

I looked at myself in the mirror, and I saw myself smiling.

Had I ever smiled that way before? I studied the light in my eyes. Eric had put that there. No one else ever had. I shook my head a little. I'd once asked Gran if she believed in the concept of soulmates; of course, this was back when I'd thought that Bill might be mine—right after Bill and I'd had our first kiss.

I'd never forget Gran's response, both what she'd said and how she'd looked when she'd said it. She'd told me that she did believe in soulmates—that she'd found proof of them when she'd met Grandpa Mitchell. Her eyes had lit up when she'd said his name; in fact, her eyes always lit up whenever she talked about him. They'd done the same anytime they were in the same room with each other—when he was alive.

I still remember how his would light up, too.

I'd asked Gran how she'd known that Grandpa Mitchell was her soulmate. She'd said that finding a soulmate changed a person into the very best version of what they could be.

I'd asked her how.

And she'd said that—for her—it had been like Grandpa Mitchell could see into the very heart of her. The very soul. She'd been certain that he could see every single thing about her somehow—even the things that she'd never let anyone else see.

I'd asked her why she'd hidden a part of herself.

She'd told me that it was human nature to try to hide one's "warts."

She also told me that she'd never been afraid of Grandpa Mitchell seeing those flaws. And—because of him—they hadn't ever felt like flaws to her again. She said that finding her soulmate had activated a kind of magic that "fixed her"—because Grandpa Mitchell hadn't seen anything broken to start with.

I'll be honest; her words had confused me a little. Of course, I was only fourteen at the time.

Looking back, I could be honest about something else as well: I'd never had those kinds of magical feelings with Bill. Sometimes with Bill—not even realizing it—I'd held back a part of myself and what I wanted in life, though—in my youthful passion and naivety—I would have sworn up and down that he was my soulmate.

With Alcide—too—I'd never felt completely free to be anything or say anything around him. It wasn't as if he'd judge me out loud. However, it didn't take a mind reader to know that he would have preferred it if I were a little bit less independent. Part of him craved a woman orbiting him. But—by the time I'd begun dating him—I'd developed my own orbital route. We found a way to fit together as a couple, a choice I'd never regret, but we'd never been soulmates.

Looking at the light begin to shine once more in my eyes as I turned my thoughts to Eric again, I realized something important. I liked who I was when I was with Eric, and I wasn't afraid to let him truly see and know me. In fact, I craved that.

If that didn't make him my soulmate, then I figured that Gran must have been wrong about them existing at all. And I'd rarely known Gran to be wrong.

I turned away from the smiling woman in the mirror, went to the bathroom, and then washed my hands before going back to Eric's room. In my couple of times at the base residence before, I'd seen all of it. There wasn't a lot to see, after all. And—when Eric had somewhat awkwardly shown his bedroom to me, he'd dominated the space since it wasn't that large. I'd expected him to be filling it when I entered this time, but he wasn't there.

I sat on the bed for a moment, waiting.

But something in my heart seemed to be pulling at me—an impatience to see the man I loved—maybe even to check the realness of him. So I answered the call of that urge, and I went to him.

I found him quickly; the house was tiny, after all. He was standing in front of the kitchen sink, his back turned to me. I could tell that he was crying.

I hurried to him and gently put my hand on his arm.

He turned to me; I could see streaks from well-used tear paths on his beautiful face.

"Are you alright?" I asked.

He nodded. "More alright that I've ever been. So alright that it's hard to," he paused, his voice cracking, "accept it. To believe it."

I lifted my hand to the cheek of the complex man before me. He'd been through so much—seen so much. His life to this point would have broken a lesser man. But it had made Eric a better man.

"You'll get there," I whispered. "For now, just be here—with me and Jase."

He nodded. I took hold of his hand and led him to his bedroom. After closing the door behind us, we walked to the bed, and I got in, patting the place next to me.

He crawled in after taking off his jeans and shirt, leaving himself only in his boxer briefs.

We lay facing at each other for a long time—just looking and holding hands. A part of me wanted to jump him and make love with him, but I knew that the walls were paper thin in the base house, and I would have been self-conscious about Jase hearing us.

And—with Eric—I didn't think I could be completely quiet.

Plus, as much as sex would have been wonderful, it seemed that what Eric and I needed the most was just to be near each other. Eventually, his eyes began to droop a little, and I turned around, putting my back against his front. He spooned me, giving me the opportunity to enjoy just how well we fit together physically.

I'd missed him so much the past two days.

I could tell when he went to sleep, for the arm he was resting in the concave between my hips and tummy suddenly felt heavier, and his breathing was completely even. I closed my own eyes once I knew that he was at rest.

I stayed awake for a while, my mind wandering over the past, the present, and—now—the future.

I'd had to take a literature class when getting my degree, and the teacher had assigned Shakespeare's The Tempest. I could admit that I'd never understood any of the Shakespeare I was made to read in high school, though I had enjoyed some of the movie adaptations my teachers had shown. I made a stronger effort to "get" Shakespeare in college—since everyone seemed to make such a big deal out of him. One of the lines that had stood out to me was, "What's past is prologue."

Though that line had been spoken by one of the "bad guys" in the play, I couldn't help but to connect with it on a personal level. At the time in my life when I'd been taking that particular class, my relationship with Alcide had been fledgling—brand new—and I'd been feeling guilty about having feelings for him at all. After all, I'd thought that my heart would always belong to Bill.

But that line had helped me to understand that everything up to that point had been a part of my foundation. It was important, but my life wasn't over. I hadn't died with Bill.

Still, up to that moment, a big part of me had believed it was wrong to be happy—wrong to even smile—unless it was for Jase's benefit. And I realized that I had been isolating myself and my heart, even as I'd continued to go through the motions of living. By the end of The Tempest, I'd—unsurprisingly—found a connection with the only main female character, Miranda. She'd grown up sheltered by her father, and the story of her falling in love for the first time was sweet. But what had struck me the most about her was that—near the end of the play—after many trials and tribulations, she looked toward her future and cried out, "O, wonder! / How many goodly creatures are there here! / How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, / That has such people in't!"

I'd loved those lines so much that I'd memorized them. And they had helped me to be braver as I began to look toward my own future again—a future I thought I'd spend with Alcide. But—now—Alcide was a part of my prologue, too. That thought made me incredibly sad, but—looking ahead—I knew I could be brave. And God had given me a "wonder"—the "beauteous" man lying next to me.

He was my present. And he was my future.

I knew that not everything between us would always be perfect. He had baggage, and so did I. But he was my "brave new world," and he was worth fighting for.

"And I'm yours," I whispered before snuggling into him and letting myself fall asleep.

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A/N: Sigh of relief. I hope you liked this chapter. I couldn't imagine Eric not breaking down at some point, and it finally happened when I was writing this chapter. I thought it was important to have him deal with all of the emotional uncertainties in his life with steadiness—and with resignation—up to this chapter—when he finally feels what it is like to have a family. He's not alone, and he really feels that way for the first time in his whole life.

Please comment if your have the time and inclination.

Best,

Kat

Chapter Text

Chapter 29: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

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NOTE: The following chapter occurs THREE WEEKS after the previous.

NOTE: Whiskey, Tango, and Foxtrot are all "letters" of the military alphabet. I've heard tell that if a soldier says these, especially over the radio, it's like saying "What the fuck?"—WTF.

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Sunday, July 31, 2011 • 0815 hours/ 8:15 a.m.

Eric POV

"You have your appointment set up? And Jason's?" I asked Sookie.

We were lying in her bed, looking at each other. We often found ourselves like that these days, simply staring at each other appreciatively—either before or after we'd made love.

"I scheduled two per week—for the both of us—while you're gone," she informed softly.

I nodded. It made me feel better to know that she and Jason would both be seeing Claudine more than usual while I was in Afghanistan. I wasn't frightened for myself, though—for the first time in my life—I had so very much to lose. However, I was apprehensive about leaving behind Sookie and Jason, for they were both nervous about my going.

I placed my hand on her cheek gently, trying to comfort her, yet the bit of worry that had been creeping into her eyes for the last week did not go away.

I'd talked to Colonel Flood about Sookie's worry—since his marriage and family had survived and thrived through several deployments as well as a long career in service. He'd told me that the concern I saw in Sookie's eyes would not be gone until she saw me upon my return.

He'd further explained that the worry living in the eyes was the most obvious mark of the families of deployed soldiers. There was no way around it, and nothing to be done for it.

Colonel Flood had cautioned me against making promises I might not be able to keep or guarantees about my safety. He'd suggested—instead—that I acknowledge the worry I saw in Sookie and Jason. Pretending it wasn't there, he'd told me, would only make my family feel as if I did not take their fears seriously.

My family.

Sookie and Jason were my family!

More and more every day.

And I took everything about them seriously.

Despite Sookie and my previous plans to take things slowly and live "separately" for a while as we "dated," we had spent most of our nights together since Jason had given us his stamp of approval. I wasn't upset at all that the plans had changed, though I'd not been the one to change them.

That had been the twelve-year-old.

After Sookie and I had tried to implement our plan for "casual dating," Jason shared that he thought it was "kinda stupid" that we weren't spending more time together—since it was so obvious that we all wanted to.

So we did.

Oh—I had made a point to take Sookie out alone a few times—for "dates"—but we'd also enjoyed a lot of family time with Jason, too. In fact, Sookie and I had spent only two nights apart before Jason made his comments about our "stupidity." Not even Sookie had scolded him for what might have been perceived as rudeness.

He'd been right, after all.

After that, we'd quickly found a routine that worked for us: a routine I hoped to keep for a very, very long time.

Since Sookie did so much of her bookkeeping work online, she did not need to be at Norris Contractors very often, though she would drop by every other week or so for a meeting with Calvin. She tended to go into Merlotte's a lot more than that—at least four nights a week—but she'd had no difficulty cutting that down to two nights a week since Teri had proven to be a much more efficient manager since he'd been getting help with the psychologist at Bailey for his PTSD. He was fine with managing Merlotte's on his own five nights a week (though Sookie still handled most of the bookkeeping). And Sookie now had two reliable daytime assistant managers that rotated the dayshifts and pitched in on the busy nights as well.

We'd decided that—until I left on my trip to Afghanistan—we would all spend Mondays through Wednesdays at my base residence and Thursdays through Sundays at the farmhouse. Sookie went into Merlotte's on Friday and Saturday nights. And I continued my Monday through Thursday schedule at the base, though I'd been putting in slightly longer hours in preparation for my trip and had needed to drive out the previous morning for a briefing.

All in all, I did not mind a forty-five-minute commute to Bailey—if it meant that I could be with Jason and Sookie at the farmhouse fulltime. And I was determined to broach the topic of just moving in with them when I returned from Afghanistan.

"I'm worried about your going," Sookie sighed, breaking me from my musings.

"I know," I acknowledged softly.

We'd had several discussions about my future with the Marine Corps, and we'd decided to revisit the topic when I returned home after my twenty-three-day trip, which would begin on August 3—only three days away. Once I got back, both Sookie and I wanted to have a frank conversation with Jason about how we all handled our separation in order to know what to do going forward.

I did know one thing. If the toll was too high on Sookie and Jason when I was gone, I would be making some changes with my career, even if it meant leaving the Marines before I could draw full benefits.

I liked what I did. I liked being a Marine. And I was proud to be one. I couldn't deny any of those things. Sookie and Jason were ultimately more important to me, however.

Though I might not like it as much, I knew I'd be fine in a different career, especially now that I had Sookie and Jason. They would—as amazing and almost unbelievable as the idea seemed—support me with whatever I decided to do.

"Penny for your thoughts," Sookie requested with a little smile.

"I'm thinking about you and Jason," I said honestly. "About how you two are my priority now."

Sookie raised her hand up to my cheek, mirroring my previous gesture. "And you're ours."

"I'm so lucky," I said, barely conscious that the words had escaped me. I had thought them constantly, and the words had slipped out more than once during the last several weeks.

Sookie and I leaned in and kissed each other slowly, affectionately.

We'd woken up that morning and made love—as we often did when we found ourselves already entangled upon waking. And then we'd lain in bed simply enjoying each other's presence—as we also often did.

It was Sunday morning—and still early. The alarm clock that would tell us to get out of bed, prepare breakfast, and get ready for church was still thirty minutes from going off. So I was happy with the idea of making love to Sookie again. And—given our escalating passion in the kiss—I could tell that she was thinking along those lines, too.

