“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.”
“Did you think I meant someone else?” Brandon chuckled, and with forced amusement Sookie laughed along, hoping to disguise any genuine doubt and inadvertently revealing anything suspicious.
She shook her head for added emphasis, “I’ve known him all my life, I’ve never considered Uncle Des as anyone else but a family friend.”
“He froze all the company assets on your behalf when he had no authority to do so,” he pointed out. “Did he at least bother to inform you that it fell outside of your mandate?”
“I didn’t even know he did that,” Sookie confessed. “By my own admission I’m not really very experienced with any of this. Uncle Des knows the law…”
“And he knows all the loopholes and grey areas,” Brandon interrupted. “He has a reputation.”
“I’m aware,” Sookie replied tersely.
“I don’t mean to attack you,” he apologised, surprisingly sincere. “I simply wanted to explain why not everyone was as welcoming, especially after the stunt Niall pulled at the family reunion.”
“Stunt?” she stammered.
“Not the shooting! I meant your presence,” he clarified. “Your existence, the bastard line was one he’d utilised more than once to exert his position of power. It became rather audacious when it appeared you two had been lured there without any knowledge of why exactly you were invited.”
Sookie took a long sip from her tepid coffee, pretending it was still very hot to explain her lack of reply while contemplating how she felt about being termed ‘the bastard line,’ and a ‘tool’ of leverage. “We knew,” she finally lied.
“Did you?” he responded with some surprise. “You had me fooled, then.”
“But not your father,” she assessed with a knowing look.
“You’ve sized him up then,” he smiled, a hint of insecurity hiding among it. “Yes, there’s little that surprises him.”
“Must be tough,” Sookie noted, receiving a look of surprise in return, causing her to elaborate, “To have as your father, when he already knows everything about you before you can ever manage to catch up. Never to be able to surprise him means you can never really please him, can you?”
“Forever the child, no matter the age,” he agreed melancholically. “Your father was like that, too?”
“No,” she sighed, “My mother, I never could do anything right by her.” He nodded in understanding, coming to stare at his suddenly empty cup. “Is Uncle Des all you wanted to talk to me about?” she asked, hoping to change the sudden sombre tone the conversation had taken.
Brandon snapped out of his reverie rather quickly, “Mostly I was hoping you’d assign someone soon, perhaps Claudine? She wouldn’t be my choice, but it would settle the unrest inside the company, well, mostly the family.”
She nodded, curiosity plaguing her she posed, “Say this was an interview for the interim CEO, and assuming the board takes you on permanently. What would you do with the company?”
“Split it up in parts, leave the pharmaceutical production to carry on as its mainstay,” he explained with enthusiasm, instantly at ease while talking candidly about a subject he was intimately familiar with. “Focus on targeted research and development, work on things that can really mean something rather than simply settling a bottom line. We should lead on innovation, not simply follow. It means taking higher risks with possible greater rewards, but accepting the inevitable failures as well. We’d have to move the headquarters away from here, somewhere with better legislation to explore the possibilities of future medicine. Modernise the management structure while we’re at it.”
“You’ve thought about this a lot, then?” Sookie smiled.
“Once or twice,” he grinned. “Not that it matters, there are too many traditionalists within the family who despite never having worked a day in the company, or any other for that matter, believe things should remain exactly as they are because that’s always worked, that any whiff of failure in the name of experimentation spells out the imminent end. They don’t see that if we simply keep doing what we’re doing and don’t shake off the constrictions of our past we won’t get a choice in doing this ourselves, some other giant will come along and buy up all the public stock till it has a share of power and forces our hands. No archaic trusts will save us then. They’ll present it as a merger, maybe if they’re feeling kind, but we’ve been ripe for a hostile takeover for years. With Niall gone, the situation will only become more urgent.”
Sookie couldn’t help but remember stoic Sam, refusing to listen to her and the other waitresses over small simple improvements, not being heard and the frustration it could cause. “What matters more to you, the company or the name it carries?”
“The name is more burden than anything else,” he shrugged. “There’s great potential in the company, if only it was allowed to grow and diversify. It’s been shackled to old power structures for far too long.”
