3. Barbed Wire Fence.

As the actress dabbed at her red eyes and runny nose with a tissue, Arlene wondered what on earth could be done about her client’s situation. Sookie had recounted the previous week’s events for her agent from the phone call from Bill through the multiple conversations she’d had with him about his attitude, to his threat that he could get Sookie fired if she refused to continue their relationship, not just in a public sense but a biblical one too. It was one thing to say breaking up with him wouldn’t look good in the papers or magazines but for him to tell her that her job was on the line unless she stayed with him was a completely different shade of wrong.

“I can’t do this Arlene! This is Quinn all over again. Bill told me that if I refused to have full sex with him he’d expect ‘oral pleasure’ in lieu of it or he’d go to the director.”

“That’s extortion honey and he’s not going to get away with it, you stick to your guns and I’ll handle the network.”

“What? You mean like Alcide did all those years ago?”

“That isn’t fair on Alcide to say those things Sookie, as I understand you accepted the deal to protect your family despite Alcide advising against it.”

Before Sookie could admit that she’d made a low blow, Arlene’s phone rang. Sookie blew her nose as quietly as she could and checked the time; she still had a couple of hours before she was due on set. Arlene’s face went from annoyed to surprised in about three seconds flat.

“Wow! Eric! It’s great to hear from you!” Sookie paused her sniffling to listen in on Arlene’s side of the conversation. “You got them? Fantastic! We’re really happy about the all the work that you’re putting into Sookie’s site, it looks fantastic so far.”

“Arlene!” Sookie hissed.

“Could you hold on a sec Eric? Sookie’s trying to get my attention.” Arlene pressed the hold button on her phone. “What’s up honey?”

“I saw a site that has the Actor doing a ‘welcome to my page’ video on it; does Eric think we should do that? I was gonna email him last night but Bill came round and …”

Arlene nodded and pressed the hold button again. “Hi, Eric … Eric? Are you there?” She sighed and hung up the phone. “He sounded really nervous, apparently his counsellor has been asking him to call people he’s never spoken to before and I guess being put on hold was a little too much for him.”

“He’s getting counselling? For his …”

“Agoraphobia and anxiety, yep. I’ll email him your idea and ask if he’s okay.”

“And my Bill problem?”

“I’ll call the network and ask for a meeting ASAP. In the meantime tell him to take a long walk off a short pier.”

Sookie nodded and decided to make her way to the studio early, she liked hanging around with her cast-mates and the coffee was good, she just hoped Bill would be busy. While she was driving she thought about this Eric fellow having counselling and wondered if something similar could help her from getting involved with assholes, she had refrained from making friends for so long – how could she ever know she could trust them, and when she put herself out there look what happened. Her relationship with Bill had never been great, there was always something nagging at the back of her mind that things weren’t totally … right but she stuck with it because he seemed to see beyond her past. Sookie had told Bill exactly what had gone on back in California, he knew how she’d been blackmailed into keeping quiet for the sake of her career but now, here he was trying to do the same thing to her that he’d cursed Quinn, Ms. Pelt and Barry Horowitz for. Did he think that because she had gone along with it once she’d be all too willing to do it again? Or maybe he was just so insensitive and selfish that the thought he was repeating a process hadn’t occurred to him?

As she walked into the studio Arlene sent her a text to tell her that Eric was fine and he was onboard with the welcome video for the site, Sookie replied asking her agent to set up whatever Eric needed from her while grabbing a large cup of coffee from the catering stand. Cursing as the hot drink burned her mouth; she used her foot to open the door to the lounge area but dropped her cup when she took in the sight before her.

Bill was up against the opposite wall with Lorena’s legs wrapped around his waist, acting quicker and clearer than she thought she was able, Sookie held up her cell phone and snapped a photo of the Captain and his second in command screwing in the cast lounge. Bill was oblivious to Sookie’s presence but Lorena started slapping his shoulder as soon as she locked eyes with Sookie.

“What the fuck Lorena? I’m almost done!”

“Bill.” Lorena hissed. “Get the fuck off me right now!”

Bill slowly turned his head to see what Lorena was staring at, a snarl upon his lips and anger obvious in his expression. Sookie snapped another photo and ran when she saw Bill barrelling towards her.

“Gimme that goddamn phone bitch!”

Sookie’s legs were working as fast as they could to get her somewhere safe, she searched the corridor for signs of security and smiled in relief as she saw Andre walking towards her.

“Andre! Andre, he’s after me!”

“Who’s after you chicklette?”

“Bill. I caught him screwing Lorena and took …”

“Sookie, you gimme that phone right now or I’ll … oh … uh … hi Andre.”