However, we were interrupted by the sound of a vehicle approaching, an odd sound at 0700 hours on a Sunday morning when one lived out in the woods.

Sookie and I broke our kiss in time to be looking at each other when the vehicle's horn sounded several times in quick succession. I got up quickly, pulling on some jeans and a T-shirt, even as Sookie put on her nightgown and a robe.

The car horn bleated three more times, with the last one sounding as if the horn-honker lay against it for almost half a minute.

"Who in the hell blasts a car horn at this time of morning?" Sookie muttered with frustration. "They're gonna wake up Jase!"

I chuckled a little, even though I was curious about who could be visiting, too. By the looks of it, they would be getting a piece of Sookie's mind. Indeed, her feistiness stirred my loins even more than they'd been before.

Seeming to sense my thought, she smirked at me before smacking me on the ass.

"Let's go get rid of the honker, Captain," she grinned, "so that we can pick up where we left off."

I couldn't have agreed more and followed her out of the bedroom.

"Momma?" Jason asked from the hallway; he was on his crutches, having not put on his leg yet. He'd clearly been woken up by the honking and/or the pounding on the door that had begun as Sookie and I started down the stairs.

"Try to go back to bed, Sweetie," Sookie said with an exasperated sigh. "We'll see who this is and then make breakfast. We'll wake you when it's ready."

A clearly still-half-asleep Jason nodded and then made his way back into his bedroom as Sookie went to the door and peeped through the peephole.

As another round of pounding began, she looked back at me in confusion. "It's a woman I don't know," she said with a frown.

Being of a protective nature anyway, I motioned for Sookie to get behind me as I looked out the peephole.

My heart dropped, and my stomach tightened and then turned.

I looked back at Sookie. "I'm so sorry," were the only words I could speak.

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SOOKIE POV

"Sorry?" I asked Eric. He'd gone pale.

As more knocking commenced, I stepped around him and opened the door. He didn't try to stop me, so I figured that he didn't think whoever was outside was dangerous.

Given the woman's pissed off look and the fact that he'd just apologized, it hit me that the woman might be the person who'd been Eric's sex partner in Shreveport before he and I became a couple. Though I wasn't really jealous, I didn't like the thought of someone messing with my family's bubble—not at all.

"Can I help you?" I asked the woman.

Her hand was up as if she'd been getting ready to pound on the door some more. Why she'd not used the doorbell was beyond me!

Also a mystery was how someone as frail-looking as the woman in front of me could have made such a loud noise. She was downright skeletal, and—though she was taller than I was—she looked to be about forty pounds lighter than my 135 pounds.

I could tell that she was a beautiful woman—or that she could have been one. Her face, twisted into a scowl, ruined any beauty she might have had in that moment.

She was dressed quite richly—in a designer blouse and slacks. And I could tell that the shoes pointing out from those pants were more expensive than any single thing in my current wardrobe.

Despite her polished clothing, there was something "off" about the woman—beyond her sour expression and rude honking and knocking. She had auburn hair, but it seemed to have lost its shine. Her eyes were a lovely shade of chocolate brown, but they were lifeless and a little unfocused.

"You're Sookie Compton," the woman practically spit out.

"Sookie Herveaux," I corrected. "Can I help you?"

She looked at me and scowled. "My name is Lorena Ball, and I'm here to collect what's owed to me!"

I shook my head a little. "I don't know what you're talking about. I don't owe you anything. I don't even know you, Ms. Ball."

"He knows me," she said, looking at Eric and licking her lips in a way that she probably thought was attractive. She pointed at him with her boney finger, and then directed that digit at me. "And so did your husband, Bill! Oh—he knew me very, very well once upon a time."

I turned to look at Eric; he was incredibly pale. "What's going on?" I asked him.

"She doesn't know—does she?" Lorena cackled. "She has no fuckin' clue that her husband fucked me whenever he got the chance!"

"Momma?" Jase asked from the hall, his eyes wide. Clearly, he'd heard at least part of what the insane woman in the entryway was spewing.

"Jase, go to your room. Now!" I added firmly, not wanting my son anywhere near what was going on. "We'll come and get you when Ms. Ball leaves."

Reluctantly, Jase went back to his room.

"Shut the door, Sweetie!" I yelled after him, keeping my eyes on Lorena.

She sighed, and—for a moment—she looked both regretful and tired.

And ill. Very, very ill.

"I'm sorry your boy heard that," she said tiredly. She chuckled somewhat darkly. "I've never been what anyone would call a good person, Mrs. Compton—I mean Mrs. Herveaux. But I've been trying to do better the last several years." She shook her head. "Not always succeeding though. And, given what I'm here to do, I probably should be doing things quite differently."

"What are you here to do?" I asked her.

Lorena looked at me as if studying me, and then she looked at Eric. "She knows nothing about me?" she asked him. "Nothing at all?"

I looked at the man next to me. He shook his head. "No, Ma'am," he said in barely a whisper.

"I can't say I'm surprised," Lorena said to Eric before addressing me again. "Bill told me once that you knew what he and I did together—that you understood his needs and knew your place," she added, a bit judgmentally.

"I don't know what you're talking about," I hissed. I shook my head, confused at what this woman was even talking about or why she was in my house. And I was even more confused because Eric clearly seemed to be frightened of her. I felt a sense of anger growing in me, even as my mind began to connect dots that it didn't want to see.

But all my confusion—and my growing anger—faltered as the woman in front of me swayed on her feet. She grabbed weakly onto the doorframe, and Eric moved quickly to ensure that she didn't fall.

"Are you okay?" I asked her with concern.

It took Lorena a moment to answer. "It catches up with me a lot more now."

"What does?" I asked.

"Karma," she said flatly. "Most people I've encountered would call it karma."

Though frustrated at the non-answers by the woman in front of me, I looked at Eric. "Help her into the living room—would you? I'll get her some water and maybe something to eat?" I looked at her. "Would food help or hurt?"

Lorena let out a little laugh. "Bill always said you were the perfect Southern hostess."

I shook my head at the latest non-answer and went to the kitchen. I was thankful that Eric and I had set the timer on the coffee maker; I needed some badly!

I also needed answers.

I started filling up a tray with the coffee pot, a few coffee cups, and a glass of water. I quickly added a couple of muffins we had left over from the morning before.

I doubted that Gran would have been very impressed by my presentation skills, but I'd done the best I could, given the circumstances.

I sighed as I took a moment to compose myself. I was a thirty-one-year-old woman. I wasn't naïve anymore, nor was I purposely blind. And, though cryptic and unpleasant, the woman—Lorena—had not been subtle. I steeled myself; she had come to my home to tell me something about Bill, something that Eric knew. Moreover, it was clear from her words that she was going to tell me that Bill had been unfaithful to me. And Eric's reaction had all but confirmed what she was going to say.

I closed my eyes, and a memory of Bill came into my mind. I was about six months pregnant at the time, and he'd come home for two days in order to go to my doctor's appointment with me. We were to learn the gender of the baby that day. My GYN had been able to tell during my appointment two weeks earlier, but I'd asked that she hold off on telling me the information until Bill could be with me.

My husband had been tired when he got to Bon Temps—at a time in the early morning that was similar to the one when Lorena had just arrived. Still, I'd been so happy to see him.

Given the problems with my pregnancy, sex was out, but Bill seemed to understand that. After he'd taken a quick shower—to "wash off his trip"—we'd cuddled together for a morning nap. And we'd spooned, one of his hands placed carefully onto my belly. When we woke up, we talked for a while. I asked him about his training. And he mentioned being grateful for the week-long leave he'd been given.

I'd been confused. "A week?" I'd asked him. I'd wanted to know why he was staying only two days if he had a whole week! He and I hadn't had that long together since he'd had a break between Basic Training and his first more specialized training assignment.

Bill had chuckled and affectionately brushed my hair behind my ears, shaking his head as he'd done so. He corrected himself, saying that he'd misspoken about the time off. The leave was just three days long, after all. He said that a week must have just been wishful thinking on his part.

I'd giggled with him in agreement. And then we'd gotten up and gone to my doctor's appointment. Anything else had been forgotten as we looked at the images on the ultrasound—our beautiful baby.

A boy.

Bill had been so proud, and I'd smiled so much that my cheeks hurt.

Those two days had been full of love, and Bill's hands had rested for many minutes against my belly—where our son was kicking him in greeting.

Those close times had been rare during my pregnancy, but I'd understood why that rarity was necessary. After all, Bill was doing his training, and I wanted him to have all the preparation he could get so that he'd be safer.

Indeed, I'd become an expert at telling people that it didn't matter so much that Bill wasn't around when I was carrying Jase—that Bill was doing what he had to do in order to become a soldier.

What he had to do.

I shook myself out of my thoughts and picked up the tray. Upon entering the living room, I saw that Lorena was seated in one of the arm chairs that were at ninety-degree angles on either side of the couch. Eric was seated in the other. It was clear that the two hadn't spoken to each other.

I set down the tray and handed a glass of water to Lorena. She looked a little better than she had.

"I'll need to ask for one more minute before our conversation," I said to Lorena firmly. I didn't wait for an answer before going back to Jase's room. I knocked lightly.

"Come in," he said, his voice anxiety-filled.

"Momma, who is that?" he asked in a hushed tone as soon as I'd closed the door behind me.

"I'm not a hundred percent sure yet," I said honestly. "I think she knew your father once."

Jase looked a little confused. "Why is she here?"

"I'm not sure about that yet either, Sweetie," I sighed. "But I want you to know that it's okay. Eric and I are gonna talk to her for a little while. Then we'll make breakfast—okay?"

Jase nodded. "Should I get ready for church?"

I glanced at the clock. "I think we'll have to skip this morning's service. But—we'll go to the evening service so that you can see Jessica. Cool?"

"Cool," Jase said, though he was clearly still pensive.

"You can go back to sleep if you want. Our talk might take a while," I speculated.

My son nodded, but then shook his head. "I'm not tired anymore. Can I watch cartoons?"

"Sure," I said, turning on his little television and handing him the remote control. I'd gotten him a T.V. for his room—along with about twenty rules for when he was allowed to use it—for his twelfth birthday. I was particularly glad that its noise would counter anything that was said in the living room.

Taking a deep breath, I collected myself and stood up.

"Is everything okay, Momma?"

"I'm sure it will be, Jase," I said, hoping I wasn't lying to my son. "Whatever's wrong, we'll deal with it," I followed up with a more honest answer.

Jase nodded and turned to the television as I left his room. And then I rejoined the others in the living room.

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A/N: Hello all! I hope that you "enjoyed" this chapter. Many of you have been wondering if/when Lorena would rear her head. Well, she's here! Unfortunately, there will be more from her next time. Stayed tuned.

Please comment if you have the time and inclination.

All the best,

Kat

Chapter Text

Chapter 30: Under Heavy Fire

Sookie POV, continued

I sat on the couch, deliberately poured myself a cup of coffee, and took a long drink of it before looking at Lorena.

"Okay, Ms. Ball. Tell me what you came here to tell me," I said, trying to sound strong.

I felt—and heard—my voice wavering though.

"It's not going to help, but I truly wish that I didn't have to be here," Lorena said, her tone sounding almost bored—and not apologetic at all.

I nodded for her to go on.

She shrugged a little. "Probably best to be quick. I met Bill not long after he started his training. Let's just say that I was going through a 'Marine phase' at the time. I believe that some of the more uncouth troops called girls like me 'Marine mattresses.'" She looked at Eric and leered. "I considered that one for a few minutes, but—honestly—Captain America here didn't seem like the type who'd be good for anything beyond a single fuck." She shrugged. "He's still a looker though—getting better with age, even."

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Eric wincing under Lorena's ogling.

"Anyway, Bill was sitting next to tall and broody there. And he looked more my type anyway. I joined them, and Bill bought me a drink. I knew he was married from the start; he was a good boy and wore his ring." Lorena rolled her eyes as if Bill's marital status hadn't bothered her at all—beyond being a slight nuisance. "Your boy there," she said, pointing at Eric, "did try to get Bill out of my way. But once I decided I wanted him, I pursued him until he was mine." She emphasized the last word.

I closed my eyes and took a steadying breath.

"How long did it go on?" I asked her.

"Whenever we could find time to be together, even if it was just for a few hours when he was returning through San Diego from a deployment. He always made sure to arrange things so that he could see me before he caught a flight to Louisiana—'home,'" she said, adding air quotes around the word "home," as if the notion of Bill having one had been another mere nuisance to her. Or some kind of a joke. "When possible," she continued, "he'd stay with me for a few days before or after each deployment. He said that you would believe any line he gave you about his scheduling."