“Claudine? She’s a part of that, isn’t she? She’d continue in the same vein?”
He nodded, signalling the waitress for a refill, “I believe she’s even my father’s first choice, despite not being his daughter.”
“The shareholders, would they be up for the changes as you propose them?”
“Of course, they’ve been urging steps like these for years. Niall’s appeased them in little increments as much as the family was willing, but…”
“Never quite enough to substantiate true change,” Sookie surmised.
“Exactly,” he beamed. “If you don’t mind me saying so, you’re far smarter than I assumed, Ms. Stackhouse.”
“Call me Sookie,” she smiled. “And don’t worry, you’re not the first one to make that assumption.”
“Very well, Sookie. I apologise, I’ve kept you here for far longer than you probably wanted.”
“It was an interesting conversation. Therefore, very much worth my time,” she replied, grabbing a napkin she started scribbling her contact information. “If anyone needs me, call that number. I’ll have a chat with Uncle Des, make sure things aren’t harming the company unnecessarily. That should never be the aim, I want this to go as smoothly and as quickly as possible like everybody else.”
“That is a disputable fact,” he laughed, getting up and placing a stack of bills on the table.
“What do you mean?”
“It is rare to have all the noses pointed in the same direction when you’re talking about the Brigants,” he explained. “Stick with us and you’ll come to long for dictatorial power structures soon enough.”
“I’ll take that under advisement,” she returned dryly.
“Where were you?” Sookie demanded, finding Jason fast asleep in the house, the ‘Things’ still mysteriously absent, though she suspected they were on another fact-finding mission in Niall’s house, along with a missing Eric and Pam.
“Talbot’s,” Eric explained, appearing slightly caught out. “He’s selling a vacation home he and Russell owned a few hours away from here. Pam wanted to see him, and we figured you’d be tied up all day.”
“Oh,” she said, deflated with how life just seemed to move even without her in it. “You never said.”
“Yeah, it’s fine,” she denied.
“Okay, it’s not,” she admitted. “Just get settled in, then we’ll talk.”
Not much later the twins guiltily snuck into the house, pretending to have been there all along while clumsily hiding a set of papers behind their backs. Begrudgingly they handed them over to Sookie, who, after a quick glance, returned them after deeming them innocuous bank statements from 1992.
Eric settled in at the table beside her where she was diligently studying the chart he had made her, tracing her fingers over the connections, whispering the outcome of the complex sums that represented the internal power relations of the Brigant family.
“What are you looking for?” Dermot asked curiously, observing the two.
“Everything and nothing,” she smiled back. “Mostly, where Uncle Des fits in.”
“Desmond?” Fintan posed, joining the small assembly.
“Yeah,” she replied, explaining her unscheduled lunch meeting with Brandon. “We spoke over the phone after, Uncle Des explained he’d needed to freeze everything momentarily to assess everything for the estate, but he did so on a Friday and it took longer than usual to unfreeze everything again. It was an honest mistake.”
“But,” Eric urged, sensing, despite the reasonable explanation, the doubt seeded by Brandon hadn’t been eradicated.
“He never told me, I think,” she sighed. “Maybe he did, I’ll never know for sure really. There was such an information overload whenever we spoke, but-”
“It wasn’t his job to do so,” Fintan finished. “Niall’s estate lawyer should have been the one, if Desmond wanted a secondary assessment he should have gone through him.”
“Yeah,” Sookie agreed. “Then there’s something else he said this morning, I wanted to discuss his payment. I mean I can’t expect him to do this all for free, but he whimpered me off, saying I was family. I want to trust him…”
“What did he say, Sookie?” Fintan pressed.
She sighed, “‘You never hired me as your lawyer, my dear.’”
“He is your weakest link, always has been,” Eric assessed, directing himself to Fintan.
“The thought has occurred to you before, then?” Sookie asked, receiving a confirming hum in reply from Eric.
“He was your conduit to Halina,” Eric explained. “If it wasn’t you, or Niall. At the very least he knows. For years he’s been voting on your behalf, Fintan. He said he did so through my uncle Olle’s instruction, but I’m not sure if that’s fact or fiction. Olle would have had to have known of that trust, I don’t think he did.”
