It continued to rack Sookie’s mind who to appoint as interim CEO. Cataliades had given her a list of candidates from within the company, placing an asterisk beside strongly suited candidates. Again, Claudine’s name circulated to the top. While picking absently at her dinner and eating none of it, Sookie wondered if the photos Eric had taken of Claudine and the Coleman heir would be enough to make her sit and play nice. Somehow she sincerely doubted it, but the evidence would be good to have nonetheless.
“Ready to go?” Eric asked, darkness already starting to set in around them. She regarded him with some confusion before he reminded, “To Niall’s?”
“Sure,” she replied, gathering up the set of keys and alarm codes. Since it wasn’t far, they walked quietly down the deserted road. Halfway she stopped dead in her tracks, her hand reaching for Eric, halting them both. He regarded her with confusion, on alert instantly until she tugged him towards her, reaching up on her toes to kiss him in the relative dark. “I hate hiding you,” she whispered. “Had to sneak it in while I could.”
He smiled, caressing her cheek tenderly, leading her along to the house after a moment. The double set of gates took excessively long to open and close before they could set off down the long drive to the darkened home, lit only by a few garden lights in the distance. It was far more ostentatious than the home on Lake Geneva and in the waning light, it looked far more ominous than it really should.
She was about to punch in the alarm code once the front door was open only to be held back by Eric, indicating she be quiet with his index finger pressed against his lips. A loaded gun appeared in his hands that she wasn’t even aware he was carrying or had brought. He indicated she should stay put and despite wanting to protest wildly, his warning glance made her realise he was deadly serious. She was about to point out the alarm, only to find it deactivated. Treading carefully, Eric moved soundlessly through the home while her heart pounded erratically. The longer it was taking, time seeming to move slower than ever before, worrying her to no end. After holding her breath for who knows how long, suddenly the lights switched on, with Eric yelling, “Sookie, get over here! You might want to see this.”
With a quickened step she followed the direction of his voice, praying to God he hadn’t found a corpse, and ended up in Niall’s study where she found Eric tucking his gun back in its holster, a pointed glance directing her towards the desk.
“Well, hello, Dear,” Fintan greeted cheerfully amidst a giant pile of documents that he and Dermot were ploughing through with a now-redundant set of torches. “We didn’t think you’d mind.”
“Out!” she screamed, incensed at the sight before her. “I have enough Brigants breathing down my neck without you two messing everything up!”
“I. Don’t. Give a FUCK!”
Meekly, the pair gathered their torches, Fintan glanced longingly at a stack of papers he had yet to reach, only pulling back his wandering hand with one single, rather scornful, look from his granddaughter.
“I’d say it’s nice to see you again, but I’m still pissed that you just left the way you did last time,” she huffed while demonstratively holding open the door for them, urging them to speed up their step.
“Told you she’d be mad,” Dermot gloated only to be shut down with another damning look from Sookie, forcing him to mutter an apology instantly.
“Wait out here!” she spoke sternly, pointing at the living room. Reluctantly the twins, whom Sookie had mentally started naming ‘Thing One’ and ‘Thing Two’ from that point on, moved out of the room. “And don’t touch anything there either!”
“Leave it,” Eric urged when she started sorting the piles of paper back in their folders. “We’ll get to it when the time is right.”
“I can’t just leave it like this!” she cried out. Her shaking hands suddenly found a bit of strength when his came to calm them. Sookie sighed back into his embrace, thankful for his sudden presence behind her while cursing the stray tear that had started to travel out of her eye line once more. She whimpered, “I’m so out of my depth, Eric, I hate him so much for doing this to me.”
“No, you don’t,” he soothed, accurately. “Don’t make this harder than it needs to be.”
“I’m not,” she denied hotly. “This is really hard! I have no clue what the right decision is to make at any step, who to please, who to scorn. When I think I finally made the right decision, it turns out to be completely wrong… Claude-”
“Just trust yourself and the rest will fall into place, you’ll see.”
“Easy for you to say,” she wheezed, causing him to chuckle and she couldn’t help but a laugh a little too. “I hate this. You totally had the right idea in leaving this all behind last year. Look at those two,” she gestured at the ‘Things’ who were in the middle of another heated discussion, “obsessively turning over an entire house hoping to find… what? Some piece of evidence proving some theory they can’t even be bothered to share with us. Leaving a mess in their wake.”
“They might find something,” he pointed out, causing her to eye him suspiciously.
“Then you know what to arm yourself against,” Eric answered. “Besides, you really should look on the bright side.”
“Which is?” she spat out in exasperation, alarming even herself with the bratty tone she’d taken.
“At the very least you have two more Brigants who know them all exceptionally well to help you out.”
“There’s that,” she conceded, “and they will know what Niall would want with most of his stuff.” She turned to face him, smiling, she added, “Thanks for being my bright side.”
