7. Finding the Way.

Sandy flipped through the magazine as she blew bubbles with her gum, she wasn’t really reading, just looking at the pictures while she internally bemoaned only getting $500 for feeding information to that Sophie-Ann chick. Next time she’d call a different magazine, that is, if she ever saw anything that interesting again. Cam had come in earlier that morning to show off the banjo he’d bought with his payment from OK! Sandy had spent some of hers on a new outfit and kept the rest in the bank for a rainy day, her old friends from school were always trying to plan a ‘sex & the city’ trip to New York and she’d been saving faithfully, just waiting for a chance to go to New York and live it up like a girl her age should but something always got in the way.

The door opened and closed, Sandy ignored it, when they wanted something they’d come to her and she was in no mood for small talk. The latest pictures of Sookie Stackhouse hugging Lorena Ball caught her eye, flicking her eyes across the words it turned out it was just a ‘sister solidarity’ thing with both of them being screwed over by the same guy, Sandy wondered if it was bad that she thought that was boring compared to some celebrity gossip that was flying around. She saw the basket being placed on the counter next to her and put the magazine away to serve her customer. She looked up and smiled as she pulled the basket closer to her and her breath caught in her throat when she saw it was Eric Northman standing there.

“Eric! Wow, how are you?”

“I’m … fine.” He looked down and shuffled from foot to foot, hoping that would be the extent of their chatter.

“Well, you look great!” Sandy pulled out the steaks, wine and asparagus, waving the bottle of alcohol in her hand. “Looks like someone’s making a fancy dinner, cooking for a girlfriend?”

“Uh … yeah, you could say that. So how much does it all cost?”

“I haven’t rung it up on the till yet, give me a chance!” She scanned the barcodes with the gun and continued to stare at Eric, oblivious to how uncomfortable he was. “So this girlfriend, is she from here?”

“No … can we move this along please?” Eric shuffled and picked at the hem of his shirt, wishing Sandy would just shut up and tell how much he owed her. He glanced at her and noticed her staring at him. “What? Why are you staring at me like that?”

Sandy snorted and shook her head as she dropped Eric’s purchases into a paper bag. “Because you’re nice to look at? Sheesh, you need to chill man, seriously. That’ll be $38.74.”

Eric fished the money out of his pocket and tossed two $20 bills on the counter, grabbing the bag and telling Sandy to keep the change as he rushed out of the door and back home.

–**–

Sookie knocked on the door of the Northman-De Castro house, smiling when she saw that Eric had answered the door himself, she stepped into his arms and hummed with happiness. Eric wrapped his arms around her and lifted her further into the house so he could close the door; as soon as the door was closed they were kissing as if it had been months since they’d seen each other, not days. Eric heard the timer go off in the kitchen and reluctantly pulled away.

“Sorry, dinner, come through and sit down, everything should be just about ready.”

“You cooked?”

“Yeah, steak and veggies followed by my special chocolate cake.”

“You baked?”

“Yeah, Mom loves my baking; I was hoping you would too.”

Sookie nodded dumbly, her eyes flicking to the sinful looking cake on a plate on the counter before moving to watch Eric as he drained water from pots and arranged their meal onto the plates. When he placed Sookie’s dinner in front of her, the smells made her mouth water and she grabbed her knife and fork to dig in, only stopping when she realised that Eric wasn’t sitting at the table yet. Eric slid a large glass half full of red wine next to her and held up his own in a toast.

“Well, here’s to … um … spending time together?”

“Hell yeah!”

She tried to take her time with dinner but everything tasted so good, Sookie knew she’d probably end up with indigestion from eating too fast but it was a risk she was willing to take – especially if it meant she could sink her teeth into a piece of that cake sooner. She was never like this; she always tried to eat as ladylike as possible, not shovelling her food down her throat and moaning with every bite but she just knew that Eric wouldn’t be put off by her behaviour, for the first time she felt like she could let her guard down.

The chocolate cake was the most amazing sweet treat that Sookie had ever had in her mouth; Eric watched every reaction from her, smiling as it was made obvious that she enjoyed his culinary talents very much. It seemed the more he was around Sookie, the more he realised that there were things he was really good at. Al, Pam and Felipe had noticed the gradual increase in his confidence since he met Sookie and they had all made comments about how happy they were with the progress Eric was making into being a part of the larger world again. Sookie sat back in her chair, licking the chocolate frosting from her spoon and smiled contentedly.