“He spoke badly of Dermot,” Sookie remembered. “Why would he?”
“To turn your wandering minds in the opposite direction and at the most obvious culprit?” Dermot shrugged. “Don’t worry, I’ve been accused and held accountable for far worse.”
“I thought I had his loyalty,” Fintan exhaled, suddenly appearing very much his age.
“It doesn’t have to be him,” Sookie interjected. “Someone in his immediate circle perhaps, or maybe he has skeletons in the closet of his own that are leveraged against him?”
“Unlikely,” Fintan denied. “He couldn’t live with that loss of control hanging over him.”
“His loyalty has always been something that’s for sale, not earned,” Eric countered, remembering the steps and extortionate amount of funds necessary to merely arrange their initial meeting when still unaware of his connection to Sookie.
“I’ve never known not to trust him,” Fintan sighed. “You’re right though, he knew of Halina, of your family. I could never think to suspect.”
“And he knows the power those votes hold in her possession,” Sookie added. “As defacto trustee of her trust, he leveraged the votes one way or the other without having to really account to anyone.”
“The trust with Halina holds more than just my shares, she bought in some of her own, too,” Fintan added, his hands rubbing at his temples. “He might simply be leveraging them for someone?” he voiced hopefully.
“It’s worth taking a closer look at all Niall’s files, rule him out first,” Eric offered, looking towards Sookie for permission.
“Sure,” Sookie nodded. “But all roads are leading to Rogan, aren’t they?”
“Probably,” he smiled, tracing the ring on her finger with his thumb.
“What do we do if it’s him?” she whispered.
“Play the game,” Eric answered, gesturing at the chart that covered the table. “Seek alliances, find your own majority, and beat him at his own game. Take away the control from him, and watch as he crumbles or gets desperate. Eventually he’ll trip up.”
“If we can’t trust Uncle Des we’ll never even get close to getting the majority we need,” Sookie pointed out. Addressing Fintan, she added, “Unless you’re willing to rise from the dead?”
“That wouldn’t work,” Fintan replied. “The trust isn’t in my name, and we made sure my name wasn’t attached to it in any shape or form directly. It was supposed to protect Halina.”
“Well, there’s your solution,” Pam declared, chewing on an apple, only butting into the conversation when she breezed in looking for a snack and becoming distracted by the large chart. “You marry Jason to Claude.”
“What?” the pair in question, previously deeply intrigued by something on the TV, exclaimed at the sound of their names.
“Don’t look at me like that! It’s legal now.”
“Never mind the fact that only one of us is gay,” Jason cried out. “We’re cousins!”
“Far enough removed and you’re Southern after all,” Pam shrugged. “Makes for a neat little power alliance, and it gets even better if you have children.”
“IVF?” she taunted. “You’ll make a beautiful bride, Jason. No one will ever suspect you’re showing at the altar and then; BAM! Game over suckers!”
“Pam, enough,” Eric warned.
“What do you think of Brandon?” Sookie asked, sitting side by side with Claude scanning Niall’s files with tired eyes, looking for anything that possibly connected him to Cataliades or anything else suspect.
“Young,” he replied, slightly distracted. “Ambitious. Loathes his father, a true Brigant tradition.”
“I’m thinking of putting him in charge of the company,” she tested.
“Unusual,” he shrugged, “but not terrible.”
“You really think so?” she asked with some relief.
“Give the other candidates the same prerogative of an interview and make up your mind then,” he replied. “By the sound of it, though, you’ve already made up your mind. So just do it for appearances sake then. Worst comes to worst, you can always offer up my exceptionally beautiful head.”
“You’re incorrigible,” Sookie smiled, pulling another file. “Thanks.”
Not wishing to waste any more time, Sookie conducted the remaining interviews quickly with the help of Cataliades, leaving the others to continue ploughing through Niall’s vast collection of documents. Despite the doubt that suddenly surrounded the lawyer there was no going on without him, possibly raising suspicion if they did. For her grandfather’s sake, Sookie also hoped that his old friend wasn’t the one who had betrayed him.
