NOTE: The following chapter occurs THIRTY MINUTES after the previous.
NOTE 2: “PCS” is a military abbreviation for “Permanent Change of Station.”
I blinked and noticed that the police show that had been on—Law & Order, maybe?—had been replaced by the news. I wouldn’t have been able to tell when that happened—not even if someone offered me a million dollars to do it.
My beer was barely touched, so I picked it up to take a long drink. At least it was still relatively cool.
Wondering if Jason had, perhaps, texted me back, I went to take my phone out of my pocket, but it wasn’t there.
I sighed; I must have left it in my van. I shook my head. “Pull it together, Northman,” I said—affecting my “Captain’s tone,” as Lafayette called it.
At least I’d already texted Jase; otherwise, he would have worried. And it wasn’t as if I got many calls anyway.
I trudged outside barefoot and took several deep breaths. The Louisiana night was muggy and thick. Though it had been hotter in Iraq as a whole, the weight of the heat in Louisiana was still something I was getting used to. I found myself hoping that it would rain—just to offer some relief from the weight of the air.
The heaviness all around me.
I tried to take my time going to my van, though the walk still took only thirty seconds. Immediately when I opened the van door, I noticed that the light on my phone was flashing, indicating that I’d missed a call or a text. I quickly looked to see if Jason had texted me back, but it wasn’t his number that I saw; it was Sookie’s.
I checked to see if she’d left me a message. There was none.
And then I just stood there looking at my phone. Should I call her back? Surely if there was an emergency, she would have left a message. Had she called, but then changed her mind about wishing to speak with me?
And what good would talking do us anyway? Wouldn’t it ultimately cause her more pain to rehash something that couldn’t be?
Or—maybe she wanted to tell me that she was better off without me. Maybe she’d finally realized the truth—that I wasn’t worth the trouble.
My mind felt jumbled, and the hand with which I was holding my phone shook with energy and indecisiveness. Only with Sookie had I ever felt so damned uncertain of myself. A part of me wanted to never interact with her again—because of that uncertainty.
My father would have called it weakness.
But, in truth, I could not imagine never seeing Sookie again, never talking to her again.
Even if it hurt.
So I started dialing her number; if she didn’t pick up, I would know she’d changed her mind about speaking with me. However, before I could type in the last digit of her number, a pair of headlights turned into my driveway. I immediately recognized the car.
It was Sookie and Jason!
Surprised to see them, I felt locked in place. My eyes met Sookie’s, and I could see that she felt relief about something.
In a flash, she exited her car and closed her door, though she didn’t move toward me.
“You’re okay,” she said, just loud enough for me to hear her. Still in the car, Jason wouldn’t have been able to.
“Yes,” I responded a little awkwardly.
“I called and you didn’t answer; I worried,” she said, just before Jason opened his door.
“I texted Jason to say I was home,” I clarified.
“Yeah. He did,” Jason agreed, also looking nervous.
“Why didn’t you say?” Sookie asked, glancing at her son.
“I figured you knew,” Jason shrugged. “Uncle Eric always texts when he gets home.”
“You came because you were worried about me?” I asked Sookie, still trying to process her and Jason’s sudden, unexpected appearance.
“Yes. And no,” she responded enigmatically.
We stood there—all of us awkwardly—for a moment.
“Would you like to come in?” I finally asked her and Jason.
“Yes. Please,” Sookie said, looking very edgy and wringing her hands.
“Okay,” I said, gesturing that I would follow them. Jason and Sookie went into the small dwelling.
“Would either of you like anything? Something to drink?” I asked.
“Not right now,” Sookie said. “Jase and I want to talk to you about something.”
“Sure,” I managed to get out, gesturing for Sookie and Jason to take the couch, which was the only place to sit other than the beanbag that I had bought for Jason. But I would have felt even more awkward if I sat on that, so I fetched a chair from the kitchen table.
Neither of them spoke. Sookie seemed uncertain about something, while Jason was looking down at the floor, his expression somber. Having sat my chair close to the television, I reached out to turn it off, which only added to the silence.