“Mmmmm … Eric that was amazing, I was going to offer to cook for you next time but I don’t think I could beat that!”

“Actually, I was thinking that next time maybe we could go … out for dinner.”

Sookie sat up straight and put her spoon down. “Out? Do you think that you’re ready for that?”

Eric shrugged. “I know that I went to the store on my own to buy what I needed for tonight and that while I was there, one of the girls who used to make fun of me spoke to me and I didn’t run away and hide under my bed. I know that if you’re there, I won’t be concerned with anyone else around us.”

Sookie nodded and smiled widely. “Okay, well let’s do that! You’ll never know unless you try right?”

Sookie helped Eric to clean up the dinner dishes, despite his protestations and insistence that she should sit and let him take care of it. They were heading to the basement when Pam and Felipe came home, both Sookie and Eric feeling a little put out that their alone time had been cut short.

“Hi guys!” Pam smiled brightly. “Did you have a good meal?”

“Oh it was amazing!” Sookie gushed and leaned into Eric’s side. “It was the best first date I’ve ever had!”

Eric stepped away from her and furrowed his brow. “Does it count as a date if you don’t go out?”

Felipe and Pam laughed as Sookie slapped him lightly on the chest. “Of course it does, silly, and it also means we’re officially dating. You better start getting used to the idea of having a girlfriend Mister!”

“Seems like I’ll also need to get used to having you boss me around!”

Sookie mock gasped and they both started laughing before saying their goodnights to Pam and Felipe and going down to the basement to watch a movie. Felipe turned his back on Pam and walked into the living room, slumping on the couch with his head in his hands; Pam immediately went to his side and wrapped an arm around his shoulders.

“Felipe, honey, what’s wrong?”

Felipe sniffed and wiped at his eyes. “Nothing is wrong mi novia poco, I … he’s … six months ago, if you had told me that my step-son would be cuddling and laughing and joking with his girlfriend, well, I would have called you crazy.”

“I know darling.” Felipe turned into Pam’s embrace. “Every time I see him doing something that any normal guy his age would do, I feel like buying Sookie a big, big, present!”

“Eric finally has the chance of a normal life, I can practically taste it! It’s a wonderful thing Amante.”

“Yes it is, come on; I want to see if they left us any chocolate cake!”

Felipe laughed and followed Pam into the kitchen.

–**–

Sookie woke up the next day in the same clothes she’d travelled in with a crick in her neck from being squished against Eric all night. He was snoring softly, his head tipped back as the music from the DVD menu started playing again – probably for the thousandth time. Sookie couldn’t remember when exactly she’d fell asleep but it was after Blade had been put in the vampire iron maiden and they started draining him. Nudging Eric in the ribs she looked around for a clock, finally climbing on top of him to see the display on his alarm. Eric made a contented sound and his hand moved to cup Sookie’s bottom, squeezing gently as Sookie felt other parts of his anatomy wake up, she giggled and Eric opened his eyes, blinking as his mind sleepily tried to comprehend what was happening.

“Oh!” Eric removed his hand and sat up. “I’m sorry! I wondered why my dream was so real and here I am, manhandling you in my sleep!”

“It’s okay really; it was kind of funny actually. Now, if you’d been awake and manhandling me in my sleep I might see it a little differently.” Sookie smiled and kissed him on the forehead. “I’m gonna run upstairs and get my bag so I can shower, I’m starved!”

“I’ll get cleaned up and go help with breakfast then.”

Eric watched Sookie walk away before he got up off the bed and went to the bathroom himself. Once he was showered with fresh clothes he felt better, falling asleep with Sookie in his arms had been unplanned but wonderful, the pins and needles as the feeling came back into his arm was totally worth it. As he entered the kitchen, both Pam and Felipe were staring at him but it was his Mom who spoke first.

“So, I noticed Sookie didn’t use the airbed last night.”

“Uh … no.” Eric blushed as he realised what his Mom was implying. “We fell asleep watching a movie and didn’t wake up until about 20 minutes ago.”

Felipe snorted and Pam glared at him before smiling sweetly at Eric. “Well, of course, what you two do together isn’t any of our business but … uh … if the airbed isn’t needed in the future, if you’re quite happy for Sookie to share with you, could you let us know. We could have gone to the restaurant an hour earlier if we hadn’t had to pump it up and make it last night.”