Andre stepped slightly in front of Sookie and glared at Bill. “She should give you the phone or what Mr. Compton?”

Behind Andre, Sookie was sending the photo’s she just took to Arlene’s cell and email. She was vaguely aware of Bill making some lame excuse for chasing and threatening her to Andre and didn’t even want to think about what might have happened if she hadn’t found the security guard. Peeking round Andre’s small but blocky body, she saw Bill back away glaring at her and taking out his own phone. Knowing how PR worked from the shitty end of the stick, she dialled Arlene and hoped to God she wasn’t busy.

–**–

Eric was scripting Sookie’s ‘Welcome to my site’ speech and wondering if she wanted to do it in front of a real camera or via webcam when his phone rang. He stared at it, then around the room as if someone was going to appear to tell him who it was, the screen flashed ‘Arlene Fowler’ and Eric’s eyebrows disappeared into his hairline – why on earth would she be calling him? Arlene knew all about his problems and how things had to be on his terms for him to handle things. He picked up the phone in a sweaty hand and grabbed his ‘stress level evaluation’ sheet, he noted down the number 70 in the ‘before’ column and pressed the green button.

“Hello?” His voice was scratchy from his dry mouth so he took a sip of water.

“Eric? It’s Arlene. Look I know you’re still trying to cope with … stuff but we have a problem. I need you to have an official statement on the site now; this is something we can’t keep silent on.”

“Uh … okay, I’ll just put you on speaker and you can dictate what you want it to say.” Eric opened a word document to take a rough draft and noted his anxiety was actually less than it was before he answered the call. He noted the number 50 in the ‘during’ column.

“Great! Okay here’s what we want it to say.

“It is with sadness that I inform my fans that my relationship with Bill Compton is over, things have been strained since before I started working on Galaxy Pioneers with him and our working together seems to have further exposed some negative personality traits we previously tried to ignore but I cannot and will not ignore infidelity. I wish Bill the best of luck with his career and thank my fans for their support in advance during this trying time. Please have faith that this upheaval in my personal life will not affect my work on Galaxy Pioneers and will not prevent me from making my scheduled public appearances.

Love to all
Sookie Stackhouse”

That wraps things up quite nicely, don’t you think?”

“Uh … he cheated on her? What a dick!” Eric made a note on his sheet that his anxiety had been replaced by anger and was now at 30.

“That ain’t even the half of it honey! You wouldn’t believe what’s gone on between the two of them in the last week.”

“Okay well, I’ll get this up ASAP. Is there a reason for the rush?”

“Yeah, as we speak Bill’s PR team is probably trying to find a way to spin the fact Sookie caught him fucking another woman up against a wall and turn it around to blame her.”

“Shit! She actually caught them at it? How on earth are they going to find a way to blame that on her?”

“It’s PR honey, there’s always a way, even if you have to stretch the truth a little. I’m sorry for calling you but it was the fastest way to get this moving.”

“Actually … I’m fine with that. Call anytime Arlene.”

He ended the call and wrote 20 in the ‘after’ column before updating the site. When Arlene had put him on hold this morning it had triggered a fairly intense panic attack, he was at home alone and had to use the breathing technique Al had told him to and rationalise his reaction. He had been rationalising that it wasn’t likely that Arlene had put him on hold so she could make fun of him with someone and when he got her mail apologising and asking if he was okay, it clarified his feelings towards dealing with the agent – if she had been laughing at him then she wouldn’t have done that. His computer pinged as it received a new email; he was surprised to find it was from Sookie.

To: Eric Northman
From: Sookie Stackhouse
Subject: The latest News
I hope, by now, Arlene has contacted you and asked you to update my site and I also hope that the sudden request hasn’t made your anxiety issues flare up but this is the crazy world of fame and unfortunately the machine stops for no-one!
We have a meeting with the director and producers soon to talk about the statement that Bill’s PR people released, please cross your fingers for us as they’ve laid it on pretty thick and at this point in time, you’re one of the only people on my side. Either I or Arlene will update you after the meeting so we can give you another update for the site.
Much love
Sookie

Eric was a little confused as to what she meant by Bill’s PR people ‘laying it on thick’ and checked Bill’s site to find out see if that could clear things up. The amount of anger he had felt when he heard that Bill had hurt Sookie by cheating on her was miniscule compared to the level of rage he was experiencing as he read Bill’s official statement.