And—in that moment—I worried that this was it: The moment when Sookie and/or Jason finally told me that I was no longer needed in their lives.
I braced myself for the worst.
I felt a little foolish for not simply asking Jase if Eric had texted him to tell him he’d arrived home safely. After all, Eric was always so conscientious about doing that kind of thing.
Instead, I’d spent the forty-five-minute drive from Bon Temps to Bailey Base anxiety-filled and trying to hide it from Jase. Oh—I’d not been worried to the point of not being a safe driver. But I had been anxious.
In my defense, the excitement that I could now be with Eric without Jase overtly fighting against our relationships had clearly affected my ability to think things through fully! And it seemed to be muddling my ability to speak intelligently, too!
Of course, as foolish as I felt for worrying about why Eric hadn’t answered his phone when I’d called him earlier, I felt even more ridiculous sitting in front of him and trying to figure out how to tell him about Jase’s revelations.
I wanted to simply “jump” him—for lack of a better word—to cover him with kisses. But my twelve-year-old son was right there.
I wanted to tell him that we were “a go” for the relationship. My mind went through several statements to that effect, but they all sounded inadequate.
Indeed, I wanted to tell him everything in that moment—to tell him that I loved him and that everything would be okay. But I was stuck on how to begin.
In the end, it was Eric who broke the silence. “Are you two okay?”
“Yes,” I said simply, my tongue still tied otherwise. Why the hell was it so difficult to tell the man that I loved that we could be together now? Maybe I was still hurt that he’d left—that he hadn’t waited Jase out by my side.
But, of course, a part of me did truly understand why he hadn’t. During the two days we spent together, Eric had opened up a little about his childhood. It was clear to me that he hadn’t been shown much love as a child—and no discernable love from either parent.
Whether he or Jase wanted to say it out loud, Eric had become a parent to my son over the months. Truth be told—he’d been in that role for years—ever since Bill died. It didn’t matter that he was labeled “Uncle” by Jase. Eric was his father in every way that mattered.
And Eric seemed to need to prove that he was nothing like Appius Livius Ocella- Northman had been. So—when Jase had wanted something from him—Eric had given it, even though that meant Eric had to give up something he wanted: Me.
Yes. I could understand. No parent had ever put Eric first—or anywhere on his or her list of priorities, it seemed. Yet Eric had instinctively put Jase first in order to prove his love.
I knew that Eric had already proven his love for both Jase and me a thousand times over, but—putting myself into Eric’s shoes—I recognized why he’d made his choices. And that was why I’d not called him after he left the farmhouse.
Instead, I’d opted to let things play out—to let Jase figure things out on his own. But—seeing how uncertain Eric looked now—I wondered if I’d done the right thing in waiting.
“You sure you don’t want anything to drink? Water? A Coke?” Eric asked, again breaking the silence that had grown in the room. He looked ready to rattle apart, despite his polite offer.
I shook my head and looked at Jase, who was looking down. I could tell that Jase still felt guilty about his actions from two days before.
I took a deep breath. It was time for me to put on my big girl panties and put us all out of our misery, even if I’d yet to stumble upon the perfect words to use.
“Eric, Jase and I had a talk after you dropped him off earlier this evening. And we—uh . . . .” I stopped midsentence, again trying to find the right words.
“Would you rather me not come around the house anymore? Or not have Jason stay over?” he supplied, his tone a disconcerting mixture of resignation and steadiness.
I looked at him. He’d already given us up. No—that wasn’t it. He’d given up on himself. He thought we didn’t want him.
My heart ached.
“No!” I said firmly, even as Jase echoed the same.
“Uncle Eric, I’m sorry,” Jase said, looking up at the man he loved like a father.
“What for?” Eric asked guardedly.
“I was wrong for tellin’ you not to be with Momma. I was scared because my daddies all die, and I didn’t want you to die.” He shook his little head. “I thought I was cursed.”