"He would say he had debriefings or prep meetings," I recounted, my voice sounding far away from me—almost haunted.

She shrugged. "I didn't ask him the specifics of what he told you. I just knew you weren't really a problem for me." She gave me a twisted smile. "You really were the perfect little obedient Southern wife to him."

I felt like I'd been hit—hard. "When was the last time you were together in San Diego?" I asked, my voice shaking.

"Before his last deployment. We had five days together before he had to report to the base."

"Five days?" I asked, feeling more hurt than I could express. If Lorena was telling me the truth—and my gut was telling me that she was—then that meant that Bill had purposely left me—and Jason—time and again before he'd needed to.

"And then Bill had a four-day leave in Kuwait City a month after his deployment. I was able to fly out to be with him," she informed, her tone a mixture of spitefulness and mocking.

"You knew about this?" I asked Eric.

"Not everything," he said gruffly. "Not about Kuwait City. I was temporarily assigned to a platoon that had a sick Sergeant—while the rest of my and Bill's platoon was on leave."

"But you knew about the affair?"

"Yes," he admitted. "I did try to stop Bill from doing it. I swear I did—at first." His face etched with guilt, he looked down. "But he eventually told me that what he did and with whom wasn't my business and that if I wanted to remain his friend, I would have to drop the guilt trip I was laying on him. I loved him," he said, his voice catching. "He was all I had then."

I sighed and looked back at Lorena. "What do you want? Money?"

She scoffed, her face distorting unpleasantly. "I don't need any charity from you. I didn't want it after Captain America contacted me after Bill's death, and I don't want it now!"

"You contacted her?! When Bill died?" I asked Eric. In some ways, hearing that hurt more than anything else had—up to that point.

Looking as ill as I felt, Eric raised his eyes to mine and nodded.

"Why?" I followed up.

Eric wasn't the one who answered.

"Why do you think?" Lorena asked, her unpleasant tone back in full force. "Bill fucking loved me and wanted to make sure I knew it! He had promised to take care of me. Hell! I'm pretty sure I could have even convinced him to leave you, given how unsatisfied he was in your bed."

"Stop!" Eric said, his voice boiling.

"Stop what? Telling her the truth? Stop telling her what Bill used to tell me about little Miss Perfect here? That she was 'sweet in bed,' but not adventurous? That he liked what I could offer that she didn't? Or should I avoid telling her that Bill saw her as little more than a cookie-cutter politician's wife?"

"You're wrong," Eric said firmly, his gaze intense. "She's wrong," his voice softened as he turned to look at me.

I brushed away a tear.

"Did you come here just to torment me?" I asked Lorena, my voice barely audible. "If you don't want money, what do you want? Just to ruin all my memories of Bill?"

Lorena's spitefulness seemed to suddenly disappear again; I could already tell that she was the kind of person whose moods swung without warning.

She shook her head. "I told you Karma was a bitch. And—though I've always worked hard to be slender," she said, looking at my "softer" figure with judgmental eyes, "I am not this emaciated by choice. I have cancer; in fact, I'm dying from it. Practically dead already," she added with a dark chuckle.

Despite everything, I felt compassion for her. My feelings must have shown on my face.

She laughed almost maniacally. "You are just too good to be fucking true, Sookie! Bill was right that you were sweet enough to induce cavities! But there's no need to pity me. Remember what I said about Karma. If you knew my whole story, you'd say that I was getting what I deserved. Hell! A lot of people would say that—even if they knew only what I did to seduce just your husband." She sat forward. "And there have been a lot of husbands." She grinned. "Most of them have been old and rich; I fuck them and use them. And they have paid me well over the years. I've enjoyed," she paused, "a rather lavish lifestyle thanks to them. Hell! I even liked some of them! Others not so much. And it is from that group that I've made most of my fortune." She shrugged. "I have blackmailed. I have used my conquests for insider knowledge of stocks or other investments. And—other times—I've just enjoyed their 'gifts' in exchange for my discretion."

She began hacking, and—again—her energy seemed to wane. She took a drink of her water.

Once she'd stopped coughing, the room was silent for almost a minute as she tried to compose herself. I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. Finally, I couldn't take the non-talking.

"I still don't understand why you're here," I sighed.

"It's not for me," Lorena said tiredly. "It's for my child. Bill's child."

I gasped and dropped my cup. Thankfully, most of the coffee had already been drunk.

Lorena sighed. "I wouldn't have done any of those bad things—the blackmail, the threatening—with Bill, you know. I've targeted several politicians in my life. But I truly loved Bill. I never wanted anything beyond what he was willing to give, though I would have done everything in my power to get him to drop you and marry me. But I wouldn't have destroyed him to do it, and he wouldn't have wanted me to destroy you either. That's why I never came here before." She took another sip of water. "By the time I found out Bill was dead, I already knew I was pregnant. I had been hoping the baby would somehow change the equation and lead Bill to pick me over you." She looked at me with a withering stare. "Had I not seen that as possible, I would have aborted it."

I gasped in horror. I might have been pro-choice, but I hated abortion. Still, any mother who chose to keep a child only to manipulate the father of it seemed completely unnatural to me.

Lorena only laughed at my reaction. "See? Karma!" She shrugged. "Anyway, by the time I learned Bill was dead, I was already too far along for most doctors to perform an abortion. And," she sighed, one of her hands ghosting over her concave belly, "I'd felt her by then. I loved her by then. And she's why I'm here."

Lorena sat up as straight as she could, a defiant air about her. "I made a lot of money in my," she paused, "profession. But it's not a line of work where one makes friends. Madison's nanny is paid well to take good care of her—both when I'm working and when I'm not—because . . . ." She stopped speaking for a moment. "Frankly, I'm not the kind of person who should be a mother, but there's just enough of a mothering gene in me to know that. So I've always left Madison's primary care to a live-in nanny, and I've always hired those based on both expertise and," she paused, "what I perceived to be the ability to care about Madison. Oh—I interact with my daughter—at times," she said with an odd combination of wistfulness and disdain, "but she prefers her nanny."

I figured the child had good reason to do that.

"I would have just contacted the Comptons—Bill's parents. And I'm prepared to do just that if you say 'no,' but my child deserves better than I've done. A nanny is, after all, just a nanny. And though Ms. Jones is an excellent caretaker and genuinely cares for Madison, she's not prepared to take over custody when I'm gone."

I gasped. "Is that what you want? Me to take custody of your child?!"

"Bill's," she said firmly. "Madison is Bill's." She rolled her eyes. "I'm even prepared to do whatever DNA things you need to do in order to prove that. I've talked to my lawyer and doctor, and proving Madison is Bill's will be easy with a little blood from either William or Sophie-Anne Compton or Madison's half-sibling—Jason, if I recall his name correctly," she said, gesturing toward the hallway.

I must have still been gaping like a fish.

"Listen, the Comptons are old, and I've done enough research to know that Bill's mother is still recovering from a major stroke. And his father is tied to his work as a Senator. Of course, to avoid a scandal involving their dead son, I know they'd take on Madison. But I don't want her secreted away to a series of boarding schools. And—even if they did accept her into their day-to-day lives—it's not like they could do any better than I've been doing. They would hire Madison a Nanny, to be sure. But that still wouldn't really offer her a family. It's something I never had. And, perhaps," she shrugged, "not having one is why I am what I am."

I shook my head a little—maybe hoping to wake myself up from a nightmare.

Lorena was silent for a moment. "I'm a fucked-up mother. In fact, it's probably good that I'm going to be keeling over while Madison is so young—too young to remember much about me."

"She's six?" I asked.

"Yeah. She'll be seven in January. I had just found out about her when I met Bill in Kuwait City, but I wasn't showing yet. I decided to wait to tell him. I figured he might try to talk me into an abortion if I told him then."

Lorena stood. Her legs were shaky. "Look, Sookie, I know I just opened up Pandora's Box in your living room, but I don't have time to fuck around. After my last chemo round had no real effect on the tumors in my lymphatic system, I was told that there's nothing more that can be done. I was advised to have my affairs in order by this time next month, when I'll likely be in hospice care and on my death bed. And I don't want to wait until the last minute. I have one—maybe two—more weeks where I can get around like this," she said, gesturing toward herself. "So, if your answer is 'no,' then I need time to contact the Comptons. If it's 'yes,' then the custody paperwork needs to be taken care of." She gestured around the room. "It's smoother if a case worker does a home visit and whatnot—since you're not a blood relative. And I'd like for the adoption to be well on its way before I'm dead and gone. But just listing you as Madison's guardian in my Will while I'm still of sound mind and sound enough body to sign the document seems to be enough to give away my daughter—if you want her."

I was still stunned—too stunned to speak.

Seeming to recognize that, Eric spoke. "Do you have any family that would challenge your Will?"

Lorena scoffed. "My biological father signed away custodial rights to me before I was born, and my mom died when I was thirteen. I have no brothers and sisters that I know of, and if I have aunts, uncles, and cousins, I never met them." She looked at me. "I've fucked up your life, but I hope you take Madison. She's a good kid—despite me. We're staying at the Remington in downtown Shreveport, not that it lives up to the hype," she scoffed. "We'll be there for five days. If I haven't heard from you by then, I'm going to call William Compton and set Plan B in motion. As Madison's blood kin, the Comptons will hopefully feel some obligation. Of course, Madison's your son's sister, so there's that factor. Hopefully, that'll help convince you to take her in. Even if you don't agree to custody, my lawyer says a DNA test will grease the wheels with the Comptons, so I'd appreciate it if a bit of your son's blood could be drawn for a comparison with Madison's. I can hire a technician to come here and do it, or you can just go to a hospital in Shreveport."

Lorena walked to the door. The hostess in me got up to accompany her. Eric stayed put, his head in his hands.

"Are you well enough to drive back to the hotel?" I asked the pale woman.

She turned to me and shook her head. "That compassion you have—for me—is wasted. But it's why you'll end up taking Madison. Five days, Sookie," she said, putting a card on the entryway table. "My cell is on that. Call me when you decide—or for information about getting your child's DNA tested."

I almost laughed when I saw that her card said "Ball Consulting."

Given what she'd told me, that "business name" seemed appropriate—sick and gross, but appropriate.

Lorena left without ever answering my question about whether or not she was okay to drive. I guess she was.

Feeling like I'd just had my butt kicked in a boxing ring, I slowly made my way back to the living room and sat down. I looked toward Eric, wishing he was next to me on the couch. Hell! Under any other circumstances, I would have sought out his comfort in this difficult situation. But I couldn't help but to feel a sense of betrayal.

I saw that my coffee cup had been picked up from the floor and placed onto the tray. I'd chipped it. The spilled liquid on the carpet had clearly been soaked up by some napkins, which were now on the side of the tray. Eric must have cleaned up as I'd talked to Lorena in the entryway.

I shivered and used the coffee cup Eric hadn't touched to pour myself another cup of coffee. I took a long drink.

"I'm so sorry, Sookie," Eric said softly. "There's nothing I can do to make this better, nothing I can say to earn your forgiveness."

I sighed and set my cup down so that I wouldn't drop and chip another. Or throw it at him.

"Tell me everything you knew about her and when you knew it," I demanded of the man I loved—about the man I'd once loved.

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A/N: Well—I'm surprised that none of you guessed that Lorena was coming about a child! Did I surprise you with that one? Creating a Bill that I was ambivalent about was always one of my goals in this piece. Often in my stories, he's a clear "bad guy," made worse by his obsession with Sookie. The Bill in this story is very flawed, and I hate a cheater. But he's also a man who chose to be a soldier and who became a friend to Eric. He's the little boy that followed Sookie into the woods when she ran into them following her parents' death because he wanted to make sure that she was okay. So—yeah—this Bill was someone that I wanted to complicate.

Anyway, I hope that you enjoyed this chapter. If I were Sookie, I'd be hurt and angry and confused and freaked out that this woman is trying to give her Bill's child. This scene was one that I conceptualized early because I thought that it would be a major internal conflict for Sookie. And it set up a huge test for this Sookie: Will she push her anger at Bill onto Eric? And will she include him in the decision of whether or not to take in Madison?

We'll see. Please leave me a comment if you have the time and inclination.

Until next time,

Kat

Chapter Text

Chapter 31: High and to the Right

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NOTE: "Going high and to the Right" in "military-speak is losing one's temper or rationality; it comes from the error of a poor shooter to jerk the trigger and, therefore, impact the upper right side of a target.