Dear loyal fans. It is with a heavy heart that I admit to you that I have had to end my relationship with Sookie Stackhouse, as you all know, Miss Stackhouse has a dark sexual history and after trying to deal with her requests through our relationship I could no longer stand to be asked to partake in orgy’s and threesomes. I am a clean living, one woman man and I am proud that I did not give in to Miss. Stackhouse’s salacious demands. Any accusations of infidelity are completely unfounded and I am extremely sad that someone would accuse me of this disrespectful behaviour. I am, as ever, thankful for your support during this heartbreaking and stressful time.
William T Compton

Eric was astounded at the route Bill’s PR people had taken, what kind of man cheats on his girlfriend then tries to convince the public that he was tired of her sexual demands? He was caught screwing another woman, there is photographic evidence of it, yet he still denies it? The guy is either far too stupid or far too confident, either way it wasn’t good for Sookie – it was pretty obvious that neither Sookie or Arlene fought dirty, and Eric knew Jack shit about PR, he suddenly thought that this situation was a lot deeper than he ever wanted to go. As an ardent Sookie supporter and the webmaster of her site would he be a target? What if Bill’s PR people found out about him and made his condition public? Eric felt the familiar and unwanted tightening in his chest and heard the ringing start in his ears, he reached for a paper bag and tried to rationalise his fears, tried to make them unfounded and ridiculous … but he couldn’t.

–**–

Sookie stared in wonder at Rasul, the creator and director of Galaxy Pioneers, then she switched her focus to the visibly angered expression Bill and his agent, Clancy, were sporting.

“What do you mean we’ve made a huge mistake?” Clancy sputtered. “The statement we published on allcompton.com was accurate!”

“Are you kidding me?” Rasul stood up and held his iphone two inches away from Clancy’s face. “In the statement it was denied that Bill had messed around while he was still involved with Sookie, does this look like a faithful man?”

Clancy opened and closed his mouth and Bill shifted in his seat before speaking up. “I had already broken up with Sookie due to her sexual proclivities prior to this happening.”

“That’s a bald faced lie Bill Compton!”

“Calm down honey, just let him dig his own grave.” Arlene patted her arm reassuringly.

“Bill, I know you’re a big draw for the show and you’re a decent actor to boot but not decent enough for me to believe that the time stamps on these photo’s and your statement make your story truthful and, to be honest, even if you are telling me the truth – screwing another woman hours after dumping a deviant doesn’t make you a good guy. Now this is a shit storm because the statements on you and Sookie’s sites contradict one another, someone is embellishing and I’m inclined to think that it’s you Bill.”

“Sookie has no reason to lie about breaking up with Bill, if anything, seeing as so many think she only got this job because she was screwing him, she had more reasons to keep the relationship going for the sake of her image.”

“She doesn’t have an image!” Bill stood up so fast his chair scooted a few feet behind him. “The only reason she’s got this gig is because she was screwing me! Rasul! You can’t let this … harlot bring the show bad publicity!”

Rasul laughed and waved his hand in front of him to indicate that everyone stop talking. “Seriously? There’s no such thing as bad publicity and aside from an isolated incident almost six years ago, Sookie has done nothing to promote an image of promiscuity. What exactly is it you want me to do Bill? Do you think I’m going to fire a damned good actress because you couldn’t keep it in your pants?”

Both Bill and Clancy looked taken aback by Rasul’s attitude; Arlene smirked and drummed her long fingernails on the tabletop. “Well, gentlemen, I’m not sure what else there is to talk about. Sookie’s place in the cast is in no danger and as reputations go, the coin toss is favouring my client. Bill, Clancy – I expect that bogus statement you put on the site to be retracted and a public apology to be made to my client, or those pictures find their way to every tabloid on the east coast.”

“Not gonna happen.” Clancy crossed his arms over his chest and Bill snorted. “We stand by Bill’s version of events.”

“Hmm.” Arlene tapped a finger against her chin. “I wonder what Lorena and her representatives would make of that. As Rasul previously mentioned, you dump one woman for having loose sexual morals then hours later you’re fucking a different woman against a wall? That doesn’t look good for you or Lorena.” Rasul smiled as Bill and Clancy showed their shock at Arlene’s words. Contrary to Eric’s musings, it seemed that Arlene actually did know how to play dirty. “Maybe you should speak to Lorena’s reps before you make any hasty decisions boys, after all, the shots Sookie got clearly showed who Bill was giving the good news to. Leaking the pictures isn’t an idle threat and trying to blacken my client’s name by dredging up a past that isn’t even accurate is beyond low.”

As Arlene and Sookie left the room and didn’t stop walking until they were next to Arlene’s car. Arlene sighed and dumped her briefcase on the roof of her Altima.

“Sookie, even if Clancy and Bill retract that statement the damage is done. The incident in Cali is a black mark against your character and you can bet dollars to donuts that this won’t be the last time it’s dragged up to try and make you look bad.”