“Wouldn’t want it any other way,” he grinned, moving in for a kiss, only to be interrupted by a not so subtle cough at the doorway.
“Right,” Sookie sighed at the sight of the two intruders. “Pack your sets of sleeping bags and follow us next door.”
“To the treehouse!” the twins replied excitedly in unison, bouncing out into the expansive back garden.
The reunion between Jason and his long-lost grandfather had been awkward to say the least. Sookie never had quite managed to gage his reaction when they had returned to Stockholm and explained that the grandfather they knew and loved was still very much alive, having abandoned them, albeit for their own safety. Knowing her brother well, Sookie knew not to prod him on it more than necessary, but she hadn’t quite expected the reaction of seeing ‘Earl’, or rather Fintan, again. Jason had been significantly older than her at the time of his disappearance and their relationship had always been far closer than her own with Fintan.
A handshake had been exchanged with a greeting more befitting strangers, only to be followed by a request from Jason to Pam for a shared cigarette, neither one not to be seen again indoors for a very long time. As far as Sookie was aware, Jason had never smoked a cigarette in his life and, despite being somewhat indiscriminate when it came to the fairer sex, he had put an exceptional moratorium in place for what he considered ‘ashtray mouth,’ only to be lifted if the girl was ‘smoking’ hot, a phrase that always amused him to no end. Sookie even suspected it was more for that reason alone that the exception existed rather than the girl in question.
Unsure, and feeling quite out of her depth once more, Sookie set to serving hot beverages for all the guests. The Brigants present looking rather miffed with the lack of alcohol available in the house, Claude helpfully pulled out a flask from his jacket pocket.
“Were you there today?” Sookie asked, clarifying, “The funeral.”
Dermot nodded, “It was crowded enough, Fintan knows how to be me quite well these days.”
“Are you sad?” Sookie whispered carefully, though still not quite sure how to feel about Niall herself, she couldn’t imagine what his sons felt about him, hoping their answer would somehow help shape what she should be feeling.
“He was our father,” Fintan replied, explaining little. “Our relationship…”
At his tapering sentence, Dermot supplied, “Complex.”
“He could be the best, he could be the worst,” Claude summarised, holding his mug of tea up in the air as if celebrating with a toast. “Wiley and sharp when needed, and sympathetic the next. ‘Complex’ certainly was the word for him. He tempered in later years, his relationship with Claudine was testament to that. I didn’t think she’d ever forgive him.”
“You don’t know?” Claude said with some astonishment. “Sure I had mentioned it at some point.”
“You’re unaware of the trust clauses?” Fintan spoke in equal amazement.
“Will someone just tell me already?” Sookie demanded with a huff. With a slight clearing of his throat, Fintan began to explain the intricate trusts that held the Brigants hostage. Initially, the rules of inheritance of company shares had been set up to avoid family conflict, making it as fair as possible, all in the interest of the company and its continued survival. However, the repercussions were far-reaching and most trivially on the matter of marriages, archaic as it was, approval was needed, any incoming spouse could not be a liability to the company. Claudine never received permission for her first marriage, her mother never approved of her intended, and Niall controversially backed her decision.
“Claudette was the smart one,” Claude noted. “Marrying my boyfriend was the shrewdest move she ever made. Mother adored him, he was from the right family, but lacked the funds for the lifestyle he wanted.” He sighed momentarily, “An arranged marriage is the best deal you can get as a Brigant if you want any access to your personal trust and voting rights. The rest of us foolishly hold out for true love…”
“Oh, Claude,” Sookie sympathised with a heightened breathe, squeezing his hand, amazed by his dedication to Claudette’s husband all this time. Their initial introduction and the fight between him and Claudette back in Switzerland coming to stand in a completely different light.
“Well it’s not like I could marry, legal issues being as they were,” he grinned with self-deprecation. “With the new legalisations I could now, I suppose.”
“You could have found yourself a comely woman,” Dermot winked.
“Yes, Mother would have had a field day with that one, considering I loudly announced my taste for men to her and all her friends at her fiftieth birthday party and each one after that,” Claude laughed. “As if it wasn’t bad enough she was fooled once with Claudette, I doubt she’d have believed my sudden reversal. I’ll give Claudette credit for that, she pulled it off seamlessly, nothing Mother could do about it once the ring was on.”
Sookie ignored the sudden jovial spirits momentarily, focusing on her grandfather instead, “You faked your death for Gran? Why?”
“Why not be like Claudine, and marry against my father’s wishes, and forfeit my shares for true love, and avoid all the subterfuge?” Fintan posed, and Sookie merely nodded. “Romantic as it sounds, it’s far more complex than that. If I ‘died,’ everyone would assume the shares reverted back to Niall. Had I forfeited my share to marry the woman I loved, they would get shared with everyone else still in the trust equally. Claudine’s share was small, it made no significant impact on the internal power relations. I loved Adele very much, but not enough to risk all and ruin what my father had built.”