“You aren’t cursed,” Eric said with concern, moving so that he was on his knees in front of Jase.
“They always leave me,” he said, his eyes filling with tears. “Daddies leave me.”
“I won’t leave,” Eric said quickly, embracing Jase.
“You promise you won’t die?” Jase asked, my twelve-year-old sounding very childlike in that moment.
Eric tensed up and moved away a little so that he could look at Jase. “Everyone dies, Jason,” he sighed. “The only thing that I can promise is that I love you. And I will be with you as long as I can be. And—even if something did happen to me—it would not be your fault. I would never, ever regret having you in my life.”
“I love you, too, Uncle Eric,” Jase said, hugging Eric tightly again.
I brushed away a tear as I watched them.
“I want you and Momma to be happy. I want you to be together,” Jase emphasized after a few moments. “I want us to be a family.”
Eric’s eyes moved to me, and I smiled through more tears. He looked at me in question and with a little shame.
I knew that he was wordlessly asking me to forgive him for the choice he’d made to put Jase above the two of us. I knew that he was imploring me to give him another chance.
Of course, I did. Of course, I would.
I nodded, and he reached one of his long arms toward me, beckoning me to join their hug, and I did.
We stayed that way—all three of us holding each other—for a long time. Jase was the one to finally become restless.
“Can I get juice and go to bed?” he asked.
I immediately felt myself blush. “Honey, we haven’t even asked Eric if we can stay over.”
“Stay over?” he asked, pulling away from us and standing to his feet.
“It’s late, Uncle Eric,” Jase said as if the topic was needless to even raise. “I asked Momma if we could stay here tonight, and she said we had to ask you, but I knew it would be okay.”
Eric glanced at me, and I just shrugged. “It is getting late, but I’m not tired. I could still drive home safely. But Jase could stay—if you want to—uh—bring him home tomorrow. We could have lunch together?”
“You stay too, Momma!” Jase said impatiently. Clearly, he didn’t understand the awkward little “dances” adults made around topics like spending the night together—especially when there were children in the equation. And it wasn’t as if there was a guestroom in the tiny base residence.
I looked at Eric uncertainly. He was offering me a small smile.
“I want you both to stay,” he said sincerely, his eyes telling me that—indeed—there was nothing he would like more.
“Then, we’ll both stay,” I said softly.
In that moment, I didn’t care that I had no clean clothing to wear the next day. At least, Jase had things at Eric’s house, and it wasn’t as if my T-shirt and jeans couldn’t be worn home.
No—what I cared about was not my comfort, but the look of comfort in Eric’s eyes. It was as if they’d been lit up again—after losing almost all of their light.
“I’m tired,” Jase announced with a yawn that stretched his mouth to the point that he winced because of his stiches, which wouldn’t fully dissolve for another five weeks or so.
Eric looked at Jase and then at me. “We usually read a bit.”
“You could both read with me,” Jase implored, looking at us with a hopeful glint in his eyes.
I shook my head a little. Now that my son was “over” his hesitations regarding Eric and me, he seemed ready to fully embrace the notion of us as a couple.
No—of us all as a family.
“Would that be okay?” I asked Eric.
“That would be nice,” he responded, his voice cracking a little.
Jase was already moving back to his room to get changed into pajamas before Eric’s response. Alone, the man I loved and I looked at each other.
“Is this a dream?” he asked, his voice still cracking.
“No,” I assured, rising from my seat and stepping toward him. I leaned up onto my tip-toes—balancing myself by placing my hands onto his shoulder—and kissed his lips lightly.
“I’m sorry that I hurt you by leaving,” he said softly once our kiss was done. He leaned down so that we were forehead to forehead.
“I understood as soon as I read your letter,” I comforted him. “I didn’t like it, and I wished you’d stayed, but I understood.”
I felt him nod. “We’re okay?” he asked.
“Yes,” I affirmed. “You put Jase first, and I can’t blame you for that. But I want us to learn to work together—even through the hard things. Can you do that?”
