It’s a cold, blustery day on the shores of Lake Michigan. Another snow storm had settled over the area the night before, depositing a fresh layer of snow over the already snow-covered town, making everything look crisp and clean again. Everyone who lives here is used to snow; it’s January so it is to be expected. It would have been more jarring to people if no snow was on the ground.
Sookie opens the door leading to the outside world and shivers as she feels a cold blast swirl all around her. She had moved her three years ago from Louisiana, and her body still has not adjusted to life in this frozen tundra. But she had chosen this place to escape to because it was the antithesis of where she had come from. When she’d left Louisiana, she’d wanted some place cold, some place metropolitan. The only requirement she had was that it not be Seattle. Her ex-boyfriend had moved there to be with Lorena, the woman he’d left her for. She’d applied to every school she could in the North and had been accepted to many of them. However, something about the University of Michigan called to her. The college campus itself was huge; nearly fifty thousand students were enrolled each semester. Yet, the town itself still had a small town charm to it. Much of the main part of the campus was nestled in the heart of downtown Ann Arbor. Lecture halls and administrative offices were intermingled with quaint stores and mom and pop eateries. Despite its small-town vibe, Sookie could still get lost in the crowd if she chose to. She had moved here with the knowledge that nothing was familiar to her, and that was exactly the way she wanted it. She was thankful that every street corner didn’t remind her of what she’d lost.
Closing the door swiftly behind her, she stands on the stoop for a few seconds to get her bearings. She’s thankful that she lives in a building where the owner takes pride in his building and works quickly to make sure that his tenants are taken care of. It’s a little before eight in the morning, but the sidewalk from her apartment building is swept clean and salt is down to prevent ice from forming. She looks around to see other people struggling to remove the snow or walk through the piles of snow that other people have failed to remove. Because of the newly fallen snow, Sookie is leaving her home earlier than usual, she cannot be late. She has an appointment today that she cannot miss.
Walking the streets of Ann Arbor, Sookie takes her time, carefully navigating the snow and ice to make sure she arrives at her destination in one piece. She’s going to be in enough pain later on as it is; she doesn’t need to add to it by slipping and falling because she isn’t paying attention to where she is going. Her first winter in Ann Arbor she hadn’t been paying attention to where she was going and it had sent her to the emergency room with a fractured wrist thanks to a patch of ice outside one of her lecture hall. Thankfully, not too many people are out and about this early, and those that are out are heading in the opposite direction from her. Sookie stops at a little bakery she adores, stomping her feet outside on the sidewalk so she doesn’t drag in too much snow and ice. She quickly opens and closes the door, removes her hood and gloves and walks over to the bakery case to look over the sinfully delicious creations that Mr. and Mrs. Wiorowski (pronounced Wire-OW-ski) have to offer.
“Hello beautiful!” Mr. Wiorowski, a man nearing his seventies, grins broadly at Sookie when he recognizes her. He is a rotund and ruddy gentleman with thin wisps of white hair around his head that he staunchly refuses to get rid of even though he is for all intents and purposes bald. His shirt sleeves are rolled up as usual because of the heat from the ovens. His apron is decorated with flour, egg, and frosting. He is a jolly man who remembers the names of his regular customers and spends time chatting with each one. “When are you going to run away with me to somewhere tropical? This cold is no good for these old bones,” he says with a wink and a shiver.
Sookie smiles shyly and blushes, still embarrassed by the teasing affection of the older man. She knows he’s harmless; he’s been in love with his wife since they were kids and married her the moment they were both old enough to do it. She finds it awe-inspiring in this day and age that two people can stay together that long and be more in love now than the day they married.
“Why would she want your old Polish bones when she could have the strapping Swede down the street?” Mrs. Wiorowski comes out of the back of the bakery with a fresh tray of piping hot cinnamon buns that makes Sookie’s mouth water. She slides the tray in the vacant space in the display case and brushes her hands on her apron. “I know I would,” she says with a wink to Sookie whose blush deepens.
Mrs. Wiorowski is a woman who has lived a life full of happiness and love. She’s born four children, who have had fourteen grandchildren, and there are now even great-grandchildren in the mix. Family is the most important thing to Mrs. Wiorowski and it has always hurt her tender heart to see Sookie struggling alone in the world. In the three years that she has come to their café, not once has she made mention of any family or friends. The only person they knew of that was as concerned with the petite wounded blonde was the aforementioned Swede down the street, who also happened to benefit from Sookie’s patronage though not as often as he would have liked.
“So my beauty,” Mrs. Wiorowski says to ease Sookie’s embarrassment, “what can we get you today? I’ve got those triple berry muffins you like. Or we could do up a breakfast sandwich since it’s so cold. Something to warm you up from the inside out,” she offers with a smile as she comes to stand beside her husband.
“Well, I need an assortment of pastries to take to the guys, and I need something with a lot of protein for myself,” she says shyly. “Oh, and three large coffees, extra hot.”
“Paul, you take care of the pastries; I’ll get Sookie a protein breakfast sandwich.” She moves towards the door leading to the kitchen, but stops to glare at her husband. “Make sure you put some of those cinnamon rolls in the box. Eric loves them. Oh, and Godric likes the blueberry scones,” she says as she pushes through the door to get to her kitchen.