Eric thought about that for a moment, he was happy to share his bed with her and he knew that his Mom wasn’t pushing the sex aspect but the trust aspect. “Well, we didn’t plan to share a bed but I’ll speak to Sookie and see how she feels. She might not be ready for that kind of thing; she’s been through a lot with the men in her life.”

Pam laughed softly and shook her head. “Eric, if she didn’t trust you she wouldn’t be able to sleep next to you.”

Sookie cleared her throat from the doorway, failing to hide her discomfort at the fact Eric was discussing sleeping arrangements with his parents and at the same time feeling touched that he was more concerned with her comfort than anything else.

“Morning.”

Eric, Pam and Felipe all greeted Sookie and Pam put a plate of bacon and eggs in front of her as she sat down at the table. They talked about the local stories in the paper Felipe was reading as they ate and Sookie left at the same time as Felipe so she could get back to New York in time to get ready for a night out she had planned with Lorena.

–**–

Lorena slid a gin concoction across the table to Sookie as they sat at a small table at the back of Ward III, Sookie not being a native of the city meant she relied on Lorena to pick the nicest places for them to hang out and relax. Although they hadn’t been out drinking together often, Sookie always had a good time with Lorena, they were past their phase of rehashing what Bill had done to both of them and found they had much the same interests outside of their careers.

“Soooooo … I called your apartment last night to get your opinion on the latest script and you weren’t there. I figured you were out with some young stud, so I didn’t call your cell, I wouldn’t have wanted to interrupt anything.” Lorena winked.

“Uh … well I was out, as in not in my apartment but I was visiting …” Sookie chewed on her bottom lip, wondering whether to divulge everything before taking the plunge. “I was visiting my boyfriend, he lives in Elmira. He made me an amazing dinner, followed by an out of this world chocolate cake and then we watched a movie.”

Lorena’s mouth was parted in shock. “Boyfriend? You didn’t say anything about a boyfriend before, have you been keeping secrets Missy?”

Sookie laughed at Lorena’s narrow eyed expression, knowing that the slight smirk on her face meant she wasn’t truly annoyed. “Kind of, he’s very special and you know how things have been, so we’ve been keeping things off radar.”

“Until now, so what’s he like? What does he do? Is he hot and does he have a brother?” The dark haired actress grinned.

“He’s sweet, he’s our web designer, he’s very hot but no, he doesn’t have a brother.”

“Damn!” Lorena took a swig of her cocktail. “If you’ve been keeping it off radar it means he’s special, I’m jealous as hell but I wish both of you luck in your relationship, really. Honey, it’s about time you met someone special but if he ever hurts you, I’ll come down on him like a ton of bricks!”

“To be honest I’m more likely to hurt him, Eric is … different, he’s not some hotshot who plays the field and has a score of notches on his bedpost.”

“So he’s a nice guy.” Lorena shrugged. “What makes you think you’ll hurt him?”

“Well not me specifically but my life, the press, the fame, the lack of privacy, he’s very private and his life is very structured, I just don’t want to pull him into situations he can’t handle.”

“Well sweetie, you just have to train him to handle them, don’t let the outside influences ruin what you guys have. You have to be strong together.”

Sookie nodded and sipped at her drink before changing the subject to something less personal. When the weight of four cocktails made her bladder scream to be emptied, Sookie made her way to the bathroom, smiling and thanking a couple of bar patrons who recognised her and expressed their support. Upon returning to the table she found her seat to be occupied by a tall man with brown hair, raising her eyebrows at Lorena, the other actress quickly pointed out that he was in Sookie’s seat. The man stood immediately and apologised, extending his hand to Sookie to greet her.

“Excuse me for commandeering your perch Miss, Fintan Brigant at your service!” He waved his hand with a flourish and bowed in front of Sookie, making both women giggle like schoolgirls. “I’ve already introduced myself to your lovely companion, Lorena; may I have the pleasure of knowing your name?”

“Hi, I’m Sookie, are you a friend of Lorena’s?” Sookie glanced at Lorena to see her friend shaking her head and biting her lip.

“Not yet but I certainly hope to be!” He pulled two business cards and a pen from the inside pocket of his jacket and leaned on the table, leaning in very close to Lorena. “Would it be awfully forward of me to request a number I can call so I can ask you to come to a very romantic dinner with me?”

Lorena cleared her throat. “Not at all.” She licked her lips and wrote her number on the back of one of the cards before dropping the other card in her tiny purse. Fintan played with the card with Lorena’s number on it, winking at both of them before placing it inside his wallet.