“Yes. I want that,” he whispered, even as he bent down to kiss me again. Again, it was a brief kiss, though full of affection.
“I’ll bring two kitchen chairs to Jason’s room so that we can sit comfortably—or, at least, as comfortably as these allow,” he said, gesturing toward the basic wooden chair he’d brought into the living room.
“Okay,” I responded, smiling up at him.
I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe that Sookie and Jason were here.
In my base residence.
And they’d magically brought “home” with them.
Jason had clearly changed his mind about me being a romantic prospect for his mother. He was overcoming his fears, and I was proud of him.
And Sookie had clearly forgiven me for leaving after Jason had his blow-up and his trip to the E.R.
Suddenly—I wasn’t alone! I was an integral part of a domestic scene that I’d only ever imagined before. Living with Jason and Sookie for months had given me glimpses of what it would be like to be a part of their family, but I’d always kept my distance—both physically and emotionally when they’d had their time together.
Of course, I’d spent a lot of time with Jason, but I’d held back from situations that involved all three of us—except for meals and occasional nights in front of the television. Those situations had been wonderful for me, but I’d still felt like an intruder into their world to a certain extent.
However, now—as Sookie and I sat together next to Jason’s bed, taking turns reading a chapter of The Hobbit to him—I felt my heart aching, as if with overuse. I was trying to stay calm, but it was difficult for me not to burst from all that I was feeling.
Love—for both Jason and Sookie.
Relief—that I’d not lost them.
Shock—that they both seemed to want me.
Gratefulness—again, because they seemed to want me.
But most of all, I felt myself bristling with excitement.
I’d always tried to keep my emotions in check. As a child, I’d learned that emotions would displease my father—that they were something that I would receive punishment for. As a soldier, I’d learned that not controlling them could risk lives.
I’d seen men killed because they froze in fear.
I’d seen them killed because they let their anger or aggression run amuck to the point that they literally ran into a situation that would mean their certain deaths.
I’d seen others lose themselves to the guilt of taking lives.
Successful soldiers, for better or for worse, had to find a way to disconnect from their emotions when they were in the middle of battle.
And, at least to a certain extent, between battles.
I supposed that I had always felt myself inside of a battle. As Appius Livius Ocella-Northman’s son. As a Marine.
My wars had simply evolved over time.
But now, I felt at peace. And there was no need to suppress my feelings. So I didn’t.
Jason hated it when people carried on reading after he’d fallen asleep, so he tended to ask a reader to stop if he was becoming too tired. Most of the time, he stayed awake for a whole chapter and then was happy to stop the story for the night and simply lie in bed until he drifted off. He’d once told me that he liked to re-imagine the story, between the reading of it and his sleep.
However, that night—perhaps because of the emotion of the day—he drifted to sleep pretty quickly. And both Sookie and I knew to stop the story right then, even though we’d never read to Jason together. We’d done it separately.
But now, we were not separate.
Sookie stood, and quietly we took our chairs back to the kitchen.
“Can I borrow a T-shirt to sleep in?” she asked me, her voice hushed and a little shy.
I nodded. “Of course, and feel free to use anything in the bathroom. I got Jason a toothbrush for here, and it was in a two-pack. The extra’s in the drawer.”
She gave me a little smile, a shy one. And she blushed a little. “Okay. Thanks.”
I went over to the cabinet next to the kitchen sink and took out a glass before filling it with water. And then I leaned against the sink as I listened to the pipes in the house telling me that Sookie was running the sink in the dwelling’s only bathroom.
And, in that moment, I felt overwhelmed by the feeling of both her and Jason in my house. I turned back toward the sink and put the glass down carefully, noticing that my hand was shaking again. I propped myself up over the sink—my head drooping, my shoulders slumping. I felt almost a choking sensation and then warm tears in the corners of my eyes. My body shook, wracked with a silent sob. And then there were more tears, more sobs. And I was crying in earnest.
I couldn’t help myself.