“Woman I know what they like! They’ve come here for nearly twenty years, since Godric was taller than Eric. I don’t need you telling me what they like!” Mr. Wiorowski shouts good-naturedly at his wife as he pulls the blue box from the cabinet to begin loading it with pastries. Mr. Wiorowski also throws a few pastries in the box that Sookie likes, knowing she is going to be spending a lot of time with Eric and Godric today. He fills the box to the point that it is overflowing, needing to use tape and string to hold the box closed. All while filling the box, he makes small talk with Sookie, trying to get her to smile and laugh. He knows today is significant for her, but he doesn’t know why it holds such great importance. The few times she has been to the shop down the street owned by Eric and Godric has been to commemorate a milestone in her life. Eric has been in here a few times the last week working on the sketch for Sookie, asking the bakery owners what they thought of his design. The one thing that had stuck out to the three people was that there were three sets of initials in the design, none of which were her own.
Mrs. Wiorowski comes out of the back room carrying a tray holding three large coffees and a bag holding something that seems to be steaming hot. She sets the items on the counter and begins ringing up Sookie’s order. Of course, the Wiorowski’s never charge Sookie full price when she buys a large order like this. To the older couple, she is like family and they want to help her any way they can. On more than one occasion, Mrs. Wiorowski has offered Sookie a job because of the delicious treats that she has made for them, but the Southern beauty refuses, saying it’s merely a hobby. They know she’s a student, though she is slightly older than most college kids they see. But they have no idea how she survives on her own; she’s a full-time student with no job and lives alone off campus. How is that possible?
“Are you sure you can manage everything dear? I’ll be more than happy to escort you down the street. It’ll do those boys good to see how a gentleman treats a lovely lady,” Peter Wiorowski says roguishly to Sookie as he watches her try to juggle the box and tray after she gets her gloves and hood back in place. “Who knows? You might realize I’m too good to pass up, and decide to run away with me after all. We could be in the surf and sand by dinner,” he says with a wink.
“Peter Davidov Wiorowski you leave that poor girl alone!” His wife Anna waves her hands at him to get him to stop, though she too smiles with humor. “She doesn’t need old men like you drooling over her. Sookie needs a man who can keep up with her, not one who needs her to push them around in a wheelchair. Now let the poor girl be on her way. We don’t want to make her late for her day.”
Sookie gives the elder couple a genuine smile as she walks to the door which Mrs. Wiorowski hurries around the counter to open for her. Sookie thanks them for everything and tells them she’ll see them again tomorrow. Once Mrs. Wiorowski closes the door, she looks at her husband with sad eyes. “At least she won’t be alone today, the poor dear.” Anna Wiorowski begins to tear up thinking about Sookie.
Her husband comes around the counter to embrace his wife, soothing her as he holds her close. “At least she smiled for us today, Anna. It’s a step in the right direction. Don’t worry, moja miłość (my love); Eric will take care of her. He won’t let her be alone.”
Oblivious to the turmoil her departure created, Sookie hurries down the sidewalk so she won’t be late for her appointment. He said nine on the dot; they have a lot of ground to cover today and he needs all the time he can get. Sookie, in her haste to get to her destination, forgets the golden rule when it comes to snow and ice: walk, don’t run. Her foot hits a patch of ice and she has a Wile E. Coyote moment. Her feet slip on the ice, scrambling back and forth to find purchase. Oh not again, Sookie thinks as she can feel her body going down. She prepares her body for impact, knowing it’s going to hurt like hell when her body collides with the frozen pavement. Concrete is unforgiving on a good weather day; in winter, it’s a frozen fortress of pain that can slay the mightiest of dragons. Fortunately for Sookie, her knight in shining armor appears in the nick of time.
“I gotcha,” a deep male voice says as one arm wraps around Sookie’s waist and the other grabs her arm to steady it so she doesn’t spill the hot drinks all over herself. The arm around her waist becomes a steel band from which there is no escape and it pulls her body close to his, helping steady her with his larger frame. Bright blue eyes gaze down with concern at her murky brown ones. Sookie feels her skin heat with embarrassment and she stammers apologetically as her savior helps guide her around the treacherous ice.
“Why are you apologizing? I’m more worried about you than a crushed pastry or spilled coffee,” Eric says as he opens the door to his shop. His arm is no longer wrapped around her waist, but he still feels the need to touch her so he keeps his hand lightly on her back, guiding her inside. He knows she can’t feel his touch on her body, but he needs the contact to reassure himself she is OK. He’d been on the lookout for her for the last half hour, knowing she would be early for her appointment. Eric had smiled warmly when he saw her bundled form walking briskly down the sidewalk. He knew it was her because of the cranberry colored coat she wore and the matching accessories. Even if she had been in all black, he would have known it was her; he’d swear he could pick her out of a roomful of people even if he was deaf, dumb, and blind. It’s difficult to ignore the one you love. His happiness at seeing her was overshadowed by his horror when he saw her start running because she felt she was late. He’d rushed outside just as she hit the patch of ice. Without a care his own well-being, Eric had flung himself down the steps and across the sidewalk to catch her. Fate smiled down on him for being there in time. He wished he was always there to catch Sookie in time, help her avoid pain and heartache in any way he can.