“You’ll be hearing from me soon delightful Lorena.” He kissed the backs of both women’s hands and bowed again. “I sincerely hope you enjoy the rest of your evening.”

Sookie was still giggling as she watched Fintan walking away, when she turned towards her friend Lorena was wearing a small thoughtful smile. “Well he was certainly a character!”

The dark haired woman grinned. “Yes he was sweetie, yes he was.”

–**–

Pam, Felipe and Eric crowded around the TV for Sookie’s exclusive interview with Hadley Delahoussaye on the ET! Channel. Sam and Arlene had looked over the questions and made sure that Hadley wasn’t going to be asking about her relationship status and Sam was on set, ready to demand the plug was pulled if the questions got too off track.

“So, why isn’t this interviewer allowed to ask about you? You are her boyfriend after all.” Pam looked at Eric, hoping her Son knew the answer.

“Well, those reporters that were here, Sam promised them ‘the scoop’ about me and Sookie. So if this interviewer coaxes any details out of her, the deal will be off and we’ll have paparazzi camping out on the front lawn … apparently … according to Sam anyway.”

Pam and Felipe nodded in understanding and Felipe got up to pour himself a glass of Four Roses before the interview started. He watched his Son, for he no longer considered Eric to be Step-anything, if he ever had for that matter, Eric was reading a text he’d just received from Sookie and smiling. The night before, Sookie and Eric had gone for their first date outside the house, Pam and Felipe spent the entire evening pacing the rooms of their home, just waiting for Sookie to call them frantically for help dealing with one of Eric’s panic attacks but … nothing. They stumbled in the door at 11.30pm, giggling and pawing at each other like … a normal couple.

Hi! You’re watching Tube Tattler with me, Hadley Delahoussaye, tonight we’ve got the latest gossip on Supernatural’s upcoming season, the dirt on Selah Pumphrey’s departure from Beauty and the Beast and Andy Bellefleur talks family in the aftermath of his Grandmother, Caroline’s, death. Caroline was a huge draw on Broadway during the 50’s and her legend will live on in the hearts and minds of her fans. First though, I have Sookie Stackhouse who’ll be talking about her infamous video confession and the resulting fall out. Join us after these messages.

Eric sighed and shook his head. “Y’know, it’s really annoying when they do that, talk for like a minute and then cut to another break!”

Pam and Felipe just looked at each other, they knew Eric was concerned about how this interviewer would treat Sookie but voicing things that irritated him was a new development with Eric. Aloysius had been working on getting Eric to speak his mind, although Pam doubted that venting about commercials was exactly what Al was aiming for, still, it was a start.

Welcome back, I’m Hadley Delahoussaye and this is Tube Tattler. With me right now is Sookie Stackhouse, who plays alien Doctor Troisha DeAnnet on Galaxy Pioneers. Sookie how are you enjoying being part of the show?

I’m loving it Hadley, the concepts and plotlines are incredible, Rasul is amazing to work with.

The season two premier party is coming up in a few weeks, are things on track with filming? It’s been widely reported that rewrites had the show behind schedule.

There were a lot of rewrites but it hasn’t affected the schedule, we’re recording the finale this week in fact.

Cool, so now that the obligatory ‘how’s work?’ questions are out of the way, let’s get down to the real reason we want to talk to you. The video revelation, it’s made waves from coast to coast and quite a few lives have been changed because of it, some for the better and some for the worse. What made you want to speak out after keeping quiet for so long?

In basic terms, I was pig sick of having a past that didn’t even happen make me look bad. It was the right time for me to tell everyone what I’d gone through.

Sure, sure, Amelia Broadway wrote an expose on the mistreatment of young actresses in the TV and movie industry, with many young women choosing to remain nameless in interviews to protect themselves and their careers. Did you worry that your career was at risk by making the video?

Strangely, that thought hadn’t crossed my mind; I just wanted everyone to know the truth.

So, John Quinn was arrested a couple of days ago, any comments on that?

Not really, if he was positively innocent then he wouldn’t have been arrested for anything would he?

Okaaaay, now there’s been a lot of talk about the men in your life messing you around, has that changed your perspective on having a boyfriend?

No, not at all. I may have a tough time trusting people now, but I’m not going to become a man-hating Queen of bitterness.

Haha good one! You say you might have a tough time trusting people but my sources have been whispering that there’s already a new special someone in your life. Would you care to comment on that?