“I think we’re both in agreement that Claudine is the best candidate for the job,” Cataliades hinted over their shared cup of coffee.
“I think they’re all equally qualified,” Sookie returned, trying to sound as neutral as possible. The uncertainty with her godfather was making her weigh every single word that came from him, whether she consciously wanted to or not. His knowledge of her skill was also making it all the more difficult to elicit anything of truth from him without him being too aware of it.
“Your choice,” he shrugged, making it appear it wasn’t at all.
“But you’d pick Claudine,” she assessed once more.
“Yes.” He allowed his fingers to drag down his jaw, resting them at his chin, elaborating, “Take the wind out of her fight by giving her what she essentially wants.”
“That’s letting the terrorists win, Uncle Des.”
He chuckled, agreeing with her, yet standing by his recommendation, and considering the other interviewees there wasn’t much of a counter-argument, “When are you returning home?”
“Not for awhile,” she answered with some confusion. Was he pushing her to go home to Sweden? “Jason might return soon with Pam; he needs to get back to his rehabilitation program.” She filed away her notes, hoping to sound professional she asked, “Do you mind vetting Brandon?”
“For the position?”
“Yeah,” she shrugged. “I told you, we had a good conversation.”
“He’s far too green,” he dismissed. “Claudine is the way to go.”
She couldn’t help but bristle at his insistence, which made her wonder if he was now pushing Brandon, knowing she’d revolt and make the opposite choice. Trying desperately not to let any of her inner turmoil show, she offered thoughtfully, “They’ve worked here for the same amount of years.”
“Not at the same level, Sookie. Stop arguing this, we both know Claudine should be the one in charge,” he lectured sternly. “Don’t make things difficult.”
“I’m not,” she replied, apologetic in tone, but not feeling it one bit. “If Niall wanted her in charge, he would have indicated as such in his will.”
“That would certainly have made things easier,” he agreed with another laugh, the one that had always been assuring to her suddenly felt mistrustful. “I’ll have him vetted if that’s what you wish.”
“Thank you,” she smiled back, finishing her cup as quickly as possible before bidding him a polite goodbye, fearful that if she stayed with him any longer she’d react, how she wasn’t quite sure, but surely it wouldn’t help anyone.
“Dermot thinks he’s found something,” Eric greeted when she arrived home, exhausted despite the early hour of the day.
“About Uncle Des?” she asked with concern, her feelings on the man still unsettled, even more so by their meeting.
He shook his head, showing the aged documents displaying a transaction with the Coleman & Coleman company. There it was again. The name, Coleman, ultimately circling back again to Claudine.
“Where did you find this?”
“Niall’s safe,” he replied. “Only just managed to stop the Things of Terror from attacking it with an axe grinder. Pam had it open in under half an hour. How were your meetings?”
“I have to take this,” she responded with a frown when she saw Cataliades’ name appear on her buzzing phone. Carefully she listened to the slightly frantic tone as he informed her rumours reached him that an unknown party had been courting large stockholders to sell their shares in speculation, making the board exceptionally anxious. “A hostile takeover?” she asked, remembering Brandon’s warning about something like this happening.
“Yes,” Cataliades answered. “Sookie, you no longer have the time to mull over the candidates at length, you must put Claudine in charge now.”
“I’ll call the board and inform them of my decision,” she agreed, sensing the relief it caused on the other end of the line, declining his offer to speak to them on her behalf twice and assuring him she’d call the moment she hung up. Eric regarded her curiously, overhearing parts of the conversation, until she moved away to call the representative of the board, conversing at length.
“You had no choice in the end then?” Eric asked when she hung up.
“I don’t like being manipulated,” she replied. “I was made to believe I didn’t have a choice, but I did.”
“So we’ll be dealing with Claudine from now on?” Claude drawled, looking rather deflated by that news.
She shook her head, “Nope. If you’ll excuse me, I need to call Brandon and congratulate him on his new position.”
“What is this?” Sookie whispered in surprise. Eric had led her deep into Niall’s expansive garden to a wooden folly lit up with candles by a small pond, a meal for two laid out.
He shrugged, “Thought it would be nice, just the two of us.”