Sookie sets the tray of drinks and mangled box of pastries on the counter by the cash register, far away from anyone’s work station. “I thought I’d be nice and bring you guy’s breakfast. Here I go messing it up,” she says glumly and looks down at her shoes while beginning to remove her outerwear that protects her from the elements. She’s going to be here for a long time today, so she might as well be comfortable.
“You didn’t mess anything up doll; it’s still a wonderful surprise, and I appreciate it,” Godric says as he breezes in from the back of the shop. Today he’s used gel to make his hair stand straight up on his head. There are dark shadows under his eyes, the kind that form when one hasn’t slept in days; with him, that is a distinct possibility. Several of his tattoos peek out from the neck and short sleeves of his gray t-shirt. His feet click against the linoleum floor thanks to the motorcycle boots he’s wearing. A leather chain dangles from a clip around the belt loop of his jeans to the wallet in his back pocket. Godric’s eyes light up when he sees the coffee and pastry box. He eagerly cuts off the string Mr. Wiorowski tied around the box and digs out a blueberry scone. He takes his first bite and moans in ecstasy. “I swear they put crack in their food. Nothing in my life has ever tasted as good as the stuff that comes from their shop!” Godric wolfs down his scone before retrieving one of the coffees, which he drinks black without anything extra.
Sookie and Eric shudder in revulsion seeing him drink the coffee untreated as it were. Sookie likes her coffee drowning in creamer with a hint of sugar, whereas Eric likes his full of sugar with a splash of cream. While Sookie works on undressing from her jaunt through the winter wonderland outside, Eric fixes the two remaining coffees for them. Knowing Sookie would be here today, he’d bought her favorite kind of creamer. It’s not his favorite since he prefers half-and-half, but he is willing to do anything to put her at ease on today of all days. It’s such a little thing, but he knows that she’s such a coffee addict. She always gets this happy little smile when her coffee is exactly the way she likes it. It reminds Eric of that blissful smile an addict gets when they get their first fix.
“So beautiful, are you sure you want to do this?” Godric has polished off a second scone while Eric is still on his first cinnamon roll. It’s still warm so the icing is slightly gooey and tastes absolutely divine. The sticky goodness is all over his fingers once he finishes eating, so he licks as much of the icing off as possible before turning around to wash his hands in one of the sinks. His eyes catch Sookie’s in the mirror and he can see her blushing again. He’d like to think it’s because she finds him attractive, and she had thought naughty thoughts while he’d licked and sucked his fingers. But not once has she ever given him any sign that she is interested in him that way, not for lack of trying on his part. From the day they first met in the Wiorowskis’ bakery, Eric has been fascinated by Sookie. She reminds him of a wounded animal, a little bird with a broken wing that no longer sings. There is no joy in her eyes, only a haunted expression that breaks his heart. He wants to heal her, to make her smile; he wants to see those eyes light up for love for him as his eyes shine for her.
“Uh yeah,” she says to Godric after hurriedly turning away from Eric’s heated stare. Her blush is only more pronounced given the all black clothing she wears and her pale skin from the cold outside. Like most women in Ann Arbor, Sookie wears a pair of black thermal compression pants that mold to her body like they are painted on. Eric’s never understood how those thin pants keep women warm when it’s colder than a witch’s tit outside, but who is he to complain when it gives him a wonderful view of Sookie’s shapely legs that lead up to an ass that’s meant to be grabbed and held on to.
Stop it Northman, he chides himself. He needs to work around this girl all day. Having a hard on is only going to make her uncomfortable not to mention the discomfort he’ll be in. As it is, he’s going to have enough issues since his hands are going to be on her naked flesh for hours. He’s fantasized about touching her nearly every night for months on end. Even with other women, he’s fantasized it was Sookie. That makes him a bastard, he knows it, but he can’t help that he wants the timid waif standing in his shop. Today he finally gets access to her naked body, even if it isn’t exactly the way he wants. But then again, it turns him on to know that she will forever have part of him with her. It will be his design, his handiwork that graces the flesh of her back as he draws the tattoo she wants on her skin.
“Sookie,” Eric calls as he dries his hands using the disposable paper towels. She turns to look at him with her lower lip caught between her teeth. “Are you nervous? I promise I will be as gentle as possible and I’ll stop as often as you need me to. We don’t have to rush to finish everything today. I want you to be as comfortable as possible,” he says as he comes to stand beside her. He longs to touch her, to soothe her. When she had approached him before with this idea, he knew it had special meaning to her and she was adamant that it be done today. He’d cleared his schedule so that he can devote all day to her, but he will not rush to finish this if it’s more than she can handle. Most people who get larger designs done take more than one session to have the tattoo applied to their body, but Sookie wants to have it all done in one day. He doesn’t understand her need, the drive to have her tattoo, which will cover the upper right half of her back, including her shoulder, and wraps around to finish on her ribs, finished all in one day.