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Sookie POV, continued

If there was one thing I knew for sure: it was that Eric was punishing himself in that moment—much more than I would ever want him to be punished. But I was hurting, too.

He nodded. "After Boot Camp, we had a couple of weeks off and then had to report back to San Diego for more training."

"I remember," I said softly.

"Well—uh—that second round of training wasn't as intense as boot, and we'd get every other weekend off. The first one we had off, we went to a bar we always went to whenever we got any time away. I noticed Lorena flirting with Bill. He did tell her that he was married, but she kept going on. That night, I talked him out of pursuing anything with her, though he clearly seemed interested. He was really drunk," he added as if that might explain Bill's behavior. To his credit, even Eric sounded skeptical about his words. He shook his head. "I hated the thought that he would cheat on you. And I think that Bill hated it too."

"But he did it anyway," I said bitterly.

"Yes," he confirmed softly. "Whenever we had a weekend leave, we'd go to that bar, and she'd always be there—waiting for him. I continued to try to talk him out of anything—to remind him he had a wife at home and a child on the way. I couldn't believe he was even tempted," he said sincerely. "I mean—by then, you and I had talked on the phone, so I knew how kind you were. You'd wanted to introduce yourself to me—just because I was Bill's friend."

"I remember," I whispered.

"And I'll never forget how your words made me feel like I'd be welcome in your home."

"Yet you didn't visit. I invited you to come here with Bill after Boot Camp. And, again, any time you two had extended leave."

Eric shrugged and looked down. "I felt that—with you pregnant and having a hard time with the pregnancy—I would only be a third wheel here. I didn't want to intrude. I wanted you to have all the time you could get with him."

"Too bad Bill didn't want the same," I stated flatly.

"I didn't know that Bill spent so much time with Lorena on his leaves," he informed softly. "If I had, I would have come here—just to make sure he also came home for longer periods. He wouldn't have been able to lie about his schedule so much if I'd come."

"You can't blame yourself for his actions," I said.

He shook his head, unconvinced at my exoneration of him. "I thought I was doing right—never coming here—because you and Bill needed time together. And then—you, Bill, and Jason needed time. I didn't want to be in the way."

I sighed, seeing the pain in Eric's eyes as he justified one of the many isolations that he'd placed upon himself. Yes—I knew that Eric was telling the truth, that his actions had been done for Bill and me. But he'd also isolated himself because he didn't think that he was worthy of people caring about him. For the millionth time, I wished that Appius was still alive so that I could kick his ass.

I returned to the topic at hand. "So Bill eventually gave in to Lorena and started up an affair with her."

"Yes."

"And he was with her every time he went to San Diego after that?"

"I'm not sure. But I think so—yes. After Bill gave me the choice to either butt out of his business or get out of his life forever, I kept my mouth shut about Lorena. I was a coward. I'm so sorry," he said, his eyes shining with emotion. "I felt that—if I kept pushing him—I would lose him." He looked down. "He was the only friend I had—the only personal connection I had—other than Pam, who was in London. I simply turned my head to what was going on."

"Did he spend a lot of time with her?" I asked.

"After they left the bar together the first time, he didn't always go to the bar with the other guys and me when we were in San Diego. And—if he did—he'd never stay long. He would go off on his own. I guessed where he was going, but I didn't ask any questions. I didn't know that he was spending time with her before we needed to report for training or after we returned from a tour. I thought he was with you up to the last minute; I thought he'd return to you as soon as possible when we returned to the States. And I didn't know about Kuwait City."

"And after he died?" I asked, brushing away an errant tear.

"Bill and I talked about what to do for each other if we were killed," he said softly. "There were some things that he wanted to be taken out of his footlocker before it was sent back to you."

"Things?" I asked.

"A picture of him and Lorena, as well as her phone number."

Again, I felt like I'd been hit in the gut. "He kept a picture of her?"

He nodded. "Yes. He'd wanted me to make sure you never saw it—and to call her to tell her if he died. So I did."

"Before or after you called me?" I asked, trying to reign in my hurt.

"Several days after," he conveyed. "I had hoped that he'd break things off with her, Sookie. And—no matter what she said—Bill never told me anything to lead me to believe that he didn't love you. He never said anything negative about you at all! And he talked about you and Jason all the time. He loved you two!"

"But not enough," I sighed. "He wasn't even faithful for half a year."

We were silent for a moment.

"Thanks for not trying to justify that he was just doing what soldiers have to in order to get through," I said somewhat cuttingly.

"There was no justification for what he did," Eric said softly. "I always hated that he was doing it to you—and Jason. I never understood it."

"And you didn't tell me after he died because you thought it would cause me only pain," I sighed. In truth, I understood why Eric had never told me, but I was hurt, nonetheless.

"And you didn't tell me after we became closer because you didn't want to hurt me, and you saw no reason to do it," I continued to speculate.

"Yes," he agreed.

"Was there anything else that you had to throw away from the footlocker?" I asked, though I was afraid of the answer.

He winced. "Yes. A picture of another woman, Selah."

"Bill had an affair with her, too?" I asked, feeling more anger than hurt in that moment.

"No. I mean—he slept with her, but that was before you got married."

Again, it felt like the wind had been knocked out of me.

"He made such a huge deal about us both being virgins. I'd wanted to make love before we got married, but he thought it was important to wait!" I said, my tone sounding more acidic that ever before.

"He told me that he was nervous about not making you happy—uh—during sex," Eric said rather awkwardly. "His father helped him to find someone, a professional—to teach him," he added hesitantly.

"William took Bill to a brothel?!" I asked incredulously.

"Yes," Eric confirmed.

I shook my head, trying to come to terms with the fact that Bill had not been the person I'd thought he was.

"I would have never thought he was capable of lying to me like this—betraying me like this?"

"He loved you. No matter what he did, he loved you," Eric repeated brokenly.

I closed my eyes for a moment and pressed my fingers into my temples. "Would you go get Jase? I need to talk to him."

"Sookie, please. Are we . . . ?" Eric's voice trailed off. "I'll go get him," he said softly, padding out of the room.

When Jase came in, Eric trailed behind him.

"Do you want a muffin, Sweetie?" I asked my son. "I still haven't gotten around to making breakfast."

"Okay," Jase said uncertainly, sensing the somberness in the room.

"Eric, would you grab Jase an orange juice?" I asked, still reeling, but needing to explain things to Jase—at least to a certain extent. To do otherwise would be continuing the lies. And to wait would only be putting off the agony and making Jase stew needlessly.

There was a problem that needed to be dealt with. When I was younger, I might have tried putting off that problem to another day—ala Scarlet O'Hara—but I didn't have the luxury of dragging my feet when it came to dealing with difficult situations anymore.

Eric nodded and went to get the juice. He was back by the time Jase had nibbled through about a quarter of his muffin.

"Who was that lady?" my son asked.

"Her name is Lorena," I said as Eric sat back down. Jase had joined me on the couch, and Eric had resumed his seat from before. I took a deep breath as Jase took a drink of his juice.

"I have some things that I have to tell you. They aren't going to be easy for you to learn about, but you need to know them—okay?" I began.

Jase nodded.

I smiled at him—or I hoped that he read my expression as a comforting smile.

"Lorena was your father's girlfriend, even after he and I were married," I said, trying to keep my voice from catching due to the emotion I felt.

Jase frowned deeply. "Daddy had a girlfriend that wasn't you? But husbands aren't supposed to have girlfriends!"

"No. They are not," I said firmly, letting a little of my anger at Bill come through. "Your father did wrong when he decided to have a girlfriend. And—if he were alive—I would kick his butt and probably divorce him."

"Like Miss Arlene divorced her husband Rene for bein' a no-count, lyin', cheatin' low-life?" Jase asked. "At least, that's what Jessica said he was."

I managed to hold in my dark chuckle at my son's phrasing. "It's not our place to gossip about other people's lives, Jase. But—yes—Arlene caught Rene cheating on her, and she divorced him. People who get married promise not to do that kind of thing."

"Was my daddy what Rene was?" Jase asked. "A no-count, lyin', cheatin' low-life?"

I sighed. "It's complicated, Sweetie. When we were together, I loved your daddy a lot, and a part of me will always love him, no matter what he did. He gave me you, after all," I said with a sincere smile. "And I'll never forget the things he did right as a husband and a father."

"Like give us Uncle Eric?" he asked.

I glanced over at Eric, who was still looking tortured.

"Yes. Your daddy wanted to make sure we were looked after, so he asked Eric to do that if he couldn't." I took a deep breath. "You need to know, though, that I'm real mad at Eric right now."

"Why?" Jase asked. "He doesn't have another girlfriend, too—does he?"

"No!" I responded quickly, even as I saw Eric tensing in the corner of my eye. "But he knew your daddy had one."

"You did?" Jase asked Eric.

"I did," the man confessed brokenly.

"Listen, Sweetie," I said to Jase. "Eric was your daddy's best friend before he was our friend, and your daddy asked him to keep a secret from me a long time ago. He did that, and I forgive him for that."

"But you're mad at him?" Jase asked.

"Yes. Right now, I am."

Jase shook his head. "I'm confused."

I chuckled a little. "Me too, Sweetie. But I want you to know that—even though I'm mad at Eric—I still love him. And I don't want you to be mad at him just because I am. I'm a lot madder at your daddy, but since he's," I paused, "not here to yell at, I need to spend some time figuring out how to feel about things."

"Okay," Jase said softly. "I don't have to be mad at Uncle Eric?"

"No, Sir," I said firmly. I took a deep breath. "There is more I need to tell you though—about why Lorena came here. She's real sick with cancer."

"Like your grandpa had? And Aunt Hadley's momma?" he asked.

Of course, he'd heard a bit about our family's history from both me and Gran.

"Yeah. Lorena is sick, and her doctors don't think she'll pull through. She wanted to come here to tell us that," I paused and took another deep breath, "she had a baby with your daddy, Jase. You have a sister. She wanted to know if we wanted to have your sister come and live with us."

"I have a sister?" Jase asked, the shock clear in his eyes.

"It seems so. We'll need to go to the doctor's office where they'll take a little blood from you to make sure, but it seems that you do have a sister. Well—a half-sister—since I'm not her momma."

Jase sat quietly for a moment before looking at Eric. "Did you know that I had a sister?" he asked, his voice laced with hurt.

"No," Eric responded. "Your dad didn't know either."

Jase looked down at the half-eaten muffin in his hands. "Will I get to meet her?"

I sighed. "That's part of why I needed to tell you all of this, Sweetie. You and I need to figure out what to do together. Lorena's daughter is still a little girl—only 6. And it's not her fault that any of this is happening. We could decide to have her live with us, or we could tell Lorena that we don't want that. We could decide to meet Madison, or we could decide not to. And—even if we meet her—we don't have to have her live with us. Whatever we decide, though, we'll do it together—okay?"

Jase nodded. "Her name's Madison?"

"Yes," I confirmed.

Jase was silent for a moment. "Can I go to my room for a while?"

"Yes," I responded. "If you want to talk about any of this, you just give me a holler. Okay?"

He nodded and put the remaining muffin on the tray. "I don't have to eat breakfast—do I?"

"No, Sweetie. But you will need to eat lunch. We'll do Mac-n-cheese—okay?"

He nodded solemnly, despite the promise of his favorite food. My heart aching, I watched as Jase went back to his room.

Once he'd closed his door, the air in the room seemed to thicken.

"I hate this," I remarked. "I hate all of it."

"Me too," Eric said softly.

I looked at him. His shoulders were slumped, his handsome face set in a frown.

"I love you, Eric. That's why it hurts that you knew about Lorena and said nothing to me. But I do understand why you didn't tell me. Still, that doesn't make the hurt magically go away. I really hope it does fade—and soon. But—for now—I think it's best if you go. As much as I hate it, I need some time to process all of this without you here."

"I'd like to be a part of that process," he said softly.

I sighed deeply. "A big part of that wants that too, Eric. But—right now—at this moment, there's a part of me that feels betrayed by you. Right or wrong, justified or not—I feel what I feel. And I need to try to overcome that away from you."

He stood up. "I understand. Just let me get my things."

I nodded. "After that, go see Jase. Be sure he understands that you're still there for him."

He started leaving the room, but then stopped. "I leave Wednesday morning. Will I see you before then?"