The family of three leaned forward on the sofa and watched as Sookie’s eyes flicked to someone off camera, most likely Sam, before answering.

I can tell you that I have met someone, he’s wonderful but that’s all I’m giving you. We want to keep the world out of our relationship for just a little bit longer, we’re enjoying it just being the two of us.

I see, I can’t coax a name, nationality or wedding date out of you?

No. Sookie laughed. Certainly not.

Okay then, thanks for coming in to talk to us Sookie. Next up I’ll be talking about the photo’s that were leaked from the set of Supernatural yesterday, stay tuned, we’ll be back after the break.

“Well that was ‘in depth’” Pam remarked dryly.

“It’s the ADD generation, Amante, the days of long, detailed interviews are in the past now.” Felipe brushed a stray hair from Pam’s forehead and kissed her on the cheek.

“The interviewer wasn’t a bitch to her, that’s good; I was worried it would be stressful for Sookie.” Pam and Felipe turned to look at Eric with confused expressions. “What? You know her job is high pressure, she doesn’t need TV presenters making things worse.”

Pam shook her head and cleared her throat. “Sookie said you wanted to keep the world out of your relationship for a little bit longer. How long is a little bit?”

Eric shrugged. “She got recognised in the restaurant last night, the guy wanted pictures taken with her and got me to take them, so it’ll get around that she was seen at a romantic dinner with me. I don’t think we can avoid it for much longer.”

Pam thought for a moment before speaking. “That Hadley woman talked about the premier party for the show, why don’t you announce your relationship by going with her?”

“What?” Eric gulped audibly and stood to start pacing in front of the sofa. “I … uh … wow …that’s a good idea but …”

“I know it sounds dramatic baby boy but hear me out. You send a press release to that reporter that was here telling her the details the day before the party, the press show up here to interview you but you’re in New York with Sookie! It’s perfect! The party will be full of people trying to see the stars of the show, so you won’t have to worry about being accosted because you and Sookie’s relationship won’t be the main event!”

Pam clapped her hands together at the genius of her idea but Eric wasn’t so sure, he made a mental note to talk to Al about it and see if his counsellor thought it was as good an idea as his Mom did.

–**–

Lorena walked towards Sookie with open arms, drawing her into a bear hug to celebrate their scenes from Galaxy Pioneers being over for the season. Both women watched as Bill crushed the inhibitor chip that Captain Kirkton had been relying on to control his abusive nature and flashed a sinister grin at the camera.

“And cut! Five takes, Bill, how can you fuck up crushing a microchip and grinning four times? Seriously?” Rasul huffed and strode towards the two actresses. “Good shoot, ladies, as always.” Rasul shot a pointed look at Bill before walking off set.

Bill stared at Lorena with a sneer and the actress turned her back on him, crossing her arms angrily and closing her eyes. Sookie saw Lorena’s mouth move as she counted to ten, then uncrossed her arms and smiled at her friend.

“Sooooooo … you know Fin and I have been out on a few dates now, he … is … fabulous!”

“Ooh! That’s great!” Sookie bounced on her toes and clapped before hugging Lorena.

“He’s coming to the premier party with me, is Eric coming with you?”

“Uh … I dunno, like I’ve said before, he’s not a schmoozer but he did mention something about it. I’ll be heading up to see him tomorrow so we’ll talk about it then.”

“Oh! I just had the best idea! I have a date with Fin tomorrow night – why don’t we double date? It’ll give the two guys a chance to meet each other, then at least they know one person other than us at the shindig!”

“That’s … actually not a bad idea at all. I’ll call Eric and we can see if something can be arranged! I’ll call you later tonight after I’ve spoken to him okay?”

“Super duper Chica. TTL.”

Lorena kissed Sookie on both cheeks and flounced off, Sookie stood laughing at Lorena’s spelling out of acronyms and over the top behaviour – Fin was certainly rubbing off on her!

–**–

Eric checked his list, so far he had almost everything he needed for when Sookie came over the next day, the only thing missing was condoms … the thought of going to a store and buying them almost sent him under his bed but the thought of asking Pam or Felipe to pick them up really did send him to his safe place. They had been going a little further with every make out session but aside from the blissful afternoon they spent exercising their oral techniques, they hadn’t gone all the way, Eric knew he was ready … very ready but the opportunity hadn’t presented itself as yet. However, Pam and Felipe were going to be out of town all day and all night for one of Pam’s colleagues wedding, they would be staying over in Binghamton and Eric and Sookie would have the whole house to themselves … all night.