“I know, it’s … I try to make it stay in the past but …”

“But nothing, you’re a big girl now. When that asshole blackmailed you while disguising it as a deal, you were a child, Alcide knew it was wrong but you and your parents were so fucking gung-ho about you being some big star there was nothing he could say that would sway you and make you do what should have been done in the first place – put the bastard in jail and try to come out with some semblance of respect for yourself.”

Sookie’s eyes welled and her lips quivered. “I get it Arlene, I made a mistake! Don’t you think I realised that as soon as I agreed to the crazy deal?”

“Sook, I’m not saying these things to upset you – I’m trying to say that you were an impressionable child when that deal was made and now that deal is coming back to bite you in the ass as an adult. It’s time Sookie; it’s time for the goddamn truth!”

“But they’ll ruin my family, they said so.”

“What exactly is it they have on your family? Nothing! That’s what! Your brother is retired through injury, there’s no career to ruin. Your parents are living the quiet life in Corning, your Gran isn’t around anymore … there’s nothing vaguely truthful that they can come up with to hurt you.”

Sookie nodded slowly. “I get that but they’ll just make stuff up and by the time we prove them wrong the damage will have been done.”

“Don’t you think they’ll be far too busy dealing with the mess that Quinn, Pelt and Burnham created to be spinning tales? You were a minor and they covered up the fact you were raped, they sent away the doctor that your parents called to examine you, they omitted that you wouldn’t have even been in that situation if it was not for John Quinn. Even if they manage to wade through that crap and try to counter with a sordid tale of woe from someone your third cousin bullied as a child – no-one will take it at face value, any publication worth its salt will question whatever comes out of their mouths.”

“So … how do we go about this?”

“We call Eric, that’s what we do. Instead of recording a ‘welcome to my site’ blurb, we record a ‘my shameful past was all a lie to protect a rapist’ candid confession. This has to be kept under wraps; we can’t trust anyone in the business not to leak what you’re doing. Eric is tech savvy, he can set up and film, I’ll help you with the speech.”

Sookie took a deep breath and closed her eyes, after listening to what Arlene said she realised that her agent was right on the money – it was time for the truth. She nodded and Arlene smiled widely, pulling out her phone and searching the contacts for Eric’s number.

–**–

“Eric? Dinner’s ready … Eric?”

Pam padded down the steps into the basement and looked around for her son; he wasn’t on any of his exercise equipment or in front of his computer or resting on his bed. Pam sighed and knelt down next to the bed, poking her head underneath to find Eric hugging his pillow with one arm and using the other to hold a paper bag to his mouth. Pam sat back on her knees and started massaging her temples with her fingers; she thought he’d been doing well with his counselling, she thought he was starting to make progress.

“Eric honey, what’s happened?” She heard Eric muffled voice from inside the paper bag beneath the bed. “I … I can’t hear you baby boy. Think about what Al told you about your breathing, concentrate and feel the anxiety leave your body with every breath.”

She watched as the paper bag slid out from under the bed, closely followed by Eric, he looked at Pam and she could see how haunted his expression was. Pam put an arm around him as he settled on the bed and rubbed his shoulder lovingly.

“Do you want to come upstairs for something to eat or do you want me to bring it down here?”

Eric looked surprised and placed his bag and pillow on the bed. “Don’t you want to know what set me off?”

“Well.” Pam shrugged. “I’d like to know but I’d prefer that you told me about it when you were ready to talk about it. Now, what do you want to do about dinner?”

“Uh … I’ll come up, thanks Mom.”

Pam ruffled Eric’s hair and laughed as he batted away her hand before taking his hand and walking upstairs with him to the kitchen where Felipe was patiently waiting to eat. Smiling, the family sat down to their meal, the only noise in the room being the scrape of cutlery on plates and enthusiastic chewing. Pam was clearing away the dinner plates from the table as Felipe sliced up a pumpkin pie for dessert.

“They … uh.” Eric cleared his throat and rubbed his hand across the back of his neck. “They want me to help Sookie do something for the website. Arlene called and said that they trust me and that she and Sookie want to come here to … do the thing, y’know, because I can’t go there.”

Pam stood stock still, holding the plates over the sink, her mouth parted and her eyes darting around the room as she tried to think of the best thing to say. She placed the dishes in the sink and turned around to lean against the counter.

“Okay, is that why you were in your safe place?” Eric nodded and Felipe wondered again where this ‘safe place’ was. The basement was a fair size but there were very few nooks or crannies that would fit a grown man. “That’s good though right? That they trust you and will come all the way here so you can help them.”