"I don't know, Eric," I said, brushing a tear from my eye. "I just don't know anything with certainty right now—except that I have a very confused son and a big decision to make about an innocent little girl."

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A/N: Sigh. Well—this chapter was a hard one to write for me. Please don't hate Sookie for wanting to take a bit of time away from Eric. I think it's a natural response for the way I've characterized her in this piece. She is—certainly—a more mature and honest person than in the novels/show, but she's still human. I think it's good that she was upfront with Jase—and with Eric—about her feelings following this bomb that was handed to her. Do I wish that she wasn't sending Eric away? Of course. But I understand why she did; the sucky part is the timing of everything—with Eric due to go overseas soon.

Please leave a comment on this chapter if you have the time and/or inclination.

All the best,

Kat

Chapter Text

Chapter 32: Good to Go

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NOTE: The following chapter occurs THREE DAYS after the previous.

NOTE: In "military-speak," "good to go," denotes not just that the soldiers are ready to go, but that they are ready to overcome difficulties. According to my Marine friend, it means that the person (or people) saying it are "ready to kick major ass."

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Wednesday, August 3 • 0600 hours / 6:00 a.m.

Eric POV

I ached. There was no better word for it.

At first, being with Sookie had been remarkable—but I'd felt like it was too good to be true. When Jason had reacted to Sookie and my relationship with disapproval, it had felt like the other shoe had dropped.

In truth, I'd been expecting it to, expecting something to happen that took away the possibility of "them." Thus, when that shoe had—indeed—dropped, I'd been able to manage a kind of separation from my emotions regarding Sookie. They were still in me, and it hurt not to have her. But I could concentrate on restoring my relationship with Jason.

And then—miraculously—he'd bravely overcome his fears, and being with Sookie had no longer meant hurting him. And—just as miraculously—Sookie had understood why I'd had to exit her life for those few long days that it had taken for Jason to change his mind.

And—then—true, unfathomable happiness had started. I'd fooled myself into believing that there were no more shoes to drop. I'd managed to all but shut down Appius's lingering voice telling me that I didn't deserve happiness—and that I certainly didn't deserve Sookie and Jason. I'd let myself enjoy them. I'd let myself become a part of them.

We truly had been a family during those three blissful weeks, even living as one for all intents and purposes.

We'd cooked together, eaten together, gone to the store together, watched television together, and read together. Jason and I continued to hang out just the two of us—specifically on the nights Sookie went to Merlotte's. We played video games or went outside and tossed the ball around. Or we just talked.

Sookie and I also had "alone time." Of course, each night that we were at the farmhouse, we would make love. The walls of the base home were just too thin for us to feel comfortable having sex there, but that didn't stop us from holding each other, which was just as nice in some ways. Sookie and I also went out for a few dates. With Lafayette or Amelia babysitting, we would go to a restaurant and/or a movie. My favorite times, however, were when we'd just go on a walk in the woods around the farmhouse. Jason sometimes came with us; however, he often just wanted to stay at home watching television or playing video games. And he was old enough to be on his own for a couple of hours as Sookie and I explored the woods, finding paths she and her brother Jason had made as children.

By the end of those three weeks, I'd felt like I'd "lived" more than I had ever done before. And I was looking forward to so many weeks to come.

And then a car horn had blasted, shattering the life I'd thought I'd found.

Perhaps proving that I never really deserved Sookie and Jason to begin with, I had not really given a thought to Lorena after I called her to tell her that Bill had been killed. I'd also never entertained the idea of telling Sookie about Bill's infidelity. I had thought that Lorena was so far removed from Sookie's orbit that nothing could bring her into it. What possible good would have telling Sookie done? She loved Bill. And I knew that Bill had loved her. Sure, I didn't understand, especially after meeting Sookie in person, how Bill—or anyone, for that matter—could have strayed into the arms of another woman. The whole idea of that seemed unfathomable to me. But—then again—I wasn't Bill.

He'd been my friend and my "brother," but he'd also been something of a mystery to me—as had all people at the time. His affair with Lorena had been the biggest enigma regarding him. Another had been why he decided to be my friend in the first place.

I'd reconciled myself to the fact that there were things about Bill that I would never figure out, probably because he'd died before he worked them out for himself. I liked to think that—given time—he would have realized that Sookie deserved his full commitment.

She more than deserved it.

But now I couldn't be sure. If Lorena was to be believed, then Bill spent a lot more time with her than I'd previously thought. He'd kept the scope of that aspect of his life from me because he'd known that I vehemently disapproved of his infidelity. Now that I knew that Lorena had planned to use her child with him to try to take Bill from Sookie permanently, I found myself hating Lorena. But I also found myself doing something I never thought I'd do: hating Bill.

Even as I still loved him.

Maybe my mixed feelings were a sign that—even years after his death—Bill had, more than ever, become my "brother."

I closed my eyes and felt myself growl a little. Bill could have—should have—never gotten entangled with Lorena to begin with!

And keeping his secrets might now cost me everything!

"You's needs to get your head into the game, Captain," Lafayette said from next to me.

I shook myself out of my fog of thoughts, embarrassed that I'd audibly indicated my feelings while I was a passenger in the vehicle Lafayette was driving.

"It will get there," I responded truthfully.

Lafayette shook his head a little, but didn't respond.

Sookie's closest friends, Amelia and Tara, had been happy that Sookie and I had gotten together, as had Hadley and most of the others in Sookie's orbit—with, perhaps, the exception of Alcide Herveaux sister, Janice, whose hesitation was understandable. However, out of all of Sookie's—our—friends, Lafayette had been the most excited for us.

The day before, Lafayette, Colonel Flood, and I had worked to prep last-minute details of the Afghanistan trip. While we were on a break, Lafayette had probed about why I wasn't "fully present in class"—as he put it. I'd told him about Lorena—and about why Sookie was angry at me.

I'd half expected for Lafayette to kick my ass for never telling Sookie about Lorena. Even more, I'd expected him to order me to stay away from both Sookie and Jason, but Lafayette hadn't done either of those things. On the contrary, he'd told me that he wouldn't have said anything about Bill's infidelity to Sookie either—if he'd been in my situation. He'd grumbled about digging up Bill to kick his ass for cheating on Sookie! And then he'd assured me that Sookie would come around.

I knew Sookie well enough to know that—when her own feelings were at issue—she sometimes put off dealing with them. By contrast, when other people or problems were involved—such as the decision she needed to make about Madison—she held nothing back and faced problems head on.

Confirming that he agreed with my assessment of Sookie's personality, Lafayette speculated that she likely needed to deal with the Lorena/Madison issue before she moved on to deal with the hurt my omissions had caused her. He said that, ever since he'd known Sookie, she'd been a one-step-at-a-time girl when it came to dealing with "shitstorms"—as Lafayette had aptly categorized the situation with Lorena.

I hoped to God he was right. Sookie had told me that she loved me right before I'd left the farmhouse on Sunday morning. She'd even given me a long, but chaste kiss before telling me not to get too lost in my head and that she just needed "time to process."

However, she'd not spoken with me since then. Thankfully, Jason had been in contact with me. In fact, I'd had lunch with him on Monday when Sookie had dropped him off at the base residence for a few hours while she met with Claudine Crane and had a check-up with Dr. Ludwig to ensure that no signs of her mental trauma remained.

Jason and I had also Skyped the night before. I'd told him goodbye and that I would see him when I got back from Afghanistan. I knew that he was worried about my trip, and I had tried to reassure him, promising to call him as often as I could. But I also knew that his apprehension would stay in place until I was back in Louisiana.

I'd hoped against hope that Sookie might step into view of the webcam as Jason and I had Skyped. But she hadn't, nor had Jason mentioned where his mother was when he called me.

Jason had told me that he and his mother had met Madison and her nanny, Kendra Jones, on Tuesday when they'd come for lunch at the farmhouse. He'd told me that Madison was shy, but liked Mac-n-cheese. He'd been glad that the "mean lady"—Lorena—hadn't come to eat. He'd said that he and his mother still hadn't decided what to do about Madison, but that he'd been happy to meet the girl who was assumed to be his half-sister.

Indeed, the results of the DNA testing would be known by the end of the week because of what Jason called "the mean lady's mean lawyer." Apparently, on Monday—after Sookie picked Jason up at the base house after lunch—they had gone to the hospital for his own appointment with Claudine, and he'd gotten blood drawn as well. The results were being "rushed."

According to Jason, Madison resembled pictures of Sophie-Anne Compton when she was a little girl so much that Sookie had little doubt that she was Bill's daughter.

My heart ached a bit because I'd not been with Jason and Sookie when they met little Madison. I barely could acknowledge it to myself, but I felt hurt that I wasn't involved in Jason and Sookie's choice.

I wanted to truly be a part of their family so much. And families made choices like that together.

But I'd forfeited that right through all of my omissions. Could I ever get it back? Did I deserve to?

"Captain!" Lafayette said, once more breaking me from my reverie.

"Yes, Sergeant?" I asked, looking at him. When he was in uniform, I always called him Sergeant, just as he always called me Captain, though he'd finally switched to "Eric" when we were at the farmhouse.

"We's here," he stated with a shake of the head. I had no idea how long we'd been parked. "Head? Game? Now?" he added.

I nodded in return.

Lafayette had picked me up from my base residence at 0550 hours, and we'd driven together to the little airfield on the base. We'd be going over the mission details with Colonel Flood one last time to make any corrections or additions to our plans and were due to fly out at 0930. It would take more than a full day to get to Kabul—with a short stop in San Diego and a slightly longer one at Clark Air Force Base in Manilla.

From Kabul, Lafayette and I would meet up with Colonel Edgington at the Salerno FOB ("Forward Operating Base") in the Khost Province, somewhat near the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and go from there. Roughly half of our time would be spent running training sessions with several platoons in some of the cave systems that the Corps had already cleared out. The other half of our time would be spent working with Colonel Edgington to develop strategies for future operations in the region. From wheels up in Louisiana to wheels back down there, Lafayette and I would be gone 23 days.

"Ready?" Lafayette asked, gesturing toward the hangar where we were to meet Colonel Flood. There was a small office and meeting room inside of it.

"Sorry, Sergeant. My mind has been . . . ."

"On Sookie," he finished for me. "Look, I knows that you'll get your shit together when you needs to. So I ain't worried 'bout you puttin' this fine ass of mine in danger. But I's still worried 'bout you."

I sighed. "I'm fine," I lied.

He looked at me skeptically.

"Okay. I feel like shit, but I'm ready to do the briefing," I corrected.

"Now, that I believe, Sir," he chuckled as we got out of the car.

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Approximately Ninety Minutes Later • 0830 hours / 8:30 a.m.

Eric POV, continued

"I think this will be a productive trip," Colonel Flood said as he looked down at the briefing materials that I'd spread out onto the table in the conference room. "I think we're well on our way to being one of the most respected training facilities in the country!" he added proudly.

"Yes, Sir," I agreed. Thanks to Colonel Flood's vision, I had no doubt that the reputation of Bailey would continue to rise.

A car horn went off outside, and I cringed a little. The memory of a car horn the previous Sunday morning was still too fresh.

Colonel Flood smiled broadly. "That'll be the Missus. And her signal to me that we need to put away the Top-Secret shit," he winked.

Lafayette's face lit up. "She bring breakfast?"

"Doesn't she always when folks stationed here are goin' overseas?" the colonel asked with a glint in his eyes as he moved to gather the maps and other materials from the table. "You gentlemen are lucky. When she cooks for fifty, she can't do as much variety. But—since there are only two of you goin' this time, she pulled out her grandmother's recipe book." He chuckled. "Hell! Even I'm excited when she does that, and that woman isn't shy about spoilin' me when it comes to her cookin'!"

Lafayette practically squealed. "You's is in for a big treat, Captain!" he enthused. "Mrs. Flood is a legend 'round here for the meals she brings to send Marines off into the big wide world!"

Just then, Mrs. Flood, whom I'd met a few times before, came into the conference room carrying a large dish, the metal kind that caterers used.

Even as Lafayette exclaimed, "Grits!"—I saw who was following Mrs. Flood. She was also carrying a large serving dish.

"Sookie," I whispered, despite my breath having caught in my throat.

Her eyes were locked onto mine as Jason hurried into the room after the women. He put down a dish onto the table and ran over to me, hugging me tightly.

"We decided to see you off before you flew out!" he said enthusiastically. "Momma and me drove up when Mrs. Flood did and helped her out!"