“But the shares never went to Niall,” Sookie pointed out, knowing that he’d placed them with Halina for safekeeping.
“Yes, well, I’m not really dead, now am I?” Fintan noted. With a shrug, he continued, “The only other scenario was to keep Adele as a mistress while I’d be forced into some marriage of good breeding quickly. I loved her too much for that to ever be a possibility, let alone a contemplation. I chose her, and turned my back on everything I knew. A decision I never regretted until the day I heard of Halina’s tragedy.”
“Niall knew that he didn’t inherit back your shares, surely?” Eric posed, slowly piecing together the power dynamics within the family while ignoring the allusion to his own family tragedy. “Was he aware you were alive?”
“Of course he was,” Dermot scoffed. “It didn’t matter though, by the time the rest caught on, he wasn’t holding all the shares he pretended to, he was firmly in his seat of power, thanks to that wicked stepmother of ours.”
“What were you looking for in his house?” Sookie posed, remembering the piles of documents they’d been ransacking.
“We want to know who made him do it.”
“This is about your mother, isn’t it?” Sookie sensed, the determination visible equally in their eyes, making them appear almost childlike. “You suspect-”
“Yes. There’s been too many deaths. He married that stepmonster of ours far too quickly to be even considered polite in these circles,” Dermot sneered. “Something about it is off.”
Fintan interjected, “He was wrought with grief, but even in that state it explains nothing. Or why they stayed married; he hated Frida by all accounts from the moment they met. The trust indicates nothing about remarrying when widowed. He didn’t need to marry her, it makes no sense why he would. He loved our mother more than anything, more than us.”
“Blackmail,” Eric concluded, “If they were smart there would be no physical evidence.”
“We’re hoping they weren’t smart,” Dermot grinned.
“Am I wrong in assuming everyone involved is dead?” Sookie posed. “Are you not simply chasing ghosts at this point?”
“Rogan is the last of the three still alive,” Fintan pointed out. “Though he has never revealed much on the matter. He could know something. He always knows something.”
“He seemed distant,” Sookie remembered from her brief encounter of him with his eldest son Brandon back in Switzerland.
“Stoic,” Claude noted with a nod. “Always fear the quiet ones. Much like your man.”
Sookie looked at him curiously, not quite sure whether to take that as threat, insult, or both. “Wha-”
“He cleans up the messes,” Eric explained. “Knows where all the dirt is buried. The business is clean as a whistle now, but it wasn’t always like that.”
“So he has a history of blackmail, motive in seeking power, and as the youngest, never taken as seriously as the elder two,” Sookie summarised. “Making him prime suspect number one?”
“I told you she was bright,” Fintan beamed at Dermot.
He shrugged, replying casually, “I never said she wasn’t.”
“Surely you regret never having a granddaughter like that, now do you!” Fintan taunted, instantly Dermot retorted, descending them both in another sibling argument that didn’t seem to let up until deep into the night.
“You know him,” Sookie stated, angrily, when she and Eric were alone in the privacy of their bedroom.
“I know of him,” Eric corrected.
“You worked for Rogan?” Sookie demanded, becoming more irate at the mere thought.
“Through Russell,” he replied, his tone indicating it was a job like any other. “Yes.” Sensing her upset, he tried to explain, “It was a long time ago. Sookie-”
“I don’t want to know,” she whispered, fearful she was about to burst out into tears again with the complete and utter lack of control over it all. She was so sick of all the tears. “I don’t want to know any of this anymore, Eric. Not being able to marry who you want, who you love, blackmail… I- I just want nothing to do with it. It’s all just a game to them, setting the pieces in place to claim victory. For what? So they can carry the title of the biggest boss and tell everyone what to do? Who they can and can’t marry? Don’t they realise all anyone ever does is lose?”
“It’s not important right now,” Eric pointed out. “It’s their issue, and they can continue to seek out that confrontation among themselves for decades to come. All you have to do is handle everything as Niall would have wanted and leave them be.”
“Niall would want an end to this, surely?” Sookie sighed. “He was filled with remorse and guilt. He’d been through this more than once, and it’s amazing that he did so with his sanity intact for that long.”
“Niall was just as greedy as the rest of them,” he replied with a hint of bitterness. “It’s all about leveraging the stock majorities.”
“What in heaven’s name for? All to be named CEO? That doesn’t make sense, Eric. The board appoints the CEO ultimately. The only reason I get to appoint one is for the bridging period, and even that is a stipulation of the initial trust, that it has to be a Brigant.”
“It matters because a significant majority appoints board members, an even greater majority will perhaps allow certain clauses in the trust to be overruled. The CEO’s relation to the board is what determines a good working relation or not.”