“Yeah I guess it is. That wasn’t really the first thought that popped into my head but I don’t think I can … meet them on my own.” Pam and Felipe both closed their eyes, ready for Eric to attach himself to Pam’s apron strings once again. “I’m gonna call Al, do you think he’ll help me?”

His Mom and Step-Dad’s eyes snapped open in surprise and Pam sat next to Eric at the table, taking his hand and smiling at him. “Eric, that’s a great idea honey! I’m sure Aloysius would be really pleased to help you out with this step you’re making!”

“Okay, I should probably call him … as soon as I’ve had some pie, not calling without pie.”

The small family laughed and Felipe poured cream over the three bowls of sticky dessert before setting them on the table. In between mouthfuls, Eric filled Pam and Felipe in on the details of the past couple of days Pam stopped eating when Eric was telling them about the statement on Bill’s site. She scraped her plate into the garbage, muttering about douche bags who think that because a girl has a reputation they can use it to get away with screwing her over. Eric and Felipe looked at each other, knowing that it had hit a raw nerve but neither of them knowing any of the details and neither of them intrusive enough to ask. Eric decided to leave Felipe to handle his Mom’s mood and went back to his room to call his counsellor.

–**–

Sookie and Arlene pulled up at the one storey house, surveying the area and noting that it was neither affluent nor poverty stricken. Taking what they needed from the car, they walked to the front door and Arlene rang the doorbell. Mr. Cataliades swung open the door to greet the visitors who had Eric in such turmoil, when he had spoken to Eric he could see that the man was excited and honoured one moment yet filled with anxiety and self-doubt the next.

Sookie assessed their greeter, with the exception of a three piece suit, he looked like the kind of guy who spent a lot of time at a computer, he didn’t look like an ‘Eric’ though but not everyone’s names and appearances matched. Arlene smiled at the rotund man and extended her hand while Sookie nervously shifted from foot to foot.

“Eric! It’s so wonderful to meet you at last!”

Mr. Cataliades laughed a deep rumbling laugh and took Arlene’s hand, shaking it lightly. “Oh I’m not Eric. I’m his counsellor Aloysius Cataliades; it’s a pleasure to meet you Ms. Fowler and of course you too Miss Stackhouse.”

Sookie nodded as she shook hands with Aloysius and found her curiosity about the man running her website increase. Both women entered the house, going down the hall as gestured by Mr. Cataliades. He stepped in front of them and opened the door to the basement, looking at them pointedly before walking down the stairs so he would be the first one that Eric saw enter his room. Eric had been pacing back and forward, his nails had been bitten almost to the quick and his hair was sitting haphazardly from him running his fingers through it so much. When he saw Al, he stopped and his hands clenched into fists, his heartbeat resonated in his ears and his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth.

Eric saw two sets of high heels coming down the stairs behind his counsellor, any second now and they’d be able to see him, his eyes flicked between his pillow, his safe place and the stairs. In a final rush decision he sat down on his computer chair and busied his nervous hands with picking at the buttons of his shirt. Focussing on the buttons instead of the feet approaching calmed him a little, when he heard a throat clear, his head snapped up to see his counsellor with Sookie Stackhouse and, he assumed, Arlene Fowler.

Sookie observed many things about the young man sitting next to the desk; the first was his tall frame, then his long hair which was the same colour of blonde as hers. When he looked up she was taken aback by how handsome he was, he didn’t look like your stereotypical geek or your usual image of a socially awkward agoraphobic but then, she’d never met one in real life, just seen them portrayed on TV shows and movies. When Eric stood up and straightened to his full height, both Arlene and Sookie had to crane their necks upwards to see his face.

“Uh … hel … hi. I’m … umm … Eric Northman, itsnicetameetchu.”

Arlene reacted first, stepping forward a little and stretching to place her hand on his forearm. “It’s really great to meet you too Eric, I’m Arlene and of course, this is Sookie.”

Eric nodded but didn’t look them in the eye, Sookie decided to follow Arlene’s lead and gently took a step in Eric’s direction, ducking and tilting her head to the side so she was in his field of vision.

“Hey Eric!” She kept her voice soft but enthusiastic. “I’m really glad you could help us out with this, thank you so much for letting us come into your home, I hope this isn’t too much for you.”

Eric stepped back from her and fingered the bottom button of his shirt again. “Uh … s’okay. Doyouguyswantanythingtodrink?”

“Yes Eric, that’s a wonderful idea!” Mr. Cataliades boomed. “I’m sure the drive from the big city has left you ladies quite parched. Why don’t we go back upstairs and I can fix us some refreshments?”

Sookie and Arlene voiced their satisfaction with the suggestion and turned towards the stairs but while Arlene started the upwards climb, Sookie stopped and turned back to Eric.