"They sure did! Good thing, too! I don't have enough hands on a normal day!" Mrs. Flood said with a smile in her tone. I recalled that she'd met Jason at one of the barbeques I'd hosted at the base residence so that Jason could meet the neighborhood kids. The Colonel and his wife had brought two of their grandsons, both of whom were close to Jason's age.

My eyes were still on Sookie as she set down her own dish and came over to me.

"Can we talk for a minute?" she asked me.

I simply nodded.

Lafayette gave me a significant look and quickly corralled Jason to the table. "Jase, you gotta try some of Mrs. Flood's grits! They'll make you say 'amen' after every bite!"

"Y'all hurry back before Sergeant Reynolds eats everything!" Mrs. Flood said. Seeing the size of the dishes she'd brought, I didn't think that would be possible for the small number of people in the room. However, I wouldn't have been able to eat at that moment anyway. My stomach was in knots.

I led Sookie out of the meeting room and into the larger hangar, which generally housed some of the smaller planes kept on the base. Then, I led her outside into the humid Louisiana morning and over to a small table that some of the base mechanics had set up under the largest tree on base, a white oak tree that had been planted by the very first base commander of Bailey—more than eighty years before.

For a moment after we sat, Sookie didn't say anything.

"I'm still upset," she finally said, my heart sinking with her words.

"You've a right to be," I responded honestly.

"I'll get over it," she said with certainty. "The love I have for you isn't something I'm willing to sacrifice, Eric. I won't lie and say that something in me hasn't taken a big hit. But it isn't the love I feel for you. And—when I woke up this morning—I realized that it isn't the trust I have for you either."

She brushed away a tear. "I couldn't let you leave without you knowing that—or without seeing you."

In the next moment she was in my arms. In the one after that, our mouths found each other. We kissed until we were breathless.

"I'm sorry," she panted. "I'm sorry I sent you away from us. It killed me to do it! And I know it killed you to have it done! I told you—after Jase's blow-up—that we needed to solve our problems together, but I sent you away. I was a hypocrite." She raised her hand to my cheek and cupped it gently. "Please forgive me, Eric. Please."

I shook my head. "There's nothing to forgive. You needed time," I assured her. "I'm just grateful—so grateful—you're here. Thank you, Sookie. Thank you for coming."

We kissed again, this time slower.

Again breathless, we pulled away from one another, resting our foreheads together.

"I love you so much, Sookie," I sighed.

"I know," she returned. "I really am sorry that I laid all the anger I was feeling for Bill at your feet. It wasn't fair."

"I deserved it. I should have told you," I returned.

"No," she said decisively. "You shouldn't have. Initially, you were keeping Bill's confidence. You did everything right—everything anyone could have expected you to do. You even tried to get Bill not to start up the affair. It was his choice to be with Lorena."

"But once I loved you, I should have been honest—about everything."

"No," she reiterated. "If it wasn't for Madison, I would have been happier—better off even—never to have known about Bill's infidelity to me." She sighed deeply. "Knowing the truth has tainted everything I ever felt about Bill. And it has shaken my confidence." She looked down. "I think that's why I sent you away. I just spent the last two days analyzing everything about myself—and I mean everything. What did I do so wrong that caused Bill to stray? Did Alcide ever stray—or think about it? Will you stray? What's so goddamned lacking about me that Bill couldn't be faithful for even six months?!"

"Nothing!" I said passionately.

She chuckled a little. "I'm starting to believe that. But it took me a couple of days of beating myself up and questioning myself to arrive at that answer." She shook her head. "God only knows how finding out about Bill's infidelity would have broken me when I was nineteen or twenty. I hate that Bill's dead, and this may be selfish of me to say—but losing him to war was easier than losing him a little more every single day to Lorena would have been."

"He would have given her up. He promised he would after his time on active duty was over," I explained.

Sookie shook her head in disagreement. "Not with Lorena having his baby. He would have kept seeing her, kept giving her a part of himself that he kept from me. Meanwhile, I would have continued giving him my whole heart. I would have morphed into the perfect politician's wife, blind to anything but Bill's good qualities. He turned me into a fool."

"You're not a fool!" I said passionately.

She shrugged. "I don't know about that. But I do know that I'm not a fool to love you, Eric Northman. And I wasn't a fool to put my trust in Alcide either. Over the last few days, I've realized that my love for Bill was just as naïve as my blind trust in him. And—even if he had given up Lorena—it would have been just a matter of time until he cheated again. Whether I like it or not, Bill didn't find me to be enough. But that doesn't have to be my problem. It was his. Moreover, I shouldn't have made it ours," she emphasized.

"I understand. You needed time," I reassured her.

She leaned in to give me a brief kiss on the lips. "I was too hurt by Bill to see that what I needed was you," she emphasized. Part of me will always love him, Eric. He was my first love. But a part of me now hates him. I thought he was a good man."

"He was," I defended, but then shook my head. "He was some of the time."

Sookie nodded. "Yes. Some of the time. When he was with me, he made me happy. But I'll never be able to look back at our time together without questioning things. Even our wedding night no longer holds the same meaning to me. It's hard not to remember the lies more than the truths he told. It's hard to tell the difference."

"I'm sorry," I said sincerely.

"I know. And I have a feeling that—if Bill were sitting right here next to us—you'd be sorrier than he would be. And that's Bill's greatest sin—as far as I'm concerned."

I embraced her tightly, holding her to me to comfort her the only way I knew how in that moment. Maybe—one day—I'd figure out the perfect words I could use to help her deal with Bill's infidelity. But—in that moment—I didn't have them. All I had was myself. I prayed that would help her—even if in only a small way.

She sighed deeply. "I met with Lorena again."
"What?" I asked. "Why? Have you made your choice about Madison?"

"No," she said with a shake of her head. "I met with her to learn everything there was to know about her and Bill."

"Why would you do that to yourself?" I asked, taking her even more firmly into my arms as she sobbed for a few moments.

"I was a glutton for punishment," she laughed ruefully, swiping at her eyes. "I needed to try to understand why he was with her."

"He was an idiot," I said fervently.

"Yeah," she chuckled. "On the drive over here this morning, I started to believe that too, though—at first—what he did made me feel like I was the one who was lacking in some way." She shook her head.

"Bill was the one lacking," I argued.

"Yet we both loved him," she sighed. "You as a brother and me as a girl that put him up on a pedestal. Well—he sure toppled off of that." She looked up at me, and I was grateful to see that she'd stopped crying for the moment.

"Did I ever tell you about the day of my parents' funeral?" she asked.

I shook my head. "No."

"It's the day I fell in love with Bill—though I didn't realize it at the time. I was nine years old, and I felt that my heart had broken. I left the farmhouse, where I'd just moved in to live with Gran and Grandpa. I ran away from the gathering that happened after the funeral. Ultimately, I ran into the woods—farther than I'd ever run before. I fell down, and I curled up in the mud. I was lost—in more ways than one. Lost in the woods. Lost in my pain. Lost in my head."

I held her as her body shook because of her memories.

"Bill followed me. He gave me his jacket because it was November and rainy. I ruined that jacket," she chuckled a little. "He sat with me for a long time in the woods. In fact, I lost track of time; we were probably outside for at least six hours though. Finally, Bill walked me home, holding my hand the whole way. He knew the way home when I didn't." She paused and sighed. "He came over to lunch the next day, which was a Sunday. I didn't go back to school until after the Christmas holiday, but he came over every day after school until I went back—and for lunch every weekend." She shook her head and chuckled fondly. "Sometimes I treated him like crap; other times, I didn't say a word to him. But he was persistent. He could be such a good person."

"Yes. He could," I said, recalling how he'd helped me to understand what it was like to both have and be a friend.

"That's what I'll always focus on when I talk to Jase about him," Sookie said determinedly. "And I'll try to think about the good in him, too. But the bad in him is now a part of his and my story." She sighed and looked up at me. "I won't doubt Bill's love for me though. I will never doubt it again because I've realized that he gave me two gifts that are priceless—that make up for any lies his told me. They even make up for his infidelity.

"Jason," I smiled down at her.

"And you," she emphasized, leaning up to kiss me softly. "He asked you to take care of us—especially Jase. I think that a part of him might have known that you were meant for us, Eric Northman." She smiled. "The good part of Bill that sat with me in the woods and spent time with me when I was at my lowest point put you into my path. And into Jase's." She shrugged. "So I can't hate him, even though I hate what he did to our marriage and our family. How could I hate him when he's the reason I'm so happy—in this moment? Right now."

"Sookie," I whispered, not knowing exactly what to say.

"I'm sorry I pushed you away these last two days. I know how much it must have hurt you." She looked down. "I just hope that you can trust me to never do it again, Eric. Because I won't! I swear! I'm done doing any sort of runnin', or walkin', or canterin', or junebuggin' away from you." Her eyes bright with sincerity, she smiled.

"I love you," I said. Those words were really all that was needed.

We kissed again, and I found myself wishing—terribly—that we were alone with several hours—or days—to work with.

But we didn't have that time.

Finally, when we broke our kiss, she looked up at me. "Can you call me—when you get to Afghanistan? Or do you have any layovers when you could call me?"

I nodded. "I'll have a few hours free in the Philippines."

"Call me then?" she asked. "I don't care what time it is."

"Sure," I promised.

"In the meantime, I need you to think about something so that we can talk about it then," she said.

"Think about what?"

"Whether or not we're gonna bring a six-year-old girl into our household," she emphasized.

"You and Jason should decide that," I said, though I felt my heart quickening.

"I can't obey that order, Captain Northman," she said softly, but with a twinkle in her eye and slight teasing in her tone. "From now on, all the big decisions we make need to be made as a family."

"As a family," I whispered before kissing her again.

It took Lafayette clearing his throat to bring us up for air.

"I hates to do this, but we's wheels up in fifteen, Captain," he said. "I gots you some food for the plane. And more for me, too. But Jase is askin' for you two. And I knows that the Colonel needs a couple of minutes."

Sookie looked at me and smiled. "Go on in. I'll be there as soon as I drag a brush through my hair so the Colonel doesn't know we've been making out," she giggled.

I nodded and leaned in to give her one more lingering kiss before running toward the hangar.

I'd never felt lighter—or happier—in my life.

The other shoe—all the shoes—had dropped.

Yet Sookie and I had survived their impact.

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Sookie POV

"I'm glad you's came to your senses before we left," Lafayette said as Eric entered the hangar.
I was digging through my purse for my brush.

"Me too," I sighed.

Lafayette touched my shoulder affectionately. "The first day I met Captain Northman—Eric—I had a feeling that he was the man for you. You know I loved that hunk of man that Alcide was. And Bill was my friend even longer than you have been. But that man," he said, gesturing toward the hangar, "is yours."

"And I'm his," I said with certainty.

Lafayette nodded in affirmation.

"You'll look after him while you're away—right?" I asked him.

"Honey, I'd step in the way of a bullet for the captain," he winked. "But since I likes my body bullet-free, I'll make sure that neither of us gets anywhere near one that's comin' at us."

I nodded, grateful for his words, though I knew that he couldn't really make me any guarantees.

There were some things in life that just couldn't be guaranteed.

But Eric's love was not one of them, nor was my love for him.

I thanked God that I'd woken up in time to send that love with him to Afghanistan.

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A/N: I know that many of you were upset with Sookie pushing Eric away at the end of the last chapter, but—once I let her "speak to me"—I really did understand why she did it. In learning that Bill had betrayed her so much, her main doubts were focused on herself—not Eric, and not even Bill. I've been there myself—wondering why I wasn't good enough when someone I loved decided to move on (and not with me). In this case, Bill's betrayal made Sookie doubt if she was capable of holding on to anyone. Couple that with all the loss she'd faced because of death—and you get the mistake she made in sending Eric away. Lucky for her, if there is anyone that understands the damage that self-doubt can cause, it's Eric.

Just one more chapter and an epilogue to go. Thanks for everyone who continues to read (and, hopefully, enjoy) this story.

Please comment if you have the time and inclination.

Best,

Kat

Chapter Text

Chapter 33: Oorah!

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NOTE: The following chapter occurs TWENTY-THREE DAYS after the previous.

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Friday, August 26 • 1300 hours / 1:00 p.m.

Sookie POV

I was pensive, but excited—bouncing up and down on my feet.

Jesús was standing right next to me, his energy similar to mine. He was holding my hand.