Pacing up and down his room, Eric wished he had a driver’s license so he could drive far away and buy contraception where nobody knew him but his best option was taking a bus across town, maybe even two buses, one to the city centre and another out west towards the country club.

Checking the money in his wallet, he locked the door and walked down to Pennsylvania Avenue to catch the bus. When he got to what was possibly the furthest convenience store from his house, he walked around the block once to make sure no-one that he knew was hanging around, then stopped and pretended to tie his boot laces while he made sure he’d never seen the clerk before. He grabbed a basket and walked every aisle in the store to make sure he was the only one there before picking up a box of Trojans and putting them in the basket. Realising it would be less conspicuous if he was buying other things at the same time; Eric counted his money again and walked around putting a few other things in the basket.

The clerk watched the security monitor behind the counter, chuckling silently as he watched Eric attempting to covertly buy rubbers, changing his expression from amused to bored when he noticed Eric making his way to the counter. He made sure not to look Eric in the eye as he was scanning the items and made sure to put the condoms between items in the bag so they wouldn’t be visible through the thin polythene. Eric observed the clerks behaviour and breathed a sigh of relief when he realised that the clerk didn’t actually care that he was buying condoms, he handed over his money and went home a little more aware of insignificant he actually was. To a lot of people, being insignificant was a major trauma, but to Eric it was freeing, it made him more confident to know that people weren’t watching him, waiting for him to mess up. They probably weren’t talking about him either; a light bulb clicked on in Eric’s brain as he figured out that a big chunk of his anxiety was caused by paranoia.

He got home and hid the condoms in his sock drawer before going to the kitchen and putting the marshmallow fluff, chicken bouillon and Earl Gray teabags away, hoping his Mom didn’t question why things that they never usually bought were suddenly in the cupboards. Checking the time, Eric noted that his parents were due home soon, so he put on a fresh pot of coffee and started browning the chicken thighs for dinner. Pam came home first, pouring a drink and taking over at the stove after thanking Eric for starting everything, Felipe opened the door at the same moment Eric’s cell started ringing in his pocket.

Eric answered as he made his way to the basement for some privacy. “Hi Sookie.”

“Hey sweetie, how was your day? Did you do anything interesting?”

“What? No! Why on earth would you think I had done something interesting?”

“Uh … okay … I was just asking. So are you looking forward to tomorrow?”

“More than you know.” Eric muttered.

“Sorry? What was that? You mumbled.”

“I’m really excited to see you, I can’t wait.”

“Great! There … uh … well is there any chance we could change our plans a smidge? It’s just Lorena asked if we wanted to go on a double date with her and her new guy Fintan.”

“A double date? But we wouldn’t be alone then!”

“I know sweetie and I’d rather it was just the two of us as well but I was thinking that with the premier coming up it would be cool if you knew someone other than me, if you wanted to go that is.”

Eric thought for a moment, long enough for Sookie to ask if he was still there. “Yeah I’m here, just thinking, it’s a good idea, it’s just I had … umm … plans seeing as Mom and Dad are away for a wedding in Binghamton and wouldn’t be back until Sunday.”

“Oh! Oh! Uh … well … umm … maybe it doesn’t have to be a long double date, maybe we could just meet them for dinner and come back early? I promise you’ll have fun!”

“Sure, that sounds like a good compromise but we’ll reserve judgement on the ‘fun’ part, let me know where we’re going and what I should wear okay?”

“Of course I will Eric, I’m gonna go call Lorena and set things up, I’ll call you back later to say goodnight.”

Eric ended the call and looked longingly at his sock drawer, he hoped that it would indeed be a short night out and that it wouldn’t end on a sour note. The thought of going out with another couple that he had never met before didn’t really register at that point.

–**–

Sookie pulled off Elmira Road into the parking lot of Wal-Mart, completely lost about what to do about Eric, who was puffing out breaths and attempting to pull his knees up to his chest in the passenger seat. Having his seatbelt on was hampering his attempts to curl up, so Sookie released it as soon as the parking brake was engaged.

“Oh God! Eric what’s wrong? How … what do I do? What would Al do?” Sookie had been so focussed on the road that she hadn’t noticed the onset of Eric’s panic attack until she heard his breathing get heavier and quicker. “You … uh … breathing, right. Take deep breaths, count to … uh … 4?” Sookie started counting and grabbed Eric’s face, making him look at her as she counted. “In … 1, 2, 3, 4 … and out 1, 2, 3, 4 … slow and steady.”