“It would be lovely if you joined us Eric but if you don’t we’ll be back soon.”

Eric looked at Al and his counsellor nodded to him. “Yes Eric, it would be most pleasing if you were able to sit with us.”

Mr. Cataliades followed the visitors back up the wooden steps, wondering if Eric was quite ready for this step. He understood that Arlene and Sookie were aware that Eric had problems but he didn’t think that they quite knew the effect that this visit might have on Eric, no matter how necessary they thought the visit was. Arlene and Sookie waited for the counsellor in the hall and followed him into the kitchen; they sat at the dining table and shared a look as Mr. Cataliades rooted through the fridge to offer them various beverages.

“I’ll have coffee please, cream and sugar. I have to say, I was quite … surprised to find Eric has contacted you about this. We really were hoping to keep our project between the three of us.”

Sookie thought that was a little harsh and was about to voice her opinion when Mr. Cataliades laughed again. “I think you misunderstand many things Miss. Fowler. One, I have no idea why you are here – I only know that my patient asked for my support. Two, you are aware of Eric’s condition, yet you expect to visit him here and interact with him like you would a normal young man. Three, I have no desire to gossip about whatever goes on here today and the fact you are insinuating I am here for any other reason than supporting Eric is a little offensive.”

“I totally understand Mr. Cataliades.” Sookie started before she was interrupted.

“Please call me Aloysius or Al, if you like.”

“Okay … Al … uh, well, as I was saying, I know that you’re here to support Eric and that is the only reason you’re here.” She looked pointedly at her agent.

“Of course, I apologise Aloysius … I’m just a little on edge about all this and after seeing Eric’s reaction down there …”

They were disturbed by a throat clearing from the doorway of the kitchen, Eric was half in and half out of the room, as if still deciding whether to go in and join them. Sookie watched as he fussed with his clothes, never looking directly at any of them. She wondered if he thought he wasn’t welcome, which certainly wasn’t the case.

“Eric! Please come in and join us? I’d love to speak with you about what we’d like to do today.”

Eric still hovered at the door, rationalising his reasons for being worried about sitting at the table and having a drink with his visitors. They were here so he could help them, despite their first meeting, Sookie still asked him to join them, Arlene was smiling warmly and Al was standing by the fridge waiting to see what he would do. Cautiously, Eric made his way to the table and sat in the chair closest to where his counsellor was standing. Everyone smiled brightly at him but Eric didn’t notice as he continued his fascination with his buttons.

“Would you like a drink Eric?”

“Uh … yes, water please Al. Thank you.”

Aloysius nodded and looked through the cupboards for a glass, filling it with filtered water from a jug in the fridge before going back to the coffee maker and pouring three cups of hot java. When everyone was settled with their drinks, an uncomfortable silence fell across the table. Eric sipped at his water, enjoying the chance to just get used to being in a room with other people. Aloysius started some small talk about the drive from New York City, which both Sookie and Arlene joined in with enthusiastically. After a short time, Eric started paying attention to their facial expressions when they were chatting and found himself smiling along with everyone else at an amusing anecdote Sookie was telling everyone.

“So … I guess we should at least talk about our little project, is that okay with you Eric?”

Eric turned to Arlene and immediately shrank back into himself, muttering ‘sure’ into his chest. Just as Arlene was about to speak, Aloysius held a hand up for her to wait.

“Eric? Is there something about today that you’re worried about? You know you can talk to me and it makes sense that if you have any concerns about whatever project Sookie and Arlene are here for, they should hear about them too.”

Eric thought about it, cleared his throat then took a sip of his water before speaking. “I’ve never done anything like this before, I’m worried that if I mess up it’ll make me look stupid and … uh …”

“It’s not live TV Eric.” Sookie butted in gently. “If you mess up it doesn’t matter – it’s your first time, everyone makes mistakes, especially when they aren’t too sure what they’re doing. I, for one, think you’ll be fine and I’m so thankful that you’ve agreed to help us out at such short notice.”

Eric nodded, looking into Sookie’s eyes for the first time and seeing her compassion and gratefulness written over her features, she was more natural looking in the flesh and looked comfortable in her sundress. He noticed Arlene begin to fidget and frowned slightly, Sookie noticed the change in his expression and her own eyes followed his gaze.

“Are you okay Arlene?”

“Uh … sure Sookie, I’m fine, I’m just a little anxious to get started.” Arlene’s face paled and she stared at Eric. “Oh Lord! I’m so sorry! My mouth just runs off sometimes, when I say anxious I didn’t mean …” She stopped as she noticed Eric and Aloysius smiling at her. “What? Did I say something funny?”