Sookie looks up at him, her brown eyes shining with sincerity. “I trust you Eric. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t. Let me just eat breakfast and then I’ll be ready.” They had learned the hard way before that Sookie needs to have a lot of protein and sugar in her body when she’s getting a tattoo or else she starts to get light-headed. It’s a common problem among people; it’s no different from when some people faint or become woozy while giving blood. It’s why Godric and Eric keep an endless supply of juice and hard candies in the shop. Trying to pick up huge burly men off the floor that faint isn’t the easiest thing in the world to do and they would rather avoid it at all costs.
Hearing Sookie say she trusts him though makes him feel good inside. He still remembers the day she’d first come in here. Eric had thought she’d been a lost coed when she’d first walked in that fall day wearing her jeans and Michigan sweatshirt. He knew who she was because he’d seen her at the bakery off and on for weeks, but she always ran off like a scared kitten when he’d tried to engage her in conversation. Eric had chalked it up to her being a fresh-faced kid on her own for the first time, but Mrs. Wiorowski had come through for him. She told him what little she’d learned of Sookie. Eric could have kissed Mrs. Wiorowski for all the information she’d been able to feed him about Sookie, especially when he learned from Sookie that Anna Wiorowski was the reason she’d come to his shop that chilly fall day. He hadn’t recognized her until she’d pulled the hood of her sweatshirt down. That was the first time he had the privilege of inking up Sookie’s beautiful body. It had been simple, but meaningful to her: a pink ribbon on the back of her neck with her Gran’s initials in the loop of the ribbon, her birthday in the lower left end of the ribbon, and the day she had died in the right. Eric had paused before putting the ink to her neck for the date of her Gran’s death; the day Sookie got the tattoo was the second anniversary of her passing. Sookie had sat silently through her first tattoo, even though tears had fallen from her eyes nearly the entire time Eric was working on her. When he had finished, Eric had given her the instructions on how to care for her newest artwork, not commenting on her tear-streaked face though he had noticed her utter heartbreak. Before she could put her sweatshirt back on, Eric had pulled her against his body for a hug, nothing aggressive, just offering her a shoulder to cry on in her time of need. Sookie had stood still as a statue until her tiny arms had wrapped around his waist and she’d held on while her tears soaked the black fabric of his shirt. Eric had only released her when he felt the sobs completely stop, his hands having moved rhythmically up and down her spine though he was careful to avoid her tender neck. Rather than say a word about her outburst, Eric wiped the tears from her face and gave her a tissue so she could blow her nose. Instead, he rolled up the sleeve of his shirt, pointing out a tattoo of a Celtic cross. Sookie had been fascinated by the fine detail in the cross, the black ink swirling in intricate patterns that most would not appreciate. But what caught her eye was the single word hidden in the swirls of the ink. If you weren’t looking for it, you would miss it because of how well it blended in with the cross. Eric had told her that he got the cross with “Mor” as part of the design in memory of his mother, whom he lost as a teenager to a drunk driver. He’d told her that day that all tattoos should have meaning; no one should mark their body unless they were prepared to live with the memories. He said getting his tattoo had been a way of letting go of all the anger, hate, and frustration that had surrounded his mother’s death. Now he can look back at all the good times. Eric had told her that when he sees his tattoo he thinks of his mother reading him stories as a boy or her epic culinary failures in the kitchen, not the overwhelming grief he felt at her loss. The pain never goes away, but it does hurt less with time.
That day had marked the beginning of Eric’s, and later Godric’s, relationship with Sookie. She still seemed painfully shy when either of the guys would talk to her, but she didn’t avoid conversation with them; in fact, she sought them out, having come in their shop many times since that first day. Sometimes she had extra ink put on her body; sometimes it was just to hang out. To the guys’ knowledge, Sookie has three tattoos on her body thus far: the pink ribbon in honor of her grandmother on her neck, a fleur-de-lis on her left hip, and her favorite quote tattooed around her wrist like a bracelet.
Eric escorts Sookie back to the secluded area where he and Godric do the tattoos that are on the more private areas of the body. He tries to keep himself busy as Sookie begins to undress; unfortunately his station is already set up for today’s work. It had been readied the previous evening so he could have as much time as possible to work on Sookie’s tattoo today. Eric turns his back so he isn’t staring at her like a peeping tom but where he stands allows him to watch her in the mirror. She’d shed her outerwear in the main area of the tattoo parlor, but given the area where she wanted her tattoo, she needs to be completely topless. The first article of clothing she had removed was her oversized sweater which had hidden the waffle-knit long-sleeved shirt underneath. When her hands grip the hem of her shirt, Eric’s hands painfully grab the metal tray holding his sterilized equipment. The biting of the metal in his flesh keeps him from leaping across the small distance to put his hands underneath her shirt, sliding them up along the smooth tanned flesh, teasing the sides of her breasts as he steals a kiss from her lips when the shirt is past her mouth yet covers her eyes. His fantasy is so vivid of what he wants to do to Sookie that he lets himself get lost in it for a moment as she carefully folds her shirt on top of her sweater. However, when he sees her delicate hands move behind her back to undo the clasp of her bra, he forces his eyes shut and concentrates on taking deep breaths. He hears her rustling behind him and can tell when she climbs up on the padded table. Eric waits until she says she is ready before he turns around. Even then he keeps his head down and his eyes averted so he isn’t fawning over her like the divine temptation she is.