Once she felt his body relax, Sookie smiled and closed her eyes briefly in relief as Eric smiled back. He placed his hands on top of hers and took a deep breath.

“I … I’m so sorry Sookie. I should have asked you to stop the car when it started.”

“That’s okay baby; do you want to talk about it?”

Eric sighed and turned around to stare out of the windscreen. “I just realised that they’ll probably want to know … stuff about me and I’m not sure what to tell them.”

“Tell them what you feel comfortable about them knowing, they don’t know everything about me. You designed Lorena’s new site, so they know what you do and they know you’re my boyfriend so they won’t need to ask about that. If they ask you about something you don’t want to answer just tell them straight, say ‘I’d rather not say’ and leave it at that.”

“That works?” He turned to look at her with a frown.

Sookie shrugged. “It works whenever Lorena asks for more information after we’ve been on a date. She knows you’re a private person and I’m guessing that’s been passed on to Fin, so if they push for details then it’s their bad, not yours.”

“It’s that simple? There’s not going to be an … interrogation?”

Sookie laughed. “Oh Lord no! Yeah, they want to meet you so they can get to know you but they’re not going to ask awkward questions to make you uncomfortable!”

“So if they do ask something that makes me uncomfortable, it’s not because they want to make me nervous – it’s because they aren’t aware that it’ll make me nervous.”

“Exactly!”

Eric turned and smiled at Sookie and nodded when she pointed to the keys dangling from the ignition. Crisis mostly averted, they carried on their journey to meet with Lorena and Fin without further incidents.

–**–

Fintan and Lorena arrived at Maxie’s Supper Club and walked arm in arm behind their hostess as she led them to a booth. Fin stopped when he saw their seats and ushered Lorena to slide into the middle section while he sat at the edge, they ordered some drinks while they waited for the other couple to join them. Their waitress had delivered their drinks and they had finished them before Sookie and Eric were shown to the booth, Sookie hugged Fin before sliding around the booth to do the same to Lorena while Eric stood looking at the floor.

“Lorena, Fin, this is Eric. Eric this is Lorena and Fintan.”

Fin stood and extended his hand to Eric, raising an eyebrow as he looked at Sookie before shaking his greeting and looking Fin in the eyes. Both men sat down and Lorena leaned across the table to take Eric’s hand, gushing about how great it was to meet him and how fantastic her site was looking.

“Omigod! You are a genius! Seriously, I thought maybe you had gone all out with Sookie’s site seeing as you two are … well … but wow!”

“Now Lorena, you know that Eric and I hadn’t even met when he made my website!”

Fin cleared his throat. “Yes, our girls have the best websites out of the whole cast of Galaxy Pioneers. Tell me, Eric, which school did you go to? Your professors must be very proud of the work you do. I bet you passed every exam with flying colours!”

Eric blanched and looked at Sookie again; her face was frozen in shock for a moment before she placed a hand over Eric’s and smiled at Fin. “Eric’s a natural!”

“Uh … yeah, computers and website design is something I’ve done since high school. I never went on to further education; I just fell into starting it as a business.”

“Oh! Well that’s good news!” Everyone at the table looked at Fintan with expressions of slight confusion. “You don’t come across a lot of guys like us; I never went on to college or university either. As soon as I graduated, I went out and got a job at the local theatre as an apprentice to the lighting technician, now I’m the technical director at the Orpheum! There’s a lot to be said for just getting out there and earning – too much focus on staying in education for youngsters these days!”

Eric nodded and smiled, thankful that he wouldn’t be subjected to requests about his college days and silently thanked whoever was up there when the waitress came over with the menus. They chatted about the selection of meals and what sounded tasty before making their choices and thanking the waitress before she wiggled away with their order. Lorena took a swig of her mojito and set her attention on Eric.

“So I’ve had a lot of people asking me about how they can have you work your magic on their websites only to find that you have no advertising whatsoever! You should get on that fast; you could be making a mint from all the work you’re missing out on by not putting yourself out there!”

“Uh … it’s not really my style; I like to keep things quiet … select if you like.” Eric spoke quickly, hoping she would drop the subject.

“Oh! Exclusive! I like that! Once word gets out that you’re fussy about who you work with all the major stars will be begging for your services!”