“It’s okay Arlene, really, you didn’t offend me and you’re right about getting started.” He turned to Aloysius. “To be honest the longer we sit around talking the more nervous I get.”

The counsellor nodded. “Sure Eric, that makes sense.” Aloysius addressed Eric’s visitors. “Would I be … unwelcome during the project you’re working on.”

Arlene was about to open her mouth but Sookie got there before her. “Y’know having a qualified professional, like you, nearby might not be a bad idea at all.”

Mr. Cataliades looked surprised for a moment, wondering what kind of project between an actress and a web designer might be in need of a counsellor.

–**–

Eric had finished setting up the camcorder that Arlene had brought on a tripod (also supplied by Arlene) and was watching as Al and Arlene were pinning a pale blue bed sheet to one wall of his basement room. While Al and Arlene were attaching the sheet at the top, Sookie was gently straightening it so there weren’t any creases, after his initial panic at the idea of and the arrival of his guests, Eric was feeling more at ease now they were all busy working together. He noted that Sookie had removed her shoes and was padding around his room barefoot, this hadn’t been a purposeful move on Sookie’s part and she was surprised at how comfortable she felt in Eric’s own space when she realised she seemed to be making herself at home.

“It doesn’t bother you does it Eric? Me walkin’ around shoeless like it’s my own place?”

“Uh … actually no, it doesn’t bother me. It’s nice that you’re comfortable and relaxed, you’ll need to be for the next part I guess.”

Sookie nodded and Arlene and Aloysius shared a look at their interactions. Once everything was set up and Eric had made a test recording to make sure the feed was streaming to his computer and he was able to access the file to edit, they got down to business. Sookie sat on the sheet, still barefoot and took a few deep breaths before speaking.

“Hi, I’m Sookie Stackhouse and I have a few things I’d like to say … wait!” She looked at her audience. “Is what I’m wearing okay? Do you think the sundress is a little ‘church mouse’?”

Arlene tapped her finger against her chin before answering. “This is kind of a taped confession, you want people to be listening to what you say not look at what your wearing Sookie. Is it so important?”

“Well … I was thinking maybe I could change into something more comfortable, I have a T-shirt and shorts in my bag.”

Aloysius cleared his throat. “If I may?” The women nodded and Eric just stood back, quietly observing. “Sookie should be as comfortable as possible if she’s revealing something about herself, if she looks like something is distracting her it’ll take away from the speech.”

“Uh … you’re revealing a truth right?” Everyone turned to Eric. “So you shouldn’t hide behind an image – it should be the true you speaking.”

“That is such a good point Eric!” Sookie gushed. “Okay, I’m gonna change into plain clothes and take off my make-up.”

Aloysius nodded. “It’s symbolic; physically you’ll be stripped of your mask as well as emotionally.”

Eric busied himself with familiarising all of the functions of the editing software he was going to be using. As well as having Sookie speak on film he wanted to add subtitles to the video before uploading it to the site. Sookie came out of the bathroom with a plain white, short sleeve t-shirt, black shorts, bare face and hair scraped back into a ponytail. Eric felt … happy that she didn’t mind any of them seeing her like this, she was a pretty girl but even the most beautiful women in the world hated being caught sans face paint and styled hair.

“Okay, I’m ready to get this done!” She rubbed her face with her hands and walked around the room shaking her arms and legs, then jumped on the spot a couple of times like she was warming up for a race.

“Interesting … is this exercise something you do when you’re nervous Sookie?” Al was watching her actions intently.

“Yup, I like to shake off my nerves. This is probably the most important monologue of my life, I know we’ve got all day and that Eric can edit where necessary but I’d rather get it out, get it right, first time.”

Arlene looked a little worried. “Hon, this is deep stuff you’re talking about today. If you need to stop for any reason, any reason at all, just hold up your hand and we’ll take a break okay?”

Sookie nodded and settled on the sheet with her legs crossed, Eric adjusted the camera to make sure her position and lack of shoes was in shot before giving Sookie a nervous smile and counted down from five with his fingers after pressing the record button.

–**–

During the filming of her recount of events, both back in California and with Bill, Sookie had to stop many times, either to dry her eyes or to simply calm down. Eric kept the requests for a break in the finished video, if it was edited too much then it would seem too polished or rehearsed and would be impossible for viewers to grasp how emotional Sookie was while speaking about her past. Aloysius had listened mouth agape at the actresses words and when she was done he asked if she would like to speak with him privately, which Sookie accepted without hesitation. Eric was disconnecting the camera from his computer when he heard Arlene’s sniffling and saw her sitting crying on the edge of his bed.

“Are you okay?” The words sounded strange coming from his own mouth. Eric was more used to people asking him that question.