“I couldn’t get the drape across my back. Can you do it for me?” Sookie’s voice is muffled against the table. It reminds her of a massage table with the circular padded pillow with the opening for her face. She has her arms lying next to her body, waiting for Eric to begin his work. Her braid rests over her left shoulder so that he can begin his work.
Eric scrubs his hands at the sink, using both antibacterial soap and Hibiclens to clean his hands and forearms thoroughly. After washing and drying his hands, he puts on a pair of nitrile gloves and turns to begin the process of cleaning and shaving Sookie’s skin. When he turns around, he pauses in shock unprepared for the scene that is waiting for him. Sookie had asked him questions about scar tissue, and if a tattoo could be applied to an area that had scar tissue. Eric and Godric had explained that the tattoo could cover scar tissue, but it would be a painful process. Also, there would be some concerns that the tattoo would distort the image to be tattooed. Sookie had brushed off the idea of the pain and explained she wanted her tattoo to cover up a scar on her back. What Eric is looking at isn’t a scar though.
“Sookie,” he says hoarsely, horrified by the damaged skin he sees on her shoulder. “What the hell happened to you?”
She sighs, a deep shuddering breath that rocks her entire upper body. She turns her head to look at Eric, but quickly turns her head back when she sees the horror on his face. “I got burned,” she says flatly. “The skin graft didn’t take all the way, and that’s the scar I’m left with. Now do you see why I want to cover it up? It’s hideous!”
“Sookie look at me,” Eric says gently trying to get her attention, but she refuses to turn her head. Rather than fight with her, he walks around the table and crouches down by her face. Her eyes are clamped shut to avoid looking at him. Unable to resist his wounded bird, he begins stroking her hair, his fingers grazing her cheek. “I’m horrified because of what you must have endured, not because of the marks on your body. You are one of the strongest people I have ever met. I’m in awe of you because of what you must have survived,” he says tenderly which has her eyes flying open in shock. “You my little dove, are the most beautiful person I have ever met. Don’t you dare think less of yourself for being a survivor.”
“My last boyfriend said they were hideous and didn’t want to touch me because they disgusted him. He ended up cheating on me with some trashy brunette that had more plastic in her body than Barbie,” Sookie says as tears creep out of the corner of her eye.
“I hope the asshole gets leprosy and his dick falls off while inside Whore Barbie,” Eric says vehemently.
Sookie sniggers through her tears and smiles softly at Eric. “Thank you.”
“Do not thank me for wanting to go find this asshole and beat him with a mace until his body looks like it’s gone through a meat tenderizer,” Eric says darkly as his hand caresses the scars on her back. His touch, despite the glove covering his skin, is gentle and soothing, helping to take away some of the ache that has lingered in Sookie’s psyche. Sookie releases a broken sigh as she allows someone other than a medical professional to touch her scars for the first time. Eric’s touch makes her feel things she thought she would never feel again; it stirs something inside her that has lain dormant for far too long. Her one eye stares at him as he continues to familiarize himself with the contours of her ravaged body. She expected to find revulsion, but only finds concern for her well-being and pride that she was strong enough to survive. Eric’s reaction does as much to repair Sookie’s shattered spirit as did her decision to cover the scars with the tattoo.
Eric clears his throat and flushes slightly. He stops caressing her skin and instead begins the process of cleansing the area before shaving it. Sookie turns her face to rest against the pillow again, taking deep breaths as Eric touches her body. The first time he had touched her body to tattoo it; his touch had been professional, detached even. But this time there is a difference. Sookie can tell that Eric cares for her. It is more than the compassion one human feels for another that has suffered; it runs deeper, it’s personal. She is surprised to realize that all of their interactions over the years have meant something to him. Sookie thought he was just being friendly at the Wiorowskis’ bakery, possibly hoping to generate repeat business; perhaps he was only nice to her because of the older Polish couple. As she lies there, she realizes Eric saw her, not just as a potential customer. What surprises her more though is when she realizes that somewhere along the way; she had begun to really see him too. She hadn’t thought twice about who she would come to for this tattoo. Godric may have had more experience, but it was Eric she trusted to design what she wanted, and more importantly, it was his hands she wanted to mark her permanently.
With practiced efficiency, Eric has prepared her skin for his design and wets the tracing paper that will be his template. Sookie follows his instructions as he goes about the process of transferring the template to her skin. She had seen the drawing last week when she had come in. Eric had drawn several options based on what her requirements were and she had selected the one she liked the most. Everything had to be perfect; there are no second chances when it comes to something like this.
As Eric presses the tracing paper against her skin, his fingers accidentally graze the swell of her breast as he applies the tail feather appliqué around her ribs. The contact causes them both to freeze. Eric is the first to recover, moving over to the tattoo machine to begin priming the machine to add the black ink that will outline the drawing. His back is to Sookie so she cannot see how much the innocent touch affected him. However, she is left feeling as if her body is on fire. It has been a long time since a man has touched her body sexually, and it is both exhilarating and confusing to realize that Eric is the one to inspire this feeling in her. How long has she had blinders on to what was right in front of her?