“You were right,” she groaned. “Money, power, or a combination thereof. It’s all they’re after. How pathetic!”
“Indeed,” Eric agreed, kissing the top of her head.
“Will you make me one of those charts?” she whispered, holding onto his hand as if he were about to step away though he made no indication to do so. He regarded her in question, she found the longer they were together as a couple, the less he seemed to speak, a silence that would most likely have frightened her before now gave a supreme sense of comfort as even in those non-verbal moments he seemed to speak volumes, and there was some pride in the fact that she was the only one who understood him completely then. “One of those flow charts,” she clarified. “Of the entire Brigant clan, where their loyalties lie, and what they would want from the company. Career, money, prestige, that sort of thing?”
He moved out of her grasp, unfolding a large sheet of paper that covered half the bed on which he had already started charting out exactly what she’d been asking, neatly noting all relevant information along an expansive Brigant family tree. “I love you, you know that?” she smiled, barely glancing at the information, knowing it was perfect no matter what, instead finding his face and holding it in between the palms of her hands.
“I do,” he grinned. “Doesn’t mean I don’t like hearing it.”
“I love you, I love you,” she repeated over and over again in between wild pecks to his face.
“And I love you,” he smiled, planting his lips firmly on hers, releasing her from the heavy black woollen dress that had weighed her down from the moment she had put it on. The large piece of paper fell to the floor as they tumbled into the bed. She hadn’t felt lighter or happier in that moment since a very long time, and for that she could only love him more.
“Ms. Stackhouse, may I have a word?”
Sookie startled, only moments away from stepping into her rental car after her latest meeting with Cataliades and Niall’s estate lawyer. She remained unnerved, despite vaguely recognising the face, “Brandon?”
“Yes,” he replied amicably.
“Is there something you wanted from Niall’s house?” she asked nervously, her Southern accent becoming all the more pronounced. Expecting him to look down on her derisively, much like his father when they first met in Switzerland, Brandon remained friendly and open with her. “If you want to pick up your things, there’s a number to call. With the lawyer. Upstairs.”
“I was hoping to take you to lunch,” he replied, barely acknowledging the nervous stumble.
“I don’t know,” she answered, unsure what the polite way was to whimper him off. “I should get back to Er… I mean my brother is waitin’ on me.”
“He can join us? We can eat something at your hotel? Coffee?”
“No,” she tried, frantically seeking another excuse. “Jason’s not really up for company now. A quick bite, maybe? Somewhere close?” she offered, his persistence unnerving her.
“I know just the place,” he grinned, pointing to a black sedan further down the parking lot, he instructed, “Just follow me, I won’t take up too much of your time.”
With a nod, she closed the door on her car, pulling out the vehicle of its slot while immediately calling Eric, hoping to fill him in and gain some sort of information on Brandon beyond the fact that he was Rogan’s eldest son. Frustratingly, Eric nor Pam seemed to answer their phone or the house phone while Claude’s immediately went to voicemail.
Brandon had led her to a small diner not far away, unassuming much like Merlotte’s had been, surprising Sookie with the man’s choice of venue, considering the luxury vehicle he drove and the crisp suit he wore. He held the door open for her, exchanging only words of propriety before they were seated and ordered a simple lunch of sandwiches and soup.
“Is this an application for the job of interim CEO?” Sookie asked as soon as their drinks were put down. “It’s a bit of a strange approach.”
“Hardly,” he chuckled, disarming her defences once more. “I know my name must circulate on that list of ‘possibles,’ but I also know it’s nowhere near the top. I was not sure how you’d react if I reached out to you otherwise. You’ve scorned all other methods of communication so far.”
“No, I haven’t,” she denied. “Maybe the hotel hasn’t been putting your messages through?” Sookie fibbed, though considering she’d checked out she’d have to assume they wouldn’t be taking her messages anyhow.
“I never tried there, I assumed with all the press you wouldn’t be staying under your own name,” he explained. “Privacy being what it is these days. It’s probably good we’re able speak now then, considering the company you keep.”
“The company I keep?” she asked in confusion.
“It’s hardly made you popular,” he noted dryly. “Had you gone without him, surely this transition with Niall’s will would have gone much smoother.”
“You mean…” she trailed off, becoming instantly defensive of Eric, not wanting to even acknowledge that he was ‘bad’ company no matter what his occupation, previous or otherwise. Gathering her words of anger and pulling her bag close to her body, readying herself to leave, she was completely taken aback by his next words.
“Cataliades, yes,” Brandon replied. “He’s working for more than just you, Ms. Stackhouse, if he’s really working for you at all.”
A/N: Dun, dun, dun… more next time I promise! Keep those conspiracy theories coming… I do so enjoy reading them 😀
Much thanks to msbuffy, who is also the reason for naming the terrible twosome Thing One and Thing Two.