It didn’t take me long to find a T-shirt in Eric’s room, nor did it take me long to wash my face or brush my teeth with the extra toothbrush Eric had told me about. I noticed that the one Jason was using had Batman on it. Mine had Superman. I chuckled a little and placed my newly used toothbrush into the holder, next to my son’s and Eric’s.
Seeing them all there—together—was surreal to me. After Bill, I’d thought I would never love a man again. After Alcide, I’d been certain of it.
But here I was: getting ready to get into Eric’s bed. In so many ways, it felt like our relationship was happening too fast. But—in other ways—nothing felt more right than going to a bed that held Eric, even as my son was asleep down the hall.
We’d become a family in the blink of an eye. But—then again—we’d already been one in certain ways.
I looked at myself in the mirror, and I saw myself smiling.
Had I ever smiled that way before? I studied the light in my eyes. Eric had put that there. No one else ever had. I shook my head a little. I’d once asked Gran if she believed in the concept of soulmates; of course, this was back when I’d thought that Bill might be mine—right after Bill and I’d had our first kiss.
I’d never forget Gran’s response, both what she’d said and how she’d looked when she’d said it. She’d told me that she did believe in soulmates—that she’d found proof of them when she’d met Grandpa Mitchell. Her eyes had lit up when she’d said his name; in fact, her eyes always lit up whenever she talked about him. They’d done the same anytime they were in the same room with each other—when he was alive.
I still remember how his would light up, too.
I’d asked Gran how she’d known that Grandpa Mitchell was her soulmate. She’d said that finding a soulmate changed a person into the very best version of what they could be.
I’d asked her how.
And she’d said that—for her—it had been like Grandpa Mitchell could see into the very heart of her. The very soul. She’d been certain that he could see every single thing about her somehow—even the things that she’d never let anyone else see.
I’d asked her why she’d hidden a part of herself.
She’d told me that it was human nature to try to hide one’s “warts.”
She also told me that she’d never been afraid of Grandpa Mitchell seeing those flaws. And—because of him—they hadn’t ever felt like flaws to her again. She said that finding her soulmate had activated a kind of magic that “fixed her”—because Grandpa Mitchell hadn’t seen anything broken to start with.
I’ll be honest; her words had confused me a little. Of course, I was only fourteen at the time.
Looking back, I could be honest about something else as well: I’d never had those kinds of magical feelings with Bill. Sometimes with Bill—not even realizing it—I’d held back a part of myself and what I wanted in life, though—in my youthful passion and naivety—I would have sworn up and down that he was my soulmate.
With Alcide—too—I’d never felt completely free to be anything or say anything around him. It wasn’t as if he’d judge me out loud. However, it didn’t take a mind reader to know that he would have preferred it if I were a little bit less independent. Part of him craved a woman orbiting him. But—by the time I’d begun dating him—I’d developed my own orbital route. We found a way to fit together as a couple, a choice I’d never regret, but we’d never been soulmates.
Looking at the light begin to shine once more in my eyes as I turned my thoughts to Eric again, I realized something important. I liked who I was when I was with Eric, and I wasn’t afraid to let him truly see and know me. In fact, I craved that.
If that didn’t make him my soulmate, then I figured that Gran must have been wrong about them existing at all. And I’d rarely known Gran to be wrong.
I turned away from the smiling woman in the mirror, went to the bathroom, and then washed my hands before going back to Eric’s room. In my couple of times at the base residence before, I’d seen all of it. There wasn’t a lot to see, after all. And—when Eric had somewhat awkwardly shown his bedroom to me, he’d dominated the space since it wasn’t that large. I’d expected him to be filling it when I entered this time, but he wasn’t there.
I sat on the bed for a moment, waiting.
But something in my heart seemed to be pulling at me—an impatience to see the man I loved—maybe even to check the realness of him. So I answered the call of that urge, and I went to him.
I found him quickly; the house was tiny, after all. He was standing in front of the kitchen sink, his back turned to me. I could tell that he was crying.