Eric peels the tracing paper off her body and holds another drape up for Sookie to use around her body. “Here, so you can sit up and make sure you like the placement of the design.” Eric averts his gaze from Sookie’s body so she can sit up. Her fingers sweep over his as she grabs the paper blanket and she smiles shyly at him as her cheeks flush. Eric grins awkwardly at her, something akin to the way he looked when he was twelve when his first crush had smiled at him across the hallway. He moves around the room to place the mirror behind Sookie so she can see the planned design of her newest ink. She twists slightly to look at the tail feathers and nods her approval. While Eric puts the mirror back, Sookie resumes her prone position. Eric takes off his gloves and scrubs his hands and forearms again. There is a reason they say cleanliness is next to godliness. One can never be too careful when it comes to preventing infections or insanitary conditions.
As he pulls on another pair of gloves, he turns his attention back to Sookie. “You sure you want to do this all in one day? It’s gonna be a long process.”
“I’ll be fine Eric; I promise,” she says firmly. What shocks her is that for the first time in four years, she really believes it.
The hum of the tattoo machine ends up putting Sookie to sleep shortly after Eric begins work on the outline of her design. The pain of the needles is nothing compared to what she has endured in the past, and since she is the one insisting that all of this be done today, what else does she have to do while lying here?
Eric has kept an eye on her the entire time he had worked, making sure that her vital signs are OK and that she isn’t in any type of distress. Godric has come back to check on his progress a few times, but the more experienced tattoo artist knows Eric doesn’t like others breathing down his neck while he works and he certainly doesn’t want to talk while he is focused on his craft. Godric had seen Eric’s design earlier and had been impressed with the level of detail in the tattoo. He admired the intricate design Eric had created to merge the words, letters, and numbers Sookie had wanted. He knows that the sleeping beauty on the table is not one to get a tattoo on a whim. Godric is curious about the meaning behind the tattoo, but he will not press her. If she wishes to share, she will.
“I’m gonna get something to eat. Do you want anything? And what should I get her?” Godric plays with his keys in his pocket as Eric sits up from his hunched position.
“Protein would do her some good. How about some burgers from Krazy Jim’s? Get her a couple of patties with cheese and bacon. Get some onion rings, fries, and fried vegetables too. I’ll have my usual.” Eric turns off the machine and pushes it to the side so he can stand up. “Do you want money?” He takes his gloves and mask off before reaching for his wallet.
“I got this round,” Godric says waving him off. Now that Eric has moves away from Sookie’s body, he walks further in the room to get a good look at the design on her body. Godric whistles appreciatively. “Even if you don’t color that in, it’s still a beautiful piece of work.” He notices the scars hidden among the design but wisely chooses to say nothing; if they wanted him to know, they would have told him.
“I’ll be back soon. I’ll lock up so you guys aren’t bothered while I’m gone.” Godric strides out of the back room. A moment later, the bell on the door rings as Godric opens and closes the front door. Eric listens to make sure the lock slide in place before he got up to wash his hands again. He rolls the muscles in his back and shoulders to work loose the tension that is creeping in from having sat in one position for so long. In four hours’ time, he’s managed to completely outline the phoenix on Sookie’s back as well as to begin coloring in the bird. He’s working his way from the inside out with the color, using the lightest colors first before ending with the deep blues and purples that will edge the wings. Eric dries his hands on one of the disposal towels, staring down at Sookie’s back. His thoughts vary as he looks at the woman sprawled so peacefully on table. Should he wake her or should he let her sleep?
“I can hear the wheels spinning in your brain,” Sookie mumbles sleepily. Her eyes are still closed and her deep, even breathing had made him think she was still sleeping. Her eye opens drowsily to find Eric sitting in the chair beside her. He’s leaning forward in the chair with his elbows resting on his knees, his hands dangling in between his spread legs. She smiles softly as her eyes drift closed. “Penny for your thoughts.”
“Tell me why,” Eric says gruffly. “Why this specific design? Why today?” He is desperate to know her motivation behind her tattoo.
Sookie’s eye opens again. Gone is the sleepy playfulness that was present before; in its place is the haunting sadness Eric is used to seeing. “Do all of your tattoos have meaning?” He nods his head. “Will you tell me what they are?”
Eric rises from his seat and retrieves a hospital gown from one of the cabinets in the room. He brings it over to Sookie. “You can put this on so you can sit up. It ties in the back and shouldn’t touch your shoulder too much. Then I’ll tell you the meaning behind my ink.” Eric turns around and closes his eyes, waiting for Sookie to move and cover herself. He hears the rustling of the paper sheets and her grunts of pain as she sits up. Her movement is slow and deliberate as she tries to move her body as little as possible so she does not hurt her shoulder. A new tattoo is a fresh wound that needs to be taken care of meticulously so that infection does not set in. It feels on fire and raw at the same time, so Sookie will be moving gingerly the next few days as well as wearing loose clothing so as not to press against her newly inked shoulder. Sookie’s quiet, “I’m ready,” has Eric looking over his shoulder before turning around. She looks so frail in the oversized hospital gown. He wants to go to her and hug her, but does not. The few times he’s flirted with her, she ran away like a frightened bunny escaping a fox. The few times she’s been receptive to his touch was when she needed comfort, saving, or a strictly professional capacity.