Eric paled and started pulling at the collar of his shirt. “I’m … uh …”

“Eric isn’t exclusive because he’s fussy.” Sookie placed a hand on Eric’s thigh to try and calm him. “He just likes every site he builds to have that personal touch, which takes time and effort. If he took on too many clients he’d have to take on staff to help him and that personal touch would be lost.”

Lorena nodded and Fin leaned over to slap Eric on the shoulder. “You stick to your guns Eric; do it the way you want!”

Eric nodded and smiled nervously, once again saved by the waitress as she brought over their appetisers. Lorena slowly chewed at her salad as she watched their server huddle with some other staff and start snapping pictures with their phones.

“Well, I hope we’re all ready for our night out to be splashed across the tabloids tomorrow.”

Sookie waved her fork dismissively. “We’re meeting Sophie-Ann LeClerq tomorrow anyway.”

Eric choked on his bread roll and dropped his spoon into his soup, causing splashes of the orange liquid to splatter over the crisp white tablecloth. “Oh God! I forgot about that!”

Fin laughed and slapped the table. “If it were me, I’d be choking too! I met her once when there was a rumour that that Twilight guy was going to be in a play at the Orpheum – she practically attacked everyone who worked in the theatre to find out if it was true! Awful woman!”

Lorena snorted. “Yeah, I’d hate to be stuck in an elevator with her!” She turned to Fin and nudged him. “Right?”

Fin was visibly uncomfortable at Lorena’s comment. “Come on Lori, you know I don’t like to talk about things like that.”

“Oh! Oh Fin I’m sorry! It’s just a turn of phrase, I wasn’t really … damn!”

“It’s okay darling! I know that! It just took me unawares that’s all.”

Sookie and Eric watched the exchange with interest as Fin and Lorena fawned over one another in apology. Sookie purposefully banged her fork against the side of her plate to bring them back to the group and Fin straightened up in his chair.

“Now is as good a time as any, you might as well know everything. I, Fintan Brigant, am a claustrophobic. When I was a boy, my older brother was often assigned to babysit me and he did so by locking me in a small wardrobe, I’ve been treated for my fear but there are still some echoes which I cannot ignore … namely elevators … and the thought being stuck in one.”

Both Fintan and Lorena were massively offended when Sookie and Eric both burst out in fits of laughter at Fin’s confession. Their waitress had come and gotten their empty plates and had returned with their entrees before the two blondes had calmed down enough to explain what was so funny. Lorena and Fin sat open mouthed as Eric spoke calmly about his own condition, how he ended up that way and what he was doing to try and make a halfway normal life for himself. While the women were sharing a large piece of chocolate cake, Fin peppered Eric with questions.

“It’s so weird how our conditions are opposite and we’ve come together like this! It’s like a bad joke ‘A claustrophobic and an agoraphobic walk into a bar’!” Eric snorted and sipped at his water. “So this Sophie chick, are you going to come clean with her or keep that part secret?”

Sookie stopped chewing and sat with her fork mid-air, waiting to see what Eric was going to say. “Well, I’m not going to volunteer the information but if she asks I’ll not deny anything.”

“Oh baby, that’s so brave!” Sookie gushed and squeezed his thigh with her free hand.

Fin nodded. “It’s the best way, hiding your problems doesn’t solve anything. The first thing any counsellor will advise you to do is accept your situation because if you accept it then others are more likely not to have problems with you. When you hide and deny it doesn’t go unnoticed that you’re hiding things, if people think you’re hiding things they don’t trust you and when people don’t trust you it’s hard to get the support you need.”

“It’s amazing to meet someone else and really talk about this stuff. We should do this more often, the four of us.” Eric looked around the table, noting Sookie’s raised eyebrow.

“And you were worried about not having fun!” She checked her watch and cleared her throat. “Well, it’s getting late; we’ve got a bit of a drive ahead of us and a busy day tomorrow so …”

Lorena scoffed. “It’s only 8.30! Are you gonna turn into a pumpkin?”

Eric blushed and Sookie stuttered, making a big deal of checking the contents of her purse. “Uh … we wanted to spend some time alone … going over what might happen with this interview tomorrow of course!”

Lorena laughed and Fin tapped the side of his nose with his index finger. “Oh I see! Well, you two lovebirds had better go and get your stories straight … ooh I like that euphemism!”

Sookie shook her head a Fin’s delight at coining a new phrase, once the waitress had brought the check and they’d said their goodbyes to their friends, she and Eric practically raced each other to her car.

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