“This isn’t like you,” she voiced suspiciously. “What did you do?”
“Nothing,” he chuckled, leading her in. “It may have been Pam’s idea.”
“Ok, then,” she smiled, taking the seat he pulled out for her. “Don’t think I could handle anymore crazy confessions tonight. Why aren’t you taking your seat?”
“Sookie,” he started, appearing very nervous all of a sudden.
“No!” she cried out in abject horror when she suddenly saw him move to the floor, looking up at her from one bended knee.
“Not exactly the reaction I was hoping for,” he chuckled, taking her shaking hands his and presenting the sparkly ring in its velvet box between them. “Like I said, Pam has the right idea. Just not the right people, this time it’ll be for real.”
“Eric, we can’t,” she whimpered. “The repercussions-”
“I’ve discussed it with Talbot, there’s no way I can do this without exposing Russell,” he replied, ignoring her cries of protest. “He gave me Adonia’s ring as his blessing. I’ve asked Jason and Fintan’s permission for your hand.”
“No, we can’t,” she protested again, tears falling from her eyes that had little to do with joy. “That’s strapping a target on your back, Eric. Don’t do this out some noble act of love. The Brigants aren’t worth it. We don’t even know whether Uncle Des has been the one betraying us-”
“Until we’re sure, and we can’t find that certainty any other way, he holds a power that you need by your side with a person you know you can trust. Sparing Halina the fate of my family was always the factor I couldn’t comprehend, Cataliades commanding such a large amount of shares in secrecy all these years is almost compounding his complicity in something. Not to mention the great lengths he’s going to to isolate you when the toughest decisions need to be made, I don’t not trust him, but I can’t trust him either. Neither can you. I need to reassess myself as Halina’s long lost grandchild, then it’ll all be mine to command,” he explained, the logic of it all doing little to settle her concern for the risk involved in exposing himself. “It’s not why, though. It’s because I love you and I don’t see that changing and we shouldn’t need to hide that. And because it will end this power struggle once and for all. It’s right because we’re right.”
“Kismet,” she said with a wet smile, remembering just the word he’d used to describe their chance meeting and subsequent story once.
“Kismet,” he agreed.
“For how long will you be gone?” she whispered, barely able to meet his eyes, hating how right he was no matter how wrong it felt in the moment.
“Peder thinks two months at most. We prepared the paperwork for reclaiming my family’s estate a long time ago, but one can’t expedite the formalities. I’ll take Jason back with me, Pam will stay with you. She’s the only one I trust to keep you safe.”
“So until then I’ll be here, holding down the fort with the Things and my very own bodyguard?”
“Pretty much,” he chuckled. “Get your practice in mothering our future offspring. Adonia’s ring comes with certain stipulations.”
“You’ll be careful,” she commanded sternly, pulling him to his full height, and hugging him tightly wishing never to let go. “Don’t you dare die on me, Eric Northman! Promise me that!”
“I promise,” he replied with a broad smile, seating himself with her in his lap. “I’ll be back before you know it.”
“Then what, a hostile takeover of our own?”
“Guns blazin’ and all,” he grinned with supreme satisfaction, his gleaming eyes displaying just how much he was looking forward to this showdown.
She pulled the necklace hidden beneath his shirt, revealing the dented bullet that hung from it, a present she purchased him for their first Christmas together, feeling the weighted warmth of the metal in the palm of her hands. “It all comes down to bullets with you and me, doesn’t it?”
Eric chuckled, “You knew that from the moment you met me, and you knew a single bullet would end this all. Now what do you say, will you marry me again, for real this time?”
“Yes,” she beamed, despite the hesitation knowing the risk involved. “Yes, I will.”
A/N: Yep this is the end, I hope you all enjoyed and let me know your thoughts.
I will most likely add an epilogue (depending on response) to wrap up some of the loose ends and unknowns, I like my endings open but I can understand that with this story and all its twists and turns some lingering questions might want answering. EDIT: I’ve added an epilogue in four parts, simply click on the next button above.
Much thanks to msbuffy for all the work she’s done on this chapter and the story as a whole, I wouldn’t know what to do without her at this point. 😀