Eric moves to sit next to her on the table, leaving enough space between them so she feels comfortable. He lifts his shirt over his head so she can see all the tattoos he has on his upper body. There are five in all, a surprisingly low number given his chosen profession.
“You’ve seen this one before,” Eric says pointing to the cross with ‘Mor’ hidden inside it. “These,” he says pointing to tattoos that look like primitive writing decorating his clavicle, “are Norse runes to remind me where I come from.”
“What do they say?” Sookie’s fingers itch to trace the pattern of the letters. She’s never denied that Eric is an attractive man. But seeing him like this, in the jeans that cling perfectly to his bottom half and shirtless with his tattoos proudly on display, makes her want to jump him. It’s been a long time since she’s been intimate with a man; that son of a bitch Bill had made her so self-conscious about her body that she had been afraid for years to put herself out there that way. But Eric doesn’t see her as damaged; he sees her as beautiful and desirable. She hasn’t been completely oblivious to the fact he is attracted to her, but for the longest time she wasn’t ready for anything like that in her life. The time has finally come though where Sookie is ready to be among the land of the living again.
“This one is for strength and this one means warrior.” His finger lingers over the one for warrior. “My mother used to call me her Viking warrior,” he says with a nostalgic smile.
Sookie smiles too, sharing in the happiness of the memory. “What’s the anchor for?” Her fingers brush against the tattoo of the navy and yellow anchor that decorates his forearm. She traces the simple yet beautiful design with her fingers and Eric shivers. Sookie watches in fascination as his stomach muscles tighten and his tiny rosy nipples harden. Her smile gets bigger as her fingers continue to caress his skin. It feels good to be touching him; it feels right.
“I was in the Navy for a few years. When Mor died, Far sent me and my sister back to Sweden to live with his parents because we were a bit unruly,” he says with a wry grin.
“You? Never,” Sookie says sarcastically and grins.
“Shocking I know,” Eric says with a similar grin on his face. “When I graduated school, I entered the navy. Sweden still had the draft when, so service was mandatory. I could have avoided it by coming back here, but I thought it would be good for me to have structure and discipline in my life. Had I come back here and gone straight to college, I probably would have flunked out because I would have been too drunk to go to class. I was in the Navy about two years before I got out. So the anchor is to remind myself to stay grounded and disciplined.”
Eric turns around to show Sookie the last tattoo on his back. In bold, black ink, there is a giant tree, but it’s unlike any tree Sookie has ever seen before. It’s impressive in terms of its size and complexity. It takes up the entirety of his back. Sookie looks in awe and her fingers graze across his flesh as she traces the pattern. She asks in a hushed tone, “What is this?”
“It’s an Yggdrasil,” he explains as his hands grip the edge of the table. “It’s similar to the Celtic tree of life, but this is the Norse version. The roots extend to three different bodies of water in the heavens, while the branches extend to the Nine Realms.”
“It’s more than just a tree though,” Sookie murmurs as her fingers trace a familiar quote on his back. The Dumas quote from The Count of Monte Cristo is the same one that she has wrapped around her wrist like a bracelet. That had been the second tattoo Eric had done for her. It had been to remind her to never give up. When life knocks you down, pick yourself back up and fight harder.
“There are quotes in there that have special meaning for me. Words to live by,” he says with a slight shrug. “Whenever I find a new quote that I want to add, we add another branch to the tree.”
“Godric has done all of these?”
Eric looks at her over his shoulder. “My designs; he puts the ink to my skin since I can’t do it myself.”
She smiles again as her fingers trace over a quote from Nietzsche. “Don’t tell Godric, but I prefer you be the one to do my tattoos.”
Eric turns around so they are facing each other again. He feels pride and possessiveness sweep through him at Sookie’s shyly spoken declaration. “I knew it’s because you liked my hands on your body,” he says while wiggling his eyebrows at her suggestively, which makes her laugh.
“Well that might be part of it,” she says with a wink and a smile. Eric feels as if his heart is ratcheting up to overdrive. Did she just flirt with me?
“You understand that every tattoo has meaning to me,” she says softly as she grabs his hand to link their fingers together. “You treat every tattoo I’ve gotten with respect. Hell, you do that no matter how ridiculous the tattoo is. I still remember the guy who got the Chinese takeout carton tattooed on his bicep. I could tell you thought it was stupid, but you never said a word. Godric . . . It’s not that he’s disrespectful, but he . . .” Her voice trails off as she struggles to define why she prefers one artist over the other.
“He tends to be flippant or cavalier. He doesn’t take things too seriously,” Eric says in understanding. “Godric is very . . . Zen when it comes to life. There is no good or bad; it just is.”
“That first tattoo,” she says misting up and squeezing his hand tightly between hers. “You knew perfectly well that it was the anniversary of my Gran’s death. Instead of offering hollow condolences, you shared something of yourself that let me know you knew where I was coming from, that you understood the need to remember. And you were right; I’m able to remember the good times now instead of how that damn disease ravaged her body but never her spirit. I can remember her teaching me how to cook and bake and let go of what the disease did to her at the end.” She says giving him a watery smile.
“The fleur-de-lis?” Eric brushes his thumb across her knuckles, enjoying the feel of her soft warm skin in his own.