“She’s been screwed over by both of the men that she was involved with romantically Eric. I know her relationship with Quinn was engineered but the way he treated her was … awful and Bill …” She spat out his name like it was a disease. “Sookie had told him all about what happened and he still used it against her to try and keep his own name out of the dirt.”

“Well … hopefully this will set the record straight. I knew the thing with Quinn was off somehow and I’d seen the rumours about him after it happened but any negative talk about his involvement was shut down fast citing the webmasters didn’t want any legal wrangling.”

“Sookie’s little project here today isn’t rumour – it’s testimony and if it gives her a brighter future where she can read about herself without it being mentioned in a way that makes her look like a slut then our job is done. You said you knew it was ‘off’ after it happened, were you a fan of the soap?”

“Not really, my Mom was and I was … sick a lot when I was younger. I really only watched for Sookie’s scenes.”

Eric blushed and felt decidedly uncomfortable in Arlene’s presence all of a sudden. He made a hurried, mumbled excuse and went to lock himself in his bathroom. Arlene watched as Eric’s demeanour changed and he rushed off, concerned she had pushed him too far with her question, she decided to see if Sookie and Aloysius had finished speaking yet. Raising her voice a little, she called through the door to let Eric know where she was going and went upstairs. Outside the entrance to the kitchen, Arlene heard Sookie’s sobs and Al’s quiet comforting voice.

“This has been a cleansing exercise for you Sookie, your secrets have weighed on you all these years, it’s only natural for the elation of releasing those dark thoughts to have a major emotional impact.”

“I huh hoped tuh to have a fuh fresh start so many times but now it fuh feels so real, suh so tangible. I wuh waited too luh long to duh do this. I’m ruh ready to luh leave my past just where it is, I’m ready tuh to move on.”

Arlene’s heart soared at Sookie’s hope for a future, not only because they were friends to some degree, but a hopeful actress was a successful actress.

“That’s good Sookie, moving on is important and now that these toxic relationships are in your past you can see the world with fresh eyes and feel more confident about starting new relationships.”

“I’m not suh sure I could handle letting another man into my life, not for a luh long time, the only men I can trust are my Daddy and my brother.”

“Well, that isn’t quite true is it? You’ve trusted Eric a great deal today and me and in turn Eric has put a mountain of trust in you. You and Arlene are the only women he’s spoken to, apart from his Mom, without having a panic attack in almost ten years; this was a very big day for him today. Does that change your perspective?”

“Oh Lord! Really? I had no idea he was so cut off from the world! It sure makes my problems look like I’m playing poor pitiful Pearl.”

“Nonsense, just as the shadows of your past were affecting your present and future, the same thing has been happening to Eric, just on a larger scale. Everyone has the right to feel sad when there’s something preventing them from getting on with life, so don’t you feel like you don’t deserve to feel sorry for yourself because others are worse off – that‘s the road to bottling your feelings up and it’s a dangerous road Sookie.”

Sookie nodded and silently thanked Eric for having his counsellor here today, she would have been a mess if Aloysius wasn’t there to listen to her and change the way she was thinking about things. No doubt Arlene would have comforted her but her agent would have just tried to build her up instead of making her challenge her point of view on the situation.

“Uh … Al?” Arlene entered the room rather than lurk in the doorway any longer. “I think I might have said the wrong thing to Eric, he’s locked himself in the bathroom.”

The redhead was chewing her bottom lip and wringing her hands together, Aloysius asked her what happened and she recounted the last few moments of conversation she had with Eric before Al chuckled and shook his head.

“It wasn’t anything you said Arlene, don’t you worry, Eric just seems to have realised that he shared more than usual without realising it. He’s never told you about his childhood has he?”

“No, just that he suffered from an anxiety disorder and agoraphobia.”

“Well those conditions don’t just come out of thin air, there are always reasons folks end up like that. Just like Sookie here, Eric has a wall – the difference is that Sookie’s wall was there to keep her from accepting and admitting her past has hurt her, Eric’s is there to stop the world from hurting him. Congratulations girls, you made it over his wall.”

“And he helped me to break my wall down.” Sookie whispered and scrambled up from the table before heading back towards the basement.

“Those two … they could be good for each other.” Aloysius leaned back in his chair as if deep in thought at Arlene’s words.

“They already have been. When Eric talks about Sookie and the work he’s done with her website, you can see he’s a different man. He’s enthusiastic and open when the subject comes up and I could see that when Sookie was downstairs being filmed, she looked to him for support. Like she knew that no matter what she said to him he would believe her and not judge her for it.”

Arlene nodded and sat next to Al at the dining table. “Any chance of another coffee?”

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