Unfairly, he wouldn't be able to greet Lafayette with as much fervor as I planned to greet Eric. But I had it on good authority—as in "T.M.I." authority—that Jesús would be driving Lafayette straight to his house, which was about ten minutes away. And—there—Jesús planned to do "very naughty things" to Lafayette.

Despite not needing to hear the details, I was happy for Jesús and Lafayette. And I was jealous of them.

Sure—I would be able to kiss the breath out of Eric as soon as he deplaned. But I would have to wait a lot longer than ten minutes to complete the list of very, very, very naughty things that I wanted to do to him.

Not to mention the even naughtier things I hoped he'd be doing to me.

I had a mental list that was twenty-three days in the making!

Unable to hold in my blush entirely, I sighed. But then my thoughts shifted, and I smiled as I watched the reasons why I would have to show some constraint.

The two reasons.

Jase and Maddy were running around like little tornadoes, smiling and laughing as if they'd grown up all their lives together.

I shook my head. No—not "Jase." With becoming a big brother, my son had finally made it known that he was ready to be called "Jason" by everyone—not just Eric, who had had that honor for almost a year.

I wouldn't lie and say that I'd not been a little jealous of that distinction that Eric had enjoyed. But I'd respected Jason's need to pick the name he wanted to be called, as well as who got to call him what. It made sense that Eric—his dad during the most important moments of this life—was the first to be granted permission to use the more grown-up name.

Two weeks before, as we'd had a large group over to the house to celebrate Madison's official arrival to her new home—after she'd had a week to settle in, of course—Jason had announced to the group that "big brothers should have big brother names." And—spurred on by him—Madison had announced, though much more shyly, that she wanted to have a nickname since she'd never gotten to have one.

That day, "Jase" became Jason. And "Madison" became Maddy.

I just wished that Eric had been there to see it, though—I learned later—that Jase—no, Jason (I was still getting used to calling him that, especially in my thoughts)—had discussed the issue with him via Skype.

"Will Eric like me?" a little voice asked from next to me.

Maddy was tugging at my skirt, looking up at me with large, anxious eyes. She was a slender girl—dainty even. Thus, I was able to pick her up rather easily. "He already does. Remember how you two have talked on Skype?"

She nodded, biting her lip. I'd already discovered that she did that every time she was nervous, though—because of Kendra Jones, her nanny when she'd been with Lorena—Maddy had grown up a very happy child.

Her red hair and facial expressions really did make her look like Sophie-Anne, whom she'd met, along with William, the weekend before when they'd traveled down from Annapolis to see her. The DNA test had already confirmed what we could see with our eyes.

Madison—Maddy—was Bill's daughter.

I'd been able to tell that the Comptons were ashamed of their son due to his having a long-term affair and illegitimate child. Actually, they seemed mostly concerned that his actions had been found out—not that he'd done them.

However, I did feel bad for Sophie-Anne. And I'd believed her when she'd pulled me aside to communicate just how sorry she was that Bill had caused me pain.

Now over ninety percent recovered from her stroke, Sophie-Anne moved, once again, with extreme grace, her cane more of an accessory than anything else. Her words no longer slurred either, though, at times, it took her a moment or two to search for them. However, for the most part, she was back to being herself—leaps and bounds better than the last time Jason and I had seen her, which had been a quick trip to visit the Comptons the previous March. And now she had to deal with the stress of learning her son had been unfaithful to his wife and had produced an illegitimate child. Bill had been "perfect" in her eyes; clearly, she'd been shaken to discover that her vision had been as faulty as my own.

Still, Sophie-Anne had managed to carry herself with great dignity and refinement. And Maddy hadn't been able to sense any reservations at all on her part.

William had been a different story, focusing much more on Jason—as if Maddy wasn't a "true" grandchild of his. I'd lost a lot of respect for him when I'd learned that he had encouraged Bill to seek out a prostitute's tutelage before he and I got married. I lost even more when the progression of that bad behavior had produced something—someone—William didn't want to acknowledge.

Did I blame William for Bill's affair with Lorena? Heck no! Bill was responsible for his own choices! However, William had put Bill on a path that allowed him to believe that going to a brothel to lose his virginity would be a good thing. Bill had lied to me about that; I sometimes wondered if that first lie had paved the way for all to come.

A part of me also wondered if William might have some illegitimate children of his own running around. If so, I hoped that Sophie-Anne would never find out. Though I'd initially blasted Eric for keeping the truth from me, I'd learned that there were some secrets that were best kept in the dark. However—truth be told—I didn't believe that Sophie-Anne would leave William even if he'd had affairs or fathered children with other women. She'd defined her life around him; that had been her choice.

If Bill were still alive, I just hoped that I would have made a different choice had I found out about his infidelity. I hoped that that choice wouldn't have been purposeful blindness or unquestioned acceptance.

One thing that I would never regret was the introduction of Maddy into our lives. No—she was worth any pain I'd felt from Bill's sins and secrets.

"He's gonna love you—just like I do," I whispered to my little girl.

Yes—I already thought of her as mine. And it didn't matter how she'd come to be that way.

A lawyer that Eric knew in Long Beach, Mr. Cataliades, was currently working with Lorena's lawyer, Neave Faeman, in San Diego to push through the adoption. Lorena's failing health and her shark-like lawyer were enough to spur on the judge in the case. I already had Maddy provisionally, having been declared her legal guardian. Lorena's Will now reflected my guardianship as well. And—just in case the adoption wasn't final before she died—Lorena's wishes that I adopt Maddy were clearly spelled out in the Will as well. However, I knew I'd feel better if the adoption could go through before Lorena died. Maybe it made me a bad Christian that I wanted Lorena to cling to life only long enough to sign the adoption papers and that I didn't care what happened to her after that, but so be it.

Actually, that was a lie; I did sort of care. As a human being, I didn't want Lorena to suffer. After all, I didn't believe that she was ultimately at fault for Bill's affair. No matter how tempting or seductive she'd been, Bill had made his own choices.

Plus, to the unpleasant woman's credit, Lorena seemed to have Maddy's adoption as her one remaining goal. Yes—I had to give her acknowledgement for that.

The last I knew, Lorena was practically bed-bound. And, based on the size of the trust fund left for Maddy, I figured she could afford top-of-the-line in-home medical care, though she had no family to take care of her.

Karma really had come back to bite Lorena. At least, all the money she'd manipulated and blackmailed out of people was helping her to die as comfortably as possible.

I held my little girl a little closer as I thought about her final goodbye with her biological mother. They'd not even hugged. Maddy had been a lot more upset when she'd learned that Kendra was leaving with Lorena.

In confidence, Kendra had told me that she'd considered moving to Louisiana and opening up a daycare center—just so that she could continue to be a part of Maddy's life. I wouldn't have been opposed to her continued inclusion in my daughter's world, but—ultimately—Kendra had decided to return to San Diego, where she had a lot of family and better opportunities to continue working as a private nanny. Still, she had called several times to check on Maddy.

Lorena had called once—but not to talk to Maddy. She'd given me updated contact information for her lawyer and then hung up.

I gave Maddy butterfly kisses. She giggled and wiggled so I'd let her down, and then she was off like the little light that she was, chasing Jason.

I'd worried because she'd been so reserved with Jason and me at first. Kendra had told me that Lorena had behaved quite formally with Maddy, but she'd assured me that the child would "warm up quickly" and "become more herself."

The nanny had been right; it had taken Maddy only a few days of being at the farmhouse before her smile lit up the place.

Eric and I had decided that we'd turn Jason's old bedroom on the second floor of the farmhouse into Maddy's, while Jason would stay on the first floor, though he now had no problem whatsoever with the stairs. It made sense though. Jason had grown to like having his room on the ground floor. And Eric and I thought that Maddy should be closer to us anyway. I was just glad that the walls in the house were thick so that Eric and I wouldn't have to worry about our new daughter hearing what we'd be getting up to later.

I blushed again as I thought of the man I loved.

If anything, we'd gotten closer while he'd been away.

As promised, his time in Afghanistan had been spent as safely as possible. To make me feel slightly less concerned, he'd told me that a few generals and a Congressional delegation had traveled with him and Lafayette for a few days. Apparently, that was a sign that the situation was about as safe as somewhere like Afghanistan could be.

He and Lafayette had even managed to do a bit of sightseeing, though they'd done it in civvies with Afghani guides that Eric knew and trusted from his previous tours in the country. They'd traveled to Herat, where one of the guides was from, and they'd seen what Westerners called the Friday Mosque. The pictures were amazing, though I'd been nervous for Eric the whole time he'd been sightseeing.

However, according to Eric, the vast majority of the people in Afghanistan were quite kind and—though somewhat suspicious of foreigners because of their long history with invaders of one variety or another—"regular folks" tended to like Americans just fine.

Still, I was scared for them until they were back at the base. And—of course—I was scared for them even now, as we waited for the plane.

I figured that worry was a part of being any kind of wife when a husband traveled. And soldiers' wives had it a lot worse than others.

Was I ready to do that again?

Yes. For Eric Northman, I was—without reservations.

I smiled to myself, even as a still-bouncing Jesús grabbed my hand again. I didn't know exactly when I would become Mrs. Eric Northman, but I knew it was going to happen.

Until then, he and I would be living together. There would be no more base residence and farmhouse commuting, though Eric had decided to keep the base house as long as it wasn't needed for another soldier. Practically, he knew there might be long days and nights every now and then when he'd need to crash there. And Jason had his friends on base, so we might even spend the night there as a family every once in a while, so that we could go to a base function or host a little barbeque there.

What mattered was that Eric and I had agreed that we would be living apart only when he was overseas. Indeed, Colonel Flood had given me a key to the base house just so that I could pack up most of Eric's things and bring them to the farmhouse—with Eric's knowledge, of course. I just didn't want to wait until he got home to move him back home. And he'd indulged me.

His things were already in the closet in the master bedroom—our bedroom.

One of the reasons we decided not to even pretend to have different homes anymore was for Maddy's sake. We didn't want her to be confused. And—though Eric wouldn't be able to adopt her until we were married since that would have made the process too complicated to get done as quickly—we didn't want her to ever be confused about Eric's place in our family.

Maddy might never decide to call me "Momma" or Eric "Daddy," but that's what we were going to be to her. It had warmed my heart one night to overhear Jason speaking to Maddy about Eric and his place in his life. He'd shared that he was really not "just Uncle Eric," though that's what Maddy had heard Jason call Eric, of course. Jason had clarified that Eric was the "most awesome dad of all time."

I'd smiled until it hurt when I'd told Eric about that detail when we'd spoken via Skype later on. He had too, even as tears had glistened in his eyes.

I said a little prayer of thanksgiving for Skype, not knowing what I would have done without it the last several weeks. Because Eric's schedule was pretty consistent, even in Afghanistan, he was able to schedule quite a few calls with us, speaking to us four or five times a week. I knew that was an advantage of his rank and position. And I felt bad for all of the other families that didn't get as much contact with their soldiers. But I was still grateful for all I could get.

As promised, Eric's first call to me had been when he had his layover in the Philippines. We'd spent two hours discussing Maddy. He'd been able to tell that I already wanted her with us. Just meeting her once, I'd known that she would fit with us. And I'd known that I could love her and never hold her mother or Bill's affair against her. Those were the big tests for me.

Jason was on board too, saying it would be "cool" to have a little sister to look out for. Jessica had a little sister, and I knew that Jason had talked to his best friend/"girlfriend" about Maddy as well—so that he could learn the "job duties."

Apparently, Jason was willing to do everything Jessica said he had to—except play with Barbie dolls. Jessica had amused the heck out of me by calling me to assure that she'd volunteer to do the "girly" big sister things when Jason couldn't manage. Indeed, at the get-together we'd held at the farmhouse, Jessica had made sure that her own little sister, Eden, made friends with Maddy. The whole thing had been too cute for words.

Eric had been overwhelmed by the thought of taking in Maddy—at least, in a way—but I could tell that he would have been willing to take in Maddy, even if I hadn't. He wouldn't have tried to get me to change my mind, but I would have always regretted not having her. It seemed somehow appropriate, though, that she joined our family in unusual circumstances, just as Eric had.

It was all good though. Indeed, it was right. And it gave me another item for my list of invaluable things from Bill. Now I had Jason, Eric, and Maddy.

Yes—instead of ruminating on Bill's affair, I was counting my blessings.

I counted another as I heard the plane moments before I saw it. My heard leapt. Jason ran up to me—as did Maddy.

"Is that his plane?" my son asked excitedly.

I nodded. I was halfway to tears already and couldn't really speak.