“I’m from Louisiana. I got that on the anniversary of the day I left. I’ll never forget where I come from, even if I never plan on going back.”
“Why didn’t you let me tattoo that one on you?”
“Because it seemed less intimate if I let Godric do it,” she says with a flush.
Eric had been so jealous of Godric getting to do that tattoo for Sookie. He’d been busy working on a full sleeve for a customer when Sookie had come in for her third tattoo, which had been the fleur-de-lis. His eyes had kept straying to Sookie’s body as Godric worked, his eyes hypnotized by the bronze flesh that was her stomach and hip. She’d gotten that one in the summer and Eric had not seen any tan lines on her body. She hadn’t really acknowledged his presence at all that day, which had irritated him too. She had talked and joked around with Godric, and it had grated on Eric’s nerves to hear her tinkling laughter over the sound of the tattoo machine. He hated to admit it, but he’d been jealous of Godric that summer day. It had been the day he finally realized that his feelings for Sookie ran deeper than as a friend and were definitely more profound than just wanting the opportunity to feel her body next to his. Over the summer is when Eric finally realized he loved her.
“And the one today? Why is it so important we finish it today?”
Sookie exhales shakily, her eyes dropping to look at their joined hands and not at his face. “The phoenix symbolizes rebirth. It’s a mythical bird that burns up only to be reborn from the ashes. Four years ago today, my parents and brother were killed in a fire that ravaged our parents’ home. The appliances were old; there was a gas leak coming from the water heater. Someone went to light a candle because they thought it smelled like a skunk or something,” she says with tears pouring down her cheeks. “The whole kitchen was engulfed in flames. Momma and Daddy were in the kitchen; my brother was in the living room. I was in the bathroom when I heard what sounded like an explosion and then the screams.” She looks up at him with that haunted expression he’s seen so often. “I’ll never forget it for as long as I live,” she whispers.
“Sookie,” Eric says in a voice filled with pure anguish. He wraps his arms around her as carefully as possible, letting her lean against him as she fights to regain control of her emotions. He knew something bad must have happened to her, but this is far more than he could have ever imagined. Her entire family was taken from her in an instant. It was hard enough losing his mother suddenly as a teenager. He couldn’t possibly imagine what it would have been like to lose his father and sister too. His inability to cope with his mother’s death had been what prompted his dad to send him and Pam to Sweden, but it’s not like his father gave up on them completely. He visited as often as he could, called, and emailed nearly every day. The relationships he has with his father and sister are strong; they are a close-knit family. If he didn’t have them, Eric doesn’t think he would have survived.
“I tried to get to them, but the flames were everywhere. I couldn’t reach the kitchen, but Jason had managed to get to the hallway. I dragged him outside, but he was badly burned. He ended up dyin’ in the hospital from his burns and smoke inhalation. But Momma and Daddy…”
“Shhhh,” Eric says as he rocks her back and forth as she continues to cry. He hums softly trying to offer comfort, not knowing what to do or say. He places kisses against her head as she lets go of everything and weeps. Eric loses track of how long Sookie cries in his arms, but it doesn’t matter. He’ll hold her like this for eternity if that’s what she needs. There is nothing he wants more than to be the man she turns to when she needs comfort; the man who loves her and is loved by her in return.
“It’s their initials in the tattoo,” she mumbles against his wet skin. “Corbett, Michelle, and Jason Stackhouse. I spent a long time recovering from my injuries, had a skin graft to fix the worst of the burns, but there are still scars. My ex,” she says in disgust, “left me for another woman while I was healing. I needed a fresh start; I hated all the memories, the looks of pity, and all the reminders of what I’d lost.”
Sookie leans back and stares intently at Eric. “So I came here. It’s taken a while, but I’m ready to move on. Today marks my rebirth; I will rise up from the ashes and fly again,” she says determinedly.
“I am in awe of you,” Eric finally says after several minutes of silence. “Thank you,” he says brushing a kiss across her brow.
She looks puzzled. “For what? I should be thanking you since I cried all over you.”
“For telling me the significance of your tattoos…sharing your history with me…for just being you,” he says as he squeezes her hand again.
“Someone once told me that the tattoos I put on my body should be the story of my life. This tattoo symbolizes the last chapter of my old life. I’m looking forward to the next chapter of my life,” Sookie says firmly.
“Sounds like a wise man,” Eric says remembering the words he’d said to Sookie long ago. “I hope I’m lucky enough to design the tattoos depicting your future,” he says with a smile
“I was actually hoping you might be willing to share my future,” Sookie says shyly as she blushes prettily.
“You mean…” Eric’s voice trails off as he stares at her in stunned silence. He couldn’t possibly have heard her right.
“Eric would you like to have dinner with me tonight? I can’t think of anyone better I’d like to start my future with,” she says with a hesitant smile.
Rather than give her an answer right away, Eric leans forward to brush his lips against hers, something he has fantasized about doing for years. Her lips are salty from her tears yet sweet and warm. He moves slowly against her mouth, his hand coming up to rest against her cheek. Eric wants to deepen the kiss, but he keeps himself in check; there will be plenty of time to take things further later. “I’d love to,” he says with a brilliant smile before he swoops down to kiss her again. Her lips are addictive and now that he’s had a taste, he’s never letting go.