I hurried to him and gently put my hand on his arm.
He turned to me; I could see streaks from well-used tear paths on his beautiful face.
“Are you alright?” I asked.
He nodded. “More alright that I’ve ever been. So alright that it’s hard to,” he paused, his voice cracking, “accept it. To believe it.”
I lifted my hand to the cheek of the complex man before me. He’d been through so much—seen so much. His life to this point would have broken a lesser man. But it had made Eric a better man.
“You’ll get there,” I whispered. “For now, just be here—with me and Jase.”
He nodded. I took hold of his hand and led him to his bedroom. After closing the door behind us, we walked to the bed, and I got in, patting the place next to me.
He crawled in after taking off his jeans and shirt, leaving himself only in his boxer briefs.
We lay facing at each other for a long time—just looking and holding hands. A part of me wanted to jump him and make love with him, but I knew that the walls were paper thin in the base house, and I would have been self-conscious about Jase hearing us.
And—with Eric—I didn’t think I could be completely quiet.
Plus, as much as sex would have been wonderful, it seemed that what Eric and I needed the most was just to be near each other. Eventually, his eyes began to droop a little, and I turned around, putting my back against his front. He spooned me, giving me the opportunity to enjoy just how well we fit together physically.
I’d missed him so much the past two days.
I could tell when he went to sleep, for the arm he was resting in the concave between my hips and tummy suddenly felt heavier, and his breathing was completely even. I closed my own eyes once I knew that he was at rest.
I stayed awake for a while, my mind wandering over the past, the present, and—now—the future.
I’d had to take a literature class when getting my degree, and the teacher had assigned Shakespeare’s The Tempest. I could admit that I’d never understood any of the Shakespeare I was made to read in high school, though I had enjoyed some of the movie adaptations my teachers had shown. I made a stronger effort to “get” Shakespeare in college—since everyone seemed to make such a big deal out of him. One of the lines that had stood out to me was, “What’s past is prologue.”
Though that line had been spoken by one of the “bad guys” in the play, I couldn’t help but to connect with it on a personal level. At the time in my life when I’d been taking that particular class, my relationship with Alcide had been fledgling—brand new—and I’d been feeling guilty about having feelings for him at all. After all, I’d thought that my heart would always belong to Bill.
But that line had helped me to understand that everything up to that point had been a part of my foundation. It was important, but my life wasn’t over. I hadn’t died with Bill.
Still, up to that moment, a big part of me had believed it was wrong to be happy—wrong to even smile—unless it was for Jase’s benefit. And I realized that I had been isolating myself and my heart, even as I’d continued to go through the motions of living. By the end of The Tempest, I’d—unsurprisingly—found a connection with the only main female character, Miranda. She’d grown up sheltered by her father, and the story of her falling in love for the first time was sweet. But what had struck me the most about her was that—near the end of the play—after many trials and tribulations, she looked toward her future and cried out, “O, wonder! / How many goodly creatures are there here! / How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, / That has such people in’t!”
I’d loved those lines so much that I’d memorized them. And they had helped me to be braver as I began to look toward my own future again—a future I thought I’d spend with Alcide. But—now—Alcide was a part of my prologue, too. That thought made me incredibly sad, but—looking ahead—I knew I could be brave. And God had given me a “wonder”—the “beauteous” man lying next to me.
He was my present. And he was my future.
I knew that not everything between us would always be perfect. He had baggage, and so did I. But he was my “brave new world,” and he was worth fighting for.
“And I’m yours,” I whispered before snuggling into him and letting myself fall asleep.
A/N: Sigh of relief. I hope you liked this chapter. I couldn’t imagine Eric not breaking down at some point, and it finally happened when I was writing this chapter. I thought it was important to have him deal with all of the emotional uncertainties in his life with steadiness—and with resignation—up to this chapter—when he finally feels what it is like to have a family. He’s not alone, and he really feels that way for the first time in his whole life.
Please comment if your have the time and inclination.