It took five minutes for the plane to circle and land. Then it was another few minutes for the plane to taxi to its resting place and for the engines to turn off.

More and more anxious by the second, I was just grateful that Colonel Flood had told Lafayette and Eric that they could debrief the next day, so Eric would be ours as soon as he deplaned.

Eric exited the plane almost as soon as the doors opened, looking for us. His face lit up as soon as he saw us, and I felt my feet flying toward him. I heard Jason and Maddy running after me, but I felt faster than Carl Lewis in that moment. Eric dropped his bag and rushed toward me, sweeping me up into his arms and holding me tight before he kissed me soundly.

I could hear both Jason and Maddy giggling.

After an all-too-short minute, Eric put me onto my feet and hugged Jason tightly before kneeling in front of Maddy.

"Hey there, little one," he said with a smile that wouldn't quit.

"Hi," she said shyly. "You're Uncle Eric. I talked to you on the computer."

"Yes," he confirmed.

"Okay. Cool!" she smiled back as him, reaching out her little hand.

He shook it gently.

"Wanna go home? Sookie's makin' roast in the crock pot, and it's really good. I've had it already—last week," she informed.

"Sounds good!" he enthused.

Looking toward where I'd parked, I saw Lafayette wave before he got into the car with Jesús. I frowned because they couldn't show their love on the base.

"What's wrong, beautiful?" Eric asked me. He'd slung his duffle bag and his computer bag over his shoulder and had managed to pick up Maddy into his other arm.

My frown couldn't possibly have stayed on my face as I saw that she and he were both comfortable with the arrangement.

I motioned toward Jesús's car, which was speeding away. "Just that they can't kiss each other here like I just kissed you," I commented softly.

He nodded in agreement and then took my hand with his free one. I took Jason's.

And we walked to the van as a family.

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A/N: Well—that's the last chapter! Just the epilogue to go. I hope that you enjoyed the story and will visit one more time for the epilogue.

I loved writing this piece. This was one of those stories that took over my Muse, and I was able to write it quite quickly once I returned to it. I wish they could all be the same, but alas.

Please comment if you have the time and/or inclination.

Until the epilogue.

Best,

Kat

Chapter Text

Epilogue: Bravo Zulu

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NOTE: The following chapter occurs THREE YEARS after the previous.

NOTE: "Bravo Zulu" is more of a Naval expression than one used in the Marines—at least, that's what my friend told me. Still, it worked perfectly for this epilogue. The phrase conveys "job well done."

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August 26, 2014 • 2200 hours / 10:00 p.m.

Eric POV

"You and Maddy stay right here—in this waiting room—until Lafayette gets here. He and Jesús should be here in ten minutes. Okay?" I asked, trying not to let my nervousness show.

"Sure, Dad," Jason assured. "And really. Don't worry. I already texted Dr. Claudine, and she's not here, but remember Nurse Indira?"

I nodded. "Of course." I recalled her vividly from when Sookie and Jason had spent so many weeks in the hospital.

"Well—knowing Mom would be less freaked out if we had someone with us—despite the fact that I'm fifteen," he emphasized with a roll of his expressive blue eyes, "Claudine's sending Indira down to sit with us till everyone else gets here. Make sure Mom knows—okay?"

"You are awesome!" I smiled proudly at my son before rising to my feet. Even as I did, Nurse Indira hurried in.

I spent about five seconds greeting and thanking her before I went in the direction the orderly had taken Sookie in.

Okay—I didn't just "go." I ran!

Mentally, I said a little "fuck you" to Appius. Sure—running indoors wasn't something I encouraged my own children to do, though I certainly never beat them or verbally berated them if they did run in the house. Things like "time outs" were employed. However, occasionally, running indoors was called for. Now was one of those times.

"Sookie Northman?" I asked a nurse at the nursing station.

She took in my appearance and chuckled.

"Come on, Dad," she emphasized, likely having seen my frazzled appearance on many a new father's face before. "Sookie's just gotten into her gown. I put scrubs on the chair for you to change into," she said.

"Will I need those?" I asked nervously.

"Only if the doctor says a C-section is best. According to Mrs. Northman's file, the baby's big. And she's small. I like to make sure that you'll be good to go—no matter what," she added matter-of-factly, before leading me to my wife.

Sookie smiled at me from the bed, and I quickly walked over to her to take her hand.

"So—are you ready for this, Captain?" she asked as another nurse hooked her up to some machines that would monitor the baby during the labor process.

I shook my head, but then nodded.

The nurses both chuckled. Again, I was sure that they saw new fathers make such motions all the time.

Not that I was a new father. I'd been the proud father—according to the State of Louisiana—of Jason and Maddy since I'd adopted them both on the heels of Sookie and my wedding two years before. Maddy had taken "Northman" as her last name. It was a little sad that she'd had no interest in keeping her mother's last name, which Lorena had put on Maddy's birth certificate. Apparently, Lorena hadn't wanted to give Maddy "Compton" as a surname, though she had named Bill as the child's father.

Maddy had been given the choice of keeping the last name "Ball," changing her name to Compton, or changing it to Northman. She'd opted for my name. Jason was also given a choice: between Northman and Compton. I made sure that Jason understood that I didn't mind him staying a Compton at all. His grandparents, I knew, were against his name change—since Jason was the last Compton in the line. But Sookie and I had made sure that Jason could make an independent decision.

Except that Jessica had weighed in. She liked "Compton" best.

I liked to think that my son had also preferred that name, but—given the lengths that my fifteen-year-old went to in order to please Jessica—he might have made the choice with her in mind.

Jason was my child according to the law. But, more importantly, he'd already been mine long before that.

He'd also been my best man at Sookie and my wedding—after he'd walked his mother down the aisle to me.

Holding Sookie's hand and looking at her beautiful, sweaty face, I knew that I had been lying to myself when I'd thought that my wedding day would be the best day of my life. No—every day since then had proven to be the "best." And I didn't think there would be a word to adequately describe where this particular day would rank.

The woman in front of me had taught me how to love. She'd taught me that I was worth loving. And—now—she was giving me yet another child to love.

No—there wasn't a word for that beyond her name: Sookie.

"Everything looks great. You're dilated to six already!" the nurse said. "The doctor will be in to check you out soon."

Just then, Dr. Ludwig walked into the room, even as Sookie began experiencing another contraction.

"Wait! I'm not here for my brain!" Sookie yelled out. "I'm havin' a baby!"

Dr. Ludwig chuckled. "Don't worry. I remember the logistics at this end of the body well enough. Your OBGYN is currently out of the state at a conference. And the on-call doctor in this department is already working with three mothers. And," she said with a sly smile, "when I heard you were in the hospital, I volunteered to help you out."

"Fine," Sookie huffed. "But be nice to me. I'm in pain!"

"When am I not nice?" Dr. Ludwig asked.

"Always," Sookie and I muttered at the same time.

Ludwig just laughed. Don't get me wrong, Sookie and I owed the diminutive doctor so much. But her bedside manner truly was horrible—except with Jason.

Still, I was comforted that she was there. She checked Sookie out and declared that things looked good for a natural birth. Just in case, however, I quickly changed into the scrubs.

And then the waiting began as Sookie's labor slowed down a bit after her epidural.

Apparently, that wasn't abnormal, so I didn't go crazy with worry.

And—yes—I was worried to see Sookie in pain. But I'd never met a stronger woman, and she didn't seem worried at all.

I tried to stay calm for her.

And I let her squeeze my hand as hard as she needed. That was an expectant father's job, after all. That—and to tell his wife that she was doing awesome and that she looked beautiful.

And Sookie did. Indeed, she'd never looked more radiant to me—not even when she'd waited for me in an ice blue wedding gown.

I smiled at the memory of her in—and out—of her wedding wear.

I couldn't help but to think about Sookie and my journey as a couple.

I could remember vividly the moment when I'd stepped off the plane after my first training mission to Afghanistan. She'd been beaming brighter than the sun that summer day! And having Jason and Maddy there only added to my joy! I'd never forget scooping up Maddy for the first time.

In fact, each day gave me a memory I'd never forget. Of course, some stood out more—like the first time that Maddy decided that she should call me "Daddy." Her reasoning had been that it sounded cool to say "Maddy and Daddy." She'd added that she "loved" me as an afterthought to her reasoning. I smiled at the memory.

Jason made the choice to call me Dad about a year later, having worked with Claudine to overcome his fears of losing anyone with that designation. Honestly, it didn't matter what my son and daughter called me. Their love for me would always be enough.

As soon as Sookie and I were officially living together, everything just seemed right—best. We rarely quarreled, though we retained plenty of passion for one another. Importantly, we made a point to communicate with each other any time we were upset by something. And we also made sure we had time for ourselves, too.

Pam had come to visit us several times. I know that her visits were at Sookie's urging, but it had been clear to me that my sister enjoyed her time with us. She was now a young woman, and she was working on her medical degree. She'd wanted Sookie and me to film the birth and live-stream it to her.

Sookie had vetoed that.

With my family's support, I'd decided to continue getting my Bachelor's degree, though I was taking only two classes a semester. I had the luxury of not being in a hurry, and my priorities when it came to time were at home. Still, I enjoyed my classes.

Working only four days a week on the base, my commute was a minor nuisance at most. Lafayette was still my right-hand-man, and I was working on getting him another raise in rank. He certainly deserved it.

My work still kept me in Louisiana most of the time, though I would travel overseas about twice a year. There was the occasional trip to D.C. or another U.S. base to consult as well. The 8-9 weeks a year I spent away from home were hard, but—on occasion—I'd conduct training at a non-combat location. Sookie and the kids had already been able to fly to both Japan and Germany for part of the time when I'd been working there. That made the trips a lot more fun and less painful.

Speaking of pain, I cringed as Sookie had another contraction. I didn't like to see her hurting, though I knew it was a natural part of the process.

I'd been so happy when she'd told me that we were expecting a child. We'd tried for almost a year before she conceived. In fact, we'd begun talking about seeing a fertility doctor when we learned about little Alexander.

His naming had been a family decision, though Sookie had veto power.

Alex had been a unanimous choice.

"Ready to push?" Dr. Ludwig asked at 0331 hours on August 27. I knew that because I looked at the clock, wanting to record the moment.

My wife nodded, her face contorted with pain.

"Okay—take a deep breath and then give me a big push on the next contraction. Don't stop till I count to ten," Dr. Ludwig commanded.

Sookie nodded again.

"Okay. Go!" Ludwig yelled out.

Sookie pushed with all of her might.

It took seven more pushes like that—during which I was blamed by everyone in the room for making the baby too big.

However, finally, the baby was born at 0404 hours.

Alexandria—not Alexander.

It seemed as though life continued to have surprises in store for me, but I would be forever grateful that things hadn't gone as Appius had once wanted for me. He would have made me live "his" version of my life, and I knew I would have been extremely unhappy—no matter how many gold medals or law cases I'd won.

The life I'd formed for myself in the years after my parents died had been better—to be sure. But I was still so new at and apprehensive about feelings that I'd lived a half-life in a lot of ways.

In most ways.

In one of my elective classes, Asian Literature, my teacher introduced the students to a Japanese poet name Matsuo Basho. I'd liked his poetry, so I'd studied more about him, even writing my term paper about his work. As I'd researched, I'd run across a quote by him, "Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home."

His words seemed perfect to me—wise and true.

The journey of my life had been a winding one, and—to be frank—I'd "existed" in my life rather than "lived" in it for a long time. But because of Sookie and Jason—and Maddy and now little Alex—I'd truly begun my days of journeying.

And I'd found home.

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The End.

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A/N: Well—that's it, folks! I really hope that you enjoyed this piece. I will admit that I shed a lot of tears when writing this one. For those of you who stick with me despite hating angst, I hope that this ending paid off for you. The ending lines I wrote always choke me up—as does the quote by Matsuo Basho. It seemed perfect for this story—this Eric and Sookie—and it even generated the title of the story.

For those of you who are sorry to see this story go, I'm sorry to report that I'm not planning a sequel at this time. I'm content to let this family continue their journey on their own.

Please let me know what you thought of the story. I love hearing whether or not you like the endings of things.

Thanks again to Kleannhouse, who betas my work for me, and Sephrenia, who designs the story artwork I use on my WordPress site (californiakat1564.wordpress.com). Thanks also to all of you who are still reading my work! Writing fanfiction continues to be my favorite pastime, and you all make my life better by reading and responding.

All the best,

Kat